Mark faced the dressing table mirror to put all his tie, though he could have done it without its aid. He had been putting one on every working day for years and the little chant in his head — ‘up through, down through, in though, out’ — had become almost as mechanical as breathing. He adjusted the knot it formed until he was happy that it was central, then bent down to retrieve his trousers from the floor. As he pulled them on he felt the heavy weight of the wallet in the back pocket. He was relieved to feel it. He had left the trousers unattended while he had used the toilet and wasn’t completely sure it would still be there.

“Er … thanks,” he said to the woman who was still on the bed, and still naked. This was always an awkward moment, leaving a prostitute after committing ‘the act’. He found it so at any rate, even after several years of practice. He left the bedsit, letting himself out by the cheap white wooden door that divided it from the rest of the house. As soon as it had closed behind him he removed his wallet to check that everything was still there. He flipped through the notes, £125 just as there should be. His debit and credit cards were there too, right below the business cards declaring that he was ‘Mark Peters, Accountant’ and giving his mobile phone and fax numbers and addresses for both ‘snail mail’ and e-mail. Satisfied that everything was in order, he returned the wallet to his back pocket and made his way down the brightly lit staircase, out of the front door and back to his waiting car.

He looked at the wrapped box of chocolates that lay on the rear seat, and at the card taped to it, that he had forgotten to take in to his wife when he had visited. Not that she had known it was her birthday. The stroke that had taken away a good part of her mind had left her alive but not much else. In a way it might have been better if it had killed her there and then. He immediately felt guilty for thinking this, even though it was probably true for both of their sakes. She wouldn’t be sitting in a home, more or less a vegetable, and he wouldn’t be visiting her every night. He probably also wouldn’t be visiting prostitutes if he had a wife at home willing to ‘do the business’. He thought about this as he started the car’s engine. Actually he probably would still be using their services, even if he was happily married to a responsive woman. He enjoyed the thrill of finding them, and picking them up, as well as the variety it offered in both the women he chose and the act itself.

He had had to sell the family home they had chosen together almost as soon as the stroke had happened. He couldn’t afford the mortgage on his own, without the salary she brought in to supplement his income. Paying it each month had rapidly eaten away the small amount of savings they had accrued together. Even the timing had been bad. He had had to sell when the housing market was bad and had only walked away with a small profit. He had had to move back in with his parents. They had been happy enough to take him back, assuring him that he could stay at long as he needed and that they welcomed having him home.

He looked again at the present and picked it up, placing it beside him on the passenger seat. Maybe he should return tonight to give it to her. It wasn’t that late after all. With any luck she would be asleep anyway and he could just leave it there next to her bed and go. He always felt so guilty visiting her after visiting a prostitute. He had done so when he had first started using one, back in the days when he kept a regular appointment with just one girl. If late meetings delayed him he would visit the prostitute first, in time to keep their appointment, then go on to his wife after. He had done it three times and each time sat across from his wife afterwards feeling sure she had known where he had been, but like any other thoughts, she couldn’t voice them or express them in any other way.

He decided to compromise. He would drop it off with her carers and leave them to give the present to her, either tonight if she was still awake or tomorrow morning when they took her from her bed and moved her down to the house’s large and comfortable lounge. How he hated that lounge! The walls were lined with old people in varying states of senility, ranging from those that sat almost comatose, as his wife did, to those that marched up and down the room talking to other residents or to themselves. They were mostly women he had noticed, though there was a handful of men there too. Yes, he would drop them off tonight. That way her carers would know he had remembered even if she didn’t herself. He was mindful of their feelings towards him as much as he was of his wife’s, being convinced that if they liked him she would receive better treatment. It probably wasn’t true. All of the residents were probably treated the same, and well, but he couldn’t help feeling it.

He pushed down the car’s accelerator pedal and pulled out onto the quiet street, turning immediately to reverse his direction. He had to shift between forward and reverse gears several times to accomplish the manoeuvre. The street was narrow and lined with parked cars on both sides.

Keeping her in the home was expensive too. The government contributed, of course, but he had to more than double their payment to meet the costs of the home he had chosen for her. Both his own family and hers expected her to be looked after somewhere nice, not the sort of place that he would have been able to afford on the government’s payment alone. Her family didn’t contribute to the cost, but did at least visit her regularly. It was their cards and flowers that had reminded him of his own gift, left on the back seat when he had made his hurried entrance. He had forgotten again when he left, only remembering when he had seen it on the back seat when he had stopped to pick up the prostitute he had just left. Seeing it there had been yet another thing to feel guilty about, and he had not enjoyed his time with the woman nearly as much as he should. His mind had kept returning to the present, and from there to his wife.

Converting his parents small garage into an office had taken a sizeable chunk out of the money he had made selling their home, but had allowed him to give up his office in town which had saved him a bit of money each month. It saved time too, as he no longer had to commute to and from work each day. The hour that had saved he could now spend with his wife. Despite the hardship her stroke had caused him, he still loved her, was probably still ‘in love’ with her and if by some miracle she recovered would welcome her back with open arms. There was no real hope of that though. The life they had planned had been taken from them by the stroke and she was condemned to live out her remaining years in the home, just as he was condemned to visit her. At only 49, those years could be many too. Now that she had recovered as much as was expected from the stroke she was actually pretty healthy. She was by far the home’s youngest resident and part of her weekly regime included physical therapy to replace the exercise she was unable to take for herself. Divorce was not an option. He had contemplated it but had dismissed the idea. He had vowed ‘in sickness and in health’ and it was a vow he intended to honour. Besides, at 53 and still living at home with his parents what other woman would want him?

When he had first taken funds from one of Lord Allenby’s accounts he had genuinely intended that it was just a loan. It was unfortunate timing that he took it just before losing both of the other two major accounts that he looked after, one because his client died and the money he left split amongst the relatives, the other because it had grown so large that the client had taken it in-house. He had been offered a position as the company’s accountant but the salary that went with the role wasn’t sufficient to meet all of his commitments. He simply had not been able to afford to repay the money he had taken. Worse, in losing the other two accounts he had lost a substantial part of his revenue. He had tried to win other accounts to replace them but had not been able to do so. He had several smaller accounts, each of which brought in a few hundred pounds each year, but nothing to replace the income lost from these two.

The borrowings from Lord Allenby had continued as he struggled to pay for his wife’s care and soon amounted to many thousands of pounds. It was easy to disguise at first, both from the authorities and from Lord Allenby himself. He kept two sets of books for the authorities, one for the estate and one for Lord Allenby’s income from his patent. Keeping the two revenues separate and readily identifiable was something that Lord Allenby wanted. Two out of every three payments from the overseas manufacturers went to offshore accounts in different names making it appear as if Lord Allenby got royalties quarterly from these, instead of monthly. He kept another set of books for the monies diverted in this way, which only he and Lord Allenby knew about. It was from these accounts that he siphoned off the money he needed. The funds were spread across several different investments and accounts so it was simply a matter of telling Lord Allenby there were more than there actually were. He kept a fourth set of books for himself, to keep track of the various monies he had taken.

He turned into the short concrete driveway that led to the home. It was quite late in the evening and only a couple of other cars were parked in the spaces it widened out to provide. Mark turned off the engine and grabbed the chocolates, before leaping out of the vehicle and hurrying inside. There was no need to wait for the front door to be opened. The residence was large enough to support a Reception desk which was more or less permanently manned during the daytime and evening. At night once all of the residents were in bed and most of the two shifts which covered this period had gone home, the door would be locked and the desk became the centre of operations for the nightshift. He knew the lady that looked up from behind it as he approached and smiled at her as he did so.

“I forgot to leave these,” he said, offering her the wrapped present and card. “Would you see that she gets it? I won’t disturb her myself, she’s probably asleep by now.” The lady assured him she would make sure the present reached his wife, and he hurried out again, this time to take the short journey to his parents’ home. Funny that, he could never now think of it as ‘his’ home, always his parents’.

Now though he wondered if Lord Allenby had become suspicious. His Lordship was finding more and more reasons to take funds out of these accounts and out of Mark’s control. It was happening to such an extent that Mark would soon find it hard to hide his own borrowings amidst the complicated trail he had set up.

Mark turned into the short driveway of his parents home. It was more of a parking space than a drive really. There was only room for one car, as there was at the other identically built semi-detached houses down that street. Some occupants used their garages to house a second vehicle if they still had one, but most just parked on the verge so that the road was littered with parked cars outside many of the houses. The house had been rented from the council at first, as they all had in that neighbourhood, but his parents had taken the opportunity to buy it when it was offered, especially as the chance was accompanied by a large discount because of the many years they had lived there. The same opportunity had been offered to the other residents too, and many had jumped at the chance, though not all. Those that weren’t bought were put into a new residential company, and the funds brought in each month were used to maintain them. The street, and the whole neighbourhood in fact, was now a mixture of owner occupiers and those that rented from this company. He looked at the house before entering. It was quite a sizeable three-bedroom property with a large rear garden. His parents had even extended it after it had become theirs, adding another living room at the back, and a downstairs toilet. It would be quite valuable, and they had paid off the mortgage they had had before retiring. His adding the office by converting the garage had added value too. But even if he did persuade his parents to let him remortgage it, the funds raised would not be enough to put back all of the money he had taken. It would only be a temporary measure anyway. His outgoings each month still exceeded his income though he was always trying to win more business or to find other ways to bring in revenue.

“Well,” he said, “I’m home.” He slid the key he had used to open the front door back out, and tossed the bunch it was on into a bowl that stood on a shelf under a large wooden surrounded oval mirror which dominated the small hallway.

“Oh good,” replied his mother from the kitchen. She peered out of the open doorway at him, still holding the small side plate in one hand, tea towel in the other, that she had been drying before returning it to the top of the pile in one of the kitchen’s many cupboards. “Want anything to eat?” she asked.

As far as both of his parents knew he had been visiting his wife all the time he had been away since earlier that evening.

“No thanks,” he responded, slipping off his shoes in the hallway as he did so. “I’m a bit tired and I’ve got to be at Lord Allenby’s very early tomorrow.” He started to climb the stairs as he spoke. “Think I’ll go straight to my room and watch a bit of TV then go to sleep.”

“Did Hillary like her present?” his mother called after him.

“Yes, very much so,” he replied as he closed the door to his bedroom. He was too preoccupied to explain that he had forgotten to give it to her, or to point out that even if he had she wouldn’t have been able to express an opinion one way or the other.

His mind was full of the options left open to him, too much so to get to sleep naturally. He flicked off the cap of the small bottle of sleeping pills the doctor had prescribed for him and put two in his mouth, swallowing them with a jerk backwards of his head, without needing water to wash them down. It would be several minutes before they would kick in. Just time to get undressed, set his alarm clock for the early start the next day, and perform his nightly ablutions before getting into bed.

He arrived at Lord Allenby’s house the next day at the same time as Rob Bishop, turning into its driveway just after Rob did and following his car up to the Manor. They greeted each other cordially as they climbed from their cars, and went up the stone steps that led to the front door together.

“How’s the wife doing?” asked Rob, while they waited for Jeeves to answer the door.

“Pretty much the same,” replied Mark. ‘Exactly the same as the last time you asked’ would have been more accurate, but that sounded more than a bit rude, he thought. His nightly visits were always the same, and working from home as an accountant he rarely had anything of real interest to say to Hilary. He didn’t confide in her the difficulties he was facing with maintaining her in the home or with his dubious dealings with Lord Allenby’s accounts. If she could hear and understand it would only upset her and there was always the chance that one of the carers or the other residents would overhear.

Lord Allenby was already in the dining room when Jeeves showed them through. The sideboard groaned with food and Mark piled on to his plate a good helping of every dish offered. His early start had left him feeling very hungry.

They had not got much beyond exchanging pleasantries when the household’s ladies appeared. They sat at the other end of the table so that, by keeping the volumes low, it was possible to hold two separate conversations.

From what they were saying it was evident that it was Rob who wanted a meeting with Lord Allenby and not the other way round as he had expected. It seemed that there was trouble at the factory. He followed the gist of the conversation but really his mind was preoccupied with his own problems. He looked concerned when Rob spoke of problems at the factory and nodded in agreement with points that Lord Allenby made. He was following enough to make a good point about exchange rates when Lord Allenby talked of shipping in supplies from the Philippines. He was completely caught off guard when Lord Allenby suggested that he could buy out Rob’s share of the company. Mark agreed that Lord Allenby could afford to do so, but wondered to himself how he would free up sufficient capital to do so while still keeping his own borrowings secret. Mark still thought of the funds he had purloined as ‘borrowings’, even though the likelihood of being able to repay them had long since disappeared. Lord Allenby ended the meeting by saying that he would give the matter proper consideration over the next few days and would let Rob know his decision then.

“Mark, I need a word before you head off,” Lord Allenby said to him. “Why don’t we adjourn to my study?”

Lord Allenby waited until he was sat behind his wide desk in the study before continuing, but didn’t motion to Mark to sit in one of the two visitor’s chairs that faced it. Mark felt rather like a schoolboy summoned to the headmaster’s office as he waited for Lord Allenby to speak.

“Mark, I’ve got a chance coming up to invest in a rather good deal,” Lord Allenby said at last. “Thing is though that I’m going to need quite a lot of cash to do it. Liquidate any stocks and shares I’m invested in and transfer the funds to one of the cash accounts would you?”

Mark agreed that he would do so, but knew immediately that this would cause big problems for him. Most of the money he had taken was supposedly in stocks and shares, it being harder to check on the true balance of these than on bank accounts.

“Good, thanks,” said Lord Allenby. “Let’s have it done before next Friday when I get back from my travels. That should give you plenty of time.”

As Mark drove home from his meeting he pondered his options. Either he could throw himself on Lord Allenby’s mercy and hope that his lordship would understand the circumstances which led to his actions and forgive them, or he would have to find a way to try to continue his subterfuge.

He had just witnessed an example of Lord Allenby’s mercy, or lack of it. Rob Bishop was supposed to be a friend, or at least a partner, going back many years and had after all given Lord Allenby’s device its first break onto the market. Yet Lord Allenby was perfectly happy to stand by and watch the firm fall at this latest hurdle, or even to take it from Rob if that proved to be the financially better option. He shouldn’t expect to receive any better treatment than that. He was, after all, just another employee of Lord Allenby’s, even though their relationship went back several years.

The only other option he could see was to turn the real stocks into cash and move it into the bank accounts, and hope that this generated sufficient funds to meet his lordship’s requirements. He could retain the fictitious stocks by saying that he wasn’t able to liquidate them yet as they had time penalties on them for doing so early which would greatly reduce their value. If Lord Allenby insisted that they should be sold anyway, at least the money he would have to find would be greatly reduced. This seemed like a good plan, indeed Mark’s only plan. He accelerated slightly. He had only a few days to carry it out, and was keen to get started as soon as he could.

It was a relatively simple task to liquidate the real stocks and shares. The money that it raised was paid into the cash accounts, which he noticed had had large withdrawals over the last few days. It was harder to find suitable shares to pretend to have invested in, that would generate only small amounts of cash if sold before the time they were supposed to be. Eventually he picked two investments which more or less met his requirements and set about creating the paper trial that would support his claims.

He tried to contact James on the Friday morning but his call to the mobile number he had dialled went straight to voicemail, which announced that James was overseas on business and wouldn’t be picking messages, so not to leave one. He tried again in the afternoon, this time calling the Manor. Jeeves informed him that Lord Allenby was indeed home, but had retired to get some rest before the party and couldn’t be disturbed.

There seemed no choice but to talk to Lord Allenby at the party. He printed off the pages which detailed all of the accounts and their balances. He would take them with him that evening. He made sure that he allowed plenty of time for the trip when he set out. It wouldn’t be a good omen to arrive late. There were only a few cars parked when he arrived at the house. He pulled in between a Mercedes and a BMW. His own Vauxhall felt somewhat shabby next to them. He climbed the steps to the front door slowly, not looking forward to the conversation he would be having later. He pressed the brass button to ring the doorbell, and waited for Jeeves to arrive to open it.