Cooking the Books

Christopher Fowler

Haldeman had left nothing to chance. When he stepped out of his office on Friday evening, he walked through the restaurant instead of going straight down to the garage. He stopped to talk for a few minutes with Jose and the head waiter, as if it were the end of another quiet week.

On the home he was surprised to find that he was sweating, even though it was quite cool inside the car. Haldeman looked at himself in the car mirror, and what he saw disturbed him. A forty-eight-year-old man whose once-round face had grown thin with worry, whose shirt collars were now two sizes too big. Even his wedding ring was loose on his finger. His suit fitted badly across his shoulders. It was years old, but how could he afford to buy a new one? When Mona left him, she said she would take every dollar of his money, but how could she take what he didn't have?

He stopped the Toyota in front of his apartment building. It was a beautiful evening. In Los Angeles the evenings were always beautiful, but this one also held the promise of escape.

Haldeman went up to his apartment where he mixed himself a drink and went over the details of his plan. The truth was, he was facing financial ruin. With each week that passed, the restaurant earned less and less. Who could say why? It had been a great idea, even Mona had agreed. With the small amount he had saved, and the money from Mona he had managed to convince the bank to lend him an equal amount to start a restaurant specializing in barbecued food.

Each evening at five, 'Haldeman's', the blue and purple sign above the restaurant, lit up the Los Angeles sky. The position had seemed perfect, right on the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica Boulevard. Jose, the chef, was excellent, the waiters were eager to please, yet something had gone wrong. The fashionable crowd had moved away to downtown restaurants, and without them to pay crazy prices, how could he hope to pay his bills? Add to that the money needed for his apartment, for his ex-wife Mona, for his gambling debts - yes, he had started gambling again - and you had the picture of a man moving fast towards disaster.

Haldeman finished his drink and went to the bedroom to pack. If he left soon, he would arrive in Palm Springs in time for a relaxing dinner at that new Japanese place on Highway 111. It shouldn't take him more than two and a half hours to drive there tonight. Nobody else would be going that way at this time of the year. He silently thanked the gods for sending him someone as stupid as Larry Hyatt. Silly, harmless, never-say-no Hyatt, who was about to play his part in a plan so simple and perfect that nothing - nothing - could possibly go wrong.