Agnes Hearth sat in her cube, pretending to work. It was late in the day on a Friday. There was no point in trying to accomplish anything, but her boss Brad frowned, frowned deeply and graphically, at the idea of leaving even one minute before five. The best move was to wait at least five minutes after that, so you didn’t get accused of clock watching. Agnes took off her glasses for a moment and let the world blur as she wiped them slowly with a cleaning cloth, then put them back on. She faced the general direction of the spreadsheet she always pretended to review when she was killing time.
Agnes was surrounded by gossips, and she went out of her way to prevent any gossip from being about her. She left no footprints she could avoid leaving. Even her trips to the bathroom were carefully metered out, because she had heard people gossiping about those who go to the bathroom too much. What gossip there was about her, focused on the idea of how thoroughly boring she was.
Agnes hadn’t always been this careful. She hadn’t always been so closed off. There had been a time when she had been fun, maybe even a little wild, but the years had stacked up, and so had the slights. There had been little ones, then bigger ones. The biggest had come in the form of Jacob, the man who was too good to be true. He had been too attractive, too nice, too understanding, and had taken her for everything. That was when the breakdown had come. That was when she decided that she needed to change. She needed to be a little paranoid, and very prepared, if she was going to get the things she wanted.
A search of social media would bring up next to nothing about Agnes. You would find no pictures, no Facebook page, not even a LinkedIn profile. This was not to say that Agnes was unfamiliar with social media. She was on every imaginable platform, with at least a dozen profiles on each. Sometimes she was a man, sometimes she was a woman, and sometimes she was they/them. The ages were just as varied, from 16 to 68. Any faces published were attractive, but not remarkable, generated through a software program she had purchased that created composite faces and bodies.
On the surface, she did this as part of her job. Her official title was Case Research Associate II, but she considered her real title to be snitch. Her job was to catch insurance cheats, or, barring that, to find anything that might be used to sabotage an insurance settlement.
Agnes took her job more seriously than her employers ever suspected. There were the officially sanctioned accounts she used from work, of course, but once she got home, she had so much more she could work with. She had web scrapers, chatbots, dialers, loggers, DNS and email spoofers, and some even less reputable tools. She also had a beautifully rendered web site that delivered free information about how to take advantage of insurance companies. It was free to anyone willing to provide their name, email address, physical address, and answer a survey with just a dozen additional questions. It was shocking how many people fell for that, when suggested by a friendly person they recently met online.
Her boss Brad came by her cube at ten minutes until five, accompanied by a well-dressed woman Agnes had never met, but knew to be Cassandra Weatherly, from HR. “Maggie,” Brad said, “Can you come with us. We need to discuss something important with you.
Agnes had a voice in her head. It was a voice she had learned to accept, and even trust. Stay calm, it said, we knew this was coming and we are prepared.
“Sure,” Agnes answered, “Just let me grab a couple things.”
“We would appreciate it if you came now,” Brad said.
Agnes ignored him. She got up slowly, hearing her knees pop. She unlocked and opened her file cabinet and pulled out three file folders as they stood somewhat impatiently behind her. Agnes then closed the file cabinet and relocked it. “Ok,” she said, turning to them, “I’m ready.”
Agnes followed them down a long hallway to the conference room near the HR office. She walked slowly. Agnes was overweight, and short with stubby legs. She had some trouble with her hips, thus she never walked quickly. She arrived several moments behind the fast walking Brad and Cassandra.
“Have a seat,” Cassandra told Agnes. Agnes chose one of the many identical blue conference chairs opposite the two and sat down with the file folders in her lap. She noted to herself, and not for the first time, that even the conference room chairs were more comfortable than her assigned chair.
“Maggie,” Brad began.
“My name is Agnes,” she told him, also not for the first time. He stopped and gave her a look of an annoyance. “I’ve worked here for three years, and never once have you said my name right.”
“It’s just a friendly nickname,” Brad said, with a touch of indignation.
“Are we friends Brad?” Agnes asked, “Because even my friends don’t call me Maggie, since my name is Agnes.”
Things were silent for a moment, then Cassandra spoke. “Let’s get to the point. Agnes, we called you in here because we there have been several unexplained charges on Brad’s corporate card, that we believe you made, and we want to find out what happened.”
Agnes looked at the two of them, then asked, “What leads you to believe I made the charges?”
“Are you denying making them?” Cassandra asked.
“Please answer my question. Why am I a suspect?” Agnes said. Her heart was racing a bit, but the voice in the back of her head, the one that she had learned to listen to, said you’re doing great.
Cassandra looked over at Brad. Brad said, “As I’m sure you remember, I gave you my credit card a couple months back so you could order coffee and Danishes for our section meeting. The charges started soon after that.”
“Since you’ve brought it up. I was wondering,” Agnes said, “Why did you ask me to do make the order? You had an administrative assistant. Why did you come to me, one of the researchers, rather than her?”
“I don’t see how that is relevant,” Brad said, looking annoyed. “I needed it done, and Lisa was busy.”
“Was she?” Agnes said, “Because I messaged her right after, and she said she wasn’t busy at all. In fact, she told me that you were deliberately not giving her assignments, after she asked you to stop trying to give her shoulder massages.”
“That’s a lie,” Brad said.
“I see,” Agnes said, “Do you think I made it up or she made it up?”
“Probably you,” Brad said, “Knowing what I know now.”
Agnes opened one of the file folders on her lap and pulled out three sheets of paper stapled together. She slid it over to Cassandra. “That is a printout of the IM chat I had with Lisa. You can keep it. I have other copies.”
Cassandra raised an eyebrow, but looked through it, then handed it to Brad, “That is unfortunate, but If Lisa had issues, she should have made a report to HR and we could have done something. Let’s get back to the primary issue of whether or not you made the charges.”
“Actually, let’s get back to why Brad chose me to buy the Danishes. Even if Lisa was busy, there are ten researchers on his team. I am neither the most senior nor the least senior. I’m not the closest one to his office. I’ve never indicated that I have the least bit of interest in administrative duties. Why, of all the researchers, did Brad choose me to do an admin’s tasks?”
Cassandra looked like she was going to put a stop to this, but then seemed to change her mind. “Brad,” she asked, “What was your reason?”
Brad was looking unhappy at this point, and he took a moment before answering. “I don’t know, I guess I chose her at random.”
“You randomly chose me, one of only two female researchers?” Agnes asked. “All right. I don’t think Cassandra or I believe that, but fine. Cassandra, isn’t it the official policy to not to give your company credit card to other people. In fact, if it was now my job to make purchases such as this, shouldn’t Brad have arranged for me to have my own card?”
“Technically true,” Cassandra said, “Although I know it happens pretty frequently.”
Agnes shrugged. “To sum up. When Brad chose to give me his credit card, it was a violation of company policy. Also, I believe policy indicates that any charges on that card not approved by the company are Brad’s responsibility. Am I correct?”
“Wait a minute,” Brad said.
“Brad,” Agnes said, “I am not your admin. My job is to research. Specifically, my job is to research unsavory people. For example, I happen to have a file in my lap about a man who is married, but also has a mistress. His mistress has recently been hired to work at the same company he works at. Now let’s say, hypothetically, he had a similar credit card issue. In that case, I would think that his mistress is a suspect that should be investigated thoroughly. Wouldn’t that be the correct thing to do?”
Brad looked flustered. “I can’t believe this bullshit,” he said. “You did it.”
“There is also his wife, who had shoplifting charges against her dropped two years ago after the store was reimbursed. Then there’s his daughter, who recently got out of drug rehabilitation. Drugs can make someone do terrible things; things they later regret. I think, in a case like that, we would contact all of them, if we were being thorough in our investigation. But then, perhaps that man would realize that any charges made to that card were really his responsibility, and he would drop this issue entirely. If I were in that situation, I think that would be best way to move forward, considering the number of suspects who should all be questioned and made aware of each other? But of course, at the moment, this is all hypothetical.”
“That’s blackmail,” Brad said. He gestured to Cassandra. “Are you hearing this?”
“No Brad,” Agnes said, “This is me defending myself.”
Cassandra stared at Brad for a moment, then said, “Brad, I believe these charges really are your responsibility, but we can do a more thorough investigation, if you like.”
Brad looked flustered. “I can’t believe this,” he said. “You’re on her side.”
“I’m not on a side Brad. My job in a case like this is to find a reasonable resolution. If there are other leads, I would have to investigate those leads. Clearly Agnes has no plans to admit guilt, and while there is some evidence, she did this.” Cassandra pointed to a file of her own, “It is not conclusive.”
Brad took a long breath, then said, “I’m supposed to just forget about seven thousand dollars’ worth of charges?”
“I doubt you’ll forget about them any time soon,” Agnes said, “And I suggest you have your credit card number changed.”
Cassandra held her hand up in a stopping motion. “Agnes, I believe you’ve said enough. Be aware that I also have the option of turning this matter over to the police.” Agnes nodded. The voice in her head said, now is the time to be agreeable.
Cassandra then turned to Brad. “Brad, I believe you also need to look at your best interests. So, here is my proposed solution. Agnes, you are prohibited from making charges on any company cards. That will be noted in your file. If someone asks you to order Danishes, or anything else in the future, let them know that you are not allowed to do so. If they press the point, send them to me. I’m also going to require you to retake our corporate security and ethics trainings. I trust that is acceptable?”
“I am always happy to get more training,” Agnes responded.
“Brad,” Cassandra said, “You’ll be required to do the security, ethics, and sexual harassment training. Also, if you happen to be in a relationship with anyone on staff, you’ll need to fill out some paperwork. If they happen to work under you, we’ll need to arrange a transfer. As far as your credit card goes, use of the card will be suspended until the balance is brought back to zero. If you need to order anything, go through your new admin.”
“You’re kidding me,” Brad said. “I’m being punished?”
Cassandra gave him a long state. “Brad, I believe I am acting in your best interests. If I have to take this further, I may well find enough evidence to terminate Agnes, but even if I ignored the other items brought to light today, this started with you violating company policy, so if we fire her, you would also be reprimanded and possibly terminated.”
“I can’t believe this.” Brad said.
Cassandra raised her voice slightly. “Brad, in the future, please leave the administrative work to the administrative staff.” There was a moment of silence, then Cassandra asked, “Do we have an agreement?” Both Agnes and Brad agreed.
For a moment, no one moved, then Agnes looked at her watch and said, “If you’ll excuse me, it’s fifteen past five, and I have somewhere to be.” Agnes got up slowly. Her hips were hurting. “I enjoyed meeting you Cassandra, and I’m happy to talk to you if you ever have further question about this or any other issues.”
As she walked out the door, the voice in the back of her head said, I told you it would be easy. Agnes walked past all the empty cubes of people who had already gone home. Back at her cube, she unlocked and opened her filing cabinet. She returned the file on Brad to its assigned spot. She did the same with the file for Lisa the ex-admin.
The final folder had the name Cassandra Weatherly on it. Agnes opened the file and reviewed several photos of Cassandra in and out of various latex outfits. So pretty, the voice in the back of her head said, I’m glad we didn’t have to use these. I hate to kink shame.
Agnes put Cassandra’s folder in her purse, just in case someone got curious and tried to open her file cabinet. This was the first time she’d ever had to use any of the research in that file cabinet. Thinking about that, Agnes also took out a roll of tape from her purse. It was colorful tape, with pictures of unicorns on it. She’d bought it on Etsy. Agnes put the tape across the file cabinet lock diagonally, then she took a quick picture of it with the camera on her phone. Satisfied, she put the tape back in her purse, then got up and left.
It was impossible, by design, to avoid walking past Brad’s office to get from her cube to outside. His office was barely an office. It was only a little bigger than her cube, with glass walls that allowed him to forever watch, but also made him look like an animal in a zoo exhibit. He was in the office now, and looked up as she walked along the corridor. The look in his eyes was perhaps meant to be intimidating. It certainly promised some sort of retribution. Agnes nodded to him, patted her purse, and walked on.
“No raises or promotions for me,” Agnes thought to herself.
Brad can be manipulated… or eliminated.
He’s just a rat in a nicer cage though. We should focus on escape.
“In time,” Agnes thought, “But this place is still useful, and a steady paycheck is helpful.”
And you are fearful. You need to get over that.
“Let’s not have that argument today. We just won one.”
We should celebrate.
And ice cream.