“That takes care of Schedules A and B.” Jack pushed his chair back from the computer and stretched his arms high over his head. “You’ll have to excuse me, Zoltan. Sitting at this damn computer all day almost every day for four straight months gives me pains in places I didn’t realize were even part of my body.”
Zoltan, who was seated in the client chair across the large wooden desk from Jack, laughed a high-pitched laugh that sounded like a starter cranking on an automobile, and said, “But Jack, you must make a lot of money during tax season. I’ve always envied your business sense.”
“I do all right,” Jack said, with what he hoped was modesty. He didn’t like to discuss his income with his clients, not even those who had been coming to him for so long that they were more like friends than clients. If they ever found out how much he made they might complain about his fees. Particularly the clients like Zoltan, who seemed to stumble through life, never having a particularly good job, earning just enough to get by. Zoltan’s return was simple; he should be able to figure his own taxes, but he didn’t understand the tax code. Fortunately for Jack, Congress could be depended upon to make sure he never would.
Jack rolled his chair back to the computer and said, “But let’s talk about your new business so we can fill in the Schedule C.”
Zoltan’s normally morose expression brightened as he said, “I’m very excited about it.”
He did appear to be more animated than usual. “You’ve never needed a Schedule C before.” Jack brought the Schedule C form up on the screen. His mouth watered as he studied the boxes waiting for him to insert data, as if a beautiful and willing woman had just been set before him. At one time he had prepared tax returns by hand. When he had first started using a computer he was afraid the thrill he received from filling in the forms would disappear, but it hadn’t, particularly after he found out he could work faster with a computer and make more money.
“If this business was operated by Spouse, check this box,” Jack read before he could stop himself. “I’m, sorry,” he said, turning toward Zoltan.
“No, no, that’s all right,” Zoltan said. “The pain is mostly gone.”
Jack needed to show more sensitivity, even though it had been six months since Zoltan’s wife had disappeared. Sensitivity was not one of his strong points. Zoltan could still file a joint return this year and take his wife’s exemption, but what about next year, if she was still missing? At what point was she presumed to be dead? Well, cross that bridge…. Jack skipped over a number of lines that didn’t apply to a new business and then read, “Principal business or profession, including product or service.”
“Errr…” Zoltan said, scratching his sparsely-covered head. “I guess you could say I’m in the disposal business.”
“And what do you dispose of?” Jack asked, entering the word “Disposal.”
“Well, you know, things you can’t recycle and that the dump won’t take.”
“Give me an example,” Jack said, his fingers poised over the computer keys. He liked to give precise answers to the questions. This precision provided part of the enjoyment of filling in the forms.
“Let’s call it…hazardous waste.”
Jack looked at Zoltan’s jowls and thought for the hundredth time that he looked like a bloodhound, even to his expression. “Don’t you need special permits to dispose of hazardous waste?”
“It’s all taken care of.”
Jack doubted that. He knew how difficult it was to satisfy the bureaucratic penchant for enforcing regulations. He also prided himself on keeping his clients out of trouble. In the blank he entered, “Trash removal.” No sense in waving a red flag.
He went quickly through some other items on the Schedule C and then said, “What were your total sales for last year?”
“I didn’t have any sales last year.”
“Don’t quit your day job,” Jack said, and then more seriously, “So your business didn’t really get off the ground last year.” He had wasted the last five minutes filling out a form Zoltan didn’t need.
“I remember, you told me one time that you don’t have to show a profit the first couple of years when you start a business.”
“That’s true , but this is ridiculous.”
“I had expenses,” Zoltan said. “Don’t those count? I had expenses for training and education. And I’ve got a client now. I call my customers clients, like you do. It sounds more professional. So I’m going to have income real soon.”
“Okay, tell me about your expenses. If they’re reasonable we’ll put them in.” Jack thought he could make a case for showing expenses only, as long as Zoltan was going to have income for the next tax year.
# # # #
Jack didn’t leave his office until 8:30 p.m. His body ached from sitting at the computer, filling in tax returns for twelve consecutive hours. Even for someone who liked to do paperwork this was too much, and there were times during tax season when he had to focus on the fishing trip he took each May, to keep him going. Right now what he needed was a good stiff drink.
As he locked the door to his office he glanced at the sign above it, proudly surveying the words, “Jack Austin, CPA,” and directly underneath them, “Jack’s Tax Service.” He chuckled at the rhyme, as he always did, and walked to his Mercedes, parked in the lot beside the building.
Jack’s house was located almost directly across Star Lake from the village, an eight-mile drive on the lakeside road to his lakeside property. In the summer he sometimes drove his boat to work, directly across the lake. He had built the large house six years before, not only to accommodate his growing family but to show he had arrived, financially.
The drive home took about fifteen minutes. Jack slowed down as he approached his house, to admire the neighborhood in which he lived. He reveled in the atmosphere of affluence created by the impressive, wooded properties. As he glanced up one driveway he saw an old pickup truck that looked out of place among the BMWs and Lexuses (Lexi?). What was the plural of Lexus? Probably a visitor or a workman. He couldn’t say why he stopped on the road in front of the house, except that the truck looked familiar. The area between him and the house was forested and he could only see the house lights shining through the trees, but nothing else.
He got out of his car and walked back to the driveway. When he reached the foot of the driveway he could see the truck again, but the driveway was too long and too dimly lit to make a positive identification. He started up the driveway. It wouldn’t hurt to satisfy his curiosity. After all, he was a Block Captain for the community Neighborhood Watch. In addition, he kept track of everybody’s doings around Star Lake because he never knew when it might result in some business for him.
As Jack approached the pickup, he confirmed his previous hunch. It belonged to Zoltan. What in the world was Zoltan doing on this side of the lake, with the rich folks? Could this be in conjunction with his new business? Jack hadn’t found out as much about Zoltan’s business as he would have liked. If it became successful, Zoltan would need his help with bookkeeping and preparing financial statements, services over and above just doing tax returns.
Several concrete blocks, the kind with holes in them, and a coil of sturdy rope lay in the bed of the truck. Jack wasn’t sure what they had to do with waste disposal. The front door of the house opened; Zoltan came out and started down the walkway toward him. Jack had a strong desire to hide before Zoltan looked up and saw him in the shadows beside the truck, but why should he hide from Zoltan? He could handle Zoltan.
Zoltan spotted him and stopped walking, staring at him through the darkness. Jack controlled his urge to speak first, not wanting to give away his embarrassment. After a few seconds that seemed much longer Zoltan said, “Jack! It’s you. Did you finish my taxes yet?”
“Almost. I was…just taking an evening stroll and I thought I recognized your truck.” He was sure that sounded lame.
“That’s right, you live close to here, don’t you? Nice area. I’d like to live here someday.”
“Well, if your new business takes off…”
“That’s what brought me here. Listen, as my financial advisor, I’d like to show you how it works. Come on inside.” Zoltan lifted the coil of rope from the truck bed.
“I really can’t. Laura has dinner waiting.”
“Oh come on. You can spare some time for an old friend. I’ll even pay you. And I think you’ll get a kick out of it.”
“I’m not only hungry, I’m also tired. Long day. Your return took a lot out of me.” Weak joke. Weak excuses. He should just say goodbye and walk away.
“It’ll only take an hour. And Maureen—that’s my client—made some sandwiches. There’s enough for you.”
Jack’s curiosity got the better of him. “I’ll have to call Laura and tell her.”
“You can call from inside. Come on.”
Jack followed him into the house, feeling embarrassed again. They walked through to the kitchen in the back. A young woman was mopping the tile floor. Jack’s first thought was to wonder why she couldn’t afford a cleaning service. When she saw him she looked startled and stopped pushing the mop.
Zoltan was the only one who didn’t seem flustered. He said, “Maureen, this is my good friend and financial advisor, Jack Austin.”
Jack said hi, but Maureen just stared at him like a frightened rabbit, her hands firmly clenching the top of the mop handle.
“Jack is going with us,” Zoltan continued, “but he needs to use the phone first. And he’d like a couple of your delicious sandwiches.”
“You didn’t tell me there would be anybody else involved,” Maureen said in a strange voice.
“Jack’s okay. I’ve known him for twenty years. Jack, the phone’s right there.”
Jack picked up the cordless phone from the counter and punched in his home number. While he was waiting for someone to answer he observed Maureen. She ran the mop over the same spot several times. He saw from the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes that she was older than she first appeared, probably in her thirties. Her brown hair was short and curly. She was pretty. Jack liked the idea of having a good-looking neighbor.
Apparently satisfied with her mopping, she stopped and leaned the mop against the wall. Laura, Jack’s wife, answered the phone. He apologized for not being able to come home for dinner—he was practicing this sensitivity stuff—but said he was with a client. At least that was the truth. She said she had fed the children, but had delayed eating herself so that she could eat with him. The way she said it made him feel guilty. That and the steaks and baked potatoes she was preparing almost changed his mind. Almost. He apologized again and resolutely hung up.
Zoltan and Maureen had gone through a doorway leading to an outside deck that overlooked the lake. Jack knew that’s what it was because his house also had a deck. He went to the doorway. The cold night air of spring, carried by a breeze from the lake, made him shiver. He wasn’t dressed for this. The others wore jeans and warm jackets while he had on his work clothes.
Zoltan knelt beside an elongated package, wrapped in burlap sacks. He was tying twine around the package so the burlap wouldn’t come apart. Maureen watched him intently.
“So that’s your waste?” Jack asked.
“That’s it,” Zoltan said. “You’ll notice everything is biodegradable.”
“But where are you going to put it?”
“In the lake.”
“You can’t dump waste in the lake.”
“As I say, it’s all biodegradable. We’ll drop it in the deepest part. I’ve got a topo map of the lake and I know just where that is. And what the fish don’t eat, the amoebas will.”
Maureen looked from one to the other of them as though they were speaking a foreign language. Jack wanted to get on her good side. He said, “So what’s in the package?”
She jumped as if he had shot her, but Zoltan said, smoothly, “It’s a varmint. The dump is a little sticky about animal waste, but you’re our witness that the way we’re doing it we’re not polluting. Okay, we’re ready to go. Jack, can you carry the rope? I’ll take the package. Maureen, you can bring the sandwiches. And can you give Jack a jacket of Rick’s so he won’t freeze on the lake?”
This was a good time to back out. Jack could picture himself drinking his before-dinner martini and then tying into a mouth-watering steak, blood-rare, and a baked potato with sour cream and chives. That would be infinitely better than freezing his butt off on the lake. But somehow he couldn’t say the words.
Maureen produced a North Face windbreaker that fit him quite well. Zoltan, who was surprisingly strong for someone so short, picked up the burlap-wrapped package and slung it over his shoulder. It jackknifed in the middle, with one half in front of him and the other half behind. He carefully walked down the wooden steps from the deck to the backyard, which sloped down to the private dock.
Maureen followed him down the steps and Jack followed Maureen. Again attempting to get a conversation going, Jack said, “I assume Rick is your husband.” When she nodded almost imperceptibly he said, “I…my family and I live just a few houses down the street. I’m sorry we haven’t met before.” She remained silent, so he continued, “Your husband—Rick. Is he out of town or something.”
“He…he’s on a trip. He’s in China. He’ll be gone for several weeks.” She spoke in a monotone, as if from a memorized speech.
“Oh, what does he do?”
“Sales. International sales.”
“Do you have any children?”
She shook her head.
“We have three. They’re fun, but they can sometimes be a pain.”
They reached the dock where a sleek-looking ski-boat was tied up. It bobbed easily on small, wind-induced ripples. Jack guessed that it belonged to Maureen and Rick. It certainly didn’t belong to Zoltan. Zoltan bent over and dumped the package onto the back seat of the boat, where it landed with a slapping sound, and then climbed in, himself. He gave a hand to Maureen to help her in and then took the coil of rope Jack had been carrying. Jack, who had been a boat person all his life, cast off the lines that secured the boat to the dock as Zoltan started the engine.
Jack climbed into the boat, behind Zoltan, who sat in the driver’s seat, and Maureen, who sat beside Zoltan. Zoltan backed slowly away from the dock. When he was clear he put the gearshift into forward drive and cruised out toward the center of the lake at little more than an idle.
“No sense in waking everybody,” Zoltan said.
Jack doubted that many people were asleep yet, but at high speed the engine noise from this boat would reverberate up and down the shore. He shouldn’t be surprised at how familiar Zoltan was with the controls. Most residents of Star Lake had a boat of some sort, even if it was nothing more than a rowboat with an old outboard engine clamped on the back.
Maureen reached a sandwich back to him and Jack suddenly realized how hungry he was. Turkey, tomato and mayo, on sourdough. Not quite steak and potatoes. She also gave him a bottle containing some kind of flavored drink. It wasn’t a martini, but it quenched his thirst. He ate in silence and Zoltan and Maureen didn’t speak, either.
Darkness surrounded them. The moon wasn’t up yet. Jack could see distant lights from Star Lake Village, where his office was, and a few other scattered lights around the lake. Zoltan seemed to know where he was going. There was no chance of a collision because there wouldn’t be any other boats on the lake tonight.
When they were some distance from shore Zoltan opened up the throttle. The water was choppy out here and cold spray stung Jack’s face. He pulled up the hood of the North Face. He huddled just behind the other two, as far out of the wind and the spray as he could get. The boat bucked like a frisky colt as it mastered the waves.
Talking was impossible over the roar of the engine. Jack tried to think, but with the noise and the buffeting and the cold and the spray it wasn’t easy to do much more than just exist and hang on. That’s why he liked to ride in fast boats; it was pure sensory enjoyment, far removed from his working life. But this ride was different. He shouldn’t have come. He should have stayed out of it. Now he had to go to the sheriff. Tomorrow morning. It would rock the boat, so to speak, but he had to do it, client or no client.
After fifteen minutes at full throttle Zoltan slowed the boat down sharply until they were barely moving. They were about as far from any shore as they could get. He looked from side to side. He was apparently lining up landmarks, possibly in the hills surrounding the lake. Their outlines became visible as the moon rose in the east. He was acting with surprising competence. This was a side of him that Jack didn’t know.
Jack decided he had better pinpoint their position, also, so he could find it again. He drew two imaginary lines between memorable features of the hills, side to side, front to back. The lines intersected at the boat.
“Here we are,” Zoltan announced, putting the gearshift into neutral. He got up from his seat and took the few steps back to the stern seats where the package was lying, causing the boat to roll a little. As Jack and Maureen watched, he took the coil of rope and wrapped it twice around the center of the package. He cut the rope with a knife he took from a sheath on his belt and tied a secure knot, leaving several feet of rope free at each end.
Then he took a concrete block that Jack hadn’t noticed before in the dark—like the blocks in the bed of the pickup truck—and set it upright on the deck. He looped one of the ends of the rope through one of the holes in the block and tied it. He retrieved another block and tied the other end of the rope to that.
“Little help,” Zoltan said, laughing his automobile-starter laugh. He lifted the package and maneuvered it around, balancing it on the gunwale. “Maureen, hold it here until I give the signal. Jack you handle one of the blocks. I’ll take the other.”
This was the time for Jack to call a halt. Refuse to cooperate. Tell Zoltan the game was over. He could handle Zoltan. And Maureen wouldn’t be a problem. He hesitated. Zoltan had the knife, even though he had replaced it in the sheath.
No, action was called for, not talk. Now, while Zoltan was occupied with holding the package. Hit him with a concrete block and knock him over the side. Quickly, before Maureen got in the way. Jack stood up. The motion of the boat caused him to lurch to starboard as he moved toward the stern. He wished he were wearing deck shoes. He steadied himself and lifted the block a few inches. It was heavier than he thought it would be. He took two seconds to regain his balance and tried to swing the block up to his chest. The boat rolled and he stumbled.
“Careful,” Zoltan said, putting out one hand to try and steady him.
Jack’s hands held the block so he couldn’t catch himself. He instinctively kept the block high so it wouldn’t hit the boat, but his exposed ribs whacked the gunwale. He lost his grip on the block and it dropped into the water and sank, dragging the package behind it. The other end of the rope tightened and the remaining block, still sitting on the deck, slid a few inches and then held. As the boat rocked, violently, Zoltan grabbed that block and with a mighty heave threw it over the side. It disappeared into the black water, leaving a widening ring of concentric circles behind it.
Jack saw this through a haze. Then he realized he couldn’t breathe. The wind had been knocked out of him. He collapsed onto his back with the roll of the boat, fighting for breath. Dimly, he saw Maureen bending over him with a concerned look on her face. She put her mouth on his. What was she doing?
It took him a few seconds to realize that she was performing CPR on him. Was he dying? She blew into his mouth and then rapidly pumped his chest. She repeated this combination several times. He became aware of pain in his chest when she pumped it. But soon he could breathe again and his panic started to subside. Then he found he enjoyed her ministrations. He closed his eyes.
She pulled her mouth away and said, “He’s breathing.”
Jack felt his face being slapped. He opened his eyes. Zoltan hovered over him. “Jack, wake up. Are you all right?”
“I think so,” he said. He tried to get up. He groaned and collapsed again as a searing pain went through his chest.
“You may have cracked some ribs,” Maureen said. “You hit the gunwale pretty hard.”
They carefully helped him to a sitting position as he clenched his teeth. When he tried to stand, his knee wouldn’t hold his weight. He vaguely remembered that his knee had hit something, also. Zoltan and Maureen supported him and lifted him into a seat.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Zoltan said. “And after all my planning. I put together a business plan, just like you told me. But I shouldn’t have made you come, Jack. I’m sorry.”
“No, I wanted to come.” Zoltan couldn’t make him do anything.
“After my practice run last year I thought I had all the kinks worked out. That’s what we showed as an expense on the Schedule C. The practice run. I had to rent a boat and stuff. Schedule C. Hey, I’m even beginning to learn the tax lingo.”
Jack felt weak, but he had to say something. “You seem to have put in a lot of preparation.”
“But I guess it’s better if I work alone. Well, live and learn.”
“Do you expect to have much…uh, business?”
“I think it will grow slowly at first, by word of mouth. But there’s a definite demand. Maureen knows somebody over in Plankton, may be my next customer.”
Jack put on his financial hat. “Will you buy a boat?”
“I hope to at some point when my cash flow permits. Meanwhile, Maureen will let me use hers. Won’t you, Maureen?”
Maureen’s face had changed dramatically from when he had first seen her at her house. Before, it had looked pale and scared. Now, color had returned to it and she smiled for the first time. She said, “It’s the least I can do.”
“You understand that her husband may not return,” Zoltan said.
“We’ve had…problems,” Maureen added, in a voice that sounded like a plea for understanding.
“Show him,” Zoltan said.
Maureen lifted up her jacket and the sweater underneath until Jack could see her ribs. He saw several large black-and-blue marks—bruises. Ugly bruises. As he stared with his mouth open she said, “He only hit me where it doesn’t normally show.”
“What she’s getting at,” Zoltan said, “is that she’s never done taxes before and she’s going to need help—if Rick doesn’t come back. And she’ll need assistance with managing her money, too.”
“We both work,” Maureen said, “and we’ve been able to save quite a bit. But I’m a novice at investments.”
“I’ll be…glad to help if I can,” Jack said.
Maureen smiled at him.
“I’ve been thinking,” Zoltan said. “You’ve always been such a help to me, Jack, with taxes and financial advice, and all. I’d like to cut you in on the action. If I become a corporation—that simple kind you told me about…”
“An S Corporation.”
“Right. Schedule C and Corporation S. I’ll give you 25% ownership.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“But I want to. Then I know I’ll get your attention. I won’t have to make an appointment weeks in advance to get an hour of your time.”
“This prospect in Plankton. It’s a good cause?”
“Like you, I believe a business should be run with ethical principles. I will screen my clients carefully. They will all be good causes.”
Jack hadn’t known Zoltan’s wife, but she had had the reputation of being a shrew. Through the pain in his ribs and knee he thought about what had happened this evening. He had very possibly gained a new client, a looker who knew CPR and who lived near him and with whom he would have to work very closely. And he might become part owner of a promising business without investing any of his own money. Not a bad night’s work.
“Can we go back now?” Jack asked. “I…I’m a bit uncomfortable. I think a martini would help.”
“Drive slowly,” Maureen said to Zoltan, “so you don’t bounce poor Jack all over the place. I’m going to sit here and help support him.” And to Jack, “What would be most comfortable for you? Would you like to lie down and put your head in my lap?”
“That might work,” Jack said. As Maureen placed her warm hands on his head to guide it onto her lap he made a mental note to research when a person who disappeared was officially declared dead for tax purposes.