Afterwards Oscar couldn’t really remember all that had happened. He knew it had begun with a curt email to go at once to his boss’s office. An email, he supposed, was the modern equivalent of the tap on the shoulder which he’d long been expecting. And when he entered Mr Carlyle’s office he knew at once that the day of reckoning had come. There, laid out on the office desk, was the red silk makeup bag with its contents aligned alongside: pink and red lipsticks, tubes of moisturiser and foundation, a palette of eye shadow and one small atomiser of expensive perfume.
It was the perfume which had caught his attention in the first place. It was Marie’s favourite fragrance and she’d made the one small bottle he’d bought her last for years. Even so, she’d not managed to use it all up although the remainder had long since evaporated. When he realised that the new receptionist wore that same familiar fragrance, which conjured up such confused emotions in his breast, the temptation had been too great to resist.
The makeup bag had been lying open beside the receptionist’s keyboard whilst she was doing the morning post round and the full bottle of perfume was in clear view. He hadn’t even needed to think about it. Just one swift grab and the stylish silk bag was safely hidden under the pile of buff folders he was carrying back to his desk. Only then did he depart from his usual routine. Instead of secreting the bag in his cloakroom locker, along with his other prizes, he’d just slipped it into the top drawer of his desk. He told himself it was because he wanted to catch a waft of the evocative fragrance whenever he opened his drawer but, as he stood uncomfortably in front of Mr Carlyle’s desk, he knew there was another motive, one he’d barely been conscious of at the time. He’d got to the point where he no longer cared if he got caught. In fact, he was almost hoping that his activities would be found out. Now he was about to discover how that felt.
Simon Carlyle was sitting back in his swivel chair and gazing intently at the young man who’d just entered his office. The flicker of alarm which crossed Oscar’s features as soon as he spotted the items laid out on the desk had not escaped Mr Carlyle’s notice but he chose to proceed slowly.
“Thank you for coming to see me so promptly, Mr Williams. I’m afraid a rather unfortunate matter has been brought to my attention and I thought it best to investigate at once.”
Oscar Williams was in no doubt as to the nature of the forthcoming investigation. He hadn’t been invited to take a seat but he bravely drew himself up to his full height and forced himself to make eye contact with his boss. Nonetheless, he was miserably conscious that a flush was spreading upwards from his neck to his cheeks as he could feel the warmth suffusing his skin.
Mr Carlyle waited a moment to see if Oscar wanted to say anything and then gestured towards the items laid out on his desk. “This bag and its contents were brought to me this morning. Apparently they belong to Miss Melville, our new receptionist. She claims they were taken from her desk a couple of weeks ago and she found them today in the top drawer of your desk. Do you know anything about this?”
Despite his previous fatalism about the prospect of discovery, self-preservation was Oscar’s first instinct and he replied without thinking, and with a degree of asperity. “What was Miss Melville doing poking about in my desk drawer?”
“That was my question to her,” responded Mr Carlyle suavely. “I don’t approve of the violation of another’s privacy and Miss Melville was not authorised to conduct a search.”
“So why are you questioning me now?”
“Because I want to give you a chance to tell me if there’s some mistake or an innocuous explanation for what’s transpired.” Mr Carlyle sighed and adopted a less formal tone. “Look, Oscar, I don’t want to instigate an official investigation if you can give me some answers here. What happened? Did you find this bag and forget to hand it in? Are you covering for someone else who took what didn’t belong to them?”
It was the kindness in Mr Carlyle’s tone which broke Oscar’s resistance. “How did she find it?” he asked resignedly.
“Miss Melville assured me that she wasn’t poking around in your desk. She says the drawer was open just an inch and she spotted the corner of her bag when she was delivering the internal mail this morning. I just wish she’d left things as she found them. I’ll have to take a formal statement from her if you’re going to contest her account.”
“There’s no need for that. I’m not going to deny that the bag was in my desk drawer.”
“What was it doing there, Mr Williams?” There was no answer to that. Oscar’s could no longer hold his head up and a dreadful premonition struck his boss. “Oh, God, Oscar, don’t tell me you stole this bag! What possible use could you have for it? Are you responsible for all the other things that have gone missing in this building? Oscar, look at me! Where have you put all the items you’ve taken?”
Oscar still had the wit to marvel at the speed with which Simon Carlyle had discerned his guilt. What he couldn’t know was that the pleading in his own stricken eyes had revealed the truth more effectively than any halting confession. It was a plea for understanding and forgiveness for an offence which Oscar could not justify, even to himself. His own behaviour was beyond his understanding; indeed, it felt beyond his control. Having obeyed his boss by looking him in the eye, he remained silent, unable to provide a coherent answer to any of Mr Carlyle’s questions.
Simon Carlyle took rapid stock of the situation and realised that they had reached an impasse. He lifted the receiver from the phone on his desk and spoke rapidly to his secretary. “Could you get the security officer to come to my office at once, please, Sophie? Oh, and ask him to bring with him the master key for the staff lockers. Thank you.” The conversation was brief and to the point. Oscar had no difficulty working out what was about to happen. He swayed slightly and Mr Carlyle got up and walked around his desk to pull out a chair for Oscar and guide him into it. “You’ve given me no choice, Oscar,” he said quietly as he sat down on the edge of his desk. “I’m going to have to search your locker, as is permitted under the terms of your contract. I will ask the security officer to act as a witness. I take it that I’ll find stolen items in your possession.”
Oscar just nodded, his shoulders slumping in despair. Mr Carlyle made no attempt to offer words of comfort; he couldn’t afford to compromise his position, knowing that he had a distasteful task ahead. He got up and walked back behind his desk to open one of the drawers and remove a small digital camera which he slipped discreetly into his jacket pocket. A minute or two later a smart rap on the door signalled the arrival of the security officer and Oscar jumped guiltily to his feet.
From that point onwards the sequence of events became something of a blur in Oscar’s memory. He walked in a trance through the open plan office, escorted by his boss and the uniformed official. Even so, he couldn’t help but notice the covert glances directed towards them and the whispering which followed their steps. Everyone knew that there’d been a suspicious number of losses in the office. It had begun with the occasional appearance of a poster on the noticeboard appealing for help in finding a lost item. The notices then began to assume a more accusatory tone, demanding the return of missing belongings. Finally, an email had been circulated to all employees from the personnel department exhorting them to keep their possessions under lock and key and warning that legal action would be taken against anyone caught stealing in the office. It was hardly surprising that the majority of onlookers suspected that there was about to be a breakthrough in the case when Oscar Williams passed through their midst under escort.
The men’s cloakroom was situated on the first floor of the building and its lobby area was given over to banks of lockers in which employees could store gym kit and changes of clothing. The security officer scanned the printed name tags on the green metal doors and quickly identified Oscar’s which was conveniently located at eye level. Raising the master key in readiness, he stepped forward with the intention of opening the locker but Oscar made a strangled sound of protest.
“Wait,” ordered Simon at once and the security officer stood still. Oscar was already fumbling in his trouser pocket for his key ring. Dimly he knew that he had to perform the final act himself. He had to be the one to reveal the full extent of his dishonesty and betrayal. He couldn’t bear the prospect of someone else opening his locker door and claiming to have uncovered the evidence against him. He himself needed to show Mr Carlyle what he’d been doing.
His gym kit, spare shirt and change of shoes had long since been removed from the locker. Every ounce of space had been needed to accommodate his growing collection. As he swung the door open to gaze one last time on the items he had so lovingly amassed, he realised, with embarrassment, how tawdry his treasures would appear to others. They were stuffed into the locker in a seemingly random jumble. There were the tissues in a decorative box, a hairbrush with long strands of blonde hair enmeshed in its bristles, a pale cream pashmina which was crushed into a ball, a pair of pink and white trainers with socks stuffed inside them, a slightly scuffed leather handbag, a brightly coloured silk scarf, a linen jacket turned inside out to reveal the designer label, a tennis racquet in its carrying case and numerous small bags and boxes.
Mr Carlyle wordlessly stepped forward and raised his camera to take a number of photographs of the interior of the locker before he and the security officer began to remove the objects one at a time and place them on the bench which ran along the opposite wall. Oscar cringed as a pack of tampons was found under the box of tissues. What had he been thinking of when he took that? The leather handbag was a much more obvious object of desire. Its shiny red leather would have appealed to Marie and the capacious size would have accommodated all the bits and bobs from which she couldn’t bear to be parted.
Oscar had to restrain himself from making a protest when Simon opened the bag. It seemed such a violation to be sifting through a woman’s most personal possessions. But Mr Carlyle was looking for a clue as to its owner and he went at once to the purse which was safely tucked inside a zipped compartment. Coins jingled as he lifted it and, when he undid the fastening, he reacted with surprise to find the notes and credit cards still in their slots.
“This bag belongs to Mrs Richards,” he announced. “She reported it missing over a month ago. She had to cancel all her credit and debit cards and get new keys for her house and car. The loss of her belongings has been a tremendous inconvenience and everything is here, untouched, in your locker. Did you take this, Oscar?”
“Yes, Mr Carlyle.”
“How could you do such a thing to a colleague? It seems you weren’t after the money. Why have you taken all these things from the women who work here? I can’t understand what you were thinking.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“Sorry!” exclaimed Mr Carlyle in exasperation. “It’s a pity you weren’t sorry sooner. You must have read the warning issued to all staff about these thefts. The company is committed to taking action against the perpetrator.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll resign at once.”
“It’s not that simple. You can’t just walk away from this.”
Oscar raised frightened eyes to meet his boss’s gaze and Mr Carlyle found himself unable to resist the mute appeal. “Look, Oscar,” he said quietly, “this business will soon be taken out of my hands. Management won’t countenance any suspicion of a cover up. I can’t begin to understand why you appear to have targeted our female colleagues but it makes it all the more difficult to avoid a prosecution. You do understand, don’t you? Nowadays it’s so important that none of our employees are disadvantaged for reasons of gender. We must do all we can to support and compensate your victims.”
“Oh, I see. I didn’t realise…”
“There will have to be a proper investigation but on the basis of what we’ve found so far, I’ll have to suspend you on full pay until the outcome is known. You may want to get independent legal advice. You’re entitled to be represented at any disciplinary hearing.”
“What will they do to me?”
“I can’t presume to guess, Oscar. They may want to get the police involved. It could depend on whether we’ve recovered all the stolen property. Did you take any of it home?”
“No,” replied Oscar with such conviction that Simon was convinced of the truth of his colleague’s assertion.
“Well, if everything’s here and it can all be returned to its rightful owners, there’s the possibility that outside agencies might not be involved. We all know you’ve had a difficult time lately and some allowances might be made. However, I must warn you that it’s very likely you’ll be dismissed. It may be necessary for an agreed reference to be prepared. That’s where a legal advisor could assist in the negotiation. I strongly advise you to use the next few days to contact a solicitor, or maybe a union representative. You’ll be informed by letter of the time and place of a preliminary hearing.”
“Should I clear my desk now?”
“You don’t need to, Oscar, but you might like to remove any personal items today.”
“I haven’t got much, just a few things on my desk and in the drawer. Oh, and I left my coat over the back of my chair. Can I go and get my stuff now?”
“I’ll come with you in a moment. I just want to take a few more photographs for the record. Are you happy to leave security to remove all the items found in your locker? They will have to be formally identified by their owners. That process can begin once you’ve gone home.”
“Oh, yes, whatever you think best. I’m so sorry.”