"She - she wasn't in..." Jeff stammered, trying to hide a small sports bag behind his anorak.
"What's that?" Hinton snatched the bag.
Jeff's heart sank.
Hinton whistled, brown eyes bulging. "Must be two hundred quid at least! Her mattress must've been hellish lumpy! Doesn't the Gas Company pay you enough?"
"Please," Jeff whispered, knees shaking. "I'll repay her; I'm only borrowing it... I've got a dead-cert at Chepstow..."
"Still playing the gee-gees, eh?" Surprisingly, Hinton handed back the money. "Okay... But be careful, since it's not yours!" He lifted a crush-proof pack to his mouth and his thin lips curled round a cigarette. Lighting it, he strode off, chuckling.
***The dead-cert should have been declared dead or as good as: it came in so late it almost won the next race. Jeff still owed too much money to unsavoury people. At least he was glad when the uproar of his aunt's burglary died down. Until he had a visitor.
Mrs Wycherly, his landlady, let Hinton in and showed him upstairs to Jeff's bedroom.
Surprised to see Hinton, Jeff stood at the door and gaped.
Hinton leaned against the door post and lit a cigarette. "Pity about your aunt's holiday savings, eh? You'd think people'd trust banks more, wouldn't you?"
Stomach churning, Jeff glanced guiltily at the head of stairs: "You - you won't turn me in - will you?"
"Don't worry!" Hinton gently shoved Jeff inside and shut the door behind them. "Let's keep this little conversation private, eh? He twitched ash onto the carpet. "Now I think we can be of mutual assistance."
Despite his shock at seeing Hinton here, Jeff was wary of his old associate's silvery tone; still, he was curious. "How?"
"I've heard about your gambling debts, Jeff, my boy. My little scheme could help you get out from under, know what I mean?"
"How?" Jeff croaked.
"Don't you print the bills for the company's customers?"
"Yes - but - "
"Is it easy to increase the demands?"
Jeff paled, realising what Hinton was suggesting. "I - I've never thought about it..."
***Hinton supplied the names and addresses of fifty customers - local pensioners, aged spinsters, widows, widowers and the infirm.
Jeff was a frustrated computer programmer in the company's operations room. He was able to circumvent various checks and controls to adjust the print alignment routine.
This routine usually printed lots of x's on pre-printed and numbered computer stationery - the bills and statements - to permit the computer operators to line up the paper in the printer before the genuine details were printed; these alignment prints were destroyed by the operators and the inclusive pre-printed numbers declared void in the accounts schedule.
Now the adjusted routine pulled in fifty client names who paid by cash, not through a budget scheme. It produced 100%-increased bills among the alignment bills while the printing of the fifty statements were skipped.
The processing on the individuals' accounts was unaffected.
Jeff enveloped and posted these bills himself. Trying to adjust the accounts system package, to pay the extra direct into a bogus bank account was, he considered, too risky.
If anyone came into the office to complain or pay up then it would be attributed to a computer fault and profuse apologies made.
But the majority of recipients wouldn't be able to leave their homes or would await the red reminder before venturing to settle.
As a representative of GAS Co (General Altruistic Services Company), Hinton was already calling at these addresses, demanding half-payment per month.
The actual bills were paid by cheques drawn on General Altruistic accompanied by a letter of explanation stating further correspondence was to be addressed to the Company PO Box.
In the second month of the new quarter they'd amassed a nice little profit. But Jeff wasn't very comfortable with it; trouble was, now he'd dug himself in deeper.
***Then the publicity broke concerning another Gas Company area, just a coincidence.
A 65-year-old widow had received a bill for £159 and was now under sedation.
A middle-aged cripple's inflated bill prompted him to write to the national papers deploring the inefficiency of computers.
Yet another case concerned a spinster who was now afraid to use her gas appliances.
All incidents were explained as being computer-errors or accounts department mistakes.
Jeff saw it as the end of the line.
Once customers lost faith in the Gas Company's computerised accounts, Hinton's demands would fall on deaf ears. He chuckled at the irony: the fake bills wouldn't be believed!
***"Let's pack it in while we're ahead," Jeff suggested.
Hinton's stubby nicotine-stained finger prodded Jeff's chest. "Listen, I told you before," he said adenoidally, "I've enough on you to put you inside..."
"But - "
"No buts." Hinton shook his head. "You don't know anything about me now... A phone-number's all you've got." He sniffled, red nose submerged in a huge flannel handkerchief. "Damned flu..."
From his glowing stub he lit another cigarette. "Just carry on printing those bills, and I'll carry on dragging round from door to door collecting extra cash!" He sneezed and said in a martyred tone, "That's how I caught this flu!"
Returning to his digs, Jeff recalled with a smile that he'd sent his landlady, Mrs Wycherly, an extortionate bill, to clear suspicion from him.
Then, entering the parquet hall, he smelled gas.
Mrs Wycherly was sprawled in the kitchen, her head resting on a cushion inside the cooker: a human sacrifice to the bill in her limp bloodless hand.
Kneeling down, Jeff felt her neck like he'd seen in the movies and detected a faint pulse.
Hands trembling with guilt - this was his doing, his bill had scared her into suicide - he heaved her out the kitchen and upstairs - if she wakes up on the bed she mightn't remember her attempted suicide, he thought.
Even though she was small and quite light he had to rest half-way up.
Flopping her onto the bed in the back bedroom, he forced open the sash windows and breathed in fresh air. His legs wobbled weakly after the unaccustomed exertion.
Shivering in the night breeze, he grabbed Mrs Wycherly's arms and began artificial respiration.
Mrs Wycherly's desperate act convinced him: their greed was irresponsible and dangerous. How many old folk would be callously scared out of their wits by Hinton?
At last, satisfied she'd live, he phoned Hinton. "I'm quitting," he declared, and thought sod the consequences.
A sharp angry intake of breath at the other end. Then, finally: "Wait there!" Hinton demanded.
***From his own upstairs front bay-window he watched Hinton dashing along the deserted street. The roadside lamp provided a perfect view of the ajar door.
Panting on the threshold, Hinton pushed the door.
"No!" Jeff's eyes widened in alarm. "No!" But Hinton couldn't hear him. Jeff stared, transfixed by fear. In his moment of shock he'd forgotten to turn off the gas - while he saved Mrs Wycherly's life his nostrils had become used to the faint smell up here. But Hinton wouldn't notice the fumes because of his cold, and was striking a match to a dangling cigarette -
Jeff grabbed the window-frame as the floorboards shuddered under him.
The explosion shook the whole building. Lights went out. He caught a hazy impression of door, glass and Hinton bundling across the starkly illuminated street.
All three emergency services arrived in record time.
The blast demolished the hallway, kitchen and the front box bedroom adjacent to his own.
Surprisingly, at the rear of the house, Mrs Wycherly slept through the pandemonium.
***"You might as well talk," Detective Inspector Stokes said, steely eyes glaring at Jeff in his multiple bandages. At the private ward's door was an anxious nurse and a policeman in uniform. "We've been checking on a number of pensioners' complaints over inflated gas-bills," Stokes continued, fanning himself with a tattered notebook. "This was on Hinton's body and it clearly fingers you as the scheme's mastermind..."
Previously published in Costa TV Times, 2009.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014
If you liked this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat, which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’. He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book, see below: