Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers’ Hub. Nick Morrish is a chartered engineer, who often writes stories and poems while working offshore, and is currently working on a crime novel set on an oil rig.
I smiled at the receptionist and showed my ID card. It said I was a government inspector. Not exactly a lie, the Serious Fraud Office investigated the government all the time. Peering into the murky private affairs of ministers was my favourite hobby. This time, however, it was the ministry that called us.
‘We’ve been checking our banknote count,’ said the under-secretary. ‘And it looks like we’re missing half a billion pounds or thereabouts.’
‘Missing or stolen?’ I wondered.
‘Our advisers believe it’s money laundering on a massive scale.’
I know plenty about money laundering and believe you me, it’s not easy to make half a billion just disappear. So what had changed? Who were the new players? Where were the weak links?
CashWash (UK) Ltd was new and its security looked about as strong as a paper chain to me. I mean, how difficult could it be to smuggle money out of a glorified dry cleaners?
As they fed me through their security scanner, my opinion started to change.
‘Sorry,’ said the man in the shiny Gestapo hat. ‘You can’t bring money or phones into the plant. If you need to make any purchases, use this.’ He handed me a swipe card and a receipt and relieved me of my wallet and mobile.
My contact was waiting to greet me on the other side.
‘Pleased to meet you Mr Rogers. I’m John Hearnden, operations manager. I’d be delighted to show you around.’
‘People are not usually pleased to see me.’
‘We are very proud of our operation. We have nothing to hide.’
They all say that of course. It’s very seldom true.
Hearnden led me into a spacious hall that reminded me of a brewery, without the hops and the guys with beards.
‘We saw an opportunity soon after they introduced the new long-lasting polymer banknotes. People started complaining that vending machines wouldn’t accept the new notes once they got dirty. Then the banks started having difficulties with their ATMs. Our company is the industry leader in contract laundry services for the big hotel chains and our MD immediately spotted the synergies with our skill-set.’
‘I’m sure he did.’
One of the big upright washing tubs finished its cycle and Hearnden lifted up the lid. There were thousands of notes inside, just out of reach.
‘So what’s to stop your employees just helping themselves?’ I wanted to know.
‘Everyone gets searched coming in and going out. We spray the notes with scent as part of the process and there are sniffer dogs at the exits. There have been a few ingenious, not to mention eye-watering attempts, but as far as we know no one has succeeded yet.’
‘As far as you know... ’
I went over every inch of the plant. All the windows were barred and locked. There were no cellars or hidden doors. The old fire alarm trick might have worked but all the fire doors were fitted with CCTV and the outer perimeter had a 10ft-high barbed wire fence all the way around.
I was scratching my head, but something still bothered me about the place.
Hearnden told me there was a delivery due after lunch, so I hung around to watch.
An armoured van from HSBC pulled up. There was an exchange of paperwork and it was escorted into a secure bay where some CashWash tellers counted the money and gave the van driver another document to sign. Then another bunch of guys turned up with a crate of clean cash and did the whole thing again in reverse.
‘Money in. Money out,’ I said thoughtfully.
‘That’s right. Not the same notes of course. It takes a full 12-hour shift to completely clean and dry each batch.’
I had a mental image of all those banknotes hanging on a washing line. And then it struck me.
‘You must have a huge amount of money on the premises at any one time, what with all this cash coming and going.’
‘Of course.’ Hearnden consulted his iPad. ‘According to yesterday’s count we’re holding four thousand, three hundred and fifty three million, two hundred and twenty seven thousand, four hundred and ten pounds. And thirty six pence.’
‘Thirty six pence? I thought you just washed notes.’
‘Ah, that’s this machine here. Do you hear the rattle? There’s some loose change stuck in the drum. The last inspector made us add it to the inventory, so I had to guess the amount.’
‘Yes, we inspectors are sticklers for detail.’
And then it struck me. I knew the ministry employed a lot of failed accountants, but surely they couldn’t be that dim, could they?
‘I suppose the ministry gets regular updates on the amount of notes you’re holding?’
‘Well yes. We send them daily reports by courier but I’m not sure what they do with them. As long as the money in and out tallies they seem happy enough. We can’t get on the ministry’s extranet because of security concerns, so we still use good old-fashioned paper.’
I put my ear up against the rattling washing machine as Hearnden continued babbling on about the ministry’s incompetence.
‘You know, the under-secretary called me the other day. He said they were missing a load of banknotes and I said to him – “I bet you they’re in the wash!” He sounded a bit upset, but you never can tell with these public school types.’
‘In the wash!’ I muttered, banging my head against the machine. There was a sudden chink of coins and the rattling stopped.
‘Oh well done!’ Hearnden exclaimed as he unscrewed the strainer and counted out a handful of coins.
‘Well that wasn’t a very good guess – only eighteen pence in coppers here! I’d better make up the difference out of my own pocket, or it’s going to be an accountant’s nightmare.’
Have a story you’d like to appear in The News? Send it to the Portsmouth Literature Worker, Tessa Ditner at email@example.com. For more information check out the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub Facebook page: facebook.com/groups/portsmouthwritershub.