The Modern Apprentices
A source of amusement for Sally could always be found in the company of the Modern Apprentices; a group of teenaged school-leavers who were usually kept hidden away in one of the furthest flung offices. No one was quite sure what they did all day but it was something to do with records and filing. Whenever Sally had a burning question about Mostyn Hall etiquette, she could guarantee that one of the Modern Apprentices would come up with the answer without making her feel like an idiot. They were also a tremendous source of gossip, scurrilous rumour and apart from Donal, they were the only other people that Sally had ever grumbled to about those colleagues who were destined to become items on her hit list.
Just before Christmas Sally was advised that a small office might be available that could accommodate the small but hand-picked project team. It appeared that that the Modern Apprentices had come to the end of their tenure and would now be absorbed into the general workforce. Sally was sad to see them go but quite relieved at the prospect of moving to a new office, even if it was up in the eaves of the building and almost the furthest away from where the important issues were debated, allegedly.
She made a pilgrimage to the new office the day after she got the news. The Modern Apprentices were packing up their things; sad to be moving out of this funny little room with sash windows that blew open in the wind and an ominous–looking trap door in the ceiling, but they were pleased that it was Sally moving in, so they promised to leave the fridge and kettle, the metal cupboard that contained more post-it notes than Sally had ever seen, at least a dozen staplers, pen and pencil holders, hole punches, a baseball and a huge ball of elastic bands.
Sally and her colleague Conrad moved as much of their own belongings in as they could, with help from one of the building attendants and hindrance from Derek, his manager. Sally had known Derek since he was a callow eighteen-year-old, fresh from college and very anxious about sticking to health and safety rules. He’d been quite sweet then, but age and marriage had made him arrogant and pompous, someone who used his position to dole out favours to his friends and make life awkward for those who crossed him.
Conrad and Sally liked to play music when it was just the two of them in the office. He was an engaging companion; the younger brother that Sally never had, known throughout the building for his flamboyant paisley shirts and a love of soul music.
Sally felt comfortable with her new colleagues and Mostyn Hall, for all its quirks, was an interesting place to work in.
The worst thing about Monday mornings was attending a business meeting at nine-thirty. Sally sent out the actions for the week as soon after the Monday meeting as she could. This was supposed to prevent people saying that they didn’t have time or had forgotten but they still used those excuses anyway.
The business meeting that morning had been particularly trying; they’d worked through the actions and unsurprisingly, when asked if she’d completed the three actions she’d been given, Linda came out with her usual excuse of ‘it’s so hard to get things done when you only work part-time’. It wasn’t even as if the actions had been that taxing, but they were jobs that Linda felt were beneath her and should be done by Sally or someone else in the administration department. The fact that Sally was too busy doing work that Linda couldn’t even begin to comprehend was irrelevant.
Sally and the training officer Ruby fumed silently whilst Linda waffled on about how busy she’d been and how many important connections she’d made whilst at a conference. Ruby had also been at the conference and told Sally that Linda had arrived late, made excuses about the train, and then left early making more excuses about childcare. The time between was spent flirting with some minor national government official and shovelling down as much as she could from the free buffet.
Finally escaping from the meeting with only half an hour to spare before lunch, Sally and Ruby ambled back to their office. Conrad had moved on to bigger and better things in a quango that investigated naughty councillors. He was kept very busy. In the meantime, Ruby had arrived and brought with her energy, enthusiasm, a wicked sense of humour and a breath of fresh air for Sally.
They had barely been back in the office five minutes when Donal appeared looking rather pale. “Have you heard the news?” he gasped and slumped down on the nearest chair.
“What news?” Sally replied, “We’ve been in a meeting all morning. What’s happened?”
“It’s Colin. He’s dead.”
“Dead? Are you sure? How did you find out? I thought he was on one of his frequent flyer holidays.” Sally put her hand on Donal’s shoulder; he really did look unwell and kept shooting nervous glances at her.
“I don’t know much about it, just that he was on holiday in Portugal and died unexpectedly.”
“Why are you all looking at me?” said Sally. “I’ve been here all the time and the rumours about me trying to kill him off aren’t true at all. I suppose it was a heart attack or something?”
Donal shook his head. “We don’t have a lot of information; one of his daughters told his secretary and asked her to inform the directorate.”
“Oh well,” said Sally, “he always liked Portugal and I suppose if you have to go, then lying on a sandy beach in the sun isn’t a bad way. Better not leave him out there too long though. Bodies go off quickly in hot climates, don’t they?”
Ruby chuckled and picked up her bag to go down to the canteen, Sally was about to do the same when Donal placed his hand on her arm to stop her.
“What about the list?” he hissed conspiratorially.
“List? What list?” she looked puzzled for a moment and then remembered their conversation of the previous week. “Oh that. Colin was just another name on it, besides; it’s been in my drawer for ages.”
Sally raised her eyes heavenwards and opened the drawer. After a considerable moving around of objects then removing them from the drawer entirely and piling them on top of the desk, she concluded that it was gone and threw everything back in.
“I must have chucked it out by mistake. Let’s go and get some lunch.”
“Hang on Sally, suppose someone took it. They might think you were involved in some way – you know – with Colin’s death.”
Sally sat back down on her chair. She stared at Donal in disbelief. “It’s no secret that I wasn’t exactly Colin’s biggest fan but writing his name on a list and actually bumping him off are two completely different things. Besides, you’re the only other person who knows about that list.”
“Oh well, “Donal wasn’t convinced, “You’re probably right. Let’s see what they’re saying in the canteen.”
They wandered downstairs slowly, bumping into Ruby who was on her way back. Ruby shook her head.
“It wasn’t his heart – far worse than that.”
“What? Tell me?” said Sally.
“And steal Derek’s thunder? I wouldn’t dare. He’s telling the whole tale to anyone who’ll listen. Don’t rush; it looks as if he’ll be there all afternoon.”
Despite this, Donal and Sally put on a little turn of speed and sure enough, Derek was holding court in the middle of the canteen, surrounded by several colleagues. He looked up as Sally and Donal came in and beckoned them over.
“You won’t have heard the latest about Colin, then will you?”
“No, but I guess you’re dying to tell us.” said Sally.
Derek looked prim-faced for a moment. “I know you two never got on Sally, but there’s no need to mock the dead.”
“Oh, stop milking it Derek, we know it wasn’t his heart – so what was it?”
“According to his daughter, they found him on a sunbed by the beach and he’d choked to death on a salted sardine. He had a plate of them by his side and a glass of beer.”
“Choking isn’t that unusual, and Colin could certainly woof it away.” said Donal.”
“Ah!” said Derek, “but the police are treating it as a suspicious death. They said that the sardine had been rammed down his throat with some force and that he was held down.”
Sally felt a cold shiver round her shoulders. Others began to drift away, and having lost their appetites, she and Donal wandered back upstairs in silence.
“Donal”, she said as they reached the upper landing, “there is one tiny little thing that’s worrying me about the list, I don’t suppose it means anything but … no, forget it. I’ll see you later.”
Watching as she went back into her office and propped open the door Donal began to wonder if it was just a coincidence. He had a couple of phone calls to make.