The fallout from Colin’s premature demise reverberated around the walls of Mostyn Hall for the rest of the week; with reactions ranging from a few red-eyed and deluded secretaries who genuinely believed that Colin had been a gentleman, to the sycophants who were casting out their nets to see if they could get a better job in the resultant reshuffle, then there was the inner core of staff who wouldn’t miss Colin in the slightest because he’d been making their lives a misery for years. Sally knew that she sat squarely within that category but did her best not to make any negative comments within managerial hearing. She would have been happier if Colin had been sacked or taken early retirement; for all her retributional desires Sally was not an unkind person, she just wanted the world to be fairer, especially the world according to Mostyn Hall.
Their new boss, John had brought in an ex-colleague as one of his two deputies, and with Michael in post, John was able to make permanent staff appointments and there were very few surprises. John was evidently a director who kept his friends close and his enemies even closer. Sally had hoped that the likes of Susie and Tracey might be busted down to manager level but it wasn’t to be. They took the confirmation of their positions as an affirmation of the high esteem with which they were obviously held in the department; Tracey’s bulky frame was further enhanced by the increasingly padded shoulders of her mannish suit jackets whilst Susie came into work every day looking like she she’d just returned from a cruise or a garden party.
Colin had kept his post as well and this had come as an even bigger shock to those who knew his methods of management. When the news got out about Colin’s murder, the directorate corridor became the scene of managerial jostling as interested staff put their case for the opportunity to step into Colin’s vacant espadrilles. The vacuous Sharon was one of the jostlers; but when faced with difficult questions in her interview her best response was to toss her excessively bleached blonde hair over her shoulders and give what she thought was a winning smile but actually made her look quite demented. It wasn’t surprising therefore that a very nice man called Andy got the job, having been quietly and conscientiously working hard in the background for some years. Sharon was given a few extra responsibilities but as it was kudos rather than responsibility that she wanted, she became even more bitter and disruptive than she had been before. She also discovered a new body spray that clung to her clothes and every room she entered with all the charm of a sweaty lap dancer, and left people gasping and choking in her wake.
Unfortunately, some of Sharon’s new responsibilities meant that she became a more frequent visitor to the office. Unless she was needed to take notes, Sally tried to find a reason to get some work done elsewhere when such meetings were going on. Knowing Sharon and Andy were coming to a meeting in the office at eleven on this particular wet Thursday morning; Sally decided to change the notice board in the entrance hall; an activity requiring printing, laminating and some judicious juggling in order to fit everything on the board. The meeting should have been held at nine-thirty but Sharon had a hair appointment that she couldn’t possibly cancel and wouldn’t be in until eleven so it was rescheduled.
Taking her time over the printing, and stopping anyone coming out of the lavatories to get their opinion on both content and artistic arrangement once the notice board was finished, took Sally over an hour. She walked slowly up the stairs in order to give them more time to finish their meeting. If she’d remembered she would have taken her purse with and eaten in the canteen but she’d been in a bit of a rush to escape before Sharon arrived to contaminate the atmosphere. Andy was still in the office with Ruby and some of their other colleagues but there was no sign of Sharon.
“We’ve heard some rather bad news. You’d better sit down. It’s not any of your family but …” said Andy.
“What? What’s happened?”
“It’s Sharon. There’s been some kind of an accident at the hairdressers this morning. She’s been rushed to hospital but they don’t hold out much hope.”
Sally felt the coldness down her spine again. “What kind of an accident?”
“We don’t really know the details yet. Something to do with peroxide and an explosion. It’s awful.”
They left the office eventually and Sally was alone and able to mull things over. It was while she was eating a very late lunch that she received a visit from Donal. She held up her hand to silence him before he’d even take a step inside the room.
“I know what you’re going to say and, in my defence, I have either been in the office or in public view in the entrance hall all morning.”
Donal sat down opposite her. “Sally, I don’t think for one moment that you are personally responsible for what happened to Colin and Sharon, but you have to admit, this is beginning to get very scary. Have you found that list yet?”
“No. I have an awful feeling that I took it out when I was looking for some paperclips and it may have been put into a pile with some other papers. I promise to look for it properly tomorrow.”
“I’d feel safer if you did, and Sally?”
“When you find it, take it home and burn it. Whatever you do, don’t put it in the confidential waste.”
An urgent meeting in the directorate offices next day prevented Sally from hunting through her paperwork until late morning. Although the meeting was supposed to be about some changes in protocol laid down by national government, the news about Sharon, coming so closely after Colin’s alleged murder, made everyone subdued. Everyone that is, except Susie and Tracey, who were wearing their usual false smiles and even more outrageous outfits like a pair of Ugly Sisters.
Sally returned to the office; the news from the hospital was not good. It seemed that there had been some kind of an explosion which took place in a side room at the hairdressers. Sharon had been sitting in there with her highlighted hair wrapped in tinfoil and peroxide. She never regained consciousness and died later that afternoon. Most of the lesser meetings scheduled for the next day had been cancelled as a token of respect but Ruby had to go off-site to a lunch conference organised by a group of local charities. Sally packed up Ruby’s notes and walked out to the car with her, carrying her laptop and stowing it in the boot.
“I know you and Sharon didn’t really get on Sally, but it’s a dreadful thing to have happened.”
“I know, and believe me; however much Sharon annoyed me I wouldn’t have wished this on her – or on anyone for that matter. If this had happened to someone I knew well and liked it would be bad enough, but I feel almost as if my disliking Colin and Sharon has put a hex on them.”
Ruby squeezed Sally’s arm, “Don’t do this to yourself. These are just horrible coincidences. You work in a building filled with people and the odds of someone dying at some point during your working life here are fairly high. Stop worrying and take an early go tonight?”
“Will do – you take it easy too?”
Sally waved goodbye as Ruby drove off; reluctant to go back into the building immediately, she took the longer route through the car park and back in through a side door she rarely used. There was a lad standing by the smokers’ corner who seemed vaguely familiar but when she looked again, he had gone. Once she got back to the office she began systematically sifting through the pile of papers on her desk and trying to remember when she had last tidied up the drawers. With Ruby out of the office for the rest of the day, Sally took the opportunity to spread her piles of paperwork over the other two desks as well as her own. She had a vague recollection of looking for the paper clips last time she had seen the list but couldn’t remember exactly why she was looking for them. She leaned back in her chair, eyes closed and doing her best to visualise what she had been doing just before she’d filed the hit list away.
“Scanning!” The memory catapulted her to her feet.
She’d been sorting out invoices to send to the scanning department and needed some paper clips to attach her compliment slip to the batch of invoices. The staff in the scanning section were very strict about people not using staples or poly wallets; so strict that they had been known to send invoices back just because the correct protocol hadn’t been used. Sally dug out the folder where she had filed copies of all the invoices she had sent off last week. She was desperately hoping that her hit list had been put amongst them by mistake but although she went through the file twice, there was no sign of the list.
“I can’t guess what you’re looking for.”
“You know damn well what I’m looking for Donal – and you know that I haven’t found it yet. I have an awful feeling that it got sent to scanning together with a batch of invoices.”
“Just remind me, what was written on the paper – exactly what did you write?”
“You saw it. It was just a list of names.”
“Anything else? Was your name on the list? Did you actually write ‘Sally’s hit list’ on it?
“Don’t be daft. I just wrote the list of names, nothing else.”
“So, if you have sent it to scanning, it will just look like the sort of list you might make if you were inviting people to a meeting.”
“I suppose so, trouble is, it will have been paper clipped to a pile of invoices and a compliment slip, so it would be fairly obvious where it came from.”
“Yes, but it means nothing if there’s no connection to the deaths. Nearly all the names are of people who you would invite to meetings anyway. Apart from Athena.” He pulled a face.
“Oh don’t. Are you going down to the canteen?”
“Yes, you coming down?”
“No, if I give you some money can you get me a ham roll please?”
“Is that all?”
“And a diet coke.”
“And a bar of chocolate.”
“Sure that’s all?”
“And a plate of chips. Please?”
Sally handed over the money and went back to sorting through the papers, most of which should have been recycled weeks ago. She checked both sides of every single piece and by the time Donal returned with her lunch she’d cleared almost everything leaving only three piles of miscellaneous paperwork sitting on Ruby’s desk. Donal sat down to join her and they ate lunch silently; both thinking about Colin and Sharon, but neither of them wanting to say anything.
After Donal had gone back to his office to get his teeth into some juicy spreadsheets, Sally tidied up Ruby’s desk, satisfied now that the list was definitely not in her office. She logged onto the council’s state of the art finance system and prayed that it would only crash once or twice whilst she was rummaging around in it. She’d decided to check if the invoices had been received, then if they had, cross reference them to the archive files in order to see if someone in the scanning department had put her list in one of the files. There were five invoices to check; they’d all been scanned and the system only crashed four times whilst she was checking. Usually, she would have been swearing volubly with frustration but on this occasion, she kept her cool.
A trip down the stairs to the posh coffee machine was needed before Sally braved the mysteries of the archive system; unusually for this time of the afternoon, the corridors were almost deserted with only the odd straggler swearing at a follow-me photocopier that decided not to. Back in the office with café mocha to sustain her, Sally sent up a silent prayer that she would use the right password to get into the archive. It wasn’t a system that she accessed very often and she was convinced that the systems team changed the process every month without telling anyone. This was one time when she really didn’t want to phone up and get them to reset her password, in case they started asking awkward questions about why she was looking in the archive anyway.
She got in on the first try but it was still a further half an hour before she found the invoices; the system wasn’t exactly what she would term as ‘intuitive’. Two of the invoices had been scanned in upside-down, and they’d scanned her compliment slip as well – which wasn’t strictly necessary – but there was no sign of the list. Sally hoped that whoever opened the post in the scanning room had decided that the list had been put in by mistake and thrown it away. Either the list was still in the office or someone had taken it by accident. She didn’t want to think that the action had been deliberate.
Too weary to do any more work, Sally called her husband to see if he’d collect her, and closed down the office, making sure to lock her desk drawers although this seemed a tad too late. Driving home and telling her husband all that had happened, Sally had an awful feeling that there was some other link between Colin and Sharon that she hadn’t yet worked out, she hoped that Ruby was right and that it was all just an awful coincidence. Her husband was inclined to agree with Ruby too; all the males in Sally’s household had strong logical and scientific principles in stark contrast to her interest in more ephemeral phenomenon. Whilst this provided frequent and colourful discussions, Sally was quite happy today to be told that she was talking nonsense.
Once indoors, in front of the television for the evening news, with her feet up and a large medicinal sherry in her hand, Sally felt the stress of the day begin to ebb away. Watching the news was not the best choice she could have made however. Sharon’s death made the headlines, and not just because of the sensational manner in which she died. The police were now considering the circumstances to be suspicious; further tests were to be carried out on the chemicals used in the hairdressers but preliminary investigations had revealed that the concentration of peroxide found was far higher than was normally used in hairdressing. The only consolation for Sally was that the news programme didn’t make a link between Sharon and her former colleague Colin.
Having two sons who were interested in science could sometimes be useful but when Sally asked them what they knew about hydrogen peroxide and combustion, she found them both frighteningly knowledgeable. Her oldest son trotted out a list of potential chemicals that could be found in most households or hairdressing salons, whilst her younger son found a number of extremely graphic and horrifying YouTube clips that portrayed the results of combining said chemicals. As she listened to them talking so fluently about how to blow things up, she found herself wondering if this level of information was common to all young people of their age or if it was just a sign of the times and the accessibility of the Internet.
Unable to put it to the back of her mind, Sally was glued to the late news for any updates; there was a crumb of consolation to be found when a senior detective revealed that there were traces of a very strong sedative found in the remains of a coffee cup believed to have been used by Sharon before she went off to the hair dryer. Unfortunately, the local news had now realised that Colin and Sharon had worked together in the same building and died in mysterious circumstances within a few days of each other. Sally’s husband reassured her that she hadn’t suddenly become endowed with the Medusa Touch, and that given the way Colin and Sharon treated people in their professional lives, they would inevitably have made a few enemies, and possibly even more in their private lives.
Sally felt blessed by his common sense and understanding. As she lay in bed that night, she was desperately trying to remember whose name it was that came next on the list.