The Body in the Library
After a miserable weekend, Sally was relieved to hear the sound of her radio alarm on Monday morning. She got up feeling like one of the walking dead and woke her eldest son for a shower. There was still another twenty minutes before she had to wake her husband and younger son up, so she switched on the television and sat down to eat breakfast.
Sharon’s face assaulted her from the screen, shortly followed by that of Colin and a shot of the exterior of Mostyn Hall. According to the local news there had been further developments over the weekend and detectives were liaising with the Portuguese authorities because Colin’s death was now officially a murder. A witness had come forward to say that they had seen a young man near the sun bed half an hour or so before Colin’s wife came to wake him up. The witness did not believe that the young man was a local because he was very pale-skinned and wore an England football shirt.
The whole thing made Sally feel nauseous; and the knowledge that Mostyn Hall was liable to be under siege from reporters by the time she got in to work made the prospect of going in even worse. Sally went upstairs to wake her husband and they watched the news together in silence.
“None of this can possibly be your fault.” he said, squeezing her hand.
“I know. I also know that I am being totally arrogant in thinking that my evil thoughts can have brought about what’s happened to Colin and Sharon. I feel guilty though.”
“Don’t. Someone else hated them enough to kill them – leave the guilt to them. Do you really need to go in today? Stay home and have a duvet day with me?”
She smiled, the prospect of staying home and going back to sleep was far more appealing, except that the news would inevitably intrude at some point, and she had at least two meetings to arrange as well as the usual pile of work that have been generated for her.
“No, I’m going in. There’s far too much work to do and people know I wasn’t that fond of Colin and Sharon. I don’t want anyone thinking that I’m jumping on the bandwagon in order to get time off.”
“Okay, but call me if it gets too much and I’ll come and rescue you.”
They gave the boys a lift to school and college, Sally asked to be dropped off at Mostyn Hall’s side gate where all the smokers usually congregated. The area was busy but she couldn’t see any familiar faces in the crowd; two satellite vans and several private cars blocked the gateway and it was fairly obvious that that press had been told they couldn’t actually go on the premises. Sally’s husband turned the car around and drove to the main entrance where the building attendants, wearing high visibility jackets and looking excitedly officious, were preventing staff from being accosted by the press. There were also a couple of policemen wearing flak jackets and checking ID tags. Sally got out of the car, showed her ID and gratefully accepted an escort through to reception.
Ruby was already in the office; she looked as weary as Sally felt. She put her bag on the desk and sat down heavily on her chair. “I’m guessing that you didn’t sleep well either?”
Ruby nodded. “Are the press still out there?
“Oh yes, two vans and several cars. Not a single smoker in sight.” said Sally.
“John’s given special permission for people to smoke on site. There’s a designated area out by the portakabins. You can just see them from here, it’s been very busy so far and I’m sure there are some new smokers out there as well.” Ruby leaned over the desk to look out of the window. “How do you fancy getting out of the building for a couple of hours?”
“Yes please. I’ll do anything.”
“Thought you would. John wants a couple of people to attend an event down at the Town Hall. There’s been a three-line whip gone out from Athena and every team has to send at least two members of staff. I’ll drive.”
“Phew.” said Sally. “I thought you were going to send me off with Linda for a moment there.” She looked over at Ruby and smiled gratefully.
“Linda’s far too busy to attend such a trivial event. Unfortunately, we forgot to tell her that Athena’s doing the opening speech or that it was likely to become a bit high-profile. As far as she’s concerned it will be just a group of old people drinking tea and talking about watercolour painting and jazz.”
Ruby had a decidedly naughty twinkle in her eye as she made this pronouncement. “We can drop off some leaflets while you’re there, and pick up some freebies.”
“Great. What time are we going?”
“In half an hour or so. It opens at ten o’clock and we’re supposed to be there so we can cheer Athena on as she performs her opening speech.”
“We’ll be the only ones who do then. She’s not exactly popular with the older people at the moment.”
“That’s why we have to deliver a show of force and make a lot of noise. I have a feeling that something else is going to steal the limelight. John’s also sent out an e-mail stating that under no circumstances is anyone to make any kind of statement to the press about Colin or Sharon – on or off the record.”
Sally set up meetings for the next couple of weeks and called down to book rooms for them. It took some time to get through though; between the phone calls from local and national press, together with the usual personal callers and neighbours popping in to complain about all the strange cars parked in the road, the directorate was very busy.
The press pack had doubled by the time Ruby and Sally drove out of the car park. The police cleared the way for them; holding back a number of over enthusiastic photographers who were snapping anyone and everyone who came in and out of the building. Those service users who routinely hung around the building had quickly ceased to be of media interest once the newshounds realised that they had no idea who Colin and Sharon were. It was a relief therefore to get away and Ruby flatly refused to turn the radio on in the car in case there was yet another news bulletin to depress them.
They parked in the multi-storey car park and walked the short distance to the Town Hall. Situated in the middle of a public park, it was hard for the police to keep the press back from the main doors. Judging by the numbers of elderly people in the queue for reception however, the media attention was not acting as a deterrent. Ruby and Sally joined the queue, ID badges at the ready and secure in the knowledge that Athena, with her need for maximum exposure would not start her speech until everyone was assembled in the conference hall.
By the time they got through reception, the hall was full of staff, exhibitors and elderly people clutching carrier bags of free low energy light bulbs, information leaflets and cheap pedometers courtesy of the local health authority. Sally and Ruby leaned against the back wall and watched, as Athena, her long frizzy hair floating out behind her, ascended the steps to the dais and smiled patronisingly at the assembled crowd. Whenever she saw Athena make a public appearance Sally always hoped that she’d shock everyone by wearing lime green or shocking pink, even a more subtle maroon or brown but no, Athena was wearing her customary navy sheath dress. Short sleeved and ending just above her bony knees, the dress probably cost a fortune but did Athena no favours at all. American tan tights and prissy black t-bar shoes completed her outfit with no attempt at accessorising. Even the Queen has a handbag; but Athena was always escorted by a number of minions who undoubtedly carried everything for her.
From the moment Athena opened her mouth, Sally switched off. She found Athena’s public voice affected and false; when faced with a large group of people she lost the ability to pronounce her ‘r’s properly. Sally wasn’t sure if Athena put the voice on to impress people, but she knew that once, when she had been in the posh lavatory in the entrance area at Mostyn Hall, she’d heard someone talking on a mobile phone and when she came out to wash her hands; Athena was the only person present. There had been no trace of a speech impediment then, just a rather rough local accent.
Mercifully, on this occasion Athena kept it short if not sweet. In terms of being a celebration of older people, it was very successful. The expected jazz band was playing at one end of the hall, cups of tea and coffee were being brought round and a number of ladies and gentlemen were painting watercolours, knitting and icing cupcakes. There were free blood pressure checks and chair-based exercise classes taking place in a side room, and a delightful old gentleman doing magic tricks. Moving from stall to stall, the main topic of conversation was the newly-christened ‘Town Hall Murders’ however. Sally took exception to this title since neither of the victims worked or were murdered at the Town Hall. It could deflect the attention away from their workplace though and as most of the communications and publicity staff worked from the town centre, they were best placed to fend off the press.
Sally spotted a friend from the libraries and leisure section and made her way over to him. They were deep in conversation when the air was pierced by a particularly strident ringtone. A lady from the central library apologetically dug around for her phone in her capacious handbag; answering in hushed tones so as not to disturb anyone further. She got up quickly and almost ran out of the hall, leaving her handbag behind her. Returning briefly to collect her things she explained that there had been some kind of incident down at the main library and she’d have to go and sort things out immediately.
It was approaching lunchtime and both Ruby and Sally felt that they ought to be leaving; it was time to run the gauntlet again. The crowd outside the front gates had thinned considerably but Sally assumed that this was due to it being lunchtime. She and Ruby bought some food from the local pie shop and returned to the car park. Road works in the town centre meant that a one-way system had been imposed and it was while they were navigating their way back out again that they passed the three police cars, two fire tenders, an ambulance and the rest of the reporters now stationed outside the library.
Sally had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach but mentally reprimanded herself for being paranoid. What would anyone from Mostyn Hall be doing at the library at lunchtime anyway?
“Shall we risk the news Sally?” Ruby’s hand hovered over the dial.
“Go on then. We’ll hear it all sooner or later anyway.”
There didn’t appear to have been any new developments since they’d left and Ruby was about to tune the radio into something more diverting when they were distracted by breaking news about the library. The information was limited but there had been an accident with some shelving that was being moved from one part of the library to another.
It had been thought that there were no casualties but now that the emergency services had managed to move the shelves a woman’s body had been found. She had been crushed by the weight of the heavy wooden fitments.
It was then that Sally remembered the next name on the hit list. Shirley. Dopey Shirley who had wrecked the stationery cupboard shelves, and who worked in an office in the town centre.
“Are you okay Sally?” said Ruby, obvious concern showing on her face as Sally sat beside her in the car, ashen and shaking.
“Ruby, can you keep a secret? It’s the most horrendous secret I’ve ever had.”
“Hell, yes honey, you know I can. What on earth is it?”
“There are only two other people who know about this, my husband and Donal. It’s about these murders.”
Ruby looked quizzically at Sally. “No. I refuse to believe that you are a mass murderer.”
Sally smiled weakly. “You know how people annoy me sometimes?”
“I do. The people who annoy you usually annoy me too.”
“I was reading this article about coping mechanisms and they recommended that you should write down a list of the people who really wound you up and then put it away in a drawer and forget about it.”
“Reasonable method. I’ve used it myself, tends to have a lot of my family members on it though.”
“Well, this didn’t. It was a list of twelve people I’ve met through work and who have left an indelible mark on me. Donal came in just after I’d written it, we had a good laugh and I shoved it in my desk drawer and forgot about it. When I went to find it later it had disappeared.”
“Oh, it’s bound to be around somewhere. You probably chucked it in the confidential shredding with a pile of old agendas. “
“No, I’ve looked. I turned everything out and the only thing I could think of was that I’d taken it out when I was looking for paper clips; it got mixed up with some invoices and sent off to scanning by mistake. I’ve checked the archives and it hasn’t been scanned into the system. It’s not been sent back to me either.”
“Who’s on the list Sally?”
“Oh God! Who else?”
“What Dopey Shirley?”
“Yes, Dopey Shirley who wrecked the stationery cupboard shelves.”
“Are you thinking that she might be the body in the library?”
Sally took a deep breath, “One of the things that annoyed me about Colin was his constantly prattling on about Portugal and how much he loved salted sardines. Sharon was forever tossing her smelly highlighted hair around by way of a distraction in meetings. What am I supposed to think? I feel like someone’s got inside my head and is carrying out these murders to order. Thank goodness I have an ironclad alibi for both incidents, but suppose the police think that I’m an evil mastermind and I’ve arranged for a hit man – or woman – to do my dirty work for me?”
Ruby took a slight detour and pulled into a supermarket car park. She turned to look Sally square in the face and took hold of both her hands.
“Just calm down now. Thinking bad things about other people doesn’t kill them. Colin died in Portugal, Sharon in a hairdresser over thirty miles away. You don’t drive, you’ve been in the country the whole time and you definitely have alibis. What does Donal think about this?”
“He seems spooked. Totally spooked. I’ve never seen him so worried. He’s usually so laid back – except for when he has to do Hester’s accounts with her. It’s almost as if he knows something that he’s not telling me. My husband is logical and sensible about it but he doesn’t really understand how things are at Mostyn Hall; how incestuous it all is.”
“If – and only if – this latest accident does turn out to be Dopey Shirley then I think you might need to speak to someone about it. How many more people are on the list?”
“Nine. Derek, Athena, Linda, Louis, Hester, Graham, Angela, Susie and Tracey.”
Ruby snorted with laughter, then stopped abruptly at the sight of Sally’s face.
“Sorry sweetheart. I shouldn’t have laughed but if I had to draw up a hit list, I’d have had them all on mine as well. You can certainly pick the bad ones.”
“Oh, don’t Ruby. I’ll never forgive myself if anything happens to them. However much they annoy me they don’t deserve to be wiped out. It’s bad enough that they’re dying – it’s the manner of their death that worries me too.”
“Come on, we need get these pies back before they go cold. I don’t want to be accused of starving anyone to death. Sorry, hideously bad taste.”
“You won’t tell anyone, will you Ruby? Promise me?”
“On one condition.”
“Well two conditions really. Number one – stop worrying so much, you’ll make yourself ill. Number two – just give me your word that you will never make any wax effigies of me and stick pins in them?”
Sally looked horrified at the thought and Ruby regretted her words immediately. “Sorry, sorry! I didn’t mean that – it was just a joke, just my sick sense of humour. Do you still know any tame policemen?”
“A couple of guys from the police protection unit. Why?”
“You might need a friend in the force – if what you say about the list is true then there’s nothing to tie it to you other than the fact that like many other people at Mostyn Hall, this group of people have annoyed you at some point, but you don’t know where the list is or whether someone is likely to produce it. You might need some insurance. Think about it anyway.”
The body in the library turned out to be Dopey Shirley. The news wasn’t confirmed until later that evening, but it was definitely her. According to the local news that particular section of the library had been sectioned off because the massive shelving units were being cleared, cleaned and moved to a new position. Someone had put a ‘Clearance – 50p per book’ sign over the crates of books which is what must have enticed Shirley into the room. It still wasn’t clear whether the book shelves had fallen on her by accident or whether someone pushed them. Sally had her own theory about that.
Before leaving work that afternoon she had sent an e-mail to Steve, an old friend of hers in the police protection unit asking him to contact her and leaving her home, mobile and work numbers. She didn’t expect him to reply immediately but as the afternoon and evening wore on, Sally was getting more anxious about her situation. Even her husband was beginning to express some concerns, although he was more worried about the effect the stress was having on Sally. The press hadn’t actually made a connection between Shirley and the Town Hall murders yet but Sally felt it was only a matter of time before they did, and the only other real link, apart from the local authority, would be the fact that she had worked with all three victims at one time or another.
The house phone rang at ten forty-five that night and Sally picked it up quickly. It was Steve. “Hello my love, your e-mail sounded a bit mysterious. It isn’t too late to call is it? I’m on nights this week.”
“Oh Steve, what a relief to hear your voice. How are you? What are you doing now?”
“Officially child protection still but I’m covering for a colleague for the next couple of weeks. Never mind the pleasantries. What’s the problem? Your lad in trouble for shooting people with his BB gun?”
“No thank goodness. He seems to prefer killing people on his computer at the moment. I’m afraid it’s me. I have a big problem and it’s getting bigger by the minute. I need your advice.”
“Off the record?”
“At the moment – you can tell me what I need to do after I’ve explained. You’ll have heard that two of the staff up at Mostyn Hall have died in mysterious circumstances?”
“We aren’t talking about much else here at the station. Why? It isn’t you that’s bumping people off is it?”
“Steve! Please be serious! No, I’m not bumping them off as you so delicately put it, but I might be responsible. I might know who’s going to be next.”
“I don’t believe I’m hearing this. Can I make notes?”
“If you must. I’ll give you the potted version. I made a list of twelve members of staff that …well my life would improve if they weren’t around any more. A friend and I had a laugh about it and I meant to destroy the list but didn’t. I put it away in a drawer but left it out on my desk when I was looking for something else and now the list has disappeared and the first three people on it have died.”
“Three? I only know about the one in Portugal and the woman at the hairdresser.”
“The body in the library this afternoon, we used to work together a couple of years ago.”
“Oh my God! You say there are another nine people on the list?”
“Ye-es. Sorry. Twelve didn’t seem so bad at the time; we employ nine thousand staff after all”
“I can think of more than twelve people I’d like to get rid of. Have you done anything about this?”
“Contacted you for advice. That’s a start isn’t it?”
“These other people on your list. Have you warned them?”
“Get real Steve. What am I going to say – ‘I dislike you so much that I’ve put your names on a hit list and somebody is bumping you all off?’ I know it may seem trivial compared to losing your life but I could lose my job over this. There are some very high-profile people on that list.”
“This other person who knows all the names…?”
“No, Donal would never do anything as violent as kill anyone. He was as shocked as I was when Colin died, and he began to look at me very strangely when we heard about Sharon. He had the misfortune to come into the office just after I’d written the list. The only other people who know about the list are my husband, and Ruby that I share an office with. I only told her about it today.”
“Are you sure no one else knows about these particular people?”
“Individually maybe. Mostyn Hall is a small place and everyone knows who’s fallen out with whom. I’ve never had stand up rows with any of these people. They just …annoyed me. That’s all.”
“Remind me never to get on your bad side. This has to be a coincidence Sally. Why would anyone be going around killing off local authority staff unless it’s to save money?”
“Donal made that joke too. I don’t know Steve. I don’t know who has the list and I don’t know if I have a secret admirer who is hell bent on eliminating my adversaries. I do know that however much people have annoyed me I don’t wish them dead.”
“Okay, just calm down a bit and I’ll tell you what we’ll do. Claire Hammond has been put in charge of this case. She’s pretty reasonable; one of the fast-track detective sergeants, psychology masters, good line in interrogative patter and rising through the ranks with astonishing speed but she’s okay. I’ll have a chat with her. Don’t do anything or tell anyone else what you have told me. Are you in work tomorrow?”
“Yes, if I can get past the reporters outside the gate.”
“Good. I think once Claire hears that the library incident is tied in with this, she’s going to be very interested in what you have to say.”
“I’ll write it up tonight.”
“No. She’ll probably want you to give a statement anyway and if you write anything down and it falls into the wrong hands …”
“Thank you for that. I’ll do as you suggest.”
“Okay my love. Get some sleep and we’ll sort this out – one way or another.”
Sally put the phone back on the cradle and after relating Steve’s advice to her husband, decided to get an early night. Her mind kept coming back to the Modern Apprentices and the numerous fantasy conversations they’d had in the past about bumping off people they didn’t like. One of them had an app on his phone and you could paste the face of a person that you disliked onto a crash test dummy, and mangle the body in various nasty accidents. Athena’s face had featured quite prominently.
These were young people of in their teens though; they wouldn’t have the means or the inclination to carry out these murders, would they? Sally tried to think logically; she was sure that she’d seen or spoken to each of the Modern Apprentices during the past week and none of them had recently returned from a holiday in Portugal. At the same time, she recalled how easy it had been for her own sons to find information about hydrogen peroxide from the Internet when she asked them. Suppose the Modern Apprentices were in league with someone who had considerably more means and power; some kind of Fagin-like manipulator? That didn’t make any sense though. Who else would want to pick on this particular group of people?
Steve obviously managed to get in touch with DS Hammond because she attended Mostyn Hall shortly after nine o’clock the next morning. Cool and efficient; she appropriated Sally’s office for her own. Ruby took her work over to another office after casting a sympathetic glance in Sally’s direction. A young uniformed police constable sat at a desk and painstakingly wrote down every word of Sally’s statement, sighing whenever Sally found a spelling or grammatical error and it had to be amended before she would sign and date the page. DS Hammond leaned back in her chair, a study in manufactured boredom, blonde hair cut in an immaculate razored bob, icy blue eyes and cheek bones to die for, her expensive, well-cut grey linen trouser suit a stark contrast to Sally’s utilitarian red blouse and black skirt.
DS Hammond noted down the names and positions of the remaining nine staff but said that she wouldn’t be bothering them just yet as she felt that Sally’s over-active imagination had jumped to too many conclusions. There were other people at Mostyn Hall that DS Hammond wanted to interview and with Sally’s assistance she drew up another list of names and times of when she expected them to attend. Sally spent the rest of the day in Donal’s office phoning them all and was just packing away her papers in preparation to go home when the police constable popped his head round the door. “DS Hammond would like another word please.”
Sally gathered up her coat and bag and went back into her own office. DS Hammond had evidently taken over and looked as if she were intending to be around for a while to come.
“I just thought I’d update you on the current situation. The chap in Portugal, Colin? He was definitely murdered but it was almost certainly very quick and whoever smothered him was pretty strong. They are still running tests on the lady at the hairdressers but it looks as if she had been drugged before she went into the side room to sit under the infra-red lights, so she was probably out of it before the explosion occurred. The hydrogen peroxide they found on her clothes and hair was industrial strength though, about five times that used in hairdressing salons. There were bottles nearby with the lids left off and the fire brigade think the ignition came from a book of matches thrown in through the window.”
Sally gulped. “What about Shirley, the lady in the library yesterday?”
“The weight of the bookcases smashed her skull instantly; she wouldn’t have known what hit her. They can’t find a reason for the book cases to have fallen by accident though, so as of this afternoon we are talking three murders – and all of them linked to you.”
DS Hammond leaned back in the chair, her fingertips pressed together, one eyebrow raised quizzically. Waves of hot and cold swept over Sally and she sat down quickly on the nearest chair. She felt nauseous and grabbed a tissue from the box on her desk. “You don’t think that I …all I did was write a stupid list!”
“Yes, but someone somewhere is taking your stupid list seriously. I’m intending to speak to the other people on the list tomorrow so I’ll need this office again and I’ll need you to help me organise some more interviews. At this stage I don’t intend to tell them about the list, just that I’m interviewing most people in senior and management positions. I’ve spoken to your boss, John is it? He’s okay about using the facilities here. If, and only if we lose any more of your staff, I may well set up an incident room in your main conference hall. I take it I can count on your co-operation in acquiring that space?”
“Of course.” said Sally. “I’ll do anything I can to assist. Derek would be the best person to talk to – he’s in charge of all the facilities.”
DS Hammond ran an elegantly manicured fingernail down the page in front of her.
“Derek – oh another one on your list! I’ve spoken to his manager and unfortunately Derek appears to be on leave for the rest of this week but I suppose someone else in his department can make arrangements for us?”
Sally nodded her head and assumed that Derek was doing his usual trick of disappearing whenever there was any work to be done.
“Is it okay if I go now then?” she asked. “I’ll be in about half-eight tomorrow.”
“Good.” DS Hammond waved her hand in dismissal and picked up the phone, Sally’s phone.
Donal was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. “This is a mess isn’t it? I’m sorry Sally.”
“Whatever for? One of this is your fault.”
Donal looked away; a guilty expression on his face and Sally wondered what it was that she was missing.
She put a hand on his arm reassuringly. “It’s okay. I have the feeling that DS Hammond has decided to keep me close by so that I don’t get the opportunity organise any more hits. I’m only surprised that she didn’t put me in protective custody. I strongly suspect that there will be plain clothes policemen stationed outside our house all night. Shame, I’ve always been partial to a man in uniform myself.”
“At least you still have your sense of humour.”
Sally and Donal clocked out and walked across the car park in silence. The police presence was still in evidence and Sally was escorted to her husband’s car. She got in, and fastened her seat belt.
“Take me home please?”