Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

A Change of Plan

Linda was sent home with a police escort, and this aided her recovery tremendously.  The bra, complete with wrapping, was still in the incident room but once the financial significance of a genuine Rigby and Peller bra was explained to her, Linda began making noises about when it would be returned to her.  Ruby and Sally wondered if this might signal a new era in Linda’s state of uplift, then discounted the idea – one posh bra does not an uplift make.

Back in the incident room DS Hammond was stalking up and down like a woman possessed; this change of pattern puzzled her and whilst she enjoyed puzzles normally, this was beginning to become irksome.  Saving Linda from the jaws of death was a distinct success but not one that she could repeat.  After moving from desk-to-desk chivvying along people who didn’t really need the aggravation, she went back to her office and settled there, fingertips steepled as she pondered the killer’s next move. 

Sally found her there after knocking very tentatively at the door.  Relief that Linda was not going to meet an unpleasant end had been replaced by concerns about the others who were still on the hit list. Louis was still foraging around the building, Hester and Graham were busy irritating everyone they came in contact with, Tracey had departed for her narrow boat jaunt with her friend Angela as planned, and Susie was continuing with her elaborate and completely over the top garden party.  The cream of local society had been invited according to Susie and it would undoubtedly be the event of the year.  Sally, overhearing Susie boast about the food and decorations she had ordered thought that it sounded more like a pretentious church fete rather than the scaled down Buckingham Palace garden party that Susie was describing.

DS Hammond looked up as Sally carefully opened the door.  Eyebrow cocked she waited for Sally to speak like some imperious head mistress at a genteel boarding school.

“I was wondering about – well – the others on the list – only …”

“…They’re still on the list.  Yes, I’m fully aware of that and they are all under close observation.  Your friend Louis is exceptionally adept at pilfering from other people’s offices but you all seem to tolerate his larceny so he’s just providing amusement to the officers watching him on the CCTV that he doesn’t know has been installed throughout the building.  I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that Hester has some kind of learning difficulty; she eventually told me that she may – or may not – be going to a club in Liverpool this evening to see a troop of Armenian clog dancers.  That building attendant is bone idle when he isn’t trying to creep his way into my incident room.  Tracey and Angela are being very closely watched by members of the Welsh Constabulary – or so I’m told.  Having dealt with them previously that probably means a solitary bobby sitting on a fold up garden chair behind a bush.  Unfortunately, my inspector doesn’t feel that we can afford to put our own people down there whilst there is such a high presence here.  Making arrangements to cover this ridiculous garden party is going to eat into our resources enough as it is.  Is there no way anyone can persuade this ridiculous woman to cancel? It can’t be that important surely?”

DS Hammond’s intolerance was etching itself into her normally glacial complexion and Sally was sure that she could see a tiny muscle twitching uncontrollably at the corner of one eye.  

“Susie is very much a part of local society.  These events are like life blood to her.  I often feel that she only comes into work to show off her latest fashion acquisitions, and that we’re just a proving ground before she unleashes her outfit on the next cocktail party or dinner dance.  This garden party is the high point on her social calendar.  It would kill her to cancel it.  Oh!”  Sally stopped abruptly as she realised what she had said.

“Would it?  Would it indeed?  I suppose that in that case we will have to let her carry on with this ridiculous event.  Does she have nothing better to do?”

It was Sally’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Are we referring to her working life or personal life?  If it’s the former, then she has plenty of things she should be doing but she prefers to swan around the building like Lady Bountiful.  I’ve noticed that her leisurely lunches are a bit shorter now that Tracey has gone off on her boat, but otherwise her productivity is pretty non-existent.  As far as her home life is concerned – well you probably know more about it than I do – I think she has a timid husband, a couple of kids who’ve left home and rumour has it she’s been knocking off one of the councillors for years.”

“I can better you on that one.  She has one son who is married with children.”

“Susie!  A grandma!  I’d never have guessed.”

“I don’t think she’s exactly hands-on.  Her son and his family immigrated to New Zealand shortly after their second child was born.  They would appear to be estranged although her husband keeps in contact.”

“I won’t ask where you got all that information from.  I’d better get back to my office; I’ve a couple of e-mails and meetings that need sorting out first and then I’ll go home.  I know Linda irritates me but I’m hugely relieved that she’s off the hook now.”

DS Hammond looked sceptically at Sally and the moment of entente cordiale was broken.  “Let’s not forget who this whole thing started.  You and your hit list.”

Sally felt a cold chill sweep over her body and at the same time a flush of embarrassment coloured her face.  “Yes.  I hadn’t exactly forgotten my part in all this either.  It’s something that I will always regret but I’m doing my best to prevent anything else happening aren’t I?”  Sally tried not to let the emotion break through but her voice sounded strange and strangled.

“Go and sort out your e-mails.  I’m hoping that this change of plan might signify a change of heart in our killer.  He or she has seemed so determined to work through the list until now that nothing anyone did would deter them.  The bra delivery and Linda’s obvious uplift issues might indicate that whoever did this has a sense of humour – albeit warped – but the concordance with your wishes may mean we’re not dealing with a psychopath – I hope.”

“Thanks.  Do you want me down here tomorrow?”

“I’ll let you know.”  DS Hammond turned to her computer screen in an obvious sign of dismissal.  Sally let herself out of the office and walked back up stairs to her office with a heavy heart.  There was a note from Ruby, who had gone home earlier but it was nothing urgent.  Sitting at her desk, Sally unlocked the computer. There was only one outstanding report to be completed, and turning on some music she settled down to type. 

The door to her office was open and though it was in a fairly quiet part of the building, there seemed to be quite a lot of human traffic this afternoon.  One of Donal’s colleagues caught her eye and waved as she walked past.  Sally returned the wave and pulled herself back to the rather boring but complex report, trying to focus on the contents rather than on Linda’s narrow escape and the still present danger to the others.

The sound of the follow-you printer outside the door embarking on a lengthy print job provided a soothing background and an accompaniment to the non-demanding music Sally was playing.  She couldn’t see who was at the printer as they were standing to the left of her doorway, but whoever it was, Sally was grateful that they weren’t distracting her.  The peace was broken when another colleague came out to use the printer and instead of coming back later, decided to stay and launch into a loud and particularly tiresome discourse on what she was going to have for dinner that night, what a pig her boyfriend was and how she was really fed up with that fact that a mutual colleague was being promoted whilst she had been passed over.

The volume and content of the conversation would have been enough but the woman then decided to prance about in the doorway; the voice and back view were unfamiliar and Sally concluded that she must be new because most people had the courtesy to keep the noise down in the corridor when her office door was open.   She tried to block it out but the next peel of high-pitched cackling was too much.  To shut the door on people was rude and Sally had no desire to cause offence but couldn’t work with this amount of noise.

Wearily she got to her feet and walked slowly to the doorway.  “I’m sorry but would you mind keeping the noise down please?  Or perhaps having a chat somewhere else?  I find the noise and the jumping about rather distracting.”

The animated conversationalist turned around to her with a look of extreme dislike. “What are you talking about?  We’ve only been here a few seconds.  We’re allowed to talk.  If you don’t like it you should shut your door and not interfere.”  Her body language and the tone of her voice were both defensive and aggressive, taking Sally completely by surprise.

“Look, I’m sorry if you’re upset about this,” she replied, “But this corridor is not an extension of your office and we’ve asked before that you try not to stand right outside our door and talk.  There are confidentiality issues if you’re talking about work and if you’re not talking about work, this is really not an appropriate place to chat.”

“Oh, stop making such a fuss about nothing.  You don’t own the place. Just because you’ve got cosy with the police doesn’t make you important.  You’re just a glorified secretary who’s running around doing their donkey work.”  She flounced back into the office, followed by her colleague, who had finished her copying and looked apologetically at Sally as she left.

“Are you okay Sally?”  Donal appeared in the doorway of his office.

Sally’s first instinct was to burst into tears and confide all to her very dear friend, but the possibility that Donal might be involved in the murders in some way made her hold back and try to put a brave face on it.  She smiled and shrugged her shoulders.

“It’s nothing Donal, I think she’s new or agency.  People don’t realise how much noise they make out here or how distracting it can be.  I like having the door open though.”

“Why don’t you say something to her manager?”

“Oh, we have.   Trouble is, they’re a big team and their office is a very noisy place.  I don’t blame them for needing to get outside the office to talk but I’d rather they didn’t do it right outside my door.   Most of them are fine but a couple are of the opinion that if they have to work in the middle of chaos then so should we.”

He smiled, looking less strained than he had earlier on.  “I tend to hear them more than any of the others in our room, but our door is kept shut and as it’s a fire door it tends to dampen the noise down.  It was the beeping of the printer that drove me mad.”

“I know.  It’s particularly bad when they press the wrong buttons, which is why we asked the printer technician to turn the noise off.  Would you believe there were people in that office who actually complained because the machine had stopped beeping?” 

Sally was doing her best to keep the conversation as light as possible so that Donal wouldn’t see how much the girl had upset her, and felt she’d managed to carry it off as Donal went back into his office and she went returned to her own.

The unexpected reaction had left her feeling shaky and quite tearful; she put it down to the stress of the last week and tried to lose herself in the report again.

There was an authoritative knock on the door and Sally looked up to see the deputy manager from the office next door.  Forcing a smile on her face, she had a sinking feeling that there was going to be more conflict now.

“What’s the problem?  I’ve got a member of staff who is very upset because you’ve just had a go at her for making too much noise.”

Sally’s mouth dropped open in astonishment.   “She’s upset!  Excuse me, but all I did was ask her to keep the noise down and not to stand right in the doorway of the office. I’m not even sure why she was out there because she wasn’t using the printer.”

“She came out to discuss something for a few seconds and you interrupted her and told her to shut up and go away.”

“She wasn’t discussing work.  She was talking about her dinner, her boyfriend and how jealous she was of someone else’s promotion.  It takes me more than a few seconds to get up off my chair and cross the room.  I’d already put up with it for several minutes before I said anything.  I certainly did not tell her to shut up and go away; I would never be so rude.  Did I upset the person who was out there with her too?”

The deputy looked a little nonplussed.  “Well, she said she didn’t really hear much because she was trying to sort out the printing and wasn’t paying much attention.  You’ve just got to learn to be more accommodating though.  You can’t stop people talking to each other. I don’t think you appreciate how upset people are about all these dreadful murders.”

“I would never be so presumptuous,” said Sally, trying very hard to keep her rising temper under control.  “Would you be as accommodating if Ruby and I walked into your office and had a loud conversation about our families in front of you?”

“Well, no but that’s not the same thing …”

“It is.  This is a small office and it can get quite claustrophobic.  Our remit is to have an open-door policy as much as possible so that people can feel free to come and talk to us.  If people come up the stairs and see the door shut, they often go away again with out knocking.”

“Our door is shut all the time, so is Donal’s, people still come in our office.”

“Both your door and Donal’s have a window so that people can see if you are in or not.  You both have larger teams than us so there’s more chance that there will be someone in the office. Most people stand on the other side of the printer and keep their voices down.  I’ve never had anyone stand right in the doorway, jumping around and giggling before.”

“I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about that.” The deputy shot back into her office, Sally looked at her computer screen and sighed at the irony of it all.  She knew that the murders had made people feel nervous and stressed, no one knew that better than her, but now it was being used as another excuse to gossip in the corridor.    Three more e-mails had arrived in the meantime and two of them needed urgent action.  Sally wanted to get out of the building more than anything but squaring her shoulders; she got down to drafting responses before returning to the sadly neglected report.

The light outside the window was fading when Sally was finally satisfied with her work.  She texted her husband and arranged for him to collect her in twenty minutes time.  Someone had turned the lights out in the corridor and most people had left to go home some time ago.  Looking to her left she saw that Donal was still sitting at his computer, which was unusual considering his habit was to leave at four o’clock for a long journey home by bus and train.  She was about to knock on the door to say goodbye but decided not to disturb him after all.

The building was very quiet as she walked along the corridor to the time clock; only one or two workers were still at their desks and the office cleaners were busy emptying bins and cleaning the toilets.  She passed the young girl who was reputed to be having an affair with Derek; she looked pale and her eyes red-rimmed, giving Sally yet another reminder of the havoc her hit list had caused. 

There was a small gap in the curtains of the conference room letting out the bright lights that indicated the police were still very busy.  The police officer outside the door nodded at her as she passed and she felt a small sense of reassurance. 

The familiar sight of her husband, waiting patiently in the car with the radio turned up loud, was the best part of what had been a truly horrendous day, and she heaved a great sigh of relief as she got in the car and sat down.

Poisoned Biscuits and Clog Dancers

The look on the faces of the policemen sat outside her house next morning was enough to warn Sally that something else had gone amiss.  There was a knock on the door within minutes of her pulling up the kitchen blinds. “Sorry Sally, no time for bacon butties today.  The boss wants you in as soon as possible.  We aren’t allowed to say any more than that.”

Sally nodded mutely and went back upstairs to throw on some clothes and kiss her husband and children goodbye.  The trip into work in the company of two hungry and strangely silent policemen was unnerving and Sally was glad that it was such a short journey. She went straight to the incident room where DC Long was waiting for her.  He took her across the corridor to DS Hammond’s seconded office and tapped gently on the closed door.

“Come!” was the stentorian response.  He grimaced at Sally and opened the door for her.  DS Hammond indicated the chair opposite with a nod of her head and Sally, too dispirited to argue, sat down and waited for her to speak.

“Last night was a disappointment.  I thought we were getting somewhere in overturning the devastation that your incredibly stupid list has wrought but no!  We now have one member of your staff in hospital and another in the morgue.  So, do you have anything to say?”

Sally felt her hackles rising but the desire to know what had happened was paramount. She took a deep breath and tried to keep the anger and anxiety out of her voice.” I’m sorry DS Hammond but I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Louis the petty thief is in hospital.  Apparently, he ate some biscuits that he took from one of the offices last night before going home.  Luckily, he only had a couple of bites and spat most of it out because he didn’t like the taste.  Even that small amount was enough to put him in hospital.  He’s expected to survive with no lasting effects although it’s hoped that it may put him off pinching food from other people in future.”

“Where did the biscuits come from?”

With raised eyebrows, DS Hammond handed Sally a report.  “From your office of course.  An open box of Garibaldi biscuits was found on one of the desks when we did a search of all the offices.”

“Garibaldi’s!  I hate Garibaldi biscuits.  They look like they’re full of dead flies and taste of nothing.  I would never buy anything like that – even for my worst enemy!”

“Or someone you wanted to kill off perhaps?”  DS Hammond raised an elegant eyebrow.

“Oh please!” Sally threw the report back on the desk in exasperation.  “Do you really think I’m so arrogant – and stupid?”

“No, I don’t.  Especially as the biscuits were put in your office after you left for home last night.”

“Who by?  Not – not Donal?”

“No.  That half-witted building attendant Graham.  He says he found them in the print room with a post-it note on them asking for them to be delivered to your office – specifically to Ruby.”

“Who also hates Garibaldi biscuits?  We were having a discussion about it just the other day. Oh.”

“And where did this conversation take place?”

“In the canteen at lunchtime.  It was really packed.  Steak and kidney puddings that day.”

“You can remember the food; can you also remember who else was at the table?”

“Well, Ruby and me obviously, Louis – I remember Ruby got cross because he pinched some of her chips.”  Sally frowned, trying very hard to recall the faces in the room that day.  “Tom and Megan were sat on the next table; I think they had some other Apprentices over because there were quite a few people I didn’t recognise.”

“When was this?”

“Couple of weeks ago – steak and kidney pudding is every other week and usually on a Thursday.  We were talking about what kind of biscuits to buy for a meeting.  I think it was Louis that suggested Garibaldi’s but no one else liked them.”

“If he wandered into your office and found some on a desk, he might possibly feel that they’d been left there for him perhaps?”

“They may as well have been gift-wrapped with an invitation card on for him.  You said he’s going to be okay though?”

“According to the medics yes, I’ve got forensics running tests on the biscuits but they think it will be something colourless and tasteless.”

Sally felt relieved until she remembered that DS Hammond had mentioned another member of staff in the morgue.

“Is it, was it Hester?  The body in the morgue?”

“Unfortunately, yes.  She told one of my officers that she wasn’t going out after all last night so we stepped down the surveillance.  It appears that the lure of Armenian clog dancers proved too seductive and she sneaked out through her garden door and got a friend to pick her up a few streets away.”

“I never said anything about clog dancers.  I know Hester’s into some weird ethnic stuff but that’s not the sort of thing she’d confide in me about.  She’s usually too busy going off at a tangent.  Hang on though.  I remember seeing a poster on the notice board for some cultural evening in Liverpool.  Would that be it?”

DS Hammond pulled the poster out of a cardboard folder marked ‘Hester’ and pushed it across the table to Sally.   “Not just Armenian clog dancers but an Uzbek knife thrower, a Peruvian pipe group and a radical poet from – oh yes – Ipswich.  It appears that Hester is – or rather was – something of a patron of the arts. This poster has been up in most of the public areas in council buildings for the past couple of weeks.”

“What happened to her?  How did she die?”

Leaning back in her chair, DS Hammond picked out another report from the file but opened it up herself rather than handing it to Sally.

“It appears that the evening was a great success; held in a nightclub in the basement of an old tobacco warehouse that has been recently renovated.  I use the word ‘renovated’ loosely.  There was only one exit and no fire doors, the place was hugely overcrowded.  The Armenian clog dancers were headlining apparently and by ten o’clock last night the whole place was rocking.  Then somebody shouted ‘fire’ and everyone headed for the exit at the same time.  Hester tried to appeal for calm, seems to have been knocked down near the door and got trampled by several pairs of feet, at least twenty of them wearing very heavy, steel studded clogs.  There was no fire.  A couple of other people sustained minor injuries and there is an eye witness who thinks she saw Hester arguing with a young man during the stampede.  Of course, there is no CCTV; no signing-in book and most of those who attended disappeared without a trace.  The clog dancers aren’t just traumatised by the knowledge that they trampled Hester to death in their haste to get out, they are also rather annoyed that they haven’t been paid and the UK Border Agency are very interested in that fact that they may have entered the country in the back of a lorry.”

“Poor Hester.  It must have been terrifying for her.”

“The eye witness is the friend who gave her a lift.  She reports that Hester seemed quite sleepy towards the end of the evening, almost dopey she says here.  There’s a possibility that like Sharon, she was drugged beforehand.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see how easy it would be to slip something into Hester’s drink.  If it wasn’t for the fact that Hester is a member of staff here, this might have been considered an unfortunate accident and if we were lucky, we would have got a prosecution against the people who set up the club.  As it is, we won’t know for definite until the post mortem results are in.”

Sally rested her elbow on the desk, her head in her hand trying to massage the impending headache away.  There were photographs of Hester’s body; like a broken mannequin lying on the floor of the nightclub.  Sally looked away; her usually strong stomach sickened by yet another waste of human life.

“After what happened with Linda, I thought – I hoped that it would all stop, that the message had gone out that these weren’t really bad people, just annoying.  Hester dead and Louis in hospital.  What can we do to stop it?  What can I do?”  Sally fought back the tears that had been building up for days; she no longer cared about incurring DS Hammond’s scorn or that she didn’t have seem to have a tissue in her pockets.  In a rare moment of empathy DS Hammond handed the tissue box to Sally and waited patiently whilst she blew her nose and wiped away the tears.

“Take the day off Sally.  I’ll clear it with your boss.  Long will take you home.  Please don’t go out anywhere without checking with one of my staff first.  I don’t consider you a suspect at the moment but there is undoubtedly a link between you and the killer – even if you don’t realise it yet.  We may need you to come in here tomorrow though, I take it that will be okay?”

Sally nodded numbly; she would have said yes to anything at that moment, just to get out of the building.

DC Long appeared at the door and smiled sympathetically at Sally, who picked up her bag and nodded a mute farewell to DS Hammond.  People were just coming into work as she was leaving and from the questioning looks, she received as she walked out to the car, word had already got out about Louis and Hester.  Sally cried all the way home.

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