Ruby’s Planning Meeting

Ruby’s department had been organising a sizeable conference for some months; speakers had been booked, a venue arranged and funding agreed by Michael. Ruby had even managed to acquire some sponsorship from a new agency that was anxious to form links with the local authority. Publicity had gone out and the date was marked in the official online calendar, then Ruby received a call from Bumptious Bob, an operational manager whose responsibilities slightly overlapped into the areas that the conference was covering.

“Hi – erm Ruby,  isn’t it? Someone tells me that your department is thinking of setting up a conference.”

“Well, more than thinking about it. We have a venue, speakers, refreshments and the list of potential attendees has been drawn up for circulation.”



“Strictly speaking, you lot are treading on our toes.”

“We are what?”

“This is our area and we’ve been talking about having a conference for ages.”

“The plans for the conference were submitted to senior management months ago. The acting director gave his blessing and I’m sure Margaret was at the meeting where the funding was agreed.”

“Was she? She doesn’t remember the details, but she told me to phone you and tell you to cancel your conference.”

“She what!” Ruby held the phone away from her ear and looked at it in disgust.

“She thinks that we would make a better job of it – as we’re experts in the field rather than generic workers like yourselves in the training department. Adam has a PowerPoint demonstration that he’s used before, and I have some very good statistics.”

“Bob,” Ruby said, trying not to let anger and disgust creep into her voice. “The conference we’ve planned is a whole day; you’d need a bit more than stats and an old PowerPoint demo that everyone has already seen to fill the day. We have speakers arranged already, and all the content for the sessions has been sanctioned by Michael too.”

“Margaret is quite adamant about this. She won’t take no for an answer.”

“She’s going to have to take no from me.” Ruby replied, rapidly texting her boss Kathy as she spoke. “I don’t have the authority to cancel something as large and high profile as this conference.  She’ll have to talk to Kathy, who will not be pleased at all.”

“Righto, so we’ll just have to let the ladies fight it out themselves – handbags at five paces and all that. I do like a good scrap! Let me know what Kathy says. See you!”

Ruby chose to ignore this comment, said goodbye fairly tersely and carried on texting her boss, hoping that Kathy would be able to pick up her text quickly; she was usually so on the ball. Kathy didn’t disappoint on this occasion. She texted back within a minute:

“Heard it on the grapevine. Michael not happy. May have to collaborate with Bob et al. in order to salvage our hard work. Leave it with me x”

It suddenly occurred to Ruby that this could be Margaret’s way of stamping her authority over Ruby – and the rest of the training team at the same time.  She knew that Margaret viewed her with suspicion anyway because of her being Sally’s supporter.  Rumours of Michael’s anger with Margaret over Sally’s appeal had leached its way around the building, together with more detailed accounts of the current state of disgrace lurking over Karen, Fiona, Cheryl and the strategically sick Mandy.  Gavin was an unknown quantity to most, but the new rule regarding clocking in and out had already impacted on the workforce as a whole, and the smokers and shoppers in particular, were very upset about their subterfuge being uncovered.

Silly to think that Margaret would just sit back and sulk after being reprimanded; her strategy was always to bully and confront.  Obviously, she had decided that hijacking the conference for her department would be a good way of getting back into Michael’s good books. He usually went down to a more bearable simmer after he had blown up at anyone.

It was down to Ruby to let the rest of the training team know that they were going to have to include input from Margaret, Bob and the truly Apathetic Adam, who obviously hadn’t bothered to do anything other than resurrect an old presentation that was way out of date when he first presented it. The rest of the team were not happy; some of them had crossed swords with Margaret before, they all knew and loathed Bob, and whilst most people quite liked Adam it was universally acclaimed that while he was a nice man, he couldn’t manage his way out of a wet paper bag. His presentation skills were sadly lacking too. ‘Death by PowerPoint’ could have been invented with Adam in mind. His idea of doing a presentation was to set up the demonstration and then read each bullet point in a monotonous and patronising manner.  Most attendees asked if he would be doing handouts at the end of the session, and when this had been confirmed, they switched off totally, fell asleep or spent the time playing Patience, or checking Twitter on their mobiles.

What made it so bizarre was that Adam was actually quite a funny man; he sang and played guitar at open mike nights, his knowledge of music, old films and comedy was extensive and on a social basis he was great company. Ruby could only surmise that his poor presentation skills were linked to a total lack of interest in his subject, and she wondered if there was any way she could get him up there singing his way through the conference.

The training that Ruby and her colleagues had set up was varied; punchy, demanding and gave no opportunity for playing on mobiles. They had engaged speakers who were likely to inspire and challenge; the day was broken up into sections that would ensure participation from everyone who attended, and the attendees were chosen as much for their own input rather than the usual suspects that were invited to everything merely because they fancied a day out, and were not known to be dynamic workers within their own teams.

For Ruby; having put all this effort into organising the day, the thought that it was all about to be ruined by Margaret’s machinations, Bob’s bolshiness and Adam’s apathy made her grind her teeth in anger, and wish that Sally’s serial killer was more than just a character in a book.

Ruby and Kathy called the team together to formulate a plan of action that would keep Margaret sweet, appease a volcanic and rumbling Michael, and utilise the dubious talents of Bob and Adam, as well as keeping the major content of the conference that they had organised. Kathy was of the opinion that it could be done if Margaret and her henchmen could be manipulated into thinking that they had come up with the content of the conference, and that Ruby and the team had merely facilitated. It was a good idea in theory, but whether Kathy and Ruby could actually put into practice was another thing.

That was when Ruby had one of her particularly bright ideas. 

Sally had worked with Bob and Adam before; in fact, she had been very good friends with Adam when they worked in the same office. They were the same age and had many of the same interests and experiences. Bob had actually worked for Sally when he was younger and newly qualified, and whilst Sally said he had been a total pain in the neck, Ruby had a feeling that if she picked Sally’s brains, she might find a clue as to how to deal with these interlopers, and maintain the integrity of the conference.

Aware that phoning Sally from work was not a bright idea, however good her intentions were, Ruby told her colleagues that she was going out to pick up some lunch, and drove up to the nearby cemetery to get some peace and privacy. She kept her fingers crossed that Sally would come up with a magic formula.  Sally was pleased to hear from her; Ruby had tried Sally’s mobile first, which was just as well as she was currently sitting at her favourite beauty spot whilst her husband and the dog ran around more energetically.

“What’s up sweetheart? You sound a bit rattled.”

Ruby explained the issues and asked tentatively if Sally had any ideas.

“Hmmm. Get Adam to write a song and perform it. If you ask him, he’ll do it, he likes you.”

Ruby was momentarily silenced by this revelation. “Really! He likes me? Why?”

“Oh! I expect because you are bright, beautiful and he finds you interesting. I know this because he told me – long before all the crap started – but I doubt if he’s changed his opinion. Poor Adam. He really is a round peg in an incredibly square hole. You know he’s got stuff on YouTube?”

“What sort of stuff?” Ruby asked, her interest piqued.

“Music. He used to be in a group. He had long hair and extremely tight trousers, not to mention an interesting line in military-style jackets. The music wasn’t bad either. They got into the charts and had a record deal.”

“What went wrong?”

“The group fell apart. The need for real money and employment. Adam started here at the bottom, same as Bob; Adam endeared himself to people, whereas Bob just put everyone’s backs up by being contentious, and asking far too many stupid questions. Try to be nice to Adam?”

“Do I really have to be nice to Bob?”

“Get Kathy to deal with Bob. He’s so vain he won’t want to deal with anyone below team manager level; far too demeaning. Trouble is, Bob is so tactless and outspoken, if you put him anywhere near your attendees, he’ll just offend everyone, so you need to keep him in the background. Have you organised the printing for the conference yet?”

“Not yet. Not quite finalised. Why?”

“I know it sounds strange, but get Bob to negotiate with the printing department. That’s where his strength lies. The printing department are notoriously awkward, but Bob does awkward really well.”

“Okay. That brings us to Margaret. I can’t understand how she’s managed to bypass Michael. He won’t be happy about letting them take over our conference.”

“That will be because she’s having an affair with the chief executive officer and he is Michael’s boss.”

“How on earth do you know that!”

“Aha!” Sally laughed. “I cannot divulge my sources but one of them is currently a missing person and believed to be somewhere in the Russian Steppes.”


“The very man. The CEO and Margaret go out to lunches and dinners on a regular basis. Talking of which, that could be the answer to your problem with Margaret.”

“The CEO? I’ve never even met him. I don’t even know what he looks like.”

“Large, dyed black hair and cheap suits that are always far too tight. Totally incompetent.  They let him loose with the bin men for a day.  He lasted an hour before the lads got fed up with him and sent him back to the Town Hall.  He was lucky that they didn’t upend him in a remote countryside bin. That’s beside the point. It’s Margaret’s partner you need to focus on.”


“The very man. One of the loveliest men I know, and for some strange reason, thinks the world of his wife. You need to surreptitiously get him onside. Flatter him. Offer him what looks like a key role in your conference, and he’ll be able to persuade her to go your way. She doesn’t really want to do any work or spend any money, and she will appreciate the fact that Desmond is being kept occupied. She just wants to be in control, get all the glory and indulge herself with some CEO time.”

“Wish me luck?” Ruby felt sick at the thought of all the work ahead of her.

“You’ll be fine. Just don’t get cross with them or make them feel stupid. Hard to do in Bob’s case I know, but you can do it. Let me know how you get on. Oh, man and dog alert. I’ll speak to you later. Bye.”


Ruby sat in the car thinking for a little while then dashed off to the sandwich shop to give some credibility to her absence. After a short meeting, Kathy and Ruby had formulated their plan of action and were ready to do battle at the meeting arranged for the following morning.

This was a meeting that Ruby was dreading. How to retain the fabric of the conference without alienating Margaret, Bob, Adam, Michael or the CEO.  Using Sally’s strategies, combined with Kathy’s wisdom and patience, and some ideas of her own, after two hours the plan for the conference was sorted. Ruby had spent some time the previous afternoon cajoling Desmond into helping out, principally in areas that had already been planned by her team, but would benefit from his affable presence. His enthusiasm and pride at being asked to play such an important part had won Margaret over. It also meant that it would give Margaret an excuse to have a lazy lunch with the CEO to discuss the conference that SHE had planned.

Bob was a little annoying; well more than a little actually, but Kathy dealt with him, and he was fighting a losing battle once Margaret and Adam came around. Adam was already scribbling lyrics and humming to himself happily, so Bob had to give in and agree with the plans. He seemed to quite like the idea of negotiating with printing; unknown to Ruby he had crossed swords with them before and lost, so this time he was determined to be the victor.

Ruby and Kathy left the building feeling drained, but triumphant. Kathy sent a quick email to Michael as Ruby drove them back to the office and was gratified to receive his usual economic response.


A Lack of Appeal

Michael was not happy.

Following a worrying call from the head of IT asking why Ben was being allowed unlimited access to the systems, Michael had made some enquiries and had heard about the errors that had been made in regard to Sally’s employment, and the issues that had arisen over policies and procedures that had not been checked before being passed.  Although this had been glossed over in the appeal, an ACAS employment tribunal was a whole different ball game.  Elderly councillors could be fobbed off and told that such things were irrelevant, but experienced ACAS assessors were trained to pick up such errors in the process. Although they were impartial, it had been Michael’s experience that any flaws would be uncovered and throw the local authority in a very bad light.  He blamed Margaret and was very quick to tell her so in an extremely terse phone conversation.

Margaret was not happy.

She was aware that the errors had occurred within her department; that by allowing Mandy and her triad free rein in HR, there was a real chance that Sally might win the employment tribunal and cost the local authority a great deal of money in compensation for her unfair dismissal.  She couldn’t exactly blame Gavin for the errors as he was appointed long after Sally had been suspended, but she hadn’t been impressed by his attempts to intimidate Sally on the phone or by trolling her on Twitter.  She would have liked to tell Mandy exactly what she thought of her management skills, but Mandy had sense enough to develop a stress-related illness and get herself medically signed off for the next two months.

Unlike Michael, who thought that he knew the disadvantages of putting anything negative in writing; Margaret phoned Gavin and made her disapproval well and truly known.   The only bright spot as far as she could see was her employment of young Ben, his ability to analyse what had been going wrong in the HR department, and the impact on the rest of the local authority.

Gavin was not happy.

His happiness began to decline on the day before Sally’s appeal hearing when she failed to fall into his trap and agree to cancel the meeting. He had thought that following her on Twitter might intimidate her into cancelling the meeting that morning but she turned up nevertheless. She was wearing a bright red jacket. She looked far better than she should have done under the circumstances.  If she’d attended the meeting with unwashed hair, no makeup and in an old outfit that had seen better days, she would probably have been received with more sympathy by the councillors.

That was not the way Sally operated obviously. He understood that now and realised that he had underestimated her. The realisation hit him when right at the start of the meeting she informed everyone present that he had tried to get her to cancel the meeting the day before, that he had failed to advise her that she could be penalised by ACAS for doing this, and then, like pulling a rabbit out of a top hat, she had produced his email and asked why it was that a person in his position should be trawling around on Twitter in the early hours of the morning trying to find out information on her.

Luckily the elderly councillors were confused; most of them were too ignorant of social media to understand what she was talking about, but there were a few other people in the room who did. This included the legal representative and Michael, in his role as presiding officer. Gavin managed not to meet Michael and Margaret’s eyes when Sally was spouting her revelations to the floor, but he knew he was going to cop for it later.

At the end of the meeting Sally finally lost her cool and as she was leaving the room, she had moved close to him and uttered

“Don’t even think about stalking me Slime or you will be very, very sorry.” He heard her kick the wall as she left, and allowed himself a thin smile of satisfaction which disappeared very quickly when he looked up and saw Michael glaring down at him before he stalked out of the room.

Gavin had waited all of the next day for the summons to Michael’s office in the Town Hall. It wasn’t until late afternoon of the next day that Gavin had the bright idea of checking Michael’s online calendar and found to his disgust that he had been out at a conference all day. He felt angry with Michael, angry with himself for not checking earlier but most of all he was angry with Sally for not being intimidated by him.

Margaret’s very public telephone call to Gavin set the wheels in motion to get Peter and Ben identifying the system errors, and completely demoralised Karen, Fiona and Cheryl.  Gavin was well aware that one of them had sent a warning text to Mandy, and wasn’t surprised therefore when she was signed off by her doctor.  This suited him as it left the three witches unprotected and vulnerable.  He loved it when people were scared of him.  He would get his own back on Margaret in time, Sally was his first priority.

He got her file out of his briefcase and went through it again; looking for any weak areas that he might have missed. Against all HR protocols he took the file home and read it over and over all weekend. In between running errands for his mother, and sitting patiently in a garden centre tea room whilst she and two of her friends worked their way through salvers of dainty sandwiches and a selection of not so-very dainty cakes with their pots of tea, he read the file again and pondered.

He had to admit that he was fascinated by the way the serial killer in Sally’s book had bumped off or humiliated eleven key council staff – no one counted Dopey Shirley as a key member of anything. The only impact her death would have made would be that her team ran more smoothly, and there would be no more mysterious incidents where people’s belongings disappeared from the office. Gavin had to admire the modes of murder utilised; he was especially impressed by the salted sardine and the Armenian clog dancers, but also felt that those who escaped death in the book had been dealt with in a rather spectacular fashion too.

Louis, the office burglar had made an actual and rather meteoric rise through the ranks before the book had been published, but had taken on more than he was capable of dealing with and the cracks were beginning to show. His old team had been quite fond of him and covered up most of his shortcomings but his new team, resentful at the demotion of their old boss, had proved reluctant to provide any kind of support, tolerate his frequent unofficial trips outside for cigarettes, and flatly refused to make him cups of tea and coffee, or allow him access to their closely guarded biscuit tins. Perhaps this was why he had taken to standing out in the corridor and glaring down at people like Ruby as they came in and out of the building.

Fate hadn’t been any kinder to Linda; another manager who failed to manage. She picked the laziest and most unhelpful of her two part-time secretaries to offload work onto merely because the woman wore more fashionable clothes. The other secretary, dowdy and studious, did much of the work anyway but was proving just a little bit stubborn about working extra hours to cover for her colleague. Linda had also come slightly unstuck with her expenses. The excitement of owning a Rigby and Peller bra had gone to her head, and she insisted on going down to London for a fitting and to have four more bras made. Trying to pass the trip to London off as a necessary work-related expense was bad enough, but claiming for the bras on the grounds that she needed to wear them for conferences and public relations exercises, was just too much.

Her husband was not particularly impressed by the fact that, newly unemployed, he now had to pay a huge lingerie bill as well. He didn’t even like the bras; they were all white and upholstered, nowhere near as sexy as the wisps of black lace and satin that Linda used to spill out of. Unknown to Linda, he had applied for some work in Slovenia which entailed his family moving out there with him for at least a year.  The money was good, he knew that his children could benefit from the move, there was only Linda to deal with.  He had a feeling that making a new start away from Sally’s book might be the answer.  The new bras could always get lost in the packing.

Susie continued to languish in her office; most of the time she sat idly pleating one of her old designer dresses between her fingers, but every now and then she would stalk through the corridors looking for someone to screech at. The loss of her palatial house and lifestyle seemed to affect her far more than the loss of her husband and children.

Gavin was particularly curious about the whereabouts of Sally’s friend. From the accounts office. The section of the book regarding the disappearance of Donal and his wife had actually come true before the book was published.  Some said that this was where Donal got the idea in the first place. The money that he had removed from the project team accounts was returned within six months via a number of cleverly manipulated offshore accounts. Gavin had heard a rumour that Donal and his wife were living somewhere in Russia and had made a great deal of money through the building and maintenance of websites. The police had given up trying to trace Donal; after all the money had paid back the money, and relations with Russia didn’t permit an expenses-paid investigation. The weather in England was cold enough.

Michael summoned Gavin to his office on Monday morning. It was not a pleasant interview. He drew himself up to his full six foot three, and towered over the diminutive Slime. He thundered and roared; his regional accent coming to the fore as he became increasingly angry with the deliberately passive Gavin.

“You made a fool of all of us!” he yelled as he paced the room. “Have you any idea how bad this will look when it gets into the public domain? She already has the local press on her side, and now we find out that she has friends and relatives working in social media who are very defensive about her.”

“She hasn’t said anything, though has she?” Gavin clutched at straws. “I remember reading some meeting notes where she stated that she wouldn’t go to the press because she didn’t want her face all over the front page.”

Gavin relaxed a little and leaned back in his chair. This was not a wise move. Michael leaned over him; his face was so close that Gavin could smell the minty chewing gum barely masking his bad breath.

“Listen Slime! We brought you in specifically to sort this mess out.  You came recommended by Margaret as someone who could get rid of people without any fuss. I’m not particularly impressed with your methods so far. Sally is running rings round us, and if she gets as far as an employment tribunal, we’ll be a laughing stock. I can deal with a bunch of aging councillors, but it won’t just be a matter of the local rag ripping us to shreds as usual, this will undoubtedly get picked up by the nationals.”

“I’m trying to get to know her; trying to work out what makes her tick.”

Michael sat heavily on the edge of his desk and sighed.

“Sally and I used to get on very well when she worked in the project team. I found her to be very intelligent, and she ran circles round the managers – most of whom couldn’t manage their way out of a wet paper bag. She knows our systems, and she is enough of a geek to work out when we are trying to pull a fast one. Don’t underestimate her. John thought a great deal of Sally and didn’t want to sack her at all, which is why he gave the compromise agreement.  I had further cuts to make when he left however, and I’d always felt that her settlement was far too generous. In retrospect I wish I’d shut down a library or a youth club instead, but it’s far too late to go back now.”

“Do you want me to carry on or are you going to get someone else to do the job?” Gavin asked, trying to keep his voice level so that it didn’t betray his nervousness.

Shrugging his shoulders and walking slowly round the desk and back to his huge leather chair, Michael slumped down, temporarily defeated. Looking up, he nodded toward the door.

“Off you go Slime. You’re still on the job but make a better job of reading those files in future. Looking at Ben’s resume, Margaret has finally done something right in taking him on.  I’ve told IT to lift any restrictions on his access. I just hope that he can be trusted.”

“Yes … Sir.”

Gavin muttered under his breath, and walked quickly out of the room with his briefcase clutched tightly in his hands. Eschewing the lift, he ran down the stairs, permitting a brief respite chuckle as he reached the bottom. He almost skipped all the way to his car and even the parking ticket he received for not having booked a space, failed to quell his high spirits.

Local Authority Bureaucracy

Opening yet another brown paper envelope, Sally sighed and looked despairingly over at her husband Ed. He pulled a sympathetic face and came over to perch on the arm of her chair.

“More bureaucracy?” he muttered, kissing the top of her head and smiling as he breathed in the scent of violets that he always associated with her.

“Hmmmm.” Sally growled. “They are so incompetent. They can’t even agree on the date they dismissed me now. The council solicitor says it’s the date on the letter of dismissal, but my P45 says the date of leaving is two days later. I was under the impression that the P45 was a legal document but it was filled out by a halfwit in payroll, whereas the letter was typed by a nice secretary who has known me for years. It’s not exactly the kind of thing that will cause an issue, but it annoys me that they can’t even get a simple thing like my date of dismissal correct.”

“Drink?” He got to his feet in expectation of the answer.

“What time is it? Nearly six o’clock! Have I really been here for four hours looking at all this paperwork?”

“You have. Put it away for now, I’ll stick the news on and bring you a drink. Baileys?”

“Over ice. Yes please. I wonder how Ben getting on?”

“He’ll call. Unless they’ve locked him up in a room somewhere because they’ve discovered that he’s related to you.”

“Oh no!” Sally cried out in horror! “You don’t think …. oh, I see – joke! Very funny – not. There are some extremely nasty people there – as well you know.”

He sat back down beside her again and handed her the glass, clinking it against his own.

“Cheers! Yes, I know exactly how nasty your ex-colleagues are and the kind of fate that some of them should have met because of their behaviour. Shame the serial killer didn’t take them in reality. I’d happily give him another list.”

“Don’t! I find it hard to forgive myself for starting all that in the first place. If I hadn’t written that stupid list…”

“…it’s too late now. Who knows, maybe someone else might bump them

off eventually.”

“I doubt it.” she said morosely. “Only the good die young – in which case you could be stuck with me for quite a few years yet.”

He laughed and hugged her.

“I sincerely hope so. No one else makes me smile the way you do. Give me your glass. Watch the news and then we’ll order up a takeaway.”

“For the boys too?”

“It’ll cost me several arms and a leg but yes, the boys can have takeaway too. I’ll lay money on it that they won’t both want the same thing, and I’ll have to go to at least three different takeaways to make everyone happy though.”

Sally smiled and leaned back in the chair whilst Ed went off to ascertain the needs of her boys – who weren’t really boys anymore. Her eldest had started university but was home for a couple of days, whilst her younger son had decided that the academic life wasn’t for him and had dropped out of ‘A’ levels shortly after she had been suspended.

It had been something of a shock for all of them; after the book being a limited success Sally had thought that she could slide quietly into self-employment aided by the generous settlement from John. To find that John was leaving to go to elsewhere, and that his arrangement was withdrawn by his second in command Michael, had been of great concern, especially when it was announced that rather than having her contract quietly terminated, she was now dismissed for gross misconduct. A series of investigatory meetings followed, overseen by a senior manager from another department who was supposed to be impartial and unknown to Sally but who had showed her personal bias from day one.

The meetings seemed endless; notes were taken by the glowering Karen, deeply annoyed at actually having to do some work for a change. As a consequence of her resentment, the notes were very poor, and in no way reflected what was actually said during the meeting. Sally tried to defend herself; Ruby was allowed to come to the meetings with her as a supporter, but she wasn’t supposed to say anything and the investigation officer was under the impression that Ruby had a hand in the book anyway. It didn’t help that Susie had been a great friend of hers as well. Susie, whose husband had left her after reading the book, sold up and taken their youngest son to live in Australia, leaving Susie to move to a tiny rented house, and the kind of ignominy she had always dreaded.

Sally had tried everything. She had her own solicitors, who were working on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis, and consequently had no sense of urgency whatsoever. She had consulted with local councillors, but they were fairly ignorant of the set policies and procedures, and easily swayed by senior management orders. Sally’s local MP had proved more helpful but there was a limit to how much he could do before the councillors – who were of a different political persuasion – started being obstructive towards him as well.

She appealed against her dismissal and the day before the hearing she received a call from Gavin Slime, offering her a compromise agreement.

“I already had one.” she said tersely. “John had it drawn up before he left.”

“Ah yes, but things have changed.”

She disliked the tone of Gavin’s voice. She found it oily and unctuous. He suggested that she abandon the appeal or at least cancel it for now, and let him talk to ACAS to try and sort things out.

In the back of Sally’s mind there was a vague memory that ACAS didn’t take kindly to people cancelling or abandoning things, and that this could have financial implications for her. She asked for time to talk to her husband, and whilst she did, she also asked some trusted friends and a conciliator from ACAS. The advice was unanimous. Whatever you do, don’t abandon the appeal!

She spoke to Gavin later that day and repeated the advice about financial implications. Sally could tell by the way his voice changed that he knew about the penalties of cancelling and had been trying to trick her into submitting. She told him that she felt it would be discourteous to cancel at such a late date. He did not sound very pleased with her answer.

The next morning, Sally was up early and on opening her emails, discovered that she had a new follower on Twitter. This would have been a pleasant surprise normally, but the new follower was Gavin Slime and the email confirming her new follower had been sent through at twenty-five past three in the morning.

Sally felt grubby.

She couldn’t make up her mind whether Gavin Slime was following her because he fancied her, because he was trying to find out information on her, or because he was trying to intimidate her. Whatever his reason – she blocked him and printed off the email to take with her to the meeting.

Not surprisingly, the meeting did not go well. Sally decided to tell the appeal panel that Gavin Slime had tried to get her to cancel the meeting the day before. She also decided to tell them about the Twitter email.  She should have saved her breath. The councillors present were so ignorant of social media that the implications of his actions were totally lost on them. They stared blankly at her whilst she tried to explain, and they kept asking the solicitor, Michael and Margaret for advice. Margaret of course, had been wearing the dead cat jacket in order to impose her superiority over everyone, except Michael who sat stony-faced throughout the proceedings.  He wouldn’t meet Sally’s eye at all.  She decided that this was due to a guilty conscience as they’d always got on so well in the past.

Gavin Slime sat at the head of the table smiling in his oily fashion and knowing that Sally was wasting her time. Eventually, the solicitor asked her if she would be willing to be reinstated and return to her former post.  Sally told him that she wouldn’t work for the local authority again if it was the last thing she ever did.  He then advised her that the appeal had two options, reinstatement or continued dismissal. Although the evidence was very thin, and even the police had agreed that she had not committed any crimes as far as they could see., Sally’s appeal was dismissed due to her refusal to return.  This decision was accompanied by self-satisfied smirks from Michael, Margaret and Gavin.

As Sally got up to leave, she looked at the three of them.

“This is not over,” she said, desperately trying to stay calm.  “I will not be harassed by you or anyone.  I detest bullying and this will be part of the grounds for my ACAS appeal against unfair dismissal.”

Despite her parting shot, Sally was so frustrated by the whole process that she kicked a wall as she walked out at the end of the meeting. Not an important wall, just one in the corridor. No real damage was done, just a scuff mark on the white emulsion. Ruby propelled her out of the building and into the courtyard before she could actually do any damage to Slime, Michael, Margaret, or any of the councillors. They walked to the car, arm in arm, and all Sally wanted to do was to get away, as far away from the town hall as possible.

Safe at last in a family pub up the road from her house, Sally took a deep gulp of her healing red wine and finally began to relax. They talked it through, and Ruby assured her that she hadn’t been too bad; had hardly sworn and that only the wall got kicked. Over scampi and chips, they put the world to rights until Ed left work and joined them to commiserate.

There had been an earlier suggestion that Sally quietly resigned and received her three months’ pay in lieu of notice, but that went out the window when Michael pointed out that the local authority had an obligation to the people of the town to save money wherever possible – and that included any of Sally’s agreements.

Ben was able to provide a little emotional compensation however when he phoned that night; he had overheard a conversation between Gavin and Margaret when they returned form the meeting.  Margaret was not happy about Gavin’s attempts at getting Sally to drop the appeal, that there had still been the opportunity for Sally to return to work, in HER office of all places, and that Gavin’s attempt to follow Sally on Twitter had been exposed in the middle of the meeting.

Ben did his best to look busy, but the whole office was then witness to Karen getting a particularly brutal earbashing from Gavin over the appalling quality of her disciplinary meeting notes.

“If you had actually paid attention during those meetings, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in now, you stupid woman! We had twenty allegations to uphold the gross misconduct suspension. Twenty! Sally managed to dismiss eighteen of those because the policies and procedures hadn’t even been written prior to her suspension.  You should have known that right from the start, as yours is one of the names attached to the provisional agreement.  All we have on her now is that fact that she disclosed information about the local authority to a third party, and disrespect shown to senior management.  You are on a written warning, as are your two silly friends whose names are also mentioned, and your manager because she signed the procedures off as well. Get back to your desk and get some work done.  Sally is going for an employment tribunal against unfair dismissal, and I want everything sewn up as tightly as possible.”

Although the verbal warning took place in Gavin’s office, the partitions were very thin and largely made of safety glass, so everyone heard what was said. Fiona and Cheryl were visibly shaken, and Fiona was very quick to say that as contracts were her responsibility, she shouldn’t have to take the blame for incompetence on the part of Cheryl and Karen.  Gavin overheard this comment as he opened the office door to let a sobbing Karen escape to the toilets.

“There is nothing to be smug about Fiona.  One of the other issues that arose in the appeal meeting is that Sally had never received a contract for her last two posts, and didn’t even get acceptance letters.  From what I can see, hers is not an isolated case. That kind of sloppiness is what gives HR a bad reputation; isn’t that right Ben?”

Ben nodded in agreement, knowing that keeping in with Gavin was of prime importance.  Gavin approached the desk that Ben and Peter shared.

“Peter, I want you to draw up a spreadsheet of all the outstanding contracts and acceptance letters so that Fiona has a better idea of her workload.  Ben, your task is a bit more complex; I need to see all the policies and procedures that Mandy, Karen and Cheryl have passed in the…last eighteen months? I also need to know the names of any other managers that have passed documentation that is flawed or incomplete.  You can do that can’t you?”

“Yes Gavin, I would need a higher level of systems access than I’ve got at the moment.”

Gavin frowned and turned towards Joanna.

“Get that sorted now, Joanna.  Unlimited access for Ben as soon as possible, and tell IT that I won’t be fobbed off with excuses, I know just how quickly these things can be sorted out.”

Joanna was on the phone immediately.  Karen returned to her desk red eyed, snivelling and completely blanked by her two colleagues.

“There will be no more long lunches for you three.  I am having the clocking in and out systems revised so that you won’t be able to cheat the system anymore.”

The icing on the cake came with Joanna receiving a message that Mandy had returned from holiday but had been signed off on sick leave.

Ben’s account went some way to easing Sally’s anger, but it also made her even more aware of what a dangerous man Gavin Slime was.  So, it was back to the drawing board, and the prospect of conducting her own defence in an employment tribunal. Looking at the huge pile of paperwork and brown paper envelopes stacked in front of her, Sally pushed them to one side and watched the news. Anything was better than local government bureaucracy.

Gavin Slime

Gavin sat alone in the dark office; his face illuminated only by the computer screen. He had found her! Found her Twitter name, and fully intended to follow her and see what she was up to. The Twitter account could be different, having one hundred and forty characters to express yourself often made people less wary about what they said. Gavin looked up at the clock.  He couldn’t look too closely here though.  He knew that he had already upset the IT department and didn’t want them to find anything dodgy on his official profile. Half-past five and time to pack up and go home.

He would wait to find out more about her when he got home; wait until he’d been through the pleasantries with his aging parents, had eaten the dried-out dinner his mother had made for him. Taking indigestion tablets before and after the meal kept the very worst reactions at bay, but sometimes it felt like every mouthful was full of sackcloth and ashes.

The evening passed as it always did since they had moved into the house together.


Unable to converse due to his parents’ preoccupation with the oversized television.  Unable to read or look at his tablet for fear of offence and the subsequent accusations of neglect. It was the silent reproach that irked him the worst. He could parry the acid comments as they dripped from his mother’s disappointed lips, but the look on her face, the look that told him how ungrateful he was, cut him to the quick and made him even more determined to keep his excesses private.

There was no such reproach from his father however; locked inside the fantasy world that had occupied him long before the official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease had been made, his father smiled through every day in a place where he shovelled in burnt offerings every mealtime as if they were ambrosia from the gods. A place where the TV held new delights every day, and the operation of the remote control was a thing of wonder. Answering the telephone was slightly more problematic; Gavin’s mother wasn’t always quick enough to seize the handset before his father’s querulous voice could begin interrogating whichever hapless PPI salesperson or accident insurance company had called. His mother dealt with all callers with a briskness belying her age; cutting through the call centre scripts, and despatching the recorded messages with expediency. She was a formidable woman.

Distance had lent enchantment as far as Gavin’s parents were concerned.  He had been living away from home for some years, and in that time his father had grown more confused and his mother more demanding.  When he purchased the house for the three of them to live in, he thought that his mother might actually show some appreciation, but there were constant complaints about the size of the rooms, the proximity to the shops, and the sloppiness of the care assistants and the cleaner that he had hired.

Having satisfied himself that his parents had finally gone to bed, Gavin settled in the kitchen and opened up his laptop to continue his search. He couldn’t get at Sally through Face Book because her page had very tight privacy settings. He’d looked at her blog but again, her caution made it very difficult for him to find any material that he could use to smear her. He had learned a great deal of other information from the blog however; about her family, her past, even her dog, but it was all irrelevant to his needs.

Twenty-past two in the morning. 

Time for a snack. 

His parents were sound asleep at last, and would not be disturbed by the sound of him whipping up a way-after-midnight snack. He shut the door from the living room to the stairs, then just as quietly closed the kitchen door so that no cooking smells could permeate the upper floor.  He had been caught out like that before. Despite the meticulous washing up and putting away of all the cutlery, crockery and kitchen utensils, his mother’s face the next morning over a breakfast of rubbery scrambled egg and burnt toast, had said it all.

Hatches thoroughly battened down, Gavin began assembling the food for his favourite late-night meal; chicken breast, salsa, onions, peppers, a soft tortilla or two, sour cream, grated cheese, and oh, deep joy, guacamole. He was the Fajita King! Ready to rustle up his guilty pleasure before creeping back to the laptop and continuing his hunt. He would savour every mouthful, washed down by an illicit bottle of fizzy drink that he had smuggled home in his briefcase with the fajita ingredients. His mother didn’t approve of fizzy drinks after seeing a programme where they left pennies in a glass of fizz overnight and produced a batch of shiny metal in the morning.

“Just think!” she said. “Just think what that stuff is doing to your stomach! I didn’t go through fifty-three hours of agonising childbirth to have your stomach ruined by fizzy drinks! Are you sure that you aren’t drinking this rubbish at work? I can always ask your secretary!”

Gavin had briefed his secretary well. Joanna was a good girl. Not bright, but bright enough to understand that when Gavin’s mother phoned, she was to use the list he had made for her when replying to questions, and not to deviate from the set topics.

Yes, Gavin was in a meeting.

No, she wouldn’t forget to ask him to call his mother back, she was writing a note for him at the moment and would pop it on his desk for his return.

Yes, she had seen Gavin eat the sandwiches his mother had prepared for him and she had only made him two cups of coffee this morning using the decaffeinated instant brand that his mother used at home.

Gavin had made it quite clear to Joanna what would happen if she revealed his mother’s demanding ways to her colleagues and as a consequence, she gave a tight-lipped smile when asked about him, and would only comment that he was very easy to work for.

Licking the sour cream from around his lips, Gavin searched hungrily through the Twitter profile and tweets. He hadn’t actually followed Sally yet, that would come later. A nice piece of intimidation that would inevitably end up with his being blocked, so he had to work hard to rummage around in her brief and personal musings first. Music; she obviously liked music, and comedians, actors, journalists and writers. He sighed as he chewed on a particularly tasty piece of chicken; this account was not proving as fruitful as he had hoped.  She posted links to the rantings of another dissatisfied local authority slave, but nothing that could be considered derogatory against her own ex-employer. Damn! She had been just as careful when she wrote that nasty book; no names or places that could identify the staff or the location, but everyone who read it knew exactly who the characters were based on.

Fajita finished, Gavin left the laptop on whilst he washed and cleaned the surfaces; removing every trace of his transgression then moving silently out of the back door to hide the last pieces of evidence in their next-door neighbour’s bin. He had been doing this ever since his mother, wielding her stick, had gleefully produced the fruits of her wheelie bin detection; a bag containing the remnants of a KFC meal that he had consumed on the way home, and needed to get out of the car because he was taking her out shopping the next day. He’d installed new and very powerful air fresheners in the car to mask the smell of food, that and the lingering scent of sweat, urine and cheap body spray that his mother exuded.

The mileage his mother had made out of this heinous crime haunted him to the extent that his fast-food intake was severely affected, and his digestive system suffered further from the penance of burnt offerings. He had grown wise now and every scrap of evidence was deposited in a bin, far from home whenever possible, where his mother and her stick could never venture.

Putting his briefcase up on the table; Gavin extracted the file that contained everything on Sally that had been his obsession since the Director had given him the task of destroying her reputation, once and for all. How dare she argue with the authority? How dare she question their policies and procedures? She didn’t even work for them anymore but she was still hell-bent on wreaking havoc! He would see her crumble before him; begging for mercy with no sign of the cool and almost amused tone he had heard when he phoned her with his proposition. How dare she laugh at him! He was a very important person and she had no right to mock him as she had. She’d asked him questions about the proposition that confirmed her knowledge of the system, and made him appreciate that she was not going to be as easy to deal with as some of his other victims.

No matter.

He loved a challenge.

He skim-read the file again. Her qualifications annoyed him. She had far too many for the job that she’d been doing, and this had undoubtedly led to her downfall. She had a long and unblemished service record, and he could see that although some managers had felt threatened by her competence, others had cashed in on it and been promoted as a consequence. Cross-referencing the profiles of her previous managers on his laptop, Gavin could see a pattern emerging, and he experienced a delicious chill down his spine as he observed that several people that she had worked with were described as meeting grisly ends in her book.  He had a feeling that she would have loved to see fantasy turn into reality, and that this might be the weak spot in carefully constructed armour.

The profile picture had been changed recently to a selfie she had taken. He stroked the blonde hair with his finger; traced the shape of her large blue eyes under glasses that gave her an eternal student look. He knew her; knew so much about her now that he was sure the means of her downfall lay in his hands. this was his skill, the reason for his meteoric rise from a humble Business Officer to the Assistant Director of Human Resources. He had worked for six different local authorities in order to achieve this however, and whilst he had left damage and resentment in his wake, Gavin Slime was headed for the top of his profession and was a man head-hunted for his ruthlessness and determination.

He looked up at the clock. It was twenty-past three, and time he went to bed. With a sinister smile on his thin lips, he hit the follow button, knowing that an email would be waiting in Sally’s inbox when she got up the next morning. An email announcing that he, the extremely important Assistant Director of Human Resources was following her. His profile picture, in an attempt at humour, showed him eating a giant fajita with only his eyes and horn-rimmed glasses on show as a clue to the man within. He closed down the laptop and put it away, so that the kitchen table would be pristine for his mother when she descended to her kitchen to prepare his sandwiches four hours later.

Following the obsessive routine, he carried out every night, Gavin checked the doors and windows on the ground floor of the house.  He checked every inch of the scoured worktops, cooker and table, even peering short-sightedly down the plug hole of the sink in case any fajita detritus remained to betray him to his mother.


He put his laptop bag and briefcase out into the hall and under the table where no one would trip over them, and climbed the stairs, counting them, before he turned the corner and went into his immaculately tidy bedroom.

It was a room that was frightening in its sterility. The predominance of white prevented any undetected sullying of his domain; duvet cover, sheets and pillowslips were pristine, starched and laundered to his specific requirements rather than thrown in the washing machine by June, the cleaner. The sterile white vertical blinds gave the room an additionally medical feel, enhanced by the uncluttered white bedside cabinet, part of a set of white Swedish furniture that included a wardrobe, chest of drawers and two large chests. One of these chests held fresh bed linen, still in its laundry packing and ready for Gavin to put on the bed once the sheets no longer felt clean and fresh. The other chest was closed with an iron hasp and a weighty padlock to which only Gavin had the key. It contained secrets; the sort of secrets people cringe from, the sort of secrets that destroy people’s lives, and that could put Gavin in a position where at least a dozen prominent people would love to be able to pay to have him quietly removed from the earth.

They weren’t just other people’s secrets however. Gavin kept his own secrets in this chest, secrets that made him blush and rush to lock his bedroom door, secrets that lit up his pale grey eyes and made his pulse race. They were secrets that no one must ever know, and the mere thought of anyone else discovering them gave Gavin chills of excitement and fear.

He got changed for bed into his crisp pale blue cotton pyjamas. He never wore the same pair for more than two days, and then they too went off to the laundry. He slipped into the small en-suite bathroom that he had paid to have built onto his room. The main bathroom in the house was filled with the equipment and medication of two people who were dying by degrees, and he wanted no part of it. He tolerated no unnecessary clutter in his life. Not anymore. After brushing his teeth with an electric toothbrush, Gavin Slime went back into his room, placed his glasses neatly on his bedside table and slid between his glacial sheets, a sinister smile on his face as he thought of the woman’s reaction when she looked at the email he had sent her.

Room 19

Along the corridor from the office where Ruby had spent her eventful morning hot desking was a small office with the vague title of ‘Room 19’ on the solid wooden door. Very few people had cause to enter the room. When Ben was being shown around the department on his first day, he was hurried past Room 19 with a muttered explanation that nothing much went on in there that he had to be bothered about.

He had been introduced to his new boss; Gavin Slime, and Gavin’s nice but not-very-bright secretary Joanna, had found him a desk, complete with a computer and the requisite peripherals. She arranged for Ben to get a security pass, a network user name so that he could log on to the central system and then informed him that there was no on-site parking but if he wanted to pay £3.00 per week, he could park a mile away and walk in. He was subsequently advised by the ever-helpful Peter, that most staff parked in the pub car park, had a drink there after work in the evening and tipped the manager an extra fiver every now and then. Senior management were not aware of this arrangement and would not have approved of staff frequenting such an establishment. This also meant that the pub was a management-free area which suited the rest of clientele as well.

Peter proved a valuable ally; he was missing his friend Mark, now working in the bowels of the building sorting out post.   Having another male in the office – apart from Gavin Slime – was a blessed relief. By lunchtime Ben was au fait with the official and unofficial workings of the Human Resources department but even Peter was unable to shed any light on what went on in Room 19. Ben had yet to meet Mandy, the team manager and Gavin’s second in command, as she was on annual leave in Tenerife. He had heard Karen, Cheryl and Fiona screaming with laughter and reading out Mandy’s Facebook comments all morning however, and got a distinct feeling that he wasn’t going to warm to her when she returned. For Ben, coming from university and a more purist view of Human Resources, each new revelation he came across made his blood run cold and his irritation levels rise.

Gavin stayed in his office most of the time; the noise level reduced when he opened his door, and almost all the staff stopped what they were doing and hunched over their computer screens in an effort to look busy. Joanna sat at her workstation outside his glass panelled office, occasionally typing, but generally examining her immaculate nails and occasionally texting elegantly on her crystal encrusted mobile.

There was no canteen on the premises; Peter advised Ben that people usually got food from the nearby supermarket, sandwiches from across the road or, if finances permitted, went to the all-you-can-eat for a fiver Chinese restaurant next door. That was usually reserved for Fridays when early goes were the norm, and most managers indulged in a liquid lunch that ensured that very little work was done at the end of the week. As it was Monday, though not exactly a hive of activity, there was a little evidence of any work being done anyway; Fiona had actually managed to finish two contracts but had passed them to Peter for checking. He was only a few pages into the first contract but had found several errors already. He explained in an undertone to Ben, that he had to be careful about finding too many errors because Fiona was notorious for throwing temper tantrums, and it was one of these that had led to Mark’s anonymous complaint and subsequent demotion.

“I take a copy of what she sends me and file it.” Peter said quietly, “Then I make some changes and save a copy, then I send the original back to her with my suggested changes, then I go back to my version, make another copy and do the rest of the changes so that I’m in the clear. Fiona makes the changes, occasionally spots some further errors, sends it back to me with a terse note, I repeat the whole process with some further changes, and then she sends it to Mandy for checking.  Mandy will be sending it to Gavin but we aren’t sure if he will consider it his responsibility to check it.  It will end up in Joanna’s in-tray and as she can barely read, she will ignore it. Eventually the member of staff will start chasing up their contract, and it is found on Joanna’s desk covered in coffee rings. A new copy is generated and comes back to us only if the member of staff bothers to read the terms and disagree with them.”

“You seem to know a lot about Joanna?”

“Unfortunately.  I worked in the same office as her when I did a stint in Margaret’s office.  She gives the impression of being dim, but she knows how to work the systems.  You would do well to keep on the right side of her.  She is one of Margaret’s favourites.”

“For goodness sake!” said Ben. “This is a horrendous waste of time and resources! Do you not have any standard contracts that can be used as a template?”

Peter shrugged.

“We used to, but there was a rumour that there were going to be cuts, so erm … Mandy deconstructed the whole contract template system and gave bits of it to Fiona, Karen and Cheryl to rewrite. That was two years ago. We were hoping that Gavin will reinstate the original system but there’s some kind of secret project he’s involved in as well – very hush-hush and mysterious.”

This sounded more interesting to Ben; Sally had been dismissed just over nine months ago, and there was a possibility that Gavin’s work was linked to her appeal and tribunal. Looking up he caught Janna’s eye; she gave him a vague but fairly warm smile and he wondered if she was the key to it all. Ben knew all too well the charming power of his large brown eyes, short but curly dark hair, and body that he kept fit at the gym. He had already received several admiring looks from his new office mates – both male and female – since he’d walked in to the building.

Fiona had informed Ben that he would be on first lunch with Peter, so that she and her two colleagues could have a shopping lunch. Peter explained quietly that this meant the three of them would be gone for at least two hours, and that they would inevitably have to leave early in order to return most of their purchases after spending the afternoon comparing and criticising them.

Peter led the way down the corridor, past the mysterious Room 19, and the grim-faced receptionist who tutted when Ben’s security fob failed to let him out of the building. Luckily Peter’s fob was working and their progress up the road to the sandwich shop had no further hindrance. Ben looked back at their office building when they reached the top of the precinct. It was definitely imposing; five stories high and an ugly grey seventies blot on the landscape with dead-eyed mirrored windows, and the occasional covered walkway. The only relief from the concrete face was a red banner draped outside the Indian restaurant on the ground floor. Half of its fastenings had come loose and it flapped apathetically with each passing breeze. It did not look an impressive place to work, and Ben had already heard from Sally that it was rumoured to have ‘sick building syndrome’. Given that part of Ben’s new role was to look into the rising rates of sickness in the building, he wondered if the rumour was actually true. Sally had also mentioned that the heating and air conditioning were monitored by the owners of the building. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but the owners were based much further north, and the temperature there was the yardstick used to control the temperature in this office building miles away, and often subject to completely different weather conditions.

Peter looked nervously at his watch and hustled Ben into the nearest sandwich shop. Ben also looked at his watch.

“We’ve only been out for ten minutes. It can’t be time to go back already?”

“It really wouldn’t be a good idea to upset Fiona today.” Peter said, looking over his shoulder in the direction of their office, “She’ll be waiting for us to get back so that she can go out with Cheryl and Karen.”

“But early lunch is from twelve till one! They are on late lunch which is from one till two.”

Peter shook his head, raised his eyebrows, and paid for his sandwiches all in one jerky move.

“You don’t understand Ben. Those are the official times for lunches but Fiona and the others will be expecting to go as soon as we get back. If we don’t return till one o’clock, they’ll only get an hour for lunch.”

“And? They clock on and off the same as everyone else, don’t they?”

“Not exactly.”

Ben handed over the money for his own sandwiches and followed Peter in what could only be described as a trot.

“So, explain to me then? Whilst we’re outside and no one can hear us.”

“They use the clocking on system the same as all of us but they do it in retrospect,” said Peter. “When they come back from shopping, they will record that they went out at one o’clock and came back at two but in reality, they’ll be waiting with their coats on for us to return.”

Ben was astounded.

“But that’s cheating the system, and the authority! More to the point it’s cheating everyone in the office. You’re supposed to have at least half an hour away from your desk, we’ll barely have been away fifteen minutes by the time we get back.”

“We have to make sure that we don’t clock back on till twelve-thirty so that it looks like we’ve been away at least half an hour. I don’t know why you look so shocked Ben. It goes on throughout the council.”

“This goes against everything I learned at Uni; what about Gavin? You can’t tell me he actually approves of these arrangements?”

Peter shrugged his shoulders again. “We had hopes that he might sort things out a bit – new broom and all that but this is Mandy ‘s responsibility, and she is so totally under Fiona’s thumb that she’ll let anything go. You’re on six months’ probation remember. Don’t make waves or we’ll all suffer.”

Ben sat down at his desk and unwrapped his sandwiches. The bread tasted like sawdust in his mouth. The future didn’t look bright at all. He was beginning to think that he should have listened to Sally.


Ruby drove off and parked in a side street some way from the central offices before picking up her own phone and calling Sally’s number.

“Hi honeybunch. How are you?”

Ruby smiled. Sally’s mobile was never far from her fingertips and she knew at a glance who was calling. “I’ve had an interesting morning in Human Resources. Some very unhappy bunnies in there, and three naughty women who don’t seem to be doing much in the way of genuine work. Three of them spent all morning putting together a dating profile for the one who got dumped on her wedding night.”

“Really! On her wedding night! Why?”

“Rumour has it she turned into a bridezilla, and by that time she and her new husband had gone through the months of preparation, and a horrendously expensive and tacky wedding.  It culminated in a night of bickering in the honeymoon suite at Heathrow, non-consummation and the bridegroom running off with his ticket to the Dominican Republic after cashing hers in and stealing her passport so that she couldn’t follow him!”

“Ouch! What happened next?”

“She spent her own honeymoon money on a boob job, her husband came back with a glorious sun tan, and resumed his position in the Highways department. He wants nothing more to do with her and has taken all the best wedding presents. Her side of the family are demanding that he return the presents, but he says that he deserves them after all the pain and strain leading up to the wedding.”

Sally giggled. “Where did you get all this from?”

“I was sitting opposite nice Peter, you remember, he was seconded out of customer relations for six months and worked next door to us.”

“Oh yes, I remember him. He was sweet. What on earth is he doing in HR?”

“Another secondment. Looked to me like he was doing all the work for the three witches, as well as his own stuff. He seems absolutely petrified by them and they have Mandy just where they want her too. Apparently, Mark was working there but he complained to Mandy about the workload and got demoted to the post-room.”

“The post-room!  Where that mad woman works? That woman that staples everything together and annoys the scanning department?”

“The very one. Anyway, I have to get back to the office and pick up some lunch. Margaret came over to make an announcement about her new assistant head of Human Resources.  His name is Gavin Slime, and he is very hot on data protection and confidentiality in his department.  Margaret also gave me a telling off for hot desking in HR.  She was wearing the dead cat jacket.”

“Oh no! Not the one with the manky fur collar.  It really smells.  I don’t think she’s ever had it dry cleaned.”

“I nearly forgot.  Remember Joanna?”

“I will never forget her.  Uses her big blue eyes to get other people to do her work for her.”

“She is going to be Slime’s secretary.”

“That’s going to be an interesting combination.  Be careful Ruby.”

“Will do. I’ll call you tonight on the landline. Take care.”

Sally was becoming accustomed to being at home. It gave her more time with her husband Ed and sons, and their dog who had been rescued from the animal shelter. They had acquired the dog in the aftermath of Sally’s book being published, and social media threats from some of her colleagues who recognised some of their more unpleasant characteristics once they were in print. Or had those characteristics pointed out by gloating colleagues.

The last of Sally’s cats had died peacefully on a sunny path in the garden, and having promised her youngest that he could have a dog once the cats had all departed, they began to search for their ideal dog. They spotted Perro on the web page and decided that he was the dog for them; a cross between a black flat-coated retriever and a German Shepherd dog, with big bright eyes. It was love at first sight and after nailing up a nine-foot trellis round the garden and installing two large iron gates to keep Perro in, and the neighbourhood cats out, they bought him home.

He proved to be extremely affectionate and loyal to the family but had a profound dislike for postmen, delivery men, joggers, cyclists and refuse collectors, especially if they were wearing high visibility jackets. For Sally; still wary after her brush with one of her ex-managers when shopping in the local supermarket, Perro represented safety and protection. He was very defensive of her, and knowing that Perro would terrify any would-be burglar or angry colleague, she no longer felt fearful when her husband was out of the house.

Her days should have been spent in tidying up her disorganised home, cooking meals for her family, and taking the dog for long walks.  John’s departure, and the subsequent decision to sack her without notice or compensation, had meant that most of her time was occupied with photocopying statements, tracking down emails, and identifying the relevant legislation and procedures that her employers did not seem to be aware of.

There were days of sunshine however, when she and her husband would put the dog in the car and drive off to a beach somewhere, or a high hill, or a riverbank. Anywhere really that didn’t leave them exposed to the endless round of letters and telephone calls that bedevilled them at home.

One such letter had instructed Sally that with the exception of Ruby, she was not allowed to have anything to do with any employees of the local authority, nor was she permitted to enter any premises belonging to the local authority. A liaison officer was appointed who, despite being a very nice person, was completely inept and had never held such a role before. Sally did her homework and pointed out to the nice lady that under Human Rights legislation, she had the right to freedom of expression, and the right to a private and family life, which basically meant that she could talk to anyone she liked, and go anywhere she wanted to because she hadn’t actually committed any crimes.

Sally checked this all out with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS for short) and an equally nice lady from ACAS snorted with derision and said “Oh no, not another local authority overstepping the limits of their powers!” Sally had quoted this back to the liaison officer who reported it to a senior manager who, puffed up with a sense of her own importance, had been very cross with Sally and told her that she didn’t know what she was talking about.

Sally begged to differ.

The more Sally delved, the more she discovered about the unworkable policies and ill-thought-out procedures that the local authority were using – or not using in many cases. The same names cropped up in the properties sections of the electronic copies of these policies; people who Sally wasn’t sure actually had the training or experience to be belting out procedures that their colleagues should be following.

Sufficient to say, the names of the three witches of Ruby’s morning acquaintance put in a regular appearance and most of what they had written was full of grammar errors and spelling mistakes. Despite this, some of the documents containing the worst errors had already been passed by senior management and circulated to everyone employed by the local authority.

Browsing her way through a particularly dire document; Sally was disturbed by a knock on the front door and the resultant barking and growling from a wary Perro. Shutting him the front room, she ran out to the kitchen door and opened it to find her favourite nephew Ben standing there, with a bunch of freesias in his outstretched hand.

“Ben! Darling! How wonderful to see you! Come in! Your mum said you’d finished Uni and were looking around for something lucrative. Are you scared of or allergic to dogs?”

He shook his head and grinned. “Don’t think so. I like dogs. How big is the Hound of the Baskervilles in the next room?”

“Perro? Oh, he’s an absolute sweetie really. I’ll just get you one of his favourite treats and then I’ll introduce you. Can you take off your jacket and hang it up in here please? There’s rather a lot of luminous green and Perro doesn’t do high vis.”

Ben hung his coat on the rack, hiding it behind Sally’s purple duffle coat. She handed him a long and foul-smelling dog chew that she had dug out of a pack on the breakfast bar, and motioned him to stand behind her as she opened the door to the living room. Perro burst out like a bullet from a gun, his gums drawn back in a menacing growl.

“Look Perro!” Sally cried. “Here’s Ben and he’s got a nice treat for you.”

The dog stopped in his tracks, cocked his head to one side and sat down. Ben handed him the chew, patted him on the head, and gingerly stepped over him to follow Sally into the living room and sit down next to her on the sofa. He held out the freesias to her again. She took them and smiled.

“My favourite. Did you remember, or was this the idea of your very clever mum?”

“Ah – Mum reminded me. She said that I ought to bring a sweetener because you might not like what I have to say.”

Sally grimaced. “And that is?”

“I’ve got a job. In a Human Resources department.”

“Ben! That’s wonderful! When do you start?”

“Next Monday. I will be an acting business manager; initially on a six-month trial but if I get through the probationary period, I become a full business manager on a permanent contract.”

“Where are you working then? From home or near Uni?”

“Ah – neither. This is the bit that you won’t like. I’ve got a job working for your old local authority. Don’t be angry! I’m going into this with my eyes wide open and who knows – I may even be able to help you in some way.”

Sally was on her feet and pacing; Perro followed her closely, confused by her obvious agitation and looking between her and Ben for reassurance.

“They’ll chew you up and spit you out in bubbles Ben!” she said, “these are ruthless people. If they find out that you know me your life won’t be worth living! Thank goodness we have different surnames and you take after your father’s side of the family rather than my lot!”

Ben grinned. “Calm down! There’s no way anyone can trace the relationship between us. It will be fine. I’m looking forward to a bit of cut and thrust anyway. Uni was getting very pedestrian.”

“Where are you going to live?” Sally sat back down on the sofa and Perro jumped up beside her, his paw protectively on her knee.

“You remember Simon? We shared a house together in my second year. He’s living about ten miles away from here in his own two bed-roomed flat. We’ve kept in contact and he has a room free so I’ll be staying with him for now – maybe permanently. He has his own gym downstairs; I can work out console myself with fit women in tight leggings and sports tops.”


“Joke! He’s very serious about what he does and doesn’t drink – much. I’ll be perfectly safe. Any chance of a cup of coffee now?”

“Of course, darling, I’m a rubbish hostess. I think I’ve recovered from the shock now anyway. We’ll have to let Ruby know though.”


“My very dear friend, ex-colleague and official representative.  My eyes and ears within the council, although they do their best to hide things from her.  She’s not popular within the department, but fortunately she works in training and answers to more sympathetic managers than the bunch I’ve had to deal with. Strangely enough she was using a desk in HR just this morning and says that the department is in disarray.  Who interviewed you?”

“A big chap called Michael and a strange-looking woman called Margaret.”

“First impressions?”

“Michael asked the kind of pseudo-psychological questions that we covered in year one of my degree.  Not challenging.  Margaret on the other hand asked some very personal questions and I had to advise her that they weren’t relevant to the job or my suitability.  Michael had to agree with me, and that shut her up effectively.”

“Black mark there, Ben.  I’m surprised you got the job.  Mad Margaret does not take kindly to being corrected, as I know to my cost.”

“Is she really mad?”

“Another example of alliteration, she is also known as miserable, moaning and manky.  What was she wearing?”

“Something black; I could only see the top half.  A sort of black jacket with a black fur collar.  I shook hands with them both before leaving and there was a strange whiff coming off Margaret.”

“Her favourite jacket, and one that she wears when she wants to make an impact.”

“As a cat killer?”

“I wouldn’t put anything passed her.  She is married to Desmond, the nicest man in the world barring your Uncle Ed; goodness knows why they are still together because she bullies him unmercifully at work and at home.”

“You seem to know him well?”

“Desmond used to pop into the office to take Margaret out for lunch.  He was usually early and she was inevitably late, so we used to chat until we hear the sound of her high-heeled boots clipping along the corridor.  He’d dive into her office and I keep my head down until Margaret appeared and I could tell her that Desmond was waiting in her office.  He has a dream about moving to the US and living a hippy lifestyle on Venice Beach.  Not at all what Margaret wants.”

“Well, I’ve done my homework and read your book cover to cover.  I didn’t see anyone that resembled Margaret though.”

“She was away working for the health authority at the time; a year’s secondment that gave her delusions of power, but ended dead on schedule with a thank you card and a bunch of flowers.  She didn’t make many friends there either. Otherwise I might have had to increase the size of my list to include her.  Be careful Ben!”

“I will.  I need to sort out my love life as well.”


“Melissa doesn’t want to move up here.  She is currently torn between her job and a London social life, and being with me in a rented two-bedroomed flat share over a gym in the frozen North.”

“Distance lends enchantment?  Don’t give up on her yet Ben.  It’s a big decision to make and you have to survive the six-month probation yet.”

“I’d better get back and finish my unpacking.  I just wanted you to know before Mum got on the phone.  Or has she?”

“Not yet.  She is obviously showing self-restraint, so I’ll give her a call and confirm that you’ve made contact.  Come to dinner tomorrow night?  I’ll make chilli and you can meet Ruby.  She’ll make a wonderful ally and bring you up to speed on the machinations of your future employers.”

“I love chilli!  With garlic bread or rice?”

“Both if you want.  Come over about seven?”

“Definitely.  I shall bring red wine as well.”

Sally gave him a hug and showed him out of the door; staying to watch him drive off before she returned to the front room and picked up the phone to call her sister.

The HR Triad

Three heads bent over a computer screen; blonde, redhead and tightly plaited black cornrows. The other occupants of the office tried hard to ignore the giggling and occasional guffaws of raucous laughter emitted by the owners of the heads. They had been occupied in this fashion for the past hour and no one dared to interrupt them or ask them to do anything remotely related to real work.

There was a brief hiatus whilst the one of the three brusquely took an unwanted telephone call and quickly transferred it to her colleague Peter, who worked on the far side of the office, and was already burdened down with extra work. It wasn’t something he should be dealing with but the narrowed eyes and pursed lips of his blonde colleague Fiona were intimidating enough to stop any argument. She bent her head back to the computer after tapping in the key sequence that would divert any further calls direct to his number. He knew that rapid finger movement so well and sighed quietly, daring to raise an eyebrow at Ruby, a sympathetic colleague from another department who was hot desking in the office for the morning to finish off some work.

Fiona should have been putting some contracts together; her colleagues Karen and Cheryl were supposed to be working on a new procedure for dealing with social media and Internet issues. Instead, the three of them were immersed in an on-line dating site, desperate to find a Mr Right for Karen who had been abandoned days after her obscenely expensive wedding, and was in the process of applying for an annulment.

Cheryl leaned back in her chair for a moment; her extremely long silver nails toying with the beads on the ends of her plaits. The nails were something of an impediment to typing, even to writing at times but Cheryl was not a person who let a little thing like work get in the way of her appearance.

The application form was finally completed and submitted, signalling a well-earned visit to smoker’s corner, outside the main building and close enough to the local supermarket to be used as an excuse to stock up on not-really-needed tea and coffee supplies. The other occupants of the room heaved a collective sigh of relief. Three members of staff leaving the office at the same time was strictly against the rules but Karen, Fiona and Cheryl had all formulated watertight excuses for their collective absences and the atmosphere in the office lifted whenever they went out.

“Does this happen often?” Ruby asked Peter.

He raised an eyebrow and looked around nervously before answering.  “It’s computer dating this week; sometimes it’s holiday booking, sometimes it’s just online shopping. The three of them are in so tight with our boss Mandy that no one dares to question what they’re up to. I’m not sure what kind of hold they have over her but if you dare to mention anything in supervision, Mandy hits the roof. I think they did some matchmaking for her; they’ve certainly found holidays for her in the past and she does her online shopping every Thursday. Don’t say anything Ruby. Please?”

“But can’t you put in an anonymous complaint if you’re worried about repercussions?”

“Mark tried. He ended up in the post room. Demoted.”

Peter’s face said it all.

“Ah. Do they ever do any work?”

“Contracts are backed up – that’s Fiona. There are people who’ve been working for us for over a year that haven’t even had an acceptance letter, let alone a contract. Karen and Cheryl have been working on this social media and Internet thing for eighteen months now. It isn’t progressing very far because once it is published it will mean a clamp down on accessing Face Book and Twitter during office hours. They were told to be thorough but they were only supposed to be putting the basics together so that one of the geeks from IT could give it the once over. Not that they care in IT particularly; they sacked the specialist contractor who knew how to interrogate the systems and find out who was abusing them by logging on during working hours. Another victim of the cuts.”

“So, no one is monitoring the systems then?”

He shrugged. “The Intranet states that we are all being monitored but in reality, the only piece of monitoring equipment they’ve got was disabled by the specialist before she left. Well and truly disabled.”

The three witches came back in a hurry; at the same time Peter took a call from his friend Jackie, Margaret’s secretary.  “Jackie says to warn you that Margaret is on her way down to speak to us. She’s wearing the black jacket with the furry collar.”

That collar signalled trouble. It was Margaret’s favourite jacket and although it looked as if she was wearing a dead black cat around her neck, she was under the impression that it was extremely stylish.

By the time Margaret arrived, everyone, even the three witches, was doing their best to look busy. “I have some news for you all.  Can you divert your phones to Peter so that we won’t be disturbed? I have appointed a new assistant head of Human Resources.  His name is Gavin Slime and he will be moving into Mandy’s office on Monday.  When she returns from annual leave, she will be working out in the office with the rest of you.  I trust that you will give Gavin the welcome he deserves. I have also arranged for Joanna from my office to take on the role of Gavin’s secretary.  She will be coming over this afternoon to ensure that he has all the equipment and access that he needs. Why are you in this office Ruby? I thought you worked from the other site?”

“I had a meeting over here Margaret,” said Ruby. “ and I thought it would be better to get my notes written up as soon as possible.  While the information was still fresh in my mind.”

“Hmm.  I hope you haven’t been distracting any of the other workers; this is a very busy office and I won’t have idle gossip.  I don’t want you making a habit of this, particularly once Gavin starts.  He regards the work of Human Resources as highly confidential.”

Ruby looked at her watch and nodded, packing up her notes, saving the document to a memory stick and removing it from the computer. It was time to get back to her own office on the other side of town anyway. She also needed some time to sit in her car and give Sally a quick update on what was going on. She was still Sally’s official supporter at meetings, and as a consequence, she was very aware that Margaret viewed her as a spy, that files were put into locked drawers, and voices lowered when she was around. There were still some people in the building who didn’t know what had happened to Sally and were afraid in case someone caught them asking questions. A refusal by management to discuss the situation had put the mockers on most speculations about Sally’s sudden disappearance.

Ruby knew the truth however, she knew how various indiscretions by senior management had been covered up and how John, the director of services, had persuaded Sally to keep quiet about what had occurred and in return she was given a decent pay off. John left his post however, head-hunted by another local authority, and when he left the compromise agreement was withdrawn, leaving Sally with a ruined reputation, and the severe financial circumstances that had led to her accepting a publishing deal for her novel.

John’s second in command Michael, had taken over as acting director, and according to smoker’s corner gossip, he wasn’t doing too good a job of filling John’s shoes. Michael was bright, but he lacked John’s people skills, and had a tendency to irritate and annoy, where John had soothed and placated. The majority of the councillors hadn’t warmed to him either, and rumour had it that he was going to be losing some of his responsibilities in the next service reshuffle.

On her way out of the building, Ruby looked up and saw Louis glaring down at her. They hadn’t really spoken since the book was published. He blamed Sally and Ruby for his reputation as a pilferer being exposed, and was determined to get his own back. In the meantime, every office in the building kept their food and drink in locked cabinets, and took it in turns to empty everything out of the fridge at the end of the day. Luckily Ruby was well-protected from his machinations, but he had already spread several lies about Sally, and by running to senior management with nasty tales, had succeeded in supplying some of the grounds for her dismissal for gross misconduct. In return he had been given responsibility for a team that he had wanted to run for years. The hapless manager of the team was shunted sideways without notice, and left to work with Louis’ old team, most of whom were wary and resentful of any management.

Ruby returned his glare with a cheery smile, and hurried off to her car.  She had arranged for a parking space, but the attendants were lurking ready to stick tickets on the windscreens of any cars that exceeded their allotted time.

Margaret is Extremely Cross

For the third time that evening, Margaret slammed the book shut.  This time however, she threw it across the room. Her aim was never that true and it failed to knock over the vase of dusty silk flowers. Margaret’s husband popped his head out of the kitchen and looked down at the book lying open on the floor. “Are you alright my sweet?  Have you finished with Sally’s novel now? I’d quite like to have a look at it next.”

“Do I look alright Desmond? For a supposedly intelligent man you can be incredibly dense at times. I have most definitely finished with Sally’s stupid novel and I don’t really think that I want you to read it.”

Desmond picked the book up from the floor and closed it carefully before looking at the cover photograph of a hand squeezing a stress ball.  He recognised the hand and wrist as Sally’s own, he had often been distracted by the charms on her bracelet during particularly dull meetings. The mere act of picking up the book was enough to increase Margaret’s ire however, and a large and heavily sequinned cushion made contact with Desmond’s head causing him to drop the book back on the floor. “Leave it! Have you finished the washing up yet?”

“Not yet my darling.  I thought I should come in and check that you were okay first.”

“Well I’m not!”

“Has Sally written something bad about you?  I thought you two had got on quite well when she was working in your team?”

“That’s the point you idiot! She hasn’t mentioned me at all.  Nearly all of the people that we worked with get a mention; some of them even got killed off, but she has completely ignored my existence in this stupid book.”

“That’s good though isn’t it? It means that you weren’t on her list of people that she disliked.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Desmond realised that he had made a very silly mistake.  The look on Margaret’s face confirmed his fear. “How do you know about the list?” she spat. “Have you been reading the book behind my back? Have you? Have you”

“No. No, I wouldn’t dream of doing anything like that. Louis was talking about it before a team meeting yesterday.  He wasn’t very happy about the way Sally portrayed him, but after the meeting ended a couple of people were looking at the book and sniggering over Sally’s description.”

Margaret’s eyes narrowed as she considered whether to accept Desmond’s explanation.  She knew that he had been at the team meeting, and she also knew that copies of the book had been circulating throughout the building.  She had confiscated the copy she had been reading from her secretary who hadn’t been quick enough to hide the book in her desk drawer. “What else were they talking about?”

“Umm, the garden party section seemed to have amused most people – not Susie of course – she has vowed never to hold another garden party, in case people get ideas about spoiling it from the book.  Most of her friends have dropped her after reading about her behaviour, so you should be pleased that you aren’t in the book, shouldn’t you?”

Margaret got up from the sofa.  She was menacingly slow and Desmond knew that he had made another error.

“Not that Sally could have said anything so negative about you, my darling.  Ouch!”

Kevin flinched from the second blow of the heavy cushion that Margaret had picked up from the floor.  The sharp-edged sequins scratched his face in passing and he could see that Margaret was taking pleasure in having drawn blood. 

He backed away and went back into the kitchen to finish the pile of washing up.  He had asked many times for a dishwasher, but Margaret always refused and said that they couldn’t afford one.  This was usually followed by an extravagant shopping expedition or an equally expensive trip to the hair salon so that Margaret could have her roots done; her way of showing Desmond that as she earned the most, she was the person who made the important financial decisions in this family.  He listened carefully for the sounds confirming that Margaret had left the room and gone into the spare bedroom that she referred to as her ‘office’.

Stopping to mop up the trickle of blood from his face, Desmond peered into the living room.  The cushion had been replaced on the sofa and there was no sign of the book. One of his friends had told him that you could get the book from Kindle, a good way of reading something slightly risky without anyone else knowing what you were up to.  Desmond had asked about borrowing Margaret’s Kindle reader once.  Only the once.  It brought forth a volley of accusations about how he had no time to sit around reading considering the state of the house, and the indication that she knew precisely why Desmond liked to take long walks through the village every Saturday morning. 

He didn’t consider visiting the betting shop once a week to be an unhealthy habit.  Desmond used his personal allowance of £30 per week, and never exceeded his limit.  He’d had a feeling that Margaret knew about his indulgence, and dreaded the day that she confronted him, withdrew his allowance and prevented him from his morning of freedom.

Margaret was well aware of how he spent his Saturday mornings, and equally aware of how his weekly allowance was being utilised.  Throughout their marriage she witnessed his ill-conceived attempts at deceiving her, whether it was betting, escaping from the house, gossiping at work, or the occasional flirting with young female colleagues.  Like an angler dangling bait, she allowed him the Saturday morning jaunts as a way of getting him to think that he had pulled the wool over her eyes.  Fat chance.

Returning to the kitchen, Desmond finished the washing up, dried everything and put it away so that Margaret would have nothing to complain about in the morning. She would still find something amiss; she wasn’t really a morning person.  When he stopped to think about it, she wasn’t a daytime person either.  She was a night owl however and by the sounds of her fingers angrily smacking the computer keys, it was going to be another late night. At least that meant that he could get some sleep.  On nights like these Margaret had decreed that Desmond should sleep in the bedroom used by either of their daughters when they were home from university.  This meant that Margaret could have the luxury of their own bedroom without any nocturnal disturbance from Desmond.  She claimed that he snored and fidgeted all night, but he knew from the rare nights he was allowed access to the marital bed, that it was Margaret who snored, shouted out in her sleep and was prone to lashing out and kicking him as if he were the villain in her nightmares.

Pausing in her punishment of the keyboard, Margaret listened to the sound of Desmond’s bathroom preparations and his eventual settling down to sleep.  She looked at the report that she had been writing, knowing that there were spelling and syntax errors galore.  Damn Sally! Sally who could always be relied upon to proofread and amend the work that Margaret sent her, even when the work was emailed five minutes before Sally was due to go home for the day.  Margaret would invariably add that the report needed to be done by half past six, a good hour and a half after Sally’s finishing time.  A finishing time with no option for overtime either.

Margaret picked up her mobile, looking for the details of a very bright but strange young man she had met at a conference in London.  He was looking around for a new post in her region so that he could continue looking after his aged parents who had moved into a smaller house and insisted that he came to look after them. He didn’t say much about his family, but Margaret got the impression that his actions were dutiful rather than chosen, and that he would be happier if his parents ceased to be a burden on him.

She liked the sound of that.  It obviously meant that his parents, or at least his mother, had some control over him.  Margaret knew that he had a reputation for being a ruthless witch hunter in the field of Human Resources and that was just what she needed.  Not only he could he do some undercover work on the traitorous Sally, he would be able to chop out some of the dead wood that was leeching its way throughout her ever-decreasing budget.

Gavin Slime.  That was his name. She obtained his email details as well as his mobile number, and she settled down to send him the kind of email offer that he would be unable to resist.  Assistant Head of Human Resources, answering to Margaret in the first instance.  The wage was more than generous, and an eighteen-month contract would enable him to do her dirty work, and perhaps see his parents’ demise or admission into nursing care or hospital at the very least.

Pressing the ‘send’ button caused a thrill of excitement at another devious deed accomplished.  She picked up Sally’s novel and turned to the garden party chapter.  Susie had never invited Margaret and Desmond to any of her social gatherings, and this was something that rankled severely.  Despite her anger with Sally, Margaret couldn’t help smirking at the thought of Susie’s social life being ruined by the well-placed splatter of evil-smelling slurry. 

Perhaps her omission from the book had been deliberate because Sally didn’t see her in a negative light? No.  Margaret had made up her mind. It was a deliberate slur on Margaret and her hard work for the local authority, and she was determined to make Sally suffer for the insult.

To bed and the opportunity to stretch out in the king-size bed without Desmond’s annoying presence.

Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

Everything Changes

For what seemed the first time in ages, Sally actually had a good night’s sleep.  She wasn’t sure if was the mixture of fresh air and slurry, the hard work of wandering around collecting glasses, or the fact that the killer was behind bars at last.  There was no sign of a police car outside her house when she got up and after initially telling her to shut up; her husband and sons were cheered by the sound of her singing along to eighties rock songs on the radio whilst she made her breakfast.

After spending the previous day in formal black Sally opted for smart casual but comfortable; unsure what the day would bring but determined to put the recent horrors behind her if possible.  She had stayed at Susie’s house for some time after DS Hammond and DC Long had left.   There was no doubt that Susie had lost it big time.  The paramedics were all for carting her off to hospital to be sectioned but the kind elderly doctor who had been a guest at her garden party had arranged to have her taken to his extremely expensive private clinic   It was the kind of place that Susie’s friends went to when they needed their septums repaired, time to recover after a botched Botox treatment or a prolonged detox session when the endless round of parties and dinners proved too much.

Sally had a feeling that Susie would recover far more quickly there than in some mental health facility where the horrors of the past week would just keep coming back to haunt her.  Susie’s husband was very grateful for Sally’s help and support; apologising profusely for the fact that right up until the ambulance took her away, Susie was still maintaining that Sally was behind the whole thing and that she had done it solely because she was jealous of Susie’s lifestyle and looks. 

DC Long’s kitchen bobbies gave Sally a lift home and told her how they’d learned to chop an onion properly and to turn tomatoes into flower decorations.  Not necessarily things that would transfer easily to modern policing, but Sally felt sure that their respective families would appreciate their new culinary skills.

Although she couldn’t tell her husband and sons the whole story of what had happened, she was able to explain that the killer had been captured and that the policemen wouldn’t be outside the house anymore, except for the car that was coming to collect her in the morning. 

She was still singing along to the radio as she packed her handbag with it’s usual essentials.  The sharp rap at the front door broke into her temporary reverie and she opened the door to the tired but smiling face of DC Long.

“Madam, your chariot awaits, as does the lovely DS Hammond and a bit of a surprise.”  He ushered her out to the car, ignoring her pleas for information throughout the journey into Mostyn Hall.  The car park was half filled with police cars and large white vans coming to collect the contents of the incident room.  Sally averted her eyes as the crime scene photographs were taken down and filed into boxes.  The mood in the room was of elation coupled with extreme fatigue and some disappointment that the killer had managed to take nine lives out of the twelve on the list. 

Sally perched on a desk watching the dismantling process in action; she was so distracted by the sight of the two kitchen bobbies trying to work out how to disconnect a computer that she didn’t notice DS Hammond until she was right next to her.

“Good morning.  Taking it easy again I see.”

“Good morning!  Just taking the weight off my feet after yesterday.  How’s your killer?”

“I’d have thought he was more your killer than mine.  He is a very quiet killer. He’s lawyered up and trying to pretend that the worst thing he’s done is spray your friend Susie with slurry.”

“I thought you had his photo and prints at the crime scenes.”

“Circumstantial evidence.  We need something more concrete.  A confession would be nice but highly improbable under the circumstances.  According to him, he doesn’t know you or Donal, or anyone at Mostyn Hall for that matter – except for Susie who he claims ordered some soft furnishings from him and refused to pay because she said they weren’t of merchantable quality.  He just happened to be at all the crime scenes and has a legitimate reason for being at each one – allegedly.”

“Oh dear.  Can’t any of the Modern Apprentices identify him?  I’m sure now that I’ve seen him hanging about in the canteen.”

“How sure are you?  I’ve shown Mark the photos and though, like you, he says he’s seen the guy hanging around the building, he hadn’t made the connection between the web site and the killer.”

“Derek’s wife?  “

“Under sedation still and in a worse state than Susie.  We have however recovered some clothing from the garden shed.”    DS Hammond picked up a list of items from the desk. “A pair of grey trousers, white shirt, green cardigan and some trainers.  All blood stained but not heavily.  We are assuming but waiting for confirmation, that whoever wore them assisted in moving Derek’s body and had some kind of physical contact with the person who killed Derek.  Care to hazard a guess who they belong to?”

Sally shook her head and looked crestfallen.  “You’re describing Donal’s clothes to a T.  That doesn’t make him the killer though.”

“No, but he’s a very valuable material witness and may also have been an accomplice to Derek’s murder and that of Graham if we can prove that he let the l killer into the building. I don’t suppose you’ve heard from him, have you?  Would you tell me if you had?”

Stopping to think about this only for a second or two, Sally shook her head. “I would tell you if he made contact.  I don’t think he’s the one behind it all, he’d be looking at it from a cost-cutting point of view, and as a method of cheering me up, but if it were left to Donal, I think it would all have stopped at the website and no harm would have been done.  The only part of it that doesn’t seem to fit in is Derek’s death and the way in which he was mutilated.”

DS Hammond turned on her heel and strode from the room.

Picking up her bag and waving goodbye, Sally walked down an unusually quiet corridor and up the stairs into her office.  It was deserted as was Donal’s office next door.  Even the photocopier was silent.  She sat down at her desk and switched on the computer before checking the voice mail. Her e-mail inbox was full of other people’s out-of-office messages again and she felt a lump in her throat when she saw that two of them belonged to Hester and Tracey.  Sally rummaged around in her pockets for a tissue but found nothing more than an old bus ticket.  Remembering that she’d secreted a spare box of tissues in one of the drawers she opened it up and was surprised to find a bulky brown envelope tucked underneath the tissues.

As she pulled out the envelope and recognised the writing, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.  She desperately wanted to open it but all those years of watching police programmes seemed to have paid off.   She grabbed a tissue and picking the envelope up gingerly, walked out of the office, closing the door firmly behind her.

DS Hammond wasn’t in the incident room, so Sally went across the corridor and tapped politely on the door.

“Come in.”  DS Hammond’s voice sounded both weary and angry at the same time.

Sally walked in and waved the envelope at her.  “I found this in my drawer upstairs.  I don’t know how long it’s been there but the last time I looked in there was when I was hunting for the hit list.  I remember noticing that there was a box of tissues in there and I went looking for them today because, because – well it doesn’t really matter why.  The thing is – I know whose writing that is on the envelope.  It’s from Donal!”

DS Hammond was on her feet and snapping on a pair of surgical gloves that she seemed to have pulled from thin air.  “You haven’t opened it?”

“No, and I only touched it the once, after that I used a tissue.  It’s not thick enough for a bomb and I don’t think Donal would want to blow me up anyway.”

“Nip across and fetch Long please Sally?”  DS Hammond sat back down at the desk and began to open the envelope very slowly.  Sally did as she was asked unquestioningly and returned seconds later with a very puzzled DC Long in tow.  The contents of the envelope had been laid out on the desk.  Sally recognised one of Donal’s famous spreadsheets, and what appeared to be a letter printed on several sheets of A4 paper and apparently addressed to her.

Although she felt desperate to read it, Sally realised that she would have to bide her time; DS Hammond would let her look at it eventually.  She sat down, tucking her hands beneath her legs in an effort to keep them from grabbing at the letter.  The silence in the room was almost unbearable while they waited for DS Hammond to make a comment; any comment.

She put the sheets of paper down on the desk; her face a mask of impassiveness.  Sally waited for her reaction, barely breathing and desperate for a positive sign.  A slow smile began to form on her usually stern lips and both Sally and DC Long heaved individual sighs of relief.

“It would appear that we have a confession of sorts that implicates Donal at an accessorial level but confirms our evidence regarding the real killer and shows Sally where to find some video footage that provides the proof that we need.   Your friend Donal has also done a very comprehensive spreadsheet showing exactly how the council will save over a million pounds as a consequence of the – uh – ‘culling’ of some of the senior staff and the departure of others.”

Sally couldn’t help smiling at this.  Always the analyst, Donal had utilised his skills right up to the very last moment. “Can I read my – the letter – from Donal please?”

“Yes, I’ll just put them in evidence bags first though.  I’m sure they are from Donal but I’d like to have them checked by forensics as soon as possible.”

She handed the bags over to Sally and got up from her chair, pushing her hair back from her face in what was almost a gesture of relief, and stretching out her arms.  Looking up, Sally thought she saw a glance pass between DC Long and his boss that looked far too intimate for what she had perceived their relationship to be. She looked back down at the letter before her and did her best to give it her full attention.

“Dear Sally, by the time you get to read this I will be long gone and somewhere that your clever new detective friends won’t be able to find me. My wife and I have been planning this for some time; I’m afraid we’ve had to dip into the council funds to finance our trip but once we’ve settled, I’ll try to pay it back.  I hope you haven’t been too upset by all that’s happened; the people who died are no real loss and the money the council saves on their salaries, pensions and golden handshakes will go some way to paying off some of the overspend.  I’ve done a spreadsheet that explains where the savings can be made.  If you look in the top drawer of my desk, you’ll find a memory stick which has an electronic copy of the spreadsheet and some video footage that I’d rather you didn’t look at because it’s really not very pleasant.”

Looking up, Sally noted that DC Long had left the room, undoubtedly to retrieve the memory stick from Donal’s drawer.   DS Hammond had also gone; Sally hoped that this was a gesture of empathy, allowing Sally to read her friend’s letter in peace, but she had a sneaky feeling that she was more likely to have gone out to stop the dismantling of the computer equipment.  She resumed reading Donal’s letter.

“Please don’t blame Tom, Mark and Megan for any of this.  The hit list was only ever meant to be a game and if the website hadn’t been taken over by someone who wanted to use it to satisfy his own desires; it would have stayed that way.  We were all taken in by him; his name is Ryan Davies and if you check the archives, you’ll find that he has a long and acrimonious involvement with the council.  It was quite a while before I met him in person and like everyone else, I was well and truly sucked in by his deceit. He’s something of a computer genius, as well as being a chameleon in his ability to blend into the background wherever he goes.  I made the mistake of trusting him and told him things that I shouldn’t have.  He got himself invited to our poker evenings and became best friends with Derek.  As a consequence, he knew things about me that could have put me in jail and left my wife without a roof over her head.  He can be so charming and complimentary that you can’t help telling him things and trusting him.

Believe me Sally, I didn’t kill anyone; I admit to being there when Derek was murdered and I let Ryan into the building to put the poison into Graham’s bottle of whisky but the only blood on my hands got there when I pulled Derek’s wife away from his body.  Ryan told her about the cleaner; got her so wound up that she took a taxi to the golf course determined to confront him.  I’m not sure exactly what went on between the two of them – you know what Derek was like, so arrogant at times – and I think he goaded her into hitting him.  As soon as I found out what Ryan had done, I got him to drive me up to the golf course but we were too late.  Derek’s wife was in a terrible state when we found her, that’s when I got covered in blood.  We went back to Derek’s house and Ryan bought some clothes for me.  If you haven’t found them yet, the clothes and the dibber are in Derek’s garage; in the box where the lawnmower is stored.  It was Ryan who suggested using the dibber; he handed it to her and his fingerprints are all over it.  You’ll find the poison in the garage too; in a bottle marked Elderflower Cordial’.  That was Ryan’s idea of a joke.”

It was an awful lot to take in and as Sally read further, she realised that the incident at the golf course was what had made up Donal’s mind about leaving the country for good.  As well as the spreadsheet he had also included a table that showed names, dates and modus operandi for each of the murders.  Sally hoped that this would finally be enough evidence for DS Hammond to catch her murderer.  She also hoped that Donal’s confession would be some kind of mitigation and that he and his wife would prove too difficult and too expensive to find.

The spreadsheet was fascinating; the monies saved by the premature removal of several key executives went a long way to clawing back some of the council overspend.  When you added together Athena’s salary, the payments made to her for attending council meetings, for being an electoral officer, her travel allowance, her clothing allowance, personal expenses and the golden handshake she would have been received if she’d resigned and gone to another council, a quarter of a million pounds was saved already.  The wages of people like Dopey Shirley, found crushed in the library, were minimal by comparison.

She was still poring over the spreadsheet when DC Long and DS Hammond returned, both looking much happier.

“Your friend Donal has done us a big favour, although if he hadn’t messed around on the web site in the first place ……”

Sally pulled her glasses off the top of her head and put them back on her nose as she looked up from the spreadsheet.  “Will I ever be able to say sorry enough for what happened?  I’ve lost my friend and when the news comes out it will be me that’s to blame for writing that stupid list in the first place.”

Another of those significant looks passed between the two police officers and if Sally hadn’t been so upset, she would have realised that something was going on.  As it was, she was too busy fumbling in her pocket for a tissue to notice.  DS Hammond sat down at the desk and inclined her head towards her colleague.  He nodded and handed Sally the box of tissues.

“Not everything will be for public consumption.  I don’t think any of the Modern Apprentices will want to admit that they used your list; Donal has disappeared and Ryan didn’t really get involved until the information was in the public domain.  How many people have you told about the list?”

“Donal, Ruby, Steve and my husband.”

“Nobody else?”

“No.  It’s not the sort of thing you boast about really. What happens now?”

“I need to speak to your boss – John?” said DS Hammond, restless as ever and back on her feet.  “Can we get him here?”

“I’ll ring his mobile; he’s never separated from it.”  Sally picked up the phone and called John, who had just had just come out of an emergency meeting with the Leader of the Council; Athena’s demise had left them with more than a few dilemmas.  Masking his surprise that it was Sally making the call, he said he’d be there within ten minutes.

Sally spent the time looking at the video footage on Donal’s pen drive.  He was right; it didn’t make comfortably viewing and but she began to see how Ryan Davies had worked his way into their organisation.  

DS Hammond came into the incident room and beckoned to Sally to follow her to John’s office where he was already waiting for them.  She sat down at the far end of the table and listened whilst DS Hammond gave a concise summary of all that had happened over the past week.  John frowned as the story unfolded, his face running a gamut of emotions.  Sally kept her head down; too embarrassed to meet John’s penetrating eyes.  He frowned and got to his feet, pacing around the table to look out of the window.

“Was I on the list Sally?”

“Good grief no!  You’re that last person I’d put on the list.” Sally was horrified that John would even think such a thing. 

He shook his head and walked back round the table to her, sitting in the chair opposite and taking both her hands.  She was shaking and fully expected him to tell her that she would be escorted from the building without even getting a chance to collect her belongings and say goodbye.

“What you did was not very professional, but you don’t need me to tell you that.  You know that I am disappointed in you, particularly because you involved those very impressionable young people in what you did, a good man like Donal got too involved and nine members of my staff are now dead and their families and friends are bereft.  DS Hammond says that without your help three more people might have died and the case would have taken a lot longer to solve.  I can’t say that you’ve redeemed yourself but any fool can see that you understand the impact of your actions and that you are full of remorse.  I’m going to suggest that you take some compassionate leave; two weeks should do it.  By that time the gossip will be focused in another area and people are less likely to be asking you why you had to spend so much time helping the police with their enquiries.  You are not to discuss this with anyone in the council and I will trust you to be very discreet in what you say to your husband.  There are going to be some changes while you are away but they will make the situation easier for you and for everyone else concerned.”

Sally cried, denuding John’s box of tissues with her tears.  His disappointment in her was almost as painful as the knowledge that it was her self-indulgence that caused it all.  DC Long took her back upstairs to her office; the corridors still mercifully deserted.  DS Hammond remained with John, who had many questions about the case, earning a good deal of respect from her for his thoroughness.  Sally packed up her things and closed down the computer, the actions taking on elements of automatic pilot.  When everything was done, she sat back down at her desk and sighed.  DC Long perched on the edge of the desk and smiled at her. “It will pass.  In a fortnight’s time this will be old news – for you and for us.”

“What about you?  What about DS Hammond?  Is she really as cold as she makes out?”

Sally was surprised to see that DC Long was blushing and all the little signs and looks that she’d wondered about suddenly began to add up.

“Are you – I mean do you – are you two having a thing or is it wishful thinking on your part?”

DC Long laughed and recovered his composure.  “We’ve been in a relationship for about eighteen months now.  Claire is completely professional at work, far better at it than I am but don’t be fooled by the ice-maiden act.  She is a genuinely lovely and extremely bright person.  She likes you.”


“No, she does.  She said you’d make a good detective if it wasn’t for your psychopathic tendencies.  That’s a joke by the way.  I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say anything though.  We aren’t supposed to fraternise out of work.  Anyway, if you’re ready to go I’ll take you home now.”

Sally took a last look around the little room that had seen so much action in the past week, then closed the door behind her and followed DC Long out of the building.  Out of Mostyn Hall.

The Town Hall Cuts – a Small Apology

The international recession hit everybody – except of course the very rich who carried on making money out of the misfortunes of other people.  Across Great Britain local authorities made cuts in services that caused ordinary people to lose out on vital support services, valued workers were made redundant and local charities had to close their doors on those they had spent years trying to help.

Everyone all blamed the bankers and the capitalists.  Some people blamed the previous government for the recession, some blamed the present government.  The private sector blamed the public sector for having better pensions and the public sector blamed the private sector for paying their executive staff too much money.  Everyone blamed the Greeks and they weren’t even bearing gifts at the time.

In a time of austerity, all businesses have to make sacrifices and local government is no exception.  The method of downsizing employed in this small local authority was subsequently considered bizarre, horrifying but diabolically efficient.  The protagonist(s) were analytically neat in identifying areas of natural wastage, eliminating sources of potential overspend and getting rid of a group of people who nobody really liked much anyway.

When the dust had settled and the staffing gaps were filled again, a considerable proportion of the council’s overspend had been clawed back by these drastic human resource cuts, but those responsible were never really given the credit for the savings they made, or for the fact that some sense of harmony was restored in a crumbling and energy-inefficient establishment.

Whilst acknowledging that the actions were morally reprehensible, it has to be admitted that although the concept wasn’t necessarily original, as making the punishment fit the crime has been in operation for as long as mankind can hold a grudge, a great many people thought it was a pretty cool idea and wished they’d had the means and the evil genius to manufacture their own hit list.


Considering it only had thirty days, November seemed to be a very long month and it was still just two thirds gone.  Mostyn Hall had undergone massive changes.  Sally’s team had been disbanded; the canteen had closed and the reception area was no longer staffed.  Huge plastic crates lined the corridors and there was no way of knowing from one week to the next if people were still going to be in the same office that you’d last seen them in.  To add insult to injury, at a time of huge political and economic unrest, the unions had announced a day of action for the last day of November and plans were being made for picket lines and emergency cover. 

One of the first changes had been the packing up of Sally’s little office; with Ruby spending more time over at the training centre, it made sense for Sally to move elsewhere whilst decisions were made regarding her future.  Ruby had found happiness with an old sweetheart and Sally was pleased for them both; her own family life was ticking over quite nicely at the moment too.  It was just the uncertainty of the future that bothered her.  She wasn’t the only one involved in upheaval however; the inspirationally titled ‘clerical review’ had instilled fear and confusion into the hearts of over a hundred permanent staff, some of whom had already jumped ship and gone to work in jobs that paid less but had permanent prospects.

Sally hoped that the work she’d done in the past would count towards getting her a permanent job.  She was basically filling in for other people who were on leave or off sick with stress.  The large office she had moved into was more practical than her little garret had been; closer to the lavatory and washing up sink, no more stairs to climb and her new office mates were entertaining and good company.  She missed the solitude and the opportunity to play her music whenever she was alone, but realised that everything changes and there were still huge savings to be made.  The loss of the canteen had been the hardest blow, and although the butty lady bought sandwiches, rolls and cakes when she visited every day at eleven thirty in her little white van, it wasn’t the same as bacon butties for breakfast and chips with everything for lunch.

The councillors had been talking about shutting Mostyn Hall down for years; it was too old, not fit for purpose, the windows were draughty and the central heating was constantly breaking down. Not seeing familiar faces was perhaps the worst; so many people were moving out and no one seemed to know exactly when the building would be empty or who would be the last to go.

Still, Sally had something to keep her occupied; not when she was at work because she had plenty to do even if it was bitty and disjointed.  Since November 1st Sally had been very busy during the evenings and weekends.  She sat at the laptop downstairs during the early part of the evening so that she could be sociable and watch TV with her husband but it was a rare night that she left her computer upstairs before one am.  It was nearly done now though and ahead of schedule too. Donal would be so proud.

He wasn’t just proud; he was extremely pleased.  Sally bumped into him by the microwave on November 24th whilst he was cooking his porridge.

“Good morning!  How’s it going?”

“Almost done, I have to go through it and do some tweaking but yes.  I’ve gone past the target.”

“When do I get to see it?”

“At the end of the month.  You can be the guinea pig before I send it off.  I’ll save it on a memory stick and you can give me your brutally honest opinion.”

“Okay, I’d better get back.  I’m only here for the morning and I’ve to go through accounts with Hester, Tracey and Susie before I go.”

Sally grimaced.  “You’d have been spared all this.”

“I’d be in Alaska living off council funds and being blissfully cool.  Don’t forget to let me know when it’s finished.”

“I won’t.”  Sally waved goodbye as they headed down separate corridors to their respective offices.  November; also known as National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short.  An undertaking to write 50,000 words in thirty days and hopefully produce a novel by the end of November.  She done that and gone over the word count already and there was still a week to go. 

When she walked into her office, she nearly walked back out again.  Derek and Graham were standing in the middle of the room, clipboards in hands and talking about how to rearrange the room to get more people crammed into an already overcrowded office. She brushed past Derek with a muttered ‘excuse me’ and sat down at her desk wishing that fiction could become reality.  For some people the only solution was instant death but as her fingers itched to pick up a piece of paper and start writing a list, she thought better of it and got on with some real work instead.

Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

Garden Party

Sally was ready and waiting at seven thirty the next morning; wearing a new black cotton blouse and her best black skirt.  Her hair was neatly plaited and her favourite red lipstick was the only concession to colour.  Her shoes shone with uncustomary polish and whilst she felt remarkably plain, she hoped that the outfit would act as some kind of camouflage amongst the flash and cash of the local nobility.

DC Long pulled up outside the house and waved from the car, looking equally ill at ease in his stiff white shirt and black bow tie.  Sally got in next to him and fumbled with her seat belt.


“I couldn’t eat breakfast this morning.  I feel really sick.  How’s DS Hammond?”

“Firing on all cylinders again this morning.  We’ve had a bit of a breakthrough thanks to your observational skills.  The lad at the lock is the same person as the lad seen on the beach in Portugal.  Except he isn’t actually a lad, he’s in his thirties but looks about eighteen. We’ve a witness who thinks he saw the same lad at the library, the salon owner is sure that he’s a relief delivery driver and he may have been seen sitting in a car at the golf course with an older man and young woman.  We’re still waiting to hear back from the hotel but I won’t be surprised if he’s been hanging around there too.”

Sally took a deep breath and leaned back in the car seat.  “have you got a picture of him with you?”

“In the folder on the floor.”

She picked up the folder and found the picture.  This was a much clearer shot and although it wasn’t a close up there was something familiar about him.

“Wow.  If you know his age, you know must know who he is then?”

“He goes by a number of aliases and whilst he’s been arrested several times, we’ve never been able to pin anything on him.  He’s something of a computer genius and specialises in fake documentation too.  We’ve put out an all points bulletin to track him down but no news yet.”

“So, if he’s responsible, then Donal is off the hook?”

“No, I’m afraid not.  As far as we know Donal and his wife have left the country; we know now that she took a ferry over to Zeebrugge on Monday.  We’ve tracked Donal to France but the trail goes very cold from there.  Their bank accounts have been cleared out and when we searched the house, we found that their computers had been completely and very proficiently wiped.  This has been planned for a while; they’d even cancelled the papers before they left.  Our IT guys are really annoyed about it and are hoping they might find something on Donal’s work computer.”

“Some chance.  I’ve a feeling that Donal may have been wiping everything off his hard drive when I left the other night.  He was certainly very intent on something.  What about Tom? Would he or Mark have known this lad that’s been carrying out the killings?”

“They may have known him under one of the names he used on line but I doubt if they ever met him.  We need to find something, anything that links him to Donal and to the actual murders.”

“Do you think Donal actually murdered anyone though?”

“Definitely not Colin, Sharon or Shirley because we know exactly where Donal was on all of those occasions.  There’s some confusion about Derek’s murder, I would say that if Graham wasn’t actually murdered by Donal, then he did at least let the killer into the building to put the poison in the whisky bottle, but I think Donal and his wife were already out of the country by the time Tracey and Angela were killed.”

“Derek and Donal were good friends; that’s why it doesn’t feel right to me.  DS Hammond said that Derek’s murder was more savage and passionate than the others.  Trouble is, Donal was off sick that day and he told me that his wife had been out buying him clothes but according to you, she’d already left the country by the time Derek was killed.  Donal always wears grey, black and dark green clothes and to see him dressed in such bright colours was really bizarre.  I don’t want to think that Donal killed his friend but it made me wonder if someone who knew his clothes size but nothing else about him, might have bought those clothes in a hurry.  If his wife took off with all their belongings and Donal’s only clothes got covered in Derek’s blood – well that would explain it.”

“The lad in the car perhaps?  But who was the woman?”

“Derek’s wife?  Donal is a very moral person.  He didn’t approve of Derek’s affairs or the fact that he was conning us out of a lot of money.”

“Hang on a sec.”  DC Long pulled the car over to the side of the road and picked up his mobile.  In a manner slightly reminiscent of DS Hammond he barked a few orders to the officer on the other end, requesting that someone get to Derek’s house with a search warrant and start asking his wife a few questions.

“Let me get this straight then Sally?  You think that Donal was taken to the golf course by our mystery lad, that Derek’s wife was there too.  Either of them may have killed Derek – and they both got blood on them.  If the lad got clothes for Donal in the right size but the wrong colours, I’d lay money on it that Donal’s clothes are still at Derek’s house.”

“Would you consider me biased if I said that I’m sure it was Derek’s wife that killed him?  Hell, hath no fury like a woman scorned and all that?”

“Encouraged by Donal though.  He will have told her about the cleaner.”

Sally felt as if she’d been up for hours and the thought that she had a whole day of pretending to be a waitress at Susie’s pretentious party made her wish she was back in bed.  DC Long ran a finger inside his collar, obviously unaccustomed to wearing starched shirts and bow ties.  They were almost at Susie’s house now and neither of them was happy about the day ahead.

The field across from the house had been borrowed to serve as a car park and more than a couple of familiar faces from the incident room had swelled the ranks of the marshalling staff.  They crossed the road and were greeted by a house that looked as if it came from a Hollywood film set.   The shrubs and flowerbeds surrounding the driveway and front of the house had been supplemented by an army of hanging baskets and tubs in various shades of white, lavender and purple.  They made their way round to the servants’ entrance and stopped to observe an immaculately mown lawn, three large white marquees and even more baskets and tubs.

The party wasn’t due to start for another two and a half hours but already the whole place was bustling with gardeners, florists, caterers and people who were still putting up the marquees.  A public address system had been rigged up near the end of the garden; a raised dais with a flowered canopy had a microphone and several chairs ready for Susie and her very special guests.

“Sally!  Sally!”  Turning toward the sound of an all too familiar voice, Sally saw Susie, clad in a pink chiffon and feather dressing gown, her hair in curlers and her feet in matching pink high-heeled feathered mules.

“Hi Susie, this looks wonderful.  You must have worked so hard to get it like this.”

Susie’s face stiffened.  “It isn’t finished yet.  Look Sally, I’m not quite sure why DS Hammond insisted on you being here, but now you’re here you’d better make yourself useful.  They’re short-handed in the kitchen so run along there and help out.”

“You want me to – help out in the kitchen?”  She turned to DC Long who was beginning to look just a little annoyed.

“Of course I do!  You aren’t a guest after all and if you’re dressed as a waitress you won’t look out of place.”  Susie peered closer at Sally’s outfit.  “I don’t think I’d employ you as a waitress though, you don’t really look the part.  Couldn’t you have found something a little smarter to wear?  There are some very important people coming here today and I don’t want you showing me up.”

DC Long motioned for Sally to stay where she was and putting a gentle but very firm hand on Susie’s shoulder her, he guided her toward the shrubbery.

“Susie, I appreciate that you feel this is a very important event but your life is at risk and you have to let us take control of the security issues.  Sally is helping us but I need her close by me at all times and that means she will not be tucked away in the kitchen doing chores but out here keeping an eye out for trouble.”

Susie’s chin began to wobble and she pulled a dainty lace edged handkerchief out of her pocket and dabbed at her very dry eyes.

 “My best friend was killed yesterday and nobody is giving me any sympathy at all.  I’ve spent all year organising this party and I’m not about to let anyone ruin it, not Sally in her shabby old clothes, not your mob of clodhopping policemen and definitely not any old killer!”

She stamped her tiny foot and as she staggered back into the house, her dressing gown streaming out behind her, she looked like a small demented pink budgerigar.  Sally managed to keep a straight face until Susie was safely inside, but could contain herself no longer and had to sit down on a nearby cast-iron love seat until the laughter had subsided.

DC Long was able to maintain a more professional attitude but a definite smile had replaced the stern expression and twitching muscle in his cheek.  “What a horror!” he muttered.  “She wants help in the kitchen, does she?  We’ll get her some help then.”  Taking out his phone he called for two officers to come over to the house specifically to carry out security duties in the kitchen.

Sally looked at him in puzzlement.  He grinned; a much broader grin than before.  “Someone might try to put poison in the food and that would never do.  We need some security in the kitchen.  The fact that I’ve put my two laziest and greediest officers in there is a side issue.  She can’t say we haven’t done anything about it can she?”

“Your prompt actions have been admirable, I will certainly commend you to the Chief Constable next time I bump into him,” said Sally, every trace of ill-humour gone now.

” By the way, Sally?”


“Your clothes do not look shabby; you look perfectly fine and if you’ve managed to work with that awful woman without strangling her all this time, then you deserve my undying admiration.”

“I thank you!  She isn’t that bad usually; we’ll just have to put it down to nerves.  This is a big thing for her and if she survives today – and I really do hope she does – the loss of Tracey will hit her very hard.  I know she appears to have registered what’s happened but I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.  If this garden party turns into a fiasco you may end up escorting her to the nearest mental health facility.  Dead or mad – what a choice!  What do we do now?”

“Let’s have a stroll around the perimeter and then we’ll get you an apron and see if my officers have eaten all the food in the kitchen.”

They walked up to the waist high hedge that separated Susie’s extensive garden from the neighbouring fields and woods.  The florist had already begun wiring white and lavender bows into the foliage, and a constant stream of burly young men were placing delicate white iron tables and chairs strategically around the garden.  Over in the distance Sally could see an abandoned tractor and trailer and wondered how much Susie had paid to keep the farmer out of his field for the day.  Turning back to the garden, she had to admit that it looked very elegant; completely over the top but elegant nevertheless.

DC Long took several calls as they walked round the garden; it took some time and Sally was glad that she had worn sensible shoes.  The raised dais at the end of the garden was covered in flowers now and the central chair – obviously a throne destined for Susie – was particularly over-bedecked.  Sally fervently hoped that none of the officers or local dignitaries suffered from hay fever.

“Yes!” said DC Long triumphantly, punching the air.

“What?  What is it?  Can you tell me?”

“We’ve got him.  The lad from the boat – and beach – and hair salon, not to mention the library and hotel.”

“He was there then!”

“We’ve found finger prints that match his on the filter cap at the swimming pool and on the collar of one Tracey’s dogs.  Officers are on their way to pick him up now.”

“Won’t he have skipped the country like Donal and his wife?”

“No, we’ve had him under surveillance since we heard about Tracey.  Two officers have been outside his house but he’s a tricky customer so I’ve sent two more out in case he tries to leg it.  Oh, and I’ve sent the dog handler out too – he seems to like dogs after all.”

“Any news about Derek’s wife yet?”

“No, that will take a bit more time.  She may not be very bright but she’ll have had good advice about where to hide things.  No sign of Donal and his wife yet either – I expect they are bound for a better climate than we have.”

Sally shook her head.   “I doubt it.  I probably shouldn’t be telling you this but Donal hates the heat; he’s more likely to be headed for the Siberian wastes. “

“Technically speaking, I should report that piece of intelligence but I can smell bacon and I would deduce from that, that my bobbies have persuaded the catering staff to provide a few butties.  You hungry yet?”

She hadn’t been, but it was true, the smell of frying bacon was very seductive and as it was liable to annoy Susie intensely, Sally felt that she and DC Long should get to the kitchen and check that all was well there.


Suitably fortified by a bacon butty, freshly brewed coffee and a trip to Susie’s downstairs toilet (supposedly out of bounds but as Susie was upstairs being pummelled into a less frantic state by her Swedish masseur, she was in no position to argue) Sally acquired a clean white apron and was fitted with an ear piece and radio by one of the kitchen bobbies as he waited for the next round of bacon to be fried up.

Instructed by DC Long to go to the drinks marquee and introduce herself to the officers on duty over there, Sally stepped out into the sunshine and was impressed by the way the garden had been transformed over the past half an hour.

Each of the little tables had sprouted a lilac or white umbrella and was decorated with a matching floral display.  With less than an hour before the guests were due to arrive, the speed of delivery had stepped up and even Susie would have been mildly pleased with what had been accomplished in such a short time.

The drinks marquee was dark and cool; illuminated by dozens of tiny lights suspended from the roof poles.  Bottles of champagne were chilling, whilst fresh oranges were being squeezed in readiness for Bucks Fizz, and St Clements for the teetotallers and drivers.  Sally was given the option of handing out drinks or collecting glasses and opted for the later, knowing that her natural inability to carry liquids could only result in spilling a sticky drink on someone really important.  This task also put her in an excellent position to wander around and look out for whatever it was DC Long expected her to look out for.

Sally’s only real concern was that one of the important people from work might wonder what she was doing collecting glasses at Susie’s garden party.  Susie had been briefed to tell people that Sally had volunteered to give a hand when one of the caterers went sick but she had a feeling that Susie would tell a different tale that might make senior management think that Sally was in the picture for a spot of moonlighting.

Watching from the shade of the marquee; Sally was one of the first to see the vision that was Susie emerge from the house, surrounded by a doting entourage. 

Clad in a hideously expensive silk body con dress in shades of lavender and white that showed off her slim tanned legs, Susie had completed the outfit with a fascinator of silk, tulle and flowers that wouldn’t have looked out of place at the races, a dainty white clutch bag and lavender stilettos that made her walk like a newborn foal; all stiff legs and wobbles.  Sally dreaded to think what would happen if Susie had to get anywhere in a hurry.

As it was, she had obviously decided to hold court from her floral throne and despatched her satellites to fetch people to her as they arrived.  The local press were already there and Susie was in her element, posing with her legs draped elegantly to one side, and what she fondly imagined was a girlish laugh on her lips.  From Sally’s vantage point she could see that Susie’s usually tanned and frown-lined face seemed exceptionally smooth and wondered if it was an expensive makeover or whether the Swedish masseur had run amok with the Botox as well. 

Susie glanced over in her direction and Sally shrank back into the shadows, almost stepping on DC Long who had appeared at her elbow.

“We have a little problem,” he said, his expression betraying barely controlled anger.

“Oh no, what now?”

“The lad – he wasn’t at the house and according to the sniffer dog, probably hadn’t been there since yesterday.  My officers swear blind that they were watching the house the whole time; they watched him go in but they didn’t see him come out.  I feel really gutted.  Those two are usually pretty good; that’s why I put them on that job.”

“This guy is really good at what he does though isn’t he?  He’s able to blend into so many different backgrounds because he looks inconspicuous. I’ve seen CCTV footage of him but I doubt if I could pick him out in a line up, let alone in the kind of crowd that’s going to be here today. “

“Ah, well I can do something about that.”  DC Long pulled a photo out of his pocket and handed it to her.  She looked closely at the young man; short dark hair but not so short that it made him look aggressive; dark brown eyes that were set a little too deep in a face that was vaguely handsome but unmemorable.  The only real distinguishing feature was the scar on his neck which showed up vividly on the profile shot.  “Would you recognise him now?”

Sally nodded.  “I think so, especially if I saw him from behind.  That scar is really distinctive.  I’ve got a feeling I have seen him though.  In the canteen once and out in the car park too.”

“Keep your eyes peeled then. If you see anything that worries you just press the red button on your radio.  I’ll be there straight away and so will several other bobbies – except maybe the two that are on kitchen detail.  That chef has proved too much for even them; she’s got them washing up now.  I’m going to the front now.  Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, honestly.  They’re letting me collect glasses and I’ve been told not to pick up more than four at a time in case I drop any.  I can cope with that.”

DC Long grinned, then reached out and squeezed her hand before striding off towards the entrance.  Sally was touched by his solicitous behaviour and hoped that he had some nice lady – or man – tucked away somewhere.  She thought of her husband and boys and how they would laugh when they found out what she’d been up to today.  Her youngest would be deeply envious of the radio and the possibility of being involved in a murder. 

The first visitors had arrived; inevitably of minor importance because the really impressive guests would arrive fashionably late.  Sally watched as her fellow waiters and waitresses left the marquee and proffered the flutes of orange liquid that clashed quite horribly with the lavender decorations.  Perhaps Susie should have gone for Kir Royale and a grenadine punch.  It seemed that these early visitors were also hell bent on consuming as much alcohol as possible so Sally was soon busy picking up the empties and returning them to the cheerful girl washing glasses at the back of the marquee.

Moving from table to table gave her an excellent opportunity to look at a variety of necks and she tried to do this as surreptitiously as possible.  Waiting staff had also begun to circulate with platters of finger food; Susie had obviously decided that Spanish tapas was the order of the day but neglected to advise the staff to supply her guests with napkins or plates.  Using her initiative Sally acquired some from the kitchen and supplemented her original duties by handing out lavender and white napkins to guests with oily, tomato and garlic-stained fingers.

Taking her latest load of empties and used napkins back in to the marquee, Sally spotted DS Hammond and the Chief Constable; he was resplendent in full dress uniform, she looked cool, elegant and extremely classy in a brown shantung silk sheath dress and amber pashmina draped effortlessly round her shoulders.  She spotted Sally and nodded imperceptibly with just the tiniest tilt of her eyebrow.  Feeling oddly pleased that she seemed to have passed a test of some kind; she turned back towards the marquee and laughed to herself as she noticed that despite Susie’s commands the farmer had started up his tractor and was moving slowly up and down the farthest field.

The garden was filling up now with a throng of expensively dressed and perma-tanned women accompanied by elderly men in linen jackets, beautiful young boys and girls and some very imperious elderly ladies who were knocking back the Bucks Fizz and filling up with tortillas as if their lives depended upon it.  Susie had arranged for a charity raffle and tombola with the kind of prizes never even dreamed of at a church fete.  The tombola tickets were selling for ten pounds, and one hundred pounds for a book of five raffle tickets. Wandering past with her latest batch of glasses, Sally couldn’t resist taking a quick look at the prizes on the table and a further list of raffle prizes donated by local businesses.

“Don’t you have anything to do?  This is way out of your league Sally; get back into the marquee where you belong!”  Susie, temporarily away from her dais hissed into Sally’s ear. 

Mustering all the dignity that she could, Sally picked up a few more glasses and walked back into the tent noting that the farmer had moved into the field next door and seemed to have a different kind of trailer fitted to the back of the tractor now.  Sally hoped that he might come close enough to drown out Susie’s impending speech and decided to take a trip back to the house for more napkins. 

Looking back from the house, she saw the tractor moving round the edge of the field towards the house slowly.  She went into the kitchen and spent a happy ten minutes picking at canapés with the bobbies who had finished the washing up and were now practising their vegetable chopping skills.  Feeling a little guilty, she gathered up another pile of napkins and came out of kitchen door in time to see Susie take her place on the dais; waiting impatiently while a pony-tailed young man adjusted the microphone so that she could reach it. 

The tractor was approaching the marquee side of the garden and Sally glanced over, expecting to see some elderly farmer hunched behind the wheel.  The figure, face hidden by a large black baseball cap, seemed quite young and athletic.  It was only when the tractor rounded the corner and moved closer to the hedge that the scar on the person’s neck became visible and Sally’s very acute sense of smell allowed her to appreciate the purpose of the trailer.

She hit the red button on the radio and ducked into the marquee; managing to catch DS Hammond’s eye and beckon her over frantically. Stopping only to kick off her heels, she sprinted towards Sally and was safely inside before the first spray of evil-smelling slurry hit Susie and the other figures on the dais.  Unfortunately, the Chief Constable had been asked to come up and draw the raffle; so together with Susie he received a total drenching.

Watching from inside the marquee, Sally was amazed at how far a trailer of animal waste could go when shot at speed out of a tube.  The majority of guests had congregated at the front of the dais with their raffle tickets at the ready and they too had caught the full force of the spray.  DC Long and the other officers were racing across the field in pursuit of the tractor driver.  The speed of Sally’s response meant that they were scrambling over the hedge by the time the slurry had done its worst.  One of the officers from the kitchen lumbered up into the cab of the tractor and turned off the engine but by that time the trailer was almost empty anyway.

Susie was still on the dais; immobile and completely brown; she seemed to be in some kind of fugue state and was completely oblivious to the chaos surrounding her, a smile frozen on her face.

DS Hammond turned to Sally and raised her eyebrows.  “Thanks for that.  This dress cost me more than I care to think about.  My shoes seem to be out of the danger area too.  I have a feeling that this garden party is going to grind to a halt shortly.  Shall we go out and assess the damage?”

“How strong is your stomach?   Slurry has a particularly pervasive smell,” Sally wrinkled her nose.  “Did you come in a car with the Chief Constable? “

“No, we drove separately and met up at the car park.  We’ll have to breathe through our mouths.”

“Hang on,” Sally reached behind the bar and pulled out her handbag which was full of a variety of useful objects.  Dosing two napkins with lavender oil, she passed one to DS Hammond and clasped the other to her own nose. 

“Just one thing.  How did you know what was going to happen?”

“I didn’t.  DC Long showed me a photo of the lad and he had a scar on his neck.  It wasn’t until the tractor went past me that I could see the scar.  That’s when I hit the red button and got out the way.”

Giggling like two naughty school girls they emerged from the tent and surveyed the scene.  The more sober guests were standing in outraged silence or trying to wipe off the worst of the mess with Sally’s napkins.  Most of the waiting staff, not wealthy enough to buy raffle tickets and not interested in who was going to claim the prizes, had taken the opportunity to eat and drink in the marquee, so they too were unscathed and odourless.  They opened up some more champagne and brought it out to the garden to ply the more inebriated guests who were comparing their varying states of disarray.

“Hammond!”  The Chief Constable’s voice boomed across the garden.  Stopping only to put her shoes back on, DS Hammond strode over to him, holding the napkin to her nose.” How the hell did you manage to stay clean?  Who was driving that tractor?  Have we caught him yet?”

“I have Sally to thank for that Sir.  She recognised the man we’ve been looking for and alerted Long.  She also alerted me thankfully.  I think you’re going to need a new uniform Sir.”

“Thank you.  That observation was totally unnecessary.  I thought psychopaths were devoid of humour.”

“Not this one apparently.  Shall I get your driver Sir?”

I’m not sure he’ll even let me in the car in this state.”

Sally stepped forward.  “There’s a hose round the back of the gardener’s hut, we could wash the worst off and put a table cloth over the car seat.  The sooner you get it off the better.  Slurry’s a bit like skunk spray really; it’s because it ferments in the pit.  Excellent fertiliser but stays on your skin for ages.”

The Chief Constable looked at her suspiciously.  “You seem to be very knowledgeable about this slurry stuff?”

“I grew up in the country; kids tend to have a bit of an awful fascination with slurry pits.  Adults ban you from going near them and as a consequence you just have to go and look – and smell.”

Pulling himself up to his full height and trying very hard to look dignified, the Chief Constable stepped down off the dais.  As he moved toward the house, less slurried people moved out of his way.  He frowned.  “Where is this hose?”

“Follow me,” said Sally and led him round to the hut.  I suggest that you take your jacket and hat off at least.  They seem to have taken the worst of it.” 

One of the police officers from the kitchen came forward and took the Chief Constable’s clothes, wrapping them up in one of the hastily obtained table cloths.  Wielding the hose as gently as he could, he proceeded to wash off the worst of the slurry from the now slightly more grateful Chief Constable.

Sally and DS Hammond walked back to the dais where Susie had been led to the throne and was sitting down, wrapped in a blanket but still covered in slurry.  She looked up as they approached and she pointed at Sally.

“You!  Why aren’t you covered in this shit!  Did you plan this?  Did you?  You’ve ruined me!  No one will ever come to my garden parties after this!  I’ll be blacklisted in every decent house in the county and I’m sure that you’re behind this!”

She threw herself to the floor of the dais and began sobbing noisily, hammering with her tiny fists and screeching.  Those around her moved away quickly.  Sally looked around and called out “Any doctors in the garden?”

An elderly gentleman removed his soiled jacket and threw it on the table; he stepped forward and knelt down by the side of Susie who was now rocking from side to side and keening like a wild animal.  He looked up at Sally.  “Better call an ambulance I think, she’s beyond anything I can do here.”

DS Hammond summoned one of the officers over and sent him scurrying back to the house to make the call.  As she turned to watch him Sally caught sight of DC Long coming back across the fields with a very big grin on his face.  She nudged DS Hammond and the two of them moved over to the fence to meet him.  The bow tie had disappeared and the immaculate white shirt was extremely grimy. 

“We’ve got him!  The lads are walking him back to the road, I thought that was better than bringing him in here.  What the hell happened?  What’s the awful smell?”

“Slurry – fermented animal waste and water – used for fertilising” said Sally. “Smells like hell and hangs around forever.  Susie and the Chief Constable copped for the worst of it.  Susie’s completely flipped out and the CC is being hosed down round the back of the kitchen by one of your officers.  The rest of Susie’s guests are either very, very drunk and will spend the next month smelling to high heaven or extremely sober and hell bent on snubbing Susie for eternity.  Faced with this I think she really would rather be dead.  Actually, I don’t think she is thinking now.  Remember that mental health facility we were talking about this morning?”

“Wow!”  DC Long looked over at DS Hammond, coolly standing by and reunited now with her pashmina and bag.  “Looks like the two of you had a miraculous escape.  That would appear to be a very expensive outfit?”

“More than you and I earn in a month.  I’m heading back to the station to get changed and have a little chat with your tractor driver.  We’ll get one of the other lads to drop you home if you don’t mind Sally?”

“No, of course not.  You’ve got work to do and I’m just relieved that I don’t have to spend all day collecting glasses after all.  I’ll stay and see Susie into the ambulance though if that’s okay?”

“Sure.  I’ll send an officer round.  There’s one other thing.  Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?  It’s Monday– you know – back to work.”

“We haven’t exactly finished yet.  A few loose ends to tie up tomorrow.  We’ll come and get you.”

Sally grinned resignedly and waved goodbye, a lavender scented napkin still clutched in her hand.