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.