The Cuts Begin – and Gavin’s Need for Power Increases

The mere presence of Gavin in the coffee shop had made the hairs on Ruby’s neck stand up. She had spent the morning working with a group of newly qualified staff and on a whim, they decided to take a walk into town and have coffee after the morning session. As soon as Slime walked in, Ruby felt uncomfortable and when a covert glance at the counter confirmed his presence, she knew exactly why. For one awful moment she thought he was going to come over and she readied herself to be polite to him for Ben’s sake. Fortunately, he decided to sit by the window; she had no doubt he was watching out for any staff members taking too long over their lunches – or heaven forbid!

Enjoying themselves.

Just as Ruby and her merry band were about to leave one of the students nudged her and indicated in Gavin’s direction.

“Do you know him?” she whispered.

Ruby nodded. “That’s Gavin Slime. Assistant Head of Human Resources.”

The woman spluttered.

“How the hell did he get to that position? I used to know him when I worked in Newport. There was a huge scandal about him stalking one of the councillors. She’d been polite and pleasant to him but he took it as a come-on and made a pass at her. She was very married and wouldn’t have been even vaguely interested in him. He got very nasty when she didn’t respond to his advances, and the woman had to be persuaded not to call the police in. Strings were pulled and he left the council with a golden handshake and a glowing reference. He’d been too clever for them to get any real dirt on him, so they just got rid of him as quickly and quietly as possible.”

Trying to be as discreet as possible, Ruby gleaned as much information from her student as she could on Gavin’s little problems, and stored it away to be passed on to Ben later when they met up for a drink. She smiled a polite goodbye to Gavin as she and the group left the coffee shop to go back to the training centre. Ruby felt a chill as he stretched his lips in that cold, rubbery smile.

There was one more session in the afternoon when they returned to conference room. The group did well and Ruby let them go home as soon as the feedback forms had been completed. She checked her phone, and found the text from Ben telling her what had happened about Karen. Whilst she was shocked at the immediacy of the action; having witnessed first-hand the cavalier attitude towards work etiquette displayed by Karen and her friends, as well as the frighteningly aggressive and predatory way she had harassed Ben, Ruby found it hard to be sympathetic. Ben’s text had only explained the incident in the briefest of terms so she was looking forward to finding out the rest of the details when they met up in the pub later.

Using her own mobile phone rather than the networked computer or the council mobile, Ruby did a bit of digging around on Gavin Slime and was able to trace his career in various local authorities round the country, but mostly in his native Wales. He didn’t appear to stay anywhere for more than eighteen months to two years, and each time he moved it was to a higher position. He was either very good or, as she expected, was particularly adept at finding out where the bodies were buried, and using the information to his own advantage.

Sighing, Ruby looked up at the clock and was cheered by the fact that it was time to leave. Time to go and meet Ben and let him know what she had found out, and what had been the final incident that led to Karen’s dismissal. She closed down her computer, picked up her bag and said goodbye to colleagues who were still sorting through their own feedback forms. It wasn’t difficult from their responses to work out who had had a good training session and who hadn’t.

The traffic was a little lighter than usual and Ruby got to the pub before Ben did. The news about Karen had spread round the building like wildfire, and within a few minutes of sitting down, Ruby was given the whole story according to the gossip network. Paranoia about misuse of the Internet had gripped the office building; staff who routinely did their online shopping first thing in the morning were now terrified that they would be caught out as well.  There were several others who had used the online dating sites, and still more who had booked recent holidays, and had been less than discreet about their colleagues on social media sites.

Ruby took it all with a pinch of salt, knowing that she would get the full story from Ben later on. It was interesting however, to hear how the original story had got distorted via peoples’ perceptions regarding what was a perk of the job, and what constituted misuse. Ruby was just listening to a colleague justifying her need to order the weekly shopping during working hours, when Ben, Peter and Mark turned up. Ben sat down next to Ruby, while Peter and Mark went off to get in a round of celebratory drinks.  There was no sign of Karen, nor Fiona and Cheryl.

Ruby took the opportunity to elicit more reliable information.

“Okay! Spill the beans Ben! I need to know everything and I mean absolutely everything!”

Grimacing, Ben told Ruby everything; from the IT audits to the immediate expulsion of Karen from the building.

“What about the others on the team? Cheryl and Fiona – and Mandy! Mandy is even worse than Karen, especially when you consider that she is a team manager and should be setting a good example.”

“Cheryl is in the clear – for now.  She and Fiona did all the online dating on Karen’s computer. Joanna had a few little issues, but they’re sorted and as a consequence she sees me as her knight in shining armour, which may come in very useful.   Mandy will have a few more problems than sunburn and a jippy tummy to worry about if she is allowed to enter the building when she comes back off sick leave. Or rather, if she returns from sick leave!”

Ruby looked concerned. “How bad is it for Mandy? She’s a pain I know, but her home life is a disaster. When she and her husband split up, the children decided to go and live with their father.  She is desperate to be liked, and that’s why she lets people get away with things. Rumour has it that Karen had something nasty on her as well.  I suppose that’s academic now that Karen’s been sacked.”

Shaking his head, Ben explained that it wasn’t just the Internet misuse, nor the poor timekeeping, but the long-term expenses fraud that would really mean the end of Mandy’s career. He added that that there were further implications regarding Margaret, and the fact that she hadn’t exactly been managing Mandy and the members of her team very well.

Ruby snorted and nearly choked on her drink.

“Margaret too!   The three of you are extremely efficient at digging up the dirt!”

“That’s not all! said Mark happily. “Gavin asked Ben to run a report on the post room computers.  It turns out that my extremely horrible ex-colleague has been buying, selling and swapping local authority goods on eBay, and a few other neighbourhood sites. She’s also been falsifying stock orders from different teams in order to build up her own supplies. Gavin’s axe is about to fall again, and guess who is destined for the post room now?”


“Fiona!  Gavin feels that he would get more work out of the two of them if he splits Fiona and Cheryl up.  Fiona is not happy about it but was told in no uncertain terms that it was the post room or nothing.  Cheryl is too frightened to say anything because the post room is about as low as you can go.”

“Apart from Room 19.” said Ruby with a wink.

“Okay.” said Ben.  “What does go on in Room 19 and why is everyone so mysterious about it?”

“Nobody knows what goes in in there.  There are rumours of course, but nothing has ever been confirmed. Peter and I will leave you two lovebirds in peace.” said Mark as he drained his glass.  “I promised my wife a takeaway to celebrate, and Peter is joining us.  I did ask Ben if the two of you were free to join us Ruby, but he said that you had something arranged already. See you tomorrow Ben, and thank you for rescuing me from the hell that was the post room.”

Ruby waved them good bye before turning back to Ben.

“Other plans?”

He shrugged. “Not really but I didn’t fancy sharing a meal with two screaming toddlers.  Technically I am line managing Peter and Mark, and we all know Gavin’s opinion of fraternising out of work.”

“Have I got you into trouble Ben?” Ruby asked, looking rather downcast.  “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all?”

“We have to continue with the charade I’m afraid.” Said Ben, taking her hand and squeezing it gently. “I’ve given Gavin all kinds of assurances that we never discuss work issues with each other.  He’s about to involve me in Operation Sally’s Downfall, and feels that I may be able to extract some useful information from you.”

“Slimy git!”

“Quite. Are you busy this evening?”

“I did a pile of ironing last night.  Are you hungry? It’s my turn to pay.”

“We could do with relocating to somewhere more private.  There are too many listeners in here and there are a couple of things we need to talk about.”

“Pizza?  I know a very nice Italian restaurant.”

“Sounds good to me.  Is it far?”

“Walking distance.  We could leave our cars here for now. I’ve acquired some very useful information about your boss.”

Ben offered Ruby his arm as they left the pub, she took it and was about to disengage once they were outside when he squeezed her arm closer.

“Keep up the pretence a bit longer, I’ve just seen a couple of the IT guys parking up their cars.”

Ruby nodded and they continued up the narrow alleyway that led into a small courtyard and three restaurants.  It was till early enough to get a table, and Ruby felt slightly embarrassed when one of the waiters greeted her enthusiastically.

In a mock gruff voice Ben looked at her and said, “Either you get taken out for meals on a regular basis, or we are paying you far too much money.”

Ruby laughed and shook her head. “This is another of the places we use for end-of-course dinners.  Between ten and twenty students, and two trainers can generate a great deal of pizza, pasta and red wine.  Guaranteed to be a place where you can have a laugh and make plenty of celebratory noise.  No wine for me tonight though, the big conference is tomorrow and I know that the news of Gavin’s cuts will have spread like wildfire.”

“What kind of reaction are you expecting?”

“No one will be losing sleep over Karen, Fiona or the mad woman in the post room. The rumours about Mandy are a different matter though.  Margaret may be busy trying to cover her tracks, or she may decide to brazen it out, given her relationship with the CEO.  Bob will be annoyingly brash; Desmond will be an absolute love and very helpful, Adam will be so wrapped up in singing his song – which is very good by the way – that he will be oblivious to anything else.  My other colleagues are making sure that that they keep off social media and the Internet until the furore dies down. Rumour has it that Gavin is intending to put in an appearance at some stage, but has been vague about just when.  An age-old management ploy to keep everyone on their toes.”

“He does it very well.  What is it that you need to tell me about him?”

In between bites of pizza and swigs of Pellegrino to wash it down, Ruby told Ben about the information given to her by one of her trainees.  She followed it up with some further details that she had found on the Internet about Gavin’s habit of moving from one local authority to another without any reasons being given.

Ben took it all in, as he calculated which of his challenges was going to be the most imminent.

“Two questions Ruby.  What did you mean by Margaret’s relationship with the CEO and what can you tell me about Room 19?”

“According to Sally, Margaret and the CEO having been having a not very discreet affair for some years.  One of the reasons his contract keeps being renewed is because Margaret is chair of the committee that looks at new candidates.  She has the councillors eating out of her hand, and they are more than happy to believe her when she tells them that none of the applications received are suitable in terms of experience and qualifications.  Michael’s predecessor, John, applied but when he didn’t even get an interview, he took up a much better position in another local authority. As a consequence, any information on Margaret has to be watertight.  Poor Desmond.”

“Room 19?”

“Another one that Sally can give you more information about.  I know that the room is occupied by at least one or two females who work for the Finance department.  If you look closely at payroll details, and I mean very closely, you may find a couple of people with very non-specific job titles.”

“How come Sally knows so much about it?”

“Room 19 has been in operation for several years; I believe that it may have been set up by Donal long before he departed.  Sally has been sworn to secrecy as a consequence but you may be able to charm the information out of her. No dessert for me.  I’m not being cheap Ben; I just don’t want to take on the world feeling bloated tomorrow.”

Ben called for the bill and despite Ruby’s protestations, he paid and helped her on with her coat, giving her shoulders a gentle squeeze as he did so.

“Are we being watched Ben?  I didn’t see anyone that I know?”

“No.  It was a friendly hug for being such a loyal and extremely helpful person.  If keeping up the pretence is difficult for you, we may have to stage a gentle break up, but to be honest, having someone else I can confide in makes the whole thing less stressful for me.”

“I never turn down a friendly hug, and yes I will take your arm for the journey back to the cars.  These cobbled courtyards are very pretty and have historical value, but they are hell on high heels!”

They laughed together and the situation seemed to be resolved for now. It was a good job that they were arm in arm when they returned to the car park as they were greeted by the sight of a very drunken and emotional Fiona being put into a taxi by Cheryl.  It did not appear to have been a good day for either of the remaining dyad.

Karen Has Left the Building

Gavin found the process of sacking Karen immensely satisfying; he parried her every reaction with a controlled and profoundly irritating calmness. It was the perfect antidote to the lost battle with his mother the night before, and his growing obsession with the domination of Sally and the ultimate defeat that lay within his power.  Ben’s reassurances about Ruby had helped him to regain his cool and deal with Karen in what he knew to be an effective and extremely competent way. The security guards he called in had been employed for their bulk, and their ability to intimidate but not for their intellect. As a consequence, they were able to follow orders without question, especially when it was pointed out to them by a more intelligent colleague that Gavin was someone Very Important who had the power to hire and fire anyone.

Karen was handed her coat and handbag; the rest of her belongings were in two cardboard boxes. As a precaution, and as a further intimidating measure, Gavin took out the contents of both boxes in order to check that Fiona and Cheryl hadn’t put in anything belonging to the council by mistake. This involved the display of several items that obviously caused Karen further embarrassment and pain; the security guards smirked behind their hands at the boxes of feminine hygiene products, a packet of condoms, and the printouts from computer dating sites. Gavin removed the printouts as further evidence of Karen’s transgressions and told Karen to pack her belongings back into the boxes.

She had moved away from anger and threats; truly in the zone of choking sobs and beyond words. Her hands shook as she replaced the items that had formed a part of her daytime world for several years; small cuddly toys, a mouse mat with a picture of herself wearing a Kiss-Me-Kwik hat – a memento of a trip to Blackpool with Cheryl and Fiona last summer, and several other small items of what Gavin sneeringly referred to as ‘tat’.  He sat at his desk and watched her, drumming his fingers against the arm of his chair as he waited. Eventually, when her life was packed back in the two boxes, Gavin got to his feet and opened the office door.

“You will now be escorted out of the building by these colleagues from security and myself; you are not to talk to anyone as you leave the building. You are being dismissed instantly on a charge of gross misconduct due to fraudulent use of council equipment to access inappropriate Internet sites, and dereliction of duty because you were accessing these sites during your working hours. You have also been falsifying your clocking in and out times in order to arrive late, leave early and get long lunch hours. You will hand over your ID badge, lanyard and access fob now.

“But – but – isn’t there supposed to be an investigation?” Karen stammered.

Gavin smiled. That thin-lipped sneering smile that struck fear into Karen’s heart, and had caused many other employees to crumble in Gavin’s previous occupations.

“That would typically be the case but Ben had an IT audit done on the team, and your report came back with such overwhelming evidence that there is no need for any further investigation. Such a shame you didn’t pay more attention in all those HR training courses you booked yourself on. Time to go now.”

 Karen walked through the door followed by the two security guards carrying her belongings and Gavin, making sure that she didn’t have the opportunity to speak to anyone. A silence fell on the office as they watched her go; a silence that continued until she had been taken down in the lift.  She was escorted out of the building in front of a large group of visitors in the reception area, then into the car park where the boxes were put into her car, Gavin removed her car parking pass and advised her that she needed to drive away within five minutes or she would have a parking fine as well.

Not surprisingly, she stalled the car; Gavin and the two guards stood by and laughed until she got the car started and drove shakily out of the car park. Once she was out of sight, Gavin shook hands with both the guards, and went back into the building, feeling proud of his accomplishment and ready to wreak some more havoc.

Joanna was sitting at her desk, looking very pale and distressed. Gavin stopped at his office door. “Are you okay Joanna?” he asked.

“Yes – yes – of course. Just a bit shocked about Karen – well we all are.” she replied.

“It just goes to show you that when there are cuts to be made, no one is safe and transgressions will be discovered. We all know the rules and we must adhere to them or run the risk of being sacked.”

“Yes Gavin, thank you.” Joanna ducked her head down and carried on with the report she was typing up for him. Ben had been over to have a quiet word with her about the online gambling in her lunch hour. He told her that he would not be reporting her on this occasion because she was visiting the site in her own time, but she was still breaking the rules by accessing a site that was on the council’s black list. Joanna was very grateful for Ben’s advice and also for the very kind way he spoke to her. His timing was immaculate; Joanna was already scared by the way Karen had been dismissed, and took what was said to her extremely seriously.

Cheryl and Fiona; already upset by the sacking of their friend and having to collude in her removal by packing up her belongings, were also spoken to by Ben. He made it clear to them that although their computers were clear of any blacklisted sites; he and everyone else in the office was aware that they had spent time when they should have been working, helping Karen on her dating sites.  They were given a verbal warning on the spot, and advised that they would have to be scrupulous about the use of their computers and the network in the future. Cheryl wanted to ask about Mandy, knowing full well that Mandy was the worst offender in the office, far worse than Karen. Something in Ben’s face made her hesitate however, and she kept silent throughout the discussion.

When Gavin returned to the office, he was gratified by the stunned silence across the room, secure in the knowledge that it was his actions that had caused this reaction. By way of celebration, he threw some very unpleasant egg mayonnaise and Branston pickle sandwiches into the bin, and told Joanna that he was going to nip out for lunch at noon but to say that he was in a meeting if his mother called.  He looked meaningfully at the discarded sandwiches, and Joanna knew that she would also have to lie to his mother about having seen him eat the sandwiches.

Gavin didn’t care that his mother had made the sandwiches for him, or that she would wonder why his sandwich box did not have his left-over crusts in it. He would walk up to town and go into one of the various coffee shops for a caramel latte macchiato and a panini. He was Gavin Slime! He could sack people and have them escorted out of the building with a click of his fingers. He could strike fear into the souls of those around him. He felt all powerful as he locked down his computer, pulled on his jacket and told Joanna that he would be gone for the next hour.

Walking up the High Street, Gavin felt like a giant amongst all these insignificant little people. His stride lengthened as he neared the coffee shop and went inside. Whilst queueing at the counter, he spotted Ruby and group of her trainees over in the corner of the room. He debated whether to go over to her and make himself known, but decided that he had achieved quite enough for one day. He took his food and coffee to a table near the window where he could see people rushing to leave his office building to get their lunch, and slowly walking back in to resume work.

Ruby and her trainees didn’t stay long and they left the coffee shop a much quieter place. Gavin was a bit put out by this; he had enjoyed observing Ruby from a distance. He could understand why Ben was attracted to her. She was very lively and animated; her trainees obviously liked her and found her very entertaining. While he was thinking about Ruby however, the vision of Sally floated into his head; he couldn’t help remembering the photos he had put together the night before, his fantasies about her, fantasies about domination and Sally’s eventual subservience to him.

Gavin finished his coffee and the last of his panini, and left the coffee shop. His mind was still full of Sally, and everywhere he looked he saw women who reminded him of her. Even when he was safely back in the building, he was sure that he had seen her walking down the corridor. He knew that she could not possibly be there, she had no building pass and no reason to be there, but he still felt that she was close by, and he wanted her, oh how he wanted her!

Safely back in his office he spent some time going over the initial reports that Ben had compiled on the members of the team. He felt pleased with Joanna and Peter, who appeared to be taking their responsibilities seriously at least. Ben’s comments about Mark’s lack of computer access whilst in the post room, and the possibility that the other person in the room might need to be looked at more closely, prompted Gavin to send Ben a brief email confirming that Mark’s ex-colleague was well within HR’s remit, and to get a report run on her. Gavin was less pleased with the long lunches and early finishes that formed the very similar reports on Fiona and Cheryl. He felt that they might be in the next wave of dismissals, but that he would give them time to buck their ideas up and feel safe before he let the axe fall on them.

Mandy’s report however, was one of the most damning he had ever read, and worse even than Karen’s.  The fact that she was a manager made her abuse of the authority policies and codes of conduct even worse.  Mandy was hardly ever in the office, and when she did turn up, apparently it was with the main object of ordering her shopping and doing online gambling. He could see that, if he dealt carefully with the situation it could end up looking as if Margaret, as Mandy’s line manager, had condoned her behaviour for at least two years, by not noticing what she was up to.

  He locked all the reports away in his drawer with the exception of Karen’s, and set about writing the report that would justify her immediate dismissal.  By five o’clock the report was drafted and saved, ready to be checked and sent off the next morning. Gavin phoned his mother and told her he would be home a bit earlier than usual, and was relieved to hear that she sounded almost pleased at the prospect. Ben, Peter and Mark were still at their desks when he left, Cheryl and Fiona were deliberating about going for a drink and Joanna had her coat on ready to go home.

All in all, Gavin thought it had been a very productive day.

Karen sat alone in her bedroom. She had moved back in with her parents after the failure of her short-lived marriage.  Her parents were both out playing bowls at the club, so they had not witnessed the sight of their daughter returning home with bloodshot eyes, and the two cardboard boxes that contained the detritus of her employment.

Hurrying upstairs, she had thrust the boxes in the back of her wardrobe, and sat down on the bed to have a good cry. It wasn’t long however until the tears had dried up and Karen began to feel that she had been victimised.

By Gavin, by Ben and by Ruby. 

It was Ruby that bore the brunt of her initial rage.  If Ruby hadn’t wormed her way round Ben, Karen would have been able to work her magic on Ben and prevented him from writing the report on her.  It was Gavin who gave Ben and Ruby permission to see each other, and Gavin who had humiliated her in front of people that she thought were her friends.

She was still in debt because of the wedding expenses and the boob job, she had no job, and her friends had deserted her.  Karen felt that she had two choices in life; giving up or fighting back.  Throughout her life, she had never been a person who could accept when she was beaten, and this was no exception. Throwing the pile of used tissues in the waste paper bin, she got up from the bed and sat in front of the laptop set up on her pink frilled dressing table.

This was Karen’s insurance. When she had returned from having her boob job, she had downloaded some carefully selected HR files onto a memory stick and taken them home – just in case. As a consequence, she had personal details of a number of staff members, and had added Gavin and Ben’s details only a week ago. Despite her laziness at work, Karen was actually quite good at systems and how to access them.  Contrary to what Gavin had said, she had paid attention in the HR training courses; with no Fiona, Cheryl or eligible young males to distract her.  Karen had acquired some very useful information about how the processes worked, and that is why she ensured that she had sent this information home, in case she ever needed it.

There were definitely cases of dismissal where what looked like an open and shut case of gross misconduct had been overturned by managerial sloppiness; nearly everyone in the HR department was aware that this defence played a large part in Sally’s employment tribunal.  It was well known that most of the allegations had been dropped because the staff in HR’s failure to do their jobs properly.  That, of course, was Mandy’s fault.  If she had been a better manager, none of this would have happened.  Karen added Mandy’s name to her list of villains, strategically forgetting that Mandy had allowed Karen in particular a great deal of leeway. Karen had threatened to tell Margaret that Mandy had been seen drinking in the pub when she had told everyone that she was out at a meeting – on more than one occasion.

When Karen came back from her unconsummated marriage, she had also been to see her doctor about her feelings of depression since the wedding.  She wept and wailed until the doctor gave her a repeat prescription for some antidepressants, and told her to go home and get on with her life.  She hadn’t really needed the pills but decided to keep them – just in case they might come in useful.

By the time Karen’s parents had returned, she had repaired her make up, concocted a story to explain her presence at home, and had begun to draw up a strategy for getting her own back on the people she believed had wronged her and played a part in her downfall.

Gavin’s Secret is Uncovered

It was hunger and desperation that prevented Gavin and Ben’s paths crossing that evening. Gavin had indeed left the office early, and spent the afternoon driving around the quiet estate where Sally and her family lived. He took pictures of the house with his mobile; when he saw a woman coming out of Sally’s house, his heart began to beat faster and for a moment he considered getting out of the car, then he realised that she had the dog with her and decided to stay put. He took further pictures of her with the dog, and then some close ups so that he could look at them again tonight when he was alone. She aroused strange feelings in him. He wasn’t really sure if he hated her or was infatuated with her. Her outburst at the hearing had excited him, had made him feel that he wanted to take and subdue her, to tame those blazing eyes and that lashing tongue. He’d even found it quite a turn on when she kicked the wall outside the meeting room.

He could have got a bit heavy with her then, threatened to have her arrested for damaging council property but she didn’t actually break anything, and besides, Ruby had rushed her out of the building before he had the chance.


Ruby and Ben.

Now that was a turn up for the books. He had been quite surprised when Ben mentioned that he was in a relationship with Ruby, and were there any issues about this? Apart from Ruby being a close friend of Sally’s, Gavin had nothing against her – in fact he quite fancied Ruby himself. She had the same fiery temperament that he liked in Sally, and as far as he could see, she was extremely hard-working, did her job well and didn’t take advantage by spending most of her time on the Internet, unlike so many of their colleagues.

Was there an issue about Ruby and Ben though? He was going to be asking Ben to do some pretty unorthodox things if he was going to get him looking for dirt on Sally. Could Ben be trusted not to tell Ruby things that would get passed back to Sally? Perhaps it was time now to tell Ruby that her continuing to support Sally could constitute a conflict of interests with the council – and with Ben if he told her about his investigation.

Pillow talk; the thought of Ruby and Ben together in bed did things to him as well. Gavin made an effort to pull himself together; he hadn’t had this much trouble controlling his urges when he worked for other local authorities, although there had been a few unfortunate moments when he misread the signals being given off by female colleagues and had to harass them into believing they were the ones that misread his signals.

He was very lucky to have inherited Joanna. Her amiable dimness was a complete cold shower as far as he was concerned. Her total devotion to him was cloying at times, but he knew that he was safe with her, that she could be relied upon not to talk about his ‘special’ projects, and to act dumb when necessary.

His stomach rumbled; he would have to move off soon and get some food. he had told his mother that he was working until six, which meant that if he ate now, by the time he had driven home at six, he would have a little appetite left to eat whatever she had incinerated this evening. One last thing before he moved on though. He rang Sally’s number, just to check that it really was her that was out with the dog. the gruff voice of a teenaged boy answered. Gavin ascertained that Sally was indeed out with the dog, and refrained from answering the questions regarding who he was and what he wanted. He saw Sally return to the house; the dog looked agitated, and Sally was pale. Both of them kept looking around so he slid down in his car seat, sure that they couldn’t see him.

Once he was certain that they were in the house, Gavin started up the car and drove off; it was still only four o’clock so he had plenty of time to find somewhere to eat, somewhere he could stuff his face with as much junk food as he liked, and his mother would never know. There was a new retail area opened up a couple of miles from Sally’s house where, in addition to an ice rink and cinema, there were several restaurants and a hotel. Gavin decided it was far enough from Sally’s house and from his own for it to be safe from discovery, but close enough to ease his aching stomach, which had remained empty since he had thrown his unappetising sandwiches in the bin this morning.

His mother had decided to give him something else for a change; the sight of tongue and piccalilli on white bread with margarine made him heave. She knew he hated tongue. It probably meant that she had discovered some evidence of his late-night excesses. Perhaps the neighbour had complained about him dumping rubbish in her bin? He didn’t think that anyone had seen him but she was a wily old bird and often dropped in for coffee with his parents whilst he was out at work.

This realisation made him even more determined to eat contraband food, and as he arrived at the retail park the first restaurant that hove into sight was an ‘Eat all you can for £6.99’ Chinese. He had been eavesdropping with his door open this morning and heard Karen, Cheryl and Fiona talking about their trip to the Chinese restaurant and how it had been ruined by Ruby, Ben and the two guys from IT. Ben was out of the room at a meeting, and the three witches didn’t seem to care too much if anyone else heard what they said.

Gavin now knew for definite that Karen felt Ben had broken her heart by going off with Ruby. The fact that Ben had told him that he and Ruby had known each other for years rather gave the lie to Karen’s theory that Ruby had ‘stolen’ Ben away from her. For once Cheryl had actually tried to be reasonable, and explain that Ruby and Ben had been in a relationship since he returned from University, but hadn’t wanted to tell anyone until he had spoken to Gavin. Fiona and Cheryl were of the opinion that if Gavin said it was alright, then it must be a proper relationship with no room for Karen to intervene. Karen had wept a bit more, gone to the toilets, re-plastered her face and decided to open up the match-making site again.

That thin, cynical smile spread across Gavin’s face when he heard this. Karen was definitely on the way out then. Her IT records were not going to look good when Ben examined them. No matter. He had no room for disloyalty and it appeared that Cheryl and Fiona were more knowledgeable about which side their bread was buttered.

Gavin parked his car over to one side of the restaurant and checked his watch again. Still plenty of time to gorge himself on crispy aromatic duck, special fried rice and chicken with cashew nuts. His mouth watered at the very thought.

The restaurant was half full, and Gavin was pleased to see that the staff were busy refilling the heated cabinets as soon as they were emptied. He ordered an endless Diet Coke and made his way over to the food. Not surprisingly he had an order to what he ate in these serve-yourself restaurants. He never took too much, or wasted time on food that he only liked a little. As a consequence, his first three trips were exclusively duck, pancakes, hoi sin sauce and the shreds of spring onion and cucumber that offset the fattiness of the duck.

Gavin’s plate was polished clean, but he left it on the table and went in search of a fresh one for his next course. It made him laugh to see other diners with their plates piled high with food that they would never eat because they had taken too much. Such a terrible waste. He allowed himself three more trips for his main course, filled up his drink again and then settled to a dessert of banana fritter with golden syrup and ice cream. He looked at his watch as he settled up the bill. A quarter past five and plenty of time to drive back into town and drive out again at six as if he were leaving work at the normal time.

He contemplated driving back via Sally’s house to see if he could glean anything else, but decided against it in case he got caught up in traffic. The drive back to town was slow enough but he made it back to the office car park by five past six, and phoned his mother on the mobile to say he was leaving and would be home soon. She sounded colder and more formal than she usually did, but Gavin was so used to her changes of mood that he paid no mind to it, put his phone on the hands-free cradle and drove out of the car park again. On the way he ducked down a little to avoid being seen by Karen, straggling after her two friends across the car park and obviously headed for the pub. She was going to be disappointed if she thought Ben was going to be there; Gavin habitually checked the car park for signs of his staff and there was no sign of Ben’s car this evening.  Perhaps he was already round at Ruby’s flat, perhaps they were enjoying a glass of wine after work, perhaps they were enjoying each other?

Trying very hard not to think about Ben and Ruby, or Sally for that matter, Gavin backed his car into the driveway, turned the engine off, picked up his phone and briefcase, and locked the car. He walked round to the kitchen door, as was his habit and was confused to find that it was locked, so he walked back to the front door and found that locked too. He scrabbled in his pockets for his house keys but was unable to get the door open with them so in the end he rang the bell.

It took a while for his mother to answer the door. It would normally take her a while anyway, struggling to get to her feet, manoeuvring the elbow crutches into place, limping slowly along the hallway, and trying to open the catch with her arthritic hands. Gavin had seen her play this game before. Something was up.

“Oh, you’re home then.” his mother said as she opened the door slowly.

“Yes Mother. I phoned you half an hour ago to say I was leaving work.”

Gavin slowly pushed the door open enough to squeeze in. His mother remained where she was, half-blocking the hallway.

“Why is the back door locked?”

“Burglars. Mary next door says there has been a spate of burglaries round here recently. She says we have to be careful. She went to a neighbourhood watch meeting on Monday, and there was a very nice police woman who gave her a set of bells to put on her purse and lots of leaflets about how to keep your home secure. She’s going to get me some, but she said in the meantime that I should keep all the doors locked and put the snip down on the front door. So, I did.”

Gavin sighed and put his briefcase in its customary place on the hall stand.

“There’s no point putting the snip down if you’re expecting me home at any moment, Mother. By all means put it down now if you want to. I’m home now.”

“Oh?” she said. “Not thinking of going out again then. To a Chinese restaurant or something?”

The bomb dropped. He had obviously been seen this evening by one of her cronies. He had been so careful too; there had been no familiar cars in the car park, the retail park was on the other side of town from where he lived, he had surreptitiously checked the restaurant through the plate glass window before he even entered. No sign of anyone he knew but someone had snitched on him.

Snitched, such a childish word to use but that’s what it was. He was a grown man with an extremely responsible job. He had bought this house and moved his parents from their family home so that he could look after them in their old age, and dotage as far as his father was concerned. The furniture was theirs but the house represented all that he had worked for. The state-of-the-art kitchen that he wasn’t even allowed to cook in officially.

Gavin stood his ground.

“What’s the problem Mother?”

She pouted. “Problem? Why should there be a problem? That fact that I phoned the office and some chit of a girl called Karen said you were out for the afternoon, and no one knew where you were. That’s a problem. Suppose your father got taken ill or I had a fall? Then I get a call from Mary to say that I shouldn’t be bothered making dinner for you tonight because her granddaughter has just started work as a waitress over at the new retail park, and saw you eating dinner there about four-thirty – when you were supposed to be at work. At whilst I’m at it, Mary says she would be grateful if you would stop putting your rubbish in her bin. So, what have you got to say for yourself Gavin?”

“Nothing Mother.” His shoulders drooped. “Nothing at all. I’m going to my room.”

“Oh no you don’t!” she cried, barring his way with one of her crutches. “There’s a perfectly good dinner in that kitchen and you are going to eat it. I don’t care how full up with Chinese rubbish you are.”

“But…you said you hadn’t cooked anything for me?” said Gavin, looking very puzzled.

“I never did! I said that Mary told me not to bother, but what kind of mother would I be if I didn’t cook my only son a dinner every night, even if he is so ungrateful as to go and eat foreign muck and lie to me about whether he was at work or not.”

Gavin sighed; defeat written all over his face but determined to salvage some pride somewhere.

“I was out at a meeting this afternoon. Had you spoken to my secretary Joann, she would have told you where I was but she must have been away from her desk when you called. As a consequence, Karen took the call and gave you incorrect information. I will be having words with her in the morning.  My meeting finished early. I didn’t have time for lunch so my sandwiches were back in the office. One of the people at the meeting recommended the new Chinese, so I had a late lunch there. A late lunch, not an early dinner. I went back to the office, finished off a few things, called you and came home. If you have a dinner prepared for me, I will eat it gladly. As far as putting my rubbish in someone else’s bin, I saw some rubbish bags on the floor outside Mary’s house when I was putting our rubbish out. Our bin was full so I put the rubbish in hers. You know how I feel about people leaving rubbish in the street Mother.”

She looked at him with some suspicion still, but put her elbow crutch back down on the floor and allowed him to walk past her and into the kitchen. His dinner of overcooked braising steak, jellified gravy, lumpy mashed potato and grey tinned garden peas was waiting to be warmed up the microwave. He sighed, put it in and set the timer for two minutes, using the time to lay the table and wash his hands.

He had to work hard to force the food down; chewing on the gristle-filled steak and almost choking on the lumpy mash and rock-hard peas. He ate in silence and when he was finished his mother took the plate away and replaced it with a shallow bowl of tinned peaches and evaporated milk. Not his favourite dessert by any means, and his mind went back to the crisp little banana fritters covered in syrup, and vanilla ice cream.

The crockery and cutlery were placed carefully in the small dishwasher and his mother returned to the front room without another word. She probably didn’t believe him; she had gone through a lifetime of him lying to her, and he had gone through the same lifetime of telling her lies in order to appease her.

Summarily dismissed now, Gavin went out to the hallway, picked up his phone and briefcase and climbed the stairs to his room. Once inside he locked the door and sat for a moment with is head in his hands. Then he remembered the photos he had taken earlier, of Sally and her dog. He plugged his mobile into the mainframe computer, and downloaded the pictures so that he could look at them more closely; so that he could blow them up and examine every inch of her face and memorise it. Once loaded Gavin put the pictures into a software programme, and amused himself by putting pictures of himself and Sally together, superimposing their heads onto the bodies of loving couples. Well, they started off as just being loving couples but soon Gavin was using more graphic pictures and becoming more and more aroused by what he was creating.

A sharp rap on the door made him jump, but it was only his mother confirming that she and his father were going to bed and that it was time for Gavin to go downstairs, check all the doors and windows, make sure everything was turned off and be the dutiful son that she expected him to be. He saved his work into a hidden file before unlocking the door and going down to carry out his duties.

Gavin’s Surveillance

Walking Perro was both a duty and a joy.  A joy because he was so happy to be free of his long rescue centre kennel imprisonment, and even free of the confines of Sally’s house, but a duty because though Sally loved him, she was always a bit frightened when she took him out on her own. He was a big strong dog and there were so many things that made him anxious, that she never felt totally relaxed unless someone else was with her. This was usually Ed, sometimes one of her sons, and occasionally Ruby. Sally was on her own this time, and had a feeling of unease as she walked along the streets near her home.

Perro appeared especially nervous today, and Sally decided to cut the walk short and go home. There was something nearby that spelled danger to them both. Perro’s hackles were up as they walked briskly back to the house, and he looked anxiously from side to side, showing the whites of his eyes. Sally opened the gate to the courtyard, closed it behind her and let Perro off his lead. He ran around the yard several times, sniffing the fences, and the gate that led to the front door.

Her younger son slid open the patio door to let them in.

“Some bloke just rang for you. Sounded a bit of an idiot. Wouldn’t leave his name or a message. Told him to do one if he was trying to sell us something, and he hung up.”

“Did you get his number?”

“Yeah, it was a mobile. I wrote it down for you. You aren’t going to call back, are you? He sounds creepy. Probably one of those ‘I’m phoning about the accident that you didn’t have.”

“Let me see the number?” Sally took the piece of paper, the number looked familiar and from the description of the voice, she had a feeling that that she knew who it was.

“Gavin Slime.”

“What, that bloke who followed you on Twitter?”

“The very same. Why would he be phoning me now, when he knows that everything has to be done through solicitors? Did he say anything else?”

“He asked where you were.  I said you were out with the dog.”

Sally felt a cold shiver down her back. Was Perro on edge because someone really was watching them? Was Gavin Slime watching her? She picked up the old mobile she had arranged to use with Ben and Ruby, and texted Ben.

Is Gavin in the office this afternoon?

Ben phoned her back very quickly.

“No. He left after lunch and hasn’t put anything in his electronic diary. Are you okay?”

“I was out with the dog and we both felt spooked. Got back to find that ‘a bloke’ had phoned. The number was Gavin’s. I think he’s nearby and was watching me. Slime by name and slime by nature. I’m not alone though and if he tries to call at the house, I’ll get Perro to scare him off. Take care Ben.”

The next text was to Ed; not a panicking text, just one to warn him to look out for any unknown cars parked nearby. Perro had settled now that he was back indoors, and Sally curled up next to him on the sofa, feeling reassured by his doggy warmth and the gentle groaning noise he made when he felt safe. She fell asleep with her head on Perro’s side, lulled by his subsequent snores, and an inane quiz show on the TV.

There was rather a rude awakening when Ed arrived back from work and Perro leaped from the sofa with a burst of joyful barking. Sally sat upright and wondered where she was for a moment. Perro was running up and down the room in excitement; she pulled her feet up onto the sofa to prevent being trampled by him.

Ed came in, dropped a kiss on top of her head and allowed himself to be welcomed by the overwhelming hound who was in a very licky mood. Perro calmed down again, and settled back on the sofa. Sally’s husband went into the bathroom to wash the slobber off, then came back and perched on the arm of the sofa.

“Did you see anything?” Sally asked, leaning against him.

“No strange cars or even stranger men. I thought he wasn’t supposed to contact you?”

“He isn’t. All contact through solicitors. I think he’s doing it to try and intimidate me rather than actually speak to me. The stupid thing is, he’s using a mobile and hasn’t withheld the number. Not exactly the actions of a stalker.”

Ed agreed and, after giving her a hug, went into the kitchen to get them both a drink. He moved the dog up slightly and sat down beside her.

“Is it time to call in a few favours from the boys in blue?”

Sipping her drink, Sally looked up in horror. “Lord no! Steve’s gone to work at headquarters, and I’ve been on suspension so long that anyone else I had contact with has retired, been promoted or sacked. Besides, Slime hasn’t actually broken the law. I don’t know for certain that he was outside. I just had a feeling I was being watched and so did Perro. I should have asked Ben what kind of a car Slime drives.”

“Here’s your chance. He’s walking up the drive.”

“Ben! Really! How lovely! Do I look as if I’ve been crying?”

“You look fine. Go and put some lippy on and you’ll feel more like yourself. I’ll let Ben in and calm the dog down.”

Sally ran up the stairs brushed her hair and put on some lipstick. She smiled to herself, reassured that she looked more human now, and less like the walking dead. She ran back downstairs and greeted Ben with a warm hug.

“Well, you look okay,” he said “but your text worried me a bit. Do you really think Gavin is stalking you?”

She shrugged. “I just felt that I was being watched and Perro was so freaked that I brought him back early. What kind of a car does he drive?”

“Silver Insignia. A rep’s car. He’s got it through the lease scheme.”

“Not exactly easy to spot though. I suppose that’s why he chose it, so that he can blend in and snoop on people.”

Ben nodded. “He does a lot of that. He’s asked me to check out the others in the team. I have to run IT checks on everyone – including and especially Mandy. I think she’s destined for the chop. Judging by the way she runs her team I’m expecting her computer logs to be particularly damning.  Same with the three witches.  Peter will be okay, and I don’t think Gavin hasn’t marked him down yet.  More interesting is the fact that he’s asked me to get involved in an investigation of an ex-member of staff who is causing trouble for the council.”

“Not little old me?”

“Could be. Could be Donal as well. Rumour has it that Michael is still really hacked off about the embezzlement.”

“How unfair!” said Sally. “Donal’s paid back all the money he took. I haven’t heard from him recently.”

Ben looked puzzled. “I didn’t think you heard from him at all. You aren’t supposed to know where he is. Suppose the police find out; you could be an accomplice after the fact or something.”

“Oh, I still don’t know where Donal and his wife are. I have my suspicions because we spent a lot of time talking about places we’d like to go on holiday to, and places we definitely wouldn’t. I may not have been totally candid with the police about that, but I didn’t lie. As for being in touch, I get the occasional email that has been routed through different servers before it gets to me, so there’s absolutely no possibility of anyone finding out where it originated from. As far as I know Donal and his wife are well and happy. They have a much nicer lifestyle than they ever had here, and more than enough money to be able to pay back what Donal took. He never meant anyone any harm.  He was just unhappy working with a bunch of halfwits and having to cover up for their inadequacies.  In retrospect I wish I’d done the same!”

Ed led her to the sofa and sat her down.

“Sssh. Donal is fine. He has deliberately kept you in the dark in order to protect you – and us. Gavin Slime can go grubbing about as much as he likes, he won’t find anything incriminating because the police have already gone down that route. What worries me more is that if Gavin is hanging around here, he might see Ben and make the connection between you two.”

Her hand flew to her mouth in dismay. “Oh Ben, I never thought! We’ve been so careful about phones and things. Suppose he saw you arrive here tonight?”

“Forewarned is forearmed. I drove round the streets first to see if his car was here. Then I parked around the corner near the shops, and walked up the back way. I won’t visit again if he’s out of the office and I don’t know where he is though. I’d better warn Ruby about him. He knows that she’s your friend and visits here. He mentioned it yesterday.”

“No need to warn her.” said Ed, “She’s just turned up here as well.”

“Oh, well I texted her too, in case she knew where Slime was. I’ll hold the dog, can you let her in?”

Perro did his customary bark but was instantly calmed by Ruby, who he absolutely adored. Ben and Ruby seemed a little awkward with each other in Sally’s eyes, and though she was itching to know how they were getting on, she showed remarkable restraint in not asking questions – although she shot a few searching glances in Ruby’s direction.

“Has Ben told you about our meal last night?” said Ruby, with a mischievous grin. Ben blushed slightly and shook his head. She sat down next to Sally on the sofa and proceeded to tell her the whole tale from arriving at the pub to Ben dropping her back home afterward. Sally laughed and looked serious by turns; worrying particularly about the repercussions for Ben now that Karen was a woman scorned.

“Poor Karen.” said Sally. “Jilted on her honeymoon, and now Ben has knocked her back as well. There must be some man somewhere who would appreciate her boob job.”

“What boob job?” Ben asked.

“Nice try but no one who has seen Karen can be oblivious to her jutting frontage and permanently erect nipples.” said Ruby

“Oh yuk!” said Sally, who had worked with Karen in the past, and had known her when she had first come to work at the council, when she still had some nicer aspects to her character.

“She’s not really a bad person. None of them are, but Mandy was a very poor manager and let them run rings around her. The team as a whole is dysfunctional, and having Gavin at the helm doesn’t help matters. He’s so sneaky and secretive. Something very nasty in his woodshed I’ll be bound.”

“Do you really think so Sally?” Ben asked. “I must admit that I don’t feel too comfortable with him. He’s got Joanna very well trained too, although I think she’s developing something of a soft spot for me now.”

“Soft spot between her ears probably.” muttered Ruby, who had suffered Joanna’s presence in training sessions many times, and was not impressed regarding her level of intelligence. She also found, much to her consternation, that she didn’t like the idea of Joanna being nice to Ben.

“Do you not like her then?” asked Ben, a little puzzled by Ruby’s reaction. Sally raised her eyes heavenwards. Men could be so dim sometimes.

“Don’t be fooled by Joanna’s air of simplicity Ben,” said Sally, anxious to get Ben back on track. “Joanna operates on a fairly basic level most of the time, but she has an animal instinct for survival. I worked with her for nine months, during which time she had every male within a five-mile radius doing everything she asked them to do. If Gavin Slime has her under control, I’d be very surprised. Joanna does what Joanna wants to do, regardless. If she’s complying with him, then it’s because she knows that she’s liable to get something out of it. Just watch her and don’t be fooled by those fluttering baby blues Ben.”

Thoroughly chastened by Sally, Ben looked toward Ed for support.

“I think a decent cup of coffee is called for. Care to give me a hand Ben? Junior barista and all that?”

Ben followed him out to the kitchen, glad of a little respite.

“So, tell me? How did it really go last night?” Sally asked, grabbing Ruby’s hands.

“Sally! It was playacting for the rabble anyway.”

“All of it? Wasn’t there anything that wasn’t playacting?”

“Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps he’s so afraid of Karen jumping on him again that he’ll do anything to prevent it.”

“Stay for dinner. I’ll persuade Ben too as well. We can get a takeaway – not Chinese or Mexican though – Indian maybe?”

Sally jumped to her feet and ran out to the kitchen. Ruby couldn’t hear exactly what was said but it sounded like Sally’s suggestion regarding dinner had been greeted with enthusiasm. They came back in carrying a tray loaded with cups, a large cafetiere, milk, biscuits and a variety of takeaway menus.

Ben sat at the table next to Sally rather than on the sofa next to Ruby, and she took this as a sign to play it cool, very cool.   On his part, Ben decided to tell them both about Melissa’s card, and the way it had cost him another night without sleep.

Message received. Ruby took the hint and kept the conversation light, bright and with no more reference to the previous evening’s ‘date’. She could tell from the way he spoke about Melissa how much he missed her, and that the card coming out the blue had given him a ray hope to cling on to.  After all, five years was a long time to spend with someone.  Ruby gave herself a good internal talking to about keeping it professional, and making sure that any displays of affection were limited to the pub after work in future.

Ruby’s Training Day

Ruby’s day was going to be a busy one. She was training a group of very young clerical assistants who needed to understand data protection, confidentiality and the implications of the European Convention on Human Rights. This was the second session she had done with them, and although she found some of them a little trying due to their attitude issues, the majority of the group were interested and ready to engage in the training fully.

There were a couple of young girls whose lives were inextricably linked to their mobile phones, and whilst they managed to adhere to the rule of no mobiles on during the actual training, every time there was a break, the air was rent by the sound of them turning the sound back on their mobiles again, and squealing at the texts and photos sent by their friends. There was also a lad who sat at the back of the room; his glowering countenance testament to the fact that he found the whole thing a bore and a total waste of his time. Ruby was determined that by the end of the day she would have the three of them up and involved in some way – even if it killed her – and it probably would!

At the back of her mind was Ben.  To be honest he was at the front and both sides as well. The logical, analytical part of Ruby’s personality was going over and over the information that she had gleaned from him the night before. Focus, Ruby focus!

By lunchtime the group had covered pretty much all of the material there was, so Ruby asked them to return for one o’clock, and told the two girls that she had a special task for them both in the afternoon. They appeared quite excited at the prospect and went off giggling to ravage the buffet table out in the corridor.

The solitary lad, who had now been identified as Martin, remained in a corner of the room chewing slowly on a couple of sandwiches and looking morose. According to Ruby’s file, he worked in highways, and was something of a self-taught expert on the traffic light system. Looking at him more closely, Ruby had a feeling that he might have some kind of high functioning autism. She sat down next to him, and was gratified when her opening question about the sequencing of traffic lights opened the flood gates of his knowledge. He slowed down and became more articulate as Ruby responded positively to the information that he was giving her.

“Martin, would you be able to do five minutes on traffic lights to the rest of the group this afternoon? You are so aware of what kind of systems information is in the public domain, and what is limited to our own systems, and therefore confidential. I think it might help the others to understand the distinction.”

His face brightened. “Can I use some flip chart paper and pens?”

“Yes, I’ll get you some but five minutes only or we’ll be running late and I’ll be in

trouble. You can use the little room next door if you want some privacy. There’s a table in there that you can use to lay out the flip chart paper.”

Gobbling down the last of his sandwich, Martin tore off a few sheets of paper from the chart, grabbed an assortment of pens and almost ran into the office next door. Surprised by the immediacy of her solution, Ruby turned her own phone on, and was surprised to find a text from Ben.

Lunch date with Karen cancelled due to urgent meeting with Gavin. Karen not happy. Gavin has given us his permission. Said you would talk to your boss too.  Still up for a drink in pub later?

Ruby smiled, imagining Karen’s rage and her inability to take it out on anyone because it was Gavin that had interfered with her well-laid plans. She picked up her phone to text an answer. Training going well. Have overcome a few issues that might have meant a late finish. See you in the pub just after five? Ruby.

She debated whether to add a kiss in case anyone was watching over Ben’s shoulder but decided that he wasn’t the kind of person who let other people watch whilst he was texting, and that Ben might misinterpret the reason for adding it. Her students filtered back into the classroom; Martin with his brightly coloured flip charts, and the two giggling girls. Ruby took the girls to one side and asked gave them both pieces of paper with a list of terms on it.

“This is a competition between you two. It’s important that you don’t talk to each other and that you sit on opposite sides of the room. I want you to search for these terms using your mobiles, find definitions for them, tell me how long it took you to find the answers and then we’ll compare the results. Are you up for it?”

“Yay! “They squealed in unison, and the race between the two of them began.

Ruby gave Martin his five minutes and his presentation was all that she had hoped it would be. He explained the differences between the two systems, and why it was important that confidentiality was observed regarding the sequencing and placement of movement sensors. The other students appreciated his enthusiasm, and the pie charts drawn up in red, amber and green. They gave him a rousing round of applause when he finished, on time as well, and Ruby was gratified to see him sitting, with a very broad grin on his face, towards the front of the room and next to some other students.

The mobile phone task had similarly pleasing results. A very narrow victory was had by the older of the two girls, but there was only half a minute between them. They read out the definitions which were then discussed by the rest of the group, and decisions made regarding which were the most applicable to the training. The afternoon ended in laughter, and gratitude that the session could be wound up early because of the amount of work that had been accomplished. Ruby stamped everyone’s training passport, and was relieved to find that not only had all the feedback forms been completed but that all of them were complimentary toward her, especially Martin’s.

She gathered up the forms and dropped them off at her office. Kathy was there, looking a little weary from another battle over resources, so she was equally pleased that the training had gone so well. Ruby put away all the training materials and went back to sit at her desk. It was a quarter to five.

“Kathy? Do you mind if I go now please? It’s just that I’m meeting someone for a drink and I need to get into town.”

“Oh?” said Kathy, looking a little brighter. “A drink eh? Anyone I know?”

“Well, he’s an old friend actually. More than a friend really. We knew each other years ago and we met up recently, and well, this is our first date and …”

“Heavens, woman! What are you still doing here?  Do I know this hunk?”

 “You might have met him. He’s just started working in HR. His name’s Ben.”

“Oh wow! Yes, I met him at a department meeting yesterday.  Slim, dark curly hair, big brown eyes, very artistic hands. Ruby! You are blushing!  He’s cute.  I have a feeling Karen has her eye on him too though. She was all over him like a rash yesterday.”

“I know, he told me last night. We thought if we go public, maybe Karen would back off?  Ben has spoken to Gavin – because of my role as Sally’s supporter.  Gavin says that I need to check with you, and to ensure that we both observe a high level of confidentiality with regard to work.  I know that there is a policy of staff not being in personal relationships but…”

“…but Margaret can’t object considering that she’s married to another member of staff.  Off you go now. I can see from these feedback sheets that you’ve done really well today. These kids are a hard bunch to crack, but you seem to have got through to them. Well done.”

It was with a light heart that Ruby walked across the car park, got into her car and drove to the pub. She looked through the window before opening the heavy door and entering. Ben looked up as the door opened, and she felt warmed by the smile on his face. Her head told her that he was playing a part, but she felt that he really was pleased to see her too. He got to his feet as she approached, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to hug him and kiss him on the cheek.

He returned the embrace with a sudden warmth that made her feel like giggling.

“Diet Coke or do you want something stronger?” he asked confidently.

“Something stronger. Dry Martini and lemonade ….”

“With ice and a slice. I know.”

 Ruby sat down on the banquette, next to a mildly astonished Peter, and Mark who was celebrating his escape from the post room.

“You and Ben?” said Peter.  “I didn’t know …. Not that I should but …. Have you known each other long then?” he asked and looked more than a little embarrassed.

“Oh, we’ve known each other for years, but only started seeing each other a couple of weeks ago. We bumped into each other at Simon’s gym, arranged to go for a drink, but decided to keep things quiet until Ben and I had discussed it with Gavin and Kathy.  Strangely enough, we have blessings from both of them!”

Ruby smiled and moved up a bit so that Ben could sit on the other side of her when he returned with her drink. He draped his arm casually around her shoulder and she leaned against him. It felt very comfortable.

Conversation between Ben, Mark, Ruby and Peter centred around the day’s training, and data protection in general. Ben asked intelligent questions and Ruby answered them with honesty and enthusiasm. Peter, now over his initial shock, and Mark feeling happy now that he was back in friendly company, joined in the discussion and the four of them must have looked very comfortable when Karen, Cheryl and Fiona pushed their way through the door. There was an awkward moment as the three of them spotted Ben’s arm around Ruby’s shoulders, and   Ruby, never one to miss an opportunity, turned her head to kiss him very gently on the neck. He shivered and pulled her just a little bit closer.

Karen was about to turn around and flounce out, but Cheryl dragged her to a table by the door whilst Fiona got the drinks in. Peter and Mark both looked rather nervous, torn between supporting Ben and Ruby, and the prospect of receiving evil looks from the three witches.  They made their apologies and left, waving at both parties in a rather feeble way.

Ben whispered in Ruby’s ear. “Do you think we’re convincing?”

 “I’m convinced. I don’t know about Karen. How long do we have to stay here?”

Ben frowned. “I didn’t think to ask before. Do you have any plans for tonight?”

“Not really. A TV dinner, some ironing, a good book at bedtime?”

“Are you hungry?”

“Now you mention it.”

“Where shall we go? I don’t really know any decent restaurants round here now.”

“I do. What do you fancy? Indian, Chinese, Italian, burgers, kebabs?”

“I love Chinese. As you well know.” Ben grinned, remembering that this had been on his list from the night before.

“Great. I’ll just go to the loo before we go then. Separate cars though, that was bad planning wasn’t it?”

“We’ll get better at this over time.”

“Oh, will we?” Ruby grinned and planted a smacker of a kiss on his lips before crossing the pub to the toilet. Cheryl got up to follow her, and Fiona walked over to Ben.

“Hi Ben. We didn’t realise that you were seeing Ruby.”

“Hi Fiona. We were keeping it quiet until I’d had a chance to talk to Gavin about it today. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was, but he says it’s fine provided we don’t let our relationship interfere with work, and that we don’t do anything to cause any damage to the council’s reputation – which we won’t.”

“Oh, you’ve been going out with each other for a while then?” Fiona fished shamelessly.

“A little while, although we’ve known each other a long time. We met up again at my flatmate’s gym. Strange coincidence really.”

In the toilet Ruby was getting a more intense level of interrogation from Cheryl, who, unhampered by an audience, was quite merciless in her questioning. Ruby parried it all, thankful that Sally had given them both a good grounding the night before, and that she was blessed with an excellent memory.

“I’d better get back Cheryl. Ben and I are going out to dinner but I have to go and drop my car off first. No point in taking two cars really.”

“I know you aren’t going to want to hear this but ….”

“…. but what? Is something wrong?” Ruby feigned innocence as she picked up her handbag.

“Well, Karen thought that, well she thought that Ben was making a pass at her in the departmental meeting yesterday. Fiona and I thought that too.” said Cheryl, a look of spiteful glee upon her face.

“Funny that,” Ruby replied. “Kathy told me that she observed something in the meeting yesterday, except she said it looked as if Karen was climbing all over Ben, and that he was very uncomfortable about it. That’s what he said too. Besides, Gavin wouldn’t ever tolerate two members of staff in his own team being in a relationship. He was quite clear about that when he spoke to Ben this morning.”

Cheryl stepped back out of Ruby’s way as she walked out of the toilet. “Gavin knows?” she gasped.

“Oh yes.” Ruby replied. “We didn’t want to say anything until Ben had checked it out with Gavin, but he’s fine about it. See you.”

“Wouldn’t want to be you.” muttered Ben as he drained the last of his drink and handed Ruby her jacket. “Did you get the third degree too?”

“Oh yes, give me a hug you gorgeous man, Karen is about to burst into floods.”

“You are a truly wicked woman Ruby but I am beginning to enjoy this.” said Ben as he pulled her into his arms and breathed in the very faint smell of Chanel No 5 on her neck. Very different from Karen’s extremely expensive perfumes that tended to cling to everyone’s clothes and impair their sense of smell.

Having already decided that taking two cars was pointless, and that getting changed out of work clothes was equally pointless because they were both starving, Ben followed Ruby’s car back to her flat, and waited whilst she parked in her allotted space and locked up. She lived in a little purpose-built block. Hers was a one-bedroomed flat on the first floor with a small balcony overlooking the woods to the rear of the car park.

Ruby got in the car, putting her handbag in the footwell and not slamming the door too hard.

“Okay then, are we ready?” she asked.

“Oh, um yes. Can you give me directions please?”

“Of course. It isn’t far, and should be reasonably quiet at this time of night. It gets busier as the evening wears on. We often go after work – especially when we’ve had some difficult sessions.”

Ben continued to be impressed by Ruby. She knew her left from her right for a start, and gave him plenty of notice when he had to make a turn. The restaurant was in a little parade of shops set back from the main road, and didn’t look that impressive. They managed to get a parking space just outside however, and once inside, Ben was pleased to see that it was actually twice the size.

The waiter greeted Ruby as an old friend and showed them to a table for two on the far side of the room. As she wasn’t driving, Ruby plumped for a nice Merlot and felt pleased when he agreed with her choice. Too hungry to bob around on the menu, they went for the set meal, which contained dishes that both of them liked. They nibbled on the prawn crackers provided, and waited for their chicken and sweetcorn soup to arrive. Ben poured them both a glass of wine, his limit when driving.

“To us then Ben?” Ruby smiled “Don’t look now but a party of our colleagues have just entered the room. I said don’t look!”

Unable to resist the temptation, Ben had turned his head towards the door where Cheryl, Fiona and a very pale Karen, together with a couple of chaps from IT who had been in the pub earlier, were being shown to a larger table on the other side of the room.

“Guess we’ll have to keep up the love stuff during dinner as well then. Sally will split her sides laughing when she hears about this!”

Sipping her wine and giving a slight nod to Cheryl et al. Ruby was hard put to restrain her giggles. Ben, mellowed by a couple of healthy slurps of red wine, was unable to keep the smile off his face either.

“Did you tell them we were coming here then?”

“Good lord no!” Ruby exclaimed.  “I said we were going out for a meal but I didn’t say where. Cheryl knows that my team comes here a lot though. It looks as if we’ve broken Karen’s heart between us. A bad case of pink-eye there.”

“I swear that I never encouraged her.” Ben said earnestly.

Ruby’s eyes twinkled mischievously. She put her hand over Ben’s in a caring and protective manner.

“It’s okay my darling. I trust you. I know that you were just an innocent victim of her womanly wiles.”

With a barely perceptible wink, Ben raised Ruby’s hand to his lips and kissed it, never taking his eyes off hers. She felt herself blushing although she knew this was all part of the act. The tension was broken by the arrival of the soup, and more prawn crackers.

Ben had been hoping for a quiet, stress-free dinner; he already found Ruby to be a pleasant companion and was looking forward to picking her brains about some of his new colleagues. Having those colleagues sitting across the rapidly filling restaurant, watching their every move made things rather more complicated, but at the same time, the food was good, the company was better, and the wine was making everything seem more amenable by the minute. The only sour note was the feeling that Karen’s red-rimmed gimlet eyes were boring into him, trying to decide whether he and Ruby really were an item or not.

More acting required then?

When the soup was finished, an ornate plate of dim sum was served; steamed dumplings, spring rolls, crisp parcels of prawn and minced chicken, seaweed and beautifully carved vegetable decorations. Ruby cast a sneaky sideways glance at the other table where the three women appeared to be arguing with the two men over what to order.

“I think there may be a little bit of tensions brewing over there,” she whispered. “The two guys from IT that they’ve picked up are consultants; they aren’t salaried staff. I think the ladies may have been under the impression that the chaps were going to foot the bill, but consultants rarely pay for anything if they can’t claim it back. I doubt if they’d be able to put this on their expenses, so they’ll have just made it quite clear that they expect to be treated to their dinner because they’ve been so kind as to accompany Karen and her friends.”

“I see.” said Ben, picking up a spring roll and dipping it into the sweet chilli sauce. “How do you think they are going to resolve this then?”

“Hmmmm. Depends on how desperate the ladies are to keep their escorts AND keep an eye on us. My guess is, if they don’t agree to treat the lads to dinner, they will walk and find dinner elsewhere. I happen to know that one of them is gay, and the other is very much married. They both have homes to go to, and won’t be that bothered if they don’t get fed. I’m not really sure why they got roped in anyway. I suppose Cheryl thought it would look less like they were stalking us if they had blokes with them. Do you want some seaweed? “

“Yes please. Do you want to share that last crab claw?”

Ruby nodded as Ben bit off half of the claw meat and put the other half in her mouth. She chewed it slowly, then licked her lips in a lascivious manner that made him laugh. She put the last of the seaweed onto his plate, licking the last few pieces from the spoon, knowing without even having to look that Karen was about to burst into tears again, or rush over and throttle one of them – probably her.

Mercifully, the waiter came to clear the plates away, and give them hot towels to clean their sticky fingers. By the time the table was cleared, the IT guys had left and the three witches were looking most unhappy at having to foot the bill for their dinners. Ben was surprised that they hadn’t left as well, but supposed that this would make their spying tactics look really obvious.

By the time Ruby and Ben had finished their main course the waiter had just unceremoniously plonked a bowl of prawn crackers on the table that the triad were sharing. He did not appear to be impressed by the fact that two of their party had disappeared, nor that they had been quite rude and ungracious when ordering their food. The restaurant was full, he’d had to turn a party of five away because there was no room and now, he had an under-occupied table with three women who had only ordered prawn crackers with soup.

Ruby refused dessert and Ben followed suit in a gentlemanly fashion. They had agreed that Ben would pay the bill as it would look more convincing, and Ruby would settle up later in the car. The waiter brought Ruby’s jacket and shook their hands warmly as they left, giving a polite wave and smile to their three colleagues whose faces reflected the flavour of their soup – hot and sour.

Walking out of the restaurant hand in hand seemed the natural thing to do, releasing her hand as they neared the car, Ben unlocked the doors and walked round to the driver’s side after opening the passenger door for her.

Ruby delved in her purse to pay for her share of the meal once inside. Ben put out a hand to stop her. “It’s okay. You can pay next time.” he said grinning.

“Are you sure? We did say we’d settle up after.”

“Honestly. It was a great meal and I’ve enjoyed your company. The floor show was pretty amusing as well.”

Ruby laughed and shook her head. “I don’t know the three of them that well, Cheryl’s been on a couple of my courses, and I was in the office with them last week but I can’t believe that they’d go to those lengths to check up on us. Are you going to be okay in the office tomorrow, Ben?”

He pulled a face. “I’ll be fine. They can be as bitchy as they like. Gavin was quite emphatic that he discouraged fraternisation between members of his team, and he’s asked me to keep an eye on the three of them, and get an IT check organised for their computers – and on Mandy’s especially. Now that Mark is working with Peter and me, it could be very amusing – and productive. Gavin also told me that he’s involved in a special project regarding an ex-member of staff who was involved in a scandal last year. I don’t think he was talking about Donal.”

“They’ll never catch Donal. He’s far too clever for them. The police spent months searching through Europe looking for him. There was even some suggestion of a team going to New Zealand when it was discovered that Donal was interested in ‘Lord of the Rings’. Sally and I know roughly which direction he went in and it wasn’t in search of the sun. Quite the opposite.”

“Does Sally know where he is?”

“No. He sent her another letter which was routed through several different places in case anyone was checking her post. Wherever he is, Donal and his wife are happy and settled. His skills are in demand and he’s making a mint – which is why he’s managed to repay the money he borrowed. Sally’s just happy that he’s safe and he’s got over it all.”

Ben had remembered the way back to Ruby’s flat without any mistakes, and this time it was her turn to be impressed. There was one of those moments where she wondered if she should ask him up for coffee, but just as she was about to say something, he looked at his watch and remarked on the time.

“Gosh, I’d better get in,” Ruby said. “I’ve no ironed clothes for tomorrow and the washing up from this morning to do yet. Thanks Ben, I had a lovely evening.” She reached over and gave him a swift peck on the cheek before grabbing her handbag and almost jumping out of the car.

Ben watched her go into the entrance hall of the flats, turn and wave. He turned the engine on again, trying to rally his thoughts.  A text appeared on his phone. It was from Ruby.

Thank you for a lovely evening. Text me when you get home so that I know you are safe? Ruby x

A kiss.  Oh dear.  Was this going to complicate matters now? To make matters worse there was a card from Melissa waiting for him when he got home.  She wished him luck in his new job but said that she missed him terribly. 

Life was complicated at times.

Gavin’s Strategic Cuts

In addition to his brief of putting paid to Sally once and for all, Gavin also had a number of job cuts to identify. Most of them were easy pickings; older people who would attract a large redundancy or retirement packages in the normal course of things, but once Gavin had homed in on them and decided that their jobs were no longer needed, he was very good at finding something in the woodshed that could justify their sacking without notice or even holiday pay. It was a skill that he had been developing over time, and the only downside was that it often attracted negative publicity when much-loved members of staff suddenly found themselves being escorted off the premises, with their worldly goods in a cardboard box and no time to say goodbye.

Death threats meant little to Gavin, although they usually signified a handsome golden handshake for him and a move elsewhere. He had garnered a reputation for his hatchet jobs, and had been specifically sought out by other local authorities for the last three posts he had held. The councillors at each local authority had identified areas where they thought they could safely lose staff, and although Gavin would take out a couple of people from these teams, within a month of starting his new post, he had also drawn up his own list of staff that needed to be axed within the next year.

Gavin wondered how the members of his own team would react had they been aware that they were on his new hit list too. Mandy was an immediate candidate; whilst Gavin could turn a blind eye to some indiscretions, Mandy wasn’t just indiscreet, she was totally clueless and had no control over anyone in her team.  Her current status of being on sick leave could be successfully overridden by an unescapable assessment by the Occupational Health team.  They were very good at spotting ‘frauds and malingerers’, and from what he knew of (and had heard about) Mandy, there was plenty of evidence to prove her incompetence as a manager, and her abuse of the authority systems.  Gavin’s false Facebook profile enabled him to snoop the posts of any employee who had been unwary in their choice of privacy settings.  Mandy’s posts had been extremely candid, and totally incriminating as far as Gavin was concerned.  With the exception of Joanna, who was too dim to take advantage, Ben, who was an unknown quantity and had very secure settings on his social media accounts, and Peter, who had learnt to keep under the radar and do as he was asked, the rest of the team were all at risk. Gavin wasn’t sure about Peter or Ben yet, he had hopes that they might develop cunning consciences in time but failure to do this would definitely result in dismissal as well.

The terrible triad were borderline at the moment; Gavin quite admired their tenacious abilities to break just about every rule in the book, and while Fiona and Cheryl had learned to cover their tracks to some extent, Karen was too blatant for own good and was therefore the first choice for the chop. Gavin had already carried out a very basic IT check of their computer logs; he knew about Cheryl’s little gambling habit, Fiona’s online shopping sprees and Karen’s dating profile. He also had deeper darker secrets gleaned from Karen’s computer that would leave her without any defence if he decided to sack her.

What of Ben? His newest acquisition; something of an enigma, Ben kept his head down, did what was being asked of him, and appeared more than capable of gathering information to further Gavin’s plans.  Could he be trusted with the ground work for the total annihilation of Sally though? Gavin felt he needed more time and opportunity to get to know Ben. Picking up the phone he asked Joanna to set up a lunchtime meeting; Gavin liked lunchtime meetings; he would get Joanna to arrange them at short notice, so that the employee hadn’t had the opportunity to go out and get lunch first. Gavin would already have eaten his mother’s margarine-loaded spam sandwiches long before. He hated spam, hated white bread and especially hated margarine, but felt that by eating the sandwiches, he was paying a penance in advance and this gave him licence to do anything he wanted. It also meant that his stomach wasn’t the one that was rumbling uncomfortably throughout the meeting.

One of Gavin’s strengths was his ability to give bad news and make it sound like he was doing the person a favour. His rise to the top of his profession was littered with interviews that started off as chats and ended with sackings. His previous employers were in awe of Gavin’s ability to take on onerous tasks and accomplish them with alacrity, whilst managing to avoid further messiness – in most cases.

Every now and again however, he came across a difficult case. A case such as Sally’s. Technically speaking, she was in the right. John had made the arrangements regarding her severance pay and it had been signed off by the Chief Executive in accordance with procedures. It was Michael however, that felt that Sally was in some part responsible for the scandal that had rocked the offices the previous year. She had written the book about the staff hit list, and even if it was only a piece of harmless fun as far as she was concerned; it caused total chaos throughout the council.

There were some that might say Sally had done everyone a favour as some of those who were ‘murdered’ in the book had been under suspicion for years.  Redundancy or retirement packages would have been particularly crippling to a local authority already put in dire straits by national government austerity cuts, so having them ‘resign’ from embarrassment was a stroke of good luck. Sally’s friend Donal had actually drawn up a spreadsheet showing the potential savings, and it was this that led to him fleeing the country with his wife. The police had decided not to go hunting for Donal as his trail went very cold after the couple had crossed the Channel. Michael felt that Sally knew where Donal was however, and although all of the money he embezzled from the council had been returned, Michael was determined to get his pound of flesh from somebody, and Sally was the obvious choice.

Gavin was curious about the previous relationship between Sally and Michael. He knew that they shared an interest in psychology, and that Sally had proved very useful in providing Michael with the specific data he needed when a scandal had been about to break. He had grudgingly mentioned that Sally’s abilities to interrogate their recording systems was unrivalled. Gavin wondered if perhaps this assumed ‘betrayal’ was why Michael was so determined to ruin her reputation and wreck her life?

Putting his briefcase on the desk and checking that everyone out in the office was busy, Gavin decided that he had a few minutes to look at Sally’s folder again before he got Joanna to call Ben in for an interview. He flipped past the recent pages, and went to the very back of the folder where the original data was recorded when Sally was given her first contract with the council. There wasn’t anything that stood out, apart from the fact that she seemed to be very chummy with a previous director of the service, and that she was employed only on a casual basis for over a year. The file listed the names of her husband and sons; he made a note of their names and dates of birth, intending to run a check on their education records to see if there was anything of note buried there. This idea brought a smile to his thin lips as he closed up the folder and locked it back in his briefcase. He picked up the phone. “Joanna?”

“Yes, Mr Slime?”

“Tell Ben I’d like to see him at twelve o’clock. What lunch is he on?”

“He’s on earlies this week. I heard Karen inviting him to go over to the pub for a sandwich.”

“Karen? Really?”

“Yes. She’s changed her lunch to earlies too.”

“Hmmm. Invite Ben discreetly please? I don’t want Karen to know he won’t be free to go to lunch with her.”

‘Oh, okay Mr Slime. Whatever you say.”

Joanna put the phone down and thought. She thought really hard for a couple of minutes then looked at the clock. It was ten to twelve already and Karen was rustling in her handbag for some make up to refresh her face before going to lunch. Smiling to herself, Joanna formulated her plan. She would wait till Karen went out to the toilets to do her face, and then she would nip over to Ben’s desk and tell him about Mr Slime’s request.

She didn’t have long to wait.

As soon as Karen had disappeared out of the door, Joanna walked quickly over to Ben’s desk and bent down to speak to him in what was quite an intimate fashion for her.

“Mr Slime wants to see you in his office at twelve. He says not to talk to anyone else about it, he has some highly confidential work for you to do.”

Ben’s heart leapt at this reprieve from lunch with Karen. He nodded in agreement and began to close up his folders in preparation, and grab a pen and some paper. Karen returned with another layer of foundation, powder, mascara, and lipstick applied on top of her already heavily camouflaged face. She smiled in Ben’s direction and proceeded to lock her computer, and change from flat shoes into killer heels that made her stagger like a new born foal as she went to fetch her coat from the stand.

 The smile on her face turned to a frown as Ben got to his feet, gave what he felt was an apologetic smile, and walked past her to Joanna’s desk. He had told Ruby about Karen’s invitation in the hope that she might be able to join him, but she was running a training session all day. She had promised to meet him in the pub after work however, and he had high hopes that a little bit of handholding there might be enough to start the gossip going.

Joanna looked up and smiled as Ben approached.

She liked Ben.

She didn’t like Karen.

Or Fiona.

Or Cheryl.

Or even Mandy for that matter. They were very bitchy and spoke to her like she was stupid. Joanna knew that she was never going to win any prizes for brilliance, but she wasn’t as daft as she made herself out to be. She had learned as a teenaged modern apprentice in the local authority, that it didn’t pay to be too clever, and that long blonde hair, big blue eyes, a good figure, and a pleasant smile could overcome most issues if used in the right way.

She got up and knocked on Gavin’s door. This was rather academic as Gavin’s office was glazed on three sides so he could see what was going on. He had blinds to lower for privacy but only rarely did he do this. Gavin looked up and nodded; Joanna opened the door and ushered Ben in, closing the door quietly behind her. Gavin stood up and reached his hand across the table. Ben took his hand and shook it, not feeling comfortable with the cold clammy feel of Gavin’s fingers and the limpness of his handshake.

“Do sit down Ben. How’s it going?”

Ben had come prepared; he handed Gavin the dossier he had compiled regarding the policy and procedure errors, together with the names and dates of everyone involved.

“This is the tip of the iceberg I’m afraid.  I’m keeping a very secure file online which is being updated every day as new information is uncovered.  I’m afraid that it isn’t just lower level staff involved, there are some quite prominent upper management names listed, although I note that some of them have resigned in the past year.”

Gavin looked up from the dossier, his thin lips leeching into a smile of sorts.

“This is very good work Ben.  Very good.  I understand that you come from this area originally. Have you noticed many changes in the five years that you’ve been away?”

“To be honest, I wasn’t that interested in local politics before I went off to university.  I worked in the local pub during holidays, but once I’d moved to London permanently, this place kind of faded into obscurity – apart from contact with my mother of course.”

“Any other relatives?”

“We lost contact with my Dad’s side of the family when he died, and any other relatives are scattered across the globe.  Christmas cards only and the annual newsletter with births marriages and deaths.”

“You were in a relationship in London I understand?”

“Melissa and I were together all through university, but her family lives down South and she didn’t want to move away with me. My mother has been unwell and I felt that by coming here to work and live, I could give her more support.”

“You don’t live with your mother though?”

“No.  We get on better if we don’t live in each other’s pockets.  I’m sharing a flat with an old friend from college.  We live over a gym so it’s very convenient for getting in some exercise away from a computer.”

“Very commendable. Is there anything else that you think I should know Ben?

Ben knew that he was blushing a little but felt that this might give credibility to his next announcement.

“Since I came back, I’ve met up with another old friend.  Her name is Ruby, and she works in the training department.  I know that personal relationships with other staff are not encouraged, but there do seem to be some quite high-profile instances throughout our own department.”

Gavin did his best to hide his annoyance at this disclosure; his quick and devious mind saw a way of getting more personal information on Sally.  Did Ben know about Ruby’s role in Sally’s employment tribunal?  Could he be trusted to glean information from her about Sally’s intentions.

Ben observed the small change in expression before Gavin composed himself. There had been sessions on body language and facial expressions on his course that Ben had thought a little melodramatic in the past.  He felt very grateful for them now.

“Ruby has told me that she is supporting an ex-member of staff through an employment tribunal.  She is aware that it would not be appropriate to discuss this with me, and by the same token, I have made it quite clear that my work here is highly confidential.  If our relationship is to continue, it will be on a professional basis at all times during working hours.  I said that I would need to take advice and guidance from yourself before we made any decisions.”

“I appreciate that Ben.  It’s true that there are other people in the authority, indeed, in this particular department, who are married or in partnerships, so technically, and provided that you maintain a professional stance whilst at work there is no problem. You may be aware however, that I am dealing with this particular employment situation, and if any information was to find its way out of this office, those concerned would be subject to instance dismissal on the grounds of gross misconduct.”

Ben allowed his face to take on a disappointed air.  Gavin raised his hand to signify that he handed finished yet.

“Provided that you give me your assurances with regard to confidentiality and your loyalty to me as the head of your department, I will give permission for the relationship to continue.  In view of the behaviour of a certain member of staff in this office, having a girlfriend might mean that you are protected from her amorous advances during your working hours.”

Ben took a deep breath and smiled.

“Thank you, Gavin.  It was beginning to be a problem, especially in meetings.  I’m seeing Ruby after work today; she was going to consult her manager as well.  I have to face the fact that this may never develop beyond the friendship we had before I moved to London though.  People change quite a lot in five years.”

“Indeed.  I am very impressed with your work so far Ben.  Just one thing, how do you find Peter in terms of a trustworthy colleague.”

“He is totally trustworthy and not happy about the fact that Mandy had ignored his reports on contract delay and policy errors.  He is working very hard on the areas of responsibility that you have given him.  Together with the work he assists me with, it’s a mammoth task however.  We could do with another colleague really.”

“Any ideas?”

“Peter’s previous colleague Mark.  He is very familiar with the systems, but was demoted to the post room by Mandy after he complained about being harassed by female member of staff.”

“Excellent! Get a desk and computer sorted for him, and he should be back in his proper place this afternoon. Thank you, Ben.  This has been a very constructive meeting.  Can I ask you to get Mark’s work area sorted before you go to lunch please?”

“Of course. Peter is on late lunches and I’ll ask him to pick up a sandwich for me while he is out.”

“You know the decent sandwich shops already then?” Gavin looked a little wistfully at the empty, sad and faded plastic sandwich box on his desk.

“Would you like me to ask Peter to get you anything from the shop?  They do very good muffins as well?”

Gavin was tempted but the disapproving vision of his mother reared up in front of him.

“Thank you for the offer, but I ate lunch earlier.”

As Ben rose from his seat, Gavin rose also and extended his hand again.  It still felt very clammy and cold.  He turned quickly and left the office, smiling at Joanna as he passed.  By the time he had reached his desk, the smile had widened to a grin as he sent a silent but jubilant email to Peter about Mark’s reinstatement.

Karen was still out at lunch but Fiona and Cheryl could not ignore the fact that an additional desk and computer was being put back next to Peter and Ben’s desk, nor that both men were making calls and sending confirmation emails to IT.

When Peter went off to collect the sandwiches, he was almost skipping as he left the building.

Girlfriend Construction

Sally leaned over and stroked Ben’s hair back from his forehead. She hated to see him looking so defeated.

“My poor love, you thought you were doing the right thing.  Your motives have always been of the best. Even as a little boy you were always very kind and trusting; always ready to see the best in the other children even when they were horrible. I’d hoped that studying Human Resources might toughen you up a bit, not as much as the dreaded Slime, but enough to shrug off the advances if the office harpy.”

Ben blushed profusely; it was true that none of his studies had actually covered fending off amorous colleagues, and there was no way he wanted to be as ruthless as Gavin Slime, but he thought that his studies, an increased level of maturity and years of being in a relationship with Melissa, would have enabled him to deal with the dreaded Karen.

He found himself unable to meet Ruby’s eyes across the dinner table. For Ruby, this was a turning point. She decided then that Ben was rather nice and that she should try and do something to help him.

“I’ll be your fantasy girlfriend if you like.” she said, spooning in more chilli and waiting for a reaction.

Sally laughed. Then she stopped laughing and looked over at Ruby quizzically. “Are you serious, darling?”

Ruby nodded. “Think about it. Ben comes from around here originally, so it makes sense if he has a girlfriend from the area, a girl who knew him before he went off to London and is overjoyed that he has gained his masters, and come back here to work.  I’m young, free and single at the moment. I had first-hand experience of the three witches when I worked over in the office last week, so I know what I’m up against. Ben and I wouldn’t be allowed any public displays of affection during working hours, but we’d only have to be seen in the town at lunchtime, or after work at the pub before the rumour mill starts to work. Ben can say that he kept quiet about it because he wasn’t too sure about the policy on couples working in the same team – although we aren’t even in the same department. Besides, Margaret and Desmond work in the same department and they are married.”

“The less said about Margaret and Desmond’s marriage the better.  What do you think Ben?”

Sally turned towards a shocked Ben, who was looking pale and making no attempt to eat all. He kept looking across the table at Ruby, who was eating her chilli with gusto. Under normal circumstances, if he’d been introduced to her at a party or in the pub, he would have said unequivocally that she was his type, and that she was very attractive, but pretending to be in a relationship with her in order to protect himself from the harpy that was Karen was just wrong. He still had thoughts of Melissa in his head every night.  And day.  The last thing he needed to clutter up his mind was another entanglement, even with someone as bright and gorgeous as Ruby.

“Ben. Speak to me?”

Sally put her hand over his and pulled his face round to her with her other hand.

“Ruby is very kindly offering to save you from certain misery. I happen to think that she makes a very attractive and intelligent companion, and any hot-blooded young man would be only too happy to take her out to lunch or for a drink after work.”

Ben shook his chin free and coughed in embarrassment. Ruby wondered if she had gone too far, he was actually very good-looking, especially when he blushed.

“It was just an idea Ben. I didn’t mean to embarrass you, or make you feel uncomfortable. I just thought it would be a bit more believable if your fantasy girlfriend was real. I know all about you from Sally, and I’m the only person that knows that you are Sally’s godson. It might be useful if people thought we were an item?”

“She’s right Ben. Just stop and think a bit. If you and Ruby see each other at work, she can give you some of the information you need, and you can pass things on to her as well. If Ruby’s willing to expose herself to Karen’s wrath by posing as your girlfriend, I think you’d be churlish to turn her down. Have you had enough to eat yet or have you lost your legendary appetite?”

The chilli was remembered and so was Ben’s appetite. His forehead furrowed as he tucked in again, and thought through Ruby’s proposition. Was this really what he had spent four years of university studying for his masters?  Sally cleared the rest of the food away and went off to stack the dishwasher. Ruby sipped at the last of her wine pensively and looked across the table at Ben who had finally finished his dinner.

“Well?” she said. “Is the thought of me as your girlfriend so repellent?”

He had the grace to blush again. “No – please – I didn’t mean it to sound that way at all. I’m – how much has Sally told you about my current situation?”

“Not much. You’ve been at Uni in London. You have a masters. Your mum is Sally’s sister. You’re sharing a flat with a guy who runs a gym.”

“I was in a relationship until recently. We’d been together right the way through Uni and always intended to settle down together in London. Then this thing cropped up with Sally and after talking to Mum, I thought well, all experience is useful and I had to start somewhere so it may as well be here and see if I could help Sally out. Melissa, my girlfriend, didn’t see it the same way. She thought that putting my family first was wrong, and that she should be my first priority. I saw a side of her that I didn’t like, and that was effectively the end of us.  I knew Simon was living back here and gave him a call, we both liked the idea of sharing again – and there we are. My life in a nutshell.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realise about your – your ex-girlfriend. How long ago did you split up?”

Ben took a deep breath and tried to banish the painful parting.

“Once we’d – well I’d decided to take the job here there seemed little point in staying. I packed my things up into a van and drove home. I spent some time helping around the house, doing odd jobs, and working behind the bar at our local. Mum was glad to have me home for a while; it hasn’t been easy for her since Dad died. Keeping busy kept my mind off things. I miss Melissa though, miss the life she and I had together, but if what we had was really that good, she would have come with me. Wouldn’t she?”

Not completely sure whether she would have stayed with the bright lights of the big city, or followed Ben up North, Ruby stayed silent for a moment. Sally came back in carrying ice cream and home-made brownies. Discussion was temporarily halted whilst pudding was consumed and it was Ruby, after raising a warning eyebrow at her friend, who gathered up the bowls and spoons to take them out to the kitchen.

Sally grabbed Ben’s hand again.

“Before you say anything more, I have to tell you that I’ve been talking to your mum whilst I was in the kitchen. Don’t look at me like that Ben, she is my sister after all. She told me what happened in London. Darling I am so sorry. Perhaps it’s too soon to be pretending that you have a new girlfriend when you’re still tender from splitting up from Melissa. I’m just worried that although Karen and her chums have lost a considerable amount of their power now that Mandy is out of the picture, she can make your life a misery if she can’t get her claws into you. Ruby   supplied me with some very graphic descriptions of the three witches the other day. I’ve worked with women like that before. I really don’t want you chewed up and spat out in bubbles my love.”

Unable to suppress a grin at the very thought, Ben looked a lot happier when Ruby came back into the room. She had eked out her absence as long as possible but even after a visit to the bathroom had been accomplished, she couldn’t stay away any longer. Sally got up and fetched two A4 pads and two pens from her desk. She placed them in front of Ben and Ruby.

 “Okay you two. I want you to write twenty things about yourself that you think would be important for a partner to know. I’m sure I can do better than an online dating agency any day.”

Ben gave her a look. “I haven’t said yes yet.”

“Nor will you until you’ve both done as I’ve asked you to. It may well be that you have nothing in common, and are completely incompatible. On the other hand, you may discover that there are several areas of interest that are the same, or at least overlap. Get writing!”

Ruby giggled and picked up her pen, intrigued to find out whether she and Ben were a match or not. Ben had to admit, only to himself, that this was more fun than brooding over Melissa.  Sally returned to the kitchen, made a huge pot of coffee, and texted an update to both her sister, and Ed. By the time she came back Ben and Ruby were both writing furiously and on their second sheets of paper. Once they had finished, Sally gathered up the papers and with her spectacles perched on the end of her nose, smiled as she worked her way through them.

The coffee was good; hot and strong with cream and brown sugar on the side. Ruby poured cups for the three of them, and watched as Sally’s smile spread into a grin. She put the papers down and looked from one to the other.

“Well.  It would appear that the two of you have a great deal in common.  There are a few areas of slight disagreement, but I assume that’s fairly normal. I’ve been with your uncle for thirty-four years Ben, and I still don’t understand why he refuses to drink coffee when he loves the smell of it. I’ve explained to him that the rubbish instant coffee he drank as a teenager bears no resemblance to the decent coffee I use – but he won’t even try it. There are some things in life that aren’t worth having an argument about.  Why don’t you have a look at each other’s answers?”

She passed them the papers and sat back, cradling her coffee cup in her hands as she sipped it slowly.

It was Ruby that started laughing first, then Ben joined in and as both of them showed Sally what had caused their amusement, she started laughing again. Ruby looked over at Ben.

 “Fancy ‘My Cousin Vinnie’ and ‘Blazing Saddles’ being your favourite films!”

“Or the fact that you love crab sandwiches and hate Brussel sprouts.”

Sally pulled a face. “Everyone hates Brussel sprouts. Don’t they?”

“Okay.” said Ben. “Not everyone likes salad cream and sliced cheese sandwiches, or going to the beach when it’s raining.”

“Or Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.”

“Or listening to the Divine Comedy and Joni Mitchell.”

Nodding sagely, Sally shrugged.

“I rest my case. You two quite unwittingly have many shared interests. Now write down the things that you think someone like Karen would expect you to know about each other – where you live, how old you are, family members and friends – don’t put me down either of you – pets, schools, universities, qualifications – you know the score. When you’ve finished, swap over and memorise. Your Aunty Sally will give you a test and there will be a prize for the winner.”

“What kind of prize?” said Ruby eagerly, her competitive edge beginning to show.

“Certain safety for my lovely nephew, and something to keep you occupied so you don’t end up strangling Bob or head-butting Margaret. If you make Adam cry Ruby, I will get cross. The poor man is just a lamb to the slaughter in all this.”

“Humph, he still collects a salary at the end of the month though doesn’t he, which is more than you do anymore.”

“Concentrate Ruby, I think you’ll find that Ben is just as competitive as you are.” said Sally. “You may even have met your match. One thing you will have to do Ben, is to explain your relationship with Ruby to Gavin Slime. He may see it as a threat to his plans to scupper my tribunal, but on the other hand, he might think that he can get you to find out more about my plans through Ruby.”

Ruby snorted.  “As if I’d give anything away that would help that creep!”

“Think laterally darling.  I can give you misleading information that you can pass on to Ben, and he can give it to the Slimy one.”

Ben was seeing a sign of Sally that he had never seen before.  She had always been his kind and funny aunt, but now he could understand how and why she had written such a devious and cunning exposure of her ex-colleagues in her book. His mother had given him a copy when she knew that he was considering taking up the job offer.  Although he had only been working for the local authority for a short time, he had already identified some of her characters, and witnessed some of the sharp practices that she had exposed.

“I have a feeling that I know what’s going on in your mind Ben.  You’ve read the book and now you are smack in the middle of the den of manipulating wolves.  If this is too much, then cut your losses while you are still on probation.  This is going to get very ugly, and I have no serial killer to bump off those who would seek to destroy me.”

He had to admit that he had thought that some of the issues in the book were a bit far-fetched, but now he was experiencing the corruption for real, he could see why Sally had proved to be such an annoyance to her more incompetent colleagues.  He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and grinned at Sally and Ruby.

“My mother always says that I take after you more than her, Sally. Stubborn and too strong-willed for my own good.  I hate admitting defeat so I accept the challenge!”

Keeping Ben Busy

Ben was enjoying some of his work. Peter had become a useful ally, but Joanna had remained impervious to his charms, so he was no closer to finding out what Gavin Slime was up to.  The occupants of Room 19 remained a mystery as well; no one seemed to know who worked in the room or what those who worked in there did. Ben had considered going in there to introduce himself, but when he suggested this to Peter, his reaction of total horror acted as something of a deterrent.

As part of the local authority’s induction scheme, Ben had to go through a series of courses and talks designed to ease him into the policies and procedures of the local authority and its various departments. As part of his university degree had been designing induction courses, Ben was partly looking forward to the process in terms of curiosity, and part dreading it in case it turned out to be just as chaotic as everything else in the council seemed to be.

It would also give him the opportunity to escape the office and the unfortunate development that was Karen. It appeared that she had decided to abandon her online dating and to set her sights on Ben instead; cheaper and less effort involved as he was sitting at a desk within her eye-line, and easy prey as far as she was concerned. Karen was not his type. She was a redhead and he preferred brunettes; Ben liked his women to be rounded and cuddly. Karen was stick thin with her new and extremely enhanced breasts sticking out like a pair of coconut pyramids. Her permanently erect nipples protruded through the flimsy tee-shirts and blouses she wore with micro skirts or skin-tight leggings that made her legs look like pipe cleaners with curiously saggy tops.

It had taken her a whole day to decide that Ben was her soul mate. First thing in the morning she was standing by his desk with a cup of coffee for him; pouting with disappointment as he explained that he didn’t drink tea or instant coffee, and had already visited a coffee shop on his way into work. She then perched on the edge of his desk, twining her legs in what she seemed to think was an enticing manner. She was wearing strangely patterned tights that made her legs look as if she was suffering from a dreadful skin disease; her skirt kept riding up so that every now and then Ben caught an unwelcome glimpse of the reinforced gusset of her tights.

He had plenty of work to get on with and Karen’s bottom was well and truly planted on it.

“I – um – could I just get to those papers you’re – um – sitting on please?” Ben asked as politely as possible, noting that Karen’s pout was becoming more pronounced by the moment. He was unwittingly saved by Cheryl and Fiona who had spotted a posting on Facebook from their boss Mandy that glued them to the computer screen. Karen, hating to be left out of anything that her two chums were enjoying, jumped off the desk and ran over to them, pulling the entire pile of paperwork onto the floor as she moved.

Peter came over to help Ben pick up the scattered files, motioning Ben not to say a word and risk arousing the ire of Karen even further. Fortunately, Gavin appeared out of his office and signalled for silence in the office.  Cheryl quickly clicked on the document she should have been working on and looked up at Gavin obediently.

“In the short time that I have been here, I have witnessed several practices that are not only unprofessional, but are also against the official polices of our employers.  Changing the method of clocking on and off has not been popular with all employees, but it does give me a better idea of who has been seriously defrauding the local authority by feeding false information into the system.”

He glared at Fiona, Cheryl and Karen, who had the grace to blush and look down at their desks.

“It seems that this is insufficient; you will all be aware that staff have to pass my office and Joanna’s desk in order to take comfort breaks in the lavatories.  Joanna has been keeping a manual log of who walks past, time spent out of the office, and whether the person was alone or not.”

Time for another glare in one particular direction. It was no secret who had taken to visiting the lavatory in a threesome, how long they took, or how frequent those trips were.

“I am not a harsh manager, and I am aware that female staff may have more reason to visit the lavatory frequently than male staff.  I have no intention of overriding your human rights or causing anyone physical distress by denying them the right to use the lavatory when necessary.  This is not a nightclub however, and there is no need for people to congregate in the lavatories when they should be doing the work that they are being paid for. From now on you must take your comfort breaks alone.  As you pass Joanna’s desk you will be given a red pass card which you will return to her when you come back into the office.  This will enable individual visits and frequency to be logged more efficiently.  If Joanna is away from her desk, you must send her an email. If you are going out for lunch, a cigarette, or attending an external meeting, you must clock out manually at reception. If you are going to a meeting within the building, you must send Joanna an email stating where you are going, and who you are meeting with.  You will all be receiving an email confirming this; a slightly different procedure regarding absence from desks is in the process of being adapted by other managers in all departments. Any questions?”

There was a stunned silence.  Ben and Peter exchanged conspiratorial winks; the lavatory monitoring idea had come from them after an extended comfort break where Fiona and Cheryl were comforting Karen after Gavin had disciplined her for the sloppiness of her work.

Having decided that the path to freedom and fun lay in seducing Ben, Karen’s efforts increased as the day wore on; she made a beeline for him in a meeting, sitting very close at the conference table and rubbing her knee against his. He tried to move away but this involved him moving closer to Cheryl who shook her plaits in annoyance and tapped her long silver nails against the table whenever he inched in her direction. He was so distracted that he missed a question that Gavin fired at him and had to ask for it to be repeated.  Karen smirking behind her hand didn’t help, and Gavin’s slow and emphasised repetition of his question merely made Ben look even more dense as he struggled to answer it.

He made it through to lunchtime and was struck dumb when Karen offered to take him over to the pub for a sandwich or whatever he wanted…? He was well aware of what else was on offer, but whilst desperately trying to think of a way out of his predicament, Fiona saved him by reminding Karen that she was supposed to be going out to a new coffee shop that was giving away free muffins. Gavin’s new policy about lunches meant that one of the three had to take a later lunch than the others; Karen had been nominated to go out first before all the muffins were gone.  Fiona and Cheryl went out for their allotted half hour when she returned but were disappointed by the fact that the coffee shop was only allowing one muffin per customer, so they had to queue up and wait, leaving no time at all for their usual shopping spree.

When all three had returned, Peter asked Ben if he was coming out to get a sandwich, Ben shot from his seat like a bullet from a gun and was in the corridor and pulling on his coat before Peter caught up with him.

“I’m afraid you’ve caught Karen’s eye.” said Peter, a little too gleefully for Ben’s liking.

“No. Please no.” said Ben, his face a picture of abject misery. “Apart from the fact that she frightens the life out of me, she’s really not my type at all.”

“What’s your type then?” Peter asked as they walked quickly up the hill to the sandwich shop.

“Cuddly, sweet, non-predatory.”

“Joanna then?”

“We-ell, yes but isn’t she having a thing with Gavin?”

“Don’t think so. I don’t think Gavin is having a thing with anyone apart from himself. Joanna was supposed to be getting married last year but she fell prey to the same issues as Karen. Bridezillas. At least Joanna’s bloke had the decency to dump her three months before the wedding, and before too much money had been spent. Karen used her share of the wedding money for her new boobs. What do you think of her new boobs? Success or not?”

Ben’s face took on a bilious look as he thought momentarily of Karen’s chest. He shook his head as if to dispel the vision.

“Horrible.” he said. “So false and hard looking. A woman’s breasts should be soft and pliant, not too big, not too small. My granddad always said they should be big enough to fill an honest man’s hand. Anything more is a waste; anything less isn’t worth bothering with.”

“For God’s sake don’t say that to Karen then. Do you have a partner?”

“Melissa and I were together for five years while we at Uni, but we split up when I got the job offer here. She works down in London and didn’t want to waste away in the sticks.”

“If I were you, I’d either get someone quick or let people know that you and Melissa are still partners and pining for each other. If Karen has decided that you are the one for her, only another woman will put her off, and she’ll have to be one hell of a woman.”

Ben made a mental note to call Sally as soon as possible and ask her advice. He paid for his sandwich and followed Peter back to the office. The rest of the afternoon passed more peacefully; Karen and her cronies were hard at work under Gavin’s eagle eye, whilst Peter and Ben were out at another pointless meeting. By the time they returned it was gone five o’clock, Cheryl and Fiona had vanished together with Karen who had left a note on Ben’s desk inviting him out for lunch the following day having adjusted the lunch rota. 

Peter looked at the note and whistled through his teeth. “You won’t be able to wriggle out of that one mate. That’s a summons.”

“Perhaps she’ll behave herself in public?” Ben suggested plaintively.

Peter grinned and shook his head. “Wear your cricket box. She’ll be making a grab for them whenever she can. She gets very tactile when aroused. She had a bit of a thing for Mark in between being jilted and boob-jobbed. He’s well and truly married and made a complaint about harassment, as well as all the other things that Karen and the other two do.  It’s very dark and miserable down in the post room. I saw him recently and although he’s miserable, he says he’s still happier being down there than being groped by Karen.”

“Oh God.” Ben put his head in his hands.

Peter patted his head, “Come on Ben. Time to go home.”

Ben turned off his computer, squared up the papers on his desk and locked everything personal away in his desk drawer, including Karen’s note. He followed Peter out of the building and to the pub car park.

“Coming in?” Peter asked.

“Not tonight. I – uh – have to go and see someone. Goodnight.”

As soon as he got in the car Ben pulled out his mobile and called Sally. She answered straight away.

“Hello Ben.”

“Sally! It’s me. Ben! Help me!”

“I know it’s you, Ben. Don’t tell me you have a crisis already!”

Whilst he felt disappointed that she obviously didn’t think he’d last that long; Ben was relieved that Sally wasn’t surprised that he had hit a problem.

“Can I come and see you please?”

“Of course, you can. Do you need feeding? Silly question. I’m doing chilli. Garlic bread or rice, or both?”

“Both. I had a sandwich at lunchtime but it was like eating cardboard.”

“Hmmm, I believe I know which sandwich shop you went to then. Come on. Tell me all your problems. I’ve got a nice bottle of Rioja open and it has your name on it too.”

Ben felt the relief surge through his body and out through his toes as he started the car and drove very carefully over to Sally’s house. He noticed a strange car parked outside, and felt a moment’s irritation that someone else was taking up Sally’s time and attention. He walked slowly up the garden path and put a smile on his face as Sally opened the door.

“Come on in. I’ve someone here that I want you to meet.”

Ben followed Sally into the front room where a young, very curvaceous brunette had risen to her feet to meet him. She smiled nervously and held out a hand.

“Ben, this is my Ruby. Ruby, this is my Ben and I think the two of you are going to have to form a support group very quickly.”

By the time Sally had warmed up the chilli, made some garlic bread, boiled rice and laid the table, Ruby and Ben had found some common ground in their detestation of Fiona, Cheryl and especially Karen. Ruby described her recent visit and how the morning was spent listening to the three of them plotting and cackling over a dating site. Ben updated the situation with the disturbing news that Karen appeared to have abandoned the online dating quest and fixated on him instead.

Ruby shook her head. “That’s not good. Do you have a partner?”

Ben shook his head. “Not any more. Her name is Melissa and she didn’t want to move away from London.”

“You’ll have to create one then.” said Sally briskly as she put a large tureen of chilli on the table and motioned for them to sit down whilst she fetched the rice and garlic bread. She left some in the kitchen for Ed, who was at work.

“Create one?” asked Ben as Sally ladled a large portion of chilli onto his plate. Ruby accepted a rather smaller portion.

“Yes! You won’t be the first bloke to invent a fantasy girlfriend in order to fend off a predator. From what I’ve heard about Karen, she won’t give in easily, and she won’t be fobbed off by any old fantasy girlfriend either. You are going to have to come up with something extremely believable.”

Ben paused, with his spoon halfway to his mouth, “I’m not that good at telling lies.”

Sally snorted. “And you’ve chosen to go into Human Resources!”

The look of abject misery that was clouding his handsome face made her instantly remorseful.

“Oh darling, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to cast doubt on your integrity but, help me here Ruby, the HR field isn’t exactly famous for truth and total honesty is it?”

Ruby grinned and nodded, almost choking on a piece of garlic bread.

“Sorry Ben, but I have to agree with Sally. If you’ve come to work for us with the intention of making our HR department into a textbook operation, then you are going to be sadly disappointed. At guess I would say that there’s only Peter in your team that has any integrity and it’s fast being drained out of him.”

The spoon had gone from Ben’s mouth to the table, and his appetite for Sally’s always delicious chilli was evaporating the more he heard about his employers.

“I should have spoken to you before I took the job, shouldn’t I?”