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.
“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.