Sally had mastered the art of doing a number of domestic tasks with her fingers crossed whilst she waited for Ruby to arrive after the conference. They had agreed not to call in case someone overheard who Ruby was talking to – unlikely as she only ever phoned Sally from remote locations like the cemetery. Ben had phoned in his lunch hour to update Sally on the most recent cuts and to pick her brains about Margaret and Room 19.
Filling in the gaps about Margaret and her not-so-secret love affair was easy, but as Ruby had said, the situation with Room 19 was a little more complex.
“We all assumed that Desmond was oblivious to what was going on between his wife and the CEO. Desmond is a lovely man and very good at his job, but lives in this dream world where he chucks it all in and goes to live a hippy life on Venice Beach. As this life style would not suit Margaret, we all hoped that she would abandon him eventually and set him free. I spent quite a while working with him, and came to the conclusion that he was devoted to Margaret and put up with her bossiness and the fact that she kept him on a shoestring, apart from his Saturday morning betting shop visits.”
“What about Room 19? No more hedging, Sally. I don’t know what Gavin knows about it, or if he is so wrapped up in decimating the HR dead wood, and arranging your downfall that he hasn’t noticed that there is a room just down the corridor that he knows nothing about.”
Sally drew in a deep breath.
“I suppose it will have to come out eventually. There are two older females occupying Room 19. They used to be answerable to my friend Donal, but I’m assuming that their supervision has passed on to his boss.”
“What do they do in there?”
“Knitting and crochet mostly. They make things for the premature baby unit at the hospital; blankets, little hats and cardigans mostly.”
“And we are paying them to do that? I know it’s a good cause and everything but it isn’t exactly cost effective is it?”
“Oh, it isn’t what they are paid to do. They answer phones most of the time.”
“Don’t we have a customer service department for that?”
“That’s where they both used to work, until Donal overheard them both one day. Although they are older women, both of them have one thing in common. They had deep and rather lovely speaking voices. Donal thought that they could be put to better use than fielding complaints about wheelie bins and the rates.”
“Go on. I have an awful feeling that I know where this is heading.”
“Donal set up a couple of phonelines that go through to Room 19, and bypass the switchboard. In between the knitting and crocheting, they take fairly mild, but slightly reprimanding calls of a sexual nature. The calls are premium rate, and bring in a great deal of revenue which is diverted through the finance department.”
“Don’t these two women feel embarrassed about what they are doing?”
“Ben! You can be very naïve sometimes. Both of them are grandmothers, and they are probably responsible for quelling the suicidal tendencies of some very lonely men who just want someone to listen to them and tell them how naughty they are.”
“Who else knows about this?”
“Donal’s boss, me and you now. Ruby has an idea about what is going on in there, but she’s of the opinion that she doesn’t need to know the details. Both of these women are coming up for retirement, and the helpline will invariably get shut down when they go, but in the meantime, they are performing community services on more than one level. What do you think Gavin would do if he found out?”
“If what Ruby’s heard about him, he’d probably be partaking of their services. He has something of a reputation for being a creepy stalker who won’t take no for an answer. On which note, be careful about going out of the house on your own. Perro is lovely, but unpredictable. If he gets spooked and runs off, you’ll be completely unprotected.”
“This is all a bit melodramatic Ben! I already know that Slime is creepy, but he isn’t going to break the law be attacking me, is he?”
“I don’t know. He’s already come in for some criticism from Margaret and Michael, and from what I know of him, he doesn’t like being told off. He is dropping in on the conference this afternoon, so I am in charge of the office. I’m going to see if I can extract any useful information from Joanna whilst he’s out.”
“I hope it goes well. Ruby is so worried about this conference. She’s coming round for dinner tonight to tell me all about it. Do you want to join us?”
“I’d love to but I don’t want to risk being seen in your neighbourhood at the moment. Added to which, Melissa texted me this morning and asked me to call her later.”
‘Oh Ben! That sounds positive, doesn’t it?”
“From your mouth to Melissa’s ears. I think that she’s lonely, and feeling a bit in limbo. Not really footloose and fancy free, but not part of a couple either. She’s always been more sociable than me. I often felt very boring in comparison with her A-list friends. Maybe her priorities are changing?”
“With Karen gone, will you and Ruby have to carry on with the pretence?”
“We had a chat about this last night. Gavin seems to think that Ruby can provide some useful information about you, so he’s keen on us seeing each other. Can you think up some little juicy nugget that she can pass on to me?”
“Something about my daily routine that he can home in on I suppose? I’ll talk to Ruby about it tonight.”
“Nothing too dramatic or dangerous. I may appear to be on the other side, but I’m doing this to help you. I’d better go anyway. Tell Ruby that I’ve got things crossed for her as well.”
“I will. You stay safe as well Ben. Love you.”
“Love you too. Bye”
From the look on Ruby’s face when she knocked on Sally’s front door later that day, Sally wasn’t sure whether the day had been a success or a failure. She had a glass of red wine ready and a bowl of savoury crackers; she knew that Ruby had probably been too nervous to eat all day and wanted her to nibble gently before she tucked into the pasta carbonara that was bubbling in the oven.
“Come in, sit down and have a drink before you tell me all about it.”
Ruby sat down on the sofa; kicked off her fashionable, but painful high heels and took a from large sip of the wine.
“Starting with the successes; Adam’s song was lovely and much appreciated. Desmond was an absolute sweetheart; Kathy and I will be forever grateful to him. The training department as a whole performed very well, and most of the attendees filled out very positive feedback forms.”
“Okay. I can guess who might have behaved badly.”
“Bob upset several people by making sexist, racist and unfunny comments. Michael overheard him and sent him packing. His presence was not missed, and Michael was very complimentary to Kathy. I was ignored totally by him; he considers me to be living in the enemy camp. Gavin turned up after lunch, as did Margaret. He had a little word with Michael about Mandy’s behaviour and suspending her for gross misconduct once her current sick note expires. Michael being the psychologist that he is, picked up on the fact that Margaret had not been very good at managing Mandy, and was definitely answerable. Michael took Margaret aside and had a not very quiet word with her about Gavin investigating Mandy’s lack of management.”
“People overheard I take it?”
“It was a large conference; the walls of the venue are quite thin, there were some attendees who don’t like all three of them, and were feeling a bit nervous about Gavin’s investigations into their own Internet and social media use.”
“You must be exhausted. And hungry?”
“Starving. You know what it’s like when there is a free buffet; ravening hordes poking at the food, double dipping the crudités, and leaving a mess of paper plates and serviettes. Desmond helped me to clear it all up until Margaret spotted him and demanded that he leave that sort of thing to junior members of staff. That comment was flung well and truly in my direction. She really is poisonous.”
Sally nodded, remembering the times that Margaret had put her down in public, insisted that she stay late to tidy up official reports that were overdue, and delivered some very nasty insults at poor Desmond when he had come to meet his ungrateful wife for lunch.
“I spoke to Ben earlier. He says that you’ve agreed to carry on with your ‘romance’ for the time being. I can’t help it Ruby, but I feel dreadful that I’ve dragged you both into the mess that I’ve made of my life.”
“Ben and I are adults, Sally. I like being Ben’s friend; he makes me laugh and my social life has improved tremendously since we became a ‘couple’. We went out for pizza last night.”
Sally did not look convinced but felt that this was the time for food. She’d pick up the subject later, and mention that Melissa was probably back on the scene, so there might be even more reasons for Ben to have a good friend that he could rely on.
Conversation over dinner stayed light, limited by the speed with which everyone tucked into Sally’s pasta, and the chocolate fudge brownies she had rustled up earlier. She and Ruby settled back on the sofa with more red wine, and less stress.
“Thank you for telling Ben about Margaret and the CEO. I took the opportunity to explain the origins of Room 19 as well.”
“Does that mean you can tell me the whole story as well then? There is so much mystery about that place that even the rumour mill is scared to say anything.”
Choosing her words carefully, Sally explained Donal’s involvement in the setting up of Room 19, and the nature of the work that went on there. Ruby laughed so hard that she almost choked on her wine.
“Sex chat lines performed by elderly women whilst they knit and crochet clothing for poorly babies. So ironic!”
“If you promise not to tell anyone, especially not Ben, Donal actually asked me if I wanted to be involved. He always said that my voice was far too sexy for chasing up reports and arranging council meetings. I said no, of course.”
“Could be another string to your bow if we lost the tribunal?”
“Oh, don’t Ruby! It’s bad enough knowing that Slime is creeping around trying to grub up dirt on me. If he ever found out that I knew what Donal had been up to, I’d definitely lose.”
Ed poked his head round the door.
“Just taking Perro out for a walk. The dishwasher is stacked and started. Oh, and I’ve opened up another bottle of wine for you.”
“Thank you darling. Walk safely.”
Ruby put her hand over the top of the wine glass.
“No more for me. I’ve got the day off tomorrow, but I still have to drive home.”
“Stay here. I have a new bottle of Baileys as well.”
“You are a terrible woman. What else did Ben have to say?”
“He was expecting a call from Melissa this evening. I am so torn; I want Ben to be happy and if she makes him happy then I’ll be glad if they get back together, but my sister tells me that he was in quite a state when they broke up. Melissa has a very busy social life in London, although Ben says that her friends don’t know whether to set her up with a new man or not, especially when she tells them that she’s back in contact with Ben again.”
“He’d have no shortage of females throwing themselves at him at work. Although Karen’s gone, and he’s supposed to be in a relationship with me, Joanna has been telling people that she thinks he is wonderful. “
“That’s not good. She was working with us in the run up to her wedding; we heard every little detail about the flowers, the dress, the buffet. Everything down to the colour of the bows on the chairs, and the lace on her garter. Ben tells me that he is cultivating her in order to get more information on Slime.”
“Yuk. Is that Perro barking?”
“He’s probably seen a cat. Or a hedgehog. He doesn’t like hedgehogs.”
Ed came back into the house and managed to calm down a visibly agitated Perro.
“Is he okay?” asked Sally.
“There was a woman sitting in a little red car outside. She had her back to us and screamed when she saw Perro. So, he barked at her, she screamed again, tried to start the car, stalled it and eventually drove off as if the all the hounds of Hell had been unleashed on her rather than just poor Perro.”
“Did you get a good look at her?”
“Not really. Dark straight hair, very pale face and she looked as if she’d been crying.”
“Karen!” said Sally and Ruby in unison.
Sally picked up her mobile and texted Ben, asking what kind of a car Karen drove. He must have been holding his phone and waiting for Melissa to call. His response was brief but contained enough information to confirm that the person parked outside the house might well have been Karen.
“No arguments Ruby. You are staying the night. Karen sees herself as a woman scorned; not only has she lost her job; she’s also been rejected by Ben because he chose you. We’d be much happier if you stayed with us tonight. We want Ruby to stay the night, here don’t we?”
Ed grinned, went back into the kitchen and brought back the new bottle of wine. Sally texted Ben to tell him that they thought Karen might have been stalking Ruby, but that she was safe at Sally’s house tonight. He texted back quite quickly.
Thank you xxx
It was Karen in the little red car. She knew that Ruby was at the conference as prior to her sacking, Karen had been booked to attend. Knowing the time that the conference was due to end, she had waited in her car intending to follow Ruby home, and confront her in the car park.
Ruby’s address was on Karen’s list of useful information.
So was Ben’s.
Karen was a little confused when Ruby headed off in the opposite direction and it was only when she saw Sally open the front door and welcome Ruby with a hug, that she realised where she was.
Having taken note of Sally’s address, Karen sat in the car and waited. She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for, but until the curtains were drawn, she had watched Sally and Ruby chatting, and then the cosy meal around the table. The sight made her feel even more sorry for herself. What was it about Ruby anyway? She had a good job, she had Ben and she had a friend like Sally who obviously cared for her. Karen cried and the pile of used tissues built up on the passenger seat beside her. She was feeling so bitter and twisted that she didn’t notice the man from the house taking the big black dog for a walk. It was only when she saw the dog’s nose pressed inquisitively against her passenger window that Karen jumped and screamed.
When Perro barked in response, Karen panicked. She didn’t know who the man was but she’d always been afraid of dogs, and this one seemed particularly aggressive. Although the man pulled the dog away, he looked in through the window to see if she was okay. Karen knew that this was not a good place to be discovered and once she had managed to get the car started again, she drove off at speed, looking in her rear-view mirror and noting that the man and the dog had gone into the house that she now knew was Sally’s.
As she drove home, Karen wondered if there was any way she could use this information. She had never really had much to do with Sally, but she knew from the limited amount of gossip that Sally was in deep trouble with Gavin Slime.
Gavin Slime who had treated her so badly.
The worm of an idea began to expand in her mind. Although Sally and Ruby were friends, Karen wondered if she could ask Sally to help with her own case of wrongful dismissal. She seemed like quite a nice person, and anyone who was brave enough to stand up to Slime, would be a good ally surely?
The thought cheered her up so much that she stopped for a takeaway burger and strawberry milkshake on the way home. Perhaps her idea of confronting Ruby was not a good idea after all. Although she was angry with Ben and Ruby, it was Slime that she hated more than anyone now. She sat outside her own house in order to finish her milkshake, then gathered up the crumpled tissues, wrappers and empty carton, she got out of the car and dumped the rubbish in the wheelie bin.
Her parents were in the front room and greeted her cheerily, asking if she’d had a nice evening out with her friends, and did she need any dinner? She manufactured a cheery smile; said she was tired and going up to her room. Her parents were nice people but they weren’t imaginative; they’d had difficulty coping with the aftermath of the ruined wedding, and when Karen had come home waxing lyrical about Ben, her new boss, they hoped that she had turned a corner. They had hopes, but were very careful not to put too much pressure on their daughter.
Karen fired up her laptop and recorded Sally’s address in her personnel file. The information that she had smuggled out had some details on Sally, and on the mysterious Donal. Time to do more poking around on the Internet. She smiled to herself as she put a cross next to one of the names on her own hit list. She had arranged for a letter containing some very interesting information to be delivered by hand to Reception. She had a feeling that the revelations enclosed could cause some rather awkward explanations and excuses on the part of the person concerned.