Now that Karen knew where Sally lived, she could put the next part of her plan into action. Sending the letter to Desmond had been easy to accomplish; she already had all the relevant data in her ‘insurance’ file, and she had persuaded her Dad to drop the letter into reception for her on the grounds that she was going to a conference off-site that day, and the letter needed to be delivered to the main office building as soon as possible. He and Karen’s Mum were planning to go into town that day anyway, so it could be built into their intended wander through the market.
Karen had to dress up a bit that morning, so that she looked as if she was going to the conference, but made sure that she had comfortable clothes to change into later, and adequate food and drink supplies. Although Perro had scared the life out of her when he crept up on her in the dark, the experience made her aware of the importance of keeping an eye out for anything strange. This stalking business was more difficult than she thought, but it was definitely more exciting than sitting at home brooding, or pretending that she was off to the office as usual.
Inevitably, she would have to tell her parents about her dismissal, but in the meantime, she intended to get as much of her master plan completed, so that she could play the wronged and unhappy daughter more realistically. Karen knew that whatever happened, her employers couldn’t refuse to give her a reference, nor give her a negative reference, as this would be against employment law. Her time in HR had taught her many lessons about what an employer could and couldn’t do. It didn’t extend to employment tribunals however, and this was why she needed Sally’s help.
She turned up at Sally’s on the morning after the conference, and was disappointed to find that Ruby’s car was still there. Did that mean that Ruby had drunk too much wine to drive, and been taken home by Sally’s husband? Or did it mean that Ruby had stayed the night, in which case now was not a good time to drop in announced, however good a reason she thought she had.
Another thing that Karen was considering was changing her car for something a little less conspicuous; red cars were very common, but not all of them had rear window stickers proclaiming ‘Powered by Fairy Dust’ and ‘Unicorns Welcome’. They had seemed quite funny when she, Fiona and Cheryl had bought them on one of their lunchtime shopping trips, but the awful reality of Karen’s situation couldn’t rely on fairies and unicorns anymore.
Her task this morning was to dip into her savings and change the car; Mandy had tried to get everyone on the team to sign up to the car lease scheme, but something it had worried Karen, and she stuck with her little red car. This didn’t please Mandy, but she couldn’t exactly argue with Karen, in case some of the less savoury details of Mandy’s home and work life came out. Too late now, because it seemed that the information Ben had acquired from IT was even more damning than the report on Karen.
If Ruby was at Sally’s, she couldn’t be at Ben’s, and this was a good opportunity to check out his address before she was due at the car dealership. Karen’s feelings toward Ben were in conflict; she still fancied him and had entertained fantasies where he finally realised that she was the only woman for him, had her dismissal over turned, and lived happily ever after. She had to face up to it though. In reality, Ben had already been in a relationship with Ruby before he met Karen, and although Gavin Slime had told Ben who to run reports on, it was Ben who had collated the damning information.
Cheryl had texted her to explain that Fiona was now down in the post room, that she was being very careful about accessing anything that might get her into more trouble, and that Ben had been overheard telling Joanna that she mustn’t use her office computer to visit online gambling sites, even if she was on her lunch hour at the time. Karen initially felt cross that Fiona, Cheryl and Joanna had got off so lightly, but decided to be sympathetic and supportive to Cheryl. She might come in very useful after all.
Ben’s call from Melissa had him perplexed. In some ways it was a positive experience in that she told him how much she missed him, how lonely she was, and how her social life seemed to have ground to a halt since he moved away. This was music to his ears but there was a sneaking doubt; at no time did she ask him how he was, how he was getting on in his new job, what Simon’s gym and the flat were like, and if his mother was glad to have him closer to home?
He listened and waited for even the smallest spark of interest in his life, but it didn’t come. He got the feeling that Melissa was waiting for him to ask her to visit for the weekend. If life was so dull in London, even the North might be more exciting? Something stopped him from issuing the invitation; there was so much going on with Sally, with Gavin, and yes, with Ruby too. The call ended amicably enough, and Melissa told him that she still loved him, and had he found anyone else yet? He could honestly answer in the negative. Ruby was his friend and someone who made him laugh, who understood the pressure he was under, but she was not his girlfriend.
He thought about phoning Ruby, but settled for a text telling her that he hoped the conference had gone well. Gavin had left the office at lunchtime, saying that he was going to the office but he hadn’t come back by the time Ben was packing up to leave. He thought about phoning Sally or his mother, but as both of them knew that he was expecting a call from Melissa, he decided against any more calls, in case either of them started asking awkward questions. Ruby returned his text, said that the conference had gone well – mostly – and that she was staying at Sally’s for the night because she had the next day off.
Feeling a little disappointed because he wanted to run an idea past her, Ben decided to sleep on it. He thought that he had come up with a solution to the mystery that was Room 19, but he had to do a little bit of detective work on the retirement dates of the ladies who spent all day in the mysterious room.
When he woke up the next morning, Ben was determined to put his new plan into action. Grabbing a slice of toast, he drove off to the office, and was relieved to find that he was first in so he wouldn’t have to answer Peter and Mark’s questions if they found him probing the Finance team employee details. As Sally had said, the two females were within months of retiring gracefully, and were listed as ‘clerical assistants’ which was a fairly nebulous term used to describe a member of staff with a wide range of nondescript tasks.
The rest of the team drifted in, careful to ensure that it was before their official starting time of nine o’clock. Joanna gave Ben a very sweet smile as she passed his desk to hang up her coat. Peter and Mark exchanged conspiratorial winks, and Cheryl, all alone on a desk set out for three people, made sure that she was typing industriously when Gavin, seemingly in a goodish mood, arrived carrying a takeaway cup of coffee, and a bag that probably contained a muffin or slice of cake that was so different from his mother’s dry and barely edible baked goods.
Ben sent Gavin an email asking he was free for half an hour for an update. The reply inviting him to visit Gavin’s office came back almost immediately, and was less terse than usual. Ben picked up the report that he had carefully prepared and mentally crossed his fingers for the lies he was about to tell.
Joanna ushered Ben into Gavin’s office with another sweet smile.
“Good morning, Ben,” said Gavin. “What have you got to tell me? Is it about Sally? Ruby did a very good job with that conference yesterday; it was very interesting and well attended. I think the additional floor show from certain senior members of staff was an added attraction however.”
Ben looked confused.
“Sorry Ben, I thought Ruby might have told you last night.”
“I didn’t see her last night. We both knew that she would be exhausted and needing to catch up on some of the sleep she’s lost through worrying about the conference. We texted each other though, and she said that it had gone well – mostly. She has the day off today to recover.”
“Very discreet of her not to mention the rather indiscreet behaviour of those who should know better. If the report isn’t about Sally, what is it about?”
“And that is of interest to me?”
“Only because it’s a couple of rooms away from our section, and I didn’t want you to be unprepared if there were any questions from senior management about it.”
Gavin took all this in, and leaning back in his chair, gestured with his hand.
“Okay Ben, what does go on in Room 19?”
“It’s a glorified storeroom, but not for anything belonging to the local authority.”
“So, what is in there and why do we have to store it?”
“One of the older ladies in Finance has a granddaughter who was born prematurely and had to spend some time in the special care baby unit. She started crocheting clothes and blankets for these very tiny babies, and other members of staff started to contribute as well. This lady and her colleague set up a proper charity, but their main problem was that they had nowhere to store items when staff brought them in. Room 19 has never been used for anything but a dumping ground for broken desk and chairs, so John, who was Michael’s predecessor, hit on the idea of getting it cleared out, cleaned up and used as a store room for the knitted and crocheted goods. They are put into sanitised bags, and when there are enough, the bags are sealed and taken off to the hospital where they are very gratefully received.”
Gavin looked unimpressed.
“Can they not keep them at home? Why do they have to clutter up one of our offices?”
“It’s quite a small room, and the agreement was that if it was needed, and if the ladies left our employment, the clothes would be removed and the room made available again. I’ve checked their records and both ladies are due to retire next month. A side issue is that the baby unit is part of the Mayor’s chosen charities this year, so there would be some good PR in having our staff contributing by making clothes and blankets for tiny babies.”
“Hmm. Not the sort of things that appeals to me, but I see the sense in it as far as the Mayor and other councillors are concerned. How big is this room and what facilities has it got?”
“One window with a view of the wall, and barely room for a desk and one or two people. That’s why it was never used as an office; anyone who worked in there inevitably went off sick with stress.”
“We have quite enough of that sort of thing already. I leave it in your hands then, Ben. I take it that the room is kept locked?”
“The key is in the Finance office if we need it.”
“No, no. We have bigger fish to fry. Mandy has been advised that we will be setting up meetings regarding her dismissal. She is entitled to have a member of staff to provide support in the same way that Ruby does to Sally. I’d like you to sort through a list of possible candidates, and find one who is least likely to be empathic and understanding. Peter and Mark might be very helpful in finding someone who hasn’t worked with Mandy before. When are you seeing Ruby again?”
“Err, we hadn’t made any arrangements but I’ll text her this evening and see if she wants to go out for a meal.”
“Excellent. Pick her brains Ben. I need to know more about Sally if we are going to win this employment tribunal.”
“Do I have to set up a supporter for Karen as well?”
Gavin’s thin lips twisted into his deeply unpleasant smile.
“We have far bigger fish to fry Ben. I doubt if Karen will bother contesting her dismissal. She’s quite a pathetic little person really, and not worth bothering with. I’ve got a lunch meeting with one of the councillors, and then I shall be out for the rest of the afternoon. Joanna has been briefed on my whereabouts, but she has been told to divert her phone through to yours if she has to leave her desk for any reason. If you get a call from my mother, you can identify yourself, but you are to tell her that I ate my sandwiches in the office, and have gone out to meet up with some councillors. You aren’t sure when I will be back. Is that clear?”
“Yes Gavin. And thank you.”
Ben returned to his desk, returning Joanna’s smile, and feeling that his plans for Room 19 had been successful. He texted Ruby to see if she was free to meet up in the evening. She had gone back to her flat and after looking at a fairly uninspiring selection of ready meals in the fridge and freezer, her reply was resounding
There was a great deal to catch up on.
Gavin might have been surprised if he had seen what pathetic little Karen had been up to. She had traded in her little red car for a silver Yaris with no stickers. She had also bought two wigs; one was long and blonde, the other a short bubble cut in auburn. A couple of pairs of clear spectacles, and some mirrored sunglasses completed her stalking kit. According to one of the surveillance sites she had accessed on the laptop, these items, together with changes of jacket and hoodies, should be sufficient to prevent her presence being too easily identified.
Her first port of call in the new car was to post a letter through Sally’s door. She had been watching and knew that Sally and her husband had gone out in the car with the dog so there was no chance of her being observed. She put on the blonde wig and a pair of glasses just in case, and because she wanted to try them out. With that part of her mission accomplished, and noticing that Ruby’s car was no longer outside the house, Karen set off on the next part of her plan.
Ruby meanwhile was nursing a bit of a hangover; she and Sally had sat up late talking, about the tribunal, about people they loved and loathed, but studiously avoiding the subject of Ben because they both knew that he had been at home waiting for a call from Melissa. When Ruby received his text asking to meet up that evening, she couldn’t help feeling a little flutter of excitement, but reminded herself that the main focus should be on how to help and support Sally. Nevertheless, the afternoon was spent having a shower, a revitalising facemask and hunting through her wardrobe for something casual, but flattering to wear that evening.
Gavin spent the afternoon exploring the area around Sally’s house; he knew where her hairdresser was, the little post office and the fact that there was a dark alleyway leading to the small parade of shops. He visited a fairly disreputable storage facility, and booked a medium sized container for a month. He also got the details of a company that rented out small white vans.
No questions asked if you paid in cash.
Ben and Ruby met up in yet another restaurant car park. French cuisine this time, and though Ben had offered to give Ruby a lift, she had declined, explaining that she had all the feedback forms to go through when she got back into work the next day. She offered to pay for dinner, but having looked at the prices on the menu, Ben insisted as he was earning a great deal more than she was.
There was a great deal of laughter that evening, as Ruby described the row between Michael and Margaret, and the fact that Gavin had been within listening distance of the whole thing. They talked about Sally, and Ruby mentioned that Perro was going to be at the vets in a couple of days’ times, because he had to have a benign lump removed from his side. Sally knew that it was a very small operation and that he was a big, strong dog, but she worried about him. According to Ruby, Sally was worrying about a great many things at the moment, uppermost was the tribunal, but she was also worrying about poor Desmond, about Ben and what would happen if Gavin found out that he was Sally’s nephew, about Ruby, and whether Margaret might try to spoil her chances of progression, and strangely enough, Karen.
According to Ruby, Sally felt that despite all the trouble that Karen had caused, life did not seem to have been kind to her. They had never met, but Sally, being the person that she was, didn’t like to see other people having their lives torn apart just to make other people happy.
The one thing that neither Ben nor Ruby mentioned was the call from Melissa. Ben didn’t want to admit that it hadn’t been a success, and Ruby didn’t want to ask in case it had been, and a reconciliation was on the cards. They parted with a friendly hug, and a kiss on the cheek, and Ruby drove back home without giving a second glance at the woman with short red hair following her in a silver Toyota.
Karen sat in her car and watched Ruby go back to her flat.
Alone. That was enough stalking for one night.