Desmond found the brown envelope on the doormat when he came down for breakfast. He recognised the handwriting, and with a little smile, picked it up and put on the table next to Margaret’s customary seat. He had heard her brushing her teeth in the bathroom as he left his daughter’s bedroom. Still smiling, he put the kettle on for coffee and poured himself some orange juice. Margaret’s bad mood of the evening before was still hanging over her like a dark cloud.
“What’s this?” she said as she picked up the envelope.
Desmond shrugged his shoulders, and kept his back turned so that she wouldn’t see his smile. Looking at the size of the envelope and the fact that it had cardboard backing, he had an idea of what was inside. He also had a feeling that Margaret was not going to be happy when she looked at the contents.
“Anything interesting, my dear?”
Her silence spoke volumes as she hastily stuffed the incriminating photographs back in the envelope, and put the whole thing into her briefcase.
“Nothing that you need to be bothered with, Desmond. Just some notes from a parish council meeting that we’d been invited to.”
“Were we? I don’t remember that. Was it on the calendar?”
He placed her cup of coffee down very carefully, before walking over to the wall calendar which they used for recording important events.
“Don’t bother looking on there. It was nothing important, and I had another meeting to attend that evening anyway. Will you be long, Desmond? I need to get into the office early this morning.”
I bet you do, thought Desmond but said instead. “That’s alright my dear. I have a late start this morning and I thought I’d walk instead. I could do with some fresh air.”
Margaret looked a little confused. Desmond never turned down a lift to work. It wasn’t a long way to walk; just through the village and onto the main road. Her mind was on things that she felt were far more important than Desmond anyway. She finished her coffee, pulled on her favourite black jacket with its stylish fur collar, picked up her briefcase and left the house without even saying goodbye.
As soon as he heard the car pull off the driveway and roar away, Desmond began to laugh. He felt no pity for Margaret any more. Turning the radio on full blast to Planet Rock, he air guitared his way between the toaster and the table. If he timed it right, he could pop into the Post Office, and the betting shop on his way to work. Desmond felt a warm nugget of happiness swelling in his chest. Lunch with Sally and Margaret yesterday had done him the world of good.
Karen was taking advantage of her parents’ absence at the bowls club to polish up her disguise for today’s task. She wore the long blonde wig again, a stylish but slightly old-fashioned dress, and equally sensible shoes. She planned to arrive at the address for ten o’clock, which would give her a good hour or so before she was due at Sally’s for lunch. She had a feeling that she knew what she was going to be up against, and had done her homework very efficiently.
It took a while before the front door of the address was opened by a middle-aged lady wearing a violently pink protective tabard.
“Yes? Can I help you? Mrs Slime doesn’t take cold callers or religious people.”
“I’m neither of those.” said Karen. “Could you tell Mrs Slime that it’s Joanna, her son’s secretary, and could she spare me a moment or two please?”
Leaving the front door slightly ajar, the woman bustled back down the corridor. She returned minutes later and ushered Karen into the kitchen.
“Mrs Slime will see you in here as she doesn’t want to disturb Mr Slime. He’s having a nap in front of the TV. Would you like a cup of tea?”
Karen shook her head and smiled, readying herself for the entrance of Gavin’s formidable mother. Although Joanna hadn’t said much to her colleagues, they had all heard her guarded responses to his mother’s telephone calls, and seen his discarded sandwiches in the waste-paper bin.
Mrs Slime was much as Karen had imagined her; grey-haired, dressed in a polyester tent dress that failed to conceal her girth, leaning heavily on elbow crutches, and wearing an expression that could turn milk sour. Karen rose to greet her but the imperious hand wave motioned her to sit down.
“Well, young lady, what have you got to say for yourself? I can’t stop long; my favourite programme will be on soon.”
“I’m sorry to disturb you Mrs Slime, but having to keep covering for your son is making me feel very guilty, and I feel that I ought to let you know what’s going on.”
Mrs Slime sat down heavily on the kitchen chair opposite.
“Go on. I’m listening.” She said, grim-faced.
Karen enjoyed playing the part of the not very bright but seemingly innocent Joanna. “You may have realised that he rarely eats the sandwiches that you so kindly make for him. They usually end up in the bin.”
“Hah! I thought so when he didn’t bring the crusts home. He told me that he’d been eating them later on in the day.”
“No. He usually asks me to empty the contents into the main office bin before I go home. It isn’t just the sandwiches though. Can I ask if he was posting a parcel for you yesterday?”
“Don’t be ridiculous girl! We have no other relatives apart from Gavin now. That’s why we allowed him to sell our old house and move in here with him. Who would I be sending parcels to?”
“He often leaves the office during the day. He says he is going to a meeting, but there’s nothing in his diary or on the electronic calendar. He sometimes goes up to the sandwich shop and buys some lunch there. He likes paninis and latte macchiato apparently. On other times he leaves work for an early dinner, but comes back to the office to call you and say that he’s about to come home. A couple of times he’s asked me to make the call to you, if he doesn’t want to come back to the office. I’m so sorry for lying to you, Mrs Slime. I’ve put in for a transfer to another team because I don’t like telling lies.”
“That’s alright, my dear. I appreciate you coming to tell me about it. I shall be having words with my son when he comes home tonight, but I won’t tell him where I got the information from.”
“Thank you. I’ll go now and leave you to watch your programmes.”
Mrs Slime called for the cleaner, who showed Karen out of the house, and put the kettle on. Mrs Slime had the kind of look on her face that meant trouble. Karen contained her bubbling excitement until she had driven some distance from the house. She’d pulled it off, and even if Mrs Slime phoned her son and got Joanna on the phone, it didn’t matter, as Joanna would just say that she didn’t know what Mrs Slime was talking about. There was still time to pop into the supermarket toilets and take off the wig. The frumpish dress and shoes might serve to make Sally feel even more sorry for Karen, although it wasn’t sympathy she wanted, but action, and some way of getting back at Gavin. She would never forget the way he humiliated her; in front of her former colleagues, the security guards, and the crowd of visitors in the reception area. She had forgiven Ben, and to some extent Ruby, the poison had now been sown deeply as far as Margaret was concerned, however.
Waiting until she was sure that no one was likely to come into her office, Margaret gingerly took the brown envelope out of her briefcase, and looked at the photographs again. From some aspects, they proved nothing, they were just shots of her going into a hotel and coming out again. She had always been careful about not actually being seen with the CEO in public, but the digital time and date stamps showed her being somewhere other than the meeting that she said she was attending. Although she could wriggle out of it on a work basis, she knew that Gavin was especially good at tracking on the systems, or getting his new partner in crime Ben to do the dirty work for him. What would Desmond think if he saw the photos, and realised that Margaret had been in a hotel for at least an hour when she was supposed to be in a meeting at the Town Hall?
Did she even care what he thought anymore?
Slightly puzzled about why Desmond had chosen to walk to work rather than take a lift from her, she phoned his team and asked if he was in yet. He was, and the team secretary, thinking that she was being helpful, said that the walk seemed to have done him good as he was very cheerful.
Did Margaret want to speak to him?
No, she didn’t, and hung up abruptly.
Ed had taken Perro to the vets on his way to work, and Sally was missing the warmth of his glossy-coated body beside her on the sofa. She distracted herself by tidying the front room, and putting her dossier of tribunal information on the coffee table. Lunch with Karen would be interesting at least. If Sally had been expecting a beaten and demoralised visitor, she was very mistaken. Although her outfit didn’t consist of the fishnets, microskirt and high heels that Ben had described, Karen’s hair was clean and recently brushed, she was wearing discreet make up, and there was no sign of bloodshot eyes from crying about her situation. Sally greeted her warmly and showed her into the front room. Karen hesitated before entering.
“Um, where’s your dog?”
“At the vets. It was you that he barked at the other night wasn’t it?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be hanging around, but I felt quite desperate and hoped that I might be able to make contact with you about my being sacked.”
“It’s fine. He doesn’t mean any harm, he’s just very protective, especially of me. He’s having a small operation, and will be back tomorrow. Ruby had some information from Ben about your situation, so I know something about what happened.”
“Is she cross with me? About the way I behaved towards Ben?”
“Not at all. From what I know you have been through a very difficult time recently, and that hasn’t been helped by the fact that Mandy hasn’t exercised much in the way of positive management over her team. There is no doubt that you misused the authority’s time and equipment, but perhaps the line to take is that if you had received better support and supervision from your line manager, this might not have happened. I feel rather sorry for Mandy, but she should have asked for help a long time ago, rather than letting everything deteriorate. HR is a very important department.”
“Do you really think I could win an appeal?” asked Karen, beginning to feel a little more optimistic.
“You’ve nothing to lose, have you?” said Sally, taking her hand; Karen returned the squeeze and smiled.
“No. I haven’t even told my parents yet.”
“Have you seen a doctor at all?”
“Yes, after the wedding ended in disaster. He gave me some antidepressants, but I didn’t take any of them.”
“No need to mention that, antidepressants can make you do some very strange things.” said Sally. “I’ve put together some forms and information sheets for you to take away, but I need you to sit down and write a report, starting with the preparations for the wedding. That kind of pressure can make a person behave in a peculiar way too.”
Sally and Karen ate lunch together, and with the main business over, Karen decided to confess about her recent visit to Gavin’s mother, and the anonymous letters delivered to Margaret and Desmond. Sally nearly choked on her sandwich, but this was because she was laughing so much rather than from shock.
Karen felt relieved but confused.
“I’m sorry for laughing but I have to tell you that your letter to Desmond may have finally set him free from Margaret.” Sally explained. “Ruby brought him over yesterday and he showed me the letter. As for Slime, he deserves everything he gets. You obviously have the makings of a very effective private eye!”
“Do you think so?” Karen had to admit that she rather liked the idea, much more fun than working in HR.
“I do. I’ve had a strange card delivered with the post this morning, asking me to go and pick up a parcel from the local post office. It’s not the sort of card that we usually get and it doesn’t give the option of having the parcel redelivered either.”
Karen took the card. She recognised the style of signature and handed it back to Sally.
“Slime is behind this. Cheryl told me that he’d gone off to the post office with a parcel that he was posting for his mother, but when I spoke to her about it this morning, she knew nothing about it.”
“My husband is at work, my sons are at Uni and school, and Perro is at the vets. I ought to go down to the Post Office to see if there really is a parcel or not. It says that I have to go after two o’clock.”
“I could give you a lift there and back, if you like?”
“I have this awful feeling that this is a trap. If I give you Ben and Ruby’s mobile numbers, can you drop me off just up the road and wait. I take it Slime doesn’t know about your new car?”
“No and I still have the blonde wig that I wore this morning when I visited his mother.”
“This might be dangerous, but if we are going to catch him out, I have to take the risk. When you’ve dropped me off, can you park up near the exit at the back of the shops?”
“I will. Are you sure?”
“I’m scared to death, but if we manage to discredit Slime, your case will look much more promising as well.”
Karen finished off the lunch while Sally went upstairs and changed into jeans, a hoodie and some trainers. She borrowed one of her son’s camping knives, and hid it inside her bra. She was ready for action. Like two naughty schoolgirls, Karen and Sally drove down to the local shops; Karen’s mobile was hands free, and had Ben’s and Ruby’s mobile numbers on speed dial.
Having been dropped off, Sally walked slowly down the access road to the shops. Ben had told her the type and colour of Gavin’s car, but there was no sign of it, just a couple of white vans and a builder’s truck. A part of her felt just a little disappointed as she walked towards the little alleyway to the Post Office.
Gavin had planned this well. Leaving the back door of the little white van open, he was out like a flash, grabbing Sally from behind and enclosing her mouth and nose with a pad heavily doused in chloroform. She didn’t have time to struggle as he dragged her into the back of the van and quickly secured her mouth, wrists and ankles with duct tape. Looking around, he was sure that no one had seen him, so he jumped into the front seat and reversed up the access road, narrowly missing a silver Toyota. It didn’t matter as there was no one in it.
Except that there was.
She had made a note of the licence plate as soon as she saw the van reversing up the road; she had already spotted Gavin getting out of the van to open the back doors and putting an unconscious Sally inside.
Karen drove after the van and called Ruby at the same time. The phone went to answerphone so she phoned Ben. Luckily, he was in and listened carefully as Karen explained what had happened.
“Has he seen you Karen? You must be careful. It sounds like he’s a desperate man.”
“Thank you, Ben, I’m driving a different car, and wearing a blonde wig and sunglasses. He’s turning into a storage site now, one of those with the sort of containers that you get on boats. Should I follow him right in?”
“No. Stay safe and out of sight. I’m calling the police now and then I’ll be on the way. Have you got a sat nav on your phone?”
“Yes, and I can give you the postcode and name of the site.”
“Well done, Karen, and thank you.”
Gavin backed the van up to the container; according to the instructions on the chloroform that he obtained on the dark web, given her size and gender, Sally should be unconscious for another five minutes at least. He opened the back door of the van and dragged a still comatose Sally out, and onto the mattress that he had placed on the floor. It wasn’t a particularly clean mattress, but it served its purpose. Gavin sat on the chair that he had also put into the container so that he could watch his prisoner and gloat.
Sally had been awake for most of the journey; the chloroform wore off more quickly than Gavin’s calculations had assessed, and although she felt rather sick, her senses were rapidly returning, and her brain was already formulating a method of escape. She could tell from the pressure against her bra that Gavin hadn’t had time to check her for weapons before getting her out of the van. She also realised that it would be no use putting up a fight; from what she had heard from Ruby, and now Karen, Gavin had a pathological hatred of strong women, no doubt sparked by his overbearing mother. She began to moan softly as if she were actually coming round.
Gavin got up and leaned over her.
“Not so stroppy now Sally? You have to answer to me now. No one knows where you are. Shame you never got to pick up your parcel from the Post Office. It was just a ploy to get you out of the house on your own and it worked! I got one over on you, and this is not a situation that you can get out of. By the look on your face, I think you may be about to vomit, so I’ll take the tape off of your mouth. I don’t want you to choke to death. I very much want you alive as long as possible.”
Sally prepared herself for the pain of having the tape ripped off from around her mouth. Gavin did not do this gently, but he wasn’t quick enough to avoid Sally throwing up on his shoes. He swore, and grabbed a towel to wipe up the mess; Sally managed a pathetic sob or two, desperate to buy more time, hopeful that Karen had managed to follow Gavin, and get through to Ben and Ruby.
“I’ll undo your hands so that you can clean your mess up, but don’t try anything silly or you’ll be very sorry.”
“Could I – could I have some water please Gavin?”
Sally did her best to carry on with the subservient act, and was pleased when he undid the tape on her wrists and handed her the towel.
“Don’t try anything! I’m going out to the van to get some water.”
When Gavin got outside the container, he could see several police cars outside the manager’s office building. They might not be there about him, but he wasn’t about to take a chance. There would be other opportunities to capture Sally. He got into the van and drove off quickly, but not with such speed that he might draw attention to himself, nor to the whereabouts of the container. Once he was back on the main road, he kept looking behind him until he had reached the car park where he had left his own car.
Thinking on his feet, he decided that going back to the office was a bad idea, so he headed for home. Once again, he found that the front and back doors had been double locked. More annoyed at being thwarted by his mother again, he continued banging on the door until he heard her voice.
“For goodness sake Mother! It’s Gavin. Will you let me in please?”
“No! You are a liar and a cheat Gavin and you are never setting foot in this house again.”
“What are you talking about, you stupid woman?”
“I had a visitor this morning who told me everything; about how you throw your sandwiches in the bin, how you’ve been sneaking out of your office for lunch and early dinners. What’s all this about a parcel you were supposed to be sending for me? I won’t allow you to get me caught up in your deceits. I’m consulting a lawyer about who this house actually belongs to, seeing as how you sold our house and used our money to buy it.”
Gavin had a feeling that he needed to get away rather than carry on arguing with his mother.
“Drop dead, you old hag!” he shouted as he got back into the car and drove off. Time to put his emergency plan into action.
Meanwhile, back in the container, Sally had taken the camping knife out of its hiding place and withdrawn its small but rather sharp blade. She had always objected to her younger son having such a store of weaponry in his bedroom, but on this occasion, it might just come in useful. She did her best to mop up the vomit, although most of it seemed to have gone on Gavin’s shoes and the mattress. She used the knife to cut off the remaining duct tape and took a look around the inside of the container before getting unsteadily to her feet. When she worked out where the door was, there was a tremendous hammering on the door, and Sally let out an extremely loud yell and jumped back, knife in hand in case it was Gavin.
The door burst open and Sally was relieved to see several large policemen wearing full body armour. One of them very gently, but firmly took the knife from Sally’s hand before anyone got hurt. Ben was waiting outside the container with Karen, who had now removed her blonde wig and sunglasses.
Sally hugged Ben, mindful that she probably smelled horrible.
“It would be good to say that it’s all over now, but this is just the start. Gavin’s done a runner and I don’t think he will give in now. He’s so desperate. Can you make sure that the police return that knife or I will be in huge trouble when my son finds it missing.”
“I’ll buy him a new one.” said Ben, refusing to let Sally go, despite the smell of chloroform and vomit. Karen fetched a bottle of water from her car and some wet wipes for Sally to clean herself up.
“Thank you,” said Sally. “I owe you more than one, Karen. Ben, we need to talk about getting Karen reinstated and soon. I think you’ll have to admit that Gavin’s current behaviour has to be taken into account?”
“It does and we’ll talk about it later, but first you need to sit down and let the paramedics check you over. The police are very interested in what you can tell them about Gavin.”
“He won’t be in the white van now; you have all the details of his own car don’t you Karen?” Sally asked.
“I do, and after what I told his mother this morning, I don’t think he’ll be welcome there either.
“He talked about taking me somewhere out in the wilds; a place that no one else knew about.” Sally was wracking her still befuddled brain trying to remember everything Gavin had said before he ran off. Ben was very reassuring.
“Once you’ve spoken to the police, they’ll have grounds to get a search warrant, and if what Karen says about Mrs Slime, I doubt if she’ll have any problem with letting them uncover any secrets that Gavin has hidden away in the house.”
Just then, a very distraught Ruby arrived, having received the messages that Ben and Karen had left on her phone. She hugged everyone that she could, drawing a line at hugging the policemen, who looked a little disappointed at being left out. Sally was ushered into the back of an ambulance to be checked over. Karen started to walk back to her car, feeling embarrassed by Ruby’s presence. Ruby stopped her and gave her another hug.
“Thank you, Karen. I have a feeling that if it wasn’t for you, Sally might be badly hurt, and disappearing off somewhere with horrible Slime. If there is anything I can do to help you, I will. Promise.”
“That goes for me too, Karen,” Said Ben. “If Sally says that she wants me to help you, then I’ll do my best, and with Ruby on your side as well, resistance is pretty useless. I’m going to have a quick word with the police before I go back to the office – just to find out what I should and shouldn’t say.”
One of the paramedics came over to say that they were taking Sally to hospital for a full check up before she talked to the police. She sent a message over to Ruby and Karen.
“I think you two need to go for a nice coffee and some cake. I’ll see you later.”
Ruby and Karen grinned at each other, and drove off having arranged to meet up at the Starbucks nearby.