Room 19

Along the corridor from the office where Ruby had spent her eventful morning hot desking was a small office with the vague title of ‘Room 19’ on the solid wooden door. Very few people had cause to enter the room. When Ben was being shown around the department on his first day, he was hurried past Room 19 with a muttered explanation that nothing much went on in there that he had to be bothered about.

He had been introduced to his new boss; Gavin Slime, and Gavin’s nice but not-very-bright secretary Joanna, had found him a desk, complete with a computer and the requisite peripherals. She arranged for Ben to get a security pass, a network user name so that he could log on to the central system and then informed him that there was no on-site parking but if he wanted to pay £3.00 per week, he could park a mile away and walk in. He was subsequently advised by the ever-helpful Peter, that most staff parked in the pub car park, had a drink there after work in the evening and tipped the manager an extra fiver every now and then. Senior management were not aware of this arrangement and would not have approved of staff frequenting such an establishment. This also meant that the pub was a management-free area which suited the rest of clientele as well.

Peter proved a valuable ally; he was missing his friend Mark, now working in the bowels of the building sorting out post.   Having another male in the office – apart from Gavin Slime – was a blessed relief. By lunchtime Ben was au fait with the official and unofficial workings of the Human Resources department but even Peter was unable to shed any light on what went on in Room 19. Ben had yet to meet Mandy, the team manager and Gavin’s second in command, as she was on annual leave in Tenerife. He had heard Karen, Cheryl and Fiona screaming with laughter and reading out Mandy’s Facebook comments all morning however, and got a distinct feeling that he wasn’t going to warm to her when she returned. For Ben, coming from university and a more purist view of Human Resources, each new revelation he came across made his blood run cold and his irritation levels rise.

Gavin stayed in his office most of the time; the noise level reduced when he opened his door, and almost all the staff stopped what they were doing and hunched over their computer screens in an effort to look busy. Joanna sat at her workstation outside his glass panelled office, occasionally typing, but generally examining her immaculate nails and occasionally texting elegantly on her crystal encrusted mobile.

There was no canteen on the premises; Peter advised Ben that people usually got food from the nearby supermarket, sandwiches from across the road or, if finances permitted, went to the all-you-can-eat for a fiver Chinese restaurant next door. That was usually reserved for Fridays when early goes were the norm, and most managers indulged in a liquid lunch that ensured that very little work was done at the end of the week. As it was Monday, though not exactly a hive of activity, there was a little evidence of any work being done anyway; Fiona had actually managed to finish two contracts but had passed them to Peter for checking. He was only a few pages into the first contract but had found several errors already. He explained in an undertone to Ben, that he had to be careful about finding too many errors because Fiona was notorious for throwing temper tantrums, and it was one of these that had led to Mark’s anonymous complaint and subsequent demotion.

“I take a copy of what she sends me and file it.” Peter said quietly, “Then I make some changes and save a copy, then I send the original back to her with my suggested changes, then I go back to my version, make another copy and do the rest of the changes so that I’m in the clear. Fiona makes the changes, occasionally spots some further errors, sends it back to me with a terse note, I repeat the whole process with some further changes, and then she sends it to Mandy for checking.  Mandy will be sending it to Gavin but we aren’t sure if he will consider it his responsibility to check it.  It will end up in Joanna’s in-tray and as she can barely read, she will ignore it. Eventually the member of staff will start chasing up their contract, and it is found on Joanna’s desk covered in coffee rings. A new copy is generated and comes back to us only if the member of staff bothers to read the terms and disagree with them.”

“You seem to know a lot about Joanna?”

“Unfortunately.  I worked in the same office as her when I did a stint in Margaret’s office.  She gives the impression of being dim, but she knows how to work the systems.  You would do well to keep on the right side of her.  She is one of Margaret’s favourites.”

“For goodness sake!” said Ben. “This is a horrendous waste of time and resources! Do you not have any standard contracts that can be used as a template?”

Peter shrugged.

“We used to, but there was a rumour that there were going to be cuts, so erm … Mandy deconstructed the whole contract template system and gave bits of it to Fiona, Karen and Cheryl to rewrite. That was two years ago. We were hoping that Gavin will reinstate the original system but there’s some kind of secret project he’s involved in as well – very hush-hush and mysterious.”

This sounded more interesting to Ben; Sally had been dismissed just over nine months ago, and there was a possibility that Gavin’s work was linked to her appeal and tribunal. Looking up he caught Janna’s eye; she gave him a vague but fairly warm smile and he wondered if she was the key to it all. Ben knew all too well the charming power of his large brown eyes, short but curly dark hair, and body that he kept fit at the gym. He had already received several admiring looks from his new office mates – both male and female – since he’d walked in to the building.

Fiona had informed Ben that he would be on first lunch with Peter, so that she and her two colleagues could have a shopping lunch. Peter explained quietly that this meant the three of them would be gone for at least two hours, and that they would inevitably have to leave early in order to return most of their purchases after spending the afternoon comparing and criticising them.

Peter led the way down the corridor, past the mysterious Room 19, and the grim-faced receptionist who tutted when Ben’s security fob failed to let him out of the building. Luckily Peter’s fob was working and their progress up the road to the sandwich shop had no further hindrance. Ben looked back at their office building when they reached the top of the precinct. It was definitely imposing; five stories high and an ugly grey seventies blot on the landscape with dead-eyed mirrored windows, and the occasional covered walkway. The only relief from the concrete face was a red banner draped outside the Indian restaurant on the ground floor. Half of its fastenings had come loose and it flapped apathetically with each passing breeze. It did not look an impressive place to work, and Ben had already heard from Sally that it was rumoured to have ‘sick building syndrome’. Given that part of Ben’s new role was to look into the rising rates of sickness in the building, he wondered if the rumour was actually true. Sally had also mentioned that the heating and air conditioning were monitored by the owners of the building. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but the owners were based much further north, and the temperature there was the yardstick used to control the temperature in this office building miles away, and often subject to completely different weather conditions.

Peter looked nervously at his watch and hustled Ben into the nearest sandwich shop. Ben also looked at his watch.

“We’ve only been out for ten minutes. It can’t be time to go back already?”

“It really wouldn’t be a good idea to upset Fiona today.” Peter said, looking over his shoulder in the direction of their office, “She’ll be waiting for us to get back so that she can go out with Cheryl and Karen.”

“But early lunch is from twelve till one! They are on late lunch which is from one till two.”

Peter shook his head, raised his eyebrows, and paid for his sandwiches all in one jerky move.

“You don’t understand Ben. Those are the official times for lunches but Fiona and the others will be expecting to go as soon as we get back. If we don’t return till one o’clock, they’ll only get an hour for lunch.”

“And? They clock on and off the same as everyone else, don’t they?”

“Not exactly.”

Ben handed over the money for his own sandwiches and followed Peter in what could only be described as a trot.

“So, explain to me then? Whilst we’re outside and no one can hear us.”

“They use the clocking on system the same as all of us but they do it in retrospect,” said Peter. “When they come back from shopping, they will record that they went out at one o’clock and came back at two but in reality, they’ll be waiting with their coats on for us to return.”

Ben was astounded.

“But that’s cheating the system, and the authority! More to the point it’s cheating everyone in the office. You’re supposed to have at least half an hour away from your desk, we’ll barely have been away fifteen minutes by the time we get back.”

“We have to make sure that we don’t clock back on till twelve-thirty so that it looks like we’ve been away at least half an hour. I don’t know why you look so shocked Ben. It goes on throughout the council.”

“This goes against everything I learned at Uni; what about Gavin? You can’t tell me he actually approves of these arrangements?”

Peter shrugged his shoulders again. “We had hopes that he might sort things out a bit – new broom and all that but this is Mandy ‘s responsibility, and she is so totally under Fiona’s thumb that she’ll let anything go. You’re on six months’ probation remember. Don’t make waves or we’ll all suffer.”

Ben sat down at his desk and unwrapped his sandwiches. The bread tasted like sawdust in his mouth. The future didn’t look bright at all. He was beginning to think that he should have listened to Sally.

Sally

Ruby drove off and parked in a side street some way from the central offices before picking up her own phone and calling Sally’s number.

“Hi honeybunch. How are you?”

Ruby smiled. Sally’s mobile was never far from her fingertips and she knew at a glance who was calling. “I’ve had an interesting morning in Human Resources. Some very unhappy bunnies in there, and three naughty women who don’t seem to be doing much in the way of genuine work. Three of them spent all morning putting together a dating profile for the one who got dumped on her wedding night.”

“Really! On her wedding night! Why?”

“Rumour has it she turned into a bridezilla, and by that time she and her new husband had gone through the months of preparation, and a horrendously expensive and tacky wedding.  It culminated in a night of bickering in the honeymoon suite at Heathrow, non-consummation and the bridegroom running off with his ticket to the Dominican Republic after cashing hers in and stealing her passport so that she couldn’t follow him!”

“Ouch! What happened next?”

“She spent her own honeymoon money on a boob job, her husband came back with a glorious sun tan, and resumed his position in the Highways department. He wants nothing more to do with her and has taken all the best wedding presents. Her side of the family are demanding that he return the presents, but he says that he deserves them after all the pain and strain leading up to the wedding.”

Sally giggled. “Where did you get all this from?”

“I was sitting opposite nice Peter, you remember, he was seconded out of customer relations for six months and worked next door to us.”

“Oh yes, I remember him. He was sweet. What on earth is he doing in HR?”

“Another secondment. Looked to me like he was doing all the work for the three witches, as well as his own stuff. He seems absolutely petrified by them and they have Mandy just where they want her too. Apparently, Mark was working there but he complained to Mandy about the workload and got demoted to the post-room.”

“The post-room!  Where that mad woman works? That woman that staples everything together and annoys the scanning department?”

“The very one. Anyway, I have to get back to the office and pick up some lunch. Margaret came over to make an announcement about her new assistant head of Human Resources.  His name is Gavin Slime, and he is very hot on data protection and confidentiality in his department.  Margaret also gave me a telling off for hot desking in HR.  She was wearing the dead cat jacket.”

“Oh no! Not the one with the manky fur collar.  It really smells.  I don’t think she’s ever had it dry cleaned.”

“I nearly forgot.  Remember Joanna?”

“I will never forget her.  Uses her big blue eyes to get other people to do her work for her.”

“She is going to be Slime’s secretary.”

“That’s going to be an interesting combination.  Be careful Ruby.”

“Will do. I’ll call you tonight on the landline. Take care.”

Sally was becoming accustomed to being at home. It gave her more time with her husband Ed and sons, and their dog who had been rescued from the animal shelter. They had acquired the dog in the aftermath of Sally’s book being published, and social media threats from some of her colleagues who recognised some of their more unpleasant characteristics once they were in print. Or had those characteristics pointed out by gloating colleagues.

The last of Sally’s cats had died peacefully on a sunny path in the garden, and having promised her youngest that he could have a dog once the cats had all departed, they began to search for their ideal dog. They spotted Perro on the web page and decided that he was the dog for them; a cross between a black flat-coated retriever and a German Shepherd dog, with big bright eyes. It was love at first sight and after nailing up a nine-foot trellis round the garden and installing two large iron gates to keep Perro in, and the neighbourhood cats out, they bought him home.

He proved to be extremely affectionate and loyal to the family but had a profound dislike for postmen, delivery men, joggers, cyclists and refuse collectors, especially if they were wearing high visibility jackets. For Sally; still wary after her brush with one of her ex-managers when shopping in the local supermarket, Perro represented safety and protection. He was very defensive of her, and knowing that Perro would terrify any would-be burglar or angry colleague, she no longer felt fearful when her husband was out of the house.

Her days should have been spent in tidying up her disorganised home, cooking meals for her family, and taking the dog for long walks.  John’s departure, and the subsequent decision to sack her without notice or compensation, had meant that most of her time was occupied with photocopying statements, tracking down emails, and identifying the relevant legislation and procedures that her employers did not seem to be aware of.

There were days of sunshine however, when she and her husband would put the dog in the car and drive off to a beach somewhere, or a high hill, or a riverbank. Anywhere really that didn’t leave them exposed to the endless round of letters and telephone calls that bedevilled them at home.

One such letter had instructed Sally that with the exception of Ruby, she was not allowed to have anything to do with any employees of the local authority, nor was she permitted to enter any premises belonging to the local authority. A liaison officer was appointed who, despite being a very nice person, was completely inept and had never held such a role before. Sally did her homework and pointed out to the nice lady that under Human Rights legislation, she had the right to freedom of expression, and the right to a private and family life, which basically meant that she could talk to anyone she liked, and go anywhere she wanted to because she hadn’t actually committed any crimes.

Sally checked this all out with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS for short) and an equally nice lady from ACAS snorted with derision and said “Oh no, not another local authority overstepping the limits of their powers!” Sally had quoted this back to the liaison officer who reported it to a senior manager who, puffed up with a sense of her own importance, had been very cross with Sally and told her that she didn’t know what she was talking about.

Sally begged to differ.

The more Sally delved, the more she discovered about the unworkable policies and ill-thought-out procedures that the local authority were using – or not using in many cases. The same names cropped up in the properties sections of the electronic copies of these policies; people who Sally wasn’t sure actually had the training or experience to be belting out procedures that their colleagues should be following.

Sufficient to say, the names of the three witches of Ruby’s morning acquaintance put in a regular appearance and most of what they had written was full of grammar errors and spelling mistakes. Despite this, some of the documents containing the worst errors had already been passed by senior management and circulated to everyone employed by the local authority.

Browsing her way through a particularly dire document; Sally was disturbed by a knock on the front door and the resultant barking and growling from a wary Perro. Shutting him the front room, she ran out to the kitchen door and opened it to find her favourite nephew Ben standing there, with a bunch of freesias in his outstretched hand.

“Ben! Darling! How wonderful to see you! Come in! Your mum said you’d finished Uni and were looking around for something lucrative. Are you scared of or allergic to dogs?”

He shook his head and grinned. “Don’t think so. I like dogs. How big is the Hound of the Baskervilles in the next room?”

“Perro? Oh, he’s an absolute sweetie really. I’ll just get you one of his favourite treats and then I’ll introduce you. Can you take off your jacket and hang it up in here please? There’s rather a lot of luminous green and Perro doesn’t do high vis.”

Ben hung his coat on the rack, hiding it behind Sally’s purple duffle coat. She handed him a long and foul-smelling dog chew that she had dug out of a pack on the breakfast bar, and motioned him to stand behind her as she opened the door to the living room. Perro burst out like a bullet from a gun, his gums drawn back in a menacing growl.

“Look Perro!” Sally cried. “Here’s Ben and he’s got a nice treat for you.”

The dog stopped in his tracks, cocked his head to one side and sat down. Ben handed him the chew, patted him on the head, and gingerly stepped over him to follow Sally into the living room and sit down next to her on the sofa. He held out the freesias to her again. She took them and smiled.

“My favourite. Did you remember, or was this the idea of your very clever mum?”

“Ah – Mum reminded me. She said that I ought to bring a sweetener because you might not like what I have to say.”

Sally grimaced. “And that is?”

“I’ve got a job. In a Human Resources department.”

“Ben! That’s wonderful! When do you start?”

“Next Monday. I will be an acting business manager; initially on a six-month trial but if I get through the probationary period, I become a full business manager on a permanent contract.”

“Where are you working then? From home or near Uni?”

“Ah – neither. This is the bit that you won’t like. I’ve got a job working for your old local authority. Don’t be angry! I’m going into this with my eyes wide open and who knows – I may even be able to help you in some way.”

Sally was on her feet and pacing; Perro followed her closely, confused by her obvious agitation and looking between her and Ben for reassurance.

“They’ll chew you up and spit you out in bubbles Ben!” she said, “these are ruthless people. If they find out that you know me your life won’t be worth living! Thank goodness we have different surnames and you take after your father’s side of the family rather than my lot!”

Ben grinned. “Calm down! There’s no way anyone can trace the relationship between us. It will be fine. I’m looking forward to a bit of cut and thrust anyway. Uni was getting very pedestrian.”

“Where are you going to live?” Sally sat back down on the sofa and Perro jumped up beside her, his paw protectively on her knee.

“You remember Simon? We shared a house together in my second year. He’s living about ten miles away from here in his own two bed-roomed flat. We’ve kept in contact and he has a room free so I’ll be staying with him for now – maybe permanently. He has his own gym downstairs; I can work out console myself with fit women in tight leggings and sports tops.”

“Ben!”

“Joke! He’s very serious about what he does and doesn’t drink – much. I’ll be perfectly safe. Any chance of a cup of coffee now?”

“Of course, darling, I’m a rubbish hostess. I think I’ve recovered from the shock now anyway. We’ll have to let Ruby know though.”

“Ruby?”

“My very dear friend, ex-colleague and official representative.  My eyes and ears within the council, although they do their best to hide things from her.  She’s not popular within the department, but fortunately she works in training and answers to more sympathetic managers than the bunch I’ve had to deal with. Strangely enough she was using a desk in HR just this morning and says that the department is in disarray.  Who interviewed you?”

“A big chap called Michael and a strange-looking woman called Margaret.”

“First impressions?”

“Michael asked the kind of pseudo-psychological questions that we covered in year one of my degree.  Not challenging.  Margaret on the other hand asked some very personal questions and I had to advise her that they weren’t relevant to the job or my suitability.  Michael had to agree with me, and that shut her up effectively.”

“Black mark there, Ben.  I’m surprised you got the job.  Mad Margaret does not take kindly to being corrected, as I know to my cost.”

“Is she really mad?”

“Another example of alliteration, she is also known as miserable, moaning and manky.  What was she wearing?”

“Something black; I could only see the top half.  A sort of black jacket with a black fur collar.  I shook hands with them both before leaving and there was a strange whiff coming off Margaret.”

“Her favourite jacket, and one that she wears when she wants to make an impact.”

“As a cat killer?”

“I wouldn’t put anything passed her.  She is married to Desmond, the nicest man in the world barring your Uncle Ed; goodness knows why they are still together because she bullies him unmercifully at work and at home.”

“You seem to know him well?”

“Desmond used to pop into the office to take Margaret out for lunch.  He was usually early and she was inevitably late, so we used to chat until we hear the sound of her high-heeled boots clipping along the corridor.  He’d dive into her office and I keep my head down until Margaret appeared and I could tell her that Desmond was waiting in her office.  He has a dream about moving to the US and living a hippy lifestyle on Venice Beach.  Not at all what Margaret wants.”

“Well, I’ve done my homework and read your book cover to cover.  I didn’t see anyone that resembled Margaret though.”

“She was away working for the health authority at the time; a year’s secondment that gave her delusions of power, but ended dead on schedule with a thank you card and a bunch of flowers.  She didn’t make many friends there either. Otherwise I might have had to increase the size of my list to include her.  Be careful Ben!”

“I will.  I need to sort out my love life as well.”

“Problems?”

“Melissa doesn’t want to move up here.  She is currently torn between her job and a London social life, and being with me in a rented two-bedroomed flat share over a gym in the frozen North.”

“Distance lends enchantment?  Don’t give up on her yet Ben.  It’s a big decision to make and you have to survive the six-month probation yet.”

“I’d better get back and finish my unpacking.  I just wanted you to know before Mum got on the phone.  Or has she?”

“Not yet.  She is obviously showing self-restraint, so I’ll give her a call and confirm that you’ve made contact.  Come to dinner tomorrow night?  I’ll make chilli and you can meet Ruby.  She’ll make a wonderful ally and bring you up to speed on the machinations of your future employers.”

“I love chilli!  With garlic bread or rice?”

“Both if you want.  Come over about seven?”

“Definitely.  I shall bring red wine as well.”

Sally gave him a hug and showed him out of the door; staying to watch him drive off before she returned to the front room and picked up the phone to call her sister.

The HR Triad

Three heads bent over a computer screen; blonde, redhead and tightly plaited black cornrows. The other occupants of the office tried hard to ignore the giggling and occasional guffaws of raucous laughter emitted by the owners of the heads. They had been occupied in this fashion for the past hour and no one dared to interrupt them or ask them to do anything remotely related to real work.

There was a brief hiatus whilst the one of the three brusquely took an unwanted telephone call and quickly transferred it to her colleague Peter, who worked on the far side of the office, and was already burdened down with extra work. It wasn’t something he should be dealing with but the narrowed eyes and pursed lips of his blonde colleague Fiona were intimidating enough to stop any argument. She bent her head back to the computer after tapping in the key sequence that would divert any further calls direct to his number. He knew that rapid finger movement so well and sighed quietly, daring to raise an eyebrow at Ruby, a sympathetic colleague from another department who was hot desking in the office for the morning to finish off some work.

Fiona should have been putting some contracts together; her colleagues Karen and Cheryl were supposed to be working on a new procedure for dealing with social media and Internet issues. Instead, the three of them were immersed in an on-line dating site, desperate to find a Mr Right for Karen who had been abandoned days after her obscenely expensive wedding, and was in the process of applying for an annulment.

Cheryl leaned back in her chair for a moment; her extremely long silver nails toying with the beads on the ends of her plaits. The nails were something of an impediment to typing, even to writing at times but Cheryl was not a person who let a little thing like work get in the way of her appearance.

The application form was finally completed and submitted, signalling a well-earned visit to smoker’s corner, outside the main building and close enough to the local supermarket to be used as an excuse to stock up on not-really-needed tea and coffee supplies. The other occupants of the room heaved a collective sigh of relief. Three members of staff leaving the office at the same time was strictly against the rules but Karen, Fiona and Cheryl had all formulated watertight excuses for their collective absences and the atmosphere in the office lifted whenever they went out.

“Does this happen often?” Ruby asked Peter.

He raised an eyebrow and looked around nervously before answering.  “It’s computer dating this week; sometimes it’s holiday booking, sometimes it’s just online shopping. The three of them are in so tight with our boss Mandy that no one dares to question what they’re up to. I’m not sure what kind of hold they have over her but if you dare to mention anything in supervision, Mandy hits the roof. I think they did some matchmaking for her; they’ve certainly found holidays for her in the past and she does her online shopping every Thursday. Don’t say anything Ruby. Please?”

“But can’t you put in an anonymous complaint if you’re worried about repercussions?”

“Mark tried. He ended up in the post room. Demoted.”

Peter’s face said it all.

“Ah. Do they ever do any work?”

“Contracts are backed up – that’s Fiona. There are people who’ve been working for us for over a year that haven’t even had an acceptance letter, let alone a contract. Karen and Cheryl have been working on this social media and Internet thing for eighteen months now. It isn’t progressing very far because once it is published it will mean a clamp down on accessing Face Book and Twitter during office hours. They were told to be thorough but they were only supposed to be putting the basics together so that one of the geeks from IT could give it the once over. Not that they care in IT particularly; they sacked the specialist contractor who knew how to interrogate the systems and find out who was abusing them by logging on during working hours. Another victim of the cuts.”

“So, no one is monitoring the systems then?”

He shrugged. “The Intranet states that we are all being monitored but in reality, the only piece of monitoring equipment they’ve got was disabled by the specialist before she left. Well and truly disabled.”

The three witches came back in a hurry; at the same time Peter took a call from his friend Jackie, Margaret’s secretary.  “Jackie says to warn you that Margaret is on her way down to speak to us. She’s wearing the black jacket with the furry collar.”

That collar signalled trouble. It was Margaret’s favourite jacket and although it looked as if she was wearing a dead black cat around her neck, she was under the impression that it was extremely stylish.

By the time Margaret arrived, everyone, even the three witches, was doing their best to look busy. “I have some news for you all.  Can you divert your phones to Peter so that we won’t be disturbed? I have appointed a new assistant head of Human Resources.  His name is Gavin Slime and he will be moving into Mandy’s office on Monday.  When she returns from annual leave, she will be working out in the office with the rest of you.  I trust that you will give Gavin the welcome he deserves. I have also arranged for Joanna from my office to take on the role of Gavin’s secretary.  She will be coming over this afternoon to ensure that he has all the equipment and access that he needs. Why are you in this office Ruby? I thought you worked from the other site?”

“I had a meeting over here Margaret,” said Ruby. “ and I thought it would be better to get my notes written up as soon as possible.  While the information was still fresh in my mind.”

“Hmm.  I hope you haven’t been distracting any of the other workers; this is a very busy office and I won’t have idle gossip.  I don’t want you making a habit of this, particularly once Gavin starts.  He regards the work of Human Resources as highly confidential.”

Ruby looked at her watch and nodded, packing up her notes, saving the document to a memory stick and removing it from the computer. It was time to get back to her own office on the other side of town anyway. She also needed some time to sit in her car and give Sally a quick update on what was going on. She was still Sally’s official supporter at meetings, and as a consequence, she was very aware that Margaret viewed her as a spy, that files were put into locked drawers, and voices lowered when she was around. There were still some people in the building who didn’t know what had happened to Sally and were afraid in case someone caught them asking questions. A refusal by management to discuss the situation had put the mockers on most speculations about Sally’s sudden disappearance.

Ruby knew the truth however, she knew how various indiscretions by senior management had been covered up and how John, the director of services, had persuaded Sally to keep quiet about what had occurred and in return she was given a decent pay off. John left his post however, head-hunted by another local authority, and when he left the compromise agreement was withdrawn, leaving Sally with a ruined reputation, and the severe financial circumstances that had led to her accepting a publishing deal for her novel.

John’s second in command Michael, had taken over as acting director, and according to smoker’s corner gossip, he wasn’t doing too good a job of filling John’s shoes. Michael was bright, but he lacked John’s people skills, and had a tendency to irritate and annoy, where John had soothed and placated. The majority of the councillors hadn’t warmed to him either, and rumour had it that he was going to be losing some of his responsibilities in the next service reshuffle.

On her way out of the building, Ruby looked up and saw Louis glaring down at her. They hadn’t really spoken since the book was published. He blamed Sally and Ruby for his reputation as a pilferer being exposed, and was determined to get his own back. In the meantime, every office in the building kept their food and drink in locked cabinets, and took it in turns to empty everything out of the fridge at the end of the day. Luckily Ruby was well-protected from his machinations, but he had already spread several lies about Sally, and by running to senior management with nasty tales, had succeeded in supplying some of the grounds for her dismissal for gross misconduct. In return he had been given responsibility for a team that he had wanted to run for years. The hapless manager of the team was shunted sideways without notice, and left to work with Louis’ old team, most of whom were wary and resentful of any management.

Ruby returned his glare with a cheery smile, and hurried off to her car.  She had arranged for a parking space, but the attendants were lurking ready to stick tickets on the windscreens of any cars that exceeded their allotted time.

Margaret is Extremely Cross

For the third time that evening, Margaret slammed the book shut.  This time however, she threw it across the room. Her aim was never that true and it failed to knock over the vase of dusty silk flowers. Margaret’s husband popped his head out of the kitchen and looked down at the book lying open on the floor. “Are you alright my sweet?  Have you finished with Sally’s novel now? I’d quite like to have a look at it next.”

“Do I look alright Desmond? For a supposedly intelligent man you can be incredibly dense at times. I have most definitely finished with Sally’s stupid novel and I don’t really think that I want you to read it.”

Desmond picked the book up from the floor and closed it carefully before looking at the cover photograph of a hand squeezing a stress ball.  He recognised the hand and wrist as Sally’s own, he had often been distracted by the charms on her bracelet during particularly dull meetings. The mere act of picking up the book was enough to increase Margaret’s ire however, and a large and heavily sequinned cushion made contact with Desmond’s head causing him to drop the book back on the floor. “Leave it! Have you finished the washing up yet?”

“Not yet my darling.  I thought I should come in and check that you were okay first.”

“Well I’m not!”

“Has Sally written something bad about you?  I thought you two had got on quite well when she was working in your team?”

“That’s the point you idiot! She hasn’t mentioned me at all.  Nearly all of the people that we worked with get a mention; some of them even got killed off, but she has completely ignored my existence in this stupid book.”

“That’s good though isn’t it? It means that you weren’t on her list of people that she disliked.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Desmond realised that he had made a very silly mistake.  The look on Margaret’s face confirmed his fear. “How do you know about the list?” she spat. “Have you been reading the book behind my back? Have you? Have you”

“No. No, I wouldn’t dream of doing anything like that. Louis was talking about it before a team meeting yesterday.  He wasn’t very happy about the way Sally portrayed him, but after the meeting ended a couple of people were looking at the book and sniggering over Sally’s description.”

Margaret’s eyes narrowed as she considered whether to accept Desmond’s explanation.  She knew that he had been at the team meeting, and she also knew that copies of the book had been circulating throughout the building.  She had confiscated the copy she had been reading from her secretary who hadn’t been quick enough to hide the book in her desk drawer. “What else were they talking about?”

“Umm, the garden party section seemed to have amused most people – not Susie of course – she has vowed never to hold another garden party, in case people get ideas about spoiling it from the book.  Most of her friends have dropped her after reading about her behaviour, so you should be pleased that you aren’t in the book, shouldn’t you?”

Margaret got up from the sofa.  She was menacingly slow and Desmond knew that he had made another error.

“Not that Sally could have said anything so negative about you, my darling.  Ouch!”

Kevin flinched from the second blow of the heavy cushion that Margaret had picked up from the floor.  The sharp-edged sequins scratched his face in passing and he could see that Margaret was taking pleasure in having drawn blood. 

He backed away and went back into the kitchen to finish the pile of washing up.  He had asked many times for a dishwasher, but Margaret always refused and said that they couldn’t afford one.  This was usually followed by an extravagant shopping expedition or an equally expensive trip to the hair salon so that Margaret could have her roots done; her way of showing Desmond that as she earned the most, she was the person who made the important financial decisions in this family.  He listened carefully for the sounds confirming that Margaret had left the room and gone into the spare bedroom that she referred to as her ‘office’.

Stopping to mop up the trickle of blood from his face, Desmond peered into the living room.  The cushion had been replaced on the sofa and there was no sign of the book. One of his friends had told him that you could get the book from Kindle, a good way of reading something slightly risky without anyone else knowing what you were up to.  Desmond had asked about borrowing Margaret’s Kindle reader once.  Only the once.  It brought forth a volley of accusations about how he had no time to sit around reading considering the state of the house, and the indication that she knew precisely why Desmond liked to take long walks through the village every Saturday morning. 

He didn’t consider visiting the betting shop once a week to be an unhealthy habit.  Desmond used his personal allowance of £30 per week, and never exceeded his limit.  He’d had a feeling that Margaret knew about his indulgence, and dreaded the day that she confronted him, withdrew his allowance and prevented him from his morning of freedom.

Margaret was well aware of how he spent his Saturday mornings, and equally aware of how his weekly allowance was being utilised.  Throughout their marriage she witnessed his ill-conceived attempts at deceiving her, whether it was betting, escaping from the house, gossiping at work, or the occasional flirting with young female colleagues.  Like an angler dangling bait, she allowed him the Saturday morning jaunts as a way of getting him to think that he had pulled the wool over her eyes.  Fat chance.

Returning to the kitchen, Desmond finished the washing up, dried everything and put it away so that Margaret would have nothing to complain about in the morning. She would still find something amiss; she wasn’t really a morning person.  When he stopped to think about it, she wasn’t a daytime person either.  She was a night owl however and by the sounds of her fingers angrily smacking the computer keys, it was going to be another late night. At least that meant that he could get some sleep.  On nights like these Margaret had decreed that Desmond should sleep in the bedroom used by either of their daughters when they were home from university.  This meant that Margaret could have the luxury of their own bedroom without any nocturnal disturbance from Desmond.  She claimed that he snored and fidgeted all night, but he knew from the rare nights he was allowed access to the marital bed, that it was Margaret who snored, shouted out in her sleep and was prone to lashing out and kicking him as if he were the villain in her nightmares.

Pausing in her punishment of the keyboard, Margaret listened to the sound of Desmond’s bathroom preparations and his eventual settling down to sleep.  She looked at the report that she had been writing, knowing that there were spelling and syntax errors galore.  Damn Sally! Sally who could always be relied upon to proofread and amend the work that Margaret sent her, even when the work was emailed five minutes before Sally was due to go home for the day.  Margaret would invariably add that the report needed to be done by half past six, a good hour and a half after Sally’s finishing time.  A finishing time with no option for overtime either.

Margaret picked up her mobile, looking for the details of a very bright but strange young man she had met at a conference in London.  He was looking around for a new post in her region so that he could continue looking after his aged parents who had moved into a smaller house and insisted that he came to look after them. He didn’t say much about his family, but Margaret got the impression that his actions were dutiful rather than chosen, and that he would be happier if his parents ceased to be a burden on him.

She liked the sound of that.  It obviously meant that his parents, or at least his mother, had some control over him.  Margaret knew that he had a reputation for being a ruthless witch hunter in the field of Human Resources and that was just what she needed.  Not only he could he do some undercover work on the traitorous Sally, he would be able to chop out some of the dead wood that was leeching its way throughout her ever-decreasing budget.

Gavin Slime.  That was his name. She obtained his email details as well as his mobile number, and she settled down to send him the kind of email offer that he would be unable to resist.  Assistant Head of Human Resources, answering to Margaret in the first instance.  The wage was more than generous, and an eighteen-month contract would enable him to do her dirty work, and perhaps see his parents’ demise or admission into nursing care or hospital at the very least.

Pressing the ‘send’ button caused a thrill of excitement at another devious deed accomplished.  She picked up Sally’s novel and turned to the garden party chapter.  Susie had never invited Margaret and Desmond to any of her social gatherings, and this was something that rankled severely.  Despite her anger with Sally, Margaret couldn’t help smirking at the thought of Susie’s social life being ruined by the well-placed splatter of evil-smelling slurry. 

Perhaps her omission from the book had been deliberate because Sally didn’t see her in a negative light? No.  Margaret had made up her mind. It was a deliberate slur on Margaret and her hard work for the local authority, and she was determined to make Sally suffer for the insult.

To bed and the opportunity to stretch out in the king-size bed without Desmond’s annoying presence.

Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

Everything Changes

For what seemed the first time in ages, Sally actually had a good night’s sleep.  She wasn’t sure if was the mixture of fresh air and slurry, the hard work of wandering around collecting glasses, or the fact that the killer was behind bars at last.  There was no sign of a police car outside her house when she got up and after initially telling her to shut up; her husband and sons were cheered by the sound of her singing along to eighties rock songs on the radio whilst she made her breakfast.

After spending the previous day in formal black Sally opted for smart casual but comfortable; unsure what the day would bring but determined to put the recent horrors behind her if possible.  She had stayed at Susie’s house for some time after DS Hammond and DC Long had left.   There was no doubt that Susie had lost it big time.  The paramedics were all for carting her off to hospital to be sectioned but the kind elderly doctor who had been a guest at her garden party had arranged to have her taken to his extremely expensive private clinic   It was the kind of place that Susie’s friends went to when they needed their septums repaired, time to recover after a botched Botox treatment or a prolonged detox session when the endless round of parties and dinners proved too much.

Sally had a feeling that Susie would recover far more quickly there than in some mental health facility where the horrors of the past week would just keep coming back to haunt her.  Susie’s husband was very grateful for Sally’s help and support; apologising profusely for the fact that right up until the ambulance took her away, Susie was still maintaining that Sally was behind the whole thing and that she had done it solely because she was jealous of Susie’s lifestyle and looks. 

DC Long’s kitchen bobbies gave Sally a lift home and told her how they’d learned to chop an onion properly and to turn tomatoes into flower decorations.  Not necessarily things that would transfer easily to modern policing, but Sally felt sure that their respective families would appreciate their new culinary skills.

Although she couldn’t tell her husband and sons the whole story of what had happened, she was able to explain that the killer had been captured and that the policemen wouldn’t be outside the house anymore, except for the car that was coming to collect her in the morning. 

She was still singing along to the radio as she packed her handbag with it’s usual essentials.  The sharp rap at the front door broke into her temporary reverie and she opened the door to the tired but smiling face of DC Long.

“Madam, your chariot awaits, as does the lovely DS Hammond and a bit of a surprise.”  He ushered her out to the car, ignoring her pleas for information throughout the journey into Mostyn Hall.  The car park was half filled with police cars and large white vans coming to collect the contents of the incident room.  Sally averted her eyes as the crime scene photographs were taken down and filed into boxes.  The mood in the room was of elation coupled with extreme fatigue and some disappointment that the killer had managed to take nine lives out of the twelve on the list. 

Sally perched on a desk watching the dismantling process in action; she was so distracted by the sight of the two kitchen bobbies trying to work out how to disconnect a computer that she didn’t notice DS Hammond until she was right next to her.

“Good morning.  Taking it easy again I see.”

“Good morning!  Just taking the weight off my feet after yesterday.  How’s your killer?”

“I’d have thought he was more your killer than mine.  He is a very quiet killer. He’s lawyered up and trying to pretend that the worst thing he’s done is spray your friend Susie with slurry.”

“I thought you had his photo and prints at the crime scenes.”

“Circumstantial evidence.  We need something more concrete.  A confession would be nice but highly improbable under the circumstances.  According to him, he doesn’t know you or Donal, or anyone at Mostyn Hall for that matter – except for Susie who he claims ordered some soft furnishings from him and refused to pay because she said they weren’t of merchantable quality.  He just happened to be at all the crime scenes and has a legitimate reason for being at each one – allegedly.”

“Oh dear.  Can’t any of the Modern Apprentices identify him?  I’m sure now that I’ve seen him hanging about in the canteen.”

“How sure are you?  I’ve shown Mark the photos and though, like you, he says he’s seen the guy hanging around the building, he hadn’t made the connection between the web site and the killer.”

“Derek’s wife?  “

“Under sedation still and in a worse state than Susie.  We have however recovered some clothing from the garden shed.”    DS Hammond picked up a list of items from the desk. “A pair of grey trousers, white shirt, green cardigan and some trainers.  All blood stained but not heavily.  We are assuming but waiting for confirmation, that whoever wore them assisted in moving Derek’s body and had some kind of physical contact with the person who killed Derek.  Care to hazard a guess who they belong to?”

Sally shook her head and looked crestfallen.  “You’re describing Donal’s clothes to a T.  That doesn’t make him the killer though.”

“No, but he’s a very valuable material witness and may also have been an accomplice to Derek’s murder and that of Graham if we can prove that he let the l killer into the building. I don’t suppose you’ve heard from him, have you?  Would you tell me if you had?”

Stopping to think about this only for a second or two, Sally shook her head. “I would tell you if he made contact.  I don’t think he’s the one behind it all, he’d be looking at it from a cost-cutting point of view, and as a method of cheering me up, but if it were left to Donal, I think it would all have stopped at the website and no harm would have been done.  The only part of it that doesn’t seem to fit in is Derek’s death and the way in which he was mutilated.”

DS Hammond turned on her heel and strode from the room.

Picking up her bag and waving goodbye, Sally walked down an unusually quiet corridor and up the stairs into her office.  It was deserted as was Donal’s office next door.  Even the photocopier was silent.  She sat down at her desk and switched on the computer before checking the voice mail. Her e-mail inbox was full of other people’s out-of-office messages again and she felt a lump in her throat when she saw that two of them belonged to Hester and Tracey.  Sally rummaged around in her pockets for a tissue but found nothing more than an old bus ticket.  Remembering that she’d secreted a spare box of tissues in one of the drawers she opened it up and was surprised to find a bulky brown envelope tucked underneath the tissues.

As she pulled out the envelope and recognised the writing, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.  She desperately wanted to open it but all those years of watching police programmes seemed to have paid off.   She grabbed a tissue and picking the envelope up gingerly, walked out of the office, closing the door firmly behind her.

DS Hammond wasn’t in the incident room, so Sally went across the corridor and tapped politely on the door.

“Come in.”  DS Hammond’s voice sounded both weary and angry at the same time.

Sally walked in and waved the envelope at her.  “I found this in my drawer upstairs.  I don’t know how long it’s been there but the last time I looked in there was when I was hunting for the hit list.  I remember noticing that there was a box of tissues in there and I went looking for them today because, because – well it doesn’t really matter why.  The thing is – I know whose writing that is on the envelope.  It’s from Donal!”

DS Hammond was on her feet and snapping on a pair of surgical gloves that she seemed to have pulled from thin air.  “You haven’t opened it?”

“No, and I only touched it the once, after that I used a tissue.  It’s not thick enough for a bomb and I don’t think Donal would want to blow me up anyway.”

“Nip across and fetch Long please Sally?”  DS Hammond sat back down at the desk and began to open the envelope very slowly.  Sally did as she was asked unquestioningly and returned seconds later with a very puzzled DC Long in tow.  The contents of the envelope had been laid out on the desk.  Sally recognised one of Donal’s famous spreadsheets, and what appeared to be a letter printed on several sheets of A4 paper and apparently addressed to her.

Although she felt desperate to read it, Sally realised that she would have to bide her time; DS Hammond would let her look at it eventually.  She sat down, tucking her hands beneath her legs in an effort to keep them from grabbing at the letter.  The silence in the room was almost unbearable while they waited for DS Hammond to make a comment; any comment.

She put the sheets of paper down on the desk; her face a mask of impassiveness.  Sally waited for her reaction, barely breathing and desperate for a positive sign.  A slow smile began to form on her usually stern lips and both Sally and DC Long heaved individual sighs of relief.

“It would appear that we have a confession of sorts that implicates Donal at an accessorial level but confirms our evidence regarding the real killer and shows Sally where to find some video footage that provides the proof that we need.   Your friend Donal has also done a very comprehensive spreadsheet showing exactly how the council will save over a million pounds as a consequence of the – uh – ‘culling’ of some of the senior staff and the departure of others.”

Sally couldn’t help smiling at this.  Always the analyst, Donal had utilised his skills right up to the very last moment. “Can I read my – the letter – from Donal please?”

“Yes, I’ll just put them in evidence bags first though.  I’m sure they are from Donal but I’d like to have them checked by forensics as soon as possible.”

She handed the bags over to Sally and got up from her chair, pushing her hair back from her face in what was almost a gesture of relief, and stretching out her arms.  Looking up, Sally thought she saw a glance pass between DC Long and his boss that looked far too intimate for what she had perceived their relationship to be. She looked back down at the letter before her and did her best to give it her full attention.

“Dear Sally, by the time you get to read this I will be long gone and somewhere that your clever new detective friends won’t be able to find me. My wife and I have been planning this for some time; I’m afraid we’ve had to dip into the council funds to finance our trip but once we’ve settled, I’ll try to pay it back.  I hope you haven’t been too upset by all that’s happened; the people who died are no real loss and the money the council saves on their salaries, pensions and golden handshakes will go some way to paying off some of the overspend.  I’ve done a spreadsheet that explains where the savings can be made.  If you look in the top drawer of my desk, you’ll find a memory stick which has an electronic copy of the spreadsheet and some video footage that I’d rather you didn’t look at because it’s really not very pleasant.”

Looking up, Sally noted that DC Long had left the room, undoubtedly to retrieve the memory stick from Donal’s drawer.   DS Hammond had also gone; Sally hoped that this was a gesture of empathy, allowing Sally to read her friend’s letter in peace, but she had a sneaky feeling that she was more likely to have gone out to stop the dismantling of the computer equipment.  She resumed reading Donal’s letter.

“Please don’t blame Tom, Mark and Megan for any of this.  The hit list was only ever meant to be a game and if the website hadn’t been taken over by someone who wanted to use it to satisfy his own desires; it would have stayed that way.  We were all taken in by him; his name is Ryan Davies and if you check the archives, you’ll find that he has a long and acrimonious involvement with the council.  It was quite a while before I met him in person and like everyone else, I was well and truly sucked in by his deceit. He’s something of a computer genius, as well as being a chameleon in his ability to blend into the background wherever he goes.  I made the mistake of trusting him and told him things that I shouldn’t have.  He got himself invited to our poker evenings and became best friends with Derek.  As a consequence, he knew things about me that could have put me in jail and left my wife without a roof over her head.  He can be so charming and complimentary that you can’t help telling him things and trusting him.

Believe me Sally, I didn’t kill anyone; I admit to being there when Derek was murdered and I let Ryan into the building to put the poison into Graham’s bottle of whisky but the only blood on my hands got there when I pulled Derek’s wife away from his body.  Ryan told her about the cleaner; got her so wound up that she took a taxi to the golf course determined to confront him.  I’m not sure exactly what went on between the two of them – you know what Derek was like, so arrogant at times – and I think he goaded her into hitting him.  As soon as I found out what Ryan had done, I got him to drive me up to the golf course but we were too late.  Derek’s wife was in a terrible state when we found her, that’s when I got covered in blood.  We went back to Derek’s house and Ryan bought some clothes for me.  If you haven’t found them yet, the clothes and the dibber are in Derek’s garage; in the box where the lawnmower is stored.  It was Ryan who suggested using the dibber; he handed it to her and his fingerprints are all over it.  You’ll find the poison in the garage too; in a bottle marked Elderflower Cordial’.  That was Ryan’s idea of a joke.”

It was an awful lot to take in and as Sally read further, she realised that the incident at the golf course was what had made up Donal’s mind about leaving the country for good.  As well as the spreadsheet he had also included a table that showed names, dates and modus operandi for each of the murders.  Sally hoped that this would finally be enough evidence for DS Hammond to catch her murderer.  She also hoped that Donal’s confession would be some kind of mitigation and that he and his wife would prove too difficult and too expensive to find.

The spreadsheet was fascinating; the monies saved by the premature removal of several key executives went a long way to clawing back some of the council overspend.  When you added together Athena’s salary, the payments made to her for attending council meetings, for being an electoral officer, her travel allowance, her clothing allowance, personal expenses and the golden handshake she would have been received if she’d resigned and gone to another council, a quarter of a million pounds was saved already.  The wages of people like Dopey Shirley, found crushed in the library, were minimal by comparison.

She was still poring over the spreadsheet when DC Long and DS Hammond returned, both looking much happier.

“Your friend Donal has done us a big favour, although if he hadn’t messed around on the web site in the first place ……”

Sally pulled her glasses off the top of her head and put them back on her nose as she looked up from the spreadsheet.  “Will I ever be able to say sorry enough for what happened?  I’ve lost my friend and when the news comes out it will be me that’s to blame for writing that stupid list in the first place.”

Another of those significant looks passed between the two police officers and if Sally hadn’t been so upset, she would have realised that something was going on.  As it was, she was too busy fumbling in her pocket for a tissue to notice.  DS Hammond sat down at the desk and inclined her head towards her colleague.  He nodded and handed Sally the box of tissues.

“Not everything will be for public consumption.  I don’t think any of the Modern Apprentices will want to admit that they used your list; Donal has disappeared and Ryan didn’t really get involved until the information was in the public domain.  How many people have you told about the list?”

“Donal, Ruby, Steve and my husband.”

“Nobody else?”

“No.  It’s not the sort of thing you boast about really. What happens now?”

“I need to speak to your boss – John?” said DS Hammond, restless as ever and back on her feet.  “Can we get him here?”

“I’ll ring his mobile; he’s never separated from it.”  Sally picked up the phone and called John, who had just had just come out of an emergency meeting with the Leader of the Council; Athena’s demise had left them with more than a few dilemmas.  Masking his surprise that it was Sally making the call, he said he’d be there within ten minutes.

Sally spent the time looking at the video footage on Donal’s pen drive.  He was right; it didn’t make comfortably viewing and but she began to see how Ryan Davies had worked his way into their organisation.  

DS Hammond came into the incident room and beckoned to Sally to follow her to John’s office where he was already waiting for them.  She sat down at the far end of the table and listened whilst DS Hammond gave a concise summary of all that had happened over the past week.  John frowned as the story unfolded, his face running a gamut of emotions.  Sally kept her head down; too embarrassed to meet John’s penetrating eyes.  He frowned and got to his feet, pacing around the table to look out of the window.

“Was I on the list Sally?”

“Good grief no!  You’re that last person I’d put on the list.” Sally was horrified that John would even think such a thing. 

He shook his head and walked back round the table to her, sitting in the chair opposite and taking both her hands.  She was shaking and fully expected him to tell her that she would be escorted from the building without even getting a chance to collect her belongings and say goodbye.

“What you did was not very professional, but you don’t need me to tell you that.  You know that I am disappointed in you, particularly because you involved those very impressionable young people in what you did, a good man like Donal got too involved and nine members of my staff are now dead and their families and friends are bereft.  DS Hammond says that without your help three more people might have died and the case would have taken a lot longer to solve.  I can’t say that you’ve redeemed yourself but any fool can see that you understand the impact of your actions and that you are full of remorse.  I’m going to suggest that you take some compassionate leave; two weeks should do it.  By that time the gossip will be focused in another area and people are less likely to be asking you why you had to spend so much time helping the police with their enquiries.  You are not to discuss this with anyone in the council and I will trust you to be very discreet in what you say to your husband.  There are going to be some changes while you are away but they will make the situation easier for you and for everyone else concerned.”

Sally cried, denuding John’s box of tissues with her tears.  His disappointment in her was almost as painful as the knowledge that it was her self-indulgence that caused it all.  DC Long took her back upstairs to her office; the corridors still mercifully deserted.  DS Hammond remained with John, who had many questions about the case, earning a good deal of respect from her for his thoroughness.  Sally packed up her things and closed down the computer, the actions taking on elements of automatic pilot.  When everything was done, she sat back down at her desk and sighed.  DC Long perched on the edge of the desk and smiled at her. “It will pass.  In a fortnight’s time this will be old news – for you and for us.”

“What about you?  What about DS Hammond?  Is she really as cold as she makes out?”

Sally was surprised to see that DC Long was blushing and all the little signs and looks that she’d wondered about suddenly began to add up.

“Are you – I mean do you – are you two having a thing or is it wishful thinking on your part?”

DC Long laughed and recovered his composure.  “We’ve been in a relationship for about eighteen months now.  Claire is completely professional at work, far better at it than I am but don’t be fooled by the ice-maiden act.  She is a genuinely lovely and extremely bright person.  She likes you.”

“What!”

“No, she does.  She said you’d make a good detective if it wasn’t for your psychopathic tendencies.  That’s a joke by the way.  I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say anything though.  We aren’t supposed to fraternise out of work.  Anyway, if you’re ready to go I’ll take you home now.”

Sally took a last look around the little room that had seen so much action in the past week, then closed the door behind her and followed DC Long out of the building.  Out of Mostyn Hall.

The Town Hall Cuts – a Small Apology

The international recession hit everybody – except of course the very rich who carried on making money out of the misfortunes of other people.  Across Great Britain local authorities made cuts in services that caused ordinary people to lose out on vital support services, valued workers were made redundant and local charities had to close their doors on those they had spent years trying to help.

Everyone all blamed the bankers and the capitalists.  Some people blamed the previous government for the recession, some blamed the present government.  The private sector blamed the public sector for having better pensions and the public sector blamed the private sector for paying their executive staff too much money.  Everyone blamed the Greeks and they weren’t even bearing gifts at the time.

In a time of austerity, all businesses have to make sacrifices and local government is no exception.  The method of downsizing employed in this small local authority was subsequently considered bizarre, horrifying but diabolically efficient.  The protagonist(s) were analytically neat in identifying areas of natural wastage, eliminating sources of potential overspend and getting rid of a group of people who nobody really liked much anyway.

When the dust had settled and the staffing gaps were filled again, a considerable proportion of the council’s overspend had been clawed back by these drastic human resource cuts, but those responsible were never really given the credit for the savings they made, or for the fact that some sense of harmony was restored in a crumbling and energy-inefficient establishment.

Whilst acknowledging that the actions were morally reprehensible, it has to be admitted that although the concept wasn’t necessarily original, as making the punishment fit the crime has been in operation for as long as mankind can hold a grudge, a great many people thought it was a pretty cool idea and wished they’d had the means and the evil genius to manufacture their own hit list.

November

Considering it only had thirty days, November seemed to be a very long month and it was still just two thirds gone.  Mostyn Hall had undergone massive changes.  Sally’s team had been disbanded; the canteen had closed and the reception area was no longer staffed.  Huge plastic crates lined the corridors and there was no way of knowing from one week to the next if people were still going to be in the same office that you’d last seen them in.  To add insult to injury, at a time of huge political and economic unrest, the unions had announced a day of action for the last day of November and plans were being made for picket lines and emergency cover. 

One of the first changes had been the packing up of Sally’s little office; with Ruby spending more time over at the training centre, it made sense for Sally to move elsewhere whilst decisions were made regarding her future.  Ruby had found happiness with an old sweetheart and Sally was pleased for them both; her own family life was ticking over quite nicely at the moment too.  It was just the uncertainty of the future that bothered her.  She wasn’t the only one involved in upheaval however; the inspirationally titled ‘clerical review’ had instilled fear and confusion into the hearts of over a hundred permanent staff, some of whom had already jumped ship and gone to work in jobs that paid less but had permanent prospects.

Sally hoped that the work she’d done in the past would count towards getting her a permanent job.  She was basically filling in for other people who were on leave or off sick with stress.  The large office she had moved into was more practical than her little garret had been; closer to the lavatory and washing up sink, no more stairs to climb and her new office mates were entertaining and good company.  She missed the solitude and the opportunity to play her music whenever she was alone, but realised that everything changes and there were still huge savings to be made.  The loss of the canteen had been the hardest blow, and although the butty lady bought sandwiches, rolls and cakes when she visited every day at eleven thirty in her little white van, it wasn’t the same as bacon butties for breakfast and chips with everything for lunch.

The councillors had been talking about shutting Mostyn Hall down for years; it was too old, not fit for purpose, the windows were draughty and the central heating was constantly breaking down. Not seeing familiar faces was perhaps the worst; so many people were moving out and no one seemed to know exactly when the building would be empty or who would be the last to go.

Still, Sally had something to keep her occupied; not when she was at work because she had plenty to do even if it was bitty and disjointed.  Since November 1st Sally had been very busy during the evenings and weekends.  She sat at the laptop downstairs during the early part of the evening so that she could be sociable and watch TV with her husband but it was a rare night that she left her computer upstairs before one am.  It was nearly done now though and ahead of schedule too. Donal would be so proud.

He wasn’t just proud; he was extremely pleased.  Sally bumped into him by the microwave on November 24th whilst he was cooking his porridge.

“Good morning!  How’s it going?”

“Almost done, I have to go through it and do some tweaking but yes.  I’ve gone past the target.”

“When do I get to see it?”

“At the end of the month.  You can be the guinea pig before I send it off.  I’ll save it on a memory stick and you can give me your brutally honest opinion.”

“Okay, I’d better get back.  I’m only here for the morning and I’ve to go through accounts with Hester, Tracey and Susie before I go.”

Sally grimaced.  “You’d have been spared all this.”

“I’d be in Alaska living off council funds and being blissfully cool.  Don’t forget to let me know when it’s finished.”

“I won’t.”  Sally waved goodbye as they headed down separate corridors to their respective offices.  November; also known as National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short.  An undertaking to write 50,000 words in thirty days and hopefully produce a novel by the end of November.  She done that and gone over the word count already and there was still a week to go. 

When she walked into her office, she nearly walked back out again.  Derek and Graham were standing in the middle of the room, clipboards in hands and talking about how to rearrange the room to get more people crammed into an already overcrowded office. She brushed past Derek with a muttered ‘excuse me’ and sat down at her desk wishing that fiction could become reality.  For some people the only solution was instant death but as her fingers itched to pick up a piece of paper and start writing a list, she thought better of it and got on with some real work instead.

Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

Garden Party

Sally was ready and waiting at seven thirty the next morning; wearing a new black cotton blouse and her best black skirt.  Her hair was neatly plaited and her favourite red lipstick was the only concession to colour.  Her shoes shone with uncustomary polish and whilst she felt remarkably plain, she hoped that the outfit would act as some kind of camouflage amongst the flash and cash of the local nobility.

DC Long pulled up outside the house and waved from the car, looking equally ill at ease in his stiff white shirt and black bow tie.  Sally got in next to him and fumbled with her seat belt.

“Nervous?”

“I couldn’t eat breakfast this morning.  I feel really sick.  How’s DS Hammond?”

“Firing on all cylinders again this morning.  We’ve had a bit of a breakthrough thanks to your observational skills.  The lad at the lock is the same person as the lad seen on the beach in Portugal.  Except he isn’t actually a lad, he’s in his thirties but looks about eighteen. We’ve a witness who thinks he saw the same lad at the library, the salon owner is sure that he’s a relief delivery driver and he may have been seen sitting in a car at the golf course with an older man and young woman.  We’re still waiting to hear back from the hotel but I won’t be surprised if he’s been hanging around there too.”

Sally took a deep breath and leaned back in the car seat.  “have you got a picture of him with you?”

“In the folder on the floor.”

She picked up the folder and found the picture.  This was a much clearer shot and although it wasn’t a close up there was something familiar about him.

“Wow.  If you know his age, you know must know who he is then?”

“He goes by a number of aliases and whilst he’s been arrested several times, we’ve never been able to pin anything on him.  He’s something of a computer genius and specialises in fake documentation too.  We’ve put out an all points bulletin to track him down but no news yet.”

“So, if he’s responsible, then Donal is off the hook?”

“No, I’m afraid not.  As far as we know Donal and his wife have left the country; we know now that she took a ferry over to Zeebrugge on Monday.  We’ve tracked Donal to France but the trail goes very cold from there.  Their bank accounts have been cleared out and when we searched the house, we found that their computers had been completely and very proficiently wiped.  This has been planned for a while; they’d even cancelled the papers before they left.  Our IT guys are really annoyed about it and are hoping they might find something on Donal’s work computer.”

“Some chance.  I’ve a feeling that Donal may have been wiping everything off his hard drive when I left the other night.  He was certainly very intent on something.  What about Tom? Would he or Mark have known this lad that’s been carrying out the killings?”

“They may have known him under one of the names he used on line but I doubt if they ever met him.  We need to find something, anything that links him to Donal and to the actual murders.”

“Do you think Donal actually murdered anyone though?”

“Definitely not Colin, Sharon or Shirley because we know exactly where Donal was on all of those occasions.  There’s some confusion about Derek’s murder, I would say that if Graham wasn’t actually murdered by Donal, then he did at least let the killer into the building to put the poison in the whisky bottle, but I think Donal and his wife were already out of the country by the time Tracey and Angela were killed.”

“Derek and Donal were good friends; that’s why it doesn’t feel right to me.  DS Hammond said that Derek’s murder was more savage and passionate than the others.  Trouble is, Donal was off sick that day and he told me that his wife had been out buying him clothes but according to you, she’d already left the country by the time Derek was killed.  Donal always wears grey, black and dark green clothes and to see him dressed in such bright colours was really bizarre.  I don’t want to think that Donal killed his friend but it made me wonder if someone who knew his clothes size but nothing else about him, might have bought those clothes in a hurry.  If his wife took off with all their belongings and Donal’s only clothes got covered in Derek’s blood – well that would explain it.”

“The lad in the car perhaps?  But who was the woman?”

“Derek’s wife?  Donal is a very moral person.  He didn’t approve of Derek’s affairs or the fact that he was conning us out of a lot of money.”

“Hang on a sec.”  DC Long pulled the car over to the side of the road and picked up his mobile.  In a manner slightly reminiscent of DS Hammond he barked a few orders to the officer on the other end, requesting that someone get to Derek’s house with a search warrant and start asking his wife a few questions.

“Let me get this straight then Sally?  You think that Donal was taken to the golf course by our mystery lad, that Derek’s wife was there too.  Either of them may have killed Derek – and they both got blood on them.  If the lad got clothes for Donal in the right size but the wrong colours, I’d lay money on it that Donal’s clothes are still at Derek’s house.”

“Would you consider me biased if I said that I’m sure it was Derek’s wife that killed him?  Hell, hath no fury like a woman scorned and all that?”

“Encouraged by Donal though.  He will have told her about the cleaner.”

Sally felt as if she’d been up for hours and the thought that she had a whole day of pretending to be a waitress at Susie’s pretentious party made her wish she was back in bed.  DC Long ran a finger inside his collar, obviously unaccustomed to wearing starched shirts and bow ties.  They were almost at Susie’s house now and neither of them was happy about the day ahead.

The field across from the house had been borrowed to serve as a car park and more than a couple of familiar faces from the incident room had swelled the ranks of the marshalling staff.  They crossed the road and were greeted by a house that looked as if it came from a Hollywood film set.   The shrubs and flowerbeds surrounding the driveway and front of the house had been supplemented by an army of hanging baskets and tubs in various shades of white, lavender and purple.  They made their way round to the servants’ entrance and stopped to observe an immaculately mown lawn, three large white marquees and even more baskets and tubs.

The party wasn’t due to start for another two and a half hours but already the whole place was bustling with gardeners, florists, caterers and people who were still putting up the marquees.  A public address system had been rigged up near the end of the garden; a raised dais with a flowered canopy had a microphone and several chairs ready for Susie and her very special guests.

“Sally!  Sally!”  Turning toward the sound of an all too familiar voice, Sally saw Susie, clad in a pink chiffon and feather dressing gown, her hair in curlers and her feet in matching pink high-heeled feathered mules.

“Hi Susie, this looks wonderful.  You must have worked so hard to get it like this.”

Susie’s face stiffened.  “It isn’t finished yet.  Look Sally, I’m not quite sure why DS Hammond insisted on you being here, but now you’re here you’d better make yourself useful.  They’re short-handed in the kitchen so run along there and help out.”

“You want me to – help out in the kitchen?”  She turned to DC Long who was beginning to look just a little annoyed.

“Of course I do!  You aren’t a guest after all and if you’re dressed as a waitress you won’t look out of place.”  Susie peered closer at Sally’s outfit.  “I don’t think I’d employ you as a waitress though, you don’t really look the part.  Couldn’t you have found something a little smarter to wear?  There are some very important people coming here today and I don’t want you showing me up.”

DC Long motioned for Sally to stay where she was and putting a gentle but very firm hand on Susie’s shoulder her, he guided her toward the shrubbery.

“Susie, I appreciate that you feel this is a very important event but your life is at risk and you have to let us take control of the security issues.  Sally is helping us but I need her close by me at all times and that means she will not be tucked away in the kitchen doing chores but out here keeping an eye out for trouble.”

Susie’s chin began to wobble and she pulled a dainty lace edged handkerchief out of her pocket and dabbed at her very dry eyes.

 “My best friend was killed yesterday and nobody is giving me any sympathy at all.  I’ve spent all year organising this party and I’m not about to let anyone ruin it, not Sally in her shabby old clothes, not your mob of clodhopping policemen and definitely not any old killer!”

She stamped her tiny foot and as she staggered back into the house, her dressing gown streaming out behind her, she looked like a small demented pink budgerigar.  Sally managed to keep a straight face until Susie was safely inside, but could contain herself no longer and had to sit down on a nearby cast-iron love seat until the laughter had subsided.

DC Long was able to maintain a more professional attitude but a definite smile had replaced the stern expression and twitching muscle in his cheek.  “What a horror!” he muttered.  “She wants help in the kitchen, does she?  We’ll get her some help then.”  Taking out his phone he called for two officers to come over to the house specifically to carry out security duties in the kitchen.

Sally looked at him in puzzlement.  He grinned; a much broader grin than before.  “Someone might try to put poison in the food and that would never do.  We need some security in the kitchen.  The fact that I’ve put my two laziest and greediest officers in there is a side issue.  She can’t say we haven’t done anything about it can she?”

“Your prompt actions have been admirable, I will certainly commend you to the Chief Constable next time I bump into him,” said Sally, every trace of ill-humour gone now.

” By the way, Sally?”

“Yes?”

“Your clothes do not look shabby; you look perfectly fine and if you’ve managed to work with that awful woman without strangling her all this time, then you deserve my undying admiration.”

“I thank you!  She isn’t that bad usually; we’ll just have to put it down to nerves.  This is a big thing for her and if she survives today – and I really do hope she does – the loss of Tracey will hit her very hard.  I know she appears to have registered what’s happened but I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.  If this garden party turns into a fiasco you may end up escorting her to the nearest mental health facility.  Dead or mad – what a choice!  What do we do now?”

“Let’s have a stroll around the perimeter and then we’ll get you an apron and see if my officers have eaten all the food in the kitchen.”

They walked up to the waist high hedge that separated Susie’s extensive garden from the neighbouring fields and woods.  The florist had already begun wiring white and lavender bows into the foliage, and a constant stream of burly young men were placing delicate white iron tables and chairs strategically around the garden.  Over in the distance Sally could see an abandoned tractor and trailer and wondered how much Susie had paid to keep the farmer out of his field for the day.  Turning back to the garden, she had to admit that it looked very elegant; completely over the top but elegant nevertheless.

DC Long took several calls as they walked round the garden; it took some time and Sally was glad that she had worn sensible shoes.  The raised dais at the end of the garden was covered in flowers now and the central chair – obviously a throne destined for Susie – was particularly over-bedecked.  Sally fervently hoped that none of the officers or local dignitaries suffered from hay fever.

“Yes!” said DC Long triumphantly, punching the air.

“What?  What is it?  Can you tell me?”

“We’ve got him.  The lad from the boat – and beach – and hair salon, not to mention the library and hotel.”

“He was there then!”

“We’ve found finger prints that match his on the filter cap at the swimming pool and on the collar of one Tracey’s dogs.  Officers are on their way to pick him up now.”

“Won’t he have skipped the country like Donal and his wife?”

“No, we’ve had him under surveillance since we heard about Tracey.  Two officers have been outside his house but he’s a tricky customer so I’ve sent two more out in case he tries to leg it.  Oh, and I’ve sent the dog handler out too – he seems to like dogs after all.”

“Any news about Derek’s wife yet?”

“No, that will take a bit more time.  She may not be very bright but she’ll have had good advice about where to hide things.  No sign of Donal and his wife yet either – I expect they are bound for a better climate than we have.”

Sally shook her head.   “I doubt it.  I probably shouldn’t be telling you this but Donal hates the heat; he’s more likely to be headed for the Siberian wastes. “

“Technically speaking, I should report that piece of intelligence but I can smell bacon and I would deduce from that, that my bobbies have persuaded the catering staff to provide a few butties.  You hungry yet?”

She hadn’t been, but it was true, the smell of frying bacon was very seductive and as it was liable to annoy Susie intensely, Sally felt that she and DC Long should get to the kitchen and check that all was well there.

Slurried

Suitably fortified by a bacon butty, freshly brewed coffee and a trip to Susie’s downstairs toilet (supposedly out of bounds but as Susie was upstairs being pummelled into a less frantic state by her Swedish masseur, she was in no position to argue) Sally acquired a clean white apron and was fitted with an ear piece and radio by one of the kitchen bobbies as he waited for the next round of bacon to be fried up.

Instructed by DC Long to go to the drinks marquee and introduce herself to the officers on duty over there, Sally stepped out into the sunshine and was impressed by the way the garden had been transformed over the past half an hour.

Each of the little tables had sprouted a lilac or white umbrella and was decorated with a matching floral display.  With less than an hour before the guests were due to arrive, the speed of delivery had stepped up and even Susie would have been mildly pleased with what had been accomplished in such a short time.

The drinks marquee was dark and cool; illuminated by dozens of tiny lights suspended from the roof poles.  Bottles of champagne were chilling, whilst fresh oranges were being squeezed in readiness for Bucks Fizz, and St Clements for the teetotallers and drivers.  Sally was given the option of handing out drinks or collecting glasses and opted for the later, knowing that her natural inability to carry liquids could only result in spilling a sticky drink on someone really important.  This task also put her in an excellent position to wander around and look out for whatever it was DC Long expected her to look out for.

Sally’s only real concern was that one of the important people from work might wonder what she was doing collecting glasses at Susie’s garden party.  Susie had been briefed to tell people that Sally had volunteered to give a hand when one of the caterers went sick but she had a feeling that Susie would tell a different tale that might make senior management think that Sally was in the picture for a spot of moonlighting.

Watching from the shade of the marquee; Sally was one of the first to see the vision that was Susie emerge from the house, surrounded by a doting entourage. 

Clad in a hideously expensive silk body con dress in shades of lavender and white that showed off her slim tanned legs, Susie had completed the outfit with a fascinator of silk, tulle and flowers that wouldn’t have looked out of place at the races, a dainty white clutch bag and lavender stilettos that made her walk like a newborn foal; all stiff legs and wobbles.  Sally dreaded to think what would happen if Susie had to get anywhere in a hurry.

As it was, she had obviously decided to hold court from her floral throne and despatched her satellites to fetch people to her as they arrived.  The local press were already there and Susie was in her element, posing with her legs draped elegantly to one side, and what she fondly imagined was a girlish laugh on her lips.  From Sally’s vantage point she could see that Susie’s usually tanned and frown-lined face seemed exceptionally smooth and wondered if it was an expensive makeover or whether the Swedish masseur had run amok with the Botox as well. 

Susie glanced over in her direction and Sally shrank back into the shadows, almost stepping on DC Long who had appeared at her elbow.

“We have a little problem,” he said, his expression betraying barely controlled anger.

“Oh no, what now?”

“The lad – he wasn’t at the house and according to the sniffer dog, probably hadn’t been there since yesterday.  My officers swear blind that they were watching the house the whole time; they watched him go in but they didn’t see him come out.  I feel really gutted.  Those two are usually pretty good; that’s why I put them on that job.”

“This guy is really good at what he does though isn’t he?  He’s able to blend into so many different backgrounds because he looks inconspicuous. I’ve seen CCTV footage of him but I doubt if I could pick him out in a line up, let alone in the kind of crowd that’s going to be here today. “

“Ah, well I can do something about that.”  DC Long pulled a photo out of his pocket and handed it to her.  She looked closely at the young man; short dark hair but not so short that it made him look aggressive; dark brown eyes that were set a little too deep in a face that was vaguely handsome but unmemorable.  The only real distinguishing feature was the scar on his neck which showed up vividly on the profile shot.  “Would you recognise him now?”

Sally nodded.  “I think so, especially if I saw him from behind.  That scar is really distinctive.  I’ve got a feeling I have seen him though.  In the canteen once and out in the car park too.”

“Keep your eyes peeled then. If you see anything that worries you just press the red button on your radio.  I’ll be there straight away and so will several other bobbies – except maybe the two that are on kitchen detail.  That chef has proved too much for even them; she’s got them washing up now.  I’m going to the front now.  Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, honestly.  They’re letting me collect glasses and I’ve been told not to pick up more than four at a time in case I drop any.  I can cope with that.”

DC Long grinned, then reached out and squeezed her hand before striding off towards the entrance.  Sally was touched by his solicitous behaviour and hoped that he had some nice lady – or man – tucked away somewhere.  She thought of her husband and boys and how they would laugh when they found out what she’d been up to today.  Her youngest would be deeply envious of the radio and the possibility of being involved in a murder. 

The first visitors had arrived; inevitably of minor importance because the really impressive guests would arrive fashionably late.  Sally watched as her fellow waiters and waitresses left the marquee and proffered the flutes of orange liquid that clashed quite horribly with the lavender decorations.  Perhaps Susie should have gone for Kir Royale and a grenadine punch.  It seemed that these early visitors were also hell bent on consuming as much alcohol as possible so Sally was soon busy picking up the empties and returning them to the cheerful girl washing glasses at the back of the marquee.

Moving from table to table gave her an excellent opportunity to look at a variety of necks and she tried to do this as surreptitiously as possible.  Waiting staff had also begun to circulate with platters of finger food; Susie had obviously decided that Spanish tapas was the order of the day but neglected to advise the staff to supply her guests with napkins or plates.  Using her initiative Sally acquired some from the kitchen and supplemented her original duties by handing out lavender and white napkins to guests with oily, tomato and garlic-stained fingers.

Taking her latest load of empties and used napkins back in to the marquee, Sally spotted DS Hammond and the Chief Constable; he was resplendent in full dress uniform, she looked cool, elegant and extremely classy in a brown shantung silk sheath dress and amber pashmina draped effortlessly round her shoulders.  She spotted Sally and nodded imperceptibly with just the tiniest tilt of her eyebrow.  Feeling oddly pleased that she seemed to have passed a test of some kind; she turned back towards the marquee and laughed to herself as she noticed that despite Susie’s commands the farmer had started up his tractor and was moving slowly up and down the farthest field.

The garden was filling up now with a throng of expensively dressed and perma-tanned women accompanied by elderly men in linen jackets, beautiful young boys and girls and some very imperious elderly ladies who were knocking back the Bucks Fizz and filling up with tortillas as if their lives depended upon it.  Susie had arranged for a charity raffle and tombola with the kind of prizes never even dreamed of at a church fete.  The tombola tickets were selling for ten pounds, and one hundred pounds for a book of five raffle tickets. Wandering past with her latest batch of glasses, Sally couldn’t resist taking a quick look at the prizes on the table and a further list of raffle prizes donated by local businesses.

“Don’t you have anything to do?  This is way out of your league Sally; get back into the marquee where you belong!”  Susie, temporarily away from her dais hissed into Sally’s ear. 

Mustering all the dignity that she could, Sally picked up a few more glasses and walked back into the tent noting that the farmer had moved into the field next door and seemed to have a different kind of trailer fitted to the back of the tractor now.  Sally hoped that he might come close enough to drown out Susie’s impending speech and decided to take a trip back to the house for more napkins. 

Looking back from the house, she saw the tractor moving round the edge of the field towards the house slowly.  She went into the kitchen and spent a happy ten minutes picking at canapés with the bobbies who had finished the washing up and were now practising their vegetable chopping skills.  Feeling a little guilty, she gathered up another pile of napkins and came out of kitchen door in time to see Susie take her place on the dais; waiting impatiently while a pony-tailed young man adjusted the microphone so that she could reach it. 

The tractor was approaching the marquee side of the garden and Sally glanced over, expecting to see some elderly farmer hunched behind the wheel.  The figure, face hidden by a large black baseball cap, seemed quite young and athletic.  It was only when the tractor rounded the corner and moved closer to the hedge that the scar on the person’s neck became visible and Sally’s very acute sense of smell allowed her to appreciate the purpose of the trailer.

She hit the red button on the radio and ducked into the marquee; managing to catch DS Hammond’s eye and beckon her over frantically. Stopping only to kick off her heels, she sprinted towards Sally and was safely inside before the first spray of evil-smelling slurry hit Susie and the other figures on the dais.  Unfortunately, the Chief Constable had been asked to come up and draw the raffle; so together with Susie he received a total drenching.

Watching from inside the marquee, Sally was amazed at how far a trailer of animal waste could go when shot at speed out of a tube.  The majority of guests had congregated at the front of the dais with their raffle tickets at the ready and they too had caught the full force of the spray.  DC Long and the other officers were racing across the field in pursuit of the tractor driver.  The speed of Sally’s response meant that they were scrambling over the hedge by the time the slurry had done its worst.  One of the officers from the kitchen lumbered up into the cab of the tractor and turned off the engine but by that time the trailer was almost empty anyway.

Susie was still on the dais; immobile and completely brown; she seemed to be in some kind of fugue state and was completely oblivious to the chaos surrounding her, a smile frozen on her face.

DS Hammond turned to Sally and raised her eyebrows.  “Thanks for that.  This dress cost me more than I care to think about.  My shoes seem to be out of the danger area too.  I have a feeling that this garden party is going to grind to a halt shortly.  Shall we go out and assess the damage?”

“How strong is your stomach?   Slurry has a particularly pervasive smell,” Sally wrinkled her nose.  “Did you come in a car with the Chief Constable? “

“No, we drove separately and met up at the car park.  We’ll have to breathe through our mouths.”

“Hang on,” Sally reached behind the bar and pulled out her handbag which was full of a variety of useful objects.  Dosing two napkins with lavender oil, she passed one to DS Hammond and clasped the other to her own nose. 

“Just one thing.  How did you know what was going to happen?”

“I didn’t.  DC Long showed me a photo of the lad and he had a scar on his neck.  It wasn’t until the tractor went past me that I could see the scar.  That’s when I hit the red button and got out the way.”

Giggling like two naughty school girls they emerged from the tent and surveyed the scene.  The more sober guests were standing in outraged silence or trying to wipe off the worst of the mess with Sally’s napkins.  Most of the waiting staff, not wealthy enough to buy raffle tickets and not interested in who was going to claim the prizes, had taken the opportunity to eat and drink in the marquee, so they too were unscathed and odourless.  They opened up some more champagne and brought it out to the garden to ply the more inebriated guests who were comparing their varying states of disarray.

“Hammond!”  The Chief Constable’s voice boomed across the garden.  Stopping only to put her shoes back on, DS Hammond strode over to him, holding the napkin to her nose.” How the hell did you manage to stay clean?  Who was driving that tractor?  Have we caught him yet?”

“I have Sally to thank for that Sir.  She recognised the man we’ve been looking for and alerted Long.  She also alerted me thankfully.  I think you’re going to need a new uniform Sir.”

“Thank you.  That observation was totally unnecessary.  I thought psychopaths were devoid of humour.”

“Not this one apparently.  Shall I get your driver Sir?”

I’m not sure he’ll even let me in the car in this state.”

Sally stepped forward.  “There’s a hose round the back of the gardener’s hut, we could wash the worst off and put a table cloth over the car seat.  The sooner you get it off the better.  Slurry’s a bit like skunk spray really; it’s because it ferments in the pit.  Excellent fertiliser but stays on your skin for ages.”

The Chief Constable looked at her suspiciously.  “You seem to be very knowledgeable about this slurry stuff?”

“I grew up in the country; kids tend to have a bit of an awful fascination with slurry pits.  Adults ban you from going near them and as a consequence you just have to go and look – and smell.”

Pulling himself up to his full height and trying very hard to look dignified, the Chief Constable stepped down off the dais.  As he moved toward the house, less slurried people moved out of his way.  He frowned.  “Where is this hose?”

“Follow me,” said Sally and led him round to the hut.  I suggest that you take your jacket and hat off at least.  They seem to have taken the worst of it.” 

One of the police officers from the kitchen came forward and took the Chief Constable’s clothes, wrapping them up in one of the hastily obtained table cloths.  Wielding the hose as gently as he could, he proceeded to wash off the worst of the slurry from the now slightly more grateful Chief Constable.

Sally and DS Hammond walked back to the dais where Susie had been led to the throne and was sitting down, wrapped in a blanket but still covered in slurry.  She looked up as they approached and she pointed at Sally.

“You!  Why aren’t you covered in this shit!  Did you plan this?  Did you?  You’ve ruined me!  No one will ever come to my garden parties after this!  I’ll be blacklisted in every decent house in the county and I’m sure that you’re behind this!”

She threw herself to the floor of the dais and began sobbing noisily, hammering with her tiny fists and screeching.  Those around her moved away quickly.  Sally looked around and called out “Any doctors in the garden?”

An elderly gentleman removed his soiled jacket and threw it on the table; he stepped forward and knelt down by the side of Susie who was now rocking from side to side and keening like a wild animal.  He looked up at Sally.  “Better call an ambulance I think, she’s beyond anything I can do here.”

DS Hammond summoned one of the officers over and sent him scurrying back to the house to make the call.  As she turned to watch him Sally caught sight of DC Long coming back across the fields with a very big grin on his face.  She nudged DS Hammond and the two of them moved over to the fence to meet him.  The bow tie had disappeared and the immaculate white shirt was extremely grimy. 

“We’ve got him!  The lads are walking him back to the road, I thought that was better than bringing him in here.  What the hell happened?  What’s the awful smell?”

“Slurry – fermented animal waste and water – used for fertilising” said Sally. “Smells like hell and hangs around forever.  Susie and the Chief Constable copped for the worst of it.  Susie’s completely flipped out and the CC is being hosed down round the back of the kitchen by one of your officers.  The rest of Susie’s guests are either very, very drunk and will spend the next month smelling to high heaven or extremely sober and hell bent on snubbing Susie for eternity.  Faced with this I think she really would rather be dead.  Actually, I don’t think she is thinking now.  Remember that mental health facility we were talking about this morning?”

“Wow!”  DC Long looked over at DS Hammond, coolly standing by and reunited now with her pashmina and bag.  “Looks like the two of you had a miraculous escape.  That would appear to be a very expensive outfit?”

“More than you and I earn in a month.  I’m heading back to the station to get changed and have a little chat with your tractor driver.  We’ll get one of the other lads to drop you home if you don’t mind Sally?”

“No, of course not.  You’ve got work to do and I’m just relieved that I don’t have to spend all day collecting glasses after all.  I’ll stay and see Susie into the ambulance though if that’s okay?”

“Sure.  I’ll send an officer round.  There’s one other thing.  Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?  It’s Monday– you know – back to work.”

“We haven’t exactly finished yet.  A few loose ends to tie up tomorrow.  We’ll come and get you.”

Sally grinned resignedly and waved goodbye, a lavender scented napkin still clutched in her hand.

Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

The Night Watch

The ringing sound in Sally’s ears had nothing to do with the several glasses of red wine she had consumed the night before in an effort to block out the nightmare she felt she was living in.  The realisation that it was the phone came slowly as she staggered out of bed and went in search of the source of the noise.

Squinting at the clock, she grabbed the phone off the cradle, it was eight fifteen am but it was Saturday.  “Hello?” she croaked.

“DS Hammond here,” was the terse reply.  “We have a problem with one of the building attendants.”

“A problem?  What with getting into the building?  It’s not that jobsworth Graham again is it?”

“Graham is the problem but it has nothing to do with access.  We think that the killer has struck again and Graham is the victim.  There’s a car outside, how soon can you be ready?”

Sally gulped, “Five – ten minutes tops.”

“Hmmm – that will have to do I suppose.” 

Sally was unable to protest; she heard only the dialling tone, and after replacing the phone did her best not to rouse her sleeping family who wouldn’t be pleased that they’d been woken up early on the weekend especially when she was about to rush off in a police car again.  She threw on some jeans and a sweatshirt, and performed a very cursory wash and brush up with a lick of lipstick.  Grabbing her bag, she kissed her sleeping husband goodbye and got into the waiting unmarked police car.

The front of Mostyn Hall was cordoned off and the usually empty car park was filled with the die-hard paparazzo who could smell that there was trouble.  Flashes went off as she got out of the car and she wished that she’d taken a little more time over her appearance before she left the house.  Her police escort hurried her through the cordon and into the incident room where DS Hammond was waiting impatiently.

Sally slung her bag and jacket on the back of a chair and turned to DS Hammond.  “What happened to Graham?”

“Poison apparently, in his whisky bottle.  The forensic guys are working on it now.”

“Graham’s doesn’t drink officially.  He’s a Jehovah’s Witness, they don’t believe in taking stimulants.   He won’t even drink tea or coffee.  Mind you, I’d heard rumours about the whisky and I’m sure I smelled alcohol on him a couple of times when he got too close.”

DC Long got up from a nearby desk and joined them, opening up his notebook and squinting at what he had written.  “Officially he’s a Jehovah’s Witness, but he had a nice little stack of stimulants in the building attendant’s room, tucked away in a filing cabinet.”

“Did anyone else know about this?”

“According to the other building attendant, no,” said DC Long.  “He says he didn’t get on that well with Graham so they weren’t exactly into sharing a drink together.  He seems to think that Derek might have been aware but as he wasn’t privy to the drinking sessions, he doesn’t know who was there.  Says that he wondered if something funny was going on because Graham was always very happy about letting him finish early when he should have been working till eight o’clock.”

Sally nodded, “By eight o’clock everyone would have left the building, including the cleaners.  We rarely have any late evening meetings now and when we do, they’re held in this room.  Fancy Graham being a secret drinker.  So where was he found?”

“A security officer found him.  One of my officers had to let him into the building because the front door hadn’t been unlocked.  He thought Graham had dozed off in the building attendant’s room but when he went to wake him up the glass dropped from his hand and smashed on the floor.  That’s when he realised and came charging out of the room yelling his head off.  One of our lads went to see what the noise was about and set about cordoning off the area and getting us in pronto.”

“Do you need to cordon off the whole car park?” Sally asked.  “There are other people who use it on the weekend and they’ll be hopping mad if they can’t park. You can still isolate the area around the building attendant’s room.”

“Thank you,” DS Hammond interjected.   “We do this quite often; we do know how deal with a crime scene.”

Sally blushed, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to …”

“…Forget it.  Would anyone apart from the late Derek be likely to be know about Graham’s little secret?”

“There’s no one else who got on with Graham really, Derek liked the way Graham was always creeping round him.  I really don’t like to say this but…”

“Go on.”

“Derek was Donal’s friend.  There were occasions when Donal stayed behind after work and he’d be in with Derek talking about computer games and films.  I suppose it’s possible that Derek may have told Donal about the secret drinking; they probably had a good laugh about it behind Graham’s back.  Graham was so pompous about his religious beliefs.”

DS Hammond turned to the nearest officer and barked, “Find out where Donal is, now!”

Sally sat down in the chair heavily; and took a deep breath, “I should have told you this yesterday but I thought, I hoped that it didn’t mean anything. Then I went home early and I forgot all about it.”

“What now?”  DS Hammond’s voice was of steel.

“I had a conversation with Donal the day before yesterday.  I meant to tell you when I came in but all the stuff with Louis and Hester knocked it out of my head.  Donal was particularly angry with Graham.  Some issues about moving furniture and Graham dragging his feet.  I didn’t think it was very important at the time.  People are always moaning about Graham and how lazy he is.”

“What did he say?  Exactly?”

Sally tried desperately to remember their conversation, “That was all really except, I made some comment about not rating Graham’s chances for survival much and Donal’s reaction was quite extreme.  I put it down to everyone being a bit jumpy at the moment.  There’s something else too.”

DS Hammond drew in a deep breath, “For someone who is supposed to be assisting us with our enquiries, you are not being a very helpful witness right now.”

“Sorry, I don’t want to build things up out of proportion and I really don’t want to throw suspicion on Donal if he’s innocent.  He usually leaves at four o’clock; he was still here when I left and that was about half five.  I couldn’t see what he was doing but whatever it was it was on his computer and he was totally engrossed.”

“Has anyone managed to find this Donal yet?”  shouted DS Hammond, her voice rising sharply as she scanned the room.  There was a hushed mutter of response that did nothing to improve her mood.  “Someone get onto those halfwits in Wales as well, this business with the building attendant makes me feel that our killer is getting desperate and more than a little sloppy.”

Sally felt sick; a combination of fear about Donal and lack of breakfast.  There was no chance of getting anything to eat as the kitchens were locked up over the weekend. “Is there any chance I can go out and get some food please?  I didn’t have a chance to get breakfast this morning.”

DS Hammond looked over at Sally, then motioned to DC Long, “Get it sorted.  I suppose we’ll have to get food in for everyone today and getting your canteen open is pointless if there’s no one to do any cooking.  Sally, can you give Long a hand sorting out what everyone wants please?”

“Yes, of course.  What about Tracey and Susie?”

“Leave them to me, and Sally?”

“Yes?”

“However loyal you feel towards your friend Donal, not a word to anyone, no phone calls, no texts and no tweets.  We don’t know that he is behind all this; there may be someone else in the building who knows something.  I want a list of everyone who was here after five thirty that night.”

“The time-clock!” said Sally.  “Most of the people would have clocked out when they left.  There are a few that don’t use it but they tend to be in directorate and I doubt if any of them work beyond five o’clock.”

“Can we get a print out of that?”

“Yes, I think so, Derek’s boss Jim knows how to access the system.  If we could get him in that would solve the problem but the computers that have the relevant software are in the office next to the building attendant’s room – and that’s cordoned off.”

“Find the person that can access the software and we’ll let them in the room with an officer to supervise.”

Feeling relieved that she had something to do, Sally found Jim’s number.  As key holder to the building he had to leave an emergency number.  He wasn’t overjoyed at being called in on a Saturday morning and she could hear his wife grumbling in the background but luckily, he only lived a few minutes away and promised to get there as soon as possible.  DC Long assigned an officer to take him into the office and within ten minutes of arriving he came back out with a list of people and the times that they had clocked out of the building.

Walking back to the incident room with the list in her hand, Sally glanced down at the list of names and was surprised to see that according to the list Donal had clocked off at four o’clock.  Could she have been mistaken?  She was sure that she had seen Donal that night, there was no mistaking that vivid green sweatshirt.  This seemed like more proof that Donal was involved, why else would he clock off and then come back to his office unless he wanted people to think he was out of the building?  She looked at the list of names again; there were hardly any people from her side of the building that would have seen Donal, and all the staff from the office next to the building attendant’s room had left the building by five o’clock.

Sally handed the list over to DS Hammond; not surprisingly she spotted Donal’s name immediately and raised her eyebrows when she saw his clocking out time.  “I don’t need to ask you, do I?”

Sally shook her head.  “I saw him.  He was definitely in the office when I left and you can see from the list that I left at five thirty-two.  Have you found him yet?”

“He wasn’t in yesterday.  Officers have been to his house but there’s no sign of him.  His wife hasn’t been seen by the neighbours for almost a week.”

“I can’t believe that he’s behind all this.  He’s such a lovely kind man, such a good friend.”

“Funny how I’ve heard that so many times from the family and friends of serial killers.  Does Donal drive?”

“He used to.  He’s been using the bus and train all the time I’ve known him and I can vaguely remember him saying something about giving up driving some years ago.  I’m not sure why.  I assumed it was a matter of costs and parking, although parking isn’t usually an issue here.”

“Just to let you know how much more trouble your list has caused; the police in Wales can’t find your friend Tracey, and Susie isn’t answering her home phone either.”

“Susie won’t be communicating with anyone today.  She’ll be out getting clothes for her garden party.  She’ll need to buy at least three new outfits; she’d never wear anything that she’d been seen in before.”

“I’d send someone out to her house but it might be quicker if I could get hold of her by phone and find out where she is.”

“I’ll get a mobile number from Jim; he’s got access to everyone’s contact details.” 

Susie was not particularly happy about having her shopping trip disrupted; she had only just arrived at the Trafford Centre and had no intention of abandoning her quest for the ideal ensemble for her garden party.  DS Hammond, in a rare moment of affability, agreed to let the shopping continue provided Susie accepted discreet surveillance.  Fortunately, there was a female police officer at the local station who was quite happy to shadow Susie on her mammoth trail round the designer shops.

DC Long had taken a copy of the list and called everyone who had been present after Sally had left on Thursday night.  No one had seen Donal but no one had seen Graham either.  This was not the kind of news that either Sally or DS Hammond wanted to hear but it did at least confirm that Donal seemed to be making an effort to appear that he wasn’t in the building and couldn’t be implicated in either Louis’ accident or Graham’s death.  The medical examiner had confirmed that Graham had probably died sometime after ten o’clock when the building was empty and he felt safe enough to settle down for his late-night drink.  From the residue in the broken glass and the whisky left in the bottle, there was little doubt that Graham had fallen victim to a tasteless and swift acting poison but forensics were being quite cagey about which poison it was exactly. He hadn’t been on duty the night Louis had found the biscuits, so Friday night would have been the first opportunity he would have had to sample his favourite tipple.

Sally looked up from the report; unsure whether her nausea was caused by what she had just read or the fact that she still hadn’t eaten anything yet.  The seductive smell of bacon wafted in through an open window and she was relieved to see that Jim had called the chef in, and between them they were preparing brunch for anyone who needed it.  She wandered into the canteen; it seemed strange to see packed with uniformed staff and without the faces she was so familiar with.  Her bacon butty and hot, strong coffee went some way to restoring her equilibrium and from the looks on the faces of the incident room staff, she wasn’t the only one.

She filled up her coffee cup again and accepted the chocolate muffin pressed on her by the chef, who was quite pleased at the overtime rate he was being paid to come in and cook on a Saturday morning.  Sally felt the need for a quiet corner and took her coffee back into the incident room.  Not looking directly at the gory pictures on the notice boards had become a matter of habit now and she managed to negotiate her way back to her laptop without even catching sight of her own photo either.

“Can I join you?”

Sally looked up from her coffee and saw the friendly face of DC Long, holding a mug of tea and a plate piled high with a fried breakfast.  Sally moved the pile of papers to one side and took the plate from him as he went off to get another chair.  They ate in the comfortable and companionable silence of two people who had little time for small talk when hunger set in.  It wasn’t until Sally got to the very last crumb of muffin that she realised she hadn’t seen DS Hammond for a while.  Pushing his plate aside, DC Long seemed to sense the unspoken question.

“She’s gone to Wales.  They appear to be having a problem locating Tracey.  Is there any more you can tell me about her?  Anything that might help us to find her.”

“What can I say?  She is rather – masculine – and the rumour mill says that she and Angela are more than friends.  She has dogs; I’m not sure what all of them are but I know she has several and from the cocker spaniel sticker on her car I’d assume that she has a least one of those.  She has a narrow boat and goes on frequent trips along the canals, especially when we need her to get an urgent piece of work done.  She talks well and that’s why she’s still in her job.  Her hearing is not too good so she doesn’t do so well when there’s a lot of background noise.  She and Susie are known as the odd couple because they are complete opposites and yet they share an office and like to spend their lunchtimes together too.  Any good?”

DC long nodded in appreciation.  “We knew most of that but not about the dogs.  We’ve sent officers out to her house but there’s no sign of anyone there.  Do you think they are likely to be on the boat together?”

“I suppose so, but I thought Tracey gave you all the details of her whereabouts and how to get hold of her?”

“She did.  She appears to have changed her mind about where she was going however, there’s no sign of her and her phone is switched off.  Unlike your Modern Apprentices who have all mod cons in the way of iPhones and laptops, Tracey has a very modest mobile which we’re having difficulty tracking.  There also seem to be issues regarding the capabilities of our colleagues in Wales and their motivation in trying to find Tracey and Angela.  That’s why DS Hammond has gone off in high dudgeon.  I feel quite sorry for the Welsh.”

Sally laughed feebly.  The thought of DS Hammond bearing down on a group of provincial Welsh bobbies like Boudicca in a chariot with sword-bedecked wheels was both frightening and amusing.  Sally started to gather up the plates and cutlery and placed them on the tray ready for taking back to the canteen. 

“I could do with collecting some work from my office really.  Do you need me here?”

DC Long shook his head.  “No, I know where to find you if I need you.  Are you okay?”

Sally nodded, and after taking the plates back to the canteen, walked through the silent corridors and up the stairs to her office, trying to forget the sight of the new pictures of Graham slumped in his chair that one of the officers had been pinning onto the notice board.

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Sally was surprised when her phone started ringing moments after she sat down at her desk.  It was Ruby.

“I phoned you at home and your husband said you’d been called in.  Where have you been all morning?”           

“Helping police with their enquiries again I’m afraid.  I’m still not sure if I’m a suspect or a supergrass.  Did I miss anything exciting yesterday?”

“Are you kidding?  First of all, I was corralled in the portakabins with literally hundreds of paparazzi flashing their cameras at me, then when I was actually allowed back into the office I wasn’t allowed to sit at my own desk because there was a rather attractive man dusting it for fingerprints.  Which was actually quite nice.”

“Taking pictures – did the paparazzi get you then?” 

“Yes, but your nice detective rescued me.”

Sally looked puzzled.  “MY nice detective?  You don’t mean DS Hammond surely?”

“The Ice Maiden!  Good grief no!  The cute young one, DC Long is it?”  Ruby feigned ignorance about his name but Sally knew only too well that she had probably been pumping his fellow officers for his personal profile already.

“I’m going to have to go Ruby, I just nipped up here to pick up a few things and I’m bursting to tell you things but if DS Hammond ever found out she’d have my guts for garters.”

“I understand honey, you know you can call me if you need me for anything though.  Byeee”

Sally sat down at her desk and turned on the computer.  Another fifty-two e-mails had filled up the inbox whilst she’d been off.  She worked her way through them methodically; prioritising the urgent requests and binning the junk.  It was surprising how many of her colleagues who worked away from Mostyn Hall were now trying to renew their acquaintance with her in an attempt to find out what was really going on behind the crime scene tape.  She read each e-mail several times, trying to think with DS Hammond’s analytical mind in case any of the enquirers could be the killer.  She was reaching the point where every sentence held a hidden meaning and decided to find some real work to get immersed in. 

Sally leaned back in her chair and enjoyed the peace but wondered how long it would be before the storm broke again.    She put on some music and went back to her research; bookmarking the pages carefully and saving any useful documents and articles in a separate file.

She was skimming through a particularly pertinent article when a shadow darkened the light from the corridor and looking up, she saw DC Long in the doorway.  The look on his face told her all she needed to know.  Tracey and Angela had obviously been found and it didn’t look as if it was good news.

“Shall I pack up things here and come downstairs?”

“Yes.  I’ll explain when we get down there.  Can I help you do anything?”

“No, just take a seat.  I do this every day and I’ve got it down to a fine art now,” said Sally as she performed her usual closing down tasks with the computers and phones.  DC Long got to his feet and took the rubbish bin out of her hand, placing it outside the office door as Sally turned off the lights again and pulled the door to.

They walked down to the incident room in a less comfortable silence than ever before, and as they walked in through the main doors Sally saw a couple of high-ranking police officers, folders in hands, walking along the parade of the victims’ photographs.

DC Long motioned to Sally to sit at her desk and walked out to the front of the room.  He looked a little nervous; even more so when the important officers stopped their perusals of the notice board and sat down at desks slightly to one side of him.  He cleared his throat.

“As some of you will already be aware, Tracey’s boat has been found.  There were several dogs on board and the remains of two females believed to be Tracey and Angela.  I’m afraid that when the scenes of crime photos come through, they won’t be pleasant viewing.  It seems that the women were savaged by at least one of their dogs; forensics is trying to establish whether this happened before or after death.”

Sally sincerely hoped that it had been after death.  She tried very hard to concentrate on the rest of the information that DC Long was passing on to the rest of the team.  Tracey’s boat had been found at a little used mooring by a passing fisherman who was worried because the dogs were howling so much.  Tracey had told DC Long that she would be mooring up at a nearby marina but it transpired that this particular place was a favourite haunt of hers; somewhere she went to get away from everything and everyone – except her dogs and her partner. 

Just as DC Long was winding up the discussion, one of the printers began churning out pictures taken at the scene. Sally felt sick and knew that she would have to shut her eyes as she walked past that particular board.  There were however, several police officers crowded round the printer to see each new photo as it completed.  She had thought their interest ghoulish at the start of the investigation but realised now that it was just another part of her job.

DC Long came over to her with a cup of coffee in his hand.  “Here you are,” he said.  “I remembered about not giving you tea and I put some extra sugar in it.  I guess that was a bit of a shock.”

Sally nodded and took the coffee gratefully; the hot, sweet drink was just what she needed.  “How’s DS Hammond?”

“Incandescent.  She’d told the local bobbies to make sure that they knew where Tracey was at all times and they simply didn’t bother looking for her when she failed to turn up at the marina.  Some issue with sheep rustling and a spate of car burglaries apparently.   She’s been using language that has shocked some of the very moral chapel-going community support officers who’d been delegated to keep an eye out for the boat.  I believe she’s drafted in some more proactive police from Chester to carry on the investigation when she returns.  She should be back soon.”

“Poor Tracey, I didn’t know Angela that well but how awful for both of them.  I suppose the dogs have had to be put down as well?”

“Yes.  We had no choice, poor little beggars.”

“What happens now?”

“We’re still looking for Donal.  Susie has finished her shopping and has returned home.  She’s been informed about Graham, Tracey and Angela but still insists that we are making a fuss about nothing, and her garden party has to go ahead as planned.  It’s going to cost us a small fortune; she insists on plain clothes police and most of them are complaining that they haven’t a thing to wear!”

This at least raised a small smile from Sally, who found that Susie’s selfishness in the face of so much evidence was just typical of her behaviour in general. 

“She’s spent all year organising this garden party, even the forces of nature don’t dare to let it rain on the day that she’s chosen.  Quite a few people book weekend breaks once they know when Susie’s garden party is; guaranteed good weather and an excuse not to attend.”

“Have you ever been to one?”

“Good heavens no!  The likes of me don’t get a look in.  Susie invites all the local gentry, members of parliament, magistrates, dress designers and a small hand-picked selection from Mostyn Hall.  I don’t think you realise how important this event is to local society.  For all her airs and graces, Susie has been very clever in building this garden party up over the years to the point where getting an invitation also opens doors to every ball, gallery opening and major public event across this county and several others on the borders. I may moan about Susie’s laziness when she’s here, but from what I’ve heard, and seen in the local press, she really knows how to throw a good party.”

“I’m sure we’ll have a lovely time.”

“We?”

“DS Hammond requires your attendance at Susie’s party I’m afraid.”

“This thing about keeping her eye on me is getting ridiculous now.  Surely she’s accepted that I’m not the serial killer?”

“She accepts that you aren’t, but your friendship with Donal is a weak spot.  She’s not a hundred per cent sure that if she leaves you to your own devices, Donal won’t try to contact you – or you to get hold of him.”

Sally started to protest but he held up his hand to silence her.  “Hear me out please?  You still don’t totally believe that Donal is behind this do you?  He can’t be.  He’s not that kind of person.”

“They never are, and I know you’ve been told that before.   If you’re with us at the garden party, we don’t have to deploy extra staff to make sure that you’re safe.  We’re pretty sure that Donal – or one of his associates – will put in an appearance.  He may try to make contact with you, after all, Susie is the last name on the list and the end of the list marks the end of the killing hopefully.  DS Hammond feels that you exert a powerful influence over Donal – you managed to save Linda from possibly strangulation with a posh bra after all.  We think Graham was supposed to die on Thursday night too but he swapped his night shift for Friday.”

“It may not just have been Linda I saved.”  said Sally and began to relate the incident of the noisy colleague outside her office.  DC Long had his notebook out in a flash and scribbled down what she was saying.  She tried therefore, to keep it as concise as possible.  The thought of the garden party still preyed on her mind however.

“What on earth am I going to wear?”  Sally wailed.

“Oh, not you too!” said DC Long.  “If I’ve heard that once over the past twenty-four hours, I’ve heard it a dozen times.  You may have noticed that the work force is slightly reduced?  That’s not just because it’s a Saturday; they’re taking turns to nip off to the Trafford Centre to snap up a bargain on expenses – that’s if Susie’s left anything to buy.  I suppose the blokes will be okay but our female officers are in a dreadful state.  You have less of a problem – and please don’t be insulted by this.”

“What?” said Sally suspiciously.

“All you need to put on is basic black.  Susie has agreed to allow you to attend only if you join in with the catering staff.  They’ll provide you with an apron.  Don’t worry; I will be joining you as a waiter – black uniform trousers, white starched shirt and black bow tie.”

“Evil bitch!  Sorry but that is just typical of Susie.  No appreciation of the efforts people are making to save her scrawny neck and she still finds the opportunity to humiliate us.”

“Relax,” he said, putting a comforting hand on her arm.  “Our job is to wander around with the odd tray of canapés keeping an eye out for anything unusual.  The real waiters and waitresses have to do all the hard work.”

“I bet DS Hammond isn’t dressing up as a servant.”

“No, she bought an appropriate outfit yesterday evening and is accompanying the Chief Constable who is quite excited because he’s never been invited to anything like this before.”

“That’s a bit of an oversight on Susie’s part isn’t it?”

“No.  He’s only been here a couple of months and having risen very quickly through fast track, he ‘s not had the benefit of attendance at many social events.”

“Is he here?”

“Yes, the one with the newest dress uniform in the group over there.  Be subtle when you look at him.  He isn’t used to the attention yet.”

Sally did her best to look nonchalantly at the group of men dressed in their best uniforms.  The Chief Constable stood out as the youngest of the group and the silver on his uniform shone with a lack of exposure to the hard, cruel world of policing.  He looked very young but she decided that he had quite a nice face.  It was at that moment that he looked in her direction and frowned.  Sally looked away quickly and muttered, “Oh no, he’s spotted me.  Is he coming over?”

“Yes.  Just relax, look him in the eye and answer honestly.”  DC Long got to his feet and introduced them.  The Chief Constable extended a hand and Sally took it.  His handshake was firm but not knuckle grinding, and his hand was dry and warm.

“I hear that your method of tension release is at the heart of these dreadful murders?” he said, in a quiet and level voice.

“Yes, I’m so sorry.  I had no idea that such a silly article in a gossip magazine could lead to all this.  I would never

“…I don’t think anyone blames you directly but if the media gets hold of your list, we’ll never hear the last of it – and neither will you.  Please be careful what you say to people?  The most important thing is to prevent any harm coming to – what’s her name?  Ah yes, Susie, at this garden party tomorrow.   Long says you have been extremely helpful to us.”

“It’s the very least I can do.  I don’t seem to have been able to prevent much so far though.”  Sally looked down, unable to bear the scrutiny of his gaze any longer.  He had the kind of bright blue eyes that would have had Ruby melting in a pool of desire in moments.  Unable to help herself, Sally looked down at the hands holding his uniform cap. No wedding ring!  She blushed at such trivial thoughts when there was so much else going on.  The Chief Constable nodded dismissal and made his way back to his colleagues.

Sally began going through her wardrobe mentally, trying to think if she had anything that looked remotely like a waitress’s uniform that would also be comfortable and practical.  She had plenty of black clothes but did she have time to buy anything new?  Shoes – what shoes should she wear?  She looked at the clock; it was almost five o’clock already and she hadn’t even told her husband what was going on yet.

DC Long took pity on her.  “Give your husband a ring.  Good job it’s late-night shopping tonight.  You can put in an expenses claim for anything you buy for tomorrow.”  He broke off as his mobile rang and he took the call, not saying much but listening intently.  The call ended abruptly and he turned to Sally with a serious expression on his face.

“DS Hammond is about ten miles away.  She needs to talk to you before tomorrow and there’s a picture of a lad coming through on the printer that she wants you to look at.  Apparently, there’s CCTV footage of him talking to Tracey at one of the locks and the bobbies have found an abandoned tent and some cooking gear in the woods close to the mooring.  DS Hammond was wondering if he’s one of your Modern Apprentices.”

Sally nodded compliantly, with all thought of the shopping trip gone from her head.  They walked over to the printer and waited impatiently for the picture to come through.  Like most CCTV pictures it was in black and white and very grainy where the picture had been blown up.  Sally squinted at it and shook her head.

“He looks like most lads really.  It’s hard to tell much from the picture though.”

“We’ve got some digital stills coming through on one of the computers; you might have more luck with those.”

One of the officers beckoned them over to the computer and pulled up a chair for Sally.  These pictures were much clearer and Sally felt a huge sense of sadness as she looked at shots of a laughing Tracey steering her boat through the lock.  It was easier to see the lad in these pictures but he still didn’t look like anyone she knew from work.

Leaving DC Long in conversation with his colleague, Sally returned to her desk and called her husband.  He knew enough now to understand the reason for the brevity of her conversation and promised to go through her wardrobe and look for suitable black clothes.  He even promised to polish her black shoes and the thought of this small kindness in the midst of such chaos made her eyes prick with tears.

A sudden noise at the door made Sally turn her head to see DS Hammond striding toward her with a look of extreme determination.

“Well?  Did you recognise him?”

Sally shook her head. “No, I’m sorry.”

This was not the answer DS Hammond wanted and that was evident from her expression.

“There is one thing I noticed though.  I’m not sure if it’s relevant.”

“Yes.” The word came out as if it had been bitten off.

“The lad in the pictures, I think he’s wearing an England shirt.  Wasn’t the lad seen near Colin wearing one too?”

“Yes!”  This interjection was triumphant in tone. DS Hammond wheeled round.  “Find me those pictures that the Portuguese police sent over. Let’s get a comparison going.  I also want any photos of people attending any of the other crime scenes.  Come on jump to it!”

She turned to Sally, a slight smile on her lips.  “You’d better get off home.  You’re going to be on your feet a lot tomorrow.  Long will collect you at seven thirty.  Be ready!”  She turned on her heel and stalked over to the long conference table where officers were already sifting through a pile of pictures.

DC Long beckoned to an officer standing nearby.  “Take Sally home please and drive very carefully, she doesn’t need sirens or blue lights.” He turned back to Sally who was still a little stunned by the impact of her simple observation.

“Well done!” he said and squeezed her arm.  She picked up her jacket and bag and left the room in a daze.

Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

A Change of Plan

Linda was sent home with a police escort, and this aided her recovery tremendously.  The bra, complete with wrapping, was still in the incident room but once the financial significance of a genuine Rigby and Peller bra was explained to her, Linda began making noises about when it would be returned to her.  Ruby and Sally wondered if this might signal a new era in Linda’s state of uplift, then discounted the idea – one posh bra does not an uplift make.

Back in the incident room DS Hammond was stalking up and down like a woman possessed; this change of pattern puzzled her and whilst she enjoyed puzzles normally, this was beginning to become irksome.  Saving Linda from the jaws of death was a distinct success but not one that she could repeat.  After moving from desk-to-desk chivvying along people who didn’t really need the aggravation, she went back to her office and settled there, fingertips steepled as she pondered the killer’s next move. 

Sally found her there after knocking very tentatively at the door.  Relief that Linda was not going to meet an unpleasant end had been replaced by concerns about the others who were still on the hit list. Louis was still foraging around the building, Hester and Graham were busy irritating everyone they came in contact with, Tracey had departed for her narrow boat jaunt with her friend Angela as planned, and Susie was continuing with her elaborate and completely over the top garden party.  The cream of local society had been invited according to Susie and it would undoubtedly be the event of the year.  Sally, overhearing Susie boast about the food and decorations she had ordered thought that it sounded more like a pretentious church fete rather than the scaled down Buckingham Palace garden party that Susie was describing.

DS Hammond looked up as Sally carefully opened the door.  Eyebrow cocked she waited for Sally to speak like some imperious head mistress at a genteel boarding school.

“I was wondering about – well – the others on the list – only …”

“…They’re still on the list.  Yes, I’m fully aware of that and they are all under close observation.  Your friend Louis is exceptionally adept at pilfering from other people’s offices but you all seem to tolerate his larceny so he’s just providing amusement to the officers watching him on the CCTV that he doesn’t know has been installed throughout the building.  I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that Hester has some kind of learning difficulty; she eventually told me that she may – or may not – be going to a club in Liverpool this evening to see a troop of Armenian clog dancers.  That building attendant is bone idle when he isn’t trying to creep his way into my incident room.  Tracey and Angela are being very closely watched by members of the Welsh Constabulary – or so I’m told.  Having dealt with them previously that probably means a solitary bobby sitting on a fold up garden chair behind a bush.  Unfortunately, my inspector doesn’t feel that we can afford to put our own people down there whilst there is such a high presence here.  Making arrangements to cover this ridiculous garden party is going to eat into our resources enough as it is.  Is there no way anyone can persuade this ridiculous woman to cancel? It can’t be that important surely?”

DS Hammond’s intolerance was etching itself into her normally glacial complexion and Sally was sure that she could see a tiny muscle twitching uncontrollably at the corner of one eye.  

“Susie is very much a part of local society.  These events are like life blood to her.  I often feel that she only comes into work to show off her latest fashion acquisitions, and that we’re just a proving ground before she unleashes her outfit on the next cocktail party or dinner dance.  This garden party is the high point on her social calendar.  It would kill her to cancel it.  Oh!”  Sally stopped abruptly as she realised what she had said.

“Would it?  Would it indeed?  I suppose that in that case we will have to let her carry on with this ridiculous event.  Does she have nothing better to do?”

It was Sally’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Are we referring to her working life or personal life?  If it’s the former, then she has plenty of things she should be doing but she prefers to swan around the building like Lady Bountiful.  I’ve noticed that her leisurely lunches are a bit shorter now that Tracey has gone off on her boat, but otherwise her productivity is pretty non-existent.  As far as her home life is concerned – well you probably know more about it than I do – I think she has a timid husband, a couple of kids who’ve left home and rumour has it she’s been knocking off one of the councillors for years.”

“I can better you on that one.  She has one son who is married with children.”

“Susie!  A grandma!  I’d never have guessed.”

“I don’t think she’s exactly hands-on.  Her son and his family immigrated to New Zealand shortly after their second child was born.  They would appear to be estranged although her husband keeps in contact.”

“I won’t ask where you got all that information from.  I’d better get back to my office; I’ve a couple of e-mails and meetings that need sorting out first and then I’ll go home.  I know Linda irritates me but I’m hugely relieved that she’s off the hook now.”

DS Hammond looked sceptically at Sally and the moment of entente cordiale was broken.  “Let’s not forget who this whole thing started.  You and your hit list.”

Sally felt a cold chill sweep over her body and at the same time a flush of embarrassment coloured her face.  “Yes.  I hadn’t exactly forgotten my part in all this either.  It’s something that I will always regret but I’m doing my best to prevent anything else happening aren’t I?”  Sally tried not to let the emotion break through but her voice sounded strange and strangled.

“Go and sort out your e-mails.  I’m hoping that this change of plan might signify a change of heart in our killer.  He or she has seemed so determined to work through the list until now that nothing anyone did would deter them.  The bra delivery and Linda’s obvious uplift issues might indicate that whoever did this has a sense of humour – albeit warped – but the concordance with your wishes may mean we’re not dealing with a psychopath – I hope.”

“Thanks.  Do you want me down here tomorrow?”

“I’ll let you know.”  DS Hammond turned to her computer screen in an obvious sign of dismissal.  Sally let herself out of the office and walked back up stairs to her office with a heavy heart.  There was a note from Ruby, who had gone home earlier but it was nothing urgent.  Sitting at her desk, Sally unlocked the computer. There was only one outstanding report to be completed, and turning on some music she settled down to type. 

The door to her office was open and though it was in a fairly quiet part of the building, there seemed to be quite a lot of human traffic this afternoon.  One of Donal’s colleagues caught her eye and waved as she walked past.  Sally returned the wave and pulled herself back to the rather boring but complex report, trying to focus on the contents rather than on Linda’s narrow escape and the still present danger to the others.

The sound of the follow-you printer outside the door embarking on a lengthy print job provided a soothing background and an accompaniment to the non-demanding music Sally was playing.  She couldn’t see who was at the printer as they were standing to the left of her doorway, but whoever it was, Sally was grateful that they weren’t distracting her.  The peace was broken when another colleague came out to use the printer and instead of coming back later, decided to stay and launch into a loud and particularly tiresome discourse on what she was going to have for dinner that night, what a pig her boyfriend was and how she was really fed up with that fact that a mutual colleague was being promoted whilst she had been passed over.

The volume and content of the conversation would have been enough but the woman then decided to prance about in the doorway; the voice and back view were unfamiliar and Sally concluded that she must be new because most people had the courtesy to keep the noise down in the corridor when her office door was open.   She tried to block it out but the next peel of high-pitched cackling was too much.  To shut the door on people was rude and Sally had no desire to cause offence but couldn’t work with this amount of noise.

Wearily she got to her feet and walked slowly to the doorway.  “I’m sorry but would you mind keeping the noise down please?  Or perhaps having a chat somewhere else?  I find the noise and the jumping about rather distracting.”

The animated conversationalist turned around to her with a look of extreme dislike. “What are you talking about?  We’ve only been here a few seconds.  We’re allowed to talk.  If you don’t like it you should shut your door and not interfere.”  Her body language and the tone of her voice were both defensive and aggressive, taking Sally completely by surprise.

“Look, I’m sorry if you’re upset about this,” she replied, “But this corridor is not an extension of your office and we’ve asked before that you try not to stand right outside our door and talk.  There are confidentiality issues if you’re talking about work and if you’re not talking about work, this is really not an appropriate place to chat.”

“Oh, stop making such a fuss about nothing.  You don’t own the place. Just because you’ve got cosy with the police doesn’t make you important.  You’re just a glorified secretary who’s running around doing their donkey work.”  She flounced back into the office, followed by her colleague, who had finished her copying and looked apologetically at Sally as she left.

“Are you okay Sally?”  Donal appeared in the doorway of his office.

Sally’s first instinct was to burst into tears and confide all to her very dear friend, but the possibility that Donal might be involved in the murders in some way made her hold back and try to put a brave face on it.  She smiled and shrugged her shoulders.

“It’s nothing Donal, I think she’s new or agency.  People don’t realise how much noise they make out here or how distracting it can be.  I like having the door open though.”

“Why don’t you say something to her manager?”

“Oh, we have.   Trouble is, they’re a big team and their office is a very noisy place.  I don’t blame them for needing to get outside the office to talk but I’d rather they didn’t do it right outside my door.   Most of them are fine but a couple are of the opinion that if they have to work in the middle of chaos then so should we.”

He smiled, looking less strained than he had earlier on.  “I tend to hear them more than any of the others in our room, but our door is kept shut and as it’s a fire door it tends to dampen the noise down.  It was the beeping of the printer that drove me mad.”

“I know.  It’s particularly bad when they press the wrong buttons, which is why we asked the printer technician to turn the noise off.  Would you believe there were people in that office who actually complained because the machine had stopped beeping?” 

Sally was doing her best to keep the conversation as light as possible so that Donal wouldn’t see how much the girl had upset her, and felt she’d managed to carry it off as Donal went back into his office and she went returned to her own.

The unexpected reaction had left her feeling shaky and quite tearful; she put it down to the stress of the last week and tried to lose herself in the report again.

There was an authoritative knock on the door and Sally looked up to see the deputy manager from the office next door.  Forcing a smile on her face, she had a sinking feeling that there was going to be more conflict now.

“What’s the problem?  I’ve got a member of staff who is very upset because you’ve just had a go at her for making too much noise.”

Sally’s mouth dropped open in astonishment.   “She’s upset!  Excuse me, but all I did was ask her to keep the noise down and not to stand right in the doorway of the office. I’m not even sure why she was out there because she wasn’t using the printer.”

“She came out to discuss something for a few seconds and you interrupted her and told her to shut up and go away.”

“She wasn’t discussing work.  She was talking about her dinner, her boyfriend and how jealous she was of someone else’s promotion.  It takes me more than a few seconds to get up off my chair and cross the room.  I’d already put up with it for several minutes before I said anything.  I certainly did not tell her to shut up and go away; I would never be so rude.  Did I upset the person who was out there with her too?”

The deputy looked a little nonplussed.  “Well, she said she didn’t really hear much because she was trying to sort out the printing and wasn’t paying much attention.  You’ve just got to learn to be more accommodating though.  You can’t stop people talking to each other. I don’t think you appreciate how upset people are about all these dreadful murders.”

“I would never be so presumptuous,” said Sally, trying very hard to keep her rising temper under control.  “Would you be as accommodating if Ruby and I walked into your office and had a loud conversation about our families in front of you?”

“Well, no but that’s not the same thing …”

“It is.  This is a small office and it can get quite claustrophobic.  Our remit is to have an open-door policy as much as possible so that people can feel free to come and talk to us.  If people come up the stairs and see the door shut, they often go away again with out knocking.”

“Our door is shut all the time, so is Donal’s, people still come in our office.”

“Both your door and Donal’s have a window so that people can see if you are in or not.  You both have larger teams than us so there’s more chance that there will be someone in the office. Most people stand on the other side of the printer and keep their voices down.  I’ve never had anyone stand right in the doorway, jumping around and giggling before.”

“I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about that.” The deputy shot back into her office, Sally looked at her computer screen and sighed at the irony of it all.  She knew that the murders had made people feel nervous and stressed, no one knew that better than her, but now it was being used as another excuse to gossip in the corridor.    Three more e-mails had arrived in the meantime and two of them needed urgent action.  Sally wanted to get out of the building more than anything but squaring her shoulders; she got down to drafting responses before returning to the sadly neglected report.

The light outside the window was fading when Sally was finally satisfied with her work.  She texted her husband and arranged for him to collect her in twenty minutes time.  Someone had turned the lights out in the corridor and most people had left to go home some time ago.  Looking to her left she saw that Donal was still sitting at his computer, which was unusual considering his habit was to leave at four o’clock for a long journey home by bus and train.  She was about to knock on the door to say goodbye but decided not to disturb him after all.

The building was very quiet as she walked along the corridor to the time clock; only one or two workers were still at their desks and the office cleaners were busy emptying bins and cleaning the toilets.  She passed the young girl who was reputed to be having an affair with Derek; she looked pale and her eyes red-rimmed, giving Sally yet another reminder of the havoc her hit list had caused. 

There was a small gap in the curtains of the conference room letting out the bright lights that indicated the police were still very busy.  The police officer outside the door nodded at her as she passed and she felt a small sense of reassurance. 

The familiar sight of her husband, waiting patiently in the car with the radio turned up loud, was the best part of what had been a truly horrendous day, and she heaved a great sigh of relief as she got in the car and sat down.

Poisoned Biscuits and Clog Dancers

The look on the faces of the policemen sat outside her house next morning was enough to warn Sally that something else had gone amiss.  There was a knock on the door within minutes of her pulling up the kitchen blinds. “Sorry Sally, no time for bacon butties today.  The boss wants you in as soon as possible.  We aren’t allowed to say any more than that.”

Sally nodded mutely and went back upstairs to throw on some clothes and kiss her husband and children goodbye.  The trip into work in the company of two hungry and strangely silent policemen was unnerving and Sally was glad that it was such a short journey. She went straight to the incident room where DC Long was waiting for her.  He took her across the corridor to DS Hammond’s seconded office and tapped gently on the closed door.

“Come!” was the stentorian response.  He grimaced at Sally and opened the door for her.  DS Hammond indicated the chair opposite with a nod of her head and Sally, too dispirited to argue, sat down and waited for her to speak.

“Last night was a disappointment.  I thought we were getting somewhere in overturning the devastation that your incredibly stupid list has wrought but no!  We now have one member of your staff in hospital and another in the morgue.  So, do you have anything to say?”

Sally felt her hackles rising but the desire to know what had happened was paramount. She took a deep breath and tried to keep the anger and anxiety out of her voice.” I’m sorry DS Hammond but I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Louis the petty thief is in hospital.  Apparently, he ate some biscuits that he took from one of the offices last night before going home.  Luckily, he only had a couple of bites and spat most of it out because he didn’t like the taste.  Even that small amount was enough to put him in hospital.  He’s expected to survive with no lasting effects although it’s hoped that it may put him off pinching food from other people in future.”

“Where did the biscuits come from?”

With raised eyebrows, DS Hammond handed Sally a report.  “From your office of course.  An open box of Garibaldi biscuits was found on one of the desks when we did a search of all the offices.”

“Garibaldi’s!  I hate Garibaldi biscuits.  They look like they’re full of dead flies and taste of nothing.  I would never buy anything like that – even for my worst enemy!”

“Or someone you wanted to kill off perhaps?”  DS Hammond raised an elegant eyebrow.

“Oh please!” Sally threw the report back on the desk in exasperation.  “Do you really think I’m so arrogant – and stupid?”

“No, I don’t.  Especially as the biscuits were put in your office after you left for home last night.”

“Who by?  Not – not Donal?”

“No.  That half-witted building attendant Graham.  He says he found them in the print room with a post-it note on them asking for them to be delivered to your office – specifically to Ruby.”

“Who also hates Garibaldi biscuits?  We were having a discussion about it just the other day. Oh.”

“And where did this conversation take place?”

“In the canteen at lunchtime.  It was really packed.  Steak and kidney puddings that day.”

“You can remember the food; can you also remember who else was at the table?”

“Well, Ruby and me obviously, Louis – I remember Ruby got cross because he pinched some of her chips.”  Sally frowned, trying very hard to recall the faces in the room that day.  “Tom and Megan were sat on the next table; I think they had some other Apprentices over because there were quite a few people I didn’t recognise.”

“When was this?”

“Couple of weeks ago – steak and kidney pudding is every other week and usually on a Thursday.  We were talking about what kind of biscuits to buy for a meeting.  I think it was Louis that suggested Garibaldi’s but no one else liked them.”

“If he wandered into your office and found some on a desk, he might possibly feel that they’d been left there for him perhaps?”

“They may as well have been gift-wrapped with an invitation card on for him.  You said he’s going to be okay though?”

“According to the medics yes, I’ve got forensics running tests on the biscuits but they think it will be something colourless and tasteless.”

Sally felt relieved until she remembered that DS Hammond had mentioned another member of staff in the morgue.

“Is it, was it Hester?  The body in the morgue?”

“Unfortunately, yes.  She told one of my officers that she wasn’t going out after all last night so we stepped down the surveillance.  It appears that the lure of Armenian clog dancers proved too seductive and she sneaked out through her garden door and got a friend to pick her up a few streets away.”

“I never said anything about clog dancers.  I know Hester’s into some weird ethnic stuff but that’s not the sort of thing she’d confide in me about.  She’s usually too busy going off at a tangent.  Hang on though.  I remember seeing a poster on the notice board for some cultural evening in Liverpool.  Would that be it?”

DS Hammond pulled the poster out of a cardboard folder marked ‘Hester’ and pushed it across the table to Sally.   “Not just Armenian clog dancers but an Uzbek knife thrower, a Peruvian pipe group and a radical poet from – oh yes – Ipswich.  It appears that Hester is – or rather was – something of a patron of the arts. This poster has been up in most of the public areas in council buildings for the past couple of weeks.”

“What happened to her?  How did she die?”

Leaning back in her chair, DS Hammond picked out another report from the file but opened it up herself rather than handing it to Sally.

“It appears that the evening was a great success; held in a nightclub in the basement of an old tobacco warehouse that has been recently renovated.  I use the word ‘renovated’ loosely.  There was only one exit and no fire doors, the place was hugely overcrowded.  The Armenian clog dancers were headlining apparently and by ten o’clock last night the whole place was rocking.  Then somebody shouted ‘fire’ and everyone headed for the exit at the same time.  Hester tried to appeal for calm, seems to have been knocked down near the door and got trampled by several pairs of feet, at least twenty of them wearing very heavy, steel studded clogs.  There was no fire.  A couple of other people sustained minor injuries and there is an eye witness who thinks she saw Hester arguing with a young man during the stampede.  Of course, there is no CCTV; no signing-in book and most of those who attended disappeared without a trace.  The clog dancers aren’t just traumatised by the knowledge that they trampled Hester to death in their haste to get out, they are also rather annoyed that they haven’t been paid and the UK Border Agency are very interested in that fact that they may have entered the country in the back of a lorry.”

“Poor Hester.  It must have been terrifying for her.”

“The eye witness is the friend who gave her a lift.  She reports that Hester seemed quite sleepy towards the end of the evening, almost dopey she says here.  There’s a possibility that like Sharon, she was drugged beforehand.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see how easy it would be to slip something into Hester’s drink.  If it wasn’t for the fact that Hester is a member of staff here, this might have been considered an unfortunate accident and if we were lucky, we would have got a prosecution against the people who set up the club.  As it is, we won’t know for definite until the post mortem results are in.”

Sally rested her elbow on the desk, her head in her hand trying to massage the impending headache away.  There were photographs of Hester’s body; like a broken mannequin lying on the floor of the nightclub.  Sally looked away; her usually strong stomach sickened by yet another waste of human life.

“After what happened with Linda, I thought – I hoped that it would all stop, that the message had gone out that these weren’t really bad people, just annoying.  Hester dead and Louis in hospital.  What can we do to stop it?  What can I do?”  Sally fought back the tears that had been building up for days; she no longer cared about incurring DS Hammond’s scorn or that she didn’t have seem to have a tissue in her pockets.  In a rare moment of empathy DS Hammond handed the tissue box to Sally and waited patiently whilst she blew her nose and wiped away the tears.

“Take the day off Sally.  I’ll clear it with your boss.  Long will take you home.  Please don’t go out anywhere without checking with one of my staff first.  I don’t consider you a suspect at the moment but there is undoubtedly a link between you and the killer – even if you don’t realise it yet.  We may need you to come in here tomorrow though, I take it that will be okay?”

Sally nodded numbly; she would have said yes to anything at that moment, just to get out of the building.

DC Long appeared at the door and smiled sympathetically at Sally, who picked up her bag and nodded a mute farewell to DS Hammond.  People were just coming into work as she was leaving and from the questioning looks, she received as she walked out to the car, word had already got out about Louis and Hester.  Sally cried all the way home.

Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

Repercussions

The elected members were definitely not happy and wanted to know what the police were doing about the series of murders.  Sally felt somewhat aggrieved that the outcry only really started once Athena had become the killer’s fifth victim.

With her usual cool disdain, DS Hammond was unmoved by the angst emanating from the Town Hall.  Returning from the scene of the crime in a particularly bad mood, Sally watched as DS Hammond tongue-lashed everyone in sight and several people that weren’t even in the building.  Sally kept her head down and hoped that she wasn’t going to be next in line.

“Could you bear to spare me a few moments of your precious time please?”

Sally looked up from her laptop to see DS Hammond, arms folded and her ever present sneer in place, and the full force of her frustrations roared out. 

“DS Hammond, I’ve been sitting here listening to you tear everyone to shreds for the past half an hour.  If you’ve decided that you’re going to have a pop at me then fire away.  Make my day because I’m quite ready to give as good as I get!” 

DS Hammond clapped very slowly, the icy smile on her face but very little feeling in her eyes.  Everyone in the room was watching her and she knew it.  She stopped clapping and the room fell silent as the occupants waited for her to explode.  

She turned away from Sally and began to walk toward the door. “With me please.” Her words were like ice splinters and though it galled her to be so subservient, Sally got to her feet and followed DS Hammond back to Colin’s office going as slowly as she dared.

Once inside the office, DS Hammond closed the door and indicated that Sally should sit down, whilst she remained standing.  Sally had read enough psychology books to see this as a deliberate ploy to show dominance over her but decided now that she didn’t care.   She hadn’t actually done anything wrong, at least nothing she could be arrested for, and as far as she was concerned, DS Hammond had no right to speak to her in the same way she spoke to the police officers.  So, Sally remained standing too.

Sally met DS Hammond’s cool blue stare.  “What?” she said, inwardly cursing for breaking the silence first.

“You don’t speak to me like that in front of my officers.  I insist on more respect.”

“And you don’t speak to me like that in front of your officers either.  I’m surprised no one else has complained about your attitude Detective Sergeant Hammond.  Respect has to be earned and though you can insist as much as you like, I respect people for their abilities – not for their position or rank.  I’m truly sorry about Athena and I’m worried about the fact that the killer is determined to kill everyone off this week and we don’t seem to be able to stop him – or her.  I’m not saying her because it’s me in case you thought it was a Freudian slip – just because I work in a cultural atmosphere where we aren’t allowed to use sexual stereotyping.  I’m blathering now.  Sorry.”

“You think the killer is trying to kill everyone this week?”

“Of course. First was Colin last week, but we didn’t hear about it till Monday, Sharon on Thursday, Shirley on Monday, Derek on Tuesday and now Athena.  Have you checked to see where Linda is or drippy bloody Hester?  Tracey’s gone off to Llangollen with Angela, I’ve seen Graham, Linda and Louis around the building today and Susie’s frightfully posh garden party is on Sunday.  Don’t look at me like that – you don’t have to be brain of Britain to work out that what the strategy is and it seems to be escalating.”

DS Hammond sat down behind the desk and opened up a buff folder.  Silently she turned it around so that Sally could see it and pushed it across the desk to her.  Inside the folder was an extremely neat chart with the days and dates of all the murders mapped out together with the rest of the names on the list pencilled in against Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“Knowing that they are at risk doesn’t necessarily help us to prevent them being murdered.  The only way I can guarantee their safety is to lock them up in a safe house and they were all strongly advised against that by Athena who felt that my theories were far-fetched.   I have officers watching the remaining staff – even Tracey and her damned narrow boat – but we don’t know who we’re looking for.  At this point I don’t know if the murders have been committed by one person or by a number of different people.”  DS Hammond sat down at the desk and Sally joined her; for the first time she thought she saw some signs of weariness on the glacial brow.

“I’m sorry,” Sally said, closing the folder.  “I guess we both took our frustration out on other people, though I suppose my troubles are rather trivial compared with what you have to deal with.  In fact, I can probably clear a lot of my problems up by giving Megan a ring.  It’s very convenient having her working in business support.  That’s the thing about our Modern Apprentices, they get in everywhere….”

            “…what did you just say?” said DS Hammond abruptly.

            “I said that the Modern Apprentices get in everywhere.  Oh my God!  The lad in the England football shirt on the beach …”

            “There was a young lad making deliveries at the hairdressing salon….”

            “We’ve always got school leavers in the libraries and at …”

            “… golf courses and leisure centres.  We thought the Modern Apprentices were a red herring but perhaps they weren’t.” DS Hammond picked up the phone to call DC Long but thought better of it and slamming the phone down again, jumped to her feet.  “Come on,” she said as she strode out of the room. Sally followed close behind her.

As soon as they were in the conference room DS Hammond began barking out the orders again and although the atmosphere had been sullen and resentful before, it suddenly became charged with energy and new purpose as the police officers began calling round to get more information on those present at the murder scenes.

Within an hour they had found names of all the young people who had a reason to be present at the times and places of the murders, and were busy cross referencing them with names from the web site and the education database.  Some judicious hunting on the part of a very perceptive young police constable had managed to find a lad from the area who had been in on holiday in Portugal at the time of the Colin’s murder. 

The list of names grew and the notice boards filled up with pictures of the young people who were potential suspects.  They all looked so young, thought Sally, and couldn’t help thinking of her own two boys and whether they would have had the cunning, determination and sheer evil to carry out a plan of this enormity.  She shuddered and shook her head.  It just didn’t seem possible for all this to have been masterminded by a group of kids, some of who had only just left school.

There was something about it that didn’t seem to fit in properly.  Was there someone in charge?  Someone co-ordinating everything from behind the scenes perhaps?  Then there was Derek’s murder, its brutal cruelty carried out such in a different manner. 

“Fagin!”

“What?”  said DC Long, who had been on his way over to Sally’s table.

“Not what.  Who?  Fagin, from Oliver Twist.  He groomed young street kids to pick pockets and rob houses. He didn’t do his own dirty work, he got someone else to do it.”

“That’s a possible theory” said DS Hammond, who had strolled over to join them.  “Do you have anybody in mind for the role?”

“I thought you were the trained profiler?”

“I am.  Okay – I’m thinking someone who can relate to these kids – through their web site, their computer and iPhone games.  Either someone who scares them into carrying out these murders …”

“… or is charismatic enough to persuade them.”

“True; and we know that it’s easy enough to be charismatic when you’re hiding behind an online personality or you have a great deal to offer in terms of your skills and IT knowledge.  We’re looking at someone from school – a teacher maybe or a technician.  Could be a youth worker – may be even a social worker?  Someone else in this building who gets on well with the Modern Apprentices perhaps?”  DS Hammond shot a meaningful look at Sally.

The first person that came to mind was Donal; he had been great friends with the Modern Apprentices.  He shared their IT and technology interests and was the only other person privy to her hit list right from the start.  She didn’t want to think that someone she liked and thought that she knew so well could possibly be doing all this.  A wave of weariness swept over Sally as the enormity of what was going on suddenly hit her.  “In the meantime, what are you doing to protect Linda?  She’s next on the list.”

“Not exactly your buddy, though is she?  said DS Hammond.

“Oh, she isn’t that bad.  Rather full of herself and just as full of jargon. I find her workshy and I wish she’d invest in some decent bras.”

DC Long snorted and turned away to hide his laughter. 

“Sorry.  I know I shouldn’t make those kinds of comments about a colleague but if Gok Wan set eyes on Linda, the first thing he’d do would be to get her in a decent bra.   Those bangers are hanging round her waist for goodness sake.”

DC Long was beyond saving now; his face turning bright red as he tried to compose himself and failed miserably.

“That’ll do Sally.” said DS Hammond. “You don’t kill someone just because they fail to invest in some decent uplift.”

“No.  You’re right.  I should never have put her on the list really.  She still annoys me but not as much as she did.”

“From your mouth to the killer’s ear.  I wonder though, perhaps it isn’t too late.  Get Tom down here.”  DC Long scuttled from the room, welcoming the opportunity to escape and have a good belly laugh in the corridor.

He was back within a few moments with a bewildered Tom in tow. And DS Hammond beckoned him over.

“Can you log off the laptop Sally please, and Tom, you log on then go through to your hit list website?”

Tom shrugged and nodded, standing patiently till Sally was finished.  He sat down at the table and his fingers flew across the keyboard until the hit list website was up on the screen.

“What do you want me to do now?”  he asked sullenly.

Sally looked at DS Hammond, who nodded almost imperceptibly.

“I made a bit of a mistake about Linda when I put her on the hit list Tom.  I didn’t really know her that well and, I kind of misjudged her.  She’s not a bad person, she’s got two boys like mine, only a bit younger and well, is there any chance you can take her off the list please?”  Sally did her best to sound as if she meant it, and perhaps she really did.  Tom nodded and began to type on the forum, explaining that Linda’s name had been put on the list by mistake and was now being removed.  Some of the others were online and queried his decision but seemed to accept it eventually.  DS Hammond told Tom he could log off and go back to his office now provided he agreed not to go back on line for the rest of the day.  Grumbling about the fact he’d lost his iPhone and laptop anyway while the police were checking them, Tom shambled out of the room.

“I don’t think I could sound that earnest about Hester, Tracey or Susie but shouldn’t we have got their names removed?” said Sally.

“I don’t want to scare the killer off and send them underground.  I think we can get away with removing Linda but anyone else and you give the game away.  I’ve got officers monitoring the web site.  Changing the list may bring the killer out in to the open.  He or she may want to find out why you’ve had a change of heart about Linda.  I want you to work back in your own office tomorrow and if anyone asks you anything about Linda, let me know.  In the meantime, you may as well go home for the day.”

“This police work is playing hell with my flexitime, not to mention my food bill.”

“Food bill?” said S Hammond curiously.  Sally could see DC Long pulling faces over his boss’s shoulder and rapidly came to the conclusion that she might not approve of Sally making tea and bacon sandwiches for her surveillance men.

“Anxiety increases my appetite.  I’ve never eaten so many chips as I have over the past week.”  She turned quickly back to the laptop, shutting it down and hoping that DS Hammond hadn’t spotted the lie.  When she turned back DS Hammond had already left the room.

” Oh,” said Sally.  “She didn’t even say goodbye.”

Badly Fitting Bra

Sally was becoming adept at the art of bacon butty making although she was caught out by one of the police officers who turned out to be a vegetarian.  It appeared that a fried egg sandwich would be just as acceptable – especially when done in a different frying pan from the bacon.  Sally’s husband was on a morning shift again and she needed a lift in to work, so providing her protectors with a fry up was a reasonable trade off as far as she was concerned.  Her sons were slightly confused about why Mum was cooking breakfast for policemen every morning but as they reaped the benefits as well, they weren’t complaining. 

It wasn’t until she was locking up the house prior to leaving that Sally remembered about the web site and wondered whether their actions would be enough to save Linda.  This concern made her uncharacteristically quiet on the journey in to work and after waving goodbye to the police officers who were heading home to bed, Sally walked slowly up the stairs to her office.

The phone rang and it was Linda; Sally tried to keep her voice even as Linda started in on her usual tale of being far too busy to do trivial things like setting up meetings and printing out handouts.   It would be much simpler if Linda just asked Sally to help, but she had to go through the whole martyr bit in an attempt to make people appreciate how much harder she worked than anyone else.  Sally knew that part of the reason Linda struggled to manage her time was her total lack of organisation, the rest was due to her inability to master anything but the most basic of computer systems. Nevertheless, it was such a relief to hear that Linda was very much alive that Sally was in a mind to agree to anything.

The phone rang constantly for the rest of the morning; either people wanting to speak to Ruby, wanting Sally to find various documents for them or fishing for information about the murders.  Diving in and out of various folders, she found everything she needed with an ease that made her feel grateful for her own organisational skills.  She was just sending off the last e-mail when Donal appeared in the doorway, a look of surprise on his face. Sally was equally surprised to see Donal clad in bright red slacks and a rather garish emerald green sweatshirt instead of his usual grey jeans and black jumper.

“Wow – who’s been shopping then Donal?”

“Ah, yes.  The wife’s been out doing retail therapy and decided to treat me.  I’ll wear them for a couple of days to keep her happy and then quietly retire them.  Enough of me – what’s been going on in here? Is Linda still on your list?”

Sally’s stomach flipped a little and she fought hard to keep her voice light and inconsequential.  “Oh, Linda’s not so bad.  I think I may have misjudged her actually.  My life is a lot easier if I just get on and do the technical stuff for her the first time she asks – I end up doing it in the long run anyway and it keeps her sweet.  She’s just been on the phone actually and offered to fetch some milk for us when she went out at lunchtime.”

“Oh well, you have to work with her, not me.”

“Yes, I do and I think it’s me that needs to make more of an effort from now on.  She’s a part of my team after all, and I really think that most of it is just nervousness and insecurity.”

Donal shrugged his shoulders and gave a snappy salute as he went back next door.

Sally inhaled deeply and took stock of what had just happened.  Could Donal really be behind all this violence and destruction?  DS Hammond had asked her to spend the whole day in the office and it was only lunchtime.  It could still turn out to be someone else that was responsible for the murders, and she fervently hoped that was the case.

Ruby came back and collapsed at her desk after making suitably approving noises that Sally was back behind her desk in the office.

“Next time someone comes in that I don’t like I can duck down behind my in-trays and pretend I’m not here.”

Ruby snorted.  “You wish!  Anyone in particular you would like to hide from?  Has Linda been on the phone at all today?”

Not Ruby!  Sally knew that there was no love lost between Ruby and Linda but.  she banished the thought from her head.  However angry Linda made her, she really didn’t think Ruby could be responsible, and it worried her that she was beginning to see suspects in the most unlikely places

Sally needed to stretch her legs and buy a bit of thinking time so she decided to go downstairs and do the washing up.  It might also give more of an opportunity for the killer – whoever it was – to make contact with her.  Several people passed as she stood at the sink; some stopped to chat, others just smiled or waved as they walked past but no one else mentioned Linda and it was with a heavy heart that Sally trudged back up the stairs to the office. 

Donal was stood over the printer; not exactly cursing but not very happy either.  He looked up as she came through the door.  “I hate this machine and it hates me.  It flatly refuses to print on A3 paper but I know it has a tray full of A3 because I’ve just filled the tray up.”

“Have you tried ….”

“…turning it on and off again.  Of course.  It lost all my work when I did that so I won’t be doing it again thank you.  Sorry Sally, I’m just in a really bad mood this afternoon.”

“Not a problem, I think everyone feels out of sorts at the moment.  I forgot to ask this morning, are you feeling any better?  We missed you yesterday.”

“I feel a bit better.  I’d feel much better if I could get back into my own clothes and my day would really improve if that dozy idiot who pretends to be a building attendant could pull his finger out and do what he’s asked when he’s asked to do something.”

Sally grimaced.  “What’s Graham done now?”

“We asked him to move some shelves last week and every time we remind him that they still need moving he comes up with some pathetic excuse or tells us that he has something far more important to do over in directorate.  I wouldn’t mind but I have it on good authority that he’s been sat with his feet up watching the portable telly since he came in at one o’clock.”

“Not exactly top of your pops then.  I was going to suggest that you try sending your document down to the print room because it always works for me but you’d be likely to bump into Graham again then and by the look on your face, I wouldn’t rate his chances of survival much!”

Donal stepped back quickly.  “What do you mean?”

“Chill,” she said laying a comforting hand on his arm.  “I know how infuriating Graham can be, especially if he thinks that there’s an opportunity to suck up to the bigwigs.  I’d better get these mugs back anyway.  See you later.”

Ruby was tapping furiously away at her laptop with one hand and deep in conversation on her mobile.  Sally dried up the mugs and put them away, then went back to her desk to check her e-mails and finish off some minutes she’d been writing up earlier on.  The phone on her desk rang; it was Linda.

“Is this your idea of a joke Sally?  Or is it Ruby that’s behind this?”  Linda sounded furious.

“I’m sorry Linda, I have no idea of what you’re talking about.  What’s the problem?”

“I’ve been out of the office since I spoke to you this morning and I’ve just come back in and found a gift-wrapped present on my desk.”

“What’s wrong with that?  I’d love to come into my office and find a present on my desk.”

“It’s what was in the box.  It was a bra!”

Sally stifled a giggle.  “A bra?  What colour?”

“Colour!  Why would anyone send me a bra?  If it isn’t one of you playing a practical joke then it might be a pervert or something.”

“Are there any labels on the packaging?  Did it come through the post or by courier?”

“I have no idea.  I’m not impressed by this at all!  I have so much work to do and I don’t need this kind of silliness.”

Sally was suddenly struck by the thought that DS Hammond might need to know about Linda’s package.

“Linda.  Look, I don’t want to worry you or anything but there’s a possibility that your parcel might be linked to – well – you know – the murders.”

“Oh my God, Oh my God.”  Linda shrieked. “It might be a bomb!”

“Stay calm.  Don’t touch it.  I’ll get one of the police officers to come up and check it out.  Pick up your bag and come straight over here.”

“Yes.  Yes.  I will.” she whimpered as she put down the phone.

Sally rang down to the incident room and was fortunate enough to get DC Long.  She quickly told him what had happened and gave him directions to Linda’s office.  Ruby, who had overheard much of the conversation got the mugs out and put the kettle on. Whilst they both saw the humour in what was in Linda’s parcel, they also appreciated how upset she was.  Sally waited until a visibly shaken Linda was settled in a comfy chair with a mug of sweet tea in her hands, then she hurried downstairs to the incident room.

The parcel had been checked thoroughly and found only to contain a very stylish white lacy bra from Rigby and Peller.  DC Long held it up on the end of a pencil.  “According to the building attendant, a courier brought the parcel in just after lunch.  He couldn’t get hold of Linda on the phone so someone else signed for it and he left it on her desk.  We’re following up the courier’s details now.  I really think that someone needs to talk to your staff about signing for unknown packages though.  It could easily have been a bomb.”

DS Hammond perched on the edge of the desk, tapping her fingers against a mug of cooling tea and looked directly at Sally.  “So, do you think this is the murderer’s way of telling us that Linda is off the hook?”

“I hope so.”  Sally sighed with some relief that they had managed to save Linda at least.  She told DS Hammond of her conversation with Ruby, quickly discounting her as a suspect.  She hesitated though when she came to Donal, then realising that it might be the only way to save some of the others on the list, recounted every word of his earlier comments about Linda.

“It can’t be him though.  Not Donal.”

DS Hammond’s face was inscrutable as she started issuing orders again.  Sally looked at the bra and she had to admit that whoever the killer was, he or she had good taste in bras and that it would undoubtedly have worked wonders for Linda’s sagging bosoms.

Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

Golf Clubbed

Those attending the first aid course were not initially impressed with having to move out of the conference hall and into the larger of the two portakabins until they realised that they could get to smoker’s corner without having to go through a security door.  The portakabins were either too hot or too cold and had a lingering smell of armpit odour and Sharon’s scent, but it was better than having to abandon the course and start it all over again. The secretaries in directorate were even less impressed by having to phone round everyone who had booked the hall for the next week and cancel their bookings.  A stream of uniformed and plain clothes police personnel came in and out of the building and spent the afternoon turning the conference hall into an incident room.  DS Hammond annexed Colin’s old office across the corridor for her own use and the complaints officer was moved out of her room so that it could be used for interviews.

It was uncomfortable being seen as the architect of all this chaos and Sally spent most of the afternoon apologising to her colleagues as she carried out DS Hammond’s dirty work.  Sitting in John’s office and trying to explain what was going on had been especially awkward.  DS Hammond had told her categorically not to say anything about the list or the web site, merely to tell John that the police felt the three murders were linked to the local authority and the main reason for Sally’s involvement was because she was the person who informed the police of the link and had a considerable knowledge of the building and personnel.  John accepted this explanation but wasn’t particularly impressed by the upheaval it was causing and he knew that there was something Sally wasn’t telling him:  DS Hammond’s request that he call an emergency meeting of all the senior management team that afternoon had caused a flurry of both excitement and annoyance and it was while Sally was talking with John that the first attendees began to trickle in.  She made her apologies and was about to leave the office when DS Hammond arrived and motioned her to stay.  Sally felt nauseous again and found herself a seat at the back of the room in case she needed to make a swift exit.

Once John had assured her that everyone was present, DS Hammond stalked to the front of the room, her icy presence quelling the mutterings of the group as she fixed them all with that penetrating glare that Sally had come to know so well.

 “Thank you all for attending this afternoon, I will keep this as brief as possible but you have to understand that following some recent developments, we have reason to believe that not only are the three murders of local authority staff linked but that there may be people in this room who are also at risk.  As a consequence, we may have to ask you to keep us notified of your whereabouts and possibly to make some changes in your arrangements.”

This drew the expected gasp and anguished glances; Sally had to hand it to DS Hammond, she knew how to get a reaction.  Tracey was the first with her hand up in the air.  “I’m going on leave tomorrow. I can’t change my arrangements at such short notice.”

DS Hammond looked down her long, elegant nose and raised one eyebrow very slowly.        “And you are?” she said as she looked at the list of names on her clipboard.

“Tracey, I am a senior manager of course.”  Tracey replied, evidently affronted at DS Hammond’s ignorance and imperious gaze.

“Ah yes, are you intending to leave the country?  Portugal isn’t advisable at the moment, I’m afraid” said DS Hammond with the closest thing to a smirk that Sally had seen so far.

Tracey pulled back her over-padded shoulders in an attempted gesture of superiority that forced Sally to stifle a giggle.  “I’m going on a short break.  I have a narrow boat berthed in Llangollen. A friend and I are going.”

“How…charming.” said DS Hammond, making a note on her list.   “I suppose that will be alright.  Give all the details to Long before you leave today and we’ll make sure that the local police force keeps an eye on you.  We’ll need a mobile number for you, assuming you can get a signal out in the sticks.  Your friend – does he or she work here too?”

“Umm – yes.”

“Okay – see Long – he’s very discreet – whoever it is. Anyone else got any exciting plans for the next week or so?  Any hazardous pursuits?  Special events? Parachuting, hang gliding, cupcake making?”

This time it was Susie’s turn to wave her hand in the air in a gesture reminiscent of the Queen.   “I’m holding a garden party on Sunday.  It’s something that I do every year and as I have an important role to play in the community it is not something that I can just abandon because of some nebulous murder theory or other.  It is for charity after all.” She beamed patronisingly around her and pushed her designer sunglasses higher up on her lacquered and heavily bleached coiffure.

“Garden party eh?  Well, I’m sure we can scrub up a few plain clothes bobbies to swell your attendance.  Give the details to Long please.  Anyone else?  Or can the rest of you put your hectic social lives on hold for a few days?”

There was a gentle chuckle from some of the less uptight staff and Sally was pleased to see that John was particularly amused.  DS Hammond walked over to the door and motioned for Sally to follow her.  Susie and Tracey, pushing their way through to speak to DC Long gave her some very dirty looks.  Sally smiled in brightly in response and followed DS Hammond down the corridor to her newly commandeered office.  The door to the inner courtyard car park was propped open as desks, chairs and computers were brought in to the conference hall.  DS Hammond indicated that Sally should sit down in the chair opposite.

Sally had always hated Colin’s office because it was so dark and dreary.  It hadn’t improved now that his place had been taken by DS Hammond who’d made no personal impact on the room except for a neat pile of folders and her designer handbag on the desk. “You will note Sally, that I did not mention your list at the meeting, nor did I indicate exactly who might be at risk.”

Sally nodded. “Yes, I had noticed, I’m very grateful about the list but I wasn’t sure why you weren’t more specific.  I mean, you have confirmation of who is on the list now don’t you?”

“We do, but what we don’t have is confirmation of who the killer is.  It could have been someone in that room this afternoon and by keeping things non-specific, the killer may feel that we are looking in a different direction.  I’m beginning to think that we may have more than one killer involved however.”

As well as being surprised by DS Hammond’s uncustomary candour, Sally felt intrigued by this new hypothesis and leaned forward in her chair.  “Is it something to do with the manner of their deaths?  I can’t see how one person could possibly be in all three places within a matter of days, and don’t you have theories about the – modus operandi – is it?”

“You watch too many detective shows on television.  The geography is something of a puzzle I’ll admit but from what Tom told me yesterday, you are responsible for the modus operandi.”

“Me! I wrote the list but …I thought you said I wasn’t responsible!”

DS Hammond got to her feet and positioned a flip chart and stand in the remaining corner of the very small room.  She turned over the first page and Sally could see an elaborate chart with Colin, Sharon and Shirley’s names at the top. She pointed at Colin’s name first. “Cast your mind back to the cosy chats you used to have with the Modern Apprentices before they were split up and were sent off to new teams.  Tom tells me that you all discussed various people in the building, some of whom ended up on your list, and the web site rules were based on killing someone in a manner related to their characteristics. Colin gets choked by his favourite salted sardine whilst in Portugal, and to make it even more ironic, the killer appears to have been wearing an England football shirt, and colin was a big football fan.  Sharon is very proud of her hair and it proves to be her undoing, Shirley has a reputation for being over-inquisitive which leads to her being squashed by heavy book shelves.  Didn’t the two of you have an altercation involving shelves once?”

“We did, yes.  Now I’m racking my brains to think of what I said about the others.  I’m so sorry.  We were just chatting, just silly stories about people who annoyed us.  It’s hardly a new premise; I’ve seen countless films and television shows around similar themes, not to mention the number of times it crops up in detective novels – and yes, I do read far too many of them.  The kids had games about bumping people off on their iPhones.  This is a part of the society we live in now.”

“Don’t be so defensive Sally.  I took my masters in psychology and I agree with all that you’re saying in principle about this kind of retributional assassination being instigated and fuelled by the media.  We know that whoever is carrying out these killings is going for specific methods of death rather a personal choice of killing like stabbing or poisoning.  Everything is planned meticulously and I’ve no doubt that the killer is taking great pride in the manner of execution, but that makes them all the more dangerous by comparison with someone who kills in the heat of the moment.”

“What about the other names on the web site?  Has anyone else died?”

“Not as far as we know but the enquiry is still at a very early stage and the amount of technical and liaison work that needs to be carried out is monumental.   We may need your help in establishing whether there are any other people on the list who are related to this particular local authority – if you’re prepared to help that is?”

Sally nodded vigorously.  “Anything I can do to be helpful.  I may not like the people on my list particularly but I’ve never wished them dead and if I can do something to prevent that …”

“You aren’t completely in the clear, I have to emphasise that, but at the moment I feel that there is more to be gained by keeping you involved than locking you out.  Long will tell you that I don’t normally involve members of the public in my enquiries in this way. You’re also very lucky to have Steve as a friend.  He spoke very highly of you and he’s not the kind of person to be taken in easily.” 

Again, there was just the hint of a smile that intimated that DS Hammond was well aware of what DC Long had said to Sally during their tour of the building that morning.

“Thank you.  Do you – do you think that my family are at risk at all?  I have to ask.  They mean so much to me.”

“Probably not, but we’ll keep an eye on you all anyway.  I don’t suppose you have any unusual plans for the next few days that you might have forgotten about?” 

“The boys will be at college and school.  My husband is off today but back on an early shift tomorrow, so I’ll be on the bus – will that be a problem?”

“Sort it out with Long, he’ll be in charge of the local intelligence for the time being.  Try not to talk about any of this with anyone from now on.  I really don’t want anyone else added to that list.”

The tension in the room was broken by an urgent tapping at the door, and DC Long burst in. “We’ve found him!”

“Alive?”

“No.  Dead.  At the golf club.  He hasn’t been seen since this morning and the body’s quite cool.”

DS Hammond picked up her handbag and covered up the flip chart.  Sally got up too, her legs were shaking and she put out a hand to steady herself against the filing cabinet.  “How did he … I’m sorry?  I shouldn’t be asking this” she said.

Looking to DS Hammond for affirmation first, DC Long took out his notebook.

“First on scene says that the body of an adult male was found concealed in undergrowth surrounding the golf course.  It appears that the male had been struck on the head from behind several times with a blunt instrument.  The victim’s golf clubs and bag were nearby and it is believed that one of the clubs may be the murder weapon.” He snapped the book shut and placed it back in his pocket, holding the door open for DS Hammond with his other hand.  She raised her expressive eyebrows once again.

“I suggest you call your husband and go home Sally.  I need to go out and look at the scene.  Say nothing to anyone about this.  We don’t have a formal identification yet and I don’t want the killer to know that we’ve found Derek – assuming it is Derek.  Can you speak to the building attendant before you go and make sure that he understands that we will be in the building twenty-four-seven from now on?  That should worry him a bit.  There’ll be no more sleeping on the job in this place from now on.”

Sally nodded numbly and did her best to pull herself together before heading up the corridor to Derek’s office where she knew Graham would be drinking his tea oblivious to the fate of his manager.

Big Hair

Getting a lift into work was worth the extra bother of having to make tea and bacon sandwiches for the two weary policemen who had been sitting in a car outside her house all night.  Sally’s husband had already offered them tea and the use of the lavatory when he left for work at a quarter past six, but having used the facilities they were quite happy to wait for Sally to get up and do their breakfast.  Her own two boys cashed in on the bacon too, and she had to admit to a feeling of accomplishment as she stacked the dirty plates and mugs in the dishwasher.  There was something deeply rewarding about feeding hungry people.  DC Long had suggested that, after his own experiences of the night before, the offer of food would go down very well with Sally’s minders.  She left a note for her husband asking him to get in more stocks of bread, butter and bacon

She went straight up to her office hoping to enjoy having her personal space returned to her, and found Ruby already there; DS Hammond had left a message with her a message for Sally to go straight to the conference room for the morning briefing.  Ruby looked vaguely impressed but only until Sally admitted regretfully that she had been sworn to secrecy and couldn’t tell her any insider gossip. 

Glancing into the office next door, Sally noticed that Donal’s chair was still empty and hoped that he was feeling better today.  She missed his comforting presence; it was so nice to have a friend that you could talk to and laugh with, although they didn’t seem to have done much of this since Colin had died.

There was a uniformed policeman outside the door to the conference room to prevent anyone walking in and expecting a first aid course or a planning meeting.  He checked Sally’s ID against his list and opened the door for her.  All the windows had been blacked out and the area of the room that normally served as a speaking platform had photograph-covered notice boards spread across it now.   DS Hammond was deep in conversation with a group of serious looking men so Sally made a beeline for DC Long, who greeted her with a winning smile as he looked up from his computer screen.

“I’ve brought my laptop down so that I can get on with my own work if possible.  I know there’s a network point over by the fire escape.  Can I plug it in there?” Sally asked.

“Sure, we have our own network set up now and it would be very useful if we had someone with access to your systems in the room.  Have you got everything you need – cables – access to printers?”

“Oh yes, we have this ‘follow-you’ printer system so you can print anywhere in the building provided you have the drivers set up. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work but at the moment it crashes on a daily basis.”

Sally took her things over to the table by the fire escape, conscious that there were many pairs of eyes looking at her and probably wondering who she was.  That opinion changed rapidly once she looked round at one of the display boards and saw her own picture and name emblazoned on it together with a copy of the list.  No wonder everyone was looking at her.  Blushing, she ducked her head down and carried on with setting up the laptop.  She’d just managed to log on to the system and start checking her e-mails when she heard DC Long calling for quiet so that DS Hammond could begin the briefing.

The body at the golf course was definitely Derek; Sally glanced at the scenes of crime photos but looked away again when she saw the look of surprise on Derek’s face.  Though bloody, it seemed relatively unscathed as, according to the forensic medical examiner the assailant had definitely attacked Derek from behind.  Sally felt the tears prickling at her eyes and tried not to look at the pictures of the other victims, her thoughts were not so much for her colleagues but for those they had left behind and in particular for Derek’s poor dim wife and his two small children. 

Rummaging in her bag for a tissue, she gratefully accepted one handed to her by a policewoman sitting nearby, and tried not to draw too much attention to herself.  The forensic medical examiner had almost finished giving her graphic description of the injuries to the body when she said something that made Sally think back to the conversation, she and DS Hammond had been having the afternoon before.  It wasn’t just the head injury that killed him.  The piece of information that DC Long hadn’t passed on the night before was that whoever killed Derek had also attacked his genitals with a metal dibber used for making holes in the golf course.  The blows to the back of Derek’s head had been very violent, as if the person that carried them out had been very angry with him for some reason and this further mutilation looked like an act of very personal revenge.  It all seemed to contrast sharply with the other murders, carried out so calmly and with such precision.  Lots of people disliked Derek but Sally wondered who actually hated him so much that they’d want to bash his head in with a golf club and mutilate his body?

DS Hammond was busy allocating jobs, so Sally went back to her e-mails and managed to sort out the outstanding issues and pay a few bills on line before she sensed rather than saw DS Hammond standing beside her.

“How’s Derek’s wife?”  Sally asked.

DS Hammond shrugged.  “Initially hysterical, then calm to the point of denial – she passed out on the sofa quite attractively and was put to bed by her doctor.  He’s given her a sedative and her mother has come to stay and look after the children.   Is she – all there?”

Sally grimaced.  “Technically speaking she has the intelligence to work in our finance department but those who work with her would confirm that she rarely does anything more than open the incoming post and take the outgoing post to the courier.  She sometimes gets things mixed up.  I don’t think Derek married her for her brains, but she has a kind of naive intelligence.”

“Bright enough to follow her husband to the golf course, lie in wait for him and bash his head in do you think?  The children were at school and nursery yesterday morning, no one seems to know where Derek’s wife was until she picked the children up in the afternoon.  The staff at the nursery said she seemed rather distant, but then she often is.”

“I suppose she could do it if her motivation was strong enough.  If someone told her about Derek knocking off the teenage cleaner for instance?”  said Sally, pensively sucking the top of her pen.  “This thing with the cleaner has been going on for months apparently.  Why would someone tell her now – unless of course that someone wanted a simple soul to carry out their dirty work for them?  Whoever killed him seems to have been very angry with Derek – and that hole-making tool – it’s the sort of thing a betrayed wife or girlfriend would do.  Isn’t it?”

“We’re interviewing the cleaner – or at least we will when she’s stopped being even more grief-stricken than the wife.”  The expression on DS Hammond’s face spoke volumes about her attitude to those unable to control their emotions.  Sally tucked her tissue out of sight surreptitiously and made another mental note about future behaviour in front of DS Hammond.

“Athena – what more can you tell me about her?”

“I don’t really know her.” said Sally.  “Our acquaintance is limited to public occasions and bumping into her in the corridor or lavatories.  I can’t say that I warm to her as a person.  She’s a fake.  Professionally speaking I don’t think she’s worth the money we pay her and I don’t like the fact that she’s filled the Town Hall with her cronies.  Undoubtedly, she will move on as soon as a larger council head hunts her and when she does, unlike the rest of us when we hand our notice in, she’ll get a huge golden handshake in addition to the bonus she’ll get from her next employer.  If we genuinely want to save money, we should be looking to cutting down the wages of our executive staff and stopping the payouts – and she should be first in line for the cuts instead of people who get paid a pittance for a lot of hard work.  Sorry.  I’ll get down off my soapbox now.”

“I didn’t have you marked down as that much of an anarchist, but given your background it shouldn’t surprise me really.”  DS Hammond glanced down at the clipboard in front of her.   “Both parents union activists and there are at least three instances of you being involved in trade union events.  I hear your oldest son is something of a radical too?”

“Leave my kids out of this; and my husband too! They are nothing to do with any of this and you know it.”  Sally could feel the blood rising to her face and the red mist gathering at the corner of her eyes.  “If you’ve checked my history that thoroughly you’ll also know that I no longer participate in strikes and I resigned from the union several years ago because they refused to let us provide an emergency service for urgent issues during a strike.”

“Calm down Sally, “drawled DS Hammond.  “If I thought that you or your family presented any kind of a risk you wouldn’t be sitting here in this room with access to highly confidential material.  You need to appreciate that contrary to popular belief, police officers are not stupid thugs.  For every thought you’ve had about this case, I’ve been several steps ahead of you because this is what I do for a living whereas you just dabble in it.”

She produced a type-written list and handed it to Sally.  “Can you check these names now and see if any of them are familiar – current staff or ex-employees – I can get one of the officers to do it but I’m sure that you want to help.”

Sally took the list and turned back to the laptop, seething but knowing that DS Hammond had hit the mark.  Her previous acquaintance with the police had led to her believe that many of them were a waste of space but DS Hammond, like her or not, was in a totally different league. 

The list wasn’t that long and although a couple of the names were familiar to her as ex-employees, none of them were on the internal directory.  Sally made notes on the list, trying hard to neaten her scrawl whilst being cross with herself at this attempt to stay in DS Hammond’s good books.  She was just looking around for someone to hand the list to when DC Long appeared at her elbow.

“Your friend Ruby is outside.  Wants to know if we’ll let you out to play – or at least to get some lunch.  I said I’d check and make sure you’d done enough work for the morning.” 

He grinned amiably and Sally felt relieved that he at least had a human streak in him.  She handed him the list and locked her laptop whilst he read it.

“Excellent.  You’ve definitely earned your lunch.  I don’t suppose you would know where Athena might be.  She seems to have dropped off the radar.”

Sally looked at her watch.” It’s twelve-ten exactly and Athena will be having her lunch time swim in the Fastnedge Hotel health club. It is shut every day from twelve till twelve thirty so that Athena can get in her twenty lengths.  I only know this because I overheard one of the secretaries grumbling about it when I was waiting to go into a meeting at the Town Hall.  Apparently, the staff at the hotel get annoyed because Athena refuses to wear a swimming cap and her hair clogs up their filters.  Have I earned my lunch now?”

“Definitely!  Is the food any good in your canteen?  Some of the lads were asking – it would be okay for them to buy food from there wouldn’t it?”

“Of course.  It would make Derek’s day to think we’d make so much money out of the police …”  Sally’s voice tailed away as she remembered that Derek was no longer in a position to be pleased about the canteen’s profits.  DC Long patted her hand.      “Go and get your lunch – and perhaps you could warn the canteen staff that they’ll be some extra people coming in.  The lads are especially partial to chips”

“There are always plenty of those on offer.   The food is on the plain side but definitely filling.  The canteen ladies will be over the moon to think that they’re cooking for the police too.  I’ll see you later then.”  Sally smiled and picked up her bag.

Ruby was outside the door chatting up the policeman on duty.  She smiled broadly when Sally appeared, then a more serious expression settled over her face.

“They told us about Derek this morning.  How awful.  That policeman says you have pictures and everything in there. How can you bear looking at them?”

“I only looked the once, after that you stop seeing them.  More embarrassing is the fact that they have my picture up there. You know how much I hate having my photo on display – and they used my last year’s ID photo so it doesn’t even look like me any more.  How’s everyone taking it?”

” Oh, you know.  The people who hated Derek the most are wailing the loudest in an effort to get attention whereas those who actually got on with him are devastated and very quiet.  Donal’s boss has phoned him at home but there’s no reply.  He’s sent an e-mail but it’s the kind of news you’d rather tell someone in person isn’t it?”

The canteen was fairly empty so the cook and his staff were extremely pleased to hear that they were about to be invaded by police officers.  The chip fryer was fired up and one of the girls nipped up to local supermarket for more burgers and buns.  Sally and Ruby were enjoying their lunch in the peace and quiet when the first customers came through and in the half an hour that they spent in the canteen the stream of staff from the incident room was constant enough to make the cook a very happy man indeed.

Just as Sally was putting her plate back on the trolley for washing up, a police officer dashed into the room and summoned everyone back into the incident room, herself included.  She waved a hasty farewell to Ruby and joined the queue to get back through the door.

DS Hammond was in the process of putting her obviously expensive coat on as the word went round the room that Athena had been found dead in the hotel swimming pool, her long wavy hair entangled in the water filter, the cover of which had mysteriously disappeared.  Sally sat down at her desk with a heavy heart.  The murders were speeding up and it seemed that however clever DS Hammond was, she couldn’t get that step ahead of the murderer.