Stepping Back – Dreadful Damaris

By the time Rachel arrived at Lou’s house the walk had given her a healthy glow in her cheeks and her freshly washed hair had lost some of its initial fluffiness. Jenny opened the front door and looked her up and down before nodding in approval.  “Very nice Auntie Rachel, you look far more girly than usual.  It wouldn’t have anything to do with our other dinner guest, would it?”

“Leave her alone Jen, you look lovely Rachel.  Makes a change from your usual jeans and baggy jumper look.  I appreciate your efforts even if my horrible daughter doesn’t.” 

Lou took Rachel’s arm and squeezed it, steering her into the front room, which also looked as if it had been given a bit of a makeover.  Pictures of Mark; with Lou, with the girls, and with a stunningly beautiful red head who Rachel took to be Mark’s ex-wife Sorrel.  She found herself hoping fervently that it wasn’t Damaris. 

Lou picked up the picture.  “I’ll put this one away, he won’t thank me for leaving it up.  He doesn’t talk about Sorrel at all.”

“I thought it might have been – what was her name? Damaris?”

“Good Lord No!”  Lou laughed and tucked the picture behind some books.  “Damaris is a blonde, a brassy-streaked bottle blonde, with a mahogany spray tan, and extremely enhanced curves.  In another age they would have said she was pneumatic and compared her to Monroe.  I think she looks like a tart, but I’m biased.  She and her horrible mother did their best to drive me out of business by spreading nasty rumours about my baking, and making racist comments about me and the girls.  They were trying to divert customers to a friend of the family who had set up an ‘artisan bakery’ in the next village. We rode out the storm thanks to a number of lovely regulars who continued coming, and persuaded others to come back, but it was touch and go for a while.”

“And the artisan bakery?”

“Went bust ages ago.  It helps if you know what your customers want, and around here they don’t go a bundle on rock-hard seeded loaves and sour grape chutney.”

Rachel looked incredulous.  “And Mark still goes out with Damaris despite all this?”

“He doesn’t know why I don’t like her.  I didn’t tell him about it.”

“Why not?  He could have gone in there and threatened them or something!”

“When you get to know him better, you’ll realise that he is not that type of detective; not that type of person.  Mark is one of the most honourable people I know, and I do my best not to get him involved in my battles just in case he’s pushed too far and loses his temper – and his job.”

“He didn’t lose it with Pete then?”

“He desperately wanted to; as my new-found brother, and uncle to the children that had been abandoned, he wanted to rip Pete limb from limb and it took a lot of persuading to stop him flying out to Portugal and doing the dirty deed.  I managed to convince Mark that the girls and I couldn’t cope without him, not to mention Sorrel’s protestations; she was clingy to say the least.  Anyway I’ve a few things to finish off in the kitchen before dinner, come and tell me about your day.”

Rachel followed Lou into the large and well-equipped kitchen.  Most of the baking for the tea shop took place here, and the kitchen had been remodelled for that purpose.  Perching on a stool whilst Lou put the finishing touches to the sauce, that would accompany the fresh sea bass she had acquired from Jeff at the Gun’s brother; Rachel ran through her day.  When she reached the part about the Spanish-sounding men, Lou frowned and stopped stirring the sauce.

“They are probably Portuguese; we have quite a few families living outside the village in some old cottages that belong to one of the boatyard owners.  It’s become quite a settlement; some of the children are at school with our girls. Most of the residents are fine, but they have a few relatives who come over on yachts and bring contraband.  Don’t tell Mark I told you, but this is the job he’s been involved in for the past year or so.  We know they are bringing drugs in but it’s really hard for the police to catch them.  Mark might be interested in what you saw and heard though so if you can bring it up in conversation …….”

“Sure.  I also paid a visit to a boutique that I believe is owned by Damaris.”

“Ooh!  Dee’s Designs!  Hideous place, hideous designs and hideously high prices.  You didn’t actually buy anything did you?”

Rachel grinned.  “I bought a nice green silk scarf that I cannot wear down here because your brother is of the opinion that all lady writers are middle-aged and wear long, flowing scarves.  I acquired some disgusting silver and turquoise earrings for our receptionist at work – she will absolutely adore them – and a lovely little water colour of the Square and your tea shop.”

Rachel picked up the picnic basket, pulled out the picture and handed it to Lou who let out a squeal of delight.   “Oh! Wow!  I know who painted this.  She’s one of my regulars.  Miss Sharp.  It looks as if it were painted a few years ago though, two of the shops in the Square have changed hands since then.  I expect Damaris only brought it because ‘Dee’s Designs’ is in it.”

“It’s for you.”

“No!  Really?  Oh Rachel, thank you.  I love it and I’ll put it in pride of place in the tea shop.  Miss Sharp will be so pleased.  You couldn’t have brought me anything nicer.”

“Good.  Watch your sauce!”

Lou squealed again and stirred gently until the sauce was smooth and velvet.  From the yells and laughter coming from the lounge, it sounded as if Mark had arrived and was busy teasing his nieces.  Putting the sauce to one side, Lou gave Rachel a meaningful look and motioned for her to follow.

Mark was on the sofa; Sally was snuggled up to him, Jenny was perched on the arm of the sofa, and the usually reticent Sarah was curled up on his other side.  He was wearing an old pair of jeans that fitted him very well, a battered but clean navy sweatshirt and the disreputable deck shoes.  He grinned as they walked into the room and Rachel, feeling self-conscious anyway, blushed as she found herself under his perceptive scrutiny.  He had the good manners not to make any comments about her appearance, but she was sure that she saw just the tiniest wink, which made her blush even more. Jenny opened her mouth to make another tactless teenage comment but was grabbed by Lou, who hustled her into the kitchen after motioning the others to their seats at the table.

Sally and Sarah grabbed the seats next to Mark, leaving Rachel to sit opposite with Jenny, and Lou at the head of the table.  Lou’s pep talk to Jenny had limited success however, in that she sulked, rather than made any more intemperate comments. There was good-natured sibling banter between Mark and Lou that enabled Rachel to sit back and watch rather than try to join in. The occasional sly glance confirmed that Mark was indeed very attractive, with bright blue eyes that were totally different to Sam’s.

Stop it, Rachel!  Stop comparing.  There were times when Rachel felt that the only way to overcome the visions of Sam was to be quite stern with herself.  There was no one else to do it, although she was sure that if she asked, Lou would oblige. This was something that Rachel knew she had to sort out for herself however.

The fish was beautifully cooked, and although Mark raised an eyebrow when Lou lied about it coming from Tesco, he ate with gusto and demolished two bowlfuls of apple and blackberry crumble before volunteering himself and Rachel to do the washing up.  It was Rachel’s turn to raise her eyebrows when Lou graciously accepted the offer and threw herself down on the sofa grinning.

Rachel followed Mark into the kitchen; he looked at her quizzically then picked up a tea towel.  “I’ll dry if that’s okay, I know where everything goes, and you might find it less hazardous if you wash, given your habit of smashing things.”

She opened her mouth to argue but decided it would be a waste of time.  Her washing up technique was thorough however; she decided that she didn’t want to give Mark the opportunity to hand back any smeared glasses or grubby forks.  They worked in a companionable silence, eventually interrupted by Lou putting on the kettle and shooting interrogative glances in Rachel’s direction.

Mark took Sally and Sarah off for a bedtime story.  Jenny sloped off to her room, her hair straighteners, her laptop and mobile phone, leaving Lou and Rachel to finish their coffee at the kitchen table.

“He definitely likes you.  I can tell these things. He keeps looking at you and smiling.”

“Leave it Lou.  I have no desire to be involved with any man at the moment – or ever.” Rachel said defiantly.

“Not even if Sam turned up and begged you to marry him – on bended knee?”

Rachel blushed.  “He wouldn’t.  I mean no.  I mean that I wouldn’t take him back under any circumstances.  At least I don’t think I would.  Oh, I don’t know Lou.  I wish I could just slam the door on what we had, but it’s so hard when there was so much.  I honestly don’t know what I’d do if he turned up here.  Part of me never wants to see him again, and yet there are times when I ache for him.”

Lou put her arm around Rachel’s shoulders. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Mark in the door way, and signalled to him to go into the other room for a while.  Rachel cried quietly, a tissue clutched to her nose as Lou held her tight and made the same soothing noises that brought back memories of past disastrous dates and humiliations.  Coming up for air and deciding that this was not the time for all-out sobbing, Rachel blew her nose, squared her shoulders and gave a weak grin. “Thank you, I’m okay.  Do I look dreadful?”

“No, but go up to my bedroom and put on some more lippy and a dab of powder, I’ll persuade Mark to make some coffee.  He’s probably fallen asleep by now.”

Lou went back into the lounge and nudged Mark awake. “Well?”

He squinted at her through half-open eyes. “You were rather economic with the information about your friend Rachel.”

“I didn’t tell any lies.”

“No, but you didn’t tell me that along with being clumsy and stubborn, Rachel was also rather lovely.  I don’t mean glossy magazine stuff either.  She is very easy on the eye. but doesn’t seem know it. I like that.”

“I thought it better to let you two make your own minds up about whether you could share the house together.”

“Well, so far, so good.  She’s definitely stubborn though.”

“It’s another of the things we found that we had in common; probably what drew us together at Uni.  That and the fact that Rachel hasn’t a racist bone in her body, and stuck up for me when the others in our residence were making nasty comments. She threatened to punch one of the boys.  He backed off so she didn’t actually have to do it but she was fully prepared to.  I held her specs. I for one, am very glad to have her back and I hope she stays for as long as she needs to.”

“No rush as far as I’m concerned.  Mrs K seems to have taken a shine to her too.”

By the time Rachel came back to the lounge, Mark was pouring coffee and watching the news.  Lou was curled up in the armchair leaving Rachel a choice between an upright chair or the place on the sofa next to Mark.  Grimacing at Lou she took the latter, making sure that she sat as far away as possible.

At the end of the news Mark yawned, stretched and got to his feet.  “Shall we go then Rachel?  A nice bracing walk up the lane to wake us up?  I’ll be up at the crack of sparrows again tomorrow.”

Lou saw them both out to the door, hugging Mark and then Rachel, and standing in the doorway to watch them as they walked up the lane.  Rachel did her best not to shiver, but the thin cotton dress and cardigan were not much protection against the cold night air.  Mark offered her his arm and she took it, warmed by his very solid and comforting presence. She talked lightly about her day at the beach, remembering to throw the incident with the Portuguese sailors into the conversation in a fairly inconsequential way.  Mark’s interest was sparked, and he began to fire questions at her that made her feel as if she was in a police interview room.

They had just come round the bend in the lane when they heard the sound of a roaring engine and were temporarily blinded by full on headlights.  A bright red sports car came into sight, and Rachel realised that it was heading straight for them.  Mark blocked Rachel with his own body, and pushed her into the hedge, narrowly avoiding being hit by the car himself as it screeched to a halt some yards further down the road.

“For God’s sake Damaris!” he yelled, hauling Rachel out of the hedge, “You nearly killed us.”

A blonde vision in a tight red dress unfolded herself from the driver’s seat and sashayed over, wiggling in a pair of killer Louboutin heels, and draping herself over Mark’s shoulder. “Don’t be so dramatic darling, I just thought I’d give Mrs Kneller a shock.  Oh, gosh.  You aren’t Mrs Kneller, are you?  So sorry! Not wearing my contacts tonight.”

“Then you shouldn’t be driving.  Have you been drinking as well?” said Mark as he shrugged her off and turned to Rachel who was surveying the wreckage that the hedge had made of her dress, legs and face.  She couldn’t be sure but she had a feeling that she was bleeding in more than one place, and the skirt of her dress was definitely ripped.  Mark turned back to Damaris; he did not look like an adoring fiancé. “Go home Damaris, and for God’s sake, drive slowly.  I need to get Rachel back and see to these cuts.”

“Oh, darling Mark, I thought you might invite me in for a nightcap.” She drooped and pouted but to little effect.

“Push off Damaris, before I call the police.  And drive slowly!”

Sulkily, she tottered back to her car and after revving the engine, smirked at Rachel and roared off into the night. 

Mark took Rachel’s arm and steered her up the road to the cottage.  She was in too much pain to argue and allowed herself to be led down the driveway and into the kitchen.  In the bright light she looked down at her legs, and was shocked to see how much damage the hedge had done to them. Without saying a word Mark lifted her up very carefully, and sat her on the kitchen table, before turning around and getting out a First Aid box from one of the drawers.  He took a clean tea towel and ran it under the tap before gently wiping the blood from her legs.  He still looked absolutely furious and Rachel, shocked and in pain, started to shake. “I’m sorry Mark.”

“Hey, it’s okay Rachel.  It’s bloody Damaris I’m angry with, not you. Your legs are a bit scratched; they look worse because of the blood, but there’s not so much damage now I’ve cleaned you up.  Your dress is pretty torn up though.  Shame, you look really nice in it.  I think you need a drink.  Whisky, brandy or sherry?”

“Umm, sherry please.  Does she always drive like that, your – fiancée?”

“Yes, she does.  And whatever she says we are not engaged; we are not even an item.  I have taken her out a couple of times on some very boring dates, and went to a dinner dance that her mother was hosting.  That does not constitute an engagement in my book.”

He handed her a generous glass of sherry and poured himself one as well. “Cheers.”

Rachel sipped at the sherry and began to feel a little less shaky as the warmth filtered down through her body.  She took another sip and looked down at her legs, then at the rip in her dress which was showing off rather more of her thigh than she would have liked.  She tried to pull the material together to cover her modesty; Mark put down his glass quickly and grabbed her hand. “Hang on a sec, there’s quite a deep cut on your leg there, I didn’t see it before.” 

He grabbed up the tea towel and rinsed it through again, before dabbing it very gently on the cut at the top of her thigh. He was right; it was deep, deep enough for stitches. “I ought to take you along to A&E.”

“No!” Rachel wailed.

“Are you sure?  I don’t relish the thought of going; we could be in there for hours.  Let me have a look at what’s in my emergency kit in the car.  Back in a minute.”

Rachel drank the last of her sherry and tried not to look at her leg. Mark ran back in clutching a small packet.  “Steri-strips!” he cried triumphantly.  “Do you want to do this or do you want me to?”

“You please, I’m not good with blood – or sick – or anything like that really.”

“Okay.  Drink some more sherry.  Oh, you already have.  I’ll top you up then.” 

He poured her some more sherry and she tried to concentrate on the glass, and not on the soft black curls barely an inch from her nose as Mark concentrated on sticking the cut together.  He surveyed his handiwork with some pride then put a clean dressing on top of it and pulled her dress back down. “Good girl.  I think it’ll be okay now.  How are you feeling?”

“A bit wobbly.  I’m not sure if it’s the drink or all this blood, or – or.”

Mark handed her his handkerchief, then sat down on the table next to her and put his arm around her shoulder in a brotherly fashion. “I’m sorry Mark, blubbing twice in one night, I feel such an idiot.”

“Sssh.  Come on, I’ll help you to your room.  Will you be okay with getting undressed?”

“Of course, I will!”  Rachel felt quite outraged, until she noticed that Mark was grinning at her. 

He picked her up from the table and carried her down the hall to her bedroom; pushing open the door with his foot. She leaned her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes, trying not to enjoy the warmth of his skin against hers too much.  He placed her very gently on the bed and sat down beside her. “Are you sure you’ll be okay now?  I’ll get you some water.  Don’t want you falling over in the middle of the night again.”

Rachel sat in the middle of the double bed, slightly drunk, slightly shocked and having more than slightly enjoyed being carried to her bedroom by Mark.  He brought a fresh glass of water back with him and put it on her bedside table.  Frowning, he removed a stray twig from her hair and planted a kiss on the top of her head. “Call me if you need anything, please?  I’m really sorry about Damaris.  This has made my mind up about her though.  The end of a very imperfect relationship.  Goodnight Rachel, and sweet dreams.”

She watched him close the door, very slowly moved off the bed and got changed into her nightshirt.  She managed to stagger next door to clean her teeth but it was a relief to finally get into bed, find a position that wasn’t too uncomfortable, and drift into sleep with a rather sweet fantasy of Mark’s strong arms picking her up and carrying her off to bed.

Stepping Back – On the Beach

The journey to the beach was becoming so familiar to Rachel that she felt she could almost get there with her eyes shut.  She smiled and waved in response to the boat builders at Pete’s old boatyard, catching a whiff of paint and fibreglass that was reminiscent of the golden summers she and Lou had enjoyed. 

It wasn’t a conventional beach by any means; very little sand, mostly muddy shingle, but with plenty of huge rocks that provided an excellent perch from which to watch the yachts sailing in and out of the Marina, and the little pink ferry shuttling across the river.  When she wanted more action, Rachel walked further round the headland to where the river broadened into sea and the big liners were tugged into the port.  She was in the mood for crashing waves today, so she carried on walking until she came to the old blockhouses, one of which was the home of a transplanted Bofurs gun.

At the weekend and during the holidays, the blockhouses teemed with small children climbing from one building to the next, playing hide and seek, or more complex war games, but on this chilly morning, Rachel had the beach and the blockhouses to herself.  She climbed the steps and sat on the wall at the top, breathing in the scent of salt and seaweed peculiar to this part of the coast.  It was a fine clear day, and she not only had a good view of the shoreline but also of the Island on the other side of the water.  She and Lou had sailed there many times, and it remained a place of very happy memories. 

Lost in her reminiscences for a while, she had managed to move Sam into that part of her mind where his presence couldn’t cut and hurt her.  Whenever she returned to the present however, he was a constant, as was his subsequent betrayal and desertion.  She could see him in her mind, see every part of him, feel the warmth of his skin against hers and smell the faint musk of his aftershave.  As she filled her lungs with his imagined scent, the tang of the sea broke through the reverie, and reality returned.  The tears that she hid from Lou and the girls flowed freely here on the beach, with no one but the gulls and the occasional dog walker as witness to her grief.

As far as Lou was aware, Rachel came to the beach to get inspiration, but it was the only place she felt safe enough to give vent to the feelings she had to keep locked away inside.  If he had turned up then; if Sam appeared on the beach at that moment with his penitent grin and irresistible charm, she would have taken him back.  She would have thrown herself into his arms and forgiven him for everything.  What a fool she was!  She shook her head in amazement at her own stupidity.  Sam wasn’t coming back.  He’d been gone for over a month, and as far as she knew, the affair with Adele had been going on under her very nose for several weeks before that. He’d made his choice but what choices had she ever been given?

Pulling a tissue from her pocket, Rachel blew her nose defiantly and dabbed at her eyes, after glancing around quickly to make sure she was still alone.  A huge oil tanker slid slowly into the port and several small boats tacked to and fro up the river in order to catch the best of the wind.  She climbed off the wall and walked down the steps to the shore, placing the lunch basket down, and picking up stones to skim across the water.  The complex search for the correct size and shape of stone concentrated her mind, and the further science of getting the right angle and spin on the skim rescued her from the bad place again.

Having exhausted the supply of stones on that particular stretch of beach, Rachel picked up the basket again and headed back.  Her path lay towards the foreshore; the picnic benches, car park, and a patch of green that overlooked the river.  Settling herself down on a bench, she unpacked the basket; feeling a better constriction in her chest at the delights Lou had prepared for her so lovingly.  A package of her favourite chicken salad sandwiches, a bottle of fresh orange juice wrapped up in a cool pack, sea salt crisps and Lou’s speciality, two cupcakes in girly pink with chocolate icing, red butterflies and a golden letter ‘R’.  In the four days that Lou had been sending her off to the seaside with a packed lunch, it had never been the same dessert two days running.  Even Lou’s daughters, streetwise as they were for such a small village, enjoyed their mother’s packed lunches, and were the envy of friends who were given an allowance to hit the fish and chip shop, or buy boring school lunches.

Sitting there each day, nibbling absent-mindedly at her sandwiches and watching the boats sail past or moor up at the jetty, Rachel had become familiar with the regular fishermen, and wondered if one of the them was the brother of Jeff at the Gun. She’d lost count of the nights that she and Lou, had spent evenings at that particular pub, playing pool and drinking orange squash.  At ten pence a shot and free water, it had been a cheap night out, and there were usually a few boys who would buy them something a little stronger, and challenge them to a game of pool. They’d scrape together a pound for the meat raffle on a Friday night in the hope that they would win something to cook for the weekend back in the grubby kitchen of the halls of residence where they lived.

By the time they started their second year at Uni, they had moved into a cottage in the Village rented by Rachel and paid for by her ever absent grand-parents. The girls acquired part-time jobs to enhance their social lives, and as barmaid and sous chef at the more affluent Crown Inn, orange squash and pool became a thing of the past. It was in the Crown that they had made further acquaintance with Pete and his fellow yachties, and were enticed on board to crew on trips around the Island, and further down the South coast.

Bringing herself back to the present, Rachel realised with a start that she had finished all the food and drink in her basket and was idly picking up the last crumbs of her cupcakes with a wetted finger.  She sighed; and took the wrappings and bottle over to the recycling bins; noting the presence of a group of men talking animatedly in a language that sounded Spanish, but not quite.  She couldn’t be absolutely sure but she got the distinct feeling that the men weren’t particularly happy, especially not with the thin, gangly young man wearing washed out jeans and a tee-shirt that had definitely seen better days. He was shivering and hugging himself in a way that wasn’t just from the chill of a breezy day; his hair was lank and his sunken eyes had huge pupils. 

Whilst living in London, Rachel had seen many young men and women in a similar state, and it saddened her to see that even here, in this sleepy backwater village, the steely hand of the drug world had taken hold. She shuddered and throwing the last of the wrappers in the bin, picked up the picnic bag and decided to go back to the cottage.  The foreshore no longer felt the safe haven she had thought it to be earlier.

As she walked past the group of men, she felt them scrutinising her and keeping her eyes forward, she walked briskly up the hill and into the first shop she could find. Unfortunately, it was the designer boutique she had been avoiding for the past couple of days.  It was a typical tourist trap; the windows adorned with expensive and impractical dresses and tops. Rachel was tempted by a long silk scarf in shades of green, but remembering Mark’s comment about lady authors in flowing scarves, she put it back quickly and turned her attention to a display of silver and turquoise jewellery.  It was particularly pricey and not very nice, but the dangling earrings and spike-adorned necklaces provided a suitable subject for browsing.

“They are darling, aren’t they?” gushed the assistant, picking up a particularly ferocious looking bracelet and holding it out to Rachel.

“Lovely.” She replied, “and so – original.”

“Oh yes, we pride ourselves on only stocking artisan goods in this boutique.  All our stock is made in the locality by artists and dressmakers known to the owner personally. She is an artist herself, of course.  Those lovely hand-painted vases on the bookshelf are hers.  Such a talented person.”

Rachel looked over at the stubby clear glass vases adorned with amateurishly painted flowers. She smiled and decided that she would have to buy something in order to get out of the shop.  Tucked away on a lower shelf she found a little watercolour of the Square.  As she picked it up to examine it more closely, the assistant tutted. 

“That ugly little thing.  I’ll be glad to see the back of it.  You can have it for twenty pounds but I wouldn’t give it house room.”

Rachel rummaged in her pocket for her purse and was pleased to see that she could pay by credit card. With Lou providing her with food, she hadn’t had cause to go the bank since the day she’d arrived and bullied Lou into accepting all the cash that she’d brought down with her.

In order to mollify the now slightly sniffy assistant, Rachel took the least offensive pair of turquoise earrings, and in a moment of devilry, picked up the green scarf as well.  The assistant rang up the purchases; her attitude warming as she realised how much her commission would be.

“Are you staying in the village or just visiting?” she asked in a friendlier manner.

“I’m staying here for a while.  My friend Lou runs the teashop up in the square.”

“Oh.  Lou.  Well in that case you’ll know our owner’s fiancé Mark.  He’s going to be marrying Damaris in the autumn.”

“Oh, how lovely.” said Rachel, wondering how this piece of information tallied with what Lou had already told her about Damaris.  She picked up the rather gaudy carrier bag containing her purchases, said goodbye, and left the shop. 

The group of men had disappeared from the Quayside, and the Square was beginning to fill up with muscle cars disgorging yummy mummies collecting their tiny offspring from nursery.  In an hour or so it would be packed as the school run began.  Rachel decided not to call in at Lou’s tea shop to return the picnic bag, and hurried back to the cottage instead.  She and Sam had never discussed the idea of children, but that wasn’t to say she hadn’t fantasised about adorable babies and toddlers with her hair and his eyes. Yet another area of her life that smacked of failure.

Closing the cottage door behind her, she felt relieved to be able to shut herself away from reality for a while.  Her mobile rumbled and she pulled it out of her pocket.  A text in reply to the one she’d sent earlier agreeing to take on the commission.  She could tell from what Tony didn’t say that he was relieved to get her reply.  An email containing the details would follow, so could she turn her laptop on please? The laptop was still sitting in a bag by the side of her bed, and with a sigh she went into her bedroom, dumped the carrier bag on the bed and set the laptop up on the dressing table.  Lou had given her the password for Mark’s Wi-Fi; he had a separate secure network for official business, but this was for his own personal use – and that of his guest.

Once the laptop was on line, Rachel’s inbox filled up ominously and only stopped when the tally reached three hundred and twenty-seven.  She sighed again and set about sorting the junk mail from the real emails, then separating the dull from the more interesting correspondence.  By the time she’d finished she was down to about seventy emails, some that she would answer and some that could be safely ignored for the time being. The worst were those of commiseration from friends who had heard about her leaving London, and assumed that she’d had some kind of breakdown in the wake of Sam’s desertion.

She put together a cheery standard reply about working on a piece about the countryside and being able to tie that in with visiting an old friend and her family.  It combined cheerful practicality with tinge of truth, and through the wonders of cut and paste, she managed to respond to two thirds of the outstanding emails, and decided that the rest could keep whilst she read the email from Tony in greater detail.  It was long; with two attachments, so she dug out a memory stick and saved it all in the hope that she could persuade one of Lou’s girls to print it off for her.  She knew that she should make more of an effort to be green and save paper, but sometimes she needed the tangibility of a paper copy in her hand.

Looking in the mirror, Rachel felt that the pigtails and sea air had done sufficient damage to her hair and a shower was in order.  As she dried her hair, wrapped in a huge fluffy black towel, she also decided to make more of an effort with her clothes.  This had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Mark was coming for dinner, and she in no way wanted to impress him, nor give him the idea that there was more to her than a clumsy, short-sighted woman with pigtails who might or might not possess at least one flowing scarf.

Oh, Rachel.  Whatever happened ‘to thine own self be true?’

She looked in the carrier bag and carefully extracted the watercolour, propping it up on the dressing table next to her laptop.  It brought back memories of happier days, and no matter what the stupid shop assistant said, Rachel could see that whoever had painted it loved the Village and the Square in particular.  There was a signature in the corner but even with her glasses on, Rachel couldn’t quite make it out. The hideous earrings hadn’t improved in style or beauty on closer inspection; they would do as a present for the receptionist in the office who had a penchant for the kind of dangly earrings that looked as if they could cause serious damage to herself or anyone nearby if she moved too quickly.

The green silk scarf was rather gorgeous though; going from pale jade in the middle out to vivid emerald at either end, and tasselled with tiny faceted silver beads that caught the light and sparkled.  She was tempted to build up an outfit around it but had a feeling that it might lead to a conversation about Damaris and her designer shop that Rachel now realised, from looking at the carrier bag, was called “Dee’s Designs’.  Something of a misnomer considering the only items in the shop actually designed by Damaris were the tacky painted glass vases.  Rachel felt relieved that she hadn’t allowed herself to be bullied into buying one.  

Looking through her wardrobe, she found the item she’d been thinking of; a sleeveless dress in a soft lilac which was fitted to the waist then flared out in gentle folds to below her knees.  An old Oxford blue cashmere cardigan that she’d found in a flea-market, and comfortable blue sandals completed the outfit, and satisfied Rachel’s vision when she looked in the mirror.  Her dark blonde hair hung in shining, newly washed strands around her shoulders, and as she turned this way and that she felt happy with the effect, but it needed one more touch. Rooting around in her makeup bag, Rachel found the string of amethyst beads and matching earrings that she had thrust in there as an afterthought, just as she was leaving the flat in London four days ago.

Finally, she was ready.  She tucked the watercolour into Lou’s picnic basket, locked up the house, checking all the doors and windows, once, twice and a third time just for luck.

Stepping Back – Lou

“So, you and our Mark were clearing up broken glass in the middle of the night then?”  Lou raised her eyebrows at the thought, as she placed the picnic basket containing sandwiches and a flask on the kitchen table.  “He put a note through my door on the way to work. Mrs K has also just informed me that he came home late last night.”

“Yes.  News certainly travels fast round here,” said Rachel pulling a face. “You could have been a bit more honest in your description of him.  My vision of the elderly recluse has been blown right out of the water. Why didn’t you tell me about Mark before?”

“I didn’t know myself.  Mark is the result of my mother’s misspent youth. She was only fifteen when he was born, and he went off to live with his paternal grandparents.  His father disappeared into a commune in India and was never seen again.  My mother was kept out of the picture in case she was a bad influence on him. They called him Mark in order to dissociate him from any Afro-Caribbean heritage. By the time Mum had married my father and achieved a level of respectability, she had lost all contact with them. Mark did very well at school, then Uni, and into the police force.  As you may have noticed, he has the kind of appearance that can blend in with most nationalities. We only met up when his grandparents died and the solicitor told him that he had a little sister and three gorgeous nieces.  By that time Mark was married and working up in Edinburgh. He and I have inherited my mother’s curly hair and colouring, but he has his father’s eyes apparently. The girls will be pleased.  We can put the rest of his photos back on display now.”

“Lou!  What are you up to?”

“Look at it this way Rachel.  You’ve come down here to escape from a relationship that took over your whole life.  Would you have come if I’d offered you a room in the cottage of my extremely attractive and eligible older brother?  No.  You’d have thought that I was trying to set you up – which I’m not.  I’d have had you stay with us, but Jenny really needs a room to herself now she’s in senior school.  Besides, Mark is not the most sociable of characters.  You might have been staying here for months without setting eyes on him.  If he’s invited himself to dinner tonight it can only be because he approves of you.”

“We only talked for a few moments – and I wasn’t exactly looking my most glamorous – scruffy old nightshirt and plaits, blind as a bat and littering his hallway with broken glass – some first meeting!  What have you got me into Lou?”

“Nothing.  Even we don’t see that much of him, he seems to specialise in these undercover jobs where he’s gone for weeks on end.  You might not have met him at all so I didn’t see the point in giving him a big build up.   Hand on my heart Rachel.  I invited you down for a break, not to set you up with my big brother.  Having you here this week has brought back a host of happy memories for me, and to be honest, your being here is doing me the world of good too. Mark currently has a brainless beauty from the village hanging on his every word anyway. Her name is Damaris and her parents own that very posh restaurant on the High Street, as well as a number of other local businesses.”

“Damaris?”

“Oh, don’t ask!  She has extremely gormless twin brothers called Dickon and Dominic as well.  Probably saved them a fortune in Cash’s name tapes when Mummy packed them all off to boarding school.  Her mother is the ghastliest woman I’ve ever met; all fur coat and no knickers, and her father is a vague and chinless member of the local gentry.  If Mark thinks he’s going to clutter up our exotic family tree with that kind of dross, he’ll have to bump me off first.  He spends most of his time avoiding her and cancelling dates so I don’t think it’s at all serious.  Not that you’d care anyway because you’re still drooling over Sam the Man.”

Rachel took the picnic basket and smiled ruefully at her old friend.  Lou grinned back; the signs of worry and stress briefly stripped away by the twinkle in her eyes. For the moment the strain of bringing up three girls and running a business alone seemed to disappear, and they were both bright-eyed freshers in their first week of university again. 

Lou glanced down at her watch. “Time to go.  Melanie’s opening up the shop this morning and although she’s coming along, I don’t like to leave her on her own too much.  Where are you headed today?”

“My usual place.  Who’d have thought you’d end up living here all those years ago when we came down with the grotty yachties.”

“Steady on.  I married a grotty yachty.  Not that it did me much good.  The sea won.  The last I heard Pete was doing holiday tenders out in Portugal, and surrounding himself with bronzed bimbos.  Mark and I seem to have the most appalling taste in partners – and now you too.”

“How long has Mark lived here?”

“He and Sorrel moved down here a couple of years ago.  They used to live in a very posh part of Edinburgh where he worked on some rather nasty people smuggling rackets.  Sorrel was very beautiful but impractical, and completely wrong for Mark.  When he discovered that he had a younger sister that no one had told him about, he got a transfer South to help me with the girls and the shop.  One season of the high life here, and Sorrel was off with a handsome sea captain who promised a more entertaining future.  Our divorces came through almost exactly a year apart.  At least you and Sam never tied the knot.”

“If the subject came up, I received an eloquent speech on the importance of being a free spirit and how we didn’t need rules and regulations to keep us together.  Sometimes I think we only lasted as long as we did because I didn’t push him for commitment.  Good luck to his new lady anyway.”

“Do you know who she is?”

“Yes.  Her name is Adele.  She works for the paper as a fashion editor.  Saudi Arabia is her country of origin, but educated at the very best places in England and France.  Tall, elegant, immaculately dressed, and blessed with a very rich daddy.  He couldn’t have found someone more opposite to me if he tried. Don’t say it, Lou!   I may not be the shy specs-wearing mouse that you took under your wing any more, but Adele is not someone I could ever compete with.”

Lou hugged Rachel and shook her head. “You are worlds away from the little boarding school girl that you were and you know it.  You have brains and a huge amount of journalistic talent which I am constantly boasting about to anyone who will listen.  There are still people in the Village who remember us from Uni days and they often ask after you.  I’m glad you kept the specs though, always something to hide behind.”

“If you need a hand in the shop any time Lou, you only have to say?” said Rachel.  “You won’t accept any rent off me for your brother, and the little that you take for food wouldn’t keep a gnat alive. Let me help?  God knows I’ve nothing else to spend the money on.”

“You’re staying on for a while then?”

“My boss Tony texted to say that he’s got a commission for me to write a series of articles about our Village life – if I accept it.  He knew that I’d go to pieces if I had to see Sam and his new paramour every day, so I’ve been offered a kind of sabbatical. Initially for three months but if I turn in the work – who knows?”

“Great news!  Let’s talk about it later though.  Go and get your inspiration from the sea, and I’ll cater to the needs of my regulars, and the more pernickety tourists.  Just don’t make any hasty decisions Rachel.  Promise?”

“Yes, I promise.”

Rachel waved as Lou got on to her bicycle and rode off to her shop in the centre of the village.  Closing the door, Rachel finished washing up her breakfast dishes, dried up meticulously, and put them away together with the plate and glass that Mark had left on the drainer.  He’d left her a note too although she hadn’t told Lou about it.  The note was stuck to the inside of her door, so there was no doubt that it was meant for her and not Mrs Kneller.  She drew it out of her pocket and looked at it again.  It was very simple; just ‘Good Morning’ and a face with two long pigtails, but it made her smile inside and out for the first time in weeks.

She put it back, and sighing, picked up her mobile.  Tony had texted to see how she was; he’d promised not to phone unless there was an emergency, but this was his tenth text in four days so she felt it was time she replied to confirm his offer of the commission and sabbatical.  It was only just after half-eight but his response was swift, and she pictured him lounging in his office chair, huge mug of tea in one hand and iPhone in the other. The TV would be on, as would his radio, and the computer would have several different news channels up as he flicked from one to another, in case he missed anything.

Tony believed in straight talking, so Rachel wasn’t surprised to find reference to Sam in his messages. It appeared that Sam and Adele had gone off to Dubai for a holiday, leaving everyone fuming at the short notice.  Not that there would be any repercussions – Sam was too valuable to the paper for that and although Adele was only a junior fashion editor, no one would want to risk upsetting Sam or her father, by sacking her. 

The news of Sam’s latest exploits left Rachel with constricting lump in her throat that even another quick glance at Mark’s note couldn’t dispel.  It had been a month now since Sam had moved out and she wondered when, if ever, the pain of his leaving would ease.  His belongings had been removed very swiftly from her flat on the day that she received his letter; she’d been away at a conference that weekend and returned to find gaps in the bookcase, a half empty wardrobe, his letter, and a vase of white roses with a card saying ‘Sorry’ on them.

She’d spent most of that day in a daze induced by alcohol, and the final loss of his physical presence.  Walking in to this stark reality had almost pushed her over the edge; as it was the roses went out of the window, but not the vase.  Even in her rage and grief, Rachel still had consideration for her neighbours.  Sam had stayed away from the office for the rest of the week, emailing his pieces and ignoring her texts.  A call to Lou had brought her to her senses to some extent, and with it came the invitation to stay.  It had taken a while to tie up life’s loose ends sufficiently to escape from London, but now at last she was in a place that held no reminders of her life with Sam.

She could remember quite vividly when she and Lou had first discovered this village.  They were in their first year at university; two lonely girls in a busy hall of residence occupied by middle-class girls and boys who had never had to cope before without parents or staff to look after them.   They found themselves invited by accident to a very grand party held in the grounds of a nearby stately home, and met up with a group of hard-drinking, fast-living and devilishly handsome young men with sun bleached hair and real suntans. Footloose and fancy-free, the two girls were invited to more parties, and to the yachting weekends that led to both of them falling in love with this little village, and ultimately to Lou losing her heart to Pete, the most rakish and gorgeous yachty of them all.

Their romance continued to everyone’s surprise, and culminated in a glorious drunken wedding two days after Lou and Rachel’s graduations. Lou had a win on the new Lottery, and abandoning the career of journalism that she had been studying for, used the money to set up home with Pete in the Village.   They bought a share in a local boatyard for Pete, and Lou built up clientele in her little teashop, in between giving birth to her three beautiful girls.  Whilst Lou felt happy and settled with her life, Pete obviously didn’t and Rachel, though saddened, wasn’t surprised when he got the seven-year itch, voted with his feet and sailed off into the sunset six months after his youngest child was born. 

In the meantime, Rachel had worked her way up through regional newspapers and local radio until she had reached her current post on a national broadsheet.  She specialised in the slightly bizarre, rather than more traditional reporting, or women’s issues.  She had a knack for finding common ground with her interviewees, and it was this ease that had first brought her to the attention of Sam Miller, the newspaper’s headline reporter. 

His single-minded pursuit of her was the talk of the paper and a source of wonder to Rachel.  She considered herself to be forgettable; of average height and on the slim side, her hair had mellowed into a dark blonde, and the dowdy specs had been replaced by something more stylish once she could afford them. Sam was not attractive in comparison with Pete and his sun-bleached cronies, he was only a little taller than Rachel, with thinning brown hair.  His eyes were the stuff of dreams however, a deep, dark brown that twinkled and enchanted by turn.  He was the kind of man that knew everyone’s name, and his charisma usually gained him friends wherever he went.  When Sam decided to move in with her, Rachel felt that life was perfect.  It didn’t matter that he travelled extensively, or that she barely saw him, even when they went out together.  He always came back to her at the end of the evening, no matter how many attractive women – and men – had been hanging on his every word. Life with Sam was rarely dull and Rachel was aware that his reputation had helped her career along as well.

The arrival of Mrs Kneller interrupted these sad musings, and putting on the bravest of faces, Rachel picked up her basket and a waterproof jacket borrowed from Lou, in readiness for her trip down to the beach.

“You’ve met our Mark then?”  Mrs Kneller said as she hung her coat up under the stairs.

“Yes.  I broke a glass I’m afraid but I think he managed to pick up most of the glass.  He said he was going to vacuum later.”

Mrs Kneller peered over the top of her bottle-bottom thick spectacles.  “I’ll do the vacuuming.  He likes to think that I leave it to him but I still do it.  Don’t you tell him mind!”

“I won’t say a word.”  Rachel smiled conspiratorially, “Your secret is safe with me.”

“Good girl.  You go off and have a lovely day.  Lou’s getting some nice fish in for your dinner tonight.  I saw her having a word with Jeff from the Gun, he’s got a brother who brings in a lovely fresh catch every day.  Don’t tell Mark where it’s coming from though, there might be a problem with Jeff’s brother and his fishing quota.”

“The secrets in this village!   I never knew there was so much going on.”

“You don’t know the half of it my dear.  There are that many skeletons tucked away in cupboards and under patios!  You could write a book about it!”

“You’ll be the first person I come to then.  I’ll get out from under your feet now.  Don’t work too hard.”

Mrs Kneller smiled knowingly as she opened the front door and watched Rachel walk down the road with a lighter step than she’d seen before. “You’ll do my dear,” she said to herself.  “You’ll do very nicely.”

Stepping Back – Rachel

When Lou suggested that she come and stay in her brother’s cottage, Rachel was initially dubious, but by Thursday night Rachel was beginning to wonder if she would ever meet her elusive host.   He was away on some kind of a mysterious operation and the only evidence of his existence so far had been an old oilskin and some disreputable deck shoes under the stairs.  Any personal belongings were tucked away somewhere.  According to Lou, her brother Mark was a police detective but very few people in the village were aware of this; it was assumed by most people that he had some kind of dodgy business in London that kept him away for days on end.

The cottage was cleaned and the daily shopping done by his next-door neighbour, Mrs Kneller, a pleasant soul who sang 50’s tunes from her youth, as she polished and vacuumed.  Never having stayed in a house with a housekeeper, Rachel felt a little confused about what her own household duties might be but after the first day or two and a word with Lou, she came to the conclusion that if Mrs Kneller wanted something done – or not done – she would definitely say. That included doing Rachel’s washing and ironing; a situation that Rachel hadn’t been in since the days of boarding school and having all her clothes sent to the laundry.  So far, Mrs Kneller proved far more efficient and caring than the school laundry had ever been.

Rachel loved the solitude of the shoreline in early spring, and found the old cottage with its beams and strange angles more suited to her mood than the clinical modernity of her London flat.  The cottage was long and low, with her bedroom at one end, and the room presumably occupied by her host at the other.  The galley kitchen and a large lounge and dining room were in the middle of the building with a set of stairs going up into the sail loft.  Two small beds had been squeezed in there as well as dozens of canvas bags containing strange shapes redolent with the scent of the sea.  Rachel had a choice of bathrooms; an all mod-cons shower room next door to her bedroom, or a more traditional bathroom on the other side of the kitchen.  Patio doors from the lounge led out to a terraced garden full of herbs, the cooing of wood pigeons, and the tinkle of flapping halyards from the nearby boatyards.

Rachel had dined with Lou and her three daughters each evening so far, and was given an immaculately prepared packed lunch so she could stay out on the beach all day, her trusty Dictaphone to hand for moments of rare inspiration. Lou was very proud of her big brother and the girls spoke about their uncle as if he were a legend.  The more she heard about him, the more curious Rachel became about the man.  She couldn’t remember Lou talking about Mark when they were at Uni together, or ever having met him before. Sally, the youngest of the three girls and also the most garrulous about her Uncle Mark, was holding forth about how he was involved in some mysterious undercover work that meant no one had seen him for days.   Rachel put aside the uncharitable thought that he might just as well be involved in illicit smuggling as far as she knew, and finished off her glass of wine. Her offer of help with the washing up politely but firmly refused yet again by Lou, Rachel picked up her bag and said her goodbyes.   Sally and her eldest sister Jenny offered to walk her back to the cottage as it was such a clear night.

The walk along the coast road to the cottage was short but exhilarating, with a wind blowing in from the sea that swept away the last vestiges of mellowness engendered by a good company and an excellent meal. The cottage was in darkness, and only Rachel’s car graced the gravel drive. Sally and Jenny insisted on unlocking the door for her and checking to make sure everything inside was okay.  Whether this was a thinly veiled opportunity to snoop around their uncle’s home, or a security measure that he had instilled into them, Rachel wasn’t sure but the silence when their chattering voices had eventually left, became more eerie than it had seemed on the previous nights.  She decided that a good book and early bed was the antidote and after performing her usual night time ablutions, ten o’clock found her settled in the large double bed with her hair neatly plaited, and wearing a comfortable old flannel night shirt.

She woke with a start as her book tumbled to the floor; her bedside light was still on and the hands on the travelling alarm clock on the cabinet read three am.  The room was very warm, despite the half-open window, and picking up her glass, Rachel decided to get some fresh water from the bathroom.  It was the first time she’d done this at night in the four days she’d been staying at the cottage.  She felt along the wall for a light switch but having found it, decided she could manage in the darkness.

She turned on the cold tap and let the water run for a while, and then downed two glassfuls in quick succession, pressing the cool of the empty tumbler against her forehead before filling it again.   Once in the corridor she felt strangely disoriented and leaned against the wall for support, unable for a moment to see the way back to her room.  She found the light switch and turned it on; hoping that a few seconds of light would enable her to get her bearings again.  The light came on, and then went off again with a resounding pop as the bulb blew.

Rachel cried out and dropped the glass in her panic, it shattered on the floor spraying her feet and legs with cold water and shards of glass.  She froze, afraid to move in case she cut herself.

“Don’t move!”

She jumped at the sound of the unexpected and very authoritative voice.

“Stay very still please.  I’ll be back in just a moment with a torch.  I don’t want you to cut yourself on the glass.”

Rachel sighed, relaxing slightly at the realisation that this must be her host at last.  The shock was replaced by embarrassment as she drew a mental picture of herself; worn out navy nightshirt and hair in school girl plaits on either side of her face.   Her spectacles were on the bedside table so she could only see about a foot in front of her clearly.  This was definitely not the way one should meet a man, let alone the person that she was sharing a house with.

The darkness was cleaved by a powerful torch beam shining at her feet.  His feet, also in the spotlight, were bare. His calves were athletic and not too hairy, and at least he was wearing boxer shorts, although she had a feeling that he had little else on.  He continued shining the torch on the floor, and Rachel shivered as he crouched down and began picking the tiny pieces of glass from her feet and putting them carefully in a pile to one side.  The beam of light moved as he shone it on the little airing cupboard door.  Opening it, he took out a couple of towels, one of which he placed in front of her feet and the other he used to gently wipe the water from her legs.

“Please?  I can do that if I can get back to my room.  I’m very short-sighted though, and I can’t see much without my specs.  They’re just on the bedside table.”

“That’s okay. Please take my hand and step onto the towel.  I don’t want you treading on any of the glass.”   His voice was very deep and slow, more relaxed now that he had dealt with her minor crisis. “I’m Mark by the way.  I’m assuming that you’re Rachel and you’re not a burglar?”

“Yes, sorry.  What a way to be introduced, smashing glasses and blowing up bulbs in the middle of the night. I really am very sorry.  I have a tendency to clumsiness.”

“Obviously that’s something else you and Lou have in common.  Has she let you wash up yet?

“No?”

“She usually gets one of the girls to stack the dishwasher.  I’ve never met such a woman for breaking things.”

“I’m not that bad!  I was just startled by the bulb blowing.  I’m sorry about the mess.”

She let Mark lead her across the towel and back to her room, where he sat her on the bed and used the torch light to check her legs and feet for any glass or cuts.  Smoothing her nightshirt down over her thighs, she put on her spectacles and glanced down at him, noting that his dark curly hair was abundant with no sign of thinning or bald patches.  Like Lou, he had inherited skin the colour of smooth caramel, and on closer inspection she could see now that he really did have an impressive torso.  The boxer shorts were loose enough to be comfortable but tight enough to cause an increase in blood pressure in the most laid-back of women.  Which she certainly was not.

Mark stood up.  “You’ll do.  I’ll go and clear the mess up.  Would you like another glass of water?”

“Please Mark?  I made the mess.  I’ll clear it up.  I can see now.  If you’ll just tell me where the dustpan and brush is?”

He grinned.   “No offence Rachel, but it’s very late and it’ll be much quicker if I do it.  I need to get a new bulb for the hallway anyway.  Just sit tight and I’ll be back in a moment.”

Rachel stayed where she was, rapidly coming to the conclusion that people didn’t often argue with Mark.  She heard him return to his room, then to the kitchen.  He was back very quickly and placing another glass of water on her bedside table before she’d even had time to get back into bed.  He’d put on a washed-out black tee-shirt and those very old deck shoes she’d seen in the hallway.  She blushed as he caught her looking at him, and was aware that he was carrying out an inspection of his own. “I thought you’d be older.  When Lou said I’d be having a lady writer for a lodger, I had visions of some grey-haired old dear in flowing scarves.”

“Sorry to destroy the illusion.” Rachel muttered, blushing again and lowering her eyes as she pleated the duvet cover nervously between her fingers.

“Not at all.  If I’d known you were so definitely not an old dear, I’d have made myself known sooner.”  He extended his hand.  “How do you do Rachel?  I hope you’re enjoying your stay here and you find the accommodation acceptable?”

Rachel took his hand and shook it.  She began to rally her defences a little.  “Hi Mark, I must admit I was beginning to wonder if you existed at all.  When Lou suggested I stay in her big brother’s cottage, I had my own visions of some portly old chap gently easing himself toward retirement.”

“Seems we were both a bit wrong then?  I’m only six years older than Lou – and well away from retirement. Are you sure you don’t have any of those scarves?”

“Haven’t you already checked out my wardrobe and luggage? I’ve been out every day since I came down.”

Mark had the grace to blush slightly, and laughed.  “Touché.  I ought to get that glass cleared up.  I have another early start tomorrow.”  He moved toward the door and Rachel felt disappointed that he was leaving. “Can I help?  I could hold the torch while you change the bulb, and I’m sure I can sweep up a bit of broken glass.” 

Mark grinned again and gestured with his head.  “Come on then.  Lou said you were a bit stubborn.”

“Oh, did she!  What else did she say?”

“That you were an old and trusted friend who needed a holiday.  She didn’t elaborate but I got the impression that you’ve had a bad time recently.”

“A bit.  Being down here helps but I’m not looking forward to going back much.”

“There’s no rush as far as I’m concerned, be my guest as long as you like.” 

He turned and went out into the corridor.  Rachel slid off the bed and shoved her feet into flip flops before joining him.  He handed her the torch and reached up to take out the old bulb.  As he stood on his toes to remove it, she couldn’t help but admire his physique and the ease with which he moved.  Once the light was on, he took the torch from her and replaced it with the dustpan.  “I’ll sweep if you collect the bits.  Is that okay?”

She nodded, aware that the bright light was maybe not the most flattering to her, and ducked her head as she crouched down and held the dustpan flat against the floor.  He was very quick and efficient, checking all around him in case there were any stray pieces of glass left.

“I should wear your flip flops when you come out in the morning.   I’ll be home in the afternoon and do the vacuuming then.”

She protested.  “I’ll do it.  Really!  I don’t mind.”

He reached out and tugged one of her plaits. “You’re on holiday and you’re my guest.  I have to fight Mrs K for the right to do my own vacuuming as it is.  Tell Lou to set the table for one extra for dinner. I’ll see you later.” 

He took the dustpan from her and disappeared back along the corridor and into his room, closing the door quietly behind him. 

Rachel slowly stood up and went back to her own room, leaning against the closed door.  She did not need this.  She did not need to be alone in a house with an exceptionally attractive single man who had just smiled very sweetly at her.  She sat down heavily on the bed and picked up her bag, extracting from it the letter that had sent her far away from her ordered London lifestyle and down to this sleepy South coast village.

Sam wrote an excellent letter, she had to give him that.  In all the time they’d been together he’d only written to her twice; once to tell her how smitten he was with her, and this second time, to tell her that he was leaving.  That he had found another woman who made his heart beat faster. 

“It’s not you, its me.” 

That old cliché.

An Arresting Experience

Saturday mornings in Sally’s household were usually a good reason for lie-ins and late breakfasts.  On this occasion however, sleep was disturbed by an authorative knock on the front door, and simultaneous text message on Sally’s phone announcing that the team in charge of the investigation into Gavin Slime’s activities would be visiting shortly.

Ed went down to answer the door, show the two detectives into the front room, and put the kettle on while Sally and Ruby made themselves look presentable with a lick and a promise. It was a good job that they didn’t take any longer as their presence was needed urgently.

The detective inspector held the floor, whilst his constable took notes.  It appeared that, after contacting Ben and a rather cross Michael, the police were indeed going to access Gavin’s office and computer, but they were also needing to check out Margaret, and the CEO’s offices and computers as well, because Gavin claimed that he as only following orders from above. Not that the police gave any credibility to this defence, but after speaking to Michael and Ben, it became quite obvious that Margaret had been aware of some of Gavin’s plans at least, and that her involvement with the CEO’s fraudulent appointments were worthy of police investigation as well.

The contents of Gavin’s trunk had yielded up the address of the deserted cottage in North Wales that he had bought, and set up deliberately as a prison for Sally.

“I need to tell you that it wasn’t just a question of imprisoning you.  We found a quantity of drugs, including Rohypnol, and what might be considered equipment linked to sexual assault and restraint.”

Sally gasped and shook her head.

“Margaret is rather odd, but I can’t see her asking Slime to do anything like that.  From what I can gather, she just wanted me to drop the tribunal, and had asked him to gather any information that could be used to intimidate me.  Desmond told me that she was very angry that I hadn’t put her in the book though; perhaps that’s what made her flip?”

“Book?” said the inspector.  “What book?”

His constable looked up.  “We’ve got a copy of Sally’s book in the office.  It’s doing the rounds. It’s very funny in parts, but although it’s quite positive about the police force, it isn’t so complimentary about local government.  I understand there were a few resignations and early retirements afterwards – perhaps as a consequence?”

Sally shook her head again.

“The caricatures that made it into the book were based on colleagues that were more interesting than others, and yes, I admit it, I used those characteristics that I found most annoying when I wrote the book.  At the time I could put up with Margaret’s behaviour, because her husband is a very dear friend, and I didn’t want to cause him any more grief. I gave him information about Margaret, and the meetings with the CEO when he came to visit me.  I understand that he passed this on to Ben, for inclusion in the report that has led to Margaret’s suspension.”

“Her husband has disappeared apparently,” said the detective. “But there doesn’t seem to be any link with the fraud at the Town Hall.”

“Good Lord no!” Sally laughed.  “Desmond is as honest as the day is long, and one of the nicest people I know, present company excepted.  I have an idea where he’s gone, and I know that he’ll be happier there, but I’m sure that his disappearance is to do with getting away from Margaret rather than anything dodgy.”

“Unlike your other friend Donal…”

“Ben tells me that Donal’s old boss in Finance says the entire debt has been paid off – and typically of Donal, he has included the interest.  I do receive the odd card or email from him and his wife to say that they are well.  The cards come through several different countries before they reach me though, and emails are routed through a complex set of servers.  I don’t know where he is, but he was as much a victim of the system as I am. What happens next – with Slime, Margaret, and the CEO?”

The detective didn’t look totally convinced about Donal or Desmond, but decided to leave it for now.  There were much bigger fish to fry.

“Intensive IT analysis will be carried out on all three of them, although most of the evidence on Slime came from the contents of his room at home.  I have a list of people whose weekend is going to be disrupted.  What can you tell me about Slime’s secretary?”

“Joanna? Lovely looking, but with an intellect that is fairly limited.  Ben tells me that she sees him as her knight in shining armour, so if anyone can get her to shed light on Slime’s comings and goings, he’s your man.  He is also my nephew.”

“And seems to be very adept at uncovering deception.”

“He’s had some help from Ruby here, and a young lady called Karen who has turned out to be a very good private eye.”

“All on my list of potential interviewees.  Not right now though. We need to get warrants for this Margaret and the CEO.  Not that I think we’ll find much at their homes but you never know.  This could just be the tip of the iceberg.”

Ed showed the police out and came back in to find Sally in tears, and Ruby giving her a much-needed hug.  He grabbed a box of tissues and handed them to Sally; he knew how much she hated being snotty.  She looked up gratefully and blew her nose.

“It was hearing about the preparations that Slime had made.  That kind of perversion goes far beyond whatever Margaret may have asked him to do.”

“The man is a sicko.” said Ruby in disgust.  “Remember the story that I told you about him stalking a female councillor, and the number of different posts that saw him paid off and promoted elsewhere.  I’d imagine that his trunk is full of details for the police to follow up in different local authorities.  Margaret merely gave him the permission he needed, to live out his weird fantasies. From what Karen told me about his mother yesterday, he has a pathological hatred of strong women.  I’m not sure that I’d be too keen on Mrs Slime from what I’ve heard.”

“Will his parents be alright without him?” asked Sally.

“Karen says that they have carers, and a very protective cleaning lady.  It’s a reasonably nice house and they are both on disability benefits, which will increase when Slime is no longer getting carers allowance.”

“Oh well, I think we should take a few days off from the tribunal work.  I’ve invited Ben over for dinner tonight, will you stay Ruby? Please?”

“Um…”

“Ben said he hoped that you’d be here.”

“Sally.” 

Ed gave one of those looks.

“He did.  He wants to explain all the things that have gone on at his end – including his HR team meal last night. And also, that Melissa has changed her mind about London now that it looks like Ben will be staying here permanently.”

“What?” said Ruby.

“I forgot to tell you.  Michael has offered him a permanent post to replace Slime, and oversee the office move to the new buildings.  Ben sent Melissa a message hoping that she’d be pleased.  She wasn’t, and she told him that she had changed her mind, and was going away for the weekend with some new friend.  Ben was rather relieved and said he dearly like to ask for your assistance with the office moves, Ruby.”

Ed held his hands up in defeat and went off to organise some breakfast.

The police visit to the CEO’s house was fairly uneventful.  His disgusted wife stood back with her arms folded, whilst they worked their way through the building.  She pointed out that most of the fixtures and fittings in the house were legitimately hers, rather than her husband’s but they were very welcome to take everything from his office.  When her husband was led out of the house in handcuffs, she laughed – laughed long and loud. Her husband had dressed for a day at the golf course, having sent emails to councillors who he felt would support him in what he felt was a big mistake.  So far no one had replied, and he couldn’t get anyone to join him in a game of golf either.  His bright pink trousers and emerald green polo shirt would look rather out of place at the police station, but he wasn’t given time to get changed into something more suited to the occasion.

Margaret sat at the kitchen table.  She had texted Desmond, but got no reply.

She texted their daughters, in the hope that they might be sympathetic to her situation. 

They weren’t. 

Their reply texts were terse to say the list but informed Margaret that their Dad had explained what had happened, that they were glad he had left, and that they wouldn’t be visiting her, or having her visit them.

She continued to sit and stew in self-pity. She blamed Desmond for turning their daughters against her.  She blamed the CEO for getting her suspended, and the entire HR department, but especially Slime and Ben.  This led on to blaming Ruby, but ultimately Sally.  Sally who didn’t even consider her interesting enough to put in a book. Sally, whose loyalty to Margaret had been tested and failed. 

Sally. 

This was ultimately Sally’s fault.  Margaret was about to phone Sally and tell her how hateful she was, when there was a very loud knock, and a shout of ‘Police! Open the door!’ She got to her feet, pulled on the black jacket with the dead cat collar, squared her shoulders and went to open the front door. Her shoulder sagged in the face of the mob of police, who began to swarm around her house, and it wasn’t until she saw her laptop being brought downstairs in an evidence bag that she began to feel fearful.  Another policeman picked up her mobile phone and popped that in another bag.  She handed over her house keys, and allowed herself to be led out to the waiting police car.  She actually felt quite insulted that no one put handcuffs on her; perhaps they thought that she didn’t pose a risk to anyone.  Her anger boiled over at this point, and she kicked out at the policeman who was helping her into the car.

She was helped out of the car quickly and with far less care, handcuffed, and had to wait outside her house until the van came to collect her.  Living in a quiet village meant that any sign of the emergency services was bound to arouse some interest, and this was no exception.  Most of the village seemed to have a reason for walking down the street that morning.

The main reason that Michael was grumpy when the police contacted him that morning, was that he had spent most of the previous afternoon and evening, ploughing through Ben’s reports, and advising councillors of the change of circumstances regarding the CEO.  He had also had a long and very sobering conversation with his former boss John.

Sally had always been one of John’s favourites, and he had made it quite clear to Michael in the past that the decision to rescind her compromise agreement could cause more issues than it needed. Even John couldn’t have predicted the hornet’s nest that had opened now though. The police had given Michael more information about Slime, his capture, his claim that he had been told to prevent Sally pursuing her employment tribunal no matter what, and the wealth of evidence against him and Margaret, that had already been recovered.

Once Michael had given the police access to all the offices and computer systems that they needed, he left Ben to liaise with the, and set up an emergency council meeting in the Town Hall.  Normally unhappy about being dragged in to attend a meeting on the weekend, Michael had dropped enough hints to ensure that this was not a meeting to be missed.  Some of the councillors present were very quick to point out that Margaret had told them that the CEO’s application was the only one worth considering, and that they hadn’t seen any other documents.

Ben’s report on the CEO contained a wodge of application forms that should have been considered, and both of John’s were among them.  He had been very popular with many of the councillors previously, and they had been surprised when he had failed to apply for the CEO post., and gone to work for another local authority.

Damage limitation was needed, and relying on Ben’s intuition about which applicants would be worth considering, Michael set up a new interviewing panel and asked them to read through the forms, and draw up a short list.  He also pointed out that he had spoken to John, who confirmed that he would like to be considered, but only if they could guarantee a level playing field.  Scared that any of the fraudulent behaviour committed by Margaret and the CEO might tinge them, the new panel went away determined to be as objective as possible.

Michael trudged back to his office and called Ben.  It had been a very long day. The police had left the main office building and the Town Hall. carrying a large number of evidence bags and archive boxes.  Ben was still at his desk; tying up a few loose ends, and making sure that the team would have a reasonably tidy office to work in on Monday.  He brought Michael up to date on everything that he could, and told him that he was going off to Sally’s for dinner, and to catch up on the situation at their end. He didn’t say anything more but he was also rather keen to see Ruby as well.

Although he felt that he was being forced into a corner, Michael felt that it was time to make a decision about Sally.

“While you are there Ben, give Sally a message from me, will you?”

“Of course, Sir.”

“Tell her that the arrangement made by John is reinstated, but that includes the confidentiality statement.  I do not want to find myself in another of Sally’s murder mysteries.”

How the Mighty are Fallen

Ben had to admit that he was feeling rather nervous about meeting with Michael; he still hadn’t heard from the police, so details of Gavin’s attempted kidnap and escape had to be kept a secret for now.  He did have a package of photographs from Karen however, together with reports on Mandy, Margaret and the CEO, who never seemed to be where he appeared to be.  Ben had also tracked down the applications for the CEO’s post that had been set aside on Margaret’s instructions.  Amongst those applications were some from Michael’s friend and ex-boss John.

Clutching the fruits of his team’s labours, Ben sat on the edge of his chair in the corridor outside Michael’s office in the Town Hall.  His secretary sent Ben sympathetic smiles every now and then, which made him feel that he had been naughty and was waiting to see the headmaster. Her phone buzzed, and she got to her feet, beckoning Ben to follow her.

“Michael will see you now Ben.”

It was a nice-looking office; much better than any of the managers’ offices in the main office building.  Michael got to his feet, extended his hand to shake Ben’s and sat down again, motioning Ben to sit in the chair opposite.

“By the look of the paperwork you are carrying, this looks rather serious.  Can I ask why it is you that is here, and not your manager Gavin?”

“I don’t mean to be rude Sir, but I’m under strict instructions no to discuss anything about Gavin at the moment.”

Michael frowned.

“Instructions from the police I’m afraid.” said Ben. “I’m hoping to update you sometime today but for the moment that’s all I can say.”

“Just tell me, has anyone died, or been injured?”

“Fortunately, no, although that may change later today as well.”

“I understand that you are in a relationship with young Ruby?”

“Yes.  I spoke to Gavin about it, and he was okay providing we maintained a discreet and professional attitude to the relationship.”

“Commendable.  Given Ruby’s friendship with Sally, would you be able to confirm that no harm has come to either of them?”

“Yes, they are both safe, and Ruby is staying with Sally for the time being.”

“Okay, what have you managed to dig up and how many of our staff are implicated?”

Knowing that Michael already knew about Mandy’s suspension, Ben passed over the folder with a neatly typed summary attached to the front of it.  Michael skim read the summary and looked up.

“This looks fairly cut and dried, but it does indicate a poor level of senior management.”

Ben handed over the folder regarding Margaret, and a separate folder regarding her relationship with the CEO.  The final folder of the threesome contained details of the CEO’s appointments, ‘lost’ application forms, and details of the councillors who had consistently sat on the voting panel for some years, and fairly obviously followed Margaret’s instructions about the appointment of a very senior council post. It was at this point that Michael’s usual well-spoken reserve broke down and he leaned back in his chair.

“Friggin’ hell mate!  Have you any idea what you’ve uncovered? Johns applied for this post twice now, and I had to apologise for the fact that our councillors didn’t think he was fit for the job.  Not surprising, if they never even saw the other application forms. Margaret has really blown it this time!”

“Ah, there’s something else I need to tell you about Margaret’s situation.  It’s about Desmond.”

“He’s okay, isn’t he?  The man must have the patience of a saint to put up with the woman.”

“As far as we know he won’t be putting up with her any longer.  We believe that he has left Margaret and the country.  Whereabouts unknown.”

“Not another Donal!”

“No.  Any money he has comes of his betting habit.  He has sent his apologies for not giving notice, but once he had confirmation that his wife was being unfaithful with the CEO, he just wanted to get away from her as quickly as possible. I have a signed statement together with photographs that he sent to me via the internal post.”

“We need to suspend Margaret and the CEO today.  Do you feel up to it?”

“On my own?”

“No.  With me and few security Guards.  I’ll block any calls from the CEO’s office first, and get one of the senior managers over in the main office to keep Margaret busy.  Any ideas?”

“Head of Finance.  He’s a reliable bloke, and if he brings along some spreadsheets, he can keep her occupied for ages.”

“Good man.  Give him a ring on my behalf while I rustle up some heavies.”

As Ben suspected, not only had Desmond’s disappearance hit the rumour mill, but the head of Finance was very anxious to comply in case the truth about Room 19 leaked out.

Michael returned with two large security guards wearing stab vests, and ominously dark glasses. Removing his tie, Michael indicated that Ben do the same.

“Leave the reports on my desk.  My secretary may look friendly, but she’ll guard them with her life.”

“There’s an additional report regarding Karen, and possibly Mandy that may be damage limitation for the authority when the police get back to me.”

“And I thought today was going to be quiet.  Come on then, lads!”

For all his pomposity, the CEO proved to be an easy target.  He packed some of his belongings into the proffered box, and his weeping secretary was given further boxes to pack away anything else that was considered personal.  Michael demanded the keys to the CEO’s official car, and asked the secretary to order a taxi, and not to put it on the tab.  The four of them escorted him to the Town Hall gates where one of the security guards, who had never liked the CEO, gave him the V-sign as the taxi drove away.  Michael frowned, then laughed and clapped the man on the shoulder.

“The next one is not going to be so easy, especially if she’s wearing that horrible jacket with the dead cat collar.  We’ll go in the official van. Is your car here Ben?”

“No. I walked. I needed the fresh air.”

“I have a feeling that Margaret has a lease car as well.  We’ll have to rustle up another taxi for her once she’s packed up.  It may take us a while to get her out, so no need to order it yet.”

Ben squeezed into the back of the van with the other security guard, who was grinning and cracking his knuckles at the prospect of taking on Margaret, who was renowned for her rudeness to what she considered the ‘lower orders’.

The young man on reception stared open mouthed as Michael and his newly acquired henchmen shot through the security doors, with instructions not to tell ANYONE that they were in the building.  It was just as cramped in the lift, but Ben felt grateful to be in the company of three such imposing figures, especially if Margaret was wearing her dead cat jacket.

They stalked out of the lift, and Michael put a warning finger to his lips as they reached the outer office.  The other occupants, none of who were supporters of Margaret and her moods, stifled giggles, and one of them gave Ben a sly wink. He had a feeling that some of the older clerical staff had been waiting for this moment for years, and would retire happily now it had been achieved.

Michael didn’t bother to knock on the door, and as Margaret rose to expel her wrath at this intrusion, he told her to sit down and shut up.  The Head of Finance picked up his spreadsheets and made a swift and very grateful exit. Michael didn’t mince his words.  He informed Margaret that she suspended on several charges, of which gross misconduct was the minor charge, but fraud was also liable to play a part, now that the evidence about the CEO and his appointment had come to light.  He told her to get packing her things up and to hand over the lease car keys, as well as any keys that belonged to the council offices. Although she looked as if she was going to put up a fight, the shoulders in the dead cat jacket began to sag, as she put her world into the boxes kindly provided by one of her staff.

The word had spread throughout the building of Margaret’s suspension.  The head of Finance had obviously been very busy, but if she had been expecting tears and pleas as she left the building, Margaret was sorely disappointed.  Ben looked up at the building from the car park as they saw her into the taxi, and was sure that he could hear cheering. He could definitely see people grinning and waving.

It was as Margaret’s taxi left the car park that Ben’s phone began to ring.  He picked it up quickly and was relieved to hear Ruby’s voice on the other end.

“They’ve got him! Sally’s just had a call from the police, and says to tell you that you can explain to Michael but we still need to keep quiet about it.  It’s need-to-know at the moment.  How are things there?”

Ben, aware that Michael and the security guards were in earshot, explained very briefly that Margaret and the CEO had left their respective buildings – and under escort. He held the phone away from his ear, as Ruby’s information was greeted with cheers from everyone ese in the room.  Michael, getting impatient to be updated, was looking a bit stern, so Ben cut the call short.  Leaving the security guards to go back to the Town Hall, Michael and Ben went back to the HR office where everyone immediately bent over their computers in an effort to look very busy.

Michael nodded at a wide-eyed Joanna as he and Ben went into Gavin’s office, and shut the door behind them.  Taking a deep breath, Ben explained the level of police involvement; that Gavin had apparently been found and arrested by the police, and was being brought back to face charges of attempted kidnap, assault, and some other very unpleasant issues in the past that were linked to the dark web, and had been found on the laptop and computer in his room.  Michael agreed to keep a lid on things for the moment; there was going to be enough scandal in the media when the situation with the CEO got out, but having a newly appointed assist head of department arrested on serious charges, would make things look even worse.

“Does this have anything to do with those two members of staff you were referring to earlier?” he asked.

Ben nodded.

“According to other members of staff, and ex-staff, Mandy appears to have had a nervous breakdown since her husband and children left her.  This wasn’t picked up by her line manager, Margaret.  As a consequence, the HR team were not adequately supervised, which also led to Karen, who was suffering from reactive depression after her calamitous wedding, misusing council time and equipment.  I have to add at this point that if it wasn’t for Karen, Sally might not be here to tell the tale.  In view of all that, I was hoping that perhaps we could come to a compromise agreement regarding Mandy, who needs time and space to recover, and to reinstate Karen, who would never have gone off the rails, if she had had the support and supervision she needed.”

“And Sally?  I’m very pleased that she managed to get away from Slime, but it worries me that we gave him the excuse, and the facilities to persecute her.”

“That’s something else I have to tell you, and I’m prepared to write a letter of resignation at this point.  I am Sally’s nephew; I took up the job offer in order to give her some support, but it’s actually Ruby and Karen who have done that.”

If Ben expected Michael to be angry, he was disappointed.  Michael laughed; long and loud.

“In a way, I wish we could have Sally back and sorting us all out, but that isn’t to be.  I don’t want your resignation Ben; I think I’d like to keep you where you can help stamp out some of the bad practices that have been ignored for so long.  We’ve received notice that this office block is destined for demolition, and rehoming the staff and equipment is going to be a very big job.  Will you stay?”

“I’d like to, but only if I can stay loyal to my aunt as well.”

“I doubt very much if I could stop you – or Ruby. I need to get back to the Town Hall and set up some council meetings.  I won’t mention the reason for Gavin’s absence at the moment. Officially he is on sick leave, and you are in charge. I’ll get my secretary to send out an email to everyone concerned.  No need to keep quiet about Margaret and the CEO, the whole of the town will know by now.  I’ll have a look at the reports on Mandy and Karen, but I think you are correct, we need to put things right.”

“Do you want me to get you a lift back to your office?”

“No.  I need to stretch my legs and get some fresh air.  Can you let my secretary know that I’m on the way back, and keep me posted on any updates on Slime?”

Ben opened the office door, smiled at Joanna and went back to his desk after Michael had left.  It was very quiet.  He stood up and sat on the end of his desk.

“Officially Gavin is off sick, and I will be in charge of the team for now.  The hard work that you have all put in has paid off, and some senior members of staff have been suspended as a result.  Michael is very grateful to you all, and so am I.  If you are free to join me, tonight’s dinner downstairs at the restaurant is my treat.”

Whilst the team were cheering, Ben realised that Gavin’s office might need to be searched by the police, and that included his computer and any access he’d had during office hours.  He got Joanna to lock the office up, and put in a few discreet calls to his new friends in IT, who were more than happy to assist.  Satisfied that he had done as much as he could for now, Ben phoned Sally to get an update, and to give one.

Letting the Cats Out of the Bag

Ben made his way back to the office, rapidly concocting a suitable story to cover Gavin’s absence.  The police had asked him not to tell anyone what had happened, just in case someone like Joanna had access to a mobile number for Gavin, and would tip him off about the police being on his tail. In order to keep everyone occupied, he announced that Gavin was unwell, but had passed on a list of instructions for the team to carry out. Joanna was to collate and print out all of the team’s clocking in and off time, since Gavin had started being their manager. This was the kind of job she enjoyed getting her teeth into, and she saw no reason to question why she had to do this.

Cheryl was asked to find supervision and continual professional development records for herself, Fiona, Karen, Mark and Peter for the past three years.  Ben had a feeling that her reports would not be very long, but they would be evidence that Mandy had not been managing and supervising her team for some time.  It would not look good for Mandy, but it could help Karen’s case if it could be proved that timely intervention by a decent manager could have prevented many of Karen’s problems.

Peter and Mark were still wading through Mandy’s records so he left them to it, and went off to have a word with the head of the finance department about the inhabitants of Room 19, and whether this might be a good time to bring their retirement forward, and close up the whole thing.  Ben explained the story that he had told Gavin, and added that as there was a possibility that certain areas of the council were going to come under very close scrutiny, anything untoward needed to be curtailed.

To be fair, the head of finance had never really felt comfortable about the improper use of Room 19, but the income from the calls had gone a long way to making up some of the other deficits, and it had kept the two ladies occupied.  Grateful for Ben’s vivid imagination, he asked his two clerical officers to come up to the office for a chat and Ben put the wheels in motion for a fairly painless and lucrative retirement for them both.

On the way back to his office, Ben bumped into an extremely cheerful Desmond.

“You are Ruby’s boyfriend, aren’t you?”

Ben nodded. There was no harm in carrying on the deception a while longer.

“Can you give her a message to pass on to Sally please?  Can you just say that the right horse came in, and I’ll be in touch once I’m settled?  Oh, and one other thing, if you see my wife, don’t tell her that you’ve seen me?  She’s probably too busy to notice anyway, what with her affair with the CEO to occupy her mind.  You might want to look at the disparities in the CEO recruitment procedure, and changing the councillors on the voting panel. Cheerio!”

Ben knew that his mouth was wide open with surprise, and shut it quickly before anyone else saw.  That meant even more work for his department, and something that needed to be achieved quickly, and very confidentially. Working on the basis that an army works better on a full stomach, Ben phoned the decent sandwich shop and put in an order for enough drinks and cakes to persuade his fellow team members to put in an extra hour or two.  He didn’t tell anyone so when the delivery arrived, his request for overtime was greeted with common agreement and astonishment, as they had never been rewarded in this way before.

Ruby and Karen were also enjoying their coffee and cakes; now that the main reason for their animosity had been demolished, they united in a respect for Ben, and gratitude for Sally. Somewhat shyly, Karen told Ruby about her undercover work, and the disguises she had come up with.  Their conversation was interrupted by a text from Ben passing on Desmond’s rather cryptic message.  Ruby had a feeling that she knew what had happened, and wondered if Sally was still at the hospital, or had gone over to the police station to give her statement of the day’s events. Looking at her watch, Ruby realised that Ed and their son would be back at the house and worrying about where Sally was.

“I’d better go and see them and explain what has happened. Karen?”

“I’ll shoot off now them.”

“No. I was going to ask you to come with me.  After all, you know more about what happened after Sally went to the Post Office, and it would be better if you explained it.  Besides, I’m sure that they would be pleased to meet you, and say thank you in person.  Will you come?”

Karen nodded, feeling a bit choked at this kindness and acknowledgement from someone that she had previously seen in such a negative light.

“I have another reason.  Sally’s son is going to be quite annoyed when he learns that the police have confiscated one of his knives.  I need you to back me up when I tell them that Sally’s life really was at risk from Gavin, and she had a good reason for pinching his knife. Oh, and that we both heard Ben promise that he’d buy a new one.”

Desmond had almost finished packing.  He wasn’t taking much. His win on the horses had been extraordinarily large, and enough to finally send him on the way to happiness.  He’d taken an energised and very happy walk back via the village, and collected his winnings from the betting shop.  He called into the Post Office where he arranged to have his money internationally transferred to an account in San Francisco that he had set up when he first thought of escaping from Margaret. He kept some of his winnings on him so that he could change it into dollars at the airport.  He’d found a suitably outrageously patterned rucksack that one of his daughters had left behind, and managed to fill it with everything he needed.  He’d toyed with the idea of getting a taxi to the airport, but decided to indulge his love of public transport instead, and having well and truly burnt his bridges by locking the front door and putting his keys through the letterbox, he set off whistling in the direction of the nearest bus stop.

A very nice young female police officer brought Sally home after her interview.  Ruby and Karen were still there, and giggled at the sight of Sally wearing a white protective suit that was too large for her.

“Stop laughing you two!  I threw up on myself and the police have kept all my clothes in case Gavin’s DNA is on them.  My DNA is most certainly is all over his shoes anyway.”

“Good shot Mum!” said her son, who had come to terms with the loss of one of his knives, and was actually quite pleased that she had remembered his lengthy lesson on how to get the various implements out on a camping knife.

“Thank you.  As you were. I am going upstairs to get out of this ridiculous noddy suit, have a decent shower, and get into my own clothes.  Unless you have to be somewhere, can you and Karen hang on until I get back down, please Ruby?”

Ed gave her the hug she had been so badly needed, and seeing that she was on the verge of tears, took her arm and led her upstairs.  Ruby, knowing that Sally’s son had been sociable enough for one day, went into the kitchen and put the kettle on, and texted Ben to say that Sally had been returned home safely.

The police had obtained a warrant, and searched through every room of the Slime household, as well as the wheelie bin, and at Mrs Slime’s suggestion the next-door neighbour’s bin too, because ‘that stupid boy often hides things in there.” There was very little of interest until they got to Gavin’s locked room. One of the police was about to go and get the big red persuader from the car boot, when Mrs Slime produced a set of keys from her cardigan pocket.

“Everything you need is on this keyring.  Gavin though he was being clever keeping his room locked, but he’d have to get up very early in the morning to get one over on me! I’ll be downstairs in the front room if you need me.”

The young policeman took the keys from her and wondered how someone staggering around on elbow crutches had managed to get up the stairs so nimbly. The keys opened the heavy fire door, and once they had recovered from the blinding whiteness of the room, the two locked trunks were opened, and Gavin’s laptop and computer were detached from their cables and put into evidence bags for examination by the tech staff at the station.  Although one trunk was disappointingly full of clean laundry, the other contained another laptop, and several paper folders containing details on Sally, her family and friends, as well as pictures of Margaret and a man identified as the council CEO.  There was also a folder with information and deeds on the house, as well as another property in North Wales.  The detective in charge of the investigation remembered Sally saying something about being taken to a remote location where no one would be able to find her again.

It didn’t take long to send the information to the police force covering that particular area, together with pictures of Gavin, his car and the registration.  The white van that he had used had been recovered, and together with the mysterious parcel that Gavin had sent, had gone to be finger printed.  The contents of the parcel turned out to be disappointingly unpleasant; Gavin had filled it with his some of his mother’s most unpleasant sandwiches that he must have been hoarding for some while, judging from the smell.

Ben’s own council detectives were doing very well; fuelled by coffee and cakes, they had managed to track down most of the information Ben had requested.  He thanked them all for their hard work, and promised that if the rest of the reports were finished by the next day, he would treat them to an ‘eat-all-you-can’ at the restaurant downstairs after work.  He also asked Cheryl if she would invite Fiona to join them. His last working task of the day was to book an appointment to see Michael, hoping that the police might have found Gavin by then, and had him locked up safely.

Margaret sat at her desk feeling more than a little puzzled. She had phoned down to Desmond’s office to see if he was ready to come home, only to be told that he had left just before lunch, and they had assumed he had gone out with her, but he hadn’t come back to the office as expected. She wasn’t in the mood for Desmond’s silliness; the CEO had texted her to say that they should cool things for a while, as his wife had received a brown envelope in the post with photographs of him coming in and out of the hotel.  He had told her that he’d been attending the health club there, but she wasn’t convinced.  Obviously, it was the same person who had put the envelope through her front door. She decided to go home and have it out with Desmond, at least that would be some kind of a victory.

The first thing Margaret found when she opened the front door was Desmond’s key ring; a distinctive Rickenbacker Bass replica with his house and office desk keys on it.  She picked it up and listened for any sounds of him, but the house was dark and quiet.  She shut the front door and turned on the lights, calling his name but there was no reply.  Margaret walked into the kitchen and sat down heavily on her customary chair.  There was an envelope on the table with her name on it.  Not brown this time, but a cheerful purple that she recognised as coming from a stationery set that she had bought one of their daughters for Christmas.  She opened the envelope, and took out the single sheet of pink paper with a border of flowers.

“Margaret, I have gone, and I would be grateful if you didn’t bother trying to find me.  I know that you have been unfaithful with the CEO, but it is your bullying and hateful behaviour that has killed the lifeblood of our relationship.  I have put my resignation in the post.  Ben knows about your infidelity, and the way you cooked the books about the CEO job, so I don’t think he or Gavin will make a fuss about my not giving notice. Goodbye, Desmond.”

That was it.  No details of where he had gone or what he would be living on.  As far as she knew the pittance that she gave him for the betting shop had never been fruitful. His wages went into their joint account, and she had the bank cards for both of them.  After the initial shock wore off, Margaret got extremely angry, and ran upstairs to their bedroom to see what Desmond had taken with him.  There wasn’t much there in the way of clothes or personal belongings, and then she remembered that he had been sleeping in the room next door for some months now.  There was even less in her daughter’s room; just a copy of bloody Sally’s book lying on the bed with a piece of paper sticking out of it.

“I really think that you should read this book again my dear, although Sally tells me that she is intending to write a sequel, and that you will play a starring role in this one.  I don’t think she’s intending to bump you off, but given all that she knows about you, I don’t think your place in the local authority will be secure for much longer.  The girls know that I have left you, but they don’t know where I am going. I will communicate with them safely later.  They are both surprised that I have put up with your bullying for so long.”

Margaret picked up the hated book and threw it at the dressing table mirror.  Sally! How dare she threaten to reveal Margaret’s secrets in this way?  When John had made the original financial agreement with Sally, he had asked her to sign a confidentiality form that prevented her from revealing anything about her time of working at the council, and especially her colleagues.  Michael had torn up the agreement when John left however, leaving Sally free to write whatever she wanted, and get her first novel published. Sinking down onto the bed, Margaret grabbed the pillow that Desmond had been sleeping on and bit it.  She cried angrily, not for Desmond, nor for the daughters that had sided with him, but for herself and the fear that her life was falling apart around her.

The scene at Sally’s house couldn’t have been more different.  Ben came round after work, and having received Desmond’s message, Sally explained what must have happened.  Ed disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a bottle of Prosecco and a tray of glasses to celebrate Desmond’s big win and his escape to freedom.  As they were toasting him, Ben revealed that he had followed advice, and done some digging about the CEO and the lack of eligible candidates for his post.  Karen mentioned that she had copies of the date and time stamped photographs that had been delivered to Margaret, and the CEO’s wife, as well as the surveillance pictures she had taken of Gavin at the container unit and the van hire depot.

“You have given me so much material for the next book!” Sally exclaimed happily. “Maybe I won’t need to go through with the employment tribunal after all.”

Ruby took Sally’s hand in both of hers;

“We need to clear your name and to get Karen reinstated if that’s what you want Karen?”

Ben nodded.

“I think it can be done.  It won’t be difficult to persuade Cheryl and Fiona to give statements on your behalf.  I’m afraid that Mandy won’t come out of this well, but if Margaret gets suspended, we might be able to get away with a quiet compromise agreement for her.  She’d only get a couple of month’s salary; and a reference, but that would be better than nothing. I don’t think there will be any holiday pay though!”.

“All we need now is for Slime to be caught,” said Sally pensively.   “I must admit I don’t feel safe while he’s on the loose.”

Playing a Part and Collecting a Parcel

Desmond found the brown envelope on the doormat when he came down for breakfast. He recognised the handwriting, and with a little smile, picked it up and put on the table next to Margaret’s customary seat. He had heard her brushing her teeth in the bathroom as he left his daughter’s bedroom. Still smiling, he put the kettle on for coffee and poured himself some orange juice. Margaret’s bad mood of the evening before was still hanging over her like a dark cloud.

“What’s this?” she said as she picked up the envelope.

Desmond shrugged his shoulders, and kept his back turned so that she wouldn’t see his smile. Looking at the size of the envelope and the fact that it had cardboard backing, he had an idea of what was inside.  He also had a feeling that Margaret was not going to be happy when she looked at the contents.

“Anything interesting, my dear?”

Her silence spoke volumes as she hastily stuffed the incriminating photographs back in the envelope, and put the whole thing into her briefcase.

“Nothing that you need to be bothered with, Desmond.  Just some notes from a parish council meeting that we’d been invited to.”

“Were we?  I don’t remember that. Was it on the calendar?”

He placed her cup of coffee down very carefully, before walking over to the wall calendar which they used for recording important events.

“Don’t bother looking on there.  It was nothing important, and I had another meeting to attend that evening anyway. Will you be long, Desmond?  I need to get into the office early this morning.”

I bet you do, thought Desmond but said instead. “That’s alright my dear.  I have a late start this morning and I thought I’d walk instead.  I could do with some fresh air.”

Margaret looked a little confused.  Desmond never turned down a lift to work.  It wasn’t a long way to walk; just through the village and onto the main road.  Her mind was on things that she felt were far more important than Desmond anyway.  She finished her coffee, pulled on her favourite black jacket with its stylish fur collar, picked up her briefcase and left the house without even saying goodbye.

As soon as he heard the car pull off the driveway and roar away, Desmond began to laugh.  He felt no pity for Margaret any more.  Turning the radio on full blast to Planet Rock, he air guitared his way between the toaster and the table.  If he timed it right, he could pop into the Post Office, and the betting shop on his way to work.  Desmond felt a warm nugget of happiness swelling in his chest.  Lunch with Sally and Margaret yesterday had done him the world of good.

Karen was taking advantage of her parents’ absence at the bowls club to polish up her disguise for today’s task.  She wore the long blonde wig again, a stylish but slightly old-fashioned dress, and equally sensible shoes.  She planned to arrive at the address for ten o’clock, which would give her a good hour or so before she was due at Sally’s for lunch. She had a feeling that she knew what she was going to be up against, and had done her homework very efficiently.

It took a while before the front door of the address was opened by a middle-aged lady wearing a violently pink protective tabard.

“Yes?  Can I help you?  Mrs Slime doesn’t take cold callers or religious people.”

“I’m neither of those.” said Karen.  “Could you tell Mrs Slime that it’s Joanna, her son’s secretary, and could she spare me a moment or two please?”

Leaving the front door slightly ajar, the woman bustled back down the corridor.  She returned minutes later and ushered Karen into the kitchen.

“Mrs Slime will see you in here as she doesn’t want to disturb Mr Slime.  He’s having a nap in front of the TV.  Would you like a cup of tea?”

Karen shook her head and smiled, readying herself for the entrance of Gavin’s formidable mother.  Although Joanna hadn’t said much to her colleagues, they had all heard her guarded responses to his mother’s telephone calls, and seen his discarded sandwiches in the waste-paper bin.

Mrs Slime was much as Karen had imagined her; grey-haired, dressed in a polyester tent dress that failed to conceal her girth, leaning heavily on elbow crutches, and wearing an expression that could turn milk sour.  Karen rose to greet her but the imperious hand wave motioned her to sit down.

“Well, young lady, what have you got to say for yourself?  I can’t stop long; my favourite programme will be on soon.”

“I’m sorry to disturb you Mrs Slime, but having to keep covering for your son is making me feel very guilty, and I feel that I ought to let you know what’s going on.”

Mrs Slime sat down heavily on the kitchen chair opposite.

“Go on.  I’m listening.” She said, grim-faced.

Karen enjoyed playing the part of the not very bright but seemingly innocent Joanna. “You may have realised that he rarely eats the sandwiches that you so kindly make for him.  They usually end up in the bin.”

“Hah! I thought so when he didn’t bring the crusts home.  He told me that he’d been eating them later on in the day.”

“No.  He usually asks me to empty the contents into the main office bin before I go home.  It isn’t just the sandwiches though.  Can I ask if he was posting a parcel for you yesterday?”

“Don’t be ridiculous girl! We have no other relatives apart from Gavin now. That’s why we allowed him to sell our old house and move in here with him.  Who would I be sending parcels to?”

“He often leaves the office during the day.  He says he is going to a meeting, but there’s nothing in his diary or on the electronic calendar.  He sometimes goes up to the sandwich shop and buys some lunch there.  He likes paninis and latte macchiato apparently.  On other times he leaves work for an early dinner, but comes back to the office to call you and say that he’s about to come home.  A couple of times he’s asked me to make the call to you, if he doesn’t want to come back to the office. I’m so sorry for lying to you, Mrs Slime.  I’ve put in for a transfer to another team because I don’t like telling lies.”

“That’s alright, my dear.  I appreciate you coming to tell me about it.  I shall be having words with my son when he comes home tonight, but I won’t tell him where I got the information from.”

“Thank you.  I’ll go now and leave you to watch your programmes.”

Mrs Slime called for the cleaner, who showed Karen out of the house, and put the kettle on.  Mrs Slime had the kind of look on her face that meant trouble. Karen contained her bubbling excitement until she had driven some distance from the house.  She’d pulled it off, and even if Mrs Slime phoned her son and got Joanna on the phone, it didn’t matter, as Joanna would just say that she didn’t know what Mrs Slime was talking about.  There was still time to pop into the supermarket toilets and take off the wig.  The frumpish dress and shoes might serve to make Sally feel even more sorry for Karen, although it wasn’t sympathy she wanted, but action, and some way of getting back at Gavin.  She would never forget the way he humiliated her; in front of her former colleagues, the security guards, and the crowd of visitors in the reception area. She had forgiven Ben, and to some extent Ruby, the poison had now been sown deeply as far as Margaret was concerned, however.

Waiting until she was sure that no one was likely to come into her office, Margaret gingerly took the brown envelope out of her briefcase, and looked at the photographs again.  From some aspects, they proved nothing, they were just shots of her going into a hotel and coming out again. She had always been careful about not actually being seen with the CEO in public, but the digital time and date stamps showed her being somewhere other than the meeting that she said she was attending. Although she could wriggle out of it on a work basis, she knew that Gavin was especially good at tracking on the systems, or getting his new partner in crime Ben to do the dirty work for him.  What would Desmond think if he saw the photos, and realised that Margaret had been in a hotel for at least an hour when she was supposed to be in a meeting at the Town Hall?

Did she even care what he thought anymore?

Slightly puzzled about why Desmond had chosen to walk to work rather than take a lift from her, she phoned his team and asked if he was in yet.  He was, and the team secretary, thinking that she was being helpful, said that the walk seemed to have done him good as he was very cheerful. 

Did Margaret want to speak to him? 

No, she didn’t, and hung up abruptly.

Ed had taken Perro to the vets on his way to work, and Sally was missing the warmth of his glossy-coated body beside her on the sofa.  She distracted herself by tidying the front room, and putting her dossier of tribunal information on the coffee table.  Lunch with Karen would be interesting at least. If Sally had been expecting a beaten and demoralised visitor, she was very mistaken. Although her outfit didn’t consist of the fishnets, microskirt and high heels that Ben had described, Karen’s hair was clean and recently brushed, she was wearing discreet make up, and there was no sign of bloodshot eyes from crying about her situation. Sally greeted her warmly and showed her into the front room. Karen hesitated before entering.

“Um, where’s your dog?”

“At the vets.  It was you that he barked at the other night wasn’t it?”

Karen nodded.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to be hanging around, but I felt quite desperate and hoped that I might be able to make contact with you about my being sacked.”

“It’s fine.  He doesn’t mean any harm, he’s just very protective, especially of me. He’s having a small operation, and will be back tomorrow.  Ruby had some information from Ben about your situation, so I know something about what happened.”

“Is she cross with me?  About the way I behaved towards Ben?”

“Not at all.  From what I know you have been through a very difficult time recently, and that hasn’t been helped by the fact that Mandy hasn’t exercised much in the way of positive management over her team.  There is no doubt that you misused the authority’s time and equipment, but perhaps the line to take is that if you had received better support and supervision from your line manager, this might not have happened.  I feel rather sorry for Mandy, but she should have asked for help a long time ago, rather than letting everything deteriorate.  HR is a very important department.”

“Do you really think I could win an appeal?” asked Karen, beginning to feel a little more optimistic.

“You’ve nothing to lose, have you?” said Sally, taking her hand; Karen returned the squeeze and smiled.

“No. I haven’t even told my parents yet.”

“Have you seen a doctor at all?”

“Yes, after the wedding ended in disaster.  He gave me some antidepressants, but I didn’t take any of them.”

“No need to mention that, antidepressants can make you do some very strange things.” said Sally. “I’ve put together some forms and information sheets for you to take away, but I need you to sit down and write a report, starting with the preparations for the wedding.  That kind of pressure can make a person behave in a peculiar way too.”

Sally and Karen ate lunch together, and with the main business over, Karen decided to confess about her recent visit to Gavin’s mother, and the anonymous letters delivered to Margaret and Desmond.  Sally nearly choked on her sandwich, but this was because she was laughing so much rather than from shock. 

Karen felt relieved but confused.

“I’m sorry for laughing but I have to tell you that your letter to Desmond may have finally set him free from Margaret.” Sally explained. “Ruby brought him over yesterday and he showed me the letter.  As for Slime, he deserves everything he gets.  You obviously have the makings of a very effective private eye!”

“Do you think so?” Karen had to admit that she rather liked the idea, much more fun than working in HR.

“I do.  I’ve had a strange card delivered with the post this morning, asking me to go and pick up a parcel from the local post office.  It’s not the sort of card that we usually get and it doesn’t give the option of having the parcel redelivered either.”

Karen took the card.  She recognised the style of signature and handed it back to Sally.

“Slime is behind this.  Cheryl told me that he’d gone off to the post office with a parcel that he was posting for his mother, but when I spoke to her about it this morning, she knew nothing about it.”

“My husband is at work, my sons are at Uni and school, and Perro is at the vets.  I ought to go down to the Post Office to see if there really is a parcel or not.  It says that I have to go after two o’clock.”

“I could give you a lift there and back, if you like?”

“I have this awful feeling that this is a trap.  If I give you Ben and Ruby’s mobile numbers, can you drop me off just up the road and wait.  I take it Slime doesn’t know about your new car?”

Karen grinned.

“No and I still have the blonde wig that I wore this morning when I visited his mother.”

“This might be dangerous, but if we are going to catch him out, I have to take the risk.  When you’ve dropped me off, can you park up near the exit at the back of the shops?”

“I will.  Are you sure?”

“I’m scared to death, but if we manage to discredit Slime, your case will look much more promising as well.”

Karen finished off the lunch while Sally went upstairs and changed into jeans, a hoodie and some trainers.  She borrowed one of her son’s camping knives, and hid it inside her bra.  She was ready for action.  Like two naughty schoolgirls, Karen and Sally drove down to the local shops; Karen’s mobile was hands free, and had Ben’s and Ruby’s mobile numbers on speed dial.

Having been dropped off, Sally walked slowly down the access road to the shops. Ben had told her the type and colour of Gavin’s car, but there was no sign of it, just a couple of white vans and a builder’s truck.  A part of her felt just a little disappointed as she walked towards the little alleyway to the Post Office.

Gavin had planned this well.  Leaving the back door of the little white van open, he was out like a flash, grabbing Sally from behind and enclosing her mouth and nose with a pad heavily doused in chloroform.  She didn’t have time to struggle as he dragged her into the back of the van and quickly secured her mouth, wrists and ankles with duct tape. Looking around, he was sure that no one had seen him, so he jumped into the front seat and reversed up the access road, narrowly missing a silver Toyota. It didn’t matter as there was no one in it.

Except that there was.

Karen.

She had made a note of the licence plate as soon as she saw the van reversing up the road; she had already spotted Gavin getting out of the van to open the back doors and putting an unconscious Sally inside. 

Karen drove after the van and called Ruby at the same time.  The phone went to answerphone so she phoned Ben.  Luckily, he was in and listened carefully as Karen explained what had happened.

“Has he seen you Karen?  You must be careful. It sounds like he’s a desperate man.”

“Thank you, Ben, I’m driving a different car, and wearing a blonde wig and sunglasses.  He’s turning into a storage site now, one of those with the sort of containers that you get on boats.  Should I follow him right in?”

“No.  Stay safe and out of sight.  I’m calling the police now and then I’ll be on the way.  Have you got a sat nav on your phone?”

“Yes, and I can give you the postcode and name of the site.”

“Well done, Karen, and thank you.”

Gavin backed the van up to the container; according to the instructions on the chloroform that he obtained on the dark web, given her size and gender, Sally should be unconscious for another five minutes at least.  He opened the back door of the van and dragged a still comatose Sally out, and onto the mattress that he had placed on the floor.  It wasn’t a particularly clean mattress, but it served its purpose.  Gavin sat on the chair that he had also put into the container so that he could watch his prisoner and gloat.

Sally had been awake for most of the journey; the chloroform wore off more quickly than Gavin’s calculations had assessed, and although she felt rather sick, her senses were rapidly returning, and her brain was already formulating a method of escape.  She could tell from the pressure against her bra that Gavin hadn’t had time to check her for weapons before getting her out of the van.  She also realised that it would be no use putting up a fight; from what she had heard from Ruby, and now Karen, Gavin had a pathological hatred of strong women, no doubt sparked by his overbearing mother.  She began to moan softly as if she were actually coming round.

Gavin got up and leaned over her.

“Not so stroppy now Sally?  You have to answer to me now.  No one knows where you are.  Shame you never got to pick up your parcel from the Post Office.  It was just a ploy to get you out of the house on your own and it worked!  I got one over on you, and this is not a situation that you can get out of. By the look on your face, I think you may be about to vomit, so I’ll take the tape off of your mouth.  I don’t want you to choke to death.  I very much want you alive as long as possible.”

Sally prepared herself for the pain of having the tape ripped off from around her mouth.  Gavin did not do this gently, but he wasn’t quick enough to avoid Sally throwing up on his shoes.  He swore, and grabbed a towel to wipe up the mess; Sally managed a pathetic sob or two, desperate to buy more time, hopeful that Karen had managed to follow Gavin, and get through to Ben and Ruby.

“I’ll undo your hands so that you can clean your mess up, but don’t try anything silly or you’ll be very sorry.”

“Could I – could I have some water please Gavin?”

Sally did her best to carry on with the subservient act, and was pleased when he undid the tape on her wrists and handed her the towel.

“Don’t try anything!  I’m going out to the van to get some water.”

When Gavin got outside the container, he could see several police cars outside the manager’s office building.  They might not be there about him, but he wasn’t about to take a chance.  There would be other opportunities to capture Sally.  He got into the van and drove off quickly, but not with such speed that he might draw attention to himself, nor to the whereabouts of the container.  Once he was back on the main road, he kept looking behind him until he had reached the car park where he had left his own car.

Thinking on his feet, he decided that going back to the office was a bad idea, so he headed for home.  Once again, he found that the front and back doors had been double locked.  More annoyed at being thwarted by his mother again, he continued banging on the door until he heard her voice.

“For goodness sake Mother!  It’s Gavin.  Will you let me in please?”

“No!  You are a liar and a cheat Gavin and you are never setting foot in this house again.”

“What are you talking about, you stupid woman?”

“I had a visitor this morning who told me everything; about how you throw your sandwiches in the bin, how you’ve been sneaking out of your office for lunch and early dinners.  What’s all this about a parcel you were supposed to be sending for me?  I won’t allow you to get me caught up in your deceits.  I’m consulting a lawyer about who this house actually belongs to, seeing as how you sold our house and used our money to buy it.”

Gavin had a feeling that he needed to get away rather than carry on arguing with his mother.

“Drop dead, you old hag!” he shouted as he got back into the car and drove off.  Time to put his emergency plan into action.

Meanwhile, back in the container, Sally had taken the camping knife out of its hiding place and withdrawn its small but rather sharp blade. She had always objected to her younger son having such a store of weaponry in his bedroom, but on this occasion, it might just come in useful.  She did her best to mop up the vomit, although most of it seemed to have gone on Gavin’s shoes and the mattress. She used the knife to cut off the remaining duct tape and took a look around the inside of the container before getting unsteadily to her feet. When she worked out where the door was, there was a tremendous hammering on the door, and Sally let out an extremely loud yell and jumped back, knife in hand in case it was Gavin.

The door burst open and Sally was relieved to see several large policemen wearing full body armour.  One of them very gently, but firmly took the knife from Sally’s hand before anyone got hurt. Ben was waiting outside the container with Karen, who had now removed her blonde wig and sunglasses.

Sally hugged Ben, mindful that she probably smelled horrible.

“It would be good to say that it’s all over now, but this is just the start.  Gavin’s done a runner and I don’t think he will give in now. He’s so desperate. Can you make sure that the police return that knife or I will be in huge trouble when my son finds it missing.”

“I’ll buy him a new one.” said Ben, refusing to let Sally go, despite the smell of chloroform and vomit. Karen fetched a bottle of water from her car and some wet wipes for Sally to clean herself up.

“Thank you,” said Sally. “I owe you more than one, Karen.  Ben, we need to talk about getting Karen reinstated and soon.  I think you’ll have to admit that Gavin’s current behaviour has to be taken into account?”

“It does and we’ll talk about it later, but first you need to sit down and let the paramedics check you over.  The police are very interested in what you can tell them about Gavin.”

“He won’t be in the white van now; you have all the details of his own car don’t you Karen?” Sally asked.

“I do, and after what I told his mother this morning, I don’t think he’ll be welcome there either.

“He talked about taking me somewhere out in the wilds; a place that no one else knew about.” Sally was wracking her still befuddled brain trying to remember everything Gavin had said before he ran off. Ben was very reassuring.

“Once you’ve spoken to the police, they’ll have grounds to get a search warrant, and if what Karen says about Mrs Slime, I doubt if she’ll have any problem with letting them uncover any secrets that Gavin has hidden away in the house.”

Just then, a very distraught Ruby arrived, having received the messages that Ben and Karen had left on her phone. She hugged everyone that she could, drawing a line at hugging the policemen, who looked a little disappointed at being left out.  Sally was ushered into the back of an ambulance to be checked over. Karen started to walk back to her car, feeling embarrassed by Ruby’s presence.  Ruby stopped her and gave her another hug.

“Thank you, Karen.  I have a feeling that if it wasn’t for you, Sally might be badly hurt, and disappearing off somewhere with horrible Slime. If there is anything I can do to help you, I will. Promise.”

“That goes for me too, Karen,” Said Ben.  “If Sally says that she wants me to help you, then I’ll do my best, and with Ruby on your side as well, resistance is pretty useless.  I’m going to have a quick word with the police before I go back to the office – just to find out what I should and shouldn’t say.”

One of the paramedics came over to say that they were taking Sally to hospital for a full check up before she talked to the police.  She sent a message over to Ruby and Karen.

“I think you two need to go for a nice coffee and some cake.  I’ll see you later.”

Ruby and Karen grinned at each other, and drove off having arranged to meet up at the Starbucks nearby.

The Worm Turns

Sally sipped her morning coffee and looked at the letter than had been posted through the door whilst she and Ed had been out with the dog the day before.  She felt that she knew a great deal about her from Ben and Ruby’s accounts of her downfall.  Having suffered pre-wedding obsession with Joanna, Sally felt that she understood how Karen had become so swept up with organising and arranging such an important life event, that she had alienated her husband to be, a husband who actually was married to her except for the fact that there had been no actual consummation. Reading through the letter, she felt even more sorry for Karen, who finally seemed to have understood the part that her behaviour had played in tearing her life and work apart.

“Poor love.”  she said to Ed, who had sat down next to her with his scrambled eggs on toast.  “Another one caught up in Bridezilla land.  Aren’t you glad that our wedding was so quiet – and cheap?”

Mouth full, he nodded assent, and kissed her cheek once he had swallowed.

“It may have been quiet and cheap, my love, but it was exactly what we both wanted, and that included not having drunken stag and hen nights.”

Sally shuddered at the thought.  They had spent the evening before their wedding eating dinner with friends and separating for the night.  Sally had been woken up on her best friend’s sofa by three small children bouncing on her, and asking if it was too early to watch cartoons yet? Pushing aside this happy memory, Sally showed Ed the letter from Karen.

“She wants me to help her with an appeal against her dismissal.  From what Ben and Ruby have said, it looks cut and dried.  They have plenty of evidence of computer misuse from the IT reports but…”

“But?”

“Mandy was Karen’s manager.  She didn’t exactly set a good example to her staff, and by turning a blind eye to such blatant misuse, it could be said that she has caused Karen’s dismissal.”

“Sometimes I think that you should have been a politician rather than a social worker.”

Sally shuddered again.

“Politicians don’t help people; they only help themselves.  Will you mind if I ask Karen to come round for a chat?”

“Be a good idea to do it tomorrow while Perro’s at the vets.  I don’t think he took to Karen when he found her parked outside in her car.”

“I’d pushed Perro to the back of my mind for now.  He will be okay, won’t he?”

“He will.  It’s a very minor operation and the only reason he’s staying overnight is because the vet has a long operating list, and isn’t sure when he’ll be ready to come home.  In a couple of days’ time, he’ll be back home and wearing a very stylish Elizabethan ruff to stop him licking his stitches.”

“I must write up some of the things Ruby and I were talking about last night.  Some very interesting background on Slime and his unwanted sexual advances.”

“Yuk.  Slime by name and Slime by nature.”

Sally’s mobile buzzed; a text from Ruby.

Desmond has contacted me. He wants to have a chat about something that may change his life! R xxx

There was no hesitation in answering; Sally had always had a soft spot for Desmond and her interest was definitely piqued.

No problem. I’d love to see him again.  Can he come here?  Oh, he doesn’t have a car.

There was a short lapse of time and then Ruby replied.

Will bring him over in our lunch hours if that’s okay.  Margaret is otherwise engaged!

Don’t bring any food.  I’ll whip something up.

Ed was despatched to the supermarket to get some food suitable for snacking and sharing.  He had been asked to get double the amount so that Sally could invite Karen for lunch the following day. Perhaps Sally wasn’t such a social pariah as she’d thought she was.

Karen had put her mobile number on the letter. Sally thought about phoning her, but felt that a text might be a better idea. She invited Karen to come over to lunch, and was pleased to receive a thank you text in reply. It meant that her mind was diverted from worrying about Perro and her own tribunal, and more happily resolved to help Desmond and Karen.

On the way into work that morning, Margaret had tersely informed Desmond that she wouldn’t be available for lunch that day as she had an important meeting.  He grunted in reply; his mind turning over the fact that this was probably another one of Margaret’s not so secret assignations with the CEO.

“Did you hear what I said Desmond?” she snapped.

“Yes Margaret.  I’ll pick up a sandwich or something.  What time will you be back in the office?”

“The same as usual; these meetings only last a couple of hours.  I’ll be back to give you a lift home.”

“Hmm.  Sorry.  Did you say something my dear?  My mind was elsewhere…”

“Hah! It’s a wonder you can remember anything.  Perhaps you should make an appointment to see the doctor if you are so forgetful. It could be early onset dementia you know.”

“You wish!” thought Desmond silently, his mind turning to poisons, and other methods of bumping off his wife. They pulled into the staff car park, and Margaret parked the car in the spot next to the building that had been reserved for her ever since an ex-client had made death threats toward her. Desmond got out of the car and headed indoors without even kissing his wife goodbye.  He didn’t want to, and he didn’t think that Margaret even noticed.

Once at his desk he phoned Ruby’s mobile, and was relieved when she answered quickly and sounded pleased to hear his voice. Mindful that all the walls in the office had ears, he was quite cryptic in explaining what he wanted.  Ruby asked for his mobile number, and was very quick to offer to take him to lunch at Sally’s later that day. Desmond unlocked his desk drawer and took out the anonymous letter he had received.  He tucked it inside his diary so that he wouldn’t forget to take it with him.  Was Margaret right about his being forgetful, or was this just another ploy of hers designed to undermine him and zap his confidence?

Ben was at his desk; mulling over the story that he and Ruby had concocted the night before in order to whet Gavin’s appetite for information about Sally.  They had decided to tell him that Perro was going to the vets, and that Sally would be unprotected whilst Ed was out at work and her younger son at school.  Neither of them thought that Gavin would actually do anything to harm Sally, but it might make him feel happier if he saw her as being vulnerable. Ben sent him an email telling him that he had some information that Gavin might find interesting.  He didn’t want to commit anything so contentious to paper, nor link Ruby’s name to it, as Gavin could use an email as an excuse to have Ruby removed as Sally’s supporter.

In just a few moments, Ben know that he had whetted Gavin’s appetite.  Joanna came over to Ben’s desk and very quietly told him that Gavin would like to see him in his office.  Just as quietly, Joanna added that she hoped everything was alright.  Ben smiled and winked at her; Joanna blushed and scuttled back to her desk. Ben had managed to get such personal interactions off to a fine art with Joanna now.

Gavin was indeed interested in what Ben had to say about Sally, and was even more impressed that Ben had persuaded Ruby to confide such personal information.  Perhaps Ben could be trusted with more specific tasks in the future?  Gavin’s plans for Sally couldn’t be shared with anyone else at the moment; he hadn’t finalised things yet, but this latest snippet pushed him to formulate the last brick in his very devious wall.  Dismissing Ben; Gavin got to his feet, and told Joanna that he was just nipping out to post an urgent parcel for his mother.  He took the parcel out of his briefcase, tucking it under his arm so that the address was obscured and left the office in a hurry.

Ben went back to his desk; something told him that there was a connection between Perro’s absence and the parcel, but he couldn’t quite tie them up.  Using Gavin’s absence, he texted Ruby to tell her that Gavin was now aware of the situation with Sally, and could she let her know? Ruby’s response was a little unexpected; she told him that she and Desmond were visiting Sally for lunch a little later, and she would tell Sally when she had a moment.  Ben’s interest was piqued when Ruby mentioned that Desmond’s visit, and his cryptic comment that it might be something that would change his life.  Were Margaret’s sturdy castle walls about to tumble down?  He was very tempted to join the lunch party, but he didn’t want to jeopardise Ruby’s position.

Karen was over the moon.  Sally had replied to her and invited her for lunch!  Sally was willing to listen to her side of things and be sympathetic.  Ruby was still a thorn in Karen’s side but watching her go back to her flat alone last night had tempered Karen’s feelings of animosity, and persuaded her that it was Gavin who should feel the full force of her ire. She was determined to find out more about Gavin; she knew that he lived with his mother, and that his mother made horrible sandwiches that often made their way into the waste paper bin.  Time to don the blonde wig disguise, and stake out Gavin’s home address for a while.

Desmond and Sally were delighted to see each other; it had been a long time since they had spoken, and the thought of having lunch with two women who he liked and respected made Desmond very happy.  He had told Ruby about the anonymous letter on the way over, but said that he felt Sally might know more about what Margaret was up to.  His main worry was that Sally might still feel some loyalty to his wife after working for her for so many years.

He needn’t have worried. Now that Desmond had the information from another source, Sally had to admit that she had known about Margaret’s secret meetings with the CEO, and apologised to Desmond for all the occasions when she had made up meetings in order to cover Margaret’s tracks.

“She said that it would devastate you if the story got out Desmond, and she also made it quite clear that I’d get the sack if I didn’t back her up. You don’t look devastated though?”

“I’m not.  I’ve known that she was up to something for some time, but I pushed it to one side.  It’s got worse since John left though.  I don’t think Michael likes her very much, especially after the way he spoke to her at your conference, Ruby.  I have a secret of my own though…”

“What?  Have you got another woman?”

“No, Ruby!  Sally may have told you about the arrangement Margaret and I have about my gambling habit?”

“No! Is it very bad, Desmond?”

Desmond patted Ruby’s knee.

“It is a hobby rather than a habit.  My wife very kindly allows me £30 a week to go off and lay some bets every Saturday morning.  She is convinced that I am not very good at it, and that by giving me some ‘pocket’ money and her blessing, I am under her control.”

“But you aren’t, are you?” said Sally smiling.

“No.  Unknown to my darling wife, I am actually very good at placing bets and winning money.  I have a savings account that she knows nothing about, and when I finish at the bookies on Saturday mornings, I go and put my winnings into my account at the Post Office.  My aim is to leave her, and go off to a place where she would never come after me.”

“Venice Beach!” said Sally gleefully.

“Correct!  Just the sort of place that she would loathe.  There were two things that I need; one more big win and proof that Margaret has been playing away from home.  Thanks to my anonymous friend, I have the latter now. The end may be nigh Sally, and if it is, Margaret will be lashing out in all directions.  Is there anything you can tell me about Gavin Slime?  I noticed that he found Michael and Margaret’s run in at the conference very amusing.”

Sally and Ruby exchanged glances.  Should they tell Desmond what they knew about Slime?  A silent but mutual agreement kept the mention of Ben’s name out of the conversation, but Ruby was able to pass on the information about Gavin’s past that her trainee had told her, and that she had dug up from the Internet.  Sally added the information that she had about Gavin trying to intimidate her on Twitter.  Desmond shook his head.

“Not a very nice chap, really is he?  Margaret was singing his praises enough to get him his current appointment.  She wasn’t very complimentary when she found out that he was implicating her in Mandy’s gross misconduct suspension though.”

‘It’s just an idea Desmond, and it would involve you playing the part of the wronged husband, but if you were to present Gavin with your anonymous letter and the matching diary dates, you might be able to play your own part in her downfall.  Do you dislike her enough to do that?”

“If you’d asked me a year ago, I think that my answer would be different.  While our girls lived at home, things were okay but since they went to university, I’ve been kicked out of our bedroom and into theirs.  I sleep better because Margaret snores terribly, and is a very restless sleeper.  She’s become more aggressive and her mood swings are unpredictable.  She can’t find anyone who can write her speeches and reports, as well as you did Sally. Her latest bone of contention is that you didn’t mention her in your book. Coupled with the fact that Susie never invited us to any of her social gatherings.”

“She’ll be in the next one – that’s if you don’t mind Desmond?”

“When I run off, I’ll make sure that you get my forwarding address – how is Donal by the way?”

“How did you know…?”

“Don’t tell Margaret but I read the book.  Under the covers in my daughter’s bedroom and by the light of a torch.  I nearly choked trying not to laugh in case she found out what I was up to!”

Sally gave him a huge hug, highly amused by his efforts to read her book.

“So, what will you do now?” she asked.

“Keep quiet for the time being. Margaret takes my silence as the signs of early onset dementia.  She’s suggested that I see the doctor.  Perhaps this is her way of getting me institutionalised.  You can see why I need to get away from her.”

“Should you need it, there is a bolt hole here.” said Sally holding his hand.

“Thank you Sally.  I know that Adam would put me up if necessary, but if I move out before anything is in place there is a danger that Margaret might use her contacts to ruin me.”

Ruby looked at her watch.

“Lovely lunch Sally, but I need to drop Desmond off, and get back for a meeting.”

“Can I use the loo before I go?”

“Of course, second door on the left.”

Ruby took Desmond’s absence in the bathroom to pass on Ben’s message about Perro’s absence, and that Gavin seemed to get very excited about it. They agreed not to let Desmond know of the link between Ben and Sally – for now.

Margaret had enjoyed her lunch, but the afternoon in the hotel was not a delight.  The CEO was never very good at sex anyway, but the fact that his contract was up for renewal shortly made him even less impressive.  He had heard rumours about Michael having a very public row with Margaret, and couldn’t help thinking that she might not be the most reliable of allies if she was found to have mismanaged a member of her staff, and that Michael was ganging up on her too. She dressed quickly, and as was their habit, left the CEO to pay the hotel bill after she had driven away in her car.  He always took an interminably long time shoehorning himself into suits that hadn’t fitted him properly anyway.  Official lunches and hours sat in his office listening to other people talking about things that he had no interest in, had broadened his girth and made his brain even more sluggish.  He knew that he was on borrowed time with the local authority.  His wife, although she enjoyed the trappings of his title, had very little interest unless there was an opportunity to turn up at a local function dressed to the nines. He had a sneaky feeling that she knew about Margaret; the few times they had met, his wife had done her best to treat his mistress with the contempt she so well deserved.

   The silver Toyota had just been another anonymous car in the car park when Margaret had arrived after lunch, and departed again after her unsuccessful assignation.  Karen had been busy taking photographs of those arriving and leaving the hotel car park, since she had finished trailing Gavin from the post office and back again.  She toyed with the idea of sending Desmond the photos at work, but felt that popping them through Margaret’s home letter box might be more effective.  Karen had bought a new phone that took time-stamped photographs, so there could be no denying Margaret’s presence at the hotel when she was supposed to be at a meeting. Perhaps this was another occupation that Karen could consider if Sally was unable to help her with the appeal? 

Getting the sympathetic text inviting her to lunch had lifted Karen’s spirits no end.  Sally had also suggested that if Karen had any evidence of Mandy’s mismanagement, that would be very useful as well.  Finished for the day, Karen drove home and spent some fruitful hours combing through her insurance files, and finding information that was very interesting.  The little inkjet printer that she had invested in had turned out some very good photographs as well as pages of emails that would be very incriminating as far as Mandy was concerned.

Karen went downstairs having stuffed the photographs into a plain brown envelope and told her parents that she was just popping out for half an hour.  Was it a moment of devilment that made her address the envelope to Desmond and Margaret?  She smiled as she wondered who would still be up at this time of night, or who would be first up in the morning?

A Plethora of Stalkers

Now that Karen knew where Sally lived, she could put the next part of her plan into action. Sending the letter to Desmond had been easy to accomplish; she already had all the relevant data in her ‘insurance’ file, and she had persuaded her Dad to drop the letter into reception for her on the grounds that she was going to a conference off-site that day, and the letter needed to be delivered to the main office building as soon as possible.  He and Karen’s Mum were planning to go into town that day anyway, so it could be built into their intended wander through the market.

Karen had to dress up a bit that morning, so that she looked as if she was going to the conference, but made sure that she had comfortable clothes to change into later, and adequate food and drink supplies.  Although Perro had scared the life out of her when he crept up on her in the dark, the experience made her aware of the importance of keeping an eye out for anything strange. This stalking business was more difficult than she thought, but it was definitely more exciting than sitting at home brooding, or pretending that she was off to the office as usual.

Inevitably, she would have to tell her parents about her dismissal, but in the meantime, she intended to get as much of her master plan completed, so that she could play the wronged and unhappy daughter more realistically.  Karen knew that whatever happened, her employers couldn’t refuse to give her a reference, nor give her a negative reference, as this would be against employment law. Her time in HR had taught her many lessons about what an employer could and couldn’t do.  It didn’t extend to employment tribunals however, and this was why she needed Sally’s help.

She turned up at Sally’s on the morning after the conference, and was disappointed to find that Ruby’s car was still there.  Did that mean that Ruby had drunk too much wine to drive, and been taken home by Sally’s husband? Or did it mean that Ruby had stayed the night, in which case now was not a good time to drop in announced, however good a reason she thought she had.

Another thing that Karen was considering was changing her car for something a little less conspicuous; red cars were very common, but not all of them had rear window stickers proclaiming ‘Powered by Fairy Dust’ and ‘Unicorns Welcome’.  They had seemed quite funny when she, Fiona and Cheryl had bought them on one of their lunchtime shopping trips, but the awful reality of Karen’s situation couldn’t rely on fairies and unicorns anymore.

Her task this morning was to dip into her savings and change the car; Mandy had tried to get everyone on the team to sign up to the car lease scheme, but something it had worried Karen, and she stuck with her little red car. This didn’t please Mandy, but she couldn’t exactly argue with Karen, in case some of the less savoury details of Mandy’s home and work life came out.  Too late now, because it seemed that the information Ben had acquired from IT was even more damning than the report on Karen.

Ben. 

If Ruby was at Sally’s, she couldn’t be at Ben’s, and this was a good opportunity to check out his address before she was due at the car dealership. Karen’s feelings toward Ben were in conflict; she still fancied him and had entertained fantasies where he finally realised that she was the only woman for him, had her dismissal over turned, and lived happily ever after. She had to face up to it though.  In reality, Ben had already been in a relationship with Ruby before he met Karen, and although Gavin Slime had told Ben who to run reports on, it was Ben who had collated the damning information.

Cheryl had texted her to explain that Fiona was now down in the post room, that she was being very careful about accessing anything that might get her into more trouble, and that Ben had been overheard telling Joanna that she mustn’t use her office computer to visit online gambling sites, even if she was on her lunch hour at the time. Karen initially felt cross that Fiona, Cheryl and Joanna had got off so lightly, but decided to be sympathetic and supportive to Cheryl.  She might come in very useful after all.

Ben’s call from Melissa had him perplexed.  In some ways it was a positive experience in that she told him how much she missed him, how lonely she was, and how her social life seemed to have ground to a halt since he moved away.  This was music to his ears but there was a sneaking doubt; at no time did she ask him how he was, how he was getting on in his new job, what Simon’s gym and the flat were like, and if his mother was glad to have him closer to home?

Ben listened. 

He listened and waited for even the smallest spark of interest in his life, but it didn’t come.  He got the feeling that Melissa was waiting for him to ask her to visit for the weekend.  If life was so dull in London, even the North might be more exciting?  Something stopped him from issuing the invitation; there was so much going on with Sally, with Gavin, and yes, with Ruby too. The call ended amicably enough, and Melissa told him that she still loved him, and had he found anyone else yet?  He could honestly answer in the negative.  Ruby was his friend and someone who made him laugh, who understood the pressure he was under, but she was not his girlfriend.

He thought about phoning Ruby, but settled for a text telling her that he hoped the conference had gone well.  Gavin had left the office at lunchtime, saying that he was going to the office but he hadn’t come back by the time Ben was packing up to leave. He thought about phoning Sally or his mother, but as both of them knew that he was expecting a call from Melissa, he decided against any more calls, in case either of them started asking awkward questions. Ruby returned his text, said that the conference had gone well – mostly – and that she was staying at Sally’s for the night because she had the next day off.

Feeling a little disappointed because he wanted to run an idea past her, Ben decided to sleep on it.  He thought that he had come up with a solution to the mystery that was Room 19, but he had to do a little bit of detective work on the retirement dates of the ladies who spent all day in the mysterious room.

When he woke up the next morning, Ben was determined to put his new plan into action.  Grabbing a slice of toast, he drove off to the office, and was relieved to find that he was first in so he wouldn’t have to answer Peter and Mark’s questions if they found him probing the Finance team employee details. As Sally had said, the two females were within months of retiring gracefully, and were listed as ‘clerical assistants’ which was a fairly nebulous term used to describe a member of staff with a wide range of nondescript tasks.

The rest of the team drifted in, careful to ensure that it was before their official starting time of nine o’clock. Joanna gave Ben a very sweet smile as she passed his desk to hang up her coat.  Peter and Mark exchanged conspiratorial winks, and Cheryl, all alone on a desk set out for three people, made sure that she was typing industriously when Gavin, seemingly in a goodish mood, arrived carrying a takeaway cup of coffee, and a bag that probably contained a muffin or slice of cake that was so different from his mother’s dry and barely edible baked goods.

Ben sent Gavin an email asking he was free for half an hour for an update.  The reply inviting him to visit Gavin’s office came back almost immediately, and was less terse than usual. Ben picked up the report that he had carefully prepared and mentally crossed his fingers for the lies he was about to tell.

Joanna ushered Ben into Gavin’s office with another sweet smile.

“Good morning, Ben,” said Gavin.  “What have you got to tell me?  Is it about Sally?  Ruby did a very good job with that conference yesterday; it was very interesting and well attended.  I think the additional floor show from certain senior members of staff was an added attraction however.”

Ben looked confused.

“Sorry Ben, I thought Ruby might have told you last night.”

“I didn’t see her last night.  We both knew that she would be exhausted and needing to catch up on some of the sleep she’s lost through worrying about the conference.  We texted each other though, and she said that it had gone well – mostly.  She has the day off today to recover.”

“Very discreet of her not to mention the rather indiscreet behaviour of those who should know better.  If the report isn’t about Sally, what is it about?”

“Room 19.”

“And that is of interest to me?”

“Only because it’s a couple of rooms away from our section, and I didn’t want you to be unprepared if there were any questions from senior management about it.”

Gavin took all this in, and leaning back in his chair, gestured with his hand.

“Okay Ben, what does go on in Room 19?”

“It’s a glorified storeroom, but not for anything belonging to the local authority.”

“So, what is in there and why do we have to store it?”

“One of the older ladies in Finance has a granddaughter who was born prematurely and had to spend some time in the special care baby unit.  She started crocheting clothes and blankets for these very tiny babies, and other members of staff started to contribute as well.  This lady and her colleague set up a proper charity, but their main problem was that they had nowhere to store items when staff brought them in.  Room 19 has never been used for anything but a dumping ground for broken desk and chairs, so John, who was Michael’s predecessor, hit on the idea of getting it cleared out, cleaned up and used as a store room for the knitted and crocheted goods.  They are put into sanitised bags, and when there are enough, the bags are sealed and taken off to the hospital where they are very gratefully received.”

Gavin looked unimpressed.

“Can they not keep them at home?  Why do they have to clutter up one of our offices?”

“It’s quite a small room, and the agreement was that if it was needed, and if the ladies left our employment, the clothes would be removed and the room made available again. I’ve checked their records and both ladies are due to retire next month.  A side issue is that the baby unit is part of the Mayor’s chosen charities this year, so there would be some good PR in having our staff contributing by making clothes and blankets for tiny babies.”

“Hmm. Not the sort of things that appeals to me, but I see the sense in it as far as the Mayor and other councillors are concerned.  How big is this room and what facilities has it got?”

“One window with a view of the wall, and barely room for a desk and one or two people.  That’s why it was never used as an office; anyone who worked in there inevitably went off sick with stress.”

“We have quite enough of that sort of thing already.  I leave it in your hands then, Ben.  I take it that the room is kept locked?”

“The key is in the Finance office if we need it.”

“No, no.  We have bigger fish to fry.  Mandy has been advised that we will be setting up meetings regarding her dismissal. She is entitled to have a member of staff to provide support in the same way that Ruby does to Sally.  I’d like you to sort through a list of possible candidates, and find one who is least likely to be empathic and understanding.  Peter and Mark might be very helpful in finding someone who hasn’t worked with Mandy before.  When are you seeing Ruby again?”

“Err, we hadn’t made any arrangements but I’ll text her this evening and see if she wants to go out for a meal.”

“Excellent.  Pick her brains Ben.  I need to know more about Sally if we are going to win this employment tribunal.”

“Do I have to set up a supporter for Karen as well?”

Gavin’s thin lips twisted into his deeply unpleasant smile.

“We have far bigger fish to fry Ben.  I doubt if Karen will bother contesting her dismissal.  She’s quite a pathetic little person really, and not worth bothering with.  I’ve got a lunch meeting with one of the councillors, and then I shall be out for the rest of the afternoon.  Joanna has been briefed on my whereabouts, but she has been told to divert her phone through to yours if she has to leave her desk for any reason.  If you get a call from my mother, you can identify yourself, but you are to tell her that I ate my sandwiches in the office, and have gone out to meet up with some councillors.  You aren’t sure when I will be back.  Is that clear?”

“Yes Gavin. And thank you.”

Ben returned to his desk, returning Joanna’s smile, and feeling that his plans for Room 19 had been successful. He texted Ruby to see if she was free to meet up in the evening.  She had gone back to her flat and after looking at a fairly uninspiring selection of ready meals in the fridge and freezer, her reply was resounding

YES!

  There was a great deal to catch up on.

Gavin might have been surprised if he had seen what pathetic little Karen had been up to.  She had traded in her little red car for a silver Yaris with no stickers.  She had also bought two wigs; one was long and blonde, the other a short bubble cut in auburn. A couple of pairs of clear spectacles, and some mirrored sunglasses completed her stalking kit.  According to one of the surveillance sites she had accessed on the laptop, these items, together with changes of jacket and hoodies, should be sufficient to prevent her presence being too easily identified.

Her first port of call in the new car was to post a letter through Sally’s door.  She had been watching and knew that Sally and her husband had gone out in the car with the dog so there was no chance of her being observed.  She put on the blonde wig and a pair of glasses just in case, and because she wanted to try them out.  With that part of her mission accomplished, and noticing that Ruby’s car was no longer outside the house, Karen set off on the next part of her plan.

Ruby meanwhile was nursing a bit of a hangover; she and Sally had sat up late talking, about the tribunal, about people they loved and loathed, but studiously avoiding the subject of Ben because they both knew that he had been at home waiting for a call from Melissa. When Ruby received his text asking to meet up that evening, she couldn’t help feeling a little flutter of excitement, but reminded herself that the main focus should be on how to help and support Sally.  Nevertheless, the afternoon was spent having a shower, a revitalising facemask and hunting through her wardrobe for something casual, but flattering to wear that evening.

Gavin spent the afternoon exploring the area around Sally’s house; he knew where her hairdresser was, the little post office and the fact that there was a dark alleyway leading to the small parade of shops.  He visited a fairly disreputable storage facility, and booked a medium sized container for a month.  He also got the details of a company that rented out small white vans. 

No questions asked if you paid in cash.

Ben and Ruby met up in yet another restaurant car park.  French cuisine this time, and though Ben had offered to give Ruby a lift, she had declined, explaining that she had all the feedback forms to go through when she got back into work the next day.  She offered to pay for dinner, but having looked at the prices on the menu, Ben insisted as he was earning a great deal more than she was.

There was a great deal of laughter that evening, as Ruby described the row between Michael and Margaret, and the fact that Gavin had been within listening distance of the whole thing.  They talked about Sally, and Ruby mentioned that Perro was going to be at the vets in a couple of days’ times, because he had to have a benign lump removed from his side.  Sally knew that it was a very small operation and that he was a big, strong dog, but she worried about him. According to Ruby, Sally was worrying about a great many things at the moment, uppermost was the tribunal, but she was also worrying about poor Desmond, about Ben and what would happen if Gavin found out that he was Sally’s nephew, about Ruby, and whether Margaret might try to spoil her chances of progression, and strangely enough, Karen. 

According to Ruby, Sally felt that despite all the trouble that Karen had caused, life did not seem to have been kind to her.  They had never met, but Sally, being the person that she was, didn’t like to see other people having their lives torn apart just to make other people happy.

The one thing that neither Ben nor Ruby mentioned was the call from Melissa.  Ben didn’t want to admit that it hadn’t been a success, and Ruby didn’t want to ask in case it had been, and a reconciliation was on the cards. They parted with a friendly hug, and a kiss on the cheek, and Ruby drove back home without giving a second glance at the woman with short red hair following her in a silver Toyota.

Karen sat in her car and watched Ruby go back to her flat. 

Alone.  That was enough stalking for one night.