Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

Red Herrings

DS Hammond’s well-laid plans were stymied by the fact that Derek had gone missing.  The occupants of Mostyn Hall were used to Derek doing this but his timing on this occasion was rather unfortunate.  Due to his imaginative use of holidays, the flexi-time system and sick leave, his colleagues rarely knew when he was supposed to be in or where he was supposed to be.  His rather dippy wife was well-schooled in covering his back but there were still parts of Derek’s life that were unknown to her too, so even DS Hammond’s most intense interrogation techniques were wasted on her.  Sally tried to explain the manner in which Derek ran his department but everything she said just sounded negative and bordering on the vindictive. 

Further acquaintance with DS Hammond hadn’t improved their working relationship.  Sally found her cold and very difficult to interpret, undoubtedly this was exactly the impression she wanted to give but it didn’t make her a very comfortable companion.  The constable who had accompanied DS Hammond yesterday had been replaced by an equally fresh-faced detective constable who appeared to have a better grasp of written English than his colleague.  Sally wasn’t sure but he looked suspiciously like one of the men who had been sitting in a car outside her house when she’d pulled up the kitchen blinds that morning.  He was a bit bleary-eyed, and blushed when Sally greeted him as she picked up some work from her office.

There was a spare desk in Donal’s office next door so Sally did much of her work from there; this seemed to suit DS Hammond who had stated that Sally needed to be nearby in case more information was needed about staff at Mostyn Hall.  Donal in front of his computer screen was a different creature from the quirky music lover Sally was used to.  She wasn’t sure whether this was due to the presence in the room of his boss, or whether he was still suffering from the fall-out from the murders. Whatever it was, being summoned in to see DS Hammond was almost a relief from Donal’s polite and introverted silence.

Adopting her customary questioning position, DS Hammond was sitting in the most comfortable chair playing steeple with her fingers again. “I need to know more about this Derek.  Information rather than opinion this time” she said. 

Sally shrugged.  “I’ve known Derek for about twelve years; he’s worked his way up to manage the team, is married with two small children, enjoys computer games and playing golf, has been known to help out in the kitchen when the cook is off and his wife has a part-time job in one of the finance offices.  Is that objective enough for you?”

DS Hammond raised her eyebrows at the edge of irritation in Sally’s voice.  She got to her feet slowly and walked slowly to the door, then turned abruptly on her elegant tan-booted heels.

“Thank you.  Let’s have the subjective gossip now please?”

“According to me or according to Mostyn Hall?”

“Are they not one and the same?  I’ll have both.”

“Okay.  I used to quite like Derek when he was younger; he was very keen and helpful.  As he’s got older, I think he’s become calculating and manipulative.  He does favours for his mates, and for those who are sycophantic but is deliberately obstructive to anyone who stands up to him.  He treats the other members of his team very badly, particularly the women, and he tells lies.  His wife has a job here that she’s not qualified to do and was never interviewed for. He originally tried to have her working on his team but had to get her moved to finance when somebody complained.   There’s a policy preventing partners working together in the same team and Derek conveniently forgot about it.  He’s been trying to find out who made the complaint but there’s a conspiracy of silence about it.  Derek plays golf, sometimes with senior managers, sometimes with the building attendants.  When he plays golf he’s often officially working from home or off sick.  Rumours abound that he is having an affair with a member of the cleaning staff and she is only seventeen years old. “ 

Sally stopped abruptly, took a deep breath and leaning back in her chair gave DS Hammond what she hoped was an intimidating glare.

The detective constable looked up from his notebook shyly.  “Have you any idea where he plays golf exactly?”

“What?  Oh, golf, I think he plays out at the Forest View club but either of the building attendants would be able to tell you” said Sally unable to hold the glare any longer and peeved that DS Hammond had won the staring competition yet again.

“We have a slight problem with your building attendants too.  One of them has gone sick and can’t come to the phone.  The other is due in at noon but his wife says he left early this morning and she hasn’t seen him since.” 

DS Hammond sat back down in her chair and picked up some notes.  “I’m sending some officers out to Forest View but in the meantime, I want to talk to these kids – what are they called – the Modern Apprentices?”

“Tom and Mark still work in the building; Megan works in town.  I saw Tom when I came in this morning, he works downstairs just under this office, and Mark works over on the other side of the building near the canteen.”

DS Hammond looked down at the sheaf of papers in her hand.  “I’d like you to show DC Long round the building, give him some idea of the layout and where the two murder victims worked.  When you’ve done that you can find this Tom and bring him back here.  How old is he?”

“Tom?  Seventeen and a half, I think.  Why?”

“He won’t need an appropriate adult with him for interview purposes, then will he?  How old are the other two?”

 “I’m sure Mark is seventeen but I think Megan is still sixteen.  She was definitely the youngest of the three of them.”

DC Long got to his feet, stuffing his notebook into his jacket pocket.  Deciding that she had been dismissed, Sally followed him out into the corridor and down the stairs.  He paused before they went out into the main corridor and turned to her, a little apologetically, “You may find Claire a bit – well abrupt at times.  She really is very good at what she does.”

Sally found it hard to be angry with this kind young man and smiled, “I sorry if I’m a bit tetchy.  This business has got everyone on edge anyway but I feel so responsible for it all and I’m not quite sure if your boss is of the same opinion.”

“She’ll solve this.  She has a one hundred per cent clear up rate.  I think it’s because she’s so logical and analytical.  I’ve certainly learned a great deal from her.  Obviously, I can’t say this officially but I’m sure that if she really thought you were responsible, you’d be locked up by now.”

“Having to be at her beck and call is not what I call freedom” Sally grinned, “and having people camping outside my house all night isn’t freedom either.  You must be shattered.”

DC Long blushed again.  “Were we that obvious?  Don’t tell Claire, she told us to be discreet.”

“I’m hardly likely to confide anything to her.  It wasn’t that you were obvious but ours is a small community. We’ve lived there for thirteen years and strange cars are a subject of interest. My next-door neighbour was on Facebook last night asking me about the two strange men parked up the road from my house.”

DC Long got out his notebook.  “Would that be the guy with the pipe and spaniel or the very old shuffling guy with the two yappy dogs?”

“The spaniel.  I told him that the police were keeping an eye on me in case I was next on the list.  He doesn’t know that I wrote the list.”

Sally led the way down the staircases and through the dark corridors to the office where Tom worked.

“Would it be alright if I went in and got him?”  she asked “He might be less worried if he saw me.  I won’t say anything indiscreet; I promise.”

DC Long nodded and Sally walked into the office.  Tom looked up as she explained to his manager that DS Hammond had asked for Tom to attend for interview. 

He got up very slowly and looked scared.  “Am I in trouble Sally?”

“I hope not.  She’s a bit scary but just tell the truth from the start.  I’m reliably informed that she’ll find out very quickly if you’re lying.  You’ll be okay.  If it’s any consolation, I’m helping police with their enquiries too.”

They walked back upstairs to the office in silence and Sally carried on into Donal’s office.  His chair was empty and she looked at her watch, it was still a good half an hour before lunch.  Donal’s boss looked up from his computer screen.  “I’ve sent him home.  He looked dreadful and couldn’t really concentrate on his work.  He took a call from someone and it seemed to upset him a great deal.  Will your detective friend be cross?”

Sally shrugged.  “I don’t care if she is.  She spoke to Donal yesterday anyway so she shouldn’t need him again today.  I hope he’s alright.  I’ve just taken another lamb in to the slaughter.   Has she asked to see you yet?”

“No, I don’t think there’s much I can tell her anyway.  We’ve been so busy sorting out the quarterly stats that someone could be bludgeoned to death in front of me and I doubt if I’d notice.” For a senior member of staff with a great deal of financial responsibility, Donal’s boss had a very warped sense of humour

When Sally went down for her lunch the door to her office was still closed.  Unlike most of the other office doors that had a pane of safety glass in them, this one was a solid fire door, heavy and very thick.

The canteen was almost empty when she arrived, Susie and Tracey’s table was vacant now and only a few stragglers who were attending a first aid course in the conference hall had gathered round the coffee machine.  Sally’s appetite had deserted her but she knew that the canteen ladies would be offended if she went away empty handed so she picked up a plate of chips and a cheese roll before wandering slowly back.

DC Long came into Donal’s office just as Sally was finishing off the last of the cold chips.     “Can we borrow you?  Something interesting has cropped up.”

She followed him and found Tom sitting in front of one of the computers with a website page open.

DS Hammond was stood next to him watching avidly as he scrolled through a number of messages on the page.  She turned to Sally.  “It appears that your Modern Apprentices have a little game going on the Internet.  The main aim is to see how many ways you can think of to eliminate your colleagues.  Some of them are very inventive.  Did you know about this Sally?”

Sally peered at the screen and recognised some of the victim’s names.  Those posting the messages were using false names of course but there were some that could be fairly easily worked out.  The twelve names from her list were amongst the messages and for the three already deceased, the method of elimination was astonishingly accurate.

Tom turned to Sally, his face white and scared.  “It was only a game Sally, like the games we used to play when we were all up here last year.  Meg found your list amongst some invoices and we thought we’d carry it a bit further online.  There are loads of people posting, from all over the country but I swear, none of us has actually done anything to anybody.  We just put stuff up on the page.”

Sally looked over at DS Hammond.  “Have they done anything wrong?  At least we know what happened to my list now but loads of people have access to this website.  That means that it isn’t necessarily someone from Mostyn Hall or the council that’s behind this.” She put a hand on Tom’s shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly.

“That’s partly true.” said DS Hammond as she made another note on the pad in front of her “but when Tom and his little friends posted your list on the page, they only used the first names of the intended victims. Subsequently other people have added potential victims’ names to the list and we’ll have to get our IT section to check on them all to see if anyone else has died.  I still think that there is a local connection however, otherwise how would the killer – or killers – know which Colin and Sharon to target?  Or that Shirley would be in the library yesterday?”

Sally leaned against the desk for support.  “What happens now?”

“We’re still trying to find Derek – the killer seems to want to stick to the sequential order so the others may be safe for now.  We’re going to have to confiscate all the computers that your Modern Apprentices have been using and that includes iPhones, Androids and anything else of that ilk.  Let John know that we’ll want the conference room from this afternoon too.  I’ll be bringing in specialists and I need somewhere a damn sight bigger than this to work in.”

“Tom and the others, how much trouble are they in?” said Sally, who could feel Tom shivering under her hand.

“Difficult to say until the IT bods have looked at their computers and such but they may be the red herrings that the real killer is hiding behind.   Right now, I need that room setting up.”

Deciding that the removal of the First Aiders and the commandeering of the conference room would be better done in person than by phone, Sally set off for the directorate office to break the news to John.

Just outside the office Sally literally bumped into Louis, tanned and newly returned from his recent Italian holiday. “Alright kidda?  What’s going on in this building then?  The rumours are flying around like nobody’s business.  Who’s this ice maiden police woman that everyone’s so scared of?”

DS Hammond moved silently out of the doorway and stood behind Louis.  Sally did not like the look on her face and almost felt sorry for Louis at that moment.

“I believe it’s me that you are referring to.  Perhaps you would introduce us Sally?”

“Uh – oh sure.  DS Hammond – this is Louis.  He’s just come back from holiday.  Today’s his first day back.”

“Holiday?  Really?  You haven’t been to Portugal, have you?”

Louis drew himself up to his full height, which still left him a good foot shorter than DS Hammond.  “Italy actually kidda, I’ve got family there.”

She looked down at him with disdain, “Families are notorious for giving false alibis.  Portugal isn’t that far from Italy either.  Modern air travel is a wonderful thing, it should be fairly easy to track your movements.  Give your name to Long and don’t hold Sally up any longer, she’s got an urgent job to do for me.”

Trying hard not to laugh, Sally almost ran down the stairs leaving Louis and DS Hammond in the kind of Mexican stand-off usually seen between rival tomcats in a back garden.

Resource Investigator or Scavenger

John’s secretary was not overly pleased to find that Mostyn Hall was about to be over run by police, or that the very lucrative first aid course was going to have to be moved out of the main conference room at such short notice.  She was a resilient lady however and started making the necessary arrangements while Sally perched on her desk and delivered a list of DS Hammond’s demands.

“What John will have to say about this, I don’t know!” said one of the other directorate secretaries who was known for her snobbishness and elitism, “He won’t like having the police take over the place you know.”

Sally shrugged, “I don’t suppose he likes having members of his staff being bumped off either but he doesn’t seem to have much choice about that.  DS Hammond says she’ll send one of her officers to liaise with you when the rest of the team arrive.”

“Rest of the team! How many more of them are there?” asked another of the secretaries, putting down her copy of ‘Hello’ magazine for a moment.

“Have you never watched ‘Morse’ or ‘Midsomer Murders’?  When they decide to set up an incident room the police kind of totally invade the place.  The conference room is ideal; plenty of computer points, display screen, next door to the lavatories and the canteen.  Could have been custom made.” Sally grinned, enjoying the woman’s very obvious displeasure.

“How long are they going to be there?  I’ve got meetings arranged in that room” said the first secretary, her face the very essence of outrage.

Trying very hard not to show her glee at finally getting one over on someone who had narrowly escaped being put on the hit list – she would have been number thirteen and that was even more unlucky, Sally shrugged again, catching just the hint of a smile on the lips of John’s usually inscrutable secretary.

“Don’t worry Sally.” she said. “John will take it in his stride.  I’ve sent him an e-mail, he’s down at the Town Hall but he’s very good at picking mail up on his mobile. Thanks for giving us some warning anyway.  I’d rather have it from you than some plod barging his way in.  Do you have any idea when they’ll be here?”

“On their way as far as I know.  I’ll ring as soon as I get more news.”

“Thanks.  Well ladies,” she said as she picked up her phone, “better start rescheduling those meetings for the next week or so.”

Sally left the room quickly, before she could bear the brunt of any more disapproval.  On her way back along the corridor she bumped into Louis who looked as if he hadn’t exactly been the victor in his tussle with DS Hammond. 

“Alright kidda?  Have you got any biscuits tucked away anywhere?  Talking to that snotty detective has made me famished.  I could murder a cup of tea too.”

“Don’t your own team ever feed you?”

“Nah.  I reckon they hide the biscuits when they see me coming.  I’ve been all over the place after they’ve gone home but I can’t find them.  The others always seem to be eating when I come into the room though.   It’s no way to treat their manager.”

“Perhaps you could try contributing to their tea and coffee swindle occasionally.  You drink enough tea to merit a couple of quid a week.”

Louis frowned.  “I can’t be bothered with all that stuff.  There are always plenty of biscuits knocking around in other offices anyway.”

“I know,” said Sally, “I’ve seen you creeping around after everyone has gone home; hunting for something to satisfy your munchies.  You’ll have to be a bit more careful when the police move in.  I don’t suppose they’ll want you mooching around the building much.”

He grinned.  “Police have to be fed, don’t they?  I’ll have to get in with them and see if they have better biscuits than us.  Gotta dash now, see you later kidda.”

Sally watched his slight but jaunty figure stroll back up the corridor towards his office.  Maybe she shouldn’t have put him on the list after all.  His laziness annoyed her and his ability to scrounge off other people didn’t earn him any friends.  He set himself up as a resource investigator and boasted that he could acquire anything for anyone by using his charm alone, but his behaviour was more reminiscent of a black-market spiv and she was sure that one of these days he would become seriously unstuck.

Her office biscuits were tucked away in a box in the room that DS Hammond was now occupying, so Sally supposed they would be safe enough for the time being.  She assumed that when the incident room was set up downstairs, DS Hammond would take over one of the small offices along the same corridor and she would be able to have her humble attic back again.  It wasn’t that she minded working in Donal’s office, but now that he had gone off sick there was no one to have a laugh with, the chair was uncomfortable and she missed being surrounded by her familiar pictures and objects.

Sighing, she climbed back up the stairs and tried to sneak past the open door to Donal’s office without DS Hammond spotting her.  It was an epic failure.  She hadn’t even managed two steps past the doorway before she was summoned to return. 

“Is it all sorted then?  I need those first aiders out of the conference room immediately.  What are they doing in there anyway?”

Deciding that stating the obvious would not be a sensible choice; Sally opted for an explanation instead.  “They’re mostly studying CPR and basic first aid techniques. Putting slings on and bandaging each other.  It’s one of the few courses that brings in any revenue because we teach people from the private sector and charge them a fair whack for the privilege of having one of our first aid certificates.  They’re a pretty rowdy lot usually.  Talking all through the lectures, messing with the kit and popping out for fags every few minutes, they aren’t exactly well-behaved but we have to put up with them I’m afraid.”

“Not if I have my way and as you are probably aware by now.  I inevitably do get my way.  That chap who was here earlier on.  Little tanned guy who fancies himself.”

“Louis.”

“Yes, that one.  Isn’t he on your list?”

“Ah, yes.  He’d annoyed me the day before I made the list.”

“By doing what exactly?”

Sally hung her head.  “I’m very fond of Louis really, in many ways he’s a nice bloke, but like Colin, he’s extremely adept at getting other people to do his work. He gets away with things that other people would be on a disciplinary for.  He also pinches food and drink from other people’s offices, won’t pay money into the tea fund and is a notorious scavenger.”

“If he tries pinching anything from my incident room, he’ll get more than he’s bargained for.  When’s this John coming back?”

“Soon.  They said they’ll phone once he’s back.  He’s calling in all the senior officers. Some of them are not very happy about it.”

“Tough. How many of them are on your hit list?”

“Three.  Four if you count Colin – which you probably aren’t because he’s already dead.”

“Where do they sit in your hierarchy then?”

“In terms of management structure, you have Athena at the top, John and three others under her, then John’s deputies, senior managers under them, operational managers on the next tier down and then a host of team managers. The majority of workers here are care managers and administrative staff, and at the bottom in terms of management importance there the canteen staff, the cleaners and the building attendants.”

DS Hammond picked up Sally’s list and scrutinised it.  Sally knew that she was just doing this for effect because the names were undoubtedly already filed in DS Hammond’s meticulously ordered brain.

“You’ve been fairly democratic in your hit list then, although I notice that you miss out John and his deputies you don’t have many care managers and the canteen staff get off scot free.” 

She put the list down on top of a pile of papers.  Sally looked wistfully at her own cluttered and familiar desk and experienced another feeling of deep regret at ever having read that stupid article about hit lists.  She sighed and sat down unbidden on her own very comfortable chair.  “The whole idea of the hit list, was to write down the names of people who make your life difficult, acknowledge that there isn’t much you can do about it, destroy the list and move on. I missed out on the last two steps because I went off to the canteen with Donal, the list got sent off with the scanning by mistake, the Modern Apprentices put it on the Internet and now some serial killer’s got his or hands on it.  John is a nice guy, busy but nice, so are his deputies.  Most of the care managers and some of the team managers are okay.  The staff in the canteen are wonderful – as you will soon find out once you set up your incident room.  I was taught that respect has to be earned so no, I don’t respect people because they get paid more than me, I respect them for who they are, not what they are.”

“Do we have an issue then?  I expect to be treated with respect.”

“If you earn it – you’ll get it but I won’t tug my forelock to you just because you’re a detective.  I find you rather arrogant and high-handed with people but Steve says you’re good at what you do so I’m prepared to take his word for it.  I’ll help you in anyway I can but I didn’t ask anyone to kill the people on that list and I didn’t kill them myself.”

Sally leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes.  She felt drained by the whole thing and frightened by the fact that Derek was missing.  She was having second thoughts about at least half the people on her hit list now but there seemed to be no way of stopping the process.  DS Hammond was her only hope.

“Okay Sally, I have a few calls to make.  Let me know when this John comes back, and can you shut the door on the way out.  There’s a mad woman out there who keeps swearing at the photocopier.  Is your mate Donal around?

“No, he’s gone home – I think he’s taken it all quite hard.”

“Three murders in as many days, not surprising really.  I’ll talk to you later.”

Donal’s office was deserted when she walked back in and there was a message on her desk to ring Ruby with an update.  She decided that, though she would have loved to pour her heart out to Ruby right then, she’d pretend that she hadn’t seen the message.  Sally knew from experience that even with the door shut the partition wall between her office and Donal’s was pretty thin and she couldn’t take the risk of DS Hammond overhearing anything she said.  As it was, she could hear that the recipient of DS Hammond’s phone call was getting the sharp edge of her tongue.  She decided to check her e-mails to see if there was anything she could distract herself with but most of them were out of office messages from people who had decided that Mostyn Hall was not a safe place to be.  Sally found that odd because nobody had actually been killed on the premises – yet.  The phone rang and Sally got the news that John had returned from the Town Hall. 

Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

The Body in the Library

After a miserable weekend, Sally was relieved to hear the sound of her radio alarm on Monday morning.  She got up feeling like one of the walking dead and woke her eldest son for a shower.  There was still another twenty minutes before she had to wake her husband and younger son up, so she switched on the television and sat down to eat breakfast.

Sharon’s face assaulted her from the screen, shortly followed by that of Colin and a shot of the exterior of Mostyn Hall.  According to the local news there had been further developments over the weekend and detectives were liaising with the Portuguese authorities because Colin’s death was now officially a murder.  A witness had come forward to say that they had seen a young man near the sun bed half an hour or so before Colin’s wife came to wake him up.  The witness did not believe that the young man was a local because he was very pale-skinned and wore an England football shirt.

The whole thing made Sally feel nauseous; and the knowledge that Mostyn Hall was liable to be under siege from reporters by the time she got in to work made the prospect of going in even worse.  Sally went upstairs to wake her husband and they watched the news together in silence.

“None of this can possibly be your fault.” he said, squeezing her hand.

“I know.  I also know that I am being totally arrogant in thinking that my evil thoughts can have brought about what’s happened to Colin and Sharon.  I feel guilty though.”

“Don’t.  Someone else hated them enough to kill them – leave the guilt to them.  Do you really need to go in today?  Stay home and have a duvet day with me?”

She smiled, the prospect of staying home and going back to sleep was far more appealing, except that the news would inevitably intrude at some point, and she had at least two meetings to arrange as well as the usual pile of work that have been generated for her. 

“No, I’m going in.  There’s far too much work to do and people know I wasn’t that fond of Colin and Sharon.   I don’t want anyone thinking that I’m jumping on the bandwagon in order to get time off.”

“Okay, but call me if it gets too much and I’ll come and rescue you.”

They gave the boys a lift to school and college, Sally asked to be dropped off at Mostyn Hall’s side gate where all the smokers usually congregated.  The area was busy but she couldn’t see any familiar faces in the crowd; two satellite vans and several private cars blocked the gateway and it was fairly obvious that that press had been told they couldn’t actually go on the premises.  Sally’s husband turned the car around and drove to the main entrance where the building attendants, wearing high visibility jackets and looking excitedly officious, were preventing staff from being accosted by the press.  There were also a couple of policemen wearing flak jackets and checking ID tags.  Sally got out of the car, showed her ID and gratefully accepted an escort through to reception.

Ruby was already in the office; she looked as weary as Sally felt.  She put her bag on the desk and sat down heavily on her chair.  “I’m guessing that you didn’t sleep well either?”

Ruby nodded.  “Are the press still out there?

“Oh yes, two vans and several cars.  Not a single smoker in sight.” said Sally.

“John’s given special permission for people to smoke on site.  There’s a designated area out by the portakabins.  You can just see them from here, it’s been very busy so far and I’m sure there are some new smokers out there as well.”  Ruby leaned over the desk to look out of the window. “How do you fancy getting out of the building for a couple of hours?”

“Yes please.  I’ll do anything.”

“Thought you would.  John wants a couple of people to attend an event down at the Town Hall.  There’s been a three-line whip gone out from Athena and every team has to send at least two members of staff.  I’ll drive.”

“Phew.” said Sally.  “I thought you were going to send me off with Linda for a moment there.”  She looked over at Ruby and smiled gratefully.

“Linda’s far too busy to attend such a trivial event.  Unfortunately, we forgot to tell her that Athena’s doing the opening speech or that it was likely to become a bit high-profile.  As far as she’s concerned it will be just a group of old people drinking tea and talking about watercolour painting and jazz.” 

Ruby had a decidedly naughty twinkle in her eye as she made this pronouncement. “We can drop off some leaflets while you’re there, and pick up some freebies.”

“Great.  What time are we going?”

“In half an hour or so.  It opens at ten o’clock and we’re supposed to be there so we can cheer Athena on as she performs her opening speech.”

“We’ll be the only ones who do then.  She’s not exactly popular with the older people at the moment.”

“That’s why we have to deliver a show of force and make a lot of noise.  I have a feeling that something else is going to steal the limelight.  John’s also sent out an e-mail stating that under no circumstances is anyone to make any kind of statement to the press about Colin or Sharon – on or off the record.”

Sally set up meetings for the next couple of weeks and called down to book rooms for them.  It took some time to get through though; between the phone calls from local and national press, together with the usual personal callers and neighbours popping in to complain about all the strange cars parked in the road, the directorate was very busy.

The press pack had doubled by the time Ruby and Sally drove out of the car park.  The police cleared the way for them; holding back a number of over enthusiastic photographers who were snapping anyone and everyone who came in and out of the building.  Those service users who routinely hung around the building had quickly ceased to be of media interest once the newshounds realised that they had no idea who Colin and Sharon were.  It was a relief therefore to get away and Ruby flatly refused to turn the radio on in the car in case there was yet another news bulletin to depress them. 

They parked in the multi-storey car park and walked the short distance to the Town Hall.  Situated in the middle of a public park, it was hard for the police to keep the press back from the main doors.  Judging by the numbers of elderly people in the queue for reception however, the media attention was not acting as a deterrent.  Ruby and Sally joined the queue, ID badges at the ready and secure in the knowledge that Athena, with her need for maximum exposure would not start her speech until everyone was assembled in the conference hall.

By the time they got through reception, the hall was full of staff, exhibitors and elderly people clutching carrier bags of free low energy light bulbs, information leaflets and cheap pedometers courtesy of the local health authority.  Sally and Ruby leaned against the back wall and watched, as Athena, her long frizzy hair floating out behind her, ascended the steps to the dais and smiled patronisingly at the assembled crowd.    Whenever she saw Athena make a public appearance Sally always hoped that she’d shock everyone by wearing lime green or shocking pink, even a more subtle maroon or brown but no, Athena was wearing her customary navy sheath dress.  Short sleeved and ending just above her bony knees, the dress probably cost a fortune but did Athena no favours at all.  American tan tights and prissy black t-bar shoes completed her outfit with no attempt at accessorising.  Even the Queen has a handbag; but Athena was always escorted by a number of minions who undoubtedly carried everything for her.

From the moment Athena opened her mouth, Sally switched off.  She found Athena’s public voice affected and false; when faced with a large group of people she lost the ability to pronounce her ‘r’s properly.  Sally wasn’t sure if Athena put the voice on to impress people, but she knew that once, when she had been in the posh lavatory in the entrance area at Mostyn Hall, she’d heard someone talking on a mobile phone and when she came out to wash her hands; Athena was the only person present.  There had been no trace of a speech impediment then, just a rather rough local accent. 

Mercifully, on this occasion Athena kept it short if not sweet. In terms of being a celebration of older people, it was very successful.  The expected jazz band was playing at one end of the hall, cups of tea and coffee were being brought round and a number of ladies and gentlemen were painting watercolours, knitting and icing cupcakes.    There were free blood pressure checks and chair-based exercise classes taking place in a side room, and a delightful old gentleman doing magic tricks.   Moving from stall to stall, the main topic of conversation was the newly-christened ‘Town Hall Murders’ however.  Sally took exception to this title since neither of the victims worked or were murdered at the Town Hall.  It could deflect the attention away from their workplace though and as most of the communications and publicity staff worked from the town centre, they were best placed to fend off the press.

Sally spotted a friend from the libraries and leisure section and made her way over to him.  They were deep in conversation when the air was pierced by a particularly strident ringtone.  A lady from the central library apologetically dug around for her phone in her capacious handbag; answering in hushed tones so as not to disturb anyone further.  She got up quickly and almost ran out of the hall, leaving her handbag behind her.  Returning briefly to collect her things she explained that there had been some kind of incident down at the main library and she’d have to go and sort things out immediately. 

It was approaching lunchtime and both Ruby and Sally felt that they ought to be leaving; it was time to run the gauntlet again.  The crowd outside the front gates had thinned considerably but Sally assumed that this was due to it being lunchtime.  She and Ruby bought some food from the local pie shop and returned to the car park.  Road works in the town centre meant that a one-way system had been imposed and it was while they were navigating their way back out again that they passed the three police cars, two fire tenders, an ambulance and the rest of the reporters now stationed outside the library.

Sally had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach but mentally reprimanded herself for being paranoid.  What would anyone from Mostyn Hall be doing at the library at lunchtime anyway?  

“Shall we risk the news Sally?”  Ruby’s hand hovered over the dial.

“Go on then.  We’ll hear it all sooner or later anyway.”

There didn’t appear to have been any new developments since they’d left and Ruby was about to tune the radio into something more diverting when they were distracted by breaking news about the library.  The information was limited but there had been an accident with some shelving that was being moved from one part of the library to another. 

It had been thought that there were no casualties but now that the emergency services had managed to move the shelves a woman’s body had been found.  She had been crushed by the weight of the heavy wooden fitments. 

It was then that Sally remembered the next name on the hit list. Shirley.  Dopey Shirley who had wrecked the stationery cupboard shelves, and who worked in an office in the town centre. 

“Are you okay Sally?”  said Ruby, obvious concern showing on her face as Sally sat beside her in the car, ashen and shaking.

“Ruby, can you keep a secret?  It’s the most horrendous secret I’ve ever had.”

“Hell, yes honey, you know I can.  What on earth is it?”

“There are only two other people who know about this, my husband and Donal.  It’s about these murders.”

Ruby looked quizzically at Sally.  “No.  I refuse to believe that you are a mass murderer.”

Sally smiled weakly.  “You know how people annoy me sometimes?”

“I do.  The people who annoy you usually annoy me too.”

“I was reading this article about coping mechanisms and they recommended that you should write down a list of the people who really wound you up and then put it away in a drawer and forget about it.”

“Reasonable method.  I’ve used it myself, tends to have a lot of my family members on it though.”

“Well, this didn’t.  It was a list of twelve people I’ve met through work and who have left an indelible mark on me.  Donal came in just after I’d written it, we had a good laugh and I shoved it in my desk drawer and forgot about it.  When I went to find it later it had disappeared.”

“Oh, it’s bound to be around somewhere.  You probably chucked it in the confidential shredding with a pile of old agendas. “

“No, I’ve looked.  I turned everything out and the only thing I could think of was that I’d taken it out when I was looking for paper clips; it got mixed up with some invoices and sent off to scanning by mistake.  I’ve checked the archives and it hasn’t been scanned into the system.  It’s not been sent back to me either.”

“Who’s on the list Sally?”

“Colin, Sharon.”

“Oh God!  Who else?”

“Shirley.”

“What Dopey Shirley?”

“Yes, Dopey Shirley who wrecked the stationery cupboard shelves.”

“Are you thinking that she might be the body in the library?”

Sally took a deep breath, “One of the things that annoyed me about Colin was his constantly prattling on about Portugal and how much he loved salted sardines.  Sharon was forever tossing her smelly highlighted hair around by way of a distraction in meetings.  What am I supposed to think?  I feel like someone’s got inside my head and is carrying out these murders to order.  Thank goodness I have an ironclad alibi for both incidents, but suppose the police think that I’m an evil mastermind and I’ve arranged for a hit man – or woman – to do my dirty work for me?” 

Ruby took a slight detour and pulled into a supermarket car park.  She turned to look Sally square in the face and took hold of both her hands.

“Just calm down now.  Thinking bad things about other people doesn’t kill them.  Colin died in Portugal, Sharon in a hairdresser over thirty miles away.  You don’t drive, you’ve been in the country the whole time and you definitely have alibis.  What does Donal think about this?”

“He seems spooked.  Totally spooked.  I’ve never seen him so worried.  He’s usually so laid back – except for when he has to do Hester’s accounts with her.  It’s almost as if he knows something that he’s not telling me.  My husband is logical and sensible about it but he doesn’t really understand how things are at Mostyn Hall; how incestuous it all is.”

 “If – and only if – this latest accident does turn out to be Dopey Shirley then I think you might need to speak to someone about it.  How many more people are on the list?”

“Nine.  Derek, Athena, Linda, Louis, Hester, Graham, Angela, Susie and Tracey.”

Ruby snorted with laughter, then stopped abruptly at the sight of Sally’s face.

“Sorry sweetheart.  I shouldn’t have laughed but if I had to draw up a hit list, I’d have had them all on mine as well.  You can certainly pick the bad ones.”

“Oh, don’t Ruby.  I’ll never forgive myself if anything happens to them.  However much they annoy me they don’t deserve to be wiped out.  It’s bad enough that they’re dying – it’s the manner of their death that worries me too.”

“Come on, we need get these pies back before they go cold.  I don’t want to be accused of starving anyone to death.  Sorry, hideously bad taste.”

“You won’t tell anyone, will you Ruby?  Promise me?”

“On one condition.”

“Anything.”

“Well two conditions really.  Number one – stop worrying so much, you’ll make yourself ill.  Number two – just give me your word that you will never make any wax effigies of me and stick pins in them?”

Sally looked horrified at the thought and Ruby regretted her words immediately.  “Sorry, sorry! I didn’t mean that – it was just a joke, just my sick sense of humour.  Do you still know any tame policemen?”

“A couple of guys from the police protection unit.  Why?”

“You might need a friend in the force – if what you say about the list is true then there’s nothing to tie it to you other than the fact that like many other people at Mostyn Hall, this group of people have annoyed you at some point, but you don’t know where the list is or whether someone is likely to produce it.  You might need some insurance.  Think about it anyway.”

DS Hammond

The body in the library turned out to be Dopey Shirley.  The news wasn’t confirmed until later that evening, but it was definitely her.  According to the local news that particular section of the library had been sectioned off because the massive shelving units were being cleared, cleaned and moved to a new position.  Someone had put a ‘Clearance – 50p per book’ sign over the crates of books which is what must have enticed Shirley into the room.  It still wasn’t clear whether the book shelves had fallen on her by accident or whether someone pushed them.  Sally had her own theory about that. 

Before leaving work that afternoon she had sent an e-mail to Steve, an old friend of hers in the police protection unit asking him to contact her and leaving her home, mobile and work numbers.  She didn’t expect him to reply immediately but as the afternoon and evening wore on, Sally was getting more anxious about her situation.  Even her husband was beginning to express some concerns, although he was more worried about the effect the stress was having on Sally.  The press hadn’t actually made a connection between Shirley and the Town Hall murders yet but Sally felt it was only a matter of time before they did, and the only other real link, apart from the local authority, would be the fact that she had worked with all three victims at one time or another. 

The house phone rang at ten forty-five that night and Sally picked it up quickly.  It was Steve.             “Hello my love, your e-mail sounded a bit mysterious.  It isn’t too late to call is it? I’m on nights this week.”

“Oh Steve, what a relief to hear your voice. How are you?  What are you doing now?”

“Officially child protection still but I’m covering for a colleague for the next couple of weeks.  Never mind the pleasantries.  What’s the problem?  Your lad in trouble for shooting people with his BB gun?”

“No thank goodness.  He seems to prefer killing people on his computer at the moment.  I’m afraid it’s me. I have a big problem and it’s getting bigger by the minute. I need your advice.”

“Off the record?”

“At the moment – you can tell me what I need to do after I’ve explained.  You’ll have heard that two of the staff up at Mostyn Hall have died in mysterious circumstances?”

“We aren’t talking about much else here at the station.  Why?  It isn’t you that’s bumping people off is it?”

“Steve!  Please be serious!  No, I’m not bumping them off as you so delicately put it, but I might be responsible.  I might know who’s going to be next.”

“I don’t believe I’m hearing this.  Can I make notes?”

“If you must.  I’ll give you the potted version.  I made a list of twelve members of staff that …well my life would improve if they weren’t around any more. A friend and I had a laugh about it and I meant to destroy the list but didn’t.   I put it away in a drawer but left it out on my desk when I was looking for something else and now the list has disappeared and the first three people on it have died.”

“Three?  I only know about the one in Portugal and the woman at the hairdresser.”

“The body in the library this afternoon, we used to work together a couple of years ago.”

“Oh my God!  You say there are another nine people on the list?”

“Ye-es.  Sorry. Twelve didn’t seem so bad at the time; we employ nine thousand staff after all”

“I can think of more than twelve people I’d like to get rid of.  Have you done anything about this?”

“Contacted you for advice.  That’s a start isn’t it?”

“These other people on your list.  Have you warned them?”

“Get real Steve.  What am I going to say – ‘I dislike you so much that I’ve put your names on a hit list and somebody is bumping you all off?’  I know it may seem trivial compared to losing your life but I could lose my job over this.  There are some very high-profile people on that list.”

“This other person who knows all the names…?”

“No, Donal would never do anything as violent as kill anyone.  He was as shocked as I was when Colin died, and he began to look at me very strangely when we heard about Sharon.  He had the misfortune to come into the office just after I’d written the list.  The only other people who know about the list are my husband, and Ruby that I share an office with.  I only told her about it today.”

“Are you sure no one else knows about these particular people?”

“Individually maybe.  Mostyn Hall is a small place and everyone knows who’s fallen out with whom.  I’ve never had stand up rows with any of these people.  They just …annoyed me.   That’s all.”

“Remind me never to get on your bad side.  This has to be a coincidence Sally.  Why would anyone be going around killing off local authority staff unless it’s to save money?”

“Donal made that joke too.  I don’t know Steve.  I don’t know who has the list and I don’t know if I have a secret admirer who is hell bent on eliminating my adversaries.  I do know that however much people have annoyed me I don’t wish them dead.”

“Okay, just calm down a bit and I’ll tell you what we’ll do.  Claire Hammond has been put in charge of this case.  She’s pretty reasonable; one of the fast-track detective sergeants, psychology masters, good line in interrogative patter and rising through the ranks with astonishing speed but she’s okay.  I’ll have a chat with her.  Don’t do anything or tell anyone else what you have told me.  Are you in work tomorrow?”

“Yes, if I can get past the reporters outside the gate.”

“Good.  I think once Claire hears that the library incident is tied in with this, she’s going to be very interested in what you have to say.”

“I’ll write it up tonight.”

“No.  She’ll probably want you to give a statement anyway and if you write anything down and it falls into the wrong hands …”

“Thank you for that.  I’ll do as you suggest.”

“Okay my love.  Get some sleep and we’ll sort this out – one way or another.”

Sally put the phone back on the cradle and after relating Steve’s advice to her husband, decided to get an early night.  Her mind kept coming back to the Modern Apprentices and the numerous fantasy conversations they’d had in the past about bumping off people they didn’t like.  One of them had an app on his phone and you could paste the face of a person that you disliked onto a crash test dummy, and mangle the body in various nasty accidents.  Athena’s face had featured quite prominently.

These were young people of in their teens though; they wouldn’t have the means or the inclination to carry out these murders, would they?   Sally tried to think logically; she was sure that she’d seen or spoken to each of the Modern Apprentices during the past week and none of them had recently returned from a holiday in Portugal.  At the same time, she recalled how easy it had been for her own sons to find information about hydrogen peroxide from the Internet when she asked them.  Suppose the Modern Apprentices were in league with someone who had considerably more means and power; some kind of Fagin-like manipulator?  That didn’t make any sense though.  Who else would want to pick on this particular group of people?

Steve obviously managed to get in touch with DS Hammond because she attended Mostyn Hall shortly after nine o’clock the next morning.  Cool and efficient; she appropriated Sally’s office for her own. Ruby took her work over to another office after casting a sympathetic glance in Sally’s direction.  A young uniformed police constable sat at a desk and painstakingly wrote down every word of Sally’s statement, sighing whenever Sally found a spelling or grammatical error and it had to be amended before she would sign and date the page. DS Hammond leaned back in her chair, a study in manufactured boredom, blonde hair cut in an immaculate razored bob, icy blue eyes and cheek bones to die for, her expensive, well-cut grey linen trouser suit a stark contrast to Sally’s utilitarian red blouse and black skirt.

DS Hammond noted down the names and positions of the remaining nine staff but said that she wouldn’t be bothering them just yet as she felt that Sally’s over-active imagination had jumped to too many conclusions.  There were other people at Mostyn Hall that DS Hammond wanted to interview and with Sally’s assistance she drew up another list of names and times of when she expected them to attend.  Sally spent the rest of the day in Donal’s office phoning them all and was just packing away her papers in preparation to go home when the police constable popped his head round the door. “DS Hammond would like another word please.”

Sally gathered up her coat and bag and went back into her own office.  DS Hammond had evidently taken over and looked as if she were intending to be around for a while to come.

“I just thought I’d update you on the current situation.  The chap in Portugal, Colin?  He was definitely murdered but it was almost certainly very quick and whoever smothered him was pretty strong.  They are still running tests on the lady at the hairdressers but it looks as if she had been drugged before she went into the side room to sit under the infra-red lights, so she was probably out of it before the explosion occurred.  The hydrogen peroxide they found on her clothes and hair was industrial strength though, about five times that used in hairdressing salons.  There were bottles nearby with the lids left off and the fire brigade think the ignition came from a book of matches thrown in through the window.”

Sally gulped.   “What about Shirley, the lady in the library yesterday?”

“The weight of the bookcases smashed her skull instantly; she wouldn’t have known what hit her.  They can’t find a reason for the book cases to have fallen by accident though, so as of this afternoon we are talking three murders – and all of them linked to you.” 

DS Hammond leaned back in the chair, her fingertips pressed together, one eyebrow raised quizzically.  Waves of hot and cold swept over Sally and she sat down quickly on the nearest chair.  She felt nauseous and grabbed a tissue from the box on her desk. “You don’t think that I …all I did was write a stupid list!”

“Yes, but someone somewhere is taking your stupid list seriously.  I’m intending to speak to the other people on the list tomorrow so I’ll need this office again and I’ll need you to help me organise some more interviews.  At this stage I don’t intend to tell them about the list, just that I’m interviewing most people in senior and management positions.  I’ve spoken to your boss, John is it? He’s okay about using the facilities here.  If, and only if we lose any more of your staff, I may well set up an incident room in your main conference hall.  I take it I can count on your co-operation in acquiring that space?”

“Of course.” said Sally.  “I’ll do anything I can to assist.  Derek would be the best person to talk to – he’s in charge of all the facilities.”

DS Hammond ran an elegantly manicured fingernail down the page in front of her.

“Derek – oh another one on your list!   I’ve spoken to his manager and unfortunately Derek appears to be on leave for the rest of this week but I suppose someone else in his department can make arrangements for us?”

Sally nodded her head and assumed that Derek was doing his usual trick of disappearing whenever there was any work to be done.

“Is it okay if I go now then?” she asked.  “I’ll be in about half-eight tomorrow.”

“Good.”  DS Hammond waved her hand in dismissal and picked up the phone, Sally’s phone. 

Donal was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. “This is a mess isn’t it?  I’m sorry Sally.”

“Whatever for?  One of this is your fault.”

Donal looked away; a guilty expression on his face and Sally wondered what it was that she was missing. 

She put a hand on his arm reassuringly. “It’s okay.  I have the feeling that DS Hammond has decided to keep me close by so that I don’t get the opportunity organise any more hits.  I’m only surprised that she didn’t put me in protective custody.  I strongly suspect that there will be plain clothes policemen stationed outside our house all night.  Shame, I’ve always been partial to a man in uniform myself.”

“At least you still have your sense of humour.”

“Ha-bloody-ha.”

Sally and Donal clocked out and walked across the car park in silence.  The police presence was still in evidence and Sally was escorted to her husband’s car.  She got in, and fastened her seat belt.

“Take me home please?”

Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

Peroxide Poisoning

The fallout from Colin’s premature demise reverberated around the walls of Mostyn Hall for the rest of the week; with reactions ranging from a few red-eyed and deluded secretaries who genuinely believed that Colin had been a gentleman, to the sycophants who were casting out their nets to see if they could get a better job in the resultant reshuffle, then there was the inner core of staff who wouldn’t miss Colin in the slightest because he’d been making their lives a misery for years.  Sally knew that she sat squarely within that category but did her best not to make any negative comments within managerial hearing.   She would have been happier if Colin had been sacked or taken early retirement; for all her retributional desires Sally was not an unkind person, she just wanted the world to be fairer, especially the world according to Mostyn Hall. 

Their new boss, John had brought in an ex-colleague as one of his two deputies, and with Michael in post, John was able to make permanent staff appointments and there were very few surprises.  John was evidently a director who kept his friends close and his enemies even closer. Sally had hoped that the likes of Susie and Tracey might be busted down to manager level but it wasn’t to be. They took the confirmation of their positions as an affirmation of the high esteem with which they were obviously held in the department; Tracey’s bulky frame was further enhanced by the increasingly padded shoulders of her mannish suit jackets whilst Susie came into work every day looking like she she’d just returned from a cruise or a garden party. 

Colin had kept his post as well and this had come as an even bigger shock to those who knew his methods of management.  When the news got out about Colin’s murder, the directorate corridor became the scene of managerial jostling as interested staff put their case for the opportunity to step into Colin’s vacant espadrilles.  The vacuous Sharon was one of the jostlers; but when faced with difficult questions in her interview her best response was to toss her excessively bleached blonde hair over her shoulders and give what she thought was a winning smile but actually made her look quite demented.  It wasn’t surprising therefore that a very nice man called Andy got the job, having been quietly and conscientiously working hard in the background for some years.  Sharon was given a few extra responsibilities but as it was kudos rather than responsibility that she wanted, she became even more bitter and disruptive than she had been before.  She also discovered a new body spray that clung to her clothes and every room she entered with all the charm of a sweaty lap dancer, and left people gasping and choking in her wake.

Unfortunately, some of Sharon’s new responsibilities meant that she became a more frequent visitor to the office.  Unless she was needed to take notes, Sally tried to find a reason to get some work done elsewhere when such meetings were going on.   Knowing Sharon and Andy were coming to a meeting in the office at eleven on this particular wet Thursday morning; Sally decided to change the notice board in the entrance hall; an activity requiring printing, laminating and some judicious juggling in order to fit everything on the board. The meeting should have been held at nine-thirty but Sharon had a hair appointment that she couldn’t possibly cancel and wouldn’t be in until eleven so it was rescheduled.

Taking her time over the printing, and stopping anyone coming out of the lavatories to get their opinion on both content and artistic arrangement once the notice board was finished, took Sally over an hour.  She walked slowly up the stairs in order to give them more time to finish their meeting.  If she’d remembered she would have taken her purse with and eaten in the canteen but she’d been in a bit of a rush to escape before Sharon arrived to contaminate the atmosphere.   Andy was still in the office with Ruby and some of their other colleagues but there was no sign of Sharon. 

“We’ve heard some rather bad news.  You’d better sit down.  It’s not any of your family but …” said Andy.

“What?  What’s happened?”

“It’s Sharon.  There’s been some kind of an accident at the hairdressers this morning.  She’s been rushed to hospital but they don’t hold out much hope.”

Sally felt the coldness down her spine again.  “What kind of an accident?”

“We don’t really know the details yet.  Something to do with peroxide and an explosion.  It’s awful.”

They left the office eventually and Sally was alone and able to mull things over.  It was while she was eating a very late lunch that she received a visit from Donal.  She held up her hand to silence him before he’d even take a step inside the room.

“I know what you’re going to say and, in my defence, I have either been in the office or in public view in the entrance hall all morning.”

Donal sat down opposite her.  “Sally, I don’t think for one moment that you are personally responsible for what happened to Colin and Sharon, but you have to admit, this is beginning to get very scary.  Have you found that list yet?”

“No.  I have an awful feeling that I took it out when I was looking for some paperclips and it may have been put into a pile with some other papers.  I promise to look for it properly tomorrow.”

“I’d feel safer if you did, and Sally?”

“Yes?”

“When you find it, take it home and burn it.  Whatever you do, don’t put it in the confidential waste.”

Scanning

An urgent meeting in the directorate offices next day prevented Sally from hunting through her paperwork until late morning.  Although the meeting was supposed to be about some changes in protocol laid down by national government, the news about Sharon, coming so closely after Colin’s alleged murder, made everyone subdued.  Everyone that is, except Susie and Tracey, who were wearing their usual false smiles and even more outrageous outfits like a pair of Ugly Sisters. 

Sally returned to the office; the news from the hospital was not good.  It seemed that there had been some kind of an explosion which took place in a side room at the hairdressers.  Sharon had been sitting in there with her highlighted hair wrapped in tinfoil and peroxide.  She never regained consciousness and died later that afternoon.   Most of the lesser meetings scheduled for the next day had been cancelled as a token of respect but Ruby had to go off-site to a lunch conference organised by a group of local charities.  Sally packed up Ruby’s notes and walked out to the car with her, carrying her laptop and stowing it in the boot.

“I know you and Sharon didn’t really get on Sally, but it’s a dreadful thing to have happened.”

“I know, and believe me; however much Sharon annoyed me I wouldn’t have wished this on her – or on anyone for that matter.  If this had happened to someone I knew well and liked it would be bad enough, but I feel almost as if my disliking Colin and Sharon has put a hex on them.”

Ruby squeezed Sally’s arm, “Don’t do this to yourself.  These are just horrible coincidences.  You work in a building filled with people and the odds of someone dying at some point during your working life here are fairly high.  Stop worrying and take an early go tonight?”

“Will do – you take it easy too?”

Sally waved goodbye as Ruby drove off; reluctant to go back into the building immediately, she took the longer route through the car park and back in through a side door she rarely used.  There was a lad standing by the smokers’ corner who seemed vaguely familiar but when she looked again, he had gone.  Once she got back to the office she began systematically sifting through the pile of papers on her desk and trying to remember when she had last tidied up the drawers.  With Ruby out of the office for the rest of the day, Sally took the opportunity to spread her piles of paperwork over the other two desks as well as her own. She had a vague recollection of looking for the paper clips last time she had seen the list but couldn’t remember exactly why she was looking for them.  She leaned back in her chair, eyes closed and doing her best to visualise what she had been doing just before she’d filed the hit list away.

“Scanning!”  The memory catapulted her to her feet.

She’d been sorting out invoices to send to the scanning department and needed some paper clips to attach her compliment slip to the batch of invoices.  The staff in the scanning section were very strict about people not using staples or poly wallets; so strict that they had been known to send invoices back just because the correct protocol hadn’t been used.  Sally dug out the folder where she had filed copies of all the invoices she had sent off last week.  She was desperately hoping that her hit list had been put amongst them by mistake but although she went through the file twice, there was no sign of the list.

“I can’t guess what you’re looking for.”

“You know damn well what I’m looking for Donal – and you know that I haven’t found it yet.  I have an awful feeling that it got sent to scanning together with a batch of invoices.”

“Just remind me, what was written on the paper – exactly what did you write?”

“You saw it.  It was just a list of names.”

“Anything else?  Was your name on the list?  Did you actually write ‘Sally’s hit list’ on it?

“Don’t be daft.  I just wrote the list of names, nothing else.”

“So, if you have sent it to scanning, it will just look like the sort of list you might make if you were inviting people to a meeting.”

“I suppose so, trouble is, it will have been paper clipped to a pile of invoices and a compliment slip, so it would be fairly obvious where it came from.”

“Yes, but it means nothing if there’s no connection to the deaths.  Nearly all the names are of people who you would invite to meetings anyway.  Apart from Athena.” He pulled a face.

“Oh don’t.  Are you going down to the canteen?”

“Yes, you coming down?”

“No, if I give you some money can you get me a ham roll please?”

“Is that all?”

“And a diet coke.”

“Nothing else?”

“And a bar of chocolate.”

“Sure that’s all?”

“And a plate of chips. Please?”

Sally handed over the money and went back to sorting through the papers, most of which should have been recycled weeks ago.  She checked both sides of every single piece and by the time Donal returned with her lunch she’d cleared almost everything leaving only three piles of miscellaneous paperwork sitting on Ruby’s desk.  Donal sat down to join her and they ate lunch silently; both thinking about Colin and Sharon, but neither of them wanting to say anything.

After Donal had gone back to his office to get his teeth into some juicy spreadsheets, Sally tidied up Ruby’s desk, satisfied now that the list was definitely not in her office.  She logged onto the council’s state of the art finance system and prayed that it would only crash once or twice whilst she was rummaging around in it.  She’d decided to check if the invoices had been received, then if they had, cross reference them to the archive files in order to see if someone in the scanning department had put her list in one of the files.  There were five invoices to check; they’d all been scanned and the system only crashed four times whilst she was checking.  Usually, she would have been swearing volubly with frustration but on this occasion, she kept her cool.

A trip down the stairs to the posh coffee machine was needed before Sally braved the mysteries of the archive system; unusually for this time of the afternoon, the corridors were almost deserted with only the odd straggler swearing at a follow-me photocopier that decided not to.  Back in the office with café mocha to sustain her, Sally sent up a silent prayer that she would use the right password to get into the archive.  It wasn’t a system that she accessed very often and she was convinced that the systems team changed the process every month without telling anyone.  This was one time when she really didn’t want to phone up and get them to reset her password, in case they started asking awkward questions about why she was looking in the archive anyway.

She got in on the first try but it was still a further half an hour before she found the invoices; the system wasn’t exactly what she would term as ‘intuitive’.  Two of the invoices had been scanned in upside-down, and they’d scanned her compliment slip as well – which wasn’t strictly necessary – but there was no sign of the list. Sally hoped that whoever opened the post in the scanning room had decided that the list had been put in by mistake and thrown it away. Either the list was still in the office or someone had taken it by accident.  She didn’t want to think that the action had been deliberate.

Too weary to do any more work, Sally called her husband to see if he’d collect her, and closed down the office, making sure to lock her desk drawers although this seemed a tad too late.  Driving home and telling her husband all that had happened, Sally had an awful feeling that there was some other link between Colin and Sharon that she hadn’t yet worked out, she hoped that Ruby was right and that it was all just an awful coincidence.  Her husband was inclined to agree with Ruby too; all the males in Sally’s household had strong logical and scientific principles in stark contrast to her interest in more ephemeral phenomenon.  Whilst this provided frequent and colourful discussions, Sally was quite happy today to be told that she was talking nonsense.

Once indoors, in front of the television for the evening news, with her feet up and a large medicinal sherry in her hand, Sally felt the stress of the day begin to ebb away.  Watching the news was not the best choice she could have made however.  Sharon’s death made the headlines, and not just because of the sensational manner in which she died.  The police were now considering the circumstances to be suspicious; further tests were to be carried out on the chemicals used in the hairdressers but preliminary investigations had revealed that the concentration of peroxide found was far higher than was normally used in hairdressing.  The only consolation for Sally was that the news programme didn’t make a link between Sharon and her former colleague Colin.

Having two sons who were interested in science could sometimes be useful but when Sally asked them what they knew about hydrogen peroxide and combustion, she found them both frighteningly knowledgeable.  Her oldest son trotted out a list of potential chemicals that could be found in most households or hairdressing salons, whilst her younger son found a number of extremely graphic and horrifying YouTube clips that portrayed the results of combining said chemicals.  As she listened to them talking so fluently about how to blow things up, she found herself wondering if this level of information was common to all young people of their age or if it was just a sign of the times and the accessibility of the Internet. 

Unable to put it to the back of her mind, Sally was glued to the late news for any updates; there was a crumb of consolation to be found when a senior detective revealed that there were traces of a very strong sedative found in the remains of a coffee cup believed to have been used by Sharon before she went off to the hair dryer.  Unfortunately, the local news had now realised that Colin and Sharon had worked together in the same building and died in mysterious circumstances within a few days of each other.  Sally’s husband reassured her that she hadn’t suddenly become endowed with the Medusa Touch, and that given the way Colin and Sharon treated people in their professional lives, they would inevitably have made a few enemies, and possibly even more in their private lives.

Sally felt blessed by his common sense and understanding. As she lay in bed that night, she was desperately trying to remember whose name it was that came next on the list.

Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

The Modern Apprentices

A source of amusement for Sally could always be found in the company of the Modern Apprentices; a group of teenaged school-leavers who were usually kept hidden away in one of the furthest flung offices.  No one was quite sure what they did all day but it was something to do with records and filing.  Whenever Sally had a burning question about Mostyn Hall etiquette, she could guarantee that one of the Modern Apprentices would come up with the answer without making her feel like an idiot.  They were also a tremendous source of gossip, scurrilous rumour and apart from Donal, they were the only other people that Sally had ever grumbled to about those colleagues who were destined to become items on her hit list.

Just before Christmas Sally was advised that a small office might be available that could accommodate the small but hand-picked project team.  It appeared that that the Modern Apprentices had come to the end of their tenure and would now be absorbed into the general workforce.   Sally was sad to see them go but quite relieved at the prospect of moving to a new office, even if it was up in the eaves of the building and almost the furthest away from where the important issues were debated, allegedly. 

She made a pilgrimage to the new office the day after she got the news.  The Modern Apprentices were packing up their things; sad to be moving out of this funny little room with sash windows that blew open in the wind and an ominous–looking trap door in the ceiling, but they were pleased that it was Sally moving in, so they promised to leave the fridge and kettle, the metal cupboard that contained more post-it notes than Sally had ever seen, at least a dozen staplers, pen and pencil holders, hole punches, a baseball and a huge ball of elastic bands.

Sally and her colleague Conrad moved as much of their own belongings in as they could, with help from one of the building attendants and hindrance from Derek, his manager.  Sally had known Derek since he was a callow eighteen-year-old, fresh from college and very anxious about sticking to health and safety rules.  He’d been quite sweet then, but age and marriage had made him arrogant and pompous, someone who used his position to dole out favours to his friends and make life awkward for those who crossed him.                

Conrad and Sally liked to play music when it was just the two of them in the office.  He was an engaging companion; the younger brother that Sally never had, known throughout the building for his flamboyant paisley shirts and a love of soul music.

Sally felt comfortable with her new colleagues and Mostyn Hall, for all its quirks, was an interesting place to work in.

Salted Sardines

The worst thing about Monday mornings was attending a business meeting at nine-thirty.  Sally sent out the actions for the week as soon after the Monday meeting as she could.  This was supposed to prevent people saying that they didn’t have time or had forgotten but they still used those excuses anyway.

The business meeting that morning had been particularly trying; they’d worked through the actions and unsurprisingly, when asked if she’d completed the three actions she’d been given, Linda came out with her usual excuse of ‘it’s so hard to get things done when you only work part-time’.  It wasn’t even as if the actions had been that taxing, but they were jobs that Linda felt were beneath her and should be done by Sally or someone else in the administration department.  The fact that Sally was too busy doing work that Linda couldn’t even begin to comprehend was irrelevant.

Sally and the training officer Ruby fumed silently whilst Linda waffled on about how busy she’d been and how many important connections she’d made whilst at a conference.  Ruby had also been at the conference and told Sally that Linda had arrived late, made excuses about the train, and then left early making more excuses about childcare.  The time between was spent flirting with some minor national government official and shovelling down as much as she could from the free buffet. 

Finally escaping from the meeting with only half an hour to spare before lunch, Sally and Ruby ambled back to their office.  Conrad had moved on to bigger and better things in a quango that investigated naughty councillors. He was kept very busy. In the meantime, Ruby had arrived and brought with her energy, enthusiasm, a wicked sense of humour and a breath of fresh air for Sally.

They had barely been back in the office five minutes when Donal appeared looking rather pale. “Have you heard the news?” he gasped and slumped down on the nearest chair.

“What news?” Sally replied, “We’ve been in a meeting all morning.  What’s happened?”

“It’s Colin. He’s dead.”

“Dead?  Are you sure?  How did you find out?  I thought he was on one of his frequent flyer holidays.”  Sally put her hand on Donal’s shoulder; he really did look unwell and kept shooting nervous glances at her.

“I don’t know much about it, just that he was on holiday in Portugal and died unexpectedly.”

“Why are you all looking at me?” said Sally.  “I’ve been here all the time and the rumours about me trying to kill him off aren’t true at all. I suppose it was a heart attack or something?”

Donal shook his head.  “We don’t have a lot of information; one of his daughters told his secretary and asked her to inform the directorate.”

“Oh well,” said Sally, “he always liked Portugal and I suppose if you have to go, then lying on a sandy beach in the sun isn’t a bad way.  Better not leave him out there too long though.  Bodies go off quickly in hot climates, don’t they?”

Ruby chuckled and picked up her bag to go down to the canteen, Sally was about to do the same when Donal placed his hand on her arm to stop her.

“What about the list?” he hissed conspiratorially.

“List?  What list?” she looked puzzled for a moment and then remembered their conversation of the previous week. “Oh that.  Colin was just another name on it, besides; it’s been in my drawer for ages.”

“Show me?”

Sally raised her eyes heavenwards and opened the drawer.  After a considerable moving around of objects then removing them from the drawer entirely and piling them on top of the desk, she concluded that it was gone and threw everything back in.

“I must have chucked it out by mistake. Let’s go and get some lunch.”

“Hang on Sally, suppose someone took it.  They might think you were involved in some way – you know – with Colin’s death.”

Sally sat back down on her chair.  She stared at Donal in disbelief.  “It’s no secret that I wasn’t exactly Colin’s biggest fan but writing his name on a list and actually bumping him off are two completely different things.  Besides, you’re the only other person who knows about that list.”

“Oh well, “Donal wasn’t convinced, “You’re probably right.  Let’s see what they’re saying in the canteen.”

They wandered downstairs slowly, bumping into Ruby who was on her way back.  Ruby shook her head.

“It wasn’t his heart – far worse than that.”

“What? Tell me?” said Sally.

“And steal Derek’s thunder?  I wouldn’t dare.  He’s telling the whole tale to anyone who’ll listen.  Don’t rush; it looks as if he’ll be there all afternoon.”

Despite this, Donal and Sally put on a little turn of speed and sure enough, Derek was holding court in the middle of the canteen, surrounded by several colleagues.  He looked up as Sally and Donal came in and beckoned them over.

“You won’t have heard the latest about Colin, then will you?”

“No, but I guess you’re dying to tell us.” said Sally.

Derek looked prim-faced for a moment.  “I know you two never got on Sally, but there’s no need to mock the dead.”

“Oh, stop milking it Derek, we know it wasn’t his heart – so what was it?”

“According to his daughter, they found him on a sunbed by the beach and he’d choked to death on a salted sardine.  He had a plate of them by his side and a glass of beer.”

“Choking isn’t that unusual, and Colin could certainly woof it away.” said Donal.”

“Ah!” said Derek, “but the police are treating it as a suspicious death.  They said that the sardine had been rammed down his throat with some force and that he was held down.”

Sally felt a cold shiver round her shoulders.  Others began to drift away, and having lost their appetites, she and Donal wandered back upstairs in silence.

“Donal”, she said as they reached the upper landing, “there is one tiny little thing that’s worrying me about the list, I don’t suppose it means anything but … no, forget it.  I’ll see you later.”

Watching as she went back into her office and propped open the door Donal began to wonder if it was just a coincidence.  He had a couple of phone calls to make.

Corporate Killer – the Town Hall Cuts

Sally’s List

Sally stabbed her pen viciously on the paper, as she finished the last name with a flourish, leaned back in her chair and examined the list on her desk.  She’d been reading a tabloid article by some celebrity pseudo-psychologist who recommended making a list of the twelve most annoying people you knew.  The list should be ritually destroyed or put it away in a drawer, in order to minimise the effect that these people had on you and your life.  Seeing the names of the twelve people she disliked the most actually written down in capital letters should have given her a huge sense of satisfaction according to the article.    It didn’t.  In fact, the more she looked at the names on the list, the more their faces and voices took root in her brain and irritated her even more.  She was not a vindictive person by nature; she tried hard to accept people for what they were and not to be too judgemental but after twenty-four years in local government there were some things that just made you feel positively homicidal.

COLIN
SHARON
SHIRLEY
DEREK
ATHENA
LINDA
LOUIS
HESTER
GRAHAM
ANGELA
TRACEY
SUSIE

She was about to screw the paper up and throw it in the bin in disgust when she heard a gentle tapping noise.  Donal peered round the edge of the door. “Are you busy?”

 Sally shook her head.  “No – just plotting a homicide or twelve.”

“Really?  Anyone that I loathe?” 

Sally handed Donal the sheet of paper, grinning as he sat down and peered at the names. “Only twelve?  I could think of a lot more people to add to it.”

“Make your own list darling” said Sally, “these are not just people who have mildly annoyed me, they are people who are destined for horrible and painful deaths – but only in my deepest darkest fantasies of course.”

“Okay then,” Donal sat down at the desk next to Sally’s.  “I have five minutes to kill before lunch so I may as well talk about grisly murder.  Why are so many of our dear colleagues on your hit list?”

“Come on Donal.  You know most of them; you check their quarterly accounts and I’ve heard you through the wall groaning and grinding your teeth in frustration. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out what they’ve done to get up my nose does it?”

Donal raised his eyes heavenwards and drummed his fingers impatiently on the desktop.  “I’m waiting.”

Pushing her glasses up onto the top of her head Sally peered at the list again.  The acquisition of vari-focals had done little to improve her chronic myopia and though she hated to admit it, middle age was gradually taking its toll.  A good decade older than Donal, her colleague from the accountancy office next door, Sally refused to accept the limitations of age; tinted her hair to hide the grey and built up an extensive stock of brightly coloured scarves and earrings to camouflage a crêpe neck and crow’s feet.  Corporate rules dictated a dress code that, though loosely interpreted by some, demanded smart casual for those who had contact with the public and other professional staff.  For Sally this was usually black skirts or trousers, matching jacket and coloured blouses or tops that toned with her accessories.  Accessorising was very important to her.

She took a deep breath.  “Okay.  Top of the list is Colin.  He’s a total slacker; he’s pompous and completely unsupportive to his staff.  The only person I know who’s proud of the fact that he never completes any of his actions after a meeting. He tried to get me sacked once because I failed to show appreciation of his sparkling wit.”

“Fair enough.  How about Sharon?  I don’t really have much to do with her – but you can’t work in this building and not know who she is.”

“Count yourself lucky.  Remember that extremely expensive publicity event we organised in August?”

“I do.  I was looking at the spreadsheet only yesterday and thinking how much your team was spending on frivolities.”

“Cheers Donal.  Anyway, I had to give a presentation because no one else in the team was available. One went sick, another had a prior engagement and Louis disappeared mysteriously only to turn up when it was all over.  He was last seen lurking behind the portakabins with a fag hanging out of his mouth.  Anyway, I was doing really well until we came to the ‘any questions’ bit at the end.  Sharon piped up and completely contradicted everything I’d said.”

“For any particular reason?”

“As far as I could see it was just to try and make me look stupid.  She does that.  Nice as pie when she’s on the phone or talking to me alone, but introduce any kind of third party into the conversation and she seems hell bent on humiliation.  I let her ramble on a bit then told her that what she was saying wasn’t really relevant to my part of the presentation but that Colin might be able to give her an answer.  He jumped like a scalded cat when he heard his name mentioned, but I was back in my seat by then and he had to get up and waffle on for another five minutes to cover.”

“Is that the only reason you want a slow and painful death for her?”

“Isn’t that enough?  She’s also contentious in meetings, never uses her electronic diary, her highlights look like someone splatted an egg on her head and she has a loud voice and a very annoying laugh.”

Donal nodded his head.  It was true that the sound of Sharon guffawing in the corridor had disturbed his mid-afternoon iPod session on more than one occasion.

“Do I really need to explain why Linda is on the list?” asked Sally.

“Could it have something to do with her being two-faced, boastful, patronising and wearing extremely ill-fitting bras that cause a distraction in meetings?”

“Very good.  It’s nice to see that you’ve been paying attention when I’ve been grumbling at you.  I’ve had suspicions that you’d nodded off when I was mid-rant.  Linda can’t spell either, sends out atrociously unprofessional e-mails with no capitals or punctuation and is forever telling everyone else that they’re wrong and she’s right. Oh, and she has no taste whatsoever – just look at her clothes – mutton dressed as hooker.”

“Meow!”  Donal ran his finger down the list and paused. “Okay, Derek is next.  I might have a bit of a problem with his life being brought to a premature end.”

“I know.  He’s one of your buddies but he’s also lazy, dumps all his work on the ladies in his office, abuses his position by taking off to the golf course without notice and then maintains that he was working from home all the time.  Don’t even get me started on the fact that he got his wife a cushy job here without her ever applying for it, or that rumour has it he’s been knocking off one of the teenage cleaners when everyone else has gone home.  If people knew what went on in that therapy room, they’d never lie down on the couch again.  There’s a lot more I could say but I won’t.”

Donal gulped at this crushing summation of his friend. “That’s probably more criticism than most people warrant in a lifetime.  Your points are all valid and unfortunately true but personally, there are several advantages to being his buddy.”

Sally patted Donal’s hand.  “Not a problem, everyone is allowed the odd lapse in judgement – yours just happens to be Derek.  I take it that we are in agreement over Athena?”

“Oh yes.  Hideously overpaid, sends us patronising e-mails, has a really affected voice, always wears the same boring navy shift dresses and needs a damn good haircut!  How anyone can say that she’s good value at one hundred and fifty grand a year I don’t know!”

When it came to Tracey or Susie no discussion was needed either as Donal and Sally had both suffered from their cunning machinations in the past.  Two senior officers; they shared an office, always took an hour for lunch together in the canteen and needed every section of a report explained to them in the most minute detail.

“Who is this Shirley?  Does she work here at Mostyn Hall?” asked Donal.

“No, thank goodness.  She’s the single most irritating person I’ve ever worked with.  She came to us on a secondment in my last job and I was asked to organise her training and induction.  I spent a week working with her but got so exasperated with her lack of progress that I had to arrange for other team members to take her on for a couple of days as well.  Each person recorded the work they’d covered with her and then I got Shirley to draw up a list of what she thought she’d learned.”

“Was there a slight discrepancy in the lists perhaps?”

“A huge discrepancy.    She also wrecked our stationery cupboard and blamed me for it whilst I was on leave and couldn’t defend myself.  When my old boss Barry told her that he wouldn’t be offering her a permanent job, she burst into tears and said she couldn’t learn the job because I was bullying her.  He asked for some evidence and offered to initiate a harassment process on her behalf, but she backed down and went back to her old job the following week.  He told me about the allegation but only once she’d gone. “

“So why isn’t Barry on the list then?”

“He should be, I know but when all’s said and done, he’s just a pathetic wimp really.”

“Okay – only four more to go – I don’t think I need to ask about Graham.  Brown-nose, sly and bone idle.”

“Correct, not exactly the qualities you require in a building attendant.  He’s also a hypocrite.”

“Expand?”

“Everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs but people who bang on about not needing artificial stimulants because of their religion and subsequently stink the room out with stale whisky breath …”

“No!”

“Yes!  Who else have we got?   Tracey’s best friend Angela.  She’s a supergrass and a moaner.  She’s always running to Tracey with little manufactured stories that get other people in trouble and as for Hester….”

“Having spent this morning with her trying to sort out her quarterly accounts I fully support her assassination and would even volunteer to carry it out myself.”

“Yes, the Queen of Vague.  My idea of hell is to be trapped in a room with Hester while she makes a fully informed decision.  I’d be there for ever.  Besides, she hates me.”

“Oh, kill her off then. Last but by no means least – Louis.  I thought he was a friend of yours?”

“He was – is – oh I don’t know – I put him on the list but I keep having second thoughts.  I can’t leave cans of drink in the fridge anymore because he comes in and helps himself.   He pinches our mugs and leaves them all over the building, never pays his tea money and gets away with so much that I’m seriously beginning to think he’s made of Teflon.  He upset one of his staff in supervision the other day, came banging on the window for a tissue, took the box and never brought them back.  He is a mate though.” she said pensively.

“So, when are you going to start bumping them all off?”  Donal looked slightly worried as he handed back the list.

Sally smiled “I was about to throw this in the confidential waste.  I feel slightly cleansed just for having committed their names to paper but on second thoughts maybe I’ll just hide them away for a while and give them another chance.” 

 “You know that the combined wages and potential retirement packages of these people would go a long way to making up our shortfall don’t you.”  said Donal, his accountant’s brain totting up the figures at an alarming rate as he ran a finger down the list again.  “I would guess that your solution to the spending cuts might be a little too radical to put in the helpful suggestion box though.” 

Sally took the list back from him and opening the middle drawer of her desk, she tucked the list away under a packet of headache tablets and a stapler. She shuddered as she thought of the reaction her hit list would generate if the chief executive’s department ever heard of it.  Especially as the Athena was already on the hit list. All the suggestion boxes were made of see-through plastic and a popular pastime when waiting for printing to emerge from the temperamental follow-me copier system was to try and decipher the supposedly confidential suggestions inside the box without anyone else seeing you.

“Coming down for lunch then?  Or are you plotting world domination this afternoon as well?”  Donal got up, pausing in the doorway whilst Sally picked up her mobile phone and purse.  Pulling the office door behind her, she followed him down the stairs and out into one of the narrow corridors that formed the perimeters of Mostyn Hall.  Getting around the building was often a lengthy process due to the number of people loitering near the printers or at the washing up sink, who wanted to gossip, ask technical questions or merely pass the time of day.

Mostyn Hall was the local authority’s main outlying office and was based in what used to be an old high school.  It retained many of the quirks and complications of what had once been a holding pen for the town’s disenfranchised youth.  The room now used as for meetings and conferences had once been the assembly hall; Sally’s office had been a store room and Donal’s office the classroom next door.  The directorate staff worked in relative luxury in the suite of rooms where the head teacher and secretarial support had been, with easy access to the most tastefully decorated of the three sets of lavatories in the building. 

Periodic efforts were made to tart up the décor of the tired old building, especially in those areas frequented by other professionals and members of the public, but the original ill-fitting windows, harsh lighting and shabby but definitely not chic furnishings were very prominent.

The canteen that Donal and Sally were heading for was on the other side of the building and already filling up with those who had the leisure to sit and eat their lunch away from the demands of the phone and computer.  Donal and Sally rarely fell into this category however, piling their food on paper plates and rushing back to their offices for a half an hour browse on the Internet before work demanded their attention again. Sally noticed that Tracey and Susie were at their usual table, deep in some dark and meaningless conversation like a pair of malevolent crows 

Sally’s colleagues from the project team were out at meetings all day, so once lunch was over, she plugged in her Walkman and finished off the pile of work that had been left in her in-tray.  Stacking the papers in neat piles ready for her next meeting, Sally smiled when she thought of how much her life had changed in the past six months.  Despite the irritating people on her list, making the move to Mostyn Hall had definitely opened up a new world for her.

The hit list was forgotten for the time being and over the next week it was buried even deeper under the miscellany of objects that found their way into Sally’s middle drawer.

The Ring Pull

Mike’s press releases appeared to have worked, together with a little persuasion from the local police; by the next day the road outside the house was clear again. The reporter from the chosen magazine and her photographer were able to walk into Diana’s house for the exclusive interview without any hindrance. There had been some rapid tidying up beforehand; Diana was wearing new dress with a pattern of poppies and cornflowers, and Danny put on a red polo shirt with his jeans. He said that bright colours came out better in photographs.

No shoes or socks of course.

Jane came in to observe and provide moral support but no Milo this time.  As interviews go, it was fairly gentle.  The reporter concentrated on Danny and Diana’s mutual attraction, and the fairly rubbish time they’d both been through in the past two years.  Debbie’s identity was still kept secret, but it was public knowledge that she was one of Danny’s employees, and as such, one of the family.

Halfway through the interview, the photographer spotted the ring pull from a drink can on Diana’s finger and zoomed in it.  The reporter wanted to know the significance, so Danny explained. “We were trapped in the house because of the media mob outside, so I had to improvise.  I could have asked my manager Mike to obtain an engagement ring and send it over, but one of the many things I’ve learned about Diana, is that she makes her own choices.   After twenty-odd years of being told what to do, choosing an engagement ring is something we need to do together.  I thought that coming to stay here for a couple of days was going to be torture; without my support staff, my big house – and the Bentley. Apart from Diana’s ex-husband, it’s been a great couple of days, and although I’ve learned more about Diana, I’ve also learned a great deal more about myself.”

“I’m rather fond of my ring pull, it’s a bit like Danny, rough round the edges,” said Diana. “Perhaps we can get one made up in a smoother and more permanent form, with a wedding ring to match?”

“Very romantic – you’ll be inundated with artisan jewellers eager to do the job once this article goes out. So, what happens next?” asked the reporter.

“We’re going to the house in the Cotswolds,” said Diana. “I need to learn how to be Danny’s PA for a start, the hospital where our friend is staying is close by, so we can visit and make sure that she’s getting the help and support that she needs.  We have the inquest on Simon’s death to get through as well. I understand that Danny’s housekeeper is transforming the furnishings of the house so that they are less white and sterile, and more homely. We’ll also be living nearer to my oldest friend Helen. She’s anxious to meet Danny and make sure he’s suitable for me.”

“You don’t want to stay here then?”

“My children went to school here and many of their friends still live here.  Jane will keep an eye on them – and Milo – for me, and my children have given us permission to come back and stay when we want to.  I feel that – provided we work at it – Danny and I can be happy wherever we are.”

The photographer got in a couple of very romantic, happy snaps before everything was wound up. The reporter said that she was more than satisfied with all the material that she’d been given.

“This won’t be the last interview though; people will want to know how you managed to tame the bad boy, Diana.” she said.

Diana laughed and hugged Danny, who was looking anything but bad at that moment. “He tamed himself,” she said, smiling happily.  “You can’t spend your life being angry and upsetting people. Danny turned a corner when he started to understand the importance of the other people in his life.  We make our own happiness with the people we choose to spend our time with.”

“Nothing else worrying you now then, Diana?” asked the reporter as she got up to leave.

“Just whether or not my old Focus will make it all the way to the Cotswolds, especially after having various members of the press leaning all over it.”

“If the worst comes to the worst,” said Danny. “Ted will come and get us and arrange to get the Focus home via tow truck. Or I could just get out and push it.  Anything to bring Diana home – with me.”

THE END

Milo

The crowd outside thinned slightly, enabling a lone PCSO to battle her way to the front door. She managed to squeeze through the narrow gap, as Diana hid behind the door and closed it shut very quickly to prevent any determined photographers taking a snap.

“Come into the kitchen,” said Diana. “It’s a bit quieter at the back of the house and the curtains are drawn so we can have some privacy.  I was just about to make some lunch; only cheese, crackers and fruit but you’re very welcome. I can make you a drink if you like? Fruit juice, Diet Coke or something hot?”

“Coffee would be great.  It’s a bit cold out there.”

“I’ll just call Danny first.  We have a visitor Danny, darling, can you come down, and make sure that you’re respectable?”

“I don’t do respectable; you should know that by now!” he yelled.  The PCSO giggled as Diana got out plates and mugs, and put the kettle on.  Suitably clad in black jeans and a new polo shirt in bright blue, Danny bounded down the stairs and into the kitchen.

“New shirt,” said Diana. “It suits you; it brings out the colour in your lovely eyes.”

Danny smiled and kissed her rather thoroughly. He waved amiably at the PCSO, who blushed, and took out her notebook and pen.

“No one else ever notices my eyes,” he said “Just one of the many reasons why I love this woman so much.”

“We’ve had a complaint,” the PCSO explained.  “Well more than one actually, from a John Muggeridge?”

“My very ex-husband,” said Diana.

“He says that he is the owner of this house and that he was assaulted and threatened by Mr – uh – Danny?”

Diana perched on a stool and sighed.

“The house is jointly owned by my ex-husband and myself.  In our divorce settlement, it was agreed that I could live here whilst our children were in full-time education.  They are both at university. Danny’s company is in the process of purchasing the house so that it can be put in trust for my children as long as they want to own it. I am expecting their father to refuse to accept the sale, but as we will be paying way over the market price, and our children will benefit because they get to keep their family home, he may run into a bit of trouble legally.  It could also cost him a lot of money, and he is notoriously tight-fisted. As regards the alleged assault and threats; Danny and I were on this side of a door secured by the chain, John was outside, so no assault could have taken place.  The only threat made was Danny advising John to do one, or we would call the police.  My next-door neighbour Jane witnessed the whole thing, and had already advised John to go away when he came here on Saturday and tried to get my daughter to let him in. I’m afraid that John lives in a world of fantasy where he is the victim of other people’s unreasonableness.  That’s just one of the many reasons why he is my ex-husband.”

“I take it that Jane would be prepared to give a statement about what she saw?” said the PCSO writing very rapidly

“I’m sure she would.  Shall I get her to come round? It will save you having to battle the crowd outside.”

“Won’t she have to struggle through that crowd, will she? said the PCSO looking worried.

“No.  She’ll nip through her garden and into ours.  I’ll just text her and invite her in for coffee too.”

Within minutes Danny was opening the kitchen door to let Jane in.  She bought with her a large casserole dish and a bag of frozen peas. An enormous fluffy ginger cat was following her.

“Meet Milo,” said Diana.  “This may well be the only time he puts in an appearance,”

“I thought you might like a hot meal for tonight,” she said, handing it to Danny.  Diana lifted the lid of the casserole dish and grinned.

“Shepherd’s pie Danny! With garden peas! Jane you are an angel! So that’s why Milo has come home.”

“Well, you can’t live on love, toast and fruit juice. I made one for myself and Milo at the same time – no onions in ours though.  I still can’t get used to cooking for one.” she said sadly.

Diana gave her a hug, and Danny kissed her on the cheek, making her smile again.  The PCSO felt envious, and bent her head down to take some more notes.  Jane sat down on one of the stools, and gave her answers without any prompting.  She also made several additional comments about what a liar John was, and how much Diana had had to put up with him over the past two years while they were sharing the house.  The PCSO seemed satisfied with the information and relaxed a little when Diana passed her a mug of fresh coffee.

“We’re going to see if we can clear the reporters away soon, but they asked me to come in and speak to you first. DI Willis has been in contact, and I believe there will be some kind of statement soon from a ‘Mike’ is it?”

“Mike is our manager,” said Danny, unable to suppress a smile whenever he used ‘our’ instead of ‘my’. “He’s hoping to set up an interview for Diana with one of the glossy magazines, but we need the rest of the press to disappear, as it will be an exclusive.  If Jane’s free, she’ll be observing with me to make sure they don’t ask Diana anything nasty.”

Looking up from cutting cheese into cubes and slicing some apples, Diana raised her eyebrows.

“I can actually stand up for myself, but it would be nice to have Jane and Danny here too. It’s not as if I’ve had to do anything like this before.”

“Can I ask you something?” asked the PCSO.

“Fire away.” said Diana, leaning against Danny, who put his arm around her shoulders.

“Isn’t this a bit scary?  From what the papers are saying, you led quite a quiet life before you met Danny?”

“Well, it’s true that we’ve had a rather action-packed weekend, but if it wasn’t for the mob outside and John’s deliberately wasting police time with his lies; we would be having a break away from all the celebrity fuss.  That’s all we wanted. To come here for a few days, see Jane – and Milo. My children are well aware of what’s going on and are particularly disgusted by their father’s behaviour. The best part of all this is meeting Danny, and finding out that he is most definitely the man of my dreams – except that now he’s a reality.”

“Good luck for the future then,” said the PCSO, “And we’ll see about moving the press on, and warning your husband off.  I’ll try and battle my way out now.  Thank you.”

“No need to go that way.” said Jane. “Come back with me and I’ll let you out of the side gate. They’ll all be looking at Diana’s front door and you can slip out without being noticed.”

Danny let them out of the kitchen door, Milo gave him a cursory glance and followed Jane.  Whilst Diana carried on preparing lunch, he stood behind her, put his arms around her waist and nuzzled into her neck.

“Am I really the man of your dreams?” he said.

Diana put down the kitchen knife and turned around so that she was facing him.  Tracing the shape of his eyes with her fingertips, she kissed him and whispered in his ear. “Dreams do come true sometimes. Back to practicalities.  Lunch upstairs or down?”

“Upstairs on the bed, and can I have that can of Diet Coke with my lunch, please?”

Messing with the Media

By mutual agreement, mobile phones were turned to silent before they went to bed that night. It was another good night’s sleep for them both, with Danny spooning himself around Diana after they’d made love, and feeling as if he didn’t have a care in the world. The urge to pee woke him in the morning, and very carefully he slid out of bed and headed for the bathroom.  Coming out again after brushing his teeth, there seemed to be a lot of noise outside.  He very cautiously peered round the edge of the hallway blind to see a throng of paparazzi, leaning on Diana’s front garden wall, her car, and anything else they could lean against.

“Oh shit!” he said quietly, and padded back to bed, trying to get back in without waking Diana.  He picked up his phone and was greeted with a flood of texts.  He looked at Mike’s first.

Simon’s mates have broken the news.  Trying to keep a lid on things but someone has leaked Diana’s address, keep the curtains drawn for now.

From Mark:

Police visited Deb last night.  Spending the day with her at the hospital. Keep your head down and don’t make Diana do all the washing up.

From Ted:

Paps outside the gates first thing, then vanished. Someone has told them that you are at Diana’s.  If the two of you need rescuing, let me know.  I won’t bring the Bentley. Look after each other.

Woken by the change of Danny’s position, Diana stretched, turned over towards Danny, and gave him a sleepy smile.

“Good morning.  Did you sleep well?”

He leaned over and kissed her; a freshly brushed teeth kiss.

“I slept very well my love, but our media friends would appear to have had a more stressful night. Simon’s friends were quick to get pictures of his confession on their mobiles before the police took the evidence, and they sold them to the press.  Luckily DI Willis and a female police officer went to see Debbie last night and told her what had happened. Mark has texted to say that he’s spending the day with her today.  Ted had the press at the house earlier, but someone gave them your address.  I suspect your ex is behind the leak.  We have a large group of paps outside.  Mike is trying to calm things down. Ted will come and rescue us if need be.  Better check your phone too?”

Ignoring the long stream of texts from John, Diana looked at Jane’s first.  Not surprisingly it was to advise her about the people outside the house, and that they had already knocked on her door.  She told them to sod off and bother someone else.  She had also had a couple of calls from angry neighbours about the people blocking up the road.  They were threatening to call the police if Diana didn’t get the press to clear off.

She told them to go ahead.

“I guess we’ll be staying in today then,” said Danny, putting his phone down and holding a slightly shell-shocked Diana to his chest. “Mike says to keep the curtains drawn – which suits me fine.”

“What can we do to get them to go away?” said Diana, scanning through the rest of her texts.

“Wait it out.  There will be something else to interest them soon enough. Either that or one of your neighbours will complain to the police, who will advise them to move along or risk arrest and detention for breach of the peace – or something like that.  Have we got enough food for a siege?”

“I got some staples in yesterday; we could probably manage for a couple of days without starving.  Jane texted to say that she has plenty in her larder if we need it.  She’s finding the whole thing very funny and hasn’t seen this much excitement in the road for years. We know that Debbie is okay and safe, and that’s all that matters really.  I’m sorry about Simon, but his confession puts a line under things. I just hope no one blames your phony laryngitis for putting temptation in his way.”

“Hosting the auction would have given him the career boost he badly needed. He chose to attack Debbie, and steal stuff from the safe.  You shouldn’t take risks like that without thinking about the consequences.  You do realise that we are safest up here in bed, don’t you?” said Danny, grinning and kissing Diana again, and again, and again.

“Explain that to me slowly, and with fewer kisses in between, because they distract me.”

“Downstairs is easy prey for professional cameras; there’s always a possibility of nasty neighbours at the back of your house hiring out the garden or an upstairs bedroom to the paps.  Because this bedroom is at the front of the house, and there’s a green space opposite, it would be harder to get a decent picture.  We’ll just have to sneak down, grab some food and run back up the stairs.  Good job you have a TV in here; we can keep an eye on the news.  Can you bear to spend the day in bed with me?”

“Oh yes!” she laughed, and continued scanning her texts.  “Ah! I think I’ve found the source of the leak.  A pathetic text from John asking if we are enjoying the audience?”

“It will pass.  If it doesn’t, Ted will come and rescue us.  We have a minibus with tinted windows specially for secret missions.  Unless all the fuss makes you miserable, I’d rather stick it out here for a few days at least.”

“You couldn’t have said anything to make me feel happier.  Toast, coffee and juice for breakfast?”

“Let’s go down together, my love.  If the worst comes to the worst, I can whip my tee-shirt off and dazzle them with my six pack. It worked on John after all!”

“Better put your boxers on first then?”

“Oh yeah.”

Danny bounced down the stairs, Diana followed more cautiously.

“How come the press haven’t been ringing your door bell?” he asked. “They’ve been banging on the door enough.”

Diana started to laugh, so much that she had to sit down on the stairs in order to control herself.

“The irony!  John disconnected the bell ages ago when the kids were still living here.  He said that the sound of it got on his nerves.  More likely that it was because no one ever rang the bell to see him – and now – he’s been indirectly responsible for giving us a bit of peace!”

Danny’s phone rang; not just a text this time, and he sat down on one of the kitchen stools to answer it.

“Hi Mike.  You okay?”

“Sorry to ring you.  Sam Willis – the detective – wants to talk to you and Diana.  He didn’t have your mobile so I said I’d ring you before I passed it on – just in case you thought it was a reporter pretending to be a police man.”

“Yet another reason why you are a wonderful manager – a manager who is supposed to be on holiday by the way.”

“Yeah, I know, but who could have guessed Simon would top himself? If it’s any consolation you and I get a positive mention in the suicide note.  He said that he should have been grateful for the opportunity we gave him to host the auction, rather than attacking Debbie and stealing the stuff.  Talking of which, what do you want me to do with said stuff?”

“Get rid of it.  Donate to a good cause – maybe a charity that supports people in Debbie’s position.  She’s got us but others are often dealing with it alone.”

“What about the other stuff you bought.  Necker? The crash helmet?”

“I think Diana would rather have a less ostentatious holiday.  In fact. If these bloody reporters would do one, we could carry on having a nice little holiday here.  I even did some washing up yesterday.  Can’t the DI get rid of them?”

“I’ll give him your mobile number; you can ask him yourself.”

“Tell him to give us an hour to make breakfast, carry it upstairs and eat it.”

“In the bedroom, eh?”

“It’s the only place where we are safe from the mob outside. Once you’ve rung the DI put your phone down and do something holiday-ish.”

“No offence meant but your star is on the ascendant at the moment.  I’ll take some time off when things have settled down.  Apart from the mob and the washing up – you sound happy.”

“I am.  Very happy.  We both are.  We are both very, very hungry as well.  Catch you later.”

Diana had already loaded the tray with plates, mugs, the cafetiere, fruit juice and strawberry jam.  She was just waiting for the second lot of toast to pop up.

Danny loved toast.

“Breakfast in bed. Bliss.” Danny smiled as he carried the tray upstairs and settled the tray between them.  Diana handed him the TV remote. “Thank you, my love.  Shall we see if we are on the news?”

“Oh, go on then.  They’ll blur out my registration plate and house number, won’t they?”

“For what good it would do. I wonder what the DI wants?  Simon’s confession should clear everything up really.  Did I make the right decision about the auction stuff?”

“You did. Apart from the fact it’s a reminder of what happened later that night, you’re correct.  I would hate to spend a fortnight on Necker, and if someone less fortunate than us can benefit from it, all well and good. I never really took notice of what else you bought. I was far too distracted.”

Putting his arm around her shoulders, he kissed her very gently on the cheek. 

“I bought some jewellery, even at that early stage of our relationship I was going to give it to you, but now that I know you better, I’d rather we choose things together.  Talking of which, do you have any cans of Diet Coke in the house?”

“In the fridge.  Do you really want some with your breakfast?”

“No.  If we’re going to be under house arrest, you might have to make do with a ring pull when I get down on one knee to propose.  Will you say ‘yes’?”

“You’ll have to wait and find out.  It’s a very romantic gesture though. Hang on.  Turn the sound up on the TV.”

The picture on the screen was very familiar to Diana. It was the outside of her house, but now it was complete with the press, together with the sight of Jane peering out from behind her curtain.  The news report also showed a picture of Danny’s Cotswold house, his flat in London, and the house in LA that was in the process of being sold. According to the news, it was a mystery why Danny had chosen to hide out in this humble suburban semi.  John managed to get his five eggs in by claiming that Danny had stolen his house and his wife, and that their children were now homeless.  Just as Diana was moving up from simmer to fume, DI Willis phoned; “Danny! How are you both?”

“Apart from the noisy lot outside, we are both fine.  What’s up?”

“Donating the stolen goods to charity; is that okay?  I have to check as you are the legal owner.”

“Yeah.  I’ve told Mike to donate them to some worthy causes. Can you get anything done about the press though?  This is a quiet place usually, but some of Diana’s neighbours are already complaining about the noise and cars blocking up the road. We have supplies in, so we won’t starve to death but there’s not an awful lot I can say to the press about what’s happened anyway.  Mike’s going to prepare an official press release about Simon’s death, but I think our main problem is Diana’s ex-husband who is peddling a load of lies to anyone who’ll listen.”

“I’ll have a word with the local police force, and see if they can move people on.  Perhaps Diana needs to do an interview with one of the more sympathetic papers or magazines?  How long are you intending to stay there?  You’d be more secure in your other house.”

“We wanted to be on our own for a while.  Not a good idea in retrospect, but if it wasn’t for the media, we’d be perfectly happy here.  I’ll talk to Diana, and if she’s okay we’ll get Mike to set something up.  Was there anything else?”

“Diana’s ex also claims that you assaulted him when he came round, and made threats.”

“For the record; the front door was on the chain so I couldn’t have hit him if I wanted to.  I told him to do one or we’d call the police but Diana will confirm that I stayed on our side of the door all the time. If you want an independent witness; Jane next door was watching the whole thing from her front window.  Can’t you lot do him for wasting police time?”

“I’ll have a word.  If things don’t calm down in a day or two, you might have to move out though.”

“Ted is on standby with a minibus to smuggle us out in the middle of the night. Thanks for going to see Debbie and breaking it to her gently by the way.  How did she take it?”

“As I expected her to. Shocked and tearful. They’re doing a good job of helping her through it at the hospital though, and your lad Mark has been there most of the time.  Give my regards to Diana anyway, and Danny…”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t punch any of the press. Please?”

Packing the remains of their breakfast on the tray, Diana was about to take it back downstairs, but Danny took it from her.

“Come downstairs by all means, and tell me where everything goes, but I don’t expect you to wait on me.  Perhaps we can wash up together, and when we’ve done that…”

“Yes?”

“What else is there to do but go back to bed.  Not necessarily rampant sex, I just like being here with you and snuggling.”

She couldn’t argue with that, and didn’t want to, either.

Lovely Jane

“What do you want for dinner, and if you say ‘you’ again, I may throw something?” asked Diana, standing with the fridge door wide open.

Danny grinned, and leaned over to grab his glass of juice from the breakfast bar.  Despite all his misgivings, life at Diana’s house was pretty good. Okay it wasn’t the Ritz, but it was comfortable, and Diana seemed to be very happy to be back in her own element.

“What are the options?”

“We could send out for pizza; they deliver.  The chippy is just round the corner, so is the Co-Op.  What’s your soul food?”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you choose to eat that makes you feel comfortable and relaxed? Some people like Shepherd’s pie, others want a roast dinner, fish and chips, omelette, Toad in the Hole?”

“Can you do omelettes?  I can’t remember the last time I had a decent omelette. There’s no point ordering them in hotels.  They just arrive tasting and looking like a rubber tyre. Don’t even get me started on the rubbish they serve up as omelettes in LA.”

“Define omelette?  Plain, cheese, ham, or ham and cheese?”

“Oh, ham and cheese.  Have you got the stuff for it though?”

“I’ll put some more clothes on and go to the Co-op for the bits. Umm, maybe you should actually put something on too – just in case anyone else turns up.”

“Do I really have to get dressed? It’s just that this house is nice and warm, and you have carpets and comfortable furniture.”

“Let me guess, the Cotswold house is very white, very laminate, very tiled, and the only place you can veg out on is your bed.”

“How did you know?  Mike never got the chance to show you any photos.”

“Ted told me.  That was why he had a quick look round before he left.  Jenny and Ted are going to make your house more comfortable for you.”

“Just for me? Or for us?”

“It could be for us – as long as you understand that I am used to cooking and cleaning, so the culture shock is going to be far greater for me than it is for you.  Talking of which, I need to put some washing in.  Let’s go upstairs, and sort out some clothes before I go shopping.  Don’t pout, Danny.  I am happy to wash your clothes with mine, but I think you ought to try just a little bit of unpacking too.”

Danny chased her up the stairs and into their bedroom.  He paused at the door and touched the hasp and padlock and raised his eyebrows.

“Were you intending to lock me in when you go out?  I’ve seen the film ‘Misery’ you know.”

“Did you enjoy it?”

“Fell asleep.  Mike woke me up when it finished, and suggested I go to bed because I was snoring.  Do I snore?”

“I don’t think so, I seem to sleep very soundly when I’m with you – when I’m not being woken in the night by emergencies, that is.  When John was still living in Ben’s bedroom, I realised that he was going into my room and rooting around when I was out.  My DIY skills weren’t up to fitting a proper lock, but Helen suggested a hasp and padlock instead.  I bought one with a combination lock, and came up with a sequence that he’d never guess.  He didn’t manage to work it out, but I know he tried because the numbers were always jumbled up when I came home from work.”

“Do I have to unpack everything now?” said Danny plaintively, as he looked at the pile of bags and cases. “There’s quite a lot of stuff here.”

“I doubt if you need most of it.  Mark’s taken most of your clothes home, but I think we could push the boat out and have clean nightclothes – especially if you get cold shoulders again. I’ll bring the laundry bag in from the bathroom.  Half of this wardrobe is yours and there are plenty of hangers; you can have the two lower drawers in the chest for socks and boxers.  That isn’t too difficult to accomplish, is it?  You are pouting again, Danny.”

“What’s in this box?” Danny picked up the box and backed out of the wardrobe.  Diana blushed, took it away from him and hid it behind her back. He wasn’t deterred that easily.

“No more unpacking until you show me what’s in the box.”

Danny stood his ground.

  “It’s nothing.” Diana muttered.

“Show me – please?”

Very reluctantly, Diana handed him the box and shut her eyes as he opened it.

“Is this yours?” he asked.  She nodded and continued to blush.  He put the box on the bed and tilted her face up to his.  She still couldn’t look him in the eye.

“It was a Christmas present from Helen,” she said.  “I’ve never used it in case John heard.  It makes a hell of a noise.”

“Can I have a look – and a listen?” he asked very politely but with that naughty grin.  Reluctantly, Diana picked up the box and took out the extremely large and pink vibrator.  She turned it on, then turned it off again very quickly.  Danny fell back on the bed laughing, then took the vibrator from her and put it in the box.

“Put it back in the wardrobe, my love.  I don’t think you need it now – do you – do we?”

“That’s what Helen said when I told her about – us – and…”

“I’m looking forward to meeting Helen.  She sounds like a good friend.  Do you tell her everything about – us?”

Diana nodded, blushing again and burying her head in his shoulder. Danny laughed and kissed her cheek. 

“You really were a shy rosebud when I met you.  Can I just say how much I am loving helping you to blossom into the woman you were always meant to be?   Do I still have to put all my stuff away though?”

“Yes.  The distraction is over!”

“You said that you worked in A&E sometimes, didn’t you?”

“Yes, and I was extremely strict when I needed to be. There, that’s me done.  You won’t need any socks. I know most people have gone over to laminate flooring, but John said we couldn’t afford it, and I’m quite fond of my old carpets really.”

“That’s why I liked the hotel – no need for socks unless you actually have to go out. Do I need to put jeans on as well?”

“Provided you put a long tee-shirt on and some boxers, you’ll do.  I want you to feel comfortable, but we don’t want to frighten Jane and the cat if they pop over. That’s fine.  You do have rather lovely legs, as well as an impressive torso.  Downstairs now, before I get distracted again.”

“I don’t mind you being distracted at all.” he said, as he picked up the laundry bag and ran down the stairs and into the kitchen. Diana joined him, more suitably clad in jeans, trainers and an old navy and white striped rugby shirt of Ben’s.

Danny scrutinised her outfit and grinned.

“Is it that rough at the Co-op? You look like you’re off to a scrum.  I like it though, it brings back memories, it’s another look for you and highly desirable.”

“I had to buy it for Ben when he was in high school; not that he ever wore it, but purchase was compulsory, it cost a small fortune and I couldn’t bear to throw it away.  Luckily it came in an extra, extra-large size. I’d forgotten about your hell-raising past when I put it on. Leave the laundry by the washing machine; I’ll put in in when I get back.  I won’t be long but leave the chain off the front door, and please don’t open it to John if he comes back?”

“What about Jane?”

“She’ll come via the back garden and tap on the door.  If you’re going to flop on the sofa and watch the television, you’ll see her straight away.  She’s lovely, and she’s very pleased for me that you’ve come to stay. I’ll get more juice and fizzy water while I’m out. That’s a wonderful kiss, Danny, but I’ll only be gone ten minutes, unless I get nabbed by a tabloid reporter at the till.”

“Will you be okay?  Shall I come too?”

“I wouldn’t put you through that for a small bag of shopping.  Stay in the warm.”

She was gone.  As advised, Danny flopped on the sofa with the remote in his hand, and flicked through the channels looking for anything to distract him.  It reminded him a little of the early days with Lisa, when they could still live in an ordinary house, before his wealth and notoriety had demanded a more secure home.  The houses got bigger, and the walls and gates got higher until the involvement in television meant a move to LA, and a farewell to any attempt at normality.

Just as Danny was dozing off, there was a gentle knocking at the kitchen door.  He jumped to his feet and took a few moments to work out where he was.  An elderly woman was waving at him.  Was this Jane?  She looked fairly friendly, so he opened the door and smiled.

“Hello!  I’m Jane and you must be Danny.  Where’s Diana?”

“Hello Jane, Diana’s gone to the Co-op for eggs.  She’s cooking us omelettes for dinner.  Thank you for looking after the house.  Have you got the cat with you?”

“He’s fast asleep on my armchair. I think Diana’s ex has put him off men for life.  I have to admit that I was watching from behind the curtains when John turned up earlier.  I couldn’t catch everything you said, but you certainly sent him off with a flea in his ear. About time someone stood up to him, miserable little bully.”

“Diana seems so strong, though?” said Danny sitting back down on the sofa.  “Why did she put up with him for so long?”

Jane sat down in the armchair, and Danny had to repress a smile when he thought of how he and Diana had abused it earlier.

“She had this cock-eyed idea that she had to wait till the kids were old enough to cope with the stress of a separation and divorce.  John got more and more blatant with his affairs and groping; he made a pass at me. Just the once though but it was at my husband’s funeral.”

“Bastard! Sorry.  Swearing gets me into trouble.  What did you do?”

“Kicked him where it hurt – hard.  Then I made an announcement to everyone who was listening.  Told them that John had groped me, and that was like letting off a firework.  Half the women present had a similar story to tell, and some of the others were too scared to admit it.  John did a runner, and when he finally came home, Diana told him she wanted a divorce because he couldn’t deny his philandering any more.  It took two years of having to share the house with that slimeball, but she survived it somehow.  She knew that if she moved out, he’d sell the house, and she and the kids would have nothing. If this is just a passing fancy, Danny, better get out sooner than later.  Life has hurt her enough as it is.”

Taking a deep breath, and making a confession that he hadn’t properly made to Diana yet, he said, “I love her, Jane.  She stands up to me like no one else; she seems to understand me, and I feel happier now than I have for a long time.  It’s no secret that my wife Lisa had cancer, and that she died two years ago.  I’m lucky enough to have people who work for me, work with me, and who pulled me through, but when I met Diana, it was like the fog was finally lifting.  I know its early days for us, and I wanted to whisk her away to live in the lap of luxury, but something made me realise that it was asking too much too soon.  We need to get to know each better, and this is a good place to start, isn’t it?”

“I’ve read all the stories about you; it’s all in the past though, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, too old to raise hell any more.  I can handle the celebrity events – just.  Diana made this weekend so much easier.  She sees through the publicity crap, and when she has to be kind and in control, she’s awesome. The girl who was attacked and raped at the hotel, Diana was brilliant with her.  She knew all the right things to do to preserve evidence, but she held onto that girl like she was her own daughter.  I hope she’ll be okay; Diana organised getting her into a private hospital where she can be looked after and have time to recover.”

“I’ll miss Diana.”

“She told you that the house is being put into trust for the children though? To be honest, I’m beginning to think that it would be a good place for the two of us to run away to, if the high life gets too much.  Will you carry on looking after the cat, please?”

“Of course.  Anyway, I just popped in to say hello, and to make sure everything was okay.”

“And?”

“Diana has found herself a good man this time.  Inside and out.  Tell Diana I popped in?”

“Will do.  Thank you.  I won’t let her down.”

Jane blew him a kiss and went out through the kitchen door, determined to let the other neighbours know that Danny didn’t just look gorgeous, he was a thoroughly nice bloke too.

When she returned from the shop, Diana was expecting to find Danny crashed out on the sofa, with the remote lying on the floor where he’d dropped it. He was in the kitchen when she opened the front door and dumped the shopping bags in the hallway.  No one had ever swept her up in their arms in quite the way Danny did.  He held on to her as if his life depended upon it.

“Are you okay?  Did something happen while I was away?  It wasn’t John, was it?”

“No.  It was your wonderful friend Jane. She came in to check that everything was okay, and she went away smiling and blowing kisses, so I think I made a favourable impression.”

“Good.  What did I do to deserve the bear hug?”

“She helped me to understand a little more about why you are the way that you are.  I told her that I loved, you, but I think it’s time that I told you too. I love you, Diana, and I would live wherever you want to live.  I can’t give all my money away, nor give up every element of the high life, but we can do compromise, can’t we?”

“Oh Danny.  I love you too, and it nearly killed me earlier today when I thought I’d never see you again. What a daft pair we are!”

“Oh, and I did some washing up while you were away.  I remembered that glasses should be washed up after you’ve had fruit juice in them, or the bits stick to the glass.  It isn’t much, but…”

“I couldn’t have asked for a nicer surprise.  Is that your mobile?”

“I left it upstairs.  Back in a minute.”

Except that Diana had managed to unpack and put away all the shopping, and quickly rinse off the remaining soap bubbles from the glasses, before Danny came back downstairs clutching his phone, and looking a bit thunderstruck.

“That was Mike. He didn’t want to disturb us but he thought we ought to know.  The police have found Simon. He’s dead.  He hung himself. According to his friends, he was trying to get out of the country on Sunday, but the net had closed in on that escape route. The police nearly caught him when he tried to get into the hospital; he told his mates that he was going there to apologise to Debbie. He also told them what he’d done and left a note confessing all.  Most of the stuff he pinched has been recovered; it was a bit too hot to sell after the press got hold of the details. At least Debbie won’t have to go to court now.”

“Silly little boy. What a waste.” Diana said sadly.  “She may not have to go to court, but at least Debbie would have had some closure, now she’ll have the burden of Simon’s suicide to deal with as well. We need to make sure she’s getting some counselling at the hospital. Is Mark going to tell her?”

“Mike phoned Mark before calling us.  He sent you his love by the way.  I told him you were up the shop, and cooking omelettes for dinner.  I also told him that I was very happy, and that I’d already told your ex-husband off.  Jane said she was watching out of the window when John turned up, and had to stop herself from cheering when he stomped off.”

“Good old Jane.  She’s been a wonderful friend to me. She’s one of the reasons why I needed to come home.  Helen is another friend I need to visit.  She’s always loathed John, and he did his best to split up our friendship.  According to John, Helen would be a burden to her friends because of her disability, and it would mean that I had less time for the kids, and especially him.   Enough of John.  I got recognised in the Co-op!”

“Was that good or bad?”

“Started off bad; some idiot bloke started making comments about you, and how you must have really sunk low to send your girlfriend out get the shopping from the Co-Op.  He was hell bent on telling me what a hoodlum you are, and how you had a history of violence and drinking.  The girl on the till told him to stop annoying her customers or she’d have security chuck him out. He went. We cheered. I hadn’t realised that you were that famous. I suppose I must be now after being plastered all over the papers. Are you hungry now?”

“Starving.”

“Come and sit in the kitchen while I cook then.  You might learn something, although it sounds as if you have already. Thank you for washing up the glasses.”

Horrible John

The scene of domestic bliss was interrupted by a hammering on the front door, and a voice that Diana knew only too well.

“Open this door at once, Diana!  I know that you’ve got that bloke in there with you, one of the neighbours saw you come back here in a big car this afternoon.  A Rolls or something.  What’s the deal with the ‘For Sale’ sign outside?  I haven’t given you permission to sell the house.  I own half of it after all.”

Diana raised her eyebrows and got off the stool.  Danny put a hand on her arm and shook his head.  He had read John’s texts and heard his voice mails; he had the measure of the man without even meeting him. Taking off Ben’s tee-shirt so that his rather impressive physique complete with battle scars was on display, Danny handed it to Diana, and went into the hallway.   Leaving the door on the chain, he opened the front door a few inches.

“You want something, mate?” he snarled.  “God, you are even more pathetic than I thought you were after reading that rubbish you texted to Diana.  Give it up, sunshine.  She’s found someone who appreciates her, and is a damn sight more caring than you.  The house belongs to your children, and you’ll get your half of the sale within the next couple of days.  In the meantime, get your sorry arse in gear, before we call the police and have you arrested for harassment. Oh, and it’s a Bentley, not a Rolls.”

Diana was hiding behind the kitchen door, clutching the tee-shirt and trying hard not to laugh too loudly.  She couldn’t see John, but she could imagine how Danny’s bare chest and athletic build would make her short, paunchy and balding ex, look and feel inferior.  He would never stand up to a man, especially not someone as powerful and infamous as Danny.  John muttered a few expletives, but turned around and stormed off across the road towards his car.

Closing the door, Danny turned around to face Diana and hoped that he hadn’t gone too far. One look at her trying desperately not to laugh was enough.  He took her in his arms and kissed her.

“I didn’t come on too strong, did I?” he asked. “My stomach muscles ache from being held in so tight.”

“You were magnificent! Taking your tee-shirt off was a master stroke.  John has never had what could be described as an impressive physique. I wonder which one of my nosey neighbours tipped him off?”

“Can I ask you a question?” he said, pulling her even closer.

“Anything, I’ll answer anything when you hold me like that.”

“Good.  Because I want to know where your ex used to sit in the front room.”

She took his hand and led him through to where a large winged armchair stood separate from the rest of the furniture.

“The master’s chair.  Even the cat wouldn’t sit on it in case he was yelled at.  Since John left, I have moved it slightly and even sat on it myself a couple of times. Why?”

Danny sat down on the chair and pulled her onto his lap.

“Because this is one of the many places where you and I will be making love, and getting rid of all the John-ness from your house.”

The very words sent a tingle down her spine, as his arm held her tight and his other hand tilted her face for a long and very lingering kiss. “Mm-m. Sooner rather than later it would seem…” he said with that slow and very sexy smile.