This was the spot. Brian was sure of it. The bulldozers had already taken most of the old familiar reference points: the Palace Cinema, first victim of the wrecking ball; the Railway Tavern, on the corner of Station Road and Manchester Road; the UCP Tripe shop next door. All gone. It would have been impossible for Brian to find the spot but for the partly demolished Co-Op Laundry building, still standing at the centre of the demolition site.
For the next few days, at least.
The ground was soaked and muddy, grey sky puddles reflecting the twisted lattice girders of the shattered old laundry. Brian loosened his collar. That morning’s flash thunderstorm had left the air hot, still and oppressive. The storm had moved south, probably halfway through Cheshire by now, soaking the stuck-up residents of Wilmslow and Alderley Edge.
“The rain it raineth every day,” hummed Brian, “‘Upon the Just and Unjust fellow. But more upon the Just because, the Unjust hath the Just’s umbrella.” He’d always liked that poem; the vindication of crime with a little humour. He turned and paced out fifty yards from the front entrance of the shattered laundry to where he thought the small cobbled yard at the back of his first home would have been.
Wilmslow was where Joyce’s mum and dad had lived. Naturally, when Brian and Joyce were courting, he’d never dreamt of taking her to the Railway Tavern, or the Bricklayer’s Arms down the road, or even the Midland Hotel on Burnage Lane. Beer might have been one shilling and eleven pence a pint in those pubs back then, but those pubs weren’t for the likes of Joyce.
No; for Joyce, it was chicken in the basket at the Berni Inn, Didsbury. Or scampi and chips in the Dog and Partridge next door. Beer was three times the price in those places, “establishments,” as Joyce’s dad used to call them. But needs must, his own dad used to say.
When The Devil Drives, thought Brian.
It hadn’t taken long after their marriage for Brian to realise his mistake. “You can’t marry outside your class,” his dad said. If only he’d dispensed his sage, nodding, pipe smoking, after the fact, stable-door-locked-too-late-the-horse-has-bloody-well-bolted advice a bit sooner!
The arguments. The neediness of material possession. The cramped little terraced house behind the laundry that they’d rented for twenty years, waiting, scrimping, saving for the deposit on a semi-detached house fit for Joyce, from Wilmslow, Cheshire.
Brian still recalled their arguments, sometimes violent, the hatred always simmering just below the surface; a cruel retort, a door slammed, the silent replay of how he could have won the day with a smart response always delivered too late, always delivered to an empty kitchen or parlour.
And then she was gone.
Brian put his hands in his pockets and looked down at the puddle. Just another old fool reminiscing over lost times and happy days. The pool of water obscured most of the ground, but he thought he could make out the foundations of the walls surrounding the yard.
He should have done this months ago, when he’d first heard the area was being redeveloped.
Never mind, he thought, this particular stable door’s still open at least. He’d come back after dark with a pick and shovel and get Joyce. He placed a brick, upright in the centre of the puddle to mark the spot, and walked away.
“Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need” so proclaimed the small, grubby whiteboard hung from the wall. Tim knew little about Voltaire bar that he was responsible for the quote scrawled on the staffroom whiteboard in a rather lacklustre attempt to motivate the workforce. That and he very much doubted that he’d ever worked in retail.
The shop, as usual, was dead and there was only half an hour until he could go home but since he’d spent the last fifteen minutes killing time in the staffroom, Tim slowly made his way back towards the shop floor. He took extra care in pacing his steps in order to maximise the time it took him to get back to the till without looking like he was purposely dilly-dallying. Jean had just clocked off and was talking to Trudy when he got back to his position.
“Are you in on Wednesday Tim?”
“Unfortunately so, why?”
“Apparently we have a training day.”
“Oh joy. Again, why?”
“Management think that our sales might benefit from a bit of a brush up on our ‘customer interaction’.”
“And what does ‘customer interaction’ training involve?” Tim was always dubious when management became involved with anything. They couldn’t organise the proverbial piss up in a brewery.
“How to approach shoppers in a ‘warm and welcoming manner’ and what not.”
“How long have you been working this job Jean?”
“Oh, I dunno? Fourteen or so years I reckon.”
“And they think you need to learn how to approach customers?”
“That’s what the notice says. Anyway, it’s for your benefit too. Maybe they think it’s you who need to be more welcoming to customers.”
“I’m a graduate for God’s sake; I think I can just about manage smiling at the old ladies that come in to buy their winter jumpers.”
“Don’t shoot the messenger. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then?”
“Yup, see ya then.”
“I’ll be in at half eleven, unless I win the EuroMillions tonight then I’ll call from Barbados to say I’m not coming in.”
“That would be nice, well good luck.”
She smiled and headed for the door.
Trudy was already daydreaming about her hypothetical lottery win by the time Jean was out of sight.
“I think I’d buy a Spanish Villa if I won the jackpot or maybe go to the Caribbean. I’d definitely go somewhere nice and hot.”
“Yeah? I think I’d go the other way. Fly somewhere really cold and walk about in the snow.”
Tim liked the idea of the snow, being swallowed up by the unending expanse of white and never being seen again.
The train ride home was an unpleasant affair. People climbing over each other in a sticky haze of elbows and underarms. Tim remembered seeing footage of a train in Tokyo where the guards physically pushed people into the carriage so as to ensure as many people could get on without causing any delay. He wondered what it was like to be in Japan, to be anywhere that wasn’t here. Somewhere where he didn’t have to spend the first hour of his earnings everyday going to and from work.
When the train slid into his station he had to clamber over bodies in a most undignified and animalistic manner, climbing over the hooting commuters and grunting apologetically to those he may have trod on. He had to get home, he was happy at home.
The only reason Tim felt happy at home was because of his ants. The shuffling little creatures always seemed to have a place and a sense of purpose which pleased him no end. He didn’t know how long he had owned the ant farm but it seemed to him like they had lived an inordinately long amount of time. Old they may be, but they also seemed happy enough. If you can judge an ant’s happiness.
It was this simplicity which had always drawn Tim to the insects, they worked and they were happy, he fed them and they were happy and if they ever did seem a little morose he’d just move them to a sunnier spot of the house and they were happy. He gave them light: they were happy, he gave them food: they were happy, he gave them nothing and paid them no attention at all and they were happy. For those few hours that he spent at home each evening, he could play God and yet do nothing wrong. They were easy beasts to maintain and the social cohesion they had was just another aspect of their nature that enthralled Timothy. How could they be so happy with their lot in life? All they did was work, eat and sleep.
Dropping in the last few scraps of his dinner, Tim watched the insects scurry about with great alacrity over the libations rained down upon them. But there was no tussle for it, no struggle. They all worked together for it taking it down into the bowels of their nest. They sought shelter in their underground tunnels, together. By the time he was going to bed Tim felt very small and insignificant indeed.
It was too hot to think properly and with each person that got on, the train carriage became that marginally bit sweatier and that tiny bit smaller. Yet, despite being surrounded by so many people, Tim had never felt so lonely. He hadn’t been able to shake the feeling from the night before and now he wasn’t sure what to do with himself.
He hoped he would be able to forget it once he was at work but it clung with him throughout the day escalating into a sort of high pitched dread that bore down upon him. He could feel a God he didn’t believe in constantly judging him from above and with no one to turn to the pressure was becoming a little too much. He looked at the people he worked with and realised he knew very little about them. They were all much older than he was and he had no intention of ever spending time, outside of the shop, with them. He then looked at the shop itself, he did not want to be here, he had bigger ambitions than this but after he had graduated he just sunk into the position so easily. It was just supposed to earn him some money before he found what he was looking for but that never came along and now he was adrift in the void of his own unwillingness to pursue something greater.
He was unhappy and he needed to do something to combat it so when the time came for him to clock off he left without saying a word to anyone desperate to get home to his ants. They would make him happy, they always did.
The train was packed full with the usual dour faced crowd and Tim looked at each and every one of them wondering if they too felt so small, so lonely. If they too hated their jobs, their lives, their individual predicaments. Soon though, all would be well again and he’d be in control.
Tim had thundered home only to find an empty ant farm which had fallen over -possibly knocked, he did not know and could not think- and each and every single ant had disappeared. Not one in sight. They had not stuck around; perhaps they weren’t happy where they were after all.
Chapter twelve excerpt from debut novel The Witch Hunter.
Suddenly a scent wafted under my nose, old but not forgotten. It was a fresh smell, but it invoked memories I wished to forget. As its burning scent grew stronger, a part of me recognised it and recoiled. I coughed.
Simon sniffed the air and said, “That smell. What is that?”
I glanced at him and said, “It’s smoke. And burning meat.”
“Some cooking fire, no doubt.” Thomas said.
I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”
My nose wrinkled at the scent. I’d smelled it once before, years ago when I was very young. The coppery odour had left its imprint on my memory, clear as day. I never wanted to smell it again, nor relive the scene that came with it.
Brother Thomas asked, “Harold, are you all right?”
I looked down at my hands. My knuckles were white and my good hand had curled into a fist. To my surprise, it was shaking. Teeth pawed the ground uncertainly behind me, sensing my distress. Simon looked at me with concern. “Master Harold...” he began, “Are you unwell...?”
“Good Lord, he’s white as a shroud.” Thomas said.
I shook my head strongly and pulled myself into the saddle. I kicked my heels at Teeth’s belly, sending him into a gallop. He whinnied and set off, his powerful hooves thundering against the forest floor. Behind us I could hear Simon and Thomas urge their animals after us and attempt to catch up. I rode hard, feeling Teeth’s muscles bunch and coil beneath me as we raced. But even as we covered ground so quickly it blurred before my eyes, I knew it was too late. We were not fast enough.
Dimly I heard Simon’s voice call out behind me, “Harold! Stop! Why are you riding so fast?”
Thomas called something behind me but I did not hear. Simon urged his horse faster and in a few minutes caught up to me. “Harold!” Simon called, “Where are you going? Was it something I said?”
I ignored him and leaned forward on Teeth, gripping the horse by the mane. I rode the animal tightly with my legs wrapped around him, moving as one through the brush. We darted over fallen trees and branches, crashed around bushes and through brambles that tore at our faces. We raced faster and faster, but my heart sank with each ground-eating step. I could see the smoke up ahead through the trees.
I pulled Teeth up short who neighed, rearing, and then stopped. He pawed the ground, his eyes wide. I dismounted awkwardly, barely registering the pain that shot up my arm as I banged it against the saddle. I stood at the top of a rocky slope and beneath it, lay a small clearing where Charles and two other men stood around a burning, stinking fire.
One of the lads was saying, “Never knew a wolf would smell this bad.”
As I skidded down the slope, rocks slipped beneath my boots, and I almost ran into one of the young men standing there.
“You idiots!” I exclaimed. I shoved one of them aside and kicked dirt at the fire. “Stop this!”
One of the lads said, “Hey!” and pushed me back.
Another said, “What do you think you’re doing?” and he punched me in the gut. I doubled over in pain, and held a hand to my stomach. He’d hit right where one of the wolves had gripped me with its jaws, and I could feel something wet seep through the bandage.
“Stop!” I gasped. “Can’t you see what you’re doing?”
Two of the lads exchanged confused glances and looked at me. Charles came to stand inches from my face and demanded, “What are you doing here? We’re burning the wolf. It won’t come around here again. What’s your problem?”
The smell of burning hair and hot flesh was in my nostrils, sick and cloying. It smelled like pork that had cooked for too long. It was sickly sweet, smoky, and putrid. I did not welcome the memory it brought. Years had passed since it had happened, but the smell and its lasting thoughts never left me. How could I make them understand? Wolf didn’t smell that way.
I coughed and thought I might be sick.
“Can’t you see that’s not a wolf?” I exclaimed.
One of the lads stood next to Charles, watching me. “You’re mad. That’s a wolf. Are you blind?”
I pushed past them, stumbling to my knees before the fire. The flames licked at its prey, and the thing in its grasp burned merrily, cloying the air with its stink and sending black smoke up to choke the trees.
There within the flames, lay the burning body of an animal. Its carcass moved in the fire, as if it were still alive. I was suddenly reminded of how as a child, I had once found a small bird lying on the ground. It lay there and moved, yet it did not breathe. I picked up a stick and poked it, and found a nest of maggots underneath, squirming and eating away at its insides. Their movement shook the poor creature as if it was still alive, mimicking the semblance of life in its death. I shut my eyes at the thought and could still see them, wriggling as the bird’s eyes lay open, staring at nothing. I gagged.
The smoke stung my eyes, making them water. I blinked hard and backed up, rocks and pebbles scraping my good hand as I watched the fire. In the distance, I heard hoof beats and voices calling as I sat and watched the carcass burn. Was it a trick of the light, or was that a body in the flames?
Hands roughly pulled me away and set me further back on the ground. Simon appeared over me, saying something incomprehensible. I shook my head and leaned up on my elbows, gradually sitting up as I watched. The animal’s scent toyed with my nostrils, filling them with its stink.
Simon leaned closer and asked, “Harold, what happened? Are you all right?”
I looked up at him helplessly. At that moment the fire popped and spat something at my cheek. It rolled down, leaving a hot smear down my face. All I could think of was the bird I’d seen as a child, covered in wriggling maggots. I turned to the side and vomited.
Chill wind and heavy skies belie this Spring bank holiday.
Robust souls dash into turbulent grey surf,
warming with thrill of swell and thrash of water.
Picnickers with pushchairs and zipped up anoraks
look on, force smiles into camera lens as Granny snaps;
pebbles prevent cricket; bucket-and-spade redundant.
Clouds race, bring blue sky with a flash of sunshine;
bathers emerge to lie and dry on the beach.
Gulls wheel and screech to pass the time of day.
Over and over, breakers rise up and lash
onto shingle smooth from ages of relentless bashing.
The sea, always-changing, stays the same for ever.
Not so the land. Just nights later huge waves rage
and crash against the coast in an angry storm,
slash and drag 20 roaring feet of cliff into the ocean,
wash away tons of stones, trash the landscape of decades,
leave the shore naked, gabions exposed
and turn shingle slope to broad expanse of sand.
I have come to the conclusion I possess a part-time beauty
and it is entirely possible it has come to join me
solely for this evening
and no doubt will depart
as surreptitiously as it arrived
Until it returns
in its own good time
I will simply have to get by
By Kate Miller
Direct link to Circlemakers (scroll down to track 03)
Back in November I had a short play broadcast on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. It was one of a series of plays, the result of a collaboration between the BBC and Menagerie Theatre in Cambridge.
The series of plays has now been nominated for a Sony Radio Award. The Sony Awards are the BAFTAs for radio, so it’s great news. See the news on Menagerie’s website.
That site also gives you the link to be able to hear the plays online. My play is entitled Circlemakers and it’s about a close encounter in a barley field…
Do listen! All the plays are good (and short).
He’s unaware of me walking through the room.
Face gripped by concentration,
greying hair dampened into place by a ring of sweat,
his fingers caress her black and white,
start gently before pounding in to her,
careering over every line of her skin.
As she warms up, he is transported back
to the Albert Hall, the Carnegie Hall,
the endless celebrity tours –
he sees Amsterdam, Vienna, Berlin, Sydney –
and his features relax.
Eyes dart back to the crowds making for their seats,
seeking out the elegant Swiss soprano
who followed him from city to city,
yet also meant nothing.
Hours later, he stands up from the stool,
flicks his imagined coat tails, closes her lid,
comes through to share supper with me,
his wife, his other woman.
A Liz Philips Mystery
A lot of things led to the robbery and murder of Christopher Johnson, but even I was surprised when I discovered a connection to my ex husband.
After five years of awful marriage and five of blissful divorce, I didn’t think he had the ability to surprise me anymore. It’s amazing how one little thing, just a throwaway remark, could have created such destruction.
Chris had stopped off at the cash machine in the town centre at 10.25 last Thursday night, when he was attacked by a hooded youth, who stabbed him with a short bladed knife and took his wallet. He died in hospital the following day.
Even as I read the newspaper reports, I realised that there was something amiss. Most of the attack had been captured on CCTV, but the images were poor. Yes, the attacker had been dressed in a hoodie and jeans, but the face was obscured. It would be a mistake to assume that was a teenager. And 10.25 on a Thursday? Most random attacks were typically fuelled by alcohol and although the pubs would have been open on Thursday night, the more hardened drinkers wouldn’t have left before closing time at eleven. Those who did would be searching for a kebab on a Friday, not lying in wait by a cash machine on a Thursday.
My phone had rung in the middle of “The professionals”.
“Someone had better be dying,” I grumbled. “I’m missing my program.”
“Hey, Looby-Lou. Remember me?”
“Whoa!” I shouted, nearly dropping the phone. “There’s a bit of bad news I never expected to hear again.”
Once upon a time, hearing that expression on the phone turned my spine to jelly. Now it sent me cold and I was suddenly filled with dread.
“What do you want, Graham? Did your pretty young associate finally get tired of you?”
“Kerry’s fine, thank you for asking. I need your help.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Graham! No, I am not going to give you any money. Don’t even think about it.”
“I don’t need your money,” he said indignantly. “I only borrowed from you when I was desperate.”
“You stole from my purse when the Kings Cross ladies insisted on cash up front.”
“They always insist on cash up front, but that’s not the point. I’ve been arrested. My business is going under. I need you to find the proof that I didn’t steal from the company.”
“Goodbye Graham,” I said ready to hang up.
“Wait! Look,” he said, trying to be reasonable. “I’ve got a bit in personal savings. I’ll pay you your going rate, but this is serious, Liz. I’ve got to find a buyer by the end of next month or the lawyers move in.” He sounded genuinely upset.
“Bloody hell, Graham. How much do you owe?”
“Trust me; you really don’t want to know.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. “I should have been a vet.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have a ridiculous sympathy for wounded dumb animals.”
“Thanks, Looby-Lou. I owe you big time.”
“Yeah, along with everybody else, apparently. Graham,” I said thoughtfully, “the murdered young man in the newspapers, Chris Johnson, didn’t you know him?”
“Yeah, a few years ago now, dated Becky Cartwright for a while. Terrible shock, nice kid.”
I didn’t ask him anymore about it. I was sure Graham wouldn’t have been involved in a stabbing and he did sound as if he genuinely liked Chris.
The following afternoon I was sitting at a meeting table in Graham’s office building with a laptop and a dozen empty coffee cups. Kerry kept popping her head round the door with fake smiles and false compliments to ask if I wanted anything.
Her blue eyes now shone at me from the doorway and her smile made the lighting look dark.
“How’s it going?” she asked cheerily.
I picked up one of the empty cups and shook it upside down over the pale carpet, and a couple of dark drops splashed onto the fawn coloured weave.
“I’m out of coffee again,” I smiled apologetically. Kerry’s smile immediately faded. She gave me a disgusted look and withdrew, closing the door behind her.
Graham and his best friend, Pete Martin, used to make a bit of money buying and selling used car parts. Ten years later Philips & Martin moved from the back of Pete’s dad’s garage to a proper office and Graham and I were married. After five years of lies and a dose of Chlamydia, I filed for divorce.
I called Boyle and asked him what he knew.
“It’s really not my area,” he said, “but as far as I understand, your husband has been arrested and will be charged with fraud. It’s very serious; about two million pounds worth from company accounts.”
Boyle was trying to be kind, but I could tell he really didn’t have much sympathy for people he knew were liars and thieves.
“Ex husband,” I corrected him. I knew Graham was a liar, but I didn’t want to believe he was a thief as well; at least not on this scale.
“How can two million pounds just disappear? Graham had professional financial staff.”
“I can refer you to a colleague of mine who can explain it better; my only interest is in Mr Philips’ connection to Mr Johnson.”
“Well, your best guess, then,” I persisted impatiently.
“Apparently, a Mr Malcolm Wilson was in charge of the company’s finances and we can prove that the money did get paid into the company accounts. Now, both Mr Wilson and Mr Philips claim that funds have been fraudulently withdrawn and don’t know by whom.”
“Is Wilson also helping you with your enquiries?”
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to reveal that information,” Boyle responded coldly.
I hung up thoughtfully. It seemed logical to assume that the only people who could have made the withdrawals and cooked the books to make the money disappear were Graham and Wilson. If Graham didn’t do it, then I’d have to follow Wilson’s activity through the books.
I scanned Wilson’s outgoings spreadsheet again. All costs, payments and profit were logged in their respective columns and all balanced as they should. I clicked back to Graham's copy. Again, there were separate columns for costs, payments and profit and they balanced correctly. It was only when I had both spreadsheets up on the screen together that I realised what the true nature of the problem was.
Graham’s spreadsheet recorded figures that were just a little less than what Wilson had recorded. This explained why Graham had been arrested, but if he hadn’t changed the values himself, he wouldn’t have known there was a misreporting of the figures.
Kerry came back into the room and plonked a plastic cup in front of me and giving me a withering look, knelt down with a spray bottle and a cloth to clean the coffee splashes I’d dropped.
“Kerry,” I said, trying to sound pleasant. “How well do you know Malcolm Wilson?”
“Very well,” she said, scrubbing hard and not looking up.
“How long has he been with the company?”
“About three years.” She was answering my questions, but not offering anything.
“That guy in the newspapers, Chris Johnson, he dated Becky for a while didn’t he?”
“Becky worked in accounts with Malcolm.”
Kerry finally gave in and sat on her haunches to look at me.
“Look,” she said, annoyed. “Becky is a friend of mine and got that job because she was the best qualified. I recommended her but it was Graham who checked out her references and offered her the position. Same with Malcolm; both are honest as the day is long.”
“Graham checked out Malcolm’s references himself?” I asked.
“Actually, I checked them,” she said, giving me a self satisfied smile.
“And how were they?”
“Impeccable.” She rose to her feet, ready to leave.
She turned her head as she reached the door.
“Do you think Graham did this?”
I saw a tiny flicker of doubt cross her eyes.
“No, of course not,” she said.
I continued checking the differences in the spreadsheets and still hadn’t finished when the evening cleaning crew came in. I apologised and packed up to leave.
The cleaner, Betty, smiled at me as she started to polish the table, but her smile faded when she noticed the newspaper on the table with the picture of Chris Johnson on the front page. She simply picked the paper up, briskly wiped beneath it and replaced it as it was.
“Did you know that young man?” I asked conversationally.
“No, love. Never met him.”
“But you don’t have a high opinion of him?”
“Pilfering, weren’t he. Mr Martin said so.”
“We got the blame. Wallets and things. Mr Martin found out it was ‘im. Sacked ‘im,” she said, as if he’d got his just desserts.
“Would this have been about three years ago?” I asked.
Betty stopped to think for a moment.
“Yes, love. About that.”
The next day, Boyle, Kerry and I were back in the meeting room with the employee folders stacked on the table, waiting for Pete Martin to arrive.
“I really think that I should go and find him,” said Boyle.
“Don’t worry,” I replied. “He’ll be here. He needs to know what we know.”
“I don’t know why I’m here,” interrupted Kerry. “None of this has anything to do with me.”
Pete walked in and strode purposefully to Kerry’s side of the table.
“Liz!” he exclaimed. “So nice to see you again. You’re looking gorgeous as ever.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I responded, dismissing the unmeant compliment. Pete and I had never liked each other. I didn’t see the point in pretending otherwise.
“Liz, why don’t you explain your theory here,” said Boyle, quickly.
I reached for the personnel files on the table and laid them out in order with the people’s photographs on top, facing Kerry and Pete.
“The easiest way to trace a person or person’s activities,” I explained, “is to trace the money they use.”
I pointed to Graham’s photo. “Graham is the boss and in overall charge of everything to do with the company.”
Pete’s shoulders flexed slightly. I wondered if Boyle noticed it too.
“Pete,” I said pointing to his photo next, “You’re Graham’s partner and would have access to almost everything Graham does, including reviewing the accounts. You were also responsible for firing Chris Johnson three years ago.”
“He was stealing from other employees,” responded Pete, indignantly. “He had a flashy mobile phone, an expensive watch. It had to be him.”
I handed Boyle a CD. “If you ask your colleague to examine the files, I think you’ll find that the theft from the accounts started just before he left.”
Kerry’s eyes widened. “So Chris was stealing from us?”
I shook my head. “There was no way he’d still have access to the accounts after leaving the company and besides, his only connection was Becky. Did she say why they split up?”
“She said that he wasn’t the guy he pretended to be.”
I pointed to Kerry’s picture next. “Kerry, you and Graham share the responsibility for vetting employees before they join. What did you find out about Chris?”
Kerry shrugged. “Hard working, loyal, but perhaps a bit of a player.”
“He had a reputation of dating the female employees he worked with?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“But Becky said he wasn’t the guy he pretended to be. Did you ever date him?”
Kerry looked at her hands. If she admitted what I suspected, she’d be confessing to two-timing Graham.
“Yes,” she said reluctantly. “But nothing happened. He said he wasn’t that kind of guy.”
I glanced at Boyle. “Are you putting two and two together yet?”
“What?! You mean he was gay?”
I pointed to Malcolm Wilson’s file. “Malcolm was an experienced accounts clerk and all his references checked out. I believe that his accounts are honest.”
I continued to Becky Cartwright’s file. “Becky didn’t have the same level of responsibility that Malcolm did. However, if she did notice a discrepancy in the reporting of the figures she’d have a duty to report it to her manager. Malcolm was her senior colleague, but not her boss. If she suspected Malcolm of dishonesty, she’d report it to you, Pete.”
Pete folded his arms confidently. “Well, she didn’t. I didn’t know there was any discrepancy until Graham was arrested.”
“I’m not sure I believe you,” said Boyle calmly. “If you had the same or at least similar access to the company files as Graham, how could you not know about the missing money?”
Pete looked pale but didn’t answer.
“Which brings us to Chris,” I said, pointing. “Poor, dear Chris, busy cultivating an image because he wasn’t ready to come out yet. But suppose for one moment that one of his office liaisons was for real, and that person also turned out to be someone who wasn’t what they were pretending to be.”
“It’s that idea that made my colleague so suspicious of the office pilfering.” Boyle pocketed the CD and started flickering through Chris Johnson’s file. “A degree of that goes on in many businesses and we assumed that it was unconnected. But why would a minor pilfering problem from three years ago matter now?” I answered the question for them. “Because something happened then that matters now.”
Boyle read from Chris’ file. “Mr Johnson reported a theft from his desk on 3rd May shortly before he left the company. A wallet was taken from his desk drawer containing about twenty pounds in cash, two credit cards, and a book of stamps, a condom and a small size photograph. A mobile phone and car keys were also in the drawer, left untouched.”
Pete smirked. “He obviously reported his own wallet stolen to divert attention. So what?”
“That’s how we knew it wasn’t Chris,” Boyle explained. “The mobile was high spec and would have been worth more than the cash in his wallet and what self respecting thief would leave the car keys behind? This was personal, so we considered the photograph.”
“A photo booth usually gives you four or five copies of the same picture, like this,” I said, holding up a small size snap. “When Graham told me that Chris dated Becky, I assumed that had happened three years ago, but we now know that they started seeing each other only last month. There were no pictures of him and Becky together, just this.”
The photo showed Pete and Chris together, happy and smiling.
Pete swallowed but his voice was still strong and confident. “Apart from that one, silly little picture, you have absolutely nothing to link me to Chris.”
“You’re right,” Boyle nodded, “until we do this.” He lent across the table and lifted Pete’s file and photograph and repositioned it between Becky and Chris. “Now, it all makes perfect sense.”
I again pointed to each picture. “Graham never was too particular about dotting the I’s or crossing the T’s. As long as his figures added up, he wouldn’t know any better; the perfect fall guy.” I moved to Kerry’s picture. “You vetted Chris Johnson, but the only negative you found was his reputation and that he ‘wasn’t that kind of guy’.” I pointed to Malcolm. “It was on your recommendation that Malcolm was appointed as Senior Account Clerk. He reported his figures to you, Pete. Becky,” I pointed to her picture, “noticed an error. It wouldn’t be long before someone joined the dots.” I moved onto Pete’s picture. “You probably told her not to worry, you’d look into it, but Chris had already figured it out.” I pointed to the last file. “You went out on the town together, bought him gifts; the watch and the phone were just two. Where was all this money coming from? If the staff were already getting suspicious of Chris, they’d soon look at you. You had to get that picture back and then you fired him.”
“But then,” said Boyle, finishing for me, “when you heard that Chris had started dating Becky, you had to take action before they worked it out together.”
“I only wanted the picture,” blurted Pete. “It wasn’t in the first wallet.”
“Chris had probably forgotten that he’d removed it,” suggested Boyle pushing the one we had towards him. “We found that one in his flat.”
“That’s the thing about photo booth pictures,” I reminded him. “There’s always more than one.”
“Well,” said Kerry, satisfied. “That’s sorted.” She moved as if to leave, but I held up a hand.
“Not so fast, sweetie. You dated Chris first, remember?”
Kerry shrugged. “So? Nothing happened and I’ve supported Graham ever since.”
“But you’re Graham’s PA and you’re supposed to be his girlfriend. Chris must have told you something; if you had passed that on to Graham, he could have cleared Chris’s reputation and put a stop to all this. He may never have been arrested. Anyone would think you wanted Chris to get fired, just because he ‘wasn’t that kind of guy’.”
“Don’t you dare accuse me of anything!” screamed Kerry, her face pink with rage. “I did nothing!”
“Yes,” said Boyle coldly. “You did nothing.”
After Pete had been arrested and Kerry had left, Boyle lingered to speak to me.
“Again, it looks like we owe you thanks for foiling another villain.”
I laughed. “You’re welcome. By the way, I’m afraid I’m going to need that CD back.”
Boyle reached into his jacket and took a look. “The Very Best of Cat Stevens?”
“What can I say? I’m a hippy at heart. You could,” I tried to suggest casually, “thank me by buying me that drink? Later, I might even let you walk me home.”
Boyle bit his top lip; that thing he did to suppress a smile.
“Sure, after all, it is a wild world.”
EXT. A SUMMERS EVENING. WOODLAND CLEARING. 7PM.
From a technology-obsessed, know-it-all generation, four friends are on a rambling trip in a crude attempt at 'reconnecting with nature'.
Eleanor: It’s so nice being in the great outdoors, surrounded by nature, don’t you think? Thanks for all coming on this rambling trip with me.
Aaron: I’m bored
Hannah: My legs are killing me
James: And I’m starving
Aaron: Well whose fault is that?! You and your stupid McDonalds-finder app!
Hannah: Don’t blame the app, it’s not his fault we’re lost.
Aaron: No it’s your fault we’re lost, we were using your phone’s sat nav!
Eleanor: Listen guys, don’t argue, I’ve got some food if you’re desperate.
Aaron: Eleanor, no-one’s going to eat those berries you’ve just picked.
James: I’ll eat them, I’m so hungry
Aaron: They could be poisonous
Eleanor: I’m pretty sure they’re safe. Me and my dad used to pick wild fruit and eat it all the time. It was his hobby, he loved learning about plants and fruit species.
Aaron: Wow! He actually liked learning? I’ve never met anyone like that before.
Hannah: I bet your dad would loved this app. It’s called Make A Meal Of It - it tells you if something’s edible or not. Let me take a photo of the berry (takes a photo). There you go, see. It’s come back as ‘si paritas maneat’. Or in English ‘inconclusive’. Oh.
James: I’m sure they’re fine, just pass me one
Aaron: Mate I wouldn’t if I were you
James takes a long sniff at one of them, licks it and then puts it in his mouth.
James suddenly grabs his throat and starts gagging.
James: I can’t believe you guys fell for that. That’s the oldest trick in the book! Hannah pass me the rest of the bunch. They’re actually quite nice.
Hannah: Here you go
Aaron: I’m so bored. Did anyone bring anything to actually do on this stupid trip? Who walks for fun?!
Eleanor: Why is everyone moaning? You were all enjoying yourselves earlier.
Hannah: Yeah, but I was listening to music
Aaron: And I was following the footy
Eleanor: You guys are unbelievable
Hannah: Don’t feel left out. I downloaded this really old-fashioned game we can all play if you want. It’s called Charades. Has anyone heard of it?
James starts coughing and spluttering and saying something incoherent.
Eleanor: Of course we’ve heard of it we’re not stupid.
James: Ggghhhhhrhhheeh! Skfshhhhhshh!
Eleanor: What’s he trying to say?
Aaron: I think he’s trying to give us a clue. It’s two words I think?
Hannah: Two words? And what’s he pointing at? Erm… erm… I need another clue.
Aaron: You’ve got to ask yes/no questions
Eleanor: Are the berries too sweet? Too sour?
James: Mmmmnnnnnnnnn!! Nnnnffff!!
Eleanor: Erm. Something to do with your throat?
Aaron: Your mouth?
Hannah: Your face?
James: YYYYYHHHHHHHNNNN MMMEEMMMMNNNEE
James is thrashing his arms around clasping his throat, gasping for air.
Hannah: Cool, he’s turning blue. Charades is much more fun that what the reviews said.
Aaron: Oh no!
Eleanor: Maybe they were poisonous after all?!
Hannah: Move out of my way I know what to do (pushes some buttons on her phone)
Siri, what do we do?
Aaron: Just call an ambulance!
Eleanor: Dial 999!
Hannah: Wait! Bye Siri, love you, let’s talk later.
Aaron: Oh my god. James?
Eleanor: HANNAH, CALL 999!
Hannah: Hang on a minute, this will help us. It’s my St. John Ambulance app. It’ll tell us what’s wrong with him.
James coughs, splutters then silence. He drops to the ground in a heap.
Hannah: Right, it’s loaded. Ok step 1 – Is the casualty breathing?
Hannah: Ok, ok! So, let me just select ‘No – the casualty is not breathing’.
Aaron: I definitely can’t find a pulse…
Eleanor: He’s dead isn’t he?
Hannah: He’s not dead, stop being so negative, the results haven’t even loaded yet! (“Ding”). Ok, yes, he’s dead.
Eleanor: I gave him the poisonous berries. I killed my friend. I’m going to prison aren’t I?
Aaron: No not necessarily…
Hannah: But if you do, don’t worry, it won’t be for very long… How good are you at wall-climbing? I’ve got an interactive prison-break app you can put to good use.
A Liz Philips Mystery
“They’re charging me with Manslaughter,” he said.
Harry blew into a plastic cup of machine coffee, and then changed his mind about drinking it.
“I honestly don’t know how it all happened, Liz, honestly I don’t.”
“All men lie,” my mother had once said. “It’s all about how much you’re willing to forgive.”
“You do have a criminal past, Harry. Look at it from their point of view.”
“I was still young then,” he snapped back. “Your mother changed me; I owe her my life. You know I’d never do anything to hurt her.”
“Have you called for a solicitor?”
Harry shook his head. “I don’t want them thinking I need one.” He laughed nervously and his hands shook as he picked up the cup and put it down again.
This was a change in dynamics I wasn’t expecting, but I owed Harry a lot; he deserved to have his story heard.
“Dave died seven month ago,” I reminded him. “The police never mentioned anything suspicious then. What’s changed?”
Harry shrugged sadly.
“One of his sisters says that she found a syringe when she came back to get some of his furniture. Greg said that she could have a few of his things back; he’s thinking of moving into a small flat.”
“That would be Bev. I’m surprised she let Greg stay,” I said. “She must need the rent. She never really took to Greg.”
“She never really took to me,” said Harry. “I felt sorry for Dave, but I just couldn’t bring myself to forgive him for what he did to Greg.”
I felt the same. Dave gambled with his life and left my little brother with HIV. You can only gamble responsibly when all sides play fair. You can’t gamble with life; life never plays fair.
“I’ll go and talk to Bev in the morning,” I promised. “They’ll keep you here overnight. In the meantime listen and trust what Boyle tells you, he’s one of the good guys. This should all be over in 24 hours.”
“But your Mum!” he cried, his eyes wide with fear. Mum had been diagnosed with a stage one dementia a couple of years ago.
“Don’t worry. Greg’s with her. They’ll look after each other.”
He grabbed my hand as I rose to leave and kissed it.
“Thank you Liz. I’m…” he struggled to find the right words. “I am very proud of you, you know.”
Harry had never said anything like this before, but I wasn’t surprised. I smiled as I squeezed his shoulder.
“Yes. I know.”
“So, what’s this all about?” demanded Bev when she opened the door to me the next day. She shoved her hands deep into the oversized pockets of her oversized dressing gown and pushed her ample bosom forward defensively.
“You know bloody well what it’s about,” I answered. “I’m here on a strictly professional basis.”
Bev sniffed as she looked me up and down. “Well, you better come in, then.”
The cat took one terrified look at me and bolted for the cat flap as we entered the kitchen. Bev flipped the kettle on and yelled at the kids to shut up as one hit the other over the head with a metal tea tray. She looked a mess. Her hair hung down in untidy spaghetti strands and the worn out slippers on her feet were threatening to leave by themselves. But Bev had always kept a clean house and the kitchen was spotless. She coped with her grief by cleaning. I wasn’t without sympathy for Bev, but I hadn’t come here to listen to her, I’d come to talk.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” I said.
Dave had lived with his family in the house at the corner of our road. It was a lovely old place with a decent plot of land and a garden that his Mum loved.
Greg and I lived a conventional life in our cramped semi. Our Mum had a hard life bringing me up on her own, until she married Harry. And then Greg came along and we were the family Mum had always dreamed of. Harry could best be described as strict but fair. I often envied the relaxed and free spirited atmosphere that Dave enjoyed at home.
When Dave’s Mum died and ill health forced his Dad into a care home, Dave inherited the lovely old house. I was already established in my own business by that time and Greg due to go to university, when suddenly he had a change of heart. Harry was furious and I found out later they’d had the most awful rows. Dave came up with a reasonable solution. He was rattling around in a house that was too big but didn’t have the heart to sell. Why didn’t he rent rooms out to students? Greg could be his first tenant and while living there, perhaps could consider furthering his education locally.
Greg jumped at the chance and settled into a course at the local technical college. Harry made it clear that this was very second best, but no one was going to change Greg’s mind, so he had to agree to compromise. I was secretly quite pleased. Greg was still close to Mum and Harry and frankly, they weren’t spring chickens anymore. He could get on with his life and still be close enough to notice if they needed anything. I was only a phone call away and would drive back if anything happened.
“Take care of him for me,” I joked to Dave during one phone conversation.
“Don’t worry,” said Dave. “It’s me who needs looking after. Have you tasted his cooking?”
Last Christmas I stayed with Mum and Harry and visited Greg and Dave the day after I arrived back. Greg looked fine; relaxed and happy. Dave seemed a little more on edge, uncomfortable, even. I couldn’t help noticing that he was fidgeting, as if he couldn’t wait for me to leave.
“What’s the matter, Dave?” I asked. “Would you two prefer to be alone?”
Only Greg laughed. Greg and I carried on chatting as if we hadn’t been apart for more than a day, but Dave and I only spoke to answer each other’s questions. The easy camaraderie we’d enjoyed as children was slipping away and it made me sad, but there was something else about Dave, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“Are you coming over for some tea on Boxing Day?” I asked him.
“I’d love to,” he said, “but I promised Bev I’d spend the day with her and the kids.”
Dave hadn’t refused an invitation to our house before, but Christmas was always meant to be a time for families, so I should have expected that he’d want to spend time with his sister.
Greg spent Christmas Day with Dave “and friends” and Boxing Day with Mum, Harry and me.
I did the cooking and everyone ate far too much. We sat around watching the afternoon film with our trouser buttons undone.
“I’ve got to go for a walk,” I announced. “I can’t stay here all afternoon; I’ll get a headache if I fall asleep in the chair.”
“You go ahead,” said Greg. “Headache be damned! I intend to fall asleep in the chair.”
A narrow path of the local river ran across the bottom of Mum and Harry’s garden. I crossed the little bridge that joined the footpath and followed it for about five minutes, when the pathway opened onto the entrance to the local recreation ground.
The disused running track was slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding fields while large steel barriers had been erected to prevent the public from using the spectator platforms. I walked past the barriers, heading towards the dog walking path when I heard the hushed whispers of lovers coming from beneath the benches.
“What about your boyfriend? Doesn’t he use this stuff?”
“Greg? No, he’s way too straight-laced.”
I nearly stumbled, but carried on walking a few more paces, until I was just beyond the edge of the barrier. I strained my ears to listen.
“So if you want to behave badly, you have to come here and visit me.”
“You know all my dirty habits, Mark. That’s why I like you.”
“Here, let me do that for you. There’s a knack to it if you don’t want to leave a visible puncture. Now remember, this is the good stuff, so only use the doses I’ve shown you.”
“Wow, that’s amazing.”
“Don’t forget to tidy the gear away before the fix kicks in, you won’t be in a fit state to do it later. You’ll have to make sure you’ve cleaned up properly if you don’t want your boyfriend to know what you’re up to. Dave?”
“How are you feeling now?”
They giggled softly and I walked slowly back home.
I watched Greg very closely over the next few days, but he seemed calm and happy. He was trying to organise a New Years Eve party at their house. I offered to go shopping with him.
“So, are you and Dave still happy and in love?” I asked, teasingly.
“Mind your own business,” he laughed, suggesting that he was happy.
“I’m glad for you, Greg. Really I am. But if anything bad happened to you...” I didn’t really know how to put this. “I mean if you became unhappy, I’d make sure that Dave was unhappy too.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked suspiciously. “Dave isn’t going to make me unhappy, he really cares about me.”
I hesitated a moment.
“I think he might be using smack.” There. I’d said it.
“That’s in the past,” he snapped back. “The bad influence of an ex. Anyway, who told you? I promised Dave I wouldn’t tell anyone. Especially not Mum and Dad.”
The party felt very strange. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. Mum and Harry didn’t go. Dave and Greg had their arms around each others shoulders, laughing and relaxed.
I watched them carefully and thought about how blissful ignorance really is. If I hadn’t gone for a walk in the park that day, I would never have guessed at the problems that lay beneath.
After New Year, when I had returned to work, I noticed that the phone calls Greg and I shared were becoming less and less frequent and by Easter, I realised it had been more than a month when we’d last spoke.
I called him to say that as soon as I had a free weekend I’d visit mum and Harry.
“Actually, sis, maybe it’s best if you didn’t come over. Dave’s not been very well.”
I knew a classic understatement when I heard it.
“Greg,” I said, thinking I already knew the answer to my next question “is Dave still using?”
Greg didn’t say anything for what felt like a long time and when he did speak, his voice was hoarse.
“No, but he’s in so much pain.”
All of a sudden I felt very cold, as if an icy wind had just engulfed me.
Greg took a deep breath.
“I’m fine,” he said. He’d never been able to lie to me. I’d learned to spot his lies when we were still children. Even as a child, he would always take a deep breath before a lie, almost as if he could prevent his voice from wavering.
“What about Mum and Harry?”
“They think Dave’s got a serious flu and I….” he couldn’t finish the sentence.
“I’m coming over as soon as I can,” I said and hung up. I didn’t want to hear his protestations. What I had feared most had happened and now it was time for action.
It took me a couple of days to arrange the necessary cover and to get the things I wanted, but before the end of April, I was surprising Greg on his doorstep. I could see immediately that he’d lost weight. We hugged and he smiled his usual smile.
“You shouldn’t have come,” he said, still smiling; I knew he was pleased to see me.
I’m nearly seven years older than Greg, and I’ve always believed that being the eldest sibling ingrains into you a sense of responsibility that never really goes away, however old you get.
We sat in the living room talking things over.
“Dad came over last night,” he said, conversationally. “I think he knows. Neither of us actually said anything, but when he said goodnight, he looked like he wanted to hug me, although couldn’t quite get there.”
We both knew how much Harry loved us, but he’d never been a huggy kissy kind of guy.
A rough and painful sounding cough rattled from the mantelpiece and the lights on top of a baby monitor flashed.
“It’s just in case he needs anything. Another chest infection is the latest complication.”
“How much longer?” I asked gently. I didn’t mean to be blunt, but I’ve never been able to ignore a situation.
“We don’t know and the doctors don’t know either, but maybe…” Greg trailed off as tears formed in his eyes. “No, not long.”
“What about you?” I asked, a little more brightly. “How have you been?”
“I’m ok. I’m on a monitored program and the doctors say they’re seeing positive things with this new cocktail they’ve given me. With the number of pills I’m taking, I’m surprised I don’t rattle when I walk.”
He laughed a little and I saw some of the old Greg there.
“You look tired,” I commented.
“I am. I’m sleeping in the larger spare room at the moment, so I don’t disturb Dave too much.” He looked at his watch. “Another hour and he’ll need his next dose.”
I turned my head away, disapproving.
“It’s not so bad. He’s taking clinically prescribed methadone and the nurses come every day. They’ll be back in the morning and it gives me a break.”
“Look, why don’t I sleep here tonight.” I suggested. “I can keep an eye on Dave while you get some sleep. I’ll sleep in the other spare room.”
I made Greg a milky drink and he turned in early, checking on Dave first, while I stayed up to watch the late film. I waited an hour before finally turning off the TV and the baby monitor.
I tiptoed upstairs barefoot with my toiletries bag and listened outside Greg’s door. I could hear nothing, so crept into the main bedroom.
Dave was half sitting, half lying, propped up with pillows, his eyes closed, and his face serene.
I put my toiletries bag on the bed an unzipped it. As I did so, I glanced up at Dave and suddenly noticed that whatever I had intended to do was unnecessary. The rough, rasping breaths I had heard on the monitor were now silent and his chest was still.
I re-zipped my toiletries bag and hid it in one of the drawers of the bedside cabinet. On top were all the usual necessities of a patient’s bedside table; a water glass, a methadone bottle and several disposable medical spoons. Everything looked very neat and tidy; too neat and tidy.
I made sure that I opened the door to the nurse the following morning.
She held my hands as I explained how I had made the awful discovery in the wee hours while my brother was asleep and how I’d had to break the news to him. Greg’s hands shook as he made the tea and I had to take over. I made him some breakfast but he simply stared into his teacup and left the toast on the plate to go cold.
“It’s easily done.” said the doctor later.
I looked at him, frowning at the strange choice of words, at the same time thinking of what I had considered doing.
“We found an obvious puncture. It’s clear he injected himself. But,” he continued, giving me a hard stare, “There’s no way he could have prepared the dose or cleared the things away afterwards. There was no needle in the bed. He hadn’t taken any more methadone and the supplies he had in his toiletries bag didn’t look like they’d been touched.”
I went back to Dave’s room later and found the syringe behind the chest of drawers. It was the only place he could have thrown it from the bed.
The day of the funeral was actually very nice. A fresh wind blew jagged clouds briskly across a bright blue sky. There weren’t very many people in the chapel; I recognised Bev, but had to be re-introduced to the younger one. Her baby couldn’t stop screaming and had to be taken outside. His father was too ill to attend. As the coffin finally pushed its way through the grey curtains, Greg started to cry again and I held his hand.
We emerged from the gloom, blinking in the bright sunshine, to view the flowers and read the cards.
Greg put his arm around my shoulder and planted a kiss at my temple.
“Thanks sis. For everything,” he said, before walking over to talk to Dave’s family.
I wasn’t sure what he meant until I saw the flowers that Harry had sent. In his unmistakable handwriting I read “I’ll always be looking out for you.” It was exactly the same message I’d put on my flowers.
Bev pulled a tissue from her pocket and blew her nose. I didn’t tell her about my night time visit to Dave’s room or the toiletries bag.
“I thought it was all Greg’s doing and Dave was just unlucky,” she admitted. “I never expected Harry to be arrested.”
“Where did you get the syringe?”
“I nicked it from Dave’s toiletries bag before it was taken away. I was convinced it was Greg’s. When he told me I could have the furniture, it felt like an opportunity.”
I couldn’t be angry with Bev. What I had planned was worse, after all.
I drove Harry back home and mum asked him if he’d enjoyed his little trip. Harry and I looked at Greg who shrugged.
I stayed late into the evening, just watching TV with my family and although we’re an odd bunch, it felt nice, normal.
My mobile rang at about 9pm. It was Boyle.
“I’m off duty now,” he said. “I thought you’d just like to know that we’ve closed the file and no further enquiries will be made.”
“Oh yes?” I said, trying to sound casual.
“Yes, apparently the syringe that Mrs Parker found in the toiletries bag contained a dose that was of insufficient strength or quality to take Mr Jones’ life. As it was unused and there was nothing else in the bag to compare it to, there’s nothing we can do.”
I put my hand over my mouth to ensure I didn’t laugh. “Weren’t you suspicious when it went missing?”
Boyle gave a discreet little cough, embarrassed. “We thought the hospital had taken it. They thought we had.” He coughed again. “Um, Liz, I know this is unconventional, but I’d really like to buy you a drink. I could pick you up?” he suggested, hopefully.
“No, sorry,” I said abruptly. “But I’m just not free.”
Harry raised an eyebrow. “Who was that then?” he asked.
I smiled at the only father I’d ever really known and wondered what kind of a life he’d had to owe it all to Mum.
“Oh, no one,” I said looking back at the TV. “No one important.”