Advent Episode 11: Known Unknowns

It was very noisy in the open plan office, and DI Bones was struggling to concentrate. In fact, he didn’t feel that he had much to concentrate on. He pulled over a piece of blank paper (actually the back of an old memo from HR about how to do ‘back to work’ interviews after someone had been off sick), and made a list of what he did have:

  1. a dead body, going for P.M. that morning
  2. a name – to be confirmed
  3. an address which the university HR department had just phoned him back with.

He was waiting for a warrant to search the address. Presumably there would be more information about Mr Jones there.  The PM report would also help, because at the moment, he had absolutely no idea how the guy had died. There was no point in opening a murder inquiry if it was natural causes; they’d been thorough at the scene so hopefully he had the forensic evidence if it did turn out to be foul play, but with the way things were at the moment he couldn’t ask for a full murder team when it looked like a straight up body in the woods, ie probably suicide. “Straight up? Body?” he deadpanned to himself.

He looked at number 2 again. Name. He put a question mark after the name. He had nobody to verify it. Nobody to identify the body. No family details. Employer had never met him.

He sighed and got out his notebook, flipping to last night’s meeting with Alison Fraser. What had she said? She’d said “someone had recommended him”. Someone? Someone? What the hell was wrong with him? Why hadn’t he asked who that ‘someone’ was?

He flipped back a couple more pages to find Alison Fraser’s phone number. God. He hadn’t even asked for her mobile number. He must have been more flummoxed than he thought by her complete indifference to the news that one of her team was dead.

He called the office again, and after a few rings, beeps and hesitations, the phone was answered “Biology Office. Alex here. How can I help you?”.

“Hello, Alex. May I leave a message for Dr Fraser, please?”

“Sure”.

There was a pause “Go ahead” Alex added.

“Oh. OK. Please say that DI Bones called again, and could she phone me back urgently? 0208 654 2304. Thank you.”

“OK, Mr – er- DI Bones. Sure, I’ll do that. Is there anything else she needs to know?”. He could almost hear Alex’s desperation to find out more.

“No, that’s great. Thanks for your help again, Alex. Bye”. He rang off.


Alex jumped up from his seat and made his way through the open-plan office, message in hand. “Just going to put this on Dr Fraser’s door” he said to his supervisor as he went past her desk, and then, lowering his voice, “it’s that detective inspector again.”

Joan raised her eyebrows slightly and pulled the paper over towards her. Not much information there. “OK”, she said. “Can you remember where it is?”

Alex nodded. It was only his second week in the job. He had had no idea that being a university administrator would be so eventful. He set off, hoping that Dr Fraser would be in her office so he could hand the message over personally.

Joan sat back in her chair. It was probably nothing interesting: Alison Fraser wasn’t the type to get mixed up in anything dodgy, or weird. Most likely they’d been burgled, or maybe it was something to do with her kids. They were old enough now maybe to have got up to something they shouldn’t have. Or maybe the policeman was going to be a guest speaker on her course or something, some kind of forensics. Alison would have said something if it had been really big news.

She turned back to the pile of ‘mitigating circumstances forms’ which were stacked in her in-tray. There were a lot of assignment deadlines due, and a lot of students had waited till the last minute to ask for extensions. She picked the top one off the pile and opened up the spreadsheet file, immediately forgetting all about DI Bones.


Alison headed back to her office, already rehearsing in her mind how she was going to recount the whole story about Cell Biology to her colleagues. She did stumble a bit over the punchline – guess what, the AL was dead! Was she being callous? It all seemed surreal. She got back to her office to find a sticky note on the door:

alison. phone di bones. 0208 654 2304. alex.

She really must talk to Joan about talking to Alex about capital letters and punctuation. It wouldn’t make a good impression for anyone passing by and seeing that kind of thing in public view. She focused on the note itself. Shit. DI Bones again? Maybe this was last night’s message? No, she’d definitely taken that into her office. It was a new one. She picked up the phone.

“Hi, Alex, it’s Alison. Alison Fraser”.

“Fine thanks, and you?”.

“Alex, about the note on my door. I just wanted to ask you if that was the same message as last night, I mean is it a new one, or …”

“Oh. OK. Thanks. No, no, nothing to worry about, Alex. Well, actually, now I think of it, can you pop over to see me in about 10 minutes? Got a few timetabling things to sort out.”

“Well ok, check with Joan, then come along as soon as you can. Thanks”. She pressed the ‘end call’ button and immediately dialled DI Bones’ number.

“DI Bones? Dr Fraser here, Burston Central. You left me a message?”

“Yes. Thanks for calling back. We still can’t trace any relatives of Dr Jones. Did you say last night that somebody had recommended him to you? I wondered if we could see if that person knows any more about him.”

“Yes, he was recommended to me by Professor Birch, over at the University of Burston.”

“University of Burston? Isn’t that where you work?” DI Bones sounded puzzled.

“No, I’m at Burston Central University” Alison sighed. Of course Burston Central was just as good as ‘the other university’. Better, in some ways, if you took widening participation and value added into account, but she was used to people recalculating her status when they heard. Mostly at conferences, to be honest.

“Oops, sorry.” D I Bones seemed oblivious to the status thing. “Do you have any contact details for him?”

“Easy mistake to make, we’re only down the road from University of Burston, after all” Alison rolled out her usual response to the error. “Professor Birch, now, hold on while I look up HER phone number for you. Ah yes. Nasreen Birch, 0296 398475”.

“Thanks, that’s great.” D I Bones clearly didn’t realise he’d committed any academic gaffes.

“You’re welcome, D I Bones. Um. Before I ring off. Do you have any more information about how Dr Jones died? Or when he died? Because I went to cover his class this morning and the students said they hadn’t seen him for three weeks.”

“Sorry, Mrs, Dr, Fraser. We can’t reveal any further information at the moment to anyone who isn’t family. Now, unless you have any further information for the enquiry, I’d really better get on”

“Oh. I understand. OK. Well, if you need any more information, just let me know. And could you keep me in the picture?”

“I’ll do my best, Dr Fraser. Perhaps you could give me your mobile number, just in case?”

“My mobile? Yes, of course. Hang on” Alison scrabbled in her bag, “I can never remember the number” she said, realising as she said it how feeble that sounded. “Haha. I never phone myself. Here it is. 07265 777 632”. “no problem. I hope you manage to find out what happened. Bye”.

Alison turned to the module handbook for Cell Biology. The first assignment was scheduled for the last week of term. About three weeks. She supposed that she could postpone it, get them to submit it the first week back. But she probably wouldn’t have a replacement for Gareth by then, so she’d have to mark it, and she had sixty final year lab reports coming in that week too. Plus normal teaching load. Plus, the students would then not have much time between that assignment on the next one. But if she left the deadline as it was, how could they possibly get through the material in time? She could make the assignment easier. But that wouldn’t help anyone. The students would be behind for next year, the external examiner would notice and make some comment about dumbing down in his report, and she would just be laying herself open to all kinds of backhanded comments from the biochemistry team, not to mention that whole disappointed routine from Geoff. No, that wasn’t an option. Damn Gareth Jones. What was she going to do?

She got up to make herself a cup of tea. She had the kettle just tucked out of sight on the little table in the corner next to the bookcase. She put a teabag into her favourite cup, ‘Biologists do it with clones’ and looked out of the window, across the tiny park which was the only green space on the campus. It was a cold November day, and people weren’t hanging around in the park. They were mostly well wrapped up, hurrying between buildings, looking busy and purposeful. Alison smiled as she watched a young woman get off a bus and walk quickly towards the far halls of residence. She was clearly wearing last night’s clothes but was trying to look nonchalant as she headed for shower and a sleep. Some things never changed…

Alison felt a pang of conscience about the way she’d been thinking about her colleague, or employee, or whatever he had been. When did she get so callous and self-centred? Her heart should be bleeding for poor Gareth Jones. She poured boiling water onto the teabag. She wondered if she should be doing more to help DI Bones.  She turned round to the filing cabinet and opened the ‘first year’ drawer.

Maybe she’d put something about the part-timers into the ‘Cell Biology’ file? She flipped through. Gosh. It didn’t look as though she’d put anything into it for a couple of years. There was quite a lot of information about Benji Knight, who’d taught it a while ago. Alison grimaced as she remembered a bit more about him. He’d seemed ok to begin with, and the students had liked him, but he’d clearly had some ‘issues’ which had become more obvious as the year had progressed. Unfortunately it had turned out that he’d been taking up more and more of the lectures with delusional rants about the head of department and how he was victimising the part-time staff.

At least, Alison had presumed they were delusional. Anyway, things had come to a head when Benji had barred the door to the lecture theatre and prevented anybody else leaving. He’d said they should have a sit-in until their demands were met and they got proper value for money for their fees.

Alison sighed as she remembered all the work she’d had to do that year to prepare the students for their exams. Exams which Benji hadn’t bothered to set, but somehow nobody had noticed that until what they all now referred to as ‘the cell biology melt-down’ had happened. It had meant a lot of rushing around to sort it all out.

Come to think of it, Nasreen Birch had recommended Benji, too. She’d need to think about looking further afield for part-time staff next year. Assuming that the department didn’t finally find funds for a full-time lecturer. She hadn’t even bothered asking, the last couple of years. Well, at least this year the problems had emerged earlier. It was only November. Plenty of time to sort things out.

She put the file back. There wasn’t really much point in keeping paper files any more. She did everything by email. But she already knew that her emails to Gareth were just about times and places and so on. They didn’t get copies of any employment records. Not even CVs or contract information.

She went back over to the computer and looked up the number for the departmental HR advisor. Straight to voicemail. “Hello Advita, this is Alison Fraser in Biology. Could you call me back on 1127, please?” Then she returned to the problem of the first year Cell Biology assignment.


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One thought on “Advent Episode 11: Known Unknowns

  1. Pingback: Advent Episode 10: Into the Breach | Wading through Treacle

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