Bob sat on the bus. He’d had another bad night but had forced himself to get up at the usual time. He was going to have to work on the University College plan before Martin got in. Martin would be bound to grill him if he noticed he was working on something substantial.
He felt really unwell. The bus seemed hotter, steamier and bumpier than usual. He’d read through the free newspaper. He’d checked the business pages in case there was anything he could use in his teaching later. Nothing much of interest. The local business scene didn’t usually offer anything of great interest to a forensic accountant. There was a planning row over some changes of use in the city centre – that might have an impact on Alan’s loony project, as he was starting to think of it. Another library was closing down. Some part-time lecturer had been found dead. A minor celebrity was visiting the city centre to turn the Christmas lights on. Christmas lights? It was barely November.
He was feeling very unsettled. Even if he’d fully understood ‘The Project’, Alan and the VC’s behaviour would have verged on the bizarre, but as it was he really couldn’t make head nor tail of it all.
He didn’t really want to think too much about the implications of it. From the information he’d got so far, it sounded as though the university was setting up a rival institution to undercut its own courses. That simply couldn’t be the case. So he must have misunderstood. Fine, he was quite used to that, not having served a full apprenticeship of PhD/post-doctoral appointment/lecturer. But how could he write a plan, due in less than 48 hours, for part of a Project he didn’t understand? He’d have to try to get more information from Alan.
The large woman sitting next to him was doing her make-up and kept shoving him with her elbow. Also, the smell of the make-up made him feel queasy. He sighed and looked out of the window. It was steamed up, but it was better than looking the other way, where he kept catching glimpses of magnified pouting lips and powdered pores.
The bus bumped over a series of sleeping policemen which signalled the entrance to the bus station. He leaned forward and tried to edge his arm down between him and the woman to retrieve his rucksack. She shuffled grumpily to let him move; just a tiny gap, but enough, with a bit of wriggling. Unbelievably, she didn’t take this as a sign that he needed to get up, and settled straight back to her original position, squashing him into the corner.
He turned and muttered “Excuse me, please” She huffed loudly, put the lid on her mascara, snapped shut the mirror, and finally swivelled her legs round just enough to let Bob stand up and get into the aisle.
“Thanks” he said. God, why couldn’t he be more assertive? Even some overweight woman on the bus could make him feel useless. He got off the bus and swung the rucksack over his shoulder. The precinct building was right in front of him. University College of North Burston? Even the title was wrong. They were in Central Burston.
He stood for a moment looking up at it, then decided to go in.
Shiv was sitting at the desk again, or maybe still, who knew? Bob nodded at him and continued across the foyer. Shiv ignored him. Bob found the staircase and walked up to the second floor. He didn’t have the keys, but the internal walls were part-glazed, to let light through to the corridors, so he could see what he needed to see. It really was a dump.
Bob heard steps on the stairs behind him. Shit. What would be his reason for being here? The project was secret. He wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. He turned slowly, still trying to think of a credible excuse. A woman was standing at the top of the stairs, but half-turning to go back down.
“Oh, sorry” she said when Bob turned round “I didn’t expect to see anyone here.”
Bob thought that he vaguely recognised her, but wasn’t sure where he might have seen her. “Me too” he offered, rather ruefully.
The woman gave up on the idea of scurrying away down the stairs. “I’m Sheila Thompson” she said, taking a step forward and holding out her hand.
He reciprocated automatically. “Bob. Um. Do I know you from somewhere?” Sheila smiled. “I was just thinking the same thing. Central Burston? I’m in the Law department.”
This didn’t make Bob feel any better. Were they checking up on him to see if he was keeping the confidences? Was it all an elaborate set-up to test his ability to keep quiet? Because every time he tried to think about it, he couldn’t see any conclusion other than that the University College of North Burston was a ridiculous idea.
Sheila was obviously waiting for a response.
“Yes. Um. I’m in Accountancy”.
Sheila was a bit quicker on the uptake than him. She lowered her voice and leaned forward a bit. “Are you involved in Alan’s project too? I know it’s meant to be a secret, but I just wanted to come and check that I hadn’t dreamed the whole thing.”
Bob sighed with relief. “Yes” he almost whispered, although there was definitely nobody else around. “Same here”. He couldn’t think of what to say next.
“Have you got to write a plan?” asked Sheila. Bob nodded. His face must have showed his utter despair at this idea.
Sheila smiled gently at him. “Tell you what, have you got time for a coffee? Do you fancy sharing some ideas about this?”
Bob looked up in utter gratitude. He nodded again. He couldn’t quite think of anything to say.
Sheila smiled again and took him by the elbow. “Come on” she said “I know a little place where we won’t bump into anyone from work.”
A possible lead
DI Bones had got into work a bit late. He’d planned to go and search Gareth’s house at 9.30 and there wasn’t much point in starting anything before then. There was a Post-it note on his desk.
Short-staffed in uniform. Can’t do the search till Thursday.
D I Bones scrunched up the note in fury. Jesus. He had an investigation to do here. How the hell was he supposed to work when there was no support anywhere? He threw the note across the room towards the recycling bin.
His phone rang.
It was an external call. He composed himself “Burston Metropolitan Police, D I Bones. How can I help you?”
“Hello” came a quiet voice “I’m Sereena Kahn. I saw it in the paper about Gareth and Mrs Garvill said you might want to talk to me?”
Mrs Garvill? D I Bones’ mind was blank. Oh yes. The admin woman from the other university.
“Did you know Dr Jones?” he asked. There was a small sniff.
“Miss, Dr, Mrs, Kahn.” D I Bones covered all the options, eliding the ‘Miss’ into a ‘Ms’ just in case she minded about that. “Would it be possible for me to come over and talk to you now? It’s very important.”
“I can’t see you today, I’ve got an experiment running. I can’t leave it.” Sereena answered.
D I Bones cursed under his breath. He’d had to deal with a lot of bereaved relatives and friends in his career, but he honestly didn’t think he’d ever come across such a bunch of indifferent people. The man was dead, for God’s sake. Didn’t anyone care about him?
He tried again. “It really is VERY important, Ms Khan. I need information urgently. Couldn’t I come over to you?”
There was a pause. “I’ll see if I can get someone to keep an eye on it for me, but it could only be for half an hour. Can you come over to the lab at around 10.30?”
D I Bones looked at his watch. “Yes. Whereabouts are you?”
“Huxley building, 3rd floor. I’ll have to meet you at reception though, it’s a secure environment.”
“Right, thanks Ms, er, Dr, Khan. See you soon. Bye”
He hung up before she had a chance to change her mind. At last. A breakthrough. He was going to have to rush to get there on time, though. It was getting on towards 10 now, and the University was a good 15 minute drive, plus he’d have to find somewhere to park and where the hell was the Huxley building?
He hadn’t yet switched on his computer.. It took a long time to boot up. Mechanically, he pressed the return button for every warning which came up.
Yes, he knew about the latest upgrades.
Yes, he knew there was some kind of general meeting.
Shit, no he didn’t know about that, but it was too late, he’d clicked OK already. He’d have to ask someone else.
Finally the computer was ready to use. He opened the web browser and typed ‘Huxley building, Burston University’ into a map site. They should issue them with proper handheld GPS systems, it would save a lot of work. He looked at the map which came up. That didn’t look like the university campus. Huxley building seemed to be somewhere completely different.
He put the postcode of police headquarters in and hit ‘directions to’. Shit. 25 minutes, and he’d have to park. He’d have to take his own car, too, no time to organise a pool car. He grabbed his coat and ran towards the door.
At the door he remembered that he hadn’t locked the workstation, and he ran back over to his desk. There were plenty of jokers who’d enjoy sending rude emails from his account and putting dodgy photos on his hard drive. He’d made that mistake before. Damn. Damn. Damn. He was going to be late.
Follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: Kindred Spirits