Advent Episode 20: It was an accident.

Sheila gestured to D I Bones to go through to the kitchen. She followed him dejectedly. Bob rose to his feet as D I Bones came in. “Sheila?”

D I Bones introduced himself to Bob. “And you are, sir?”

“Um. Bob Barker. I’m a colleague of Sheila’s. Sheila, are you alright?” He took her arm and led her back to her chair. “Sit down, Sheila.” His mind seemed clearer now, and it was working overtime. Was she in trouble with the police? Had he been in danger? Perhaps she was a notorious predator of some kind?

“D I Bones, Sheila seems to have had a bit of a shock. Could you tell me what’s going on?”

“Mr, Dr, Barker. I just wanted to ask Sheila a few questions. D I Bones was very interested in Sheila’s reaction to the mention of Gareth Jones. He never liked to jump to conclusions, but she did seem to have ‘guilty’ written all over her. “It’s confidential Mr, Dr Barker,” he added.

Bob stood up a bit straighter. “Mr. I’m sure Sheila won’t mind me staying to support her” he said, bravely. Sheila nodded. “Now, let’s all get comfortable. Would you like a drink, D I Bones?” He lifted the bottle of wine from the table.

“Coffee’d be good.” D I Bones replied. “Black, no sugar.”

“Right you are.” Bob turned confidently towards the kitchen worktops. He had no idea where anything was, of course. Everything was neatly put away, just as he liked it himself, but that didn’t help. He looked for the kettle. Shit. There was one of those espresso machines. He hadn’t a clue how to use it.

D I Bones was watching with interest. “Instant’s fine” he suggested.

“Right you are.” Bob tried the cupboard above the kettle. That’s where he would have kept the coffee. Bingo. Instant coffee, a variety of teas, and mugs. He  checked the water in the kettle and switched it on. He looked over at Sheila. She looked utterly dejected, and seemed to be oblivious to both of them. He smiled brightly at D I Bones. “Won’t be a minute.”

He looked back in the cupboard. Camomile tea? Wasn’t that good for calming people down? He got out a teabag and prepared one alongside D I Bones’ coffee.

“Sit down, D I Bones” he suggested. “Here you go. Sheila, I’ve made you a camomile tea” he added, a little more loudly. He touched her on the arm. She looked up at him, and then at the mug. “Camomile tea?”

D I Bones cleared his throat. “Mrs, Dr Thompson. You seemed rather upset when I mentioned Gareth. Perhaps you could tell me why?”

He was pleased with this opening. Neutral, not leading, not accusatory. Sheila didn’t look up. “I know I shouldn’t have done it” she said quietly. “I know I shouldn’t have let him provoke me so much. But I wasn’t very well, and something just snapped.”

Surreptitiously, D I Bones slid his notebook from his pocket and flipped it open. “Snapped?” he prompted her.

“Day after day. Week after week. I asked him to stop. But he just wouldn’t.” She still didn’t look up. “I just couldn’t take it any more.” She fell silent.

“How well did you know Gareth?”

“Every day, he was in my garden. Grubbing up my cuttings. Squashing the seedlings. Messing on the annuals.” D I Bones looked a bit worried. She sounded quite mad. Not to mention delusional. He wondered if she’d need to be Sectioned. Lilian had said she’d had a breakdown recently.

Bob looked sympathetic. He was a keen gardener and he knew how annoying it was when all your hard work was destroyed. His neighbour had really annoying cats. He reached out and took Sheila’s hand.

She looked up at this. “But I didn’t realise I was doing anything wrong. I just wanted to make him go away. It was only a little bit, in some meat I’d cooked him, to make him a bit sick. I suppose I didn’t calculate the dose properly.”

Bob withdrew his hand. He put the lid back on the casserole. “I’ll just pop this back in the oven.”

“Did he die in pain?” Sheila asked D I Bones.

“Er. I don’t think so. Probably not.” This wasn’t quite going as he’d expected. In all honesty, he’d been sure that Lilian was a crank. He just hadn’t wanted her complaining to the local paper about him, so he’d said he would come and sort it out straight away. She looked like the type to complain. “Do you understand the seriousness of this incident, Sheila?” he asked her gently.

She nodded.

“Before we go down to the station, I just want to check a couple of more urgent things with you. I haven’t yet been able to trace Gareth’s, er, family. Do you know how I can get in touch with them?”

She gestured to her left. “They live next door”. Not in Wales, then, thought D I Bones. That would make things easier. “Do you know their names?”

Sheila looked at him as though he was slightly dim. “Of course I do, they’re my neighbours. Reginald and Barbara.”

“Reginald and Barbara Jones” said D I Bones, as he made a note.

“no, Akala. Reginald and Barbara Akala” Sheila corrected him.

“Oh. OK.” D I Bones scribbled in his book. ‘Akala. Stepdad?’ He tried to decide what to do next.  He’d better go and see the neighbours. Sheila didn’t seem much of a threat, but he’d better not leave her here while he went next door to see the parents. He’d better call for backup. “If you’ll just excuse me for a moment, Sheila, er, Mr, Dr Barker, I just need something from the car.”

He opened the front door. Lilian was standing shivering on the top step.

“Mrs Hankin. I thought you were going to wait in the car.” Lilian burst past him. D I Bones followed her. This wasn’t quite what he’d intended.

“Did she do it? I knew it! I knew it!”

Sheila got to her feet, considerably more rapidly than her previous dejected appearance might have predicted. “Lilian? What are you doing here?”

“I know all about Gareth, Sheila, and I thought it was my civic duty to tell D I Bones. It was in your notebook!”

Sheila looked at her, utterly bewildered. “Gareth? Duty? Notebook?” A thought seemed to come to her. “Wait a minute. Detective Inspector? Since when does a Detective Inspector bother himself with a cat?”

“A cat?” the other three spoke in unison.

“Yes, next door’s cat. Gareth. He was constantly messing up my garden. It was really bothering me. You know, it was when I was ill. I couldn’t keep it in perspective.  They couldn’t seem to stop him. So I, so I put out a bit of food with some of my anti-depressants in to make him sick.” The three of them were staring at her.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him, in fact I didn’t know that I had, until you came round. I was a bit worried, though. I haven’t seen him for weeks. I didn’t mean to hurt him.” she repeated. “I’m very sorry.”

Bill seemed to recover first. “D I Bones. Are you investigating a cat?” The penny dropped. “Are you talking about the lecturer who was found dead in the woods?”

D I Bones nodded. “That’s my investigation.”

Bill turned to Sheila. “Sheila, do you know Gareth Jones? The biology lecturer who’s died?”

She shook her head. “No, Lilian mentioned it earlier. How sad. What happened to him?”

D I Bones pulled himself together. “I think we’ve got a bit confused. You’re right, Sheila. I don’t usually bother myself with cats.”

Sheila looked up “you mean. I’m not in trouble?”

“Well, it probably is an offence to poison a domestic pet,” suggested D I Bones, making a mental note to look that up later, “but I do have a more serious investigation on my hands. Perhaps Gareth the cat is alive and well? Let’s not worry about him, for the moment, anyway.”

Sheila looked relieved. She turned her head. “Lilian, what on earth are you doing in my house?”

Lilian had been standing slack-jawed in the middle of the kitchen. She opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, but no sound emerged. She tried again. “I. I. I was just doing my civic duty” she mumbled.

Sheila narrowed her eyes. She seemed to have recovered a little. She stared at Lilian. The effect was quite powerful, although in fact she was trying to remember one of her mantras from the back of the notebook.  Be assertive. Assume you are right.  “Lilian. Let me get this straight. You stole my notebook. You copied it. You called the police.”

That didn’t seem to make sense. What was in her notebook that would have caused Lilian to call the police? It seemed to make sense to Lilian, however. She started to gabble. “You’d crossed his name out. You said you wanted to get rid of me. You’d got Bill on the list as well.”

Sheila crossed the room to her briefcase and took out her notebook. She flicked through the pages. “Oh dear, Lilian. You seem to have jumped to an unevidenced conclusion.” She shook her head sadly “I think you’ll find that I just wanted to get away from you. That’s not quite the same, is it? And there was me thinking that you taught Criminal Law. Innocent till proven guilty?”

Lilian seemed lost for words. Sheila continued, in a voice dripping with concern. “I’m sorry you saw my private notes. Perhaps they were a bit, um, crude. But finding you difficult to get on with doesn’t make me, um, a murderer. Does it?” She smiled at Lilian, looking as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Inside, she felt nothing but triumph. Take that, Lilian. She wished she could have recorded the whole speech for her counsellor.

The men were both transfixed. D I Bones was wondering if he’d stepped into a parallel world. In his experience, two people who hated each other this much would be tearing at each other’s hair by now. Bob had seen enough academic ‘discussions’ to know that there was a winner. He stepped forward and took Sheila’s hand.

For a moment, he wondered if he should raise it, in a sign to the others that the incident was over. He simply cleared his throat.

“Well, I’m glad that’s sorted out. I’m sure we’ll all be laughing about this tomorrow.” He didn’t sound amused, though. “Can I get anyone a drink?” he added, politely, but coolly.

D I Bones hadn’t touched his coffee. He looked at the mug. “Um. No. Thank you. I’d probably better get back to the office.”

Bob looked at Lilian.

“Um. No. I’d better get a lift back with you, D I Bones. I’ve left my car at the University.”

D I Bones sighed. “OK.” He looked as though he could think of quite a few better things to do than to give Lilian a lift.

“Fine” Bob headed for the front door. “We’ll get back to our meal, then. Nice to meet you,  D I Bones.” He shook the policeman’s hand. “Lilian.” He gave a slight nod in her direction. He was a very polite man.

He shut the door firmly behind them and went back into the kitchen. Sheila had sunk back into her chair, looking pretty shell-shocked. Bob went over and put his hand on her arm. She looked up at him.

At that moment, the ridiculousness of the whole incident hit them both and they collapsed into uncontrollable giggles. “The cat!” “The anti-depressants!” “Lilian!”

After a while Bob wiped his eyes. “I don’t know about you, but I need a drink” he said.

“There’s another bottle of wine in the fridge” Sheila said.

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: Flat Inspection.


Advent Episode 19: Progress?

A super-bumper triple episode.

D I Bones was packing up to go home. It had been a completely wasted day. Despite numerous time-wasting calls from people who’d seen the article in the local paper, the sum total of his day was that he’d found out that Gareth Jones had probably come from Wales. He’d left a voicemail for Sandra Sharpe, but she hadn’t replied.  He sighed as he shut down the computer. Never mind, he’d have a nice quiet evening with a bottle of wine and his new box-set of The Killing.

His phone rang. He looked at it balefully. It wouldn’t be anything important, and he wanted to go and put an end to this futile working day. It could go to voicemail. On the other hand, maybe it was Sandra Sharpe. He picked up the receiver.

“Burston Metropolitan Police, D I Bones. How can I help you?” he put on his most helpful voice.

“This is Mrs Lilian Hankin, MA. From Burston Central University.”

“What can I do for you, Mrs Hankin?” asked D I Bones, wondering whether it was going to be important enough for him to get his notepad out.

“I have some critical information about the death of Gareth Jones,” said Lilian.

“What kind of information?” D I Bones replied, guardedly. She sounded a bit like another one of the cranks. That was the trouble with media reports. They brought out all of the nutters.

“I know who killed him!” declared Lilian. She cleared her throat. “Some information has come into my possession which identifies the perpetrator.”

Oh God, she really was a crank. “Mrs, er, Hankin, we have no reason to suspect foul play in the death of Dr Jones. It’s very kind of you to take an interest in the case, but at the moment we’re more concerned with tracing Dr Jones’ next of kin. Did you know Dr Jones, by any chance?”

Lilian dismissed this. “Of course not, he was in Biology. I’m in the Law department.”

“Oh.” D I Bones wasn’t sure what the right answer to this was. “Of course. Well, if there isn’t anything else..”

“Wait a minute. Don’t you need to see my evidence?”

D I Bones sighed. “What sort of evidence do you mean, Mrs Hankin?”

“There’s this woman in my department, she’s got problems, you know, mental problems, she’s been off with them. I don’t think she’s right yet. She’s been behaving really oddly and I found something very suspicious.”

D I Bones sighed audibly this time, and repeated the previous question. “What sort of evidence do you have, Mrs Hankin?”

“I can’t possibly tell you over the phone, D I Bones. I need to be careful. I have reason to believe I may be in danger myself.”

D I Bones thought about his box-set. The woman was obviously a crank, but it was the closest connection he’d had all week between his victim and anybody at Burston Central University. He supposed he’d have to follow it up.

“Could I come over and have a chat to you now, Mrs Hankin?” he said reluctantly.

“Oh yes, of course. Shall I meet you in the University coffee-shop? Do you know where it is? Just off the park?”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes” he said “I’m not in uniform, but I expect you’ll recognise me.”

“Don’t worry, D I Bones.” Lilian sounded on the verge of hysteria “I’m in the Law department, I’m used to seeing the long arm of the law. I’ll know who you are.”

D I Bones replaced the receiver and sighed longer and deeper than ever. This truly was the case from hell.

 The Weekly Therapy Session

Wednesday evening was Biology night out. Well, it had been once. Attendance had dwindled over the years. Older staff had left and new ones didn’t seem to be interested in what the hard core liked to call the weekly therapy session.

Alison slumped down into the chair. She didn’t say anything, but her body language showed a mixture of frustration and exhaustion. Silently, Heather poured a glass of wine from the bottle on the table and Alison took a large mouthful. “And how was your day?” enquired Tim, sardonically.

The combination of the wine, the change of scene and the company of people who would understand was help in itself. Alison managed a weak grin and said “Five and a half hours to moderate 50 pieces of work”.

Tim and Heather looked at each other. Five and a half hours? For two people? Admittedly they were quite substantial assignments, marked by a team of three, but they didn’t all need to be fully checked: a sample needed to be thoroughly reviewed and then they needed a quick look through the feedback sheets. Five and a half hours sounded more like double second marking with particular attention to crossing Ts and dotting Is.  Not what they’d expect to be necessary from experienced academics like Alison and Don.

Alison caught their glance. “Well, there weren’t actually five and a half hours of actually looking at the assignments” she corrected “We aren’t that inefficient.”

She grimaced. “We’d agreed to meet at 2pm, with the assignments. Don wasn’t ready then, because a dissertation student had come to see him at quarter to, and she was still in there explaining how she hadn’t been able to collect all of her planned data and what was she going to do to get finished on time and so on, so I went off to collect the assignments anyway. We’d asked all the other markers to submit their feedback sheets to the programmes office for us to collect, if they hadn’t done them electronically and emailed them to us. Sam had sent us the fifteen he’d done, bless him, but John and Sally still like to hand-write theirs, so I needed to get their feedback sheets from the office. But only Sally’s were there. I went to look for John.

“He was with a student, but when he’d finished, he said he hadn’t marked them yet. Apparently he hadn’t realised he had to download the submissions from the VLE, so he was waiting to be notified by the submissions office that he needed to collect them.”

Alison stopped for a gulp of wine. The others waited. It wasn’t a particularly interesting story, but they could tell that Alison needed to finish it.

“So, I gritted my teeth and went back up to the meeting room. Don was there by then, waiting for me to come back with the feedback sheets. We decided we’d better mark John’s – the feedback is due back to the students tomorrow, God knows why he didn’t think to chase them up – and then look at the rest. So we got our laptops out and downloaded eight each, and off we went. Luckily Sam had written a decent assignment brief and a detailed rubric, or we’d have been in real trouble with it – we haven’t taught that unit for a while. So that took us just over two hours, I think it was about quarter to five by then.  I went to get some coffees and then we got on to the moderating. Actually, that really didn’t take us too long, probably about an hour and a half – we spent some extra time on a couple of borderline cases – and then we just needed to complete the moderation sheets and put them under the door of the programmes office – everyone had gone home by then. Just as well I wasn’t entering the marks on the tablet computer, I presume you’ve all heard what’s happened to them? Anyway, thanks for the drink. What else have I missed today?”

Tim and Heather looked at each other. “Did you see the local rag today?” asked Tim.

“Um, let me think, I don’t think so,” replied Alison. “no, there wasn’t a spare one on the bus, and I was trying to finish something off anyway. Why?”

“Apparently we have er, a deceased colleague” Heather said, trying to break the news gently.

“Oh yes, Gareth Jones.” said Alison, off-handedly. “I did know about that. Shame.”

Tim and Heather frowned at each other. That wasn’t quite the reaction they had been expecting. They’d thought Alison would be upset.

“The police came to see me on Monday about it. Apparently he was found dead in a wood. And do you know, I went along to his Cell Biology class yesterday and they said they hadn’t seen him for three weeks. Can you believe that nobody told us? Terrible.”

She shook her head. “Good thing they weren’t third years. We’d never have been able to calm them down before they had to fill in the National Student Survey.”

She was fiddling with her phone. “Just let me send this to Derek, to let him know I’m running late.”

Heather leaned forward. “Alison. Gareth Jones is dead.”

Alison looked up. “I know, I’ve just been telling you. I’ve spent hours trying to find out if we’ve got any records on him, too. Advita said he’d never actually sent back his personal details form. God knows how he got paid at all, without that. But I don’t know any more than that. We’ll have to get somebody else in to do Cell Biology. Do you know anyone?”

She emptied her glass and stood up. “Sorry to love you and leave you, but I really do need to get home. Emma’s got some coursework due tomorrow. Thanks for the wine, guys. See you soon.”

Heather shared the rest of the bottle out between their glasses. They sat in silence for a moment, both looking at their drinks. “This can’t go on. Alison doesn’t seem to care about anything except just getting through the day. That poor guy, Gareth. What’s happening to us all?” Heather looked on the verge of tears.

“We’re all turning into target-obsessed automatons, only bothered about the next student survey result.” replied Tim, drily. “Did you know Gareth, then?”

“No, but, it just seems so sad. That we didn’t know him, and now he’s dead.” Heather realised that this wasn’t very coherent. She sniffed loudly and took a big slug of wine. Maybe it was better not to talk about it.

Dinner for Two

Bob was knocking on the door of a neat-looking terraced house in an unfamiliar part of Burston. He was wearing neatly pressed chinos, a checked shirt and a dark V necked sweater. He was holding a bottle of wine rather awkwardly in his left hand and trying to stop a slim folder from slipping out from under his arm while he knocked. He hoped Sheila liked white wine.

She opened the door. “Bob!” she leaned forward and pecked him on the cheek. He blushed. “Come on in.” Sheila stood aside and ushered him in.

Bob held out the bottle. He could feel that his face was a bit pink, and he simply couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Ooh, this is already chilled. Great. Would you like a glass?”

Bob nodded.

“Take a seat, Bob. No need to be polite.” she continued, as she took the bottle from him and went through to the kitchen to get some glasses. Bob sat down on the nearest chair, a comfy armchair with a view straight out through the French window into the back garden. It was dark outside, but there were a couple of coloured lights over the patio and he could see enough of the garden to see that it was well-kept. He got up and walked over to the window.

“Is that a Pittosporum. Sheila?” Sheila handed him a glass.

“Ooh, clever you. Yes, it’s a Silver Queen. Lovely winter interest. I’ve got a tenuifolium purpureum behind that, but it’s too dark to see it. You’ll have to come round in the daylight.” She smiled encouragingly at him.

Bob cleared his throat. “That would be nice. We can compare notes. I spend quite a bit of time in the garden myself.”

Sheila smiled at him again. “Well, sit down, Bob. How did you get on with your plan today?”

Bob looked blankly at her. The conversation seemed to be moving too fast for him. Plan for what? Coming to see her garden in the daylight? He felt his face reddening again.

“Sorry, I was thinking about the garden. Yes, the plan.” God, he sounded lame. What was wrong with him? He was perfectly used to talking to his colleagues, although this was the first time he’d actually been invited to someone’s house. And he’d only met Sheila today. She seemed harmless enough. Why was he so flustered?

He looked down at the folder which he’d put on the arm-rest of the chair, and remembered. “Not too bad, actually. Do you want to have a look?”

“Sure” said Sheila. She sat down on the sofa and patted the space next to her. “Bring it over here.”

Bob sat down gingerly on the sofa, leaving what he hoped was a suitable space between them. He didn’t want Sheila to think he was taking advantage. He took out his plan.

“OK, it’s in two parts. I’ve done a SWOT analysis, then I’ve written a full business plan which maximises the opportunities and addresses the weaknesses. I’m pretty sure it will do the job.”

Sheila took the slim report from him. “This looks great, so professional. Like a business consultant’s report.”

Bob gave a little smile. “Well, yes, perhaps I haven’t quite lost my touch.”

“Do you know, Bob, that would sound arrogant from a lot of my colleagues, but from you, it just sounds, you know, sweet.”

Bob blushed dark red and tried to hide his face behind his glass of wine.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” Sheila tapped him on the arm, “You should learn to accept a compliment gracefully. I learned that from counselling.” she added.

Bob remembered that she’d said she’d been off work for a long time with stress. He’d better not upset her. He couldn’t think of anything to say, though, so he just kept smiling.

Sheila smiled kindly at him. “It’s alright, Bob. I won’t bite, and I’m not going to crack up.”

Jesus, could she read his mind? Bob drained his glass.

Sheila leaned over her side of the sofa. Bob had a flash of panic. He didn’t know this woman. Maybe she had a weapon down there?

She straightened up, holding the bottle of wine in her hand. “I think it’s still cool enough” she said “probably not worth putting it in the fridge, at this rate.” She refilled their glasses. Bob blushed again, this time in embarrassment at his crazy thoughts.

“Now, here’s my bit.” She held out her own neatly presented folder. “This covers all of the student support, quality and HR issues”, she said. “I think it’s well stitched up. The students won’t be short-changed, and we won’t be out on our ears. Cheers.”  She raised her glass.

Bob flicked through her plan. “This is really impressive, Sheila.”

He was genuinely interested in what she’d produced. He forgot to be embarrassed to talk to her. “It’s clever to tie in the part-time staff like that – I bet nobody in HR will see the subtlety of that, or realise what the long-term commitment is. But if you don’t do it this way, we’ll never get any loyalty from the team. And I like this idea of a student contract. A minimum commitment which is legally binding on the UCNB. Clever. Do you think Alan will understand it?”

Sheila snorted. “Alan? No chance. This is the kind of thing that my corporate clients paid thousands per contract for. Alan’s only ever worked in a university. Bless him. He’s not used to people being devious.” She corrected herself. “Well, maybe he is, but not devious in this way. Devious in a way which he does understand. Oops, that didn’t make much sense, did it? The wine must have gone to my head.” She giggled. “You know what I mean, don’t you?”

They looked at each other for a moment. Co-conspirators, Bob thought. Although they were on the side of good, so was conspirator the right word?

Sheila stood up. “You must be hungry, Bob. I’ve made us something to eat. Come on through.” She led the way.

Bob was wondering how the wine had gone so quickly to his head. He wondered if Sheila had put something in his wine. Then he remembered that he’d skipped lunch to work on the plan. That must be it.

The table was laid simply, as though they were two old friends having an informal supper. “Sit anywhere, Bob. I hope this is OK,” Sheila said “it’s just what I would have had for myself. I didn’t have time to do anything special today, what with the plan and everything.”

“That’s great, Sheila. It’s really nice of you to invite me.” Bob meant this sincerely. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone outside the family had invited him into their home.

Sheila smiled at him again “Well, next time I’ll make a bit more effort.” They both blushed a little at that.

Bob sat down and Sheila turned to the stove. “All in one pot” she said, cheerily “it was easier.” She brought a casserole dish over to the table and put it on a mat. She lifted the lid. A heavenly smell rose. Bob’s mouth watered. “Sheila, that smells..”

Just then, there was a series of loud knocks at the door.

Sheila looked surprised. “That’s odd. I’m not expecting anyone.” She looked briefly at Bob as though he might be responsible for the intrusion.

He shrugged and looked towards the front door. “Would you like me to…?”

“Oh. No, sorry. I’ll just be a minute.”

Sheila put the chain on the door and opened it as far as it would go. The man on the doorstep held up an ID card. “D I Bones” he said. “Are you Sheila Thompson?”

“Um. Yes” said Sheila, closing the door and taking off the chain. She opened it properly. “What can I do for you, Detective Inspector?”

“I need to ask you a few questions about Gareth” he said. Sheila paled. “Gareth?” she said, weakly.

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: It was an accident.

Advent Episode 18: Secret Plans

Bob was back in his office, trying very hard to block out Martin’s incessant phone calls on the topic of car parking. He was looking at the computer screen. He’d opened a new file and given it a title.

Accountancy in the UCNB

Then there were four headings: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. He thought about what Sheila had said to him. The whole notion was ridiculous, but for some reason the two of them had been picked for it. Sheila said she thought it wasn’t because anyone thought they were particularly good, but because they were easily bullied.

Bob had bristled a bit when she said that, because she didn’t know him, but on reflection he had to admit it was a plausible reason. Alan had mentioned the possibility of redundancies. Sheila said that Alan had brought up her sick leave when he’d ‘asked’ her to get involved. Of course it was outrageous behaviour, but as she said, who was going to believe someone who’d been off for months for a psychiatric illness against the DVC? What Alan hadn’t bargained for was that Sheila had got new weapons in her armoury.

Bob had been quite bewildered by then, but he thought it was something to do with assertiveness techniques rather than actual weapons. At least, he hoped so. He was actually quite keen to find out more about Sheila and her weapons. Academic life was getting surprising again. He tried to focus on the positives.

He started to type.

Strengths: Price; costs; experienced, committed staff; link to established university and its quality procedures

Weaknesses: no extra services associated with university; maybe seen as poor relation by students and employers; competition with main brand; no research input to courses

Opportunities: new in the market, unique offer

Threats: Difficulty in recruiting staff (poor relation); no proper market research?

He deleted the last sentence. He didn’t know about the market research. Perhaps there had been a lot. He looked up for a moment. He wasn’t very up to speed with marketing, but he’d had to have a passing knowledge when he was investigating accounts, to judge whether companies were doing what they liked to call imaginary marketing, that was to say, marketing without any intention of selling a product or service, but just to give the illusion of running a normal business. That was more on the money-laundering side of things. He’d been more of a specialist on tax avoidance and fraud.

So, who would be interested in the University College of North Burston? With the huge hike in fees, there were going to be some new marketing considerations. He jotted down some more notes.

  • New full-time students who are debt-averse,
  • Part-time students who want a cheaper option
  • Students who live at home and don’t need/want sports/community facilities

It was rather a dismal list. This wasn’t going to lead to a diverse, vibrant community of staff and students. Especially if the range of subjects offered was so limited. Law, Business, Accountancy. He glanced over to the window. Even though his view was blocked by Martin’s desk, he could still see glimpses of the Art building, festooned with orange and black banners which proclaimed themselves to be an anti-Halloween installation – it looked a bit ragged now, but it was still defiantly different. UCNB was just going to look like an office block. He sighed, and returned to his plan.

He had turned off his email alerts so that he could concentrate, but it was difficult to block out Martin, who was keeping up a low-level grumble. Martin put down the phone for the umpteenth time unlocked the screen-saver, and let out a delighted shriek. “Bob! Bob! Have you looked at the latest?” Bob sighed, saved, and switched to email.


From: Justin Marks, head of campus communications

Subject: tablet computers

Priority: urgent

All staff and students using the BurstU tablets, please return them to the nearest helpdesk immediately. A serious technical fault has been identified. Do not switch the tablets on.

Martin was chortling. “Ooh, I wonder what’s happened to them? Serves them right for setting up a scheme like that and not planning it properly.” Martin had been very upset not to be offered one of the new tablet computers. “I’ll phone Jerry over in Marketing Management, he’s got one. See what’s happened.”

Bob tried very hard to get back to his list, but despite himself, he couldn’t help but be drawn to Martin’s gleeful half-conversation.

“They did what? She didn’t! American flag? Where? Brilliant!”

Martin was clearly in heaven. Eventually he replaced the receiver and turned towards Bob. “You’ll never guess why those tablets have been recalled.” Bob waited, attentively. He knew from experience that he wasn’t actually required to have a guess.

“They’ve all been hacked. The university home page comes up with a porn picture, and the best bit is, someone’s photoshopped the VC’s head onto one of the, er, “ Martin searched for the right word “er, protagonists.”

Bob giggled. That was quite funny.

“No, actually, the best bit is that you can’t move off the home page. It’s stuck on the VC in action. Brilliant.” Martin guffawed. “It’s going to take them forever to sort that one out. I think they gave out four hundred and fifty of them.”

Bob smiled again and turned back to the screen. Martin was going to be occupied for a while, phoning round to tell people about the latest management disaster. It did raise an important issue about information services for UCNB, though. He’d better add out-sourcing to his plan.

Sheila was in her office on the other side of the park, looking at a similar file on her own computer. She was feeling pretty pleased with her plan. It had been a stroke of luck to meet Bob this morning. With her legal skills and his forensic accountancy experience, they were going to run rings around Alan Chilcott. She put her headphones on and started to type.

After two hours, she stretched. It was looking pretty good. Time to look at a printout. She saved the file and then sent it to print. As soon as she’d pressed the button, she realised that she’d have to run to the printer to collect it in case anyone else would see it. Everyone on her floor shared a printer, or multi-function device as the technical term would have it: printer, photocopier, scanner.

They weren’t allowed printers in their own offices. Something to do with the green policy? It was an absolute pain when everyone was trying to print stuff out ten minutes before class started. She hurried down the corridor and was relieved to see that there was nobody else hovering round the machine. She grabbed her plan and walked more slowly back to her office, flicking through the pages. It looked quite good. She liked to get the presentation right. She looked up. Surely she hadn’t left the door of her office open, even though she’d been in a hurry. She definitely hadn’t locked it, though. Shit. She’d left her bag in there and everything. She burst back into the room.

Lilian was standing over by the desk. “Sheila! I just popped in to see how you were getting on with, er, letting the students know about next week’s change of session.”

Sheila looked at her sharply. “I think we agreed that you’d be doing that, Lilian.”

“Really?” Lilian looked innocent. “I must be getting confused in my old age. Mind not working properly. Trouble up top.”

Sheila winced. “Well, that was what we agreed.” She stuck to her guns. “You need to put some materials up in the VLE as well. I’ve hidden the Corporate Liability stuff again, as it’ll be for the following week now. Don’t want to confuse them. Oh, bad luck about your tablet computer, by the way.”

Lilian looked only slightly put out. “By the way, Sheila,” Sheila wondered what was coming next. Had Lilian been invited to join Alan’s project as well?

“Did you hear about that poor lecturer being found dead?” She emphasised the last word.

“No,” replied Sheila “I’ve been really busy, I haven’t heard anything. Well, apart from that urgent message about tablet computers. Someone from Law?”

“No, no, no. Biology, I think. Terrible thing.”

Sheila looked at Lilian in surprise. She didn’t usually waste sentiment. “Did you know him, Lilian?” she asked, gently.

Lilian stared at her. “Don’t be silly, he was in Biology.” she said, as though that were sufficient explanation. “Well, ok, best be going.” she said, and she sidled out.

Sheila sat down. Something wasn’t quite right. Lilian wouldn’t normally have given in so quietly about the VLE stuff. Although maybe she was unaccountably touched by the death of whoever it was. She glanced at the computer. The screensaver was on, so Lilian hadn’t touched the mouse or keyboard. Hopefully she hadn’t seen what Sheila was working on, either. She’d need to be more careful about it, or maybe she could say it was a simulation she was developing to do with the students. Perfect. Nobody would query that.

So what was Lilian up to? Sheila had a sudden sinking feeling. There was something missing from her desk. Her Moleskine notebook. The notebook with all of her secret pep-messages. The one with the ‘advantages’ list for the secret project. Sheila jumped up and ran down the corridor. Lilian was standing at the multi-function device, photocopying something.

As Sheila reached her, she reached down to the little table next to the copier, and lifted up the notebook. “I thought this must be yours,” she said “you must have left it next to the copier.”

Sheila had gone slightly pale. “er, thanks, Lilian” she said, weakly. She walked slowly back up to her office. She was certain that she hadn’t taken the notebook to the copier. Certain. But why would Lilian have borrowed it, and then given it straight back? It didn’t make sense.

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: Progress?

Advent Episode 17: Kindred Spirits

Sheila and Bob were sitting in Cheeky’s. There wasn’t anyone else who looked as though they came from the University there. There were plenty of people having breakfast, but Sheila was pretty sure they wouldn’t be eavesdropping.

They had been chatting generally about their departments and how busy they were, and how neither of them cared about the car parking memo. Bob was finishing off a bacon sandwich. Sheila was trying not to look at it. She didn’t do breakfast. She kept her eyes on Bob’s face. He wasn’t exactly built like Brad Pitt, but he looked quite sweet, and certainly seemed incapable of bullying anyone. Perhaps he’d be a bit of a kindred spirit at Burston Central. She could do with some allies.

He was looking a bit chirpier now he’d settled in one place and had some food inside him. He took a swig of his coffee. “OK, er, Sheila. So. What do you think of The Special Project?”

Sheila beamed. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity!”

Bob paled again. Oh, God. Maybe it was just him who thought it was completely bonkers.

Sheila realised that she was scaring him. She reached out and patted him on the arm.  “Let me explain.”

Bob looked down at the small hand. He having a bit of trouble processing the situation. He looked back up into Sheila’s earnest face.

“Bob. I’ll be honest with you. From an moral point of view, I think the whole idea is completely appalling. It’s a betrayal of the intellectual idea of the university.  Newman would be turning in his grave.”

Bob nodded. He had a vague memory of Newman from his teaching course, but anyway he agreed with the sentiment that it was all appalling.

Sheila continued “We can’t do proper higher education on the cheap. It’s ridiculous. And it’s short-changing the students who come. No proper library, no shared facilities, limited access to counselling or disability support. There’ll be a total dependence on part-time staff, and we all know how unreliable a system that is. The full-time staff will be run ragged trying to cover everything. It’ll just be survival of the fittest. And I will be honest with you, Bob. I may not be one of the fittest. I’ve had a long period off sick this year.”

Bob looked at her sympathetically “You look fine to me” he said.

Sheila fixed him in the eye, as her counsellor had taught her. “I had mental health issues, Bob. Of course I look fine.”

Bob looked as though he wished the floor would open and swallow him up.

Sheila let him stew for a moment, then carried on. “So, you’re probably wondering why I think this is an opportunity.”

Bob nodded, weakly, relieved that the subject was changing.

“Well. I think it’s an opportunity for me. And I suspect it might be an opportunity for you, too.”

Bob risked a little smile. What had his brother-in-law said to him last Christmas? “You need to let go and live a little, Bob.” Well, alright then, he would. Maybe Sheila was a nutter, but she seemed like a nice one. Which was an improvement on the others he’d met in the last twenty-four hours.  He leaned over the sticky table and smiled encouragingly at her.

Scientists at work

D I Bones had managed to find the Huxley building and had parked on a double yellow line just by the main car park, which was completely full. He ferreted around in the glovebox for a piece of paper with the Burston Metropolitan emblem on it and the word ‘Urgent Police Business’, which was slipped inside a see-through plastic wallet. It looked official enough, although actually he’d knocked it up on his home computer one night after receiving yet another parking ticket down by the bus station. He put it inside the windscreen, picked up his notebook and got out of the car. It was 10.28 according to his watch. Perfect timing. He set off towards Huxley building with a self-satisfied smile.

He felt slightly less pleased with himself five minutes later when he’d made one complete circuit of the building without finding any obvious way in. The name of the building was clearly displayed on a huge notice near the seventh, floor, but there was no obvious reception area, and the only doors appeared to be fire doors which would only open from the inside.

Shit. And once again he’d forgotten to take any contact details for the mysterious Ms, Mrs, Miss, Dr Khan. He really was losing it.

He looked around, trying to work out what to do. A woman in a white lab coat was heading towards the building. She had her head down and she was moving pretty fast. He started to jog over to her, hoping to intercept her before she reached the building. He presumed she was heading for a door.

He caught up with her just as she got to one of the strange outward-opening doors. She spun round “Just piss off, you bloody loony” she snarled at him in a strong Aussie accent, “we don’t do any animal research here, so just leave me alone.” She raised her knee threateningly and DI Bones instinctively covered his crotch protectively.

She gave a sort of half-laugh, then turned back towards the door. He was pretty sure he heard her mutter “wimp” under her breath. D I Bones pulled himself together and chased after her.

He reached in his pocket for his ID and waved it under her nose. “D I Bones” he said, with as much dignity as he could muster. “I’ve got an appointment with Sereena Khan in the Huxley Building. But I can’t work out how to get in.” he added, lamely.

The woman stared at him for a second, and then laughed heartily. “Whoops, that’ll teach me to jump to conclusions. Sorry. We’ve had a lot of trouble from those animal rights nutters lately. Didn’t give you a fright, did I?” She put out her hand “Sandra Sharpe. No hard feelings?”

D I Bones took the hand and tried to look dignified. “No problem, Ms, er Dr, Sharpe? Good to see you’re on your guard. Though you shouldn’t take the law into your own hands.” he added. “Could get you into trouble. Now, is there any chance you could show me the special secret to getting into the building?”

Sandra took him by the arm. “Sure. Just stick with me. D I Bones, was it?” She winked at him. D I Bones smiled to himself..

They approached one of the strange doors. Sandra fished inside her white coat, hauling up a lanyard with an ID card on it.  She pressed the card to the glass and a handle popped out from the panel. She opened the door and gestured to D I Bones to go through. He tried not to look as she pushed the card back down inside the lab coat again.

“Thanks” he said. He wondered if it would be really unprofessional to give her a business card. Maybe she actually knew Gareth Jones? That would be a good enough reason. While he was standing, slightly slack-jawed, considering this, Sandra pushed something into his hand and disappeared towards a staircase. He followed her with his eyes.

“D I Bones?” came a little voice from behind him. He turned to see a small, slim, woman, also wearing a lab coat.

He straightened.  “You must be Ms, Dr, Mrs Khan” he suggested.

“Yes. But you’re terribly late. I’ve hardly got any time before I need to get back to my experiment.”

D I Bones remembered that he was feeling pretty aggrieved about the fact that she hadn’t explained how to get into the building. He opened his mouth to defend himself before realising that there wasn’t much point. “Is there anywhere private we can talk, Ms. Dr, Mrs Khan?” he asked.

Sereena gestured towards some sofas in an alcove and he followed her over there.

“It’s a bit dark over here, we can’t have them too close to the windows.” she said. “Animal rights.” she added, in response to his confused expression.

He didn’t feel much the wiser. Was everything slipping away from him? Or was it just this case? He hoped so. He got out his notebook.

“Now, can I just take some details?” he started. “First of all, can I just check the spelling of your name?” He started to feel a bit better. This was ok. He knew how to do this.


D I Bones was back in the office. He opened the notebook and tried to summarise what he’d found out that morning.

  1. It was Dr Khan.
  2. She and Gareth had shared a bench in the lab for three years.
  3. She had agreed that the person in the photo the pathologist had done for him was Gareth, although she hadn’t looked very carefully at it. He probably shouldn’t have told her where it was taken.
  4. Gareth was very shy (and so was Sereena, he added to himself).
  5. She thought he came from Wales somewhere.
  6. They sometimes had coffee together but they only talked about work.
  7. Sandra Sharpe had given him her business card.

Brilliant. What new information did he have? Gareth Jones might have come from Wales. What a waste of time. Apart from Sandra’s business card, that was. He wondered if she’d given it to him because she knew Gareth, or if she was interested in him. Only one way to find out. He picked up the phone.

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: Secret Plans.

Advent Episode 16: Dispirited

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 what the IT terms of use were.

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