Letters From Home

This is a work of fiction. A short story of 1620 words.

The Desert wasn’t to Albert’s taste at all. Too hot by day, and cold at night. When he joined up, he had expected to be fighting in France, like they did in the first war, but North Africa had come as a shock. And after the Italians, the Germans were good. Too good. He would sit in the lorry watching the twenty-five pounder bouncing along behind, and wonder if they were going to lose this one. The lads in his gun crew tried to keep up their spirits, but even old sergeant Clark was looking glum these days. When they stopped to brew up, he sat apart from the others, and read that last letter from Minnie.

Dear Bert,
I hope this finds you well. Mum sends her best. I went round hers for dinner on Sunday, and we made the best of what we could get in the shops. You remember Mrs Pugh’s son, Alec, well he was shot down in his bomber and they have posted him missing. Mrs Pugh was in a right state, and Mum sat with her all afternoon. Nan has knitted you some socks and a warm hat and we will send them soon. Mr Rosenberg asked me to work on Sundays, from next week. He says you wouldn’t know there was a war on, with all the men coming in for suits to be made. I hope you are getting enough to eat and keeping away from those girls in Egypt.
Your loving wife Min.

He smiled as he put the letter back with the others, then glanced at the crumpled photo of his wife. He could easily imagine her and her mum gossiping over dinner, and he remembered young Alec Pugh, proud of his RAF uniform that time he came home on leave. So she was working on Sundays now. That tailor’s shop in Whitechapel must be busier than ever. Then the sarge was shouting. “Stand to! Tanks!” Albert slipped into the routine, grabbing a shell from the limber, crouching ready to load it into the breech.

Sicily was a mess. Colin Brown had been killed, and he had been wounded in the leg. Just a small shrapnel wound, not enough to get sent to the hospital ship. They had patched him up at the dressing station, but it still hurt, and made it difficult to sleep on the ground under the lorry. They fired their gun until they were exhausted, and Albert was pleased when the ammunition ran out, so they had the afternoon free waiting for more to arrive. He spread out Minnie’s letter, the last one he had been given before they left in the ships.

Dear Bert,
Well it has been so busy at work, you would think Mr Rosenberg was giving the suits away. Mrs Pugh was so relieved to hear that Alec is a prisoner, in a camp in Germany. She said he must have been able to parachute out of his plane. Your last letter was very nice to receive, and to know that you are doing well and that you beat the Germans in Africa. That was on the newsreels, and the radio too. They said you were The Desert Rats. I told mum, my Bert’s no rat, and she laughed. Nan has been in hospital. Its her legs again, like always. Well I don’t know where you are now, dear Bert but I hope you are somewhere safe.
Your loving wife Min.

He looked at the neat writing in the thick pencil. He pictured Minnie writing it, taking time over each word so it looked nice, and not really knowing what to say. She never complained about the rationing, and she had never even mentioned the bombing when that had been bad. When he had written to ask her about it, she had reassured him that it was in other parts of London. He knew she was lying, but he loved her for doing that.

The hill was called Monte Cassino. The weather was awful, and the mud made doing anything almost impossible. They said there weren’t many Germans up there, but they were holding out like tigers. Albert couldn’t remember such relentless fighting, and had trouble staying awake after being exhausted day in, day out. The lads all looked ill. Dark circles under their eyes, no more banter or jokes. And one of the forward guns from K Battery had been hit by bombs from our own planes. Another mess. Trying to move the gun in the muddy ruts, the wheel had run over Albert’s leg, breaking his ankle badly. He ended up in the field hospital this time, with a plaster cast. He was out of the fighting, but worried about his mates. To take his mind off of things, he read Minnie’s last letter, for the umpteenth time.

Dear Bert,
Well you wouldn’t know London now. Yanks everywhere, no bombing, and a feeling that things are on the up. Some yank officer came into the shop to have a tweed suit measured up. Imagine that. What would a yank officer want with a tweed suit during a war. They say the Russians are beating the Germans, but Mrs Allison’s husband is in the far east, and she reckons things are going bad there with the Japs. Nan’s legs are bad again, and she has to wear bandages all wrapped round them. Kitty got some nylons from a yank, and gave me a pair. I’m going to save them for when you get home and we go out dancing.
Your loving wife Min.

Albert had been a little concerned that Minnie wasn’t out and about with those yanks. Rumour was that lots of girls were going off with them, and they had chocolate, fags, and nylons to offer, as well as lots of money. But not his Minnie, she wouldn’t do that. They had been together since school, and married long before the war. It would never occur to him not to trust her. Besides, her mum wouldn’t tolerate any of that malarkey.

His leg didn’t seem to want to heal. They told him he was unfit for active service, and would be sent home, to work at the barracks in the stores for now. But it took forever to get on a ship, and by the time he was sailing home, there was news of a big invasion in France. The biggest in history they said. The allies had broken out from the beaches, and were doing well, apparently. Some of the blokes were sure this was the beginning of the end of the war. They sat around playing cards, and talking about what they would do when it was all over. Albert didn’t want to lose what little money he had, so would sit on his bunk and read his letters. Minnie never put the date on a letter, but he knew the order of them, and the last one had arrived just before he boarded. She never put their address either. He had asked he about that, and she had replied “Well you know your address, silly. ”

Dear Bert,
I was so relieved to read that you had broken your leg. I know that sounds bad to say, but it could have been a lot worse. What do you think about Alec Pugh. Mrs Pugh is distraught. The Red Cross told her he died of pneumonia in the prison camp. Fancy that, surviving being shot down and then dying of illness in a camp. Poor woman. Nan’s legs are no better, and mum goes round every day to see to her. The yanks are all gone now, well most of them. Mr Rosenberg says I don’t have to work Sundays anymore too. I have to say that I hope your leg doesn’t get mended soon, so you don’t have to go back to the fighting.
Your loving wife Min.

The ship stopped at Gibraltar for a while, but they weren’t allowed ashore. By the time Albert got back to England, he hadn’t been able to get any mail. He got a chitty from the transport officer and took the train to Woolwich, reporting at the barracks as ordered. The Sergeant wangled him a three-day pass, and he was excited to be able to get home to see Minnie. It would be a nice surprise for her, if she hadn’t got his last letter by now.

Albert got off the bus in Roman Road, a short walk to his home in Grove Road. He wasn’t using the walking stick anymore, but a pronounced limp made walking difficult still. The doctors said he would always have that. When he got to number twelve, he was confused. Number ten was still there, Mr Delaney’s pace. But between there and number twenty was just rubble. His house was gone, along with the three next to it. He knocked on Mr Delaney’s, but there was no reply. So he walked across the road to Mrs Pugh’s. Doris looked older than he remembered, more like sixty, than the forty-odd she must have been. She saw the look of confusion on Albert’s face, and put both hands to her cheeks. “Oh Albert dear, they didn’t tell you”. Her eyes filled with tears as she spoke. “It was in June, one of those flying bombs. They call them doodlebugs, they’re rockets or something. I don’t know. I was visiting my sister, and when I got home, the street was closed. Terrible”.

Albert could feel the thick wad of letters in the pocket inside his uniform jacket. He didn’t say anything. Doris walked forward, and squeezed his arm.

“Come in, Bert. I’ll make you a cup of tea”.

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The Settlement

This is a work of fiction, a short story of 820 words.

Martin rubbed his eyes, returning quickly to the distant view. He was wondering just how much longer he could keep up the concentration. Judging from the fading light, he had been there more than one third of the day, keeping watch. It was growing cold too, so he wrapped the woollen cloak tighter around his body, holding the collar around his neck. No point thinking about how hungry he was. He would not be able to eat until relieved, when it was dark. He risked looking away, just a glance at the path, hoping to see them approaching by torchlight. But it was still too early for that.

After so long, his eyes began to play tricks on him. That was normal, and he had to convince himself that a clump of shrubs in the distance was not actually a band of enemies, sneaking up on the settlement. The glow from the setting sun to his left didn’t help. It was throwing shadows across the hills, shadows that seemed to be scores of mounted men, riding fast in his direction. The bone handle of his knife felt comforting in his hand; some form of defence, however small. But he realised he had been gripping it for too long, and flexed the fingers to bring feeling back to them.

Every man had to stand watch, a law handed down by the elders for as long as anyone could remember. There were six positions surrounding the settlement, six places where a fierce enemy might seek to surprise them, rushing in to slaughter as many as they could, before enslaving the survivors, and stealing all the livestock. To be a Watcher was a rite of manhood. Martin had stood his first watch alongside his father, twelve long summers ago. After that, he had been expected to stand alone, his gaze never wandering from the allotted view. Whatever the weather, no matter how ill, or tired, every man did their duty.

Night watches were the worst. Jumping at every sound, alarmed by every rustle in nearby bushes, constantly on edge as the darkness seemed to come alive, taking the shape of barbarian enemies. No torches were allowed of course, as they would just affect the ability to see past their glow. At least today he would be home just after dark. Mother would have the soup and bread prepared, and he could rest in the warm, under furs and skins. She would wake him early, so he could help tend the animals, or work with the butcher before his next watch; or whatever task he was given by the Headman.

Resting after the soup, Martin watched his mother sucking on some bread. She had softened it in the soup so she could eat it. Her teeth had gone long ago, and the strange smile made her seem older than her years. She nodded at her son as she finished what he had left for her. Watchers ate first, and had the biggest share. The safety of their settlement depended on them. They would give advance warning, and the warriors would be ready to meet the enemy. Watchers made life possible, and everything depended on them.

In the Meeting House, the elders sat in a semi-circle. Three ancient men, left alone by their servants after eating. The roaring fire warmed their old bones, and they waited patiently, to see if anyone had anything to say. One was blind. White discs covered his eyes, a sure sign of wisdom and blessing. He no longer needed to see, as he had already seen everything worth seeing. The man next to him was completely bald, the glow of the fire reflecting off his head. The third man was taller, his features lost in a mane of white beard, and flowing hair, just the piercing blue eyes visible.

The blind man decided to speak. “My time is close to its end. We must discuss who is to replace me”. The bald man sat up straight. “I favour Magnus. He has proven himself to be reliable, and is not given to excitement”. The blue eyed man shook his head. “But he is a gainsayer, he denies the truth”. The bald man stayed quiet with his thoughts. Magnus did indeed question the existence of any enemy. Nobody had ever seen a barbarian. In truth, nobody alive today had ever seen anyone other than the inhabitants of their settlement. The blind man sighed. “Maybe it is time to discuss the truth with the others. The enemies and barbarians are but legends. Nobody has ever seen them. I never have, and I have lived the longest”.

Blue eyes pounded his fist against the straw mat. “With truth will come disorder. The fear of the unknown is why the settlement is successful. The Watchers will keep us safe”. The blind man nodded, and his shoulders slumped. The bald man was already asleep.

Benny Goes Bust: The Whole Story

This was previously published as a serial, in twenty parts. This is the complete story, for the benefit of those who missed it, or prefer to read it as a complete work. It is a long read, at 26,000 words.

Rarely had a person been born with such an inappropriate surname. Benny Fortune had endured many years of so-called jokes about that, usually the old chestnut, “I would change that name if I were you!” This was always followed by an earache-inducing guffaw, as the bad comedian laughed at his own wit. It did have some uses. Lots of people thought it might be Jewish, especially Jewish people. They also thought that Benny was short for Benjamin, confirming their suspicions that he was one of the chosen people. Benny didn’t mind that at all, as that supposition had earned him a good few quid over the years.

But the Benny in his case was actually Benedict, and Fortune had been his father’s name. Not his real, original name of course, but a legal one, changed by deed-poll. He had been an actor of some standing, at least for a while, the star of a popular comedy drama that had run for six series on television. The kids at school would say things like “Is that really your Dad?”, or more usually, “What, that Mark Fortune on the telly? I hate him”. If Dad had changed his name expecting to make his fortune, it hadn’t worked. When the acting jobs dried up, he wasn’t good for much else other than womanising and drinking, and was dead before he made it to fifty. Mum had got married again long before, and as soon as they got the chance, they cleared off to Canada, taking his younger sister along.

Benny didn’t mind at all. He had never liked his boring step-dad, and his little sister Kelly drove him mad. Plus, he got to live with his Nan, and she was great. She read books to him, and made him read others on his own. She took him to the theatre, and art galleries too. She told him she was what was known as a Bohemian, and he guessed that meant that she smoked too many fags, wore clothes unsuitable for her age, had too much make-up on, and copped off with lots of blokes whenever she got the chance. But the biggest clue was that she didn’t own a television. She made a lot of that, always saying “At least I was spared the horror of watching my son humiliate himself”. She said that at least twice a week, and Benny was sure they were going to be her last words. But he was in the flat when she died, and her actual last words had been “I think I need a shit”. Not something for a headstone, so just as well she was cremated. There was never mention of a granddad, and Benny wasn’t in the least surprised about that.

With encouragement from Nan, he did exceptionally well at school. Well enough to be frequently teased and picked on by the dumber boys. His head spent so much time being flushed in the toilets, that he seriously considered taking shampoo in his school bag, to save using the water at home. It didn’t help that they had no telly of course. All the other kids talked about what was on last night, who was who in the latest must-see series, and who had scored in the football over the weekend. After a while, everybody knew not to ask his opinion, and he didn’t really make many friends. Still, being on your own meant whiling away the time with studying, and even his favourite teacher was blown away when he got five A-levels, all with top grades.

It seemed he could pick and choose from any university he fancied, but he had chosen University College, London, as he could walk there from Nan’s place in Camden Town, and they readily offered him a place to study English. Nan took him out for a meal to celebrate, the Greek place on the one-way system, plate-smashing and everything. She even got up and did the Greek dancing with a waiter, but he shied away when she grabbed his bum and wiggled her tongue at him. Benny had smiled. That bloke had a lucky escape, Nan had told him she was hot to trot that night, and well up for some nookie.

But university wasn’t what Benny had expected. For one thing, there were no Londoners at London University. Most of them seemed to come from nice posh places around the country, or from China and India. And most of them had money. Lots of it. They lived in flats paid for by their families, and didn’t need to work to get by. The biggest shock was that there was no fun. Nobody went out for a drink, and he didn’t see a hint of all that promiscuity he had been led to expect. It wasn’t until the end of the first year that he had finally cracked it with a girl, and he had to admit she had drunk so much Tequila, she was borderline unconscious when they actually did it in her bedsit. Well he had mostly done it to her, to be honest. But she had taken off her underwear earlier, so consent was ‘implied’, as they say in the Courts. He saw it as a win-win, for both of them. She wouldn’t remember going all the way with an ugly bloke, and he was no longer a virgin.

He didn’t go back for the second year, so became an official drop-out. He used to say that should be the occupation on his passport. If he ever got a passport of course. There was a sit down chat with Nan, about not going back. Her opinion mattered to him, and he wanted to do the decent thing. She saw right through him of course, that was obvious. But the bottom line was that she loved him. He offered a sweetener, by way of softening the blow. “I spoke to Cozy, Nan. You know, the guy whose stall I have been running at weekends. He said if I want to take it on, I can. He wants to go back to Morocco, and says he will take forty percent. I can send the money to him from the Post Office every month. Nan thought about it for less than ten seconds. “So, you will have your own business then?” Benny nodded. “That’s about the size of it, Nan”. She pointed at the chair in the corner. “Fetch my handbag, we’ll go and have a drink to celebrate”.

That night, Benny put his university days behind him, and became a market trader in one of the most fashionable street markets in Europe.

It was all very well having a business to run, but that meant being up in the morning, to open up. Getting out of bed had never been one of Benny’s skills, and despite Nan moaning at him, he wasn’t developing it. She had got him up the first day, but had delivered a warning over breakfast. “Don’t think I will be doing this anymore, Benny. I am nearly seventy years old, and my getting up early days are long gone. After this, it’s up to you. Set an alarm on your phone thingy or something. You’ve got to learn to stand up for yourself, I won’t always be here”. He had apologised, but wasn’t that bothered. Most of the business in the market didn’t get moving until well after midday, once the tourists found their way to the underground station at Camden Town from wherever they were staying. He might have to shake himself up at weekends though. That was the busy time, and the stall took seventy-five percent of its takings in those two days.

Trouble was, Friday night was Nan’s pulling night. She would get dressed up, and go out drinking early. She favoured the pubs off the beaten track, the ones where the locals preferred to drink. Less crowded, and more familiar faces. It was hard to believe, but she almost always returned with a bloke. Sometimes they were a lot younger, and quite presentable. What they saw in an old woman wearing a too-short, low-cut purple dress, combined with day-glo yellow fishnet tights, and wearing enough make-up to qualify as a Kabuki dancer, he had no idea. And that was before you factored in the cone of dyed-red hair, piled up on top of her head like a wobbly wasp’s nest. But pull she did, and rarely came home alone. The noise of her sexual antics sounded like a couple of excitable school kids trying to kill a terrified pig, and when he was younger, he had started the habit of ‘headphones night’. He would go to bed on a Friday wearing the headphones from the stereo midi-system, and keep them on. He would have to carry on doing that, if he was ever going to get up early on Saturdays.

Running a business full time wasn’t something that featured in an academic English curriculum. Benny soon realised that you were either cut out for it, or you weren’t. There were some significant problems to deal with; the first being that he couldn’t drive, and didn’t have a car. Cozy stored his surplus stock in a lock-up two streets away, which didn’t seem very far, until you had to carry a box of six large pierced-metal lamps from there to the stall. The solution was obvious, he slipped the next door stall-holder a few quid to go to the lock-ups with her in the van, then stuffed the shop with enough bits and bobs to last a month. Like most small businesses in that market, it had doors you could lock at night, so you were spared having to get everything back to the lock-up. The amount of stuff made it unappealing to customers of course, and they were reluctant to weave their way in and out of the piles of stock, just to have a look at a rug or ornament they had spotted. Benny didn’t catch on, he just thought it was a slow week.

Something else about running a business escaped him too. Takings were not wages. You couldn’t just spend everything in the till at the end of the day. But he felt cash-rich, and did just that. One night, he treated Nan to a special meal in the achingly trendy restaurant, Gilgamesh. It was a new-style fusion place, but Nan called it a ‘Chinese’. She put on what she declared were her ‘special best’ clothes for the occasion, emerging from the bedroom like a vision of a faded Hollywood star. Gloria Swanson would have paled by comparison. She flung her arms out, and winked at him. “What do you reckon? Monroe, eat your heart out, or what?”

Benny surveyed his beloved grandmother, taking in the scene before him. The flared black dress was see-through on the cleavage and sleeves, and hovered a few inches above her knees. She finished off the ensemble with a pair of seamed stockings, and her swollen feet were crammed into some black velvet high heels that she could just about stay upright in. The eye make up was a tribute to Dusty Springfield, with false eyelashes, and something thick and black that resembled fresh tar on roadworks. She did a twirl for him, wafting an unusual aroma of heavy cheap perfume, combined with a trace of urine. Benny did the decent thing. “Wow, Nan. You look like a million dollars. You are gonna knock ’em dead.”

And Benny forgot to send any money to Cozy. Well not forgot exactly, just chose not to. Besides, he had spent most of it, so Cozy would have been less than happy with what was left. It just didn’t occur to him that his partner was still paying the market fees, and was responsible for the taxes. The business was in his name, after all, and Benedict Fortune didn’t appear on any of the paperwork. In many respects, Benny didn’t exist. He wasn’t on Nan’s rent book, or the electoral roll. He had forgotten to apply for a national insurance card, and hadn’t even registered with a local doctor. In a world obsessed with identity and credit rating, Benny was on the outside of it all.

The staff at Gilgamesh didn’t bat an eyelid when they turned up. This was Camden after all, and people like Nan were the norm, rather than the exception. But the customers had a good look at her, as she tottered to the table, supporting herself on Benny’s shoulder. As soon as they sat down, she kicked off the shoes, and rubbed her stockinged feet vigorously. “They weren’t the best idea, Benny love. They’ve crucified my poor feet. I know it’s not far, but we might have to get a cab back”. Two gay blokes on the next table were transfixed on Nan as she twirled her legs around. One of her stocking tops was fully visible when she crossed her legs, and the metal suspender glinted in the lights. Nan turned and leaned over to them. “Like what you see, boys? Wait until I have had my dinner, and I’ll take you both on, no problem”. They snapped up their menus, and pretended to browse the selection, avoiding her gaze. Nan winked at Benny. “No takers. Perhaps they think you’re my toy boy”. Nan didn’t get the gay thing. To her, a bloke was a bloke, and fair game.

She didn’t reckon much to the food, and thought the portions were too small. When a waiter as thin as an anorexic brought the main course, she looked up and said, “We’ve already had our starters love. These must be for someone else”. Realising that was in fact the meal, she shook her head. “Oh well, we can always get a kebab on the way home”. Nan had enough gin and tonics to float a battleship, so when the bill came, Benny could just cover it, even having to use the change in his pockets, much to the unconcealed scorn of Mr Skinny, who knew he wasn’t going to get a tip. Nan flagged a cab down by lifting up her dress, and waving a leg around. She was carrying her shoes, and Benny never saw that pair again.

Luckily, she had enough in her purse to pay the driver.

Nan answered the phone before he could tell her not to. It was Hamza, Cozy’s brother. He still lived in the family home near Ladbroke Grove, and had been tasked by his brother to see what was happening with the business. Benny wasn’t good at being evasive. He had never been a natural liar, though a few weeks on the stall was a good education in that. Hamza didn’t really want the hassle of sorting out his younger brother’s business, and made that clear. “Just send Omar his money, and stop messing about. Don’t make me come over to Camden to see you”. For a moment, Benny wondered who Omar was, then it dawned on him that was Cozy’s real name. “Sure thing, Hamza. Leave it to me. I will be sending some money this week. It’s just that business has been slow. No need for you to come over, no need at all”.
He hadn’t even convinced himself, and was relieved when Hamza said “Pleased to hear it”, and hung up.

At the end of trading, he totted up the takings. Less than one-fifty, but better than a slap in the face with a wet fish, as Nan always said. He would send Cozy the hundred from the Post Office, and keep the rest to give Nan for the food bill. She had talked about going to see a new play at The Donmar Warehouse, but he would have to put that off for now. But on the way to the Post Office, Benny forgot all about why he was going there, and became distracted by some music booming out from a tiny half shop in Chalk Farm Road. He knew the guy who ran it, Edgar. He was a Rasta, and a familiar figure around the area. His record shop specialised in West Indian music; Reggae, Ska, and Bluebeat. Benny went inside to listen to the rest of the track. Edgar nodded at him, and continued to stand behind the tiny counter, rocking almost imperceptibly. He was smoking a spliff the size of a baguette, and surrounded by a cloud of pungent dope smoke. Openly breaking two laws, without a care in the world.

“That’s a good one, Edgar. Who was that? Have you got a copy for sale?” The older man reacted slowly. He smoked so much weed, he seemed to live life at a different pace to everyone else. Slow motion. His grey dreadlocks were housed in a huge Rasta hat, a woolen arrangement the size of a pillowcase that hung down his back and bobbed slightly as he spoke. Benny thought it looked a bit like the alien queen’s head in the film ‘Aliens’, but wisely chose not to mention that comparison. “It’s ED-GARR, boy. I keep telling you, not ‘Ed-ger’”. He rolled the Rs with a natural drawl. Although he had been born in Harlesden, the man was more Jamaican than Bob Marley. He seemed pleased that the young white boy liked the record. “Them’s The Skatalites, boy, before you were born. Yours for ten pound”. Benny was an easy customer, so by the time he left Edgar’s small shop, he had parted with sixty quid for six albums, and was keen to get home and play them on the midi-system.
Cozy’s money had slipped his mind.

Nan enjoyed the music too, and jigged around the living room doing some sort of dance that looked very cool, in her head at least. She was wearing lace-sided leggings and an oversized t-shirt, but her velcro-fastening slippers were not helping the footwork. “This takes me back, love. Smart clothes in the 60s, and some great times at the clubs. Those black guys knew how to woo a woman, I can tell you”. He had seen photos of her back then. She was very attractive in her youth, a mixture of flower power love-child, and swinging sixties model. She made no secret of her past, including having posed for some dodgy glamour magazines, and even appearing in a few soft porn videos, during the heady days at the start of the VHS tape phenomenon. Dad had said he was ashamed of her, and would never talk about it. But Nan loved to reminisce, and once Benny was living in her flat, she was keen to show him what she called her ‘box of treasures’.

The old suitcase was stuffed full of magazines, and loads of loose eight by ten glossies. She wasn’t at all embarrassed to show them to him, though she did take out the VHS tapes, and put them to one side. “Maybe not these, love, not until you are much older”. He had been surprised to discover that her modelling career extended well into her fifties, in magazines with titles like ’50 Plus’, and ‘Treasure Chests’. She casually flicked open a centrefold, showing her huge breasts dangling down in front, as she pretended to be a French maid doing some dusting. “I was nearly fifty then Benny. They loved me. I even had my own fan club, used to answer their letters at the back. Well, not me as such, one of the staff did it. But I loved what he wrote”. She closed the case, and a wistful look passed across her face. “Anytime you want to have a look at these again, the case is on the bottom of my biggest wardrobe. Help yourself, I don’t mind. But promise me you won’t watch any of those videos when I’m out”. Benny promised her, and didn’t watch them.
There was only so much his young mind could take in at the time.

When the record finished, Nan was out of breath, and sat down heavily next to him on the sofa. “Phew, that puffed me out, love. But I enjoyed it”. She turned her head and planted a big smacker on his cheek. Benny felt overwhelmed with love for the funky old lady. “Why don’t I ring up about that play, Nan. See if I can get tickets for tonight?”

He got two tickets, and arranged to pay on collection at the box office. Cheap ones, on the side, near the back. Restricted View they called it. No view, Nan said. But she didn’t mind, as she thought the play was overrated and pretentious. At the intermission, she balked at the price of the drinks. “Tell you what, Benny love, let’s skip the second half, and go back to Quinn’s for a drink. They have Irish music tonight”. Benny nodded, hoping he had enough left to buy a round.

Not long after he had turned eighteen, Nan decided it was time to show Benny one of her videos. Because she didn’t have a television, she knocked next door, and asked to borrow the set owned by Mr O’Brien. He hardly watched it anymore, as his cataracts were getting bad. As well as that, he had emphysema, so just sat all day staring into space, inhaling oxygen from a tube connected to some cylinders. He only removed the mask to take puffs on his cigarettes, ignoring the warnings that they could ignite the gas, and blow up his flat. Nan got him bits of shopping when she was out and about, so he was happy to oblige. Benny wheeled it in, as it was screwed to a stand with tiny black rollers at the bottom. Nan told him where the old VHS player was, stored in box on top of a chest of drawers in her bedroom, and he connected it up with a dusty scart lead he found with it.

Nan handed him the film she had chosen, and sat back smiling on the sofa, patting the cushion next to her, indicating where he should sit. As the static crackled on screen, she folded her arms and smiled. “One of my favourites. I was good in this one, if I say so myself”. The film certainly had pretensions. It began with the title ‘Miss Baxter’s Finishing School For Girls: A Tony Cooper Production’, followed by a cast list, and credits for director and cameraman. Unsurprisingly, both were Tony Cooper. The action started with a woman, obviously Nan, in a shabby school classroom set. She was dressed as a teacher, wearing a ridiculously old-fashioned outfit, complete with a mortar board hat. Benny turned to her. “I didn’t see your name, Nan. Didn’t you get a mention?” Nan grinned. “I was ‘Betty Baxter’ in this one, love. Lilian Thwaite is hardly the sort of name for this type of film, and besides, nobody uses their real name”.

Benny watched as the clunky action unfolded. Three other women entered, all dressed in what were meant to be schoolgirl outfits, leaving little to the imagination of the viewer. It didn’t help that two were at least the same age as Nan, and the blonde looked much older than her supposed teacher. Nan’s character told the girls off for doing something wrong, and said they needed to be punished. That took the form of Nan pulling off most of their clothes, as she snogged them, and fondled their bits. When they were left wearing next to nothing, Nan produced a small cane, and pretended to cane them on their behinds. But it was pretty obvious she wasn’t really hitting them, despite their screams and tears. The second sequence involved them turning on Nan, stripping her off, and having their way with her. It faded out just before the action got too blue.

Benny was relieved when it was over, and grateful it had only lasted for twenty minutes. Watching a soft-porn film with your Nan was an unusual experience, to say the least, but when she was starring in it, naked apart from stockings and suspenders, ‘uncomfortable’ was the word that came to mind. He didn’t really know what to say when she asked him, “So, what did you think of it?” Benny thought for a while before answering. “You were great, Nan. Not so sure about the other girls though, their acting was crap”. Nan seemed pleased. “In all fairness, acting ability didn’t count for much in Tony’s films. Long legs or big tits were the main talents he was looking for”. Benny ejected the cassette, and unplugged the television. He would have quite liked to have hung onto it for a while, and watched ‘University Challenge’ that evening. See how many questions he got right. But Nan wouldn’t have that, so he wheeled it back next door, and thanked Mr O’Brien.

When he got back, he headed for his bedroom, but Nan wanted to talk to him. “Now you are old enough, I can tell you something you need to know, Benny love. One of the reasons I showed you that film was because of Tony Cooper. He was your grandfather, though he never knew. We got carried away after filming one afternoon, and Mark was the result. I had known Tony since my teens. He started as a photographer, then moved on to making videos. He had a lot of respect in that industry”. Benny pondered the concept of having respect for someone who was average at photographing girls in the all-together, then went on to make crap films like that one. But he let that slide. “So, where is he now, Nan?” She grinned. “Long dead love, and good riddance to be honest. But I thought you should know”.

In his room, stretched out on the old candlewick bedspread, Benny contemplated his pedigree. A Nan who had been a porn actress of sorts, and a granddad who worked in the same grubby industry. His dad had been a failed actor, drunkard, and all-round nasty bastard, and his long-suffering mum had cleared off to the other side of the world, leaving her first born to be raised by her mother-in-law. Not exactly the best start in life.
It was amazing he had got this far.
________

When the phone started ringing, he leapt off armchair, moving fast to get to it. But Nan beat him to it. No matter how many times he asked her not to, she always answered it instead of letting it ring. Still, it was her flat after all, and her phone. She put her hand over the mouthpiece. “It’s for you. Some foreign bloke. He sounds grumpy”. His heart sank when he heard Hamza’s voice. Despite his London accent, he did also sound foreign, something you couldn’t quite put your finger on. “I have heard from Omar. He hasn’t got the money. So I am going to come round and collect it in person, and I will be taking back the keys to the shop too. You had better be in”. Benny tried to sound casual. “Hasn’t got the money? I sent it, so I had better go and check with the Post Office, and call you back. No need to take the keys back, Hamza, it’s just been quiet at the market. Things will pick up”. Hamza wasn’t having any of it. “I will be there in thirty minutes. You had better be there, and have the money and keys”.

Nan wasn’t as silly as she sometimes looked. She quizzed Benny about the phone call, and he broke down and told her the truth. “How much are you in for, love?” She sounded kind, not in the least annoyed. Benny shrugged. “He might settle for two hundred, Nan. But he wants the keys too”. She stood up, reaching over for her cigarettes. “Leave this Hamza to me love. I will sort him out. Put the keys on the coffee table, and make yourself scarce. I will tell him something, don’t worry. And never mind about the shop, something will turn up”.

Benny left her the keys, and gave her a hug before going out. He had an idea where to hide for the rest of the day, but not a clue what he was going to do for money now.
It had taken no time at all for him to go bust.

Lilian put her face on while she was waiting for the bloke to arrive. Not that she wasn’t already wearing make-up of course, but the full slap wouldn’t hurt. She wasn’t scared of these Moroccans. In her day, she had dealt with many shady characters, and she wasn’t about to take any shit from anyone. She had fifteen tenners hidden in her stocking drawer, wrapped up in an old pair of woolly tights. He would have to settle for one-fifty and the keys, she would make that clear.

Benny left the flat in Plender Street for the short walk south to Crowndale Road. He would go and see if Big Linda was in. She wouldn’t mind him hanging around there until Hamza had cleared off. He would give it a few hours, then ring Nan to see if the coast was clear. When he arrived, he could see her through the kitchen window of the ground floor flat, doing something at the sink. Not bothering to ring the bell, he caught her attention, and waved. Moments later, the door opened, and Linda stood back to let him in. “Well, if it’s not the gorgeous young Benny. What brings you here?” He grinned, knowing full well he was far from gorgeous. But it was nice of her to greet him like that. He went with the truth. “Some guy I owe money to is coming looking for me. I need to be away from the flat for a few hours, if that’s alright”. She headed back into the kitchen. “Fine with me, it’s nice to have the company. Go through and sit down, I’ll put the kettle on. I have to be at work by six though”.

He knew Big Linda from the market. She helped out in the central cafe for a few hours each day, one of a few cash in hand jobs she had. The woman was a grafter. As well as getting up early to help prepare a flower stall, she did the cafe job during the lunch rush, then worked in the evenings, cleaning offices up the Euston Road. Despite her familiar name, Linda wasn’t that big. But her boobs were. It could have been argued with conviction that they entered a room a full three seconds before the rest of her, and when he had met her the first time, he couldn’t take his eyes off them. Someone should surely have asked the Guinness Book Of Records to investigate, as she was a potential record-breaker. She even introduced herself that way, thrusting her chest out, and adding, “I’m sure you can tell why I’m called that”. It had taken him a good while to get used to them, but he was relaxed about the gargantuan jugs by now, and able to chat normally.

Linda hadn’t had it easy, but she rarely complained. She had a one-night stand with Edgar from the record shop when she was seventeen, and a year later, she was stuck with his baby, who he wanted to be called Cedric, after some relative in Jamaica. Mum had chucked her out over it, and Edgar was too stoned to ever take any responsibility, let alone part with any cash for the child. So she had done her best as a single Mum, got a flat off the Council, and worked around childcare, nursery, then school. But Cedric turned out to be a wayward son. For one thing, he didn’t like his name, and started to refer to himself just as ‘C’, as soon as he was old enough. Then he started skipping school, and got in with some right tearaways all the way over on the Packington Estate, in Islington. She couldn’t manage him, and he was soon in and out of Young Offender Units, with the cops at the flat all the time. Edgar came up with the idea to send him off to live with his distant uncle in Jamaica, and he had jumped at the chance. She hadn’t heard from him in years.

As she asked him various questions about what had happened to cause his current situation, Benny gave Linda a good visual examination, the first time he had really looked at her. He reckoned she was around twice his age, but her round face and fleshy body made her skin look good, and took a good few years off. Her hair was the same as it always was, drawn up tightly around her head, then sticking up on top, tied with some elastic contraption. The end result was something like the top of a pineapple, if a pineapple had its roots showing through a yellow-blonde dye job. Her eyebrows were plucked within a hair of existence, and arched so severely, she looked permanently surprised. Her hips and thighs appeared to be trying to escape from the three-quarter length jeans, and an ill-advised low-cut short top failed to conceal the roll of belly that bulged between its hem, and the waistband of her jeans.

On her left tit, he could clearly see a well-rendered tattoo of the cartoon character, Bugs Bunny. She had seen him clock it, and looked down. “You spotted my Bugs? I was gonna get a carrot on the right one, but never got around to it”. Benny smiled, and said nothing, so Linda grabbed her chest, and pushed it together, creating a cleavage resembling a crevasse in a glacier. “See? It would have been on this side, and when they were squeezed together, it would have looked like he was eating it. You know, What’s up, Doc? Chomp Chomp”. Benny didn’t really know, but he enjoyed the demonstration.

Lilian let the Arabic bloke in. He was wearing a white tracksuit, and jingling keys on a Mercedes key ring. “Benny had to go to the doctor’s, he’s not been at all well. But he left your money, and the keys to the shop”. Her tone was flat, not friendly, and not rude either. Hamza looked at the old woman with undisguised distaste. She was dressed in just a black nylon full slip, and he could see her underwear through it. Her dark tights were laddered and holed, and she had no shoes or slippers on her podgy feet. He had never seen a woman wearing so much make up, and her perfume made him want to sneeze. He stepped back, reluctant to be too close to her.

When she handed over the money and keys, Hamza glanced down at the small bundle of notes. “Who are you lady, his mother? This is not enough, I want twice this”. Lilian kept her cool. “Better than his Mum, I’m his grandmother. And I’m saying there is no more. As he told, you, it’s been quiet. That’s all there is, so take it, and piss off”. Hamza didn’t like to hear a woman swear, and even less so when they were swearing at him. “Look you’re an old lady, and my people respect old ladies. So don’t make me turn nasty, I’ll just wait until Benny comes home”. He sat down heavily on the sofa, and stretched out his legs. Lilian had expected that, and was ready.

She stepped back, lifted her left leg, and tore a huge hole in the ladder already there. Then she reached below her left arm, and pulled at the seam of the ancient slip. It came apart easily, exposing the lacy bra cup underneath. “So it goes like this mate. I start screaming, and my neighbours call the police. I tell them you forced your way into my flat, pulled me down on the sofa, and tried to sexually assault me. You ripped my slip, tore at my tights, and only stopped when I started screaming. You car is a Mercedes, and I’m sure the number plate will be on CCTV. Besides, you will be on the camera covering the entrance to the flats. The fabric from your clothes and shoes is on my sofa and carpets, and once I start screaming, the neighbours are going to see you running away”. She folded her arms.

He sneered. “Yeah, like who is going to think I tried to have sex with an old witch like you? Scream if you want, I don’t care”. She shook her head slowly. “Think about it. Do you really want to chance it in court? Take the money and keys, and forget you ever heard of Benny. You know it makes sense”. He thought about it for a few seconds, snatched up the money and keys, then stormed out the flat without a word.

Linda looked down at Benny’s face, his head nestled under her left arm. She smiled as he caught her gaze. “Well Benny boy, that cleared my sinuses, and ended the drought too. It’s been longer than I care to remember, I can tell you”. He nodded, unsure what to say. “It was very nice, Lin. Honest”. She moved her head back, feigning upset. “Well I should hope so. I don’t just jump into bed with anyone you know”. It took some effort to lift his right leg up around her hip, but when he pulled her in his direction, she spoke quietly. “Ready for more, eh? Well, just a quick one. I have to be at work soon soon love”.

He had been surprised when she made her move, as it had never really entered his head that she might be interested in him, at least in that sense. One minute they were talking about her tattoo, and the next she had decided to show him her eye-popping assets, before straddling him on the sofa, and almost suffocating him with those immense mammaries. By the time they got through to the bedroom, Linda had already pulled off her jeans and panties, then made short work of undressing him. He couldn’t deny it had all been very pleasurable, and considering his lack of experience, he had given a very reasonable account of himself too. After the first time, she had rolled over and mounted him, the wobbling mass of boob flesh slapping around his head with enough force to leave a bruise. It had been something like being made love to by a sea-lion beachmaster, but in a good way. At one stage, she had even flung her head back and yelled ‘Yee-Hah’, bringing to mind those rodeo machines at the funfair. The final quickie was just that, and she was up and about immediately after.

There was no time for a wash and brush-up, and she was already in her green polyester work uniform as he was hurrying to get dressed. She checked the tiny watch she was wearing. “Hurry up, love. Sylvia will be here soon”. He slipped his feet into the trainers as the doorbell rang. Linda grabbed her bag and keys, ushering him out ahead of her. Sylvia was a work colleague who always walked in with Linda. She lived in Greenland Road, so it was on her way. Surprised to see the dishevelled young man emerge first, she grinned at them both. “So who’s this, Lin, your new boyfriend?” Benny cast his eyes over the stranger. About the same age as Linda, slimmer, and quite pretty too, in a mumsy sort of way. He noticed a wedding ring, but her figure was hard to define under the green uniform.

When she answered her friend, he wasn’t sure if Linda was embarrassed, or just wanted to keep things to herself. “What, Benny? Nah, he’s just a mate. Too young for me by a mile”. Sylvia was unconvinced, and turned to him. “What about you, got anything to say?” He stood back, and adopted a formal pose as he spoke. “Methinks the lady doth protest too much”. They both looked at him as if he was crazy. He made a mental note never to slightly mis-quote Hamlet to women who had stopped bothering with school at the age of fourteen. As they walked away, Linda turned. “Oh, Benny. If I was you I would get online love. Lots of opportunities on the Internet these days for a smart young fella. Let me know how you get on, don’t forget, yeah?”. She added an elaborately theatrical wink, just to make sure he caught the final remark.

Benny nodded, and turned in the direction of home. He felt really good, and totally relaxed. As he walked away, he heard Sylvia cackling. She hadn’t been fooled. And now he had a girlfriend.

He had forgotten to ring Nan, and had no credit left on the mobile. Outside the flat, Benny wondered if Hamza had bothered to hang around for the hours he had been with Linda. He decided to chance it, and went in. Nan was wearing her quilted burgundy dressing gown, and matching slippers. She looked chirpy as she turned to him. “You’ve been a long time, love. Where did you get to?” He puffed up, feeling pretty pleased with himself. “I’ve been with Big Linda. Reckon you can confidently say we are an item now, Nan”. She chuckled, mostly at his excited face. He hadn’t even asked about Hamza. “What, the woman from the cafe? The one with the enormous chest? She must be close to forty if she’s a day”. Benny shrugged. “I don’t care about that, Nan. She’s got a lovely nature, and I think she really likes me”. Lilian smiled, knowing full well what attracted him to someone like Linda. “Well if you’re happy love, then I’m happy for you”. He suddenly remembered. “Did Hamza turn up? How did it go?” She stood up and headed for the kitchen as she spoke. “I sorted him out, love. Gave him a few quid and the keys. I don’t think he’ll bother you again. I’ve made a nice Shepherd’s Pie for tea. Sit down, and I’ll dish up”.

After dinner, Benny sat in his room, thinking about the afternoon with Linda. He knew deep down that they were an unlikely couple, and probably not really suited to be together. But he was certainly looking forward to the next time. Recalling what she said as she left for work, he reached under the bed, and slid out his laptop. His Mum and Stepdad rarely sent him anything, but on birthdays and Christmas, they would send a parcel, addressed to Nan. It was usually things like a baseball cap, or a t-shirt with a maple leaf on it, but it always had to be signed for, as it usually contained cash too. Canadian dollars, the only time he had ever seen foreign money. Nan would take them to the bank on the corner of Kentish Town Road, and change them up. He often wondered if she came back with all of it, but wouldn’t have minded if she had kept some. Or maybe Mum didn’t send all that much. That would be more like it.

When he got the place at University, Nan had decided he needed a laptop. So she phoned his Mum, and told her the good news, mentioning that no self-respecting student went to uni without a laptop these days, it just wasn’t done. Two weeks later, Nan told him that Mum had sent enough for him to get one. He had a feeling she had put in most of the money herself, but he sent a ‘Thank You’ card to Canada, at Nan’s insistence. Trouble was, Nan’s place wasn’t online. It was expensive to get fast broadband, and Benny didn’t have the heart to suggest it to her. She seemed to think that computers just went online automatically, and he worried that if he told her the truth, she would just go ahead and pay the connection fee. So he spent that year using wi-fi anywhere he could find it, but mostly in the campus buildings. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked well enough.

To be able to use it at Nan’s now, he would need a dongle, a mobile phone company device that came with a monthly fee, and plugged in to the laptop using one of the USB slots. There was no way a mobile company would give him a contract, so he made up his mind to go and see Noddy, tomorrow morning.

Benny knew Noddy from school. He lived in Robert Street, a ten minute brisk walk away. Carrying the laptop in an old sports bag so it didn’t attract any attention, he was on his way there just after ten the next morning. Noddy’s name was really Darren Hall, but since the age of eleven, he had taken to wearing a blue woolly hat. It was floppy, and unstructured, adopting a cone shape as it covered most of Darren’s head. That had earned him a nickname that had stuck, based on the character from the Enid Blyton books. At least he didn’t have a bell at the top of his hat, like the real Noddy. He had been a nerdy kid, but his natural aptitude for anything to do with technology had ensured he never got picked on. He knew more about computers and phones than anyone, even the teachers who were supposed to teach them how to use them.

Everyone thought Noddy would go on to become the next Steve Jobs, or Zuckerberg, but he had little interest in academic results, and even less in being famous. He was so shy, he never went outside unless he had to, and his main interest was hacking, seeing if he could get into protected systems and company records. Maybe he could have sold the results to someone, but that wasn’t his motivation. He was happy in the housing trust maisonette above the shops in Robert Street. His Mum and Dad let him do his own thing, and his older sister had got married, and moved out to Milton Keynes. Although nobody else knew, Noddy was classed as being too Autistic to work, and though he managed to function at a very high level when it came to machines, his social skills were non-existent. He had left school as soon as he could, retiring to the sanctuary of his bedroom at home. There he sat, working online until the early hours, rarely sleeping. He also didn’t bother to wash that much, or shave. That had left him resembling an English version of Osama Bin Laden, wearing a blue hat.

Mrs Hall answered the door. A friendly, stout woman, her face and appearance betrayed her roots in the countryside of Gloucestershire. She seemed out of place here. “Benedict? I haven’t seen you in years, boy. Have you come to see Darren? You must have. Come in.” She was happy to see any visitors for her reclusive son. “Hang on, I’ll let him know you’re here”. She walked upstairs, and he could hear her knock loudly on a door. “Darren, Benny’s here to see you. You know, that Benny from school”. She returned to the living room, smiling. “Go on up, love. The door straight in front of you, it’s open. Do you want a tea or coffee? Maybe you prefer a Coke or something?” As he mounted the stairs, Benny shook his head. “No thanks, Mrs Hall. I’m fine thank you”.

In the small bedroom, Benny caught his breath. The smell was overwhelming, a combination of unwashed feet, stale clothes, and air that had never been recycled through an open window. Despite his lack of personal hygiene, Noddy had the room arranged just so. Something that people with his problem were prone to do. He was sat at a desk, perched on a stool. Everywhere you looked were screens, there must have been seven or eight of them. You could feel the heat generated by half a dozen computer towers, and a couple of laptops. He greeted Benny as if he had seen him yesterday, but didn’t turn away from what he was doing on a keyboard. “Alright, Ben? You can sit on the bed, but don’t mess it up”. The small single bed looked like something in an Army barracks, the sheets and blanket drawn tight, the single pillow showing no creases. Benny wondered if it was ever slept in. He looked at the back of the frail young man typing away like he was possessed. As well as the blue hat, he was wearing a white t-shirt that had faded grey, and similar tight underpants. Benny was reminded of photos he had seen of Howard Hughes in later life.

“I was hoping for some help and advice with my laptop, Noddy. You’re the only man to see for that”. The flattering tone was laid on heavily, and worked. Noddy stopped typing, and turned on the stool, immediately interested. “Show me the laptop then, and your phone, if you’ve got one”. Benny explained that he need to get online with a dongle, but would never get the contract. He also couldn’t afford to put enough credit on his mobile to access the Internet for more than a few minutes a day. Noddy listened, continuing to inspect the devices, pulling bits off, and fiddling with the connectors. After a while, he laid them both on his desk, and smiled. It was what passed for a smile from him, but seemed more like he was about to throw up. “The phone is crap. Cheap and nasty, but it works OK. The laptop is running an operating system that’s out of date, and it needs more RAM, and a bigger hard drive. But otherwise, it’s good enough. What do you need to do with it?”

“Well my girlfriend reckons I need to get online, and explore the job opportunities. I thought maybe I could get a website; even sell stuff, or do one of those scams you read about. What do you think?” Noddy looked serious. “The big money online is in advertising. Get a good website up and running, or a very popular blog, even a You Tube site with millions of hits. Once that starts to get noticed, then the advertisers will flood in. Trouble is, they usually have contracts and stuff, you know, legitimate payments. That means accountants, tax people getting involved, and all sorts of exposure. But I can help sort all that out for you, and nobody will ever really know who you are. But first, I need to upgrade your stuff, so we can make a start”. Benny exaggerated his genuine admiration. “Wow, Noddy. That sounds fantastic. But I am obviously going to need lots of help. Are you up for that? Should I come back tomorrow and get the laptop”. Noddy chuckled. “No, just sit there, it will all be done in under an hour”.

Noddy plugged cables into the laptop, then removed the SIM card from the phone, and slid it into another device which he connected to something else. Benny soon lost track of the cables, switches, and boxes being plugged and unplugged, and watched as red and green lights flickered, Noddy typing like he had four hands. Rows of incomprehensible numbers and characters appeared on the biggest screen at the back of the desk, scrolling so fast, they made him feel dizzy. Twenty minutes later, Noddy spoke. “What do you want to call your website, Benny?” Taken aback, he tried to think quick, but had no idea. “OK, I will call it anything for now, we can change that later, when I update it with some photos.”

Less than two hours after he had entered Mrs Hall’s, Benny was leaving with more than he could ever have imagined. Noddy had worked miracles indeed, asking less than ten questions as he typed frantically. The mobile phone had been updated, and he had an unlimited minutes contract with full Internet access. It was all in a fake name and location, but he wouldn’t even have to change the number. Noddy said it was good for at least a month, then if he got cut off, it could be changed easily. He had produced a broadband dongle from a drawer in the desk, and worked his magic with that too. “This will dial into any available connection, Ben. Unlimited use, and no one will have a clue that you are even connected”. There was a website under construction, the origin also hidden from view, and he had a Paypal account based on one of two new email addresses, as well as a new current account with an online bank. Noddy had written down all the usernames and passwords that he needed on a post-it note, telling him to keep them safe.

When it was all finished, Benny felt he had to offer some payment. “What do I owe you, mate? I’m not flush right now, but I can bring some money back later”. Noddy shook his head, and looked surprised. “Money? I don’t want money. I just do it because I can. It’s what I do”. Benny left the flat, and walked slowly back to Nan’s. He was excited, and couldn’t wait to tell Linda.

When he got home, Nan was just going out to get her hair done. “I will be gone for a few hours, love. After the hairdresser’s I’ll pop into Morrisons, get us something nice for dinner”. He kissed her on the cheek. “OK, Nan, see you later”.

Benny unpacked the sports bag, and connected the laptop to the mains, so the battery wouldn’t go flat. Then he plugged in the dongle, and followed the instructions Noddy had given him. Google popped up in record time, and he was very impressed by whatever had been done to increase the performance of the basic machine. After two hours, and most of a family-size bottle of Pepsi, Benny was fast becoming disillusioned with his search. Online money-making seemed to fall into two distinct categories; selling crap to anyone who might buy it, or selling tips on how to make money online. The first option would involve storage and warehousing, containers from China, good credit, and money up front. The second option seemed to be about sending someone twenty dollars to release their ‘secret’ to you, and tell you how they became a millionaire, sitting by a pool in The Bahamas. Searches soon revealed that all they would do for that twenty was to advise you to ask other people for money for the same ‘tip’. Then the circle continued, with the outcome that all of these people were just asking each other for a donation, and hoping to find the few who were dumb enough not to do any research.

He went to get some crisps from the kitchen, his rumbling belly reminding him he hadn’t eaten. Eating them washed down with the last of the Pepsi, Benny was about to shut down the laptop, when he had an idea. Something nice for Nan, hopefully. He wiped his greasy fingers on his t-shirt, returned to the flat keyboard, and opened a new tab. In the search box, he typed ‘Betty Baxter’, then hit send.

Sitting back, he wondered at the marvel that was the Internet. The search produced over a quarter of a million options, many repeats of the same stuff of course, but still. He changed the view to ‘Images’, and gasped as page after page of photos of Nan appeared on screen. It was all there. Her younger days with the racy lingerie glamour modelling, stills from the dodgy films that followed, and tons of shots of her when she was much older, from her heyday in those ‘special interest’ magazines. Benny reckoned she would love all this, being immortalised online for all time. He clicked back to ‘All’, then scrolled down. There were clips from her films, magazine covers featuring her poses, and various entries on what was known about her life. Surprisingly, many mentioned her real name, Lilian Thwaite, and he wondered how that had got out. Halfway down, he found a forum, dedicated just to Nan. It seemed that the admirers of Betty Baxter had never forgotten her, and some were running this active forum, with entries posted in just the last two hours. Not only that, some appeared to be new fans, and had stumbled across Nan by following random links.

Using one of his new email addresses, Benny signed up as a member of the forum, so he could read the full comments, and add his own if he wanted to. It didn’t cost anything, and he picked the username ‘Retrofan’, showed his age as forty-two, and a location of ‘Britain’. This was a revelation. Over two thousand members, and hundreds of threads, with ninety percent of them active and buzzing. Looking at the member stats, he soon discovered that over half of them were in America, with the rest mainly coming from Britain, Germany, and of all places, Belgium. Others were much further afield, including some Arab countries, as well as a few from Australia and New Zealand. These men, he presumed they were all men, were thirsty for information on anything to do with Nan, as well as the other so-called stars of the magazines and films she had featured in. They swapped treasured photos, gave each other links to hard-to-find film clips, and all seemed to be trying to outdo each other as the biggest fan of Betty Baxter. Benny was amazed, and he knew Nan would be.

He spent another hour perusing the threads, even going so far as to add a few random comments on some of them. They wanted more, that was clear. Undiscovered photos, VHS films, even reel-to-reel film, if anyone had it. Many were also desperate for information on what Betty was doing now. She had dropped off the scene when she had been close to sixty, and nobody knew why. But Benny knew, as that had been around the time he had gone to live with her. She had abandoned her career for him, not wanting his youth to be remotely tarnished by any association with an elderly glamour queen. No wonder she had told him about it when he was eighteen. She must have been bottling that up for almost ten years.

The forum also had lots of links, and he clicked on them, bookmarking them all in sequence. ‘Glamorous Grannies’, ‘Lingerie Grannies’, ‘Grannies In Stockings’, and dozens more. Not only were the members really into this stuff, it was made obvious that they were also searching these sites in the hope of seeing Betty Baxter reappear one day. Benny did some more research. He had checked out some porn when he first got the laptop, just the usual mainstream stuff. But he had no idea about this huge new market for Grannies and Matures. There were hundreds of sites, and most linked to others, until the number of combinations became too high to fathom. They showed images of older women in every imaginable pose, doing things you would never have credited. There were videos too, and sites where you had to pay a hefty monthly fee to be a member. ‘Granny Webcams’, ‘Granny Personals’, Granny Dating’, it was all out there. Benny sat back, blown away by what he had found in less than three hours. Grannies were the goldfields of the Internet, and he had the mother lode, out getting her hair done.

Nan came back with two shopping bags, and Benny took them off her to take them through to the kitchen. Her hair looked exactly the same, but he guessed that she had just had the dye topped up, as usual. She sat down on the sofa, slipping off her shoes. “Morrisons was packed, Benny love. Then I got chatting to Sheila on the way home. You know her, my friend who drinks in The Queens Head and Artichoke. Anyway, I got some lovely sausages for dinner, and I will do some mash in a bit”. Benny sat down, a broad smile on his face. “Don’t worry about dinner for now, Nan”. He opened the laptop, and clicked on a bookmark.

“I’ve got something to show you”.

Dinner was late that night. Nan was excited by the things Benny had shown her. Although she knew about computers and websites, her experience with them was limited. She had no idea about the forums, and was simply staggered to discover how many people were keeping her name going, and desperate to get hold of anything to do with her. She asked Benny, “This is all about me, really?” Nan wasn’t often lost for words, but for a couple of hours she watched almost speechless. Later, as they sat munching the sausages and mash, she seemed deep in thought. Benny stood up to clear the plates, and she called after him as he walked to the kitchen. “Show me that stuff again, Benny love. I reckon there’s some money to be made here, if we play our cards right”.

It was very late, but they were still going over everything. Benny had a few suggestions. “Nan, I think we need to get those VHS tapes copied onto DVD. They could then be sold online, through the new website. Shame you haven’t got negatives, but we could scan the photos, and print off as many copies as we want. Those guys on the forum would snap them up. You could even go online and answer their questions and requests. I could do that for you. I could be Betty Baxter. And if we offered new photos or video content, they would go crazy for that. I tell you, Nan, the Granny market is huge, and getting bigger all the time. Noddy will help me, I’m sure. Even if he just shows me what to do, I could get it up and running, at least see how much interest there is”.

Nan looked tired, but she opened some Port, and insisted he had a glass too. “We don’t want to flood the market too soon, love. We have to keep them keen, give them a bit at a time. And some of those old girls you showed me, I know them. Well, at least I did at one time. Many of them worked on the magazines with me, and some I recognise from our younger days doing the films. They might not even be alive now, but I have phone numbers or addresses for lots of them. Maybe we could group them all together and use them on your site thingy?” Benny thought for a moment. In his head, he was already the Prince of Grannies online, but he had to temper what might become uncontrolled enthusiasm. “I think we should start with you though, Nan. There is a huge interest in what you are doing and where you got to, and we can tap into that at first, see what happens. Just a shame you don’t have more photos and tapes”.

Nan downed her Port, and went over to the sideboard. She returned with something, unable to suppress a satisfied smile. She slapped a big key down on the coffee table. Benny hadn’t seen it in years. It was the key to the bike shed, where he used to keep his BMX bike at one time. He had almost forgotten about the shed in the inner courtyard of the flats, and had no idea that Nan was still renting it. She refilled her Port glass, and sat down. “Remember all those boxes stacked in the bike shed, love? We had to move them around, so we could get your bike in, didn’t we? Well, in those boxes are at least sixty VHS tapes, some cans of film, probably hundreds of magazines, and perhaps a thousand photos or more, including some negatives. I got them delivered in a van one day, after Tony died. I had to pay the blokes to carry the boxes round to the shed, but I had no idea what I would ever do with them”.

Benny poured himself another Port. He didn’t even like it, but a celebratory drink seemed in order. “I will start bringing those boxes up tomorrow, Nan, then I have to get down to Robert Street, and have a serious chat with Noddy” They clinked the small glasses together, and Nan raised her voice. “Here’s to Betty Baxter. She’s back!”

After such a late night, Benny didn’t surface until nearly eleven. He took the key, and went down to the bike shed. The boxes were covered in more than ten years of dust and cobwebs, but the brick-built bike shed was dry and secure, and they were in great condition, considering. Using the metal edge of the key, he started to slit the brown packing tape on the first few boxes. He felt like Howard Carter, discovering Tutankhamen’s Tomb. This was a wealth of treasure indeed. VHS tapes still in their retail boxes, with screenshots and titles. Magazines in pristine condition, most still in plastic wrappers, and hard plastic containers full of negatives, stacked on top of hundreds of photos. Sadly, the photographic prints had buckled or warped in the main, but at least ten percent were salvageable, and with most of those being black and white, they had hardly faded at all.

Benny left the boxes for now, and locked the shed. Not even bothering to wash all the dust off himself, he headed straight for Noddy’s place. Mrs Hall seemed surprised to see him again so soon. “Oh, Benedict, have you come to see Darren? Silly question. Go straight up, but make sure to knock. He hates anyone just walking in”. For the next hour, Benny chatted excitedly to Noddy. He relayed the story of the previous evening, the revelation from Nan that she had all the stuff in the shed, and how they planned to reinvent her for the twenty-first century. Noddy listened without interruption. He knew about the online stuff of course, but let his visitor ramble on, still typing feverishly, hardly turning from the screens. Benny was so exited, he had even stopped noticing the smell of the room.

When he stopped talking, Noddy turned to face him. For all that time, he had been working away on his computers, and Benny was amazed by what he said next. “OK, I have named the site. It is now called ‘The Real Betty Baxter’ dot com. We are going to need some photos, something not already on the forum. And a new photo of your Nan, to prove it’s really her. You need to get the VHS tapes put onto DVD, and use the same cover art. I can tell you who to see about that. Then you need this new email address, which will be the only one associated with contacts from the site. Your Nan will need to answer the comments though. They will realise if it’s you. An older person would respond differently. She has to be authentic. I have set up the site to accept Paypal payments to the new email, you want to keep away from credit and debit cards, believe me”. Benny opened his mouth, and he was wide-eyed with appreciation. “Wow, Noddy. Just wow”.

Noddy’s expression turned serious. “This is a lot of work though, Benny. You have to have cookie warnings, and be compliant with online regulations too. Start off by selling some stuff to the eager buyers. Make sure you post the bloody things though, don’t piss about and upset the customers, or they will kill you dead as far as the online business. And this site won’t be secure, but I can make it look as if it is by sneaking a padlock in the top bar. Jumping through all the online hoops to get this going isn’t going to be easy, I’m telling you. I will probably route it through Russia, but make it look like an English site by sticking a lot of union jack flags all over it. And we will need a database of anyone who shows interest; sign them up for newsletters, maybe even run a Betty Baxter blog. It’s going to be a real job, so if you want my help you will have to step up”.

Benny threw his arms wide. “Noddy, I’m on it mate”.

Benny had to have a serious chat with Nan. They would need some front money. Even with Noddy fixing up most things free of charge, by using his knowledge of computers, some things had to be bought. They would need a printer, photo paper, and ink cartridges. Plus things you didn’t immediately think of, envelopes. jiffy bags, labels, and of course the postage costs. The buyers would have to pay those on top of course, but some money had to be there already, to pay the Post Office on the day. Then there was the cost of getting the first few VHS tapes transferred to DVD, along with the printed inserts. Ideally, they should have a decent digital camera, one that could shoot video if required. The memory cards for that camera, as well as the costs involved with running around places. Hopefully, the money would soon come rolling in. Noddy thought they could do quite well, at least with the first flush of interest. It was keeping them interested that was the problem. But nothing comes from nothing, and Benny told Nan they would need around seven-fifty at least, perhaps a grand for preference.

He knew she had some savings. She mentioned them often enough, but never let on how much. When he finished telling her what Noddy had set up, and what needed to be done to start off, she nodded her head, and thought for a while, taking a long time over one cigarette. “You can get a second hand printer and camera from that little shop in Hampstead Road, love. No need to buy new for now. If you need running around, go and see Leroy Wilson on the top floor. He drives a cab, and will give you a good deal for regular work. As for the DVD films, I don’t know about them. I will give you six hundred, but I want you to account for it mind. I will go to the bank tomorrow, and get you the cash”.

Feeling really good, Benny decided to celebrate with a visit to Linda. He could be there a while before she had to leave for work. Using his new unlimited phone minutes, he gave her a call. She sounded very happy to hear from him, and said she would make sure to stay in until he arrived. When the door opened, he could see she had made an effort. She was wearing a long black dress made of t-shirt material, and had a fair bit of make-up on too. Her hair still looked like a pineapple, but you couldn’t have everything. Besides, he was willing to bet that she wasn’t wearing anything underneath that clingy dress. She seemed excited to hear his news, and very pleased when he gave her full credit for suggesting he do some online research. Inside, Linda was genuinely touched that he had chosen to share it all with her first. That made her feel special, like they really had something. It didn’t occur to her that he had just been telling his Nan, and Noddy already knew. Other than those two, Benny didn’t have any other real friends to tell.

Linda had her own ideas about how to celebrate his news. The black dress was pulled off over her head, and she literally dragged him into the bedroom. By the time Linda jumped into the shower to get ready for work, Benny’s legs were trembling, and he felt like someone at the finish line of The London Marathon. He was amazed at Linda’s energy. For such a chunky woman, she certainly had stamina. When she was ready, and expecting Sylvia to arrive, Linda came into the bedroom. “No need to rush, love. Take this, and lock up on your way out. You can keep it, if you want. That’s your key now”. She gave him a huge kiss, and shut the bedroom door as she left. Benny looked at the latch key in the palm of his left hand. That had been a surprise, the last thing he had expected. Kicking off the duvet, he stretched luxuriantly. Life was getting better, he was sure of that.

When he got home later, Nan was sitting at the table, wearing her reading glasses. She was surrounded by sheets of paper, all covered in notes written in red ink. That was probably the only colour pen she could find. She was wearing a cardigan over her nightdress, and had obviously not been out since he left. As he entered the room, she spoke without turning. “There’s twenty quid on the hall table, Benny love. Can you go and get some fish and chips? I haven’t had time to get any dinner ready”. When he got back with the food, Nan was still engrossed, and he had to get the plates and cutlery out to dish up.

When they had eaten, and were sitting in the living room, Nan picked up all her notes, and started to tell him what she had been doing. “I’ve been on the phone for hours, love. It’s not easy to track down my old contacts, and as I expected, a lot of them have just disappeared, probably dead. But I have two definitely interested, and three possibles. Val Barker is well up for it. She used to be known as ‘Lady Valerie’, and put on a posh accent too. She’s 73 now, but she reckons she has looked after herself. Trouble is, she lives in Clacton now, and that’s too far away. We would have to put her up, so you might have to sleep on the sofa for a night or two. Then there’s Dolly Bright. I never did know her real name. She liked the sound of it, but wants to talk again, when her husband is out. She only lives in Holloway, so nice and close. I have written down all their names and numbers here, so you better put them on your computer lists”.

Benny was impressed, but Nan was still getting ahead of herself. “That’s great, Nan. I will make a list of them later. But let’s start with you. You already have a lot of people interested. We can expand the site with the others if it takes off. Did you mention money? I hope they are not expecting too much”. Nan grinned. “I told them there might be some money in it of course, they wouldn’t do it for free, would they? But I said it wouldn’t be much, and it would depend on how many people signed up, and bought their videos or photos”. He gave her a big cuddle, and a kiss on the cheek.

“Nan, you’re a wonder. You really are”.

As he struggled back to the flat, Benny wished he had arranged for a cab home. He was carrying a box with a printer in it, and a tripod balanced across it. Over his shoulder hung a battered old camera bag containing a four year-old Canon Digital SLR, and two zoom lenses. Nan had got back with the promised cash not long after the bank had opened that morning, so Benny took most of it, and headed off to the secondhand electrical shop less than ten minutes away, where Hampstead Road became Camden High Street.
The old bloke inside looked more like a vagrant than a shopkeeper, but seemed to know his stuff. The camera was basic, but in good condition. It came with the two lenses, and one was still in the wrapper, never been used. It had a built-in flash that would do for now, and the original instruction book. Benny didn’t know much about cameras, but the bloke had shown him how to set it on ‘Program’, and that would sort out the settings automatically.

It was marked up at two-twenty-five. But when he realised Benny wanted other stuff, he became amenable to some haggling. He threw in the big tripod, two memory cards, and the bag to carry it in. Then showed him the printer, a compatible Canon with a scanner and copier facility. It was a bit scratched, but demonstrated as working. After some debate, he added a sealed replacement printer cartridge, and a neck strap with ‘Nikon’ woven into it. He started at three-sixty for everything, but when Benny said he would think about it, and made to leave, he settled for two-seventy-five for the lot, as long as it was in cash.

While he was out, Lilian got ready for the planned photo shoot. Nothing too raunchy, just her favourite purple dress, paired with some ancient black seamed stockings attached to a suspender belt. On her feet she had some wicked high heels. She couldn’t possibly walk in them any more, but they really went well with the outfit. She layered on the make-up, and spent ages doing her hair. When Benny got back, he set up the camera on the tripod, and moved the sofa out the way. Then he got one of the dining chairs and placed it by the window, closing the curtains to create a backdrop. Lilian had thought of something that would help remind her fans, and confirm her identity. She had got one of the bigger old photo prints, a sixteen by twelve glossy, and said she would hold it on her lap, so they could tell it was her, back in the good old days. Benny thought it was a sound idea. “Good one, Nan. Sort of a ‘then and now’ moment”.

He clicked away for ages, moving the zoom back and forth, trying some with flash on, some without. Nan crossed her legs in what she called a ‘seductive pose’, and flashed a bit of stocking top for the fans. Then she did some leaning-forward poses, so they got a good look at her cleavage. Benny had to admit she knew her stuff. She had snapped back into her Betty Baxter character in a heartbeat, and despite her age, she was certainly a very natural model. They lost count of how many shots he had taken. The built in motor clicked off a lot of times whenever he pressed the shutter, so it was a lot. Right at the end, he shot a few seconds of video; Nan crossing and uncrossing her legs, blowing kisses, and twisting around on the chair. Satisfied, Benny took the camera off the tripod, and removed the memory card. “I’ve got to get this round to Noddy now, Nan. See if he can work his magic on the website”. She seemed very pleased. “OK, love, see you later. Don’t forget to get something to eat”.

Mrs Hall showed no surprise this time, simply saying “Hello Benedict”, and opening the door to let him in. Noddy took the memory card, and plugged it in to something. Images flashed up on the screen, and Noddy’s fingers worked the keyboard like a young Chopin at the piano. Benny sat at the end of the bed, watching over his friend’s shoulder. He was glad of the rest, as the day had already been busy, and they had lots more to do yet. After forty minutes or so, Noddy waved for him to come closer. “This is a preview, how the website will look once I press to get it up and running. Once it’s live, I will go onto the forum, and create ‘The Real Betty Baxter’ as a username, with a thumbnail photo, and a link to the new site. It will be held for moderation by whoever runs the forum, but the site will be active straight away. I have done some research around memberships of similar sites, and come up with this”. He clicked into a separate screen. It was marked up as ‘Join Here’, and had monthly rates for membership via Paypal, followed by a row of boxes where members had to give a lot of personal details, including their real name, an email address, and an acceptance of monthly subscriptions via Paypal. There was a thirty-day cancellation clause, and an agreement to abide by the terms and conditions.

The monthly fees were impressive. Thirty pounds for UK members, and thirty Euros for Europeans. For anyone paying in US dollars, it was fifty a month. Other currencies by arrangement, and all paid via Paypal accounts. It seemed a lot, and Benny asked the question. “Seems a bit strong, Noddy. Do you reckon they will wear that much?” His friend was ready, and started to click on other sites offering unlimited access monthly memberships. They were all around the same price, and many were much higher. Noddy pointed at the screen. “See these, they are pretty basic, and people have joined them. Your Nan is in a niche market, and with the benefit of a ready fan base, mostly of older blokes who have the money to spare. You can expect some drop off later, but if you keep the new photos coming, and make sure the forum threads are answered, it should do well. In fact. there’s no reason why we can’t run a Q and A on this site, on a different page. That saves bothering with the forum once we get going”.

Noddy waited until Benny had taken it all in, before continuing. Once the payment is processed, I email them a password they can use to access the site with their username. That lasts for thirty days, and expires immediately if they fail to renew with more money. All the photos will be protected from being able to be copied, and any video clips will be embedded, so not able to be copied either. I can’t stop them giving someone else their login details at the moment, but there is a way round that, and I will have that cracked soon. The photos are not that great, but I have cleaned them up on Adobe Photoshop, and they are good enough for web use. They can only be enlarged by members, so they have to pay to see any details. I’m still working on a ‘Shop’ page for the site, where you can sell the prints, DVD films, and anything you like. I suggest that you let anyone access that page, as well as members. Some random surfer might well decide to buy something, even if they don’t want to subscribe. We have to look at all sources of income generation”.

Benny patted his shoulder. “Outstanding, Noddy mate. It looks great, just like a real professional website”. Noddy sighed. “That’s because it is”.

Then he hit ‘Enter’.

As she made the sandwiches in the cramped kitchen, Beverly Hall was thinking hard. Tomato Ketchup ones for Darren, the only thing he would eat, besides Coco-Pops. Cheese and pickle for Benny, whether he liked them or not. Darren had told her everything of course, he always did. People with his condition always spoke the truth, whatever the consequences, She liked that about her son. He was never sneaky or deceptive. That helped to make up for the harder years when she was struggling. She had never been able to go back to work after he was born. She missed the company, and hated being stuck in the house most of the time. But most of all, she missed being Beverly. She was overlooked, a housewife and housekeeper, good old Bev, as everyone called her.

She had met Keith when he was in the army, stationed close to her home in the West of England. He didn’t have much of a job in the forces, mostly driving and fixing lorries in the motor transport section. At least he was never posted overseas. He had been good looking back then, but he hadn’t aged well. The first flush of marriage soon passed, and he left the army as soon as his time was up. He wanted to move back to North London, where he came from, and it had been a shock for Beverly. Too noisy, too full-on, and lots of unfriendly people. But she had her daughter soon after, and once Kirsty was around, she at least had the company of some other young mums she had met. But once Darren was born, Keith seemed to just switch off, and leave it all to her. He was in and out of jobs for a while, and they often struggled. Then he had found a security guard job, in the cargo sheds at Heathrow Airport. That seemed to suit him, and he was still there, after sixteen years. He worked twelve hour shifts, six days a week. Adding the long commute each way, he was out of the house for almost fifteen hours a day, only getting home in time to eat dinner, doze in front of the telly, and go to bed. On his one day off, he got up late, read a newspaper in great detail, and then went to the pub for a couple of pints. She couldn’t remember the last time he had even spoken to his son. She didn’t blame Kirsty for getting married and moving away either. She had been a good girl, helped out when she could.

Noddy was too excited to eat. “Look, Benny. The site moderator approved Betty immediately. He has already started a thread, visited the website, and signed up as a member for thirty quid!” Benny munched his sandwich. He didn’t like Branston Pickle, but hadn’t wanted to seem ungrateful. On the sidebar of the site, was a box marked ‘Ask Betty’. The forum moderator used the name ‘bettysbiggestfan’, and he had left a comment, which Noddy had immediately approved.

‘My dream has come true. I need to pinch myself, to know it is really you, Betty. Thank you, thank you. More please. Never go away again, beautiful Betty’.

Noddy smiled. “I think we cracked it, Benny”.

Just forty-five minutes later, even Noddy was shaking his head in disbelief. The forum thread had close to four hundred comments, and there were already one hundred and sixty-five members signed up to the site. ‘Ask Betty’ had over ninety comments. Members were asking for specific poses and clothes, and wanting to buy photos, DVD films, even her worn underwear, tights, and stockings. The research done by both of them hadn’t come anywhere close to the excitement generated by Betty’s sudden reappearance. Noddy was doing some sums. “I have to get busy emailing the passwords, Benny. But look at this”. He held up a sheet of paper, with writing and figures on it, in his very neat hand.

US members so far. 100 X $50 = $5,000
UK members so far. 44 X £30 = £1,320
EU members so far. 21 X E30 = E630

“Benny, that’s close to six grand in under an hour, and it’s still coming in. Once the time changes around the world kick in, we can expect a lot more, I’m sure. I need to open more Paypal accounts and start spreading this money around fast, before it gets noticed. We will need more online bank accounts too, so I will get on that. You need to get started on those video transfers, and get a lot more pictures of your Nan. And I mean a lot. She has to answer these messages too, all of them”. Benny left the last quarter of his sandwich, and stood up to leave. Noddy turned, his eyes alive with excitement. “Come back later with those photos and I will explain about how to get hold of some of this money. But don’t forget, other than any sundry sales, it has to last a month, and we have to give them some content”. Benny gave him a thumbs up. “Sure thing, Nod”.

Beverly Hall was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. She was smiling, but had a determined posture, arms folded across her chest. After leaving the sandwiches, she had stood outside listening, and had only come down when she realised Benny was about to leave. On top of what her son had already told her, she had worked out exactly what was going on, and where it had got to. “Sit down, Benedict love. We need to have a little talk”. He hesitated, taken aback by her rather syrupy tone. “Can we do that later, Mrs Hall? Only I have rather a lot to do just now”. She shook her head, widening the smile. “It won’t take long, but it has to be now”. He perched on the edge of the sofa, his body language indicating he was ready to leave as soon as he could. Mrs Hall came and sat close to him. Very close. Uncomfortably close in fact.

“To start with, I want you to call me Beverly. Not Bev mind, Beverly. Mrs Hall makes me feel old, and though I might be forty-nine next birthday, I am nowhere near old, I can tell you. Now, I know that you are soon going to be getting quite a lot of money, Darren has told me how much he thinks it might be. And that’s every month. I expect you to do the decent thing, and give him a fair share. I didn’t spend the best part of the last twenty years looking after him, just so he could be exploited by other people”. Benny shifted a bit, but she just moved into the gap. “But Mrs, er, Beverly, Noddy told me he doesn’t want anything. I offered, I really did”. She slid her arm along the top of the sofa, her voice getting even softer. “He may not know what to do with cash, but he can always use new equipment. You know they keep bringing out bigger and better computers and stuff, and we don’t have the money to keep replacing them”. Benny nodded. “OK, fine. You tell me what he wants, and I will see you get the money to buy it for him”. She smiled, and Benny moved to stand. But the arm behind him rested on his neck suddenly, indicating he should stay put.

“And there’s something else, something for me. ” He was confused. “I could get you a new telly or washing machine, something like that. Or both.”. Beverly waggled a finger at him. “Is that what you think I want? Oh no. I want to be on the site; have my own feature, and my own fans. Next time you come round, bring your camera, and we can start taking the photos”. Benny raised his eyebrows. “You? What about Mr Hall, and Noddy? He will know, even if his Dad doesn’t” She smiled like a cat who had got the cream. “Leave Keith and Darren to me, Benny, and stop looking so surprised. You wouldn’t credit how well I can scrub up, I kid you not. And I look pretty good in my underwear, even if I say so myself.” She leaned forward again, her voice almost a growl.

“I really do”.

Benny sat in the the taxi that was taking him to the small industrial estate in a back street not far from White City. He had decided not to use Leroy from the flats. The less people who knew wht he was doing, the better. The traffic was bad, but it gave him time to think. Mrs Hall had surprised him. He had never really taken that much notice of her in the past. With her rather masculine hairstyle and mumsy clothes, she was just ‘there’. But he was going to have to take the photos later, as he couldn’t risk her blocking Noddy from the operation. The potential money was huge, much more than he had expected. But hiding it, then getting at it was going to take a lot of work. He called upon the resources he had used when studying for his exams, trying to get his head around just how busy life was going to become, even with such a small cottage industry like the one they had started.

Lilian had been using the laptop most of the day. Benny had showed her what to do, and after a few stumbles, she had finally worked it out and got in the flow. The comments on the thread were all lovely, and it brought a tear to her eye to read how so many people had dedicated a part of their life to keeping her memory alive. Her comments in reply were natural, and appreciative, and the replies came thick and fast. She also read some very appreciative remarks about her new photos in the ‘Ask Betty’ section, and chuckled at the variety of requested poses and outfits. Despite the amount of really graphic and seedy stuff online, her fans just wanted to go back to the traditional stuff. Old-fashioned underwear, domestic settings, and blatant flashes. Nobody asked for anything extreme, not one of them.

Dolly Bright had finally got back to her, but none of the others had followed up. Dolly was married to someone a fair bit older, but he wasn’t well, and knew nothing about her past. Her real name had been Sophie Kingwell, and that had changed to Sophie Ward when she got married. She told Lilian that she would love to do some work on the site, as it would make a change from being in the house, and a little extra money never hurt. Her husband was in hospital now, on his way out, it seemed. And he would be going into a terminal care hospice soon, so she would have a lot of free time. They decided that she would be called Sophie Bright, and use the name ‘Aunt Sophie’ with her pictures.

He paid the cab fare, and walked over to the small industrial unit with the name ‘ZR Facilities’ on a small sign by the door. He had phoned and made an appointment to see the owner, Zafir. In a big sports bag, he was carrying twenty VHS tapes, and some photos of Nan. Inside, the place was smaller than he had expected. More or less a room full of machines on racks, and a tiny counter at the front. Zafir was a young Indian-looking guy, very smartly dressed, with a wicked haircut. “So you want some old films transferred to DVD, and these old wrappers and photos combined into inserts? How many are we talking about?” Benny had already been thinking of a number before arriving. “I was thinking fifty of each to start with, but it all depends how much they cost”. Zafir used a calculator on his phone to work out some figures, but didn’t immediately come up with a price. “The copying is no problem, we can do that by machine. But there is some work involved in getting the DVD inserts right. Then there is copy protection. You get a master that can be used to run off as many as you want, but if we don’t include that copy protection, someone will rip you off, and sell them on Ebay. That’s a software thing, and easy enough. But it adds cost. Then there are the cases, but they’re cheap enough. The main issue is the poor quality of the old VHS. I can have a look at some of the films, but I am betting we will need to upscale them, and that takes time and money. Basically, the more you buy, the cheaper it gets”.

Benny leaned on the counter, taking it all in. “Don’t get me wrong, Zafir, but how can I be sure that you won’t just copy the films, and sell them on?” The young man took no offence at the remark. “I have a business, Mr Fortune, and it’s a good one. If I started ripping off customers, I wouldn’t last too long. Then where would I be? I assure you I have no interest in your affairs, and I certainly have zero interest in this seedy crap you are hoping to sell. I only look at it from a technical aspect, and I hope to get repeat business if you are successful. Does that reassure you?” Benny nodded. “Sorry, but I had to ask. How long before you could get some films to me?” Zafir smiled. “How long before you can collect some, you mean. I don’t do deliveries, unless you want to pay some hefty courier fees. Let’s say two days for the masters and inserts, then I will run off the copies you requested overnight. You can collect one thousand DVDs in three days. But I want a big deposit now, and full payment on collection. If it was a bigger order, I might get the price down to two pounds fifty each, but for just a thousand it will have to be three quid each, so three thousand pounds. I want five hundred up front to cover the donkey work, then a telephone payment by card, or bring cash, before I let you have the films. And make sure you have a big car, or van. There will be a few cartons, and they will be heavy”.

The five hundred was paid using one of the cards that had arrived from the new bank accounts Noddy had set up. He waited as the payment went through, relieved that his mate had done his stuff. Zafir hadn’t cared that the name on the card was different, as long as he got his money. They shook hands, and he passed over a business card. “See you in three days. If any changes come to mind, then call me”.

Leaving the bag with him, he wandered back out onto the main road. After trying in vain to find a free cab, he eventually got on a bus to Paddington. from there he would easily get a taxi from the rank at the station. On the top deck, he relaxed and stared out of the window.

So much to do, but at least it was all coming together.

At least Nan was happy. Benny was pleased to see her in her element when he got back, relishing all the adoring remarks made by her fans on the forum, and ‘Ask Betty’ page. No time to hang around too long though. He wolfed down a bowl of cornflakes in the kitchen, not even bothering to sit down. He had to get back to Noddy’s place with the camera, take the shots Beverly wanted, then tell him about the DVD films on order, and sort out how to get more money out of the accounts to pay for them. He grabbed all his stuff, and went to say goodbye to his Nan. “Nan, we are doing really well. I will be able to give you your money back in the next few days, and a lot more on top of that. Noddy says we need more photos of you, so I will start on those tomorrow”.

Nan was fixed on the screen, typing gingerly, as if the keyboard would hurt her fingers. “Oh Benny love. HD. We need HD, apparently. All the boys here are asking for HD video and Hi-Res photos, whatever they are. She had her legs sprawled out either side of the laptop. They looked funny, sort of swollen, and were an unusual colour. “I know about HD Nan, but the camera is too old for for that. It will have to wait until I get a new one. Noddy can tune up the photos, it will be alright for now. Nan, what’s wrong with your legs?”

Lilian stopped typing, and looked up with a smile. “Its the boys, love. They want to buy my stockings and tights, once they have been on my legs of course. I’m wearing four pairs of stockings with three pairs of tights over the top of them, to save time. After I take them off, I can put them in some of those zip-seal sandwich bags. You will have to post them off, once they have paid for them. It’s up to you or Noddy to work out how much, I will leave that to you. But the next time you are near the market, you better buy me a lot more, maybe fifty pairs of each. They have all sent their names and addresses by email, they tell me. To be honest love, I can’t wait to get them off, I’m sweating cobs under all this nylon. And god forbid I need a pee in a hurry, this lot feels as tight as if I’ve been swallowed by a snake”. Benny chuckled at her, and gave her a big kiss on the top of her head. “See you later Nan”.

Beverly Hall had been right. She did scrub up well. The woman who answered the door looked like someone much better-looking, pretending to be Noddy’s mum. Her usual boring hairstyle had been changed completely. Various colour highlights had lifted the dark auburn, and the front was no longer combed in what he thought of as a ‘Hitler Parting’. Instead, it was a spiky fringe, gelled-up in a modern style. The hair alone had taken five years off her age, and careful, classy makeup removed five more. She smiled at his expression. “Like the hair? I did it myself. Told you I could look good. Now, did you bring the camera, like I said?”

She was wearing a pink hooded dressing gown that almost touched the ground, and as soon as they got into the living room, she undid the belt, and opened it wide. “TA-DA! What do you think of that, young Benedict?” She revealed that she was wearing a black lacy bra, her generous breasts bulging from the cups. The matching high-cut skimpy panties left little to the imagination, and a suspender belt was attached to some sheer black stockings. Her fingernails and toenails were painted with a lush dark red polish, and her glossy lipstick matched it perfectly. Other than a small ‘baby belly’ bulging slightly above the waistband of the panties, her figure was surprisingly good. Benny actually though ‘Wow!’ But decided to go with “Very nice Mrs, er, Beverly”. She didn’t bother to tie up the belt, and carried on talking. “I was hoping for better than ‘very nice’, but it’s a start. I decided we will do my photos in the bedroom. I have tidied it up, changed the bed, and lit a scented candle too. It will create the right mood, I think. I was out and about as soon as you left. I have been to Primark to get the undies, no point paying too much for them. Then I got the hair stuff from Boots in Oxford Street, while I was up there. She reached out and took his hand. Come on, up we go”.

At the top of the stairs, Benny hesitated. “What about Noddy? Won’t he think it’s funny if I am in your room? Maybe we should stay downstairs.” She shook her head. “He’s learning Russian, from one of those audio things, so he will have headphones on anyway. He’s just bought a Russian keyboard, you know, with their funny symbols on it. I expect he will pick it up in no time. He has a talent for things like that”. Benny didn’t move. “All the same, I would hate to upset him, and we really have a lot to do”. She looked fed up. “You have never got it, have you? Darren doesn’t think like that. Such things don’t register in his thought processes. He operates at a different level to the rest of us”. Beverly dropped his hand with a look of disdain. “Right, follow me”. She opened the door to Noddy’s room, and the strange odour wafted into the space on the landing. She tapped her son on the shoulder, and he turned, removing the headphones as she mimed the action. “Darren, Benny is here to take some photos of me for the website. We are going into the bedroom for a while, so don’t worry where I am, alright? He will come and see you when we’re finished, and you can go over everything then. OK, love?”

Noddy didn’t show the slightest surprise at his mother being done up to the nines, dressed like a high class call girl, and talking about going into her bedroom with his school-friend. He didn’t even grin. “OK, Mum. Hi Benny”. Then he turned back to the screens, and replaced the headphones.

Beverly beckoned him with a crooked finger, and he meekly followed her into the bedroom. It was three times bigger than Noddy’s, and actually done out quite tastefully. The bed was huge, and he wondered how they got the mattress up the stairs. Beverly slipped off the pink gown, then sprawled on the bed, curled up in a seductive pose on her front, with her legs waving in the air behind her. Benny had to admit that she looked pretty hot, even though she was still Noddy’s mum. And the stirrings in his loins were in danger of giving away his appreciation. She ran a finger around her mouth, looking him up and down.

“Right, Benny love. Two things are going to happen this afternoon.
One. You are going to take some very sexy photos of me.
Two. I am going to have you.
The only say you have, is choosing which one happens first”.

Benny looked at her squirming on the bed, her cleavage bulging above her folded arms, the firm white globes of her bum cheeks protruding from the sides of the panties, and her toes wiggling inside the stockings.
There was no contest.

He dropped the bag and tripod, and clawed frantically at his belt.

Benny had thought Linda was pretty good, but Beverly made her seem like she wasn’t even trying. It had felt like being in among some Greco-Roman wrestlers, twisting, grappling, and wrapping around each other. But much better of course, because Mrs Hall had released something inside herself that maybe even she hadn’t been aware of. Close to twenty years of sexual frustration, countless hours of fevered imaginings, and more than a few days spent surfing on her laptop. It had all burst forth, and he had been the very grateful recipient of her release. After, she had tidied up her hair and make up, re-positioned her underwear, and told him to get busy with the photos. He set up the tripod, and started to follow her lead.

She did the full range. On the bed, beside the bed, bent over the bed, then standing on it too. Bra on, bra off, panties on, panties off. On her back, on her front, looking over her shoulder, and also standing over Benny, looking down the lens as he clicked away on his back. She finished off fully nude, even removing the stockings for the last dozen shots. He had to hand it to her, she was a real natural, and she had obviously done her homework on the poses. It was all done and dusted in under an hour, and a quick review on the back of the camera showed they had got some first-class results. Beverly put the dressing gown on, and turned to him. “Right, Benedict. Put some underpants on, and go and sort things out with Darren. I will do you some egg and chips, give you a shout when it’s ready. Then after we have eaten, I want to have a nice talk with you”. She swept out in a cloud of pink fleece, not waiting for a reply.

Noddy was very matter of fact. “Close to eleven grand, Benny, and it’s not even six pm. I am still emailing passwords, in between learning Russian. I don’t want any problems routeing the site, so I want to be on top of any language issues”. As he was talking, his fingers were moving constantly, things scrolling up and down on at least three screens, and all sorts of beeping and whirring sounds could be heard. It was like visiting someone in an Intensive Care Unit. Not that he ever had, but he had seen it on telly. Noddy told him to get a notebook, and write down what he told him. It was a lot of stuff, and he had to keep being asked to repeat it. Benny would have to get up early the next day. He had to go to lots of banks, all over the place. He scribbled down the names and addresses, PIN numbers, and account names. At each bank, he should use the ATM, and draw out a certain amount, different in each bank. Darren turned to emphasize some points. “Use cabs, but don’t keep the same one for all the journeys. Keep away from public transport, but if you have to use it, get a bus, and sit downstairs, with the bag on your lap. It will have a lot of cash inside, so put some T-shirts in first, then hide the money under them. Don’t wear anything distinctive, just plain colours with no logos, and take a baseball cap, but only put it on for a few of the withdrawals.”

Benny checked the details, and went over it again. Then Noddy added, “And when you get home tear those pages out of the notebook, and destroy them. Not throw them in the bin, get rid of them. I suggest you tear them in very small pieces, then flush them down the toilet. Don’t burn them, in case you set off the smoke alarm”. His tone was calm, not ordering, just stating what needed to be done. He was on the ball, that was for sure. Benny wondered what the Hell he would do without him. “Christ, Nod. That’s a lot of banks mate. I’m going to be out most of the day”. Noddy turned his stool round, and let the screens alone for a moment. “It will be like this every day for some time, then at least twice a month after that. You have to realise about money laundering regulations, withdrawal limits, CCTV in the ATM machines. You can’t just walk into a bank and withdraw ten grand anymore, Benny. Not unless you want to explain how it got there, and whether you paid any tax on it. And don’t forget to take those extra shots of your Nan, they are crying out for them”. Benny whistled. “You are totally on it. You should be an expert on all this, you could make a lot of money”.

The smelly young man shook his head, finally looking exasperated with his friend.
“I already am. And hopefully, we will”.
From downstairs, Beverly shouted. “Food’s ready!” As he turned back to the screens, Noddy asked him, “Tell my Mum to bring me up a sandwich after. Tomato Ketchup. And some milk, the full-fat stuff, not the semi-skimmed she has in her tea”. Benny grinned. “Will do”.

When they had eaten, and Beverly had taken up the sandwich and milk, she came to sit beside Benny on the sofa. “Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy yourself earlier, and don’t even think of saying you don’t fancy me after that performance. I may be a lot older than you, but I can still tell when someone really wants me”. He wasn’t about to deny it. “No, it was lovely. And I do. Er, fancy you that is. It was just a shock. I mean, you’re Noddy’s Mum”. She ruffled his already untidy hair. “Well not anymore, now I am your other half. I was thinking, it would make sense for you to move in, save keep coming round every day. You would be on the spot for Darren, and I would be more than happy to have you around, as I surely demonstrated upstairs. We would make a good team. I’m sure you could find me very useful for all sorts of jobs, as well as those behind closed doors”.

That was the last thing that he had expected to hear. “But what about Nan, who would look after her? And Mr Hall, what would he say? Would I have your daughter’s old room? And would I have to pay rent? I don’t at Nan’s, just give her some food money”. She stroked his face and shook her head slowly. “So many questions. I should have thought after the good time I showed you you would jump at the chance to be in bed with me every night of the week. And don’t make me laugh about your Nan. Everyone knows she looks after you, not the other way round. I reckon Lilian deserves a break after all these years, she’s getting on a bit, after all. And as for rent, I am guessing enough money will be coming in to more than cover that. No need to worry about Keith either. He won’t be here anymore. I’m sorting that out later”.

Benny was stumped for a reply. He couldn’t argue that it didn’t make sense to not have to keep coming round, and it was hard to deny he fancied her. He was still thinking about that session earlier, no getting away from that. Nan had been good to him, but might well be happy to have him off her hands. Noddy didn’t seem to care less, and Beverly was a decent cook, if her egg and chips were anything to go by. And she seemed to have her head screwed on too. He suddenly thought of something, and sat up straight. “Linda. I forgot Linda. What would I tell her?” Beverly wasn’t looking concerned. “Who’s Linda, your girlfriend?” He nodded. “Well, sort of. You know, Big Linda from the cafe on the market, works on the flower stall too?” Beverly nodded, getting a mental image of a woman selling flowers, unimaginably gigantic boobs, and her hair scurfed up like a top-knot. She smiled. No competition.

“How long have you been seeing her? Have you made any commitment to her? Are you in love with her or something?” He felt a bit silly as he replied. “Nothing like that really. We have done it a couple of times, and she gave me the key to her flat. I really like her, but I don’t have to answer to her for anything. I just think she’s nice, and don’t like to upset her”. Beverly pretended to think it over. “Nicer than me, Benny love?” He shook his head. “Do you fancy her more than me then? He shook his head again. “Well, how about this? Keep the key. I can spare you now and again to keep her sweet. Tell her you are living here, just sharing with Darren because of your business. She doesn’t need to know any details, at least not for now. Maybe offer her some work. We need someone to do lots of trips to the Post Office, as well as stuffing the envelopes and padded bags with the stuff. We could drop it off at her place, and she could work from home. Darren will print out the stickers for mailing, and we will give her the cash for the postal charges. Worth keeping her happy, she might come in handy later”.

He thought for a moment. It would be good not to upset anyone, and have no hassles. “OK, sounds good. If you’re sure”. She smiled, and almost purred. “Oh I’m sure”. Slipping out of the dressing gown, she opened her arms wide.

“Now. Come over here, and let’s seal the deal”.

Benny finally got out of the flat less than ten minutes before Mr Hall returned home. Keith hung up his jacket in the hallway, and walked through to find his wife sitting in a pink dressing gown that he didn’t remember ever seeing before. But he failed to notice her new hairstyle, or the very good make up job she had done earlier that day. She stood up and went into the kitchen, popping something into the microwave for his supper. When the bell went off, he went through and eyed the plate of unappestising brown stuff. “It’s just a microwave lamb hot pot tonight. I have been busy today. When you finish that, we need to have a talk”. She walked out, holding a glass of something that looked like whisky. He didn’t bother to mention that he had already eaten a curry during his break at work, just shovelled down a few mouthfuls of the hot pot, and dropped the plate in the sink.

Keith slumped into the armchair, hoping his wife wasn’t going to go off on one of her nagging sprees. He hadn’t expected what came next. “Keith, we both know this isn’t working. We’re like strangers, for Christ’s sake. When did you last ever speak to Darren? And what about our daughter? I don’t think you have ever phoned her since she moved. You can’t just walk through life in a dream, love. I think it’s time to face facts. You should move out, maybe live nearer to where you work. I know you won’t miss me, and I sure as shit won’t miss you. I need a new life, be myself again. I can’t do that with you around, so I am calling it a day. I checked, and we have almost two grand in savings. I will go to the bank tomorrow, and get you half. You can cancel the direct debits for the housekeeping and bills, and you will have more than enough to get by”. She sat back, expecting an argument.

Keith felt the relief flood over him. Many times in the past ten years he had thought about just leaving. But he felt responsible financially, if not emotionally. Recently, he had thought about sharing a house with Vijay from work. He was struggling to pay the mortgage on a two bed in Harmondsworth, and had asked Keith if he knew anyone looking to share. That was only three weeks ago, so might well still be available. The prospect of not having to face his nagging wife every evening filled him with joy, but he tried to disguise it. “Will you manage alright? You know, with your carer pay for Darren. You will have to get a job again, I reckon. She was nodding as he talked. “Oh I will be alright. I have something lined up. I won’t need anything from you, I’m pleased to say”. Keith suddenly smiled, taking Beverly by surprise. “OK then, I will pack a bag to take into work, then get the rest of my stuff later. I will give you an address to send on my post. All being well, I should be out of here by Sunday evening”. That had shocked her. Expecting protest or tantrums at the very least, she certainly hadn’t expected such ready agreement. She looked away, and muttered “Good”.

When Benny got back to the flat, he could hear giggling and laughing as he opened the door. He wondered if Nan might have one of her fancy men there, even though it wasn’t Friday. Carefully glancing around the door to the living room, he saw her sitting on the sofa with another woman. Spotting him, she called out “Come in, Benny love. Come and meet Sophie, soon to be Sophie Bright. Sophie darling, this is my lovely grandson, Benedict. We all call him Benny though”. He walked over and shook the old lady’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, Sophie”. She pulled him forward, and kissed him on the cheek. Nan carried on. “Sophie is going to be staying for a while, so you will have to take the sofa. She is going to be one of the stars of our new website, and work with me on some new films. She was Dolly back then, you will have seen her on those old ones, you know, Tony’s VHS stuff. But we have changed a bit since”.

He couldn’t place the little old woman from the films, but nodded. “Oh, right”. She was small compared to Nan, quite thin, with a very wrinkled neck. Her bright white hair was smart though, and she obviously looked after herself. He sat opposite, feeling shattered after such a long day. Sophie gave him a smile. They had obviously been drinking, as he could tell from the almost-empty bottle of brandy on the table, and the two glasses. She spoke carefully, trying hard not to sound slurred. “I hope that I don’t put you out, Benny. I feel bad about you sleeping on the sofa. I am happy to curl up on it myself you know, I’m only little”. Benny tried to sound unconcerned. “Not at all, it’s no problem. You take my room. Besides, I might be moving out soon”. He turned to Nan. “Mrs Hall said I can move in there, be close to Noddy, and the work. Save keep going backwards and forwards to their place”. Nan didn’t pick up on any implications that had. She just smiled, and turned to her old friend. “Well, that works out perfectly then”.

As he stood up, Nan spoke again. “Don’t rush off anywhere love. Don’t forget you have to take more photos of me. And you can do some of Sophie too. She has brought some lovely old undies; girdles and all sorts. We will get changed, once we finish our drinks”. Benny groaned. “Nan, I’m really tired. You wouldn’t believe what I have had to do today. Let’s do it in the morning”. Nan wasn’t having any of it. “It’s not even ten yet, plenty of time. We have been looking forward to it, haven’t we, Sophie?” Her friend had her glass to her mouth, but nodded anyway, spilling some of the booze onto her chin. They downed their drinks, and he set up the tripod, after placing a fresh memory card in the camera. He could hear them squealing like a pair of twelve-year-olds in the bedroom, as they put on their outfits.

He had a full day tomorrow, and a feeling it was going to be a long night.

Nan and the newly-named Aunt Sophie were having a high old time. They had emerged from the bedroom looking like two late 1950s glamour models who had been left to ‘go off’. Both were wearing girdles, bullet bras, and fully-fashioned stockings attached to industrial strength suspenders that dangled from the elasticated girdles. They were also wearing knickers bigger than even those favoured by Bridget Jones. Nan also had a plot of sorts, and she cleared the coffee table, before laying deck of cards out on it. “OK Benny love, what we will do is play strip poker, except we will just pretend. As each of us loses, we will take something off. Keep clicking away, and make sure you get it all. In fact, it might even be better to shoot it as a video, then you will miss nothing”.

He changed to video setting, and warned “Nan, this won’t last too long. The card is not very big for long videos”. Lilian and Sophie were already in character, so without turning, she mumbled “Stop and start it then love, but get the best bits”. It had been a long time for the two elderly friends, but Benny had to admit they slipped back into it as if they had been filming together yesterday. The supposed poker became little more than a game of Snap, as they seemed to compete with each other as to who could get their clothes off the quickest. Sophie was not remotely embarrassed to remove her bra in front of Benny, and he shook his head at the sight of her sad little paps that looked like deflated balloons. That was bad enough, but when Nan’s bra went flying across the room, Benny called a halt. “Nan! Come on, I’m your grandson. let’s not forget that”. He half-turned, so he didn’t have to take in the view. Nan’s once tantalising boobs now looked more like a couple of massive empty leather water bags, the sort you see slung around the neck of a mule, in an old Western film.

Sophie turned to speak to him. “Turn the camera off for a minute, Benny”. He pressed the switch, and she continued. “If you are going to work in this game, you have to forget all that stuff. You are filming Aunt Sophie and Betty Baxter, that’s all you need to know. Point the camera, get the good stuff that the punters want, and just forget about who you are related to, and what you are seeing. If you are going to make a go of it, you have to be detached. If you can’t do that, then get someone in to film for you. OK?” He knew she was right, but it wasn’t easy. “Carry on, Sophie, I won’t say anything”. Two minutes later, and Sophie’s knickers were round her ankles, her bum cheeks looking like a couple of under-cooked Cornish pasties. When she reached over to pull Nan’s knickers off, giggling and leering, Benny thought he might pass out. As he caught sight of what Nan called her ‘Old Glory’, he let out a long groan. “Oh, Christ Nan, did you have to?”
He didn’t sleep well that night. As well as the sofa feeling lumpy, it was all but impossible to erase those images from his mind.

The next day was the busiest day in Benny’s young life so far. After around three hour’s sleep, he had jumped in the shower to wake himself up, very pleased that he had remembered to get clean clothes out of his room the night before. He could hear snoring from both bedrooms, and guessed that the film stars were sleeping off a late night of fun and drunkenness. By two in the afternoon, he had a bag full of cash, his feet ached, and he needed something to eat and drink. Outside the last bank on the list, he was delighted to see a free cab, and he gave the driver Linda’s address. It was a long way, and a hefty fare, but he didn’t mind. He had more money than he had ever seen. Despite having a key, he didn’t use it, and when she answered the doorbell, she looked very happy to see him. To dispel any idea she might have about heading for the bedroom, he spoke very quickly. “Linda love, I was up filming half the night, and I have been out since before nine. I would love a bacon sandwich and a coffee, if it’s not taking the piss to ask”.

Over the sandwich and hot drink, he told her the full story. The website, the videos, Nan, Sophie, Noddy, the forum, the site shop, selling the underwear and photos, and how tired he was. He added the news that he was moving into Mrs Hall’s but carefully left out the bit about the two rampant sex sessions he had so far enjoyed with Beverly. Linda was suitably impressed, and jumped at the chance of earning some extra cash. She had been looking out for something to replace the lunchtime job at the cafe, and even suggested that Sylvia would be happy to help out too, for a few quid in return. They arranged that he would drop off the padded bags and envelopes once they arrived, and Linda and Sylvia would put the items into them, adding the address labels. Linda said she could use her Mum’s old shopping trolley to wheel a fair load round to the Post Office, and would make a couple of trips while Sylvia carried on stuffing the bags. He kissed her goodbye, and headed off. Still lots to do.

At Noddy’s place, there was no reply. Noddy never came down to answer the door, so he guessed Beverly must be out. Benny decided to hang around. No point walking back to Nan’s, then having to turn around and come back. Twenty minutes later, Beverly appeared on the landing. She was looking very smart, wearing a sharp two-piece suit that made her look like a real businesswoman. Not caring about the public display, she kissed him with unexpected passion, before opening the door to go in. Once inside, she opened the shoulder bag she was carrying, and showed him wads of cash, all new notes. “I have been out and about withdrawing money too, Benny love. We have to get out as much as we can, before it starts to get noticed. You had better go up and have a chat with Darren. He’s got some exciting news”.

Noddy was at his usual spot, looking as if he hadn’t moved in days. When Benny walked into the room, he started talking non-stop. “The demand for the photos is not as high as we expected, but quite a lot of them want to buy signed ones. You will have to get a decent pen, and get your Nan to sign them. I have put all the details in an email and copied it to you. My Mum’s pages are very popular too, and over ninety people have signed up to Velma’s private section already”. Benny presumed that ‘Velma’ was the name Beverly had chosen for herself. He wasn’t even sure that was a name, but that hardly mattered. He remembered the filming session last night, and placed the memory card on the desk. “This is Nan and her friend. She’s going to be called Aunt Sophie. It’s all video, but you can edit it, and use some screenshots for stills”. His friend slid the card to one side, then turned to face him.

“You have to get onto Zafir, the video guy. The pre-orders for your Nan’s videos are huge, and we need them sooner, rather than later. I have already accepted payment for a lot of the one thousand we ordered, so we need to get them posted out. Quite a few of those forum blokes have ordered the full set, twenty films at fifty quid each. This new video of your Nan and Sophie will be just as popular, I’m sure”. Benny smiled. “We have sold quite a few then?” Noddy took off his blue hat, rubbed his head, and put it back on. “Over eight hundred copies, Benny. That’s eight-zero-zero. Do you realise how much that comes to?” Benny could quote the poetry of William Blake, but had never been fast with sums. As he hesitated with the answer, Noddy raised his voice.

“FORTY GRAND, BENNY. FORTY THOUSAND QUID!
WE MIGHT HAVE TO GO LEGIT”

Beverly came upstairs to have what she called a ‘special conference’ in the confines of Noddy’s room. Between her and Benny, their bags of cash had amounted to well over five thousand pounds. She had counted out some bundles, and marked them with post-it notes. There was two thousand five hundred for the DVD films payment, one thousand for Nan, including a bonus on her initial six hundred. Then five hundred for Benny, described as ‘expenses money’. She sat on Noddy’s bed. Sidling up to Benny, she rested her hand on his leg. “Tell him the rest, Darren”.

Noddy turned on the stool to face them both. “I have ordered the stationery to be delivered tomorrow. A while ago, I changed the delivery location to Linda’s flat, using the address you gave me. You will have to tell her to be in to receive the parcels. You need to arrange a van and driver to take you to collect the films, I have written down some reliable companies. Drop the films at Linda’s, and give her the packet of address labels I have printed out”. There is spare cash for the postal charges, and payment for her time. Make sure she gets a receipt from the Post Office though. And check a random sample of the films. We don’t want them being returned with issues”. Benny interrupted. “They are region-free, Noddy, so should play anywhere in the world”. Noddy ignored him, and continued. “Tomorrow, you and my Mum need to get out and withdraw more money from different places. I have written down where to go, and what to take out. Mum suggests you get a decent haircut, and some smarter clothes. That’s up to you, but it might attract less attention if you look the part”.

Before anyone else could say anything, he sat up straight, and adopted his best serious expression. “I have been doing some estimates. Allowing for a fair drop-off rate, we should be seeing around five thousand a month coming in, and that’s just from membership fees. Also, there will be extras for Aunt Sophie’s and Velma’s private pages and videos. On top of that, I reckon we might pull in around the same for DVD sales, at least until they get fed up of the same faces. We have already got almost fifty grand spread around the accounts, just in a few days. You are going to have to keep up the content, and make sure you have enough fresh stuff every month. It might also be worth scouting for new faces. We might need some fresh talent by the end of this year, and we may have to seriously consider going straight. We should have advertisers interested soon, but we can’t deal with them using Paypal or cash. Besides, why pay commission to money brokers when we could manage it through a bank? That would leave us liable to tax of course, but there are ways around paying too much of that. Then we could legitimately get our hands on the money: pay Mum, Sophie, and your Nan properly, and get a decent amount of advertising revenue, based on clicks out of our site. If we carry on as we are, sooner or later it will become increasingly difficult to manage the cash. My forecast for the first year is something like twelve thousand a month, say one hundred and forty grand, to be on the safe side”.

He hadn’t mentioned taking anything for himself, not even asked for any new tech stuff. Benny whistled. “Wow, Nod, that’s a lot. What about your share, don’t you want anything? After all, you’re the brains behind it”. Noddy asked for nothing.”I just like having a project, Benny. And my Mum will benefit, and get me anything I need. So, she will take whatever she thinks is fair for me, and use it to get me whatever I need. By the way, there’s a new HD video camera coming tomorrow. It takes great video, as well as stills. The battery will last longer, and it has a decent light to attach to it too. I have also ordered some large capacity memory cards. Mum paid for it on her Amazon account, and I told her to take the money for it out of the bag”. He turned away, indicating there would not be anymore questions, or further discussion.

Beverly stood up and took Benny’s hand, winking at him as she spoke. “Darren love, we are both really tired after that early start. We are just going into my room to have a lie down for a while, alright?” He didn’t answer, just raised a hand in acknowledgement.

This time, Benny didn’t feel so tired. As he glanced at Beverly lying on the bed, looking very pleased with herself, he realised he had been rather energized by what they had just done. Perhaps he was getting used to it, discovering a natural skill after all. With less than an hour before Mr Hall got home, he kissed her lightly, then slipped away before she started all over again.

Nan and Sophie were sitting together on the sofa, answering comments from the veritable legion of fans who couldn’t seem to get enough of chatting to the two faded glamour queens. They smiled at him, as he came in. Nan looked up between typing replies. “There’s half a quiche in the fridge if you’re hungry love. Then get your tripod set up. We need to do some solo shots for Sophie’s page, then some more of me. You’d never believe the sort of things they’re asking for; real domestic stuff, normal clothes, doing the housework, peeling spuds and stuff. Most of them just want to see us doing ordinary things, and are happy with a little bending over, or a peek down our blouse”.

Benny handed Nan the cash. “There’s your money, and an extra four hundred, Nan. There will be some more soon, and next week again too. Noddy’s talking about going legit”. Nan turned back to the screen. “Thanks, love. Leave it there. What about Sophie, did you bring her anything? He had forgotten about her. “Tell you what, Nan, give her that four hundred, and I will replace it next week”. Sophie looked pleased, and blew him a kiss”. He didn’t bother with the quiche, and as he set up the tripod, he remembered. “Oh, Noddy’s ordered a new camera, HD like you asked for. It’s coming tomorrow”. Sophie leaned back, and spoke to him as Nan was typing. “Not sure about being legit, Benny love. That takes all the fun out of it”.

Nan kissed her friend on the cheek, and they both started cackling.

Benny Goes Straight.

With his new haircut, and wearing a smart two-piece suit in electric blue, Benny looked the part. After years of being in trainers, the hard shiny shoes felt strange, but he had to admit that at long last, he had finally grown up. At least as far as looking grown up. Beverly sat next to him in the taxi. Too close to him as usual, but that was what she did. Her expensive professional hairdo was an improvement on the previous cheap one, though the new dark green dress was perhaps a little short, for a woman of forty-eight. But she did look good, he had to admit that. They were making the short journey to Holborn, to the office of a solicitor who was an expert in commercial law.

The last week had passed like a blur. Keith Hall had been good to his word, and had moved out on that Sunday morning, never to be seen again. Beverly was packing up the rest of his stuff before he had even closed the door. By Monday, it had been collected and put in storage, and she sent him a text with the address where it could be found. Linda had turned out to be very efficient indeed. All the DVD films, as well as the signed photos, and the plastic-sealed worn stockings, underwear, and tights, had been packed up, addressed, and posted. All in just two days. He had been generous, and given her two hundred, some of which she would give to Sylvia. That was more than she earned from the cafe and flower stall combined, in a week. The films had been better than expected too. They played well, and looked professional. Zafir had even included a ‘Menu’ option, with a choice of scene facility. The inserts on the DVD boxes even proclaimed, ‘A Fortune Films Production’. He had done that without being asked. A nice touch. Benny had moved a lot of stuff into Noddy’s flat on the Monday, and Beverly had celebrated by taking him upstairs early, and seemingly trying to kill him with her ardour.

The next morning, she took him out shopping for clothes and shoes, made him get a fashionable haircut, and a proper barber shave. When they got back, Noddy told them what he had been up to. “Fortune Films is a perfect name for us, Benny. I have registered it, and sorted out copyright protection on the names, films, photos, and website. I have also made sure that it is an Irish company, using a shell in Dublin; just a front and mail drop, run by a guy who specialises in such things. Did you know that’s how Amazon operates in Britain? That’s why they pay sod all tax. I have also applied in your name for a new social security card, and a fast-track passport, which will be required for I.D. I took a photo of you on the webcam, and you didn’t even notice. I have also engaged the services of a solicitor in London. He will act as the middle man, getting the paperwork from Ireland, and arranging the accounts through someone he knows. We don’t have any office or company in England, and all the site stuff is routed through Kiev. The Ukrainians are up to speed in the online porn market, and already have some great set-ups”.

Beverly was excited, and kept kissing Benny. Noddy acted as if he just didn’t notice, and carried on. “So, as of today, Fortune Films is a legitimate company, at least as far as the law is concerned. I have ordered lots of better computer stuff, and we can stop using stolen phone minutes and broadband allowances. By tomorrow, we will have state of the art phones with unlimited business contracts. You can leave that moody dongle in the laptop for your Nan though, she needs to be able to answer her forum fans. All the documents will be couriered over from Ireland, then you and Mum just have to go and sign them in the office at Holborn. You two will be the company directors, and will both have to sign any papers. Mum will be coming off benefits, by no longer claiming my carer allowance. All being well, we shouldn’t attract any undue attention, and I estimate that it will all cost us less than ten percent of the annual income. Better than the forty percent we would pay if we earned all this as a salary. Now we can just draw anything out of the bank, with no need to keep hitting the ATM machines. I can transfer money legally online, and change the payment options to direct debit, or bank transfer. No more Paypal commission, after next month. You and Mum will have company bank cards, and I have set up an account with a private cab firm too, to run you around anytime”.

When he stopped talking, Benny thought for a moment. “But what about Nan? She is the reason all this started. What does she get?” Noddy sighed. “Nan is part of the talent, not the business brain. She will get cash, and lots of it. But if she goes on the books, then she will lose her state pension just in income tax. Her income would be too large for her to continue to get any allowances based solely on her age. I will suggest a weekly payment, and she can pay Sophie out of that. I assure you it will be a lot, and your Nan will be happy. Mum will get some cash too, as well as being on the books as a company director. That way, her payments as Velma will disappear as ‘running costs’. By the time we deduct all the expenses to set up, the new equipment bought in the company name, and the supposedly legitimate expenses, I doubt we will show any profit for a couple of years, at least if the accountant does his sums right. And I reckon I will be able to siphon off a fair bit, before he sees the figures”. Benny nodded, and Beverly patted his hand. “Why don’t you pop round and tell your Nan, show her your new suit?”

Nan’s flat seemed quiet as he let himself in. It wasn’t even dark yet, but it seemed they might be out. Perhaps they had gone shopping, or up to the pub for an early drink. He could see the door to his room was wide open, and nobody was in there. He wandered in, expecting to see Sophie’s stuff in there. But it was much as he had left it, the bed still made, and not slept in. Other than her big suitcase standing at the end of the bed, there was no trace of an old woman occupying the room. Nan’s bedroom door was ajar, and he knocked on it softly, pushing it open just a little. On top of the bed, Nan and Sophie were lying wrapped in each other’s arms. Neither of them had a stitch of clothing on, and they appeared to be fast asleep. By the side of the bed, two pairs of velcro-fastening slippers were placed neatly, side by side. He stood taking in the scene for a second, and suddenly Nan opened one eye, making him jump out of his skin. She smiled at him, and raised a finger to her lips, indicating he should be quiet. Sophie groaned a little, and tightened the grip of her arms around Nan.

Nan spoke, in what was best described a a loud whisper. “Everything alright, Benny love?” He nodded, his mouth still open. It seemed those old girl/girl scenes from the sixties had not just been for show after all. “Close the door then love. Come back some other time”. He took two steps back, pulling the door slowly. Then Nan spoke again, just as it closed.

“By the way. Nice suit”.

Benny ties the knot.

Benny had decided to walk to the Registry Office. It was a nice day, and it would give him time to collect his thoughts. He was still a few weeks away from his twenty-first birthday, and the last fifteen months had seemed to pass like an extended dream.

Everything had turned out to be bigger and better than any of them had expected, mainly due to Noddy, and his amazingly quick brain. He had come up with a great idea. Rather than employ lots more models, maybe having to rent studio space, and engage the services of additional photographers, Noddy did what he did best, and trawled online with the skill of a real deep-sea fisherman looking for Cod. He found hundreds of old films being sold in dribs and drabs, most from around the same time period as Nan’s early days, and featuring very ordinary women wearing much the same stuff as she used to. He contacted the sellers and distributors, offering one-off payments for sole rights. More than ninety percent of them went for his deals. After all, they had no idea who he was, or what he looked like, and their annual sales were negligible.

Once they had them, they were sent to Zafir. Tidied up, re-packaged, and branded as ‘A Fortune Films Production’, they found a ready market with the existing customers, who were always looking for something new. Benny’s old bedroom at Nan’s was now fully racked out for storage, and Linda and Sylvia had packed in their old jobs, now working full-time for the company. Noddy put them on the books as ‘Cleaners’, showing the minimum wage paid. But they more than trebled that with extra cash they got, and were very happy. Linda had soon caught on to Benny and Beverly being an item. She took her time, and then announced one day that she had a new bloke. “I’m with Dexter now. You know, the courier driver. He’s moving in soon Benny, so I’d like the key back. You don’t mind, do you?” Benny didn’t mind. He knew the cheerful black guy who did most of the drop-offs for them, and reckoned he would be good for Linda. Besides, Beverly was giving him almost more than he could handle. It seemed as if she had found some elixir of youth, and was going backwards in time.

Nan had kept her site going with Sophie. The drop off rate had been less than fifteen percent, so it was still a good earner. Those two had been a revelation. On Nan’s seventieth birthday, they had officially come out as a couple, celebrating with an almighty piss-up at one of Nan’s favourite pubs. It was a little weird to see the two seventy-somethings holding hands, and kissing and cuddling, more so when one was your old Nan. But his was Camden, in the twenty-first century, and nobody gave them a second glance. Benny was still doing the filming and photos three times a week to keep up the fresh content, but he had a lot of free time, which Beverly made sure was spent with her, usually in her bed. After six months, and the acquisition of all the old films by Noddy, she had announced that Velma was retiring, and closed down her page on the site. The truth was that she had very few paid-up followers, and hardly any page views. She just wasn’t old enough for their niche market.

The advertising wasn’t a huge part of the income, but enough to make a difference. Noddy had struck some decent deals, but a lot of the foreign companies were bad payers, and they soon had to drop their ads when no money arrived. Noddy had also set up an Ebay shop, as well as becoming an Amazon Marketplace seller for the softer films. The Ebay shop was huge. With ‘Buy It Now’ only, and payment in advance, they were run off their feet with orders from all over the world, and had even started to take credit card payments. Noddy contracted Dexter to do all the parcel work and Post Office drop-offs. Then he had the genius idea to lease a new bigger van in the company’s name. He made Dexter rent it off the company, so that deferred a lot of the pay they owed him. Noddy was on fire, and Benny never stopped being impressed.

They finally had to rent a storage facility on an industrial estate in Neasden, when they could no longer cope with the amount of films. Zafir had sorted that out at mate’s rates, through one of his cousins. Fortune Films had fast become one of his best customers, and he was secretly very pleased that Benny had walked through the door of his small warehouse that day. At the end of the first full year, Beverly called another one of her meetings in Noddy’s bedroom. Despite everything, Noddy hadn’t changed at all. He was still sitting in his underpants, wearing the blue hat. Since he had moved in with Beverly, Benny had never actually seen him wash, and he had never once gone downstairs either. Although he had become acclimatised to the smell, his friend’s self-imposed solitude still played on his mind. Noddy was happy though. He had changed his bed for one that folded up out of the way during the day, and his small room now looked like Mission Control for the Mars landing. Over ten grand had been spent on the best new computer equipment, and they had had to have an electrician in, to wire up more sockets.
Noddy had stayed in the bathroom while he was there.

It turned out there was a lot more money. Almost double what Noddy had predicted. When he ran through the financials, he sounded as if he was unimpressed. He was happy enough with his new stuff, and any extra money was meaningless to him, other that it represented success of the project.
“I have been in touch with the accountant guy. The turnover was close to two hundred and thirty-eight grand. We have shown a small profit, paid a little tax in Ireland, and of course the fees for taking credit cards, as well as the Ebay and Amazon commission. Less all running costs, and buying the new equipment, renting the storage. leasing the van, we have a lot left. I have deducted the money paid to Linda, Dexter, and Sylvia, and left a few grand in to cover the next few months. I have also excluded the money paid to your Nan, and Sophie. On top of what you have already spent for day to day living, you and Mum can split a hundred and seventy grand. Not bad, I think you’ll agree. And that’s just up to last week. There are still plenty more orders awaiting processing”.

Beverly turned and smiled. “We can get married now, then there’s no need to split anything. It will just be ours”. Benny had never proposed to her, and she had never mentioned it before. He was twenty, and she was forty-nine, though he had to admit she looked more like thirty-five these days. He hadn’t even realised that she had divorced Keith. He looked at Noddy, keen to see any reaction. As usual, his friend was businesslike, unconcerned by the news. “It would make sense financially. I am sure there could be tax advantages in the long-term, and it would save having to make wills, or additional legal agreements concerning joint finances and property”. He turned back to his screens, and Beverly smiled. “Is that OK with you then, love?” There was a slight break in her voice, a momentary hesitation that he might say no had crept in. He put his hand on her leg and smiled. “Yeah, why not?”

The Registry Office was in sight now. It was the big one with the steps outside, on the Marylebone Road. Nan had been pleased with the choice, and said “Ooh, that’s where Paul McCartney got married to that American woman”. Benny hesitated on the corner, pretending to wait for the traffic so he could cross. Despite all the money, they never did anything. They couldn’t move out of Beverly’s flat, because Noddy refused to live anywhere else. Beverly spent her money on clothes, as well as buying clothes for him too. He had five suits in the wardrobe, and hardly went anywhere to wear them. They ate out now and again, but mainly stayed in, and mainly stayed in bed, when he wasn’t out at Nan’s filming. Still, he might have stayed at university, gone on to become an English teacher for less than twenty-eight grand a year, and never had a girlfriend. At least life was easy, though it had seemed more fun when he had been bust.

They were waving from the steps, urging him to hurry up as it was close to the time of the appointment. Nan and Sophie looked smart, although their dresses were so similar, they could have been mistaken for weird twins. Beverly looked lovely in her dress, he had to confess. Not a wedding dress of course, and not white. But still lovely. Linda, Sylvia, and Dexter had all made an effort too. Zafir looked razor-sharp in a designer suit, and had a dolly-bird girlfriend on his arm. Noddy wasn’t there of course.

Even the wedding wouldn’t make him leave his room.

Benny crossed the junction, and waved back, smiling. This was his last chance. He could simply turn and run, or just walk up to them, and say he had changed his mind.

But he didn’t.

The End.

A Pillar Of The Community: The Whole Story

This serial was published previously, in 29 parts. This is the whole thing, for the benefit of those who missed some, or prefer to read it all at once. It is a long read, at 35,000 words.

Alexander Conroy was a pillar of the community. Chief Executive at the Town Hall, he had worked there all his life, starting straight from college in a junior role, and always impressing. Nothing was too much trouble. He could be relied upon to work late, chair meetings, sit on interview panels, and to be completely conscientious. Nobody had a bad word to say about him, except perhaps that he sometimes seemed a little distant, and had few friends. Not many people got to live in a small town until they were almost fifty years old without making some enemies, or being a cause for resentment, but he had achieved that.

Underneath that veneer of respectability, hidden by the immaculate suit, and polished shoes, Alex had a dark secret burning inside him. As long as he could remember, he had always wanted to kill someone. Not some thing, like a small animal, or bird. A person, a living, breathing individual whose life he would take, and watch as it left their body.

But he knew better than to act on impulse, and would bide his time, until that time was right.

Research was the key, he realised that. Most killers get caught because they make silly mistakes. Many get caught because they want to be found out, adoring what they perceive to be the fame of their crime. Some cannot stop once they have started, caught up in the lust for more killing. Famous killers often engage the authorities, with silly notes and taunts, or by taking trophies and leaving symbols. Alex had read about them all. For more than thirty-five years he had read every book, seen every film, watched every documentary. If he chose to, he could have been an academic on the subject of murder; an expert called upon to comment, or even a famous author. But that was never going to happen.

Every book he had ever read on the subject had been dropped off at a charity shop, or burned with the leaves in Autumn. The same with every VHS tape or DVD film he had ever bought. None of them had been purchased in a mainstream shop, instead they were picked up in jumble sales, charity shops, or boot sales. Once he owned a computer, he had never ordered a book or film online, and had been careful to avoid any website or article that dealt with murder, or crime in any form. It took patience, care, and planning, but Alex was a man with more than his fair share of all of those. The years didn’t matter to him, as preparation was all, in his world.

That had even extended to his choice of wife. The tall good-looking man had been considered to be something of a catch in his youth. Good job, respectable family, a non-smoker, and moderate drinker. Girls came easily to Alex, and soon saw their future with him. But he waited for the right one. The one who wouldn’t want to get to involved in his life, the one who didn’t think too much about what went on in the world. And one who could never have children. Lucy was ideal. Some medical problem that he didn’t delve into meant that she could never conceive. She was settled on that, and didn’t mention adoption, or any other avenue to motherhood. She was also considered to be unattractive by others, a dumpy girl who struggled with a weight problem, and wore glasses with thick lenses. Just right.

People were surprised when he asked her out. She had only been working at the Town Hall as a temporary clerk for a few weeks, and she was overwhelmingly flattered when the handsome departmental manager asked her out to dinner. What many people called a whirlwind romance led to an engagement after just two months followed by a quiet wedding before the year was out. Alex was very pleased, and Lucy was deliriously happy. He had sold his bachelor flat, and they moved into a modest house in a good part of town. Nothing flashy, but comfortable, and most suitable. Lucy got a job as the receptionist for a local Vet. Alex had said no pets, so she sought work close to other people’s animals instead. He was kind and affectionate, and she adored him. The perfect marriage.

It certainly was for Alex. Lucy went to Weight-Watchers, Zumba class, even Yoga and Pilates. She never won that battle against her increasing obesity, but it got her out of the house a lot. Alex had the best of both worlds, a compliant wife who was out most evenings, and the cloak of a respectable happy marriage viewed by all as enviable. He even managed to earn more respect, when he was seen to be ‘taking on’ the unfortunate Lucy; marrying her for the best reasons, not just for her looks. She accompanied him to functions, and nobody stared, or mentioned how she was squeezed into dresses that were far too tight. Mrs Conroy loved her new role, on the arm of one of the most desirable men in town.

So she never bothered Alex. Never asked him what he was reading, or watching on TV in the room she called his ‘den’. They went on holiday for two weeks every year, and were financially secure. She wanted no more from life.

The years passed peacefully. Their twenty year anniversary came and went, celebrated by a trip to Disneyland in America. Lucy had always wanted to go, and Alex pretended to enjoy it, for her sake. Though he did enjoy being in America at last. This was the holy grail for those interested in murder. More serial killers than anywhere else, and a history of violent crime that fascinated him. Even though he couldn’t make anything of that on the two-week holiday, just being there made him excited. Once they got home, he started to plan his crime in earnest. He had promised himself it would happen before he turned fifty, and he didn’t have long to go.

With just six weeks to go until his fiftieth birthday, Alex had no time to waste. Lucy was preparing a celebration of some kind, and couldn’t resist hinting about how exciting her surprise would be. But he had no thoughts about that either way, as he was lost in the preparations for the murder he would finally commit.

Much thought had gone into the victim. He didn’t want it to be someone too frail or vulnerable. And definitely not a small child. Child murders always attracted far too much attention, and rampant speculation. Once the media became too heavily involved, the Police had no alternative but to work harder to find the killer. He had considered someone random, perhaps one of the few vagrants in the town, or someone just visiting on business. But it was important not to commit the crime in public. This country had more CCTV than anywhere else in the world. Even some local houses had security cameras, and all the road systems locally, as well as any public transport, were comprehensively monitored.

Alex could not use his car, that was for sure. It was bound to be picked up by a camera somewhere. Even walking to the deed was out of the question, as he would sure to be spotted, disguised or not. Life in the twenty-first century made things increasingly difficult for murderers, he concluded. And there was the justification. He would like it to be someone who deserved to be killed, at least in his opinion. So, it must be close by, not covered by cameras, and the victim must be deserving of the crime. It came to him easily, after considering those options. Someone that would be relatively easy to kill, and who would not leave a useful life behind.

His next door neighbours were a nice enough couple. Don and Jean Sinclair were originally from Scotland, but had moved there nineteen years ago, when Don travelled south for work. Alex and Lucy welcomed them when they moved in, they exchanged cards at Christmas, and chatted occasionally over the garden fence. But the Sinclairs were a fair bit younger, so the two couples had little in common. And Jean had been pregnant at the time, leaving Lucy little to discuss with her, other than to reveal she was unable to have any children. The baby was born, and it was a boy. They called him Allan, with two Ls. The following year, Don bought a motor-home, and parked the huge monstrosity outside the house. Alex thought it was an eyesore, and lowered the tone of the area. But he was pleasant when Don proudly showed it to him, and wished him happy holidays in his new vehicle.

Allan gave little trouble at first. The occasional football found on the lawn, thrown back over the fence, or some noisy excited squealing during hot days when the paddling pool came out. But there was something unpleasant about the boy as he grew older. Sly, with his mouth smiling, but his eyes not. His hair was too long, and he mumbled instead of speaking clearly. Don and Jean didn’t see that of course. They doted on the boy, and gave him everything. Including a very loud music system for his fifteenth birthday that he played until late at night, his parents seemingly oblivious to the thumping bass that travelled across into Alex’s peaceful home. But he didn’t complain, and made no mention of it when he saw them on the driveway. That wasn’t the sort of thing he did.

Last year, Allan had left school. He was supposed to be going to college, but never attended the first week. Lucy saw Jean at the supermarket, and she said that Allan was undecided about what he wanted to do, and his final exam results had not been as good as they had hoped. So the boy did nothing. He just lazed around the house all day, supported by his stupid parents, playing loud music, and hardly ever going outside. He had a meaningless and totally pointless existence, as far as Alex was concerned. And that made him the perfect choice as the victim. He would remove this leech from society, and do his parents a favour in the process.

Alex knew enough about Police procedure to know how investigations worked. Their mantra was always the same. Method, Motive, and Opportunity. Those three things trapped so many killers, it was small wonder that detectives relied on them so heavily. He tried to see it from their point of view. Method could be sorted out. It would not be distinctive or unusual, oh no. Run-of-the mill would suit him fine. Motive was the best of the three, as he would have none. There could be no motive for a distinguished local man in his late forties wanting to kill the teenage son of a friendly neighbour. He had never complained about the boy, or the noise. In fact, the opposite was true. Alex and Lucy had always been polite and friendly; they were ideal neighbours, Jean had said so more than once. Opportunity was a stumbling block though. Living next door, he would of course have the ideal opportunity. No travel to the scene of crime, and a quick escape possible too. But without motive, why would he ever be a suspect?

Alex would only need one thing. He didn’t need a weapon, as a house would provide no end of what the Police called Adapted Weapons. No need to take anything from his own house that might incriminate him, or buy in something that could be traced. But he would need something to cover him completely. A protective over-garment that went over his head and covered his feet, something like those scenes of crime specialists wear when investigating murders just like the one he would carry out. They sold them in hardware shops, used by people when painting, or working in dusty conditions. But he couldn’t just walk in and buy one, as that would leave him vulnerable to being caught on CCTV. And there was no chance of buying one online either, as the transaction could be traced. He gave it some thought, and decided that he would have to steal one, preferably somewhere he wouldn’t be recognised. So he set about researching that, not easy when he couldn’t use his computer. He had to sit and think hard instead.

Of course. The Town Hall. They had stocks of such things, for their various cleaning operatives.

And he had complete access to the whole building.

Most of the other cops called him ‘Old Tom’, but he wasn’t really that old. He had just been around a long time, and had struggled to make the grade to detective. Even after all this time, he was still only a detective constable. His sergeant was ten years younger than him, and the Inspector leading the team was fifteen years his junior. Tom Henderson was a plodder. He got the job done in his own fair time, and didn’t rush around like the new blokes. Unlike so many of his colleagues, he wasn’t divorced, didn’t drink much, and had never had an affair. Nobody ever saw him at a night out, not even the Christmas party. He did his work, put in the hours, and then went home to Karen.

She needed him around, relied on him. After his daughter Janet had been killed in that horse-riding accident when she was just ten years old, his wife had never been the same. She couldn’t work, hardly ever went out, spent her day in a dream, dazed by her anti-depressants and pain-killers. Money had been tight when she stopped working, and they eventually sold the big house, trading down to a small flat at the edge of town. Too many memories in that old place anyway. A child’s laughter, her first steps along the rug in the hall, and dancing in front of the TV, watching a pop video. The new-build apartments were ideal. No garden to get neglected, good security, and his own parking space. The other residents liked having a police officer living in the small block. He supposed they thought it put off any criminals.

Not that there was that much crime in that town, nothing too serious anyway. In fact, there was talk of shutting down the big old police station in the town centre, and moving everyone out to County Headquarters, in the city fifteen miles to the east. His sergeant had told him he was sure it would happen, just after the new year. Tom had examined his options when he heard that news. He had almost thirty years service, enough to go with a full pension, and an unblemished record. No need to face the upheaval of the possible move to the city, with a longer commute, and a wider area to cover. He could just put his papers in, and retire. But then there was the thought of spending twenty-four hours a day looking at his damaged wife, or the prospect of a part-time job doing something he wasn’t interested in. Maybe he would forget about retirement for now, see how things worked out after the move.

Inspector Mullins kept giving him all the burglaries. He would bring over a file, and cheerily announce, “This one has ‘Burglary Tom’ written all over it mate”, before slapping it down on the desk. When some out of town hard men robbed the main Post Office at gunpoint, Tom had been miles away, looking into the theft of some medals and jewellery from an antique shop. But he never complained. He was good at what he did, and tried hard to investigate the burglaries, for the peace of mind of those victims. He knew the locals prepared to fence stolen goods, and most of the few burglars who regularly plied their trade in the town and surrounding villages. His clear-up rate was above the national average, and though it was hardly exciting, he found some satisfaction in his success.
_

It wasn’t unknown for Mr Conroy to do a snap inspection. Though hardly frequent, he sometimes appeared with his briefcase and clipboard, ready to check stocks, outstanding orders, and the general tidiness of a specific department. There were lots of underlings who could be sent off to do that for him, but he was known to be a man who liked to show his face to the employees on occasion. So it didn’t really surprise Sheila when he turned up at her office in the Cleansing Department, close to the end of the working day. She was in charge of anything to do with the town’s cleaning and refuse services; from rubbish collection, to street-sweeping, and even the cleaners who kept the Town Hall tidy. Although she was classed as Senior Management, she was always careful to call Alex Mr Conroy. If nothing else, she wouldn’t mind his job one day, when he retired, so it wouldn’t hurt if he liked her, and spoke in favour of her application to replace him.

He followed her around the various store rooms under her control, nodding as she outlined the stock situation, or advised him of staffing issues. In one large underground garage, many of the small carts and cleaning vehicles were parked, and he pretended to inspect those too. At the back of the big space was a room with a sign on the door that read ‘Contagious and Infected Stores’. This was where everything needed to deal with things like decaying corpses or fatal road accidents was stored, and in one dusty corner was a shelf marked ‘CBRN’. Not that the town had ever had cause to to deal with a Chemical, Biological, Radioactive, or Nuclear incident, but it was always best to be prepared for that possibility. As Sheila started to drone on about something to do with outstanding orders, Alex suddenly stopped her. “Sorry, Sheila, I have forgotten my clipboard. I must have left it on your desk. Be a love and get it for me would you? I need some of the stock sheets fixed to it”.

Sheila smiled, muttered “Of course”, and left to make the considerable walk back to her office. She checked her watch as she walked, less than five minutes to going-home time. He always cut it fine. Alex opened the empty briefcase, and removed the waste paper that bulged it out. Reaching right over to the back of a shelf, he removed one of the one-piece suits used by the unfortunate people employed to clean up after dead bodies had been removed. He checked the size. M for medium, just right for his build. The suit was bright orange in colour, and included a hood, as well as large foot coverings that easily fitted over shoes. He slipped it into the briefcase, before leaving the room and throwing the waste paper into a rubbish skip next to the parked vehicles.

Sheila returned with the clipboard, slightly red in the face. Alex smiled as she handed it to him. He looked at his watch, and shook his head. “Sheila, I just realised how late it is, I’m really sorry. You must be wanting to get home to your family. We can do this another time”. Sheila thanked him, and they walked back into the main office complex together, nodding to the security guard as they made their way to the car park.

Once in his car, Alex patted the case, and smiled. He had the suit.

When Alex got home, Lucy was out. One or other of her slimming clubs she would go to straight after work, no doubt. A note on the kitchen worktop was weighted down with one of the ornamental owls she loved to collect.
‘Back by 7, dinner cooked, just have to warm it up when I get home. See you soon. X’
He went into the room annoyingly referred to as his den, and placed the protective suit under some old files in the bottom of his filing cabinet. Relaxing on the leather-upholstered captain’s chair, he pondered for a while on his favourite subject. Murder.

With the method still to be finalised, and the motive non-existent, he did need the final element, an opportunity. Some short time-window when Allan would be alone in the house, and more importantly, when Alex could be completely sure he would remain so for a while. He couldn’t even think about asking Don and Jean what their plans were, as that might be remembered later, and considered to be a clue. But he was confident that his neighbours would make at least one trip in their motor-home, before the season came to an end, and bad weather set in. He would just have to hope that they went away sometime in the next six weeks. The absence of the huge vehicle would be all the clue he needed. They never took it off the driveway unless they were going somewhere for at least one night.

Lucy chased Eduardo around the back office at work, her pendulous breasts wobbling as she ran. “Give me my bra back, come on, I have to go”, she squealed. The young veterinary nurse laughed, dangling the lacy garment just out of reach. Lucy folded her arms, and tried to look serious. She knew if she got close to him, they would end up doing it again. She couldn’t resist his passion. He had arrived just under a year earlier, fresh from his re-training in the city. He had been fully qualified in the Philippines, but had to do more to get registration here. After less than a week, his outrageous flirting had led to touching, and trying to kiss her. Lucy had been surprised, but very flattered. She was twice his age, and as far as she could see, the good-looking young man could have had anyone, but he wanted her. He really did.

She had never really felt wanted, not once. The few men before Alexander had seemed to want just one thing, then moved on as soon as she gave it to them. When her handsome boss at the Town Hall had asked her out, she couldn’t believe her luck, but deep down she hoped that he didn’t just want the same as the others. He had proposed, and she had been ecstatic. The marriage had been like a dream, and moving into the lovely house with a kind and considerate man had been more than she had ever expected from life. But he didn’t really want her, she could tell. There was no passion in his embraces, and when they had sex he seemed remote, almost clinical. Alexander always had his mind on something else, and Lucy suspected that it was his job. After the first few years, it just stopped altogether. Lucy made the best of it. After all, she would never get a better option.

So young Eduardo’s advances rekindled something in her, and made her feel attractive and desirable, perhaps for the first time in her life. She was self-deprecating, naturally. She asked him why he would fancy an overweight woman twice his age, and one who admitted to not being good-looking, by any estimation. But he seemed to really like her, overcoming her objections with genuine compliments that finally made her believe that he liked chubby older women, though part of her never believed a word of it. The first time had been in her car, after he asked for a lift home. The second time in his rented room, and after that whenever they could find an excuse to stay after work. Alexander didn’t seem to care if she came home late, and despite her excuses that she was going to diet clubs and exercise classes, he never questioned the fact that she hadn’t lost an ounce. The main thing that surprised Lucy was that she had no guilty conscience about it whatsoever. That had come as a shock.

After wrestling her bra back by giving her lover one last kiss, Lucy dressed and hurried home. Eduardo had been talking about them getting away for a weekend together, some place where the wife of the town’s highest official would never be recognised. The idea appealed to her a lot. Two nights in a proper bed, the chance to feel completely at one with the young man she was beginning to fall in love with. She had thought up various reasons why she might need to be away, and would test one out on her husband during dinner.

As usual, Alex seemed distracted, hardly looking up as he ate the pasta bake, and sipped his wine. Lucy looked at the clock on the wall, wanting to get it over with before he stopped eating. She was running through some dates in her head, realising that his birthday celebration was coming up, so it couldn’t be then. She introduced the subject casually. “Oh, I saw Jean in the supermarket the other day. She told me that her and Don are going off for two nights soon. Might be their last chance to get away in reasonable weather”. Alex nodded, then turned, suddenly interested. “When is that then? Lucy didn’t even question why he would care, she already had her next line on the tip of her tongue. “Funnily enough, it’s three weeks time, from Friday night, back Sunday evening. The same weekend that Claire asked me to travel to the big Weight-Watchers Bash with her”. We are thinking about starting up our own group in the city, and they have a seminar for people looking to franchise. Would you mind if I went with her?”

Alex had stopped listening after she told him it was three weeks away, but had caught the last line. “You and Claire, going away? Sure, why would I mind? I hope you have a great time”. As she cleared the plates away, Lucy turned and smiled. Behind her back, her husband was smiling too.

He had his window of opportunity.

Alex looked over at the calendar hanging on the wall by the desk. Three weeks. He would love to be able to mark the date. Circle it in bright red, and spend the next twenty days crossing off each day that led up to it. But he knew better. That was for books and films, or fools. And he was no fool. Instead, he started to think about the repercussions, once the deed was done.

Allan would be found when his parents came home. There would be high drama. Police cars and ambulances, probably. Scenes of Crime officers, undoubtedly. Distraught parents, wailing and tears, followed by the inevitable investigation. There would be door-to-door enquiries, possible witness statements taken, and a detailed search of surrounding gardens. CCTV would be examined in detail, and every part of Allan’s life would be dissected. His male friends, girls he might have known, his extended family; everyone would be considered to be a suspect, until ruled out.

Then local criminals of course. Burglars, Robbers, Drug Dealers, all would be questioned, perhaps detained for a while as alibis were checked. Fingerprints, DNA samples, photographs. The whole circus of crime would arrive in his quiet street. And the press, naturally. Not only the town newspaper, but the city papers, and TV stations. Probably national coverage too, given an unexpected murder in such a quiet town. There was a great deal to consider, not least his perceived reaction, and the public face he must present to the world. As for clues, he would leave none. A rough estimate of the potential clues he might leave behind reached well over fifty items, and he would make sure that nothing would possibly point to him. At least nothing that could be considered worthy of subsequent arrest, and prosecution.

He knew only too well that many criminals escaped justice for a variety of crimes; for lack of witnesses, and physical evidence tying them to the crime. Even when the investigating detectives were certain they knew who had done it, they could not proceed without evidence that would convince a jury. No prosecuting authority wanted to leave themselves open to a verdict being overturned on appeal, or later charges of wrongful arrest. Alex smiled at the irony. In their efforts to protect people wrongly charged and arrested, they had handed the careful criminal a licence to get away with their crime. As long as they covered their tracks properly, as he would.

It was tempting to look on the PC for the weather forecast for that weekend. Weather might play a part. If it rained, mud and tracks would have to be taken into account. A dry day would be preferable, and that might make all the difference to the time he chose to act. But he was not about to do anything on his computer that could be checked later, so he would watch the seven-day forecast on TV, nearer the time.

Detective Tom Henderson hated having to work over the weekend. Karen always seemed to get worse when he was on call. The usual five days was enough for her to be left alone, and if he was called in for something at weekends, he always worried that she would have a crisis. But this weekend was a case of so-far so good, and no detectives had been called in by the uniforms for anything they couldn’t deal with. He checked the rota on his email, and he wasn’t on call again until three week’s time.
He made them both a toasted cheese sandwich for lunch, and sat with sad eyes, watching his nervous wife nibbling the food like a rodent. It would probably take her an hour to finish one half, and she might well leave the rest. Since Janet’s accident, she had to be cajoled to eat anything, and he could now see the bones in her skull. She was no longer the woman he had married, but he had always known it would be for better or worse.

Lucy couldn’t wait until she went back to work on Monday. She muted the volume on her mobile phone, and sent Eduardo a text.
“He said OK to a weekend away! Can’t wait! We can arrange it next week XXX”
Eduardo stretched out on his bed in the small room, and read the message. She had been too easy. So easy, he had suspected something at first. But she kept coming back for more, and seemed to be well and truly hooked. She was married to one of the big-wigs in the town, and Eduardo guessed that he must be rich. He had seen photos of the house, and though not as grand as he had expected, he knew it was paid off, and worth a lot, as property prices rose every year in the town. Lucy had also mentioned his pension, which would be a great deal more than he would ever earn for working as an animal nurse. And she would get at least half of everything, if not more. He replied to her text.
“Wonderful news my darling. I can’t wait either. I love you. xx”

Lucy grinned at the reply, before deleting both messages. When they finally got away that weekend, she would tell her handsome boy that she loved him too, and they could discuss the exit strategy from her marriage to Alexander, and a new life together. Through the bi-fold doors, she watched her husband busy in the garden. By the side of the shed, he was enlarging the vegetable patch. He wasn’t much of a gardener, but he did get some satisfaction from growing vegetables. It occurred to her that he still looked good, considering he was forty-nine years old. He had kept his figure, and his hair was reasonably thick, though now a salt and pepper colour. Such a shame he hadn’t been more romantic.
She would miss him, but not everything about him.

Alex loosened more earth next to the shed. He was surprised how the short time digging had made him feel tired, and a little breathless. Easy to forget he wasn’t so young anymore. He would have to remember that in three week’s time, and adjust his plans to take that into account.

On the Thursday evening before her weekend away, Lucy was packing. She had transferred some savings to cover the cost of the trip, and treated herself to some lovely new underwear, as well as a few items of adventurous make-up. The small lakeside hotel was almost one hundred miles south of the town, so no chance of her being recognised there. She had left her credit card number when she made the reservation, but had informed the clerk that she would be paying in cash. It had all made quite a hole in her personal finances, but two nights with Eduardo would be worth it. And she couldn’t very well ask him to chip in, as he had only just started to receive the full rate of pay after his re-training.

Tom Henderson watched Karen sleeping on the sofa. She was soundly asleep, and it seemed unlikely that he would be able to get her into bed later. He was on call tomorrow for the first time in three weeks, and was dreading it. If only he had someone he could ask to come and watch his wife, if he had to go into work. But their friends had deserted them long ago, and the remaining family members were all too old or infirm. He would just have to trust to luck that nothing happened that required him to investigate, otherwise he would have to give Karen a sleeping tablet. On top of her anti-depressants, that would guarantee she slept for so long, she might not miss him after he left.

Don Sinclair made the last checks on his motor-home. Oil, water, windscreen wash. He would fill up at the supermarket on the way to the motorway, as the fuel was much cheaper there. Despite the age of what he called ‘the bus’, it still soldiered on, and had given his family many happy holidays over the years. Jean had been in there earlier, putting up the freshly-washed curtains, dusting around, and stocking up the cupboards. She had also cooked some meals for Allan to heat up in the microwave. Lunch and dinner for Friday and Saturday, and a snack for Sunday, as they would be back in time to eat together that night.

Eduardo threw some creased clothes into a sports bag, along with a new toothbrush, and a can of deodorant. He deliberately left out anything smart or formal. When they got to the hotel, he would pretend that he hadn’t been aware he would need any smart clothes, and was sure Lucy would drive him into the nearby town to buy him something nice. He was looking forward to a couple of nights staying somewhere nicer than his stuffy rented room, and hoped there would be a mini-bar, and complimentary toiletries. He had heard about Room Service, and was excited to think about being able to order what he wanted, and have it delivered to his room. Almost twenty-five years old, he had never once stayed in a hotel.

Allan Sinclair didn’t like it when his parents went away and left him. It wasn’t that he was scared of being in the house alone as such, but he did fear loneliness. He liked to have his Mum and Dad around, as it helped to know they were just downstairs, or next door in their bedroom. But he was too old for trips in the motor-home now, and found it dull and familiar. He never told them he hated to be alone, as he didn’t want them to feel that they couldn’t go away on their short holidays. They provided everything, looked after him, and never demanded too much of their son. They had worked with him to keep his secret too. Nobody knew that he had gone to a ‘special’ school. Friends and neighbours were oblivious to his learning difficulties, poor writing skills, and extreme shyness. As far as anyone knew, he made the commute into the city every day, and went to the Technical School there. Nobody close to them had children at that school, so it had been a good cover story. Mum had driven him to his very different school in the mornings, and once he had been old enough, he would get the bus home. He always sat in the same seat, looking at nothing, talking to nobody. But school was over for him now, and an uncertain future lay ahead.

Music was his salvation from everyday life. He could lose himself in the regular beats, not having to think about what would happen when he was older. He was unlikely to ever be able to work. In addition to the poor reading and writing, he was barely able to communicate with people other than his parents. He worried that Mum and Dad were ashamed of their son, but nothing they ever said or did betrayed anything except love and affection. They were proud and private people, not about to discuss the limitations of their son’s intellect with friends and neighbours, however pleasant they seemed. They maintained the facade of normality, with carefully constructed excuses and lies. For his part, Allan kept away from most other people, lest the truth become evident, and the lies discovered. Mum would sit on his bed, stroking the hair that was always a little too long. “Just the three of us, Allan love. That’s all we need”. He had heard her say that so many times. Comforting, reassuring.

Alexander Conroy was in a very good mood on that Thursday evening. All being well, it would be done tomorrow. The sooner the better, as he didn’t want to chance the possibility of Don and Jean returning home unexpectedly early, after a change in the weather, or a problem with the motor-home. Lucy had chatted excitedly about her trip to the city, droning on about the chances of earning a good part-time income from a franchise in the slimming club. He had wondered why she would bother. After all, he earned enough that she didn’t have to work, and she only worked with the animals because she couldn’t have pets at home. She also claimed that she liked to have her own money, and didn’t want to have to ask him to transfer funds into her account. He was unconcerned about this new idea. If she got another part-time job, she would be out more often, and that was fine by him.

Before they went to bed that night, he had to calm himself down.
He could not allow juvenile excitement and emotion to divert him from the job in hand tomorrow.

Lucy kissed Alex goodbye, and left the house early for work. She had booked a half day holiday, and Eduardo would phone in sick. That way, they would have plenty of time to drive to the hotel, and arrive early enough to make something of the evening. She would pick him up from the railway station fifteen miles from town, where they were unlikely to be seen by anyone she knew.

Alex was very calm. He had managed to suppress the excitement he had been feeling the day before, knowing he would have to be cool and collected for what he was going to do later. He didn’t rush into work that morning, taking his time over some toast topped with a delicious cherry jam. Most of the staff liked to get things done early on Fridays, working hard to make sure they could get away a little early, or at least dead on time. They even had a name for it, ‘Poets Day’. That stood for ‘Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday’. It was his habit to enjoy throwing a spanner in the works on Fridays, deciding on a late meeting, or an unscheduled departmental inspection. But not today. He had something to do himself for once.

The house was tidy, Lucy had seen to that. And Alex was quite capable of making himself a meal. When he got home just before six that evening, the music from next door was thumping away as usual. Not so loud today, but the regular beat was as intrusive as ever. Sipping a small glass of wine, he prepared a nice dinner of chicken breasts with asparagus, which he would combine with a few new potatoes later. The cooking time of forty minutes would be all he would need, and more. More than enough time to see to Allan, and return to lightly boil the potatoes. He didn’t like them to be too soft.

He went out to the shed, and collected three items. The old gardening gloves, hardly used since he had received new ones as a gift from Lucy. The plastic face mask that he had used when he had sprayed the fence with weatherseal, and the protective goggles that were necessary if he used the small chainsaw to trim one of the apple trees. Alex smiled as he looked up to the dull but cloudless sky. No rain had been predicted, and the forecasters had got that right for once. Back inside, he retrieved the protective suit from under the files in his office, and walked slowly upstairs.

In the bedroom, he stripped naked, then slipped on the elastic-sided trainers that he had bought more than two years ago, and had never worn. They had a smooth sole, with no design, no ridges, nothing to leave any distinctive tracks or marks, even through the nylon suit. He stepped into the one-piece garment, and zipped it up to his neck. Then he attached the mask around his ears, put on the goggles, and drew the elasticated hood up over his head. Walking back quickly downstairs, he could feel a definite increase in his heartbeat, a slight pounding in the temples at the side of his head. He went back into the garden using the single door off the kitchen, as it was closest to the fence, putting on the gloves as he walked.

Halfway along that fence was the reinforced plastic storage unit that he had bought more than five years earlier. They used it to store the cushions that went onto the garden chairs, the parasol that shaded the table in the summer, and some small garden tools that were used regularly. The top was halfway up the fence, and Alex stepped onto it, knowing it would stand his weight as he stood up. Without a pause, he carefully rolled over the fence into his neighbour’s garden, taking the strain on the thick gloves, so as to avoid the possibility of snagging the orange suit on the wood at the top.
With his back to the Sinclair’s side of the fence, he walked quickly to their old patio doors. They were the sliding type, well-worn, and badly maintained. Alex suspected that it was unlikely Allan would think to lock them, but if he had, they would be easily forced using nothing but some strength and determination. But he had been right in his assumption, and the unlocked door slid open with a slight judder. He was in.

The house was smaller than his, but the layout was similar. He left the patio door open, and made his way into the hallway, and the stairs leading up to the bedrooms and bathroom. The music was much louder inside the house, and he did his best to keep his senses as the repetitive beat started to get inside his head. Next to a coat-stand in the hallway was an old dining chair. Alex wondered why they would have that there, but he didn’t know that they always sat on it to remove their shoes when they came in.
He turned the chair on its side, and pushed his foot against it util one of the legs cracked. Wiggling it with a gloved hand, it came free, and he hefted it against his palm. It would do. He knew that the boy’s room was the one at the back, facing the garden, and he walked upstairs onto the landing, opening the door quietly, but without hesitation.

Allan was asleep on his bed. The music never stopped him dropping off, and it had felt like a long day since his parents had left after breakfast. He had decided that he would have a nap, and microwave the spaghetti bolognese later, once he woke up.

Alex brought the chair leg down hard on the back of Allan’s head, close to the base of his skull. He had reasoned the blow wouldn’t kill the boy, but should sufficiently incapacitate him. He pulled up the neck of the youngster’s T-shirt, in case the injury bled too much, before dragging him off the bed, and out onto the landing. The wound had started to bleed somewhat, but most seemed to be dripping onto the protective suit, so that was fine. Taking a grip under the arms, he rested the chair leg on Allan’s chest, as he dragged him backwards down the stairs. The boy was lighter than he had anticipated, and it was remarkably easy. Next to the broken chair in the hallway, he crouched behind the boy, supporting his back against his own knees. Picking up the chair leg again, he pressed it hard against Allan’s neck, using both hands to apply pressure. That roused the boy in a panic, but too late to do anything about it. Alex watched as the life drained from him, his breathing stopped by the pressure of the wood across his throat. A gargling sound came from Allan’s mouth, the last sound he would ever make.
Then his body slumped lifeless, against his killer’s knees.

With a slight sense of anti-climax, Alex rolled the boy onto his face, and used the back of his T-shirt to mop up any dripping blood from the front of the protective suit. Then he went back upstairs to turn off the music playing in the bedroom. Back in the living room, he opened all the drawers and cupboards of the various units and the large dresser, strewing the papers inside all over the place, tipping over ornaments and small containers holding pens and knick-knacks. Then he carefully lowered one large multi-drawer metal cupboard onto the floor. If that had been knocked over accidentally, it would have made a noise loud enough to be heard upstairs; certainly in the room above, where young Allan presumably wasn’t listening to his music at the time. One last walk upstairs, then carefully retracing every step he had made in the short time since he had entered the house. Satisfied, Alex left by the open patio door.

Along the fence on that side was a row of heavy plant containers, each containing a different shrub. He stepped carefully onto the back edge of one of them, and hauled himself back over the fence onto his plastic storage box. He rolled over backwards as he did so, so that no blood from the suit would transfer onto the top edge of the fence. But he would check that later. In his shed, he stood in the doorway, and stripped off the suit onto a plastic sheet placed on the floor. He added the face mask, goggles, and gloves, before carefully wrapping it all into a rudimentary parcel.

Back in the house, he turned the heat on under the pan containing the potatoes, then walked still naked up to his bedroom. He placed the trainers back in their box, had a long shower, and went back down in his dressing gown. The pounding in his temples had gone, and his pulse felt completely normal.

As he ate, Alex thought food had rarely tasted that good. He smiled, and spoke aloud, into the empty room.

“Delicious!”

Lucy didn’t notice the raised eyebrows of the girl at the reception desk, as she checked in with Eduardo. The drive down had been exhilarating, with Eduardo’s hands all over her in the car, as he was barely able to suppress his desire. The lakeside hotel was classy, in an old-fashioned way, reminiscent of old hotels seen in films. Discreet, tucked away, not a place sought out by families, or groups of youngsters. The receptionist could clearly see through the couple. The older woman, younger man. It was generally the other way round of course, so she was used to it. She handed over the key with a cold smile. “Have a nice stay, madam”.

Eduardo hadn’t hesitated once the door was closed behind them. He literally dragged Lucy onto the bed, and made love to her without hardly removing any of her clothes. As Lucy stood under the shower afterwards, she tingled, and not just from the force of the water. This was how it was supposed to be.

The young man stretched out on the bed, glancing around the room. It was no big deal, and nowhere near as luxurious as he had thought it would be. There was no sign of a mini-bar, just some complimentary bottles of water on a side unit, along with a kettle and some cups, a basket-weave container holding some sachets of tea and coffee, and two tall glasses. The main feature of the room was the full length balcony he could see thought the glass doors, with an uninterrupted view of the lake, as they were on the third floor. He looked around, and found a folder with some basic information, and a list of local sights of interest. Boat hire was available, and the hotel had a gym, and small swimming pool, but there was no mention of Room Service anywhere.

Eduardo had only been there for thirty minutes, but he was already very disappointed.

Alex was up bright and early that morning. There was a forecast for rain later, and he had things to do while it was still dry. After putting on his gardening clothes, he was busy digging in the loose earth next to the shed. He felt much stronger today, and the work was easy. Perhaps because he had slept so well last night following that delicious dinner, and relaxing later watching an interesting DVD about the Vietnam War. When the hole was deep enough, he got the incinerator from behind the shed. At the bottom, he placed some newspapers, twigs and branch cuttings he had saved. Then he added the plastic sheet containing the protective suit, goggles, face mask, and old gloves. On top of the pile, he placed more twigs, and some waste paper saved from parcel packaging. A quick squirt of barbecue fluid, and he lit the fire through a hole in the bottom. It caught quickly, and started to burn fiercely. As the smoke began to rise, swirling in the breeze, he turned to look next door, up at the bedroom window overlooking at the garden. He pictured Allan’s body in the hallway, awaiting discovery.

While the fire carried on burning nicely in the container, he checked the fence above the storage box. There was no sign of any residue left by the protective suit, no orange fibres or snagged pieces of material. The suits were designed to be durable, and he had suspected that he would leave no clue. Rubbing his hand on the rough wood of the fence-top, he could see no blood left on his fingers or palm. There might be microscopic traces of course, but even if they were discovered, they would be Allan’s blood, giving no clue to the identity of his killer. Once the fire died down, he poked around in the ashes with a metal rod. Everything had burned well. The suits were intended to be incinerated, and even the large sheet of plastic had melted into nothing. But the gloves had not disintegrated completely, and the metal parts of the goggles remained too. He allowed the hot ash to settle, and went inside to prepare a late breakfast.

Jean walked over to where Don was cooking some sausages on the camping stove. He could have done that in the small kitchen inside, but he always liked the feel of the outdoors. He looked up at his wife as she spoke. “The radio says it will rain later, Don. Do you think we should make a move, go home early? He shook his head. “It’s the last trip of the season, love. Let’s make the most of it, rain or not”. Jean grinned, and started buttering the bread for the sausage sandwiches. Don was a good man, always so kind. Let him have the extra night.

Once the ashes had cooled, Alex reached in and removed the metal clips that had been on the strap fastening the goggles, then fished out the charred gloves too. Inside the house, he washed the clips in the kitchen sink, then took them with the gloves into his shed. Placing the clips in a plastic box containing assorted screws, nuts and bolts, and other small metal parts, he picked up a sharp carpet-knife and began using it to shred the gloves on top of the work bench. By the time he had finished, the gloves resembled little more than clump of unrecognisable fibres, which he took back outside and threw on top of the ash in the incinerator. Using his new gloves, he picked up the still-warm metal container, and tipped the contents into the hole he had dug earlier. Then he walked over to the back of the garage, to pick up the two fuchsia bushes that he and Lucy had purchased two weeks earlier. Spreading earth into the ash, he planted the shrubs two feet apart, then added some water from a watering can, before filling in the hole, and tamping down around the new planting.

The ashes would be good for the young plants, and would soon disappear into the earth.

There had been no time to drive Eduardo into town to buy clothes. Lucy was rather miffed that he hadn’t packed anything smart enough to wear in the restaurant, but the hotel had supplied a steam-iron and board when asked, and she had pressed a short-sleeved shirt and some chinos, so he would at least look respectable. Once they were ready, she was definitely overdressed, compared to her lover. Her new lacy underwear was complimented by some suspenders and black stockings, all concealed under a low-cut midnight blue dress that shone in the evening light. Even with four-inch high heels, she was still a head shorter than the handsome young man, and for a moment she really worried that they might look more like mother and son, than a couple. But the table was booked, and she was looking forward to a romantic meal, overlooking the peaceful lake.

Eduardo had not let her down. The meal had been a dream, as he constantly complimented her, told her how much he loved her, and held her hand across the table. Lucy had chosen to ignore the sideways glances of the waiters as they served the food and wine, and just revelled in the attention, the great food, and the wonderful views over the tranquil lake. Back in the room after liqueurs in the bar, her young lover made her feel attractive and desirable, as he slowly undressed her, before embarking on a selfless session of love-making that seemed to last for hours. She hadn’t even remembered falling asleep.

After a late breakfast, they drove into town. Lucy bought him a suit, a shirt and tie, and some smart shiny shoes. When he toyed with an expensive after-shave at the counter, she bought that too. It hadn’t been budgeted for of course, so she had to reluctantly pay using her credit card. Later, they took a trip across the lake on the pleasure-steamer, before retiring to the room for more love-making until they were due down for dinner. That evening, Eduardo looked so handsome in his suit, and told her she was a picture in her burgundy velvet gown. She was still captivated by him, but something was niggling in her mind. So she decided against saying she loved him, at least for now.

After he finished gardening and changed his clothes, Alex threw his clubs into the boot of the Jaguar, and drove down for an afternoon round at the Golf Club. He hadn’t played for a long time, but kept his membership up, as it was all about networking, and contacts. He had arranged to meet Tony Kemp, the well-heeled property developer, and a prominent citizen in town. They would play nine holes, and stay for dinner and drinks later.
He let Tony win by a couple of strokes, and also feigned interest in the new housing development planned for the northern suburbs. Alex knew Tony hoped he might influence the Planning Officer, but he had no intention of doing anything of the kind. Still, Tony paid for dinner and drinks, so it didn’t hurt to let him hope. He was home by eleven, and went to bed soon after.

Tom Henderson stared blankly at the TV. It was one of the shows Karen liked, and though he thought it was stupid, he pretended to enjoy watching it, for her sake. He had been on call since Friday evening, and was lucky that nothing had happened so far. Just Sunday to go, and his responsibility would be over for this month. Karen chuckled at something one of the characters was doing, and he smiled too. He liked to see her happy. Those moments were all too rare.

Lucy had to admit she was feeling quite tired. The reality of the ardour of her young lover had exceeded her imagination of how it would be. It seemed to her that he made love like he had something to prove, going through his repertoire as if following an instruction book on how to please a woman. But please her he had, at least as far as sex was concerned. And he appeared to enjoy her sexual ministrations too, declaring his love for her constantly, and complimenting everything from the size of her large breasts, to the shape of her small feet.

Unfortunately, once you took away the sex, there was little substance. Long silences over dinner, as he ran out of conversation. Repetitive compliments and sweet-talk, no different to all she had heard many times before, after their liaisons in the office at work. When he did become conversationally animated, all that seemed to concern him was how soon she could leave Alex, and how quickly they could be married after that. She had smiled and nodded. The idea of a new life with this younger man had certainly appealed. But after even this short time together, she was already wondering what they would ever talk about, and what they would do when not having sex. Yes, they could talk about work, and the animals they adored, but when you both worked at the same place all day, there might well be little to add to what you already knew. She was thinking about all that, as she dropped off to sleep in his arms

Eduardo couldn’t sleep. The heavy woman was snoring next to him, sounding something like the outboard motor of one of the small boats they had seen on the lake. He had done his best, he really had. Managing to make love to her so many times, and maintaining the pretence of finding her overwhelmingly attractive too. He had tried to talk about their future over dinner, but she had kept changing the subject, telling him it was too soon to make any definite plans. If she didn’t shape up soon, he would move on, and perhaps find a nice wealthy widow in the town, or the nearby city. He might be young, but he wasn’t about to waste any time. The new suit would help. He could try one of those over-fifties dating sites he had read about. Plenty of lonely women on those.

Alex tossed and turned. He had gone off to sleep quickly, but his mind was racing, and his thoughts, or perhaps a dream, had roused him. He went downstairs and poured himself a large cognac. Sitting by the light of the small reading-lamp, he went back over everything in his head. All the planning, the time spent next door, and the clearing up of any evidence that might possibly implicate him. He enjoyed the silence of the early hours, the darkness before dawn, and the peace that allowed him to think clearly.

Sometime tomorrow, there would be a discovery, and he had to have it all together by then.

Sunday morning didn’t start well for Lucy. By the time she had woken up, Eduardo was already dressed, and sitting outside on the balcony. Her head was fuzzy, and it was too late for the breakfast service. When he heard her get up and walk into the bathroom, he came back into the room, and started to pack his bag. Lucy called to him from the toilet seat, “Why didn’t you wake me up? We have missed breakfast now”. He didn’t answer her, and zipped up his bag, draping the suit carrier over it, ready to leave. During the night, he had made a decision.

Don and Jean had been up with the lark, and were ready to leave the camping grounds before checkout time at ten. Everything was cleared up and tidied away, and Jean was looking forward to getting home. She would have liked to have phoned home over the weekend, to check on Allan, but Don had advised her against it. “Let him be, Jean love. He has to learn how to cope. We won’t always be here”. It was less than a two-hour drive back to the house, so they would be home by midday. Jean was planning to cook a proper Sunday roast later, to make up for two days of microwave meals for their son.

Alex was choosing what to wear. There was bound to be a lot going on later, and he wanted to look like it was a normal Sunday. Nothing too smart, but he had make sure he didn’t appear scruffy if he was caught on any TV news coverage, or snapped by a press photographer. He had a reputation to maintain, after all. After dressing, he decided on a bowl of muesli for breakfast, then settled down to read the Sunday papers, spreading out the numerous sections over the large coffee table in the living room. As was his habit, he would read the tabloid first. Nothing like a bit of scandal and gossip to start a Sunday.

Lucy could tell something was up. Eduardo was distant, almost surly. She had a shower, and took time over her make-up, but there seemed little point in dressing up, so she chose a simple top and some comfortable trousers for the car journey home. Paying the bill with cash, she barely had enough, once the restaurant and bar bills were added on. Eduardo hadn’t even waited at reception with her, and had gone straight out to stand by the car. She had to scrabble around in her purse for some coins to make up the total. Just as well she had enough petrol, as she didn’t want to have to use her credit card again.
Once on the move, she didn’t bother to ask what was wrong. Part of her hoped he was disappointed, and would end the affair. She could no longer see any future in it, but it would be better if he ended it. Might be nice to pretend to be upset at being dumped. She could accuse him of using her, and he might feel awkward enough to find a new job. After all, it was going to be very difficult working together after this.

Don smiled at his wife. “No traffic today, love. That’s the benefit of going at the end of the season”. She grinned back. “I know, I was thinking we were making good time, but didn’t want to jinx it by saying anything”. Don glanced at the clock on the instrument panel. “At this rate, we will be home by half-eleven”.

Lucy couldn’t remember ever feeling so uncomfortable on a car journey. Eduardo hadn’t said a word, and even when she tried to make small-talk, he just nodded or answered with one word. That made her all the more determined. This young man was ungrateful, simple as that. She had given him her affection and her body for almost a year, as well as buying him gifts. Then she took him away to a lovely hotel, paid for everything, and had even bought him new clothes and cologne. In return, he was behaving like a sulky teenager, and had offered no explanation whatsoever. When they got back to the train station where she would drop him off, she would speak her mind.

Alex would loved to have had a reason to be standing outside when the Sinclairs returned. He had thought about inventing some chore to do in the front garden, perhaps even washing his car. But he never washed his car, everyone knew that. He paid the Lithuanian men to wash it, in the hand wash next to the supermarket. Besides, he really shouldn’t bring any undue attention on himself. He would just have to wait for the discovery, and the subsequent events. Stay indoors, no twitching of curtains, or blatant snooping. It was important that it should be like a very normal Sunday.

Don reversed the large vehicle onto the driveway as Jean hurried inside. As he switched off the engine, he heard a strange sound coming through the open door onto the hallway. It was something like the braying of a donkey, or the honking of an angry goose. As he climbed out and turned to face the door, he saw Jean on her knees by the bottom of the stairs. Her head was thrown back, her mouth so wide open, she didn’t even look like his wife anymore. It was her that was making that sound.

Alex heard the motor-home arrive, and could hardly contain his excitement. He switched on the TV, choosing a rolling news channel, then opened his laptop onto his work emails, before placing it next to him on the sofa. Anticipating screams, he was a little disappointed to hear nothing at all. At least nothing that carried the distance from his neighbour’s house into his living room.

Tom Henderson’s heart sank when the phone rang. It was the control room, as he had feared. “We have uniform units on the way to a suspicious death in Waterloo Close. Looks like a burglary too. Can you attend?” Tom said he would be there in around fifteen minutes. Karen was sitting on the sofa, wrapped in a fleece blanket, and staring blankly at the TV screen. It wasn’t switched on, but she gazed at the black screen anyway. Tom went to get a sleeping tablet from the pot in the kitchen, and a small glass of water. He bent down to his wife, and smiled. “I have to go to work, Karen. Hopefully I won’t be too long, but you never know. Here, take this, it will settle you”. He waited until she had swallowed the pill, then went into the hallway to get his car keys.

Alex heard the siren of the police car from a long way off, getting louder as it turned into his road. The car stopped with a swoosh on the gravel of Don’s drive, and the siren turned off with a final yelp. As the car doors slammed, he could hear the crackling radios of the police officers. He unfolded the financial section of the newspaper, and chuckled. In a soft voice, barley above a whisper, he spoke out loud.

“Now the game begins”.

Jean was inconsolable. The two policemen helped Don get her away from their son’s body, and into the living-room. They told him not to touch anything, and to just sit with her on the sofa. Don could feel the tears on his face, as he watched his wife’s body rocking with near silent sobbing. He had to hold it together for her sake, but the urge to scream was overwhelming.

Tom Henderson stopped his car at the blue and white tape, and showed his I.D. to the officer manning the cordon. By the time he arrived, two more police cars and an ambulance were blocking the road, and some people across the street were standing outside their houses, watching all the fuss. He was met at the door by Andy Cross, a long-serving policeman he knew well, and the first on scene at the incident.
“Hi, Tom. Looks like a burglary gone wrong. A dead boy, eighteen years old, been there for a while, I reckon. Stuff all over the place, but nothing big missing. I’m guessing he was disturbed by the son, and clumped him before legging it out the back doors.” Tom was about to reply when his mobile started ringing. It was Sergeant Sally Wilcox, also alerted by the control room once a body had been confirmed.

“Tom, this sounds like a murder scene. Secure the area, and wait for protective clothing and the forensics people to turn up before going in. I don’t want any evidence contaminated by too many bodies in the house”. She spoke to him as if he had just left training school, but he didn’t care. He was too tired to worry about stuff like that. “I’m on my way down, and I have notified Inspector Mullins. He has told the regional murder squad in the city, and they will nominate a Superintendent to oversee the case. Meanwhile, have a good think about the burglary aspects of the job, that’s your main strength here”. Tom waited until he was sure she had finished talking, and said just two words. “Got it”.

Sally Wilcox was buzzing. After she put down the phone, she went over it all with her partner, who made lots of suggestions that Sally jotted down on a memo page in her phone. She was a known high-flyer, a university educated direct entrant who had gone straight into plain clothes as soon as her probation had ended. When she turned up as a sergeant at the town’s detective branch, everyone had whistled under their breath. A real looker, almost too good-looking to ever be a cop, she had attracted the attention of every man in the police station within moments of arriving. But it didn’t take too long for them to discover that she wasn’t interested. She lived with a woman, and they had a civil partnership. And not just any woman. Commander Emily Leeds, head of the police training college in the county. That connection made Sally more or less fire-proof, and guaranteed that she was no longer bothered, and left alone to do her job. This would be her first murder case, and she was keen to be kept on the investigating team.

Alex decided that he should go outside after all. The people from the houses across the road were standing just outside the taped cordon, chatting in small groups. It would look strange indeed if he didn’t show some natural curiosity. He put the front door on the latch, and walked into his front garden, turning to look across the driveway at the comings and goings next door. A line of blue and white tape stretched across the gap between his Jaguar and Don’s motor-home, and as he walked toward it, a man approached him. “Please go back inside, sir, someone will be along to speak to you later. There has been an incident in your neighbour’s house”. Alex looked at the crumpled plain-clothes policeman. He looked tired, almost worn out, and a little too old to still be operational. When he hesitated, the man showed him a leather holder containing a photo I.D., and a badge with a crest. “Please sir, back in your house for now. There’s nothing to see”. Alex nodded, adding “I do hope they are all OK”. The man sighed and repeated what he had said earlier. “Someone will be along to speak to you later. Thank you, sir.”

Lucy was very relieved when she got to the train station. The traffic had been remarkably light, and they had made good time. She left the engine running, and turned to face Eduardo. “Why are you being like this, Eddie? I took you away to a lovely hotel, bought you clothes, food, and drinks, and you have just woken up today acting like a silly boy, sulky and obnoxious. I just don’t get it”. Eduardo did his best to look hard done by. “But you don’t love me, I can tell. All this time, and you only want sex. I wanted to marry you, get a nice house together, and start a new life. But you don’t ever tell me when that will happen, and you never say you love me. I think if you don’t really love me, we should stop now”. He expected her to collapse in a heap, to declare her undying love, and promise to end her marriage, as she didn’t want to lose him. But he had badly miscalculated.

“Well if you are going to act like a child, and don’t have any patience, then maybe that’s for the best. I can’t just walk away from a long marriage with no plans or considerations, and I can tell you that Alex is not the sort of man to make it easy for me to do that. If you can’t wait for me, then I agree we should end it now. We can be sensible about it, and try to carry on normally. Get your bag, or you will miss the next train. I will see you tomorrow at work, as usual”. He would have liked to have ranted and raved at her. Told her she was too fat, unattractive, and that she snored like an engine. But he was too surprised to do any of that, so retrieving his bag from the back seat, he got out of the car without a word.

As Lucy turned off Mafeking Avenue into Waterloo Close, she had to stop dead. The end of the close was cordoned off, and full of police cars that blocked anything entering or leaving. A short policewoman walked over to the window and told her, “Sorry madam, this road is closed, due to an incident”. Lucy smiled and replied, “But I live here. Number nine, the last house on this side”. The policewoman walked away a few paces and spoke into her radio for a moment, before returning. “That’s alright then. But you will have to leave your car here on the corner for now”. Lucy straightened up the car, and parked it closer to the kerb, wondering what what going on.

She left her case in the boot, and grabbing her handbag, hurried down to the house. The policewoman had radioed ahead, so other officers lifted the tape for her as she got closer. Next to the tape, a few journalists and photographers started to shout out to her, but she couldn’t make out what they were asking, and carried on into the house. Alex was standing by the window, and smiled at his wife as she came into the room. “Alex, what’s going on? What’s happened?” Her face was flushed, and she kept looking around, as if expecting someone else to be there. He spoke as he turned back to look out of the window. “Something bad seems to have happened at the Sinclairs. Quite the circus, isn’t it? Oh, did you and Claire have a nice time in the city? I expect the police will be along to talk to us soon. They said they would”. Lucy sat down heavily on an armchair, and blew the air out of her cheeks.

Tom Henderson found the flimsy white over-suit restricting, and the shoe-covers slopped around as he walked. Everyone had turned up now, including Inspector Mullins. Crime scene people were taking fingerprints and blood samples, the search team guys were doing a detailed fingertip of the back garden, and photographers were everywhere, snapping away. Sally Wilcox was hovering around the Inspector spouting textbook phrases, and Superintendent Parvinder Singh was on his way from the city. Tom always thought that his turban suited him, a nice dark blue that matched his dress uniform. He wondered if he would have a different colour today, as he would obviously be in plain clothes. Jean Sinclair had been given a sedative by her family doctor, who had been happy to attend. And then her and her husband had been taken to a small hotel in the town, as the house would be turned upside down, and they couldn’t stay there tonight.

Don sat on the edge of the bed as his wife slept soundly next to him. Whatever Doctor Barnes had given her had worked well, as she was out for the count. His heartbreak had been replaced by anger, when they made him and Jean get changed, then took their fingerprints, before asking for the shoes and the clothes they had been wearing, then placing them in huge brown bags marked ‘EVIDENCE’. How the hell could they be evidence? It seemed to Don that they were now some sort of suspects, instead of being the people whose son had just been murdered. They sent a policeman along who said he was a Family Liaison Officer, and would stay with them. But Don was so angry, he had asked him to leave the room. Placing his head in his hands, he wondered how they would ever get past this. He felt cold from the shock of it all, and his legs started to tremble uncontrollably.

The doorbell made Lucy jump. She had been deep in thought, trying to work out a feasible story in her head, with little success. If the police asked her where she had been, what would she say? There had been no Weight-Watchers franchise conference in the city, as far as she knew, and Claire didn’t exist, just someone she had invented to cover her frequent lateness and absences. Alex answered the door to a uniformed policeman, and invited him in. He carried a clipboard, and declined the offer of tea or coffee, as well as the invitation to sit on the sofa. “Just some routine questions for now, if that’s OK”. Alex smiled, and the man went through his check-list. Names, dates of birth, occupations, places of work, contact phone numbers, car types and registration numbers. When Lucy told him she had just got back from a weekend away, he asked when she had left, and noted down the times. Then he asked Alex if he had heard or seen anything unusual since Friday morning. ” Friday I was at work until around six, officer, then when I got home, I didn’t see anyone, or hear anything out of the ordinary. On Saturday, I did some gardening, then went to the Golf Club to play nine holes. Oh, and I stayed on to have dinner with a friend. When I got back, around eleven I think, I didn’t see or hear anyone or anything. What has actually happened? We are naturally worried about our neighbours”. The officer closed the flap over his clipboard, preparing to leave. “All I can say for now is that there has been an incident, and the house is being treated as a crime scene. Thanks for your cooperation”.

Tom was sent away before Superintendent Singh turned up. The Inspector told him to get off and get busy checking on the whereabouts of all known burglars in the town. “Shake them up, Tom. See if they have alibis, and let them know we’re not messing about. Get the word out, this is the murder of a simple, defenceless boy, and they had better start giving us some information”. Tom had nodded, and walked back to his car, pulling off the papery oversuit before he got in it.

Sergeant Sally Wilcox made sure she was the first one to greet Superintendent Singh when he arrived. As he walked through the cordon, he nodded at her. “What have you got, Sally?” His tone was in the usual businesslike manner he was know for. She had her short speech prepared. “I would say it’s a burglary gone wrong, sir. Matey enters through the unlocked patio doors, and starts to spin the living room. The teenage boy is alone in the house, and must hear him. Comes downstairs, a fight breaks out, and the burglar uses a leg of the broken chair to club him. But the medical examiner says he was strangled too, so I’m guessing he put up a fight after being hit on the head. Mum and Dad are with an FLO at Meadow House Hotel. They haven’t had a chance to tell us if anything’s missing yet. Time of death estimated as Friday evening, around seven. That will be confirmed later, after the post-mortem. Uniforms are doing a house-to house, and we have two detectives on CCTV recovery”.

The Superintendent nodded. “Nice work so far, Sally. Now, let’s go and have a look”.

Tom Henderson had been running around in his car all afternoon. He had managed to contact four of the most active burglars, all men he knew well. He didn’t think for a second that any of them would have done the job in Waterloo Close. It was too messy, and they would never attack anyone who discovered them, when they had an easy exit through the back door. Three of them had decent alibis, but Kenny Fletcher claimed to have been at home all weekend nursing a toothache, and had nothing to back up his story except an obviously swollen face. When it was almost seven, he popped into Super Fry in the High Street, and bought fish and chips to take home. It was one of the few places open on Sundays.

She was still sitting on the sofa, awake but vacant. He switched on the TV for her, and gave her the food on a tray. After a while, she had only eaten a few of the chips, so he tried to make her eat more. “Come on Karen, try some of that fish before it gets cold. It will be good for you”. She nodded, but just sat with her fork dangling over the plate. Tom ate his own meal, which was now cold, but as he went through into the kitchen to put the kettle on, his mobile phone started ringing. He answered in his usual way. “Henderson”. It was Sally from work. “Tom, it’s Sally here. Briefing at nine, make sure you’re there. Did you get anything on those burglars?” Tom sighed. “Nothing solid sarge, just one with no alibi, I will be there at nine”. He turned back to his wife. “Got to go back in soon, love. Try to eat some more, eh?”

Lucy was busy in the kitchen, trying to distract herself from worrying about her story. She was hoping that her short interview with the policeman would be the end of it, and she would never have to divulge where she had really been. Her main task was to prepare a nice meal for Alex, and try to reestablish some sort of relationship with her distant husband. He suddenly called from the living room. “Lucy, come and see this. It’s on the news”.

Alex turned up the volume as his wife joined him on the sofa. A serious-looking young woman was delivering a report from the end of their street, a huge microphone held up in front of her face. “Early information suggests that a young man, Allan Sinclair, was alone in the house. He is believed to have disturbed a burglar, and was killed in what appears to be a struggle following that. Allan is known to have been suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, and had the mental age of a child. He attended Lynwood Special School until recently, and was currently unemployed. Police continue to search the surrounding area, and the investigation continues. Paula Underwood, BBC news.” As the news changed to a report of a road accident on the M25 near London, Alex muted the volume. Lucy shook her head. “How do they know all that? We have lived next door to them all these years, and had no idea. Special School? Asperger’s? June never said a word. Who told the BBC?”

He smiled. “They have their sources. Probably someone inside the local Police.” Alex picked up the newspaper again, and flicked through the magazine section as Lucy went back to her cooking. But he wasn’t reading, just thinking. If the report was correct, that would explain why the boy seemed sly, uncommunicative, and rude. Also why he didn’t work, and played the same music constantly. Perhaps he hadn’t been the boy Alex had imagined he was at all. So be it, collateral damage. His parents should have spoken up earlier. He checked the TV listings, as there was a film he wanted to watch later.

Superintendent Singh had to leave to get back to the city. He had nominated Inspector Mullins to run the enquiry from there, and to keep him in the loop. In turn, Mullins told Sally Wilcox to act as the senior investigating officer, at least as far as collating all the information and evidence. “It’s a chance for you to make a great impression with a big case, sergeant. But naturally the Superintendent will oversee everything, and all decisions must be run by me first, understood?” Sally nodded excitedly. They would call it career development, she knew that. But the reality was they were sticking it all on her, making her defend her reputation, and earn her money. She would show them though, and solve the case, whatever it took. She rang Emily at home. “Hi darling, no idea when I will be back. it’s all kicking off here, and we have a full team briefing at nine. Don’t wait up”.

Eduardo was using his smartphone to access the online dating site. It had cost nothing to register, but he would be charged for any contacts made, and messages sent. Right from page one, he found so many possibles. Wealthy widows, lonely singles, professional women, and divorcees with children. He applied some more search filters. No young dependent children, women aged over fifty, and no living no further away than the city. He couldn’t afford to own a car, so they had to be somewhere he could get to easily. Once the page reloaded, there were still almost one hundred options. It never ceased to amaze him how many lonely females were looking for love.

The conference room was crowded by the time the briefing was due to start. Tom had got there early, hoping it wouldn’t drag on too long. Sally had put up photos, maps, and cards with names, all attached to the huge whiteboard. She had used a blue marker pen for names, and a red one for other information. Inspector Mullins waved his hands for silence, and the assorted officers and technical staff settled down as he spoke. “We all know Sergeant Wilcox, and she will be presenting what we have established so far. Please give her your full attention, and take notes.”

Sally took a deep breath, and turned to look at her colleagues.

“Thank you sir. Right everyone. We have the murder of a young disabled man, Allan Sinclair. He was in the house alone we think, as his parents were away camping in their motor-home until this morning. He appears to have disturbed a burglar, and been incapacitated by being hit on the head with a chair leg from a broken chair next to the body. Then his killer has finished him off by using the chair leg to choke him, suggesting that he recovered from the first blow, and a fight ensued in the hallway. It is possible that he didn’t intend to kill Allan, but that’s what happened. Time of death is around nineteen hundred hours on Friday, so he was lying undiscovered all weekend.
The post-mortem was done on the hurry-up, and as you can see from the photos behind me, he sustained a powerful blow to the head, and has severe bruising to his neck and throat. Splinters and varnish from the chair leg have been found on both injuries, and the official cause of death is strangulation, using the chair leg to obstruct his airway.

So far, we have no fingerprints other than those of Allan and his parents. A search of the front and back had been carried out, but was no help. The FLO will talk to the Sinclairs about what might have been taken from the house, but my guess is that nothing was stolen, as he was disturbed. We have very little to go on, so we have to take the other routes available until we get more detailed forensics.
I want you all to think about your criminal contacts. Hassle your informants, delve deep in your minds to think about who might be a suspect for this. Then there is everyone who knew the victim. Class mates, school friends, relatives, and neighbours. And lets not forget Mum and dad. They were supposedly away, but we are checking that with the campsite. Local witnesses, let’s go hard on that, and you two guys checking the CCTV, make sure you have requested everything. There are only eight houses in Waterloo Close, and it’s a dead-end street. Anyone using a vehicle would have had to turn around at some stage, and someone must have seen them come and go. Jog their memories, keep asking them. Get them in to look at mugshots. You know the drill”.

Inspector Mullins nodded as she finished. “Thanks, Sally. Now the rest of you, forget about going home tonight, we need to get on this while it’s still hot. Get to work, and get results.”

Tom Henderson slumped down in the uncomfortable plastic chair. It was going to be a long night.

Don and Jean Sinclair were still stuck in the hotel. They were told that forensic specialists were going back in, and it would be a few more days before they could go home. Their liaison officer mentioned he would like them to appear on a televised appeal for witnesses. Don had pointed to his grief-stricken wife, and said one word. “Really?”. The policeman swallowed hard before replying. “Jean’s condition would actually make that appeal more effective, Don, believe me. Please think about it. I am sure you want to do everything you can to help us catch Allan’s murderer”. Don wiped his lips with the fingers of his left hand. “I am happy to go on telly, and make a statement. I have something to say. Not sure we should put Jean through that though. I will talk about it to her in private”.

By Tuesday morning, Sally still had nothing. No footprints, no witnesses, nothing to tie anyone to the crime. She was banking on the second sweep of the forensics team to uncover something. Inspector Mullins just kept issuing pointless instructions, and Mr Singh was on the phone three times a day, chasing progress. She knew if she didn’t come up with something concrete soon, they would hand it all over to the city squad. Young Sandy Kelly put his head around the door of the incident room. “Sarge, I have been going over the house-to-house reports, tying them in with CCTV footage. There’s something you might want to see”. She followed him back into the technical room, and looked over his shoulder as he rewound something on one of the screens. “This is the neighbour’s car, the wife’s”. He checked a typed sheet. “Lucy Conroy. She said that she had been away, attending some seminar in the city. Well, this is her car heading south, and here it is again, picking up someone from the station. We get it again, still heading south, and she takes the trunk road. Totally the wrong direction for the city”.

Sally frowned. “That man she is picking up is definitely not her husband. He looks foreign. Is there anything showing her coming back, the same day?”. Sandy shook his head. “No, we are looking further south, to see where she went. I have requested traffic camera footage within a one-hundred mile radius”. Sally stood up straight. “Good work, Sandy. Keep at it”. Walking back into the department, she knocked on the door of Inspector Mullins’ office and walked straight in. “Boss, there’s something strange about one of the neighbour’s movements on Friday. Lucy Conroy, the woman next door to the Sinclairs. I think I should have her in for a chat”. Mullins nodded. “Be careful though, her husband is Alexander Conroy, the big cheese in the local Council. He knows everyone. Play nice”.

Tom Henderson was off his supposed line of enquiry. He knew the forensic team was in the Sinclair family’s house, and he had diverted to Waterloo Close to have a proper look around. Last time, he had been sent off to check out the burglars, and had little time to examine the property. He pulled over his car in front of the cordon, and struggled into the plastic overshoes. As he started toward the house, his mobile rang. “Henderson”.
“Hi Tom, it’s Sally here, I wanted to know if you had got any further with the lead on that burglar, Kenny something”. Tom paused before answering. “I doubt it was him, sarge. Not his style to hit anyone, and although he has nobody to corroborate his alibi, his car wasn’t seen on CCTV anywhere in the vicinity, at any time. And as far as I know, none of his prints or DNA turned up at the scene. Besides, he has to go to the dentist and get an abscess seen to, so that much was true”. Sally sounded disappointed. “OK, keep at your contacts. I’m going over to talk to the neighbour, Lucy Conroy. She has been telling us fibs. Naughty girl”. Tom hung up, and walked through the Sinclair’s side gate into the garden.

They were the last but one house on that side. Behind them and the Conroys, fields stretched out as far as the trunk road. And at the end of the close, a woodland area marked the boundary of the small Nature Reserve. Two houses opposite had security cameras, but they had shown nothing suspicious on Friday evening. Cars coming home from work, all accounted for. A pizza delivery at number six around eight, all checked and confirmed. Most of the residents were middle aged or elderly; so no parties or late night taxis, and no movement of the cars they owned once they got home. It seemed to Tom that there was only one answer. Whoever killed Allan had entered from the fields or the Nature Reserve, and waited until it got dark, before escaping in the same direction. But there were no footprints, and the whole area had been searched since Sunday, with not a single clue discovered.
Tom knew better. There was always a clue.

Since returning to work on Monday, Alex carried on as normal of course. Some of the staff came in and offered sympathy. After all, the boy was his neighbour, and they presumed he knew him well. Behind their words was their desire to learn more details of course, and they looked disappointed when he could offer no more than they already knew. People loved to hear gory details from someone in the know.

Tom stood for a long time, taking in the garden. He pictured himself as the criminal. How would he escape? The back fence meant a long trudge over the field. At least ten minutes in plain sight in the open. Going through the side gate led back into the close, and possibly being seen by residents. The fence to the left was the same deal, leading into the gap between numbers five and seven, and back into the street. Tom looked at the fence to the right, shared with the Conroy’s much larger garden at number nine. He looked at the large planter pots in a row, and walked over to inspect them. Each one contained a fairly mature shrub. They didn’t appear to have recently been watered, at least the earth in them was dry. The promised rain last week had come to nothing, certainly not enough to dampen the soil. They had also seen better days, weather-stained, with dirty rims. He guessed that the Sinclairs were not that keen on gardening. Tom wondered if the crime scene people had moved them, to look for clues. But there were no scuffs or marks to indicate that.

He started to walk slowly down the row, until something caught his eye. At the back of one pot, obscured by the foliage, the rim was white. Not clean, but brighter than any of the rest. He took out his mobile, and shot a few pictures on the phone camera. Then he pulled himself up the fence, glancing quickly over at what was on the other side, before he lost his grip. A large garden storage box was on the Conroy’s side. Whoever did this had probably escaped through their garden, stepping on the edge of the pot, to vault over onto the storage box. Across the lawn, and over the next fence into the Nature Reserve. That would be out of sight of any local cameras, and unseen by anyone in the close. Unless Mr Conroy had noticed anything of course.

Tom made a note in his book. He would have to arrange to have a word with Mr Alexander Conroy. And as he walked back to the car, he had another thought. How did the killer know the storage box was in the Conroy’s garden? Unless he had either been upstairs in the house, and had seen it through the back window, or had possibly been in the garden next door at one time. Interesting.

Lucy smiled at the woman approaching the reception desk. She was stunningly attractive, her strawberry blonde hair enhanced by highlights of various colours, and the flawless make up resembling one of those cosmetics assistants in a department store. Her navy suit showed her almost perfect figure, though the skirt was perhaps too short for such formal wear. “Can I help you, madam?”

The woman held up a leather wallet containing a photo-I.D. and a badge of some kind. “Sergeant Wilcox, county police. You are Mrs Lucy Conroy, are you not?” Lucy swallowed hard, and tried to keep up her chirpy demeanour. “That’s me, how can I help the police?” Returning the wallet to her shoulder bag, the policewoman spoke firmly. “I need to ask you some questions concerning the death of your neighbour, Allan. Is there somewhere we can talk in private?” A young man walked past behind Sally, carrying a dopey-looking dog with one of those plastic cones around its head. Sally showed no recognition, but spotted him immediately as the man picked up from the train station.

In his office at work, Alex was reading the local paper, which was still milking the crime for all it could. From somewhere, they had obtained photos of Allan Sinclair taken at his school, and also added a detailed explanation of the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome. The tone of the editorial annoyed Alex though. It seemed to be shifting the blame onto Don and Jean for leaving him alone, as if what had happened had been their fault. He would liked to have sent a sharply-worded letter to the editor, but wasn’t about to show his hand by going public about anything to do with the case. Besides, it did no harm to let people think the parents might somehow be involved. Anything that muddied the waters of the investigation was to be welcomed.

After almost two hours in the back bedroom, crime scene specialist Pat Spiller finally found something. Small traces, tiny ones in fact, but definitely blood. She wiped them onto a cotton bud, and sealed that in a tube. And there was the splinter, discovered by using a tiny vacuum cleaner to collect anything that might be left on the bed-cover. It was microscopic, but definitely wood, and possibly bloodstained too. Pat was satisfied with her work this morning. Finally, some progress. She took her precious samples downstairs, and made a call to Inspector Mullins. “Hello sir, Pat Spiller here. I reckon you can work on the assumption that the boy was attacked in his bedroom. I have some good evidence, and my gut feeling tells me we are going to prove he was on the bed when it happened”. Mullins punched the table lightly. “Great work, Pat. Get that processed as urgent, and update me as soon as”.

Lucy got one of the nurses to cover her reception desk, and showed the policewoman into the back office. As she walked through, Lucy got a blast of her perfume. Expensive stuff, and just right. She declined an offer of tea or coffee, and the two women sat opposite each other next to the big desk. Opening a folder, Sally started Lucy in the eyes, fixing her gaze. “I will come straight to the point, Mrs Conroy, there are some discrepancies in the account you gave my colleague. You told him you were at a seminar in the city, but in fact you were a long way from there, collecting someone from the train station in the opposite direction. That someone is the young man I have just seen outside in the reception area, I believe. Now, do you feel like telling me the truth, or would you prefer to come with me to the Police Station, and get a lawyer?” Lucy’s face was red, and she was on the verge of crying. But she held it together. “I did lie about that, and I apologise for doing it. I can tell you exactly what happened, but it must be between us, as my husband must never find out. Is that something acceptable to you?” Sally crossed her legs extravagantly, and sat back in the chair. “We will have to see about that, Mrs Conroy. Or may I call you Lucy?”

Tom had popped home to make sure Karen was alright, and was surprised to find her sitting up, looking alert, and watching TV with great concentration. The rolling news was on, and as he came in, she turned and looked at him. “Is it this poor boy, Tom? Is that the case you’re working on? Is that why you were called in?” He nodded, and sat down. “Then you must do your best, love. Find the person who killed that unfortunate boy, whatever it takes. I will be OK, there’s no need to keep checking on me, honest”. Tom looked at her, and saw some vestige of the old Karen behind the emaciated face. A small spark, but a definite spark. The killing of this boy had moved something inside her, perhaps reminding her of the daughter she had lost all those years ago. It had taken another tragedy to shake her from the dull state she had existed in for so long. He patted her leg. “If you’re sure, Karen love. I will do my best”.

Once she started, Lucy didn’t stop talking. It seemed to Sally that she had a lot to get off her substantial chest, and welcomed the chance to unburden herself to someone in authority. So she had been at the Lakeside Hotel with her lover, a colleague from the Vet’s. She had left work early, and had a solid alibi for Friday afternoon, that could be verified by the hotel, and was probably on their CCTV. As well as that, this Eduardo character could confirm her movements, as he had been with her until Sunday afternoon. Seems like this Alexander Conroy was a cold fish indeed, and Sally wondered why he had married Lucy at all. But he had never hit her or neglected her, and was a good provider. However, it was obviously not a love match, either way. She marked Eduardo’s card as a chancer, something Lucy had discovered on that weekend away.

When she had finished noting it all down,. and checked a few details, she looked across at the chubby woman, who now seemed far more relaxed. There was something about her that appealed to Sally, an innocence, an inherent honesty. She seemed younger than her years, trusting, and truthful. Not something you noticed that often in police work. Sally found herself drawn to her, as if she had known her for years. “Thanks for being honest with me , Lucy. For what it’s worth, I believe you, and that will be the end of it, as far as I am concerned. However, if there is a trial down the line, and someone pleads Not Guilty, you may well find yourself in court, explaining your alibi. You know as well as I do that such things eventually get found out, especially in a small town. My advice is to tell your husband before he finds out from someone else”. She opened her bag, and offered Lucy a card. “Here’s a card with my details, Work number, and mobile. If you want to talk to me anytime, just call, day or night”.

Lucy took the card, letting her hand fall onto the policewoman’s knee. “Thanks for being so nice to me, Sally, I really appreciate that. And I know you’re right. But I admit I am really scared to tell him”.

Sergeant Wilcox stood up, preparing to take her leave. As Lucy stood too, she clasped her hand warmly. “I wouldn’t worry too much. What’s the worst that can happen? Even if he wants a divorce, you still get half of everything, and a fresh start. She smiled, then added, “He’s hardly likely to kill you, is he?”

Tom listened to an answerphone message. Inspector Mullins had called everyone back for a briefing. It must be something significant, as it was an urgent request to drop what they were doing, and go straight in to the conference room. This time, he was doing the talking, and Sally sat at the top of the table, ready to take any notes.

“We have received new evidence from forensics, following their detailed second sweep of the house. I can confirm that Allan Sinclair was upstairs when he was attacked, probably lying on his bed. Blood found has been matched to his, and a tiny sliver of wood has been matched to the chair leg, same wood, same varnish. This changes what we thought earlier, that Allan had heard something, and gone downstairs before being attacked. It means the killer was upstairs at some stage, and may have gone into the bedroom looking for loot, prior to attacking the boy he found there. It makes me wonder why he just didn’t run back down the stairs and out of the house, so begs the question, did Allan know his killer? Would he recognise him? Was that why he was killed?
Unfortunately, we have no footprints or DNA in the bedroom, nothing to suggest who he might be. But this definitely widens our investigation outside of the burglary/murder theme we have been working on so far. As far as we know, Allan had no friends, and kept himself to himself, even at school. So, no know enemies, nobody he had ever offended or upset, no jealous lover, or enraged parent of a girl he knocked up. All the usual avenues are firmly closed to us. The FLO reckons the parents are out of it too. Their alibi is good, and they had no reason to harm their son. If he didn’t surprise a burglar, then we have to assume that somebody went in there intending to do him harm, and had to kill him because he would have known them. Any thoughts?”

Tom raised his hand, and Mullins nodded to him. “My only burglary suspect, Kenny Fletcher. I don’t like him for this. Besides his dental problems, he lives over six miles from Waterloo Close, and there’s no way he would walk there. His car hasn’t shown up on any cameras, helping to confirm what he claimed, to be in all evening, because of the toothache. I popped around to the Sinclairs, following a hunch about an escape route. When I looked at the stone planters next to the fence, I found an area that looks like someone stepped on the rim, to use it as a leg-up over the fence into number nine. I have some photos on my phone. On the other side is a large garden storage box, and he would have had to know that was there. It follows that he knew about it, because he had seen it from the window of Allan’s room.”

Sally noted down his comments, writing furiously. Inspector Mullins looked very pleased. “Great work, Tom. Get those photos over to the tech guys, and let’s have that planter brought in for a detailed examination. Then ask Mr Conroy if we can examine that box in his garden. Be polite”.

Lucy had managed to ignore Eduardo all day, except for having to occasionally mention something to do with work. He hadn’t said anymore about the weekend or their relationship, and hadn’t asked who the woman was who had come to see her. After talking to the attractive and understanding sergeant, she had come to the conclusion that she was right. Alex would have to hear it from her. Waiting for an unknown time for it to come out would be unbearable, and she could already sense the tension that would add to her home life. She would try to bring it up this evening, after guessing his mood once he was home.

Karen Henderson felt wobbly after the shower. It had been a long time since she had showered and washed her hair. Tom usually did it for her. She heated up some tinned soup in the microwave, and ate it with some slices of bread. She was not going to take her evening pill, as she wanted to stop blotting out the world for a while. She never told Tom, but she knew how hard he worked to care for her, and never complained. But now he had something really important to do, instead of catching burglars. He must find whoever killed that disabled boy, and for once in her life, she had to step up, and help him.

Alex seemed very calm during dinner, so before she cleared away, Lucy tested the water. “I had a police sergeant come to talk to me at work today, a lady one. She was very nice, so understanding”. He smiled, and asked, “What did she want to see you about?” His tone was friendly, betraying nothing of the small alarm bell that had gone off in his head. Lucy placed her elbows on the table, and leaned forward. “Well my account of where I was wasn’t exactly truthful, and I have to talk to you about that”. Alex could not resist sarcasm, try as he might. “Do you mean we are going to have a conversation? How refreshing”. Lucy ignored the jibe, and continued. “I was with a man, not Claire. In fact, there is no Claire, no Weight Watchers, Aerobics, or Pilates. No Zumba, Yoga, or Slimming Club. They were all just excuses for me to see Eduardo from work, You know, the new nurse I mentioned, the one from abroad.” Alex showed no emotion, although he felt genuine surprise. “I was with him at the weekend, I went away to finish it with him, it’s all over”. Lucy sat back in the chair, feeling like a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

Alex nodded, and looked down at the tablecloth. He wanted to laugh, but fought the urge. Well well well, Lucy was a dark horse. Imagine her keeping that secret for so long, and being cunning enough to build such a web of deceit around her affair. He had new respect for her. Perhaps there was something lurking inside his dull wife after all. Of course, she couldn’t have known that it might have all been so much easier. If she had just come home one night and said, “I want to have an affair with a bloke at work”, he would have just told her to go ahead. It wasn’t as if he had any real feelings for her. But he did hope it didn’t become public knowledge. After all, it would be bad for his reputation, his wife going off with another man. And a much younger man at that. And a foreigner. She suddenly spoke, breaking his train of thought. “Well, Alex. Have you got anything to say?”

He looked up at her, his face blank. “I think I would like some of that lemon meringue pie now. With cream, if we have some. And perhaps you had better sleep in the guest room from now on.”

His secretary buzzed the intercom. “I have a police officer on the phone, a detective Henderson. He is asking to speak to you”. Alex grinned. Just a small grin, he would save the big grin until later. “Put him through, Lily”.

“Mr Conroy, this is Tom Henderson. I am on the investigating team for the murder of your neighbour, Allan Sinclair”. Alex didn’t reply, so he continued. “I was wondering if it would be convenient to call at your house this Saturday. Say about nine? I would very much like to be able to look at your garden in daylight, and would prefer it if you were there”. “Alex hesitated, as if checking a diary. “Saturday? At nine? That will be fine. See you then”. As Tom hung up, it didn’t escape his notice that Conroy hadn’t asked why he wanted to look at his garden.

The press conference was going ahead as scheduled, that Friday morning. The liaison officer had told Don and Jean that they could go home after that, as the police were finished in their house. But there could be no funeral for some time, in case of a trial, so the body of their much loved son would languish in the county mortuary for the foreseeable future. Don had agreed to speak, and Jean would also appear, though would say nothing. The room was capable of accommodating a lot of people, but only seven journalists had turned up. There were also two TV camera crews with reporters, one local, and one national. Four press photographers had secured spots right at the front, but despite delaying the start for almost fifteen minutes, no more media people had arrived.

Inspector Mullins noticed the low attendance as they filed out onto the top table. The story was already going off the boil, after a week of not much happening. He knew it was important to keep up the momentum, but a terrible train crash in Scotland was dominating the news that morning. Mullins introduced himself, then pointed to Sally and told them her name and rank. He mentioned that Superintendent Singh was still in charge of the case, then introduced the Sinclairs by name. Behind them was a large photo of Allan, taken at home on his sixteenth birthday. Mullins ran through the details of the case so far. But he didn’t reveal the new information that Allan was attacked in his bedroom. He wanted to hold onto that for now, so as not to give away too much to the killer. After answering some questions from reporters, he held up his hand and said, “Now Mr Sinclair will make a short statement. He and his wife will not be taking questions, so please do not cause them any further upset”.

The cameras all turned in Don’s direction, motor-drive clicks breaking the silence, flash strobes illuminating the table. He stared straight into the nearest lens, speaking in a normal voice, apparently calm. “This is a message for whoever murdered our defenceless son. The light of our life. A boy who never so much as harmed a fly. I don’t want the police to catch you, because I am going to find you, and then I am going to kill you”. The room erupted with shouted questions, and calls of ‘Mr Sinclair’, and ‘Don’, as they tried to get him to answer. But Inspector Mullins was already ushering them out of the conference room, calling out to the reporters as he left. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Nothing further today”. He was so annoyed, he didn’t speak to the Sinclairs. Instead, he turned to their liaison officer. “Sort them out. Get them home, and shut him up”. But he was pleased about one thing. Don’s unexpected statement had certainly shaken up the story. It would be front page tomorrow, he was sure of that.

It had been a strange week for Lucy. Alex had said nothing more about her confession, and acted as if nothing had happened. Other than sleeping in the guest room, her life had returned to normal. She told herself she should be happy about that, as it could have been much worse. But she wasn’t happy at all. When she got home from work that evening, Alex was already there. He had come home early, and was in the garden, using the hose to water everything. She called out to him. “Dinner at seven, is that alright?” He smiled and nodded, so she went into the kitchen to get started. As they were eating, he spoke as if he had suddenly remembered something. “Oh, a detective is coming tomorrow at nine. He wants to look at our garden, something to do with the murder. It might be an idea if you are out shopping, don’t you think?” Lucy nodded. “Actually, I was thinking I might drive up to the city. I could do with getting some new clothes. I really should smarten myself up a bit”. He didn’t look up, just nodded as he spoke. “Good”.

Sally Wilcox was finishing her second glass of Pinot Grigio, glad to be home from work at last. Mullins had been ranting and raving before she left, blaming everyone for Don’s unscheduled threat at the press conference. Emily was driving her mad too, analysing all the details of the case, and making endless suggestions. Sally knew that those suggestions were just criticisms in disguise, and after the first glass of wine, she had exploded. Emily wasn’t used to being talked back to, and had stomped off into the study, claiming she had to work. The atmosphere was going to be thick enough to cut with a knife later, and Sally couldn’t be doing with it. As she poured the third glass, she thought she should really eat something first. But the fuzzy head felt good. It had been a hectic week, and she deserved to unwind.

Lucy loaded the dishwasher and decided to go straight upstairs to read. Alex was watching a documentary about concentration camps, and she hated seeing the films of people being killed by Nazis. After ten minutes of reading the same page, she gave up. Taking the card from inside her bag, she dialled the number, using her mobile. “Wilcox”. She sounded sleepy, a little slurred. Lucy spoke quietly. You never knew what Alex could hear. “Hello, this is Lucy Conroy, you spoke to me at work the other day, do you remember?” Sally was surprised to hear from her, but strangely pleased. “Of course I do, Lucy. What can I do for you?” Lucy felt stupid asking, but she did anyway. “Well it’s silly really, but I wanted to ask where you got that suit you were wearing. I thought it looked so smart, and I am going shopping in the city tomorrow, so thought I would see if they had something similar in my size”. Sally smiled, imagining Lucy in a smart business suit. “It was in New Image, the concession shop inside Taylor and Lloyd. You know, the big department store. But it was last year, so I doubt they will still have it”.
Lucy was pleased, she knew that shop. “Oh thanks, I know where that is of course, so I will check out what they have in stock now.”

Sally drained the third glass, and stifled a small burp. “Tell you what, Lucy. Why don’t I meet you there, in the cafe upstairs? Say about ten? Then we could have some lunch later, after you find something”. Lucy beamed, and raised her voice slightly. “That would be great. That’s so kind of you”.

In the hotel room, Don was throwing their few clothes into a bag when Jean looked up from the bed. Her face was determined, and her tone decisive. “I can’t go back in that house, Don. Not ever. I just can’t. And whatever you say, I won’t. I don’t care where we go, or what we do, but I am never going to walk through that door again”. Don sat next to her on the bed, and squeezed her leg. “I know, love. I don’t want you to worry, you are never going to have to”. Her face relaxed. She had expected Don to be sensible, practical, to stand up and be brave. She was so relieved to hear those words from him.

Don stroked her face. “When we get home, you can wait in the old bus, and I will get the stuff we need. Most of the clothes, some important papers, photos, and the precious things. Then we will drive away, and never go back there. We can pay someone to go in and clear out the rest, then put it up for sale. I will ring work and tell them I’m not coming back. We have enough to get by for a while, and then there will be the money from the house. I thought we could go back home, to Scotland. We could stay with my Mum for a while, until we decide what to do. Jean kissed the side of his hand. “Thank you, Don”. He carried on packing the last few things, deep in thought. They would get Allan’s body brought up to Scotland, have him buried somewhere nice. If there was a court case later, they wouldn’t come back unless they were forced to. He regretted his outburst at the press conference, and had no idea why he had said that. That wasn’t like him at all.

Alex was drinking coffee and watching a documentary when he heard the car arrive. The usual slamming of doors and crunching of gravel indicated people coming and going. After waiting for fifteen minutes, he walked up to the landing, and parted the curtains on the side window. The doors of the motor-home were open, and lights on inside the house. Someone was with Don; a tall man, dressed in a suit and tie, perhaps a plain-clothes policeman. They were walking back and forth, carrying clothes just bundled like rags, and plastic storage boxes of some kind. Don was sliding the boxes through the door into the motor-home, and just throwing the clothes on top. Jean was nowhere to be seen, so Alex guessed she was inside the vehicle. Lucy appeared from the guest room. “What’s going on, Alex? I heard the noise”. He let the curtain fall back into place. “Our neighbours appear to be leaving. I suspect for something longer than a short camping trip”. Lucy called to him as he walked back down the stairs. “Don’t you think we should go out and say something to them?”
He didn’t answer her.

Tony Mullins had a pounding headache, and the large brandy wasn’t helping. Mr Singh had been on the phone, tearing him off a strip, and shouting for a good ten minutes. He knew the press conference had been a balls-up, and didn’t need to be told by someone else who hadn’t been there. Singh had made it clear. If there was no progress soon, the case would be handed over to Neil Williamson, the Detective Chief Inspector golden boy from the city squad. Tony couldn’t stand that smug git, and decided that he would put a rocket up his team on Sunday. He would ruin their weekend, get them all in, and get this investigation moving. Despite the headache, he filled up the glass with more brandy. He had shouted at his wife earlier, and she had gone off in a huff, to sleep in the baby’s room.

Lucy was up, dressed, and out early that Saturday. Parking in the city could be a pain, so it wouldn’t hurt to get in sooner rather than later. As she got into her car, she glanced at the space where the motor-home had been parked next door. It wasn’t as if they had been close friends with the Sinclairs, but she had regretted not speaking to them before they left. She wondered for a moment where they might have gone, but then her thoughts changed to a girly shopping trip, something she hadn’t done for so long.

Tom Henderson was on time. Not a minute early, nor late. As he rang the doorbell, he noticed that Mrs Conroy’s car wasn’t there, and the motor-home had gone from outside the house next door too. The door opened, and Tom showed his credentials to Mr Conroy. “Good morning sir, I spoke to you about looking at your garden. Detective Constable Henderson”. Alex extended a hand, applying a firm grip with the handshake that followed. “Of course officer, please come in”. Alex showed him out to the garden through the kitchen door. Tom turned to the smiling, confident man, his attire just perfect for a casual weekend look. “I will be some time, sir. Please bear with me”. Alex nodded. “Take as long as you like, I am happy to help”. As Tom began to walk carefully around the garden, he noticed that Conroy didn’t go back inside. He stood by the kitchen door, arms folded, watching him.

After walking around for what seemed like long enough, Tom took a notebook from his jacket pocket, and went back to where Alex was standing. “Just a few routine questions, sir”. He seemed to have them ready prepared, and rattled them off in quick succession, not waiting for answers. Alex wanted to smile, but didn’t. He guessed it was a ploy to unsettle him, to try to trip him up, and to find differences with anything he had said to the door-to-door policeman. One thought did occur to him though. Did this crumpled cop actually suspect him? It was beginning to sound like that. Tom noted down the eventual replies, and then looked up at the taller man. “Just a few more, then I will be gone, I promise. Have you washed that storage box recently? What about the lawn at the top here, where it leads across to the Nature Reserve fence. Have you cut the grass in the last week? And I notice you have some fresh planting by the shed. How recent is that?”

Alex pretended to ponder over the answers for a moment. “I haven’t washed the storage box as such, but I was watering yesterday, so it may well have caught some water from the hose. And no, I haven’t cut the grass during the last week. It was supposed to rain, but nothing much came of that. I might have to get the mower out this Sunday though. Oh, and the planting. My wife was away last weekend, as I think you know. She had bought some new plants, so I thought to put them in while she was gone. A nice surprise for when she got home”. Tom closed his notebook, nodding. “Well thank you sir, that’s all for now. But I may have to speak to you again, if that’s alright”. Alex grinned as he shook Tom’s hand. “Of course, officer. As I said, anything I can do to help”.

As he showed the detective to the door, Alex had another thought.
He would have to watch this one, he seemed to know what he was doing.

When he was sure the policeman had gone, and wasn’t lurking around anywhere, Alex checked his mobile phone. While Lucy had been cooking dinner last night, he had installed a tracker app on her i-phone, and that would enable him to monitor where she was whenever he liked. Buried in a sea of more useless apps and games, she was hardly likely to notice it. She rarely drove into the city. If she couldn’t find anything in the local shops in town, she always ordered it online. He was sure she had another motive to tackle the shopping traffic and parking that morning, and had now filed her as someone on the other side of the game. If she was playing for the other team, she might have her uses for him too.

Karen was making Tom some breakfast, chatting to him from the kitchen as she fussed around. He was quite staggered by the change in his wife over the course of those few days. He hoped it would last, he really did. If he could get his old Karen back, then perhaps he would make this is last case, and think about putting in his pension request. He read through some notes he had made in a school exercise book. Not the notes for official disclosure, only those for him to read through. He looked down the list, for at least the tenth time.

No suspects.
No footprints-anywhere.
Nothing stolen.
No weapon brought to scene.
Nothing on CCTV.
No vehicles used.
Nobody seen on foot.
No DNA or fingerprints.
No witnesses.
Nothing heard outside.
Nobody else in the house before the murder.
No salesmen.
No deliveries.
No door-to-door leaflet delivery, evangelists, or anything similar.

Tom had worked burglary and minor crimes for decades now, and knew full well that there were always footprints, if only partial ones, or depressions in the ground that were no good for evidence. Even the best criminals were never perfect, and generally forgot something. Add a struggle, a fight perhaps, and leaving someone for dead, or just having killed them, and they were going to do something off the plan. But not this time, apparently.

He picked up his pen, and added some more lines to the list.

Not a burglar.
Deliberate murder?
Targeted victim?
Serial killer?
No motive?
Has to live within walking distance.
Check other similar crimes, nationally. Has that been done?
Conroy? Washed his storage box. Digging in the garden.(Hiding something?) Doesn’t seem upset. Comes over as someone too good to be true. Lives right next door. Home on Friday night.

Karen came in with a plate of egg, bacon, and sausages. “Put that away for now, love. Eat in peace for once. If you are back out on the case today, I know you won’t stop for lunch”.

Alex caught site of his wife eventually. He had driven to the Park and Ride, then caught the bus into the city centre. The locator told him where her phone was, and the most obvious place at that location was the department store Taylor and Lloyd, the sort of shop where she might well be looking for clothes. But she wasn’t in the dress department, although her phone signal hadn’t moved. He covered each floor carefully, but it was going to be hard to spot her in the crowd of Saturday shoppers. A cover story had already formed in his mind, should she happen to spot him first. He would say that he had followed her into the city to buy the clothes for her, troubled by his neglect that had led her into the arms of another man. Maybe they could stay on, and have dinner later. Try to work out their marital problems. Of course, such a change in him would be not be easy to believe, even for Lucy. But he would convince her.

She was sitting at a table in the shop’s cafe, chatting to another woman who had her back to Alex. He stayed behind a large sign advertising the new menu, and watched. The other woman had her hand over Lucy’s on the table. They were animated, smiling, occasionally laughing. The cups and plates were slid to one side, so they appeared to have finished, and remained there just talking. Alex slipped his state-of-the-art smartphone out of his jacket, and quickly snapped some photos. As they stood to leave, the woman turned to get her shoulder bag, and Alex snapped again, getting them both in shot. Then he left, to wait somewhere outside the shop until they appeared. In a nice place of concealment across the road, he checked the photos he had taken using the zoom function.

He recognised the attractive younger woman immediately. She had been at the press conference he had watched on the TV news, and introduced as a sergeant on the case. He couldn’t remember her name, but it would be easy to find out.

Tom had phoned Tony Mullins and asked to meet him at work, in his office. He had known him ever since he had been a new boy, and even though Tony was now his boss, he reckoned he could approach him, man-to-man. Mullins told him that everyone was being called in for a meeting tomorrow, so it could wait. For once, Tom was insistent. “I think we need to go over something sir, and would prefer to do that with just the two of us”. Tony thought it over. They had nothing on this case. Zilch. If Tom had some idea, it might be worth listening to. Besides, his wife was still being arsey with him, so work would be a refuge. “OK, Tom. Twenty minutes”.

Tom laid out his findings to Mullins as the inspector listened with increasing disbelief. “Let me get this right, Tom. You like the next door neighbour for this. You reckon he’s either a serial killer or a psychopath who killed the boy for no reason other than for kicks. And you are basing this on the fact that he washed some garden stuff, and planted some bushes. Oh, and the fact that you obviously don’t like him”. He looked at the man he had once grudgingly respected, and shook his head before continuing.”You want me to get a warrant to dig up his garden, search his house, and bring him in for an interview under caution, with his lawyer. You expect me to go to Superintendent Singh with this crap? Based on your hunch? Christ almighty Tom, Conroy is a pillar of the community, irreproachable. He hasn’t had so much as a parking ticket. Come on old mate, I think you are losing the plot”.

Tom waited before replying. “I’ve gone over everything. It can’t be anyone else. He’s our man”.

Tom made a decision as he walked across the yard to where his car was parked, at the back of the police station. He had pretty much expected that response from Mullins, so was left with two choices. Do nothing, and let Conroy get away, or make a phone call. He sat in the car, and got his phone out. Scrolling down the contact list to ‘F’, he called Derek Farley, the chief reporter of the best-selling Sunday paper in the city. It was a respected broadsheet, and had national syndication under other titles. “Hello, Derek, Tom Henderson here. I have something for you. Can we meet halfway, the Little Chef on the trunk road?” Farley knew Tom from old, and knew that if he was leaking information, it must be good. “OK, Tom. Give me thirty minutes”.

Alex watched his wife and the sergeant leave the shop. He had stood there for almost an hour, but the photos he got of them laughing and linking arms were worth the wait. Lucy was carrying a large bag, and they were heading in the direction of Cathedral Street. He gave it a minute, and set off after them. As he turned into the cobbled street, he spotted the pair entering Zizzi, part of a chain of restaurants specialising in Italian food. When they didn’t reappear, he guessed they must have got a table, and headed back to Blake’s, the sportswear shop on the main road. Once inside, he purchased a new lightweight waterproof suit intended for golfers, and a sports bag that doubled as a rucksack, with extending straps.

Lucy and Sally had been lucky. A young couple had just been leaving as they arrived, so they got their table in the otherwise full restaurant. It was in the front behind the door, and close to the window. They ordered two glasses of white wine, and both chose a pasta dish from the menu. Lucy peeked into the bag, looking again at the suit she had bought. “I don’t know when I am ever going to get to wear this, but I do love it. And red too. That’s not usually my colour. I don’t like to stand out, if I can help it”. Sally sipped her wine, and smiled. “You shouldn’t sell yourself short, Lucy. Look, if you don’t mind my saying, perhaps you should lose those glasses. The thick lenses aren’t so flattering, but if you had contact lenses, your face is fine. Pretty in fact. And maybe get your hair style changed. I think you would really suit a short bob, I honestly do”. Lucy stretched out both hands, and clasped Sally’s hand as she put down her wine glass. “That’s so sweet of you to say so. I wanted contacts years ago, but Alex said I looked fine in my glasses. And a new hairstyle might be just what I need too”.

Outside the window, shielded by a big rucksack, and slightly obscured by the door, neither of them noticed Alex snapping away with his phone as he walked past quickly.

Derek ordered coffee from the waitress. The girl checked her watch. Just past the time when customers had to order food if they sat at a table. “OK, just coffee”. She walked away, looking as if she had taken the cheap order personally. Tom had ordered a plain burger, and a cup of tea. He didn’t even bother to eat the food, and had only bought it to qualify for a table. Farley took out a notebook, getting straight down to it. Once the grumpy girl had brought the coffee, he looked across at Tom. “I presume it’s about the murder in Waterloo Close? I will tell you now that story is already old, Tom. In fact, it has got grey hairs growing on it”. Tom gave him a weak grin. “I have something that will rejuvenate it, Derek. But you didn’t get it from me. No direct quotes, and definitely no use of my name or rank”. Derek nodded. “No problem old mate. It will come from the usual ‘Reliable Source at Police Headquarters’. Fire away”.

Tom gave him the outline of his suspicions about the neighbour, Alexander Conroy. How he didn’t believe it was a burglary gone wrong, as the official line still maintained. He added some facts about the lack of CCTV evidence, no witnesses, and no comings and goings, before telling Derek that his request for a search warrant had been refused. Because it would play well in the paper, he also included the bit about the fresh digging in Conroy’s garden, and how his bosses refused to investigate the man because of his social status. Derek checked over his notes. Looking up at Tom, he whistled softly. “This is great stuff, Tom, but it puts you right in the frame as the informant, even though we won’t use your name. Especially as you have been the only one inside Conroy’s house and garden. Are you sure you want me to go with this? It will be tomorrow’s headline, you realise that? You are going to be in deep shit with your boss, whether he has proof or not”. Tom stood up, ready to leave. He shook Derek’s hand, a determined look on his face. “Let me worry about that. Just run the story”.

After lunch, Sally walked back to the car park with Lucy. When they got to the third floor where Lucy had parked, Sally told her, “I’m on five, the roof. One of the last spaces by the time I got here”. Lucy put the shopping bag into the car, and turned. “That was so nice, I really hope we can do it again sometime”. Sally nodded. “Of course, once all the stuff going on has calmed down, we might make it a regular thing, don’t you think?” Lucy embraced her, and Sally kissed her fondly on the cheek, their faces close.

At the back of the third floor of the car park, Alex grinned as he shot the scene with the video mode of his phone. He was grateful for the new low light feature, as it was quite gloomy, despite the occasional strip-light. From his position, the women’s heads were firmly together, and Lucy’s arms could be clearly seen wrapped around the policewoman’s waist. He waited until Lucy started the car, and the other woman walked up the ramp to the higher floors. Then he left, using the stairs.

Sally Wilcox woke up with backache, and a woolly feeling in her head. When she had got back from the city yesterday, there was no sign of Emily. She eventually found a note lying on the pillow on her side of the bed.
‘Took some leave, and going to visit my sister. Give you time to think about the way you talk to me’
No signature, no kisses. Emily overreacting as she always did. Sally had thought about her conversation with Lucy during the shopping trip. Alex Conroy and Emily had a lot in common. They liked to control things, to be in charge. She had opened a bottle of Chardonnay, and drunk the lot. But she hadn’t forgotten that Mullins had called a team briefing for this morning, so now she was running late, and not feeling like going in at all.

Tom let Karen sleep in, then took her a cup of tea when he heard her stirring. “I have to go in love, a team briefing. Shouldn’t be too late”. He took the Sunday Herald with him, tucked under his arm. No need for Karen to see any headlines just yet. Hopefully, she might not bother with the TV news until later too. He was uncharacteristically smart that morning. A dark pin-stripe suit, previously reserved for weddings and funerals, together with very shiny black shoes that didn’t feel very comfortable.

Tony Mullins hadn’t even had a chance to read the newspaper when Superintendent Singh phoned. As he struggled into his trousers, the mobile tucked under his chin, he could tell the boss was far from happy about something. Short, curt, and to the point. He was coming to the briefing. He finished getting ready, then left the house without disturbing his wife and baby, stepping over the newspaper on the mat behind the front door.

Alex had risen early, and was dressed by the time the doorbell rang. There was no sign of Lucy, so he guessed she was still asleep. He had read the front page of the Sunday Herald whilst enjoying some very expensive but delicious coffee. It was the type that has the beans passed through the digestive system of a Civet Cat before the grinding. That didn’t concern him in the least. He grinned at the headline, shaking his head. The photo they had used had been taken from the official Town Council website, and Alex approved of that, one of his favourite photos of himself. Above it, in bold type, was the supposed ‘scoop’.

LOCAL COUNCIL EXEC SUSPECT IN DISABLED BOY’S MURDER
Derek Farley. Chief Reporter.
A reliable source in the County Police has told this reporter that the distinguished chief executive of the Town Council, Alexander Conroy, is currently the main suspect in the case of the murder of Allan Sinclair, his next door neighbour He has no alibi for the night in question, and investigations lead detectives to believe that he may be hiding something in his house or garden that could give a valuable clue to what happened to the teenage boy. However, because of his connections in the town, and his unblemished reputation, it seems the powers that be are stalling the investigation by refusing to request warrants, and failing to properly investigate Mr Conroy’s story. This reporter is asking what’s going on, and suggesting that those connections are trying to protect Mr Conroy, simply because of his wealth and social status. I consider (Full story, Page 3)

Alex hadn’t bothered to turn to page three. He made a brief phone call, got showered and dressed, then waited for the phone or doorbell to ring. Detective Henderson had not only taken the bait, he had swallowed it whole.

When Tom got into work, he was not surprised to see Superintendent Singh sitting in Inspector Mullins’ chair. DCI Neil Williamson was in the incident room, along with a group of other detectives Tom vaguely knew. They were taking down all the photos and maps, placing them into transit boxes along with every file concerning the case. The DCI spotted him, and beckoned him over. “The briefing is cancelled, Tom. Please go and see Superintendent Singh. Don’t forget to knock and wait now”. Williamson was grinning as he spoke, as if trying to stop himself laughing out loud.
The Superintendent looked up at Tom. “I won’t ask you to sit, Constable Henderson. He indicated the newspaper under Tom’s arm. “Got anything to tell me about that?” Tom feigned surprise. “No idea sir, I reckon the reporter is just fishing”. Singh shook his head. “Thanks to you, I now have a shit-storm brewing. The Chief Constable is up in arms because his Sunday golf has been ruined, and we are now left with no alternative but to launch a full scale investigation into one of the most respected men in the town. I have to transfer everything to Mr Williamson’s team in the city, to make sure it’s all done by the book. Still got nothing to tell me?” Tom shrugged.

Singh sat back in the chair, and rubbed his eyes. Tom noticed that his turban was sky-blue today, a nice casual look for a weekend. “Thirty years in the job, and an unblemished record, until today. I am pleased to accept your written request for retirement on full pension, effective immediately. Please leave your badge and I.D. card on the desk before you go next door to write your resignation. Alternatively, you can opt for a full suspension from duty, pending disciplinary action. Your choice”. Tom threw the shiny leather holder onto the desk. “Thank you, sir”.

Tony Mullins wondered what the hell was going on. Mr Singh behind his desk, no sign of Sally, Tom Henderson typing something up in the corner, and Williamson and his team stripping out his incident room. He caught the smug detective’s eye. “Neil, what’s all this?” His superior looked sympathetic as he spoke. “You need to have a chat with the boss, Tony. Don’t forget to knock and wait now”.

Mr Singh slid the Sunday Herald across at Mullins. “I presume you have read this?” Tony spotted the photo below the story, and recognised the familiar face of Conroy from the Town Council Police Liaison Committee. “No sir, I didn’t have time. I was on my way in for a briefing”. Singh slid the paper closer. “Read it now”. Mullins didn’t bother to turn to page three. “This is all bollocks, sir. Conroy has never been a suspect. He has no motive, and besides, there is no evidence. This must have come from Constable Henderson. He approached me with this crap, and I told him to forget it”. Singh seemed to mellow. “Constable Henderson has applied for his pension. He is leaving as soon as I have his letter of resignation. Sit down, Tony. I have some good news for you”. Mullins sat down in the chair, relief washing over his face. “I am pleased to tell you that your promotion has come though. You are going to be a Chief Inspector, how does that sound?” Mullins was delighted, his promotion was well overdue.
“It’s back in uniform though, I’m afraid. The new station in the city needs someone to be in charge of the Control Room. You know, the emergency calls coming in and such. I think it will make a nice change for you, and ease you into your new rank”. Mullins swallowed hard, his face darkening. “Thank you, sir”.

Sally Wilcox was stuck in traffic. Someone had been knocked down a few cars ahead, and the ambulance was blocking the road. She was going to be late for the briefing, and she hated to be late. Despite trying a few times to let him know, her inspector wasn’t answering his phone.

Alex answered the door expecting to be met by a crowd of reporters, and a barrage of questions. He was actually disappointed to find one fresh-faced girl, and a photographer dressed like a vagrant. As the man snapped away, the girl nervously asked a question. “Mr Conroy, what do you have to say about the allegations made in today’s Sunday Herald?” She held her pen close to the pad, ready to write down his answer. “Those allegations are completely unfounded, and I am sure that I have been the victim of a few local police officers who are clutching at straws to cover their own incompetence. I have nothing but respect for the police as a rule, and I will be going in to make a statement to them, later today. They have no need of a warrant to search my property, as I will gladly allow them to search for anything. I have nothing to hide.” As the girl searched her brain for a second question, a TV news crew van turned into the close, followed by three other cars. Alex drew up to his full height. That was more like it.

Sally didn’t bother to park carefully, and ran up to the incident room, arriving almost a full hour late. There was no sign of Inspector Mullins, Tom, or any of the team. But DCI Williamson was there, sitting at Mullins’ desk. He smirked as she tapped the glass door. “Hi Sally, you’re very late, not like you. Get your things together, and sort out your locker. You will be on my team from now on, based in the city”. Sally didn’t answer immediately, turning to look around the empty room outside the partitioned office. “No point looking for Mullins, he’s gone. New head of the Control Room, and promotion to Chief Inspector. Not bad, considering the balls-up he made of this. And your old pal Tom has put his papers in. High time he put himself out to grass”. When Sally didn’t reply, he raised his voice. “Did you not hear me, sergeant? Get your stuff, and take it over to headquarters”. Sally’s mind was suddenly back in the room. “Yes, thank you, sir”.

Alex repeated the same answer to all the questions from the TV crew, and the other three newspaper reporters. He refused to be drawn on any subsequent questions, and after a few minutes, he closed the door. Lucy was standing at the bottom of the stairs in her dressing gown, looking bewildered. “What was all that about, Alex?” He smiled at her before he answered. At one time, he would have had no hesitation about ignoring her, and fobbing her off with anything. But he had seen her other side now, so was careful. “One of the policemen thinks I killed Allan next door, and has said as much to the press and TV. I have a lawyer arriving from the city soon, and would appreciate it if you would stay in your room for now. But if you could make sure you are ready by twelve, I would like you to come into the city with me”. Lucy’s brain couldn’t take it all in, so she just nodded. “Yes, I will be ready by then”.

Returning to his laptop in the living room, Alex continued his research on Sergeant Sally Wilcox. She was out as a lesbian, that was for sure. A high-flyer, well-educated, and promoted very quickly. This was her first decent criminal case, as far as he could tell. The social media sites also proved to be a treasure trove. There she was marching on Gay Pride Day in the city, wearing full uniform. And there she was at the reception for her Civil Partnership some years back, alongside a fierce-looking older woman called Emily, who she had just tied the knot with. A few more clicks told him that this Emily was also a police officer, and a high-ranking one. She was a Commander, and the head of the Police Training School. Alex laughed out loud, before talking quietly into the empty room. “Oh dear, Sergeant Sally. You are not going to know what’s hit you”. He closed the laptop gently. No need to delete the history, as he would be needing all those links soon, and had good reason to have searched for them.

Karen looked surprised when Tom walked in. “Back so soon love? Was the briefing cancelled? I will make you some tea”. Tom sat on the sofa, waiting until his wife returned with the two hot drinks. “They transferred the case to the city. Seems they weren’t happy with the way we handled it. I told the Superintendent I wasn’t pleased about that. He offered me the chance to transfer to the new headquarters, but to be honest, I have had enough. So, I applied for my pension, and they agreed. With all the leave I am owed, I can go today, so I did”. Karen had been ill for a long time, but she hadn’t lost her sense of reason. And she had seen the TV news while Tom was out. But she wasn’t about to add to his worries by arguing. He was a good man, and deserved his story to be believed. “Well it’s their loss, Tom love. Without you on the case, I doubt they will ever solve it. Drink your tea”.

Tom sat quietly, holding his mug of tea. It wasn’t in his nature to fall on his sword, but if it got some justice for young Allan, it would have been worth it. He turned to Karen, pleased to see she was definitely looking better, and more positive. “Remember those Park Homes we saw? You know, the ones close to the beach when we were on holiday on the East Coast, years ago? You liked those, and we talked about maybe living there one day”. Karen nodded. “They were lovely. Bigger than this flat, and all the furniture included. They had that nice decking all round, and a private entrance through to the beach too”. Tom put his mug down on the side table. “Well, I was thinking. Why don’t we take a drive down there next week, and see if they have any for sale?” Karen squeezed his leg. “Why not?”

Julian Carpenter was one of the best young lawyers in the city. As far as he was concerned, he was THE best. He knew Alex Conroy from various social functions, and when he had got the call that morning, it had cheered up his Sunday. A high-profile case, and a solid client who could afford his exorbitant fees. Worth working on a Sunday, that was for sure. Sitting at his dining table, Alex went through everything with Julian. The newspaper allegations, the photos of Sally Wilcox and Lucy. His wife’s affair with Eduardo, and the lack of any evidence or motive that could have tied him to the crime. Alex confirmed he was happy to take on Alex as a client, then put on his serious courtroom face. “Just for my information, can you tell me what you were doing in the city when you saw your wife with the police officer?” Alex produced a receipt. “I had gone in to buy a new waterproof suit for golfing. And I thought I might find my wife in the department store, perhaps buy her a gift, an attempt at reconciliation after her affair”. Julian took the receipt, and made some notes in a leather-bound notebook. “And I have to ask you, Alex. Is there anything in these allegations at all, anything that might come out later? Did you harm that boy next door?”

Alex adopted a grim expression. “Absolutely not. I was watching a film on TV, and heard nothing, saw nothing. I hardly knew the boy, or his parents. We were not close”. Julian finished writing, and closed his book. He put Alex’s phone into his briefcase, and added the notebook. “Well, Alex, I think you have nothing to worry about. The police seem to have conspired to find something on you, even going so far as to instigate a romantic relationship with your wife, then leaking lies to the Sunday Herald. We are going to make them all sorry they ever heard your name, I assure you. As he checked the papers, he smiled. “I must say, you are remarkably calm, and exceedingly well-prepared”. Alex was still grim.

“I always am, Julian. Always.”

Julian sat with the Conroys in a comfortable office in the main City Police Station. They were waiting for someone in authority to come and speak to them. He turned to the couple, brisk and businesslike. “Don’t forget what I told you on the way here. Leave the talking to me. I have prepared a statement on your behalf, and will not be taking questions unless you are arrested or charged. Neither of which is likely to happen, I assure you”. Neil Williamson came in, and introduced himself to the Conroys. Julian already knew him well. He sat across from them at the big table, and opened a notebook. Directing his gaze to the lawyer, he started. “I understand you represent Mr Conroy, Julian. I was told that you want to cooperate, and make a statement. Is that about the size of it?”

Julian smiled. “To be honest, Neil, I think Mr Singh needs to hear this too, I really do. Perhaps you could go back upstairs, and ask him to join us? I doubt he will thank you for hearing it after the event”. Williamson weighed the man up. He knew his reputation, and had run up against him in court more than once. He looked like someone holding aces, and that unsettled him. “As you wish, Julian. I will see if the Superintendent is free”.

Sally Wilcox dumped her stuff in the new locker assigned to her, and went back to the main investigators’ office. Although it was a Sunday, the place was buzzing, obviously lots more going on, in the big city. She was feeling like just a number again. There were at least four other Detective Sergeants in the room, as well as two Inspectors. After a cursory introduction, a flashy young colleague pointed to a shared desk near the window. “You can park yourself there. Better get on with something though. The boss is in a foul mood today, and he won’t be happy to see you twiddling your thumbs”. Parvinder Singh was indeed in a bad mood, and the DCI felt his wrath. “You mean to tell me that Conroy has come in of his own accord, and brought that bastard Carpenter in too? And his wife has come along to hold his hand and make it look good? Why wasn’t I told? Get a grip, Neil, this day is going to get a lot worse before it gets better, I can feel that in my water”.

When Williamson left the room, Julian got his phone out, and started making calls. “I am playing the trump card now, Alex. Just watch what happens later”.

Superintendent Singh was all smiles when he came in with Williamson. He shook hands all round, and sat opposite the glum-looking trio. Julian produced a laptop. He had downloaded the photos and video onto it from Alex’s phone as they sat in the car park of the police station. It also contained a word document of the prepared statement. Julian paused for effect, before speaking. “My client, Mr Conroy, has been subjected to the most sinister character assassination in the Sunday Herald today. It is based on allegations and supposition leaked by a serving police detective, and has no foundation. As a result, his reputation has been damaged, perhaps irrevocably. It may only be mud-slinging, but mud sticks. So, he has a statement to make, which I will read. After that, we will be leaving to address a press conference I have arranged. That is unless you intend to detain him for questioning?” The Superintendent swallowed hard, and Julian began reading.

‘Since the murder of my neighbour, Allan Sinclair, I have done all I can to help the police. From full cooperation with the immediate door-to-door enquiries, to allowing a detective inside my house and garden, with no need for a warrant. I am unaware of any evidence linking me to this terrible crime, and I certainly had no motive to kill the defenceless son of my neighbours, Don and Jean Sinclair. I have always had an amicable relationship with them, and we never so much as had a cross word.
Because the team investigating the crime had no solid suspects, and apparently no clues, it appears that two members of that team decided to try to suggest that I was responsible, basing this solely on the fact that I lived next door, and was at home at the time of the crime.
In an effort to completely clear my name, and to fully refute these heinous allegations, I insist that you now undertake a full and exhaustive search of my house and garden, and reexamine the so-called evidence that led the pair to assume I am the culprit.
Once you have found nothing, then I will insist on a full public retraction in the same newspaper, and on the same TV news channels. Meanwhile, I have arranged a press conference to tell my side of this story in public’.

The Superintendent looked at Alex Conroy, whose face was calm and devoid of expression. His wife shifted awkwardly in her seat, and avoided his gaze. Turning to Julian, he replied. “I understand that one officer on the team became a little obsessed with your client, for which I apologise. That man has now resigned, and his superior has transferred to a different department. We have no intention of pursuing any further line of investigation involving Mr Conroy, or his wife, for that matter. There is no need for you to give a press conference, as I am happy to issue a full retraction of the allegations made by the officer that was under stress at the time. I also have no wish to search Mr Conroy’s home, or dig up his garden. That’s one expense we don’t need in the current financial climate”. He smiled, content with his reply.

Julian could not hide his triumphant tone, try as he might. “But we insist you do just that, Mr Singh. And I would also like to know who sanctioned a female detective to embark on a lesbian relationship with Mrs Conroy, presumably in the hope of eliciting information from her”. Lucy’s face was as white as chalk. She opened her mouth to say something, but the chilling look on Alex’s face silenced her. He seemed like a snake about to strike. Williamson was shaking his head. The boss was saying nothing, so he spoke up. “I can tell you that no member of our team would have done such a thing, and we would never have sanctioned it. That’s just a fairy tale”.

The lawyer sighed, shaking his head slowly and theatrically. He opened the laptop, and began to scroll through the photos. “Tut tut, Neil. You should really try to keep a handle on what your sergeants get up to. Oh, and I have a nice little video too. The TV stations are going to lap that up”.

Julian Carpenter had booked a function room at The Royal Hotel in the city centre, close enough to walk to. Two of his employees had been called in from home, and told to set things up in advance. As they exited the police station, he turned to Lucy Conroy, pointing at a taxi waiting nearby. “I have arranged a taxi to take you home, Mrs Conroy. It’s on my account. We won’t be needing you any further today”. Lucy looked round at her husband, to see if he had anything to add. But Alex walked past her without a word, in the direction of The Royal.

Superintendent Singh had been ominously quiet since the Conroys had left. Neil jumped when he suddenly stood up. “Get in touch with Sally Wilcox. Have her come up to my office, and tell her to wait outside. Get me all the files involving the Conroy couple, anything that mentions them by name, or their house and garden. Then get your team out to try to solve this murder, or they will all be joining Mullins in the new Control Room”.

Sally was scrolling through some random reports, trying to look busy. The DCI appeared, his face grim. “Upstairs, sergeant. Wait outside Mr Singh’s office until you are called in”. She looked confused. “What’s that about, sir. Do you know?” Neil was in no mood for chatting. “Didn’t you hear me? I said upstairs, NOW!”

Julian loved the media. Nothing pleased him more than appearing on TV, or getting his name in the papers. A few short phone calls had got him a good turnout. The room at the hotel was at least half full, and the local TV crew was already set up. He walked in with Alex, nodding to two smartly-dressed serious looking women that worked for him. They had set up a large screen, and there was water and glasses on the table at the front of the room. As soon as they entered, the reporters began shouting questions, and cameras were already clicking and flashing. Julian and Alex said nothing until they had taken their seats. The lawyer turned to one of his assistants, handing her a flash drive that she inserted into a slot on the small projection device. Then he turned to address the assembled reporters.
“We have just come from the central police station, where we gave a statement to the senior officer dealing with the murder of Allan Sinclair”. On the screen, a copy of Alex’s statement appeared, and some photographers came forward, trying to capture the image. Julian raised his hands. “No need for that, ladies and gentlemen. Copies will be given to you all, along with copies of some photographs, and a short video clip. My assistants will be handing out flash drives to anyone who wants them, before you leave”.

Sally had been sitting outside the office for over thirty minutes. She hadn’t been asked to enter, and various colleagues were coming and going with files. She was wondering why the DCI had shouted at her, but presumed she was waiting for some sort of welcome speech from the superintendent. That sort of thing was usual, when you transferred postings. There was also the rather exciting prospect that she might be offered the chance to step up into Mullins’ job, at least on a temporary basis. He seemed to have vanished, and she guessed that he had been kicked sideways, as the investigation was going nowhere.

Once he had read through the statement on the screen, Julian ignored the expected questions, and carried on talking. “My client, Mr Conroy, has been the victim of the most underhand methods employed by the police. They even used a female officer, a known lesbian, to attempt to seduce his wife. This was presumably a ploy to get her to falsely incriminate her husband”. The photos flashed up on screen, and the room exploded into another round of shouted questions, with all the journalists talking over each other. He waited until it died down. “We have asked the police to search the property of the Conroys. They will not require a warrant, as he has nothing to hide. But they have declined to do so, citing budget cuts as their reason. With no evidence, and nothing save the fantasies of a couple of disgruntled police officers, they have besmirched the good name of my client, and failed to properly investigate the crime, or to find the real culprit. We will be seeking a full retraction, a formal apology, and then I will be applying for significant financial damages from the County Police Authority”. The video clip from Alex’s phone began to play on the screen, and Julian sat back in his chair. “Thank you. I will now take your questions”.

Sally was checking her watch again, when the door opened. Mr Singh looked really fed up, and he wasn’t smiling. “Come in please, sergeant”. He indicated that she should sit in the chair opposite him, and continued to browse through the files on his desk. Sally guessed that she wasn’t about be offered that temporary promotion, but she wasn’t prepared for what he said next.
“An affair with the wife of someone under investigation. Seen out with her in broad daylight, in the city centre. Holding hands in the public cafe of a shop, and then again when you were seen drinking on duty in a city restaurant, accompanied by her. Kissing and cuddling in a dimly-lit car park. I would ask if you have anything to say, but I’m not sure I want to hear anything you have to say”. Sally suddenly felt cold, and her mind was working at top speed. She had only two options. She could say it was simply a ploy to gain Lucy’s confidence, hoping she would reveal something useful to use against her husband. Or she could confess to being infatuated with her, and admit her intentions were romantic. That at least was the truth.
Either way, the outcome was not going to be good. She said nothing.

Her boss nodded, pleased to not have to argue. His mood suddenly changed. He appeared to relax, and even cracked a smile. “I have been going through your file. I see that you completed not one, but two driving courses some time ago”. When he stopped talking, Sally thought she should reply. “Yes, sir. Fast pursuit, and close escort. Both useful in case I am seconded onto the Regional Crime Squad at any time”. Mr Singh nodded. “You came in the top three for both. Most impressive. I hate to think that this is being wasted, with you stuck at a desk going through reports. So, I made a call, and you are being transferred to the Traffic Division, effective immediately. No need to thank me, you can fill out the official request once you are back at your desk”. She opened her mouth to protest, then thought better of it. “Yes, sir. I will go and do that now”.

As his employees took down the equipment, Julian turned and smiled at Alex. “I think that went very well. My assistant will drive you home, and I will be in touch tomorrow.” They shook hands, and Julian raised his eyebrows, as if suddenly remembering something. “Oh yes, your work. They are bound to call you in over all this. Do you want me to accompany you to that meeting?” Alex shook his head.
“No need. I’m sure I can handle it”.

Lucy had phoned in sick, unable to face her colleagues at work after the revelations over the weekend. She had spent most of yesterday in tears, and was feeling used and stupid. Annoyed with herself too, for believing that Sally had wanted to be her friend. Sitting on the bed in the guest room, she listened to the sounds in the house as Alex got ready. She was hoping he would leave early, as she was hungry, and wanted to go down and make something to eat. She wanted to avoid any confrontation with her husband too, and had an idea that there would be reporters outside the house.

For the first time since she had met Alex, she was scared of him.

Alex Conroy was happily answering questions outside the house. He adopted an expression that was just right, he thought. Pained, wronged, and just on the edge of upset. But resilient, and aggrieved. He had practiced the look in the hallway mirror, before opening the door. The expected phone call had come quite late last night, and he had been ready. As the Chief Executive of the Council, he didn’t have a boss to report to as such. But he was answerable to the elected officials who had appointed him. One of them rang, asking him to attend an informal meeting on Monday, so they could work out how they would handle all the fuss.

In the main office of the Traffic Division, Sally Wilcox walked past her new colleagues to knock on the door of the team inspector. Some were blatantly leering at her, others muttering under their breath. Her uniform felt tight and heavy after all that time not wearing one, and she knew that the officers in Traffic were going to resent having her foisted on them. She would just have to stick it out until everything went away. If it ever did. Inspector Harris seemed kind, but didn’t mince his words. “Good morning, sergeant. Let’s not pretend that you want to be here, or that I want you here. We both have to make the best of this cock-up, it seems. I’m sure you must have a lot of leave owing, so why don’t you take it? Come back in a month, and make a fresh start”. She stood up, feeling rather relieved. “Thank you, sir”.

In the boardroom, Alex sat opposite the three politicians. Phil Coulter was the leader of the controlling group, and they knew each other from the Golf Club. On his right was a woman he also knew well, Margaret Kelly. The other man was someone he had seen around, but couldn’t place. Phil asked him to tell what had happened in his own words, and Alex went through it chronologically. His wife had been having an affair with a younger man at work. When she had been away on an assignation with her lover, the son of his next door neighbour had been murdered, after discovering a burglar in the house. The police had eventually focused their attention on him simply because he had been at home that night, and lived next door. They had no clues, no suspects, and no other motive to work with. When they had been unable to tie him to the murder, a policewoman had instigated a lesbian relationship with his wife, hoping to make her tell lies about him. He had come across that by chance, when he had been out buying a new waterproof suit, and spotted them together. As a result of this, he had now engaged a legal team to represent him, and he was sure the police would be issuing a full apology soon.

After finishing his account, Alex leaned forward, rubbing his temples for effect. “In such a short space of time, my life has been turned upside down. My wife of more than twenty years has betrayed me twice, and a group of incompetent police officers has conspired against me to justify their jobs. I really have no idea what is going on, Phil. I assure you.”

Coulter looked at Mary and the other man in turn, slowly nodding to them both. When Alex sat back up, he began speaking, sounding sympathetic in tone. “We understand from the Chief Constable that the three officers responsible have gone. One has resigned, and two have requested transfers. I agreed with him that was in the best interests of all concerned, as any disciplinary action would have just caused everything to drag on. He tells me that the investigation will continue, but you will no longer be the focus of it. I do hope that your legal action will be resolved quickly too, and we can all put this unpleasantness behind us. Meanwhile, we will be issuing a statement giving you our complete support, and letting everyone know that you will continue in your job, with an unblemished record. How does that sound to you?”

Alex stood up, and shook hands with each of them in turn. “I would like to thank you, and assure you that this will not affect me carrying out my duties”. Phil smiled warmly. “And when things calm down, how about nine holes one Sunday morning? It’s been a while since we played”. Alex nodded, saving his own smile for when he was outside the room.

Neil Williamson was addressing his team, and Superintendent Singh was sitting in to listen too. “Right, all of you listen up. We are going to go back over everything, and I mean everything. I want the CCTV gone over, and I mean all of it, and any statements scrutinised word for word. Crime scene photos will be reexamined, and anyone who might have been in the immediate area re-interviewed. Until you hear otherwise from me, the case of Allan Sinclair gets your complete attention, is that clear? And I cannot stress this enough, but nobody, and I mean nobody, is going to approach either of the Conroys, or say anything to the press, or his lawyer Julian Carpenter. Now, off you go, get busy, and bring me some results”.

Derek Farley had a team of three on the story. The Nationals had picked up on it, and were running with the scandal aspect of course. He was digging deep into the Conroys, and the Sinclair family. But after they had worked all through the night, studied dozens of documents, and used every one of their contacts on the Council, and in the Police, they had nothing on Alex. The man had literally done nothing interesting. He didn’t even smoke cigarettes, let alone have some exciting dark past. The Sinclairs were a dead end. Reliable working people who had never so much as been caught speeding. The only thing Derek had on them was that they had hidden Allan’s condition. But that was something he had already used. If he was going to keep the story bubbling, he knew they had to come up with something. Meanwhile, they would use what they had on Sergeant Sally Wilcox, and her same sex marriage to a distinguished Police Commander.

Then young Abby Coulter appeared, her face beaming like a lighthouse. Her father was a politician, the local County Council leader, on his second term, and very popular. When he had asked Derek to offer his daughter a start as a junior reporter, he had been happy to oblige.

The girl was grinning so wide, she couldn’t speak properly. “I have just come from the Vet’s where Lucy Conroy works. She wasn’t in today, so I couldn’t get to speak to her. But you will never guess who I did find”. She showed Derek a photo on her phone. A young man with black hair, and a moody look on his face. “His name is Eduardo, and he was having an affair with Lucy for almost a year. He is the reason she wasn’t home that night, as they were off at some hotel miles away. He has agreed to give us an exclusive, and he asked for one thousand pounds. I told him that if you agreed, I will ring him, and he will come in after work”.

Derek sat back in his chair. “Good work, Abby”.

Abby watched as her boss read through the story on the screen. They had taken some better photos of Eduardo, and would use some of the Conroys from Lucy’s social media. Abby had found a great shot of Sergeant Wilcox on Facebook, walking in the Gay Pride parade, and managed to copy it. She hadn’t cared for the man. He had been ready to give a lot of lurid details about his long affair with Lucy Conroy, most of them unsuitable to use. She had soon gathered that he was simply manipulating the woman, and never actually liked her. He tried to make himself out to be the victim, used by a rich woman as a sexual plaything. She had been pleased when he had collected his cheque, and left the building.

Derek read it twice, then turned to the young woman. “This is solid enough, Abby, but we need an angle. This woman risked a comfortable life to carry on an affair with this man, and also risked discovery by having sex with him at work, and going to his room. He claims she was going to leave Conroy, and they were planning a life together. But what interests me is that she takes him away for the weekend on the very night that the murder occurs, then dumps him for no reason, after all that. Why that weekend? Why not the weekend after? And why dump him, when she had been the driving force behind the affair for months? Have a re-write, let’s see some suggestion that she might be covering up something, by absenting herself on the only weekend that a murder happened in Waterloo Close. And that Sally Wilcox, was she the real lover? Had she really been trying to groom Lucy for evidence, or had they known each other a long time, perhaps planning something to implicate Lucy’s husband?
Jazz it up a bit, and I will approve it before I leave”.

Abby thought for a moment. “So maybe Lucy and Sally planned it a long time in advance. Sally does the deed, and Lucy is away with the guy so that she cannot give Mr Conroy an alibi. Is that about the size of it? Do you think that might have actually happened?”

Derek smiled at her, seeing something of his younger self in her naivety. “I don’t have the first clue, Abby. But it will make a great front page”.

Neil Williamson had a headache that had lasted for three days now, and was beginning to realise how Mullins must have felt. He had been running the case with his team for over a week, and nothing had happened. He called a meeting for that evening, after Mr Singh had left. He spoke to each member of the team in turn as they sat in the incident room. Trying to stay calm; using first names, smiling, and requesting they tell him everything they had discovered. As each of them in turn told him they had nothing new, the pounding in his head got worse. By the time he got to Sergeant Ronnie Ford, he was having trouble keeping his temper. Ford was one of the best detectives on the squad, and Neil had given him the responsibility of reviewing all the CCTV. “What about you Ronnie? You must have something for me? Ford looked tired, because he was. He had hardly gone home in three days, and his eyes were hurting from the endless hours of staring at the flickering screens. “Sorry, boss. Nothing new”. Williamson was trembling now, the pain in his head felt like someone screaming in his skull.

Composing himself, he walked to the back of the room, their eyes following him. “Anyone got any ideas then? If you have nothing new, then I suppose some of you must at least have a theory”. They looked at their shoes, trying hard not to be the one picked out. Out of the corner of his eye, Neil noticed a raised hand. It was young Roland Fullerton, the bright spark who was good with all the tech stuff. He was more like a schoolteacher than a cop, but very handy when it came to computers. “Speak up then, Roland. And put your hand down, you’re not in school anymore”. Everyone turned to look at their young colleague as he spoke, but he held his nerve. “Well sir, I have been over everything, much of that in my own time, and also viewed most of the CCTV images. I think that Mrs Conroy going away for the weekend is just a coincidence, and agree that she was never involved. The burglary is purely for show, and unconvincing, as far as I am concerned. This is not a random murder, in my opinion. I am certain that the victim was chosen, and the crime planned by someone in advance. Someone with a meticulous thought process, and great attention to detail. It has to be the work of a psychopath, perhaps a serial killer. As for who could have been in the right place, and have the mental skills required to leave absolutely no clues, then I am left with one name. Alexander Conroy. I have to say that detective Henderson had the right idea”.

Everyone had turned away from Roland, not wanting to be associated with what he had just said, even by being seen to be looking at him. Sergeant Ford slumped in his seat. He had some inkling of what would come next. Neil put his hands on his hips, and stood shaking his head. “Nobody goes home this evening, you got that? I want you to start from the beginning, and go over it all again”. He walked out, without replying to Roland.

Emily had sent Sally a letter. An actual paper letter, in an envelope, with a stamp on it. She had smiled at that, just the sort of thing Emily would do. It was short and sweet. She was staying away until Sally could find somewhere else to live. There would be her share of what the flat was worth, paid into her bank as soon as she had signed an agreement to that effect. Emily’s solicitor would be contacting her soon, it said in the letter. There was nothing emotional in it. No outrage, recriminations, or allegations of betrayal. That was it, they were over. Sally would get more than enough to buy a small flat, and she could take whatever she considered to be hers. She was asked to never contact her again, unless something at work necessitated it. Sally opened a bottle of Frascati, and sat down to ponder the positives of this break-up. When she couldn’t see any, she opened a second bottle.

As they drove home from the supermarket, Karen was excited at the prospect of moving, getting away from the town, and the associations it held for her. They had found a lovely Park Home, and when she had nodded at Tom, he had given the man a deposit there and then. Close to the beach, a shop on the site, and only a fifteen-minute drive to the nearest small town. All they had to do now was sell their flat, and the profit would easily cover the cheaper price of the new place. As they got close to home, Tom spoke without turning, keeping his eyes on the road. “Karen, I just had a thought. Remember that Sergeant Wilcox who was on the case? I have a feeling she might be looking for an affordable place in town. I might contact her, see if she’s interested”. Karen patted his leg. “Whatever you think, love”.

Lucy heard a knock on her bedroom door, then Alex speaking. “Can you come down please, Lucy? Julian Carpenter is here to see you. I will give you ten minutes to get presentable”. He walked away, not waiting for a reply. She dragged a brush through her hair, but couldn’t be bothered with any make-up. The last three weeks had felt like living in a prison. When the newspaper had run the awful story with Eduardo’s side of everything, and the allegations that she had conspired with Sally to set up Alex, she had felt sick. It was all over the TV too, and reporters turned up outside once again. She had sought sanctuary in the guest room, and ordered groceries online for evening delivery.

Alex had been remarkably friendly. She still cooked his meals and did his washing, and though he ate without making conversation, he had made no reference to the article in her presence. In fact, he had given a TV interview outside the house, defending her, and describing the allegations as ‘utter nonsense’. But his apparent good mood wasn’t helping her growing fear of him. She was more than ever convinced he had killed poor Allan, even though she had no idea why he might have done it. Work had phoned, asking for a doctor’s note. They said they couldn’t pay her without one, and asked if she would please come in for a chat about her future. She suspected they were going to fire her, over using the premises to have sex with Eduardo. Apparently, he had already left, rather than be sacked. So she had resigned over the phone. She would explore her options when all this mess was over.

Julian stood as she entered the room. He knew his manners. “Mrs Conroy, lovely to see you again”. He extended a hand. “I have some papers to go through with you, and I would very much appreciate your full attention. Is that OK?” Lucy nodded and sat at the dining table opposite him. Alex left the room, without a word. Julian began, not pausing for any replies or questions. “So, we all know that you had an extra-marital affair with Eduardo Acosta that lasted for close to a year. This involved lying to your husband about your whereabouts, inventing fictitious female friends, and even going so far as to discuss a new career that you never had any intention of pursuing”. He slid a second sheet from the pile. “You then arranged at least one clandestine meeting with a female detective involved in the case of the murder of your next door neighbour, possibly with a view to embarking on a lesbian relationship with her. The other possibility is that you were already colluding with her to incriminate your husband in the murder, and arranged the weekend trip with Eduardo in consultation with the woman who had become your new girlfriend”. Lucy started to speak, and Julian held up his hand to stop her.

But Lucy would not be silenced. “I confessed about Eduardo. I only started with him because Alex neglected me sexually, and hardly noticed me. I’m not proud of it, but I had my reasons, and Alex has to take some responsibility for driving me into the arms of another man. As for Sally Wilcox, that’s all rubbish. She befriended me, and asked to come dress shopping. I had no romantic feelings for her at all. Until the murder, I had never heard of her, let alone met her, and I certainly had no idea that Allan would be murdered that weekend. How could I?”

Julian waited until she had finished. “Lucy, may I call you Lucy? I am not judging you, don’t think that. I am merely stating the facts as they have come out, and I am not debating the rights and wrongs of your situation. But you must realise that your position in this house is untenable, and that Mr Conroy intends to apply for a divorce, on the grounds of adultery. Adultery that you have freely admitted I might add. Given recent reports in the press, and the ongoing investigation, I suggest that it would be best if you listen to my proposal. Are you happy to do that, or do you wish to employ your own legal advice?” Lucy swallowed hard, sat back in her seat, and nodded.

“From information provided to me by your husband, and a current estimate of the value of your house, I have reached a figure of three hundred thousand pounds. You will be given that money in a few months, once he has put his affairs in order. In return, you will leave tonight, with enough things to get by for a while, and stay at a hotel I have arranged for you. The hotel bill, and all meals, will be paid for by Mr Conroy, as well as reasonable expenses to cover day to day living. Your other clothes and possessions will be carefully packed up and sent on, once you have established a permanent forwarding address. Or they can be put into storage, if you so wish. You will agree to an uncontested divorce on the grounds of your adultery, and also sign a non-disclosure agreement, a promise to say nothing more about anything to the press. You will have no rights to any other money in the future, including access to your husband’s pension, or any extra should the house be sold. The sum mentioned will be in full and final settlement, and the ownership of this property, and anything left in it, will be transferred into the sole name of your husband. Is that all clear to you?” Lucy nodded again. “You could of course say no, and defend the divorce in court. In law, you are entitled to half of everything, but that amounts to much the same as what we are offering”.

Lucy sat quietly for a while. It seemed like too long to Julian, so he continued. “You would have substantial legal bills if this goes to divorce court, not to mention the press attention starting up all over again, and focusing on you this time”. He sat back, and folded his arms. If he had expected Lucy to be upset, he was wrong. She was smiling. The meeting had taken her by surprise, but the offer was better than her wildest dreams. She could escape from Alex, go anywhere she liked.
She looked Julian straight in the eye.

“Where do I sign?”

Superintendent Singh had been summoned to see the Chief Constable. When he got back, he was in something of a bad mood. He called DCI Williamson into his office, and spoke coldly and methodically.
“You have had over three months since taking on the case, and despite all the man-hours and resources, you still have nothing. No suspect, no leads, no new evidence. The Chief tells me that they have agreed to settle with Conroy and his lawyer. Officially, the damages are being reported as ‘undisclosed’. But I can tell you that he gets five hundred thousand pounds, plus another fifty thousand goes to Carpenter for his fees, all paid by the Police Authority. The Chief Constable is hanging onto his job by a thread, and the shit is rolling downhill. So, this is what I want to happen”. He lifted a typed sheet close to his face, and read from it.
“The case will be marked as unsolved, pending any new evidence, or someone coming forward with a confession. Release Allan’s body to his parents, file all the paperwork, and assign one of your team to be responsible for reviewing it later on. Get your team back on normal duties, and start trying to clear up all the routine stuff that has been piling up. Make sure that nothing is leaked to the press about this. They have already lost interest, and we don’t want to shake any wasps’ nests. Have you got all that, Chief Inspector?”

Sally was packing old photos and books into a box. She chose carefully, not wanting to cause any issues by inadvertently taking something that belonged to Emily. When Tom had phoned about buying his flat, she had said no at first, not sure she was ready to tuck herself away in that development, with mostly older people. But after thinking about it, she called him back. It was a good deal, and a reasonable price. He would leave all the furniture, as he had already left for his seaside home. There would be no fees to pay on either side, except for the legal stuff. And it was an easy move for her. No flat-hunting, no estate agents to deal with. Emily had stayed away, having decided to apply for retirement to get away from all the gossip. Sally doubted they would ever meet again. As for her new job at Traffic, if she thought that was going to be car chases and investigating accidents, she had been very wrong. After returning to work when her leave ended, she had been put in charge of the Road Safety Education Team, mostly talking to schools and community groups. Day shifts, no weekends, and an easy enough job.
She would stick it out. One day, the dust would settle, she was sure.

Lucy finally felt free, after all those months of anguish. She had found her ideal place, on the Welsh border, almost two hundred miles away from her former home in Waterloo Close. Some decent land on what had once been a struggling smallholding, with useful outbuildings. There was no house, but she had solved that problem by buying an old caravan, and having it brought to the site. Then she wasted no time populating her retreat with companions. The rescue donkey, she had named Echo. He shared with the Llama, called Cuzco, and they seemed happy enough. Her white Alsatian, King, had settled in quickly, and never left her side. Then there were the rabbits, all named after Beatrix Potter Characters. The two cats, Castor and Pollux, did their own thing during the day, but always came back for dinner. There was a poor phone signal, no stable wi-fi, and she hadn’t bothered to buy a TV. But there was enough money to allow her to not worry for a while, as the place had been cheap to buy. As she fed the chickens, she was content. She had done a lot in a very short time, and was proud of herself.

Eduardo was enjoying life in the big city. The move to London had worked out well, with lots of job opportunities. And nobody seemed to know who he was, or ever mention anything about the case. He had rented a tidy bedsit in the suburbs, and settled in quickly in a large veterinary practice in a smart area. Better still, his landlady had taken to him immediately. The Widow Constantinou owned quite a few properties, and drove around in a top of the range BMW. He would be more careful this time. Reel her in slowly.

It was a chilly morning, but Karen didn’t let that stop her walking along the beach. She threw the ball for Paddy, the Lakeland Terrier Tom had got her, and smiled as the dog raced off to fetch it. Tom had used his pension lump sum to settle the cost of the Park Home, wanting to get away sooner, rather than later. Once the money came through from Sally, they would be comfortable enough. The Police Pension was generous, worth all that time paying into it. Karen was eating well, and sleeping every night too. This had been just what she had needed to rebuild her life. But she was concerned about Tom. He wasn’t the sort to just do nothing, and had never had a hobby. Most afternoons, he would walk on the beach for hours, rain or shine. He said he was just thinking, but never let on what he was thinking about. She had her doubts about how well he would settle into such an early retirement, and felt more than a little guilty about those years he had cared for her so selflessly.
She was determined to make it up to him.

Tom scrolled through some news websites and checked his emails, while Karen was out with the dog. Nothing new in the case, save a statement from Julian Carpenter that he had been happy to clear his client’s name, and gain undisclosed damages for the harm done to his reputation. He had an email from Sally confirming the sale would go through in less than a week, and he would have the money that day. Then he opened another one, sent by Roland Fullerton from his personal email address. The case was being mothballed. Before long, it would disappear off the radar, and become just another unsolved murder. Rumour was that Conroy had got half a million, and his wife had moved out. He was still in his job, and the official line was that he was blameless, a victim of collusion and circumstance. Roland had been fobbed off, and was spending most of his time allocated to improving the software used to compile reports. Tom looked at the last line. ‘I tried, Tom, I really did. But they were never going to listen. Cheers then, hope all’s well. Roland’.

Tom typed a short reply.
‘Not to worry, Roland. He will slip up one day, and then have me to deal with’.

Don slowed his bike as he passed the cemetery on his way home from work. The following day was the first anniversary of Allan’s murder, and Jean was planning for them to spend some time at the grave in the afternoon. He didn’t like to cry in front of Jean anymore, so allowed the tears to flow as he glanced at the gates of the entrance. Things hadn’t been great since they had left Waterloo Close. Don’s Mum hadn’t taken the news of Allan’s death too well, and a few weeks later she had suffered a stroke that left her with seriously impaired mobility. Don had arranged for a local company to go in and clear up the house, sending the keys down by courier. They had employed a removal firm to bring up their clothes and the stuff they wanted to keep, and all the rest had been given to charity.

There hadn’t been much interest in the sale of the house at first. Nobody seemed inclined to want to buy a place that was the scene of a murder. But when they dropped the price by twenty percent, someone had snapped it up. They knew they would have to stay and look after Mum now, and would eventually inherit her house when she had gone. Jean had applied for the allowance to be her full-time carer, and not bothered to look for a job. As for Don, he didn’t want to work with a lot of people who asked him questions, so took a job as a night security guard, working on his own route, checking premises in a van. The old bus had to go, as they needed something suitable for Mum in her wheelchair. Now Jean drove the converted car, and he used a small motorbike to get to and from work.
As he turned off the road that led to the cemetery, he spoke aloud inside his crash helmet. “See you tomorrow, son”.

Alex Conroy was relishing life on his own. He had packed up all of Lucy’s things, and sent them off into storage, as arranged by Julian. Even after using some of his compensation money and savings to pay her off, he was still a wealthy man, at least by local standards. He had changed the house completely too. The carpets had been replaced by smart wooden flooring, and the bulky furniture changed for sleek designer items, with minimalism as his style choice. His job was going well, and there had been hint of a promotion to control of the larger City Council, once Edgar Pomeroy retired. And despite it only being two years old, he had got rid of the Jaguar, part-exchanging it for a nice new Range Rover. That had turned a few heads at the Golf Club.

Best of all, he had found a gem of a housekeeper. Esther Fitzgerald was from a respectable Irish family in the town, and he had employed her straight after the interview, not bothering to see any of the other applicants. She came to the house every afternoon at two, except for weekends. She did all the cleaning and the washing and ironing, then waited until he got home from work, to serve him an evening meal before she went home. She didn’t gossip, and had never asked any questions about the murder, Lucy, or his personal life. At weekends he would eat out, or just hot up a pasta meal from the freezer. He had all he had ever desired, and despite everything that had gone on during the last year, he enjoyed both the respect and sympathy of colleagues, friends, and neighbours alike.

He still enjoyed doing his own gardening, and had spent a long time laying out an ornamental Japanese arrangement, with lots of slabs and gravel, as well as a pleasant water feature crossed by a small bridge. He had kept the fuchsias by the shed though, for nostalgic reasons. As he worked outside, he liked to look up at the window of the back bedroom next door, and replay those events in his mind.

When he got home that night, there was a large rental van on the driveway of the Sinclair’s house. He had seen the ‘SOLD’ sign a while back, and been surprised how long it had taken the new owners to move in. He smiled as he closed the door. Inside, the house was immaculate as always, and he could smell something nice coming from the kitchen. Mrs Fitzgerald called to him as he put down his briefcase. “Table’s laid, Mr Conroy. It will be ready in five minutes”. Alex went up to the bedroom, to hang up his jacket and put on a cardigan. He washed his hands in the en-suite, and returned to take his place at the table.

She came into the dining room carrying a plate of steak and vegetables. Good, tasty, basic food, something she did so well. As always, she looked immaculate in her pristine apron. “There is apple crumble in the oven. It will still be warm when you have finished this. Is there anything else I can do for you, before I get off home?” Alex was already cutting the meat, and turned with a smile. “Nothing at all, thank you”. After putting on her coat, Esther came back into the room, fiddling with the zip. “I met your new neighbours this afternoon, Mr Conroy. They seem very nice, but I didn’t catch the name. They have a daughter, looked about ten, and an older boy around seventeen. I saw him carrying a big drum kit up the stairs, it looked very professional”.

Alex paused before placing the fork into his mouth. “A drum kit you say?” He smiled at her.

“Oh dear. I hope he is not going to be too noisy”.

The End.

A Secretarial Position: Part Two

This is the second and final part of a fictional short story, in 1520 words.
Please read Part One first.

It was inspired by this photo, from Sue Judd’s blog. https://suejudd.com/

Murray pushed the door hard, easily dislodging the stool that Violet had propped against it, in the absence of a lock. He walked into the room carrying a large tarpaulin, and a pair of dressmaker’s scissors. She was soundly asleep in the bed, as he knew she would be. There had been enough of the sleeping draught in the bottle of Claret for one glass to have done the job, and she had drunk it all.

After switching on the bedside lamp, he spread the tarpaulin out on the floor at the side of the bed, and pulled the blanket and sheet away from the young woman. Taking the scissors, he cut length-ways up the nightdress, and parted the material, exposing her naked body underneath. Walking into the bathroom, he removed her toiletries and cosmetics from the shelf, and picked up the underthings dropped on the floor too. He took the small suitcase down from the top of the wardrobe, and placed everything in there, making sure to take a blouse and skirt that he found hanging inside, adding her shoes and jacket before closing it.

Lord De Vere was impatient. Tired of waiting outside, he entered the room. He was wearing a silk robe, and on his feet were some embroidered Turkish slippers. Surveying the scene before him on the large bed, he waved a hand at Murray, dismissing him. The Butler didn’t go far, and stood along the landing, checking his pocket watch. He knew from past experience that his employer rarely took long to satisfy his urge. A few minutes later, his employer walked out. With not so much as a glance, he headed downstairs. Murray sighed, and went back into Violet’s bedroom. He dragged her lifeless body onto the tarpaulin, added the suitcase, and began to wrap her up like a parcel. When the job was done, he hauled the package down the servants’ stairs to the Boot Room.

O’Neill had already dug the hole, in between some trees at the back of the apple orchard. He would take her there early tomorrow morning, in the wheelbarrow. She would be in good company at least.

When Violet didn’t come home on Friday evening, Dorothy Hardacre started to worry. And when there was no sign of her by late Saturday morning, she made the effort to get dressed, and make the short walk to Mrs Allenby’s cottage. But her friend didn’t seem at all concerned. “I’m sure she got held up, Dotty. Probably something with the trains, or she bumped into some old friend in London. I’m sure she will have telephoned Mrs Thompson at the Post Office, and left a message”. Dorothy made the longer walk to Mrs Thompson’s, but there was no message. When they had still heard nothing by Tuesday, Mrs Allenby went with her to the police house, to see Sergeant Graham. He was a serious man, and took a full report, including a description. Dorothy added, “Oh and you should find her bicycle at Uppham Station. She would have left it there before catching the train. It’s my old one”. The policeman nodded. “Don’t you worry, Mrs Hardacre. I shall send this report to London, to Scotland Yard. They can contact the War Office”.

Following almost three weeks of investigations, the Metropolitan Police could find no trace of her at the War Office, or at any London hospital or hotel. After many visits and phone calls, all they could ascertain was that she had worked there until early in 1946, then left to return to look after her mother. There was no trace of any recent job offer, and nobody had seen her during the week in question. The case was passed to Inspector Allison, to sign it off. But he was intrigued. Why would this woman go back to a quiet village to care for her mother, then just disappear for no reason? He decided to drive down there, and ask some more questions. He took Detective Sergeant Cohen along, as his driver.

The first stop was to see Sergeant Graham. No, the bicycle wasn’t at Uppham Station, and no staff had seen it, or anyone who looked like Violet. Yes, there had been a search for her, in case she was lying injured, or worse. As well as nine officers sent from the main police station at Uppham, almost thirty local people had helped to look too. Allison lit his pipe, and squinted at the smoke. “How about the Hardacre home, did you search there? Graham smiled. “She wasn’t there, Inspector. It only has four rooms”. Allison removed his pipe, and looked at the bowl. “Come on Cohen, let’s go and talk to the mother”.

Dorothy was suitably impressed. “Scotland Yard, really? I hope you can do more than our local police”. Allison sucked on the empty pipe. It wouldn’t do to light it in this tiny cottage, and it would probably choke the old lady. “Would you mind if I looked at Violet’s room?” She seemed surprised. “Of course, you can if you want, but she didn’t leave a note or anything”. The room was small and very tidy. The room of a grown up woman, not a girl. Everything in its place, bed made, and no fripperies. It seemed her mother was right. No clues shouted at the experienced Inspector as he flicked through books, and opened and closed drawers. No obvious love letters, or concealed photos of smiling boyfriends. As he made to leave the bedroom, he spotted a raffia waste-basket tucked away under the dressing table. Pulling it into view, he saw it contained just two things. The wrapper from a bar of soap, and a newspaper, folded in four. Unfolding the newspaper, he checked the date, then noticed something small low down the page. It was circled in a heavy dark pencil, perhaps an eyebrow pencil, the sort used as make-up.

He left the house, putting on his trilby as he cleared the door. The newspaper was in his left hand. Turning to Dorothy, he touched the brim of his hat. “Our enquiries continue, dear lady, never fear”. In the car, he turned to Cohen. “Check the map. We are going to De Vere Hall, Upper Hedley”. The man who answered the door was unimpressed by their credentials. “His lordship is busy, and will have no time to see policemen, I assure you”. Allison was unfazed. “Tell him we are from Scotland Yard, and it’s not a request. We will wait in here”. They went into the library, through impressive doors leading off the hallway. Fifteen minutes later, Lord De Vere entered the library. He had an air of irritation about him. “What’s this about, Inspector? I do have a large estate to run you know”. Allison unfolded the newspaper, and pointed to the advertisement circled in black. “You paid for this I presume, your lordship?” De Vere feigned boredom. “Yes, I needed a new secretary, but we received no applications, unfortunately. Now if that’s all, I am busy, as I told you. Murray will show you out”.

Allison and Cohen didn’t budge. “You have never heard of, nor met, a woman named Violet Hardacre? She is twenty-seven years old, light brown hair, and around five feet six tall. A trained secretary who lives in Lower Hedley, and was looking for work as a secretary. Strikes me she would have jumped at the chance of a job like that”. De Vere shook his head. “I have never met the woman you describe. As I said, there were no applicants. If she did circle my advertisement, she obviously decided not to apply”. Allison picked up his hat. “Would you mind if we looked around, your lordship? It’s a big house”. De Vere’s face coloured, and he spoke sharply. “Yes I would Inspector. I can see no point in it, and I am busy this afternoon. I know the Chief Constable of this county, and he wouldn’t be happy to hear that you are bothering me”. Allison smiled. “Very well, Sir. We will bid you good day. Thank you for seeing us”.

Outside, he winked at Sergeant Cohen. “He didn’t say anything about not looking around outside”. Fifteen minutes later, they found the bicycle, still propped up at the back, where Violet had left it. Not wanting them to think she was too poor to afford a taxi, she hadn’t mentioned it, and Murray had no idea it was there, so no reason to wander around looking for it. Allison turned to his sergeant, and tapped the newspaper. “This alone proved nothing. But the cycle as well is good enough for me. Take the car, and drive to Uppham. Tell them to bring some men to search, and a van for prisoners. Ask the officer in charge to apply for a search warrant for the house and grounds. I will stay here, and give his lordship the bad news”.

When Murray answered the door the second time, he was surprised to see the policeman again. The Inspector gave him a broad smile, pointing to the bicycle that they had wheeled round from the back.

The End.

A Secretarial Position: Part One of Two

This is a the first part of a two-part short story. A work of fiction in 1700 words.

It was prompted by this photograph, seen on the blog of Sue Judd.
You can see more here.
https://suejudd.com/

Violet needed a job. Since returning to Lower Hedley after after her war service in the W.R.A.C., money had been tight. Although Mother owned the tiny cottage they shared, Father’s small pension was not going to be enough to provide for them both, and with Rationing still in force, some extra money for under the counter food would always help. Mother was as good as useless of course. When she had become a widow in 1938, she had retreated into herself, acting like a lost soul. She reminded Violet of Miss Havisham, in Great Expectations. But without the property or the wealth. She had often talked as if Father would come home any day now, and Violet had been left to fend for herself, in her late teens. At least the war had given her companionship and purpose. Training too, with good secretarial skills at the end of it. And London had been exciting, even with the bombs. By contrast, village life was dull, and lacked opportunity.

The small advertisement in the local newspaper caught her eye immediately.
A Secretarial Position.
Please apply in writing to De Vere Hall, Upper Hedley.
Single ladies only. No married women.
Must be smart, and presentable
State experience and qualifications, enclosing a recent photograph.
This is a live-in position, with salary by arrangement.

That was all it said, but it was enough. Violet took pen and paper from the bureau, and applied immediately. She thought it strange that a photo was required, but included one taken when she finished training, and looked smart in her uniform. It was almost six years old, but she hadn’t changed that much. She put a stamp on the letter, and walked down the lane to the Post Box, in time for the three o’clock collection. Late the following evening, she heard the letter box rattle, and walked into the hallway to see what had made the noise. An envelope was on the mat, and it had a crest on the fine linen paper. She opened the door quickly, to see who had hand-delivered it.
But there was only darkness in the lane outside.

It was from De Vere Hall, she could see that from the name below the crest. That family had owned land in Upper Hedley since the Norman Conquest. But they were reclusive, and little was known about them. They employed servants from Ireland to deal with tradesmen, and to run the house. No locals had ever been employed there, at least as long as Violet could remember. People said his money had come from estates in Ireland, but nobody really knew any facts. Violet went back to sit by the fire, and read the contents.
‘Dear Miss Hardacre,
It seems that you would be most suitable for the position of my secretary. I am happy to offer you the post, starting tomorrow afternoon. Please be aware that much of my correspondence is of a personal and confidential nature, so you should not tell anyone where you are working. You will have a comfortable room, and full board will be provided in addition to your salary, which I assure you will be generous.
Please be at De Vere hall by three in the afternoon tomorrow. If you are not there by four, I will presume you no longer want the position.’

Violet was excited, though a little confused. There was to be no interview, and she had already got the job. She read it again, to make sure. The writing of Lord De Vere was structured and immaculate, obviously written using a pen with an italic nib. But his signature was wild and flourishing, taking up all the rest of the page. The Hall was some five miles away, with no bus service. Violet resolved to use Mother’s old bicycle.It was still working well, and she would pump up the tyres the next morning. She went up to her room, and sorted through some clothes to take. Not too much of course. Even with a live-in position, she would surely be allowed to come back and see to Mother, so she could get more things as she needed them. Over breakfast the next morning, she told Mother about getting a job, constructing a story to satisfy her. “I will be working in London again, Mother. Back at The Ministry, like before. Don’t worry, I will be home at the weekends, and I will write to Mrs Allenby. She will pop in and see to you. The old lady shook her head. “Whatever you say dear, I do hope it goes well”.

Violet arrived a little early. The house was imposing indeed. It looked to originate from the seventeenth century, though a large, more modern wing suggested significant development in the Victorian era. There was nobody in sight. The extensive grounds felt peaceful, and she wandered around to the back of the house to take it all in. Next to some impressive planters, she rested the bicycle against the wall, and untied the small suitcase from where she had secured it across the handlebars. It was a good two-minute walk back to the front door, and when she pulled on the handle, she could hear the bell clang loudly inside.

The man who answered the door was dressed in the formal attire of a butler. He was tall, well over six feet, and his hair was shining, plastered down with brilliantine. Violet took him to be somewhere between forty and fifty. “Miss Hardacre, I presume?” He didn’t smile. She wondered if she should extend her arm for a handshake, but decided against it. He showed her into a small room that led off the huge hallway. “My name is Murray, and I am his lordship’s man. You will call me Murray, and address Lord De Vere as ‘your lordship’. His accent was harsh, obviously from Northern Ireland, possibly Belfast. “Your day will not start until three in the afternoon. His lordship is a late riser, and likes to work late in the day too. Will that be suitable?” Violet nodded, and the man turned and walked to the door. She picked up the suitcase and followed him. He headed for one of the two sweeping staircases, talking as he walked. “I will show you up to your room. Your meals will be brought to you, and you will not associate with any of the other servants. I will answer any questions you have, and advise you of any changes to routine. Is that clear?” Violet smiled and said “Clear as crystal”.

Outside the room, he turned to her, his face more relaxed, his tone softer. “You could do well here. It’s an easy job, and you have a lot of time to yourself. Don’t worry if his lordship seems a little eccentric. The De Veres have always had that trait. I should know, as a Murray has served every lord since the time of Good Queen Bess. Now, settle in, and I will return in thrity minutes to take you to meet his lordship”. Violet liked her room immediately. It was the size of the whole ground floor of their cottage, and boasted a huge double bed, a dressing table and stool, as well as a big armchair in the bay window. Opening what she thought might be a connecting door, she was amazed to find a bathroom, with a wash basin, toilet, and a small hip bath. Luxury indeed. She took off her jacket, and checked her hair and make-up in the long wardrobe mirror.

Murray showed her into what he called ‘His Lordship’s study’. The room was the size of the social club dance hall in her village, and sparsely furnished. Lord De Vere sat behind a huge empty desk, his back to a small crackling fire that seemed lost in the inglenook fireplace. He was younger than Violet had expected; perhaps her own age, or a few years less. He pointed to a comfortable chair opposite his own. “Thank you, Murray. Please sit, Miss Hardacre. Or may I call you Violet?” She nodded. “Of course, your lordship, please do”. He leaned forward, resting on his elbows. “Is everything to you liking? Has Murray explained what is required?” She nodded. His hair was a little untidy, but otherwise, he was as immaculate as Murray, and quite good-looking too. She was surprised at his accent, which sounded South African; perhaps even European, maybe Dutch. He was tanned too, as if he had just returned from somewhere hot.

“Your job will consist of taking dictation, then typing up my correspondence for signature. I will usually begin around three in the afternoon, and finish in time for you to have your dinner, at seven. You will type the letters at that desk there”. She turned to follow his arm, and saw a desk under the window, with an old German typewriter on it. “The machine is old, but hardly used, and very serviceable. Paper and envelopes are in the drawers under it. Do you have any questions? If not, then I will see you here tomorrow afternoon. Your time is free until then”.

Violet did have some questions, but when he turned to face the fire, she guessed that he didn’t want to hear them. She would ask Murray, later.
Just after seven that evening, there was a knock on the door of her room. She put down the book she was reading, and walked over to answer it. Outside her room was a tray, but nobody in sight. The food was delicious, perhaps the best she had ever tasted. And there was a bottle of claret too; already open, with a crystal wine glass to drink it from. When she had finished eating, she placed the tray back outside, presuming it would be collected. Then she finished the wine whilst enjoying a hot bath, before putting on her nightdress, and slipping into the soft bed. As she switched out the light, she smiled to herself, and spoke out loud.

“You’ve done well for yourself, Violet. I think you’re going to like it here”.

To be continued, in Part Two.

Fiction Serials: A Comparison

Now that my latest serial, ‘Benny Goes Bust’ has concluded, I thought I would give an overview of the process once again, and this time compare it with another of my serials, ‘A Pillar Of The Community’. As anyone can tell from the ‘Likes’ and comments, ‘Benny Goes Bust’ did not enjoy the same following as that other one. In fact, it was a long way off, getting fifty percent less readers soon after it started, and seeing an increasing decline over the twenty episodes. A rough indication is that the previous serial received over a hundred views a day, for some thirty days. The new one started with something like fifty a day, declining to less than forty within three days, and as low as thirty during the last few episodes.

But as much as I love to entertain and interact with my readers, I was writing this for myself, as always. And on a personal level, it was my most enjoyable fiction, from the writing perspective. It was never designed to end with a twist, for a change. So I decided to include a few surprises with some characters, all of which worked, I am happy to say. I was left with a regular readership of just over thirty people each day, as well as some who randomly read one part or another. Views as of last night were just over eight hundred in total, for the twenty parts. Compare that to the earlier serial, which achieved over three thousand views in thirty days.

I completely understand that the subject matter might have put off a lot of people. A serial about the online sex industry, even one with little or no graphic sexual references, is something not only unusual on a blog, but distasteful to many. I thank you for trying it, and appreciate those who carried on reading and commenting on my other posts. For those of you who just ‘got it’, and stuck it out to the end, my heartfelt appreciation. I couldn’t be more pleased that you enjoyed it, believed in the characters, and invested in some of them too. Most of this serial was based on people I have met, and some I knew very well. The idea for it was even based on an actual event involving one of my cousins, back in 1966.

Benny was an amalgam of directionless young men who have been around all my life. With little ambition, lacking get up and go, easily influenced and controlled by others. Their mantra is ‘anything for an easy life’. Noddy was based on hackers I had seen interviewed on TV, and my own experience of encountering what are known as ‘Autistic Savants’, during my days as an EMT. Nan was a lot like my own maternal Grandmother. Though she was never a glamour model, after she was widowed in her early sixties, she changed her hair colour, bought lots of new clothes, and embarked on a life of ‘excitement’. That included drinking a lot, going away for weekends, and enjoying the company of what she called ‘man friends’, some of them a fair bit younger than her. Sophie was an invention, but also a mixture of some real ‘lively’ older women who frequented pubs owned by my family, and one woman in particular.

And I knew a ‘Beverly’. My Beverly was a married woman too, a good friend of my parents. I was sixteen, and she was forty-six, two years older than my mother. We never operated a business together, and we never married later. But the rest is true. And I knew a hard-working ‘Linda’ too, though she didn’t have a Bugs Bunny tattoo. I was twenty-two, and she was in her thirties. She was close to leaving her husband for me, but stayed for ‘the sake of the children’. So, it was pretty much based on fact.

The small amount of research I did into the ‘oldie’ market online was eye-opening to say the least. I assure you that my version of it was tame. But everything I mentioned, from the revitalised careers of jaded glamour queens, to them selling their worn stockings in plastic bags, is completely authentic. If anyone doubts that, send me an email, and I will reply with actual links! 🙂 Last but not least, the setting. Camden, a part of London I know well, and lived in for twelve years, close to Robert Street, where I set Beverly’s maisonette. The pubs , restaurants, and the market, are all genuine, as are the street names. There is even a stall in the market that sells Moroccan artifacts, but I have no idea if the owner is nicknamed Cozy.

Thanks once again for reading.
I will give you all a break from serials for a while now.
Best wishes as always, Pete.