Author’s note: The following story was written as part of a collaboration challenge for our super secret writer’s group. Together with Patrick I wrote the following mystery. He took on Angela while I wrote Robert, and we helped each other along the way. Enjoy!
THE FOLLOWING TAKES PLACE BETWEEN 4:30PM TUESDAY AND 11:20AM WEDNESDAY.
EVENTS OCCUR IN SEMI-REAL TIME.
Business As Usual
Winsbury, Tuesday 5 June 4.30pm
Three days and no word from Sally. This was so out of character. It was bad enough she missed our lunch date on Sunday but the fact she hadn’t answered my calls or text messages was beginning to freak me out. Something was wrong. Friends since childhood, I know her as well as I know myself. You name it and we’ve shared it: toys, lunches, clothes, secrets, dreams, hopes and fears.
Obviously the first thing was to check if Sal turned up at work today. Unfortunately I couldn’t just ring Montgomery & Patterson and ask to speak to her as the company has a policy which prohibits staff from making or receiving personal calls on the firm’s landlines. Miserable bastards! The only option was to wait in the car park opposite Montgomery House to see if she came out.
Scanning the faces of hoards of people exiting the building en masse was not easy, but gradually the numbers thinned until finally there were only the stragglers coming out in ones and twos. I had all but given up when I saw Robert Greenwood who worked with Sal. She was forever showing me photos of him on face book. “We’re just good friends,” she had said when I’d asked her about him. But I have my doubts.
Waving frantically I called his name until he finally saw me and stopped. Hopefully he’d know if Sal had been at work today.
Today was a particularly shitty day at the office and Sally hadn’t been in to work for two days. I swiped my card and shambled out of the building. I was about to head to the bus stop when I heard my name being called. I didn’t recognise the voice. Across the car park some strange woman was waving anxiously at me. She was about my age, with short dark hair, and standing beside a VW Golf GTI. I walked up to her.
“Robert,” she said.
“Yes, you keep saying that. But who are you?”
I thought for a moment. “Angela. You’re Sally’s mate, right?”
I stopped giving her the uncertain eye. “Can you tell her to get off her ass and come to work. I’m bored as hell.”
“That’s the problem; I don’t know where she is.”
So Angela knew of me … well that certainly makes things interesting. “Wait, she told you about me?”
Angela threw her hands up, “Yes, she won’t shut up about you. But this isn’t about you. Something’s wrong. We were supposed to have met for lunch on Sunday but she didn’t turn up, and she won’t pick up her mobile. Now you tell me she hasn’t been coming in to work?”
I put my hands inside my coat pockets and braced against the wind chill. “What should we do?”
“I’ll drive over to her flat in Daleford,” said Angela.
“Should I come with you?”
“No, I need you to check out her desk. See if you can find anything. Here, take my number so we can keep in touch.”
“Alright,” I said giving her my phone.
She typed in her digits and gave it back to me. I sent her a quick text and her pocket chimed.
“But um, I don’t know what I’m looking for,” I said.
“Oh, for God’s sake! Just look okay?”
I gave her a wary glance.
“This is urgent. Alright?” she said.
And with that Angela gave me a look that could cut steel and tore off out of the car park. I glanced back at the building I was glad to have escaped and walked right back to the blasted entrance.
Sally’s flat was just out of town in the village of Daleford. The large Victorian home had once been run as a Bed and Breakfast, but the new owner converted the bedrooms into individual flats with a communal lounge, recreation room and laundry.
I rang the bell at reception and waited. A whiskery old fellow approached saying, “If you’re looking for the landlady you’ll have a long wait.”
“Is Mrs Marsden not here?” I asked.
“She was around the back in the courtyard ten minutes ago. Looking for a room are you?”
“Thank you,” I said curtly, and walked off. Unpleasant little man; he made my skin crawl.
Mrs Marsden was stacking the garden chairs as I approached. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“I’m Angela Cox, Sally Green’s friend. We met —”
“Oh, yes, I remember you. I never forget a face.”
“Sally hasn’t turned up at work for the last two days and hasn’t returned my calls. I was wondering if you would be kind enough to let me into her room to take a look around. I wouldn’t bother you except this is most unlike her.”
“Well,” said Mrs Marsden pausing, “It’s not something I’d normally do, but I suppose the circumstances are somewhat unusual. Wait for me at reception whilst I go and wash my hands and then I’ll take you upstairs.”
She hesitated briefly outside Sally’s door then unlocked it and we entered, stepping over mail which had been pushed under the door. Nothing appeared to be out of place and there were no signs of a hurried exit. A quick glance in the wardrobe confirmed that wherever she was, Sally hadn’t intended being away this long; she would never leave town without her Louis Vuitton leather tote bag. Purchased on eBay last year it is her pride and joy and we often joked about her obsession with it.
As I carried the wilting pot plant over to the sink I noticed a rubbish bin beside the fridge. “Is it alright if I leave this plant to soak?” I asked. Then, without waiting for a reply, lifted the plastic bag out of the rubbish bin saying, “And I’ll empty the rubbish too.”
“Excellent idea,” said Mrs Marsden. After casting another cursory look around the flat she led us out into the hallway and locked the door.
Thanking Mrs Marsden, I added, “There’s probably some perfectly simple reason why Sally’s not here and we’ll all laugh about this in a day or two.”
She smiled, but judging by the worried look on her face she didn’t believe me either. If Sally wasn’t found soon, the Police would have to be informed.
I threw the rubbish bag into the boot of my car – I’d check that later, climbed into the driver’s seat and headed back to town in search of coffee. “Keep calm – don’t panic,” I kept saying out loud as my fingers drummed on the steering wheel.
Montgomery House, Winsbury 5.15pm
I strode into an almost empty office. My team leader was busy adjusting the straps on her handbag. “Can’t get back to work fast enough eh?” asked Philippa.
I shrugged. “Just forgot to finish off something. Hey, have you heard from Sally yet?”
“Not a peep,” she said between mouthfuls of a chocolate nut bar. “Wondering if she’s found something better.”
I thought about how Sally hated this place. Maybe we were just blowing this out of proportion. Maybe she had finally moved on … but that didn’t explain why Angela hadn’t been able to reach her.
“Don’t look so heartbroken. There are plenty of single girls left in the building.”
Ignoring the comment I walked over to my desk and logged onto my computer under Philippa’s watchful gaze. I bided my time until she was finally ready to leave.
“Catch you tomorrow Rob,” Philippa cooed, jangling her keys as she waved over her shoulder.
The door closed behind her and I clicked my neck in reflex. She was just so damn perky. I moved over to the desk next to mine and opened up the first drawer; nothing but pens and scraps of paper. The next drawer down contained work folders. Standing back from the desk I looked around. Now what? A black and white kitten licking its paw caught my eye. It was Sally’s cat calendar. I didn’t know she used the thing, but it was worth taking a closer look.
Friday was Sally’s last day at work. Drinks at The Quick Brown Fox. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Something had to have happened over the weekend. On Saturday, there smack in the middle, was a meeting with a certain Derek. I dialled Angela’s number.
“Got anything?” she said, forgoing any actual greeting.
“I found her calendar. Says she was meeting someone named Derek on Saturday around lunchtime.”
There was silence on the other end of the line.
“Angela, are you there?”
“Derek …” Angela sighed. “Why would she meet up with him, after all that happened?”
“Who is he? What did he —”
“Ex-boyfriend. I can’t go into it right now, but we have to find him,” she said.
“We have a first name. That’s not much to go on.”
“He works at Fitzroy’s on High Street. I’m on my way to Harrison’s Cafe. Meet me there.” Angela promptly hung up. I inhaled deeply and zipped my coat to the collar. Perhaps I would finally leave this place after all.
No sign of Robert when I got to Harrisons so I ordered for both of us. He arrived just as I came out. “Here,” I said, thrusting a coffee at him, hop in the car and I’ll bring you up to date as I drive.”
“Where are we going?” asked Robert as he struggled to find his seatbelt whilst holding the coffee.
“High Street, we’re going to speak with Derek. Fitzroy’s close at six so we should be able to catch him before he finishes for the day.”
“So, what’s he like, this Derek?”
“In a word … he’s a self-righteous, stuck-up, possessive, asshole.”
“That’s more than one word, but I think I get the picture. How long were he and Sal … you know … together?”
“About six months or so, but that’s not important right now. We need to know why he met her on Saturday. Hey, is that chap coming out of the loading zone? Perfect – we won’t be long.”
We went into Fitzroy’s, took the lift to the Home Furnishings Department and were heading towards the service desk when I heard a familiar voice behind me.
“Can I help you madam?” I turned and faced Derek.
“Oh, it’s you, Angela. What do you want?”
“This won’t take long,” I replied. “I was wondering if you had any idea where Sally might be.”
“Sally!” said Derek. “We broke up ages ago. How would I know where she is?”
“Because you met with her on Saturday,” said Robert.
“And you are …?” asked Derek, frowning at Robert.
I interrupted. “This is Robert, a colleague of Sal’s. She hasn’t been seen for a couple of days and I wondered if she might have mentioned anything to you about going away, or something.”
“She rang and asked me to meet her for coffee, that’s all. So I did. Not that it’s any of your business.” said Derek impatiently. “Now, if you don’t mind, some of us have got work to do. Oh, and if you find Sally, please tell that new-lease-on-life-bitch—”
“Fuck you!” said Robert. He stepped forward, standing mere inches away from Derek, and stared him down.
“Forget it, Robert. He’s not worth it. Come on. We’re out of here.”
Leaving the shop I muttered, “Don’t know why we bothered with Derek. Lying bastard wouldn’t tell the truth in any case. No way would Sal have contacted him.”
Winsbury, Wednesday 6 June 9.33am
“Yes Sir, I understand your frustration. I’ll have our team investigate the issue for you. Yes Sir, have a good evening.” I ripped off the headset and disconnected my phone. “Jackass!” Philippa eyed me from across the room and returned to her work. I looked to the empty cubicle next to mine. Sally, where the hell are you?
A shadow fell across my computer screen. “Robert,” said a calm female voice.
I swivelled my chair to face the big cheese herself, Ms Ellen Temple.
“You’re not arguing with the customers again?”
“Of course not. I switched off my mic. Some days it just gets to you, you know?”
Ms Temple nodded, as if she knew the pain of being yelled at by complete strangers for eight hours a day, five days a week.
“Do you have a minute? Come on through to my office.”
“Sure,” I said switching off my monitor. This didn’t feel good.
“Close the door please,” she said. “Sally hasn’t been at work all week and I was wondering if you knew why?”
“No, I’ve got no idea,” I said. “None at all.”
“Forgive me,” said Ms Temple, her cheeks turning bright pink. I understood you two were ‘close’. I thought you might have known …”
“Can I ask why you’re asking me? It’s more than just her absence isn’t it?”
Ms Temple hesitated, then continued. “This is in the strictest confidence, you understand?”
“You would have heard about the Office Manager’s position we advertised?”
“Yes, well Sally applied for it and, um … we were going to tell her the good news on Monday.”
“She got it?” Sally as head honcho? Well that would certainly make things interesting. “She’ll be stoked.”
“However, seeing as Sally is nowhere to be found, unfortunately it looks like we’ll have to offer the position to our second choice. I think you know who that would be,” she said, looking over in Philippa’s direction. Have you ever considered yourself Team Leader material, Robert?”
Across the room Philippa, pretending not to be looking in our direction, polished off yet another chocolate nut bar.
Tudor Lane, Winsbury, 11.10am
The good thing about my job is the flexibility in working hours. Hardly slept last night worrying about Sal so I took today off. Even got up in the middle of the night to sort through the rubbish bag which I’d taken from her flat earlier in the day. Not sure what I was expecting to find, but empty sushi trays, disposable coffee cups, egg carton, vegetable scraps, juice bottles and assorted chocolate wrappers didn’t give any clues as to her disappearance. Common sense told me it was time to call the police and report Sally missing, but I couldn’t face it; not yet. I decided to ring Robert first, just in case Sal had turned up at work today.
I dialled his number and waited. Finally he picked it up.
“You took your time! Any sign of Sally?”
“No, nothing,” said Robert.
“Damn! There was nothing in her rubbish either.”
“Sally’s rubbish, from her flat, idiot! Do you think I drive around town looking for stray … Forget it. Not your fault. I’m at my wits end here. Sorry. I forgot to check the rubbish ‘til last night. Didn’t help though. Just usual household stuff, no notes or anything. Something’s been worrying her though, judging by the amount of junk food she’s been eating. Sal always eats chocolate when she’s worried but she’s really gone overboard this time. I can’t put off going to the police any longer, can I?”
“Hang on a minute. You say Sal’s eaten far more chocolate than usual, right?”
“So, maybe it wasn’t just Sal. What sort of chocolate was it? Have you still got the wrappers?”
“It’s all out in my bin now, but I can find it if you want. Why?”
“Get it, and then I’ll tell you. It’s just a long shot.”
Heading outside I grabbed the rubbish bag by the curb and rushed back inside, emptying the contents onto my kitchen floor. I picked the phone up again.
“Alright, here goes: Double Decker – that’s got coffee in it, might be nice; Wispa; Rockin’ Nut Road—”
“That’s it! … It’s got to be. Listen. Can you take your lunch break now? How soon can you be here?”
“I’m not working today. I can be at your place in ten minutes, max. What’s this about?”
“Just come. I’ll tell you when you get here. See you in the car park!”
I paced up and down the footpath outside of work. Angela pulled up alongside me, reached over the passenger seat and threw open the door. I clambered in saying. “29 Cruikshank Grove” and we took off.
“That’s not too far from here,” said Angela. “Why are we going there?”
“It’s Philippa Montgomery’s place.”
Angela looked at me, “Sal’s boss?”
“Ms Temple came to see me this morning. Sal got a promotion… well would’ve gotten one, if she hadn’t vanished.”
“And you think Philippa had something to do with her disappearance?”
“She was the second choice, and guess who has a penchant for Rockin’ Nut Road?”
“Shit! It’s a long shot,” said Angela “but worth a try, I guess.”
We turned onto Cruikshank Grove. “It’s the one at the end, with the hedge.”
“Do I want to know how you know this place?” asked Angela.
Snorting at the notion, I explained. “She invited me over for coffee. Nothing happened.”
“Honest. I downed two flat whites and got the hell out of there.”
We parked the car across the road by the dairy, in case there were nosey neighbours, and approached the house.
“Philippa lives alone, correct?” asked Angela, as she peered through the nearest window.
I nodded. “It’s her mother’s house, but she died last year after a long illness.” I tried the front door. Locked, as expected. Angela disappeared around the back. I followed her around the house, glancing behind me to make sure we weren’t being watched.
“Back door’s locked too, but you’ll be able to get in here,” said Angela, pointing to a louvre window. She removed a couple of the louvres, placed them on the grass and stood back.
“Are you sure you don’t want to do the honours?” I asked.
“Just get in there,” snarled Angela.
I stood in the flowerbed, grabbed the windowsill, and with great effort heaved myself up onto the sill. There was no room to manoeuvre; I had to go in head first. I reached down, flicked the toilet lid closed and awkwardly dropped into the bathroom. Picking myself off the floor, I raced to the back door and let Angela in. We checked all the rooms. Apart from a great heap of dishes on the kitchen bench – too many for a single person, or else Philippa was a slob – there was nothing unusual. And then I came to the last door, leading into the garage.
It was the stench that hit me first. I opened the door to find Sally gagged, blindfolded, and tied onto a commode with her arms secured behind her back, her ankles tied together and her pants and jeans hanging around one ankle. Her head was slumped forward and her red hair hung limply around her face.
I ran over to her and removed the tape from her face. She took in a breath and wheezed. Angela walked in dumbstruck and without saying a word started untying the ropes around Sal’s wrists and ankles.
“Shhhhhh!” I said.
A car door slammed and something clunked at the end of the garage. The garage door slowly opened and in marched Philippa clutching a McDonald’s bag.
“Rob! How did you …?”
“You sick bitch. What do you think you were doing?”
“She needs locking up,” said Angela.
Philippa glared at her, then shrugged her shoulders and said, “Oh well, now that you’re here you can take Sal with you; I don’t need her anymore. You are looking at the new Office Manager, as it should have been from the beginning.”
What a looney! I walked up to Philippa and said quietly, “Philippa, you need help.”
She hesitated, pressed the button on her remote and the door began to close.
“Rob, that job was always mine. She’s just not management material.”
“Be a dear and step back would you Rob,” said Angela.
As I did so, she picked up the commode and whacked Philippa across the head.
We stared at Philippa’s motionless body as it lay there with the commode on top and the contents of the bowl running over her.
“Good shot,” I said.
Sally took my hand, “Thank you Rob. I knew you’d work it out. How can I ever thank you?”
This felt rather nice. “Well, I could think of a—”
Angela kicked me, hard.
“It’s what good friends do,” I said, glaring at my attacker.
I smiled and found the garage remote. The door opened to a sunlit street.
“I think now’s the right time to ring the police,” said Angela as she walked around the unconscious Philippa. She put her phone to her ear and marched ahead of Sally, still holding my hand, and me. Business as usual.