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The Saint Valentine's Day Murders
By Ruth Dudley Edwards
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 1984 Ruth Dudley Edwards
All right reserved.
Chapter One10 May
It was a chastened Amiss who set off for BCC headquarters on his first day of work. He was filled with doubts about his ability to perform adequately in an organization apparently so dedicated, so thrusting and so demanding of its staff. His confidence, already somewhat eroded by the bewildering succession of intensive courses, had fallen towards zero during his week of induction. The corporation was clearly no place for a gifted amateur. He had been singled out from among his fellow newcomers for many a diatribe about the importance of professionalism, single-mindedness and expertise. No man, it appeared, could hope to succeed in the BCC without years of practical experience advising industry on conservation. The Department of Conservation, the instructor had pointed out with an ill-concealed sneer, had to be there to deal with politicians, but its activities were only peripheral. It was the BCC—muscular and sinewy—that was single-handedly fighting the battle against waste in industry. Its research scientists were second to none; its advisory service was working flat-out to convert the factories of Great Britain to energy saving and reprocessing. In the five years since the corporation had been formed from a nucleus of Departmental scientists and administrators, it had been transformed into a profitable enterprise. Men of commerce had been recruited; cost effectiveness was the watchword; growth was unstoppable. There were now over 1,000 employees—whizz kids to a man. 'The BCC,' said the instructor without the glimmer of a smile, 'is where it is all at.'
There still remained within Amiss's battered psyche some small corner of scepticism. After all, there was no getting away from the fact that the instructor was a prat of the first order, and probably also a hyperbolic prat. His apprehensions about the new job were disproportionate. What was it the behavioural scientist had said during that seminar on Stress Situations?—that natural fears about a new job should be counteracted by listing to oneself one's areas of competence. Well, if he was rather lacking in technical skills and experience, at least he was a finely trained flanneler on matters about which he knew nothing.
What was the new job, anyway? It was hardly a sign of superhuman efficiency that the Personnel Department hadn't told him anything about it until the previous Friday. Appeals for information over the preceding weeks had been met with procrastinating mutters. Even now, all he knew was that he was to present himself at 9 a.m. to a Mr D. Shipton at the headquarters building in south London, when all would be revealed. Dammit, even the civil service usually gave people more advance notice than that.
He struck out bravely from the tube station, looking about him alertly in the intervals between consulting the map. What an odd place to site the headquarters of a major company, he thought. Grime was the district's main feature. There were miserable rows of depressed housing, interleaved with unpainted chip shops, dingy cafes, fly-by-night surplus stores, grocery shops with a range suited to the needs of octogenarians of a conservative disposition, greengrocers that had never heard of any fruit or légume more exotic than a banana. It was only fitting that his long walk through the main streets should be taken in the grey light, chilling breeze and insidious rain that heralded the beginning of an English May.
His sense of relief on arriving at the street that boasted the BCC was swiftly overtaken by a wave of desolation. Ahead of him lay a vast and largely undeveloped wasteland. Not a tree graced the barren acres, in the centre of which had been erected an apologetic-looking high block dominated by slabs of plate glass tastefully set off by yellowish-grey concrete. Even by the standards of contemporary British architecture, this building was a notable bummer. The architect had clearly been a man of unusual modesty, terrified lest he allow any signs of individuality in the design which might make it possible to identify him.
The rain was intensifying, so Amiss ran towards the entrance for cover. The inside wasn't quite so bad. Someone had made a bit of an effort with a paint pot and a few plants. Perhaps it wasn't the fault of the BCC that they had been cursed with this God-forsaken hole: it had probably been foisted on them by a malevolent decision from what was humorously known as the Department of the Environment. The receptionist, too, was agreeable enough, even if it took her a moment or two to remember the whereabouts of Mr D. Shipton and despatch Amiss to the fifth floor.
Shipton's office had a strangely familiar aura. It could have been the room of any middle ranking civil servant—the same off-white walls, bulk-purchase teak furniture and regulation coat stand. Shipton himself was at the far end of the room, lying rather than sitting in his leather chair, a mass of supine fat clothed in shiny navy blue. As Amiss introduced himself, Shipton's right arm waved him lethargically towards the armchair. He looked like a man about to expire from exhaustion. Amiss wondered if he was recovering from jet-lag or all-night negotiations. That tired old frame might have been sacrificing its health and strength in the pursuit of a higher profit margin.
'Tell me about yourself,' said Shipton uninterestedly. Amiss obligingly ran through an account of his civil service career, and then, seeing no flicker of reaction on the flabby face in front of him, tore into a summary of what he had studied on his recent training marathon. He looked hopefully at Shipton. Nothing. Shipton moved suddenly, but it was only to make an ill-disguised attempt to smother a yawn. Amiss didn't give up, but embarked on a peroration about his enthusiasm for this new challenge and his determination to work his balls off in the service of the corporation. This time he got Shipton's attention: an expression of mild bewilderment spread across the crumpled features. 'Fine,' said Shipton. 'Fine, fine.'
Silence fell. In some desperation, Amiss broke it with a question about his new job. Shipton stirred slightly and looked vacantly across the desk. 'Oh, haven't they told you? You're PD2.'
Amiss racked his memory of BCC organization charts and drew a blank. 'I'm sorry, Mr Shipton. I'm afraid I'm not quite auf ait with things yet. What is PD2?'
'You are,' said Shipton, and then—visibly struggling to be helpful—'Purchasing Department, Branch 2. That's you. You'll be running it.'
Amiss suppressed a feeling of disappointment. This didn't sound like the centre of decision-making, but then again it might well be where at least some of it was all at. After all, this department must have a budget of millions if it was to meet the widespread requirements of a highly sophisticated company. He adjusted to the tempo of the dialogue and began to daydream about buying trips across Europe. And surely much of the really advanced technology would have to be bought from Japan and the States?
'That sounds very interesting.'
'Does it?' asked Shipton. 'Oh, good. Well, I'll tell you what. I haven't got time to brief you myself. Not with all this ...' and he flapped his hand towards an in-tray that contained two envelopes. 'I'll get Horace. He's PD1. He'll tell you everything you need to know.'
He pressed a button on his intercom, called 'Horace' and relapsed into his stupor. There was the sound of hurrying feet and an alert form catapulted into the room.
'Ah, Horace. This is ... What did you say your name was?'
'Ah, yes. He's PD2, Horace. Take him away and show him the ropes.'
As Horace took him away, Shipton spoke again. 'Oh ... Robert. Don't forget. My door is always open.'
Amiss noticed without surprise that Horace closed it firmly behind them.
Chapter TwoBy midday, a numbed Amiss had come to the conclusion that his session with Horace Underhill would go on for ever if he didn't do something drastic to shut him up. There was no doubt about Horace's dedication, though it seemed to be to the part rather than to the whole. By now Amiss had learned that no business could succeed without centralized purchasing; that the BCC top brass didn't seem to understand this; that, far from being supportive of PD, they were cravenly yielding to irresponsible demands from all over the organization for autonomy in purchasing; that PD had so far lost computers, vehicles, laboratory equipment and catering equipment; that enemies were even now trying to take away calculators; that none of this would have happened had he, Horace, been PD instead of Donald Shipton; that Shipton was a spent force; that Horace was confidently expecting him to take early retirement any day now; that when that day dawned and Horace took over, PD would come into its own again and recover all its old powers.
Amiss had to admit that at least Horace knew what he wanted. But he was already nursing a growing conviction that he wasn't going to get it. He didn't look like a man before whom Authority would capitulate. His face was lined with anxiety; his dandruff was out of control; his knobbly form would have defeated the best tailor, whom Horace had anyway not sought out; and despite his aggressively jet-black hair he didn't look a day under fifty-five. Still, at least he was pleasant enough and concerned to get Amiss on his side. His initial suspicion had evaporated as soon as he discovered that the new PD2 would definitely be returning to the civil service at the end of a year.
'What happened to my predecessor?' asked Amiss idly.
'He died two weeks ago.'
'Good heavens! How awful.'
'Yes. All very sad—though hardly unexpected. The poor fellow had emphysema for years. We knew it would carry him off in the end. In fact, to be perfectly honest, it was a bit of a relief that he didn't die in the office. That kind of thing is always a bit unsettling and distracts people from their work.'
Amiss couldn't think of an answer to that. His own experience of corpses on official premises had better be kept quiet.
'Anyway,' said Horace with a jolly beam, 'we've been very lucky to get a replacement so soon. Personnel seem to have no idea of the importance of prompt filling of vacancies here. I've been run off my feet trying to keep an eye on both branches simultaneously.'
'But presumably the workload has been somewhat reduced since so much of the purchasing was decentralized?'
Horace's face contorted. 'Certainly not. You wouldn't believe how much there is to do now that I've instituted these new allocation procedures. I can tell you we've plenty to keep us occupied. When we get back centralized purchasing of everything we'll have to quadruple the staff.'
He went off into a long account of recent administrative reforms, from which Amiss gathered little except that paperwork seemed magically to have increased in inverse proportion to the actual purchasing responsibilities. He stopped him short. 'That's fascinating. Horace. But as you can imagine, it's a bit hard to understand all at once. Could you tell me something about my precise areas of responsibility and the people who'll be working for me?'
Horace was happy to oblige. Amiss listened with a mounting sense of unreality. He was to be in charge of buying furniture and stationery, and his main job, in Horace's view, was to make it impossible for Authority to take away from him his role as calculator-purchasing supremo. Horace's branch didn't seem to purchase anything at all, but they had manifold duties of figure gathering and paper regurgitation. 'And, of course, staff management is a very important part of our work,' concluded Horace, fishing a piece of paper out of a file. 'Here you are. It's all set out here. This is one of my innovations, having a staff plan for each branch kept up-to-date. I've even written in the names of your staff and explained the grades.'
Amiss studied it attentively.
PD2—SPE (Robert Amiss)
PD2.1 PE PD2.2 PE PD2.3 PE (Henry Crump) (Tony Farson) (Bill Thomas)
PD2.1.1 APE PD2.2.1 APE PD2.3.1 (Tiny Short) (Graham Illingworth) (Charlie Collins)
SPE—Senior Purchasing Executive
APE—Assistant Purchasing Executive
Amiss denied himself speculation about an organization that could call junior staff APEs, and tried to sound intelligent. 'So there are just the two branches, and both of us work to Donald.'
'That's right. Not that Donald's any use. Why, would you believe—'
Amiss interrupted hastily. 'Why all the numbers?'
Horace looked hurt. 'That's one of my innovations too. It provides for continuity in the event of staff changes. It would be invaluable if we were properly staffed, of course, and each PE had several APEs. And of course APEs should really be backed up by clerical support. Then one might have, for instance, a clerical officer on Henry Crump's team who could instantly be pinpointed by the designation PD188.8.131.52. You see the advantages?'
'Oh, certainly.' Amiss felt he shouldn't give too much encouragement to Horace. He'd be sewing numbers on the blokes' suits next. 'What are my staff like?'
'Well, perhaps not as dynamic as one would wish,' Horace said sadly. 'Though I'm sure that now you've arrived they'll have more of a sense of purpose. They're all experienced and reliable men, of course. I'd keep my eye on Charlie Collins, though. He doesn't seem to take his work as seriously as he should. I'm afraid he's a bit flippant.'
Suppressing a flash of fellow-feeling for Charlie, Amiss nodded knowingly. 'I'd better get out there and talk to them now,' he said. 'It's nearly lunchtime. Perhaps we could all have an informal drink?'
Horace was flabbergasted. 'We don't encourage our staff to drink.'
The reproof drove Amiss into stumbling fatuousness. 'Oh, just a symbolic quick one, you know. Breaks the ice and all that.'
'Well, of course I don't want to tell you how to do your job. But when you've been around as long as I have you'll discover that too much informality breeds contempt for management.'
Amiss felt a pang of homesickness for his cheerfully irreverent staff back in the DOC, but answered obediently. 'Yes. I quite understand. I'll watch that.'
'Just one thing before you go. It's about your office.'
'I didn't think I had one. When we walked through the general office I saw an empty desk that I assumed was mine.'
Horace corrected him gravely. 'That was for a special reason. George couldn't work in an enclosed space because his cigarette smoke could have been bad for his chest. You'll be having a proper office like this to yourself.' He gesticulated vigorously around the cramped and claustrophobic cubicle which Amiss had already dubbed 'the command module'.
'Oh, really. I'd rather sit with my staff. It's what I'm used to.'
'It's not a question of what you'd like, if you don't mind me saying so. It's a question of what is correct for an SPE. The union wouldn't be very pleased if you allowed management to deny you the privileges it has won for you. In any case, the carpenters are coming in to construct it tomorrow.'
Amiss gave up. There was no point in alienating Horace—or the bloody union for that matter. He stood up. 'Well, that's fine, then. Thanks for everything, Horace. You've been very helpful.'
Horace was a hard man to shake off. 'I'll come with you and introduce you to your chaps. Might as well do the thing properly.'
He led Amiss out and they skirted the long row of filing cabinets that cut the branches off from easy contact with each other. Horace cleared his throat. 'This is your new SPE, Robert Amiss.'
Amiss's ingratiating smile died abruptly as he glanced over the small group and encountered a concerted glare of hostility.
Excerpted from The Saint Valentine's Day Murders by Ruth Dudley Edwards Copyright © 1984 by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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