The story so far: A murder – witnessed by Joseph Makumbo – and a robbery have taken place at St Marmaduke’s church. Meanwhile, Sally Evans at Proctorpress Publishing Company – for whom Joseph works – has taken delivery of the first couple of chapters of the manuscript of a new novel.
Her boss, Kevin Proctor, is ploughing through the tale of a love triangle between a Patagonian shepherdess, a prince of the Undongo tribe in East Venezuala and a merman from the planet Oolaxian…
Monday 4th November 1985: 10.30 – 11.30
Kevin Proctor disengaged himself from the doings of the Patagonian shepherdess and her two male suitors. Or rather – her one male suitor and the merman from Oolaxian, about whom there seemed to be a slight confusion regarding sex. Of which he/she/it seemed to be getting rather a lot, mostly from various nubile females who fell under some alien hypnotic power it wielded; but occasionally from their boyfriends/husbands, when it took the fancy; and once, disturbingly, from a pet budgerigar belonging to one of them.
He sighed, suspecting that the search for a bestseller-list candidate would be going on a while longer.
He stretched, and got up from his desk. He’d go into the outer office and see if Sally had the coffee-maker on the go.
Hmm. Perhaps Sally would be susceptible to a little alien hypnotic influence? The merman’s technique was described in minute detail between pages 46 and 53.
He shook himself mentally. Not a chance.
He opened the door to his office and passed into Sally’s reception area. ‘Hi, Sal,’ he said.
She glanced up from a letter she was typing. ‘Can I help you, Kevin? And it’s Sally, if you don’t mind.’
‘And it’s Kev, if you don’t.’ It was a game they’d been playing every day for the two years Proctorpress had been in existence. Sally insisting on the full version of her given name; and he insisting on the shortened version of his.
At least – he hoped it was a game. If she wasn’t treating it as such, it might result in her finally upping sticks one day, and the thought of her loss gave him unpleasant sensations in areas where he’d rather be feeling pleasurable ones.
He strolled over to the coffee pot, which, as he’d expected, was full.
‘I will, please.’
He poured two, and brought one to her desk.
‘Joseph’s phoned in,’ she said. ‘Asked if he can take the day off. He seems to have had some trouble at the church he goes to.’
‘Really? Well, there’s nothing urgent, that’ll be fine.’
‘I said as much.’
Standing over her, he made sure to keep his gaze fixed unwaveringly on her face. He’d learnt early – and at the cost of great personal embarrassment – that letting it slip elsewhere brought wintry frosts into the office that froze the central heating pipes solid.
Not that it was a hardship looking at her face.
Concentrate on business, Kev.
‘Anything interesting in the post?’ He doubted there was, but it might keep his mind on other things. Or off other things.
She indicated a small pile of correspondence at her elbow. ‘Three letters; all from HL Danvers, all posted Saturday, all asking how you’re getting on with her latest work of, and I quote, outstanding genius…’
He closed his eyes. The merman and the budgerigar were imprinted on the back of his eyelids.
‘An invitation to the Aberystwyth Literary Festival to discuss the influence of 14th century Singapore novelists on fifteen-year-olds in comprehensive education…’
She quirked an eyebrow at him. He’d come to recognise it as her equivalent of a smile, and whenever she unbent herself to do it, he had a wild hope she might be softening towards him.
‘Again – not a chance.’
‘Oh, er… Nothing. Nothing. Just thinking that one through. Anything else?’
‘Yes. This.’ She handed him an A4 envelope.
He groaned. ‘Oh no. Another HL Danvers, I take it?’ The Patagonian shepherdess’s creator had been submitting a manuscript a month for the last year. He was running out of polite ways to tell her, ‘Your novel is interesting, but sadly it does not fit our list at the present time.’
‘No, surprisingly not,’ she said. ‘Someone else; someone we’ve not heard from before.’
‘Oh?’ He raised his own eyebrows in surprise. Nobody but HL Danvers had submitted anything for months.
‘Yes,’ she went on. ‘Very odd; it came by airmail.’
‘Sorry?’ He searched her face to check if she was serious. As her face always looked exactly that, it was impossible to tell.
‘The postman seemed in rather a hurry. And he left the letters and invitation scattered over the stairs as he went.’
He took the envelope and the invitation from her. He’d leave the mystery of the ‘airmail’ remark for another time. Perhaps when he’d learnt to work out how to tell when she was joking.
Did she ever joke? He really didn’t know.
‘Usual reply to the others?’ he said.
‘Just finishing it.’ She indicated the letter in her typewriter. ‘I’ll sign for you; it’ll be in the post this afternoon.’
‘Cheers, Sal; you’re a love.’ That was another game. He dared just enough…
‘Sally. And one day I’ll be able to take you to court for that remark.’
He carried his coffee back into his office and closed the door. Her reply had only been at about three on the frost scale. Hope flickered again.
And one day, I’ll be able to ask you out on a date.
He wondered if he ever would.
Oh, to hell with it. He slung the new manuscript on top of the Patagonian shepherdess, and began to read the invitation to Aberystwyth.