Unfortunately, my computer crashed on Thursday (the second time in a year). I hope to get my MBP to a service centre today; but the centre will have to reload OSX, which means all my data will be lost. A corrupted download of OSX may be the culprit, but I am not sure. Anyway, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible….
Because she was seated, Betty couldn’t actually see the front door: between her and it stood a row of shelving* that blocked* her view. She rose to her feet, pushed a hair from her face and watched. She could see the top of someone’s head – a man’s – moving down the other side of the shelves towards her. It bobbed* slightly, rising and falling with every silent step. Shiny and bald, it wasn’t one that she recognized. A moment later, the stranger appeared and stepped towards her. And that’s when the little alarm in Betty’s head began to ring. Something wasn’t right. Something didn’t add up*. It wasn’t his face. No, that wasn’t it. That was bland*, almost expressionless*. It wasn’t the clothes either – though she didn’t get many customers in a three-piece suit*, shirt and tie these days; there was even a handkerchief in his suit pocket, for goodness sake. No, it was something else, something she couldn’t put her finger on*. The little alarm bell was ringing away and she couldn’t think why.
*shelving – shop furniture on which goods are displayed
*blocked – stopped, got in the way, prevented
*bobbed – moved up and down (e.g. like a boat)
*add up – make sense, become understandable
*bland – ordinary, unexceptional, boring
*expressionless – without emotions
*three-piece suit – matching trousers, jacket and waistcoat
*put her finger on – specify, identify (as the cause)
The words of the news report interrupted* Betty’s thoughts.
‘…escaped from police custody* earlier today when the police vehicle that was carrying him was involved in an accident on the B764. The man, John McGovern, is considered* dangerous and the public are warned not to approach* him.’
Betty leaned forward and turned up the radio.
‘McGovern, 47, was arrested last week in connection with the disappearance of Gillian McGovern, his estranged* wife.’
Betty leaned back as the topic of the news report changed. A murderer on the loose* – and so close! The B764 was only thirty miles away. Betty shivered* just as a sudden gust of wind struck the shop. The front door flew open, someone stepped inside and the door closed again.
The sound of Keith Dunlop’s familiar* voice on the radio told Betty that the news was starting. A thought crossed her mind: she hadn’t yet tied all of today’s unsold newspapers into a bundle*. She’d do it after the news. Although it was a small shop, there was always something more to do. Four o’clock already! Today had been a quiet day. The nearest big supermarket was forty miles away, so when people in Craiginver needed milk, bread, rolls, canned food, or newspapers – the basics – they first came to Betty’s shop. Mornings were the busiest time. By the late afternoon, hardly anyone came, though sometimes Mrs Murdoch would pop in* – not to buy anything, but just to have a chat. Betty was glad to have some company. Her husband, Bill, had passed away many years ago – a heart attack. One minute, he was fine and healthy; the next, he was as cold as stone. She missed him. The winter nights were long in northern Scotland…
The window rattled again. ‘A snell wind,’ thought Betty, enjoying the word. ‘Snell’: severe, grievous, bitter. The word certainly suited: today was not a day for being outside. Outside was cold and wet and miserable*; but inside the shop, the neon lights were shining and a gas heater that sat near Betty’s feet was doing its best to warm the air. She also had a comfy* chair and a supply of tea and biscuits in her little kitchen at the back of the shop. Later, after she had locked the shop’s front door and gone to her apartment upstairs, she would watch ‘Countdown’ on the VCR that her nephew – a lawyer in Inverness – had set up for her. Then, after something light – she didn’t like big meals in the evening – she would settle down and read Poirot again, starting with ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles.’ She liked that sort of thing – puzzles, detective fiction, mysteries – and Christie was the master*. No one could write a mystery like she could.
Betty Ramage turned up the volume on her radio. The four o’clock news was about to start and she wanted to hear it. She didn’t have hearing problems, though many people her age did. Instead, the reason for turning up the radio was the noise of the rain. The sky outside the shop’s window had turned dark and ominous* about fifteen minutes ago and now sheets of rain* were hammering against the glass. The sight made her feel cold. She shivered and pulled her cardigan* more tightly to her body. The window rattled*. She doubted that she would see another customer between now and five o’clock, but that didn’t matter. In this small community* in the north of Scotland, it wasn’t unusual for the shop to be empty for hours. All the same, she didn’t like to close early. Betty felt a duty to follow the advertised hours: the sign on the shop door said ‘9-5 Mon-Sat’, so the shop stayed open from 9 till 5, Monday to Saturday.
When Brad arrived at the car park, everyone was standing outside the bus looking hot and bored.
‘Where were you?’ Ruby Ann asked. ‘And where did you get that hat?’
Brad took off the hat. He looked at it. ‘I found it,’ he said. ‘It was lying at bottom of the waterfall. You want it?’ Laughing, he reached over and put it on Ruby Ann’s head.
‘It’s wet,’ said Ruby Ann, pulling it off and throwing it back at him. ‘Where’s Dent?’ she asked. ‘The bus driver’s gonna burst a blood vessel if he doesn’t turn up soon.’
Brad shrugged. ‘Who cares?’ Once again, the image of the two men crashing into the water went through Brad’s head. It had taken him twenty minutes to get down to the bottom of the waterfall. All that he had found there was Lazarus’s black hat. Dent was dead – that was revenge for Hank and Bev. Lazarus was also dead – so he didn’t have to pay him anything. Brad had to admit it – he was feeling pretty good right now. He put the hat back on, gave Ruby Ann a wink as he went past her and put a foot on the first step of the the bus.
‘Where are you going kid?’ the driver asked.
‘I wanna get my bottle of cola from my bag.’
The driver nodded. ‘Where’s your teacher? We need to go.’
Brad just shrugged and went to his seat. He could hear the driver still muttering something about another trip. Brad collected the bottle and left.
Outside, he walked to the shade. He wondered how long it would be before someone decided to call the police. Unscrewing the bottle top, he put the bottle to his lips and drank deeply, eyes closed. After many mouthfuls, he lowered the bottle and noticed that Ruby Ann was watching him. He held out the bottle. ‘You want some?’ he asked just as a small piece of paper detached itself from the bottom of the bottom of the cola bottle and fell to the ground.
‘No, thanks,’ replied Ruby Ann, bending down to pick it up.
Brad finished the remainder of the cola. When he looked at Ruby Ann again, she was looking puzzled.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘A message, I think,’ said Ruby Ann, ‘…it’s kinda weird.’
Brad took the dirty little piece of paper from her and started to read:
Dear Mr Klonsky,
If you are reading this then I am dead. I am sure this will please you – and Lazarus. But don’t get too excited. Why? Because soon you will just be like me… dead. Last night my car broke down and I had to walk all through the night to get to school. I arrived before everyone else and stole rat poison from Mr Ryan’s store room. The rat poison contains thallium, which is colourless, odorless tasteless and – most importantly – deadly. Guess what? I put the thallium in your bottle of cola. Then I put this note on the bottom of the bottle, just to let you know. I believe the nearest hospital is over 70km away. Bon voyage! By the way, I thought you might enjoy this. It’s by someone called William Shakespeare…
When Dent reached the viewing platform, all the kids were gone – including Klonsky. That didn’t matter. The kids, Dent reflected, hadn’t even noticed that he wasn’t with them. He climbed onto the viewing platform. Its wooden floor was slippery. He held onto the railings and looked down. He wondered where Lazarus was. He didn’t know how Lazarus planned to murder him, so he had to be ready. Just then, he heard footsteps. He looked down. Lazarus was coming the steps. Dent could just see him through the watery mist. As usual, Lazarus was in black – black hat, black shoes, black shirt, black trousers. ‘He looks like a shadow,’ thought Dent. He continued watching. Lazarus brought something out of his pocket. Dent knew it was a knife.
Dent ran to the nearest tree and hid behind it. He watched Lazarus climb up the remaining steps and go onto the viewing platform. Lazarus’s back was turned. It was now or never. Dent rushed at him, full speed, his arms out-stretched. One push and Lazarus was history. Lazarus turned around. Dent saw the surprise and fear on the other man’s face. But at the last moment, Dent slipped. He crashed into Lazarus and his momentum carried both men forward. For a second, the two men were perfectly balanced, one foot each on the ground; one in the air. Then, together, they toppled over the viewing platform’s railings and fell – Lazarus screaming, Dent smiling, their two bodies disappearing into the mist and raging water below.
On a viewing platform beside the top of the falls, Brad Klonsky looked over the railings. A fine mist rose high into the air. The falls were amazing. He knew why Dent liked this place so much. From up here, when the mist cleared, he could see the trees of the National Park stretching away in all directions.
‘I could stay here all day,’ he thought, but he knew that the kids from his class were ready to move on.
‘Are you ready to go across?’ Ruby Ann asked him. She was pointing to the bridge that crossed over the head of the waterfalls. It was a few metres away from them. The path on the other side of the bridge led to the car park and the bus.
‘You go,’ said Brad, ‘I’ll follow in a minute.’
Brad watched as his class mates crossed the bridge and disappeared into the mist and woods on the other side. He heard footsteps on the steps that led up to the viewing platform. Dent was approaching. ‘Where was Lazarus?‘ Brad wondered, but there was no time to wait. He didn’t want to meet Dent here. He didn’t want to be around if Lazarus did show up. When he was on the other side of the bridge, Brad looked back and saw Dent. He was climbing onto the viewing platform; then the mist thickened again and Brad lost sight of him. Brad entered the woods. ‘Perhaps Lazarus has changed his mind,’ he thought as he followed the path down to the bus.
The path up to the Rickenback Falls was steep and narrow and guarded on both sides by trees. Sweat was rolling off Dent’s forehead. He had tried to keep up with the kids, but he had failed. He was weak from hunger and thirst. His body shook and his mouth was dry. He sat down.
The Rickenback Falls were nearly 200 feet high and the steps to the top of them were slippery with the spray that rose up from the fall’s crashing water. Dent had been to the falls many times but had never found climbing up so hard before. He had brought Mary Beth here once. ‘That day’, thought Dent, ‘was a long, long time ago.’ Now, Mary Beth hated him and Klonsky and Lazarus wanted him dead. Nobody liked him. He felt lonely and angry. He looked up. Through the mist, he saw Klonsky and some of the other students on a viewing platform at the top of the falls.
Klonsky! Perhaps this was his chance. Perhaps he wouldn’t need the little bottle after all. One hard push and…
The idea put new strength into Dent’s legs. He got up and began climbing the steps again. Did his class even know that they had left him behind? Did they care? He doubted it. He doubted it very much.
Detective Inspector Duncan stepped out of the police car. It was another beautiful morning and already it was quite hot. He looked up at the deep blue sky. In the distance, high up, he saw some tiny shapes. Slowly the objects grew larger. ‘Racing pigeons,’ he said finally. ‘Where are they going?’ Suddenly, the birds turned away and flew towards the west at full speed. He watched them go and soon the sky was empty once again.
‘Sir? The sergeant is waiting for you upstairs,’ said a constable.
Detective Inspector Duncan nodded. ‘Back to work,’ he thought and climbed the stairs to the third floor.
‘Morning, sir,’ said the sergeant there.
‘Good morning,’ replied Inspector Duncan and stared at the body on the sofa.
‘We found him a few hours ago,’ said the sergeant.
‘How did he die?’ asked Duncan.
‘The doctor said heart attack, probably.’
‘Who is he?’
‘His name is Green, sir. I found a letter in his pocket and there’s also the newspaper.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Duncan.
The sergeant pointed to the newspaper on the table and the photograph. ‘It’s the same person,’ he said.
‘I see,’ said Duncan, ‘and how did we find him?’
‘The school’s headmistress called us. She saw smoke from the chimney and came to the school.’
‘Smoke from the chimney?’
‘Yes, sir. Mr. Green started the boiler.’
‘How do you know?’
‘We found his clothes in a room next to the boiler and we found keys to the boiler room in his pockets.’
‘So was he the janitor here?’
‘Well,’ said the sergeant, ‘that’s the strange thing. The letter was a job offer and it came from a Mr. Thane at Birnam County Council. We called the council but Malcolm Thane doesn’t work for them. There is no Malcolm Thane. The letter’s a fake.’
‘That is strange,’ agreed Duncan. ‘We have a dead man in an empty school. We have a fake job offer and we have a newspaper from two years ago with a picture of Mr. Green in it.’ He scratched his head. ‘We even have a dead pigeon….so where did he get the school keys from?’
‘We don’t know, sir. Usually the keys are with the headmistress and Birnam Council.’
The inspector breathed in deeply. ‘Do we have any witnesses?’
‘Not really, sir.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Coming here, the headmistress said she almost crashed into a car. It came from the school car park,’ replied the sergeant.
‘I see. Did she get the license plate?’
‘Did she know the driver?’
‘Can she tell us anything about the car?’
‘Yes, sir. It was red.’
‘Anything else?’ asked Inspector Duncan.
‘Yes, we found this on the stairs,’ said the sergeant and held up a clear plastic bag
‘Whose is that, I wonder?’
The sergeant did not know. Inspector Duncan took the plastic bag from him.
Inside it was a long, silver earring with a red stone in the centre.
Mr. Green jumped up from the sofa. ‘Who’s there?’ he said.
The footsteps stopped.
A cloud passed across the morning sun and the room darkened. Suddenly, Mr. Green felt cold.
‘Don’t you know me, old man?’ said a low voice from the stairs.
‘Who are you? Is this some kind of joke?’ He tried to sound strong but he couldn’t. He wanted to walk over to the stairs but his whole body felt weak.
‘Who am I?’ asked the voice angrily. It paused. ‘You know me…don’t pretend you don’t.’
‘What do you want? Tell me!’ shouted Mr. Green.
The voice spoke again. ‘Do you dream about it?’ it asked.
Mr. Green felt ill. There was a pain in his chest. He sat down on the sofa. ‘Yes…’ he whispered, ‘I dream about it all the time.’
‘It was your fault. The emergency exit door didn’t open. You didn’t repair it. That was your job!,’ screamed the voice.
‘It wasn’t my fault. It was an accident….’ Now the pain in his chest was terrible. Suddenly a small, dark object flew through the air and landed on the ground next to Mr. Green. He looked down at it and began to cry. It was the body of Sally, his favourite bird.
Outside, he walked to the west building and pulled out the keys. He chose a small one and put it into the lock. There was a ‘click’ and the door opened. ‘That was lucky!’ he said. Inside, there was another door. He pushed it open. There was a corridor and some stairs. ‘Usually offices are upstairs,’ he thought. He climbed the stairs.
On the second floor, he found more empty classrooms and a staff room. ‘No phone here,’ he said and continued to the third floor. There, at the top of the stairs, sat a reception desk with offices behind it. There was also a black leather sofa and four chairs around it. He walked up to the desk and saw a red phone. ‘Great,’ he said and picked it up. He listened. There was no tone. It didn’t work. He slammed it down and looked for another in the offices. But for every phone, it was the same: no tone. None of them worked.
He sat down on the black leather sofa. ‘Now what?’ he said to himself. ‘I don’t have a mobile phone and there isn’t a public phone around here. How can I….’ He stopped and stared. He could not believe his eyes. There, on the little table in front of the sofa, was an old newspaper from two years ago. Mr. Green recognized it immediately. Above a black and white photograph of the burned classrooms, the headline said, ‘Teacher Killed as Fire Destroys Classrooms’.
Mr. Green stared.
There was another picture – of Mr. Green. The headline said, ‘Janitor questioned by police over fire.’
‘Where did this come from? Why is it…?’ shouted Mr. Green, but he didn’t finish his question. The sound of footsteps stopped him.
Dent looked at his watch: 6.30 a.m. The school was empty but soon the students and staff would arrive. He went into the male toilets. At the sink, he poured some cold water in his hands and washed his face. It had been a long night: the walk to the school had taken him nearly five hours and he was hungry and tired. But he had what he wanted. He dried his face and put a hand on his jacket pocket. The little bottle – the one he had filled earlier – was still there. It wasn’t difficult getting into the store room. He had imagined that he would need to break down the door; but then he found Mr Ryan’s keys…It couldn’t have been easier. Dent looked in the mirror. His grey face stared back.
He was ready.
Outside in the car park, the bus sat waiting to leave for the trip to Rickenback National Park. It was Dent’s idea to go. He liked the name and the fact it had a waterfall. It reminded him of the Sherlock Holmes story: ‘The Final Problem’. The irony almost made him laugh.
There were about thirty kids in the car park in groups of three or four. Klonsky was standing with Ruby, Lenny, Joey and Leo. There was a bag at Klonsky’s feet. Dent could see the top of a large bottle of Coke sticking out from it.
The Coke bottle. Perfect.
It was a two hour bus trip to the national park. It was a hot day and Dent sat at the front of the bus trying unsuccessfully to shield his eyes from the sun. Every time he turned around, he saw Klonsky drinking from his Coke bottle. He prayed that Klonsky wouldn’t finish it all…
After almost two hours, the bus stopped at the gates of the national park.
‘Keep the engine running,’ Dent told the driver. He stood up and spoke loudly. ‘Leave your bags on the bus, please. We don’t want people leaving anything in the park.’
All of Dent’s students got off the hot, stuffy bus in a rush. They all wanted fresh air. Dent followed and nearly fell down the stairs. Klonsky saw him stumble. Their eyes met. Was he imagining it or was Klonsky looking at him strangely?
‘Okay, everyone,’ said Dent, trying to ignore Klonsky’s stare, ‘go and stand at the entrance of the park and wait there. I am going with the driver to get the bus parked and get tickets.’ Dent got back on the bus and the driver pulled away. Dent glanced out the window. Klonsky’s eyes were still on his.
No, there was no mistake. Klonsky was looking at him with utter hatred.
Mr. Green woke up. Outside, a bird sang loudly at the small window and flew away. He looked at his watch. It was 6 a.m. He pulled the blanket off and stepped out of bed. He felt tired and sad: he always did after that dream. He didn’t feel hungry and he didn’t want breakfast. He needed to work and take his mind away from the past. He thought about his job now. ‘What can I do today?’ he thought. Then he had an idea: the boiler. ‘I’ll start the boiler.’ It was always a good idea to start a boiler for a little while, even in summer, to make sure it was working well. He dressed quickly and went next door.
Inside the boiler room, the huge machine sat silently. There were many buttons, but Mr. Green used one of these machines when he worked at Crosslanes primary. He began pressing some of the buttons and soon the machine was working. ‘It seems fine, but perhaps it needs to run for 24 hours,’ he thought to himself. Closing the boiler room door behind him, he stepped outside and looked up. Black smoke from the boiler rose slowly from the chimney and darkened the clear air. Inside his room again, he sat on his bed. An image of Sally, his favourite bird, came into his head. ‘I wish there was a telephone here,’ he said to himself. ‘I could call John and find out about her.’ Next door, the machine for the boiler made a deep hum and the bed shook a little. He looked up at the little window. Beyond it, the sky was clear and blue, but there was one small, white cloud. He stared at it. He did not have a mobile phone but he wanted to call his neighbour, John. Suddenly, he had an idea. ‘There must be a telephone in the school’s office,’ he said, feeling happy for the first time that morning.