The Ottral Convenience #1
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Cherek Ved and I am, at present, an armchair detective in a very literal sense. I have a long history of back trouble, which is mainly related to discs popping out of place, usually when I have exerted myself carelessly, and taking their time about popping back into place.
At the time of writing, I am passing through a phase in which sitting is quite comfortable, after I have settled myself with appropriate care, and standing straight [upright], or the act of rising to the vertical, is pure torture.
While sitting still, and freed from the distraction of pain, my mental faculties remain as sharp as ever and I can continue to 'smite the ungodly' almost as effectively as when I enjoy full mobility.
Jackie's party turned out to be a modest literary gathering rather than a wild, boozy do. In addition to the writer, Jackie had invited two couples, one married, and a friend of hers from school. Cassy had no literary pretensions but she read a lot and she could talk intelligently about why books worked or failed.
The writer was pleasantly surprised to find that the members of both couples; a pair of poets and a novelist and a short-story writer [the married couple]; had heard of him. They had actually read some of his work, they knew a little biographical information about him and they had even visited his website. They also knew, because Jackie had briefed them, that the writer was a colleague of her's from work and not a rival to her boyfriend, Graham, who was away on business.
Cassy, on the other hand, knew nothing about him and she seemed to enjoy discovering a new person who seemed moderately interesting. The writer was a naturally solitary creature, as far as the literary world was concerned, and he found it an interesting experience to study fellow creatures who shared his pretension.
He enjoyed an evening of good food, good wine and good conversation, and he joined in cheerfully with the tidying up when most of the other guests left at just after eleven p.m.
It was not until the wreckage was cleared away, Cassy had gone and the writer and Jackie were enjoying a final cup of coffee that Jackie revealed the true reason for inviting him to the gathering. The writer was flattered to learn that she considered him a serious practitioner of his black art and that she thought that his opinions were worth having. Then she produced a black floppy diskette in a clear plastic mailer.
"So your only interest in me is as a literary critic?" the writer said, tucking the diskette into the inside pocket of his jacket.
"It's not a good idea to get involved with people at work. Do those words sound familiar?"
"Vaguely," the writer admitted.
"Why, were you thinking we might get together?"
The writer smiled. "Knowing you have a steady boyfriend, I entertain no hopes in that direction. Well, not till after I've had him assassinated, anyway."
"What's going on in Jeff Boon's tiny brain, by the way?"
"That is a question which has baffled the greatest minds on the planet for a considerable period of time."
"I know something's going on and I think, as we're mates, you can tell me what it is."
The writer's smile broadened. "If I tell you, we might not stay mates."
"Jeff reckons he's got the Feck thinking we're involved. Which is why he's not sending me down to the archive for a spell of hard labour any more."
"Jeff reckons the What thinks this?"
"The Feck. Pierson Day. Didn't you know that's what we call him?"
"No, but I can see why," Jackie said with a laugh. "Working in the archive, I'm not exactly in the mainstream of things. But I thought he's your mate? Jeff? And I thought you liked working with me?"
"I admit, I looked on trips to the archive as involuntary service in the paper's Siberia at first. But I've come to appreciate the potential of the archive and I now enjoy my time there, which has a lot to do with your presence. So I now need to come up with a way to undo all Jeff's efforts."
"So where are we up to now?" Jackie asked with a frown. "You and me?"
"We're still mates, I hope, and I'm still going to vet your novel to give you another opinion on it. And we now have a fuller understanding of what our relationship is all about."
"What are you going to do about the Feck so you can get back to the archive?"
The writer shrugged. "It'll have to be some brilliant stroke of reverse psychology. Two plus two equals three, kind of thing."
I have a generous disability pension as a reward for twenty-six years' service in the battle against crime. A tribunal was kind enough as to agree that the damage to my back was got in the line of duty; my hospital records made an extremely persuasive case and the silver-tongued lawyer did the rest.
In addition to the pension, I also received a lump-sum cash award of a size calculated to make the average newspaper reader froth at the mouth for
The writer had no real need to feign suppressed amusement when the Feck-Meister bounded out of his office at the start of business on Monday morning and despatched Trevor Mercur down to the archive before he could get too involved with anything.
Mercur directed a poisoned glare at the writer. "I reckon he's blackmailing the Feck," he told his immediate neighbours as he logged off from his work station.
"Yeah, what have you got on him?" Andras Ektors demanded. The blond, skinny assistant interiors correspondent, whose work station was located behind the writer's and Sally Lee's, came from Latvian stock. "How come you never get sent down there any more?"
"If I told you that, I wouldn't be able to use it any more," the writer pointed out.
"I see Sally's collapsed under the strain," Ektors added.
Nobody at the Sentinel & Advertiser ever had a simple day off. An absence was always ascribed to a truly dramatic event.
"The feck," Trevor Mercur added with appropriate venom as the condemned man headed for the stairs.
Although he suffers limited mobility for most of the time, Mr. Cherek Ved's mind remains active and agile. I remain available for consultations if my former colleagues need analytical work performed on speculative projects.
During my more mobile years, I was often described as a cerebral as well as a physical member of the detective squad. Most of my major successes followed long periods of detailed research in various computer databanks and resulted from exercises in cross-correlation which were considered
The writer flipped a 50p coin. Then he found himself unable to remember whether or not tails meant 'ignore'. He clicked on the OK button as a penance.
|The deadline for your piece on V&K has been brought forward to 11 a.m. today.|
Miss it and you're dead.
The writer sighed heavily in case the Feck-Meister had his work station bugged for sound if not for vision. He had the file for the article open on his monitor screen and he had completed it for all intents and purposes. His message was just routine harassment and Pierson Day's way of telling that he was still the boss. Well, a sub-boss in the chain of things but still someone with the power to make the writer's life a total misery if exercised.
After clicking on the Reply button, the writer typed 'The executors of the estate of the late Marin Petronas acknowledge receipt of your message.' Then, suffering an attack of cowardice in the face of the enemy, he minimized the message box.
Now that he is no longer required to perform to order, Mr. Cherek Ved, consulting detective after the style of the fictional Sherlock Holmes, is free to follow up anything that catches his interest.
I find that Great Unsolved Cases of the Past are becoming my passion, particularly as more and more printed material is being scanned by readily available opto-electronic equipment and being made available to the on-line browser.
Material from newspapers and books presents few problems of access; as long as the sources are out of copyright. But Mr. Detective Ved is more interested in the growing range of 'new source' material in the form of diaries and hand-written documents, which has flooded into availability in recent years. Such items are offered in the form of 'high definition tiff files', which means little to the computer user who is not also a computer expert.
Even so, my computer seems happy to retrieve them from the various sources on the World Wide Web, although some of them are of a size calculated to do wonders for the telephone service providing company's profits and
The writer returned to aimless polishing of his article, looking for a way to eliminate a definite article from a sentence to improve the typography, as the Feck-Monster emerged from his office. Pierson Day homed in on some unfortunate woman in the area where Jeff Boon put in his less than 20% attendance in the newsroom.
Her name was something like Cassy, although she was somewhat older and blonder than Jackie's schoolfriend, and she still had delusions that the Feck-Monster could be deflected by a bright, female smile.
Just for the hell of it, the writer decided to send his message to the Feck-Meister. A hint of instability was never a bad thing in a journalist, he decided. But he would send it only after he had despatched the article on the 'crimes' of Mr. V. and Mr. K.
At present, I am cut off from the official archives of the police force and the Home Office, which I once roamed with such pleasure. Professional jealousy is the most corrosive sort, I find. And yet, I remain confident that I shall regain my rights of access in due course.
It has been my experience that
"What are you doing this afternoon?" the Feck-Monster asked as he approached the writer's work station.
"Subbing at the crown court for Trev. He reckons that fraud case won't start today, after all, but he wants someone there to be on the spot, just in case."
"Make sure you get something else worth printing from one of the other courts. And don't spend all feckan day skiving there."
"Right." The writer responded with relentless efficiency, letting the Feck-Monster know that they were all on the same team and all pulling together.
"Okay, get on with it." Pierson Day strode back to his office until it was time to harass someone else.
I have discovered that an excellent way of gaining access to otherwise inaccessible, hand-written material is to offer to provide an accurate transcript, to decipher often rank bad handwriting and present the material refreshed as a readily manipulatable text file.
It was while transcribing archive material from the Chedney area, the very material from which I am currently isolated, that I came across the first references to the Ottral Convenience.
Getting fed up with pointless polishing, the writer clicked on the OK button.
|We know what you are doing.|
The message was anonymous, the content unrevealing, the source unknowable. Picking the obvious suspect, the writer clicked the Reply button and addressed his response to Andras Ektors. A simple 'The Fec#!' seemed to cover everything.
Then, in a rush of responsibility, the writer saved and closed the article on the dubious activities of Messrs. Vaughan & Keyes and addressed the next item on his assignments list. By chance, his preliminary research required access to material which he knew was in the archive and which he knew had not yet been cross-indexed.
"Skiver," drifted to him from the work station behind him as the writer abandoned his work station to the screen saver after tacking a 'Gone To The Archive' message on a PostIt notelet to the top-centre of his monitor's frame.
Jackie Sydenham was surprised to see him and even more surprised to discover that he had a valid excuse for visiting her. The writer wondered if she would take the opportunity to suggest lunch together but he realized that more lunches would only feed the Feck-Monster's delusion. And his mission at the crown court meant that he had the opportunity to go for a lurk around town and eat lunch on the move.
There was something different about Sally Lee when she arrived on Tuesday morning. After just a few moment's though, the writer realized that there was less of her.
"Are you all right?" he asked in an apologetic tone which would not carry. There was no one else at the adjacent work stations at that moment. "You look like you've been well overworked and you're wasting away."
To the writer's surprise, Sally seemed pleased rather than offended by his observation. "I've been dieting and working out," she murmured.
"That's what you've been doing at lunchtimes?"
"And a couple of evenings, too."
"Oh, well, don't overdo it."
"Why, do you prefer your women fat?" Sally's tone fell just short of indignation; but not too far short.
"Point Number One: you're not fat and you weren't fat. Point Number Two, any self-respecting bloke prefers his women to look like female persons, not stick insects."
"That's good news because I'm only three pounds off my target weight."
"Which means what? Another week of hell?"
"Two weeks. The programme calls for a week off this week before the final push next week."
"Sounds like fun."
"So we could have lunch together today. Unless you and Jackie have plans?"
"Anything you've heard about me and Jackie - forget it. We're mates and that's all."
Heads means ignore, tails means accept. Bugger!, the writer added to himself as the coin came down 'tails'.
|Are you having an #ffair with S#lly as well as J#cki#?|
I admire your stamina.
J.B. Rules OK!
Death to everyone else!
Sally read the message and turned toward Jeff Boon's work station to glare at him. The writer clicked on the Reply button and sent: 'Jealos# #ill g#t yo# n#wh#re'. Then everyone made sure that they were sitting down at a work station and looking busy as Pierson Day emerged from his office for a first-thing tour of the newsroom.
The first references that I found to this strange phenomenon assumed that the reader would be familiar with whatever the Convenience is. It was not until he had delved back deep into the 18th Century that the consulting detective gained his first glimpses of the phenomenon and its relationship to the Ottrel or Ottral family, the latter spelling being the more common.
Finally, he reached the original source in the form of photographs of documents from the period 1653-1658. The originals had been lost in a fire during the Second World War but the photographs had survived in a secondary archive.
Lunch on a warm day was almost-outdoors. Sally had chosen an Italian café in a pedestrian precinct adjacent to the main city-centre shopping area. She preferred to sit inside, right at the front window, rather than outside. The risk of being dive-bombed by insects or a marauding gull was a whole lot less indoors.
"How old are you?" Sally asked the writer out of the blue as they were waiting for their orders of spicy pasta to arrive.
"Thirty-two," he replied promptly. "Why, how old are you?"
"And that proves what?"
"I find it very hard to tell how old some men are. I thought you were about the same age as me."
"And you were about right. Next question."
"Okay, which 50% do I belong to?"
"Have you ever found yourself in a conversation and not knowing what the hell it's about?" The writer put on a frown of total bafflement.
"Am I in the 50% of the women in the office you'd have an affair with or the 50% you wouldn't touch with a barge pole?"
"What do you care?"
"It would be nice to know what a man really thinks for once."
"Pure intellectual curiosity? I can dig that. But where do you get this 50-50 split from?"
"The magazine the question was in. Why, what do you reckon the split is?"
The writer began a mental calculation but found himself in difficulties right away. "How do you define 'the office'? Is that just the newsroom or does it include every woman I've met in the building?"
"Let's say, every woman you can see from your desk."
"Does that include Jill Day? Because she's definitely barge-pole category. Okay," the writer hacked into the Gordian Knot. "let's just say you're in the fanciable fraction, which is the much smaller of the two, and let it go at that."
A waitress rushed over with a tray bearing dishes of curiously shaped pasta and sauces. Her smile looked genuine rather than fixed, as if she was happy in her work.
"You value the esteem of your co-workers?" the writer asked when the waitress had gone. "Or do you prefer to be lusted after than barge-poled?"
"It's nice to get confirmation all this torture's been worth it."
"You were F-category rather than BP-category before the torture, you know. So I suppose you have to be F-Star now," the writer added diplomatically.
"Is Archive Jackie F-Star?"
"She certainly is. But she's got a steady boyfriend and she's not the cheating type."
"Did you have to get your face slapped to find that out?" Sally asked with a cheeky grin.
"It emerged from a full and frank, adult discussion. Somewhat like the one we're having now," the writer assured her. "How's your peculiarly shaped pasta? Mine actually tastes of something."
"It's great. You know, we should come here a lot."
"Are you allowed to? Under the terms of your contract with your health and fitness fascist?"
Sally nodded. "As long as I stick to proper meals and cut out the snacking."
"Sounds good to me. How did you find this place? It looks quite new."
"I was looking round for places to treat myself after all the torture and I liked the look of this place. It's a nice setting and the food's a bit unusual. But not too much so."
"It's certainly different. In a good sense," the writer added quickly.
As he devoted a fair share of attention to the food, the writer realized that once the Feck-Monster discovered that he was still enjoying his regular lunches with Sally Lee, continuing a habit which had begun in the writer's first week as a member of the newsroom's staff, then Pierson Day would start thinking that one of his underlings had pulled a fast one on him, which was grounds for severe retribution. And what more retributative punishment could there be than condemning the underling to even more time in the archive?
The writer had long been in favour of using the concept of 'havoc by accident' in his serious writing. It was nice to apply the same notion to Pierson Day unintended.