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The Ottral Convenience #2

A side trip to a book on England's history told the great consulting detective that the photographed documents had been written during the time when Oliver Cromwell had been Lord Protector. The last of them had been written in October, 1658, the month after Cromwell's death.
    Showing both discipline and patience, Mr. Cherek Ved typed out the text of the documents and sent his transcript off as an email to the organization that owned the documents before he pursued the trail of the mysterious Ottral Convenience further.
    Knowing the terms of reference allowed him to follow the trail forward with a greater degree of understanding than during the journey back in time. What he had, by the time he reached Victorian times, was a series of unexplained events which looked suspiciously like unsolved murders to a working detective's eye.
    Mr. Ved concluded that sometime in the 17th century, the Ottral family's male line had discovered a means of disposing of inconvenient wives and other enemies.
    Their discovery was, in fact, so devilish and diabolical that no one suspected that their victims had met their end through other than entirely natural causes.

Jackie Sydenham and the writer approached one of the Sentinel & Advertiser's beverage dispensers simultaneously. She acknowledged his 'ladies first' gesture with a smile.
    "So what's going on between you and Sally Lee?" Jackie asked in a bantering tone.
    "About as much as there is going on between you and me," the writer replied. "Why?"
    "You always seem to have plenty to say to each other."
    "Sally is a natural sharer of confidences."
    "But you're not?"
    "Serious writers talk to their computers."
    "Talking about that, how are you getting on with my novel?"
    "I'm about half way through it."
    "Heavy going?"
    "In places. But that's easily repaired. You just tend to let your paragraphs go on too long in places. As for the story, it's holding my interest. Although your hooks could do with a bit of thinking over."
    "My whats?" Jackie asked with a frown.
    "The little teasers you put at the end of a chapter to make the reader go on to the next one."
    "Oh, right. Yes, I'm still working on some of them."
    "Yes, I thought they were a bit uneven."
    "So anyway, you don't think I should wipe the floppy and start again?" Jackie was trying to sound casual rather than pleased.
    "I think you have a reasonable piece of work on your hands. Although when it comes to finding a publisher ..."
    "I was thinking of putting it on the Internet. That's quite cheap."
    "Certainly a lot cheaper than paying a cowboy publisher several grand for a dubious product."
    "You can carry on talking to your girlfriend in the archive," the Feck-Monster told the writer, doing a stroll-past torpedo run to let him know that his little scheme to avoid doing his fair share of toiling there had flopped badly. "You're there for the rest of the day. Trevor's covering your outstanding assignments."
    "Great! Super!" the writer said, showing proper enthusiasm for his work.
    "Enjoy yourself," Pierson Day returned with a smile to tell the writer that he was fooling no one.
    "Do you think he was born unpleasant or he has to work on it?" Jackie murmured, even though the Feck-Monster had passed out of earshot.
    "Both," said the writer.

The legend of a deadly creature living in the woodland on the Ottral estate turned out to be considerably older than the documents from the interregnum period. Mr. Cherek Ved was able to track mentions of the monster back to pre-Roman times.
    His initial quick scan left him with nothing in the way of descriptive information in either text or picture form. People had heard the creature moving about, especially at times when the woodland had been dry and brittle, and people had disappeared without trace in what would become the Ottrals' woods. But no one who had ever seen the creature had survived to give an account of the awful experience.
    Apart from strong warnings not to venture into the woodland at night and on dark days, Mr. Ved obtained little concrete information other than a list of the names applied to the creature through the ages.

Retrieving information onto a work station from a conventional floppy diskette, or one of its larger cousins such as a Zip disk, involved an obligatory virus scan. The procedure was mercifully quick in the case of a conventional floppy but the fact that a virus scan had been performed remained in a log file on the Sentinel & Advertiser's computer system and the information could be used against the person concerned at a future date.
    The idea behind the procedure was to allow the convenience of importing information created on a staff member's home computer but to discourage the introduction of dodgy software and games onto the system. The IT department's main concern was to exclude viruses and unlicensed software. The management's secondary consideration was to let people know that their actions were monitored and messing about in the company's time would be detected and stamped upon.
    Legitimate writing projects remained a grey area. The writer felt entitled to keep some of his efforts on the system - and to deliver regular back-ups to his personal parking area on his own website and make independent copies on floppy diskettes.
    Jackie Sydenham preferred to keep the main working copy of her novel on an elderly laptop. No one monitoring the computer network would know when she was taking a personal time-out for creative writing and the drain on the company's electricity supply was too small to be noticed.
    After a token assault on the mammoth job of cross-indexing, the writer soon found himself sitting beside his colleague's laptop, indicating where to break excessively long paragraphs into more digestible chunks.
    "I hope your mate doesn't come sneaking in and catch us doing this," Jackie remarked as she was clicking from page to page in search of another lump.
    "Yes, it would probably be a good idea to have an alibi ready," the writer agreed.
    "Like what? What would you think would work on him?"
    "You're showing me your antique computer and asking me if I think you should get a new one?"
    "What, because all blokes are experts on computers as well as everything mechanical?" laughed Jackie.
    "Stereotypes do have their advantages."
    "I suppose they do."
    "Or we could just be blatant about it and let him know we're wasting a bit of time while there's no one watching us. I mean, what's he going to do?" The writer spread his hands in a gesture intended to express the Feck-Monster's lack of options. "Tell me I can't come down here any more when he sees working on this job as a punishment?"
    "I think the computer advice option is safer," Jackie decided. "I could even ask his opinion to butter him up a bit."
    "Some people are best not buttered up and encouraged," the writer decided.
    "Yeah," laughed Jackie, "we'll just let him know we're skiving and we don't care."

The expression The Ottral Convenience first appeared in the early part of the 19th Century. A neighbour of the Ottrals coined it in a sequence of diary entries written [by the neighbour] around the disappearance of a local magistrate in the late winter of 1804/1805.
    The gentleman in question had delivered several questionable judgements against members of the Ottral family at a time where there were strong rumours in circulation of excessive bribery and corruption involving the local judiciary. Naturally, the Ottrals had not been backward in giving justice a helping hand but they had been powerless when the forces of greed had been overcome by spite and enmity. Although

Having spent another morning in the archive, the writer approached his work station, intending to collect his jacket from the file drawer of the desk, with the air of a man who had just survived a long journey of exploration and who was struggling to get back on terms with once familiar surroundings.
   "What are you doing about lunch?" Sally Lee asked from the adjacent work station.
   "Have we been introduced?" the writer countered a question with a question. "It's been so long since I was here that I can't remember who anyone is."
   "That sounds useful!" laughed Sally. "Especially when it comes to everyone called Day."
   "What, they've been using you as a tug-of-war rope again?"
   "You don't know the half of it," sighed Sally.
   As Sally looked thoroughly involved in doing something, the writer thought about checking his messages. "Another thing I can't remember is how you switch this on." The writer looked at the beige box that housed his computer's guts with an air of helplessness.
   The mini-tower case lived in a compartment under the desk and adjacent to the knee well. There was a substantial partition wall on the CPU side to protect it from the feet of frustrated users.
   "See that red button where it says 'power'?" Sally told him. "You push that."
   "How ingenious." The writer pushed the button and watched his monitor as the operating system begin the long boot-up process.
   "You remember what lunch is?" Sally added. "But I suppose you and Jackie have plans."
   "Actually, no. She wants to do some shopping and we agreed we'd probably have trouble finding something to talk about after spending the morning yakking away. So if you're looking for someone to go somewhere exciting with you, I volunteer."
   "How about some spicy pasta?"
   "Sounds good to me."

You Now Have 68 Unread Messages

If a pop-up box could transmit mood as well as message, this one was setting new records for being pissed off and petulant, the writer felt.
    "That's your afternoon sorted out," Sally remarked. "And I think this rubbish can wait till then."
   "Except that I have other things planned. I wonder how many messages this thing can store before your personal box gets filled up and the machine can't stuff any more in?"
   "Looks like you're well on the way to finding out. Are you going to look at half of them now?"
   "Nah, there's this woman waiting to go to lunch with me and you know how pissed off women get if you keep them waiting for anything."
    "Right," nodded Sally, "they're almost as bad as men. I don't think my world record for unread messages has ever got over sixty."
    "I wonder if you can apply the 'don't vote, it only encourages them' concept to e-messages?"
    Sally shook her head. "The more you don't read them, the more they'll send. It's the way the world works."

According to eyewitness accounts, the local constabulary, while investigating the magistrate's disappearance, had found a half-frozen horse tethered to a tree and a trail of footsteps in the snow, leading away from the horse. That trail had just stopped in the middle of a clearing.
    The tale seemed typical of encounters with whatever had been haunting the woods for over two thousand years. People went into the woods and they just disappeared, leaving no trace of how they had met their end or

Another working day saw the writer facing the prospect of being anchored at his usual work station until going-home time. He was involved in a major push to create a bit of space for himself, assignments-wise, and he was even prepared to tackle some more of his unread messages.
    But there was more to the life of a creative person than just work assignments. True, he had to keep up appearances while the Feck-Monster was creating havoc all around the newsroom, but the flow of inspiration could not be denied an outlet.

An excursion to a heritage website told Mr. Cherek Ved that there had been sizeable woods still on the Ottral estate in the 20th Century and that the family had begun to extend their plantations in the early years of the new millennium.
    The armchair detective was somewhat disappointed to find that no evidence came to light of the presence of a mysterious creature; indeed, a race of creatures which had been breeding and thriving in the woods for two millennia.
    A new woodland management plan meant that all areas of the estate had to be visited, mapped and evaluated for commercial potential. Nobody disappeared during the mapping phase and nobody had a close encounter with anything more startling than a fox.
    And yet, Mr. Cherek Ved told himself, given the nature of the beast, if it existed, it would know when to stay out of sight and when

"The feck you think you're up to?" Pierson Day stopped at his work station as the writer was gazing up at a patch of ceiling between two light fittings, in search of enlightenment.
    "Which do you think is more interesting, a mystery or its explanation?" the writer asked. "What I mean is, are people more likely to want to read a good mystery or someone debunking it? Or two people debunking it in an unlikely way and a likely way?"
    "If this is all about the Redding story, just get on with the assignment you were given, even it you don't think the debunking explanation is all that likely."
    "Yes, but don't you think Mrs. Carpenter has a better explanation than that idiot of a professor?"
    "What you think is irrelevant," the Feck-Meister said bluntly. "Get on with it."
    "Right!" The writer sat up and attacked his keyboard in a display of frenzied and totally bogus enthusiasm.

More browsing through legal records by Mr. Ved turned up an account of a libel action, which had been brought against one of the Ottrals in the 1920s by a neighbour.
    Contemporary records suggest that everyone expected the outcome to be an easy victory for the neighbour and utter ruination for the Ottrals. But the case never came to trial for reasons that were dark, devious and shocking.
    The postman who served the Ottral estate eventually found a car abandoned on the fringes of their land. There were signs that the owner of the vehicle, the plaintiff in the libel action, had entered the woods and then vanished off the face of the Earth. Extensive searches of the woodland, some with tracker dogs, failed to turn up the slightest trace of the missing man. Police inquiries over several months were similarly unfruitful.
   Although the term Ottral Convenience had dropped out of common currency at that time, it is clear from surviving documents that many people had devised their own, parallel version of the phrase.

You Have 1 New Message

The writer clicked on the OK button, having completed his thought.

The Redding story will do but stick more closely to the brief in future.
Pierson Day

The writer assumed that he had received grudging approval and that his approach to the item had provided something better than expected - although Pierson Day would allow his finger- and toenails to be heaved out one by one until they were all history before he admitted as much.

The common sentiment, Mr. Ved judged, was that everyone knew who had done away with the missing man; even if it was a generic rather than a specific 'who' - 'The Ottrals' rather than any particular one or two of them; but no one could say how it had happened.
    Of course, many people were prepared to believe that the cause of the disappearance of the plaintiff in the impending libel action had a supernatural root. But what no one was able to do was provide the who, where, when and how of getting rid of the body.
    In considering the 'urge to the supernatural', Mr. Ved concluded that people wanted it to be true because they wanted it to be true for them. It gave them the hope of obtaining an 'edge' on the rest of the world. If the Ottrals had access to the supernatural, then they, too, might uncover the same dark secret. The root of their desire was, of course, pure selfishness
    On balance, however, Mr. Cherek Ved was of the opinion that the Ottrals had created, or fostered, the legend as a means of covering up the fact that one of them had got rid of an inconvenient wife over 3 centuries before. Further, he believed that subsequent generations had used the story to cover up murder in their turn.
   There is a saying that the oldest blood is the most corrupt. Certainly, where arrogance, exploitation and immunity are established and expected, there is a certain expectation that more of the same will pass down the generations. And a secret which had worked for several centuries

"What do you know about the Ottral Convenience?" Pierson Day asked in a knowing tone. He had attempted to sneak up on the writer to find out what he was doing. He had succeeded - only to find him working on one of his assignments. The disappointment was plain to someone who knew how to read the unevenly tanned face.
    "I don't think anyone really knows all that much about it." The writer returned a non-committal, standard response. "Anyone outside the family, that it."
    "I need about 600 words which will get past the libel lawyer. A history to the present day."
    "Sounds possible."
    "And I need it by two o'clock."
    "Sounds like a bit of a scramble." The writer looked up at one of the wall clocks. The time was 11:42.
    "So the sooner you get on it, the less of a scramble it'll be," the Feck-Meister said with devastating logic.
    The writer retrieved his assignments file and added the new item at the foot of the list. The Feck-Monster kidnapped his mouse to select and drag the item to the head of the list. Then Pierson Day headed back to his office, looking pleased with his command of computer technology.

You Have 1 New Message

The writer produced a 1 coin. Heads is 'ignore', he reminded himself. The coin obliged him to click on the OK button.

What are you doing about lunch today?
Archive Jackie

The writer sent a reply explaining his predicament. 'Work or die' was how he put it. Then he wasted several minutes wondering why the Feck-Meister had selected him, rather than some other victim, to write a piece on the Ottral Convenience. None of the conclusions that he reached was particularly comforting.

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