Late of the payroll, p.1
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       Late of the Payroll, p.1

           John Eider
Late of the Payroll

  Late of the Payroll

  By John Eider

  Copyright 2011 John Eider

  Chapter 1 – The Inspector’s Evening


  Inspector Graham Rase sat back on the green leather sofa that ran along the wainscotted wall. He was in the Reading Room of the Club, itself a part of the Royal Hotel and the closest thing that Southney, the town he lived in, had to a gentleman’s club of the old definition. Not that they had yet been reached by anything of the newer definition, of which he was rather glad, he considered, as he watched the air move across the large quiet space of the room before him.

  ‘Will there be anything else, sir?’ asked Parris, the ancient steward of the sanctum.

  ‘No, thank you, I must be off soon.’

  ‘Very well,’ answered the man, leaving as quietly as he had arrived.

  Grey, as he preferred to be known, had been invited to join upon becoming Acting Inspector, and had retained the membership after being confirmed in that role – a side-benefit, for the bestowing of which he was almost as grateful to his employers as for giving him the job itself. It was his Superintendent Rose, a Clubman himself, who both promoted and proposed him.

  He had arrived there late this day, coming not from work but an inter-divisional conference on the new thinking in tackling narcotic crime, especially among the young. A depressing day, with much evidence presented of lives ruined, as well as from those who had turned themselves around. At least these meetings with officers from other forces reassured the Inspector that his own team were not alone in the struggle. But getting back into town for near nine o’clock, too late to want to cook for himself, he had remembered the Dining Room, and how it catered for members at that hour.

  Having moved to the Reading Room, he recalled how what had been a lingering sense of the snobbery of the Club before becoming a member had changed, upon his acceptance, to a growing appreciation of having such a place at his disposal. This was no secret society, but only a space for business people to relax. And like the library that as a child he would flee to as an oasis in a chaotic day, so be began to find just being in these hallowed rooms made him smile.

  Across the room sat a gentlemen farmer, who Grey knew to live alone and so ate here most evenings. By the windows with a brass lamp to compensate for the dying light of autumn, two younger men in blazers – who might have been anything from salesmen to civil servants – pored over a broadsheet newspaper. Was anyone out there waiting? If so, then the men were not rushed to get back to them.

  Having eaten now though, and knowing he couldn’t sit here all evening musing on familiar themes, he roused himself to leave. Nodding his respects to the steward, he pressed first through the Club’s leather doors before spinning out through the rotating glass of the hotel entrance, to emerge into the warm air remaining of a still warmer day. He made his way the short distance to the Young Prince Hal Tavern.

  Though nearly October, they had been blessed this past fortnight with the weather held back from a poor August; and Grey for one was glad to have at last a few weeks in the year when he could quite safely leave the house each morning without a coat.

  The Prince had been his regular haunt long before the Club had lured him away at least a part of the time, it being close to both his home and work. Of the pubs in town it had the warmest atmosphere, and the heaters on in winter, not that they were needed yet with the upstairs windows of the flats he passed flung wide open to the summer-like evening. He pushed open the doors to the Prince. He knew the landlord.

  ‘Pint, Grey?’ Bill Blunt asked without moving from his position resting against the fridge at the back of the bar, his head beside the optics.

  ‘Just a half, thanks.’

  ‘Early night?’

  ‘Never pays to overdo it.’

  ‘I forgot, you coppers are all teetotallers aren’t you,’ added the landlord caustically. ‘Good job you’re not or I’d be a poor man.’

  ‘Don’t be soft – you make a killing at this place,’ Grey entering into their familiar banter. ‘We should know; we have to break up enough crowd scenes. How much are you pouring down these lads’ throats on a Friday night?’

  ‘Only what they pay for.’

  ‘Not much being paid for tonight though.’ Grey cast his eye across the bar almost as empty as the club he had just left.

  ‘No, a night like this makes a brewer weep. I bet they’re all where you’ve just come from, aren’t they?’

  ‘Bill, wherever they are, they are not there. When I left I took half their custom with me.’ It had actually been a quarter, but he exaggerated for effect.

  ‘Well, what a shame – all that uneaten lobster.’ It was Bill’s oft-asserted contention that not only would he himself not have joined the Club had he been invited on bended knee by the proprietor, but that he would also shun in the street and bar from his own establishment anyone he personally knew to be a member; however in Grey’s case this was a threat forever held off.

  ‘Yeah, they were scooping unsold caviar into the bin.’

  ‘Not good, Grey. Not good for a community – an elite like that cutting themselves off. How does that fit with the Post-War Dream, eh Grey? The Labour government wanted us all going to the same schools, lined up in the same hospital beds. How are we going to improve things when the nobs are buying better services, leaving us in the mire?

  ‘Your pub’s not that bad.’

  ‘And I could use another word.’

  ‘Yes, I’m quite sure of that.’

  ‘I know you’ve heard this speech before. I just wish I didn’t have to keep making it.’

  ‘Probably good someone still is.’

  ‘Aye, aye.’

  The Lounge was empty enough to let them talk without the interruption of anyone wishing to be served, but Grey let his friend’s point linger a while while nursing his half. Bill called goodnight to a couple who had been sipping gin and limes by the door – business dressed, he older, she younger. A boss and secretary, supposed Grey, though no deeper thoughts flowed from this starting point as they might had he noted such salaciousness while brighter-minded.

  ‘I might be off myself in a little while.’

  ‘Aye, I’d close up early if it weren’t for those lads still here.’ Bill gestured with a tilt of the head to the Bar, this being a traditionally laid-out public house.

  Tilting his own head, Grey looked through the broad archway, that formed the link from the plush Lounge with its cushioned chairs through to the Bar with its maroon leather stools. There he saw four men who, though some way along the L-shaped bar, had been talking loudly enough for their voices if not quite their words to have caught his fleeting attention.

  ‘I’m going to have to ask them to sup up in a minute,’ said Bill as he leaned across and rung the polished brass bell above the bar by its crimson cord. That was another thing Grey liked about this place – Bill had never applied for a later licence. Except for on only three or four big evenings a year he still called time at eleven, thus preserving in these two rooms for just a little while longer a trace of the land he and Grey had been brought up in.

  ‘Anything been happening?’ Grey asked quietly, a combination, as Bill knew full well, of professional data-gathering and personal plain nosiness; his friend lived to be intrigued.

  A gesture of the head drew Grey in closer, ‘Well, as it happens...’ The man leant in further to whisper, ‘You know there’s been talk, up at the plant.’

  ‘There’s always talk,’ Grey groaned, he hoping this might be something new.

  ‘Well, some of the workers are getting antsy – the management have put back announcing the new contract, the one with the hotel chain: the little fridges and drinks machines, the
one that’s meant to keep them busy over the winter? Some of the lads,’ he glanced conspiratorially around the almost empty pub, lingering on the lads in the Bar, ‘are thinking there isn’t going to be a new contract. No new work. And now there’s talk...’

  Grey didn’t need to hear any more. For either the story was true, plain and simple, or it was rumour, which were he to ask around for proof would only bring forth more empty conjecture. The plant referred to, as known by anyone around here, was Aubrey Electricals, one of the town’s larger employers.

  ‘Might be worth keeping an eye on though,’ said Grey thoughtfully, as a nod to the barman.

  ‘Well, isn’t Alexander a fellow of yours?’ This was a reference to Alex Aubrey, current chairman of the firm, as well as one of Grey’s fellow Clubmen.

  ‘Indeed he is, and mates with Rose too,’ Grey thinking back to anything his boss may have said to him of late. ‘I wonder if Aubrey’s said anything to him?’

  ‘Well, he might not have, mightn’t he, if his grip is slipping.’

  ‘Possibly, possibly,’ was all Grey replied with, as Bill watched his friend go into that common state of his, of drifting off into whatever thoughts had been sparked off by the conversation he has up until a moment before been engaged in.

  To be specific, Grey was recalling the last time he had had a face-to-face with Alex Aubrey; which had been at the Club as it happened – merely a handshake greeting, a common courtesy. He saw him at the football just as often, for Aubrey Electricals sponsored the town’s team, comprised, it being only an amateur outfit, largely of its younger factorymen.

  Had Alex on that occasion, now Grey had a cause to look for them, shown any hidden signals of alarm, signs of secret stress? It had seemed a jovial enough chat that last time, but then that was the way of the man; a natural salesman, always on the up. And so it seemed again, when replaying it in his mind – this hadn’t seemed a man in trouble. One thing was for sure though: next time the two men met, the full force of Grey’s subtle armoury, of investigative nous, of imperceptible inquisitiveness, would be deployed for the slightest sign of anything amiss.

  Grey wondered if Bill had any more to say. But before the had had a chance to resume, he was interrupted by a call from the booze-hounds in the Bar, to be served that last order of drinks the bell permitted.

  ‘I’ll go and tell them the barrel’s off,’ he groaned as he left to ask them if they didn’t think it much more sensible to instead get themselves off home in time for the snooker highlights. That this tactic failed was no more of a surprise to Bill than to the policeman he had until a moment ago been speaking; who supped up his own drink and followed the landlord over to where he was now been barracked and abused.

  ‘Come on lads, let’s not spoil a good evening.’ Grey had the lines down pat. ‘Why don’t you get off to your beds, there’s no more beer being served here tonight.’

  ‘Who the hell are you to tell us we can’t have another drink?’ called a young man, tall, light haired. Grey guessed he must be sporty too to combine such a healthy frame with the kind of alcohol consumption betrayed by his slurring tones and waxen, clammy skin. ‘I want another pint!’ he demanded, turning to Bill and banging his glass on the bar with force enough to smash it in his hand if he wasn’t careful.

  ‘You’re always putting your bloody beak in, you people aren’t you?’ This was another man: older, rounder and with the kind of navvy’s haircut you would never pay a professional to provide. ‘What harm are we doing you sat over there, Inspector? Why don’t you go back over there and finish your drink, and let us finish ours.’

  That these words had been spoken seriously, and not as ill-placed irony or black humour or Lord-knew-whatever else, was evident in the stout man’s steely gaze. Grey had become used to being addressed in all manner of ways these twenty years or so he’d been serving the force, but bare faced contempt, simple dismissal in this case, still held the power to stop him in his tracks a moment. Did the man really expect him to say sorry and shuffle back over to his spot at the bar?

  ‘Inspector?’ the younger man babbled after hearing his friend address the man who had approached them. ‘The Inspector calls!’ he announced theatrically, as if remembering some school production, hollering the words with a joviality just this side of boorishness.

  ‘Had a good night have you, son? Well perhaps it’s time your mates here got you home.’ The lad was only in his first few years of working, for he wore the same green overalls as his older colleagues; yet Grey could see the work hadn’t broken him yet, and when he spoke it was with the impetuosity of youth,

  ‘Have you had a good night then, Inspector? Aren’t you meant to be out catching criminals or something?’ Giggling as he spoke, the young fellow moved toward Grey and nearly went over, requiring another of the men to steady him, who, even as he did so, looked at his unstable colleague with what Grey thought could have been disappointment in his young charge.

  ‘Well, we don’t live in the station,’ answered Grey tersely.

  ‘My father would have clipped me for speaking to a police officer like that.’ Bill was at the point of coming around the bar and throwing this kid out manually.

  ‘He’s upset, Inspector,’ offered the older man by way of explanation. ‘We all are. So would you be if you’d just heard the news we have.’

  ‘And what news is that?’ This was becoming an open confrontation now, and much as he tried to quell it and continue speaking calmly, Grey felt authority surge through him – he would not be moving an inch, and just let this fellow try and make him.

  But the man was having none of it, and he dismissed the Inspector, turning away as he spoke, ‘Oh, your lot wouldn’t care. You’re all in it together. Another excuse to get your truncheons out.’

  Grey had no idea what he was on about; meanwhile the younger man continued to stare blearily at him, before attempting to focus his gaze behind the officer and onto the empty half-pint glass left on the bar where Grey had been standing,

  ‘Is that your glass?’ he began haltingly, ‘A half? I’ve never known a policeman drink so little. Don’t tell me that’s your first? I bet you’ve been knocking them back all night,’ he said, before asking with a rich tang of sarcasm, ‘I do hope you’re not driving home, Inspector?’

  This was becoming insufferable.

  ‘And nor you I hope, Mr..?’ Grey turned slightly to face this younger man, unable to stop himself assuming the full upright posture fitting for such a semi-official interview; while repeating to himself the policeman’s lamentation that an officer was to some degree always on his watch.

  The man, stuck by this sudden switch from off- to on-duty, sobered up quickly, and in a moment looked almost sheepish before the town’s official, his facial expression suddenly one of not wishing to have caused anyone any trouble.

  ‘You know,’ resumed the drunken man after a pause, in a tone now of part-disappointment and part-civic co-operation, ‘if it’s villains you’re after, you only have to look along the road there.’ He pointed wildly out in the direction of the pub door, the man supporting him moving back to avoid having his hand in his face.

  ‘Oh yes?’ Grey found it harder to readjust his tone, he having gathered himself for confrontation.

  ‘Well,’ the young man said, now looking positively apologetic, Grey remembering he lived in a town that still had a lot of respect for the police, ‘we might need a few of your lot down there any day now, especially if we get our hands on that Alex Aubrey.’

  (When looking back on this scene, Grey wouldn’t be certain he hadn’t caught the older man firing a wicked look at his young companion as he said this.)

  ‘The plant?’ Grey was catching up now. ‘You mean Aubrey’s?’

  The young man nodded his head with a judder, ‘I won’t hold myself responsible for what I do to him.’ He said this quite calm and matter-of-factly.

  ‘Hold up. Now no one’s going to be doing anything to anyone. What’s the trouble?’ Gre
y was on his night off, but this was what he lived for. But it was too late, for the older man was already leading the youngster away, and gesturing for the others to follow; pausing only to say as he left,

  ‘They’re robbing us blind, you know, Inspector. They don’t care about the workers, they’d throw us all out on the scrapheap tomorrow. We might not have jobs this time next week, while that pair swan in and out of there in that bloody massive car of theirs...’ his thoughts though were left unfinished as the group found their way out, Grey left with the impression though that the man had said slightly more than he’d meant to.

  ‘They don’t even care about us. They just don’t care!’ concurred the young drunk from the street as the doors closed, leaving the other two men – silent throughout – to help carry him home.

  ‘What’s it coming to?’ muttered Bill as, stoical to the last, he returned to his place behind the bar and began wiping glasses with a cloth in automatic ritual.

  ‘“In drink”,’ uttered Grey.

  ‘Sorry?’ asked Bill?

  ‘Do people still use that term, “In drink”?’

  ‘I don’t know, but it would serve to tell of that lad if they did.’

  Grey was bamboozled, reeling from the encounter, affronted by the men’s different tones; the younger lad clearly ‘in drink’ whether people still used the term or not, but as for the other fellow, he had been wound up like a clockwork toy, sprung like a jack-in-the-box. Grey hadn’t enjoyed dealing with him at all.

  ‘Never seen him like that though,’ Bill mentioned as an aside, clarifying at Grey’s insistence: ‘The young one – he’s in here sometimes, but I’ve never seen him that bad. I should have stopped serving them earlier I suppose.’

  Grey shook his head at it all, ‘I’ll give them a couple of minutes and be off myself.’

  ‘Maybe there is something in it?’

  ‘I hadn’t heard anything.’

  ‘But then there’s always rumours around the plant,’ conceded Bill, echoing Grey’s earlier thought.

  ‘So,’ continued Bill, ‘perhaps they should eat, drink and be merry, while they can still afford to?’

  Grey, nodding his regards, and wholly unconvinced by it all, pushed his drained glass across the bar and was off.

  It was, he pondered as the cooling air of evening hit him, the night now as dark as it would get, a sign of age to recognise how often the antics of youth are seen by the rump of society not as rebellious or fearful but merely course and insulting; you might even say pitiful. A young man barely able to stand while issuing insults – where is the rebellion in that?

  Even as he thought these words Grey recognised how crustily old they made him sound. He didn’t really believe such sentiments, he just seemed to get the kids of today less and less; which was perhaps the whole point, and exactly the effect they wished to achieve with each new fad and fancy took up to horrify their parents. It was a phase we all went through he realised, just hoping the current young didn’t wreck themselves permanently as a result, as the horror stories from the conference echoed in his mind.

  But what had the encounter told him?

  Aubrey Electricals had been one of the town’s biggest employers for years, operating from a factory on the outskirts of the town centre. They had taken up where the old factories that had build bombers in the war had left off, and the plant was built on land formerly occupied by the airfield and aerodrome. They specialised in precision cutting, assembled parts, and latterly, small electronic devices for larger appliances. The chances were a part of your fridge or microwave had passed through the Aubrey production line.

  In his minds eye, the four men in their green overalls represented several hundred fellows, many more counting casuals. Yet while as prone to union dispute as any large organisation, they were in practice as benign a group of men as any of that size could be expected to be. He summed it up thus: that although in the course of his duties over the years he had most surely dealt with men – for they were almost all men – who worked there, it was never because they worked there. This seemed an important distinction.

  However, as he walked along lit streets and past darkened houses, across the rooftops Grey caught the strain of voices. He guessed they were those of men from the pub, for he had seen few other souls along his walk home; yet where before they had been seething and surly, what he heard now was… singing, yes singing, as if the men, far from cursing lost jobs were instead returning from a victorious sporting occasion.

  Were these the sounds of celebration, or at least of lamentation, of one last toast being raised before going their own ways home? And Grey thought he understood now, that what he had seen in the Prince Hal Bar might not only have been a protest or venting of anger, but also a wake: a sending off of the jobs and lives the men had known, a last hurrah on the eve of God-knew-what... and he had called time on it.

  Sad to have that understood (as he caught one last hollered refrain) yet proud of the town he lived in, where he hoped a man facing disaster could still look it in the eye, he thought about what the men had been saying and took their late-night notions at face value – for what would it matter, if these rumours of job cuts turned out to be just rumours? Grey strode though the almost-empty streets as if a soldier through a battlefield on the eve of war. All around him, in lit flats and curtained houses, were men, women, families, getting ready for their beds if not already in them; and he wondered how many would have joined these men in song had they only known what may be coming in the following weeks?

  But these thoughts and images were just surface froth, the flotsam of an active mind running over as he found his way home, final daydreams minutes before authentic sleep, and would surely be forgotten by the morning.

  Chapter 2 – Missing Persons


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