Part Five:The story so far
Henry foolishly tells Toni that he witnessed her motel rendezvous, and she smashes his face in. The police come to question him about the reckless driving and Henry, complete with liver-covered black eye, is humiliatingly forced to recount the entire journey in meticulous detail. Meanwhile, back at the office, Toni worries about Henry and is furious for letting her steroid-induced rage rear its ugly head. She also reflects on her decision to make yesterday's visit to the Motor Inn - for another irregular anonymous bonk with a Scandinavian member of staff whose name she demands not to know - her last. When Henry returns to the office later that morning, he sees a remarkable sight - Toni crying.
Now read on
Henry went quickly to her side just as she started to wail. He squatted down and put his arm around her shoulders. It was a stretch, but he managed it.
"Hey, hey - what's this? What's the matter?" Toni wailed again.
"Here - come into my office. Don't want the whole world to see you blubbing, eh?" She stood up and allowed him to escort her into his room. As soon as they crossed the threshold she crouched down inside the door, her back against the partition. Henry closed the door and waited. After a few moments of uncontrolled weeping Toni beckoned to him.
"Tissue . . . tissue . . ." she demanded. Henry rifled his desk, knowing full well that he had none. He handed her some blotting paper in the hope it might make her laugh. She threw it back at him.
"You can have my handkerchief if you like . . ."
Toni gasped and waved it away.
"No - it's clean for a change."
She looked up, saw the handkerchief neatly folded and ironed, and took it.
"There - you see how you are reforming me?" he said. Still no reaction.
"In case you are wondering," said Henry at length, "I still haven't found you another job, but I'm working on it . . ."
This had the reverse effect from the one intended and set back her recovery by a full two minutes.
Then, after she had pulled herself together a little, Toni managed to speak.
"Dere's do deed," she said. "I've hadded in my dotice. On your desk."
Henry, who had thought that there was little more that life could throw at him, received this new blow in silence. He sat down at his desk and fingered the neat white envelope with his name on it.
"Toni - I can't tell you how sorry I am for what I did yesterday. It was stupid, really, really stupid. I don't blame you for flying off the handle like you did. I'd have done the same - though less effectively, no doubt . . . I didn't know what I was doing. I was so looking forward to seeing you.Then when I saw you leave, I was so disappointed - I just went after you, that's all. I wasn't intending to spy. I just did it because . . ."
Toni looked up. "Yes?" ". . .because I'm a fool."
"Oh . . ." Toni looked down again and blew her nose.
"Don't worry about the hanky. I have plenty more . . ." Still no reaction. "Come on, cheer up, and I'll tell you all about the visit I had from the plod this morning."
"I'm miserable, Henry," she said through her tears, her mouth twisted into the shape of a dumbbell.
"I hate my life. I hate my job. I hate the pigsty I live in. I haven't got a place of my own and I can't afford to get one. I'll never get promoted. You're never going to help because you're useless and it's just less effort to keep me where I am. I'm just pissing about, Henry, just pissing about. I'm 24 for Christ's sake! South-West Ladies' Amateur Champion. Big ****ing deal."
"Better than having nowhere to go but down . . ." said Henry encouragingly.
"Maybe I should turn pro. Or take up yachting. Something, just something!" She blew her nose again.
"I thought you wanted a career in the media."
"Oh yeah, fat ****ing chance."
"Well, the best way in is to show them that you can do it. That was why this Lamorna thing was so interesting - wasn't it? A real investigation, with the chance - just the chance - of a juicy story . . ."
No reply. Toni whimpered softly.
"Look, please don't go."
She looked up hopefully.
"Not at least until - but hang on a minute."
Toni lost the hopeful look. "What?" "You haven't any leave left this year have you?" "So?" "Well, you can't leave just now - you have to work out a month's notice!" "Yeah, so?" "Well that's wonderful! That's quite enough. Marvellous!" "Oh, so it's marvellous is it? Plenty of time to find someone else, you mean?" "No - you know what I mean . . ."
"What do you mean exactly, Henry?" "Simply that you'll have time to finish your investigation, that's all. And after that, you'll see!" Toni did not seem to share Henry's sudden lift in spirits and got to her feet. "I see now . . ." she said frostily. She dusted herself down, sniffed, wiped her eyes and stood rather stiffly in front of his desk, as though delivering a report. "My friend in student records has gone through the names. And they're all dead. And Entwhistle left me the revised lists on my chair last night. I found them this morning."
"And what is missing?" "I used the computer to subtract one text from the other and highlight all the missing bits in red."
"And?" "There's nothing missing except the mystery list. Everything else is just the same."
Henry sat back and put his hands behind his head. "Marvellous!" "Henry, if you say 'marvellous' once more, I swear I'll close your other eye for you."
"Sorry. Well then, what now?" "I don't care. I've lost interest. You want to find out any more, do it yourself," she said, though she didn't leave.
"Where do they come from, these stiffs?" said Henry, ignoring her.
"Why?" "Well, when you come up against a full stop and you seem to have found out everything and it all checks out except it doesn't make sense, the next question you ask is, 'who stands to benefit?'. Now most benefits are either sex or money or both. I think we can discount sex. So that leaves money. Do you know how universities are funded?" "No."
"Well - I suggest you go and find out. And then ask yourself where these students come from - it should then be obvious why that is the question to ask. Once that checks out, we can proceed with the next stage."
"Which is?" "Naming the guilty men! Or threatening to, at least. The power of the press. There's not a thrill like it, Toni. Better than yachting. Now then - if you will excuse me, I must talk to the vice chancellor."
"What about?" "Look - you do your end of this - leave me to do mine."
Toni went out. "Mysterious prick," she said.
Henry realised that the feeling he had had of being at last in control of destiny had completely evaporated. Everything had been going so well - but now he was in danger of losing control. He resolved to stop the rot. The hole he had dug himself into must get no deeper. Every man, they say, has his breaking point. Years and years of abuse by successive employers had pushed Henry's tolerance higher and higher up the scale, such that he could now take almost anything.
But Toni's letter of notice was the last straw. He gritted his teeth and went to work. After fixing an interview with Sir William - who by some miracle happened to be in and free that morning - he turned on his computer and began to write. He wrote a memorandum to Dr Ffrancis, apologising profusely for his erratic driving through campus - which he explained away as the result of a bad reaction to the cocktail of drugs he had been taking for a long-standing medical problem. He offered to apologise in person to Mr Hipkiss, and to compensate the university in full for the cost of all damages for which he was responsible. He ended his note with a full no-holds-barred grovel, prostrating himself at the registrar's feet and begging his mercy.
This might not seem like an act of great resolve and courage, but it involved swallowing all the tattered remnants of his pride and drew from Henry an almost superhuman effort. What is more, he had learned a few things - from Joseph Stalin to Dr Ffrancis himself - about the noble art of retreating tactically.
As soon as he had put the memo in a confidential envelope and posted it in the pigeon-hole outside the registrar's door, Henry drew out his important fountain pen and wrote a charming personal letter to Miss Crispin. He apologised for his erratic driving, ascribing it to a bad reaction to a cocktail of drugs he had been prescribed for a long-standing medical condition, and offering to replace in full the value of all items that were on the line.
He also offered to provide her with a new washing line of whatever type she wanted, to be installed at his expense by the contractor of her choice. In the meantime, he would, if she wished, pay all her laundry bills or take her soiled linen to the launderette himself - whichever she preferred. He ended by inviting her round to tea - which made at least two invitations he was absolutely sure would never be accepted.
"How much can a washing line cost?" he asked himself as he licked the envelope and affixed a first-class stamp.
At this point he received a call from the poached halibut to inform him that the v-c was free and would see him.
Henry arrived at the v-c's door to find Ffrancis leaving - clutching a piece of green paper that looked remarkably like his memorandum. The registrar scowled at him, and Henry smiled the smile of a convalescent struggling to keep up appearances.
His interview with the v-c lasted about an hour. When it was over Sir William accompanied him to the door.
"Just make sure that they get the impression that the whole scheme was my idea and that I knew about it right from the beginning . . ." Sir William said, with a greedy leer.
Henry reassured him. The v-c paused and came closer. "You think there could be national coverage in a story like this?" "Newsnight at the very least. Maybe, at a later date, a Panorama or World in Action . . . who can say? The national stage."
Energlyn bared his yellow teeth. "Good show, Battersby - good show!" He lowered his voice and drew Henry even closer, making him dig his chin into his chest. "You did right, coming to me first."
"Oh no, vice chancellor, you did right, by having me report to you and not you-know-who . . ."
Sir William was happy - as always - to take the credit. "Quite so!" Henry tripped briskly back to his office. Toni was poring over various books, annual reports, impenetrable press releases from the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, and hardly more penetrable back issues of The Times Higher Education Supplement.
"Come on - never mind that - conference - my office - now!" said Henry, in his best editorial manner.
Toni grabbed her papers and a notebook and followed him.
"Right - university funding. What have you found out?" "Fuck-all. It's a nightmare. The money comes from all over the place."
"Yes - nobody understands it. Don't worry about that. What's the student connection?" "Well, students bring in tuition fees."
"Right. Where do they come from?" "Their local education authorities. And they get the money from central government."
"Right. Now how does a local education authority know how much it owes the university? How does it know how many students from its area are studying here and how much their fees are? Where do they get that information?" Toni looked confused. "From us, I suppose."
"Exactly. Now then - what if one of these students were to die?" Toni thought hard. "If we were to go on telling his or her local education authority that they were still here . . . would they quibble?" "What do you think? Can you see an LEA running through these lists just to make sure that all the students they are paying for are still living?" Henry raised an eyebrow.
"Right. You see, the money isn't even theirs - they're just the middle men. They draw it down, and pass it on. Actually, the more they draw down, the better they like it. Improves their cash flow. Now - do you see why I ask where these students are coming from?" "No."
"Think! Where do students come from?" "All over - the world . . ."
"Right. And some who come from overseas die, from time to time, don't they? There was one last year for instance - a Miss Liu, as I remember. Arrived already sick and died of yellow fever. I bet she's not on the list."
Toni checked. She wasn't. But there was a Shaheen Bin Aziz and a Mohammad Al-Bakai.
"Yes, Toni. Lots of folk from Bradford and Hackney have awfully strange names these days. Check them out! I'll bet any money you like that there's not one overseas student on this list."
Toni knitted her brows.
"Look - each country only has, at the very most, a few thousand students to worry about in the whole of the UK. And believe me, they get to hear when one of them dies. Their embassies know exactly how many of their citizens are here, probably to two decimal places. There's not a hope in hell of fooling them. No. If you want to siphon off some cash, you have to do it from home. Right - you check out those Al-Bakais and what not just to be sure. Next we must find out where the money is going after it gets here. You can think about that. Try to imagine what kind of percentage of the total Government-derived income of this university is accounted for by these poor souls."
"Next to nothing."
"A drop in the ocean - it'd make no difference to the university at all. What does that tell us?" Toni saw the glimmers of a faint light dawning. "That it's not the university itself. It's not institutional. It's - someone!" "Exactly. Wouldn't be worth the candle for the university. Which brings us back to the disgruntled, embittered minor official. See how it all begins to come together?" Toni looked at the papers in front of her and began nodding as she worked it all through in her head. She smiled the broadest, most beautiful smile that Henry had ever seen. They both laughed.
"That's better" said Henry. Then he turned more serious. "Toni . . ." he said.
"Yes?" "I still have that video of Bringing up Baby back at the flat. I did enjoy those evenings we spent together. If you're not running 50 miles, or wind-surfing to Ireland . . ."
"Water-skiing. No, I'm not."
"How would you like me to take you out somewhere for a meal, to thank you - for everything - and say I'm sorry? Then we can go back and watch Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn and Charlie Ruggles and Barry Fitzgerald . . ."
Toni looked fondly at him at last. "Henry, you've got yourself a date."
In the afternoon, Henry went to see Alf Hipkiss in his goon-tower, to which the sometime special constable retreated smartly when he saw him coming. Henry knocked respectfully on the glass door and opened it a little.
"Mr Hipkiss - er . . . may I come in?" Hipkiss glanced over his shoulder. "I suppose so..." he said, stiffly.
Henry entered, wondering how to tackle the issue. He had never had much to do with Mr Hipkiss, but he reckoned that tact was required. He mustered all the tact he possessed, and said: "That was a pretty neat dive you made yesterday. The England rugby squad could do with a few like you . . ."
"It is not a laughing matter, Mr Battersby. I could have injured myself. You might have killed me. The rules clearly state that all incoming traffic must stop if required to do so by the officer on duty."
"Yes, Mr Hipkiss, you are quite correct. I was not driving with due care and attention, and, as I have explained to Dr Ffrancis and the vice chancellor and indeed the local police today, I was not feeling myself and should not have been driving at all. My car was completely wrecked by the end of the day."
"Yes, well if I may say so Mr Battersby, that is your problem."
"Thank you. And as you can see I did not escape injury either . . ."
Hipkiss grunted and continued to stare out of his new anti-glare windows at the stream of cars entering the university.
"The police were very grateful for the description you gave them. It led them right to me. Helped us both - er - to clear it up. I don't suppose I'll be driving again in the near future . . . " Hipkiss turned round at last. "And a bloody good thing, too. People like you make the roads dangerous for law-abiding citizens, going about their business. Because although you may one day come to grief yourself, it's usually others who pay for your carelessness," Mr Hipkiss said in his best special constable manner.
"You are absolutely right. I can see that your training as a special constable has given you a clear understanding of right and wrong. I hope the experience has not affected your ability to continue working, at all? You emerge from the experience bloodied but unbowed? I mean apart from a few hydrangea twigs in your uniform? You feel that you can still continue your invaluable service to the university?" "If you mean, sir, am I likely to try to use this as an excuse to claim early retirement because my nerves have been shattered, you are very much mistaken. I am not of that sort, Mr Battersby, that go running to these counsellors at the least opportunity. This place is full of them, and I think it's pathetic. Bloody pillow-biters, the lot of them. The world has gone soft since my day. We never had any bloody counsellors at Dunkirk or Arnhem or on the Normandy landings."
"Yes, the warehouses of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps must have been a living nightmare."
"It's the principle. No, I am quite all right - no thanks to you."
"Well that's good. I only ask because you are not stopping anybody at the moment. I just thought - forgive me - that I might have caused you to lose your nerve. Striding out into the traffic every day is, after all, a hazardous way to earn a living . . . " Hipkiss sniffed and rubbed his moustache with his index finger. "I know every member of staff in this university, Mr Battersby. I know their cars, I know when their permits expire, everything. I only stop people I don't recognise - unless of course there's a security alert on."
"You even knew that I was off sick with back trouble."
"I know everything."
"Very impressive. And the police told me that you had no difficulty recognising my car, and giving them a full description. They were most complimentary."
Hipkiss assumed a complacent look and stared out of his window.
"Which makes me wonder why, if you don't usually stop people you recognise, you attempted to stop me. I also wonder how it is that you knew that I was on sick leave and shouldn't, arguably, have been driving my car at all. It makes me wonder, Alfred, which little bird it was that told you this. I wonder if it was not perhaps a predatory, registrar-shaped bird with a miserable expression and a mournful cry that sits high up in the branches ****ting on people it doesn't like, and employing a species of stool-pigeon to help him aim? I see you are on the telephone here in your little nest-box. Does the university gatekeeper have much occasion to speak with the registrar directly? I don't imagine he does. Well, who would if they could avoid it? It might be interesting, now that we have installed this wonderful new computerised phone system, to look at the incoming and outgoing calls from here in the days I was away ill, and in particular at a little after five o'clock yesterday. The wonders of technology. So much easier these days to keep tabs on folk. I imagine you rather approve of that. Those telephone records are bound to produce a lot of useful information for any future disciplinary hearings, don't you think? Allegations of victimisation so often go unproved because it's all done over the phone - a whisper here - a whisper there, and never anything on paper . . . " Hipkiss was now looking straight at Henry, who smiled as nicely as he could given the pain from his eye.
"Did the registrar ask you to keep an eye open for me, Alf? And was it his idea that, should you see me, you should attempt to stop my car and report the matter to him directly? Come - we can speak freely here."
Hipkiss spluttered a little. "Well yes, actually he did. I had no choice in the matter - legitimate order and all that."
"And did you phone him directly after I stroked your heavy-duty harp yesterday evening?" "Yes, as he asked me to."
"Well, Alf, it's been nice to talk to you. And thank you for being so frank. I am sure that, as you say, you yourself have nothing to fear regarding your own behaviour. Of course, it doesn't put the registrar in a very good light. Because I don't work for him, you see. And people might wonder that if he had time to be so concerned about someone not in his employ, perhaps he was rather underemployed himself. Eh?" Henry laughed, and Alf politely joined in.
"Aye aye, well," said Henry, making as though to depart, "I don't suppose I would ever have to use this recording I just made" he said, unclipping a tiny black microphone from his jacket pocket. "But more than once before, when I was a journalist, I have been glad of having people taped - so to speak - when they try to wriggle out of something they've said. Nice to clear this nasty business up. Please accept my sincere apologies. My car should be now be in the jaws of some recycling machine. So if I should ever have occasion to desire your untimely death in the future, I shall have to think of some other method! Meanwhile, I hope we can part friends." Henry held out his hand. Hipkiss took it limply and automatically.
Henry put away the microphone and its lead, which had not actually been connected to anything, in his trouser pocket. He tapped his breast pocket, smiled again and let himself out. Then he walked back to his office shadow-boxing and muttering "Flit like a butterfly, sting like a bee!" Chapter 18
When he got back to his office, Toni was not there. It was late afternoon. The sun was streaming in through the windows, ducking under the wrecked blinds and yellowing the papers that littered every available surface. Toni seemed to have been busy, Henry thought. On his desk he found a note from her which read: "Think I'm on to something - gone to the bursar's office - back half an hour latest."
Henry sat down at his desk and began to plan the evening ahead. He would take her to a restaurant he knew in the country - an old house in its own grounds called Elm Lodge. He hadn't been there since Melissa. There was a terrace, where you could sit and take your aperitif. The grounds were large and even supported a herd of deer. Venison was often on the menu. He knew a grassy knoll, on whose top were planted two or three tall Lebanon cedars. He and Melissa used to sit there in the evenings, once upon a time when the world was young. Maybe he could take Toni there.
Henry thought with satisfaction of the beige Maestro being chewed up by hydraulic jaws. It was like a liberation. It meant that he would not have to abstain from indulging that fondness of which his neighbours had such an exaggerated impression. He would order a cab for Toni, and have it bring her there. He would be waiting, having taken his own cab a little earlier. They would take a walk to the knoll, return to the terrace for aperitifs, look at the menus, order their food, and consider the wine list as they waited to be called to their table.
Then they could watch the sun get lower over the lake behind the cedars, and search the west for the first glimmer of the evening star.
When Toni came back to the office, Henry shouted that he had made all the arrangements for the evening. They were going by cab to Elm Lodge. Her cab would pick her up at her place at 6.15. He knew it was early, but he thought they could take a walk around the grounds for a bit to work up an appetite, he said. Toni was surprised at the ritzy location, which rather took away the sting from her indignation about not being consulted.
"Hey," said Henry. "This is my treat, so you will do as you're told. The slightest excuse and the deal is off. If you need extra time to get ready, go now."
For once, Toni was lost for a reply. She had rarely seen him so decisive. And his words had certain resonances which made her flesh creep. All she could say was: "But I think I've found something . . . ," and proffer some papers.
"Tonight!" said Henry. "Now - go!" Henry saw her wave as she left the office, picked up the telephone and dialled the deputy bursar.
"Hallo - Dennis? Henry. She came, then? Yeah? She did? And you gave her - Oh, that's marvellous, marvellous! Won't be long now, boy. Prepare to be exposed, you disgruntled embittered employee you!" II
At 7.30 precisely, Henry - wearing an unfortunate and hopelessly demode black velvet evening jacket and matching bow tie - was sitting on the terrace with a gin and tonic. The evening sun was warming his black eye. With the other he admired the deep green sward that swept down towards the lake, interrupted only by one or two little copses on small knolls.
He and Melissa had come here when it first opened as a restaurant - and had even attained the distinction of being known to the head waiter by name. Melissa, of course, had used it as a place to entertain clients. She had ended up by advising the owners in an unofficial way, and that had the effect of making their visits somewhat less burdensome on Henry's wallet. But in those days so much was written off against tax as an allowable business expense, he never seemed to pay for anything. Henry sighed as he reflected that, even if his fondest dreams were to come true tomorrow, those heady days were over, and gone for good. He surveyed the park like one revisiting the Land of Cockaygne on a day pass.
Since he arrived, several other diners had come out on to on the terrace, and so Henry had taken his feet off the lichen-covered bottle balustrade. High up in the clear sky, the swifts were circling. A thrush sang in a herbaceous border and he wondered how Melissa was now. She never wrote, neither did he, for that matter. After their divorce he had heard from her precisely three times.
Once she wanted to know if he still had some china object that had belonged to her Aunt Charlotte. The second time it was something to do with their joint credit card. Henry had lost his ages ago, and Melissa had just been informed that some fraudulent transactions had suddenly been made. And the third time was to tell him that, since her mother had died seven months earlier, his Christmas card was being returned unopened. Henry had rather liked his mother-in-law, and had been quite upset.
Each of these calls had sent him dashing to the ironing board and he had felt depressed for days afterwards. It was at about the time of Melissa's last call that he had advertised for a new assistant and Toni had come striding into his life, all short hair and shoulders. He could hardly believe it had been two years.
Henry reached over to his gin and tonic, and saw that - right on time - Toni was threading her way towards him between the tables. She was wearing a very short blouse with puff sleeves that showed off both her upper arms and her tiny, but highly detailed abdomen. A short, tapered skirt showed just enough to demonstrate the implantation of the vastus medialis, whose definition was thrown further into relief by the heels she was wearing. Henry marvelled at how cleverly it had all been arranged.
He stood up shakily as she approached and stood before him.
He knew a social kiss was in order but somehow he couldn't find the commands required to execute this simple procedure.
"Hi Henry!" she said, brightly after a few moments of silence. "Aren't you going to kiss me?" "Er well no, it doesn't look like it. I am transfixed."
"That's pretty of you. Allow me," and she kissed him on the cheek furthest from his black eye.
As they sat down, Henry looked about for a waiter and noticed that all the conversations at the other tables had ceased. "You've struck us all dumb," he whispered theatrically from the corner of his mouth.
"I know. Great isn't it? Good God Henry, what is that jacket?" "This? Oh, just something I threw on."
"Looks like it. May I suggest you throw it away? And the same goes for that bow tie . . . " Toni reached over, pulled the tie out several inches and let it snap back on its elastic. She laughed and then shuddered.
"I thought the seventies were in at the moment," Henry said, still trying to catch a waiter's eye.
"Not any more. And never to that extent."
Eventually Henry managed, by standing on his chair and pretending to send semaphore, to persuade a waiter to come over and serve them. Toni wanted a tomato juice. Henry had another gin. As they waited, Henry began a prepared speech.
"Toni, before we get down to the light-hearted business, there's something serious I have to say to you. I . . . " he began. It was as far as he got. Toni, mistaking this for a cue to talk about the Lamorna business, squealed excitedly, dived into her bag and produced lots of lists and pieces of paper, as well as a reporter's notebook with a biro through the spiral.
W hat's all this about then?" "I think I've found it. I think I know what they are doing. I think I've figured out what the scam is!" said Toni, excitedly.
"Right," sighed Henry. What have you got?" "Well, you know how you are always saying 'keep your eye on the money'?" "A sound principle."
"Well, that's what I did. I thought - who doles out the loot? Answer? The finance office. So I went to see . . . " "Don't tell me - Dennis Strood?" "Deputy bursar."
"How is dear old Dennis? Amiable old cove, I've always found. What did you ask him?" "I said I wanted to know how the university apportioned funds to departments."
"Oh - the straight-out-with-it technique. Fair enough. What did he say?" "Oh God, lots." Toni flicked over pages of shorthand in her notebook. "He seemed delighted someone was taking an interest. Don't suppose he gets many callers . . . " "Wasn't he at all curious to know why you had suddenly developed an interest in these arcana?" "I thought of that. I told him we were running a series of features on 'who does what in the administration' in University Focus. I told him you'd sent me. Hope that's all right. He seemed delighted. You know what a downtrodden old dear he is. He positively beamed."
"You spread happiness where'er you tread. Go on."
"Well, he went on for ages about cost centres, and how different people use them in different ways, and how the auditors do their checking, and how the funding council does it, and something called a Form 3 Return - I got a bit lost there. But anyway, finally he said that there was a list of teaching departments that received funding for undergraduate tuition. The funds are allocated according to various factors, including student load - how many they've got. Henry - what exactly is a full-time equivalent? He talked a lot about that."
"Another time. It's not important. What then?" "Well, then he asked me if I wanted to see a list of them. I was gobsmacked. I was going to ask him for one, but didn't know how to. Instead he just volunteered!" "So you said yes?" "No, I said no. I said I thought it was all a bit too detailed for what I wanted. (I was going to have second thoughts later and sort of change my mind.) But he gave it to me there and then. It was on his desk - almost as though he had printed it out already!" "He must be hiding something. First rule of hiding things is 'be open'. People don't see what's in front of them."
Toni looked doubtful. "I think so too - but not for that reason. Anyway, wait a bit - I haven't got that far yet. He asked me when the story would be appearing and I said later in the new year. And so I left."
"I see. And what did the list tell you?" "Well, nothing. It's just a list of department names with budgets and allocations for this year, last year, and provisional figures for next. But then I had this demon thought. If you were fiddling the income, then all you'd have to do, if you worked in the bursary, would be to create some fictitious department that nobody else knew about. You allocate all those dead students to that department. You keep claiming from their local education authority who don't know any better.
"They call on the money from central government. The money arrives in the university finance office and gets siphoned off - I don't know - into some bank account or something."
Now Henry looked doubtful. "But what happens when someone notices that the fees from the deceased students have gone missing?" "Ah - well that worried me too. But it's obvious really. All the fees come in in dribs and drabs from all over the place. But for the dead students, since nobody in the university is expecting that money, nobody notices when it vanishes. It wasn't supposed to be there in the first place. So instead of making a hole, the little bit of extra money comes in as a lump which the fraudster just planes flat. The fraudster, meanwhile, maintains a list with all the real departmental cost centres.
But there is another cost centre . . . " "The dead zone . . . " "The dead zone, where all the fees for the dead students get allocated. These fees never appear on the books because the fraudster intercepts them and salts them away. So the university fee totals produced each year only include the legit students."
"Fiendish. If it turns out to be bollocks perhaps we should suggest it to someone. So was the list that Dennis Strood gave you any good?" "No, of course it wasn't. I cross-checked every bloody department with the undergraduate prospectus, and they all checked out."
"So you have no evidence for this theory of yours at all?" "No. But I'm convinced. Somehow we need to break into Dennis Strood's computer."
"Break into - are you crazy? I have had quite enough dealings with the constabulary lately, thank you very much. Break into his computer! When?" "Tomorrow."
"Toni, tomorrow is Saturday."
"Exactly. Tomorrow is Saturday. There will be nobody in Senate House except the porter on the main desk. Dennis Strood will be tending his roses."
"Yes, having locked his door and taken the key with him."
"There's a jemmy in my handbag and it's not for self-defence," whispered Toni. Henry went pale.
"Now then - there's nearly an hour before our table is booked. What say we stroll down to that grassy knoll with the cedars on? I'll go barefoot." She began taking off her shoes.
Henry said he needed to visit the facilities. He strolled into the house, then rapidly picked up speed and headed for the hall. He stood for some time in the telephone kiosk, hunched over his address book, muttering "Strood . . . Strood . . . Strood . . . ."
Dead Clever continues next week with the sixth of eight parts.
The characters in Dead Clever bear no resemblance to persons living or dead.) Ted Nield 1996