Dead Clever

August 16, 1996

Part six: the story so far . . .

Despite Henry's apologies for following her, Toni hands in her resignation from the press office. Faced with such a serious threat to his well-laid romantic plans, Henry visits the vice chancellor and persuades him to agree with a scheme guaranteed to give the publicity-hungry VC national media coverage. Meanwhile, Toni's mission to investigate how universities are funded leads her to Dennis Strood, the deputy bursar. Over dinner at a fancy restaurant, she breathlessly tells Henry that Strood's computer contains proof that the university claims funding for dead students and that they must break into his office on the weekend. But after excusing himself to use the gents, Henry mysteriously places a call to the deputy bursar's home . . .

CHAPTER 20

Well look, you'd better bloody well get back there and unlock it because otherwise, you'll find it jemmied open on Monday and I shall be in clink." said Henry, whose voice betrayed definite signs of stress. "Well of course I'll try to discourage her. But the mood she's in, it won't be easy to get her to wait till Monday. She's on the scent and baying. I know what it's like. And anyway, it's part of the plan to get her excited. So look: she's already going equipped and tomorrow she'll add breaking and entering to the list and I shall be had up for being an accessory and I've had enough of the plod for the time being thank you. What? You must be joking. Picture it. We're standing outside your office. The door is locked and she's got a jemmy and you are asking me to dissuade her from using it? Are you mad? Yes - yes - I'm sure she seemed perfectly charming. She can do 'perfectly charming' if she wants to." Henry gasped, aware that he was not quite making his point with the force necessary to get Dennis Strood out of his slippers. "Look, Dennis - you know about cars, right? You still drive that old Austin Seven that you restored so lovingly? Right - it's like this. You are an Austin Seven, wonderfully preserved for your age. The world passes you by each day. . . oh hell - I could extend the analogy for ever, but time is short. I, on the other hand, am a beige Maestro about to be crushed into oblivion between hydraulic jaws. She is a four-wheel-drive off-the-road vehicle with a 4.6 litre six-cylinder engine. The fuel consumption is monstrous, but the performance is terrific. Dennis, she could drag tree-stumps out of the ground with her teeth. You would stand a better chance of dissuading gravity. Are we clear on this? Good. Now get in that jalopy, get back to the office and open that bloody door."

Henry slammed the phone down and rushed back out onto the terrace. Toni had already begun the stroll to the knoll, carrying her shoes in her hand. Henry tripped daintily down the steps and gave pursuit.

II

You know, it might be easier if we were to wait a bit - until Monday - rather than go busting in tomorrow. . ." he said as he drew level. Toni looked appalled.

"I can't wait until then!" she said. "I have to know. Anyway, Dennis is always in his office. He hardly stirs - you know that. He eats a pre-packed lunch at his desk, comes in early and leaves late - locking the door."

"We could get in with the cleaners perhaps."

"What and have witnesses?" "We could arrange a diversion. Tell him someone is stealing his car."

"Oh, Henry - not enough time. We need to find the file. It could be hidden or protected by passwords and anyway we don't know what it's called. It could take ages. We need peace and quiet. No, Saturday's the only option."

Henry ground his teeth. "Look - as you say, we don't know the filename. He might have a password, in which case we're stuffed. It might be hopeless. I mean - you don't even know the filename of the list he gave you."

"Well actually I do. Very methodical our Dennis. He puts the directory and the filename at the bottom of the document, just like you're supposed to. Look . . ." Toni shuffled around in her handbag and produced the list. In tiny italic letters at the bottom of the last page it said C: studlis logog.lis. Henry looked blankly at it. "So we know it's on his hard disk, in the directory studlis - student lists, I suppose that means - and called logog.lis. Lis means list. Logog - Log Of Graduates or something. See? You can guess half this stuff. And dear old Dennis isn't exactly a techie, I mean, is he? He had to be practically tortured into having a computer at all - and he's never had any upgrades. The thing I saw looked like it still had valves. I bet he hasn't any passwords at all."

Henry couldn't find any reason to disagree with her. He remembered what it was like to get onto a story and really get the bit between your teeth, and wondered how long it had been since he had felt it himself. Meanwhile, they reached the knoll. They climbed as far as the edge of the little copse of cedars and sat down on the side facing the lake. As they watched a flight of three swans with whooping wings appeared from over the wooded valley to their right and landed by the water's edge about a hundred yards from them. A gentle breeze soughed in the cedars and felt cool after the heat of the day.

"Melissa and I used to come here a lot in the old days," Henry said, rather sadly.

"You really miss her, don't you?" asked Toni.

"From time to time. It's better now. I have my weak moments, though . . ."

"Ironing board time . . ."

"That's it. But there it is. She had drive and ambition. Like you."

Toni laughed. "Not that much. Anyway, don't you have drive and ambition?" "Of course not. They try to suck you in, you know. But I never let them. I remember the VC asking me once what I wanted to do - afterwards. I said 'after what?'. He said 'after this place'. I said 'retire'. He laughed. No, really - he thought I was joking."

"But why? You could go somewhere else easily - you're not married, you don't have tons of stuff, or a big house to sell - you could move on. They'll never pay you any more here."

Henry sighed again. He was conscious that he was sighing rather too often. "I don't want any more money. I've enough. I quite enjoy my job, in my drab, contented way. Most important, it is something I can do, and it doesn't actually tax me very much. I get home at night in time for the Channel Four news, and my evenings are my own. It's different when you're starting out, like you. But eventually you get into a nice niche and you think - it's OK here. Why should I move?" Toni smiled and shook her head.

"Look, when you are my age, Toni, you will have been sent on all kinds of conferences and personal development courses and a whole bunch of bull**** like that. They always have these stupid games in the evening, you know, imagine you have survived an air-crash in the frozen tundra. You have this and this and that and the other, there are five of you, and you have a map, like this, and a compass. You are dressed like this and the temperature is this, and the distance to the nearest town is so and so. Then they say, form little teams of five, and discuss your survival tactics.

"And so everyone pisses off to the bar and gets them in. Then they sit around a table to determine their strategy. They go through the list, which always includes an alarm clock. And they figure out how they are going to use all this crap to help them survive on their trek back to civilibloodysation. Because they think the test is all about lateral thinking, using all these objects in creative ways. Actually, it's all about decision-making processes in the group.

"When you go back and talk about your group's decisions, you find that you were all wrong because nobody, except sometimes an all-women team, decides that the best thing to do is stay put and wait for help. They all go striding off into the tundra on their improvised snow-shoes. And there is always some idiot who says he will break up the clock to get out bits that he can use for fish-hooks. Off they go, and nobody ever hears from them again.

"Or maybe they tell you that you have just survived a shipwreck. Floating around you are the following items. In the distance there is the faint trace of land. And everyone tries to build a raft. And they all die too, because the land is too far away and they haven't any water. The right thing to do, of course, is cling to the wreckage. Well, I draw my own conclusions. I cling to the wreckage. People with drive and ambition can do what they like. But this little chick am staying put."

"And are you going to cling to Melissa's wreckage for ever too?" Toni asked, with a sly lift of one eyebrow.

"Actually I think rescue may be at hand" Henry said, getting to his feet. "Shall we eat?" CHAPTER 21

To a nifty arrangement of the final bars of "I can't give you anything but love", the picture - of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn on top of a scaffold surveying the wreckage of a brontosaurus - dissolved. The RKO symbol announced the end. Toni, at the opposite end of the divan, stretched.

"He gets rescued from the wreckage," she said.

"You see, it happens in the movies," said Henry. "Would you like another fizzy water?"

"No thanks. I've had three already."

"I'll call you a cab then."

"No you won't, you'll help me unfold the divan," said Toni. "We're going a-burgling tomorrow and there's no point wasting time." From her handbag she produced a jemmy, a toothbrush, a large T-shirt and a ginger monkey called Rastus.

II The next morning they decided to walk to the campus. It was only a mile and a half through pleasant Victorian streets, and Toni chided Henry for using a car all these years. It had rained lightly overnight, and the air was fresh. The pavements, still slightly damp, sent up their wonderful dusty aroma. Huge towering clouds of white, miles high, sailed overhead, and a brisk breeeze blew in their faces.

"Henry, what are we going to do if we uncover something dodgy going on?" Toni asked suddenly. "I mean I know you are always saying that PR is not about trying to cover things up and so on . . . but if there is someone corrupt, we're not going to put it in a press release are we? I mean, how should we proceed?" Henry thought awhile and said: "How would you proceed?" "Who's asking? Are you pretending to be my news editor again or are we taking a reality check?" "Reality. If you were really a reporter, your course of action would be pretty obvious."

"OK, well, in reality, I suppose we should - go to the vice chancellor."

"Yes" said Henry. "That is absolutely what we should do. But we're not going to."

"We're not?" "Nope. I have other plans. That bastard Ffrancis has been getting under my plate for years. I think we might have found a way of helping the VC get rid of him."

Toni looked at Henry in amazement. "Grief, Henry, that's all a bit daring isn't it?" "Yes. But I have been thinking about what you said last night, and I've been watching you champing at the bit, with your jemmy and all, and I suddenly felt as though I had got too old for my age. I am thinking like a Dennis Strood. You're right. It's time I did something."

"I didn't say it was time you did something. I remember saying it was time I did something."

"Well maybe, but I felt the reproach in your silence."

"There was no reproach in my silence . . ."

"Well your silence allowed me to hear my own reproaches, then. Who cares where it came from? I felt reproach. And you helped."

"Well, OK, but don't come blaming me when they sack you, that's all."

"Why, I ought to thank you!" quoted Henry in his best Cary Grant voice.

"Oh shut up, Henry. So what are you planning?" "Well, I thought we'd all go down with as big a glug as possible. I thought we'd write the story up in a special summer vacation edition of University Focus. Your fearless organ exposes corruption in your university. That'll be a real first. Raise a few eyebrows, that will."

Toni's eyebrows were already lost somewhere in her hairline. "That's mad! You'll get the sack! Hey, wait a minute, what was that about 'we'? We are not going to write up anything. You can commit suicide if you want, buster, but I have a motorbike and a gymnasium to support."

"Now who's clinging to the wreckage?" "No!" "But think, it'd be great for you to have your name on a thing like that, look great in your folder. I mean, the press will be sure to pick it up. This is the idea! The press get on to it. We'll have a circus. There will be a terrific scandal. It's silly season, remember? They'll print anything. We'll be inundated. And you will have been the fearless one who caused it all."

They stopped walking. Henry grabbed her by the arms. "Think, Toni - what better way of putting yourself forward? If the university decides it should dispense with your services (I shall defend you of course) you can bring an action against them for unfair dismissal. The whistle-blower lobby will adopt you as a cause cel bre. You will be feted by the liberal press. You will be described as an exciting young investigative reporter, whatever that is. People will shower you with job offers. Meanwhile, having been exposed as presiding over graft and corruption, the registrar tenders his resignation. To his surprise his offer is taken up, and I get that miserable little squit out of my hair. You go off to pastures new, and he just goes off to pasture. I think it's a great plan."

"Henry, NO!" Toni freed herself and walked on.

"Well what do you want then?" said Henry, trotting after.

"I want to go and tell the VC. But if you are determined to do this, then you write the ****ing story. You can have your circus, take the credit, collect your cards, become a famous, unemployed whistle-blower, and secretly tell everyone you meet that it was actually all down to your wonderful and brilliant assistant who ought to be given a job."

Toni's pace picked up. Henry scuttled in her wake.

"Oh that's lovely. So you want me to take the rap, and then give you all the credit so that you end up with what you want and I get social security?" "No, Henry, God damn it, I want to tell the VC! Maybe he'll give us a bonus."

They walked briskly across the foyer of Senate House and got in a lift.

Henry looked at her and shook his head. "No. Cowardice. Squealing to the boss? Pah! That is not the way. We must publish."

"And be damned!" "Absolutely. Fortune favours the brave. He who dares wins. And remember, the bigger they come . . ."

"The harder they can hit you. I don't think I want to do this any more," said Toni, handing Henry the jemmy.

They were standing outside Dennis Strood's office. Henry took the instrument and began to insert it in between the door and the jamb, just level with the lock.

"No! wait!" said Toni. She turned the knob. The door drifted open.

CHAPTER 22

As Toni had suspected, there were no passwords on Dennis Strood'scomputer. She quickly scanned through the file directories and found Logog.lis. She called it up. It was indeed the same as the one he had printed out for her. But Strood was not a very assiduous disk housekeeper and everything, including letters to his record supplier in Great Marlborough Street, were all mixed up together in theroot directory. There were thousands offilenames.

With growing exasperation, tinged with a more slowly growing sense of relief, Toni scrolled down through the endless column of filenames. She looked for "Dead". She looked for "Decease". She looked for "Secret". She began shaking her head. "It's hopeless. Aaagh! How can he stand this mess?" Henry, who kept looking back over his shoulder at the door, which they had closed quietly behind them, tried to think of something useful-sounding to contribute to the search. "Maybe there's something on the desk that might help," he said.

Strood's desk, by contrast, was extremely tidy. There was nothing except a blotter and a letter-opener and a mug full of pens. The drawers were all open and contained nothing more interesting than an electric razor and a bottle of aftershave.

Toni sat back and looked again at the printout he had given her. "This file is suffixed "lis". Why don't we look for any others with the same suffix?" "Good idea!" said Henry.

Toni started again. Henry's eyes drifted away from the screen and out of the window. Then he became aware that she was no longer tapping the scroll button. She was staring at the screen.

"Found something?" "Henry, you remember that this file he gave me is called Logog? And I guessed it meant 'Log of graduates'?" "Yes?" "Well I was talking through my arse."

"How picturesque."

"It isn't a list of graduates is it? It's a list of departmental budgets."

"You're right. But where does that get us? I can't think what Logog means otherwise. But what does it matter? Den's a whimsical chap, it could mean anything."

"I don't know. Except that it's just occurred to me that Logog is Gogol backwards."

Henry rubbed his chin and looked anxiously over his shoulder. "So he reads Russian novels. He might have called it Yotslot, or Yksveyotsod if he had the room," he said.

"True. Except that Yotslot and Yksveyotsod didn't write Dead Souls, whereas Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol did. In 1842."

"Well that's very interesting I'm sure. And they say the arts foundation course never taught anybody anything useful."

"There's a file here called Gogol.lis."

Henry craned his neck. "So there is."

"I think this is it, Henry. I think this is the Lamorna list. I think we've got him. I think . . ."

"Just open it will you? I want to get out of here."

Moments later Toni was standing impatiently at the printer waiting for it to disgorge a copy of the file, dancing from foot to foot and muttering "Come on! Come on!". There were three pages altogether. She grabbed each one as it emerged and then stuffed them into her bag. Neither she nor Henry noticed the door opening quietly, to reveal a gold filling, glinting in the gloom.

II

Good morning, Henry, Miss, er, Toni" said Dennis Strood from behind them. They spun round. Dennis Strood smiled in an uncertain kind of way, and his gold filling glinted. He swallowed hard, and his red bow-tie wriggled slightly.

"Dennis!" said Henry. "Fancy seeing you!" His back was towards Toni and he allowed his eyes to register a higher order of incomprehension than his greeting suggested.

"What are you doing in my office?" Dennis asked coldly.

"What are we - doing?" spluttered Henry. "What are you doing for that matter. It is Saturday, you know."

"Well I asked first, but actually I came back because I couldn't remember locking my door last night. I was worried someone might break in and I didn't want it to spoil my weekend. Anyway, it is my office and I can come and go as I please. What's your excuse? What are you doing with my computer?" His face assumed a look of growing horror, and he approached his desk. He looked at the list of files displayed on it. "What are you doing? You've come to spy on me haven't you?" He looked at Toni, who backed off slightly, protecting her bag. "You! Writing an article indeed! And I believed you!" Dennis's eye fell on his desk, where it saw the jemmy. He picked it up. "Well there it is. Proof, as though I needed it. Get out, the pair of you! I've served this university for 23 years. I have nothing to hide. Do you hear me? Nothing!" And so saying he dropped the jemmy and hugged his monitor to his chest.

Henry and Toni backed out of the room, listening to Dennis Strood sobbing quietly over his screen.

They stood in the dark corridor and breathed out.

"Well what do you make of that?" asked Toni.

"The man is clearly unhinged."

"He's clearly guilty, you mean!" "Well, maybe. He leads a sad, lonely life. Pity though, I always liked him. He needs a hobby. Amateur dramatics, perhaps."

III

Back at the office they unfolded the file they had printed out. Unlike the Logog file, this one contained a list of the students in something called the "Department of Gnostic Studies". The list corresponded exactly with the mystery list that had appeared in the graduation rolls. It was a list of every home student who had died over the past four years. Lamorna Courtenay Wolff-Scheidt's name was there with the rest.

The total fee income of the mythical department totalled a little over Pounds 10,000.

"Got him," said Toni.

"Poor Dennis," said Henry.

Dead Clever continues next week with the seventh of eight parts.

The characters in Dead Clever bear no resemblance to persons living or dead.)

Ted Nield 1996

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