Dead Clever

August 23, 1996

Part SEVEN: the story so far ... In his phone call to registrar Dennis Strood, Henry tells him to leave his office door unlocked over the weekend.

On the way to the break-in, he tells Toni that rather than take any evidence of corruption to the vice chancellor, it will be exposed in a special edition of University Focus. Toni finds the door is unlocked and the computer contains the file she wants. As it is being printed, Strood catches the pair in the act but denies any wrongdoing.

After fleeing to the PR office, Henry and Toni find the list contains the name of every home student who has died in the past four years. Fee income for the mythical department of gnostic studies was just over Pounds 10,000. "Got him," said Toni. "Poor Dennis," said Henry . . .

CHAPTER 23

So what do we do now?" asked Toni. "We bring out a slip edition of University Focus, that's what. You have our top story - get writing. But first, ring up that printer and tell him what's happening. We want a courier here for the camera-ready copy at 2pm."

Toni grimaced.

"We want them to deliver the full edition Monday morning, usual print-run, usual distribution. We want them working on Sunday, in other words. We also want 100 advance copies delivered to my place by 10am Sunday morning. There's some advance mailing I'd like to do. I'll stuff the envelopes at home and take them to the continuous collection place in town. If they create, just tell them that if they can't do it we'll find ourselves another printer and no we can't pay them extra."

"I love it when you're so masterful. May I ask what you are going to do?" "I am going to have a cup of tea. You want one?" "No."

"Right. You've got 400 words max. Copy on my desk in one hour."

"HenryI" "Yes?" "Can you stop barking orders for a minute and check that Dennis Strood has gone home? I don't want him barging in here while I'm writingI" Henry did so on his way to the kitchen, kettle in hand. He hadn't been at work on a Saturday since - well, he couldn't remember. Whenever the last crisis was. Maybe it was Lamorna's death.

Strood's office was dark and locked. Henry was still undecided about what method of revenge he would employ for Dennis's little stunt, but he was softening, and had now discounted setting fire to his Austin Seven.

II FINANCE FRAUD PLOT UNCOVERED Dead students net illicit cash By Henry Battersby "Oh - thanks for the byline," said Henry, glancing up to Toni, who stood on the other side of his desk as he read what she had written. She looked at the ceiling and pursed her lips as though to whistle. Henry read on.

Evidence of a long-standing fraud inthe University Finance Office has been uncovered by University Focus.

In a plot replete with echoes of Gogol's classic tale Dead Souls, finance fraudsters have conspired to keep the names of dead students on the university rolls, transferring them to a non-existent "department ofgnostic studies".

Local education authorities havecontinued to pay the dead students' fees, which this year totalled more than Pounds 10,000. The destination of the money netted by the fraudsters is unknown. In all, 14 different local authorities in England and Walesappear to have been defrauded.

Evidence of the plot came to light when names of dead students appeared accidentally on proofs of this year's graduationceremony proceedings. This led to an investigation, by University Focus staff, which uncovered the deception.

Studies of the university student records reveal that the plot dates from about fouryears ago, when the "department of gnostic studies" enrolled its first student, a Mr Anthony Higgins. Mr Higgins, a first-year undergraduate in the department of criminology and forensic science,died in a bus shelter on Eadington Road, following a drinking bout in the city.

Mr Dennis Strood, deputy bursar, whose job includes apportioning fee income to university departments, said today:"I have served this university for 23 years.I have nothing to hide.Do you hear me? Nothing."

The evidence amassed by the University Focus investigative team is being placed before the vice chancellor, Sir William Energlyn - who declined to commentuntil a full-scale investigation is carried out. However he made it clear that shouldthese allegations prove well-founded, the matter will be placed immediately inthe hands of the police.

Mr David Young, spokesman for Henley and Walton Council, the local authority that has been paying the fees of student Ms Lamorna Courtenay Wolff-Scheidt sinceher death in the Western Canal two years ago, said today: "We shall be keeping a veryclose eye on this one."

Henry finished reading and grunted.

"It's a bit weak isn't it?" Toni said.

"I think it's fine. That is indeed what the VC said, by the way. Shame you couldn't get any more out of that Young fellow, though. Didn't he say anything more exciting?" "That was the most exciting bit. Don't you think the Strood quote is a bit cruel and underhand?" "Yes. But he did say it - in front of both of us. It's a clear innuendo, and an obvious slur, but let him sue if he wants. If he doesn't, he incriminates himself. If he does, we'll crucify him."

Toni bit her lip. "Henry - is this how newspapers really operate? I mean, he could be innocent you know. And ought we to be saying things like this in a university newsletter at all? Won't it just get us the sack? What if they all just close ranks?" "They won't. Anyway, if they do, we still have the evidence, and we can give it to the police ourselves if we have to. See how they like that."

"I can't believe we're doing this, Henry. I mean, I can't believe you are doing this. I am only obeying orders. You led me astray. I shall plead sexual harassment. 'I'm sorry, vice chancellor, but he threatened me with a bottle of coconut oil'."

"Fun, though, isn't it?" said Henry.

Toni snatched her copy back and returned to her desk to compile the first issue of University Focus to contain both real news and a poem by Professor Eirfyl Alwyn Lelo.

Henry stretched his legs out, put his hands behind his head and kicked off his shoes.

"Marvellous!" he muttered, with a smile that hurt his black eye.

III It was 1.30pm before Toni finished putting the issue together on her giant screen. She checked the print-out for the third and final time and took it into Henry.

"Well, there it is, your suicide note. You'd better check it. And do it properly this time, will you?

"The last issue, which led on the surprising drop in the popularity of media studies and the increase in applications to physics, quoted the professor of physics as calling it 'a turd for the better'. He's very upset."

Henry promised to be extra vigilant. "Why don't you go for some lunch? I'll finish off and get it to the courier when he comes. Bring me a cheese and pickle bap."

Toni put out her tongue, pulled a face and left.

Henry checked the proof quickly and went over to her workstation. There he removed two commas, deleted his name from the top of the lead story and typed "by Toni Jagusiewicz". He then printed out the pages on high-quality paper at high resolution, changed the byline on the screen back to "Henry Battersby" and put the artwork in a stiff A3 envelope. Then he trotted to the lift, went down to the porter's desk and left it for collection.

CHAPTER 24

Henry ducked. The coffee cup, spilling its contents as it went, flew over his head and smashed on the wall behind his desk. It was not a good start to Monday morning.

Both phones were ringing, but nobody answered them. Henry had bigger things on his mind - chiefly how to survive the next few minutes with his genitals intact. Toni was panting and pacing his room in what was now becoming a familiar manner, her nostrils flaring and her dark eyes flashing. In her left hand she carried a crumpled copy of University Focus. Henry joked that people usually got upset when their names got taken off stories rather than put on them. Toni gave vent to one of her roars and went for him.

She grabbed him by the lapels and pushed him against the bookshelves. Her face, pale with rage, was inches from his. He felt her hot breath. Henry quivered, expecting these to be his last moments on Earth. It was in this frame of mind that he spoke, rapidly and without obvious punctuation: "Toni before you kill me I just wanted to say that you are so strong and predatory and perfect in every way and quite the most wonderful woman I have ever met and that I am madly in love with you and that had I been spared it would have been my firm intention to tell you this tomorrow after the press conferenceI" Henry swallowed and closed his eyes tightly, expecting the fatal blow at any second. When it failed to arrive he opened his good eye to see what was going on. Toni had let his lapels go and was gaping at him. Seizing the moment, Henry nipped smartly out from behind his desk and made for the exit.

Unfortunately Henry was keeping his good eye on Toni rather than on where he was going and so instead of exiting swiftly, collided heavily with the edge of the open door. The collision rendered him momentarily senseless. Toni watched his short-lived escape and sudden collapse with the same vacant expression. Then she went over to inspect the wreckage. She leant over his crumpled form for a few moments, straightened up and ran her hand over her face.

She was stooping to get her hands under his arms so that she could lift him on to a chair, when she became aware of a pair of grey flannel trousers standing in the doorway.

"Oh for God's sake, what do you want?" she said. "Have you never heard of knocking?" The registrar was unaccustomed to being addressed in quite this manner. He was not one for new experiences generally, and this one did nothing to develop his taste for them. He too was clutching a crumpled copy of University Focus, and he was also flaring his nostrils. His sunken face had changed from its usual hue, something akin to parsnip soup, to one more resembling borscht.

"Is that man drunk again?" he demanded in his shrill, reedy voice. Toni let go. Henry's body slumped to the floor.

"No, he isn't. As a matter of fact he just walked into the door."

"Oh yes? A likely story. Thick as thieves! Well I just came in to say to him, and to you, young lady, that this time, this timeI" he brandished his copy of University Focus in her direction, "you have gone too far!" He threw the copy onto the carpet, accidentally knocking his knuckles on the door handle. He did his best not to show any pain and, maintaining as much dignity as possible, turned to leave.

"Oh Dr Ffrancis?" Toni called after him. "Just a moment. Before he had his unfortunate accident Henry did have time to write me a note that concerns you" she said, walking to her own desk. "Let me see - where did I - oh yes here it is. It says: "If that miserable git Ffrancis comes in screaming blue murder, tell him to **** off. The VC will explain everything". Toni showed him the note.

Dr Ffrancis pointed a quivering finger at her, failed to find appropriate words, and left. Toni watched him go and went back to see how her suitor was getting on.

Henry had got himself into his chair and was nursing what, until a few moments earlier, had been his good eye. He opened it, for the last time for nearly a week, saw Toni leaning over him and recoiled with a feeble whine. She patted the forearm he put up to defend himself.

"It's all right, lover-boy. No point arguing the toss now. I have just leapt on to the funeral pyre of my own free will."

"Why is your - free will - on its funeral pyre?" Henry asked woozily.

"I meant, you pedantic ****, that I have just, of my own free will, leapt on to the funeral pyre. Your funeral pyre."

"I liked it better the other way," he said, with a feeble attempt at a smile.

II The phones rang all morning and most of the afternoon. Henry and Toni fielded calls and gave the same line to each - that the university was not prepared to comment further until it had conducted its own preliminary investigation. There would be a news conference the following day at 11.30am, chaired by the vice chancellor. Until then, they were offering no comment on the story in University Focus.

As things eased off during the afternoon, Henry had time to compose a press release inviting journalists to the following day's conference and giving full details of the venue and time. He faxed it to everyone he could think of. Meanwhile, Toni booked the University Great Hall and saw to it that the porters carried out their instructions as to the seating arrangements.

She arranged a head table with four seats, just as Henry had said - for the vice chancellor, the registrar, Dennis Strood, and himself. He also asked for one seat in the second row near the central aisle to be reserved - but didn't say for whom.

When she got back to the office, some time after 5.30pm, Henry had gone home. She looked around for a note of some kind, but there was none. She wondered how he had managed, since he was now almost blind in both eyes. She surveyed the room, now a complete mess, but which was also, for the first time that day, silent and still.

CHAPTER 25

The following morning, Henry fumbled his way into the kitchen, where he trod on Benson and smashed two unidentified china objects before finally reaching the safety of the breakfast bar. His head ached terribly. Gingerly he felt his eyes, both of which were swollen, closed, and he presumed, black. He now had better vision from his left eye than his right, but that was blurred and revealed only the vaguest shadows of things right in front of him. He groaned, got up and fumbled in the refrigerator for milk and cat food.

Peering out into the back yard he noted with some satisfaction that the beige Maestro - or at least the beige blur that he expected to see - had gone. He shuffled over to the work surface, drew the coffee pot from under the filter cone and groped his way back to the bar. Quite a lot of its steaming black contents ended up on his left hand, and the cup overflowed copiously. But such details were of little moment to him and he sat down before the lake of coffee and put both elbows into it to nurse his head.

At this moment the doorbell went, and Henry dragged himself to the entryphone. It was Toni.

She appeared carrying two crash helmets and her first words of greeting were "Jesus Christ Henry you look terrible". She put her helmets down and led him into the kitchen where the light allowed her to see his injuries more clearly. His left eye was now going down, and changing colour from mostly black to partly yellow. The other was all black and very much more swollen. Both eyes wept slightly, and tear stains covered his face.

"You are not a pretty sight, Henry," she said. "Can you see anything?" "Not a thing. Light and dark - in this eye. In the other one, nothing."

She guided him into the kitchen and sat him down. "Ah - I see you have made a crack at breakfast. Are you hungry?" "Yes."

"Right. Cornflakes?" "In the cupboard over the sink."

She fetched a bowl and spoon, poured out the flakes and milk and set them in front of him.

Seeing that he did not move, she lifted his hand and put the spoon in it. Henry began to eat.

"Where are your sunglasses?" she asked. Henry confessed that he didn't possess any.

"Right. Well that's OK - I brought a pair of my own." She fumbled in the pockets of her leather jacket and produced a snazzy pair of racing cyclist's sunglasses, in blue, with aerodynamically swept-back pointed lenses that were bloomed and gave off a metallic sheen. "They're not really you, but they'll hide the worst. Are you going to be able to shave?" Henry said he had an electric razor. Toni nodded, and poured herself a cup of coffee. It was not her habit to take stimulants, but today she felt the need. She looked at her watch. It was almost 8am. Henry was finishing his flakes, milk dripping off his chin.

"Right - ****, shave and shower," she said, as he finished his coffee. She guided him to the bathroom and hung up a towel outside the cubicle. Henry was becoming a little more human as the caffeine finally reached his grey cells, and mumbled some words of thanks. "Where's your briefcase and stuff? Is there anything special you need to bring this morning?" Henry said he had a pad of paper next to his bed on which he had written - or tried to write - some briefing for the VC. Perhaps she could tell him if it was legible. That was all he needed. The bag was by the chair in the bedroom.

Toni gathered up these things and went out to secure them in the box on her motorbike. When she got back, she could hear Henry in the shower. She went to the kitchen, tidied up, and began aimlessly wandering around the flat. Eventually, just as the shower stopped, she sat down in the armchair opposite Henry's television and picked up a pile of books, papers and magazines from the small table that stood nearby.

Under several issues of The Sun, the only paper Henry took because the university refused to, she found two copies of The Times Higher Education Supplement, rather out of date. Then came TVQuick, Private Eye, and a copy of the New Yorker with "Senior Common Room - do not remove" stamped on the cover. Then, on top of an inexplicable copy of Good Housekeeping, was a dog-eared Penguin edition of Gogol's Dead Souls. She stared at it for a moment before opening the cover. Inside, in a beautiful copperplate, was written: "To Henry, regards, D. Strood."

Toni's brows knitted and her eyes drifted suspiciously towards the bathroom door.

II

Henry came through it at almost the same moment, tying his bathrobe. Toni put the books and mags down on the table, but immediately realised that she needn't have bothered.

"I take it you can get dressed unaided?" she said. Henry gave her a thumbs up and disappeared into the bedroom. Toni leafed through the volume of Gogol, feeling another of her tempers coming on. She closed her eyes and breathed regularly. Whatever it meant, this was not the time to be thinking about it, and certainly not the time to get angry. They had the day to get through first.

When she opened her eyes again, Henry was standing in the doorway wearing his best shirt and tie. He had also found his suit, the one he had bought to get married in. Although it looked a little tight, if he left the jacket open it was not too bad. The main problem with it was that it was brown, pin-striped and boasted huge lapels and flared trousers. Toni looked him up and down, from his black eyes to his flares, and sighed.

"I hesitate to say this Henry," she said, "but if anyone has ever shown the lack of a woman's touch, then that person is you."

"I know, it's a little old. But it's in such good nick. I never could bear to throw it out."

"I could help you with that. What is that shirt?" "It's my best one."

"It has teardrop collars."

"I thought the 1970s were back."

"Henry, we've had this conversation. In any case even if they are back, they aren't back for people who were actually alive then. Oh well, you look so ridiculous anyway what's the difference? Here - put these on."

Henry put on the cyclist's sunspecs with the fluorescent green cord between the arms.

"Is that better?" asked Henry.

Toni wondered how she could reply. "HenryI?" "Yes?" "Are we expecting television?" "BBC, ITN, Sky News and someone else."

Toni didn't reply and took him by the arm. She took off the spectacles and carefully lowered her spare helmet over his head. This, she thought, was a definite improvement; but decided against saying so.

Toni guided him to the bike and sat him on the back. She drew his arms around her waist, asked him if he was OK and pressed the starter.

"You done this before?" "No."

"OK, just hold on and lean when I lean. In the same direction if possible. Who is that lady peering out from next-door-but-one?" "Just drive will you?" Dead Clever continues next week with the last of eight parts.

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

Ted Nield 1996

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