Sarah barely breathed as she pressed her body further into the wardrobe. Using her fingertips, she slowly pulled the door closed. Through the cracks, she could see a shadow moving closer. A wool coat tickled her nose, making her want to sneeze. Sarah willed herself to stay silent as the itching became more insistent. How the hell had it come to this? Only three days earlier, she had been an ordinary person living an ordinary life. Now someone was trying to kill her. If only she’d left things alone or called in sick on Tuesday. None of this would be happening.
The light was on. It was the first strange thing Sarah noticed that morning. David was never in early. It was up to Sarah to open up, answer the emails and get the coffee. Junior accountant in the business office of a pricey girls’ school in Sydney’s east was not her dream job, but the hours were good and it paid the bills until something better came along. David would swan in around nine trailing a toxic cloud of aftershave, greeting her with an oily “Morning love” that made her wince. But here it was, barely half seven and light streamed out of the slightly ajar office door with its comically oversized “Business Manager, David Ransom” sign. Her brain felt foggy. Should have called in sick, she thought. Her cold had worsened overnight. It was going to be a long day. Then Sarah noticed something else; near the door was a small, brownish stain on the carpet that hadn’t been there yesterday. Messy bastard, she thought, probably spilled his coffee and was too lazy to clean it up.
“Hi David,” she said with false brightness as she pushed the door open, her voice trailing off as she took in the gruesome scene. David was slumped face-forward on his desk, arms hanging at his sides. Blood had run down his hands, soaking the carpet beneath his chair. More blood had sprayed the furniture and David’s clothes. Sarah crept closer, her heart thumping so hard the sound filled her head. David’s face was bloated, mottled and bluish. It struck her that this wasn’t at all like any crime show she had ever seen, and she’d seen them all. This was so…real. And the blood wasn’t bright red like on CSI; it was congealed and rusty reddish-brown. The air had a sharp, unfamiliar, chemical overtone. David’s solid gold letter opener, an obnoxious gift from his wife back when she still loved him, lay stained and bloody on the carpet. I should scream, Sarah thought. On TV, the person discovering the body always screams. But her voice failed her. She didn’t feel like screaming anyway. She was fascinated. Horrified, but fascinated. Her first dead body. Tick that one off the bucket list.
Sarah moved to check for a pulse, but reconsidered after looking into David’s clouded eyes. She poked his cheek with a trepidatious finger. Yuck. His flesh felt like uncooked steak. Now what, she thought as she wiped her finger on her jacket. Triple zero. Call triple zero. Sarah pulled out her phone, abstractly noticing how much her hands were shaking.
“You have called emergency triple zero. Your call is being connected.” Recorded message.
“Triple oh, police, fire or ambulance?” The woman’s voice was almost as robotic as the recorded message.
Sarah hesitated, “Um…I’m not sure. Not fire.”
“What’s your emergency?”
“Well, it’s not really an emergency because he’s already dead. My boss is dead.”
“Connecting you with the police.”
“Police, what’s your emergency?” Another woman, this one at least sounded human.
“My name is Sarah Cho. I just found my boss, David Ransom. He’s dead. There’s a lot of blood.”
“Have you checked for a pulse?” The woman sounded unperturbed at the news of David’s death.
“Yeah, yeah,” Sarah lied, not wanting to admit she’d only poked him. “He’s dead.”
“Okay Sarah, I’m going to need some information.”
Sarah felt like she was having an out-of-body experience. She stared at David’s corpse as she gave Michelle, the woman on the phone, the necessary details. Michelle promised that the local police would be there shortly and rang off. They were also sending an ambulance in case Sarah was mistaken about David’s condition. Sarah stood there clutching her phone, temporarily overwhelmed. Gradually, the increasing buzz outside brought her out of her stupor.
The seething throng of students poured through the school gates in the morning rush to make it to first period on time. Sarah walked out into the corridor, finding herself buffeted on all sides by uniformed girls carrying overstuffed school bags. They shrieked, hugged, taunted, giggled, and paid no attention at all to the traumatised young woman in their midst. Oh shit, Sarah thought, imagining the reaction if the kids knew what was going on. She prayed they would be safely in class before the police turned up.
Nothing can be kept quiet for long in a school. Sarah pushed through the mass of students towards the principal’s office. Judith Boland, Principal, CEO and all-round ghastly human being, was about to have a very bad morning.
Rushing past Rose, the ageing bulldog of a woman who guarded the principal with fierce protectiveness, Sarah shouted, “It’s an emergency!”, as she burst into Judith’s office. Judith slowly turned from her computer and fixed her pale gaze on the intruder.
“Sarah,” she said with obvious displeasure. “Do you have an appointment?”
“No, but this is important.” A slight narrowing of Judith’s eyes managed to convey how unlikely she considered Sarah’s statement.
“It’s about David,” Sarah said. “He’s dead.” That got a reaction.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course he’s not dead.”
“No. He is. He’s in his office now. The police are on their way.”
Judith’s face turned an interestingly shade of purple. “You called the police before telling me?” She fumed as she rose from her seat, “You bloody fool.”
Judith powered towards the business office with a speed that belied her formidable size. As Sarah tried to keep pace behind her, she mused that Judith really shouldn’t wear that particular shade of khaki which made her boxy shape look like a Sherman tank. On the other hand, maybe that was the point since intimidation was her trademark. As Judith moved into David’s office, she paused as colour drained from her face.
“Don’t contaminate the crime scene,” Sarah said. “What crime scene? What are you talking about?”
“Well the police have to come and collect evidence. If you touch things, you’ll contaminate the evidence.”
“Stupid girl,” Judith said contemptuously as she stalked out.
Sarah collapsed into her chair in the office adjoining David’s, inexplicably exhausted. Should she be crying? Probably. She was the young colleague who should be sobbing when questioned by police, with her artfully perfect make-up miraculously unaffected by tears. Unfortunately, Sarah’s make-up was haphazard at best, her mascara always smudged by noon. And she didn’t feel like crying. Maybe if she’d liked David more it would be different. The problem was, he was such an unethical bastard. She wouldn’t have wished him dead, but she wasn’t that sorry about it either.
Soon, Judith reappeared accompanied by a paramedic and two baby-faced police officers. They went into David’s office while Sarah hovered in the doorway. The paramedic quickly concurred with Sarah’s assessment.
“He’s gone,” said the paramedic to the police. “You want me to take him away?”
“What?” Sarah interjected. “Aren’t you going to get the forensic team in?”
“Stay out of it Sarah,” said Judith.
One of the police officers approached Sarah. His badge identified him as Constable Brett Wilson. Sarah didn’t like his smug look.
“So,” said Brett, “you think we need to get the guys with the white suits in?” His partner, a big Maori guy built like an NRL forward, chuckled.
“Well, yeah. It’s murder, right?”
“Oh for God’s sake,” said Judith impatiently. “Suicide,” said Brett. “There’s a note.”
“What note?” said Judith and Sarah simultaneously.
“His wife’s been in touch. She just opened her emails and there was one from her husband.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Sarah. “Who commits suicide like this?”
“It happens,” said the paramedic.
Sarah stared at them all incredulously.
“So you’re not going to get fingerprints or anything?”
The police officers tried to suppress their laughter.
“Look,” said Brett, “there’s nothing suspicious here. I’m sorry your boss is dead, but we won’t be calling in anyone else.”
“Are you at least going to interview people?”
“Sarah!” Judith seemed ready to burst.
“Well, did you kill him?” Brett asked Sarah.
“No, of course not.”
“Yeah nah, I don’t think we need to interview anyone then.” He winked at his partner as he pulled a card out of his wallet. “Here, take my card and give me a call if anything comes up.” Brett was using his best kindergarten teacher voice on her. Mollify the crazy lady.
“Sarah, you’ve had a shock. Take the rest of the day off.” Judith tried to sound kind, but failed. This was clearly a command.
Sarah reluctantly gathered her bag and backed out of the office. As she left, she was bailed up by two curious Year 8 students who bombarded her with questions.
“What’s happening Miss?”
“Yeah Miss why are the police here?”
“Is someone sick Miss?”
“It’s nothing,” Sarah said, smiling tightly as she moved around them to escape. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Mi-iss!!” They called after her.
Home again, Sarah dumped her bag on the kitchen bench and looked at the clock. 9.30am. How could it be so early? The last two hours had felt like years. Sarah’s “no alcohol before midday” rule was about to be broken. It might not mix well with her cold and flu tablet, or maybe it would not mix well in a fun way. She would soon find out. She checked her phone. Judith had left a message warning her not to tell anyone about the situation, and to stop by her office first thing tomorrow. Bugger that, she thought as she poured a glass of wine. All her friends were going to hear about this one. In detail.
After a fitful night Sarah didn’t want to go to work, although her cold had improved. But she wanted answers. It didn’t sit right. Men like David don’t commit suicide. The Kardashians have greater powers of introspection than that man. He was the consummate narcissist. David juggled an unhappy marriage with multiple flings, never showing a glimmer of conscience.
Judith was waiting for her when Sarah arrived around seven. Rose, the ever-present assistant, glared at Sarah as she passed by. Judith gestured for Sarah to sit on the couch then came and sat next to her. She was smiling. This was scary. Nothing was more frightening than when Judith went into “nice” mode.
Angry Judith was far easier to deal with. It was more honest.
“Sarah, I wanted to see how you were. Yesterday was such a shock for all of us.”
“Um…I’m okay I guess.”
“I’ve spoken to David’s wife. She’s terribly upset of course.”
“Yes of course.” In fact, the last time Mary, David’s wife, came by the office it was to call him a cheating son-of-a-bitch because she’d just found out about his affair with Rita, the biology teacher.
“I’ve sent an email to the school community to tell them what happened. It’s important things don’t get confused by gossip.” She stared pointedly at Sarah.
“David’s office will remain locked this week. It’s being cleaned on the weekend. He’s been taken away.” She made him sound like toxic waste.
Judith continued, “Nonetheless, the business of the school must go on. You’ll need to assume all financial responsibilities for now. We’ll be advertising for David’s replacement next week.”
“The school will supply counsellors for anyone affected by this tragedy. Do let us know if you need help.” She was nothing if not efficient. Judith stood up, making it clear the meeting was over.
“Thank you Judith.” No point antagonising the woman.
Sarah nervously made her way to her office. David’s door was closed, the light off. The stain on the carpet had disappeared. She started her computer. There it was. Judith’s diplomatic all-staff email announcing the “tragic death” of “esteemed Business Manager David Ransom”, promising that “our hearts go out to the Ransom family”. No mention of suicide or the fact that death took place in his own office. Not surprising. Fortunately, she had no time to dwell on it.
It took Sarah most of the day to clear the backlog of emails, petty cash claims, accounts and payroll. The work was mindless, but oddly comforting in her current state. She walked down the road for lunch, not wanting to face inquisitive staff in the common room. It was impossible to forget about what had happened. The locked door drew her gaze throughout the day. After four, when most teaching staff were gone for the day and she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be interrupted, Sarah finally did what she’d been itching to do; she logged into David’s account. He’d given her the password long ago for a one-off task then forgotten about it. He never changed his passwords, so Sarah had free access. Not that she bothered to use it. Until now. She quickly found what she was looking for. The supposed suicide note.
Would anyone really do that? Email a suicide note then kill themselves? She was sure she wouldn’t. The note to Mary was short:
My darling, I can’t go on. I can’t live with what I’ve done to you and our family. Please forgive me. All my love, David
What was he talking about? The affairs? He’d never cared before. He actually bragged about how many of the teaching staff he’d shagged and even made an effort to cover all subjects in his lascivious adventures. That was why he’d been particularly flirty with the new geography teacher. He hadn’t yet scored with anyone in that staff room. It might have been all the jokes about them being good at colouring-in. Or maybe it was that he was such a jerk.
The note didn’t sound plausible to Sarah. He’d never called his wife “darling” in the four years she’d worked with him. He told Sarah the only reason he didn’t divorce her was that she’d take the kids and all his money. Nice. It wasn’t out of any loyalty to David that she wanted to know the truth. It was just that this was a mystery and she wanted to solve it. She checked the corridor. No one around. After closing the office door, she took out her key to David’s office. Sarah let herself in but didn’t turn the light on.
There was enough light coming through from the other office and she didn’t want anyone to know she was in there. David’s body was gone, but everything else was the same. If the police didn’t want to take evidence, why couldn’t she do it? How hard could it be? She’d seen it countless times on TV.
If someone had typed the note on David’s computer, their fingerprints should still be on the keyboard. What did forensic people use to take fingerprints? Some sort of powder? The only thing she had was the cocoa shaker from her instant cappuccino packet. That’ll do, she thought. But it was almost empty.
Which letters should she focus on? Vowels, she supposed. Sarah shook cocoa onto the “o” and “a” keys then gently blew it off. Now sticky tape. She’d definitely seen this done on an episode of Elementary.
She carefully stuck a piece of tape over the “o” key and lifted it off. It looked like a brown smudge. Now what? She stuck it to a piece of blank paper on her desk then did the same with the other key.
Next, photos. Sarah used her iPhone to take pictures of everything in the room, constantly glancing at the door fearing discovery. She figured there was no point getting blood samples since she didn’t have a forensic lab at her disposal and, in any case, it was quite likely all the blood was David’s. What else, she thought. Drawer contents. Incriminating evidence always turned up in drawers, usually secret ones. She rifled through David’s drawers. Nothing interesting there. She looked underneath his desk, taking care to step around the blood stains.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Judith boomed in fury from the doorway.
Sarah jumped, banging her head on the corner of the desk.
“Nothing,” she said as she clutched her head. “I was just…uh…looking for a missing account.”
Judith moved to Sarah, stopping so close Sarah could smell the garlic on her breath.
“You will stay out of this room. Is that clear? Your key.” Judith held out her hand and Sarah handed over her key to David’s office.
“Yes, sorry. I’m sorry.” Sarah scuttled out and stood in front of her desk, trying to hide the cocoa fingerprints.
“It’s late. You should be leaving.”
Sarah quickly gathered her things and bolted out of the office muttering, “Good night.”
Back home, Sarah’s boyfriend Chris was making fajitas. They smelled good. So did he as he held her.
“How did it go today?” he asked.
“I think David was murdered.”
“That’s crazy. Who would do that?”
“I don’t know, but I saw his suicide note. He didn’t write it.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
Chris smirked, “Babe, you’ve been watching too much tellie again.”
“Don’t patronise me. Anyway, I’ve got evidence.”
“Fingerprints from his keyboard.” She held them up. He looked baffled.
“Are those fingerprints? They look like dirt.”
Now Chris was looking at her like she was completely mad. He already thought all women were on the crazy spectrum. She ploughed on.
“And I took photos.”
“Okay,” he said patiently, “and what do you plan to do with them?”
“I’m not sure. I suppose make a murder board.”
“A murder board?”
“Yeah, that’s what they do. Put all the evidence on a board. It’s all about MMO.” “MMO?”
“Means, motive, opportunity.”
“You’re nuts. Come and eat.”
Later, as Chris lay snoring beside her, she flicked through her iPhone photos. Not helpful. The photos were so dark they looked like an untalented art student’s end-of-year project. Flash must have been off. She contemplated the letter opener. It seemed a strange choice. Not that sharp. It would take a lot of force to cut through someone’s wrist with it. And once they’d cut one artery, wouldn’t that arm be useless? She remembered the chemical smell that had been there when she first found David. What was it?
Sarah decided to call in sick so she could spend some time investigating. Chris kissed her goodbye at eight after his usual grumble about her piss-weak shower. He didn’t like her flat.
“Promise me you won’t spend the day thinking about David.” She crossed her fingers behind his neck. “I promise.”
He looked dubious. “All right. See you tomorrow night.”
As soon as he was gone, Sarah went to her laptop and remotely signed into David’s computer. She started with his email account. Lots of trivial back-and-forth with staff members. Them wanting accounts paid, him querying every expense and generally making life difficult for them. They probably all wanted to kill him. Amazing that he got laid so often. He could thank loneliness and alcohol for that.
Two hours later, she was still trawling through David’s emails when she noticed an inbox folder titled “Private”. She clicked to open it. Password protected. Could he be stupid enough to use the same password for everything? She tried it. Yes, he was. Sarah glanced over the first couple of emails. They were automatic receipts from a bank, confirming funds had been deposited. Interesting. There were 94 emails in this folder. 74 were receipts for deposits to an account called RealWorld and 20 were for deposits to an account called VitaGlynn. The amounts were large. Sarah calculated over $2.1 million had gone to RealWorld and $1.2 million to VitaGlynn over a period of eight years.
A quick Google told Sarah that David Ransom was the director of RealWorld and Glynn Boland, Judith’s oppressed, Dennis Thatcher-like husband, was the director of VitaGlynn. As embezzlers went, these guys were the worst. They hadn’t even tried to hide their identities. And David kept evidence on his school email. Fool. But why wasn’t the money missed? Another five hours of working her way through the money trail provided the answer: David had been skimming school parents for years. All he had to do was add a couple of minor charges to each account every term, like $5 for stationery, and then funnel the extra cash into his own account. Parents never questioned small charges, only big ones. Over the years, these small charges had added up to substantial sums.
Payments to VitaGlynn only started three years ago. Sarah guessed that Judith somehow became aware of David’s game. Instead of exposing him, she joined him. As if she wasn’t rich enough already. Never underestimate the power of greed, Sarah thought. Here was motive. Maybe David and Judith had a falling out and Judith killed him to prevent the truth coming out. Judith murdering someone wasn’t a great stretch of the imagination. She was certainly mean enough and strong enough. Could the chemical smell have been chloroform? Sarah had no idea what chloroform smelled like, but Judith would know.
She was a chemistry teacher before she bulldozed her way to the top. So that was means. Opportunity would just mean waiting until Sarah had gone home then visiting David in his office. He wasn’t a big guy. Judith could easily have overpowered him, shoving a chloroform-soaked rag in his face then slitting his wrists when he was unconscious. Sarah’s heart raced; she was positive she’d solved it.
It was show-down time. On Death in Paradise, all the suspects would be gathered then the Detective Superintendent would explain how he cleverly solved the case. After this, the guilty party may or may not try to run, but was always captured by the police and hauled away to face justice. Unfortunately, Sarah had no police at her side. She dug through her bag, eventually finding the card Constable Wilson had given her. She rang his mobile number.
“Hi Brett. It’s Sarah Cho.” “Who?”
“Sarah Cho. From St Bernadette’s? We met the other day when my boss died.” That didn’t sound right.
“Oh yeah. CSI girl.” He was mocking her.
“I think I know who did it.”
“Did what?” “The murder.”
“It was a suicide.” He sounded impatient.
“No, it’s murder. I have evidence.” “What evidence?”
“Emails. Financial records.”
“You have a confession on email?”
“No, bank receipts.” She didn’t feel like she was explaining it very well.
“Look Sarah, you’re upset. I remember when I saw my first dead body. It takes a while to get over.” “No, really. It was the principal.”
“Sarah, I have to go. Unless you have a confession or a video of her killing him, there’s nothing I can do. Honestly, I think it’s suicide.”
“No, wait…” Too late. He’d already hung up. Damn. She’d have to do the show-down solo.
Chris called later to see how she’d spent the day. Sarah thought it best not to tell him what she’d found. She had a feeling he wouldn’t be impressed, especially after she’d promised to leave it alone. She didn’t sleep much that night, playing all possible permutations of the confrontation scene over and over in her head.
Sarah found her courage failing her by the time she got to school. She printed out her evidence: the emails, account statements, her spreadsheets and the company records. As she held the wad of paper in her hand wondering what to do, her phone rang. “Principal’s office” flashed up on the screen. It startled her so much she dropped the papers. Shit.
“Judith wants to see you now.” It was Rose. No pleasantries with that one.
“Sure. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Sarah quickly gathered up all the papers and shoved them in a manila folder. She took a deep breath and headed to Judith’s office.
Judith gestured towards a chair in front of her desk. Sarah sat down, noticing that the chair was a little too short. Judith looked like a giant staring down at her.
“Sarah, it’s come to my attention that someone has been logging in using David’s details. Do you know anything about that?”
A strange lump took shape in Sarah’s throat and she found it hard to form words. Attack or retreat? Attack, she decided.
“Yes, that was me.”
“You know that’s illegal.”
“I needed to check on some things.”
“Your behaviour has been inexcusable. We’re letting you go immediately.” Judith pushed a pile of papers towards Sarah. “Sign here and you get a redundancy cheque. Don’t sign and you go with nothing.”
Sarah quickly skimmed the papers. It was hush money. If she signed, she was forbidden to ever disclose anything to do with the school and her reward was a cheque for $10,000.
“I’m not signing this.”
Judith moved to the other side of the desk and stood over her.
“You understand that you leave with nothing if you don’t sign it? And you will still be prosecuted if you disclose confidential school information.”
“Like this?” Sarah held out her folder. Judith took it and silently perused it, her lips tightening to a scarlet slash.
“I don’t know what you think you’ve found, but this was all approved by the board.”
“I doubt that.”
“Oh Sarah. You’ve simply misunderstood. And now you’ve lost your job for nothing. I’m sorry it ended like this.”
Judith turned and pressed the intercom. “Rose,” she said. Rose had been waiting for her cue to send the security guards in.
“These men will escort you out,” said Judith.
“You may go by your office to get your bag and nothing else.”
“I’m not letting this go,” said Sarah, a security guard on either side.
Rose grabbed Sarah’s arm as she walked past and pulled her close. Sarah was overpowered by the scent of talcum powder, sweat and halitosis.
“Be careful,” Rose hissed in Sarah’s ear. “Don’t forget what happened to David.” She released Sarah and sat back in her chair.
Out on the street, Sarah considered her next move. The day wasn’t going to plan. It was time to regroup and head home. Maybe she’d been wrong about everything. Her mother always told her to reign in her overactive imagination.
Hours later, with a few wines under her belt, Sarah was having a leisurely bath when she heard a noise. “Chris?” No reply.
She got out of the bath and slipped her robe on. She gingerly opened the bathroom door a fraction. A man was standing in the hallway facing away from her. Not Chris. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. Maybe he hadn’t heard her call out. Hide. She had to hide. Fortunately, the bathroom had a second door that opened into the bedroom. Sarah crept into her bedroom, stepping cautiously into the wardrobe.
Gingerly closing the door, she nestled into the corner and hoped the man would go away. Adrenalin pulsed through her as she heard the man walking through the flat, opening doors. She heard him go into the bathroom. Oh God, he would see the hot bath water and know she was here. She felt around for something she could use as a weapon, but there was only an old pair of running shoes. She grabbed one and held it to her as the footsteps got closer. The wardrobe door suddenly swung open and she found herself looking into the bland face of Glynn Boland. He smiled malevolently as he reached in and grabbed her wrist.
She tried to scream but nothing came out. She hit him with the shoe, but he just laughed and grabbed it off her as he pulled her towards him. He was surprisingly strong for a weedy guy.
“You’re a clever girl,” he said. “Got it all worked out eh?”
“So I was right,” she whispered as her back pressed into his chest. He was squeezing her so tight she could barely breathe.
“Oh yes, you were right. David thought he could take us on and win, so I took care of him. Now there’s going to be another ‘suicide’. Amazing how many people drown in their baths because they’ve drunk too much.” He let out an evil giggle as he dragged her towards the bath. The guy really was quite mad.
Sarah struggled, but he was too strong for her. She couldn’t get a scream out, just tiny grunts. He threw her in the bath and stood over her, holding her upper body under the water. Sarah tried to kick him as the need to inhale became more and more urgent. Just when she was about to give up, a shadow appeared behind Glynn. The shadow threw Glynn aside and lifted her, almost unconscious, from the bath.
“Sarah! Are you okay?” It was Chris.
Completely outsized by Chris, Glynn ran towards the front door, straight into Constable Brett Wilson and his Maori sidekick.
“Not so fast buddy,” said Brett, blocking the exit.
“Who called you?” croaked Sarah.
“Rose,” said Brett as his partner handcuffed a protesting Glynn. “She overheard Judith on the phone giving her husband your address and was worried.”
“Rose! Really? I thought she’d be on Judith’s side.”
“Nah,” said Brett. “She’s just shit-scared of her like everyone else.”
“Lucky escape babe,” said Chris as Sarah collapsed in his arms.
“Yeah, you guys got here just in time,” she said as she surveyed the scene. “You know, it’s just like…”
“…a TV show?” said Chris, eyebrows raised.
By Janette Ellis from Australia