“What was Arthur like?” Kate James repeated the inspector’s question, but softly as if speaking to herself. She turned away and looked pensively out the window, apparently deep in thought. It wasn’t that she didn’t have an answer. Rather, it was, she felt, the type of question that deserved at least the appearance of consideration. She hoped that the pause and the stare at the sky outside the window of the flat conveyed that she was taking the question seriously and formulating her response carefully. She wanted to be helpful - always within the bounds of discretion, of course. It wouldn’t do to give too much away. She had to control her anger and her fear.
The drizzle had stopped, but raindrops still beaded the window. The clouds were thick; it would rain again later, she thought. If the inspector and the constable left soon, she could finish the shopping before the rain started again. Derek’s mother was particular about food, and she had several hours of cooking ahead of her, and the house still had to be cleaned. She liked her mother-in-law, and she thought Derek’s mother had a good opinion of her and considered her an appropriate match for Derek, a thought that gave her no little pleasure.
One of the policeman shifted position. The chair in which he was sitting creaked, and the noise drew her attention back. Perhaps she shouldn’t have offered them coffee. But that was what everyone did in police shows on the telly - offer coffee or tea. Usually the senior policeman present refused. But the inspector had accepted her offer with apparent gratitude. When she carried the tray with the cups and cafetičre and the milk and sugar into the lounge, she had the impression that the two policemen had inspected the room during her absence. Both of them were standing, and they sat down again only when she did. Now they looked fixed in their chairs.
Kate turned to the inspector and allowed her eyes to meet his with what she hoped was appropriate candour. “Arthur could be difficult. I got along with him, but most people found him rather trying. I last saw him a week ago yesterday, however. We were away on holiday. My husband and I just returned last night. I haven’t even done the shopping yet. There’s nothing to eat, and my husband’s mother is coming for dinner tonight.” She fidgeted in her chair and glanced at her watch, hoping the police would understand that she was in a hurry. The constable made a note on his pad. “I can’t tell you anything. I don’t know why he committed suicide. I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything that could help you. I last saw him the day before we left for Spain, and he seemed his usual self then.”
She giggled nervously and then instantly remembered that the occasion was not one for levity. She pressed her fingers over her lips and looked down at the carpet. “It’s so hard to imagine that he’s gone.”
The inspector settled back into his chair. “You said he could be trying. In what way?”
What would other people at work have told them already? Surely they would have been candid, now that Arthur was gone. Bill and Margaret would have welcomed the opportunity to speak ill of Arthur. Best to be truthful, then, but sound judicious not vindictive. “Arthur thought all of us were entitled to his opinion, and he didn’t hesitate to give it. I suppose he thought of it as a good deed - letting you know the truth and putting you straight about things. And he wasn’t very forgiving of others. He was very critical, always criticising in fact. And it wasn’t often justified. He’d pick out some little thing and blow it up. But I don’t see what this has to do with his suicide.”
“We’re trying to get a better picture of Mr Collier. It helps us to understand him and the reasons for his death.”
“How long did you know him?” The constable spoke for the first time.
“I started at Hendricks six years ago, in the billing department. I was introduced to him soon after I started, but I didn’t really know him - just to say hello in the corridors or the lunchroom, that sort of thing. Last year, after I finished several courses - I’m taking a business degree at the Open University - I was promoted to the customer service department and given charge of a group of our clients. All of us work on the same floor. I was given the desk next to Arthur’s. It was the only one open, because no one wanted to work next to him.”
The constable paged back through his notes, apparently checking an earlier statement. “You appear to have been on better terms with him than most of your colleagues?” He framed his remarks as a question, as if prompting Kate to explain her colleagues’ remarks. “Several of your co-workers mentioned that you got along with him?”
“I suppose I did. I had heard about him, and the first day in my present position, he started in on me. I let him know I wasn’t going to put up with him, and I think he respected me for that. I didn’t let him bully me. I didn’t shout at him or anything like that. Most of the time, I just made a joke about what he was trying to do. When he found out that he couldn’t push me around, he left me alone. I wouldn’t say we were friends, but we were friendly. Just at work, though. I never saw him outside the office.”
The constable made several notes and then flipped over a page on his pad. The inspector waited until his colleague finished writing before asking, “Did he talk about his personal life?”
“Not often. He was always mysterious about that. You know, like there was more to him that he could reveal.” Kate looked down at her hands and forearms. Her tan was really quite good. Poor Derek. He burned so easily with that fair skin of his. A pity her tan wouldn’t last. Another two or three weeks and she would be pasty white again. Perhaps she should sit in the sun during her lunch hours. Regular visits to a tanning salon would probably be too expensive.
Arthur’s desk was by the window. Of course, he had always kept the shade down. He didn’t want his co-workers looking out the window. Hendricks would have to hire a replacement. There was far too much work for the customer service reps as it was. But perhaps if the position hadn’t been filled yet, she could ask to have his desk. She would keep the shade up and even open the window when the weather was nice.
She was glad that Arthur had waited until after she and Derek had left for their holiday. If he had killed himself before they left, Hendricks might have asked her to postpone the trip to fill in at the office. But they could hardly ask her to come back from Spain. As it was, she hadn’t learned of Arthur’s suicide until they had returned yesterday and played back the phone messages on the answering machine. Both Susan and Maggie had rang separately to tell her. Maggie had contributed a pound on her behalf for the funeral wreath the office sent. She would have to remember to repay her. But then Maggie wouldn’t let her forget. She was glad they hadn’t spent more. It was such a waste to send flowers to a funeral, but everyone expected you to do at least that. Fortunately the funeral had already taken place, and she had been spared that unpleasant duty.
“Did he ever mention suicide to you or discuss any reasons why one might commit suicide?” The police constable seemed to have made himself responsible for conducting the interview. The inspector had lowered his head and was eyeing the titles on the bookshelves next to his chair.
“No, never. But it’s not the sort of conversation you have in an office, is it? Didn’t he mention why in his note?”
“There was no note,” said the inspector. “It is the absence of a note that has brought us here.”
It took Kate a few seconds to understand the implications of the inspector’s remark. “But surely it was suicide, wasn’t it? The people from the office who called said it was suicide.”
“The facts of the case could support either suicide or murder. If it was murder, it was disguised to look like a suicide.”
“But no one would murder Arthur. He was such a pitiful creature. If anything, Arthur would try to disguise a suicide to look like murder. I’m sorry. I don’t like to speak harshly of the dead, but you did ask. Arthur would like the idea that he was causing you trouble. That’s the kind of person he was. Always trying to stir things up.”
The two policemen glanced at each other and then leaned forward in their chairs and stared at her intently. Kate suddenly knew that she had given them something they had been looking for. She was in for a long bout of questioning now. She and Derek would have to take his mother to a restaurant. Well, at least, she had a good excuse, and she would have plenty to tell them.
“Why did you say he was a pitiful creature?” The constable wrote something on his pad and then looked at Kate expectantly.
“Well, there was his blog.” Kate felt a red rush of anger. She thought she had put her feelings about what Arthur had written behind her, but they were as strong as they had been when she first discovered Arthur’s writings. Her words came gushing out. “He had this blog. I ran across it by accident, and it was horrid. I . . . I was so furious with him. The things he said. His lies. It was disgusting. He had names for all of us. Nasty, spiteful names.”
Kate grabbed a tissue from the box on the table and pressed it against her face. “He took every little incident and blew it up into something awful. And if something good happened, he took credit for it. He boasted about all these things he had supposedly done. And none of it was true. He was making it all up.” She turned away and began crying.
“Would you like a glass of water?” The inspector motioned to the constable, who put his pen and pad down and went into the kitchen. Kate heard a cabinet door open and then the sound of running water. The constable came back into the room and set the glass down on the table beside Kate.
She automatically picked it up and drank. “Thank you. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get so upset. I pushed it out of my mind while we were on holiday, and it just suddenly came back to me.”
“Don’t worry about it. I know it’s difficult to talk about such things, but it would really help us if you tell us about his blog. If it’s too hard for you to talk about it now, we can come back later.” Both the inspector and the constable smiled at her sympathetically.
I don’t want you coming back, thought Kate. “No, I just want to get it over with. It won’t be any easier later.”
“Thank you. We appreciate your taking the time to talk with us. But if it becomes too difficult, let us know. How did you learn of Mr Collier’s blog? Did he tell you about it?”
“No. I, well, I’ve been thinking about finding a job at another firm. Please don’t mention that to anyone at Hendricks. Hendricks is fine, but it’s so far away. When I first started working there, I lived closer - just a fifteen-minute bus ride. I could even walk to work on nice days. I did that sometimes. But when Derek and I got married, we moved into this flat. It’s perfect for us, but it means that I have a longer commute to work. I have to take the underground and change at King’s Cross, and there are always delays and stoppages. The trip takes at least an hour. Some nights it’s almost 7:00 by the time I get home, and then I still have to do the cooking and the washing up. And then I’m so tired I just want to go to bed. It’s not fair to Derek that I’m so tired, and we barely get to see each other during the week.”
The inspector nodded. “I understand. So you were looking for another job, something closer . . . ?”
“Yes. This was two nights before we left. I was searching for jobs at printing firms in London. I planned to start looking when we came back from Spain. I ran across this blog about working at a printer’s, and I thought it might have some information I could use. But when I started reading it, I realised it was about Hendricks. All of us were there. Arthur had given us different names, but I could identify most of the people. And it was easy to see that it was written by Arthur. He gave himself the starring role.”
“Do you have the address?”
“I’m not likely to forget it.” Kate spelled out the URL.
“I take it the content of the blog was distressing.” The constable looked up from his notebook and smiled encouragingly at Kate.
“Well, as I said, he either took credit for everything or he magnified other people’s mistakes and made them seem worse than they were. He had to step in and set things right. The worst was . . . ” Kate hesitated and turned away from the two policemen. “The worst was that he claimed to have had sex with practically every woman at Hendricks, even the older ones - he described those as ‘charity fucks’. That was the term he used. Mrs Hendricks - she and her husband founded Hendricks - she’s in her mid-sixties, and according to Arthur, she wanted to leave her husband and run off with him, but Arthur had persuaded her against this. The way he described it we were his private harem. And he wrote what he had done with each of us in detail. I felt . . . violated. It was as if he had raped me and was bragging about it.”
“I’m sorry, but I have to ask this. Do you think any of these claims were true?”
“No. Arthur was horrible. No one would have gone to bed with him. He was making all of it up. You shouldn’t ask such questions. How can you say such things?”
“We have to investigate all possibilities, Mrs James. A jilted lover might have thought she had reason to harm Mr Collier. I’m sorry if this distresses you.”
“Arthur was just another one of those sick people on the Internet who hides behind a cute name and thinks he can say anything because no one knows who he is. He’s horrid, just horrid. I know he thinks he’s better than all of us, but he shouldn’t have said those things.”
“Did you talk with him about this blog?”
“No, of course not. I wasn’t going to speak with him ever again. I just wanted to get out of there.”
“Did you tell anyone else about his blog?”
“Just Mrs Flowers in Personnel. Part of her job is to deal with problems between employees at work. I made an appointment to see her the day before we left. I told her what I had found, and she looked at Arthur’s blog and read a few entries. She agreed with me that it had to stop. She felt the same way I did. She said she would have a word with Arthur.” Actually Mrs Flowers had spoken out forcefully and said that she would put a stop to it and that if Arthur didn’t agree to delete the blog immediately, she would have to speak to the company lawyers. Kate was beginning to regret being so open with the inspector and the constable. Perhaps she had revealed too much. She didn’t want to cause problems for Mrs Flowers, who had only been trying to help.
“Do you know if she did? Would she have spoken to other people?”
“She may have talked with Arthur. I don’t know what she did with the information I gave her. When I left, she was printing out pages from Arthur’s blog. I had the impression that she was going to speak to Arthur first and see what he had to say and then maybe discuss this with others at Hendricks.”
“Would she have let Mr Collier know that you were the one who made the complaint?”
“No, she wouldn’t have done that. Not without my permission.” Kate suddenly had a vision of Arthur extracting revenge. But it hadn’t been her fault. She hadn’t made him write those awful things. If he got fired, it served him right.
“Mrs Flowers works in Personnel? Is she there every day?” The constable looked back through his notes.
“Yes, she works in Personnel. I think she’s there every day. I don’t know. I don’t see those people very often.”
“How do you think Mr Collier would react to a meeting with Mrs Flowers?” The inspector spoke very quietly.
“I don’t know. I think he would try to bluster and deny that the blog was his. He would threaten to sue the company and her personally. But it was clearly written by him. He couldn’t deny that. He would have to find some other lies to tell, some other story to make up.”
“And if he had no other story to tell?”
“Do you think that’s why he committed suicide? Because he had been found out? Are you saying this is my fault? That I should have kept quiet?”
The inspector shook his head. “No, not at all.”
“He could have told the truth. He didn’t have to lie. What was I supposed to do? Let him go on telling lies? I didn’t think he would kill himself. But if he did, I’m not sorry. He shouldn’t have lied about us.”
She grabbed at a tissue, but in her haste she pulled a handful from the box. She batted at the box and shoved it to the floor. “He had no right. He ruined everything. I thought we were friends, and he wrote all those awful things about me. I never did anything to him. I was always polite. It was all his fault. He was too ashamed to live with his lies. That’s why he killed himself. It didn’t have anything to do with me.” Kate looked the inspector in the eye and dared him to dispute what she had said. It wasn’t her fault. No one would think it was her fault, not if they saw the things Arthur had written about her.
“No. As you say, it was something he brought upon himself.” The inspector stood up. “Well, I think we have taken enough of your time today, Mrs James.”
A few seconds later, the constable finished writing in his notebook and closed it.