Having beaten the traffic, Mrs Patricia Peacock (Biology) thought she would be the first in to the staff room of St. Cluedo’s this morning, but there, earlier and more immaculate, is her friend, Miss Saskia Scarlett, Head of Modern Languages.
Pat has recently divorced Mr Peacock, at a profit, and expects no sympathy, traumatic though it was. Saskia does not do sympathy.
‘I’ve never married, as you know, Pat,’ says Miss Scarlett, her lipstick as red as a Guardsman tulip, as perfect and unblemished, her Italian outfit beautifully tailored and wrinkle-free, her skin smoothed by botox. ‘Friendship was more important to ME. I never needed anything else.
‘Ah, friendship, indeed. But some men have money, remember,’ murmurs Mrs Peacock with a smile. Saskia, who learned five languages during the travels of her youth, has had uncounted lovers, but her memory seems to be failing her, the darling. ‘Colonel Mustard seems interested in your friendship, my dear, if you like the military type.’
Colonel Mustard has entered teaching after being invalided from the Army by a war wound, the details of which incident are strictly forbidden as a topic of conversation.
‘I suppose, if a man has been terribly mutilated in a mysterious location, one might not want too much intimacy to develop…’
‘Not that!’ Saskia shakes her blonde head with a pretty frown. ‘All that outward bound stuff. The Army Cadets, the Scouts. It’s all he ever does. Outdoor activities. His house must be full of mud, damp canvas, and rucksacks crawling with beetles. And who in their right mind would want to drive around in that rusty old jeep? Or sleep in a musty sleeping bag?’ She pouts, her red mouth forming a disapproving crescent.
‘Or there’s Prof Plum. He seems to have gone off Mrs White. In January, I walked in on them in the domestic science laboratory; he had her up on the worktop.’ Mrs Peacock giggles nastily. ‘By the end of term they weren’t even speaking to one another. Whether they’d fallen out, or they wanted to keep their little affair secret…’
‘Spare me,’ groans Saskia. ‘A socialist!’ Vladimir Plum, the Head of Chemistry, is a radical, dark eyed and dangerous. He smells like an unsuccessful experiment, and has a complexion resembling the nasty residue produced in a test-tube rack when the Year 11 students were allowed unsupervised access to the reagent bottles at the back of the lab. (Not long ago they connected a water tap to a gas tap with rubber tubing and water came out of the Bunsen burners). ‘Prof’ Plum is not even a genuine professor, but has thus been nicknamed by students, because of his white coat and tendency to cover the board with incomprehensible formulae whilst talking rapidly in an Eastern European accent.
Mrs Peacock reflects that, like herself, Saskia may have reached the time of life when dislike of men has largely overcome physical attraction, even when there may still be some monetary advantages in their pursuit.
At assembly they are surprised to find that the headmaster, Dr Black, has not returned to St Cluedo’s after the holidays. He should be taking assembly, but is not there. Mrs White (Home Economics), as Deputy Head, steps in to fill the gap.
News starts to filter in from the school secretary. Dr Black has been taken to hospital with a mysterious illness. The doctors are baffled. He is going to be on long term sick leave. The staff all look at each other wondering who is plotting to fill his post.
Dr Black opposed Academy status for St Cluedo’s, an inner London school which occupies a valuable plot of land; in particular the prime area of real estate represented by the overgrown playing fields across the main road. Black would thunder on at governors’ meetings about the proud heritage of this mighty institution, dating back to the Board Schools of the 1870s, the virtues of public service, and the evils of privatisation. Everyone feigned interest, wondering why he did not simply bow the knee before the might of Mammon, and set up a limited company in his own name, offering property services and all manner of financial wizardry, at a reasonable price.
It is not long before Mrs White announces in hushed tones to morning assembly that Dr Black has passed away and that she will be Acting Headteacher until a replacement can be found. In the meantime she will do her best to progress the school’s plans for ‘Academisation’ and’ rather than falling behind the times, the school will now be in the vanguard of the pathfinder projects.
‘Was there perhaps a plot to remove Dr Black from office?’ Mrs Peacock whispers to Miss Scarlett.
Saskia gives her a sly wink, fluttering her long glossy eyelashes over a delicately rouged cheek.
‘He won one of of Mrs White’s ‘guess my weight’ cakes in the fundraising cake sale at the end of last term. His guess of two kilos was a joke, and he was devastated by his victory.’
‘How can a cake weigh two kilos?
Saskia taps the side of her nose.
‘I happen to know that Vlad ordered a great deal of mercury in February. I overheard the school secretary arguing with him about the cost. He said it was for phase equilibria practicals.’
Mrs Peacock muses that mercury, atomic weight 200, has a greater density than lead. It could however, not have been baked into a cake without releasing a dangerous level of vapour into the domestic science laboratory. The weight of the cake could simply be the result of Mrs White’s lack of culinary technique. Unless they used a fume cupboard.
A few days later the police arrive at St Cluedo’s and ask to see Mrs Peacock. She trembles, wondering if they are going to investigate the formaldehyde and arsenic in her dried flower collection. The innocent have nothing to fear, she tells herself, uneasily. There was no evidence of heavy metal poisoning, says the inspector, who simply asks if Mrs Peacock is able to identify a huge spider which has been discovered in the apartment of the deceased. A black widow, she says, how appropriate, but how rare and unheard of to find one in this country. No, it has never been kept in the Biology labs. How very Secret Service, she thinks, without saying anything.
The new head teacher, Reverend Green, is appointed after only a few weeks. He claims to have been working in overseas development in the third world, but his clean-shaven military features, tailored clothes and luxury sports car suggest a different story. He teaches Religious Instruction but looks as if he would be more at home instructing Special Forces in the use of wrist-watches with murderous laser beams. Colonel Mustard takes an instant dislike to him, and by Thursday has rung in sick.
There seems to be an understanding between Green and Miss Scarlett almost immediately. Within a couple of days they are exchanging coded jokes about the ‘Ministry’. By the Friday night of his first week they leave the school together, her sleek legs and killer heels swinging elegantly into his sports car as she settles back into the leather upholstery. Her long blonde hair, splayed out by static, sticks to his coat sleeve.
‘Thanks for the tip-off,’ he says as the car growls over the speed bumps outside the school. ‘This kind of nastiness shouldn’t be necessary nowadays, but there are still operators out there who think the Cold War never ended.’
He raises a quizzical eyebrow while fiddling with the flappy-paddle gear levers. Saskia gives him an appraising glance. Almost as handsome as she remembers him.
‘I wonder when Colonel Mustard went over to the enemy?’
‘Recruited while he was serving in Bosnia. He’s been undercover a long time. I’d lost track until you spotted him. His organisation had their eye on those playing fields for a property development that would have provided them with a secret base in London.’
Green stops the car in one of the darker corners of Tilbury. The river sucks and whispers on the other side of the wall. It is high tide.
‘Do you want me to help you get him out of the boot?’ Saskia flexes her long, red-nailed fingers.
‘Watch this.’ He presses a button on the dash and the boot opens. A hydraulic lifting arm extends and drops Mustard’s weighted body neatly over the side. There is a splash.
‘It folds away automatically,’ says Green, and with a quiet whirring noise the arm folds away and the boot lid clicks shut.
‘But how on earth did he kill Dr Black?’
‘Abseiled the walls of the hospital after dark, entered Black’s sideroom and disconnected him from life support.’
Green’s hand contemplatively descends the side of Saskia’s neck, stroking her with the backs of his fingers.
‘Remember Istanbul, old girl?’ His voice is husky.
She leans her chin back and laughs.
‘One for Auld Lang Syne, eh?’