My mobile rang, making me jump. I looked at the clock. 11 p.m. Who the hell was ringing me so late? Let them phone back tomorrow! Suddenly, for no real reason, other than curiosity, I snatched the phone up and touched ‘answer,’ barely glancing at the incoming number.
“Hello, is that Graham?” A woman’s voice. She sounded quite young.
“Yes, who’s that?”
“It’s Joanne. Joanne Ellis. I work in the QC lab at Rylands. We’ve met a couple of times at meetings recently. I have … ginger hair.”
I remembered her. Quite attractive. Glasses. Long auburn hair. Didn’t say much. My interest perked up. “What can I do for you, Joanne? It’s … er, rather late.”
“I’ve discovered something. I need to speak to you. It’s important.”
“Can’t you tell me over the phone?”
“No … no, I need to speak in person. Please ….” She sounded anxious.
I poured boiling water onto fresh ground coffee, inhaling the feisty aroma. 11.30 p.m. Joanne should be here any minute. What the hell did she want? I couldn’t get my head around it. Unless someone had tried it on with her inappropriately. Molested her. That was the last thing I needed.
“Darling, are you coming to bed?”
It was Becky, my wife. Her blonde hair was ruffled and her heavy breasts pressed through her thin nightie.
I felt my body stir. “No, someone from work called. They’re calling round any time now. … they want to talk. It’s urgent. I don’t know what it’s about. Some neurotic woman. I’ll get rid of her as soon as I can.” I kissed Becky’s warm nose. “Love you.”
But Joanne didn’t call round and she wasn’t at work the next day. In fact, she wasn’t at work ever again.
Becky and I sat in the lounge whilst Sam, our little boy, sat painting at a small easel. He had just turned three. Becky was talking about her friend Zoe’s wedding arrangements. I watched Sam paint a circle with two dots and a curved line inside. A face with two eyes and a smile, I presumed. Clever boy. Then a ‘body.’
“Graham, have you been listening?” Becky’s irritated voice cut in.
“What, er, sorry, no I’ve just been watching Sam paint the same line eight times.” The ‘body’ of the stick figure was now a soggy blue mess. “Did you give him his Zyproxin?”
“You know I don’t like giving him drugs. He’s so young.”
I sighed. “Look, doctors know best. Mix him up some Kaleidoscope milk and give him his pill.”
Sam began to pound his brush on the easel, dabbing blobs of blue paint everywhere.
Becky sighed and headed for the kitchen.
A month after Joanne disappeared, a package was delivered to me at home. I took it into my study, cut the top off and tipped out a small brown diary. There was no accompanying note. How odd. Inscribed on the first page was a name. A name that made my heart pound. Joanne Ellis.
I sat at my desk and began to look through it. It was pretty mundane. ‘Dentist 2 p.m. check up,’ ‘Halfords – get windscreen wipers changed. 5 p.m.’ and so on. On some pages there were chemical formulae and scribbled, cryptic notes, none of which meant anything to me.
I flipped through to the day of her phone call to me. Just two words, the last entry in the diary. But two words that made me stare. And stare some more. ‘Kaleidoscope – LSD?’ What the hell what was that about? Kaleidoscope milk was the number one milk additive for young children in the country. Sam was on it, all the kids we knew were on it. Full of health-giving vitamins and minerals, targeted for toddlers and young children.
I locked the diary in a desk draw and tried to put it out of my mind.
The police had called round one evening, having found my number on Joanne’s phone.
“Mr. Humphries, Graham Humphries?”
“You are personnel manager at Rylands Foods?”
“We’d like to ask you some questions about Joanne Ellis. May we come in?”
Seated in the lounge, a tall thin man with receding hair, a long, pointed nose, and pale green eyes introduced himself. “I’m inspector Steele, we’re investigating the disappearance of Miss Ellis. We understand on the night of her disappearance she phoned you about 11 p.m. Is that right, sir?”
So, I’d explained the circumstances, just left out the bit about her wanting to come round. I don’t know why. I just didn’t want to tell them. So, I said that she’d asked to speak to me at work the next day. They seemed to believe that. Fortunately, Becky was out at the time. I’d prime her when she got back, although I expected it would lead to an argument. Still, it had to be done. As regards the diary, well no one knew about that, except me … and whoever had sent it.
A week after that, I got a call from Rylands’ CEO, the curiously named Hal Hall, to go up to his office.
Hal sat behind an enormous mahogany desk in a cavernous, luxuriously carpeted office on the top floor. He was an athletic-looking man in his early fifties with curly brown hair and a neat brown beard. He had piercing blue eyes that would stare right into yours, right into your soul. He gave me the creeps.
Seated next to him was a squat man with a pasty grey face, small black eyes and a slash for a mouth. His hair was black and looked like it had been painted on. He wore a black jacket and trousers, a white shirt and a thin black tie. There was no sign of a paunch. Hal didn’t introduce him. I noticed the man wore black leather gloves. That was strange.
“Look, Graham, I’m not going to beat about the bush. I understand you’ve got Joanne’s diary.”
That was the last thing I’d expected. I took a deep breath. “Er … what makes you think that?”
“Have you, or haven’t you?” The blue eyes peered into my soul.
I tried to stay calm. “No.”
The man with the painted hair got up and strode towards me. Before I knew what was happening he had grasped my nose with an iron grip, hauling me to my feet.
He let go, leaving me to rub my red, throbbing nose.
“Let me ask again,” said Hal. “Do you have Joanne’s diary?”
I looked from Hal to painted-head-man and back. “What if I do?”
“Well, I guess you’ve looked through it, maybe put two and two together?”
“What do you mean? OWWW!” Jack once more grasped my nose and led me by it to the back of the office. Hal came over and opened a large window behind me.
“Led me go, you’re hurding me!”
Jack did as requested. I tried not to burst into tears from the pain.
“Look, Graham, I need the diary back and I need you to sign a total non-disclosure form. Otherwise, you can take a trip out of this window right now.”
I looked down on pointed iron railings several floors below, and at Jack’s stocky body and pudgy grey face, his eyes, like two burnt peas, sizing me up. Beneath the black jacket, muscles shifted and flexed, and I imagined the gloved hands were itching to grab me and hurl me out and down onto the railings.
So, I’d agreed. Hal had given me a glass of whisky, told me to take the rest of the day off. Someone would finish my work and I’d be chauffeured home to hand over the diary. Then I’d been told a little story. A story of how Kaleidoscope milk additive had a very small quantity of a specially-designed hallucinogen in it. Undetectable. Just enough to set kiddies ‘off on one,’ ADHD, OCD, you name it. Take ‘em to the doctors and they’d prescribe Zyproxin, which just happened to be made by Rylands Pharmaceuticals, our sister company. That would put them right.
“So, everyone’s happy, Graham. The kiddies, the mums and dads, the doctors, and most-importantly, the share-holders.” Hal smiled. “And of course, it’s too big a boat to be rocked, you do understand that now? Joanne tried and well … look what happened. She disappeared and she won’t be coming back.”
The slash in Jack’s face raised imperceptibly at either end.
“And Jack knows where you live. Of course, you wouldn’t want to lose your pension and benefits, nor Becky and Sam, would you?”
Reluctantly I’d signed the document. Permutations flashed through my mind, but all were fraught with danger. Easier just to go along with Hal. I knew one thing though, Sam was done with Kaleidoscope milk and Zyproxin for good, and I’d do my damnedest to ensure that applied to all my friends’ kids too. And, for now, I’d keep quiet about the photocopy of Joanne’s diary I’d lodged with a solicitor friend of mine.
Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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