Peter Steward's Web Site
It was difficult returning to work after the wedding. I felt disorientated, unable to think straight and unable at first to keep my mind on work.
On returning from our honeymoon, Louise and I had a serious talk about work. Neither of us really fancied having to work so close in the same office. It was bound to cause friction and we feared that would spill over into our private lives and that our private lives would also spill over into our work.
Indeed our minds were made up following our first argument a few weeks after returning to work. It was one of those inconsequential rows and it is hard looking back to even remember just what it was about.
Whatever it was it flowed over to our day at work with neither of us talking. This was something that Birkett noticed.
"Now look I know you two lovebirds have had an argument at home but it's no good bringing it into the office. All that will achieve is to create and atmosphere and make everyone touchy. How would it be if people in the office refused to talk to each other every time they had a disagreement over a story. What if we refused to talk to the editor every time he upset us. We'd never talk to him at all. So make up for goodness sake."
We did that there and then but that night we had a serious discussion about the matter.
"You know Louise I think something's got to be done. Both of us on the paper is just not going to work."
"I know but you can't give up your job and so I suppose it had better be me. I suppose deep down I've always wanted to be a housewife. I'd like to see it through to the end of the year, however. That's another three months. Of course I'll have to work a month's notice. The thing is can we exist just on your salary?"
"We'll just have to if you really think we can't work in the same office. I'll go and talk to Shad Greene tomorrow and explain the situation."
"I don't envy you that," Louise replied.
"No neither do I but it's got to be done."
Balancing finances was difficult, as it is for all newly weds. We had bought a very small house just outside of town and I was finding the mortgage repayments much more demanding than Violet's rent.
I must admit it was a sad day when I left Violets. I had grown to love the old house and had set up my bedroom in the way I liked it.
Violet cried the day I left.
"It's like splitting up the family," she said as she pressed a set of grapefruit dishes into my hands.
"Here dear it's not much but at least it's a wedding present," she said.
I steeled myself to talk to Shad Greene and waited until he had finished reading The Times and had finished his morning nap. Then I knocked on his door.
"Come In," he said with a rather strained voice.
"Wondered if you'd like a cup of tea Mr Greene," I said timidly.
"Love one lad and I'd like to have a chat with you."
What on earth did he want to say to me. Well I would let him say his piece before I told him that Louise would be resigning."
"I hope you don't mind me saying this Eric but I've been watching you and Louise since you got married and it isn't really working is it? I'm afraid I don't like married couples working together although of course I could never force one of you to give up. That's the problem because you have both become very valuable to th paper. It would be so much easier of one of you were a passenger like that Martin guy."
"Before you go on I think I ought to tell you that Louise and I have already talked this over and come to the same conclusion. There is no way that we can both do an effective job. It's impossible not to take our working life home and our home life to work. That's what I wanted to tell you today."
"I see and what have you decided?"
"Well it's obvious that one of us has to give up and the logical answer is it should be Louise as she fancies being a housewife."
"I think that's a wise decision although we would be very sad to see her go."
I detected that there was more to come from this conversation.
"You use the words we would," I said.
"When does Louise intend leaving?" he inquired.
"Well she would like to stay until Christmas if that's okay.
"Yes certainly it will give me time to appoint a replacement. I suppose this is all going to be a drain on you financially?"
"Yes it will but sometime in the future Louise would have to give up work anyway as we intend starting a family."
"Well I've a little idea that might help you," he replied. "I've been impressed by both of you and the paper shouldn't suffer just because you fell in love. I'm prepared to increase your salary by 10 per cent. I know it's not a fortune but it's all we can afford at the moment due to the new position we are about to create."
I could see at this point a twinkle in his eye.
"I would appreciate it if you kept this secret from the others. I can't afford to give everyone a pay rise. I have been talking to the owners about the need to obtain more local news from the villages. It's what a local newspaper like ours thrives on. But it's something that hasn't been done effectively. We really need somebody to make contacts in the village and produce copy on low level new like WI meetings, local societies and everything else that makes us tick. Done properly we will sell more papers in the villages and attract more advertising. In addition the local organisations will get proper coverage under a new Community Life section. We want somebody to head this up who knows what they are doing. This person needs to be able to work from home and not the office and to spend time in the communities, getting to know local people and digging up the stories. I think it's the kind of job that would suit Louise. She can work from home and send in her copy through you. She won't need to come to the office.
"Anyway I put this idea to the owners and they have agreed to try it out for six months. We will pay lineage for the copy. It probably won't add up to what Louise is getting now, but there's plenty of scope. What do you say?"
Personally I thought it was a great idea, but the decision would rest with Louise.
Louise was, not surprisingly, delighted with the idea and said yes immediately.
"You know old Greene's not a bad old stick really," she said.
"No he's been like a father figure to me in a strange off-hand sort of way. He might be a grumpy old bugger at times but he's still got a heart of gold and really appreciates people who work hard," I replied
"I still remember that day I went to his home. He's a very loving husband. Anyway let's stop talking about the Shad Greene Appreciation Society. He wants you to speak to him tomorrow and tell him what you think of the new role," I said.
There was no way anybody was going to change my opinion of Shad Greene, not even when Birkett had a go the next day.
"Heard the old boy's offered you an extra £300 a year. That's very kind of him," I noticed the obvious sarcasm in his voice.
"Yes it is."
"Don't you believe it son. That extra money he's giving you will only be what he saves from employing a junior in Louise's place."
"I don't really care. He didn't have to give me the money and how did you find out anyway?"
"I'm a bloody journo mate. It's my job to find things out.."
I didn't tell him at that time about Louise's new position which she accepted that day. I knew he would find out about that soon enough.
Slowly things began to get back to normal and the typewriters began to click in time again as I got used to our new way of life. Louise left the office before Christmas to start her new position which she was really looking forward to. So I could say at this point that we had something of an idyllic lifestyle. The office went back to functioning as normal. None of us were aware of the disaster that was soon to occur and how we would be making our own news.
I settled back into a routine of attending court on Wednesdays, spending Thursdays covering sport and the rest of the week doing whatever came up. I was a very contented person at that time and looked upon my job as a happy added bonus to my successful personal life as a husband. There were plenty of sad and funny stories to cover and many interesting characters to meet.
These included the man who won prize after prize at the local horticultural show and then admitted that he hated tomatoes and cucumbers but enjoyed the cups they brought him. Then there was the ex-Olympic athlete who, in opening a new shop, refused to cut the tape with the scissors offered him.
"I've always bee used to running through these things," he joked as he took a couple of steps backward and ran into the tape which was firmly fixed to posts which collapsed as he ran through and brought down a nearby stock of tins
Eventually he picked himself up off the ground and cut the ribbon!
Of course the job had its moments of heartache. Going to see people to write obituaries was always difficult, but going to see parents of sons and daughters killed in road accidents was the worst.
Thankfully I didn't have too many experiences of this in my early days as a journalist. I do remember vividly doing a story about a 16-year-old bride who was drowned when swimming in a nearby lake. I had the thankless task of going to see her parents. I hated the thought of having to approach them but they were good enough to give an interview. There were so many pleasant facets to the job that you just had to take the rough with the smooth, although I never really came to terms with the rough. I found it difficult to know what to say to people who have just had a loved one killed.
Overall the office was entering one of its happier periods. We now longer had Willson's brash style or Martin and his problems to deal with,. We were on an even keel more akin to a happy family than a place of work. Louise and I saw Shad Greene in a new light. We put up with Birkett and even Happy Harry the photographer seemed to be going through one of his more jovial periods.
Robin had another lodger at Violets and, although he tried to keep quiet about it, we found out it was a 23-year-old blond secretary called Janice. Robin blushed every time we mentioned her name which was quite often. The office decided to monitor this position carefully.
The days to Louise leaving the office were counted off and interviews to find her replacement were carried out. I saw two or three of the candidates and they reminded me of myself when I first started - young and unsure of themselves. Eventually a young lad named Christopher was given the job. At that point none of us guessed that he would never work in the building.
Christopher still had two months of journalist college to complete before joining us. So Shad Greene decided to fill the vacancy temporarily and appointed a reporter for three months. He turned out to be middle aged with a waist larger than his age. I would estimate that he was at least four stone overweight. in fact he resembled and egg and looked even sillier due to his insistence on dying his hair jet black and walking around with a fixed smile on his face which made him look like a Cheshire Cat.
He soon sadly became the subject of the office jokes. It wasn't so bad when he wasn't talking but on the odd occasion that he joined in with the office debates he spoke with a high pitched, squeeky voice that often had people leaving the room to have a secret titter.
The problem with Mark Ramsbottom, apart from his name, was that he came from the upper classes. Often he came to work in a bow tie until Robin asked him one day whether it twizzled round or squirted water. This amused the entire office apart, of course, for Mark Ramsbottom.
Piece by piece we put together the Ramsbottom story. He had received no formal journalistic training but his father had once owned a tin pot paper somewhere on the Scottish borders. On leaving public school he had gone to work for his father who he referred to as "pater". Eventually the father died. Young Ramsbottom was not a businessman in any sense of the word and so sold the newspaper for a very small sum of money and qualified as a teacher and obtained a job at his old school where he became the target of many schoolboy pranks.
Eventually he gave up his teaching career after being attacked by a very small fourth year student who was subsequently expelled for "beating up" a member of staff. Ramsbottom dropped out for a while to nurse his pride and went to live with his aging, eccentric and very rich mother who looked after him. Eventually mater went the same way as pater and Ramsbottom found that death, dishes and the taxman had eroded his possible fortune to such an extent that he needed to work again.
He spent the next two years cultivating Shad Greene in the Conservative Club and used to tell anybody who would listen that the editor was "a good friend of mine." Most people wanted to be a personal friend of Greene's - particularly if they owned a business that they wanted featured in the paper!
So Ramsbottom was given a three month stint on the newspaper - and lasted just one. Once again drink was his undoing. Sober during the week, he liked a gin and tonic or ten at the weekend.
Usually at weekends he would get tipsy on his own and return to work on Mondays none the worse for wear and in full Yes Sir, No Sir form. Whenever a lady came into the office he would stand up. The front office was very pleased at this and would come up on occasions just to see Ramsbottom rise to his feet. In return if Ramsbottom went down to the front office the staff would stand for him.
"You lot look like Bill and Ben the bleeding flowerpot men," said Robin.
Ramsbottom's undoing came during one of the few entertainment evenings organised by the newspaper for the public. In fact this one was the loathsome annual Journal disco and fancy dress party which seemed to be organised simply out of habit than through any thought of providing entertainment, although it is rumoured that some people actually enjoyed the event.
All members of staff were expected to attend and Ramsbottom turned up at about 9 p.m looking this time much the worse for wear. His bow ties was askew and his dinner jacket was completely out of place. Indeed towards the end of the evening he was awarded first prize in the fancy dress competition and at least eight people asked him whether his bow tie squirted water.
"My good man these are my dinner clothes. We can't all resemble a scruff bag," he told one joker.
His real undoing came at just after 11 p.m when in attempting to read the label on what he referred to as "a very inferior bottle of champers" he tipped the entire contents of the bottle into Shad Green's lap.
The following day, despite his apologies, the newspaper cancelled the remainder of his contract and we were left a reporter short for the following month, but this time it was something we were prepared simply to put up with.
It was a long time since any of us had heard of or from Martin. I had good reason to believe I had been the last member of staff to see him on that day on the beach. From there he seemed to simply disappear from the face of the earth. Then one day I received a letter in the early post. It had a London postmark and rather disturbed me in a way that was difficult to explain. It read.
I thought it was time I got into contact with you and thank you once again for all your kindness. As you will be able to see from the postmark I am now living in London although I prefer not to tell anyone my address. It's not that I don't trust you but if you don't know it there is no chance of you accidentally passing it on.
I have spent months sorting everything out and feel that I can now see things in perspective. I am very sorry this letter is so waffly but it's just so that you don't worry about me because I now know what direction my life will be taking. I doubt that you will see me again, although you are almost certain to hear from me again although it may not be in the way you expect.
All Best Wishes
I read through it a number of times and then showed it to Louise who seemed just as worried about it.
"It doesn't make sense. It's almost as if he's trying to tell you something in code without saying it directly. What does he mean?"
"I don't know darling. You know as well as I do that Martin wasn't quite .... well you know ... right in the head."
"That's an awful thing to say Eric."
"Yes I know but we have to face up to it. There may not be anything in this. Chance is it's just a ramble. Perhaps he was drunk when he wrote it. It's just that phrase you are almost certain to hear from me again that worries me. It's almost a threat. It's almost as if he's trying to warn me."
"Warn you. What do you mean Eric?"
"I don't know. I'm probably being too sensitive. He probably wanted to tell me that he appreciated what I had done and had sorted himself out."
"I still think he's trying to warn you about something and I don't like it. I think you should show the letter to the rest of the office and also to Shad Greene."
"No way. If Shad Greene sees it he's likely to go to the police. Remember he's still keen to get hold of Martin for the destruction of the desk.
"I suppose you're right. The letter doesn't mean anything. It might be a good ides to destroy it to prevent it getting into the wrong hands. Let's forget all about it. Now what shall we have for tea?"
I took Louise's advice and tore the letter up and threw the pieces in the dustbin deciding to try and forget about it and hoping that I didn't live to regret my actions.
November was a very cold month and we seemed to be continually working whilst we huddled round a radiator. December in contrast was mild with no hint of snow. We were all looking forward to Christmas but it didn't look as if it would be a white one.
Louise was greatly enjoying her new role of being part-time village reporter and part-time housewife. We were already planning to move up to a bigger house or even to starting a family as Louise would be able to fulfil her new function even with a baby around.
December 14th was a Monday. A nice fine day blessed by a watery sun that still had some warmth in it. There had been a slight overnight frost but not enough to make conditions difficult. It was also a day when everybody in the office seemed very busy. People were trying to catch up ahead of the Christmas break. So the office was full and only the photographer was out and about on a list of jobs that would take him all day.
____ from the front office phoned up to say she wouldn't be in due to a heavy cold. Illness in the front office made things difficult because it meant we had to shut to the public until a temporary replacement could be found. That is always one of the problems facing a small paper with a tiny staff. Shad Greene tried to find somebody to step in, but it proved difficult so close to Christmas. So we ended up putting a notice on the door telling the public that we were shut due to unforeseen circumstances. Calls were re-routed from the switchboard to one of the reporters' phones and we took it in turns to staff these for an hour each. We got stupid queries, wrong numbers, advertising requests and soon began to appreciate all the work the front office did. We simply coped as best we could.
"I'll never take her for granted again," said Birkett and we all agreed. At lunchtime we staggered our break to give everyone a chance to have some time off without leaving the office empty. So Robin and myself popped down to the local cafe and when we returned Birkett went to the local pub. Shad Greene stayed in the office drinking a huge amount of tea. Tea and the Times were his staple diet anyway.
By 2.30 p.m the office was in full swing again and it seemed as if we might be in for a quieter afternoon than morning.
Quiet that is until the telephone rang. Robin answered and began to take down notes. When he had finished he went straight to Birkett.
"That was the fire station. They reckon there's a big blaze out Baxford way. Incidentally they have a new guy down there by the name of Wright. Never heard from him before but he said he would pop in an introduce himself. It's rather strange as the voice sounded familiar. I just can't place it. Okay if I have a drive out there and have a look?"
Birkett nodded and Robin set off.
The next call came from a resident of a village in the opposite direction and was answered by Birkett. When he came off the phone his face had a hungry look about it.
"That was some guy in Huntingford. He reckons there's a madman holding a young girl hostage. Something about a court order. Funny the police haven't told us about it. Still you know what they're like. I'd better investigate and ____ if you haven't anything to do you can come with me. It will be good experience. If there's anything in it it could take some while. Eric can you look after the office for a while?"
About five minutes later the phone rang again.
This time it was the police to say there had been a serious accident on a stretch of dangerous dual carriageway 15 miles from the town centre. A senior police officer was at the scene and would be prepared to talk about the dangers of this stretch of road if a reporter got there immediately. I was the only reporter left in the office so had to make an instant decision.
"Excuse me Mr Greene" I said as I passed his office with the intention of telling him where everyone had gone and why the entire office had emptied within 10 minutes. I didn't get very far as Greene was asleep with The Times covering his face. There would be no way of waking him up without rattling the teapot and I had no time to do that. So I decided to be on my way.
The newspaper world is quite used to unexpected events suddenly happening but I could never remember an afternoon like this when the entire office was cleared apart from the editor who was left to sleep or answer the phones - whichever he preferred. A fire, an accident and a siege all on the same afternoon. This really was what we came into journalism to cover. It seemed either too good or too bad to be true depending on which way you looked at it. It was lucky we had all the staff available in the office to deal with things.
I drove rather fast to the spot where the accident was supposed to have occurred. The double bend by the old cross was the location given to us by the police. I knew this was two miles south of a rather charming little village.
When I got there, however, there was no sign of an accident and so I drove to the village and asked in various shops and nobody had seen or heard anything. I then had a drive around the local lanes and there was nothing to suggest an accident of any kind.
Refusing to be put off I decided to stop at a telephone kiosk and ring the police.
"Hello it's Eric here from the Journal. I'm ringing about the accident you told us about over an hour ago," I said when I was put through to the duty Inspector.
"What accident," came the reply.
"The accident on the dual carriageway at the double bend near the old cross."
"Somebody's been having you on Eric. There hasn't been a single serious accident in the county today. It's been one of the quietest days of the year."
"Well didn't one of your staff phone us up with details of the accident?"
"Well considering there hasn't been one that seems very unlikely," he replied.
"In that case who phoned us with the info."
"Search me Eric. It must have been somebody winding you up. Sorry we can't investigate for you but I don't think it's an offence to wind up a reporter."
"Thanks anyway. I'd better get back to the office."
So it had been a hoax and I had fallen for it without checking back with the police. But then we always took calls from them at face value.
"Always check things out before you go rushing off," Shad Greene had told me. Here I was proving once again how wise and correct he had been. Had he not have been asleep he would probably have told me to ring the police back and would have saved me a futile journey.
I would be the laughing stock of the office. The others would return with their stories of sieges and other events and I would have fallen for a hoax. I would return to find them all typing in stories or still out on jobs destined to make the front page that week. I hadn't even thought to ask the Inspector how the siege was going. Strange that he hadn't mentioned it and even stranger that he had told me it had been one of the quietest days of the year.
At least none of the others had checked the sources of their stories either so they wouldn't be able to wind me up on that score. It would just be unfortunate that I had been the one hoaxed. I would still be left with egg on my face. I must admit I didn't hurry back to the office. The last thing I wanted to find was everyone still out and have to answer advertising queries for the remainder of the day.
It was only when I was a couple of miles from the office that something began to nag in the back of my mind. It was something Robin had said.
"Funny they must have a new chap on at the station. Never heard of a guy called Wright before, but the voice sounded familiar."
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I now focussed on the police voice that had informed me about the accident and yes there was something recognisable about it. Dealing with numerous people every day can lead to confusion and voices tended to intermingle. If somebody had hoaxed me it could have been somebody I knew, but try as I might I couldn't place it. Perhaps in a few days' time I might remember something or somebody or a friend would admit putting on an accent to fool me. But why would they want to.
By this time I was on the outskirts of the town and driving at around 30 mph when I was overtaken by two fire engines driving at speed. Now there is a fallacy about reporters in the 1970s driving after ambulances and fire engines. It just isn't done - well not by me or anyone else at the newspaper. As soon as I reached the office I would telephone the first service and they would give me all the information I knew. Then we would make a decision about ether to attend the fire or not. Often they were false alarms anyway. It was still a nice bright afternoon and as I had made a mess of everything already I thought another half hour would be neither here nor there.
So I stopped at a small cafe at the start of the town for a coffee and cake and then continued on the rest of the journey. As I approached the town centre I began to see flames billowing into the sky.
"Christ" I said out loud. It looked like a big fire and I was probably the only reporter around. It seemed to come from the High Street area and as I drove towards it I heard the sirens of more engines and police cars.
Suddenly I had a dreadful thought. The flames were coming from the High Street and the general direction of the office. I jammed my foot hard on the accelerator. Another bend and a few hundred yards and I would be able to see where it was.
As I came round the corner I saw a police road block and beyond them a mass of fire tenders with their hoses pointing into a building that already seemed to be ravaged by fire.
Then I realised it was the office. Flames were coming out from the reporters' room and the entire building looked twisted and on the point of collapse. There were small fires in some of the surrounding buildings and the windows of the office had already burst. I pulled the car into the side of the road and ran up to the road block until my way was blocked by a burly policeman.
"I'm sorry sir you can't go through there. The entire building could collapse at any moment."
"But it's the newspaper office. I work there, what the hell happened?"
"Don't really know. We just had an anonymous call to say the place was going up in flames. That's about an hour ago. It's really caught hold now. Luckily our men managed to get inside with the breathing apparatus and it doesn't appear anybody was there. The flames have become too much to get inside now."
"But the editor Shad Greene's still in there."
"I wouldn't worry Sir, the men got in a couldn't find anybody. He must have got out somehow."
"Officer, I'm sure Shad Greene didn't leave the office. He never did during the day. Almost as if he had a phobia about the outsdie world. He's got to be still inside."
The officer rushed forward towards the fire and said something to one of the firemen. Word was passed around and very soon a number of firefighters with breathing apparatus were attempting to entire the burning building yet again.
One of the firemen who appeared to be in charge came up to me.
"I understand you work at this office?"
"Yes that's right."
"You think somebody's still in there?"
"Yes the editor of the newspaper. He never goes out during the day. I left him in his office when I went out. He's got to still be in there." By this time I was feeling frantic.
"What about the rest of the staff?"
"I think we were all out on jobs."
"Okay we'll see what we can do" and so saying he turned to a police officer and shouted.
"Get an ambulance on standby down here just in case."
The officer sprung into action and a few minutes later two ambulances were at the scene along with rather alarge crowd that had gathered.
"It looks as if the whole place is going to be gutted," the firs officer said to me as the police pushed the onlookers back. "I just hope we can stop it spreading. I think we are achieving that but you aren't going to have a newspaper office at the end of it."
It was obvious that the firemen were fighting a losing battle. Their hoses seemed to be having little or no effect although they were managing to isolate the fire to our building. It looked like a matter of containment.
Suddenly a thought struck me.
"Officer," I said calling over one of the policemen.
"It may be nothing but I've just been sent out to a non existent road accident. I was told that there was a serious collision near the iron cross but when I got there I found nothing. My colleagues were all called out of the office as well and it seems rather strange to me. It's the only time I can remember it ever happening."
"Have your colleagues returned yet?"
"Not that I know of. They can't have otherwise they would have been here now. The fire brigade say they found nobody inside, so they must all still be out on their jobs."
As if on cue, it was at that precise moment that Robin came running up to the road block.
"Hell what happened," he said as he tried to catch his breath.
"I guess it speaks for itself. I've only just got back as well," I replied.
"How did it start?"
"No idea mate. I'm more worried at the moment about whether somebody is still inside."
"you mean there's somebody still in there."
"Well I reckon Shad Greene hasn't got out. The rest of us were all out on jobs."
"That's a matter of opinion Eric. Do you know there was no fire where I went. I've been driving round the countryside for the last hour trying to find one. I ended up taking details of an old boys charity bed push. That's why I've been so long."
"You mean your fire was a hoax?"
"That's exactly what I mean."
"My road accident was a hoax as well."
"You mean there wasn't an accident?"
"That's exactly what I mean."
"Do you think these hoaxes have any connection with this fire?"
"I'm beginning to wonder."
"Eric do you think the hoax calls could have been from the same person."
"I'm beginning to wonder Robin. Remember what you said when you took your call."
"You mean about the voice being familiar?"
"Yes. Do you think somebody was trying to get us all out of the office?"
Suddenly we stared at each other and one name came to us immediately:
"Martin," we shouted in unison.
"He wouldn't," said Robin.
"Robin there's something I think I ought to tell you. A few weeks ago I received a note from Martin with a London postmark."
I told Robin roughly what the contents of the note had been.
"It was that one phrase that worried me and Louise. The bit about I now know what direction my life will be taking. I don't think you will see me again, although you are almost certain to hear from me, but not in the way you expect. Those were roughly what the note said."
"You think that Martin started the fire deliberately?"
"I don't know Robin. He certainly had reason to. He was mentally unstable, hated Shad Greene and the office and that note seemed to be a thinly veiled threat. Then there were those hoax calls. If it was Martin he obviously wanted to get us out of the office and made sufficient calls to ensure we all got out - apart from the editor."
"I think you might have something Eric. I suppose two hoax calls could have been a co-incidence. It is close to Christmas and strange things can happen. I reckon if the siege turns out to be a hoax then there might be something in your theory."
"I'm almost certain it will be a hoax. When I spoke to the police earlier they said it had been one of the quietest days of the year. They wouldn't have said that if they had a siege on the go. Birkett and ______ should have been back by now. Those firemen should be out by now. It looks as if part of the roof is going to collapse. It must be like the black hole of Calcutta in there."
At that moment as if on cue the firemen came rushing out dragging a limp body between them and gasping for air once their breathing apparatus had been taken off. The body was obviously that of Shad Greene.
Robin and I got as close as we could as Greene was loaded into one of the waiting ambulances.
"How is he?" Robin asked one of the firemen.
"Don't hold out much hope mate. He must have been in there from the start. He's been overcome by smoke and suffered serious burns."
"But why didn't you see him the first time you went in," I asked.
"It's difficult to say. He was slumped behind the corner of his desk. It would be very easy to miss him in the smoke and fumes."
"Well that's just great. They miss him and he could have breathed his last," Robin said through clenched teeth.
"It's not their fault Robin. How would you like to rush around in smoke filled rooms, looking for people who may or may not be there with the threat of the building collapsing at any moment?"
"Yeah I suppose so Eric. I'm just so angry about this whole thing. If it was arson and it was Martin, then God help him."
At this point Birkett and ______ arrived on the scene.
"My God," said Birkett seemingly speechless for the first time in his life "What on earth's happened?"
Robin disregarded that question and came up with one of his own.
"Your siege how did it go?"
"What kind of question is that when our livelihood is being burned around our ears?"
"It's an important question and not just idle curiosity."
"Well as a matter of fact there was no siege. The house in question was owned by an 84-year-old couple who had just celebrated their golden wedding. That's why we were so long. We were doing an interview on that instead."
"And nobody there knew anything about a siege," Robin asked.
"There you are Eric, a hat-trick of hoaxes that cleared the office apart from Shad Greene."
"Looks like Martin then," I replied.
"Would you mind telling me what you are talking about," said Birkett.
"Well your job was a hoax, so was Robins and so was mine. Somebody obviously wanted to get us out of the office for some reason. You know the rest. The building caught fire and here we all are. We all went out to fictitious jobs and came back to this."
"Yes but who wanted us out of the way and why?" Birkett said.
"Well we reckon it's Martin," I replied.
"You mean that useless lump who used to work here. But why would he do it and why did he warn us and ensure we weren't in the office?"
"Well our guess is that he wanted the office empty except for the editor whom he had a girevance against. It looks as if he set fire to it with the intention...."
Birkett stopped me.
"You mean Shad Greene was still in there?"
"Yes I'm afraid so. He was brought out a short while ago and rushed off to hspital."
"I'd better get over there. He may need me," said Birkett taking off towards where he had abandoned his car.
One of the fire officers came over to the three of us who remained and could only watch as our place of work disintegrated in front of our eyes.
"If I were you I'd go home. There's nothing you can do. The place will be gutted. I think we've got the blaze under control but we're going to be here for a few hours yet making sure it doesn't spread."
"Come on Robin I think we should go to the cop shop and tell them our evil thoughts."
This we did. We passed on our information to an inspector that we knew well and he got a police constable to take down statements and asked us to stay close to our telephones for the remainder of the day in case they had any further questions for us.
"Fancy coming round for tea?" I asked Robin "there seems little we can do now. God knows what the future holds at present."
"Yeah okay thanks," said Robin who was obviously beginning to take what had happened rather badly.
It was very painful going through everything for Louise.
"Well at least my working from home saved the hoaxer from having to make up another story. When you think about it he must have been somewhere close at hand for two reasons. He needed to see you all leaving the office, he must have seen the sign on the front of the office stating it was shut and so knew _____ wasn't there, he must have known that Shad Greene didn't come out and of course he must have got in somehow if it was him that started the fire."
"It would have been simple for him to get in through the back door which we leave off the latch for most of the day, particularly when we're coming and going so much," I replied.
"If there had been a fourth hoax we would probably have begun to suspect things," I replied.
"Perhaps he wouldn't have pushed his luck with a fourth. Perhaps he would have been willing to have sacrificed somebody else. It doesn't bear thinking about," added Louise.
"The thing I don't fully understand is the timing," said Robin. "If we are right and it was Martin and he was determined to set fire to the office why didn't he do it at the weekend - say on a Sunday when he would know that the place is empty?"
"I think he was deliberately trying to kill Shad Greene. That's what the police think. They're certainly looking for him on suspicion of murder and that's ahead of the investigation on how the fire started. So they must be taking what we said very seriously," I said.
None of us felt like food that night, but we did manage a small tea. We tried desperately during the evening to put the fire to the back of our minds and talk about "normal" things, but it didn't work and at shortly after 9 p.m we returned to the scene. It was a horrible mess. There was debris everywhere and firemen were still there damping everything down. What had once been a room full of typewriters and old newspaper files was just a sloppy charred mess. Years of work had been wiped out by this carnage. Years of endeavour and records of the past wiped out by what could have been the act of a vindictive madman. By this time we were all convinced that the whole thing had been started by Martin. I couldn't help thinking that I was partly responsible. If I had only acted on the note and taken my concerns to the police, perhaps all this could have been avoided. But then I had no evidence that Martin was planning something. It was always no stronger than a gut feeling. We were still presuming that Martin had been at the heart of everything.
"Well mate it's no good crying over spilt milk. It's happened now and nothing will put it back together," said Robin. So saying he trudged off back towards Violets. Myself and Louise returned to our flat knowing that the chances of finding sleep were virtually zero.
An hour later there was a knock on the door. Birkett was standing there looking very pale and unsteady.
"It's the editor Eric. I'm afraid he has died," it was obvious Birkett was holding back the tears.
"Oh shit," was all I could say. "Will you come in and have a drink?"
"No thanks I'm going round to see Mrs Greene. The police will have given her the news by now. She might need somebody as she didn't feel well enough to go to the hospital. Anyway Eric it's a family matter. You see Shad Greene is my father-in-law. I married his daughter."
So saying Birkett turned and walked to his car without another word.
"Oh the poor man, " said Louise after he had driven off. "I wonder why he never told us that Greene was a close relative."
"Probably didn't want us to think he was getting preferential treatment. He's a good journalist but it wasn't always so as we all know."
"I've had enough for one day I'm going to go to bed," said Louise.
"I'm going to stay up. There's no way I could get any sleep. You go ahead. Tomorrow we have to try and make some sense out of what has happened and work out what the future holds."
Louise had just gone to bed and I was aimlessly watching the television and drinking some hot milk when the doorbell rang again. This time a policeman was standing outside. It was a police constable I had dealings with before and had even interviewed on a number of crimes.
"Evening Eric. Thought you might like to know that we've just picked up this Martin guy or should I say he walked into the station tonight and gave himself up. He's in quite a state. Admitted starting the fire in full knowledge that Mr Greene was still in the building and he also admitted making those hoax calls in order to get everybody clear of the office. He went in through the back door and doused everything in petrol before setting light to it. He particularly asked us to let you know and pass on the message that he had now settled everything and was happy. He said you would know what he meant."
"Yes officer sadly I think I do.