First the yelling, now the screaming. Bing Billingsley dropped the motion he was editing and stood up to go find out just what was going on this time. Peering out into the hallway, he saw Martha Gates standing agape outside her boss Thomas Creech’s corner office, four doors down, with a look of horror on her face even more intense than the one usually elicited by Creech.
“Mr. Creech,” Gates said as she saw Billingsley approach. “He’s dead!”
Billingsley rushed into Creech’s office. Behind a pretentious shoji screen that Billingsley had always suspected was there to keep Creech’s frequent napping from public view, his profitable but much-hated partner was slumped over his desk, papers stained red beneath him and the hilt of a slim-bladed knife protruding from his Burberried back. Billingsley, not relishing the task, stepped in to feel for a pulse.
Behind him he heard Janet Plum’s voice as she approached down the other hallway. “Martha, what happened?”
“I . . . I don’t know! The mail came in late — I just went in to give it to him and found him . . . stabbed!”
Billingsley came back out into the hallway. “No pulse. What was he yelling about earlier? My client in Hong Kong could hear him over the phone.”
Gates remained dazed for just a moment longer, then shook herself and said, “It was Sherry, Sherry Boslin. She’d gone in to talk to him, and then he just blew up. You know how he is.”
Wrong tense, thought Billingsley, but, yes, he did know. Creech was the epitome of the awful boss. Unreasonably demanding, incomprehensibly unappreciative, and utterly disdainful of anyone who worked for him. Yelling was the norm; throwing things was merely a close second.
“She’s leaving,” Plum said. “I mean, she quit – she’s going to another firm. She just went in to tell him.”
“Is she still here?” Billingsley asked.
“No, I just saw her in my office – she said she’s going home!”
Billingsley strode over to Gates’s phone and called building security, asking them to keep an eye out for Boslin and to bring her up to him if they saw her. Oh, and could they call the police, as well?
He hung up. Janet had her arm around Martha’s shoulders and was leading her to her chair. “Martha, what happened? What did you see?”
“I didn’t see anything, Mr. Billingsley.” Martha was old school and wouldn’t call him “Bing”. “You know I sit so I can’t see his office. Ms. Boslin came by and asked me if he was available; I told her yes and she went in. If she told him she was quitting that must have been why he was yelling at her.”
“Was she carrying anything she could have hidden a long knife in? A bag, purse, big envelope?”
Gates thought for a moment. “No, nothing.”
“Did you know she was leaving?”
“No. She’s only been here a year. I didn’t even know she was looking.”
“But you knew,” Billingsley said, turning to Plum. Plum and Boslin had offices right next to each other, and they undoubtedly commiserated frequently.
“Yes, she told me a couple days ago. She said she’d never have to put up with him any more.”
“Let’s look at her office.”
Gates declined – she said she didn’t trust herself not to faint if she stood now – so Billingsley and Plum walked together to Boslin’s office. The walls were bare, the desk neat and orderly with just a computer keyboard, some pens, and a couple of pads of paper neatly stacked in the corner. There were no photographs, no nicknacks, nothing personal in the office.
“Looks like she was already all packed up,” Billingsley noted.
“She took a box of stuff out with her when she left.” Plum brought her voice down to a whisper. “Do you really think she stabbed Creech in the back? She doesn’t even like to kill mosquitoes! She’s a vegetarian!”
Billingsley lowered his voice even further, placing his mouth close to Plum’s ear. “She’s not the only one who was here. There’s you, there’s me, and there’s . . .” He nodded his head sideways to Martha’s workstation.
They heard voices, and Billingsley, recognizing Boslin’s Texan twang, motioned to Plum to return to Gates’s desk. There they found security guard Jack diMatti, crumbs in his mustache and creases in his shirt, escorting Boslin toward’s Billingsley’s office door, one hand discretely but firmly holding on to her bare right elbow. “Over here, Jack,” called Billingsley, and diMatti guided Boslin, who seemed agitated and flushed but kept silent, to Gates’s workspace.
“What’s this about, Mr. Billingsley?” di Matti said; then, noticing Plum there, he winked at her, and licked his lips suggestively. Plum blushed, seemingly taken aback by the ill-timed gesture. di Matti was clearly not the observant detective type.
“Mr. Creech has been murdered, Jack. Are the police on their way?”
The shocked reactions from di Matti and Boslin were both immediate and clear. After a moment, di Matti released Boslin’s arm and asked where to find Creech’s office, then went to see for himself.
Boslin, panting and increasingly red, finally managed to sputter, “What are you saying? I just left him . . . a few minutes ago . . .” She lifted her right arm, revealing to herself and the three gathered around her the red outline of diMatti’s handprint, and then looked with panic into Billingsley’s eyes. “My . . . pen . . .” she choked out; then, gasping, she crumpled to her knees, throwing her purse to the floor in front of her.
Gates cried out, “Oh my god, she’s having a reaction!” She dove to the floor and took up the purse.
“Jack, we need your help!” called Billingsley, as he crouched beside Boslin to support her. “Martha, what’s going on?”
“She’s allergic, allergic to peanuts, she carries one of those injecter pens in her purse just in case.” She turned the purse over, spilling out all the contents. “But I can’t find it!”
di Matti appeared at the side of the cubicle. “Oh, hell, what now? What can I do?”
Plum grabbed his arm excitedly and said, “The box! Did she have a box with her when you caught her?”
“Yeah, we left it downstairs at the guard desk.”
“It’s got to be in there! Her medicine – it’s in a long yellow carton, like a toothpaste box. Run downstairs and get it!” A strained, noisy wheeze from Boslin seemed to punctuate the demand with urgency.
di Matti started to sprint towards the elevator, but Billingsley halted him with a commanding “Stop!” di Matti looked back, puzzled, as Billingsley rose to his feet. “You won’t find the pen downstairs, Jack, and Sherry might be dead by the time you come back. Janet, where’s the pen?”
Plum jerked as if she’d been slapped, then recovered. “I don’t know where the pen is. How do we know it’s not in the box? We’ve got to check!”
“You know it’s not in the box because you took it out of her purse yourself.” He planted himself in front of Plum, and she glared defiantly. “Did you offer to hold Sherry’s stuff for her while she went in to talk to Creech? Because she wasn’t carrying her purse when she stopped at Martha’s desk. I think that’s when you took the pen out.” He looked over her shoulder and pointed. “Jack, that office right there – look in the desk drawers, look in her purse – search the whole room, quickly.”
“You can’t go into my office!” Plum protested. She turned, but Billingsley positioned himself between her and her office doorway. “Why would I take her pen anyway?”
“You took her pen because you knew she was going to go into anaphylactic shock. You knew she was allergic to peanuts and you made peanut butter cookies and left them for the guards downstairs as a treat.” Raising his voice, he said, “Didn’t she, Jack? You still have crumbs in your mustache, and I saw you thank her when you arrived.”
“That’s right, Mr. Billingsley! The pen’s not in the desk here!”
“Of course it’s not in my desk!” Plum snapped. “Get out of my office or I’ll have your job! This is harassment!”
“Sherry!” Martha cried out, and Billingsley turned briefly to see that Boslin had collapsed completely, lying on her back now, barely making a sound. Martha looked up at him. “Should I do CPR?”
“That won’t help. Call an ambulance. Janet, you are going to prison for Creech’s murder, but if you help us save Sherry that might be taken into consideration in sentencing.”
“What!? You’re saying I killed Creech? You heard him and Sherry arguing – you know she couldn’t stand working for him!”
“Maybe, but she did what smart people with bad bosses do – she got away, and quickly. She knew she could do better, and she knew that once she was out of here, she’d never have to think about him again. But you? You’ve been sticking it out for five years now, putting up with his crap, too insecure to think you might make it somewhere else. When Sherry told you she was leaving, you must have hated her almost as much as you hated him. More, maybe. You only killed Creech; Sherry, you’re trying to kill and frame for Creech’s murder.”
“So, you’re saying what? That I fed them cookies downstairs knowing that they’d just happen to catch Sherry as she was leaving, with peanut oil all over their hands?”
“Not ‘just happened’ – I think you swiped the mail from Martha’s inbox when it first came in and then slipped it in right after you killed Creech, so she’d go in directly and find the body while Sherry was still here.”
“You can’t prove any of this!” Billingsley could see she was frightened but trying to feign fury.
“I can. When Martha first called out she said that Creech had been stabbed. That was all. And you never went into his office after that, and he can’t be seen from outside the door. But you knew he had been stabbed in the back – you said so in Sherry’s office. The only way you could have known is if you had done it yourself.”
The look of surprise on her face, Billingsley would admit to himself later, was tremendously satisfying. Before she could gather her wits to speak, di Matti called from her office. “Found it!” He came out seconds later, already tearing into the cardboard carton. “It was hidden behind a row of big heavy books on her bookshelf.” He knelt beside Boslin, pulled up her skirt, and jammed the pen into her thigh. “I think she’ll be okay now.”
Billingsley turned back to Plum, who now herself looked as if she might collapse. “You should have told us where it was. You should have done something to help yourself. You should have done something to help yourself a long time ago.”
Behind him, he could hear Boslin’s breath coming more evenly. She, at least, would be all right.