Clean Cut(7)
Author:Lynda La Plante




    The library had not been closed, but there were numerous bouquets of flowers left by the doors. They looked rather sad and bedraggled; a couple had cards written by children.

    Anna was introduced to a pleasant-faced woman, who shook her hand firmly.

    ‘I’m Deidre Lane; poor Irene worked alongside me in the children’s department. I suppose you’ve seen a few of them have left flowers. I’ve more in my office and I’m not quite sure what to do with them. It’s just so dreadful, none of us can believe it.’

    They walked towards a small office, where Anna accepted a cup of lukewarm tea. The office was filled with posters advertising forthcoming children’s activities and readings. Deidre’s desk was piled high with books and files; she cleared a space for Anna to put down her cup. She then drew up a chair to sit beside her, rather than behind the desk.

    ‘Was it a burglary or something like that?’ she asked.

    ‘We won’t know that until we have had time to check, but I am here really to ask if you knew of anyone who had some kind of grudge against her.’

    ‘Against Irene? No, no, good heavens, no. There wasn’t a soul who had a bad word to say about her.’

    ‘Could you list all the people employed here?’

    ‘It wouldn’t–it couldn’t be connected to anyone from here.’

    ‘But I do need to know everyone’s name and address just for elimination purposes.’

    ‘I see. Well, yes, of course.’

    ‘That will include cleaners or janitors, anyone who has recently worked here, painting or redecorating, doing carpentry–any odd-job men who may have come into contact with Ms Phelps.’

    Deidre went over to a filing cabinet and took out a large ledger. This time, she sat at her desk, and began to list for Anna everyone working at the library. She included a plumber who had been working on the drains recently and two boys who had helped clear the pathways around the library.

    It became clear to Anna that most of the employees had been at the library for many years, even the odd-job men. Armed with names and addresses, she then turned her attention to asking for more details about Irene. She learned that Irene was a very diligent and loved member of the team, always on time in the morning, and always leaving promptly at three so she could be at home when her daughter returned from school.

    ‘She worshipped her little girl; she is such a lovely pleasant child, always very well dressed. Her name is Natalie, but everyone calls her Natty; she often helps out with the Saturday-morning activities. Irene didn’t get any extra money for this; to be honest, she wasn’t paid that much, but I know she had a settlement after her divorce. I think her ex-husband paid the rent, so she was not kept short. Between you and me, I think it was a bitter divorce–he left her for someone else and went to live in Devon, I think, but I can’t be too sure. Irene didn’t like to talk about him and I never met him, or really knew her while they were together.’

    Anna went through the usual queries, asking if anyone knew whether Irene had any boyfriends or was in any kind of relationship, but this also led nowhere.

    ‘I didn’t really socialize with her,’ Deidre explained. ‘I had never been to her flat, but working alongside her for so many years, we became quite good friends, and I never heard her mention that she was seeing anyone. I think she led a very quiet life, with just herself and Natty. On a few occasions, she mentioned that she had been to see a movie, usually with Natty at weekends; she had her parents quite close so would spend Sundays with them. I think she did a bit of shopping and cleaning for them, as they are quite elderly. Christmas-time, when we had our office party, we would all bring our husbands and partners, but Irene was always alone; in fact, I never saw her with anyone but her daughter.’

    Anna spent another hour talking to the other librarians. In each case, they were very shocked and distraught at the brutality of the murder. She then contacted the plumber and arranged to see him later that same morning, plus the two young kids who had swept the pathways. It was becoming obvious that no one really knew Irene out of work time; nor had they ever seen her with anyone apart from her daughter. It was really very sad; Irene Phelps appeared to be a hardworking and caring woman whose life focused on her job, her daughter and her elderly parents.

    The plumber turned out to be a short, ruddy-faced man, who wasn’t too sure if he had even met Irene. He had worked for the library virtually on a charity basis, he told Anna, as they were always short of finances; he would come in on Sundays to see to any jobs that needed doing. For the entire day of the murder, he had been working in Clerkenwell on a new housing estate. The two young lads were also unable to give any details about Irene; they had been paid in cash to sweep the pathway of leaves, and then both had gone to a gym straight after. They had seen no one lurking around and nothing suspicious.

    Anna returned to the incident room just after three. She typed up her report and went over to discuss her interviews with the duty manager; together, they brought the board up to date with the lists of colleagues, part-time workers and alibis. She then returned to her desk and made herself look busy, as there was to be a briefing at five. She hoped it would not go on for too long, as she was planning to drive over to Glebe House.

    At five o’clock sharp, Sheldon walked out of his office, just as Harry Blunt and Frank Brandon entered the incident room. None of them acknowledged Anna or, for that matter, anyone else; they sat at their desks checking over their notes. Sheldon stood for a moment, looking at the board and the results of the day’s enquiries. He slowly loosened his tie and then turned to the room.

    ‘We should get the lab reports in tomorrow; forensic are still at the murder site. So, in the meantime, let’s hear how today progressed.’

    There was a brief silence, then Harry Blunt stood up.

    ‘Didn’t get much for us from the grandparents–they’re very elderly and very obviously shook up. I talked with Natalie, the daughter; she has a counsellor with her, but the outcome is again not too helpful. On the day of the murder, she returned home, a bit later than usual; she’d been to see her grandmother, as she’s had a bout of flu. So it was nearer to five forty-five when she thinks she got home. Front door was ajar, so she called out—’

    Sheldon wafted his hand. ‘We know this. What else have you got?’

    ‘Well, she saw her mother, then ran to a neighbour who called the police. They kept her with them until the locals arrived and then they took her to stay with her grandparents. As far as we can ascertain, she saw no one else inside the premises and no one outside; she also said she didn’t know anyone who would want to hurt her mother, or of any new friend Irene had who she might have been seeing. I have suggested we maybe talk to her again in a proper audiovisual suite. From what I’ve gathered, the victim kept herself very much to herself and rarely, if ever, entertained, but was well-respected and liked by both sets of neighbours living in the same house. None, when questioned, had seen or heard anything and were all very shocked. There had been no workmen around lately, so no strangers in and out of the premises, which are quite secure; we’ve also got nothing from any CCTV cameras.’

    Sheldon nodded and pulled at his tie again; he now looked to Frank Brandon.

    ‘Coming up with much the same thing, Gov: well-respected, hard worker, did the same journey to school and work every morning, and returned around about the same time every day. This makes the timeframe for the murder to be from around four to when the daughter returned home.’

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