Murder at the Office: A Mother Daughter Mystery
© 2016 by J.J. Brass
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, organizations, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Warning: the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal.
Cover design © 2016
First Edition 2016
Murder at the Office
A Mother Daughter Mystery
When the call came in from reception, Sharon growled unapologetically. Swiping the phone from its cradle, she asked, “Rosa, what’s up?”
“You’ve got a visitor!” Rosa replied with a giggle.
Must be Nora surprising her with an indulgent afternoon snack from the froufrou cupcake bakery downstairs.
“Send her in,” Sharon said. “She knows the way.”
“Aren’t you even going to ask who it is?”
Sharon sighed. “Fine. Who is it, Rosa?”
The receptionist squealed into the phone before shouting, “It’s Kate!”
Sharon’s heart just about jumped out through her mouth. Kate? Couldn’t be. Kate didn’t even return her phone calls these days. That girl would never show up at the office unannounced.
Unless there was some sort of emergency.
Or maybe it was some other Kate Sharon’s mind had misplaced. A client perhaps?
Sharon asked Rosa, “Kate who?”
“Kate who!?” Rosa howled. “Your daughter Kate, of course! Lady, you’ve been working too hard.”
Goodness, it really was Kate.
Excitement and apprehension wrapped their fingers around Sharon’s heart as she said, “Tell her to wait. I’ll be right out.”
No time to check her teeth for spinach or make sure her hair was relatively tame. She wouldn’t have worn such a frumpy outfit if she’d known she’d be seeing her daughter today. Oh well. Nothing she could do about it now. She popped out of her boxy little office and walk-ran through the labyrinthine hallways. She worried that if she took too long getting to reception her daughter might give up on her and jet.
Sharon took a brief moment to compose herself before stepping through the glass double-doors and into the finely-appointed reception area.
“There she is!” Rosa sang, as though Sharon’s daughter were Miss America.
Fat chance of that ever happening. Just look at the girl: blonde hair dyed pink and twisted into dreadlocks. Sharon couldn’t help but cringe internally. She pictured her daughter as a child: expressive eyes, sweet spirit, kind demeanor. What ever happened to that version of Kate?
Trying not to let her feelings show, Sharon wrapped her arms around her teen daughter. “Katie, honey, it’s so good to see you! Is everything okay?”
“Mom!” Kate growled, struggling out of Sharon’s hug. “Get your hands off me.”
“I’m sorry,” Sharon apologized, still clutching her daughter’s shoulder. “I’m just so happy you’re here. It isn’t an emergency, is it?”
“Your dad’s okay?”
“Dad’s fine, Mom.”
“You didn’t have a fight or anything?”
“No, Mom. We never fight. Him and me are nothing like you and me.”
Those words were a dagger to Sharon’s heart. Kate had always been Daddy’s Little Girl, but ever more so since Kate had developed her current sense of personal rebellion. It sometimes seemed she and Kate couldn’t be in the same room for more than five minutes without Sharon nagging the girl and Kate screaming obscenities. Living apart ripped at Sharon’s heartstrings daily, but she knew it was for the best.
“What brings you downtown?” Sharon asked. “Did you want to go out for lunch?
“Lunch?” Kate scoffed. “It’s almost 4:30.”
Sharon glanced at her watch. “So it is. Did you want to go out for a bite once I’m done for the day? Get a coffee? See a movie?”
Kate rolled her eyes. “You mean you don’t have plans with Nora?”
“Not tonight,” Sharon said matter-of-factly. “Nora has her sign language class on Thursdays.”
“Okay, well here’s the thing…” Kate unzipped her backpack, which she’d doodled unrepentantly upon with permanent marker—and which was now sitting on one of reception’s white leather chairs.
Right on cue the elevator dinged and who should emerge but the big boss Min and her favourite client Gwilym: a handsome younger man dressed in dark jeans and a neat jacket. He smelled like money and looked like a model. Even Kate’s jaw dropped as he entered the reception area next to Min, whose outfit was equally chic: a gold-toned sleeveless silk blouse with ruffles down the front, red skirt cut to the knee but so fitted it left little to the imagination. Her black hair was done up in a neat bun, and a circular red pendant hung on a chunky chain around her neck. It reminded Sharon of the Japanese flag. Perhaps Min wore it to highlight her Japanese heritage.
“Any messages?” Min asked Rosa.
As Rosa handed the boss a stack of message slips, Min’s gaze shifted across the reception area. Staring at Kate’s ripped black jeans and ratty hoodie, she asked, “Who have we here?”
“Min,” Sharon said. “You remember my little girl Kate.”
“Not so little anymore, I see.”
Sharon forced a laugh. “No, she’s grown into a young woman in her own right.”
“How old are you now?” Min asked.
“Almost seventeen,” Kate said.
“Almost seventeen?” Sharon chuckled. “Honey, you just turned sixteen three months ago.”
Kate scowled at her mother, then turned her gaze to Min. “I like your necklace. Where’d you get it?”
Min’s eyes widened as she fingered the red circle against her chest. “Oh, this? It was a gift. A gift from my husband.”
“He’s got good taste,” said Kate.
Gwilym’s brow furrowed. His lips pursed noticeably as he glanced in Min’s direction.
Min noticed the client’s oppressive stare and stopped touching the pendant. She folded her hands behind her back, which was a rare pose for her. Usually it was hands on hips or crossed angrily over her chest.
“I gather your visit to your mother’s workplace was unplanned,” Min said crisply. “Otherwise I imagine you’d have worn clothing more suitable for a business office.”
Kate’s face fell. Perhaps she’d understand now why Sharon complained so much about the boss. Even around the office, nobody seemed to realize how much work the boss heaved on Sharon’s head. No, that’s not quite true. Min’s assistant Hildred knew all too well how difficult the boss could be. Same went for Olga, the office cleaning woman. Olga had more than once been the target of Min’s wrath, and always for silly things like failing to leave straight vacuum patterns on the office carpeting. Poor Olga. Poor Hildred! Poor everybody who answered to Min the Terrible.
And now Kate was seeing that dreadful side of Min.
Pulling a colourful poster from her backpack, Kate said, “My band’s got a gig coming up. I’m here to make copies of the poster so we can put them up all over the city. We get paid a percentage of what they take in at the door, so we really need to get people out.”
“You didn’t invite me to this gig,” Sharon said. “Where is it? What time?”
Kate rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry about it, Mom. You don’t want to come.”
“My baby on stage? Of course I do!”
“Mom, I really don’t think it’s your kind of music.”
“That’s not important, honey. I want to support you. I’ll be there for sure, and I’ll bring Nora.”
Min interrupted their mother-daughter discussion with a harsh interjection. “I’m sure your mother informed you that we do not allow office equipment to be used for personal gain.”
Kate’s eyes widened. “Oh. Sorry. My dad said it would be okay.”
“Does your father work here?” Min asked haughtily.
“But I do,” Min went on. “And, furthermore, I am the boss. What I say goes. Is that understood?”
Kate’s eyes filled with tears, but that old routine didn’t work on Min. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”
“I’m surprised your mother would have allowed such an infraction.”
“I wouldn’t have!” Sharon jumped in, feeling like a bit of a traitor for throwing her daughter under the bus. “I’m only hearing about this now, Min. I would have told her to make the copies at home.”
“We don’t have a colour printer,” Kate mumbled.
“Well, then, at a copy shop. Whatever.”
“Colour copies cost money,” Kate said.
Min replied, “Exactly.”
Surprisingly, Gwilym jumped in to say, “Have a heart, Min. You were young once.”
Min smirked and said, “Lies.”
Gwilym pulled out his wallet and fished for cash. “How much will it cost to have them done at that place across the street? Fifty dollars? Sixty?” He handed three bills to Kate. “Here, take sixty.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly accept money from a stranger,” Kate said as she plucked the bills from Gwilym’s hand. “You’re too kind, really.”
Sharon felt in awe of her daughter’s artful appropriation of the client’s money.
“It’s my pleasure,” Gwilym said, tilting his head to get a look at the poster. “Next Saturday at the Roxie? Maybe I’ll check it out.”
“You should!” Kate said excitedly. “I mean, if you’re into lesbian feminist punk.”
Gwilym smirked. “Who isn’t?”
Kate glared at her mother. “A lot of people.”
Min pushed her client toward the glass double-doors. “Enough fraternizing, Gwilym. Let’s go to my office and get those papers signed.”
When they were gone, Kate said, “Wow! That guy looks like a movie star.”
“I didn’t realize you could tell a handsome man from a homely one,” Sharon clucked.
“I have eyes, don’t I?”
When the girl started shoving her band poster back in her bag, Sharon asked, “Why are you putting that away? You should get down to the copy place before they close. I’ll come with you if you’re nervous about crossing the street.”
“I’m not a kid, Mom! I got here on my own, didn’t I?” Kate glanced at Rosa, renowned office gossip, who seemed to be taking notes. “First can you show me your new office? I haven’t been here since you worked in a cubicle.”
Sharon’s heart swelled, knowing that her daughter cared about her day to day life. “Sure, of course. Right this way.”
Min’s office door was closed as they passed by, which was just as well. Min obviously wouldn’t have approved of Kate traipsing around the office in such an unbecoming outfit. Sharon knew Kate had better clothes in her closet because she’d picked them out herself, but her daughter never wore nice outfits. Kate seemed to want the world to think she was a bum.
“Here it is,” Sharon said escorting her daughter into the office. “What do you think?”
“It’s tiny,” Kate said. “Why are there papers all over the floor?”
“That’s my filing system.”
“Why don’t you use the filing cabinets?”
“I do. They’re full.”
“Doesn’t your boss get mad that your office is such a mess?”
Sharon thought back to all the times Min had howled at her for keeping such an unkempt workspace. In fact, she’d been moved into an office from her cubicle so Min could close the disaster zone behind a door when clients were around.
Kate shook her head. “And you used to scream at me because my bedroom was a mess.”
“I didn’t scream,” Sharon countered. “And your bedroom wasn’t just messy—you were growing mushrooms in there.”
“Mushrooms are a sustainable food source,” Kate said with a guarded smirk. “Everyone should grow mushrooms in their bedroom.”
Sharon smirked too. “Whatever you say. You want a cranberry juice? Or a can of pop?”
“Isn’t that stuff for clients? Min’ll probably beat you if she catches us stealing juice.”
“Okay,” Sharon said. “Well, the copy place closes at five. You’d better get your butt down there. Sure you don’t want me to come?”
Kate waved a hand in her mother’s direction. “Oh, I’m not going there.”
“Where are you going?”
Kate shrugged. “Nowhere.”
Sharon cocked her head in confusion.
“Do I have to explain this?” Kate asked.
The girl growled and then closed Sharon’s office door, tossing her knapsack on the floor. “You’ve got a perfectly good colour copy machine right here. Why would I go anywhere else?”
“Because Min said you couldn’t use the copier. Were you not listening?”
“Sure I was listening. I just don’t care.”
“You don’t care that your mother could lose her job because you refuse to follow the rules?”
Kate heaved herself against the closed door. “Gimme a break, Mom! You’re not gonna get fired for making a few photocopies.”
“Oh, you think so? Well, I’ll tell you why that rule is in place.”
“I don’t care!”
“You may not care, but you’re going to listen.”
Kate covered her eyes with both hands and growled.
“Because two former employees here started moonlighting.”
“Whatever that is…”
“Moonlighting: working a second job. You’ve never heard that term?”
“No. When is it from, the 1800s?”
“Well, there was a TV show called Moonlighting in the 80s.”
“The 80s were not the 1800s.”
“If it’s before I was born, it’s all the same to me.”
“You’re getting me off-track,” Sharon said. “Listen: these two employees were using company resources, including the photocopier, to build a very successful small business after hours. When Phil from IT found out about their little scheme, Min fired those two on the spot.”
“But the side business was successful?” Kate asked.
“Yes, very. One was a graphic designer, the other was in sales. They built up quite a host of clients looking for design work.”
“So when they got fired from here, couldn’t they do their side business full-time?”
“Yes, I believe that’s exactly what they did.”
“Well then so what? It all worked out in the end.”
“For them,” Sharon said. “Not for Min.”
“But I thought you didn’t like Min.”
“I don’t particularly.”
“So why do you care if people screw her business over?”
That one stopped Sharon in her tracks. She hated to agree with her daughter, but Kate had a point, there. So she changed gears: “Anyway, Min’s client gave you sixty dollars for copies.”
“Yeah, but if I use your copier for free, I can spend that sixty bucks on… other things.”
Sharon sighed. “Katie, honey, I sincerely hope you don’t plan to spend Gwilym’s money on illegal substances.”
Kate scoffed. “Who, me? I never!”
“Hey, wait, what’s that guy’s name?”
“Gwilym?” Kate cackled. “Oh my God, that’s awesome.”
“It’s Welsh, I believe.”
“It’s weird. I love it. I want to change my name to Gwilym.”
“It’s a man’s name.”
“Then I’ll be Gwilyma. How’s that?”
Sharon couldn’t help but laugh. Irritating as her daughter could be at times, Kate was a truly funny kid. If only they could have more moments of mirth and fewer headaches maybe it would be possible to rebuild the fun-loving relationship they’d enjoyed when Kate was younger. Before the divorce. Before Nora.
“If you really want to use the copier, we’ll have to wait until afterhours.”
Kate made a face. “What am I supposed to do until then?”
“Your homework, perhaps?”
Kate stuck a finger down her throat and faux-gagged.
“Your father sent me a copy of your latest report card, Kate. There’s room for improvement, to say the least.”
“School is stupid. As soon as I turn eighteen I’m dropping out.”
A burst of anger shot through Sharon’s body as she recalled the time and money spent on tutors and enrichment classes when Kate was younger. “You most certainly will not be dropping out of high school, young lady. You will work your butt off to get into a good university, and you will earn a degree just like we planned.”
Kate shrugged nonchalantly. “Dad says I don’t have to.”
“There is no way your father’s going to let you drop out of high school.”
Another shrug. “When I’m eighteen it won’t matter what you and dad say. I’ll live with Grandpa. He dropped out of Grade Eight.”
“Times were different back then.”
“Times are different now. You can get a PhD and still end up working at a coffee house. What’s the point of spending all that money on a useless piece of paper? Anyway, I’m in a band.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I’m gonna be a musician. I don’t need school for that.”
Sharon collapsed in her swivel chair. “God help me!”
“See? This is why I never talk to you. You don’t support my dreams.”
“That’s because your dreams are idiotic!”
Kate’s jaw dropped. Sharon could practically feel her daughter’s teeth clenching.
“Not idiotic,” Sharon self-corrected. “That’s the wrong word. I should have said your dreams are… unlikely. Pie in the sky.”
“Oh okay,” Kate snapped. “I’ll just get a degree in music appreciation, then pump out a kid and be someone’s secretary for the next forty years.”
A typical Kate pot-shot at her mother, but it hurt Sharon to the core. “I’m not Min’s secretary.”
Kate raised a brow, glancing around at the stacks of paperwork piled on the floor. “Could have fooled me.”
Sharon’s phone rang. She took a cleansing breath before answering. It was a client trying to track down information she was sure she’d sent in an email. She spent so long on the phone Kate actually sat on the floor and pulled a math text from her bag. When the call was over, Sharon returned emails in silence, afraid of breaking her daughter’s concentration.
Around 5:30, Sharon heard a familiar voice outside her door. It was Min asking someone, “Has Sharon left for the day?”
The voice that answered belonged to Phil from IT, whose office was next to Sharon’s. “I heard yelling earlier, but it’s been quiet for a while.”
“Her daughter was here,” Min said. “They probably left early. I’ll have her make up the time tomorrow.”
Sharon rolled her eyes. She worked late every night. She was working late now! If she wanted to head out a couple minutes early, she was more than entitled.
Another voice piped up—that of Min’s dutiful assistant Hildred. “Her door is closed. She must be gone.”
Min then told Hildred, “If that’s the case then you’ll have to process these forms for me.”
“Can’t I do it in the morning?” Hildred asked. “I haven’t been to a single yoga class all week.”
Min said, “Very well, then.” She growled under her breath and went on: “Good help is hard to find.”
Phil called out, “Night, Hil.”
“Don’t work too late,” Hildred called back.
“I’m right behind you.”
Kate stared silently at the closed door, visualizing Hildred pulling her purse from the bottom drawer and changing from her office shoes to her commuter sneakers.
When silence overtook the hall, Sharon crept out from behind her desk and gingerly stepped over piles of paper. Kate quietly folded her textbook closed and set it on the floor. She picked up her poster and stood, maintaining eye contact with her mother all the while.
Sharon raised a finger to her lips and then turned the doorknob slowly.
She inched open the door and peeked into the hall.
The coast was clear.
She waved her daughter over and they slipped out of her office, closed the door, and then snuck into the copy room across the hall.
Once that door was closed behind them, Sharon breathed a sigh of relief. This was somewhat of an all-purpose room, housing a kitchenette in addition to a mailroom and storage area. Fridge, coffeemaker, photocopier, fax, postage machine—with so much heavy equipment there was a soothing buzz in the air.
“Do you think we’re safe to start copying?” Kate asked her mother.
“Should be. There’s a back exit through that door there, but I’m pretty sure Hildred and Phil have both gone.”
“What about Min?” Kate asked. “Do you think she left?”
“Doesn’t matter. Min never leaves by the back door. She’s too important to set foot in the mailroom.”
Kate opened the top of the heavy-duty photocopier and set the poster on the glass. “Facedown, right?”
“That’s right.” Sharon hovered over her daughter. “How many copies?”
“I don’t know. A thousand?”
“A thousand?” Sharon hollered.
Kate raised a finger to her lips. “Shhh, Mom! Keep your voice down.”
“Oh, nobody will hear us in here.”
Kate tried to press 1000 on the digital copier, but the screen kept defaulting to 100. Sharon wasn’t about to tell her daughter you could only program up to 999 copies at a time.
“One hundred is perfect,” Sharon said, and hit the START button.
A message popped up, which read ENTER PASSCODE.
“What’s your passcode, Mom?”
“Oh, no. We’re not using mine. Min scrutinizes everyone’s printing numbers except her own. She’s paranoid about being cheated by employees.”
Sharon punched in Min’s printer passcode. Just as she was about to hit START, the door inched open.
“Someone’s coming!” Kate squeaked.
Sharon grabbed her daughter’s arm and pulled the girl into the storage closet, swiftly pulling the double doors closed behind them. Though the closet was large, it was backed with innumerable boxes of paper, so mother and daughter had to scrunch together. In that enclosed space, Sharon got a generous whiff of her daughter’s various body odors.
“Jesus, Kate. When was the last time you took a shower?”
“Shh,” Kate said, sitting on a stack of boxes and gazing through the gap between the two doors. “Look, it’s a cleaning cart. And a cleaner.”
Sharon leaned over her daughter and peeked through the gap. “That’s Olga. She’s Russian.”
As if to prove Sharon’s point, the cleaner took out her cell phone, dialled a number with speakerphone on, and proceeded to chat in Russian with the woman who answered the call. Olga set her phone on her cart and continued her conversation while she wiped down the kitchenette countertop.
The door from the office opened again. High as Kate and Sharon jumped, Olga jumped even higher. Rushing to the cleaning cart, she smacked her phone, hanging up on her friend.
“Oh. Hello,” she said to the unseen figure who’d just entered the mailroom.
“Who is it?” Kate whispered to Sharon.
“Sounds like Phil.”
“I thought he left already.”
“So did I.”
The fridge opened and closed—they knew this by sound alone—followed by the crackle-fizz of a can of pop.
“You are drinking orange?” Olga asked. “You usually drink grape.”
“What can I say? I feel like something a little different today.”
Phil stepped into view as he took a long swig. He then held the orange can at arm’s length and said, “Today is the first day of the rest of my life.”
“Yes,” Olga replied as Phil made his way past the mail sorting area. “Nighty-night,” he said as he opened the back door and left.
Olga returned to her phone when he’d gone, but before she’d finished redialling, the office door opened once more. Olga huffed as another unseen figure entered the room.
“Oh darn. Did you dump out the coffee already?”
Olga threw her phone at the cart like it was on fire. “Yes, Miss. Did you want a cup?”
“Yeah, I was gonna drink it on the subway.”
“I am sorry, Miss.”
Kate strained to see through the gap in the doors, and then asked her mother, “Who’s talking?”
“Sounds like Hildred,” Sharon whispered. “I thought she left ages ago.”
Hildred said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll make a single-serve coffee at reception—just don’t tell Min. She’d freak. She always tells everyone that single-serve machine is for clients only.”
“Yes, Miss,” Olga replied.
“But I don’t care. I’m gonna make one anyway. You want one too? They’re really good.”
“You sure? The mocha latte is sooo yummy. It’s probably ten million calories, but oh well. Sure you don’t want one?”
“I am sure, Miss.”
“Oh my God,” Hildred went on. “You should have seen Min this one time when a bicycle courier tried to make himself a cup. She started screaming at him to get his filthy hands off her Keurig. It was hilarious. I felt bad for the guy.”
“Min is such a miser when it comes to the office,” Hildred said as she came into view: all four-foot-ten of her, in her chic modern clothes that would look little-girlish on anyone but a cool Korean. “Like, she’ll spend inordinate amounts of money on shoes, but if anyone dares to brew a coffee from the client machine she goes on a murderous rampage.”
Hildred leaned against the photocopier, and Kate gasped. “What if she hits the START button?”
Sharon clung to her daughter’s shoulder. “Let’s just hope that doesn’t happen.”
Meanwhile, Hildred ranted about how Min was always keeping her late but refused to pay her overtime. And when she wanted a couple hours off for a doctor’s appointment, Min threatened to dock her pay.
“You know, sometimes I think my life would be easier if I quit this job and went back to living in my parents’ basement. Sure they were strict when I lived at home, but in a lot of ways Min is worse.”
“Sometimes I just want to throw my hands around her neck and scream, Get your own chai latte, you mean-spirited, supercilious ingrate! You know?”
When Olga made no attempt to inject her view into the conversation, Hildred sighed. “Well, I guess I’ll take off. I’ve already missed my yoga class. Sure you don’t want me to brew you a mocha latte?”
Olga nodded, smiling faintly.
Hildred sighed again, then said, “Okay. See ya.” She left by the back door, which feeds into reception, the land of forbidden single-serve coffee brewers.
“So that was Hildred?” Kate asked.
“That was Hildred.
“Hmm. I always pictured her as an old woman. You don’t meet many young people with a name like Hildred.”
“I went to school with a Hildred.”
Kate gave a breathy laugh. “Well, there you go. It’s an old-lady name.”
Sharon didn’t find the comment as amusing as her daughter seemed to.
When Olga picked up the recycling bin, Kate asked, “She won’t throw out my poster, will she?”
Sharon whispered, “No, she would never take a document out of the copier.”
The cleaner resumed her Russian phone conversation as she worked at cleaning the photocopier area and then the mail-sorting section.
Kate groaned. “How long are we gonna be in here? I don’t want to spend my life in the closet.”
“Well, you think I do?”
Sharon breathed uncomfortably. All this closet talk danced dangerously close to a topic both mother and daughter felt fine discussing with nearly everyone except each other.
“You know,” Sharon said. “Nora keeps saying we should invite you over one weekend. There’s a great Indian restaurant around the corner. We could order in some butter chicken and naan and tikka masala and that chickpea dish you love so much, and saag paneer—that’s Nora’s favourite—and we can all just relax and watch terrible TV. Remember we used to do that? Make fun of plot holes in made-for-TV movies?”
Olga chatted loudly to her friend while Kate said, “Thanks but no thanks.”
Sharon’s heart dropped. “Are you saying I can’t even tempt you with Indian food? That’s your favourite.”
“Yeah, my favourite,” Kate snapped, loudly enough that Olga glanced around the mailroom on high alert. “Why are you suddenly stealing everything that’s mine?”
“Shhh-shhh-shhh,” Sharon said, cupping one hand over her daughter’s mouth.
Neither mother nor daughter moved in the space of Olga’s silence. It wasn’t until the cleaner continued on with her conversation that Sharon heaved a sigh of relief and removed her hand from Kate’s mouth.
“Your hand stinks,” Kate said.
“Couldn’t smell worse than your hair,” Sharon shot back.
“My hair does not smell!” Kate replied, then quickly sniffed her underarms. “It’s my pits. That’s what smells. I stopped wearing deodorant.”
“Of course you did,” Sharon said, peeking through the gap in the doors as Olga wheeled her cart out the back door, probably in search of a fancy coffee from reception. Then she’d be off to the next floor of this towering office building.
Sharon sat in silence, absorbing the oppressive odour of her daughter’s armpits.
“Is it safe?” Kate asked.
Sharon couldn’t think who else might still be hanging around, aside from Min, who wouldn’t come in here in a million years. Ever since she’d fired the moonlighting entrepreneurs, most workers who used to stay late now cleared out at five on the dot. Nobody wanted to be accused of using office resources for personal gain.
“Okay,” Sharon said and opened the double doors.
Never had she taken such pleasure in being struck in the nostrils by the dusty scent of toner.
But before they could hit START on the photocopier, the machine started up on its own.
Sharon and Kate both jumped.
“Oh my God, that scared me!” Kate whispered. Lurching forward, she picked up the single sheet of paper that had popped out of the printer.
It read, in capital letters:
CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kate asked.
“It means cheaters don’t succeed in life.”
Kate sucked her teeth. “I know what the saying means. I’m asking, like, who is this meant for? Us? Does someone know we’re here?”
“You think she’s on to us?”
“If she opened my office door and saw your knapsack in there.”
“Oh, so now you’re blaming me? Big surprise!”
“I’m not blaming you,” Sharon hissed. “My purse is in there too, hanging off the back of my chair. She’d have seen both.”
Kate smacked the START button with her palm and her posters started printing.
Sharon slapped her daughter’s hand.
“Ouch, Mom! What the hell?”
“Why’d you start printing?” Sharon asked.
“We’re obviously gonna get in trouble for printing the posters,” Kate reasoned. “Would you rather get in trouble for something you didn’t do?”
Sharon couldn’t really argue with that logic. But she did say, “What if Min comes in to confront us?”
“You said yourself she never comes in here. This stupid little note is the confrontation.”
“I don’t know,” Sharon said. “It’s not really Min’s style. She confronts things head-on.”
“Fine,” Kate said, slapping the CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER note down on the photocopier. “I’m sick of hiding in closets. If Min wants confrontation, let’s give it to her.”
“No!” Sharon hissed, but by the time she caught up with her daughter, Kate had already heaved open the door through which they’d entered the mailroom.
At full voice, Kate asked her mother, “Which way is your boss’s—”
Kate stopped mid-sentence. Her eyes grew wide as she stared beyond the open door.
Sharon had never seen her daughter looking so appalled.
“Katie, honey, what is it?”
But Sharon answered that question for herself by rushing through the door and gazing down the hallway. Phil’s office door was open. Out of it, like the Wicked Witch of the West, stuck two familiar legs and a knee-length red skirt.
“Min!” Sharon cried.
Kate yelped, “Mom, I think your boss is dead!”
Sharon rushed to her boss’s side and kneeled on the industrial carpet. Min was long overdue for a heart attack. She should have expected this to happen eventually. But when she geared up to slap Min’s cheek in hopes of reviving her, Sharon realized this was no simple heart attack.
“Oh my God, Mom, her eyes! Close her eyes!”
Sharon hadn’t noticed her daughter hovering so close. She simultaneously covered her boss’s vacant stare and swatted Kate’s legs. “Get away. Go away. You shouldn’t be seeing this.”
“She wasn’t my boss,” Kate replied, in a tone that sounded almost sympathetic.
Sharon kept her hand on her boss’s still-warm forehead, pressing those lifeless eyelids closed with her finger and thumb. The office was utterly silent. If it wasn’t for the buzz of fluorescent lights overhead, Sharon would have thought she’d lost her hearing, gone into shock. And perhaps that was true, to some extent.
“Look at her neck,” Kate whispered, pointing to the upward-slanting marks that had no doubt been left by the chunky chain Min had been wearing. “And her necklace is gone. Remember the one I liked? She must have been strangled with it.”
Sharon gazed fearfully at her daughter. “By who?”
“How should I know?!”
“Hildred was the last to leave,” Sharon reasoned. “And she was badmouthing Min to Olga.”
“But that girl’s ridiculously short,” Kate said, approaching the body. “Look at the pattern of bruises on Min’s neck. It goes up at the back. Whoever strangled her had to be taller, not shorter.”
Sharon gazed at Phil’s sturdy office desk. “Maybe she stood up there.”
Kate considered the desk, which was piled up with tech gear and paperwork. “If she stood on his desk she’d have messed up all that stuff. Do you think she’d have murdered her boss and then taken the time to put everything in order again?”
A faint knocking noise rang out from another part of the office, and Sharon waved down her daughter’s voice. “Shhh-shhh-shhh!”
Kate froze beside Min’s body, then whispered, “What?”
Sharon raised a finger to her lips and listened intently. All she could hear now was the buzz of the fluorescents. “I thought I heard something.”
Kate’s eyes widened the same way they’d done when she’d first spotted Min’s dead body. “You think someone’s here?”
Sharon almost said maybe, but she didn’t want to frighten her daughter without due cause. She rose from Min’s side and grabbed the heavy-duty long-handled stapler off the desk reserved for interns. If it came down to a confrontation with a cold-blooded killer, she’d rather be armed than not.
“Take my hand,” Sharon instructed her daughter.
“Just do it!”
Kate rolled her eyes. “Fine.”
Sharon couldn’t help noticing how forcefully her daughter clung to her. They were both as frightened as each other, it seemed. Not every day you discover a dead body around the office.
“You really think whoever did it’s still here?” Kate whispered. “Wouldn’t they want to flee the scene of the crime ASAP?”
“I really couldn’t say,” Sharon told her daughter. “I’ve never murdered anyone, myself. Never even attempted it.”
“Only my hopes and dreams,” Kate said wistfully.
Hand-in-hand, mother and daughter crept along the hallway, which was lined on the interior side by cubicles and on the outside by offices. Every office had its own window, its own door. Most every door was left open after Olga came through to empty the wastebaskets and recycling bins.
Because Sharon often worked late, she knew Min usually snapped at Olga to come back later in the evening and do a thorough vacuuming of the carpets.
The office building was a tall rectangle, and so their office was set up in a somewhat labyrinthine square shape with reception and elevators at its core. Sharon and Kate made their way slowly and quietly around that square, one step at a time, peeking cautiously into each office and behind every cubicle wall. Sharon was convinced she could hear her daughter’s heart beating wildly, but perhaps that was her own. Hard to say, but the beat filled her ears. It was all she could hear, beyond the buzzing fluorescents, which seemed to get louder with every minute that passed.
When they reached the glass double doors that divided the office interior from the reception lounge, Kate whispered, “We’ve been at this forever, Mom. Nobody’s here but us.”
“We won’t know until we’ve made the rounds.”
Kate wrapped her fingers around the handle on one of the glass doors. “I’m making myself a fancy coffee.”
“Don’t you dare,” Sharon hissed. “That coffee-maker’s for clients only.”
“Oh, give it a rest, Mom. The queen is dead.”
“Long live the queen.”
“Huh?” Kate gave the door a tug, but it didn’t budge. She tried the other. “I think it’s locked.”
“Reception locks at six,” Sharon said, glancing at her watch. “Wow, it’s after six. We must have been in that closet for ages.”
Kate allowed her forehead to drop melodramatically against the glass door.
“Don’t do that, Katie. Your greasy forehead will leave a mark.”
With a growl, Kate said, “So now we’re trapped in here?”
“No, no,” Sharon said, neglecting to whisper. Kate was right—there was clearly nobody left in the office. “We can still get out through the back door—the one in the mailroom.”
“Good, because there’s no way I’m spending all night with my mom and a corpse.”
Sharon shuddered. “Who could have murdered Min?”
“Anyone, from the sounds of it.”
Sharon looked at her daughter flatly.
“It must have been her assistant Hildred, or else that guy Phil. They were the last people to leave.”
“That we know of,” Sharon clarified. “Most of the office leaves through these doors here at reception.”
“Wait a minute,” Kate said, grabbing her mother’s arm. “That print-out: CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER. Min couldn’t have printed it, because I left the mailroom right away and she was already dead. There wouldn’t have been time for her to hit print and then be murdered!”
Sharon’s brain buzzed, but she knew what must have happened. “The system is slow afterhours. Sometimes I hit print and it takes ten or fifteen minutes for the thing to come out.”
Kate didn’t look convinced.
“I’ll tell you what,” Sharon said, to put her daughter’s mind at ease. “Phil’s computer has access to all the printer records.”
“What does that mean?” Kate asked, sticking close by Sharon as they moved down the hall.
“It means we can see which terminal the print command came from.”
Sharon held her breath as she stepped over Min’s dead body to enter Phil’s office. All the electronics made the room buzz, and kept it a balmy temperature even in summer when the air conditioning was going full-blast.
Her arm felt like it was about to fall off from lugging that heavy stapler around the office, so she set it on Phil’s desk as she made herself comfortable in his chair.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be in here,” Kate said, bundling both hands beneath her chin. “This is the scene of a crime—of a murder—and now our fingerprints will be all over Min and all over… all over everything.”
“It’s fine,” Sharon said. “I work here. The police will understand.”
“Will they?” Kate asked, with unexpected gravitas.
“Sure. Of course.” Sharon was concentrating more on pulling up the printer records than on her daughter’s concerns. “We’re fine upstanding people. We’re not the murdering type.”
“Speak for yourself,” Kate shot back. “Cops’ll take one look at me and haul my butt to jail.”
“You should be arrested for crimes against nose-kind. Pee-yew!”
“Mom!” she whined. “I’m being serious right now. Oh my God! You don’t even care.”
“Oh course I do, honey, I’m just trying to concentrate.” Sharon located the printer record on Phil’s hard drive and pulled it up. “There you go. Last print demand came from Min’s terminal. She must have done the CHEATERS thing to send us a message and then…”
Kate snuck a quick peek at the body. “And then what?”
Good question. “Well, obviously someone killed her.”
As Sharon closed out the printer record, Kate watched over her mother’s shoulder. When she minimized that screen, the one beneath it was his email account. Something caught Kate’s eye and she pointed before Sharon could close it out too.
“Oh my God,” Kate said. “Look!”
Sharon hit her daughter’s hand away. “Katie! It’s rude to read other people’s email.”
“But look, Mom! Look!”
The subject line read: CU46 D8 CX.
“It’s an email from Min to Phil. So what?”
“So that subject,” Kate said. “Don’t you know what that means? Of course you don’t. You’re a million years old.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” Sharon asked. “It’s a file name or something.”
“Mom,” Kate said, sighing heavily. “I really don’t think it is.”
Sharon looked up at her daughter, finding Kate’s cheeks unusually rosy. “Katie! Are you blushing?!”
“No!” Covering her cheeks, Kate said, “I just think your boss was having an affair with this computer guy, that’s all.”
“Min? And Phil?” Sharon asked. “I can’t even begin to picture that.”
“Just take my word for it, okay?”
“No, not okay. That’s quite an allegation.”
“Well she’s dead now, so it doesn’t matter, I guess.”
“It certainly does matter if Phil was having an affair with Min. Maybe he killed her over… I don’t know… jealousy or something. Maybe he wanted her to leave her husband.”
Kate shoved her mom out of the way to grab the mouse and scroll through Phil’s emails. When she came across more cryptic acronyms, her eyes bugged and her cheeks glowed like cherries.
“What is it?” Sharon asked. “What did that C4X thing mean?”
“CU46,” Kate said, scrolling back up to it.
“Right. What is that, some kind of code?”
“Kind of,” Kate replied with uncharacteristic shyness. “They’re abbreviations kids use online so parents don’t know what they’re chatting about.”
“How do you know about them?”
“Because I’m sixteen, Mom! Oh my God!”
“Calm down, already.” Sharon pointed at the subject line CU46 D8 CX and asked, “What does this one mean?”
Kate pointed at the D8. “It means they had a date.” She moved her finger to the CX. “But it was cancelled.”
“Does it have to mean a date-date?” Sharon asked her daughter. “Maybe they just had a meeting and it was easier to abbreviate it as a date.”
“No, Mom,” Kate said, letting her irritation shine through. “Because the first part, CU46, that means See You For Sex. They had a sex-date but Min cancelled it.”
Sharon’s ears rang. It wasn’t easy hearing her sixteen-year-old daughter talk about sex, much less reveal her knowledge of contemporary sexual lingo.
But they had bigger fish to fry—namely, figuring out who killed Min.
Sure most people would call the police. It’s not as if the thought hadn’t crossed Sharon’s mind. But Kate was right: homicide investigators would surely cast their suspicions over the very people who’d found Min’s murdered body. And Sharon loved her daughter, but Kate’s grungy appearance wouldn’t exactly ingratiate her to police officers.
Best if they figured out who killed the boss before calling in the cavalry.
How hard could it be to solve a murder?
“We don’t know for sure that Phil and Min were having an affair,” Sharon said. “Their date was cancelled, right?”
“Yes, according to this email, but if we scroll down here…” Kate used the mouse to move through Phil’s account. “Look: there are tons of requests.”
Kate pointed out the cryptic subject headings:
“What do these all mean?” Sharon asked her daughter.
With a nervous chuckle, Kate said, “Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
“Kate,” Sharon said flatly. “I’m not exactly a prude. I know what sex is.”
Kate scrunched up her nose. “Yeah, but… not this kind of sex… I hope.” She pointed to the one that said FMUTA and said, “Even I wouldn’t do that.”
Sharon cleared her throat. The fleeting thoughts that dusted her mind in that moment proved immensely unpleasant.
“So Phil and Min were having an affair,” Sharon said in hopes of shifting the subject away from sex. “Do you think that’s why he killed her?”
“Are we sure it was him who did the deed?”
Kate stepped over Min’s corpse, whispering “Sorry, s’cuse me.”
Sharon followed her daughter into the hall.
“Her assistant was the last person to leave, as far as we can tell.” Kate stood at the door leading into the mailroom. “Look. If I’m standing here, I can’t not see the dead body sticking out into the hallway. Even if Hildred didn’t kill her boss, she had to have seen those legs on the floor.”
“You think she’d have spotted her boss on the floor and just shrugged it off, then went into the mailroom to badmouth Min to the cleaning lady?”
“Also true. And Hildred certainly had a lot to say about Min tonight.”
“Too much to say,” Kate added. “Almost like Hildred was trying to keep Olga in the mailroom so she wouldn’t backtrack into the office.”
“And discover Min’s corpse.”
Despite the circumstance, it was nice to spend an evening with her daughter. Minimal arguments. Collaborating toward a shared goal. If you set aside the fact that Min had been murdered, this was the nicest time they’d spend together in years.
“We’ve already established Hildred was too short to strangle Min,” Sharon said.
Kate corrected her. “Not too short to strangle Min, just too short to create that particular bruising pattern.”
“Right. Well, that’s what I meant.”
“Uh-huh,” Kate said with a smirk. “So what do you think, mom? Hildred and Phil were in cahoots?”
“They must have been.”
“If Phil was a jealous lover, that’s a solid motive to kill, but what about Hildred?” Kate asked. “You know her. I don’t. Would she have plotted to kill her boss just because Min made her work late a few nights?”
“It’s more than just a few late nights,” Sharon clarified. “Min treated poor Hildred like a servant. Not just that, but Min ran hot and cold with the girl. One minute it’s bestie-bestie, the next it’s meet-my-slave-Hildred. That’s a very confusing kind of relationship to be in.”
Kate asked, “Isn’t that what Min’s like with you too?”
Sharon’s throat closed up when she tried to produce a response. The sound that emerged was something of a choked sob. Highly unexpected.
“Sorry,” Kate said. “I guess I can’t talk about Min in the present tense anymore.”
That thought hadn’t even crossed Sharon’s mind. Min was larger than life. Even the dead body… well, Sharon half expected it to stand up and dust itself off and resume life as Min the Terrible.
“It isn’t possible…” Sharon began.
“What isn’t possible?”
“Sorry, I’m just thinking… is it possible that Min killed herself? If she’d hung herself by her necklace, it would have left those same marks on her neck.”
“Then how did she end up on the floor, Mom?”
Sharon shrugged. “Necklace broke.”
“Then why aren’t there piece of broken chain all over the place? And wouldn’t she have fallen on her face, not her back? No, she was definitely strangled.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Sharon said, taking a quick glance at the body she was desperately trying to ignore. “Min’s necklace is gone.”
“You think Hildred took it?”
“Maybe.” A thought occurred to Sharon, and she rounded Hildred’s cubicle, which was roughly across from her own office. Whenever she had her door open, they could roll their eyes at each other every time Min howled from the corner office.
“What are you doing?” Kate asked.
Sharon gave Hildred’s bottom drawer a tug. It didn’t budge.
“Hildred keeps her purse locked in this desk drawer,” Sharon explained. “If she wanted to stash that necklace somewhere, this would be the location of choice.”
“But it’s locked?”
“That it is.”
“And Hildred has the only key?”
An idea sparked in Sharon’s mind. “No! The office manager has keys to every lock. Brenda keeps them in her desk and I know for a fact she doesn’t lock it.”
Grabbing her daughter by the hand, Sharon pulled Kate past Min’s corner office, beyond the double doors at reception, and around another corner.
Kate pointed to the bathroom sign across from the office manager’s terrain. “Mind if I make a pit stop?”
“Really, Kate? At a time like this?”
“I can’t help it if my body has to pee!”
“Now that you mention it, I could go too. I didn’t feel it until you said something.”
“I didn’t feel it until I saw the bathroom.”
They surged into the shiny, contemporary washroom and closed themselves behind the stall doors. For a moment, all was silent.
“You go first,” Kate said.
“I’m trying. It’s too quiet.”
Sharon could have sworn she heard a noise on the other side of the office, and it scared the pee right out of her.
“Thanks,” Kate said.
Sharon didn’t mention the noise to her daughter. No sense frightening the girl over some imagined sound. And if the noise had been real, it was probably just Olga returning from her other duties to finish vacuuming.
“Weird that the bathrooms are so far away from Min’s office,” Kate mused as they washed their hands. “You’d think she would pick an office close to all the major amenities.”
“Oh, Min’s office has its own private washroom,” Sharon said.
“It does? I didn’t notice when I poked my head in.”
Sharon grabbed a paper towel. “There’s a hidden door in the corner—a faux bookcase.”
“Ohhh, like a secret passageway in those old Hardy Boys books dad used to read me.”
“Except not a passageway—just a toilet and a sink.”
“Wish I had a secret bathroom,” Kate said as they stepped into the hallway.
Sharon led the way to Brenda’s office and dropped into the woman’s chair, knocking the keyboard and mouse in the process. As she reached for the drawer containing the office key ring, Kate gasped.
Sharon shot straight up. “What?”
Sharon expected her daughter to point into the hallway, but instead Kate pointed to the computer screen.
One of the office manager’s most recent incoming emails had the subject line:
CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER
Sharon’s heart nearly stopped when she saw that. “Oh no! Min reported us for making colour copies! I’ll lose my job for sure.”
“No, the email isn’t from Min,” Kate said, indicating the name in the FROM column. She opened the email and quickly said, “It’s about Min!”
Kate had always been a fast reader. It took Sharon a moment or two to catch up. “Gosh,” she said. “It’s from her client Gwilym.”
Reading aloud, Kate said, “It is with a heavy heart that I am forced to report your boss is a lying, cheating…” Kate hesitated before saying the word, “whore.”
Sharon picked up where her daughter left off: “It has recently come to my attention that Min has been fornicating—”
“Now that’s a word you don’t hear every day.”
“—with a member of your staff. I demand that you fire Phil from IT forthwith.”
Before Sharon finished reading the email, Kate was already scrolling down to the office manager’s response. Brenda basically informed the client that she didn’t concern herself with employees’ personal, private lives and, anyway, Min was the boss.
“There’s a response,” Kate said, scrolling down to Gwilym’s final reply: “In that case, I will be forced to take matters into my own hands. Good day to you.”
Gazing up at her daughter, Sharon asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Makes it sound like he’s gonna kill Phil.”
Kate’s expression fell. “Or Min.”
“But why would Gwilym kill Min just because she was cheating on her husband?” Kate asked. “He’s really that opposed to adultery? What, is he some kind of religious zealot or something?”
“I don’t think so,” Sharon said, neglecting to mention how impressed she was by her daughter’s ability to use the word zealot in a sentence.
“Then why does he care so much?”
Sharon grabbed the keys out of the office manager’s drawer. “I don’t know, but I’ve got a bad feeling about all this. Let’s call the police and get out of here.”
“Can’t we wait until after we leave to make the call?” Kate asked as Sharon reached for Brenda’s phone. “I want to shower and change my clothes before I talk to the cops.”
Her daughter’s self-consciousness tugged at Sharon’s heartstrings. “They might think you were trying to wash away evidence.”
“I don’t care what they think,” Kate snapped. “I just want to take a shower, okay? Is that really too much to ask?”
Sharon exhaled heavily and dropped the phone into its cradle. She jangled the keys. “Come on. Let’s check Hildred’s desk and get out of here.”
They walked swiftly through the office.
While Sharon tried out various keys in Hildred’s bottom drawer, she asked Kate, “Wait, why am I doing this?”
Kate didn’t seem to hear a word as she opened the door to Sharon’s office. “Mom? Mom? Mom?” She raised one hand, pointing in horror.
“What is it?” Sharon asked, racing to her daughter’s side.
It was nothing.
Kate was pointing at nothing.
“That’s where I left my bag,” she said. “Right there. On the floor. Where’d it go?”
“I don’t know, honey.” Sharon glanced at her chair. “My purse is gone too.”
“Mommeee!” Kate cried, swivelling on a pile of papers to hug Sharon tight. “Someone took our bags. Someone must be here!”
A chill travelled Sharon’s spine, as if ice water had been injected at its base. She held her daughter, thinking guiltily how glad she was to share this moment of closeness. Though she shared Kate’s trepidations, she knew every strange occurrence in this office ultimately had a reasonable explanation. More than that, the explanation was usually quite mundane.
“I thought I heard a noise down here while we were in the washroom. I bet it was Olga with her cleaning cart. She probably looked in here, saw that we’d left our bags behind, and took them down to security for safekeeping.”
Sharon moved around her desk, her daughter still clinging to her as she reached for her phone.
“What are you doing?” Kate whimpered.
“I’m just calling down to security. Calm down, Katie. Everything’s going to be okay.”
There was a button on the office phone than rang directly down to the security desk in the lobby, but when Sharon pushed it… nothing happened.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?”
“Everything’s just fine.” Sharon kissed Kate’s dreadlocks. The scent of her daughter’s scalp and hair and skin and sweat smelled as sweet to her now as it had when Kate was just a babe, when they bathed her in the kitchen sink and swaddled her in that yellow towel with the little cap on top and bear ears sewn to the sides.
Sharon hit the switch repeatedly and pressed the security button once more.
No dial tone.
“Someone took our stuff, Mom.”
“I know, Kate.”
“And I don’t think it was the cleaning lady.”
Sharon held her daughter tighter. “I think it’s time to call the police, Katie.”
Kate nodded in agreement as Sharon dialled 9-1-1.
Still no luck with the office phone. She hit the numbers, but nothing registered.
“What’s wrong?” Kate asked.
“I don’t know. It must be unplugged or something.”
But it wasn’t unplugged. It simply didn’t work.
“It’s okay,” Sharon said. “You can call from your cell phone.”
Kate reached into her back pocket, but then said, “My phone’s in my backpack.”
“Mine’s in my purse.”
They rushed from Sharon’s office and took a hard right. The phone in the next office didn’t work either. Same story with the one after that.
Min’s office was next, but even her phone was out of commission.
“Min always has her cell on her,” Sharon said. “We’ll have to check… the body.”
“But where?” Kate asked. “You saw what she was wearing. That skirt didn’t exactly have pockets.”
“She’ll have tucked it in the waistband of her skirt.”
Kate made a face.
“How do you even know that?”
Grimacing, Sharon said, “Don’t ask.”
Sharon stuck her head out of Min’s office. She gazed intently down the hallway that led toward the washrooms, then the other way, toward Min’s Wicked Witch of the West feet.
“It’s so quiet,” Kate said. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe the cleaning lady took our stuff.”
Another idea sparked in Sharon’s mind: “Maybe Olga killed Min!”
“No, she couldn’t have,” Kate said, clinging to her mother’s arm. “Because we saw Phil and Hildred leave after she was already in the mailroom. Unless they were all in on it together.”
“No, no, Katie—Olga could very easily have wheeled her cart out the mailroom door and into the reception area. From there, she could have come back in through the glass double doors, circled the office counter-clockwise, murdered Min, and gone back out through reception. We wouldn’t have seen her because we were still in the mailroom.”
“But why wouldn’t she have left through the mailroom?” Kate asked. “The door here is so much closer than reception.”
Sharon knew there was only one answer: “She must have known we were in that closet the whole time.”
“She must have heard us talking,” Sharon grumbled. “I told you to keep your voice down.”
“Well, excuse me for living!”
“We don’t have time to argue, Kate. If Olga took our bags, she knows we’re still here.”
“And if she knows we’re still here,” Kate reasoned. “Oh my God, Mom! She might come back to kill us!”
“She’s certainly hefty enough to have strangled Min,” Sharon said as she pulled her daughter into the hallway. “Come on. We need Min’s phone.”
“But you said it’s tucked inside her skirt.”
“Gross. I’m not touching your boss’s dead body.”
“Fine,” Sharon said, quickly approaching the end of her rope. “I’ll do it. You keep a look-out.”
But as they approached, they were in for another surprise…
Min’s body remained on the floor, flat on her back, feet in the hallway, head in Phil’s office—precisely where it had been when Sharon and Kate had first discovered it. But now there was a sign across her chest, a familiar computer printout that read:
CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER
Sharon froze while her daughter grabbed her arm.
“Mommy,” Kate said, her voice quivering dramatically. “Who put that there?”
Over the years, Sharon had fallen for a number of her daughter’s practical jokes. She needed to be sure this wasn’t one of them, and so she said, “Tell me truthfully, Katie: was it you?”
Kate looked mortified, but that look could easily be faked.
“Just tell me,” Sharon prodded. “I won’t be upset. Did you put the note on Min’s body?”
An expression of disbelief took over and Kate asked, “When would I even have done that? We’ve been together this whole time! I haven’t been out of your sight for more than two seconds.”
“Except in the bathroom.”
“Excuse me?” Kate cried. “You think I somehow managed to sneak out of the washroom, run all the way back here, grab that note off the top of the printer, then run all the way back and pee before you got out of the stall?”
“It does sound a little far-fetched when you put it that way.”
“Yeah, nobody can pee that fast!”
“I meant running from one end of the office to the other. You’re not exactly on the road to Olympic glory, Kate.”
“Thanks for those words of encouragement, Mom.”
Crouching beside her boss’s body, Sharon gently flipped up Min’s silky top. Her smartphone was tucked into the waistband of her skirt.
When the CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER sign fell softly to the floor, Kate asked, “Who put that there, Mom? Who could have?”
“Well, it must have been Olga,” Sharon said offhandedly as she struggled to remember the passcode to Min’s phone.
“But why? Why would the cleaning lady call Min out as a cheater? Wouldn’t her beef with Min be something about Min bitching at her or whatever? Why would she care if Min was cheating on her husband?”
“Maybe she caught Min and Phil together,” Sharon suggested. “Maybe she walked in on them going at it in Min’s office.”
“Or in that private washroom I’ve heard so much about.” Looking over her mother’s shoulder, Kate asked, “What’s taking you so long?”
“I can’t remember her password. I know it’s got M’s and 4’s. I never understood what it meant.”
“How do you know her code?”
“Well, I’ve seen her punch it in enough times.”
Kate’s eyes widened and her brows rose. A smile crossed her face as she plugged in: MM4M.
Min’s phone unlocked like magic.
“How did you know Min’s password?” Sharon asked.
“You said M’s and 4’s. It could only be MM4M,” Kate said with a shrug. “More Money 4 Me.”
“Gracious, doesn’t that just fit Min like a glove?”
“Wait, what’s this?” Kate asked, pointing to the phone as Min’s email account popped up onscreen.
A flurry of communications had been sent back and forth between Min and the office manager, discussing the accusatory email from Gwilym.
“This must have all been going on while we were hiding in my office,” Sharon said.
“Or in the closet,” Kate added. “Wait, let me look at this one folder.”
Kate opened a folder called IWS in Min’s email.
“Don’t worry about it,” Kate said, scrolling through messages from Phil… and messages from the good client Gwilym. “Wow, Mom. Phil wasn’t the only man Min was cheating with.”
“How do you know?”
Kate turned the screen away from her mother. “Just… trust me. From these messages it looks like… oh my God, Mom, there are emails from Gwilym going back over a year! The ones from Phil just started about a month ago.
Sharon glanced at Min’s elegant body, which actually looked quite peaceful if you didn’t look too closely at her face. But that strange CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER sign lay next to her on the floor, a condemnation even in death.
“Min’s client had an affair with her first,” Kate went on. “Before she started sleeping with Phil.”
“I never knew any of this,” Sharon said.
“That’s because you’re naïve, but whatever. Listen: if Gwilym was having an affair with Min for over a year and then suddenly Phil’s in the picture too, maybe Client Guy felt like Min was cheating on him with IT Guy. See what I mean?”
“So you think… you think Gwilym killed Min?”
“His email to the office manager said he planned to take matters into his own hands.”
“And so he strangled Min,” Sharon said, half in disbelief, half putting the puzzle pieces together in her mind. “And he printed out CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER from Min’s machine.”
Kate looked like she’d seen a ghost. “Gwilym’s the one who put the sign on Min’s body.” Reaching for her mother’s hand, Kate said, “But that means he’s…”
“Still in the office.”
No sooner had Sharon finished her daughter’s sentence than the handsome client stepped out from Min’s corner office wielding an industrial stapler. Sharon looked to Phil’s desk, where she’d left the one she’d been carrying around earlier, but it was gone. Gwilym must have placed that note on Min’s body and then grabbed the stapler to prepare…
…for his attack on mother and daughter!
“Very good,” Gwilym purred as he began his slow approach. “Took you long enough to figure it out, though.”
Kate swivelled to face the client. “Oh my God! Where did you even come from?”
“The one place Hen and Chick didn’t think to look,” he replied.
Kate said, “Min’s private bathroom.”
“It’s been the site of many a happy tryst,” Gwilym replied.
Scrunching up her nose, Kate said, “Thanks for sharing.”
Sharon clutched her daughter to her chest, but as she began to step back she nearly tripped over Min’s unyielding leg.
“Watch your step,” Gwilym chuckled. “Don’t want to end up flat on your back like your boss, there.”
Sharon wasn’t sure precisely what the client meant by that, but she in fact took it more as a threat against her daughter than herself. That’s why she whispered in Kate’s ear, “Call the police and get ready to run.”
Kate nodded almost imperceptibly and clutched Min’s phone to her chest as she dialled.
“You figured it out,” Gwilym went on as he continued his measured approach. “I was Min’s one true love. Her husband meant nothing to her. She never cared for him.”
“9-1-1,” the operator said, her voice muffled by Kate’s top. “What is your emergency?”
Hoping Gwilym hadn’t noticed the call her daughter had placed, Sharon said, “Maybe Min didn’t care for her husband, but she did care for Phil. That’s why you killed her. She fell in love with someone new.”
“No!” Gwilym howled, whacking the stapler against the wall so hard he drove a hole through the sheetrock. “Weren’t you listening? I am Min’s one true love. Me! Not her husband. Not Phil.”
“Min had a wandering eye,” Sharon said, provoking him for the sake of the 9-1-1 operator listening in. “She couldn’t commit to you any more than she could to her husband.”
Gwilym got a mean glint in his eye as he looked at Sharon. “You would know better than anyone.”
Kate turned slightly. “What’s he mean by that, Mom?”
Sharon shook her head. “We worked closely together. I knew Min well.”
“Well enough to realize her phone would be wedged inside her skirt,” Gwilym said, as if that knowledge carried some special meaning. “And how would mousy, middle-aged Sharon—who left her husband for another woman—know a thing like that?”
Kate’s expression tumbled. “Yeah, Mom. How did you know?”
“I’ve seen her shove her phone in the waistband of her skirt a million times,” Sharon said defensively. “Min doesn’t like pockets or purses. So what?”
“So I heard what you said earlier,” Gwilym said, getting closer as he wielded that huge metal implement. “Your daughter asked you how you knew and I heard you very clearly say: You don’t want to know. Those are damning words, dear Sharon.”
“They’re not,” Sharon pleaded, more for Kate’s sake than the client’s. “I just meant Min would sometimes… cripes, do I have to tell you this?”
Kate’s voice quivered as she said, “I really think you should, Mom.”
Sharon swallowed her pride and said, “Sometimes we’d be talking in her office—about business matters! All business—and she’d have to… relieve herself… so she’d go into her private bathroom and… well, she’d keep talking, keep the conversation going.”
“Eww, you mean she’d pee in front of you?” Kate asked.
“She always placed her phone on the counter so it wouldn’t accidentally fall in the toilet.”
“But, let’s get this straight,” Kate said. “She didn’t close the bathroom door?”
“Oh, it’s not such a big deal,” Sharon said, feeling her feathers very ruffled by all this. “Men do it all the time, continue their conversations at the urinal.”
“How would you know?” Kate asked.
“Well, I don’t know. I just assume. Anyway, it’s all perfectly innocent.”
Gwilym slammed the heavy-duty stapler against the wall once more, putting another hole alongside the first. “Enough lies! You’re as much of a cheater as Min. You have a wife at home. How could you?”
Stepping out from behind her daughter, Sharon said, “See here, young man: first off, I’m not actually married to Nora. Not yet, at least. We’ve talked about it, sure, but we wonder if—”
“Mom!” Kate hollered.
“Right. Sorry. And second of all, I resent the implication that because I love one woman I would jump into bed with just anyone, much less my own boss! Min and I are close because we work so closely, not because we have any sort of extracurricular relationship.”
“You tell him, Mom!” Kate cheered.
With renewed pride, Sharon said, “And third of all, I did not leave my husband for another woman. We were already divorced when I started seeing Nora romantically. It was a whirlwind, sure, but I never cheated. That one’s more for my daughter than for you, Gwilym, because I want her to respect me.”
“I do respect you, Mom,” Kate said quietly. “You thought I didn’t?”
“Well, it’s hard to tell sometimes.”
“This is all very sweet,” Gwilym interrupted in a tone both saccharine and mocking. “It’s almost a shame I have to kill you.”
“No!” Sharon cried. “Wait! I have one more point to make.”
The client only let his guard down for a second, but that’s all the time it took for Sharon to raise one foot high off the ground and then slam it down on Gwilym’s knee.
Kate winced noticeably at the sound of bones cracking. Soon the hallway filled with the client’s cries of both pain and surprise. He obviously hadn’t seen that one coming.
Sharon didn’t wait around to see what would happen next. Pressing her daughter down the corridor, she shouted, “Now! Run!”
As they leapt over Min’s legs and rounded the corner, Kate hit speakerphone and asked the 9-1-1 operator, “Are you still there? We need help! He’s gonna kill us!”
“I’m here,” the operator replied.
“This way,” Sharon whispered, tugging her daughter toward accounting. “There’s a fire exit into the stairwell.”
Meanwhile, her daughter told the 9-1-1 operator, “His name’s Gwilym and he’s a client and he killed my mom’s boss. Actually killed her! We’re high up in an office building, on the 18th floor. Send the police, please!”
Kate gave the operator the street address in case they couldn’t triangulate the location from cell phone towers like in TV crime dramas. Hopefully they’d be able to burst into the stairwell before Gwilym caught sight of them.
Except when they reached the alcove that led to the staircase, they met a wall of bankers’ boxes. Accounting must have run out of room for filing, because they’d stacked boxes floor to ceiling, filling the entire alcove.
“This has got to be a fire hazard,” Sharon grumbled.
“Where’s the exit?” Kate asked.
As Gwilym limped around the corner at the far end of the hallway, Sharon grabbed her daughter’s arm. “Come on. We’ll have to get back to the mailroom and leave that way.”
“Please get here fast,” Kate begged the 9-1-1 operator as they raced past the staff washrooms, past the office manager’s domain. “He killed Min. He’ll kill us too.”
“Get out of the office,” the operator encouraged them. “Police will be there any minute.”
Kate stopped briefly to tug on the glass double doors at reception. They didn’t open, of course, and Sharon noted a streak of anger resonating through her chest as she grabbed her daughter and pulled her along the hall. “I told you those doors lock at six!”
“I was just checking! Oh my God, Mom! Everything I do is wrong!”
They rounded the next corner fast, but not fast enough.
Sharon figured Gwilym would have chased them around the entire office, but of course not! He was too smart for that. He’d backtracked, waiting for his prey in Min’s corner office
As they ran by, he leapt out shouting, “Gotcha!”
Sharon really must have done a number on his knee, because he didn’t get a perfect jump on them. But he did surprise Kate enough that she screamed and dropped Min’s phone on the floor.
When she stopped to pick it up, Gwilym reached for her dreadlocks, but Sharon reached for her arm—and Sharon reached faster. “Just leave it, Kate! The police are on their way. We don’t need the phone.”
In Sharon’s grip, Kate stumbled toward the mailroom. Mother opened the door and launched daughter through. They both raced for the elevators.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Gwilym threatened, having caught the mailroom door before it closed. “You’ll never get away from me.”
“Yes we will,” Sharon said, tightening her grip on her daughter’s arm. “Don’t listen to him, Katie.”
Sharon pushed open the door that landed them in reception. Elevators to the left. Wonder of wonders, there was a cab sitting right there waiting for them! They sped into it and Sharon hit the Door Close button while Kate pushed L for Lobby.
The doors closed while Gwilym clattered through the mailroom and into reception.
“Oh, thank God!” Sharon said, clutching her daughter to her heart. “We’re safe, honey. We’re going to be just fine.”
After returning a heartfelt hug, Kate looked up. The number 18 was lit up on the digital screen over the elevator doors. “Mom, we’re not going anywhere.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Sharon said. “It’s after six. I need to swipe my keycard to get the cab moving.”
She reached for her purse before realizing… oh dear… she didn’t have her purse. No purse meant no keycard meant no escape.
“What’s wrong?” Kate asked as the doors began to open. “What’s happening?”
Gwilym stood outside the elevator, holding the doors open while wielding a mighty stapler over his head. “Heeere’s Johnny!”
When Sharon glimpsed that crazed look on Gwilym’s face, she hit the Door Close button yet again. The elevator responded immediately, but so many other things happened in that instant she felt as though she were seeing her life in snapshots:
With a gap of only a few inches between the elevator doors, Gwilym launched forward, wielding the industrial stapler like a hammer, doing his utmost to strike mother and daughter.
Simultaneously, Kate launched herself at the control panel, throwing her whole body against the big red emergency button.
The mechanisms must have jammed, because the elevator doors locked in place, trapping Gwilym’s arm between them.
“I don’t think that’s supposed to happen,” Sharon said over the alarm bells.
Gwilym laughed maniacally. “Maybe I’ll sue!”
Neither Sharon nor Kate released the buttons they were holding. The last thing they wanted was for those doors to open. Gwilym would kill them both with his bare hands.
Out of nowhere, Kate asked, “It was the necklace, wasn’t it?”
Gwilym’s laughter stopped on a dime. “How did you know?”
Sharon whispered, “What are you talking about?” but Kate disregarded her mother’s question.
“I saw the way you looked at Min when I complimented her necklace: like someone had punched you in the heart. And Min looked pretty shifty too. She said her husband gave it to her.”
“Had to be a lie,” Gwilym replied biliously. “Her husband never gives her jewellery. That’s one of the many things she resents about him.”
“But you didn’t give her the necklace either,” Kate went on. “And if she’d bought it herself she would have just said that. So if the necklace wasn’t a gift from you and it wasn’t a gift from her husband…”
“I knew she must be cheating on me.”
“But how did you know with whom?” Sharon asked.
Twisting his arm relentlessly between the elevator doors, Gwilym said, “I confronted her about it. Min might be a cheater, but she can’t be bothered lying. I asked her who it was and she told me.”
“That’s when you sent those emails to Brenda the office manager, calling them out, telling her to fire Phil.”
“I sent that note from the lobby bar downstairs. I couldn’t stay up here in the office, but I couldn’t go far.”
“And when you got the response that there would be no repercussions, you came back up to take matters into your own hands.”
“Rosa at reception was packing up to go home. She told me I’d just missed Phil, but Min was still in her office. I went in through those glass doors and straight to Min. I apologized and she bought it. I told her I craved her and she believed that too.”
“You waited until everyone had gone,” Kate continued. “Hildred, Olga the cleaning lady… but you didn’t know me and my mom were still hanging around.”
“If I knew that I’d have killed you too!” Phil cried.
“Yeah right,” Kate shot back. “You’re too much of a wimp to kill three people. You couldn’t even look Min in the eye while you strangled her. You had to stand at her back.”
“That’s how you strangle someone! Don’t you know anything?”
“Don’t provoke him,” Sharon muttered.
Kate ignored the advice and asked, “How did you get her into Phil’s office?”
“That’s the best part,” Gwilym replied. “I didn’t have to. She said she needed to grab some paperwork from his desk and I just followed along. Perfect place to kill a cheater: in her secret lover’s office!”
After pressing her thumb to the Door Close button for so long, Sharon started losing feeling in her digits. When the cab started trembling, she wondered if she’d accidentally released the button. But wait… she heard motion. “Are we moving? What’s going on?”
It took a moment for Sharon to make sense of the noise: it was an elevator coming to a halt beside them, then the ding of a bell as its doors opened, and then a number of people pouring into the reception area.
“Arrest him!” Sharon called out. “He killed my boss! He told us so!”
Gwilym responded by telling police, “Stay back! I’m armed!”
Kate raised one heavy boot in the air and kicked the stapler from his hand. “Not anymore he’s not!”
Sharon couldn’t help feeling proud of her daughter. That was a brilliant move.
When she could see officers through the gap, she released the Door Close button. Police secured Gwilym quickly, cuffing his hands behind his back as he wailed that it wasn’t his fault—he’d been cheated on. Any man would do what he did.
Kate responded with a full-body shiver. “Remind me never to fall for a dude.”
“They’re not all bad,” Sharon mused. “Your father, for instance. He’s a good man, always was. Even if I had started seeing Nora while we were married—which I didn’t, by the way—he would never have reacted like this.”
They stepped out of the elevator, aided by a female officer. After the paramedics had asked them if they were injured or in need of medical care, the officer asked them to go over the evening’s events. They told their story so many times they could have written a book about it.
“I’m exhausted,” Kate said as they sat together in the white leather reception chairs.
By then, the people from the medical examiner’s office and crime scene investigation had tramped into the office to see to Min’s body and collect evidence for the inevitable trial. Sharon’s purse and Kate’s knapsack had been found tucked away in Min’s private bathroom, where Gwilym had been hiding out most of the evening.
“I think we more than deserve a mocha latte,” Sharon said, setting up the client-only machine to prepare them each a flavoured coffee. “Anyway, it’s not like Min’ll yell at me about it.”
“Ever again,” Kate said as the first coffee brewed. “If the company belongs to Min and Min’s dead, does that mean the company’s gonna close? Are you gonna lose your job?”
Sharon hadn’t thought that far in advance. “It’ll depend, I guess, on how she’s set things up, legally. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
When the first mocha latte had brewed, Sharon handed the white mug to her daughter and started brewing another.
She knew Kate hated hearing touchy-feely things like this, but she had to confess: “Tonight’s been terrible in so many ways, but it’s also been nice spending time with you.”
Kate rolled her eyes and said, “Mo-o-om!” She took a sip of her coffee, then smirked. “But I know what you mean.”
“Oh honey,” Sharon said. “Why can’t we get along?”
“Moms and teenagers never get along. It’s the law.”
“There’s more to it than that. It’s ever since I left your father.”
“That’s not true!”
“Fine, then ever since I moved in with Nora.”
Kate stared into her coffee as the machine burbled away.
“Why?” Sharon asked. “I thought you’d be proud of your mother. You’re certainly proud of yourself—of being a lesbian, I mean.”
“Well, exactly,” Kate said without meeting her mother’s gaze. “It’s like… I was a lesbian first. I came out to you and dad when I was twelve! And then after you guys get divorced you start dating a woman too? It’s like you’re trying to copy me or steal my identity or something. Why can’t I have anything that’s just mine?”
“Honey, to be fair, falling in love with a woman isn’t something that’s exclusively yours. There are plenty of lesbians in the world.”
“Yeah, but why do you have to be one of them?” Kate slammed her coffee cup on the glass table and burst out of her chair, circling the reception area angrily. “You’re trying to be all young and hip and it’s so obvious! Why can’t you just be a boring old lady? That’s what a good mom would do!”
Sharon’s mocha latte finished brewing, but she didn’t have the wherewithal to grab it. “I don’t understand this, Kate. You think I’m only living with Nora to be… cool?”
Kate covered her eyes and growled.
“Because if that’s what you believe, honey, you are way off. I love Nora. I loved your father too—in fact, I’ll always love him in one way or another—but Nora’s not some kind of fashion accessory. I love her. I really do.”
Kate’s hands slipped down her face, leaving an expression of disbelief in their wake. “You really love her… for real?”
“Of course I do. You think it’s easy coming out of the closet at my age? Even coming to terms with my feelings myself… well, it wasn’t simple or straightforward. To be honest, it’s something I really wanted to talk to you about. But you wouldn’t return my phone calls, so…”
For a long moment, Kate simply stared at the white mug in the coffee machine. Then she circled the coffee table, picked up the mug, and handed it to her mother. “Your mocha latte is ready.”
Sharon took the mug from her daughter and sipped the warm chocolatey coffee. “Mmm. It’s good.”
“Yeah, I like it too.” She sat again in the same chair she’d been in when Sharon met her earlier that afternoon—though it felt like days ago after all they’d endured—and picked up her half-drunk coffee. “Maybe you and Nora should get one of these machines. Then when I stay over I can make myself coffee in the morning.”
“Does your father let you drink coffee every morning?” Sharon asked. “Because I’m not sure how I feel about my sixteen-year-old daughter—”
“Mom!” Kate growled.
Sharon smirked, and inhaled deeply the scent of coffee and chocolate. The evening had been too tragic to think about, but intense experiences—like being chased around an office by a murderer—had the ability to bond two people, and it had certainly done so tonight.
“Katie?” Sharon said softly across the lip of her coffee cup. “I just wanted to tell you…”
Kate looked up from her coffee with an unexpected softness. “Yeah, Mom?”
“I just wanted to say…” Holding her mug a little tighter, Sharon said, “You should really go back to wearing deodorant, honey.”
“Mom!” Kate slammed her mug on the coffee table. “Oh my God, you are so annoying!”
“I’d rather be annoying than smell like a zoo.”
Kate sat low in her chair, both arms crossed over her chest. “I can’t believe how irritating you are.”
Sharon reached over and gave a playful tug to her daughter’s dreadlocks. “It’s my job to be irritating. I’m your mother and I love you.”
Kate teasingly tried to bite her mother’s hand, and snickered when Sharon jumped, nearly spilling coffee over the sides of her cup.
Rolling her eyes, Kate said, “I love you too.”
“Awww,” Sharon said, hand to heart, pretending those words didn’t generate an instant lump in her throat.
“You’re my mother. I have to love you.”
Sharon patted her daughter gently on the thigh. “That’s good enough for me.”
Thanks for reading Murder at the Office! If you enjoyed this queer and cozy mystery, why not leave a quick review? Reviews help other readers find the stories they’re looking for while avoiding books that may not suit their tastes.
Happy reading and have a great day!
Sharon and her teenaged daughter haven’t been on the best of terms since the divorce. Perhaps it’s natural for a deodorant-eschewing lesbian punk to avoid her mother, but Sharon can’t help thinking there’s more to the story. When Kate shows up at the office, Sharon is stunned to see her. The only thing that could surprise Sharon more is finding the boss strangled to death! Can this mother and daughter pairing put their squabbles aside long enough to solve a murder? Or will the killer strike again… closer to home? Download your copy today and read this hilarious and heartfelt tale of murder afterhours! A queer and cozy mother/daughter mystery.