Monica, my boss, had a birthday fast approaching. She was a woman for whom nothing was too much trouble. She would lend an ear, be a shoulder to cry on, and get you out of a tight spot if you happened to have screwed-up. I did a lot of screwing-up and, to be frank, it was a miracle in my eyes that I was still employed. But then that’s the kind of woman Monica was; as long as us girls gave our best she would not ask for more. She was a larger-than-life woman both metaphorically and physically. From her not inconsiderable frame came a huge, booming voice and a laugh that would rattle windows. And laugh she did. A lot. Actually, a lot more than a lot. About ninety per cent of the time she was a-laughing and the strange thing was that it never became annoying. It was just infectious so the whole office would soon be in stitches. It was a wonder that we ever got any work done. I don’t know what her social life was like but I do know she lived alone as not many blokes dig a twenty-five stone lass. That sounds harsh and I could be way off the scale, as indeed Monica probably was – sorry couldn’t resist it – but I think her size did kind of restrict what she could do or where she could go. As a consequence us lot at work, we were sort of her family and friends by default.
And, boy, did she like her puddings! I’ve never known someone have Christmas pudding as the starter, main course and dessert but that’s what she did when we went to the local Harvester for the office Christmas dinner. So, when her birthday loomed large I knew what to get her; a pudding extraordinaire, but it wasn’t going to be something off the shelf from a local supermarket. Oh no, it was going to be something special, something made for the occasion; a pudding to remember. You see, I really thought that Monica deserved a treat for being as good as she had been to me; I was still in work after all.
Now, my first port of call, once upon a time, would have been the Yellow Pages. Remember them? Great, floppy, weighty tomes that held the names and numbers of businesses far and wide supplying every product and service known to man. Except the one you needed. Remember? Sure you do. Delivered every year and shelved in the back of a cupboard or filed in the black plastic cabinet with wheels on that got emptied once a week. Seen a Yellow Pages recently? I haven’t. Not for ages. Last one I saw was tiny; a shadow of its former self and I almost took pity on it. It’s the internet’s fault. Why flick through pages of iffy printing when you can just Google what you want?
So I Googled. I thought that Monica would really appreciate a top quality pud delivered to her door. I could imagine her eyes lighting up as the gift-wrapped package was delivered. I could almost hear that earth-shattering laugh upsetting the neighbours as she opened the box. The trouble with Google is that you have to be very specific in your search criteria or you get all sorts of crap returned. It took a while but I narrowed and narrowed the search down to very local caterers until I was finally getting a few details that looked useful. And a lot of crap.
The first call I made was a bit of a disappointment. A friendly voice answered, “Just Deserts; the one-stop shop for the arid-loving explorer. How may I help you?”
“I’m sorry?” I replied, a little confused.
“Just Deserts, ma’am,” the chirpy voice repeated. “Here for all your rain-free trekking needs. How can I be of assistance?”
“Oh,” said I. “You don’t make cakes?”
“No ma’am. I think you may have a wrong number. This is Just Deserts. I think you’re after Just Desserts. Common mistake.”
I looked at my laptop screen again. I guess I’ve put off wearing glasses for too long. She was right; not enough esses. “I do apologise,” I mumbled.
“Quite alright,” sang the happy voice at the other end of the telephone. “It happens a lot. Don’t forget us if you fancy a wander around the Atacama.”
I assured the voice that I would indeed consider them but thought the chances of me ambling around anywhere on holiday that did not have decent toilet facilities and a good selection of cafes and charity shops somewhat remote.
I was more successful with my second call, though the telephone was answered by a gruff-sounding chap who merely said “‘ello?”
“Is that Just Desserts?” I asked quickly.
“Aye,” came the reply in an accent I couldn’t quite place.
“Ah, em, great. Listen, I’m planning a surprise for my boss,” I babbled.
The voice at the other end chuckled which I thought was unwarranted. “What sort of surprise do you have in mind?” the man enquired, with a sly burr that put me on edge.
“Well, I was hoping you could advise me as this is your game,” I retorted. “I was thinking some along the lines of Death By Chocolate.” If there is one thing guaranteed to get you in Monica’s good books it is chocolate. I suspect the only way to get her to do some exercise would be to get her to chase after a chocolate bar strapped to a puppy. But she’d probably eat the puppy.
There was a few moments silence at the other end of the phone before the voice growled back, “Unusual, but I reckon I could manage it.”
Unusual? I was starting to lose confidence. What dessert caterer would think Death By Chocolate unusual? “Are you sure you’re up to this?” I enquired.
“Do you doubt me?” he snapped. “I’ll have you know I’m the best in the business. I have done jobs for politicians, lawyers, wives, husbands, lovers, heads of state. I have travelled the world in this line of work and you don’t keep at it in this business unless you’re very, very good.”
“Well, that’s a pretty impressive CV,” I agreed. “I guess you’ll be able to handle my little request with ease then.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it, missy. Now where does your boss live? I take it is a home delivery?”
Missy? How rude! But I am too professional and much too English to have said anything. Instead I merely said, “Yes,” in a very frosty voice.
“Fine,” he said. “Where does he live? And when’s his birthday? Do you want a morning or afternoon ‘surprise’?”
Oh great. Not only rude but sexist as well. “She,” I said loudly, for emphasis, “lives at 141 Evergreen Terrace. And her birthday is next Tuesday. I would like the delivery made before she leaves for work. About quarter to eight I guess. Monica should be up and about by then.” I rather liked the idea of Monica getting her present before work so she would come in with a massive smile and chocolate over her face.
“You’re the boss,” said he. “Death By Chocolate at quarter to eight on Tuesday. Her name is Monica?”
“Yes, right. Um, how much is going to cost me?” I asked sheepishly.
There was another long pause. “To be honest, work has been a bit scarce recently so I’ll do you a discounted rate. If you send more business my way the rate comes down further.”
“Do you want a deposit?”
“Again, normally I’d say yes. To stop you backing out like. But I need to drum up business so pay me when the job is done. That way the risk is mine,” he answered. “Oh, thank you,” I said, genuinely taken aback and forgetting to delve further into how much this extravagance going to set me back. “I’m quite excited.”
The man chuckled and put the phone down.
I first got an inkling that things had gone awry when Monica didn’t show up for work the following Tuesday. Initially we thought she was just being a bit late in because it was her birthday and I couldn’t wait until she burst into the office laughing that big laugh of hers. As the morning wore on we started to get anxious. Jenny tried to ring her at home and on her mobile but got no answer, just the answerphones. After lunch we were clearly baffled and wondered if Monica was alright. Linda offered to pop by the house on the way home if she hadn’t shown up by the end of the day, which is what she did and regretted it afterwards. She found the house quiet with no response to her ringing the bell or banging on the door. The neighbour said that they hadn’t seen or heard Monica all day, which was unusual considering how audible she normally was. Linda went around to the back of the house and peered in through the kitchen window.
“And that’s when Mrs Linda Stevens spotted the body of Monica Henderson,” interjected the Detective Inspector, stating fact, not questioning. “Mrs Stevens called for medical help but it was clear that Miss Henderson had been dead for several hours.” Here he picked up a sheet of paper that was a report of some sort. “Post mortem examination found large quantities of strychnine in her body. The source of this strychnine was found to be a bar of quality Belgian chocolate, most of which had been consumed. A bar of chocolate that it would appear, by your statement, to have been sent by yourself. We have witness statements from your colleagues contradicting your claims about your competence. It would seem that Miss Henderson had confided in several of them that she was going to have to let you go. And they all said that you physically winced whenever Miss Henderson laughed, going as far as to storm out of the office on several occasions. Not really a case of infectious laughter really now, is it? And we’ve tried every flaming combination when it comes to Googling and we haven’t managed to find a contract killer operating under the name of Just Desserts. Though we did manage to ring a very nice young lady who organises walking holidays in the Karakum Desert. So care to explain, Miss Davies?”
I watched the DCI absent-mindedly break off a bit of the chocolate bar lying between us on the table, smiled as he placed it in his mouth, and exercised my right to remain silent.
We’re sure you enjoyed this story by J.P Paradise and, if that’s the case, you should probably check out his website. He’s also written the awesome Children of Another Albion, a steampunk novel for kids set in an alternative Britain. You can also find J.P on Twitter and Facebook.
If you fancy reading another short story, perhaps the flash fiction piece Pigeon Punching in North Africa may also make you laugh (don’t worry, no actual pigeons were harmed in its making). Alternatively you could just browse our Short Story section and see what tickles your fancy.