The Crime Writers' Association

Sting in the Tail - Laila Murphy

Did you know that insects are among the most successful species on Earth? They outlived dinosaurs. They’ll outlive us.

My speciality is wasps. Vespology. Wasps get a bad deal. People are afraid of them but they’re beneficial to humans. Practically every pest insect is preyed upon by a wasp species. They’re unfairly judged.

What has this got to do with me oversleeping, missing the bus by seconds, making me late for work? Not to mention getting soaked in the subsequent downpour as I walked from the bus stop to the museum, having forgotten my umbrella in my rush?

Not much now, but it will later.

I was dripping and in a filthy mood by the time I arrived at the Entomology department.

‘Didn’t you bring an umbrella?’ Pat looked me up and down, nose wrinkled. ‘What’s wrong with you? It’s tipping down. Like a drowned rat, you are, look at her, Neil, dripping all over the floor! Nice mess. You’ll need to mop that up, girl. Someone could slip and fall. Here – are you listening to me?’

I’d been forced to listen to Pat for years. She was Senior Curator and we were a small department so I had always done my best to be polite. But at that moment, drenched, hair plastered to my face, water trickling down the back of my neck, something inside me snapped.

I let rip.

I told her to shut up, to mop the floor herself, that I was sick of her relentless moaning and back-stabbing, that she was as poisonous as a bot fly. Pat rallied from her shock long enough to tell me I’d be sorry and marched out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Silence settled like a locus cloud. In classic bloke-style, Neil and David carried on with their work as though nothing had happened.

The adrenalin sang in my veins as I busied myself with my work; research for agricultural statistics. I lightly tapped the glass of my wasp tank to say hello. It’s not exactly standard to keep wasps at work, even here. But we’re a quirky bunch. Most entomologists are. Neil also has a butterfly tank where he rears his pupae. Like an insect nursery. It’s sweet.

Pat didn’t return all morning. I was buzzing. Who knew a good, old-fashioned ding-dong could feel so good? Why had I held back for so long? I had always imagined confrontation to be ugly and that the greater likelihood was that I would emerge the loser, hence why I never dabbled. But I was so energised, I broke my daily habit of homemade cheese and pickle sandwich for lunch and went out into town instead. I popped into a no-appointment needed hairdresser and came back to work an hour later than I should have with my freshly blunt hair now swinging above my shoulders.

David raised an appreciative eyebrow. ‘Where’s Ellis and what have you done with her?’ He smiled. I laughed. Pat glowered from behind her desk, her displeasure emanating from her in waves. No doubt she had lost no time complaining about me to Head Office.

But I didn’t care. I had discovered a side to myself I didn’t know existed. I had spoken my mind. I had cut my hair. It felt good. Change was exhilarating!

That evening once my high had subsided somewhat, I thought about moving on – before I was moved on. Perhaps I should apply for a more senior role, like Head Researcher? Somewhere far away from Pat.

***

I sat next to Neil in The Queen’s Head the next day, to ask his advice. We were there unexpectedly for our lunch – a spontaneous suggestion of David’s. I liked it.

‘Well, I like your style,’ he said, winking at me.

Neil coughed while Pat bristled. ‘Sounds like you’re falling into your old habits, David.’ She threw him a mean look. ‘I would advise against it.’

She acted as though I didn’t exist, getting a round of drinks in for everyone except me.

‘Orthopterologists,’ Neil whispered and rolled his eyes. I laughed.

In case you didn’t know, orthopterology is the study of grasshoppers, locusts, crickets and such. Did you know crickets stridulate, or ‘sing’, by rubbing their wings together, while grasshoppers stridulate by rubbing their hind legs against their wings? Amazing creatures. Nutritious too. One well known bakery is baking crickets into bread now. A good source of protein.

Before I could ask Neil what he thought of my applying out, Pat interrupted me, asking him loudly about missing pupae from his butterfly tank. While he stammered and flushed, I was forced to make chit chat with Kiran who had also been invited out to lunch. She was librarian in the Biology department; reclusive and spiky as a Nelson Cave Spider. The conversation didn’t exactly flow. She mostly glared at me over the rim of her half pint glass.

That night I ransacked my wardrobe, chucked half of it out, filling three bin bags for charity shops. Clichéd, I know. New hair cut, new wardrobe, new me.

The day after, I came to work and found that Pat was dead.

David had been first in that morning and found her in the library. She’d been stung by a wasp. He’d found its remains nearby. Pat hadn’t made it to her Epipen in time and had expired, surrounded by our treasure trove of accumulated knowledge. There were worse ways to go.

You’re probably wondering why someone with a deadly allergy to wasp stings would choose to work in Entomology. What can I say? We’re a quirky bunch.

I felt numb as the paramedics took her away under a sheet. Not sad, you understand. More like the disbelief of someone who’s winning lottery numbers have just come up. Shame David had to spoil the mood. He sidled up to me, too close, and breathed in my ear, ‘you look beautiful.’

It was completely inappropriate, not to mention unwelcome. I had no choice but to pretend I hadn’t heard him and slink back to my desk.

Neil promptly got back to work. David made tea for us all, including Kiran, who had materialised without me noticing. She hung around pointlessly, pulling out drawer after drawer of insect specimens, nailed to their boards.

It makes me upset; all those creatures hunted, killed and pinned down for our study. It was how things were done back then, I know. Plenty of private collectors still buy rare specimens, displaying them like trophies. Totally illegal of course. I heard that endangered butterflies can sell on the black market for ten grand a pair. A lengthy prison sentence for dealers isn’t enough in my opinion.

There was no need for Kiran to be here. I wished she would shove off back to Biology. When I glanced up, I caught her staring at me. She turned away, slamming the drawer shut.

Normal conversation soon resumed. We chatted about what we had eaten for dinner that night; Neil had seafood linguine, cobbled together from what was left in the cupboards and freezer. David’s wife cooked lasagne. I had eaten steak – yes – on a weeknight! Kiran recounted how she had seen The Kissing Bugs at The Cube. I assumed she was referring to a grungy band and not an infestation of Triatominae. Those little blood-suckers are nasty.

You might be wondering why we weren’t more upset our colleague was dead. If so, let me clarify. Pat was horrible. Naturally, we all agreed, without meaning it, that her death was a shame. Kiran asked why Pat had stayed behind, or arrived early at work? We didn’t know and all agreed it was out of character. No one else had worked late.

‘How did a wasp get into a windowless room?’ Kiran asked.

Neil ignored her. David shrugged. ‘It could have come from anywhere. That’s the thing with winged insects. They get around.’ He winked at me.

I walked into the city centre for lunch again, alone this time. David was creeping me out and I wanted some space. When I got back Neil was hanging up the phone.

‘Head Office called,’ he said. ‘They want a word.’

Uh oh. Not good.

I passed John on the security desk on my way. We got chatting, mostly because I was stalling.

‘Poor Pat,’ he shook his head. ‘Terrible thing. And she was such a good baker too. Always brought me cupcakes. Delicious, they were.’

Pat had never brought me cupcakes, the old witch.

‘You never know when your number’s up,’ said John. ‘My Great-Aunt May’s just been given six months,’ he added, seemingly oblivious to the contradiction. ‘I was telling Pat about her last night. She said she’d come back to talk to Neil and wanted to show him proof of something. I told her he was staying behind late too, another order from Papua New Guinea had just come for him by special delivery and – ’

‘Gotta go, John, sorry’ I apologised, disentangling myself from the conversation. He’s a lovely bloke, but he does go on.

The metaphorical butterflies in my stomach were approximately the size of Queen Alexandra’s birdwings. I needn’t have worried. No one told me off for arguing with poor, dead Pat. They promoted me to her position. With immediate effect.

I practically skipped back to Entomology, happiness rising through my chest. Kiran was leaving as I approached the department.

‘Biology finally missing you?’ I couldn’t resist the dig.

She glided past me, and I thought for a moment she would give no acknowledgement that she had either seen or heard me. But then she ran me through with a single, stabbing look as she passed. Her clacking footsteps echoed around the corridor and faded as she turned the corner and disappeared, leaving me alone and inexplicably unnerved.

That night back home, I pushed images of Kiran from my thoughts and celebrated my promotion with a bottle or two of rose. I don’t normally drink during the week. I remembered why the next day, when I slumped at my desk, fuzzy-headed and moth-mouthed, feeling distinctly unprepared to be Senior Curator.

The day didn’t improve. David continued to letch after me with a doggedness that sent ripples of disgust shuddering through me.

‘Now you’re technically my boss,’ he leered hopefully, ‘will you need to discipline me?’

‘For what, David?’ I snapped. ‘Harassment in the workplace?’

He collapsed back in his seat as though I’d shoved him. His reddened face and wide-eyed expression almost made me feel sorry. That is, until Neil laid down some facts for me of which I was not aware.

‘Don’t let him go too far.’ He said over our cafe lunch. He’d offered to treat me to celebrate my promotion. I’d faux-reluctantly agreed, being unclear exactly when my pay would increase to match my new workload. Besides, Neil was always flush these days. ‘David had an affair at work before you started with us. It didn’t end well.’

He nodded at my look of surprise. ‘Pat told his wife. It ended the affair, though his wife stood by him.’ Neil sighed, wiping his mouth a napkin. ‘Pat was disgusted. Annabelle was an old friend of hers and she couldn’t understand why she forgave him.’

‘I can imagine.’ I pushed my empty plate away. ‘Pat didn’t have an inch of forgiveness in her soul. And she could never keep quiet about other people’s business. She took a vicious pleasure in telling. Before you say I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, it’s true.’

Neil shrugged, reaching for his wallet. ‘She was a difficult woman. Her divorce made her bitter.’

‘You’re divorced Neil but you’re nothing like she was.’

‘Either way,’ Neil paid up and fished his mobile from his pocket when it pinged, ‘watch out for David. He’s got a weakness for younger women and a lot of misplaced confidence. He’ll try his luck now that…’ He left the sentence hanging. ‘We need to get back to the office. My latest pupae specimens have been delivered.’

I didn’t know how I was going to manage David. Somehow I felt as though I had already failed my first task as Senior Curator. I’d bet Pat never had this kind of problem.

I used the walk back to the office to figure out what I was going to say; about professional boundaries, that sort of thing. Then David derailed me the moment I walked through the door by projectile vomiting across the room.

He heaved, clutching his throat, making a horrible gurgling noise. His face was mealybug white.

Kiran flapped about in a panic. ‘Do something!’ she screamed at me. I almost told her to piss off back to her own department but another look at David stopped me. Neil was already on the phone, asking for an ambulance.

‘What happened?’ I cried, as events unspooled out of my control.

‘He ate the sandwich you gave him!’ Kiran raged. ‘What did you put in it?’

‘Nothing!’ I said, horrified at the expression on Neil’s face as he turned to stare, the receiver still pressed to his ear. ‘It was my usual cheese and pickle sandwich. He forgot his lunch, I said I was going out with Neil and he could have it.’

‘You poisoned him!’ Kiran screeched. ‘Why? Because he figured out what you’d done? He was getting in your way?’

‘What are you on about?! It was only cheese and pickle! He must have the flu, or something’ I protested my defence which looked weaker by the second as David slid, groaning, to the floor.

***

For the second time in a week, the paramedics took one of the Entomology department away on a stretcher. At least this one was still animax rather than mortuus. I had no idea what had taken David ill so suddenly but I couldn’t believe my sandwich was to blame. Mind you, it had sat, abandoned, in my desk drawer for the last three days…

It wasn’t my fault. Why couldn’t he make his own sandwiches? I wasn’t his keeper. Yet somehow I felt responsible. Being Senior Curator wasn’t all it cracked up to be.

Kiran had gone to the hospital with David so there was only myself and Neil left in the office but I needed to be alone. I took refuge in the library, closing the door softly behind me, taking comfort in the instant hush which enveloped me.

The walls were old and thick, the shelves heavy, dark wood. The air smelt of ancient books and leather. Not a thing appeared out of place. The small round table and chair stood in the corner as always. Hard to believe Pat had died right here.

I wandered around the small room, fingers idly tracing the spines of the leather-bound books that stuffed the shelves. I passed the Lepidoptera section and noticed one of the books was shelved upside down.

I took it down and opened it. One of the pages about rare butterfly pupae fell open, the spine having been cracked back, the corner of the page folded down. Only one person was inconsiderate enough to treat a vintage Fabre this way.

I emerged fuming, my mood instantly darkening further when I saw Kiran sitting at my desk.

‘What are you doing here?’ I snapped.

‘David’s going to be fine,’ she said, answering the question I should have asked first. ‘Though the hospital isn’t sure yet what poisoned him.’

‘It wasn’t me, before you suggest anything.’

‘I’ve been thinking about Pat.’ she said, ignoring what I had said again. ‘How she died and why.’

‘Why? What are you talking about?’ My temper frayed. Kiran was so rude. ‘It was a tragic accident.’

‘These things are, apparently.’

‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Why didn’t Pat fetch her Epipen when she felt the wasp sting? Her handbag was on her desk, not far away. She could have easily reached it in time.’

‘I don’t know, do I?’ I said.

‘And what had she been doing in the library after hours?’

‘I’ll tell you what she was doing,’ I snarled, waving the book I still carried. ‘Abusing some of our finest literature! Look at this Neil. You’re the butterfly expert; if she had a question she should have asked you – ’

‘How did a wasp get into a windowless room?’

‘Not this again!’ I despaired. ‘I don’t know. What are you banging on about?!’

‘We all heard your fight with Pat. You’re the vespologist here. And you stood to gain by her death – with a promotion.’

Silence. Even Neil held himself still. I gawked at Kiran. I couldn’t believe it. Murder. She was accusing me of murdering Pat.

‘That is – the most – what a ridiculous thing to say!’ I finally gasped.

‘You tricked her into staying behind when everyone else had gone home. You persuaded her to wait in the library, collected a wasp from your tank and let it loose in there before locking the door. Imagine Pat, locked in that small, contained, virtually sound proof room with a deadly wasp; her hysterical flapping about until the inevitable sting; her rising panic as she tried, and failed, to get out. Once she was dead, you unlocked the door, tidied up and returned the key.’

My head span. I looked desperately to Neil for backup. He removed his glasses with careful deliberation, placing them on the desk in front of him. ‘Perhaps David did it?’ He shrugged. ‘He found her body. That’s always suspicious, you know. With Pat out of the way, he could chase after Ellis without recrimination.’

‘Yes!’ I shouted. ‘If anyone’s a sicko in this place it’s David!’

‘Ellis, I was only joking,’ Neil laughed softly, putting his glasses back on. ‘Ladies, this is ridiculous. Pat died an accidental death. There are no killers here. Only Entomologists.’

‘And a jealous librarian,’ I said with a jolt of inspiration. ‘You had an affair with David.’ I pointed at Kiran and was gratified to see a vivid flush spread rapidly up her neck and across her face. ‘And you’re still smitten. You only started hanging around our department after our lunch in the Queen’s Head, after you saw David flirting with me. Keeping an eye on us. You must be mental.’

‘Don’t try and deflect, Ellis!’

‘Who’s to say you didn’t kill Pat in revenge for separating you from David?’

‘I’ve been watching you!’ Her voice rose to a shriek. ‘There’s something rotten going on here! I’ll figure it out!’

She leapt from my chair and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

I puffed my cheeks out. ‘What a nut job.’

‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ said Neil.

***

I couldn’t figure out the sandwich. It must have been what made David sick – but how? The answer came to me while I was also pondering why Pat had stayed late at work that fateful evening.

Pat – the renowned baker. She’d had a go at cricket bread – and not the wholesome kind. As sure as if I had been there, I could see her lingering at work after hours, rooting for long-dead, nasty specimens from the pull-out drawers. I pictured her going home with them in her bag, a nasty smirk on her face as she ground them up and baked them into bread. Until recently, I ate the same thing every day. A creature of habit. It wouldn’t have been difficult to make a new version of my usual sandwich and swap it in my desk when no one was looking. How she must have fumed when we ate out at the pub that day and she was denied her revenge.

I can’t lie. I’m not sorry she’s gone.

Neil retired. A bit unexpected and abrupt but he said it was time for him to go. We had lunch today and a nice chat. He’s away to Papua New Guinea next week. Time to see some of his favourite butterflies in the wild, he said.

‘Can’t wait to retire myself in a few decades!’ I laughed. The museum pension must be better than I thought.

Neil picked up the bill, as usual, and dropped me off back at work.

Kiran stood, staring out of the window near his old desk.

‘I hope you’ve come to apologise,’ I said, none too pleased to see her. She’d kept her distance the past week since her meltdown.

‘Nice car,’ she said, ignoring me as usual. ‘Didn’t know Neil drove a new plate BMW.’ Her voice trailed away. ‘There’s something I need to talk to him about…’

‘You’d better be quick, then. He’s off to the other side of the world on holiday, and doesn’t know when he’s coming back -’

I gaped in amazement as Kiran bolted from the room, leaving the door swinging on its hinges.

‘Whatever,’ I rolled my eyes and popped the kettle on.