THE MYS­TERY MAN

With a hec­tic new job and stub­born old boyfriend, Jo had lots to keep her oc­cu­pied. But still, she was in­trigued by Pete...

My Weekly Special - - Fiction First Class - By Steve Beres­ford

Jo Lin­den had no real idea where she was go­ing. This was only her third day in her new job and the univer­sity cam­pus was a sprawl­ing maze of build­ings, path­ways, steps and al­leys.

It didn’t help that Kay, her new boss, was dis­tract­ing her. “So if you could pop in the shop...” “Okay.” “And bring two boxes...” “Two. Right-o.” When Kay rang off, Jo stowed her mo­bile, re­al­is­ing she had taken the wrong path, be­cause she was now head­ing away from the Physics Depart­ment. She im­me­di­ately veered across the damp grass, re­gain­ing her tar­get.

Her new job was in the univer­sity’s Pub­lic Re­la­tions Of­fice, help­ing to present a pos­i­tive, vi­brant im­age of a for­ward­think­ing ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tional es­tab­lish­ment. To para­phrase the job de­scrip­tion. Ba­si­cally she was there to help the univer­sity show it­self off. Cur­rently the Physics Depart­ment was up to some­thing and her as­sign­ment was to get a few words from the man in­volved – Pro­fes­sor Sam Man­del – and grab a pic­ture or two.

And also get two boxes of pens from the cam­pus shop be­cause the of­fice had run out.

Her mo­bile rang again as she ap­proached the build­ing. Caller dis­play told her it was Andy. She killed the call and stuck her tongue out at the screen, switch­ing it off when he in­stantly rang back. She re­ally would have to find out how to block his calls.

A man was hold­ing open the door and she scur­ried through with a smile and a thank-you.

Pete Gal­lagher held the door open. The woman thanked him and he smiled in re­turn, won­der­ing why she was stick­ing out her tongue at her phone.

He swung his tool­box ahead of him and headed from Physics to­wards the li­brary, leav­ing be­hind a re­paired plug socket and go­ing in search of a bro­ken bulb in the psy­chol­ogy stacks.

He liked his job. Elec­tri­cian. His ex-wife hadn’t. She’d wanted some­one with more a high-fly­ing ca­reer. Funny

She killed the call and stuck her tongue out at the screen

she hadn’t re­alised that un­til four years af­ter the wed­ding. Main­te­nance didn’t quite strike the right note for some­one who had be­come ob­sessed with ris­ing to the top ech­e­lons of man­age­ment.

Dev sud­denly ap­peared at his side on the path, match­ing his stride. “Got a date for you.”

“I don’t want a date,” Pete said. “She’s lovely. New ad­min girl in Law.” Dev was in cam­pus se­cu­rity. He had the uni­form, the ra­dio, ev­ery­thing. “I’m head­ing over that way again now. I’ve told her all about you and she’s def­i­nitely in­ter­ested.”

“Well I’m not.” “Go on! It’d do you good.”

“Dev, I don’t need your help to get a date.”

“You can’t sulk about your di­vorce for­ever.”

“I’m not sulk­ing.”

“Are too. Hey, think about it, yeah?” He nudged Pete and swerved on to a dif­fer­ent path. “I’ve got to go. Flamin’ law stu­dents have got on the roof again. I’ve been tasked to in­ves­ti­gate.”

“Don’t shoot any­body this time.”

Dev laughed. “Don’t tempt me.”

Pete strolled into the li­brary and took a lift to the psy­chol­ogy sec­tion on the fourth floor.

How many psy­chol­o­gists does it take, he won­dered as he worked, to change a light blub?

Only one, he reck­oned, but the psy­chol­o­gist would take twelve ses­sions to work out ex­actly why the light bulb wanted to change.

He smiled to him­self, but the smile quickly faded. He’d thought of a joke, but couldn’t share it. Okay, there were stu­dents milling around and pos­si­bly – judg­ing by the beard and the cardi­gan

– a li­brar­ian, but not so long ago he would have told his wife when he got home.

Not now, though.

He sighed and checked his watch. It was a slow morn­ing. No more emer­gen­cies, no sched­uled main­te­nance. There was the fuse box in the Great Hall, but he had all af­ter­noon to look at that.

So, in­stead, he wan­dered to the win­dow and leant on the sill, star­ing out.

The Law Depart­ment was to his right. Big Betty, the clock tower, stood directly ahead and be­yond that the Great Hall. Physics was over to the left. And in be­tween were paths, criss-cross­ing amidst the grassy bits.

So many paths.

So many peo­ple walk­ing along them. Some even run­ning. Paths crossed, re­sult­ing in greet­ings, con­ver­sa­tions, oc­ca­sional hugs.

His phone beep-de-beep-beeped. He checked the mes­sage.

Roof, it said. From Dev.

He looked up and there on the roof of the Law build­ing was Dev. Dev waved, then pointed, down­wards, and mouthed some­thing that Pete didn’t un­der­stand.

And Pete waved back, ap­par­ently catch­ing the at­ten­tion of a woman on the floor be­low.

Jo Lin­den hadn’t spent long in the Physics depart­ment. Pro­fes­sor Man­del had been sud­denly called away on fam­ily busi­ness just five min­utes be­fore she ar­rived. And no one else was avail­able.

So she switched her mo­bile back on and called Kay.

“For­get that,” Kay said. “I’ll resched­ule. On your way back pop into Law for me. There’s a new girl in ad­min. Get some de­tails and a head­shot and we’ll put her on the web­site.”

“Will do.” Jo her­self had ap­peared on the web­site as a new girl. It was cus­tom­ary. The page listed all the com­ings and go­ings of staff. It was sup­posed to make ev­ery­one feel in­cluded, but Jo felt em­bar­rassed in­stead by her pic­ture grin­ning inanely on the screen.

In Law, Jo hov­ered by the win­dow while Emma – the new ad­min girl, all lip gloss and eye­lashes – an­swered the tele­phone.

All those paths, she thought, star­ing out across the cam­pus. Here, there and ev­ery­where. Crikey! It would take ages to mem­o­rise the lay­out.

Move­ment caught her eye and she saw a man wav­ing from a li­brary win­dow, ap­par­ently at her. He looked vaguely fa­mil­iar.

She au­to­mat­i­cally waved back, but then wished she hadn’t when the man went all awk­ward and backed out of sight. Maybe he’d been wav­ing at some­one above her. Although wasn’t that the roof?

Her mo­bile rang. Andy again. She killed it and turned to the new ad­min girl. “Do you know how to block calls?”

And ap­par­ently Emma did. She also ad­vised Jo to get a new SIM and end the prob­lem of Andy’s calls once and for all.

Pete Gal­lagher was in the base­ment of the Great Hall, at­tend­ing to the fuse box, when he had a visi­tor.

“Ah,” said Dev, “they told me you were here.”

“What’s up?”

“Booked you that date.”

“What?”

“With the new girl in Law ad­min. Emma.”

Pete sighed. “Dev, I don’t want to meet her.”

“You don’t have a choice. I’ve ar­ranged it so that you can meet at ten past five out­side the book­shop.”

“You’ve what?”

“Didn’t you see her? When

I was on the roof? I pointed.

Her desk should have been right be­low my feet.” He laughed. “Saw you back off sud­denly. Guessed she’d looked out and seen you, wav­ing like a lemon.”

Pete re­alised he had seen her. And in the two sec­onds he’d seen her for, at some dis­tance, she’d seemed nice. Pretty. Pos­si­bly vaguely fa­mil­iar. But even so...

“I’m still not go­ing.”

“You can’t stand her up. “What will she think?”

“Pos­si­bly that I’m not a loser who needs an in­sane friend to set him up?” “You’ll re­gret it.”

“I doubt it. Now, if you don’t mind...” He ges­tured with his screw­driver. “...I am busy.”

But he wasn’t re­ally busy. He was just fin­ish­ing and within five min­utes of Dev

leav­ing he was on his way too.

“Sorry, ex­cuse me.”

Although he didn’t know why he was apol­o­gis­ing. It was the woman who barged straight into him.

Jo Lin­den bounced off the man with the tool­box and hur­ried on. “Sorry,” she called back. That was the trou­ble with cor­ners in cor­ri­dors. You never knew who was lurk­ing round them.

She was cer­tainly see­ing a lot of the cam­pus to­day. Kay had her run­ning ev­ery­where. She still hadn’t got the boxes of pens ei­ther.

She stopped sud­denly, her tummy tick­ling, and looked back. But the cor­ri­dor was empty now.

That man, with the tool­box... He looked like...

She frowned. Who did he look like?

Pete Gal­lagher frowned. And looked back. But he was al­most out­side now, so the woman was out of sight. Wasn’t she...?

No, it couldn’t have been. He was mis­taken.

But oh heck, this Emma. She was play­ing on his mind and he’d never even met her. Rot­ten Dev. Set­ting him up. He won­dered whether to call Law, or pop round, to can­cel the whole thing. Or maybe just pre­tend it wasn’t hap­pen­ing and ig­nore it.

But he couldn’t. He couldn’t sim­ply leave her wait­ing for him. That wouldn’t be gen­tle­manly. But any other course of ac­tion in­volved in­ter­ac­tion.

Which he re­ally didn’t want.

Which is how he came to be hov­er­ing in the shad­ows op­po­site the cam­pus book­shop at ten past five.

Torn be­tween de­ci­sions, he’d made no de­ci­sion at all.

But there she was. She looked dif­fer­ent from the brief glimpse he’d got when she’d waved from the win­dow. More make-up now. Hair styled dif­fer­ently. Hair styled, in fact, rather than wind­blown.

Not his type at all.

He wouldn’t have recog­nised her had she not been loi­ter­ing out­side the book­shop, clearly wait­ing.

Oh well, only one thing for it. He’d go over and apol­o­gise and make his ex­cuses and leave.

He set off.

Jo Lin­den had been hur­ry­ing about all day and she was ex­hausted. Her feet hurt too. But she still hadn’t picked up those pens Kay had asked for and the shop was open un­til half five. She scur­ried round the cor­ner and bumped into some­one.

“Oh hello again!”

“Hiya!” It was Emma, the new Law ad­min girl. “You had any more trou­ble from your bloke?”

“Two voice­mails and three texts.” At least Andy’s calls weren’t com­ing through directly any more, now he was blocked.

“New SIM,” Emma ad­vised again. “Def­i­nitely.” Jo smiled and darted past the book­shop to the sta­tioner’s next-door.

Pete Gal­lagher used Emma’s mo­men­tary dis­trac­tion to slip past and carry on walk­ing.

It was no good. He couldn’t do it. He’d apol­o­gise some­how to­mor­row, and pos­si­bly mur­der Dev shortly after­wards. Right now he headed for home, just miss­ing the train at the cam­pus sta­tion and hav­ing to wait for the next one. He boarded, found an empty win­dow seat and plonked his holdall next to him on the aisle seat, de­ter­mined not to move it. For any­one.

Jo Lin­den just man­aged to leap on the train as the doors were clos­ing. It was busy, but she spot­ted a spare seat.

She sat down and looked out through the win­dow.

A train was serv­ing the op­po­site plat­form too, ready to go the other way. A man was sit­ting on it. A fa­mil­iar man? He turned and their eyes met. Then the trains moved apart.

There was no avoid­ing it re­ally. Their paths were set to cross

ete Gal­lagher – piec­ing to­gether the var­i­ous bits of his day, heart jud­der­ing – twisted quickly, cran­ing his neck, but she was gone.

It was her though.

The woman from the win­dow with the wind­blown hair.

And he was still think­ing about her the next morn­ing as he crossed the cam­pus, tool­box in hand.

Think­ing of her... then see­ing her.

JPo Lin­den was also still both­ered the next morn­ing by the mys­tery man on the train.

What was she think­ing? She was barely over Andy and yet here she was, hur­ry­ing across cam­pus to her next as­sign­ment, fan­ta­sis­ing about a man she’d hardly seen, let alone met...

But crikey, there he was, walk­ing along the other path, per­pen­dic­u­lar to hers. Now he was slow­ing though, star­ing across at her.

For some rea­son she slowed too. She frowned at the cu­ri­ous sen­sa­tion in her chest.

But there was no avoid­ing it.

It was in­evitable re­ally.

Their paths were set to cross.

All they had to do was keep walk­ing and maybe say hello...

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