Sometimes a practical joke can go horribly wrong
“This will never work,” I said, hunched over the keyboard and typing with two fingers.
“Why not?” asked Peter, hanging over my shoulder and watching the letters appear slowly on the screen.
“Too many risks. Too many variables. Too many things that can go wrong.”
“Nonsense,” he scoffed. “It’s foolproof. We know that both Old Bully Balls and Dragon Breath go out for lunch at the same time. The coast will be completely clear.”
“Don’t call them that,” I said, irritated. “Just now one of them appears unexpectedly and hears you…”
“Don’t worry,” he said soothingly. “Even if they did, they would have no idea what we are talking about.”
“WHO would have no idea what you are talking about?” came a sudden voice from the doorway, and both of us jumped. In panic, I deleted the document on the screen.
“Oh, hello, Mr Butler,” said Peter smoothly, turning to the door. “We were just talking about the new client. Their new internal communication strategy.”
“Nice save,” I muttered under my breath.
Mr Butler glared at us, breathing hard through his nose. He was plump and oily, with an ingratiating manner towards clients and customers, but a real bully towards his staff. Just yesterday he had shouted at a new secretary in front of the whole office for something that was not her fault. Everyone else kept their heads down, hoping that he would not turn his anger on them. Afterwards, it had taken hours of tissues and sweet tea in the staff canteen to calm the terrified newbie down.
His secretary, Doreen, was even worse. She was his toady and informant. She pretended to be one of us, but then carried our gossip and slip-ups back to him, where they were swiftly and brutally punished. We suspected they were having an affair, but it was hard to imagine that anyone would be attracted to either of them.
“OK, now we have to start again,” I said once Mr Butler had left, after giving us a calculating look. He knew we were up to something. “Luckily I had been saving the document, so it will only need a few finishing touches…. there!”
I pressed the Print button, and two identical pieces of cardboard slid out of the printer. Small, square, and beautiful, the heavy cards were printed in a flowing cursive script: A small token of my affection, my Valentine. Enjoy the little gift.’
“That’s perfect,” breathed Peter. “Now for the final touch.”
He tucked each card into a small elaborate cardboard box, alongside the luscious-looking cupcake. One cupcake was pink with gold sparkles, the other was chocolate and cream. He put a dab of glue on the top of each box, and attached a little coloured bow.
“Ok,” I said. “Mr Butler has left, we saw him go. Has Doreen gone yet?”
“No, not yet,” said Peter, peering out. “But she is packing up now. You take hers. I will sneak into his office with mine. They must go into the top drawer, got it?”
Once Doreen left the office, we waited a short while to make sure they would not unexpectedly come back, and then we left our little presents in their respective places. The rest of the afternoon we waited in suspense.
* * * * * * * * * *
At 3.30 pm, we saw Doreen walk past from the kitchen, as usual, with the boss’s tea. There was a jaunty little spring in her step, and she had a secret smile, so we knew she had found her cake. But we didn’t know if she had eaten it yet. Perhaps, being the lonely spinster she was, she was going to take it home and put it under her pillow. We guessed that Old Bully Balls was saving his, to have with his tea.
At 4pm precisely, we heard a wail coming from Doreen’s office. We smiled at each other. It had worked! But then the wail turned into a shriek, and people were popping their heads out of their cubicles to see what was going on. Doreen ran down the corridor, her screams dopplering behind her. Peter and I frowned at each other. We had been expecting a reaction, but not this.
Then it fell completely apart.
“He’s dead! He’s dead!” screamed Doreen, running from office to office and caterwauling in each doorway. The deputy director went to Mr Butler’s office and emerged, looking grave. He issued instructions like bullets. An ambulance was called. The paramedics were there within minutes, looking businesslike. There was a quiet conversation with the deputy director. Then the MD went purposefully up the corridor.
Through all of this Peter and I were looking at each other in rising alarm. When we saw the building security arrive, I could stand it no longer.
“I have to tell them!” I said.
“You’ll get into serious trouble,” said Peter.
“We’re already in serious trouble,” I shot back. “Our fingerprints are all over those cupcakes. They will know it’s us. We have to tell them it was just a mistake, an accident.”
“You’re on your own,” Peter said. “I am going to deny everything.”
“You horror!” I said.
I made a face at him, and went in search of the big brass.
I found them in Mr Butler’s office. The building supervisor did not want to let me in, but I insisted.
“I’ve got important information,” I said.
Mr Butler was slumped across his desk, his oily hair flopping forward over his face. Next to him was an overturned tea cup and a small tea stain on the desk, which had dripped onto the carpet. The pretty little cardboard box was next to his elbow. I stared at it as if it would bite me.
The MD and the DD looked up at me when I went in.
“It must have been an accident,” I blurted in panic. “It was only a laxative, it wasn’t supposed to kill him!”
“What are you talking about?” asked the DD.
“We gave him a cupcake with a laxative in it,” I babbled. “It was a joke, we wanted to give him an upset tummy because he is such a bully. We didn’t mean to kill him!”
There was a short silence while the two bosses looked at each other.
“He died of a heart attack,” said the MD heavily. “Natural causes. But if your idiot cupcake put a strain on his heart… you know what that means, don’t you?”
I did, and my knees turned to water. Culpable homicide, most likely.
The MD picked up the cupcake, and I saw that only a small bite had been taken out of it. Surely that would never have been enough to kill him?
It was through a daze that I heard the MD tell me that, in light of my confession, they would have to order a detailed post mortem. They would have to analyse the cupcake, and warn Doreen right away not to eat hers. I was suspended from work until the post mortem and the analysis were completed, and then I would hear my fate.
It was the longest week of my life.
So when my doorbell rang, and I opened the door to see the MD, the DD, Peter, and an important-looking police officer on the doorstep, my own heart almost stopped.
We all trooped into my tiny sitting room and sat down. There was an awkward silence. I stared at the floor.
“You will be pleased to know,” said the MD eventually, “that it was not your stupid cupcake prank that caused Mr Butler’s death.” He shot a look at both Peter and myself. There was another awkward silence.
“In fact, we owe you a debt of gratitude,” said the police officer, and I looked up in surprise.
“Mr Butler’s death first resembled a heart attack,” he said. “And it would have been recorded as such. However, your confession compelled us to take a closer look. We found that Mr Butler had indeed been poisoned. But by a very clever drug that made it look like a heart attack. It would have slipped by if we had not been suspicious.”
“But – how did that get into the cupcake?” I asked faintly.
“It wasn’t in the cupcake,” the police officer said. “It was in the tea. We have already arrested Miss Doreen van der Bijl. It appears that she and Mr Butler were, ahem, having a liaison and he was threatening to break it off. He told her that if she objected, she would lose her job.”
“She would have got away with it too,” said the DD. “The signs of poisoning were only clear if you were looking for them.”
“Phew!” I said. “Who would have believed it? So we are heroes, then?”
“Don’t push it,” said the MD as they all got up to go.
I looked at Peter and he looked back at me.
“Does anyone want some tea?” I asked.
“No thanks,” all four said together. And Peter added: “And no cupcakes, either!”
I laughed the loudest of all.