Balancing the Books – Extract

Dr Vernon Coleman

`Balancing the Books’ is a novel about Harriet, a widow seeking revenge. Her husband Mallory was a professional author whose book sales were destroyed by a sudden flurry of unjustifiable one star reviews on the internet. Harriet decides to kill the people whose thoughtless one star reviews had helped trigger her husband’s suicide. All her victims are killed in different ways. Here’s an account of one of the simpler deaths in the book.

It was the travelling, not the killing, that Harriet found tiring. She remembered the Blues Brothers film and decided that she too was on a mission from God. It was work that had to be done and she was proud to do it. Every killing made her feel more comfortable and more at peace.

In the Midlands she found a pseudonymous reviewer who worked as a traffic warden. The woman had written scathing reviews of several of Mallory’s books, boasting in one review that she had only read the first page of one book but had decided that since that single page hadn’t ‘tickled her fancy’, as she put it, she was going to damn the author’s other books too.

The day after identifying the reviewer, Harriet watched the woman preparing to give a ticket to the absent owner of a car parked outside a pharmacy. Before the traffic warden had started to photograph the car, in order to record the offence, a harassed young woman came rushing out of the shop. The woman, clearly a young mother, was carrying a small child who was crying and appeared to be in a lot of pain.

‘I had to get some antibiotic medicine for my little boy,’ said the woman, pleading. She was clearly close to tears. ‘The car park is full and there was nowhere else to park.’ In desperation, she looked at her watch. ‘I’ve only been here for three minutes.’ She held up a paper bag which clearly contained medicine bottles and then unlocked her car and hurriedly fastened the little boy into a seat in the back.

The traffic warden, a small, slight, miserable looking woman, a professional giver of tickets and, Harriet knew, an amateur book reviewer, showed absolutely no emotion at all. She simply lifted up her camera, took the incriminating photographs she needed and ignored the woman’s plea.

Harriet spent three days in the area finding out everything there was to find about the traffic warden. By the time she’d finished her researches she was surprised to discover that the traffic warden was an even nastier person than she had originally thought. The woman had absolutely no redeeming features and no friends. She lived alone in a small flat and even the other traffic wardens regarded her as unbearable. ‘She is,’ one told Harriet, ‘the sort of person who would have been well suited to work in a concentration camp. She’d have quickly risen through the ranks.’

Harriet discovered that every morning the traffic warden parked her car in a multi-storey car park owned by the local council. The car park was kept exclusively for employees of the council and the police station (which was next door to the main council building). Some days the traffic warden didn’t start work until 10.00 a.m. and by the time she arrived, the lower floors of the car park were all full. So, on those days, she had to park her car on the top floor. There was a lift but it was slow and smelt of urine and excrement so, after parking her car, the woman walked down several flights of concrete stairs. On those mornings the car park was usually quite deserted since most employees were already sitting at their desks making paperclip chains and dreaming of their gloriously plump taxpayer funded pensions.

There were no security cameras in the car park; either because the council was too mean to install them or because council employees and policemen don’t like being spied upon.

And so, on her fourth morning in the town, Harriet waited on the top floor of the car park and, when the little traffic warden started down the stairs she followed behind and gave her a tremendous push. She pushed her so hard that she very nearly toppled forward herself.

Concrete is a very unforgiving material, harder and more unforgiving than any traffic warden’s head, and the warden, who had very little fat on her to cushion her fall, crashed and slid to the bottom of the staircase. It all happened so quickly that she didn’t even have time to cry out.

Harriet walked down the stairs, knelt beside her victim and found, to her surprise and relief, that although the woman was badly injured she was still conscious. It would have been a terrible disappointment if she’d died too soon.

The woman had broken an arm and a leg and seemed to have dislocated her shoulder. She was in a good deal of pain. Harriet bent down beside her, introduced herself, told the woman who she was and talked to her for a while about the reviews the woman had written about Mallory’s books.

The traffic warden didn’t seem terribly upset about the damage she’d done and, to Harriet’s dismay, seemed concerned only with her own situation rather than with the consequences of her literary actions or the effect her thoughtless words had had on Mallory. Struggling for breath and in considerable pain the woman accepted that she hadn’t read any of Mallory’s books and admitted, seemingly without regret, that she always gave books one star reviews `to teach author’s a lesson’ and `to put them in their place’.

Harriet helped the traffic warden to her feet (a manoeuvre which the woman seemed to find extremely painful and which resulted in quite a few cries of pain) and then rather surprised her by pushing her down the next flight of stairs. She hadn’t seen that coming.

Harriet was rapidly running out of stairs and she was greatly relieved when she saw that this fall had finally killed the woman. She hadn’t fancied the idea of having to drag her back up the stairs in order to throw her down them again.

From the way the traffic warden was positioned it was clear that she had broken her neck. She had also smashed her skull on the side of the stairs and you could see little bits of brain poking out. The brain tissue was much greyer than Harriet had expected it to be. Despite all these injuries there was hardly any blood at all; in death, as in life, the woman seemed a cold, bloodless sort of creature.

Harriet walked down the rest of the stairs, left the car park and walked to the railway station. She retrieved her bag from the left luggage locker and wasted £3.50 on a cup of coffee and a bun in the buffet. The bun was stale and she ate only half of it. The coffee was lukewarm and tasted more like weak gravy; she drank very little of it but resisted the temptation to complain to the counter assistant. She didn’t want to do anything that might make her memorable.

The following day, Harriet looked at the local newspaper’s website on the Internet and saw that the woman’s death had been reported as a tragic accident. A police spokesman said they believed the traffic warden must have slipped on the concrete steps and they were investigating the possibility that uncollected litter, allowed to accumulate on the steps, might have contributed to the tragedy. He added that they would, in consequence, be investigating the possibility of charging council officials with contributory negligence. A council spokesman said they had taken advice from a senior Health and Safety officer who, in conjunction with a firm of consultants would, at the earliest possible date, have the steps covered in a ‘non-slip plasticised material’ that would ‘prevent any future mishaps of a similar nature’. The spokesman also said that the council would install six litter bins on each floor of the car park and hire a firm of cleaners to do a twice daily litter collection in the car park. The traffic warden’s death had, it seemed, been rather expensive for the local taxpayers.

Harriet then travelled south to Dorset where she was looking for a reviewer who hid behind the woefully unimaginative pseudonym ‘Book Buyer’, but whose real name was George.

Taken from the novel `Balancing the Books’ by Vernon Coleman.

Copyright Vernon Coleman August 2023