CHRISTMAS MYSTERY by Sophie Weston: EPISODE 10
Missed the start? Click here to read from episode 1
Liv tried to sleep that night. She really tried. But her head was buzzing with half-formed ideas, questions, splinters of memory that she couldn’t get rid of.
At 2.13 a.m., she got up and made tea. She huddled into the rented couch in the rented room and remembered the big, uncomfortable chairs in Francis’s beloved drawing room That Night.
Even the professional florist’s arrangement had been too big. Come to think of it, Liv had never ordered it. Francis must have sent it specially. Set dressing for a supposedly impromptu celebration after the board meeting at Temple Blake Rossignol.
And we weren’t even living together any more. Ann’s right. Francis did expect me to be his custodian of that house. Thought he was still entitled to use us both, the house and me. Not just entitled. Welcome!
She cupped her hands round the mug to warm them. She couldn’t seem to stop shivering.
Impromptu celebration! Huh! The civilised boardroom discussion had turned into a blood bath.
She could still hear Simon’s voice, icy with rage: amateur… a passenger… waste of space… token totty… every word a laceration across a nerve. And Ann, not pregnant or married then, Ann who hated conflict, and loved her job, saying bravely, “I think Liv’s right. I vote with Liv.” And all the time Francis did his disappointed labrador routine and kept saying they could work it out. That was when Simon said, “Not unless you get your ex-wife a reality implant.”
Liv to Simon in a face-off: “Every so-called fact in the brief the client gave us was a fudge or a lie. Base a campaign on that and we breach every single item of the advertising code.”
Then Francis saying, “I’m sorry, Liv, Ann. I have to use my Chairman’s casting vote here. We take the job.” He’d sat back in his carver chair at the end of the table, a sad labrador, certain he’d be forgiven.
That was when she heard herself saying, “Do that and I’ll report you to the Advertising Standards Authority myself.”
Now, Liv pushed the mug away and clasped her head in her hands.
They’d left then, she and Ann, while Francis looked sandbagged and Simon spat bile. Both shocked to the core, the two women had gone to Liv’s house. But then Francis, who had kept a key, of course, had arrived, still blindly optimistic. He brought Patrick Fell with him. What on earth for? Maybe he thought an outsider would make Liv behave better. And then, when the doorbell rang, it was Francis who let Simon in.
The argument that followed was vicious and brutal. Ann, sad and white-faced, had tried a conciliating tone. Liv repeated her mantra, Advertising Standards, Advertising Standards. When it looked as if Simon was going to hit someone, she’d told everyone to go.
And when Patrick Fell closed the door on the others, he’d turned to her and said, “Why?”
Liv told him everything, God knows why. Maybe it was reaction. Maybe it was simple exhaustion, but she poured it all out, the fantastic new client that Francis had introduced; how Simon said it was the coup of the century.
“Only I think he’s a crook and I know he’s a liar,” she told Patrick wretchedly. “I did the research. I can prove it. Only poor Francis just can’t believe it.”
Patrick had stared at her for a long, disbelieving minute. They’d been walking round each other for days by then, for weeks, like duellists. But she didn’t expect the fury in his eyes and recoiled.
“Poor Francis?” He followed her as she retreated.
“Poor Francis?” on a rising note. “What is it about that man? He’s completely out of line, puts you in a horrible position, lets you down when it matters and you’re sorry for him?”
“He didn’t mean to—” She had her back against the wall now, figuratively and in fact.
And Patrick was off on a rant of his own. “It’s not just you. Ann, too. She went off with him just now as if he’s bloody Sir Galahad, instead of a greedy opportunist with no morals and less kindness. Even a sensible woman like Rosa thinks he needs looking after. He’s brainwashed you. Brainwashed you all. For God’s sake, it’s obvious! Why won’t you see it?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody’s brainwashed me.” That was when Liv thought of a favourite line of her father’s, usually delivered with heavy irony, “I am the master of my fate and captain of my soul.” And she laughed harshly.
The laugh was a mistake. Patrick’s eyes flared. He put both hands against the wall on either side of her head, glaring.
Mount Vesuvius about to blow, she’d thought. What’s he got to be so angry about? It ought to be me throwing molten lava around.
“Really? Really? You certain of that, Olivia? Then come to bed with me. Come to bed with me now.”
And Heaven help me, I damn nearly did.
But there was no point in thinking about that now. The memories had given her an idea. She went looking.
The next morning she was heavy-eyed, but much calmer. She felt as if she’d been through a firestorm last night and now she could breathe again.
Her father texted her to wish her a happy solstice and tell her comfortingly that the Mayans had predicted that today was the end of the world. Gee, thanks, Dad.
There was also a text from Patrick. It simply said, “Sorry.”
She called him. It seemed easier. “I’ve been thinking about what you said. About someone wanting something back. Something I’ve got.”
“Well, I’ve thought of something. The research I did on those high spec retirement apartments. You may remember.”
“Lord Bratby’s flagship development. The one where you turned down the advertising contract,” he said drily. “How could I forget?”
For the first time ever, she remembered That Night without wincing. “Well, I did a good job on the research, OK. But what started me digging was a set of files someone sent me.”
She could almost feel him sitting up straight, suddenly alert as a bloodhound. “Who?”
“I don’t know. I got a USB in the post. It had a few documents but mostly it had a lot of video on it, showing how they were cutting corners.”
“Who knows about it?”
“I didn’t tell anyone one.”
“Not even poor Francis?”
She ignored his snide tone. “Not even Francis. It would have been awful for him. Lord Bratby is his new father-in-law.”
“Interesting,” he said. “Can you send the files over to me?”
“Well, I can send the documents. I never downloaded the videos. Just skimmed through them. My then laptop was on its last legs. But I found the original memory stick last night. It had got tucked into a soup ladle among my kitchen things. You can have that, if you want.”
“I want. Tell me where to pick it up.”
Liv thought. She ought to collect her post from the accommodation address. She told him how to find the small shop.
“I can be there in thirty minutes.”
But when Liv came out of the shop with her bag full of post, her phone rang. Daniel from the Food Bank.
She unhooked her mask from behind her ear and said, “Happy Solstice, Daniel. Do you want me to pick up another shift?”
“Volunteers always welcome. But that’s not why I called. Are you in trouble, Liv?’
“There was a chap sniffing round on Saturday, apparently. He talked to Sally Goldman. She said it was bit noisy—” They both knew that the enthusiastic Mrs Goldman did the work of three but was erratic in the matter of putting in her hearing aids. “But as far as she could tell, he wanted to know if we had a volunteer called Liz Something she couldn’t make out.”
“Rossignol is a horrible name to recognise if you’re not expecting it,” said Liv slowly.
“Yes. Anyway, she offered him Lizzy Heaton but he said she was too old. But he told her not to tell anyone, he would come back later in the week.”
Liv went cold. “What did he look like?”
“Young, very well dressed. Extremely polite. Said he was looking up an old friend.”
Liv’s heart sank. “Most people look young to Mrs Goldman.”
“Yeah. What do you want me to do if he comes by again?”
“Stall him if you can. Don’t give him any of my contact details.”
“Got it. Oh, and if you are volunteering, we could do with someone to host the Food Bank club tomorrow morning. Everyone says it was chaos last week.”
“Yes, I can do that.” They talked about practicalities until she looked up and saw Patrick Fell getting out of car a hundred yards away. “Gotta go, Daniel. See you tomorrow.”
Patrick strolled over. He looked at her narrowly. “Everything OK?”
“Yes, of course.”
He raised an eyebrow.
How did he do that, she thought, side-tracked into annoyance. It made him look cool and mischievous, like Peter O’Toole in How To Steal A Million, her father’s favourite film. All it did was to remind any woman talking to him how very far she was from Audrey Hepburn.
“Try again,” he suggested. “You’re looking frazzled.”
“Everyone looks frazzled before Christmas,” she said grumpily.
He didn’t even pretend to believe her. “What’s wrong, Liv?”
Oh, what’s the point? He’ll only drag it out of me in the end.
So she told him what Daniel had said.
Patrick took it calmly. “Of course, he could really have been looking for Liz Someone.”
She looked up, suddenly hopeful. “Do you really think so?”
“No. Too much of a coincidence.”
She sighed. “That’s what I thought. But heaven knows how they tracked me down. I go to at least three different centres, at all different times of the day, not even on the same bus route…” She trailed off. He was looking at her very oddly. Almost as if he was sorry for her. “What?”
“You told Francis you were working at a Food Bank. Last Thursday. It was in your diary notes.”
Of course, he had read them yesterday. Was it only yesterday?
She said, almost under her breath. “No. It couldn’t be Francis.”
He shook his head. “Who else knew?” he said, very gently. “All he had to do was look up the local outlets, identify the most likely. You weren’t telling him where you lived. And he needed to find you.”
As if she hadn’t spoken, he went on, “If you had a routine, I would say you’re going to have to change it. But you won’t. So there’s only one thing for it. You need a bodyguard.”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake! Nobody’s tried to hurt me.”
His smile was crooked. “Assume the worst. It always pays.”
Liv was feeling battered. “All right,” she said resignedly. “I assume the worst. What do you want me to do about it?”
“Move in with me.”
She nearly dropped her shopping bag with all the post in it. She couldn’t speak.
“Or,” he said, as one offering an enormous concession, “I’ll move in with you. Your choice.”
Which half of the apple will Liv bite into? Episode 11 is available here