CHRISTMAS MYSTERY by Sophie Weston: EPISODE 11
Missed the start? Click here to read from episode 1
“No,” said Liv.
She went on saying it while Patrick Fell delivered a lecture from the podium on why this was absolutely the best—no, the only—solution. In the end, she was so cold that she said in desperation, “Can we discuss this in your car? I’m freezing.”
He harrumphed a bit, but agreed, though he made her put her mask on and opened all the car windows. “If this takes too long, I shall have to lower the top,” he warned her. “With current virus restrictions, it behoves people like us to be responsible.”
Liv swung round to look at him in disbelief. “Who the hell says behoves in the twenty-first century?”
“It’s a nice economical word and it says what I mean. Now, your place or mine?”
“Neither. It’s nearly Christmas, for Heaven’s sake.”
He looked baffled. “What’s Christmas got to do with it?”
“Well, I have plans.” She didn’t. She’d already agreed with her father that she wouldn’t take her Tier 4 virus exposure down to his Oxfordshire retreat, even before the Government advised it. But Patrick Fell didn’t know that.
“Change them,” he said brusquely. “Your safety trumps turkey and crackers.”
“I don’t do either,” Liv said with dignity. “My father hates turkey and crackers were banished because I hated them as a child. I always cried when they went bang.”
“I’m surprised. You seem so intrepid.” He looked across at her, a gleam in his eye. “A positive tiger.”
Liv was rueful. “I am so not.”
“You underestimate yourself. So what are your plans for this Christmas?”
She gave in. “Good bread, good cheese and a wonderful bottle of wine. The Queen’s Speech. And, when it gets dark, a wander round looking at the Christmas lights. Preferably in the rain. It’s magic in the rain.”
“I can do that, if I have to. I’m adaptable,” he said. “Mine then?”
Liv shook her head. “No thank you. I’ve only just moved in. A first Christmas is special.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “So this can be our first Christmas. You’ll be very welcome. I’m all set up for guests and there’s plenty of food in the freezer.”
Our first Christmas? What does he mean, our anything? OUR?
It winded her. Liv hugged her bag of post against her chest protectively and tried to marshal her thoughts. And then she thought of a lifeline, one that virus-conscious, pernicketty Patrick Fell would be bound to respect.
“We—” No, not we. There is no we. “It’s not allowed to mix households. And it behoves us to be responsible.” She nearly kept the glee out of her voice.
But it left him unmoved. “I’m not a household. I’m a sole occupant. I understand you’re the same?”
Damn! But she couldn’t lie to him. “Yes,” she said reluctantly.
“Well, then. We can form a support bubble. That’s been permitted since Lockdown 1.”
“But it’s cheating. You and I,” she said with emphasis, “aren’t partners in any sense of the word.”
“Oh yes we are. I aim to keep you safe from intruders and persons with evil intentions. That’s the essence of support.”
“But I don’t want—” She fell silent.
I don’t want you to keep me safe? That’s ridiculous. I want to be safe. And I think I can rely on you. I just don’t want this whole situation to exist.
He looked at her with understanding. “I know you don’t, love. And believe me, it’s not what I would have chosen, either.”
Love? Did he call me love? Or did he say Liv, and I’m hearing things? Oh blast, more floundering out of my depth again.
“But I wouldn’t be doing my job, if I didn’t insist on staying with you until this is over.”
Instantly she shied away from insist. “See, that’s another thing I’m uncomfortable with. We’ve never talked about your terms of business. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to pay you.”
She waited for him to say he was doing it as a favour to Rosa. Then she could say that it was out of the question. And demand a full and final invoice. After that, she could get out of this Siberian winter of a car and turn her back on Patrick Fell permanently.
And not have anyone wanting to keep me safe. Now, that’s just stupid. Pull yourself together, Liv.
Fortunately, he didn’t say anything at all from her imagined script. Instead, he said, “Ah. Yes. I was going to talk to you about that.”
Liv was so startled, she just said, “What?”
The look he turned on her was all guileless blue eyes and winning smile. “I have a tax issue.”
At once, she was suspicious. A man as meticulous about obeying all those fluctuating government advice/guidelines/legal requirements wasn’t going to let his tax get in a muddle. She let him hear her scepticism. “Oh yes?”
“I’ve already done this year’s accounts. Another client payment would be a real nuisance.”
“So I thought you could pay me in kind. Barter service for service, as it were.”
Liv stiffened. He can’t possibly be suggesting what he’s trying to make me think he’s suggesting.
“Oh?” Her tone nearly as icy as his car.
“Yes. If I could persuade you… I mean, if I asked very nicely… You’d be under no obligation, of course…”
Oh, he’s doing a very pretty impersonation of a nervous young suitor. This is definitely a wind-up.
“Persuade me to what?”
“Finish our report on Advocating for Green Solutions. I know you said you’d pulled the plug. But that was before I took on this assignment. I’ve done a lot of work and you had some great ideas. Payment,” he summed up, with limpid innocence, “in kind.”
There was a thunderous silence. Then Liv found her voice with difficulty. “You. Are. Outrageous.”
“No, no. I told you. I’m Just adaptable,” he assured her sunnily.
If she laughed, he would have won. She said with really creditable steadiness, “Fine. Send me what you’ve done and I’ll look at it.”
“No need. You can read it at my house.”
Liv closed her eyes. “No.”
She opened her eyes. “Listen to me, Patrick,” she said, very serious. “I’ve got a new flat. I haven’t even got my own cushions yet, for Heaven’s sake. I don’t want to start my new life by huddling with ghosts from the old one.”
For a moment Patrick didn’t say anything at all. Then he murmured, “I think you’ll find it’s called a bubble.”
“Bubble. Huddle. What’s the difference? I want to stay in my own home.” To her horror, it was almost a wail.
Patrick Fell gave her a forgiving smile. “Fine,” he said. “Your place then.”
After that, Patrick didn’t so much move into the flat as move in on Liv herself. He drove her anywhere she wanted to go. When she was working at the Food Bank, he parked the car and sat in it, working at his laptop. When she wanted to go to one of the other centres, he drove her there, too.
In the flat itself, he was unexpectedly self-effacing. He moved in without fuss, taking his overnight case off to the second bedroom, and organising a discrete work space in one corner. When Liv was on the phone he disappeared immediately. He kept to his room when she was working and always asked politely before joining her when she was watching TV.
Liv half expected Patrick to give her some Christmas gift as a coded message. But he didn’t. He did, however, provide a lavish Christmas dinner, ordered in from one of the grander gentlemen’s clubs. She unpacked it, awed. There were eight courses and almost as many bottles of wine.
“You and I could live on this for a week,” Liv said. She was still wary of saying “we” to Patrick.
He laughed. “You’d better add it to your unusual occurrence diary.”
“It will certainly improve its readability.”
There had been no more mysterious enquiries for her at the Food Bank or any of the distribution centres. Patrick was working his way steadily through her anonymous memory stick.
“You’re right. The videos show some criminally shoddy building work.” He sighed. “Good stuff, but they could do with a good editor.”
“That’s why I skimmed through,” agreed Liv. “I think they may have been taken by a camera attached to someone’s head.”
“Presumably concealed,” said Patrick thoughtfully. “It would be interesting to know who he is.”
“Does it matter? It’s all history now.”
“The buildings are still standing,” he pointed out. “I wonder if any of them are in trouble? I might have a dig around and see what I can find.”
She saw less of him after that. He still insisted on driving her if she went shopping or to work, though. Then on New Year’s Eve she got a call from Daniel.
“I need someone to run St Mary’s,” he said. “Janie didn’t realise that it would be open on New Year’s Eve and she’s got childcare problems. Can you fill in, Liv?”
“Yes,” said Liv.
She put her head round Patrick’s door. He was sitting bolt upright, staring at the screen. “I don’t believe it,” he said. He stopped the video and started writing furiously on the A4 pad beside him.
Liv closed the door soundlessly. She knew what it was like to be interrupted when you were deeply involved in research. She left a note on the kitchen counter for him. And took the bus.
She didn’t know when she first began to feel uneasy. It was fine picking up the key and then getting to St Mary’s. She was very early but there was still a queue. Liv remembered Daniel saying, “Only the poor queue,” and felt dreadful. It was bitterly cold, too. So she opened the doors at once.
It was nearly dark when she locked up and left with the last helper.
“I hate these dark afternoons,” he said.
“Someone on the radio said we’d we’ll have a whole extra hour of daylight by January 18th,” Liv offered.
He brightened. “And then it really picks up after that. Oh well, shouldn’t complain. There are snowdrops in the graveyard. Come and see.”
And he took out a little pencil torch to guide them to where they could admire thin green spikes under a leafless tree. To his disapproval, someone had propped a bike against it.
“Silly fool. Someone will steal it, good bike like that.” He sniffed. “Hope he hasn’t damaged the snowdrops.” He picked up the machine and leaned it pointedly against the church wall.
Liv walked with him as far as his car and then headed for the bus stop. Normally she would have taken the shortcut but, tonight, she stayed with the lights of the High Street. A cyclist shot past her, and swerved off to the right in a racing turn that would have been dangerous if there were more traffic she thought.
Her bus cruised past and stopped. Liv forgot the cyclist and began to run.
There were only two other people in the bus. One of them nodded and smiled at her.
“Happy New Year,” said the nurse Liv had once woken up so she shouldn’t overshoot her stop.
Liv returned her greeting. They sat the required distance from each other, chatting as the bus trundled on. But Liv found her eyes drifting past the nurse’s friendly face. The suicidal cyclist seemed to have caught up with the bus and then let it pass him again. Then raced past again. And again.
“Excuse me,” said Liv, eventually, as they headed towards Sloane Square. “Have you noticed that cyclist before?”
The nurse turned her head to look. “That’s odd, What on earth is that boy doing?”
Liv swallowed. “I think…” she said. “I think he’s following me.”
Who is he? Find out in episode 12, available here