CHRISTMAS MYSTERY by Sophie Weston: EPISODE 2
Missed Episode 1? Click here to read from the start
Liv froze. She could feel her heart thumping, like hammer blows from inside her rib cage.
A grey van was parked two spaces behind her. The driver sat frowning over his phone. Not the first grey van today. Or in the last few days, either.
Or was that her imagination? She couldn’t be sure. For some reason that made her heart beat even harder.
Am I losing my mind?
No. No, she was just anxious. It was very natural. This was a big step for her, after all. She had come to hate her situation. But nobody else cared. Well, not much. And then the COVID-19 lockdown had crystallised all that bubbling unease and she’d decided that things had to change.
But there was no reason to suppose that anyone else even guessed what she was doing, much less wanted to stop her. Certainly no one would bother to set up surveillance on her.
It’s my own fault, for keeping everything a secret. If I’d come clean and told people right from the start, I wouldn’t be so jumpy.
But, even as she thought about it, she realised that she still wasn’t ready to go public. She had a plan and a spreadsheet list of tasks that would set her free. And she was on track.
The grey van was irrelevant.
She switched on the engine and set off for the next stop on her critical path.
But she still looked in the driving mirror as she pulled out of the square. The grey van had not moved.
Liv drove to Cambridge and checked in at the hotel she’d booked.
“Mrs Rossignol?” said the pleasant woman on the desk. “Thank you for wearing a mask in the public areas. Two nights? Dinner this evening?”
Liv debated. She wasn’t hungry but she had rather lost track of food over the last couple of weeks. “Yes please,” she said, surprising herself at how good it felt.
They agreed a time, she said no thank you, she didn’t need a porter to carry her laptop and small overnight case, and she took the stairs to her second floor suite.
And there she sat down at the desk in the little sitting room, opened her laptop and did the Next Big Thing.
FYI re Christmas Card List
As you probably know, the business has been sold and I have not joined the new team. Having thoroughly taken stock, I’ve decided that best thing is a clean break. So I’ve left the old house as well.
This is to let you know, therefore, that from 9th December I will be using a forwarding address (see below) while I decide where I want to live and work in the future.
After all the limitations and distresses of this grim year of 2020, the prospect of a change I can actually decide myself is rather exciting.
With all good wishes for Christmas and a happier New Year.
Acknowledging emails pinged back throughout the evening. Liv had expected surprise and curiosity from a few people. But the level of interest and encouragement took her by surprise. And there were three immediate offers of employment, one with a message so touchingly generous that she found herself weeping over it.
Francis couldn’t have read it until late. He started calling immediately. He was persistent, too. Liv turned off her phone and had 10 hours of the best sleep she could remember.
At ten o’ clock the next day she was in the office of a bank branch’s relationship manager.
“You want to discuss your account?” said the bank officer, puzzled. “Is there anything wrong?”
“No,” said Liv. “Only it’s about to get a lot more active, and I thought I ought to explain why.” She pulled out the folder she carried around these days, containing her birth certificate, the divorce papers and her last tax return.
“My father opened this account for me when I was a teenager. I just use it to pay a few standing orders.”
“Yes, I saw that.”
“Well, I’m going to start using it as my main account now. My divorce was finalised eighteen months ago and I’ve decided it’s time to revert to using my maiden name.”
“Ah,” said the relationship manager, enlightened. “You never changed to your married name on this account. Yes, I see. A very neat solution.”
“I thought so,” said Liv, pleased. She’d made copies of all the papers she thought she’d need and handed them over. “Do you need anything more?”
The woman scanned the papers rapidly. “Just a contact number. And your new address as soon as you move in. A forwarding address is never ideal.”
Liv gave her one of the new business cards.
“I wish all our personal customers were so efficient.” They couldn’t shake hands, but she saw Liv to the door of the street. And suddenly seemed almost shy. “I know this must be a difficult time. The very best of luck, Ms Hastings.”
Luv was inordinately touched. “Thank you, Mrs Jones. Thank you very much.”
She wandered round Cambridge until her next meeting. It was bitterly cold, but bright and the old colleges glinted like diamonds in the winter sun. The river, undisturbed by punters, was like a mirror, still and unsettling.
Staring into the water, Liv felt oddly displaced, neither scholar nor tourist. It was, she realised, a familiar sensation. Neither wife nor ex-wife, neither business partner, nor employee; but just as surely locked in as both. She shuddered, not entirely because of the biting wind, and stepped out briskly for the tea rooms and the man she really didn’t want to see.
He was already installed in the corner, with a pot of tea waiting. He stood up as she approached. “Hugging’s out, I’m afraid, Olivia. But good to see you.”
She nodded and sat down. They had never been on hugging terms but Bloody Patrick Fell would flirt with a hat stand if there was nothing else available.
“I’ve left the agency.”
He nodded. Not surprised, she thought, although he had not been on the list of recipients for last night’s email. But then, Patrick Fell’s information network had always been first class. “I thought I should tell you in person,” she said stiffly.
His eyebrows rose. A smile flickered in those startling blue eyes and was gone. No doubt he was remembering that evening, the one Liv was still trying to forget. It made her wince whenever it crept out of the cellar to bite her.
“That was thoughtful,” he said gravely.
He was laughing at her, no question.
Liv set her teeth. “I realise that we…” she trailed off, confused.
“…have unfinished business?” he finished for her. His eyes were dancing.
She should have seen that coming, Liv thought bitterly. Patrick Fell never let a chance to embarrass her pass untried. She would not blush.
“We were supposed to collaborate on the research project. But it hasn’t really worked.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” he murmured.
She glared. “I mean the Agency was supposed to collaborate.”
“Of course.” His voice was as bland as cream.
Not for the first time she privately cursed Francis and his habit of a launching into Big Ideas with Tom Dick and Harry. Why did he have to go and do it with Patrick Fell?
But she had perfected temper control and executive calm years ago. She said, “I’m afraid the new owners aren’t interested. So they left it with me.”
He sat up at that, suddenly alert. “With you? Not Francis?”
Well, at least he’d stopped looking as if he was laughing at a private joke and started to pay attention. That was something.
“Me,” snapped Liv, her executive calm slipping a bit. “Francis was only a sleeping partner in the agency. Theoretically,” she added, incurably honest. “He’s not involved at all now.”
“Left you to clean up the mess, did he?”
“I’m tying up the loose ends,” she said with dignity.
That got his interest. “I look forward to it.”
It put her back on track with her script. “I’m afraid that would be pointless. I’m pulling the plug.”
Liv had expected him to protest but he said nothing, just watched her, looking interested. As if she were one of his unfortunate research subjects, she thought, irritated.
She remembered the final words of the script and dredged them up belatedly. “I’m sorry.”
At last he said, “Have you reviewed the results so far?”
“I’ll send you a copy.”
She toyed with the idea of saying If you do, I won’t read it. But that would be too childish. Instead she reached for her bag and the last of her self-control and said calmly, “It’s over. Goodbye, Dr Fell.”
And left him there, silenced at last.
One down, she thought, pleased with herself, walking back to the hotel in the gathering dusk. One to go.
One to go? Find out who in Episode 3. Click here to read now