CHRISTMAS MYSTERY by Sophie Weston: EPISODE 3
Missed the start? Click here to read from epsode 1
The hotel receptionist beckoned as Liv went past the desk.
“Oh, Mrs Rossignol. A lady left a message for you.” She handed it over with a beaming professional smile. The envelope was in a sealed plastic bag. Rather like the receptionist, who was wearing a clear plastic full-face visor and what looked like full Hollywood make-up behind it.
“Thank you,” said Liv. “Are you uncomfortable in that thing?”
The girl looked surprised at being asked, then smiled more naturally. “You get used to it. My skin prickles after a long shift. But hey, that’s what moisturiser’s for, isn’t it? And I’m lucky to have a job.”
“Yes,” said Liv. “This virus makes me count my blessings every day.”
In her suite, she slid the envelope out of its plastic protections. She knew who it was from without even opening it. The beautiful Italic script was unmistakable.
So it was you in the bank this morning. I waved but you didn’t see me. So I sleuthed and here you are! Fancy a socially-distanced supper at Carlo’s tonight? I want to change careers so you can advise me on advertising, and that will make it a business meeting. Call me at college.
Liv smiled. In spite of the elegant penmanship, she could hear the breathless voice as if it breathed off the page at her. She put it down on the desk, to wait. A treat to reward herself for completing the last tough task of the day.
She took off her coat and gloves and, for the first in her life, collected a small bottle of brandy from the hotel fridge. She was probably going to need it. Then she tucked herself up on the sofa, packed round with cushions and the smart throw from the bed, and made the call.
Francis answered at once. “Liv. What on earth’s going on?”
No how-are-you, she noticed. No are-you-OK? Francis would have got up a fair head of steam by now. She hadn’t taken his calls for forty-seven hours. It was not what he was used to. Normally, she got back to him in a couple of hours at most.
Stay calm. Think professional. It worked with Patrick Fell, and you were face to face with him.
“It’s been rather hectic. There’s a lot more to do in moving house than I realised.”
Well, Liv had expected that. She held the phone at a distance while he ranted. Francis didn’t like change, unless he instigated it. When he moved in with Nicole eighteen months ago, he’d left Liv the house they’d shared for five of their ten years of marriage. He expected her to stay there.
“What is this nonsense all about?”
“I thought it was time I moved on,” she said levelly.
Francis ignored that. “But to sell the house. Sell it! Without a word to me.”
“Moving on, Francis,” she reminded him. “You moved on. It just took me a bit longer to.”
“But I gave you that house in the divorce settlement. I didn’t need to. The lawyers said that it was crazily generous.” And the monologue continued in the same vein.
Liv breathed carefully. There was no point in talking to Francis when he was in this mood. You had to just gather your protections around you and sit out the storm.
When he got on to how disappointed he felt, how betrayed, she reached for the little brandy bottle and took a gulp. It made her cough and her eyes water, but at least she couldn’t hear him over her physical paroxysms.
When she could speak again, she said loudly, “Do you want a share of the sale proceeds?”
“Liv! You never used to be spiteful. You know it’s not about money. I always—”
She put the phone on the carpet and slugged more brandy, but with more care this time.
Then she picked up the phone again and said over the top of his continuing reproaches, “Just trying to be practical.”
Francis stopped then. “Is this about Nicole being pregnant?” he said, dropping his voice to assume a tone of odious sympathy.
Liv drained the little bottle and wished she had another. It’s not real. Francis doesn’t do real feelings.
“I know it was hard for you when I moved in with her. But you know we’d already drifted apart. You said so yourself.”
Yes, they’d been in separate rooms by then. Francis had been travelling a lot, only coming home one weekend in three. Nicole was not the first, by any means. The relationship with her only deepened, most conveniently, after Nicole’s wealthy father was raised to the House of Lords. Not that Francis was a snob, exactly. But he liked to be where the influential people hung out. And the new baron was nothing if not influential.
But there was no point in saying that. Francis, hyper-alert to the failings of friends, colleagues and the great and the good, never noticed his own.
“But I told you I would always care for you,” he was saying now, patiently. “They call it serial monogamy. It’s a feature of the twenty-first century.”
Liv rolled her eyes and managed not to laugh at him. No, she didn’t need any more brandy. Francis was providing the antidote to his own poison. “You’re the coolest,” she agreed drily.
“But you know you can always count on me.”
He sounded so self-righteous, she nearly laughed. But that would make him angry again. Being laughed at always turned him vicious. Neither yoga breathing nor minibar brandy was proof against Francis when he was in that mood.
“Thank you,” she said with heroic self-restraint.
“And what about my stuff? I went to the house to talk to you and I couldn’t get in,” he said, reminded of another injury she had done him. “What’s happened to all my stuff?”
“I packed up everything I knew was yours. You should get it tomorrow. The courier usually sends a message to say when they’re delivering, I think.”
“Everything?” His voice was sharp. Liv winced. She knew that voice. No more spurious empathy now then.
“Everything I could find. The furniture’s in storage until I get a place of my own.” She didn’t tell him that the students had taken a fair selection of it. He wouldn’t like that at all.
“I may want to inspect the storage facility.”
Liv let that go. She never started an argument with Francis. It wasn’t worth it.
“Whatever,” she said wearily. “Let me know when and I’ll tell them you have my permission.”
And, quite unexpectedly, that gave her a real bonus. The thought of having to ask Liv’s permission to do anything made him so furious that he rang off with a curt, “I’ll do that.”
She extracted herself from her nest of cushions and called the owner of the fine Italic hand.
“Carlo’s it is,” she said.
And Rosa Landry laughed and said, “Best news I’ve had in this whole horrible year. I was starting to think I’d offended you.”
The question lay between them, not asked directly but an issue, nevertheless.
“It’s been a weird year,” said Liv, evading for all she was worth.
Evasion had never worked with Rosa, she thought ruefully. “I lost my job even before lockdown,” she said in a burst of honesty. It was the first time she had actually said that to anyone.
Rosa never stayed cynical for long. “Oh honey. Why? How? I thought you owned the Agency.”
“With four other partners,” said Liv briefly. It was still painful. “One sold out to a New Broom. Then another one died. The New Broom highjacked the whole outfit while the rest of us were trying to pull ourselves together.”
The atmosphere had changed so quickly. A student on the Agency’s work experience programme left in tears. The other two hung on grimly but only Liv even tried to mentor them. The New Broom introduced a hard-eyed colleague from his former firm and recruited cooler, smarter, older interns. The five of them formed a cabal with loud confident voices and closed-door chats. Every meeting, from Boardroom to the Christmas Party Committee, became a battle. The office went silent. People stopped meeting each other’s eyes.
“He couldn’t sack me,” Liv said with difficulty. “But we were always arguing. And then we had a bust-up over a client he’d introduced. It got very nasty. Then another Agency came in with an offer to buy us out and… Well, Francis had lost interest by then and the other original partner wanted to go. So I had no choice.”
“But you didn’t want to go?”
“No,” said Liv slowly. “No, I didn’t. That’s odd, isn’t it? I didn’t like what the New Broom was doing. Turning it more and more into a PR agency, losing the bread-and-butter advertising business. And some of the clients he introduced were so…”
“What is it?” asked Rosa, her voice suddenly sharp.
“Scary,” said Liv on a note of discovery. “Oh yes. Yes, that’s it. They scared me.”
There was a pause. “Doesn’t sound like you,” said Rosa briskly. “There’s clearly loads to tell. See you at Carlo’s as soon as you can get there.”
“Yes,” said Liv, still shaken. “Oh yes, please. I’ll just have a quick shower and change. Be with you in forty minutes.”
The shower was blessedly hot and put heart into her. But as she stood in front of the hotel mirror, wrapped in a massive fluffy towel, she couldn’t ignore the tell-tale signs of tension in eyes and jaw.
“They scared me,” she said aloud. “And, God help me, I’m still scared.”
Find out more in Episode 4, available to read here