CHRISTMAS MYSTERY by Sophie Weston: EPISODE 5
Missed the start? Click here to read from episode 1
The next morning Liv had an early breakfast. Her phone buzzed while she was waiting for coffee. All the other tables in the dining room were empty so she took the call. It was from Rosa.
“I’ve been thinking,” said her friend, without so much as a good morning. “I’m sure it’s not all in your imagination. But I can see why you might be worried. So you must start keeping a diary. Nothing fancy. Just log where you go and who you talk to plus any suspicious sightings.”
Liv reeled a bit. She wasn’t used to a stream of instruction from Rosa. Or anyone except Francis, she thought wryly. And even he had let up somewhat since he left.
“Run that by me again?” she said, with only the faintest irony in her tone. “I didn’t expect to take notes.”
Rosa chuckled. “Sorry. Bit of an info dump there.” She repeated the list more slowly. “That’s what the police advise.”
Liv sat bolt upright. “You called the police?”
“No, of course not. We had a student who thought she was being stalked last year. That’s what the police told her to do.”
“And was she? Being stalked I mean.”
Rosa snorted. “Sort of. It turned out to be some silly psychology experiment. Hard words were exchanged on a number of fronts. But the police were quite right. Her diary showed a pattern, which took them straight to the idiots who were doing it. I recommend it.”
Liv considered. “I suppose it can’t do any harm.”
“Start it today. I’ve got a small notebook with a pen. A6. That’s small enough to put in a handbag. I’ll bring it round to your hotel.”
Liv might not be used to instructions from Rosa but she recognised that tone. Enthusiasm for a new project. Liv smiled, sighed and bowed to the inevitable. “All right. I mean that’s very kind of you.”
“Check out eleven, right? I’ll be there before that.”
In fact, Rosa turned up, panting, just as Liv was paying her bill.
“Thank you for staying with us, Mrs Rossignol. I hope you were comfortable and we’ll see you again in happier times.”
“Thank you,” said Liv, receiving her credit card and tucking it into her double-fold credit card holder, along with the bill. She picked up her overnight case and left with Rosa. “And I hope that’s the last time a stranger ever calls me Mrs Rossignol,” she muttered as they went into the street.
It was a bright cold day and Liv walked them briskly to where she’d left the car.
“I’m changing my name back to Hastings. Wiping the slate clean of Francis Rossignol.” And all the things he got me into. Except one.
“Good,” said Rosa, no longer panting. She’d obviously run like the wind to make it to the hotel in time. “Surprised you didn’t do it before.”
“You sound like my father.”
“Sound chap, your father. Um, how easy is it to walk away from being Mrs Rossignol?”
“Honestly? It’s a relief.”
“I can imagine. But actually, I was thinking about the practicalities. Don’t you have to change all your official records, bank, stuff like that? You can’t just get out of bed one morning and say, ‘I think I’ll be Christine de Pizan from now on,’ can you?”
“More and more like my father.” Liv unlocked the driver’s door and threw her case onto the back seat. She turned back to Rosa, grinning. “You’re quite right. Dad made a schedule of all the things I had to do. I’ve been following his critical path to the letter, to the day.”
“Very sound chap,” said Rosa, with approval.
“I’m almost at the end now. One more thing to do and Olivia Rossignol disappears.”
Rosa let out a whoop and punched the air. The little gift bag she was carrying flew up in the air, ejecting a small notebook. Liv caught it as it fell. It had a hard cover, decorated with a night sky of stars.
“For me?” she said, touched. “How pretty. Thank you.”
“Diary. Use it.” Rosa was grinning broadly. “You know what you’re doing, Liv? You’re returning yourself to Factory Setting. You go, Girl!
They made rueful hugging gestures to the air between them. And then Liv got into the car and drove off. She was smiling.
She went to the small London guesthouse where she’d booked a room for the next week.
It was not in a wealthy area. The road had potholes and some of the houses were borderline derelict. But it was a place of sanctuary for Liv. Sanctuary she had found by chance when she didn’t know she needed it.
The Christoforou family had taken her in, back then. One look at her expression and shaking hands and they’d appointed themselves her guardian angels.
And Ms Hastings had emerged as a result. A little eccentric for someone in her early thirties, she didn’t carry a phone and she paid in cash. If the family noticed that a wedding ring had disappeared from her finger overnight, they didn’t say anything.
It was a sanctuary Liv had used ever since, whenever she needed that welcome and no questions.
The guesthouse shared a piece of rough ground at the back with the local car repair shop. Both used it as a parking lot. Now Liv tucked her car into the corner and went inside.
Within half an hour she was installed in her room with her laptop open, working through her critical path so far. The money from the house sale was in her Olivia Rossignol account. She transferred it at once to her father, as they’d agreed.
The Cambridge bank manager confirmed that Ms Hastings’s account had been updated with her new information.
Great. Now I can sign that rental agreement and transfer the first rental payment.
She did both. The property company replied within the hour giving her a date from which her tenancy would start.
Liv updated her father with her progress. And then thought she ought to give Rosa her new Hastings email address.
Hi Rosa, This is the new me, address for friends and family only. Development: from next week I’m no longer homeless! luv L.
Rosa replied almost at once.
Have you started your event diary yet?
Liv laughed aloud. But she rummaged for the new notebook, opened it, dated the page and recorded her pursuit-free journey back from Cambridge. So then she could honestly say yes.
It was as well she did. Because the next morning Mr Christoferou knocked on her bedroom door early. Liv opened it, astonished.
He looked flustered. “I am sorry, Ms Hastings. But I think you should know. There was someone snooping round your car last night. He said he thought it belonged to his sister. But he didn’t know your name. I saw him off the place and padlocked the gates. But Jack from the garage found him trying to get in again this morning. He ran off. But—”
Liv sat down rather suddenly.
“Did I do right?” said Mr Christoferou, concerned.
“Yes. Oh yes. Thank you. I’d, I’d better shower and think what to do.”
He went. But Liv didn’t shower. Her head was whirling, like an overwrought hamster on its wheel. She started to write up the incident in the new diary. Then said, “The hell with it,” picked up her phone and called Rosa. Who answered at once.
It all tumbled out, as Liv prowled the small room in agitation. “I’m sorry,” she kept saying. “Am I making sense?” and again, “Sorry.”
“Calm down,” said Rosa. “OK, it’s nasty. But look on the bright side. At least this increases the chances that your stalker is not in your imagination.”
Liv groaned. “But don’t you see? It doesn’t. The man could perfectly well have been a car thief with a good backup story. ”
“Ah. Yes. I hadn’t thought of that. You have a very devious mind.”
“No, I haven’t. I’ve just been thinking round corners like this a long time now,” said Liv, despairing.
“Well, there’s nothing else for it,” said Rosa decisively. “If you won’t go to the police, you need a private investigator. And as it happens, I know one. Well, a sort of one.”
Liv protested, but it was half-hearted and they both knew it.
“I’ll ask his advice, anyway. He might not be able to do it. Go and have your shower and I’ll call you back.”
And half an hour later, she did.
Liv was a lot calmer by then. “It’s probably all nothing—” she began.
But Rosa was already talking over the top of her. “He’ll take the case. He doesn’t think you’re imagining it, either. And he says that there could be a tracking device on your car. Don’t move it and stay put until he gets to you.”
Liv felt the relief wash over her. “OK. Don’t forget to tell him to ask for Ms Hastings.”
“No problem,” said Rosa. “He says he already knows you.”
“He’s done business with Francis in the past, apparently.”
Liv winced. “Damn. I don’t want Francis to know what I’m doing.”
“I wouldn’t say he’s a fan,” said Rosa dryly. “And I’ve already warned him to be discreet. He said he’d be with you in about an hour. You’ll have to remind him to keep shtumm yourself.”
“I think I can remember to do that,” said Liv, with irony.
But when the private investigator arrived, it went right out of her head, along with every other coherent thought.
Find out why Liv is so horrified in Episode 6, available to read here