CHRISTMAS MYSTERY by Sophie Weston: EPISODE 6
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“Good morning,” said Patrick Fell, standing on the doorstep at a respectful distance. He was wearing a snazzy black and white checkerboard mask. You could still see the charming smile in his eyes, currently bent on a visibly melting Mrs Christoforou. “I am expected, I understand. About a car?”
Mr Christoforou, so far from melting, was reverberating slightly. He reminded Liv of a five foot eight thistle with a spine of steel. He said, “Name?”
They eyeballed each other, muscular man in jeans and work shirt with sleeves rolled up versus man in designer casual and cashmere coat. Patrick Fell’s charm took on a faint hint of challenge.
Liv’s sympathies were 100% with Mr Christoforou. He could take Patrick Fell, she thought wistfully. But it would be unfair to allow the confrontation to go any further when she was expecting the blasted man. She’d almost invited him, indeed. Unknowingly, but still…
Oh Rosa, Rosa, what have you got me into?
She took a deep breath and gave up lurking behind the door.
“Good morning, Dr Fell,” she said, coming into the lobby with enough swagger to make them all turn to look at her. “I didn’t realise that it would be you.”
Above the mask, his eyes flared and then narrowed. Assessingly? Liv couldn’t tell. She wished she could read his expression properly. But with only half a face to go on, she hadn’t a hope.
“A pleasant surprise, I hope,” he said, with ostentatious courtesy.
Well, that gave her a clue anyway. He’d known she would be pissing mad. And he was enjoying it.
Liv took a moment to adjust her own mask. She had a small face. One of the back up washable cloth masks was too big and had a habit of working its way to lower eyelashes. Now it gave her a great excuse to hide the muscle working in her cheek that might have told him how hard she was clenching her teeth.
She turned to Mr Christoforou. “Will it be all right if I take him to the parking lot?”
But Mr Christoforou was not giving up the fight yet. “Yes. I will come.”
He brushed past Patrick Fell, ignoring any notion of social distancing, and led the way out into the cold morning. His only concession to the temperature was to roll down the sleeves of his plaid shirt.
Round One to Mr Christoforou, thought Liv, pleased, though she knew it was childish. She was already wearing her outdoor coat but she shivered ostentatiously and pulled on her gloves.
Patrick walked a little behind them, looking about him. In the parking lot itself, he wandered round, whistling under his breath, as if he were going to buy one of the other cars parked there.
“What is that building?” he asked Mr Christoferou, nodding to a brick building on the other side of the unpaved track.
“Offices, with a builders’ yard behind.”
“No. They’ve kept pretty busy all through the lockdown. People still get leaky plumbing and holes in the roof.”
Patrick nodded. “Any vehicle here that shouldn’t be?”
Mr Christoferou frowned. But, unlike Liv, he seemed to appreciate Patrick’s approach. He’d stopped bristling, anyway. “I don’t know. I’ll ask Jack.” He disappeared into the open door of the workshop at the far end.
When he came back he said, “No. They’re all cars he’s working on. Only one new, and that’s a regular customer, who booked it in yesterday. Jack’s been in since seven and nobody’s been hanging about, he says.”
“Good.” Patrick turned to Liv. “Now, I’m going to want you to drive me on a journey.”
She was disconcerted, angry. “What? But I can’t leave. All my things are here. I’m booked in until— I mean I’m booked in for a week. I can’t just leave. I don’t want to.”
“You’ll come back,” he said, odiously soothing. “I just need us to leave together now.”
She sent a wild look to Mr Christoferou for help.
“In case anyone’s watching,” said Patrick Fell. Patiently.
Liv could have hit him. Her panic susbsided under simple fury.
Mr Christoferou nodded slowly. “That is sensible, I say.”
So he’d succumbed to that dark charm along with his wife, thought Liv bitterly.
As if to confirm it, he said, “I will take your things into the luggage room and padlock it until your return.”
Liv was embarrassed. “There’s no need, Mr Christoferou. I have my key. I know I can trust you.”
“Locks can be picked,” said Mr Christoferou. “I think I will lock the front door and put up the Ring-The-Bell Notice. Just to be sure.” And he looked at Patrick Fell.
Mr Christoferou raised a hand to him, half a substitute handshake, half a salute. He said, “I will see you later then, Ms Hastings.” Turned and walked back the way they had come.
There was nothing else to do. Liv got into her car and Patrick Fell got in beside her. “Where to?” she said, not looking at him.
He told her.
She looked at him then. “A shopping centre?” she said in disbelief. “You want me to take you shopping?”
“I want a good run on a nice straight road, preferably busy, so I can see who’s behind us.” Still patient.
“Oh,” Liv said in a small voice. Her annoyance disappeared in a puff of smoke.
“Don’t worry. Probably there won’t be anyone. I’m just interested. You drive and ignore me. Put some music on.”
The local radio was belting out Christmas carols, between traffic news and parental anecdotes. Liv concentrated on the road. It wasn’t hard, as she’d never driven it before.
Then a French carol came on that she’d learned at school and she found she was singing along under her breath, behind the mask. “Il est né le divin enfant. Jouez hautbois, résonnez musettes…”
She didn’t look at him, but she knew Patrick Fell turned his head as if he were surprised.
Then the sign came up for the shopping centre and she turned off.
“Now what? We go back?”
“No. Car park. Somewhere fairly full.”
He directed her to the end of a row, nose in to the wall. Then he got out and walked round the car, slowly. He even kicked one of the tyres as if he thought she might have a slow puncture.
Then he got back into the passenger seat and turned to look at her. “As I thought. You’ve picked up a tracker. Not state of the art, but not a toy either.”
Liv stared blankly at the wall in front of her. She felt as if melting ice was sliding off her shoulders and down between her shoulder blades. As if she would never be warm again.
She said, “I thought I was imagining it. I thought if I could prove I wasn’t going mad, I would be so happy… Happy. What was I thinking?” She laughed. More like a croak really.
He waited for a moment as if he were expecting her to say something else. When she didn’t, he said, “Right. So the first thing to do is lose the car.”
“Lose the car.” That horrible patient voice again.
Liv stopped staring at the blank wall and swung round on him, suddenly, thankfully, angry again. “No way. Everything’s gone except what’s in the car. My life is in this car.”
“You still have to lose it.”
“You found the tracker, didn’t you? Just get rid of the tracker.”
She shouted, “Stop calling me Olivia. Nobody calls me Olivia.”
That seemed to get him on the raw. “Well, nobody calls me Dr Fell, but that doesn’t seem to stop you. I’m a D.Phil, not a bloody medic. It’s a calculated insult.”
“What are you talking about?”
He said irritably, “I do not love thee, Dr Fell? The nursery rhyme? Only, of course, it’s not a nursery rhyme, it’s some bloody clever take on a Latin epigram. I got into more fights the year I got that damned degree than I can count.”
Liv said slowly, “I do not like thee, Dr Fell. The reason why I cannot tell. But this I know, and know full well, I do not like thee, Dr Fell.”
“Stick to Christmas carols,” he snarled.
Liv blinked. Had she just provoked übersmooth Patrick Fell into a tantrum? It seemed she had. Wow.
All smooth courtesy forgotten, he said, “Come on. We need to make it look believable. Let’s shop.”
They did. The concourse was surprisingly full. Liv said so.
He shrugged. “Last hurrah. London and the South East will be in Tier 3 by next week. Keep your mask on.”
He got some money out of a cash machine at the bank and Liv bought some warmer gloves. There were tables, barely socially distanced, outside most coffee places. Patrick bought two coffees to go and they went back to the car.
“It’s sad,” said Liv, as they left. “All these poor people thinking it’s over.”
“They don’t think.” His temper had clearly still not recovered. “They believe what they want to believe.”
“It’s understandable, though. Especially for someone who lives on her own.”
He grunted. But— “It takes a tiger to live alone,” he allowed.
Liv thought of her own solitude after the students left and how her sense of reality had lurched in the empty, echoing house. At least he’d just demonstrated that her fear had not been baseless, she reminded herself. But even so… She sighed. “I am no tiger.”
He gave a crack of unexpected laughter. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Don’t forget, I’ve seen you in action. And I’ve heard the stories.”
And, as suddenly as that, she froze all over again. It was as if he’d been there on that dreadful day before she fled the Agency, and even her house, before finding sanctuary with the Christoforous. As if he’d seen her go into battle for the last time.
Or as if someone had told him.
Who would have told him?
What did he know?
What is Liv hiding? Find out more in Episode 7, available to read here