Sophie’s Christmas Mystery Serial Episode 7

CHRISTMAS MYSTERY by Sophie Weston: EPISODE 7
Missed the start? Click here to read from episode 1

blue ball on Christmas tree branch

Liv was silent as they walked back. Patrick Fell didn’t seem to notice. He talked all the time, but it was more like thinking aloud than conversation. She caught phrases: borrow a car, sequence of events, intruders, enemy. But he neither asked nor seemed to expect her to respond.

The entrance of the multi-storey car park held a tall Christmas tree, hung with multi-coloured lights that blinked on and off. Liv thought it looked gallant but forlorn among the discarded shopping trolleys. Patrick ignored it and the sign to the  lifts. He took the stairs, still talking.

Liv followed, her thoughts tumbling over each other. Could she trust him? Rosa trusted him but Rosa wasn’t being followed by persons unknown. Did she know him really well? Better than Liv did, anyway?

Above all, why did he take this case? They hadn’t discussed payment. OK, Liv had been anxious, off-balance, not thinking straight. But surely Patrick should have told her his terms of business? Wasn’t that the first thing that a bona fide private detective would have done? Now she thought about it, it felt all wrong.

As they came out onto the floor where they’d left the car, she broke into his monologue. “Are you really a private investigator? I thought you were an expert on customer behaviour. That’s what you did for the Agency last year. And didn’t I hear you on the Today programme talking about the switch to online shopping?”

He didn’t stop walking, although she had the feeling that he had suddenly become very alert. “I have a portfolio career.”

“What does that mean, exactly?”

“Some of it is research into customer behaviour. Some of it is industrial espionage.”

Liv digested that. She found she wasn’t surprised. “You steal people’s trade secrets?”

“I should have said investigating industrial espionage.” He laughed, a bit too lightly.

“Yes, you should, shouldn’t you?” said Liv. She didn’t laugh.

“Hey, I don’t steal commercial secrets.”

He sounded genuinely indignant. But then, how could you tell if someone like Patrick Fell genuinely felt anything? She flinched, remembering more than she wanted to. She slammed the door on it fast.

“I’m getting the feeling you don’t trust me.”

It was a challenge. Liv recognised that. He wanted to bounce her into saying that of course she trusted him, she was very grateful, she’d take his advice, blah, blah blah… Well, no one was bouncing her into saying anything she didn’t mean, ever again.

She stopped dead. He kept on walking but she didn’t move. In the end he had to stop and turn. They eyed each other, across twenty feet of gloomy car park, like a couple of gunfighters.

Liv told him the truth. “I don’t trust anybody right now.”

And then, to her astonishment, he gave a soft chuckle that sounded both surprised and genuine. “Well, that’s a step in the right direction.”

She gaped at him, utterly disconcerted.

He strolled back to her. “Rosa told me you wanted to disappear. I can understand that, of course. But it’s really not practical. With universal suspicion, I’ve got something to work on.”

Liv said blankly, “I don’t want to be paranoid.”

“It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you,” he said comfortably. He took her arm ceremonially, as if they were going into some gala event together. “Now let’s be going. We can discuss how we handle your doubts about me along the way.”

table of grey question marks with one in red

In the car, he waited until she had negotiated her way out of the car park and onto the ring road.

“Now,” he said. “The first time you thought someone was watching the house was during Lockdown 1, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, all during Lockdown 1, I was in Cambridge with my parents. My father has Parkinsons and my mother needs help. My sister and I take it in turns. I was there in March when lockdown was announced. So I stayed and worked from there. Loads of people can confirm that. Choose your witnesses. Your lurker in the street wasn’t me.”

She believed him. It was too easy to check for him to risk lying. Anyway, that didn’t mean he wasn’t part of some plan that she didn’t understand.

“Of course I could still be working for whoever is paying for this surveillance,” he said, as if he were reading her mind. “So you should only tell me stuff that you’re happy to share.”

“Th–thank you,” said Liv. He was like a tornado, she thought. You just had to lie back and let him get on with it, then see where you landed. It was oddly calming.

“So, after that first lurker, when did you start to feel you were being watched?”

“When the students moved out,” Liv said honestly. “That’s why I thought it was my imagination.” She shivered. “May was really bad. I felt I was in solitary confinement.”

“OK. But then you started to think it might be real. Who did you think was doing it?”

“Someone I’d pissed off. Someone unbalanced. Nobody.”

“Had you any candidates? Unbalanced or annoyed with you, either will do.”

She gave a choke of startled laughter. “Well, there was a barmy neighbour when we lived in Ealing who hated our cat and used to try to kidnap him. But that was years ago.” Her mood darkened. “As for pissing people off, well, you saw that for yourself.”

“Simon, your New Broom. Yes. Why would he want to have you followed?”

“Absolutely no idea. He’d got rid of me by the end of February, anyway. OK, I was a thorn in his side as long as I was still a partner. But once Ann and I sold out, he didn’t have to deal with either of us any longer.”

“Disaffected clients?”

“No,” said Liv, concentrating on the road as they come to a traffic build-up. “Can’t think of any. And if they really hated a campaign, they’d go after one of the creatives, surely? I just did the research.” Or at least that’s where she had been banished to, after her friend and mentor died. She managed to keep the bitterness out of her voice.

“What about your ex?”

She flinched. “Don’t start that again. Francis likes his own way and he can be difficult. But he’s no stalker.”

She could feel Patrick looking at her. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she said, because she was. “He would think it beneath his dignity. Very keen on his dignity, Francis.”

“If you say so.” Clearly he wasn’t convinced.

“I was married to him for ten years. I got to know him pretty well,” she said drily.

“Especially after he left you and married someone else,” he muttered.

She didn’t answer that. Instead she said, “Where am I going now?”

“Back to where you’re staying. We drop you off and then I’ll take the car back to your usual area.”

“What? Why?”

“Two reasons. One, it’s where you’ve got a resident’s parking permit. Two, it looks normal. Whoever is watching the tracker will expect to find you somewhere near your old house. They won’t come looking for your hotel.”

“Oh.”

“At least, I hope not. It’s worth a shot anyway.”

“What about my stuff?”

Patrick glanced over his shoulder at the back seat. It was full of books and her beloved old table lamp. “I’ll warehouse it. When do you want it back?”

“I’m moving into my new place next week. Maybe Wednesday.”

“Right. I’ll have found you another car by then. Text me. You have my number.”

“No, I don’t.” She’d expunged it from her smartphone caller list months ago.

“Yes, you do,” he said, a smile in his voice. “I sent it to your email this morning.”

“Oh.” Liv jumped, then realised that he must mean her old work one that he’d used before. Well, that was OK. She still accessed it when she had to. She wavered for a moment about giving him her new email. The moment passed.

“No problem,” he said, as if she’d thanked him.

And, later, he drove off in her car with all her treasures.

 So I must have come to trust him after all, mustn’t I? I wasn’t even trying to argue any more.

Or did he just bulldoze me into it? What on earth am I doing, trusting my secrets to Patrick Fell of all people? I must be mad.

Find out more about Liv and Patrick in Episode 8, available to read here

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