CHRISTMAS MYSTERY by Sophie Weston: EPISODE 8
Missed the start? Click here to read from episode 1
Mr Christoferou had been as good as his word. Liv had to ring the bell at the guest house. When he opened the door to her, he said at once, “I get your luggage.”
“I don’t want to leave yet,” she said, alarmed.
“No, no. Not until next week. I know. We locked all your things away while you were out, as I said.”
“Er, thank you.”
He brought them to her room, in a businesslike stackable container. As soon as he’d gone, she opened her laptop and searched the old email in-box for Patrick Fell’s message with his mobile number. There were nearly two hundred messages waiting.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” said Liv, impatiently switching the display to date order. Even then, she was looking at fifty-odd. Closer inspection revealed they were mostly from Francis. And he was upset.
His box had arrived but it didn’t include everything he had left. He must insist that he visit the totally unnecessary storage facility and look through the stuff he left in their bedroom.
YOUR bedroom. I moved out even before you did. There was nothing of mine left there. In that box, I sent you everything but the furniture.
No, she wasn’t going to send that. It would only make him angrier. Instead, she checked the storage number, gave him the company’s phone number and advised him to remind the office that his name was on her list of people permitted access. Since he was on the Agency’s internal email system, as was she for the next three months, the message winged off at once.
Liv put Francis’s fussing out of her mind and tapped Patrick’s mobile number into her smartphone. For the second time. No, she didn’t want to think about that.
She applied herself to the other hundred-plus messages while not thinking about Patrick Fell.
It set the pattern for the next few days. She went back to the Food Bank and worked double shifts on the packing line. Patrick seemed to text her every time he had a new thought, however unlikely. It played hell with her concentration. In the end, she told him so and turned her phone off entirely.
Then Daniel asked her if she could take over as back up Admin for the Food Bank. His right-hand woman was self-isolating because her teacher daughter had tested positive for COVID.
“I don’t think I can cope,” said Daniel.
Liv believed him. His eyes were bloodshot and he looked exhausted. One of the other helpers brought him tea and spiked it with something from a flask. “He was here at five this morning,” she muttered to Liv. “He’ll give himself a breakdown.”
Liv had stood in for the absent backup Admin before. She said to Daniel, “You need to go home.”
“I can’t. There’s too much to do. Did you read the new Rowntree study? The pandemic is going to double destitution levels. Half a million kids won’t get enough to eat.”
“He’s been reading it all weekend. 91 pages of it,” hissed the helper.
Liv nodded. She knew workaholics. “You can’t feed them all,” she said gently. “You can’t feed any of them if you get so rundown you get ill. Go home. We can handle everything here.”
He started to argue and then sniffed the tea. “What’s in this?”
“Brandy,” said the helper defiantly. “You need it more than I do.”
That seemed to knock all the wind out of his sails. He went home.
Liv went into the office and looked at Daniel’s work schedule. With a bit of shuffling, it should be possible to squeeze out a two-day break for him. She set it up, agreed it with the rest of the team and texted him the result, with a copy to his friendly, capable wife.
She had to delay moving into her new apartment to cover for him, but that was a small matter. Francis was more difficult, demanding to see her, after he had visited the storage centre.
He was so persistent that, in the end, Liv took his call. She was on the bus home by then. It was late and she was very tired.
“I’m too busy for this,” she said to him. “I don’t have anything of yours, Francis. I have my clothes and my books with me. Everything else is in store.”
“You have your laptop,” he said triumphantly. “And the suitcase we took to Hungary. And probably a load of stuff from the drawers that you can’t be bothered to remember. I want to come round and check.”
“Well, you can’t.”
Francis was impatient. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You can’t because I haven’t moved in anywhere.”
“Then where are you staying?”
“With friends,” said Liv.
“Which friends? The Wintersons? I’ll come over and—”
I don’t have to put up with this.
“No,” Liv said firmly. “I don’t want you to. Tell me what it is you’re looking for and I’ll check the contents of the kitchen drawer, which is about the only bag where I’m likely to find anything I’ve taken by mistake.”
“I’ll come round tomorrow and help you look. Where—”
“No, you won’t,” she said. “I’m working tomorrow.”
“Working?” His voice sharpened. “How can you be working yet? You’re still on gardening leave. You signed a non-compete agreement.”
“Not in advertising.”
“Or anything in the communications arena,” said Francis swiftly. He sounded almost jealous.
Liv leaned her head against the bus window and watched the Christmas lights in a square where the bus had stopped at traffic lights. For a moment, she had no idea where she was or how far from her destination. She was so tired.
“I’m working at a Food Bank, if you must know. And we’re busy. I have no free time to deal with your lost property. Send me a description or a photo of whatever it is. I’ll look for it when I have time.”
And she cut the call before he could say anything else.
She moved into her new apartment at the end of the week. It was a grey morning with fog on the river. It swirled in the headlights of her borrowed car as she came over the bridge. For a moment she couldn’t see the road ahead, though she already knew it was weirdly empty for a weekday morning. London had gone into Tier 3 restrictions on Wednesday and traffic had already halved.
“We’ll be lucky if it stays at that,” said her father when she called to tell him she was moving at last. “Those idiots,” by which Liv knew he meant the Government, “are going to have to stop marketing and face reality at some point. Normal family Christmas, my eye!”
Liv didn’t care. After her days deputising for Daniel, all she felt was an acute need to settle into a space of her own and catch up on some sleep.
She pulled into Guest Parking and went into the lobby. It had been designed to look luxurious, even imposing. Now it was just empty, the lighting too bright, the shiny walls too echoing. The uniformed concierge looked lonely, she thought.
“Olivia Hastings,” she said to him briskly.
He didn’t need to consult his screen. “Oh yes, Ms Hastings. The apartment is all ready for you.” He handed her a key, with a brochure and a keycard. “Do you need any help with your bags?”
“No, thank you. But I’ll need to park my car…?” Which Patrick Fell had provided, as he promised, already loaded with her stuff.
They’d met on a windswept corner where he handed over the key. “We need to debrief. There’s been quite a lot of interest in your own car this week. Followed at least once a day.”
“Oh, great,” said Liv, with deep irony.
“But not now. I’ve one or two more things to chase up. I’ll be in touch.”
He’d gone before she could answer. In fact she had to deduce which car it was by the marque of the key ring and the lights that flashed when she approached. She memorised the number plate before she got into the driving seat.
I’m starting to think like a car thief. The thought shocked her a little. But then she laughed. It was better than running scared, anyway.
Now the helpful concierge smiled and didn’t even ask for the car’s registration number. He tapped her keycard. “Just flash that at the sensor. You need it to get into the lift from the garage as well. Your parking bay is numbered. Let me have the car details when you’re ready.”
“Do I need to worry about people pinching my space?”
The concierge almost laughed. “Not at the moment,” he said gravely. “Many of our residents are out of town.”
She smiled back at him. “Somehow, I’m not surprised.”
Eighteen months ago the lobby had been buzzing with very high-end sales negotiators. After nine months of coronavirus lockdown, there were no negotiators and no sales office. Liv had been amused at the show flat’s sumptuous, black marble bathroom. So when the sale of her own house was agreed, she’d called the management company on a whim, saying she was looking to rent while she decided where to live next. They fell over themselves to welcome her.
Now the subterranean car park was almost empty. Liv began to wonder if she was the only full-time resident in the luxury block.
It didn’t take long to settle in. Somebody had cleaned the show flat to within an inch of its life. Every surface gleamed, including a couple that probably shouldn’t, thought Liv, skidding in the parquet hallway. She put her new towels in the bathroom and shifted the sitting room furniture to a cosier arrangement. But, apart from unloading basic foodstuffs into the huge American fridge and putting up her beloved old table lamp on the bookcase, that was all it needed. All she wanted, anyway.
She called her father. “I’m in.”
“Congratulations, darling. What are you going to do to celebrate?”
“Sleep,” said Liv with feeling. “I’ve just done three sixteen-hour days on the trot.”
“Don’t forget to go out,” said the international banker who had pulled an all-nighter at the drop of a hat. “You need your hour’s exercise, you know. It’s too easy to put yourself in prison when you’re…being conscientious about lockdown.”
She knew it wasn’t what he’d been going to say. “When you’re alone” was what he meant. She felt a flood of love at his clumsy attempt at tact. They were both alone now.
“It’s OK, Dad,” she said fondly. “I’ve got a new neighbourhood to explore.”
“I suppose you have.” He brightened. “Send me photos of anything interesting.”
“I will. Oh, and Dad—” Liv had rehearsed this. Maybe that was why it was so difficult to make it sound natural. “Francis doesn’t know my address. I, er, wonder if—”
She didn’t have to say any more. “I won’t tell him,” said her father at once. He didn’t sound in the least surprised. Or disapproving. “In fact, I won’t tell anyone. That should spike his guns, the toad.”
And he rang off before Liv could get her breath back. Her father, who had very carefully never criticised either her friends or her choices, was calling his respectful ex-son-in-law and successful entrepreneur a toad?
The world had gone mad.
What has Patrick Fell discovered? Find out more in episode 9, available here