CHRISTMAS MYSTERY by Sophie Weston: EPISODE 9
Missed the start? Click here to read from episode 1
Liv finally agreed to meet Patrick Fell on the day London and the South East went into the new Tier 4 lockdown. It was a Sunday.
“Two people can meet in the open air,” said Patrick, when she pointed that out. “Pick your park.”
She opted for Battersea, by the bandstand. He was there before her, reading a map display.
“Let’s walk,” he said. And, as they started down an overgrown path, “Have you kept up your notebook?”
“Yes,” said Liv. “I write down what’s happened and who I’ve seen every time I break for coffee. It’s been a bit of a relief, actually. Shows me how little I have to worry about, compared with other people.”
She thought he would laugh but he didn’t. He nodded, soberly. “Know what you mean. And have you noticed anyone watching you?”
Liv shook her head. “Nobody.” She gave an embarrassed laugh. “I even walk to a distant bus stop, so I can look in the shop windows and see whether anyone’s following me.”
Patrick didn’t laugh at that, either. “Good. So we seem to have shaken them off you, at least for the time being. Though I’d like to read your notebook to see if there’s anything I recognise that you might not. May I?”
Liv handed it over without a word. She had included rather more of her interview with Francis than she’d meant to. It had all poured out of her and she’d been too tired to edit as she went along. Oh well, Patrick would just have to lump it. There would be lots of other irrelevancies in there, after all. Probably it was all irrelevant.
They came to a small bridge over an inlet of some kind. Patrick stopped and started to read her notes. Liv breathed in the smell of wet leaves and wood smoke. An exotic bird with Goth eyeliner was stalking along beside the water, looking snooty.
“Oh, look. I wonder where he’s come from.”
Patrick glanced up. “Egyptian goose,” he said. “Probably breed here. He may be looking for a mate.” And then, as Liv looked at him in considerable dudgeon, “What? What did I say?”
“Do you know every damn thing in the whole world?”
Patrick looked startled. Then amused. “I’m not very sound on nineteenth century watercolours,” he said gravely.
She gave an involuntary choke of laughter. “You can be very irritating.”
“So I’ve been told.”
He went back to her notebook while she leant on the bridge, studying the water. A small boy on a scooter shot past, with a mother in hot pursuit. Two lovers came from the other side of the bridge, swinging their linked hands. It all felt very domestic and peaceful.
Patrick said thoughtfully, “Francis isn’t happy.”
Liv came out of her reverie. “I didn’t handle that very well. Francis likes to get his own way.”
He looked at her in silence for a moment, as if he were waiting for her to say something more. When she didn’t he went on, “He thinks you’re holding out on him.”
“Oh, that was just him not getting me to jump when he said jump.”
“But you are. Holding out on him, I mean.”
Liv stared, more puzzled than offended.
He held out a gloved hand with her notebook in it. “You haven’t told him where you’re living.” He sounded positively pleased.
She accepted it and stuffed it deep into her shoulder bag. “I haven’t told anybody, except my dad. I want some space between—” she hesitated, not sure how to explain.
“Between Olivia Rossignol and Liv Hastings?” he suggested.
“Yes,” she said surprised. “I hadn’t quite thought of it like that, but…yes.”
“Francis wouldn’t like that,” he said with satisfaction. “Olivia Rossignol was his creation. Well, partly.”
She flinched. “Don’t.”
“We’re going to have to talk about it some time,” he said dispassionately.
Oh no, we’re not. I’m not talking about that awful evening ever again. Not with anyone. Especially not you.
Aloud she said, “I thought we had to talk about what you’d discovered so far.”
He shrugged. “OK. If that’s what you want. I’ve had a woman I know take your car on a daily exercise, sometimes more than one. Different routes, different destinations. It was followed—” he rummaged in his inside pocket and brought out his phone, switching it on and scrolling through until he found what he wanted “—68% of the time. Not at night, but that could be just because it’s more difficult after dark. Not between the hours of 8.15 and 12 noon. From which I conclude your stalker works mornings. Possibly a domestic cleaner.”
Liv was bewildered. “I don’t understand.”
He looked up from the screen. “I think it’s someone trying to earn a crust. Probably doesn’t even know why you’re being followed. Just one driver, unisex clothes, woolly hat, no identifying marks. Could be a man or a woman. They never approach and they don’t follow on foot.” He closed the screen and put the phone away. “My guess is they just do it and report where you’ve been.”
“Short answer: someone wants to know where you live. And you ain’t telling. So—” He shrugged.
“But why? I’m not rich. Not a celebrity or anything. I’m not worth kidnapping.”
He gave a long, exasperated sigh. “Someone who thinks you’ve got something of his and wants to know where to burgle to get it back, maybe?”
And when she shook her head, he almost shouted, “Someone like Francis.”
Liv backed away. It was just like the time before, the awful time, with Patrick Fell shouting, “He’s brainwashed you. Brainwashed you all. For God’s sake, it’s obvious! Why won’t you see it?”
“You’re wrong,” she said. “He’s not like that. I’m not listening to you. You’re obsessed.”
She turned and almost ran out of the park.
But she didn’t go home. She was too unsettled. There were plenty of people around them, dog walkers, families with children, runners and people doing strange dreamlike exercises in the middle of grassy spaces. She hid herself among them, trying to find that earlier peace.
It didn’t work. In the end she called the only other person who had the faintest idea about that awful evening.
“Can I see you? It’s OK if there are just two of us and it’s in the open air, I’m told.”
And the other person laughed and said, “It’ll be a treat. We can beat off the boredom together.”
It took Liv nearly an hour to get there. They met on the blustery common near Ann’s house. Rosa might be her oldest friend but Ann was her best and closest. She had been the Blake in the Temple Blake Rossignol Advertising Agency from the first moment that Francis put it together.
“How’s moving?” she asked, as they started to walk.
Liv was grateful for the ordinariness of the question. “It reminds me of moving into college. Putting books on the shelf. Finding the right light for my desk.”
“Light’s the most important. And colour. You need bright cushions,” said Ann, an artist who had been known to burst into tears because the cover of a brochure was three shades darker than she’d imagined.
“Cushions,” said Liv, committing it to memory. She could feel her shoulders relaxing, coming down from around her ears.
Ann sighed. “Any other year and I’d have you off to the market tomorrow. Now I don’t even know if it’s open. Let alone other considerations.” She put her hand on her substantial bump. She wasn’t talking only about COVID 19 restrictions. It was her pregnancy at forty-five that had made her willing to sell up, in the end.
Liv patted her friend’s arm. “And I’d fight you every step of the way. I have to choose my own cushions.”
She kicked up fallen leaves. Losing the Agency wasn’t the end of the world for Ann, she could always freelance, even with a baby, or so she said.
“Do you think about the future a lot?” Liv asked abruptly.
Ann looked at her with deep understanding. “A bit. You do, you know. ” She laughed softly. “But it’s more about how green I want to be with nappies and things, than a twenty-year forecast.”
“And the past?”
“Ouch.” Ann still clearly felt guilty about throwing in the towel. She said, worriedly, “Is it so bad, losing the Agency? I mean none of us was happy after Simon joined.”
Ann shook her head. “But…?”
“But something rather odd is going on—”
Before she could get any further, “Ann said, “Francis!”
Liv jumped. For a wild moment she wondered if Patrick Fell had got at Ann, somehow. “Why do you say that?”
“You moved. Francis lost his squatters’ rights. It doesn’t take a genius.”
“Francis moved out over a year ago.”
“No, he didn’t,” said Ann, unexpectedly. “He’s never moved out and you know it. Oh, he might have taken his clothes and moved in with Nicole. Even married her. But he well and truly kept the winch locked on.”
“How many times has he been in touch he left?”
“OK. How many times has he asked you to do something that had nothing at all to do with the divorce? Something for him.”
“Well, he was a partner in the Agency. Chairman. And he left an awful lot of stuff in the house.”
“Exactly. Making you Custodian of Francis’s Old Stuff.”
Suddenly Ann wasn’t beaming with maternal serenity. Her pretty face looked almost witchlike in the gathering dusk. “I’ve known Francis a long time. A lot longer than you have, Liv. What he has, he holds onto.”
Liv was dumbfounded. “But you like him. You’ve always liked him. I thought you sort of loved him.”
“Once. Wisdom comes with age, as I keep telling Justin,” said Ann, whose much younger partner was supercool and unexpectedly protective. “Even so, it took me a long time to suss him out. Not until a couple of years ago, actually.”
Liv’s heart lurched. Was she talking about That Evening? The one where Simon followed them back to the house and ranted. And Francis went into meltdown. When Liv fought her corner while Ann tried to make peace. When Patrick Fell watched.
And when Liv said in that frozen voice, “I think you should go now. All of you,” Patrick Fell had held the front door open for them all and closed it behind Francis.
And then… And then…
After the door closed? Find out more in episode 10, available here