Jayne watched the taxi drive away from the kitchen window, scrubbing furiously to wash the ink off her fingers. When the car had rounded the bend, she looked down at the blue swirls in the water and at her own, still slightly trembling hands.
She hadn’t been completely honest with Robert—she was not comfortable on her own at home now, not after receiving that letter. After all these months, she had finally left the nightmares and memories behind, and now this!
She shivered, then scolded herself. Why would a blackmailer send that damned letter if she or he wants to attack me physically? That doesn’t make sense. But her thoughts kept circling back to a question she hadn’t asked Rob: Why had the letter been sent to her and not directly to him since he was the one who would pay? There had to be a good reason for it. Clearly, the blackmailer wanted her to suffer, at least emotionally.
What would their anonymous enemy do next? Would Celeste—if it was really Celeste—simply do nothing and patiently wait until the time had come for the payment demand? Or would Jayne have to be constantly on guard, fearing another intrusion on her privacy?
With a scowl, she dried her hands and then checked the locks of the window before wandering upstairs and through the rest of the house to make sure everything was locked properly. Then she shook her head at her own behavior. As if a locked window would keep the person who had sent the blackmail letter out. Jayne had to leave the house constantly.
hat if the criminal knew this and was waiting for the right moment to pounce?
The image of her biological mother leaping on top of her, snarling and lashing out like some mad beast, haunted her even more now. She remembered the finality of that moment, the gut-wrenching certainty that there would be no happy ending with Robert for her, that she was about to die before she’d really had a chance to live.
“Stop being such a wuss,” she hissed, angry with herself for feeling such weakness. There was no reason for it. Built in typical British fashion, the houses on this block all shared common walls, so there were very few ground floor doors and windows, only one pair in front and one pair in back. And because all the houses’ backyards were cordoned off with high brick walls, with some of the owners having dogs, access to the back would be difficult. It wasn’t even necessary to be so overly cautious.
But Jayne wasn’t about to take any chances.
She double checked all the windows before heading back to work.
The next step was to get through the rest of the afternoon without Beatrice sensing that anything was wrong.
The following morning, Jayne cycled into work earlier than usual, merging into the throngs of Oxford students and staff headed into the center of the city to the hallowed, prestigious university. Although she had managed to keep her dirty secret from Beatrice yesterday afternoon, she doubted she could fool her astute business partner much longer.
There had already been one close call yesterday—she had been so upset and distracted by the blackmail letter that she had completely forgotten to bring the legal documents that Robert had brought for them to sign—the very reason that she’d biked home to meet him in the first place! When she stepped into the restaurant empty handed, Beatrice frowned and said, “So where are the papers to sign?” Jayne made up a white lie on the spot and said that Robert had found a couple of serious typos and had sent them to an all-night printer in the center, and that she would pick them up and bring them in the morning.
Today, she made damn sure she had the large envelope full of papers in her messenger bag. When she arrived at the restaurant, she found Beatrice in their makeshift office, which barely accommodated both of them. Perched on a low cupboard but managing to look professional and proper nevertheless, her classy business partner was on the phone and only acknowledged her with a nod and a small smile.
“Yes... Absolutely, Dear Harvey. I understand…mmm… Certainly… You have no idea how much we wish we could change this.”
Her voice had taken on an odd tone that was cajoling and commanding at once, and Jayne grimaced. “Dear Harvey” was their neighbor, a real pain in the neck. They had the rotten luck that a lawyer—or a solicitor, as you called them here in England—had rented the office next door. He was constantly complaining about the noise and dust, and threatening to sue them, which was what Jayne supposed he did best. Fortunately for them, Beatrice had a way with words and knew how to handle difficult people. She’d sorted and smoothed things out several times already, and Jayne wondered for how long they’d have to walk the tightrope with him.
By the time Beatrice set the phone down and permitted herself a long-suffering sigh, Jayne had engrossed herself in comparing small swatches of fabric in an immense catalogue with samples, trying to find the right material, color and pattern for the table cloths. She wanted to avoid as much eye contact with Beatrice as possible.
“So what’s ‘Dear Harvey’ saying today?” she asked.
Beatrice gave in to a somewhat unladylike eye roll. “Oh, he’s whining, as usual. He claims he’s been suffering from a wheeze because of the dust.”
Jayne scoffed. “If I can handle this with my asthma, then he shouldn’t complain.”
Beatrice straightened her impeccably tailored jacket. “Well, complaining is what he does all day, so I suspect we’ll have to put up with some more nuisance calls.” She paused. “So have you got the papers?”
With a nod, Jayne bent to her messenger bag and took out the business documents. She had already signed them all at home. Beatrice had a long browse through them, slowly turning the pages, slogging through the legalese. In between reading and twisting her pen thoughtfully, she said, “You know, I think we should offer dear Harvey a free meal as compensation. Pull out all the stops and treat him to a five-course dinner shortly after opening day. What do you think?”
“That’s a good idea…though he’ll probably only end up complaining about the size, texture and temperature of the food we pile on him and leave a scathing review.”
They shared a brief laugh, and Jayne felt some of her tension ebb. She was sure that anxiety was written all over her face, and in much clearer language than the legalese Beatrice was perusing.
Beatrice leaned forward and studied her more closely. “Are you all right?”
“Sure,” Jayne said, looking back down at the swatches. “Why?”
“You seem a little nervous.”
“I didn’t sleep well with Rob away, that’s all. I never do.”
“Ah.” Beatrice started signing all documents, seeming to accept that explanation.
Jayne threw herself into her work that morning, dealing with the construction folks milling around the restaurant, hoping that it would make her forget her and Robert’s gut-wrenching problem that had appeared out of nowhere. But it overshadowed everything, looming over her head like a sword poised to decapitate her at any moment.
To her surprise, as lunchtime approached, she started receiving frequent texts from Robert with updates about what the detective had found out—she was amazed at how fast he’d hired someone to work on the case. Robert was back in China now, trying to work, but considering all the interaction with the detective he was apparently having, Jayne wondered how he could be getting anything done. Before Rob had even left the UK yesterday, he had couriered the envelope, letter, and their own fingerprints to the private eye, who apparently was highly recommended and based in London.
Despite all this, however, it seemed that the investigator was not making much progress. Mid-afternoon, Robert sent her a text telling her that no useful prints were found on the blackmail letter or the envelope. This put Jayne even more on edge. Somehow, it reconfirmed her irrational fear that her mother was behind all this. Eleanor Sotheby was a pro. She would never handle things without gloves, knowing full well how easily fingerprints could give her away. She even began to feel again that it was all her fault, the blackmail letter, the added stress at a time when Rob already had his hands full.
The search for Celeste Sotheby’s whereabouts seemed to be coming up blank, too. The detective had quickly determined that the cut-out letters glued to the paper were from UK tabloids, and because the missive was mailed from the Heathrow Airport, Rob was now wondering whether Celeste had perhaps moved back to London or some other city in the UK.
Rob seemed more and more convinced that Celeste Sotheby was behind the blackmail letter, and Jayne had stopped voicing her doubts to him. It had to be her.
* * *
Despite this, during the late afternoon, Jayne stole a few minutes away from Beatrice to search online for cases where people had fallen to the ground from great heights and survived. There were lots of such cases, including some in which people actually dropped from airplanes without parachutes and had their deadly descent slowed by tree branches or the cushion of a snow bank. They ended up badly injured, in some cases paralyzed, but they lived.
And yet Jayne kept assuring herself that of course Rob was right—the chances of Eleanor still being alive and sending blackmail letters was slim to none, and considering the possibility was driving her crazy.
When she was in the middle of reading one of the articles, which was rather grisly, Beatrice stepped into the office.
Jayne’s finger was poised on the mouse button and she quickly closed the window on her laptop.
Beatrice glanced at the back of the computer, then at Jayne’s face.
Jayne was sure she looked like the cat who had just swallowed the canary.
“What on earth is going on, Jayne?”
Jayne hesitated. Beatrice had to go out of town again tonight on a two-day business trip to Ireland for the construction firm that still employed her, and Jayne had prayed that she would leave the restaurant before she figured out that something was wrong. But that bit of good luck apparently wasn’t in the cards.
“It’s nothing,” she said hastily, snapping the laptop shut. “I was reading about remedies for insomnia.”
“A cup of warm milk does the trick for me.”
Jayne nodded. “I’ll try that.”
Beatrice eyed her and said, “You know…” She sounded oddly hesitant, which was a first and made Jayne glance up at her face. “You can talk to me if there’s something wrong. We’re friends and not just business partners, right?”
Jayne nodded, forcing a smile onto her lips but knowing it didn’t reach her eyes. She felt bad enough hiding the unexpected scandal from Beatrice, who had absolutely no idea about what had really happened last summer and that Jayne had impersonated Celeste. Now Beatrice’s concern only made Jayne feel worse.
Beatrice said carefully, “Are you and Rob having some kind of problem? It’s only natural for that to happen in a relationship, you know, especially in the early days. Even after three years I still sometimes want to kill Damien or tear my own hair out…” She gave a rueful smile.
While Jayne felt that her concern was genuine, she sensed it was mostly because the woman was thinking that all she needed now was a business partner who had some serious personal problem.
Jayne took a deep breath and opted for a second white lie. “We’re both under a lot of pressure right now, that’s all. Rob has so much work to handle, juggling his China project with everything going on back here. Don’t worry, it’s nothing serious. It’ll all be fine in a few days—I’m sure I’ll sleep better tonight.”
Jayne had put as much conviction into her voice as she could muster, not only to make Beatrice believe her but also to convince herself.
Beatrice glanced at her watch. “Well, I’m off then, I have to get to the airport.” She smiled. “Hold down the fort while I’m gone.”
“Will do,” Jayne said. “Things will be fine.”
* * *
But would things really be fine? Jayne wondered later that evening, as she stood staring out the bedroom window at the road. Now, night had fallen once again and the pedestrian flow of Oxford students and staff returning home had thinned to barely a trickle. Her fatigued mind conjured all sorts of spooky scenarios, her eyes focusing on the dark spaces between the streetlights, on the tall hedges and gated driveways that could hide who knows what.
Tomorrow, Rob would receive the text message to go through with the blackmail payment, and they hadn’t achieved a damn thing during their laughable attempt at investigation.
What would happen then?
Read Part 5 here.
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