Robert Astor loosened his tie, the elevator ride up to his hotel room seeming endless. It was as if the weight that had settled low in his stomach this morning was dragging him down, making the elevator go slower than usual.
Today was the day.
Time to pay the bloody blackmailer.
If it was Celeste Sotheby...well, he didn’t know what he would do.
He tugged at the tie’s knot, looking at his strained face in the elevator mirror, the movement of his hands so tense and angry that he nearly damaged the silk. With a sigh, he turned the material this way and that in his hands, willing himself to calm down. There wasn’t much he could do at this point, and he hated his helplessness. The private investigator still hadn’t been able to track Celeste down, so he had no choice but to wait for the instructions and make the transfer. Something told him that this problem wouldn’t go away so easily. What would come next? Another demand, perhaps for a higher amount? Threats to their lives?
His heart skipped a beat when he thought of Jayne, alone in the otherwise empty house. He sensed that she was a lot more frightened than she had let on.
He’d talked to her this morning, then again only an hour ago after he’d got permission from his boss to leave the factory early and be alone in his hotel room when he would receive the dreaded text message.
The elevator bell dinged, and a moment later it came to a stop on his floor. Robert walked out, striding quickly to his room and glancing at his watch. It was 1:50 when he slid his key card into the door and entered the room.
He set his briefcase down, shrugged his coat off because he suddenly felt sweaty and claustrophobic, and sat down at the desk by the window. For a moment, he stared unseeingly at the endless blue sky interrupted by a few jutting, glittery glass-fronted skyscrapers.
Hadn’t Jayne—and he—suffered enough? Why this new cruel injustice?
Taking a deep breath, Rob sprang into action again. Opening his laptop, he logged into his bank account. Not his checking account, but his savings account, where he kept his “nest egg.” After being cut off from his family, it was all the money he had in the world, and he intended to use it to send his, and presumably Jayne’s, children to college.
He clicked the International Wire page. The thought of having to dip into it now made him feel ill.
He set his company phone on the desk beside his computer, making sure its volume was turned on.
Leaning across the desk, he pulled the hotel phone closer and punched in the number of the private detective he’d hired, a German man named Schröder who charged exorbitant fees but was one of the best. As a seasoned pro and ex-Interpol, Schröder not only had lots of useful connections and experience but was also known for his absolute confidentiality. He worked alone from his office in London, a study in politeness and punctuality but with a ruthless determination beneath his typically Germanic correctness and slightly boorish countenance. An old Oxford friend of Rob’s had recommended him highly—and it only made Rob more antsy and annoyed, for if such a pro couldn’t track Celeste Sotheby down, it was seriously bad news.
He put Schröder on the speakerphone, greeting him curtly and watching the hands on his watch inch towards the designated time.
This morning when he had talked to Jayne, she’d asked him if he was going to pay the blackmailer, and he’d said he honestly didn’t know, it would depend on the amount. But he felt he didn’t have any choice. If the criminal followed through with the threat and sent the story and photographs to all the tabloids, there would be a media holocaust like none his family had ever seen. His mother would be devastated. And either of his parents ever accepting Jayne into the family as their daughter-in-law...well, he didn’t kid himself…it would simply vanish into thin air, and it was slim enough already.
In such an event, he really would have to choose between his family and Jayne, and he did not want to have to make that choice.
Robert sat there tensely drumming his fingers on the desk and watching the time, waiting for the text message. He could feel his stress level rising with each passing second, aware of Schröder’s annoyingly heavy breathing on the speakerphone.
Finally, he broke the silence. “Any progress on finding Celeste Sotheby?”
“Vee are close.”
“Close? What does that mean?” Robert’s tone was more demanding than he meant it to be.
“Mister Astor, when I find her you vill be ze first to know.” Schröder always sounded a little belligerent despite his impeccable manners, and Rob wasn’t sure whether he liked the man. Well, he didn’t have to, he just needed him to do his job, dammit. He trusted the detective, but he already had the feeling the man was a bit too comfortable with all his high-paying clients and perhaps a little lazy.
“I certainly hope I’m the only one to know,” he said irritably.
“Vell, yes, of course, zis is what I meant,” came the quick answer.
As Rob waited for the text message, wishful thinking kicked in. Maybe this ‘blackmailer’ won’t have the nerve to follow through with the call, he thought hopefully. Maybe it was all just a prank. Maybe--
The phone beeped, and Robert flinched. He took the device in his hand and looked at the display.
The caller field indicated UNKNOWN, of course.
“You have received ze text message?” Schröder asked over the speakerphone, his tone a little more eager than usual.
“Yes, yes.” Rob noted that the time on his laptop was two p.m.
He hurriedly opened the message.
YOU HAVE EXACTLY FIVE MINUTES TO WIRE 100,000 EUROS TO THE FOLLOWING ACCOUNT AT THE HELLENIC BANK IN CYPRUS: CY690030003820000003608086834
Robert swallowed, staring at the number. A hundred thousand euros! He hadn’t expected such a large amount…he had thought it would be twenty, or forty, or maybe fifty. That put a serious dent in his nest egg.
He felt even sicker now, staring at the amount the blackmailer wanted, but the anger always lurking under the surface was back, too. He gritted his teeth, wanting to curse the person who had put him in this position with a vicious stream of expletives.
This is really happening, he thought. It’s no joke. This person seriously thinks they can take over my life. If it turns out to be Celeste Sotheby I swear I’ll...
But at least the amount demanded was not beyond his financial capacity. Thank god for that. Look at it as buying time, he told himself. Just make the payment and Schröder can track this miscreant down before he or she asks for more. It might even be possible to recover this money, or most of it.
Robert wanted to send a message back and say I WILL PAY YOU ONCE AND ONLY ONCE, but of course with the blocked number that was impossible. Anyway, the blackmailer might not even be thinking of asking for more than one payment, so it was probably better to simply send the money and hope that was the end of it, no matter how naïve that might be.
“Well, what does ze message say?” Schröder asked impatiently, breaking the tense silence.
“It asks for money, what do you think?” Robert hacked away at the keyboard, entering the wire information into his laptop. “The bank is in Cyprus, the Hellenic Bank!”
“You vill pay?”
“Yes,” Robert hissed, typing furiously. He knew Schröder was against it, but the risk seemed too high to him.
“Which branch of the Hellenic Bank in Cyprus?” the detective wanted to know, and he could hear some rustling on the other end but had no time to focus on anything but inputting the details for the wire transfer.
“How the hell do I know which branch?” Robert snapped, double-checking the information. “All they sent was an IBAN.”
“Ze branch number is coded in the IBAN—forward ze message to me, please.”
“In a minute!” Robert barked. “I have to get this done, dammit!”
He had broken out in a sweat, his fingers slipping on the keys. By the time he finished entering the bank account info, his hands were so sweaty he had to wipe his palms on his trouser legs.
At 2:02 pm, he hit the MAKE PAYMENT key. A message appeared that said THIS TRANSFER REQUIRES VERIFICATION—YOU WILL RECEIVE A TEXT SHORTLY. PLEASE ENTER SECURITY CODE HERE _________:
With a muffled curse, Robert continued watching the clock, his phone in his hand again. “Come on, come on,” he muttered under his breath. Finally, the phone beeped, and a message appeared. VERIFICATION CODE 3X7F9V
He quickly typed it into the blank field, double checked it, and slapped the ENTER key. The screen refreshed and he read the notification YOUR WIRE TRANSFER HAS BEEN COMPLETED
The clock changed from 2:03 to 2:04.
“Okay,” Robert told Schröder, “I’m forwarding the text message to you now.”
“If vee contact ze police in Cyprus, they might have time to get to ze bank and…”
“No police!” Robert snapped. “I’m sure this bank is just an intermediary anyway. The money will be forwarded to another bank account somewhere else.”
“Maybe,” Schröder said. “There are many possibilities.”
“I want you to go to Cyprus yourself, immediately, and investigate this. There has to be a trail you can follow.”
“I have trustworthy connections in Cyprus who…”
“I want you to go yourself, do you understand me?” Robert insisted. “I don’t trust anybody except you. That’s why I hired you in the first place.”
* * *
Jayne stared intensely at the phone in her hands, willing it to ring. She was at a point where it didn’t even matter whether it was good news or bad news. Anything was better than the loaded silence around her, pressing in from all sides until she could hardly breathe.
It was nearly seven-thirty in the morning and she’d been up since five when Rob had called the last time before facing the blackmailer’s message—if it had even been sent to his phone.
There was a half-empty cup of coffee next to her, without milk. She usually hated drinking the brew black, but this morning she needed the caffeine jolt in its purest form.
Please let everything have gone smoothly, she prayed silently, closing her eyes. Please. A media feeding frenzy about the scandal that had taken place last summer would end the possibility of her and Rob ever getting married, and there would be no restaurant venture, either. That could not happen. It would be a disaster!
Her phone’s ringtone made her jump a foot off the armchair. She fumbled for it, answering with a breathless “Yes?”
“Jayne.” Robert sounded serious, but not panicky, and she forced some air into her lungs. “I got the message from the blackmailer at two p.m. sharp, my time, and paid the bastard—or bitch—the money.”
Her throat worked, trying to swallow. “How much?”
“One hundred thousand euros.”
Jayne flinched. “So much?”
There was a bit of rustling on the other end of the line, and she wondered what Rob was doing. She wished she could be by his side, not here in Oxford while he was on the other side of the world and had to deal with all this on top of his rigid work commitments.
“Don’t worry, it could have been higher. We’ll manage, somehow. I’ll just have to work even harder.”
Guilt made her sink back into the armchair, chewing her bottom lip with her teeth. “Oh, Robert, I’m so sorry about all this. It’s all my fault. I wish… Sometimes I wish you hadn’t met me. If our paths hadn’t crossed, you would be living a quiet life of luxury right now and not…”
“Nonsense!” His voice was so vehement it shut her up immediately. She heard a sigh. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you, darling. But don’t say that, don’t even think it. Meeting you was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
She sniffled. Robert Astor really was too good to be true. She didn’t deserve him…but neither did she deserve all this trouble.
“We love each other, don’t we?” his voice cut through her inner monologue.
“Yes. Yes, of course, Rob.” How could he even ask such a thing?
“Then we’re in this together, Jayne. Don’t blame yourself, and don’t worry so much. Maybe it’s all over now anyway. Maybe this despicable excuse for a human being will be content with the money and leave us in peace.” Before she could protest that they both knew it simply couldn’t be that easy, he added, “Schröder is one of the best. I forwarded the message and bank details from somewhere in bloody Cyprus to him, and he’ll help us solve all this.”
Jayne absently took a sip of now cold coffee, nearly choking on the bitterness. “You have great faith in that man,” she said cautiously. No matter how high Robert’s opinion of the private investigator was, she wasn’t so sure. Her episode with Eleanor had made her suspicious of people in general. And Robert was paying that German man a small fortune. What if he was dragging his feet so he could milk them for all they were worth?
Again, Robert interrupted her morose train of thought. “Yes, yes I do have a lot of faith in him. Speaking of which, I have good news for you too, if you can call it that.”
Jayne sat forward, pressing the phone harder against her ear. At the moment, she’d take anything, even the tiniest bit of silver lining.
“What is it?”
More rustling. Was he pacing? Checking something? Getting ready to forget about this problem and all the associated stress and go back to the factory?
“Schröder called me just a few minutes ago—he found Celeste.”
Irrational though that was, Jayne caught herself frantically searching out the window, as if her twin sister would suddenly materialize from thin air to hurl insults at her. “Oh my god. Where is she?”
“She’s still in Paris after all, so that’s probably one reason less to panic. I’ve got her address now.”
Paris. So much good and so much bad had happened to her in and around that city, forever engraved on her mind.
“I think I’ll talk to her myself,” Rob said, surprising her again. “I can stop by on my way back from China this weekend and speak to her face to face. If I get the feeling that she’s behind all this, I can subtly or not so subtly let her know that she can’t get away with it again.”
The idea of Rob visiting Celeste alone didn’t sit right with Jayne. “Are—are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“What do you mean? Why wouldn’t it be?”
She fidgeted in her seat, fighting a weird jab of jealousy just like the one she felt a few days ago when Robert had expressed his doubt that Celeste would really do something so mean as send the awful letter. He’d dated Jayne’s twin sister for years, known her as a child, envisioned the rest of his life as her dutiful husband, for god’s sake. No, she didn’t want him anywhere near Celeste, especially not if her sister was indeed up to some evil scheme.
“Jayne?” Robert said. “Are you there?”
“I was just thinking that you’re so busy you can barely breathe. Why don’t I go see her instead?”
“Hmm, I don’t know...”
“You’re the one who just said we need to face this together. Let me take some pressure off you. I know how to handle Celeste, I—”
“Darling, I’m really not keen on that. We need to treat this whole issue with kid gloves or it’ll blow up in our faces. I’ve known Celeste for decades, and you spent only a few months in her company, and under, well, odd circumstances, shall we say.”
Jayne winced. It was true, but still… “Yes, I understand. But Rob, you’re forgetting that she and I are twins. And twins have a mysterious bond, right from the time when we shared space in our mother’s womb. It’s something other people can’t fathom, but I’ve felt it firsthand.” She put all her hard-found conviction into her words, because it was the truth. “I may not have lived alongside her growing up, but that connection is there. Deep down, I know when she’s lying, I know how she ticks.”
There was a long silence on his end of the line, and she could picture him frowning, thinking things over in that rational way of his.
“That may well be true, Jayne, but what about the risk involved?” Concern colored his voice. “What if she really is behind this? If so, I would say she’s become seriously unhinged--dangerously unhinged. I can’t have you walking into a lion’s den, unarmed and all alone.”
Jayne swallowed. That was a valid point… But she was determined to keep Celeste and Robert separated. She felt that there might be some unfinished romantic business between them, and she wanted it to remain that way, hoping that it would simply fade away.
“Rob, do you really have time for this? I mean, honestly?”
“Do you?” he countered. “I’m not the one trying to launch a startup.”
“Well, I’m sure Beatrice could handle things for a short time—I can easily fly to Paris, see Celeste, and come back in one day. Beatrice is out of town for her other job right now but she’ll be back tomorrow night. I could go the next day, on Friday.”
More silence, then a sigh. She pictured Robert scrubbing a hand over his face, a little defeated.
“All right, darling,” he finally said. “Maybe it is better if you talk to her. Do you have a pen? I’ll give you her address.”
Jayne breathed a great but suppressed sigh of relief as she jotted the information down.
“And for god’s sake, Jayne—when you meet with her, be careful.”
Read Part 6 here.
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