Sean scribbles a note.
‘Apart from that, I’ve just got the other cases from last month that I’m carrying forward, and I’m talking to some insurers about whether we want to get involved with a new fine art register.’
‘Another?’ says Janey.
‘It’s the scaling down of the Art and Antiques Squad,’ Paul said. ‘The insurers are getting nervous.’
‘Might be good news for us, though. Where are we on the Stubbs?’
He clicks the end of his pen. ‘Deadlock.’
‘It’s a tricky one. I’ve been looking up precedent, but it may well go to trial.’
Janey nods, then glances up as Paul’s mobile phone rings. ‘Sorry,’ he says, and wrenches it from his pocket. He stares at the name. ‘Actually, if you’ll excuse me, I think I should take this. Sherrie. Hi.’
He feels Janey’s eyes burning into his back as he steps carefully over his colleagues’ legs and into his office. He closes the door behind him. ‘You did? … Her name? Liv. Nope, that’s all I got … There is? Can you describe it? … Yup – that sounds like her. Mid-brown hair, maybe blonde, shoulder length. Wearing it in a ponytail? … Phone, wallet – don’t know what else. No address? … No, I don’t. Sure – Sherrie, do me a favour? Can I pick it up?’
He stares out of the window.
‘Yeah. Yeah, I do. I just realized – I think I’ve worked out how to get it back to her.’
‘Is that Liv?’
He pauses. ‘Um … is she there?’
‘Are you a bailiff?’
‘Well, she’s not here.’
‘Do you know when she’ll be back?’
‘Are you sure you’re not a bailiff?’
‘I am definitely not a bailiff. I have her handbag.’
‘Are you a bag thief? Because if you’re trying to blackmail her, you’re wasting your time.’
‘I am not a bag thief. Or a bailiff. I am a man who has found her bag and is trying to get it back to her.’ He pulls at his collar.
There is a long pause.
‘How did you get this number?’
‘It’s on my phone. She borrowed it when she tried to ring home.’
‘You were with her?’
He feels a little germ of pleasure. He hesitates, tries not to sound too keen. ‘Why? Did she mention me?’
‘No.’ The sound of a kettle boiling. ‘I was just being nosy. Look – she’s just on her annual trip out of the house. If you drop by around four-ish she should be back by then. If not I’ll take it for her.’
‘And you are?’
A long, suspicious pause.
‘I’m the woman who takes in stolen handbags for Liv.’
‘Right. So what’s the address?’
‘You don’t know?’ There’s another silence. ‘Hmm. I tell you what, come to the corner of Audley Street and Packers Lane, and someone will meet you down there –’
‘I’m not a bag thief.’
‘So you keep saying. Ring when you’re there.’ He can hear her thinking. ‘If nobody answers, just hand it to the woman in the cardboard boxes by the back door. Her name’s Fran. And if we do decide to meet you, no funny business. We have a gun.’
Before he can say anything else, she has rung off. He sits at his desk, staring at his phone.
Janey walks into his office without knocking. It has started to annoy him, the way she does this. It makes him think she’s trying to catch him in the middle of something. ‘The Lefèvre painting. Have we actually sent off the opening letter yet?’
‘No. I’m still doing checks on whether it has been exhibited.’
‘Did we get the current owners’ address?’
‘The magazine didn’t keep a record of it. But it’s fine – I’ll send it via his workplace. If he’s an architect he shouldn’t be hard to find. The company will probably be in his name.’
‘Good. I just got a message saying the claimants are coming to London in a few weeks and want a meeting. It would be great if we could get an initial response before then. Can you throw some dates at me?’
He stares at his computer screen very hard, even though only the screensaver is in front of him, until Janey takes the hint and leaves.
Mo is at home. She is a strangely unobtrusive presence, even given the startling inky black of her hair and clothing. Occasionally Liv half wakes at six and hears her padding around, preparing to leave for her morning shift at the care home. She finds the presence of another person in the house oddly comforting.
Mo cooks every day, or brings back food from the restaurant, leaving foil-covered dishes in the fridge and scrawled instructions on the kitchen table. ‘Heat up for 40 mins at 180. That would mean SWITCHING ON THE OVEN’ and ‘FINISH THIS AS BY TOMORROW IT WILL CLIMB OUT OF ITS CONTAINER AND KILL US.’ The house no longer smells of cigarette smoke. Liv suspects Mo sneaks the odd one out on the deck, but she doesn’t ask.
They have settled into a routine of sorts. Liv rises as before, heading out on to the concrete walkways, her feet pounding, her head filled with noise. She has stopped buying coffee, so she makes tea for Fran, eats her toast and sits in front of her desk trying not to worry about her lack of work. But now she finds she half looks forward to the sound of the key in the lock at three o’clock, Mo’s arrival home. Mo has not offered to pay rent – and she is not sure that either of them wants to feel this is a formal arrangement – but the day after she heard about Liv’s bag, a pile of crumpled cash had appeared on the kitchen table. ‘Emergency council tax,’ the note with it read. ‘Don’t start being all weird about it.’
Liv didn’t get even remotely weird about it. She didn’t have a choice.
They are drinking tea and reading a London free-sheet when the phone rings. Mo looks up, like a gundog scenting the air, checks the clock and says, ‘Oh. I know who this is.’ Liv turns back to the newspaper. ‘It’s the man with your handbag.’
Liv’s mug stalls in mid-air. ‘What?’
‘I forgot to tell you. He rang up earlier. I told him to wait on the corner and we’d come down.’
‘What kind of man?’
‘Dunno. I just checked that he wasn’t a bailiff.’
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