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Authors: Susan Lewis

Tags: #Crime

Missing (7 page)

BOOK: Missing
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‘That wasn’t what I asked.’ With a flourish he drew a line under his sloping lines of scrawl and finally looked up. ‘He dumped you royally a few years ago, and we both know it,’ he said bluntly. ‘And I’m not only talking about the way he never offered you a job when he took off out of here. You always had the hots for that man, and what really sticks in your craw isn’t so much that he never rescued you from this hell you consider yourself to be in, but that he didn’t even call you up when his wife bailed out and took off to the States.’

‘You haven’t got the first idea what he did or didn’t do,’ she sneered, aware that the sourness of her tone wasn’t helping her.

He cocked a knowing eyebrow. ‘You were waiting for the day Avery came free,’ he told her brutally. ‘You wanted him, and back then you were sure you’d get him. But it didn’t work out that way, did it? No, it sure as hell didn’t, because no sooner did the bleeding-heart wife take off than he goes and meets some PR totty and practically moves her in. That was a tough one for you, Justie. I remember cutting you a lot of slack at the time. Real torn up you were …’

‘You’re making this up,’ she told him curtly.

‘Am I? We’ll see. When was the last time you had contact with him?’

‘I can’t remember,’ she lied.

He shrugged, as though it didn’t really matter. ‘Does he know you wrote the piece that exposed his affair with the PR girl?’ he asked.

Feeling herself flushing, she said, ‘What do you think?’

His eyes turned to slits. ‘What I
know
,’ he said, ‘is that you were banking on that piece bringing the wife back, and it worked, for which you should be congratulated. I guess it backfired a bit when she tried to off herself and the daughter, but it all turned out the way you intended in the end. He dumped the PR girl, went back to wifey and blamed me for the exposé. Trouble is, he still didn’t give you a job.’

Aware of the loathing building inside her, she forced her way past it, and said, ‘Since you’re the master of spin I’m not going to argue with you.’

‘Very wise, and I’m the first to admit there are many ways to tell a story, and you’ll no doubt have a very different way of telling your own. Truth is though, things really haven’t been going your way for some time now, have they? You’ve lost the page Avery gave you when he was running this paper, you’re not doing so well in the general pool, and for all I know you’re not getting laid.’ He shrugged. ‘Nothing I can do about your personal life, I’m afraid, but I can offer you the chance of reversing your professional misfortunes.’

Her expression turned to granite as she looked at him. What she wouldn’t give to be able to tell him that whatever he was about to propose, which clearly had something to do with Miles, he could stick where no man nor beast would ever want to venture, because actually, she’d been offered a column on the
Mail
, or the
Express
, or any other paper come to that, just as long as it got her off this one. However, in spite of her many efforts to jump ship with a nice safe landing on smoother decks, she kept banging up against the same old problem: they wanted younger, fresher and more currently connected.

Meeting the coldness of her gaze with a smirk that
made
her itch to slap it, Critchley said, ‘I’ve just heard that the wife’s gone missing.’

Justine became very still. ‘You mean Jacqueline?’

‘She’s been gone for three weeks, I’m told, and now the police have been called in to help find her.’

Somehow she only blinked.

He smirked again, and with a gaze that seemed to see straight through her, he said, ‘Why don’t you try to get us some scoop on this? There’s something fishy about it, from what I’ve been hearing, and apparently your old friend Vivienne Kane’s starting to hover about in the frame.’

Knowing it would give him more leverage than he already had to discover he was right about her feelings for Vivienne Kane, she forced her expression to remain neutral as she said, ‘What exactly are you expecting me to do?’

He shrugged. ‘Could be payback time?’ His follow-up glance came at her like a dart.

‘For me or you?’ she challenged, without even flinching.

At that his eyes glinted as dangerously as a trapped rat’s. No one ever dared mention, at least not to his face, the daily cartoon Miles had commissioned, and that still ran, called
The Grunt
, which charted the exploits of a crude, loudmouthed and disgustingly salacious tabloid editor. The entire world knew it was based on the Critch, and it was no secret that the Critch was just biding his time, waiting for as cold a revenge as his sordid, but incisively clever little brain could come up with.

‘I’ll give you whatever you need,’ he said, ‘including your page back, if you give me something on that man.’

Justine eyed him frigidly. ‘You seem to be assuming
the
wife’s not going to turn up again,’ she said, ‘when history shows that she does.’

‘I couldn’t give a cat’s ass what the wife’s about,’ he retorted. ‘That man’s got more skeletons in his closet than the underside of a churchyard, and you know it. It’s time to start digging, Justie. Make a few calls, get this ball rolling.’

She merely watched as he scribbled a couple of numbers on a Post-it, hardly even thinking about whose they might be, for she was already considering how best to approach this.

A few minutes later she was back at her desk, the Post-it in one hand, while with the other she whirled her old-fashioned Rolodex searching for a contact she hadn’t needed in a while. When she found it she pressed the number into her phone and after being diverted through to voicemail said, ‘Roger. It’s Justine. Call me back when you can. There could be a lot of beer money in it for you.’

Next she called one of the Critch’s stringers – a sub on a local Devon paper – made a few notes as he brought her up to speed with what he knew about the police involvement in Jacqueline Avery’s disappearance, and then, pulling another old number from her Rolodex she pressed it into her phone and waited brazenly for the connection.

Vivienne and Alice were laughing at one of Kayla’s outrageously silly jokes when Alice reached out to answer the phone. ‘Kane and Jackson. Alice Jackson speaking,’ she announced. Her smile began a rapid fade through to distaste as she listened to the voice at the other end. ‘Justine,’ she said, her eyes going straight to Vivienne.

Vivienne’s smile died too.

‘No, I’m afraid Vivienne’s not here at the moment,’ Alice lied. ‘Can I help at all? I see. Well, if you can tell me what it’s about I’ll get her to call you back.’

She listened again, then said, ‘I’ll pass the message on,’ and with an abrupt goodbye she rang off.

‘She’s got some nerve, calling here,’ Kayla said sourly.

Alice’s attention was on Vivienne. ‘Apparently she’s been hearing rumours,’ she stated. ‘Given the timing they have to be about Jacqueline.’

‘Yeah, like, Vivi’s going to discuss anything with her,’ Kayla said hotly. ‘She’s got to be big-time delusional if she thinks that.’

Vivienne and Alice were looking at one another, each knowing what the other was thinking.

‘The woman is best ignored,’ Vivienne stated.

Alice didn’t look so certain. ‘Maybe you ought to find out exactly what she’s been hearing.’

‘I’m not giving her the satisfaction.’

‘She’s not someone to be on the wrong side of.’

‘Nor am I.’

‘She won’t care about that.’

‘She cares about Miles, though – and frankly, if she thinks I’m going to confirm or deny any rumours she might have heard about Jacqueline, or anything else, then Kayla’s right, she’s big-time delusional.’

‘But what if—’

‘No, Alice, I’m sorry, I’m not dancing to her tune,’ and unwilling to sully her thoughts any further with the woman she despised above all others, she picked up the phone to call the much more fragrant, and delightfully quirky chairwoman of the Kenleigh WI.

*

‘You’re kidding me,’ Pete Alexander cried, later that night, his electric-blue eyes boggling with astonishment. ‘Justine James calls, and you haven’t rung her back yet? Aren’t you dying to know what the rumours are about? I mean, it’s got to be
la pauvre
Jacq-u-line, obviously, but wouldn’t it be good to find out what she knows?’

Aware of how keen Alice and Angus were to hear her answer, Vivienne only said, ‘No,’ and continued to sprinkle Parmesan onto her pasta.

‘Vivi,’ Alice said gravely, ‘what if it’s not about Jacqueline? You don’t want—’

‘Whatever she knows, there’s nothing I can do about it,’ Vivienne interrupted.

‘But what if she makes it public about Rufus?’

‘Then just like when she managed to bring Jacqueline back from the States, she’ll have her own conscience to deal with,’ Vivienne answered tartly.

‘You don’t know for certain she was behind that article,’ Pete reminded her.

‘For God’s sake, of course she was,’ Vivienne snapped.

‘OK, I wouldn’t put it past her,’ he conceded, ‘but she and Miles go back a long way …’

‘Which is precisely why she was trying to get me out of his life. Everyone knew she’d set her sights on him.’

‘I’m not denying that, but my money’s still on the Critch. He’s been after Miles’s hide ever since Miles started running
The Grunt
.’

‘Miles isn’t a cartoonist.’

‘But it was in his paper, which makes him as guilty as if he was writing it himself. Or that’s the way the Critch sees it, and if you think about it, he’s right, because Miles could have dropped that strip any time he liked, but he never did.’

‘Which is why Miles holds the Critch responsible for the article that brought Jacqueline back,’ Alice informed him. ‘As the editor he carries the can. But I’m with Vivi. I think Justine wrote it – or at least gave the Critch the information he needed.’

Pete shrugged. ‘You could be right, but imagine how you’d feel about the person who turned you into a laughing stock. You’d stop at nothing to get back at them, which is exactly how the Critch feels about Miles. As far as Justine’s concerned, she’s tough, I’ll admit, and ruthless, but she’s too shrewd to risk getting on the wrong side of Miles.’

Wanting to change the subject, Vivienne said to Angus, ‘Would you mind opening some more wine?’

Giving her a wink, he reached behind him to take a bottle of red from the art deco drinks cabinet that occupied one wall of her softly lit dining room. The adjacent wall was almost entirely given over to French windows that in warmer days opened onto a small patio. This formed part of a secluded communal courtyard which sloped down to a locked gate opening onto the towpath and river. The opposite wall of the dining room was actually a counter top that divided off the bijou black granite kitchen, and the fourth wall was mostly doors, one opening into the hall that led upstairs to the sitting room and bedrooms, and the other into the garage where Vivienne kept her precious VW Beetle. It was a house she adored, and had had no problem affording during the agency’s heyday. Now her mortgage was three months in arrears and a small pile of red bills was sitting next to the phone. Just please God some money came through soon, from Irwin’s movie, or
La Belle Amie
, because it would break her heart to have to leave here.

As Angus refilled their glasses, Pete turned to Vivienne again, his sharp features and proud bald head aglow with intrigue. ‘So how many times has Justine actually called?’ he demanded, clearly determined not to let this go.

Vivienne looked to Alice for the answer.

‘Three that I know of,’ Alice provided.

Pete gave a shriek of laughter and rubbed his hands with glee. ‘She must be incandescent by now,’ he declared happily. ‘No one ever blocks the Justine. Or they never used to, but we all know the days are darkening for poor Justie, so do be careful, darling, a panicky she-cat with a used-up ninth life is not an animal to mess around with.’

‘That’s what I keep telling her,’ Alice agreed.

‘Can we drop this please?’ Vivienne said crisply. ‘I thought we were meeting to discuss auctions and movies.’

‘Oh we will, we will,’ Pete assured her, ‘but we need to get the important stuff dealt with first.’

Angus chuckled at the despair on Vivienne’s face. ‘Great dinner,’ he told her. ‘Nothing’s burnt, underdone or even raw.’

Vivienne gave a gurgle of laughter. ‘Something of an achievement for me,’ she responded. ‘I’m a latecomer to Jamie Oliver. If he weren’t already married, I’d propose.’

‘Oh, bollocks to Jamie Oliver – love him though we do,’ Pete interjected. ‘If you won’t talk about Justine, then tell us more about Miles.’

‘The police were in touch with Vivienne this afternoon,’ Alice informed him, while staring at Vivienne. ‘And you still haven’t told me what they said yet,’ she prompted.

Vivienne shrugged. ‘They just wanted to know if I’d heard from Jacqueline, which I haven’t. Or if I have any idea where she might be, which I don’t. And if I’m still seeing Miles, which I’m not.’

‘I bet they think he’s bumped her off,’ Pete said decisively. ‘Boy are they going to have a shock when she turns up again. But hey, what if she doesn’t? Oh God, what a scandal.’

Vivienne’s eyes flashed. ‘It’s not a joke, Pete,’ she snapped.

His hands shot up. ‘Sorry, no offence,’ he cried. ‘Can see I was well out of order, so sorry again.’

‘Actually,’ Vivienne said, ‘the police also wanted to know where I was on the day she disappeared, and if I have an alibi to confirm it.’

‘Oh no!’ Pete cried, clasping his hands to his cheeks. ‘They surely don’t think
you’ve
done away with her? Oh my God, this is too much. There’s our dear little agency poodling along like an empty checkout, then suddenly we’ve got slave auctions in the countryside, biggish-budget movies, and our very own murder mystery. Agatha Christie must be turning in her grave.’

‘Pete, will you at least try to be serious,’ Alice chided, sensing Vivienne’s humour failing again.

‘Darling, I am,’ he insisted. ‘Tell us,’ he said to Vivienne, ‘have you spoken to Miles again since he called to let you know she’d gone up in a puff of smoke?’

‘No. I’ve had no reason to.’

BOOK: Missing
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