“So, what you’re saying is that you’ve been helping my husband lie to me. For twenty-five years.”
Twenty-five years. A quarter of a century. A lifetime. The lifetime of their friendship. Much of what she had listened to this afternoon made no sense. Yet, simultaneously, it was the keystone, the puzzle-piece that made everything else fit.
Elaine scrutinised the two women at the table with her. A corner table in a wine bar, the three of them occupied a small round table. Unnoticed by Elaine, they had positioned themselves such that if she made a move, they could stop her relatively easily. She hoped they wouldn’t try because while she might be able to keep control of her voice, her ability to control her temper if one of them got in her way right now was less certain.
Keira sat directly opposite. Keira — her supposed best friend. The only friend she had after twenty-five years with a man she wasn’t sure she knew anymore — if indeed, she’d ever known him. The blonde wasn’t as blonde as she pretended, and the svelte body came from rarely eating and hours in the gym. Hours which resulted in a too low body fat ratio. Every vein and sinew showed in Keira’s hands, in her scrawny neck. Snappable. Elaine clenched her hands under the table.
Do not show emotion, it’s too messy.
Jason. Her husband. Eight days ago, he’d headed out of the house for a three-week assignment in Prague, after that a visit to some conferences in Germany; he’d be home in six weeks.
The IT team he had been part of had disappeared five days ago. Just gone. Five missing Englishmen missed the headlines. No kidnapper threats, no ransom demands. Nothing worthy of a headline, so no headline. And now, if she believed these two, no Jason. Or Steve. Or the other three.
How did Keira sit so calmly amidst all this? Say her own husband, Steve, was dead and act like it didn’t matter? Easy. She’s had two decades to get used to the possibility. I’ve had ten minutes.
“Elaine,” Keira said softly, “you have to understand…”
“Oh, I understand.” How she managed the reasonable tone, she wasn’t sure. “You’re my best friend, but you consider me an idiot.”
At least Keira had the good grace to drop her gaze. The other woman didn’t. Elaine now realised they hadn’t been introduced, no names exchanged. Like Elaine and Keira, the woman was in her forties, but at the higher end, she looked tired, careworn. Every concern and responsibility had etched deep lines on her face.
“You don’t have the clearance.”
Even the woman’s flat voice was devoid of emotion, as if all expression had been ground out of her. Elaine was more than a little familiar with that feeling, that numbness. Though she suspected it was an affectation in this woman.
“But she does?” Elaine tipped her head towards Keira.
“And you think I’m simple.”
This time she saw Keira swallow.
This wine bar was the best in town, but Elaine rarely came in. She loved wine but resented paying as much for a glass in a bar as she did for a whole bottle from the supermarket. A glass sat before her, spotted with beads of condensation. One spot grew so heavy it overcame the water tension and slipped down the curve from rim to stem. Instinct told Elaine this was the closest to tears she would get today.
She stared at the wine. Perfectly chilled. Warmer than the atmosphere at the table. How it tasted remained a mystery. The conversation left a bitter enough flavour. She didn’t want a drink.
That wasn’t true. She desperately wanted a drink, to go home and drink a full bottle, possibly two. She’d have to stop and shop on the way home.
“Are you in love with him?”
Elaine’s attention snapped back to the women. “What?”
“We’ve been married nearly twenty-four years.” Marry in haste, repent at leisure. She sighed. “Not that it’s relevant in this case. The man I’ve spent all those years with is the man I married, but if I believe you, he never really existed.”
Was it possible? What if everything that these two had just told her was true? What if everything up to this point had been a construct, a lie? What if Jason lied to her about everything? Outright lies and lies of omission. And even if she had known, would it have made a difference?
Again, she looked around her. Everything seemed so normal.
The other woman frowned, her lips pursed. Lines deepened around her mouth, between her unplucked eyebrows. “Do you understand what we have said?”
The facts had been laid out clearly and logically. Only an imbecile wouldn’t have understood. “Yes.”
“And you understand the need for discretion?”
Of course she did. Heat rose through Elaine. Her cheeks burned, tension pulled in every fibre. Apparently, she’d been being treated like a child her entire adult life. If they were going to be stupid, she might as well be.
“No.” The steady, reasonable tone surprised even her. Usually, when her belly knotted and her face burned like this, her tone dripped sarcasm. One messy emotion she couldn’t always contain. “Why should I be discreet? Why shouldn’t I go to the papers with what you’ve told me?”
“No.” She scowled at Keira but kept her voice controlled. “It’s not like I’ve got anything left to lose. No family, no more kids, no husband.” Her eyes grazed over Keira, who wasn’t just her friend, but her boss in the pension and insurance company they both worked for. “Shitty job.”
“That would be unwise,” the other woman said.
“Really?” This time the sarcasm resounded. “If I go to the papers, tell all; I’d get paid a wodge of cash and be out of the country before you’d even see the headline.”
The two women glared at each other.
Elaine didn’t even blink. Stupid question. Right now, getting away from these two to process what she’d heard would be payment enough. But if the scrawny bitch was going to be ridiculous, so was she. “Half a million.”
She grabbed her bag and without a word, ignoring Keira’s call of her name, she deliberately and unnecessarily pushed past the unnamed woman, who needed to grab the table to stay upright on the chair. Elaine strode from the building.
“This woman has to be the most boring person in the world — ever.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” the voice in his earpiece murmured. “You’ve met her.”
“Years ago, and not as me.”
“Her being boring is why Jason was allowed to marry her. She’s not a security risk.”
The only risk anyone could attach to Elaine Annie Blake was the risk of being bored to death. Though in fairness, in that one long ago meeting, he’d thought her actually quite nice. Bland but nice.
“Besides,” the voice in his ear said, “you’re looking for the evidence, not the woman. We know where she is.”
He hoped she was having more fun than him. “I’m looking for evidence there is no evidence of.” He looked into the drawer as he returned it to the bedside cabinet. He’d taken it out to check for anything taped inside or underneath. For a one moment, he’d felt tape and hope, only to pull it off and find he had a manufacturer’s label in his hand. This drawer, like all the others he had gone through, was obsessively tidy. Elaine must have some form of OCD.
As he stood, he looked around. No more drawers, cupboards, shelves, or boxes to check. He’d gone over every inch of the house, looked in places normal people didn’t even think they had places. And he hadn’t encountered one single dust bunny.
On the neatly made bed, the pristine duvet had developed a dimple where he’d leant against the side there; he smoothed the dimple out. A covert mission; search – leave no trace. The overly clean house helped with that, no dust to disturb, no mess to drag out from under beds, chairs, tables, sofas, or other furniture. On the other hand, organised drawers meant any movement would be as obvious as if he had just tipped them out.
The growl rumbled deep in his throat. “I’m telling you, there’s nothing.”