Hired for Secrets

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You walked out on me

Sofie’s thoughts were racing as she drove away from the safe-house. She’d peeled away so many layers from Philip already, yet there seemed to be so much more to him. Was he Phil, who so desperately needed to get away from Elandra that he accepted a marriage proposal? Or was he Philón who cunningly schemed his way towards becoming a very wealthy man, leaving dead bodies in his wake? All she knew was she needed to get away from him and his charm to figure any of this out.

The sun was setting, when she arrived at the serviced apartment SlimRat had rented. It was in a posh high-rise tower overlooking the Thames. This can’t be right. Sofie parked her shabby little rental in the visitor car park between a fancy Bugatti and sleek Lotus. The place must be costing a fortune, even if it was only a dingy little studio on a lower level. How could SlimRat afford this?

“Can I help you, miss?” The porter called from behind the gold-laced desk as Sofie entered the glitzy foyer.

“Yes. A friend of mine booked an apartment here. I’m a little early. But I was wondering if you could buzz me up.”

“I see,” he said, casting a dubious look over her clothes, “can I have the name, please?”

“I... I don’t actually have a name.”

Sofie felt foolish.

“Of course, you don’t.” His lips curled into a lopsided patronizing smile. “These friends never give their names to people like you. I think you better leave. Come back when your friend is in or better yet take your business elsewhere.”

Sofie took a deep breath. He must be thinking she was a drug dealer, trying to scheme her way into the building to sell her wares.

“I have the reservation number, if that helps?”

The porter rolled his eyes, but dutifully looked over the number on Sofie’s phone. He paused to check the number again before nodding with an exacerbated expression. He disapproved of her and how she’d gotten the number, but had no grounds anymore to turn her out.

“You may go up. But let me warn you: there is no other business to be had here while you wait for your friend. You are to stay in your suite. No walking around the pool or bar area. Did I make myself clear? We are a respectable establishment!”

Sofie nodded, she did not bother to correct him. Being a drug dealer wasn’t the worst thing she’d been accused of today. She couldn’t quite decide what hurt her more: Phillip thinking she had no regard for other people’s lives or SlimRat implying her judgement was blinded by love.

The porter punched the access code into the lift’s operating system and hovered until the sliding doors closed behind her. He must have had some pretty bad experiences to be so suspicious. Too much money obviously brings out the worst in people.

‘Level 34,’ the lift chimed and the doors opened to a vast living room overlooking London. The kitchen and lounge area had a whole wall with floor-to-ceiling window panes and the marble flooring shimmered in the setting sun. Sofie took in the breathtaking view, before exploring the rest of the apartment. She brushed against the opulent flower bouquets, lining the hallway and inhaled the crisp fresh smell of the linen that covered the enormous beds in the three adjacent bedrooms. She felt misplaced amongst all this luxury.

But Philip would fit right in.

This was his level of luxury. The standard he was used to. She looked up the spiral staircase leading to the upstairs balcony and could not help but picture him walking down. His footsteps echoing in the immense space and his scent wrapping itself around her.

The irony.

Philip was trapped in a barely liveable barrack, while she could lounge on a sofa that probably cost more than her yearly income. They truly had reversed their roles. Philip was free, while Sofie had to be protected by a wealthy benefactor and potentially had to dance to their tune.

She shook her head. This was only temporary. Only until she had figured out who to trust. Or better yet, had to trust no one again.

The elevator let out a gentle chime, announcing that someone was entering the apartment. SlimRat was coming. Sofie tried to steady her nerves. Breathing in slow deliberate breaths. What if SlimRat wasn’t a philanthropist? What if whoever stepped out of the elevator wanted something from her. Something she wasn’t prepared to give?

The lift doors opened and a woman in her thirties stepped out of the elevator. Her exuberant energy filled the room like a shockwave.

“Honey, I’m home!” she beamed.

Sofie was stunned how accurate the username described the figure storming towards her. ‘Slim’ was an understatement. She could see every tendon in the woman’s bony arms. Her pink mouth barely hid the enormous square front teeth and her sharp pointy nose stood out of her face like a curious snout.

“SlimRat,” Sofie exclaimed, instantly liking the bouncy person in front of her.

“Sof, how gorgeous are you?” She placed two fingers under Sofie’s chin to move her head from side to side. “Look at those cheekbones.” Busting out in a hearty laugh, she added, “I pictured you very differently, babe.”

“Um. Me too, SlimRat,” Sofie replied even though she never actually had much of a picture in her head. She didn’t even know what gender SlimRat was before now.

“Really? The girls I shag always give me some rodent pet-name. Anyways, you better call me Rachel here. Rachel Pettersen. That’s what I rented the apartment under. What’s your offline name?”

“Sofie... at the moment.”

“Sofie?” Rachel gave a snort. “That’s very close… Luckily you have nothing to hide. Oh wait, you do have that murderous boyfriend of yours sitting in your safe-house,” she quipped, adding more seriously, “what if he finds out who you really are? ‘Sofia Black’ the award-winning journo?”

“He already knows...”

Sofie looked down. It was a beginner’s mistake. She should have known better. Should have protected herself better.

“Oh girl...” Rachel winced. “Why don’t I freshen up a bit and then we’ll have a glass of wine. You can tell me all about this Mr. Wonderful who got your head screwed on wrong. The fridge should be fully stocked.”

“Thanks, Rachel.”

She meant it. She needed to talk. Needed someone to assess the damage she’d done already, being so blinded by love. Needed someone to help her find a way out of this insanity.

“I’ll take the Master bedroom. Since I am paying for this dig.” Rachel yelled over her shoulder while grabbing her luggage and marching towards the double-door room.

When Rachel appeared again her short black hair was wet and dishevelled, giving her the charm of a drowned sewage rat.

Sofie smiled and handed Rachel a glass of chilled white wine. She was more excited than she cared to admit. It’s been years since she had a relaxed night out with someone.

Rachel crooked her head.

“Are you flirting with me?” she asked with a cocky smile. “Because if you are, I need to tell you straight up that you’re not my type. Sure, if you were the last woman on earth, I’d not kick you out of my bed, but luckily for both of us there are plenty more left.”

“I wasn’t, Rachel,” Sofie laughed. “But getting a rebuff from you too rounds up the day nicely.”

“I take it you are sulking over Mr. Wonderful?”

“Philip. Yes.”

“Philón!” Rachel corrected her more forcefully than needed.

“Fine. Yes. Him.”

“What’s so special about him?”

It was a genuine question. A simple one even. But Rachel finished half her glass, waiting for Sofie’s answer.

“I don’t actually know,” she finally admitted. ”I mean, he’s incredibly handsome and sex with him is…” She stopped herself seeing Rachel roll her eyes. “But it’s more than that. He is smart and perceptive. He cares about people and what happens to them. And he... understands me. He somehow knows what I think.”

“Geez. Knowing what you think… I wonder how difficult that is.” Rachel tapped her index finger on her mouth, pretending to think hard. ”Sof, I hate to break it to you but you aren’t subtle. Anyone with eyes can see how bad you have it for him. He is simply exploiting that.”

Sofie flinched at Rachel’s brutal honesty. Maybe she had been so starved for affection that she saw them in a gigolo doing his job?

“Maybe…”

“I think you should draw a line under this and move on.”

“But he’s still useful for the case. He knows the players and their secrets. And he wants to help me bring them down.”

“Unless he is the case. As in, the murderer?”

“Well, yes...” Sofie huffed, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “I seem to have lost all abilities to work a suspect. I simply cannot tell with him.”

“Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve been a total robot recently. It’s ok to let loose sometimes. We can work on finding you a less homicidal match in the future.”

“I don’t want to ‘let loose’, Rach. It’s not who I am. Or what I do… I want to solve this case.”

“Ok.” Rachel’s voice was soft, like talking to a startled horse. “Why don’t we fetch him and talk to him together? I’m actually quite curious to meet this kryptonite of yours.”

“Yes! Let’s do that. Let’s go now.”

“Why are you excited?” Rachel’s eyes narrowed. “You’re dying to see him again, aren’t you?”

“No,” Sofie lied. “With your help I might finally get a break in the case. That’s all.”

It was just after nine pm when they stepped out of the apartment’s rental car. The elegant black Mercedes looked out of place in front of Sofie’s run-down safe-house. Long bizarrely shaped shadows from the scrapyard’s flood-lights fell over the cottage, making it look like a scene from a horror movie.

“Golly, that’s how you live, Sof?” Rachel kicked an empty soda can out of the way. “You definitely needed rescuing. This place is grim.”

“No lights on...”

It was more a question than a statement. What happened to Philip? Why would he sit in the dark? Did she misjudge the extent of the poisoning? Had he slipped back into a coma?

“I shouldn’t have left him.”

Sofie sprinted towards the door. She could taste her anxiety as she fought with the rusty lock. It finally gave and the door flew open with a loud bang. Sofie tumbled into the living room. It was empty. She could picture him collapsed on the bed. Or unconscious on the bathroom floor. But both rooms were empty.

She ran through the nettles to the back of the house, cursing as their stings scratched her skin. The backyard was a deserted wasteland. Empty except for a small shed in the back. She rattled on its wooden door and glimpsed through the blind glass. No sign of Philip there either.

When she returned to the living room she shook her head.

“He’s gone.”

Anger and shock made her voice shake.

“Yes,” said Rachel calmly, holding up a scruffy piece of paper. “But he’s left you a note.”

She handed her the neatly written message.

Dear Sofie,
I don’t know what they told you to make you walk out on me.
But know one thing: I did not kill Kerry.We could have solved this together.

Phil

Sofie sank onto the chair. It creaked as it took her weight. Walk out on me. Was that how he felt? That she had abandoned him? Sofie took a deep breath. At least he was ok, that was a small solace, even if she might never see him again.

Rachel placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Do you think that’s Phil for Philip... or Philón?”

“Does it matter anymore?”

“Yes, Sof. If it’s Philip he was just playing with you. If it’s Philón he was ready to tell you the truth...”

She needed to find him before the suspense and guilt was eating her alive.

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