Sofie’s spy-game had started. She didn’t discover anything new about MP Kerry yet, but at least Philip proved to be as susceptible to her interrogation skills as any other informant. But her triumph about that was short lived. Philip too gained insights. Insights about her, she probably didn’t want to surrender. Especially since she couldn’t figure out what he’d actually learned. He rose from his chair before she could quiz him further.
“I’m afraid our time is up, Miss Carter. We’ll have to continue our conversation next time. Here, I’ll walk you downstairs.”
When he accompanied her to the reception, he did not hook her arm into his or touch the small of her back, like he had on the way up. The absence of these comforting gestures screamed louder to Sofie than the unsettling feeling that he knew something about her she wanted to keep secret. By the time they arrived in the lobby, he had firmly turned back into the aloof gigolo. Off-limits, yet so enticing.
What a devious circle. It was designed to create a sense of loss and trigger cravings. Like a cleverly fabricated clickbait title, it left her unsatisfied, yet pining for more.
Philip held out his hand to shake farewell.
“I’m looking forward to your next visit, Miss Carter.”
His tone was even; it was a mere formality to him.
“When is my next appointment?”
A smirk twitched his lips and Sofie knew she had given away too much. Yes, she was eager to book her next visit. She needed the appointment to happen sooner rather than later. The election loomed, and she was up against the clock to finish her exposé. She realized the story wasn’t the only thing on her mind when Philip gently brushed his thumb over her hand in his. She wanted to see him again. This seemingly insignificant touch made every nerve ending in Sofie’s arm explode. And it wasn’t by accident; he knew exactly what he was doing.
“Melanie will make the arrangements with you. Goodbye for now, Miss Carter.”
He nodded towards the receptionist. It was another secret communication between them; another information exchange that Sofie was not privy to or supposed to notice.
“The earliest appointment Philip has available is in three weeks.”
It was an eternity for a fast-moving investigation like hers, and Sofie wasn’t sure whether the nod had a positive or negative influence on the timing. With a sigh, she agreed. At least it gave her enough time to collect background information on Philip. Knowing his identity should make it pretty easy to follow him after work and find out what this enigmatic gigolo was up-to in his private life.
At least that’s what Sofie thought, but two weeks later, she wasn’t any closer to unearthing the man behind the myth. She tapped the steering wheel of her car in frustration.
She had been surveying Elandra, either in person or through her hidden cameras, and during all that time Philip has not left the compound even once. He stayed away from prying eyes, behind the barbed wire fencing and safely out of the reach of blackmailers like her. Smart choice, given the power and influence of his clients.
The only people leaving through the single patrolled gate were the catering and cleaning crew. There was no point in following them since they were new people every day.The agency sending them did not know who would be assigned on any given day. According to them, Elandra would hand-pick the crew in the morning amongst the agency’s most experienced staff. So sneaking herself in as an extra crew member wouldn’t work either.
It was well after midnight again. A slight drizzle created a dull drub on the roof of the car that sent Sofie into a brooding gloom. Another day wasted. Displeased, Sofie watched the receptionist hurry to her white sedan. She was the only permanent staff member living outside the high security compound and it was the end of her shift.
Maybe Sofie needed to broaden her focus? Maybe the harmless Melanie had confidential information about Philip that would prove useful? Sofie started her engine. Better than sitting around here.
Sofie knew she was onto something as soon as Melanie took the offramp to the commercial dock area instead of heading home to bed, as Sofie had expected her to do. The white sedan crept along the gravel road next to towering containerships and pitch black warehouses. Why would anyone head to the docks at night? It was dangerous, especially for a woman. Maybe the receptionist wasn’t so harmless, after all?
Melanie parked her car next to a dilapidated wooden storage building. The massive rolling barn doors were slightly open, letting a brutal white glare of fluorescent light flood on the pavement. Even through the closed car doors, Sofie heard the cheer of a large crowd inside the building. What was this place? Only one way to find out. Sofie closed her car door when a bone-curling cry froze her in place.
It wasn’t human, that much was clear. But she couldn’t tell what type of animal it belonged to, only that it was screaming in pain.
Sofie’s heart raced. This was an illegal animal fighting arena; probably dogs or roosters, judging by the size of the ring. The metallic stench of blood cut through the fumes of cheap alcohol and the pungent sweat oozing from the low-lives who feasted on the pain of helpless animals.
“The winner is... Frankenclaw,” exclaimed a man on a podium with faked excitement.
Melanie lingered on the railing close to the man, but she faced away from the arena and red smeared sawdust below.
“Alright folks, we’ll be back in 5. Get your bets in, it’s Terminator versus...”, the man turned to Melanie and whispered something in her ear that made her smile, “Beakzilla. Should be a good fight.”
Sofie was pushing her way through the dispersing crowd when a middle-aged woman with a bulging red nose grabbed her arm.
“Hey.” She planted herself in front of Sofie, breaking her line of sight to Melanie. “You’re new, yeah? Wanna make money? I give you tips!”
“No, thanks. I know my way around.”
Sofie turned away from the revolting smell of booze and stale cigarettes. The woman tumbled forward, reaching with one hand for Sofie’s shoulder to support her weight, while the other felt up her pockets.
“Ah, you’re rich, hon! I’ll make you richer. But you need to be nicer to me.”
With one effortless move, Sofie grabbed the woman’s hand and bent her fingers backwards.
“You see this?” Sofie said evenly, while the woman winced in pain. “This is the nicest I’ll be. So stay away from me.”
Sofie didn’t lose her temper easily, but she was angry. Not because of the woman but because of the hard choice she had to make: report the illegal animal fighting club and give up on Melanie as her informant, or turn a blind eye and secure someone on the inside, who would report back on Philip.
With a heavy heart, Sofie approached Melanie.
“Oh shit,” the receptionist cursed as she recognized Sofie. “What are you doing here?”
“I followed you.”
“Why do you think?”
“You wanna get me fired! Your stunt with Mrs. Gartner almost did it, and now this...”
“Do you want to keep your job?”
“No.” Melanie’s answer came without hesitation. What was she playing at?
“No? Good, then you won’t mind the email going out at 7am, telling Elandra about what you are up to here.” Sofie turned to leave. She needed to dial up the heat.
“Oh, so you don’t want Elandra to know about your little side hustle? You’re with the organizer. Right? Is he your boyfriend?”
“Husband...” Melanie volunteered, sounding less sure of herself. “I’m trying to get out. Henry said it was the fastest way to get money for the passports.
“What do you mean ‘out’?”
“Elandra is not just an employer. They are... I don’t know.... They have power. You’re not just simply quitting a job with them and walk away.” Fear resonated in her voice.
“Was that what happened when you called Philip to transfer Mrs. Gartner’s visits? Did he threaten you?”
“No. Philip wouldn’t... he’s not like them.”
“Because he’s staff, like you?”
“No, that’s not it. He is the Primo. He absolutely is one of them, but he behaves... differently.”
Melanie shook her head as she nervously chewed her lip.
“I’ve said too much already.”
“Melanie, you’ve given me enough to cause problems for you but not enough for me to protect you.”
The receptionist looked tortured and confused.
“How can I trust you?”
“This isn’t about trust. It’s about benefits. If you become my informant at Elandra, I’ll want to keep you there and won’t send my email. I’m giving you a chance to carry on as before. Do you really want to risk that?”
Malanie’s eyes filled with tears as she shook her head in defeat.
“Then tell me how Philip is ‘different’.”
“Ok. I’ll. Tell. You,” she sobbed before getting a grip on herself. “None of the companions can communicate with the outside world. They don’t have a phone, internet or TV. The only thing to keep them informed is newspapers. So Philip gives me ads to put in the ‘classified’ section of The Daily Guardian. I think he communicates with someone through that.”
Sofie stared at Melanie. Elandra sounded like an evil cult, isolating its members and controlling their access to information. Melanie was right to fear them.
“Do you have one of Philip’s ads?”
“No. I burn them as soon as I post the ads. But I remember the last one, because it was so odd. It was about a 20-year-old female who’s into politics and was looking for a 80-year-old man to go on hunting trips with. In Karlingford or Durbigsher. I didn’t know you could hunt there.”
Sofie smiled. ‘Karlingford or Durbigsher’ wasn’t referring to a place. It was ‘Carl Durbing’, the name of a hitman. And not just any hitman, it was the one MP Kerry used to kill her opponent. Sofie uncovered his name but little more about the circumstances. Philip communicated his knowledge to someone on the outside.
“What does it mean, then?”
“How would I know?” Sofie lied. Melanie didn’t need to know any of this. “Quite an age discrepancy too.”
“Yes, another odd thing with that one. He has never included an age before.” The receptionist huffed, “I had to always argue with the newspaper about that because it’s a mandatory field.”
Odd indeed. Maybe the numbers weren’t ages at all, maybe they were dates? Twenty and eighty could mean 20.08.? How was this linked to the murder? It was two months after the murder.
“When was the last time he posted an ad?”
“He usually gives me a new ad to post every Monday, but he hasn’t given me one in over two weeks.”
Why? Did someone discover their communications? Or did he tell the informant everything he knew? The explanation for why he stopped would be in the answer from his contact; one of the newer ads in the newspaper. Sofie just needed to find it.
“Thanks, you’ve helped a lot. I won’t tell Elandra about any of this.” Sofie placed a hand on Melanie’s shoulder. “Melanie, you know this is cruel and illegal. You need to do the right thing and shut this down. You and your husband will have to find other ways to earn money.”
“OK.” Her voice sounded strangely relieved, like she had been waiting for someone to force them to shut down.
As soon as Sofie was back in her car, she pulled out her phone to search the classified ads section for the keywords “hunting“ and “politics” over the past three weeks. Four ads popped up on her screen:
ID #22456 Seeking: 30 to 50 conservative, political, single or divorced female who loves hunting and crocheting. I (40) like travel and baking.
ID #22456 Female, politics-buff (24) looking for male (50) to go hunting in Karlingford or Durbigsher.
That’s Philip’s ad! Melanie remembered the ages wrong: Twenty-four and fifty would be 24.05. That makes more sense. It was fourteen days before the murder. Philip was likely telling someone when Kerry contracted Durbing to arrange the hit. Sofie scrolled through the next one. She still needed to find the answer from Philip’s contact.
ID #22544 Female (30) into politics and hiking. I’m adventurous and loving. Hunting for love or marriage.
ID #23045 Male hunting enthusiast. No luck in Durbigsher. Ready to move on with new interests. Looking for s/o to put my feet up in front of a fire.
That must be it. Philip’s contact told him that he or she could not reach Carl Durbing and that they didn’t want to pursue this investigation any longer. Philip stopped his ads because his contact wanted out. Was the last sentence telling him that they got cold feet? It wouldn’t be surprising, MP Kerry was a powerful opponent, and going against her wasn’t something a private investigator would consider, especially when there was no key witness.
Sofie let out a laugh. That’s what he learned about her. He somehow deduced that she had come for the information rather than his services. Good. That way, next week’s meeting would be less of a struggle for her self-control and she would finally find out what motivated Kerry to commit murder when she had other options at her disposal.