Ian’s phone rang. He glanced at the screen. Stephanie. Had he unwittingly conjured her up by thinking about her? They’d barely exchanged more than half a dozen words, most of them rancorous, since the divorce. His finger hovered between the red and green buttons. He sighed and clicked the green one to accept her call.
‘Ian,’ she drawled. ‘Is this a good time?’
‘As good as any,’ he said, sitting down on a packing case.
‘I really, really need your help.’
That was a first. ‘Okay. I’m quite busy, but–’
‘No, it’s frightfully urgent. I need you to come right now.’
‘Where are you?’ What kind of trouble had she got herself into? And where?
‘I’m at home, of course. Where else would I be?’
He had no idea, not knowing anything about how she’d led her life since she left him ten years ago. Although spending money would have been high on her list.
‘Please, sweetie.’ Sweetie? ‘You could be here in half an hour.’
Half an hour? In his clapped-out rust bucket of a car? ‘Forty minutes,’ he said. ‘If the traffic’s not too bad.’ Well, he was going in that direction anyway. He just hoped he wouldn’t be expected to spy on her husband. It would be thoroughly unethical, he would tell her, and refer her on to someone else.
Ian had never been inside the house before. He’d seen it from the road. A huge, modern monstrosity. A thoroughly suitable residence for the pickled herring king of the east coast. Stephanie led him into a living room, the décor of which was cream. Cream carpet, curtains, lampshades, leather sofas and cushions. The only concession to a different colour seemed to be a hairy, muddy-brown cushion at the end of one of the sofas.
‘So,’ he said. ‘What can I do for you? I have to warn you if it’s my usual line of work–’
‘Your usual line of work?’ she interrupted.
‘Yeah, you know, marital infidelity, cheating husbands…’
‘Don’t be so stupid,’ she scoffed. ‘It’s nothing like that.’
He wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or if he should expect something worse.
‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s Lottie.’
At the sound of the name, the hairy cushion uncurled itself, stood up and growled at Ian.
‘This is my Lottie,’ said Stephanie, scooping the dog up in her arms and muttering incomprehensible babble into its ear. ‘She’s such a sweetums. I know she’ll be very happy living with you.’
What? She couldn’t be serious. What would he want with a dog? And if he did want one, it would be something large and manly. Not a hairy cushion.
‘Yes,’ Stephanie continued. ‘We’re moving to Cape Cod. I need you to take Lottie. Here,’ she said, thrusting Lottie into Ian’s arms. Lottie licked his face.
‘When are you leaving?’ Ian asked.
‘Tonight, of course.’
‘Tonight?’ And she’d only just thought about rehoming her dog? Or perhaps he was just her last resort. He glanced around. Not so much as a suitcase. ‘But the house…’
‘Oh, that’s all being taken care of once we’ve left.’
‘I can’t have a dog. I’m in the middle of moving up to Tayside.’
She beamed at him. ‘But that’s perfect. Lottie will love it. Long country walks, no nasty Edinburgh traffic. I’ll get her stuff.’
She left the room and returned with a tartan collar and lead, a bag of toys, which Ian was afraid would squeak and a mauve, faux fur igloo. ‘Her bed,’ Stephanie explained. ‘Help me carry it out to your car, darling.’
He led Lottie out to the car and placed both dog and bed on the back seat, her bag of toys in the boot. He intended to lose those at the earliest opportunity.
‘Oh,’ said Stephanie. ‘I forgot her food. Come and carry it for me, darling.’ She led him to a shed at the side of the house. ‘You must always get her this kind. She won’t eat anything else.’
Soon see about that, Ian thought, looking at the small gold tins, each with a picture of a dog not unlike Lottie, and imagining this was at the Harrod’s Food Hall end of the dog food range.
He returned to his car and found Lottie now sitting in the front passenger seat, with her paws on the dashboard. Stephanie waved them off. A thank you would have been nice, but he knew not to expect that.
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