Anne didn’t just dislike her sister Hazel, she detested her. It wasn’t even Hazel’s fault and she had no idea how Anne really felt. As far as she was concerned they were the best of friends. The real blame, if any were to be attributed, would have to lie with their parents.
Anne was Hazel’s junior by 15 years and was, as the phrase has it, an accident. She was born long after her parents thought the worrisome days of child rearing were long since passed. By the earliest times that Anne could remember Hazel had been off with Lord Allenby on a tour of Europe, then married to him. She had grown up alone, almost as an only child, but always compared by her parents to what Hazel was like at the same age. The comparison was always in Hazel’s favour not Anne’s. She wasn’t as clever as Hazel had been, or as pretty, or as funny. Her parents had doted on Hazel. For many years she had been an only child and had enjoyed their undivided attention and love. They still had many of the toys and clothes she had outgrown stored away up in the attic as keepsakes. They brought them down as needed for Anne. Often even many of the presents she got at Christmas and for her birthday were actually things that had once belonged to Hazel. Their parents eked out their small income by thrift, and saw no harm in getting more use out of toys and clothes they had already paid for. This penny-pinching didn’t extend to Hazel, of course. Her gifts were always new. Not only did she get them for her birthday and at Christmas but also at other times too, simply because “we saw it, and thought of you.”
When their father had died, several years after their mother, leaving Anne to look after him for his remaining days, the house and its contents, along with the savings they had put aside, were left to be shared equally between the two girls.
Anne even resented that Hazel had insisted Anne keep her share too, as she had no use for a share in the family home nor for the money that might come from selling it. She was more than happy with what she already had with Lord Allenby. She took one or two small items as keepsakes but that was all she wanted.
Anne’s affair with Lord Allenby had begun not because she found him attractive. Physically he was no prize at all, though he could be both charming and funny when he wanted to be. They were traits he always turned on for Anne. It was done more to spite her sister. She felt a sense of power over Hazel when she was with James. She was taking something which was Hazel’s and the silly woman didn’t even know it. Occasional romantic meetings away from the Manor soon became much more frequent and Anne’s visits to her sister became longer and longer affording, as it did, many opportunities for Anne and James to be together. Hazel didn’t even notice that the times Anne had to return home for one reason or another coincided so frequently with the times that James chose to be away on his own travelling on one of his frequent business trips. Anne was always careful not to get too well tanned when she accompanied James abroad, if the weather back in the UK wouldn’t support claims to have been sunbathing in the back garden. She had made that mistake on their first trip, and covered her error up by telling Hazel she had won a course of sun tanning sessions at the local health centre.
Anne had worked as a supply teacher going from school to school as needed. The house was fully paid for and the income she got from her inheritance paid for its upkeep. Beyond that, her living expenses were low and amply met by the money her work brought in. The work was sporadic and left her with long unoccupied periods in which she helped out a variety of charities and, once her affair with James had begun, spent at the Manor supposedly visiting her sister. When she was staying there all of her personal day-to-day needs were met from the household budget. Since they had started seeing each other romantically James also gave her a few hundred pounds each month for personal spending money, so that she had no real need to work at all. She still did so now and then just keep her hand in, and because going back to work was good cover when she was supposed to be back home. When she really was at work she would make a point of telephoning Hazel so that she would hear the children or other members of staff in the background.
Hazel had suggested once that she join Anne to keep her company, as James would be away that week too. Anne had quickly explained that the school she was to work in was a boarding school and that she would live in there for the duration of her employment. She took the next real opportunity that she could find, and persuaded James to be away for most of that time. She then reminded Hazel of her offer and both sisters went to stay at Anne’s house for that week. Anne made sure she left home early, before Hazel had even risen and spent long hours in the coffee shop near the school after her work there was finished. Over the meals that she shared with Hazel once she did return home, she explained her absence by saying that the trip was long, and busy in both directions. She would retire early, leaving Hazel to watch the small black and white television set in the house’s lounge, saying that she needed to be fit and ready for the next days labour’s. In this way Hazel spent nearly all of her time at the house alone and more often than not bored. She didn’t offer to accompany Anne any more after that.
The money James gave Anne each month was, of course, a secret between themselves and something that Hazel knew nothing about. She spent a little of it as needed, but most she added to what she already had saved.
Anne sat alone in the hotel room she had taken with James on their trip to Pittsburgh, where the factory was that supplied his gadget to the Americas. The room looked very familiar, and she wondered whether they had actually been in it before. The problem was that one room looked pretty much like another, at least in these purpose-built hotels. Even between different chains there was a ‘samey’ feeling about a room after you had stayed in a few places. She preferred the more personal rooms of the smaller hotels they stayed at now and then. More often than not they had not been built originally as hotels and each room had a character all of its own, and was very different to those offered in the bigger establishments.
She looked out of the window. It was a hot day, far too hot to be out in the sun. Even if she had wanted to take a stroll outside, which she didn’t, its rays would soon lead to the tan she was avoiding. Trips with James were really becoming quite boring, especially those which he combined with real business, which was most of them. James was concerned, he claimed, that if Hazel saw stamps of too many other countries in his passport she would start to ask questions that would be difficult to answer. It was hard enough to talk her out of accompanying him to the places she had already been, such as the factories. It would be even harder to dissuade her from joining him on visits to other destinations.
She turned her gaze back to the room and realised James had left his briefcase on the small table next to the door that led back to the hotel’s foyer. It was unlike James to leave it behind, indeed she could remember no other occasion that he had. She retrieved it and laid it on the bed which she then sat on. It was even more unlike James to leave it unlocked, a fact that she discovered by pushing the two brass buttons which held the case’s clasps securely in place. He usually locked it as soon as he had put in or retrieved an item, using a little brass key attached to the bunch he carried with him. She glanced at her watch. James had been gone long enough to return for the case if he was going to do so. She listened intently for the sound of approaching footsteps just the same. Satisfied that there were none, she gingerly lifted the case’s lid and looked inside.
In the bottom half were two thick green files containing papers. Anne lifted out the first one and flicked through its contents. It consisted of a variety of papers concerning the Pittsburgh company he was visiting including details of the company’s accounts and copies of recent correspondence, much of which seemed to centre around a new agreement James was asking them to sign. The latest letter offered to give the company exclusive rights to the Americas market, something which neither their current agreement nor the originally proposed one contained, if they accepted the clause which would increase James’s royalties. There was nothing in it to interest her. She set the file aside and retrieved the second one. Its contents were very similar to the first, but concerned the operation in Cebu that serviced the Asian markets. Even the topic of the latest correspondence was the same, and included the same letter offering exclusivity in exchange for acceptance of the increased royalties. The agreement, too, seemed the same, though it was headed with the name and address of the firm in Cebu rather than the one in Pittsburgh, and was a photocopy of an original signed by both parties, whereas the one for America was still blank. She flipped through the papers quickly and, satisfied there was nothing new to learn, returned both files to the case.
She turned her attention to the top half. It held a folding pouch, much like most briefcases do. It was very similar in fact to her own case that she took with her when working. This one was much grander, of course, being made of good quality leather throughout and with heavy solid looking hinges and locks. Her own was a thin leather on the outside, which looked almost like plastic, and inside it was plain to see that its wallet was only simulated leather and its fixings light and easily breakable compared to James’s. The wallet had several different shaped pockets on its exposed surface, each one filled with a different item — a variety of pens and pencils, a calculator, some of James’s business cards and a rubber which didn’t quite match the shape of the pocket it had been forced into. She slid out the hard A4 pad that was housed in the wallet’s first section. It was blank. She peered into that section to ensure it had no other contents before returning the pad. The next section was completely empty. The last, formed by the wallet being clipped securely in place by two press studs attached to leather straps which were similarly attached to the case’s lid, contained several sheets of printed paper. The paper was loose, not clipped or stapled together and not held in a file.
She pulled them out and began to look through them. It was obvious at first glance that the papers had been created by two different people, and printed out on two different machines. Not only were the styles different, but also the paper of one of them was considerably heavier and thicker than the other. All of the papers were white but the heavier one seemed to be a crisp more brilliant colour than the lighter one. It was clear that each sheet of paper referred to one bank account or investment. Not only did each have opening and closing balances, and details of the transactions in between, but it was headed with all of the details needed to access the accounts, not only the bank’s name and the account number but security details too, such as passwords and answers to identifying questions. From her brief scan withdrawals from accounts detailed on the lighter paper seemed to match deposits shown on the heavier ones.
Anne decided that her best course would be to make copies of the pages, so that she could study them more closely in private when she didn’t risk being discovered. She telephoned down to the hotel’s Reception to ensure that James really had left the building and to enquire if the hotel had copying facilities. She was assured that he had left by taxi about half an hour earlier, and was given directions to the hotel’s Office Bureau which was just off of the Reception area itself.
When Anne returned from copying the pages she returned the originals to the wallet where she had taken them from and closed the case’s lid, snapping each of the locks back into place. She returned the case to the small table she had retrieved it from and put it carefully back in the same position she had found it. She then retrieved her own suitcase and slid the copies into an inside pocket. After staring at it for fully five seconds she secured it with the tiny padlock that hung from its zip fastener, then dropped the little silver key into her handbag. She returned the suitcase to the bottom of the wardrobe she had fetched it from.
That being done she turned back to deciding how to spend her morning until James’s expected return.
When James did return, at lunchtime as planned, he was looking very pleased with himself. He had, he delightedly informed her, managed to get the directors he was meeting with to accept a new agreement which would double the royalties he got from them once he retired. He had had to give away exclusive rights but this offer, combined with thinly veiled threats to meet the American market’s requirement from the Philippines, had been sufficient to get them to accept his proposal. When they were finally free to get married, he informed her, they would be very comfortable indeed.
“And you, my dear,” he had added, “will no doubt end up as a very wealthy widow.”
He was always promising her that she would eventually become Lady Allenby, but she thought this very unlikely. Her sister’s insistence that she wouldn’t divorce her husband, and her subtle hints that she knew things about James that would stop him from divorcing her, were frequent enough for Anne to believe that she meant what she said. James could never really expect to be free from Hazel. Besides, Anne didn’t particularly want to marry him. Being Lady Allenby would be very nice but she was more interested in spiting her sister than in winning James permanently. She had also grown to enjoy the freedom to do as she pleased that she was getting from having a decent amount of money put aside.
They celebrated James’s victory with many drinks at the restaurant they took lunch in, and were both quite intoxicated by the time they returned to the hotel room late that afternoon. They spent the remaining afternoon and early evening in bed together, then it was time to head out to another restaurant to continue their celebrations. They returned to the hotel late that night but as their flight to New York, where they planned to break their return trip for a couple of days, wasn’t until early the following afternoon they were in no rush. They could remain in bed until late the following morning and indulge in more horizontal pleasures.
The trip to America had been rewarding financially not just for James but for Anne too. She admired the golden bracelet on her wrist that James had brought for her in New York when she had exclaimed how pretty it looked in the window of the jeweller’s as they had passed by. She couldn’t ever wear it at the Manor, of course, Hazel would be sure to spot it and be keen to know how she had come by it. She unclipped it and put it in the small box she kept hidden which contained all of the other gifts James had given her.
Now that she was alone at home she could take a closer look at the papers she had copied in Pittsburgh. She retrieved them from her case in the hallway, where it lay still packed in the same place James had dropped it after driving her back from the airport. She took them through to the lounge and sat at the small dining table there as she studied them. It was, as she had suspected when she first saw them, a record of financial transactions with amounts being paid in regularly to several of the accounts. Sums were then being drawn out of these accounts and deposited into just two. These showed only deposits, no withdrawals, and the totals of each were very sizeable indeed. One on its own contained enough money for its owner to live a very extravagant lifestyle for many years. If one controlled both … ? Well, ‘small fortune’ would be an exaggeration but not much of one. She gazed at the papers trying to puzzle out exactly what they represented. Her conclusions were not very far from the truth.
She wondered how she might question James about these accounts. Whether she could actually do so without disclosing the fact that she knew about them. Was it a secret? It probably was. It would account for why James was usually so particular about locking his briefcase again each time he used it. She would have to think long and hard about how to raise the topic, or indeed whether to mention it at all. Perhaps her knowledge was better kept to herself while she thought about how it might be turned to her benefit.
She yawned and stretched. There was no doubt about it, travelling was tiring. It was made worse by the time difference. She glanced at her watch. It was late. She wasn’t hungry, they had eaten on the flight over and stopped off again at a restaurant en route from the airport back to her home. She would go to bed now and get up whenever it pleased her. She had a lazy day planned for the following day and would travel back to the Manor late in the evening. That way it would appear that she had been working all day. She left the suitcase, now full of mostly dirty laundry, in the hallway. She would deal with it tomorrow, she thought, as she made her way up the staircase to her bedroom.
By the time she got to the Manor the following evening it was fairly late. James had already retired and Valerie was still out with her friend Philip. It was strange, thought Anne, that no one seemed to think of him as her boyfriend, which was what he basically was. Perhaps it was just an ‘age’ thing. Both Philip and Valerie were well past the time of life when having boyfriends and girlfriends would be considered ‘right’.
She sat in the drawing room with Hazel, drinking a glass of sherry before retiring and discussing her week’s work. She drew on actual experiences from her past to provide Hazel with the details she expected. It was easier than just making something up from scratch. They agreed that the next day they would go into town together. Both still needed to buy James’s and Julian’s presents. Looking around the shops there might give them inspiration. They parted, to meet again at breakfast, and Anne smiled as she climbed the stairs to her room, happy that she was continuing to fool her sister.
She didn’t often visit James’s room when Hazel was only a few doors away in her own but tonight would be her only chance to see him before he went away again for another week and she was yearning to find out more about her discovery. The landing was in darkness and she crossed it, no lights from either James’s room or from Hazel’s shining under their doors. Valerie’s too was black. It certainly appeared as if everyone was asleep, or at least in bed trying to be. She got no reply to her light tap at James’s door. She opened it and stepped inside, closing it gently behind her and locking it. The room was lighter than the landing had been. James kept the curtains open so that the small amount of light from outside drifted into the bedroom. It was enough to be certain that James was alone in the bed. She dropped the dressing gown she had worn, just on the off chance that Hazel should see her, before sliding in beside him. He was deeply asleep and even her joining him hadn’t disturbed him. She tried whispering in his ear but he just turned his head away without waking. She tried again. This time, he raised a hand as if in protest and tried to push her away, but still didn’t wake up. This approach was obviously not working. She held one hand over his mouth so that he couldn’t breathe through it, nor cry out when he woke up and pinched his nostrils closed with the other. It only took seconds for this to work. It took longer him to get his bearings, thinking perhaps that he was still with her in a hotel room rather than being back at the Manor.
“Anne, this is an unexpected surprise,” he said to her in a whisper. “Pleasant though,” he added quickly, in case his meaning could be misconstrued.
She told him that she would miss him while he was away and that she wanted to be with him one more time before he left. They made love very quietly, the thrill that their activities might be overheard almost adding to its excitement. When they had finished their conversation was in whispered tones.
Getting him to talk about marrying her was easy enough. He had promised it many times and would, he frequently assured her, find a way to get around Hazel’s obstinacy. Getting him to talk about money though was much harder. It was a topic that he was always very closed about to her.
“But whether you divorce her or she does you, won’t you have to give her half of the estate and half of your money?” Anne asked as quietly as she could.
“Well,” he said at last and feeling very relaxed after their earlier activities, “I’ve got money she doesn’t know about. Only Mark and I do, and even he doesn’t know how much I’ve really got. Don’t you worry, Anne dear, there’ll be more than enough to keep you and I very comfortably.” He winked at her, though in the dim light the gesture went unnoticed.
It seemed as she had thought. The money that she had found detailed in his briefcase had to be what he was talking about, the lighter pages being what Mark knew of and the heavier ones what he didn’t.
“I’d best get back to my room, just in case Hazel or Valerie should get back up again,” said Anne, sliding from the bed. Their hands held each other for a second then slipped apart. She put her gown back on before silently unlocking the bedroom door. She turned and blew him a kiss before opening the door a fraction to check that the landing was deserted, then slipping through it and closing it as quietly as she could behind her.
She didn’t turn on a light when she returned to her room but didn’t climb straight into bed either. She sat at her dressing table wondering how this information might benefit her. Perhaps there was a way to get the money for herself, without needing to take James along with it?
The next day she accompanied Hazel into town. Both had to find presents for James and for Julian, and she needed to find suitable outfits to wear at both of their parties. Hazel complained bitterly about the affair she believed James to be having. Though it still plays Anne that her sister was so distraught it was becoming somewhat tedious to hear it all of the time.
She found a nice black wallet for James and picked up the same thing for Julian, though his was brown. She didn’t much care if they chose to use them or not, but did want to be seen to not be favouring James over Julian. She found two dresses to wear to the parties, both well within her budget. She was somewhat annoyed when Hazel also bought one, which was well overpriced in her opinion. They returned to the Manor just in time to see James leave for his meeting with Julian.
She spent the weekend as much out of Hazel’s way as possible, choosing to walk around the garden and grounds or down to the village rather than be alone with her sister, who she knew would just continue to keep referring to James’s affair. She couldn’t avoid her at mealtimes but these were spent in Valerie’s company and, now that James was away, in Philip’s too. Hazel had no opportunity at these to discuss what James might or might not be up to.
On the Monday Julian returned from his weekend with James, which he had gone to straight from his flight back from Nairobi where he had been filming one of its inhabitants. Physically, he was strikingly similar to James. He shared many of the same mental attributes as well, but he seemed more easy-going than James, and he was good-natured pretty much all of the time whereas James turned it on and off as it suited him.
After dinner on the Monday evening, Anne excused herself to retire to her room and read before going to bed. She had only just sat in a chair there and found the page she had stopped reading at the previous evening when there was a gentle but insistent knock at the door. It was Hazel, as she found out when she invited her visitor to come in. Hazel stepped through the doorway and closed the door behind her with a solid ‘click ‘. She took the chair next to Anne and enquired first after her health.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Hazel asked. “You’ve seemed somewhat distant and pre-occupied after your last journey home. Really, I’ve hardly seen you at all since you’ve been back.”
Anne assured her that she was fine, adding that she may have picked up a slight cold from one of the children but that it was nothing to be concerned about. Hazel was silence for a few seconds before launching into the real reason she had come to talk to her sister about privately.
“I’ve found something in James’s room which I’m sure points to his having an affair, not that I was looking for anything you understand, I came across it quite by accident.” Hazel spoke without pause, almost breathlessly, as though trying to get her whole thoughts out before nervousness stopped her doing so. She held out a credit card receipt and restaurant bill for Anne to take as she finished speaking.
Anne took both pieces of paper and examined them in silence. Anne remembered both the restaurant and the meal itself well. In fact, now that she thought of it she could even remember James putting the papers in the pocket of his dinner jacket along with the card. They had gone directly from the restaurant to draw cash from a machine for the taxi ride back to their hotel, which was probably why he had put everything in his pocket instead of in his wallet as he usually did.
“It doesn’t really prove anything, Hazel,” she said at last, “there could be any number of innocent explanations behind it.”
Hazel agreed, but told Anne that James had made no mention of a stop in New York, either when discussing his travel plans before he left or in the short time he had been back before leaving again.
Anne would have liked to forewarn James of Hazel’s discovery but had no way of contacting him. He took his mobile phone with him when he travelled but virtually never turned it on. He told Anne that he didn’t so that their time together wouldn’t be disturbed. He told everyone else that the cost of receiving mobile phone calls when abroad was just too high. Knowing James, Anne thought that both explanations were probably true. Hazel would no doubt have details of where he was staying, in case he needed to be contacted in an emergency, but Anne could think of no legitimate excuse for asking her sister for them. She would just have to let him know as soon as she could after he returned, and hope that she managed to do so before Hazel could raise the matter, if it was her intention to. Perhaps it would all be for the best if the fact that James was having an affair did come out. It might at last force the question of the pair getting divorced to the surface. Anne wasn’t yet ready though to be named as ‘the other woman’, a fact that she was sure would come out soon after any initial discussions of James’s infidelity.
She let Hazel talk for several minutes before finally rising and walking towards the bedroom door, to let her sister know by her actions that their discussion had finished. During the days that followed before James’s return, she ensured even more than before that she wasn’t alone with Hazel.
James went virtually straight to his room when he returned shortly after lunch on the Friday, claiming to be tired from the journey. Anne followed, as soon as she could without being seen by the house’s other residents. She tapped on James’s door and entered quickly without waiting to be invited in. She found him undressing in his walk-in wardrobe. She pushed him gently away when he took hold of her, no doubt thinking that she had come for a repeat performance of the last time she had been in his room. She had only just explained Hazel’s discovery when there was another knock at his bedroom door. He barely hesitated before inviting the second visitor to come in, but held one finger to his lips as he looked at Anne, and pointed to the wardrobe floor with his other hand, indicating that Anne should stay there.
“It’s me James,” came Hazel’s voice for the bedroom. “Just wanted to let you know that I had your dinner jacket cleaned ready for this evening while you were away.”
James repeated his gestures to Anne before pulling up his trousers, which had dropped to his ankles, and walking back into the bedroom. Now that they were in the same room, the volume of Hazel’s voice fell slightly, but Anne could still hear everything both said quite plainly.
She listened as Hazel raised her discovery with James. The lie that he told to explain its presence came quickly and easily. After a few more words, Hazel left. James returned to the wardrobe.
“Think that satisfied her,” said James to Anne with a wink. ” Threw her off the scent, at least.”
He started to unbutton his trousers again, which he had pulled back into place and fastened while talking to Hazel. Now that she had left, seemingly satisfied with the explanation that had come to mind as soon as Anne had told him of his mistake, he was confident that she wouldn’t return. His tiredness disappeared as he contemplated some time alone with Anne.
“We can’t James, not now.” Anne pushed him away again, a little more firmly than she had before. “I’ll be missed downstairs.”
“Oh, all right,” he said, feigning a dejected look before grinning at her. “See you at the party then.”
She kissed him lightly on the cheek, then more firmly on the lips, before wishing him a happy birthday and turning to leave. She opened the door a fraction and checked that the corridor was clear before stepping into it, continuing to check as she walked quickly to her room. She would collect her book and read from it for a short while in the garden. It would be a good explanation for why she had gone upstairs if anyone saw her depart or should see her coming back down again.
She saw Valerie on the patio, and Fred working in the garden it overlooked. She didn’t much feel like having the conversation which would no doubt be expected if she joined Valerie, so took her book to the garden at the side of the house where she was less likely to be seen. She saw Julian in the distance strolling the grounds as he often did, but he didn’t look in her direction so she didn’t acknowledge him. She sat with her book open but not really reading. There were too many other thoughts in her mind. Not being discovered by Hazel had been a very close thing. As much luck as anything else. And James wanting to make love only seconds after Hazel had left really was too much. Perhaps it was time for their affair to become public, to at least force the issue front and centre.
Now that she had discovered the money it was that she wanted rather than James himself. She had everything she needed to just take it and she was sure that James wouldn’t know at first that it was her, but she knew that there were ways of tracing these things and doubted it would remain secret for long.
She was no nearer having a plan when she rose to get ready for the party. The house seemed empty of residents when she walked through, though there was a good deal of noise coming from the ballroom. She had taken a long bath that morning so only needed a quick shower before starting to apply her makeup. She slipped on the black dress she had brought to wear and finished off the outfit with a thin gold chain, which had been her mother’s and which she had worn many times. She glanced at her watch. She was a little early but that didn’t matter. When she entered the ballroom, she was the first to arrive.