Lethal White, p.1Robert Galbraith
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Copyright © 2018 by J.K. Rowling
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First ebook edition: September 2018
Published simultaneously in Britain by Sphere: September 2018
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One Year Later
One Month Later
About the Author
Also by Robert Galbraith
Praise for Robert Galbraith
To Di and Roger,
and in memory
of the lovely white Spike
Happiness, dear Rebecca, means first and foremost the calm, joyous sense of innocence.
Henrik Ibsen, Rosmersholm
If only the swans would swim side by side on the dark green lake, this picture might turn out to be the crowning achievement of the wedding photographer’s career.
He was loath to change the couple’s position, because the soft light beneath the canopy of trees was turning the bride, with her loose red-gold curls, into a pre-Raphaelite angel and emphasizing the chiseled cheekbones of her husband. He couldn’t remember when he had last been commissioned to photograph so handsome a couple. There was no need for tactful tricks with the new Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Cunliffe, no need to angle the lady so that rolls of back fat were hidden (she was, if anything, fractionally too slender, but that would photograph well), no need to suggest the groom “try one with your mouth closed,” because Mr. Cunliffe’s teeth were straight and white. The only thing that needed concealing, and it could be retouched out of the final pictures, was the ugly scar running down the bride’s forearm: purple and livid, with the puncture marks of stitches still visible.
She had been wearing a rubber and stockinette brace when the photographer arrived at her parents’ house that morning. It had given him quite a start when she had removed it for the photographs. He had even wondered whether she had made a botched attempt to kill herself before the wedding, because he had seen it all. You did, after twenty years in the game.
“I was assaulted,” Mrs. Cunliffe—or Robin Ellacott, as she had been two hours ago—had said. The photographer was a squeamish man. He had fought off the mental image of steel slicing into that soft, pale flesh. Thankfully, the ugly mark was now hidden in the shadow cast by Mrs. Cunliffe’s bouquet of creamy roses.
The swans, the damned swans. If both would clear out of the background it wouldn’t matter, but one of them was repeatedly diving, its fluffy pyramid of a backside jutting out of the middle of the lake like a feathered iceberg, its contortions ruffling the surface of the water so that its digital removal would be far more complicated than young Mr. Cunliffe, who had already suggested this remedy, realized. The swan’s mate, meanwhile, continued to lurk over by the bank: graceful, serene and determinedly out of shot.
“Have you got it?” asked the bride, her impatience palpable.
“You look gorgeous, flower,” said the groom’s father, Geoffrey, from behind the photographer. He sounded tipsy already. The couple’s parents, best man and bridesmaids were all watching from the shade of nearby trees. The smallest bridesmaid, a toddler, had had to be restrained from throwing pebbles into the lake, and was now whining to her mother, who talked to her in a constant, irritating whisper.
“Have you got it?” Robin asked again, ignoring her father-in-law.
“Almost,” lied the photographer. “Turn in to him a little bit more, please, Robin. That’s it. Nice big smiles. Big smiles, now!”
There was a tension about the couple that could not be wholly attributed to the difficulty of getting the shot. The photographer didn’t care. He wasn’t a marriage counselor. He had known couples to start screaming at each other while he read his light meter. One bride had stormed out of her own reception. He still kept, for the amusement of friends, the blurred shot from 1998 that showed a groom head-butting his best man.
Good-looking as they were, he didn’t fancy the Cunliffes’ chances. That long scar down the bride’s arm had put him off her from the start. He found the whole thing ominous and distasteful.
“Let’s leave it,” said the groom suddenly, releasing Robin. “We’ve got enough, haven’t we?”
“Wait, wait, the other one’s coming now!” said the photographer crossly.
The moment Matthew had released Robin, the swan by the far shore had begun
“You’d think the buggers were doing it on purpose, eh, Linda?” said Geoffrey with a fat chuckle to the bride’s mother. “Bloody things.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Robin, pulling her long skirt up clear of her shoes, the heels of which were a little too low. “I’m sure we’ve got something.”
She strode out of the copse of trees into the blazing sunlight and off across the lawn towards the seventeenth-century castle, where most of the wedding guests were already milling, drinking champagne as they admired the view of the hotel grounds.
“I think her arm’s hurting her,” the bride’s mother told the groom’s father.
Bollocks it is, thought the photographer with a certain cold pleasure. They rowed in the car.
The couple had looked happy enough beneath the shower of confetti in which they had departed the church, but on arrival at the country house hotel they had worn the rigid expressions of those barely repressing their rage.
“She’ll be all right. Just needs a drink,” said Geoffrey comfortably. “Go keep her company, Matt.”
Matthew had already set off after his bride, gaining on her easily as she navigated the lawn in her stilettos. The rest of the party followed, the bridesmaids’ mint-green chiffon dresses rippling in the hot breeze.
“Robin, we need to talk.”
“Go on, then.”
“Wait a minute, can’t you?”
“If I wait, we’ll have the family on us.”
Matthew glanced behind him. She was right.
“Don’t touch my arm!”
Her wound was throbbing in the heat. Robin wanted to find the holdall containing the sturdy rubber protective brace, but it would be somewhere out of reach in the bridal suite, wherever that was.
The crowd of guests standing in the shadow of the hotel was coming into clearer view. The women were easy to tell apart, because of their hats. Matthew’s Aunt Sue wore an electric blue wagon wheel, Robin’s sister-in-law, Jenny, a startling confection of yellow feathers. The male guests blurred into conformity in their dark suits. It was impossible to see from this distance whether Cormoran Strike was among them.
“Just stop, will you?” said Matthew, because they had fast outstripped the family, who were matching their pace to his toddler niece.
“I was shocked to see him, that’s all,” said Matthew carefully.
“I suppose you think I was expecting him to burst in halfway through the service and knock over the flowers?” asked Robin.
Matthew could have borne this response if not for the smile she was trying to suppress. He had not forgotten the joy in her face when her ex-boss had crashed into their wedding ceremony. He wondered whether he would ever be able to forgive the fact that she had said “I do” with her eyes fastened upon the big, ugly, shambolic figure of Cormoran Strike, rather than her new husband. The entire congregation must have seen how she had beamed at him.
Their families were gaining on them again. Matthew took Robin’s upper arm gently, his fingers inches above the knife wound, and walked her on. She came willingly, but he suspected that this was because she hoped she was moving closer to Strike.
“I said in the car, if you want to go back to work for him—”
“—I’m an ‘effing idiot,’” said Robin.
The men grouped on the terrace were becoming distinguishable now, but Robin could not see Strike anywhere. He was a big man. She ought to have been able to make him out even among her brothers and uncles, who were all over six foot. Her spirits, which had soared when Strike had appeared, tumbled earthwards like rain-soaked fledglings. He must have left after the service rather than boarding a minibus to the hotel. His brief appearance had signified a gesture of goodwill, but nothing more. He had not come to rehire her, merely to congratulate her on a new life.
“Look,” said Matthew, more warmly. She knew that he, too, had scanned the crowd, found it Strike-less and drawn the same conclusion. “All I was trying to say in the car was: it’s up to you what you do, Robin. If he wanted—if he wants you back—I was just worried, for Christ’s sake. Working for him wasn’t exactly safe, was it?”
“No,” said Robin, with her knife wound throbbing. “It wasn’t safe.”
She turned back towards her parents and the rest of the family group, waiting for them to catch up. The sweet, ticklish smell of hot grass filled her nostrils as the sun beat down on her uncovered shoulders.
“Do you want to go to Auntie Robin?” said Matthew’s sister.
Toddler Grace obligingly seized Robin’s injured arm and swung on it, eliciting a yelp of pain.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Robin—Gracie, let go—”
“Champagne!” shouted Geoffrey. He put his arm around Robin’s shoulders and steered her on towards the expectant crowd.
The gents’ bathroom was, as Strike would have expected of this upmarket country hotel, odor-free and spotless. He wished he could have brought a pint into the cool, quiet toilet cubicle, but that might have reinforced the impression that he was some disreputable alcoholic who had been bailed from jail to attend the wedding. Reception staff had met his assurances that he was part of the Cunliffe-Ellacott wedding party with barely veiled skepticism as it was.
Even in an uninjured state Strike tended to intimidate, given that he was large, dark, naturally surly-looking and sported a boxer’s profile. Today he might have just climbed out of the ring. His nose was broken, purple and swollen to twice its usual size, both eyes were bruised and puffy, and one ear was inflamed and sticky with fresh black stitches. At least the knife wound across the palm of his hand was concealed by bandages, although his best suit was crumpled and stained from a wine spill on the last occasion he had worn it. The best you could say for his appearance was that he had managed to grab matching shoes before heading for Yorkshire.
He yawned, closed his aching eyes and rested his head momentarily against the cold partition wall. He was so tired he might easily fall asleep here, sitting on the toilet. He needed to find Robin, though, and ask her—beg her, if necessary—to forgive him for sacking her and come back to work. He had thought he read delight in her face when their eyes met in church. She had certainly beamed at him as she walked past on Matthew’s arm on the way out, so he had hurried back through the graveyard to ask his friend Shanker, who was now asleep in the car park in the Mercedes he had borrowed for the journey, to follow the minibuses to the reception.
Strike had no desire to stay for a meal and speeches: he had not RSVPed the invitation he had received before sacking Robin. All he wanted was a few minutes to talk to her, but so far this had proved impossible. He had forgotten what weddings were like. As he sought Robin on the crowded terrace he had found himself the uncomfortable focus of a hundred pairs of curious eyes. Turning down champagne, which he disliked, he had retreated into the bar in search of a pint. A dark-haired young man who had a look of Robin about the mouth and forehead had followed, a gaggle of other young people trailing in his wake, all of them wearing similar expressions of barely suppressed excitement.
“You’re Strike, aye?” said the young man.
The detective agreed to it.
“Martin Ellacott,” said the other. “Robin’s brother.”
“How d’you do?” said Strike, raising his bandaged hand to show that he could not shake without pain. “Where is she, d’you know?”
“Having photos done,” said Martin. He pointed at the iPhone clutched in his other hand. “You’re on the news. You caught the Shacklewell Ripper.”
“Oh,” said Strike. “Yeah.”
In spite of the fresh knife wounds on his palm and ear, he felt as though the violent events of twelve hours previously had happened long ago. The contrast between the sordid hideout where he had cornered the killer and this four-star hotel was so jarring that they seemed separate realities.
A woman whose turquoi
“Sorry, need a pee,” Strike had told Martin, edging away before anybody else could approach him. After talking his way past the suspicious reception staff, he had taken refuge in the bathroom.
Yawning again, he checked his watch. Robin must, surely, have finished having pictures taken by now. With a grimace of pain, because the painkillers they had given him at the hospital had long since worn off, Strike got up, unbolted the door and headed back out among the gawping strangers.
A string quartet had been set up at the end of the empty dining room. They started to play while the wedding group organized themselves into a receiving line that Robin assumed she must have agreed to at some point during the wedding preparations. She had abnegated so much responsibility for the day’s arrangements that she kept receiving little surprises like this. She had forgotten, for instance, that they had agreed to have photographs taken at the hotel rather than the church. If only they had not sped away in the Daimler immediately after the service, she might have had a chance to speak to Strike and to ask him—beg him, if necessary—to take her back. But he had left without talking to her, leaving her wondering whether she had the courage, or the humility, to call him after this and plead for her job.
The room seemed dark after the brilliance of the sunlit gardens. It was wood-paneled, with brocade curtains and gilt-framed oil paintings. Scent from the flower arrangements lay heavy in the air, and glass-and silverware gleamed on snow-white tablecloths. The string quartet, which had sounded loud in the echoing wooden box of a room, was soon drowned out by the sound of guests clambering up the stairs outside, crowding onto the landing, talking and laughing, already full of champagne and beer.
“Here we go, then!” roared Geoffrey, who seemed to be enjoying the day more than anybody else. “Bring ’em on!”
If Matthew’s mother had been alive, Robin doubted that Geoffrey would have felt able to give his ebullience full expression. The late Mrs. Cunliffe had been full of cool side-stares and nudges, constantly checking any signs of unbridled emotion. Mrs. Cunliffe’s sister, Sue, was one of the first down the receiving line, bringing a fine frost with her, for she had wanted to sit at the top table and been denied that privilege.
Lethal White by Robert Galbraith / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes