Under my skin, p.1
Under My Skin, p.1Sarah Dunant
Books by Sarah Dunant
The Hannah Wolfe Novels
The Birth of Venus
Mapping the Edge
Snow Storms in a Hot Climate
Under My Skin
A HANNAH WOLFE CRIME NOVEL
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places,
and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination
or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events
or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1995 by Sarah Dunant
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction
in whole or in part in any form.
First published in Great Britain in 1995
First Scribner trade paperback edition 2004
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DESIGNED BY ERICH HOBBING
Text set in Stempel Garamond
Manufactured in the United States of America
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Library of Congress Control Number: 95-13115
ISBN 13: 978-0-7432-6922-3
eISBN 13: 978-1-439-10531-3
Under My Skin
It was like a Cézanne painting: all those fabulous fleshy women, insolent, languid, apparently complicit in the painter’s gaze. There were six or eight of them, all shapes and sizes, some stretched out on benches, others propped against tiled walls, stomach muscles relaxed with small sausage rolls of fat pulling down into their pubic hair. A fog of steam was turning to water around them, dribbling down their skin onto the cream-colored tiles. One of them, a particularly handsome figure with round, heavy breasts and big thighs, lifted her hand slowly, slicking back damp hair and letting her head fall back with a sigh that mingled into a hiss of steam. It was a gesture of extreme languor, reminiscent of a kind of erotic exhaustion. Too hot to speak, too hot to think. It made me ache to join her.
No doubt about it. This was one case where it would be morally acceptable for a girl to take off her clothes. I closed the small viewing grill and turned to the woman by my side. “I’d better get changed, don’t you think?”
It had come through the latest comfort and security addition to office technology: the portable phone. Any time, any place, your employees can get the message. So said the blurb. Except it didn’t allow for the volume of the sound system in the Holloway Road Odeon. Not to mention the kids. Beside me Amy was stuffing another fistful of popcorn into her mouth, eyes big as saucers, transfixed by the sight of a humongous blue genie strutting his stuff for Aladdin. But she still heard it before I did.
“Hannah, why’s your jacket beeping?”
Think of all the things we miss being cloth-eared adults. Maybe it’s just children who believe in fairies because they’re the only ones who can hear them chattering away at the end of the garden. I sacrificed the pleasure of Robin Williams for the sound of Frank. Not a fair contest really.
“What? Hannah? Where the hell are you?”
“Hold on a minute.”
On screen there was some serious magic going on. No point in asking Amy to come back later. “I’m just going out into the corridor,” I hissed. “I’ll be right back, OK?” Another automatic hand to mouth and the scrunch of popcorn. The slightest of nods.
I slid out of the row and through the doors down by the edge of the screen. I kept one of them propped open so that I could still see her head halfway along the row. It could wreck a private eye’s reputation—losing a five-year-old to child molesters in the middle of a Disney film. I slid up the aerial.
“What’s the racket?”
“Aladdin’s trying to impress Princess Jasmine.”
“Half-term. Forget it, you’re too old. So, you called, master?”
“Yeah, congratulations. You got the job.”
Bad sign. The ones I get are always the ones Frank doesn’t want. “Which one was that?”
“Castle Dean health farm in Berkshire. They’ve got a problem with their Jacuzzi.”
“So call a plumber.”
“Not that kind of problem. Someone dumped a dozen dead carp in the frothy bits. Probably the same someone who put spikes in the massage brushes.”
“Not the kind of thing you’d pay two hundred quid a day for, that’s for sure. They want you there pronto.”
“Frank, I’m baby-sitting, remember?”
“So give it back. You know how it is, Hannah. Crime never sleeps. It’ll be a stay-over job, so you’d better get home and pack a bag. I’ll fax you the details. Oh, and remember to take a tracksuit.” And he laughed. Which is cute considering Frank’s the one with the weight problem. I told him as much.
“You’re absolutely right. Except I’d be a distinct liability in a women-only health farm. You should be grateful, Hannah. This way you get paid for being a guest. I got you a hundred and fifty a day, plus all the lemon juice you can drink. Nice, eh? You can kiss my feet later.”
Sabotage in a health farm. Not exactly life at the cutting edge of late-twentieth-century law enforcement, but then who am I to turn down a free massage?
“Good. So when do I say you’ll be there?”
I looked at the screen. Princess Jasmine was psyching herself up to kiss the villain. Yuk. Even in Disneyland the course of true love doesn’t run that smooth. “After the happy ending.”
I had promised Kate I’d keep Amy till four, so I took her home with me. She sat on my bed eating Rice Krispies and reading the cereal packet out loud while I packed. Then she read the labels on my suitcase, then started in on the title page of the Raymond Carver book by the bed. A little learning can be an awesome thing. Good job I wasn’t a Bret Easton Ellis type of girl.
Although it was traditional that I should bitch at Frank, I was not unhappy to be on the road. The last couple of weeks had been too quiet and I hadn’t been sleeping that well—a case of a vicious man I once met in a country lane coming back to haunt me (now you know why Bret and me don’t get on). Maybe a little exercise would release the toxic wastes in my imagination, help me to work up a few hot sweats instead of cold.
From the details waiting on the fax machine, Castle Dean would be the right place to do it in. A brochure showed a photo of a stately house with some snazzy ad copy and a price list to make your eyes water. There were also some notes from Frank. I shoved everything in a bag, along with a threadbare bodysuit and a pair of trainers that smelled fine as long as you never took them off. In the kitchen I threw out anything more than a week past its sell-by date and checked the calendar for any engagements I might have to cancel. It wasn’t an arduous task. I crossed off the next week. Well, no case paying a hundred and fifty quid a day should be solved that quickly.
At Kate’s I had to ring the doorbell twice. When she opened it, she looked so zonked I could have sworn she’d been asleep, except it was hard to imagine anything sleeping th
“Hi, Mum.” Amy marched straight in past her. And was marched right back again.
“Excuse me, young lady. What do you say to Hannah?”
“Thank you, Hannah,” Amy chanted in that singsong tone that children perfect when the relatives demand thanking. I gave her a wink. She screwed up both her eyes in reply and disappeared into the noise beyond.
“What’s up with Ben?”
“I wouldn’t give him the kitchen scissors to play with. He’ll get over it. You want a cup of coffee?”
“Uh-uh. Gotta go. A job’s come up.”
“Ah, well, thanks, anyway. How was it?”
“Great. She held my hand all through the scary bits. I wasn’t frightened at all.” Kate smiled. But it seemed more duty than pleasure. “You all right?”
“You sure? You look, well, a bit out of it.”
“Oh … No. I … I’m tired, that’s all.”
Tired. Of course. I should have guessed. Kate’s been tired for the last five years now. Five years. During that time I’ve been a lot of things: in despair, in trouble, in pain, even briefly in love. But Kate—gorgeous, energetic Kate as was—has just been shagged out. For every time I want to put my sister to bed and let her sleep for a week, I also want to kick her up the backside and tell her to snap out of it. She says it’s children. I say it’s life. But then we both know what I feel about the partner she picked to share it with. Better not to bring it up. Better just to agree to disagree.
“When’s Colin back?”
“Er … Thursday, probably.”
Just like him to be out of town during half-term. “Well, I’ll give you a call when I’m clear. Maybe Amy and I could take in another laser game at that place in Archway.”
“Fine. I’ll try and get her to let you win this time.”
I used the portable to let them know I was on my way. The client’s name was Olivia Marchant, owner and supremo. But my contact at the farm was the manager, one Mrs. Waverley. She told me I should come to main reception and she’d see me there. She also offered further directions from the highway. In the early days of my career I would probably have turned them down, worrying about the image of a private investigator who couldn’t read a map. Now I know better. Now I take all the help I can get.
The brochure said Castle Dean was just over an hour from central London. Which it may well have been in another car, but I’ve got the kind that stops at traffic lights and obeys the speed limit, so it took me an hour and a half. Not bad, though. In terms of fat breakdown you could probably still make it from the city in time to counteract the effects of a big lunch.
Off the highway the landscape was scarcely “Beautiful Berkshire.” More the tame home-counties variety; prissy little fields and painting-by-numbers hedgerows with the villages in between so tidy they might have been in a theme park. There certainly didn’t seem to be anyone living in them. Too expensive, presumably. When the antiques shops and wine merchants close down, you know the commuter belt set are in real trouble. Ah, this pesky recession. I drove on, imagining myself into the role of a Tory-heartland voter searching for the recovery that is just around the next corner. But I must have been on the wrong road, because the only signs I saw were FOR SALE ones.
Castle Dean seemed to be doing all right, though. At least, you wouldn’t know any different from its entrance: two massive stone columns topped with proud English lions and some imposing ironwork with a Latin inscription. “Beware all excess weight that enters here”? I squeezed the top of my thighs to reassure them. As luck, or rather genetics, would have it, mine was not a major problem. In our family even the hamster was thin. Which is just as well, because I’m not that crazy about exercise. I see myself more as the Gene Hackman sort of investigator. French Connection I. Remember? That gut-wrenching finale when he and his extra fifteen pounds chase the bad guy all the way across the Marseilles docks? In homage I once pursued a shoplifter all the way down the Edgware Road and into Paddington Station. I caught him, too. Just couldn’t get enough breath to lift myself off him for the next half hour. Since then pride has forced me into a passing acquaintance with the local gym, but we’re not talking serious love affair here.
The drive curved round to offer up a big house and an even bigger sign. CASTLE DEAN—HEALTH WITH STYLE. One hundred and one things to do with a stately home. Very nice, assuming you had the money. The place reminded me of a certain French château it had once been my pleasure to solve a crime in. But it’s not wise to rest on old laurels when new triumphs lie ahead.
Close-up the house turned out to be younger than it looked—the facade a rather crude fake Gothic, probably late nineteenth century.
The entrance lobby kept up the illusion: baronial William Morris with a lot of help from the Sanderson’s catalogue. The girl at the reception desk looked fit but not invincible. I felt heartened. I gave her my name. In return she gave me a key, a welcome pack, and a place to sit while she looked for Mrs. Waverley. Once she’d disappeared, I leaned over the desk and checked out the reception book. Whatever problems they’d been having, the guest list still looked healthy enough. I sank into an overstuffed floral print settee. A couple of long-legged ladies in white toweling robes strolled by, hair wet from the shower. One of them smiled at me. I smiled back. Let’s be nice to the new girl. On the coffee table among copies of Good Housekeeping and Cosmo I spotted last week’s Hello. Well, we all have our guilty secrets. I was heading for the center spread on Ivana and her new Trump card when Mrs. Waverley arrived.
“Miss Wolfe?” She was of average height and in better than average shape, with slightly troubled skin only partly disguised by clever makeup. Age? Thirty-something probably, like me. But with more poise. And no doubt a more coherent career plan.
“I’m Carol Waverley, the manager. Welcome to Castle Dean,” she added for the benefit of anyone who might be listening. No one was. Which was a bit of a shame, because she’d made a real effort with the diction: sweet and crisp, and a considerable way from wherever it was she’d been born.
She ushered me across the hall toward a door marked “Private” and into a small office overlooking the guest car park. Not the greatest view, but at least the place was healthy, with its own water machine and a set of herb teas where the serious caffeine equipment should have been. She offered. I took a rose-hip. She made it herself. I watched her as she poured the boiling water into the mug, carefully crushing the tea bag with the spoon and depositing it into the bin with the precision of a Patriot missile. I bet you’re the kind that irons your underwear, I thought. Interesting how quickly you can take agin someone. Come on, Hannah, it’s hardly her fault that you’re not out busting international drug smugglers.
The tea arrived with a dry biscuit. I nibbled delicately to make it last while she sat and told me what I needed to know. When it got interesting, I took notes. Good thing I didn’t do shorthand, or I might have had trouble remembering I wasn’t her secretary.
Castle Dean was, apparently, a very successful health farm catering to a middle- to top-notch clientele and offering a range of high-class health and beauty treatments with value-for-money prices. I nodded vigorously. On the video I fast-forward through the adverts, but it was a little too early in the job to offend the client.
The picture, however, had got decidedly less rosy twelve days ago. A guest had gone into the sauna, only to find that when it got too hot she couldn’t get out again. “Fortunately one of the other guests came in to use the shower and heard her banging. A chair had been pushed up against the door just under the latch, with a big box of fresh towels on it. She called a member of the staff and together they managed to unwedge it and let her out.”
“How was she?” I said, writing the word Parboiled in my notebook.
“A bit panicky, but all right. Technically speaking, we were in the clear, since we expressly ask guests not to use the equipment unless there are staff on duty.”
“And you’re sure it was deliberate?”
“Not at the time, no. The chair could well have just been pushed against the door by accident. At the time that’s all I thought it was—just a careless accident.”
Not three days later, though, a Marks & Spencer’s senior buyer emerged from her morning peat bath to find herself a less than fashionable shade of indigo.
“Then, of course, I knew. Only one of the baths had been affected. Out of four made up from the same batch by the same person.”
“Oh, one of the senior beauticians. She’s been here since the place opened. But after she’d done the baths, she’d been called away to take a phone call. She was gone about ten to fifteen minutes. Anyone could have got in then, and the water’s such a dark color you wouldn’t notice anything was wrong until you were in it.”
Or rather out of it again. “Was it permanent?” I asked, finding something mildly irresistible about the idea of a blue Marks & Spencer’s buyer.
“No. But it took a long time to get it off.”
“So what did you do?”
“A mixture of soaking in a clean bath and rubbing with cleansing lotion.”
Once a beautician always a beautician. I smiled. “Actually I was thinking more in the way of an investigation.”
“What? Oh, well, of course, yes. I talked to everybody who’d been on duty. But no one knew anything.” She sighed. Caught up in the drama of the story, the real Carol Waverley was starting to slip through the cracks, certain carefully rounded vowels flattening out as they moved farther north in search of their homeland. At least it was more natural. “After that it was just a question of waiting for the next thing to happen.”
Under My Skin by Sarah Dunant / Mystery & Detective have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes