Under my skin, p.10
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       Under My Skin, p.10

           Sarah Dunant
 
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  Behind me a small queue was forming. “Well, I suppose I’d better join, then,” I said, though not with quite the grace I would have liked.

  In a perfect world I would have preferred to be somebody else on this form, too, but there’s a limit to how many pseudonyms a girl can handle in any one case. As I fished out my money, I watched the queue growing smaller. They were an interesting bunch of folks, not quite what one would have expected at all. A middle-aged couple, probably Greek or Cypriot; two sharply dressed, tough-looking American women; and a group of what looked like average British businessmen, bored with the idea of going home.

  I took my new membership card and hovered by the reception desk. Across the foyer an elderly man in a classy suit was handing his coat to the coat-check girl. He nodded at me. I returned it. Then I went back to trying to charm the puppet.

  “I don’t suppose now that I’ve joined I could just slip in to look around? I mean I wouldn’t gamble or anything.”

  “Madam—”

  “It’s all right,” I said, gaily. “I know, I know. It’s the law. Don’t worry about me. I’ll just go and distribute my hundred thousand pounds inheritance on the homeless instead.”

  I moved out of the way, as the old man moved past me and up to the desk.

  “Evening, Mr. Aziakis. How are you tonight?” said the receptionist, his head nodding up and down frantically.

  “I am well, thank you, Peter,” he replied, and the accent was definitely east of Suez. “But I have a guest with me.” He turned to me and smiled. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch your second name?”

  Well, well. Don’t you just love men with manners? “Wolfe. Hannah Wolfe.”

  The Thunderbird puppet’s jaw went suddenly slack. Who knows, maybe this was against the law, too. If so, then whoever Mr. Aziakis was clearly was more important than the law. The receptionist gave a “well, what’s a guy to do if he wants to keep his job” type of gesture and waved us through.

  Lycra. It does it for a girl every time.

  Mr. Aziakis motioned me to walk ahead of him and we went down a flight of stairs past a small dining area and into a bar. Through a set of arches to the left the gambling floor beckoned. I was so excited I had to stop to look. Alas, James Bond it wasn’t.

  First impressions presented a ballroom that had fallen on hard times, a big windowless space with a chandelier in the middle and two rows of roulette tables in the center, each lit by its own hanging lamp. I had a sudden flash of those World War II films in which fancy London buildings were taken over by the government and young women push models of ships and airplanes around a pretend battlefield while retired generals sat refusing to contemplate defeat. My companion would have been a young man then. Although I’m not sure whose side he would have been on.

  “Well, there it is. What do you think? Worth the membership fee?”

  I turned to face him and saw an old man more amused than attracted. Which, of course, is attractive in itself. “I think that depends on how much I lose,” I said, smiling.

  He made a tut-tutting sound with his lips. “You shouldn’t think of it in such terms. Gambling is like life. If you expect to be treated badly, that is how it will be. Assume you are going to win, play it to the end, but never risk more than you are able to bear losing. Am I right in thinking you no longer need my company?”

  Hmm. Confucius, he say the wise old bird has no need of the morning worms. The night grubs will give themselves up to him instead. “No. Thank you. Thank you very much indeed.”

  He nodded (did I imagine the click of the heels?) and turned toward the bar. I watched him till he was out of sight, then got down to business on the floor.

  The background noise was less people than machines; the one-armed bandits along the back wall whirled like the beginning of a Pink Floyd track that had got stuck in the groove. In the middle I counted twelve roulette tables and four semicircular ones at each end, where people were playing a card game that looked like blackjack. There must have been forty, maybe fifty people in there. They came in all shapes, races, and sizes, but the mean age was near to fifty and none of them looked anything like Pussy Galore. Not even the croupiers.

  In fact, they were the worst disappointment. I suppose I had been expecting something more outrageously glamorous, a set of sirenlike beauties arranged over the gaming tables with exposed breasts like ripe pomegranates drawing your eyes down to the lucky numbers beneath. Not these girls. They were all dressed exactly the same: a purple chiffon uniform that made British Airways stewardesses’ look well designed. A half a dozen of them were at the tables, and the rest perched on high stools overlooking two or three games at a time. They looked, with the odd exception, like the tellers at a local building society waiting for their morning coffee break. There wasn’t a Belinda Balliol among them. Of course I was at something of a disadvantage, since all I had to go on was a grainy photo of her naked upper torso—“before,” rather than “after.” But even so, I just sort of knew she wasn’t there.

  A woman in a velvet cocktail dress, circa 1966, came past me with a pad and pencil in her hand. “Can I get you something to drink?”

  I ordered a mineral water and when she came back gave her a big tip. She grinned and stuck it in her pouch. That much at least was like the movies.

  “I wonder if you can help me. I’m looking for a friend. A girl I met on holiday once. She said she worked here, and that I should drop in to say hello if I was in London. But I can’t see her anywhere.”

  “What’s her name?”

  “Belinda Balliol.”

  She nodded and looked up. “She’s over there. You probably didn’t recognize her. She’s changed her hair. Do you want me to tell her you’re here?”

  “No. No, thanks. I’ll surprise her.”

  I gulped down the mineral water and followed the waitress’s finger. Belinda was standing to one side of the tables. And I was right, she hadn’t been there before. She was tall with curly fair hair, and on her the dress looked pretty good. More than that—in terms of the success or failure of the surgery underneath—it was hard to tell. The closer I came the better she got. If her breasts were still giving her trouble, you wouldn’t know it from her face, which was smooth and pretty with a sweet little nose and full mouth. Nice job. Nature or whoever. God, I was even beginning to think like them. “Belinda Balliol?”

  She frowned at me. “Yes?”

  “I wonder if I could have a word with you?”

  “I … I’m about to start work. Who are you?”

  “The name’s Hannah Wolfe. I left a message on your answering machine. I’m a journalist, doing a piece on aesthetic surgery. I gather you had some problem with a breast operation some time ago?”

  “What?” It came out like a long hiss, as if someone had punched her in the solar plexus. “How do you know about it?” she whispered, the horror obvious in her face. “Who gave you my name?”

  “Er … a friend of a friend mentioned you. Listen, I just need to ask a few questions, that’s all. You’ll be anonymous—and it’ll be totally confidential. I guarantee that.”

  “I’ve nothing to say.”

  “I can wait.”

  She shook her head as if she still couldn’t quite believe it. One of the male croupiers overseeing the tables was staring at us. Obviously it wasn’t done for the gamblers to fraternize with the croupiers. She saw him and turned quickly back to me, pointing her hand in the direction of the bar, as if offering directions. Under her breath she said angrily, “I’ve told you, I’ve nothing to say. And if you don’t get out of here, I’ll call the manager.”

  She turned heel, gave a quick nod and a shrug to the man, then moved into place behind table 7, as the girl there picked up her handbag and slid away.

  I thought strategy. Of course, I could see it from her point of view. A quick chat about the failure of your breast implants was not what you’d want when you were on duty looking poised and lovely. But then if she didn’t answer her phone mess
ages, she had to expect people to come looking for her. And given her embarrassment, the last thing she was going to do was draw attention to it further by having me put out.

  My sixties cocktail waitress came by and brought me another mineral water. I asked her how long the shifts were. She told me they worked till four, with a half-hour break in the middle. Well, what better did I have to do with my time?

  Belinda was getting into her stride now. She stood straight, with better posture than the rest, manicured hands resting lightly on the baize. That she was the best-looking girl on the floor was beyond dispute. Which might account for the hum of activity building up around her table. But she certainly wasn’t giving anything away. I placed myself on the edge of the crowd. She saw me coming and flashed up a look. I deliberately didn’t catch it.

  “Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.”

  The six or seven players did as they were told, a flurry of hands sprinkling brightly colored chips all over the board, some single, some in Tower of Pisa little stacks. With her right hand she started the wheel spinning, then with her left deftly slid the ball into the groove. It raced off like a hare on a dog track, a dozen pairs of eyes mesmerized by the race. Its escape set off another little flutter of activity round the table—last-minute inspiration, news from beyond the wheel.

  “No more bets, no more bets, please.”

  The wheel was slowing, the ball chattering and clunking its way off the top and into the middle. It jumped a couple of times and came to rest.

  “Thirty-two black. Thirty-two black.”

  The number went up on the small neon board above. I looked down at the table. There was nothing at all on thirty-two. She leaned across and with a wonderful swoop gathered unto herself most of the hopeful chips and swept them into a hole at the end of the table. The noise of them clattering into the profit box below sent the smallest of shudders round the players. A few chips remained placed at the edges of the board. To them she dealt out neat little piles of winnings. Then she turned her attention back to the wheel. “Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.” And off they went again.

  Every two or three spins she glanced up to check I was still there. It was time to tell her I wasn’t planning on leaving. Maybe I should have sat down. But the people who sat were the people who played and, shameful though it is for someone in my position to admit it, I didn’t really know the rules.

  On a coffee table nearby there was a helpful stash of leaflets. I pretended to be doing something else while I read it. When I got back, I could, in theory at least, have broken the bank at Monte Carlo. I stationed myself behind an elderly lady with purple fingernails like talons and a frail frame weighed down by the family jewels. She was pushing her last few chips to a point where four numbers met. I knew now, of course, that her payback should any one of those four come up would be ten times her stake. The wheel spun, the wheel stopped, the ball landed. But not on any of hers. Belinda scooped up her chips. The woman’s face remained utterly impassive. Whatever pain or pleasure there was to be had in this game, it was a seriously private affair. She gave a little flutter with her hand which may or may not have been a substitute for emotion, and got off the chair. I slid on.

  Great moments in a private eye’s life. Here we were at one of them. I pulled two fifty-pound notes from my bag and slid them across the table. Belinda looked up at me and there was a moment of panic in her eyes. I tried not to look at her breasts. I smiled brightly and pushed the notes a little farther. Her hand reached out for them. She held them briefly up to the light then laid them on the table in front of her. “One hundred pounds,” she said flatly, just in case neither of us had noticed. “Fives, tens?”

  “Fine,” I said.

  She had clear eyes. Less blank than the other girls’. She counted the chips deftly off from the bank and pushed them toward me without making further eye contact.

  “Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.”

  My fingers tingled as I slid three five-pound chips onto the “odd” box. Any odd number and the bank matches your stack. The ball whizzed and spun. “No more bets, no more bets.”

  I watched it fall. “Number five.” They don’t come any odder than that. She pushed three chips my way, again without looking at me.

  I took all six of them and moved them to the “even” box. And waited. The ball did its thing and came up red twenty-two. And now there were twelve.

  I looked up at her, but she was keeping her eyes firmly on the table, as if I was just another punter. I had made forty-five pounds in five minutes. My palms were getting clammy. To move or not to move? I didn’t have time for a soliloquy. I moved and briefly shut my eyes. Number nine. “Number nine,” she said in a monotone. The old tracks are the greatest. Thank you, John Lennon.

  The subplot was fast becoming more exciting than the main story. At this rate I wouldn’t need to wait for Frank to make me a partner, I could buy him out. The four sets of chips nestled side by side. I left them there. But they were still lonely. They wanted others to join them. Number twenty-one. They got it.

  I was staring at winnings of over two hundred quid. I moved my little army over the border onto the red square. Same odds. “If I win again,” I said to myself, “I’ll take it all off and give half to the guy who cleans windscreens on the Holloway Road, honest I will.” The ball had a social conscience. It went red.

  It took her a while to count the chips out. When she pushed them my way, this time she shot me a venomous little look. Behind her the guy who had seen us talking was watching carefully. Four hundred and eighty quid. Not exactly breaking the bank. But then big problems start small, especially if you’ve reason to suspect something. It gave me an idea. “Place your bets.” I apologized to the windscreen man and moved the stack, this time onto “even.” Never more than you can bear to lose, wasn’t that the advice? We weren’t even close. I stared at the chips. I knew I was going to win again. I just knew it. Is this what they mean by a streak? “No more bets. No more bets.”

  Then suddenly I was just as appallingly certain I was going to lose. So much for instinct. My fingers itched to get at the chips, pull them back over the safety of the line. I was so scared that my hands might do something without my approval that I had to entrap them tight between my legs.

  The ball jumped and shimmied and flung itself into number thirty-five, then on a dying gasp back into thirty-four.

  My heart was beating so fast I had to put a hand on my chest to stop anyone else from hearing it. No one cheered. No one said anything. Possibly there was a communal intake of breath. The only thing I could say for sure was that people were concentrating. Not least the man on the pedestal. To give her her due, Belinda didn’t blink. “Thirty-four,” she said quietly, as she went about her business, scooping it up and giving it out.

  I had to trade some in for higher denomination chips and even then I needed two hands to pick up my pile. My legs weren’t all that steady either. As I walked away, I saw the guy lean over and say something to Belinda. She turned and talked to him for a moment. Whatever she told him seemed to do the trick. He turned his attention to the next table.

  I cashed in my winnings. My wallet was positively embarrassed. What with Olivia Marchant’s bonus and now this it had never seen so many fifty-pound notes together. I looked at my watch. It was after one. Add gambling to the list of occupations that make time fly. I went into the bar and bought myself a drink. I had rather hoped my wise old bird would be there to share in my bounty, but there was no sign of him. I settled down and waited.

  Belinda came off the table at 2:30. I watched her pick up her bag and make her way to a sign that read: STAFF ONLY. I checked that no one was looking and followed her in. There was a corridor and two doors marked “Men” and “Women.” I went into the right one.

  She came out of the cubicle to find me studying my frown lines in the mirror. I didn’t let her get a word in.

  “OK. Here’s what w
e do,” I said without turning. “You agree to talk to me about your cosmetic surgery problems or I go out of here right now and tell the guy on the big stool that we’re good friends and that you just let me win.”

  Two blackmails in the same plot. There had been a time when I wouldn’t stoop this low. Fact is my career’s gone much better since then.

  “I don’t believe this. You wouldn’t dare.” I didn’t say anything. “You little shit.”

  Disbelief, denial, anger. Classic journey. All that was missing was resignation. Just a matter of time. “You’re absolutely right,” I said. “I am.”

  She stared at me. If only I had been Superman, I could have looked right through her. What would I have seen? Two little bags of silicone behind each tit, heavy and squishy like those plastic ice packs before they go into the fridge. Unless, of course, they’d already started to freeze. Or leak. Jesus … What price a bigger pair of melons?

  “So, do we have a deal?”

  She squirmed. But it’s like fishing. If you hook ’em right they just can’t get off the line. She swallowed. “Listen,” she said, and it was clear I had made her very angry indeed. “I’ve told you once, I’ll tell you again. There’s nothing to say. I had an operation done. It didn’t quite work out. I went back. They did it again. The second one went fine and now I’ve got nothing to complain about. Which is more than can be said for some women I know,” she added waspishly. “Now, will you just get the hell out of here, before somebody sees you?”

  Chapter 11

  Because I wasn’t quite sure how much I believed her I stayed around for a couple more hours, just to see if my presence made her any more nervous, but once back on the floor she studiously ignored me. I dabbled with the fruit machines and lost a couple of tenners at the blackjack tables. When I started to feel my wallet itching to go back to the numbers, I made a break for home. As I turned at the door, I saw she was watching me go. I cupped my hands under my breasts and gave her a cheeky little uplift salute. Mean, but fun.

 
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