Under my skin, p.14
Under My Skin, p.14Sarah Dunant
He kept his eyes well down as I moved past him and clattered up the stairs. Behind me I heard the door shut.
I stood in the street feeling like someone had just smashed me in the ribs. It did, of course, all make an appalling kind of sense suddenly: the regular timing, her less than glamorous appearance, the cash going out every month. Gentlemen callers. Christ, I thought they went out with the ark. Mind you, our Colin has always been a traditionalist at heart.
The humor didn’t get me far. Back in the car I began to get an idea of what Pandora must have suffered—the way in which the minute she’d opened the box the very air was thick with the malevolence of what had been released. But at least in her case everybody knew about it. Mine was still a secret until I chose to share it. And who exactly was I going to tell? “Hi, Kate, you’ll be relieved to know it’s not anyone special, just some professional in Kentish Town.”
What would Kate do? Change the locks? Burn his underclothes in the front garden and pour the ashes into his petrol tank? Or maybe swallow her pride and ring up marriage guidance. I suppose that would depend on how much she wanted to hold her family together. And at what price. Not something Colin had given much thought to obviously. He’d just followed his prick and now couldn’t get out of the hole he’d fallen into. The image was not an enticing one. Maybe I should just drive straight to Colin’s office, lift him out of his seat by the lapels, and batter his head on the inkwell for a while till he saw things from my point of view.
I tell you, there are some moments in your life when you realize you are neither as wise nor as brave as you hoped you were. This was one of those. Finally I decided to go for a second opinion.
Unfortunately Frank had made it one of his late mornings. Or maybe he was already in Madrid. I was still trying to open the triple office locks when I heard the phone go and the machine click in. I almost didn’t make it in time. Although the way her voice was shaking certainly gave me an added incentive.
“Hello. Hello. This is a message for Hannah Wolfe. I’ve been trying to call her at home, but there’s no answer.
“Mrs. Marchant needs to talk to you urgently, Hannah, there’s been—”
“Hi. Hi. Mrs. Waverley? It’s me, Hannah. Sorry, I was just coming in the door. What’s the problem?”
“Oh, you’re there. Thank God. The police are here. They’re with Olivia now.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
And she took a big gulp before she told me. “Maurice Marchant’s dead. They found him this morning in his consulting room.”
And cruel though it is, I have to tell you that for that brief moment I was relieved to have something else to think about.
For this journey I put on the blue flashing light inside my skull. It was so bright, it wiped out most of the other activity in there. I would have exceeded the speed limit if I could, but then central London during rush hour has no speed to exceed.
The address Carol Waverley had given me was a posh one, an apartment just off Wigmore Street. Olivia Marchant had been picked up by the police from Castle Dean just after 7:00 A.M. and driven to London to make a formal identification of her husband’s body in the morgue at Westminster. The list of what I didn’t know was so long there seemed no point in trying to invent things. No doubt the police would tell me as little as they could get away with, and I would find out as much as I dared.
I played safe with the parking. The police, of course, just flaunted it, their go-faster stripes sitting proud on a double yellow outside the apartment block. I resisted the temptation to break in and use their car radio.
It was the kind of place that had its own full-time receptionist. I didn’t need him. Carol Waverley was waiting for me in the entrance hall. She greeted me in a way that made me feel we’d been best friends for years and hurried me up in the lift. As we rose, I got what I could. Apparently he’d been found by a cleaner in the early hours of the morning in the Harley Street consulting room. The weapon had been a knife. More than that she didn’t know.
They lived on the fourth floor. Big, very nice. But no one was talking interior design right now. The sitting room door was closed. In the kitchen a uniformed police woman was on the phone. I nodded to her and moved toward the door.
“Hang on a minute, Alan.” She put her hand over the receiver. “Hey, you can’t go in there.”
But I already had. Start as you mean to go on, that was today’s motto.
The room was in semi-gloom, a set of fabulous French windows partially obscured by curtains drawn against the sun. She was sitting on the sofa, in a pair of jeans and a soft white polo-neck T-shirt, her legs tucked up under her, her body still and taut, the half-light falling softly on that designer face. But this time she didn’t so much look beautiful as unreal. You see more than your fair share of distress in this job—well, people don’t usually come to private eyes when they’ve got something to celebrate—but in my experience you can always tell the grief that comes with death. There’s a particular quality of blankness to the eyes, as if they have emptied in sympathy with the dead. It might also explain the sense of rigor mortis in her face. Though in this case that might have had more to do with Maurice Marchant alive than dead.
She looked up and saw me just as the two plainclothes officers in the room turned to give me trouble.
“Hannah Wolfe,” I said, as I passed them. “Private detective. Mrs. Marchant’s my client.”
The older one nodded. “Yes, she told us. Well, Mrs. Marchant, thank you for your time. We’ll be back in touch in a while. And please accept our condolences.”
I looked at them. They didn’t seem particularly sorry. But then, of course, they had no reason to be. They didn’t know him. He was just today’s unfinished business. And the other bad news was that I was part of it. “We’d appreciate a word, Miss Wolfe, after you’ve finished,” the older of the two said, waving a card in my face.
I waved mine back. “As many as you like, Officer,” I said with all the grace and civility that three years’ working with Frank has bestowed upon me. The younger officer raised an eyebrow. It takes one to know one.
They closed the door. Her eyes followed them out, then came back to me. I moved into the room and sat where they had sat, the sofa still warm from their bodies. Grief. You ought to be able to earn a proficiency diploma. Not quite the same as life-saving. In the end I resorted to cliché. “I’m so sorry,” I said softly.
She nodded. The face remained the same: serene, as if it had been finished in marble. But behind the face there was a pain, trapped, welling up in the eyes, desperate to get out. The tears broke free and started rolling slowly down her cheeks. She did nothing to stop them. The effect was mesmeric, like watching some venerated statue of the Madonna cry, or worse, one of Amy’s ghastly dolls that weeps when you press the right part of its anatomy. Look at you, I thought, he’s sewn you up so tight you can’t even grieve for him properly.
I sat and watched her cry. I wanted to offer her a tissue, but it didn’t seem right. After a while she gave a couple of large sniffs, not Madonna-like at all, and ran her fingertips across her cheekbones, brushing aside the tears.
“I saw him, you know,” she said in a matter-of-fact kind of voice. Then she made a funny sharp noise in her throat. “Yesterday afternoon. He was due to go to Amsterdam today, then on to a conference in Chicago. I went to say good-bye. We had a row. He accused me of trying to wreck the business. Said that if what you were doing got out, the publicity would ruin us. I told him I was just trying to protect him. That he could be in danger. But he wouldn’t listen. We left shouting at each other. I drove back to Castle Dean and went to bed. The next thing I knew the police were on the phone. I didn’t even get a chance to tell him I was sorry.”
She stopped and I felt a cold hand squeeze my heart. “How did he know about me?”
“How do you think?” she said, staring at me.
“I didn’t tell—”
She shook her head
“I have to ask you this,” I said quietly. “Was there any note, any communication at all?”
She looked up at me. “Nothing. But I don’t think there’s any doubt, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t they tell you?”
“Olivia, I haven’t spoken to the police yet.”
She made a little sound, then said: “They think it was a knife. There were wounds in the neck and the chest. All over the chest. So many of them.” She swallowed. “And then, after he was dead, they … someone stabbed him in the eyes.”
Ah … Beauty no longer in the eye of the beholder. I suppose you could say that whoever it was had left a calling card. And Olivia was the one who’d had to identify the body. For once in my life I didn’t know what to say.
Against the odds, she recovered herself quicker than I did. She got up and walked over to a small bureau near the door. When she came back, she had an envelope in her hand. She held it out to me.
“What is it?” I said, though I sort of knew.
“Six hundred pounds. Cash.”
“Olivia, this is far too—”
“My lawyer says they have to freeze the bank account for a while. But this should see you through for a while.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but—”
“I want you to find who killed him,” she interrupted curtly. “You owe me at least that much.”
Her face was rigid again now, the jaw clamped tight, skin taut over the bones. Standing there with the envelope thrust out in front of her like a drawn sword, she reminded me of an illustration from a childhood fantasy novel. The immortally beautiful Aeyesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed. For a girl brought up on stories of doelike princesses, she had been a fabulous heresy, a woman so consumed by love that it had made her cruel. There had been no happy ending for that beauty either. Ah, Olivia, don’t go into the flame again. This time it could turn you into a shriveled monkey.
I don’t need all this, I thought—the pain, the fury, the hassles of negotiating my way around bloody-minded policemen. You’re out of my league, lady. Look at you, you may be desperate now, but you’re rich and beautiful. You’ll get over it. Give it a while and the world will be queuing up to be nice to you. You don’t need me either. Sometimes it’s important to know when you’ve failed.
“I’m sorry, Olivia,” I said quietly. “But I can’t work for you anymore. We have to leave it to the police now.”
She stared at me for a while, then slowly brought her hand down. The docility of her surrender surprised me. The Olivia of a few days ago would have pushed harder, gone deeper into the jugular of my guilt about disobeying her orders. But not this one. This Olivia just nodded her head and said, “I see. Well, thank you, anyway. I know you did your best.”
And that, of course, made me feel worse.
Carol was waiting for me outside the door, all het up and fluttery. For a manager she really didn’t respond well to stress. The plainclothes hunks had gone, leaving instructions for me to join them at the station at my earliest convenience. Which meant now. They’d already had a little chat with her. She obviously hadn’t enjoyed it. Kept asking me why they should have wanted to talk to her at all, what on earth could she tell them? She was so agitated about it that I wondered for a moment if she could have done it. But it seemed such a negative move given her proposed career path. I told her it was just routine and she shouldn’t worry.
I asked how long she’d be staying in London. She said she wasn’t sure. Olivia didn’t have any family or relatives. Her parents were both dead and there was no one else. That was the point. Maurice had been everything. Husband, father, friend. It made you want to weep, she said. Which of course, it did.
But whatever the crisis, Castle Dean couldn’t get by without her. At Olivia’s suggestion she’d left Martha in charge (well, at least grief hadn’t completely overwhelmed their business sense), but she had to get back as soon as she could. But what about Olivia? Who would look after her? It was then that she grabbed hold of my arm.
“You won’t abandon her now, will you?” she said with a passion that I hadn’t thought her capable of. Abandon. Emotive word. How come Olivia was suddenly turning into everyone’s favorite victim? Maybe people knew something I didn’t. Curiosity. In my line of work it’s more fatal than compassion. I opened my mouth to tell her there was nothing more I could do. But it didn’t come out quite like that. Oh God, Hannah, when will you ever learn?
According to his card, Detective Inspector Meredith Rawlings belonged to the Marylebone Police Station on the West Way. Or the fingernail factory as it’s known to aficionados. Frank says the nickname comes from its architectural similarity to a certain building in the Middle East famous for that form of interrogation manicure, and not as a cynic like myself would have imagined from its own reputation with suspected terrorists. If Olivia had been in a more buoyant frame of mind, she might have enjoyed the allusion.
I left the car where it was and walked. I was beginning to feel the effects of a second night with only two hours sleep. Of all the things I didn’t want to do right now, talking to policemen came high on the list. They apparently felt the same way about me. I had been sitting in reception for so long that I began to wonder if this was deliberate company policy, or if someone else might have died in the meantime, when eventually the call came. Tenth floor. I’d be met by the lift.
They didn’t even apologize. Bad start. I tried not to let it affect my sense of prejudice. In their little interrogation cubbyhole off the open-plan office I got my first good look at them both. El Jefe, Meredith (I wonder what his nickname is?), was very much of a type. A big man in a suit that would have fit him well three years ago, and a face on which the late nights and the pints had started to show, almost to the point of distracting you from the intelligence in his eyes. The first time I had met Frank I had felt something similar—and as a result done myself no good at all by seriously underestimating him. But then Frank was one of the ones that got away. And according to him the longer you stayed the greater the brain damage.
Meredith’s sidekick, Detective Grant, still had a ways to go. He was younger, probably about forty, and vain enough still to be trying. The result could have been worse. No stomach to speak of and a chin that was still at right angles to his neck. More than that was hard to judge. They offered me coffee and put an ashtray on the table in front of me. Big boys don’t care about cancer. I felt a bit of a wimp not lighting up.
Meredith had evidently been reading my card. “Comfort and Security, eh?” he said, twirling it round his fingers like a preliminary to a magician’s trick. “Well, well. So you’re Frank Comfort’s girl.”
Fame at last. “That’s me. Why? Whose boy are you?”
He gave a little smile, as if he couldn’t be bothered to rise to it. “Good man, Frank. Left in eighty-eight after the first Stannish inquiry,” he said, but certainly not to me. The younger one nodded, but he kept his eye on me. I rewarded him with my special smile. He managed to withstand its radiance.
“I knew your boss,” said Rawlings.
“I’ll tell him. So, is the small talk over?”
“You even talk like him, you know.”
“Yeah, well, I’m just the dummy,” I said. “If you look out the window, you’ll see Frank down on the pavement saying the words.”
He looked at me for a moment, then rubbed his chin. “Do you want to have a go at this, Michael?” he said goodnaturedly.
Michael made a slight face and then wet his lips. Collagen, I thought. Keeps ’em plump and moist.
“Thanks for coming, Miss Wolfe,” he said with hardly a trace of irony. “We’d appreciate it if you could tell us a bit about how you got involved with Mrs. Marchant and exactly what you were doing for her.”
“I’d be delighted.” I paused. “As soon as you’ve told me a
Rawlings gave a little sneer. Or it may have been a smile. He hadn’t got the two quite sorted out. “Yeah, well in that respect he hasn’t changed.”
I took it as a yes and turned my attention to the more tender mercies of Grant. “How was he killed?”
“We haven’t got the PM report yet, but it was almost certainly one of two knife wounds to the back of the neck, with more on the shoulders and the chest.”
“We won’t know until the PM, but apparently he kept a surgical knife on his desk as a kind of gimmick letter opener. It isn’t there now.”
“What about the eyes?”
“First thoughts are that the mutilation took place after death.”
“She didn’t see them?”
He shook his head. “We covered them up for the ID.”
Mind you, I thought, you’re talking about a lady who’s probably no stranger to a bit of slicing around the peepers. Though, as I could tell you, one cut is not quite the same as another. I wondered if they’d noticed. It was something of a relief to have gone through this many hours with no one bringing it up.
“Time of death?”
He humphed a bit, just to let me know he was getting impatient. “Somewhere between eleven and twelve-thirty.”
“What was he doing there so late? I thought he was due to fly to Amsterdam first thing in the morning.”
“He was. We found the ticket in his wallet. A reservation on the six-thirty A.M. flight. Presumably he had work to finish before he went.”
Or someone to see. Hmmm. “Any sign of a struggle?”
“No. But then that first blow would probably have incapacitated him.”
I wanted to ask a little more about that, but I didn’t want them to know I was interested. My hesitation lost me the initiative.
“So,” said Rawlings, slipping in right on cue. “How about we swap roles now? You know, have us play the policemen, just for a few minutes.”
Under My Skin by Sarah Dunant / Mystery & Detective have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes