Under my skin, p.16
Under My Skin, p.16Sarah Dunant
I slammed down the phone. Great. First the police give me the brush-off, then my own sister. So now I wasn’t They’ll sort it out. Yeah, well, it was a shame she hadn’t told me that earlier, before I went off doing her dirty work. Christ, what would happen if she and Colin made it up now? I’d never be able to look him in the face again. On the other hand, what would I do if they didn’t?
Under the circumstances it seemed easier to concentrate on solving the murder. I made myself a viciously strong cup of coffee and fought off a sudden, overwhelming desire to sleep. There’d be time enough for that later. I went over to the kitchen table and tried to look surprised as I noticed a single gray file on the floor underneath—well, you never know where there may be hidden cameras these days. I slipped the file into my bag and hit the streets.
The Northern Line was having a good day. You could almost believe it was public transport. I sat opposite a young couple who couldn’t keep their hands off each other, giggling and touching and murmuring sweet nothings into each other’s ears. They made me feel about eighty years old.
I got out at Warren Street and walked. The sun was out and the day had definitely warmed up. I took off my jacket. London was almost tasty—all shimmering pavements, green leaves, and blue sky. Harley Street looked particularly trim and wealthy.
There were two police cars outside. I recognized one of them as Detective Grant’s. Got your number, I thought as I walked into reception. Marchant’s consulting rooms on the third floor were, of course, out of bounds to a humble private eye. It gave Rawlings and Grant a completely unacceptable advantage, being the only ones who’d been at the scene of the crime. Time for a little infiltration.
The uniformed officer in reception was a young wee thing, barely out of watching “The Bill.” I gave him my card, told him who I was, and that Detective Grant had asked me to meet him here at 3:00 P.M. Could I go up?
“No, I’m sorry. No one’s allowed in.”
“But he is here, isn’t he?” I said cheerfully. “I mean that’s his car outside and he told me he was meeting Rawlings as soon as he could get back.”
“Er … yes … They’re both upstairs.” You could tell he was impressed with how much I already knew. So was I. “But they’re interviewing someone and are not to be disturbed.”
“That’s OK,” I said. “I’ll go up and wait.” And I started to walk toward the stairs.
He put out a hand to stop me, but wasn’t exactly masterful. “Constable,” I said, “I don’t mean to be rude. But I have with me important information about the murder and mutilation of Maurice Marchant, directly relevant to the interview they are conducting, and I think you might find yourself in some trouble if you stopped me from delivering it. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
And so falleth the first hurdle.
The door into Marchant’s suite of offices was open. The lock, I noticed, had not been forced. I slipped carefully under the yellow tape that had been drawn across the entrance. The door to one of the rooms off the hall was partly open, and through the narrow gap I could see Rawlings and Grant talking to an elderly man. They all looked grave. Far too grave to notice me. I tiptoed past and glanced into the consulting room itself. No sign of forced entry there either.
PVC sheeting covered the floor and a plainclothesman was busy methodically painting off the desk and the chair. The place where the body had been found near to the desk was marked by a big white outline, just like in the movies. There were bloodstains on the carpet and the furniture, but all in the same area. Marchant must have died where he had fallen, and whoever had stabbed him must have been already well into the room. I chanced a step, but the PVC gave me away.
“Hey. Get off that. You’re not allowed in here. This is a police area.” The plainclothesman waved his paintbrush in the air.
“Sorry. I’ve come to see Detective Grant. He’s expecting me.”
“Is he?” I turned to see the man himself standing in the outer office, Rawlings and the elderly fellow beside him.
“Hello, Michael,” I said without a trace of sarcasm. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but just after you left I found this had fallen behind my desk. I thought I’d better get it to you straightaway in case it was important.” And I held out the gray file.
To his credit he didn’t let his disbelief show, simply nodded and took the file. “Hello,” I said to the old man next to him. “I’m Hannah Wolfe, and you are … ?”
Rawlings growled. “Get her out of here,” he said as he pulled at the old man’s sleeve. “Come on, Mr. Mather. We’ll find a car to take you home.”
Mr. Mather, who looked as if he’d been up all night, gave me a tired little smile and shuffled off obediently. Grant and I watched them go.
“Do you think he was standing by the desk or the window when he was struck?” I said, as soon as they were out of earshot. He didn’t reply. “The desk,” I said. “Yes, I’m sure you’re right.”
“Was that the cleaner who found him? No, bit too old. How about the janitor? Did he see something? He looked as if he saw something.”
“Hannah, if you don’t get out of here—”
I turned. “I’m going. I’m going.” He came with me as far as the stairs. Down below we both heard the lift door opening. The old man would soon be gone and Rawlings would make sure that I couldn’t get within a hundred miles of him, at least for now. I gave Grant the evil eye. “You said you’d tell me, you know. I didn’t need to bust a gut getting that file to you.”
“No,” he murmured quietly. “You didn’t.”
Rawlings’ voice wafted up our way, as he indulged his temper tearing strips off the young constable. He would be back soon, bad, mad, and no fun to talk to. It was now or never. “Well?” I said. “I’d hate to think I’d forgotten anything else that might be of help.”
“Don’t push your luck, Hannah,” Grant replied, then made his little gesture with the lips again, pursing them in and out. My, I thought, aren’t we getting intimate? I even recognize your mannerisms. This was the one he used when he was deciding what to say. “It was the janitor. He told us he thought he heard someone coming down the back stairs at around twelve-thirty in the morning.”
“So now we know more about the exact time of death.”
Well, whoopee, hold the front page. “But he didn’t see anyone?”
“A figure, leaving by the back door, that’s all. Couldn’t describe it. His eyesight’s poor.”
I looked at him for a moment. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Policemen are a lot like politicians. They manage to look shifty even when they’re telling the truth. “How about earlier? Did he see anyone coming in then?”
“No, but he was off making a cup of tea around eleventhirty. So if Marchant had buzzed his visitor in from upstairs, he could easily not have heard.”
“Well,” I said at last, “the world’s perfect witness. Blind and deaf. What a shame.”
“Certainly is. Though, who knows, maybe you just brought me something better.” He tapped the file against his other hand. Yeah, yeah, don’t patronize me, you schmuck. “Thanks for coming, Hannah,” he said, holding out his hand. I left it where it was just in case he hadn’t got the message.
I passed Rawlings at the bottom of the stairs. He was looking so pleased with himself he almost forgot to scowl. It was not a good sign.
The day had turned from warm to hot—the kind of temperature that would soon have the weathermen talking. I took off my jacket again and strolled to the car park. Although I was probably naïve, I didn’t take Grant’s lying personally. If Mather really had seen something, Grant would hardly have told me before they had had time to check it out. Still, if I leaned on Olivia, she would probably be able to dig up the janitor’s contact address.
I so much hate people who use portable phones on the street that I waited until I got to the car to call her. But the Wigmore Street apartment had an answering machine on with an old tape t
I closed my eyes. The lack of sleep was beginning to bite again. Boy, some case this was turning out to be. I had spent the first three days starving in a health farm, the next three up all night in casinos, concerts, and police stations. No wonder it was all beginning to feel unreal. I dug my suspect list out of my bag and used it to kick-start my brain again. With no sign of forced entry we were looking for someone who knew Marchant well enough to be invited in. Unless she had a key. Since everybody else seemed so keen on her, I decided to give Olivia some serious thought. The fact that I liked her was neither here nor there. It is, of course, only traditional for the client to have done it, especially a good-looking one. What’s the old cliché? The more beautiful the more deadly? And by now Marchant would have been worth a few bob. So there was an obvious motive. On the other hand, money can’t buy you youth. And for once this was a marriage where the husband was clearly more use to his wife alive than dead. I thought back to that tear-stained face. Hard to know whom she was crying hardest for: him or herself? I decided to keep an open mind on Olivia—in contrast to the police, who, it seemed, had already closed theirs. Which brought me to the alternatives.
Sadly I had to discard Mr. Rock ’n’ Roll (even a man of his prodigious talents couldn’t be slaughtering an audience and a doctor at the same time). The main contender after him was probably Daddy Rankin of the overweight family portraits. But Majorca was a long way away, and it would take some checking to find out if he was still there. Signora Gavarona, on the other hand, had most definitely been in Milan last night. Which left Belinda Balliol and Lola Marsh. But as far as I knew, Lola had never even met Maurice Marchant, so would hardly have been able to walk straight in after office hours, unless she’d made a secret appointment, while Belinda, despite her bad temper, seemed altogether too cute to be indulging in something as nasty as a form of Oedipal revenge. However, since she’d complained and since being a feminist these days means having to accept that women can be as angry as men (there’s your next failed hit, Pete), I had no option but to keep her on the list.
The digital clock on the dashboard said it was 4:80 P.M. I rubbed my eyes and looked a little harder. It became 4:50. Clearly the night watchman wasn’t the only one with sight problems. I put my head back on the seat and watched the world go by. My eyes were hot and prickly and the images started to spin.
I made a last stab at solving the plot before the police did and drove home via the Majestic Casino. But even alert I wasn’t that good at math. The man at the desk (luckily not the Thunderbird puppet) kindly pointed out that since the forty-eight hours’ membership period had not elapsed my card was not yet valid, although if I was really desperate I could always come back at 10:38 that evening. I would have argued, but I might very well have fallen asleep midsentence.
So I gave up and told the truth. Well, almost. I said I was a close friend of Belinda Balliol’s and I needed to see her urgently because I had some very personal news to give her. And when he asked me how urgent it was, I told him it was a death in the family. So he rang someone, talked for a bit, and then put the phone down.
“I’m sorry. Belinda’s not here. The floor supervisor says she’s on two weeks’ leave. Left yesterday morning.”
“I see. Does he know where she’s gone?”
Mexico. Now that’s what I call an alibi. I decided not to think about what this news would do to the state of my list and went home.
The only message was from Amy. Grandma’s house didn’t have a video and she wanted to come home, but Mum said she had to stay. So could I go to her house, pick up their video, and bring it over? If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have been tempted, just to see how Colin was doing on his own. Instead I poured myself a large thick vodka from the freezer and lay down on my bed.
I stayed awake long enough to put a call through to the international operator for Majorca. The address Farah had given me turned out to be some kind of villa. A housekeeper answered and told me in broken English that Rankin was out. I left a message asking for him to call.
The vodka started to work. I lay back and thought about all the women I knew who’d be feeling worse than I was right now. From Olivia I soon moved on to Kate. I thought about her so much that I even considered setting an alarm early enough to catch Colin in his basement seraglio. But luckily for him the vodka did its stuff and I fell asleep before I could reach the switch.
Unluckily for him, I had a nightmare and woke early.
* Host of the Desert Island Discs radio show.
I was curled in a ditch in a rerun of a certain country lane, his breath already sour on my face. This time I knew it was a dream, only I didn’t know how to get out of it. Then, as he leaned down to hit me as he always did, I found I had a carving knife in my hand. He pulled me up toward him and in a kind of slow motion I lifted up the blade and scored a long deep cut from his scalp down the edge of his face, opening up a rich seam of red. His hand came up to register the damage, and then, more in surprise than in pain, his fingers grabbed hold of the edges of the skin exposed by the cut and he began to pull slowly. The skin lifted up and off in one long searing tear, ripping up over the cheekbones, the nose and the eyes, as if it were a rubber mask. I caught a flash of pulpy raw flesh below. I closed my eyes and started to scream, but of course there was no sound, only the echo of my fear down the long dream corridor as I struggled to pull myself awake. I was clammy with sweat, caught between my clothes, the duvet, and the heavy air of another already scorching day.
I lay for a while, blinking in the light, my body so leaden I felt that I’d just come back from the dead. Coward, I thought. You should have kept your eyes open. Seen whose face it was underneath. For all you know it might have been God’s way of solving the crime.
I looked at the clock by my bed: 6:10 A.M. The west London salon where Lola Marsh had worked didn’t open till 9:30. Poor Colin.
Outside there was early hazy sunshine. If the world hadn’t been such a shitty place, full of sabotage, murder, and adultery, it would have been a lovely day. I didn’t bother with the bit outside his house but went straight to hers instead. Of course I might have got it wrong. Thursday might not be his day. Or could be he was so genuinely upset by his wife’s absence that he’d given up the other woman as his way of trying to save the marriage. On the other hand, while the cat’s away … It was up to him, really.
At 7:27 his nifty G-reg Rover turned the corner and came cruising in search of a parking place. I ducked my head under the dashboard as he went by. He got out and locked the door. He looked different from last time. No tracksuit today. But then he didn’t need it. Today there was no one at home he had to fool. I watched him go down the basement stairs and out of view. I put a clock on him, making a note of the exact time of entry and exit. Old habits die hard. When his jaunty little bone head surfaced out from the staircase it had been fifty-three and a half minutes exactly. Hardly worth the money really. But then, of course, she had a schedule to follow, had them stacked up like planes at Heathrow. It wouldn’t do to have them colliding on the runway. The watching gave me an idea. I wasn’t going to get mad. I had already decided that. I would use the encounter as a chance to talk to him. But that didn’t prevent me from giving him a bit of a fright first.
He walked swiftly down the road toward his car. I was standing on the other side watching. He didn’t see me. He was too busy thinking of other things, reliving his greatest moments. He got in the car and was about to start the engine when I waltzed up to the passenger window and gave it a smart little knock.
He looked up, startled, and for a second he didn’t recognize me. When he did, he went gray. I watched the color fading out from under his skin, like a long slow blush in reverse. He pushed the button and the window slid down. Together at last.
“Colin?” I said, in a deliberately anxiou
“Hannah? Er … What … What are you doing here?”
I gave a quick noisy swallow. “I’m on a job. What about you?”
“I … I … was … er … visiting a friend. I … We had a meeting, a breakfast meeting.”
“Hmm. I know you work hard, but this is impressive,” I said, opening the door and sliding myself into the passenger seat. “What is it? Another merger or takeover?” His face changed color once again, moving from gray to a chalky white. “You don’t mind me getting in for a few minutes?”
“Er … No. So what are you doing here at this time?” he said, evidently so rattled that he’d forgotten he’d asked already.
“I’m on a surveillance job. I’m watching a house.”
“Watching a house?”
“Yes. For a client,” I said, gesturing to the other side of the road, from where he’d come. “I’m keeping a record of everyone who comes in and out.”
“Really?” And you could see he wanted to ask so bad that it hurt. I let him sweat for a while. But it didn’t give me quite the pleasure I had anticipated, so I let it go.
“Actually I’m really glad to see you, Colin,” I said. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you about Kate. She seemed in such a state when I saw you both over the weekend. I wondered—are things OK now?”
“Um. Yeah. Listen, I’m sorry, Hannah, but I can’t talk now. I’m afraid I’m late for work. I have to go.”
So much for the intimate, honest approach. “Another meeting, is it?”
“Yes—no. No. Just work.”
“Number thirty-four. Is that where your meeting was?”
“Er, yes …”
“Has she got a gym in the basement, then?”
“A gym. Isn’t that where you tell Kate you’re going? When you leave the house three times a week at seven-ten to drive over here?”
Under My Skin by Sarah Dunant / Mystery & Detective have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes