Under my skin, p.2
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       Under My Skin, p.2

           Sarah Dunant
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  “Which was?”

  “The nails in the G-five pads.”

  “The what?”

  “G five. It’s a massage system. Electrically operated. The sponge heads vibrate and whirl round. Then you press them down into the flesh. It’s very popular. We were lucky the operator spotted them. At that speed the nails would have ripped the skin apart.”

  “Have you still got them?”

  She moved to the desk near me and opened a small drawer. She took out a small envelope and emptied its contents into my hand. A set of tiny little nails no bigger than new fivepenny pieces lay glittering there, sharp and eager. Could be bought at any hardware store, I thought. Like finding a needle in a haystack. And probably as painful.

  “Your girl must have had sharp eyes.”

  “Not really, but she did have some nasty little wounds on her legs. In the circumstances I could hardly criticize her for using the equipment.”

  G5. Must be pretty nice if the operators do it to themselves. I made a note to try it out sometime.

  “So, you think the equipment was tampered with during the night?”

  “I have no way of knowing. The treatment rooms are locked at night, but until recently there was always a key in the supervisor’s office. Anyone who knows the place could get hold of it. I’ve had it removed now.”

  “But when you found the nails, you knew you were in trouble. What did you do?”

  “I called Mrs. Marchant in London.”

  Ah, ah. The elusive client. “And what did she say?”

  “She gave me permission to close down the whole treatment area. I told the guests there was a fault in the heating system and did an inspection on my own. Since then I’ve double-checked everything in the building myself before it’s used. Which means I know for certain that it was between midnight last night and seven this morning that someone took the carp out of the fishpond in the garden and put them into the Jacuzzi, then switched the heating on. They were dead when I found them, oily, slimy, floating on the surface. That’s when Mrs. Marchant called you.”

  “She was still in London?”

  “Yes. She’ll be back tonight or tomorrow.”

  “Is that usual, her being away so much of the time?”

  “Yes … no … I mean Mr. Marchant works in London, so she spends some of the week up there with him and some down here.”

  “What does he do?”

  “He’s a consultant.”

  Isn’t everybody these days? “But from what you’re saying she’s not a particularly hands-on owner?”

  “It depends. We’ve only been open a few months. At the beginning she was very involved. But since I’ve come, she’s taken more of a back seat. Left it to me.” She paused. “She’s a good employer,” she added, as if I needed to know it.

  “And neither you nor she has had any contact with the saboteur?”

  “I don’t understand …”

  “No notes, no threats, no demands for money or anything like that?”

  “No. Nothing.”

  Either they were biding their time or we were looking at a malice over profit job. More interesting psychologically, but for that reason harder to crack.

  She picked up a pile of files from the desk in front of her. “Mrs. Marchant told me to give you a copy of the employees’ records. She said you’d probably want to see them. We have twenty-four girls altogether. Twenty live on the premises, the other four in the local village. Then there are two visiting nurses and a doctor, but they’re only part-time. I’ve included details of everyone’s work shifts over the last two weeks so you can see who was where at what time.”

  “Thanks. Yours are here, too, are they?” I said casually.

  “Of course. Right on top,” she said, her diction sharpening up again at the hint of trouble.

  “Good.” I paused in case the silence made her feel uncomfortable. It didn’t. “I’m assuming that none of the staff know who I am?”

  “Absolutely not. You’re booked in as a regular guest.”

  “Even though I’m here talking to you?”

  “It’s nothing out of the ordinary. I often make it my business to meet new guests.”

  “And if I need to contact you urgently …?”

  “You can dial me direct from your room. I’ve added both my office and room numbers to your notes.”

  “Fine. OK. Well, I’ll need a plan of the place, a list of the clients who have been here in the last two weeks, and someone to show me round. Oh, and I think I forgot to bring a swimsuit.”

  From under the desk she picked up a large bag with CASTLE DEAN written in big fluorescent letters. “I got you this in case you didn’t have time to pack. The suit is size ten, but it stretches. If it doesn’t fit, let me know. I’ve booked you in for a full day’s treatment starting tomorrow morning at eight-fifteen with water aerobics in the pool.”

  I could feel my muscles twitching in anticipation. I got up. “Anything else?”

  “Not really,” she said, and then with admirable aplomb, “Although you might start by concentrating on the waist.”

  Any more like that, lady, and you could find yourself the victim of bodily harm.

  Chapter 2

  Despite Carol Waverley’s taunt the good news was the costume fit. The bad news was the body hair it revealed. The legs I could probably get away with, the pubes were another matter. Designed with beauty-salon profits in mind, the suit was cut high enough into the hip to call for some serious waxing. Unless, of course, you had the nerve to go without. Given my natural aversion to masochism, I would normally not even have considered it. But in this case I was being paid to fit in, and what if the girl who did the waxing also did the sabotage? You know what the pundits say about small acts of violence leading to larger ones. I decided to sacrifice myself for the cause. I slipped into my old but happy tracksuit and went down for the guided tour.

  After a quick zip around the dining room and lounges (more catalogue decor) we moved on to the serious stuff. The health section was in the new extension behind the main wing. The heart of the complex was surrounded by the pool under a vaulted glass ceiling and some clever trompe l’oeils of tropical seascapes. Through arches of fake palm trees, a number of corridors led to the treatment rooms. Our tour guide, Marianne, otherwise known as the Client Liaison Officer, whizzed us round the facilities. I loitered a while in the doorway of the G5 massage parlor. The machine, which looked like an elaborate vacuum cleaner, stood by the massage bed, its sponge heads lying limply over the top. I closed my eyes, the better to imagine the screams and the walls splattered with blood.

  On the floor above, the last aerobics class of the day was coming to an end with some frenzied jogging to hype up the heart rate. I looked through the doors at the backs of some twenty women bopping up and down like a clutch of overage cheerleaders practicing for the big game. The sight much reassured me. Despite all the ad talk, Castle Dean was clearly not the kind of health farm which doubled as a finishing school for super models.

  On the other hand, as the gym next door showed, it did have its health freaks. In a corner two women were pumping serious iron on the chest and leg machines. One of them was more or less a normal shape, but the other was built like a piece of flex. You could almost feel the electricity pulsing through her. They both looked some way away from climaxing. Know how you feel, I thought. I have the same problem with working out as I do with sex. Low boredom threshold. Whatever’s pumping. Near the door an older woman was cycling slowly to nowhere, overshadowed by her Olympic companions. I gave her a reassuring smile.

  In the heat treatment area the figure in the sauna looked hot but voluntarily so, while the six or seven women in the steam room—well, I’ve already waxed lyrical about them.

  I was ready to take my clothes off then and there, but that wasn’t allowed. Not yet, anyway. Before the treatments you needed to have a treatment plan, and that meant seeing the nurse.

  She turned out not to have quite the customer c
harm skills of the lovely Marianne. No doubt she had learned her trade in the National Health Service, and was having trouble adapting to the private sector. After a tight little smile and a few brisk personal details, she had me “popping” off my clothes and onto the scales. The weights danced between the eight- and nine-stone mark, coming to rest nearer the latter. It was the kind of revelation that might have driven Naomi Campbell to suicide, but I gained comfort from a more historical perspective: if Naomi and I had both been naked in front of Rubens, it would not have been her who would have made it to the National Gallery.

  Staff nurse Ratched, however, was more of a Giacometti fan. The treatment she worked out for me involved rigorous daily exercise and a week on the reduced-calorie diet. She made it sound like a penance.

  Back in my room I used up my first day’s quota of calories on a hefty slug of scotch from my hip flask—that’s the great thing about Catholicism, after penance come more sins—and hit the staff records. I looked at Mrs. Waverley’s first. It made aspirational reading. Carol Waverley, née Clacton and born just outside Rugby, had left school early and gone into the beauty business. Four years later she went to college to do a business diploma, and Castle Dean was her first big break after qualifying. En route somewhere she had acquired and then lost Mr. Waverley. There had been no children.

  No one else on the team quite came up to her aspirational or academic standards. The average age was around twenty-two, and their track records painted a picture of casual labor, six months here, six months there, with the odd stint on cruise ships or in the big stores. Most of their references were good. All of them had been checked out by either Carol or the owner herself (the odd signed comment in a fine italic hand).

  A little time-and-motion study successfully narrowed the field. Out of the twenty-four of them, eight had been off duty (although that didn’t necessarily mean off the premises) during the key times. I put them to the bottom of the pile and went through the remaining sixteen again. There still wasn’t an obvious suspect among them. But then if there had been, they’d hardly be wasting a hundred and fifty quid a day on yours truly. Thinking about the money, I decided to do a little research among the guests.

  Downstairs dinner was in full swing. Nothing so crude as a gong to summon the faithful, more a communal rumbling in the stomach of a hundred underfed souls. Let’s hope they didn’t smell the scotch on my breath. Luckily the paneled dining room already had its own aroma—that of low-cal salad dressing. It reminded me of the lunch I’d missed.

  At candlelit tables, each with its own bowl of flowers, sat little groups of women, heads bowed over plates of green beans and glasses of iced water. A soundtrack of low chatter echoed to the ceiling. The effect was almost devotional. “For these and all the calorie-controlled food of our lives may the Lord make us truly grateful.”

  I picked a table with four others. In beauty terms they ranged from beyond hope to the “who needs a health farm anyway?” I have to admit I was ready to dislike them, ready to find them too rich or too idle, or just too self-obsessed. But it wasn’t like that. Whoever they might have been with their makeup and clothes on, without them they were pleasantly ordinary, there as much for the rest as for any miraculous transformation, and with few illusions about the state of their bodies.

  My favorite was the most recalcitrant image-wise, a lady whom I recognized from the sauna. She must have been in her fifties. Her long black hair, streaked with gray, was held up in an untidy bun and she wore the kind of housecoat that one sees only at jumble sales. I got the impression she knew that and didn’t give a damn. Her stay at Castle Dean was a thirtieth wedding anniversary present from her daughter, an attractive TV producer sitting next to her. The family that slims together gyms together. As mother-daughter relationships go, they were doing better than I ever knew.

  To the mother’s left was a woman who owned her own travel agency, in for a “retread” (her words not mine), and next to her a well-preserved woman called Katherine who worked in the city and advised people with too much money what to do with it. In spite of my prejudices even she seemed OK. Maybe it was the diet, the absence of artificial additives. Theirs and mine.

  I used my newcomer status to ask some dumb questions, but got little back. Carol Waverley had done her job well. Neither the nails nor the blue Marks & Spencer’s buyer had entered Castle Dean folklore. After a while the conversation reverted inexorably to food and the culinary fantasies that come with all calorie-controlled diets. Coffee—decaf, of course—was served in the lounge, accompanied by a short talk by a local expert on the wines of the Languedoc region—an extracurricular activity of some sadism, I thought, for a place under prohibition. I gave it a miss and went to check out the servants’ quarters.

  The girls (or the beauticians, as the brochure insisted on calling them) lived at the far end of one of the wings of the house, their rooms carefully segregated from those of the guests. I went via the outside, across the immaculately manicured lawn, through a small gate marked PRIVATE. The grass on the employees’ side was decidedly less green, but then these ladies weren’t paying two hundred quid a day to stare at it. I looked up at their rooms. Only a few still had their lights on. The morning shifts started at 8:00 A.M. Tough business, beauty. On the top floor there were a couple of windows open. From one a tinny stereo was pumping out house music, the volume too muted for the choice of music to make sense. Bedsit land. I’ve always had a sneaking fondness for the simplicity of it. Kate thinks it’s the Peter Pan in me, never wanting to live in a real adult house. I’ll leave you to guess what I think of what she thinks.

  I wondered what they made of their lives, boarding school girls by night and handmaidens by day, massaging, pummeling, waxing, and cosseting an endless stream of women who spent more in a day than they probably made in a week. Presumably they were all paid-up members of the church of health and beauty. But even the faithful can be tempted. Maybe one of the bedsit windows concealed a recent convert to Living Marxism, dedicated to exacting vengeance on the complacent middle classes. I could hardly wait till morning.

  Back in my room I washed down some leftover popcorn from Aladdin with a couple of hits from my hip flask. I tried to think full but my stomach wasn’t fooled. More than a couple of days of this and I’d be ready to sabotage the place myself. I channel-flicked until there was nothing left but night-owl trash, then changed into my new swimming costume. It seemed pretty unlikely that the saboteur would strike again so quickly, but I was being paid partly to let Carol Waverley sleep more easily in her bed, and, anyway, it’s one of my favorite activities, midnight swimming.

  Someone, however, had beaten me to it. As I entered the atrium, the moon emerged from behind clouds and bathed the pool in a cold, foggy glow. I saw a figure moving cleanly through the water, a lovely smooth breaststroke, up, down, up, down, the ripples flowing out like cut silk behind her. I stood watching her, counting the laps, envying her elegance and her ease. Then, just as I was in danger of becoming mesmerized, she stopped and stood up. She put her hands up to her face, pushing off the water, and let out a long gasp of tiredness, pulling herself up over the side of the pool. In the moonlight I could see she had a beautiful figure: long legs; high, rounded breasts; and slim waist in a simple black swimsuit. I did not recognize her from any of the staff mug shots and certainly nothing that lovely had been in the dining room earlier. From a chair nearby she picked up a long, dark bathrobe and pulled it round herself, sliding her feet into a pair of slip-on shoes.

  She was still oblivious of my presence. Since I was standing directly between her and the exit, she was about to get the fright of her life. I braced myself for her shock. But it never came. Because she didn’t leave that way. Instead she walked round the pool to the back of the atrium and out through what should have been a locked door.

  I went after her the second it closed, but by the time I reached it it was locked again. I knew from the plans that it led not to the treatment rooms but to the garden, and fro
m there one could reach the girls’ block. I tried the other doors. They were still locked. Someone who had a key to one could well have the key to others, but if I had been doing something naughty in the steam room I would hardly have stuck around for a leisurely swim afterward. I dug out my flashlight to check the time. Ten to two. Even if I did wake her, it was unlikely Carol Waverley would feel like getting up to search the premises in the middle of the night. I decided to leave her to her beauty sleep and hit her early.

  As it happened she didn’t feel much like searching then either. “Oh, I don’t think we need to worry.”

  “Why? D’ you know who it was?”

  “Yes, I think so. I think it was one of the beauticians.”

  “Which one?”

  “Er … Patricia Mason. From your description it sounds like her.”

  “Is it allowed, the staff using the pool?”

  “Not strictly, no. But it does happen.”

  “And what if it was more than a swim?”

  “Well, I’m pretty certain it wasn’t, though of course I’ll check. Thanks. I’m grateful for you telling me so promptly.”

  Liar, I thought. Nobody can be grateful for being woken at 6:30 A.M.—I certainly wasn’t when the alarm went off in my ear after less than four hours’ sleep. And I wasn’t that certain that she would check either. Interesting.

  Half an hour later I was the second one down for breakfast. By then I was so hungry that I could have eaten anything. I almost did. I was on my way to the buffet table with its tempting choice of bran or grapefruit when the woman ahead of me started screaming. Food deprivation and hysteria—an interesting medical phenomenon. I pushed past her. There, in pride of place in the center of the table, stood an enormous bowl of yogurt. “Live,” I believe, is the technical term. In this case it was a precise use of language. I watched fascinated as its thick white surface heaved and squirmed with a mass of drowning blind maggots.

  For a moment nobody did anything. Then I picked up a napkin and flung it over the bowl. Next to me the woman’s screams had transmuted into panicky, yelping little hiccups. “Don’t worry,” I said calmly. “They’re protein. Very low in calories.”

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