Under my skin, p.23
Under My Skin,
I spent the rest of the day visiting a few places and talking to a few people. Then I came home and wrote everything down. Well, it wasn’t easy and there were a lot of details I had to get right. The most important thing was that it all fit, it all made sense. Except, that is, for one character, Lola Marsh—the girl of the grudges and the face packs. Come to think of it, she’d never really been properly accounted for, anyway. Stubborn in more ways than one. I went into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup and, as I waited for the water to boil, I saw the family snapshot grinning out at me from the board. Two little girls, one scowling, one smiling. One following in Mother’s footsteps, the other desperate to get away. Family dynamics. Maybe it was always like that—the rebel and the acolyte.
Shit. It was so long ago I had almost forgotten them. The roly-poly bodies, the thick and thin thighs, the new marble stone. And the two sisters, one fair-headed, one red. If one didn’t hold a grudge, that didn’t necessarily mean the other had forgotten. I scrabbled about in my notebook. First I rang the Chiswick beauty salon, where I was much nicer to the manageress, and she in turn was much nicer to me, especially when I called her plump redheaded ex-employee by the right name. Then I rang the girl herself. Or rather the place where I thought she might be. And sure enough, a young female voice answered. You could almost hear the sunshine in the background.
“Hello,” I said. “Is that Cilla Rankin?”
“Hi, Cilla, how’s the weather? Better than here I bet. What happened? Did you go straight from Castle Dean to Majorca? Good idea to get away. Your dad must have been pleased to see you.”
“Who is this?”
“It’s OK. I’m a friend. We’ve met before.”
There was a silence. “I know who you are. Farah said you’d been to see her, too. I didn’t have anything to do with his—”
“I know you didn’t. No one’s accusing you of anything, Cilla. Honestly. You were just in the right place at the right time, that’s all. But I do need to ask you a few questions. Is that all right?” There was a silence on the end of the line. I heard a man’s voice in the background. “Or maybe I could have a word with your dad about it all. Though he’s probably trying to put it behind him.”
“No. Not Dad,” she said quickly. “Wait a minute. Let me go to another phone.”
And after that I didn’t really need a holiday. There was too much fun to be had at home.
I called Castle Dean to tell them I was coming. Or rather tell one of them. It took me a while to track her down because she wasn’t in her office. But that was because, strictly speaking, it wasn’t her office anymore.
“I’m glad you called. I was going to ask Olivia for your address, to write to you. To say good-bye.”
“Yes. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Why? What happened?”
“You’ll have to ask Olivia about that. All I know is what she said to me. That she wants a fresh start. To put all the unpleasant stuff behind her. It seems that I remind her of the unpleasantness.”
“Oh, Carol, I’m sorry.”
“Oh, it’s all right. The place is being shut down for a couple of months anyway. She’s doing some refurbishment. Expanding it apparently. I’ll get a good reference, she’s made that quite clear. And she’s been very generous about the redundancy money.”
Yeah, I bet she has. But then it was something she was good at, paying off her employees. And she could afford it now. “Still,” I said, “after all you’ve done for her, you must feel rotten. Do you know who’ll be taking over?”
And before she had answered, I wrote a name down on the pad in front of me. It was the right one. Well, it wasn’t that hard. After all she had all the right qualifications: competence, intelligence, ambition. Except if you really thought about it, you could see it was none of those qualities that had actually got her the job. I remembered that meeting in the car park, the day they towed Olivia’s little Ford Fiesta away, and the feeling I had had of something left unsaid. Not any longer. Martha’s elevation was, you might say, the cherry on the top of my cake.
We chatted for a little longer, and then I wished her good-bye and good luck. And asked her to do me one small favor before she went. It took some coaxing to get her to agree.
It was late afternoon when I arrived and the sky had cleared. Not exactly Tuscan, but nice nevertheless. The guest car park was only about a quarter full. Maybe the shut-down had already started. Either that or murder and sabotage had wrecked the business. I went round the back to where Olivia’s car was snuggled back into its parking bay, about fifty yards away from the girls’ quarters. Nifty little vehicle. Get you to London and back in good time if you put your foot down and there wasn’t much else on the roads.
I went in the back way, up through the garden and in through the side door. In the lounge, tea and dried biscuits were being served. I could still remember the taste. I went through to the atrium. There were a few women lolling about on deck chairs or in the pool, but the Jacuzzi had been pumped empty, its peeling blue bottom exposed to the world. I looked at my watch. It was 5:20 P.M. The final shift would be back at any moment. I slipped into the massage room, slid the screens around the bed, took off my clothes, arranged my equipment, and lay face down on the towel.
She came in a few moments later. I could hear her opening a cupboard, then washing her hands at the sink. She moved toward the screens and smartly snapped them back. I gave her, I think it is fair to say, the fright of her life.
“Hello, Martha,” I said. “I’ve come for the massage.”
She stared at me, then gave a funny little laugh. “Hannah? Carol told me it was—”
“I know what Carol told you. But then she’s pissed off about losing her job. And it wasn’t a complete lie. I did especially ask for you. After all—you did promise.”
“Does—Does Oli—Mrs. Marchant—”
“Know I’m here? No, but I don’t think she’d begrudge me a free session, do you? She owes me quite a lot, after all. So, do you want me on my tummy or my back?”
“Er—that’s fine. That’s fine as you are. I’ll—I’ll just go and get some oil.”
“You don’t need any oil, Martha,” I said firmly. “From what I remember your hands do just fine without it.”
She hesitated for a second, then decided to do what she was told and came and stood by my side. I smiled at her, then put my head down on the table. I could hear her breathing, trying to steady herself. After all, this is what she was good at.
I felt the flat of her palms come to rest lightly on my back, the right one down near where it met the cleft of my buttocks. I thought about the last time I had felt those hands on me, and the wary, delicious confusion they had brought with them. It was a shame there would be no time to explore that further. But then I had a date with a man tomorrow night. And anyway, I don’t like being made love to by people whose ambition is more important than their morality.
You could tell she was nervous. She started off on the shoulders and her opening strokes were neither quite so sure nor so steady. But the longer I was silent the more confident she became, the more those talented little fingers pushed and probed, hitting the knots, finding the tensions, coaxing them out, smoothing them away. Halfway down the back she hit a particularly tender little spot, and I groaned. Her hands hesitated, then moved over it again, working it skillfully, easing it from pain into pleasure. I relaxed, my body playing truant from my mind for a moment. She must have felt it, because now the hands started to move farther downward, gentle, loving, until they found themselves back where they had begun, teasing their way around the start of the cleft, then around over the curves of the buttocks down onto the thighs below.
And I let myself go with them, just for a while. There would be time enough for retribution. And sometimes a girl needs to relax. “Oh, that’s good,” I said slightly breathlessly, because I wanted her to feel secure and because it was. Flesh. This story was
So I let her play around my upper thighs for a while, caressing, suggesting, exciting, until with an expert little flick her fingers slid under and in, into the mouth of me, where no one had been for what felt like such a long time.
But I was already saving myself. “Congratulations, Martha,” I said suddenly, in a very matter-of-fact kind of voice, not at all mussed up by sex or desire. “I gather you got the job.”
Her hands froze, and the fingers withdrew themselves swiftly.
“What happened? Did she like your way with the customers, or was it more to do with the things you saw while you were on night duty?”
She still wasn’t speaking. I flipped myself up and over on the bed, removing her hand from my legs as I moved. I saw a face caught between guilt and defiance. Familiar Martha stuff. She had probably spent much of her life perfecting it. She opened her mouth. “I don’t know—”
“Shove it, Martha,” I said. “I’ve had it with lies. Yours and everybody else’s. If you were in any other establishment, what you’re doing now would have already got you the sack. But not here, eh? Here it gets you a promotion. Now why could that be? It certainly wasn’t what Olivia Marchant had in mind the last time I talked to her about you. But then that was before Tuesday night, wasn’t it? So what’s changed? How shall I put it? Maybe now it’s a question of I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine. Is that it? How much did you need the job, Martha? Enough to perjure yourself? You know it makes you an accessory, don’t you, not telling the police?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I got the job because I’m good at it,” she said, but she sounded much less sure. “I’m a good manager.”
“I’m sure you are. But that’s not why you got it. You got it because you have something to sell. And because Olivia needed to buy it. It was the car, wasn’t it? You saw the car.”
My voice was so loud and so hard that it even hurt my own ears to listen. I didn’t realize I was so angry. But then she was paying for both of them. She stared at me, then slowly she nodded her head. But I needed more than a nod. “Tell me.”
She swallowed. “I was going back to my room that night.”
“The night of Marchant’s murder?”
“It must have been sometime after three. I heard the noise of a car coming up the drive. It was coming in through the back way. I was worried someone might see me. So I hid in the doorway.”
“But instead you saw her?”
She nodded. “She parked in her usual space and got out. I saw her let herself in through the back of the house and close the door. Then I went to bed.”
“What about the woman you were with?”
“She’d gone back to her room before. I stayed to clear up. It was only me who saw her. I didn’t even think about it till the police came that day to take the car away.”
The day I had met her in the car park and she had been so sassy and sure. “So when did you break the news to Olivia?”
“That evening, after I’d seen you.”
“And what did she say?”
“She asked me if I was sure I could recognize the figure. I told her I was. She said she’d just been out for a drive, because she couldn’t sleep. And that it was perfectly innocent, but that it wouldn’t necessarily look like that.”
“And you agreed.”
“I didn’t say anything. Then she asked me if I would stay on, that she’d been thinking of doing some work on the place, putting some more money into it, and she’d be looking for a new manager.” She looked up at me. “I’m more than good enough for the job,” she said fiercely. “I deserve it.”
“Yeah,” I replied. Then I slipped my hand underneath the side of the couch and ripped off the little tape recorder I had put there. I switched it off. “It’s just a shame you won’t get it. Now maybe you’d better tell me where she is.”
I knocked on the door, although I felt more like kicking it in. It struck me that I had never been in her Castle Dean apartment. That every time we had met here it had either been in Carol’s office or across a midnight swimming pool. There was music coming from inside, a thudding underbeat and some talentless double-tracked voice over the top. It sounded like Olivia Marchant was dancing. But then she had a lot to dance about.
She opened it and for the first instant I didn’t recognize her. She was wearing a shiny bodysuit, one of Castle Dean’s best, and from the look of it the body inside had been working out. It was still in great shape, no doubt about that, tuned and pumped and exercised to within an inch of its fifty-year-old life. But it wasn’t the body that had stopped me in my tracks. It was the face.
At first I thought I was just seeing her without the makeup—the film of sweat and lank hair pulled back under a nylon headband taking the polish off that perfect visage. But when I looked more closely, I noticed something else. On the left-hand side, high up around the cheekbone where the twitch had been, something was definitely happening to the skin.
“Hannah?” she said. And as she saw me, she brought up a towel quickly to her face, as if nursing a bruise. “I—You should have told me you were coming. I’m afraid I’m—”
“Busy? Oh, I’m sure you can spare me a few moments, Olivia. After all, if you remember, I’m the one who saved your life. Can I come in?”
She looked at me and I think it was clear, even then, that she knew what I was talking about. She let the door fall open and walked in ahead of me. I closed it behind me.
“I’ll go and get changed,” she said.
“I wouldn’t bother,” I answered coldly.
“No,” she replied quietly. “You wouldn’t. But I would. Maybe you could wait in the other room.”
Client, servant. Sometimes it’s hard to break the pattern. I did as I was told.
The place came as a bit of a shock. It was full of pictures of her. They were everywhere, on the walls, on the tables, even in the fireplace: studio-type jobs, with backdrop and lighting, like a private portfolio on display. Or a shrine to past triumphs. There was only one of Maurice, sitting at his desk, those clever hands crossed in front of him. But then, of course, something of him was in all the other photos, anyway. I looked more closely at a couple. No doubt about it. Olivia’s face had been a great success story, especially when younger. There was one black-and-white photo taken amid a haze of cigarette smoke, like those film noir publicity shots of the forties. She was half-turned to the camera, her mouth slightly open, cheekbones like a rockface. Lauren Bacall. Muriel Rankin would have died to look like that. Come to think of it, she had. I heard a noise behind me.
Olivia was standing in the doorway, her usual elegance restored: a long diaphanous silk dress over leggings, a scarf back in place around the neck. But short of a paper bag over her head there was something she couldn’t conceal. The rest of the face was its own perfectly constructed memory of youth, but that left cheek was no longer included. I thought back to the image of the suspension bridge. But this was more a natural disaster, a kind of landslide, the cheek slipping downward leaving the skin lumpy and pitted. The cruel fact was that the left side of Olivia’s face was caving in. In her eyes I saw the pain it was causing her, more than two deaths had ever done.
“What happened to your cheek, Olivia?”
“I—there seems to be some problem with the skin.”
“Yeah. It’s the mini face-lift.”
“Maurice’s latest success. Marcella Gavarona had the same problem. She complained and he redid it, but it caved in again three weeks later. After that he just sent her home to Milan saying she was a freak case. She was planning to sue. But I don’t suppose that’s an option open to you now. How long has this one been?”
“Six months. Of course. The last-ditch attempt to keep him. Except it didn’t quite work, did it? Because he wasn’t as keen to give her up as you suggested. In fact, if you hadn’t come across the love letters in the first place, I bet he never would have told you at all.”
If my words surprised her, she didn’t show it. Instead she sat herself down on the settee, taking a little while to arrange her skirts around her, suddenly fastidious, distracted almost, like some heroine out of a Tennessee Williams play. Then she put up her fingers to probe a little into the collapsing cheek. “He promised me it would last four or five years,” she said quietly. “And that he’d be there to do the next one. He lied.” She paused. “But as it turned out, he lied about a number of things.” Then, suddenly: “Are you recording this?”
“No, Olivia,” I said. “This one’s just between the two of us. A private consultation.”
And to prove it I took the little tape recorder out of my pocket and put it on the table in front of us, both its reels silent and still. She smiled at the gesture, but only the right side of her face cooperated, the left dragging down her features as if she were a stroke victim. It made my little scar seem like a positive asset. She felt her skin and her fingers fluttered up again. But each touch revealed only more damage. It was almost enough to make you feel sorry for her. Almost.
“What happened, then, Olivia? Did he agree to give her up but find he couldn’t do it? He did try, though, didn’t he? Or maybe he just knew you were watching, staying in London, hanging on his every move, checking his phone calls, making sure there were no diversions on his way home or into work. He certainly never went near her house all that time. Or if he did, he made damn sure none of the neighbors saw him. But even you couldn’t be with him every minute of the day. As you once told me—such a busy man, such a ferocious schedule. Up early every morning to go into the office or the hospital before the day’s operations. His day starting just around the time hers finished. And you know what they say about doctors’ couches. That they see more action than most beds. Not to mention the fingerprints left all over the place.
Under My Skin by Sarah Dunant / Mystery & Detective have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes