Under my skin, p.4
Under My Skin, p.4Sarah Dunant
I could now more or less confidently cross off six names, although two of those—Lola of the face mask and Julie, my born-again beautician—were already at the bottom of the pile since they had been off duty at certain key times. Martha, she of the G5 pleasure principle, remained a question mark. I reread her file more carefully and discovered a Bromley girl who’d left school at sixteen, then gone back to college to get O-levels and a beautician’s diploma, supporting herself by running the bar at a local disco. Since her arrival at Castle Dean, her conduct had been impeccable, even winning a nice comment in Mrs. Marchant’s italic script about her rapport with the guests.
I also dug out Patricia Mason’s photo to try and match her up with the pool beauty. But it was a head-and-shoulders snapshot, and without the body it was impossible to tell. I put it to one side and went through the other files again, looking for any sign of dissatisfaction—a reprimand or warning that might have gone septic. But all I could find was a note on the lovely Irish colleen’s file about punctuality, and it just didn’t seem enough to cause such a sustained campaign of violence.
Indeed, that was part of the problem. Someone so deliberately trying to destroy the place without the financial incentive of blackmail must have had one hell of a grievance. Either that or be a pretty disturbed personality, something the management failed to spot. For that reason—among others—I needed to have Martha’s hands on me again. Until then all I could do was damage control. And given that the intervals between the incidents were getting shorter, that meant some serious night patrolling.
I had dinner (you don’t want to know about it), then phoned home to check my messages. There was one from an old friend who’d got tickets for a Leonard Cohen concert that night and wondered if I was interested, for old-times’ sake. Rumor has it that Leonard is less depressed these days. The same, however, can’t be said for his fans. Since the concert had already started, I didn’t bother to ring back. Next came a somewhat distracted monologue from Kate, wondering if I was back yet, but, since I wasn’t, it didn’t matter anyway. Except it sort of sounded like it did. I dialed her number. Bad timing. She was putting Benjamin to bed. For the third time.
“Colin isn’t back yet?”
“Sounds like you’ve had a day of it.”
“Amy fell off the climbing frame. She’s got a suspected fracture in the lower arm. We’ve been in casualty all afternoon.”
“Oh, Kate, I’m sorry. Is she OK?”
“Yeah, she’s fine now. Can’t believe her luck. Ten days off school and everyone fussing over her.”
“Is that why you called?”
“Yes. No. I just … er … Listen, I can’t talk now, Hannah, I’ve got my hands full here. Maybe I could call you back?”
“No can do. I’m still away.”
“Where are you?”
Well, what words would you have used to try and make it sound like hard work? After I put the phone down, it struck me that this was probably exactly what Kate needed: a regime of enforced self-indulgence without even the echo of a child’s voice to be heard. Maybe if I lucked out on the plot, I could trade in part of my fee for health farm vouchers.
Since it was probably still too early for prowlers, I lay on the bed and watched a bad action movie. The car chases alone were enough to send a girl to sleep. The hip flask called to me from the top drawer. I’ve always seen myself as a girl who can take her alcohol, but thirty-six hours of exercise and green beans and it wasn’t so much my body that was feeling lighter as my head. I had a hefty slug and I decided on a little fresh air to wake me up for my night tour of duty.
I went out through the back door and stood on the lawn, peering into the garden beyond. In daylight this was a fabulous view down through a set of graduated terraces to a lovely ornamental pond (home of the unfortunate carp) with an old brick wall at the bottom covered by a vigorous spring clematis in full bloom. Maybe if you got close enough, you could see the flowers glow in the dark.
I moved out of the pool of light thrown by the house and felt my way along the path and down the first flight of steps. Last night’s moon was obliterated by heavy cloud and within fifty yards or so the night enveloped me, bringing with it that peculiarly intense alive country blackness that is always such a shock to us urban types.
I turned and looked toward the house. What’s the problem? Don’t tell me you want to go back, Hannah? But it was already too late. Already I could feel a small thump-going stereo at the bottom of my chest. I walked deeper into the dark, deliberately goading it further. Welcome back to the beginnings of fear. Well, hello, I said softly, I’ve been expecting you.
It was almost a year since I had walked through a similar country blackness into someone’s malevolent fists. There are certain things about that period of my life that are already hazy or half-forgotten. But not that night. That night remains stubbornly insistent—so much so that it still doesn’t take much to resurrect the threat of him in a night silence, to smell the sweat of his excitement, to feel the heat of his breath on my face. I put up an involuntary hand and traced the thin, white line under my right eyebrow where his fist had split open too much flesh to properly heal, marring my beauty, but sparing my eye by an inch. Even the memory of it made me scared.
Except there was nothing to be scared of any longer. This is now and that was then, and the thug can’t bother you anymore. That was the point. I had won. I had been the victor. No country lane would see him again. So how come I still had such vicious palpitations of memory? Occupational hazard, Frank would say. What had been his advice that night in the hospital? Don’t fight it. Let it bury itself. Sensible man, Frank, and one with experience. And I had done what he told me. Am still doing it. Even so, it’s a cause of some shame for a private eye to be waking crippled by nightmares so long after the event. Do the boys suffer this, I wonder, finding the hangover from the violence nastier than the one from the booze? Sometimes I think I’m in the wrong job, trying to fit the myth to the reality. But only sometimes.
“Hi, Joe,” I said out loud this time, turning slowly around on the spot, daring him to scare me further. “How is it with you?” But now I had named him, he wasn’t there anymore. Coward. Him or me? The flutter eased and the darkness became quietly benign. I walked on farther just to prove my point, right down to the wall and the pond and the clematis climber. I felt, if not saw, the white of its big flashy flowers, dipped my fingers in the cool oily water, and only then, when I was satisfied with myself, did I turn and go back to the house.
And as I did so, I saw someone move across the lawn ahead of me and in through a back door. See. If I hadn’t spent so much time indulging my fear, I would have missed it. Sometimes the girl’s way of doing things pays off.
I waited a while to make sure whoever it was wouldn’t hear me following and then slipped back across the lawn and inside. Question was, which way was the person heading? I did a quick tour of the dining room and the kitchen, but they were both dark and empty. Then I made my way down the corridor through to the atrium. This time the pool was empty and there was no moon. The beam from my flashlight played around the space, exposing an edge of a palm tree, and the slick black of the water. Silence everywhere. I moved methodically round the treatment area, starting with the steam rooms and then the gym. All the doors were locked.
Then I heard a sound from the other side of the pool—a single sharp metallic noise, like something clattering to the floor. I snapped off the flashlight and stood in the dark, listening and waiting. Nothing. When the next sound came, it was less clear but almost certainly human, a sort of low moan or a gasp for breath. I risked the flashlight again. This time the beam found a closed door leading to the massage rooms. When I got to it and turned the handle, it fell open.
As my flashlight sent a river of light up the passage ahead, I saw the thinnest gleam seeping out from the bottom of the door at the end. My heart did a quick aerobic workout without the help of the gym teacher. I tried to reme
I moved on tiptoe until I was standing opposite the line of light. I heard a small grunt, again like someone clutching for breath. I took a few deep breaths of my own and put my hand silently on the door handle.
I turned it quickly and pushed. It rattled but didn’t give. Inside there was a sudden noise and the light snapped off. Shit. I shot myself back against the wall, then lunged forward using my foot as a battering ram. The lock splintered under the force of the first blow and gave entirely with the second. And as it did so, I let out a huge warrior wail, the only really useful thing that the Holloway Road Adult Institute self-defense class ever taught me.
It worked. A woman’s voice screamed in terror as the flashlight beam lit up a section of massage table and a flash of face. My fingers connected with the light switch. The neon strip zapped on and off twice, then flooded the room. It is, I think, fair to say that I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw what it revealed.
Before me there was not one but two women. The figure on the table was lying naked on her back, the face twisted toward me recognizable now as that of Katherine Cadwell, the dapper city broker. While sitting astride her, uniform pulled up above her bare thighs, was the very talented Martha. Nearby, the sponge head of the G5 machine dangled forlornly by the table leg. Nothing so useless as a used sex aid. I was instantly reminded of a certain infamous one-word headline in a tabloid newspaper after the British navy had sunk an Argentine battleship. Gotcha. But I managed to hold my tongue.
“Oh, my God.” Katherine was already pulling herself up, trying to get Martha off her at the same time as she lunged out for her bathrobe. For her part Martha was still staring. I studied her face. It was flushed and wide-eyed, an adrenaline of sex as well as fear about it. And I thought back to those hands, so capable and tender. No, I thought. Not so much business as personal. Then I looked past her to all those dinky thank-you cards pinned up on the wall behind. And I had to smile.
“Sorry,” I said as I pulled the door closed behind me, or at least as closed as the broken lock would allow. “Sorry. I must have got the wrong room.”
Breakfast was an early affair in Carol Waverley’s office: grapefruit segments and brown toast. She didn’t eat anything. But then she already had a number of other things on her plate. The first was her further diminishing guest list. Katherine Cadwell was no more, which was a shame given how regular a customer she’d been. The early receptionist had arrived down at 7:00 A.M. to find her packed and ready to leave. She’d paid by cash, asked for her registration details to be taken off the files, and wanted to receive no further information about Castle Dean’s special offers. You could say, of course, that she’d already had them.
“I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.”
It was hard to know which particular bit Carol was having the most trouble with: the fact that there was some gay nooky taking place in her clean and health-obsessed establishment, or that she’d just kissed good-bye another of Castle Dean’s regular paychecks.
One thing she was certain of, though. Someone was going to pay for it. So she was even more disappointed when I couldn’t tell her exactly who. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe you didn’t recognize the second woman. Or at least enough to give me some description to go on.”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, too. But I’ve told you it was dark, and as soon as I realized what I’d stumbled into, I assumed you’d prefer me to use tact rather than inquisition. The other woman had her face turned away from me. It could have been anyone.”
She stopped pacing and turned to me. “Well, I hope you realize this puts me in an impossible position. How can I carry on when one of my staff is soliciting the guests?”
It wasn’t the verb I would have chosen. But let that pass. “And what if it wasn’t one of the staff?”
“Of course it was the staff. How else would they have got into that room?” She was trying hard to be tough, but the voice behind the words was getting a bit tremulous.
“You tell me. I thought you said that none of them had keys anymore.”
“Well … Well, they don’t, now. Oh, my God.” And all of a sudden she was a lot less poised. “What am I going to tell Mrs. Marchant?” she said, shaking her head.
“When does she arrive?”
“Er … probably later today.”
“She doesn’t seem very eager to get here, does she?”
“She’s a busy woman.”
“Well, I don’t think you should tell her anything.” She looked at me angrily. “Listen. What I saw were two women making love with the help of a sponge massage. And I don’t mean to be crude about it, but it looked to me like they were both consenting adults. So, unless you’ve got a problem with that, I suggest you check out the steam and sauna areas for possible faults while I get on with finding the saboteur before anything else happens. And that we leave the rest until we’re in a position to know more.”
“And when will that be?”
“Well,” I said gaily, although I’m not sure she would have appreciated the use of the adverb, “every day’s a new day.”
You’ll think me mean, perhaps, not to have told her. You’ll think me even meaner when I say it wasn’t anything to do with saving Martha’s skin. No. My silence had a more pragmatic subtext. Nasty word, blackmail, but in a job like mine sometimes the end justifies the means.
In the pocket of my dressing gown was my treatment schedule for the day. I had already established from the office that Martha was on massage that morning. I wasn’t booked in till the afternoon. But the good lady from Oxford had a morning appointment. I caught her in the pool during early water aerobics. We had a few laughs about trying to jog backwards under water to the sound of the Three Degrees, and then I mentioned that a work problem had come up and I was going to have to be on the phone for a consultation at exactly the time of my afternoon massage, and that they couldn’t fit me in any other time. And of course, being someone who understood the pressures of work, she offered to swap with me.
So it was that when 9:00 A.M. came around I didn’t wait to be called but instead walked across the poolside to the massage room, knocked, entered, and closed the door firmly behind me.
Martha was washing her hands by the sink, and looking at herself in the mirror in that casual way people do when they think they’re not being observed. When she saw me, suddenly reflected by her right ear, her face registered a definite shock. She turned. “I’m sorry, I—”
“I swapped with Mrs. Graham,” I interrupted smoothly. “Didn’t they tell you?”
She shook her head and I saw her swallow slightly, but she held my gaze. For a while we just looked at each other. My, you’re very cool, I thought. Then she seemed to relax. She gave a little nod, carefully laid down the hand towel, and walked across to the massage table. And when she spoke, there was a certain quiet confidence in her voice. “So, do you want to get undressed, then, Mrs. Wolfe?”
And the instant she said it I realized how it must look to her. After all, she didn’t know I was a private eye. From where she was standing I was just a regular guest who had waxed lyrical about her fingers, colluded in a certain humor and provocation, and then, seeing it for what it was, gone to some considerable trouble to get myself back for more. For my part, I’d been so busy with my own agenda I’d obviously missed hers. Courtship rituals. Fact is, I’ve always been a miserable failure at them.
Except … Except maybe it hadn’t been such a total misunderstanding. Maybe I’d been giving out some ambivalent signals of my own without realizing it. I felt again her hands on my stomach; how tense and then how good they had made me feel. How easily they had triggered memories of matters sexual. I saw her almost coy smile as we parted and then her face in the night, flushed and open, confident in both the giving and the taking of pleasure. Oh, my, Hannah. What a great moment f
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken, Martha,” I said quietly. “I haven’t come for a massage.”
“Oh,” she said. And she was bright enough to register the depth of my retreat. This time her voice had a touch of defiance in it. “Why are you here, then?”
“I need some information,” I said. “And I think you’re the one who could give it to me.” And then I told her who I was.
She listened in silence, standing very still with her hands deep in her uniform pockets. When I was finished, she bit at her bottom lip and laughed a little. “Christ, how stupid. I ought to have guessed when you asked so many questions. So, I tell you what I know, and in return you don’t tell them. Is that it?”
“More or less.”
She shook her head, then walked past me over to the door. For a moment I wasn’t sure, for a moment I thought she was actually going to leave. Instead she flicked the catch below the handle, tested to see it was locked, then turned to face me. “Seems I don’t have much option, do I?”
And from there it just fell into my lap, really. She was a smart cookie, of course. Somebody looking to be a manager herself. When it had become clear that Carol Waverley was getting her knickers in a twist about something, it hadn’t taken Martha long to work out what it was, particularly since she’d been one of the girls assigned to the retinting of the Marks & Spencer’s buyer. It had just been a question of using her ears and eyes. Especially her eyes.
“You want a name, I suppose. Let me tell you about her first. She’s not happy here. Not that that’s enough to convict her on. Half the girls in this place have had a run-in with management one way or another since Waverley took over. But her problem is a bit more basic. She’s got a kid, an eighteen-month-old daughter by some guy who walked out on her. The baby lives with her mother in Swansea. She goes up there every third weekend. There are no jobs there. She needs the money, but, of course, she doesn’t want to be separated. She tried to persuade the piranha to let her work longer one week and then have extra days off the next, but Waverley said no. They had a bit of dingdong about it.”
Under My Skin by Sarah Dunant / Mystery & Detective have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes