Read an Excerpt
A Hannah Wolfe Crime Novel
By Sarah Dunant
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Sarah Dunant
All rights reserved.
It was so early even the central heating was quiet. I checked the luminous hands of the clock, and cancelled the alarm before it detonated. 5.24 a.m. I lay staring up into the darkness listening to the night. Outside, London was as quiet as it ever gets; just the odd bird confusing the sodium street glow for dawn and the hum of an occasional car, someone home too late or up too early. Like me. In a small town halfway across the Wiltshire Plain a young girl was sleeping, dreaming, no doubt, of her day in the big city. I thought of the miles between us. Then I thought of the money and hauled myself out of bed.
The place was like an icebox. I considered a hot shower, but with no hot water consideration was all it got. I pulled on jeans and a cute little thermal vest, followed by a sweater and a pair of woolly socks. Designer Oxfam, that's me. Passing the telephone, I fantasized about dialling Frank's number and letting it ring a couple of dozen times, just to give him a head start on the weekend. But he's sharper than he seems and he'd know it was me. Well, who else would it be?
En route to the kitchen I stepped over the curtain rail and the lump of plaster on the floor next to it. But this was a new day and I refused to be humiliated by past failures. I had a vision of myself twelve hours earlier, one foot hooked over the top of the radiator, the other balanced on the edge of the chair back — a dangerous job, but someone had to do it. I had got the screw perfectly lined up and was set to prove that since the invention of the automatic screwdriver men and women are equal in all things, when the telephone rang. No problem, I thought, ten seconds and it'll be over. I switched on. The screwdriver buzzed like a demented bee and the screw pirouetted into the wall, its head coming to rest at a slight but jaunty angle to the wood. Nice one, Hannah. Another simple but conclusive victory in the nature/nurture debate.
I was halfway down the ladder when patriarchy reestablished itself, the screw flinging itself out of the wall, taking the curtain rail and a large fist of plaster with it. I was lucky to make it to the phone uninjured. In retrospect I shouldn't have bothered. Frank on a Friday night: what could it possibly be but bad news for the weekend?
'You took your time. What were you doing?'
'Defoliating my armpits with a pair of tweezers.'
'Congratulations. You finally got a date.'
Since it was his phone bill I was tempted to prolong the banter, but I'd recently read this article in a women's magazine, about life being shorter than you think and the importance of making every encounter mean something. 'Excuse me, Frank, is this vital or can I leave you with the answering machine?'
'I thought you already had. Something's just come in. Do you want to work tomorrow?'
'Depends what it is.'
'Chaperone-companion. Usual stuff. Shopping, sightseeing and not losing them on the way to the little girls' room.'
The posh firms call it bodyguarding, it sounds less menial that way. The clients come in all shapes and sizes, but the best ones are usually foreign. Or to be more precise, Arab. I don't have the right style for the men. But the women can be great. I've had some of my most unexpected pleasure getting to know what goes on under the chador. Mind you, it had been a while now. The aftermath of the Gulf War had kept all but the richest at home; and the richest didn't go to Frank. Funny sensation having poor Arab clients. Although in this case poverty is relative. 'Saudi or Arab Emirates?'
'No, no, er ... this one's English.'
'Why the hesitation?' For an ex-policeman Frank finds it admirably hard not telling the whole truth.
'No reason. She's a great kid. I know you're going to love her.'
That's Frank for you. 'What do you mean "kid"?' Always a catch.
'Kid. You know, as in young person. But very mature. At least fifteen.'
Which meant thirteen and a half if I was lucky. 'Oh, come on, Frank, I'm not qualified to handle children.'
'Hannah, believe me, at this fee you'd be qualified to handle anything.'
'How much?' I said looking at the curtain rail and thinking about redecorating the room. He told me. I whistled. It always begins thus. Me with better things to do, him waving pound signs in the air to tempt me.
'I don't get it. Why so generous?'
'You're working for a firm with a reputation, remember? The kind of outfit that can cope with the threat of a custody snatch.'
'Well, it's only a threat.'
'At fifteen years old?'
'Yeah, well, fourteen actually.'
'Same difference. What's he going to do? Try to lure her away with the promise of a CD player?'
'Not he. Her. And she's tried before.'
'The mother? Tell me more.'
'I've written you notes. I'll get a bike to drop them round. So — do you want the address now or shall I ring someone else?'
It's one of our little games, pretending that Frank has a large workforce. It makes us both feel better about our jobs. I already had the pen in my hand. First he gave me the time, then told me where I was going. That way it took me a while to realize I'd been had. 'Oh, thanks, thanks a million. Why didn't you tell me earlier?'
'Because you wouldn't have taken it if I had. And Hannah? Don't be late, eh?'
5.55. In the kitchen there was orange juice, but not enough milk to cover the muesli. I added milk to the already long list on the noticeboard. Now if I were a really original PI, my kitchen would be an Elizabeth David sanctuary, overflowing with fresh bread, runny cheese and a large shiny cappuccino machine. Which just goes to illustrate the misery of conformity. I decided to cut my losses and hit a motorway cafe later.
Outside it was still dark. It had been another frustrating night for the Tufnell Park Neighbourhood Watch scheme. I passed a Ford estate and a Peugeot 205 with their side windows smashed, a straggle of intestinal wires gaping out from the holes where the radios had been. I clutched my fancy car stereo to my chest. Down the road my beat-up Y-reg Polo sat proudly intact under a street lamp. It wouldn't be long before the stereo was worth more than the car. I see it as a public service, really. Beat crime. Make sure none of your possessions are worth stealing.
I slid the radio in and turned it on. Radio 4 was telling farmers what to do with chicken feed, which is not something you need to hear before breakfast, while Radio 3 was broadcasting classical static. There was a smattering of DJs ranging around the rest of the dial, but they all sounded as if they already knew no one was listening. I went for a tape instead. This early in the morning you need old friends. Eric Clapton's fingers danced their way into his voice. It was almost as good as a cup of coffee.
The ride out of London made you see life from the night cabbies' point of view. No cars, no queues, just open road round the park, then amber to green right through on to Westway. Someone had once told me that when the lights were with you, you could drive from the ocean to Beverly Hills without stopping once. Sunset Boulevard. Even the names were right for the American Dream. Here in England we just have the Marylebone Road. If you ever planned to motor west ... I swapped Clapton for Chuck Berry and together we blasted out a litany of Midwest cities while I sped up and over the flyover, flashing past signs for Shepherd's Bush, Uxbridge and Acton.
Still, on the right morning, with four hundred quid at the end of a day's work, even Britain has a frisson of myth about it. Take the M25 — which I did at some speed. At this hour it was touched by stardust, empty and proud, for all the world like a real motorway rather than a gigantic circle of urban stress. It was almost a shame to get off it. I took the long, sleek curve into the M3 like the final corner at Le Mans and hit the motorway without dipping below fifty. I moved into the middle lane and put my foot down. Night driving. Nothing like it, especially on the edge of the day. I was thinking fast track, when a Safeway truck pulled up level with me. The driver shot me a wide grin before pumping his accelerator and leaving me behind. In a disappointment born more of horsepower than gender I watched him go. A mile later he was halfway to the horizon when a sleepy police car on a bridge above yawned, stretched and moved out, lights glinting with the prospect of a kill. I slowed down to make the pleasure last longer. When I passed them a couple of miles down the road, summary justice was being executed on the hard shoulder. I saluted a fallen hero, but he was too busy manufacturing an excuse to notice. Frank tells me that's one of the problems with women. Their hearts get in the way of revenge. In fact it's part of a longer theory he has about wife battering and domestic violence. Like many of Frank's theories it's not quite as crass as it first sounds, but I won't bore you with it now.
I kept my foot at an even 70 m.p.h. Around Andover the dawn arrived, sneaking up from behind, pink-wash streaks giving way, against March odds, to a porcelain-blue sky. The sunrise was still singing as I sped down the long, open hill bottoming out into a wide-angle view of Stonehenge half a mile to the right. At this distance the stones looked like something out of a kid's building box. You could almost imagine reaching out and picking them up one by one, rearranging them at will. I thought of the alternative version: the Druids and the slow pull from the coastal quarries to the silence of the Wiltshire Plain. I thought of Tess, with much thanks to Hardy and little to Polanski, and saw how — in a clear, deserted morning on the edge of spring — there would have been worse places to complete a tragedy. Then I thought about all the other things I could be doing with my life at this moment, like waking to the same alarm at the same time in order to do the same job at the end of the same tube stop. And I felt OK in a quiet sort of way.
On the seat next to me lay a brown envelope. I had read Frank's brief already. Simple and stylish. The Met must have missed him when he went. Her name was Mattie Shepherd, fourteen yesterday, father's name Tom. Her birthday present was supposed to have been a weekend in London with all the trimmings, but his work had intervened. I was the substitute parent. It was my job to pick her up, show her the sights, and deliver her to her dad's house in time for him to take her to the theatre. My contact at the school was one Patricia Parkin, the assistant head. She would meet me in the front reception with Mattie at 8:00 a.m. sharp. As for trouble, well, all I had was a name, Christine, and a brief description which made her sound like every woman in the street. She was, according to Tom Shepherd, 'disturbed', definitely not to be trusted with her daughter. And that was about it. Maybe Mattie would tell me more.
If, that is, I had the stamina to get that far. My stomach, always an alert companion, had joined the conversation. Half a mile on, a Happy Easter appeared in the distance. I pulled in behind the large red dinosaur and went to the main desk. I ordered bacon, toast and coffee to go. The bacon, toast and coffee they could do, the 'to go' was a little harder. We discussed it for a while. I toyed with the idea of recreating the 'hold the mayonnaise' scene in Five Easy Pieces, but one of the problems with growing older is that waitresses get younger, and homage only works when you both know what you're worshipping. So I went for pragmatism over poetry — stuck the bacon between the toast, poured the coffee into a plastic water cup and exited, leaving what I computed to be a subtly derisory tip on the table behind me.
The bacon smelt wonderful, which was more than could be said for the way it tasted. Or didn't. Ah well, another day, another hit of cholesterol. Who wants to grow old, anyway, particularly if you're the only one you know who doesn't have a pension plan. I rifled through the glove compartment and found a badly recorded dub of the Who's greatest hits. Hope I die before I advertise American Express.
I left the A303 and reached Debringham with twenty minutes to spare. It looked familiar. Either I had been there before or it was exactly the same as a number of other well-scrubbed country towns, all civic pride and real estate with no sign of mud or cattle markets. The kind of place that makes you wonder if the country really exists any more, or if it's all just a marketing construct of Habitat. Theme-park Britain. Something in it for everyone. If you've got the entrance fee.
The school was on the outskirts and well signposted. The people of Debringham were obviously proud of it. Huge stone pillars beckoned you on to a wide tarmac drive and up towards a suitably stately pile, very nineteenth-century Gothic. According to the recently repainted sign, this was Debringham College for Girls, established 1912; no doubt once the instant ancestral home of some Victorian industrialist who had hit bad times and had to sacrifice the dynasty. The façade of the house, like the town, looked familiar magazine territory. Maybe in the holidays they made money by renting out the exterior for horror movies — the kind where unspeakable evil afflicts young virgins until Peter Cushing manages to coax them out of it.
It would be an exaggeration to say I hated it on sight. On the other hand, as a child of aspiring but struggling middle-class parents, I have always had a healthy class dislike for the hothouses of the rich. It's a prejudice reinforced by three years at a university where most of the men's entrance credentials had been earned on the river, and where they were happier playing with a rugby ball than a woman. And a good deal more adroit. It's one of the many topics that can still wreck a dinner-table conversation between my brother-in-law and me: the misnomer of public school education. Except Colin is not even to the manner born, just an eighties upstart with more money than his father and determined to show it. Sister Kate says we never give each other a chance and that we'd like each other a lot if we could get past the politics. But then, as we all know, the political is personal.
OK, Hannah. Enough. I wiped the froth from the corners of my mouth, parked the car in the front drive and went in to pick up the child. Inside, a wide entrance hall lifted my footsteps and flung their echo up a grand stone staircase towards a vaulted ceiling. Very Mädchen in Uniform. I looked at my watch. 8:00 a.m. sharp. Frank would have approved. I was looking for someone to talk to, when she appeared. She'd been around too long to be the one you'd have a crush on, but she looked OK, if a little tweedy around the edges.
'Mrs,' she corrected gently and not without a certain humour. 'You're very prompt.'
'I left early,' I said, with a touch more belligerence than I intended.
'I'm sure you did. Mattie will be down in a minute.' She paused. 'She's looking forward to it.'
'Good.' I wished I could say the same.
'You haven't met her before?'
She smiled. 'She's an interesting girl. Although you may find her a little upset that her father's not here. We only told her this morning.' The inference was that she might have wrecked the joint if she'd found out any earlier. Great. Humiliating enough to be baby-sitting without the tantrums thrown in. Surprising her mother wanted her back, really.
'Mr Shepherd mentioned his wife, Christine ... Mattie's mother. I wondered if you'd had any dealings with her?'
She looked at me, as if sizing me up. When it came, her answer was non-committal enough for me to realize I had failed the test. 'She visited the school once, yes.'
The tension was killing me. 'What happened?'
'Mattie felt she didn't want to see her, so the matter was taken out of our hands.' Her eyes flicked slightly to one side of my head. Behind me I heard the tap-tap of some seriously heeled shoes. Work calls. I turned to greet the day.
You know what they say about the past being another country. Well, for this one you'd need a visa. She was fourteen going on twenty-four. Tall, maybe five-five or five-six already, with a mane of dark hair caught up in one of those frou-frou elastic velveteen bands that were all the rage. Her clothes — skirt and sweater — were smart, veering towards well groomed, the kind of garments where the label told you more than the washing instructions. Mattie Shepherd — self-possession on legs, and a nice line in Lycra tights. Just what I wanted most for my weekend — a day in the company of a budding Harvey Nichols buyer. But while the clothes gave off one message, the scowl gave off another.
Excerpted from Fatlands by Sarah Dunant. Copyright © 1993 Sarah Dunant. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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