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"Are we going to do this?" Grice asked. Already the cold was seeping into the muscles across his back. January he hated with a vengeance.
Milder than usual days, Grabianski thought, you expected nights like this. "A minute," he said, and started off towards the garage. For a big man, he moved with surprising lightness.
Through an estate agent's wide-angle lens it would have been a mansion, but from there, where Grice was standing at the head of the pebbled drive, it was just another oversized house at the southern edge of the city.
Daylight would have made it easier to tell that the cream weather-proof paint had not been renewed this last or even the previous summer; the wood of the fake timbers was shedding its casing like a bad case of eczema. Miniature fir trees sat stunted in barrels at either side of the front door. Three steps up and ring the bell. Grice tried to remember the last time he had gained entrance to somebody's house by ringing the bell.
For reply, Grabianski shrugged, hands in pockets.
"Meaning what?" Grice said.
"Back seat, the floor, it's full of junk. Maybe they don't use it at all."
"Newspapers, magazines; tissue boxes and chocolate wrappers. Three pairs of high-heeled shoes."
"What d'you expect? It's a woman's car."
"Because of the shoes?"
"The shoes, the size—look at it. It's a second car, a woman's car. What man would drive a car like that?"
They stood looking at the garage roof, half-lowered, the bonnet of the car sticking out from under the left-hand side.
"I don't like it," Grice said.
"The list of things you like," said Grabianski, "you could write on a cigarette packet and still have room for the health warning."
"I don't like the car being here."
"I thought you wanted to get on with it."
"One way or another I want to get out of this damned cold."
"Then let's go." Grabianski took three or four steps towards the house.
"The car ..." Grice began.
"What you're saying, the car's here, it's a woman's car, therefore the woman's here. That what you're saying?"
"What if I am?"
Grabianski shook his head: instead of wasting his time watching soap operas, Grice should get himself some education. An evening class in philosophy, logic. That might teach him.
"In the dark?" Grabianski asked.
"She's in there in the dark?"
"It's too early."
"Maybe she's got a headache."
"What are you all of a sudden, her doctor?"
On the other side of the tall, trimmed hedges and back along the broad avenue there were lights showing; they couldn't stand there forever.
Grice shuffled his feet. "You think we should do it?" he said.
"Yes," Grabianski answered. "We're going to do it."
They began to walk along the lawn beside the drive, not trusting their feet to the pebbles. As they crossed the gates towards the rear, both men glanced up at the red, rectangular box of the burglar alarm high on the wall.
Maria Roy lay back far enough for her breasts to float amongst the scented foam which covered the surface of the water. In the pale light from the nearby night-light they were soft-hued, satin, the darker nipples hardening beneath her gaze. Harold, she thought. It didn't help. Softly, she rubbed the tip of her finger around the mazed areolas and smiled as she sensed her nipples tense again. What kind of a marriage was it if after eleven years the only place you had ever made love was in bed? And then, not often.
"Never mind," she said to her breasts softly. "Never mind, my sad little sacks, somebody loves you. Somewhere."
And easing herself into a sitting position she gave them a last, affectionate squeeze.
"Never mine, my sad little sacks of woe."
"Is that a light?" Grabianski whispered.
"There. See? Edge of the curtain."
"The blind. It's a blind."
"Is it a light?"
"It could be a candle."
Grice looked at him. "Maybe she's holding a seance." He eased the edge of plastic a millimeter to the left and the patio door breathed open.
"Why else do you think I'm calling you," Maria Roy said into the telephone, "to tell you how much I love you?"
Underneath the robe she was wearing she smelt lightly of talc. Givenchy Gentleman: talc perfumé. Well, Harold had to be good for something, didn't he?
"No, Harold," she said, interrupting him, "I'm intending to fly there. Under my robe, this very second, I'm growing wings."
There was a half-full glass of wine on the circular table, next to the telephone, and she picked it up, two fingers and thumb. The wine was left over from last night, or was it the night before, and it had tasted sour to begin with.
"Yes, of course I've tried doing it manually, but it won't budge."
She turned her head and blew cigarette smoke towards the center of the room; the receiver away from her face, she could still hear his voice. On and on.
"Harold, the machines are always breaking down. The time code is always disappearing. The sound is forever slipping out of synch. I don't know why they assign you the worst dubbing suite in the entire studios, but they do. All of the time. Yes. It could be that they're trying to tell you something. I'm trying to tell you something. I've already taken a bath and when I've finished my drink—no, it isn't, it's only wine, and bad wine at that—when I've finished I'm going to get changed and then, since I can't get the car out of the garage and you won't drive out here and fetch me, I'm going to have to call Jerry and Stella and ask them to make a detour and pick me up."
She let out some more smoke and sighed, loud enough to let him know that whatever arrangement they came to now she was agreeing to it under sufferance. She was in the habit of making it clear most transactions between them took place that way.
"Yes, Harold," she said, "I have heard of the word taxi. I also know the word goodbye."
She looked at the receiver back in its cradle and smiled that the connection could be so easily, so instantly, broken. She moved through to the kitchen with a slight swish of silk against her legs and threw the contents of the glass down the sink. She stubbed out her cigarette, set down one glass and took up another, walking it back to the living room. The trolley of bottles stood between the TV set and the shelves of video-cassettes and magazines and paperback books. She noticed that a couple of Harold's dog-eared scripts had found their way down from the room he was using as a study and made a mental note to tell him to take them back. She twisted the top from a bottle of J & B Rare and poured herself a generous amount. Despite the stupid garage, the stupid car, the call to Harold, she was still feeling good after the bath.
She tasted the scotch, more than a sip, thought to hell with Harold and when she turned and lowered the glass she could see the man in the doorway right over the rim.
Her left hand went to her mouth and she bit deep into the skin at the base of her thumb, something she hadn't done since she was a child.
Strange things were happening to the walls of her stomach and the blood was racing to her head. She leaned back against the shelves, certain that she was going to faint.
The man was still in the same position, almost leaning against the jamb of the door but not quite. He was a big man, nothing short of six foot and stocky, wearing a dark blue suit with a double-breasted jacket that probably made him broader than he actually was. He didn't say anything, but continued to stare at her, something in his eyes that was, well, appreciative of what he was seeing.
"Oh, Christ," Maria whispered. "Oh, Christ."
"I know what you're thinking."
When he did speak it made her jump, his voice so startling after that silence, his man's voice so different in that room. She looked back at him, not knowing—now that she wasn't going to faint—what it was that she should do, if she should do or say anything. And if she did, would it do any good?
"I know what you're thinking."
Maria Roy didn't know whether he had spoken again or if the same words were reverberating inside her head.
"We won't"—a slight pause—"hurt you."
She moved her fingers around the glass; her mouth was so dry that her tongue seemed to be sticking to it. She knew she was meant to register the word hurt, but what snagged instead inside her brain and wouldn't let go was we.
She tried to stop herself from looking away, searching; she listened for sounds but heard nothing. Perhaps it had only been something he had said, something to make her more frightened: perhaps he was on his own.
Maria swallowed a little air.
Was that better? If he was on his own?
A smile slid lopsidedly down his face as if he could tell exactly what she was thinking. She knew then that this was not new for him; he was relaxed, through a confidence that came from practice, practice and experience. Why else would he be smiling? Then she heard steps on the stairs and knew that his we had been no lie.
The second man was shorter but still not short; he was wearing a brown suit that was already going shiny and brown shoes that were old but well-polished. He was about the same age as the first—early to mid-forties, Maria guessed. The same age as her husband, but not afraid to show it: not for them the pretensions that sent him off to the studio in zips and colored logos and with sixty-pound trainers on his feet instead of real shoes.
The two men exchanged glances and then the newcomer walked across the room—taking his time, sauntering almost—and eased himself down on to the leather-covered settee.
"Nice place," he said conversationally. "Got yourself a pretty nice place."
Maria looked from one to the other, unable to rid herself of the idea that they had broken into her house and now they were going to make an offer to buy it: two men in suits and real shoes.
Despite herself, despite everything, Maria Roy arched back her head and began to laugh.
The three of them were sitting down now. Grabianski in the deep armchair with the Liberty-print covers and Grice back against the far corner of the settee, legs crossed and looking just this side of bored. Maria Roy sat on a straight-backed chair across the room from the pair of them, apex of the triangle. Grabianski had the same mildly amused expression in his eyes and Maria knew he was trying to look up her legs, doing his best to peer between the folds of her silk robe, all the while trying to figure out whether she was wearing anything underneath or not.
She caught herself wondering precisely which pair of knickers she had pulled from the airing cupboard and stepped into. If they were truly, you know, clean. As if she were having an accident. She took a swallow of the J & B to keep herself from laughing some more. An accident was exactly what she was having, more or less.
"You want another drink?" asked Grabianski hopefully.
"She doesn't want a drink," Grice said, recrossing his legs.
"How do you know?"
"It isn't that kind of occasion."
"Well, I want a drink," Grabianski said, levering himself out of the chair. The buttons of his jacket were unfastened and Maria could see that his body was in shape for a man of his age; no belly starting to strain against his belt. Harold, he worked out three times a week, stupid little weights strapped to his ankles, and still he had a pot belly.
"No vodka," said Grabianski, disappointed, searching amongst the bottles.
"Sorry," Maria apologized.
"For God's sake!" Grice protested. "What is this?"
"We're having a drink," said Grabianski amiably.
"We're in the middle of a burglary, that's what we're doing," Grice said, pressing the heel of one hand hard against his knee.
"We had some people round the other night," Maria was explaining. "We ran out of vodka and somehow we've not got around to replacing it." What was she doing, apologizing?
"It doesn't matter," Grabianski said, leaning towards her reassuringly. "Scotch is fine." He lifted the bottle. "Scotch?"
Grice grunted and Grabianski poured three whiskies, his own no more than a splash, but still he carried it into the kitchen to dilute it with water. When he came back, neither of the others had moved.
"Can we get on with this?" Grice complained.
Grabianski gave him his drink, handed Maria hers and sat back down. "Relax," he said. "We'll get it done. What's the hurry?"
He wished Grice would take a walk, go and look at the rest of the house, go and steal something for heaven's sake. He thought then it might be all right for them, himself and the woman—what had she said her name was, Maria? Legs that seemed to go on forever. He bet that if she were wearing anything under that robe at all, it was one of those skimpy pairs you could cover with the palm of one hand. Christ! He could feel himself starting to sweat. Smell it. Look at her, staring back at him, reading his mind. What he was thinking: she knew what he was thinking.
Maria Roy was thinking that at any moment the phone would ring and it would be Jerry or Cynthia wanting to know where she was, where they were. Or Harold, maybe, the great Harold himself calling to apologize and say he'd be there to pick her up after all, drive over together.
Except, she remembered, the shorter one, the one rubbing at his knee joint as though he were getting twinges of rheumatism, arthritis, something, had disconnected the phones.
"Finish up the drink," Grice said to his partner. "It's time we got down to business."
Grabianski nodded, sipped a little scotch and water and got to his feet.
"Let's go," he said, smiling.
Maria knew he was looking at her.
"No," said Grice, on his feet also and moving towards the door.
"Let her help out," said Grabianski. "Save wasting time turning everything upside down."
"You think she's going to do that?"
"Sure. Why not? As long as we're going to take it anyway."
Not for the first time Maria wondered if they were for real. Maybe it was some elaborate joke set up by one of Harold's friends: a couple of out-of-work actors offering something a shade more sophisticated than a singing telegram. What would they have called it back in the sixties? A happening. Well it was that right enough. She stood up and for a moment the hem of her robe caught against the inside of her thigh. Grabianski's mouth fell open and he stared. She hadn't had that effect on Harold for so long she couldn't remember.
"This I don't believe," said Grice from the doorway. Maria Roy finished her second glass of scotch and put the glass on the seat of the chair. "Maybe I should lead the way?"
She knew Grabianski would be close behind her and she knew how tightly her robe clung to her when she climbed the stairs.
"There's just one thing more," Grice said. The jewelry and the cash and the credit cards had been packed into one of the set of matching soft leather cases they had bought on last summer's trip to the Virgin Islands. Her two fur coats were folded over Grabianski's left arm.
"What's that?" Maria asked, but the expression on Grice's face told her that he knew. They both knew, she could sense it. How did they know about the safe?
She had to push the pillows aside in order to kneel on the bed; she lifted away the Klimt print and handed it to Grice, who leaned it against the bed upside down. She thought she might genuinely forget the combination, but as soon as she touched the dial her fingers made all the right moves.
She swayed backwards as the door swung open.
"Empty it," Grice told her.
There was another jewelry box, the real one with the real jewels inside, the ones that had come to her in her mother's will, those that Harold had bought when he still had the need to impress her high on his agenda. There were two sets of bearer bonds, secured with thick rubber bands. Two wills, his and hers. A video a cameraman friend of Harold's had shot when they'd spent a week on some wretched little Greek island in a foursome. Harold had got an upset stomach from all the olives he'd jammed down his throat, the cameraman had proved to be well hung but had preferred to fiddle with his lens and watch his string-bean girlfriend licking salt out of Maria's navel, and when she got back to England Maria discovered she'd contracted a mild case of hepatitis.
Grabianski had a hand stretched out towards her, waiting for the cassette to be put into it.
Excerpted from Rough Treatment by John Harvey. Copyright © 1990 John Harvey. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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