Tina Cogin knew how to make the most of what little she had. She liked to believe it was a natural talent.
Some floors above the rumble of nighttime traffic, her naked silhouette gargoyled against the wall of her half-darkened room, and she smiled as her movements made the shadow shift, creating ever new forms of black upon white like a Rorschach test. And what a test, she thought, practicing a gesture of come-hither quality. What a sight for some psycho!
Chuckling at her talent for self-deprecation, she went to the chest of drawers and affectionately appraised her collection of underwear. She pretended hesitation to prolong her enjoyment before reaching for an appealing arrangement of black silk and lace. Bra and briefs, they'd been made in France, cleverly designed with unobtrusive padding. She donned them both. Her fingers felt clumsy, largely unused to such delicate clothing.
She began to hum quietly, a throaty sound without identifiable melody. It served as a paean to the evening, to three days and nights of unrestricted freedom, to the excitement of venturing out into the streets of London without knowing precisely what would come of the night's mild summertime promise. She slid a long, painted fingernail under the sealed flap of a package of stockings, but when she shook them out, they caught against skin that was more work-hardened than she liked to admit. The material snagged. She allowed herself a single-word curse, freed the stocking from her skin, and examined the damage, an incipient ladder high on the inner thigh. She would have to be more careful.
As she pulled on the stockings, her eyelids lowered, and she sighed with pleasure. The material slid so easily against her skin. She savored the sensation--it felt just like a lover's caress--and heightened her own pleasure by running her hands from ankles to calves to thighs to hips. Firm, she thought, nice. And she paused to admire her shape in the cheval glass before removing a black silk petticoat from the chest of drawers.
The gown that she took from the wardrobe was black. The neck high, the sleeves long, she had purchased it solely for the manner in which it clung to her body like a midnight liquid. A belt cinched in its waist; a profusion of jet beadwork decorated its bodice. It was a Knightsbridge creation whose cost--mounting on all the other calls upon her finances--had finally precluded the indulgence of travel by taxi for the rest of the summer. But that inconvenience was no matter, really. Tina knew that some things ultimately pay for themselves.
She slid her feet into black high-heeled pumps before finally switching on the lamp next to the daybed to illuminate a simple bed-sitting-room with the sole delicious luxury of a private bath. On her first trip to London all those months ago--newly married and looking for a haven of escape--she had made the mistake of taking a room in the Edgware Road where she'd shared the bath with a floor of smiling Greeks, all eager to observe the ins and outs of her personal hygiene. After that experience, sharing so much as a wash basin with another human being had been inconceivable to her, and although the additional cost of a private bath had presented something of a challenge at first, she had managed to surmount it in a competent fashion.
She made a final assessment of her makeup and gave approval to eyes correctly shadowed in order to accentuate their color and correct their shape, to brows darkened and brushed into an arch, to cheekbones shaded artfully to soften what would otherwise be a rectangular face, to lips defined by both pencil and color to express sensuality and invite attention. She shook back her hair--as black as her dress--and fingered the wispy fringe that fell across her brow. She smiled. She would do. By God, she would do.
With a final glance round the room, she picked up the black handbag she had tossed on the bed, checking to make sure she carried only money, her keys, and two small plastic bags which contained the drug. That done, her preparations complete, she left.
A few moments in the lift and she was out of the building, breathing in the mixed perfumes of the city night, that teeming blend of machinery and humanity peculiar to this corner of London. As always, before heading towards Praed Street, she glanced fondly at the smooth stone exterior of her own building, her eyes gliding over the words Shrewsbury Court Apartments which served as epigraph above the double front doors. They opened upon her hideaway and harbor, the only place on earth where she could be herself.
She turned away, walking towards the lights of Paddington Station where she took the District line to Nottinghill Gate, and from there the Central Tottenham Court Road with its heady miasma of exhaust fumes and its pushing crowds of a Friday night.
She made her way quickly to Soho Square. Here, the patrons of nearby peepshows were milling about, their voices ringing with every possible accent as they exchanged lewd evaluations of the titillating sights they'd had of breasts and thighs and more. They were a surging mass of prurient thrill seekers, and Tina knew that on another night she might have considered one or more of them as possibilities for an amusing encounter of her own. But tonight was different. Everything was in place.
On Bateman Street, a short distance from the square, she saw the sign she was looking for, swinging above a malodorous Italian restaurant. Kat's Kradle, it announced, with an arrow pointing into an unlit alleyway next door. The spelling was absurd, an attempt to be clever that Tina always found especially repellent. But she had not been the one to select the rendezvous, so she made her way to the door and descended the stairs which, like the alley in which the club was housed, were gritty and smelled of liquor and vomit and plumbing gone bad.
In nightclub hours, it was early yet, so the crowd in Kat's Kradle was small, confined to a scattering of tables that surrounded a postage stamp dance floor. At one side of this, musicians were taking up a melancholy piece of jazz on saxophone, piano, and drums while their singer leaned against a wooden stool, smoking moodily and looking largely bored as she waited for the appropriate moment to make some sort of noise into a nearby microphone.
The room was quite dark, lit by one weak, bluish spotlight on the band, candles on the tables, and a light at the bar. Tina made her way to this, slid onto a stool, ordered a gin and tonic from the barman, and admitted to herself that, for all its grime, the location was truly inspired, the best Soho had to offer for a liaison meant to go unobserved.
Drink in hand, she began to survey the crowd, a first viewing that gleaned nothing but an impression of bodies, a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke, the occasional glitter of jewelry, the flash of a lighter or a match. Conversation, laughter, the exchange of money, couples swaying on a dance floor. And then she saw him, a young man seated alone at the table farthest from the light. She smiled at the sight.
It was so like Peter to select this sort of place where he would be safe from the mischance of being seen by his family or any of his posh friends. He ran no risk of condemnation in Kat's Kradle. He faced no fear of trouble, of being misunderstood. He had chosen well.
Tina watched him. Anticipation curled in her stomach as she waited for the moment when he would see her through the smoke and the dancers. Oblivious of her presence, however, he looked only at the door, running his fingers through close-cropped blond hair in nervous agitation. For several minutes Tina studied him with interest, seeing him order and down two drinks in rapid succession, noting how his mouth became harder as he glanced at his watch and his need expanded. From what she could see, he was dressed quite badly for the brother of an earl, wearing a tattered leather jacket, jeans, and a T-shirt bearing the faded inscription Hard Rock Cafe. A gold earring dangled from one pierced earlobe, and from time to time he reached for this as if it were a talisman. He gnawed continually at the fingers of his left hand. His right fist jumped in spasms against his hip.
He stood abruptly as a group of boisterous Germans entered the club, but he fell back into his chair when it became apparent that the person he sought was not with them. Shaking a cigarette from a pack that he removed from his jacket, he felt in his pockets but brought forth neither lighter nor matches. A moment later, he shoved back his chair, stood, and approached the bar.
Right to mama, Tina thought with an inward smile. Some things in life are absolutely meant to be.
By the time her companion nosed the Triumph into a parking space in Soho Square, Sidney St. James could see for herself how finely strung his nerves had become. His whole body was taut. Even his hands gripped the steering wheel with a telling control which was inches short of snapping altogether. He was trying to hide it from her, however. Admitting need would be a step towards admitting addiction. And he wasn't addicted. Not Justin Brooke, scientist, bon vivant, director of projects, writer of proposals, recipient of awards.
"You've left the lights on," Sidney said to him stonily. He didn't respond. "I said the lights, Justin."
He switched them off. Sidney sensed--rather than saw--him turn in her direction, and a moment later she felt his fingers on her cheek. She wanted to move away as they slid down her neck to trace the small swell of her breasts. But instead she felt her body's quick response to his touch, readying itself for him as if it were a creature beyond her control.
Then a slight tremor in his hand, child of anxiety, told her that his caress was spurious, an instant's placation of her feelings prior to making his nasty little purchase. She pushed him away.
"Sid." Justin managed a respectable degree of sensual provocation, but Sidney knew that his mind and body were taken up with the ill-lit alleyway at the south end of the square. He would want to be careful to hide that from her. Even now he leaned towards her as if to demonstrate that foremost in his life at the moment was not his need for the drug but his desire to have her. She steeled herself to his touch.
His lips, then his tongue moved on her neck and shoulders. His hand cupped her breast. His thumb brushed her nipple in deliberate strokes. His voice murmured her name. He turned her to him. And as always, it was like fire, like loss, like searing abdication of all common sense. Sidney wanted his kiss. Her mouth opened to receive it.
He groaned and pressed closer to her, touching her, kissing her. She snaked her hand up his thigh to caress him in turn. And then she knew.
It was an abrupt descent to reality. She pushed herself away, glaring at him in the dim light from the street lamps.
"That's wonderful, Justin. Or did you think I wouldn't notice?"
He looked away. Her wrath increased.
"Just go buy your bloody dope. That's why we've come, isn't it? Or was I supposed to think it was for something else?"
"You want me to go to this party, don't you?" Justin demanded.
It was an age-old attempt to shift blame and responsibility, but this time Sidney refused to play along. "Don't you hit me with that. I can go alone."
"Then why don't you? Why did you phone me, Sid? Or wasn't that you on the line this afternoon, honey-tongued and hot to get yourself laid at the evening's end?"
She let his words hang there, knowing they were true. Time after time, when she swore she'd had enough of him, she went back for more, hating him, despising herself, yet returning all the same. It was as if she had no will that was not tied to his.
And for God's sake, what was he? Not warm. Not handsome. Not easy to know. Not anything she once dreamed she'd be taking into her bed. He was merely an interesting face on which every single feature seemed to argue with all the others to dominate the bony skull beneath it. He was dark, olive skin. He was hooded eyes. He was a thin scar running along the line of his jaw. He was nothing, nothing . . . except a way of looking at her, of touching her, of making her thin boyish body sensual and beautiful and flaming with life.
She felt defeated. The air in the car seemed stiflingly hot.
"Sometimes I think of telling them," she said. "They say that's the only way to cure it, you know."
"What the hell are you talking about?" She saw his fingers curl.
"Important people in the user's life find out. His family. His employers. So he bottoms out. Then he--"
Justin's hand flashed, caught her wrist, twisted her hand. "Don't even think of telling anyone. Don't even think of it. I swear if you do, Sid . . . if you do . . ."
"Stop it. Look, you can't go on like this. What are you spending on it now? Fifty pounds a day? One hundred? More? Justin, we can't even go to a party without you--"
He dropped her wrist abruptly. "Then get out. Find someone else. Leave me bloody well alone."
It was the only answer. But Sidney knew she couldn't do it and she hated the fact that she probably never would.
"I only want to help."
"Then shut up, all right? Let me go down that sodding alley, make the buy and get out of here." He shoved open the door and slammed it behind him.
Sidney watched him walk halfway across the square before she opened her own door. "Justin--"
"Stay there." He sounded calmer, not so much because he was feeling any calmer, she knew, but because the square was peopled with Soho's usual Friday night throng and Justin Brooke was not a man who generally cared for making public scenes.
She ignored his admonition, striding to join him, disregarding the certain knowledge that the last thing she ought to be doing was helping him get more supplies for his habit. She told herself instead that if she weren't there, sharply on the lookout, he might be arrested or duped or worse.
"I'm coming," she said when she reached him.
The whipcord of tension in his features told her he had moved beyond caring.
"As you like." He headed towards the gaping darkness of the alley across the square.
Construction was underway there, making the alley mouth darker and narrower than usual. Sidney made a moue of distaste at the smell of urine. It was worse than she had expected it to be.
Buildings loomed up on either side, unlit and unmarked. Grills covered their windows and their entryways housed shrouded, moaning figures who conducted the sort of illicit business which the nightclubs of the district seemed eager to promote.
"Justin, where're you planning to--"
Brooke raised a cautionary hand. Up ahead, a man's hoarse cursing had begun to fill the air. It came from the far end of the alley where a brick wall curved round the side of a night-club to form a sheltered alcove. Two figures writhed upon the ground there. But this was no love tryst. This was assault, and the bottom figure was a black-clad woman who appeared to be no match in either size or strength for her furious assailant.
"You filthy . . ." The man--blond by the appearance of him and wildly angry by the sound of his voice--pounded his fists against the woman's face, ground them into her arms, slammed them into her stomach.
At this Sidney moved, and when Brooke tried to stop her, she cried out, "No it's a woman," and ran towards the alley's end.
She heard Justin's sharp oath behind her. He overtook her less than three yards away from the couple on the ground. "Keep back. Let me see to it," he said roughly.
Brooke grabbed the man by his shoulders, digging into the leather jacket he wore. The action of pulling him upward freed his victim's arms, and she instinctively brought them up to protect her face. Brooke flung the man backwards.
"You idiots! Do you want the police after you?"
Sidney pushed past him. "Peter! she cried. "Justin, it's Peter Lynley!"
Brooke looked from the young man to the woman who lay on her side, her dress dishevelled and her stockings in tatters. He squatted and grabbed her face as if to examine the extent of her injuries.
"My God," he muttered. Releasing her, he stood, shook his head, and gave a short bark of laughter.
Below him, the woman drew herself to her knees. She reached for her handbag, retching momentarily.
Then--most oddly--she began to laugh as well.
From the Paperback edition.