Someone has stolen the only person John Smith ever loved—his twin brother, Cannon. Johnny will stop at nothing to get him back, but Cannon doesn't feel the same way anymore. He's married now, and he loves his wife. In a desperate effort to avoid Johnny's destructive brotherly affections, Cannon enlists the aid of Sarah Fortune, a lawyer who has turned helping the needy and eccentric into something of an art form. Sarah hides Cannon's wife for him, but she cannot quite trust Cannon's judgment. Is Johnny truly intent on inflicting unendurable pain on the woman who has hijacked his brother's affections? Sarah doesn't really believe in evil, and it is this lack of faith that makes her shockingly vulnerable …
Fans of Ruth Rendell and Julia Spencer-Fleming will love this atmospheric psychological thriller.
About the Author
Frances Fyfield has spent much of her professional life practicing as a criminal lawyer, work that has informed her highly acclaimed novels. She has been the recipient of both the Gold and Silver Crime Writers' Association Daggers. She is also a regular broadcaster on Radio 4, most recently as the presenter of the series Tales from the Stave. She lives in London and in Deal, overlooking the sea, which is her passion.
Read an Excerpt
There was never enough light in late November, not even in the morning. She lay, brownly naked, sprawled in a huge armchair upholstered three decades since in cherry cotton, now a dull colour of rust, rumpled and torn in places. She looked as if she had been flung into it by an almighty force, then shoved down and left, stunned and broken. Her buttocks were sunk into the cushion, one arm behind her head supporting a mass of red hair, which was pulled half over her face. A hand extended itself beyond the hair to clutch the back of the upholstery, the fingers plucking at the frayed fabric. It played on his conscience, this endless, distressful movement of her long fingers, as if she was copying him. He had been so busy with his fingers. Delving, stroking, stirring. They were fat, broad fingers, he had, poking out of swollen, ugly fists.
The breasts were smaller than he liked, rather languid things resting against her ribcage as she lay in the hair with her torso twisted, the legs splayed over the arm of the crooked chair, ankles close, feet arched. An auburn bush exposed. Her left hand lay above her cleft, as if to protect it. Too late: his eyes had seen, his fingers explored, greedy, greedy, greedy, and his hands were still steady. Not like hers. She was touching herself, almost absentmindedly, one finger twisting a small clump of that abundant pubic hair into a tight curl. He imagined the bush decked with ribbons. Apart from these minute movements of the hands, she was perfectly still. A woman satiated by every kind of abuse it was within his talent to inflict. Her mouth was slightly open.Breathing deeply, blowing away a wisp of her thick red hair.
He almost regretted what he had done to her. She looked so exquisitely helpless. So pliant, so biddable, so deliciously responsive to commands. Nothing about her was beyond imagination, and still her fingers kept moving piteously. She was willing, he told himself angrily; she asked for it. Look at the way she lay now. Wide open. Trusting. He was the mere beast to her beauty. She had asked for it.
It was a room that cried out for devotion and expertise to make it into something of habitable beauty, although that was a matter of indifference to him. The air was damply warm, condensation streaming down the ceiling windows, dripping now and then, somewhere. He wore gloves and a scarf. When the heat rose from him, the scarf began to smell like an old bandage, with overtones of turpentine, antiseptic and sweat. His nose was red, adding to the melancholy of his features. There was misty, diffused light; still the brightest light of the day. It was his torture chamber, decorated with his triumphs and disappointments.
He smiled now. His face rearranged itself from one set of folds into another, reminiscent of someone pulling up a set of ruched curtains to let in the sunlight. When he was serious he looked like an idiot, with a chin that seemed to reach his chest, but as soon as he grinned there was a massive rearrangement of everything: his furrowed forehead seemed to disappear into his hairline, his dark eves were almost lost, and he seemed like a rumpled boy. The volume of hair made his head look overlarge for his thin shoulders. When he smiled, he looked perfectly, malevolently mad. Which, in his sober moments, in this room, with his bed in the corner, he knew he was. One had to be mad to inflict this abuse. He felt wretchedly older than his thirty-three years. Such cruelty pained him. At the least, the very least, he should have tried his hard-earned domesticity and offered her coffee. Dreadful coffee, but still a gesture towards hospitality.
"Are you cold?" he asked. "I mustn't let you get cold. Must I?"
"No. But I have to move. Dammit, I can't move."
But she did move, cautiously. Leaning forward, the torso twisting in a way that made him wince, she reached for a packet of cigarettes that lay in the ashtray on the footstool beside the chair. Lit one, inhaled and put it back in the ashtray. Then she stretched out one leg and clasped the toes, extended it fully, grasped the calf with both ankles and stretched the whole limb, still in the chair, until her foot was level with her ear.
"What do you mean, you can't move? What do you call that?"
"I mean I can't stand up. Until I've done this." She grasped the other leg, held it with both hands behind the knee, straightened it. There was a small crick. Then she swung her feet on to the floor, raised herself on tiptoe and stretched. Thinner than he liked. As unselfconscious as a cat.
The shifting of the tableau and the moving of the image saddened him. Sarah Fortune was the perfect model. No vanity. She was a perfect piece of design, and his fingers were tired with the painting of her.
"Let me see," she asked, moving towards him with the cigarette in hand.
"No!" He was shrill. "And don't come near me with that thing. It makes me want one, and I shouldn't."
"Pooh. I don't know why you think of it. You could do with a few more antiseptic cigarettes. Every single bloody thing you do is bad for your health. But I won't look if you don't want."
"Not yet, please. I'm ashamed of it."
He shielded the canvas with his body, not trusting her, quite, although in his way he trusted her absolutely. She had that effect: she was natural and warm and generous to a fault, but the habits of mistrust were so deeply ingrained in him that they had become the natural response. Just like his shuffling walk, like a man avoiding the middle of the pavement and clinging to doorways, always looking for shadow. She had long since supposed that he had always been a little like that. It was not merely a response to his current circumstances. He would always have looked far older than he was, even as a boy; over-matured and slightly shifty, even in his innocence. He was still innocent now or, more aptly, a man who had never mastered the social code that governed the rules, constantly, almost childishly, uncertain.
Do you know," he said, with more than usual animation, "that you have one leg longer than the other? At least, you do in my version of you. I shall call it Miss Sarah Fortune With Unequal Legs."
"No," Sarah said. "I never knew I had one leg longer than the other. But thank you for telling me. I shall have to amend the way I walk. Do you know what time it is? We're going to be late."
"Late? Does it matter?" Cannon had a limited view of what mattered.
She was pulling on her clothes, retrieving them from the three-legged chair over which they were draped, neatly, as if they were important, which, as she smoothed on the dark tights, fastened a bra of white lace, buttoned the tiny pearl-coloured buttons of her blouse, he had to suppose they were: they turned her into something else entirely. No suit of clothes had ever done that for him. He sat down, weak with fascination. I used to be a tart, she had told him, long since. Still am, but more of a hobby. Naked, he could imagine that; when she was clothed, he could not. A tart with a heart. Sarah Fortune seemed to know about love: she gave it briskly and unstintingly. But, judging from the state of her body, she was also familiar with brutality.
"I don't suppose it matters in the long run," she was saying, "about being late. But it does create a poor impression. And it's bad manners. Have you got any other clothes? Something cleaner?"
The question surprised him. It was totally irrelevant to anything in his mind. He was watching the slow transformation of naked girl into woman. She brushed her hair and tied it back, shrugged on the jacket of the suit, reached for her fawn raincoat and the tidy leather briefcase. A set of innocent-looking pearls gleamed round her neck. The small nuggets of gold in her ears had never come off. He plucked the single daisy from the milk bottle in which it resided and handed it to her, hoping to make amends for the hack of hospitality, which shamed him even here.
"Thank you. How kind. On second thought," she said, "you're best off to show yourself exactly as yon are. Only you'd better wear the coat that smells of smoke. Then no one will want to come near you."
He smiled. Then the face fell back into its bloodhound folds. "Not many people do want to come near me," he said matter-of-factly.
She patted his shoulder, ruffled his hair and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Hardly surprising, is it?" she said. "You snarling the way you do. Come on, now." She paused. "I'm forgetting the most important thing of all. Have you still got his letter? The bits you have left?"
He nodded, plundered the pocket of the coat to pull out a charred half-sheet of paper, badly crumpled.
"You were crazy to tear it up," she said. "I'll keep it, shall I?"
"I'm crazy full stop."
"Does he mean what he says?"
"Yes. Even Johnny has rules. Even Johnny has to set limits."
The day outside was cold and raw. He pulled the odoriferous scarf round his face and shoved his hands inside his pockets. They throbbed and hurt, but the pain, the glorious pain of them, was a comfort. It meant that they were functioning. He followed her meekly as she clattered downstairs from the attic, swept into the road and hailed a taxi. The driver slowed and listened to her crisp instructions to take them to the Strand, wondering, as he pulled away, what such a woman was doing with such a man. Maybe even a man down on his luck could afford a hooker these days. The cab seemed to smell of smoke. Woodsmoke and paraffin, overlaid with soap, and the high-class tart threading a daisy through the top buttonhole of her coat as if the faded thing was made of gold.
"Hurry, Cannon, please hurry," she was saying, pushing him out first, proffering towards the cab driver a note that was far too much and a radiant smile that made him, sour though he was, smile back. "Stop sulking, Cannon. I tell you what," she continued, "smile at the buggers. Mesmerize them ..."
Obediently Cannon sustained his smile as they sidled past Security, where Miss Sarah Fortune's evident familiarity shortened the process of bag-searching, to which she still submitted with a brief exchange of banter. She towed hint through behind her, although their gaze followed him with jealous suspicion. Briefly. The High Courts of Justice were well accustomed to eccentrics and at least this one was wearing clothes. An unnecessary number of clothes.
It was important to be on time for Master Ralph, but also pointless because the appointment schedule never ran to order, usually erring on the side of lateness but very occasionally, the opposite. Sarah Fortune, solicitor of the Supreme Court in what her employers, Matthewson and Co., described as her spare time, knew these corridors well but, in common with half a million habitués, never quite conquered the unmasterable procedure. It was a place where unhelpfulness was an art form perfected into a refinement of itself. The Masters dealt with the dull preliminary business of civil litigation. Cannon was before the court to be reminded of his obligations and Sarah, who hated this establishment with as much hatred as she could muster, was determined to enjoy it for once. She was good at enjoyment.
Another surreptitious cigarette. The woman from the Crown Prosecution Service, who arrived to demand the immediate execution of the confiscation order against Walter James Smith, better known as Cannon, criminal manqué of this and larger parishes, was highly amenable; in other words, nice. A lame enough word, for a civil servant with a civic duty often executed, as Sarah knew, with a rigour bearing on the ruthless. Nice, in Sarah's courtroom vernacular, meant approachable, reasonable, articulate, lacking in messianic zeal as well as egotism, and having the perfectly reasonable attitude of wanting to get out of these Gothic halls as soon as possible. Sarah knew that half the art of all this ritualistic confrontation was common sense and the achievement of a dialogue with the opposition. Get it down to basics. The Crown wanted immediate possession of Cannon's house, and that was for starters. They wanted it on the basis that it was an asset accumulated from the proceeds of crime and that although Cannon had served his sentence for the crimes it was not the same thing as paying his debts.
Cannon took a seat on the uncomfortable bench. He did not look like a criminal as much as like an outmoded anarchist of a vaguely Middle European school. He was still smiling, content to sit with his arms crossed, hands still in gloves, surveying the scene. "Do you think," Helen West said to Sarah Fortune, each of them greeting the other with the kind of mutual recognition and liking it was natural to disguise from their clients, in case amity was seen as complicity, "that you could get him to stop doing that? I'm so afraid his face might get frozen, like a salesman."
"He does something with his jaw," Sarah muttered. "And he's very proud of his teeth. He can keep up that smile for hours. I can't control it."
"Oh, yes, you can. His coat smells. Did you arrange that, too?"
They were in a line for Master Ralph. Some litigants could spend a while in there, while others were spat out with all the ceremony of phlegm. Sarah did not want a conflict with Helen West, not when she held all the cards and a client who was unpunishable by law because he was, for the law's purposes only, as mad as a snake. Helen West was wincing, not paying attention to any kind of portentous news, feeling her jaw, pinching it with the spread fingers of her capable-looking right hand, as if pressure alone would stop it hurting. "Bloody tooth. Hurts like hell. Sorry."
"I want my head cut off. I've had every damn thing done to this damn tooth. Still hurts. Look, give me a break. Just get him to sign over his house as part payment of his bloody debts. Then we'll all be happy. I don't understand why he delays."
"He wasn't living in it and it was never really his," Sarah murmured, rooting in her handbag for pills.
"Never his? Like he never made any money? Oh, yes? They all say that."
"He grew up in Belfast, you see. Making bombs was playtime ... His brother"
"Nobody's saying he's a terrorist. Simply a destructive exploiter of knowledge. What kind of excuse is that for selling the stuff? What does your client want out of life?"
"Babies. He's crazy for a baby. Got a good dentist, have you?"
"Not if you judge by this."
"Look; about the house ..."
The queue before them seemed to dissolve. An angry posse marched out, arguing and blaming. Then they were in, Cannon hanging back like a tail and Helen West hissing, Why did you have to bring him? Does he ever stop smiling? and Sarah felt a moment of sincere regret.
Master Ralph was a disappointed man, who found the incessant struggle to administer decisions to the ignorant inside a room that resembled a dungeon with a high ceiling too much of a challenge, even before the realization that every person who came before him was less informed than he and always would be. Every legal ingénue went this route until they were old enough to send someone else, leaving him to witness an endless parade of inexperience, all wanting something they could not have. It was not the iron that had entered his soul, but rust.
"I appear for the Crown," said Helen West in her quiet and authoritative voice. "The Master is familiar with this case." Out of the corner of her eye, she had the vague impression that Sarah Fortune and plain Master Ralph had actually winked at one another. Master Ralph was suddenly uncharacteristically cheerful.
"Mr. Cannon has been concerned in the illegal manufacture of explosives. He has been convicted of unlicensed supply to the building trade and others, served a sentence, and all that is history. Since he profited from this, the Crown wants his money. You have all these facts, sir, from previous appearances. Mr. Cannon, otherwise known as Smith, was in business with his twin brother but, alas, they are not alike. Under the cover of his brother's respectable property development and building industry, this Mr. Smith diversified into the manufacture of explosives. He was an expert for hire to the worst end of the trade, because he liked it. He would have been an asset to the Army. He also used the legitimate business to capitalize himself with a property and, we suspect, valuable paintings, by effectively stealing from his brother's business. Mr. Smith, Cannon, considers himself an artist."
"He is an artist," Sarah mumbled. "A framed artist."
"Did my learned friend say something?"
"I heard nothing," Master Ralph said. "Go on, Miss West."
She went on, "The only asset we have been able to trace is his house in Langdale Crescent. We want that house. This hearing is purely about that house. The other money we must pursue as best we can. But Mr. SmithCannonhas agreed he owes us the house. When he finds the deeds and chooses to leave it." Here, Helen West gave a look of disapproval to Sarah Fortune. "Mr. Cannon has asked for an adjournment of the order. He is, of course, quite consistent in such a request. As he would be." She grimaced, a brief illumination of currently pale, beautiful features.
Sarah rose to her feet. Hers was an infectious grin. "On the contrary, sir, my client has seen the sweet light of reason. My client no longer wishes to adjourn the issue. The only reason he's delayed with the handing over of the deeds is because he could not find them. They were not in his hands. He did not live in the house. The Crown is welcome to the house. What's left of it." She sat.
The Master raised his hand for silence and began to examine the documents in front of him, the better, it seemed, to delay the disappearance of anyone who could formulate a sentence. He glanced up from time to time, enjoying the view.
"What do you mean," Helen muttered, "what's left of it?"
Silently, Sarah handed her a Polaroid photograph. Helen fumbled for her glasses. "That's his house?"
The photo showed a ruin, one quarter of a house clinging precariously to the end of a crescent. The most prominent feature was the stairwell, with a bath balanced on the top step. There was something so entirely ludicrous about it, like a surreal painting, that Helen began to laugh. Mirth inside the Master's room was as dangerous as laughter at a funeral. It became infectious, subversive, travelled round the body like a missile, rapidly out of control, ready to emerge as a noise more animal than human. Then both women were half double, making small weepy sounds, like puppies, and for some unfathomable reason, without even knowing the joke, Master Ralph joined in.
"Look," said Sarah Fortune, on the steps to the high court. "You can't go back to work like this. I know a fantastic dentist. If I phone him, he'll see you straight away, I'm sure he will."
"No, thank you. It's gone. Well, it's gone for now. I need a dentist who copes with hysteria. I'm terrified. As soon as pain goes, I find an excuse ... And it's gone. Well, it's gone for now. Where is he, this dentist?"
Sarah jerked her head in Cannon's direction. "A dentist who can cope with Cannon can cope with anyone. Wimpole Street."
"Can't afford it."
"Oh, it's not too ruinous. Although it has to be said," Sarah added in confidential tones, "it is far cheaper if you sleep with him."
Helen was not entirely sure she had heard correctly: she was dizzy with the end of the pain. She took the offered card, watched Sarah Fortune summon her client with an imperious wave, received the last blessing of that wide, outrageous smile and realized, once they were out of sight, how slit had failed to record details of W.J. Cannon's current address. Yes, he was an artist; she remembered that. An almost incredible combination, but at his trial the had sketched them all, capturing their likenesses with uncanny flair. A man transfixed between opposing urges to create and destroy; a thief who probably made explosives for other thieves, stole from a twin brother, and even the gaolers liked him. Married to a wife who was going to reform him, common enough mitigation, speciously received. They all said that. She remembered more. He had looked different then. There'd been a suicide attempt in prison, so why did he look so much better three months out from two years inside? She gazed after them. That was the difference. That smile. His teeth. She did not want to think about teeth and she did not want to go to the dentist. She would wait, like a fool, until the next time.
Cold outside. Warm within. A morning of contrasts. A garret; a courtroom; an office.
I am lord of all I survey, Ernest Matthewson told himself each morning when he passed the plaque bearing his name on the office wall, knowing each time he said it that it was a lie. He was merely an ageing senior partner in the monolith that had grown from the microcosm of his once modest legal practice and he did not really control anything. He could not control the staff or their relationships; he could no longer control the character of the clients, and he often reflected how the firm provided unique opportunities for the wrong people to meet each other in sometimes advantageous, sometimes poisonous ways. One tried to choose the clients, but he no longer knew who they were and could only remember the nastier ones between the many. Charles Tysall, who had stalked and hurt Sarah; Ernest would always feel guilty about that. John Smith, the builder without manners he had passed on to ambitious Andrew Mitchum; clients with nameless needs, not always legal. Useless clients, ungrateful clients and barking-mad clients, who seemed to suit Sarah.
"Are you back? Oh, there you are. Do sit down."
These days, Ernest Matthewson adopted an elaborate formality with Sarah Fortune. It had come upon him like a cloud, this awkwardness, and he could not shake it off, a mixture of artificial reserve replacing the easy friendship and slightly naughty camaraderie of old, which he missed but could not resumeas if someone had told him she was subject to fits and he was waiting all the time for one to happen. Or as if he knew how she knew his weaknesses and his vanities and he could not forgive either her tolerance or her affection which, once faced with his coldness, simply incorporated it and behaved with the same good nature. Sarah's a good woman, his wife said, again and again, a good woman with a big heart, and she only makes you feel guilty. Ernest was neither analytical nor introspective. Questioning his own motives was anathema. Ah, yes, the firm was a network all right, like an unruly family drawing to its bosom, via the children, a number of unsuitable friends. Sarah had once been more like a daughter during her year-long affair with his own son, Malcolm. Such hopes Mrs. Matthewson had had then, but Sarah was like a fish refusing to be caught and he was aware that he had been punishing her ever since.
Now, he simply told himself, this was the promiscuous gal who had thrown over his boy, thereby catapulting his wife into an orgy of recriminatory disappointment. As an excuse for a retreat into behaviour that would have suited someone interviewing an upstart applicant for the wrong job, it was adequate.
There was more to it than that, as they both knew. She was totally unfit for her purpose, for a start. She never had cared a cared a toss about the practice of the law, although after her fashion she was genuinely good at it. Totally irresponsible in the commercial sense. Couldn't give a fuck, he growled (aware, even as he formulated the word, of Mrs. Matthewson's strictures about bad language). She was immune to lectures, annual reports, training courses on the equation of time spent per hour to cost, and all that invaluable kind of thing, and although he was not fond of modern management systems either, at least he had always had the knack of charging the client until the pips squeaked and making it look convincing. The endless committees that ruled the life of the firm never voted Miss Fortune into partnership, but whenever her severance was suggested there was always this strange reluctance to act on it. She filled a gap: she took on the duffers, the no-hope clients related to other clients; the ones who wanted a spot of divorce or litigation so that they could get on with the business of making money. Clients who had once been rich. The children of clients. Clients they were not supposed to turn away without taking the risk of losing other clients and appearing to have no soul. Nobody knew where she got her clients: she seemed to find them herself and they came by the back door. For absorbing the misfits, Sarah was allowed a generous enough salary, unless it was compared to the partnership Turksand how Sarah Fortune, glamorous widow, justified her existence remained a mystery.
She had recovered completely from past traumas, he told himself. None of it was his fault. She was decorativethat much was universally conceded: small, slim, agile up those stairs, watchable, without being classically beautiful. All the men felt better for seeing her around. The women looked out to see what she was wearing today. Ernest's wife often asked him wistfully to report on it. He suspected they were still friends, talking about him behind his back, but he could not prove it, and it infuriated him. Women were the devil for secrets.
"Are you well?" he asked formally.
Court gear with a bit of pizzazz, he'd tell Mrs. Matthewson, the way he would tell her every single detail of his day, especially if she asked. He was observant about women's clothes. Not exactly a black suit, he would say, but a sort of soft charcoal, with a long loose jacket over a gored skirt, which swung round her ankles. Cream shirt ... Why does she always have them buttoned so high up her neck? But an old thing, antique even, with tiny buttons matching the pearls. And a belt? Mrs. Matthewson would ask eagerly, waiting for Ernest to shut his eyes and remember. Ah, yes, grey again, but darker, velvet, I think. Broad belt: her waist is tiny.
She stood in front of his desk with her hands thrust into the pockets of the unstructured jacket, oblivious of his attempts to record the design. He would see it again, of course: she was artful with clothes (she was artful anyway); it would appear in several guises over trousers, over a short, straight skirt with a nice length of leg and, yes, he looked forward to that.
"Do sit down," he repeated, the sound of his parlourmaid voice making him cringe, but there was nothing he could do about it. He loved and missed her in a way that made anything else impossible; but, by God, for all sorts of reasons she would have made a terrible daughter-in-law: flouting the rules, both moral and social, was all very well, but not with one of his own.
She sat. Elegantly, of course, leaning back into the chair with her arm over the back, legs crossed under the fluid skirt, at ease, cigarette lit. Useless to remind her about the no-smoking zone. They had been that route before. Oh, Lord, he wished he was not fond of her. Sarah, for God's sake, help me out, was what he wanted to say. I'm a half-way redundant old man in a firm that has outgrown me and I need you to act as my protector, the way you do for everyone else.
"How did you get on with Cannon? Our artist?" he added sarcastically, suddenly remembering that obscure and disastrous client. Where had she got him from? God alone knew. She said he had seen the name of the firm on headed paper on a relative's desk and come along by chance because he knew no other lawyers, had been sent upstairs because he was scruffy. A feasible but unfortunate explanation. They did not normally deal with criminals, unless purely the white-collar kind.
"Oh, fine. Someone blew his house up."
"Oh." Sarah had this tendency to exaggerate; you couldn't believe a thing she said.
"And the opposition had toothache and the Master got the giggles," she added.
He was lost, so stuck to his own agenda, changing the subject, not daring to say, You know what you should do with Cannon? Dump him. Dump him like you dumped my son, only I don't understand why we all still love you. Instead, "Still househunting, are you?"
"Yes, of course."
"We've a new project," he announced briskly, after coughing and clearing his throat. "Every other leading London legal firm is doing it, so we have to do it too. Get an art collection."
As a change of topic, this took some beating. She shook her head to clear her face of incredulity. "This firm wants to collect art? For what?"
"Not wants, Sarah. Needs. Helps raise our profile in places where"
"Rich corporations go in order to raise theirs," she finished for him crisply, rallying faster than a Centre Court tennis player.
He nodded. "Part of the image, you see. Doing our bit. We get a few dozen paintings, maybe the odd sculpture or two. Decorate the foyer. Place looks like an empty cricket pitch with walls, anyway. Then we put them on show, oh, wherever these things go on show. Our logo all over the place, of course. It was these Japanese chaps started, buying Sunflowers. Hopefully we make money on our investment at the end of the day. But we can't have things like that man with his dead sheep in tanks. None of the partners knows the first thingand none of them has got time. So we thought ... you."
She laughed. Another reason why they could never bring themselves to get rid of her. This easy, non-contemptuous laughter that embraced them all, without ever accepting the ethic of any one of them. A potential blackmailer, too, of course.
"Is there a theme to this collection?" she asked. "I am not, emphatically not, going out in search of stags at bay in Scottish Highlands. Or dogs on cushions."
Personally, Ernest liked the idea of anything featuring food, especially if it was going to include dead game ready for the pot, but he shook his head, then changed it to a nod. The worst was over. She had not said no, or told him he was being ridiculous.
"Investment pictures. Modern art, but not too obscure, right? Why don't you just go to one of the reputable dealers?" she asked.
"Bunch of charlatans. Take huge commissions. Besides, you're artistic. Only another mug's game, isn't it? You just swot up on it and away you go. Why pay anyone else?" There was the implied suggestion that Sarah was already paid too much. A slight threat, Do this, or else ... He nodded, agreeing with his own wisdom. Nodding had become habitual. He tried to make it look wise rather than foolish.
"What's the budget and the time-scale? Do I have complete freedom?" Now she was going too fast for him, as usual.
"Oh, a few weeks at least ..."
"Yes. I'll do it. Three dozen. But I will, of course, need time out of the office. More than usual. I'll have to go to all the exhibitions, scout round dealers, that sort of thing. Time-consuming. Ernest darling, what ails you? Talk to me, please."
"The budget's generous, Sarah. We've to prove we aren't a bunch of Philistines. Get out of here, will you? Just go."
She went. Uncurled those slender limbs without a word, and went. It was only after the door began to close behind her that he remembered he had meant to enquire what else she had done with the morning. Without adding the question he never askednamely, whose bed had she left before she began? Her own?
"Oh, Sarah, one more thing ..."
"You've got to get rid of that ridiculous Mr. Cannon. Where did you get him from anyway? We simply cannot subsidize our clients. We can't."
She paused delicately, hand on hip. "Oh, I don't think so, do you? He's a very knowledgeable artist. He'll help with the collection. He'll be an unpaid consultant, and where do you ever find those?"
The door closed softly. Ernest remembered a stray piece of information. The child had grown up in a convent. She could be vigorously clumsy, noisy, ebullient, and yet oh-so-silent. Even when she had the last word. He put his head in his hands and groaned.
Miss Fortune climbed the stairs to her office, which was a very small place as befitted her almost itinerant status, and a pretty cluttered space in accordance with the way she was. The services of a secretary had been withdrawn. Yesterday's flowers still looked fresh, but the rug on the floor was crumpled, showing signs of intruders. People stole into Sarah's room, sometimes to weep, avoid the open-plan, or sleep off the hangover. Space was at a premium in Matthewson's firm, while privacy was even harder to find. Which, of course, made it all the more ridiculous that they should have such a large foyer as proof of prosperity. The shop-front, like a marbleized cave, long, narrow and high, a perfectly natural art gallery, the rest a custom-built warren. She sat, yawned and stretched. Got up, closed the window, prowled around the room, which took a matter of seconds. Felt, although she had only just come in, the same old claustrophobia and the desire to be anywhere else. Looked longingly at the envelope full of estate agents' particulars. Pulled a face at herself in the tiny mirror by the door. Hew the hell, she asked her reflection, did God and man between them ever make a lawyer out of you? Because if it wasn't by divine intervention, it was otherwise a miracle of misjudgement.
She smoothed out the charred fragment of letter given her by Cannon. He had told her what the rest of it contained; she had to take his word for it as she struggled to read the remainder.
... rotting away. I tell you what, if you can keep this up until Christmas, I promise I'll leave her alone. Promise. Let's see who finds who first, shall we? But you won't keep it up. You'll get careless. You'll realize what's GOOD for you ...
Cannon said he believed this promise, and she had to believe Cannon. Someone must. She yanked open the neck of the blouse. Fingered a small, white scar on her clavicle. There were others spread over her torso and arms and, just at that moment, she felt a strange pride. She had taken a look at Cannon's portrait, and he had not noticed the scars. No one did. She was proud of that. It was as though they had disappeared. Little white scars, pieces of history. The work of a client. One of Matthewson's better clients, which was why it was odd that he should be so fussy about the rest. It was not as if they were saints employed to deal with sinners.
Nothing mattered now, except loyalty.
The door opened and a young man sidled in. Sarah stifled a sigh. A reputation for a sympathetic ear and a room that doubled as a haven for frustrated smokers was not always an advantage, attracting as it did not only the gossipers, the jokers and the anxious, but also the others. There was no such thing as a legal firm consisting entirely of nice people; there were always the sedulous, the ambitious and the jealous. Andrew Mitchum entered the room as if he owned it, sat without invitation, lit his cigarette and looked round with lazy appreciation. He coveted this room.
"You'll never guess who I had dinner with at the weekend," he drawled.
"Jamie Lee Curtis?"
"Ugh! Darling, how could you? Why waste my time on trash like that? Prince William, more like. No, he's too young for money either. I only dine with clients."
"Who, then?" She was watching a grasping young man, verging on the theatrical in a less than attractive way, convinced he was God's gift to both sexes while clearly preferring his own. The stories of his conquests bored her, but she was not going to say so. Instead she smiled encouragingly.
"John Smith. Our mysterious Mr. Smith. He with all the houses. My God, you should see his. Vulgar, my dear, beyond belief."
She kept her face clear of all reaction but polite, impressed curiosity. "Oh, and what did he want? Another acquisition?"
Andrew Mitchum wagged his finger. "Secret," he said teasingly. "A little extracurricular activity is all. Wants me to do a bit of research for him." His eyes took in the pictures on the walls, yesterday's flowers, the heavy blue ashtray, with indiscreet approval. "I'm good at research," he added modestly. "I've found out quite a few things about you, for instance. Such an interesting life." He sat back and scrutinized her with frank, asexual curiosity, watching the anxiety flicker over her face to be replaced with an even wider smile.
"Not a lot to know, Andrew."
"No? I don't understand you. All you had to do was marry the boss's son and you would have been a partner. What stopped you? Ah, I know. A penchant for the wrong kind of man and entirely the wrong kind of client, I gather. You were the one Charles Tysall fell for, and when you wouldn't have him he beat you up, right? Tut, tut. No ambition. The man was as rich as Croesus."
"A long time ago, Andrew. Another country. And he's dead."
She was relieved that that was all he wanted to impart; equally relieved that he was so dismissive of her clients. She did not want him examining their identities and seeing any connection between her waifs and strays and his moneyed men; far better that he should be as contemptuous as he was. His ambition was not distracted by imagination. He fingered his immaculate tie, unembarrassed by the silence.
"So what are you doing for John Smith? Screwing him?"
"If only. The dinner was wonderful, but he doesn't seem interested in food."
If there were more to tell, he would tell it. He would not be able to resist. Ernest had hired this boy but, then, Ernest's judgement was not always sound.
"I suppose having been attacked yourself is what gives you sympathy with all your dozy victims?" he said, without really expecting a serious answer.
"No," she said, rising to open the window and wishing he would go. "Not always. Look, Andrew, take a tip. Do not take money from John Smith for this research. Everything you do for John Smith has to go through the firm's accounts. You might think Ernest's a woolly old buzzard, but if there's any hint you're raking in a personal cash profit you'll be out on your ear. Finito. End of career."
"Oh, ho, ho, occupying the moral high ground, are we? From what I hear, that's not like you, Sarah, really it isn't."
"Oh, yes, it is. Sometimes," she added demurely, smiling again to defuse the malice in his tone. "Are you staying for coffee or are you going out to make money?" She fumbled in the top drawer of her desk and handed him a red apple, slightly dusty. "Want one? They're good for you. The man on the corner ..."
He looked at the mess of letters on her desk, mixed in with estate agents' particulars, the arm outstretched with the apple. "Eve offered Adam an apple, Miss F. I suppose some poor version of Adam offered the same sort of thing to you. Pity about you, Sarah. You could have had it all. What do you want?"
"A house with lots of white walls," she said, and sank her teeth in the fruit.
White. Should be the favourite colour of a dentist like me, William thought. But white, my boy, is a non-colour, a state of nothing, a mixer. White is never white: it is either white mixed with yellow or brown, or bloodstained pink; skin is never white, it is multicoloured; white is never pure, it is muddy or creamy or tinged with grey. Or, at least, it was when it came to teeth.
He paused, paintbrush in hand, about to advance on the last wall of the waiting room. What colour, then, if he was aspiring to match their teeth? Make them feel at home when they saw their own teeth in a monitor. For God's sake, paint the place white with a hint of apple green. He paused. Isabella, his ex-wife, would loathe this colour and the thought exhilarated him, although he still wanted her approval. Isabella, the stuff of dreams and nightmares, probably at this very minute examining some new abode with her new, second-hand lover. Isabella, met all those years before in the curtain-material department of John Lewis, he confused by choice, she revelling in it. Houseproud Isabella, to whom the pursuit of perfection indoors was a kind of holy grail. A frustrated designer, a design snob, but what a series of cocoons she had made for them. White shaded green? Dated, yughh!
There was one small alcove to go. He continued with the off-white apple green, humming ... droning, since his voice could never hold a tune, any more than his hands could have played a fiddle, or done one of the many things he had once aspired to do. They were pretty hands, his mother had told him, the exact opposite to the way a surgeon's hands were supposed to be. Splayed, to be honest. Short-fingered with a broad span and no arthritis, every damn finger working with an individual dexterity, capable-looking hands. His were the elegant, long-fingered things of a woman whispering behind a fan. His hands, with a permanent tendency to irritation, fungus, fast-growing nails and a dislike of any chemical, were currently enclosed in gardening gloves with rubber gloves beneath, and it was quite insane for a Wimpole Street dentist, with a practice surely lucrative enough to get someone else to do it, to be painting his own public rooms. The private rooms, both above and below, were ignored; they were beyond aesthetic redemption anyway. Why, then, William, why? he droned. Because you're an ass; the prosperity is all on the surface and, let's face it, you have nothing active left to do when everyone has gone home. And you are fascinated by the technique of it ... and besides, everyone else makes such a devil of a mess.
The doors would have to remain wood-coloured doors. There were too many doors and too many locks. He liked the arrangement. Reception desk by outer door; short corridor to large waiting room; surgery off that, with another damn door opening to reveal not the immediacy of the surgical area and the chair but another little seating area for consultation to the left, out of sight of the door. A non-threatening view.
He tried to whistle. What emerged was a breathy, piping sound, unrecognizable as the tune that had been going round in his head all day. "All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small ..." Such a well-known hymn, coming out of the blue to irritate. As far as his patients were concerned, all things bright and beautiful meant nothing more than teeth.
He finished and took the paintpots and the brushes into the bathroom, which was beyond the reception room and flanking the surgery. Yes, he had made it nice, this public part of the whole damn thing. What always amazed him was the way the patients always asked permission to use the lavatory when it was clearly marked, not in a dozen languages, perhaps, but quite evident for what it was, and the notion that he would want any of them sitting on his chair with a full bladder was so extraordinary that it made him shake his head. The bathroom, too, was filled with paintings. Perhaps that put them off; in which case, too bad. Pictures stayed.
On his way out of the bathroom, he detoured into the surgery. White upon white. There was something perfectly appalling about a surgery with no one in it, like a car park without cars. It had all the impersonality of a laboratory. The chair at lowered level, the machinery on a swing, far out of reach, his chair, with back-rest, crouching beside it, the footpad ready for his feet. No one there, and yet it all looked alive. Blue and white in here. Nothing superfluous. All of it chemically scrubbed. Cupboards full of equipment, as little on show as possible; no labels. Everything in sterile packages hidden from view, as much for the sake of hygiene as for fear of causing alarm. The place had been made to look like a high-tech kitchen display in a shop window, not exactly inviting, but efficient, at least, with the implied promise that there would never be any mess, spillages, stains, the distinctive burning smell of dentine dust, or failures.
William sat in his patients' chair. It was an eccentric habit of his to do this when the place was empty, and made his assistant feel uneasy if she caught him at it first thing in the morning, but he did it often enough. It was important, he told Tina, to keep on reminding himself of what the patient could see from this chair, and whether the view could be improved. There had been a series of soothing pictures on the far wall, limpid watercolour scenes featuring very blue water, until Tina had tartly reminded him that what the patient in the chair watched, as often as not, was the arc-light, until the name of the manufacturer, Siemens, was emblazoned on their eyeballs. She suggested, in her youthful and heartless fashion, that he put goggles on the patients and be done with it. Then they would see nothing and he would not have to bother about the view. No, he told her. That would only have the effect of refining their concentration ell what was going on inside their mouths: they needed to see so they would hear less.
Tina had nodded; she had the benefit of perfect teeth, a child of the fluoride age. But at least, she added, if you put them in goggles, they won't have to see what they see almost as often as they see the light. Your face, looming over them in a mask. Was it such a bad face? he wondered. Nooo, she had said doubtfully, examining it with those cornflower-blue eyes of hers, which held not a moment of doubt. It isn't your face would frighten anyone. It's the height of you. I'd stay sat down, if I were you.
No respect, that girl. Beanpole, she called hima slight improvement on the school name, which was Telegraph. Six feet and three inches was not such an unusual height, was it? Inconvenient for canoeing, horse-riding, bicycling, certain team games he had never liked anyway, and quite an advantage among school contemporaries who would otherwise have bullied him, although it imposed the necessity of owning up to any crime because he was always so visible. It had forced him to develop a slouching stoop, which even now he found difficult to correct; nothing more than a slightly lopsided air but, he thought, at fifty plus, he was used to it. Ah, he thought, oh, please, never let me see myself the way other people do. Let us all be spared that.
He was tired, but not tired enough. He supposed a good night's sleep in a dentist's chair was possible, although it was difficult to imagine anyone wanting to try it. People lay in it under sedation happily enough. It was an awful thought, that the only time patients looked serene was when they were deep asleep. Not anaesthetized, but slumbering without memory. It was then that they sometimes made pathetic efforts to cooperate and even to join in any conversation. It was then, instruments allowing, they muttered about their deepest preoccupations.
William left the chair rapidly, and hit his head lightly on the overhead gantry, which reminded him of one of his first mistakes in the early days of practice. "Right, you can get up now," he would command gaily, only to have the poor sap stand and hit the equipment, or trip over something else on their grateful way to the door. All exit and entrance paths must remain clear, even if they were not in a straight line, as his were not. If only the patients knew how much trouble he took, maybe they would loathe him less. No, they wouldn't.
He had moved to the bathroom. Green paint dripped beneath the tap. "All things bright and beautiful ... all molars great and small." He felt the same thing when he went to the dentist. A defensive fear, as if the man meant him harm and was positively relishing the mere prospect of causing pain, giving him that wary handshake he might have afforded a self-confessed sadist, telling him immediately how much he hated being there, just in case the man did not knowthe way his patients did to him ad nauseam. When the causing of pain was unavoidable, it drained him; on those rare occasions, it was excruciating. He dreaded it as much as the patient, It made him sleepless and hyperactive, like now, as he painted the walls green in the hope that it would never happen again. But it would. He could not wish pain on any living thing. Except her, except Isabella, and then it was not so much pain he wished but something else, which made him profoundly ashamed.
The whiteness of the room, contrasting with the black panes of the night, made him dizzy. It was a bad habit of the time of year to make the light so short and the nights so long. Christmas was beginning to look like a blot on the horizon.
The flash of the orange silk flowers in the waiting room reminded him. The flash of fireworks and red hair. William picked up the phone, dialled and, when she answered, felt a grin creeping across his face. "Sarah! Why aren't you here?"
"Because I'm here, silly. How are you?"
"A bit low. Nothing too bad. Half-way down the pit, or half-way up, whichever way you look at it."
"Half-way up, I would. Light at the top. Has that bitch been in again?"
"Nope. She's due tomorrow."
"Tell her to get lost."
"I can't. I just can't. You know I can't. Look, are you busy?"
"Never. Can you come over?"
"I thought you'd never ask. With my toothbrush?"
"Behave like a good boy. Yes."
"Fine. About half an hour? Look ... It was you by that bonfire last week, wasn't it? You and Cannon?"
There was a long, unembarrassed pause. "What bonfire?"
And that, he supposed, would enter into the file of things they did not talk about.