Chapter 4 - Rigging screws, size 1⅜, galvanised by A.J. Hall
The first surprise was that she did, in fact, have an appointment. For an aromatherapy massage, of all things.
Then came the second surprise, when the deferential girl assistant had requested her to remove all her clothes except her knickers, swathed her in white towelling, led her to a cubicle and invited her to lie, face down, on a couch besides a trolley bearing an array of rubber-stoppered phials bearing the most ridiculous labels – surely no-one would be gullible enough to put half of that muck on their skin?
“Mrs Jameson?” Even from one short telephone call there could be no mistaking that voice. Sherlock Holmes emerged from a side door. Careful of her towelling, she turned on her side, propping herself up on one elbow, to get a good look at him.
Ridiculously young, was her first thought, but then, wasn’t thinking that about policemen supposed to be a sign of impending dotage? Presumably consulting detectives came into the same category. Ridiculously good-looking, also; not that that had anything to do with the price of fish. She wasn’t instructing him for decorative purposes.
He wore a short sleeved, pale blue tunic jacket with the hotel logo; his face changed as he registered her expression of shock.
“The manager does know I’m here. Personal favour. I was able to resolve some – complications – for him, in his last post.” He paused, and added, in a tone which was clearly intended to reassure and which missed by a country mile, “In case you’re wondering, I am expert in anatomy. Though I don’t practise, usually, on live bodies. At least, not recently.”
She fought an urge to giggle.
Nothing like a masseur with a good bedside manner. And that is nothing like a good bedside manner.
“Oh, well. You should be OK with mine, then. It feels as if it’s getting closer to the grave each day.”
He gave an amused, relieved huff. “On the contrary. I’d say your survival instincts were rather highly developed. Which is why, having gone to some lengths to set up this scenario for a private chat - ”
He paused. His pose, as he leaned against the door-jamb seemed almost too nonchalant. Something clicked in her brain. Presumably he couldn’t make a habit of meeting clients for the first time when they were wearing nothing but towels?
Mummy had always insisted that the mark of a lady was her ability to put others at their ease, no matter how unpropitious the circumstances.
“I know. You need to give an air of verisimilitude to a otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. Don’t worry about me. Go right ahead. Make it look real.”
She rested her forearms on the cool cloth of the couch, pillowed her cheek on them and let her eyes fall shut. She heard the sound of a rubber cork being pulled from one of the array of small bottles on the side, smelled the thick aromatic scent of sandalwood.
“Probably the most innocuous of this lot,” he murmured. “I’ve had two murder cases based on so-called complementary therapies. Given the opportunities, I’m only surprised it hasn’t been more.”
The slow, sure, pressure of his enormous hands – her thoughts skittered, momentarily, down paths of schoolgirlish speculation; she recaptured them with a pronounced effort of will – felt almost hypnotic. One could fall asleep like this, caught beneath the bliss of touch, if so much didn’t depend, dammit, on one’s staying alert.
“You’re very good at that,” she murmured, and hated herself as soon as the words were out of her mouth.
- Doting. Forward. Embarrassing. Middle-aged. No – old.*
“Like I said.” His voice was a deep, throbbing purr; not a voice to take liberties with, but, by the same token, not the voice of someone who would readily assume liberties to have been taken. “I do have an in-depth knowledge of anatomy.” His voice changed, became edgier. “When they kicked me out of Oxford, it turned out to be one of my few marketable skills.”
Something almost forgotten rushed up in her chest at the shift in his tone, almost choking her with its intensity. Someone should have been there. Someone should have taken his side.
Marjorie spoke almost before the thought had died.
“I met Charles - my first husband - at Oxford. They kicked him out, too.” The pause before he responded lasted just a little too long. She guessed what he must be thinking, and amplified, “I was at the Ox and Cow. Secretarial course. Not the brainy type.”
“Ah. So your parents did have traditional views on the value of higher education for women. Why did your first husband get sent down?”
“Didn’t do a stroke of work in two years. Played a lot of cricket and chaired the Union wine committee instead.” Her voice sounded gruff, roughened not just by the remembrance of endless arguments about that – Charles’s rooms at Trinity on Sunday mornings, the papers spread across the unmade bed - but by the reminder that she would never argue with Charles about anything, ever again.
“Wine and cricket. Hence little difficulty securing a job in the City when Oxford and he parted company. Lucky, though. By pure chance he landed up in a job he was good at, which earned him enough to retire early.”
She resisted the temptation to ask him how he knew. “Charles said he had to get out of the City when the merchant bankers stopped being gentlemen.”
“Did they ever start? Your house is buried miles from the nearest station at the end of a country lane. Not a house anyone would buy who was planning to commute. And yet, from the Land Registry search, he bought it over twelve years ago, when he could only have been in his early fifties.”
His hands were unknotting muscles that had been held rigid for so long her conscious mind had forgotten they were tense. His voice continued to purr on, above her head.
“Speaking of Gilbert and Sullivan, by the way, you should rejoin the choral society. When your husband – your current husband – pressured you into leaving, it reinforced your social isolation. Probably his intention. You don’t find gardening an acceptable substitute; it bores you rigid. You’ve only started doing it more in the last few months, since your husband insisted you terminate the gardening service you’ve used for the last ten years. Further proof, incidentally, of his increasingly desperate financial straits.”
She jerked her head and shoulders up, only catching the towel just in time to save both their blushes.
“How did -?”
“Speaking voice tells me you’re a contralto; probably with a decent range – certainly with impressive power. You’ve been taught to breathe properly, and practised long enough for it to have become instinctive. Decline in the muscular tone of your diaphragm indicates you ceased practising somewhat over a year ago. No indication of any organic reason; no scars from throat surgery, for example. A serious gardener develops a characteristic pattern of calluses on his or her knees – you should have seen my grandmother’s – but despite the fact that you’ve got approximately half an acre of garden and have lived there some years the calluses on your knees are still at the raw stage, suggesting that you’ve only started intensive gardening recently.”
She digested that for a minute.
“Also, I ordered a minicab to take me to your house when I arrived down here. After disgruntled ex-employees and cast-off mistresses, bored minicab drivers are one of the best sources of information going. Since his brother-in-law worked for the gardening service, I got the ex-employee perspective too. Illuminating.”
Somehow the thought of random minicab drivers discussing her personal affairs made her feel far more naked than her physical undress.
“Why did you go to the house?”
“Oh, I needed to burgle it.”
Fortunately, her shocked expression was hidden by her forearms. She made her tone frosty. “You did what?”
“I haven’t done any damage. Depressingly easy to break in; you might want to consider upgrading your security system. I needed to examine your husband’s computer before he decided to start covering his tracks. He doesn’t seem the kind of man to leave anything to chance.”
“He’s not.” That came out more bitterly than she would, ideally, have wanted, but Sherlock – impossible to think of him as “Mr Holmes”, given the situation – didn’t seem bothered by it.
“His shed told me as much. Tools for every eventuality, conceivable and inconceivable. Tell me, what normally rests on the shelf to the left as you enter the shed, about a third of the way along, next to the heavy-duty visor and gauntlets?”
She tried to visualise Julian’s shed. A place for everything, and everything in its place. That had always been his motto and, to be fair, he lived by it. How unlike Charles’s magnificent carelessness.
“On the left? No, I can’t think. Unless – could it have been the pruning saw?”
“Pruning saw. Obvious. Should have realised. Next to visor and gloves. Wood chips. I saw the bonfire pile in the garden; someone must have pruned recently and it can’t have been your garden service since they were terminated nine months ago. Powered saw, of course. Pattern of cuts on the branch ends.”
The whole conversation had taken a distinct turn for the surreal. Marjorie risked a glance over her shoulder.
“Why does it matter?”
“Powered. Pruning saw. Recent gap, given the lack of dust. Gives me a strong idea about what he’s planning to do with the bodies. Oh, you’re tensing up again. Sorry. Did I hurt you?”
“No,” Marjorie choked out.
“Oh, good. I might have got more out of the place – fortunately I’d secured the PC – if I hadn’t heard a key in the lock. I beat a strategic retreat into a bathroom, but from the sound of the high heels on the parquet in the hall I realised it was improbable that it was your husband.”
Fury flooded her. He’d thought she’d been tensing up before? Rubbish. This was tensing up. “He gave her a key?”
“Ah. I thought you’d know she existed. I’d be surprised. She probably sneaked his and got a copy cut. Anyway, since her standing in the matter was even more dubious than mine, I emerged from the bathroom and demanded to know who the hell she was.”
“And how did you explain who you were?”
“I said I was a nephew by marriage – your first marriage – and that I’d agreed to house-sit while you were away in Brittany.”
“And she believed you?”
“Not in the slightest. But then, I didn’t intend her to.” His lip curled. “After all, having seen your family photographs, I can assure you I’d infinitely prefer to be mistaken for your toyboy than for Foggy Carstairs.”
She gasped. Out of a swarm of competing thoughts, one made it to her lips.
“You know Fog – Jeremy?”
There was a distinctly sardonic note in his voice; she cursed herself for the slip.
“We spent five excruciating years under the same roof in our respective teens, yes. I don’t advise mentioning my name, though. We had a painful misunderstanding at school. That is, the misunderstanding was on his side and the pain on mine. He had some very large friends.”
“What – ah – happened?”
“I mentioned he wasn’t being as discreet about his in-school commercial activities – porn mags and vodka, with the odd bit of distinctly sub-standard Lebanese gold – as he thought he was. He interpreted it as ‘Cut me in on the proceeds or I’ll go to the house-master.’ Not my intention, but once Foggy gets an idea in his head he’s very reluctant to let it go. It’s probably the novelty of the experience.”
The successive shocks of the day must be thickening her skin to the texture of rhinoceros hide; all she could manage at the revelation of Foggy’s past as a porn purveyor to the Lower Sixth was a wistful pang.
Charles would have laughed so much.
She summoned all the indignation she could muster. “Anyway, my nephew Jeremy isn’t the point. You let her – you deliberately encouraged her to think – ”
“People always think things. They don’t usually need any encouragement. But it can sometimes be useful, nonetheless.”
She thought she detected a hint of defensiveness and pressed home the attack. “You break into my house – you destroy my reputation –”
“I’m not a vain man, Mrs Jameson, but I hardly think –”
Nor did she, to be perfectly honest, but she certainly wasn’t going to admit it.
“Marjorie,” she interrupted. “Given you’ve just posed as my toyboy to my husband’s mistress, I think we can safely conclude we’re on first name terms, don’t you?”
“Ex-mistress. It couldn’t have worked out better if I’d planned it. That’s why she was sneaking around with a key she shouldn’t have had. I knew when I spotted the packet of cress seeds in her hand.”
“A – you what?”
“Pointless act of petty revenge. She probably got it off the internet. Sprinkle cress seeds on a carpet; water, wait. Scattering the seeds through a stencil so as to form rude phrase of choice, optional. Particularly attractive where – as here – the house is expected to be empty for some days. Not so clever to get caught in the act. She offered to buy me a drink in the hope she could flatter or seduce me into keeping quiet about having seen her there. I accepted, of course.”
“Of course,” Marjorie murmured.
He didn’t seem to do irony, or, if he did, he was very good at concealing the fact; his tone didn’t change at all.
“So; bored minicab driver, ex-employee and cast-off mistress. Hat-trick. Coupled with the PC records and the hotmail account you so intelligently identified and accessed, establishing your husband’s motive is simple. Plus, she dropped a couple of things about your husband’s time in the Army which were – suggestive – as to the means. Interesting, the things men tell their girlfriends which they don’t mention to their wives. At least, I expect he hasn’t?”
“He doesn’t talk about his Army days. I gather he was stationed in Ulster at one point – right in the middle of the Troubles – and I suppose he saw some horrible things there.”
“From a very specific angle of view, if he wasn’t just making it up to turn her on. She does have a pronounced sado-masochistic streak.”
Marjorie, prudently, decided to avoid asking how he’d discovered that fact. The underlying suggestion was disquieting enough. Most disturbing was that she had no difficulty believing it. Her fingers strayed toward her burn scar; she snatched them back. Not quite soon enough.
“Ah, yes. The origin of your perfectly reasonable scepticism about the competence of the local police. Given Hampshire must have the third highest per capita number of Agas in the country, even the dimmest local bobby should know the difference between the burn produced by stumbling against an Aga plate, and that produced by being held there. But not, apparently.”
Something sharp prickled behind her eyes; she hunched her face down over her forearms. The possibility of speech failed her, utterly. His hands ceased their slow, circling movements; one gripped her right shoulder, hard.
“Not very long now. This time, they will believe you. Means, motive and opportunity. Only one more thing needed. I’ve deduced where he probably stashed the bodies. Are you on for helping me prove it?”
Bodies. That word again. His voice, as he said it, had dropped almost to a whisper, but she had detected a thread of irrepressible excitement there, too. It made her feel ill. Bodies were something mentioned on the nine o’clock news – “The body of a woman discovered in a shallow grave in woodland” “The body of a man has been identified”. This wasn’t bodies. This was Rosemary and Phil. Irritating as hell, often, but still, their friends. Or the nearest she had, these days, anyway. She gave a small, unstoppable gasp of pain.
“What is it? Tell me.” His voice was honey on steel, caress and threat in one. One might drown in a voice like that.
Marjorie wasn’t the drowning type, though. “Born to be hanged,” Charles had said, after that nightmarish crossing from St Malo, just the two of them, when a full gale had spun up out of nowhere, the barometer plummeting five millibars in three hours, dead on the nose for fifteen hours straight, and she’d helmed her fair share and then some, with the scuppers running and the waves crashing green over the bow. That had been in the old Contessa, though; no headroom and everything stinking of diesel after a night on board, but a hull that would take you through anything the gods of the sea might throw at you.
“You’re talking about Phil – Rosemary – ”
“Tell me – how closely did Rosemary resemble you? Not standing next to each other, but in something like your driving licence photo, say?”
She twisted her head round to look at him. He stared back, pale eyes challenging, lips set in a tight line. A serious question, which demanded a careful answer, then.
She shrugged. “Not that close. We’ve each got short, grey hair. Similar build. Different features; my nose is bigger, for instance. And Rosemary wears glasses all the time, not just for reading.”
“People are supposed to take off glasses for ID photos. Nothing to excite suspicion there. Also; older woman. Most people’s observational skills are dire. They dwindle to non-existent when the subject is a grey-haired woman. I doubt the bank took a second glance.”
“The one who, three months ago, extended a facility of £1.5 million to your husband’s business. Backed by a director’s personal guarantee. Secured by a mortgage against your house. Land Registry search, as I said.”
Marjorie reared up, pressing a shocked hand to her lips. She grabbed, too late, as the overlooked towel slid, uncontrollably, downwards. He retrieved it with unruffled calm, handing it back with as little fuss as if it had been a handkerchief.
And, if he chooses to tell me what he’s deduced from my breasts, in addition to my arm, my knees and my diaphragm, he’s dogmeat.
He remained blessedly silent, watching while she brought her features under some semblance of control.
“My house?” she said, once she could speak again. “But I didn’t – ”
“Then a woman posing as you co-signed the security documents. I’m sure you have an idea who she was?”
The name came out as a hiss. She gulped, squeezing a pittance of oxygen into her lungs, hardly enough to sustain life under the crushing weight of betrayal.
“But that’s my home. Charles and I found it together. We came down one weekend after we married and went walking in the woods – trespassing, I suppose – and glimpsed it through the trees. He promised to buy it for me, if he ever got rich.”
“Were the bluebells out?”
“Yes. Endless blue drifts. How did you know?”
He shrugged. “Characteristic leaves – no flowers, of course, this time of year. I doubt the bank took the bluebells into account when assessing the property’s value as security. Or your husband and his friends, when they decided to steal it.”
Betrayal, then, smells of sandalwood. Poisons in phials on the trolley near the wall. What does revenge smell of? Belladonna? Hemlock?
Her fists clenched. “I could –”
“Could you?” Again, not a trivial question. He actually wanted to know. She let her mind spiral down, trying to reach past the anger, trying to bring Phil and Rosemary’s faces back as they had looked at dinner (last night; only last night).
“I – ” She gulped. So far as Phil and Rosemary was concerned, the question was academic; whatever could happen to them, already had. But – truly – even given what she now knew, if by any sacrifice of blood she could have brought them back, she would.
If only so I could tell Rosemary to her face what I thought of her.
“No,” she choked out, with a conscious effort of will.
He eyed her narrowly, then gave a small nod. “Well, then. I suggest you get dressed. Pick me up from the staff entrance in ten minutes. We’ve some corpses to find.”