We've just published DEATH AT DUKES HALT, the latest Danny Bird mystery from Fahrenheit stalwart Derek Farrell. Here we present a little taster to whet your reading appetite...
“Absolutely not.” I stared at my best friend in horror.
Across the table from me, Lady Caroline Victoria Genevieve Jane de Montfort – Caz to her friends – looked at me as though my horror were absolutely incomprehensible.
“But why not?”
“Why?” I was resisting the urge to ask how many Martinis she had. “Are you serious?”
“Deadly,” she said, sipping from her glass. “It was Georgie’s dying wish. His living one too, come to think of it. And if his father wasn’t such a complete bastard, he’d have been granted it years ago. Well, he mightn’t have been able to do it in life, but I’m going to do it in death. And permanently.”
“I’m not even sure it’s legal,” I protested, and she snorted.
“It’s probably not,” she said, “but it’s a dying man’s wish and are you - a person who works for a gangster renowned for jointing his enemies with a large machete – really going to talk to me about legality?”
“Well, first off, I don’t work for him; I’m my own boss. He just happens to own the pub that I’m running. And second – and you know this perfectly well – Mr F. has never been convicted of any violent act. So, y’know, it could be nothing but scurrilous rumours that you’re adding to by your insistence in referring back to unproven here say.”
“He’s known as Chopper Falzone,” she stated baldly, swallowing her Martini, fishing out the olive and popping it into her mouth.
She had a point. And that was the first solid I’d seen her consume in months.
I tried another tack.
“How? I mean, the logistics.”
“Leave logistics to me,” she said, a smile that intimated she’d not only worked them out, but had had a trial run in Hyde Park, settling on her face.
“No, I mean the logistics of this place. I mean, I’m trying to organise that Cabaret Night- Elephant’s got Talent.”
“Despite the fact that this bar is not situated in The Elephant and Castle.” Caz dipped into her handbag and extracted a shiny silver cocktail shaker. She wiggled it at me and I waved it away, my own glass still containing what I’d discovered on first sip was basically pure gin with a homeopathic quantity of vermouth.
“It’s in the environs,” I said. “And anyways, The Cabin Boy and Codpiece on Borough High Street’s already got a ‘Southwark’s got talent’ night on a Wednesday.”
“Bastards!” Ali – my bar manager – strolled over on hearing the name of her nemesis. The Cabin Boy had been taken over by an ex- hedge fund manager, and Ali was convinced the pub was stealing her customers at an alarming rate. She spat her condemnation and began polishing the bar with a rag so filthy that she didn’t polish so much as move the grease from the left to the right, the right to the left, up then down and then back up again in a bizarre housekeeping version of The Hokey Cokey.
“Well quite,” I couldn’t really argue with her hatred of the competition, but facts were facts: They were offering a Savoy-trained mixologist, leather banquettes and a Sunday roast that delivered recipes by Heston Blumenthal to a selection of the ex-hedge fund manager’s mates.
The Marquess of Queensbury, meanwhile, served bottles of Czech lager that bore labels claiming the contents were brewed in – and managed to misspell – Czechoslovakia, despite the country in question not having existed for twenty-five years or more. Our clientele could binge on out-of-date pork scratchings whilst lounging on bar furniture that looked like it had been acquired some time before the great fire.
Said clientele, in fact – such as it was - consisted of regulars who’d been coming here since the trouble with Europe was Joan of Arc, unemployed drag queens who still thought Danny La Rue was recherché, and a selection of people who either came for the ambience or who, having heard about the ancient plumbing and rarely cleaned toilet facilities, came to test the efficacy of a new yellow fever vaccine.
“So, who’ve we got lined up for the first night?” I asked, and Ali stopped polishing, focused her eyes (and, I suspected, her mind) into the middle distance, and begun to recite the bill:
“We’ve got Benoit Balls. French. No,” she held up a hand, “Belgian. Does something amazing with ping pong balls. Works up to tennis balls and the finale involves something jaw dropping with a rugby ball.”
“It’s almost like being at the Folies Bergere,” Caz said drily.
Ali ignored her. “We’ve Lardy GaGa. Morbidly obese tribute act. Comes on wearing a dress made out of sliced ham. Sings the hits. Finishes the night wearing only her wafer-thin chicken knickers having eaten the costume as she sings. Brought the house down at The Rotary Club do last Christmas. Oi lads,” she called to my nephews Ray and Dash, who were serving a shitfaced but oddly quiet hen party, “Who else we got on this talent thing?”
“We got Gary Klinkerhaus and Marco. A vent act,” Dash said, taking his top off and exposing his defenestrated and oiled chest to a round of applause from the hen party, and – without pausing for breath – pocketing the tips that hit the bar in seconds, “and a folk singer called – what’s her name?” He asked his brother “Callisthenic Arsehols?”
“It’s Cullinan Arsene,” Ray corrected, losing his t-shirt too, “and he’s a man”.
The Hens – all deaf and all signing their approval of his physique in ways that even I could understand – clinked glasses of ‘Prosecco’ that I suspected was made in a lockup in New Cross Gate, and leered at the boys who – used to being objectified – carried on reciting the bill for the upcoming talent night.
“We’ve got a rock band called Jihadi TukTuk. Well, we might have. They’re still looking for a drummer. With his own drum kit.”
“So, you see,” I gestured at the trio behind the bar, “I couldn’t possibly go away at such short notice.
“Balls,” Caz snorted. “The boys can run a talent night. Sounds like they’ve basically booked the whole thing any way.”
“You’re not wrong there,” Ali muttered, casting her most opprobrious glance my way.
“So,” Caz said, and waited.
“Well, what about the logistics of getting there?” I persevered. “Of getting him there.”
“Sorted,” she replied instantly. “Paolo will let me have his car.”
I blanched. “Two things: If I recall correctly you don’t actually have, at this moment in time, a licence to drive, and also Paolo? Are you still seeing him?”
Caz blushed, fiddled with the stem of her glass, shrugged. “Well, let’s put it this way: I’m seeing him, but he’s not exactly seeing me.”
“He’s in a coma again, isn’t he?”
I’d never asked how Caz had met the vastly wealthy Paolo and I wasn’t entirely sure how he or his ancestors had actually acquired the fortune that he seemed happy to shower Caz with, but I did know that the man – a bon vivant whose weight tended to yo-yo from Nijinsky to Hindenburg (by which I did not mean the race horse or the count) – had acquired the habit, when he could no longer fit into his designer jeans, of having himself put into a coma in Zurich and fed a liquid diet til he had wasted away to the desired weight, then brought back around and sent straight out to Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester.
She shrugged. “Just a little one. He thought he looked a bit puffy around the eyes, so he had Doctor Kevorkian put him out for a week or two.”
“Different one. I think.” Caz frowned, sipped her drink. “I’ll check.”
“And how do we get George down there?” I asked. “I mean, we can hardly stick him on the roof rack?”
“A roof rack? Do you think Paolo would own – or that I would be seen dead in – anything with,” she gulped back what appeared to be a sudden rise in gorge, “a roof rack?” She presented me with her most offended front while rooting around in her handbag and snorting a little cry of triumph as she located the olives and dragged a fresh one out to drop into her neat gin.
“So, are you in or not?”
I was still looking for a get-out. I do not normally like the aristocracy. I mean, I’ve met a few, and I’m sure they were perfectly pleasant people, but – especially en masse – they tend to make me feel that perhaps the Bolsheviks were on to something at Yekaterinburg.
“I mean, if you were such a close friend of George’s,” I pressed on, “why would the father even allow you over the threshold? Surely you’re tarred with whatever brush he tarred his own son with.”
“Ah but that’s the point,” Caz smiled gnomically. “I met Georgie long after he was ejected from Eden. By that stage he was Georgie, and he was the funniest, sweetest, smartest man I’d ever met.”
“Really?” I attempted – and failed – to suppress my bristle.
“Before you, dear heart. But you would have loved him.” She paused, inspected me with a raised eyebrow, and smiled. “Yes, you would have loved him, and he you.
“But I met George when his first gallery show was the hit of the season. I was GLAM’s culture editor in New York, and he was the hot new British artist in town, and they assumed that we’d have something in common, so we were thrown together.”
“Culture editor?” I marvelled at the idea of Caz deciding which deconstructivist poet would feature in the magazine that month or whether she’d go with a performance artist who inserted guavas where they were never meant to be inserted whilst reciting Baudelaire, then realised I was probably being a snob.
Caz ignored me. “And who’d have guessed,” she said, her smile wavering, “that two aristos would have a bond. Years later Pamela - one of my oldest friends - tells me she’s met this very charming farmer called Henry Warren.
“By farmer I’m assuming you don’t mean he mucks out every morning at five.”
She ignored me. “So, Pamela and Henry marry and it was ages after before I realised Henry was Georgie’s estranged brother. It was the first time I was due to visit Dukes Halt. The father – Sir Philip Warren – has a huge fireworks party every year at Hallowe’en, apparently it was his late wife’s birthday and became something of a tradition during her life, so he’s kept it going ever since. So I mentioned where I was going to Georgie en passant, and he – so quietly, as if he were talking to himself – said something like ‘Oh that’s where I grew up.’”
She paused, sipped her martini, put the glass back on the table and adjusted it as though she were trying to stay anchored in the here and now while her mind drifted back. “’Well,’ he said, ‘I suppose technically I grew up at a series of boarding schools, but Dukes Halt is where my family lived.’ I was a bit confused, to be honest, I mean I’d thought that the place had been in Henry’s family forever, so I ended up saying ‘Oh, where do they live now?’ assuming his family had sold up and moved on.
“And he looks at me with surprise as though he’d understood simply everyone must know, and says ‘Oh they still live there. You’re going to visit them this weekend.’”
Caz looked at me as though awaiting a response, and so I said “Wow,” though I was wondering where the story was going.
“And so I asked him if he’d be there that weekend and he laughed. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I’ve written a few times and asked if I can come visit but you know how it is.’”
“Wait,” now I was piqued. “He wrote? A letter? Asking for permission to go back to his family home?” I was remembering how, when my relationship of several years had ended one sunny morning, I had simply walked to a train station, boarded a train to Waterloo and a couple of hours later been ensconced in my childhood bedroom while my parents openly debated having my ex-boyfriend kneecapped.
“He was sent away, he said, two months before his sixteenth birthday.”
“The fuck,” I gasped, and Caz nodded, a look on her face that said, ‘see what I mean now?’ and sipped again from the cocktail.
“He wouldn’t ever speak about it. Just said his mother died and his brother died, and terrible things happened that he would never be able to forgive himself for, and if the punishment was banishment from Dukes Halt he’d take it a million times over if it could reverse a sliver of the damage he’d done.”
“Fuck,” I said again. “What did he do?”
“No idea,” Caz said. “A couple of times I tried getting the skinny out of Henry but he really clammed up. He was cast out over thirty years ago and nobody, it seems, has spoken of it again.”
She swigged the cocktail, a larger mouthful this time.
“I’m not unfamiliar with, shall we say, the eccentricities of some of my social class, but I have to say even I found it all quite shocking. But Georgie laughed it all off as though it was some silly misunderstanding and he was embarrassed for bringing it all up.
“When he got sick I asked him once or twice whether he wanted to go back, and he’d get a bit misty-eyed then shake his hand. ‘Not gonna happen,’ he’d say ‘I can never go back there.’ And then he’d ask me what I thought of the new show at the Saatchi. It was only at the very end – when he knew that he was dying – that he told me he’d written asking his father to allow him to return one last time, and that the letters had been returned unopened.”
“Jesus. Why didn’t he just get into a taxi and go? I mean they’d hardly have slammed the door in his face, surely?”
Caz smiled sadly. “They might have. And the one thing that nice boys and girls who remember the lessons they learned at boarding school will do almost anything to avoid is the causing of a scene. I think Georgie was afraid that, if he turned up and his father slammed the door in his face, it would mean all hope was lost. Maybe sending letters meant that there was hope of a positive response, an invite to tea.”
“Until it came back unopened,” I said, and she nodded, sipped her Martini again.
“So, none of the family know that you were friends with George?”
“Well Henry does, because I asked him outright what they all had against his brother, and Georgie and I were papped at a few of his openings, so it’s possible if Sir Phillip ever switched his subscription from Horse & Hounds to Vogue or Tatler he might have seen us, but whether they know or not, I have never been refused entry to Dukes Halt, so I suspect their issue is with George and George only.”
“Only now George has died,” I said, prompting her back to her story.
“And I promised him that I’d get him back. I hadn’t achieved it in life, and so that’s why I need your help.”
“Okay, but I still don’t understand how I can help or how, in fact, you’re going to get him back there. Unless you’re just going to knock on the door and tell his father that you’ve come round for tea, oh and you’ve brought his dead son’s remains.”
Caz stopped me. “I’ve – we’ve been invited by Henry and Pamela. It’s October, Danny.”
Realisation dawned. “George’s mother’s birthday.”
Caz nodded. “It’s too good a chance to miss. And besides, Pamela wants me to go and have a talk with Lottie.”
“Okay, now I’m confused: Who’s Lottie?”
“Well Pamela met Henry. They married, and had a daughter – Carlotta, who everyone calls Lottie. And I’m Lottie’s Godmother.”
“I’m sensing some moralising, Daniel. And you know my thoughts on moralising; it gives you lines.”
“Well, it’s just I thought Godmothers were supposed to be all about religious and moral education, y’know?”
“Well, that’s how little you know. In some sets, perhaps, but in my set it’s all about having someone who can help introduce the child to the right sort of people when the time comes and get them the right unpaid internship to launch them in life and – if they play their cards right – get them the right husband.”
“Caz, you’re unemployed, spend half your life in this dump, and the man you’re currently having a relationship with appears to be addicted to elective comas.”
Caz sniffed dismissively. “Well, all that aside, here we are: I have a Goddaughter, and her name is Lottie. And Pamela wants my help, because the girl, apparently, has been acting up lately. She’s just been expelled from a very prestigious boarding school for smuggling in an entirely banned mobile phone.”
I gaped. “A mobile phone? Did you say boarding school or high security prison?”
“Whatever, this is the third expulsion in as many years. Apparently, she’s become over-argumentative and obstreperous.”
“Really? And she’s your goddaughter?”
“What’s that mean?”
“I’d say they chose well. But why can’t her parents deal with whatever is making her act up?”
“Ah.” She shifted uncomfortably. “Well, you see, the thing is, there is only really the one parent. Henry Warren. He’s a lovely old thing really, but Henry is one of those people who was made for the nineteenth century and – unfortunately for him – launched in the latter twentieth.”
“Wait. Where’s Pamela in this?”
“Gone. They divorced about six years ago. It was a shock, to be honest, because they seemed so solid, but then poor Pamela’s brother died, and, out of the blue, she announces she needs space, goes off to become games mistress at some posh school, and leaves Lottie with Henry. I mean the two of them seem to have remained great friends. She spends time at the house, he sees her when he’s in town.”
“And the obstreperous daughter?” I asked. “Where does she fit in?”
Caz sighed sadly. “Where indeed? The Warrens – and I count Pamela in that, though she’s obviously only a Warren by marriage – are not exactly renowned for their parenting.”
“I need to sort out whatever’s happening with Lottie,” Caz watched a bead of condensation run down her glass and ran her finger alongside it. “She needs to be back in school. I need to get her away from that place. I’m genuinely fond of Pamela and Henry, and Sir Phillip is just one of those types that are trapped in this sort of provincial Rep Edwardian paterfamilias role, though it seems never to have brought him a moment’s joy. But there’s something about the place – about Dukes Halt – that,” she shrugged, the shrug a failed attempt to hide a small shudder, “something that frightens me, to be honest, Danny. I don’t know what George’s crime was and I don’t really care anymore, but almost at the end - when he was on more morphine than the entire front row at a Babyshambles gig - he looked at me, and said that Dukes Halt was cursed. He said that the place had been poisoned forever but he’d destroyed the last slivers of goodness in it.”
“And you want to bring his remains back there?”
“It’s where he wanted to go. He also said that some of the happiest days of his life were spent there.” She smudged the drop of condensation. “Maybe he hoped his return would exorcise the place.”
“Brilliant,” I said, knowing I was caving in and knowing – from the satisfied look on Caz’s face – that she’d picked up on my acquiescence. “So, I’ll pack my holy water and brush up on my Latin. You need to figure out how we’re getting there.”
My mother called to tell me she was going on holiday with my dad, which put the kibosh on Caz’s suggestion we hire him to take us to Dukes Halt.
“Portugal,” my mum said, excited and happy.
“Is it okay?” I asked, knowing as the question came out that she wouldn’t be going away if it wasn’t.
“It’s okay,” she said, something in her voice shifting on the last syllable. “I’m okay.”
My mother, a year before, had been diagnosed with cancer. She’d told only my father. To this day, the only other person who knew of her diagnosis was me, and that was only because I was the sort of son who couldn’t leave things lie.
But she’d had treatment. The prognosis was good. Her health was good. She was still recovering, but she was well enough to go away on holiday.
“Are you sure?” I asked, as Ray – wearing a Hawaiian shirt with a deep v-neck over a rather sheer sarong – entered the kitchen and gestured that I needed to come into the bar.
I waved him aside. Whatever it was, it could wait.
This was important.
“So how long you going away for?” I asked, wondering why – despite her assurances – I was still worried.
“Just a couple of weeks, but, oh, Danny, it’ll be wonderful to dip my toes in the sea, get some sun on my face.”
“Not too much sun,” I said, “and wear a high factor sunscreen.”
She chuckled. “You’re a good boy Danny.”
“A regular saint,” I deadpanned back, as Ray leaned in and stage-whispered “There’s someone to see you.”
“You’ve visitors,” my mum said, hearing his words. “So I’ll let you go.”
“You don’t have to,” I said shooting daggers at my nephew. “Whoever it is will wait.”
“No, it’s okay,” my mum said, a smile in her voice. “I’ve told you my news now.”
“When do you go?” I jumped in, concern suddenly flaring up once more.
“Saturday. Morning. Early,” she answered.
“But that’s the day after tomorrow,” I said back and again she chuckled.
“No flies on you. Go see who wants you. I’ll bring you back some sardines. And don’t worry. Oh, and Danny: Love you.”
“Love you too,” I said, and the call ended.
I knew, of course, why my mother had called to tell me only a day or two before she went away: It was a done deal and I would have less time to worry about the decision. If she’d told me a month before, I’d have spent four weeks agonising over whether it was the right thing to do or not. This way, I had to let go of it.
So that’s what I tried to do.
I almost succeeded.
“Right,” I turned back to Ray but he’d already gone back to the bar, which - even from my seat at the kitchen table in The Marq – sounded busy.
Thursday night was free prawn cracker and half-price Lychee Gin cocktails night, and featured a regular weekly floorshow by the aptly named Ms Opium Waugh, so it tended to draw a good crowd.
As I entered the bar I could see that the sign-up sheets for Elephant’s Got Talent were doing a roaring trade, and was pleased to think that the twins’ idea looked like it might have legs after all; if even half those who were expressing an interest in performing came down on the night we’d be in line for the best Monday night bar takings in ages.
My visitor was standing in the middle of the bar, her back to me as she surveyed the throng, and even though I couldn’t see her face I knew who she was.
As though sensing me, she turned around.
She was tall and blonde, her hair tucked behind her ears, and she was wearing dark blue jeans and a crisp white button-down shirt covered by a lightweight beige mac, and everything about her made her seem like the last person in the world who would be standing in my pub on Lychee Tuesday.
Which was how I knew who she had to be.
“You’re Arianna,” I said, and she smiled at me.
“Hello,” she said, her voice smoky. “It’s lovely to finally meet you. I wonder if it would be possible to speak in private?”
In case you haven’t been keeping up: Once upon a time I spent several years living with a man called Robert, who was a city lawyer, a great success and a total shit. I discovered the latter fact when I came home one day and found him in bed with our window cleaner.
I’m no snob; I really don’t mind that the man he was shagging behind my back was the window cleaner as opposed to, say, a senior partner at his law firm.
But I was particularly stung by the fact I’d been paying the window cleaner’s bills out of my own pocket forever, so I’d effectively been paying for someone to come round and give my boyfriend a weekly seeing to while I was working my little legs off to pay for the cleaning.
So, I left Robert, ended up running The Marq (Don’t ask how; this is already running too long for a quick catchup), and met Nick.
Who seemed nice.
So, Nick and I sort of drifted into a relationship, then Nick went on a secondment to Albania – something to do with a training exchange and an opportunity to network with other forces – and some months later I discovered that, whilst in Albania, he’d married. A woman. Named Arianna.
I know: I was as shocked as you are. More, probably.
I led Arianna behind the bar and back down the hallway into the kitchen.
I gestured at the seat opposite the one I’d just vacated, and she slung her mac over the back of it. “Can I get you something to drink? Tea? Coffee?”
“In a pub?” she asked, a slight curving of the lips, aligned with a gentle tilting of the head lending her a mildly sardonic air. “Don’t you have a good vodka? I think, somehow a good vodka would be more apropos.”
I paused, my hand still reaching for the kettle, and smiled uncertainly.
“In this pub,” I answered, “we only have vodka that’s never been further east than Canvey Island. But in this kitchen,” I crossed to the fridge, opened it and extracted a bottle of Chopin. “Neat or over ice?” I asked, crossing to the cupboard and running my eyes over the glass options.
“If it’s cold, then adding ice is unnecessary dilution,” she said, her voice tone still seeming to have a smile as though at a private joke she had yet to share with me.
“Shots, then,” I answered, reaching up for the top shelf and realising I couldn’t quite reach it unaided.
“Here,” she was suddenly beside me. “Let me help you.” She reached over me and removed two shot glasses from the top shelf while I was wondering why I was playing nice when every fibre of my being was calling out ‘Something funny’s going on.’
Don’t get me wrong: Any concerns I may have had about Arianna and Nick had long been resolved. But I’ve seen enough Turner Classic Movies to know that when The Other Woman turns up placidity is not a state one should adopt.
Arianna stepped back, smiled and, as I turned, still holding the chilled vodka, resumed her seat at the table, the glasses placed carefully in front of her.
I uncapped the bottle and poured a measure into each, then placed the bottle back on the table and sat down before lifting the glass and raising it in a silent toast to her.
She mirrored my toast and we slugged the shots.
“You did not put the cap back on the bottle,” Arianna said, the smile back and this time reflected in her eyes. “In my world, that means an invitation to stay.”
I poured two more shots.
“I don’t really know what I’m toasting,” I said. “This feels odd. I mean, you’re Nick’s-” I froze on the word, suddenly embarrassed by it, and her smile changed from being a hint of an upturn at the corners of her lips to a full beam, exposing perfect white teeth.
“Wife,” she laughed, toasting me and slamming the vodka back again. “And you,” she said, seeming not even to have swallowed the spirit, “are the man he loves. In another time, this would be some terrible arthouse movie, and we would all be miserable. And yet here we are.”
I sipped my vodka and she raised an eyebrow in rebuke.
I swallowed the shot.
“Yes,” I said, feeling my cheeks start to burn. “Here we are.”
Arianna looked around the room. “This, then, is the famous Marquess of Queensbury Public House of which I have heard so much?”
“Well, it’s a bit of it,” I answered, noticing the smell of onions and garlic still hanging on the air from lunchtime, the spatters of grease all over the hob, and the trail of dark black splashes – a sauce, perhaps, or blood from some poorly handled meat – running across the floor tiles to the overflowing bin in the corner. “Perhaps we should have gone upstairs.”
“This is perfect,” she answered me, the private joke seemingly banished. “And before we go further, I am truly pleased to meet you Danny, and grateful for your time.”
She noticed my discombobulation and reached a hand out, resting it gently on mine. “I meant what I said, you know: He really does love you.”
“I know,” I said, because I did. But in that moment I realised he’d never really said it. The words ‘I Love You’ hadn’t reached my ears from his lips, despite his every action and his every look telling me he cared so much that he had tipped over into love.
“Do you love him?”
Now that was a question. And one which, to be honest, threw me a little. I did, and everyone seemed to assume I did. Even Caz, who’d been known to forensically dissect the emotional entanglements of complete strangers hadn’t ever bothered to ask me what I felt for Nick.
My millisecond of hesitation caused a frown to flicker momentarily across her face before I watched her almost consciously replace it with that Buddah-like half-smile.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s rude of me to ask. Your life – your relationship – is none of my business.”
“No,” I interjected, “you’re fine. And yes, I do love Nick.” I sighed. “It’s just hard.”
She tilted her head, the smile dimming, her focus turning entirely to my words.
I sighed again. “There was a man. I was very much in love with him. I thought he loved me.”
“A story I’m familiar with,” she said quietly.
I nodded. “He didn’t. Or rather: he loved me, but not enough.”
“And you’re afraid of loving Nick,” she said quietly. “Afraid of being hurt again.”
I shrugged. She was hardly Sigmund Freud, but she was right. I loved him, and I wanted him to love me, and I knew he loved me, and yet…
And yet we both sort of danced around all of the absences, the obstacles, the uncertainties in our relationship, each of us seemingly accepting of the imperfections. And yet I worried that every accepted imperfection would read – to him – as a licence to appreciate me less, and that that licence would lead me inexorably back to the day I walked in on Robert and the window cleaner.
“He’s a good man,” Arianna said. “An honourable man. If he hurts you it will be because the only alternative will be worse than hurt.”
I felt my chest tighten. What was Arianna doing here? What news had she brought me?
“When he found me – when he saved me – he did so from a sense of right and wrong, Danny. I was,” she paused, reached for the bottle, a look asking my permission which I, in turn, gave with a slight nod.
She poured two more shots, downed hers while I was still lifting mine to my mouth and refilled her glass instantly.
“I was born in a part of what was, at the time, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I had a mother and a father and a brother – his name, I think, was Stefan.” She stopped, suddenly, her eyes taking on a faraway look, and nodded “His name was Stefan. I do not think this, I know it. And I had a sister. A twin sister. Named Klara.”
Arianna smiled now, and a deep sigh came from her. I noticed her hand, laying on the table, was trembling, and she reached for the vodka, lifted it to her mouth and slammed it.
“And then the empire fell,” she continued, putting the glass down. “And everything… imploded. We lived in a village that had been part of the USSR, then was part of Yugoslavia, then was in Bosnia.
“And then the war came.”
I reached for the vodka. Stopped. I was already buzzing. This felt like something I needed to be sober for.
Arianna poured two more shots.
“I – we – saw our father murdered outside our house by,” she smiled bitterly, “they called – and still call – themselves soldiers, but they were gangsters in uniform. My mother,” she paused, the first time since her arrival that I’d seen her search for the appropriate word, “broke.”
She nodded as though deciding that that was the only appropriate word.
“My brother – Stefan - was fifteen. Klara and I were 7. A man came. His name was Sergei Maximov.
“He told my mother he would take care of Klara and I. Get us to a place of safety while she and Stefan buried my father, sold what could be sold, and came to meet us in a month or two.”
Arianna reached out and pulled the glass nearer to her, toyed with it, staring down into the clear liquid. “I never saw my mother or my brother again.”
She looked up, her eyes locking with mine. “This man – Sergei Maximov – was a predator. This word is used a lot these days, but I think, whenever I hear the word, not of an animal which hunts it’s prey, but of one which, having caught its quarry, devours every last piece.”
She paused again, lifted the glass and swallowed the vodka.
“When Nick met me in Tirana,” she said, changing tack suddenly, “I was the property of a man. He called me his girlfriend, but we both knew what I was. He was a violent man, and a dangerous man, and – god forgive me – I stood by for many years while he did terrible things. But then he killed a man. Not much more than a boy, really.
“And I discovered that the boy he’d killed – for some minor infraction, some stupid bullshit – had a brother. A twin. And just like my mother, something in me broke. And I went to the police to tell them that I had tape recordings, copied documents, diaries, lists of politicians, businessmen, contacts. I had been this man’s girlfriend, but I had also been the only person he thought he didn’t need to worry about. And do you know why he didn’t think he ever needed to worry about me?
“Because he thought I was nothing but a whore. Correction,” she raised a finger, “nothing but an old whore. I had nowhere to run. I had nothing of value any more, and so – being valueless – I had nothing to fight for.”
“Nick told me this,” I said. “How the local police admitted, once it all kicked off, that they couldn’t protect you. How they accepted you’d probably be dead in a year.”
“A month,” she corrected me. “And so – to get me away from that place, and because there was no other way to be sure – Nick married me. I’m alive because of him. My sister and I were trafficked. Sold. Rented. Passed on, and always under the control of Sergei Maximov.”
She lifted the vodka now, and barely sipped it, her eyes closed, her hand no longer shaking, then placed shot glass back on the table.
“And this is why I am here today.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, quietly, feeling it needed to be said. “I’m so sorry for all you went through.”
Now she looked at me with a blank look, the sardonic smile gone, the beatific grace evaporated.
“Why?” She asked. “You had nothing to do with what happened. From you, I do not need sorrow.”
She smiled, the smile – this time - not reaching her eyes. “And now you’re wondering what I do need. From you I need assistance.”
I waited. Her smile widened, this time some of it reaching her eyes. “I can see why he likes you.”
“I thought you said he loved me.”
“He cares,” Arianna answered. “The world is full of men who tell you they like you and – just before they cry – tell you they love you. But a man who cares? That’s,” she waved her hand, turning around to reach into the pockets of her mac, the movement causing her hair to slip forward so that her face was masked until she straightened up, ran her left hand through it, and placed her right hand on the table, removing it to leave a phone sitting on the scrubbed pine.
“I need your help,” she said, businesslike. “I need you to do something for me, and I ask you to join me in keeping my request from the honourable man we both know. He’s made you happy, Danny. Despite your fears, you know this to be a fact, as I know you have made him happy. And he – and you, by accepting this situation – have made me safer than I have felt since I was seven years of age.
“And what I am about to tell you, I do not want him to know.”
I frowned. I needed to hear what Arianna had to say, but the idea of keeping secrets from Nick bothered me. In the end, my curiosity got the better of me; once I knew, I could decide how much of Arianna’s secrets I’d keep.
“My sister Klara and I were twins. That made us especially valuable to Maximov. He,” she paused, sipped again at the vodka, then “he whored Klara and I out. But he made sure he took more than money from many of the men who paid for us.”
“Blackmail?” I asked, my voice sounding odd to me.
Arianna nodded. “He kept a notebook. Everything was on it, and it empowered him. He moved, as the world seemed to shift from war into peace, from selling girls and boys to selling the secrets and fears and desires of his customers.
“And that was when he sold my sister.”
I’d been watching her all this time, seeing a woman who had been containing her feelings since childhood relate this tale of horror. She didn’t flinch now.
“Klara was gentle. Easy. I was always the difficult one. Always, I would be the one who acted if there was a problem. By then we’d reached Grozny,” she waved her hand again. “You don’t need to pretend you have a clue where it is. It was a shithole before, a shithole during, and a shithole after a bombardment that reduced it to rubble. But it was the point at which Maximov decided he no longer needed to sell flesh above secrets.
“And so he sold me to a man who abused me for three years.”
“I’m sorry,” I said reflexively, realising as she refocused on me, that my apologies were unnecessary.
She shrugged, sipped the vodka once more. “He’s dead. I hear he died painfully.”
I looked at the phone.
Cleared my throat. “So how can I help you?” And wondered how I’d got from unease at this woman being in my kitchen to openly asking what I could do to assist her.
“I’ve found him,” she said and I realised the vodka had kicked in. “Maximov.”
I opened my mouth. No words came out.
Arianna touched the phone, tapped the screen a couple of times, turned the device around.
A man, somewhere between sixty and seventy, his silver-grey hair swept back exposing a widow’s peak. A pronounced, hawk-like nose. High cheekbones, eyes sunk in shadows. He was talking on a mobile phone. She touched the screen, the angle changed, he was standing on the opposite side of an obviously high-end car, a shop window behind him.
“I had an interview with the Home Office. Afterwards I was walking aimlessly around the west end and found myself close to,” she named a super high-end hotel, one of those that have been around seemingly since the dawn of time without ever needing to advertise. “I think the interview went well, and I felt like a small celebration, so I thought while I’m here, I’ll have a coffee.’ And I did.
“They had a cafe in the lobby. It was very expensive, but very chic. If I’d gone straight home after the interview I would have missed him. But I was sitting there with a cappuccino, trying to make the tiny biscuits they gave me last a little longer and I heard his voice.”
Her eyes took on a faraway look, as though she were back in the hotel lobby.
“I froze,” she said. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack, so fast was my heart pounding. And then I thought I’d imagined him. That he was just in my mind. Or that he was a different man; one who sounded like Maximov but who wasn’t him.
“I turned. He was talking on the phone and he was just stepping into the revolving door, so I couldn’t see him full face. But I knew. And so I threw some money on the table and I went after him. I wanted to run after him, to scream his name, to stop him, but I knew that anything that drew attention, that caused alarm would make him vanish.
“I have spent so many years looking for this man, and he has always been a week ahead. As though somehow he knew that I was close and he would simply vanish like smoke. But this time he was there. He was real. And so I walked out of the hotel as he stepped into his limousine and I took these pictures to prove he exists.”
She stopped, tapped the screen once more and, the picture reappearing, looked at it with a discomforting intensity.
“So what are you going to do?” I asked, and she tore her eyes away.
“He was staying at the hotel. I’m sure of it. I need to know where he went to. I need to track him down.”
“Well surely Nick can help,” I said, and she looked up from the photo, a bemused look on her face. “Arianna, this man is a criminal. Nick is a policeman. You need to tell Nick.”
She shook her head, anger flashing across her face. “Not Nick. Have you heard nothing I said? Danny, Maximov was a criminal when I knew him, and he still dined with diplomats, rich men, powerful people. He’s untouchable. If I report him to the police and they visit him, what will happen? I tell you what will happen: Nothing. There will be no proof of any crimes. There will be phone calls from people to people. And he will vanish again.”
“But how are you going to get justice?” I asked, puzzled still.
She smiled that faintly pitying smile again, as though she were humouring a small child.
“I don’t care about justice, Danny. There is no justice anywhere in the world. A man like Maximov – even if he goes to prison – lives a better life than any of the widows and orphans he left behind. The world is made by and for men like Sergei Maximov, and I no longer care what happens to it or to him. All I want from him is my sister. She’s still alive. I can feel it. A part of me is still out there somewhere. And I need to find her. You locate Maximov for me and I will make him tell me where she is.”
The kitchen was warm, and the vodka coursing through my veins made it even warmer, but I still felt a chill run through me.
“That’s all I need from you.”
“Come on you piece of shit,” Ali snarled, flashing her lights at the car in front of her. “It’s a motorway, not a kiddies’ ride.”
I blanched as the little car swung out, rocketed forward and swerved back into the left-hand lane before overtaking another car on the right, earning a chorus of horns by swerving back right, across two lanes and shooting forward.
Beside me on what felt like a parcel shelf Ellie, Caz’s glossy black Staffie/Lab cross whined, looked at me with what can only be described as a plea for help, and let loose a fart of such noxious odour that I became certain I would not live to see Duke’s Halt.
Caz reached forward and pressed a button, the window on her side sliding down a fraction of an inch.
“Jesus, Danny,” Ali gasped, doing the same, “what you eating back there?”
“Me?” I opened my mouth to protest, and shut it as quickly. Speaking seemed to increase my opportunity to consume the toxic gases.
Ellie lifted her head, gave me a dolorous look and settled back down, her head on her paws which, in turn, were resting on one of Caz’s antique Louis Vuitton trunks.
“It’s awfully nice of Paolo to lend you his matchbox,” I said – for not the first time - to Caz as Ali once more swerved left and shot forward, “shame he didn’t have something a little more suitable for a crowd.”
I fidgeted on the trunk I was half perched on and shifted my feet so they were placed more squarely on my own luggage, the better to retain my balance next time Ali swerved like a maniac.
To my left, sandwiched between me and the side of the car, was a sealed Fortnum & Mason’s cool bag which housed the remains of George Warren.
I’d been fairly sure that Caz – despite my agreeing to help her on her crazed mission – wouldn’t be able to find a driver at such short notice, and so my agreeing had been done with a fairly strong sense that I’d never have to actually deliver on the promise to join her on this trip.
I don’t think that makes me a bad friend, just one who thinks smuggling a dead man’s ashes back into a house he seems to have been permanently banned from in life is an unnecessary aggravation to put oneself through.
But I’d reckoned without my best friend’s famous persistence. And without Ali’s desire to ‘have a gander at a real country house’.
“She can’t drive us,” I’d protested when informed that Ali had offered to do the honours. “She’s got a pub to run.”
“She’s standing right here,” Ali had answered dryly, “and it’s your pub. And the twins are perfectly capable of looking after it for a few days. My boy Carlton and his girlfriend Tara have offered to help out behind the bar, so they won’t be short-handed. And, to be honest, I’d rather not be around for this bloody talent competition. It’s shaping up to be like purgatory with novelty acts.”
“All the more reason, surely, that you should be around. The twins are lovely but can they be trusted not to burn the place to the ground?”
“Mate, I’m due some holidays, and her ladyship has asked me to accompany you both to this posh gaff. So if you think you’re going to stop me having a few days living the high life in a mansion you’ve got another thing coming.”
The tone of menace had been explicit: deny Ali this and I would pay dearly.
“Has Caz told you why we’re going?” I asked her.
“If you mean the ashes of this bloke what got kicked out of his own home,” Ali answered, “then yeah; she’s told me. I think it’s disgusting that anyone would do that to their own child.”
“And yet you’ll still accept their hospitality,” I noted dryly.
“Payback, mate. I’ll accept their food and drink, lounge around their,” she closed her eyes as though recalling the phrasing, “gracious drawing room and shelf-lined library which contains volumes as diverse as ‘an original copy of Darwin’s Origin Of The Species and a long-rumoured King James Bible.’ You don’t get shit like that at a Holiday Inn. Not even the Premier ones. And all the time I’ll be sticking it to the man.”
I was losing this battle, and the final nail was when I’d raised the request from a friend to track down someone for her.
“What friend?” Caz perked up. What someone?”
“Just a friend,” I said, and Ali sniggered.
“Mate, every friend you’ve got is in this room.”
“There’s Nick,” I said, realising as the words came from my mouth that I’d basically agreed with Ali. “And besides, there’s nothing wrong with having a small group of friends.”
“So Nick – Detective Sergeant Nick Fisher – wants you to hunt down this mysterious person for him?” Caz asked. “Rather than use the resources of the Met Police, which is almost literally what they’re there for?”
“Not Nick,” I said grudgingly. “Another friend.”
“Oh-ho-ho,” Ali hooted, “he’s got them coming out the woodwork now. Which friend?”
“Just a friend you,” I answered, beginning to feel outgunned, outmanoeuvred and out of my depth. “One you don’t know. I said I’d keep things discreet.”
Within minutes they’d got me to admit that my unnamed friend had seen someone in a hotel and needed them tracked down to return something that they’d dropped.
“Well surely this unnamed friend,” Caz said, “could just explain that they have this person’s belongings and leave them with reception?”
I was close to drowning. “No,” I finally said, attempting to put some grit into the statement, “they really want to find the person themselves, but of course the hotel won’t disclose guest details.”
“Whatever,” Caz – tired already of the discussion – waved a hand airily, “Hacking the reservations system of the hotel isn’t a job for you, and you know it. And turning up at reception asking to be told the name of a guest at places like that one is guaranteed to have Nick and his ilk escorting you from the building in no time at all. So leave the details with the twins and let Ray do his thing while you escort me to Duke’s Halt.”
“But Ray has the talent show to organise. And the bar to run,” I tried desperately, and both Ali and Caz gave me a look that told me they were tired of my shit and if I didn’t start packing immediately they’d do it for me.
“This is all sorts of wrong,” I said now as Ali honked the horn once more and the car swerved across lanes of the M1.
“This is justice,” Caz answered, half-turning in her seat to look at me, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Arianna’s line about there being no such thing.
“We don’t even know what he did to get kicked out of the house,” I answered. “He might have murdered someone. We might be bringing a murderer’s ashes back to the place he committed his crime.”
“You never met Georgie,” Caz answered quietly, “or you’d not even joke about that. He was the gentlest of souls, and there’s no way he did anything like that.”
“Then why leave the place and stay away for over thirty years?”
“Families,” Ali said gnomically, before loudly questioning the parentage of the driver in front of her and demanding to know if he knew the speed limit wasn’t just aspirational.
I’d given Ray and Dash the background on Arianna’s problem without naming the lady herself and asked them to do what they could to locate the name of the guest.
Arianna, when I’d called to confirm I had some associates looking into her request, had seemed a little disappointed.
“Not you personally?” She’d asked.
“It needs some special skills,” I’d explained, “but the associates who are working on it are top notch, and I’m confident we’ll have something for you soon.”
The thing was, I wasn’t sure that, if we did acquire the desired information, whether I wanted to share it with Arianna.
Something about how she’d said ‘You locate Maximov for me and I will make him tell me where she is,’ had unnerved me. I knew that the Home Office was watching Arianna and Nick like hawks watch chicks in an abandoned nest. Man goes to Albania, comes back with wife. The sort of people who specialised in identifying immigration scams and punishing those responsible had to have bells going off over that one, and even though Nick marrying Arianna had been the only way to get the woman away from almost certain death, he’d still basically entered a sham marriage and she was still, basically, seeking to acquire the right to live and work in the UK without providing full background details.
And anything that rocked the boat – any hint of illegality or even of scandal – would put them at risk. She’d be shipped back to her fate and he’d face an investigation and possible loss of his job as well as his liberty.
So while I appreciated Arianna’s need to find Maximov and locate her sister I knew I’d need to think long and hard about how I managed the situation before just handing his whereabouts over to her.
But first, I had to have his whereabouts, and I hoped that the twins – Ray especially – were working on that.
Duke’s Halt – according to the research I’d done – was one of the best examples of late Elizabethan architecture in private hands today.
There were references to a folly, to the famous library and a long gallery supposedly filled with treasures dating back to the Renaissance as well as a small collection of ancient antiquities and to the ‘checkered history of the Warrens themselves’, and none of this meant much to me to be honest.
“So Caz,” I said, leaning forward and receiving, for my efforts, a lazy growl from Ellie, “have the Warrens been living at Duke’s Halt ever since it was built? And who was the Duke in question?”
“Well the Duke is one of the Plantagenets who supposedly stopped at the house on the way to one of the battles during the war of the Roses. A war the Plantagenets eventually lost, which – since the place is named after the fact one of them used it as a sort of proto air bnb – would, one might assume, have put it and its inhabitants on some sort of blacklist. But the Warrens are either the most politically astute family or the luckiest aristocrats in the country.
“A few years later Henry Tudor granted them their own Duchy, which of course lead to suggestions they’d been playing both sides in the war, and a generation or so later they sided with the Catholic church during the Reformation. Hid priests. Once had a Bishop leading masses in their cow sheds. The Duke at that time nearly lost his head for it. Was in the Tower when Mary came to the throne and reversed all findings against him.
“Course Mary didn’t last long and by the time she was gone and the winds had blown the other way again that duke was dead and his son was holding the title with complete deniability.
“Same thing happened with the Civil War. Total Royalists, but managed to play both sides against each other until Charles the first,” she drew a line along her throat with her index finger and I was fairly sure that that was not how Charles was beheaded, but she was off again on the potted history.
“The Puritans were all for pulling the title, confiscating the land, only the Duke at the time had a sister who was married to one of Cromwell’s right-hand men, so they got away with it again. Just. Until Cromwell popped his clogs and Charles the second came back to the throne, at which point they switched sides yet again, went spying for old Charlie and helped round up a load of Puritan sympathisers at court.”
“Jesus,” Ali muttered, suddenly deciding, as we moved off the motorway, to start using her indicators, “I thought we were doing well tracking my family tree back to the eighteen hundreds and finding some bloke what might have helped build the Commercial Road.”
“Slow down,” Caz softly instructed Ali. “The turning’s coming up.” I wondered if she had some sort of built-in Aristo GPS that could sense a country house from miles away.
The hedges on both sides soon gave way to trees, densely packed as though to create an impenetrable wall and then, in short order, a high, red-bricked and fairly impenetrable wall appeared, about six or seven feet high, the forest dark and dense behind it.
The car slowed and Ali – now we were on a road with not another soul in place - rediscovered her indicators, clicked them on, slowed and turned left off the road and through a pair of huge and ornate metallic gates.
The car’s speed dropped now, and we wove our way up a slight but persistent hill, deep forest on either side, the road curving gently left then right until it slowly curved back to the left and, eventually, the forest dwindled away.
We turned gently left once more, and then, suddenly, across a wide, perfectly manicured lawn, we saw Dukes Halt.
The house sat on a hillock so that it was raised above everything. It was a long, solid-looking three-storied building with a high sloping red-tiled roof surrounded by an ornamental turret. Off centre, five tall slender chimneys jutted into the sky, and I could see another two of the same chimneys – one at either end of the building – coming from the rear of the roof.
The doorway was set in the middle of the building, which was constructed of a golden-yellow brick, and seemed to have grown organically from that main portal so that the eves on the left hand side of the property jutted out further than those on the right hand side, and the high, mullioned windows – their scale shrinking slightly on the first floor and shrinking again on the top floor – were leaded, the glass panes (even from this distance) looking thick and inconsistent, the top portions of some of the ground floor ones decorated with stained glass.
To the left, across the rolling green lawns, another hill – taller than the one Dukes Halt sat on – jutted upwards and on that one, silhouetted against the afternoon sky – was what looked like the ruins of some ancient church, the shattered wreckage in direct contrast to the serene-seeming, implacable solidity of the house in front of us.
In front of the house, in the middle of the lawn, a pair of huge circular flower beds flanked a massive ornamental fountain, the water stilled now, what looked like laughing nymphs and dryads frozen in gold grey stone as the wind whipped over them.
As we drove slowly forward, Dukes Halt, constructed as it was of that yellowish brick and elevated as it was above the surrounding landscape, was suddenly caught by the autumnal sun and – as though putting on a show for our benefit – it glowed, golden and red, seemingly illuminated from within.
“Christ,” Ali exhaled. “I bet that’s a bastard to heat.”
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