CHAPTER ONEI had this friend, you see, that everyone loved.
(My name is Sid Halley.)
I had this friend that everyone loved, and I put him in the dock.
The trouble with working as an investigator, as I had been doing for approaching five years, was that occasionally one turned up facts that surprised and appalled and smashed peaceful lives for ever.
It had taken days of inner distress for me to decide to act on what I’d learned. Miserably, by then, I’d suffered through disbelief, through denial, through anger and at length through acceptance; all the stages of grief. I grieved for the man I’d known. For the man I thought I’d known, who had all along been a fac¸ade. I grieved for the loss of a friendship, for a man who still looked the same but was different, alien... despicable. I could much more easily have grieved for him dead.
The turmoil I’d felt in private had on public disclosure become universal. The press, jumping instinctively and strongly to his defence, had given me, as his accuser, a severely rough time. On racecourses, where I chiefly worked, long-time acquaintances had turned their backs. Love, support and comfort poured out towards my friend. Disbelief and denial and anger prevailed: acceptance lay a long way ahead. Meanwhile I, not he, was seen as the target for hatred. It would pass, I knew. One had simply to endure it, and wait.
On the morning set for the opening of his trial, my friend’s mother killed herself.
The news was brought to the law courts in Reading, in Berkshire, where the presiding judge, gowned, had already heard the opening statements and where I, a witness for the prosecution, waited alone in a soulless side-room to be called. One of the court officials came to give me the suicide information and to say that the judge had adjourned the proceedings for the day, and I could go home.
‘Poor woman,’ I exclaimed, truly horrified.
Even though he was supposed to be impartial, the official’s own sympathies were still with the accused. He eyed me without favour and said I should return the following morning, ten o’clock sharp.
I left the room and walked slowly along the corridor towards the exit, fielded on the way by a senior lawyer who took me by the elbow and drew me aside.
‘His mother took a room in a hotel and jumped from the sixteenth floor,’ he said without preamble. ‘She left a note saying she couldn’t bear the future. What are your thoughts?’
I looked at the dark, intelligent, eyes of Davis Tatum, a clumsy fat man with a lean agile brain.
‘You know better than I do,’ I said.
‘Sid!’ A touch of exasperation. ‘Tell me your thoughts.’
‘Perhaps he’ll change his plea.’
He relaxed and half smiled. ‘You’re in the wrong job.’
I wryly shook my head. ‘I catch the fish. You guys gut them.’
He amiably let go of my arm and I continued to the outside world to catch a train for the thirty-minute ride to the terminus in London, flagging down a taxi for the last mile or so home.
Ginnie Quint, I thought, travelling through London. Poor, poor Ginnie Quint, choosing death in preference to the everlasting agony of her son’s disgrace. A lonely slamming exit. An end to tears. An end to grief.
The taxi stopped outside the house in Pont Square (off Cadogan Square), where I currently lived on the first floor, with a balcony overlooking the central leafy railed garden. As usual, the small secluded square was quiet, with little passing traffic and only a few people on foot. A thin early October wind shook the dying leaves on the lime trees, floating a few of them sporadically to the ground like soft yellow snowflakes.
I climbed out of the cab and paid the driver through his open window, and, as I turned to cross the pavement and go up the few steps to the front door, a man who was apparently quietly walking past suddenly sprang at me in fury, raising a long black metal rod with which he tried to brain me.
I sensed rather than saw the first wicked slash and moved enough to catch the weight of it on my shoulder, not my head. He was screaming at me, half demented, and I fielded a second brutal blow on a raised defensive forearm. After that I seized his wrist in a pincer grip and rolled the bulk of his body backward over the leg I pushed out rigidly behind his knees, and felled him, sprawling, iron bar and all, onto the hard ground. He yelled bitter words; cursing, half incoherent, threatening to kill.
The taxi still stood there, diesel engine running, the driver staring wide-mouthed and speechless, a state of affairs that continued while I yanked open the black rear door and stumbled in again onto the seat. My heart thudded. Well, it would.
‘Drive,’ I said urgently. ‘Drive on.’
‘Just drive. Go on. Before he finds his feet and breaks your windows.’
The driver closed his mouth fast and meshed his gears, and wavered at something above running pace along the road.
‘Look,’ he said, protesting, half turning his head back to me, ‘I didn’t see nothing. You’re my last fare today, I’ve been on the go eight hours and I’m on my way home.’
‘Just drive,’ I said. Too little breath. Too many jumbled feelings.
‘Well... but, drive where to?’
Good question. Think.
‘He didn’t look like no mugger,’ the taxi driver observed aggrievedly. ‘But you never can tell these days. D’you want me to drop you off at the police? He hit you something shocking. You could hear it. Like he broke your arm.’
‘Just drive, would you?’
The driver was large, fiftyish and a Londoner, but no John Bull, and I could see from his head movements and his repeated spiky glances at me in his rear-view mirror that he didn’t want to get involved in my problems and couldn’t wait for me to leave his cab.
Pulse eventually steadying, I could think of only one place to go. My only haven, in many past troubles.
‘Paddington,’ I said. ‘Please.’
‘St Mary’s, d’you mean? The hospital?’
‘No. The trains.’
‘But you’ve just come from there!’ he protested.
‘Yes, but please go back.’
Cheering a little he rocked round in a U-turn and set off for the return to Paddington Station where he assured me again that he hadn’t seen nothing, nor heard nothing neither, and he wasn’t going to get involved, did I see?
I simply paid him and let him go, and if I memorised his cab-licensing number it was out of habit, not expectation.
As part of normal equipment I wore a mobile phone on my belt and, walking slowly into the high airy terminus, I pressed the buttons to reach the man I trusted most in the world, my ex-wife’s father, Rear Admiral Charles Roland, Royal Navy, retired, and to my distinct relief he answered at the second ring.
‘Charles,’ I said. My voice cracked a bit, which I hadn’t meant.
A pause, then, ‘Is that you, Sid?’
‘May I... visit?’
‘Of course. Where are you?’
‘Paddington. I’ll come by train and taxi.’
He said calmly, ‘Use the side-door. It’s not locked,’ and put down his receiver.
I smiled, reassured as ever by his steadiness and his brevity with words. An unemotional, undemonstrative man, not paternal towards me and very far from indulgent, he gave me nevertheless a consciousness that he cared considerably about what happened to me and would proffer rocklike support if I needed it. Like I needed it at that moment, for several variously dire reasons.
Trains to Oxford being less frequent in the middle of the day, it was four in the afternoon by the time the country taxi, leaving Oxford well behind, arrived at Charles’s vast old house at Aynsford and decanted me at the side-door. I paid the driver clumsily owing to stiffening bruises, and walked with relief into the pile I really thought of as home, the one unchanging con-stant in a life that had tossed me about, rather, now and then.
Charles sat, as often, in the large leather armchair that I found too hard for comfort but that he, in his uncompromising way, felt appropriate to accommodate his narrow rump. I had sometime in the past moved one of the softer but still fairly formal old gold brocade armchairs from the drawing-room into the smaller room, his ‘wardroom’, as it was there we always sat when the two of us were alone. It was there that he kept his desk, his collection of flies for fishing, his nautical books, his racks of priceless old orchestral recordings and the gleaming marble and steel wonder of a custom-built, frictionless turntable on which he played them. It was there on the dark green walls that he’d hung large photographs of the ships he’d commanded, and smaller photos of shipmates, and there, also, that he’d lately positioned a painting of me as a jockey riding over a fence at Cheltenham racecourse, a picture that summed up every ounce of vigour needed for race-riding, and which had hung for years less conspicuously in the dining-room.
He had had a strip of lighting positioned along the top of the heavy gold frame, and when I got there that evening, it was lit.
He was reading. He put his book face down on his lap when I walked in, and gave me a bland noncommittal inspection. There was nothing, as usual, to be read in his eyes: I could often see quite clearly into other people’s minds, but seldom his.
‘Hullo,’ I said.
I could hear him take a breath and trickle it out through his nose. He spent all of five seconds looking me over, then pointed to the tray of bottles and glasses which stood on the table below my picture.
‘Drink,’ he said briefly. An order, not invitation.
‘It’s only four o’clock.’
‘Immaterial. What have you eaten today?’
I didn’t say anything, which he took to be answer enough.
‘Nothing,’ he said, nodding. ‘I thought so. You look thin. It’s this bloody case. I thought you were supposed to be in court today.’
‘It was adjourned until tomorrow.’
‘Get a drink.’
I walked obediently over to the table and looked assessingly at the bottles. In his old-fashioned way he kept brandy and sherry in decanters. Scotch – Famous Grouse, his favourite – remained in the screw-topped bottle. I would have to have Scotch, I thought, and doubted if I could pour even that.
I glanced upwards at my picture. In those days, six years ago, I’d had two hands. In those days I’d been British steeplechasing’s champion jockey: whole, healthy and, I dared say, fanatical. A nightmare fall had resulted in a horse’s sharp hoof half ripping off my left hand: the end of one career and the birth, if you could call it that, of another. Slow lingering birth of a detective, while I spent two years pining for what I’d lost and drifted rudderless like a wreck that didn’t quite sink but was unseaworthy, all the same. I was ashamed of those two years. At the end of them a ruthless villain had smashed beyond mending the remains of the useless hand and had galvanised me into a resurrection of the spirit and the impetus to seek what I’d had since, a myoelectric false hand that worked on nerve impulses from my truncated forearm and looked and behaved so realistically that people often didn’t notice its existence.
My present problem was that I couldn’t move its thumb far enough from its fingers to grasp the large heavy cut-glass brandy decanter, and my right hand wasn’t working too well either. Rather than drop alcohol all over Charles’s Persian rug, I gave up and sat in the gold armchair.
‘What’s the matter?’ Charles asked abruptly. ‘Why did you come? Why don’t you pour a drink?’
After a moment I said dully, knowing it would hurt him, ‘Ginnie Quint killed herself.’
‘This morning,’ I said. ‘She jumped from sixteen floors up.’
His fine-boned face went stiff and immediately looked much older. The bland eyes darkened, as if retreating into their sockets. Charles had known Ginnie Quint for thirty or more years, and had been fond of her and had been a guest in her house often.
Powerful memories lived in my mind also. Memories of a friendly, rounded, motherly woman happy in her role as a big-house wife, inoffensively rich, working genuinely and generously for several charities and laughingly glowing in reflected glory from her famous, good-looking successful only child, the one that everyone loved.
Her son, Ellis, that I had put in the dock.
The last time I’d seen Ginnie she’d glared at me with incredulous contempt, demanding to know how I could possibly seek to destroy the golden Ellis, who counted me his friend, who liked me, who’d done me favours, who would have trusted me with his life.
I’d let her molten rage pour over me, offering no defence. I knew exactly how she felt. Disbelief and denial and anger... The idea of what he’d done was so sickening to her that she rejected the guilt possibility absolutely, as almost everyone else had done, though in her case with anguish.
Most people believed I had got it all wrong, and had ruined myself, not Ellis. Even Charles, at first, had said doubtfully, ‘Sid, are you sure?’
I’d said I was certain. I’d hoped desperately for a way out... for any way out... as I knew what I’d be pulling down on myself if I went ahead. And it had been at least as bad as I’d feared, and in many ways worse. After the first bombshell solution – a proposed solution – to a crime that had had half the country baying for blood (but not Ellis’s blood, no no,itwas unthinkable), there had been the first court appearance, the remand into custody (a scandal, he should of course be let out immediately on bail), and after that there had fallen a sudden press silence, while the sub judice law came into effect.
Under British sub judice law, no evidence might be publicly discussed between the remand and the trial. Much investigation and strategic trial planning could go on behind the scenes, but neither potential jurors nor John Smith in the street was allowed to know details. Uninformed, public opinion had consequently stuck at the ‘Ellis is innocent’ stage, and I’d had nearly three months, now, of obloquy.
Ellis, you see, was a Young Lochinvar, in spades. Ellis Quint, once champion amateur jump jockey, had flashed onto television screens like a comet, a brilliant, laughing, able, funny performer, the draw for millions on sports quiz programmes, the ultimate chat-show host, the model held up to children, the glittering star that regularly raised the nation’s happiness level, to whom everyone, from tiara to baseball cap worn back-wards, responded.
Manufacturers fell over themselves to tempt him to endorse their products, and half the kids in England strode about with machismo in glamorised jockey-type riding boots over their jeans. And it was this man, this paragon that I sought to eradicate.
No one seemed to blame the tabloid columnist who’d written, ‘The once-revered Sid Halley, green with envy, tries to tear down a talent he hasn’t a prayer of matching...’ There had been inches about ‘A spiteful little man trying to compensate for his own inadequacies.’ I hadn’t shown any of it to Charles, but others had.
The telephone at my waist buzzed suddenly, and I answered its summons.
The woman on the other end was crying. I’d heard her crying often.
‘Are you at home?’ I asked.
‘No... In the hospital.’
‘Tell me the number and I’ll phone straight back.’
I heard murmuring in the background; then another voice came on, efficient, controlled, reading out a number, repeating it slowly. I tapped the digits onto my mobile so that they appeared on the small display screen.
‘Right,’ I said, reading the number back. ‘Put down your receiver.’ To Charles I said, ‘May I use your phone?’
He waved a hand permissively towards his desk, and I pressed the buttons on his phone to get back to where I’d been.
The efficient voice answered immediately.
‘Is Mrs Ferns still there?’ I said. ‘It’s Sid Halley.’
Linda Ferns was trying not to cry. ‘Sid... Rachel’s worse. She’s asking for you. Can you come? Please.’
‘How bad is she?’
‘Her temperature keeps going up.’ A sob stopped her. ‘Talk to Sister Grant.’
I talked to the efficient voice, Sister Grant. ‘How bad is Rachel?’
‘She’s asking for you all the time,’ she said. ‘How soon can you come?’
‘Can you come this evening?’
I said, ‘Is it that bad?’
I listened to a moment of silence, in which she couldn’t say what she meant because Linda was beside her.
‘Come this evening,’ she repeated.
This evening. Dear God. Nine-year-old Rachel Ferns lay in a hospital in Kent a hundred and fifty miles away. Ill to death, this time, it sounded like.
‘Promise her,’ I said, ‘that I’ll come tomorrow.’ I explained where I was. ‘I have to be in court tomorrow morning, in Reading, but I’ll come to see Rachel as soon as I get out. Promise her. Tell her I’m going to be there. Tell her I’ll bring six wigs and an angel fish.’
The efficient voice said, ‘I’ll tell her,’ and then added, ‘Is it true that Ellis Quint’s mother has killed herself? Mrs Ferns says someone heard it on the radio news and repeated it to her. She wants to know if it’s true.’
‘Come as soon as you can,’ the nurse said, and dis-connected.
I put down the receiver. Charles said, ‘The child?’
‘It sounds as if she’s dying.’
‘You knew it was inevitable.’
‘It doesn’t make it any easier for the parents.’ I sat down again slowly in the gold armchair. ‘I would go tonight if it would save her life, but I...’ I stopped, not knowing what to say, how to explain that I wouldn’t go. Couldn’t go. Not except to save her life, which no one could do however much they ached to.
Charles said briefly, ‘You’ve only just got here.’
‘And what else is there, that you haven’t told me?’
I looked at him.
‘I know you too well, Sid,’ he said. ‘You didn’t come all this way just because of Ginnie. You could have told me about her on the telephone.’ He paused. ‘From the look of you, you came for the oldest of reasons.’ He paused again, but I didn’t say anything. ‘For sanctuary,’ he said.
I shifted in the chair. ‘Am I so transparent?’
‘Sanctuary from what?’ he asked. ‘What is so sudden... and urgent?’
I sighed. I said with as little heat as possible, ‘Gordon Quint tried to kill me.’
Gordon Quint was Ginnie’s husband. Ellis was their son.
It struck Charles silent, open mouthed: and it took a great deal to do that.
After a while I said, ‘When they adjourned the trial I went home by train and taxi. Gordon Quint was waiting there in Pont Square for me. God knows how long he’d been there, how long he would have waited, but anyway, he was there, with an iron bar.’ I swallowed. ‘He aimed it at my head, but I sort of ducked, and it hit my shoulder. He tried again... Well, this mechanical hand has its uses. I closed it on his wrist and put into practice some of the judo I’ve spent so many hours learning, and I tumbled him onto his back... and he was screaming at me all the time that I’d killed Ginnie... I’d killed her.’
‘He was half mad... raving, really... He said I’d destroyed his whole family. I’d destroyed all their lives... he swore I would die for it... that he would get me... get me... I don’t think he knew what he was saying, it just poured out of him.’
Charles said dazedly, ‘So what did you do?’
‘The taxi driver was still there, looking stunned, so... er... I got back into the taxi.’
‘You got back...? But... what about Gordon?’
‘I left him there. Lying on the pavement. Screaming revenge... starting to stand up... waving the iron bar. I... er... I don’t think I’ll go home tonight, if I can stay here.’
Charles said faintly, ‘Of course you can stay. It’s taken for granted. You told me once that this was your
‘Then believe it.’
I did believe it, or I wouldn’t have gone there. Charles and his certainties had in the past saved me from inner disintegration, and my reliance on him had oddly been strengthened, not evaporated, by the collapse of my marriage to his daughter Jenny, and our divorce.
Aynsford offered respite. I would go back soon enough to defuse Gordon Quint; I would swear an oath in court and tear a man to shreds; I would hug Linda Ferns and, if I were in time, make Rachel laugh; but for this one night I would sleep soundly in Charles’s house in my own accustomed room – and let the dry well of mental stamina refill.
Charles said, ‘Did Gordon... er... hurt you, with his bar?’
‘A bruise or two.’
‘I know your sort of bruises.’
I sighed again. ‘I think... um... he’s cracked a bone. In my arm.’
His gaze flew instantly to the left arm, the plastic job.
‘No,’ I said, ‘the other one.’
Aghast, he said, ‘Your right arm?’
‘Well, yeah. But only the ulna, which goes from the little finger side of the wrist up to the elbow. Not the radius as well, luckily. The radius will act as a natural splint.’
‘But Sid ...’
‘Better than my skull. I had the choice.’
‘How can you laugh about it?’
‘A bloody bore, isn’t it?’ I smiled without stress. ‘Don’t worry so, Charles. It’ll heal. I broke the same bone worse once before, when I was racing.’
‘But you had two hands then.’
‘Yes, so I did. So would you mind picking up that damned heavy brandy decanter and sloshing half a pint of anaesthetic into a glass?’
Wordlessly he got to his feet and complied. I thanked him. He nodded. End of transaction.
When he was again sitting down, he said, ‘So the taxi driver was a witness.’
‘The taxi driver is a ‘‘don’t-get-involved’’ man.’
‘But if he saw . . . He must have heard...’
‘Blind and deaf, he insisted he was.’ I drank the fiery neat liquid gratefully. ‘Anyway, that suits me fine.’
‘Look,’ I said reasonably, ‘what would you have me do? Complain? Prosecute? Gordon Quint is normally a level-headed worthy sixty-ish citizen. He’s not your average murderer, Besides, he’s your own personal long-time friend, and I, too, have eaten in his house. But he already hates me for attacking Ellis, the light of his life, and he’d not long learned that Ginnie, his adored wife, had killed herself because she couldn’t bear what lies ahead. So how do you think Gordon feels?’ I paused. ‘I’m just glad he didn’t succeed in smashing my brains in. And, if you can believe it, I’m almost as glad for his sake that he didn’t, as for my own.’
Charles shook his head resignedly.
‘Grief can be dangerous,’ I said.
He couldn’t dispute it. Deadly revenge was as old as time.
We sat companionably in silence. I drank brandy and felt marginally saner. Knots of tension relaxed in my stomach. I made various resolutions to give up chasing the deadlier crooks – but I’d made resolutions like that before, and hadn’t kept them.
I’d stopped asking myself why I did it. There were hundreds of other ways of passing the time and earning one’s keep. Other ex-jockeys became trainers or commentators or worked in racing in official capacities and only I, it seemed, felt impelled to swim round the hidden fringes, attempting to sort out doubts and worries for people who for any reason didn’t want to bother the police or the racing authorities.
There was a need for me and what I could do, or I would have sat around idle, twiddling my thumbs. Instead, even in the present general climate of ostracism, I had more offers of work than I could accept.
Most jobs took me less than a week, particularly those that involved looking into someone’s credit and credibility rating: bookmakers asked me to do that frequently, before taking on new account customers, and trainers paid me fees to assure them that if they bought expensive two-year-olds for new owners at the Sales, they wouldn’t be left with broken promises and a mountain of debt. I’d checked on all sorts of proposed business plans and saved a lot of people from confidence tricksters, and I’d uncovered absconding debtors, and thieves of all sorts, and had proved a confounded nuisance to imaginative felons.
People had sobbed on my shoulders from joy and deliverance: others had threatened and battered to make me quit: Linda Ferns would hug me and Gordon Quint hate me; and I also had two more investigations in hand that I’d spent too little time on. So why didn’t I give it up and change to a life of quiet safe financial management, which I wasn’t bad at either? I felt the effects of the iron bar from neck to fingers... and didn’t know the answer.
The mobile phone on my belt buzzed and I answered it as before, finding on the line the senior lawyer I’d talked to in the corridor in the law courts.
‘Sid, this is Davis Tatum. I’ve news for you,’ he said.
‘Give me your number and I’ll call you back.’
‘Oh? Oh, OK.’ He read off his number, which I copied as before, and also as before I borrowed Charles’s phone on the desk to get back to square one.
‘Sid,’ said Tatum, coming as usual straight to the point, ‘Ellis Quint is changing his plea from not guilty to guilty by reason of diminished responsibility. It seems his mother’s powerful statement of no confidence in his innocence has had a laxative effect on the bowels of the counsel for the defence.’
‘Jeez,’ I said.
Tatum chuckled. I imagined his double chin wobbling. He said, ‘The trial will now be adjourned for a week to allow expert psychiatric witnesses to be briefed. In other words, you don’t have to turn up tomorrow.’
‘But I hope you will.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘There’s a job for you.’
‘What sort of job?’
‘Investigating, of course. What else? I’d like to meet you somewhere privately.’
‘All right,’ I said, ‘but sometime tomorrow I have to go to Kent to see the child, Rachel Ferns. She’s back in hospital and it doesn’t sound good.’
‘Where are you?’ he asked. ‘The Press are looking for you.’
‘They can wait a day.’
‘I told the people from The Pump that after the mauling they’ve given you they haven’t a prayer of you talking to them.’
‘I appreciate that,’ I said, smiling.
He chuckled. ‘About tomorrow...’
‘I’ll go to Kent in the morning,’ I said. ‘I don’t know how long I’ll stay, it depends on Rachel. How about five o’clock in London? Would that do you? The end of your business day.’
‘Right. Where? Not in my office. How about your place? No, perhaps not, if The Pump’s after you.’
‘How about, say, the bar leading to the second-floor restaurant of the Le Meridien Hotel in Piccadilly?’
‘I don’t know it.’
‘All the better.’
‘If I need to change it,’ he said, ‘can I still get you on your mobile phone?’
‘Good. See you tomorrow.’
I replaced Charles’s receiver and sat on the gold armchair as before. Charles looked at the mobile instrument I’d lain this time on the table beside my glass and asked the obvious question.
‘Why do you ring them back? Why don’t you just talk?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘someone is listening to this gadget.’
I explained about the insecurity of open radio transmission, that allowed anyone clever and expert to hear what they shouldn’t.
Charles said, ‘How do you know someone’s listening to you?’
‘A lot of small things people have recently learned that I haven’t told them.’
‘Who is it?’
‘I don’t actually know. Someone has also accessed my computer over the phone lines. I don’t know who did that, either. It’s disgustingly easy nowadays – but again, only if you’re expert – to suss out people’s private passwords and read their secret files.’
He said with slight impatience, ‘Computers are beyond me.’
‘I’ve had to learn,’ I said, grinning briefly. ‘A bit different from scudding over hurdles at Plumpton on a wet day.’
‘Everything you do astounds me.’
‘I wish I was still racing.’
‘Yes, I know. But if you were, you’d anyway be coming to the end of it soon, wouldn’t you? How old are you now? Thirty-four?’
I nodded. Thirty-five loomed.
‘Not many top jump jockeys go on much after that.’
‘You put things so delightfully bluntly, Charles.’
‘You’re of more use to more people the way you are.’
Charles tended to give me pep talks when he thought I needed them. I could never work out how he knew. He’d said something once about my looking like a brick wall: that when I shut out the world and retreated into myself, things were bad. Maybe he was right. Retreat inwards meant for me not retreating outwardly, and I supposed I’d learned the technique almost from birth.
Jenny, my loved and lost wife, had said she couldn’t live with it. She’d wanted me to give up race-riding and become a softer shelled person, and when I wouldn’t – or couldn’t – we had shaken acridly apart. She had recently remarried, and this time she’d tied herself not to a thin dark-haired risk-taking bundle of complexes, but to a man to fit her needs, a safe, greying, sweet-natured uncomplicated fellow with a knighthood. Jenny, the warring unhappy Mrs Halley, was now serenely Lady Wingham. A photograph of her with her handsome beaming Sir Anthony stood in a silver frame next to the telephone on Charles’s desk.
‘How’s Jenny?’ I asked politely.
‘Fine,’ Charles answered without expression.
‘He’s a bore, after you,’ Charles observed.
‘You can’t say such things.’
‘I can say what I bloody well like in my own house.’
In harmony and mutual regard we passed a peaceful evening, disturbed only by five more calls on my mobile phone, all demanding to know, with varying degrees of peremptoriness, where they could find Sid Halley.
I said each time, ‘This is an answering service. Leave your number and we’ll pass on your message.’
All of the callers, it seemed, worked for newspapers, a fact that particularly left me frowning.
‘I don’t know where they all got this number from,’ I told Charles. ‘It’s not in any directory. I give it only to people I’m working for, so they can reach me day or night, and only to others whose calls I wouldn’t want to miss. I tell them it’s a private line for their use only. I don’t hand this number out on printed cards, and I don’t have it on my writing paper. Quite often I re-route calls to this phone from my phone in the flat, but I didn’t today because of Gordon Quint bashing away outside and preventing me from going in. So how do half the newspapers in London know it?’
‘How will you find out?’ Charles asked.
‘Um... engage Sid Halley to look into it, I dare say’.
Charles laughed. I felt uneasy, all the same. Someone had been listening on that number, and now someone had broadcast it. It wasn’t that my phone conversations were excessively secret – and I’d started the semi-exclusive number anyway solely so that the machine didn’t buzz unnecessarily at awkward moments – but now I had a sense that someone was deliberately crowding me. Tapping into my computer – which wouldn’t get anyone far, as I knew a lot of defences. Assaulting me electronically. Stalking.
Enough was enough. Five newspapers were too much. Sid Halley, as I’d said, would have to investigate his own case.
Charles’s long-time live-in housekeeper, Mrs Cross, all dimples and delight, cooked us a simple supper and fussed over me comfortably like a hen. I guiltily found her a bit smothering sometimes, but always sent her a card for her birthday.
I went to bed early and found that, as usual, Mrs Cross had left warm welcoming lights on in my room and had put out fresh pyjamas and fluffy towels.
A pity the day’s troubles couldn’t be as easily cosseted into oblivion.
I undressed and brushed my teeth and eased off the artificial hand. My left arm ended uselessly four inches below the elbow; a familiar punctuation, but still a sort of bereavement.
My right arm now twinged violently at every use.
Damn the lot, I thought.