The Murder Quadrille – chapter one

 

THE MURDER QUADRILLE – Chapter One:

FOXTROT—a pace with short steps, as in changing from trotting to walking

Halfway through the dinner party Sarah Beaumont decided that she would definitely leave Martin, her husband of ten years.

As the thought blossomed in her mind she blushed. Bowing her head to hide her flushed cheeks, she toyed with the peas on her plate, chasing one behind a piece of sautéed potato before stabbing it with her fork. To tell the truth, she wished she wasn’t there at all, sitting round the table with a bunch of jabbering strangers, one of whom was Martin.

How had this happened?

She should have left him a week ago.

Sarah had never wanted to be a housewife, throwing dinner parties, cooking for her husband’s clients. Yet here she was playing the unlikely role of hostess-with-the-most-ess, straight from the Technicolor pages of some 1950s magazine.

Last week Sarah had turned thirty. There had been no wild party, no drunken marking of the years. Rather, Martin had opened a bottle of champagne at home, they’d each drunk a couple of glasses, then he had taken her out for a quiet meal in an elegant restaurant, and just before dessert, (dark chocolate profiteroles for her, sticky toffee pudding for him) he had given her an eternity ring. Sarah put it straight onto her finger, stretched out her arm and admired the sparkling gewgaw.

It was a strange looking thing, a gold band inset with a row of precious and not so precious stones, the initials of which spelled Sarah: a sapphire, followed by an agate, a ruby, an amethyst and a gem she had never before heard of—hauynite, a vivid royal blue in colour, which she suspected was worthless. The assembled colours, a string of dark reds, blues and purples, reminded her of a bruise. She thought it a splendid bauble, marvellous and camp.

As she had twirled the ring with the tip of her thumb, Sarah had asked Martin why he had not given her a ring displaying his own initials, as she thought it would be nice for her to carry his name on her finger, rather than her own. He explained somewhat bashfully that that had actually been his first intention, but that there was no gemstone in stock representing the initial N. Using the available jewels his ring could only have spelled out Marti.

The morning after, when she was thirty years and one day old, Sarah found that, delightful as the present was, there was a price to pay.

‘You like the ring, don’t you, darling?’ asked Martin, wearing a little-boy-lost smile. ‘I wonder, could I ask a little favour in return?’

Putting aside the fact that she was miffed that he thought there was some unwritten tit-for-tat, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours agreement on birthday gifts, Sarah listened to his proposition. Although he knew it was something she had never done before, Martin wanted her to throw a dinner party. The occasion was business—“a honey trap” he called it. That sounded dodgy enough, but then he declared, ‘Actually, I just want to show you off.’ He nuzzled up to her neck. ‘After all, not many men have such a beautiful wife. I want people to meet my own personal Vivien Leigh.’

‘Thanks.’ Sarah pulled herself away.

‘What?’

‘Well, apart from the fact that she’s dead…’

‘You have those bright but kittenish looks.’ Martin kissed her on the tip of her nose. ‘Truly. But you’re sexier.’

‘I think that can hardly be possible,’ Sarah replied, dimly recalling some article she had glancingly read which made out that Vivien Leigh had been a bisexual night-prowling nymphomaniac. ‘Well, fiddle-dee-dee,’ she added, in a weak attempt to lighten the atmosphere.

Against her own instincts, Sarah agreed to the dinner. Martin presented a small business card revealing the guest of honour, for whom the trap was to be set: Martin’s new bank manager, a young man who went by the name Kevin Kruszynska.

Sarah peered at the card. ‘There’s a moniker for you.’

‘What do you mean?’ Martin gave her a beady look.

‘Kevin Kruszynska. A mouthful of a name. A strange blend of the banal and the exotic.’

‘What’s wrong with that? He’s a Czech from Tooting, or was it Streatham?’

‘Let’s hope he doesn’t bounce.’

Martin frowned and pocketed the card. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘A Czech…from the bank.’ Sarah watched Martin’s cold panicked eyes, and without warning realised that she no longer knew him. Sometime over the years her husband had vanished and before her stood this gormless stranger.

‘A bouncing Czech?’

Sarah laughed.

Martin did not. Instead, he gave her a blank look, then turned and expressed a sound filled with irritation and impatience.

Sarah left the room, heading for the kitchen and the remains of that champagne bottle in the fridge. What on earth had happened to Martin’s sense of humour? She had fallen for him all those years ago at university because he was such a comical boy, solemn and flip at the same time. It had always been hard combination to keep up with, a kind of deadpan joviality.

Like an earnest though grumpy puppy, Martin followed her into the kitchen, saying: ‘I hope you won’t ruin this dinner, Sarah.’ He picked up a biscuit from the table and crunched. ‘It’s important to both of us, you know. At this point in time it is imperative to expand the business…’

At this point in time?

‘And for that I need to know that the bank is behind me…as ’twere, singing from the same hymn sheet.’

As ’twere? Singing from the same hymn sheet? Sarah poured the entire contents of the bottle into a tumbler, while watching the stranger called Martin, as he used his sleeve to wipe away a sprinkle of crumbs which he had sprayed onto the kitchen top.

‘It is imperative that we make an impression.’

‘You’ll certainly make an impression if you go on behaving like this.’ Sarah handed him a cloth to wipe away the smear of biscuit, and downed the glass of champagne. ‘Just fill in the forms, Martin. You know, these days, all banking decisions are made by computer.’

‘I’ve already filled in the bloody forms.’ Martin glared at her. Sarah was transfixed by his enormous, frantic pupils. ‘And I also know all about computers, you know. What do you think I am, a blithering plonker?’

Sarah searched his face for signs of irony. Plonker? She couldn’t believe he had just used that word. She felt embarrassed for him. She made another feeble attempt to defuse the tension.

‘Come on Marti, keep your hair on.’

‘Martin actually.’

‘Joke!’ Sarah waved the ring at him, but a dark disquiet flooded her belly. ‘Look, Martin, wouldn’t it be better to invite this nice Czech over for drinks? Just the three of us. Cocktails?’ He gave no response so she pressed on. ‘I’m quite good at that kind of short-form, brisk entertaining.’ She smiled, touching his elbow. ‘You know what dinner parties are like, darling. Too many people jostling for attention. All those loose cannons. No good will come of it.’

‘I want a dinner party, Sarah.’ As though to control himself, Martin ran his fingers through his hair. Sarah noticed that it seemed greasy.

‘Far cooler to invite people round, pop open a good champagne and serve up something from a take-away. For instance, battered haddock and chips.’

‘Sarah! We are having dinner. Okay?’

Sarah watched his sallow skin, pale and gleaming with anxious perspiration. He looked as though he was about to faint. Now she felt sorry for being so stubborn.

‘Calm yourself, darling. It’s all right. If you really want me to I’ll do a lovely meal.’ She filled the kettle ready to prepare a pot of tea, to calm the situation.

Martin stood before her, his nostrils flared, his face drained, ash coloured.

‘As my wife,’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘It is the least I would expect.’

This ‘as my wife’ remark changed Sarah’s stance again. She was not in the mood to let it go.

‘You can expect what you like of me. If it’s a servant you really want I will serve you. However if it’s a loan you’re after, Martin, I wouldn’t expect any great things to come of any dinner party. As I said, computers make the financial calculations and computers don’t eat dinner. It will be an expensive, not to say interminable way of buttering the fellow up.’

As the kettle rattled away, Sarah gave up on the idea of a healing pot of tea and made for the stairs.

When had this happened? When had her husband vanished and been replaced by this bizarre trembling hysteric. What was going on? Was he on drugs?

Sarah knew she must escape momentarily from his presence and regain her equilibrium.

But Martin had got to the stairs first and was hanging onto the newel post, blocking her way. ‘You never want anything to go right for me, do you, Sarah?’ His face was flushed now, his knuckles showing through his skin, white jewels emblazoned on the orb of his fist. ‘I thought the whole point of wives was to support their husbands, not to undermine them at every given opportunity.’

‘What are you talking about, Martin? No one could accuse me of not supporting you.’

Only two years ago Sarah had given up a well-paid job in publicity to promote his new company—a small advertising firm. Martin himself had worked for years as an underling in a big PR company, writing slogans and spin for celebrity clients—writers, actors, politicians. Then he decided to break free and set up as an independent, be his own boss.

At about the same time the publishing firm for which Sarah worked declared its plan to ‘rationalise’ the workforce. ‘We are restructuring for a bright new future’ trumpeted the official press release, whereas in reality they were sacking people by the score. Some golden handshakes were proposed for the chosen few. Despite being safe from the prospective chopper, Sarah offered herself for redundancy. The total of that lump sum, received in exchange for sacrificing her job, Sarah invested in Martin’s new business.

She didn’t bother to look in the trade papers for similar jobs. She had had enough of the way publishing was going. Her decision to quit had been made easier by the mental image of her female bosses booting their more intellectual colleagues off the upward steps of the ladder with winkle-picker toes, then they used the sharpened spikes of their stilettos to kick off the venerable but genial old men beneath them. Sarah preferred to work for someone she knew and liked rather than for a hard-faced team of cold, tight-skirted women whose lives were driven by statistics, board-room jargon, and a ruthless desire to climb to the top, preferably using their friends’ heads as stepping stones.

Sarah knew if she stayed in publishing for the big firms, she wasn’t going to find much except more of the same.

From Martin’s company she took no pay. As long as the two of them could survive and live in comfort, she sincerely believed that the most important thing was to build up the company’s profile. To Sarah financial prosperity came second to getting the firm a good reputation. Once the company was thriving they could pay themselves a great whack, maybe float on the stock market and pocket a million or two.

For a year Sarah and Martin had worked together in a small office above a newsagent’s shop in Vauxhall. The company flourished.

It was soon necessary to engage Justin and Mike, a couple of new employees to deal with the burgeoning client list. The Vauxhall office seemed suddenly too small. Rather than splashing out capital on new premises, it seemed more sensible to Sarah that she handed over the second office/reception room to the new boys while she worked from home.

And now Sarah found herself standing at the foot of the stairs, being told by an alien who was her legal spouse that she did not support him.

‘If we’re to compete with the big fish we need an injection of capital,’ said Martin, gripping the banisters as though they were prison bars, and looking down at her from his elevated position on the fourth step, enunciating every syllable as though he was addressing a simpleton. ‘We have to expand. More employees. Bigger premises—Maybe in the centre of town—or The West End.’

Silently Sarah stepped back, rolling the eternity ring round her finger with the tip of her thumb. Apart from the fact it sounded like lunacy to expand now, she wondered when she had she been squeezed out of the decision making process? And wasn’t the centre of town and the West End the same thing?

Although she had voluntarily removed herself from the cut and thrust of working life by working from home, as far as she knew she was still a director of their company, and had responsibilities, if only to counsel Martin, her co-director. She had already once saved the company from making a wild and extravagant move which they could not afford. Now Martin wanted to make an even bigger one. This was the first time he had ever made a business resolution without first consulting her.

Suddenly Martin let go of the banister and stepped down to her level.

‘I’m sorry, Sarah. I’ve been a twerp. I’m just a bit tense at the moment.’ He lowered his face towards her and put on a baby voice. ‘You will do the dinner, won’t you, sweetheart? Do it for Marti.’

He held his arms open for a hug.

Sarah stepped into his embrace. When his arms were around her she wondered why she had demurred. Poor Martin. He had got himself into a state. Like a child deprived of its teddy.

She’d do the dinner and she’d try her best to make it work for him. Perhaps then the bank would refuse anyhow, and it would all be over with. But at least she would have done her bit and the bank would, as ever, make the final decision.

This morning Sarah had gone shopping, buying the best fresh produce, and during the afternoon she prepared the meal for her husband and four people whom she hardly knew: Martin’s lawyer, Max Latham and his live-in girlfriend, Lisa Pope; their next door neighbour, a surly and brash American writer called Tess Brandon (whom Martin invited not only to make up the numbers but to impress the others with a famous-ish name, and perhaps to snare her as a future client) and, lastly, of course, the bouncing Czech.

Only an hour ago the guests had all arrived and stood in the dining room/conservatory, clutching drinks and making small talk.

The Yank author doled out her business cards to everyone present, and started describing in nauseating detail her morning’s work—sitting in on a particularly grizzly inquest at the local coroner’s court.

Sarah smoothed the edgy moment by calling everyone to sit.

As the guests took their seats round the prettily decorated table Kevin asked Sarah what she did—what was her job.

But before she had a chance to open her mouth Martin replied on her behalf.

‘Sarah’s a housewife.’ He gave a self-deprecating smile. ‘I am the hunter-gatherer in this household.’

Sarah suppressed a gasp. She was about to laugh when she caught Martin’s forbidding eye. She wondered what on earth he must have put down on those banking forms.

Then she remembered that though she was Martin’s business partner, and wrote the lion’s share of slogans and strap-lines, she wasn’t actually on the payroll. Maybe Martin was thinking about some legal point in the accounts, like National Insurance or pension contributions.

From that moment, once she had been introduced as a housewife, Sarah was ignored. As the guests chatted and champed their way through the crispy salad starter it was as though she was a mere ghost looking on from her position in an empty chair.

She never usually went to dinner parties. Now it seemed that by trying to have one of her own, she had become not so much the domestic goddess as the domestic slave.

In silence Sarah watched the guests rattle on about weather, traffic, holidays and all the other tiresome subjects which oil the discourse of society while regretting utterly having got herself roped into this make-believe, table-napkin-candles-and-cruet state of affairs.

After she had cleared away the dirty salad plates and served the main course, Sarah stretched out for the wine and topped up her glass.

It was a pleasant smooth red, a sturdy Chateau Neuf du Pape.

Throughout the meal Martin had referred to the wine by name—Clos de l’Oratoire des Papes. ‘Some more delicious Clos de l’Oratoire des Papes, Max?’ and ‘Jaunty little wine, Clos de l’Oratoire des Papes, don’t you think, Kevin? Trips across the tongue.’

Sarah sighed inwardly. It was embarrassing. It’s not as though the wine was some nineteenth century Chateau Lafitte or even a rare Chateau d’Yquem. Martin had bought it in the supermarket—a pick on the “special” wine shelves. It had cost him less than fifteen pounds. But from the way he handled the bottle you’d think the wine was from the long lost caves of Napoleon or had gone under the hammer at Sotheby’s for over a grand.

She took a glug and rolled it round in her mouth.

Although she was quite happy to be excluded from the small talk, all the same she was profoundly irritated by her new-found invisibility. Some years ago Sarah had seen documentaries about out of body experiences: incidents involving people who had technically died and then been brought back to life. They all described the same thing. First came a bright white tunnel. Then they were suddenly floating around on the ceiling watching themselves on the bed below.

This dinner party, Sarah thought, was something akin to this. Somehow she had been wiped out of the actual happening but could still see and hear everything with astonishing clarity.

She looked round the table. It was like scrutinizing bizarre creatures in a brightly lit display case in the zoo—a vivarium of human life. These strangers seemed so relaxed and at home here in her house. Martin caressed the crystal glass containing his precious wine. Max leaned into the conversation, occasionally slipping an almost imperceptible wink at Martin, while his flabby hand rested lightly on Lisa’s thigh. Lisa, apparently unaware of Max’s paw, chewed earnestly, glancing now and then at Max with dog-like devotion. Kevin the Czech (or was it really Kevin the Cheque?) was smiling blithely at Tess as she reeled off gruesome details of crimes she had researched for her novels.

‘There was this case back in the States a few years back where a man killed a woman and used a grease gun to fill every one of her orifices with highly flammable foam. Then he heaved her into a tin drum, poured on petrol and set the whole thing alight.’

‘Recipe du jour: femme farcie et flambée,’ Sarah said.

No one laughed. They didn’t even pause or look in her direction. It was as though she had not uttered.

‘But you see, that’s exactly what I mean,’ said Max, his voice slightly raised in eager animation. ‘The very fact that you, Tess, know about this means it was in no way a perfect murder. A murder only becomes perfect when there is no body –’

‘No, Max. No. No. I tell you, it’s been zillions of years since that was true. Lookit, I’ve done the research. Way back before World War Two there was your John Haigh—The Acid Bath Murderer. It made legal history worldwide: no corpse, just a couple of kidney stones.’ Tess was combative, taking Max on, man to man. ‘Since then—well, it happens all the time. Presence of a corpus delicti is not necessary to prove murder. Even without a body or a murder weapon they can catch you, incriminate you and execute you.’

‘You should tighten up your studies, Miss. You don’t mean Corpus delicti, which means the body of a crime—the presence of money, for instance, being proof of larceny. Corpus Delicti has nothing to do with dead bodies. You mean a corpse. You will find it’s the presence of a corpse which is not necessary to prove murder. Peter Falconio for instance.’

‘So what are you trying to say?’ Tess jutted her head forward and kneaded her napkin with nail-bitten fingers. ‘You agreeing with me on this, or what?’

‘No, I am not agreeing with you. The Falconio case came to court, therefore the murder was not perfect. But, I mean to say, you could commit a perfect murder. But for that to be necessary there must be no actual body—not even a living person who is known to be missing. I feel sure you could kill a vagrant, for instance, and, if you successfully disposed of his remains, and, if no one was around who knew or cared that he was missing, then there would be no murder investigation, no case, no trial. Therefore…’ He gave a magician’s flourish, ‘– a perfect murder.’

‘So that girl, the librarian.’ Lisa, anxious not to be seen as the bimbo she so clearly was, piped up. ‘What do you think, Tess? Run away or dead?’

‘Dead as a dodo,’ said Max, stuffing his mouth with a chunk of bread roll smothered in butter. ‘Lying in a ditch somewhere. Soon to be found by the ubiquitous “man, walking dog”.’

Sarah knew the case they were talking about. It was all over the papers. A young woman, Jane Grimshaw, had gone missing. A week had gone by since anyone had heard from her. Her mobile phone had been found down a drain, near to the pub where she had gone for a drink before she vanished.

Police feared the worst.

‘I saw that,’ said Tess. ‘Her folks and co-workers were on TV, begging for her to phone home, to contact them.’

‘Utterly unconvincing,’ said Max. ‘A lot of ghouls. They love the cameras, these people. Think it’s an audition for The X Factor. Either that or they couldn’t stand the girl.’

‘Max says the police aren’t fools,’ said Lisa, reporting the information as though Max was not sitting beside her, his hand resting on her lap. ‘They usually put people on the telly only to expose them, cos they know they’re as guilty as sin and the victim is already lying in a ditch somewhere.’

‘All these ditches,’ said Sarah, still hovering on the ceiling. ‘Where do these killers find ditches in London?’

‘Exactly! Look at Soham.’ Tess topped Lisa’s remark, and ignored Sarah’s.

‘Plus,’ Sarah shrugged. ‘Why do people wrap up dead bodies in carpets? As though a body isn’t heavy enough to start with!’

‘The killer himself made an appeal for help.’ Tess held her knife and fork in the air and laughed. ‘Can you believe it?’

Sarah wondered if perhaps she really was undergoing a near-death experience.

‘The egotism of the guilty mind! It’s unparalleled.’ Tess laughed, then furrowed her brow and grew very serious. ‘Profilers can see through it, though. Once these people are on film, profilers watch the tapes frame by frame, noting each tic, each tiny gesture—the flickering eyelid, the twitching toe, “the tell” which ultimately betrays them.’

‘According to the TV, the profiler on this case reckons it was the same man,’ said Martin. ‘The same man who killed that girl last year.’

‘Marina Sutton.’ Max interrupted with a show-off matter of fact delivery, which Sarah perceived was aimed at showing Tess that he also knew everything to do with anything about murder. ‘Body found on the Common, partially submerged in the fishing lake.’

‘A lake this time, not a ditch,’ said Sarah to herself.

Martin talked over her: ‘A loner, they said.’

‘Yeah! Like the partying, pub-going Yorkshire Ripper was a loner! Didn’t he slip out of one of his own shindigs to kill some whore then slipped back to party a bit more? And wasn’t Dennis Nielsen the life and soul of the Welfare office where he worked. Loner! I don’t think so.’ Tess spoke with the sing song of the professional know-all. ‘It’s just easier for Society to blame loners, or to believe that loners are more capable of depravity, because Society doesn’t like loners.’

‘You only say that because you yourself are a loner.’ Sarah spoke a moment before she realised that, though what Tess said might be true, it was rude to point it out. But Tess hadn’t heard her, and ploughed on without caring about her opinion. ‘Society wants everyone to be one of a couple, like y’all. Society detests individuals.’

‘Don’t be silly, Tess.’ Lisa cuddled up to Max. ‘I think it’s nice when people are couples.’

‘Like Bonnie and Clyde, you mean.’ Sarah found Lisa’s loyalty even more irritating than Tess’s confidence. ‘Or Myra Hindley and Ian Brady?’

‘Exactly,’ said Lisa, who clearly did not appreciate the references. ‘It’s natural to live in pairs. Look at Noah’s Ark!’

Sarah laughed aloud as Lisa leaned forward and bestowed one of her irritating winsome smiles upon Kevin the Czech and said: ‘I’ll bet you have a lovely wife, Kevin.’

Was Lisa finally making an unforgivable social gaff? Kevin had a distinct air of gayness about him. The wedding finger, Sarah saw, sported a gold band—but then, maybe he had gone through a civil partnership.

‘My wife has only just moved over from the Czech Republic. She doesn’t speak good English, I’m afraid.’

Sarah wanted to take hold of Martin and shake him. They had done the unforgivable thing: not inviting the man to bring his wife to dinner. Why hadn’t Martin bothered to find out? How much easier the evening could have been with a nice Czech wife instead of the insufferable Miss Know-it-all from next door?

Kevin lifted his hands, as though guarding himself from criticism. ‘My wife prefers to stay at home in the evening, as we have two young children.’

‘Two!’ Lisa radiated joy on his behalf. ‘How lovely. How old are they?’

‘The little girl is three, and the boy is still a baby—ten months.’

Sarah could not believe that despite this eruption of cosy domesticity at the table, Max and Tess were still on the trail of serial killers.

‘There you have it.’ Max took his hand off Lisa’s thigh and slammed his palm down on the tablecloth. ‘People are stupid. Their arrogance betrays them.’

Sarah had to stop herself laughing aloud. Boston Legal’s Denny Crane in three dimensions. Even more pathetic actually—embarrassingly stagy, like that ancient old ham, Perry Mason. Similar bulky figure too.

‘I say that there is a recipe for the perfect murder, but it can only happen if the perpetrator is able to override their inevitable arrogance. Let’s face it, such a person feels superior because they have taken that one thing which can never ever be replaced—Life. And if they want to get away with their achievement and all its glory they must suppress their pride in their super-human act, or at least keep it to themselves, while shrouding it in quiet reason and empathy.’

Sarah watched Kevin. Was he bored by all this gory talk? He looked perfectly at ease. His elbows rested on the table, his chin balancing on the tip of his steepled fingers, his dark rat eyes darting from one pair of moving lips to the next. Perhaps when you usually spent your days adding and subtracting numbers, it was fun to be included on gruesome little junket like this.

‘So where are you from Kevin? Prague?’ she asked.

‘No. Javornik. It’s a small town in Silesia.’ He glanced in Sarah’s direction, his concentration momentarily distracted. ‘The Mountains. The Sudetes.’

‘Psychopaths don’t feel empathy.’ Tess spoke with her mouth full. Sarah caught a flash of green and white—chewed potato and pea. The Nigerian flag. ‘But they are also particularly good at acting, therefore could easily assume the mantle of empathy to protect themselves. Most psychopaths are extremely intelligent narcissists.’

‘I’m sorry, Kevin.’ Sarah thought she might try to steer the conversation away from murder and back to geography. ‘The Sudetes? Is that what we learned in school history as The Sudetanland?’

Kevin smiled and nodded. ‘That’s right.’

‘I’m not talking about psychopaths.’ Max sighed, implying Tess’s information was irrelevant. ‘Any Joe Bloggs can murder. You should meet some of my clients. I can assure you they’re hardly in the MENSA league.’

‘I thought you were a company lawyer, Max,’ said Kevin, turning briskly away from Sarah to join the clan. He shot Martin a quizzical look. Sarah wondered whether this had been some vital information previously supplied on the bank forms. Lawyer: Max Latham, specialities include company law and murder.

‘I am a Tom of all Trades, Kevin.’ Max spoke with a flourish that would put a Victorian actor-manager to shame. ‘Master of all.’

‘Jack, don’t you mean?’ said Lisa quietly. It was obvious she was not in the habit of contradicting the great man.

‘Either appellation will serve the purpose.’

‘He’s very modest,’ said Lisa, the vanguard, bearing Max’s blazon. ‘Max is a genius. He can do everything. He’s one of those—oh what are they called—I think it starts with R…’

‘Rottweilers?’ said Sarah, slumped back in her undetectable bubble.

‘Ranph…something…Rrr…Rrr…Rrr…’ Lisa sounded like a child impersonating a motor car. ‘Oh, I remember.’ She squealed and clapped her hands. ‘Max is a Pre-Raphaelite.’

Sarah snorted, imagining Max with long red crinkled hair, wearing a mauve velvet dress, floating lifelessly along in one of those water-filled ditches of his.

For the first time since they had all sat down Martin made eye contact with her, giving a breathy tut.

The ignominy of her husband’s rebuke was the final straw.

Sarah decided to interpret his exclamation as a signal for her to take away the plates and bring in pudding.

It was going to happen. Tomorrow morning she would leave him.

‘If one of us, for instance, wanted to commit a murder and get away with it, the first thing we would need to understand is the difference between the egotism of the guilty mind and the anxiety of the innocent.’

Max continued sounding off, his back slightly turned away from her as Sarah gathered his plate.

She felt as though she was playing the role of a parlour maid in some seedy Patrick Hamilton boarding house. She was almost tempted to say something like ‘Cor blimey, sir, these crocks ain’t ’arf slippy,’ before pulling an imaginary dangling cigarette butt from her clamped scarlet lips and grinding it out with a peep-hole-toed sandal.

‘Can’t we talk about something nice now?’ Lisa gave Sarah a lingering patronising look. ‘After all, poor Sarah’s gone to such trouble.’

Poor Sarah! Grateful as she was to know that someone had noticed her, it was all Sarah could do not to smash the pile of plates down on the simpering woman’s head.

Yes, she had indeed spent the best part of the day peeling and chopping and shoving things in and out of the oven. Yes, she knew that these days dinner party hostesses got caterers in, or bought pre-prepared stuff and passed it off as their own, but if Sarah was going to do anything, she wanted to do it properly. The reaction she wanted was admiration, commendation, applause, not sympathy, not ‘poor Sarah’.

‘So, Max, what are you trying to say?’ Martin bent forward, as Sarah stooped to retrieve his fork which had fallen onto the white cloth, leaving a brown spreading stain. ‘That the secret of the perfect murder is to understand the essence of guilt? For surely that is what it must be.’

‘Like Martin,’ said Kevin, ‘I am lost.’ Wearing an ingenuous smile, he smoothed his napkin across his lap. ‘A while back, Max, you said the secret was to leave no corpse. Which is it?’

‘No—that’s not what he said.’ Tess, ever the earnest professional, shuffled her chair nearer the table. ‘Max thinks that the important thing, and I have to agree with him, is that no person appears to be missing—thus there is no murder hunt. Ergo, as long as the body remains undiscovered, and no person is actually missed, apparently there has been no suspicious death. And that is the only secret of the perfect murder. Right, Max?’

Sarah piled Kevin’s plate on top of the others, and he turned to her, gave her a curt smile and briskly bobbed his head. She wondered whether it was a tic.

‘That’s not the only rule.’ Max leaned back in his chair while smoothing his chubby hand down his tie. ‘The other secret for the perfect murderer is to hire the perfect lawyer.’

Sarah strolled out to the kitchen, suppressing the urge to yawn.

She put the dishes on the draining board, relieved to be out of the dining room and away from this gathering from hell.

Even with the tap running she could still hear Max pontificating. God, he was an arrogant arsehole. Didn’t Dante Alighieri send lawyers and their cohorts to the seventh circle of hell, the Malebolge. Marvellous name for him: Max Malebolge. Come to think of it, wasn’t the Malebolge made up of ditches? How at home Max would feel there, when the time came, floating along the ninth ditch of the seventh circle of hell in his fetching purple velvet Pre-Raphaelite dress.

Laughing silently till tears spilled down into the swing bin, Sarah scraped scraps off the dirty plates.

She could hear Tess rabbiting on about how her agent never called and her friends “back in the States” had strict instructions not to contact her while she was over here working, so, if it came to it, she herself would be an ideal candidate for Max’s scenario of not being missed.

Tess Brandon an invisible person who would not be missed? That was a joke. Tonight alone how many times had she managed to drag the conversation back to herself? Invisible? It was laughable.

Sarah took her time in the cool kitchen, methodically packing the dishwasher and setting it off.

She wondered whether she would ever set off this machine again. If she had been dithering before, now she was certain. She really was going to leave Martin.

She pondered the method of her departure: should she have a row with Martin first, or just quietly pack a bag and slip away, leaving a polite note on the hall table for him to find when he came home from the office? Should she leave the rings: wedding, engagement and eternity, or would that be petty?

There were other questions too. Where would she go? And what would she live on?

But none of that mattered really as long as she got out of this awful, oppressive domestic world. Once, like Ibsen’s Nora Helmer, she had slammed the door behind her, she could work out what came next. Earlier in the week Martin had called her his very own personal Vivien Leigh. Now Sarah would do what Miss Leigh had been so famous for, and be Gone With the Wind.

Sarah smirked to herself as she stirred whipped egg yolk into the custard mixture. The others were still banging on about murder. She was tempted to put on the radio, some dance music or jazz to drown them out with soft tones and mellow voices.

She felt sorry for the poor Czech. Fancy thinking you are coming to a semi-business meal with a client and finding yourself in the middle of this morbid catalogue of slaughter.

‘My father always used to say—“Follow the eleventh commandment, my son.”’ At first Sarah thought it was Max, but it was in fact Martin who was speaking. ‘“Thou shall not be found out.”’

Oh Martin!

Why was he bringing this up? His father was a pompous little popinjay.

Sarah checked the oven to see the blackcurrant pie. Some of the filling had bubbled over and was forming a caramelised lump on the baking tray. Sarah scraped it off before it sent the acrid smell of burning back into the dining room.

Brimstone and treacle.

How appropriate.

By the time she turned back to the custard it had curdled.

Damnation!

Sarah always kept tins of custard for eating on ordinary occasions. She adored curling on the sofa on a cold windy night, dropping hunks of dark chocolate into the hot bowl and eating it just as the chocolate melted.

Hastily she snatched the can opener and poured some ready-made custard into a milk-pan

‘Your father is quite right, Martin. Everything must stay normal.’ Max was back on his soapbox. ‘Too many coincidences give a murderer away: his boat caught fire, the life-raft sprung a leak, they were just that little bit too far from the shore to swim, and, anyhow, although he had medals for butterfly and the crawl, his wife had never learned to swim, not even doggy-paddle. And at the moment he went to rescue her he was inexplicably seized by an uncontrollable fit of cramp. Next thing she was swallowed up by the broiling briny. I don’t think so.’

While Sarah waited for the custard to heat, she hovered in the gloom of the doorway, watching from the shadows.

‘I saw a case where the detectives found blood on the hall floorboards.’ Tess licked her lips as she told the tale, as though she was a cook describing a scrumptious dish she was about to present. ‘The husband explained how he had just thrown out the hall carpet, his dog had been in a fight and run along the hall, bleeding, he’d apparently mislaid the big kitchen knife from the wooden block, maybe at a friend’s barbecue a few weeks before, and it just happened his wife had…’ She put up her forefingers and mimed quotation marks ‘…suddenly gone missing.’

The custard slurped and bubbled. Sarah pulled out the pie, and put it next to the bowls laid out on a large melamine tray. She picked up the empty custard tin by its lid and tossed it into the pedal bin.

‘Exactly,’ snapped Max. ‘Too many coincidences. Take packing. A person is reported missing, they’ve apparently left home—but they’ve gone without their clothes, their passport, their jewellery, their credit cards, their favourite photo of their kids…No way.’

Sarah poured the heated custard into a gravy boat. When would this purgatory ever end? As she picked up the tray she noticed a bead of blood grow from her finger tip. Damned tin. She walked through into the hall looking for a tissue.

The phone rang.

Bloody fingers splayed, she picked up.

A shrill voice. ‘Maureen, is that you?’

‘Wrong number. Sorry.’

A large drip of blood fell from her finger onto the rug.

Sarah replaced the receiver and grabbed a tissue, packing it round her finger tip as she looked down at the beige mat with a typical middle eastern pattern, Indian paisley swirls in green. Wherever had they found a horrible thing like that? It looked so nasty Sarah was pleased that she had interrupted its symmetry with a splosh of scarlet. She hoped the stain would spread but it didn’t. Dire thing must be acrylic too, the type of carpet which would make you itch if you were mad enough to walk on it in bare feet.

She returned to the kitchen.

Martin was talking very loudly, and sounded almost manic. What had come into him? As she ran her finger under the cold tap Sarah remembered an episode a few weeks ago when, quite irrationally, Martin had shouted at two women who were standing chatting in a parking bay at the supermarket next to the library. He had thrust his head out of the window and literally screamed at them to get out of the way, calling them ‘lazy, lolloping lesbians’. Afterwards in the shop when Sarah had challenged him he had laughed away the episode as a piece of ‘parking rage’.

Once her hand was cleaned up and the cut covered with a large elastoplast, Sarah rooted in the drawers for a knife, tossed it onto the tray and carried the thing halfway across the kitchen before she saw she’d picked up the frosting knife, which might look scary but which would be no good at penetrating a baked pie. She threw it back into the drawer, and grabbed the big Sabatier, which could probably carve through granite let alone pastry, and returned to the fray.

‘So, what about that librarian who’s gone missing?’ Lisa, dim-witted enthusiast, idiotically stirring a dying conversation back to life. ‘What do you actually think happened?’

Sarah laid down the tray and went to work serving the dessert. Whereas she expected at least the Bisto-family ‘Aaaaah!’ of appreciation when she sunk the knife into the pie, releasing its spicy fruit scent, the conversation rolled on with no acknowledgement.

‘I disagree with Max. I think she’s probably got bored with her life, her job, her husband,’ said Martin, little realising how closely his remark mirrored Sarah’s own thoughts. ‘Got a new lover now, and is living in sexual splendour on the Riviera, or somewhere.’

The Riviera with a lover! If only!

Sarah peered down at the balding patch on the back of Martin’s head. She could see tiny flecks of dandruff on his shoulder and a small boil coming up beneath his collar. She could also smell his sickly, bitter aftershave. Revulsion swept through her. How had she ever liked him, this tight little cur of a man, creeping and grovelling at Max Malebolge’s pompous heels?

She took her seat, getting a view of her husband’s face. He was grinning inanely, the exact image of the gift in Portia’s silver casket—the portrait of a blinking idiot.

‘Rubbish,’ barked Max. ‘As I said before—She’s dead. Under the patio. Or lying in a ditch.’

Sarah thought back to her mother’s famous dinners and wondered what she would have made of all this. Then it was usually artists and musicians round the table. But there was at least one bank manager episode. And those were the days when buttering up the bank manager really did make a difference.

At eight years old, Sarah and her five year old sister, both shiny from the bath, had been led in to just such a dinner to say goodnight. It was artfully staged. Two angelic girls in lacy floor length nightgowns, animated Victorian dolls, a delightful feature displaying a sentimental picture of the perfect family.

The bank manager, a rotund avuncular bald man, had beamed delight. But in the slight pause between the kisses goodnight and the pretty young baby-sitter gathering the children to take them up to bed, her sister had pulled the bank manager’s sleeve and said: ‘I saw Daddy’s plums.’

Earlier in the day Sarah’s sister had walked into the unlocked bathroom and accidentally caught her father rising naked from the bath.

‘Victoria plums!’ her mother yelped, nodding frantically at the babysitter to take the children away, pronto. ‘My husband grows them. Prize plums. In the garden.’

Sarah sniggered at the memory.

For a fraction of a second everyone glanced in her direction, then carried on with their homicidal conversation.

‘Let’s say, Max, you have murdered Lisa.’ Tess shovelled custard-drowned pie into her mouth and waved the spoon around, pointing towards Max and Lisa as though they were soloists in an orchestra, and she the conductor.

‘Eeeuu!’ Lisa emitted an unearthly sound which the world judged feminine. ‘Why me? Why not the other way round?’

‘Statistics say when spouses fall out (and most murders, I should point, out are carried out by partners, lovers, husbands) the male is far more likely to kill the female than the other way round, but hey, Lisa, this is only a game—so, come on y’all, let’s do it.’

Fat Max assumed the sly vulpine look of a stage villain, twisting an invisible moustache.

Hi diddle dee dee. Max, the fat fox, thought Sarah, then realised that that was something you’d never see—a fat fox. She glanced round the table again. They were foxes all, yapping and squealing, playing furtive games in the moonlight.

Sarah knew all about foxes.

Her mother made pets of them. Early in the winter mornings tender cubs were frequently discovered curled up on the edge of the warm grey embers in the open fireplace. Every night, rain, snow or shimmering heat, Sarah’s mother would disappear into the black of the garden to put out food for the more tentative animals who were fearful of coming inside.

As a token of gratitude the foxes left shit where the food had been.

‘It’s their way of saying thank you,’ said her mother.

‘Some gratitude,’ said anyone who saw the crap-strewn table.

‘What would you have them do?’ her mother would reply. ‘Write me a note?’

Sarah sniggered, imagining the same thing happening here—the crisp white of the Irish linen cloth scattered with long brown glistening turds of appreciation.

She reached out to top up her wine.

With a winsome fraternal shake of the head, Martin placed his hand across the mouth of her glass.

Still holding the bottle Sarah tried to swipe Martin’s hand away.

He was wearing that little-boy-lost, furrowed-forehead look again.

She wanted to smash the bottle into his idiotic, patronising face.

‘Enough wine, I think, Sarah, for tonight.’

‘I cooked all this food, darling.’ Sarah yanked the glass onto her lap and filled it to the brim, the false dinner-party smile frozen on her lips. ‘The least you can do in return is permit me a second glass of your precious Clos de l’Oratoire des Papes.’ She exploded in laughter and gulped from the brimming glass. ‘Bottoms up!’

Martin stood and snatched the bottle away, spraying her white blouse with red.

‘As you said earlier, Martin, this “jaunty wine trips across the tongue”.’ Sarah rose too, white-lipped, any pretence of bourgeois decorum gone. ‘And speaking entirely personally I won’t be happy till it has done the fucking can-can all the way down to my stomach.’ Grasping the glass by its bowl, she marched to the kitchen door. ‘I’ll leave you all now to your little murders.’ As she left she turned and pulled down her lower eyelid. ‘And, as they used to say on Crime Watch, “Keep ’em peeled. Don’t have any bad dreams, now.”’

Up in the bedroom a few minutes later, Sarah lay in the dark, hearing the hushed apologetic sounds of the embarrassed guests trying politely to leave.

Fuck it. What did it matter? She’d be gone tomorrow. With any luck she’d never see any of them again.

She got up, pulled a small case from the top of the wardrobe and started flinging in pieces of clothing and make-up.

If only she could run to her mother. But that could not be.

Her mother was gone.

Sarah heard the front door slam. She glided silently to the window and peered down through the net curtains: Mrs Danvers, lit only by the shadowy street light.

Max and Lisa pulled faces at each other and giggled as they climbed into a huge sporty Jaguar. The car roared away into the night.

Another minute and the door banged a second time. Tess, this time, strutting along with that odd, bouncing gait of hers, fidgeting in her trouser pocket. She pulled out keys and tossed them a couple of times in her palm as she climbed the front steps to the house next door. Tess turned the key, and disappeared inside. A few moments later Sarah could hear her muffled footsteps padding up stairs to her lonely flat.

She moved out to the landing and listened over the banister. She could hear the muted hum of male voices coming from the dining room, low and respectful, like distant relatives round a death bed.

Martin must be trying to make things good with Mr Kruszynska, perhaps setting up another meeting in more convivial surroundings, like the bank, where it should have been in the first place.

She felt sorry now for her behaviour, but realised it would have been both simpler and better if Martin hadn’t pestered her, and that she had simply refused to host the dinner.

Sarah returned to packing, taking a small bag of costume jewellery, a pile of paperwork, chequebooks, and the photograph of her mother from her dressing table.

The face in the black and white print was dark, handsome, smiling. A proud Irishwoman.

Poor Mama now, shrivelled, grey and gummy, all alone in a dim solitary world of her own.

Although Sarah went to see her most weeks, it was three years since her mother had recognised her. If anything, she was irritated by Sarah’s visits, which broke up the calm docile hours spent in front of the television. Clever old Ma, who once delighted in the barbarities of Seneca, Laclos, and the Jacobean playwrights, now clapped with glee in front of a noisy screen showing Bananas in Pyjamas, sat tranquil and transfixed by The Hoobs and Spongebob Squarepants.

Sarah briefly squeezed the photograph to her breast before kissing it, placing it on top of her clothes and shutting the case.

Martin and Kevin moved along the hall towards the front door. Kevin must be putting on his coat.

Sarah swung her case off the bed and tiptoed downstairs.

Now to face the music.

She winced at the brightness of the halogen-lit kitchen after being in the darkness of the unlit bedroom. Holding her hand up against her brow, she tucked the case under the breakfast bar, and took a casual position, leaning against the worktop near the sink, waiting for Martin to come back from his doorstep farewell with the bank manager.

The front door clicked shut.

Sarah stepped away from the counter and folded her arms, ready for the barrage.

Martin slouched in. He looked at Sarah then shook his head, like a patronising driver overtaking on a country lane. He moved to the sink, hissing under his breath and ran the tap, testing its temperature with his fingers.

Sarah didn’t mind the silence.

She made up her mind she would wait for Martin to speak first.

He poured a glass of water, and drank it in long, loud glugs.

With a fascinated revulsion, Sarah watched his Adam’s apple bouncing up and down beneath the turkey skin of his neck.

When he had emptied the glass, Martin slammed it on the draining board making the dirty pudding bowls rattle.

‘I suppose you think it’s hilarious to humiliate me.’ He picked up a cloth and started frenetically wiping down the worktops. As he passed her he swept his eyes up and down her body like a reptile eyeing up an unappetising lunch.

Sarah looked down at her feet. How silly and huge they looked in these high heels. She had a ladder in her tights. It ran up as far as her knee.

‘I’m leaving you tomorrow, Martin.’ She raised her eyes and watched for his reaction.

He stood still, his breathing shallow.

‘Don’t worry.’ She smoothed down the front of her absurdly short skirt, worn only for the dinner party. ‘You won’t have to suffer any more embarrassment from me.’ She straightened up and faced him, this stranger-husband of hers. ‘I’ll be off now, if you like. Though it would be more convenient, obviously, if I could wait till morning.’

Emitting a strangled growl, Martin flung the dishcloth into the sink. His lips were tight as string round a brown paper parcel. ‘Fuck you, cunt!’

‘Is that a yes or a no?’ asked Sarah. ‘Staying the night I mean, not fucking.’

‘You’re a bitch and a slag.’ Martin paced the kitchen, waving his arms, barring her exit. ‘Why did you have to show me up all night, making me look like a sodding twat in my own fucking home?’

‘You think that I made you look a twat? While you were trying to pass me off as a suburban Stepford Wife?’

‘Pity you’re not one, at least the food might have had some taste. And you wouldn’t be standing there now abusing me. You’d know your place.’

‘My place?’

‘After all, I’ve kept you for the last two years, while you just lounged around here at home, watching TV and playing on the computer.’

Sarah knew the rules of engagement. She knew she must take a deep breath, count to ten before she spoke, but it was impossible. She wanted to slap his smug, patronising face.

‘This last year, while playing on my computer you might remember I have written all the company’s best slogans. Much better slogans than your pathetic in-house team ever dredged up. And I might remind you Martin, that it was my redundancy money which set the business up. I could still have had a perfectly good job.’

‘Oh, so that’s the game is it? You want your money back.’ He oiled across the room, nodding his head before abruptly spinning round like a bad actress in a cheap TV soap. ‘Well, tough! It was all used up months ago.’ He gave a manic laugh before licking the front of his teeth with the tip of his tongue and assuming a condescending smile. ‘You can go now if you want. Otherwise…’ He gestured towards the living room door. ‘…the sofa is through there. And when I come down to leave for work in the morning you’ll be gone. I’m off to bed now. Some people have serious responsibilities, you know, things to do, offices to run.’

Martin gave her another withering look and turned for the stairs. He was walking away as he said:

‘My father always said one day you’d turn into your mother. All women do. That is their misfortune.’

Sarah groaned. ‘Your father didn’t say that, actually, Martin. It was Oscar Wilde.’

He turned round, and moved slowly towards her. ‘He also said that whenever a woman uses the word “actually”, it means they’re going for your balls.’

‘If you had any intelligence, you know, you wouldn’t go around quoting your father. He’s a pompous fart.’

‘Is that what you think?’ Martin was right in front of her now, his eyes cold. ‘Well, at least he isn’t barking mad.’

‘Are you trying to imply something about my mother?’

He shrugged and started pacing the kitchen again. ‘If the cap fits.’

‘She’s got Alzheimer’s, Martin. Alzheimer’s.’

Martin started to chuckle. ‘I’m not talking about now. I’m talking about way back, when I first met you. Your mother’s a batty old bitch, with her foxes and rats and all the other vermin she surrounded herself with.’

Sarah thought back to the last few years her mother spent in her own home. She had been confused, had started leaving food out for the rats as well as the foxes. But that surely had been the onset of the disease which had now reduced her brain to mush.

Sarah’s guts clenched with the memory. Her mother’s cooker had broken. Sarah went round to sort it out. The electrician pulled the ancient white American range away from the wall, and said ‘I think we may have found the culprit.’

He had stepped out of the way to let Sarah take a look.

The charred mummified remains of a rat were stuck to the blackened kitchen wall, its long curved teeth sunk deep into the mains cable.

Sarah had got the council in. The vermin exterminator found the little bowls of food in the garden, and also under the stairs. He sent in the social workers.

And so, bingo, proud, Irish-to-the-core, Ma was put into the home, where she remained to this day, spending her days sitting alone in that grim, bleak room staring out of the dusty window at leafless winter trees, perpetual tears running down her crinkled paper cheeks.

Sarah gave a dry sob.

‘There you go,’ sneered Martin in a sing-song voice. ‘On with the waterworks. Exactly like her.’ Throwing back his head, he guffawed. ‘Preposterous old cow.’

After that everything happened very quickly.

Sarah picked up the fruit-smeared carving knife from the draining board and ran at Martin, holding it up above her head.

Hearing the rush, Martin turned in time to see the flash of the blade swing down towards his left shoulder.

He flung up a fist and knocked Sarah’s arm away, grabbing at her forearms, trying to shake the knife out of her grip.

They grappled for a couple of seconds before Martin managed to seize hold of the knife’s handle.

Sarah moved in to smack his face and stumbled.

Martin swung round, ducking to avoid her. With the flat of her palms she slapped out at him. Martin pushed her shoulder with his empty hand and they struggled, bodies close, almost wrestling.

Sarah managed momentarily to snatch the knife from Martin’s grasp. Once she had hold of it, Sarah felt suddenly calm.

Then she saw the look on Martin’s face. His expression seemed to crumple, his sinking eyes wide in horror. He stumbled backwards a step. His complexion suddenly took on a grey, putty-like sheen.

He lurched backwards until his spine hit the counter.

During a slow-motion second he remained there, pointing towards her with an accusing finger.

Sarah could hear nothing but her own heartbeat, the whooshing of blood in her ears. Now that she looked she could see spots of blood spreading across Martin’s shirt front.

‘Oh, my god,’ cried Martin, in a high pitched whine. ‘What have you done?’

His voice seemed strangely distant, as though he was underwater.

Sarah felt suddenly frightened.

Her slippery fingers, she realised, were still clenched around the sticky knife handle.

Someone must be playing with the dimmer switch, she thought, for the kitchen lights faded then suddenly grew brighter.

She tried to drop the knife, but it would not budge.

She looked down, pushing at the handle, trying to get rid of it.

It was only then that she realised the long steel blade was lodged in her own abdomen.

A white rushing sound filled her ears as Sarah slid slowly, irrevocably to the ground.

 

CHAPTER TWO

JITTERBUG—A fast dance performed to swing or boogie-woogie music, consisting of a few standard steps and much improvisation

Oh fuck!

In a kind of stupefied paralysis Martin watched Sarah slump, blood streaming from a scarlet slash in her white blouse….

 

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