Ultima, page 19
‘I’m OK, thanks.’
‘Suit yourself, darling. Jam today and jam tomorrow, then. Hold this.’ I steered us lopsidedly around a bend as he ducked under my arms to snort.
‘Whoa. Perking up!’ He shook himself back into place.
‘So what’s going on at . . . Waldgrave?’
‘French bird. Used to come round to the Square. Rents the house for parties – you know the sort of thing. Fuck, it’s as black as a miner’s arse. I hate the country. Where’s the satnav, darling?’
It took us an hour to cover the five miles to the house, mostly because Lawrence was engaged in a domestic with the satnav lady. When we found the gates of a drive at the edge of a village, Lawrence insisted on another line, several ciggies and a confidential rant about his father’s unreasonable stinginess before remembering we needed to message an entry code to the hostess, which he had cleverly written down somewhere. Somewhere was a crumpled receipt from 5 Hertford Street lurking deep within the archaeological strata of the Volvo’s boot, so it was well after midnight before the gates opened to admit us.
‘You’re going to love this,’ Lawrence beamed as we were shown to a parking spot by a fully booted security guard. ‘Estelle’s gigs are really smart.’
‘Lawrence. Before we go in?’
‘You might want to take the fiver out of your nose.’
Purcell’s ‘Hark, my Damilcar, hark!’ poured over us as another guard relieved us of our phones at the door. I smoothed out the sequins and wished irritably for some chewing gum. I like to clean my teeth before a party, but that interfering midget had distracted me.
‘My dears! You’re the last! Come in, come in and let’s get you out of those wet clothes. Now who’s this, Laurence?’ Her accent was comically French.
‘Just another slave to love,’ I answered. She clapped little hands in black lace mittens.
‘Oh, I like you! Come along, come along!’
I was super glad I hadn’t taken Lawrence up on the coke or I might have had a heart attack myself. The woman in front of us could have been Mackenzie’s twin. Equally tiny and wizened, sunglasses, shapelessly contrived black smock. The only difference was that the bob was black and that Estelle was holding an ebony handled whip which trailed behind her as she led the way along the hallway and opened a pair of double doors.
The house appeared to be Victorian faux-Gothic; we were standing on a machicolated stone minstrels’ gallery which overlooked a long, baronial-style hall. I blinked as my eyes grew accustomed the candlelight which was its only illumination. There was a strong, heady smell of burning perfume, something musky and old-fashioned. Two curving staircases descended from either side, each step occupied by a naked man wearing a black silk blindfold. Between them, facing out over the balcony, was a string quartet in full evening dress. Estelle fiddled with a nylon bumbag strapped round her waist and I caught a glimpse of an iPhone. The singing faded and the musicians sawed into Donizetti’s ‘Della crudele Isotta’. Estelle clapped her hands and the crowd of guests holding tall chased crystal glasses turned towards us. They were all fully dressed, the men in white shirts, the women in black dresses.
‘You two watch from here,’ murmured Estelle, indicating a recessed bench. ‘I must have symmetry! Open the cage.’ She cracked the whip against the shoulders of the nearest naked man, who did not flinch even as the knouted leather bit his skin. Two more men, this pair dressed in tight black trousers with red silk sashes, were opening a narrow iron cage, shaped like an upright coffin at the opposite end of the room. Once they had unfastened the doors, a small double bed draped in black satin sheets was wheeled into position in front of the cage and the men helped a woman out. She was naked except for a blindfold, her skin glowing like parchment in the soft candlelight, setting off the rouge on the nipples of her small, high breasts. She arranged herself quietly on her back, her arms coiled above her head as one of the men bent over her and fastened on a pair of cuffs. I suppressed a giggle. Estelle cracked the whip again and in unison the blindfolded men turned ninety degrees so that they were facing one another. She cracked it a third time and the bed was wheeled in between the staircases, the woman spreading her thighs slightly, arching her back in anticipation. Lawrence nudged me.
‘Told you it was worth seeing.’
As the bed finished its progress, the men put their right hands to their cocks and began to masturbate, every variety of stroke, tweaking and plucking. The musicians bowed imperturbably as the first of them leaned forward and shot his cum over the waiting body of the woman, turning his back to her immediately as he did so. I counted twenty-nine remaining figures, and one by one they ejaculated and turned away, slowly covering the woman’s body with a glistening sheen of sperm. The guests watched, motionless, as the woman twisted and writhed with each hot fall. Estelle was watching intently, caressing the polished handle of her whip. Finally, there remained only one figure, halfway down the opposite flight, hunched over a short, stubby cock, his hand working urgently. The musicians stopped playing abruptly, so that the only sound in the room was the man’s swift, high panting. Expertly, Estelle sent the long whip down against the side of his face, slicing a red weal into his cheek which sent him over, the spray of his cum just missing the woman’s gaping, seeking mouth. It was utterly absurd, yet part of me wanted to be her in that moment, abject, triumphant.
One of the guests on the floor, a woman with long blond hair, was stepping out of her dress, leaving it puddled on the floor as she emerged naked except for her heels and approached the bed. Glancing up at Estelle, who gave a nod of permission, she bent over the supine woman’s body and began to drink. One by one, the other women followed her, kneeling and lapping, as the men began to unbutton their shirts. Estelle fiddled in her bumbag and above me the music swelled again from a speaker. The little woman turned to us and bowed slightly, then the doors were opened and she left the way we had come. She hesitated at the doors, then turned back.
‘Give me your hand, dear.’ I obeyed. She turned my wrist and bent her withered, dry lips to where the veins showed green.
‘Did you enjoy my ceremony?’
‘Ah bon.’ She continued in French. ‘Since you speak my language, tell me the answer to a riddle. Why does the cock take the feminine form in French?’
‘Because the slave takes its name from its master.’
She laughed, a raucous high-pitched squawk. ‘Very good! Now here, ma chère.’
She produced a black silk pad from her bag, embroidered with gold lettering.
‘Which one, Laurence, for your pretty friend? This one?’
She drew a long, evil-looking pin from the cushion, its end tipped with what looked in the candlelight like a white sapphire set in old gold filigree and stabbed it viciously into the heel of my palm. I knew better than to react. We both watched as a fat ruby of blood bloomed on the skin. For a second I thought she was going to suck it, but she merely smiled and handed me a heavy black paste card with a number engraved on it, again in gold.
‘You’re one of us, now.’
‘Merci bien, madame.’
‘Anytime, dear. Bonsoir.’
I waited until the doors had closed behind her to wring my wrist and put my teeth to the tiny wound.
‘She’s pretty . . . intense.’
‘I think she liked you, darling,’ said Lawrence. ‘She doesn’t give many of those out. Now, what do you reckon?’
‘You and me?’
‘Nah, sweetheart, I’m too high. Go and have fun.’
It surprised me that for a moment I couldn’t remember the last time I’d got laid. I’d turned down the best-looking man in London the other night. For what? The promise that some no-mark Italian cop missed me? What had I been thinking?
I scanned the crowd, morphing now into one mass of softly entwining bodies. One woman stood a little to the edge of the mêlée of flesh, slowly
‘Unzip me, then?’
He did. I stood naked for a moment then walked tall down the stairs in my boots to find her.
The fire brigade had arrived by the time Lawrence and I found our way back to Lancing at about 2 a.m., along with a squad car, an ambulance and a scrum of gawking neighbours in dressing gowns. Novak’s guests had obviously still been up when the flames broke out, and they were still in their party clothes. The footmen were ferrying movables into a bizarre rummage sale display on the drive, directed by their squeaking boss.
‘Fuck,’ hissed Lawrence. ‘What’s happening? I’ve got three grams of gear in the car.’
‘I don’t think anyone’s too bothered about that. Oh, what a pity!’
The central part of the roof above the ladies’ guest rooms had collapsed. The firemen were grimly directing their hoses at the snaggle of blackened beams, silhouetted against the country starlight in the engine’s powerful headlights. The turbot had made it to safety, unlike MacKenzie. Two paramedics were bending over a gurney that held a small heap of body, entirely covered with a blanket except for one child-sized foot lolling over the side. It was hard to tell from a distance but it looked promisingly charred. One of the medics was lighting a fag as the other filled in some paperwork: there was obviously no hope. A high-pitched screaming rose above the crackle of the police radio and Novak’s desperate instructions. Two firemen were holding back the Swedish model, who was fighting them off furiously in an attempt to re-enter the building.
‘But you don’t understand!’ she wailed. ‘It’s the couture next week. I’ve got a Ralph & Russo gown in there!’
Rupert bounded up to the Volvo as we got out, pineapples jiggling.
‘Elisabeth! Thank God you’re safe. They’ve been searching for you! They’re here!’ he boomed at the firemen. The assembled neighbours looked rather disappointed that Lawrence and I were not trapped somewhere in the smouldering wreckage.
‘The two missing guests?’ A policeman had jogged over to the Volvo.
‘Yes, Miss Teerlinc and Lord Kincardine here,’ confirmed Rupert.
Lawrence’s panic had been hastily smoothed into an expression of shocked concern. I was quite impressed.
‘What’s happened? What can I do?’
‘All under control, sir. We’ll just need you to answer a few questions.’
‘Of course,’ I said, but please, tell me . . .’ I faltered off, pointing to the gurney.
‘I’m afraid to tell you that a body has been recovered from one of the upstairs rooms. Mr Novak has already identified it as, er . . . Ms Mackenzie Pratt.’
‘Oh my God! What happened?’ I gasped.
‘We can’t confirm anything at present, madam. Now, if you wouldn’t mind telling me how long you’ve been away from the property?’
‘Just before eleven,’ I put in, before Lawrence could answer. ‘Quarter to. I heard the clock.’
Lawrence nodded in agreement. Now that I’d lodged the suggestion, that was the time he would give for our meeting in the stable yard.
‘We went to call on some friends of Lawrence’s who were giving a party,’ I added for Rupert’s benefit. It was something I had learned back on Steve’s boat, the Mandarin, when I’d been his beard against gold-diggers for a summer. If a woman is, however nominally, the property of the alpha male in the group, the other men will behave submissively to her. I doubted that Lawrence was the richest guest at the party, but he was certainly the poshest, which made him the silverback as far as Rupert was concerned.
I fingered the skirt of my dress. There was a smooth patch of silk where one of the sequins had shed, quite possibly in MacKenzie’s room. Nothing to worry about, I’d been rehearsing my statement all the way to Waldgrave and back. The sequin could have been lost when I went to her to borrow a painkiller before dinner. I’d be sure to mention the antidepressants in the bathroom, the same brands my mother had periodically taken, hence my recognising them. That bit was even true. The fire had gone better than I’d expected, but given Mackenzie’s age, a sudden heart attack – which was after all what had killed her – was perfectly plausible, assuming there was enough of her left for a post-mortem. Consistent use of serotonin boosters is associated with increased risk of cardiac arrest. Any mark from my thumb would have been covered by the pressure of the ear bud as she fell against it, towards the burning candle. If they could pinpoint a time of death Lawrence had inadvertently confirmed that I was already with him. Fingerprints? Well, poor MacKenzie had heard me on the landing as I came up to change my shoes and we’d had a little moment when she apologised for her remarks at the party. I’d given her a hug.
The white Rolls-Royces were rounded up to drive the guests all the way back to London. Lawrence had asked for a lift to Gatwick, to take the Edinburgh plane. It was almost 7 a.m. when I said goodbye to Rupert, who had spent most of the journey messaging, occasionally laying a solicitous hand on my arm. The paramedics had wrapped me in a foil blanket, which I huddled around me even in the enveloping heat of the car, keeping up the shock. I knew how the Swedish model felt – that Bottega suitcase had only been produced in ten editions in the turquoise. Thank Christ I’d put my Vacheron back on before leaving with Lawrence.
‘Fuck!’ Rupert exclaimed suddenly. ‘Sorry, Elisabeth.’
Charles Eagles had sent a text saying he had been woken by a call from the Mail diary. The tragic incident at Lancing, following the dramatic denunciation of the Gauguin by the fire’s only victim. The same woman who had had the ‘spat’ so eagerly reported by the paper the week before. One of the guests must have called it in, Rupert thought.
‘Charlie thinks we should give an interview. I’m sorry to ask, but do you think you could manage it?’
‘Of course. But . . . maybe we ought to wait and see what poor Mackenzie’s family want, in the States? They may not even know yet.’
‘Oh, no one cares about her. It’s the picture – Charlie thinks it will really add to the sensation of the sale – the dramatic story that follows the Gauguin. And then a follow-up in one of the Sundays. He’s got a point.’
Rupert sounded rather rueful. Obviously not because the idea was repellently heartless – just because he hadn’t thought of it first.
Finally back in my room, I was about to switch off my phone when a text came through from da Silva.
Judith. Let me know you’re OK.
I saw the fire, at the house where you were staying. It was on the BBC. They said a woman died.
Not this one.
I’m so glad you’re OK. Call me later.
What was da Silva worrying about? It wasn’t as though I carried the sodding picture around in my handbag. I took one of the huge hotel pillows and wrapped my arms around it, burying my face in its downy softness. She had smelled of Mitsouko and tasted of sea salt and lemons.
Charles Eagles had certainly been busy while I slept. I woke up to two voicemails from sympathetic-sounding women at the Mail and the Standard asking if I felt able to talk about the fire, five missed calls from Rupert and an excited email from the PR department at the House asking if I was available to be interviewed on Channel 4 News. Rupert was clearly beside himself, as when I called him I discovered that he was already in the hotel. I took my time before coming down in a plain black linen shift, which seemed to express the right degree of respect for the dear departed. Rupert was tucking into a spot of Welsh rarebit and a Bloody Mary. I asked for a small pot of Lapsang and a saucer of orange slices.
‘How are you feeling, Elisabeth?’
‘Well, very shocked, of course. It must be so distressing for Mackenzie’s family.’
‘Heart attack,’ pronounced Rupert, shaking Worcester sauce over his thi
‘I suppose so,’ I answered quietly.
Rupert set down his glass.
‘If you’re not happy about it . . .’
‘No, of course. It’s just . . . I feel so dreadful for her. She was very kind, you know, when I went upstairs afterwards. Apologised for what she’d said. Of course, I told her it couldn’t matter less, but still.’ I risked the faint hint of a pretty sob. Rupert laid his hand on my arm, which appeared to have become his default setting.
‘Look. I know it’s all . . . terribly vulgar, interviews and articles and whatnot. But that’s just how things are now. We have to, you know, move with the times. Accept the chainges, like.’
For a moment, I thought he’d choked on his toastie, but then I realised he was trying to impersonate Pandora’s flat Yorkshire vowels.
‘We know what’s what, don’t we, Elisabeth? And if it means paying lip service to the oiks then that’s what we’ll do. Adaption or extinction, that’s what it comes down to.’
Of course I understood. I had always understood. That’s why I had advised Pandora to say nothing about Colonel Morris, just as I had once said nothing. Because if it suits power to ape the mannerisms and beliefs of the powerless, that is what power will do. Camouflage. Let the oiks think they’ve won and nothing will ever have to change.
This time though, it seemed that Charles Eagles had miscalculated. Or I had. Mackenzie Pratt proved to be an even bigger pain in the arse dead than alive. Initially, the story of the fire provoked prurient sympathy, but within days, the tabloids were pushing the idea that Woman with a Fan II was somehow cursed, that Mackenzie had been a victim, a brave crusader who had been left to burn while heartless art buyers swigged magnums of Krug. The fact that they weren’t far wrong didn’t make things any better. The Guardian followed up with a lurid piece on Gauguin’s life, portraying him as an exploitative chancer who titillated the bourgeois buyers of Paris with images of exotic eroticism to boost his prices. An online German pressure group whose name translated as ‘No Air for Abuse’ succeeded in pushing the Folkwang to cancel their bid, and once the museum had withdrawn, the names on Rupert’s list of potential clients swiftly began to dwindle. The House was beginning to show signs of cracking; Rupert reported a board meeting in which the idea of putting the picture in a smaller, more discreet sale in the autumn had been mooted. It made sense – if serious buyers were withdrawing because of the Gauguin, it would affect the prices of the rest of the lots in the sale. But I couldn’t let that happen. Raznatovic simply wouldn’t wait that long. Moreover, Mackenzie’s outburst at the dinner party had started rumours that the piece was dodgy. If it were re-examined, there was a possibility that it might not pass a second time.
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