Ultima, page 23
‘Anything, my love.’
‘Just when exactly were you planning to kill me?’
His heart remained quiet. No tension, no reaction. He turned on his elbow above me and set his mouth on mine, a kiss with the warm promise of a bruise.
‘Tomorrow, sweetheart. Or maybe the day after.’
I hit him with the pillow. ‘You bastard!’
‘How do you know I’m joking?’
I sat up and hugged the duvet round my knees. ‘I don’t. But I have a suggestion.’
He lay back and clicked his Dupont. Claridge’s had a very civilised policy on smoking, which was strictly forbidden.
‘This. This thing. Us. It doesn’t have to stop. We can get away.’
‘You know that’s impossible, tesoro.’
‘I know that Raznatovic wants me dead. But what if I were to come back to Calabria with you after the sale and instead of bunging me in Salvatore’s pit, we just . . . disappear?’ I let that sink in for a moment before I continued. ‘I think the picture will go over the reserve. That guy from Baku – he’s desperate to have it. Yermolov will raise him, the bid will be huge. And the money goes to the Società in the first instance – to the bank. You direct them where to send Raznatovic’s cut, so you can also take out mine. A lot of money, Romero. Real money. And then we’re gone.’
He lay back, locked his hands behind his head. I took the fag from between his lips and had a long drag. I’d watched him liking the way we lived, the deferential staff, the clothes, the day’s biggest decision being whether to have the oysters or the foie gras. I didn’t hate him for it – I was that way myself.
‘I can’t leave.’
‘Yes you can. New papers, new identity, new life. I’ve done it, God knows.’
‘I mean I can’t leave the children.’
I was getting exasperated despite myself. ‘I saw you. With the baby. The restorer’s baby, what was her name, Mariangela? Her little boy. You learned it. You don’t feel it. You know I know. Because we’re the same.’
A long pause. Then he said in English, ‘It’s a fair cop.’ I smiled in the dark. He’d learned the phrase from me.
‘And,’ I swallowed, played my last card, ‘if you wanted another one? A child, I mean, then we could, I mean, I would . . .’
He reached for my hand. ‘Do you mean that?’
‘I’ve thought it all through. We could do it. All you have to do is . . . pretend that you’ve got rid of me. Raznatovic will believe you. And then we’ll go to Amsterdam for the documents, I know a guy there, and I know how to hide money. You’ll be done. No more of “them”.’
‘I always said you were good.’
‘Is that a yes?’
I felt sick.
‘So that’s a no?’
‘Crazy but good. It’s a yes.’
Gently, delicately, I laid my head on his chest. I was shaking. Everything I had said had been true, but I had somehow never believed in its possibility. Yet there were his arms around me, there the infinitely precious smell of his skin. It could be real. It actually could be. Real. For me. I think we lay there for a long while, then I felt him stir and clutched at him drowsily.
‘Shhh, my love. I’ll be back in just a moment.’
I turned over in our bed and heard water running in the bathroom. And somehow, that sound was more intimate to me than anything our bodies had done together. I felt scrubbed, luminescent, shiny with love. He was there, and at last I could feel quiet. As my eyes closed, I could hear the carillon clock down on Piccadilly striking midnight.
Why I did it I don’t know. Why I had to be sure. But later, as he slept, I slid away from his body, wrapped myself in a robe and went to the drawing room of the suite to open my laptop. I hadn’t told him about the emails, that I’d been reading them. I’d been ashamed that he’d think I was prying into his relationship with Franci, that I was the kind of woman who would be possessive and jealous. I tapped in the codes, I read the last message. It had been sent at 11.57 p.m.
The asset will be disposed of in 48 hours.
The clock sounded three. When I was finished with pushing everything down inside me, compacting it like the shit it was, I went back to the bedroom and lay down beside him in the dark. I didn’t cry. I read somewhere once that as soon as a woman is sad, she is ordinary. And it turned out that I wasn’t quite ready to give up on special. Not just yet.
Today’s the day! chirped my phone brightly. Rupert was already up and at ’em. As I was dressing in a neat skirt and blouse with flat loafers, I explained to a half-awake da Silva that he needed me to go over a few last details before the sale.
‘Sorry, I have to run, but I’ll be back this afternoon, darling. Ti amo.’
Naturally the sun had chosen the day of the sale to shine.
First a bureau de change on Regent Street: ten thousand pounds cashed against my credit card by 8.05 a.m. Double espresso and a cigarette outside Pret, a text with three kisses to da Silva. Cab to Belgravia, to Lawrence’s house in Chester Square. A part of me registered that it felt odd to be going there in daylight, but the last of the lilac hanging over the gardens smelled the same – if I closed my eyes I might have been one of my other selves, from long ago. I had always loved that part of the city, serene and secretive at once. The door was answered by Lawrence’s batman-cum-bouncer, a relic from the party days. I remembered him, arms squarely folded over his muscle-packed shirt, watching implacably as a room full of naked bodies converged and separated, their patterns forming and reforming as seamlessly as ink in water.
He was already neatly dressed in slacks and a polo shirt, I could smell his fresh aftershave.
He weighed me up politely but thoroughly. I doubted that he recognised me but the fact that I knew his name told him just how we’d met before.
‘I’m afraid Lord Kincardine isn’t at home today, miss.’
‘I came to find you, actually. Forgive the early hour, but it’s rather urgent. May I come in?’
Kevin showed me to a small morning room on the ground floor. Like the rest of Lawrence’s house, it was furnished with that uniquely toff mixture of impeccable antiques and shabby, domestic practicality which no decorator has ever been able to reproduce. I perched on a faded blue IKEA armchair positioned next to an exquisite Edo screen, a relief of cranes in pale silver and blue, with a bright orange Puffa jacket hanging off one edge.
‘How can I help you, miss?’
I had always had a feeling about Kevin. He was the kind of person you’d want on your side in a fight. Or if you needed someone’s legs broken.
‘I thought you might be the right person to help me with a bit of business,’ I began.
The silence that fell between us was as good as a conversation. Kevin played with the chunky signet ring on his left hand. There was a blue flash tattoo in the palm.
‘I need a driver. A driver with a van. Someone . . . fit. And discreet. Very discreet. All he needs to do is hire it, meet me at a certain place at a precise time and help me load it. I need him today, I can return the van tomorrow. Nothing complicated, if you understand? Three thousand cash to the driver, one thousand to the . . . broker. In advance, of course.’
‘I think I can find you someone, miss. If you’ll excuse me while I make a call? May I fetch you some tea?’
‘I’m fine, thank you.’
I extracted a Claridge’s envelope from my bag and placed it on the arm of the chair, where we both studiously ignored it.
While he was gone I made a mental list. The next thing and the next thing. Just that.
He was back in about fifteen minutes with a phone number and an address written on a sheet of Lawrence’s engraved writing paper.
‘Kevin, that’s wonderful. I can’t say how much I appreciate your help.’
‘Of course, I must be going. So nice to have seen you again, Kevin.’
‘And you, miss. It’s always a pleasure to assist a friend of Lord Kincardine.’
The envelope watched us out of the room.
Just after ten, I arrived at the Tottenham Hale retail park to meet with Kevin’s mate Elvis who had texted me to say he was up for the job. I’d wondered if I ought to carry a copy of The Times, but there was only one lookalike of the King waiting in McDonald’s.
‘All right. You Kevin’s bird?’
‘That’s it. So, this is what we’re going to do.’
The thing was, I was going to need to get something out of the warehouse directly after the sale. Fairly heavy. And the mews which gave onto the back gate of the House was a strict no-waiting zone. I couldn’t risk parking a vehicle there and then having a traffic warden fuck things up, and I had to get to the warehouse as soon as the sale was over. All I needed, I explained to Elvis, was for him to hire the van, park up in advance near the Haymarket and then drive down after I’d messaged him. Three grand for ten minutes. I’d picked up an old-fashioned A–Z and marked up the mews and the route to it on the journey over, adding a list of the items I would need and three hundred pounds further cash for expenses. The van would need to have a full tank.
‘So you’ll need to be in position from ten p.m. to be on the safe side, though I imagine it will be more like eleven.’
‘Um – there’s just one thing. You look amazing, but for the collection, do you think you might wear something less . . . memorable?’
The white-fringed suede jacket with silver lacing up the back and coordinating cowboy boots was actually a kind of fabulous look, but it might stand out in St James’s.
A cab back into town put me back in Mayfair by eleven. I’ve always loved the Dickensian shops around Piccadilly – the cufflink specialist in the Burlington Arcade where you can find Victorian links set with long-dead children’s teeth, the watch-menders and shirt-makers, Lock’s hat shop, the specialist in military regalia which displays full dress uniforms and antique tricorn hats. Before going up to St John’s Wood, I popped into Trumper’s, the barbers on Curzon Street, where I bought their largest size bottle of extract of lime cologne in its sugar-pink box and an old-fashioned strop razor with a polished tortoiseshell handle. Then I walked through Shepherd Market and down to Jermyn Street to New & Lingwood for a selection of silk ties, and popped into Fox the tobacco merchant. Before picking up another cab on the Haymarket at about noon I also collected a packet of Brillo pads from Tesco Metro and a pair of latex gloves from Boots.
‘Colonel Morris?’ The thin-lipped, greying man who opened the door of the pale-stuccoed building looked exactly the same as he had on my first visit, down to the tweed trousers and Viyella shirt. I leaned in, beyond the range of the security camera over the door and raised my huge Dior sunglasses.
‘I’m from British Pictures. I’m so sorry to disturb you, but we were wondering if we could possibly take a quick snap of your Sargent? It’s for a catalogue.’
‘It’s not for sale,’ he said rudely.
‘Of course, I didn’t mean that, I’m so sorry.’ Dim and flustered, a bit awed. ‘It’s just my boss – you’re such an important client, he said you wouldn’t mind if I came to have a look. It’s for the portraiture show in the autumn . . .’ I looked at him under my lashes.
‘Ah. Your boss sent you?’
‘I hope this won’t take too long, I was just about to have lunch.’
‘Only a minute, thank you so much!’
He led the way into the drawing room I remembered, with its heavy pastel curtains over linen blinds to protect the pictures. The Sargent, a satiny portrait in pinks and greys of a woman on a velvet armchair, her elaborate skirts tumbling towards the frame, hung above the fireplace. I pulled on the pair of latex gloves from my pocket and ran my fingertips reverentially over the smooth surface of the painting.
‘Don’t touch it!’ snapped the colonel.
‘Sorry, sorry – I’ll, um, just get the camera.’
I put my bag on the carpet and bent over from the waist, presenting my ass like a baboon, chattering away about how we had Sargent’s Après-Midi coming in and wanted some companion pictures for the catalogue. I felt him approach with the razor ready, and when that yellow-nailed hand I remembered so well reached for me I grabbed his wrist and spun round as I slashed downwards. It worked rather better than I expected. For a millisecond we both stared in surprise at the white bone revealed in the three-inch gash across the colonel’s palm before it filled with blood and he roared, staggering back towards the hallway. I was quicker: I had the dripping blade against the canvas before he could get to his security system.
‘I’d sit down, if I were you, Colonel. On the sofa, that’s right. Here.’ I tossed him a Garrick-colours salmon-and-cucumber tie.
‘You can use that as a tourniquet. Hold it in your teeth.’
There was blood all over the floor, it was seeping into the floral sofa covers, into the turn-ups of the colonel’s trousers. He did as I said, knotting the silk around his wrist and gripping it, mute and furious, between the tea-coloured stumps of his teeth.
‘Now, I want you to get up and fetch the book from your bedroom. The album of photographs you showed me last time I was here.’ His boiled eyes flared. ‘Oh good, you remember. Now, go and fetch it, or your Sargent is ribbons. Got it? Nod if you understand.’
It was perfectly possible that he’d reappear aiming his trusty service revolver, but this was England. If the colonel was a sportsman his guns would be broken and locked away in a cupboard somewhere. Besides, the risk made it more fun – I was almost disappointed when he reappeared from the back room with only the heavy album of nineteenth-century erotica awkward in his good hand. I motioned him to set it down and he obeyed as if mesmerised, his gaze fixed on the painting as though it were his child I held prisoner.
‘Now, turn around, hands behind you. Slowly. Let the tie out through your teeth. That’s it, keep a good grip on the end.’ I kept the open razor in my fist as I knotted a grey and burgundy striped number around his wrists. Ampleforth, I think.
‘Now your legs.’ I leaned away a little, and when he kicked out at me from behind as I knew he would, I caught one soggy ankle and held it while the rest of the colonel pitched face forward onto the floor. The tourniquet fell from his mouth as he screamed. Gingerly, I rolled up his trouser leg, held the razor to it over his thin sock.
‘Oh dear. That was silly, wasn’t it? Did I hear your nose breaking? Now, I’m going to tie up your legs and help you up. Or I can slash both your Achilles tendons and good luck calling the police with your eyebrows. OK? Here we go, then.’ Jaunty red and blue, Radley College. Gripping his shirt collar, I set the blade on his throat and heaved him back into a kneeling position, classic hostage pose.
‘What a mess. Shall we pop the tie back?’ I poked it into the bloody pancake surrounding his worm of a moustache, then gagged him with the ugly mustard and white colours of Cranleigh for good measure.
When Rupert had first sent me to the colonel’s home, I’d estimated there was a good ten million’s worth of pictures on the walls: the Sargent, a Kneller, a small Rembrandt cartoon, a small Gainsborough landscape. As the colonel watched, I went round, unhooking them from their mounts, wrapped the Rembrandt in a copy of the Metro and put it in my bag, then laid out the other canvases along the less bloody patch of the carpet.
‘You really have some lovely things, Colonel. But I do wonder whether they could do with a bit of a cleaning? Maybe we need to get them out of their frames – oops!’
The razor cut right across the Sargent lady’s delicately rouged face, crunching a little as it cut through the varnish.
‘Time for a scrub! I seem to remember this is your preferred fragrance, Colonel?’ His acrid dried sweat cut with old-fashioned astringent cologne, his body pressing heavily on my lungs.
I poured the entire bottle of Trumper’s finest over the peeling canvases and set to work with a scouring pad. It took a few moments for the alcohol to start eating into the oil, but once I got going the pictures developed satisfying puddles in about ten minutes, though the colonel had bled rather a lot by then and fallen over sideways, straining desperately at his bindings. He looked like a toppled maypole.
‘Oh dear. Perhaps the House shouldn’t have sent a junior? But then that’s what you always requested, isn’t it? Asked Rupert to send the pretty ones? Not to worry, I’ll bet you they’re nicely insured. That right? All you’ll need to do is give them a ring, then, after I’ve left. We’d better get you up though. Is there a landline? I’ll move the table. There, see, the cord will just stretch. Lovely.’
I had moved one of the fussy occasional tables between the sofa and the fireplace, about two metres from where I had propped the colonel up with fallen cushions. I looped another tie through the tangle of bloodied silk at his wrists and fastened it round the leg of the sofa above the metal castor.
‘Where were you, by the way? Sandhurst? They didn’t have that one. It shouldn’t be all that difficult to undo, not for a military chappie like you. Now, like I said, I’ll be ever so quick and then you can get on with your nice lunch.’
I picked up the album and turned through the laminated pages, pausing at a plump lady on all fours with feathers in her piled-up hair.
‘You thought I’d enjoy this, last time? “Unusual” was the word you used, I think?’
I knelt down and ran a hand over the colonel’s crotch. ‘Gets you going, doesn’t it? Bit of quim? Have a good look, then.’
I propped the open album in his sightline next to the chunky old telephone. I went behind him and cupped his chin in my hand, pulling his head back, pinching experimentally at the skin of his eye sockets. Then I cut off his eyelids in two neat little triangles. Well, maybe not that neat. One of the eyeballs fell out a bit.
by L. S. Hilton have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes