Read the bursars wife epub format

Authors: E.G. Rodford

the bursars wife

Contents

Cover

Also by E.G. Rodford

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

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Epilogue

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Coming Soon from Titan Books

ALSO BY E.G. RODFORD AND AVAILABLE FROM TITAN BOOKS

The Runaway Maid
(March 2017)

The Bursar’s Wife
Print edition ISBN: 9781785650031
E-book edition ISBN: 9781785650048

Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP

First edition: March 2016
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Names, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead (except for satirical purposes), is entirely coincidental.

© 2016 E.G. Rodford

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

This one is for my lovely spouse.

1

I HATED THIS BIT OF THE JOB, THE BIT WHERE THEY STARTED
crying. I pushed the box of tissues over, and Albert (‘call me Al’) Greene took one, blew his small red nose with it until it ran out of dry, then took another. I looked wistfully at Sandra’s empty chair; she knew how to deal with the criers, it was the ones that just sat there grinning that worried her. But Sandra only came in twice a week to do what little admin there was, and I was struggling to pay her for that, so I had to deal with the tears myself. Greene, an overweight, pasty-faced school teacher, took another tissue and blew hard. I picked up the photographs he was staring at and shuffled them. His wife Trisha Greene featured in all of them, all with the same man, all telling a story starting with sitting in her car outside a popular walking spot. Al Greene struggled to compose his voice.

“And you’re sure they were there together?” He was a drowning man grasping at straws.

I nodded, and referred him to my notes. I had spent an hour either sitting in my cold car or muddying my knees taking photographs in the dimming light. Many of the pictures I’d taken showed only the top of Mrs Greene’s head in her companion’s lap, or her back as she sat astride him, but I restricted the ones I showed to her husband to some heavy snogging, since I judged him a sensitive soul. He threatened tears again.

“Do you know who he is?” he asked, once he had used several more tissues – I made a mental note to up his bill.

“No,” I lied. I thought him unlikely to seek physical revenge – he seemed too in touch with his feelings for violence – but I saw no benefit in him knowing who the man was; and you never could tell how people would react to this sort of news. Besides, I’d also omitted to tell him that the man in the photo was not the only one that Mrs Greene had tested the suspension of her cabriolet with; I’d counted three others in the three times I’d tailed her to the car park. It was a known spot for casual sex.

“My mother was right about her.” He shook his head in the belated realisation that he should have listened to his mother. “I gave her everything she wanted.” His round face crumpled, and I resisted the temptation to tell him that there were obviously things she wanted that he couldn’t provide, but instead I looked through the window at the grey Cambridge skyline. If I twisted my neck and looked up Lensfield Road through the dirty glass I could just make out the clock jutting from the corner of Our Lady and the English Martyrs. It was lunchtime, but my stomach had told me that twenty minutes ago. I turned to my client.

“Do you love your wife, Al?”

He nodded hard. “Yes, of course.”

“There’s no ‘of course’ about it. I mean do you still love her despite this?” I fanned the pictures in front of him. Mrs Greene was not unattractive, and I had come to know some of her endearing mannerisms, like how she tilted her head up to look at someone under her fringe, or how she pulled at her bottom lip with her forefinger, or studied herself in the courtesy mirror in her car when speaking on her mobile phone, possibly even to Al here.

He nodded again, this time with feeling.

“Then I suggest you go home and ask her whether she is having an affair. Sometimes people are just waiting to be asked.”

“And if she denies it?”

“Then you have two choices. You can ignore it and say no more, or you can tell her you hired someone to spy on her, in which case your marriage is as good as over anyway.” He shredded his wet tissue.

“And if she confesses?”

“Then you either leave her or forgive her.” He did not look convinced by my pearls, and who could blame him. I opened a drawer in my desk. “Listen, if you do choose to forgive her, you both may have certain issues to work through, in which case you could do worse than talk to someone. If Mrs Greene were game, that is.” I flicked through a stack of business cards, given to me by the other occupants of the building: homoeopathist, acupuncturist, herbalist and nutritionist. I chose one with intertwining rings on it that read “Couples Counselling” and gave it to him.

Although the other occupants had often made clear that an investigation agency did not fit in with the spiritual ethos they were trying to engender (their words not mine), they did not turn away my referrals of highly strung clients they could pummel, prod, listen to, or ply with expensive herbal extracts. I still remembered the days when I had occupied two rooms in the building and the others were taken by a book-keeper, a literary agent and a Freudian psychotherapist. But times had changed, and I suspected that these happy therapists hoped I would leave so they could complete their little band with an aromatherapist or crystal healer.

Someone whose job it was to rake through the muck of people’s lives looking for evidence to feed the worst suspicions of loved ones or checking that disability claimants weren’t skateboarding in their spare time did not sit well with their wholesome vision. And if work continued to decline as it was doing, they would soon have their wish.

* * *

With Al Greene gone I scribbled a note for Sandra to invoice him and checked the appointment book. I had a free afternoon, so I put my feet up on the desk and planned what to do with it. I would start with lunch, then an afternoon film at the Arts Cinema. Knocking interrupted my planning. Maybe Al was back to ask me if I was sure it was
his
wife I had photographed. I called the knocker in and the door opened to let in the nutritionist who had a room downstairs. She looked like a walking advertisement for her profession, and leant against the open door, folding her thin brown arms.

“Nina, what a pleasant surprise,” I said, and meant it; she was the only person in the building I could have a conversation with. I swung my feet off the desk. She took in the room with amused disdain – the walls cried out for paint, the carpet for more fibre. Only a couple of pot plants on Sandra’s desk provided an oasis of life. Nina’s dark skin and hair contrasted with the starched whiteness of her coat. A small pin sat in her lapel, which I assumed showed membership of a professional body, but I had never been close enough to examine it. “Have you come to join me for a Big Mac?” I asked. “You can go large for an extra 30p.” She smiled with almond eyes and too-perfect teeth; an uninhibited smile that stirred something in me. Sometimes, if I’d had a couple of drinks, I worried about what Nina wore under her white coat. She was at least ten years my junior, but it had been ten months since my wife had found that women were more exciting than men and moved to Greece with one. Consequently I was having difficulty getting close enough to appreciate them, never mind read the badges on their lapels.

“I can see you’re busy, George, so I won’t keep you. I just came to tell you that there’s someone downstairs asking for you.”

I checked the diary again and shook my head. “I’ve nothing more today.”

“You sure?” she asked, in mock surprise. “I’d have thought that people were queuing up to find out if their partners were cheating on them.” I gave her a crooked smile.

“It’s not all I do, you know. Besides, wouldn’t you want to know whether you were being cheated on?” She unfolded her arms and looked at the flaking ceiling, taking the question seriously.

“I’m not sure. I think I’d rather not know. Or if I suspected someone I’d rather just ask than get a private eye to spy on them.” I got out of my chair, hoping she would notice that I hadn’t let myself go completely. It was pathetic, anyone over forty would not register on her radar.

“Maybe we could go for that burger and discuss it?”

She smiled and opened the door.

“I always bring lunch to work, George. And anyway, I don’t eat meat.” She put her hand on the door. “I just came to tell you about your glamorous client.” I followed her out of the office. She started to walk away, and I wanted to ask her whether dinner was an option, but I’d left it too long and was relieved when she disappeared. Like I said, it was pathetic.

* * *

Dull November light filtered though the frosted glass window of the shared waiting room. It was empty except for a woman with oversized sunglasses and a silk headscarf who sat thumbing through an ancient copy of
HELLO!
magazine. She might have sprung from the pages of it herself, and I wished that I had spent more money on a suit. She lifted her head as I approached her, showing angled cheekbones and the sort of lips some women pursued through collagen injection. She appraised me through the dark glasses and I hoped she didn’t go on first appearances.

“George Kocharyan?” The accent was educated, clipped vowels, but difficult to pin down and a little strained. But then that described many people in Cambridge.

“I’m impressed, most people get Armenian names wrong,” I said. She stood up and smoothed her white, thigh-length raincoat. It cinched her waist with the help of a wide vinyl belt.

“May we talk in your office?”

Indeed we may, I thought, smelling money in her perfume.

2

MY OFFICE SEEMED MORE GRUBBY THAN USUAL WITH MY
fashion magazine guest in it. I offered her a seat and she hesitated before sitting down, as if waiting for me to brush it off.

“So, Mrs, Ms…?”

“Mrs. It’s Mrs, erm, Booker. Sylvia Booker.” She blushed momentarily at this revelation, but soon recovered. It was an effort for people sitting in her chair to reveal basic facts about themselves; they’d come this far and then struggle at the last hurdle.

“Mrs Booker,” I said. “How can Cambridge Confidential Services help you?” She looked round the room in case anyone might be lurking before taking off her large glasses. I was rewarded with piercing turquoise ovals. She undid her scarf revealing hair that spent many hours in a professional’s hands and small earlobes that sparkled with tiny diamonds. She studied my face as if she were trying to place me.

“It’s my daughter, Lucy.” She peeled off skin-tight gloves. Her nails must have been seen to while her hair was being done and another diamond on her finger kept a thick gold wedding band company. She put the gloves in a small handbag on her lap and I waited. From afar she’d looked early thirties but this close I put her just the wrong side of forty. Her right hand fussed with the rings on the other, with what I took to be nerves, unless of course she needed a drink, but then she’d have had one before coming here and wouldn’t have been the first.

“I’ve heard it all before, you know, you can’t shock me,” I told her in my most reassuring voice. She took a breath.

“I’m worried about her. I think that she may be running with the wrong crowd.” Her voice was low and smooth, like Grace Kelly in
Rear Window
.

“And what makes you think that?” I was curious as to what colour you would call her eyes. Was turquoise an eye colour?

“Her behaviour of course. She’s started at Emma this year.”

“Emma?”

“Sorry, Emmanuel College.”

I nodded. I knew where she meant, I just didn’t like her taking the knowledge for granted. Some people assumed the whole town revolved around the university.

“I don’t mean to question your concern, Mrs Booker, but isn’t this normal behaviour for a teenager?” She gave me a look telling me she wasn’t here for my insights into human behaviour.

“It’s more than that, there’s something else going on. She’s distracted when she’s at home, she’s deliberately picking fights.” From what little I knew of kids this sounded perfectly healthy to me – I must have looked sceptical.

“Do you have children, Mr Kocharyan?”

I shook my head.

“Lucy is a fragile girl, always has been. She’s easily influenced, manipulated even.” An interesting choice of word,
manipulated
.

“Do you think she’s taking drugs?”

She looked genuinely shocked.

“No! Absolutely not, Lucy would never take drugs.” Right. And she’s probably never had sex either.

“Is Lucy’s father of the same mind, Mrs Booker?”

She shifted her gaze fleetingly over my shoulder and brought it back. “How do you mean?”

“I mean, does he know you’re here?”

“Does that matter?”

“It would make things easier if I took the case, that’s all.”

“I can’t bother my husband with this. I’d rather that he knew nothing of it.”

“Why’s that then?”

She was annoyed at my question, annoyed that I was asking questions at all.

“He has enough on his plate. He has a position of responsibility at the university.”

Shit, not a university bod. I tried to stay clear of university business; a more inscrutable lot you couldn’t find. Like most educated people I’d had dealings with, words came from their mouths that did not match what they were thinking.

“I assume he isn’t a porter there?”

Her fine cheeks reddened and I almost felt sorry for her.

“No. No, he isn’t.” She studied her handbag. It was like pulling teeth.

“So what does he do?” Again with the blushing.

“He’s the Bursar at, erm, Morley.” My jaw tensed and I felt myself redden. It was bad enough he was a university big cheese, but to be at Morley of all places. I didn’t want this job; I wanted to be down the road watching a 1970s Italian crime film. They were showing one every afternoon this week at the Arts Cinema. I wrote MORLEY in capital letters on my pad.

“Have you tried talking to Lucy? Sometimes people just want to be asked whether anything is wrong.”

“Yes, yes of course I have, but she clams up. I know there is something going on, something she’s keeping from me. A mother knows.” Right. If mothers knew, I wouldn’t have them in here asking me to find out for them. My stomach grumbled for the sandwich waiting for me round the corner on Hills Road.

“Will you help me, Mr Kocharyan?”

“Perhaps you could call me George. Look, I’m not sure how I can…” Her impossible eyes shimmered and tears leaked onto her cheeks. Little sparkly jewels rolling out of bigger ones. I pushed the tissues towards her. I had a silly notion that I should dab the tears away myself, but I kept it a notion.

“I’m sorry, I’m just so worried.” She blew her nose and blotted her cheeks. She was either under a lot of strain or a very good actor.

“I’m still not sure what it is you want me to do,” I said. She took a silver compact from the bag on her lap. She opened it and checked her face, speaking as she wiped mascara tracks from her cheeks.

“Just look for unusual acquaintances. Anyone a fresher shouldn’t be consorting with.”

I wasn’t sure what sort of person that was, never having been a fresher myself, but imagined it included the sort of person your parents warned you about in the first place. I felt doubtful regarding the whole thing, it was too vague. She snapped her compact shut and looked at me with renewed confidence.

“I can pay in cash,” she said, fixing me with those turquoise eyes. They were like a weapon she could use at will. I was annoyed at this appeal to the mercenary in me but then I thought of paying Sandra this month – Mr Greene’s payment might not come through for weeks. I also thought of the Inland Revenue and the looming MOT on my ten-year-old Volkswagen Golf. On the plus side, the job would make a change from watching disability claimants to see if they were faking injury, which I hated. Stacked against it though was the fact it involved the university, which I also hated, and Morley College of all places. It was a question of which I hated more.

“It could get quite expensive,” I said, “depending on how long you want me to look.” She smiled for the first time, a triumphant lengthening of the lips which faded quickly.

“Money is not an issue, Mr… erm, George. I can even give you a retainer.” She opened the little handbag and retrieved a crisp white envelope, holding it by its edges as if tainted. It looked satisfyingly thick. “Would a thousand pounds be enough?” It was my turn to smile and I took the envelope, relishing its heaviness. I considered opening it, but counting money in front of her would have appeared cheap. Instead I put it down, opened a drawer and pulled out a standard contract with my terms and conditions on it. She shook her head and her hair swayed.

“Must there be paperwork?” she asked. “I’m prepared to trust you.”

“I’m flattered, but my assistant likes paperwork, it keeps her in a job.” She filled out her details on the form and I gave her a receipt for the money.

“I hope we can resolve this quickly, George.” She pushed the form across the table. She’d put her address as the Bursar’s Residence, Morley College.

“Shall we shake on it?” I said. She raised carefully shaped eyebrows but let me briefly hold her limp kipper of a hand. “I’ll need details of your daughter’s lectures, her regular movements, that sort of thing,” I said.

“It’s all in the envelope. There’s her weekly schedule, the names of her tutors and a photograph.” That explained the thickness of the envelope.

“I’m impressed. If only all my clients were so efficient.”

She favoured me with her first real smile and stood up, putting on her silk scarf and glasses. I could see my reflection in each lens.

“Is there some way I can reach you? Discreetly of course.”

She hesitated before removing a card from her bag. In an elaborate cursive font it read ‘Sylvia Booker’ and a mobile number, no occupation, no address. I passed her one of mine. I suggested we meet in a week unless I had something before. She nodded guardedly, as if reluctant to make any commitment, then looked at a tiny gold watch on her wrist.

I followed her perfume to the door.

“By the way, why did you choose Cambridge Confidential, Mrs Booker?” She stopped and looked back at me through the dark glass.

“I chose you, George, because I recognised the name on the website of your private eye association.”

I could have asked her what she meant but she’d stepped into the hall. Besides, I knew what it meant. It meant that she’d known my father at Morley.

3

I COUNTED OUT TWENTY-POUND NOTES FROM SYLVIA
Booker’s envelope as I ate my sandwich al-desko. I reached a thousand when the phone rang. It was Jason, Sandra’s eldest.

“Boss, why aren’t you having lunch with the fit Nina?”

“First, you can’t call her fit, I’m told it’s sexist—”

“But she is fit, boss, she’s a nutritionist and she obviously works out.” I rolled my eyes pointlessly.

“Second, I’m not a student like you, I can’t just ask women out.”

“Really? So how does it work when you’re an old geezer? Do you have to fill out a form and apply? Like planning permission but for dating.” He chuckled at his own joke and I thought of the dating agency website Sandra had e-mailed me the link to; I couldn’t even complete my profile on there. It just seemed a bit desperate, which of course is what I was becoming.

“Why am I discussing this with you, for fuck’s sake?”

He laughed down the line. “Relax, boss. She’s just a woman, not an alien. She might even be into older men.”

Jason was nineteen and doing a part-time music technology course at Anglia Ruskin University. His mother kept two jobs, one of which was with me and the other Jason knew nothing about, one which I had only learnt about a few months ago. I wished that I could offer Sandra more work but I struggled to pay her for the stuff she did and even that I could do myself if I could be bothered. But I’d known them a long time – ever since I’d established a few years ago that Jason’s father had skipped the family and country to concentrate on furthering his drug-dealing career.

“What can I do for you, Jason, besides teach you some manners?” I unfolded the sheets of paper that were in the envelope with the money. A head-and-shoulders photograph was paper-clipped to the front: Lucy Booker. Lucy had not inherited her mother’s looks. She had a tense face that reflected little joy. She looked familiar, of a type, mousy with a nose too big for her face. I had a nose myself, so I knew what I was talking about. I was curious to see what her father looked like.

“I’m just checking in, boss. See if you had any jobs going.” I glanced at the photo and then at the money. I could do worse than throw some of it his way.

“Something has come in which might need a younger face than I can manage.” I looked at my reflection in the window. “My windows also need cleaning.”

“OK, I can come by in the morning, but I’m not interested in cleaning windows.”

“Choosy bugger, I’ll need to run it by your mum first.”

“For fuck’s sake, boss, I’m over eighteen.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the arrangement she and I have.” He muttered down the phone. I sympathised, but Sandra did not compromise when it came to her kids. She was determined they would stay on the straight and narrow, and that Jason go to college and not straight into a job to support her and his young brother. Nothing was to get in the way of him finishing his course, not even any extra money that I knew they could use.

Sandra and Jason had also been there for me when Olivia had gone over. Others had been sympathetic but also either embarrassed at the circumstances or unaware of the personal blow to the old machismo – I believed that I must have failed somewhere on the manliness front.

“It was nothing you done, boss,” Jason had told me, a couple of weeks after Olivia had flown with the other woman – from her book group – to Greece to set up an artists’ retreat in an old farmhouse. I was still drowning my self-pity in beer at the time and Sandra would send Jason round to stop me from drinking too much. “She was probably into women all along but didn’t realise it,” he’d said.

“Right, so I just tipped her over the edge, is that it?” He’d had to put me to bed that night, bless him, just as Olivia had done once or twice when she had started to wind down the heterosexual phase of her life. I don’t suppose getting pissed had helped put the case for men, but I hadn’t realised I was making a case at the time; just that she was drifting away.

My train of thought was happily derailed by the thousand pounds in front of me. I returned nine hundred of it to the envelope and placed it in the small office safe. With my feet on the desk I read the neatly printed sheets Sylvia Booker had given me on her daughter. It was all there, the life of one Lucy Booker – daughter of Morley College Bursar – laid out in single-spaced, small-fonted detail, with her photo paper-clipped to the front, including a breakdown of her weekly lecture schedule – she was doing English Literature – and the societies she belonged to. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble putting it together, almost more trouble than I go to myself when tailing someone and writing a report.

There was nothing contentious, political, or even mildly exciting about what Lucy did, at least on paper. In fact her interests outside the course looked quite boring, and I wondered if they had been picked by her mother: Cambridge University Debating Society, Cambridge University Bridge Club, Cambridge Christians, hill walking, rowing team. Jesus, I was surprised she had time to get up to anything that didn’t meet with her mother’s approval. I also noted that she still lived with her parents on Morley College grounds – I hoped I wouldn’t have to go there.

I rang Sandra at home and prayed she wasn’t still asleep. She picked up on the third ring, sounding tired. She worked an adult chat line three nights a week and slept late the following mornings.

“I didn’t wake you?”

“No, you’re OK, I’m just on my way out to pick up Ashley.” Ashley was six years old and had a different father to Jason. Another bloke who didn’t hang around long. “Did you fill in your details on the dating site I sent you, George?” I decided it was easiest to lie.

“Yes I have. No matches yet though.”

She snorted. “You’re lying to me, George, I had a look last night for new entries. You haven’t filled anything in. One day I’m going to answer my premium rate line and you’ll be on the other end asking me what I’m wearing.” I felt my face warm at this image and didn’t know what to say. “Maybe you’re more of a webcam kind of guy, though. Thankfully I haven’t got the body for that sort of work. At least on the telephone I can wear my bathrobe and keep my legs hairy.” Now she was deliberately trying to embarrass me but knowing that didn’t lessen my discomfort.

“OK, I’ll do the bloody questionnaire.”

She laughed down the line, sounding like a train coming to a halt. “Sorry, George, but you do need a kick up the bloody arse.”

“I actually rang because I’ve got some work for Jason.” She calmed down.

“Is it marital stuff?”

“No, it’s a case of an overbearing mother unnecessarily worried about her offspring. You know the type.”

She snorted. “Are you taking the piss?”

“As if. Seriously though, it’s easy money.” She told me that as long as it didn’t interfere with his coursework then it was fine. “Tell me it’s not dangerous, George.”

“No,” I said. “It’s not dangerous.”

* * *

Later that afternoon I watched my 1970s Italian
poliziesco
film, one of only seven people in the cinema. I then drove home with a pizza for company. I made it a threesome with a bottle of Pilsner and we all got on just fine. I put on the Goldberg Variations (one of Olivia’s more successful attempts at improving me culturally) and then fired up the old computer to check my online vitals. While it was going through its interminable start-up routine I went round to the other side of the dining table where I had a chess problem set out on a large wooden board, the wooden pieces pleasingly heavy and tactile – a set that had belonged to my father. The board was out permanently now that Olivia was gone, and dinner parties a thing of the past. I’d also moved the computer down from the bedroom, thereby turning the dining room into my study. The chess problem was for white to mate in three, and the solution had eluded me for a couple of days. I made some half-hearted movements and returned to the computer.

* * *

Olivia had emailed me with another update of her restoration plans, which I couldn’t bring myself to read. Instead I found the email from Sandra with the witty subject header ‘Getting back on the horse’ and clicked on the link to the dating agency website. Eventually – I still connected to the Internet using a modem and my telephone line – a conventionally attractive couple (him brown, she white) appeared on the screen, grinning stupidly as they ran through a sun-drenched and daisy-covered meadow hand in hand. I sighed and brought up a blank search page and Googled Sylvia Booker. Her name appeared in links to a couple of local charities, and a quick scan of the sites told me she was a trustee of both. One related to homelessness, the other to rehabilitating ex-drug addicts. I also looked up her husband, who turned out to be one Elliot Booker, although I didn’t get as far as finding pictures of him. Then I got distracted and ended up checking out a few other women completely unrelated to the case, none of them as attractive as Sylvia, but all of them in fewer clothes. Like I said before, it was pathetic.

4

I LIVE NORTH OF THE RIVER CAM IN A HOUSE I INHERITED FROM
my parents which I could not afford today if I tried to buy it. The area has become gentrified with the type who drive people carriers and go camping in France when they can afford a beach holiday in Tenerife. It took me no longer than ten minutes to drive to the office and park on the small forecourt, because I avoided the nine-to-five traffic. I walked round the corner to Hills Road and bought a black coffee to go from Antonio’s, one of the few remaining independent coffee shops in the city. The clock on Our Lady and the English Martyrs told me that it was nearly ten, my usual time of arrival if I’m in the office. When I got back to my building an unmarked police car was parked on the double-yellows outside, hazard lights flashing. I could tell it was a police car because a plain-clothed copper was sitting at the wheel, and you can’t mistake a plain-clothes. They’d also removed the hubcaps, so they don’t come off in a high-speed chase. The driver was picking his nose, rolling his harvest into a ball before examining it and flicking it out the window.

I was about to enter the building when a skinny woman in a blue trouser suit came striding out the door. She squinted at me with ice-blue eyes that were a bit too close together.

“George Korkyan?” She had her hair pulled back painfully hard in what Sandra called a Croydon facelift.

“No,” I said. She stepped forward, and I could hear a crackle of static in her shiny suit.

“You’re not George Korkyan, private investigator?” She had a reedy voice high-octaved with tension.

“No. I’m George Kocharyan, private investigator. And you are?” She whipped out a badge from inside her jacket; it hung on a chain round her sinewy neck.

“I’m Detective Inspector Stubbing. Guv’nor wants to see you.” She made her way towards the unmarked car, expecting me to follow without question.

“Well the guv’nor, whoever that is, knows where to find me,” I said to her back. I walked into the building and went upstairs. I left the door to my office open and sat at my desk. I’d just taken the lid off my coffee when she strode in, giving me a look that would strip paint. She put her palms flat on either side of the desk and leant over.

“Listen, Kockerhead, or whatever your fucking name is, Detective Chief Inspector Brampton is waiting at a crime scene, and unless you come with me now, I’ll haul you over to Parkside to wait for her there, and she could be some time.” Her spittle sprayed my coffee and I looked at her to see if she was bluffing, but all I saw were the straining tendons in her neck and a throbbing vein in her temple.

“You didn’t come through the fast-track graduate scheme, did you?”

She gave me her paint-stripping stare and her lips quivered dangerously so I got up before she exploded.

“Why didn’t you say it was Brampton?” I said. “She’s like a mentor to me.” I left the coffee on the desk.

I sat in the back of the car alone as nose-picker drove and Stubbing sat silently beside him. Brampton’s and my paths had crossed last year, at some management seminar run by a management consultancy firm which was coordinating efforts to licence private investigators. Brampton was a speaker, introduced as a Cambridge graduate who was bringing industry management practices to the police force. Her speech was peppered with jargon that I didn’t understand and no one had bothered to explain.

We drove south past the small city that is Addenbrooke’s Hospital towards the Gogs, the highest point outside Cambridge. I felt a tightening in my gut. It got tighter as we turned right towards Magog Down and then waved under the yellow tape held up by a uniform into the car park where I had photographed Trisha Greene and her friends, and was fully knotted by the time I saw the police cars and vans surrounding Mrs Greene’s little blue cabriolet, an exclusion zone round it defined by more yellow tape. A tent that had been erected to prevent the rain washing evidence away was being dismantled. Stubbing got out and I followed her lead.

“This way,” she ordered. We walked up to where DCI Brampton was talking to an elderly woman cradling a small dog in a coat. We stood at a distance, waiting. I gathered from what I strained to hear that the woman had found the car early this morning. I noticed that underneath her open raincoat Brampton was wearing an expensive and well-cut version of what Stubbing had on, and also had her hair tied back, but less severely than Stubbing’s eyebrow-lifting effort. She was stocky and looked like she was on a richer diet than Stubbing. We approached when the woman had been led away by the uniform.

“George, thanks for coming up,” Brampton said, in that pleasant way of speaking educated middle-class people have even when they are shafting you. She did not offer to shake hands. She reminded me of my headmistress at secondary school – severity wrapped up in charm. Her round nose and pudgy cheeks were red with cold.

“DCI Brampton,” I said. “Thanks for dragging me up here. If it wasn’t for community-minded policing I’d never get any fresh air.” She gave me the sort of smile bad poker players give you when they know they are holding a better hand than yours. “Step this way, George.” Stubbing, grinning at me with gappy teeth, lifted the yellow ribbon surrounding the cabriolet. Brampton stepped under and then Stubbing let go of the tape as I was about to follow. I lifted it myself and caught up with them.

“You’re just in time, the SOCOs have finished,” Brampton said. We walked up to the car, me wishing that forensics still had several hours’ work to do and I could delay seeing what I knew I was about to see. Brampton shooed away a photographer in protective white overalls. The driver’s door was open and Trisha Greene, naked from the waist up, was slumped in the seat. I say slumped: her neck was fastened by a wide leather belt to the bars of the seat headrest, her head lolling forward in an unnatural position, her eyes still open, as if surprised at her own topless state. Her dress had been ripped open at the front and pulled down over her arms; it had also been pushed up her parted thighs and was bunched at her waist. Her body was relaxed, which made her neck look longer than I remembered. Brampton turned to me. “I think you come up here more than you make out, George. I think you might know this woman.” There seemed little point in lying about it; they obviously knew I had been watching her, although the swollen, purple face I saw now bore little relation to the pretty, animated one I’d photographed last week.

“Know is a strong word. I’ve seen her from a distance, through a camera.”

“Pervert,” said Stubbing. Brampton smiled.

“Detective Inspector Stubbing here has a strong moral streak,” said Brampton. “She disapproves of people spying on other people who are having sex.”

“I think that’s the idea, isn’t it? They come up here to be seen,” I said.

“By other perverts,” spat Stubbing. Brampton raised her bushy eyebrows and asked her to go and check something with a scene of crime officer.

“Would you mind identifying the woman in the car, George, just for the record.” I did the necessary, then tore my gaze from Trisha Greene and turned to Brampton.

“I’ll assume you’re holding the husband, since he’s not doing the identifying?”

She pulled her raincoat round her and shrugged to keep warm.

“He’s made a statement, we’re just confirming his story. He says he hired you to watch her and that she was having an affair.” I told her the truth about Trisha’s activities, omitting the fact that I’d advised her husband to confront her.

“He doesn’t seem the type,” I said, as we walked back to the cars.

“There isn’t a type, George, just motive and opportunity.” She signalled for the waiting forensics team to remove the body. “I’m not pleased about this,” she said, in a tone suggesting that it might be my doing. “I try to keep a clean patch, and this sort of thing is not good for Cambridge. The press are going to love it, especially if it involves private investigators and public sex.” She stared at me and I didn’t care for the way she linked the two things.

“The press won’t get anything from me, it’s your lot you need to worry about. And Mrs Greene didn’t die because of something I did,” I added, mainly for my own benefit. She said nothing, but studied the forensic team carefully removing Mrs Greene from the cabriolet into a black body bag, removing the belt that had been used to strangle her. I could now see that it had a brass buckle and tried to remember whether Al Greene had been wearing it when he’d been in my office.

“There must have been people up here who saw her.”

“You weren’t one of them, were you?”

“No. I was not. The case was over, as I’m sure the husband has told you.”

“You may have become infatuated with her, George. She was quite pretty, wasn’t she?”

“I was at home,” I said, alarmed at the direction this was taking.

“Alibi?”

“Do I need one?”

She ignored me and spoke to someone about getting the car picked up.

Stubbing came over and ignored me as well.

“We’re ready when you are, ma’am.” Brampton nodded at her and turned to me.

“Don’t go anywhere, George, we’ll need to take a statement and some DNA and see any other details you’ve collected while you were following her. Stubbing will liaise with you.” Stubbing leered at me as if Brampton had promised me to her sexually.

“I can’t wait,” I said.

“Play nice, George,” Brampton said. “By rights we can just seize your computer and files. But I prefer we all be singing from the same hymn sheet.”

“Come by the station first thing tomorrow,” Stubbing said, as if I worked for her. They walked over towards the unmarked car, one a cheap imitation of the other. Arse-licking Stubbing opened the door for Brampton. I obviously wasn’t getting a lift into Cambridge. Stubbing closed the door on Brampton and shouted to me, “You can go back with Mrs Greene, get one last gawp at her.”

She got into the driver’s seat and I watched her have a good laugh with the driver at my expense. As the car pulled out she stuck her hand out of the window and made a wanking gesture at me below window level where Brampton couldn’t see it.

5

I TRAVELLED INTO CAMBRIDGE IN THE BLACK VAN THAT TOOK
Mrs Greene to the morgue at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, upfront with the driver and his mate. From there I had to catch a bus into town, cursing Stubbing all the while.

Jason was sitting at his mother’s desk when I got into my office; he was logged onto her computer and moving the mouse about on its mat. It was one of those mats you could slot your own picture into and Sandra had put a photo of Ashley in it, a little brown kid with curly hair and a mischievous smile. Jason, on the other hand, was a pale long-limbed youth with wavy brown hair that he had to push back to see the screen. He was so engrossed he didn’t look up when I crossed to my desk. He wore his usual jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, always with the hood down. I sat at my desk and looked at my cold coffee, contaminated with Stubbing’s spit.

“I hope you’re not surfing for porn,” I said.

“I’m updating your virus software, and your system is riddled with malware. And another thing, when’s the last time you did a backup?”

“Ask your mum.” This is why I didn’t have a computer myself at work; I just couldn’t be bothered with all that stuff.

“I’ll do one now.” As he worked he wittered on about the importance of backups, and the technicalities involved, but I wasn’t listening. When I didn’t say anything he said, “You can thank me later.”