It’s strange how suddenly things can change – a bit like the weather in this God-forsaken part of the world. One minute I am telling Brian, the rather insolent young man behind the reception desk, about the leaking tap in my room, and the next I turn away and head for the car park only to walk slap bang into the most unexpected face from the past.
‘Madeleine Smith!’ I say again. I feel my mouth gawping open in disbelief.
‘Alec Smart,’ she says after a long pause. She eyes me warily, sizing me and the situation up. She is a fencer in the ‘en guarde’ position, assessing when and how to make her first strike.
‘Would you credit it?’ I respond. ‘You look younger than ever.’
It was a lie of course. I knew it. She knew it. But in my experience women invariably appreciate this kind of lie.
‘Well, you certainly don’t,’ she says, lunging for my jugular.
‘Ouch,’ I say.
She briefly releases a smile, but it is a smile that she smothers almost at birth. Nevertheless, in view of our history, I take that glimmer as a small victory.
It was five years since we had last seen each other – outside the courtroom – and she had done her best to hold back the inevitable march of time. But the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes were easy to spot, and her hair had, most obviously, changed colour. No longer a gentle russet brown, it was now brazenly blonde. That didn’t bother me. What woman hasn’t at some time dyed her hair in an attempt to present herself anew to the outside world? In my book that’s a plus, a sign that a woman wants to show herself off to best advantage, that she hasn’t yet given up, that whether she consciously knows it or not, she still wants to be out there, turning male heads. Give me a mature reconstructed blonde any time rather than a twenty-year-old natural bimbo. In my experience, they are more interesting to be with, more appreciative of one’s efforts and more tolerant of the occasional let down.
‘You’re staying here!’ I exclaim.
‘Very observant,’ she says sarcastically. ‘Once a private dick, always a private dick.’
Her eyes narrow, studying my face for signs – signs of what I am not quite sure. I do my Dirty Harry, I’m-not-gonna-blink routine and I keep looking straight back at her. Eventually she cracks.
‘Well,’ she says. ‘I must go or I’ll be late for my meeting.’
‘See you tonight?’ I call after her, but she doesn’t even glance back. Bitch!
At 8.30 that evening there is still no sign of her, so I give up waiting and go into the dining room alone. I eat modestly – by my standards – and I return to the bar at 9.15. Suddenly, ten minutes later she appears, somewhat dramatically through the swing doors, all wet and windswept. She strides to the bar and orders a Bloody Mary. I slip in beside her and insist on buying it. She acquiesces with a silent shrug and we retreat to a corner from where she looks intently out across the estuary.
For a while we sit in silence. Normally, I don’t do silence, but I sense that I am there only on sufferance and I don’t want to mess up. Eventually, though, me being me, I just have to say something.
‘I am sorry, you know.’
She frowns. Either she is uncertain as to whether she understands me correctly or her mind has been over the hills and far away.
‘About Jake,’ I explain. I pause. I do not find saying this easy. ‘I was just doing my job.’
She looks at me, but not the way I want her to. ‘Just doing your job! Jesus!’
‘The evidence was overwhelming,’ I protest. ‘And it all pointed to Jake.’
She leans forward, until her face is as close as she can possibly get it to mine across the low table which separates us. ‘Jake was innocent!’ she whispers. ‘He was bloody innocent.’ Her eyes are moist. It’s not the rain. A single tear runs down the side of her nose.
I take one, two sips of my whisky. Deep down, I know that she’s right. My thoughts – like hers no doubt – have back-tracked five years and are churning furiously.
She and I had met one July evening, and despite the ring on her finger, we’d royally hit it off. I can’t say why, but I seemed to attract married women. The very next day David Griffiths had called me into his office and asked me to investigate his company, D & S Foods. Money had been disappearing. He had his suspicions, but he needed proof. For a couple of weeks I spent my working hours snooping around and finding proof, which pointed unequivocally towards Griffith’s partner Jake Smith. And during my non-working hours I devoted my energies to getting to know Madeleine Smith better.
Smith is the commonest name in England, and it was only after Jake Smith had been charged that I discovered that his wife was none other than my current squeeze, Madeleine. Needless to say, that put the kibosh on Madeleine and me.
Jake protested his innocence in court, but I had assembled a stack of evidence and he was found guilty and imprisoned for six years. David Griffiths thanked me, settled my invoice and paid for a fortnight in Barbados by way of a bonus. Maybe I should have smelt a rat then. But all I felt was a slight sense of unease as, reclining on the beach, I began to wonder about Jake’s vehement protestations and whether it hadn’t all been just a little bit too easy for me to find all that evidence against him. Even so, on my return to home I found it wasn’t so hard to put Jake and all such thoughts out of my mind. What I couldn’t do, however, was to put Madeleine Smith out of my mind. Not then and not now.
Madeleine and I have unfinished business. Normally my relationships burn brightly for a while until familiarity and boredom take their toll to such an extent that one of us – usually me – calls time. But that had never happened with Madeleine. The flames of passion had been, I like to think, still running wild and free between us until the conclusion of my own investigation and Jake Smith’s subsequent arrest had separated us as completely and decisively as any French revolutionary guillotine.
I look across at her now and wonder if she still carries a torch for me. She has just checked her face in her compact mirror and brushed her hair back into its place. She has recovered her poise, but she says nothing as she surveys me from under her fringe.
I try to show concern. ‘How is Jake, then? He must be out by now.’
She looks back at me and laughs, though it’s a laugh without laughter – if you know what I mean. ‘He’s out all right. Got out early, he did, for good behaviour. But to what? With his record – no job, no reputation, no future. So one morning he walked up to the top of the multi-storey car park, spread out his arms and took the quick route down. End of Jake.’
It is 7.30 the following evening. Madeleine is already at the bar when I come in. Somewhat to my surprise, she offers me a drink and then agrees to my suggestion that we have dinner together. With some care, we talk about the present – about her job (selling pharmaceuticals to health centres) and mine, and films and politics and God knows what – until we run dry. The silence is neither companionable nor golden. There is unfinished business and we both know it. Finally, I ask a question. I fear it will sound trite, but I say it anyway.
‘Can you forgive me?’
She lays her knife and fork down on her plate. She wipes her mouth on her napkin and her eyes focus on mine. ‘I would like to. I’m sure my psychotherapist would say it would be better for me if I did,’ she says. ‘But it’s not easy.’
‘No,’ I agree. I pause before adding: ‘Thank you anyway.’
Again there is silence between us. She breaks it: ‘David Griffiths has just bought himself a yacht, you know.’
‘Oh!’ I say, because I am not sure what else to say.
‘To go with his new Bentley and his new country house and his new trophy wife. D & S Foods must be doing very well. And now he doesn’t have to share the profits with a business partner.’
‘Yes,’ I agree.
She picks up her glass of wine, and empties it. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘you want forgiveness. I want revenge.’
I study my empty wine glass, while I try to think. Finally I say, ‘Perhaps, I can help?’
She nods. It is what she has been waiting for – an offer of help. She stands up. ‘Do you have a business card?’ I hand one over. She glances at it before slipping it into her handbag. She does not offer me hers in return. ‘I have an early start tomorrow. A meeting in Birmingham. But I’ll be in touch in due course.’
She walks away. At the dining-room door, she looks back and gives a half wave. I raise my glass to her. A smile flickers across her face before she turns on her heel and exits. Rather a pretty heel, actually.
A couple of months pass before she contacts me. We meet just as dusk is falling in a desolate excuse of a car park overlooking the Bristol Channel. As I get into her car, I am cast back five years, to our first furtive and thrilling meetings. All day I have been weighing up the wisdom of trying to kiss her on the cheek, but as soon as my door clips shut, she starts talking, blowing any such thoughts out of the water.
‘Four weeks ago, I was burgled. Someone forced their way into my house through a back window and found my jewellery. I happened to come home while the burglar was still there. Out of the darkness he fired a gun. He missed me fortunately, but escaped with the jewels. I was able to give the police a pretty good description of them – I’ve got photos with me wearing some of them – and they found the bullet embedded in the wall.’ She pauses. ‘All clear so far?’
‘Crystal,’ I say.
She leans over to the back seat, where she picks up a black bag, and passes it to me. ‘Here you are.’
‘Let me guess,’ I say, because I am not so slow that I don’t know where this is leading. ‘Jewellery?’
But when I take the bag from her hand, I realise it’s too heavy for just jewellery. I look inside.
Madeleine has planned out everything with great care, but that is the least I would expect from her.
It is 8pm the following Wednesday and I am parked in my car three streets away from the impressively large house in which David Griffiths and his new wife Cherie live. Anytime now David will be receiving a phone call, telling him that his Cherie has been taken to hospital after being injured in a car accident. He will leave for the hospital in such a hurry that he will – hopefully – not switch his security system on. Shortly afterwards, I will receive a phone call to confirm that the coast is clear. Allowing fifteen minutes for him to drive to hospital, ten minutes for him to discover that Cherie is not there and another fifteen to drive home, that leaves me plenty of time to effect entry into the house, plant the jewellery and the gun, and leave. David will return to his home puzzled but none the wiser. Shortly afterwards, the police will get a tip-off, descend on the Griffiths’ house and find the incriminating evidence. Goodbye, David.
As I sit in my car, I imagine I can smell her perfume; I touch my cheek where she had kissed me at the last: ‘Remember,’ she had said, ‘there must be no contact between us for at least six months, nothing to link us together. But eventually, when it’s safe, I’ll get in contact with you. I promise.’ And then she had kissed me, a single, unexpected, unutterably wonderful kiss. I took it as a sign of forgiveness.
My mobile rings. I put it to my ear. It is an unknown number, but I recognise her voice, even though she says just one word: ‘OK’. She rings off. Her pay-as-you-go mobile will no doubt be at the bottom of the Avon before I have fulfilled my part of the bargain. She is that sort of woman. Organised to a T and totally entrancing.
Getting into the house proves easy. Opening locked doors is an essential skill for a private investigator. Once inside, I wait and listen. The alarm stays silent. There are no unexpected sounds emanating from any part of their home, so I move upstairs and find the main bedroom. The curtains are already drawn, so I switch on the light. Where to hide the jewellery? Nowhere too obvious and yet nowhere too hidden. Eventually I place it under the ski clothes in the trunk at the bottom of the bed. The gun needs to go somewhere else, somewhere where his wife wouldn’t look, but the police will. Where is the study?
Then … I hear a sound. A car door slams shut. I freeze. I force down the panic I feel rising from my gut. Leather soled shoes advance along the path to the front door. I move out of the bedroom and onto the stairs as quickly and silently as I can, but I’m only halfway down when the front door swings open and I see a bulky figure framed against the outside light. ‘What the hell?!’ the figure shouts. There is an umbrella stand by the side of the front door. Slamming the door shut behind him, Griffiths turns towards it and reaches down for a weapon. I do not hesitate now. I am moving fast down the stairs – two steps at a time – and I whirl round the bottom of the banisters, en route for the back door. But Griffiths is brandishing in his right hand not an umbrella but a golf club. He swings it at me and it cracks me hard on the shoulder. I stumble to the ground, but twist round, preparing for the worst. I see his arm rising high, preparatory to making a second strike. His snarling face is a mask of hatred. He has recognised me.
So I pull the trigger of the gun that is grasped in my hand. I am surprised by the noise of the gunshot. I am surprised too by the sudden blooming of a red flower in the middle of his white shirt. He drops to the floor now in slow motion. He is on his knees, coughing blood.
‘Bastard,’ he screams, nevertheless.
I say nothing in reply. What is there to say? I merely pull the trigger again. He collapses prone on the floor and he stops coughing. He doesn’t even twitch.
I am sent down for twenty years. I’d been unlucky: Detective Sergeant Alistair Cameron and his constable just happened to be in the road at the time, investigating reports of an intruder lurking in the gardens of a house just two doors up. So they had heard the gun shots. They caught me as I reached my car. I had by that time disposed of the gun in a bush in the front garden, but they found it the next morning. There were no fingerprints on it because I had had the foresight to wear gloves, but the combination of the gun, all the forensic tests they can run nowadays and my own botched attempt to flee the crime scene were more than sufficient to see me found unanimously guilty.
So that was that.
Or very nearly.
Madeleine was true to her word about getting in touch, although it was very nearly a year later before she actually did so. Then a postcard addressed to me arrived at Her Majesty’s Prison. It was from Las Vegas. ‘Just married!’ it said. ‘Love M’. And below that: ‘PS Alistair sends his love.’
For several moments I was puzzled. Who the hell was this Alistair? And then the penny dropped. DS Alistair Cameron.
‘Bitch!’ I screamed. And I kept on screaming until the screws came and shut me up.
Peter Tickler asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work