Chapter 1 Kristin
‘The Virgin Islands? Are you crazy? Where the hell are they anyway? And why would I want to go there?’ She glared at him, her deep brown eyes showing her hurt, knowing he hadn’t told her everything. In the background a slightly too loud CD played an unknown band with a lead singer whose screeching voice made her head vibrate with irritation. It was a source of regular disharmony between them; he liked his music to intrude whilst she preferred hers to work delicate magic on her frazzled nerves in the background.
‘There’s something else,’ he said eventually. He fiddled with his wine glass before he spoke again but she knew better than to try to hurry him. He would tell her whatever it was in his own way, in his own time. Unless she murdered him first, of course.
‘This is good,’ he offered. ‘Want some more?’ He held the glass by its stem and inspected its contents against the light from the living room window. From the corner of his eye he caught the expression on her face and grinned like an abashed school kid.
‘Sorry. I didn’t finish what I was saying, did I?’
The angle of her head, tilted in exasperation, told him he ought not to press his luck further. He raised his hands in mock surrender. ‘Sorry. You were asking where the Virgin Islands were. Think North Caribbean, South East of Cuba. Great sailing, former British colony or dependency or something. Very stable. No crime. Virtually. Sure you don’t want some more?’ His hand drifted in the direction of the bottle.
‘What I would like,’ she said slowly, ‘is to know why you want to go there. Also, what is the something else?’
‘Let’s go out and see Mr Bengali. I can tell you properly then. Although I’m just a little worried about you having a knife in your hand.’
‘I just can’t believe it,’ she told him, her eyes luminescent with tears. ‘How could you, when you knew perfectly well that…’
He was on his feet towards her and took the glass from her hand, placing it on the side table. He pulled her towards him and murmured in her ear, ‘You heard?’
He felt her head nod once but her body was stiff, resisting him as she so often did to maintain her independence, and he held her until she softened and melted against him. Then she clung to him as if he were a log on a tidal downriver flood and her salvation depended on him. He spoke gently into her ear but the words were meaningless and did not matter. After a while he pulled back and looked into her smudged eyes.
‘So, we’ve got a problem?’
She nodded. ‘I didn’t think we did. I was so happy. I thought you would be too. Now you want to go to Cuba or somewhere and I don’t even know why.’
‘Food is still a good idea. I’ll book a table whilst you get ready. Okay?’
She nodded wordlessly, offered him a tear streaked smile, and turned before he could see her face. Couldn’t he have let her enjoy her moment, however short lived it turned out to be in reality, without fucking it up?
She scrubbed her face and reapplied enough makeup to restore normal service around her eyes, brushed her teeth and changed into her favourite blue slacks and a white blouse, all the time telling herself not to be a stupid cow, to listen to what he had to tell her without getting into an emotional drama or for god’s sake – bursting into tears again like a fucking teenager. After all, it wasn’t the first time he had come home with dramatic news – and she doubted it would be the last.
The proprietor of the Bengali Curry House greeted them for the regulars they were and showed them to their favourite table in the far corner. It was still early and the restaurant was almost empty, although a noisy group had followed them in and it would not be long before the jangling background music was swamped by laughter and voices. By silent consent, they did not spoke of the things that had to be spoken of until their drinks arrived, beer for him, red wine for her. Fortunately, it was one of the reasons they came here a lot, the Bengali was within easy walking distance of Alex’s house, which allowed them both to drink more than they would have contemplated if they had been driving, even if they did usually regret it the following morning.
Moira was ready to talk before he was. She carefully placed the wine glass on its mat and focused her gaze on him until he stopped drinking. His attention slid over her shoulder to Mr Bengali who was hovering, waiting to take their order. She suppressed a harrumph of impatience and ordered Jalfrezi chicken with onion bhajee and rice whilst he, as always, couldn’t choose between his favourite tandoori dish and something new and exotic. He plumped for the tandoori eventually, as she had known he would and she took a deep breath as the waiter minced away.
‘Come on, Alex. Put me out of my misery.’ She was angry now, keen to find out the worst.
‘Okay. I warn you though…’
‘I didn’t know you two came in here. How are you both?’ The animated tones belonged to a woman from the large party, which had to Moira’s irritation taken up the long bench seats next to them. ‘Look Davey, it’s Alex and Moira. What a coincidence!’
Statistically, Moira knew that if a room contained a certain number of bodies the chance that you would already know someone in it was significantly higher than people usually guessed. She wondered darkly what the statistical probability was that you might actually like the someone.
‘Hullo, Kristin. Davey. Nice to see you. Big party.’ Moira’s hand flickered towards the long table as if to say “you ought not to neglect your friends”. Her lack of enthusiasm was palpable but Kristin was incapable of noticing snubs of even limited subtlety and she made a face and whispered to Moira:
‘Don’t know what we’re doing here. It’s a goodbye do, I think, but I don’t actually know the girl who’s leaving.’ Her hand wafted towards the other end of the table as indifferently as Moira’s had done but her gaze held Moira in a grip of adamantine. ‘Still, if Alex doesn’t mind too much, I can talk to you instead, can’t I?’
Alex won’t blood mind. It’ll let him off the hook nicely.
Moira glanced at him, expecting to see a nod of agreement. Instead he was speaking. ‘Actually, Kristin, it’s lovely to see you both but this is a bit of a bad moment. Moira and I are just talking about splitting up. Could end up either way at this stage but whichever it is, there’s likely to be a bit of blood on the floor before we’re done. Best to stay clear, probably.’
‘Don’t be such a tease, Alex. You and Moira are like…’
‘Shut up, Kristin,’ Davey told her. ‘Sorry, you two. She hasn’t the sense she was born with. Not that that’s saying much.’
Alex kept a straight face as Kristin turned coldly towards her partner and began to berate him in a low poisonous tone, which reminded Moira of just how little she cared for the woman, although Davey had gone up in her estimation. A little. Still didn’t put him very high up, mind you. She looked at Alex, grimaced and then said quietly:
‘Nice try, masked man, but I fancy walls will have ears. Shall we go somewhere else?’
He shook his head and wrinkled his nose in a familiar gesture that she knew she would miss. It was a thought that had made her sad all evening. He was going away, the reason didn’t much matter, and although he would ask her to go and in some ways she would want to, still she would say no.
‘I’ve packed in the job, Moira. I expect you guessed that. I couldn’t stand it any more. You know how miserable it’s made me for the last god knows how long. I told them this morning and they’ve asked me to think it over, the usual guff, but I’m definitely going.’
‘They might offer you a partnership now, I suppose,’ she replied, as if his decision to go was the most likely catalyst for this. ‘You’d stay then, wouldn’t you?’
‘I might have done once, although I don’t think they will want to keep me that badly. But not now.’
She resolved to make it as hard for him as she knew how. He was holding back something but it was as if he expected her to prise it out of him. Well, she was damned if she was going to play. She said brightly instead:
‘Well, my news is just as good. Donald has confirmed my grade promotion and…wait for it…. I start as department head on 1st May. So perhaps I’ll just keep you in the style to which you have become accustomed whilst you decide what you want to do next.’
‘I know that.’
She didn’t understand the remark. Did he meant that he knew she would keep him until he got a new job or that he already knew what he wanted to do next?
‘Look at those two,’ she whispered. Kristin and Davey had locked gazes and were hissing at each other, not quite beneath their breath but just low enough not to attract attention. Soon their bickering would escalate into either a shouting match or a world class sulk on Kristin’s part. ‘That was your fault,’ Moira accused him.
‘She’s your friend,’ he answered.
‘God, is she? How?’
‘She was with the Foreign office and you met her when you were working in London. Don’t you remember?’
She did not want him to remember the London job and shrugged. ‘Don’t remember.’
He sighed. ‘She invited you to a party and you insisted that I come with you because, you said, you couldn’t bear to go on your own. And much against my better judgement, we went and she and Davey had invited an Afghan warlord, to liven things up according to her. And that was when you…’
‘Okay, okay, I remember.’
‘At least she doesn’t have blood on the carpet to worry about tonight.’
‘There was no blood, Alex! I hit him because he was being very offensive and I was a bit drunk.’
‘Not the other way around? ‘he answered quickly.
‘Possibly,’ she admitted. ‘On which topic, let’s have another drink and you can tell me why it’s not good news for me to have been promoted.’
‘I didn’t say it wasn’t,’ he protested.
‘No? Where’s the champagne? The hugs and kisses, the big smile?’ She smiled sadly at him and felt her heart shrivel a little. ‘You didn’t need to, Alex. But you do need to tell me why.’
‘I was trying to tell you earlier. I’m sorry that it’s all happened at the same time. I’m really pleased that you got the promotion but…’ he paused. ‘It makes it hard to ask you to come with me.’
‘To the Virgin Islands?’
He nodded. ‘The thing is, I handed in my notice because I heard about something today too. Something that I’d been waiting for …all my life really.’
She shook her head in mystification. ‘What?’
‘Let me pitch it properly. Please.’
The arrival of their starters interrupted her shrug of exasperation. Why did she have not the slightest inkling what it was that her partner had been waiting all his life for? Had she been so wrapped up in her own amazing world that they had never managed to talk about the things that were important to him? Or was he such a secretive person that he did not want to share it with her? In which case why did she not even know that much about him? He was talking again and she suddenly realised she had not been listening.
‘…not what I wanted to do. Dull people, dull figures, and stultifyingly dull disagreements. I missed my chance at partnership 2 years ago largely because they could see how bored I was. And all the time I had this picture in my mind of what I really wanted to do.’ He took a mouthful of beer and framed the image in his mind with his hands. ‘A blue sky, fleecy clouds scudding across like frightened sheep in the breeze, white sails and flecks of foam as the hull knifes through the sea. Did I mention it was dark blue in the deep water and turquoise where it shelved? Clear as a virgin’s conscience.’
Moira raised her eyebrows in amusement.
‘Okay, clear as the clearest water you can imagine. Pure and crystalline. In the distance you can see an island covered in vegetation, perhaps a solitary coloured roof or two marking out the houses. Behind you – Tortola Harbour, where the forests of masts define the marinas. Half the visitors to the Islands charter a boat. It’s easy, line of sight stuff mainly, no horrible reefs, good wind, not too stuffy even when it’s hot, because the winds come in from the Atlantic and freshen it up. It’s a place to dream.’
Moira had never seen him speak so lyrically. An invariable cynicism tinged with affection, if she was lucky, was what she expected from him and she was rarely disappointed. An unpredictable depression that sat on his shoulder twice a year, making him silent and withdrawn, was the other persona she knew. This passion came as a surprise even though she had always understood that he loved the sea as much as she did.
‘I first went there before any one had heard of it in the UK. My parents chartered a 35 footer and we flew in via San Juan, changing planes three times, like taking a train to somewhere outlandish in the West Country. The whole thing took over 24 hours. I can still remember the beach at San Juan next to the airport. I wandered up and down it for an hour waiting for the flight, before anyone was up. We took a little plane, powered by a rubber band and flew into Beef Island, then took a taxi down to this awful little marina where we had arranged to pick up a Bénéteau. And off we went. The most magical two weeks of my life.’
‘How old were you?’ she asked.
‘Sixteen. Nearly too old to go on holiday with my folks but they knew it was the last one and they wanted to make it special.’ His eyes grew reflective as if he had also lost his virginity there.
‘Anyway, there’s a place called Soper’s Hole. Sunsail had its base there for years. Then they moved and an outfit called Erin bought it and ran it for a few years.’
‘A company called Alexander Holdings Inc owns it. As of this morning.’
‘Ah,’ she said, her voice flat with foreknowledge. ‘How does that involve you exactly?’
Heads in all parts of the restaurant turned in their direction as the cast iron skillet of red-hot marsala sauce landed on Davey’s lap and he reacted with a single arresting four-letter word of protest. Kristin was on her feet and he stared at her in shock for a moment, forgetting the contents of the skillet as they seeped slowly into his trousers. Then, as she swept out without a word or a backward glance, the heat penetrated to his skin and the faces which had watched with either malicious curiosity or mild interest burst into laughter and applause as he swore again and began a war dance to rid himself of the burning curry in his lap. The skillet fell to the floor with a clatter, spilling its remaining contents onto the carpet. Moira lifted her feet away from the fallout zone in alarm as Mr Bengali’s troops swiftly moved in to clean up the debris with cloths and courteous amusement. Davey hobbled to the men’s room to sponge himself off, shrugging off the offers of help with irritable gestures of dismissal and more bad language.
‘Something he said, do you imagine?’ asked Alex.
Moira hated to see such public displays of disharmony and felt a small sense of responsibility for it. She didn’t like Kristin but could not help wondering what Davey had actually said to her to produce such a reaction. She resisted the urge to snap at Alex in reply and silently finished her prawn butterfly.
‘Funny she didn’t say anything. Just threw it at him,’ Alex added thoughtfully.
‘Women,’ Moira told him. He glanced at her suspiciously. Irony was often lost on him.
‘What about them?’ he demanded.
‘Oh, you know, unpredictable, emotional, wrong time of the month. Never can tell when they’re going to upend their supper all over you.’
‘You’re angry. With me?’
‘Why would I be angry with you?’
He sighed in annoyance. He never knew how to deal with her when she was like this. It was always something he had done, usually unwittingly, although to be fair to her, not this time.
‘Look, I’m sorry. I’ve been offered the chance to run the marina. It’s a good deal with the chance to buy some of the shares in the new company so I’ll have a proper stake. It’s what I want to do. I had hoped I could persuade you to come with me but…’
‘Now you’re not so sure.’
‘It’s not that. You know it isn’t.’ His mouth had adopted a familiar sulky downturn that obscured his dark good looks and turned him into a schoolboy. Now he would not meet her eyes and suddenly, she couldn’t even remember what colour his were. A sort of steely blue, she supposed, transmuting to green in the right light. Green for gentleness and sensitivity, steel for the rest of the time. He reached out a hand in place of the glance that seemed beyond him and she rewarded him with a smile.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry to be so¬—‘
‘Awfully sorry about that,’ Davey said in his too loud voice as he returned to the adjoining table and sat down. ‘Has her ladyship gone?’
Moira could see a dark flush of reddened trouser around his crotch and suppressed a grin. ‘Looks like it. How are you?’ She glanced significantly at him and added hopefully, ‘any permanent damage?’
‘Ruined the trousers. Cow. And she’s gone off with the car.’
‘Whatever did you say to her, Davey?’
‘God knows. Look, I don’t suppose I could join you, could I? I don’t know any of these people.’ He gestured towards the remainder of the party, none of whom seemed to have acknowledged his existence since laughing at his discomfort. ‘They’re all from Kristin’s office. Rum lot.’
Moira glanced at Alex to warn him that she did not want to spend the remainder of the evening with Davey but he was already nodding his agreement and saying, ‘of course.’
Davey had caught her frown. ‘Look, I don’t want to be any trouble.’
‘It’s no trouble,’ Alex assured him. ‘Why don’t you order yourself some more food? I’d go for something less…colourful next time, mind you.’
Now there, thought Moira, is a man who definitely doesn’t want to talk to his partner any more this evening.
She watched as Davey caught Mr Bengali’s attention and ordered a replacement dish, her irritation increasing as his new knife and fork were carefully placed on the vacant edge of their table and Alex shifted his chair slightly to make room. She knew that she must be careful. This was exactly the sort of situation she found hard to handle and she lit a cigarette to give herself something to do with her hands. She caught Alex’s look of disapproval and shrugged minutely.
‘So, Moira, what are you doing with yourself these days?’ enquired Davey breezily. ‘You used to be in the FCO with bloody Kristin, I seem to remember?’
‘I was only a pen pusher for a year or so, in another bit of the building. I’m working for a legal company now. Much more interesting.’ Moira smiled at him. She didn’t mind talking about her job at Claims OnLine.
‘What, a firm of solicitors?’
Moira shook her head. ‘Not exactly. It’s a company that specialises in personal injury claims. Some of the cases go out to a panel solicitor but we do a good deal of it in-house. My nursing experience comes in handy.’
‘I’ll bear you in mind the next time I’m suing someone.’
Patronising little shit, thought Moira.
‘What about you, Alex? The last time I saw you, you were still fiddling the books.’ Davey looked around for a waiter to refill his wine glass. ‘Another drink, you two?’
‘’Thanks,’ Alex acknowledged, finishing his lager. ‘I was just saying to Moira that I was ready for a change, actually.’
‘Oh, yes. Anything in mind?’
‘Perhaps something overseas. I don’t know yet. What about you?’
Davey gave a dry little laugh and an irritating lock of hair flopped into his eye. He flicked it back into place with a gesture that was quite unconscious. ‘Still at the same place, I’m afraid. I don’t think they’d have me anywhere else.’
Moira wondered if Alex knew where the same place actually was. She didn’t. ‘Do you know, Davey, I haven’t the faintest idea what it is you do.’
‘No? My reputation as a man of mystery remains intact then.’
‘Not if you tell us what you do.’
He offered a repeat of his annoying little laugh. ‘Oh you know, import and export. Mainly to the States and the Caribbean. Now my cover’s blown.’
‘What sort of things do you import and export?’ Moira was more interested than she expected to be but Davey’s answer was interrupted by the arrival of Mr Bengali armed with plates, and although she looked at him expectantly once or twice as he fiddled with his side dishes, he said nothing more until somehow the conversation moved on to a discussion of the relative merits of Audi and BMW.
‘Remind me,’ said Alex an hour later as they walked away from the curry house, ‘remind me, oh shit, I’ve forgotten what I had to ask you to remind me. Bugger.’
‘Not to drink so much?’ suggested Moira.
‘’That was it.’
‘Bloody Davey’s fault, anyway.’
‘Oh absolutely, old chap. Guilty all the way. That’s what Kristin, what a cow that woman is, always says.’ Richard was walking slightly ahead of them and lost his balance as he turned around to face Alex. ‘Shit.’
‘I think,’ said Alex firmly, ‘I think we’d have been okay if we hadn’t had that last bottle.’
‘Definitely,’ agreed Davey. ‘Fine until then.’
Moira shook her head. In some ways, the evening had been more entertaining than she had expected it would be. Davey had been coruscatingly witty at the absent Kristin’s expense and Moira had enjoyed his other tall tales, despite their tendency to centre around yacht owning mid western Americans and dusky Caribbean prostitutes. But the last bottle had been a mistake and although she had let the two men drink it more or less without her help she saw that she could no more avoid its consequences than they could. For a start, where was Davey going to spend the night? Alex was bound to suggest he stayed with them and it would take nothing for Davey to agree. She doubted whether the prospect of meeting up with Kristin had much appeal to him. Then there was Alex. He had obviously decided that Davey’s company was likely to be less draining than hers and she could hardly blame him, given her own closely defended secrets. Still, illogically, she was wounded by his duplicity. How long had he been planning to go to the Virgin Islands? He had never once so much as mentioned the place to her before that night. The childhood reminiscence had been heartfelt but that did not necessarily make it genuine.
Not with Alex.
‘Can I call you a taxi, Davey?’ she asked as they turned into the cul de sac. Alex’s house lay at the far end, in darkness, squashed between two similar properties still ablaze with light, despite the hour. Music with a reverberating bass line advertised someone’s insomnia. Perhaps the couple next door were having a party.
‘Call me anything you like, old girl,’ he told her as if the joke had just won an award, ‘as long as it’s—‘
Oh dear, thought Moira. This should be interesting.
Behind Alex’s Jaguar, next to Moira’s old Renault, a silver BMW Z3 with its top down, surprisingly, given the cool evening, lay as if in wait for them. Its owner leant negligently against the bonnet, her hips swaying in unconscious response to the music pounding from the car’s speakers.
Alex quickened his pace. He was old fashioned about disturbing the people he lived close to and despite his drunken state had correctly concluded that the lights were on in the houses next door because his visitor had woken them up. He reached the BMW well before the others, wrenched open the driver’s door and silenced the stereo. There was a squawk of protest from the figure on the bonnet, succeeded by a sulky glare as she saw the look on Alex’s face.
‘Hello, Kristin,’ said Alex. ‘I don’t think you should be driving.’
It was obvious that Kristin was even drunker than Davey and Moira wondered how her former colleague had managed to drive here. She surreptitiously checked for damage to either of their two cars but both appeared unmarked and she followed the other three into the house, trying unsuccessfully to suppress the feeling that she was losing control and wondering how Kristin had known where she and Alex lived.
‘In the kitchen,’ she told them all firmly. The last thing she wanted was Kristin falling all over her living room or worse, throwing up on the carpet. And if she and Davey were going to fight, which seemed likely, the kitchen seemed to her to be a better place to do it in. She busied herself with coffee cups and the filter machine as Alex arranged stools around the breakfast bar and a still sulking Kristin allowed herself to be seated.
‘I was just saying that I would organise Davey a taxi to get home,’ Moira told Kristin as she brought the coffee over. ‘So it’s good you’re here.’
‘Not sure she ought to drive,’ murmured Alex.
‘In that case, the taxi can take you both home. Together.’
‘I’m fine to drive,’ announced Kristin. Alex and Moira glanced at each other and suppressed a smile.
‘Might be best to get the taxi,’ Alex told her, as if imparting a confidence. Davey nodded agreement but his former red wine fuelled exuberance had evaporated and he had nothing to say. They drank their coffee in silence, Moira fighting hard to repress a fit of the giggles. How had these two strange people ended up in her kitchen, drunk as skunks, not speaking to each other and obviously quite indifferent to the disruption they were causing? She sipped her coffee, wished for the thousandth time that it made a hotter brew and looked at Kristin. She saw a pale, oval face, framed by shiny dark brown hair in a cut that she always thought of as late Lois lane, small nose, and down-turned mouth. Foxy. Trim figure, medium height, everything in proportion. Not a great gangly thing like her, she thought ruefully. A sexy little skirt and top completed the overall package which was attractive, in a moody way. Kristin would appeal to a certain type of man and Davey wasn’t it. She wondered what they were doing together. For all she knew it was the same as her and Alex.
She stood up. ‘I’ll go and phone for that taxi.’ She ignored the frown from Alex – surely he didn’t want them both to stay?- and picked up her mobile as she slipped into the living room. The yellow pages directory was in its usual place beneath the phone and she opened it to the Taxis section, glanced at it for a second and then punched in a number from memory. Her call was answered before the second ring. She glanced around to check that no one had followed her.
‘Smith. I need a secure taxi please. I’m at the usual address. Thanks.’
She didn’t much like Kristin but she still needed looking after. She disconnected, deleted the number from the machine’s memory, and then dialled a taxi firm number at random from the directory. She pressed the end call button as soon as she heard a voice. She didn’t plan to give Alex any clues either. Not now she was so close to the end.