فصل 09

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فصل 09

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CHAPTER NINE

A cheap disguise

I started planning my next murder straight away. Well, I suppose that’s not strictly true. I did make plans to seek out Terry, Gemma’s ex-husband, but at that stage I again only had thoughts of revenge in my mind. I’d managed to convince myself that the Alec Cartwright affair had been a one-off, the result of unique circumstances.

Anyway, the day after I got back from Cuba, Gemma and I met for coffee in Norwich city centre in a cafe overlooking the market place. Gemma reminds me of your sister (except Gemma’s far more beautiful). She loves talking, Gemma does, just like your sister, and we sat there in the cafe and she chatted on about her family and Diane and the mystery of what had happened in Cuba. I made the occasional contribution to the conversation, but Gemma never needs much encouragement to speak, and most of the time I was free to daydream.

So I drifted in and out of the conversation, my mind absorbed in the view of the busy market place and the severe architecture of City Hall, the council building, standing behind it on the hill. I suppose a part of me was still in Cuba, and it was probably inevitable that I would make comparisons between Norwich and Havana. Norwich Market was practically bursting with the latest fashions and fresh fruit and vegetables, and the contrast between this and the aching poverty of similar markets I’d seen in Havana was huge.

‘I had an awful argument on the phone with Terry the other day,’ Gemma said at last, regaining my full attention.

‘Why?’ I asked. ‘What’s he done now?’

‘Well,’ Gemma said, her pretty face suddenly marked by frown lines. ‘You know my daughter Kirsty is getting married next month? Well, Terry’s insisting on brining Sharon, his latest woman, to the wedding. He says he won’t come otherwise, and you know how upset Kirsty will be if he doesn’t turn up. But honestly, Carla, you should see this Sharon; she’s awful. So cheap-looking. She’ll turn up to the wedding wearing a low-cut top and short skirt, I just know she will. I don’t want her there, spoiling things, I really don’t. I haven’t mentioned anything to Kirsty about it yet of course, but I tell you, Carla, I don’t know what to do about the situation, I honestly don’t.’

It occurred to me suddenly that Gemma sounded a bit like a child. A spoilt child who hasn’t got exactly what she wanted for her birthday. Perhaps she wasn’t quite as nice as I’d first thought. But then the truth was I didn’t really know’ her very well. I didn’t know any of my new friends very well.

Anyway, my new opinion of Gemma wasn’t enough to put me off. You see, I never forgot that by taking revenge for my friends, I was actually practising taking my revenge on you.

‘Where did you say Terry lives?’ I asked casually.

‘He still lives at Forest Grange, our family home,’ she ‘ answered, sounding bitter about the fact. ‘It’s out in the countryside, just the other side of Wroxham. Why do you ask?’

‘No reason,’ I lied. ‘I just wondered. Does she live there too? This Sharon?’

Gemma shook her head. ‘No, she lives in Norwich somewhere. Although from what I can gather, she stays with Terry most of the time. Did I tell you he’s having a swimming pool built? That must be for her to sunbathe beside, because the Terry I lived with for all those years couldn’t even swim.’ She sighed. ‘I don’t know, Carla,’ she said, ‘life’s so unfair, isn’t it? Since I left Terry, his business has been doing so well it practically manages itself these days.’

‘What is his business?’

‘He runs a riding stables. Only, I get the impression he hardly goes into work at all anymore. Unless he fancies a ride himself, that is. He’s got a manager to do everything for him. He spends all his time riding his horses and watching his swimming pool being built. And, no doubt, making love to his awful girlfriend. Did I tell you she was almost the same age as Kirsty?’

We parted company shortly after that; Gemma to do a bit of clothes shopping to help her forget about Terry, and me to go home to catch up on some sleep.

Later, after I’d woken up and had a snack, I got the car out and drove to Wroxham. By then it was about six thirty and the rush-hour traffic was just coming to an end. I didn’t know exactly where to look for Forest Grange, but I knew the general direction it was in, so I drove slowly up and down the lanes searching for it.

I was just about to turn the car around and go back to ask for directions at a pub I’d passed a few kilometres back when I spotted a big white house set back from the road behind some fir trees. I slowed down to look at the house name at the end of the driveway. Forest Grange. I’d found it.

I didn’t turn into the drive, and neither did I find somewhere to park near the house to wait in case Terry passed. I knew I needed a more subtle approach than that. Instead, I drove back to Norwich, working out my plan of action as I went.

This time I wouldn’t be able to count on my victim’s neighbour to help me to achieve my revenge. Terry’s nearest neighbour was the pub, the King’s Arms. Unless… Just as I was driving over Wroxham Bridge, I remembered seeing a sign outside the King’s Arms advertising bed and breakfast. Terry was likely to be a regular at the pub, and if I stayed there, I’d meet him sooner or later. And even if he didn’t come in, the landlord would know about him. I could pretend to be a tourist wanting to learn how to ride.

But first of all I needed a disguise. Unlike Havana, Wroxham was only a few kilometres from Norwich. I needed to be completely anonymous. Besides, a disguise would be fun.

Do you remember that fancy dress party we went to a few years ago? When you went as Elvis Presley, and I dressed up as a pop star with a long blonde hairpiece and leather trousers? Well, that’s the look I adopted for my disguise. Except that I wore a short red skirt and high heels instead of the leather trousers. My make-up was just as heavy though. I even managed to match my lipstick exactly with the skirt.

I tell you, by the time I’d put on a low-cut, tight-fitting black top, I looked exactly the way Gemma thought Sharon was going to look at Kirsty’s wedding. When I looked at my reflection in the mirror, I hardly recognised myself. The long blonde hair on its own would have made me look completely different, but the long, blonde hair and the clothes together… Well, I honestly don’t think you’d have recognised me if you’d walked past me in the street.

Anyway, I packed a change of clothes and a few essentials into an overnight bag, and jumped back into my car. And by eight o’clock that evening I was installed in the bar at the King’s Arms with a rum and coke in front of me and my overnight bag in the best guest room upstairs.

The landlord was called Gordon, and he was very friendly. The pub wasn’t busy, so he was leaning on the beer pumps with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, chatting to me. I’d told him my tourist and horse-riding story, and he’d given me a list of possible stables to try the next day, including Terry’s.

‘Forest Grange Riding Stables would be able to sort you out,’ he assured me. ‘They’re definitely the nearest. I don’t think they’re too busy now either, with all the kids back at school for the new term. Madeleine might be in here later with her boyfriend. I’ll introduce you if I get the chance.’

‘Is she the owner?’ I asked, and he shook his head.

‘No, the manager. The owner lives near here too, but I don’t think he’d be able to tell you if they could fit you in for lessons. No, Madeleine’s the one you need.’

But in the end neither Madeleine nor Terry came into the pub that evening. I didn’t feel as if all my efforts with the fancy dress had been wasted though. I’d had the chance to practise being the type of woman my clothes suggested I was, and I had proof that my disguise was a success. There was a crowd of men around me by the end of the evening, and I don’t think they were there to listen to my intellectual conversation.

You men really are pathetic, you know. Why can’t you see how false all that make-up and hair colour makes us women look? But then that’s it, isn’t it? You don’t want reality, any of you. Reality is boring. Reality gives you itchy feet. That’s because you’re all so shallow.

Anyway, I fully exploited the shallowness of the male sex the next morning by putting on my low-cut black top again. Only this time, because of the prospect of riding, I wore it with trousers. Really tight trousers. And loads of make-up, of course. Downstairs, I ate a light breakfast while Gordon chatted on about a late-summer barbecue he was organising for his regulars the following Saturday. Then I said my goodbyes and headed out to my car. Turning out of the pub, I drove off in the direction of Forest Grange. This time, when I got there, I indicated left and turned into the drive. And when I got to the house, I stopped the car and got out.

Arranging my long hair attractively around my shoulders, I fixed a pleasant smile onto my painted lips and knocked firmly on the front door. After a bit of a wait, it was answered by a man -Terry, I guessed- wearing a white towelling dressing gown. His hair -what there was of it- was standing up on end, and he needed a shave. I’d obviously got him out of bed.

There was a short pause while he looked me up and down, adjusting his annoyed expression to one of surprise and pleasure.

‘Is this Forest Grange Riding Stables?’ I asked him sweetly. ‘Oh dear, I haven’t made a mistake, have I? I have come to the right place, haven’t I?’

Terry smiled at me, hastily smoothing down his hair and pulling the belt of his dressing gown tighter. ‘Well,’ he said in an attractively deep voice, ‘this isn’t the stables, but I wouldn’t call waking up and finding you on my doorstep a mistake.’

‘Terry,’ called a female voice from somewhere indoors. ‘Who is it? Come back to bed. I’m missing you already.’

Terry’s only acknowledgement of the voice was to step out onto the doorstep, pulling the door almost closed after him. ‘The stables are along the next turning on the right,’ he told me. ‘I’m going there for a ride later this morning myself, actually. I hope you’ll still be there then. I’m the owner, you see; I could give you a guided tour if you like.’ He held out his hand. ‘Terry Montague.’

Automatically I put my hand into his and he shook it firmly. ‘Vienna Francis.’ I introduced myself, giving him the name I’d used at the pub. (Yes, I know, Vienna! I can just imagine how amusing you’d find that. But I don’t care what you think. I think it’s got style.) ‘That’s a very generous offer,’ I told him. ‘Thank you, I’d like a tour very much.’

Terry’s smile turned into a satisfied grin. ‘Great! Well, run along and have your lesson, and I’ll see you afterwards. If I’m not around, just ask for me. Bye for now.’ He waved his fingers at me then went back inside, presumably to return to bed and the impatient Sharon, and I got back into my car and followed his directions to the stables.

As you know, I grew up in horse-riding country. I went riding every Saturday right through my teens. My dad resisted buying a horse despite extreme pressure from me, but the horse I rode every week -Lightning, he was called- almost felt like my very own; I knew him and his habits so well. Anyway, the point is, I don’t need riding lessons. When you have that much experience at something, you don’t forget how to do it overnight. And after I’d got to the stables and convinced Madeleine of that, I was allowed to go riding through the woods near the stables on my own.

It was really enjoyable actually. The weather had cheered up a little, and the leaving sunlight was slicing through the trees, leaving pools of light on the ground. It was really pretty, and for the first time since returning from Cuba, I felt good about being back in England. I allowed myself to simply enjoy the ride, and didn’t think at all about Terry. Or you, or Luis, or Alec Cartwright. In fact, it was only when I turned my horse around and headed back towards the stables that I started to think about the whole revenge thing again.

Judging by Terry’s response to me on his doorstep, it seemed reasonable to conclude that it wasn’t going to be too difficult to get him away from Sharon. Terry seemed like the kind of man who would cheat on his woman without a second thought.

Unfortunately, this probably meant that using blackmail for revenge wasn’t a very promising option. Because, if Terry didn’t really care about Sharon at all, then he wasn’t likely to be bothered if Terry and I had a love affair and I threatened to tell her about it.

No, blackmail probably wouldn’t work. Unless, of course, I could discover some other scandal Terry wanted to keep quiet.

Knowing my best immediate plan was to get to know Terry better, I urged my horse on towards the riding stables to see whether he’d arrived yet.

I didn’t see him at first. Madeleine took the horse from me and we exchanged a few words about my ride and the pleasantness of the woods. When I asked her whether Terry was around, she pointed me in the direction of a low stable block on the other side of the yard. I said goodbye to her and walked across to it.

As I got close, I heard a man shouting, and I slowed down to listen. It was Terry. ‘Stand still, you disobedient beast you!’ he was saying, and as I listened, I heard a distinct slapping sound and the frightened response of a horse. ‘I said, stand still!’ Terry shouted again, and this was followed by yet another slap.

I really hate cruelty to animals, as you well know. Remember the shock you got when we got the puppy and I thought he needed more attention than just one meal and one walk a day? You were jealous because I thought of him as more of a companion than a pet, refusing to leave him shut up in the house on his own. Well, the way I see it, animals trust us. They’re defenceless, completely dependent upon us. And only cowards abuse them.

So you can imagine, I expect, how I felt standing outside those stables, listening to Terry abusing his horse. I was sick to my stomach, and so furious that I think, if I’d had a knife or some other weapon with me, I’d have rushed straight into that stable and used it on Terry without a single thought for the consequences.

But I didn’t have a weapon, and somehow I forced myself to wait, to stand in that stable yard and take a series of deep breaths until I was a little calmer. But looking back now, I tend to think that Terry’s fate was sealed right there and then, as I stood listening to that terrified horse. Blackmail certainly seemed far too good for him anyway, and I was suddenly convinced that the world would be a better place without him in it.

‘Well, hello there!’ Terry finally came out of the stable, smiling at me as if he had never been in a bad temper at all. Somehow, I don’t know how, I managed to smile back at him as if nothing was wrong.

‘Hello!’ I said brightly. ‘Isn’t it a lovely day? I’ve just had the most delightful ride through the woods!’

‘I am pleased about that,’ he said, looking me up and down. And your timing is perfect. I was just going to make myself a cup of coffee. Why don’t you join me, and then we can do that guided tour.’

I agreed to all this, and he took me to the office, talking cheerfully all the way about goodness knows what. And all the time -walking across the yard, inside the office and, later, on the tour of the stables- Terry was always standing just a little too close to me. It was a deliberate invasion of my space; I was breathing the same oxygen as Terry, experiencing an intense charm attack. My nostrils were filled by the smell of his aftershave, my ears with the soft deepness of his voice. He looked me directly in the eyes as he spoke, and at every opportunity he reached out to touch my leg.

I hated Terry because of how he had just treated his horse and of course how he had treated Gemma, and yet I was still extremely aware of his attractiveness. Because he was attractive. Oh, he was middle-aged with an over-large stomach and hair going a little thin on top, but he possessed the self-confidence of someone who’s been attractive all his life. Someone who’s used to having women falling at his feet.

Of course he had no doubt whatsoever that I was going to be his next victim, and obviously I did all I could to encourage this belief. I laughed a lot, and I touched his leg when I spoke. I looked deeply into his eyes and I did my best to give him the impression that he was the most entertaining and attractive man I’d ever had a conversation with in my entire life.

And, by the end of the guided tour, Terry had invited me to dinner that evening at his house.

‘Eight o’clock,’ he said. ‘And make sure you’re hungry. I’m an excellent cook.’

I smiled into his eyes. ‘I’m sure you’re very talented,’ I said, deliberately licking my lips.

As Terry watched my tongue travel over my lips, he made a little sound of desire. I think he wanted to grab hold of me right there in the stable yard, actually. Anyway, it was obvious to me that it wasn’t only going to be Terry’s cooking on the menu that night.

‘Until eight o’clock then,’ he said, leaning towards me to kiss my cheek.

‘Until eight,’ I agreed, beginning to walk away. Then I hesitated, looking back at him over my shoulder. ‘By the way’ I said, ‘won’t your girlfriend object to me coming to your house? Or is she going to be there too?’

He did a good job at looking surprised. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Do you mean the woman who was there this morning? Oh, don’t worry about her. That’s just a very casual relationship, nothing important. I’ll send her home to Norwich. We’ll be completely alone, I promise you.’

‘Good,’ I said with a final smile, then turned and walked slowly away towards my car, making sure I moved my hips the way Gina had moved hers in the streets of Old Havana. Like a salsa dancer. A sexy salsa dancer.

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