Another Man's Poison, страница 1
Another Man’s Poison
J. F. Straker
© J. F. Straker 1983
J. F. Straker has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work
First published in 1983 by Robert Hale Ltd
This edition published in 2015 by Endeavour Press Ltd
Table of Contents
Derek Foley considered his empty glass and signalled the waiter to refill it. ‘That’s not bad brandy,’ he said. ‘Not bad at all.’
‘You drink too much, you old soak.’ Robin Granger put a hand over his glass as the bottle was raised invitingly. ‘I hate to think what your liver must look like.’
‘Foul, no doubt,’ Derek said. He was a slim man turning to fat by too much rich living and a distaste for exercise. A native of Barbados who had lived for most of his life in England, his voice was cultured and contained no hint of his origin. ‘But not to worry. It will see me out.’
Robin laughed and looked at his watch. ‘I’ll have to be going soon. Anything we’ve neglected to discuss?’
‘You haven’t mentioned the new book. How’s that coming?’
‘Ah!’ This was a topic Robin had sought to avoid. ‘So far, I’m afraid, there isn’t one.’
Derek frowned. ‘Then it’s time there was, brother. I need my ten per cent.’
‘Whatever. I still need it.’
‘Rubbish! You must be about the richest agent in the business.’
‘If I am it’s thanks to you. Any percentage of you is a very tidy sum.’ Derek sipped appreciatively and waved a dark hand round the restaurant. ‘I couldn’t afford to entertain you here if it wasn’t. It would be back to the caff in the Fulham Road. Remember? Before the royalties started coming.’
‘I remember. Sausage and chips and tomato sauce.’
‘Peas or beans.’
‘Well, anyway, I prefer my present life-style. So get busy. Eight months of marriage should be time enough to get it out of your system. Don’t let Karen monopolise you completely.’
‘She doesn’t. So don’t you start blaming her for my indolence.’ Robin shrugged. ‘The truth is, Derek, I’ve been thinking of ditching COP. Strike out in another direction. The question is, which?’
The look on Derek’s round face, shining damply after a good dinner, was akin to horror. Ten years previously the manuscript of Robin’s first novel, ‘Companions of Power’, had arrived on his desk, and after reading it at one sitting he had realised that here was the most exciting work of fiction he had ever handled or was likely to handle. ‘Companions of Power’, or ‘COP’ as it became familiarly known, dealt with the activities of a group of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, outside of politics and of many nationalities, who had banded together to fight terrorism and repression and injustice; and because their wealth was unbounded and their influence enormous they had generally succeeded. But the book’s appeal was not confined to its plot. The writing was crisp and fresh, the settings global and authentic, the characters human and sharply drawn, the action unflagging, the background thoroughly researched. It had humour and drama, sex and love and violence in just the right proportions. As the Times Literary Supplement had enthused, ‘Here, packed into one magnificent novel, is everything that the discerning reader could hope to find.’
‘Companions of Power’ had taken the literary world by storm. Translated into practically every civilised language, its world-wide sales had already topped seventeen million — more, as Derek Foley had pointed out, than Jacqueline Susann’s ‘Valley of the Dolls’, one of the best sellers of all time. Warner Brothers had paid six million dollars for the film rights and the film, with a star-studded cast, had grossed nearly one hundred and eighty million dollars in the two years since its release.
Two further COP books had followed. ‘Shades of Terror’ had echoed the success of its predecessor and ‘The Kraski Conspiracy’, published the previous summer, looked set to do as well if not better. And now Robin was contemplating ending the bonanza! To Derek that was sheer lunacy.
‘You can’t do it, Robin! You just can’t do it!’ Derek scratched his woolly head in a gesture of despair. ‘Christ! Just thinking about it gives me the shivers. With the publishing world the way it is you could be committing suicide. Any publisher would take it, of course, no matter what you wrote; your name on the dust-jacket would sell it, they’d know that. But if it flopped — and with the public expecting the Companions it probably would — they’d consider they’d been conned —we’d all be in the bloody muck.’ He drained his glass at a gulp. ‘Forget it, Robin, please. Stick with COP.’
‘That’s half the trouble,’ Robin said. ‘I don’t want to be stuck with COP. I don’t want to be stuck with anything. The prospect of spending the rest of my life inventing problems for Sir Edward and Pierre Boulard and the rest of the bunch to solve fills me with gloom.’
‘I’m not talking about the rest of your life. Just give it a few more years, see how it goes.’
‘And if it goes sour?’
‘Then switch. But James Bond hasn’t. And you’ve a long way to go to catch up with him.’
‘True.’ Robin took another look at his watch. ‘Okay, Derek, I’ll give it second thoughts. And now I must rush. I don’t want to miss that train.’
He only just caught it. Settled in the corner seat of a first-class compartment, as the train gathered speed on its journey north he smiled to himself at the memory of Derek Foley’s concern. He had not seriously considered ditching COP. That he might do so in time had occasionally crossed his mind. But he too enjoyed his present life-style, and the possibility that he might abandon its source had been put forward to account for the fact that over a year had passed since he had done any serious writing. He had not wanted Derek to believe that Karen was responsible for his indolence — which of course she was. Deliberately to shut himself away with his typewriter or with Polly Stevens, his secretary, when he could be with Karen required considerable will-power; and although latterly, as the result of much bullying by both women (‘I’m practically redundant’, Polly had complained. ‘You buy me a car, pay me an exorbitant salary, and what do I do for it? Write a few letters, answer a few telephone calls. You don’t even want me to go to bed with you!’) he had started to write again, it was poor stuff and he knew it. ‘The truth is, darling,’ he had admitted only that morning at breakfast, when he and Karen had discussed his forthcoming visit to London and Derek Foley’s inevitable query, ‘I know you are somewhere around and I want to be with you.’ She had reached across the table to put her hand on his. ‘I could stay with Mother for a while,’ she had said, a smile on her lovely face. ‘Would that help?’ I don’t know whether it would help,’ he had said, ‘but I do know I’d hate it.’
The other occupants of the compartment got out at the first stop. Robin stretched his legs and reflected on the pleasures of marriage. In his search for realism as a writer he had travelled widely and met many beautiful women, and it still astonished him that at the ripe old age of thirty-seven he should have fallen so swiftly and so completely in love. Not strange, of course, that he should have been attracted to Karen, who had the figure of a beauty queen and the face of an angel. But to have known with such absolute
A smile lit his long face as he recalled that first evening. Risking the possibility that they might suspect him of patronage, he had taken them to dine and dance at Giovanni’s, by far the most expensive night spot in the district and probably beyond the reach of Martin’s pay as a detective sergeant. He was no dancer himself — having little sense of rhythm, he tended to keep his gaze fixed on his partner’s feet to avoid treading on them — and it was Martin who had partnered the girl for most of the evening. Other evenings together had followed. Karen had offered to introduce him to a friend to make up a foursome but, already in love, he had declined the offer, which was not repeated. Occasionally, when Martin was on duty and with Martin’s blessing, he and Karen had dined alone, and once he had taken her to the theatre. So far he had managed to contain his love — she was Martin’s girl, it would have been disloyal to declare it — but an evening had come when she had made it plain she was attracted to him and he had decided it was time to talk to Martin. I’m in love with Karen, he had told Martin, and I want to marry her; but if that would be treading on your toes I’ll make myself scarce. Is she in love with you? Martin had asked. I think so, he had said, but I won’t know, will I, until I ask her? Martin had seemed to consider this. You’d best ask her then, hadn’t you? he had said eventually. There’s no accounting for taste. But if it’s you she wants I suppose she had better have you.
Six weeks later they were married, with Martin as his best man.
His reverie had extended to the honeymoon when the train stopped and he realised that this was his station. He found it stimulating that the ticket-collector should recognise him — the faces of writers were seldom familiar to their readers — and, ignoring the bitter wind, he hummed cheerfully but tunelessly to himself as he walked briskly across the carpark to the Rolls. He was still humming when he had left the suburbs behind and the car was sweeping smoothly through the silent countryside on the five mile journey home. Perhaps the greatest pleasure to be got from his infrequent trips to London was the home-coming. Late as it was — the clock on the fascia board showed twenty minutes past eleven — Karen would not be in bed. Clad in a diaphanous negligee, she would be watching the curtained windows of the sitting-room for the three short flashes from the car’s headlights that would signal his arrival. Then she would hurry to the front door and come out on to the portico to greet him, her lovely shape silhouetted seductively against the glow of light from the hall. Even on a cold January night such as this the ritual would be observed.
He drove through the village and turned into the narrow, pot-holed lane that led through the woods to the Hall. Lights shone from the front windows of the Corner House, and by the number of cars parked in the driveway he guessed that the Malletts were throwing a party. They were great party givers. Although not particularly close to the family himself, for Karen’s sake he had welcomed their proximity. She had made a firm friend of Kate Mallett, and Simon, a twenty-year-old sports-car fanatic, was devoted to her and crazy about her Porsche. The lane led only to the Hall and to Sherwood Farm beyond, where it petered out into a bridle path. Karen, who had lived all her twenty-six years in the town, where she had been working as a salesgirl and occasional model in a dress salon when they first met, had been apprehensive at her initial sight of the Hall. It’s very isolated, she had said. And gloomy — all those trees. She would be nervous if she were there alone, especially after dark. But he had liked it immediately, seeing the isolation as peace and quiet, providing a place where a man could think and write undisturbed. We’ll cut down some of the trees, he had promised, give it more light and air. And how often would you be alone? I work at home — remember? And because the interior had delighted them both they had bought it.
From the tall wrought-iron gates, open now, a smoothly gravelled driveway lined with rhododendrons and azaleas that were a blaze of colour in late spring led to the wide open space in front of the house. The upper floor was in darkness; but the lights were on in the hall and the sitting-room, and he gave the customary signal with the car’s headlights and parked the Rolls behind Karen’s Porsche, which she invariably left for him to garage. Usually she was out on the portico before he had left the car, but tonight the front door stayed shut. He stood for a moment, his overcoat wrapped tightly about him. Then, assuming she had fallen asleep, he hurried indoors and into the sitting-room, which stretched from the front to the back of the house. But Karen wasn’t there. Surprised, he hung up his overcoat in the hall and went to the foot of the stairs.
‘Karen!’ he called. ‘I’m home, darling. Where are you?’
There was no answer. He ran up to their bedroom, his long legs taking the stairs two at a time, but Karen wasn’t there. Nor had the bed been disturbed. Bewilderment turned to anxiety. A hurried search of the rest of the house proved equally fruitless, and he returned to the sitting-room and stood irresolute, now really frightened. Where was she, what could have happened to her? A book she had presumably been reading lay open on the arm of a settee. He picked it up; it was the ‘Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories’ by Daphne du Maurier, and he remembered she had bought it the previous week and had looked forward to reading it. She must have put it down when something disturbed her. But what? And why had she not returned to it? The thought crossed his mind that she might have been kidnapped; after all, he was known to be an extremely wealthy man. But the evidence was against it. There were no signs of a break-in, no signs of a struggle; and if Karen had answered a ring at the door she would not have removed the chain unless she recognised the caller as a friend. If it were not for the Porsche parked on the driveway he would have supposed that she had gone visiting and that something had delayed her return. Remembering their breakfast conversation he went back to the bedroom. It was absurd, of course, to read more than light-hearted banter into her suggestion that he might buckle down to work more readily without her; even had she been serious she would not have left so abruptly, or without first consulting him. And the state of the room confirmed that. Her numerous toilet accessories were there on the dressing-table, and he could see no obvious gaps in the wardrobe or the drawers. Which seemed to leave only one possibility: that a friend had called to take her out. Except that, knowing how worried he would be should she be absent on his return, she would surely have left an explanatory note against the possibility that he might be home before her.
Without even considering the lateness of the hour he picked up the telephone receiver beside the bed and dialled Polly’s number. It seemed an age before the ringing stopped and Polly’s voice, normally brisk but now slurred with sleep, said irritably, ‘For Heaven’s sake! Who is it?’
‘It’s me, Polly. Robin. Sorry to wake you, but I’m worried about Karen. She’s not here.’
‘Not there? Where’s she gone, then?’
‘I don’t know. That’s what worries me.’ He explained what he had and had not found on his return. ‘What happened this afternoon? Did she go out? Did anyone ring or call? Anything?’
‘Well.’ There was a pause while Polly collected her thoughts. ‘There were no calls for her on the study telephone. I wouldn’t know about the house phone, of course. But she did go out shopping. About two-thirty, I think.’
‘In the Porsche?’
‘No. The Porsche was being serviced. They took it away yesterday. Remember? Brought it back this afternoon, while Karen was out. No, Simon took her.’
‘Oh!’ Robin thought this over. ‘Did she ask him, or did he just happen to call?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Were they back before you left?’
‘Oh, yes. We had tea together. Not Simon. Just Karen and I.’
‘And when you left — what time was that, by the way?’
‘About half-past five. But Robin —’
‘Did she say anything about going out again?’
‘It wouldn’t really help, would it?’ he said. ‘But thanks for the offer, Polly. I’ll have a word with Simon — see if he knows anything and if he doesn’t I’ll ring the police.’
‘Well, let me know as soon as you have any news.’
He promised that he would. When he rang the Corner House a woman answered, and above a background of pop music and the hubbub of many voices he heard her calling Simon’s name. Obviously the party was still going strong.
‘Yes?’ Simon shouted into the mouth-piece. ‘Sorry about the din. What is it?’
Robin explained. When they were out shopping that afternoon, he asked, had Karen said anything about her plans for the evening? No, Simon said, nothing at all. ‘Actually, I told her we were having a party and why didn’t she come, and she said she might look in for a short while. But she didn’t want to be out when you got back from London, she said, and not to count on it.’ He sounded concerned and slightly tipsy. ‘Is there anything I can do, Mr Granger? I’d like to help if I can.’
‘Thanks, Simon. But I’m beginning to think this is a matter for the police. I gather she didn’t look in at your party?’
‘No. When I saw the car I thought she was coming in. But it went on.’
‘Car? What car?’
‘The Porsche.’ Although Simon addressed Karen by her Christian name he was more formal with Robin. The age gap, Robin supposed. ‘I was helping people park their cars — the drive gets a bit congested on these occasions — when I saw the Porsche turn out of your lane. Naturally I thought she was coming in. But she didn’t. She went straight on. She didn’t even wave, like she usually does. I suppose she didn’t see me.’