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Authors: Martin Edwards

Take My Breath Away

BOOK: Take My Breath Away
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Take My Breath Away

MARTIN EDWARDS

 
 

Suppose, finally, we succeed in explaining our entire instinctive life as the development and ramification of
one
basic form of the will – namely, of the will to power… the world viewed from inside… it would be ‘will to power’ and nothing else.

 

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, from
Beyond Good and
Evil
, s.36, Walter Kaufmann transl.

The dead woman smiled.
So far, so good.

As she walked into the room, the party was in full swing. Glitzy laughter and listen-to-me voices. No one gave her a second glance, except for Nic Gabriel.

‘It can’t be Ella,’ he told himself. ‘This isn’t happening.’

He whipped off his Ray-Bans, but she was still there. Skirting the crowd of young lawyers, taking care not to brush against them. Perhaps she feared they might sue if she nudged their elbows and made them spill their champagne. Nic was standing on the terrace at Westminster, watching through open French windows. A breeze from the Thames chilled his neck. The moment she’d appeared in the doorway, he’d recognised her.

Ella Vinton
. But a stone in a Sussex graveyard bore her name. She’d been left to rest in peace.

A waiter bearing an ornate salver offered him another glass. He should have said no, he’d already drunk too much on an empty stomach, but he took it anyway. He barely noticed the flinty taste as his eyes followed the woman. Threads of hair flapped over her eyes as she glanced this way and that, like any nervous latecomer, on the look-out for a familiar face. A thought jumped into his mind.

I know the man you’re searching for. The man who invited me here, the man you killed yourself for five years ago.

His skin was tingling, he was witness to something he couldn’t understand. A mystery, a pleasant torture. How could a suicide be recalled to life? Five minutes
earlier, he’d been yawning, sedated by booze and gossip about golden hellos and gourmet food. Wishing he had never let Dylan Rees tempt him into coming here with a weird tale about addiction to murder. Now he’d seen a wraith with a split skirt and purple fingernails. Talk about drop-dead gorgeous.

Ella?
Surreal. He knew it was time to sober up and start thinking straight, but a function room in their Lordships’ House was no place for getting to grips with reality. People said things had changed, that the dust of tradition had been vacuumed away. Since being ushered through the gate into Black Rod’s garden, he hadn’t caught a glimpse of ermine. The corridor leading here stank of new paint. Even inside the air wasn’t fresh. The reek of Chanel and silver polish was suffocating.

In one corner, a Steinway tinkled: a floppy-haired Hugh Grant clone picking out ‘The Tender Trap’. The young advocates talked louder with each gulp of Bollinger. Nic gazed through the glass at the flushed faces. Destinies mapped out, the kids were doomed to succeed. They would flatter judges, woo juries and worsen the statistics for professional alcoholism. Obituaries would extol their observational powers and attention to detail, but none of them noticed the revenant gatecrashing their party.

Ella Vinton
. But it was impossible. Ella had bought a chain and padlock from a hardware shop in Wembley and tied her left wrist to the outer rail of the main line to Euston. She’d tossed the bag containing the key out of reach to preclude second thoughts and waited for the West Coast express. For once the train had not been late. The driver had seen her kneeling on the line, waving him on with her free hand, as if impatient to be
done with everything. He’d braked at once, but had no chance of stopping in time. Her head and limbs were sliced from her body, bits of her flesh and bone tossed along track and verge, like a scattering of pulped grapes.

Ella had been an acquaintance rather than a friend. Nic remembered her by that habitual half-smile, half-frown, which seemed to anticipate betrayal. Not that Dylan blamed himself for her death. When he spoke of it, he implied a million-to-one accident. A twist of fate, an act of God.

She edged through the crowd, a pale skinny woman with scarlet lips and a tangle of russet hair crying out for a comb, toting a cavernous leather bag on her shoulder. She kept looking around, but even if Nic caught her eye, it would make no difference. Dylan was the one she wanted.

Nic squeezed the stem of the empty glass into his palm. His throat was dry. Pissed or simply daydreaming? He’d always had too much imagination to make it as a lawyer.

A hoax, it had to be, a sick joke. A spooky Ellagram dreamed up by someone wanting to give Dylan a fright. Nic glanced over his shoulder. Dylan stood further along the terrace, outside Ella’s range of vision. Leaning against a tub of red begonias, thumbs hooked in the pockets of a spotless white jacket. His violet bow-tie distracted the eye from his splayed nose, smashed years ago by a mistress’s husband and badly reset. He was holding forth to a handful of the youngsters. The piano had fallen silent and his voice drowned the shouts from the protesters blocking traffic on Westminster Bridge. He was doing what he did best, telling his audience things they wanted to hear.

‘You’re the chosen few,’ he insisted. His lilt became pronounced when he talked to strangers. He thought of it as a marketing tool. Now he was declaiming in the manner of a primitive preacher, reminding the elect of their superiority over the damned. ‘The country’s most promising young trial lawyers. So it’s time for me to let you into a secret. Litigation is better than sex.’ A sly smile crept across his battered features. ‘You’ll find out once you lose your courtroom virginity. Believe me, you’ll always remember your first case.’

A couple of the girls giggled; one young fogey had an absent-minded expression on his squashed features. Nic guessed he was thinking wishfully, dreaming that there might be truth even in Dylan’s rhetoric. Perhaps lawyers really did make marvellous lovers.

Down the terrace, another cocktail party for the great and the good was in full swing. Fragments of Vivaldi, performed by an unseen string quartet, drifted through the air. Nic saw a handful of new aristocrats; Pimm’s-drinking thirtysomethings with ponytails and neck tattoos, heard their chortling as they talked about parties at Number Ten and private finance initiatives. People with no time for pomp and circumstance, for doffing caps or hierarchy. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, all that didn’t wash any more. These people were meritocrats, modern, streetwise and brilliant at networking. The old coteries were dead; long live the new.

On the bridge, police were loud-hailing orders to the demonstrators, but no one paid attention. Back inside the Cholmondeley Room, the peer hosting the party wore a Mustique tan and Calvin Klein loafers. He was bragging to a girl in a backless gown about
how he had claimed a ten day fact-finding tour of Caribbean beach life on expenses.

Nic glanced back indoors. The room was slightly out of kilter. If only he hadn’t gulped down that last drink. Ella had drawn nearer. A strange light of triumph shone in her eyes and he guessed she had caught sight of Dylan. Her gait had become as unsteady as a marionette’s. Nic had seen the black skirt before. The outfit was a favourite and she’d worn it the last time they had met for dinner, in that organic food place off Marylebone High Street. Probably the last time Dylan, a red meat man, had ever touched anything remotely akin to green cuisine.

According to Dylan, there had been little enough left of Ella to identify after the train had done its worst. Nic peered at the white unmarked flesh of the woman’s neck and cheeks. She was studying Dylan with the concentration Nic remembered. He’d always been struck by the single-minded way she focused on her lover. As if trying to hypnotise him into belonging to her alone.

‘I’m a partner in an agency called Valentines.’ Dylan winked at a blonde girl who had been lapping up his rodomontade. ‘Apposite, in a way. Because there’s a touch of romance in what I do. Even though Saint Valentine was decapitated. Didn’t you know that was the poor devil’s fate? You learn something every day. People call me a headhunter, but it’s not a tag I care for. No, I’ll take you into my confidence. I’m a matchmaker. I marry up people like you to the job of your dreams. So that you consummate the perfect union.’

Nic saw Ella flinch at the words. Dylan still hadn’t seen her. He always got carried away when talking
about sex. Ella closed her eyes. It
must
be her. Yet it could not be.

This was all Dylan’s fault. Dylan, who had seduced him with all that talk about dead lawyers. Dylan the yarn-spinner, the myth-maker, the Celtic bard in an Armani suit. Of course he’d known that Nic could never resist a story about strange and sudden deaths.

The rich man who burned in Paradise. The giant who chopped himself in half.

There was a connection, Dylan had insisted on the phone, and not just because the dead men were lawyers in the same firm. Forget about suicide or accident. Think murder for pleasure.

‘As for the boy who died of shock,’ Dylan said dreamily, ‘the real culprit wasn’t the guilty creature who killed him. Trust me.’

‘Now you’re definitely asking too much,’ Nic muttered into his mobile. ‘What are you on?’

‘Hey, you’re the man who made his name with a tall story. You love to prove the truth’s the opposite of what everyone else believes. Who else ever said that Crippen was innocent? Come on, you stubborn bastard, suppose you show up, what’s the worst that can happen? You get raw material for that second book. It’s about time.’

Nic couldn’t help laughing. Dylan always played games, even when he wasn’t as high as a kite. He loved to tantalise, he always knew just which buttons to press.

Nic shook his head, trying in vain to banish the fuzziness from the champagne. His brain was out of gear. Ella had opened her eyes again and reached the door giving on to the terrace. A few yards away, Dylan paced up and down as he talked. He was restless,
forever itching for action. He kept glancing down at the freckled cleavage of the girl who had taken his fancy. Behind him were screens displaying the Valentines name and heart-shaped logo, together with the agency’s slogan.
We’d love to help you change your life.

‘Let’s pursue the analogy a little further,’ Dylan said. He’d lowered his voice in a pastiche of an intimate whisper. He might have been confiding a trade secret, or swearing eternal devotion. ‘The candidates the top firms need are those who are prepared to go all the way. The ones who aren’t interested in giving up, opting for the quiet life. No pleasure in fudging a deal, settling your case at the door of the court. Think coitus interruptus, eh? Such an anti-climax. No, the litigators who command the big money in the market place have one thing in common. They finish what they started. And they never, ever let go.’

His listeners sniggered. They were too smart to fall for a headhunter’s bullshit. All the same, they realised there was a grain of truth in what he said. They were stars in the firmament of trainee lawyers. They had slaved to reach this stage in their careers, putting in long hours of overtime trawling through calfskin-bound law reports and dusty statute books while their friends screwed around. They were ready to prove themselves as warriors. Hardened in battle, trusted by their paymasters, feared by all who crossed their path.

Ella was standing in the doorway, on the threshold of the terrace, tension stretching the flesh tight over her cheekbones. Nic tried to focus on her, wanting to read her mind. She must be an actress, a lookalike hired from an agency by someone who wanted to give Dylan a shock. Her hand was deep in the shoulder
bag. She had moved to within touching distance of Dylan. Absorbed in his peroration, he was still unaware of her scrutiny.

‘They never let go,’ Dylan savoured the phrase. ‘They never…’

The words hung in the air as at last his gaze strayed to Ella. His eyes widened, his body seemed at once to become rigid and old. It was as if a single glimpse of her pallid cheeks had snapped his spinal cord and he’d been paralysed by his unrighteous past.

‘Remember me, Dylan?’ she asked. Her voice was clear, melodious, less scratchy than Nic recalled.

In that instant Nic realised what she meant to do, guessed the truth even as she withdrew her hand from the bag. She was clasping the black haft of a butcher’s knife.


No!
’ he shouted.

He had to save Dylan. Had to. His legs felt as if shackled in irons, but he forced his way through the crowd, bundling a girl to the floor. An angry boyfriend jabbed him in the ribs, but he kept on going. Someone yelled, a roar of incoherent horror.

The blade shone in a ray of light as the sun emerged from behind a cloud. Dylan was motionless, his face creased in bewilderment. As if he realised something, but could not fathom the explanation for it. He spoke in a hoarse whisper.

Nic could hardly make out the words. They sounded like:

Why not jazz?

Ella frowned and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this for so long.’

She brought the knife down even as she spoke. Even as Nic sprang, arms flailing as he tried to catch
hold of her. He found himself clutching air as she evaded his grasp. Tears stung his eyes as his head crashed against the ground. He had a dazed idea that he was drowning, surrounded by a blur of bodies swimming wildly for the shore. Girls screamed, young men yelped in disbelief. Nic’s ears filled with Dylan’s cry of pain as the serrated steel ripped through his throat.

She looked at Nic and he wondered if he was about to die. There wasn’t a hint of recognition on her face. He felt consciousness floating away. She frowned, as though puzzling over a mathematical conundrum. Solution found, she gripped the knife in both hands and plunged it into her heart.

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