Cover

About the Book

When Stuart Font decides to throw a house-warming party in his new flat, he invites all the people in his building. After some deliberation, he even includes the unpleasant caretaker and his wife. There are a few other genuine friends on the list, but he definitely does not want to include his girlfriend, Claudia, as that might involve asking her husband.

The party will be one everyone remembers. But not for the right reasons. All the occupants of Lichfield House are about to experience a dramatic change in their lives…

Living opposite, in reclusive isolation, is a young, beautiful Asian woman, christened Tigerlily by Stuart. As though from some strange urban fairytale, she emerges to exert a terrible spell. And Mr and Mrs Font, the worried parents, will have even more cause for concern about their handsome but hopelessly naïve son.

Darkly humorous, piercingly observant of human behaviour, Ruth Rendell has created here another compelling fable of our lives and crimes.

About the Author

Ruth Rendell was an exceptional crime writer, and will be remembered as a legend in her own lifetime. Her ground-breaking debut novel, From Doon With Death, was first published in 1964 and introduced readers to her enduring and popular detective, Inspector Reginald Wexford.

With worldwide sales of approximately 20 million copies, Rendell was a regular Sunday Times bestseller. Her sixty bestselling novels include police procedurals, some of which have been successfully adapted for TV, stand-alone psychological mysteries, and a third strand of crime novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine.

Rendell won numerous awards, including the Sunday Times Literary Award in 1990. In 2013 she was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in crime writing. In 1996 she was awarded the CBE, and in 1997 became a Life Peer.

Ruth Rendell died in May 2015.

Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Ruth Rendell

Title Page

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Copyright

Tigerlily’s Orchids

Ruth Rendell

To Valerie Amos

Chapter 1

OLWEN WAS IN Wicked Wine, buying gin. She understood from Rupert whose shop it was that these days ‘wicked’ meant smart or cool, not evil, just as ‘gay’ in some circles was starting to signify bad or nasty. She didn’t much care, though she wondered why a shop which sold beer and spirits and Coca-Cola and orange juice advertised itself as purveying only wine. Rupert said, ‘That’s the way it is,’ as if this explained everything.

She bought three bottles of the cheap kind. Bombay Sapphire came expensive if you consumed as much of it as she did. Gin was her favourite, though she had no objection to vodka. Purely for variety’s sake, she had tried rum but rum was vile if you drank it neat and she couldn’t stomach orange juice or, God forbid, blackcurrant.

‘Can you manage,’ said Rupert, ‘or do you want me to do you a double bag?’

‘Not really.’

‘Your neighbour, Stuart, is it, don’t-know-his-other-name was in here this morning stocking up on champers. Having a party? I said, and he said it was a house-warming, though he’s been here for months, and he was inviting all the other folk in Lichfield House.’

Olwen nodded but said nothing. Outside it was snowing and not the kind of snow that becomes a raindrop when it touches the ground. This snow settled and gradually built up. Olwen, in rubber boots, trudged through it along Kenilworth Parade. The council had cleared a passage in the roadway for cars – a passage that was rapidly whitening – but done nothing for pedestrians apart from scattering the ice-coated slippery pavement with mustard-coloured sand. She passed the furniture shop, the pizza place, the post office and Mr Ali’s on the corner and turned up into Kenilworth Avenue. Most of the time the place was as dreary as only a London outer suburb can be, but the veiling of snow transformed it into a pretty Christmas card. Small conifers in the front garden of the block poked their dark green spires through the snow blanket and the melting icicles dripped water.

Olwen staggered up the steps with her bag of bottles. The automatic doors parted to receive her. In the hallway she encountered Rose Preston-Jones with her dog McPhee. On the whole Olwen was indifferent to other people or else she disliked them, but Rose she distrusted, much as she distrusted Michael Constantine. If not herself a doctor, Rose, with her acupuncture and dabbling in herbalism, her detoxing and her aromatherapy, was the next best (or worst) thing. Such people were capable of interfering with her habit.

‘Is it still snowing?’ Rose asked.

‘Not really.’

Olwen had long ago discovered that this is a response which may be made with impunity to almost any enquiry, including, ‘Are you well?’ and ‘Are you free on Saturday?’ Not that people often asked her anything. She made it plain that she was mostly inaccessible. Rose looked at the carrier bag, or Olwen thought she did, maybe she just looked down at the dog, looked up again and said she must get on with McPhee’s walk.

The lift was waiting, its sliding door open. Olwen had just stepped in when Michael Constantine came running through the automatic doors. He had the sort of legs which, when possessed by models, are described as so lengthy as to reach up to their necks, and was six and a half feet tall, so his stride was very long. He was the politest of the residents and asked Olwen if she was well.

‘Not really.’ Olwen forbore to ask him how he was and, though she knew his flat was on the first floor, pressed the button for the second. It was a peculiarity of the lift that once this floor had been signalled, the intermediate could not be, so Michael had to go up to the top with her. He remembered to be a doctor, though it was only recently that he had become one.

‘Keep warm,’ he said. ‘Look after yourself.’

Olwen shrugged, her alternative response. She got out of the lift without a word just as one of the girls came out of the flat she shared with two girls of similar age. None of them had ever been seen dressed otherwise than in jeans with a T-shirt, sweater or flouncy dress on her top half. One was rather overweight, one thin and one in between. As well as jeans, this one had a red quilted coat over what seemed like several jumpers. Olwen had been told their names over and over but she had contrived to forget them. She let herself into Flat 6 and put the bag down on the kitchen counter.

The flat was furnished for comfort, not for beauty. There were no books, no plants, no ornaments, no curtains and no clocks. A deep, soft, shabby sofa occupied one wall of the living room and faced, along with a deep, soft and comfortable armchair with a detachable footrest, the large flat-screen television set. A window blind was seldom raised or lowered from its present position of halfway up and beneath it could be seen the solid cupola-topped tower of Sir Robert Smirke’s church and the tops of trees at Kenilworth Green. And of course the snow, now falling in large feathery flakes. The bedroom was even more sparsely furnished, containing only a king-size bed and, facing it, a row of hooks on the wall.

All but one of the kitchen cupboards were empty. Food, such as there was of it, lived in the fridge. The full cupboard was rather less full than it had been at the beginning of the week, but Olwen replenished her stock by putting her three new bottles on the shelf alongside a full bottle and one that was half empty. This one she removed and poured from it about three inches of gin into a tumbler. There was no point in waiting until she was sitting down to start on it – there was no point in Olwen’s present life of ever doing anything she didn’t want to do – so she drank about half of it, refilled the glass and took glass and bottle to the sofa. It was low down near the floor, so no need for a table. Glass and bottle joined the phone on the woodblock floor.

Reclining, her feet up on a cushion, she reflected, as she often did, on having, at the age of sixty, attained her lifelong aim. Through two marriages, both unsatisfactory, seemingly endless full-time work, houses she had disliked, uncongenial stepchildren and dour relations, she was at last doing what she had always wanted to do but had rigidly for various reasons stringently controlled. She was drinking the unlimited amount of alcohol she had longed for. She was, she supposed, but without rancour or regret, drinking herself to death.

The list Stuart Font had made read: Ms Olwen Curtis, Flat 6; girls – don’t know names, Flat 5; Dr and Mrs Constantine, Flat 4; Marius something, don’t know other name, Flat 3; Ms Rose Preston-Jones, Flat 2; me, Flat 1. This last entry he crossed out as it was unnecessary to invite himself to his own house-warming party. The flat he had moved into in October was still unfurnished but for three mirrors, a king-size bed in the bedroom and a three-seater sofa in the living room. The place looked a bit desolate but Stuart had noticed a furniture store in Kenilworth Parade, its prices much reduced due to the credit crunch. Remembering to take his key with him – he had twice forgotten his key and had to hunt for and eventually find the porter or caretaker or whatever he called himself – he went out into the hallway to check on names and flat numbers on residents’ pigeonholes.

The girls at Flat 5 appeared to be called Noor Lateef, Molly Flint and Sophie Longwich, and the man on his own at Flat 3 Marius Potter. That was everyone documented. Stuart, who hadn’t yet been outdoors that day, ventured on to the front step. The snow was still falling and had settled on pavements, patches of grass, rooftops and parked cars. Stuart noticed that if he stood on the step the front doors remained open, letting in a bitter draught. He hurriedly went indoors and back into his own flat where he sat down once more, added names to his list and wondered whether he should ask the porter (Mr Scurlock), the Chinese (Vietnamese, Cambodian?) people opposite, the elderly chap next door to them, Rupert at Wicked Wine, his best friends, Jack and Martin – and Claudia. If he invited Claudia wouldn’t he also have to invite her husband Freddy, incongruous though this seemed in the circumstances?

Stuart added the names to his list, went into the kitchen and made himself a mug of hot chocolate, a drink of which he was particularly fond. He was realising, not for the first time, that though he was twenty-five, he had serious gaps in his knowledge of social usage, a deficiency due to his having lived at home with his parents all his life. Even his three years of business studies had taken place at a university easily reached by Tube. The company where he had worked since taking that degree until he resigned on coming into his inheritance, was also accessible by the same means, being no more than a hundred yards from Liverpool Street Station. The only breaks from home life had been holidays and the occasional nights he had stayed away in various girlfriends’ flats.

All this had meant that inviting people round, stocking up on drink, buying food, gaining some understanding of domestic organisation, remembering to carry his keys with him, arranging with people his mother called tradesmen and paying services bills, were closed books to him. He couldn’t say he was learning fast but he knew he had to. Since coming here he hadn’t done much but run around with Claudia. Making that hot chocolate without scalding himself was a small triumph. He was thinking how pleasant it would be if he could have his mother living here, but his mother changed, different, tailored as it were to his requirements: as admirable a housekeeper and cook and laundress as she was but silenced so that she spoke only in the occasional monosyllable; able to remove herself without a word or a look when Claudia came round; deaf to his music, invisible to his friends, never, ever criticising or even appearing to notice the areas of his behaviour of which she might disapprove. But if she became this person she wouldn’t be his mother.

He was thinking of this, finishing his drink, when she phoned.

‘How are you, darling? Have a nice weekend?’

Stuart said it was all right. In fact, it had been spectacularly good, since he had spent most of Saturday and part of Sunday afternoon in bed with Claudia, but he couldn’t even hint at that.

‘I’ve been thinking.’

He hated it when his mother said that. It was a new departure for her, dating from since his own departure, and invariably led to something unpleasant. ‘I’ve been thinking that don’t you think you ought to get a job? I mean, I know you said when you came into Auntie Helen’s money that you’d take a gap year but a gap year’s what people take between school and university. I wonder if you didn’t know that.’ She spoke as if she had made some earth-shaking discovery. ‘Daddy is getting very anxious,’ she said.

‘Has he been thinking too?’

‘Please don’t use that nasty sarcastic tone, Stuart. It’s your welfare we’re worried about.’

‘I haven’t time to get a job,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to buy some furniture and I only spent half what she left me on this place. I’ve got plenty of money.’

His mother laughed. The noise she made was more like a series of short gasps than laughter. ‘No one has plenty of money any more, dear. Not with this economic downturn or whatever they call it, no one. Of course you would go ahead and buy yourself a flat the minute you came into your inheritance. Daddy always thought it a mistake. I don’t know how many times he’s said to me, why didn’t he wait a while. With house prices falling so fast he’d soon get that place for half what he paid. It only calls for a little patience.’

Stuart was beginning to think that there could be no circumstances in which he would want his mother here, no matter how much washing, cooking and cleaning she might do, for he could imagine no radical change taking place in her character. He held the phone a long way from his ear but when she had said ‘Are you there, Stuart?’ three times he brought it back again, said untruthfully that his front doorbell was ringing and he had to go. She had barely rung off when his mobile on the floor on the other side of the room began to play ‘Nessun dorma’. Claudia. She always used his mobile. It was more intimate than the landline, she said.

‘Shall I come over this afternoon?’

‘Yes, please,’ said Stuart.

‘I thought you’d say that. You’re going to give me a key. Aren’t you? I’ve told Freddy I’ll be at my Russian class. Russian’s a very difficult language and it’ll take years to learn.’

‘What shall we do when you get here?’ Stuart asked, knowing this would provoke a long description in exciting detail. It did. He sat down on the sofa, put his feet up and listened, enraptured. Outside it continued to snow, coming down in big flakes like swans’ feathers.

The Constantines had lunched late, the only customers at that hour in the Sun Yu Tsen Chinese restaurant which was on the other side of Wicked Wine in the parade and next door to the hairdresser.

‘I must get some pictures before the light goes,’ Katie said, producing her camera from her bag. ‘We could have a little walk. We never get any exercise.’

She was enchanted by the snow and skipped along, picking up handfuls of it. Michael wondered if he could write something about it for his column, something about the crystals all being of a different pattern, or maybe he should disabuse readers’ minds of the fallacy that it could get too cold for snow to fall at all. But by the time his piece appeared the wretched stuff would no doubt have disappeared.

‘Can we make a snowman, Michael? When we get back, can we make a snowman in the front garden? They won’t mind, will they?’

‘Who’s to mind?’

‘I’ve seen pictures of snowmen. I want one of my own.’

‘It will melt, you know. It will all be gone tomorrow.’

‘Then I’d better get taking my photos.’

The extent of their exercise was walking round the block, up the roundabout, down Chester Grove, along the parade and home, Katie pausing now and then to get a shot of children throwing snowballs, a dog rolling in the snow, a child with a toboggan. Back at Lichfield House she pointed out to Michael the houses opposite, their roofs all covered with snow but for the central pair.

‘Isn’t that funny? I’ll just take a picture of it and then we’ll go in, shall we? It will soon start getting dark.’

In the hallway they encountered the three girls from Flat 5, plump Molly Flint and skinny Noor Lateef shivering in see-through tops and torn jeans, Sophie Longwich comfortable in a padded jacket and woolly hat.

‘I’m frozen,’ Molly was saying. ‘I think I’ve got pneumonia.’

‘No, you haven’t,’ said Michael, the medical man. ‘You don’t get pneumonia through going out dressed like it was July. That’s an old wives’ tale.’ Maybe he should write something about that too . . .

Noor had gone back to the doors, looking out through the glass panel. ‘It’s started to snow again.’

‘That roof will get covered up now,’ said Michael to Katie, pressing the button for the lift. While they waited Noor and Sophie told Molly that if she put on any more weight she would have to travel in the lift on her own. Its doors had just closed on the five of them when Claudia Livorno came through the swing doors, carrying a bottle of Verdicchio and walking gingerly because the step outside was icy and her heels were high. She rang the bell of Flat 1.

Olwen had nothing in Flat 6 to eat except bread and jam, so she ate that and when she woke up from her long afternoon sleep, started on a newly opened bottle of gin. She never went near a doctor but Michael Constantine said it was his opinion she had the beginnings of scurvy. He had noticed her teeth were getting loose. They shifted about, catching on her lips when she spoke. In the flat below hers, Marius Potter was sitting in an armchair that had belonged to his grandmother reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the second time. He would finish the bit about the murder of Commodus and then go downstairs to have supper with Rose Preston-Jones. This would be his third visit, the fifth time they had met, and he was looking forward to seeing her. He had already once cast the sortes for her and would do so again if she asked him.

The first day he moved in they had recognised each other as kindred spirits, though they had nothing much in common but their vegetarianism. Marius smiled to himself (but only to himself) at her New Age occupation and lifestyle. Rose was no intellectual, yet in his estimation she had a clear and beautiful mind, was innocent, sweet and kindly. But something about her teased and slightly troubled him. Taking Paradise Lost from his great-uncle’s bookcase, Marius once again thought how he was almost sure he recognised her from further back, a long way back, maybe three decades. It wasn’t her name, not even her face, but some indefinable quality of personality or movement or manner that brought back to him a past encounter. He called that quality her soul and an inner conviction told him she would call it that too. He could have asked her, of course he could, but something stopped him, some feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment he couldn’t identify. What he hoped was that total recall would come to him.

Carrying the heavy volume of Milton, he went down the stairs to the ground floor. Rose, admitting him to Flat 2, seemed to be standing in his past, down misty aeons back to his youth, when all the world was young and all the leaves were green. But still he couldn’t place her.

Chapter 2

THANKS TO THE recession, the solicitors Crabtree, Livorno, Thwaite had less than usual to do, so Freddy Livorno had taken the afternoon off and gone home. Now he was in the living room of his pretty little house in Islington, dismantling a basket of dried flowers which stood in the centre of an occasional table. Carefully he removed the plumes of pampas grass, the prickly stems of teasels with their spiked crowns and the slender brittle stalks of honesty (honesty!) bearing their transparent oval seedheads. Into the now empty basket he put the high-tech bug he had bought from a shop in Regent Street and replaced the plants, carefully concealing the deceitful little gizmo.

Now for Claudia’s computer, the machine she exclusively used for her journalism as the deputy fashion editor of a national newspaper. A small widget, minute, almost invisible, went in between the keyboard lead and the socket. That should do it, Freddy said to himself. Technology was a wonderful thing, what an improvement on private detectives! As a solicitor, he knew all about that variety of gumshoe, though now he thought their days were numbered. His gizmos were costly and for the two of them he hadn’t had much change out of eight hundred pounds, but that was nothing compared to a private eye’s charges.

Freddy wasn’t the sort of man to speculate about the character or even the identity of the man who was his wife’s lover. Those details would be revealed in time. As to how she had met him, he supposed she had interviewed him for some aspect of her work. She could well have taken up with a male model. But it was of little interest to him. He couldn’t even have said if he loved her any longer. If there was one thing of which he was certain it was that he didn’t want to lose her, had no intention of losing her. On the practical side, he had a mortgage to pay on this small but extremely expensive house, the repayments of which were considerably helped by her contribution. In these hard times you could never be quite sure what steps building societies might take to recover their money if householders defaulted. No, he couldn’t lose the thirty-three and a third per cent she put into it. Also, though no more than two years younger than he, she was a trophy wife whom he was proud to show off, good-looking, lovely figure, well dressed and clever.

Today, apparently, she had gone to her Russian class. Freddy didn’t believe in the Russian class but he couldn’t be bothered to check on it. No need for that now he had his handy gadgets. He looked in the wine rack and saw that a bottle of Verdicchio was missing, a bottle he was sure he had noticed there this morning. No doubt she and Mr Mystery were enjoying it now, relaxing between bouts. Tomorrow, she had told him, she’d be at home all day, working on this piece she was writing on how to dress well during an economic downturn. Everything she typed on that computer, every email she sent, would be accessible to him when he put in a simple code after she’d gone to bed; everything she said in this room he’d be able to hear when he dialled the mobile number of the gizmo in the dried-flower basket. And then what?

He would take steps.

Pieces you wrote for the newspapers these days had to be full of references, or at least make allusion, to television programmes, celebrities and pop music. Claudia was too young ever to have known anything else so she had no difficulty in comparing something to Coldplay, pointing out the resemblance of an up-and-coming model to Cheryl Cole and referring in a scathing yet amused way to Jonathan Ross’s latest escapade on air. These were the kind of things her readers understood. Most of them were under forty. Claudia had no patience with those writers who quoted Shakespeare or made reference to Rigoletto as if anyone likely to read their articles had ever been inside the Globe theatre or an opera house.

Claudia began by writing about shopping. Could it cease to be the principal leisure activity of the British female both under and over forty? Her research into the subject had furnished her with a lot of shopping anecdotes, lists of excessive amounts spent by individual women, the most allegedly spent by any one woman in three hours in Knightsbridge, the stampedes occasioned by the 7 a.m. openings of new West End stores and, to show her compassionate side, a rundown on the suffering statistics of small children operating sewing machines in Chinese sweatshops. Now on to the difference the credit crunch might make to curtailing women’s shopping sprees, but first to pour herself a cup of coffee from the pot she had made before she began.

Two more sentences must be typed before she took her break. Claudia followed a principle of getting into the next bit before stopping either for coffee or lunch. Once getting into the next bit had been done there would be less of a problem in getting on with it when she returned to work after half an hour. The coffee was black and strong, its surface made frothy by the artificial sweetener she had put into it, an additive she roundly condemned when writing about healthy diets.

She shifted the coaster along the table surface before putting the mug down, slightly pushing aside the bowl of dried flowers. It seemed to her that they were less attractively arranged than usual but she must be imagining it. After all, who but she would touch them? Maria was far too lazy and to associate Freddy with any household task, however minor, was a joke.

Her mobile told her the time was 10.31. She dialled Stuart Font’s number. He answered sleepily but livened up after she had told him in some detail how much she had enjoyed the previous afternoon. No, she couldn’t come today. Some badinage ensued on the alternative meaning of the verb she had used, after which she suggested he take her out to lunch the day after, not in his neighbourhood, absolutely not. Why not Hampstead which wasn’t too far away to get back, somewhat the worse for wear, to his place in the afternoon? The suggestions he made for ways to spend the following hours evoked from her a ‘Stuart, you are sweet’, and a ‘I can’t wait to try that’.

She’d call for him – ‘Don’t forget I’ve got a key now!’ – but would leave her car in Kenilworth Avenue and they’d take a taxi. ‘And now I must get on. Some of us have to work for our livings, you know.’

He said something about emailing her with the name of the restaurant to see if it was all right and she said that was a good idea, having some doubts about his standards when he was paying. Their conversation stimulated her to continue with her piece about fashion in a time of downturn and she moved on to high-street shopping for men.

It was in a men’s boutique, though not the high-street kind, that she had first met Stuart. At first she thought he was gay. The man in the Jermyn Street shop who was contemplating and delicately caressing a vicuña coat was too slender and too beautiful to be straight – and too interested in this garment which had been reduced in price to a still hefty thousand pounds. Claudia advanced on him, introduced herself as a journalist, and started questioning him about buying clothes. Which designers did he prefer? Would he ever buy from M&S? Had he ever had a suit made? The admiration in his eyes and what she called his ‘edgy’ comments soon told her she had been mistaken in his sexual orientation. No, he wasn’t going to buy the coat, he’d just bought a flat, but he’d like to take her somewhere and buy her a drink. Their ideas of where this drink should come from differed but Claudia quickly made it clear that she favoured a select bar in St James’s over the Caffè Nero. Next day they met at the fashionable champagne bar at St Pancras Station, watched the Eurostar come in from Paris and after Stuart had spent fifty pounds on a bottle of champagne, took a taxi to Lichfield House.

Claudia had long since incorporated Stuart’s fashion comments in an article (naming no names) but managed to recycle some of them for this one. A thousand words and she was done. She made herself more coffee and had a look at her emails. The top one in her inbox was from Stuart to tell her that he had booked a table at Bacchanalia in Heath Street. Would that do? Claudia googled Bacchanalia, found it satisfactory and far from cheap. She emailed back to say she would let herself into his place at twelve noon next day. That way they could be back from the restaurant by three as we shall have plenty to do in the afternoon. She was pleased he hadn’t suggested texting her as the necessary abbreviations of such messages would have militated against the sexy tone of their correspondence.

It was hard for Stuart to pass a mirror without looking into it. His own reflection brought him a lot of pleasure. He usually turned away from it satisfied that he had rarely seen a man better-looking than himself. Aware that men are not supposed to feel this way, are expected to take no interest in their appearance apart from being clean and adequately clothed, must be deprecatory and indeed embarrassed should anyone make a favourable remark about their looks, he was careful to dress with discreet casualness or, in the days when he was at work in the City, in sober suits and plain ties. But one of his indulgences was to drop into boutiques of the Jermyn Street kind or wander through the men’s department of Harrods, imagining how superb he would look in this Armani tweed jacket or that Dolce and Gabbana sweatshirt.

This morning he was dressed in jeans, a black shirt and a blue sweater. As he eyed himself in the living-room mirror – there was another in his bedroom and a third in the passage – he saw that the sweater was the exact colour of his eyes. No doubt Claudia had already noticed. If she remarked on it he would put on his embarrassed look; unfortunately, he had never mastered the art of blushing. Though nearly sixty, his father so far showed no sign of going bald and Stuart, who had heard that baldness occurs on a gene carried by the male progenitor, thought comfortably that he stood a good chance of keeping his hair into old age. His was thick and a beautiful shade of rich dark brown, almost but not quite black.

He had completed his invitation cards the night before, excluding Freddy Livorno, put them in envelopes, and was going out to buy stamps and post them. The idea of simply placing them in residents’ pigeonholes had occurred to him and been dismissed as looking mean. There must be some sort of etiquette about this but he didn’t know what it was. Best be on the safe side.

It was very cold outside, one of those English midwinter days when the sky is bluish-grey with pale clouds, no snow has fallen and no frost is to be seen but every small puddle of water has become a slab of ice. A light yet sharp east wind was blowing. Stuart possessed a winter coat but seldom wore it. Young people don’t wear coats. Young people wear T-shirts in below-freezing weather. Maybe he wasn’t quite young enough for that and he ventured out in the blue sweater that matched his eyes.

The post office was a counter in the newsagent’s in Kenilworth Parade next door but one to Mr Ali’s. Further along was the furniture shop. Everything in its window had become a sale item, chairs, tables, beds, lamps, some labelled ‘Unbelievable Reductions!’. Stuart went to the post office, bought his stamps and posted his invitations, then to Design for Living where he weighed up the advantages of buying furniture at knock-down prices but which he didn’t much like, against going down to the West End and buying furniture he liked a lot at twice the cost. His mother’s words on the subject of money and getting a job came back to him. Auntie Helen’s legacy had seemed a fortune when it first came to him but now half of it had gone on the flat, plenty more on the sofa, the king-size bed and the mirrors, and he was spending a great deal on Claudia. A lot more drink would have to be bought for the party. He began to regret posting those invitations but it was too late now. He had to have the party and he couldn’t have it in a semi-unfurnished flat.

The assistant who came up to him in Design for Living could hardly believe his luck when Stuart picked out a dining table and six chairs, two armchairs, a coffee table and a standard lamp like a half-open sunflower on a gilt metal stalk. If all went well this would be the first sale he had made that week. Mirrors were Stuart’s weakness and they had a couple they had no chance of ever selling, one in a gilt frame with curlicues, the other framed in matt black. The assistant said he would throw that one in for nothing. Stuart didn’t much like any of the stuff he had bought so he had to keep telling himself what a bargain it was. Delivery next day, said the assistant as Stuart handed over his credit card.

The automatic doors at Lichfield House came open as he approached. He stood outside on the doorstep studying Design for Living’s receipt, all the items he’d bought listed. Waves of heat from the hallway bathed him as he informed himself anew that the armchairs had cost four hundred pounds apiece and the standard lamp two hundred and fifty. Were those really knock-down prices? His reverie was interrupted by Wally Scurlock the caretaker tapping him on the shoulder and telling him he was letting all the heat out.

‘If you stand there, sir, the doors stay open and when the doors are open all the bloody heat goes out. Right, sir? Savvy?’

Wally seemed to think that reiterating sirs and madams to the residents compensated for the gruffness of his tone and the harshness of his words. Stuart went inside, feeling thankful that he hadn’t sent the caretaker an invitation. He let himself into his flat and contemplated his reflection in the mirror, three feet long by eighteen inches wide and framed in stainless steel, on the living-room wall. Cold as it was outside, his face remained its normal pale olive, neither pinched nor reddened. He smiled to show himself his white even teeth, went into his bedroom and put on a tie, in case Bacchanalia demanded it. Surely they wouldn’t, not for lunch. Stuart reasoned that if a restaurant required men to wear ties and a jacket at lunchtime it was likely to be more expensive than one which did not.

He went into the kitchen and made himself a big mugful of hot chocolate, spooning into it quite a lot of long-life cream. The nearest place to buy fresh cream, as far as Stuart knew, was Tesco up beyond the roundabout. You never really knew, when you bought a place, how convenient it was for things like that. Only living in it for a few weeks told you. When you hadn’t a car and the only bus to come anywhere near you was the 113 which went nowhere he wanted to go, when the nearest Tube station was on the universally loathed Northern Line, the nearest cinema probably miles away at Swiss Cottage and no decent restaurants were to be found within a five-mile radius, you began to wonder if you wouldn’t have been better off keeping your job and spending all Auntie Helen’s money on a flat in central London.

Helen Morrison had been his godmother. The first annoying thing she did was to assert her rights in this particular role and name her godson. Stuart’s parents had intended to call him Simon George but Annabel Font was very aware of the advantages of having her aunt as his godmother and soon persuaded her husband to give in. As well as being unmarried, apparently childless and rich, Helen was a Jacobite. She still adhered to the view that the present royal family were German usurpers, though their tenure of the throne went back three hundred years, and believed that its present incumbent should be an obscure prince no one had ever heard of living somewhere in central Europe. To her, Stuart was an almost sacred name and Windsor (or Saxe-Coburg-Gotha or Hanover or whatever you liked to call them) a laughable misnomer. So Stuart was christened and wasn’t even permitted to have George for a second name as that had been the name of several Hanoverian kings.

The Fonts, though they had agreed to this condition, weren’t really the kind of people to suck up to a relative in the hope of getting her money for themselves or their only child. Helen sometimes came to them for Christmas, she sent them postcards from the distant places she went to on her solitary holidays and on his birthdays Stuart regularly received a cheque from her, quite a small cheque. Annabel and she wrote to each other two or three times a year. They occasionally spoke on the phone. When Stuart got two Bs for his A levels a rather larger cheque arrived, and when he graduated from the east London university no one had ever heard of, the sum he received was a hundred pounds. His mother forced him to write polite thank-you letters, actually standing over him while he did so, but she did this for his letters to the donors of such presents as a paperback book or a CD of music he never listened to.

Helen was eighty-four when she died and Stuart twenty-four. She left four hundred thousand pounds to Stuart but her Edinburgh house in elegant Morningside and two million pounds to the fifty-year-old child no one knew she had ever had and who had been adopted by a butcher and his wife forty-nine years before. Annabel commented on the will, saying that Helen had been a dark horse but conceded that in the circumstances Stuart was lucky to get anything at all. He agreed, handing in his notice next day to his immediate boss who, accepting it, remarked that anyway, what with this imminent recession, Stuart would shortly have been asked to consider his position.

He walked round the flat, deciding where to put the new furniture. Where should the two new mirrors go? One in the spare bedroom and the other in here? His sofa was dark red with a hint of purple and now, with a slight sinking of the heart, he realised that the chairs he had bought were a shade of orangey coral. Would it look dreadful? He would have to brazen it out, insist that this was the latest colour scheme. He was back in his bedroom, wondering if this might be the best place to put the sunflower lamp and wondering too if he’d be hiding it in here from the critical eyes of his guests, when he heard the front door open and someone come into the flat. A split second of shock-horror and then he realised. Claudia. Claudia had a key. He went out to meet her.

They kissed, lasciviously rather than with affection. She wore a tight black suit with a very short skirt and a jacket cut away in a U-shape to show a lot of cleavage. Her heels made her taller than him which he didn’t much like.

‘The taxi I came in is waiting,’ she said. ‘No need to hurry.’

There was every need since he would be paying.

‘We’ll ask him to pick us up after lunch, shall we?’

The taxi passed Wicked Wine and Stuart saw Olwen emerging with her few days’ supplies in two carrier bags. The pavements were dry today so she wore her bedroom slippers. These were mules with pink fluffy tops and their wedge heels flapped up and down, clattering as she walked. Standing at the gate of his house next door to where the Cambodians lived, Duncan Yeardon watched her make her slow way up the path to Lichfield House. He liked to speculate about the lives of strangers. He was a people-watcher and he had an active imagination. This woman carried heavy bags from the shops several times a week. She seemed too old to have children to feed but she might have an invalid husband or even two people – sisters, say? – who needed supplies. Of course, there was nothing to say one of the bags didn’t contain washing from the launderette. Not everyone had a washing machine. Duncan watched her climb the steps up to the double doors and saw those doors open for her.

His own house was too large for him, Victorian, semi-detached, on three floors. He had bought it because never in his life before had he owned a house like this, though he had always wanted to. Now he had it, he didn’t know what to do with it. Keep it clean, of course, and that he did. Keep it immaculately tidy. Rearrange the furniture. Often, during the day, he wandered from room to room, looking out of the windows. All his working life he had worked so hard and for such long hours that he had never cultivated any occupations for his leisure hours. He watched people and made up romances for them while drinking a lot of weak watery coffee.

Inside Lichfield House, in the hallway, Michael and Katie Constantine were talking to Rose Preston-Jones. It was rather less cold today so McPhee had discarded his pink woolly coat and wore only his natural fur as a newspaper article had told Rose dogs in coats could overheat and be ill.

‘If you believe one newspaper article,’ said Michael, ‘why don’t you believe others? I mean, you believe that about dog fur but you don’t believe detoxing is rubbish. Both stories come from expert sources, both are the result of serious research.’

‘Oh, Michael dear, I know detoxing works,’ Rose said, growing pink. ‘I can prove it. My clients who go on my course show an amazing improvement in their health once all those impurities that clog their systems are out.’

‘Their livers do that for them. Their livers detox them every day.’ Michael turned to say hello to Olwen. ‘Are you well?’

‘Not really,’ said Olwen, lumbering up to the lift.

‘You can’t say her liver has done anything for her,’ Rose said with quiet triumph.

‘Only because there won’t be much of it left.’

‘She told Marius she’s drinking herself to death. She says she’s been wanting to drink unlimited amounts all her life and now she can.’

Katie spoke for the first time. ‘But she never says anything except “Not really”.’

‘People talk to Marius,’ Rose said fondly.

‘The trouble,’ said Michael, ‘with drinking yourself to death or smoking yourself to death is that you don’t just die. It would be OK if you carried on with these excesses and felt fine till one day you lay down peacefully and died. But you don’t. You get diabetes or have a stroke or a heart attack and then the long slow painful route to death begins.’

Rose picked up McPhee and hugged him as if he were in imminent danger of one or other of the fates Michael had mentioned. Laughing in rather a grim way, Michael took Katie’s arm and the two of them went out to the pizza place. Instead of going back to her own flat, Rose got into the lift with McPhee and went up to ask Marius Potter for a sortes reading. She hadn’t liked ‘the long slow painful route to death’ at all.

Chapter 3

BY NIGHT, THE place was very quiet. Aurelia Grove was far enough away from Upper Street for no more than a soft sighing from its traffic to reach these houses, embowered as they were in hedges and leafy bushes and conifers. Each was detached or semi-detached. If neighbours were noisy, their music or laughter or slamming doors affected no one but themselves. The silence was even deeper when the weather was cold. Those street marauders who wandered mysteriously, occasionally giving vent to meaningless yells or animal whoops, stayed at home or remained inside pubs and clubs when the temperature dropped.

Just before midnight, Freddy Livorno went outside, though no further than the front step. He often did this to see what the night was like and to look at the sky. Tonight it was very clear, a bright dark blue, and the air had that sharp feel about it as of a crystallisation taking place so that it seemed his breath might freeze into chips of ice. He went inside again and bolted the front door. Claudia had gone to bed early. She had gone up at ten fifteen and Freddy guessed this was so that she could be asleep or feign sleep before he entered their bedroom. Well, let her sleep or pretend sleep, as she chose. Earlier in the day, he had dialled the mobile number on the device set among the dried flowers and been startled by the lascivious content of her conversations with a nameless man she called darling. Now was his chance to read what she typed during the past two days and discover part or all of that man’s name. He started up her computer, put in the code which would work the gizmo – and lo and behold, it did.

His wife had sent several emails to the newspaper for whom she worked and an article about the recession affecting shopping as an email attachment. Freddy wasn’t concerned with that. Those sent to Stuart.Font@Lichfieldhouse.com were what interested him. One began ‘Hi, darling S’ and ended ‘Can’t wait to do you-know-what again, it was awesome. Do I have to wait till Thursday? Your lustful C.’ The rest started and finished in much the same way. The middle part was hair-raising. Freddy was amazed by his wife’s knowledge and experience. She had certainly demonstrated none of it to him. And that email address contained not only the guy’s name but an important clue to his address as well. Claudia also mentioned a key that had been given her. Did this key open Lichfield House or a door in Lichfield House? And was Lichfield House a private house or block of flats or the offices of a company?

He decided to leave the two little gizmos in place for a few days longer. She wasn’t planning on going there tomorrow, so she would very likely send more emails and almost certainly have another conversation with this Stuart. More details must be discovered before he acted.

No sound came from upstairs. She was sleeping the sleep of the unjust, he thought. She was in the habit of leaving her handbag overnight on a small table in the hall. The one she was currently using was of black leather, absurdly (in Freddy’s view) studded and barred with silver-coloured metal, as was the fashion, fitted with half a dozen useless zip fasteners which opened and closed pointless pockets, and ornamented by an unnecessary two-inch-wide belt with a large chased silver buckle. Her house keys were in one such pocket and another beside it on its own. By the time she needed a key to that fellow’s place he would have had another cut and have replaced the Brasso-cleaned one with the original.