Spring, the sweet spring. Then blooms each thing. Then, according to the poet, maids dance in a ring. Not that there was a lot of that sort of thing going on in Chelsea. Probably couldn't find enough maids



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Spring, the sweet spring. Then blooms each thing. Then, according to the poet, maids dance in a ring. Not that there was a lot of that sort of thing going on in Chelsea. Probably couldn't find enough maids.

Penny Wanawake closed the doors out into the garden and poured herself a double bourbon. Phew. If it came to a choice between dancing maids and courting frogs, she'd have taken the former any time. At least they'd have packed up and gone home at the end of the Military Two-Step or whatever. Frogs not only stuck around, they multiplied. It wouldn't have been so bad if they'd gone forth and done it. This lot stayed home. And when a frog decided to multiply, everyone knew it. Not an inhibition among the lot. Tiny screams of ecstasy made the evenings hideous. Grunts of lust perpetually split the night. Every night.

Barnaby's fault. Last winter he'd gone Green as Fairy Liquid and decided to rehabilitate the lily pond which lurked under a Ficus in the garden. A pair of designer wellies later, the garden was knee-high in gag-making mud and the pond was down to its concrete skin. After that, he'd filled it up again. Not just with water and plants but with newts and goldfish. Every frog in the district had made a beeline for the place. Now it was a kind of amphibian Blackpool. There was all-night carousing. Drunken choruses. Aristophanes would have loved it.

She switched on some music. A Beethoven string quartet began to shoulder its way round the high, extravagantly corniced room. Complex music that eased a complex life. Also drowned out the batrachians singing each to each. She sipped her drink, feeling her guts untangle. Music and bourbon: it was a helluva combination to relax with. And boy, did she need to relax. Since hitting her twenty-seventh birthday, she seemed to have shed a skin or two. Three, even. The top layer might still be black, but inside she was growing increasingly yellow. The world outside was a scary place, full of gut-twisting wretchedness, and her camera didn't miss a trick. She'd spent the afternoon developing film. She'd earned the booze.

With Barnaby away, she was alone. Sometimes alone was what a person wanted to be. Needed to be. Being alone gave a person time to get on with a person's own life, her singular as opposed to half-of-a-couple life. Not that they were a couple in the legal sense. Marital status: strictly unmarried. Which was the way she liked it. And intended to keep it. She stretched. Being alone also gave her time to attend to some of the zillion details connected with her part in the Black Aid Gala which was being held at Wembley next month. lt'd started out with her being asked to set up an exhibition of photographs in the entrance foyer. It had gone on to include duties ranging from the secretarial to the entrepreneurial with a certain amount of devil's advocacy in between. Some of the organisers had the wildest notions.

When the doorbell rang, she looked at her watch. Whaaat? Midnight plus ten? Not exactly normal visiting hours. For a moment or two she debated remaining where she was. You could bet the rent that a post-midnight visit didn't mean someone wanting to socialise. Whoever the caller was, it spelled trouble. With a capital T. Question was: did she want trouble?

No one in their right mind would answer yes.

She got up. Still holding her glass she walked barefoot into the hall. She squinted through the spyhole. A man stood outside, staring straight into her eye. He smiled slightly, as though he knew she was watching him. He puckered his lips up into a silent kiss. There was a top hat on his head and a red-lined opera cloak about his shoulders.

She opened the door. 'Let me guess,' she said. 'You're the Phantom of the Opera.'

'Wrong.'


'Count Dracula?'

'Two down and one to go.' He stepped into the house, still smiling. There was a scar high on his left cheek. As he walked down the hall, Penny moved backwards before him towards the drawing-room.

'In that case, you must be Ludovic Fairfax,' she said.

'Right.'


'I thought that kind of rig' - Penny waved a hand that was as close to quizzical as a hand could get at the white tie and tails her visitor was wearing - 'went out in the last desperate days before the war. At least, for the ordinary man.'

'You obviously don't move in the right circles. Besides, you ought to know that I'm a far from ordinary man.' He opened his arms. 'Come here, Penny. I feel like kissing something and it's you or the hat-stand.'

'Ludo, it's been years.'

'Five, actually. I counted them on the way here. You taste of extremely good bourbon.'

'Have some, then you will too.'

He followed her into the drawing-room. She poured him a glass and held it while he removed his cloak and the top half of his tails. He wore braces with a tapestry pattern. A monocle on a black silk ribbon lolled against his stiff shirtfront. 'Does the outfit disappear at midnight?' she asked.

'Not unless I lose my glass slippers.'

'Isn't it uncomfortable, dressed like that?'

'It's worth it.'

Penny sprawled back against the sofa cushions. 'How?'

'The young lady on your arm never fails to be impressed by tails.'

'Hey, Ludo, I got news for you. She didn't fall for it.'

'How do you mean?'

'Otherwise you wouldn't be here at' - Penny checked her watch again - 'quarter after midnight. Alone.'

Ludo took his glass over to the french windows leading into the garden. He stood here, looking out. 'She was impressed, all right,' he said, without turning round. 'But not with me. It's the story of my life.'

'How is your life, anyway?' said Penny.

Ludo turned. He was no longer smiling. Round the stem of the glass his fingers were tense. 'Not the way I want it to be.'

'And you, Ludo. How are you?'

'A different man from the one who escorted you to May Balls,' he said. 'Do you remember?'

'I loved to dance, but oh, your feet,' said Penny. She sat up straight, pressing her knees together. 'I see you sometimes in gossip columns. Not that I often read the kind of papers that write about your kind of person.'

Ludo stretched his neck behind the white bow-tie. 'What kind is that?' He inspected his glass as though he'd just caught sight of Neptune taming a seahorse in it.

Uh-oh. Penny waited. Something was bothering Ludo Fairfax and, unless she could stop him, he was about to tell her why. For some reason she didn't want him to do that. Didn't want to get involved. The last couple of months had been gruelling. There'd been three harrowing weeks in the Sudan, three weeks filled with the sounds of death: the moans, the tears, the rasping drag of breath and the sudden ceasing silences. By -passing the agencies, she'd travelled across country, dodging roving bands of mercenaries and guerrillas, to distribute the supplies she'd brought with her from London: medicines, blankets, sacks of beans and rice, gasolene to power the jeeps. And watching men with nothing left but dignity wrap their families in grey rags and scratch them into the dry ungiving earth, she felt hopeless, cast-down, despairing. You could save ten lives, twenty, a hundred, even. But thousands died for every one saved. It was the death of children she couldn't handle.

The problems of the super-rich seemed irrelevant. 'You're still winning Oscars for the Bertie Wooster impression,' she said, éclair-light.

'I am?'


'Right. Filthy rich golden-spoon playboy, heir to a vast pile in Cornwall or somewhere, a real let-them-eat-caker, without a thought for the downtrodden masses.'

He snapped his upper and lower jaws together. Some muscle bulged under his ear. 'What the hell do the downtrodden masses care about me? If any such creatures still exist.'

'They do, believe me.'

'I don't think I do. I see them all trooping off on their holidays to Benidorm or Morocco, stuffing their supermarket trolleys full of food, crowding the High Streets on Saturdays ... it's the downtrodden masses who've made shopping into a leisure activity. Spend, spend, spend.' He made a sound of disgust. 'Sod the lot of them.'

'Hey, Ludo. Lighten up, will you.' Penny was alarmed. In his Cambridge days, Ludo had aimed at suavity and scored a bull's­eye. He was way off target now.

And realised it.

'Sorry,' he said. 'It's just, I find it so ironic. I grew up without ever giving a second's thought to money. Now it's all I ever think about. Money. How to get it. How to keep it. What I'd be prepared to do for it. Hating those who seem to have more of the damn stuff than I have.' His face had darkened with blood and anger. 'I never realised how many things you can't do when you haven't got it.'

'Who said you could never be too rich or too thin?' You had to say something when one of your childhood friends acted like he was about to burst a vein. Penny thought about adding a tension-easing laugh and decided against it.

'Somebody very rich and very thin,' Ludovic said. 'And Wrestebury's in Norfolk, darling. Not Cornwall.' He'd forced himself into a lighter tone of voice. 'Besides which, the pile is Amabel's, not mine. At least, not yet. When it is, I suppose I'll be forced to do the usual Stately Home stuff- helicopter pads, or haute Band Bin the west wing. But while she's still alive ...' He paused. 'It's her home, after all.'

'Of course.'

Ludovic perched on the edge of one of the big chesterfield sofas. 'You've no idea - at least, you probably have, but most people haven't - how difficult it is to keep things going. We were caught for nearly seven million pounds in death duties when Father died so soon after Grandfather. And we found he'd made some frightful investments, lost a packet. It took absolutely every penny we could scrape together to hang on to the place. Just about all the pictures went.'

'Not the Rembrandt,' said Penny. It had always been a particular favourite of hers.

'Not yet. But it's only a matter of time. It's the upkeep that's the killer.'

'What about going commercial?'

His laugh was unpleasant. 'Of course we've thought about it. We seem to talk about nothing else. But Amabel would hate it so much. And as I said, it's where we live. We don't want strangers with gold chains round their necks or crimplene cardigans wandering round gawping at our lavatory seats and fingering the curtains in the bedrooms.'

'Now, now,' Penny said. 'Do you mean you wouldn't mind so much if they wore hand-made brogues and Savile Row suits?'

'One is trying to preserve a little bit of the national heritage,' Ludo said. 'It sounds pompous, but it's the truth. I didn't opt for the responsibility: it was thrust on me by birth. Given that, I see it as my duty to do my best to pass it on intact to the next generation.'

'One way is to open the doors to the hordes.'

'I have, finally. On a strictly temporary basis. It was the only way we could pay off some of the more pressing bills, actually.'

'What kind of horde did you let in?'

'Some kind of language school.' He looked disgusted. 'One of those places that offer intensive teaching of English to rich foreigners is taking the place for two months this summer.'

'Do I congratulate you or order a wreath?'

'The wreath would be more appropriate. Frankly, I didn't think it was an offer we could refuse. They're paying an enormous rent. The fact is, between us Amabel and I aren't bringing in enough money to keep things going. Farming the estate works only to a limited degree. And things like dry rot in the attic or a bill for partial replumbing can bring you out in a muck sweat.'

'What about English Heritage?'

'They're swamped with people like us.'

'This language school sounds like economic sense. You've got an asset. They're prepared to pay for it. The two of you are doing business. What's wrong with that?'

'Nothing,' Ludo said. There was a touch of the catacombs about his voice. 'But even with what they're paying us, it's not enough to keep the place going. There's still the winter to get through. Burst pipes. Frost damage. God. I never dreamed when I was at Cambridge that this was what it would all come to. Worrying about death-watch beetle.'

'And I suppose you can't sell the place.'

'Not even if we wanted to.' His mouth tightened at one corner. 'What I've done instead is sell myself.'

Penny swallowed the bourbon she had been holding in her mouth. 'My God, Ludo. Who bought you?'

'The Bank of England.'

'What for? A mess of pottage? Twenty-nine pieces of silver?'

'Rather more than that, Pen. I did get a First.'

'In that case, they haven't stuck you behind a grille, cashing cheques. So what are you doing?'

'Basically, I'm working as an investigator, looking into suspected cases of large-scale fraud. There's an awful lot of it about, especially now that computers are so widespread.' He looked away from her in a manner that made her suspect that for some reason he was being fairly economical with the truth. Why would he want to do that?

She made her eyes go big. 'Kind of a latter-day Peter Wimsey, do you mean?'

He inserted his monocle and lifted insouciant eyebrows. 'More like Sir Percy Blakeney.'

'You're kidding.'

'I'm not.'

No. He wasn't. Kidding had never been part of his game­plan. She had forgotten how heavy his habitual gravitas weighed. Or was it that it hadn't, last time they met? Not this heavy. Looking at him now, she saw how the old man he would be hovered behind his thirty-year-old face.

'Scion of nobility, pure-hearted, high-minded, setting out alone to pit himself against the evil forces of Mammon,' she said. She tried for carefree. Didn't altogether make it. Carefree didn't come easy when something was gnawing your vitals. Call it premonition. Call it foreboding.

'Handsome scion,' Ludo said.

'It's the stuff celluloid dreams are made of.'

'Or nightmares.' Ludo turned down the corners of his mouth.

She stretched out on the sofa again. Carefully. P. Wanawake in a white halterneck - in any colour halterneck - was a sight calculated to have the average man's libido sitting up and begging to be noticed. And as Ludo had pointed out, he was not an average man. She recalled a night-time session or two in a punt, that had set half the ducks in Cambridgeshire quacking indignantly in their sleep. Why had he never married? There'd been some mention of it, surely, in one of the gossips.

'Ludo,' she said. 'It's really neat of you to drop by like this, fill me in on your CV, chat about things. Why don't you get down to the nitty?'

'All right.' Ludovic set his glass down and stood up. 'It's very simple. Your papa is hosting a dinner party next week, down at Hurley, before old Charlesworth's ball, right?'

'Right.'


'I want an invitation.' Ludo picked the Jack Daniels bottle up by the neck and refilled both glasses.

'Simple as that?'

'Yes.'

'Can I ask why?'



'You can ask.'

'I have to have a reason before I'm gonna put myself out.'

'Do you?'

'Bet your sweet ass.'

'I suppose you do.' He turned again to the open windows and gazed into the garden. He thought about it. He said: 'For your ears only: there's a man on the guest list I want to see.'

'Called?'

'Zachary Osman.'

'See, meaning talk to?'

'See, meaning ...' he lifted shoulders, waved hands from side to side '... observe. Meet. Whatever.'

'I wasn't planning to be there myself.'

'Then plan.'

'Taking you as my escort? People might talk.'

'Since when did that bother you?' He stood up, brisk, preoccupied with whatever it was that was eating him. 'I'll leave the details to you, Pen. I have infinite faith in your capacity to make things happen.'

'And if I get you asked to this dinner party, that's all there is to it?'

'Promise.'

'No sweat. No strings. No comebacks.'

'Without prejudice of any kind, Pen.'

'Just the simple invite. Nothing more.'

'I swear it.'

The dining-room at Hurley Court had last been redecorated somewhere around 1870. The incumbent Hurley had got out of slavery just in time and used the fortune he'd made to make several more. This rococo riot of plaster and gilt was one of the results of a visit he'd made to the Great Exhibition in Paris. The other was a severe case of gonorrhoea. Since he was seventy­ seven at the time, this had been seen as an occasion for rejoicing rather than lamentation. In among the plaster there was a lot of mirror.

Penny sat halfway down the long table. She could see herself reflected in the mildewed glass on the opposite wall. White jersey silk did a lot for a girl. Especially when Bruce Oldfield had a hand in it. Pearls chokered her neck. Three rows of them, perfectly matched, united by a diamond clasp. At the head of the table sat her mother. Lady Helena was in green silk and the Hurley emeralds. Stunning. When I'm fifty, Penny thought - if ever - I hope I'll look as good.

It was an exceptionally fine evening. All the windows facing the gardens were open, letting in the sweet scent of lilac. Somewhere in there was the bitterness of early geraniums, too. Smell- wise, Penny always went for stimulating rather than for cloying. The air was still and sultry so that the candles set in their silver holders all down the mahogany shine of the table scarcely blinked. Fresh flowers smirked pinkly between the glass and cutlery. Lovely. You grew up in a place, you tended to take it for granted. Coming back, she now saw how lucky she had been, how ordered this way of life was, how carefully it preserved a standard and a tradition.

She knew most of the forty guests. Zachary Osman and his American wife were among the handful she didn't. Introduced by her father, Osman had bent over her hand. At five foot four, give or take a millimetre, her hand was about all he could manage to bend over. Apart from her knee-cap. She told herself that he was merely being polite. Definitely not estimating the carat of her gold ring or anything like that. So why did she feel that for two pins he'd have whipped it off her finger and bitten it? He was small and round, his scalp bare and mottled. He had gold-rimmed glasses and a pair of exuberant dimples. Every now and then he giggled endearingly.

The week before, over what was left in the bottle of bourbon, Ludo had filled her in on him. Origins obscure but with an eastern cast. Slum landlordism. Property-developing. Diversification into pharmaceutical supplies and travel agencies. Finally, in middle age, the slow march towards acceptance and respectability via a country house, a pretty wife, a series of flamboyantly philanthropic gestures, a string of thoroughbreds and a soon-to-be child.

For the pretty wife - known to millions as Chrissie Cooke - was massively pregnant. Also instantly recognisable. And somewhat older than she appeared on screen. Penny rarely watched TV and watched game-shows, but it seemed as though whenever she switched on, there was Chrissie, going into her Bo Peep act, all breathless little-girl voice and cascading red hair. Most of the time she behaved like a dog with fleas, jiggling and wriggling and throwing her hands up with irritatingly cutesy-poo excitement whenever she scored a point. Nothing made a person reach faster for the OFF button.

Close to, it was obvious that Bo Peep had decided she was never going to find her sheep and had settled for the wolf instead. She held her husband's arm and gasped a lot. Every now and then she opened her eyes to the size of manhole covers, clutched her stomach and said, 'Ooh, Junior, be quiet, can't you?' You had to be made of stern stuff not to ask when Junior was due. Penny was. Most other people weren't. Junior turned out to be due like, would you believe, about five minutes ago?

Ludo asked if she was going to look after the baby herself.

'Of course,' she said. 'Though obviously we'll have to have a nanny to help out.'

'Got anyone lined up yet?' said Ludo.

'Not yet.'

'Try the R. H. Domestic Agency,' Penny said quickly, before anyone else could get in. Might as well give Antonia Ivory a plug, she thought.

'Where's that?' Ludo asked her.

'In the basement of my house. One of my sitting tenants runs it and I'm telling you, it's supposed to be the tops.'

'Oh yes, ' gasped Chrissie. 'I'd heard of it. Junior, take it easy.' She saucered her eyes at Ludo. 'Obviously I'm not too keen on the idea of some other woman taking over the care of my child, but Zachary likes me to be there for him.'

'You mean instead of being there for some other man?' Penny said. She was really interested in the answer.

'Penelope,' her mother said sharply. 'There's someone over here I'd like you to meet.'

Penny held her wine glass to the table with two fingers on the foot and watched the wine level rise as her mother's temporary butler refilled it. Montrachet 1972. One of her father's choicer white burgundies. Did he just feel like drinking something really good, or was there someone here he wished to impress?

She looked up and down the table. What did it represent, this dinner-jacketed, bejewelled company? All that was best of England? A heartening fusion of new money and old? Privilege based on class and wealth? Or none of the above? There were farming neighbours, a sprinkling of diplomats, some millionaires, several people prominent in the world of the arts. Some, like her mother, Lady Helena Hurley, had been members of the English aristocracy for over six hundred years. Others, like Zachary Osman, were self-made men. The flamboyant man with the wolfish smile had been recently appointed to the London Embassy of one of the Central American countries. The dessicated lady with the mad eyes and grubby earrings was a novelist famous for the intricacies of her plots. The small man with the shock of white hair was one of the new breed of petit­pointing bishops.

She told herself she was being too analytical. You couldn't generalise from such a small sampling. Anyway, why look for trends in a dinner party? Instead, she looked for Ludo. He was further up the table, being charming. Penny had forgotten just how Anglo-Saxonly good-looking he was. Blondish hair, attractively thick. Blue eyes, appropriately sincere. Tall, but not too thin. One thing Penny couldn't abide was a scrawn. He gave an impression of bone-and-muscle hardness which had not been there in his Cambridge days. His eyes never strayed towards Osman, who was seated opposite him.

Why had he needed to observe Osman at such close quarters? He'd said that the Bank suspected Osman of large-scale financial fraud. Of money-laundering. Of transferring vast sums through his travel agencies, which specialised in holidays in the East. A hundred million pounds per annum, minimum, Ludo had said. It had to be stopped. The leaks plugged. The task of plugging and stopping had been entrusted to him.

Penny turned to the man on her left. A well-known travel­writer. A man whose Boys' Own adventures, serialised in the Sunday papers, left every couch potato in the western hemisphere yawning with lazy excitement. Man-eating orchids. Rabid yaks. Frost-bitten balls. You name it, this guy had been there. He started to tell her about the dismal failure of his attempts to find sponsorship for his latest excursion. Tracing the footsteps of Nanook of the North or Eskimo Nell. Something like that.

'Trouble is, there's no pioneering spirit left,' he said. 'The masses are far too busy these days stuffing themselves with junk food and gawping at the box. Getting to grips with elementals, pitting oneself against the worst that Nature can contrive, finding the survivor instinct that's buried in every man beneath the veneer of effete civilisation - nobody's interested anymore.' There it was again. 'The masses.' A word which meant nothing more than a collection of individuals. 'Surely pioneering spirit in the masses is the last thing you want,' Penny said.

He squinted at her. One of his eyes seemed to be habitually closed. Possibly against sudden attack. 'How do you mean?'

'Otherwise they'd all want to come along on the trip, wouldn't they?'

'Would they?'

'Stands to reason. Trouble with the call of the wild, it only works as long as no one else answers it, right?'

'Well, obviously one doesn't want to turn the untamed quarters of the globe into Piccadilly Circus ...'

'I mean, the hell with pioneering spirit. Basically all you want from the masses is their money, isn't it?' She gave him the fish­eye.

He stared at her. 'Put like that, I suppose you're ...'

'But when it gets right down to it, why should anyone be interested? Why should they fork out so that you can go on having a whale of a time at their expense, and then come home and make a fortune out of books and television appearances and lecture circuits?'

He shrugged self-deprecatingly. 'Some of us get out there. Others just read about it. It all boils down to a man having to do what a man has to do.'

'Why does a man have to expect that others will pay for his fun?'

He was about to make a reply that Penny would have hated, when there was a girlish scream. A commotion was taking place around Chrissie Cooke Osman. She had risen to her feet and was running her hands through her thick red hair. When everyone was watching, she clutched her belly and shrieked: 'Heavens to Betsey! My waters have just broken.'

How to break up a dinner party in one easy move.






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