Next month we are publishing The Wreckage by Michael Robotham. Start reading the book that Booklist called (in a starred review), “Fine and ambitious with characters who are wonderfully human–smart, determined, decent, and flawed. Thoroughly compelling.”
Need to catch up? Read the Prologue and Chapter 1.
Being measured for a new suit was not something Vincent Ruiz expected to happen until he was lying cold and stiff on an undertaker’s slab. And if that were the case, he didn’t suppose he’d care about an effeminate stranger nudging a tape measure against his balls. Maybe he’s weighing them. Every other measurement has been taken.
Emile drapes the tape measure around his neck and jots down another set of numbers.
“Does sir want the trousers to touch his uppers or the top of the soles?”
“Call me Vincent.”
He holds the tape measure against Ruiz’s hip and lets it fall before tugging it tight again. “Has sir considered cuffs?”
“Are they extra?”
“No. You have the height to wear cuffs. Short men should avoid them. I’d recommend about one and a half inches.”
Next the tape measure is wrapped around Ruiz’s upper thigh. “Does sir dress to the left or the right?”
“I like to swing both ways.”
Emile’s eyebrows arch like inflection marks.
“Just give me loads of room,” says Ruiz. “I want to be able to hide a hard-on. My ex-wife is coming to the wedding and she’s a lot hotter since we divorced.”
“Very good, sir.”
Ruiz sighs and gives up trying to get a smile out of Emile. Instead he ponders his daughter’s wedding. Claire is getting married in just under a week and he is supposed to walk her down the aisle and “give her away.” She rang him last night and threatened to ask someone else if he didn’t start following instructions.
“That’s just it,” he told her. “I don’t want to give you away. I want to keep you.”
“Very droll, Dad.”
“I’m being serious.”
“I’m getting married whether you like it or not.”
“I could have Phillip arrested.”
“He’s a lawyer, Dad, not a criminal.”
“Is there a difference?”
Emile picks up his brocade cushion and retreats from the fitting room. Ruiz pulls on his worn corduroy trousers and heavy cotton shirt. As he buttons the front, he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Turning sideways and sucking in his stomach, he straightens his shoulders and examines his physique. Not bad for a man who has hurdled sixty. Some mileage on the clock, but that’s to be expected. His doctor wouldn’t agree, of course, but his doctor is the sort of idiot who thinks people should live to be a hundred and fifty.
Slipping on a jacket, he pats the pockets and takes out a metal tin of boiled sweets. Unscrewing the lid he pops one into his mouth where it rattles against his teeth. He gave up smoking six years ago. Sugar is the substitute; calories as opposed to cancer.
As he steps out of the menswear shop, a hand slips through his left arm, pulling him close. He accepts Claire’s kiss on the cheek, bending slightly so she can reach.
“Is it done?”
“That wasn’t so hard?”
“A strange man has been weighing my balls.”
“Emile is lovely.”
“He’s gayer than a handbag full of rainbows.”
She giggles and skips to keep up with him. Dark-haired and pretty, she walks on her toes like a ballet dancer—her former career. Now she teaches at the Royal Academy, crippling prepubescent girls who look pregnant if they eat an apple.
“OK, now remember we have a dinner with Phillip’s folks tomorrow night. They’re catching the train from Brighton. Mr. Seidlitz has invited us to his club.”
Ruiz’s heart sinks. “What sort of club?”
“Don’t worry, Daddy, he doesn’t play golf.”
Seidlitz is a Ukrainian name. Maybe golf isn’t big in the Ukraine. Ruiz isn’t looking forward to it—a table for six, small talk. Miranda will be his date. His ex-wife. Number three. She’s the one who acts like they’re still married. Ruiz knows there is something fundamentally amiss about this fact, but Miranda is the sort of ex-wife that most men dream about. Low maintenance. Self-sufficient. Classy. When they divorced she asked him for nothing except for a few souvenirs from the marriage and to be allowed to stay in touch with Michael and Claire. They still needed a mother, she said.
Over the past few years Ruiz and Miranda have periodically fallen into bed together—a perfectly satisfactory “friends with benefits” arrangement, offering companionship, a pinch of romance and the sort of sex that can fog the windows. Not love, it’s true… not exactly—but closer to love than most relationships Ruiz had known.
Claire looks at her watch. “I’m meeting Phillip. He’ll be early.”
“He always is.”
“That’s another reason not to marry him.”
Blowing him a kiss, she skips across the road, leaving him on the corner. He wants to call after her, to hear her sweet voice again.
Married… in a week. She seems too young. Thirty-two on her last birthday, yet Ruiz can still picture her in pigtails and braces. Her fiancé is a lawyer who works for an investment bank. Does that make him a lawyer or a banker? He votes Tory, but everybody does these days.
Ruiz wishes Laura were here. She would have loved all this—preparing menus, choosing flowers, sending out invitations—weddings are about mothers and daughters. The father of the bride just has to turn up, walk down the aisle and hand his daughter over like she’s part of a prisoner swap.
Ruiz isn’t even expected to pick up the tab. Phillip has everything covered. He earns more in a month than Ruiz used to make in a year as a detective inspector. He didn’t even melt a little during the global meltdown, while Ruiz’s retirement funds have halved. His investment advisor isn’t answering his calls, which is always a bad sign.
Office workers are spilling out of buildings, their day ending, the commute ahead. Ruiz tries to avoid public transport during the peak hours. Lust, greed, sloth, envy, pride… the full pathology of human behavior is played out on the tube every morning and evening. It’s like an experiment in overcrowding using humans instead of rats. Ruiz prefers to conduct his own scientific study, which involves a pint of Guinness and a table by the window where he can watch the office girls walk by in their tight skirts and summer blouses. Not a dirty old man but a lover of the feminine form.
The Coach & Horses in Greek Street used to be one of his favorite pubs, back in the days when Norman “You’re Barred” Balon was still in charge. Norman was London’s grumpiest publican, famous for abusing patrons. He retired a few years back. Regulars gave him a standing ovation and three cheers. Norman told them to shut up and “spend more fucking money.”
Setting his pint on a table, Ruiz pulls out a notebook and reads over the sentences he wrote this morning. Stories. Anecdotes. Descriptions. Ever since he retired he’s been making notes and trying to remember things. He doesn’t see himself as a writer. He has no desire to be one. It’s about finding the right words and sorting out his memories, rather than justifying his actions or leaving something behind.
Forty-three years as a copper, thirty-five as a detective, all he has left are the stories: triumphs, tragedies, mistakes and missed opportunities. Some may be worth reading. Most are best left alone.
Ruiz misses the camaraderie of the Met, the sense of purpose, the smell of cigarette smoke and wet overcoats. It was an unreal world, yet it was more real than real, if that makes sense. Important. Frustrating. Over.
Three empty pint glasses are sitting in front of him. It’s growing dark outside, but the streets are still teeming with tourists and diners. London seems more foreign to him every summer—not just because of the influx of visitors, who are mainly Japanese, American and a generic kind of East European. The city is changing. Old haunts disappear. Safe streets become less safe. The heart beats to a different rhythm.
Ruiz notices a girl sitting on her own at a corner table. Her eyes are faded, almost transparent blue like his own and somehow even worldlier. Sullen-faced and pretty, she’s wearing leopard-print leggings, lace-up boots and a white peasant blouse. Her coal-black hair is cut short and curled where it brushes her shoulders and swings when she turns her head, waiting for someone to arrive.
She’s reading a newspaper with a pen in her hand. It’s a copy of The Stage —the theater magazine, the auditions page, looking for work. Checking her watch, she folds the magazine and goes to the bar for another drink.
Her eyes, unnaturally wide, flick from face to face as if rapidly collecting details or assembling a jigsaw puzzle. There are two suits on stools at the bar, junior executive types with their ties at half-mast. They offer to buy her a drink. She declines. One of them motions to her with his forefinger. She steps closer.
“You see that,” he says. “I just made you come with one finger—imagine what I can do with the rest of them.”
A flush of embarrassment colors her cheeks, quickly replaced by anger.
Back at her table, she tries to ignore them, but they follow.
“Why won’t you have a drink with us?”
“I’m waiting for a friend.”
“Is she as pretty as you?”
“No, but he’s bigger than you are.”
One of them snatches the magazine from her and holds it out of her reach. She knows they want her to humiliate herself by trying to retrieve it but she simply waits until they grow bored and give it back to her.
Ruiz is watching, impressed. The little actress is a no-nonsense sort of girl.
Ordering another pint, he goes back to his notes and doesn’t look up again until much later. A man has arrived and is talking to the actress. Perhaps he’s her boyfriend. Tall and loosely strung, he’s wearing a frayed turtleneck, dirty jeans and boots.
They’re arguing. He grabs her by the wrist and tries to make her stand. In the next instant, his fist swings into the side of her head. The blow is so short, sharp and unexpected that nobody in the bar reacts. The girl is holding her face. Wide-eyed. Shocked. The boyfriend is standing over her with his fist clenched, ready to hit her again. Ruiz doesn’t let it happen. Grabbing the upraised hand, he wrenches it backwards, twisting it up the boyfriend’s spine.
“Maybe you should pick on someone your own size.”
“What’s your fucking problem?”
“Honestly? If she weighed another hundred pounds I’d call it even and watch her kick your arse.”
Ruiz twists the arm higher. The boyfriend grunts and rises on to his toes. The main door is only three paces away. Cool air. A wet pavement. Ruiz shoves the boyfriend against a parked car and waits for him to spin, knowing he’s going to fight. At that same moment, one of the barmen makes an appearance, gripping a metal bar. The boyfriend steps aside. Mumbles something. A threat. An insult. Ruiz can’t hear the words but he knows the odds have altered; the chemistry changed. The boyfriend points his finger at Ruiz as though marking him for future reference and then slinks off. Inside the pub someone has filled a towel with ice, which the actress has pressed to the side of her face. Ruiz buys her a drink. Scotch. Neat.
“This will settle your nerves.”
He watches her throat move as she swallows.
“My name is Vincent.”
“You want to call the police, Holly?”
She shakes her head.
“Show me your cheek.”
She lowers the towel. One side of her face is a little swollen. There’ll be a bruise. Her eyes shift past him, searching the floor.
“What did it look like?”
“It’s black… with buckles.”
Ruiz helps her search. “What did it have in it?”
“Money. My phone.” She groans. “My keys.”
“Does anyone have a spare set?”
Ruiz makes her put the ice-towel back on her cheek.
“Is there someone you can call?”
“I don’t have any numbers.”
“Maybe your boyfriend has cooled off by now.”
Holly borrows Ruiz’s mobile. The call goes straight to voicemail. She leaves a message. Apologizing. She shouldn’t have to apologize.
Ruiz gets her another drink. She pushes the hair off her face, hooking it behind her ears. Her accent is from the north.
“So you’re an actress.”
Holly eyes him nervously over the rim of her glass. “What makes you say that?”
“I saw you reading The Stage.”
She shrugs. “Someone left it behind.”
Ruiz wonders why she would lie to him.
“I’ve been all sorts of things—a waitress, a receptionist, a dishwasher, a barmaid—I was even a badger.”
“I was supposed to be a beaver, but they couldn’t find a beaver costume. It was for a building company at a trade fair. Beavers make stuff in wood, you know, like dams.”
“I can see the connection.”
“Good. You can explain it to me.”
She smiles for the first time. Ruiz notices a small silver teddy bear on a chain around her neck; her piercings, one through her nose, more in her ears.
“Has your boyfriend ever hit you before?”
She shrugs ambivalently. “It’s what unites all men.”
“Not all men are violent.”
She shrugs again and changes the subject.
“What happened to your finger?”
She points to his missing digit, severed just below the first knuckle on his ring finger, a pale stump where the flesh seems to have folded in on itself.
“It was bitten off by a crocodile.”
“You’re not a very good liar.”
“It was shot off.”
“How did it happen?”
“You believe me then?”
“Is being shot more believable than being attacked by a crocodile?”
“We live in England. There aren’t many crocodiles.”
“It’s a long, boring story.”
“It doesn’t sound very boring.”
“It was a high-velocity bullet. I took one in the leg and one in the hand.”
“You were a soldier?”
Concern flashes across her eyes and just as quickly disappears. She starts a new conversation, jumping subjects. Ruiz feels as though he’s being dragged behind a speedboat bumping over the swells. It’s getting late. He has to make a decision.
“What are you going to do, Holly?”
She shakes her head.
“Do you have anywhere to stay?”
“You could come back to my place. Make some calls.”
Holly ponders this for a moment. “You live alone?”
“Is it that obvious?”
Outside the temperature has dropped and a breeze sprung up. Holly pulls on a distinctive red jacket with wooden pegs as fasteners and a hood. Pulling it tight around herself, she waits while Ruiz hails a cab and then slides across the seat.
The driver is listening to the radio. Evening talkback with Brian Noble: “The Voice of the Lord.”
Mersey Fidelity today announced a record profit while the rest of the economy continues to struggle. Isn’t it nice to know that our banks are back in business again? We bailed them out, gave them half a trillion pounds in cash, loans, shares, lucre, dosh, quantitative easing—no strings attached—and now they’re making hay while the rest of us shovel horse manure.
Now I know that Mersey Fidelity weathered the storm better than most of our banks, but I ask you this: Why hasn’t there been one court case, one prosecution, one political resignation, or one apology from a banker? Too big to fail, now they’re cashing in. The lines are open. What advice would you give our banksters?
The cab navigates through Piccadilly, Knightsbridge and along Old Brompton Road. Holly holds on to the side strap as the cab corners, occasionally glancing behind her through the rear window.
Ruiz lives in a three-story terrace, open plan on the ground floor, bedrooms above and narrow stairs to a loft with his study. The house is too big for him. He should have sold up and moved years ago, but wasn’t willing to abandon the memories.
There is a bicycle partially blocking the hallway. Brand new. Unused. His birthday present from Miranda. She expected him to keep fit by riding along the river. Good luck with that.
“You want a tea or coffee?”
He opens a bottle of wine and lets Holly do the pouring. He gives her the phone to use.
“I don’t have any numbers,” she says.
“What about your parents?”
“I don’t really know anybody in London.”
Ruiz sits on the sofa. Holly prefers the floor. She nurses her wine glass in both hands.
“When you got shot—did you think you were going to die?”
“Is that why you limp when you walk?”
“What would it take for you to kill yourself?”
“What sort of question is that?”
“It’s just a question.”
“I’ve seen too many suicides.”
“What if you were in awful pain, dying of a terrible disease?”
“There are painkillers.”
“What if your mind was failing? You had dementia and couldn’t remember your own name?”
“If I had dementia it wouldn’t matter.”
“What if you were being tortured for top secret information?”
“I don’t have any top secret information.”
“What if someone had a grenade on a bus and they were going to blow it to the sky? Would you throw your body on the grenade?”
“Where do you get these questions?”
“I think about stuff all the time; how one decision, even a small one, can change your life. I have really weird dreams. I once dreamed I had a penis. Does that make me bisexual?”
“I have no idea.”
She tops up Ruiz’s wine and begins looking through his collection of DVDs stacked on a shelf. Old films.
“Oooh, I love this one.” She holds up Philadelphia Story. “Katherine Hepburn.”
“And Cary Grant.”
“I loved him in To Catch a Thief .”
“Favorite old-time actor?”
“Mine is Peter O’Toole.”
“What does that mean?”
She shakes her head. “Favorite old-time actress?”
“I thought you’d say Grace Kelly. Men seem to prefer blondes.”
“Not this one.”
The room has warmed up. Holly unbuttons her jacket, letting it slip off her arms. Her blouse is edged with silver thread and beads. The fabric pushes out over her breasts and she looks more like a woman than a girl.
If Miranda could see him now, what would she say? She’d tell him to go to bed and to stop embarrassing himself.
Holly has poured him another glass of wine. How much has he had to drink? Four pints. A scotch. Three glasses of wine…
Ruiz is trying to shake the fuzziness out of his head.
“I could make a bed for you,” he says, feeling his thoughts drifting. Sliding. Spilling down the mountainside, settling in the hollows. His legs are so heavy he can’t move them.
Holly sits next to him on the sofa and puts a pillow beneath his head. He’s watching her lips move. What is she saying? It might be goodbye. It might be sorry.
© 2011 by Michael Robotham
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Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist in Britain, Australia, and the U.S before his career as a novelist. He lives in Sydney with his wife and 3 daughters.