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Read by Sean Barrett
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Marnie Logan often feels like she’s being watched: a warm breath on the back of her neck, or a shadow in the corner of her eye that vanishes when she turns her head.
She has reason to be frightened. Her husband Daniel has inexplicably vanished, and the police have no leads in the case. Without proof of death or evidence of foul play, she can’t access his bank accounts or his life insurance. Depressed and increasingly desperate, she seeks the help of clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin.
O’Loughlin is concerned by Marnie’s reluctance to talk about the past and anxious to uncover what Marnie is withholding that could help with her treatment. The breakthrough in Marnie’s therapy and Daniel’s disappearance arrives when Marnie shares with O’Loughlin her discovery of the Big Red Book, a collage of pictures, interviews, and anecdotes from Marnie’s friends and relatives that Daniel had been compiling as part of a surprise birthday gift.
Daniel’s explorations into Marnie’s past led him to a shocking revelation on the eve of his disappearance: Anyone who has ever gotten close to Marnie has paid an exacting price. A cold-blooded killer is eliminating the people in Marnie’s life, and now that O’Laughlin is a part of it, he is next in line.
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away.
When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door…
William Hughes Mearns (1875–1965)
I fell in love and I followed her, that’s all you need to know. She had hair the color of bottled honey and wore different ribbons to school every day, even though most girls her age had grown out of wearing ribbons. Winter had made her beautifully pale but the cold had rouged her cheeks. She pushed her hair back behind her ears and shifted her satchel between shoulders, right to left.
She didn’t see me. She didn’t even know I existed. I didn’t duck into doorways or press myself against walls. I didn’t slow when she slowed, or speed up as she turned the corners. I was like a shadow, following in her footsteps, looking at the world through her eyes. She wore a navy blazer and a tartan skirt that swayed against her thighs and little white ankle socks that peeked out of her polished black shoes.
We caught the train at East Didsbury and got off at Burnage station. Then we took a bus along Fog Lane as far as Wilmslow Road. At Claremont Grove she bought hot chips at the Butty Full Café, sucking vinegar and salt from her fingers, her nails bitten to the quick.
It was Marnie Logan who triggered the fitful birth of my imagination. It was Marnie Logan who gave my life meaning when my days were darkest and I could see no hope at all.
I still have the souvenirs—the strands of her hair, a ribbon, a used lip-gloss, an earring, and a leather bangle from Morocco—all of which I keep in a polished wooden box. Piled together these objects look like random flotsam left behind by houseguests or bric-a-brac discovered down the side of the sofa. Yet each of them tells a story and is testament to the close shaves, the small triumphs, the fleeting moments of pure exhilaration. I cannot explain the feelings I have when I look at them, the pride, the shame, the tenderness, and the joy.
I am the most important figure in Marnie’s life, but she doesn’t know it yet. I am the half-figure at the edge of her photographs and the shadow in the corner of her eye that vanishes each time she turns her head. I am the ghost that dances behind her closed lids and the darkness that blinks when she blinks. I am her nameless champion, her unheralded hero, and the conductor of her symphony. I am the one who watches.
When Marnie Logan was fourteen she dreamed of marrying Johnny Depp or Jason Priestley and living happily ever after in a house with a Gone-with-the-Wind staircase and a double-fridge full of Mars Bars. When she was twenty-five she wanted a house with a small mortgage and a big garden. Now she’d take a flat on the ground floor with decent plumbing and no mice.
Pausing on the landing, she swaps two plastic bags of groceries between her hands, flexing her fingers before continuing the climb. Elijah is ahead of her, counting each step.
“I can count to a hundred,” he tells her, putting on his serious face.
“What about a hundred and one?”
“That’s too many.”
Elijah knows how many steps there are from the lobby to the top floor of the mansion block (seventy-nine) and how long it takes for the electronic timer to flick off, plunging the stairwell into darkness (sixty-four) unless you run really fast; and how to unlock the front door using two different keys, the gold one at the top and the big silver one at the bottom.
He pushes open the door and runs down the hallway to the kitchen, calling Zoe’s name. She doesn’t answer because she’s not at home. She’ll be at the library or at a friend’s house, hopefully doing her homework, more likely not.
Marnie notices an envelope on the doormat. No stamp or address. It’s from her landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Brummer, who live downstairs on the second floor and who own four other flats in Maida Vale. This makes them rich, but Mrs. Brummer still collects coupons and holds up the queue at the supermarket by counting out coppers that she keeps in little reusable plastic bags.
Marnie puts the letter in a drawer with the other final demands and warnings. Then she unpacks the groceries, the cold items first, restocking the fridge. Elijah taps his finger on the fishbowl where a lone goldfish, stirred from indolence, circumnavigates his universe and comes to rest. Then he runs to the front room.
“Where’s the TV, Mummy?”
“It’s broken. I’m getting it fixed.”
“I’m going to miss Thomas.”
“We’ll read a book instead.”
Marnie wonders when she learned to lie so easily. There is a gap in the corner of the room where the TV used to be. Cash Converters gave her ninety pounds, which paid for the groceries and the electricity bill, but not much more. After unpacking the bags, she mops the floor where the freezer has leaked. A mechanical beep tells her to close the door.
“The fridge is open,” yells Elijah, who is playing in her wardrobe.
“I got it,” she replies.
After wiping the speckled gray bench tops, she sits down and takes off her sandals, rubbing her feet. What’s she going to do about the rent? She can’t afford the flat, but she can’t afford anywhere else. She is two months behind. Ever since Daniel disappeared she’s been living off their limited savings and borrowing money from friends, but after thirteen months the money and favors have been exhausted. Mr. Brummer doesn’t wink at her anymore or call her “sweetie.” Instead he drops around every Friday, walking through the flat, demanding that she pay what’s owed or vacate the premises.
Marnie goes through her purse, counting the notes and coins. She has thirty-eight pounds and change—not enough to pay the gas bill. Zoe needs extra phone credit and new school shoes. She also has an excursion to the British Museum next week.
There are more bills—Marnie keeps a list—but none of them compare to the thirty thousand pounds she owes a man called Patrick Hennessy, an Ulsterman with malice in every lilt and cadence of his accent. It was Daniel’s debt. The money he lost before he went missing. The money he gambled away. According to Hennessy, this debt didn’t disappear when Daniel vanished. And no amount of crying poor or begging or threatening to tell the police will wipe it out. Instead the debt is handed down like a genetic trait through a person’s DNA. Blue eyes, dimples, fat thighs, thirty thousand pounds: from father to son, from husband to wife… In Marnie’s worst dreams, the Ulsterman is a distant light, hurtling toward her down a long, narrow tunnel, miles away, but getting closer. She can feel the rumbling beneath her feet and the air pressure changing, unable to move, locked in place.
Hennessy visited her two weeks ago, demanding to see Daniel, accusing Marnie of hiding him. Forcing his foot in Marnie’s door, he explained the economics of his business, while his eyes studied the curves of her body.
“It’s a basic human trait, the desire to live in the past,” he told her, “to spend a few harmless hours pretending that everything will be as it used to be, but the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny aren’t real, Marnella, and it’s time for big girls to grow up and take responsibility.”
Hennessy produced a contract signed by Daniel. It named Marnie as being equally liable for his debts. She pleaded ignorance. She tried to argue. But the Ulsterman only saw things in black and white—the black being the signature and the white being a sheet covering Marnie’s body if she failed to pay.
“From now on you work for me,” he announced, pinning her neck against the wall with his outspread fingers. She could see a stray piece of food caught between his teeth. “I have an agency in Bayswater. You’ll go on their books. Half of what you earn will come to me.”
“What do you mean, an agency?” croaked Marnie.
Hennessy seemed to find her naïvete amusing. “Keep that up. It’ll play well with the punters.”
Marnie understood. She shook her head. Hennessy raised his other hand and used his thumb to press against her neck below her earlobe right behind her jawbone, finding the nerve.
“It’s called the mandibular angle,” he explained as the blinding pain detonated down Marnie’s right side, making her vision blur and her bowels slacken. “It’s a pressure point discovered by a martial arts professor. The police use it to control people. Doesn’t even leave a bruise.”
Marnie couldn’t focus on his words. The hurt robbed her of any other sense. Finally, he released her. “I’ll send someone to pick you up tomorrow. Get some photos taken. How does that sound?” He forced her head up and down. “And don’t even think of going to the police. I know the name of the nursing home where you keep your father and where your children go to school.”
Pushing the memory aside, Marnie fills the kettle and opens the fridge, removing a Tupperware container of gluten-free Bolognese, which is pretty much all Elijah eats these days. He’s happy. He doesn’t cry. He smiles all the time. He just won’t put on any weight. “Failure to thrive” is what the doctors call it; or more technically he has celiac disease. If he doesn’t eat he can’t grow and if he doesn’t grow…
“I have to go out tonight,” she tells him. “Zoe will look after you.”
“Where is she?”
“She’ll be home soon.”
Her daughter is fifteen. Independent. Strong-willed. Beautiful. Rebellious. Hurt. Adolescence and hormones are difficult enough without tragedy. All children destroy their own childhoods by wanting to grow up too quickly.
Tonight Marnie will make five hundred pounds. Hennessy will take half the money. The rest will pay the bills and be gone by tomorrow afternoon. Her cash doesn’t circulate so much as spiral down the drain.
Standing at the sink, she looks down at the garden below, which has a paddling pond and a broken set of swings. A gust of wind rocks the branches, sending leaves into a spin. She doesn’t know most of her neighbors in the mansion block. That’s what happens when you live on top of people and beside them and opposite them, but never with them, not together. She might never meet the person on the other side of the plastered wall, but she will hear their vacuum cleaners knocking against the skirting boards and their petty arguments and favorite TV shows and bedheads bashing against the common wall. Why does sex sound like someone doing DIY?
On the far side of the garden, beyond the laneway and the lock-up garages, there is another garden and an identical mansion block. Mr. Badger lives on the fifth floor. Elijah gave him the name because his gray streak of hair reminded him of Badger in Wind in the Willows. Marnie came up with another name after seeing Mr. Badger standing naked at his kitchen window with his eyes half-closed and his hand moving frantically up and down.
A few days ago somebody passed away in the mansion block next door. Marnie had been looking out the window when she saw the ambulance pull up and collect the body. According to Mrs. Brummer, who knows everybody in Maida Vale, it was an old woman who’d been sick for a long time. Shouldn’t I have known her, wondered Marnie? Did she die alone like one of those forgotten old people whose partially decomposed bodies are found months afterwards when a neighbor finally complains about the smell?
When Elijah was born Daniel put a baby monitor near his cot and they discovered almost immediately how many other parents in the neighborhood had bought the identical monitor broadcasting on the same channel. They heard lullabies and music boxes and mothers breastfeeding and fathers falling asleep in their baby’s room. Marnie felt as though she was spying on complete strangers, yet oddly in touch and connected with these people who were unknowingly sharing their experiences.
Elijah has stopped eating. Marnie tries to coax another mouthful, but his lips tighten into a single line. She lifts him down from his booster seat and he follows her into the bedroom, where he watches her getting ready. He holds her lingerie up to the light with his hand under the fabric.
“You can see right through it,” he says.
“You’re supposed to be able to.”
“You just are.”
“Can I zip up your dress?”
“This dress doesn’t have a zip.”
“You look very pretty, Mummy.”
“Why thank you.”
She looks in the mirror and turns sideways, sucking in her stomach, holding her breath, causing her breasts to stick out.
Not bad. Nothing has started to sag or wrinkle. I’ve put on a little weight, but that’s OK, too.
On other days she will look at the same reflection and hate the harshness of the lighting or find faults where she could be kinder.
Along the hallway she hears the front door open and close. Zoe dumps her schoolbag in the corner of her bedroom and kicks off her shoes. She goes to the kitchen where she opens the fridge and drinks milk straight from the container. Wiping her mouth, she pads barefoot to the living room. Shouting.
“Where is the fucking TV?”
“Mind your language,” says Marnie.
“It’s broken,” says Elijah.
Zoe is still shouting. “It’s not broken, is it?”
“We can do without a TV for a few weeks.”
“When the insurance money comes in we’ll get a new one, I promise. A big flat-screen TV with cable and all the movie channels.”
“It’s always about the insurance money. We’re not going to get the insurance.”
Marnie emerges from the bedroom, holding her shoes. Zoe is still staring at the empty corner where the TV once sat. Her blond curls are flying loose, as though twisting toward the light.
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m sorry,” says Marnie, trying to give her daughter a hug.
Zoe shrugs her away. “No you’re not. You’re useless!”
“Don’t talk to me like that.”
“We don’t have a computer. We don’t have the Internet. And now we don’t have a fucking TV!”
“Please don’t swear.”
“I said I was sorry.”
Zoe spins away in disgust and slams her bedroom door. Elijah has gone quiet. He coughs and his whole body shakes. His chest has been jumping all day. Marnie feels his forehead. “Is your throat sore?”
“Tell Zoe to take your temperature.”
“Can I stay up?”
“How long will you be?”
“Will I be awake when you get home?”
“I hope not.”
The doorbell rings. Marnie presses the intercom button. A small screen lights up. Quinn is standing on the front steps.
“I’m on my way,” she tells him, grabbing her purse and keys. She knocks on Zoe’s door and presses her face near the painted wood.
“I’m going now. Dinner is on the stove.”
She waits. The door opens. Zoe is wearing shorts and a singlet-top. One ear-bud is wedged in her ear, the other dangles. They hug. It lasts a beat longer than usual. An apology.
Elijah pushes past Marnie and launches himself into his sister’s arms. Picking him up easily, Zoe settles him on her hip and blows a raspberry into his neck. She carries him to the living room and looks out the large bay window overlooking the street.
“You must be the only waitress in London who gets picked up in a fancy car.”
“It’s a bar, not a restaurant,” says Marnie.
“With a chauffeur?”
“He works on the door.”
“I guess you could call him that.”
Marnie checks the contents of her bag. Mobile phone. Lipstick. Eyeliner. Mace. Keys. Emergency numbers. Condoms.
“Take Elijah’s temperature and give him Calpol if he has a fever. And make sure he does a wee before you put him to bed.”
Walking down the stairs, she hoists her dress higher on her hips to make it easier. As she reaches the foyer, she tugs it down again. A door opens. Trevor peers from inside his flat and opens the door wider.
In his early thirties, Trevor has a skinny chest and widening waist, freckles across his nose and cheeks. Headphones are hooked over his neck and the cord dangles between his knees.
Marnie glances at the exterior door. Quinn doesn’t like to be kept waiting.
“I’ve bought some new music,” Trevor says. “Would you like to hear it?”
“I don’t have time right now.”
Marnie is at the door. “Maybe.”
“Have a good night,” he shouts.
She feels guilty. Trevor is always asking her to listen to his music or watch a DVD. She sometimes borrows his computer to send emails or look up information, but doesn’t linger. Trevor is the caretaker who looks after the gardens and general maintenance. He’s also what Daniel used to call “a drainer”: someone who sucks the energy from a room. Other people are “heaters” because they give warmth and make you feel energized and happy around them.
Quinn crushes a cigarette beneath a polished black brogue. He doesn’t open the door for Marnie. Instead he slips behind the steering wheel and guns the engine. Sullen. Silent. Marnie’s stomach rumbles emptily. The booker at the agency told her not to eat before working because it would make her feel bloated.
Reaching Harrow Road, Quinn weaves aggressively through the traffic.
“I told you seven o’clock sharp.”
“Elijah has a cold.”
“Not my problem.”
Marnie knows three things about Quinn. He has a Geordie accent, he keeps a tire-iron in the door pocket next to his seat, and he works for Patrick Hennessy. This is only Marnie’s third night. Each time she has felt her stomach churning and her palms grow damp.
“Is he a regular?”
“Has he been vetted?”
Marnie’s best friend Penny had told her to ask questions like this. Penny had experience. After university, she worked as an escort in between modelling assignments because the latter couldn’t cover her credit card bills or fund her taste in designer clothes. Marnie was shocked at the time. She asked Penny what the difference was between being an escort and a prostitute.
“About four hundred pounds an hour,” Penny replied, making it sound so obvious.
Marnie pulls down the sun visor and checks her make-up in the mirror. Is this my life now, she wonders? Opening my legs for money. Making small talk with rich businessmen, pretending to be dazzled by their charm and wit. Paying back Patrick Hennessy one trick at a time. It’s not what she expected or imagined, not when she was Zoe’s age, or when she married Daniel, or when she lost him so suddenly. When she was seventeen she was going to be a journalist, writing feature stories for Tatler or Vogue. She settled for a job in advertizing and was a junior copywriter. Loved it. Fell pregnant. Left.
Not in her worst nightmares did she imagine working for an escort agency. And no matter how often she told herself that it wasn’t for ever, just a few more weeks, just until she gets the insurance money, it didn’t stop the butterflies doing power dives in her stomach.
Only two people knew—Penny and Professor O’Loughlin, the psychologist that Marnie has been seeing. The rest of her friends and family think she has a new job, working as a part-time manager at an upmarket restaurant. And when these same friends drag out clichéd analogies of “whoring themselves” in their corporate jobs, Marnie just nods and commiserates and thinks, “you wankers.”
The car pulls up on The Aldwych opposite Bush House. A hotel doorman crosses the footpath and opens Marnie’s door. She holds up two fingers, wanting him to wait. The doorman retreats, glancing at her legs, his eyes drawn upwards from her ankles to the edge of her dress.
Quinn makes a call.
“Hello, sir, just confirming that Marnella will be with you shortly… sorry for the delay… Room 304… Cash up front… Five hundred for the hour… Yes, sir, have a nice evening.”
Marnie checks herself again, running her fingers through her hair, thinking she should have washed it.
“How old did he sound?”
“Where will you be?”
Marnie nods and crosses the pavement, keeping her head down, holding her breath. The doorman ushers her inside, wishing her a good evening. Escorts aren’t welcome in high-class hotels, but are tolerated as long as they dress elegantly and don’t solicit in the foyer or the bar. There are protocols. Don’t linger. If the lifts aren’t obvious, keep walking and give the impression that you know where you’re going. Quinn told her these things, along with the other rules: get the money first; keep your phone close; no bondage unless the client is getting tied up; extra time, extra money.
On the third floor, she studies the numbers. Pausing outside the door, she tries to relax, telling herself she can do this. She knocks lightly with just a knuckle. The door opens immediately.
She smiles demurely. “Hello, I’m Marnella.”
The client is in his late forties with a narrow face and a strangely old-fashioned hairstyle, parted on the right. Barefoot, he’s wearing casual clothes.
“Owen,” he says uncertainly, opening the door wider.
Marnie takes off her coat, playing a role now. Quinn had told her to be confident and take charge. Don’t let the client know she’s nervous or new to the game. Owen is trying not to stare. He takes her coat, his hands trembling. He fumbles with a hanger and forgets to close the wardrobe door.
“Would you like a drink?”
Crouching on his haunches, he opens the mini-bar. She can see the pale skin above his heels, streaked with veins.
“I can never find the glasses.”
“On the top shelf,” says Marnie.
“Ah, yes.” He raises them aloft. “You must know your way around a place like this.”
“Oh, yes, I’m an expert.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“I know you didn’t.” She gives him her painted-on smile and sips her drink. “Listen, Owen, before we start I have to collect the money. That’s one of the rules.”
He reaches for his wallet, which is worn smooth and curved by the shape of his backside.
Marnie feels nauseous. She hates this part. The sex she can make believe is simply sex, but the money turns it into something tawdry, brutish, and ancient. It shouldn’t be a commercial transaction when bodily fluids and hotel rooms are involved. Owen counts out the cash. Marnie crosses the room and slips the bundle of banknotes into her coat pocket. She notices a plastic dry-cleaning bag hanging in the wardrobe.
Smoothing down the front of her dress, she turns back to Owen, waiting for him to make a start. He gulps his drink and suggests some music, turning on the CD player. It’s an old song. When he looks back, Marnie is undressing.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“We only have an hour,” she says.
“I know, but we could talk a bit.”
She nods and sits down on the edge of the mattress, feeling self-conscious in her lingerie. Owen sits next to her, a foot distant. He’s a thin man with large hands.
“I haven’t done this before,” he says. “I’m not saying that I haven’t done this… It’s not like I’m gay or anything… I’m straight. I’ve been with plenty of women. I’m a father, which is why this is difficult for me… seeing you.”
“Of course,” says Marnie.
“My mother just died,” he blurts.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Had she been sick?”
“For a long while… cancer.”
Marnie doesn’t want to hear his life story or to compare notes.
Owen stares at the backs of his hands as though counting the freckles. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long while, but my mother wouldn’t have understood. And she always seemed to know when I was lying to her. It’s not easy caring for someone.”
“I understand,” says Marnie.
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