Read by Robert Glenister
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Happiness, dear Rebecca, means first and foremost the calm, joyous sense of innocence.
Henrik Ibsen, Rosmersholm
If only the swans would swim side by side on the dark green lake, this picture might turn out to be the crowning achievement of the wedding photographer’s career.
He was loath to change the couple’s position, because the soft light beneath the canopy of trees was turning the bride, with her loose red-gold curls, into a pre-Raphaelite angel and emphasizing the chiseled cheekbones of her husband. He couldn’t remember when he had last been commissioned to photograph so handsome a couple. There was no need for tactful tricks with the new Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Cunliffe, no need to angle the lady so that rolls of back fat were hidden (she was, if anything, fractionally too slender, but that would photograph well), no need to suggest the groom “try one with your mouth closed,” because Mr. Cunliffe’s teeth were straight and white. The only thing that needed concealing, and it could be retouched out of the final pictures, was the ugly scar running down the bride’s forearm: purple and livid, with the puncture marks of stitches still visible.
She had been wearing a rubber and stockinette brace when the photographer arrived at her parents’ house that morning. It had given him quite a start when she had removed it for the photographs. He had even wondered whether she had made a botched attempt to kill herself before the wedding, because he had seen it all. You did, after twenty years in the game.
“I was assaulted,” Mrs. Cunliffe—or Robin Ellacott, as she had been two hours ago—had said. The photographer was a squeamish man. He had fought off the mental image of steel slicing into that soft, pale flesh. Thankfully, the ugly mark was now hidden in the shadow cast by Mrs. Cunliffe’s bouquet of creamy roses.
The swans, the damned swans. If both would clear out of the background it wouldn’t matter, but one of them was repeatedly diving, its fluffy pyramid of a backside jutting out of the middle of the lake like a feathered iceberg, its contortions ruffling the surface of the water so that its digital removal would be far more complicated than young Mr. Cunliffe, who had already suggested this remedy, realized. The swan’s mate, meanwhile, continued to lurk over by the bank: graceful, serene and determinedly out of shot.
“Have you got it?” asked the bride, her impatience palpable.
“You look gorgeous, flower,” said the groom’s father, Geoffrey, from behind the photographer. He sounded tipsy already. The couple’s parents, best man and bridesmaids were all watching from the shade of nearby trees. The smallest bridesmaid, a toddler, had had to be restrained from throwing pebbles into the lake, and was now whining to her mother, who talked to her in a constant, irritating whisper.
“Have you got it?” Robin asked again, ignoring her father-in-law.
“Almost,” lied the photographer. “Turn in to him a little bit more, please, Robin. That’s it. Nice big smiles. Big smiles, now!”
There was a tension about the couple that could not be wholly attributed to the difficulty of getting the shot. The photographer didn’t care. He wasn’t a marriage counselor. He had known couples to start screaming at each other while he read his light meter. One bride had stormed out of her own reception. He still kept, for the amusement of friends, the blurred shot from 1998 that showed a groom head-butting his best man.
Good-looking as they were, he didn’t fancy the Cunliffes’ chances. That long scar down the bride’s arm had put him off her from the start. He found the whole thing ominous and distasteful.
“Let’s leave it,” said the groom suddenly, releasing Robin. “We’ve got enough, haven’t we?”
“Wait, wait, the other one’s coming now!” said the photographer crossly.
The moment Matthew had released Robin, the swan by the far shore had begun to paddle its way across the dark green water towards its mate.
“You’d think the buggers were doing it on purpose, eh, Linda?” said Geoffrey with a fat chuckle to the bride’s mother. “Bloody things.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Robin, pulling her long skirt up clear of her shoes, the heels of which were a little too low. “I’m sure we’ve got something.”
She strode out of the copse of trees into the blazing sunlight and off across the lawn towards the seventeenth-century castle, where most of the wedding guests were already milling, drinking champagne as they admired the view of the hotel grounds.
“I think her arm’s hurting her,” the bride’s mother told the groom’s father.
Bollocks it is, thought the photographer with a certain cold pleasure. They rowed in the car.
The couple had looked happy enough beneath the shower of confetti in which they had departed the church, but on arrival at the country house hotel they had worn the rigid expressions of those barely repressing their rage.
“She’ll be all right. Just needs a drink,” said Geoffrey comfortably. “Go keep her company, Matt.”
Matthew had already set off after his bride, gaining on her easily as she navigated the lawn in her stilettos. The rest of the party followed, the bridesmaids’ mint-green chiffon dresses rippling in the hot breeze.
“Robin, we need to talk.”
“Go on, then.”
“Wait a minute, can’t you?”
“If I wait, we’ll have the family on us.”
Matthew glanced behind him. She was right.
“Don’t touch my arm!”
Her wound was throbbing in the heat. Robin wanted to find the holdall containing the sturdy rubber protective brace, but it would be somewhere out of reach in the bridal suite, wherever that was.
The crowd of guests standing in the shadow of the hotel was coming into clearer view. The women were easy to tell apart, because of their hats. Matthew’s Aunt Sue wore an electric blue wagon wheel, Robin’s sister-in-law, Jenny, a startling confection of yellow feathers. The male guests blurred into conformity in their dark suits. It was impossible to see from this distance whether Cormoran Strike was among them.
“Just stop, will you?” said Matthew, because they had fast outstripped the family, who were matching their pace to his toddler niece.
“I was shocked to see him, that’s all,” said Matthew carefully.
“I suppose you think I was expecting him to burst in halfway through the service and knock over the flowers?” asked Robin.
Matthew could have borne this response if not for the smile she was trying to suppress. He had not forgotten the joy in her face when her ex-boss had crashed into their wedding ceremony. He wondered whether he would ever be able to forgive the fact that she had said “I do” with her eyes fastened upon the big, ugly, shambolic figure of Cormoran Strike, rather than her new husband. The entire congregation must have seen how she had beamed at him.
Their families were gaining on them again. Matthew took Robin’s upper arm gently, his fingers inches above the knife wound, and walked her on. She came willingly, but he suspected that this was because she hoped she was moving closer to Strike.
“I said in the car, if you want to go back to work for him—”
“—I’m an ‘effing idiot,’” said Robin.
The men grouped on the terrace were becoming distinguishable now, but Robin could not see Strike anywhere. He was a big man. She ought to have been able to make him out even among her brothers and uncles, who were all over six foot. Her spirits, which had soared when Strike had appeared, tumbled earthwards like rain-soaked fledglings. He must have left after the service rather than boarding a minibus to the hotel. His brief appearance had signified a gesture of goodwill, but nothing more. He had not come to rehire her, merely to congratulate her on a new life.
“Look,” said Matthew, more warmly. She knew that he, too, had scanned the crowd, found it Strike-less and drawn the same conclusion. “All I was trying to say in the car was: it’s up to you what you do, Robin. If he wanted—if he wants you back—I was just worried, for Christ’s sake. Working for him wasn’t exactly safe, was it?”
“No,” said Robin, with her knife wound throbbing. “It wasn’t safe.”
She turned back towards her parents and the rest of the family group, waiting for them to catch up. The sweet, ticklish smell of hot grass filled her nostrils as the sun beat down on her uncovered shoulders.
“Do you want to go to Auntie Robin?” said Matthew’s sister.
Toddler Grace obligingly seized Robin’s injured arm and swung on it, eliciting a yelp of pain.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Robin—Gracie, let go—”
“Champagne!” shouted Geoffrey. He put his arm around Robin’s shoulders and steered her on towards the expectant crowd.
The gents’ bathroom was, as Strike would have expected of this upmarket country hotel, odor-free and spotless. He wished he could have brought a pint into the cool, quiet toilet cubicle, but that might have reinforced the impression that he was some disreputable alcoholic who had been bailed from jail to attend the wedding. Reception staff had met his assurances that he was part of the Cunliffe-Ellacott wedding party with barely veiled skepticism as it was.
Even in an uninjured state Strike tended to intimidate, given that he was large, dark, naturally surly-looking and sported a boxer’s profile. Today he might have just climbed out of the ring. His nose was broken, purple and swollen to twice its usual size, both eyes were bruised and puffy, and one ear was inflamed and sticky with fresh black stitches. At least the knife wound across the palm of his hand was concealed by bandages, although his best suit was crumpled and stained from a wine spill on the last occasion he had worn it. The best you could say for his appearance was that he had managed to grab matching shoes before heading for Yorkshire.
He yawned, closed his aching eyes and rested his head momentarily against the cold partition wall. He was so tired he might easily fall asleep here, sitting on the toilet. He needed to find Robin, though, and ask her—beg her, if necessary—to forgive him for sacking her and come back to work. He had thought he read delight in her face when their eyes met in church. She had certainly beamed at him as she walked past on Matthew’s arm on the way out, so he had hurried back through the graveyard to ask his friend Shanker, who was now asleep in the car park in the Mercedes he had borrowed for the journey, to follow the minibuses to the reception.
Strike had no desire to stay for a meal and speeches: he had not RSVPed the invitation he had received before sacking Robin. All he wanted was a few minutes to talk to her, but so far this had proved impossible. He had forgotten what weddings were like. As he sought Robin on the crowded terrace he had found himself the uncomfortable focus of a hundred pairs of curious eyes. Turning down champagne, which he disliked, he had retreated into the bar in search of a pint. A dark-haired young man who had a look of Robin about the mouth and forehead had followed, a gaggle of other young people trailing in his wake, all of them wearing similar expressions of barely suppressed excitement.
“You’re Strike, aye?” said the young man.
The detective agreed to it.
“Martin Ellacott,” said the other. “Robin’s brother.”
“How d’you do?” said Strike, raising his bandaged hand to show that he could not shake without pain. “Where is she, d’you know?”
“Having photos done,” said Martin. He pointed at the iPhone clutched in his other hand. “You’re on the news. You caught the Shacklewell Ripper.”
“Oh,” said Strike. “Yeah.”
In spite of the fresh knife wounds on his palm and ear, he felt as though the violent events of twelve hours previously had happened long ago. The contrast between the sordid hideout where he had cornered the killer and this four-star hotel was so jarring that they seemed separate realities.
A woman whose turquoise fascinator was trembling in her white-blonde hair now arrived in the bar. She, too, was holding a phone, her eyes moving rapidly upwards and downwards, checking the living Strike against what he was sure was a picture of him on her screen.
“Sorry, need a pee,” Strike had told Martin, edging away before anybody else could approach him. After talking his way past the suspicious reception staff, he had taken refuge in the bathroom.
Yawning again, he checked his watch. Robin must, surely, have finished having pictures taken by now. With a grimace of pain, because the painkillers they had given him at the hospital had long since worn off, Strike got up, unbolted the door and headed back out among the gawping strangers.
A string quartet had been set up at the end of the empty dining room. They started to play while the wedding group organized themselves into a receiving line that Robin assumed she must have agreed to at some point during the wedding preparations. She had abnegated so much responsibility for the day’s arrangements that she kept receiving little surprises like this. She had forgotten, for instance, that they had agreed to have photographs taken at the hotel rather than the church. If only they had not sped away in the Daimler immediately after the service, she might have had a chance to speak to Strike and to ask him—beg him, if necessary—to take her back. But he had left without talking to her, leaving her wondering whether she had the courage, or the humility, to call him after this and plead for her job.
The room seemed dark after the brilliance of the sunlit gardens. It was wood-paneled, with brocade curtains and gilt-framed oil paintings. Scent from the flower arrangements lay heavy in the air, and glass-and silverware gleamed on snow-white tablecloths. The string quartet, which had sounded loud in the echoing wooden box of a room, was soon drowned out by the sound of guests clambering up the stairs outside, crowding onto the landing, talking and laughing, already full of champagne and beer.
“Here we go, then!” roared Geoffrey, who seemed to be enjoying the day more than anybody else. “Bring ’em on!”
If Matthew’s mother had been alive, Robin doubted that Geoffrey would have felt able to give his ebullience full expression. The late Mrs. Cunliffe had been full of cool side-stares and nudges, constantly checking any signs of unbridled emotion. Mrs. Cunliffe’s sister, Sue, was one of the first down the receiving line, bringing a fine frost with her, for she had wanted to sit at the top table and been denied that privilege.
“How are you, Robin?” she asked, pecking the air near Robin’s ear. Miserable, disappointed and guilty that she was not feeling happy, Robin suddenly sensed how much this woman, her new aunt-in-law, disliked her. “Lovely dress,” said Aunt Sue, but her eyes were already on handsome Matthew.
“I wish your mother—” she began, then, with a gasp, she buried her face in the handkerchief that she held ready in her hand.
More friends and relatives shuffled inside, beaming, kissing, shaking hands. Geoffrey kept holding up the line, bestowing bear hugs on everybody who did not actively resist.
“He came, then,” said Robin’s favorite cousin, Katie. She would have been a bridesmaid had she not been hugely pregnant. Today was her due date. Robin marveled that she could still walk. Her belly was watermelon-hard as she leaned in for a kiss.
“Who came?” asked Robin, as Katie sidestepped to hug Matthew.
“Your boss. Strike. Martin was just haranguing him down in the—”
“You’re over there, I think, Katie,” said Matthew, pointing her towards a table in the middle of the room. “You’ll want to get off your feet, must be difficult in the heat, I guess?”
Robin barely registered the passage of several more guests down the line. She responded to their good wishes at random, her eyes constantly drawn to the doorway through which they were all filing. Had Katie meant that Strike was here at the hotel, after all? Had he followed her from the church? Was he about to appear? Where had he been hiding? She had searched everywhere—on the terrace, in the hallway, in the bar. Hope surged only to fail again. Perhaps Martin, famous for his lack of tact, had driven him away? Then she reminded herself that Strike was not such a feeble creature as that and hope bubbled up once more, and while her inner self performed these peregrinations of expectation and dread, it was impossible to simulate the more conventional wedding day emotions whose absence, she knew, Matthew felt and resented.
“Martin!” Robin said joyfully, as her younger brother appeared, already three pints to the bad, accompanied by his mates.
“S’pose you already knew?” said Martin, taking it for granted that she must. He was holding his mobile in his hand. He had slept at a friend’s house the previous evening, so that his bedroom could be given to relatives from Down South.
“That he caught the Ripper last night.”
Martin held up the screen to show her the news story. She gasped at the sight of the Ripper’s identity. The knife wound that man had inflicted was throbbing on her forearm.
“Is he still here?” asked Robin, throwing pretense to the wind. “Strike? Did he say he was staying, Mart?”
“For Christ’s sake,” muttered Matthew.
“Sorry,” said Martin, registering Matthew’s irritation. “Holding up the queue.”
He slouched off. Robin turned to look at Matthew and saw, as though in thermal image, the guilt glowing through him.
“You knew,” she said, shaking hands absently with a great aunt who had leaned in, expecting to be kissed.
“Knew what?” he snapped.
“That Strike had caught—”
But her attention was now demanded by Matthew’s old university friend and workmate, Tom, and his fiancée, Sarah. She barely heard a word that Tom said, because she was constantly watching the door, where she hoped to see Strike.
“You knew,” Robin repeated, once Tom and Sarah had walked away. There was another hiatus. Geoffrey had met a cousin from Canada. “Didn’t you?”
“I heard the tail end of it on the news this morning,” muttered Matthew. His expression hardened as he looked over Robin’s head towards the doorway. “Well, here he is. You’ve got your wish.”
Robin turned. Strike had just ducked into the room, one eye gray and purple above his heavy stubble, one ear swollen and stitched. He raised a bandaged hand when their eyes met and attempted a rueful smile, which ended in a wince.
“Robin,” said Matthew. “Listen, I need—”
“In a minute,” she said, with a joyfulness that had been conspicuously absent all day.
“Before you talk to him, I need to tell—”
“Matt, please, can’t it wait?”
Nobody in the family wanted to detain Strike, whose injury meant that he could not shake hands. He held the bandaged one in front of him and shuffled sideways down the line. Geoffrey glared at him and even Robin’s mother, who had liked him on their only previous encounter, was unable to muster a smile as he greeted her by name. Every guest in the dining room seemed to be watching.
“You didn’t have to be so dramatic,” Robin said, smiling up into his swollen face when at last he was standing in front of her. He grinned back, painful though it was: the two-hundred-mile journey he had undertaken so recklessly had been worth it, after all, to see her smile at him like that. “Bursting into church. You could have just called.”
“Yeah, sorry about knocking over the flowers,” said Strike, including the sullen Matthew in his apology. “I did call, but—”
“I haven’t had my phone on this morning,” said Robin, aware that she was holding up the queue, but past caring. “Go round us,” she said gaily to Matthew’s boss, a tall redheaded woman.
“No, I called—two days ago, was it?” said Strike.
“What?” said Robin, while Matthew had a stilted conversation with Jemima.
“A couple of times,” said Strike. “I left a message.”
“I didn’t get any calls,” said Robin, “or a message.”
The chattering, chinking, tinkling sounds of a hundred guests and the gentle melody of the string quartet seemed suddenly muffled, as though a thick bubble of shock had pressed in upon her.
“When did—what did you—two days ago?”
Since arriving at her parents’ house she had been occupied nonstop with tedious wedding chores, yet she had still managed to check her phone frequently and surreptitiously, hoping that Strike had called or texted. Alone in bed at one that morning she had checked her entire call history in the vain hope that she would find a missed communication, but had found the history deleted. Having barely slept in the last couple of weeks, she had concluded that she had made an exhausted blunder, pressed the wrong button, erased it accidentally…
“I don’t want to stay,” Strike mumbled. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry, and ask you to come—”
“You’ve got to stay,” she said, reaching out and seizing his arm as though he might escape.
Her heart was thudding so fast that she felt breathless. She knew that she had lost color as the buzzing room seemed to wobble around her.
“Please stay,” she said, still holding tight to his arm, ignoring Matthew as he bristled beside her. “I need—I want to talk to you. Mum?” she called.
Linda stepped out of the receiving line. She seemed to have been waiting for the summons, and she didn’t look happy.
“Please could you add Cormoran to a table?” said Robin. “Maybe put him with Stephen and Jenny?”
Unsmiling, Linda led Strike away. There were a few last guests waiting to offer their congratulations. Robin could no longer muster smiles and small talk.
“Why didn’t I get Cormoran’s calls?” she asked Matthew, as an elderly man shuffled away towards the tables, neither welcomed nor greeted.
“I’ve been trying to tell you—”
“Why didn’t I get the calls, Matthew?”
“Robin, can we talk about this later?”
The truth burst upon her so suddenly that she gasped.
“You deleted my call history,” she said, her mind leaping rapidly from deduction to deduction. “You asked for my passcode number when I came back from the bathroom at the service station.” The last two guests took one look at the bride and groom’s expressions and hurried past without demanding their greeting. “You took my phone away. You said it was about the honeymoon. Did you listen to his message?”
“Yes,” said Matthew. “I deleted it.”
The silence that seemed to have pressed in on her had become a high-pitched whine. She felt light-headed. Here she stood in the big white lace dress she didn’t like, the dress she had had altered because the wedding had been delayed once, pinned to the spot by ceremonial obligations. On the periphery of her vision, a hundred blurred faces swayed. The guests were hungry and expectant.
Her eyes found Strike, who was standing with his back to her, waiting beside Linda while an extra place was laid at her elder brother Stephen’s table. Robin imagined striding over to him and saying: “Let’s get out of here.” What would he say if she did?
Her parents had spent thousands on the day. The packed room was waiting for the bride and groom to take their seats at the top table. Paler than her wedding dress, Robin followed her new husband to their seats as the room burst into applause.
The finicky waiter seemed determined to prolong Strike’s discomfort. He had no choice but to stand in full view of every table while he waited for his extra place to be laid. Linda, who was almost a foot shorter than the detective, remained at Strike’s elbow while the youth made imperceptible adjustments to the dessert fork and turned the plate so that the design aligned with its neighbors’. The little Strike could see of Linda’s face below the silvery hat looked angry.
“Thanks very much,” he said at long last, as the waiter stepped out of the way, but as he took hold of the back of his chair, Linda laid a light hand on his sleeve. Her gentle touch might as well have been a shackle, accompanied as it was by an aura of outraged motherhood and offended hospitality. She greatly resembled her daughter. Linda’s fading hair was red-gold, too, the clear gray-blue of her eyes enhanced by her silvery hat.
“Why are you here?” she asked through clenched teeth, while waiters bustled around them, delivering starters. At least the arrival of food had distracted the other guests. Conversation broke out as people’s attention turned to their long-awaited meal.
“To ask Robin to come back to work with me.”
“You sacked her. It broke her heart.”
There was much he could have said to that, but he chose not to say it out of respect for what Linda must have suffered when she had seen that eight-inch knife wound.
“Three times she’s been attacked, working for you,” said Linda, her color rising. “Three times.”
Strike could, with truth, have told Linda that he accepted liability only for the first of those attacks. The second had happened after Robin disregarded his explicit instructions and the third as a consequence of her not only disobeying him, but endangering a murder investigation and his entire business.
“She hasn’t been sleeping. I’ve heard her at night…”
Linda’s eyes were over-bright. She let go of him, but whispered, “You haven’t got a daughter. You can’t understand what we’ve been through.”
Before Strike could muster his exhausted faculties, she had marched away to the top table. He caught Robin’s eye over her untouched starter. She pulled an anguished expression, as though afraid that he might walk out. He raised his eyebrows slightly and dropped, at last, into his seat.
A large shape to his left shifted ominously. Strike turned to see more eyes like Robin’s, set over a pugnacious jaw and surmounted by bristling brows.
“You must be Stephen,” said Strike.
Robin’s elder brother grunted, still glaring. They were both large men; packed together, Stephen’s elbow grazed Strike’s as he reached for his pint. The rest of the table was staring at Strike. He raised his right hand in a kind of halfhearted salute, remembered that it was bandaged only when he saw it, and felt that he was drawing even more attention to himself.
“Hi, I’m Jenny, Stephen’s wife,” said the broad-shouldered brunette on Stephen’s other side. “You look as though you could use this.”
- "Rowling's wizardry as a writer is on fulsome display in Lethal White ( 3.5/4 stars), a behemoth of a novel that flies by in a flash. This is a crime series deeply rooted in the real world, where brutality and ugliness are leavened by the oh-so-human flaws and virtues of Galbraith's irresistible hero and heroine."—USA Today
- "At times you might feel as you did when reading the Harry Potter books, particularly later in the series, when they got longer and looser. You love the plot, and you love being in the company of the characters, and you admire the author's voice and insights and ingenuity, and you relish the chance to relax into a book without feeling rushed or puzzled or shortchanged.... Long live the fertile imagination and prodigious output of J.K. Rowling."—The New York Times
- "If you love the intricate, character-driven mysteries written by Tana French and Kate Atkinson, then chances are good that you'll enjoy the ones by Robert Galbraith. . . . Robert Galbraith knows how to tell a story every bit as deftly as does J.K. Rowling. Cormoran Strike, who lost a leg in Afghanistan, may limp painfully through much of the book, but the tale being told never misses a step."—Joyce Sáenz Harris, Dallas Morning News
- "Even if the world is the seedy underbelly of contemporary London and not Magical Hogwarts, cracking the cover of a Galbraith novel is like stepping through a portal. You're immersed all at once."—Bustle
"Addictive, murderous fun."
- "Compulsively readable."—People
- "One of contemporary crime fiction's most delightful partnerships."—Seattle Times
- "Rowling's emotionally intelligent portrayal of her protagonists never overwhelms the whodunit story line."—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
- "Rowling deftly circumnavigates all of the tropes and constructs that have long since relegated the male-author-dominated thriller genre to a place of ridicule and sheer inanity."
- On Sale
- Jun 11, 2019
- Hachette Audio