Sunshine crashes through the lace curtains. Ruiz opens one eye. The ceiling comes into focus, dead moths in the domed light fitting. His right nostril is grouted closed. His mouth tastes like a small animal has crawled inside and died.
Rolling on to his knees, he groans and feels his stomach lurch and gurgle. The rug has a pattern. He hasn’t noticed it before. Perhaps he’s forgotten. Another convulsion and he stumbles to the toilet, holding on to the side of the bowl.
His stomach empty, he sits against the tiled wall. Shaking. Sweating.
The events of last night—the girl, the trip home, the bottle of wine—what’s the last thing he remembers? She put a pillow beneath his head. She said she was sorry. What did she slip him?
Rinsing his mouth out under the tap, he scoops water on to his face, eyes stinging, the cold working. Looking in the mirror, he blinks through bloodshot eyes. The foul taste is in his mouth, the toxins in his system. The smell of urine in his hair, on his clothes… Someone pissed on him. The boyfriend wanted some payback.
He walks up the stairs. Drawers have been pulled out, up-ended, searched. The contents lie on the floor.
What’s missing? His camera, a police medal, an iPod Claire gave him (still in its box), some euros, his passport… He flicks through his checkbook. Two blank checks are torn from the middle. They were clever. Practiced.
He should make a list. Not touch anything. Call the police. Then what? They’ll send a car out sometime in the next two days. He’ll have to make a statement. He can hear them laughing already. The jokes. The ribbing. Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz, taken in by a girl he invited home. They’ll suspect she was a hooker or a call girl. Ruiz is paying for sex now, they’ll say, like some sad old pervert.
Another thought occurs to him. He climbs the stairs to the study. The desk has been swept clean. The pages of the manuscript are scattered on the floor. He didn’t number them.
The drawers have been forced open. One of them had been swollen shut for twenty years. Ruiz remembers what it contained—Laura’s jewelry, her engagement ring and an antique hair-comb that had been passed down through her family. When Laura knew she was dying, when disease swam in her veins and grew in her chest, she wrote a series of letters to the twins—to be opened when they turned eighteen, or when they married, or when they had children of their own…
One of the letters was for Claire on her wedding day. It contained the rings and the hair-comb. Now the torn envelope lies discarded on the floor. The letter screwed into a ball. The small drawstring bag with the jewelry has gone.
Ruiz picks up the crumpled letter and tries to smooth out the creases. Laura’s handwriting had grown spidery as the chemo robbed her of energy, but none of her sentences are crossed out or corrected. Perhaps a person knows exactly what to write when the sand is trickling away.
Ruiz stops himself reading. The letter is meant for Claire. His eyes drift to the bottom of the page where Laura finished with hugs and kisses. A small circular stain has marked the porous paper—a fallen tear as a punctuation mark.
Anger rises. Burns. Most of the missing items can be replaced—the camera, the iPod and the money—but not the jewelry. He wanted Claire to wear the hair-comb on her wedding day. It was the “something old” to go with something new and borrowed and blue—just like the rhyme says. But it’s more than that. The hair-comb is something that Ruiz has cherished. Laura was wearing it when they first met at a twilight ball in Hertfordshire in 1968. She looked like a proverbial sixties flower child with her hair braided and pinned high on her head.
Early in the evening she danced with him but then Ruiz lost her in the crowd and spent four hours trying to find her. It was after midnight. People were starting to leave. Buses were waiting to ferry them back to London. Ruiz saw Laura standing near the entrance. She pointed to him and summoned him with her finger. Ruiz looked over his shoulder to make sure she wanted him.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I’m Laura. This is my phone number. If you don’t call me within two days, Vincent, you lose your chance. I’m a good girl. I don’t sleep with men on the first date or the second or the third. You have to woo me, but I’m worth the effort.”
Then she kissed him on the cheek and was gone. He called her within two hours. The rest is, as they say…
Picking up a notebook, Ruiz makes a list. First he contacts his bank and reports his cards stolen. The recorded messages give him six options and then another six. Eventually, a girl with an Indian accent takes the details. Checks his account. There was a cash withdrawal just before midnight and another one just after; a thousand pounds in total. There were two other online purchases. She won’t give him the details.
“Someone from our fraud department will call you, sir.”
Sunlight makes his head throb. He considers his options. How can he find the girl? The actress. The boyfriend either followed them home or Holly must have called him. Maybe both.
Ruiz picks up his phone and hits redial. The last number she dialed was a mobile—the boyfriend perhaps.
A man answers with a grunt.
“Listen, I don’t know who you are. I don’t care. But you took something of mine last night, something of great sentimental value. You can have the rest of my stuff. I don’t care about that. But I need the jewelry—the rings and the hair-comb—they belonged to my wife. Give them back to me and I won’t come looking for you. You have my word on that. If you don’t give them back, I will find you and I will punish you. You have my word on that too.”
He pauses. Listens to the breathing. The boyfriend clears his throat.
Ruiz listens to the dead air.
“Who was that, babe?”
Holly Knight is awake now. She won’t go back to sleep.
“He sounded angry.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Zac rolls over and squashes a pillow beneath his head. Within half a minute he’s asleep again, his nostrils barely moving as he breathes.
Holly examines his sleeping face, the angular jaw line, darkened with growth, his heavy lids hiding blue-green eyes. There were no nightmares last night. No silent screams or sobs.
Running her fingers across his exposed back, the scars look like ripples on a dried-up lake bed, pink and grey and dead looking. When she touches them in the dark it feels as though his skin has been eaten away by acid or dissolved by some sort of flesh-eating bug.
Slipping out of bed, she goes to the bathroom and sits on the toilet, staring at the discolored tiles and the rust stains in the bath. Finishing, she pulls her jeans over her panties, buttoning them on the flatness of her stomach.
Looking in the mirror, she touches the bruise on her face. Zac hit her too hard last night. Sometimes he forgets his own strength. She will say something to him when he wakes and is in a good mood.
The flat has peeling walls, mismatched furniture and different floor coverings in every room. Poverty in progress. An old armchair sits in the middle of the kitchen floor, because Zac likes to watch Holly cooking and doesn’t like to be alone.
Smearing butter on the inside of a frying pan, she cracks two eggs. The smell of breakfast wakes Zac, who comes out of the bedroom in his boxers, scratching the line of dark hair below his navel.
Self-conscious about his scars, he pulls on a T-shirt, and brushes a finger across Holly’s cheek.
“You hit me too hard last night.”
“Didn’t mean to.”
“You might break me if you’re not careful.”
“I’m sorry, babe.”
Holly sets his plate on the table.
“Do we have any… any… you know?”
“We didn’t have any bacon.”
“No, do we have any, ah, any…?” He begins shaking his hand up and down. “Brown stuff.”
Holly finds the bottle in the fridge. Zac eats with his head low and one arm curled around his plate. Yesterday he forgot the word for petrol. He kept saying he needed to get “stuff” for the bike, “to make it go.” And before that he drove himself into a rage because he couldn’t remember who played left back for Spurs in the League Cup final in 2008. That’s one of the reasons he gets so angry—he can’t remember things.
According to the doctors there was no sign of brain damage, but something got rewired in Zac’s head when he was in Afghanistan. Now he forgets things. Not the big stuff, but small details—names and words.
There was a fire. Seven men were trapped inside a troop carrier, according to the commendation they gave Zac with his gallantry medal. He pulled three men from inside the carrier while it was under attack. That’s when he got burned. That’s when he started forgetting things.
Zac turns on the telly. A girl in a raincoat is giving the weather report, pointing to a map with cartoon clouds.
“How pointless is that,” says Zac. “Look out the window and you can see the sun is shining.”
Next comes a report on the stock market, the Dow Jones. Is that a person, wonders Holly; is there someone called Mr. Jones?
Zac picks up the near-empty bottle of Scotch.
“It’s too early,” she says.
“Hair of the dog.”
He pours two fingers into a glass.
Holly leaves him to get changed.
“I’ve got to go and see Bernie,” she yells from the bedroom.
“We owe the rent.”
“Comes round every month. We don’t have enough to pay Floyd.”
Floyd is their landlord on the estate and also a local crack dealer.
“I’m going to sell that stuff we got last night.”
“Don’t let Bernie rip you off.”
“And don’t let him touch you. He’s always trying to touch you.”
“Bernie is pretty harmless.”
“You want me to come?”
“No it’s OK. I want you to fill out the form from the DSS. You need to get your pension sorted.”
Holly has changed into her nicest clothes. She rinses Zac’s plate in the sink.
“I’m going to sell Bernie the laptop and other stuff. Then I thought I might take the jewelry to Hatton Garden.”
“Don’t let them rip you off.”
“I won’t. I have my audition today.”
“Can I come?”
“You know I get nervous when you’re there.”
He nods and goes back to watching an infomercial for a hair-straightening wand that features women with perfect teeth and lottery-winning smiles.
© 2011 Michael Robotham