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Helen Keller

Tác giả: Val McDermid
Thể loại: Trinh Thám
Upload bìa: Minh Khoa
Language: English
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Chapter 2
looked at her and she looked at me. What I saw was genuine happiness accompanied by a faint flicker of apprehension. What Alexis saw, I suspect, was every piece of dental work I've ever had done. Before I could get my vocal cords unjammed, Alexis was on her feet and heading for the conservatory. "That'll be your scam merchant. I'd better leg it," she said. "I'll let myself out through your house. Give me a bell later," she added to her slipstream. Feeling stunned enough to resemble someone whose entire family has been wiped out by a freak accident, I walked to the front door in a bewildered daze. The guy on the other side of it looked like a high-class under¬taker's apprentice. Dark suit, white shirt that gleamed in the streetlights like an advert for soap powder, plain dark tie. Even his hair was a gleaming black that matched his shoeshine. The only incongruity was that instead of a graveyard pallor, his skin had the kind of light tan most of us can't afford in April. "Mrs. Barclay?" he asked, his voice deep and dignified.
"That's right," I said, trying for tremulous.
A hand snaked into his top pocket and came out with a business card. "Will Alien, Mrs. Barclay. I'm very sorry for your loss," he said, not yet offering the card.
"Are you a friend of Richard's? Someone he works- worked-with?"
"I'm afraid not, Mrs. Barclay. I didn't have the good fortune to know your late husband. No, I'm with Green-halgh and Edwards." He handed the card over with a small flourish. "I wonder if I might have a quiet word with you?"
I looked at the card. I recognized right away that it had come from those machines you find at the motorway ser¬vice areas. The ones on the M6 at Hilton Park are the best; they've got really smart textured cards. Drop three quid in the slot, choose a logo, type in the text, and you get sixty instant business cards. No questions asked. One of the great mysteries of the universe is how villains catch on to the potential of new technology way ahead of the straight community. While most punters were still eyeing the business card machines warily on their way to the toi¬lets, the bad guys were queuing up to arm themselves with bullshit IDs. This particular piece of fiction told me Will Alien was Senior Bereavement Consultant with Greenhalgh and Edwards, Monumental Masons, The Garth, Cheadle Hulme. "You'd better come in," I said tonelessly and stepped back to let him pass me. As I closed the door, I noticed Alexis emerging from my house with a cheery wave in my direction.
Alien was moving tentatively toward the living room, the one open door off the hallway. I'd drawn the line at cleaning the whole house. "Come on through," I said, ushering him in and pointing him at the sofa Alexis had just vacated. He sat down, carefully hitching up his trousers at the knees. In the light, the charcoal gray suit looked more like Jasper Conran than Marks and Spencer; ripping off widows was clearly a profitable business.
"Thanks for agreeing to see me, Mrs. Barclay," Alien said, concern dripping from his warm voice. He was clean-cut and clean-shaven, with a disturbing resem¬blance to John Cusack at his most disarming. "Was your husband's death very sudden?" he asked, his eyebrows wrinkling in concern.
"Car accident," I said, gulping back a sob. Hard work, acting. Almost convinces you Kevin Costner earns every dollar of the millions he gets for a movie.
"Tragic," he intoned. "To lose him in his prime. Tragic." Much more of this and I wasn't going to be acting. I was going to be weeping for real. And not from sorrow.
I made a point of looking at his business card again. "I don't understand, Mr. Alien. What is it you're here about?"
"My company is in the business of providing high-quality memorials for loved ones who pass away. The quality element is especially important for someone like yourself, losing a loved one so young. You'll want to be cer¬tain that whatever you choose to remember him by will more than stand the test of time." His solemn smile was close to passing the sincerity test. If I really were a grief-stricken widow, I'd have been half in love with him by now.
"But the undertaker said he'd get that all sorted out for me," I said, going for the sensible-but-confused line.
"Traditionally, we have relied on funeral directors to refer people on to us, but we've found that this doesn't really lead to a satisfactory conclusion," Alien said confi¬dentially. "When you're making the arrangements for a funeral, there are so many different matters to consider. It's hard under those circumstances to give a memorial the undivided attention it deserves."
I nodded. "I know what you mean," I said wearily. "It all starts to blur into one after a while."
"And that's exactly why we decided that a radical rethink was needed. A memorial is something that lasts, and it's important for those of us left behind that it symbolizes the love and respect we have for the person we have lost. We at Greenhalgh and Edwards feel that the crucial issue here is that you make the decision about how to com¬memorate your dear husband in the peace of your own home, uncluttered by thoughts of the various elements that will make up the funeral."
"I see," I said. "It sounds sensible, I suppose."
"We think so. Tell me, Mrs. Barclay, have you opted for internment or cremation?"
"Not cremation," I said very firmly. "A proper burial, that's what Richard would have wanted." But only after he was actually dead, I added mentally.
He snapped open the locks on the slim black briefcase he'd placed next to him on the sofa. "An excellent choice, if I may say so, Mrs. Barclay. It's important to have a place where you can mourn properly, a focus for the communi¬cation I'm sure you'll feel between yourself and Mr. Bar¬clay for a long time to come. Now, because we're still in the trial period of this new way of communicating with our customers, we are able to offer our high-quality memorials at a significant discount of twenty percent less than the prices quoted on our behalf by funeral directors. So that means you get much better value for your money; a memorial that previously might have seemed out of your price range suddenly becomes affordable. Because, of course, we all want the very best for our loved ones," he added, his voice oozing sympathy.
I bit back the overwhelming desire to rip his testicles off and have them nickel-plated as a memorial to his crass opportunism and nodded weakly. "I suppose," I said.
"I wonder if I might take this opportunity to show you our range?" The briefcase was as open as the expression on his face. How could I refuse?
"I don't know..."
"There's absolutely no obligation, though obviously it would be in your best interests to go down the road that offers you the best value for your money." He was on his feet and across the room to sit next to me in one fluid movement, a display file from his briefcase in his hand as if by magic. Sleight of hand like his, he could have been the new David Copperfield if he'd gone straight.
He flipped the book open in front of me. I stared at a modest granite slab, letters stuck on it like Letraset rather than incised in the stone. "This is the most basic model we offer," he said. "But even that is finest Scottish granite, quarried by traditional methods and hand-finished by our own craftsmen." He quoted a price that made my daily rate seem like buttons. He placed the file on my lap.
"Is that with or without the discount?" I asked.
"We always quote prices without discount, Mrs. Bar¬clay. So you're looking at a price that is twenty percent less than that. And if you want to go ahead and you're prepared to pay a cash deposit plus check for the full amount tonight, I am authorized to offer you a further five percent discount, making a total of one quarter less than the quoted price." His hand had moved to cover mine, gently patting it. .That was when the front door crashed open. "Careful with that bag, it's got the hot and sour soup in it," I heard a familiar voice shout. I closed my eyes momentarily. Now I knew how Mary Magdalene felt on Easter Sunday.
"Kate? You in here?" Richard's voice beat him into the room by a couple of seconds. He arrived in the doorway clutching a fragrant plastic carrier bag, a smoking joint in his other hand. He looked around his living room incred¬ulously. "What the hell's going on? What have you done to the place?"
He stepped into the room, followed by a pair of burly neo-punks, each with a familiar Chinese takeaway carrier bag. It was the only remotely normal thing about them. Each wore heavy black work boots laced halfway up their calves, ragged black leggings, and heavy tartan knee-length kilts. Above the waist, they had black collarless shirts with strategic rips held together by kilt pins and Celtic brooches. Across their chests, each had a diagonal tartan sash of the kind worn on television on New Year's Eve by the dancers on those terrible ethnic fantasias the Scottish TV companies broadcast to warm the cockles of their exiles' hearts and make the rest of us throw up into our champagne. The one on Richard's left had bright red hair left long and floppy on top. The sides of his head were stubbled. The other had a permed, rainbow-striped Mohawk. Each was big enough to merit his own map ref¬erence. Mel Gibson would have hired them on the spot for starring roles in Braveheart. Will Alien goggled at the three of them, aghast.
Richard dropped the bag of Chinese food and his jaw as the transformation of the room really sank in. "Jesus, Brannigan, I turn my back for five minutes and you trash the place. And who the hell are you?" he demanded, glowering at Alien.
Alien reassembled his face into something approaching a smile. "I'm Will Alien. From Greenhalgh and Edwards, the monumental masons. About Mr. Barclay's memorial?"
Richard frowned. "Mr. Barclay's memorial? You mean, as in gravestone?"
Alien nodded. "That's not the term we prefer to use, but yes, as in gravestone."
"Mr. Richard Barclay, would that be?"
"That's right."
Richard shook his head in disbelief. He stuck his hand into the inside pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a press card with his photograph on it. He thrust it toward Alien. "Do I look dead to you?"
Alien was on his feet, his folder pulled out of my grasp. He threw it into the briefcase, grabbed it, and shouldered past Richard and the two Celtic warriors. "Ah shit," I swore, jumping to my feet and pushing through the door¬way in Alien's wake.
"Come back here, Brannigan, you've got some explain¬ing to do," I heard Richard yell as I reached the door. Alien was sprinting down the path toward the car parking area. I didn't have my car keys on me; the last thing I'd anticipated was a chase. But Alien was my only lead and he was getting away. I had to do something. I ran down the path after him, glad that the only respectable pair of black shoes in my wardrobe had been flat pumps. As he approached a silver Mazda Saloon, the lights flashed and I heard the doors unlock. Alien jumped into the car. The engine started straight off. Another one of the joys of modern technology that makes life simpler for the bad guys. He reversed in a scream of tires and engine, threw the car into a three-point turn, and swept out of the cul-de-sac where I live. Anyone seeing him burn rubber as he swung onto the main drag would only mark him down as one of the local car thieves being a little indiscreet.
Dispirited, I sighed and walked back to the house. I'd got the number of his car, but I had a funny feeling that wasn't going to take me a whole lot further forward. These people were too professional for that. At least I had the whole thing on tape, I reminded myself. I stopped in my tracks. Oh no, I didn't. In the confusion of Alexis's visit and the fallout from her shock announcement, I'd forgotten to switch on the radio mikes I'd planted in Richard's living room. The whole operation was a bust.
Not only that, but I was going to have to deal with an irate and very much alive Richard, who was by now stand¬ing on his doorstep, arms folded, face scowling. Swallow¬ing a sigh, I walked toward him. If I'd been wearing heels, I'd have been dragging them. "I know you think being on the road with a neo-punk band is a fate worse than death, but it doesn't actually call for a tombstone," Richard said sarcastically as I approached.
"It was work," I said wearily.
"Am I supposed to be grateful for that? There's a man in my living room-at least, I thought it was my living room, but looking at it, I'm not so sure anymore. Maybe I walked into the wrong house by mistake? Anyway, there's some smooth bastard in my living room, sitting on my settee discussing my gravestone with my so-called girlfriend ..."
"Partner," I interjected. "Twenty-nine, remember? Not a girl anymore."
He ignored me and steamrollered on. "Presumably because I'm supposedly dead. And I'm supposed to be calm and laid back about it because it was work?" he yelled.
"Are you going to let me in, or shall I sell tickets?" I asked calmly, gesturing over my shoulder with my thumb at the rest of the close. I didn't have to look to know that half a dozen windows would be occupied by now. TV drama's been so dire lately that the locals have taken up competitive Neighborhood Watching.
"Let you in? Why? Are we expecting the undertaker next? Coffin due to be delivered, is it?" Richard demanded, thrusting his head forward so we were practi¬cally nose to nose. I could smell the sweetness of the mar¬ijuana on his breath, see the specks of gold in his hazel eyes. Good technique for dealing with anger, focusing on small details of your environment.
I pushed him in the chest. Not hard, just enough to make him back off. "I'll explain inside," I said, lips tight against my teeth.
"Well, big fat hairy deal," Richard muttered, turning on his heel and pushing past the two neo-punks who were leaning against the wall behind him, desperately trying to pretend they were far too cool to be interested in the war raging around them.
I followed him back into the living room and returned to my seat. Richard sat opposite me, the coffee table between us. He started emptying the contents of the three carrier bags onto the table. "You'll find bowls and chopsticks in the kitchen," he said to his giant Gaelic gar¬goyles. "First on the right down the hall. That's if she hasn't emptied it as well." The redhead left in search of eating implements. "This had better be good, Brannigan," Richard added threateningly.
"It smells good," I said brightly. "Yang Sing, is it?"
"Never mind the bloody Chinese!" I waited for the jolt while the world stopped turning. Never mind the bloody Chinese? From the man who thinks it's not food if it doesn't have soy sauce in it? "What was that creep doing here?" Richard persisted.
"Pitching me into a gravestone," I said as the redhead returned and dumped bowls, chopsticks, and serving spoons in front of us. I grabbed a carton of hot and sour soup and a spoon.
"I realized that. But why here? And why my grave¬stone?" Richard almost howled.
The punk with the Mohawk exchanged apprehensive looks with his mate. The redhead nodded. "Look," the Mohawk said. "This mebbe isnae a good time for this, Richard, know what ah mean, but?" The Glasgow accent was so strong you could have built a bridge with it and known it would outlast the civilization that spawned it. Once I'd deciphered his sentiment, I couldn't help agree¬ing with him.
"We could come back another time, by the way," the red¬head chipped in, accent matching. Like aural bookends.
"Never mind corning back, you're here now," Richard said. "Get stuck in. She loves an audience, don't you, Brannigan?" He piled his bowl with fried noodles and bean sprouts, added some chunks of aromatic stuffed duck and balanced a couple of prawn wontons on top, then leaned back in his seat to munch. "So why am I dead?"
He always does it to me. As soon as there's the remotest chance of my getting my fair share of a Chinese takeaway, Richard asks the kinds of questions that require long and complicated answers. He knows perfectly well that my mother has rendered me incapable of speaking with my mouth full. Some injunctions you can rebel against; oth¬ers are in the grain. Between mouthfuls of hot and sour soup so powerful it steam-cleaned my sinuses, I filled him in on the scam.
Then, Richard being too busy with his chopsticks to comment, I went on the offensive. "And it would all have gone off perfectly if you hadn't come blundering through the door and blowing my cover sky-high. Two days early, I might point out. You're supposed to be in Milton Keynes with some band that sounds like it was chosen at random from the Neanderthal's dictionary of grunts. What was it? Blurt? Grope? Fart?"
"Prole," Richard mumbled through the Singapore ver¬micelli. He swallowed. "But we're not talking about me coming back early to my own house. We're talking about this mess," he said, waving his chopsticks in the air.
"It's cleaner and tidier than it's ever been," I said firmly.
"Bad news, but," the Mohawk muttered. "Hey, missus, have you thought about getting your chakras balanced? Your energy flow's well blocked in your third."
"Shut up, Lice. Not everybody's into being enlightened and that," the redhead said, giving him a dig in the side that would have left most people with three cracked ribs. Lice only grunted.
"You still haven't said why you came home early," I pointed out.
"It was two things really. Though looking at what I've come home to, I don't know why I bothered about one of them," Richard said, as if that were some kind of explanation.
"Do I have to guess? Animal, vegetable, or mineral?"
"I'd got all the material I needed for the pieces I've got lined up on Prole, and then I bumped into the lads here. Boys, meet Kate Brannigan, who in spite of appearances to the contrary, is a private investigator. Kate, meet Dan Draff, front man with Glasgow's top nouveau punk band, Dan Druff and the Scabby Heided Bairns." The redhead nodded gravely and sketched a salute with his chopsticks.
"And Lice, the band's drummer." Lice looked up from his bowl of rice and monk's vegetables and nodded. I found a moment to wonder if their guitar players were called Al O'Pecia and Nits.
"Delighted to make your acquaintance," I said. "Richard, pleased though I am to be sharing my evening with Dan and Lice, why exactly have you brought them home?" My subtlety, good manners, and discretion had passed their sell-by date. Besides, Dan and Lice didn't look like the kind who'd notice anyone being offensive until the half-bricks started swinging.
"My good deed for the year," he said nonchalantly. "They need a private eye, and I've never seen you turn down a case."
"A paying case," I muttered.
"We'll pay you," Dan said.
"Something," Lice added ominously.
"For your trouble," Dan added, even more ominously.
"Why do you need a private eye?" I asked. It wouldn't be the first time Richard's dropped me in it, and this time I was determined that if I agreed, it was going to be an informed decision.
"Somebody's trying to see us off," Dan said bluntly.
"You mean... ?" I asked.
"How plain do you need it?" Lice demanded. "They're trying to wipe us off the map. Finish us. Render us his¬tory. Consign us to our next karmic state."
There didn't seem to be two ways of taking Lice's words. I was hooked, no question.
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