Read Dying Flames Online

Authors: Robert Barnard

Dying Flames

Also from Robert Barnard

The Graveyard Position

A Cry from the Dark

The Mistress of Alderley

The Bones in the Attic

Unholy Dying

A Murder in Mayfair

The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori

No Place of Safety

The Habit of Widowhood

The Bad Samaritan

The Masters of the House

A Hovering of Vultures

A Fatal Attachment

A Scandal in Belgravia

A City of Strangers

Death of a Salesperson

Death and the Chaste Apprentice

At Death's Door

The Skeleton in the Grass

The Cherry Blossom Corpse

Bodies

Political Suicide

Fête Fatale

Out of the Blackout

Corpse in a Gilded Cage

School for Murder

The Case of the Missing Brontë

A Little Local Murder

Death and the Princess

Death by Sheer Torture

Death in a Cold Climate

Death of a Perfect Mother

Death of a Literary Widow

Death of a Mystery Writer

Blood Brotherhood

Death on the High C's

Death of an Old Goat

SCRIBNER

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2005 by Robert Barnard

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

Originally published in Great Britain in 2005 by Allison & Busby Limited

SCRIBNER
and design are trademarks of Macmillan Library Reference USA, Inc., used under license by Simon & Schuster, the publisher of this work.

Library of Congress Control Number: 2005054089

ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-8921-4
ISBN-10: 0-7432-8921-8

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http://www.SimonSays.com

Chapter 1
The Girl and the Boys

When he heard the knock on his hotel room door, Graham Broadbent thought it must be the maid with the extra pillow that he'd phoned to ask the housekeeper for. But when he opened the door, it was a fair-headed girl with a low-cut top that emphasized her breasts. Graham always noticed breasts.

“Yes?” he said.

“Hello, Dad,” said the girl.

Graham looked, and swallowed.

“I beg your pardon?”

The girl let out a sort of delighted chuckle.

“I recognized you at once from the photograph on the dust jackets of your books. We have a lot of them at home, and Mum always gets the new ones from the library. They know her there and keep them for her automatically. She always describes you to them as ‘an old friend.' ”

Graham put on a cold, distant voice. “I'm afraid you're under a misapprehension. I don't have a teenage daughter.”

“I'm nineteen going on twenty, but I've always looked younger than my age. Can I come in?”

Graham thought quickly. The girl had presumably no plans to seduce him or get herself seduced: if she had, she'd chosen a highly original chat-up line. Still, a mere look could have told any middle-aged man she spelt danger. He had felt stirrings of danger already.

“Why don't we go down to the bar and have a coffee instead?” he suggested.

The girl shrugged but looked cunning.

“Well, if you don't mind having your private life talked about around Colchester,” she said.

Graham only paused for a second, then stood aside. The girl breezed into the room and looked around.

“Nice! I've only ever stayed in B and B's, but I can tell this is a good hotel.”

“And you live—where?”

“Romford. Quite a nice little semidetached. Mum gets money from my stepfather for both of us children. He'd adopted me, you see. And I've got a younger brother—Adam.”

“So she's been married…?”

She shrugged again, this time a wry expression on her face.

“Oh, yes, she was for a while. But she's very independent now.”

On the basis of the alimony, Graham thought.

“You say you're nearly twenty,” he said. “So that means you were born in the second half of 1984.”

“August the twenty-first.”

“So you were conceived…”

“It's not a dirty word.”

“I paused because I was doing my maths. Conceived around early November 1983.”

She grimaced. “If you say so. Mum's never said I was premature or overdue.”

“Even if you were. I was in Mali from April 1983 to mid-January the next year.”

“So?”

“Has your mother ever talked about being in Mali?”

“No…But I know she's had a holiday in Tunisia.”

“I've never been there in my life.”

The girl was sitting on the sofa now, and stretching her long legs. She looked very fetching, Graham thought. The stirrings came back, unmistakable this time.

“How do I know where she went or where you've been? I wasn't born. All I know is what you
did.

“You only know that by hearsay,” said Graham, asperity taking over from lust. “Let me tell you I was extremely careful about what I
did,
as you call it. I was working for Christian Aid.”

“What does that mean? That you only fucked black women, where there'd be no repercussions? That was pretty cowardly, wasn't it? But you must have made exceptions.”

“This conversation is becoming ridiculous: I think you should leave. I have a dinner to go to tonight.”

“I know. School reunion or something. But I won't leave.” Her face began to crumple up, Graham couldn't decide whether from emotion or from art. “You don't seem to realize how disappointing this is. I'd hoped for so much. I'm your
daughter
! I thought you might be pleased.”

“If you expected a fatted calf, you've been living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.”

“I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't to be rejected like this.” Her shoulders began to heave.

Graham felt helpless. He was quite unable to decide how much of the girl's crushing disappointment was in fact an act preparatory to blackmail. She might not be aware she had nothing to blackmail him with.

“So be it,” he said. “I'm a horrible man. But you have the consolation of knowing that the horrible man you're talking to is not your father.”

“Oh, no, I don't. Mum has told me ever since I was little who my father was. She told me then that my father had written books—or it may have been just one book then. We followed your career until you became quite famous. I've always known that one day I would meet you.”

“Well, you seem to have made damned sure you did!” Graham exploded. Then he regained his apparent calm. “Try to understand, nothing you've said leads me to believe I've met your mother.”

He had gone too far, and the girl knew it.

“How do you know that? You haven't even asked our names!”

“Well, I—”

“I'll tell you anyway. My mum's called Margaret Webster, and I'm Christabel. People call me Christa.”

“I've never heard of either of you.”

“She's from Colchester too. She was at the Girls' High School while you were at the Grammar School. She's a year younger than you.”

“So she says. There were a lot of girls at the Girls' High I never knew. I've never heard of her.”

“She was Margaret Somers. That was her maiden name. Everyone calls her Peggy.”

Graham turned quickly to the dressing table, picked up a tie, and began putting it on.

“I haven't got much time. I'm guest of honor at this dinner…”

“Oh, I know. Gran always sends us the
Essex Weekly.
It said the guest of honor was some eighty-year-old teacher, poor old git, and that you were
special
guest.”

“Whatever,” said Graham, combing his hair.

“I love this,” said the girl called Christa.

“Love what?”

“Seeing you do all these personal, intimate little things.”

“Is combing my hair intimate?”

“Yeah—in a way. It's the sort of thing I'd have seen my dad do if you'd been around to
be
my dad.”

“I get your drift.”

“It was never quite like that with my stepfather. He was always just my mother's bloke.”

“I can imagine. Now, if you'll come along—”

“Oh, all right. I wouldn't want to keep you from your eighty-year-old teacher! I'm going to see my gran in Stanway anyway.”

He ushered her out into the corridor and firmly locked the door. Then they went downstairs and through the public rooms, Christa all the time talking about her gran and the cats she kept, Graham glad to keep her on those topics to prevent her getting on to others closer to home. When they got out into the high street, there was a taxi a few yards up the street, and Graham hailed it. As it drew up to the curb, he turned to the girl.

“Well, I'll say good-bye. Remember, I have no idea why your mother has put this notion into your head, but there is nothing in it, no question of my being your father. No question at all.”

He got into the taxi, but the girl held the door open as he belted himself in.

“But you recognized the name Peggy Somers, didn't you?” she shouted above the traffic's roar. Then she slammed the door shut, waved, smiled, and made her way up the high street in the other direction.

As the taxi made its tortuous way to the White Bull Hotel in Lexden, Graham sat slumped in meditation. She was a fetching creature, this Christa. If she had done anything but claim to be his daughter, he would have been titillated by her frank approach. Even as it was, he was…interested. But the claim to be his daughter definitely damped down his habitual sexual curiosity. After all, ages were notoriously difficult to guess. It was always a little disillusioning to find that a soap's naive little twelve-year-old was really played by a budding actress of eighteen. This tantalizing intrusion into his life who claimed to be nineteen could easily turn out to be twenty-six. And even if she was the age she claimed, there had been occasions in Mali, not many but one or two, when the strict boundaries that, in deference to his employers, he had constricted himself within, had been…leapt over.

And then there was the matter of Peggy Somers. But that was quite another thing, and the connection of that event in his life with the visit he had just had was something Graham felt quite unable to fathom.

When he arrived at the White Bull, he found that the reunion was taking on a form familiar to him from his two previous attendances. Faces familiar but older, more tired, came up and greeted him, and his brain tried, usually without avail, to fix names to them. Faces almost unchanged by time also came up, arousing jealousy and irritation in equal measure in Graham's brain, and a similar inability to dredge up names. “Good to see you,” he said to most of them, and it was almost true. This going back presented, encapsulated, a summary of what time could do, and what it sometimes refrained from doing. In his case, he was well aware, time had left its usual satanic footprints: on his face in the form of lines, subtle collapses; less visibly its effects showed themselves in a loss of zest, of the energy of youth. He felt himself lacking now in any sense of adventure, of any love of life. He was, like these other men of his age, stuck. Stuck in a quite large hole, but stuck nevertheless.

“Is your wife with you?” asked Roderic Sprott, one of his classmates back in the 1970s. The question, since this was an all-male gathering, could only mean “Has she come with you to sample the delights of Colchester?”

“No,” said Graham. “We've…split up.”

“Oh, I'm awfully sorry. I didn't—” began Sprott, but Graham gave a wave of the hand and turned away to look at the crowd around the hotel's bar, where George Long, as gregarious at eighty as he had been at fifty, was in the center of an admiring group. During Graham's school days, Long's voice—not sergeant-majorish, but scything through the air like a mighty scimitar—had dominated games afternoons, with exhortations, comments congratulatory or cutting, and tips that those more sporty than Graham had valued. In classrooms George Long had read Chaucer as to the medieval manner born and had brought Shakespeare vividly to life. His school plays had marked many boys (and the odd pupil from the Girls' High School) for life: indeed some said their lives had been anticlimactic after the high points of playing Macbeth, Hamlet, or John Tanner. Just listening to the voice, seeing the face with its H. G. Wells mustache, made Graham feel he was back in 4C (
C
for Classics, the highest form;
S
for Science had been counted as definitely second-rate). It was disconcerting to be once again the timid, humorless boy who lived in the shadows. The child is not father to the man, he thought.

A gong sounded, and the habitués trooped obediently up the stairs to the dining room. Graham let them go, finishing his gin and tonic so as to be ready for the always abundant wine at table. He was listening to, or just nodding at, a man called Ted Bareacres, who was telling him about the finer points of his Richard the Second. When they made their way up the stairs, they found that the only places available were at a table dominated by the burly figure of Garry McCartney. He was standing up and waving at the latecomers.

“Plenty of room here,” he called out. Graham's heart sank. At both his previous attendances at the celebrations of George Long's great age, he had been favored with accounts of how Garry had scored the deciding try in the last minutes of Colchester Grammar's historic win at rugby over the boys of Chelmsford High. As he took his place, Roderic Sprott beside him, Graham would have liked to say, “I hope we're not going to talk rugger,” but he thought after a look at McCartney's bulk that he wouldn't after all. He had always fought shy of the sporty crowd when he was at school.

The food at the White Bull was excellent, as always: that's why it was chosen, along with its proximity to the Grammar School, which made it convenient for such Old Boys as wanted to make a sentimental pilgrimage of return. It was toward the end of the main course (duck or halibut, with a vegetarian option that looked like dog's vomit—no care was taken with the option, because red-blooded males from the Royal Grammar School shouldn't want vegetarian options) that Graham heard Garry McCartney from the other end of the table. He was well launched into the story of his triumphant intervention in the historic match against Chelmsford.

“I got the ball from old Digger—remember Digger? One of the best—and I was about fifteen yards in from touch on our right. But coming straight at me was this massive lock forward from Chelmsford—Christ, was he huge! Well, I dummied to go inside him, intending to take him on the outside and go for the corner, but I realized he hadn't bought the dummy and was moving to his left and would have buried me. So, quick as a flash, I changed my mind and kept running inside, wrong-footing the bastard completely. I wrong-footed their scrum half as well—he was cornerflagging—and I went past him too on the inside, straight to the posts…”

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