First Chapter - Brake Failure
Shady Acres Retirement Home, Kansas City
11.57 pm. New Year’s Eve, 1999
‘There’s a dead man at the door,’ Mrs Whitaker hissed, leaning over the desk.
Nurse Betty sighed, took a bite of donut, closed the magazine on “How to get Slim for the Millennium” and heaved herself out of her swivel chair. ‘Come on, Mrs Whitaker.’ She curved an arm around the old woman’s shoulders and began to guide her along the corridor. ‘Let’s get you back to the lounge. You’re missing all the fun.’
Mrs Whitaker twisted away. ‘Didn’t you hear me? There’s a dead man at the door!’
Nurse Betty stopped, mid-chew. The doors to the lounge were wide open. Garlands festooned the ceiling; coloured balloons drifted over the carpet, paper-cups lay scattered as if there had been a stampede. ‘Where is everyone?’ she demanded.
‘Where do you think?’
Nurse Betty pivoted, turned sharp right and into the entrance lobby. Beyond the glass doors, the residents stood in the snow, illuminated under the porch light. The doors slid open and Nurse Betty was outside, cold biting her cheeks, shoes slipping on ice as she descended the ramp. She paused when she saw the snail’s trail of blood in the snow. It came out of the blackness, from the direction of the railroad, and into the light - a red line disappearing into the huddle of residents who were shivering and whispering.
She pushed into the throng. A big man in a sheriff’s uniform lay spread-eagled on the ground. The snow around him looked like Strawberry Slurpee. She couldn’t see his face because Mrs Peterson was giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She pulled Mrs Peterson off him, and gasped. Hank! Blood stained his neck, his uniform, his hands. She dropped to her knees and opened his jacket. He’d been shot. Above their heads, the sky exploded in bangs, fizzing and popping. A high, keening whistle screamed low over the rooftop.
The new Millennium.
She struggled to her feet to go call an ambulance. Mrs Peterson was again bending over the body. Nurse Betty had to shout over the noise of the fireworks. ‘Don’t give him mouth-to-mouth!’
‘I’m not!’ Mrs Peterson shouted back. ‘He’s delirious. I’m trying to hear what he’s saying.’
A huge explosion shook the air. Silver starbursts lit up the sky.
In a sudden lull, Mrs Peterson again lowered her head to the sheriff’s mouth and when she looked up her eyes were huge.
‘He’s saying: “Don’t do it, Ruby. Don’t do it.”’
London. Fifteen weeks earlier…
Swiss army knife (on-the-spot tracheotomy)
Eye-wash (flying grit)
Card with Blood Group O (emergency transfusion)
Ruby knew she wasn’t a hypochondriac. If she were, she wouldn’t have had her blood group printed on a card; she would have had it tattooed on her ankle like a Special Forces op. She continued rummaging in her “organiser” hand bag, finally found her mirror, held it up and pulled her lips back in a grimace. Good. No lipstick on her teeth. Mascara still intact. Her large, hazel eyes were her best feature. Her worst feature was the electric shrubbery of used-tea-bag coloured hair that framed her face.
She grinned at herself in the mirror. Should she tell Claire immediately? Or should she savour the moment until the very end of the meal?
Big Ben chimed eight o’clock. A black cab trundled by the window, its yellow light bright against the gathering dusk. Claire was never late, except when she wanted to undermine the enemy - and Ruby was the enemy. They’d been at war since they became sisters at the age of eight. Then, it had been a blitzkrieg of hair-pulling and shin-kicking; but now they were adults, it was more stealth and guerrilla tactics. That was why Claire had insisted on meeting at a Michelin-star restaurant in Westminster: to make Ruby feel inferior.
But this tactic wasn’t going to work. Not tonight. Because, tonight, Ruby was going to drop a bomb!
The door swung open and Claire walked in. She was a picture of European elegance in a pink tailored suit and black buckled boots, her fine pale hair sculpted to her head like a helmet. ‘Maurice!’ she cried, proffering her cheek to the maître d’ and squeezing his hands as if he’d just survived major heart surgery.
Ruby assessed the vast gulf between her and her stepsister.
-Claire lives in an elegant seventeenth-century apartment in Grand Place, Brussels.
-I live in a basement in Crouch End.
-Clair hosts glittering functions for minor royalty and major artists.
-I feed Doris, the bag lady, every Friday with a Big Mac with extra, extra ketchup.
-Claire’s husband writes French sonnets, such as, “La Belle Rose.”
-My soon-to-be-husband writes things, like, “Take a Jump on Fleas.”
-Clair sings soprano and was recently Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute.
-I’ve spent ten months organising the Particle Physics Department of
Imperial College of Science and Technology. I’ve tracked down hundreds of
irreplaceable files - from lockers, from the men’s lavatory in Spectroscopy and even
from Left Luggage at Paddington Station. Files graffitied in Greek, tea-stained and torn
about, and looking less like ground- breaking physics of world-shattering importance
but more like the shredded bedding of a hibernating hamster. Now the collection is
complete, I have locked all filing cabinets and hidden the keys.
Claire had someone with her. Who would it be this time? Ruby wondered. An Icelandic sculptress from the cover of Time magazine? A Catalonian artist with links to the Spanish Royal Family? Or a Swedish crime novelist with the personality of a potato?
Ruby also had a “show-off” friend with her. She glanced at Sandra, who sat beside her on the banquette staring into space. Sandra was twenty-eight with a thick fringe and masses of first-class physics degrees and, although voluble on electron separation, was incapable of girly chit-chat. The only thing Ruby knew about her friend was that, for some reason, she was using the biggest thing in the universe to find the smallest thing in the universe.
At that moment, Claire pivoted. ‘Ma petite!’ She waved as if Ruby were far out to sea. She always had to do something that stopped a room talking. Leading the maître d’ like a favoured slave, she sailed over, her eyes raking up and down Ruby’s white suit. ‘You look like a dental nurse.’
‘You look like you’re out on parole.’
Claire reared back. ‘I beg your pardon?’
Ruby pointed to the chunky buckle on Claire’s right boot. ‘Oops, sorry, I thought that was an ankle monitor.’
With a contemptuous snort, Claire gave Ruby two air kisses. ‘These are Salvatore Ferragamo but you wouldn’t know that.’ Ceremonially installed, Claire gave her boot a suspicious frown then flashed a smile across the table at Ruby. ‘May I introduce Olga Milyutin,’ she said, presenting her companion. ‘She’s just won the Nobel prize for literature.’
Let the battle begin.
Ruby presented a hand to her companion. ‘May I present Professor Sandra Brown. She’s been giving lectures at the Albert Hall.’
‘The Albert Hall!’ Claire was visibly impressed. ‘What sort of professor?’ The question was directed at Ruby - their show-off friends were not here to speak but to be paraded. They used to do the same with their dolls.
‘She’s a physicist.’
‘Really?’ Physicists were way beyond Claire’s sphere and she was intrigued. ‘What field does she specialise in?’
Ruby, who wasn’t even going to try to pronounce it, turned to Sandra for the answer. With two pairs of eyes targeting her, Sandra suddenly looked as if she couldn’t pronounce it either. ‘Einspired isosinglet quark and detecting teraelectronvolts,’ Sandra answered. Faced with a - seemingly - fascinated audience, she perked up. ‘We’re collaborating at CERN to build a particle accelerator that will find the Higgs boson and reveal the origin of the universe. Basically, we aim to collide two beams of protons at ninety-nine point nine nine nine nine percent of the speed of-’
‘How fascinating.’ Claire was waving for a waiter like a Titanic survivor waving for a lifeboat. But Sandra was just getting started.
‘Dr Eduardo Santos is heading the Imperial College team. He’s Brazilian. You’ve heard of the Big Bang?’
Claire’s eyes shot wide. ‘He sounds a veritable stud!’
Sandra looked bewildered - a NASA computer trying to process a Tesco loyalty card - prompting Ruby to protest. ‘This is serious, Claire.’
Claire would always mock what she couldn’t understand. As cultural doyenne of Brussels, her forté was The Arts. She adored Aïda but complained that Madame Butterfly was hackneyed from overuse - although, when her amateur group was asked to perform it, she stampeded her way into the lead role. Ruby was there for the opening night, weeping slow tears when Claire sang ‘Un bel di vedremo’. Her stepsister’s voice had been so pure, so heart-breaking that Ruby couldn’t believe the hard-boiled-Claire and the sweet and despairing Cio-Cio-San was one and the same person.
Aware they were neglecting their Russian guest, Ruby leant forward with a friendly smile. ‘Congratulations on winning-’
‘She can’t speak English.’ Claire was re-arranging the table’s floral centrepiece with nimble authoritative fingers, picking out the baby ferns and crushing them into a ball.
‘What sort of thing does she write?’
Claire grimaced. ‘It’s all naked trees, snow, and more snow.’ She eyed their two guests with disfavour. ‘Marvellous. One wants to bore the world, the other one wants to blow it up.’
Ruby bit back a laugh. Right from the start, Ruby had wanted to be friends with Claire. If only Claire had given her the chance, she would have followed her round like an adoring puppy. But it was too late now. There had been too many bruised shins, too many Barbie dolls strewn across the battlefield.
The waiter arrived. After everyone had given their orders, Claire thrust the menu at him. ‘Maurice knows what I want.’
Yes, Claire always knew what she wanted, and got it - with one exception. At the age of eighteen, she decided that Paris was where she truly belonged. She auditioned at the Conservatoire de Paris, fully expecting to be welcomed with open arms and a fanfare of trumpets. When she was rejected, the shock was so great she sat in a daze at a pavement café on the avenue Jean Jaurès, unaware of the impeccably dressed gentleman attempting to engage her in conversation. Slowly her antennae for all things rich and cultured started twitching.
The gentleman was Arnaud van de Ghellinck, the Belgian junior minister for culture. So, on the rebound from her only love (Paris), Claire married Arnaud and settled in Brussels. Madame van de Ghellinck - she would toss her name into conversation like a stun grenade.
Claire took a sip of Chablis. ‘Last week, I invited the Vienna Chamber Orchestra to supper. The Ambassador said to me: “Madame van de Ghellinck, you are too kind.”’ She continued arranging the floral centrepiece. ‘Naturally, it was all very restrained - unlike the American Embassy with their bacchanalian blow-outs. I served Petits Chaussons au Roequefort and Cromesquis Crustaces. They’re so easy to eat.’
Easy to eat, not so easy to say.
Ruby studied her stepsister over the rim of her glass. Soon I will have your confidence, she thought. Soon, I will have your life.
Unaware that her Russian guest was grimly knocking back the vodka, Claire continued working on the floral centrepiece. ‘One week to the wedding.’ She glanced up at Ruby, her eyebrows peaked into questions marks. ‘You must be a bag of nerves, n’est-ce pas?’
‘Oh, gosh, no!’ This was a lie. Ruby had a dread of attracting attention. Claire, on the other hand, would get up in front of an audience of thousands as if she were doing them a favour. Claire was supremely self-possessed, assured that life would give her what she wanted or, if not exactly what she wanted, then something better.
Ruby was distrustful of life. A skin rash and neck pain (meningitis) would have her hurrying to Doctor Strachan; a Scotsman who, quite frankly, had the bedside manners of a mortician. Yesterday, he’d spoken to her most severely, his finger hitting his desk as if hammering each word into the wood, his hairy eyebrows converging like fighting rodents. ‘I repeat, Miss Thompson: You are no’ Afro-Caribbean. Therefur, ye cannae have Sickle Cell Anaemia, even if yur landlady’s window cleaner had worked behind a bar in Jamaica fur three weeks.’ His expression had been so severe she had been too frightened to ask if he was absolutely sure.
‘And how is Edward?’ Claire snapped the stem of a pink tulip. ‘Is he still in cat litter?’
Edward was an advertising executive specialising in pet products yet Claire could always make him sound like a shelf-stacker in Budget Price. ‘He has a new account …’ - Ruby paused, feeling the glorious sensation of a warm balloon expanding in her chest - ‘…Louis Treize.’
Claire’s head shot up. ‘Louis Treize?!’ Realising she had shown awed astonishment, she pretended to lose interest. Sliding the tulip in among the flowers, she began to sing softly: “O zittre nicht …” She stopped as if on a sudden thought, ‘Did you know? I was Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute. The critics couldn’t believe I wasn’t a professional.’ She was interrupted by the ringing of her cell phone. She scooped it out of her clutch bag and put it to her ear. ‘Hello? … Did I? … I shall be utterly charming, je promets.’ She passed the phone to Ruby. ‘My mother wants to speak to you.’
She’s MY mother, too! Ruby wanted to shout. She took the phone. ‘Hi, Mum.’
‘Ruby darling. Are you two behaving yourselves?’
Ruby laughed. ‘Just about.’
Ruby recalled the first time she’d called Vanessa “mummy”. She’d been sitting in the headmistress’s office shooting staples from the staple-gun. ‘Wait until your stepmother gets here!’ Mrs Fotherington threatened. Minutes later, Vanessa’s voice could be heard out in the corridor, her voice pleading. ‘Ruby needs time, Mrs Fotherington. I need time. Give her one more chance.’ Vanessa entered the office alone and closed the door. Ruby gazed up at the woman with the kind anxious eyes then stood up and slipped her hand into hers. ‘I’m sorry … mummy,’ she’d whispered.
Vanessa chuckled. ‘I remember a time when you two girls fought like demons. Now look at you: having dinner together. I’m so thrilled.’
‘Everything is organised for your Big Day. And your Grandfather Jack promises to behave himself.’
In adopting Ruby, Vanessa had also adopted Ruby’s maternal grandfather – an anarchist and “man of the soil”, who could fix anything that leaked and who seemed to attract middle-aged, middle-class ladies like shoppers to a Harrods sale.
‘He’s very excited about this Millennium Bug.’ Vanessa laughed. ‘He has Mrs Symmonds-Elliott stockpiling corned beef in her gazebo and-’
‘What actually is this bug?’ Ruby interrupted. ‘I heard-’
‘Don’t you dare start worrying. It’s nothing. Anyway, the reason I’m phoning is to say the Audrey/Brendas will be there any minute. Claire forgot her chequebook and since they’re in the area they volunteered to drop it off. Can you make sure she’s nice to them? I know how they twitter, but they’re just so thrilled to be in her presence.’ Vanessa’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘I think they’re hoping some of Claire’s glamour will rub off on them.’
Glamour. Ruby did not feel the usual dart of jealousy. On the contrary; in less than two months, her life was going to be far more glamorous than Claire’s.
She spotted the Audrey/Brendas grinning outside the window and waved them in. ‘They’re here,’ she said. ‘I’ll phone you tomorrow, Mum. There’s something I have to tell you.’
The three women bustled across the restaurant, sank down on the banquette in a nest of carrier bags and smiled winningly across the table at Claire. ‘A little birdie’s been telling us what a bizzy bee you’ve been,’ one of them began brightly.
Claire, who was still re-arranging the floral centrepiece, took a long moment to look up and bring the woman into focus. Another moment ticked by, and then she said: ‘What?’
‘Vanessa told us you sang Music of the Night.’
Claire glared at the woman as if they’d just exchanged insults. ‘I was Queen of the Night.’
Another Audrey/Brenda giggled. ‘I bet you were!’ She wriggled shyly. ‘I’m a bit of a soprano in the shower.’
Claire winced like someone listening to a loudspeaker test. ‘Tell me,’ she said pleasantly, ‘have you heard of coloratura?’
This was a vocal lexicon of trills, runs and staccati that Claire was especially gifted in; but Ruby had an awful feeling these women didn’t know that. The Audrey/Brenda turned to her friend for the answer, ‘You did your kitchen ceiling in that, didn’t you, Brenda?’
Claire snorted a laugh; and the women blushed, knowing they had somehow embarrassed themselves. Ruby swiftly offered them wine but they refused, left the cheque-book on the table and hurried out. When they’d gone, Ruby rounded on Claire.
‘Why are you so horrid to them?’
‘Because they irritate me to distraction. How can they possibly believe they can be friends with me? I don’t even invite Helga Guttenberg to my soirées and she’s had two seminal novels published.’ Claire gave the floral centrepiece a final, decisive tweak and sat back to admire her handiwork. ‘That will be you in two years: a suburban English housewife with the sophistication of a door mat.’
Ruby shouted a laugh. She didn’t care that everyone stopped eating to stare at her. Confidence was coming at her in tidal waves. She even began to re-arrange the flowers that Claire had so artfully worked on.
‘What are you doing?’ Claire hissed, kicking Ruby’s shin under the table. ‘I had that perfectly symmetrical. Leave it alone.’
‘You’re acting positively demented!’
‘Am I?’ Ruby stuck a petunia behind her ear. Olga, their Russian Nobel prize-winner, who hadn’t smiled all evening, let out a roar of laughter.
Claire shot her guest a furious look before turning back to Ruby, her eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘I am curious, Ruby. You still haven’t told me why you wanted this meeting.’
Time to drop the bomb.
‘Ah, yes.’ Ruby sipped her Chablis, savouring the moment. ‘I thought you should know. I am going to live in … Paris.’
Hank was six-two with a lean hard-muscled body, but in thirty seconds he was gonna be as fragile as a Barbie doll. The crowd waited silent under the scorching Kansas sun. They wanted to see him win, they wanted to see him ground to pulp. He balanced on the corral fence and wiped the sweat from his eyes.
The loudspeaker announced him: ‘In the third round we have Hank Gephart. He’s riding Hammer - a bull that kicks high and spins fast.’
The bull burst into the pen, coming up hard at the gate, horns crashing the bars in fury. Hank dropped onto the broad back, and the animal bellowed, spit foaming at its mouth. This was the second time in four years Hank had ridden Hammer, a Charolais-cross, built like a rock but agile. The animal was a legend with PBRs because nobody had ever stayed on him more than five seconds.
Hank took a firm grip on the rope, feeling the hard spine beneath him. The gate opened and the bull thundered out into the arena in an explosion of grit and dust. Hank had to stay on for eight seconds to win. The bull dove forward and kicked out its hind legs. Hank clung on to the rope with his right hand, his left hand counter-balancing each violent move, anticipating every buck and jerk. Sweat blinded him, dust clogged his throat. He counted the seconds: one, two, three … A sudden swerve threw him into the air. He landed hard, rolling away from the giant hooves inches from his face. Then he was up, scrabbling to get across the arena to safety. The bull came at him. There was a flash of colour. The clowns were diverting the animal, and Hank ran low and vaulted the fence.
The crowd applauded half-heartedly. Hank acknowledged them with a wave of his Stetson. He was thirty-seven, too old for this game. As he headed out of the arena, his fellow teamsters slapped him on the back good-naturedly, their hands like planks of wood. He came out of the shade and into bright sunshine and the smell of French fries and cigarettes. He’d have an ice-cold beer, go home, take an Advil and soak his bones in the tub. Then he saw Roxanne. She stood at the bar with a guy twice her age. Even from this distance, Hank could tell he was bad company, a prison tattoo on his forearm saying he didn’t play by the rules.
Hank was too tired to confront the guy and go through all the macho leave-her-alone crap. He sighed, knowing he’d have to forget his beer.
‘Roxanne,’ he called across. ‘Let’s roll.’
Pretending not to hear, she pushed her beer into the crowd of bottles on the bar. Seemed she wasn’t going to budge. Since ma and pa died, Hank had been a surrogate father to his two brothers and one sister. The boys had never been trouble, but once a girl hit thirteen, she was one big headache. And Roxanne wasn’t getting any easier. She was now sixteen but made herself up to look thirty. Every time he tried talking sense into her, she’d get antsy; treat him like he was the enemy.
He remembered a time when she was happy with a puppy or a doll. Now she was a woman in skin-tight Levi’s with long flowing red hair - a beacon to any hot-blooded male. And that was what was worrying Hank right now: the sleaze-ball with the decorated arm that was hunkering over her like a vulture shielding its kill. Reluctantly Hank changed course. Roxanne was going to accuse him of being a control-freak all the way home but she’d never had to go to the morgue and see a young girl’s broken body because of some bad-ass fucker like this guy.
‘Hey, buddy.’ Hank saw ZZ Top printed across the guy’s T-shirt, saw the cut upper-lip, the old blood purple and cracked. ‘She’s only sixteen.’
The guy sneered. ‘So? She’s old enough to play.’
A hardness was getting into Hank’s back, moving up his spine, and it had nothing to do with bull-riding. He turned to his sister. ‘Roxanne, we’re leaving.’
‘I don’t wanna.’
He held her gaze, his look telling her he didn’t want this bullshit. She was about to capitulate but the guy muscled in, chin jutted. ‘What’s it to you?’
‘I’m her brother. And she’s going home’
‘You sound like a fuckin’ cop.’
Hank stayed silent. You didn’t broadcast something like that. He turned to Roxanne. ‘Let’s go.’
The man planted a heavy hand on Hank’s shoulder: ‘Leave her be.’
Hank stared at the guy, his eyes promising all the pain he would do to him. Doubt flickered over the guy’s face then he flung his hand away like Hank was dirt and swung back to the bar. ‘Asshole.’
Hank took Roxanne by the elbow and marched her to the truck. ‘We were just talking,’ she whined. Hank ached for the little girl who used to run down the path every day to greet him, waving a drawing of him: a stick figure in a Stetson hat riding a flying pig with horns. He sighed. That little girl was gone, forever.
They reached the truck. Once, the bodywork had been red before the sun bleached it to pink. Hank lowered the tailgate, waited for Rex to crawl out from the shade of the cottonwood tree then lifted him up and in. ‘Good boy.’ Hank jammed the water bowl inside a coil of rope. Rex was a greyhound, too old to be raced, but Hank had gotten to him before he’d been tied in a sack and dumped in the reservoir.
‘I’m sick of you treating me like a kid,’ Roxanne bleated from the front seat. ‘There was nothing wrong with the guy. We were talking about ice-cream for Christ’s sake!’
Hank stared at her narrow back; saw how the bracelets caught the sunlight as the slim arms thrashed the air in a one-sided argument. He shut the tailgate, raised his Stetson to wipe the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt. He just wished some guy - a doctor, a teacher, even a county brownie - would marry her and take her off his hands.
For him, marriage was definitely off the books. He’d been a father for most of his adult life and once Tom and Pete were at College - and Roxanne hooked up with someone who hadn’t seen the four walls of a penitentiary - he would be unattached.