When Naomi awoke round nine the next morning she had to try for a while to get her bearings. Such a lot of strange things had been happening around her.
Where was she? Ah, Detective Paul Usher’s flat, the second floor of a remodelled Edwardian town house, large rooms with high ceilings. She sat up and surveyed her surroundings. Mm, he seemed to be a bit short on furniture, or maybe he hadn’t lived here long. She could see some untidy bookshelves. What did policemen read? She checked and to her surprise found volumes of philosophy and poetry as well as political theory. Aha? A small dining table and three chairs stood next to the window, a desk with a state-of-the-art computer at the opposite wall, another computer on the floor, lots of cables and computer machinery around it. And the old quilt-covered sofa she had been sleeping on. No paintings, but several plants, a veritable jungle of papyri. After the surprising contents of the bookshelves she padded to the shelf containing CDs and DVDs: Rock, ah, and quite a large collection of Jazz and old Blues. Wow, and a collection of old movies. She chuckled: the policeman liked the old Hollywood screwball comedies of the thirties and forties, definitely an individualist. The TV and stereo sat on the floor, faced by a comfortable-looking armchair.
She took a smiling look at Paul who was sitting there, definitely asleep. That was fine by her because this way she could try to make sense of the last day without anyone interrupting her thoughts. But – he certainly looked sweet sleeping, his cropped dark brown hair tousled. His tanned face was relaxed, the slightly aquiline features softened by sleep. Some lines were showing around his eyes. How old was he? He looked really fit, apparently he took good care of himself, but he was definitely no youngster. Mid- to end-thirties she guessed. From what she had seen of the flat, he lived alone, and there had been no female paraphernalia in the bathroom either. There had however been a photo of a young man with floppy dark blonde hair blue-tacked next to the mirror. His lover? Naomi frowned. No, Paul did not come across as gay, just the opposite. She would trust herself on that, thanks to the long friendship with Stan. Bachelor or divorcee? Was that boy his son? She blinked. That would mean he had started on family really early. Shame his eyes were closed, that colour was really unusual… No, concentrate.
The medicines the doctor had given her hadn’t worn off completely though, and her mind kept wandering. She tried figuring out the chaos she found herself tossed in, but could make no headway there. Jeff’s death couldn’t really be due to Clive’s jealousy, could it? No, then there would be no need for people asking about papers. Odd. The real chaos had all started with seeing Marcus again; she was quite sure about that. She shook her head, wondering about Marcus. He must have seemed really old to her when they first met in Oxford (anyone over twenty had seemed old then, she remembered regretfully). Now that she’d seen him after all this time, he seemed really young, looking almost the same. Good genes, she decided, apparently he aged well. Funny about that coincidence with the name though, well, maybe some relation. She was still disturbed about how he’d been able to bowl her over – 15 years ago, when she’d fallen head over heels in love with him and then been absolutely distraught after finding out he obviously wanted nothing to do with her – as well as yesterday, when he had rung her doorbell and offered an opportunity to get away from those obnoxious policemen. He had simply claimed that she was needed elsewhere with such authority that her visitors had had no choice but to let her go. He had then been so exquisitely polite and entertaining that it had taken her until he had already left to finally wonder how he had known that she needed to get out of that conversation, which had been far too reminiscent of the bad memories from her last few weeks in Ithaca, where the police and especially the FBI had become a real nuisance. Ah, no, the men had not really been police at all, Paul had said. Curiouser and curiouser.
Another thing that irked her was that now she was all confused about what she wanted: Three days ago, she had been sort of single and frustrated about her state. Then first she had met Paul, who had definitely made her heart beat faster. Now Marcus had shown up again and had her mind so occupied that he even entered her dreams. Why did this always have to be so complicated? And of course, this had to be the week when Stan couldn’t be reached to help her out, and her other best friend was in another country. Great, she fumed silently. She would phone Brigitte tonight.
What she still didn’t quite believe was the story about the fire. Surely, no one could hate her so much to want to burn her. Certainly, Paul wouldn’t mind if she used his phone? She called the Yard and asked for Brian McNair’s extension. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m wondering when I can get back into my house again.”
“Ms. Downey, my partner is working that angle this very moment, I’m afraid, I can’t help you there. But if you leave me your number, we’ll call you as soon as we know anything.”
She gave her mobile number and hung up, smiling at the working partner snoring quietly in the easy chair. After a while, she started tapping her foot impatiently and cleared her throat.
Paul awoke with a start. He looked around him for a moment, then checked the time and flinched. Oh god, when he had come back from the Yard after an hour last night, he had just sat down in the chair to steal another glance at her sleeping. He must have gone to sleep right away. What the hell would she think of him now? When he got up to leave, Naomi stepped in his way. “You can’t think that you can just leave me here, can you?”
He winced but tried distraction tactics. “Not even for a shower?” He pointed to his slept-in clothes.
“Sorry.” She blushed. Why did she always become aggressive with the man? Just then her stomach started growling. She was embarrassed; somehow eating must have slipped her mind last night. “I just called the Yard, and they said you were in charge of the fire. So tell me something about it!” Louder growling.
“Don’t eat me!” Paul smiled. At least it had worked. “If you give me five minutes, I’ll start by making you some breakfast,“ he stalled, starting for the kitchen and praying that he would find some provisions ready. Tea, good. Bread, cheese, cucumber. Excellent. “Would you like some tea and sandwiches?”
“Only if you start talking!”
“After I’ve had that shower, ok?”
“By all means.”
“Good”, it seemed to be a good day, if only he had something a bit more fanciful. Wait: “How about some toast with honey?” His father had given him some of his specialty honey on his last visit. Funny to imagine his father working with bees, but then again, maybe he enjoyed watching those communities too. More growling from Naomi. “I’ll take that as a yes,“ he said, sticking his head around the kitchen door, grinning.
Ten minutes later he joined her at his small dining table in a fresh T-shirt and Jeans, his hair still wet, and Naomi looked at him expectantly.
“Well, I met Marcus outside your house. He seems to be”, ah, what word could he use there? “quite a good chap. He noticed the fire in your room, got you out and then went to investigate further. He’s got some experience with that.” (Did he? At least he had seemed knowledgeable, and the fire-brigade’s report had not turned up anything different. They had even complimented Paul on his competent assistant.) “So, as we thought it was dangerous for you to stay, I offered my place when you didn’t like the hospital.”
“Who would try to literally set fire to my bed?” Naomi winced at the way that had come out. For the past four months now no one had set her bed on fire any other way, but she really didn’t want to sound complaining about that, not to a good-looking man like Paul. Maybe it would be better if she stopped talking altogether when near him. Only, that didn’t really seem to be an option while the investigation was going on.
“As far as I could gather, the people who killed Jeffrey Lynd are very interested in something they think he had, I re-checked the autopsy report and spoke to the doctor again; she said that your friend was beaten up badly before he was pushed down the staircase and fell through the glass-topped table.”
“What do you mean?” Was there more bad news to come? The fear that had been nagging at her last night was back. Before the investigation on her husband’s death was closed, there had been claims that someone must have hurt Rob badly, there had been talk of bad bruising, slashes and broken bones. Obviously – the investigation had concluded in the end, a falling crane would also leave that, and how was anybody supposed to have crashed the crane on him?
“It looks like either someone was very angry, or someone wanted information, and Lynd wasn’t forthcoming.” That was economising on the truth: the report had openly raised the question of torture, and Paul was getting worried that the same people were now turning their attention on Naomi. He did not want to imagine her in the lawless world of the Secret Services. The re-reading of the report had certainly put a note of urgency into finding whatever was hidden at her house.
Naomi swallowed then decided to keep to a light note. “Well, that sort of seems to clear me then, doesn’t it?” She raised herself to her lofty height of 5’3”.
“Yes, it does look that way”, Paul admitted. “Even though you cheerfully tell the investigating officer that you’re doing martial arts in your free time.”
“Is that illegal suddenly? I live alone. Besides I would only ever use that to defend myself.” She sounded confident she could do that.
Paul smiled at the idea of such a small person fighting. “No, but I’m sure your solicitor would have had a fit if he knew you told me about that. However, I’m quite sure you wouldn’t inflict the kind of injuries we found with Lynd.”
“Poor Jeff, he always hated any kind of brutality.” She looked sad, and Paul wanted to comfort her.
He sighed. That was not possible; better get this mess cleared up first. “Yes, but with the new attack though, it seems that they think you might have what they want. Do you think it is at all possible, that Lynd has hidden or left something with you, papers or documents?” Ha, Marcus would like that, now she could help.
“That could be possible”, she said slowly, “At least those two men were quite convinced of that. Only, I’ve been really busy since he was at my flat last, and I might have just shoved them to another place…” She looked at him helplessly. “So, we’re looking for a piece of paper, which might or might not exist, and we don’t have any idea what’s on it? That sounds rather metaphysical.”
“Well, at least it’s probably white paper not a black cat in a black tunnel.” Paul took up her barter.
Naomi shook her head at him with a grin. “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. With my household, a piece of paper is the black cat in the tunnel.”
“Maybe I could help?” Paul looked at her with big eyes and a crooked smile.
“You could certainly do that. Let’s go.” Naomi was already walking toward the door.
“Wait, maybe you should check with a doctor again first after last night”, Paul objected.
“I feel fine. If I feel at all woozy, I can always do that later and … dressed more appropriately. Coming?”
They arrived at her house later than they thought, having been caught up in traffic. Paul looked around for the ancient Hispano Suiza, but couldn’t see it. A shame to park a car like that out on the road anyway.
At the door they were met by the repairmen Naomi’s insurance had recommended to her on the phone. Naomi grabbed her robe from the bathroom and sent them to the disaster area. Her original plan about changing as soon as she got home did not look like a good idea anymore, not after she had had a whiff of the clothes in her wardrobe. With a sigh she had started a round of washing and checked the clothes rack in her guest room for drying clothes that did not smell of fire.
“Do you want coffee or tea with you search?” Naomi asked walking toward the kitchen again. She had first pointed him to her study, a large room at the front of the house, the walls of which were floor to ceiling bookshelves, full of books and folders. The desk and a lot of the floor were also covered with neat stacks of paper. Paul scratched his head. Now he knew what Marcus had meant.
“No thanks, I’m fine for now. Is it okay if I start with the files to the left of the door?”
“Have fun, that’s all old copies for my dissertation.”
Then she went upstairs with the repairmen to go through their report on the damage and have a look at their quote. After they had left, she took a shirt and a pair of jeans from the rack and called out to Paul. “Would you mind if I showered and changed now? I’m feeling a bit…”
“Not at all, go ahead!” Paul sighed. Did she have any idea what she was doing to him telling him she’d be upstairs wearing no clothes? She must be thinking policemen were like doctors, or worse, priests. He put on his glasses again and tried to focus on the files in front of him. A light knock on the front door caught his attention.
“Can I play too?” Marcus was smiling, just taking off dark sunglasses. He was wearing a cobalt blue T-shirt today with black jeans and boots. “Where’s Naomi?” Paul let the visitor in.
“Upstairs, shower and change. She agreed to search for anything Lynd might have left without her knowledge and was pleased I wanted to help.” Paul said with a satisfied smile.
“Do you think she’ll let me help too?”
“How should I know? Ask her!” He had decided to let Marcus help if Naomi agreed, reasoning that he was there to watch him after all. He sneezed. This was definitely dusty work. He put back another file.
“Did I just hear someone else?” A towel-wrapped Naomi appeared at the top of the stairs.
Paul thought he heard Marcus take a sharp breath at the sight, but when he spoke his voice had the same inflection as always. “I spotted Paul through the window, remembered what we talked about and wondered if I might be of assistance.” Marcus flashed a smile at her. “I’m good with files and such.”
“Ok, if you’re all that eager.” She was happy her diaries were in a box in the attic. What was it with those two? Had they settled on a conspiracy against her, making her so nervous with their combined handsome presence that she couldn’t think clearly? They were certainly succeeding at that. When she finally came down the stairs in jeans and a burgundy cambric shirt, the two men had almost finished her dissertation files.
Rather than make the room even more crowded, she decided to deal with the more pressing problem of her clothes situation and kept her washer and dryer busy. She also piled everything that would go into her small car and ran it to the dry-cleaners to get it done on express. God knows what she’d do about sleeping tonight; her bedroom was a blackened mess, the guest room smelt burned too, now that she had a longer time to check it. On second thoughts, she took down the curtains and rolled up the rugs upstairs to take those to the cleaners as well. When Marcus and Paul heard her staggering down the stairs with the rugs, they shook their heads at her in unison and simply helped her out. It was after five when she returned from her errands.
Before she could join the search team, her insurance agent arrived. His visit took almost an hour, and when she finally managed to get rid of him, it was half past six.
When she came into her study, it seemed that Paul and Marcus had been having a whispered debate. Now Paul started. “I’m sorry, but I think I have to go back to the Yard to check on something, see you later.” He left, looking disgruntled and determined at the same time.
Marcus kept searching methodically at a high speed that made Naomi’s eyes spin. After a while he looked up, pushed an errant lock out of his eyes and said: “How are you?”
“Have you eaten at all today?”
“Not a lot, since you mention it.” Naomi laughed. She had just been having cups of tea or coffee, depending on what her guests were drinking. What was this? Had he wanted Paul out of the way so he could invite her to dinner? She stole another glance at the tall man. No, he really hadn’t changed much from the one who’d stolen her heart 15 years ago only to return it broken, still breathtakingly beautiful. He looked up from the file again, and their eyes met for a second. Her heart skipped a beat. She cleared her throat. “I could see what I find in my kitchen. Do you like vegetarian food?”
Marcus gave a short laugh. “I’m fine with everything, really, I was only worried about you.”
Anything to keep him here. “I’ll see what I can do.” She disappeared into the kitchen, dug out the quickest meal she could find – pasta and pesto – and swiftly set to work.
“How about a glass of wine with it?” She called out to him while waiting for the water to boil.
Excellent! She laid the table, then called him to dinner. Even though she’d thought she was not hungry at all, with the food in front of her, she suddenly felt ravenous. She also needed something to counterbalance the wine.
It was like on the walk yesterday: They easily slipped into conversation. He seemed to know exactly what was interesting to her, what topics to touch. The only thing that worried her was that he didn’t seem to want to eat much. “Are you sure you’ve had enough?” she asked later, anxious that in her hurry she had sugared the pasta water or something similarly silly.
“Yes, don’t worry. Fool that I am I indulged in food on the way here, so… I’m sorry about that. But Paul will be back soon.”
“Oh, yes, Paul,“ she said, feeling guilty. She had almost forgotten all about him.
“Maybe we should get back to work before it gets too late?” He was already collecting plates and cutlery to bring to the sink. She followed with the glasses, bewildered. What was that? Had she misunderstood him? Obviously he didn’t want to be alone with her for long. Her mood sank. Not again. She remembered how depressed she had been when she had been first rebuffed by him and decided not to repeat the experience. At the same time, she couldn’t stop herself looking at him. Men that beautiful simply shouldn’t be allowed. And… why did he show up here if he didn’t want to be near her? Was he some kind of sadist intent on leading her on and then dropping her? Paul had said he had gone into her burning bedroom and carried her out, but how had he gotten into the house in the first place? She was confused.
Two minutes later Paul was back. He seemed furious. “You were absolutely right,“ he said to Marcus. “Someone pulled off my surveillance team at three o’clock. I found a memo on my desk from the Assistant Commissioner declaring the case officially closed – no result. The fire here was blamed on a spate of vandalism in the neighbourhood, evidence the attempt at a break-in earlier in the week – no connection to Lynd.”
“The detectives?” Marcus raised an eyebrow.
“Not known, maybe ‘overactive imagination of a college egghead’, no one else saw them, how can we be sure she isn’t just trying to make herself look important, history of psychiatric treatment,“ he raised his hands up to his shoulders.
Marcus was irritated. “What about those prints the fire men took?”
“Not yet processed, but I’ll get on it, don’t worry.”
Marcus was looking angry now.
Paul nodded to him. “It gets even better. I drove by my flat and saw what was definitely an unmarked car parked right round the corner. How stupid do they think I am?” When he had realised their own Secret Service was pulling the strings in the middle of his investigation, he had become absolutely furious and determined not to let himself be manipulated by them. If they wanted to mess with him, let them try, he thought grimly.
Naomi was white with fury by now. “What the hell is going on in this country? How could anyone be pulling my medical records? I’m taking this complaint right to the top. Who does Scotland Yard think they are? Just because they’re out of ideas they stop working? If I was like that in my field, I would have had to close every single topic of research I ever did. I’m calling Stan this minute.”
“I’m not sure you’re blaming the right guys there,“ Paul said, moving his hands around the room.
Marcus stopped Naomi by simply placing one hand on her phone and the other to his lips, shaking his head.
Then Paul said: “Well, I think I’ll give it another hour here, then I’ll retire. What about you folks?”
“Oh, ok, I can still call Stan in the morning,“ Naomi was playing along, her eyes round with shock. “I’ll take these here.”
“Well, m’gal, I have to say you could do with a spot of housecleaning sometimes”, Marcus was back to his flippant tone while writing very quickly at Naomi’s desk. Then he nodded to Paul to join him, to Naomi he motioned to keep up the noise of files being pulled and pages turned.
‘I’m not leaving her here alone tonight’, Marcus had written. ‘Suggest you stay, I’ll keep watch from outside.’
‘No way’, Paul scrawled back, ‘I can’t do that, it’s unprofessional.’ Apart from that it would probably not help one bit.
‘Would you trust your people to keep an eye on her from outside? I wouldn’t, they didn’t spot me.’
Paul scoffed. He would not trust his people in the whole thing at all – after all they had been the ones who had not prevented Lynd’s death. But there were other considerations, too. ‘If we take her away now, we’ll never know what’s going on. I’m not giving up; let’s give the search more time.’
Marcus turned away from him in frustration, shaking his head and writing. “We’ll do it my way then.” To Paul he mouthed ‘later’.
Paul arched his eyebrows and said aloud: “Naomi, can I check these folders now?”
“My old tax return files? You must be a glutton for punishment!”
Marcus held another paper up to Naomi.
‘Pack everything you absolutely cannot lose, don’t take too long, we’re leaving in half an hour.’
She nodded, white-faced and quietly went about the room, then left it to sneak upstairs.
“Here”, Paul said fifteen minutes later, holding out a sheaf of papers toward Marcus.
When Naomi came back down again carrying a duffle bag, they were still reading the papers. Paul was nodding to himself, now things slowly began to make some sense to him. Marcus had taken Naomi’s bag and handed her another note: ‘Say good-bye to us, make it look as if you’re going to bed – or the sofa. Bang about a bit, then turn quiet and come to the kitchen window.’
“Sorry folks, I’m about dead on my feet,“ Paul said. “Can I give you a lift?” He had turned to Marcus, offering the lift for several reasons: He wanted to know where he lived so he could keep an eye on him, but he also wanted to sound him out on his behaviour this evening, which Paul hadn’t really understood. First he got him out of the house, then, when Paul had said he didn’t want to stay with Naomi (he could hardly do that, he would lose his job for such behaviour), he had come up with his other plan instead of simply offering to stay with her himself. Paul was sure Naomi wouldn’t have minded that.
“That would be most appreciated. Naomi, we’ll try again in the morning. I say those files here look rather promising, but if I touch another dusty file tonight, I might just turn into dust myself. Tata.”
“See you in the morning”, Naomi yawned as she closed the door on them.
She went through the charade of going to the bathroom to get ready for the night, then went downstairs again, made a bed on the sofa. She would definitely need a new bed. When she had seen her old one, she had felt faint. Even though Marcus had put out the flames, the mattress had been badly burned and the wrought iron of the bedstead must have become so hot that it had changed shape in parts. She didn’t really want to imagine what would have happened had she not been taken out in time. What with the damage the smoke had done, her bedroom would have to be completely renovated. The insurance people, who had been round in the later afternoon, had not been too happy. And now Marcus was making it look as if the arsonists would return.
She turned out the lights and quietly sneaked to the kitchen window. Outside Paul was shaking his head in wonder at Marcus opening the window without a sound from the outside, not bothered at all by the state of the art locks that Naomi had had installed.
“Long practice,“ Marcus said holding out his arms for Naomi climbing out the window.
“Where to now?” Paul asked once everybody was seated in the car. Marcus had only told him his plan once they were outside, then dashed off for ten minutes and returned with a bag of groceries. Paul had shaken his head at that and put off questioning him to a later date. By now it had become distinctly chilly, and Marcus’s fresh air fanaticism was beginning to annoy him, he was cold and Naomi must be freezing with all the windows down.
“62 Regent Street, if you will”, Marcus said unfazed by Paul’s dark look, “I think my place is safer than the home of a Scotland Yard detective at the moment. By the way, Paul, do you think you could lose your mobile? That would make it harder for them to locate you.”
“Right,“ Paul said, dumping the phone into the nearest garden.
“Littering too now, I’m afraid I’m not a good influence on you,“ Marcus was shaking his head, chuckling. Paul grinned. The adrenaline was certainly getting to them.
“Hey,“ Naomi called from the backseat, “Would you two masterminds consider telling me what you found in my old tax returns, that has you in such a good mood? I’d at least like to know why I’m playing hide-and-seek with grown-ups!”
“Well, it turns out…” Paul started, but was interrupted at once: “Could you save that for when you’ve put away your car?” They were at Piccadilly Circus. “Parking can be quite bothersome around here, but maybe you could try…” He gave directions to Paul until they were securely and legally parked behind a house in Regent Street. When they got out, Paul noticed the ancient Hispano Suiza next to them and made the connection.
“Don’t tell me that’s your car”, he moaned.
Marcus looked up surprised. “It is, why?”
“See me go green with envy? Would you take me for a ride in that thing when this whole chaos is over?” He found that even with his habitual distrust of people – and he’d really like some questions answered here, somehow, he still couldn’t imagine Marcus to be with the bad guys. On the contrary, it felt as if he had just acquired a friend.
“We’ll see about that,“ Marcus answered, not meeting his eyes, then took Naomi’s duffel and his groceries from the trunk and led the way to his first floor apartment.