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Authors: Kate Johnson

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women

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BOOK: A Is for Apple
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“Sure, whatever.”

The barman grinned. “Which one’s your boyfriend?”

“The blond,” I said gloomily. “Not sure how long for though.”

“Hey, cheer up. He ain’t gonna dump you.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Yeah, right. You’re gorgeous.”

I sniffed. “You’re very sweet,” I told him, “but I think you’re lying.”

He grinned. “If you were my girlfriend, I wouldn’t dump you.”

Okay, going a bit too far now. “Even if you saw me kissing someone else?”

He whistled. “That’s what the fight was about?”

I nodded miserably.

“Well, I can see why he might be mad.”

I finished my pint, chatting to the barman as I went, and at the end of it felt a bit better. I checked my watch—Jesus, it was nearly midnight!

“I should go,” I said, slipping off my stool and getting out my purse, but the bartender shook his head.

“On the house,” he said, and I smiled with gratitude. “Thanks.” I leaned over and kissed his cheek, and he grinned at me.

“For that you can have another one—”

“I really should go,” I said. “Make amends.”

“Have fun.”

Fun wasn’t what I was anticipating.

I got back in the lift and checked my reflection. Blegh. Makeup all sweated off, eyes smudged all over from nearly crying, pretty summer dress creased, feet black with dirt and throbbing all over.

Yep. Gorgeous.

I hobbled back to my room and listened for a moment outside the door. Silence. I let myself in with a sigh and went straight into the bathroom, closing the door out of habit and going through my nightly toiletry ritual, ending with the new addition of peeling off the remaining plasters and bathing my feet.

I clicked off the light and went back into the dark bedroom, peeling off my dress as I did, and then got a hell of a shock when Luke’s low voice came from the bed.

“Nice of you to check in.”

Shrieking in surprise, I clutched my dress to me (why, Sophie, why, he’s seen you in a lot less than underwear many, many times) and flipped on the light. Luke was lying in my bed with his back to me, and I stood there staring, noting objectively what a fine back he had.

The nerve of him!

“If you think I’m going to sleep with you,” I began, spluttering, unable to think of a dire enough threat to finish that sentence.

“I don’t give a bloody damn where you sleep,” Luke said, not moving, “so long as it’s not touching me.”

At that I hurled something at him. I think it was my dress.

“Why are you even here?” I screeched as Luke threw my dress on the floor and rolled on his back to look at me. I tried to look dignified, but it’s hard when you’re wearing a mismatched pink bra and green knickers.

“SO17 can’t afford two rooms.”

“I mean in New York!”

He stared at me in disbelief. “Because Macbeth got recalled. You do remember that, don’t you? You didn’t think Karen would let you do this on your own, did you?”

Patronising git.

I snarled at him, while something in the back of my mind remembered Macbeth’s garbled transmission. Was he going back? Was that what he’d said? That Luke was coming out here? Damn bloody useless phone!

I slammed the light off and threw back the covers and hurled myself into bed, turning my back to Luke when he did the same to me.

I waited all night for him to thaw, and I knew it was early in the morning when I eventually dropped off to sleep, but there’d been no reaction from Luke.

Chapter Four

My body woke up before my mind did, and what my body registered was this—I’m curled up half naked with Luke and he has his arms around me.

I snuggled closer without really thinking what I was doing, but the realisation must have hit Luke at the same time it hit me, because as I opened my eyes I heard him say in a furious voice, “If this is some plan of yours—”

“No plan,” I said, heart sinking.

“So why are you here?”

“Well,” I said, voice heavy with as much sarcasm as I could muster thirty seconds after waking up, “this is my room, and SO17 can’t afford—”

“I mean right here,” Luke squeezed me, and I paused for a second to appreciate the effect. Then I looked up at him, and scowled.

“I don’t know. I woke up like this.”

“Well, I didn’t—”

“Don’t you yell at me. It’s not my fault.”

He glared at me, but I noticed he didn’t do anything to push me away.

“You didn’t go back to your boyfriend?”

“Boyf—Luke, will you shut up? I explained that—”

“Hardly—”

“I told you—”

“Sophie, if you walked in and saw me kissing another woman, what would you do?”

I’d get out my gun and shoot the both of them.

“I’d expect a rational explanation,” I said with dignity.

Luke snorted.

“Liar,” he said, but there was a hint of fondness in it.

“Look,” I said, “you really don’t need to worry about Xander—”

“Oh, I wasn’t worrying about him.”

“I mean as a threat!”

“Why would I be threatened by an all-American jockstrap like him? Just because you seem to have an affection for that type—and when I say
affected—”

“Oh, fuck off,” I snarled halfheartedly. “Harvey is in love with Angel—”

“And Harvey Number Two?”

Had he been speaking to Macbeth?

“His name is Xander, and there really is absolutely no chance of him stealing me away from you. In actual fact, you’re probably in more danger than me.”

There was a pause, then, shaking like he was trying hard not to laugh, Luke said, “What?”

“He’s gay, Luke. At least, I’m pretty sure he is.”

“Pretty sure?”

“Well, yes. He knows his designers and he loves shopping, and he thinks you’re really cute—”

“He
what
?”

“He saw your picture and—”

“You have a picture of me?”

I tried to gauge his voice. He didn’t seem too mad. In fact, he seemed very amused.

“A small one,” I said huffily.

“In your wallet?”

“No, in a locket next to my heart.”

I looked up, and Luke was grinning.

“That is kind of adorable,” he said, and I scowled again.

“Harvey has a twin brother and he’s
gay
,” Luke said after a while, his voice rich with amusement. “That is excellent. Did you know about this?”

“Not before last night.”

“What happened last night?”

“I met Xander and figured out he was gay.”

A bit more silence. It was nice lying there in Luke’s arms, my head on his shoulder, almost like we’d never fought. Like the storm had passed.

“Do you think I really broke his nose?” Luke asked, and was it my imagination, or did I detect a hint of concern in there?

“If you did, Harvey will probably shoot you,” I said mildly.

“Where did he go last night?”

“I don’t know. Probably to hang himself off the Brooklyn Bridge.”

“Ha ha.”

“Yeah, you’ll be laughing when you’re named in court.”

Luke flipped me over onto my back. “So,” he said speculatively, and I’m afraid I couldn’t keep from licking my lips. I watched his muscles flex appreciatively.

“So?”

“So…that’s your best friend, her boyfriend, and his gay brother. Quite a collection.”

God, when you put it like that… Okay, but I only kissed Angel because I was passing on a message from Harvey. And I only kissed Harvey because I was really drunk and he hadn’t even met Angel and I wasn’t with Luke then. And I only kissed Xander because—well, you know that bit.

“That’s only four people in five months,” I said, “if you count you as well. And you don’t count Tammy—God, Tammy!”

“Angel’s feeding her,” Luke reassured me. “Still, four people in the space of time I’ve known you…two others since we got together… I think I have a right to ask…”

I braced myself.

“Who’s the best?”

“You’re such a—” I began, but my disgust very quickly evaporated when Luke dropped his head and kissed me.

Mmm, that kiss. I told you how the world sort of goes away when he kisses me. And there’s only me and Luke left, a universe inside that kiss which I’ve missed
so much

“Well,” I said breathlessly when he let me go and gave me a quizzical look, “I may need to reconsider. Maybe another example…?”

Luke rolled his eyes but he didn’t protest. In fact he was showing me all the extras that came with the kissing, throwing my bra on the floor and doing very interesting things in the region of my knickers, when there came a desperate hammering on the door.

“Whoever it is, they can fuck off,” Luke growled, and I agreed. It was probably only the maid anyway.

“Can you come back later?” I gasped. “Or maybe not at all…”

But then a voice was added to the hammering, and my heart sank.

“Sophie! I’m really sorry but this is
really
important.”

Xander.

“Please go the fuck away,” Luke snapped.

“I wouldn’t disturb you, only it’s really, absolutely vital. Harvey said I should get you…”

I looked at Luke. He shook his head at me, but then my phone started to ring, and we both groaned.

“I’ll get that, you get the door?” I said hopelessly, and Luke, scowling, rolled off me and pulled the top blanket around him as he went over to the door.

I picked up my phone just as it went to voice mail. Excellent.

Xander tumbled into the room, looked from Luke to me, then back at Luke again, appreciatively, and said, “God, I am
so
sorry…”

“This had better be bloody good,” Luke said, glaring at him, and the effect might have been more menacing if he’d been wearing more than a green fuzzy blanket.

“It’s really good. Well, really bad,” Xander amended, touching his nose, which was nicely swollen and a pretty shade of purple. “I found Shapiro.”

Thank God. “Where?”

“In my apartment. He’s—well, he’s dead.”

 

On the subway, Xander told us in quiet tones how he’d stayed up drinking and slunk back to his apartment in the early hours when he got thrown onto the street for being unable to pay his bar tab. Drunk and pissed off, he’d stumbled straight into bed and hadn’t looked around his studio space until he’d got up to get some water about an hour ago. Whereupon he’d found the body of Don Shapiro, arranged into the pose Xander had used for the portrait, which was standing next to him on an easel.

Xander, panicking, had called Harvey for my number, and had ended up telling him the whole story. Harvey had told him Luke was here with me and that we were his best bet.

Kind of sweet, but what the hell did he expect us to do?

As soon as we were in the open air and I could get some signal on my phone, I called Harvey.

“What are we, waste disposal?”

“It’s nice to hear from you, too,” Harvey said. “Listen, look after Xander, will you? It can’t be nice finding a body in your apartment—”

“No,” I said shortly. “I remember what it’s like.”

“I told him you were with the government,” Harvey said.

“Cheers.”

“What else could I say? I’d be there myself, but I’m kinda far away and…”

“Yeah, I know,” I said resignedly. “I’ll call you back later.”

“Thanks, Sophie.”

I ended the call and looked up at Luke on one side of me, and Xander on the other. Boy, they actually made me feel short. Well, maybe average sized.

“This is it,” Xander fished a key out of his pocket as we approached a huge warehouse door. We weren’t far from the meatpacking district and the smell of dead things hung heavily in the air. I shuddered. I haven’t eaten meat since I was a child, and this kind of reminded me why. Not to mention that the smell might be coming from Shapiro…

Xander fitted the key in a smaller portal and we stepped in after him. “It’s a total mess,” he said with what I supposed was normally cheerfulness, but now came out rather strained and horribly nervous. “Obviously I don’t usually have all the blood…”

“That’s okay,” Luke said, slinging an arm around my shoulders. “You should see Sophie’s place.”

I scowled at him, but Xander managed some sort of smile.

He unlocked an inner, metal door and we walked into a big warehouse type space. The floors were thin and creaked alarmingly, there was crap all over the place—big easels and blank canvases, huge vats of paint, boxes of materials, things like bits of string and sequins on the floor. There was a curtain pulled across to just by the door; behind it was a big messy bed and a jumble of clothes, with another curtain behind that hardly concealing a little shower room.

Every wall, the whole ceiling and all over the floor, the bedspread and the curtains, and even part of the windows, were all covered with paintings and scribblings. It was like Xander had run out of canvas and started putting down his ideas on his actual apartment.

“Wow,” I said. “Pretty cool.”

Xander disappeared into the bedroom section and lit up a cigarette with shaky hands.

“Very nice,” Luke agreed distractedly. He and Xander seemed to have come to some sort of détente on the way over, after I stamped on Luke’s foot and made him apologise, and then on Xander’s and made him accept.

“There is one thing,” Luke went on conversationally. “Where is the body?”

Xander came out and stared around. He pointed at what might have been a sofa under decades of debris, an easel beside it, pools of sticky drying blood staining the painted floor. To be honest there was so much going on in the room I’d hardly had time to look for a body. Certainly the blood hadn’t seemed out of place on the garish floor.

“It was right there,” Xander said, going over and cautiously lifting a large sketchbook as if expecting Shapiro’s body to be hiding under it.

“Well, it ain’t there now,” Luke said. “Are you sure he was dead?”

“He had a big slit right across his throat,” Xander said. “And he was sort of bluish.”

“That might give it away,” I said. I walked over to the sofa, where the blood was dried and congealed. But then it could have been paint for all I knew. “Xander, how long since you’ve been back here? Before this morning.”

He shrugged. “Three days.”

“Three days without coming home?” Luke said. “Where have you been?”

“Friends. Your hotel.”

Luke flashed a glare at me.

“Later,” I said wearily. “Xander, this body can’t just have vanished. Are you sure you saw it?”

“I wasn’t that stoned,” he said indignantly, and Luke cast a despairing look in my direction.

“What were you on last night?”

“It was good stuff,” Xander protested, “expensive, I’ve been saving it…”

“How stoned were you?”

“Not very. Didn’t have much left.”

“You hallucinated it,” Luke said flatly.

“Nah, it wasn’t
that
good. Look, I know I saw it. I know it was there. I could smell it. It was like dead meat…”

Like dead meat…

“Xander,” I said, “what did this building used to be?”

“I dunno, slaughterhouse probably. Some kind of storage. They swung stuff out of the big windows…” He gestured to the glass, currently covered with taped-up sketches, and I went over to look. The sketches were crumpled and torn in one corner, where the window was open on the catch to let some air in. Or maybe more than air.

God, even I’m not that stupid, and I’m blonde.

“Do people still do that? Carry stuff out of windows?”

“I guess. I don’t know.”

“So you often see people manoeuvring big bloody things around here? Wrapped in…what, plastic?”

“Usually,” Xander said cautiously.

“So no one would have turned a blind eye if someone had walked out of this old slaughterhouse on the edge of the meatpacking district with a bloody bundle wrapped up in polythene?”

They both stared at me.

“You’re a scary lady,” Xander said.

“I don’t like how your mind works,” Luke agreed.

“At least it does work,” I replied, feeling pleased with myself. “Right. Some time between you calling Harvey and coming over here, someone broke in through the window you left open—”

“It’s on a closed-in yard!”

“—and took Shapiro’s body. Why would someone bring him here then take him away?”

We all looked at each other, nonplussed.

“Okay,” I sighed, “maybe not.” My grand theories have been known to come to nothing before. At least this one didn’t horribly backfire, as they also have been known to occasionally do. Ahem.

“Maybe you weren’t supposed to find it,” Luke said to Xander. “Maybe they figured you were out and just didn’t have time to move it or something.”

“Maybe—” I began, but I never remembered how I was going to go on from there, because the metal door swung open and a man in a shiny suit stood there, looking surprised for a few seconds.

The same man in the same shiny suit as the guy who’d come after me and Xander yesterday.

“Shit,” Xander gasped and threw himself to the floor, just as the shiny guy pulled out a gun and fired a shot at him. Luke and I followed Xander’s lead and ducked, and watched in horror as Xander grabbed a gun from under the sofa and aimed at the shiny guy, who was emptying the cartridge from his gun.

“Xander—” I started.

“No—” Luke yelled, reaching for his own gun, but Xander had already fired. There was a blast, a flash, then a sharp metal ping and a yelp from Xander.

The shiny guy ran.

I shuffled over to Xander, who was bleeding from a cut on his temple. “Ow!” he said indignantly, and I couldn’t meet Luke’s eyes.

“That wasn’t your own bullet ricocheting back at you, was it?” I asked as sensibly as I could, trying hard not to crack up.

“Might have been,” Xander said sulkily, touching the blood on his face.

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