Authors: Stella Whitelaw
Jackie Harvey, good friend and writer,
and her wonderful wasp
Many thanks to Fred Lindop, organiser of the famous Swanage Jazz Festival, and all his stewards. So much kindness and help as well as gorgeous music.
And thanks to Swanage library staff, Worthing library staff and Oxted library staff. What would I do without you?
Also thanks to Dr David Thomas for his invaluable medical details.
Lastly, thanks to several retired police officers who put me right.
Any mistakes are entirely mine but writing this book has been an absolute joy.
o tell the truth, I’d never given it a thought. I’d never been anywhere really high before. But now I stood on the open walkway, terrified, the key trembling in my hand. Perspiration broke out on my brow, knees shaking. I felt sick.
‘What have I done?’ I asked myself. ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake. This is vertigo. It’s awful.’
A nightmare lay ahead if I was going to get vertigo every time I tried to go along the open walkway to my new flat, in either direction. It was four floors up over a two-storey supermarket and restaurant. The drop was down onto a tarmac car park. One of those parking spaces was mine but I didn’t have a car yet to replace the burnt-out ladybird. Herring gulls swept by, showing off, squawking, indifferent to my predicament. Vertigo never bothered them.
My reflection in the smeary kitchen window was pale-faced and terrified. Even my wind-blown tawny hair had lost some of its fiery colour.
I clung to the door handle. It was cold and slippery. There was nothing else to hang on to. A north-easterly wind was blowing off the South Downs and it went straight through my jeans and sweater. I would freeze to death if I did not get my feet moving soon.
‘It’s all in the mind,’ I told myself. But it felt as if it was all in my stomach. I’d been staying in a Travelodge since I was turned out of my two bedsits. The adjoining bedsits had been my home
and refuge for half a dozen years. I loved them but the miserly landlord had decided he’d get more money if he let them as offices, so it was goodbye to Jordan Lacey’s unusual home. I’m still a private investigator and still owner of First Class Junk, my remarkable antique shop at the far end of Latching.
My few pieces of good furniture were in storage. Other belongings were about to be shunted from shop to new home in cardboard boxes and carrier bags. At least, that had been my initial plan.
It had been a big mistake, viewing the flat on a wet and stormy day. The estate agent had kindly walked on my left-hand side, to protect his damp client from the rain. I did not even get a glimpse of the drop. It wasn’t there in the mist.
But the view from the sitting-room window had banished any uncertain thoughts. The fourth-floor flat faced the sea and I stood quite still, mesmerized by the diagonally crashing waves, the pounding surf, the cascading spray against the end of the pier. It was as if the whole world was being unrolled before me, a carpet of shimmering water. Not blue as on a calm summer’s day, but the coffee-brown froth of turbulent churned sand and debris.
I fell for the tempestuous view. I barely looked at the tiny bedroom and closets, also facing the sea, the miniscule kitchen and bathroom both at the back. The balcony seduced me with visions of long summer evenings ahead, sitting there with a glass of wine and a book, being civilized, watching the world go by. Living the F. Scott Fitzgerald life.
‘I’ll take it,’ I said, without a second thought.
‘Excellent,’ said the estate agent, smiling. ‘I’m sure you’ll be very happy here. I can see that you like the view.’
‘I love the sea.’
‘If you’d like to come back to the office and sign the agreement, give us your bank details. As it’s empty, you can move in straightaway.’
That decided me. I could move in straightaway. No more shunting between shop and Travelodge. I could hang up my few clothes in the built-in closet, make my own coffee in the proper
kitchen. The kitchen even had work surfaces, the kind you could wipe clean. Those bedsit kitchens didn’t have work surfaces. I had to chop salad on the draining board. This was going to be, oh, so like a normal person.
The estate agent politely escorted me along the walkway, again shielding me from the rain, to the lift at the far end. The lift took us down to street level, near the supermarket entrance.
‘Let’s hope the lift never breaks down,’ he joked. ‘It’s quite a climb.’
So I produced proof of identity, signed a six-month agreement, paid a deposit and the first month’s rent. It was a lot more than I had paid for the two bedsits but look what I was getting for the money. A proper kitchen with granite work surfaces and a wide window view of the South Downs, a bathroom on the same floor and a magnificent expanse of ocean. I would have paid that much just for being able to look at the sea any time of day or night.
I eventually managed to get the key in the lock. It turned stiffly. Salt got everywhere. I pushed open the door, which was almost blocked by a pile of post. I went into the narrow hallway and shut the door, standing firmly on the floor, ankle deep in offers of takeaway pizzas and broadband. My head cleared. The vertigo receded.
It was like a miracle. Everything was all right inside the flat. My balance was normal. I took off my wet trainers and padded through to the sitting room. The view was still there. It hadn’t gone away. No mirage. I hadn’t imagined it. The tide was going out but the acres of wet sand were calm, the raging sea far out on the horizon.
Pigeons and seagulls flew backwards and forwards, weaving and darting. They thought this high block of flats was a cliff. They were cliff pigeons.
‘This is not a cliff!’ I shouted at them but they ignored me.
I had brought a few essentials from the shop. Electric kettle, coffee, tea bags, cheese, yogurt, a sleeping bag and mobile phone. But no mug or plate.
I leaned against the door to the balcony, keying in DCI James’s mobile phone number, chewing on a lump of cheese.
‘DCI James,’ he said, sounding distant. He was a long way away. He’d recently been promoted and moved further along the south coast from Latching.
‘I’ve moved in,’ I said.
‘Good for you. What am I supposed to do? Cheer?’
‘I get vertigo on the walkway. It’s four flights up over a double-storey supermarket and restaurant.’
‘Surely you knew that?’
‘I didn’t notice.’
‘You’ll get used to it.’ DI James was busy on a cold case murder. He sounded really vague. ‘This is what you have to do to overcome vertigo. Go outside and count to ten, then go back indoors. Next, go out again and count to twenty and then go back inside. You can cure yourself, but it takes time. Don’t look down till you are steady enough to walk.’
‘I’ll give it a try, otherwise I’ll have to stay inside the flat for ever.’
There was a chuckle. The chuckle that I missed so much. I missed the man too.
‘I’ll post you a sandwich.’ Then he rang off.
The kitchen window was dirty. I took out a damp J-cloth, no old newspaper. I would do ten seconds’ worth of cleaning a corner of the window and then go back inside. It worked, after a fashion, if I breathed slowly and deeply. I phoned the storage company and asked them to deliver my furniture the next morning. It looked as if I was going to sleep on the floor that night, not for the first time in my life. I’d slept in some funny places: up a tree, even a priest’s hole.
Outside again, cleaning the kitchen window for twenty seconds more. I did not look down or at the distant green South Downs. I could manage twenty seconds without passing out. It seemed like a milestone of sorts.
But when it came to actually walking along the open walkway
to the lift, past the front doors of three other flats, I was immediately sweating and gasping for air. I had to go to work at the shop: it was my bread and peanut butter. No way was I going to be marooned in a flat with a view for six months, especially without a mug. No vertigo in the lift taking me down.
The seafront seemed like heaven. I could have kissed the pavement like that nice old Pope with white hair. I went into the supermarket and bought milk, lettuce and rolls.
‘Have a nice day,’ said the girl, mouthing the mindless platitude.
‘Is that a promise?’ I said, putting the purchases into my bag-for-life. The store charged five pence for a new carrier bag.
Every step along the pedestrian area to First Class Junk felt as if I had stumbled into happiness. Now I needed some cases to solve. I have a tidy portfolio of cases solved or abandoned, as well as my years of experience as a policewoman.
We don’t talk about why I left the police force. Let’s say that I normally tell the truth in order to catch a criminal and this senior police officer thought otherwise. The rapist went free. I reported the officer. End of my career in the police.
My shop was floundering a bit. The numerous charity shops were in hot competition. They were getting more and more upmarket, some actually selling antiques. First Class Junk sold low-grade, flotsam antiques. If I spotted something really classy, then I passed it onto a top dealer and took a percentage. I occasionally found a gem. I discovered a Moorcroft sugar caster in a box of junk. It paid the rent for a few months.
A young man was waiting outside First Class Junk. It was a corner shop with small optician-size windows on either side and a splayed flight of steps up to the front door. Over the front door was an elegant wood carving from some demolished portal. It was all painted a dark maroon.
‘Sorry, I’m late,’ I said, unlocking the door. ‘A case of unexpected vertigo.’
‘Valium, that’s the answer. Take one before climbing,’ said the young man. ‘My mum used to get it. Right as rain now. She can
climb any lighthouse.’
‘Isn’t Valium on prescription?’
‘I could get you a couple. Internet.’
I bustled in, turning on lights, wondering if he was a client or a customer. I stood behind the small counter expectantly. If he was a client, I would take him into my office at the back, seat him on the Victorian button-back chair, make him a coffee.
‘Those maritime compasses in the window,’ he said. ‘Could I look at them?’
He was a customer. He paid six pounds for one. He chose the best. Everything in the shop was priced six pounds. It saved on making out new price tickets. I wondered if it was time to put the price up. Everything else was going up.
It was a fairly busy day. A stream of customers, buying or not buying. No cases, not even a lost tortoise or a wandering husband. Wandering husbands had less money these days to spend on other women. I missed DCI James now that he had been promoted from Latching and moved to Hampshire or Dorset on a temporary replacement post. We occasionally spoke on the phone but James was always preoccupied. It was a serious case.
I needed a car. Arriving at a crime scene or interview on a bicycle was hardly promoting the right image. My ladybird car, bright red with black spots, had been ideal. Everyone knew it, even the villains. And a villain had set fire to it, burnt it to a smouldering wreck. It had been a moment of anguish. That the target had been me was no consolation.
I wandered round the used car sales spots, uninterested in the family saloons and 4x4s on sale. I wanted something different, a vehicle with style.
There was time for a long walk along the seafront before it got dark. My legs needed stretching. The council kept changing the seafront. The palm trees were perfect. Sometimes their fronds were netted for the winter, some years not. There was now a wood seascape on the pebbles. Bits of gnarled wood sticking up for no particular purpose. Something vaguely artistic; cost a lot of ratepayers’ money.
Two elegant white-walled houses along the far end had been demolished. Flats were going to be built on the site. It was sacrilege but I supposed people had to have somewhere to live and flats brought in money, council tax to the council, parking fines to the traffic department.
It was yellow, a sort of sunburst yellow. It could not have been brighter. I could only see the roof because it was a low-slung two-seater, parked on the road below the seafront promenade. Something about the fact that it was parked on the sea road, late at night, made me stop and peer down. There were hastily posted sheets of paper plastered on the windscreen.
One careful owner
I wrote down the phone number in my notebook. I loved the yellow car instantly. It might not be discreet enough for a private investigator but then neither was the red and black ladybird. Its name could be wasp. It had black stripes on the luggage rack. I was into insects. I should have been a biologist.
I dialled the number on my mobile, leaning against the sea wall, listening to the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. The waves hissed: Buy It. Buy It.
‘Your yellow peril car,’ I said. ‘Is it still for sale?’
‘Absolutely,’ said a male voice, almost jumping out of the phone. ‘I have to sell it immediately. I’ve been posted to Doha, Qatar, for two years. I’m flying out tomorrow morning. If I leave it on the street, the vandals will demolish it in days. Do you want to buy it?’
‘Yes, I think so. I have a secure parking space.’
I visualized the vertiginous parking space below the flats.
‘I’m coming down with the insurance documents and the keys,’ said the young man. ‘A secure parking place? That’s a bonus. Of course, we have to agree on a price. But I should be
happy with a down payment, and monthly instalments.’
‘That would suit me,’ I agreed faintly. My bank balance was shrinking. It was teetering on the edge of insolvency.
Half an hour later I was the new owner of a Mazda MX5 California, a burst of sunshine on wheels. I had agreed that if Mike Reed, who was selling the car, wanted to buy it back at the end of his two years in Doha, he would have first option. By then, he might be loaded with dollars and looking at a Porsche or a Lamborghini. It was worth the chance.
The car was a dream. A different sort of dream to the ladybird. The ladybird had been square and solid and not sporty-looking. This two-seater looked fast and ready to take off. I had to unfold my legs and duck my head to get into it. The steering wheel was yellow and black.
‘You realize that it’s retro, don’t you?’ Mike said, peering in.
‘What does that mean?’ I asked, thinking no oil or something.
‘No electric windows, no clock, no air bags.’
‘I can wind down a window. No air bags? I’ll bring a cushion.’