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The Lake of Darknessby Ruth Rendell
Scorpio is metaphysics, putrefaction and death, regeneration, passion, lust and violence, insight and profundity; inheritance, loss, occultism, astrology, borrowing and lending, others' possessions. Scorpians are magicians, astrologers, alchemists, surgeons, bondsmen, and undertakers. The gem for Scorpio is the snakestone, the plant the cactus; eagles and wolves and scorpions are its creatures, its body part is the genitals, its weapon the Obligatory Pain, and its card in the Tarot is Death.
Finn shared his birthday, November 16, with the Emperor Tiberius. He had been told by a soothsayer, who was a friend of his mother's whom she had met in the mental hospital, that he would live to a great age and die by violence.
On the morning of his birthday, his twenty-sixth, one of Kaiafas' children came round with the money in a parcel. He knocked on Finn's door. Someone downstairs must have let him into the house. They didn't know it was his birthday, Finn realised that. It was just a coincidence. He undid the parcel and checked that it contained what it should contain-?2,500 in ten-pound notes. Now it had arrived he had better get on with things, he might as well start now.
It was too early to go up to Lena. She liked to sleep late in the mornings. Not that she would mind his waking her on his birthday; she would like it, she would expect it almost. But he wouldn't just the same. He tucked the money safely away and went downstairs.
Finn was very tall and thin and pale. He was near to being an albino but was saved by the watery grey colour that stained the pupils of his eyes. It was remarkable that eyes of such an insipid shade should be so piercing and so bright, like polished silver. His hair, when he was a child, had been white-blond but had now faded to the neutral greyish-beige of cardboard. He had a face that was quite ordinary and unmemorable, but this was not true of his eyes. Under a longish PVC jacket he wore blue denims, a checked Viyella shirt, a black-velvet waistcoat, and round his neck one of those scarves that Greek women wear, black and triangular and sewn along one side with small gold coins. He carried a tool box of laminated blue metal. Finn had a smallish head on a thin, delicate-looking neck and his wrists and ankles and feet were small, but his pale hands were almost preternaturally large with an extravagant span.
His van, a small, pale grey, plain van, was parked in front of the house in Lord Arthur Road. You might call it Kentish Town or Tufnell Park or Lower Holloway. There were some curious houses, mini-Gothic with step gables, fat Victorian red brick, great grey barns with too many bays for grace or comfort, and small, narrow, flat-fronted places, very old, and covered in a skin of pale green peeling plaster. Finn wasn't interested in architecture, he could have lived just as easily in a cave or a hut as in his room. He unlocked the van and got in and drove up past Tufnell Park Station, up Dartmouth Park Hill towards the southernmost part of Hampstead Heath.
It was nine-fifteen. He drove under the bridge at Gospel Oak Station, up into Savernake Road, which skirted Parliament Hill Fields, and on the corner of Modena Road he parked the van. From there he could keep the house Kaiafas owned under observation. He sat at the wheel, watching the three-storey house of plum-coloured brick.
The Frazers were the first to go out. They left together, arm in arm. Next came Mrs. Ionides, five minutes afterwards. Finn didn't care about them, they didn't count. He wanted to be sure of Anne Blake, who quite often took a day off and had told Finn she "worked at home."
However, she emerged from the front door at exactly nine-thirty and set off the way the others had for the station. As a trusted handyman Finn was in possession of a key to the house in Modena Road, and with this he let himself in. His entering as the agent or servant of the landlord was perfectly legitimate, though some of the things he intended to do there were not.
Kaiafas' sister had the ground-floor flat and the Frazers the next one up. The Frazers had accepted ?2,000 from Kaiafas and had agreed to move out at the end of the month. Mrs. Ionides would do anything Kaiafas told her, and now he had told her she must go back to nurse their aged father in Nicosia. With vacant possession, the house would sell for sixty, maybe seventy thousand pounds. Kaiafas had asked estate agents about that, and he had watched prices rising and soaring as houses just like his had been sold. The one next door, identical to his, had fetched sixty in August. The house agent smiled and shook his head and said that had been vacant possession, though, hadn't it? Kaiafas had told Finn all about it, that was how he knew.
He let himself into Mrs. Ionides' hall and thence into her living room where one of the window sash cords had broken a day or so ago. He fitted a new sash cord, and then he went upstairs to see what could be done about the coping over the bay window that Mrs. Frazer said let water in. This occupied him till lunchtime.
He had brought his own lunch with him in an earthenware pot. Not for him the black tea and hamburgers and chips and eggs and processed peas of the workmen's cafe. In the pot was fruit roughly cut up with bran and yoghurt. Finn ate a piece of dark brown bread and drank the contents of a half-pint can of pineapple juice. Pineapple was not only his favourite fruit but his favourite of all flavours.
After lunch he sat cross-legged on the carpet and began his daily session of meditation. Presently he felt himself levitate until he rose almost up to the ceiling from where he could look through the top of the Frazers' window at the bright green escarpment of Hampstead Heath rising against a cold, sallow, faintly ruffled sky.
Meditation always refreshed him. He could feel a wonderful sensation of energy streaming down his arms and crackling like electricity out of his fingertips. His aura was probably very strong and bright, but he couldn't see auras like Lena and Mrs. Gogarty could, so it was no good looking in the glass. He took his tool box and climbed the last remaining flight of stairs. Unlike the Frazers and Mrs. Ionides, Anne Blake had given no permission for Kaiafas or his agent or servant to enter her flat that day, but Kaiafas made a point of retaining a key. Finn unlocked Anne Blake's front door, went in and closed it after him. The hall walls were papered in a William Morris design of king-cups and water hawthorn on a blue ground, and the carpet was hyacinth-blue Wilton. Anne Blake had been living there since before Kaiafas bought the house, ten or twelve years now, and she wouldn't leave even for a bigger bribe than Kaiafas was giving the Frazers. She had told Kaiafas she wouldn't leave for twenty thousand and he couldn't make her. The law was on her side. He could have the flat, she said, over her dead body.
Finn smiled faintly in the dimness of the hall.
He opened the cupboard between the bathroom door and the door of the living room and took out a pair of lightweight aluminium steps. They were so light that a child could have lifted them above his head on one hand. Finn took them into the bathroom.
The bathroom was small, no more than eight feet by six, and over one end of the bath, in the ceiling, was a trapdoor into the loft. But for this trap-door, Finn would have had to choose some other method. He set up the steps and then he went into the bedroom. Here was the same blue carpet, the walls painted silver-grey. There was no central heating in the house in Modena Road and each tenant had his or her own collection of gas and electric heating appliances. Anne Blake had an electric wall heater in her kitchen, a gas fire in her living room, a portable electric fire in her bedroom, and no heating at all in her bathroom. Finn plugged in the portable electric fire, switched it on, and when he saw the two parallel bar elements begin to glow, switched it off again and unplugged it.
He climbed the aluminium steps and pushed up the trap-door, a torch in his left hand. The loft housed a water tank and a good deal of the sort of discarded equipment that has become unusable but cannot quite be called rubbish. Finn had been up there before, once when a pipe had frozen and once to get out on to the roof itself, and he had a fair idea of what he would find. He was observant and he had a good memory. He trod carefully on the joists, shining his torch, searching among the corded bundles of the National Geographic magazine, the ranks of glass jars, an aged Remington typewriter, rolls of carpet cut-offs, flatiron and trivet, chipped willow pattern dinner plates, until he found what he was looking for. An electric ring.
There was no plug on its lead. It was dirty and the coiled element had some kind of black grease or oil on it. Finn brought it down the steps and set about attaching a 13-amp plug to it. When this was plugged in, however, nothing happened. Never mind. Mending something like that was child's play to him.
The time had come to check up on her. He didn't want her coming home because she was starting a cold or her boss had decided to take the afternoon off. She had been unwise enough to tell him where she worked that time he had been in to mend the pipe, just as she had also told him she always took a bath the minute she got in from work. Finn never forgot information of that sort. He looked up the number in the phone book and dialled it. When he had asked for her and been put through to some extension and asked to hold and at last had heard her voice, he replaced the receiver.
An old, long-disused gas pipe ran up the kitchen from behind the fridge into the loft. This Finn intended to utilize. He cut a section out of it about six inches from the floor. Then he returned to the loft, this time with a 100-watt light bulb on the end of a long lead. He soon found the other end of the gas pipe and proceeded to cut off its sealed end. While he worked he reflected on the cowardice of human beings, their fears, their reserve.
Finn had a sense of humour of a kind, though it was far from that perception of irony and incongruities which usually goes by the name, and he had been amused that Kaiafas, in all their dealings, had never directly told him what he wanted doing. It was left to Finn to understand.
"Feen," Kaiafas had said, "I am at my wits' end. I say to her, 'Madam, I give you five thousand pounds, five thousand, madam, to quit my house.' 'Please,' I say, 'I say please on my knees.' What does she say? That it is a pity I ever come away from Cyprus."
"Well," said Finn. "Well, well." It was a frequent rejoinder with him.
A look of ineffable slyness and greed came into Kaiafas' face. Finn had already guessed what he was after. He had done jobs for Kaiafas and others before, the kind of thing a professional hit man does in the course of his work, though nothing of this magnitude.
"So I think to myself," said Kaiafas, "I make no more offer to you, madam, I give you no five thousand pounds. I give it to my friend Feen instead."
That had been all. Finn wasn't, in any case, the sort of person to invite confidences. He had merely nodded and said, "Well, well," and Kaiafas had fetched him another pineapple juice, handing over the key to the top flat. And now the first instalment of his fee had come . . .
He had inserted a length of electric flex into the pipe from the loft end, its frayed tips protruding ever so little from the cut-out section behind the fridge but apparent only to a very acute observer. The other end of the flex reached as far as the trap-door and with a further two yards to spare. Finn was more or less satisfied. Once he might have done the deed without all this paraphernalia of wires and gas pipe and trap-door, without clumsy manual effort. He looked back wistfully to his early teens, his puberty, now a dozen years past, when his very presence in a house had been enough to begin a wild poltergeist activity. It was with a yearning nostalgia that he remembered it, as another man might recall a juvenile love-bricks flying through windows, pictures falling from the walls, a great stone out of the garden which no one could lift suddenly appearing in the middle of Queenie's living-room carpet. The power had gone with the loss of his innocence, or perhaps with the hashish which a boy at school had got him on to. Finn never smoked now, not even tobacco, and he drank no alcohol. It wasn't worth it if you meant to become an adept, a man of power, a master.
He checked that in the electric point behind the fridge there was a spare socket. A certain amount of the black fluffy dirt which always seems to coat the inside of lofts had fallen into the bath. Finn cleaned it with the rags he carried with him until its rose-pink surface looked just as it had done when he arrived. He replaced the aluminium steps in the cupboard and put the electric ring into a plastic carrier bag. It had been a long day's work for every minute of which Kaiafas was paying him handsomely.
The Frazers would return at any moment. That was of no importance provided Finn was out of Anne Blake's flat. He closed her front door behind him. By now it was dark but Finn put no lights on. One of the skills in which he was training himself was that of seeing more adequately in the dark.
The air was strangely clear for so mild an evening, the yellow and white lights sparkling, dimming a pale and lustreless moon. As Finn started the van he saw Mrs. Ionides, dark, squat, dressed as always in black, cross the street and open the gate of the house he had just left. He drove down Dartmouth Park Hill, taking his place patiently in the traffic queueing at the lights by the tube.
The house where Finn lived was a merchant's mansion that had fallen on evil days almost from the first, and the first was a long time ago now. He climbed up through the house, up a wider staircase than the one in Modena Road. Music came from behind doors, and voices and cooking smells and the smell of cannabis smoked in a little whiteclay pipe. He passed the door of his own room and went on up. At the top he knocked once at the first door and passed without waiting into the room.
It was a room, not a flat, though a large one, and it had been partitioned off into small sections-living room, bedroom, kitchen. Finn had put up two of the partitions himself. You entered by way of the kitchen, which was a miracle of shelving and the stowing of things on top of other things and of squeezing a quart into a pint pot. In the living room, nine feet by eight, where a thousand little knickknacks of great worth and beauty to their owner were displayed upon surfaces and walls, where a gas fire burned, where a small green bird sat silent in a cage, was Lena consulting the pendulum.
"Well," said Finn, going up to her and taking her free hand. They never kissed. She smiled at him, a sweet vague smile as if she couldn't quite see him or was seeing something beyond him. He sat down beside her.
Finn could do nothing with the pendulum, but Lena had great ability with it just as she had with the divining rod. This was very likely one of the consequences of what those people at the hospital called her schizophrenia. The pendulum was a glass bead suspended on a piece of cotton, and when Lena put it above her right hand it revolved clockwise and when she put it above her left hand it revolved widdershins. She had long since asked it to give her signs for yes and no, and she had noted these particular oscillations. The pendulum had just answered yes to some question which hadn't been revealed to Finn, and Lena sighed.
She was old to be his mother, a thin, transparent creature like a dead leaf or a shell that has been worn away by the action of the sea. Finn thought sometimes that he could see the light through her. Her eyes were like his but milder, and her hair which had been as fair as his had reverted to its original whiteness. She dressed herself from the many second-hand clothes shops in which the district abounded and derived as intense a pleasure from buying in them as a Hampstead woman might in South Molton Street. Mostly she was happy, though there were moments of terror. She believed herself to be a reincarnation of Madame Blavatsky, which the hospital had seized upon as a case-book delusion. Finn thought it was probably true.
"Did you buy anything today?" he said.
She hesitated. Her dawning smile was mischievous. It was as if she had a secret she could no longer keep to herself and she exclaimed with shining eyes, "It's your birthday!"
"Did you think I'd forgotten? I couldn't." She was suddenly shy and she clasped her hands over the pendulum, looking down at them. "There's something for you in that bag."
"Well, well," said Finn.
In the bag was a leather coat, black, long, double-breasted, shabby, scuffed, and lined with rotting silk. Finn put it on.
"Well," he said. "Well!" It was like a storm trooper's coat. He fastened the belt. "Must be the best thing you ever got," he said.
She was ecstatic with pleasure. "I'll mend the lining for you!"
"You've had a busy day," he said. The coat was too big for the room. With every movement he made he was in danger of knocking over little glass vases, Toby jugs, china dogs, pebbles, shells, and bunches of dried flowers in chutney jars. He took the coat off carefully, with reverence almost, to please Lena. The green bird began to sing, shrill and sweet, pretending it was a canary. "What did you do this afternoon?"
"Mrs. Urban came."
"She came in her new car, a green one. The kind of green that has silver all mixed up in it."
Finn nodded. He knew what she meant.
"She brought me those chocolates and she stayed for tea. She made the tea. Last time she came was before you put up the wall and made my bedroom."
"Did she like it?"
"Oh, yes!" Her eyes were full of love, shining with it. "She loved it. She said it was so compact."
"Well, well," said Finn, and then he said, "Ask the pendulum something for me. Ask it if I'm going to have a good year."
Lena held up the string. She addressed the pendulum in a whisper, like someone talking to a child in a dark room. The glass bead began to swing, then to revolve clockwise at high speed.
"Look!" Lena cried. "Look at that! Look what a wonderful year you'll have. Your twenty-seventh, three times three times three. The pendulum never lies."
On the broad gravelled frontage of the Urbans' house were drawn up the Urbans' three cars, the black Rover, the metallic-green Vauxhall, and the white Triumph. In the drawing room sat the Urbans drinking sherry, oloroso for Margaret, amontillado for Walter, and Tio Pepe for Martin. There was something of the Three Bears about them, though Baby Bear, in the shape of twenty-eight-year-old Martin was no longer a resident of Copley Avenue, Alexandra Park, and Goldilocks had yet to appear.
Invariably on Thursday evenings Martin was there for dinner. He went home with his father from the office just round the corner. They had the sherry, two glasses each, for they were creatures of habit, and had dinner and watched television while Mrs. Urban did her patchwork. Since she had taken it up the year before as menopausal therapy she seemed to be perpetually accompanied by clusters of small floral hexagons. Patchwork was beginning to take over the house in Copley Avenue, chiefly in the form of cushion covers and bedspreads. She stitched away calmly or with suppressed energy, and her son found himself watching her while his father discoursed with animation on a favourite subject of his, Capital Transfer Tax.
Martin had a piece of news to impart. Though in possession of it for some days, he had postponed telling it and his feelings about it were now mixed. Natural elation was mingled with unease and caution. He even felt very slightly sick as one does before an examination or an important interview.
Margaret Urban held out her glass for a refill. She was a big, statuesque, heavy-browed woman who resembled Leighton's painting of Clytemnestra. When she had sipped her sherry, she snipped off a piece of thread and held up for the inspection of her husband and son a long strip of joined-together red and purple hexagons. This had the effect of temporarily silencing Walter Urban, and Martin, murmuring that that was a new colour combination, he hadn't seen anything like that before, prepared his opening words. He rehearsed them under his breath as his mother, with the artist's sigh of dissatisfaction, rolled up the patchwork, jumped rather heavily to her feet and made for the door, bent on attending to her casserole.
"Mother," said Martin, "wait here a minute. I've got something to tell you both."
Now that the time had come, he brought it out baldly, perhaps clumsily. They looked at him in silence, a calm, slightly stunned silence into which gratification gradually crept. Mrs. Urban took her hand from the door and came slowly back, her eyebrows rising and disappearing into her thick, blue-rinsed fringe.
Martin laughed awkwardly. "I can't quite believe it myself yet."
"I thought you were going to tell us you were getting married," said his mother.
"Married? Me? Whatever made you think that?"
"Oh, I don't know, it's the sort of thing one does think of. We didn't even know you did the football pools, did we, Walter? Exactly how much did you say you'd won?"
"A hundred and four thousand, seven hundred and fifty-four pounds, forty-six pence."
"A hundred and four thousand pounds! I mean, you can't have been doing the pools very long. You weren't doing them when you lived here."
"I've been doing them for five weeks," said Martin.
"And you've won a hundred and four thousand pounds! Well, a hundred and five really. Don't you think that's absolutely amazing, Walter?"
A slow smile was spreading itself across Walter Urban's handsome, though somewhat labrador-like, face. He loved it, the consideration of how to make it multiply, how (with subtle and refined legality) to keep it from the coffers of the Inland Revenue, and he loved the pure beauty of it as an abstraction on paper rather than as notes in a wallet. The smile grew to beaming proportions.
"I think this calls for some sort of congratulation, Martin. Yes, many congratulations. What a dark horse you are! Even these days a hundred thousand is a large sum of money, a very respectable sum of money. We've still got that bottle of Piper-Heidsieck from our anniversary, Margaret. Shall we open it? Wins of this kind are free of tax, of course, but we shall have to think carefully about investing it so that you don't pay all your interest away to the Inland Revenue. Still, if a couple of accountants can't work it out, who can?"
"Go and get the champagne, Walter."
"Whatever you do, don't think of paying off the mortgage on your flat. Remember that tax relief on the interest on your mortgage repayments is a concession of H. M. Government, of which a single man in your position would be mad not to take advantage."
"He won't keep that flat on, he'll buy himself a house."
"He could become an underwriting member of Lloyd's."
"There's no reason why he shouldn't buy a country cottage and keep the flat."
"He could buy a house and have the maximum twenty-five thousand mortgage . . .
"Do go and get the champagne, Walter. What are you going to do with it, dear? Have you made any plans?"
Martin had. They weren't the kind of plans he considered it would be politic to divulge at the moment, so he said nothing about them. The champagne was brought in. Eventually they sat down to the casserole, the inevitably overdone potatoes, and a Black Forest cake. Martin offered his parents ten thousand pounds which they graciously but immediately refused.
"We wouldn't dream of taking your money," said his father. "Believe me, if you're lucky enough these days to get your hands on a tax-free capital sum, you hang on to it like grim death."
"You don't fancy a world cruise or anything?"
"Oh, no, thank you, dear, there really isn't anything we want. I suppose you'd really rather we didn't tell anyone about it, wouldn't you?"
"I wasn't thinking of telling anyone but you." Martin observed his mother's look of immense gratification, and this as much as anything prevented him from adding that there was one other person he felt obliged to tell. Instead he said, "I'd rather keep it a secret."
"Of course you would," said Walter. "Mum's the word. You don't want begging letters. The great thing will be to live as if nothing whatsoever out of the way had happened."
Martin made no reply to this. His parents continued to treat him as if he had earned the hundred and four thousand pounds by the expending of tremendous effort or by natural genius instead of the merest chance. He wished they had felt able to accept a present of some of it. It would somewhat have eased his conscience and helped him over the guilt he always felt on Thursday nights when he had to say good-bye to his mother and go home. She was still after nine months inclined to ask, plaintively if by now rhetorically, why he had seen fit to move out of Copley Avenue and go far away to a flat on Highgate Hill.
Into this flat, 7 Cromwell Court, Cholmeley Lane, he now let himself with the feeling of deep satisfaction and contentment he always had when he entered it. There was a pleasant smell, a mixture, light and clean, of new textiles, furniture polish, and herbal bath essence. He kept all the interior doors open-the rooms were impeccably neat-so that when you walked through the front door the impression was rather as of entering the centrefold of a colour supplement of House and Garden. Or so he secretly hoped, for he kept such thoughts about his flat to himself, and when showing it to a newcomer merely led him through the living room to exhibit from the picture window the view of London lying in a great well below. If the visitor chose to comment on the caramel Wilton, the coffee table of glass set in a brass-and-steel frame, the Swedish crystal, or the framed prints of paintings from the Yugoslav na?ve school, he would look modestly pleased, but that was all. He felt too deeply about his home to enthuse publicly, and along with his gratitude to goodness knows whom, a certain fear about tempting Providence. There were times when he dreamed of its all being snatched away from him and of his being permanently back in Copley Avenue.
He switched on the two table lamps which had white shades and bases made from blue-and-white ginger jars. The armchairs were of rattan with padded seats, and the sofa-or French bed as the furniture-shop man had called it-was really only a divan with two bolsters at the back and two at the sides. Now he had won that large sum of money he would be able to replace these with a proper suite, perhaps one in golden-brown hide.
From the coffee table, between the ashtray with the Greek key design round its rim and the crystal egg with the goat for Capricorn-his birth sign-etched on it he picked up and studied the list he had made on the previous evening. On it were four names: Suma Bhavnani, Miss Watson, Mr. Deepdene, Mr. Cochrane's sister-in-law. Martin inserted a question mark after this last. He wasn't sure of her eligibility for his purpose, and besides he must find out what her name was. Some doubt also attached to Mr. Deepdene. But about Suma Bhavnani he was quite sure. He would call on the Bhavnanis tomorrow, he would call on them after he had seen Tim Sage.
From the Trade Paperback edition.Copyright © 2001 by Ruth Rendell
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