A Bed of Scorpions: New Excerpt

A Bed of Scorpions by Judith Flanders follows book editor Samantha Clair as she gets drawn into another investigation involving the murder of her ex-boyfriend's business partner, while her new boyfriend, Inspector Jake Field, has been assigned the case (Available March 1, 2016).

Summer in London-the sun is finally shining, the flowers are in bloom, and life is humming merrily along for book editor Samantha Clair, off to lunch with her old friend, art-dealer Aidan Merriam. Humming merrily until she learns that his partner has just been found dead in their gallery, slumped over his desk with a gun in his hand. Could anything be worse? Oh yes, the police investigation is being led by Inspector Jake Field, who just happens to be Sam's new boyfriend. And Aidan, who just happens to be Sam's ex-boyfriend, wants Sam's help. Finding herself drawn into another investigation, Sam does the only sensible thing and calls her mother. Before long, Sam finds her loyalties stretched to the limit as she herself is threatened.

Armed with nothing more than her trusty weapons of satire, cynicism and a stock of irrelevant information culled from novels, Sam races to find a killer who is determined to find her first.

1

The summer was rumbling on the way summer usually does in publishing, and I was ready to murder someone. Murder someone cheerfully. With a song in my heart. Because we had survived the London Book Fair, when thousands of publishing people from across the world poured into London, to be entertained and amused as well as met more formally for work, each one scheduled in at half-hour intervals throughout the day, even as, because it’s our home city, we were also expected to get through our normal work. The Frankfurt Book Fair, in October, was always easier, because then we would become the thousands who poured in from across the world, to be entertained and amused as well as met more formally for work, each one scheduled in at half-hour intervals throughout the day. But then a bounce-back e-mail, “I’m out of my office at the Frankfurt Book Fair.… If it’s urgent, please e-mail my assistant on…” and you’re off, no office responsibilities for a week. But Frankfurt wasn’t for another four months, which in publishing time is both an eternity, and tomorrow.

For the marketing and sales departments, October was tomorrow, and they were in full cry, hounding all of us in editorial for catalog copy, sales pitches, and advance information sheets, so they could produce the material we would need in four months. The art department also knew that October was tomorrow, and were also hounding us, this time for cover copy, design briefs, and the same damn advance information sheets we hadn’t written for marketing, so they could produce the book jackets, which we’d also need in four months. Because book fairs are not about books as words. They are about selling, and if you work in publishing, the sooner you settle down and acknowledge that fact, the happier you will be. You may have bought the greatest novel since War and Peace, but if you can’t sell rights—German translation rights, French translation rights, Japanese, and, if you’re lucky, Norwegian, Turkish, and Polish translation rights, too—then the odds are your company is not going to see a return on its money. And if your company doesn’t see a return on its money, you can’t buy the author’s next book. And if you don’t have enough authors who write books that make money, you can’t buy books from other authors, whose books probably won’t make any money right away, but might one day, when they’ll pay for … you get the drift.

But that’s not the way to present it to an author who is struggling to produce this book. They know the rights need to be sold—they know, because they need the money. So hounding them for something you can turn into sales material for the people who are in turn hounding you, feels like prodding a sick cow into being milked. The cow is having enough trouble providing milk for her calf, and here I am, Farmer Sam, coaxing, “Just a little bit for me. It won’t take you any time.”

Which even as I say it, I know is a lie. Of course it will take them time. Time they would otherwise spend on writing their book. But if they don’t take time off from writing their book to produce sales material, I can’t sell that book. And then they can’t afford to write it. Most authors earn less than the minimum wage for their writing. The only time they make enough to live on from writing is when they’re so famous everyone wants to interview them, or profile them, or have them on TV. And then they have enough money, but not enough time. If you feed the ravenous beast that is the publishing schedule, you penalise your authors. If you don’t feed the beast, you penalise your authors. Don’t try and work it out, because trust me, it doesn’t make sense.

And so, come summer, when Frankfurt still feels far enough away that we don’t have to harass our poor authors, slaving away in their salt mines (yes, I know I said they were cows a minute ago, but bear with me, I’m an editor, not a writer)—come summer, all the editors collectively stick their fingers in their ears as the sales and art departments rampage and sing, “La-la-la-la-la, I can’t heeeear you.” That doesn’t make sense either, but it makes us feel better.

Those of us who are around. Publishing is not very well paid, and it is therefore filled with women, mostly young women, who also therefore have small children. And so an awful lot of people vanish entirely during the school holidays. For some of that time they are officially absent, on holiday. For a lot more, they are “working at home.”

In theory I have no complaints about “working at home.” I do it too. There are no meetings at home. The coffee is better there, and no one steals the last of the milk. No one wanders in, saying, “I know you’re really busy…” (at this point they give a winsome smile) “… but could you just take a quick look at this? It’ll only take five minutes.” It does take only five minutes. Then we have to discuss their new haircut, what idiocy the finance department has perpetrated by changing the format of the profit-and-loss forms, and did you hear (look over shoulder) about Meg and Dan. They were, you know, even though Dan’s wife was right there. Then that only-five-minutes leaves, and another appears, and Meg and Dan get done over again.

Instead, working at home means you get some work done. But when everyone is working at home—and everyone also knows perfectly well that the home workers are taking their kids to the park, or are sitting in a café, or even just googling to find out how to get plasticine out of the carpet, and we can’t do the same, because otherwise the office would appear so deserted it would be targeted by squatters—then it leads to a fair amount of passive-aggressive tutting and sighing from those left behind. And maybe a bit of eye-rolling. No more than that. We’re British, so we’re not going to say what we really think, now are we? Well, I’m a mongrel, only half a Brit, so I say it in my head. But outwardly I conform happily to the native passive aggression. Works for me.

I’d had my third conversation of the day about Meg and Dan. (And, really, apart from the tackiness of where, I wasn’t very interested. I wasn’t even entirely sure who Dan was. I knew he was in sales, but was he the one with the funny haircut, or was he the slightly geeky-looking one who piled up biscuits in front of his seat at meetings and then ate them in what seemed to be some carefully determined order?) Anyway, I’d had enough. I was meeting a friend for lunch, and I decided to set off early and walk, since finally, after a long, rainy month, it was one of those bright London days when you think, Yes, it is worth living in this God-awful climate.

I waved at Bernie at Reception and happily banged the heavy Georgian door of the building behind me as I stepped out into the sunshine. I raised my face, eyes closed, feeling the mild summer heat like a physical touch. As I walked along I saw everyone emerging from their offices do the same—step out, take a deep breath with eyes closed and face raised. It wasn’t particularly warm, but the sun made everything feel like it was haloed.

I’d left myself enough time, so I cut through the backstreets. The more direct route would have taken me along Oxford Street, but as I didn’t need a plastic bobby’s helmet, a “My Parents Went to London and All I Got Was This Crappy T-shirt” T-shirt, or even a postcard with a pair of naked breasts painted red, white, and blue and captioned “I Love London,” the extra ten minutes seemed more than reasonable. My office is three minutes’ walk from the British Museum, and the same distance from Oxford Street, so the main streets are hot-and-cold-running tourists pretty well all the time, all streaming past the area’s many offices without realizing that this isn’t just a visitors’ playground. London’s zoning laws don’t help, as the 1950s concrete buildings and the eighteenth-century brick houses alike all have 1970s fast-food-plastic frontages at ground level. But off the main streets, only a few hundred yards away, a much older London survives. Sometimes that older city is signposted, by blue enamel plaques that indicate where a famous person lived, but more often, noticing the odd old house, or a freak bit of ornament, feels like a private pleasure, a way of marking the city out as belonging to its residents, not the tourists.

I mooched happily along the back way, down streets my feet knew automatically, even though I’d never learned their names, toward the restaurant where I was meeting Aidan Merriam. He and I had known each other since I first moved to London, and had always been close—at one time, very close. But that was a long time ago. Now we had a friendship where we loved each other dearly, and saw each other rarely. Aidan had been married to Anna for—I stopped and thought about it. Since their children were now teenagers, they must have been married for more than fifteen years. Although they no longer had the baby thing to keep them tied to home Aidan, as the part owner of an art gallery, was almost permanently on the move around the world, zooming from art fair to auction to biennale to exhibition. I knew this because whenever I invited them to dinner Anna would list the two or three days a month when he might be in London. Anna was high-powered in her own field, a professor at UCL, with a speciality in Renaissance bronzes, which, happily, she never expected anyone to know anything about. And while she also traveled for work, not only lecturing but curating exhibitions, her job allowed her to have a home life. While she and I liked each other, we weren’t friends the way Aidan and I were, and so once every two years or thereabouts he and I had a catch-up lunch on our own. Nothing sinister: Anna was entirely aware of our past, and all three of us knew it was past. None of us wanted differently.

This lunch had been in my diary for months, and Aidan had rung up only three times to change the date, which meant he was fairly unharried by his standards. It’s true that he’d texted first thing yesterday to say he couldn’t make it and would ring later, and then, an hour later, he’d texted again, to say he’d see me as planned. That was a little out of the ordinary, but I figured he’d tell me about whatever crisis it was when we met. We never had to say where. We always went to the same cheap ’n’ cheerful Lebanese place, halfway between my office and his gallery on Cork Street, a small café that was all scarred woodwork and uncomfortable pine furniture. The staff were abrupt to the point of rudeness the first dozen times you ate there, until suddenly, magically, one day you had become family. Our pattern was to meet early enough to get the window table, then we’d order too many starters, fight over the last pepper, and catch up. The routine was part of the charm.

From across the road, I could see through the window that Aidan was there already. As I waited for the traffic to thin, I watched him. Seeing him behind a window made him look—I paused and thought about it—it made him look as if I didn’t know him. People you know well somehow never change. I’d met Aidan when I was twenty and he was twenty-seven, so in my head that’s the way he’d remained. But the through-the-window Aidan was, I suddenly recognized, much older. He still had all his hair—too much, in fact, since he never remembered to get it cut. But it had once been almost black, and it was now more than half gray. And the lines running from his nose to his mouth weren’t just strong, which they’d always been. Now they were deep grooves almost carved into his face.

The lines were particularly marked as he sat frowning down at his phone. The phone, at any rate, was familiar. It was how I usually saw him in my mind, although it was rare that he was waiting for me. I’m always early and, as I opened the café door, I checked my watch. I was today, too. Aidan never was. He was rarely late, but had that sort of businessman’s timekeeping, one appointment dovetailing into the next, with Aidan neatly arriving at each one with no time to spare before, another meeting ticked off the list, he moved on to the next.

So when I’d kissed him hello and slid onto the banquette opposite, I didn’t waste time with the how-are-you-fine-thanks-how-are-you formula. Just “What’s up?”

He stared at me blankly for a moment, as if he wasn’t quite sure who I was, or why I was talking to him. Then he put his elbows on the table and covered his face with his hands.

This was serious. Aidan was one of the most collected people I knew. Not reserved, exactly, but someone always on one level. Problems were, well, problems to him, things to be solved, and then, once solved, they were considered resolved and he shelved them. Since my method of dealing with problems is to run around screaming and carrying on like a headless chicken for a while before I knuckle down to deal with whatever it is, followed by chewing the same problem over afterward for months, sometimes years, agitating over how I might have done things differently, I’d always found his attitude very soothing. Except in that period when I was the problem. Then it was downright annoying.

I touched his arm gently now, joggling it to get him to let me see his face. “Aidan?”

He looked up, but he didn’t see me. He was looking at something else, in some place I wasn’t part of. Then he returned to me. “Frank is dead,” he said.

“Jesus.” Frank was Frank Compton, the other partner in their gallery, Merriam-Compton. He was Aidan’s age, maybe a few years older, perhaps fifty. “What? When? Did you know he was ill?” I couldn’t believe he or Anna hadn’t told me earlier.

He smiled without a trace of humor. “You don’t have to be ill to kill yourself.”

“What? When?” I repeated, and then, more urgently, “Why? Why would he do that?”

Aidan shook his head, and then just kept on shaking it, as if he’d forgotten to stop. I slid around to his side of the table and sat close, holding his hand. Human warmth won’t drive away death, but it doesn’t hurt.

“Tell me,” I said quietly. I didn’t want to press him, but he wanted to talk. He must, or he would have canceled our lunch.

“I got back from Hong Kong yesterday morning early, on the red-eye, and went straight to the gallery,” he said in a wondering tone, as if he was reading from a cue card and was surprised by what it was saying, as if it were news to him. “The alarm wasn’t on when I got there, which meant that either Frank or Myra”—their associate, I wasn’t sure what she did—“was already in. It was only seven, but that’s not unusual, and I just went back to find them, to report on the trip. And then—” he broke off, covering his face with his hands again.

This was much worse than I’d expected. Even though he’d said Frank had killed himself, it hadn’t crossed my mind that Aidan had found him. I’d assumed that it would be somehow tucked neatly out of sight. Apparently not. I waited. As much or as little as he needed to tell me was fine.

Aidan took a deep breath. “I went into his office, and…” He paused, then continued in a rush. “He was there. At his desk. He’d shot himself.”

I flinched. I’d only ever been in the office part of the gallery once, or maybe twice. Downstairs the exhibition rooms were the kind of modernist dream that a movie director would have rejected as being too clichéd: white floors, white walls, and nothing else except big, light-filled windows. Upstairs was different, a rabbit warren of small offices and cubicles, booby-trapped with random outcroppings of old desks that appeared to have been abandoned, and filing cabinets stuffed in anywhere. I imagined Frank, his reddish-blond hair shining out in that dark labyrinth.

Aidan’s voice was hoarse. “There was blood. Across the wall, a huge spray of it.” He was still staring at where I’d been sitting, as if he hadn’t noticed I’d moved.

A black gun appeared in my picture, on the scuffed floorboards, the body in one of Frank’s smooth, dark Italian suits thrown back by the violence Aidan was describing, the blood-red spray like an abstract painting on the wall behind him.

I tried to wipe it away by concentrating on practicalities. “Was he ill?” I asked. “Or depressed? Did you know?”

Something shifted in Aidan. “I hope the bastard was depressed.” He wasn’t looking at me, but he must have felt me flinch, because his tone became argumentative, as if I’d protested out loud. “He knew I would find him, me or Myra. Why would he do that to us? I’ve worked with him, we’ve been friends, for twenty years. Myra’s sixty and got a weak heart.” He became pugnacious. “What kind of bastard leaves someone to find that?”

I had no answer. Instead, “Did he leave a note? Do you know why?” Why—why kill yourself, and why kill yourself that way, and why there—seemed suddenly very important.

Aidan clenched his hands into fists. He clearly wanted to hit out. At Frank, though, not at me for asking. He barely knew I was there. “He left a note, if you can call it that. His computer was open and he’d typed ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s it. ‘I’m sorry.’”

I answered the pain, not the anger. “Oh Aidan, that’s terrible.” I put my arm around him and we sat there without speaking.

The lovely eastern European waitress who had worked at the café for as long as we’d been customers hovered by the table. She looked questioningly at the closed menus and then at the two of us, Aidan with his hands over his eyes again, me just staring blankly ahead. I leaped at the return of normality, grasping onto ordering lunch as something useful I could do.

I named a bunch of things at random. It didn’t matter what, we weren’t going to be able to eat anyway. I turned to Aidan. “Do you want a drink?”

* * *

 

Copyright © 2016 Judith Flanders.

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Judith Flanders is the New York Times bestselling author of The Invention of Murder and one of the foremost social historians of the Victorian era. Her book The Victorian City was a finalist for the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She lives in London.

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