“Do you know why I’ve brought you here this evening?”
I prided myself on knowing every private members’ club and decent restaurant in London, but this place was new to me, situated on a road I had walked down a thousand times, and yet somehow never noticed.
I had a fleeting, absurd thought that maybe the club was only discoverable to members. I encountered a pub like that in Soho once, The Sinking Ship; stumbled across it on a day when I was desperate and woeful. I searched for it afterwards, but never found it again; my theory was that only those truly down on their luck would be able to. Soph thought it was hilarious that I could believe such nonsense. But then, I never did confess to her how very dire a situation I’d gotten myself into.
We’d entered the club through a discreet black door and descended a dark staircase. The interior was all black and gold, candle-lit.
Marina had been greeted with a smile of recognition by the elegant hostess. Clearly this was one of Marina’s secret places, for business she wanted to conduct without me present. We’d been led to a private booth, lined in plush red velvet. We were brought glasses of champagne by a waiter so sleekly discrete that it was difficult to focus on his face.
“It’s our eight year anniversary!” she exclaimed. “Eight years! So I felt you deserved a little treat. You have, after all, mostly been an exemplary employee: Dedicated and loyal to the last. And you know how important loyalty is to me. So, cheers!”
“Cheers,” I agreed, clinking glasses and taking a quick glug of champagne.
Did she know, I wondered, about my meetings (I would hesitate to call them ‘dates’) with Alistair? Was this a ruse to draw it out of me?
“I’m afraid I didn’t get you anything,” I deadpanned.
“I didn’t expect you to, Kit darling. This is my chance to thank you for all your hard work and to show you how much you are appreciated. We have come a long way, these eight years, and I feel strongly that our moment is coming at last; we’re on the cusp of greatness.”
Things I have learnt over the time in Marina’s employ: the best place to take someone to get them drunk; how to get in anywhere; how to buy things that aren’t for sale; how to negotiate a deal that both sides feel is to their advantage; how to lie convincingly; how to identify who the most potentially useful people at the party are.
A dainty cup of Vichyssoise had materialised in front of us, presumably placed stealthily by the impressively unobtrusive waiter. It seemed that Marina had ordered us the tasting menu; while she reminisced sweetly on the previous eight years, an apparently endless succession of plates of delicious food and glasses of complementing wines were whisked in front of us.
“Of course, it wouldn’t be an anniversary without gifts,” Marina smiled, putting a small box on the table. “Open it.”
Inside was a small but surprisingly heavy ankh on a chain. It glistened in the candlelight.
“It’s bronze, the traditional gift for an eight-year anniversary, but the chain is gold. It symbolises life. It will keep you safe.”
“Thank you,” I said, smiling. “It’s beautiful.”
I wasn’t sure that I liked it at all.
“Put it on,” Marina urged, watching keenly as I did so.
It felt chilly against my skin.
“Now, for your next gift,” Marina’s eyes flashed with gleeful anticipation, “I’m giving you the opportunity to ask three questions. Anything you want. And I promise to answer honestly. Have a little think.”
I could feel all too strongly that this was one of Marina’s tests. It was dangerous to be found wanting in such situations.
I decided I might as well go for it.
“Did you ever find out who murdered Briar?”
Marina smiled widely, showing her sharp white teeth.
“Darling! Fancy that having played on your mind all this time! You hardly knew the man.”
True. But I’d often thought about the family photos in his room; the people captured in time who would have been wondering about what had happened to him ever since.
“Well, it was Mason, of course. Briar may have believed it was a partnership, but to Mason he was always competition. Mason was simply keeping his enemies close, until the moment of opportunity arose.”
Thanks to me getting him spectacularly drunk on Marina’s bar tab… Mason, bloody mythical Mason, Marina’s ever-lasting obsession.
The silent waiter appeared with pudding – dark chocolate mousse with raspberries and some sort of red coulis, accompanied by small glasses of very sweet wine. Marina waited until he had disappeared, smiling benignly as she tasted the mousse.
“What did you see in me that first time we met?”
Marina looked at me thoughtfully, considering how honest to be.
“I saw a very handsome young man with nothing to lose and a thirst for excitement. I saw someone with raw talent who I could train. I saw someone I could trust, manipulate and have fun with. I saw someone as self-centred and self-interested as me.”
“If you thought I was self-centred, why did you think you could trust me?”
“Kit, darling. You can’t trust anyone who doesn’t put themselves first. What sort of a lunatic would they be? People who hide their motives are by far the most dangerous.”
Marina was drunker than she realised from the many glasses of wine that had partnered the courses. She was so assured of her seductive prowess that she had forgotten that she herself was the queen of hidden motives, and therefore, by her own logic, thoroughly dangerous.
“Third question?” she cooed demurely.
I took a sip of the dessert wine to give myself thinking time.
“Why is making a deal with Mason so important to you?”
Marina smiled widely. I couldn’t tell if she was pleased or exasperated to be asked.
“He’s the most powerful man in London – not that most people have any idea who he is. Well, fuck the patriarchy – I want some of that power. I deserve it; I’d do it justice. Cutting a deal is the only way to achieve that. We need to agree our areas of influence so we can avoid stepping on each others’ toes in the future. I don’t want to end up like Briar.”
Marina pressed down on a raspberry with one taloned finger; it squished graphically on the white plate, a smear of red pulp.
“Why do you want the power, if getting it is so risky?”
“Darling, I said three questions,” Marina reprimanded, licking her finger clean.
“Sorry,” I said mildly, averted my eyes; focussed on eating the pudding; waited.
“You really have no idea,” Marina said eventually.
I looked up. She smiled almost affectionately.
“Dear, sweet Kit. Your upbringing was so safe, wasn’t it? You got yourself into a mess from sheer boredom – determined to have a good time and fuck the consequences. There was always a safety net, if you could bring yourself to use it. You have no idea what it’s like to feel truly vulnerable, to have nothing. Well, I do. And I am never, ever going to feel like that again.”
Her eyes were shining, fixed far away, her face mask-like, frozen, as she contemplated the past that she never usually talked of. Whatever she could see there was dark and cold.
There was nothing I could think of to say, so I risked taking her hand. She squeezed back gently. I felt almost that I was anchoring her in the present, just clear of the event horizon, fighting against the insistent pull of the past.
Sobering dark coffee arrived at the table. We broke hold so that Marina could take a sip. She seemed to come back to herself.
“I’m proud of you. You’ve come a long way. Older and wiser.”
“You mean, I’m losing my looks,” I grinned.
“Not at all!” Marina laughed. “You’re still very handsome, but in a more sophisticated way, of course. You couldn’t stay so puppyishly pretty forever; but you’ll always be beautiful. And charming.”
Marina looked uncannily like she had that first time I met her, eight years before, in The Sinking Ship.
I could try to tell myself that it was the flattering glow of the flickering candlelight; but really, I knew the truth.
She hadn’t changed at all.