Rain is lashing down as she emerges from the Tube station, gusts of wind angling the deluge almost to the horizontal. A tenaciously brutal winter had relinquished its grip only with grudging reluctance, giving way to some unseasonably hot and sunny late spring days, but this meant that it caught everyone off-guard when the heavens opened this morning.
Ivy had overheard a woman in the carriage talking about the recent warm spell’s contrast to the Beast from the East, saying she had almost forgotten what it was like to feel the sun on her shoulders. Ivy realises this is true of her too, but that doesn’t mean she has missed it. Living in London, she seldom spends much time out of doors. Her office and her apartment are climate controlled to within a decimal point of perfection. What does she need sunshine for?
Sunshine is a disinfectant, people say, as though bringing simply anything into the light is an unambiguously wise and healthy thing to do. As far as Ivy is concerned, the only value of sunshine is that it casts shadows, and that is where she operates.
The problem with sunshine is that it makes people believe everything is going to be all right, and in her area of PR, that isn’t good for the bottom line. It isn’t good for clients’ welfare either, to be honest. Clients need to be able to envisage an approaching worst-case scenario, so that they can take appropriate steps to avoid it, and the most appropriate step, always, is to retain her services.
She reaches Lincoln House on Remnant Street, where the Cairncross Partnership occupies two floors, hurrying through the revolving doors out of the downpour. There is a trail of water on the floor ahead of her, leading to where a woman has stopped to shake off a dripping umbrella, this action complicated by one of its spokes having bent. Ivy estimates her to be in her forties, probably a mother of teens from the look of her; lower-to-middle-tier management, if that. Her body language is cowed as though apologising for her very existence: someone who has reached that point in life at which she realises all the things she once thought she might achieve or experience are never going to happen. Probably been kidding herself for the past decade and a half that the kids would make up for it, telling herself that raising them was a worthy achievement in itself before coming to realise – too late – just what a wretched con that was.
Somewhere between the revolving doors and where she now stands, it must have struck the poor cow that the price of a replacement was worth more to her than her dignity in trying to salvage a conspicuously buggered brolly in front of other human beings.
Glancing down, Ivy notices that her own umbrella has a kink in one spoke too, from being caught by a billowing gust only yards from the entrance. It is an Aspinal that she had bought yesterday on the way home, having checked the forecast. In a business entirely about appearances, it doesn’t look good to turn up drenched, not least because it betrays that you didn’t anticipate a coming storm.
The woman glances her way and offers a smile of solidarity as she clocks the damage. Ivy feels a familiar surge of revulsion. No, bitch, she thinks. In her world, there is no such thing as ‘me too’, whether that is a bent brolly or anything else you might delude yourself into thinking you have in common.
Ivy holds her gaze for a moment, unsmiling, before jamming the two-hundred-quid Aspinal into a nearby bin.
She proceeds towards the lifts, pulling out her swipe card and fixing her gaze on the barriers as she passes reception. Her singularity of purpose proves insufficient to prevent an unsolicited greeting from behind the desk.
‘Morning, Ms Roan.’
Ivy responds with the tiniest, most cursory micro-smile: one so fleeting and perfunctory as to convey the extent to which she begrudges the burden of such a courtesy.
She takes the lift to the twelfth floor and strides towards her office on swift feet, rounding a corner in time to see one of the junior account managers notice her approach and warn his colleagues. At that distance she can’t hear what he says but she doesn’t have to be much of a lip reader to discern his two-word heads-up: ‘Poison Ivy.’
In a supposedly creative business, it’s hardly the most imaginative of derogatory nicknames for them to have come up with, but she is nonetheless rather proud that it has stuck. She doesn’t need any of them to like her. Her job is to make you like other people, and their job is to help her do that.
Her phone buzzes in her hand as she strides between rows of desks. The contact ID flashes up, the caller listed simply as L. She knows he is about to get on a plane, and it won’t be anything important. ‘Just phoning to hear your voice,’ something like that. She sighs and declines the call. Again. A few moments later there is a text, telling her his flight is on time. Good to know.
She gives a beckoning nod to Jamie, her assistant. He terminates the call he is on and follows her into her office.
Jamie is as loyal as he is dependable. He doesn’t call her Poison Ivy, even among his junior peers. She knows this because she has eavesdropped on occasion and has only ever heard him refer to her as Ms Roan.
She is not sure whether she respects him more or less for this.
Jamie gives her a breakdown of where they are with various accounts. He tells her nothing she doesn’t already know, but it functions as an opportunity to review matters in the light of any new developments, and to prioritise accordingly. Theoretically, it also allows her to delegate, but that’s not going to happen. That’s when things go wrong.
Her eyes stray towards her mobile as Jamie speaks. There’s been a dozen alerts since, but she is thinking about the text from L stating when his flight is due in. She can picture his face as he urges her to let someone else shoulder some of the burden, or at least the scut work, so that they can spend a few more waking hours together. There’s a part of her that wants that, but that’s the part of her she’s afraid of. She can’t afford any oversights. In this job, control is everything.
L scores points for never actually using the word ‘workaholic’ but she knows she’s one of the few people this cliché could be accurately applied to. It’s an addiction for sure. Ivy knows, because she’s been back and forth on most of the other ones: drinking, drugs, eating, not eating, stealing, and of course, sex. Someone once said of alcohol that the crucial thing is to be getting more from it than it takes from you. Work is the one thing that distinction has proven true of. It is the one addiction that has served her.
Jamie has bought her ‘lunch’ first thing, as per: a bottle of still water and an apple. He puts this meagre offering down on the desk and stares at it a moment, plucking up the courage to state his concern. He makes it sound breezy to disguise the fact that he knows it’s none of his business but he’s wading in nonetheless.
‘I don’t know how you can function on so few calories.’
If it was anyone else in here, she’d add a few more calories by biting their heads off, but she likes Jamie. She knows that’s probably not a good thing – for him, anyway. He deserves better. He is genuine and solicitous, with an eagerness that is not purely career-driven. All of which will get him abused.
‘I burn fuel very efficiently,’ she replies.
This is a paraphrase of something L said to her: his typically elliptical and sensitive way of suggesting she might be unhealthily thin.
‘You wouldn’t like me if I was fat,’ she’d told him, a banality intended to shut the issue down.
‘Who says I like you?’ he had hit back.
But she knows he does. That’s the problem.
To think that she slept with him that first time because she thought he was a safe bet: and by safe bet she doesn’t mean someone she was guaranteed to tempt back to her place within hours of meeting. She means someone she was sure would get lost sharpish after. A safe bet that he detested her as much as she detested him; that it was a mutually understood grudge-fuck.
Her judgement has proved way off on this one, which worries her, but L will soon go the way of all the rest. It’s been almost two months, and that’s roughly how long it takes for them to see who she is. Or rather, the point at which she ditches them before they begin to see who she is.
Jamie is hovering, his hesitation telling her not only what he is about to mention but inadvertently how he feels about it. When he speaks he does an impressive job of sounding neutral, but it’s already too late. Even without the momentary reluctance, she’d have picked up on details in his intonation, and the briefest involuntary pause before he mentions the name of the prospective client.
‘Sir Jock would like a meeting to discuss whether you’ve had any further thoughts on the DKG thing ahead of the client dinner.’
Any further thoughts. Deftly self-insulating as ever on the part of the boss, Sir Jock Davidson. He’s known in the game as Raffles, as in the gentleman thief, in reference to his rapacious billing practices. Like her, he is aware of the nickname and has embraced it, but there are other aspects of his reputation he is more protective of. That’s why he wants her to make his mind up for him, and by that she further understands that he wants her to take the blame if she gets it wrong.
This is a firm where they are necessarily flexible with regard to the ethics of who they represent and what means they deploy in the service of that representation. But even here there is some division over whether they should go down the road DKG wants them to. For some – such as Jamie – it comes down to moral squeamishness; but for the likes of Sir Jock and the other partners, their reservations relate to potential blowback for the shop.
Any further thoughts. Ivy’s had plenty, yes. And one of them is that you’re not much of a PR outfit if you don’t believe that come the worst, you can always launder your own reputation.
‘I’ve still to make a final decision,’ she tells Jamie. He tries to hide it, but she can see a hint of sadness in his expression. He believes she has already made up her mind. He’s probably right.
She wakens to see L standing in the doorway. She was sleeping light despite the alcohol, aware that he was due here sometime in the night. She feels woozy as she sits up, not quite sure whether she’s already hung-over or still drunk. She sharpens at the sight of him, though. It’s game time. She sits up so that he can see she’s naked, and her movement causes the figure alongside her to stir. Peter, she thinks his name is. He works for DKG, and they met at the client dinner earlier in the evening.
She had detected something irresistibly calculating and self-assured about him: coldly analytical, reading his environment for possibilities the second the business part of the meal was concluded. It had given rise to just this flash of a moment, their eyes meeting and recognising the same thing in each other. She had leaned over deliberately, pretending to retrieve something from her bag but making sure her blouse fell open just enough. She caught him looking. It was something she could have used any way she wished: made him uncomfortable, pretended to take offence. Tonight though, she had thought of L and simply decided: it’s time, and you’ll do.
But not before a few more martinis and a couple of lines.
There is a thumping in her head, behind one eye especially. She tells herself it’s a hangover symptom, but it usually means something else: stress.
Peter sees the figure in the doorway and sits bolt upright.
He gets the picture pretty quickly. Fright and panic give way to feeling embarrassed and apologetic. He’s looking from L to her and back again. Give him this much, he knows which one to feel sorry for.
L by contrast looks shell-shocked. He just doesn’t get it, didn’t see it coming at all, and why would he? She gave him the entry code only a week ago, before his trip, and this is the first time he’s used it. It was ostensibly a gesture of opening up, taking the next step. Maybe a tiny part of her even believed that at the time. But a larger part knew that she was giving it to him so he could come in and find something like this. It wasn’t the first time she’d ended one this way.
He still hasn’t said anything. They’ve usually made it to the wounded male pride stage by this point. Sometimes they even cry, which she has enjoyed in some instances. She doesn’t think she could take that tonight, though.
‘You should just go,’ she states.
Peter responds by getting to his feet and reaching for his clothes. She’s actually talking to L, but Peter can get lost too.
She fears that she’s going to be sick. It’s not pleasant, but nonetheless, there’s something reassuring about the familiarity of the sensation, and of the moment: getting rid of a problem. Getting rid of a threat.
Finally, L finds his voice.
‘There’s something wrong with you.’
‘Hardly a scoop. You know, they say that when someone tells you who they really are, you should listen.’
L steps aside momentarily as Peter ambles awkwardly past, clutching his clothes. He’s so spooked he walks right out the front door, presumably intending to get dressed in the lobby.
L waits for the door to close before he speaks again.
‘You wanted me to see this.’
‘Brilliant deduction. I guess all the things I’ve heard about your powers of observation are correct.’
There is an easeful coldness to her delivery. It comes readily enough but on this occasion it feels like an act. It puts her at one remove, saves her from truly feeling anything. This is particularly valuable tonight, because what she is feeling frightens her.
‘Look, this is a mess, but this doesn’t have to be it,’ he says. ‘We can talk. You can talk. I can listen. Believe me, I can listen.’
‘You can fuck off . . .’
She pauses at the end, aware the sentence is incomplete. She stopped herself saying his name, because the only one she’s ever regularly called him by is a term of affection. Right from the off, it was a pet name: an inside joke, his middle initial. L. Lately when she sees it flash up on her phone, she’s become afraid it might stand for something else. That’s why she had to do this.
He doesn’t slam the door. It would be easier if he did. He closes it softly, considerately, like everything else he does.
She tells herself this is in his best interest, that he deserves better. This part is true. She tells herself that she doesn’t deserve him. This part is true also.
She tells herself it is what she wants. This part is not.
She looks at her mobile to check the time. It’s half past three, which means she’ll have to decide whether her next move is to have a coffee and get up or to down some Glenmorangie and hopefully manage a couple more hours’ sleep. Either way she needs a shower after what she just did. And she doesn’t mean the sex.
As she stands under the jets and the wetroom fills with steam, she hears a buzzing from one wall, where her phone and iPad are lodged in waterproof pouches. Instinctively she calculates what the time is in various cities as she wonders who it could be. She is already moving her mind into the workspace, away from the shit she just went through. Business always serves her.
She wipes condensation from the plastic and sees the name of the caller. It’s her sister, Marion. Ivy hasn’t responded to her in three years, instantly deleting the voicemail messages she has occasionally left. She declines as a matter of reflex but then asks herself why Marion of all people would be calling at this hour.
It’s a question to which she immediately realises there can be only one answer.
She turns off the water and fishes the mobile from the pouch, preparing to return the call. Before she can do so, it buzzes again. Ivy presses to accept and holds the handset to her face.
Marion communicates everything in just two words.
'Gloriously dark, deliciously twisty' CLARE MACKINTOSH
ONE FAMILY, TWO HOLIDAYS, ONE DEVASTATING SECRET
To new nanny Amanda, the Temple family seem to have it all: the former actress; the famous professor; their three successful grown-up children. But like any family, beneath the smiles and hugs there lurks far darker emotions.
Sixteen years earlier, little Niamh Temple died while they were on holiday in Portugal. Now, as Amanda joins the family for a reunion at their seaside villa, she begins to suspect one of them might be hiding something terrible...
And suspicion is a dangerous thing.
From Chris Brookmyre, winner of the Theakstons and McIllvanney awards for Black Widow, comes a standalone psychological thriller full of twists, lies and betrayal.
PRAISE FOR CHRIS BROOKMYRE
'Guaranteed to keep you guessing'
'Extremely sophisticated crime'
'In the pantheon of great crime writers'
'Scales new heights of invention'
Times Literary Supplement
'Brookmyre writes beautifully . . . I was hooked'