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Looking back, the most striking thing is that she knew I didn’t like her and she didn’t care. That type of self-possession at the tender age of nineteen—well, it’s unnatural. Or French. She was very, very French.
It’s Tom who calls to tell me the news. Perhaps that should have tipped me off that something was wrong. I can’t remember when he last called me. Which is not to say he isn’t in touch: unlike most of my male friends, he’s remarkably good on e-mail. I suppose I thought he would be calling with glad tidings: an invitation to a party, or a wedding—Tom’s wedding—after all, he’s been engaged to Jenna for what seems like years.
But what he says is: “Kate, do you remember that summer?” Seven years in Boston hasn’t changed his accent a bit: still unmistakably a product of the finest English schooling money can buy. An image jumps into my mind of him, as I last saw him two summers ago: his blue eyes standing out against tanned skin with freckles across his remarkable hooked nose, his rumpled dark hair long enough to curl. He won’t look like that now after a hard New England winter, but the image won’t shift.
I know exactly which summer he means: the summer after we finished university, when six of us spent an idyllic week in a French farmhouse. Idyllic, or mostly idyllic, or idyllic in parts . . . It’s hard to remember it objectively since Seb and I split up immediately afterward. I opt for a flippant tone. “Isn’t it a bit like the sixties? If you can remember it you weren’t there.”
He ignores my teasing. “The girl next door—”
“Severine.” I’m not flippant anymore. And I no longer expect a party invitation. I close my eyes, waiting for what I know must be coming, and a memory floats up unbidden: Severine, slim and lithe in a tiny black bikini, her walnut brown skin impossibly smooth in the sun, one hip cocked with the foot pointing away as if ready to saunter off the moment she lost interest. Severine, who introduced herself, without even a hint of a smile to soften her severe beauty, as “the mademoiselle next door,” and who disappeared without a trace after the six of us left for Britain.
“Yes, Severine.” Tom pauses, the short silence pressing down the phone line. “They found her. Her body.”
I’m silent. Yesterday, if I’d thought about it all, which of course I hadn’t, I would have said I didn’t know if she would ever be found. With Tom’s stark words it suddenly seems entirely fated, as if all possible paths were destined to converge on this discovery. I imagine her bones, clean and white after a decade left undiscovered, the immaculate skull grinning. She would have hated that, the inevitable smile of death; Severine who never smiled.
“Kate? Still there?” Tom asks.
“Sorry, yes. Where did they find her?” Her? Was a corpse still a “her”?
“The well,” he says bluntly. “At the farmhouse.”
“Poor girl,” I sigh. Poor, poor girl. Then: “The well? But that means . . .”
“Yes. She must have gone back. The French police will want to talk to us again.”
“Of course.” I rub my forehead, then think of the white skull beneath my own warm flesh and drop my hand hastily. The well. I didn’t expect that.
“Are you okay?” asks Tom, his deep voice concerned.
“I think so. It’s just . . .”
“A shock,” he supplies. “I know.” He doesn’t sound shocked. But I suppose he’s had longer to get used to the idea. “Will you tell Lara? I’m not sure I have her number.”
“I’ll tell her,” I say. Lara is my closest friend, another of the six. The police will want to talk to all of us, I suppose, or at least the five of us who are left; Theo at least is beyond the jurisdiction of any police force now. Probably Tom has called Seb and Caro already, or is about to. It would doubtless be polite to ask how they are, but I don’t. “Will you have to fly back from Boston?”
“Actually, I’m in London already. I got in this morning.”
“Great!” Good news at last. “For how long?”
“Wonderful!” But there is something odd about his demeanor, such as can be gleaned over the phone. “Is Jenna with you?” I ask cautiously. I’m beginning to suspect I already know the answer.
“No.” I hear him blow out a breath. “It’s for the best,” he adds awkwardly.
As it happens I agree with him, but it’s probably not the time to say so. “Right,” I say decisively. “Sounds like you need to turn up on my doorstep one evening very soon with a bottle of wine.”
“This might be more of a bottle of whiskey type of conversation.”
“You bring whatever alcohol you like and I’ll cook the meal. Badly.”
He laughs down the phone, a pleasant sound. “It’s a deal.”
It occurs to me he used to laugh more, all those years ago. But then, we were twenty-one, with no responsibilities or cares, and no one had mysteriously disappeared yet. Probably we all laughed more.
A dead body has been found, but life goes on. For most of us, anyway—perhaps time stops for the nearest and dearest, but then again time probably stopped for them a decade ago when she went missing. For the rest of us, it’s back to the same old, same old, which today means a meeting with a potential client. A very hard-hitting potential client: a contract with Haft & Weil could put my fledging legal headhunter business firmly on the map. I stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom of my short-lease office in Bloomsbury. Smart business trouser suit: check. Tailored silk shirt, clean and ironed: check. Thick dark hair pulled back into a tidy chignon and discrete makeup accentuating my green eyes: check. Altogether a pleasing picture of a professional businesswoman. I smile to check my teeth for poppy seeds from the bagel I had for lunch; the image of Severine’s grinning skull immediately jumps into my head. In the mirror my smile drops abruptly.
My assistant, Julie, looks up from her computer as I exit the bathroom. “The cab’s here,” she says, passing me a folder. “All set?”
“Yes.” I check the folder. Everything is there. “Where’s Paul?” Paul is my associate and a very, very good headhunter. He’s here because he has faith in me and even more faith in the proportion of profits he’s due if all goes well. I try to keep a close eye on his diary. Paul won’t stick around if the business plan fails to materialize.
Julie is checking on the computer, one hand working the mouse as the other pushes her glasses back up her nose. “He’s meeting that Freshfields candidate over on Fleet Street.”
“Oh yes.” I check the folder again.
“Kate,” Julie says, a touch of exasperation in her tone. “It’s all there.”
I snap the folder shut. “I know. Thank you.” I take a deep breath. “Right, see you later.”
“Good luck.” She has already turned back to the computer, but stops suddenly. “Oh, you had a call that you might want to return when you’re in the cab.” She looks around for the telephone message pad. “Ah, here we are. Caroline Horridge, please call back. Didn’t say what about.”
Caro. Calling me. Really? “You’re kidding.”
Julie looks up, nonplussed. “If I am, the joke has passed me by.”
I take the message slip she’s holding out. “She went to university with me,” I explain, grimacing. “We weren’t exactly bosom buddies. The last time I saw her was about five years ago, at someone’s party.” I look down at the telephone number recorded under the name in Julie’s neat hand. “This is a Haft & Weil number,” I say, surprised. I’ve been dialing it enough lately that I know the switchboard number off by heart.
“Maybe she wants to jump ship.”
Maybe. There isn’t really any other reason for a lawyer to call a legal headhunter. But I can’t imagine Caro choosing to ask for my help. I sit in the cab and think of ghosts: of poor dead Severine, her bones folded like an accordion to fit in the narrow well; of poor dead Theo blown into disparate parts on a battlefield; of Tom-that-was, back when he laughed more; of me-that-was, of Lara, of Caro, and of Seb. Always, always of Seb.
I met Seb in 2000, the summer of my second year at Oxford. Lara and I had been there long enough to stop feeling green and naive and not long enough for responsibility to loom large: no exams all year, or at least none that counted officially, and no requirement to think about jobs until the third year. Our tutors felt it was a good year to bed down the solid groundwork for the following exam year. We thought it was a good year to bed down in actual bed after late nights clubbing.
The favorite summer pastime was ball-crashing. Unthinkable now—to dress up in black tie and sneak into an event without paying, to avail oneself of everything on offer just for a lark. But it was a lark; no one made the connection with stealing that would be my first thought now. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time thinking about the law now, or not enough back then. Anyway, the point was never the ball itself, those were always more or less the same—perhaps a better band at one, or shorter bar queues at another, but the same basic blueprint every time. No, the point was the breaking in: the thrill of beating the security teams, and getting away with it. The high of that was worth far more than the illicitly obtained alcohol.
The night I met Seb the target was Linacre Ball. Linacre isn’t the richest Oxford college, and it isn’t the largest; there was no reason to think the ball would be particularly good. The only distinguishing feature was that Linacre is a graduate college: right there lay the challenge. Them against us, graduates against undergraduates, security team against students. Drunken students at that, due to the pre-ball-crashing council-of-war at one of the student houses that lay across the sports field from Linacre, where cheap wine was flowing freely. I remember going to the toilet and tripping on my high heels; I’d have crashed headlong into a wall if it hadn’t been for unknown hands catching and righting me. It occurred to me then that we’d better go before we were all too smashed to cross the field, let alone scale the walls surrounding the college.
And then we were going, streaming out of the new-build house to congregate on the sports field. The darkness was periodically split by flashing lights from the college some 200 meters away, the grass fleetingly lit too emerald green to be believable whilst the rugby goalposts threw down shadows that stretched the entire length of the field. Someone was giving orders in a military fashion that set Lara off into a fit of giggles as she stumbled and clutched my forearm. I glanced round and realized in surprise that there must be thirty or forty of us ready to storm the college. Lara and I found ourselves split into a subgroup with barely anyone we knew. It was hard to tell in the dark, but at least two of them were men with definite potential. Lara’s smile notched up a few watts as she turned her attention to them.
But there wasn’t enough time for her to work her magic—we were off. It was sheer numbers that made the plan work. We went in waves, ten or so at a time in a headlong dash across the field—how did we run in stilettos? I cannot think but I know we managed it. Come to that, how did Lara make it across without ripping her skintight dress? Mine ended up hiked high, dangerously close to my crotch. I remember the adrenaline coursing through my veins with the alcohol; the battle cries and the shrieks around me; the fractured picture when the lights flashed of black-tie-clad individuals in full flight. Lara and I huddled at the base of the wall of Linacre College, trying to get our breath through helpless giggles. That was probably why we got in: the security team were too busy dealing with the first bunch that surged the wall. I lost track of Lara as we awkwardly climbed the wall, hopelessly hindered by utterly inappropriate clothing and footwear. As I reached the top a hand stretched down from broad shoulders to help me. I caught a glimpse of gleaming white teeth beneath a remarkably hooked nose, topped by wayward dark hair. I grasped the proffered hand and felt myself yanked unceremoniously upright just as the lights flared, leaving me temporarily blinded, blinking awkwardly on the top of the wall as I tried to thank my helper and regain my footing and eyesight.
“Jump!” someone called below, barely audible above the music. “I’ll catch you.”
I looked across at the stranger on the wall with me. He nodded, gesturing to the black-tie-clad individual below. As the lights flashed obligingly I looked down into a pair of spectacular blue eyes: Seb. Of course it was Seb.
I jumped. He caught me.