A Twist in the Tale

Jeffrey Archer

St. Martin's Paperbacks

THE PERFECT MURDER
IF I HADN’T changed my mind that night I would never have found out the truth.
I couldn’t believe that Carla had slept with another man, that she had lied about her love for me—and that I might be second or even third in her estimation.
Carla had phoned me at the office during the day, something I had told her not to do, but since I also warned her never to call me at home she hadn’t been left with a lot of choice. As it turned out, all she had wanted to let me know was that she wouldn’t be able to make it for what the French so decorously call a “cind à sept.” She had to visit her sister in Fulham who had been taken ill, she explained.
I was disappointed. It had been another depressing day, and now I was being asked to forgo the one thing that would have made it bearable.
“I thought you didn’t get on well with your sister,” I said tartly.
There was no immediate reply from the other end. Eventually Carla asked, “Shall we make it next Tuesday, the usual time?”
“I don’t know if that’s convenient,” I said. “I’ll call you on Monday when I know what my plans are.” I put down the receiver.
Wearily, I phoned my wife to let her know I was on the way home—something I usually did from the phone box outside Carla’s flat. It was a trick I often used to make Elizabeth feel she knew where I was every moment of the day.
Most of the office staff had already left for the night so I gathered together some papers I could work on at home. Since the new company had taken us over six months ago, the management had not only sacked my Number Two in the accounts department but expected me to cover his work as well as my own. I was hardly in a position to complain, since my new boss made it abundantly clear that if I didn’t like the arrangement I should feel free to seek employment elsewhere. I might have, too, but I couldn’t think of many firms that would readily take on a man who had reached that magic age somewhere between the sought after and the available.
As I drove out of the office car park and joined the evening rush hour I began to regret having been so sharp with Carla. After all, the role of the other woman was hardly one she delighted in. I began to feel guilty, so when I reached the corner of Sloane Square, I jumped out of my car and ran across the road.
“A dozen roses,” I said, fumbling with my wallet.
A man who must have made his profit from lovers selected twelve unopened buds without comment. My choice didn’t show a great deal of imagination but at least Carla would know I’d tried.
I drove on toward her flat, hoping she had not yet left for her sister’s and that perhaps we might even find time for a quick drink. Then I remembered that I had already told my wife I was on the way home. A few minutes’ delay could be explained by a traffic jam, but that lame excuse could hardly cover my staying on for a drink.
When I arrived outside Carla’s home I had the usual trouble finding a parking space, until I spotted a gap that would just take a Rover opposite the paper shop. I stopped and would have backed into the space had I not noticed a man coming out of the entrance to her block of flats. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if Carla hadn’t followed him a moment later. She stood there in the doorway, wearing a loose blue housecoat. She leaned forward to give her departing visitor a kiss that could hardly have been described as sisterly. As she closed the door I drove my car round the corner and double-parked.
I watched the man in my rearview mirror as he crossed the road, went into the newsagent’s and a few moments later reappeared with an evening paper and what looked like a packet of cigarettes. He walked to his car, a blue BMW, appeared to curse, and then removed a parking ticket from his windscreen. How long had the BMW been there? I even began to wonder if he had been with Carla when she phoned to tell me not to come round.
The man climbed into the BMW, fastened his seat belt and lit a cigarette before driving off. I took his parking meter space in part-payment for my woman. I didn’t consider it a fair exchange. I checked up and down the street, as I always did, before getting out and walking over to the block of flats. It was already dark and no one gave me a second glance. I pressed the bell marked “Moorland.”
When Carla opened the front door I was greeted with a huge smile which quickly turned into a frown, then just as quickly back to a smile. The first smile must have been meant for the BMW man. I often wondered why she wouldn’t give me a front door key. I stared into those blue eyes that had first captivated me so many months ago. Despite her smile, those eyes now revealed a coldness I had never seen before.
She turned to reopen the door and let me into her ground-floor flat. I noticed that under her housecoat she was wearing the wine-red negligee I had given her for Christmas. Once inside the flat I found myself checking round the room I knew so well. On the glass table in the center of the room stood the “Snoopy” coffee mug I usually drank from, empty. By its side was Carla’s mug, also empty, and a dozen roses arranged in a vase. The buds were just beginning to open.
I have always been quick to chide and the sight of the flowers made it impossible for me to hide my anger.
“And who was the man who just left?” I asked.
“An insurance broker,” she replied, quickly removing the mugs from the table.
“And what was he insuring,” I asked. “Your love life?”
“Why do you automatically assume he’s my lover?” she said, her voice rising.
“Do you usually have coffee with an insurance broker in your negligee? Come to think of it, my negligee.”
“I’ll have coffee with whom I damn well please,” she said, “and wearing what I damn well please, especially when you are on your way home to your wife.”
“But I had wanted to come to you—”
“And then return to your wife. In any case you’re always telling me I should lead my own life and not rely on you,” she added, an argument Carla often fell back on when she had something to hide.
“You know it’s not that easy.”
“I know it’s easy enough for you to jump into bed with me whenever it suits you. That’s all I’m good for, isn’t it?”
“That’s not fair.”
“Not fair? Weren’t you hoping for your usual at six so you could still be home at seven in time for supper with Elizabeth?”
“I haven’t made love to my wife in years!” I shouted.
“We only have your word for that,” she spat out with scorn.
“I have been utterly faithful to you.”
“Which means I always have to be to you, I suppose?”
“Stop behaving like a whore.”
Carla’s eyes flashed as she leaped forward and slapped me across the face with all the strength she could muster.
I was still slightly off-balance when she raised her arm a second time, but as her hand came swinging toward me I blocked it and was even able to push her back against the mantelpiece. She recovered quickly and came flying back at me.
In a moment of uncontrolled fury, just as she was about to launch herself on me again, I clenched my fist and took a swing at her. I caught her on the side of the chin, and she wheeled back from the impact. I watched her put an arm out to break her fall, but before she had the chance to leap back up and retaliate, I turned and strode out, slamming the flat door behind me.
I ran down the hall, out onto the street, jumped into my car and drove off quickly. I couldn’t have been with her for more than ten minutes. Although I felt like murdering her at the time, I regretted having hit her long before I reached home. Twice I nearly turned back. Everything she had complained about was fair and I wondered if I dared phone her once I had reached home.
If Elizabeth had intended to comment on my being late, she changed her mind the moment I handed her the roses. She began to arrange them in a vase while I poured myself a large whisky. I waited for her to say something as I rarely drank before dinner but she seemed preoccupied with the flowers. Although I had already made up my mind to phone Carla and try to make amends, I decided I couldn’t do it from home. In any case, if I waited until the morning when I was back in the office, she might have calmed down a little.
I woke early the next day and lay in bed, considering what form my apology should take. I decided to invite her to lunch at that little French bistro she liked so much, halfway between my office and hers. Carla always appreciated being taken out in the middle of the day, when she knew it couldn’t be just for sex. After I had shaved and dressed I joined Elizabeth for breakfast and seeing there was nothing interesting on the front page of the morning paper, I turned to the financial section. The company’s shares had fallen again, following City forecasts of poor interim profits. Millions would undoubtedly be wiped off our quoted price following such a bad piece of publicity. I already knew that when it came to publishing the annual accounts it would be a miracle if the company didn’t declare a loss.
After gulping down a second cup of coffee I kissed my wife on the cheek and made for the car. It was then that I decided to drop a note through Carla’s letterbox rather than cope with the embarrassment of a phone call.
“Forgive me,” I wrote. “Marcel’s, one o’clock. Sole Véronique on a Friday. Love, Cassaneva.” I rarely wrote to Carla, and whenever I did I only signed it with her chosen nickname.
I took a short detour so that I could pass her home but was held up by a traffic jam. As I approached the flat I could see that the hold-up was being caused by some sort of accident. It had to be quite a serious one because there was an ambulance blocking the other side of the road and delaying the flow of oncoming vehicles. A traffic warden was trying to help but she was only slowing things down even more. It was obvious that it was going to be impossible to park anywhere near Carla’s flat, so I resigned myself to phoning her from the office.
Moments later I felt a sinking feeling when I saw that the ambulance was parked only a few yards from the front door to her block of flats. I knew I was being irrational but I began to fear the worst. I tried to convince myself it was probably a road accident and had nothing to do with Carla.
It was then that I spotted the police car tucked in behind the ambulance.
As I drew level with the ambulance I saw that Carla’s front door was wide open. A man in a long white coat came scurrying out and opened the back of the ambulance. I stopped my car to observe more carefully what was going on, hoping the man behind me would not become impatient. Drivers coming from the other direction raised a hand to thank me for allowing them to pass. I thought I could let a dozen or so through before anyone would start to complain. The traffic warden helped by urging them on.
Then a stretcher appeared at the end of the hall. Two uniformed orderlies carried a shrouded body out onto the road and placed it in the back of the ambulance. I was unable to see the face because it was covered by the sheet, but a third man, who could only have been a detective, walked immediately behind the stretcher. He was carrying a plastic bag, inside which I could make out a red garment that I feared must be the negligee I had given Carla.
I vomited my breakfast all over the passenger seat, my head finally resting on the steering wheel. A moment later they closed the ambulance door, a siren started up and the traffic warden began waving me on. The ambulance moved quickly off and the man behind me started to press his horn. He was, after all, only an innocent bystander. I lurched forward and later could not recall any part of my journey to the office.
Once I had reached the office car park I cleared up the mess on the passenger seat as best I could and left a window open before taking a lift to the washroom on the seventh floor. I tore my lunch invitation to Carla into little pieces and flushed them down the lavatory. I walked into my room on the twelfth floor a little after eight thirty, to find the managing director pacing up and down in front of my desk, obviously waiting for me. I had quite forgotten that it was Friday and he always expected the latest completed figures to be ready for his consideration.
This Friday it turned out he also wanted the projected accounts for the months of May, June and July. I promised they would be on his desk by midday. The one thing I had needed was a clear morning to think, but I was not going to be allowed it.
Every time the phone rang, the door opened or anyone even spoke to me, my heart missed a beat—I assumed it could only be the police. By midday I had finished some sort of report for the managing director, but I knew he would find it neither adequate nor accurate. As soon as I had deposited the papers with his secretary, I left for an early lunch. I realized I wouldn’t be able to eat anything, but at least I could get hold of the first edition of the Standard and search for any news they might have picked up about Carla’s death.
I sat in the corner of my local pub where I knew I couldn’t be seen from behind the bar. A tomato juice by my side, I began slowly to turn the pages of the paper.
She hadn’t made page one, or the second, third or fourth pages. And on page five she rated only a tiny paragraph. “Miss Carla Moorland, aged 31, was found dead at her home in Pimlico earlier this morning.” I remember thinking at the time that they hadn’t even got her age right. “Detective Inspector Simmons, who has been put in charge of the case, said that an investigation was being carried out and they were awaiting the pathologist’s report but to date they had no reason to suggest foul play.”
After that piece of news I even managed a little soup and a roll. Once I had read the report a second time I made my way back to the office car park and sat in my car. I wound down the other front window to allow more fresh air in before tuning to the World At One on the radio. Carla didn’t even get a mention. In the age of pump shotguns, drugs, AIDS and gold bullion robberies the death of a thirty-two-year-old industrial personal assistant had passed unnoticed by the BBC.
I returned to my office to find on my desk a memo containing a series of questions that had been fired back from the managing director, leaving me in no doubt as to how he felt about my report. I was able to deal with nearly all of his queries and return the answers to his secretary before I left the office that night, despite spending most of the afternoon trying to convince myself that whatever had caused Carla’s death must have happened after I left and could not possibly have been connected with my hitting her. But the red negligee kept returning to my thoughts. Was there any way they could trace it back to me? I had bought it at Harrods—an extravagance but I still felt certain it couldn’t be unique and it remained the only serious present I’d ever given her. But the note that was attached—had Carla destroyed it? Would they try to find out who Cassaneva was?