The Skull Beneath the Skin

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9780140129601: The Skull Beneath the Skin

Hired to protect beautiful but neurotic actress Clarissa Lisle from a spate of poison pen letters, Cordelia Gray is unprepared for a case as deadly as it is mysterious.

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About the Author:

P.D. James was born in Oxford in 1920 and educated at Cambridge High School. Widely acknowledged as "the greatest contemporary writer of classic crime" (The London Sunday Times), she has written twenty books and been awarded major prizes for her crime writing in Great Britain, America, Italy, and Scandinavia. After 30 years in the civil service, including a senior position in the Police and Criminal Justice Departments of Great Britain's Home Office, she held a series of distinguished cultural and literary offices, among them Governor of the BBC, on the boards of the Arts Council and British Council and as a magistrate in London. She is the lifelong President of the Society of Authors. She was awarded the OBE in 1983 and created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991. In 1999 she was given the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Award. She has honorary doctorates from seven British universities. James is the widow of a doctor and has two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

There could be no doubt about it; the new nameplate was crooked. Cordelia had no need to adopt Bevis's expedient of dodging through the mid-morning traffic which cluttered Kingly Street and squinting at the plaque through a dazzle of grinding delivery vans and taxis to recognize stark mathematical fact: the neat bronze oblong, so carefully designed and so expensive, was half an inch out of true. Lopsided as it was, it looked, she thought, despite the simplicity of its wording, both pretentious and ridiculous, a fitting advertisement of irrational hope and ill-advised enterprise.


PRYDE'S DETECTIVE AGENCY
(Third Floor)
PROP.: CORDELIA GRAY


Had she been superstitious, she might have believed that Bernie's unquiet spirit was protesting against the new plaque with the deletion of his name. And, indeed, it had seemed at the time symbolic, the final obliteration of Bernie at her hands. She had never considered changing the name of the agency; while it remained in being it would always be Pryde's. But it had become increasingly irksome to be asked by her clients, disconcerted as much by her sex as by her youth, "But I thought I would be seeing Mr. Pryde." They might as well know from the start that there was now only one proprietor and she a female.

Bevis rejoined her at the door, his pretty, mobile face a parody of desolation, and said, "I measured it carefully from the ground, honestly, Miss Gray."

"I know. The pavement must be uneven. It's my fault. We should have bought a spirit level."

But she had been trying to limit expenditure from petty cash, ten pounds a week kept in the battered cigarette tin inherited from Bernie with its picture of the battle of Jutland, from which money seemed to drain away by a mysterious process unrelated to actual expenditure. It had been only too easy for her to accept the assurance of Bevis, leaping from his typewriter, that he was handy with a screwdriver, forgetting that, for Bevis, any job was preferable to the one he was actually supposed to be doing.

He said, "If I close my left eye and hold my head like this, it looks all right."

"But we can't rely on a succession of one-eyed, wry-necked clients, Bevis."

Glancing at Bevis's face, which had now fallen into an extreme of despair which would not have been inappropriate to the announcement of an atomic attack, Cordelia felt an obscure desire to comfort him for his own incompetence. One of the disconcerting aspects of being an employer of staff, a role for which she increasingly felt herself almost wholly unsuited, was this oversensitivity to their feelings coupled with a vague sense of guilt. This was the more irrational because, strictly speaking, she didn't directly employ either Bevis or Miss Maudsley. Both were hired from Miss Feeley's employment agency on a weekly basis when the agency's case load warranted it. There was seldom competition for their services; both were invariably and suspiciously available when asked for. Both gave her honesty, conscientious timekeeping, and a fierce loyalty; both would, no doubt, have also given her efficient secretarial service if that had lain in their power. Both added to her anxieties, since she knew that the failure of the agency would be almost as traumatic for them as for her.

Miss Maudsley would suffer the more. She was a gentle, sixty-two-year-old rector's sister, eking out her pension in a bed-sitting-room in South Kensington, whose gentility, age, incompetence, and virginity had made her the butt of the countless typing pools through which she had drifted since her brother's death. Bevis, with his facile, slightly venial charm, was better equipped to survive in the London jungle. He was supposed to be a dancer working as a temporary typist while resting, an inappropriate euphemism when applied to such a restless boy, perpetually fidgeting in his chair or pirouetting on tiptoe, fingers splayed, eyes widened and alarmed, as if poised for flight. He was certificated to type thirty words a minute by an obscure secretarial school long since defunct, but Cordelia reminded herself that even they hadn't guaranteed his proficiency to undertake minor jobs as a handyman.

He and Miss Maudsley were unexpectedly compatible, and a great deal more chat went on in the outer office between the bouts of inexpert typing than Cordelia would have expected from two such discordant personalities, denizens she would have thought of such alien worlds. Bevis poured out his domestic and professional tribulations, liberally laced with inaccurate and occasionally scurrilous theatrical gossip. Miss Maudsley applied to this bewildering world her own mixture of innocence, High Anglican theology, rectory morality, and common sense. Life in the outer office became very cozy at times, but Miss Maudsley had old-fashioned views on the proper distinction to be made between employer and employed and the inner room where Cordelia worked was sacrosanct.

Suddenly Bevis cried out, "Oh, God, it's Tomkins!"

A small black-and-white kitten had appeared at the doorway, shaken one exploratory paw with deceptive insouciance, stretched its tail rigid, then shivered with ecstatic apprehension and darted under a post-office van and out of sight. Bevis, wailing, fled in pursuit. Tomkins was one of the agency's failures, having been repudiated by a spinster of that name who had employed Cordelia to find her missing black kitten with a white eye patch, two white paws, and a striped tail. Tomkins precisely fulfilled the specifications, but his putative mistress had immediately known him for an impostor. Having rescued him from imminent starvation on a building site behind Victoria Station, they could hardly abandon him, and he now lived in the outer office with a dirt tray, a cushioned basket, and access to the roof via a partly opened window for his nightly excursions. He was a drain on resources, not so much because of the rising cost of cat food -- although it was a pity that Miss Maudsley had encouraged an addiction to tastes beyond their means by providing the most expensive tin on the market for his first meal and that Tomkins, although in general a stupid cat, could apparently read labels -- but because Bevis wasted too much time playing with him, tossing a Ping-Pong ball or drawing a rabbit's foot on string across the office floor with cries of "Oh, look, Miss Gray! Isn't he a clever leaping beastie?"

The clever leaping beastie, having caused chaos among the traffic in Kingly Street, now streaked into the rear entrance of a pharmacy with Bevis in noisy pursuit. Cordelia guessed that neither kitten nor boy was likely to reappear for some time. Bevis picked up new friends as obsessively as others pick up litter, and Tomkins would be a great introducer. Oppressed by the realization that Bevis's morning was now fated to be almost entirely unproductive, Cordelia was aware of a lethargic disinclination to any further effort herself. She stood against the jamb of the doorway, closed her eyes, and lifted her face to the unseasonable warmth of the late-September sun. Distancing herself by an effort of will from the grind and clamor of the street, the pervading smell of petrol, the clatter of passing feet, she played with the temptation, which she knew she would resist, to walk away from it all, leaving the lopsided plaque as a memorial to her efforts to keep faith with the dead Bernie and his impossible dream.

She supposed that she ought to be relieved that the agency was beginning to make a reputation for something, even if it was only for finding lost pets. Undoubtedly there was a need for such a service, and one in which she suspected they had a monopoly; and the clients, tearful, desperate, outraged by what they saw as the callous indifference of the local C.I.D., never haggled at the size of the bill and paid more promptly than Cordelia suspected they might have done for the return of a relative. Even when the agency's efforts had been unsuccessful and Cordelia had to present her account with apologies, the bill was invariably paid without demur. Perhaps the owners were motivated by the natural human need at a time of bereavement to feel that something had been done, however unlikely that something, to achieve success. But frequently there were successes. Miss Maudsley, in particular, had a persistence in door-to-door inquiries, coupled with an almost uncanny empathy with the feline mind, that had restored at least half a dozen cats, damp, half starved, and feebly mewing, to their ecstatic owners, while occasionally exposing the perfidy of those animals which had been living a double life and had transferred more or less permanently to their second home. She managed to conquer her timidity when in pursuit of cat thieves and on Saturday mornings walked purposefully through the rowdy exuberance and half-submerged terrors of London's street markets as if under divine protection, which no doubt she felt herself to be. But Cordelia wondered from time to time what poor, ambitious, pathetic Bernie would have thought about the debasement of his dream child. Lulled into a trancelike peace by the warmth and the sun, Cordelia recalled with startling clarity that confident, overloud voice: "We've got a gold mine here, partner, if once we get started." She was glad that he couldn't know how small the nuggets and how thin the seam.

A voice, quiet, masculine, and authoritative, broke into her reverie.

"That nameplate's crooked."

"I know."

Cordelia opened her eyes. The voice was deceptive: he was older than she had expected, she guessed a little over sixty. Despite the heat of the day he was wearing a tweed jacket, well tailored but old, with leather patches on the elbows. He wasn't tall, perhaps no more than five feet ten inches, but he stood very upright with an easy, confident stance, almost an elegance, which she sensed concealed an inner wariness as if he were tensed for a word of command. She wondered if he had once been a soldier. His head was held high and fixed, the gray and somewhat sparse hair brushed smoothly back from a high, creased forehead. The face was long and bony, with a dominant nose jutting from cheeks reddened and crossed by broken veins, and a wide, well-shaped mouth. The eyes which scrutinized her, not, she felt, unbenignly, were keen under the bushy eyebrows. The left brow was held higher than the right, and she saw that he had a habit of twitching his brows and working the corners of the wide mouth; it gave his face a restlessness which was singularly at variance with the stillness of his body and which made it slightly embarrassing for her to meet his eyes.

He said, "Better get the job done properly."

She watched without speaking while he put down the briefcase he was carrying, took from a pocket a pen and his wallet, found a card, and wrote on the back of it in an upright, rather schoolboyish hand.

Taking the card, Cordelia noted the single name, Morgan, and the telephone number, then turned it over. She read: Sir George Ralston, Bt., D.S.O., M.C.

So she was right. He had been a soldier. She asked, "Will he be expensive, this Mr. Morgan?"

"Less expensive than making a nonsense. Tell him I gave you his number. He'll charge what the job's worth, no more."

Cordelia's heart lifted. The lopsided name plaque, gravely surveyed by the critical eye of this unexpected and eccentric knight errant, suddenly seemed to her irresistibly funny, no longer a calamity but a joke. Even Kingly Street was transformed with her mood and became a glittering, sunlit bazaar, pulsating with optimism and life. She almost laughed aloud.

Controlling her trembling mouth, she said gravely, "It's very kind of you. Are you a connoisseur of nameplates or just a public benefactor?"

"Some people think I'm a public menace. Actually, I'm a client; that is, if you're Cordelia Gray. Don't people ever tell you..."

Cordelia, unreasonably, was disappointed. Why should she have supposed that he was different from other male clients? She finished the sentence for him: "That it's an unsuitable job for a woman? They do, and it isn't."

He said mildly, "I was going to say, 'Don't they ever tell you that your office is difficult to find?' This street's a mess. Half the buildings aren't properly numbered. Too much change of use, I suppose. But the new plate should help when it's properly fixed. Better get it done. Gives a poor impression."

At that moment Bevis panted up beside them, his curls damp with exertion, the telltale screwdriver protruding from his shirt pocket. Holding the richly purring Tomkins against one flushed cheek, he presented his charming delinquency to the newcomer. He was rewarded by a curt "A botched job, that" and a look which instantly rejected him as officer material. Sir George turned to Cordelia.

"Shall we go up, then?"

Cordelia avoided Bevis's eyes, which she guessed were rolling heavenward, and they climbed the narrow, linoleum-covered stairs in single file, Cordelia leading, past the single lavatory and washroom which served all the tenants in the building (she hoped that Sir George wouldn't need to use it), and into the outer office on the third floor. Miss Maudsley's anxious eyes looked up at them over her typewriter. Bevis deposited Tomkins in his basket (where he at once began washing away the contamination of Kingly Street), gave Miss Maudsley a wide-eyed admonitory look, and mouthed the word client at her. Miss Maudsley flushed, half rose from her chair, then subsided and applied herself to painting out an error with a shaking hand. Cordelia led the way into her inner sanctum.

When they were seated, she asked, "Would you like some coffee?"

"Real coffee or ersatz?"

"Well, I suppose you'd call it ersatz. But best-quality ersatz."

"Tea, then, if you have it, preferably Indian. Milk, please. No sugar. No biscuits."

The form of the request was not meant to be offensive. He was used to ascertaining the facts and then asking for what he wanted.

Cordelia put her head outside the door and said, "Tea, please" to Miss Maudsley. The tea, when it arrived, would be served in the delicate Rockingham cups which Miss Maudsley had inherited from her mother and had lent to the agency for the use of special clients only. She had no doubt that Sir George would qualify for the Rockingham.

They faced each other across Bernie's desk. His eyes, gray and keen, inspected her face as if he were an examiner and she a candidate, which in a way she supposed she was. Their sudden, direct, and glittering stare, in contrast to the spasmodically grimacing mouth, was disconcerting.

He said, "Why do you call yourself Pryde's?"

"Because the agency was set up by an ex-Metropolitan policeman, Bernie Pryde. I worked for him for a time as his assistant, and then he made me his partner. When he died he left the agency to me....

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P. D. James
Published by Penguin Books (1989)
ISBN 10: 014012960X ISBN 13: 9780140129601
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Book Description Penguin Books, 1989. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 014012960X

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