A decade before her dazzling breakthrough novel, The Birth of Venus, author Sarah Dunant won Britain's prestigious Silver Dagger award for Fatlands, a Hannah Wolfe mystery.
In Fatlands, private investigator Hannah Wolfe, who’s independent though not invincible, idealistic but definitely not naive, has taken on one of the less glamorous jobs in the security world—chaperoning teenage rebel Mattie Shepherd around London. But Mattie’s father is paying Hannah lots of money—more than the job is worth, it seems. Or perhaps not. The girl’s father is on the Animal Liberation Front’s hit list. But why? When violence explodes, tearing the family apart, this is what Hannah must discover. Her obsession with the truth nearly kills her, wrecking her private life and dragging her into a vortex of lies and betrayal.
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Sarah Dunant has written eight novels, including The Birth of Venus and three Hannah Wolfe novels—Birth Marks, Fatlands, and Under My Skin. She has worked widely in print, television, and radio. Now a full-time writer, she lives in London and Florence.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One: Route 66?
It was so early even the central heating was quiet. I checked the luminous hands of the clock, and cancelled the alarm before it detonated. 5.24 A.M. I lay staring up into the darkness listening to the night. Outside, London was as quiet as it ever gets; just the odd bird confusing the sodium street glow for dawn and the hum of an occasional car, someone home too late or up too early. Like me. In a small town halfway across the Wiltshire Plain a young girl was sleeping, dreaming, no doubt, of her day in the big city. I thought of the miles between us. Then I thought of the money and hauled myself out of bed.
The place was like an icebox. I considered a hot shower, but with no hot water consideration was all it got. I pulled on jeans and a cute little thermal vest, followed by a sweater and a pair of woolly socks. Designer Oxfam, that's me. Passing the telephone, I fantasized about dialling Frank's number and letting it ring a couple of dozen times, just to give him a head start on the weekend. But he's sharper than he seems and he'd know it was me. Well, who else would it be?
En route to the kitchen I stepped over the curtain rail and the lump of plaster on the floor next to it. But this was a new day and I refused to be humiliated by past failures. I had a vision of myself twelve hours earlier, one foot hooked over the top of the radiator, the other balanced on the edge of the chair back -- a dangerous job, but someone had to do it. I had got the screw perfectly lined up and was set to prove that since the invention of the automatic screwdriver men and women are equal in all things, when the telephone rang. No problem, I thought, ten seconds and it'll be over. I switched on. The screwdriver buzzed like a demented bee and the screw pirouetted into the wall, its head coming to rest at a slight but jaunty angle to the wood. Nice one, Hannah. Another simple but conclusive victory in the nature/nurture debate.
I was halfway down the ladder when patriarchy reestablished itself, the screw flinging itself out of the wall, taking the curtain rail and a large fist of plaster with it. I was lucky to make it to the phone uninjured. In retrospect I shouldn't have bothered. Frank on a Friday night: what could it possibly be but bad news for the weekend?
'You took your time. What were you doing?'
'Defoliating my armpits with a pair of tweezers.'
'Congratulations. You finally got a date.'
Since it was his phone bill I was tempted to prolong the banter, but I'd recently read this article in a women's magazine, about life being shorter than you think and the importance of making every encounter mean something. 'Excuse me, Frank, is this vital or can I leave you with the answering machine?'
'I thought you already had. Something's just come in. Do you want to work tomorrow?'
'Depends what it is.'
'Chaperone-companion. Usual stuff. Shopping, sightseeing and not losing them on the way to the little girls' room.'
The posh firms call it bodyguarding, it sounds less menial that way. The clients come in all shapes and sizes, but the best ones are usually foreign. Or to be more precise, Arab. I don't have the right style for the men. But the women can be great. I've had some of my most unexpected pleasure getting to know what goes on under the chador. Mind you, it had been a while now. The aftermath of the Gulf War had kept all but the richest at home; and the richest didn't go to Frank. Funny sensation having poor Arab clients. Although in this case poverty is relative. 'Saudi or Arab Emirates?'
'No, no, er...this one's English.'
'Why the hesitation?' For an ex-policeman Frank finds it admirably hard not telling the whole truth.
'No reason. She's a great kid. I know you're going to love her.'
That's Frank for you. 'What do you mean "kid"?' Always a catch.
'Kid. You know, as in young person. But very mature. At least fifteen.'
Which meant thirteen and a half if I was lucky. 'Oh, come on, Frank, I'm not qualified to handle children.'
'Hannah, believe me, at this fee you'd be qualified to handle anything.'
'How much?' I said looking at the curtain rail and thinking about redecorating the room. He told me. I whistled. It always begins thus. Me with better things to do, him waving pound signs in the air to tempt me.
'I don't get it. Why so generous?'
'You're working for a firm with a reputation, remember? The kind of outfit that can cope with the threat of a custody snatch.'
'Well, it's only a threat.'
'At fifteen years old?'
'Yeah, well, fourteen actually.'
'Same difference. What's he going to do? Try to lure her away with the promise of a CD player?'
'Not he. Her. And she's tried before.'
'The mother? Tell me more.'
'I've written you notes. I'll get a bike to drop them round. So -- do you want the address now or shall I ring someone else?'
It's one of our little games, pretending that Frank has a large workforce. It makes us both feel better about our jobs. I already had the pen in my hand. First he gave me the time, then told me where I was going. That way it took me a while to realize I'd been had. 'Oh, thanks, thanks a million. Why didn't you tell me earlier?'
'Because you wouldn't have taken it if I had. And Hannah? Don't be late, eh?'
5.55. In the kitchen there was orange juice, but not enough milk to cover the muesli. I added milk to the already long list on the noticeboard. Now if I were a really original PI, my kitchen would be an Elizabeth David sanctuary, overflowing with fresh bread, runny cheese and a large shiny cappuccino machine. Which just goes to illustrate the misery of conformity. I decided to cut my losses and hit a motorway cafe later.
Outside it was still dark. It had been another frustrating night for the Tufnell Park Neighbourhood Watch scheme. I passed a Ford estate and a Peugeot 205 with their side windows smashed, a straggle of intestinal wires gaping out from the holes where the radios had been. I clutched my fancy car stereo to my chest. Down the road my beat-up Y-reg Polo sat proudly intact under a street lamp. It wouldn't be long before the stereo was worth more than the car. I see it as a public service, really. Beat crime. Make sure none of your possessions are worth stealing.
I slid the radio in and turned it on. Radio 4 was telling farmers what to do with chicken feed, which is not something you need to hear before breakfast, while Radio 3 was broadcasting classical static. There was a smattering of DJs ranging around the rest of the dial, but they all sounded as if they already knew no one was listening. I went for a tape instead. This early in the morning you need old friends. Eric Clapton's fingers danced their way into his voice. It was almost as good as a cup of coffee.
The ride out of London made you see life from the night cabbies' point of view. No cars, no queues, just open road round the park, then amber to green right through on to Westway. Someone had once told me that when the lights were with you, you could drive from the ocean to Beverly Hills without stopping once. Sunset Boulevard. Even the names were right for the American Dream. Here in England we just have the Marylebone Road. If you ever planned to motor west...I swapped Clapton for Chuck Berry and together we blasted out a litany of Midwest cities while I sped up and over the flyover, flashing past signs for Shepherd's Bush, Uxbridge and Acton.
Still, on the right morning, with four hundred quid at the end of a day's work, even Britain has a frisson of myth about it. Take the M25 -- which I did at some speed. At this hour it was touched by stardust, empty and proud, for all the world like a real motorway rather than a gigantic circle of urban stress. It was almost a shame to get off it. I took the long, sleek curve into the M3 like the final corner at Le Mans and hit the motorway without dipping below fifty. I moved into the middle lane and put my foot down. Night driving. Nothing like it, especially on the edge of the day. I was thinking fast track, when a Safeway truck pulled up level with me. The driver shot me a wide grin before pumping his accelerator and leaving me behind. In a disappointment born more of horsepower than gender I watched him go. A mile later he was halfway to the horizon when a sleepy police car on a bridge above yawned, stretched and moved out, lights glinting with the prospect of a kill. I slowed down to make the pleasure last longer. When I passed them a couple of miles down the road, summary justice was being executed on the hard shoulder. I saluted a fallen hero, but he was too busy manufacturing an excuse to notice. Frank tells me that's one of the problems with women. Their hearts get in the way of revenge. In fact it's part of a longer theory he has about wife battering and domestic violence. Like many of Frank's theories it's not quite as crass as it first sounds, but I won't bore you with it now.
I kept my foot at an even 70 m.p.h. Around Andover the dawn arrived, sneaking up from behind, pink-wash streaks giving way, against March odds, to a porcelain-blue sky. The sunrise was still singing as I sped down the long, open hill bottoming out into a wide-angle view of Stonehenge half a mile to the right. At this distance the stones looked like something out of a kid's building box. You could almost imagine reaching out and picking them up one by one, rearranging them at will. I thought of the alternative version: the Druids and the slow pull from the coastal quarries to the silence of the Wiltshire Plain. I thought of Tess, with much thanks to Hardy and little to Polanski, and saw how -- in a clear, deserted morning on the edge of spring -- there would have been worse places to complete a tragedy. Then I thought about all the other things I could be doing with my life at this moment, like waking to the same alarm at the same time in order to do the same job at the end of the same tube stop. And I felt OK in a quiet sort of way.
On the seat next to me lay a brown envelope. I had read Frank's brief already. Simple and stylish. The Met must have missed him when he went. He...
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Book Description Penguin UK, 1994. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0140230491
Book Description Penguin UK, 1994. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 140230491
Book Description Penguin UK, 1994. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0140230491