Clara once got accused by Harry of being part of a gay legal mafia, which was ironic. Because if anyone needed to have a horse's head left in her bed as an awful warning, it was Harriet Watson. Maybe if she'd been tougher with Harry, she might have respected her more.
What Harry meant, of course, was Clara belonging to the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association. Not that she went along to their events now, but she was still officially a member, and she even had one of their old T-shirts to prove it. From the old days, when being out had been a real struggle, when you needed to know which chambers, which instructing solicitors to expect trouble from. She'd paid her dues in all senses back then.
But now she was pretty much mainstream. Who cared what a barrister's home life was like any more, as long as she won enough cases? No-one in her chambers had batted an eyelid at her civil partnership five years ago. Or its dissolution four years later. Her colleagues had just sighed and swapped cynical stories about their own dysfunctional relationships.
The old connections hadn't entirely vanished, though. When Harry had started talking about a separation, Clara had surreptitiously phoned Jane Fenton, asked her for a bit of friendly advice. And now Jane was phoning her up, doubtless going to collect on the deal. You didn't get to be the shrewdest matrimonial solicitor in London without knowing how to negotiate.
"I've got a problem, Clara," Jane announced on the phone. "I wondered if you could help me out."
"What do you want me to do?" No point wasting time on these occasions. Jane's bluntness was a front, just as much as her politeness was; carefully tailored for the recipient.
"A woman contacted me yesterday about an employment law issue. I said our firm didn't handle that, but she said she particularly needed someone...sympathetic."
That probably meant some tricky discrimination issue. Transphobia, perhaps – she'd seen a lot of that recently. Well, Clara had won several of those kind of cases over the years.
"OK. If you pass her onto Hopkins Parsons, that's probably best. They can steer her my way and Karen Parsons is very discreet."
There was a long, significant pause. At Jane's charge-out rates, probably at least ten pounds worth. Clara recognised the tactic, even as she succumbed to it. She was expected to make the first move.
"Our chambers doesn't accept public access work," she said into the silence. And then remembered that of course, Jane would have checked that.
"Are you saying that you want me to give this woman some unofficial help?" she added after another pause, because she might as well get things clear. "Free, unofficial help?"
"She contacted me because she knew one of my former clients. She almost certainly knows extremely confidential information about that client. She's also young, broke and in trouble," Jane replied promptly. "I don't want her either getting ripped off by some dodgy claims firm or deciding to sell what she knows to raise some cash. If you could just talk to her, please, Clara, get an idea of exactly what her situation is, that'd be a big help. I'd be grateful."
Her chambers needed more work. Her chambers always needed more work and Jane was a senior partner in a firm that could provide that.
"OK," Clara said, "send her along."
"Just so you're aware," Jane said, "the former client this woman knows about is Rebecca Trent. And I did not tell you that. Thanks. Goodbye."
Clara didn't buy newspapers for the scandals, but the Trent divorce case had been hard to avoid. It had insinuated itself into the broadsheets; almost every section, it seemed sometimes. When you got a novelist and a media-friendly academic divorcing, of course they both wanted to write about it. And when you got them divorcing because they'd both had an affair with the same woman...
She read rapidly through the articles online, trying to strip out the facts from the hype and the overwrought metaphors and the cleverly thought-out cultural parallels. It was still pretty racy stuff. Jonathan McGuire had been spending not only his money but his wife's on frequent BDSM sessions with Irene Adler. Rebecca Trent had gone to confront the woman, and been seduced by her. And this warped triangle had continued for three months and ended with McGuire having some kind of a breakdown during a late night arts discussion on Radio 3.
It reminded Clara again of why she'd not wanted to read about any of it. Not just the vicarious embarrassment of seeing supposedly intelligent people pull apart their private lives in public. But how angry she'd felt about Irene Adler's behaviour. Playing to the life every nasty cliché about untrustworthy bisexuals and predatory lesbians and femmes fatales, as she'd broken up a perfectly good marriage for fun.
No , she told herself firmly, the relationship couldn't have been so wonderful in the first place if that happened to it. Irene Adler was doubtless a symptom, not a cause. Maybe everyone's marriage had those kinds of fault lines. What was it Jane had said, when Clara had phoned up furiously complaining about Harry asking for the dissolution order? That with any relationship, if you were determined enough, you could make a claim for unreasonable behaviour on both sides.
That had been almost the worst bit of the breakup. The distorted mirror of their partnership in Harry's petition. The Respondent has belittled the Petitioner by constantly making critical remarks in front of her colleagues. The Respondent has placed obstacles in the way of the Petitioner socialising with her own friends. The Respondent has displayed a lack of interest in and affection towards the Petitioner.
"The Petitioner is a heavy drinker who is a bloody nightmare for the Respondent to take anywhere," she'd protested to Jane. "If I ask her about her day, I'm trying to cross-examine her and if I don't, I'm not showing interest. And-"
"And you should have walked out on her several years ago," Jane replied. "But you're too reasonable. Clara, ask yourself one simple question. Was the relationship good for you?"
She made inarticulate noises down the phone, because weren't divorce lawyers supposed to show some tact? Though perhaps only to their paying clients.
"The important thing is that you get out with your health and the majority of your assets intact," Jane went on remorselessly. "I'll give you the name of a solicitor you can afford, because mediation is no bloody use when the other party is someone completely unreasonable. It will be hell, but with the right lawyer it will be smoothly managed hell, and then you can go off and find yourself someone better."
"Just like that?" Clara protested.
"As I tell my clients right at the start, I am a solicitor, not a therapist. You know the difference, Clara. And you also know what you have to do. So do it now."
Officially it had been a clean break between Harry and her – no children to complicate matters, no ongoing financial commitments. Unofficially, here she was a year on with her stomach knotting just reading about someone else's divorce. Jane would doubtless say Clara needed to toughen up. But then if she was as tough as Jane, she probably wouldn't have been willing to help a woman just because she was "young, broke and in trouble". Or at least she'd have negotiated harder.
The woman had been employed by Trent and McGuire, presumably. No, not necessarily. She could be a colleague of McGuire's from his university, who'd been involved in some previous relationship with him. Or maybe this mystery woman was connected to Trent's publisher or whatever PR firm she was using. Too many possibilities to worry about. She needed to wait till the woman turned up, and then she'd find out the truth.
The woman's name was Kate Winter and she was coming to the chambers at 6.30 pm on Friday. Late enough that there wouldn't be many other people around to ask awkward questions; early enough that Clara could go on somewhere else afterwards. In theory. In practice, she had nothing on this weekend, like most weekends. There were...there were too many drunk people in London at weekends. Too many drunk women. And the sound of a blurred voice, the sight of someone stumbling round in high heels was still hard to take. She felt horribly tempted to lecture complete strangers: Do you know what you're doing to yourself? It's all fun now, but is it going to be fun when you can't stop? When it's not one night, but every night? When you endanger yourself, hurt others just because of the booze? She had to get a sense of perspective, she knew. But when you'd lived with disaster so long, it was hard not to imagine that everyone was heading for the same place, but just hadn't realised it yet.
Kate Winter didn't look like she had a problem with drinking. She didn't look like she should have any problems at all. Jane had said "young," of course, but not mentioned anything about "incredibly tall" or "unbelievably beautiful." And she didn't look broke either. The brown tailored jacket and skirt she was wearing were clearly chosen to complement her auburn hair perfectly, and they looked horrendously expensive. But maybe that just proved that Clara didn't know enough about high street fashion chains.
"I gather you need some free legal advice about an employment matter, Ms Winter," Clara said, thinking how incongruous the woman's polished style looked in her slightly ramshackle office.
"Call me Kate," the woman replied quietly. "Yes, I'm owed some wages by my employer."
"I haven't been paid since the end of November."
Well that explained both the smart clothes and being suddenly broke. A couple of months with no salary could drive most people to the brink of disaster.
"You certainly need to do something about that. What's your job?"
"I'm a personal assistant," Kate said. "To Irene Adler."
Clara tried to hide her surprise, but she obviously wasn't quite quick enough. Kate's chin went up and she added, defiantly: "The dominatrix."
"Right," Clara said hastily and decided it was best to stick to neutral questions. "How long have you been working for her?"
That was a surprise as well. Surely eight years ago, Kate would only just have left school. And Irene Adler would have been young as well. But again, not a helpful comment to make.
"Do you have a written contract?" she asked instead, and Kate nodded. "So does that say how you're paid and how often?"
"Monthly," Kate replied. "Irene pays me in cash. But it's all above board."
"You're paying tax and she's paying national insurance for you?"
"All the paperwork's in order. We have a very helpful accountant." Kate was smiling now, but there was a hint of defiance about the smile. The accountant probably had his own reasons for helping Irene, but it wasn't Clara's job to worry about that. She smiled back reassuringly at Kate.
"So you should have been paid next in December? What date?"
"The 31st. Irene said it'd have to be after Christmas; things were a bit tight. Some years, she's been able to give me a Christmas bonus beforehand, but not this year."
"But she didn't pay you on the 31st? Did she give you any explanation for the delay?"
"No," Kate said, and her voice sounded strained now. "I haven't seen her since Christmas Day."
Christmas Day abruptly added up with eight years in Clara's mind and came to something that was far more than just an employment problem. Kate was one of Irene's victims too, wasn't she? Well, not all women treated others like shit. If she was being an unpaid legal advisor, she supposed she might as well also be an unpaid therapist.
"It sounds like you've had a rough time," she said. "Do you want to come and have a drink and tell me about it?"
Irene's left Kate broke and heart-broken. Can Clara help her out?
"Be warned," Clara said as they went into Pommeroy's wine bar, "their vin ordinaire is extremely ordinaire."
"I heard that, Clara," Andy the barman replied cheerily. "But we've just got some decent South African Chardonnay in. You and your friend should give it a try."
"I'll stick to tonic water, please, Andy, but would you like a glass of it, Kate? I trust his judgement on these things."
Kate accepted with a friendly smile that got Clara's heart racing a little, and possibly even Andy's. Pommeroy's had become surprisingly women-friendly over the years, she thought, as she led Kate off to a quiet corner. Everyone noticed Kate, obviously, but no-one was actively leering. And the other lawyers who made up most of the clientele knew better by now than to listen in to Clara's private conversations.
"How did you meet Irene?" she asked Kate, seating herself a careful distance across the table from her; she needed to stay professional, even if she was trying to get Kate to talk.
"I was modelling," Kate said.
"I should have guessed," Clara replied. Not just a beautiful face, but the style, the way Kate moved. "You'd be a natural."
"No," Kate said, and a sad smile appeared on that beautiful face. "I was hopeless. I started when I was sixteen, just out of school. My parents hadn't wanted me to be a model, so I was desperate to be one, of course. But I was no good at it. Not turning up on time, being hung over, undisciplined. I stuck it out for a few years, but then Irene appeared, looking for someone to work for her. She said she could get the best out of me..."
"She knows how to get people to do what she wants?"
"Irene's amazing," Kate said. "She trained as a singer, but men were always more interested in her looks than her voice. She told me she was in some opera that the director had set in a leather club and started talking to one of the set designers about BDSM. She got into the scene for a while, and then realised she could be paid for domming. Paid more than chorus rates, at least."
"And she did well enough to take you on?"
"She was setting up on her own, wanted to go upmarket. Half the thing for some men is the expense."
"That it hurts to pay?" Clara couldn't help saying, and Kate smiled and nodded and then said. "It was fun. Us two against the world, making fools out of a bunch of men."
It had probably seemed more fun than being a not very successful clothes horse, Clara thought. And even from the newspaper reports, it was clear how seductive Irene was.
"Did you...were you involved with the men as well?" she asked cautiously.
"No, that was just Irene. I was her chauffeur, dresser, arranged appointments and so on. Anything that she needed."
"And her lover," Clara said quietly, and it wasn't a question.
"Yes. It's always been girls for me, so when I met Irene, it was...amazing, a dream come true. And she told me that the first time she saw me, she knew I was the one for her."
"What about the men?"
Kate took a sip of her drink and shrugged. "It's not about sex, it's about power. What she did with the clients was irrelevant to our relationship."
If it's not about sex, why are there so many pictures on the web of Irene Adler almost naked? And what about Rebecca Trent? Impossible to discuss it with Kate. A wariness had come into her look already, someone who was expecting criticism. And she wasn't the only one who'd ever got into a messed-up relationship, after all.
"What went wrong?" Clara asked instead, as calmly as she could. Kate flushed.
"Who said anything went wrong?"
Clara drank a little more of her tonic water, tried to think how to put it. "You said it was fun, and yet Irene's disappeared without paying you. Without telling you where she's gone. Something happened. Recently? Or did it start long ago, but you didn't realise at first?"
When do two drinks become three? When does a bottle of wine in the evening as a treat become an expectation and then a requirement?
"Irene's a really good domme," Kate said slowly. "There was no-one else quite like her in London; she got more and more clients. But the house we were renting in Belgravia was expensive and so was the car, and we weren't actually making that much profit. And it's the psychology of the kink that fascinates her, but it turned out that most of the men wanted much the same thing. It was all getting a bit...boring for Irene."
Kate had been in a relationship with someone who got bored being a dominatrix. Bit of a warning sign there, don't you think? There was a voice in Clara's head that liked pointing out that other women had worse judgement than herself. Well, she wasn't giving into that voice. Sneering at Kate wasn't going to help.
"Some people always want more," she said, and that came out sounding more truthful than she'd expected. "So what did Irene do?"
Kate hesitated and then asked: "What are the rules about what I'm allowed to tell you?"
"You're not officially my client," Clara replied promptly. "You're just talking to someone in a bar. I don't have to report anything to anyone if you've broken the law. But it depends a bit what Irene did, obviously."
"It started off with insider trading-" Kate began and then stopped, sudden alertness in her expressive grey eyes, and added: "Oh, help. It's a never good sign if you begin a story like that, is it?"
"No," Clara said, and smiled at her. "But it's not the worst opening line I've had in a client interview."
" 'I didn't mean to steal my colleague's underwear,' was probably near the top," Clara said, and when Kate smiled, she added: "How did Irene get into insider trading and how long did that last?"
"Six months, a year, maybe," Kate replied. "We had a lot of merchant bankers as clients, you see. And they'd tell Irene secrets in order to impress her."
"Did she make much money?"
"Some. But it wasn't really the money that mattered to her."
"The thrill of it," Kate said simply. And there you had the disaster waiting to happen, Clara thought. But maybe that had been what Kate was after; the rebellious streak in her had wanted the risks that Irene had provided.
"And after that?"
"Espionage. Irene had some rich Russians as clients, and it turned out some of them had secrets too. Irene had...contacts in the police already, and in some government departments. And there were other people who were interested in what we learnt." Kate paused and then went on, "She was never an agent for anyone. Strictly freelance. You can negotiate more effectively if you're not committed to anyone long-term."
She could not be having this conversation, Clara thought. Sitting here in an unfashionable winebar and discussing spies. But sex workers and espionage had always gone together, and she could easily imagine Irene playing at being Mata Hari. Though look what had happened to her...
"That sounds far more dangerous than tying up accountants, or whatever she normally did."
"Oh, Irene was still doing that as well," Kate said. "And she'd always taken precautions. There was a reason we didn't get into trouble with the police or the local authorities. Irene had a hold wherever it mattered."
Probably on people's throats. "Was she a blackmailer?"
"No!" Kate protested. "She never used the photos she had. But no-one would have dared to arrest her. Or they'd have regretted it if they had. Irene was safe, she knew that."
"But Irene didn't like being safe, did she?" If other people couldn't bring you down, you brought yourself down. If you were someone like Irene - like Harry - who lived for drama.
"It was all OK till last spring. She got involved with the princess then and with Jim soon after that." Kate stared down at her glass, and Clara could see that she was suddenly very close to tears.
"A real princess?" she asked.
"Yes," Kate said, still staring intently at the dregs of her drink. "Irene didn't sleep with her, but...they were close. Very close." She looked up, with a smile that said she'd read books about positive thinking, and added brightly. "It opened a lot of doors for us, we met some influential people. So good for business, overall."
And heart-breaking for you, Clara thought. Far easier to say the men didn't matter, that Irene didn't really care for them. But when it's another woman, you have a true rival. Yet another thing not to mention, of course.
"What about Jim?" she asked. "Was he a new client as well?"
"No," Kate said. "He's a criminal. A consulting criminal."
"Why did Irene need to consult a criminal, when she was one already?" Clara blurted out and saw Kate's face freeze. Of course, that was probably how she'd coped. Telling herself that what Irene was doing was fine, might be technically breaking the law, but wasn't really wrong. Irene Adler wasn't a criminal, any more than Harry was an alcoholic. If you could just claim that the label was misapplied, you could pretend that it was all still almost OK.
"I'm sorry," she told Kate. "I...I shouldn't have said that. What did Irene want from Jim?"
"She had secrets that she couldn't sell. There are governments, organisations, that wouldn't want to deal with a woman directly. Jim was a useful intermediary. And there were people after us, by then. Because of...well, because of the princess, among other things. We needed to know about our opponents and Jim had a very effective network of informants."
A sudden memory came back to Clara. There'd been a film once called Death of a Princess, hadn't there? A Saudi princess who'd been executed for some sexual crime. Had Irene got herself and Kate entangled in something like that?
"You thought you might be killed?" she asked.
"We'd always reckoned we were safe in London. But then the CIA came calling. I got knocked out. Someone else almost got shot."
"A man who was visiting. Irene managed to fight the CIA agents off with help from him and his friend."
There was something more to the story than that, Clara felt sure; she could feel the sudden evasiveness, Kate's attempts to avoid lying outright. But it wasn't her job right now to find out about that.
"You were hurt in the attack, you said?" It was a horrible thought.
"I was concussed. I had a terrible headache, but no permanent damage."
"You know," Clara said, as casually as she could, "as your employer, it's Irene Adler's duty to provide you with a safe working environment. I'm pretty sure behaving in a way that gets the CIA attacking you is failing in that duty."
"We'd had people trying to rob us before," Kate said, in a voice that was just too calm, "but nothing like that. But Irene wasn't going to back down. Because we were one piece of information away from solving all our financial worries for good. And then we could retire to the south of France."
No good asking why Kate hadn't packed her bags at that point. She couldn't really have believed that Irene would stop causing mayhem. But the point was that she loved Irene, and you didn't leave someone just because things had got difficult, did you? Not when they still needed you. The real question wasn't why Irene had disappeared, but why she hadn't taken Kate with her.
"Were you attacked again?" Clara asked.
"There was one more attempt at a break-in, but it failed. But Irene was getting worried. She decided the best thing to do was to fake her own death."
"As you do," Clara said drily. "How did she do that?"
"I don't know," Kate said. "She said I mustn't know anything about it. I had to pretend to be grieving, you see, and the less I knew about what had really happened, the more convincing I could be." She paused, and then went on slowly. "We'd had lunch on Christmas Day. Watched the Queen's speech" – she smiled at some private joke – "and then Irene said she was going out for a walk and she might be some time. And I knew what was going to happen."
"That was when she was going to do it?"
"I phoned the police when she hadn't returned by the evening, and they told me they'd found a body. When I went to the mortuary to see it, the face was bashed in, but the woman was wearing Irene's clothes." Kate stopped, raising her empty glass automatically, as if she might find a mouthful more in it, while her left hand played an uneasy rhythm on the table.
"But it wasn't her?" Clara said, quietly.
"I told them it was. I was almost certain it wasn't, but that wasn't quite enough. I was pretty much a nervous wreck for the next week, which was probably what Irene would have wanted our enemies to see."
How could anyone be cruel enough to do that to someone they loved, Clara wondered. On an impulse she reached out and put her hand over Kate's. Quite a contrast, she couldn't help noticing, between her plain hands and Kate's long fingers, with their perfectly manicured nails.
"It must have been terrible," she said. "Not knowing is almost worse than being sure she was dead."
Kate sighed and closed her eyes for a moment, and then opened them to look straight at Clara. As if she was trying to work out who she really was, what she could say to her.
"On New Year's Day," she said at last, "I had a phone call from a friend of ours, called Crystal. She's worked for Irene before, and she told me that she'd met Irene the previous day and carried out an assignment for her, arranged a meeting."
"Irene was still alive?" Clara said, and she could feel the relief that Kate must have experienced. And then Clara heard her own treacherous mouth say: "You're sure your friend couldn't have been mistaken?"
"No," Kate said earnestly. "Crystal talked to her for some time, face to face. She knew Irene well. And besides, I've had a message from Irene since."
"What sort of message?"
"A text, a fortnight or so ago. She told me she'd hit the jackpot and Jim had paid out. That she'd won."
"Nothing more. I texted back at once, but she didn't reply." And suddenly Kate's head went down, and she was crying, sobs racking her tall frame. "She's alive but I don't know where the hell she is."
What do I say? What is there to say? All Clara could think to do was hold onto Kate's hand, remind her she wasn't alone. And then sit and wait, and give an extremely dirty look at a man at a nearby table who looked like he was going to come over and attempt to 'comfort' Kate. What comfort was there in a situation like that, when you'd been abandoned by someone?
Kate's hand pulled away at last, reaching for a tissue. "You think I'm stupid to love her, don't you?" she said blurrily, wiping her eyes.
"You can't help what you feel," Clara said. "But if you haven't heard from her since, that's not a good sign." It'd hardly be helpful to say that maybe the CIA had caught up with Irene at last, that maybe Irene's silence wasn't voluntary. Whatever had happened, it couldn't be good news for Kate. It couldn't ever be, surely, where Irene Adler was involved.
"I'm sorry about crying," Kate said. "I'm...I'm OK now." It was a lie of course, but it was a lie that Clara ought to try and respect. She'd cried on Andy's shoulder at one low point last year, and it had been terribly embarrassing afterwards.
"So are you still living at Irene's house?" she asked, eventually. That was the one thing she could do, help out Kate practically. She'd come to Clara for legal advice in the first place, hadn't she? Maybe she should have stuck to giving Kate that, not got involved with this personal tragedy. It would be better not to feel what she was feeling now, that she wanted to hold Kate, comfort her, make it all better for her...
"The lease is paid till the end of the month," Kate said, looking up at her, her voice a little calmer. "I need some money so I can get somewhere else to live. I certainly can't afford Belgravia anymore."
"Did Irene leave any of her possessions behind?" Clara asked. "The house may be rented, but what about the furniture, or..." She ground to a halt. There was no tactful way she could ask if Irene's house had been full of equipment.
Kate was recovering her composure. "The dungeon's still there," she said, and even managed a slightly tentative smile. "I'm not sure...well, put it like this, I don't think the landlord would have been giving Irene her deposit back, not with the holes in the walls for the chains. She left a lot of clothes behind as well, and I've still got her car. Why?"
"Because you'll win your claim for back pay easily, but you need to make sure Irene has some assets. Then you can apply for a warrant of execution and get the court bailiffs to sell them off to pay you. But it'll take a while, I'm afraid." Clara stopped, as a thought suddenly occurred to her.
"Is Irene officially still dead?" Kate nodded. "Never mind the wages, then, Kate. What did she leave you in her will?"
"I don't want her money!" Kate yelled, and then she stopped, as if she'd surprised herself, and added slowly, "I mean, I don't want Irene's money as some kind of consolation prize. Even if she did make a will. I just want what I've earned."
Which is why you're better off without Irene, even if you don't realise it. She takes whatever she can get and then more. Clara smiled at Kate confidently, because she wasn't going to let Irene get away with this piece of heartlessness.
"Good job you came to me, then," she said. "I'm not much use against the CIA, but I can make sure you get what you're owed."
Clara's trying to help Kate recover from Irene, but the past isn't always easy to escape.
It was odd how guilty Clara felt phoning Jane on Monday morning, but she knew if she didn't, Jane would be chasing her for a report.
"I've talked to Kate Winter," she told her. "I don't think she's likely to blackmail Rebecca Trent or any of Irene Adler's other former clients. She just wants to try and get her life together again, make a new start for herself. Irene Adler seems to have treated her pretty badly."
"It sounded like that when she contacted me, but I wasn't sure if it was all just a trick," Jane said.
"Why would you think that?"
"Because I am old and cynical and jaded. And I've had several clients who got entangled with Ms Adler, and lived to regret it. I didn't think I could give Ms Winter a fair hearing. Whereas you can clearly find redeeming features even in a con woman."
"Kate isn't that. She's...well, she's broken a few laws," Clara said. "But I think she got in over her head."
"Well if she's not a crook, she's probably well shot of Irene Adler. I met her once, at a posh party," Jane said. "She was flirting remorselessly with all the most important people there, male and female. Still, Ms Winter will doubtless find someone else soon, looking like that." She paused and then added: "Tell her to make the next relationship official. She could have got a lot more from Irene Adler if she'd played her cards right."
Jane was completely unromantic about relationships, Clara thought, but she might well be right about that. On the other hand, Jane might know everything about the marriage market, but Clara knew more about the job market...
"Jane," she said tentatively, "is there any chance one of your contacts could find a job for Kate?"
"Did she ask you for one?"
"No," Clara said, "and she may have something sorted already. But I'm not sure how easy it would be for her to get back into modelling. And it hardly looks good on any job application when you can't provide an employer reference because your former boss has done a moonlight flit."
"What you mean is that you're worried she'll end up in something sleazy? She's a grown woman, Clara, she can look after herself."
I wonder if that was what Irene thought, how she justified it to herself? Independence as the excuse for selfishness. Because it was weak to let yourself be hurt by somebody else, wasn't it, in Jane and Irene's dog-eat-dog world?
"I want her to have a choice, that's all," she told Jane. "She's well-organised, loyal and discreet. There must be someone you know who'd like an employee like that."
"I'll see what I can do," Jane said. "I do owe you, after all, Clara. Take care."
Jane's efficiency was staggering, as usual. Or maybe her firm had secret fixers, like in Michael Clayton. A couple of days later, there was an e-mail with the contact details for an art gallery in Bethnal Green. They need a new receptionist. Tactful, posh and able to cope with rotting meat as art. Clara left a tentative message on Kate's mobile, trying not to sound pushy: I thought you might be interested...if you do need help in any way...
A text came back rapidly:
Sounds more hopeful than anything the job centre has. Thanks, KW.
And then a few minutes later:
I think I owe you several drinks for all your help. Kate.
Clara smiled and texted back:
I'll take you up on that when you've received your back pay. Clara.
Then she went back to work and tried not to think about the fall of Kate's auburn hair, the trained grace of those long legs. She was there to sort out Kate's financial problems, and that was that.
She'd been right to be cautious, Clara told herself, when she got Kate's letter a couple of weeks later. Odd to have a handwritten one, but maybe Kate thought an e-mail wasn't formal enough. It was an oddly formal little letter, in its old-fashioned, slightly glossy politeness. Kate had got the receptionist's job and she had a date for her county court hearing. I'm so grateful for all your help, the letter ended, and Clara rather ruefully translated that: and now I want to forget this whole thing ever happened. Not surprising, she supposed, that Kate was now running away as fast as she could from her previous life and didn't want any witnesses.
"Good evening, is that Clara Johnson?" the young woman's voice announced on her voicemail a few weeks later. "This is Kate Winter. You very kindly helped me a little while ago and I wondered if I could possibly ask you for another favour..."
She didn't sound as if she was in trouble, but it wasn't hard to think of a lot of things that might have gone wrong in Kate's life. Clara hastily dialled the number Kate had left.
"I'm sorry if I worried you." Kate's voice was warm down the phone. "I only realised as I was going to leave a message that it was a bit of a cheek. I have to attend a private viewing at the Hickman Gallery on Saturday evening, and I'd rather not go on my own."
"That hardly sounds like you asking me for a favour," Clara commented. "The Hickman's terribly fashionable at the moment." It all went to prove that there was no such thing as bad publicity: the Hickman had become an overnight sensation when its previous owner had had to resign after proving to be a crook. Now everyone wanted to go and play "spot the fake".
"The thing is...," Kate said nervously, and then there was a long pause. "The artist...it might be a bit difficult, you see."
"Who is it?"
Another silence and then Kate said: "A man called Paul D'Annunzio. He's rather controversial, and, and I thought I needed someone unshockable, but grown-up."
There were probably worse ways to be described, Clara thought. And she did want to see Kate again. A few dodgy pictures were surely worth putting up with.
When Clara googled him, it turned out that D'Annunzio's big idea was painting porn stars as saints, which had surely been done long before. She wondered if someone should break it to him that Mary Whitehouse was dead and buried. Still, the pleased look on Kate's face when Clara arrived at the gallery almost made up for it. Kate was wearing a terribly trendy dress in a shade of old gold that made her skin glow, but it didn't seem to bother her that Clara was in her normal boring navy suit.
"I wasn't sure you could face it," Kate said, bending to brush Clara's cheek with a kiss. "You have a Turner print on your walls, don't you? I should have remembered contemporary art wasn't your thing."
"Always willing to expand my horizons," Clara said, trying to sound more like a sophisticated woman of the world, and less like a slightly giddy teenager. She didn't belong in this world of beautiful people and fancy galleries, but Kate looked immediately at home.
"Come and have a look round then. See what you think," said Kate. There was a slightly wary note in her voice now that said she suspected Clara wasn't going to enjoy the next part of the evening.
What offended her, Clara decided after the first dozen paintings, wasn't the religious symbolism – though she could see now why some Catholics hated D'Annunzio's work. What annoyed her was how ugly he'd made some of the women look.
"He simply can't draw, can he?" she said in a low voice to Kate. "I've seen far more erotic things in the National Gallery."
"I liked Cranach's Venus in her hat," Kate replied. "I always fancied posing like that."
Kate would fit in perfectly with Cranach's slender, seductive beauties, Clara thought, as well as today's models. Whereas her body shape hadn't been fashionable since at least the time of Rubens.
"Do you think Mr D'Annunzio has ever seen a woman with normal-sized breasts?" she said instead, because there was a difference between Rubenesque bosoms and silicone-enhanced. "Or has he just got a special deal on flesh tint?"
"Careful what you say," Kate said, her head turning rapidly, like a slightly worried gazelle. D'Annunzio's here somewhere. That's why Mark, our boss, said we all had to come. He's hoping he might get a deal to sell some of his prints. So we have to sound enthusiastic."
"I'll try my best," Clara said hastily. She was supposed to be being grown-up, wasn't she? But she felt oddly awkward with Kate tonight. As if the most popular girl in school had decided to be friends with her, but was suddenly going to realise her mistake.
"Would you like some champagne?" Kate's smile was warm now, approving.
"Yes, please," Clara replied. One glass would be fine, if she drank it slowly. She knew her own capacities precisely. One glass and she would not say anything rash, but she could relax a little and stop feeling self-conscious when Kate looked at her. "So are you enjoying the job?"
"It's good," Kate said. "More commercial than I'd expected, it's all about getting stuff in that will sell, even if it's not to your own taste. But I'm learning how to do the selling. Do you want to come and meet some of my colleagues?"
Clara had been to a lot of work parties over the years – hers and Harry's – and she prided herself that she could make coherent small talk about everything from Mergers and Acquisitions to Big Brother. And she did find it interesting listening to Mark and the others talking about contemporary art, even if she couldn't share their enthusiasm for it. People's work fascinated her; one of the reasons she'd specialised in employment law was the glimpse she got into other worlds.
"You're a barrister, are you, Clara?" Mark said, smiling warmly, as his shrewd, friendly eyes scanned her, obviously trying to work out what he could persuade her to buy.
"Employment law," she replied. "I'm afraid I don't have deep enough pockets for your kind of art."
"And I suspect your tastes are more old-fashioned," he said, still smiling. "Well, I'm relying on Kate to educate you. She should bring you to the gallery sometime, and we'll dig out something you might like. At a special discount, obviously. Excuse me, I need to go and grab Joella over there."
He clearly thought she was Kate's girlfriend, Clara realised. "You're out at work?" she murmured to Kate when they got out of earshot. This was getting complicated, not to say a little uncomfortable.
"Sort of," Kate replied a little uneasily. "I probably ought to have told you. The thing is–" She broke off, and looked with alarm at a very tall thin man in gaudily patterned jeans and a tight-fitting green shirt advancing on them. He smiled smugly down at Kate.
"I wasn't expecting you to be here, Kate. How are you getting on?"
"Fine," Kate said in a small voice. Cla ra moved a little nearer to her, almost instinctively. Whatever was going on, Kate might need help.
"Sad to hear about Irene, terrible way to go," the man went on, still smiling."But she liked to live dangerously, didn't she?"
What the hell did he think he was playing at, Clara wondered. He didn't sound drunk; maybe this was his idea of performance art, embarrassing beautiful women at parties. But how did he know about Irene?
"So what are you doing now that's Irene's gone? Taken over the business?" the man went on remorselessly.
"I'm working at the Eightfold Gallery." Kate said a little more confidently.
"I thought when I saw you with your friend–" the man began, and then stopped, as if he was seeing Clara properly for the first time. Clara drew herself up to her full – inadequate – height and eyeballed him right back. The way she did in court with the cockiest of her opponents, who needed to be shown that she was just as tough as them, in her own quiet way.
The man gave her a knowing smile, and said: "I do apologise. I'm an old friend of Kate's, but she's obviously a bit busy right now. I'll see you around, Katy. Take care. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
He wandered off and Clara turned to look at Kate. She was just standing there, very pale. Looking guilty.
"Who was that?" Clara demanded.
"That," Kate said tightly, "was Paul D'Annunzio."
The not very skilful painter of porn stars. Who was therefore quite likely to have heard of Irene Adler. No, that wouldn't explain why he called himself an "old friend" of Kate's....
"He was one of Irene's clients?" Clara asked. Kate nodded and then said:
"I had to come, but I thought if I came with you, he'd leave me alone. He wouldn't think..." She looked away. "It doesn't matter."
"He thought you were working as a dominatrix now," Clara went on. She was being very slow, wasn't she? "You knew he would be here, that he would try and talk to you–"
"Mark and the others don't know about Irene, I'm going to tell them, but I haven't yet," Kate broke in. "I thought you'd understand if he did say anything embarrassing, wouldn't make a fuss..."
When I saw you with your 'friend', D'Annunzio had said. It was all too obvious now, wasn't it? This was doubtless the sort of party that Irene – that Kate – was used to. "He thought that you'd picked me up, didn't he?" Clara said angrily. "That I was a client of yours. That's what I look like is it, to those in the know? Someone who pays to be mistreated?"
"No," Kate said hastily, "But like someone who might have fallen for me." And then her jaw dropped as she realised what she'd said.
Oh fuck, thought Clara, but even now she couldn't face a scene in public, after all the ones she'd had with Harry. She was still holding her champagne glass, she realised.
"Can you hold that for me, please," she said, thrusting it at Kate, "Back in a minute." And as Kate stood there, puzzled, a champagne glass in each hand, Clara forced her way through the crowds to the exit. She'd had a lot of practice in leaving parties hastily in the last few years, and Kate probably wouldn't realise she was running away till it was too late.
She'd been so stupid, hadn't she? Hadn't realised that Kate was just using her, or that she was so obvious. A pretty face and a sob story and Clara Johnson would agree to help anyone out, wouldn't she? Till Kate didn't need her anymore.
She wasn't quite sure where she was going, once she got out onto the street, but it didn't matter anyhow. It was still early in the evening. She'd have plenty of time to wander round London in a daze before going back to her empty flat. To the heaps of case files and the DVD boxsets and the ordinary, boring life of an ordinary, boring single dyke. And she could phone up Jane and tell her she was right, that Kate Winter was just another con woman like Irene, and that she'd been played for a sucker.
No, she told herself. Kate hadn't been after her money; she wouldn't have fallen for that. But her heart – even after Harry, that was still apparently up for grabs.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and she pulled it out to read the text:
Clara, I'm sorry I said the wrong thing. Please can you come back so we can talk? Kate
She only realised as she tried to type her reply that her hands were shaking:
I don't think there's anything to talk about. Clara
Kate's reply was prompt:
Let me buy you a drink at least. I owe you that. Kate
Best to get it over with, Clara decided abruptly. To say the things she felt now to Kate, not mutter them into her pillow to herself at 2 a.m. To stand up for herself, the way she should have done with Harry.
I'll give you half an hour and then I'm going home. Clara.
Has Kate just been making a fool out of Clara?
The bar Kate had given her directions to was surprisingly quiet when Clara went in, but one look at the prices explained that. And then Kate materialised beside her, looking like someone who belonged there, and said: "They do amazing cherry vodka here, but there are soft drinks if you prefer."
Clara hadn't drunk much of her champagne. She had the sudden urge to get completely hammered, because it didn't matter anymore. She didn't have to set a good example to Harry, did she? And she didn't care what Kate thought about her.
"Cherry vodka it is," she said, "if you're paying. A double." She found a table by the window and watched as Kate brought the glasses over, with an air of concentration that suggested she was more nervous than she'd first appeared.
"Your boss didn't object to you leaving the viewing early?" Clara said, as Kate sat down, and then remembered that she wasn't supposed to be being sympathetic.
"I said you weren't feeling well, and I needed to take you home," Kate replied. "Well the first bit was almost true. I didn't...it came out all wrong."
Clara drank down her vodka. The sharpness of it set her teeth on edge, but it did slip down easily. Give me some Dutch courage, she thought.
"You should have told me about D'Annunzio," she announced. "If you can't trust me–"
"I was going to, really I was," Kate said, staring miserably down at her shot glass. "But when you arrived, you looked pleased to see me. As if you wanted to be there. Be with me. And I didn't want to remind you that I used to work in the sex trade."
"If it hadn't been Paul, it would have been someone else. There are hundreds of men, out there, thousands, who were Irene's clients. Many more who would have liked to be. I can't get away from her."
"Do you want to?" That was the heart of the matter, Clara thought. She didn't want anything to do with Irene's brand of manipulation, desire as a weapon.
"Yes," Kate said and then added abruptly: "I don't like the person she made me into. No, the person I made myself into to please her."
"What do you mean?" Clara asked softly, feeling her anger seep away at the misery in Kate's expressive grey eyes. Kate was hurting already, and Clara had a sudden urge to hold her, to kiss her and make it all better. No, she told herself firmly, that's not going to help. "What happened with Irene?"
"I did whatever she wanted, and I didn't ask awkward questions, and I didn't stand up to her."
"You can't...it can't be easy standing up to a professional dominatrix," Clara said. Hard enough with anyone you loved.
"The thing is, I thought no-one was getting hurt," Kate said, and then she looked up and giggled slightly shakily at Clara. "I know that sounds funny, given the whips, but the clients wanted that, and Irene was always careful. And the insider trading and even the espionage, it was all just a game. Pushing e-mails and pieces of paper around. It didn't seem real."
"When did you realise there was something more?" How much had Kate been concealing at their first meeting? Clara wasn't sure how many more secrets she could cope with.
"When Irene disappeared, I wondered if Jim Moriarty had had something to do with it," Kate replied. "The 'consulting criminal' she'd been involved with. He'd have the contacts for that sort of thing. So I was trying to get hold of him, but nobody seemed to know anything. And Irene hadn't taken me along the one time they'd met in person, so I didn't even know who I was looking for."
"So have you tracked him down now?"
"No," Kate said shakily, "And I'm not going to try. After you told me about the job at the art gallery, I talked to an expert on paintings who Irene had...known."
She paused and Clara tried very hard not to imagine Brian Sewell or Andrew Graham-Dixon being tied up and scolded. It was worrying how easily you could start to believe that any man you'd heard of might be one of Irene's former clients.
"We had a long talk," Kate went on, "and he happened to mention something about fake Dali prints. So I asked him if he'd ever come across Moriarty. He went white and he said that he'd been rumoured to be behind a Vermeer that turned up in London the previous year, but that no-one wanted to ask questions because someone had got killed."
"That was the scandal at the Hickman gallery, wasn't it, where we were tonight?"
"Yes," Kate said. "I couldn't find anything useful in the papers, but I know this policeman..." She ground to a halt and gazed out into the darkness of the street.
"Another client of Irene's?" Clara said, as calmly as she could. If she was going to get anywhere with Kate, she had to learn to cope with this.
Kate nodded. "I asked him about the Vermeer and he said that a gallery attendant had been killed by a professional hitman to stop him revealing the fake. And that there were a whole string of other crimes at the same time believed to be organised by one man, including several other murders."
"And you think that might have been Moriarty?"
"Yes. I don't...I don't know how much Irene knew about him. But there was a dead body that wasn't hers, and he's a murderer, and I don't know what else he's done." There was something near panic in those clear grey eyes. "If I'd asked for details at the time... If I'd told her not to get involved with him..."
"Would she have listened?"
"No," Kate said sadly, and took a sip of her vodka, and added: "But I should still have tried."
What can you say to that? It was tempting to tell Kate she should have never have got involved with Irene, that she should have seen this coming. But it was a long way even from sex games with a princess to calling on the services of a murderer. Had Irene got herself into something she couldn't handle, as well?
Kate was still staring silently at her, and Clara firmly squashed any burgeoning feelings of sympathy towards Irene. It was one thing endangering herself, but Irene shouldn't have hurt Kate the way she had. Being left feeling guilty as well as bereft.
"Is there anything you do know?" she asked Kate. "Anything you can tell the police about Moriarty?"
"Nothing that will help them much," Kate said after a moment's thought. "Irene said he was young, good-looking, good taste in suits. Liked a laugh."
"Even that might help them a bit. You could pass on what you know anonymously via this policeman. It might make you feel better, if you'd done something to try and stop him." It was funny how she always ended up trying to solve Kate's problems for her. But then behind the polished facade there was something oddly vulnerable about Kate. She'd been Irene's private toy, hadn't she, all these years? What had that done to her?
"Should I tell the police about Irene's death being faked?" Kate asked.
"I can't make that decision for you," Clara replied promptly.
"I don't want to," Kate said, her chin going up. "I know she's...a criminal, and she's behaved terribly, but she was in genuine danger. I wouldn't want the CIA finding her again."
"It's not surprising you want to protect her," Clara said. She wished she could say something more helpful, but she couldn't come up with anything.
They sat silently for a while; Kate sipped her drink delicately, and Clara tried to keep her brain in gear and not just daydream about the feel of those soft, full lips on her skin. There was something more that Kate wanted to tell her, she felt sure of it. She saw that sometimes with her clients: that they'd talk for half an hour about one problem, and only at the last moment reveal what was really bugging them. Well, at least she wasn't charging Kate by the minute tonight.
"You said I needed to trust you..." Kate began at last, and then stopped, playing with her glass again, and asked: "Do you want another drink?"
"No, thanks," said Clara. She'd been wrong to think that alcohol would help, it never did. One more drink and she'd just feel miserable, she knew that. Then Kate looked into her eyes, and said quietly:
"Maybe...maybe you need to trust me as well. What was she like? The woman you've just broken up with?"
"How did you know?" Clara demanded, her anger surging up again. Kate flinched, and Clara automatically dropped her voice: "Have you been investigating me?"
"No," Kate said, "I guessed. I... Irene taught me how to spot things about people. Pick up on what they might like. You guessed right away I was Irene's lover, and when we went into the bar I saw the barman's face. He was pleased that you were with an unfamiliar woman. Not shocked or surprised. So gay, but not in a relationship."
"What made you think I'd recently broken up with someone?" Clara said, wondering if she looked that vulnerable. If her whole miserable history could be read by someone who'd been trained by Irene.
"No pictures on your desk at work."
"Maybe I've just never met anyone."
"No. Then there'd be pictures of your family, or your godchildren or something like that. You'd always find someone to love. That's just the way you are. But there was nothing." And then Kate smiled sadly at Clara. "And you understand what it's like to be hurt."
"Her name is Harry Watson and she is an alcoholic," Clara said, because it was easier getting out quickly, like ripping a plaster off a wound. "She left me just over a year ago."
"I'm sorry," Kate said, and now it was her hand coming to rest on Clara's. "I've seen people who've got into that spiral of drinking, and it's terrible. Especially if...if you remember how wonderful they were before."
"What makes you think Harry was wonderful?"
"There must have been something wonderful to make you stay with her, despite what she did," Kate replied simply.
"She was so alive," Clara said, and it was odd how easy it was to talk about it now. "She made things interesting, stirred things up. She was clever and funny and...and now that's mostly gone." Energy turned into destructiveness, wit into insults. Harry had resented growing up, settling down, that had been the real start of it. Thirty had been hard enough for Harry. Thirty-five and a civil partnership had been impossible.
"It's a mess, isn't it?" Kate said, and a tentative smile blossomed on her face. "Still, it's done now. Whatever I tell the police, I can't imagine they'll find Irene. And I presume Harry's not coming back, if her photos are gone."
"They're still in a drawer," Clara said. "But no, I'm through with her. I haven't the strength for any more of her dramas." It had almost been a relief when Harry had walked out, an act of cruelty that had finally snapped the threads of Clara's patience. To have the flat calmly quiet when she went home, not with the ominous quiet of: Has Harry passed out? If she's not here where has she got to?
Kate's smile was warmer now: "That's good. So where do we go from here?"
"You might be interested in...meeting again?" said Clara slowly. She didn't want to humiliate herself by taking it for granted.
"I meant should we go to your place or mine?" Kate said, and then those gorgeous lips formed themselves into an "O" of surprise, and she giggled, and said: "I've been with Irene too long, haven't I? Am I supposed to wait for a few more dates before I suggest sex?"
"Was tonight a date?" Clara asked warily and Kate's face clouded.
"I suppose...not really. Maybe this bit in the bar might count as a date? I haven't got that much recent experience. So what am I supposed to do?"
"What do you want to do?" Clara asked automatically.
"Go to your place?" Kate said, smiling again. "I've got a rather tacky bedsit and the bed's terribly rickety." And then she went on quickly: "There are three things I'm good at. Wearing clothes, office administration and sex. And you look as if you're up to date with your filing."
"I don't want to..." Clara began and then couldn't think how to finish the sentence. Because of course she wanted Kate, how could anyone not do? How could Irene have given this gorgeous woman up?
"It's too soon," she said at last.
"After more than a year?"
"I meant for you. You're still on the rebound. You're not over Irene yet."
"I want to get over her," Kate said quietly, and she wasn't smiling now. "And I can't think of anyone better to help me than you."
"I don't want either of us getting hurt." Clara didn't know how this would go wrong yet. She just knew that it would, the way things with any woman did now for her, since Harry. And this, in particular, couldn't be real.
Kate smiled sweetly: "Oh, that's OK. I'll be careful. And I don't need the kinky stuff."
"I didn't mean–" Clara began, and she could feel herself blushing. Kate's thumb insinuated itself beneath her hand, brushing at the inside of her wrist in a most disconcerting way. Then Kate leaned towards her.
"I know, but I'll look after you. I can make it good. If you'll trust me."
Clara could feel warmth, tension build in her body, the tickle in her groin that made her want to react. Why not take what was on offer? Not worry about the consequences, for once. Just explore the body of this alluring, experienced woman, who had doubtless been taught so much...And that's the real problem, isn't it, she realised abruptly. I'm worried I'll disappoint Kate in bed.
"I'm not Irene Adler," she said and it came out fiercely, defensively.
"Don't you think, under the circumstances, that's rather a recommendation?" Kate said, and then she leant forth even more, to whisper into Clara's ear, as her left hand traced its way a little further up the inside of Clara's arm.: "She doesn't believe in public demonstrations of affection. Thinks they're undignified."
Well, put it like that, Clara thought, and her mouth went out to press against those teasing, kissable lips, thinking muzzily: If anyone in the bar complains, I'll sue them for discrimination.
Kate's lips were cool, her mouth yielding softly, and Clara could taste the cherry vodka on her. Strange to kiss someone who'd been drinking and not be turned off, but she didn't worry about Kate and alcohol. She clearly wasn't a woman who needed to drown her sorrows. She shouldn't be thinking about Harry, she told herself firmly, as she broke away from the kiss.
But Kate just smiled and said: "It's OK. We've got plenty of time. If you would like to take me home, that is."
"Yes," Clara said firmly, because even if this was going to go wrong, she might as well have one great night first.
Kate's with Clara now, but what about Irene?
It was fine when they were going home; Kate chatted casually about the job, and the books she'd read, and if Clara's share of the conversation weren't that coherent it didn't seem to matter. But back at her quiet, too tidy flat, Clara's nerves worsened, especially once they went into the bedroom. She felt horrendously embarrassed as she started to undress. Now was the moment when the contrast would come, when the excessive curve of her belly and the fact that she wore Marks and Spencers underwear would be revealed. But then Kate bent down over her shoulder, and unhooked her bra and announced with pleasure: "You have breasts, real breasts," and started to kiss them enthusiastically.
When Clara could think coherently again, she muttered: "You can't really worry about your figure, can you?"
"I have been on a strict diet since I was eighteen," Kate announced. "The modelling agency insisted on it, and Irene took it for granted. I want to lick whipped cream off your stomach. I want to eat Danish pastries in bed. I want to have fun."
Maybe it was all just an act, Clara thought, but if so, it was the sweetest act she'd ever seen, and she couldn't help falling for it.
"There's an all-night supermarket down the road," she said, "So we can get some Danish pastries later. But first, I think," – she reached up for the zip on Kate's dress – "we need to work up an appetite."
It wasn't perfect, of course, it couldn't hope to be. There was a moment when Clara reached for the massage oil and said "Harry always liked–", and shut up quickly, because she didn't want to seem obsessed with Harry. And later, as Kate straddled her, she looked down with a slight air of surprise, as if she couldn't quite remember who Clara was.
But mostly it worked. Kate seemed to know intuitively what Clara would like, skilfully fondling and licking till Clara's world narrowed to heat and pressure and her needy body at last being filled, satisfied. And then Kate cheerfully told her what she would like, a woman obviously at home with her own body.
"Just there," she said as Clara's tongue tentatively brushed her clit. "Bit harder, yes, that's good. Oh...yes." Her pale skin was flushing, and her voice was breathy, enticing. "Don't stop...please, Clara." Clara did as she was told, because there was nothing more that she wanted than to adore her own sexy goddess, marvel at the fact that she could drive her into one shuddering climax after another.
Clara lay on the bed exhausted afterwards, muscles that she'd almost forgotten she possessed aching, and Kate wrapped her long arms around her and said:
"I think the Danish pastries can wait for tonight, but would a fry-up for breakfast be possible?"
"I'll see what I can do," Clara said and the last thing she remembered before falling asleep was Kate's kiss against her cheek.
Clara had half expected Kate to have vanished in the night, no more than a dream, but when she woke, Kate was still in her bed. Her long limbs were sprawled out luxuriously and she looked exactly like an advert for the benefits of eight hours sleep a night. Or like something from an adult version of Sleeping Beauty, Clara thought, as Kate wriggled and shifted, and the ivory slenderness of her arm and shoulder emerged from beneath the duvet. Maybe it was just as well that all Clara's nightclothes had been the wrong size for Kate, she couldn't help thinking.
Kate's eyes opened and she stretched and yawned. "Good morning."
"Hope you slept well," Clara said and Kate smiled and sat up sleepily, the duvet falling away from her.
"It's a very comfortable bed." she said.
"Do you want breakfast?" Clara asked and as Kate's brow creased, added hastily: "I mean, can you stay for breakfast?"
"I'm in no hurry," Kate said. She had the relaxed air of a model who could lie around looking seductive all day if necessary. "But if there are things you have to do..."
I need to answer Maddy's e-mail, and iron some blouses and sew the button back on my smart trousers, and–
"Nothing that can't wait," Clara said firmly, and Kate smiled and pushed the duvet a little further off the bed, and then lay back down again, all naked grace and promise.
"Then maybe we should have a quiet day in," she said.
Clara went to work on Monday in an unironed shirt and her slightly less smart trousers and sent a hasty e-mail at lunchtime:
Sorry, just got a big case come up and I'm rushed off my feet. The IKEA trip will have to wait till next month, I think. As long as it's before Mum's birthday, we're OK.
love to you and the family,
"You're going way too fast," Maddy said, when Clara told her three weeks later that Kate was moving in.
She had long since come to terms with the fact that Maddy always thought she was better qualified than Clara was to run Clara's love life. That was what big sisters were for, after all, to point out the error of your ways.
"Kate has the world's grottiest bedsit," she replied. "It has mould growing on the mould. I couldn't let her stay there."
"Do you know anything about her at all? She could be planning to tie you up and rob you blind."
Really not a good idea to say that Kate would know exactly the right knots to tie, Clara thought. She was going to have to explain about Kate at some point, but not yet. It would be a little tricky.
"I mean," Maddy went on, looking across at Clara with the sceptical ruthlessness that only a blood relative could manage, "she is rather out of your league."
That was what it came down to, wasn't it? She wished she could tell Maddy what Kate had said to her, but that too would have to wait. That moment when she'd realised that what was between them was real.
It had been a couple of days after the weekend, the evening they'd belatedly had their first almost proper date, and ended up walking down the South Bank to browse through the second-hand book stalls. Kate had ended up with an armful of paperbacks – apparently reading was another thing she hadn't had time for when with Irene – and as Clara produced a plastic bag from the depths of a coat pocket, she found herself looking up at Kate's gorgeous face and blurting out: "Why me?"
"Why not you?" Kate said, ramming books into the bag. And then she carefully put down the bag and took Clara's hand and smiled at her. "You're adorable."
"But you could go to a club tonight and find a dozen women who are better-looking than me."
"Just suppose I did meet someone else? At some point, I'd have to tell them about myself," Kate said seriously. "About Irene."
"They wouldn't mind..."
"No," Kate said, and smiled at her sadly. "That's the problem. You're the first person I've met who after I've talked about Irene still wanted to hear about me."
And then she leaned into Clara, and Clara hugged her tightly, because it seemed there were advantages to not being a fan of Irene Adler.
It's going to work, Clara told herself, we can make it work. She'd had a chance and she'd taken it, and she was going to make Kate happy. But at the start of April, she opened the Times at the breakfast table and on page 10 there was a picture of Irene Adler.
She felt her hands clench and then belatedly looked at the story beneath. Sir George Lewis was angling to come back into the Cabinet, so, of course, the Times had chosen to print the reason that'd he had to stop being a Minister in the first place. It didn't mean...
"Are you OK?" Kate asked, wandering into the kitchen in a very revealing dove grey dressing gown. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Maybe I have," Clara said, putting the paper down. Kate looked across at the upside-down picture and smiled:
"That's the old photo off the website. It took me a week's work to find one that Irene was happy with. She always was a bit high-maintenance."
Clara tried to smile back, but it obviously didn't work properly. Kate came round the table to stand beside her, her hand reaching out to brush Clara's cheek.
"It's over. You know it is."
It came out almost without Clara thinking about it.
"I'm worried she'll come back." She dreamt about it sometimes; that she walked into the flat and there Irene was, all blood-red lipstick and power. That clever, diamond-sharp beauty come to retrieve Kate as her own possession.
"Even if she did–" Kate began, and her voice was gentle.
"I know. I know. It's just..." Clara rested her head wearily against the soft curve of Kate's stomach – not quite as flat as it had been when she moved in – and knew she was being irrational. Kate's hand was stroking her hair now, trying to soothe her.
"If it worries you," Kate said, "I know a man who could find out what happened to her. Have you seen who's on the front page again?"
"Sherlock Holmes, you mean?"
"I met him once," Kate said quietly. "He was trying to steal some photos from Irene. She was fascinated by him."
"I...I used to know John and Sherlock very slightly," Clara said.
"How did you...oh. Is Harry related to Dr Watson?"
"His sister. We'd split up before John met Sherlock, but I've occasionally been round to see John at Baker Street." You couldn't know John Watson and not know Sherlock, or at least know all about him. He'd filled up John's life completely, taken it over. But maybe that was what John wanted. Or thought he wanted.
"I'm surprised you didn't read about us on his blog," Kate said. "Or maybe that was one of the posts he had to take down."
"I...I gave up reading John's blog," Clara said. "Harry used to comment on it."
Kate kept stroking her hair, and if she thought it was strange that Clara couldn't face reading her ex's comments on a blog, she didn't say it.
What she did say, eventually, was: "So which of us do you think ought to contact Mr Holmes?"
How much is Sherlock prepared to tell Clara about Irene?
Sherlock had said to come at eight, but it was only 7.30 pm when Clara emerged from Baker Street tube station. She wondered where she could kill some time, and then remembered that Sherlock would doubtless deduce her presence if she was lurking within half a mile of 221B.
When she rang the doorbell, John came down and gave her a hug and an encouraging smile.
"Glad you're here," he said. "Sherlock's a bit twitchy; he's given up smoking yet again."
"What can I do for you, Ms Johnson?" Sherlock said as she went in and sat in the chair John offered. He was sprawled listlessly across a chair by the window, but then he raised his head and looked at her, and she could almost see his calculating mind dissect all her secrets, and file them away neatly.
"I have a client," she said, as confidently as she could. "Who's interested in knowing what happened to Irene Adler. I believe you've run across her yourself."
John was hovering by Sherlock's shoulder – to protect him, to restrain him? – and Sherlock turned and gave him a single hard stare.
"John," he said, in the hard dark voice that could stir even a lesbian's blood, "Go down to the street and see if there's a van parked anywhere along it. A van full of listening devices and one of Mycroft's men."
"You can't think that Clara–" John began, and Sherlock broke in:
"There have been three newspaper stories about Irene Adler in the last week, which is obviously what's got Ms Johnson's client worried. Who do you think might have planted those stories? Now go."
John nodded and left, and Clara sat there wondered what she'd got herself into. Then Sherlock unfolded himself from his chair and came to loom over her. I mustn't be intimidated, she thought, but there was something oddly daunting about Sherlock, the sense that the ordinary rules didn't apply when he was around.
"John's very conscientious," he said. "We have five minutes at least, possibly nearer ten. So start by telling me for how long Kate Winter has been your lover."
"Before or after Christmas? Tell me or I can't help you."
"After," she breathed, "but how..."
"You're always smartly dressed, but your clothes are more fashionable than usual and your make-up's better. Your heels are an inch higher than you normal wear and your posture has also improved. You're clearly involved in a relationship with someone who is taller than you, whom you literally look up to. You're five foot seven, you're gay, and hence we're talking about a stylish lesbian who is at least five foot nine or ten. And you're suddenly interested in Irene Adler, even though she's officially been dead for three months. The most likely possibility is that you're sleeping with Kate Winter."
"I...yes. But I only got involved with her after Irene was gone. That was what you meant, wasn't it?"
"Yes. Why is she worried about Irene returning? No, of course, it's you who's worried, isn't it? A natural talent for masochism, something you both share."
"If you're not going to help–" Clara began, standing up angrily. Sherlock smiled down at her.
"Oh, but I am," he said. "I know exactly what happened to Irene. But John doesn't and I'm rather it stayed that way. How much has Ms Winter told you?"
"That Irene faked her own death, left someone else's battered body that was identified as her own."
"That was only the start of the fun," Sherlock said, and the smile on his face was terrifying. "But Irene's made no contact with her since then, as far as you know?"
"A friend of Kate's told her she's seen Irene. At Battersea power station, of all the bizarre places."
"Irene came back from the dead because she had one last scam to pull off. She nearly talked my brother out of a hundred million pounds. But I put a stop to that."
She hadn't known Sherlock had a brother, let alone one with access to that kind of money. What on earth had Irene been up to?
"Kate said the CIA were after them."
"Everyone was after Irene. Especially when I removed the protection she had. A camera-phone with a lot of compromising images on it. She had to run for her life, leave the country."
"Where is she now?" She was a terrible woman, but to have the CIA after her was no joke.
"Officially, she's in a witness protection scheme, rattling round somewhere in the obscurer depths of Texas."
Sherlock smirked: "Killed by terrorists in Karachi. Never a good move for a lesbian dominatrix to try negotiating with theocrats."
Even for him, the comment was brutally offensive, but there was something in the way he was staring at her coolly that didn't ring quite true. Something too calculated...
"That's not what really happened, is it?" she said.
"No," he replied. "She did get herself into trouble in Pakistan, but I saved her. And then helped her fake her death a second time. Irene Adler is properly dead and buried. And somewhere there's a rich young woman, who looks nothing like her, enjoying herself. She had one big payday just before I took her camera-phone away."
"Is that the truth?"
"It's enough of the truth." He paused and then looked at her and added abruptly: "Ms Winter has had a lucky escape. Ms Adler is one of the most unscrupulous women I have ever met."
There was an edge to his voice that surprised her. "What do you mean?"
"Were you told about what happened at our first encounter?"
Oh, of course, that was it: wounded vanity.
"Kate said you and Irene fought off a CIA attack together, and then you snatched Irene's phone. But she drugged you and retrieved it."
"Did she also tell you that she was knocked out? That all her statements are hearsay?"
"Yes," Clara said. Had there been something else that Kate hadn't known about? "Wasn't that what happened?"
Sherlock moved over to the mantelpiece and gazed into the mirror as if it would reveal some further complex details of the case.
"It was, but everyone missed something," he said, slowly. "A minor point, but an interesting one. There were three CIA men and four of us in the house: myself, John, Irene and Ms Winter – Kate. They were armed; we were not. They knocked Kate out upstairs, hurried downstairs to find us. They wanted Irene to open her safe, and they were prepared to kill in order to get her to do so."
"So whom do you threaten in order to get the safe opened?"
"Irene had some trick she played, didn't she, some booby trap in the safe?" Kate had been very vague about what exactly had happened at that point, and Clara was fairly sure she didn't want to hear the details. "Was that why the Americans wanted you to open it? So she couldn't con them?"
"They had an obvious way of preventing her from doing so. The ideal potential lever in their hands: Irene's lover of the last eight years. And yet they thought they were going to get better results from threatening me with John's death." He turned round to glare at her. "What does that tell you about Irene's relationship with Kate?"
What does that tell you about your relationship with John? She saw the skin around his cheekbones tighten as he dared her to say it, to speak about the impossible subject of his love for his flatmate. She shook her head. She wasn't getting involved in that elephant trap.
"You think she'd have let Kate be killed?" she said instead.
"The CIA certainly did. And I'd also say that it was handy for Ms Winter at Christmas time that she's a good six inches taller than Irene. A height difference of that extent would have been impossible to hide in a replacement corpse."
Sherlock's hand reached out to pat the skull on his mantelpiece, as Clara tried to choke back the bile rushing into her throat. He waited, his pale eyes scanning her again, and then added softly: "Irene didn't mention Kate at our last meeting. I don't imagine that anyone who's after Irene will bother her."
Clara wondered if the ambiguity of that last statement was deliberate.
"And what about you?" she asked, because he wasn't the only one who could be ambiguous. He looked down at her, and said:
"I didn't sleep with Irene, if that's what you're asking. I don't expect to see her again. I don't...want to see her again."
She nodded, and said nothing, because there was another pitfall there.
"Tell Ms Winter whatever you choose," Sherlock added. "But I would suggest that you never repeat what I've said to anyone else. Especially not to Harry Watson; as you may remember, she's prone to blab secrets when she's drunk."
Harry had been off the booze last time Clara had spoken to her. Well, she'd thought she was. But she wasn't a genius like Sherlock, equipped to spot every weakness, every pressure point in someone. He had too much in common with Irene Adler for her liking. She wondered if she should thank him or offer him money for the information he'd provided. She didn't know the etiquette for this kind of thing; and if there was some, doubtless Sherlock wouldn't stick to it.
"I'm grateful–" she began falteringly, and Sherlock held up his hand to stop her.
"Here comes John," he said, and a moment later Clara heard him hurrying back up the stairs.
"There was one person I saw who looked a bit suspicious, hanging around outside Speedy's," John said, pulling out his phone to show Sherlock a photo. He still had Harry's old phone, Clara saw, with the inscription from her on it. It had hurt a lot, once, that Harry had given it away. Now she just wondered why she'd ever wasted her money buying something so fancy. As if it could have changed anything between her and Harry.
"Ignore her," Sherlock told John, "she's one of Mr Chaterjee's wives. Nothing else? No vans?"
"No sign of anything like that. I think you're getting a bit paranoid, Sherlock." John smiled at Clara. "We had a case down in Devon a few weeks ago, and we had the most mind-blowing things happen at a secret defence laboratory."
"Unfortunately, however," Sherlock said, glaring down at Clara, "we do not have a case here. Ms Johnson refuses to tell me the name of her client and I must therefore decline to get involved. I do not accept mysteries at both ends of a case."
"I don't..." she began, and then realised what Sherlock was up to. "I don't think it matters exactly who my client is."
"Irene Adler was mixed up with some very unsavoury characters. I am not solving any more puzzles connected with her without knowing their exact provenance," Sherlock said, and flicked a glance at John that Clara couldn't quite understand. "But you can go back to your client and tell him that he has nothing to fear."
"Him?" John asked.
"He is one of the cryptanalysts who Irene used to try and crack the e-mail she received and who is now worried about losing his job as a result. Surely that is immediately obvious from Ms Johnson's lipstick, and the marks on her right hand?" Clara found herself looking down at her hand before remembering that it was all complete bullshit. Fortunately, John was apparently gullible enough not to question Sherlock's deduction. He simply said, in a slightly choked voice:
"Irene Adler's in a witness protection programme in the US. Just so you – I mean your client – knows."
Oh God, she realised, John thinks I was involved with Irene as well. And does he know what's really happened to her?
"Thanks, John," she said hastily, smiling at him. "You're more help than Sherlock's been. Goodbye." She marched out hastily. It wasn't her business. If Sherlock was concealing things from John, if he had been helping Irene Adler play some of her dangerous games, it was not her business.
On the way home she wondered what she should tell Kate, but the moment she went into her bedroom and saw Kate curled up reading a bulky novel on Richard III, she knew what she had to say.
"I saw Sherlock. He said that he'd helped Irene fake her own death."
Kate looked up, startled. "She was texting him a lot after their first meeting, but she told me that he never replied."
"This wasn't about what happened at Christmas," Clara said. "This was...this was a second fake death. In Pakistan of all strange places." She shook her head and went on slowly. "I'm afraid I'm not sure I took it all in properly. There was something about Sherlock's brother..."
"His name's Mycroft. He's someone very important in the British Government. Irene thought she might be able to sell him something, but I don't know what."
"I could go back and ask Sherlock for more details, if you like."
"No," said Kate, and sighed and put down the book. "I don't want to know what else she did. It doesn't matter any more. But I suppose it's not surprising she went to Sherlock for help in the end. She probably knew she could con him into doing what she wanted."
"He says he didn't sleep with her," Clara said hastily. "Harry always reckoned he's not interested in sex."
"Irene thought he was sexually inexperienced and had probably never worked out properly what he liked," Kate replied. "She reckoned she could find a way to use that..." Her voice trailed off, and she rolled over to lie on her back, staring up at the ceiling as if it would answer all her questions.
If ever there was a man crying out to be made a fool of by a woman, it was Sherlock, Clara couldn't help thinking. Might teach him a thing or two about humanity. And then she remembered the proud note in his voice when he said John's very conscientious. Sherlock cared for one other person, at least, which was more that Irene Adler did. Irene might inspire devotion, but she didn't give it. Instinctively, she sat down on the bed and reached for Kate's hand.
"Sherlock said she won't be coming back," Clara said. "I...I'm sorry you couldn't say goodbye to her, at least. But I presume it wouldn't be safe. If you're a link to Irene's old identity."
Kate's hand on hers felt cool and firm, and when she spoke her voice was calm: "I'm glad Irene's not dead. I wouldn't have wanted her getting killed." Clara waited, as Kate looked thoughtfully up at her. She wondered if she should tell Kate what Sherlock had said about Irene being willing to sacrifice her. But if the wounds were almost healed, why rip them open again? It was all Sherlock's speculation, anyhow.
"So how is Harry getting on?" Kate asked into the silence.
"John didn't say," Clara said and then abruptly realised, and I didn't think to ask. "But...I can't guarantee I've had the last of the late night phone calls from her." Some embarrassing exes just weren't helpful about changing their identity and disappearing off the face of the earth.
"Don't worry, Clara. As long as Harry's not got the CIA on her tail, I can live with it," Kate said, and she smiled up at Clara. "We can live with it. Whatever comes." And her arms reached out to pull Clara down on the bed beside her.