Robin couldn't catch her breath. Ilsa and Vanessa looked just as bad off as they screeched with laughter around the table with her. Robin had just finished telling them about most of the Sten party, keeping the most outrageous parts to herself.
"I don't think I'll be able to look Strike in the eye again - who'd have known!" Vanessa looked especially shocked. She hadn't spent enough time with him to see completely past the gruff exterior yet.
"You'd be surprised - when we were teenagers…well, I'm not going to say anything," Ilsa dipped her hand in the bowl for another samosa. I'll end up incriminating myself," she laughed.
The veranda in Dishoom had tried it's best to transport them to a recreation of an Irani café in Bombay but the hipsters, office workers and the persistent drizzle of London had made it hard to forget that they were just in Shoreditch on another Thursday night. Robin's mobile began to incessantly beep on the table. She hated it when people answered their phone at dinner.
"It's okay," Ilsa reassured her, "It sounds urgent,"
She frowned at it and turned it over, "Actually, it's not a message - it's loads of emails."
"Spam?" Vanessa suggested.
Robin had looked at the screen and saw who the email was from immediately. She didn't think she would ever forget that email address.
"What's wrong?" Ilsa was concerned about the pinched look on Robin's face.
"They're from Charlotte,"
While Ilsa filled Vanessa in with who Charlotte was, Robin swiped her screen through to her inbox.
"What's wrong with her?" Ilsa was immediately cross, "First Corm, now you, what is she playing at?"
"Should I open them?" Even though Robin could control her curiosity with Strike, given the bravado of being giggly with two new friends made the thought of opening them irresistible to Robin, "I'm going to open them." Before any of them could stop her, she had opened the first email, "Fuck!"
"You've been spending too much time with Corm!" Ilsa pretended to be disapproving.
"Sorry! Accident. It's just…" Strike's bare body had flashed on the screen. He lay chest down in bed, his face turned to the side, the sheet was just about covering his lower body. The photo was clearly from before he had lost his leg. Taken while he was sleeping, his smooth face looked much younger as the cigarettes hadn't yet taken a toll on his skin. His limbs and torso were tanned muscle, so it must have been from his boxing days, "They're photos of Cormoran - this one's not indecent but…" her emphasis on the last word made it clear this was not for their eyes, she'd save Strike his blushes.
"Charlotte has sent you naked photos of Corm?" Ilsa was disgusted.
"Not exactly naked- she's scanned at least one letter too…" Robin ran her eyes over Strike's handwriting, words of love and longing were woven together by his heavy, spiky handwriting. She stopped reading, "Love letters," her voice sounded flat even to herself.
Robin had thought Ilsa couldn't have reached another level of anger, but she found she could, "Does Charlotte think she can provoke you into a jealous rage? That's more her style!"
Robin rolled her eyes, "Doesn't surprise me, she's the kind of woman who sees everyone else as competition,"
"That's why she hates me, I hugged Corm once - a little too long in her estimation - she had some choice words for me when we were alone,"
Robin's brow shot up in surprise that Charlotte had gone so far, "Did you tell Cormoran?"
"She'd already tried her best to isolate him from us, any other conflict between them and she would have made sure we would have never seen him again,"
Robin felt a little disappointed in Strike until she remembered these were her friends of mere months. She had none in London before the wedding apart from Strike, the people she spent her free time with had been Matthew's friends. She could see how easily it could happen.
"What will Strike say?" Vanessa looked concerned.
"Are you going to tell him?" Ilsa interjected, "Just remember she'll have sent these to you because she expects you to have a certain response,"
"You don't think she would have thought through both scenarios?"
"It's more than likely if I tell him, he'll just tell me to ignore her."
Robin tried to hide her smile at Strike's response
Strike's eyes had narrowed as he swiped through the photos and scans, his face becoming increasingly surly. He was assuming Charlotte had meant to make Robin feel insecure, but the more he looked through these and saw the way he had aged, the more insecure he felt that Robin could have seen his downward slide into near middle-age. He inwardly cursed Charlotte.
The love letters had made him scowl more intensely than the candid shots of him. His words seemed vacuous and anaemic as Strike thought of the intensity of his feelings towards Robin. He and Charlotte had shared their scars of traumatic childhoods which had drawn them towards one another. Robin, on the other hand, shared his excitement and sometimes blind focus on their work, her similar sense of humour, generous and caring personality seemed to lighten his and frankly, there was no one he felt understood and accepted him more. He hadn't ever bought into the idea of finding one perfect love until Robin.
You're being a fucking soppy idiot.
She looked at him quizzically as Robin had noticed his eyes lifting to look at her, "You didn't open them all?" he handed her back the phone and she wondered why he was smiling softly in the circumstances.
"No, I'm not going to give her the satisfaction and that's not fair to you I just thought I should tell you before I deleted them," Robin looked up at him from deleting the emails, emptying the trash folder and finally blocked Charlotte's email address, "Aren't you worried that she could use them against you in another way? Give them to the press to embarrass you?"
He stood up from where he was leaning against the desk, "I don't think my naked body will warrant a lot of press coverage, Robin,"
She smiled and her grey-blue eyes twinkled with mischief, "I'd buy a copy,"
Strike's brow wrinkled, "You don't need it - you're the lucky one who's got all this on tap," he patted his stomach and gave her a warm grin.
Robin reached up and cupped his face in her hand, "Sod off!" she laughed.
He winked at her before asking "Tea?" and he was gone, walking off into the other room.
That afternoon Robin had tracked Red to the Langham hotel. She had arrived alone, and Robin observed the main entrance for her to come back out, sat on the sand-coloured, curved steps of All Souls camouflaged by the chattering tourists she could sit with her camera ready. Her mobile dinged and she saw a text from Ilsa.
Is it all organised for tomorrow?.
Robin texted back, She's agreed to meet at 13:00
Okay, are you coming back tonight, or shall we meet a bit earlier to discuss?
No - I'll meet you at Bond Street Station at the ticket gates at 12:00.
For the rest of the afternoon, she tried to fight the sickly churning in her stomach. How was she going to tell Cormoran?
"You've got work on tomorrow haven't you?" She asked Strike casually. The credits rolled on the episode of 'The Killing' they had missed while away at the wedding. They had spent most of the episode arguing who the murderer was. Strike had threatened to buy her a Faroe Island jumper because perhaps it would make Robin more like Lund and she'd finally agree with him that the murderer was the sycophantic friend of the father's. She knew it was too but she it was too easy to torment him. And he let her, Matthew never had. Her lips trailed down his throat.
"Have to do some surveillance for the Alam case, catch up after last weekend. Why?" His voice became low and husky.
Robin's lips found the hollow of his throat and Strike breathed in raggedly, tightening his arm around her. His fingers undone the buttons of her shirt, one by one, just revealing a hint of a white lacy bra against the incandescence of her creamy skin.
"Lifting her head she explained, "As you weren't around, I arranged to meet up with Ilsa. Go shopping. Nick has a weekend shift," She tried to make it sound casual but the memory of what had happened last time she hadn't been honest with him tormented her.
Strike absorbed the tension lines in her face and mistook it for disappointment, apart from being desperate for sleep he hadn't wished he could have a day off for a long time so he could just enjoy being with Robin alone for the whole day, "We're both free on Sunday - do something special? I've not even taken you out for dinner yet," he stroked his fingertips along her petal-soft skin through the opening he had made.
Robin's guilt swelled at his words and the thrill of his touch as she leant her forehead against Strike's cheek, "We've been to the pub for lunch twice this week?" to show that she had appreciated every moment they managed to spend together during the last week.
His other hand ran through her hair, untangling the tousles he'd made. He lifted an eyebrow, "You think that's the extent of my dating prowess?" Strike shook his head in mock-outrage.
She giggled and dipped her eyes down.
"I clearly need to raise your expectations," and his lips grazed against hers.
Once their plan had been properly formulated, Robin and Ilsa mounted the escalators that would take them to street level through the shopping centre at Bond Street Station. After Strike had risen early to start work, Robin had missed the warmth that radiated from him. Robin had shivered alone in Strike's bed because he couldn't sleep with the heating on too high. Now the unseasonably warm weather was back again by the afternoon. Ilsa and Robin had removed their jackets in the bright sunlit street.
They waited for the lights to change standing on the edge of the curb at the crossing, leaning into the road to get across as soon as possible. Both were feeling a little jittery about whether their plan would work. Ilsa, who had grown accustomed to London ways over the last ten years, stepped out suddenly into a small gap in the traffic. Robin, who was running through the different scenarios that their meeting could take, stepped out to follow her.
But a second too late.
The shrill, furious ringing of a cycle bell demanded her attention as a bike cut across her path. When she turned to step back onto the pavement, another courier, about to cycle behind her, swore an insult as he flew past. She froze hoping the whisk of air either side of her meant that she was still alive and had just missed being run over by two of London's riders of the apocalypse.
Finally, the green man appeared, and she jogged across the street to catch up with Ilsa, who stood with her hand over her mouth, face drained of colour, "Oh my God, I'm so sorry!"
"It was my fault," Robin shook her head at her near miss and patted Ilsa on the shoulder, "I wasn't paying proper attention,"
Ilsa took her hand and squeezed it. Robin recognised the reassuring smile of a lawyer who was intuitive to people's fears.
They weaved their way through the busy crowds and gilt doors of the famous store. An immediate hush descended as they entered the sleek sanctuary of Selfridges. People moved around in silent awe of the designer handbags and accessories. They were early to make sure they had been given the seating they wanted in Hix. Escalators took them up far too quickly to the restaurant for Robin. Dread sat unhappily in her stomach. But she was still convinced this had to be done fro Strike's sake rather than her own.
At the entrance, the pretence that they did not know each other began. Robin was taken to sit at a table for three, while Ilsa was given a table which was not in the direct view of the entrance, but so she could see Robin and anyone else who joined her at the table.
Robin ordered a glass of water from the waiter. Still not being able to stem her nervousness, she took out her phone and noticed a text from Strike.
I'm having one of those days where I don't know what I'd do without you C X
Did you leave a Twix in my pocket last night?
Thanks, you saved my life. Stakeout is a waste of time and nowhere to get any lunch.
I'm surprised it lasted till now! Talk l8r gotta go - at till Rx
Robin had just turned her phone face down when the tall, dark-haired woman arrived at her table.
"Charlotte, hello," she tried desperately to keep her unwilling tone calm and impersonal.
"Robin," she flicked her long, chocolate-brown hair over her shoulder.
Charlotte looked at Robin warily as the flustered male waiter pulled the chair out for Charlotte. This gave Robin a boost in confidence. She clearly had not expected Robin to ask her to meet.
"Does Bluey, I mean Cormoran, know you're meeting me here?" Charlotte's eyebrows were raised but she tried to sound as if she wasn't desperate to know the answer.
"Oh! I'm sorry. I didn't realise I had to ask him permission - you sent it to me," Robin fixed Charlotte with an unwavering look.
Charlotte's almond eyes narrowed, their spirited attractiveness enhanced by her smoky eyeshadow.
The waiter took their order for drinks, his voice almost a mumble. Robin didn't plan to be here long enough for food and frankly having less around that Charlotte could attack her with, the better.
"So, you wanted to meet?" Charlotte's voice was almost languid.
"I'm not the one who sent the email, Charlotte," Robin countered and waited for her to speak.
Charlotte sighed in unrepressed irritation, "Clearly from what I sent, you can see that Bluey will never stay with you. You're just another of his rebounds,"
Robin said nothing. She waited.
"So, I am trying to save you the heartbreak of being let down. Has he told you about his other relationships? I've left him time and time again but he always came back to me. We have a connection that no-one else has ever been able to break, so it's only a matter of time that he remembers that," she leant towards Robin her tone obliging, "If you break up with him now, I promise you, I won't interfere with your role in the business - if of course you even wanted to stay,"
Robin was quiet still because she was fighting the stunned feeling that Charlotte's words had engendered. She picked up her glass of water and took a sip, this was the sign for Ilsa to join them. The arrogance of this woman. Her under-estimation of the man Strike was.
"The problem with that Charlotte is it's the last thing Cormoran wants. He made that very clear to you over a year and a half ago - when he left you. I wanted you to come here today to make it clear to you, that you need to stay out of our lives."
She watched as the corners of Charlotte's mouth lifted into a smile, the way her lip curled turned it into a sour sneer.
"Who the hell do you think you are? You think you know him. Were you there when he point-blank refused to go to physical therapy when he lost his leg? Or what about when he would wake up and couldn't comprehend that it was gone? Then there are the anti-depressants - has he told you about that,"
"Charlotte, what are you talking about?" Ilsa was standing at Charlotte's shoulder, she had heard everything the woman had said, "You and I know that the idea of you playing Florence Nightingale is pure fantasy - I don't remember any of that happening. It didn't take you long to get bored and start treating him like absolute shit again," Ilsa's angry words were delivered in a tone of calm self-assuredness.
Charlotte had pushed her chair back fractionally as if she were readying herself to stand. Ilsa placed a hand on her shoulder, "No, no Charlotte. You can't leave yet, I have to tell you something else. It won't take a minute," Ilsa did not break contact with Charlotte. From afar it looked like a tender greeting from a long-lost friend. But, Robin could see why Ilsa was such an amazing lawyer. She had always been warm, open and sisterly to Robin. But the forceful determination emanating from her, had Charlotte looking from the corners of her eyes, assessing the damage of causing a scene. Both Ilsa and Robin could give her a good run for her money.
Ilsa's cultured voice, with just a hint of a Cornish accent, making her sound even more righteous, called Charlotte's attention back to her, "You and I know the truth of what you've done to Cormoran over the years. Robin here witnessed what you did to his face. So, we already have evidence of emotional and physical abuse."
"You really think Bluey would prosecute me, are you - " Charlotte was outraged and she employed an exaggeratedly incredulous tone to try to cut through Ilsa's threats like a knife.
"No, you're probably right," Ilsa spoke as if considering her defeat, "But Robin can: that email you sent is tantamount to harassment,"
Before Charlotte could respond Robin made her stance clear, "And I'm more than willing to collect every piece of evidence of any further harassment to get a restraining order against you."
"Corm supports Robin in anything she decides. You know how protective he is of someone he loves, better than anyone. Trust me when I tell you, he loves her more than he ever loved you. Do you know he stopped Robin's wedding to someone else? Which, I don't remember him doing for you - he let you go a long time ago," Ilsa's voice was heavy with quiet threat. She was relishing this. Ilsa had clearly wanted to do this for a long time, Robin thought.
Robin looked the beautiful woman in the eye and any inferiority she may have ever felt before had evaporated under the heat of Ilsa's words, whether they were completely true or not, she'd known how to hurt Charlotte, who looked back at her in consternation,"As you advised me Charlotte, try to keep a little dignity, walk away and never contact either of us again. Get some help,"
Robin finished licking her fork clean of the chocolate dessert she had allowed herself as a treat. Ilsa had treated her to lunch as a late birthday present and was retrieving her card from the waiter as they wanted to get on with their shopping.
"Is that the sweet taste of vanquishing Charlotte that you're experiencing?"
Robin laughed, "Mmm…Thanks so much Ilsa, for doing this with me. At least when Cormoran finds out he can't dump me and you, would he have to include Nick too"
"That's never going to happen, Robin, silly twit has been in love with you longer than he'd admit. But, as you know, he gets ideas into his head and stubbornly sticks to it. He forgets, I know all his tells," she tapped her finger against her nose.
"I didn't think he would sack me when I went after Brockbank - I thought he would understand after Whittaker. I'm telling him when I get back anyway. I'll just say we saw her by chance,"
"Sometimes men need managing, their innate sense of privilege, that what they say goes, means they bring it on themselves. If they were more open to our ideas in the first place, we could be honest with them all of the time,"
Both women laughed as they rose and were collected their coats and bags.
"Where first?" Robin asked. Her parents had given her some money for her birthday and she wanted to get some new underwear to replace the ones destroyed by Strike. It was really an exchange of the money she had given them this month to begin to pay them back for the failed wedding.
Ilsa wanted to look at some of the designer franchises as the mid-season sale had started and she encouraged Robin to try on whatever she wanted for the fun of it. Robin hadn't been able to do something so frivolous in the whole time she'd lived in London with Matthew. In fact, the first and last time she had done so had been with Strike.
After an hour or so they left the changing room for the final time: Robin excited about the discounted dress she had found and Ilsa with a new suit for work and a dress of her own, for all the Christmas parties she would be expected to attend as part of her job. As she followed the shop assistant to the nearest till, Robin noticed a man who was standing almost hidden to the side, in the shadow of a large sculpture. He appeared to be watching them.
He was fidgeting from foot to foot. His features were soft and his ears stuck out slightly from his head giving him a slightly dopey, babyface but the darkness of his brown eyes under his heavy brow was menacing. Occasionally, his head darted to the side to look either side of him from under his brow but most of the time, his eyes were fixed on a place over Robin's shoulder. She caught the reflection of the shop assistant carrying the clothes Ilsa and she were to buy in a mirror. Robin's head flicked back to the man, who was talking under his breath to himself, his slight smile disturbing. She scanned the area trying to spot a security guard but there was no one.
Robin had no choice but to act.
With the immediacy and concentration of a big cat he darted towards them. He moved soundlessly, his hand tucked inside the zip-up tracksuit top he wore. A silver glint caught her eye from inside the jacket. Instinctively, she pushed Ilsa backwards. Robin barely heard Ilsa's yelp of surprise. The man pulled his hand from his jacket. He blatantly wielded the knife she had glimpsed and he was headed toward the shop assistant.
Robin didn't wait to see what happened.
As soon as he drew level with her she grabbed underneath his wrist and quickly turned it outwards. His focus now left the terrified shop-assistant and fell on Robin. His face was twisted with frustration and pain. As he struggled to right himself, he grabbed her hair with his other hand. Robin grimaced but pressed her lips together to trap the scream that tried to pry her mouth open. As her hand struggled to continue twisting back his knife hand, it meant she could only grab his hand with one of hers. She had been taught to use both. She was locked in a struggle with him as she tried to twist away from him, hoping that the security guards would be here any second. Ilsa's scream echoed through the open space and finally, security came running.
But it was too late.
The knife was on the floor away from the man who was groaning on his side his hands between his legs. But Robin was also slumped on the floor, blood blooming outwards on the sterile-white of her t-shirt.