Though Robin Ellacott's twenty-five years of life had seen their moments ofdrama and incident, she had never before woken up in the certain knowledge thatshe would remember the coming day for as long as she lived.
Shortly after midnight, her long-term boyfriend, Matthew, had proposed to herunder the statue of Eros in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. In the giddy relieffollowing her acceptance, he confessed that he had been planning to pop thequestion in the Thai restaurant where they just had eaten dinner, but that hehad reckoned without the silent couple beside them, who had eavesdropped ontheir entire conversation. He had therefore suggested a walk through thedarkening streets, in spite of Robin's protests that they both needed to be upearly, and finally inspiration had seized him, and he had led her, bewildered,to the steps of the statue. There, flinging discretion to the chilly wind (in amost un-Matthew-like way), he had proposed, on one knee, in front of three down-and-outs huddled on the steps, sharing what looked like a bottle of meths.
It had been, in Robin's view, the most perfect proposal, ever, in the history ofmatrimony. He had even had a ring in his pocket, which she was now wearing; asapphire with two diamonds, it fitted perfectly, and all the way into town shekept staring at it on her hand as it rested on her lap. She and Matthew had astory to tell now, a funny family story, the kind you told your children, inwhich his planning (she loved that he had planned it) went awry, and turned intosomething spontaneous. She loved the tramps, and the moon, and Matthew, panickyand flustered, on one knee; she loved Eros, and dirty old Piccadilly, and theblack cab they had taken home to Clapham. She was, in fact, not far off lovingthe whole of London, which she had not so far warmed to, during the month shehad lived there. Even the pale and pugnacious commuters squashed into the Tubecarriage around her were gilded by the radiance of the ring, and as she emergedinto the chilly March daylight at Tottenham Court Road underground station, shestroked the underside of the platinum band with her thumb, and experienced anexplosion of happiness at the thought that she might buy some bridal magazinesat lunchtime.
Male eyes lingered on her as she picked her way through the road-works at thetop of Oxford Street, consulting a piece of paper in her right hand. Robin was,by any standards, a pretty girl; tall and curvaceous, with long strawberry-blonde hair that rippled as she strode briskly along, the chill air adding colorto her pale cheeks. This was the first day of a week-long secretarialassignment. She had been temping ever since coming to live with Matthew inLondon, though not for much longer; she had what she termed "proper" interviewslined up now.
The most challenging part of these uninspiring piecemeal jobs was often findingthe offices. London, after the small town in Yorkshire she had left, felt vast,complex and impenetrable. Matthew had told her not to walk around with her nosein an A–Z, which would make her look like a tourist and render hervulnerable; she therefore relied, as often as not, on poorly hand-drawn mapsthat somebody at the temping agency had made for her. She was not convinced thatthis made her look more like a native-born Londoner.
The metal barricades and the blue plastic Corimec walls surrounding theroadworks made it much harder to see where she ought to be going, because theyobscured half the landmarks drawn on the paper in her hand. She crossed thetorn-up road in front of a towering office block, labeled "Center Point" on hermap, which resembled a gigantic concrete waffle with its dense grid of uniformsquare windows, and made her way in the rough direction of Denmark Street.
She found it almost accidentally, following a narrow alleyway called DenmarkPlace out into a short street full of colorful shop fronts: windows full ofguitars, keyboards and every kind of musical ephemera. Red and white barricadessurrounded another open hole in the road, and workmen in fluorescent jacketsgreeted her with early-morning wolf-whistles, which Robin pretended not to hear.
She consulted her watch. Having allowed her usual margin of time for gettinglost, she was a quarter of an hour early. The nondescript black-painted doorwayof the office she sought stood to the left of the 12 Bar Café; the name of theoccupant of the office was written on a scrappy piece of lined paper tapedbeside the buzzer for the second floor. On an ordinary day, without the brand-new ring glittering upon her finger, she might have found this off-putting;today, however, the dirty paper and the peeling paint on the door were, like thetramps from last night, mere picturesque details on the backdrop of her grandromance. She checked her watch again (the sapphire glittered and her heartleapt; she would watch that stone glitter all the rest of her life), thendecided, in a burst of euphoria, to go up early and show herself keen for a jobthat did not matter in the slightest.
She had just reached for the bell when the black door flew open from the inside,and a woman burst out on to the street. For one strangely static second the twoof them looked directly into each other's eyes, as each braced to withstand acollision. Robin's senses were unusually receptive on this enchanted morning;the split-second view of that white face made such an impression on her that shethought, moments later, when they had managed to dodge each other, missingcontact by a centimeter, after the dark woman had hurried off down the street,around the corner and out of sight, that she could have drawn her perfectly frommemory. It was not merely the extraordinary beauty of the face that hadimpressed itself on her memory, but the other's expression: livid, yet strangelyexhilarated.
Robin caught the door before it closed on the dingy stairwell. An old-fashionedmetal staircase spiraled up around an equally antiquated birdcage lift.Concentrating on keeping her high heels from catching in the metalwork stairs,she proceeded to the first landing, passing a door carrying a laminated andframed poster saying Crowdy Graphics, and continued climbing. It wasonly when she reached the glass door on the floor above that Robin realized, forthe first time, what kind of business she had been sent to assist. Nobody at theagency had said. The name on the paper beside the outside buzzer was engraved onthe glass panel: C. B. Strike, and, underneath it, the words PrivateDetective.
Robin stood quite still, with her mouth slightly open, experiencing a moment ofwonder that nobody who knew her could have understood. She had never confided ina solitary human being (even Matthew) her lifelong, secret, childish ambition.For this to happen today, of all days! It felt like a wink from God (and thistoo she somehow connected with the magic of the day; with Matthew, and the ring;even though, properly considered, they had no connection at all).
Savoring the moment, she approached the engraved door very slowly. She stretchedout her left hand (sapphire dark, now, in this dim light) towards the handle;but before she had touched it, the glass door too flew open.
This time, there was no near-miss. Sixteen unseeing stone of disheveled maleslammed into her; Robin was knocked off her feet and catapulted backwards,handbag flying, arms windmilling, towards the void beyond the lethal staircase.CHAPTER 2
Strike absorbed the impact, heard the high-pitched scream and reactedinstinctively: throwing out a long arm, he seized a fistful of cloth and flesh;a second shriek of pain echoed around the stone walls and then, with a wrenchand a tussle, he had succeeded in dragging the girl back on to firm ground. Hershrieks were still echoing off the walls, and he realized that he himself hadbellowed, "Jesus Christ!"
The girl was doubled up in pain against the office door, whimpering. Judging bythe lopsided way she was hunched, with one hand buried deep under the lapel ofher coat, Strike deduced that he had saved her by grabbing a substantial part ofher left breast. A thick, wavy curtain of bright blonde hair hid most of thegirl's blushing face, but Strike could see tears of pain leaking out of oneuncovered eye.
"Fuck—sorry!" His loud voice reverberated around the stairwell. "I didn'tsee you—didn't expect anyone to be there ..."
From under their feet, the strange and solitary graphic designer who inhabitedthe office below yelled, "What's happening up there?" and a second later, amuffled complaint from above indicated that the manager of the bar downstairs,who slept in an attic flat over Strike's office, had also beendisturbed—perhaps woken—by the noise.
"Come in here ..."
Strike pushed open the door with his fingertips, so as to have no accidentalcontact with her while she stood huddled against it, and ushered her into theoffice.
"Is everything all right?" called the graphic designer querulously.
Strike slammed the office door behind him.
"I'm OK," lied Robin, in a quavering voice, still hunched over with her hand onher chest, her back to him. After a second or two, she straightened up andturned around, her face scarlet and her eyes still wet.
Her accidental assailant was massive; his height, his general hairiness, coupledwith a gently expanding belly, suggested a grizzly bear. One of his eyes waspuffy and bruised, the skin just below the eyebrow cut. Congealing blood sat inraised white-edged nail tracks on his left cheek and the right side of his thickneck, revealed by the crumpled open collar of his shirt.
"Are you M-Mr. Strike?"
"I-I'm the temp."
"The temp. From Temporary Solutions?"
The name of the agency did not wipe the incredulous look from his battered face.They stared at each other, unnerved and antagonistic.
Just like Robin, Cormoran Strike knew that he would forever remember the lasttwelve hours as an epoch-changing night in his life. Now, it seemed, the Fateshad sent an emissary in a neat beige trench coat, to taunt him with the factthat his life was bubbling towards catastrophe. There was not supposed to be atemp. He had intended his dismissal of Robin's predecessor to end his contract.
"How long have they sent you for?"
"A-a week to begin with," said Robin, who had never been greeted with such alack of enthusiasm.
Strike made a rapid mental calculation. A week at the agency's exorbitant ratewould drive his overdraft yet further into the region of irreparable; it mighteven be the final straw his main creditor kept implying he was waiting for.
"'Scuse me a moment."
He left the room via the glass door, and turned immediately right, into a tinydank toilet. Here he bolted the door, and stared into the cracked, spottedmirror over the sink.
The reflection staring back at him was not handsome. Strike had the high,bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had takento boxing, an impression only heightened by the swelling and blackening eye. Histhick curly hair, springy as carpet, had ensured that his many youthfulnicknames had included "Pubehead." He looked older than his thirty-five years.
Ramming the plug into the hole, he filled the cracked and grubby sink with coldwater, took a deep breath and completely submerged his throbbing head. Displacedwater slopped over his shoes, but he ignored it for the relief of ten seconds oficy, blind stillness.
Disparate images of the previous night flickered through his mind: emptyingthree drawers of possessions into a kitbag while Charlotte screamed at him; theashtray catching him on the brow-bone as he looked back at her from the door;the journey on foot across the dark city to his office, where he had slept foran hour or two in his desk chair. Then the final, filthy scene, after Charlottehad tracked him down in the early hours, to plunge in those last fewbanderillas she had failed to implant before he had left her flat; hisresolution to let her go when, after clawing his face, she had run out of thedoor; and then that moment of madness when he had plunged after her—apursuit ended as quickly as it had begun, with the unwitting intervention ofthis heedless, superfluous girl, whom he had been forced to save, and thenplacate.
He emerged from the cold water with a gasp and a grunt, his face and headpleasantly numb and tingling. With the cardboard-textured towel that hung on theback of the door he rubbed himself dry and stared again at his grim reflection.The scratches, washed clean of blood, looked like nothing more than theimpressions of a crumpled pillow. Charlotte would have reached the undergroundby now. One of the insane thoughts that had propelled him after her had beenfear that she would throw herself on the tracks. Once, after a particularlyvicious row in their mid-twenties, she had climbed on to a rooftop, where shehad swayed drunkenly, vowing to jump. Perhaps he ought to be glad that theTemporary Solution had forced him to abandon the chase. There could be no goingback from the scene in the early hours of this morning. This time, it had to beover.
Tugging his sodden collar away from his neck, Strike pulled back the rusty boltand headed out of the toilet and back through the glass door.
A pneumatic drill had started up in the street outside. Robin was standing infront of the desk with her back to the door; she whipped her hand back out ofthe front of her coat as he re-entered the room, and he knew that she had beenmassaging her breast again.
"Is—are you all right?" Strike asked, carefully not looking at the site ofthe injury.
"I'm fine. Listen, if you don't need me, I'll go," said Robin with dignity.
"No—no, not at all," said a voice issuing from Strike's mouth, though helistened to it with disgust. "A week—yeah, that'll be fine. Er—thepost's here ..." He scooped it from the doormat as he spoke and scattered it onthe bare desk in front of her, a propitiatory offering. "Yeah, if you could openthat, answer the phone, generally sort of tidy up—computer password'sHatherill23, I'll write it down ..." This he did, under her wary, doubtful gaze."There you go—I'll be in here."
He strode into the inner office, closed the door carefully behind him and thenstood quite still, gazing at the kitbag under the bare desk. It containedeverything he owned, for he doubted that he would ever see again the nine tenthsof his possessions he had left at Charlotte's. They would probably be gone bylunchtime; set on fire, dumped in the street, slashed and crushed, doused inbleach. The drill hammered relentlessly in the street below.
And now the impossibility of paying off his mountainous debts, the appallingconsequences that would attend the imminent failure of this business, thelooming, unknown but inevitably horrible sequel to his leaving Charlotte; inStrike's exhaustion, the misery of it all seemed to rear up in front of him in akind of kaleidoscope of horror.
Hardly aware that he had moved, he found himself back in the chair in which hehad spent the latter part of the night. From the other side of the insubstantialpartition wall came muffled sounds of movement. The Temporary Solution was nodoubt starting up the computer, and would shortly discover that he had notreceived a single work-related email in three weeks. Then, at his own request,she would start opening all his final demands. Exhausted, sore and hungry,Strike slid face down on to the desk again, muffling his eyes and ears in hisencircling arms, so that he did not have to listen while his humiliation waslaid bare next door by a stranger.CHAPTER 3
Five minutes later there was a knock on the door and Strike, who had been on theverge of sleep, jerked upright in his chair.
His subconscious had become entangled with Charlotte again; it was a surprise tosee the strange girl enter the room. She had taken off her coat to reveal asnugly, even seductively fitting cream sweater. Strike addressed her hairline.
"There's a client here for you. Shall I show him in?"
"There's a what?"
"A client, Mr. Strike."
He looked at her for several seconds, trying to process the information.
"Right, OK—no, give me a couple of minutes, please, Sandra, and then showhim in."
She withdrew without comment.
Excerpted from The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, J. K. Rowling. Copyright © 2013 Robert Galbraith J. K. Rowling. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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