The Best Suit [Short stories]
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THE BEST SUIT
* * * *
Around the time this issue goes tosubscribers, Peter Lovesey will be receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award ofthe Malice Domestic Convention. It is not his first such award: In 2000 hereceived CWAs Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement.He is a favoriteatEQMM, a past winner of our Readers Award. The Best Suitwill alsoappear in the April 08 collection Murder on the Short List from Crippen& Landru.
She was a talkativeredhead and he couldnt hear a thing she was saying. Night clubs arent placesfor conversation. Her mouth moved, sometimes making words, sometimes smiling.But it didnt matter. Shed moved in so close as she danced that her breastskept touching him. Herbie tried to look cooler than he felt. He wasnt used towomen coming on to him. He was forty-three, paunchy, and five foot four. Hewasnt even a regular clubber. He was there with about sixty other friends of Paddy,one of the regulars at his local. Paddy had decided to celebrate his fortiethin style.
After twenty minutes,the strain got to be too much, and Herbie gestured that it might be time for adrink. The woman nodded and reached for his hand and they threaded a route tothe bar. Even there it was difficult to talk without shouting, so he suggestedfinding a pub outside. But when they were in the street she said, Yourecoming to my place. Its only a short walk.
Herbie didnt argue.
Her place was a two-storyhouse on Richmond Hill with a spectacular view of the lights reflected in theriver. This was one classy lady. She handed him a bottle and told him to openit while she changed into something more relaxing. I hope youre not aconnoisseur, she said.
What do you mean?he said. This is vintage bubbly.
It isnt chilled.
No problem. Hepopped the cork and filled two tall glasses.
Tell me aboutyourself, she said when she came back in a red silk kimono. What do you dofor a living?
This and that. Hedidnt want to say he was unemployed. Hed been made redundant in April. Howabout you?
Im an entrepreneur.
Herbie wished hedsaid he was an entrepreneur. It sounded better than this and that. Cheers.
They touched glassesand drank.
Youre not married?she asked.
Want to come to bedwith me?
Try and stop me,Herbie said, and it seemed a smart answer.
But she said, Yes, Iwill.
He wasnt sure if hedheard right. Whatstop me?
Im not ready yet.
So why did youmention it?
I wanted to makesure you fancy me. Relax. Its not a total no-no.
Why invite me backand open a bottle if youre not in the mood?
I said relax. Shereached for a remote and switched on Billie Holiday. I dont even know yourname yet.
He told her.
She said, Im Chloe.Whats your taste in music?
They talked jazz fora while, but Herbies mind was about ten percent involved. He was trying tounderstand why shed invited him back and gone cold on him.
Then he had his answer.The door behind him opened and a man in a dark suit strolled in, as calm as themanager in a shoe shop except that he looked like a state executioner. Chloewasnt fazed. She said, What do you think? And it was obvious she wasspeaking to the man, not Herbie.
The man took a longlook at Herbie and said, Turn your head.
This was sounexpected that Herbie did as he was told.
The man said, Helldo.
Chloe said, I knewyoud agree. Turning back to Herbie, she said, I told him you were amazing.
Herbie had beencalled many things in his time. Amazing wasnt one of them. Whats going on?he asked, not liking this at all.
The man said toChloe, You tell him. Im off. He crossed the room to the main door and lethimself out.
Did I dream that?Herbie asked.
Bradys all right.He was giving me a second opinion.
Dont worry. Youpassed. Want to make five grand and get an Armani suit for nothing?
I dont get you.
You might ... if youplay your cards right. She widened her eyes a fraction.
I dont follow anyof this.
Thats the beauty,Herbie. You dont need to. If youre brightand I know you areyou take whatson offer and ask no questions.
Is it legal?
There you goanotherquestion.
I need to know whatIm getting into.
No ones asking youto hold up a bank.
What am I supposedto do?
Nothing, except beyourself.
For five grand?
And a designer suit.And a date with me.
Tonight, you mean?
You dont give up,do you? Tomorrow, you go for a fitting at the Armani shop in Knightsbridge. Itsimportant you look right. Did I say you also get a shirt and tie and shoes? Adark shirt and a white tie.
Whos paying for allthis?
Not you. Ill meetyou in Sloane Street. You get the first payment of a thousand pounds just forturning up. Would two-thirty do?
Do you want me tocall a taxi?
She nodded. Hedalready concluded he wouldnt get lucky tonight. No bad thing. Hed lost mostof his confidence when the man called Brady appeared from nowhere.
* * * *
On the way home, hewent over everything in his mind. Five grand and all the clothes. Therehad to be a catch. Shed said he wouldnt be asked to rob a bank, but whatother scam could she be planning? In the club hed got the impression shefancied him. What had happened later suggested another scenario. It seemed asif hed been earmarked for a job. Chloe had brought him to the house to bevetted by Brady. Maybe she, or others, had been watching him before he ever setfoot in the club.
She hadnt asked himto do anything illegal. What could he lose by going along to Knightsbridgetomorrow?
* * * *
She stepped out of asilver Porsche the minute he arrived in Sloane Street. He couldnt see who wasdriving before it moved off.
Lets get yousuited, she said, taking his arm. She was in a white leather coat and redshoes with amazing high heels.
He wasnt used toshopping in Knightsbridge. The assistant showed them to a sofa and broughtcoffee and biscuits before any business was done. Then they were handed a bookof designs. Herbie was measured and they looked at cloths.
Chloe made all thechoices. She had a clear idea of what would look best. She also picked theshirt, the tie, the shoes, and the socks. The suit would be ready on Friday.
That will do, shesaid to the salesman, and this is my treat, so Ill settle for everything now.While the bill was being prepared she took a wad of fifty-pound notes from herbag and handed it to Herbie. The first thou, as promised. You dont need tocount it. Put it in your pocket and dont get mugged on the way home.
What happens next?he asked.
You come back for afitting in about a week and then you collect the suit when they tell you.
Will you be here?
She laughed. Yourea big boy. You can manage without me.
So what happensafter?
You have a mobile?
He told her thenumber and she stored it in her phone.
Ill be in touch,she said. Dont lose any sleep. When it comes, itll be your benefit night.She was texting as she spoke. To my driver, she explained.
As they left theshop, the Porsche pulled up outside. She kissed Herbie lightly on the lipsbefore getting in. See you soon, Herbie.
He hailed a taxi. Hewasnt returning in the tube. He was in a bigger league now with his boxes ofnew clothes and a grand in his pocket.
* * * *
In under two weeksthe suit was ready. Superb. No one would have known he had a paunch. He wastempted to wear it to the pub, just to get a reaction from Paddy and theothers, but he decided against it. Theyd demand an explanation and he didntwant to tell them the truth of it. Those yobs wouldnt understand why he hadntspent the night with Chloe. Hed be a laughing-stock. And if he told them aboutthe money, theyd insist on drinks all round for the rest of the evening.Anyway, this adventure wasnt over yet. Chloe had promised him a benefit night.
* * * *
He heard nothing elsefor ten days. The suit waited in his wardrobe in its zipped cover. Hedunpacked the shirt and it was on a hanger next to the suit. He was beginning toarrive at an understanding of that strange evening at the night clubhow aclassy lady like Chloe must have been attracted by his chunky physique andrhythmic movement in the strobe lighting and then a touch disappointed by hisChelsea FC shirt and blue jeans when she got him home. Clearly she likedformality in her men.
Hed pushed to theback of his mind the sinister Brady, whod looked him over and said he woulddo. In Herbies eyes the night-club episode had been all about Chloe and hertaste in men.
* * * *
The call came earlyon a Thursday morning when Herbie was walking back from collecting his paperand milk at the corner shop. Chloes sexy voice was unmistakable. Hi, Herbie.Are you up for it today?
Do you know theBlack Bess in Hounslow?
Ive heard of it.But not in a good connection, a little voice said inside his head.
Be there atnine-thirty sharp tonight.
In the gear?
Of course. Take ataxi. Ill be inside with some friends. Walk in and kiss me on the lips andtake a seat beside me. Someone will bring you a Diet Coke. Thats what youdrink, right?
Actually, I drinkbitter.
Tonight youre onDiet Coke. Everyone will treat you with respect, but you have to conductyourself with dignity. At the end of the evening you get your reward.
Im not much good incompany.
Stay quiet then. Letthe others do the talking.
* * * *
The suit made himfeel like a movie star. He looked in the mirror and winked. Benefit night. Hedabbed on some of his favourite aftershave.
He took the taxi asinstructed. The Black Bess was a large pub in Hounslow High Street with anornate Victorian exterior and a sign with a masked Dick Turpin galloping hisfamous horse. Maybe the idea of highway robbery had been the reason Herbie hadbeen troubled when the pub was mentioned. He paid the driver, checked hiswatch, took a deep breath, and went in. There was loud music and the yeastysmell of beer. He looked for Chloe and spotted her with some people at a tableto his right. She had her back to him. He strolled over, rested a hand on hershoulder, leaned down, and kissed her on the lips.
She said just for hisears, What are you wearing?
He said, The thingswe bought.
The aftershave. Itscheap. Wash it off at the first opportunity.
The group hadsuspended whatever had been under discussion. They eyed Herbie with what seemedto be respect, even awe. One of them, he was disturbed to see, was Brady. Thosecold eyes locked briefly with Herbies. Chloe said, We left a chair for you.
Herbie noticed it wasa better chair than anyone elses. He sat and drummed his fingers on the arms.One of the men (there were four altogether, all in good suits, and two women inblack spaghetti-strap dresses) said, Whats your poison?
Herbie twitched. Hisnerves were getting to him.
What are youdrinking?
A pint of Herbiehad to correct himself. No, a Diet Coke.
Brady snapped hisfingers. The barmaid was watching, poised for the summons, and came over to thegroup. A fresh round of drinks was ordered. The others were drinking beer andvodka martinis. Herbie was envious but said nothing.
Chloe said to theothers, Wellwhat do you think of my discovery?
Herbie came underfull scrutiny again.
One of the men said, Youcould have fooled me.
The second womansaid, Its uncanny.
The man nearest tohim said, Hes good. Hes very good. But something isnt right.
Thinking of theaftershave, Herbie said, Which way is the gents?
The woman said, Eventhe voice is spot on.
Brady said, Illshow you.
Two of themaccompanied him. He felt as if he had minders, especially when neither of themused the facilities. He rinsed his face and used the dryer. On the way back tothe table, Brady said, Relax. We know who you are.
But relaxing wasdifficult. The next two hours went slowly. The others talked among themselvesabout football and television, told a few jokes, ordered more drinks, and did alot of laughing. Brady took a few pictures with a digital camera. Herbiefollowed instructions and stayed quiet and sipped his Diet Coke, but it was astrain. He knew some better jokes than they did. He glanced a few times at Chloeto see if shed forgiven him for the aftershave. He couldnt be certain.
Finally Chloe said, Itseleven-thirty, everyone.
They got up to leave.
Then a cameraflashed. Someone who had been drinking at the bar had moved in and sneaked apicture. Immediately Brady grabbed the man and pinned him to the wall. Chloesaid to Herbie, Keep walking. Hell deal with it.
The group reassembledoutside the pub. Herbie wondered if he was going home with Chloe, but that didntseem to be in the plan. She said, Ive arranged for you to be driven home inthe Porsche. Youll find your pay on the backseat. If we need you again Ill bein touch.
Is that it?
For tonight, yes.You did a good job.
Id like to see youagain.
She said in a lowvoice, Dont push it, Herbie.
The Porsche drew upand Herbie got in. As promised, an envelope stuffed with fifty-pound notes wason the backseat. He tried to be philosophical and let the money cushion hisfrustration.
* * * *
Back in hiscomfortable jeans and Chelsea shirt next day, he could hardly believe hisstrange experience. But the four grand in his top drawer was real and so wasthe suit hanging in his wardrobe. He decided to treat himself to an early beerat his local. The barman held the fifty-pound note to the light to look for thewatermark, just as Herbie had done when he took it from the packet. It waskosher.
The pub was quiet.Just a couple of pensioners playing crib and one of the regulars picking horsesfrom a paper. Hed discarded the inside pages, so Herbie picked them up to seewhat was happening in the world.
Not much. Anotherdrug scandal involving a pop star. A feature on violence in the classroom.
Then he turned a pageand saw a large picture of himself wearing his Armani suit. The caption, inlarge letters, was OUT. With heart pounding, he read the story underneath.
Spotted last night inhis favourite haunt, the Black Bess in Hounslow, Jimmy The Suit Calhoun. Thefeared king of West Londons underworld was released this week after athree-year stretch in Pentonville for the injuries inflicted on WeaselMercer, leader of a rival gang in Chelsea. One of Mercers ears was slashed offwith a cut-throat razor said to have been wielded by Calhoun himself in thefracas behind Stamford Bridge in 2005. Our crime correspondent, Phil Kingston,writes that Calhouns reappearance will be viewed in some quarters as adeclaration of intent, considering that Mercer has taken over much of histerritory in the three years since. Nicknamed The Suit for his taste inexpensive clothes, Calhoun was alleged to be making millions in protection, puttingthe arm on pubs, betting shops, and restaurants south of the river, but hisfunds were never traced. A police source said Scotland Yard will dealvigorously w...