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Authors: Natasha Cooper

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A Place of Safety

A Place of Safety
Trish Maguire [5]
Natasha Cooper
UK (2003)

Trish Maguire brings her forensic intelligence to bear on the dark
secrets behind the paintings in the collection. Hidden away end of the
First World War, they are now curated by an expert with scandal in his
past and all too many threats to face in the present.

Taking a
crash course in the dark mysteries of the art world, Trish must also
help her young half-brother come to terms with his mother's violent
death. Having learned about the agonizing reality of life in the
trenches, lightened only by an engrossing love story, she uncovers a web
of deceit that has spanned the decades since 1918. Now the innocent,
the violent, and the victims all have to free themselves. And not
everyone can escape with their life.

Suzanne Baboneau, Mary Carter, Broo Doherty, Jessica Gulliver, Jane Gregory, David Scrase, Felix Turner, Sheila Turner and Melissa Weatherill all provided essential information, advice, and support while I was writing this novel. Occasionally their information had to be adapted to fit the needs of fiction. I would like to thank them all.
 
Natasha Cooper
For
THE OTHER UNUSUAL SUSPECTS
Leslie Forbes, Manda Scott, Michelle Spring, Andrew Taylor and Laura Wilson, without whom life just wouldn’t be the same.
France 1916
 
The guns crashed. Helen woke and was half out of bed before she remembered. Then she turned her head to look at Jean-Pierre, still lying against their shared pillow. His eyes were open and as bright as ever. He propped himself up on one elbow and held out his other hand towards her.
‘Calm,
ma mie,
stay calm. It is only eight-thirty. You are not on duty this morning. Come back to bed.’
Wanting whatever he wanted, she let herself lie down again. The linen sheet felt rough, as though every single thread had a new force of its own against skin peeled back to its thinnest layer.
Last night she had felt so powerful that she could have embraced the whole world. Now it was different. Now the threats were back in place and she had no strength left. But for another few minutes, she would try to remember that one moment of safety and rest with the length of his thigh pressing against hers.
He stroked her face, pushing the heavy hair away from her eyes, then kissed her again.
You were supposed to be afraid the first time, she knew. All the whispers she had ever heard had told her it would hurt. But Jean-Pierre had not hurt her once. Last night there had been no fear at all, only comfort, then pounding excitement, and finally almost unbearable pleasure. Perhaps for her, fear was now so
tightly tied to the barrage and the gas, the puffy gangrenous flesh she had to dress, the bone splinters and the spilling brains and guts, that she couldn’t be afraid of something as simple as a man touching her.
She knew all about men’s bodies now. She had been washing, splinting and suturing them for two years. She had seen everything bullets could do, smelled the pus, understood the pain, and hated knowing how much the men had to suffer before merciful unconsciousness set them free for a while. When you knew all that and watched them sometimes holding themselves for comfort, you couldn’t be afraid of letting one of them near you. Especially not when you loved him and he wanted you so.
She thought of explaining that to her sister and knew she would never even try. On her last leave, she had hoped to tell her family the truth about the war, only to find that none of them would listen. Outside the house, dank, sulphurous fog had hidden everything she had once loved about London. Inside, the loathing and disapproval had been as bad. Both her parents had been shocked when she’d described her work with the smashed bodies of the heroes they talked about with such odious sentimentality. That, and their preoccupation with respect and marriageability, had seemed unutterably childish in comparison with what the men had to endure hour after hour, day after day, so Helen had snapped and made her mother and sister cry. Remembering the tears now, she sighed.
‘This
will
end,’ Jean-Pierre said, as though in answer to the sound of unhappiness. ‘There is a future for us. You must have faith in that, Hélène,
ma mie.’
As she looked into his dark eyes, she saw an intensity of love that she had never known. It was infinitely more important than her family’s rejection.
‘I will,’ she said, making it a promise.
Jean-Pierre relaxed his supporting arm, and let his body sink
against hers. The way he laid his face against her breasts told her how much he needed her to hold on to him, so she wrapped her arms around his back and let her lips brush against his hair. She felt as though she had somehow leapfrogged the twenty years that divided them, to become the older of the two.
His lips moved against her skin, but she couldn’t hear what he was saying. She released her hold on him and pushed his head up a little way, squinting to bring his face into focus.
‘What did you say, Jean-Pierre? What? I didn’t hear you.’
‘Only that I love you,’ he said, almost despairing. ‘And I wish we could have found each other in a better time, and in a better place.’
‘So do I,’ she whispered, pulling him back against her. ‘But you’re right: there
will
be peace, and time to live sanely again. We have to hold on to that.’
‘We will, please God. It is mad and impossible, I know, but I want to take you away from here and look after you, protect you from every shadow, every breeze.’
The guns seemed nearer now, which meant the wind had changed. Helen winced. He changed position so that he could put his hands over her ears, but she couldn’t forget what she had heard. That sudden extra-loud crack in the relentless thudding always made her feel as though she had been hit herself. She hoped the army wasn’t using gas as well as bullets today. If so, the shifting wind would blow it right back into their own lines, to burn out the men’s lungs, blister their skins and blind their eyes as well as everything the enemy was doing to them.
The casualty station was too far from the front for gas to be a risk for her and Jean-Pierre this time. She wouldn’t have to pull on a mask this morning, to smell the sick-making rubber or hear her own voice booming round inside the canvas. She gently pulled his hands away from her head so that she could hear clearly again.
‘I know,’ he said, kissing her forehead. ‘I am sorry. You do
not need my protection – or anyone’s. When I watch you work I see such courage, Hélène, and such compassion, too. I think I would have loved you for your courage alone, even if I had never spoken to you.’
London, 2002
 
‘Trish? That you?’ Antony Shelley’s voice was quick with satisfaction over the phone. ‘They’re going to settle. We’re off the hook.’
‘Oh, sod it!’ she said, her whole body tingling with wasted adrenaline. She’d been expecting to leave for court any minute now, even more keyed up than usual because it was such a big case.
‘Sod it? You should be pleased. The clients are.’
‘I am. Of course. But Antony—Oh, hell! It’s not fair. I wanted them to have their triumph in public. Now nobody except us will ever know exactly what those bastards did to them.’
He laughed. ‘Such passion, Trish. When am I going to teach you to be less emotional? Didn’t you abandon family law precisely so that you wouldn’t have to anguish over your clients’ fate? Be like me: I never care which side wins or who knows it.’
‘You are such a cynic, Antony,’ she said, knowing she could never feel as little about anything.
She had to care about her clients to do her best, and, caring, minded what happened to them. This lot had been abominably treated. In her view, no financial settlement could ever make up for that.
‘I feel all let down,’ she said, trying to be professionally casual. Then she shivered. ‘I’ve always hated anticlimaxes.’
‘I know. But don’t worry. You won’t have to endure this one for long. Henry Buxford was on the phone only last week, asking whether I thought you’d do a little private research for him. I told him to keep his sticky fingers off you until we’d got the case under control.’ Antony laughed. ‘He sounded so disappointed you ought to be flattered.’
‘I am. But research? What sort of research? And why does he want a commercial barrister for it?’
‘No idea. Why not give him a ring and find out? I know he’d pay well for your time.’
That should help, Trish thought, remembering all the big bills she’d have to pay after Christmas.
Although she would eventually get the whole of her generous brief fee for the case that had just settled, there would now be none of the daily refreshers for time spent in court. Until last year that wouldn’t have mattered because she had earned more than enough for the kind of life she wanted to live. Then she’d taken her 9-year-old half-brother, David, to live with her and her expenses had rocketed, along with her anxieties.
‘It all sounds very mysterious,’ she said.
‘Only because I wasn’t listening properly. Hang on a minute. I’ve got his direct line at Grunschwig’s here somewhere.’
Trish waited, pen in hand, until he came back with the number.
‘Thanks,’ she said when he had had dictated it. ‘But, you know, I really ought to spend the time with David. I’ve been neglecting him even more than usual over the last few weeks.’
‘Small boys need freedom far more than sororal attention,’ Antony said. ‘Take it from one who knows. And don’t forget that Henry’s a powerful man. They’re always worth helping – even when they’re not friends of mine.’
Trish bit down hard on the words that hovered around her tongue. She hated the trading of favours that was second nature to her head of chambers. And she hated recognizing
her own reluctance to piss him off. Her career had boomed after Antony had started to take an interest in her, and she wasn’t high-minded enough to risk losing that.
Even so, she didn’t want to look like a complete pushover. ‘OK, I suppose I could talk to him; see if I might be able to fit him in.’
Antony laughed and put down the phone.
Direct line or not, Trish found herself talking to Henry Buxford’s secretary at the merchant bank of which he was chairman, then hanging on for five minutes before he’d freed himself to speak to her. When he did come on the line, he said he was very pleased she’d called. Trish reminded herself to feel flattered.
‘I’d like to explain what I need face to face,’ he went on. ‘Because it’s a complicated story. I’ve got a rare window between 5.30 and 7.00 this evening. Is there any chance we could meet for a drink?’
All year Trish had fought to keep that particular slot free for David, even when she’d had to go out or back to work on her case papers afterwards. Still, now that the case had settled she could fetch him from school and have tea with him. That might do instead.
‘I could rejig a few things. Where should we meet? El Vino?’ It wouldn’t take long to get back to Fleet Street from her Southwark flat.
‘Too many hacks and barristers to eavesdrop there,’ said Buxford. ‘Do you know a friendly basement wine bar off Leicester Square called the Cork & Bottle? Could you get there by 5.30?’
An image of Procrustes’ bed started to flicker on the margins of Trish’s mind, like an irritating icon on a computer screen. During the last year she had become obsessed with the ancient Greek myth of the robber who waylaid travellers, measured them against his bed, and then either cut bits off them or
stretched them out until they fitted exactly. For Trish, the 21st century equivalent was time itself. One day, she thought, the stretching will go too far and I’ll snap.
‘Is that a problem?’ Henry asked into the silence.
‘Not if I can get a babysitter. I’ll let you know.’
When he’d gone, Trish picked up the phone again to call Nicky, who would have been David’s nanny if he’d been young enough to need one. They had none of them been able to think of a way of describing her job and so she was just Nicky, who did all the things at home that Trish would have done if she’d been there. Nicky had a busy social life of her own, but she was saving up for a laptop and so she was usually happy to work overtime when she could.
‘Sure,’ she said when Trish asked if she could stay on until eight tonight. ‘Or all evening, if you like. I’m not going anywhere and your TV’s bigger than mine. Your sofas are more comfortable, too. Why don’t you take George out, to make up for cancelling that dinner last week?’
‘Are you sure, Nicky? That would be great.’
There were no words fit to describe George’s role in Trish’s life either. He was the most important person in it, even though they didn’t actually live under the same roof and would have eaten raw nettles rather than share a bank account.
Trish phoned his office to tell him about the case’s settlement and find out whether he’d like her to book a table at their favourite restaurant to celebrate.
‘You mean you’re abandoning David today as well as Wednesday?’ he said, making his voice sizzle with amazement. ‘How will he survive?’
‘Oh, shut up,’ she said, having in fact forgotten that she’d agreed to dine with one of his clients later this week. As the senior partner in a big firm of solicitors, George had to do a fair amount of client entertaining. Trish always tried to help when she could, but it often bored her. ‘You know why it’s
important for him to be able to trust me to be there whenever he needs me.’
‘Come on, Trish. I was teasing. OK, given that you’ve decided to allow us a night off, is eating really what you want to do? What about the theatre? Is there anything good on at the National?’
The idea that George might prefer a play to food was surprising. But if the theatre was what he wanted, that was what she would try to give him. She was well aware that she’d been short-changing him as well as David in the last few weeks.
‘I don’t know. But I could find out.’
‘Great. And if you like the look of something, book it. I have absolute trust in your judgement.’
She laughed and told him she’d had plenty of evidence to the contrary in the five years they had been together.
‘Most of the time,’ he amended. ‘Trish, I’ve got to go. I’m due to chair the partners’ meeting in five minutes. ’Bye.’
The phone rang again as soon as she had replaced the receiver. Hearing her clerk’s lugubrious voice, she waited for him to tell her about a stunning new brief that would catapult her into the ranks of the really big hitters, like Antony himself. Then she wouldn’t have to do favours for anyone.
‘One of your old clients is asking for you,’ Steve said, deflating the fantasy in an instant. ‘And you’ve got time to sort her out now the case has settled. It’s Legal Aid, of course. Will you do it?’
‘Who is it?’
‘Tamara O’Connor.’
‘Oh, no!’ Trish remembered the drawn, anguished face of the most dispiriting woman she had ever represented. ‘I thought she was safely in prison after that last soliciting charge.’
‘She got out four months ago, but she’s in police custody again and probably on her way to Cookham Wood. It’s worse than
usual this time. She’s been caught at Heathrow with twenty-two condoms of cocaine in her gut. She says she needs you to see her through the bail application.’
Trish detested everything about the drug world and all the people involved in it. But most of all she hated the men who persuaded poor, usually naive, women to become their mules, smuggling the stuff through customs. Only a few of the mules had any idea of the kind of prison sentences they were risking, or the sometimes permanent separation from their children. Even so Trish did not want to get involved with this one.
‘You know perfectly well I don’t do crime now, and Tamara doesn’t need counsel for a bail application anyway. Her solicitor can do it.’
‘She’s convinced you’ll be able to get her bail.’ Steve didn’t sound as though he shared the client’s opinion. ‘And once you’ve done that, she wants you to go on to get her kids back for her.’
‘With her record? She hasn’t a hope. They were taken into care for about a million very good reasons. And I don’t do family law any more either.’
‘The theory is,’ Steve said, as though he hadn’t heard her interruption, ‘that she’s going to give the police names of some big drug dealers this time, and she thinks that’ll make the authorities look kindly on her. The police have told her they can’t do any deals, but she doesn’t believe them. Are you on? I need to know. Susie Brown, her solicitor, is on the other line now.’
‘Oh, all right then. I’ll do the bail application, but someone else will have to deal with the rest of it. I really can’t take Tamara on again long-term. When do they want me?’
‘She’s scheduled for early afternoon tomorrow. Now don’t forget: in success, humility; in failure, grit; and …’
‘ … in everything, hard work,’ Trish said, interrupting his favourite Churchillian quotation because she’d heard it far too often. She put down the phone before he could retaliate.
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