Authors: Karen Swan
For Aunty Flora
The original and best Bad Influence
Paris, July 2016
Clouds bearded the moon and the horizon was still inky, with every one of the world-famous lights turned off, save for the beacon at the top of the distinctive tower that
distinguished the famous city even in the dark. The two men moved unseen on the mansard roofs, keeping their heads below the ridge line, bodies curled inwards like autumn leaves, their stealthy
footsteps no more than the mere padding of cats to the sleeping inhabitants of the apartments below.
Catching sight of their mark on the other side of the street, they stopped and crouched between the dormers, their eyes counting down the number of windows echoed in the matching buildings
across the street. In silence, they spooled out the rope, the carabiners clipped on their harnesses clattering together like chimes as they moved – sure-footed, pulses up – and anchored
themselves to the chimney stack.
The first man stepped over the edge, feeling that familiar rush as gravity exerted its might and the rope tightened; he paused for a second, checking that everything would hold, before dropping
down below the roofline, pushing off from the wall with his feet every few metres.
The other man followed and within a minute, they were there – the dust-screened windows which had first caught their attention, every bit as obscured, close up, as they had hoped. The
Juliet balcony outside it was shallow, wide enough only for a potted rose, but it was sufficient for a foothold and they swung their legs over the intricate balustrade. Standing with their feet
parallel to the wall, they could angle their body weight in to the building and each of them cupped his hands around his face, trying to peer past the obfuscated glass. But it was like trying to
see through smoke.
In the distance, a siren sounded and both men stiffened, their reflexes sharp as they tracked which direction it was coming from – and where it was heading to.
Not here. That was all they needed to know.
They resumed their efforts to get in, gloved hands on the doors. There was no handle on the outside and the inner, left-facing, door didn’t budge, but the outer one rattled lightly,
showing it was loose. Loose enough, anyway. These doors were old – the wood rotting, the single-glazing so thin they could crack it with a sneeze. But even that wouldn’t be necessary.
The first man had bent his knees and, his eye level with the latch, could clearly see the thin metal arm of an old-fashioned hook that was the only thing keeping the outside out. He grabbed his
knife from his back pocket and jemmying it into the gap, quickly flicked it upwards. The hook swung up, round and back, knocking lightly against itself.
They were in. It was that easy – a sharp eye, a rope and a knife.
The doors were stiff with neglect, the hinges protesting with loud creaks as they were forced back, but open they did and both men stepped onto the parquet floor. They twisted their head-torches
on and, unclipping themselves from the ropes, began to move silently through the empty rooms.
The air was so stale it almost had a physical texture to it and they couldn’t help but cough, even though the need for silence was paramount. That wasn’t all they disturbed –
their footsteps on the dusty floor recorded their path through the apartment like tracks in the snow, but who would ever see? It was obvious no one apart from them knew this place was still here.
It was hidden in plain sight, the neighbours’ apathy no doubt perpetuating the secret, everyone working on the assumption that it belonged to someone else; that it was someone else’s
problem. You couldn’t just
an apartment, after all; couldn’t forget you owned it.
But someone had.
The first man stopped in the kitchen. A single chair lay on its side on the floor, a dresser stood bare, its hooks like curled, arthritic fingers with nothing to hold. There wasn’t a pot
or a pan, a bucket or mop. The place had been stripped.
Disappointed, they walked further down the hall, their twin beams of light crossing over each other like duelling swords in the blackness as they continued to search.
Both men stopped at the threshold to the bedroom. An iron bedstead was pushed against the back wall but that wasn’t what quickened their pulses. A large wooden crate stood at the end, the
lid splintered from where it had been levered off, a crowbar still on the bed slats.
They hurried over, the first man squinting as he read a small sheet of paper stapled to the inside. The handwritten script had faded in the sun but there was a company name and oval logo on the
top and it looked like some kind of pro-forma docket.
Behind him, the second man tripped over something on the floor and lurched heavily into the end of the bed. He swore and looked back irritably, picking up the offending article. He had thought
it just a rag, but on closer inspection saw it was a child’s toy – a cloth duck comforter, its stuffed head bald from overuse, the terry towelling fabric bleached with age and thick
with dust. The man immediately sneezed, letting it drop to the floor again.
So much for silence, his companion thought. They might as well just hold a party and invite the neighbours.
‘Holy shit,’ he whispered, shining a light into the crate as he stared in.
The second man hurried over, his torch too flooding the dark cavity with light.
Both men stared, open-mouthed, at what was inside. It was more than they could have dreamed of.
‘Quick. Let’s get her out.’
Wiltshire, England, August 2016
Summertime had England in its grip. The heatwave baking the Continent had finally hit British shores and the nation was revelling in its signature jubilant mood that was always
unzipped any time the mercury nudged the thirties – deckchairs dotted the parks, freckles multiplied, children played in fountains and residential streets reverberated to the slap of
flip-flops on bare feet.
Not that Flora Sykes could see or hear any of this. Her parents’ back garden – eight acres in the Wiltshire countryside – was bordered by high beech hedges and carpeted in
camomile lawns, and she had been blissfully face down and unconscious on the lounger by the pool since arriving, a cool three hours after she’d stepped off the plane. Her big brother Freddie
was still nowhere to be seen, sleeping like a student; her father was on the golf course; and her mother, swatting away Flora’s half-hearted, exhausted offers to help, was efficiently
plunging langoustines into boiling water, apparently unmoved by the creatures’ Nemo-like attempts to escape by wriggling the plastic bags they were held in across the worktops.
Flora had intended to read. One of her New Year’s resolutions involving working less and playing more had been to read everything on last year’s Man Booker longlist, but by March
that had been amended to reading the shortlist and now she would just be grateful to get through this first book that she’d bought in January and was still only a third of the way through.
The problem was adrenalin. Her life was ruled by it – long, intense, work-around-the-clock bursts, followed by crashes into oblivion – and it left precious little time or energy for
pastimes like reading.
This week had been a case in point. She had woken up in Palm Beach on Monday, Chicago on Wednesday, and had squeezed in a meeting and drinks party in Manhattan yesterday, before darting to JFK
in her cocktail dress for the red-eye to Heathrow.
‘Cup of tea, darling?’ Her mother’s voice, distant, sounded in her ear. She heard the chink of china on limestone. ‘And you need to put some more lotion on. Your
shoulders are beginning to go pink.’
A warm hand touched her skin, testing across her shoulders for proof. Flora raised her head, a cloud of butter-blonde hair falling over her face. ‘Huh?’ she groaned.
‘Oh, darling, I worry about you. All this jet lag plays havoc with your system.’
Flora flipped her hair back and tried to push up into a sitting position. Her mother was swinging her legs onto the lounger next to her, a copy of
on her lap and a matching tea
in her hands. Her straw hat threw shade over a face that was still beautiful, even in her late fifties.
Flora fiddled with the straps of her Liberty-print cotton bikini – not great for swimming in but she had no intention of getting wet; well, assuming Freddie didn’t chuck her in
– and reached for the tea. The steam pinked her already sleep-flushed face as she drowsily watched the electric-blue dragonflies skimming the water’s surface, swallows swooping in the
clear skies above.
‘You work too hard. It’s not good for you.’
‘I know but I can’t step back at the moment. I need to keep bringing in new clients – it’s what Angus hired me for. I can relax a bit come Christmas.’
Darling, you’ll be long dead by then. It’s only August. Frankly, I’m worried you won’t see out the day.’
‘Well, of course you are, you’re always worried. You’d worry about not having anything to worry about,’ Flora smiled. ‘When’s Daddy getting back?’
Her mother glanced across, eyebrows hitched and a sceptical expression in her blue eyes. ‘I said lunch was twelve-thirty – so one.’
Flora chuckled. Her father’s tardiness was legendary. He had been late to his own wedding (burst tyre on the Aston), the hospital when Freddie was born (traffic in Mayfair), the hospital
when she was born (the dog got lost in Hyde Park and the ambulance couldn’t wait) and his brother’s funeral (the high street closed for the farmers’ market in Marlborough). The
only things he had never, ever been late for – not once in forty years – were his auctions. He had been chief auctioneer at Christie’s throughout the late eighties until fairly
recently when he’d retired; the auctions were known as lively, rambunctious affairs more akin to shooting parties and he had been feted for his witty commentaries which whipped up both mood
and appetite and meant that, more often than not, he brought the hammer down on record prices.
But lunch, they all knew, could wait. No doubt he would still be hacking divots into the sixteenth green at twelve-thirty, in spite of his very best intentions to obey his adored wife.
‘Freddie’s sleeping late,’ Flora observed, catching sight of the time as she sipped her tea. It was twelve-fifteen already, although her body was telling her it was dawn.
‘. . . Yes. He is.’
Flora tipped her head back against the teak and looked across at her mother. ‘What?’
‘Mummy, I know that tone. What is it?’
Her mother glanced over but Flora could tell she didn’t really see her. ‘He’s very thin.’
‘He’s always thin.’
‘Well, he’s lost a lot of weight then. I don’t think he’s eating properly.’
‘I can almost guarantee it,’ Flora said with a groan, extending a leg to examine her pedicure. Three weeks in and it was holding up well. ‘This is the man who uses the
possibility of scurvy as justification for buying multi-packs of Frazzles, remember.’