“Cormoran, there’s a wedding invite here for you.”
It took a moment for Robin’s words to register with Strike, engrossed as he was with the notes he was reviewing. He didn’t bother to look up from the file.
“Chuck it in the bin,” he said, flipping over a page. Robin didn’t answer, but he could feel her gaze resting on him from the other end of the desk where she sat behind the computer, opening the day’s mail. Strike was conscious of the fact that they hadn’t sat together like this in some time, not since they’d hired a permanent receptionist. For the past week, however, Ms. Fisher had been away visiting her daughter and new-born grandson, and they had fallen easily into their old routines.
It had been nice, Strike reflected, to see Robin every day instead of communicating mainly through texts and phone calls. He liked spending time with her; liked it far too much, he knew. But they would be back to normal on Monday, both constantly busy with surveillance, so he might as well enjoy her company while he could.
He realized that she had been silent for quite some time, and glanced up. She had turned her chair to face him, a stiff cream-coloured card and envelope in her hands and a look of incredulity on her face.
“You don’t even want to see whose wedding it is?”
Robin held the invitation out expectantly towards him; he rolled his eyes at her.
“Whose is it, then?” he said, making no move to take the proffered card.
“Someone called James Brogan, who is apparently marrying someone called Olivia Tatham.”
“Chuck it in the bin.” Strike suppressed a grin at her exasperated sigh and returned his attention to his file.
Robin watched him read with her brow furrowed. She was used to Strike avoiding what he considered unpleasant social obligations, and to his grumbling when he couldn’t do so; why it irritated her so much today, she couldn’t say.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you mention him,” she asked, trying to keep her tone casual. Strike shrugged.
“He was a bloke I knew at university, before I left,” he said, still focused on his reading.
“I suppose. Ran into him a couple months ago, but that was the first time we’d spoken in… Christ, a decade at least.”
“Why would he invite you to his wedding, then?” Robin pressed.
Robin continued to study the invitation. “The thirtieth of June… That’s only a month from now. You must’ve been on the reserve list.”
Strike looked up from his file at last, intrigued. “The what now?”
“The reserve list,” Robin explained. “It’s like a second tier of guests that you send an invite to if some of your first choices can’t make it.” She dropped the invitation on the desk; Strike picked it up, glancing at the date.
“Flattering,” he said with a dismissive shrug, swiveling to drop the card in the trash. Robin shot him a derisive glance, but turned to the computer and started to work through the morning’s emails. After a few minutes, though, the sound of Robin tapping the keyboard slowed, and then stopped.
“Are you really not going to go?”
Strike looked over at Robin quizzically, but she hadn’t turned away from the computer monitor; her hands hung suspend over the keyboard.
“Course not,” he said, watching the back of her red-gold head.
She still hadn’t turned her chair back to face him.
“Why would I want to? I hate weddings. Bloody waste of time.”
“Yes, god forbid you be forced to eat a free meal and interact pleasantly with other human beings,” she said, her voice icy. She resumed her typing with a vengeance.
“It’s not really free if you have to bring a gift,” Strike said defensively, to no response other than the clattering of the keyboard. He studied the tense line of her shoulders, wondering why she seemed to be taking his indifference as a personal affront. Robin had been working through her weekends lately, joking that it was either run surveillance or sit at home alone; she didn’t have many friends in London, he knew. Perhaps she would have been pleased to receive an invitation to an old friend’s wedding, would have seen it as a welcome diversion.
“Would you like to go?” The question slipped out before he could stop himself, but he knew his intuition was correct when she shot him a startled glance, abandoning her determined focus on the invoice she was filling out.
“I’m not the one who’s invited,” she reminded him, her raised eyebrows and patient tone clearly implying that she thought Strike had taken momentary leave of his senses. Perhaps he had; what was he thinking?
He hadn’t been able to prevent a close friendship from forming between them, nor had he been entirely successful in repressing his entirely unprofessional feelings towards her. Surely, though, he wasn’t going to deliberately and recklessly court danger like this? An evening with her on his arm, dressed to the nines – dinner, drinks, dim lighting – it would be far too easy in such a setting to let his resolve crumble, to make a move that would prove to be disastrous for their partnership.
He was tempted, though. Sorely tempted. Goddammit.
“It said I’ve got a plus one,” he said, against his better judgement; he was immediately rewarded by the slow half-smile of disbelief and hope that spread across Robin’s face.
“Are you asking me to go with you?” Robin asked. She could feel herself begin to blush, and started shuffling through the mail again in an attempt to hide the slight tremble of her hands and the sudden fluttering in her stomach. Strike’s chair creaked a little as he leaned back.
“Well, you’re the one who’s so keen on me going; I don’t want to suffer alone,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yep.” He wasn’t at all sure; but he supposed he couldn’t take it back now – especially if doing so dimmed the sparkle of excitement that had appeared in her eyes.
“All right, then,” she said with feigned nonchalance. “I’ll take care of the RSVP, shall I?” She knew very well that, if left in Strike’s care, the response card would never be filled out, and her pointed look at Strike to that effect made him grin.
“Cheers,” Strike said, as he heaved himself to his feet. He thought he’d go for a smoke while he tried to figure out just how big a fuck-up this was going to turn out to be.
The afternoon of June thirtieth was sunny and warm, and the tube carriage in which Robin stood, sandwiched uncomfortably between a scruffy looking backpacker and a middle-aged woman loaded with shopping, was packed. She silently blessed her foresight in leaving her dress for that evening at the office; the morning’s surveillance had taken much longer than anticipated, and she would never have had the time to travel back to her flat in order to change. She was running late as it was, and her pace as the train disgorged its passengers onto the platform was brisk.
As she navigated the construction on Tottenham Court Road, Robin forced herself to analyze her feelings about the coming evening. She was excited, yes, and she was trying hard to convince herself that this was entirely due to the fact that she was looking forward to getting out of her flat for once, to dressing up and having some fun. Since she and Matthew had separated almost six months ago, her social life had become somewhat barren; their friends in London had all been Matthew’s, and she had been too engrossed with work to bother spending much time meeting new people on her own. Really, the only people with whom she regularly interacted were Strike and their new secretary.
Robin sighed. She might as well be honest with herself; it wasn’t the prospect of canapés and small talk that had distracted her for weeks with anticipation, or that had created the swelling bubble of nervousness and excitement that was lodged somewhere behind her breastbone.
You’re being silly, she told herself as she started up the clanging metal staircase to the office. Strike didn’t think of her in that way, she was sure. They were friends, and he’d asked her to accompany him as his friend, nothing more. He probably just feels sorry for you, she thought, momentarily bitter. She had had more than her fair share of condescension and pity from friends and family in the aftermath of her split with Matthew.
The front door of the office was open; the first thing she saw upon entering was Strike, dressed in his nicest suit and rifling through the filing cabinet. He greeted her without looking up, intent on his search.
“You look smart,” she said, dropping her bag on the couch, and it was true. It had been a long time since Robin had thought of Strike as unattractive; she had grown used to his battered face and massive frame, she supposed. She liked knowing him well enough to read the small changes in expression which betrayed his feelings, where other people saw nothing but surliness. As she moved around the desk to find the holdall she had stashed there, she couldn’t help but shoot an admiring glance from beneath her lashes at the way his broad shoulders filled out his suit jacket.
He acknowledged the compliment with a short nod.
“How’d it go with the Nutter?” he asked, as he extracted the file he’d been looking for and shut the drawer.
Robin’s task that morning had been to shadow their young female client, who had been in receipt of several frightening letters from someone who seemed to be very familiar with her movements. They had hoped that putting the client herself under surveillance might flush out whoever was stalking her.
“See for yourself,” Robin said, fishing a camera out of her bag and handing it to Strike. “I’m going to get changed, I’ll just be a minute.” She vanished out to the landing with her holdall, and Strike heard the click of the bathroom’s latch as the fan whirred to life.
He sat down behind the desk and, after a bit of searching, found the cable that connected the camera to the USB port. A few clicks brought up the camera’s folder, which was full of pictures; as Strike scrolled, he saw the same man in every one – middle-aged, nondescript, with pale blond hair and a thin frame. There were pictures of him sipping coffee and staring at their client, of him walking behind her, lurking in a doorway while she browsed a street stall. Robin had even captured the man using his mobile to take sneaky pictures of their client.
The last few photos were of the man alone, sitting on a tube carriage, then entering a shabby apartment building. She had carefully taken pictures of the address, and of the directory above the buzzer
“This is fantastic,” he said as Robin re-entered the room in a soft cloud of perfume. He scrolled back up to examine the most incriminating photos again. “Nice work.” He looked up at her then, and instantly regretted it.
The poison green dress hugged her curves just as tightly as he remembered it doing the first time he had seen her in it, but he was somehow unprepared for just how beautiful she looked, with her hair falling in rose-gold waves around her face, and the glittering heels she wore making her legs look impossibly long. The only saving grace for his dignity was that the deep blue wrap she carried hid from his view the expanse of creamy skin revealed by the dress’s plunging back.
He cleared his throat and managed to wrench his gaze away from the delicate curve of her hip.
“Nice dress,” he said, pleased that his voice was steadier than he felt. “Looks familiar.”
“It should do,” she tossed back before she turned and bent to rummage through her bag. “You’re probably still paying it off.”
Strike snorted with laughter at this, then went back to flipping through the photographs that Robin had spent all morning taking. He watched her out of the corner of his eye as she peered into her small compact, darkening the makeup around her eyes and applying fresh lipstick, and felt slightly guilty as he did so; he had always found watching women apply cosmetics to be an oddly intimate act.
As they prepared to leave – computer turned off, Robin’s holdall neatly stowed, the desk cleared of papers – Strike reflected that he probably owed her a proper compliment on her appearance, one without a flippant remark attached; women liked to have their efforts appreciated, in his experience.
“You look beautiful,” he therefore told her sincerely, as she locked the office door behind them, and was rewarded by the sight of her face flushing a brilliant pink as she murmured her thanks.
As they walked together out of the building, she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow, and there its soft pressure remained as they set off down Denmark Street in search of a taxi.