Home > The Death of Mrs. Westaway(9)

The Death of Mrs. Westaway(9)
Author: Ruth Ware

“I’ve paid off that money three, four times over,” Hal said. She heard an edge of desperation creeping into her voice. “For God’s sake, please. You know I have. I must have given you more than two thousand pounds. I only borrowed five hundred in the first place.”

“Terms is terms. You agreed to the interest. If you didn’t like it, you shouldn’t have agreed to it.”

“I had no other choice!”

But the man only smiled again, and shook his head.

“Naughty, naughty. We always have choices, Miss Westaway. You chose to borrow money off Mr. Smith, and he wants it back. Now, he’s not an unreasonable man. Your debt is currently at . . .” He pretended to consult a piece of paper he held in his hand, though Hal was pretty sure it was all for show. “Three thousand eight hundred and twenty-five pounds. But Mr. Smith has kindly offered to take three thousand cash as a final payment and we’ll call it settled.”

“I haven’t got three thousand pounds!” Hal said. She felt her voice rising and swallowed, forcing herself to lower it from a shout to a more reasonable level.

Slow down.

It was her mother’s voice in her head, soft and calming. Hal remembered her telling her about how to deal with difficult clients. Make them realize you’re in control, not them. Don’t let them make all the demands—remember you’re in charge of this reading. You ask the questions. You set the pace.

If only this was a reading. If only she had this man across a table with the cards in between them . . . but she didn’t. She would just have to work with the situation she was in.

She could do this.

“Look,” she said more reasonably. She drew a shaky breath, made herself unfold her arms from their defensive posture, spread her hands to show honesty. She even forced herself to smile, though it felt like a rictus grin. “Look, I want this settled as much as you do—more, actually. But I haven’t got three thousand or any way of getting it. You might as well ask for the moon. So let’s try to work out what I can offer that your boss will find acceptable. Fifty pounds a week?”

She didn’t stop to think about how she would come up with the money. Fifty pounds a week was money she just didn’t have at this time of year. But maybe Mr. Khan would let her defer the rent by a month, and Christmas often meant a small surge in business, with work Christmas parties and late-night shopping. Regardless, she would find the money.

“Here—” She went to the table, picked up the latched box that she kept on the side with the day’s takings. Her hands were shaking almost too much to work the lock, but at last she got it open, and when she held out the notes, she made herself look up at him through her lashes and smile, a little girl’s smile, shy and pleading, appealing to his better nature—if he had one. “Look, there’s . . . twenty . . . thirty . . . nearly forty pounds here. Take that to be going on with.”

Never mind that she still needed to pay Chalky White for the lease on the kiosk. Never mind the bills, and the rent, and the fact that she had no food in the house. Anything to get him out of her kiosk and buy her some time.

But the man was shaking his head.

“Look, you’ve gotta understand, if it was up to me, I’d love to. There’s nothing I’d like better than to help out a young girl like you, all alone in the world.” His eye swept appraisingly round the little kiosk. “But it isn’t up to me. And Mr. Smith, he feels like he’s been very generous, and you’ve taken advantage of that generosity. Mr. Smith wants his money. End of.”

“Or what?” Hal said, suddenly weary of it all. She shoved the notes in her pocket, and deep within her, in the core of her, she felt a flicker of anger ignite, its determined warmth beginning to replace her chilly fear. “What’s he going to do? Seize my goods? I’ve got nothing to offer you. You could sell everything I own and it wouldn’t raise three grand. Take me to court? I didn’t sign anything—you’ve got nothing except your word against mine. Or maybe he’ll go to the police? You know—” She paused, as if the idea had only just struck her. “Yes, that’s an idea. Maybe we should do that. I think they’d be interested in his loan collection methods.”

That wiped the smile off the man’s face, and he leaned forwards, so close to Hal’s face that she could feel his saliva flecking her forehead as he spat the words. She forced herself not to flinch away.

“Now, that, Miss Westaway, is a very, very stupid suggestion. Mr. Smith has a lot of friends in the police, and I think they’d be upset to hear you talking like that about one of their mates. You say you didn’t sign anything? Well, guess what that means, Miss Cleverclogs? No bloody evidence. You’ve got nothing to take to the police except for your word against mine. I’m going to give you one week to raise that money, and I don’t want to hear any fucking nonsense about not having any way of getting it. You sell something, you rob someone, you stand on a street corner and give randy businessmen blow jobs in the backseat of their cars for twenty quid a pop, I don’t fucking care. I want that money by this time next week. You reckon you’ve got nothing now? You can have a lot less than this, sweetheart. A lot less.”

With that he turned and, very casually, swept everything off the shelf behind the table. Hal flinched as the contents went crashing down: the crystal ball on its wooden stand, the carved painted ornaments, the clay pot she had made her mother for some long-ago Christmas present, the books and cups, and the china vase of Kau Chim sticks . . . Down they came, smashing one by one across the desk and floor below.

“Oops,” the man deadpanned, the lisp of the s somehow making the word sound even more sarcastic. He turned and gave her a wide, gap-toothed smile. “Sorry about that. I’m a bit clumsy, me. Broken bones too. Lots of bones. Knocked out three teeth the other day. Accidentally. But accidents happen, don’t they?”

Hal found she was trembling. She wanted to run away from the booth, hammer on the door of the security guard’s office, crouch under the dripping boardwalk of the pier until he went, but she could not—would not—give way. She would not show him her fear.

“I’ll be off now,” he said. He pushed past her to the door, and as he did, he put out one hand and casually tipped the table, sending the tarot cards flying into the air and Hal’s cup of tea, left over from the morning, smashing to the floor. The cold tea spattered Hal’s face, making her flinch.

In the doorway he paused, turned up his collar against the rain.

“Good-bye, Miss Westaway.” That sibilant, whistling ssss. “See you next week.”

And then he was gone, slamming the door behind him.

• • •

AFTER, HAL STOOD FOR A long moment, frozen, listening to his steps receding up the pier. And then something inside her seemed to release, and with shaking hands she pulled the latch of the kiosk door shut and then stood, her back to the door, trembling with relief and fear.

It had been almost a year ago that she had taken out the loan, and now she couldn’t believe she had been so stupid. But at the time she had felt backed into an impossible corner—it had been winter, and takings from the pier had fallen, and fallen, until one awful week she had made only seventy pounds. The other stallholders had shrugged, and told her some weeks were just like that—inexplicably bad. But for Hal, it had been a disaster. She had no savings to fall back on, no second job. She was behind on the rent, behind on the bills, she had no way of covering the lease on the kiosk, even. She had tried everything—she’d advertised for a roommate, but no one wanted a flat where the landlady slept on a sofa in the one room. She’d attempted to find bar work, but it clashed with the times she was supposed to be at the pier, and in any case, one look at her empty CV and most of the places she’d tried had simply shaken their heads. Even the people at the job center had sucked their teeth when she told them she’d never even finished her A levels. The fact that her mother had died two weeks before she had been supposed to take the exams didn’t really matter.

Touch up a relative, one of the guys on the pier had said, call in a favor from a mate, and Hal had not known how to reply, not known how to explain quite how alone in the world she was. Yes, she had grown up in Brighton, had even had friends here before her mother’s death, but it was hard to explain how frighteningly fast their lives had diverged after the accident. She remembered turning up to school the day after the funeral, listening to them laughing about mobile phone bills, boyfriends, being grounded for some minor misdemeanor—and feeling like she was in a separate world. The image that had kept coming to her at the time was of a railway track, with the route stretching out ahead, already planned: A levels, university, internships, careers . . . and then a switch had been thrown, and she had been hurtled down a completely different route, simply trying to survive, to pay the bills, to get by from day to day, while her friends continued on down the old familiar track that Hal herself should have taken, if not for that speeding car.

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