Robert Galbraith

Jun 042014
 

The post Start Reading The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith appeared first on Mulholland Books.

The Silkworm by Robert GalbraithPrivate investigator Cormoran Strike returns in a new mystery from Robert Galbraith, author of the #1 international bestseller The Cuckoo’s Calling. Read the first two chapters of The Silkworm below, and meet Strike’s new client. The Silkworm goes on sale June 19th, but you can preorder your copy today at your local independent bookstore or online from Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | Hastings | iBooks | Target | Walmart

QUESTION
What dost thou feed on?
ANSWER
Broken sleep.
–Thomas Dekker, The Noble Spanish Solder

“Someone bloody famous,” said the hoarse voice on the end of the line, “better’ve died, Strike.”

The large unshaven man tramping through the darkness of pre-dawn, with his telephone clamped to his ear, grinned.

“It’s in that ballpark.”

“It’s six o’clock in the fucking morning!”

“It’s half past, but if you want what I’ve got, you’ll need to come and get it,” said Cormoran Strike. “I’m not far away from your place. There’s a—”

“How d’you know where I live?” demanded the voice.

“You told me,” said Strike, stifling a yawn. “You’re selling your flat.”

“Oh,” said the other, mollified. “Good memory.”

“There’s a twenty-four-hour caff—”

“Fuck that. Come into the office later—”

“Culpepper, I’ve got another client this morning, he pays better than you do and I’ve been up all night. You need this now if you’re going to use it.”

A groan. Strike could hear the rustling of sheets.

“It had better be shit-hot.”

“Smithfield Café on Long Lane,” said Strike and rang off.

The slight unevenness in his gait became more pronounced as he walked down the slope towards Smithfield Market, monolithic in the winter darkness, a vast rectangular Victorian temple to meat, where from four every weekday morning animal flesh was unloaded, as it had been for centuries past, cut, parceled and sold to butchers and restaurants across London. Strike could hear voices through the gloom, shouted instructions and the growl and beep of reversing lorries unloading the carcasses. As he entered Long Lane, he became merely one among many heavily muffled men moving purposefully about their Monday-morning business.

A huddle of couriers in fluorescent jackets cupped mugs of tea in their gloved hands beneath a stone griffin standing sentinel on the corner of the market building. Across the road, glowing like an open fireplace against the surrounding darkness, was the Smithfield Café, open twenty-four hours a day, a cupboard-sized cache of warmth and greasy food.

The café had no bathroom, but an arrangement with the bookies a few doors along. Ladbrokes would not open for another three hours, so Strike made a detour down a side alley and in a dark doorway relieved himself of a bladder bulging with weak coffee drunk in the course of a night’s work. Exhausted and hungry, he turned at last, with the pleasure that only a man who has pushed himself past his physical limits can ever experience, into the fat-laden atmosphere of frying eggs and bacon.

Two men in fleeces and waterproofs had just vacated a table. Strike maneuvered his bulk into the small space and sank, with a grunt of satisfaction, onto the hard wood and steel chair. Almost before he asked, the Italian owner placed tea in front of him in a tall white mug, which came with triangles of white buttered bread. Within five minutes a full English breakfast lay before him on a large oval plate.

Strike blended well with the strong men banging their way in and out of the café. He was large and dark, with dense, short, curly hair that had receded a little from the high, domed forehead that topped a boxer’s broad nose and thick, surly brows. His jaw was grimy with stubble and bruise-colored shadows enlarged his dark eyes. He ate gazing dreamily at the market building opposite. The nearest arched entrance, numbered two, was taking substance as the darkness thinned: a stern stone face, ancient and bearded, stared back at him from over the doorway. Had there ever been a god of carcasses?

He had just started on his sausages when Dominic Culpepper arrived. The journalist was almost as tall as Strike but thin, with a choirboy’s complexion. A strange asymmetry, as though somebody had given his face a counterclockwise twist, stopped him being girlishly handsome.

“This better be good,” Culpepper said as he sat down, pulled off his gloves and glanced almost suspiciously around the café.

“Want some food?” asked Strike through a mouthful of sausage.

“No,” said Culpepper.

“Rather wait till you can get a croissant?” asked Strike, grinning.

“Fuck off, Strike.”

It was almost pathetically easy to wind up the ex–public schoolboy, who ordered tea with an air of defiance, calling the indifferent waiter (as Strike noted with amusement) “mate.”

“Well?” demanded Culpepper, with the hot mug in his long pale hands.

Strike fished in his overcoat pocket, brought out an envelope and slid it across the table. Culpepper pulled out the contents and began to read.

“Fucking hell,” he said quietly, after a while. He shuffled feverishly through the bits of paper, some of which were covered in Strike’s own writing. “Where the hell did you get this?”

Strike, whose mouth was full of sausage, jabbed a finger at one of the bits of paper, on which an office address was scribbled.

“His very fucked-off PA,” he said, when he had finally swallowed. “He’s been shagging her, as well as the two you know about. She’s only just realized she’s not going to be the next Lady Parker.”

“How the hell did you find that out?” asked Culpepper, staring up at Strike over the papers trembling in his excited hands.

“Detective work,” said Strike thickly, through another bit of sausage. “Didn’t your lot used to do this, before you started outsourcing to the likes of me? But she’s got to think about her future employment prospects, Culpepper, so she doesn’t want to appear in the story, all right?”

Culpepper snorted.

“She should’ve thought about that before she nicked—”

With a deft movement, Strike tweaked the papers out of the journalist’s fingers.

“She didn’t nick them. He got her to print this lot off for him this afternoon. The only thing she’s done wrong is show it to me. But if you’re going to splash her private life all over the papers, Culpepper, I’ll take ’em back.”

“Piss off,” said Culpepper, making a grab for the evidence of wholesale tax evasion clutched in Strike’s hairy hand. “All right, we’ll leave her out of it. But he’ll know where we got it. He’s not a complete tit.”

“What’s he going to do, drag her into court where she can spill the beans about every other dodgy thing she’s witnessed over the last five years?”

“Yeah, all right,” sighed Culpepper after a moment’s reflection. “Give ’em back. I’ll leave her out of the story, but I’ll need to speak to her, won’t I? Check she’s kosher.”

“Those are kosher. You don’t need to speak to her,” said Strike firmly.

The shaking, besotted, bitterly betrayed woman whom he had just left would not be safe left alone with Culpepper. In her savage desire for retribution against a man who had promised her marriage and children she would damage herself and her prospects beyond repair. It had not taken Strike long to gain her trust. She was nearly forty-two; she had thought that she was going to have Lord Parker’s children; now a kind of bloodlust had her in its grip. Strike had sat with her for several hours, listening to the story of her infatuation, watching her pace her sitting room in tears, rock backwards and forwards on her sofa, knuckles to her forehead. Finally she had agreed to this: a betrayal that represented the funeral of all her hopes.

“You’re going to leave her out of it,” said Strike, holding the papers firmly in a fist that was nearly twice the size of Culpepper’s. “Right? This is still a fucking massive story without her.”

After a moment’s hesitation and with a grimace, Culpepper caved in.

“Yeah, all right. Give me them.”

The journalist shoved the statements into an inside pocket and gulped his tea, and his momentary disgruntlement at Strike seemed to fade in the glorious prospect of dismantling the reputation of a British peer.

“Lord Parker of Pennywell,” he said happily under his breath, “you are well and truly screwed, mate.”

“I take it your proprietor’ll get this?” Strike asked, as the bill landed between them.

“Yeah, yeah …”

Culpepper threw a ten-pound note down onto the table and the two men left the café together. Strike lit up a cigarette as soon as the door had swung closed behind them.

“How did you get her to talk?” Culpepper asked as they set off together through the cold, past the motorbikes and lorries still arriving at and departing the market.

“I listened,” said Strike.

Culpepper shot him a sideways glance.

“All the other private dicks I use spend their time hacking phone messages.”

“Illegal,” said Strike, blowing smoke into the thinning darkness.

“So how—?”

“You protect your sources and I’ll protect mine.”

They walked fifty yards in silence, Strike’s limp more marked with every step.

“This is going to be massive. Massive,” said Culpepper gleefully. “That hypocritical old shit’s been bleating on about corporate greed and he’s had twenty mill stashed in the Cayman Islands … ”

“Glad to give satisfaction,” said Strike. “I’ll email you my invoice.”

Culpepper threw him another sideways look.

“See Tom Jones’s son in the paper last week?” he asked.

“Tom Jones?”

“Welsh singer,” said Culpepper.

“Oh, him,” said Strike, without enthusiasm. “I knew a Tom Jones in the army.”

“Did you see the story?”

“No.”

“Nice long interview he gave. He says he’s never met his father, never had a word from him. I bet he got more than your bill is going to be.”

“You haven’t seen my invoice yet,” said Strike.

“Just saying. One nice little interview and you could take a few nights off from interviewing secretaries.”

“You’re going to have to stop suggesting this,” said Strike, “or I’m going to have to stop working for you, Culpepper.”

“Course,” said Culpepper, “I could run the story anyway. Rock star’s estranged son is a war hero, never knew his father, working as a private—”

“Instructing people to hack phones is illegal as well, I’ve heard.”

At the top of Long Lane they slowed and turned to face each other. Culpepper’s laugh was uneasy.

“I’ll wait for your invoice, then.”

“Suits me.”

They set off in different directions, Strike heading towards the Tube station.

“Strike!” Culpepper’s voice echoed through the darkness behind him. “Did you fuck her?”

“Looking forward to reading it, Culpepper,” Strike shouted wearily, without turning his head.

He limped into the shadowy entrance of the station and was lost to Culpepper’s sight.

 

Chapter 2

How long must we fight? for I cannot stay,
Nor will I stay! I have business.
—Francis Beaumont and Philip Massinger
     The Little French Lawyer

The Tube was filling up already. Monday-morning faces: sagging, gaunt, braced, resigned. Strike found a seat opposite a puffy-eyed young blonde whose head kept sinking sideways into sleep. Again and again she jerked herself back upright, scanning the blurred signs of the stations frantically in case she had missed her stop.

The train rattled and clattered, speeding Strike back towards the meager two and a half rooms under a poorly insulated roof that he called home. In the depths of his tiredness, surrounded by these blank, sheep-like visages, he found himself pondering the accidents that had brought all of them into being. Every birth was, viewed properly, mere chance. With a hundred million sperm swimming blindly through the darkness, the odds against a person becoming themselves were staggering. How many of this Tube-full had been planned, he wondered, light-headed with tiredness. And how many, like him, were accidents?

There had been a little girl in his primary school class who had a port-wine stain across her face and Strike had always felt a secret kinship with her, because both of them had carried something indelibly different with them since birth, something that was not their fault. They couldn’t see it, but everybody else could, and had the bad manners to keep mentioning it. The occasional fascination of total strangers, which at five years old he had thought had something to do with his own uniqueness, he eventually realized was because they saw him as no more than a famous singer’s zygote, the incidental evidence of a celebrity’s unfaithful fumble. Strike had only met his biological father twice. It had taken a DNA test to make Jonny Rokeby accept paternity.

Dominic Culpepper was a walking distillation of the prurience and presumptions that Strike met on the very rare occasions these days that anybody connected the surly-looking ex-soldier with the aging rock star. Their thoughts leapt at once to trust funds and handsome handouts, to private flights and VIP lounges, to a multimillionaire’s largesse on tap. Agog at the modesty of Strike’s existence and the punishing hours he worked, they asked themselves: what must Strike have done to alienate his father? Was he faking penury to wheedle more money out of Rokeby? What had he done with the millions his mother had surely squeezed out of her rich paramour?

And at such times, Strike would think nostalgically of the army, of the anonymity of a career in which your background and your parentage counted for almost nothing beside your ability to do the job. Back in the Special Investigation Branch, the most personal question he had faced on introduction was a request to repeat the odd pair of names with which his extravagantly unconventional mother had saddled him.

Traffic was already rolling busily along Charing Cross Road by the time Strike emerged from the Tube. The November dawn was breaking now, gray and halfhearted, full of lingering shadows. He turned into Denmark Street feeling drained and sore, looking forward to the short sleep he might be able to squeeze in before his next client arrived at nine thirty. With a wave at the girl in the guitar shop, with whom he often took cigarette breaks on the street, Strike let himself in through the black outer door beside the 12 Bar Café and began to climb the metal staircase that curled around the broken birdcage lift inside. Up past the graphic designer on the first floor, past his own office with its engraved glass door on the second; up to the third and smallest landing where his home now lay.

The previous occupant, manager of the bar downstairs, had moved on to more salubrious quarters and Strike, who had been sleeping in his office for a few months, had leapt at the chance to rent the place, grateful for such an easy solution to the problem of his homelessness. The space under the eaves was small by any standards, and especially for a man of six foot three. He scarcely had room to turn around in the shower; kitchen and living room were uneasily combined and the bedroom was almost entirely filled by the double bed. Some of Strike’s possessions remained boxed up on the landing, in spite of the landlord’s injunction against this.

His small windows looked out across rooftops, with Denmark Street far below. The constant throb of the bass from the bar below was muffled to the point that Strike’s own music often obliterated it.

Strike’s innate orderliness was manifest throughout: the bed was made, the crockery clean, everything in its place. He needed a shave and shower, but that could wait; after hanging up his overcoat, he set his alarm for nine twenty and stretched out on the bed fully clothed.

He fell asleep within seconds and within a few more—or so it seemed—he was awake again. Somebody was knocking on his door.

“I’m sorry, Cormoran, I’m really sorry—”

His assistant, a tall young woman with long strawberry-blond hair, looked apologetic as he opened the door, but at the sight of him her expression became appalled.

“Are you all right?”

“Wuzassleep. Been ’wake all night—two nights.”

“I’m really sorry,” Robin repeated, “but it’s nine forty and William Baker’s here and getting—”

“Shit,” mumbled Strike. “Can’t’ve set the alarm right—gimme five min—”

“That’s not all,” said Robin. “There’s a woman here. She hasn’t got an appointment. I’ve told her you haven’t got room for another client, but she’srefusing to leave.”

Strike yawned, rubbing his eyes.

“Five minutes. Make them tea or something.”

Six minutes later, in a clean shirt, smelling of toothpaste and deodorant but still unshaven, Strike entered the outer office where Robin was sitting at her computer.

“Well, better late than never,” said William Baker with a rigid smile. “Lucky you’ve got such a good-looking secretary, or I might have got bored and left.”

Strike saw Robin flush angrily as she turned away, ostensibly organizing the post. There had been something inherently offensive in the way that Baker had said “secretary.” Immaculate in his pinstriped suit, the company director was employing Strike to investigate two of his fellow board members.

“Morning, William,” said Strike.

“No apology?” murmured Baker, his eyes on the ceiling.

“Hello, who are you?” Strike asked, ignoring him and addressing instead the slight, middle-aged woman in an old brown overcoat who was perched on the sofa.

“Leonora Quine,” she replied, in what sounded, to Strike’s practiced ear, like a West Country accent.

“I’ve got a very busy morning ahead, Strike,” said Baker.

He walked without invitation into the inner office. When Strike did not follow, he lost a little of his suavity.

“I doubt you got away with shoddy time-keeping in the army, Mr. Strike. Come along, please.”

Strike did not seem to hear him.

“What exactly is it you were wanting me to do for you, Mrs. Quine?” he asked the shabby woman on the sofa.

“Well, it’s my husband—”

“Mr. Strike, I’ve got an appointment in just over an hour,” said William Baker, more loudly.

“—your secretary said you didn’t have no appointments but I said I’d wait.”

“Strike!” barked William Baker, calling his dog to heel.

“Robin,” snarled the exhausted Strike, losing his temper at last. “Make up Mr. Baker’s bill and give him the file; it’s up to date.”

“What?” said William Baker, thrown. He reemerged into the outer office.

“He’s sacking you,” said Leonora Quine with satisfaction.

“You haven’t finished the job,” Baker told Strike. “You said there was more—”

“Someone else can finish the job for you. Someone who doesn’t mind tossers as clients.”

The atmosphere in the office seemed to become petrified. Wooden-faced, Robin retrieved Baker’s file from the outer cabinet and handed it to Strike.

“How dare—”

“There’s a lot of good stuff in that file that’ll stand up in court,” said Strike, handing it to the director. “Well worth the money.”

“You haven’t finished—”

“He’s finished with you,”interjected Leonora Quine.

“Will you shut up, you stupid wom—” William Baker began, then took a sudden step backwards as Strike took a half-step forwards. Nobody said anything. The ex-serviceman seemed suddenly to be filling twice as much space as he had just seconds before.

“Take a seat in my office, Mrs. Quine,” said Strike quietly.

She did as she was told.

“You think she’ll be able to afford you?” sneered a retreating William Baker, his hand now on the door handle.

“My fees are negotiable,” said Strike, “if I like the client.”

He followed Leonora Quine into his office and closed the door behind him with a snap.

Excerpted from the book The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith. Copyright © 2014 by Robert Galbraith Limited. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series and The Casual Vacancy.

The post Start Reading The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith appeared first on Mulholland Books.

Mar 052013
 

On April 30th, Mulholland Books will publish Robert Galbraith’s debut novel THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, a mystery that had our own Duane Swierczynski, author of the Charlie Hardie series, raving: “I haven’t had this much with a detective novel in years,” and which Owen Laukkanen, author of The Professionals, called “at once beautifully written and utterly engrossing…a remarkably assured debut.”

We’re so excited to publish THE CUCKOO’S CALLING that we’ve decided to share an excerpt of the book with you early! Read on–and mark your calendars. Pub date will be here before you know it.

1

Though Robin Ellacott’s twenty-five years of life had seen their moments of drama and incident, she had never before woken up in the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived.

Shortly after midnight, her long-term boyfriend, Matthew, had proposed to her under the statue of Eros in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. In the giddy relief following her acceptance, he confessed that he had been planning to pop the question in the Thai restaurant where they just had eaten dinner, but that he had reckoned without the silent couple beside them, who had eavesdropped on their entire conversation. He had therefore suggested a walk through the darkening streets, in spite of Robin’s protests that they both needed to be up early, and finally inspiration had seized him, and he had led her, bewildered, to the steps of the statue. There, flinging discretion to the chilly wind (in a most un-Matthew-like way), he had proposed, on one knee, in front of three down-and-outs huddled on the steps, sharing what looked like a bottle of meths.

It had been, in Robin’s view, the most perfect proposal, ever, in the history of matrimony. He had even had a ring in his pocket, which she was now wearing; a sapphire with two diamonds, it fitted perfectly, and all the way into town she kept staring at it on her hand as it rested on her lap. She and Matthew had a story to tell now, a funny family story, the kind you told your children, in which his planning (she loved that he had planned it) went awry, and turned into something spontaneous. She loved the tramps, and the moon, and Matthew, panicky and flustered, on one knee; she loved Eros, and dirty old Piccadilly, and the black cab they had taken home to Clapham. She was, in fact, not far off loving the whole of London, which she had not so far warmed to, during the month she had lived there. Even the pale and pugnacious commuters squashed into the Tube carriage around her were gilded by the radiance of the ring, and as she emerged into the chilly March daylight at Tottenham Court Road underground station, she stroked the underside of the platinum band with her thumb, and experienced an explosion of happiness at the thought that she might buy some bridal magazines at lunchtime.

Male eyes lingered on her as she picked her way through the road-works at the top of Oxford Street, consulting a piece of paper in her right hand. Robin was, by any standards, a pretty girl; tall and curvaceous, with long strawberry-blonde hair that rippled as she strode briskly along, the chill air adding color to her pale cheeks. This was the first day of a week-long secretarial assignment. She had been temping ever since coming to live with Matthew in London, though not for much longer; she had what she termed “proper” interviews lined up now.

The most challenging part of these uninspiring piecemeal jobs was often finding the offices. London, after the small town in Yorkshire she had left, felt vast, complex and impenetrable. Matthew had told her not to walk around with her nose in an A–Z, which would make her look like a tourist and render her vulnerable; she therefore relied, as often as not, on poorly hand-drawn maps that somebody at the temping agency had made for her. She was not convinced that this made her look more like a native-born Londoner.

The metal barricades and the blue plastic Corimec walls surrounding the roadworks made it much harder to see where she ought to be going, because they obscured half the landmarks drawn on the paper in her hand. She crossed the torn-up road in front of a towering office block, labeled “Center Point” on her map, which resembled a gigantic concrete waffle with its dense grid of uniform square windows, and made her way in the rough direction of Denmark Street.

She found it almost accidentally, following a narrow alleyway called Denmark Place out into a short street full of colorful shop fronts: windows full of guitars, keyboards and every kind of musical ephemera. Red and white barricades surrounded another open hole in the road, and workmen in fluorescent jackets greeted her with early-morning wolf-whistles, which Robin pretended not to hear.

She consulted her watch. Having allowed her usual margin of time for getting lost, she was a quarter of an hour early. The nondescript black-painted doorway of the office she sought stood to the left of the 12 Bar Café; the name of the occupant of the office was written on a scrappy piece of lined paper Sellotaped beside the buzzer for the second floor. On an ordinary day, without the brand-new ring glittering upon her finger, she might have found this off-putting; today, however, the dirty paper and the peeling paint on the door were, like the tramps from last night, mere picturesque details on the backdrop of her grand romance. She checked her watch again (the sapphire glittered and her heart leapt; she would watch that stone glitter all the rest of her life), then decided, in a burst of euphoria, to go up early and show herself keen for a job that did not matter in the slightest.

She had just reached for the bell when the black door flew open from the inside, and a woman burst out on to the street. For one strangely static second the two of them looked directly into each other’s eyes, as each braced to withstand a collision. Robin’s senses were unusually receptive on this enchanted morning; the split-second view of that white face made such an impression on her that she thought, moments later, when they had managed to dodge each other, missing contact by a centimeter, after the dark woman had hurried off down the street, around the corner and out of sight, that she could have drawn her perfectly from memory. It was not merely the extraordinary beauty of the face that had impressed itself on her memory, but the other’s expression: livid, yet strangely exhilarated.

Robin caught the door before it closed on the dingy stairwell. An old-fashioned metal staircase spiraled up around an equally antiquated birdcage lift. Concentrating on keeping her high heels from catching in the metalwork stairs, she proceeded to the first landing, passing a door carrying a laminated and framed poster saying Crowdy Graphics, and continued climbing. It was only when she reached the glass door on the floor above that Robin realized, for the first time, what kind of business she had been sent to assist. Nobody at the agency had said. The name on the paper beside the outside buzzer was engraved on the glass panel: C. B. Strike, and, underneath it, the words Private Detective.

Robin stood quite still, with her mouth slightly open, experiencing a moment of wonder that nobody who knew her could have understood. She had never confided in a solitary human being (even Matthew) her lifelong, secret, childish ambition. For this to happen today, of all days! It felt like a wink from God (and this too she somehow connected with the magic of the day; with Matthew, and the ring; even though, properly considered, they had no connection at all).

Savoring the moment, she approached the engraved door very slowly. She stretched out her left hand (sapphire dark, now, in this dim light) towards the handle; but before she had touched it, the glass door too flew open.

This time, there was no near-miss. Sixteen unseeing stone of disheveled male slammed into her; Robin was knocked off her feet and catapulted backwards, handbag flying, arms windmilling, towards the void beyond the lethal staircase.

2

Strike absorbed the impact, heard the high-pitched scream and reacted instinctively: throwing out a long arm, he seized a fistful of cloth and flesh; a second shriek of pain echoed around the stone walls and then, with a wrench and a tussle, he had succeeded in dragging the girl back on to firm ground. Her shrieks were still echoing off the walls, and he realized that he himself had bellowed, “Jesus Christ!”

The girl was doubled up in pain against the office door, whimpering. Judging by the lopsided way she was hunched, with one hand buried deep under the lapel of her coat, Strike deduced that he had saved her by grabbing a substantial part of her left breast. A thick, wavy curtain of bright blonde hair hid most of the girl’s blushing face, but Strike could see tears of pain leaking out of one uncovered eye.

“Fuck—sorry!” His loud voice reverberated around the stairwell. “I didn’t see you—didn’t expect anyone to be there…”

From under their feet, the strange and solitary graphic designer who inhabited the office below yelled, “What’s happening up there?” and a second later, a muffled complaint from above indicated that the manager of the bar downstairs, who slept in an attic flat over Strike’s office, had also been disturbed—perhaps woken—by the noise.

“Come in here…”

Strike pushed open the door with his fingertips, so as to have no accidental contact with her while she stood huddled against it, and ushered her into the office.

“Is everything all right?” called the graphic designer querulously.

Strike slammed the office door behind him.

“I’m OK,” lied Robin, in a quavering voice, still hunched over with her hand on her chest, her back to him. After a second or two, she straightened up and turned around, her face scarlet and her eyes still wet.

Her accidental assailant was massive; his height, his general hairiness, coupled with a gently expanding belly, suggested a grizzly bear. One of his eyes was puffy and bruised, the skin just below the eyebrow cut. Congealing blood sat in raised white-edged nail tracks on his left cheek and the right side of his thick neck, revealed by the crumpled open collar of his shirt.

“Are you M-Mr. Strike?”

“Yeah.”

“I-I’m the temp.”

“The what?”

“The temp. From Temporary Solutions?”

The name of the agency did not wipe the incredulous look from his battered face. They stared at each other, unnerved and antagonistic.

Just like Robin, Cormoran Strike knew that he would forever remember the last twelve hours as an epoch-changing night in his life. Now, it seemed, the Fates had sent an emissary in a neat beige trench coat, to taunt him with the fact that his life was bubbling towards catastrophe. There was not supposed to be a temp. He had intended his dismissal of Robin’s predecessor to end his contract.

“How long have they sent you for?”

“A-a week to begin with,” said Robin, who had never been greeted with such a lack of enthusiasm.

Strike made a rapid mental calculation. A week at the agency’s exorbitant rate would drive his overdraft yet further into the region of irreparable; it might even be the final straw his main creditor kept implying he was waiting for.

“ ’Scuse me a moment.”

He left the room via the glass door, and turned immediately right, into a tiny dank toilet. Here he bolted the door, and stared into the cracked, spotted mirror over the sink.

The reflection staring back at him was not handsome. Strike had the high, bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing, an impression only heightened by the swelling and blackening eye. His thick curly hair, springy as carpet, had ensured that his many youthful nicknames had included “Pubehead.” He looked older than his thirty-five years.

Ramming the plug into the hole, he filled the cracked and grubby sink with cold water, took a deep breath and completely submerged his throbbing head. Displaced water slopped over his shoes, but he ignored it for the relief of ten seconds of icy, blind stillness.

Disparate images of the previous night flickered through his mind: emptying three drawers of possessions into a kitbag while Charlotte screamed at him; the ashtray catching him on the brow-bone as he looked back at her from the door; the journey on foot across the dark city to his office, where he had slept for an hour or two in his desk chair. Then the final, filthy scene, after Charlotte had tracked him down in the early hours, to plunge in those last few banderillas she had failed to implant before he had left her flat; his resolution to let her go when, after clawing his face, she had run out of the door; and then that moment of madness when he had plunged after her—a pursuit ended as quickly as it had begun, with the unwitting intervention of this heedless, superfluous girl, whom he had been forced to save, and then placate.

He emerged from the cold water with a gasp and a grunt, his face and head pleasantly numb and tingling. With the cardboard-textured towel that hung on the back of the door he rubbed himself dry and stared again at his grim reflection. The scratches, washed clean of blood, looked like nothing more than the impressions of a crumpled pillow. Charlotte would have reached the underground by now. One of the insane thoughts that had propelled him after her had been fear that she would throw herself on the tracks. Once, after a particularly vicious row in their mid-twenties, she had climbed on to a rooftop, where she had swayed drunkenly, vowing to jump. Perhaps he ought to be glad that the Temporary Solution had forced him to abandon the chase. There could be no going back from the scene in the early hours of this morning. This time, it had to be over.

Tugging his sodden collar away from his neck, Strike pulled back the rusty bolt and headed out of the toilet and back through the glass door.

A pneumatic drill had started up in the street outside. Robin was standing in front of the desk with her back to the door; she whipped her hand back out of the front of her coat as he re-entered the room, and he knew that she had been massaging her breast again.

“Is—are you all right?” Strike asked, carefully not looking at the site of the injury.

“I’m fine. Listen, if you don’t need me, I’ll go,” said Robin with dignity.

“No—no, not at all,” said a voice issuing from Strike’s mouth, though he listened to it with disgust. “A week—yeah, that’ll be fine. Er—the post’s here…” He scooped it from the doormat as he spoke and scattered it on the bare desk in front of her, a propitiatory offering. “Yeah, if you could open that, answer the phone, generally sort of tidy up—computer password’s Hatherill23, I’ll write it down…” This he did, under her wary, doubtful gaze. “There you go—I’ll be in here.”

He strode into the inner office, closed the door carefully behind him and then stood quite still, gazing at the kitbag under the bare desk. It contained everything he owned, for he doubted that he would ever see again the nine tenths of his possessions he had left at Charlotte’s. They would probably be gone by lunchtime; set on fire, dumped in the street, slashed and crushed, doused in bleach. The drill hammered relentlessly in the street below.

And now the impossibility of paying off his mountainous debts, the appalling consequences that would attend the imminent failure of this business, the looming, unknown but inevitably horrible sequel to his leaving Charlotte; in Strike’s exhaustion, the misery of it all seemed to rear up in front of him in a kind of kaleidoscope of horror.

Hardly aware that he had moved, he found himself back in the chair in which he had spent the latter part of the night. From the other side of the insubstantial partition wall came muffled sounds of movement. The Temporary Solution was no doubt starting up the computer, and would shortly discover that he had not received a single work-related email in three weeks. Then, at his own request, she would start opening all his final demands. Exhausted, sore and hungry, Strike slid face down on to the desk again, muffling his eyes and ears in his encircling arms, so that he did not have to listen while his humiliation was laid bare next door by a stranger.