The twelfth entry of our Top 20 Undiscovered Shortlist is Anna in the Works by Clare Wartnaby.
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Over to Clare Wartnaby...
ANNA IN THE WORKS (BLURB)
Anna Morris is in a smart London gallery when she meets the man with the come-to-bed blue eyes and wicked smile. She’s bowled over, but within hours it’s clear he’s given her a false name, and then she finds he’s following her...
The man who calls himself Max has all the charisma he needs to talk himself out of trouble, but for Anna alarm bells are still ringing. What does he want from her?
The gallery where they met belongs to Anna’s friend, Seb Rice, and when he offers her a job there, he’s already investigating her mystery man. Seb’s quite clear he’s trouble, and if Anna wants to keep her post, she’ll have to give him up.
But Anna doesn’t like being told what to do. Besides, she and Seb have history, which might just be affecting his attitude. Torn between backing off and giving Max the chance to explain, Anna gets drawn in.
During their first night together she’s certain she’s made the right decision, but in the morning her feelings are thrown into turmoil. Max’s past is linked to her own in a way she could never have guessed, and Anna will have to decide who to trust.
As she digs for the truth, she seals her fate as the target of a ruthless killer...
READ THE FIRST 3000 WORDS OF ANNA IN THE WORKS OVER THE CUT
Anna in the Works by Clare Wartnaby
It was 8pm when I walked into Sebastian Rice’s gallery that Halloween. I’d come late for the event, hoping I could lose myself in the crowd.
Given the option I would have avoided the private view altogether, but there was no wriggling out of it. I needed to get my article written up in advance of the exhibition opening, just over a week later. I was meant to be whetting people’s appetites. Radley Summers, Seb’s exhibitions manager, had been enthusiastic. ‘Compared with coming along later, with the hordes, it’ll be a whole different experience,’ she’d said.
I knew that. It would be a nastier experience, where I would be expected to strut around making intelligent comments about Zachariah Shakespeare’s paintings. I’d seen a photograph of one of them beforehand and had been instantly struck dumb.
The work showed a woman and man, standing part entwined, but where they touched there was decay. He’d painted both whole and rotting flesh perfectly, the peach and cocoa skin tones giving way to sickening blood red, creeping with the browns and blacks of gangrene. It was horribly graphic. He certainly had talent but, with his taste in subject matter, that wasn’t a plus. Still, I would just have to make the best of it.
I was wearing a woollen mini dress, green, to match my eyes, and knee-high boots so I wouldn’t feel too much like me. Instead, I hoped the costume would instil confidence. I just had to play a part for the evening and then I could escape again. Unfortunately the boots had to have towering heels, to bring me up to normal adult height, which meant I’d be in agonies before home time. It was always the same; my mother used to call me her little fairy child. Having that sort of stature was all well and good when I was eight, but less than ideal now I’d reached maturity.
I waited in the queue for the cloakroom, my coat slung over one arm. In front of me, a tall woman with spiked blonde hair was rattling on to a tiny woman in leather and four inch stiletto heels. Watching her mouth open and close at such a speed was mesmeric.
The effect of my own clothes was ebbing away already; the brief feeling of allrightness seeping out of me as though I’d sprung a small but definite leak. The stupid thing was, I didn’t really need to talk to anyone if I didn’t want to. I could just soak up the atmosphere then leave again. I had my interview with Shakespeare booked for the following week, so I could probably even avoid him, for now.
But the mad flurry of conversation in the room left me feeling conspicuous: a small isolated pool of silence in amongst the carrying, confident voices that filled the air.
The man after me in the line had just met a friend. They embraced, with lots of kissing on both cheeks: ‘Haven’t seen you since that awful do of Simeon’s’, ‘God! Don’t talk about it. Been looking forward to this for ages though... Did you see Désirée’s here? We’ll catch up with her in a moment. I did hear she was at that party Shakespeare threw a week ago... you know, the one that made the nationals?’
A woman with a nose ring, black mini dress and fishnets took my coat and gave me a skull and crossbones tag with the number ninety-four on it. There was no more queuing to do, and barring a sneaky spot of loitering in the ladies’ loos there was nothing for it but to go and join the melee.
A waiter put a tray of red fizzy drinks under my nose.
I raised an eyebrow and he leant forward. ‘It’s just Cava with food dye in it. The purple ones have got Pernod in, if you want something stronger.’
‘This’ll do fine thanks.’ All the same, I decided to keep an eye out for the purple ones, just in case.
I paused next to a group by the canvas I’d been making for and listened to their talk.
‘...epitomises the relationship between love and death,’ a man was saying, indicating the painting with an outstretched hand. It was the same one I’d seen in the photograph before I came.
Seb had been right to have the private view on Halloween. Zachariah Shakespeare’s paintings fitted the occasion perfectly. Though each picture was lit from above by a clear, white light, around the artworks lamps gave off dark reds and oranges. Some of the bulbs had been embedded in a false floor and everywhere they cast strange shadows, making the faces of the visitors almost as daunting as the paintings. Wherever I looked shapes distorted, heads seemed to elongate and lights danced. I made my way round the room, taking in canvases with titles such as Road Kill and Autopsy. Another, For all Time, was created entirely in shades of white and grey and stood out all the more because it left the gore behind. It showed a woman encased in ice, her face devoid of expression.
Not all the guests were repelled. One man was so enthusiastic his companion seemed almost flattened by the force of all he had to say. I grinned in her direction but she didn’t notice.
Then, looking just over her shoulder, I realised someone else was watching the scene too: a dark-haired man, tall and broad, lounging against a pillar. After a moment he raised his eyes, caught mine and cocked an eyebrow. He held my gaze for a moment before moving off to another part of the room.
A waiter darted past with a plate of crudités. He looked edgy. At least I was having a better time than he was. It would be tense downstairs in the kitchens where Alicia was no doubt in full flow, spitting out orders. My cousin was scary enough at the best of times, and if I ever found myself quailing at the prospect of my own work, I could console myself that it couldn’t be as bad as working for her. Lodging with her was enough of a challenge to the nerves.
The gallery was stifling. The windows had been covered with reflective film – almost entirely opaque – which increased the claustrophobic atmosphere. Over at one end of the room I could see a door. Time to investigate.
The bliss of finding myself on a landing was almost overwhelming, and would have been complete if I hadn’t known I’d have to go back in again.
My green dress contrasted my auburn hair nicely, but it was way too hot. I could feel myself becoming auburn in the face as well.
I glanced over my shoulder to check for onlookers and then rubbed at the wool where it was irritating my neck. The gentle scratching gave some relief, so I scrabbled away some more, aware I was probably leaving a mark. Never mind. I would let it fade before I faced anyone again.
I leant against the landing windowsill, bending my head forwards until it touched the cool glass. The smell of gloss paint filled my nostrils; Seb had spent a fortune recently, doing the place up. Or at least, a fortune to anyone else. Small change to him.
Outside, a patch of the Thames glittered in the lights that ran along a jetty. Nearer, in the square just below, some party-goers straggled by, leaning in against each other and stumbling sideways. One was wearing some kind of monster mask. The face, looking from a distance like molten wax, reminded me of the people I’d just left in the exhibition hall, with their freakishly up-lit cheekbones.
The voice made me jump so badly I knocked my head against the glass. Turning, I saw the man who’d caught my eye earlier. The light of the landing revealed an eight o’clock shadow. His ruffled hair contrasted with his suit, but fitted with the sleep-deprived look. Still, there was a twinkle in his blue eyes.
I suddenly realised I’d been sizing him up so thoroughly I’d forgotten to speak. My embarrassment must have shown, but luckily he misread it.
‘You look guilty,’ he said. ‘Are you meant to be in there for work?’
I nodded. ‘I’m interviewing the artist in a couple of days.’
‘And you don’t fancy chatting to someone you suspect might be a latent serial killer? Don’t worry. His publicist will have the answers you need. Contact with Shakespeare should be minimal.’
I noticed he had a small scar just by his left eye, but pulled my attention back to the matter in hand. ‘You’ve met him?’
‘Lawrence has, my brother. He’s an art dealer, but he had to be with a client tonight so I’m here in his place. What will you write about the paintings do you think?’
I shook my head. ‘God knows. They’re brilliantly done of course, but I can’t wait to get away from them.’
‘Sounds like fair comment. Shakespeare will probably love it. I get the impression he enjoys repulsing people.’
He moved closer to me.
I was very conscious of his nearness and it took me a moment to think of something to say. ‘I still haven’t met him. I assumed he’d be in evidence.’
‘Word is he decked a man outside a restaurant at lunchtime and is helping the police with their enquiries.’
‘Blimey. And you still reckon it’s usually minimal contact as far as he’s concerned? One punch and he’s off?’
He laughed. ‘It’s probably just a publicity stunt. It all boosts the hype and avoids the risk of him turning up and demystifying himself. Do you always write about art?’
I shook my head. ‘I’m a generalist. I’m cashing in on the fact that I know Sebastian Rice. Shakespeare’s his discovery. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to work up the required enthusiasm.’
‘Hang on a moment.’ He disappeared through the swing doors into the gallery and returned with a couple of the purple drinks. ‘Here.’ He handed one to me, his fingers touching mine for a second. ‘I met someone earlier who told me that after four of these, the paintings seem quite appealing.’
‘Sure they didn’t say appalling?’
He laughed again and raised his glass to me. ‘I’m Max by the way, Max Conran.’
‘So, have you known Sebastian long?’
‘Since university. Do you know him?’
‘Hardly at all. What’s he like?’
‘A charmer...’ God, after all these years that was still the first thing to come to mind. ‘Intelligent... single-minded. I guess you can just about imagine. It’s harder to catch up with him now he’s such a hot shot, but we were quite close once. I mostly deal with his publicity people these days.’
He had drained his glass and so had I, despite the knowledge of the Pernod. I had a feeling he’d be able to cope with a lot more purple drinks than I would.
Now he moved next to me, his elbow on the windowsill.
I felt light-headed and a familiar warm and unreliable feeling lit up somewhere inside me. I couldn’t put it all down to the cocktails.
His blue eyes were the sort you found yourself staring into; lulling you into a false sense of security. He smiled and I realised I’d been looking into them for slightly too long.
‘I’m glad I came now,’ he said and I turned to look outside again, my cheeks feeling hot.
As he shifted position his shoulder brushed against mine. It had a disturbing effect, as though the patch was newly sensitised. What on earth was happening to me?
He pointed down to the square below. ‘There’s a bar just off Tanner’s Yard. Let me buy you a drink?’
I jumped almost as much as I had the first time and turned my head. A woman I didn’t recognise was looking at me, her eyebrows raised. Her smile revealed very white but uneven teeth. She had slanting cheek bones, a wide mouth and long eyelashes.
‘Radley Summers, Sebastian’s exhibitions manager. We’ve been speaking on the phone.’ She held out a hand and I shook it, noticing the silver ring she wore on her thumb and her neat, unvarnished nails. ‘Good to meet you,’ she went on. ‘Seb pointed you out to me earlier. Look, I’m sorry to but in, but could I have a quick word? I’ve got a bit more background for you.’
She turned to Max and he looked over towards me. ‘Come and find me when you’re ready,’ he said and disappeared, back into the oranges and reds.
I spoke into the silence he’d left: ‘It’s good to meet you face to face. So, you had more information for me?’
‘Sorry,’ said Radley, ‘but that was just an excuse. I thought you might need rescuing.’
‘I don’t want to freak you out, but Seb has several of us watching the CCTV cameras, looking out for social wheels that need oiling, that kind of thing. It helps this sort of event go off smoothly.’
‘And you were watching me and Max Conran?’ I suddenly wondered about the scratching earlier. Radley was just the kind of woman I particularly wouldn’t like to scratch in front of.
She nodded. ‘Seb pointed you out to me quite early on. I wasn’t keeping an eye on you in particular of course, but I noticed when you nipped out here for a break. I switched screens and I could see you were just cooling off. All fine. But I’d already seen that man watching you when you were inside the exhibition.’
‘It made me uneasy. I mean, it wasn’t as though he was just eyeing you up. It was as if... well, as if he was taking notice of what you did. Do you see what I mean?’
I thought it was a pretty fine distinction. Perhaps she just found it unbelievable that someone like Max would be interested in me.
‘And then I saw him follow you out here. He stood behind you for ages before he said anything.’ She paused. ‘I even wondered if he was going to try to steal your bag.’
I must have looked incredulous.
‘I know,’ she said, ‘it’s pretty weird. Well, the next bit’s even weirder. At that point he took out his phone. And I’d swear he took your photograph.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense.’ I tried to keep the hostility out of my tone.
‘I know. I think it’s as odd as you do. And in many ways I’d rather not have had to tell you. But given that your safety might be in question I hope you can see I had no choice.’
I sighed. ‘Then what happened?’
‘You moved your head and I think he thought you’d seen him. It was only then that he spoke to you.’
‘You can’t hear what everyone’s saying from your control room as well can you?’ I said.
Radley shook her head. ‘But what I saw was enough to make Seb think I ought to intervene.’
‘I was actually having quite a nice time.’ I was finding it hard to match Radley’s version of Max Conran with the one I thought I’d experienced. I looked over her shoulder, wondering if he might come back onto the landing if I didn’t appear.
‘I sent one of the marketing guys off to talk to him,’ she said, spotting the direction of my gaze. ‘You don’t need to worry. He won’t bother you again.’ She looked at me, her expression intense. ‘He’s after something, Anna. I don’t know what but, well, there’s a bit more to it than I’ve told you.’
‘Go on,’ I said.
‘When I saw him acting oddly I was particularly disturbed because of who he is. Or rather, who he isn’t.’
She wasn’t making any sense. ‘I know who he is,’ I said. ‘He introduced himself. He’s Max Conran; he said he came in place of his brother.’
‘Lawrence Conran, the art dealer?’
She looked back at me, her gaze steady. ‘Yes, that’s the information he gave when he arrived too. We have cameras recording everyone coming through the doors.’
‘You are well organised,’ I said. It was slightly hard to take.
‘We have to be tight on security.’ She sighed and then went on: ‘And it’s handy for Jane too. She’s a consultant, working on sales and marketing for us at the moment. She was watching as people came in, so she could see who to target.’
She glanced at me for a second and I’m sure she guessed I disapproved. I found it hard to stop my mouth from taking on a thin, lemon-sucking appearance.
Radley paused for a moment before she said: ‘When Jane saw Max Conran’s name come up against that guy you were just talking to, she knew at once we’d got an imposter.’
‘He’s not Max Conran, Anna. Jane dated Max at the tail end of last year and she was quite positive about it. Whoever he is, he’s lied to us. And to you.’
‘But you let him stay,’ I said eventually.
She nodded. ‘There was some question over whether Lawrence Conran was in on the deception. He’s very valuable to the gallery; he spends a lot of money with us. You can imagine Seb didn’t want to create a scene unnecessarily. But at the same time, you’ll understand why I was monitoring the situation.’
The silence seemed to expand between us. At that point I suppose I ought to have been unnerved, but in fact I mainly felt humiliated. She must have seen how I was behaving around Max, taking his approach at face value.
‘I don’t know what his game is,’ Radley said at last, ‘but I’d be inclined to take a cab home tonight, rather than the tube.’