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Lethal White
Author: Robert Galbraith

PROLOGUE

 

Happiness, dear Rebecca, means first and foremost the calm, joyous sense of innocence.

Henrik Ibsen, Rosmersholm

 

If only the swans would swim side by side on the dark green lake, this picture might turn out to be the crowning achievement of the wedding photographer’s career.

He was loath to change the couple’s position, because the soft light beneath the canopy of trees was turning the bride, with her loose red-gold curls, into a pre-Raphaelite angel and emphasizing the chiseled cheekbones of her husband. He couldn’t remember when he had last been commissioned to photograph so handsome a couple. There was no need for tactful tricks with the new Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Cunliffe, no need to angle the lady so that rolls of back fat were hidden (she was, if anything, fractionally too slender, but that would photograph well), no need to suggest the groom “try one with your mouth closed,” because Mr. Cunliffe’s teeth were straight and white. The only thing that needed concealing, and it could be retouched out of the final pictures, was the ugly scar running down the bride’s forearm: purple and livid, with the puncture marks of stitches still visible.

She had been wearing a rubber and stockinette brace when the photographer arrived at her parents’ house that morning. It had given him quite a start when she had removed it for the photographs. He had even wondered whether she had made a botched attempt to kill herself before the wedding, because he had seen it all. You did, after twenty years in the game.

“I was assaulted,” Mrs. Cunliffe—or Robin Ellacott, as she had been two hours ago—had said. The photographer was a squeamish man. He had fought off the mental image of steel slicing into that soft, pale flesh. Thankfully, the ugly mark was now hidden in the shadow cast by Mrs. Cunliffe’s bouquet of creamy roses.

The swans, the damned swans. If both would clear out of the background it wouldn’t matter, but one of them was repeatedly diving, its fluffy pyramid of a backside jutting out of the middle of the lake like a feathered iceberg, its contortions ruffling the surface of the water so that its digital removal would be far more complicated than young Mr. Cunliffe, who had already suggested this remedy, realized. The swan’s mate, meanwhile, continued to lurk over by the bank: graceful, serene and determinedly out of shot.

“Have you got it?” asked the bride, her impatience palpable.

“You look gorgeous, flower,” said the groom’s father, Geoffrey, from behind the photographer. He sounded tipsy already. The couple’s parents, best man and bridesmaids were all watching from the shade of nearby trees. The smallest bridesmaid, a toddler, had had to be restrained from throwing pebbles into the lake, and was now whining to her mother, who talked to her in a constant, irritating whisper.

“Have you got it?” Robin asked again, ignoring her father-in-law.

“Almost,” lied the photographer. “Turn in to him a little bit more, please, Robin. That’s it. Nice big smiles. Big smiles, now!”

There was a tension about the couple that could not be wholly attributed to the difficulty of getting the shot. The photographer didn’t care. He wasn’t a marriage counselor. He had known couples to start screaming at each other while he read his light meter. One bride had stormed out of her own reception. He still kept, for the amusement of friends, the blurred shot from 1998 that showed a groom head-butting his best man.

Good-looking as they were, he didn’t fancy the Cunliffes’ chances. That long scar down the bride’s arm had put him off her from the start. He found the whole thing ominous and distasteful.

“Let’s leave it,” said the groom suddenly, releasing Robin. “We’ve got enough, haven’t we?”

“Wait, wait, the other one’s coming now!” said the photographer crossly.

The moment Matthew had released Robin, the swan by the far shore had begun to paddle its way across the dark green water towards its mate.

“You’d think the buggers were doing it on purpose, eh, Linda?” said Geoffrey with a fat chuckle to the bride’s mother. “Bloody things.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Robin, pulling her long skirt up clear of her shoes, the heels of which were a little too low. “I’m sure we’ve got something.”

She strode out of the copse of trees into the blazing sunlight and off across the lawn towards the seventeenth-century castle, where most of the wedding guests were already milling, drinking champagne as they admired the view of the hotel grounds.

“I think her arm’s hurting her,” the bride’s mother told the groom’s father.

Bollocks it is, thought the photographer with a certain cold pleasure. They rowed in the car.

The couple had looked happy enough beneath the shower of confetti in which they had departed the church, but on arrival at the country house hotel they had worn the rigid expressions of those barely repressing their rage.

“She’ll be all right. Just needs a drink,” said Geoffrey comfortably. “Go keep her company, Matt.”

Matthew had already set off after his bride, gaining on her easily as she navigated the lawn in her stilettos. The rest of the party followed, the bridesmaids’ mint-green chiffon dresses rippling in the hot breeze.


“Robin, we need to talk.”

“Go on, then.”

“Wait a minute, can’t you?”

“If I wait, we’ll have the family on us.”

Matthew glanced behind him. She was right.

“Robin—”

“Don’t touch my arm!”

Her wound was throbbing in the heat. Robin wanted to find the holdall containing the sturdy rubber protective brace, but it would be somewhere out of reach in the bridal suite, wherever that was.

The crowd of guests standing in the shadow of the hotel was coming into clearer view. The women were easy to tell apart, because of their hats. Matthew’s Aunt Sue wore an electric blue wagon wheel, Robin’s sister-in-law, Jenny, a startling confection of yellow feathers. The male guests blurred into conformity in their dark suits. It was impossible to see from this distance whether Cormoran Strike was among them.

“Just stop, will you?” said Matthew, because they had fast outstripped the family, who were matching their pace to his toddler niece.

Robin paused.

“I was shocked to see him, that’s all,” said Matthew carefully.

“I suppose you think I was expecting him to burst in halfway through the service and knock over the flowers?” asked Robin.

Matthew could have borne this response if not for the smile she was trying to suppress. He had not forgotten the joy in her face when her ex-boss had crashed into their wedding ceremony. He wondered whether he would ever be able to forgive the fact that she had said “I do” with her eyes fastened upon the big, ugly, shambolic figure of Cormoran Strike, rather than her new husband. The entire congregation must have seen how she had beamed at him.

Their families were gaining on them again. Matthew took Robin’s upper arm gently, his fingers inches above the knife wound, and walked her on. She came willingly, but he suspected that this was because she hoped she was moving closer to Strike.

“I said in the car, if you want to go back to work for him—”

“—I’m an ‘effing idiot,’” said Robin.

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