Matthew stepped onto the scales. Trish, the coordinator, read out his weight. He’d lost three pounds, bringing him to his target weight. He got the loudest cheer of the night. He smiled modestly. Under cover of writing down his achievement on his Weight Warriors pocket card, he looked the women over.
He’d already had four of them: Angie, Claire, Jane and Sonya. He could have had Trish too, but he never did coordinators. They were inclined to be vengeful and more intelligent than their clients. If he got Sharon in the sack tonight, he wouldn’t have to come back next week. He glanced at her. She blushed. He looked around the room. Angie simpered, Claire grinned, Jane looked down, and Sonya refused to catch his eye. A good haul. Of course, they were oblivious to their collective nature, each thought herself the only recipient of his attentions – these women didn’t boast about sex. He could never have got away with it if they did.
Sometimes, when he looked at women, he saw them composed of food. Claire, the fast food queen, with vanilla milkshake flesh-tones, and hair the stringy, bleached texture of reconstituted French fries. Jane: cocoa-colored skin and candy pink lips. Sonya – a dairy maid with dimpled hands like cheese fingers, and acres of creamy curves.
He timed his exit so Sharon was shoulder to shoulder with him. More accurately, her shoulder – mottled but solid, like prime beef sausage – brushed his elbow. She was nearly as wide as she was tall, and her blonde moustache showed how inefficient facial bleach could be. Matthew wished she waxed. Smooth skin was much easier to transmute in his imagination, especially with his eyes closed.
‘May I offer you a lift home?’ He spoke gently, both to avoid startling her if she was skittish, and to ensure the other women didn’t overhear.
Tonight Sharon would be his J-Lo. He hoped she wasn’t a grunter. It was hard to imagine Jennifer’s sultry tones and lavish love-gifts of Rolex and iMac, if the woman beneath him was honking and squealing. He hoped she wasn’t a virgin either. He hated the tedium of it, and deflowering was always followed by much emotional guff. He began to hum under his breath, ‘I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky, I should be so lucky in love.’ Sharon giggled.
Five hours later, tired and smelling of the magnolia shampoo that was all he could find in Sharon’s bathroom, he escaped. It was easy to get away.
‘Sharon, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me. You know I’m getting married soon? It’s why I’m at Weight Warriors – to lose weight before the wedding. I just couldn’t resist you, but please … can we pretend it was just a wonderful dream? I love my fiancÈe and although she could never match up to you physically… well, she’s blind, and so ….’ No fat woman ever impeded his departure once he mentioned the sightless bride-to-be.
He sat in the car and dictated a long message to Liz’s mailbox. Now it was over to her. Tonight’s Fat Fighters was his last meeting in Stroud. He would be home with her in three hours. They’d have two weeks together before it was her turn to come up here. He swung the Volvo around Stroud’s rain-slick streets. Overweight women appreciated a big safe car. The seduction started there, in a seat that didn’t cramp them, riding a suspension that didn’t groan under their bulk, with space to relax and appreciate how Matthew attended to them. The car was his introduction to their bedrooms – and it worked every time.
Lazily he calculated the takings. Twenty women in five weeks. Monday night: Weight Warriors – six women. Tuesday night: Lighter Ladies – six women. Wednesday: Yoga for Weight loss – only three women bedded there, a disappointing score. Thursday’s Fat Fighters – five women, all of them coy and respectable. His quota was met; twenty bed-post notches meant he could go home to Liz and relax for a while. He grinned to imagine how much money they would make from these lovelorn fatties, then scowled, remembering the strenuous evening with Sharon. Catching sight of his forehead in the rear view mirror, he relaxed it immediately. Women fell for his boyish, tousle-haired sensuality. He couldn’t afford frown lines.
For a while now he’d been wondering how they would make their money when he couldn’t do this any more. Nobody stayed young and charming forever. He found it ever more wearisome to superimpose imaginary women on the chunky bodies he seduced. He’d never failed yet. But one day, morbid obesity would defeat him – the tickle of a walrus moustache would not translate in his mind to the silky tresses of a visionary inamorata and he would wilt … forever.
Liz said not to worry. She said she was thinking about what scam to operate when he ceased to conquer weight-challenged women. He should feel reassured, but he didn’t. Suppose Liz decided he was expendable?
He pushed the thought back into the mental crevice from which it had crawled and resolved to think only about money. Money was his aphrodisiac: if all else failed he could imagine the women – Buddha-like – were composed of soft buttery gold. Infinitely attractive. Then the bigger they were, the better.
‘Good morning, may I speak to Miss Claire Henderson, please?’
The voice was bright, conveying feminine bubbliness. There was nothing to suggest the speaker was six stone overweight. Liz pondered that, as she continued the conversation. Very few women had fat voices.
‘Miss Henderson, are you able to speak privately, or would there be a better time to call you?’
‘Why, what’s this about?’ Most of the bubbles had popped now, replaced by flat urgency. Liz always wondered how many of them expected what was coming next. What proportion of the large unloved had a premonition of certain punishment for their one horizontal transgression? Suppose she just said, ‘Two weeks ago you had sex with my Matt. You must have known he didn’t want you for your looks. Now he wants payment for services rendered and I’m ringing on his behalf to collect.’ How many would pay up? But that would be the lazy approach. Dear Matt had worked hard, now it was her turn.
‘Miss Henderson, I’m afraid it’s not good news. Mr. Matthew Helme has asked me to contact you on his behalf. Are you alone?’
‘Yes. Yes I am, what’s wrong?’ Now the voice was leaden – old, and at least as heavy as its owner.
‘Possibly nothing. I do not wish to alarm you unduly, however …’ Liz allowed the pause to grow, opening a crack in the universe through which the woman’s worst fears could crawl. ‘… I am sorry to say Mr. Helme has a communicable disease.’ Another pause. Sometimes the women rushed to fill it, sometimes they were mute. Neither response reliably predicted their future conduct. Some garrulous ones baulked at Liz’s fees and refused her appointments, while silent ones could cave in swiftly, handing over cash for three or four ‘repeat treatments’.
‘He is deeply ashamed. He has paid for you to have a private consultation with me to establish whether he has transmitted any infection to you. This consultation will be completely confidential and avoid the need for you to visit your doctor or a clinic for sexual diseases.’
Liz used ‘clinic for sexual diseases’ to shock the women into submission. Miss Henderson was no exception. She accepted the first appointment offered to her. Liz hung up before the woman could bid for reassurance. Time for a reward: she hit the media player button on her laptop and the rich sound of JosÈ Carreras singing Nessun Dorma filled the room. She loved Carreras – he had a voice bigger than himself, unlike Pavarotti whose voice was smaller than the man.
The Regency office in which she sat was a sweet gem of architecture. Mellow brick and paned windows wrapped her in the comforting illusion of old money. It was on a short lease, of course. Six weeks. The scam always started with the short lease. She flicked through the spreadsheet, checking the future office rentals.
After Stroud, it was Taunton. Matthew – dear boy – would have bedded all the lardy ladies he could manage, and Liz would spend a fortnight dispensing placebo treatments at £500 a pop from an office in a barn conversion. Then Telford, a rather austere but impressive office there, and then they’d be off to Spain. Matthew would need to restore his tan and Liz liked the Algarve. It gave her a chance to inspect the half a dozen villas which brought in enough genuine income to keep the taxman at bay.
She logged onto the Internet and updated the appointment diary. When Matt got up, he’d be able to see how many of Stroud’s largest ladies were already wriggling in the net. Then she checked her e-mail account.
Normally she was good at spotting spam, but this time a message got past her, and she found herself confronted by a hideous image. A pale, huge woman, to whom a robe clung in obscene detail. It molded over lumpy nipples that showed bruise-purple through the white fabric. It clung to vile curves, delineating not just their general form but hugging even the cellulite craters and deep ominous dimpling on the woman’s upper arms and thighs. Her legs were spread and between them the seaweed tendrils of pubic hair smeared nightmare undertones on the wet cloth. The woman’s expression was blank, her eyes were closed, her skin maggot pale.
Liz stared, transfixed with horror. Her thoughts whirled round the giantess like sparrows caught in a storm. It would be better if the behemoth were naked. The clothing gave spurious dignity to her gargantuan ugliness. It was terrible to think people paid to look at this vileness. Even worse – was this the kind of thing darling Matthew had to deal with? Poor boy, no wonder he was exhausted at the end of a seduction period. Suppose a woman like this rolled on top of him in bed? He’d never get her off.
She shook her head free of the gruesome picture, deleted the e-mail, hit the pause button so Carreras vanished in mid-note, and moved on to the next call. Angie Blake was about to have a nightmare come true.
Matthew checked the diary. Liz had surpassed herself. Every woman he had penetrated in Stroud had taken up her offer of a free private consultation with Dr Elizabeth Cavella. He wondered if any would dare refuse the treatment Liz prescribed: three courses of sugar pills discreetly posted on receipt of check.
Today he had to go to the Carvery for lunch. He’d be back on duty soon and he needed to be at least thirty-five pounds overweight for the Taunton diet circuit. The thought of eating made his gorge rise, but he’d force down the garlic bread, roast chicken and New York Cheesecake. He used as much imagination on meals as he did on women. As he ate fried food, he imagined fresh sardines, charred over a fire on a Spanish beach. In his imagination the rich sauces became piquant olives, and the creamy, sugared coffee turned to sharp wine from an Algarve vineyard.
Claire Henderson was a nervous eater. Since discovering Matthew might have given her the almighty hellish clap, she’d put on six pounds. That was the first thing she said.
Liz sighed before speaking. Far too many of them were like this. Didn’t they understand the severity of their plight?
‘If you have contracted syphilis you need not worry about your weight. Before it kills you, the disease will reduce you to a bald-headed stick.’
Henderson, whom Matt had nicknamed The Stroud Sow, had gone a vile shade of dirty white. Her skin was exactly the color of a peeled banana, but much less appetizing.
Liz had a special seat for the women. They must be properly cowed and humiliated to be convinced to hand over money on a regular basis and the seat was a major instrument of their suffering. An old birthing chair, patented in the 1950s, it had levers and cogs to realign her victims. They sat down as fat women, and she turned them into vast mounds of supine blubber. The ultimate refinement of this nastiness was the way the women were reflected back to themselves in the chair’s chrome surfaces and levers. She polished it herself and transported it in a van Matthew drove. Few women survived the chair with self-esteem intact.
Once the Stroud Sow was installed, Liz pulled on surgical gloves and resumed her patter. In the back of her head she could hear dear JosÈ singing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. The Sow might wish it was ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ but a simple rinse and run wasn’t going to work for her – she was about to invest in a high maintenance regime.
‘Of course, you’re very lucky to have caught me. In a month’s time I’m closing my private practice. I shall be running a fascinating research program for a pharmaceutical company – it will take up all my time. I shall support any clients already on my books but I shall not take on any new ones. Now …’
She poked vaguely at the Sow’s nethers with a wooden tongue depressor. Then with great care and ceremony she placed the instrument in a clear bag, labeled it, and stripped off the gloves. Only then did she return the victim to an upright position.
‘We should have results within a week, or – if you wish to pay for premium service – I can have the analysis completed by six this evening. Rapid analysis costs seventy pounds for the lab and my courier costs are another hundred, so adding in my time to call you at home tonight … let’s say £200?’
The Sow, weeping, handed over £200. Liz laid out the programme.
‘If you should be unfortunate enough to have contracted the disease, you have two choices. You may go to your own doctor and request treatment or …,’ in the long pause, the victim’s frightened eyes welled again with salty terror. ‘I can prescribe it for you privately, and confidentially.’ The Sow’s gusty sigh of relief rattled papers on the desk. Liz continued inexorably.
‘Some cases clear in twelve weeks, more intransigent ones can require twenty-four or even thirty-six weeks of treatment. Each treatment regime will cost you £500 and is supplied by mail. At the end of a course of treatment I will send you a small kit to use and return, to see if we have succeeded in eradicating the disease. Each kit costs £500.’
Here she paused. The Sow nodded so vigorously several of her chins began random Brownian motion, shivering sideways or galumphing up and down at eccentric angles. Liz frowned and continued.
‘Today’s consultation has been paid for by Mr. Helme. He wishes me to convey his sincere regret for any distress caused to you. Is there anybody with whom you have had sexual contact since then?
It was a hundred to one against, of course, but every so often one of these behemoths had been inspired by Matt’s attentions to trap another man. It was easy to double the income from one appointment by arranging to ‘examine’ the poor fool. The patient shook her head dolefully. That was no surprise, generally if they were fat, they were also stupid, gullible and naïve. They were scared to consult their own doctors and they had too little life experience to see they were being gulled. Normal people, non-fat people, would never fall for this kind of thing. She knew it served them right.
‘Good,’ said Liz, ‘then we don’t have to notify anybody else. If you’d like to rearrange your clothing I’ll ring the laboratory on my mobile and organize a priority analysis.’
Once outside, Liz inhaled the wet Stroud air greedily. She would give the pig-woman long enough to poke through the papers on her desk. If the Sow was inquisitive, she would be reassured by a letter asking Dr Liz to sit on a Royal Commission, tickets for the Ballet, a receipt for the annual servicing of a Porsche. All forgeries, of course. Liz was good at this. She knew how to cover her back. Even if one of the women had second thoughts, she would remember Dr Cavella had already left general practice to administer research, so there would be no obvious way to check up on her credentials.
She texted a quick message to Matt, reminding him to buy sun-cream for their Algarve trip. She’d missed a call while she was dealing with the Sow, but when she hit the replay button there was nothing but a strange underwater sighing, like whale song. She deleted it.
Matt stared dolefully at his chicken. It reminded him of the ruched hips of a big woman with poor circulation. The kind of woman he knew only too well. The cheesecake was pale and flat, like a face with features smoothed by excess weight. Raisins took the place of small eyes, glinting with hurt and shock. For the first time, he failed to finish his dessert. He looked at the cheeseboard: crumbly pale slabs, rich golden mounds, sheeny acres of pallid soft calories, like the spread limbs of victims. He stumbled from the restaurant without leaving a tip.
The Sow was sent off, lumbering and fearful. Liz turned to lunch. She lifted a vacuum flask of bouillon from her bag and opened the fridge to extract a box labeled ‘medical supplies – refrigerate’. From it she took a bag of pre-packed salad.
As she sipped her soup she studied the hand holding her spoon. Wrist-bones showed elegantly through amber skin that diet and sun kept lean and glowing. Matt called her his ‘gazelle’. She’d never been fat, not even plump, even though for a while she’d seen a fat woman in the mirror. She despised people who had blubber, except for sweet Matt of course, when he was bulked up for work. She knew he worried about the drastic weight swings their scheme required, but she’d said dieting had never done her any real harm, which reassured him.
Idly she flicked up the laptop screen, wondering if he’d emailed her. It didn’t look like it. But he had installed a new desktop image. Sweet boy. It was of marble or perhaps ice. Something blue-white and chilly anyway. The draperies of a Greek statue? Wind-sculpted snow in the Arctic? She shivered, peered closer. She saw a blue hollow like … a navel? Diagonal lavender shadows were folds of white fabric drawn across a body. It was a close-up of the disgusting female she’d seen in the earlier e-mail. It must have contained a virus that had invaded her machine. How ghastly.
She slammed the laptop shut. Suddenly she didn’t feel hungry. She’d make up a few treatment packs to post out and then have some salad – she didn’t want to get too thin. She was in control of her food, of course, it didn’t control her anymore. No, she’d learned that lesson. It was understandable that she’d lost her appetite when she saw that grotesque monster, that hideous creature, on her computer screen. Involuntarily her eyes turned to the closed laptop and she shivered again. First work – then lunch. She was managing her diet, she would eat; she wasn’t making excuses to skip a meal. She didn’t do that anymore.
Matthew felt fat. Gravity pulled his six course meal down, and his heart with it. He was soundly, roundly, utterly, depressed. He sat in the car for a while, trying to summon the energy to drive. Big lunches always did this, drained his vitality and left him prostrate with melancholy. Eventually he turned the key, wishing Liz would hurry up and think of another way to make money.
Liz looked at the neat pile of padded brown envelopes – discreet and lucrative. She wondered how much longer Matt could play his role. One of the women hadn’t followed up on her last test kit by placing a new order … odd. Liz flicked through the address labels, unwilling to open the laptop and look at the spreadsheet of names there. It was Cynthia Edwards, first course completed two weeks ago, kit used and returned to the PO Box that Liz maintained for just this purpose. Liz had sent out the standard letter, saying Miss Edwards wasn’t yet clear of disease but a new treatment would probably ‘resolve the situation’. No reply. Which one was Edwards? Oh yes, the Grantham Gargantua. Probably the biggest woman Liz had ever seen. The chair had creaked and groaned under her weight like a foundering ship. Rich too. It would be a shame if she didn’t pay for a new course of treatment. Something else about the Edwards woman nagged at her mind. Manacles. That was it. When Matt got to the huge woman’s huge house he’d found a pair of handcuffs hanging over the front door. He’d wondered what he was getting into – but it turned out handcuffs were the woman’s logo, meant to show how businesses were manacled to the big software companies. Edwards had described herself to Matt as the key that unlocked the cuffs of business. She’d said she hated the way people were tricked into paying for things they didn’t need and couldn’t use, just because technology moved so fast.
Her phone beeped, probably Matt ringing to tell her what he’d had for lunch. She grabbed it. The same sound again … eerie sighing, long bubbling ripples like waves on a beach. It must be a fault. She looked at the screen and saw an image forming with portentous slowness. Maybe it was an advertisement. Scuba-diving? Tropical holidays? A beach holiday would be fun – they could skip Spain this time and go to the Caribbean. The image resolved into a pallid arm, pale as marble, monumental, powerful. It flexed and turned as though reaching for something. It dripped water. The huge wet hand plunged out of the screen, fingers spread wide ….
Liz felt her throat constrict. A vast power squeezed her airways shut. Scooting backwards on her wheeled chair, she tried to escape the pressure on her throat. Her hands fluttered around her neck, the bird-like bones no match for the strength that held her. Terror congested her face and panicked her heart into surges and troughs. By degrees she quieted until she sat still, eyes wide and dark, staring at nothing. Her hands fell to her sides, shaping a gentle composition of loss. Even in death she was elegant.
Matt felt a bump. Had he run over something? Surely he’d have seen it though. He glanced in the mirror. Nothing in the road. Another bump: harder. Was something trapped beneath the car? A third bump, this time a bang on the grille so violent it made the steering wheel shudder. He thought he saw a vague white shape. He shook his head hard. Too much food had made him slow. He needed to pull over and work out what had happened.
The next blow struck the car from behind, so it jumped forward, kangarooing along the road. In the rear-view mirror Matt could see a huge dent in the boot. He struggled to regain control, but the vehicle jounced along as though pummeled by a giant fist. Fenders crumpled and dints the size of footballs appeared in the bonnet and wings. Within seconds the car had banged off the road and embedded itself in a grove of trees. The airbag inflated and deflated, but Matt was past saving. His neck had snapped and his head hung at an obscene angle, eyes gazing sadly down at his well-nourished frame.
‘Sarge, you remember that Edwards woman?’ W.P.C. Carter asked.
‘It’ll be a cold day in Hell before I forget her,’ said the Desk Sergeant. ‘The nastiest suicide I’ve ever seen. What kind of person handcuffs themselves to the steps at the deep end of their own swimming pool?’
‘A rich person?’ quipped Carter before returning to her task. ‘Anyway, there’s a report here that relates to her. Except …’
‘Except what? Don’t start what you can’t finish, and that includes sentences.’ The Sergeant had an aphorism for every situation.
‘Well … you know that vehicular death I queried? The man who’d driven his Volvo into a wood? The reason I asked for details was the trace evidence suggested he’d hit somebody. No victim was found, but Scene of Crime Officer reported it was a person wearing a cotton garment impregnated with chlorine. They found blood, pool-water, and clothing scraps adhering to the car.’
‘Did they really?’ The Sergeant paused for a second, shook his head, and carried on filling in the Day Book.
‘The Edwards woman had cuts on her legs and hands, remember? When we queried them, the pathologist said they were ‘inconclusive’. They must have happened post mortem, because they hadn’t bled, but there was no evidence of anything in the pool that could have caused them.’ W.P.C. Carter wasn’t sure where she was going with this conversation. She didn’t like anything about it. The Edwards suicide had been a grim business.
They’d been called to the house by a hysterical cleaning woman. Cynthia Edwards had climbed into her pool, cuffed herself to the steps and sat down to die. She’d been a big woman, huge in fact. They’d had to drain the pool to get her out. There was no obvious reason for her to have killed herself. She was rich and solvent, and apparently she’d seemed happy enough recently. Her business as an internet technology consultant was lucrative enough for her purchase a substantial mansion on the outskirts of town. Until around three months ago she’d even been a member of some diet club. She’d recently visited a Harley Street clinic, which refused to disclose anything – except to say the health concern which had brought her to them was a false alarm. She had not been unwell and was not suffering any disease that could have triggered a death-wish.
The immense bulk of her, sitting implacable and pale, under the lucent water had haunted the officers called to the scene. There was something horribly powerful about her, even in death. Something stubborn and forceful projected from her, and surrounded the scene with a tangible, threatening misery. Worse than all of it was Kylie in the background, warbling ‘I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky ….’ You had to be irredeemably sick in the head to commit suicide to the sound of Kylie Minogue.
‘So – the way I see it, Sarge – we’ve got a car that drove off the road after hitting somebody wearing cotton clothing and dripping pool water and we’ve got a dead woman in a pool wearing a torn cotton robe, with lots of cuts and grazes. Doesn’t that sound odd to you? The only problem is, we found Cynthia Edwards dead, about … um … two days before the crash.’
‘W.P.C. Carter, if I were you, I’d keep my wilder imaginations to myself.’ The Sergeant moved closer though, to peer over her shoulder at the fax. ‘What’s that then? That’s not a hit and run report.’
‘No, it’s not. It’s a murder. Elizabeth Cavella; the wife of the man who died in the car crash. She was found strangled in her office earlier today. The analysis of the fingerprints on her neck shows the killer was very large and covered in chlorine.’
‘Odd,’ said the Sergeant.
‘Mmm, something else too,’ Carter shivered. ‘The same music playing at all the scenes: the swimming pool, the car stereo and the laptop – all belting out Kylie Minogue, singing ‘I Should Be So Lucky’.