Skin Deep is the latest gripping novel by Liz Nugent, bestselling author of the Richard and Judy book club pick Lying in Wait. Dark and disturbingly compelling, this pacy read will draw you deep into the mind of its manipulative narrator.
Cordelia has been living on the French Riviera for twenty-five years, passing herself off as an English socialite. But her luck has just run out.
The arrival of a visitor from her distant past shocks Cordelia. She reacts violently to the intrusion and flees her flat to spend a drunken night at a glittering party. As dawn breaks she stumbles home through the back streets. Even before she opens her door she can hear the flies buzzing. She did not expect the corpse inside to start decomposing quite so quickly…
Read on for the prologue from Skin Deep by Liz Nugent!
I wondered when rigor mortis would set in, or if it already had.
Once I had cleared away the broken glass and washed the blood off the floor, I needed to get out. I inched my way past it, past him, and locked myself into the bathroom. I showered as quickly as I could. The cracked mirror above the sink reflected my bloodshot eyes and my puffy skin. I applied make‑up with shaking hands and dried my hair. I emerged from the bathroom but could not avoid looking at the huge corpse slumped on the floor. I forced myself to be calm. I grabbed the first thing in the wardrobe that came to hand. My silk cashmere dress had worn thin with use, but it was the best thing I had. I needed to leave. I couldn’t think straight with him lying there, a blood-soaked monster.
I negotiated my way down the narrow, cobbled streets to my favourite café on the promenade, stopping off to buy cigarettes. I bought a demitasse and drank it with trembling hands, watching the tourists absorbed by their phones and their maps, ignoring the beauty of the Mediterranean just across the road.
I had twenty-five euro in my bag, all I had left until my next maintenance payment. It wasn’t enough to run away.
Something will happen, I told myself, someone will be able to help. I needed to be calm. To pretend. I was good at pretending. It was midday already, and the October sunlight was strong. Too bright for me. The world was too bright for me. I decided to walk the promenade. I’m bound to meet somebody I know, I thought. Someone will turn up and keep me company. I don’t have to tell anybody. But a solution will reveal itself. It must. For the first time in decades, my thoughts turned to God. I wished that I believed. I needed some divine intervention.
My eyes were drawn, as always, to the sea. Blue, gently lapping the pebbles on the shore. So unlike the sea I recalled from my childhood. As I walked, the image of the corpse seared my vision. I pulled some of my hair out to make it stop.
As I approached the Negresco, I added a swing to my hips, held my head up and walked with confidence until the pretence began to feel real. I recalled my father sitting me on his knee. ‘You’re my own special girl, Delia O’Flaherty,’ he’d say, detangling my hair with the old tortoiseshell comb. Daddy was right. I am special. I entered the hotel.
In the bar, I positioned myself in a large armchair with a view of the corner entrance. I had not eaten a lot in the previous week. A tin of tuna and a baguette had lasted me three days, but I knew now that my money would have to be spent on escape. I was in the right place though. The Negresco was where my old moneyed friends liked to come occasionally for afternoon tea, though they liked to give out about the vulgarity of the tourists. Someone would surely be able to do an instant electronic transfer; it is so easy these days.
Sure enough, at about 4 p.m., my hands had steadied and while I was having my second coffee I spotted Harold and Rania Cross outside the entrance, dressed formally. I waved, but they did not appear to see me. Harold was carrying his cane and wearing his theatrical cape, so I knew they were headed for the opera. I waited for them to enter, but they stopped awkwardly and turned on their heels and walked away in a hurry as if they had forgotten something important.
I tried to remember when I had last seen them. It may have been at the British Consul’s party four years earlier. I think I tried to persuade Rania to buy some of the handmade jewellery I’d brought with me, but she said… no, maybe it wasn’t Rania… anyway, whoever it was said that my jewellery was tacky. It couldn’t have been Rania, she wouldn’t have said that. We were friends, for God’s sake. I’d helped her through her depression back in the day. It wasn’t Rania, was it? No matter. All water under the bridge now. Did she say the jewellery was tacky or that I was tacky, that woman who just couldn’t have been Rania? So much has been lost in the fog recently.
The expensive coffee came with some nuts, olives and biscotti but they fell short of constituting a meal. Nobody else I knew had come through the door. There was a man reading the New York Times in an armchair on the other side of the bar. I had not been paying too much attention to him, but by 5.30 I was starving so I watched furtively as steak and frites were delivered to his table. The warm aroma made my stomach flip and contract. The waiter suggested he would be more comfortable in the restaurant, but he said he was waiting for someone. His dealer, as it turned out. When a scruffy young man arrived, steak man drained his beer, jumped out of his armchair and rushed outside with him. I did not know then that a quick transaction was taking place. He had taken his newspaper and I thought he was gone for good. The food was mostly untouched. I hovered for five full minutes watching it cool down before slipping into his chair and taking up the knife and fork he had just abandoned. I was about to take my first mouthful when –
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’
My face burned crimson. There was no way of explaining this. But I tried.
‘Sorry,’ I stammered, ‘I’m an environmentalist. I hate to see food go to waste.’
It was the best I could come up with.
‘That’s the greatest piece of horseshit I ever heard in my life.’ His voice was loud. American. Thank God there was nobody else within hearing distance.
He stood up and summoned the waiter with a wave of his hand. I feared I was about to be asked to leave, but instead:
‘I need the same meal again, a cold Budweiser, and’ – he glanced at me – ‘what are you drinking, honey?’
The waiter looked at me with a hint of disgust on his face.
‘I didn’t know my wife was going to join me,’ the American said.
The boy knew it was a lie. He had passed both of us several times. He must have known that we were not connected and that I had been trying to make my coffees last. Realizing his tip might be in jeopardy, he decided that the customer was always right. It gave me confidence. ‘A glass of rosé,’ I said, staring at him brazenly. We said nothing until he was out of earshot.
‘Go ahead, eat up.’
I picked up the knife and fork and began to eat more delicately than my appetite demanded. He had clearly ordered a well-done steak. What a shame.
‘So you want to tell me why I’m paying for your meal?’
‘I am so sorry, you must think I’m awful, but honestly, this is not something I do… I just have –’
‘A cash-flow problem?’
‘No, it’s because… I left my purse…’
He pointed at my clutch bag. ‘Want to try again, honey?’
‘I can’t… I need… I am waiting for –’
‘Hell, I don’t give a damn. Want to go to a party?’
‘May I finish my dinner first?’
He laughed the way that only a man with a large stomach can.
‘You got balls, lady, I’ll give you that.’
I cringed inwardly at the vulgarity, but smiled. ‘It’s Cordelia.’
‘Sam.’ He stuck out a giant hand and I put mine in his and shook it. He grinned.
‘So, you’re on holiday, or you live here? You’re British, right?’
I wasn’t going to correct him. ‘I come here for the summer. London is too stifling. I hope to stay until the end of this month.’
‘And how’re you planning on getting by, if you don’t mind me asking? I mean, you don’t look like the kind of lady that should be going hungry. You got an accent like the goddamn Queen.’
‘It’s a temporary blip, that’s all. I make jewellery at home during the winter and a friend sells it here during the summer. I’m waiting on a cheque. Really, it is just a short-term embarrassment.’
We chatted amiably as his meal arrived, as if there were no corpse in my flat and everything were normal. We did not ask each other any personal questions about partners or children. There was already an understanding that we were going to be private about our circumstances. He was well dressed and well groomed. He was not, however, remotely attractive. I would be able to ditch him later when the time was right. I needed his money first.
Two hours later, I was squeezed into a toilet cubicle with the American. The bald spot on the top of his head was smooth and tanned. White feathery hair surrounded it. A tonsure. His head snapped upwards and he sniffed and shouted ‘Praise the Lord!’ in the manner of an evangelist preacher. I was still a little nervous. ‘Sshhhhh. Do you want to get caught?’ I saw the irony of my question. Cocaine possession was the least of my crimes.
‘Caught?’ he said, grinning. We heard sniffing and laughter from the anteroom and I got his point.
He passed me the rolled‑up banknote, and I bent towards the cistern and inhaled the thin line of tiny white crystals through my left nostril. He took the note back, to my disappointment. It was a fifty. I came up again, pinching my nose and checking the mirror over the toilet. My make‑up was intact. A slick of cherry lipstick was all I needed. I smiled at Sam’s reflection. He hugged me to him quickly with surprising strength.
‘My God,’ he drawled, ‘we are way too old for this.’ He pulled the door open and was gone. I waited a moment before following him out to rejoin the throng. But his words were ringing in my ears. I estimated his age to be somewhere between sixty and sixty-five, at the very least ten years older than me.
What age was the dead man? He must be thirty-three. He was thirty-three. He had been thirty-three. Wasn’t that the same age that Jesus was crucified? Some of my school religion classes drifted back to me over the decades.
As I moved into the lounge area, I swiped a margarita from a passing tray, fumbling in my clutch for the cigarettes I needed badly. How could I use Sam? Might he help me? Or could I just lift his wallet? Where was the cloakroom here? There must be lots of wallets and handbags in there. I was about to light up, when a man in white-tie attire gestured that I should go outside to the terrace. I didn’t know whether he was staff or the host. So hard to tell these days. But I obeyed with a gracious smile.
The door was pulled closed behind me by an unseen hand and I was made to feel… no, I felt – it was I that made me feel it – excluded.
It was quiet out there. The autumn air carried a chill now that kept most people indoors. In my embarrassment, I had left my lighter inside on one of the gold-swathed plinths. I was forced to approach the two thin Russian girls at the other end of the terrace, huddled together against the light breeze that rolled in from the Med in their tiny silk dresses, teetering on their vertiginous heels. One of them handed over a diamanté-studded lighter without looking at my face. The heft of it in my hand made me realize that it was not diamanté but actual diamonds. I began to chat, smiling at them indulgently. The girl snatched it back, throwing her eyes to heaven, as if I might have stolen it. Bitch.
As I moved away, I heard them laugh rudely and I knew, I just knew, that they were laughing at me. We had come up in the elevator with them earlier to this penthouse apartment. They were draped around an ancient actor I recognized but could not name. He has been in lots of things. I’m sure he has been Oscar nominated. I beamed at him, pretended to know who he was. I used to know these details.
I could probably have been an actress. It is not difficult to pretend to be somebody else. Isn’t that what I’ve been doing for most of my life? Maybe I could still try it. In LA, beside the Pacific Ocean. My teeth and bone structure are very Hollywood. A lover told me that just last year. There were film producers at this party. Sam will know, I thought. Sam was the Director of Photography of the film whose launch we were celebrating, or so he said, but he didn’t seem to know many people. He had not introduced me to anybody and only one man, good-looking, thirties, nodded in his direction. I could see him now through the window in conversation with the same man, but Sam wasn’t listening. I know coke addicts. The only thing he was interested in was the paper wrap tucked neatly into a slim silver case in his breast pocket. He was doing the maths in his head, calculating how soon he should do his next line. I bet if I asked now, he wouldn’t remember my name. While I have done cocaine occasionally over the years to be social, it is not my habit. Tonight though, I needed cocaine. I needed anything I could get my hands on, anything to help me forget.
A sudden gush of noise behind me, and the door closed again. A waitress had appeared on the terrace. She carried a tray burdened with only two full glasses. I wanted both. She was disappointed to find anybody out here. I pretended I was waiting for someone and gave her my empty cocktail glass. She set the two drinks on a small white iron table beside a matching chair.
‘Merci,’ I said, exhaling a plume of smoke deliberately away from her face. I waited for her to move away, but she stopped by the potted shrubbery to play with her phone. I hoped she wouldn’t stay long. I sat down and turned to face the promenade and the Mediterranean.
Lights twinkled from the port on my left all the way to Cap d’Antibes on my right. In the bay, some party yachts bobbed merrily about in the water on the way to their various harbours, festooned with bright-glowing bulbs from mast to mast. I could vaguely hear the echo of laughter reaching out across the water. I lit another cigarette from the first before I extinguished it in the crystal ashtray. I wondered if I could wrap the ashtray and fit it into my bag. Just a little memento. The cocktail glass was too big.
I was distracted again by the high-toned tinkling reaching me from the bay. It used to be me who laughed on yachts in the Med. It used to be me who wore tiny dresses in London nightclubs. It used to be me who could flash a diamond bracelet and a Sobranie cigarette. It used to be me who was young and beautiful.
Now I was a middle-aged murderer. I quickly put the thought out of my head.
I stretched my legs out in front of me. They were tanned and still shapely. I reached into the bodice of my dress and pulled my breasts up into a higher position in their moulded cups. I heard a smothered cough behind me. The waitress was still there. She had witnessed the ungainly heaving of my bust into place. She looked back to the tiny screen lighting her small face. She was smoking now too. I was sure it was against her rules to be out here smoking, on her mobile phone, in the presence of party guests, so I no longer cared that she saw me drink the second cocktail meant for my phantom companion.
I turned to her and tapped on the table to attract her attention. ‘Une autre, s’il vous plaît?’ I pointed towards my glass. She heaved a heavy sigh, stamped out her cigarette on the artificial grass and left the terrace with her silver tray under her arm. I watched her smouldering cigarette butt congeal the plastic emerald fronds into black floating commas in the air and waited.
I was trying to get my thoughts straight, away from the noise inside. When I arrived at this party, I had scanned the room for any sign of my old crowd, but this gang seemed younger, shinier and more confident than we had been in our day. I didn’t know anyone. They were mostly American. Americans are hard to gauge. One can’t tell if they are old money or new money and they mostly dress appallingly. Denim jeans and white sneakers for the men. Big hair and too much jewellery for the women. Last year, I dated a man from one of the Dakotas who forced us to walk half a mile along the beach to get a can of soda five cents cheaper than in the first beach club we’d hit. I dropped him when I found myself at the opera in the gods. The gods, for God’s sake.
The waitress had not reappeared, my lighter was inside and both glasses were now empty. I stood up, but stumbled slightly. I’d had three cocktails and the glass of rosé earlier. I would have one more drink before I attempted to get money out of Sam. Just one more. I opened the door and the music slapped me in the face, some drum and bass arrangement at an ear-bleeding volume. I would not be able to bear this for long. I looked for a waiter, but they were now confined to the bar area and it appeared that I must queue for a drink. I had to shout my order at the barman, but before he had poured the drink, Sam was behind me, yelling in my ear, his hand on my shoulder.
‘There you are! You want another bump, honey?’ He patted his breast pocket.
I turned to see that one of the Russians was clinging on to his other arm.
‘No, thank you.’
And now I was disappointed because I had assumed that Sam was interested in me, and even if I did not find him attractive, I resented the little Russian hooking her claws into him. They wandered off to powder their noses. I tried to make this drink last. I asked a pleasant-looking young girl which of the men in the corner was the film’s producer. ‘I am,’ she said icily in pure New York and turned her back on me. So touchy.
Sam hadn’t come back. Nobody had spoken to me, but I no longer minded. The trays were back in circulation. I had become immune to the sound level and gradually the techno music, if that is the term, was seeping into my bones. I glided sexily towards the dance floor and I lost myself there among the beautiful young people. I was remembering the days of Mayfair nightclubs. I closed my eyes and my arms reached for the sky. This was good. This was great.
I opened my eyes and a teenager beside me was laughing and pointing at me, yelling something in a language I didn’t understand. More people were laughing now, and it was louder than the music. I looked down to where they were pointing. The whole seam of my dress had split from under my armpit to my hip. My expensive but old beige corsetry was on display, the overspill of flesh visible under my armpit. I laughed too. I didn’t care enough to stop dancing.
At one stage later, I dimly recall Sam approaching, suggesting that we go back to my place. The Russian must have lost interest. ‘We need to get you home, honey.’
I asked aloud why we couldn’t go back to his room in the Negresco.
‘And wake my wife?’ he said, and it seemed right then like the funniest thing I had ever heard in my life. He offered to take me home, ‘no strings’, but I declined. I was happy, really happy.
Pain seared through my head as if the fluid protecting my brain from my skull had evaporated. I opened my eyes and saw daylight and a dirty parquet floor. The angle was all wrong. Somebody was prodding me. I realized I must have blacked out.
‘Madame.’ It was the smoking waitress from last night.
‘On doit partir, maintenant, s’il te plaît.’
Te. All civility was dispensed with.
I fell upwards to a standing position, grabbing her shoulder to steady myself. She shrugged me away violently and handed me a barman’s yellow canvas jacket.
‘You must cover yourself,’ she said in English. Her look of disgust alerted me to the gaping side of my dress. I stumbled towards the elevator and then out on to the street.
The sun was rising on my left, shimmering across the expanse of blue.
I made my way slowly down the promenade. I did not want to go home.
I walked unsteadily, the horror returning. Nobody had helped me. There was nothing to be done. I scoured the faces of everyone who passed, but they were mostly immigrants in construction clothing or nannies’ uniforms, en route to the early shift. Only I was going home at this hour. Home, whatever that meant any more.
As I entered the flat, I could hear a low hum, and I could not ignore the smell.
It’s too soon, I thought.
I had not expected it to happen so quickly, but then I had never been able to afford an air-conditioning unit. The flies had begun to swarm already, feasting on the corpse.
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