When Ruth Rendell introduced psychological thrills into her novels, it was a new development for the plot-driven world of crime fiction. The winner of three Edgar Awards and the author of books like An Unkindness of Ravens, she was one of the first to place a primary focus on the internal workings of her characters—whether they be hardened criminals or traumatized victims. The effect was a brand new kind of mystery, one that delivered plenty of breathtaking surprises while also exploring the dark sides of human nature with nuance, thoughtfulness, and fearlessness.
Rendell's talents are on full display in A Spot of Folly, a brand new collection of short stories that delve into the minds of pathological liars, serial cheaters, and murderers. Below, you'll find an excerpt of the titular story, which follows the illicit Parisian exploits of businessman Sandy Vaughan. Though he's in the city for a sales conference, Sandy's top priority isn't his career, but his own carnal desires. As he boasts to his colleagues over drinks one night—an audience that includes Denis, a 28-year-old junior executive—Sandy has wasted no time in racking up a number of female paramours. Never mind that he has a wife at home...
But it seems he may finally have to face the consequences of his dalliances. A reckless driver has scraped Sandy's fender and, wanting to pay the damages, leaves a note requesting a meet-up the following evening. While Sandy thinks little of it at first, Denis questions the man's intentions—perhaps he's a jealous, angry lover—and his doubts soon wheedle their way into Sandy's mind. But is Denis, as usual, being too paranoid? Or could Sandy truly be walking into a carefully laid-out trap?
Sandy never went anywhere without having a quick one first. In the bar he encountered Denis Crawford drinking lager with Malcolm Shaw, the firm’s marketing manager. Denis gave him such a cold truculent look that Sandy couldn’t resist the temptation to tell them where he was going.
‘That’s my boy,’ said Malcolm. ‘You only live once.’
‘If you call that living,’ said Denis.
The other man winked at Sandy behind Denis’ back. ‘I’d have done the same myself, Sandy, a year ago. Still, I have my compensations.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Which reminds me it’s time I gave her a call.’
Sandy watched him leave and hurry to the telephone.
‘You see,’ he said. ‘I’m not the only one.’
‘He’s not married,’ said Denis Crawford.
‘Oh, you’re too pure to live! No wonder the good people of Paris called a suburb after you. Saint Denis.’ He laughed heartily at his joke. ‘Personally, I prefer Montmartre and the Rue Ninon de l’Enclos.’ And he got off his stool. ‘See you.’
The Rue Ninon de l’Enclos was packed with cars, but Sandy managed to find a parking space. Marie Laure was waiting for him, his money, and his champagne, and gave him the sort of evening that always put him in high spirits. It was 9:55 when he came out into the street again and went back to his car.
A couple of yards from it he stopped short. There was a long jagged scrape on one of the Renault’s fenders. He let out a gasp of anger and plunged forward, narrowly missing falling under the wheels of a taxi. The driver swore at him and Sandy swore back, shaking his fist. At close quarters the scrape was even worse than it had at first appeared. No doubt about it, that couldn’t be merely sprayed. He’d have to have a new fender.
Sandy cursed richly. The French were wild drivers. Some madman, of that taxi-driver’s type, had torn down the Rue Ninon de l’Enclos while Sandy was with Marie Laure and passed just too close to the Renault.
It wasn’t until he was in the car, in the driver’s seat, that he saw the note, a small scrap of paper held against the windshield by one of the wipers. Sandy put his hand out the window and took it, tearing it slightly as he pulled it from under the wiper. It read: Thousand apologies. I will pay the damages. Meet me tomorrow 1900 hours Le Garage Rivery, Rue des Chattes, XVIIIme Arrondissement.
There was no signature, no phone number. Still, it was enough. It slightly consoled him for the scar on the Renault’s virgin, jewellike bodywork.
He found Malcolm Shaw sitting in the hotel lounge when he got back, and he showed him the note. ‘Come and see what Monsieur Thousand Apologies has done,’ he said, and together they went down to the car park. Denis Crawford would have to choose that moment to come into the car park and get something out of his own Mini. Sandy ignored him, even when he came up to them.
Malcolm made sympathetic noises. He agreed that the scrape was an eyesore, and together they prodded at the flaking paint. Denis wondered if the blow to the fender had upset the alignment, and although Sandy scoffed at this, he let Denis get into the car and shift about at the steering wheel, squinting absurdly through the windshield. Anything to keep him quiet. Malcolm made a few helpful suggestions and assessed the damage at about £50.
‘You should get that out of him, Sandy,’ he said. ‘You always were lucky.’
‘Better be born lucky than rich, eh?’
‘You’re lucky and rich.’
It was just like Denis Crawford to get out of the car at this point and interrupt their merriment with a grave, ‘Has it occurred to you that this could be a trap?’
‘A way of getting you on your own and beating you up. Maybe rob you as well.’
‘And just why should Monsieur Thousand Apologies want to beat Sandy up?’ asked Malcolm.
‘Because the chances are he’s the jealous lover of Sandy’s lady friend.’
‘Oh, you’re crazy,’ said Sandy. ‘You go to the cinema too much.’
‘Just think about it, Sandy. Why didn’t he leave a name or a phone number on that note if he’s honest? And why write in English? Yours is a French car.’
‘He saw the G.B. plate, of course,’ said Malcolm.
Denis shrugged. He scrutinized the fender. ‘That wasn’t made by another vehicle. It looks to me as if it was done with a hammer.’
‘For God’s sake!’ Sandy exploded. ‘How would you know? Since when have you been an insurance assessor? You’ve got an overdeveloped imagination, laddie.’
‘All right. But I’ve warned you. You’d just better be careful.’
What a feeble character the man was! Neurotic, really. Sandy, who prided himself on his guts, felt rather stimulated than otherwise by Denis’ forebodings. Not that he believed in them. But if there were something fishy about Monsieur Thousand Apologies, what an adventure, what a story to tell the boys! He pictured himself recounting the sort of experience that only a red-blooded man could have.
‘Did I ever tell you about the time I had this French girl in Paris and her boyfriend came after me?’ That was how he’d begin it. Savouring this story in anticipation, Sandy couldn’t resist telling a good many of his colleagues about it on the following day. But in forecasting his own tactics he left out the gun.
The gun was a Luger that Sandy’s father had taken off a dead German in 1940. His attitude toward it was much the same as other people’s attitude toward sleeping pills. Though he had never used it, it was a comfort knowing it was there, and he never travelled without it. Ever since that time when he’d been threatened by a hitchhiker he’d picked up in Turkey, he’d taken the gun with him on his foreign trips, concealing it from the Customs by keeping it in a pocket under the passenger seat of the Renault. No one knew of its existence, not even Diana.
It often made Sandy chuckle when he thought of his car sitting in the garage at home, so innocent-looking, yet harbouring a lethal weapon. It was even more uproarious to recall that, out of the kindness of his heart, he’d lent the car to Denis a couple of times while he was staying with them. That miserable milksop would have turned even paler if he’d known about the gun.
But by the time he came to leave the hotel for his assignation, Sandy had decided that all danger lay in Denis’ imagination. He’d telephoned the Garage Rivery during the day and found it to be authentic, and his first sight of it confirmed his own belief that it was respectable. It stood in one of the narrow dark streets that lie behind the Sacré Coeur; it wasn’t small or dark but a modern well-it establishment with the usual row of gas pumps and behind them a store and the sheds where repairs were made.
Sandy couldn’t find a space to park the car on the garage forecourt without obstructing the way to the pumps, so he left it up against a wall that bordered the long alley between the store and the sheds.
There was no one in the garage office except the manager who succeeded in making Sandy understand that they were closing at 7:30. As it was only just 7:00 that left ample time to meet Monsieur Thousand Apologies and get the whole matter settled. Sandy chuckled to himself when he remembered Denis’ forebodings. As if anything of that nature could happen in a well-lit much-frequented place like this.
‘Has it occurred to you that this could be a trap?’
He wondered rather scornfully where Denis was now. Sitting by himself probably in a little dark cinema, watching the kind of French film Sandy would pay not to see, though he’d often paid well enough to see the other kind. Contentedly, he surveyed the cars which kept arriving for gas. One of them, sooner or later, would contain his man. He mustn’t be impatient.
But when it got to be 7:20 and no one had turned up, when nobody had rushed in full of breathless apology and requests for an immediate examination of the Renault, he began to pace up and down the forecourt. They were preparing to close; a couple of mechanics were leaving and going off on motorbikes.
Sandy looked searchingly up and down the dark street. Although the street lamps were lit, the place had a sombre lonely look, overcast as it was by the rear of the great cathedral. There was no one about and no car but the Renault. When the manager turned off the lights and came out to lock up, there was nothing left for Sandy to do but to go and sit in his car.
Montmartre may be a place of gaiety near the Pigalle, of twinkling signs and lights as bright as fruit drops, of crowded bars and snug little theatres, but it is also a place of ancient darkness, a warren of deep lanes that seem chiselled into the hillside. Sandy couldn’t help feeling vulnerable in his isolation, a target for easy violence in the one car left, and that car immediately identifiable by the mark that had been put on it.
After a few moments he switched off the interior light and reached under the seat for the Luger. Of course it was absurd, all his disquiet due to that fool Denis; but with the gun in his pocket he felt much more secure, and he settled down to wait once more.
It was 7:40 when he saw the man enter the garage forecourt. It was only a dim figure, heavily raincoated, but it was enough. Monsieur Thousand Apologies at last, and he was alone. Well, they couldn’t do much tonight—the place was closed thanks to the man’s tardiness.
But that might stand him in good stead, Sandy thought. A man who was late and admittedly in the wrong would be in a false position to quibble. Sandy made up his mind that he’d settle for £50 and call it a day. He’d buy the bloke a drink in one of the bars he’d passed on his way up and then—why shouldn’t he drop in on Marie Laure for a couple of hours?
He got out of the car, locking it carefully, and made his way past the gas pumps up to the office. The pallid lamplight was augmented by his own flashlight. He looked about him for the writer of the note, but he’d disappeared. Maybe they’d missed each other, and finding no one by the office, the man had made at once for the Renault he had so wantonly scarred.
Sandy went back. As before, the Rue des Chattes itself was deserted, empty of all vehicles. Monsieur Thousand Apologies hadn’t come by car. Sandy thought he heard a footfall behind him and he wheeled. He turned rather sharply for one who felt as confident and in command of the situation as he did, and he gave a little laugh of reassurance at such an unexpected display of nerves.
His laugh was answered by a low dull snigger. Sandy froze. He put his hand to his pocket where the Luger was and started back toward the garage office.
The sound wasn’t repeated.
Had it been only an echo, the reverberation of his own laugh thrown back by these walls? He took a deep breath and called out, ‘Hello! Is anyone there? Voila que j’y suis. I’m here, by the office.’
A deep silence answered him. What the hell was the guy playing at? He was in here somewhere, he must be—Sandy had seen him come in. And now he began seriously to consider Denis’ theory. Well, what if it were true? What if it was Marie Laure’s lover who had crept up in the dark and was waiting to spring on him from behind one of those sheds? The man was alone, and Sandy had the Luger. That would be something to tell the boys, how he’d confronted this small-time gangster and sent him squealing off to his woman with his tail between his legs.
Resolutely, Sandy set off in search of Monsieur Thousand Apologies, treading softly and with great care down the long alley that ran between the main building and the repair sheds. It led finally into a small yard. He switched on his flashlight and surveyed this yard which was as gloomy and medieval-looking as the front was modern.
The thin beam of his flash shone on dilapidated black brickwork and sagging beams, flitted over a couple of empty doorways like the entrances to caves, lit up briefly a mountain of old car tires. From this heap of serpentine coils Sandy saw a shadow snake out and flicker into one of the caves.
He tensed and put the light out. Thrusting it into his left hand, he felt for the Luger with his right. A piece of timber creaked. Sandy slipped into the nearest cavern mouth and found himself in a brick tunnel. He closed his hand over the gun.
Immediately behind him—he came hard up against it—was a wooden door. Good, an excellent position to be in. Let Monsieur show himself now and he’d be ready for him. He brought the gun out and as his fingers tightened over it he felt on the metalwork an unaccustomed roughness as of sharp unfiled projections, like tiny thorns on its surface.
Although he had never actually fired the Luger, he had often handled it and taken pride in the perfection of its workmanship. Never had it felt like this. Cautiously, holding both under the hem of his jacket, he brought the light from the flash to bear on the gun. A shiver convulsed him and he almost cried out. It wasn’t the Luger he was holding but a toy weapon, the kind children play with, exactly the kind, in fact, that his own boy played with. Could his son have discovered the Luger and substituted …? But there was no time to consider the awful possibilities of that now.
Sandy was trembling. He wouldn’t be able to deceive a soul with this travesty of a weapon, and anyway he knew he’d never have the nerve to thrust it in a man’s back while knowing it wasn’t the genuine article. Besides, this man was a gangster, experienced in such things. Sandy would have to get out and get out fast.
A heavy sweat stood on his forehead. He put up his hand and wiped away the wetness. Why had he been such a fool as to come into this pitch-dark labyrinth without first checking the gun?
His legs unsteady, he came back to the mouth of the tunnel and into the black hole of a yard. He didn’t dare put on the flashlight. He spread-eagled his body against the damp broken wall and eased himself along it, ducking behind the heap of slimy tires. There was no sound. At the point where he had seen the snaky shadow, he slipped into another tunnel, longer than the first which had given him sanctuary and which had seemed, while he was armed, so good a vantage place.
This tunnel was a passage at the end of which gleamed a faint light. Sandy began to run toward the light and had almost reached it when he heard a movement behind him. He flung himself hard against the wall and the bullet passed with terrifying swiftness, striking just where his head had been a second before and embedding itself in a wooden post.
He let out a cry of horror and sprang out of the passage into a pool of light. It came from a street lamp, but not one of those in the Rue des Chattes. Sandy didn’t know where he was and he didn’t care. There were no thoughts of subterfuge now, of trickery, but only of getting away, down, down into bright twinkling Montmartre whose sequinned glittering he could just see through a gap in towering walls.
He plunged through this gap, not daring to look behind him, and found himself on a terrace. Above him, white and gleaming, more like a mosque than a church, soared the towers of the Sacré Coeur. The great cathedral looked like a palace of ice. The floodlighting which was turned on it left a lake of darkness at Sandy’s feet, and above this black waste hung the glittering lights of Paris, yellow and white and flickering fireworks-red.
He had never been into the Sacré Coeur, but he knew that a series of flights of steps fell away from this point to the street below, and below that, not too far away, was the Pigalle Metro station. Meanwhile he was an easy target for Marie Laure’s gunman-lover.
Where was he now? Biding his time perhaps, or creeping up on him by some other way which he would know well. Sandy ran to the wall that surrounds the terrace and to the head of the flight of steps that leads down, through thick bushes, on the left-hand side. He had hardly reached the shelter of these winding narrow stairs and the obscurity of the bushes when he heard footfalls on the terrace. The footsteps moved slowly, hesitantly, as if the man who made them was uncertain, was searching.
Sandy clambered in among the shrubs, his hands scrambling in earth, torn by the spines of a thorn tree. But now the footsteps were approaching with a sure firmness of purpose.
“Could the man smell him? Was his ear so supernaturally sensitive that he’d heard the whisper of turned soil and the gush of blood from Sandy’s prickled hand? Almost fainting now, Sandy cowered back. Wild thoughts of begging for mercy, of taking a beating so long as his life were spared, brought him to his knees, and he was on his knees, gasping, when the branches were pushed aside and he looked up into the eyes of Denis Crawford.
Want to keep reading? Download A Spot of Folly, by Ruth Rendell, today.
Featured image: Serge Kutuzov / Unsplash
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