Cover image for Nights in white satin
Nights in white satin
Spring, Michelle.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Ballantine Books, 1999.
Physical Description:
276 pages ; 25 cm
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Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"Powerful emotional intensity . . . The book hits you where you live," raved the Washington Post Book World about Michelle Spring's Standing in the Shadows. The Los Angeles Times hailed it as "[a] suspenseful thriller . . . truly startling." Now Michelle Spring returns with a psychologically astute novel that unfolds against the stately backdrop of Cambridge, England. But behind this refined university setting lies something truly sinister. For private investigator Laura Principal, the case begins unexpectedly at the annual May Ball, a jubilant celebration marking the end of examinations, an avalanche of food and fountains of champagne. Laura is hired to provide security, but somewhere between the dancing and the fireworks, a student disappears. Katie Arkwright wore white. Sleek, elegant, in silver armlets, she was a vision of purity. But when Laura starts probing into the missing woman's life, she finds that Katie concealed a dark side. With this jarring revelation, Laura opens a floodgate of damning secrets and double lives--encompassing a college don's mysterious death and the discovery of the skeletal remains of a baby. The deeper Laura searches into a tangled past, the more tension mounts in every corner of Cambridge--where someone waits, coiled to strike. And strike again. Enigmatic characters, shameful acts. Hidden motives as passionate as they are malignant. A conspiracy of silence that shields an unspeakable truth. In Nights in White Satin, Michelle Spring penetrates the complex impulses that can seize desperate souls--and once again creates an incisive novel of psychological suspense.

Reviews 1

Booklist Review

Anglophiles will delight in this Cambridge-based tale, which convincingly weaves the city's geography and history into its well-crafted plot. Spring thankfully avoids the bane of many mysteries set in a famous city, breaking the history into easily digestible tidbits and never sounding like a travel guide. Readers will quickly warm to protagonist Laura Principal, a private investigator who helps support the agency by taking seemingly mundane gigs like providing security for Cambridge's annual May Ball. When a female student disappears after the ball, however, the job quickly turns menacing and eventually leads to murder. Meanwhile, a handsome academic makes a play for Laura, whose relationship with boyfriend Sonny has been a little shaky of late. Spring effectively mixes plenty of humor into her realistic, hard-edged crime story; readers will find themselves chuckling frequently at Laura's wit and ironic view of the world. A good choice for fans of P. D. James' Cordelia Gray. --Jenny McLarin



It was back in January when I'd been asked to coordinate security for the May Ball at St. John's. I didn't play hard to get. "We'll do it," I'd said. "No problem." For a private investigator, security work is bread and butter. Doesn't tingle the taste buds, but keeps the stomach full. "Piece of cake." That was Sonny's response. He's my partner at Aardvark Investigations, the man to blame for getting me into this line of business in the first place. His heart was set on expansion, and--as he never tired of saying--expansion calls for capital. Sonny knew a job that couldn't be turned down when he saw it. "Easy peasy," echoed Stevie, our right-hand woman, during the week-before planning session. "Maybe Geoff could help." She reached for the telephone. But by the time I asked, "Geoff?" she was deep in conversation with a client. No problem; piece of cake; easy peasy. Two parts business and one part bravado, these responses. St. John's College lies more or less in the center of Cambridge. The ten green acres that make up its grounds are bounded by busy roads--Northampton Street, Bridge Street, St. John's Street. The River Cam runs through St. John's, providing a conduit to Trinity College on one flank and to Magdalene Bridge on the other. Our brief was to keep college property intact, keep revelers safe inside, keep gate-crashers out. This might sound simple. But anyone who thinks they can coast their way through security with logistics like this is long on optimism and short on sense. It's part of the wayward tradition of the Cambridge May Balls--just as staging them in the month of June is part of that tradition--that there will be gate-crashers. Their exploits are the stuff of local legend. It's whispered through college corridors how a pair of students equipped with climbing gear scaled an outer wall, changed from tracksuits to black tie, and managed to reach Third Court before they were accosted by security men. How a party of women from Newnham wrote themselves into history by scuba diving up the Cam. They infiltrated St. John's from the river. Their presence was betrayed only by the slapping of their flippers on the lawn. How a Churchill man, stowed inside a brewery van, had been pinned under three hundred pounds of draft lager when a barrel detached from its moorings. He emerged with broken ribs and a greatly enhanced reputation. Or that's how the story goes. Our job was to hold firm in the face of siege. Sonny, Stevie, and I were to secure the beachheads of the ball. To guarantee that the mock-Gothic portals of New Building would not be breached. It might not be a heavyweight assignment, but it had an element of challenge. On the evening of the ball itself, even I felt a surge of excitement. By the time I'd escorted all the suppliers out of college and checked the storerooms for stragglers, there was a queue awaiting admission that stretched from the St. John's gatehouse all the way to neighboring Trinity. With three-quarters of an hour still to go before the party began, the crowd grew by the minute. Their voices bounced off the buildings on either side of the street. Echoes magnified the sound until a hundred people seemed like several thousand. I heard the raucous cries that greeted new arrivals; heard a football commentary conveyed by radio to the crowd. And every few seconds, massive and mysterious whoops of delight. "What's going on?" I asked Stevie, whose territory included the front entrance. She had just sauntered back from a recon outside the gates. "Someone's sharing round the most enormous bottle of champagne--" "A jeroboam?" "Whatever." Stevie hadn't attended Cambridge, and her shrug said she didn't care a hoot for the things that I'd learned there. "Champagne, yes. Glasses, no," she continued. "They're drinking bubbly straight from the bottle. Like water on the sidelines at a football match." I had never before seen Stevie dressed as she was that evening. Security staff are expected to blend in at the May Ball. That means formal gear--no jeans, no business suits--and Stevie had gone all the way. She wore a figure-hugging sheath scaled with brown sequins. Not for Stevie the pale English flower look. She was all tanned and strong and sparkling, like an Olympic sprinter en route to a Hollywood bash. "Starting as they mean to continue?" I asked, nodding in the direction of the Champagne Charlies in the queue outside. "'Fraid so. Visit the loo now," she advised. "The toilets will be unusable by midnight." Sequins or no, on all important questions Stevie is practical to the core. At half past eight we gathered our student security force and rehearsed the rules of engagement. Sonny issued instructions. "You know when and where to check wrists," he said. "Anyone without a security tag exits immediately, under escort. Frog-marched if need be, otherwise untouched. The point is to get them out, not to injure them. Missing teeth aren't part of the package. And if the gate-crasher should happen to be a lady ..." This was greeted by chortles of anticipation. I intervened. "If it's a woman, watch your hands." I fixed my eye on the one security man who still smirked. "Unless, that is, you fancy a lawsuit later?" He straightened his face; he didn't look like the sort of fellow who wanted to spend his Thursday afternoons in court. At precisely eight-forty-five Sonny set off with four student accomplices for the Bridge of Sighs. They would patrol the river and the college grounds on the far bank, where--if previous May Balls were anything to go by--gate-crashing attempts would be concentrated. Other student security staff were charged with other assignments--some to move between the tents, some to protect the hot-air balloon and the fountain, and a half dozen to circulate through the grounds, making random checks on wristbands. And I? Well, I was there to coordinate. Translation: to confront crises and resolve problems, to make sure the guards knew what was going on, and above all, to watch the watchers. Our student security men were rugby players, martial arts aficionados--men of a muscular bent. They'd signed a contract, paid a deposit, and shown up on the evening properly turned out in black tie. They looked ready for business. But they were, after all, students themselves. A beer tent with free and unlimited draft, and a glut of glamorous girls, would be more of a temptation than some of them could resist. The last-minute tour of the college fell to me. Everything was in order. The soft stone of the college buildings and the clean green of the lawns formed an elegant backcloth for celebration. For stalls and counters and stacks of crates, burdened with food. For gleaming white cloths and sparkling silver on a flotilla of round dining tables. For cascades of balloons. For laser lights to slice through the festivities with mauve knives of fire. For tents where six bands performing in sequence would do their best to cater to the restless pleasures of the crowd. As I finished my tour the first of these bands was warming up, tossing a tentative rhythm onto the evening air. I closed my eyes and listened. I could hear a gurgle of laughter from somewhere near the river, and the pitty-pat of a breeze as it teased the balloons. I heard footsteps behind me. A strong pair of arms slid around my waist. "Nice to see you in formal dress," Sonny whispered, and planted a gentle kiss on my neck. The worst thing about working posh occasions is trying to do security with satin flapping around your ankles. I'd opted initially for a turquoise halter-neck, vaguely Egyptian in shape, with lots of room to swing my arms. But it called for high heels. The thought of chasing an intruder down a staircase on stilts made me think again. So I'd settled instead on a black tuxedo. It had jet beading on the lapels, and a skinny silk chemise under the jacket, so it wasn't quite Radclyffe Hall. But I could fit a walkie-talkie in the pocket and get away with glittery high-tops. And in spite of the glitz, I could still do a six-minute mile. "How about a dance?" Sonny asked. He was moving gently to the music, carrying me with him into the sway. "Have we time? Before the hordes mount the horizon?" I didn't really mean it as a question. I wanted more than anything in the world to snuggle up, to slow-dance. To make like this fairy-tale setting had been magicked into existence for the two of us. I turned slowly, guided by the circle of his arms, until we were face-to-face. Until I was staring straight into Sonny's warm brown eyes; until his lips brushed the side of my mouth. Until our legs were entangled, and there wasn't space between our bodies for the night air. Until his breath stroked my hair, and my breath stroked his. Until I couldn't tell whether the pounding I felt was his heart beating in his chest or my heart beating in mine. Until we were dancing slowly, slowly. Barely dancing. Cheek to cheek. "Do you play?" Sonny whispered in my ear. As he had the evening in the jazz club, when we'd first met. When he'd put away his clarinet and turned up at my table. As he had again, much later, when we'd teetered on the edge of a new relationship--fearing to damage the old, the purely professional one, but drawn to something more powerful. "Do you play?" Sonny said. Left it to me to decide. And I did. We ignored the bass beat from the band. We shut our ears to the clamor of the queue outside. And First Court, still unpopulated, was elegant and tranquil. If it had been left to me, I might have forgotten obligation. Might never have allowed the ball to begin. Might have stayed all alone--just Sonny and me--slow-dancing the night away. But Stevie, at least, had her mind on the job and her eye on the clock. She stepped out into the open, near the gatehouse. I could see her across the court, and in the laser lights her sequins spat fire. She was waiting for a signal. "Are we ready?" Sonny asked. He kissed me and began to pull away. "Aye-aye, Captain," I joked. "Everything's under control. Except for the multitude lined up outside, all itching to be first at the food." I allowed sixty seconds in which to steel ourselves for chaos to come . . . fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven . . . Sonny headed back toward the Bridge of Sighs. . . . three, two, one. "All right," I said, sending Stevie a thumbs-up. "Do it. Let them in." And in they came. Dressed to the nines. Coasting toward delight. Pausing only long enough for Stevie's crew to clamp each wrist with a luminous security tag. The rest of the evening--that is, the night; my stint didn't end until eight a.m.--went by in a haze of duty. There was no shortage of incident--such as the moment when a young classicist, aroused by a hallucinogenic tablet, removed her harness at the top of the bungee tower and prepared to fly. It took forty minutes to talk her down. After, I had a quick glass of champagne, my only alcohol of the evening, and returned to work. And my only break came early on, when the fireworks started, and the first Silver Dragon arced above the night sky. I took moments out for the spectacle, as all the guests turned their eyes above the tops of the trees. And then, turning back to duty, I came across a group of men--senior academics, from their age and air of confidence--who stood quietly watching the dancers. I'd met the master of St. John's earlier. His walking stick gave him away. "Dr. Patterson?" He swiveled on his good leg and looked at me with appraising eyes. He had been at an evening meeting. "With colleagues from St. Bartholomew's," he said, by way of introduction. "This is Stephen Fox." Fox had a shrewd face and a nod that was far from friendly. "And this tall fellow," the master continued, "the one who looks like he's about to take a turn on the dance floor, is John Carswell." "Not just yet," Carswell demurred, and restrained the tapping of his foot. Fox gave a quiet snort, almost certainly a rebuff. Carswell ignored it. He transferred his attentions to me. "What's it like being in change of security, Ms. Principal?" Carswell offered a convincing show of interest. "Are the guests giving you a hard time? Or do John's students, as the master boasts, know how to behave themselves?" "There's been far more fun than trouble, up to now. And," I added, excusing myself, "I'd like to see it stay that way." I headed toward faint sounds of a scuffle from the other side of the courtyard. I figured it would be bad for business to let a full-scale fight break out under the master's eye. "Let's get the sequence straight," I said. He went over it again. Katie Arkwright arrived at the ball just after nine o'clock, popped off to have a dance shortly before eleven, and disappeared--for no apparent reason--minutes later. "This sudden departure," I interrupted. "You've no idea what triggered it?" Philip Patterson stood by a tall window in the master's lodge overlooking the graveled drive below. He'd recently had an operation to replace a hip joint, which explained why he used a stick. But if surgery had slowed his movements, it hadn't dented the habit of command. "It wasn't I who was in charge of security arrangements last evening, Ms. Principal. It was you." He said this in the mildest, the friendliest, of tones. Yet the rebuke was unmistakable. "I had hoped you would supply an explanation for Ms. Arkwright's absence." The master of the college had called me to account. It wasn't what I'd expected. When Patterson's secretary turned me out of bed with her telephone call that afternoon, I'd envisaged a more conventional grievance. Maybe the fountain that had been imported from Italy to add an air of authenticity had been damaged. Maybe there'd been more complaints than usual from townspeople about the volume of the music. Maybe--in spite of my best efforts--there'd been boisterous behavior from one or two of the student security men. To be interrogated on any of these wouldn't have surprised me. But Katie Arkwright came at me out of the blue. Aardvark Investigations' brief, I reminded him, was to maintain order at the ball. To keep crashers out. To ensure that the only students who danced their socks off in the music tents, or chuckled at the comedy tent, or heckled the hypnotist, were those who'd forked out the money for a ticket. That only those with a right to the night would pose at six a.m. for the survivors' photo. That everyone who punted to Grantchester for breakfast would have preceded their eating, drinking, and merrymaking with the requisite surrender of cash. Well, Katie Arkwright hadn't gate-crashed. She had come, on the arm of her boyfriend, in a spirit of elation. And then--with seven hours of festivities still to run--she had turned and walked away. And Philip Patterson seemed to expect me to know where she'd gone and why. I was worn out. I'd paced the grounds of St. John's all night, straining to hear anything untoward over the blaring of the bands. My ears still felt as if I were underwater. I was not in the mood to be bullied. "Dr. Patterson, I'm sorry that this Arkwright girl's gone AWOL. And it's odd, I agree, that there's still no sign of her fourteen hours later. But to be perfectly frank, twelve hundred people partied in this college last night, and it's hardly surprising that I can't recall this particular person. Frankly, I don't see what help you can expect from me." Maybe I should have stopped there. But lack of sleep made me less than circumspect. "Nor is it clear to me, Dr. Patterson, why you should take an interest." Philip Patterson turned from the window. He made his way with halting steps to the leather chair that was angled beside his mahogany desk. Sitting down appeared to be an ordeal, requiring careful positioning and a gradual shifting of the leg to minimize pressure on the hip. He didn't once wince with pain. The journey, from standing by the window to sitting nearer me, took only half a minute, but it worked. By the time he'd positioned his stick on the rug, within reach, and shot me a rueful smile, I'd been won over. I'm a sucker for a limp--especially when it's endured with such stoicism. Sure, I had a ringing in my ears, but what was temporary tinnitus compared to what he was going through? "Ms. Principal," Patterson said, "I fear I haven't made myself clear. You and your colleagues did an excellent job last evening. I took a short stroll around the grounds this morning and everything was shipshape. I make no complaint." "Then what ...?" Damn these all-night sessions. My daylight hours in bed had left me groggy. "Just this. Jared Scott-Pettit is a final-year student at John's. He was Katie's escort. They have been dating." Patterson paused, as if expecting me to offer a trendier word. I didn't have one. "Dating for several weeks, and are, apparently, fond of one another. Scott-Pettit was shocked by Katie's disappearance, and when he saw his tutor today, he mentioned his concern that Katie had not yet returned to her flat. His tutor passed the details on to me." "But why? Why would the absence of an undergraduate's girlfriend be a matter for the master?" Patterson did what officials do in this sort of circumstance. He rolled out the rhetoric. "Everything is a matter for the master," he declared. "Everything that might reflect on the reputation of the college. It is my job to safeguard the college and its standing in the community. Especially these days." These days? "You mean now that fund-raising is such a priority?" "Precisely." He gave me a one-of-the-boys smile--confiding, inclusive, but without real warmth. "I knew, Ms. Principal, that being a Cambridge graduate yourself, you'd understand. These days one cannot depend for contributions even upon one's own alumni. The faintest whiff of scandal can send the bequests of potential donors into someone else's pocket." It was beginning to make sense. But not quite. "So you want to be reassured that Ms. Arkwright's disappearance is a simple matter--no scandal, nothing that might embarrass St. John's? Nothing that might cast a dark light over the end-of-term celebrations? And you haven't rung the police because--?" Patterson gave an impatient wave of his hand. "For one thing, we have no direct responsibility for Miss Arkwright. She's not a student of the university, let alone St. John's. As I understand it, she's studying modern languages at Anglia University, on the other side of the city. So, you see, it isn't really our place to report her disappearance." He paused, hoping that would satisfy me. "For another?" "Surely you know, Ms. Principal, that it's not a criminal offense to make yourself scarce. When an adult like Miss Arkwright--she's nineteen, I understand--goes missing, the police work on the assumption that she has gone of her own free will. Has relocated. Or is merely seeking solitude. Missing adults aren't high on police agendas." "Not unless there's foul play." "There's no question of foul play." Patterson shot this back with a firmness that raised its own questions. But I pursued a different line. "Of course, the police might have the right idea." "I beg your pardon?" "Dr. Patterson, you're a conscientious servant of the college. You intend, I take it, to hire me to look into Katie's disappearance." Patterson nodded, a small careful movement of the chin. Not committing to too much too soon. "You trust me because of my connections with Cambridge. You see me as a safe pair of hands." Patterson was smiling, and for the first time it was with a trace of warmth. He liked assertiveness. Cambridge teaches respect for a combative approach. I'd almost forgotten. "You want me to be discreet. To come to you first with any information I turn up--particularly information that could be disquieting for the college. Right?" "Ten out of ten, Ms. Principal. But you're losing your thread. The police, you said, may have it right. You think I'm rushing things by instigating an investigation now?" "That's precisely what I think. The most likely scenario is that Katie and her boyfriend--what did you say his name was?" "Scott-Pettit. Jared Scott-Pettit." "Katie Arkwright and Jared Scott-Pettit probably had a lovers' quarrel. Odds are that Katie has gone somewhere to dry her tears and that she'll turn up in a couple of days, wondering what all the fuss was about. If you hire me, you'll waste your money and my time. It's jumping the gun. Unless, that is--" "Go on." "Unless, as I believe, you have some other reason for suspecting the worst." He paused for a long while. Groped for his stick, gripped the arm of the chair with his free hand, and slowly, awkwardly, lifted himself to a standing position. I made a graceless gesture of help. He shook his head. Then he replied. "There may well be a special cause for concern in the case of Katie Arkwright. But it is not my place to explain. It is a deeply private matter. Another college is involved. I know some of the details because the senior tutor of St. Bartholomew's has confided in me. You do remember meeting Stephen Fox last evening, Ms. Principal?" "No, I . . ." I didn't remember. And then I did. With the shrewd face; with the manner that was far from friendly. "Yes, I remember now." Stephen Fox, as I recall, had watched after me as I left to check out a disturbance on the other side of the courtyard. He had showed more interest in my going than he had in my company. "Senior tutor at Bart's, is he? And just what did he tell you that throws light on the girl's disappearance?" "It's a delicate matter, Ms. Principal. The information should come directly from Bart's. I'll ring Stephen Fox, shall I, and say you'll be popping in to see him?" There was a pause while I thought it through. While I relinquished my hope of a couple of quiet days, catching up on administration. While I acknowledged to myself that a job like this--clean, on home territory, and with a customer known for paying promptly--couldn't be ignored. "Anytime tomorrow," I said. From then on it was straightforward. Patterson passed me to his very competent secretary. She handled contractual matters. She even dialed Katie Arkwright's boyfriend for me. "Any luck?" she asked when I'd replaced the receiver. "Can he see you now?" "He's tied up at the sports hall this evening. We're meeting tomorrow." I left the college by the front gate and headed home, taking the long and lovely route that would lead alongside the river and onto Jesus Green. The evening was too glorious for rushing back indoors. I took off my linen jacket, looped it around my waist, and welcomed the caress of the warm evening air on my arms. Bought an ice cream on Quayside. Swished barefoot through the grass. And as I strolled I shook the sleep out of my brain. Allowed myself to be engulfed by memories of the previous evening, hoping to spot Katie Arkwright--to know her, at least a little--in the archives of my mind. The master's description left a great deal to be desired. A long white dress, he'd said; some sort of shiny material. Scouring my memory, at first I could conjure up only flashes of silver, patches of pale--a spaghetti strap on a tanned shoulder, a bow of snowy silk--flitting among the guests. Then, as I concentrated, individuals began to separate from the crowd. To shift into focus. I saw a girl with a dress that draped delicately over a full bosom, trailing her hand in the fountain. She beckoned to two men to join her; they acknowledged her with a gesture and resumed their conversation. Noticed another young woman whose gold ankle chain flashed beneath a white hem; she searched for something, distractedly checking under chairs, and the panic in her eyes suggested that the loss was more than she could bear. A pair of women in white embroidered dresses strolled by, wearing enough jewelry between them to stock a Christie's sale; they had their arms around each other's shoulders and were happily, boisterously tipsy. Saw a skinny woman feeding smoked salmon mousse to an adoring companion; her dress was draped low in the back, so that her shoulder blades stood out harshly in the light. Recalled a stunning girl with a halo of bright curls standing dignified and serene at the bottom of a staircase. Her dress splayed out at the hem in pale pleats. A man came down the stairs behind her and took h er arm, and as she turned I'd had a shock as I'd seen that her eyes were unfocused. Was one among these girls the missing Katie? Had I actually seen her? It would have been strange if I hadn't; after all, I'd milled among the guests all evening--and everywhere I went I watched. My mind was like ultrasound, scanning for little blips of trouble. How could I not have skimmed over Katie once or twice, maybe dozens of times? And somewhere, presumably, my brain had filed her picture away, one small part of a mass image. Like an old school photo--merely waiting for someone to point to the little girl, third from the left in the back row, and say, That's her! That's my old pal Katie! A face can shift from one of the crowd to someone special in a matter of seconds. But in the case of Katie Arkwright, who could do the pointing? Excerpted from Nights in White Satin: A Laura Principal Novel by Michelle Spring All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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