Blow Down (The Plumber's Mate Mysteries, #4)
Death is what happens while you’re making other plans . . .
The last thing newly engaged plumber Tom Paretski needs is to stumble over another dead body. He’s got enough on his mind already as the reality of his impending marriage sinks in. Not only is his family situation complicated, but his heroism at a pub fire has made him a local celebrity, and now everyone knows about his psychic talents—and wants a piece of them.
Hired to recover a missing necklace, Tom and his fiancé, private investigator Phil Morrison, find themselves trying to unmask a killer. And there’s no shortage of suspects, including the local bishop.
As Tom and Phil try to uncover the truth, they’re pulled in all directions by the conflicting pressures of their families and their own desires. But the murderer they’re up against is a ruthless schemer who won’t baulk at killing again. If Tom and Phil don’t watch out, their love—and all their plans for the future—could be blown down like a house of straw.
Publisher's note: This is lightly edited reprint of a previously published novel.
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These days, when my big sister phones me, I don't expect anything worse than an invite to lunch and the latest gossip, so I hit Accept Call that night without even a hint of a suspicion of foreboding.
Just goes to show, this being-psychic lark really isn't all it's cracked up to be.
"'Lo, Sis. What's up?" I held the phone to my ear with my left hand while I stirred the pasta sauce with my right. Phil was coming round for tea but wasn't sure when, so I was doing something I could leave on a low heat to keep warm if need be.
"Oh, hello, Tom." Cherry paused. "Um, how are you?"
I sighed. The only time she ever opens with How are you? is when she's desperate to ask for a favour but thinks it'd be rude to launch straight in without a bit of chitchat. "What is it?" I asked, resigned to doing another job for mates' rates for someone who was no mate of mine.
At least, I hoped it was a job, not anything family related. Especially seeing as my family had recently got a bit more complicated.
"Amelia Fenchurch-Majors," Cherry said. "She asked me to ask you to do a job for her. She's based in St. Leonards — I know it's a bit further afield than you'd usually go, but honestly, you'd be doing me a huge favour if you could go over and see her. At your earliest convenience."
From the sharp tone in Cherry's voice, I guessed (a) she was hoping I'd focus on earliest rather than convenience, and (b) she'd been getting her ear bent by Mrs. Double-Barrelled Shotgun. "Friend of yours, is she?"
"She's not a friend. We just happen to know one another."
"Let me guess — through Greg?"
Greg is my big sister's unfeasibly reverend fiancé, canon of St. Leonards cathedral. Mrs. Fenchurch-Majors sounded like the sort of person he had over for sherry all the time. She was probably a drill sergeant in his army of grey-haired old dears who'd outlived their husbands by twenty years or more and now seemed to worship the ground under Greg's unusually large feet. I could see her now, barking orders at the twinset and pearls brigade to Crochet faster and Don't put those flowers there, put them THERE.
"Not exactly. The bishop held a garden party over the summer, and we were introduced there. Amelia was very interested to hear about you. Well, of course she heard all about your heroics at the Dyke."
I winced. Not only was all this well embarrassing — they'd put a picture of me in the paper and everything — but several months down the line, I was still having nightmares about that night. Only in my dreams, I didn't get there in time. So I wasn't too chuffed to be reminded about it.
"Oh yeah? So exactly what did you tell her?"
"Nothing." Cherry sounded hurt. "Although I don't see why you're so keen to have everyone forget about it all. It's hardly something to be ashamed of."
"I'm not ashamed. Course I'm not. It's just, well, you know they put that bit in the paper about me having psychic powers, yeah?" I wasn't sure who'd blabbed — hopefully not one of my mates, but then I hadn't exactly sworn anyone to secrecy, which was beginning to look a bit short-sighted of me. Then again, it wasn't beyond the bounds some disgruntled copper had made an off-the-cuff remark about me being DI Southgate's tame psychic.
"So, I've had everyone and his bloody dog asking me all kinds of crap ever since, up to and including 'Will it rain tomorrow?' and 'Can you just fill in this lottery form for me?' ta very much."
"That's just silly. You can't do anything like that." She paused. "Can you?"
"Sis, I live in a two-bed semi in Fleetville. What do you think? But try telling them that. Everyone seems to think 'psychic' means whatever they bloody well want it to mean."
Look, I've just got a bit of a knack for finding things, that's all. Hidden things, that is, and I have to be fairly close to them to start with, although Phil's constantly on the lookout for ways of extending my reach. All the better to help him make a killing in his chosen profession and retire early on the profits. I used to think he was onto a loser, but ever since the fire at the Dyke, I've been starting to wonder. Something about that night amped the vibes up way beyond anything I'd ever felt before — and no, I'm not talking euphemisms here, 'cos by the time we'd made it home, we were too bloody knackered for anything like that.
Phil, of course, had various theories as to what exactly might have sharpened the old spidey-senses: the danger to yours truly; the way a couple of people I cared about were also at imminent risk of getting toasted; even the heat counteracting moisture in the air (water messes with the vibes, which is handy when you're trying to locate a leak underground but not so much the rest of the time). Fortunately, Phil's caseload had been busy enough over the summer to take his mind off too much experimentation with my dubious talents.
Well, that sort of experimentation. We'd managed to find time for a few experiments of a different sort. But yeah. Not your all-purpose psychic. My so-called gift doesn't hold with multitasking. "It's like they think it's some kind of one-size-fits-all thing," I muttered down the line.
There was a weird sort of breathy sound down the phone. "I suppose that'd be medium, then. The size."
"I literally can't believe you said that," I told her after a healthy pause to let her know just how much I meant it.
"So what's the job?" I asked before she could come up with any more comedic gems.
"She didn't say. I gave her one of your cards and suggested she call you direct, but she seems to have this bee in her bonnet that you'd be more likely to accept the job if it came through me."
"Right, gimme her number and I'll give her a bell."
There was a pause. "They're ex-directory, and she doesn't give out her number. You'll have to go round."
"You're kidding, right? Seriously?"
"Look, she's very persistent," Sis said, which was an admission of defeat if ever I heard one. "Please just go round? You can come over to Gregory's for tea afterwards. We've got some very nice cakes." Translation: the cathedral ladies had been baking again. Come to think of it, I wasn't sure they ever stopped. Maybe they took a short break every now and then for knitting bedsocks and crocheting jam-jar covers, that sort of thing.
"Are you actually living there now?" I asked, because Sis had her own house in Pluck's End, a village not far from St. Leonards, but every time she invited me and/or Phil anywhere lately, it'd been to the Old Deanery, currently occupied by the Youngish Canon.
(I nearly said the Middle-Aged Canon, seeing as how Greg had to be in his midforties, but since reaching this side of thirty, I'd gained a whole new perspective on the subject. Funny, that.)
"No, of course not," Cherry said as if the very idea was ridiculous. "That wouldn't be at all proper."
"Course not. What was I thinking of? Fine, I'll go and see this pushy old biddy of yours. Tell her I'll be round Friday afternoon — I've got a couple of hours free then."
There was another of those breathy sounds.
"What?" I asked.
"Nothing," Cherry said brightly, and reeled off the address.
Just as I finished writing it down, Phil walked in followed by his adoring public, otherwise known as Merlin and Arthur, my two cats. "Emergency call-out?" he asked after I'd hung up.
"Nah, just an extra job for tomorrow," I told him, expertly dodging the cats so I could give him a welcome snog and a grope of that magnificent arse, which he returned with interest. "Nothing serious," I muttered into his shoulder.
Like I said, Nostradamus I am not. If anyone was daft enough to hand me a crystal ball, I'd see bugger all. And then drop it on my foot.
* * * * * * *
Mrs. F-M.'s gaff on the outskirts of St. Leonards turned out, when I got there the following afternoon, to be your actual Grade II listed farmhouse, and she had plenty of acreage to go with it. I felt like a right pleb parking the van on a posh, red-brick driveway only slightly less extensive than the M25 and going up to knock on a front door built to withstand siege, battering ram, and revolting peasants.
It didn't help there was a choice of two doors with nothing much to distinguish between 'em. I went for the slightly larger one, in the end, on the basis I was doing the old girl a favour, so I was buggered if I was going cap in hand to the tradesman's entrance.
Hey, I might actually be a tradesman, but I doff my cap to no man. Or woman, as it might be. Metaphorically speaking, obviously. Hats and me have never really got on. You'd think putting something on your head would make you look taller, but I just end up looking like the sort of stable lad who wants to be a jockey when he grows up.
The door was opened by a young woman who could have been a model, if that hadn't been something only common people did. Well, she was a bit on the short side — her sharp green eyes were on a level with mine — but otherwise, she'd have made a pretty good showing on the cover of Vogue. She even had the expression down pat — that one where they glare at the photographer like he or she's something they just scraped off their shoe. God knows how fashion photographers cope with all that negativity shoved in their faces day in day out. Give me happy-smiley wedding pics any day, or those ones you see mums queuing up for in Boots, with the baby poking its head up out of a flowerpot.
"Tom Paretski?" she said, sizing me up with one unhurried glance and not bothering to crack a smile in welcome. "I'm Mrs. Fenchurch-Majors. Do come in."
I blinked. She was Mrs. F-M.? I'd taken her for some kind of PA, hired by the lady of the house to deal with tedious and/or unpleasant matters like correspondence and talking to members of the working classes.
No wonder Cherry had laughed when I'd called her an old biddy.
"Cheers, love," I said, mostly to annoy her.
She winced and glanced pointedly at the doormat, despite the fact it wasn't raining outside, so I obligingly went through the motions.
And no, I hadn't missed the fact I got a first name and she didn't. I bet if I was lucky enough to get a cuppa, it'd be made with the second-best tea bags and come in a chipped mug kept 'specially for workmen and other oiks.
"Right, love, what's the problem?" I flashed Mrs. F-M. my best smile.
She didn't return it. "Less of the endearments, please. I am not your love. This way, please."
She click-clacked ahead of me on sky-high heels, and I swear I heard the ancient timber floors groan as she approached. And who wears stilettos in their own house, anyhow? Speaking of which, her skirt and blouse were tight and tailored, more like a posh version of office wear than something you'd wear to clean the bathroom. Or show the plumber where the problem was, for that matter. So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised when she led me not to a bathroom, downstairs loo, or even the kitchen or utility room, but right up several flights of creaking stairs to an attic bedroom. The door was locked, but she had a key.
Which made me wonder a bit, because this clearly wasn't Mrs. F-M.'s bedroom. Despite the double bed, I was fairly sure it was a single woman's room, and there was ample evidence the occupant was several clothing sizes larger than Mrs. F-M. To be perfectly frank, it looked like an explosion in a TK Maxx. Designer handbags and shoes littered the floor and the furniture indiscriminately, and there was a pile of frocks on the bed that could keep the Chelsea Oxfam shop going for a month.
As you've probably guessed, it was a pretty big room, as attics go. I mean, when most people talk about attics, they mean the space under the roof like I've got in my house where you can just about manage to shove a few suitcases and your Christmas decorations so they're out of sight, out of mind. Or maybe, if you're lucky, put up a couple of starving artists and a mad first wife for similar reasons. This was definitely more at the luxury loft conversion end of the market, with large dormer windows and more floor space than my whole upstairs.
There was also a distinct lack of plumbing anywhere I could tell. And trust me, I can tell. I was starting to get a bad feeling about this one.
"So what can I do you for, love?" It slipped out. Honest.
Mrs. F-M. looked like she'd just been served a glass of wine with bits of cork in it, but at least she didn't tell me off again. "I need you to find my necklace."
Despite the loud clunk as my heart plummeted into my boots, I played dumb. "What happened to it? Down the loo? Plug hole?"
"I doubt it. I'm sure the little darling is keeping it quite safe somewhere." The way she said darling, you'd be forgiven for thinking it had only four letters and rhymed with blunt.
"Not sure I follow you," I said a lot more breezily than I felt. I mean, I should've known. I really should've known. So much for all the years I'd spent training in my chosen profession, getting my City and Guilds and all that bollocks.
"Don't be obtuse." Yeah, I could tell she was a mate of Cherry's. "I need you to do that thing of yours. Remote viewing. Divination. Whatever you like to call it."
I'd never called it either of those things in my life. "Uh, did Cherry say something to you about, you know?"
"Obviously. Now, can we please get on with it? I presume you charge by the hour. And I have an appointment at four."
I was going to kill Cherry, I decided. Beat her to death with a couple of bloody dowsing rods. Or strangle her with a pendulum. For a mo, I seriously considered telling Mrs. F-M. where to shove her flippin' necklace, but, well, I'd have felt like a right bastard if Sis had ended up getting yet more grief over it all.
Which I know doesn't exactly fit with the whole wanting-to-kill-her thing, but that's family for you.
"You do realise, once I start looking, I'll come up with all kinds of stuff, yeah?" I said, admitting defeat. "I mean, there might be stuff you don't want me to find — "
"Then you'll just have to focus, won't you? Now, it's a simple pendant. Eighteen-carat gold, with a central, heart-shaped pink diamond surrounded by white diamonds. Quite delicate. Antique. Extremely valuable."
"And you're sure someone's hidden it? I mean, if it's just lost — "
"Quite sure. Alexander's little poppet has hated me since the minute we met — of course, nobody should dare to take the place of her sainted mother — and you should have seen her face when he gave it to me as a wedding gift. I wasn't a bit surprised when it went missing two weeks ago."
I was beginning to have a lot of sympathy with Little Poppet-darling. Mrs. F-M. didn't realise how lucky she was that it was only the necklace that'd disappeared. Sod it. What was I supposed to do now? For starters, I only had Mrs. F-M.'s word for it the necklace actually belonged to her. And I really didn't like the thought of helping her go behind her stepdaughter's back.
Mrs. F-M. strode through the room, grinding a silk kimono casually into the carpet with her heel as she went, and flung open a door at the far end. "You'll need to search in here too," she said, switching on a light.
I'd thought the bedroom, large as it was, was cluttered. The space beyond, which was almost as big, looked like it held fodder for a whole series of Cash in the Attic, and several episodes of Antiques Roadshow besides. Not to mention Hoarders. No wonder she'd wanted to call in an expert to find anything in there.
Didn't make me any happier about being the expert she'd called. "Well, it doesn't always work…." I tried.
She gave me a sharp look. "Cherry said you had an excellent success rate." Something told me Cherry'd be in for a right ear-bashing if I didn't at least give it a go.
Course, she'd be in for one from me whatever, but that was different. That was family, that was. "Fine. I'll just…. Um. You mind leaving the room?"
It was nothing to do with the vibes. I just didn't like her breathing down my neck all the time.
She gave me a different sort of look then, and her tongue darted out to wet her upper lip, which creeped me out a bit — I mean, I could imagine her doing that on purpose, thinking it was sexy or something, but it looked totally unconscious. Sort of like a python while it's considering whether it's really got room for a whole goat. "No, I think I'll stay."
Flippin' marvellous. "Uh, it's easier if I'm on my own. Might take a bit longer with you here." Well, she had said she had an appointment.
She smiled wide enough to show a bit of fang. "Then you'd probably better get started, hadn't you?"
Great. "Well, could you go over by the door, at least?" I did not want her literally looking over my shoulder the whole bloody time.
She sent me a cool stare, then glided over to where I'd asked her to, somehow managing to make the sway of her hips look sarcastic.
Or, you know, maybe I was just a bit on the oversensitive side right then.
Once she had her back against the wall, I gave myself a brief shake, then listened.
I mean, not with my ears. For the, you know. Vibes.
Then I blinked. Whoa. Little Poppet-darling was one seriously secretive young lady. The room was buzzing with bright vibes, all tangled up like a plate of spaghetti. Forking any one particular meatball out of that lot wasn't exactly going to be a picnic. There was a bitter taste to it all too, while we're on the food metaphors. Or similes, maybe. Whatever. Whether it was all directed at the evil stepmother, I wasn't sure, but there was definitely something —
Then the door swung open to hit the wall with a crash, I jumped halfway to the ceiling, and a loud female voice shouted in my shell-like, "What the hell are you doing in my room?"
Word Count: 88,000
Page Count: 330
Cover By: Christine Coffee
Series: The Plumber's Mate Mysteries
Release Date: 03/24/2018