Relief Valve (The Plumber's Mate Mysteries, #2)
If you dig up the past, be prepared for some dirt to stick.
The relationship between Tom Paretski, a cheeky plumber with a gift for finding hidden things, and PI Phil Morrison may only be a few weeks old, but already it’s under attack. Tom’s friends and family are convinced the former bully isn’t good enough for him, and they’re not shy about saying so.
Then Tom’s prickly older sister, Cherry, is poisoned at her own engagement party. Tom’s left reeling and not knowing who to suspect. Could it be her new fiancé, Gregory, a cathedral canon with an unfortunate manner and a taste for taxidermy? Or someone from her old writers’ circle, which she left after a row? Or could the attack be connected to her work as a barrister? Meanwhile, Tom’s honorary auntie’s left him a gag gift from beyond the grave that could be more significant than anyone knows.
Phil’s fighting against the clock to solve the case before somebody ends up dead. And with the poisoner hiding a dark secret, Phil’s terrified Tom could have been the target all along.
Publisher's note: This is lightly edited reprint of a previously published novel.
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Themes: acceptance, angst, commitment, family, financial gap / class disparity, fitting in, grief, heritage, hurt / comfort, marriage, politics / power struggle, protection, religion, self-discovery / self-reflection, trust issues
All right, so Phil and me were having a bit of a barney. It happens, especially when your significant other has a habit of behaving like a pigheaded git. And yeah, so maybe we'd got a bit loud, considering this was a polite soiree at the Old Deanery in St. Leonards, not Saturday night at the local Wetherspoons pub. People were starting to stare at us as if they thought maybe we'd been laid on as entertainment for the evening.
Then their heads all snapped round away from us like the crowd at Wimbledon after Murray's returned a serve.
I twisted around to see what they were gawping at now — well, you would, wouldn't you? — and stared, helpless, as my big sister crumpled at the knees. The glass she'd been holding dropped from her hand and hit the carpet, bouncing and rolling. Must be quality crystal, not supermarket tat, I thought, as Cherry joined it on the floor. Daft what you think about, times like that. The noise in the room, which a moment ago had been all party-jolly, chattering voices and ear-wincing laughter, quietened down, then swelled again, shriller this time, like someone was mucking about with the volume control on the telly.
Cherry wasn't moving — well, she was, but it was the wrong sort of moving. Twitching and convulsing.
Not getting up.
I started towards her.
It had all started a week or two previous, when the phone rang. (And if you haven't got déjà vu at this point, where have you been?) It was the landline, not my mobile, which meant it wasn't work, or a mate, or . . . Come to think of it, why did I still have a landline?
"Aren't you going to answer that?" Phil asked, secure in the knowledge that with the ten-ton furry cushion that was Arthur snugly asleep on his lap, he was excused errands for the foreseeable future. "Put the kettle on while you're up."
Serve him right if he got pins and needles in his dick. "It'll only be some bloody telemarketer from a call centre in India. It'll stop ringing in a minute when one of the other six lines they're calling picks up."
We listened as the ringing carried on. Even Merlin paused in batting at something under the armchair and twitched a furry ear.
"Might be important."
"Fine, fine, I'm going." I heaved myself up from his side — I'd been comfortable there — and plodded over to the house phone, overdoing it a bit to make a point. "Yeah?"
"Tom? It's me. Cherry." Not a telemarketer, then. My sister. Right: family. That's why I still had a landline. I hoped they appreciated how they were costing me fourteen quid a month plus call charges. She sounded worried — at least, as far as I could tell from the unfamiliar voice on the phone.
To say my sister never calls would be — well, not an understatement, obviously, because that'd just be daft. I suppose the word I'm looking for is accurate. Until now, that was. I hadn't even been sure she had my number, but then it wasn't exactly a state secret. Mum had probably divulged it without any need for excessive fingernail-pulling or waterboarding.
"Cherry? What is it, love?" I cringed a bit at the endearment that had just slipped out. Put it down to consoling one too many housewives after a domestic disaster.
"Mrs. Morangie's died."
"Who?" I wasn't winding her up. I genuinely didn't have a clue.
"Don't be wilfully obtuse. Mrs. Morangie." She huffed. "Mrs. Next-door."
I managed to tamp down my irritation. But seriously, who uses the phrase wilfully obtuse on the phone to close family members? "Which one? You mean from Mum and Dad's, right? Not yours." I was fairly sure there were people living in the houses either side of Cherry's, and that they hadn't all moved out in horror when she'd moved in. Maybe she even cared if they lived or died. But I couldn't think of a single reason why she'd be calling up to let me know one of them had popped off to the Neighbourhood Watch meeting in the sky.
Her tsk crackled down the phone line in a burst of static. "Auntie Lol," she said as if it pained her.
"Ohhh. Oh. She died? How? I got a card from her at Christmas, same as usual," I added, feeling a bit lost. That'd only been a few weeks ago. I mean, yeah, people died, but Auntie Lol was well young, relatively speaking. Younger than my mum and dad, anyhow. Although, to be fair, so were most people. "And hang on a mo, since when has she been Mrs. Morangie?" I'd addressed the envelope to Ms. Fernside, same as always.
"Since she married Mr. Morangie, perhaps? I thought you knew she got married. It was while you were still living at home."
Actually, as I recalled, it'd been while I was mostly living in hospital having bits of metal screwed into my pelvis. It was a lot less fun than it sounded. "Yeah, but it's not like it lasted. Didn't they get divorced years ago? But what happened, anyway? You never said. To Auntie Lol, I mean. Was it an accident?"
"If you'd let me get a word in edgewise . . ." Cherry's voice trailed off. When she spoke again, it was softer. "Well, she killed herself."
"What?" I sat down hard on the sofa. From his position on Phil's lap, Arthur opened his eyes a crack and flicked his tail at me. No respect for the recently bereaved, our Arthur.
As Cherry spoke again, I felt a large, warm hand massage my shoulder. Going out on a limb and assuming Arthur hadn't suddenly acquired opposable thumbs and, more to the point, a heart, I deduced it was Phil's. "I don't know all the details, but apparently she had cancer. I suppose she didn't want to go through chemo or surgery or whatever. At any rate, she's supposed to have told her doctor she'd had trouble sleeping since the diagnosis, and then sat down one evening with a bottle of sherry and took all the pills he gave her at once."
"Charming. Well, anyway, I'm named as executor of her will, so there are some practical things we need to sort out."
She's not actually a heartless bitch, my sister. Well, not totally. She just didn't know Auntie Lol like I did. Which begged a bit of a question, now I came to think about it. "How come you're executor, anyway?"
"The law degree? It was all sorted out years ago. Anyway, we need to meet. Tomorrow morning? Around eleven? You can come to my office."
That'd be nice for me. I mentally ran over my schedule while Merlin physically ran over my feet and started clawing his way up my legs. "Can't. Got a washing machine at ten, and every time I go round to hers, she's always got another nineteen jobs that'll only take a minute, honest. I'll be lucky to get away much before twelve." I patted a sleek, furry head as Merlin nuzzled into my thigh. I appreciated the affection but not the line of cat snot he'd probably left in his wake.
"I suppose it'll have to be lunch, then. One o'clock, Carluccio's?"
"Or we could just meet up for a sarnie in the park."
"Okay, so maybe it's not peak picnic season, but fresh air is fresh air. And dodging those gangs of Canada geese that always try and mug you for your lunch will keep you on your toes. Can't be good for you, working in an office all day."
"Don't be daft. I'll see you at Carluccio's. Oh, and Tom? Don't say anything to Mum and Dad about this, will you?"
"Mum and Mrs. Morangie were quite close friends at one time. I, well, I haven't told her she's dead yet. So don't say anything. I don't want Mum upset."
I supposed it was good she was worried about someone's feelings. "Fine. Mum's the word, that all right?"
"Very funny." She hung up.
"So who's Auntie Lol?" Phil asked, his hand still on my shoulder. It was nice, but I felt a bit uncomfortable, to be honest. We hadn't exactly been together all that long — then again, how many dates do you have to go on before you get to the emotional-support part of the relationship?
Now I came to think about it, I wasn't really sure how many actual dates we'd been on anyway. Do sneaky house searches and near-death experiences count?
Probably, if you're going out with a private investigator.
"Well, we're not actually related. I just called her Auntie Lol."
"I take it that's short for something?"
"Laura." I gave an awkward little shrug with the shoulder he wasn't holding on to. "I used to have a problem with my r's when I was a kid."
"Don't worry. There's nothing wrong with your arse these days." His hand squeezed my shoulder, then slipped away. I expected it to slip all the way down to said arse, but it didn't. I wasn't sure if I was relieved or sorry.
"Har har. She used to live next door to my mum and dad back when I was at school. She babysat me sometimes, and I'd go round to play with her cats."
Phil smirked. "Lolcats?"
"I can't believe you actually said that." I smiled a bit, though, remembering. "She had a ginger one called Sooty, and a fluffy black one called Sweep. Dad's allergic, so we never had any pets." Which, obviously, was the most important part of the story.
"You seem a bit more upset about her than I'd expect, if she was just some old neighbour."
"You know it's dead sexy when you go all Sherlock on me? She used to look after me a lot when I was a kid. Mum was always keen to get me out of the house while Richard and Cherry were studying for exams or Dad had had a bad day at work. Auntie Lol always seemed really pleased to have me. She didn't have any kids; she lived on her own. She used to keep toffees in an old tea caddy and chocolate biscuits in a glass jar," I remembered. And she'd thought my knack of being able to find stuff was the best thing since sliced bread. "She was the first person I ever came out to. As gay, I mean, not the finding-stuff thing."
"Yeah? How'd she take it?"
"Well, put it this way. She moved up to Scotland a few years later to go and live with her girlfriend, so either she took it totally in her stride, or she was so permanently traumatised it turned her queer. Sod it. I wonder what's happened to the girlfriend? If she's still around, this must be well rough on her."
"Yeah." Phil had experience in the bereavement area. His husband — sorry, civil partner — died a few years ago.
"Auntie Lol topped herself," I told him, so he'd know it was even rougher than he thought. "She was dying of cancer already, though. She never said."
"Jesus." Phil let out a long breath, stared at the wall for a moment, then turned and pulled me close. Not expecting it, I got caught off-balance and narrowly missed elbowing Arthur in the eye. Arthur mrowed in a low, affronted tone, then stalked off Phil's lap for somewhere he wouldn't get hit by flying body parts.
"Oi, warn a bloke, would you?" The sofa creaked as I struggled into a more comfortable position. "Not that I don't appreciate it, mind," I added when Phil showed signs of relaxing his grip on me.
"You stayed in touch, then?" Phil's thumb rubbed my side soothingly.
"Well, cards and stuff. Letters at Christmas."
"What do you expect, then? Happy Birthday, I'm terminally ill, many happy returns?"
I stiffened. And not in a good way. "Oi, this is my surrogate auntie you're talking about. Have a bit of respect."
He sounded it too, so I relaxed back into the curve of his arm. "Nah, I don't know. Just . . . I'd have thought she'd have said something."
"Probably didn't want you worrying about her. It wasn't like you could've done much, all the way down here."
"I could have gone to see her."
"Sometimes it's better to remember people like they were in their best days. Not when they're halfway out the door." He gave me a sharp look. "I remember my grandparents, and the last years weren't pretty."
"S'pose that's what she was trying to avoid."
"Yeah. Better to go on your own terms, that's what I reckon. Was she getting on a bit?"
"No. That's the thing. She always seemed way younger than my mum. She had all this curly blonde hair — still rocking the eighties perm, I guess — and she used to take me down the park and play football with me and stuff. Mum never liked going down the park with me. Can't blame her, really."
"Too full of yobs from the council estate?"
I really wasn't feeling up to reliving the memory of my first dead body right now. "Something like that."
Phil sort of hmphed. "Yeah, I remember your mum. Council estate yobs really weren't her thing, were they? I suppose they still aren't."
I pulled away and stared at him for a moment. "Are you calling my mum stuck-up?"
"I'm saying she's got class, you wanker. God, you're touchy sometimes. Come here." He pulled me back against his side, his hand drifting down as if by accident to rest on my arse.
"Yeah, well. Runs in the family, doesn't it?" I said with a cheeky grin.
Phil rolled his eyes. "You, classy? Don't push it. So you're seeing your sister tomorrow? She's the barrister, right?"
"Yeah. Carluccio's." Was he angling for an invite? I thought I'd better come up with a way of distracting him just in case, so I swung my leg over Phil's recently vacated lap and started proving I could be a lot more fun than Arthur.
Classy? No. Creative? Yes.
Word Count: 91100
Page Count: 341
Cover By: Christine Coffee
Series: The Plumber's Mate Mysteries
Release Date: 02/03/2018