Lock Nut (The Plumber's Mate Mysteries, #5)
Still waters run deadly.
Tom Paretski, plumber with a talent for finding hidden things, and his private investigator fiancé Phil Morrison have been hired to locate a runaway husband, Jonathan Parrot. The job seems simple enough—until their quarry turns up dead in a canal, and a photofit of Tom’s face is splashed all over the news, making him chief suspect.
The widow, petite ex–porn star Lilah Lovett, is convinced her husband was killed by his gay lover, but Tom and Phil aren’t so sure. Worried they may have precipitated Jonathan’s death, they’re determined to find the real killer. But with a web of incestuous ties linking the suspects, it’s hard to know who to trust. Especially when a second victim dies a gruesome death.
Meanwhile, with their wedding looming and them sharing a house now, Tom’s worried it may all be too much, too fast. The last thing he needs are the mixed messages Phil seems to be sending out. They’ll need to get back on the same track if they want to make it to their honeymoon together—and alive.
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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
dubious consent, suicide
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
It was one of those chilly winter evenings that make it a pleasure to be at home in the warm. Me and Phil had just polished off a very nice lasagne, if I do say so myself, and were vegging on the sofa, Phil's hand idly stroking my hair. The room was cosy, the lights were low, and even the cats were purring in harmony.
I flicked on the telly and caught the news. Politics, the National Health Service, the latest Tory MP/rentboy scandal…. I was about to switch it off again and suggest that me and Phil make our own entertainment, when something made me prick up my ears.
"A body has been found in a Hertfordshire canal. Police say they are treating the death as suspicious. The dead man, who was found near Pluck's End, has been named as Jonathan Parrot, aged twenty-eight, who lived locally but had been working in London's Camden Market. Police are anxious to trace a man seen pursuing Mr. Parrot through the market yesterday, described as white, in his late twenties, and of below-average height."
Phil and me both stared, appalled, at the telly, where an artist's impression of the suspect, sorry, person of interest appeared.
They'd made the chin a bit on the belligerent side, and the eyes were frankly menacing, but other than that, it wasn't a bad likeness of yours truly.
"Well, that's not good," I said weakly.
Then the phone began to ring.
It all started at the wedding. It wasn't a bad one, as weddings go. The weather, for a miracle, stayed fair, everyone was dressed up to the nines"even me, thanks to some not-so-gentle nudging from Phil; my sister, Cherry; and my best mate Gary that had started to feel a lot like an intervention by the time they were done"and the service went off without a hitch (other than the intended one, that was). Some thoughtless git left his mobile phone on and it rang loudly in the middle of the vows, but hey, I had a lot on my mind that day.
It wasn't just my only sister finally getting spliced at the tender age of forty. I was having a few dad issues as well, seeing as both of 'em"that's the one that brought me up, and the biological one"had turned up in St. Leonards for the occasion, and don't think that wasn't weird. I wasn't sure how Mum felt about having her husband and her ex-bit-on-the-side in the same room, but there had been a definite whiff of sherry on her breath when she'd kissed me hello.
Plus, of course, there was the whole there but for the grace of a few months whatsit, seeing as me and Phil had our own wedding coming up in July. So, yeah, little things like phones kind of got forgotten. I like to think it lightened the mood, anyhow, having the chorus to "Why Does it Always Rain on Me?" suddenly blare through the church (Phil had been trying to get me to change my work ringtone to Handel's Water Music, but I'd reckoned it'd make me look like a poser. Or sound like one, whatever). It certainly got a laugh when Cherry spun round mid-I do to give me a death glare that really didn't go with the whole white dress and veil, pure-as-the-driven-snow look. And a louder one when the littlest bridesmaid, who'd been entertaining herself by pulling petals off her posy, turned and put her finger to her lips with a loud Shush.
The bishop who was marrying them cracked up. He was a jolly, Friar Tuck sort anyway, was the Right Reverend Peter Elwy, Suffragan Bishop of Westchester. (No, I don't know what one of them is, either. Although I'm pretty sure it's got nothing to do with Victorian women chucking themselves under horses.) Not what I like to think of as your typical Church of England thoroughbred: tall, pale, skinny blokes, with rounded shoulders and a chin that's receded so far that when they're preaching in the pulpit, it's back in the choir stalls with its feet up.
This bishop was shaped more like a football with a ping-pong ball on top. He was a last-minute stand-in for the (now ex) Bishop of St. Leonards, last seen skipping merrily off to Rome and leaving Cherry torn between panic over her wedding and glee over the improved career prospects of her husband-to-be, currently a canon. I wasn't sure how Greg had managed to get the Righteously Revved Peter along to officiate at such short notice, but he'd stopped Cherry having kittens, and I wasn't one to look a gift bishop in the mouth.
Cherry had been adamant she was going down the cute flower-girl route for her attendants, probably as an excuse not to have to ask our mutual sister-in-law Agatha to be chief dragon"sorry, bridesmaid"which I could sympathise with. That'd led to a shortage of potential candidates for the bridal party, what with Greg having no brothers and sisters and me and my big brother Richard having both failed to pop out any sprogs so far. Or, you know, cause the popping out of sprogs from others of a more suitable anatomy. Cherry had simply raided the St. Leonards Sunday School for photogenic tots and decked them out in poofy dresses and dinky little capes with so much white fur trim they were in danger of catching the groom's eye for his next adventure in taxidermy. The second smallest bridesmaid spent most of her time stroking her cape like it was an overbred cat and she was a budding Bond villain.
Cherry was sporting a fair amount of fur herself, but I was assured it was all fake, not from actual dead animals, so the guests would hopefully only be chucking confetti and not tins of paint in protest. It was a good choice for her"softened the remaining sharp edges, although she'd mellowed considerably over the last couple of years. Not that I'd have said anything like that where she could hear me. I'm not daft. Or suicidal.
My mate Gary and his husband, Darren, cornered me and Phil after the service, while everyone was milling aimlessly outside the cathedral like a flock of sheep in posh hats, waiting to be rounded up by the photographer. Not that I'm calling the lady a dog, you understand, although come to think of it, she did have a bit of a bark.
Gary mock-swooned at the sight of me. "Tommy, darling, you look simply ravishing."
Phil coughed, although I had my suspicions it was more of a laugh. "Sure you don't mean ravished?"
I glared at my beloved. "Oi, you criticising?"
"Wouldn't dream of it," he said with a smirk, glancing around innocently. And promptly got his come-uppance when he caught the eye of the bishop, of all people. His right reverendness must have thought Phil was smiling at him and trundled over for a natter.
Gary patted my arm as the rest of us discreetly edged away. One sermon a day was plenty, ta very much. "Ignore the nasty man, Tommy dear. I said when I saw you"didn't I say, sweetie pie?"" Gary turned to simper briefly at Darren, then back to me ""who'd have ever guessed our little Tom-Tom would scrub up so nicely?"
"What am I, a secondhand satnav at a car boot sale?"
Darren cackled. "Nah, you're the hood ornament."
Which was rich, coming from someone a full fourteen inches shorter than me. More like twenty on this particular occasion, what with the over-the-top headgear Cherry had wheedled, threatened, and finally blackmailed me into wearing, along with the penguin suit, in my role as usher.
I'd tried to tell her I didn't have the first clue how to ush, but she'd shouted that down with a dismissive, "Don't be silly, nobody's expecting you to actually do anything."
Cheers, Sis. Way to make me feel like a valued member of the wedding party.
Gary and Darren were wearing the suits they'd worn for their own wedding last summer: matching dark-blue dinner jackets, but in place of the crimson neck gear Gary's bow tie was yellow and Darren's, blue. Phil was looking seriously edible in a light-grey suit I knew for a fact had cost more than Cherry's bridal gown. Apparently one of the cathedral ladies had diverted her talents from cross-stitching cassocks. Or do I mean hassocks? I always get those two mixed up, although I know one means kneelers and the other means wizarding robes for clergy. And one's a railway station near Brighton. Anyhow, the old dear had managed to run up a simple lace gown that looked surprisingly elegant on dear old Sis. Especially with the fur cape and the beaming smile she'd been wearing all day, unscheduled interruptions excepted, of course.
Almost brought a tear to my eye, seeing her so happy. And Gary, who'd developed quite a friendship with her, had been leaking like a push-fit joint with a forty-year-old washer. I glanced over at a loud trumpeting sound to see him blowing his nose into his silk handkerchief, and felt a brief pang of sympathy for his dry cleaners.
Darren gave his husband a steadying pat on the shoulder, although as they were both standing up, it was a stretch for him. Then he turned to me. "I got a mate wants to consult you. In a professional capacity."
"Yeah? No promises, mind, I'm a bit booked up right now." February, coming after the January doldrums but still cold enough for pipes to burst and boilers to give up the ghost, is not exactly a quiet time for plumbers. I'd already had too many days off lately what with fittings for the flippin' suit and Cherry roping me into general wedding prep. She seemed to think I ought to thank her for letting me have a trial run for planning my own wedding later in the year, but to be honest, the longer I spent faffing around with seating arrangements and colour schemes, the more I was tempted to just grab my fiancé and catch the first train to Gretna Green. "What's the job?"
"She's lost her husband."
"Uh, sorry to hear that." I waited, but Darren didn't say anything else. "Hang on, you mean actually lost, lost? That's the job? Finding her other half? Unless she lost him down the plug hole, shouldn't you be talking to Phil?" After all, he's the private investigator in the family.
"Nah, the git's done a runner. And she wants you. Getting yourself quite a reputation, aintcha? She heard about that show you done at the St. Leonards Harvest Fayre, turning up a real live dead body in among the corn dollies and the homemade jam. Gutted she missed it, Lilah was."
I wasn't. The less I was forced to recall about that experience, the better. Not to mention, I was finding Darren's image of a "live" corpse a bit on the unsettling side. And yeah, all right, finding hidden things is sort of my speciality. It's just something I've always been able to do, and trust me, it isn't as much fun as it sounds. But it's hardly what I'd call a profession. For a start, the pay's pretty lousy. For which read nonexistent. And what people never seem to get is that there's limits to what I can do.
"I can't find people at the drop of a hat." Come to that, I wasn't even sure I could find people, full stop. Things, yes"and dead bodies, definitely"but walking, talking, living people? Okay, I'd found a missing toddler once, alive and well and snuggled up in a den in St. Albans park. And Phil too, in the early days of our reacquaintance, considerably less well and not at all snuggly, having been knocked out, soaked, and shoved into the boot of a car. But adults in so-called hiding aren't, as a rule, actually hidden. Not like buried treasure. They don't stay in one little hidey-hole, waiting for the bloke with the psychic metal detector to come and dig them up. People simply change their name, dye their hair, and get on with their life somewhere far, far away.
It's different, all right?
There had been one time, back last summer when me and Phil were desperately searching a burning building for anyone about to get crispy fried, that I'd felt like I could sense living people just because they were there, and not because they'd been stashed somewhere like a squirrel's winter pantry. But it hadn't happened since, and I'd been starting to wonder if I'd . . . not imagined it all, maybe, but, I dunno, chalked things up to my so-called sixth sense it hadn't earned?
I mean, I'd tried and everything, in the couple of months afterwards. I hadn't gone so far as to try to re-create the original setting, mind"if you've risked death by barbecue once, there's a definite sense of been there, done that, really don't want to try it again, ta very much.
But anyhow, there was a bigger objection. "I need to be close. So the only way I could find him is if she can tell us where he is, and if she could do that, why would she need me to find him? Seriously, Phil's the bloke for your average missing-persons' job."
"So have him in on it with you," Darren said with a shrug. "You don't have to tell Lilah it's him what finds the bloke."
I gave him a look. "What, so apart from the whole lying-to-the-client thing, you don't just want me to muscle in on my fiancé's business, oh no. I'm also supposed to drag him along, introduce him as some kind of spare part, and then expect him to do all the actual work? Exactly how well do you think that's going to go down?"
Darren cackled. "He'll be fine. He's a big boy, your Phil is."
Couldn't argue with that one. I cast a fond glance over to where I'd last seen Phil, then spotted him ten feet further off, now having a natter with my mum and managing to look only mildly like he wished he was anywhere but there.
"You've got to talk to him about it," I said firmly. Phil was tighter with Darren than I was, so I was honestly surprised he'd come to me first.
"Way ahead of you, mate. Already have."
Oh. See what I mean? "And he's okay with it? And hang on, how did you know that was what I was going to say?"
"Tommy, darling," Gary said with a fond yet pitying glint in his eyes. "You're a man of many fine qualities, but caprice isn't one of them."
"Oi, are you saying I'm predictable? That's halfway to boring, that is." At least, I was fairly sure that was what he was saying, not having the opportunity right then to look up caprice in a dictionary. Well, ask the internet what it meant, or if the signal was dodgy, Phil. Same difference.
Gary gave me the puppy eyes and put a hand to his heart"the left hand, so his wedding ring would show up nicely, because with Gary, that was never going to get old. "Would I?"
"Anyhow," Darren put in heavily before I had a chance to make a comeback. "Are we gonna talk about my mate or what?"
"Fine, go ahead." I didn't roll my eyes because I was too busy glaring at Gary.
Darren puffed out his chest. "Okay, so I used to know her as Dinky Delilah, but these days she's going by Lilah Parrot."
"You used to know her as" So, uh, she's an ex-colleague?" I swallowed. Darren's a market trader these days, hawking fruit and veg in St. Albans every Wednesday and Saturday and who knows where the rest of the week, but in his younger days, he had an apparently flourishing career in the sphere of dwarf porn.
Any remarks as to what a small niche that had to be were likely to get the commenter a swift nut in the nadgers.
"Yeah, me and Lilah, we made some great films together." Darren gazed off into space with a fond smile.
"I never knew you did straight stuff," I said without thinking, then snuck a glance over at Gary. He didn't seem bothered, although I wasn't certain I'd have been so easygoing if Phil started getting all misty-eyed about his sex life with, say, the bloke he'd been married to before he met me, let alone any past acquaintances of the female persuasion.
Then again, for Darren, it really had been just sex, hadn't it? Not even that. Just work. I wondered if he'd had a bloke back then, and if said hypothetical bloke had minded what Darren got up to in the course of his nine-to-five. Gary, if anything, seemed proud of Darren's X-rated past, so maybe any significant others back then had been too? I tried to imagine being chuffed about Phil shagging other men for a living, and failed dismally.
"Course," Darren went on, and I forced my attention back to the here and now. "Lilah was strictly on the executive side by then. Never in front of the camera. Dunno why"she's still got it. Had plenty of offers, she has."
"Is she still in the business? What about the husband?" Maybe they'd got together on the job. In all senses of the phrase.
"She is. Has her own company now."
I had to wait to find out what line of business the husband was in, because at that moment I got collared by the photographer for wedding-party shots, meaning everyone in either a penguin suit or a floofy dress. These were swiftly followed by family shots. Followed by group shots. By the time the mini blonde dictator in the trouser suit finally let us finish saying ecclesiastical, because apparently cheese wasn't godly enough, my face had permanently seized up into a manic grin and my eyes were watering from forcing myself not to blink at the wrong moment.
I was trying to dab at them discreetly"wouldn't want people to think I was the soppy sort who cried at weddings"when Cherry grabbed me into a hug that nearly knocked my top hat off, looking none too dry-eyed herself. "Oh, Tom, isn't it all lovely?"
Well, at least she seemed to have forgiven me for my phone ringing. I patted her back awkwardly, public hugging not really being a Paretski-family thing. Course, she wasn't a Paretski any longer, was she? The lady currently sniffling into my wing collar was henceforth to be known as Mrs. Cherry Titmus.
It felt weird, thinking about her that way. I wasn't sure I liked it, but was still trying to get my head round why it made a difference what she called herself, when she pulled back and fixed me in the eye. "Now, promise me you'll look after Mum and Dad at the reception. And Mike, obviously." Mike Novak that was, being my actual dad and Mum's dirty little secret from thirty years ago. Cherry left a significant pause. "But not together."
They'd invited Mike along to ease him into family gatherings in advance of my wedding, which we'd be celebrating in a worryingly few months' time. Did I say worryingly? I meant excitingly. Course I did. But anyway, the point was, this was the first social gathering Mum, Dad, and Mike had all been together for since, well, ever. Far as I knew, Dad and Mike had never even met before. And I wasn't, to be honest, all that keen for them to meet now. I mean, how exactly do you introduce the bloke who raised you to the man his wife cheated on him with?
God knew how we were going to manage the photos at Phil's and my do. Or the seating plan for the reception.
Gretna Green was looking tastier by the minute.
Word Count: 89200
Page Count: 346
Cover By: Christine Coffee
Series: The Plumber's Mate Mysteries
Release Date: 05/12/2018