Stop Cock (The Plumber's Mate Mysteries, #6)

Stop Cock (The Plumber's Mate Mysteries, #6)

Author: JL Merrow

A match made in heaven—but the honeymoon from hell.

Plumber Tom Paretski and his newly wedded husband, PI Phil Morrison, plan to enjoy their honeymoon in Italy to the full. It should be the start of a wonderful future together. But when Wayne—Phil’s ex-best mate and Tom’s former bully—turns up unexpectedly at their hotel, issues from their schooldays threaten to derail the fun. Tom may no longer bear a grudge against Phil for past injuries, but Wayne’s another matter—or is he?

Wayne seems determined to make friends, but Tom’s struggling to forgive and forget. To add to his confusion, cryptic messages from home spark the question: Are he and Phil really as in tune as he thought? Tom’s not the first man Phil made a commitment to, and that marriage turned sour sooner rather than later.

It shouldn’t surprise them when death explodes onto the scene in shocking fashion, and their honeymoon turns into a murder investigation. When the group of locals Wayne had been meeting with turn their attention to Tom’s psychic abilities, he and Phil will need to pull together to figure out what’s going on—or risk this trip being the last they’ll ever take.

Part of the series: The Plumber's Mate Mysteries
Price: $4.99

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Explicit Violence

Prologue

It was what you might call a surprise honeymoon.

The first surprise was when I found out my then-fiancé Phil had booked it without consulting me. Which, yeah, initially I was a bit miffed about, but I was later convinced to view it as a romantic gesture. He can be pretty persuasive, my Phil. In the right circumstances.

The second surprise was turning up to find out a deeply loathed figure from mine and Phil’s mutual past had got there before us.

The third surprise was the dead body. Although to be honest, given the events of the last few years, running into a corpse on our honeymoon wasn’t that much of a shock.

It was late in the evening, and I was feeling pleasantly fuzzy from the drinks we’d had after dinner. Not so fuzzy, mind, that I wasn’t eager to get to bed with my lawfully wedded husband.

We were leaning on the balcony of our hotel room, watching fireworks over the Bay of Naples and looking forward to setting off some fireworks of our own, when the darkness was pierced by a scream. There was a weird Doppler effect as a blurred form plummeted past only inches from our noses, then the cry cut off with a dull thud.

Me and Phil leaned over the railing, staring in horror at the crumpled form lying on the road, far too many feet below us. Had some poor sod taken a tumble from the hotel roof?

Wait a minute. The light wasn’t great, but didn’t I recognise that figure, and those clothes? “Hang on, isn’t that . . .”

“Yeah. It is,” Phil agreed, his tone grim.

I gripped his hand. “Could still be alive—”

A lorry appeared from nowhere, its sides gaily painted with giant lemons, and thundered over the body.

I swallowed. “Okay. Probably not anymore.”

Chapter One

Naples was a little on the warm side. By which I mean, blisteringly, arse-roastingly hot. You could have used the pavement to fry your eggs on, not to mention any mad dogs and Englishmen who happened along. Like, for example, yours truly and his newly wedded husband. I couldn’t see a handy thermometer on any nearby buildings as we trundled our cases out of the airport, but forty Celsius probably wasn’t far off—that’s over a hundred in old money.

Rubbing the sweat off my brow, I turned back to Phil. He was looking annoyingly fresh, crisp, and tasty . . . Okay, so the annoyance might have turned into lust somewhere along the route. I sent him an appreciative smile that hopefully didn’t come off too soppy. “When they said see Naples and die, they meant from heatstroke, didn’t they?”

Phil huffed a laugh. “I thought you liked the sun?”

“I like it better when I’m not hauling heavy weights around.” My case was starting to veer off in the wrong direction, so I yanked it to heel.

“Call that a heavy weight? It’s half the size of mine.”

I gave him a look. “It’s not the size. It’s how good you are at packing. So to speak.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got no complaints in that department.” He sent me a friendly leer, then had to dodge sharpish as a little old lady zoomed past without warning, pulling along a case that was bigger than mine and Phil’s combined.

“Think she’s got a motor installed on that thing?” Phil muttered.

I grinned. “Either that, or she’s heard her hotel’s handing out welcome drinks and it’s first come, first served.”

The coach, when we finally clambered on board, was air-conditioned, which was a blessed relief. “Bagsy the window seat. If you nab it, all I’ll see is your big mug.”

Phil laughed. “Bagsy? What are you, five? And anyway, I thought you liked my mug. You married it, remember.”

I could feel a slushy smile forming on my own face, so I pushed past him before he could notice. And let me tell you, that wasn’t easy in the narrow aisle. My beloved husband is the sort of bloke who tends to fill all available space, mostly with his shoulders.

Occasionally with his pig-headedness.

I claimed my seat and settled down to goggle out of the window. The sky was that vivid blue you see in travel brochure photos and always assume they must have used a filter to get. Tiny wisps of cloud floated aimlessly here and there with nothing to do but provide a touch of contrast.

There was the usual hanging about while sundry holiday-makers slogged their way over to the coach, popped their heads in to check it was the right one, and milled around outside until the driver slung their luggage in the hold. The schools back home hadn’t broken up yet for the summer, so pretty much everyone on board was old enough to see an X-rated movie. I figured I could grab Phil’s hand without anyone getting their knickers in a twist about us corrupting innocent young minds.

He gave a surprised huff and squeezed back, those baby blues of his suspiciously moist. “Didn’t think PDAs were your thing.”

“Hey, we’re on honeymoon.” Plus, I didn’t reckon we were in any danger of icy stares and/or hostile comments from our fellow travellers. Most of them still had the glazed eyes and haunted expressions of the modern airline passenger. Not to mention, there were only half a dozen or so who could see us from where they were sitting.

A last couple hurried on board—a man and a woman in their midtwenties, good-looking in an expensively groomed way. They’d clearly been together for longer than us, if the constant sniping back and forth was any guide. After a brief but bitter squabble over who got the window seat, they sat down, and the coach gave a jolt and headed off.

We moved swiftly through the back streets of Naples, which were about as scenic as back streets usually are. My mind wandered until I realised I was humming that sixties song about the girl with the cleverly designed topless swimsuit and hurriedly cleared my throat. “Think that’s Vesuvius?” I gestured at a mountain out the back of the city. “Is it supposed to be there?”

“I don’t think it’s been going walkabout,” Phil said with the suspicion of a smirk.

I gave him an affectionate dig in the ribs. “Oi, no making fun of me. I never got on with geography in school.”

“You did all right as I remember.”

“Seriously? You remember how well I did at a subject I last took at age sixteen?” It wasn’t like I’d been top of the class or anything. I think.

“I always noticed you.”

I chanced a glance at Phil. He’d gone all sombre, which, fair dues, the subject of our mutual schooldays wasn’t a happy one for either of us. So I didn’t say, Busy thinking of ways you and your mates could duff me in after class, were you? Instead, I grabbed his hand again, squeezed it tight, and said lightly, “Well, that’s where you went wrong, innit? If you’d paid more attention to Mr. Whatshisface instead of mooning over me, you’d have got As across the board in your GCSEs.”

Then I rambled on about whether real Neapolitan pizza was going to live up to its reputation, and after a mo he relaxed enough to start dissing my culinary discernment, and we were back on safe ground.

Once we left the city behind us and headed south around the Bay of Naples, the scenery got better and better. There were no blocks of flats or even houses anymore; you’d have to call them villas, all gleaming white against the piercingly blue sky and garnished with exotic plants and flowers us Brits only get to see in reruns of Death in Paradise.

“Ah, this is the life.” I gestured out the window again. “You know you’re abroad when you see real live lemons growing on trees.”

Phil smirked.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing.”

I didn’t get it. Still, whatever it was, there was a fair chance I didn’t want it, so I shrugged and soldiered on. “And those trees—see over there? The ones that look like a pine tree got frisky with an umbrella. What are they called, anyway?”

“Umbrella pines.”

I sent my beloved a suspicious glare. “Are you yanking my chain?”

“Cross my heart.”

“What, and hope to die? You’d better not be planning on making me a widower on my honeymoon.” Whoops, that soppy grin was back.

Then again, even Phil was wearing an expression of manly sentiment. “And leave you on your own in a country full of the best-looking blokes in Europe?”

“Hey, short, dark, and handsome is your thing, not mine. Come to think of it, should I be worried? You’re the one who booked this holiday.”

“There’s only one dark, handsome man I want. And don’t you forget it.” Phil’s big, warm mitt came over to grasp my thigh.

I blinked a few times—must be the air-con—and stared out the window before it could all get too mushy. The Italian scenery rolled on by, effortlessly scenic. Big, exuberant bushes were everywhere, covered in blossoms of white, pink, or crimson. Phil probably knew what they were called and all, I thought with a hefty dose of the warm-and-fuzzies as I gazed at the colourful show. It was a world apart from Fleetville, St. Albans. “I can’t believe people voted for Brexit. Who’d want to move away from this?”

“You do realise Britain’s not actually going anywhere, don’t you? They aren’t widening the English Channel. This isn’t continental drift gone mad.”

“You reckon? I wouldn’t put it past the Tory government to hitch up a fleet of tugboats and tow Britain out towards Iceland. Ah, I dunno. We’re still not going to be part of Europe any longer.” I frowned. “Do you think the Italians mind? Like, do they think we think we’re too good for them, or something?”

Phil shrugged, which, with us squeezed into two narrow coach seats, was like experiencing a small and very localised earthquake. “I guess we’ll find out.”

“Huh. I knew I should have brought that T-shirt Gary was banging on about. You know, the one with the EU stars on that said, Don’t blame me, I voted Remain. Course, with my luck, it’d get me beaten up by a bunch of UKIP supporters here to trash the place on a stag weekend.”

“Nobody’s getting beaten up on our honeymoon,” Phil said with a hefty dollop of calm certainty and just a smidgen of tempting fate.

***

We were staying in Sorrento, which is the opposite side of the bay from Naples itself. It’s set on a peninsula that juts out towards the island of Capri, like one of those old Victorian signs with a pointy finger. Presumably this was a helpful navigational aid to those rich gay blokes who went over to the island to get away from it all early last century.

Not that I’d been buying up every guidebook in Waterstones since I’d found out where we were going or anything. Or googling every marginally related subject under the scorching Italian sun. (The first time, I’d typed gay men in capris into the search field by accident and brought up a bunch of images of blokes in calf-length trousers, together with dire warnings that anyone sporting this style was as good as labelling themselves queer. Not something I’d ever thought about before, what with short trousers or “manpris” not being the most flattering for those of less than excessive height. But I was definitely going to keep it in mind for the next time my notoriously unreliable gaydar went on the blink.)

Our hotel was way up on the cliffs, which are about the only kind of scenery Italy doesn’t do better than Britain. Not in Sorrento at any rate, although local opinions may vary, of course. Instead of gleaming white chalk, they were craggy grey rock with a few stubborn bushes sprouting out of them like the stubbly bits you end up with after a hasty shave with a worn-out razor. And blimey, that road was steep. You could feel the coach gasping and wheezing as it made its way uphill. I was clearly going to get fit on this holiday, walking up and down between the hotel and the town—if I didn’t melt first in the heat. I spared a sympathetic thought for fishermen of yore, trudging up from the harbour with the day’s catch—actually, come to think of it, it was probably the womenfolk who had done the trudging, while the lads had sailed gaily off for another bout of messing around on the water.

Or drowning when the ship went down in a storm, as might be. There’s downsides to every profession. I sneaked a glance at my beloved, whose profession as private investigator might be said to have more downsides than most, at least of the mortal-peril variety. Then I shook my head. As if anything like that was going to happen on our honeymoon.

Just goes to show you how much I know.

The hotel was bright and cheerful, with the sort of abstract decorative tiles and strong colours I tend to associate with Spain rather than Italy. I hadn’t thought the Moors got this far, bringing their art with them, but maybe there had been a few intrepid outliers. It was also blessedly, awesomely cool. The lobby we were set down at even had a trickling water feature to complete the picture of a desert oasis.

I was tempted to throw myself down on one of the comfy chairs and stay there for the duration. “Thank God this place is air-conditioned.”

Phil laughed. “Think I’d have booked a place that wasn’t? I know what you’re like in the heat.”

“What, hot?”

“If by ‘hot’ you mean like a bear with a sore head and a fur coat three sizes too small.”

“Am not. I’m fine with hot weather, as long as nobody makes me do stuff in it. Anyway, who doesn’t get a bit tetchy when the mercury rises?”

I didn’t try to wipe the resulting smirk off Phil’s face. You have to work at these things if you want your marriage to last.

We took the lift up to the main reception, which was on the top floor. Maybe the architect had got the plans upside down when the place was built. They welcomed us in with a spot of the old antipasto, served in the adjacent bar. It went down a treat after the airline “food.” Mine host—should that be ourn host?—was a portly sort, which boded well for the food here in general. This meal certainly didn’t disappoint. The artichokes were delicately flavoured and tender, and the tomatoes a burst of rich sunshine on a plate.

After we’d eaten, we decided to have an early night. Well, that’s what honeymoons are for, isn’t it? And let me tell you, there were fireworks.

Literally. We were just dropping off into the sleep of the terminally shagged-out when a series of loud bangs coming from outside (as opposed to the quieter bangs that’d been, heh, coming inside) alerted us to a massive fireworks display taking place over the bay. So after pulling on some trousers so as not to offend anyone, we stood out on our balcony and watched the show.

As I said to Phil, it was good of them to lay on all this to celebrate our wedding. It would’ve been rude not to watch.

So far, so idyllic. I even slept well that night.

Should have known it was the calm before the storm.

Chapter Two

What with one thing and another—this being our honeymoon I’m sure I don’t need to spell out to you what said “things” might be—we were a little late getting down to breakfast the next morning. Or rather, up, seeing as the dining room, most of it open-air, was on the top floor, along from reception. This upside-down architecture was taking a bit of getting used to.

The terrace was jam-packed with our fellow tourists stuffing their faces to build up their strength for a hard day’s lounging in the sun, and we stood at the entrance for a mo, scanning for a free table.

“Over here!”

I dragged my gaze away from Mr. & Mrs. Snipe from the transfer coach, who were now cooing and canoodling over their coffee as if they were the newlyweds. The shout had come from one of the choicer tables, off to our right—nicely in the shade but still with an unimpeded view of the bay. A man was waving at us. He’d stood up, all the better to attract the attention of us and every other bugger in the restaurant, and was carrying on the semaphore while accessorising it with a smarmy grin, God knew why. I didn’t know him from Adam—or did I? There was a faint whiff of familiarity, but maybe he just reminded me of someone I’d met once. He was about Phil’s height, but that was where the resemblance ended. Thin, slightly rounded shoulders; a pointy nose; and a weak chin were nicely set off by a receding hairline. Where looks were concerned, the woman seated across from him was definitely his better half, with golden tanned skin, long dark hair scraped up into a doughnut-shaped bun on the top of her head, and doll-like features. She was also about ten years younger than he was. Not that I was judging.

I glanced at Phil, hoping to see equal reluctance to share a table on the first day of our honeymoon with some weird random bloke—and then did a double take. His eyes were narrowed, and his jaw set. Either he was really hangry all of a sudden, or that ferrety face wasn’t as unfamiliar to him as it was to me.

Without a word to yours truly, Phil strode over to apparently not-so-random bloke’s table, me scuttling suspiciously in his wake. “Wayne. Fancy seeing you here.” His tone made it clear that no, he hadn’t fancied it, which was probably the only thing that saved him from a swift exit via the balcony, and me from self-inflicted widowerhood on my honeymoon.

Because, with the force of an unforeseen hailstorm on an outdoor wedding, it crashed on me who our overfriendly chum was.

Bloody hell.

Wayne Hills: that was his name. We’d been at school together, him and Phil and me. They’d been friends—best friends, even, having bonded over a mutual love of making life as miserable as possible for one Thomas Paretski, Esquire. Because them and me? We hadn’t been friends. Not in the slightest. And while these days I’d made my peace with Phil’s and my uneasy past and accepted that he’d been going through his own problems back then, I wasn’t feeling much like extending the hand of forgiveness to one of his former cronies.

“Phil, you’re looking good,” Wayne smarmed.

Phil folded his arms with a heartwarming air of menace. At least he was making it crystal clear whose side he’d be on if it kicked off between me and his old mate. It couldn’t have been easy. As far as I was aware, Phil and Wayne hadn’t seen each other since school. Bloody hell, did Wayne even know Phil was gay?

Heh. Maybe remaking his acquaintance was going to be fun after all. For the few minutes it’d take for him to tell us to sod off before we spread our gayness over his table.

Then I felt bad, because it probably wasn’t going to be much fun for Phil. He must have liked the git at some point, mustn’t he? Despite the fact Wayne had been a total arse.

Said git’s smirk didn’t falter. “And, Tom, it’s good to see you too. You haven’t changed a bit.”

He’d never called me Tom in his life. Parrotski or Poofski was more his style. I narrowed my eyes. “You sure about that? Because as far as I remember, the last time you saw me I was lying under a Chelsea tractor with a broken pelvis and a nasty case of road rash.” Which, lest we forget, had only happened because Wayne and his mates had chased me down the street with malice aforethought.

And yeah, Phil had been one of them. Like I said, it was water under the bridge, all right? As far as my newly wedded husband was concerned, at any rate.

Wayne didn’t miss a beat, the slime. “And it’s great to see how well you’ve recovered. This is Siri, by the way. Siri, this is Tom Paretski, the old schoolmate I was telling you about.”

What the hell would he have had to say about me to his girlfriend? I assumed he wasn’t introducing me to his iPhone. “Been sharing some cosy little tales about you beating the sh—stuffing out of me?”

He laughed.

I bristled.

Beside me, I swear Phil growled.

Siri giggled. She didn’t look like a Siri, which I’d always vaguely thought was an Indian name. She looked like a Chantelle, or a Kourtney, with her plumped-up lips, TK Maxx designer clothes, and a lot heavier makeup than most of the women around here seemed to think worth bothering with at this time in the morning. “Nah, he wouldn’t do that, would you, Wayney? He told me about you being psychic and all. I was dead impressed.” She smiled prettily, showing perfect white teeth with a smear of lipstick, and held out a nicely manicured hand.

Not being a shit, I took it and said, “Good to meet you,” although it came out a bit strangled what with the clenched teeth. What the hell did Wayne think he knew about my so-called gift?

“You too.” Siri had a cool but limp grip and a little-girl voice I was ninety percent sure she was putting on for Wayne’s benefit. It probably made him feel all big and manly. “You’re taller than I thought you’d be.”

I smiled back at her. This wasn’t her fault, and she was likely a lovely person apart from her bleeding tragic taste in men. “Cheers, love.”

“Wayne said you was really short,” she went on.

I dropped her hand and the smile.

Siri might not have noticed, as she’d turned to my beloved with another giggle. “He told me you were tall. He never said you were so fit, though.”

Phil coughed, his cheek a masculine shade of pink. “Wayne? You still haven’t explained why you’re here.” His tone was pointed.

If Wayne felt the jab, he didn’t show it. “For a holiday, of course. Spur-of-the-moment decision, wasn’t it, Siri?”

Siri looked blank for a moment, as if she needed to reboot, and then nodded so hard I thought the doughnut on the top of her head was going to fall off into her plate of melon slices. “Oh, yeah. Wayne’s so impulsive. I love it.” She laughed.

I wasn’t sure what was supposed to be funny.

“A spur-of-the-moment decision,” Phil ground out. “To come and stay at the same hotel Tom and I are honeymooning in.”

“Ooh, are you two on honeymoon?” Siri’s eyes opened wide. What with the false eyelashes, they were as big and blue as the Bay of Naples. “Oh my God, that’s so sweet! Congratulations!”

Phil nodded, tight-lipped.

“Uh, cheers,” I said, seeing as someone had to. “You and, uh, Wayne been together long?” And bloody hell, it went against the grain, calling him Wayne like we were mates or something.

“Oh, ages, haven’t we, Wayne? Nearly a year now. We met when I done his nails one time.”

A manicure? Wasn’t that a bit, well, gay for a dyed-in-the-wool bigot like Wayne Hills? I gave him a sharp look. He didn’t flinch. Perhaps it was me not being metrosexual enough. If that was still a thing.

“Why don’t you join us?” Wayne suggested, pulling out a chair.

Because I’d rather jump in the local volcano? “Uh, cheers, but we wouldn’t want to hold you up. I think there’s a table free . . .” I scanned furiously through the sea of humanity.

Phil took direct action and grabbed a waiter who’d just off-loaded a tray of coffee nearby. “Table for two?”

“Of course. This way sirs.” Our saviour was a tall, young lad, but neither dark nor particularly handsome. If he’d applied for a job at a strip club, they’d probably have taken him on as a pole.

With a hearty See you later to Wayne and Siri, followed by a silent but not if we see you first, we let the waiter lead us on a winding trail to a table that was half in, half out of the shade. Phil, being a gentleman, let me have the side with the shade.

After Tall, Blond, and Skinny had seated us, explained to us how to eat breakfast in case we’d never stayed at a hotel before, and taken our order for coffee, I leaned in to Phil. “Blimey, what are the odds you and Wayne bloody Hills would randomly choose the same hotel, in the same town in Italy, on the same flippin’ week?”

Phil very noticeably didn’t meet my eyes, which promptly narrowed.

“What?” I demanded.

He huffed. “Might not have been as random as all that.” Then he clammed up.

“Oi. Save the secrets for after the honeymoon.” I had a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, and it wasn’t just me needing my breakfast.

This time, he fixed me directly in the eye. “Don’t get mad, all right?”

“Am I likely to?” Bit of a redundant question, seeing as my hackles had already risen at his last remark.

“Remember way back, before we were living together, there was this high school reunion? And you said you’d rather give yourself a ground-glass enema than meet up with that load of gits?”

I nodded slowly. “And?” I said, because I was buggered if I was going to make this easy for him.

“And I went.”

“You kept that quiet.”

“Didn’t want to make a big thing of it.”

“You didn’t make anything of it.”

“Because I knew you’d get your knickers in a twist.”

“Get my— For Christ’s sake, what am I supposed to think about you toddling off for an evening of nostalgia about the good old days when you and your homophobic mates made my life a misery?” Damn. I was making angry gestures with a butter knife. I put it down quick before I could take someone’s eye out.

“Oh, for— Part of the reason I went was so I could set the record straight. Let everyone know I regretted what I’d done. Tell them the truth about myself.” Phil folded his arms.

The waiter took his chance to set our coffee down and scuttle off with a nervous air. I glanced around. Several people became intently interested in the contents of their plates.

I leaned across the table and gave my beloved a searching look but kept my voice down this time. “So you’re telling me you went to this reunion bash and told everyone that big, bad Phil Morrison is as gay as Tinkerbell and always has been?”

“Tinkerbell’s a girl fairy. In love with Peter Pan.”

“Stop changing the subject.”

“I didn’t exactly stand up and make a speech about it. I did tell everyone I spoke to that you and me were getting married.”

That was . . . big. He went along so he could out himself? That had to have taken balls. Given my social standing back when we’d been at school together, it wasn’t like I could accuse him of bragging about having bagged me. “Didn’t see any of them throwing confetti on our big day.”

“Didn’t think you’d want to, so I told them space was limited.”

He’d been right there. But I couldn’t help feeling curious, despite the lingering sense of betrayal. “How’d they take it, then? You being gay, I mean. Not the wedding brush-off.”

“Turned out most of them knew already.” He paused. “Several people told me they were sorry you hadn’t come along.”

“Oh, I bet they were totally sincere in that.” I snorted. “Like I’ve become Mr. Popular all of a sudden.”

Phil huffed and glanced away. “They can read the papers like anyone else. Wanted to reconnect with the man with the mojo.”

Oh. You stumble over a few corpses, save someone from a burning building, and suddenly everyone wants to be your mate. Maybe if I’d have thought of that while I was in school, I wouldn’t have had such a crap time. Or was it more of a freak show fascination? Let’s all go and gawk at the bloke with the weird thing.

Phil poured out the coffee. “Graham Carter was there too,” he said after a mo.

Graham Carter, another old school chum of ours—chummier with me than with Phil at the time, although we were anything but close these days—lived in Brock’s Hollow, which was only down the road from St. Albans. I hadn’t so much as bumped into him in the last year or two. Not since Phil and me had saved him from a murder charge when his girlfriend got clobbered. I had a strong feeling it was to our mutual satisfaction. Not much of an ally to the LGBT community, our Graham. He’d been honestly dismayed to learn my old school nickname of “Poofski” hadn’t been baseless slander.

“How’s he doing now?” I asked out of . . . I dunno. Guilt? Regret? Nostalgia for what might have been? But also a heartfelt desire to stop thinking about my unwanted notoriety.

“He’s still off the drugs, or so he says.” Phil passed me the milk with a wary air, and I remembered he still had some explaining to do.

“Oi. You changed the subject. What’s not so random?”

Phil’s expression was so shifty it was in danger of hopping off the hotel balcony and plummeting to a messy death on the road below. “We got talking about the honeymoon, me and Wayne.”

I blinked. “You mean you’d already booked it way back then?”

“No, but I was thinking about it. And when I told him you wanted to see Pompeii, he started going on about Sorrento, how it was a great base for exploring.” Phil paused, as if steeling himself. “And he mentioned this hotel. Said he’d stayed here before and the food was great. I thought, ‘That’s one less thing to worry about.’ You know how fussy you are about what you put in your mouth.”

The smile he ended on was oceans away from his usual smirk, and yeah, I could tell he was feeling bad—but for Christ’s sake. I put my coffee cup down very, very gently. “This is my bloody honeymoon, and you’re telling me it was all planned by Wayne sodding Hills?”

Chapter Three

I tried to keep my voice low, honest, but I swear the ears of the family on the next table all swivelled in our direction.

“He gave me a hotel recommendation. That was all.”

“Uh-huh. Did he give you a list of dates he’d be free for the honeymoon too?”

Phil rolled his eyes. “You honestly think I had the faintest idea he’d be here?”

“I don’t know, do I? You’re the one who’s matey with him. You always were.” Yeah, okay. I knew it was a low blow even as I said it.

Phil sighed. “Tom . . . I’m sorry.”

He looked so genuinely miserable it took the wind out of my sails. “It’s all right,” I ground out. “He’s just not a bloke I wanted to bump into unexpectedly.”

“Believe me, if I’d had any idea Wayne Hills was going to turn up here . . .” He growled. The earwigging family next door flinched. Then he took a deep breath. “It’s okay. We can change hotels. Resorts, if you want.”

What? “No way. This is our honeymoon. Why should we be the ones to move?”

“Good luck getting Wayne to vacate the premises. He always was a stubborn sod.”

“Yeah, remind me again why you and him were ever friends?” Guiltily, because somehow Phil suggesting a solution made me feel like I was making a fuss about nothing, I hurtled on, “It’s okay. We’re all grown-ups, here. Water under the bridge. Lava over the ancient Roman villas. Whatever.”

If I could forgive Phil for his part in making my schooldays the worst time of my life, to the extent of actually marrying the bloke, surely I could be civil to his one-time partner in crime for a fortnight? I took a gulp of coffee, feeling in need of fortifying.

Phil was still frowning. “I wanted this to be perfect for you.”

Now I felt like a bastard. “It is. You, me, sunshine, and sea. Hey, this place is even bringing out the poet in me.”

It was obvious Phil still felt he was on shaky ground, as he didn’t make the practically obligatory quip about shoving my inner poet back in the one place around here where the sun wasn’t shining. “You’re sure?” he asked gruffly. “I’m serious. If you want to move, we will.”

“Nah, this place is great. And if what we had last night is any guide, Wayne was right about the food here.” The coffee was all right too, I realised, tasting it for the first time since I’d started the cup. “Maybe he’s not all bad.”

Phil’s eyes narrowed. “Your jaw twitched when you said that.”

“No, it didn’t. It moved. Because I was talking. And you’ll get a headache if you keep squinting. Now, are we going to go raid the buffet, or just live on coffee and sunshine? Because some of us worked up an appetite last night. Not to mention this morning.” I sent him an affectionate leer.

Phil’s face relaxed at last. “Enough of that. Or I won’t be able to get up to go to the buffet.”

It was probably coincidence that the Earwig family (mum, dad, and a couple of preteen Earwigs who ought to have been in school) decided it was time to leave that minute. For a mo I worried we’d been too gay in public—then I thought, Sod it.

This was our bloody honeymoon.

***

Breakfast successfully consumed and Wayne Hills equally successfully avoided—I’m sure he kept looking our way, but Phil had his back to the bloke and I made a point of not meeting his eye—we returned to our room. Not for what you’re thinking, because even on honeymoon there are limits. We just needed to get ready to head out.

We’d decided to take the first day easy and have a wander around Sorrento, rather than going further afield—me, because I’m firmly of the belief that holidays are not for wearing yourself out on, and Phil, because he seemed to think we should save Pompeii itself for later in the trip. Actually, I pretty much agreed on that point. It was funny—me saying we should go and see Pompeii had been a throwaway remark at the time, but once I’d found out we were really going to do it, I’d been getting into the idea big-time.

I’d even brought along the T-shirt Gary had got me, the one that said, “The floor is lava” —everyone, Pompeii 79AD. I wasn’t sure I was going to wear it, mind. I didn’t want to offend anyone.

Was two thousand years after the disaster still too soon?

I’d searched out a couple of programmes about the place on iPlayer, so was fully equipped to identify cart ruts and store frontages. Although I’d have to confess I’d paid closer attention to the section on Pompeii’s unfeasibly large amount of penis art, which had been narrated with disturbing relish by a grey-haired, motherly historian. That’s art depicting penises (some of them also unfeasibly large), not eye-wateringly intimate tattoos. It made me feel a weird connection to those ancient Romans, somehow. People haven’t changed much over the millennia, have they? Most schoolboys’ first urge when they see a nice blank surface just gagging for a bit of graffiti is still to draw a cock and balls on it.

Not that I’m, you know, speaking from experience here.

The walk down to Sorrento proper from our hotel was great—beautiful views over the sun-speckled waters of the bay, with a gentle breeze wafting away the fumes of the road. It was pleasantly hot this time of the morning and there was nary a cloud in the sky. Everything shone brightly, all the colours so much more intense than you see at home. Well, than I see at home, at any rate. Your mileage may vary. Trees were greener and flowers pinker. Even the people we passed were gaudier than usual, all decked out in their holiday gear. Tourist stalls and little shops were selling bags, caps and T-shirts, souvenirs of places we hadn’t got to yet, like the islands of Capri and the other one I could never work out how to pronounce.

“Do you say that Ishia, or Iskia? Or even Isheeya?” I asked my beloved as we ambled past a display of navy-and-white–striped bags embroidered with the name Ischia.

He smirked. “I don’t. I let you do all the getting-words-wrong stuff. Nobody minds when it’s you. It’s all part of the Paretski charm.”

“Cheers, mate. So helpful.” I gave him the side-eye. “Of course, if I had an iPhone, I could ask Siri.”

Phil’s smirk died a swift, unhappy death at this unsubtle reference to our breakfast companions, and I felt like a bastard.

“Hey, I wasn’t having a dig. Not much, anyhow. We’ve gotta laugh, haven’t we?”

He huffed, which was good as.

“So what d’you reckon is their deal? All right, I know I’m biased in Wayne’s disfavour, but going on looks alone she’s an eight at least and he’s a two at best. And don’t get me started on personality.”

Phil laughed properly then. “He’s not that bad looking. A five at worst.”

I could feel my forehead furrowing. I’d have to watch that in this weather or I’d get a corrugated tan line. “You honestly think so? I mean, would you sleep with him?” We dodged around a slow-moving old couple. A hideous thought struck me right in the solar plexus, and I stumbled and almost fell in front of a Vespa. Phil grabbed my arm, eyes wide. “I’m fine. But, uh, you didn’t, did you?”

He stopped dead in his tracks, which when you’re built like him is a lot of inertia. The old couple pulled up behind us, tutting. Phil’s expression was equal parts gobsmacked and nauseated. “Christ, what do you think?”

“I’d hope not, but what do I know? You and me weren’t exactly best mates back then. Maybe it was all some big double bluff.” I shivered despite the heat, and grabbed his arm to encourage him to get moving again. There was a pointed Grazie from behind as we resumed our pace.

I didn’t pay a lot of attention to where we were going. It was bad enough he’d bullied me because he’d struggled to come to terms with being gay back when we were all at school together. It’d have been a bloody sight worse if he’d done it as a cynical bid to divert attention from him and his boyfriend.

Ugh. Imagining Wayne Hills as Phil’s boyfriend left me with a nasty taste in my mouth.

“It wasn’t, and we didn’t, okay?” Phil choked out at last. “Wayne’s straight. And he’s really not my type.”

Thank God. “Coffee?” I suggested as a peace offering, seeing as we were coming up to a pavement café.

Phil shook himself. “In a bit. Come on. We should keep moving.”

Why? In case Wayne Hills had followed us? I didn’t say it. And to be honest, it was probably just a sound instinct that facing each other across a coffee table right now would lead to silences of the awkward variety.

True enough, after we’d had a wander and worked up a sweat under the relentlessly blue skies, tensions seemed to have eased for both of us. I managed to talk Phil into sampling a couple of café freddos in a local establishment. They were ice-cold and refreshing, but I was gutted to discover they didn’t, in fact, come with a chocolate frog. I was even more gutted five minutes later when guess who marched into the place?

Bloody hell. Had he followed us? I grabbed a menu to hide behind. “Trouble’s here,” I stage-whispered.

Chapter Four

My beloved, of course, made no attempt at concealment as he turned to gaze at our honeymoon nemesis, Wayne “Mr. Unwelcome” Hills. He made a noncommittal grunt and returned to his cold coffee, but I noticed the direction of his eyes hadn’t wavered.

“Do you think he’s seen us?” I hissed.

“No.”

There was something in Phil’s tone that caught my attention. “What’s up?”

“Looks like he’s here for a meeting.”

I tried to peer over the menu without making it flippin’ obvious. “Huh. I didn’t realise he was with them.” Wayne had walked in, sans Siri, on the heels of a trio of Italian men—at least, I assumed they were Italian, seeing as we were in Italy and they were in business suits. No ties, but in this heat that was a matter of self-preservation. Heavy gold chains showed at the open necks of their shirts, and they had the sort of tan an Englishman can only dream of, or alternatively purchase at high expense. Two of them now sat at a table in an open-legged, macho sprawl Wayne had aped with little success—he came off more like a sullen teenager—while the third flirted with the waitress.

From the frowns around the table, a serious subject was under discussion. Business, maybe? Come to think of it, what did Wayne do for a living? Was this a working holiday?

If so, had he bothered to mention that to Siri?

“What do you think that’s all about?” I asked in a low voice.

“Not sure. Something about them, though . . .” Phil frowned, as though checking Wayne’s companions against a mental rogues’ gallery of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells.

“I thought you liked dark, handsome European men,” I teased.

Phil huffed a laugh and turned back to me. “Just the one. Finished your coffee?”

I downed the last mouthful. “Have now. Are we sneaking out before Wayne and his mates can spot us? Or do you want to keep an eye on them until you can work out what that something is?”

He shook his head and placed a couple of Euro notes under his saucer. “It’s nothing. And we’re on holiday. Let’s go. We can head to the station and check out the trains.”

We went.

I wasn’t sure if the Circumvesuviana (that’s “round the volcano” to you and me) train line had been planned with tourists in mind, or if it was simply a happy accident that it connected up most of the places your average visitor would be likely to want to go to. It runs from Naples to Sorrento, taking in Pompeii and Herculaneum, or Pompeii-on-sea as I like to think of it. The good news was that it made getting to the sights logistically painless. The bad news was that we’d probably end up bumping into Wayne at the station all the time.

I tried to push that thought out of my head as we wandered on, and gradually relaxed as the old stones and the bright sunshine worked their magic. I’d been worried that Phil, who’s all for holidays being so active that it’s a relief to get back to your desk—not that I have a desk—would have our itinerary planned down to the minute. But he seemed happy enough to go with the flow for today at any rate. Heh, maybe we were actually suited to one another. Who knew?

We ambled around a few tourist shops to check out the tat we’d be lugging home to our nearest and dearest at the end of the fortnight. Lemons seemed to be a common motif: lemon soaps, lemon candles, lemon liqueurs and a whole wedding gift list’s worth of lemon pottery. Proof that I wasn’t the only one intrigued by the Penises of Pompeii—should that be the Penii of Pompeii?—was found in the form of souvenir calendars with a different piece of, ahem, artwork for each month. “Now we know what to get for Gary and Darren,” I mused.

In fact, my big sister, Cherry, would appreciate one too, but seeing as she was now married to a man of the cloth, it probably wasn’t the sort of thing she could hang up in the downstairs loo these days. It was a shame the master bedroom at her new abode, the Old Deanery, didn’t have an en suite, but when the place had been built having an inside loo at all must have been regarded as dangerously avant-garde and probably immoral to boot.

You could catch boats to loads of places from the harbour at Sorrento, including Unpronounceable Island, but first you had to walk down a steep road with hairpin bends—something of a feature in this part of the world—in single file to leave room for more wheezing buses. And not a few wheezing tourists struggling up the other way.

“If your hip’s bothering you, we can get the bus back,” Phil said out of the blue after the first few bends.

“My hip’s fine,” I only half lied. The old injury didn’t usually act up unless it was cold, so I was putting the odd twinge I’d been getting down to seeing Wayne bloody Hills. I wasn’t about to start taking buses for something that was all in the mind. It’d only encourage it.

I made a point of not limping as Phil eyed me suspiciously. Then he smiled, shook his head, and went back to looking where he was going, so I could relax and walk normally.

Not long afterwards, we were rewarded for our efforts with the sight of blue sea, blinding white boats, and a thing of true beauty: a stall selling iced lemon drinks. The dark, pretty lady behind it gave me a smile and greeted me with a torrent of Italian, which left me pleased that I wasn’t too obviously British.

“Sorry, love. English? Uh, two, per favore?” Always learn your pleases and thank-yous in the local language when you go abroad. You can get a long way with those. I held up two fingers to get the rest of the message across. Not that I needed to, it turned out—her English was probably better than mine. We had a natter about the weather and the footie and stuff, and then I took the drinks back to Phil.

He smirked. “No breaking hearts on our honeymoon.”

“Who, me?” I took a sip of the iced lemon and groaned. “God, this stuff is gorgeous. Really hits the spot on a hot day.”

Phil had stalled with his cup halfway to his lips, looking a bit more hot and bothered than he had a minute ago. Covering a smirk, I took another sip and groaned again, on purpose this time.

I got an eye roll for my trouble. “Enough of the bad porno soundtrack. Or do I need to throw my drink in your lap?”

“Not that I’m not tempted, but I can think of better ways to get all sticky.” I leered to make sure he got the point, innuendo very definitely intended.

He laughed. “Cool down, Casanova. Plenty of time for that.”

We strolled around the harbour, taking snaps on our phones of the various boat timetables posted up next to ticket offices. While I had my phone out, I tried to check my notifications, but the signal was struggling to reach half a bar. Still, that was probably just as well. I was on honeymoon, for God’s sake. The emails and social media could wait.

I shoved my phone back into my pocket. “We’re going to Capri, right? And the Iss-place, if only to find out how to pronounce it.”

“Anywhere you want.”

“Hey, it’s your honeymoon too.”

“And I want to spend it making you happy.”

Bloody hell, the sun was fierce, glinting off the waves like that. The glare was making my eyes water.

Shut up.

***

The walk back up the hill to the hotel was a sweaty slog. We had our backs to the views and the breeze seemed to have buggered off all of a sudden. Stepping inside our air-conditioned hotel at the end of the trek was an almost religious experience.

“God, that’s better.” I lingered by the water feature in the lobby, fighting the urge to dunk my hands in. Or the rest of me, come to that. “Look, I’m gonna suggest something, and you can say no if you want, and it’s no big deal.”

Phil raised both eyebrows, then cast an unsubtle glance around. “Sure you want to talk about spicing things up in the bedroom where anyone could walk in?”

“Spicing— Oi, get your mind out of the gutter, Morrison.” I glared at him, and he laughed, the bastard. I folded my arms. “I was talking about, uh, maybe going for a swim?”

“Sounds good to me. If you’re up for it.” He frowned, like he reckoned it should have been obvious.

Had he got what I was getting at? “Yeah, but . . . in the pool? The one on the roof here, I mean.”

He cocked his head. “You’re the one who’s got the problem with pools, not me. ‘Too much dead water,’ you always said.”

“Yeah.” I grimaced. “Probably time I got over it, right? But you’re sure you’re okay with it?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Uh, a little matter of being almost killed in one a while ago?” He’d been shoved into one and bopped on the head by a murderer, before being tied up and bundled into the boot of a car to await disposal. And it hadn’t been in high-thirties temperatures, either. Not unless you were talking Fahrenheit.

“That was ages ago. I’ve been swimming since then.”

“You have?”

“There’s a pool at the gym.”

There was? “I thought you spent all your time there chucking heavy weights around.”

“And then I go and chill in the pool. Although not so much lately, seeing as I’ve had someone to get home to.” He stepped closer, a tender smile on his face doing all kinds of things to my insides. “You honestly thought I had a problem with swimming pools?”

“Well, yeah.” The same incident had definitely left him leery of enclosed spaces. He probably wouldn’t thank me for pointing that out, though.

He reached a hand to my face—then jerked back as an elderly lady barrelled in from the street. “Scusi,” she snapped in a distinctly British accent, barging right between us.

It was the old dear I’d seen with the monster case yesterday. What’d got her goat? Maybe it was us. You know, engaging in homosexual acts of affection in a public place. Or at any rate, trying to.

Or maybe I was being unfair. From the way she jabbed at the lift buttons, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were the ones who’d offended her. I turned my attention back to Phil. “So, pool?”

“If you’re sure you’re up for it.”

“Course,” I said confidently.

Phil narrowed his eyes, and I knew he’d seen right through me.

General Details

Word Count: 87,000

Page Count: 312

Cover By: Christine Coffee

Series: The Plumber's Mate Mysteries

Audio Edition

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Ebook Details

ISBN: 978-1-62649-950-8

Release Date: 06/12/2021

Price: $4.99

Print Details

ISBN: 978-1-62649-949-2

Release Date: 06/14/2021

Price: $15.19