Heat Trap (The Plumber's Mate Mysteries, #3)
Old flames can leave a nasty burn.
It’s been six months since plumber Tom Paretski was hit by a shocking revelation about his family, and he’s been avoiding dealing with it ever since. His lover, PI Phil Morrison, wants Tom to dig deeper into his history and try to develop his psychic talent for finding things, but Tom’s not nearly so keen. Just as he decides to bite the bullet, though, worse problems crawl out of the woodwork.
Young Devil’s Dyke barmaid Marianne has an ex, Grant Carey, who won’t accept that things are over between them, and he’s ruthless in dealing with anyone who gets in his way. When Carey threatens an old friend of theirs, Phil and Tom step in to help—but that makes them targets themselves.
What with his uncertainty about Phil’s motives, Tom’s family doing their best to drive a wedge between them, and the uncovering of an ugly incident in Phil’s past, Tom’s not sure who he can trust—and the body he finds in the pub cellar isn’t the only thing that stinks.
Publisher's note: This is lightly edited reprint of a previously published novel.
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Sometimes, even getting out of the house and switching your phone off won't save you. This time, it started with a quiet Saturday lunchtime pint up at the Devil's Dyke pub in Brock's Hollow. It was one of those blistering-hot days you occasionally get in May that lull you into thinking Britain's going to have a proper summer for once, and generally mean it'll rain for the next three months solid. Not that I'm cynical or anything. I was sitting out in the beer garden with my mate Gary, listening to bees buzzing around the flowers, kiddies playing football on the grassy bit by the car park, and a bloke at the next table having a rant about global warming. A half-hearted breeze wafted listlessly, weighed down by the scents of lilacs, cheese and onion crisps, and beer.
We were under the shade of an umbrella so Gary wouldn't risk getting a freckle and ruining his wedding photos the following month. I'd have told him not to be so daft, except I knew that as his best man, I'd be the one getting all the grief about it on the day. And anyway, it was pretty hot. I had my sleeves rolled up even in the shade, and you had to feel sorry for Julian, Gary's Saint Bernard. Between the fur coat and the sheer bulk of him, he had to be only a couple of degrees away from turning into a big doggy puddle on the grass.
I was just contemplating getting another round in (something soft for me, with a shedload of ice in it; I had work this afternoon), when the Devil's Dyke herself, pub landlady Harry Shire, hove into view, her border collie Flossie panting at her heels.
"Tom. Gary," she greeted us gruffly. I leaned back in my seat to look up at her — Harry's six foot tall if she's an inch, so there was a long way to look. "Your bloke joining you?"
"Not as far as I know." Phil got on fine with Gary's fiancé, Darren. He got on a lot less fine with the man himself, so if I knew my bloke, he'd be giving the Dyke a wide berth this lunchtime. "Any reason?"
She nodded. "Got a job for him."
"Ooh, this sounds thrilling." Gary leaned forward on the table while Flossie and Julian sniffed each other's arses politely. "What is it? Light-fingered barmaids lifting money from the tills? The case of the disappearing beer barrels?"
"It's private." Harry folded her arms. When most women do that, it makes their boobs look bigger. Harry, though, it just made her biceps stand out. I couldn't help noticing they were a lot more impressive than mine. Come to that, her boobs were and all, but I didn't have a problem with that.
Gary pouted. He hates being left out of any juicy secrets going around.
"Want me to ask Phil to pop round?" I asked. "I'm seeing him tonight."
"If you would. Soon as he can."
I didn't like the sound of that. "Tell you what, you got your mobile on you? I'll give him a bell."
Harry looked down at me for a moment, then handed over a scratched-up phone that looked older than her latest barmaid. It took me a mo to remember how to use the ones with actual buttons, but I managed to get Phil's number into it.
"Alban Investigations," he answered promptly.
"Hi, it's me. Tom," I added, in case the line was a bit crackly his end. "I'm up at the Dyke, ringing on Harry's phone — she wants a word, okay? Work stuff. Your work, I mean. Not hers."
"Pub lunch again? All right for some. Yeah, put her on. See you about six?"
"Yeah, see you then." I handed the phone back to Harry — then noticed Gary smirking at me and hastily wiped the soppy smile off my face.
Phone to her ear, Harry nodded her thanks and strode off, clicking her fingers for Flossie to follow. I watched her for a minute, then turned back to frown at the dregs of my pint. Whatever the problem was, I hoped it wasn't serious. Harry might not be full of the traditional mine-host pub landlord's hearty bonhomie, but she was a good friend to have. And she knew her beer.
"I don't see why she couldn't have told us what it was about," Gary muttered, giving the olive in his martini a petulant swirl. "You know me. Are my lips ever loose?"
"Sorry — don't think I'm qualified to answer that one. You'll have to ask Darren." Gary's and my friendship has always been strictly without benefits, seeing as how I tend to go for the mean, moody, and macho type, not the cuddly, kinky, and camp sort, and for his part, Gary reckons vanilla's only fit for flavouring ice cream. Which was why he was about to marry a dwarf ex-porn star, and I was currently walking out with the owner, manager, and sole staff member of Alban Investigations, otherwise known as Phil Morrison.
"Well, if Phil should happen to let any little details slip, you will share, won't you?" Two sets of puppy eyes turned my way in an eerie joint attack from Gary and Julian.
"Course," I lied cheerfully, and Gary brightened. He's never really got the concept of client confidentiality. He's got his own IT firm, and some of the things he's told me he's "stumbled across" on his customers' hard drives would make your hair curl.
Nothing illegal, mind. He might be the world's worst gossip, but he's got standards. Or at least, he's worked out that I have.
"It's odd, though," Gary was saying. "Harry, needing a man? When has that ever happened?"
"Well, she called you in to install the business software. Or don't you count?" I laughed as Gary treated me to a view of a slowly swivelling finger. In principle, though, he wasn't wrong. Harry was one of the most self-sufficient people I knew. Come the zombie apocalypse, I'd be heading straight for the Dyke and hiding behind the bar. "Maybe it's just a know-how thing? She wants someone found, maybe, or some information, and she doesn't know how to get hold of it?"
"Ooh, do you think she's got a long-lost love child she was tragically forced to give up for adoption? The product of an illicit heterosexual affair, perhaps?"
I think I must have winced or something. Although it wasn't because Gary made the word heterosexual sound like something out of The Joy of Extreme Sex. Love children produced by illicit affairs were still a bit of a sore topic with me.
Seeing as I'd found out only a few months ago I was one.
Gary cleared his throat, straightened his face out from lascivious to sympathetic, and patted my knee. "Sorry, darling. Didn't mean to poke a raw nerve. But while we're on the subject, have you found out anything more . . .?"
"Nope," I said flatly.
Apparently not flatly enough to deter further poking. Or patting, for that matter. "What, nothing? Are you sure that man of yours is doing a proper job?" Julian pricked up his ears, decided he needed to get in on the action, and plonked his jowls down on the knee not receiving his master's attention. His head felt like a hot water bottle, but at least his drool would evaporate quickly in the heat.
"Phil's not doing anything about finding my real dad. I haven't asked him to."
Gary stared at me, blank incomprehension all over his soft, round face. "But don't you want to know? I mean, it's so exciting! You could literally be anyone."
"Yeah, well, sorry to disappoint you, but I'm pretty sure I'm not Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed's love child."
"Well, of course not, darling. You're not dark enough, and anyway the timing would be all wrong. Still, maybe some dashing young guardsman . . ."
"No. My mum's still my mum, okay?"
Gary nodded thoughtfully. "Although I have to say, I find her much more interesting now."
"You would." There was a loud bang as one of the kiddies punted the football straight into my van's windscreen. I cringed, and the lad, who must have been all of seven or eight, froze for a moment, visibly worried he was going to cop it. Luckily he was never going to be the next David Beckham and the ball bounced off harmlessly. Play resumed as though nothing had happened, but I noticed one or two blokes giving their cars nervous glances.
"Well, of course. She's a lady with a dark, hidden past." Gary sighed wistfully. "We have so much in common."
"Hint all you like, I'm still not going there." Mainly because I was one hundred percent sure it was utter bullshit. On Gary's part, at least. The matter of my mum's dark, hidden past had been made painfully clear to me by Auntie Lol's cache of old letters.
Gary sighed again. Actually, this time it was more like a huff of exasperation. "I just think you should do something about it, before it's too late. People don't live forever." He shot me a significant look. "You of all people should know that."
"Oi, what am I — the angel of death?"
He pursed his lips. "Nooo . . . You're more like a harbinger."
"Whatever one of those is." I had a feeling I wasn't going to like it.
"A portent. A deadly warning." Gary beamed. "You're a banshee!"
"Oi. I'm not a bloody banshee. I turn up after the fact and find stuff, that's all. And there's no wailing involved either."
Gary shrugged. "I'm just saying, you seem to spend a lot of time in the company of corpses, that's all."
"Trust me, mate, I spend as little time as possible with 'em. So how's the wedding plans going?" Okay, as attempts to change the subject go, it was less than subtle, but Gary's never been able to resist talking about his love life.
"Famously, darling. I'm meeting up with Darren's parents tomorrow to discuss things."
"Yeah? This the first time you've met them?"
"Of course not. They see me as a surrogate child."
"So what're they like? Are they, you know . . ." I'd been about to say dwarves, but I bottled it. "A lot like him?"
"Oh, absolutely. Darren comes from a long line of market traders. He was selling fruit and veg before he was knee-high to a proverbial."
I wasn't going to touch the issue of Darren's height with a bargepole, proverbial or otherwise. "Let me guess, his first words were ‘two fer a pahnd'?"
"Something more along the lines of ‘firm and juicy,' I believe." Gary tossed down the last of his martini, then sucked the olive off his cocktail stick with a suggestive slurping sound.
"Want another?" I asked.
Gary pouted at his glass. "Just a Diet Coke, darling. Putting on weight now would be a disaster. And the same goes for you. A man of your height shows every extra ounce." He wagged a finger at me and chortled.
Bloody hell. It was bad enough when it was only Darren making the short-arse jokes.
* * * * * * *
After finding out about my real dad from my late Auntie Lol, I'd meant to get right on the case — well, get Phil on the case — of finding out who I really was. But I'd had a run of jobs to catch up on, and what with one thing and another, I just . . . hadn't.
It hadn't helped that I'd had a pretty good idea how my sister, Cherry, would react if I started trying to rake up the past. We'd been getting on a lot better lately, Cherry and me. Seeing a lot more of each other — Sunday roasts with Phil and her reverend fiancé, the occasional weekday lunch in St. Albans for the two of us, that sort of thing. Seemed a shame to upset the apple cart. And, well . . . Dad wasn't such a bad sort. I mean, he'd been fine about me being gay and not having a high-flying career or anything.
Although now I was wondering if he just didn't care, seeing as I wasn't his.
But he'd been the one who'd been, well, a dad to me. It hadn't been his fault he'd been a bit past it by the time I came along and wanted someone to take me playing footie in the park. He'd been the one who'd taught me how to ride a bike — not that I could remember it, exactly, but it must have been him. God knows my big brother, Richard, wouldn't have bothered. And Dad was the one who'd given me my pocket money and paid for my driving lessons. Not to mention, given me the disappointed look when I pranged the car my first time flying solo.
It didn't seem right. Like trying to find my real dad would be ungrateful or something. And, well. It wasn't like he'd ever bothered to find me, was it?
So I'd let it slide.
Now, though . . . Gary had got me wondering again.
I brought it up with Phil that night, when we were sitting on the sofa, me still picking at my dinner and him flicking through the channels on the telly with Merlin purring away like a buzz saw on his lap.
"Gary reckons I ought to do something about finding my real dad."
"So? Not up to him, is it?"
I sighed and bunged my plate on top of Phil's on the coffee table, where it was just far enough out of reach to be a barrier against temptation. I was stuffed, really. Arthur came and gave the plates a sniff, then backed off quickly, furry tail twitching. Apparently, lamb biryani wasn't his thing. Who knew? Then again, I had pretty comprehensively picked out all the meat already.
"Yeah, but . . . he's got a point. I mean, my dad's got to be, what, at least in his sixties? If he's even still alive. If I don't do something now, maybe I'll never get the chance."
Phil pursed his lips. "Not going to be easy, finding the bloke with only a first name and a photo. Have you thought about talking to your mum?"
"Yeah. A bit too much. Christ, I don't know." I closed my eyes and scrubbed my hands over my face. A warm, solid arm slid around my shoulders, and Phil gave me a comforting squeeze. "How am I supposed to even bring the subject up? ‘Oi, Mum, remember the old days when you used to be a bit of a slapper?' Ow!" Phil had flicked my ear. I opened my eyes and glared at him.
"Don't talk about your mum that way. And you've simply got to decide, haven't you? Whether finding your real dad is that important to you."
"Important? Of course it's important. Bloody hell, wouldn't you want to know where you'd come from?"
He shrugged. "Some people would say it's more important where you end up."
"Yeah, but . . . it's blood, innit? Thicker than water and all that crap."
"So's a lot of things. What if he turns out to be a right bastard?"
There was a split second before he realised what he'd said and tensed. I laughed. "That's me, remember? Ah, shit. I dunno. Look, I know it's not fair to ask, but is there anything you can do without talking to Mum?"
Phil nodded slowly. "Maybe. I can pay a visit to North London, see if I can track down anyone who knew your family when you were living there. Flash your old man's photo around, see if it jogs any memories." He half laughed.
"Bet I can find someone who remembers you, at any rate. Can't have been too many primary schoolkids stumbling over bodies in the park. Least not back in those days."
Thanks for the memory, Phil. "What, like it happens every week now? Yeah, you're probably right. I blame video games. They're whatsit, desensitising everyone to violence."
"Don't know about that." Phil leaned back in the sofa. As he still had an arm around me, so did I. Not that I was complaining. Merlin, on the other hand, gave a peed-off miaow at all the shifting around, but he could lump it. "Think about it. If everyone's indoors on the video games, who's finding the bodies? Or leaving 'em there, for that matter?"
I let my head rest against his shoulder. "Stop trying to blind me with logic."
"Why, is it working too well?"
"Git. Hey, what happened with Harry?" I asked as a thought struck me. "You sort something out with her?"
I wasn't digging for info.
Phil nodded. "She's coming round here tomorrow morning. You're not working, are you?"
I did work the occasional Sunday, but generally I tried to avoid them. For one thing, husbands were usually around. I prefer dealing with the wives — and in an area like this, posh commuter belt for the most part, you get an awful lot of stay-at-home wives. They're usually pretty friendly, only too glad to have someone round to chat to. The husbands, on the other hand, tend to fall into one of two camps. Either they want to keep it all strictly business, no idle chitchat with the help, or alternatively they're in my face the whole bloody time talking bollocks about how they'd be doing the job themselves, if only the wife hadn't called me in. I s'pose they feel their masculinity's threatened or something, just because I know my way around a wrench and they don't. At any rate, it makes for a less relaxed working environment.
Anyway, Sundays aren't supposed to be for working. Not unless you have to. Day of rest, innit? Sundays are for stodgy roast dinners with the family, or if you can think up a good enough excuse to steer clear of your nearest and dearest, slobbing on the sofa watching sport on the telly.
"No, but I can clear out if you need me to." Then again, if he didn't want me around, why bring her to my house? He had a perfectly good flat of his own, not to mention an actual office. "You planning on having me sit in? Harry didn't seem too keen on me knowing her business back up at the Dyke."
"Nah, that was because of your mate Gary. She reckons he can't keep his trap shut." Phil's eye roll made it clear he thought that one was a bit of a no-brainer. "She's fine with you knowing about it. Her idea, in fact. Think she's hoping you might be able to put that talent of yours to use."
I grinned. "What, that thing I do with my tongue? Thought she wasn't into blokes."
Phil grunted. "Don't flatter yourself. You know what I mean. Anyway, they'll be here at ten."
"Her and Marianne."
"Her and Marianne?"
"Yeah, you know. New one at the Dyke. West Country girl. Her with the cartoon tattoo."
It was a My Little Unicorn in rainbow colours. If she'd got it done to make her look harder, she'd seriously missed the mark.
"I know who she is. I wasn't expecting it to be about her, that's all." God help me, I was starting to wonder if she was Harry's long-lost love child.
"Maybe it isn't. Maybe she's just the moral support."
"What, her? If Harry leans on her, she'll snap."
"I said moral support, not a bloody crutch." He looked down at me smugly from his six foot two. "Wouldn't have thought you'd be one to judge a book by its cover. Small doesn't have to mean weak."
"Yeah, but if she weighs more than seven stone soaking wet, I'm a sumo wrestler."
"Wouldn't advise it. Those nappies aren't a good look on anyone."
See, this is how I knew he loved me. Because he didn't add, especially on skinny short-arses like you.
"So what is a good look on me?" I put on my best flirty smile.
"Me," Phil said. And went on to prove it.
Word Count: 84200
Page Count: 310
Cover By: Christine Coffee
Series: The Plumber's Mate Mysteries
Release Date: 03/03/2018