Lock Nut (The Plumber's Mate Mysteries, #5)

Lock Nut by JL Merrow
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-727-6
eBook release: 
May 14, 2018
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-728-3
Print release: 
May 14, 2018
Word count: 
89,200
Page count: 
346
Cover by: 

This title is #5 of the The Plumber's Mate Mysteries series.

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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.

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

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

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.

 

Chapter Two

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.

 

Chapter Three

Greg and Cherry’s reception, like every other social event they hosted, was held at the Old Deanery, which was where Greg, and from henceforth until death do them part, Cherry, lived barely a stone’s throw away from the cathedral. Not that Greg—or, presumably, the bloke upstairs—would look kindly on anyone throwing stones near those stained-glass windows. It was a buffet affair, with chairs only for the most decrepit, which solved the who-to-seat-where problem nicely but meant it was less of a formal do and more of a free-for-all.

I finally got a chance to talk to Phil over a Buck’s Fizz and some homemade quiche. Made, I hasten to add, not by my sister’s fair hands or even Greg’s, but by one of his army of widows and spinsters of this parish. Plus a good few married ladies who’d got fed up with waiting for him indoors to pop his clogs and got on with doing what they wanted anyway. They could usually be relied on for a tasty, if not very imaginative, spread.

“Did Darren speak to you?” Phil asked before I could get a word in edgewise.

“You mean about the runaway bridegroom? Yeah.”

“Husband, not bridegroom. They got married over a year ago. So are we doing it?”

“What, here and now? Don’t think it’s that kind of party.”

Phil huffed a laugh. “The mate’s missing husband. And you know it.”

I supposed that meant he was all right with it, but it still felt dodgy to me. “You sure it’s okay? Misleading the lady about how we find the bloke—assuming we do find him?”

“From what Darren says, she wants to be misled. What’s it matter so long as we get results? She’ll get her old man back, we’ll get paid, and she’ll get to brag to her mates how a psychic found him for her.”

“Great. Just what I need—even more people knowing about my little party trick.” I’d have to admit I felt a minor sting of betrayal. Time was, Phil was as keen as I was to keep it all low-key.

Phil shrugged. “That ship’s sailed. All you can do now is take a running jump on board. Get what you can out of it.”

He had a point. “Guess I’m game if you are. Long as you don’t mind playing second fiddle to my thing.”

Phil raised an eyebrow but, sensibly given we were out in public, decided to ignore the innuendo. “Anything’s better than another cheating-partner case.”

I had to sympathise. Besides being a sad reflection on society in general and the sanctity of the marriage vows in particular, infidelity cases had to bring up a few painful memories for Phil. You might be forgiven for wondering why he’d become a private investigator in the first place, seeing as tail-the-spouse jobs seem to be your basic bread and butter for people in his profession, but then you probably aren’t as well acquainted as I am with the stubborn git who’s my beloved.

“Fine. Tell Darren he can set up a meeting with the client. But, oi, you’ve gotta be there too. Not my area of expertise, this.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll be there to hold your hand.”

I could think of something I’d rather he’d be holding, but right then old Edie Penrose doddered up to say a quavery hello and I never got to tell him about it.

* * * * * *

There were speeches—Dad mumbled something rambly and incomprehensible, then Greg said something touching and heartfelt that had Cherry blushing bright pink and the rest of us staring into our glasses, equal parts moved and embarrassed. And just when we were bracing ourselves for a speech from the best man, who was one of those tall, pale Church of England types I mentioned earlier and who looked like he could bore for England, the bishop stepped up. His speech was so polished he could have gone on the after-dinner circuit with it—actually, come to think of it, maybe that was where Greg and Cherry had found him. He had us all in fits with a short selection of hilarious but inoffensive ecclesiastical anecdotes and topped it off with a hearty toast, and an invitation for the happy couple to cut the cake.

There were two wedding cakes—a traditional fruit one, because you could get a shedload of little slices out of it, plus a croquembouche, one of those gravity-defying towers of profiteroles they like to make them do on Bake Off, for the photos and the favoured few. (And yes, since you ask, I was one of them.) Apparently Greg had been to a wedding in France at an impressionable age and never quite got over it. Not that I’m complaining. It was well tasty.

Soon after that it was time to say goodbye to the bride and groom, and we all trooped outside to wave them off in a taxi. Greg and Cherry had not only chosen a winter wedding, they’d decided for some incomprehensible reason to honeymoon in Scotland. In February. Hopefully they’d packed their skis. And their thermal undies, which had to be a bit of a mood-killer on honeymoon. I’d mentioned as much to Phil a while back, with a heavy hint I’d want us to be looking for somewhere a lot warmer for our own postwedding getaway.

“Somewhere you get blue sky more than once a summer. Where . . . where lemons grow on trees. I can’t remember the last time I saw a lemon on a tree, instead of in a tray in the supermarket.”

Phil had pointed out that the average honeymooning couple had other things on their minds than the ready availability of freshly picked citrus fruit, and outdoor temperature was unlikely to be an issue either.

He was probably right, I reflected with a last wave at the happy couple. I was pretty certain that Sis at least had been saving herself for her wedding night. Much as it pained me to think about it, all those decades’ worth of pent-up passion wasn’t likely to be deterred by anything short of a tungsten carbide chastity belt.

I shuddered. Enough of that, ta very much. Time to worry about more pressing concerns, like where the hell had Mike got to?

A lot of the guests toddled off after the hosts had gone. Fair dues, many of them were already out past their bedtime, it being well after teatime and them not exactly in the first flush of youth or even middle age. Close family, however, got to stay and help clear up the mess. And Mike was staying with me—I mean, with me and Phil—so I knew he hadn’t gone anywhere.

Or rather, he shouldn’t have gone anywhere. But he wasn’t in the front room, the back room, the kitchen, or the loo. And neither was Dad.

I was starting to get a bad feeling about this.

 

Chapter Four

After poking my head around upstairs, a bit warily as if anyone would be rude enough to sneak into Greg’s holy of holies for an illicit nap or heavy petting session (and bloody hell, I was never going to get the picture of Dad and Mike in the latter scenario out of my head), I looked in the study. Strictly speaking, it was supposed to be out of bounds for the duration, as most of Greg’s “family” of taxidermied animals had been moved into there to prevent any smaller guests from getting too handsy or trying to feed them wedding cake.

So of course, that was where Dad and Mike turned out to be hiding out.

Together.

Nestled in with Buster the dog, Greg’s surprisingly large badger, and sundry other woodland creatures who’d probably never imagined themselves ending up so far from home, Mike and Dad were comfortably settled on office chairs holding half-drunk mugs of tea. Talking about something that involved a lot of vigorous hand-waving on Dad’s part.

Oh crap.

I was wondering whether I should break it up or steer well clear, but Dad spotted me and waved me over with his gesturing hand. It was the one holding a half-eaten custard cream, and a couple of crumbs fell off onto the carpet. I glanced automatically at Buster, being used to mates’ dogs acting as impromptu hoovers, then remembered he was already stuffed. “There you are, Tom. We were just talking about you.”

Oh double crap.

Mike nodded seriously. “Yes. Gerald tells me you don’t plan to dress up for your own wedding.”

They were on first-name terms already? I s’pose it wasn’t like they didn’t have anything in common . . . I shuddered internally and squashed that line of thought pronto. “I’ll be wearing a suit.”

“But not the top hat and the tail coat?” He waved at my current ensemble, in a gesture unsettlingly like Dad’s.

“Uh, no?”

“But why not?” Dad demanded, and turned to Mike. “I haven’t seen him look this smart since he was five years old—he was a page boy back then, at his cousin Robin’s wedding. Or was it my cousin Hilary? Barbara would know. Tom, see if you can find Barbara, will you? No, wait, don’t bother, I remember now. It was my godson George’s wedding. You had a paisley waistcoat and bow tie. Quite the little gentleman, you were. I hardly recognised you. Until you ate too much cake and were sick all down yourself. So why not?”

“Why not what?” My head felt like someone had used it to smash open a bottle of champagne.

Dad rolled his eyes at Mike. “Morning coat. Top hat. Why not?”

“Uh . . . It’s not a church wedding. Wouldn’t be suitable. Gotta go.”

I legged it.

I found Mum rearranging vol-au-vents with some of Greg’s cathedral ladies, mixing in the chicken mayo ones with what was left of the more popular prawn cocktails ones. “Don’t go in the study,” I warned her. “Dad and Mike are in there. Conspiring.”

Mum’s face, which had been a rosy prawn-cocktail colour, paled to a chicken mayo hue. She swallowed. Then she straightened her back and pasted on a smile. “It’s good that they’re getting on together. It’ll make things easier for the summer. I’ve been meaning to ask you, actually. I know neither of you is really the bride, but seeing as Phil’s father is no longer with us, I assume you’ll be the one who’s given away?”

“What, like an unwanted Christmas present? Cheers, Mum. No. I’m pretty sure no one’s getting given away.”

“Oh. Well I suppose that does make it simpler. It’s such a shame, though.”

“It is?”

“Well, I suppose you won’t have any bridesmaids either. The wedding party is going to look awfully funereal, all men in dark suits.”

Great, Mum. Way to imbue my forthcoming nuptials with a sense of gloom and foreboding. “Yeah, but you’ll brighten it up, won’t you? I mean, you’ll be wanting to wear this again, right?” I gestured down at her burgundy mother-of-the-bride outfit, which had probably accounted for a sizeable portion of the wedding budget all on its own.

“Oh, no. I couldn’t wear this again. Besides, this was for a cathedral wedding.”

Uh-huh. “So what, it’s going to be jeans and a T-shirt for me and Phil’s bash?”

“Don’t be silly, Tom. I never wear jeans. Or T-shirts. I’ll find a smart skirt and top.”

The way she said it, I wondered where she’d be looking. The darkest recesses of her wardrobe? A car boot sale? “It’ll be July, Mum. You should get yourself a posh summer frock.”

Mum frowned at the vol-au-vents. “Are you sure? It’s not like it’s a . . .” She paused.

I bristled. “What, a proper wedding?”

“Church wedding, I was going to say. Do people dress up for civil ceremonies?”

“Are you telling me you’ve never been to one before? Haven’t you got, like, mates who’ve divorced and remarried?”

“In my day, you got married for life.”

Didn’t stop you having a bit on the side, though. I didn’t say it, because I’m only literally a bastard, but Mum turned as red as her outfit anyhow as if the thought had crossed her mind too. I coughed. “Mum, it’s the twenty-first century. People wear what they want. And seriously, you and Dad need to have a chat about this. He seems to think we’re going to be tarted up like the House of Lords. And he’s got Mike agreeing with him.”

“Oh.” Mum looked faintly queasy, then rallied. “Well, it would be nice to have a new dress. And perhaps a hat.”

Great. Apparently I was going to be shoehorned back into the penguin suit whether I liked it or not.

* * * * * * *

I broke the bad news to Phil over a last glass of bubbly (for me, not him, as he was the one driving today). He took it like a man who’d had Darren and Gary bending his ear about it already, which was rich seeing as how they’d worn normal clothes to their own do. “The idea’s growing on me,” he said, giving me an appreciative once-over, and if he kept that up, it wouldn’t be the only thing that was growing. “So it’s all happy families now, is it?” he went on. “Water under the bridge?”

“Dunno. I didn’t dare ask.” I glared at his expression. “Like you’d have been any braver.”

He laughed. “Maybe not.”

“Anyway, don’t change the subject. Are you seriously okay with all of this?” I gestured up and down at my over-the-top attire, then frowned. “What did you wear first go around?”

“Just a suit.” Phil’s face cut off any further questions on that thorny subject. He never seemed keen to talk about his first husband, the Mysterious Mark, who’d cheated on him, hurt him, then as if that wasn’t enough, died on him. Fair dues, it wasn’t exactly my favourite subject either. Then he heaved a sigh. “Look, I’d better warn you, Mum’s going to be comparing. So yeah, anything that makes our do different—better—it’s got to be a good thing.”

I wasn’t so sure I liked the idea of what I wore on my wedding day being dictated by my fiancé’s ex. Then again, it was being dictated by every other bugger, so maybe it was only fair to give the dead bloke a shout and all. “Right. Fine. Tell you what, how about we cut our losses and take Mike home?”

Mike seemed worn out by all the excitement. He didn’t say a lot on the drive back to my house. Sorry, mine and Phil’s. We’d been living together for a whole week now, me and Phil, and I still found myself forgetting.

Originally, the plan had been for him to move into mine in time for Christmas, but like a lot of plans, that one had ganged well agley. My fault more than his, and don’t think that hadn’t led to a few uncomfortable conversations.

It wasn’t that I’d been getting cold feet, honest. We’d agreed he’d hold off giving notice at his flat until I’d got the house cleared out a bit, Phil’s wardrobe being (a) substantial and (b) not exactly the sort that’d take kindly to being kept in suitcases long-term. And then, well, I’d been busy—with Cherry’s wedding preparations, with our own wedding preparations, and occasionally even with actual paid work. So we’d pushed the date back to January, and then of course it’d been tax-return season. For me, that was, seeing as Phil had naturally got his sent in back in September, the smug git. I gave up expecting sympathy while I faffed about with shoeboxes full of invoices and receipts, fielding increasingly frustrated calls from my accountant about badly described business expenses dated over eighteen months ago.

I finally got it all sorted a couple of days before the thirty-first January deadline, which was when Phil informed me that he’d given notice a month ago and would be moving in the following weekend whether the house—and me—were ready for him or not.

I might or might not have had a few choice words to say at this point on the subject of unilateral decision-making.

But the make-up sex was worth it. And, a week in, while I might have the odd moan about him beating me to the bathroom in the morning, I had no real complaints about the new living arrangements. He’d been staying at mine most nights anyhow, so to be honest the only real difference was the amount of stuff in the house.

For a bloke who’d been living in a small attic flat, my Phil had a lot of stuff. Maybe it’d seem less once we got it all out of the boxes, which were currently stacked in the living room (the ones we were definitely going to unpack any day now), the hallway (the ones we were thinking about taking upstairs and hadn’t got round to yet) and our bedroom (the ones we didn’t have a flippin’ clue what to do with, like duplicated kitchen equipment and entertainment tech. They had been in the spare room, but it hadn’t seemed polite to ask Mike to stay in a bed he couldn’t actually get to without some serious mountaineering gear, whereas Phil was surprisingly un-put-out by having to climb all over me to get to his side of the bed). The cats were torn between appreciating the new sleeping and lurking places (mostly Arthur), and having a paddy over the unprecedented changes to their home environment (mostly, but not exclusively, Merlin).

Happy days.

Mike announced he was turning in soon after we got back from Greg’s, probably worn out from all that ganging up on me with my dad. He’d travelled up the day before, and we’d spent the previous evening making polite conversation and passing round the family photo albums—or, as might be, Mike’s phone and the new, turbo-charged laptop Phil had given me for Christmas, onto which I’d loaded a choice selection of pics of yours truly as a nipper, just on the off chance Mike might want copies. He had, as it happened, which . . . I dunno. I s’pose I still had mixed feelings about him having known from the word go that I existed, but never having got in touch. Maybe it was an older-generation thing—thinking a clean break was best for me and all that.

I mean, he was here now, wasn’t he? So he definitely cared about me.

It made for a funny old weekend, having Mike there. His presence, welcome as it was, definitely put a dampener on anything bedroom related. And while I felt strange talking to him about his family—the legitimate son and all—it didn’t seem right constantly interrogating him on the subject of my newly discovered Polish heritage.

Luckily I’m also half British, so was able to fall back on the weather, the England football team, and the state of the NHS as conversational topics.

We took him out for a Sunday roast at the Fighting Cocks, then put him on a train back west. Then it was time to start shifting all the boxes back into the spare room.

“When are we going to chuck out your old hi-fi?” Phil asked as, mission accomplished, we sat down on the sofa in front of the telly to enjoy a well-earned beer.

“What do you mean? There’s nothing wrong with it.”

“Apart from being ten years old? I got mine less than a year ago. And it’s half the size. Doesn’t make sense for it to be the one sitting in a box.”

“Mine was here first.” Okay, I do realise that wasn’t the most mature argument I could have made.

“And it’s your house, your rules?” Phil said it so mildly there was a moment when I actually didn’t realise the big, deep pool of man-eating sharks I was hanging over by a thread that was fraying by the second.

“Course not!” I said—possibly a bit too heartily—once I’d clued in. “It’s our house, now, innit?”

Phil laughed, the bastard. “Nice save. So I’ll be getting my music system out of storage, then?”

I eyed my trusty old hi-fi sadly. It was looking a touch out-of-date these days, and at least this way I could stop feeling guilty about the dust piling up on top (and yes, I’m fully aware there was another potential solution, but trust me, it was never going to happen). “Fine,” I said in an appropriately martyred voice. “But we’re not chucking it out. What if, I dunno, your one breaks down?”

“Thought we’d make our own entertainment,” Phil said with a smirk. “In fact, why don’t we do that now?”

“Okay, you put the kettle on, and I’ll get out the Scrabble.”

Phil grabbed hold of me and started making his own entertainment there and then. And yes, there was a fair amount of knob-twiddling involved.

He’d known I wasn’t serious about tea and Scrabble. For one thing, my lack of enthusiasm for the game has been pretty clear since that time I got thrashed by him, Gary, and Darren over at their place, mostly because they knew all the obscure, high-scoring words and I didn’t. And for another thing, neither of us owns a set.

 

Chapter Five

Darren brought his old mate over to see us at my house a few evenings later.

Our house, I mean. Mine and Phil’s.

Due to a failure in communication, me and Phil both went to answer the door, so when I opened it, we were side by side like we were practising for the receiving line at our wedding. Darren gave us a nod, clearly acknowledging the honour but disappointed at the lack of any red carpets being rolled out. “All right, lads?”

Standing next to Darren was a lady half a head shorter than him and about low-chest level on me, which I reckoned made her around four foot four. It was weird seeing Darren (a) without Gary in tow and (b) escorting someone smaller than he was. It made me feel all unnecessarily tall and loom-y, and trust me, that’s not a feeling I get very often. Of course, with his confident swagger—which somehow he managed to pull off while standing still, don’t ask me how—Darren always seemed a couple of feet taller than his actual height.

He turned to his companion. “Lilah, babe, this is Tom Paretski. And Phil Morrison,” he added as an afterthought, which was a turn up for the books. Usually I was the afterthought where Darren was concerned.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” she said with a cat-like smile.

I could see why Lilah Parrot had gone for a career in adult entertainment. Her plain V-necked T-shirt showed off her ample cleavage, and her skintight jeans hugged her full hips like they’d been made for her, which maybe they had—with her proportions, she’d struggle to get her kit on the high street. Tanned and with long, expertly bleached and straightened hair, she gave off sex appeal so strong even I could feel it—I mean, I’ve never fancied going to bed with a woman in my life, but meeting the luscious Lilah, I could suddenly imagine how, if I was single and she came onto me, I might be tempted to try switching sides for the duration.

It was unnerving, to be honest. Was this how married blokes in denial felt when they had a midlife crisis and realised they actually preferred blokes? I sneaked a glance at Phil, and was relieved to find he was still the one who revved my engine.

From what Darren had said about knowing her way back when, I’d assumed she’d be around his age, early forties maybe, but if she was, she was wearing it well. Her makeup, which was also expertly done, was eye-catching rather than subtle, and accentuated the vivid blue of her eyes, which were large and beautiful.

And staring straight at me with more than a hint of Is he all there?

Right. Words. Words would be good. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you, Mrs. Parrot,” I said, thrusting out a hand and narrowly missing whacking her on one well-rounded boob. “Come on in.”

Her handshake was more of a squeeze. “Gawd, your mum brought you up proper, didn’t she? Call me Lilah, love. We’re all friends here, ain’t we?” She gave her cowboy boots a good old scrub on the doormat, rather than the dainty shuffle a lot of women do, as if they’d be mortified if any grot actually came off their shoes.

“Lilah, then. And I’m Tom. Fancy a cup of tea?” I asked, because she wasn’t wrong about my mum bringing me up proper.

“You’re a lifesaver. I’m gasping, here. Just a dash of milk, please. No sugar.” A woman after my own heart.

“Phil? Darren?” They both nodded. I let Phil show our guests to the living room and went out to the kitchen to flick the kettle on and get out some proper cups and saucers. Not because my mum brought me up to (although she did) but because according to Phil, you can tell a lot about a client from whether or not they rattle the cup in the saucer. Then I shook out some choccy biccies onto a plate, remembered Darren was with us and doubled the quantity, and was in the living room with the tray in a jiffy.

“Here you go, love,” I said, handing Lilah her cup. Phil had got her and Darren settled on the sofa and was sitting back, fingers steepled in that I’m about to listen intelligently, see me pointing at my brains with both hands way.

She took the cup with nary a rattle. I doled out the rest of the cups, turfed a protesting Arthur out of the remaining armchair, and sat down.

Nobody took a choccy biccie, except Darren, who took the whole plate and sat back, munching happily. He obviously felt he’d done his bit by bringing her here and the rest was up to us.

Phil grabbed his notepad and flicked it open. “Right, Mrs. Parrot, in your own time, would you like to tell us what happened?”

Lilah arched a perfectly formed eyebrow. Any minute now she’d tell me she was here to see the organ grinder, not the monkey, and things really would go pear-shaped.

“Uh, Phil’s best with all the routine stuff,” I said quickly.

She took a delicate sip of tea. Still no rattle. “Like I told Darren, it’s about my husband, Jonathan. He’s buggered off.”

“How long’s he been gone?” Phil asked.

“Nine days.” That was pretty precise, none of your waffling about whether it was last Tuesday or Wednesday, and for that matter, not a lot of hair-tearing, either. “I got home one day and he’d scarpered.”

“Did he leave a note?”

She shook her head.

“Take much with him?”

Lilah paused, then let out a long breath. “He took a bag. Not a big one, mind. Only a few casual clothes. None of his nice suits.” She seemed miffed about that. I deduced they’d been a present from her.

Heh. Maybe I was cut out for this detective business, after all.

“And what about his place of work?” Phil asked.

“Well, he wasn’t going to carry on turning up there, was he? He worked at my sister’s place,” she explained at our blank looks. “It’s an antiques showroom not far from where we live. The Old Smithy.”

If I had a pound for every place around here called “The Old” something or other . . . I still couldn’t afford to shop in them. At least it wasn’t Ye Olde.

“And where’s that?” Phil bored on. In the drilling sense, I mean. Not the can’t-keep-my-eyes-open sense.

“Pluck’s End.” Lilah grinned. “The posh bit.”

You had to warm to the way she said it. Like she was dead chuffed she’d made it far enough to buy a house somewhere upmarket.

If Phil was warming to her, he hid it well. “And have you spoken to your sister about it? Has she got any idea why he might have left home?”

“Oh, I know why he left.” She humphed. “Got fed up with the straight life, didn’t he?”

Phil’s nose twitched at that one. “He’d been in trouble with the law before you knew him?”

“What, my Jonny?” She snorted. “He ain’t that sort of bent.”

My cup rattled loudly in its saucer. All of them turned to frown at me. “Sorry,” I said, and flashed a smile that didn’t seem to work on anyone.

Mind you, my Phil’s got a great poker face. “He had same-sex relationships before you knew him?” He waited for her nod. “What makes you think he’s gone looking for that kind of thing again?”

Her lips tightened. “There’s been plenty of evidence, believe me.”

“So why do you want him found?” I blurted out.

She turned her big, lovely eyes on me. “I miss him.”

Poor girl. “How long have you two been married?”

“It’ll be two years in August.”

That was optimistic of her, in the circs. Then again, it’d be hard to divorce the bloke if she couldn’t find him.

“And the kids want their dad back,” she added.

“You’ve got kids?” I let out in unwary surprise.

Lilah’s chin came up. “Yeah, I got kids. What you saying? You saying I can’t be a good mum and work in porn?”

“Course not,” I said quickly. “Just impressed how you’ve managed to keep your figure looking so good.”

She cackled. “Oh, I like you.”

Phil coughed. “So have you any idea where he might have gone? Old friends, lovers . . .”

She dismissed his question with an eye roll, and turned pointedly to me. “Oh, I know exactly where he is. I just need you to find him for me.”

I blinked. “Come again?”

“Know where I met him? Camden Market, working one of the stalls. That’s where he’ll have run back to, if I know my Jonny-boy.”

“So, uh, why don’t you . . .?”

She sent me a withering look. “You ever been to Camden Market? Like the Mines of bleedin’ Moria, that place is.”

I blinked. Somehow, despite the background in film, she was the last person I’d expected to reference Lord of the Rings. Wasn’t it a bit, uh, stereotypical about dwarves?

Pan’s effing Labyrinth,” she went on. “You could hide a bloody elephant down there. If I set one foot in that place, he’ll hear about it and he’ll scarper. They’re well tight, that lot, and look at me. Come on, look at me. Think I’m going to get away without being recognised? I can put on a wig, but I can’t do nothing about my height, now can I? ’Sides, half of ’em know me from when me and Jonny was first going out. Or professionally.” She gave another catlike smile.

Phil coughed. “So you want someone who’ll be able to get close to your husband without arousing his suspicions. What then?”

Lilah flashed him a frown, as if she reckoned the monkey was getting above his station, and then switched the smile back on when she turned to me. “You give him a letter from me. Something physical. Something he can’t press a button and delete.”

Uh-huh. “Divorce papers, is it? Court summons?” Threats of actual bodily harm? I didn’t say the last one out loud, obviously.

Her eyes went very wide. “Course not. Just a little note to tell him I miss him and want him to come home.”

“You tried texting?”

“He ain’t answering. He took his phone with him, but for all I know he dropped it down the toilet first chance he got.” Again with the miffed expression, suggesting that’d been another token of her affection. I was surprised someone with all her personal charms felt the need to keep buying the bloke presents, but maybe she was the generous sort. I mentally added ten percent to the hourly rate I was planning to quote her.

Then I took it back off again, feeling bad about taking advantage of an abandoned wife.

“Email? Messenger?” Phil asked.

Lilah leaned forward in her chair, a move which made her cleavage even more prominent than it had been already.

Not that I noticed. Obviously.

“I’ve tried everything,” she said, and added a pout I reckoned would have any straight or bi bloke adjusting himself in his trousers.

Was it me or was it getting flippin’ hot in here? I’d have to have a look at that thermostat after she’d gone. I loosened my collar with a finger. “Right. Well. S’pose we’ll see what we can do?” I glanced over at Phil for confirmation, and narrowed my eyes at his smirk.

“Did you bring the letter with you?” he asked.

She pulled a brown envelope out of her bag and handed it to me. It was the sort you could get an A4 sheet of paper in if you folded it double, and was fat enough there must have been at least a dozen sheets in there. Little note, my arse. It was sealed up with heavy-duty sticky tape, just in case me and Phil might have had any ideas about steaming it open.

“And photographs of your husband? To make sure Tom knows he’s found the right bloke? Like you say, there could be any number of people hiding out in the market. Wouldn’t want him to deliver the letter to the wrong man.”

Another envelope, this one unsealed. I peeked inside, then spread the contents out on the coffee table. There were half a dozen photos, including one of what must have been the two of them on their wedding day. Lilah was radiant and anything but innocent in a tight white dress, carrying a bouquet of big, papery red flowers, while Jonny-boy stared at the camera with a shell-shocked expression on his mug.

Mind you, that could be in a good way, couldn’t it? After all, he was . . . Well, all I could think of to say about him was that he looked like any other ordinary white bloke you might meet on the street or down the pub. In his late twenties or early thirties, not unattractive but not model standard either, and about my height, at a guess.

It was a bit of a mystery what Lilah had seen in him, to be honest. Still, they say love is blind.

I snuck another glance over at Phil, but he was busy studying the photos.

Darren shifted in his seat. He’d been uncharacteristically quiet up until now. I checked out the biccie plate. Yep, all gone. “What kind of stall was he working on when you met him, love?” he asked.

Huh. I’d have thought he’d have known already. If they were as close mates as all that.

“Old clothes.” Lilah wrinkled her nose. “That’s why I got him that job with my sister. Right up his street, wasn’t it? Selling old junk.”

The way she said it made me wonder how much say Jonny-boy had had in the matter. And how grateful he’d been. Something about her expression hinted that he hadn’t been as grateful as she might have liked.

Or maybe it was his stock in trade she wasn’t impressed by. Definitely one for the finer things in life, Lilah was, and I didn’t reckon anything with a previous owner counted as fine in her view.

Darren was nodding. “Was he the trader?”

Lilah shrugged. “It wasn’t his business, if that’s what you mean. He was working it for this other bloke.”

Phil pricked up his ears like a Rottweiler who’d just heard the sweet sound of a burglar climbing over the fence. “And his name?”

“Kelvin something.” She said it impatiently and turned straight back to me. “Look, I brung a map so you can do your stuff.”

“My stuff?”

“Yeah, you know. Hocus pocus, Avada Kedavra, what the bleedin’ hell ever. Here you go.”

Phil stood up and flashed me an evil grin. “I’ll get your pendant for you.”

Oh, bloody hell.

from Publishers Weekly

Fans of mysteries with a minor supernatural tinge and plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor will enjoy this tricky whodunit.