Blow Down (The Plumber's Mate Mysteries, #4)

Blow Down by JL Merrow
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This title is #4 of the The Plumber's Mate Mysteries series.

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Death is what happens while you’re making other plans . . .

The last thing newly engaged plumber Tom Paretski needs is to stumble over another dead body. He’s got enough on his mind already as the reality of his impending marriage sinks in. Not only is his family situation complicated, but his heroism at a pub fire has made him a local celebrity, and now everyone knows about his psychic talents—and wants a piece of them.

Hired to recover a missing necklace, Tom and his fiancé, private investigator Phil Morrison, find themselves trying to unmask a killer. And there’s no shortage of suspects, including the local bishop.

As Tom and Phil try to uncover the truth, they’re pulled in all directions by the conflicting pressures of their families and their own desires. But the murderer they’re up against is a ruthless schemer who won’t baulk at killing again. If Tom and Phil don’t watch out, their love—and all their plans for the future—could be blown down like a house of straw.

Publisher's note: This is lightly edited reprint of a previously published novel.

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Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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She was still warm—and yeah, I knew who it was the minute I touched her. Had known all along, really—so I made myself feel for a pulse, for signs of breathing, anything. Just because the vibes had felt like death didn’t mean she was actually dead, right?


Wrong. There was something around her neck, making it hard to find a pulse point, but her slender wrists were bare, and neither of ’em had a pulse. Should I try to loosen the thing round her neck, give her a bit more room to breathe? Yeah, I know, messing with the evidence—but what if she was still saveable?

I scrabbled at the stuff round her neck, gagging when it came away bloody from where it’d sunk into the skin. I recoiled again when I realised what it was.

There was no sign of movement or life from the body I’d just been manhandling.

Woman-handling? Corpse-handling?

I shuddered. Should I try CPR? You weren’t supposed to do mouth-to-mouth anymore, were you? Vinnie Jones said so in that TV ad.

“Staying Alive” thudded through my brain, and I wished I’d been paying more attention to the telly at the time rather than having a quick grope with Phil.

Christ, what I wouldn’t give to be back on my sofa with my bloke right now.

Then again, I imagined the woman I’d just fallen over might have felt pretty much the same.


Chapter One

These days, when my big sister phones me, I don’t expect anything worse than an invite to lunch and the latest gossip, so I hit Accept Call that night without even a hint of a suspicion of foreboding.

Just goes to show, this being-psychic lark really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“’Lo, Sis. What’s up?” I held the phone to my ear with my left hand while I stirred the pasta sauce with my right. Phil was coming round for tea but wasn’t sure when, so I was doing something I could leave on a low heat to keep warm if need be.

“Oh, hello, Tom.” Cherry paused. “Um, how are you?”

I sighed. The only time she ever opens with How are you? is when she’s desperate to ask for a favour but thinks it’d be rude to launch straight in without a bit of chitchat. “What is it?” I asked, resigned to doing another job for mates’ rates for someone who was no mate of mine.

At least, I hoped it was a job, not anything family related. Especially seeing as my family had recently got a bit more complicated.

“Amelia Fenchurch-Majors,” Cherry said. “She asked me to ask you to do a job for her. She’s based in St. Leonards—I know it’s a bit further afield than you’d usually go, but honestly, you’d be doing me a huge favour if you could go over and see her. At your earliest convenience.”

From the sharp tone in Cherry’s voice, I guessed (a) she was hoping I’d focus on earliest rather than convenience, and (b) she’d been getting her ear bent by Mrs. Double-Barrelled Shotgun. “Friend of yours, is she?”

“She’s not a friend. We just happen to know one another.”

“Let me guess—through Greg?”

Greg is my big sister’s unfeasibly reverend fiancé, canon of St. Leonards cathedral. Mrs. Fenchurch-Majors sounded like the sort of person he had over for sherry all the time. She was probably a drill sergeant in his army of grey-haired old dears who’d outlived their husbands by twenty years or more and now seemed to worship the ground under Greg’s unusually large feet. I could see her now, barking orders at the twinset and pearls brigade to Crochet faster and Don’t put those flowers there, put them THERE.

“Not exactly. The bishop held a garden party over the summer, and we were introduced there. Amelia was very interested to hear about you. Well, of course she heard all about your heroics at the Dyke.”

I winced. Not only was all this well embarrassing—they’d put a picture of me in the paper and everything—but several months down the line, I was still having nightmares about that night. Only in my dreams, I didn’t get there in time. So I wasn’t too chuffed to be reminded about it.

“Oh yeah? So exactly what did you tell her?”

“Nothing.” Cherry sounded hurt. “Although I don’t see why you’re so keen to have everyone forget about it all. It’s hardly something to be ashamed of.”

“I’m not ashamed. Course I’m not. It’s just, well, you know they put that bit in the paper about me having psychic powers, yeah?” I wasn’t sure who’d blabbed—hopefully not one of my mates, but then I hadn’t exactly sworn anyone to secrecy, which was beginning to look a bit short-sighted of me. Then again, it wasn’t beyond the bounds some disgruntled copper had made an off-the-cuff remark about me being DI Southgate’s tame psychic.


So, I’ve had everyone and his bloody dog asking me all kinds of crap ever since, up to and including ‘Will it rain tomorrow?’ and ‘Can you just fill in this lottery form for me?’ ta very much.”

“That’s just silly. You can’t do anything like that.” She paused. “Can you?”

“Sis, I live in a two-bed semi in Fleetville. What do you think? But try telling them that. Everyone seems to think ‘psychic’ means whatever they bloody well want it to mean.”

Look, I’ve just got a bit of a knack for finding things, that’s all. Hidden things, that is, and I have to be fairly close to them to start with, although Phil’s constantly on the lookout for ways of extending my reach. All the better to help him make a killing in his chosen profession and retire early on the profits. I used to think he was onto a loser, but ever since the fire at the Dyke, I’ve been starting to wonder. Something about that night amped the vibes up way beyond anything I’d ever felt before—and no, I’m not talking euphemisms here, ’cos by the time we’d made it home, we were too bloody knackered for anything like that.

Phil, of course, had various theories as to what exactly might have sharpened the old spidey-senses: the danger to yours truly; the way a couple of people I cared about were also at imminent risk of getting toasted; even the heat counteracting moisture in the air (water messes with the vibes, which is handy when you’re trying to locate a leak underground but not so much the rest of the time). Fortunately, Phil’s caseload had been busy enough over the summer to take his mind off too much experimentation with my dubious talents.

Well, that sort of experimentation. We’d managed to find time for a few experiments of a different sort. But yeah. Not your all-purpose psychic. My so-called gift doesn’t hold with multitasking. “It’s like they think it’s some kind of one-size-fits-all thing,” I muttered down the line.

There was a weird sort of breathy sound down the phone. “I suppose that’d be medium, then. The size.”

“I literally can’t believe you said that,” I told her after a healthy pause to let her know just how much I meant it.


“So what’s the job?” I asked before she could come up with any more comedic gems.

“She didn’t say. I gave her one of your cards and suggested she call you direct, but she seems to have this bee in her bonnet that you’d be more likely to accept the job if it came through me.”

“Right, gimme her number and I’ll give her a bell.”

There was a pause. “They’re ex-directory, and she doesn’t give out her number. You’ll have to go round.”

“You’re kidding, right? Seriously?”

“Look, she’s very persistent,” Sis said, which was an admission of defeat if ever I heard one. “Please just go round? You can come over to Gregory’s for tea afterwards. We’ve got some very nice cakes.” Translation: the cathedral ladies had been baking again. Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure they ever stopped. Maybe they took a short break every now and then for knitting bedsocks and crocheting jam-jar covers, that sort of thing.

“Are you actually living there now?” I asked, because Sis had her own house in Pluck’s End, a village not far from St. Leonards, but every time she invited me and/or Phil anywhere lately, it’d been to the Old Deanery, currently occupied by the Youngish Canon.

(I nearly said the Middle-Aged Canon, seeing as how Greg had to be in his midforties, but since reaching this side of thirty, I’d gained a whole new perspective on the subject. Funny, that.)

“No, of course not,” Cherry said as if the very idea was ridiculous. “That wouldn’t be at all proper.”

“Course not. What was I thinking of? Fine, I’ll go and see this pushy old biddy of yours. Tell her I’ll be round Friday afternoon—I’ve got a couple of hours free then.”

There was another of those breathy sounds.

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Cherry said brightly, and reeled off the address.

Just as I finished writing it down, Phil walked in followed by his adoring public, otherwise known as Merlin and Arthur, my two cats. “Emergency call-out?” he asked after I’d hung up.

“Nah, just an extra job for tomorrow,” I told him, expertly dodging the cats so I could give him a welcome snog and a grope of that magnificent arse, which he returned with interest. “Nothing serious,” I muttered into his shoulder.

Like I said, Nostradamus I am not. If anyone was daft enough to hand me a crystal ball, I’d see bugger all. And then drop it on my foot.

* * * * * * *

Mrs. F-M.’s gaff on the outskirts of St. Leonards turned out, when I got there the following afternoon, to be your actual Grade II listed farmhouse, and she had plenty of acreage to go with it. I felt like a right pleb parking the van on a posh, red-brick driveway only slightly less extensive than the M25 and going up to knock on a front door built to withstand siege, battering ram, and revolting peasants.

It didn’t help there was a choice of two doors with nothing much to distinguish between ’em. I went for the slightly larger one, in the end, on the basis I was doing the old girl a favour, so I was buggered if I was going cap in hand to the tradesman’s entrance.

Hey, I might actually be a tradesman, but I doff my cap to no man. Or woman, as it might be. Metaphorically speaking, obviously. Hats and me have never really got on. You’d think putting something on your head would make you look taller, but I just end up looking like the sort of stable lad who wants to be a jockey when he grows up.

The door was opened by a young woman who could have been a model, if that hadn’t been something only common people did. Well, she was a bit on the short side—her sharp green eyes were on a level with mine—but otherwise, she’d have made a pretty good showing on the cover of Vogue. She even had the expression down pat—that one where they glare at the photographer like he or she’s something they just scraped off their shoe. God knows how fashion photographers cope with all that negativity shoved in their faces day in day out. Give me happy-smiley wedding pics any day, or those ones you see mums queuing up for in Boots, with the baby poking its head up out of a flowerpot.

“Tom Paretski?” she said, sizing me up with one unhurried glance and not bothering to crack a smile in welcome. “I’m Mrs. Fenchurch-Majors. Do come in.”

I blinked. She was Mrs. F-M.? I’d taken her for some kind of PA, hired by the lady of the house to deal with tedious and/or unpleasant matters like correspondence and talking to members of the working classes.

No wonder Cherry had laughed when I’d called her an old biddy.

“Cheers, love,” I said, mostly to annoy her.

She winced and glanced pointedly at the doormat, despite the fact it wasn’t raining outside, so I obligingly went through the motions.

And no, I hadn’t missed the fact I got a first name and she didn’t. I bet if I was lucky enough to get a cuppa, it’d be made with the second-best tea bags and come in a chipped mug kept ’specially for workmen and other oiks.

“Right, love, what’s the problem?” I flashed Mrs. F-M. my best smile.

She didn’t return it. “Less of the endearments, please. I am not your love. This way, please.”

She click-clacked ahead of me on sky-high heels, and I swear I heard the ancient timber floors groan as she approached. And who wears stilettos in their own house, anyhow? Speaking of which, her skirt and blouse were tight and tailored, more like a posh version of office wear than something you’d wear to clean the bathroom. Or show the plumber where the problem was, for that matter. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when she led me not to a bathroom, downstairs loo, or even the kitchen or utility room, but right up several flights of creaking stairs to an attic bedroom. The door was locked, but she had a key.

Which made me wonder a bit, because this clearly wasn’t Mrs. F-M.’s bedroom. Despite the double bed, I was fairly sure it was a single woman’s room, and there was ample evidence the occupant was several clothing sizes larger than Mrs. F-M. To be perfectly frank, it looked like an explosion in a TK Maxx. Designer handbags and shoes littered the floor and the furniture indiscriminately, and there was a pile of frocks on the bed that could keep the Chelsea Oxfam shop going for a month.

As you’ve probably guessed, it was a pretty big room, as attics go. I mean, when most people talk about attics, they mean the space under the roof like I’ve got in my house where you can just about manage to shove a few suitcases and your Christmas decorations so they’re out of sight, out of mind. Or maybe, if you’re lucky, put up a couple of starving artists and a mad first wife for similar reasons. This was definitely more at the luxury loft conversion end of the market, with large dormer windows and more floor space than my whole upstairs.

There was also a distinct lack of plumbing anywhere I could tell. And trust me, I can tell. I was starting to get a bad feeling about this one.

“So what can I do you for, love?” It slipped out. Honest.

Mrs. F-M. looked like she’d just been served a glass of wine with bits of cork in it, but at least she didn’t tell me off again. “I need you to find my necklace.”

Despite the loud clunk as my heart plummeted into my boots, I played dumb. “What happened to it? Down the loo? Plug hole?”

“I doubt it. I’m sure the little darling is keeping it quite safe somewhere.” The way she said darling, you’d be forgiven for thinking it had only four letters and rhymed with blunt.

“Not sure I follow you,” I said a lot more breezily than I felt. I mean, I should’ve known. I really should’ve known. So much for all the years I’d spent training in my chosen profession, getting my City and Guilds and all that bollocks.

“Don’t be obtuse.” Yeah, I could tell she was a mate of Cherry’s. “I need you to do that thing of yours. Remote viewing. Divination. Whatever you like to call it.”

I’d never called it either of those things in my life. “Uh, did Cherry say something to you about, you know?”

Obviously. Now, can we please get on with it? I presume you charge by the hour. And I have an appointment at four.”

I was going to kill Cherry, I decided. Beat her to death with a couple of bloody dowsing rods. Or strangle her with a pendulum. For a mo, I seriously considered telling Mrs. F-M. where to shove her flippin’ necklace, but, well, I’d have felt like a right bastard if Sis had ended up getting yet more grief over it all.

Which I know doesn’t exactly fit with the whole wanting-to-kill-her thing, but that’s family for you.

“You do realise, once I start looking, I’ll come up with all kinds of stuff, yeah?” I said, admitting defeat. “I mean, there might be stuff you don’t want me to find—”

“Then you’ll just have to focus, won’t you? Now, it’s a simple pendant. Eighteen-carat gold, with a central, heart-shaped pink diamond surrounded by white diamonds. Quite delicate. Antique. Extremely valuable.”

“And you’re sure someone’s hidden it? I mean, if it’s just lost—”

Quite sure. Alexander’s little poppet has hated me since the minute we met—of course, nobody should dare to take the place of her sainted mother—and you should have seen her face when he gave it to me as a wedding gift. I wasn’t a bit surprised when it went missing two weeks ago.”

I was beginning to have a lot of sympathy with Little Poppet-darling. Mrs. F-M. didn’t realise how lucky she was that it was only the necklace that’d disappeared. Sod it. What was I supposed to do now? For starters, I only had Mrs. F-M.’s word for it the necklace actually belonged to her. And I really didn’t like the thought of helping her go behind her stepdaughter’s back.

Mrs. F-M. strode through the room, grinding a silk kimono casually into the carpet with her heel as she went, and flung open a door at the far end. “You’ll need to search in here too,” she said, switching on a light.

I’d thought the bedroom, large as it was, was cluttered. The space beyond, which was almost as big, looked like it held fodder for a whole series of Cash in the Attic, and several episodes of Antiques Roadshow besides. Not to mention Hoarders. No wonder she’d wanted to call in an expert to find anything in there.

Didn’t make me any happier about being the expert she’d called. “Well, it doesn’t always work . . .” I tried.

She gave me a sharp look. “Cherry said you had an excellent success rate.” Something told me Cherry’d be in for a right ear-bashing if I didn’t at least give it a go.

Course, she’d be in for one from me whatever, but that was different. That was family, that was. “Fine. I’ll just . . . Um. You mind leaving the room?”

It was nothing to do with the vibes. I just didn’t like her breathing down my neck all the time.

She gave me a different sort of look then, and her tongue darted out to wet her upper lip, which creeped me out a bit—I mean, I could imagine her doing that on purpose, thinking it was sexy or something, but it looked totally unconscious. Sort of like a python while it’s considering whether it’s really got room for a whole goat. “No, I think I’ll stay.”

Flippin’ marvellous. “Uh, it’s easier if I’m on my own. Might take a bit longer with you here.” Well, she had said she had an appointment.

She smiled wide enough to show a bit of fang. “Then you’d probably better get started, hadn’t you?”

Great. “Well, could you go over by the door, at least?” I did not want her literally looking over my shoulder the whole bloody time.

She sent me a cool stare, then glided over to where I’d asked her to, somehow managing to make the sway of her hips look sarcastic.

Or, you know, maybe I was just a bit on the oversensitive side right then.

Once she had her back against the wall, I gave myself a brief shake, then listened.

I mean, not with my ears. For the, you know. Vibes.

Then I blinked. Whoa. Little Poppet-darling was one seriously secretive young lady. The room was buzzing with bright vibes, all tangled up like a plate of spaghetti. Forking any one particular meatball out of that lot wasn’t exactly going to be a picnic. There was a bitter taste to it all too, while we’re on the food metaphors. Or similes, maybe. Whatever. Whether it was all directed at the evil stepmother, I wasn’t sure, but there was definitely something—

Then the door swung open to hit the wall with a crash, I jumped halfway to the ceiling, and a loud female voice shouted in my shell-like, “What the hell are you doing in my room?”


Chapter Two

I turned and gave Little Poppet-darling a weak smile while my heartbeat calmed down to nonlethal levels. At least I hadn’t been standing where Mrs. F-M. was. Another six inches closer to the door and she’d just have been a nasty stain on the wall by now.

“Plumber?” I said, my voice cracking just a little bit. “Thought you might have a leak in your pipes.”

She was a big lass—like her stepmum, she was about my height, but unlike Mrs. F-M., she had a healthy amount of padding on her bones. Same taste for tight, tailored clothes, but what came across as cool and professional on Mrs. F-M. looked downright racy on Poppet-darling, maybe because like the frocks on the bed, her blouse and skirt were definitely on the vivid side of the colour palette. Subtle clearly wasn’t a word she had any truck with if she could help it, and pastels were for pushovers. She looked like the sort of girl who liked a drink and a laugh, and would be up for a kebab or a bag of chips at the end of the night.

We’d probably have got on all right if we’d met under different circs, but right now her mouth was still narked at me and one of her eyebrows was telling me plainly it thought I was mental. “What pipes?”

“Well, you know these old places. Never find the plumbing where you expect to, do you?” God knows why I was covering up for Mrs. F-M., ’specially since she’d yet to say word one in our collective defence. Guilty conscience, probably, for going down the path of least resistance and not telling her to do her own sneaking around. “Tom Paretski, by the way. You must be, uh . . .”

“Vi. Vi Majors.” I noticed she didn’t bother with the double-barrelled bit. “And this is my room.”

She swung her gaze around the room, probably to check for what I might’ve nicked, and noticed her stepmum for the first time. “You.”

Mrs. F-M. peeled herself off the wall and stepped forward fearlessly. “Tom was just giving me a hand here.”

“Oh, I’m sure he was, and you can keep it out of my bloody bedroom. Your latest bit of rough, is he? Does Daddy know he’s here?”

“Oi, I’m not—” I spluttered, just as Mrs. F-M. snapped out an outraged, “Don’t be absurd,” in a tone that was less than flattering to yours truly. “Tom’s here to help me find something. You know how so many of my things have been going missing lately, don’t you?” There was a definite implication that Vi also knew why and where to.

“You know what?” I said, edging around Vi’s ample figure. “I’m just gonna let myself out. Let you and your stepmum catch up and all that.”

Mrs. F-M.’s lip curled. “Oh, dear Violet and I have said all we have to say to one another, I think.” She turned and stepped delicately out of the room, leaving me on my tod with an irate Vi.

Cheers, love.

“I can’t believe that cow. I could bloody kill her.” Vi turned to me. “Tell her I haven’t got her bloody earring or whatever it is she’s lost this time, and when she finds it, she can take it and shove it right up her—”

I made it out of the room, thank God, and shut the door behind me quick. Yep, definitely not much love lost in this happy little family. Course, these two were only related by marriage, so the whole blood-is-thicker-than-water thing didn’t really apply.

Then again, blood’s not the only thing that makes people family. And I’m speaking from a position of personal experience here.

Mrs. F-M. was waiting for me at the far end of the landing, head on one side and an eager look in her eyes. She didn’t seem fazed in the slightest by the hatred coming at her from Vi’s direction. Maybe that was why her skin was so pale and clear: she had antifreeze instead of blood running through her veins. “Well? Did you find it?”

“Didn’t exactly have a right lot of time in there, did I?”

“But did you get anything? Any sense of it at all?” She click-clacked closer.

“Weeellllll . . .” Shit. I really wasn’t comfortable with this. ’Specially after Vi had made her feelings on the matter so bloody clear. “Sorry. It was all a bit vague.”

“But there was something?”

“Um. Maybe?”

“I knew it.” She didn’t exactly purr. It was too reptilian for that. “You’ll have to come round again. I’ll call you.”

I made a mental note to call-screen from now on.

“In the meantime, there’s something else you can do for me. As you’re no doubt aware, I’m organising this year’s Harvest Fayre. I’m sure I can count on your support?”

“Uh . . .”

She smiled, all teeth and no sincerity. “Excellent. I’ll be in touch with further details. Now, I’m sure you have work to do.” She didn’t actually say chop-chop, but axes were definitely implied as she chivvied me out the front door.

Flippin’ marvellous. I stomped down the drive to the van, wondering just what I’d managed to sign up for without ever, at any point, saying yes. Hopefully it’d just be a stint manning the barbecue or working the beer tent. I could handle that, particularly the latter. Just as long as it didn’t involve me having to put on any sort of themed costume and make a prat of myself.

Oh God. Harvest Fayre? She’d better not be expecting me to dress up as some kind of humorous vegetable. A leek, maybe? It’d better sodding well not be a pea.

I slammed the van door a bit harder than I needed to and shoved the keys viciously in the ignition. This was not turning out to be my day. Still, at least I’d be able to console myself with a few rounds of cake at the Old Deanery. And maybe wring Cherry’s neck while I was at it for putting me through all this. I switched on my phone to check the time—Sis had said come round at four—only to find a text from her saying, Dont come rnd sprise bishp.

After a moment’s head scratching, I took it to mean she’d been surprised by a visit from the imperial overlord and didn’t want me coming over to show her up. Rather than, say, she just didn’t want to see me and was suggesting I go play pranks on His Right Reverendness as an alternative activity. Great. So now I wasn’t even going to get any cake. As I watched, a second text pinged through with a belated, Sry.

I wasn’t in the best of moods after that, so seeing as it was Friday, it was around teatime, and it was a nice day and all, I popped in at Phil’s office on my way home to see if I could persuade him to knock off early too and go grab a pint.

Alban Investigations Ltd. (director and sole employee, Phil Morrison, Esq.) has its registered address on Hatfield Road, St. Albans, above a firm of no-win-no-fee lawyers of the sort my barrister big sis likes to look down her nose at. It’s a cosy little place, by which I mean cramped, but then all he really needs is a desk and a couple of parking spaces: one for his shiny silver VW Golf and one for clients. Or, as might be, my van. I slotted it in neatly and rang the bell for him to buzz me up.

Phil had a file open on his desk when I walked in the door, but I was fairly sure that was just part of the window dressing to impress any potential clients who might drop in unannounced how busy he was. ’Specially seeing as he also had the paper open to the puzzle section and a cup of tea by his elbow. He gave me the raised-eyebrow treatment when I walked in, but I could tell he was pleased to see me.

“Fancy a pint down the Cocks?” I asked, dropping into one of his client chairs, because it’d been a while since I’d had a good swivel.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is a pub down by the park in St. Albans. Despite the name, it’s not a gay bar with a particularly violent rep, just your average watering hole with an extra bit of history.

It claims to be Britain’s oldest pub and to have been serving beer since around the time Vikings first made the happy discovery that monks in Lindisfarne didn’t fight back, but if you ask me, any place that feels the need to put “Ye Olde” in its name is definitely calling its authenticity into question. Normally I’d prefer the Devil’s Dyke in Brock’s Hollow, but it was presently undergoing major renovations on account of having been gutted by a fire back at the start of the summer. The landlady, Harry Shire (who’d also been pretty gutted about it all), was keeping her business going out of the downstairs room in a local restaurant, but on a sunny summer evening, you want a beer garden, don’t you?

Harry would understand.

Well, maybe not, ’cos I wasn’t planning on being daft enough ever to mention it to her, but, well, in principle she would. Probably.

“Some of us have to work for a living,” Phil muttered. Still, he closed the file.

“Hey, does that mean I get to be a kept man when we tie the knot?” I grinned at him. We’d got engaged the day after the fire, which had happened to be my thirtieth birthday, and the ring he’d given me still felt a bit weird on my finger. In a good way, mind. Definitely in a good way.

“In your dreams.” He smirked. “People are always telling me there’s a load of money in plumbing. Maybe I’ll be the kept man.”

“Yeah? Which people are those, then?” I mean, I’m not on the breadline or anything, but if plumbing’s the way to make your fortune, I’ve been doing it wrong all these years.

“Jase, mostly.”

“Like he knows his arse from anyone else’s elbow.” Jase was Phil’s brother, and a first-class graduate of the school of talking bollocks. We’d only met a couple of times so far. He seemed to like me for some reason, but I can’t say the feeling was all that mutual.

“Yeah, well, that’s not the only thing he’s been mouthing off about. I got a call from Mum this morning.” Phil imbued this dire pronouncement with the gravity it deserved, which was more than you’d think. “Something you want to tell me about?”

“Uh, right.” I tried to look like it’d genuinely slipped my mind. “You mean, like me bumping into Jase the other night down the supermarket, and him noticing the ring?”

I’d been a bit surprised Jase had realised the significance at the time, seeing as I was wearing it on my right hand—the plan was to switch it over to the left when we were official. Then again, maybe that’s what Phil had done when he got spliced to the Mysterious Mark?

That not being a subject I was too keen on thinking about, I preferred to speculate that Jase just wasn’t too hot on the difference between left and right.

Phil grunted. “That might be the sort of thing I was thinking of, yes. So I got a right ear-bashing from Mum, and we’re going round on Sunday for a bit more of the same.”

I winced.

Look, it wasn’t like we were keeping the engagement a secret or anything.

But, well, relationships between mine and Phil’s families had never been much cop, owing (a) to the fact they’d had bugger all in common apart from sons the same age attending the same school, and (b) to a certain incident when we were seventeen, when I’d ended up under the wheels of a Chelsea tractor under circumstances that might, to some people, have looked like it was sort of Phil’s fault.

Which it wasn’t, all right? It was just one of those things. An accident. My mum and dad threatening to sue had been well out of order.

Now, all that was over a dozen years ago, and chances were Phil’s mum wasn’t still bearing a grudge or anything. But anyway, me and Phil had both agreed we weren’t in a hurry for any cosy family get-togethers.

“Oh, and she knows who you are,” Phil added. “Jase finally twigged.”

Jase hadn’t seemed to cotton on I was that Tom, when I’d first bumped into him way back in January, but I s’pose he’d had plenty of time since to remember why the name Paretski had seemed a bit familiar. “Uh, yeah, I thought he might have, the other night. You know, from the way he kept staring at my hip. You oughtta tell him, some gay blokes might take that the wrong way.”

Phil gave me a look. “You want to tell Jase it looked like he was eyeing you up? Just don’t expect me to bring you grapes when you wind up in hospital.”

“You mean you wouldn’t leap to my defence? I’m crushed.”

“Not half as crushed as you’d be if Jase really got into it with you. He used to beat the crap out of me when we were kids. Course, I reckon I could take him easy now.” He looked grimly satisfied at the prospect. Looked like he might have a few scores to settle there.

Which would really add spice to our Sunday lunch with the folks. Great.

“So were you serious about having to work, or can we go and get that drink? ’Cos I reckon I need one now.”

“Got a client coming. In about twenty minutes, so if you’re parked up back, you’ll need to shift the van.” Phil at least had the decency to look regretful.

“Yeah? What sort of case?” I hoped it wasn’t another cheating wife/husband/significant other. Phil’s inner cynic didn’t, in my considered opinion, need any more encouragement.

“Some woman claiming identity theft and refusing to pay her bills. Client reckons it was her all along.”

“What do you reckon?”

“Don’t know yet, do I? That’s what I’m supposed to be investigating—after he’s given me all the details. Anyhow, you’d better get that van shifted. Just in case he’s early. Tell you what, though—walk back up in an hour or so, and we can go out for that pint.”

“Or you could drive down and pick me up.”

“More chance of making it before closing time if you come up here, the way this bloke goes on. He spent half an hour on the phone just making the appointment.”

“Fine, I’ll come and save you from the mouthy client. Don’t worry about me having to drive home and then slog all the way back up here.” All right, it was only a five-minute walk, ten if I stopped off at Vik’s shop en route for a Mars Bar and a natter, but it’s the principle of the thing.

Phil smirked. “Help stave off the middle-age spread, won’t it?”

“Oi, I just turned thirty, not fifty!”

Unsympathetic git.


Chapter Three

Cherry rang again that evening, just as me and Phil were getting cosy in front of the telly with the cats, having decided we couldn’t be arsed to go out after all.

“Did you go to see her?” she demanded.

I heaved myself off the sofa and walked into the kitchen so Phil could carry on goggle-boxing in peace. Merlin, the eternal optimist, padded after me to give his empty bowl a pointed look. Arthur, being a lazy sod and cynical to boot, stayed where he was, purring on Phil’s lap. “Yeah, I went. You know she only wanted me to search her stepdaughter’s room, right?”

Sis made some kind of noise that didn’t translate at all well over the phone. “Oh, I was afraid of that. Sorry.”

“Yeah, well, you might have warned me.”

“Would you have gone round if I had?”

“What do you reckon?” All right, I probably still would’ve, but no need to let Sis know that.

“Which is why I didn’t warn you. Look, I know she’s tiresome, but please just humour her. For my sake?”

I rolled my eyes at this blatant attempt to appeal to my brotherly feelings. It was safe: she couldn’t see me. “Who exactly is this Mrs. F-M., and why’s she got you over a barrel?” I asked.

Cherry tsked. “She’s friendly with the bishop. Very friendly. She’s only been living in St. Leonards for less than a year, but she’s already running half the activities of the diocese.”

I took that with a pinch of salt. There’s a whole team of high-up church types at St. Leonards, and I’ve never been sure exactly what all of ’em do. Canon Greg, although definitely a big shot compared to your average parish priest, seemed to be a fairly minor firearm in the cathedral’s arsenal. Which, as usual, seemed to directly translate as “did all the work.” At any rate, he was a fair way below the bloke with the shepherd’s crook and the pointy hat, who Cherry had her heart set on officiating at her and Greg’s wedding.

God knows why. I mean to say, if anyone’s going to upstage the bride on her wedding day, it’s got to be a bishop. Unless Cherry went for the full-on puffed-up meringue look—which, being her, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t—no way was her frock going to be prettier than his.

“If she hadn’t just got married to Alex Majors,” Cherry went on, “I’d suspect her of having set her cap at the bishop. He isn’t married, you know.”

“Yeah? This your surprise bishop who ate all my cakes?” Merlin gave his bowl one last disappointed sniff, then tried winding himself round my legs in case I was up for a bit of emotional blackmail.

“Toby. Yes. We don’t have any suffragan bishops at St. Leonards.”

Whatever those were. I focussed on the bit I understood. “You call the bish Toby? Isn’t that, I dunno, disrespectful or something?”

“What do you expect me to call him? My lord? Nobody’s that formal these days. And at least I don’t refer to him as the bish. He came round to talk about carbon footprints with Gregory. And before you come up with some hilarious joke about Gregory’s shoe size, please don’t.”

“Wouldn’t dream of putting my foot in it like that. Hey, if Greg and the bish are all chummy already, why are you so worried dear old Amelia’s gonna put you in bad with him?”

“They’re not. That’s the problem. You know Gregory’s been castigated—”

“Sounds painful. Is the wedding still on?”

“—for speaking out in support of gay clergy? Well, the bishop is something of a traditionalist, I’m afraid.”

“Great. Still, he’s not likely to refuse to marry you for something like that, is he?”

“This isn’t just about the wedding. Gregory’s career is at a very vulnerable stage. He doesn’t want to be a canon all his life, you know.”

“Oh, I see. Got your eye on a bishop’s palace, have you? Fancy Greg in purple?”

“Don’t be silly. I just want what’s best for Gregory. And the position of dean could be becoming vacant soon.”

“So we need to keep the bishop sweet at all costs. Got it.”

“Not at all costs.” There was a breathy noise down the phone. “I’m not really asking that much of you, am I?”

“No, but . . . I dunno. Just doesn’t seem right, sneaking around behind the daughter’s back.” Talking of which, I felt an arm sneak around my front as Phil stealth-cuddled me from behind. I leaned back into him, smiling at Merlin, who’d finally abandoned all hope and was sitting on top of the fridge. He gave me a frankly worried look, leapt down, and scarpered. “And she’s roped me into her Harvest Fayre, whatever that is,” I went on. “Has it got a y in it? I bet it has. You’ve got to have a y in it, or people start expecting fairground rides and dodgy hoopla stalls.”

“I think she’s planning some of those as well,” Sis said drily. “And it’s not her Harvest Fayre, or at least, it never used to be. It’s an annual event in St. Leonards, to raise funds for the needy.”

“I s’pose it’s a bit better than just getting all the kiddies to turn up to church with an out-of-date can of Heinz soup from the back of the cupboard. Or a couple of wormy apples from the tree in the garden.” Which was the sort of thing I vaguely remembered from my long-off Sunday school days.

“Exactly. So what’s she got you doing? I’m running the cake stall, of all things.” Cherry’s tone said it all. My sis doesn’t bake. Ever.

“Didn’t say. When is it, anyhow?”

“The last Saturday of the month. This month, so don’t forget. Although I’m sure Amelia will give you very precise instructions nearer the time.” There was a certain tightness to her tone.

“Voice of bitter experience, that, is it?”

“It wouldn’t be right of me to say anything disparaging about someone who’s done so much for the cathedral,” Cherry said in the sort of voice that meant she really, really wanted to. “Anyway, I know it’s short notice, but why don’t you and Philip come over to Gregory’s for Sunday lunch this weekend?”

I gathered that was a peace offering. “Sorry, can’t. We’re going round to Phil’s mum’s.”

“Oh.” There was a pause. “Is this the first time you’ll be meeting her?”

“Yeah. Well, you know, since school.” I mean, chances were I’d at least seen her around at some point, but to be honest I couldn’t have picked her out of a police lineup. It wasn’t like me and Phil had been mates in those days.

“Oh. Well, good luck.” She made it sound like I’d need it.

“You, um, remember Phil’s family?” I was very conscious that the bloke himself was currently wrapped around me and could hear every word I said.

“Oh yes.” Another pause. “Call me Sunday night if you need to.”

Cheers, Sis. Way to make me feel optimistic and all.

* * * * * * *

Saturday, both me and Phil had work to do in the morning that managed to stretch on to midafternoon. We met up for a late lunch—well late—and decided it was way too nice out to just veg in front of the sport on the telly, ’specially as in mid-September you know the weather’s not gonna hold forever. So we took a walk down to Verulamium Park, where we wandered around the old Roman ruins, had an ice cream from the van, and ended up down at the Fighting Cocks like I’d wanted to the previous evening.

The beer garden there isn’t huge, and it was full of people, like us, trying to stretch out the summer just that little bit longer. In fact, we got out there with our pints just in time to nab the last couple of seats—they’d set up a big screen out there to show the England rugby match that night, and laid on a barbecue as well. Now, rugby’s not really my thing—bit too public school for me—but it was England, yeah? You’ve got to cheer on your national side. And I’ve gotta say, there’s a lot to be said for what rugby does to a man’s thighs. So we settled in for the evening, and a very good evening it was too.

See, the thing about football—proper football, I mean, played with a round ball like God intended—is, it’s like an art form. The clever footwork, with eleven men playing as a team, dodging and, all right, sometimes diving. Tactics. They call it the beautiful game for a reason, don’t they? It’s, well, it’s elegant. Poetic, even. The players are athletic, yeah, but it’s all about the skill too. Not just the brute force.

Rugby, now . . . Well, it’s just a bunch of big bastards getting up close and personal with each other, innit? Sort of like wrestling, only not faked, with intervals of some bloke built like an armoured car grabbing the ball and legging it, trying to make it to the other side of the pitch before fifteen other blokes, some of who’re built like Chieftain bloody tanks, throw themselves on top of him. And, all right, there’s a bit of skill involved too, but mostly there’s a raw physicality about it that I didn’t have to be into the game itself to appreciate.

I wasn’t alone there, as it happens. I was trying to grill Phil a bit about his family, get some tips on how best to make ’em like me—or at least, to not piss them off too much. I mean, I did okay with Jase, but this was Phil’s mum. It was important, yeah?

But every time I tried to bring up the subject, some bugger with legs like beer barrels would make a tackle, or score a try, so I s’pose it wasn’t surprising Phil kept getting distracted. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Couple that with the testosterone boost of our side winning, well . . . I’m sure you get my drift. Not that me and Phil were all over each other while we watched or anything—Phil’s not into public displays of affection, and neither of us is into getting gay-bashed—but let’s just say we had a very good night after we got back to mine.

* * * * * * *

Waking up slowly on Sunday morning in the arms of my fiancé was pretty good too. At least, until I got a look at Phil’s expression and had a moment’s panic it was Monday. “Oi, what’s up? Merlin wake you up by biting your toes again?” Serve him right for being so bloody tall his feet stuck out the end of the duvet.

Phil made a low, grumbly sound. “Forgotten what today is, have you?”

“Sunday. I checked. Day of rest, peace, and goodwill to all men—no, wait, that’s Christmas. So what’s got you all pissed off before you’ve even got out of bed?”

He hmphed. “You do remember where we’re going today, don’t you?”

“Well, yeah. Your mum’s. But that’s hours off, innit?” I tried to snuggle into his side, possibly—all right, definitely—with a view to getting a bit frisky, but it was like trying to cuddle a block of granite.

“One o’clock, Mum said. She’s doing a roast.” Phil glowered so hard at one particular spot on the ceiling, I was worried the plaster would crumble.

I could feel my sex life going the same way. “Okay, you wanna tell me why you’re looking so bloody miserable at the prospect? What is it—lumpy gravy, overcooked meat, what?”

Phil almost smiled at that, and shook his head. “Nah. She’s not a bad cook. It’s just . . . Mum stopped doing Sunday lunch after Dad died. Said it was too much of a faff, and none of us lot ever appreciated it anyway. Half the time, Jase was at work, Nige was away, and Leanne was still in bed sleeping off her hangover.”

All right, it wasn’t that early in the morning, but it was still too early for me to read subtext. “You’re gonna have to spell it out. What is it—sad memories of your dad?” I hadn’t thought he missed the old guy that much, but still waters sink ships and all that. Maybe recent developments in my life had brought it all up in his mind. Dredged up long-buried emotions, that sort of thing.

He huffed. “Nah. It’s you.”

“Me? What did I do?”

“It’s not what you’ve done. Pulling out all the stops, isn’t she? Just you wait. There’ll be napkins on the table and forks with the pudding spoons. She’ll probably even turn the telly off while we eat.”

“Hang on, I thought you said she remembered me?”

“Yeah, as that posh kid whose family were planning to sue us.”

“Come off it—you know I’m not posh!”

“Yeah, you are. Compared to my family, anyhow.” At least he said it without getting visibly shirty. My Phil’s always had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about his council estate origins, but I like to think I’m doing my bit to wear it down. Phil would probably be the first to agree I can have an abrasive effect at times.

“You don’t act posh,” he added grudgingly.

“Yeah, well, the polo pony got a flat, and my top hat’s in the wash.”

He laughed. “Never seen you dress posh, for that matter. Not since Gary and Darren’s wedding, anyhow.”

“Leave all that to you, don’t I?” It at least made him an easy bloke to buy presents for, which I appreciated, seeing as he had a birthday coming up in October and him proposing on my last birthday had set the bar a bit high. All I’d have to do would be take out a second mortgage and buy him another sweater. “Oi, I don’t have to dress up for this, do I?”

“Christ, no. Just wear what you want. Well, not your actual work clothes or they’ll think you’re taking the piss. And maybe give the joke T-shirts a rest.”

“Okay, you wanna stop before you rule out my entire wardrobe?”

“Don’t worry. I might think you look best naked, but I don’t reckon it’d go down too well with my mum.” Then he huffed to himself. “Either that, or it’d go down too bloody well.”

We eventually dragged ourselves out of bed—there’s only so long you can ignore the pointed miaowing of a couple of cats convinced they’re about to die of starvation—and grabbed a light breakfast of toast and coffee. Well, you’ve got to make sure you leave plenty of room for a roast dinner, haven’t you? Mortally offending Phil’s mum by refusing her Yorkshire pud probably wouldn’t be the best way to make a good first impression.

I’d thought maybe Phil would actually dress down for the occasion, but he just put on his usual gear of designer shirt and trousers so smart that if I wore ’em, I’d be pretty much guaranteed to spill gravy all over the front. I kind of liked that—like he was saying, This is how I am now, and I’m not gonna change for anyone.

Course, he might also have been saying, Look how far I’ve come, losers. Like I said, there’s a bit of a chip on those broad shoulders of his.

I dithered a bit, then put on a new-ish pair of black jeans and a dark-green shirt Gary reckoned brought out my eyes. Phil gave me a look.

“What?” I asked, narked.

He smirked. “Thought you weren’t gonna dress up.”

“Shut up. Are we going or what?”

Phil gave me a look like he wanted to say Or what. Then he squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and headed down the stairs.

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t one or two butterflies flitting around my insides as I followed, but Christ, how bad could his family be?