Heat Trap (The Plumber's Mate Mysteries, #3)

Heat Trap by JL Merrow
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This title is #3 of the The Plumber's Mate Mysteries series.

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Old flames can leave a nasty burn.

It’s been six months since plumber Tom Paretski was hit by a shocking revelation about his family, and he’s been avoiding dealing with it ever since. His lover, PI Phil Morrison, wants Tom to dig deeper into his history and try to develop his psychic talent for finding things, but Tom’s not nearly so keen. Just as he decides to bite the bullet, though, worse problems crawl out of the woodwork.

Young Devil’s Dyke barmaid Marianne has an ex, Grant Carey, who won’t accept that things are over between them, and he’s ruthless in dealing with anyone who gets in his way.  When Carey threatens an old friend of theirs, Phil and Tom step in to help—but that makes them targets themselves.

What with his uncertainty about Phil’s motives, Tom’s family doing their best to drive a wedge between them, and the uncovering of an ugly incident in Phil’s past, Tom’s not sure who he can trust—and the body he finds in the pub cellar isn’t the only thing that stinks.

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

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I’d never gone into a pub cellar before—I might be a plumber, but the sort of liquids they have piped in down there aren’t really my area of expertise. Then again, I suppose I’ve downed a few pints in my time. I’d expected it to be fairly small, just room for a few barrels and pipelines. Maybe another room where they stored the spares, and the bottles of wine and bags of crisps and stuff.

It was actually pretty massive, with four or five separate rooms leading off from the narrow stone stairway. It didn’t stretch as far as the whole upstairs floor space, owing to the medieval well in the public bar which must still have been in use when the cellar was dug, but it couldn’t be far off. If trade at the Devil’s Dyke ever took off in a big way, landlady Harry could put in a whole separate bar down here if she wanted to. The walls were whitewashed brick, with those low, curving ceilings you always seemed to get in cellars built during Ye Olde Tymes.

It was as if I’d dropped in on a hobbit with a drinking problem.

And a housekeeping problem, come to that. It smelt pretty rank down here. There was something about the odour that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, although maybe it was just down to the chill in the air here after the oven-like conditions back upstairs in the land of the living. I stood stock-still, opened up the spidey-senses and listened.

I practically fell over with the force of the vibes buffeting me in the chest.

I couldn’t believe I’d been sitting in the bar having a pint, oblivious. How could I have blocked out something that strong? There was guilt and anger—and fear too. My stomach went cold as I realised just what I was likely to find down here.

I turned to Marianne. “I reckon you’ve got more to worry about than a burst drain, love.” My face must have looked as iffy as I felt, as she wrapped skinny arms around herself, her pretty face a picture of worry.

I followed the thick, sickly vibes out of the main cellar with its shiny metal barrels and high-tech pump lines, the hum of the chiller unit fading behind me. They took me down the dimly lit passageway that led to the farthest cellar room. It was clearly used as a dumping ground for any old rubbish Harry hadn’t got around to chucking away yet.

Among other things.

It was warmer in here, although still nowhere near as hot as upstairs, and close up, the stench was sickening. Let’s face it, in my profession you get used to the odd nasty niff, from blocked drains and bunged-up loos and that, but the stink of death? That’s something else. I think it’s the sweetness that gets to me most. Like, what the hell is something so awful doing smelling sweet? I gagged and clapped a hand over my nose and mouth. It didn’t help. The reek of decay seemed to seep inside my lungs even when I wasn’t inhaling. I had to force myself to go on looking.

Didn’t take me long to find it. Talk about following your nose. It was wedged behind some barrels—actual old wooden ones, covered in cobwebs. God knows why they were down here. Maybe they’d been left by the original owner of the place. Any beer they’d ever held had long since been drunk, or maybe just evaporated over the centuries.

The body didn’t actually look as far gone as you’d think, given the smell. The features were swollen, grotesque, but still recognisable.

At least, I recognised them.


Chapter One

Sometimes, even getting out of the house and switching your phone off won’t save you. This time, it started with a quiet Saturday lunchtime pint up at the Devil’s Dyke pub in Brock’s Hollow. It was one of those blistering-hot days you occasionally get in May that lull you into thinking Britain’s going to have a proper summer for once, and generally mean it’ll rain for the next three months solid. Not that I’m cynical or anything. I was sitting out in the beer garden with my mate Gary, listening to bees buzzing around the flowers, kiddies playing football on the grassy bit by the car park, and a bloke at the next table having a rant about global warming. A half-hearted breeze wafted listlessly, weighed down by the scents of lilacs, cheese and onion crisps, and beer.

We were under the shade of an umbrella so Gary wouldn’t risk getting a freckle and ruining his wedding photos the following month. I’d have told him not to be so daft, except I knew that as his best man, I’d be the one getting all the grief about it on the day. And anyway, it was pretty hot. I had my sleeves rolled up even in the shade, and you had to feel sorry for Julian, Gary’s Saint Bernard. Between the fur coat and the sheer bulk of him, he had to be only a couple of degrees away from turning into a big doggy puddle on the grass.

I was just contemplating getting another round in (something soft for me, with a shedload of ice in it; I had work this afternoon), when the Devil’s Dyke herself, pub landlady Harry Shire, hove into view, her border collie Flossie panting at her heels.

“Tom. Gary,” she greeted us gruffly. I leaned back in my seat to look up at her—Harry’s six foot tall if she’s an inch, so there was a long way to look. “Your bloke joining you?”

“Not as far as I know.” Phil got on fine with Gary’s fiancé, Darren. He got on a lot less fine with the man himself, so if I knew my bloke, he’d be giving the Dyke a wide berth this lunchtime. “Any reason?”

She nodded. “Got a job for him.”

“Ooh, this sounds thrilling.” Gary leaned forward on the table while Flossie and Julian sniffed each other’s arses politely. “What is it? Light-fingered barmaids lifting money from the tills? The case of the disappearing beer barrels?”

“It’s private.” Harry folded her arms. When most women do that, it makes their boobs look bigger. Harry, though, it just made her biceps stand out. I couldn’t help noticing they were a lot more impressive than mine. Come to that, her boobs were and all, but I didn’t have a problem with that.

Gary pouted. He hates being left out of any juicy secrets going around.

“Want me to ask Phil to pop round?” I asked. “I’m seeing him tonight.”

“If you would. Soon as he can.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. “Tell you what, you got your mobile on you? I’ll give him a bell.”

Harry looked down at me for a moment, then handed over a scratched-up phone that looked older than her latest barmaid. It took me a mo to remember how to use the ones with actual buttons, but I managed to get Phil’s number into it.

“Alban Investigations,” he answered promptly.

“Hi, it’s me. Tom,” I added, in case the line was a bit crackly his end. “I’m up at the Dyke, ringing on Harry’s phone—she wants a word, okay? Work stuff. Your work, I mean. Not hers.”

“Pub lunch again? All right for some. Yeah, put her on. See you about six?”

“Yeah, see you then.” I handed the phone back to Harry—then noticed Gary smirking at me and hastily wiped the soppy smile off my face.

Phone to her ear, Harry nodded her thanks and strode off, clicking her fingers for Flossie to follow. I watched her for a minute, then turned back to frown at the dregs of my pint. Whatever the problem was, I hoped it wasn’t serious. Harry might not be full of the traditional mine-host pub landlord’s hearty bonhomie, but she was a good friend to have. And she knew her beer.

“I don’t see why she couldn’t have told us what it was about,” Gary muttered, giving the olive in his martini a petulant swirl. “You know me. Are my lips ever loose?”

“Sorry—don’t think I’m qualified to answer that one. You’ll have to ask Darren.” Gary’s and my friendship has always been strictly without benefits, seeing as how I tend to go for the mean, moody, and macho type, not the cuddly, kinky, and camp sort, and for his part, Gary reckons vanilla’s only fit for flavouring ice cream. Which was why he was about to marry a dwarf ex-porn star, and I was currently walking out with the owner, manager, and sole staff member of Alban Investigations, otherwise known as Phil Morrison.

“Well, if Phil should happen to let any little details slip, you will share, won’t you?” Two sets of puppy eyes turned my way in an eerie joint attack from Gary and Julian.

“Course,” I lied cheerfully, and Gary brightened. He’s never really got the concept of client confidentiality. He’s got his own IT firm, and some of the things he’s told me he’s “stumbled across” on his customers’ hard drives would make your hair curl.

Nothing illegal, mind. He might be the world’s worst gossip, but he’s got standards. Or at least, he’s worked out that I have.

“It’s odd, though,” Gary was saying. “Harry, needing a man? When has that ever happened?”

“Well, she called you in to install the business software. Or don’t you count?” I laughed as Gary treated me to a view of a slowly swivelling finger. In principle, though, he wasn’t wrong. Harry was one of the most self-sufficient people I knew. Come the zombie apocalypse, I’d be heading straight for the Dyke and hiding behind the bar. “Maybe it’s just a know-how thing? She wants someone found, maybe, or some information, and she doesn’t know how to get hold of it?”

“Ooh, do you think she’s got a long-lost love child she was tragically forced to give up for adoption? The product of an illicit heterosexual affair, perhaps?”

I think I must have winced or something. Although it wasn’t because Gary made the word heterosexual sound like something out of The Joy of Extreme Sex. Love children produced by illicit affairs were still a bit of a sore topic with me.

Seeing as I’d found out only a few months ago I was one.

Gary cleared his throat, straightened his face out from lascivious to sympathetic, and patted my knee. “Sorry, darling. Didn’t mean to poke a raw nerve. But while we’re on the subject, have you found out anything more . . .?”

“Nope,” I said flatly.

Apparently not flatly enough to deter further poking. Or patting, for that matter. “What, nothing? Are you sure that man of yours is doing a proper job?” Julian pricked up his ears, decided he needed to get in on the action, and plonked his jowls down on the knee not receiving his master’s attention. His head felt like a hot water bottle, but at least his drool would evaporate quickly in the heat.

“Phil’s not doing anything about finding my real dad. I haven’t asked him to.”

Gary stared at me, blank incomprehension all over his soft, round face. “But don’t you want to know? I mean, it’s so exciting! You could literally be anyone.”

“Yeah, well, sorry to disappoint you, but I’m pretty sure I’m not Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed’s love child.”

“Well, of course not, darling. You’re not dark enough, and anyway the timing would be all wrong. Still, maybe some dashing young guardsman . . .”

“No. My mum’s still my mum, okay?”

Gary nodded thoughtfully. “Although I have to say, I find her much more interesting now.”

“You would.” There was a loud bang as one of the kiddies punted the football straight into my van’s windscreen. I cringed, and the lad, who must have been all of seven or eight, froze for a moment, visibly worried he was going to cop it. Luckily he was never going to be the next David Beckham and the ball bounced off harmlessly. Play resumed as though nothing had happened, but I noticed one or two blokes giving their cars nervous glances.

“Well, of course. She’s a lady with a dark, hidden past.” Gary sighed wistfully. “We have so much in common.”

“Hint all you like, I’m still not going there.” Mainly because I was one hundred percent sure it was utter bullshit. On Gary’s part, at least. The matter of my mum’s dark, hidden past had been made painfully clear to me by Auntie Lol’s cache of old letters.

Gary sighed again. Actually, this time it was more like a huff of exasperation. “I just think you should do something about it, before it’s too late. People don’t live forever.” He shot me a significant look. “You of all people should know that.”

“Oi, what am I—the angel of death?”

He pursed his lips. “Nooo . . . You’re more like a harbinger.”

“Whatever one of those is.” I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like it.

“A portent. A deadly warning.” Gary beamed. “You’re a banshee!”

Oi. I’m not a bloody banshee. I turn up after the fact and find stuff, that’s all. And there’s no wailing involved either.”

Gary shrugged. “I’m just saying, you seem to spend a lot of time in the company of corpses, that’s all.”

“Trust me, mate, I spend as little time as possible with ’em. So how’s the wedding plans going?” Okay, as attempts to change the subject go, it was less than subtle, but Gary’s never been able to resist talking about his love life.

“Famously, darling. I’m meeting up with Darren’s parents tomorrow to discuss things.”

“Yeah? This the first time you’ve met them?”

“Of course not. They see me as a surrogate child.”

“So what’re they like? Are they, you know . . .” I’d been about to say dwarves, but I bottled it. “A lot like him?”

“Oh, absolutely. Darren comes from a long line of market traders. He was selling fruit and veg before he was knee-high to a proverbial.”

I wasn’t going to touch the issue of Darren’s height with a bargepole, proverbial or otherwise. “Let me guess, his first words were ‘two fer a pahnd’?”

“Something more along the lines of ‘firm and juicy,’ I believe.” Gary tossed down the last of his martini, then sucked the olive off his cocktail stick with a suggestive slurping sound.

“Want another?” I asked.

Gary pouted at his glass. “Just a Diet Coke, darling. Putting on weight now would be a disaster. And the same goes for you. A man of your height shows every extra ounce.” He wagged a finger at me and chortled.

Bloody hell. It was bad enough when it was only Darren making the short-arse jokes.

* * * * * * *

After finding out about my real dad from my late Auntie Lol, I’d meant to get right on the case—well, get Phil on the case—of finding out who I really was. But I’d had a run of jobs to catch up on, and what with one thing and another, I just . . . hadn’t.

It hadn’t helped that I’d had a pretty good idea how my sister, Cherry, would react if I started trying to rake up the past. We’d been getting on a lot better lately, Cherry and me. Seeing a lot more of each other—Sunday roasts with Phil and her reverend fiancé, the occasional weekday lunch in St. Albans for the two of us, that sort of thing. Seemed a shame to upset the apple cart. And, well . . . Dad wasn’t such a bad sort. I mean, he’d been fine about me being gay and not having a high-flying career or anything.

Although now I was wondering if he just didn’t care, seeing as I wasn’t his.

But he’d been the one who’d been, well, a dad to me. It hadn’t been his fault he’d been a bit past it by the time I came along and wanted someone to take me playing footie in the park. He’d been the one who’d taught me how to ride a bike—not that I could remember it, exactly, but it must have been him. God knows my big brother, Richard, wouldn’t have bothered. And Dad was the one who’d given me my pocket money and paid for my driving lessons. Not to mention, given me the disappointed look when I pranged the car my first time flying solo.

It didn’t seem right. Like trying to find my real dad would be ungrateful or something. And, well. It wasn’t like he’d ever bothered to find me, was it?

So I’d let it slide.

Now, though . . . Gary had got me wondering again.

I brought it up with Phil that night, when we were sitting on the sofa, me still picking at my dinner and him flicking through the channels on the telly with Merlin purring away like a buzz saw on his lap.

“Gary reckons I ought to do something about finding my real dad.”

“So? Not up to him, is it?”

I sighed and bunged my plate on top of Phil’s on the coffee table, where it was just far enough out of reach to be a barrier against temptation. I was stuffed, really. Arthur came and gave the plates a sniff, then backed off quickly, furry tail twitching. Apparently, lamb biryani wasn’t his thing. Who knew? Then again, I had pretty comprehensively picked out all the meat already.

“Yeah, but . . . he’s got a point. I mean, my dad’s got to be, what, at least in his sixties? If he’s even still alive. If I don’t do something now, maybe I’ll never get the chance.”

Phil pursed his lips. “Not going to be easy, finding the bloke with only a first name and a photo. Have you thought about talking to your mum?”

“Yeah. A bit too much. Christ, I don’t know.” I closed my eyes and scrubbed my hands over my face. A warm, solid arm slid around my shoulders, and Phil gave me a comforting squeeze. “How am I supposed to even bring the subject up? ‘Oi, Mum, remember the old days when you used to be a bit of a slapper?’ Ow!” Phil had flicked my ear. I opened my eyes and glared at him.

“Don’t talk about your mum that way. And you’ve simply got to decide, haven’t you? Whether finding your real dad is that important to you.”

Important? Of course it’s important. Bloody hell, wouldn’t you want to know where you’d come from?”

He shrugged. “Some people would say it’s more important where you end up.”

“Yeah, but . . . it’s blood, innit? Thicker than water and all that crap.”

“So’s a lot of things. What if he turns out to be a right bastard?”

There was a split second before he realised what he’d said and tensed. I laughed. “That’s me, remember? Ah, shit. I dunno. Look, I know it’s not fair to ask, but is there anything you can do without talking to Mum?”

Phil nodded slowly. “Maybe. I can pay a visit to North London, see if I can track down anyone who knew your family when you were living there. Flash your old man’s photo around, see if it jogs any memories.” He half laughed.


“Bet I can find someone who remembers you, at any rate. Can’t have been too many primary schoolkids stumbling over bodies in the park. Least not back in those days.”

Thanks for the memory, Phil. “What, like it happens every week now? Yeah, you’re probably right. I blame video games. They’re whatsit, desensitising everyone to violence.”

“Don’t know about that.” Phil leaned back in the sofa. As he still had an arm around me, so did I. Not that I was complaining. Merlin, on the other hand, gave a peed-off miaow at all the shifting around, but he could lump it. “Think about it. If everyone’s indoors on the video games, who’s finding the bodies? Or leaving ’em there, for that matter?”

I let my head rest against his shoulder. “Stop trying to blind me with logic.”

“Why, is it working too well?”

“Git. Hey, what happened with Harry?” I asked as a thought struck me. “You sort something out with her?”

I wasn’t digging for info.


Phil nodded. “She’s coming round here tomorrow morning. You’re not working, are you?”

I did work the occasional Sunday, but generally I tried to avoid them. For one thing, husbands were usually around. I prefer dealing with the wives—and in an area like this, posh commuter belt for the most part, you get an awful lot of stay-at-home wives. They’re usually pretty friendly, only too glad to have someone round to chat to. The husbands, on the other hand, tend to fall into one of two camps. Either they want to keep it all strictly business, no idle chitchat with the help, or alternatively they’re in my face the whole bloody time talking bollocks about how they’d be doing the job themselves, if only the wife hadn’t called me in. I s’pose they feel their masculinity’s threatened or something, just because I know my way around a wrench and they don’t. At any rate, it makes for a less relaxed working environment.

Anyway, Sundays aren’t supposed to be for working. Not unless you have to. Day of rest, innit? Sundays are for stodgy roast dinners with the family, or if you can think up a good enough excuse to steer clear of your nearest and dearest, slobbing on the sofa watching sport on the telly.

“No, but I can clear out if you need me to.” Then again, if he didn’t want me around, why bring her to my house? He had a perfectly good flat of his own, not to mention an actual office. “You planning on having me sit in? Harry didn’t seem too keen on me knowing her business back up at the Dyke.”

“Nah, that was because of your mate Gary. She reckons he can’t keep his trap shut.” Phil’s eye roll made it clear he thought that one was a bit of a no-brainer. “She’s fine with you knowing about it. Her idea, in fact. Think she’s hoping you might be able to put that talent of yours to use.”

I grinned. “What, that thing I do with my tongue? Thought she wasn’t into blokes.”

Phil grunted. “Don’t flatter yourself. You know what I mean. Anyway, they’ll be here at ten.”


“Her and Marianne.”

“Her and Marianne?”

“Yeah, you know. New one at the Dyke. West Country girl. Her with the cartoon tattoo.”

It was a My Little Unicorn in rainbow colours. If she’d got it done to make her look harder, she’d seriously missed the mark.

“I know who she is. I wasn’t expecting it to be about her, that’s all.” God help me, I was starting to wonder if she was Harry’s long-lost love child.

“Maybe it isn’t. Maybe she’s just the moral support.”

“What, her? If Harry leans on her, she’ll snap.”

“I said moral support, not a bloody crutch.” He looked down at me smugly from his six foot two. “Wouldn’t have thought you’d be one to judge a book by its cover. Small doesn’t have to mean weak.”

“Yeah, but if she weighs more than seven stone soaking wet, I’m a sumo wrestler.”

“Wouldn’t advise it. Those nappies aren’t a good look on anyone.”

See, this is how I knew he loved me. Because he didn’t add, especially on skinny short-arses like you.

“So what is a good look on me?” I put on my best flirty smile.

“Me,” Phil said. And went on to prove it.


Chapter Two

Harry and Marianne turned up on my doorstep dead on ten o’clock Sunday morning, so it was just as well me and Phil had gone for mutual blowjobs and not a full-on shag.

Harry was in her usual summer gear of khaki cargo trousers and a man’s shirt worn loose over a tank top that would have been at home in an actual army tank—all that was missing was the dog tags. Marianne was all fresh and perky in a pair of denim cutoffs and a tight white T-shirt with The Devil’s Dyke scrawled across her boobs. The boobs I could take or leave, but the shirt covered up the tattoo on her shoulder, which was a definite bonus.

“Come on in,” I said, standing back so they could get past. It felt a bit weird having Harry in my space rather than me in hers. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen her outside the pub, although I guessed she must leave it all the time, really. Well, at least once a week or so. Probably. “Phil’s in the living room.”

I ushered them in, and Phil stood up to shake hands. Him and Harry were much of a size, but I reckoned she probably had the firmer grip. Marianne’s handshake looked limp and came with added giggles, like she wasn’t used to all this grown-up stuff.

That made two of us. I hadn’t even thought of offering a handshake. Then again, I’d known Harry a lot longer than Phil had. Nah, shaking hands would have been weird.

Phil invited them to make themselves at home on my sofa, which they did, Harry looming protectively over Marianne even when they were sitting down. Merlin stuck his furry nose into the room, took one look at Harry, and made a strategic retreat. Arthur, being made of sterner stuff—not to mention, twice as much of it—padded in fearlessly and jumped onto Marianne’s lap. She winced.

I gave her bare legs a sympathetic look. “Claws? Just shove him off if he’s a bother.”

Marianne’s big blue eyes gazed up at me, only the faintest hint of pain in those innocent depths. “Oh no, he’s lovely, he is. I love cats.” Her West Country burr was warmer than the weather as she stroked Arthur with both hands at once. If it hadn’t been for the boobs, I’d have put her age at nearer ten today.

“Coffee?” I offered, to show I wasn’t totally useless at the old mine-host bit.

Harry nodded. “Black, two sugars for me.”

“Plenty of milk in mine, please. No sugar,” Marianne said.

“Sweet enough already, are you, love?” I teased, which made her giggle again.

Harry didn’t seem all that amused. Which could have fitted in with the love-child theory, but . . .

“Do you think they’re . . . you know?” I whispered to Phil, who’d followed me into the kitchen and was frowning into the biscuit tin. “There’s another packet in the cupboard.”

“Right. And I don’t know, do I?”

“You’re the private investigator. I thought you could tell things about people. Body language and stuff.”

“Not stuck out here, I can’t. Just make the coffee, all right? And then maybe we’ll get to hear what it’s all about.” His tone was exasperated, but he gave my arse a squeeze on his way past with the biscuits.

It felt well weird, bringing out drinks for a pub landlady and a barmaid. I managed without spilling any of them, resisted the temptation to ask for four pound fifty, and we all sat down and sipped our coffee. Marianne carried on stroking Arthur with one hand. Nobody had a biscuit.

Phil broke the silence. “So what is it you think you might need my help with?”

Harry put down her mug on the coffee table, and Marianne shot her a wary glance. Arthur stuck out a paw, his claws showing just enough to remind her she was supposed to be stroking him.

“Marianne’s ex,” Harry growled. “Little shit by the name of Grant Carey.” She tossed a photo on the table. It showed Marianne in a strappy dress with a bloke not much taller than she was. He was around his midtwenties, dark haired, lean and, all right, pretty good-looking, if you liked that sort of thing. Nice taste in suits, not that I’d know, really.

Phil leaned over, picked it up, and gave it a good, hard stare.

“Grant, eh? Bet he thinks he’s God’s gift.” I smiled at Marianne. She managed a wan little smile back, but Harry gave me a granite glare.

Phil muttered, “Christ, you slay me.”

I straightened my face. “What’s he been up to, then?”

Marianne made a fuss of Arthur, chucking him under the chin and scratching behind his ears. He gazed up at her in self-centred, slitty-eyed adoration. “It’s not . . . See, he ain’t done nothing. Not really, he ain’t. It’s just he won’t leave me alone. Says I ought to go back home with him.”

Phil looked up from the photo and voiced what I was thinking. “And you’ve tried asking him to stop pestering her?” His question was clearly aimed at Harry. Put it this way, if Harry asked me to stop doing something, I’d stop it. Grant didn’t look like he’d be able to put up much of a fight either.

Harry glowered at us. “I tried. Next day I had the coppers turn up and give me a caution for threatening behaviour.”


“And after they’d gone, he was back, the little turd. Told me I’d better hope he didn’t even break a nail in future, or he’d have me up on assault charges before you could say ‘lost licence.’”

“Shit. Could they really take your licence away?” I asked.

Harry and Phil nodded in unison. Well, he’d been a copper for six years; I supposed he’d know the law. It was Harry who answered, though. “Conviction for assault—it’s like a bloody red rag to the Licensing Committee. Not that they need one. Bloke in Kent lost his licence a few years ago for letting a horse walk into his pub.”

I stared. “Bloody hell, I bet no one was asking ‘Why the long face?’ that day.”

Marianne giggled, then went pink and busied herself appeasing her lord and master, otherwise known as Arthur.

It wasn’t funny, though. If Harry lost her pub licence, she lost her home and her livelihood with it.

Phil leaned forwards again. “Those were his words, were they? About losing you your licence?”

Harry nodded, her face stony. “Oh yeah. That bastard knows exactly what he’s doing.”

“Yeah, but,” I put in, leaning forwards in my chair, “can’t Marianne make a complaint about him? I mean, if he wants to make it police business, why don’t you play him at his own game? Get a restraining order to stop him coming near her, that sort of stuff?”

Harry and Phil exchanged glances. There was a general undercurrent of some-mothers-do-’ave-’em in the air. Even Marianne sent me a pitying look, and Arthur flicked a contemptuous tail.

“What?” I asked, narked.

It was Marianne who answered. “He wouldn’t like that, see.” She seemed to hunch in on herself. “He don’t like it when people tell him what to do. Gets real nasty about it, he does.”

“Nasty, as in . . .?” I prompted.

Harry made a disgusted sound. “Come on, there’s plenty of ways he could get back at Marianne through me. Setting me up for allowing underage drinking. Letting loose a box of cockroaches in the kitchen and calling Environmental Health. From what she’s told me, I wouldn’t put it past the little shit to get someone to punch him so he can claim it was me.”

Did people actually do that? “Seriously?” I turned to Marianne. “You know him best. You really think he’d do something like that, just for revenge?”

She wasn’t stroking Arthur so much now as cuddling him like a teddy bear. He kneaded her legs with his paws, clearly not entirely certain he approved. “He would too,” she said, her voice a whisper.


“So what do you want me to do?” Phil asked.

Harry leaned in, her fists balled on her knees. Her scarred knuckles didn’t actually have LOVE and HATE tattooed on them, but they looked like they ought to. “I want you to find something on him. Anything. Little shit like that, there’s bound to be something we can hold over him.” She barked an angry laugh. “Or send him down with. Nice long stretch in prison’d do wonders for his manners.”

Not to mention his social life, I thought grimly. Small, slim, and pretty in prison? I was starting to feel a bit sorry for the bloke.

“Got any pointers for me?” Phil asked. He’d taken out his notebook and pen. “Any dodgy business you know he’s mixed up in? Ex-girlfriends who might have something on him?”

Marianne bit her lip. “I only know about his last girlfriend before me.”

Phil nodded encouragingly. “Name? Any contact details so I can have a word with her?”

“Well, I got ’em. But it won’t help you.” Marianne looked unhappy. “She killed herself, see. That’s how I met him—at Keri’s funeral.”

Bloody hell. My budding sympathy for Grant Carey was rapidly getting napalmed into extinction.

“She was a friend of yours?” Phil asked.

“We weren’t best friends or nothing, but yeah, I knew her. We worked together, see? At this café in Docklands.”

Marianne’s little pink lips turned downwards. “Keri used to say some stuff about him, sometimes . . . But he seemed so nice when I met him, you see? And he was ever so sad about her. I thought maybe it’d all been in her head. It weren’t till it started with me and all—that was when I knew it hadn’t been just her.”

Phil frowned. “Could you be a bit more explicit about his behaviour? Was he violent towards you?”

“Yes,” Harry growled, right as Marianne said, “No, not really.”

Phil’s frown turned on Harry. She frowned back. For a moment, I thought they were about to start pawing the ground as a prelude to charging each other, but then Harry looked away. “You tell ’im. But no making excuses for the bastard.”

“Well, he never hit me or nothing, see? It was just stuff he said.” She hugged herself. Arthur flicked an ear at her and stretched out a paw, clearly annoyed the pampering had stopped. Despite the obvious lack of instincts about violent blokes, Marianne must have had a sixth sense about cats, as she went back to stroking him an instant before claws met flesh.

Something about the way she’d been rubbing her hands on her shoulders bothered me, though. I leaned forward. “Did he sometimes grab you a bit too hard, though? Maybe give a little shake? Sometimes leave bruises?”

Marianne blinked a few times, a bit too quickly. “He never meant to, see.”

Harry snorted like a bull. “Day that little shit doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing is the day I take up ballet dancing.”

Now that was an image to frighten the horses. Although maybe not, when I thought about it—Harry might be big and butch, but there was a sort of grace about the way she moved. After all, if Ali could float like a butterfly . . .

“Did he threaten you?” Phil put in, obviously not as taken as I was with the image of Harry in a tutu.

Marianne shrugged her skinny shoulders, her boobs rising several inches and nearly walloping a curious Arthur on the head when they came back down. “He never said stuff like, I don’t know, like, ‘If you talk to that bloke, I’ll hit you.’ It was more like, he’d go on about these awful things that happened to girls who didn’t stick with their men, who went about like tarts, that kind of stuff.” She took a deep breath, and the boobs bobbed again. “And there was this one time, see, there was this bloke he used to do business with who got on the wrong side of him. Alan, his name was. I don’t know what he done, but Grant got that mad at him, and he said he’d have him. I never thought nothing of it, but next thing I know, Alan’s been done for intent to supply. Cocaine, it was. He got ten years.”

Phil raised an eyebrow about half a millimetre. “Are you sure it was related? Could have been a coincidence.”

“That’s what I thought. I mean, I never knew he was into drugs, but he weren’t a saint, Alan weren’t. I thought, well, he could have done it. Then Grant started saying stuff. It was when . . .” She broke off and gave Arthur some really intensive stroking. “I met this girl, see? In the Last Lick. I’d moved jobs when I turned eighteen, ’cos the pay was better there.”

“What sort of place was that?” Phil interrupted.

“The Last Lick? Oh, it’s a pub.” That was a relief. For one mind-boggling moment I thought it might have been some seedy sex club. Don’t get me wrong, if a girl wants to do that sort of thing for a living, it’s her business, but I didn’t like to think of someone as young and innocent as Marianne getting mixed up with all the slimy bastards you get hanging around those places.

Not that I’ve got any personal experience, of course. But I’ve read the Daily Mail.

“Anyway,” she went on, “Cas used to drink there regular, and we got talking one night. And she was lovely, and I saw her again when I wasn’t working, and we had loads of fun together. Like it was with Grant, back when I first met him?”

Right. Back when he’d been supposedly in mourning for his dead girlfriend. Lovely.

“And we was just friends, first off, and then, well, we weren’t, you know?” She looked up. “I never meant it to happen; it just did, see? So I told Grant I couldn’t see him no more.”

Phil huffed. “Flipped his shit, did he?”

“He went really quiet. He didn’t get angry at me, just sort of sad. Said he didn’t know how he was going to go on without me. And I felt proper bad about it, so when he asked me to give ’im another chance, I did, see?” She picked up her mug with two hands. Neither of them was quite steady. “And he was so nice to me, after. Least for a bit. He asked me to move in with him, and I thought, well, if it makes him happy, see? So I did.” She took a sip from her mug. “It was later he started saying stuff. See, Cas was still coming into the pub with her friends, even though we weren’t together no more. So Grant said I ought to give up my job. But I didn’t want to. I like working in pubs. Talking to people, all that stuff. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have a job to go to. But then he started saying this stuff, like, how a dyke bitch like her would probably love it in prison, and how it was so easy for stuff to fall into someone’s bag.”

“Shit—did he do anything to her?”

“No. I never went out with her again, and I didn’t dare let him see me talking to her no more.” She took a sip from her mug, her eyes sad, and gave a little sniff. “She didn’t want to talk to me anyway. Not after that. But I didn’t give up my job,” she added defiantly.

Good for her.

“What about this bloke? Alan?” Phil must have scented blood. “Did Grant talk about planting stuff on him?”

“I should’ve gone to the police, shouldn’t I? But you don’t know what he’s like. He twists stuff. Makes it sound like you’re the one who’s lying, not him. And he never said nothing outright.”

Harry was nodding. “He’s a plausible little shit, all right. Almost had me convinced he was only looking out for Marianne when he came round.”

Phil nodded. “Right. Well, that’s something I can work with. See what I can find out about the case, and if there’s any evidence linking Carey with the drugs.”

He got Marianne to tell him everything she could remember, which pretty much boiled down to a name, Alan Mortimer; the name and rough location of the business he’d run before he’d gone on an enforced holiday at Her Majesty’s expense—something to do with importing electronic goods, which was what Marianne reckoned Carey’s business was all about too, although she was hazy on the details—and a few dates.

She’d been sixteen when she’d started going out with Carey. Sixteen, and living on her own in some London dump, slaving away in a café to make ends meet. Christ.

The last thing she did before she left was hand over a few more photos of Carey. I didn’t get a good look until after Harry and Marianne had said their goodbyes, shaken hands again—this time with me as well, except for Marianne, who gave me a cherry-ChapStick-scented kiss on the cheek—and gone. Then I sat down on the sofa with Phil to have a proper butcher’s.

Carey, like I said, was a slightly built bloke about my height. He had dark hair that was starting to recede at the temples, devil-style, and the sort of big brown eyes a teenage girl would probably think were soulful. He came across as a bit older on closer examination—at least my age. Which, by my reckoning, made him around a decade too old for Marianne—I mean, seriously, with her rocking the schoolgirl look, people must have wondered if he was her dad. Like I said, not my type, but Phil probably wouldn’t kick him out of bed. I sent a sidelong glance at my so-called better half, who was studying the photos like he wanted to be able to remember them in private later.

Not that I was, you know, feeling insecure or anything.

Most of the pics were of Carey on his lonesome, with him gazing straight at the camera and smiling like he didn’t have a care in the world. They were a bit less obviously posed than a lot of people’s snaps tend to be, with him all friendly and relaxed looking. You wouldn’t have believed this bloke would get up to the sort of stuff Marianne had told us about, if you hadn’t heard her firsthand.

Maybe it was just all that practice he’d had at getting people to let their guard down around him. But there was one with Marianne in it too, and that one was a bit more revealing. Carey hadn’t been expecting it, I reckoned. There was a cold gleam in those eyes of his, and his arm around Marianne’s shoulders looked a bit tighter than could have been comfortable.

I don’t like bullies. Never have. “Course, maybe it’s not his fault,” I mused. “Maybe he had a bad childhood. I mean, who calls their kid Grant Carey?”

“Forties film fans?” Phil suggested without glancing up.

“S’pose. Hey, he was one of our lot, wasn’t he? Queer, I mean. Cary Grant.”

“No. Cary Grant was straight. You’re thinking of Archie Leach.”

I frowned at Phil, but the tiny smirk on his face decided me against asking who the bloody hell Archie Leach was, and what he had to do with the price of fish. “So what do you think about Carey?” I asked instead.

Phil hmm’ed. “I think I’ve seen him around, somewhere. Which is interesting. For a bloke with a business to run in London, he seems to be spending a lot of time around here.”

“Maybe he’s expanding his operations. Taking advantage of the lucrative Hertfordshire market for knockoff iPods.”

Phil shrugged. “Even dodgy businessmen take holidays now and again.”

“In Hertfordshire? Costa del Sol all booked up, was it?”

“I didn’t say it was his main holiday. Anyway, not everyone likes baking their brains on a beach.” Phil gave me a pointed look. We were in the middle of a bit of a debate about where we’d be heading off to for our summer hols, once the gay wedding of the year was all done and dusted. I came down firmly on the side of sun, sea, and sand, but Phil was holding out for a bit of culture, which, as far as I could tell, meant trekking miles around dusty old ruins.

If I’d wanted to spend my time off doing that sort of thing, I could go and visit Mum and Dad.

“Maybe it’s one of those activity holidays some people go on,” I suggested, hoping we weren’t about to rehash the whole bloody argument. “You know. Cooking holidays. Painting retreats. Countryside stalking escapes. Take a break in idyllic rural surroundings and indulge your creepy obsession at the same time.”

Phil looked thoughtful. “There’s an idea. You ever think of doing something like that?”

Bugger. So much for keeping this about Carey. “What, stalking my exes?”

“Activity holidays, as if you didn’t know.” He gave me a grumpy glare, which was the Morrison equivalent of an eye roll.

“See, this is where we have the problem. If you ask me—”

“Which I didn’t.”

“—activity holidays are a whatsit. Contradiction in terms.”


I flipped him a finger. “Same to you with knobs on. Nah, the whole point of a holiday is that you don’t have to bloody well do anything. That’s why they call it a holiday and not, you know, work.”

Phil huffed. “I’m not asking you to go on a bloody plumbing holiday. Ever thought it might be fun, trying something a bit different? Doesn’t have to be sodding intellectual.”

I shifted uneasily in my seat. “So what’s it going to be, then? Pottery in the Cotswolds? Circumnavigating the country on a bloody canal boat?”

“What are you, seventy? We could have a go at rock climbing, maybe. Or, if you’re so desperate to get sand up your crack, we could go somewhere that does water sports.”

“My mum wouldn’t like it if I got up to any kinky stuff,” I said primly.

My turn to get the finger. But at least he didn’t come back at me with Your mum hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Which was fair enough, really. I mean, a bit of adultery is hardly on a par with becoming an enthusiastic member of your local fetish club.

And, ye gods, I was giving myself mental images I really didn’t need. I sighed. “Look, we’re getting off track here.”

“Noticed, did you?”

“Shut it. So where do you s’pose Carey’s hanging out? Reckon he’s got a mate around here he’s dossing with? Or is he taking a lot of day trips?”

“Either’s possible, but my money’s on him getting a hotel room. Be a pain if he was out stalking and missed the last train home. And Marianne wouldn’t run away somewhere she knew he had connections, would she?”

“Well, I’d hope not. She’s not that dizzy. Hang about, though, she never said she’d run away from him.”

“No. Harry did when we spoke on the phone. Marianne was too scared to tell the bloke it was all over—again—so she packed her bags and did a runner while he was out doing one of his dodgy business deals.”

“Yeah? If I was her, I’d have run a bloody sight further than Hertfordshire. Gets tired easy, does she? Or was it some kind of reverse-psychology thing—he’ll never look for me only twenty-five miles away, that sort of thing?”

“Had to have somewhere to run to, didn’t she?” Phil huffed a laugh. “Seems Harry’s got a bit of a reputation for taking in waifs and strays. That so-called bloody harem of hers?” He was referring to the parade of pretty girls who worked at the Dyke for a bit and then moved on to pastures new—local wisdom being that Harry’s relationships never lasted long. “It’s a load of bollocks. It’s just a bunch of girls who need a safe place to stay for a bit. LGBT organisations put ’em in touch.”

“Huh. I always knew Harry was all right.” I scowled down at the table. “Makes me mad, that bastard threatening her.”

“Oi, no coming over all chivalrous. Harry’ll have your bollocks if she catches you.”

“Miss ’em, would you?”

“Too right.” Phil gave me a gentle squeeze in a relevant area, and the discussion sort of degenerated after that.

Not that I was complaining, mind.

from The Bookpushers

A great book with characters that I love to revisit every time I open the pages.

from Rainbow Book Reviews

An exceptionally exciting addition to the series, this book had me turning the pages very quickly. . . . A more than enjoyable story that I highly recommend.