Relief Valve (The Plumber's Mate Mysteries, #2)

Relief Valve by JL Merrow
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-721-4
eBook release: 
Feb 5, 2018
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-722-1
Print release: 
Feb 5, 2018
Word count: 
91,100
Page count: 
341
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This title is #2 of the The Plumber's Mate Mysteries series.

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If you dig up the past, be prepared for some dirt to stick.

The relationship between Tom Paretski, a cheeky plumber with a gift for finding hidden things, and PI Phil Morrison may only be a few weeks old, but already it’s under attack. Tom’s friends and family are convinced the former bully isn’t good enough for him, and they’re not shy about saying so.

Then Tom’s prickly older sister, Cherry, is poisoned at her own engagement party. Tom’s left reeling and not knowing who to suspect. Could it be her new fiancé, Gregory, a cathedral canon with an unfortunate manner and a taste for taxidermy? Or someone from her old writers’ circle, which she left after a row? Or could the attack be connected to her work as a barrister? Meanwhile, Tom’s honorary auntie’s left him a gag gift from beyond the grave that could be more significant than anyone knows.

Phil’s fighting against the clock to solve the case before somebody ends up dead. And with the poisoner hiding a dark secret, Phil’s terrified Tom could have been the target all along.

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

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Prologue

All right, so Phil and me were having a bit of a barney. It happens, especially when your significant other has a habit of behaving like a pigheaded git. And yeah, so maybe we’d got a bit loud, considering this was a polite soiree at the Old Deanery in St. Leonards, not Saturday night at the local Wetherspoons pub. People were starting to stare at us as if they thought maybe we’d been laid on as entertainment for the evening.

Then their heads all snapped round away from us like the crowd at Wimbledon after Murray’s returned a serve.

I twisted around to see what they were gawping at now—well, you would, wouldn’t you?—and stared, helpless, as my big sister crumpled at the knees. The glass she’d been holding dropped from her hand and hit the carpet, bouncing and rolling. Must be quality crystal, not supermarket tat, I thought, as Cherry joined it on the floor. Daft what you think about, times like that. The noise in the room, which a moment ago had been all party-jolly, chattering voices and ear-wincing laughter, quietened down, then swelled again, shriller this time, like someone was mucking about with the volume control on the telly.

Cherry wasn’t moving—well, she was, but it was the wrong sort of moving. Twitching and convulsing.

Not getting up.

I started towards her.

 

Chapter One

It had all started a week or two previous, when the phone rang. (And if you haven’t got déjà vu at this point, where have you been?) It was the landline, not my mobile, which meant it wasn’t work, or a mate, or . . . Come to think of it, why did I still have a landline?

“Aren’t you going to answer that?” Phil asked, secure in the knowledge that with the ten-ton furry cushion that was Arthur snugly asleep on his lap, he was excused errands for the foreseeable future. “Put the kettle on while you’re up.”

Serve him right if he got pins and needles in his dick. “It’ll only be some bloody telemarketer from a call centre in India. It’ll stop ringing in a minute when one of the other six lines they’re calling picks up.”

We listened as the ringing carried on. Even Merlin paused in batting at something under the armchair and twitched a furry ear.

“Might be important.”

“Fine, fine, I’m going.” I heaved myself up from his side—I’d been comfortable there—and plodded over to the house phone, overdoing it a bit to make a point. “Yeah?”

“Tom? It’s me. Cherry.” Not a telemarketer, then. My sister. Right: family. That’s why I still had a landline. I hoped they appreciated how they were costing me fourteen quid a month plus call charges. She sounded worried—at least, as far as I could tell from the unfamiliar voice on the phone.

To say my sister never calls would be—well, not an understatement, obviously, because that’d just be daft. I suppose the word I’m looking for is accurate. Until now, that was. I hadn’t even been sure she had my number, but then it wasn’t exactly a state secret. Mum had probably divulged it without any need for excessive fingernail-pulling or waterboarding.

“Cherry? What is it, love?” I cringed a bit at the endearment that had just slipped out. Put it down to consoling one too many housewives after a domestic disaster.

“Mrs. Morangie’s died.”

“Who?” I wasn’t winding her up. I genuinely didn’t have a clue.

“Don’t be wilfully obtuse. Mrs. Morangie.” She huffed. “Mrs. Next-door.”

I managed to tamp down my irritation. But seriously, who uses the phrase wilfully obtuse on the phone to close family members? “Which one? You mean from Mum and Dad’s, right? Not yours.” I was fairly sure there were people living in the houses either side of Cherry’s, and that they hadn’t all moved out in horror when she’d moved in. Maybe she even cared if they lived or died. But I couldn’t think of a single reason why she’d be calling up to let me know one of them had popped off to the Neighbourhood Watch meeting in the sky.

Her tsk crackled down the phone line in a burst of static. “Auntie Lol,” she said as if it pained her.

“Ohhh. Oh. She died? How? I got a card from her at Christmas, same as usual,” I added, feeling a bit lost. That’d only been a few weeks ago. I mean, yeah, people died, but Auntie Lol was well young, relatively speaking. Younger than my mum and dad, anyhow. Although, to be fair, so were most people. “And hang on a mo, since when has she been Mrs. Morangie?” I’d addressed the envelope to Ms. Fernside, same as always.

“Since she married Mr. Morangie, perhaps? I thought you knew she got married. It was while you were still living at home.”

Actually, as I recalled, it’d been while I was mostly living in hospital having bits of metal screwed into my pelvis. It was a lot less fun than it sounded. “Yeah, but it’s not like it lasted. Didn’t they get divorced years ago? But what happened, anyway? You never said. To Auntie Lol, I mean. Was it an accident?”

“If you’d let me get a word in edgewise . . .” Cherry’s voice trailed off. When she spoke again, it was softer. “Well, she killed herself.”

“What?” I sat down hard on the sofa. From his position on Phil’s lap, Arthur opened his eyes a crack and flicked his tail at me. No respect for the recently bereaved, our Arthur.

As Cherry spoke again, I felt a large, warm hand massage my shoulder. Going out on a limb and assuming Arthur hadn’t suddenly acquired opposable thumbs and, more to the point, a heart, I deduced it was Phil’s. “I don’t know all the details, but apparently she had cancer. I suppose she didn’t want to go through chemo or surgery or whatever. At any rate, she’s supposed to have told her doctor she’d had trouble sleeping since the diagnosis, and then sat down one evening with a bottle of sherry and took all the pills he gave her at once.”

“Fuck.”

“Charming. Well, anyway, I’m named as executor of her will, so there are some practical things we need to sort out.”

She’s not actually a heartless bitch, my sister. Well, not totally. She just didn’t know Auntie Lol like I did. Which begged a bit of a question, now I came to think about it. “How come you’re executor, anyway?”

“The law degree? It was all sorted out years ago. Anyway, we need to meet. Tomorrow morning? Around eleven? You can come to my office.”

That’d be nice for me. I mentally ran over my schedule while Merlin physically ran over my feet and started clawing his way up my legs. “Can’t. Got a washing machine at ten, and every time I go round to hers, she’s always got another nineteen jobs that’ll only take a minute, honest. I’ll be lucky to get away much before twelve.” I patted a sleek, furry head as Merlin nuzzled into my thigh. I appreciated the affection but not the line of cat snot he’d probably left in his wake.

“I suppose it’ll have to be lunch, then. One o’clock, Carluccio’s?”

“Or we could just meet up for a sarnie in the park.”

“In January?”

“Okay, so maybe it’s not peak picnic season, but fresh air is fresh air. And dodging those gangs of Canada geese that always try and mug you for your lunch will keep you on your toes. Can’t be good for you, working in an office all day.”

“Don’t be daft. I’ll see you at Carluccio’s. Oh, and Tom? Don’t say anything to Mum and Dad about this, will you?”

“Why not?”

“Mum and Mrs. Morangie were quite close friends at one time. I, well, I haven’t told her she’s dead yet. So don’t say anything. I don’t want Mum upset.”

I supposed it was good she was worried about someone’s feelings. “Fine. Mum’s the word, that all right?”

“Very funny.” She hung up.

“So who’s Auntie Lol?” Phil asked, his hand still on my shoulder. It was nice, but I felt a bit uncomfortable, to be honest. We hadn’t exactly been together all that long—then again, how many dates do you have to go on before you get to the emotional-support part of the relationship?

Now I came to think about it, I wasn’t really sure how many actual dates we’d been on anyway. Do sneaky house searches and near-death experiences count?

Probably, if you’re going out with a private investigator.

“Well, we’re not actually related. I just called her Auntie Lol.”

“I take it that’s short for something?”

“Laura.” I gave an awkward little shrug with the shoulder he wasn’t holding on to. “I used to have a problem with my r’s when I was a kid.”

“Don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with your arse these days.” His hand squeezed my shoulder, then slipped away. I expected it to slip all the way down to said arse, but it didn’t. I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or sorry.

“Har har. She used to live next door to my mum and dad back when I was at school. She babysat me sometimes, and I’d go round to play with her cats.”

Phil smirked. “Lolcats?”

“I can’t believe you actually said that.” I smiled a bit, though, remembering. “She had a ginger one called Sooty, and a fluffy black one called Sweep. Dad’s allergic, so we never had any pets.” Which, obviously, was the most important part of the story.

“You seem a bit more upset about her than I’d expect, if she was just some old neighbour.”

“You know it’s dead sexy when you go all Sherlock on me? She used to look after me a lot when I was a kid. Mum was always keen to get me out of the house while Richard and Cherry were studying for exams or Dad had had a bad day at work. Auntie Lol always seemed really pleased to have me. She didn’t have any kids; she lived on her own. She used to keep toffees in an old tea caddy and chocolate biscuits in a glass jar,” I remembered. And she’d thought my knack of being able to find stuff was the best thing since sliced bread. “She was the first person I ever came out to. As gay, I mean, not the finding-stuff thing.”

“Yeah? How’d she take it?”

“Well, put it this way. She moved up to Scotland a few years later to go and live with her girlfriend, so either she took it totally in her stride, or she was so permanently traumatised it turned her queer. Sod it. I wonder what’s happened to the girlfriend? If she’s still around, this must be well rough on her.”

“Yeah.” Phil had experience in the bereavement area. His husband—sorry, civil partner—died a few years ago.

“Auntie Lol topped herself,” I told him, so he’d know it was even rougher than he thought. “She was dying of cancer already, though. She never said.”

“Jesus.” Phil let out a long breath, stared at the wall for a moment, then turned and pulled me close. Not expecting it, I got caught off-balance and narrowly missed elbowing Arthur in the eye. Arthur mrowed in a low, affronted tone, then stalked off Phil’s lap for somewhere he wouldn’t get hit by flying body parts.

“Oi, warn a bloke, would you?” The sofa creaked as I struggled into a more comfortable position. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, mind,” I added when Phil showed signs of relaxing his grip on me.

“You stayed in touch, then?” Phil’s thumb rubbed my side soothingly.

“Well, cards and stuff. Letters at Christmas.”

“What do you expect, then? Happy Birthday, I’m terminally ill, many happy returns?”

I stiffened. And not in a good way. “Oi, this is my surrogate auntie you’re talking about. Have a bit of respect.”

“Sorry.”

He sounded it too, so I relaxed back into the curve of his arm. “Nah, I don’t know. Just . . . I’d have thought she’d have said something.”

“Probably didn’t want you worrying about her. It wasn’t like you could’ve done much, all the way down here.”

“I could have gone to see her.”

“Sometimes it’s better to remember people like they were in their best days. Not when they’re halfway out the door.” He gave me a sharp look. “I remember my grandparents, and the last years weren’t pretty.”

“S’pose that’s what she was trying to avoid.”

“Yeah. Better to go on your own terms, that’s what I reckon. Was she getting on a bit?”

“No. That’s the thing. She always seemed way younger than my mum. She had all this curly blonde hair—still rocking the eighties perm, I guess—and she used to take me down the park and play football with me and stuff. Mum never liked going down the park with me. Can’t blame her, really.”

“Too full of yobs from the council estate?”

I really wasn’t feeling up to reliving the memory of my first dead body right now. “Something like that.”

Phil sort of hmphed. “Yeah, I remember your mum. Council estate yobs really weren’t her thing, were they? I suppose they still aren’t.”

I pulled away and stared at him for a moment. “Are you calling my mum stuck-up?”

“I’m saying she’s got class, you wanker. God, you’re touchy sometimes. Come here.” He pulled me back against his side, his hand drifting down as if by accident to rest on my arse.

“Yeah, well. Runs in the family, doesn’t it?” I said with a cheeky grin.

Phil rolled his eyes. “You, classy? Don’t push it. So you’re seeing your sister tomorrow? She’s the barrister, right?”

“Yeah. Carluccio’s.” Was he angling for an invite? I thought I’d better come up with a way of distracting him just in case, so I swung my leg over Phil’s recently vacated lap and started proving I could be a lot more fun than Arthur.

Classy? No. Creative? Yes.

 

Chapter Two

Carluccio’s, in St. Christopher Place, was modern, bright, and ear-splittingly noisy. It was market day in St. Albans, so the place was stuffed to bursting with yummy mummies showing off the latest toddler-and-buggy combos and picking at green salads and glasses of fizzy water. The place smelled more of rice cakes than of garlic.

I was on time—I swear I was—but my sister was already there, sitting at a table near the back with her phone out, checking her emails so as not to waste a second of her very valuable time. All right, for all I could tell, she might have been playing Angry Birds, but I know what my money was on. Cherry hadn’t changed much. Still the same mousy-brown hair, wrenched back in an uncompromising ponytail. She didn’t wear makeup, never had, and dressed a bit frumpy, in a middle-aged, middle-class, Church of England sort of way. She looked up and frowned when she saw me. “There you are.” I swear her accent had got posher.

Or maybe I’d just got more common.

I squeezed past a couple of off-road baby buggies, picking up a light dusting of Hertfordshire mud in the process, and sat down opposite her. “All right, Sis?”

“You’d better choose quickly,” she said by way of fond sisterly greeting, thrusting a menu at me. “I’ve got a meeting at two thirty.”

I gave it a glance and shrugged. “I’ll just have a spaghetti carbonara.” I twisted round in my seat and managed to catch the waitress’s eye.

Cherry went for the chicken salad with prunes. I asked for a Diet Coke, and she ordered a glass of fizzy water.

“So, how’ve you been, then?” I asked to be polite as we waited for our food.

Cherry ate polite for breakfast. “We didn’t see you at Mum and Dad’s for Christmas. Again.” It sounded like her court voice. And I put it to you, m’lud, that the defendant wilfully and culpably spurned his mother’s roast turkey and all the trimmings (cries of horror from the gallery).

I looked down briefly to check I wasn’t actually sitting in the dock in handcuffs. “Yeah, well . . . I had stuff on, that’s all.” Stuff like avoiding soggy veg and stodgy conversation. And hoping a certain private investigator would turn up for a cosy Christmas dinner but not actually asking him until it was way too late for anyone to change their plans.

“Stuff? What stuff? You’re single and childless—how much stuff could there be?” It seems clear to me, m’lud, and I’m sure the jury will agree, that the defendant’s alibi is flimsy at best.

“I’ve got cats, all right? I can’t just abandon them. Pets are for Christmas too, not just for life. And, well . . . I’m with someone now.” Not that Phil had actually shown his face round mine until Boxing Day.

“A man?”

“Er, yeah? Since when has it ever not been a man?”

“Oh, I don’t know. People change, you know.” At least she wasn’t sounding like she was wearing a horsehair wig anymore. “So who’s this one, then? Not that awful one with the dog?”

I sighed. One time I’d taken Gary round to Mum and Dad’s for Christmas, a few years ago when he’d been suffering from a particularly traumatic recent breakup. Not that they aren’t all traumatic for Gary, poor sod. Since then, the whole bloody family seems to have it fixed in their heads that me and him are an item. “Told you, Gary’s just a mate. And what’s wrong with him, anyway?”

“What’s right with him? Honestly, when he told that story about King’s Cross Station toilets, poor Mum didn’t know where to look!”

Okay, maybe she had a point there. Cherry, mind, had known where to look. It was at Gary. With daggers. “The bloke I’m with is called Phil,” I told her, secure in the knowledge that, unlike Gary, it wouldn’t ring any bells. Catch my sister taking an interest in my life. “Phil Morrison. He’s a private investig—”

“Phil Morrison?” She cut me off sharply. “Not the Phil Morrison who pushed you under a car when you were seventeen?”

“What? No! He didn’t push me. I ran. By accident. And how the bloody hell do you remember him after all this time? You don’t even remember my birthday!”

“I remember your birthday. We just don’t exchange cards. Anyway, there were some interesting legal ramifications, that’s all. I was very into tort at the time.”

Anyone else, I’d have said something like, Taut abs? But I wasn’t sure I was feeling up to one of Cherry’s patented withering looks.

Not that she let me get a word in edgewise, anyway. “What on earth are you doing with him? I thought you hated each other. You certainly ought to hate him. We could have sued, you know, but Dad thought they weren’t worth it, living on the council estate.”

I bristled on Phil’s behalf. “Yeah, well—it’s like you said. People change. He’s a decent bloke now.”

Her eyes narrowed. I could practically hear a little voice in her head going, Hearsay! The jury will disregard that last statement. “So how long’s this been going on?”

“Couple of months,” I said, as casually as I could. “We met—met again, I mean—back in November, over the murder in Brock’s Hollow.”

“Oh my God. I knew I’d seen his name somewhere recently. It was in the papers. He was the one who got shot, wasn’t he?”

Um. Maybe there were one or two things I’d forgotten to mention in my not-quite-weekly-all-right-more-like-monthly phone calls to Mum. I rubbed my arm. “Can’t believe everything you read in the papers, you know.”

Especially seeing as Phil and I might just have made a concerted effort to keep my name out of all the stories about the murder. Whoever said “all publicity is good publicity” clearly didn’t work in the kind of business where women on their own, the elderly, and the infirm had to invite him and his big bag of tools into their homes on a daily basis.

She ignored my unsubtle hint for sympathy. “You were involved in that as well? Why?”

“Phil was asked to investigate by Melanie Porter’s family. You know, the girl who died. She was engaged to someone we were both at school with—Graham Carter. Remember him?”

“Don’t be daft, of course I don’t. Although I recognise the name from the papers. But how did you get involved?”

I looked over at the window currently being smeared with orange goo by a solemn-faced toddler in a high chair while Mum nattered gaily to her chums. “The police. They asked me to help find her.” The police, now, they’ve always been great about keeping my name out of the news. Probably so no one knows just how bloody desperate they were, calling in a so-called psychic.

“Oh. You’re still doing that, then.” It was said flatly. Like, say, the sort of voice you’d use to say, No, m’lud, the defendant has not ceased his hobby of torturing and dismembering little fluffy kittens.

“Yeah, well, not everyone changes. Take it you’re still single, then?” I couldn’t imagine Cherry with a bloke. She had spinster of this parish stamped right through her like a stick of Brighton rock.

And now she was blushing. “Not exactly, no.”

“Bloody hell, have you got a boyfriend?” I was tempted to check out the window just to make sure there weren’t any airborne porkers flitting past. “Good thing you didn’t take me up on the park suggestion. You could knock me over with a feather—all those Canada geese would have bloody flattened me.”

“God, you sound about twelve. Yes, actually, I have met someone.” Her chin rose, defiant. “He went to Christmas dinner at Mum and Dad’s. Thank you.” She turned briefly to the waitress, who was just putting our plates down in front of us.

“Cheers, love,” I added with a smile. The waitress dimpled and swept away with a swish of curvy hips. “So go on, tell us all about him. Found yourself a bit of rough, have you? Tell you what, I’d have come to Christmas dinner just to see that, if I’d known.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. He’s a canon of the Church of England.”

I wasn’t too sure what sort of place a canon occupied in the church hierarchy, but the way she said it, you’d have thought this bloke had Jesus himself looking nervously over his shoulder.

“Is he a loose cannon?”

“Very funny. His name’s Gregory. Gregory Titmus.”

“Rings a faint bell . . .” Unlike my mate Gary, who’s always been loud and proud about both his camp and his campanology. “You sure he’s not gay?”

She tutted. “Not you as well. Honestly, just because someone’s reached their forties without getting married . . . People will keep jumping to conclusions.”

Uh-oh. I remembered Cherry was due to hit the big four-oh in a few months. “Nah, that’s not it. Honest. Actually, I dunno where I got the idea from.”

“Well, Gregory’s always been open about his support for gay clergy,” she said dubiously, cutting up a piece of chicken into its component molecules.

I nodded encouragingly. “Yeah, that’ll be it. I’ve probably seen his name in Pink News or something. Being supportive.”

She gave me a hard look.

“What? No, seriously, that’s probably it. What, were you worried I might have met him at a gay club or something? Now who’s jumping to conclusions? Anyway, I don’t even go to any gay clubs.”

“I wasn’t jumping to conclusions! Stop putting words into my mouth.” She frowned at a prune as she prodded it with her fork. “Maybe if you did go to gay clubs, you’d meet someone a bit better than Phil Morrison.”

“Let it go, Sis, let it go.” I forked up some spaghetti and gave it a twirl. “Anyway, I thought we were here to talk about Auntie Lol.”

Cherry sighed. “Don’t you think it’s time you started calling her by her proper name? I assume you can pronounce Laura these days?”

“Bit late now, innit?” I took a swig of Coke, silently toasting Auntie Lol.

“I’d have thought you of all people would have some respect for the dead.”

I jabbed at a rogue piece of bacon. “What’s so bloody respectful about changing someone’s name after they’re gone? And anyway, what do you mean, me of all people?”

“You’ve spent enough time with them. The dead, that is.” I swear I could see the prunes on her plate shrivelling up further under the force of her glare.

“Oh, for— You make it sound like every time I step out the door, I’m knee-deep in corpses! Anyway, you’re a fine one to talk, Miss Spends-Her-Days-with-Criminals.”

“I don’t associate with them. I just defend them.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t exactly go down the pub with the dead either.” I paused. “I mean, I would, but they’re shit at buying their round. And they’re always losing fingers and stuff, and it puts you right off your peanuts, finding bits—”

Anyway,” Cherry interrupted me. “The bequest is a bit, well, strange.”

“Strange? What sort of strange?” God, she hadn’t left me a collection of dodgy sex toys, had she? Yeah, I knew Auntie Lol had a girlfriend, but I was quite happy staying in the delusion that the closest they ever got was a cup of tea and a cuddle. It was like thinking of your parents having sex. Worse. Your grandparents having sex.

“Well, you know what she was like. She never could see the harm in encouraging you.”

“Encouraging me to do what?”

There was a slice of lemon in Cherry’s glass of fizzy water. It was currently curling up and cringing at the sourness of her expression. “You know. Your thing.”

Oh. That. I carefully kept my face blank. “Sorry, don’t follow.”

“Yes, you do. Your finding-things thing.” She pronounced every syllable with the sort of distaste you’d expect if she’d just discovered a cockroach performing unspeakable acts with a maggot in her salad. Then she sighed. “I always thought you’d grow out of that.”

“Well, I’m only twenty-nine. There’s still hope. So are you going to tell me about this bequest, or what?”

She huffed. “It’s so silly. You have to go to her old house in Mill Hill and look for it.”

“Hang on, Mill Hill?” That was north London. “Auntie Lol lived in Scotland. Near Edinburgh. And before that, St. Albans.”

“Yes, but after she married Mr. Morangie, she lived in Mill Hill with him, remember? And their son. Until she left him.”

“What? Auntie Lol had a kid? No way. She never mentioned that when she wrote. Nah. Must be some mix-up.” She’d always been so, well, motherly to me. I felt a bit weird about it, to tell the truth. Not to mention guilty. Yeah, we’d kept in touch, but I hadn’t really made any effort to see her after she’d married. She’d visited me in hospital a few times back when I was seventeen—on her own, so I wasn’t sure now if it was before or after she’d married—but after that, I hadn’t seen her again. To be fair, I’d been a bit busy relearning how to walk and sorting out my life.

“He was her stepson. I don’t really know much about him.”

I frowned. “S’pose he stayed with his dad, then.” It still felt funny to think of Auntie Lol leaving him behind. “What’s the deal with the house, then? If it was hers, how come she was the one who left?” Somehow I didn’t reckon Cherry would have said it was her house if it’d been the husband who’d owned it. Who still owned it? This was getting confusing. “Or, you know, how come it didn’t get sold when they split up?”

“I don’t know, do I? You’re the one she stayed in touch with.”

“So who owns the house now? The husband, right?”

“No.” Cherry glared at me. “Actually, you might own half of it.”

“What?”

“That’s what’s so annoying. As far as I can see, she really didn’t have anyone else to leave anything to.”

“No? What about the girlfriend?”

“They split up a while ago.” Huh. Just another thing she hadn’t mentioned. I was beginning to wonder just how well I really knew Auntie Lol. “And she didn’t have any other family. But we don’t have the full version of her will—that’s what you have to find. For all anyone knows, she could have left you anything or everything. Including half of the house.”

“Hang on, though. That’s not how it works. You can’t inherit half a house.” Hadn’t Phil said something about the other half of his flat just going to him automatically when the Mysterious Mark popped his squeaky-clean little clogs? “Doesn’t it all go to whoever’s the joint tenant or something?”

If they’re joint tenants. But they weren’t. They were tenants in common.”

“’Scuse me while my head explodes.” I guzzled the last of my Diet Coke—wasn’t caffeine supposed to be good for headaches? “So you’re saying I might co-own a house with some old bloke who used to be married to Auntie Lol? Or it might all be some April Fool’s joke from beyond the grave?” Actually, I kind of liked the idea of Auntie Lol looking down from heaven and laughing herself silly.

“I told you it was annoying.” She speared the last bit of salad with a vicious jab of her fork. “And I really don’t think she thought it all through. What if her ex-husband doesn’t want you to go rummaging through his home?”

“Oi. I don’t rummage.”

“Sniffing like a bloodhound, then.”

“Don’t sniff either. Course, I have been known to bury the odd bone in the back garden—”

“Very funny.” It was a good thing Cherry had already finished her lunch. The prunes would have shrivelled up into currants at that tone of hers.

“What happens now?”

Now, we have to speak to Mr. Morangie. And hope he isn’t going to be difficult about things.”

“Is he even still living there? Or, hang on, could he sell up without her, with this common-tenants thing? Or—”

“Yes, and yes. Well, theoretically. Although I can’t imagine who’d want to buy his half of the tenancy in common, and of course he wouldn’t have been able to buy a comparable house with the proceeds. He was better off staying in the property, as long as she was happy for him to do so.”

“Could she have kicked him out, then?” Seemed a bit unfair if the house was half his.

“Well, she’d have had to go to court and try to force a sale. It’s what I’d have done, though.”

“Yeah, but court’s like a home from home for you. Not everyone wants to get into all that legal stuff if they don’t have to.”

Cherry frowned. “It still seems odd she never tried. I suppose she mustn’t have needed the money.”

“Maybe she was worried about legal fees, thought she’d end up worse off than she’d started. Or maybe she just didn’t want all the stress. Anyway, so what you’re saying is, Mr. M.’s still living there, and we’ve got to go and pay him a visit, right? When’s the funeral, anyway? I know it’ll be up in Scotland, but I’d like to go. Pay my last respects, that sort of thing.”

“Oh.”

I had a bad feeling about that oh. “Oh, what?”

“Well, it was a few days ago.”

“A few days ago? And you didn’t think I might want to know about it? For fuck’s sake! Even if I couldn’t have gone, I’d have wanted to send flowers. Did anyone know? Or did you just tell them to bury her in the first hole in the ground they could find and not bother with a service or, you know, any sodding mourners?”

“I didn’t tell them anything. Mr. Morangie arranged it all with a local undertaker, up in West Lothian. She was cremated. No flowers.”

“Was that what she said she wanted?” Auntie Lol had loved flowers. She’d had a garden full of them back when she’d lived in St. Albans, and she used to let me pick bunches and take them back home to Mum.

“She didn’t leave any instructions about the funeral, so her husband did what he thought best, I suppose.”

“He wasn’t her husband. He was just some git she married and then thought better of it. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about it in time.”

Cherry stared at me. “Well, if I’d known you were going to get upset about it . . .”

“I’m not upset.” All right, maybe that was a lie. “Right. So when am I supposed to be going over to his place for this rummage, then? You coming too? Fancy a good rummage, do you?”

“You’re so bloody childish, sometimes. I’ll set something up. All right?” She pulled out her purse and peeled off a couple of twenty pound notes that looked like she’d ironed them this morning. Nah, what was I thinking? She probably had all her money dry-cleaned. “That should take care of lunch. I’ll call you when I’ve arranged things with Mr. Morangie, but it may be a while. Some of us have work to do.”

Whereas the rest of us, apparently, just mucked about with a set of tools from Toys “R” Us, tinkering with taps. I watched her clump off in her sensible black shoes and sighed.

“Would you like anything else? Coffee? Dessert?” The waitress with the hips smiled kindly as she started to clear the plates.

“Just the bill, thanks, love.”

“Sure? The chocolate-and-hazelnut panettone’s on special.” The dimples were out in force again. “And it’s not like you need to worry about your figure.”

I had to smile. “Sounds great, but I’ve got to get back to work. Maybe I’ll come in for it some other time.”

“I’ll look out for you.” She balanced the plates with practised ease and swept off, swishing back with the bill a lot quicker than I was expecting.

Cherry’s forty quid covered it easy and then some. “Keep the change. Have a panettone on me.” I winked at the waitress.

“I wish. That stuff goes straight to my hips.” She slapped herself on the bum, then dithered a moment, fiddling with the plateful of money. “None of my business, but you could do way better.”

“Come again?”

“That woman you were with. She didn’t look like your sort at all.”

I sighed and pushed back my chair. “Don’t I know it. Cheers, love.”

“You have a good afternoon.” She smiled at me again and wiggled her way back through the tables.

I glanced at the receipt before shoving it in my pocket. It had a phone number scribbled on it in felt-tip, and the name Angie with a little heart instead of the dot on the i. I smiled and shook my head.

On the way out, I passed one of the mummies turning a suitcase-size handbag out onto the table looking for something, so, being a helpful sort, I paused to listen in. There. I reached into the recesses of a nappy bag, hoping to God I wouldn’t come across any dirties, and pulled out a mobile phone. “Here you go, love,” I said, handing it to a baffled mum.

“Oh my God! How the hell did it get in there? Georgie, did you put Mummy’s phone in your bag? He must have thought it was one of his toys,” she excused him, turning back to me. “Um, thanks,” she added.

“No problem,” I said with a smile and a cheery wave at a pesto-smeared Georgie, who sent back a rabbit-in-the-headlights look. He knew he’d been caught bang to rights.

Thought it was a toy, my arse. My thing, as Cherry put it, only works for stuff that’s been deliberately hidden. The only reason I’d been able to find that phone was because Georgie had known he was being a little sod when he put it there.

On the way back to the van, I took a detour through the market to pick up a couple of bits for tea. Darren was there on his stall—well, technically, he was on a box behind his stall—and he greeted me with a cheery, “All right, short arse?”

I never know what to say when he brings out the short jokes. Him being all of four foot six himself. So I went with, “Can’t complain. How’s the fruit-and-veg business going? Making a killing on dodgy kumquats?”

Before you ask, I do actually know what a kumquat is, and it’s not just from watching MasterChef. They sell all sorts in the greengrocers down my way, and they’re pretty good at telling you what to do with the weird stuff.

In the cooking sense, I mean.

Darren leered at me. “Nothing dodgy about my kumquats. Ask Gary. There you go, love, that’ll be a pahnd,” he added to the old dear he’d just handed a paper bag full of mixed veg. He waited patiently as she stowed it securely in one of those wheeled tartan trolley things, then counted out a pound’s worth of change. “You enjoy those parsnips, and if the old man don’t like ’em, you tell him to come talk to me about it.”

“Oh, I will, dearie.” She dimpled and doddered off with a spring in her orthopaedically booted step.

“I’m seeing Gary tomorrow—you coming along?” I tried not to make it sound like a loaded question. Ever since him and Gary got together, Darren’s had a habit of turning up when I meet Gary for a drink. Which, don’t get me wrong, he’s an all right bloke, but sometimes you just want a natter with your mate without significant others muscling in.

“Nah. Thought I’d let you and him enjoy a girls’ night out without me.” He grinned. “Gary’s got something to tell you.”

“Yeah?” If that was the case, I was surprised I didn’t know already. Not one for keeping secrets, Gary isn’t, even when they’re his own. “What’s that about, then?”

Darren tapped the side of his nose. “Have to wait and see, won’t you? Right, you buying, or you going to shift your arse and let my customers through?”

I grabbed some onions and red peppers. “Pahnd?” Everything’s a pahnd on Darren’s stall. Unless it’s the end of the day, when it’s two fer a pahnd.

“On the ’ouse. Mind how you go, then.”

“Cheers, Darren.”

 

Chapter Three

I met Gary in our usual place, Thursday night, the Devil’s Dyke pub in Brock’s Hollow. It’s a proper old-fashioned country pub, with horse brasses on the walls and signs on the low ceiling beams warning you to Duck or grouse. Harry, the landlady, was having a break, perched on a barstool with her border collie, Flossie, at her feet and a cup of tea by her elbow. Which was no reflection on the quality of the beer in the place, nor on Harry’s ability to take her drink. She’s a head taller than me and fights at around twice my weight—or at least, she used to; these days she only dusts off her boxing skills on the rare occasions when the customers get rowdy.

I was a bit late getting to the pub—Mrs. G.’s downstairs loo had turned out to be a total bastard—and Gary looked like he was well into his third vodka martini by the time I stuck my head in the door and spotted him at the back of the room.

Gary managed to simultaneously wave a welcome and roll his eyes at my timekeeping. At least, I hoped it was my timekeeping he had the problem with, although to be honest, I’d had my doubts about the shirt I was wearing when I’d put it on. I made a buying-a-pint gesture, followed by a can-I-get-you-one-too gesture, and Gary replied with his version of a cheers-mate gesture, which consisted of pointing to his martini glass, clapping his hands to his heart, and blowing me a kiss.

Next time, I decided, I’d just go over and ask, and sod the bloody sign language.

There was a new member of the harem behind the bar. She looked all of fourteen, but I knew Harry wasn’t daft enough to risk her licence by employing someone under age. Even someone as pretty as this girl, who was tiny, bubbly and had a My Little Unicorn tattooed on her shoulder.

“All right, love? Pint of bitter, please.”

She smiled wide enough to show off her tongue piercing. “Hopfest, London Porter, or Mr. Squirrel?” She had a strong West Country accent.

I pursed my lips. “Go on, then, hit me with the squirrel. You’re new here, aren’t you? I’m Tom.”

“Marianne. It’s my first day, so be gentle with me. You’re with Gary? He’s lovely, he is.”

I nodded, then looked at her sideways. “Well, I’m with him, but I’m not with him. He’s a mate. Vodka martini for him, when you’ve finished pulling that pint. Cheers, love.”

I paid her, then carried the drinks over to Gary’s table and slumped down next to him to take the weight off. Julian, Gary’s Saint Bernard, looked up briefly, wagged his tail once and shifted so he could start drooling on my leg instead of one belonging to his cuddly campanologist owner. He’s always been free with his favours, Julian has. Whoever it was who said pets resemble their owners had Gary and Julian bang to rights.

Gary took his drink from me with grabby hands. “Finally. Darling, I’ve been waiting eons for you. Poor Julian has aged around a decade in dog years. And what on earth are you wearing?”

I looked down at myself. “Clothes?”

Gary’s got one of those faces that are somehow way more expressive than your average. Like he’s a caricature of himself or something. Right now he was looking at me like I’d just turned up straight from a stint in a cesspit. “For want of a more descriptive term, perhaps. Where did you get that shirt? Oxfam?”

“Oi. It was quite expensive, actually. What’s wrong with it?”

Gary shuddered. “What’s right with it? Darling, it’s shiny, and not in a good, Jake Shears sort of way. And broad stripes went out while you were still in nappies. Which I’d have thought were probably a better look on you.”

My shoulders slumped. “I thought Phil might like it. He’s always complaining about my old shirts.” Actually, that was a bit of an exaggeration, but there had been one or two pointed suggestions that I might want to get changed before we went out for a drink.

“Trust me, my dear, if he sees you in this monstrosity, he’ll never say another word about your customary pocket-lumberjack look.”

“Pocket . . .? You and that bloke of yours are going to give me a complex, you know. Talking of which, he said you’ve got something to tell me. So come on, out with it, what’ve you done?”

Gary beamed, a happy teddy bear. “Guess! No, don’t bother, you’ll never guess. Darren has asked me to be his husband! Isn’t it marvellous?”

“Bit sudden, innit? You’ve only known him a couple of weeks!”

“Months, actually.” Now he was a grumpy bear. “Longer than you’ve been with thingummy.”

No, Gary hadn’t forgotten Phil’s name. He was just a card-carrying member of the Tom Can Do Better Club. I nearly choked on my pint at the thought of Gary having something in common with my big sister. “That’s different. I’ve known Phil since we were at school. And neither of us have got down on one knee.”

“Sweetie, you don’t have to tell me about your sex life. Or lack of one. We’re supposed to be talking about me.” He leaned forward, the glint of the born party planner in his eye. “I was thinking of a June wedding, because it should be sunny but not too hot—nothing worse than shiny red faces and sweat stains in a wedding photo. But it’s such a nightmare working out what to wear. Not that I’d want your opinion, based on today’s fiasco. Anyway, you’re both invited, assuming he’s still around by then. If not, I’m sure we can find you somebody just as photogenic to pair up with. Darren knows lots of people.”

And most of them carnally, seeing as they all seemed to be hangovers from his old porn-star days. “Phil’s still going to be around,” I said with a lot more conviction than I actually felt. If I didn’t nip this fixing-me-up thing in the bud, Gary and Darren were likely to end up discussing it in front of Phil, and that was a self-fulfilling prophecy I could do without.

“Of course he will be, dear.” Gary sucked the olive off the end of his cocktail stick with an obscene slurping sound. “If you want him to be.”

“Why wouldn’t I? The bloke saved my life, remember?” I lifted my pint and drank to that memory.

“It doesn’t count if he was the one to endanger it in the first place, remember? But let’s not talk of depressing subjects.”

I leaned back in my seat and crossed an ankle over my leg. “I’ll assume you mean my little moment of mortal peril, not my boyfriend. So what do you want to talk about?” Over at the bar, Marianne was getting chatted up by a bloke in paint-stained jeans and tatts who hadn’t yet noticed Harry’s watchful eye on him. I reckoned Marianne was in safe hands there.

“Well, you’ve had my big news. Surely something noteworthy must have happened to you since we last met? Apart from your fit of insanity while shopping.”

“Saw my sister.”

Gary shuddered. “I bet she didn’t ask after me.”

“Not as such, no. And there’s the possibility I’ve inherited half a house, but it might be nothing.” Gary perked up at that, and even Julian pricked up an ear as I told them about Auntie Lol.

“It all sounds very Gothic. The wife who ran away; the mysterious legacy—even the funeral undertaken—pun not intended—in indecent haste.”

“Too bloody right about that last bit. I still can’t believe Cherry didn’t tell me about it. Just because she’d never kept in touch with Auntie Lol.”

“Maybe she was jealous, darling? After all, she’s doing the work, and you’re the one with the juicy bequest.”

“The possibly juicy bequest. Dunno what it is yet, do I?”

“I know. This is so exciting. Have you thought what you’ll do with the money? You could go travelling, move out of Fleetville, buy a whole new wardrobe—”

“Oi. Stop going on about the bloody clothes. And I like living in Fleetville. It’s handy for the shops and it’s not full of pretentious tossers like most of the villages round here.” I drained my pint glass a bit pointedly. “And it’s your round, seeing as I haven’t actually come into any money yet.”

Gary heaved a long-suffering sigh and stood up. “Same again? Look after Julian for me, then. Daddy will be back soon, yes he will.” The last bit was to the dog, thank God.

* * * * * * *

The following night, the landline rang again. Phil was cuddling up to Arthur on my sofa again, watching CSI. It seemed a strange choice of relaxation for a detective, but whatever, so I took the phone into the kitchen.

It was Cherry, obviously.

“Hi, Sis. Two calls in one week? I hope nobody else has died.” I wasn’t joking.

“Gregory wants to meet you. Seeing as he missed out on doing so at Christmas.” Her tone made it quite clear what dear old Sis thought of that. “And your . . . partner.”

“Phil’s not my partner,” I protested, with a half-guilty glance in the direction of the living room. “It’s not like we’ve gone and got married or anything. We’re just going out together.”

She tsked. “All right, your boyfriend. Whatever. Anyway, he’s asked me to invite you round for drinks. Both of you.”

“Right. Fine. When and where? Your place?” I was fairly sure I knew where that was. “You’re still in Pluck’s End, right?” It was a village out towards Berkhamsted—one of those ones with no shops in the high street, only restaurants. Plus a Waitrose tucked discreetly out of sight near the station so all the bankers and lawyers could get a ready meal and a bottle of plonk on the way back to their tastefully decorated homes.

“I am, but you’ll be coming to Gregory’s place. My house is a bit of a state right now. I’m having some work done.”

“Extension?” I leaned back on the counter and wondered how many times bigger than my little place Cherry’s house was already.

“New bathroom, actually.”

“What, and you didn’t call me? I’m wounded.” That, and sincerely bloody relieved I wouldn’t have to work for her. Knowing my sister, she’d have been a right pain about it, and she’d have expected a hefty friends-and-family discount as well.

There was a pause. “I . . . I didn’t know you did bathrooms.”

“I’m a plumber, what the bloody hell do you think I do? Make jam?” Merlin padded into the kitchen at that point and gave me a significant look, as if to say, Make jam? What a waste of valuable can-opening time.

“I don’t know! I thought you just did drains and taps and things.”

“What, like I just went out and bought a copy of Plumbing for Dummies and an ad in the Yellow Pages?” I was seriously miffed. “Just because I haven’t got a bloody law degree from Oxbridge and more letters after my name than are in it doesn’t mean I’m just playing at this.”

“Fine. Next time I need some work done, I’ll call you. Happy now?”

Not really. “So where is Greg’s place, then?” I paced around the kitchen. The bin needed emptying again. I swear the rubbish breeds in there.

“Gregory. He lives in St. Leonards, in the Old Deanery in Cathedral Close.”

“Doesn’t the old dean mind? Or does he like cosying up to the canons?”

“There’s no need to be facetious.”

“You know, I looked that word up the other day. Comes from a French word for witty. I was amazed. I always thought it meant full of shit. And you need to lighten up a bit. So is there a New Deanery?”

“The dean lives in the Old Rectory. As if you cared.”

“What about the rector?”

“Does it matter?”

“Well, I’d have thought it would to him.” I reckoned a change of subject might be in order if I didn’t want Cherry hanging up on me. Which was tempting, now I came to think about it, but . . . No. “So how did you meet him, then? Greg, I mean, not the rector.” St. Leonards wasn’t that far from Pluck’s End, but it was in the opposite direction from St. Albans, where Cherry worked.

Gregory. We, er, had an interest in common. Anyway, can we please get this sorted? Gregory suggested Saturday evening, if that’s all right? Around half past eight?”

“I’ll have to check with Phil, but yeah, should be okay.”

We said our goodbyes. I wondered what the common interest was, and why she was being cagey about it. I couldn’t really remember Cherry having any interests, apart from her career. I grinned. Maybe they were both heavily into the fetish scene? I couldn’t see it, somehow. What else would Cherry find too embarrassing to mention? Maybe they’d met at a pole-dancing class or a Justin Bieber concert.

Strong arms slipped around me from behind, and I leaned back into a nicely solid chest. “What are you smiling about? And what are you supposed to be checking with me?” Phil’s breath warmed my neck and tickled my ear.

It took a moment for what he’d asked to register. “Oh, that was Cherry. My sister.”

“Yeah, I’d worked that out.”

“She’s invited us over to the biblical boyfriend’s gaff. Fancy a cup of tea with the vicar?”

“I can think of things I fancy more.” His hardening dick prodded me in the back, just in case I didn’t catch his drift. “When?”

“Saturday. Unless you’re planning on staking out any more dogging sites?”

“That case is over, thank God. I’ve seen enough bare bums sticking out of car windows to last me a lifetime. No, the only plans I had involved you and that sofa.”

“What, you wanted to watch Britain’s Got Talent together?”

“I’ll show you Britain’s got talent.” Phil nipped at my neck, just the right side of painful, and slid his hand down to my dick, which perked up nicely at the attention.

After that, I got a bit distracted from the question of my sister’s love life.

from The Novel Approach

[A] fun mystery with great, quirky characters.