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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. All person(s) depicted on the cover are model(s) used for illustrative purposes only.

Pressure Head

Copyright © 2012, 2018 by JL Merrow

Smashwords Edition

Cover art: Christine Coffee,

Editor: Carole-ann Galloway

Layout: L.C. Chase,

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ISBN: 978-1-62649-712-2

Second edition

January, 2018

Also available in paperback:

ISBN: 978-1-62649-713-9


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Some things are better left hidden.

Tom Paretski’s not just a plumber with a dodgy hip courtesy of a schoolboy accident. He also has a sixth sense for finding hidden things. Called in by the police to help locate a body near Brock’s Hollow, he’s staggered to encounter Phil Morrison, his old school crush—and the closeted bully whose actions contributed to Tom’s accident.

Phil’s all grown up now, and Tom’s unwilling attraction to him is back with a vengeance. Phil’s now openly gay—and what’s more, he’s interested in Tom’s personal charms as well as his psychic talents. As a private investigator called in by the dead woman’s parents, Phil is sceptical about Tom’s unusual gift, but nevertheless quick to spot its potential to aid him in his work.

The further they go with the investigation, the less they can ignore their shared past, and the more the pressure and the heat build between them. But Tom isn’t certain he wants to know the secrets he’s helping to uncover, while there’s a murderer on the loose who won’t hesitate to kill again—and this uneasy couple is moving right into his sights.

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

To the members of Verulam Writers’ Circle, for all their constructive criticism, good-natured ribbing, and general encouragement over a drink or two—cheers!

And, as always, with thanks to my wonderful friends Jo and Pen. You know I couldn’t do it without you.

About Pressure Head

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Dear Reader

Also by JL Merrow

About the Author

More like this

Whatever it was I was following, it was dead ahead. Calling to me, tugging at my mind. I fought my way through prickly hawthorn and incongruously festive holly, a minor annoyance as they clutched at my padded jacket. When I reached a clearing, I broke into a run. Melanie’s face was seared in my mind, and I thought, Please, God, let it not be her. Let it be some drunk’s alcohol stash . . .

I already knew it wasn’t. There was the stench of guilt about this one, turning my stomach even as it dragged me nearer. Guilt and violence—and death.

I reached a thicket, dropped to my hands and knees, and crawled in. Twigs scratched my face, caught in my hair. Damp soaked through the knees of my jeans, the chill reaching to my bones, numbing my core. There was barely any light to see by, but I didn’t need any, my questing fingers meeting cold, waxy flesh. I fumbled to be certain and found I was holding her hand.

For a moment, I was six years old again, with the little girl in the park.

But when you’re twenty-nine and you find a body, you don’t get to go blubbing for your mother.

It started with a phone call, as these things usually do. I haven’t exactly got an office, more like a stack of files in a cardboard box that I hand over to my accountant once a quarter, and the answer phone’s on the blink, so if anyone wants to get in touch with me, they have to call my mobile.

I was out in one of the villages when he rang. There are a lot of villages around St. Albans, most of them filled up with people who commute into London to work and keep the house prices sky-high. In between, you get the green belt made up of pony farms and golf courses, plus the odd actual working farm tucked in, with small herds of placid cows looking like refugees from the nineteenth century as they chomp on the grass and idly wonder what happened to the neighbourhood.

I was fitting some new kitchen taps for Mrs. B., who made great coffee and liked to chat. I always had to be careful I didn’t go over time here. It wasn’t easy when I knew the next call was to Mrs. L., a sour-faced old biddy who always watched me like a hawk in case I made off with the teaspoons or did something unspeakable to her pet poodle.

I put down my spanner and dug my mobile out of my pocket. “Paretski Plumbing,” I answered in my jaunty “trade” voice, flashing Mrs. B. an apologetic smile. She dimpled.

“Tom? Dave Southgate. Got a little job for you.”

“Oh, yeah? Blocked toilet down at the station? Must be all those doughnuts you lot eat.” I wasn’t talking about the place you catch a train from. Dave Southgate is one of our boys in blue—or he would be, if he still wore a uniform. And when he rang, the job was never all that little, though I lived in hope.

“I wish. No—young lady by the name of Melanie Porter. Last seen going off to meet person or persons unknown three days ago—if you believe her useless yob of a hoodie boyfriend, who I personally wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw his drugs stash. We’ve received information suggesting we have a look for the young lady in the woods up by Brock’s Hollow.”

“I do have a proper job to do, you know.” Even I could hear the resignation in my voice.

“Cheers, Tom, I owe you. We’re up on Nomansland Common. Up past Devil’s Dyke—you know the area? Combing through the woodland, the usual drill. How soon can you get up here?”

I looked at my watch. “About ten minutes—I’m only down the road, as it happens. Just need to finish up.” And I’d have to ring Mrs. L. and apologise for the no-show, but that’d be more a pleasure than a duty.

I shoved my phone back in my pocket and finished tightening up the taps. Opened the supply pipes and turned the taps on and off to prove they worked. “There you go,” I said, wiping my hands on an old rag. “All sorted.”

“That’s lovely. Sure you wouldn’t like to stay for another coffee?” She gave me a winning smile, and the dimples deepened. “I’ve got some Belgian chocolate biccies.”

“Sorry, Mrs. B.,” I said regretfully. “Duty calls.”

I first met Dave Southgate around three years ago. A kiddie went missing in Verulamium Park, and they put out an appeal on local radio for help finding the little lad. He was only three. I tracked him down under a bush right next to the main road, crying his little heart out and clutching a half-eaten loaf of bread he’d taken to feed the ducks.

Obviously, me being a single gay man who’d managed to find a missing toddler, it wasn’t just as simple as handing the kid over and receiving the effusive thanks of a grateful police force. There were a lot of searching questions about just how I’d known where to look. Eventually, I managed to convince Sergeant Southgate, as he then was, I just had this knack of finding stuff. Or people, as it might be. Since then, he’s called me in a few times to look for things—burglars’ loot, hidden drugs—and bodies.

It’s a bit hard to explain, but I can’t just find any old thing. I’m not some bloody database on the location of everything in the world. It’s only certain types of things. And usually, there has to be some strong emotion involved. So lost things are almost always impossible, because if you’d been feeling that strongly about the thing at the time, chances are you wouldn’t have lost it, would you? Hidden things, on the other hand, call out to me. All the guilt and shame and sneakiness involved in the hiding acts as a kind of beacon. And I can often tell from the feeling just what sort of thing it is that’s hidden.

I mean, say you buried a suitcase in your garden. I’d have a pretty good idea before I dug it up whether it contained your collection of hard-core porn, letters from a lover, or the body of your dead baby.

Bodies, actually, are the classic one. I have to be close enough physically—although there’s tricks I can do to help, I’ll get on to those later—but once I’m there, it’s like they’re howling at me.

The first one I found, I thought she really was howling.

It was back when we lived in London. She wasn’t anyone I knew. I think Mum knew her mum a bit, but that was all. She was too young to have played with me, and certainly too young to have played with my sister. She was only four, you see, when it happened. Just wandered off in the park, I guess, met a man who seemed really friendly . . . do I have to spell it out for you? He’d hidden her under some bushes, right in a patch of nettles. Must have been wearing gloves, I suppose. I had shorts on when I found her, and I got covered in stings.

But she was crying, at least I thought she was, and I knew I couldn’t leave her there. So I crept in after her, calling out, “Don’t cry—it’s all right.”

Of course, it wasn’t all right. Not for her, and not for her poor mum and dad. For them, I expect it was never all right again. She stopped crying as soon as I found her, so maybe she found some peace. I don’t know. I thought she was asleep, but she was so cold. I tried to drag her out, but I was worried I’d hurt her, so in the end, I left her there and ran and got my mum.

And then things got very grown-up, very fast.

Anyway. Hidden things. Lost things, sometimes. And water, funnily enough. I’ve never really understood that one.

I rubbed my hip as I walked over the rough grassland of the common to the edge of a scrubby patch of woodland, where I could see Dave and a couple of police dogs with their handlers. I broke my pelvis badly when I was seventeen—got hit by a car and spent months recovering—and it aches whenever the weather turns cold and damp. Which, this being Britain, it does quite a lot, especially in November. Maybe I’d move to Florida when I retired.

Maybe a passing porker would be able to fly me there.

“All right, Dave?” I called out when I got to where they were standing, grim-faced.

Dave’s face broke into a relieved almost-smile, although the men with the dogs cast me sceptical glances. Dave was a big bloke, by which I mean a bit too fond of beer and takeaways. He was tall compared to my five foot eight, but probably only average compared to everyone else. I don’t mind. In fact, it’s pretty handy for a plumber, being small—especially when you’re working in one of those new, shoebox-sized houses they throw up everywhere these days, with the sort of bathrooms where you step out of the bath to find you’ve got one foot in the toilet.

“Tom. Good to see you.” Dave took a deep breath. “Right. Melanie Porter. She’s a twenty-three-year-old estate agent, works down in the village. Boyfriend, as I said, a bit on the dodgy side. He’s got previous for drugs, petty crime—that sort of thing. Supposed to have settled down since he met the young lady—at least, he’s stayed out of trouble for nearly a year now. His story is she got a call Saturday night and told him she had to go out. They had a blazing row about it—we’ve got the neighbour’s corroboration for that—and she left, and he hasn’t seen her since. Or, depending which theory you subscribe to, he bludgeoned her to death and disposed of the body sometime in the early hours of Sunday morning.”

“So why do you think she’s here?” I nodded over at the trees.

“Anonymous tip-off. Said if we want to find Melanie, we’re to look around here.” He scratched his nose. Somebody really ought to buy him some nose-hair clippers for Christmas, I thought, distracted for a moment by the bushy growths that sprouted unchecked from his nostrils. “Be pretty convenient for him, if he did do it. They lived just over there, in a council flat.” Dave inclined his head towards the Dyke Hill estate, an unlovely but functional collection of houses and flats for the less-well-off of the village.

“Right, let’s get started, then,” I suggested. The longer I stayed out here, the worse my hip would ache. And I still had Mrs. L.’s blocked drain hanging over me, metaphorically speaking. “Have you got anything for me?”

It doesn’t always work, but sometimes a picture of the person I’m looking for will help. Dave handed me a snapshot, taken on a sunny day down by the river. Melanie Porter was a pretty girl, although she’d never make the cover of Vogue, or even Nuts. She had a roundish face, chestnut hair, and large blue eyes. Her smile was a little crooked, which gave her a sympathetic air.

Suddenly I didn’t want to find her. She looked like the sort of girl you hoped your brother would marry.

“There’s this too.” Dave handed me a carrier bag with a cardigan in it. “She was wearing it at work, the day she disappeared.”

“I’m not a bloody sniffer dog.” I took it anyway, in case it had some vibes for me. I pointedly didn’t sniff it. I didn’t feel any vibes, either. It was just a plain, slightly bobbly cardie.

“Oh, bloody hell—how did he find out about this?”

I looked up from the photo to see Dave glaring at a tall, blond figure striding our way across the common. The new guy was big in a totally different way to Dave—his shoulders were broad, his legs were long and lean, and the bulk of his chest wasn’t all due to the body warmer he was wearing over a thick sweater. Well, it was a bit nippy up here, as I was finding to my cost. I gave my hip another rub.

There was something vaguely familiar about the bloke. “Who is he?”

“Private bloody investigator. Hired by our girl’s mum and dad. Private bloody pain in the bum, if you ask me. Ex-copper, couldn’t hack it, so left to go private.” He gave me a speculative look. “Course, you might get on all right with him. He’s one of your lot, not that you’d know it to look at him.”

“What, a plumber?” I asked innocently.

“Piss off. And he’s not a bloody psychic either. He’s queer, all right? And if I catch you two canoodling on police time, I’m taking pictures and bunging them on the internet.”

“I’ll try and control my raging homo desires,” I said as dryly as I could. “I’ve managed to keep my hands off you all these years, haven’t I?” I added to wind him up.

Dave shuddered. I wasn’t offended. I was too busy fighting off a shudder myself. Dave’s a great bloke, and I love him dearly, but not like that. Dear God, never like that.

I had to admit I wouldn’t mind a bit of canoodling where the PI was concerned. Dave’s comment about his sexuality had piqued my interest, no doubt about it. As he approached, the sense of familiarity deepened, and I wondered if I’d seen him around somewhere. I was fairly sure we’d never hooked up or anything embarrassing like that. This guy was way out of my league—with a body like that, and a square-jawed, classically handsome face above it, he could take his pick, and he looked like he knew it too.

He nodded at Dave as he got up to where we were standing. “Southgate.”

Dave didn’t so much nod as curl his lip. “Morrison.”

And it hit me where I knew him from. It was all I could do not to stagger back, winded from the blow.

Morrison. Phil Morrison.

The last time I’d seen him, we’d still been at school. It wasn’t a time I looked back on with a nostalgic, rosy glow. My last name’s Paretski, a legacy of my great-grandma’s Polish stepdad, so naturally enough I was known for most of my school life as Parrotski. With the occasional Parrot-face or Polly thrown in for variety. I didn’t exactly like it, but I couldn’t say it really bothered me either. Although I did feel a bit envious of my older brother for having managed to get away with plain old Ski as a nickname.

Then Phil Morrison caught me looking at him in the changing room after PE—well, who wouldn’t look? He was the fittest lad in the school: tall, blond, athletic—and he came up with the bright idea of calling me Poofski.

It caught on instantly. Soon, hardly a day went by without a joke at my expense. Games lessons were the worst. “Don’t let Poofski follow you into the shower!” was a gag that never seemed to get old. My maths teacher, Mr. Collymore, even called me it once. I mean, I’m sure it was a genuine slip of the tongue, and he apologised afterwards, but they were laughing about that one in the classroom for days.

For all I know, they laughed about it in the staff room too.

And now he was here. Against all laws of probability or even human decency, apparently queer. And I was supposed to get used to it?

Morrison must have noticed my reaction, as he looked at me with his eyes narrowed. Suddenly, his face cleared, and a half smile flickered across his lips. “Parrotski,” he said with grim satisfaction.

Well, it could have been worse. And I was long over being intimidated by him. “That’s Paretski, if you don’t mind,” I snapped.

“You’ve changed a bit,” he said cryptically.

“So have you.” I tried to inject as much meaning as I could into those three words. I wanted him to know I knew his little secret. I wanted him to feel like the bloody hypocrite he was.

Zero reaction. Either it didn’t work, or more likely, he just didn’t give a monkey’s what I thought about him.

Dave huffed impatiently. “If you don’t mind me interrupting this touching reunion, we do have a body to look for. And Morrison? Unless you’re here to hand deliver a map drawn by the murderer, your services are not required. This is an official police investigation, not a bloody free-for-all.”

Morrison raised an eyebrow. “Oh? When did you join the force, Parrot—Paretski? Good thing for you they dropped the height restrictions.”

My jaw tensed. “I’m just here as a consultant.”

“Know a lot about hiding bodies, do you?” God, I’d forgotten just how much his snide tone got up my nose.

“Used to think about it all the time back in school,” I said pointedly.

“Girls!” Dave broke in with an exasperated shout.

We both whirled to look at him, probably with identical hangdog expressions. “Sorry, Dave,” I said, to establish myself firmly as the reasonable one. “Time to get started?”

“Too bloody right. Come on. And Morrison? If I find you trampling on the evidence, you’ll be cooling your heels in jail, understood? As soon as we find anything—if we find anything—the family will be informed.” Dave grabbed my elbow and more or less hustled me into the trees. We stopped once we were out of sight of the grassland. “Right—do your stuff.”

I sighed. “What, after all that?”

“Oh, come off it, Tom. Don’t play the prima donna with me, now. What was all that with you and Morrison, anyway? The short version, please. Young love gone bad?”

“Don’t let him hear you say that,” I warned. “Not unless you fancy pulling him in on a charge of assaulting an officer. We went to school together, that’s all. We weren’t exactly friends.”

I jumped as a hand like a bag full of sausages clapped me briefly on the shoulder. “School bully, was he? I know his type. All bluster and no bloody bollocks.”

Phil Morrison had bollocks, all right. I remembered that from the school showers. You might say I’d made something of a study of the subject. Didn’t think Dave would appreciate me mentioning it, though. I took a deep breath, and tried to clear my mind.

Phil Morrison’s bollocks kept creeping back in there. Sod it. “You want to give me that picture again?” I asked.

Thirty seconds staring at Melanie’s pretty, kind face soon got my mind out of the gutter. “Right. Okay.” I handed it back and closed my eyes. Could I hear something? Feel it tugging at me? I turned around slowly, trying to judge where the pull was coming from. There. I stepped forward, remembering in time to open my eyes before I walked into a tree.

Dave didn’t say anything, and neither did I. We just followed the line I’d sensed. My work boots soon picked up a thick coating of mulched-up leaves, stuck on with mud. On a crisp, frosty morning, this might be a pleasant place for a walk, but right now it was just soggy and dirty. It even smelled damp. Every now and then a twig that had somehow managed to escape getting soaked through would snap loudly under my foot, but more often I’d put my boot in a muddy patch and have to pull it free with a squelch. Brambles snagged my jeans and clutched at my hair.

As the pull got stronger, I sped up. Dave started puffing a bit and occasionally cursing, probably at the mess the mud was making of his shoes. I forced myself to slow down, but it was nagging at me, and I found my pace quickening again.

It wasn’t Melanie’s voice. I don’t see ghosts—at least, I don’t think I do. The girl in the park when I was a kid had seemed like a spirit, but I think it was just the way my child’s brain interpreted things. These days, I just feel a pull, a sense of something hidden, of something not-right. It’s like . . . I’ve never taken drugs—too much weird stuff going on in my head as it is—but I imagine it’s like the pull a hopeless addict feels towards the next fix. Only without the high when I finally give in to it.

Fortunately, I usually only feel it when I’m actively listening—I know you can’t listen for a feeling, but language really isn’t accurate for this sort of thing—or I’d probably go stark raving mad. After all, when you think about it, the average household has six to a dozen things hidden in it. The wife’s saving-up-to-leave-him secret piggy bank; the teenage son’s porn; his dad’s porn; these days, quite often, his mum’s porn. And don’t get me started on the subject of sex toys . . .

I’d veered off course, I realised. Feeling guilty, I wrenched my mind back to the matter in hand. Where had she gone . . .? Dave started to say something, so I held up a hand to shush him.

There. I stepped forward.

When you’re twenty-nine and you find a body, as I said earlier, you don’t get to go blubbing for your mother. You get Dave clapping you on the shoulder and heaving a resigned sigh, while the other police officers throw you suspicious looks. Nobody shields you from the sight as they shine their torches into the bushes and light up the mess some bastard made of a young woman’s skull. Your mind’s well able to interpret the blood, the misshapen dent where the bone pushed into the brain, and your imagination fills in the pain and the terror she must have felt.

And when you walk out of the forest and leave them to it, you find Phil Morrison waiting for you.

It was twilight by now, but he wasn’t exactly easy to overlook. He loomed out of the shadow of the trees like Herne the Hunter on steroids.

“Have they found her, then?” he demanded.

I nodded curtly and went to walk past him. He grabbed my arm.

To say I wasn’t happy was an understatement. I don’t like people grabbing me. Never have. “Oi! Get your bloody hands off me!”

“Don’t get your knickers in a twist. I just want to talk to you, that’s all.” He didn’t let go.

“Why don’t you go and talk to the police? They’re the ones doing all the detecting. I just found her for them.” His eyes narrowed, and I realised I’d given away more than I should have.

“How did you know where she was? Did you see her being dumped here?”

“I didn’t see anything, okay?” I tried to shake off his grip, getting more and more annoyed as he refused to let go. “I just find stuff.”

“Stuff? Like dead people?”

“Yes, okay? Look, for fuck’s sake, I’ve had a hard day and it ended with me cuddling up to a corpse. Will you let go of me or do I have to call one of the coppers over? I’m sure Dave Southgate will be only too happy to pull you in on the trumped-up charge of my choosing.”

He released me, and I rubbed my arm. “So what’s the deal?” he asked. “You know people in low places, they tell you stuff, you tell the police?”

“No. I’m just good at finding stuff, that’s all. It’s a talent. Like dowsing.”

“What, that water-divining crap? Bollocks!”

“Whatever.” I strode off towards my car, pissed off beyond belief to find him walking by my side, his long legs easily keeping up even with my most annoyed pace.

“Come on, what’s the real deal? Look, I’m working for her parents, here. They’re going to be devastated when they find out she’s dead. The least anyone can do is get them some justice.”

Great. Now I felt pissed off and guilty. I rubbed my hip, realised what I was doing and jammed my hand in my jacket pocket where it couldn’t betray me.

When I glanced at Phil, I could tell he’d seen.

“Look, I’m sorry about that,” he said, with an awkward grimace.

“About what?” I asked nastily.

“Well, you know. About the leg.”

“Oh. I see. So making my last year at school a living hell, you’d do all that again, would you?” Bastard.

“Oh, for—” Phil’s hand made some kind of abortive gesture, and he looked up and away from me. “We were kids. That was just joking around.”

“Too bad I never went through with the suicide attempt, then. That’d have made a great punch line.”

“Like you’d have ever killed yourself.”

Right then, I could definitely have killed him. I’d just ripped the bandages off my soul, and all he’d done was sneer and rub salt in the wound. “Oh, and you know me that well, do you? I suppose you’ve been on one of those profiling courses, and now you think you know everything about everyone.”

“No, but I know you. We were at school together, remember?”

We’d reached the car park by now. I fumbled in my pocket for my keys. “Like I could ever forget—”

“Yeah, and I remember you too. You were always so bloody . . .” He threw his hands up, as if clutching for a word. “Self-contained,” he finished.

“‘Self-contained’? What the bloody hell does that mean?”

“Oh, you know. Don’t try and pretend you don’t. Like you didn’t need anyone else. Like we were all just a little bit thick compared to you.”

What? I stared at him, speechless.

“You know,” he continued, “you wouldn’t have got so much stick from everyone if you hadn’t been so bloody standoffish.”

“‘Standoffish’? I was bloody standoffish?” My voice rose so high on the last bit it cracked.

“Yeah. Always looking down your nose at people like me just because we came from the council estate.”

“I— What? Bloody hell, Morrison, have you even noticed you’re a foot taller than I am? If I wanted to look down my nose at you, I’d need a sodding stepladder! I can’t believe you’re even saying that. I was the one nobody liked. Poofski, remember? Because I haven’t bloody well forgotten what it was like, being the butt of your oh-so-funny jokes every . . . bloody . . . day.” The keys in my hand jangled as I punctuated the last few words with jabs of my finger at his overdeveloped chest.

Then I got in my van, slammed the door, and drove home, seething.

I’ve got a little house in Fleetville, which is part of St. Albans but has its own shops and pubs, so it feels like a separate community. It’s way less pretentious than most of the villages around here. It’s pretty ethnically diverse, so the shops are more interesting than in a lot of places—there’s a halal food shop and more takeaways than you could get tired of in a month of not cooking. You see a lot of ladies in saris or headscarves, and blokes in ethnic gear too. Brightens the place up, I always think. I live just off the main road, handy for the shops and the pub. Parking can be a pain—well, it’s St. Albans, isn’t it?—but I can fit the van on the drive, and there’s usually room to park my little Fiesta in front.

At least the cats were pleased to see me, I thought with a smile as I walked in my front door. Merlin wove his slender, black body in and out of my legs ecstatically, and even Arthur deigned to get off his fat, furry arse and pad into the hall to welcome me.

They’re both toms, although most people assume slim, sleek Merlin is a she. Personally, I think he’s gay. He’s always rubbing up against Arthur as if he’d like them to be more than just good friends. Fortunately Arthur’s too thick to notice. He’s a big ginger bruiser who’d probably flatten Merlin if he realised he fancied him. Not very metrosexual, old Arthur.

I fed them the dish of the day (lamb with rabbit, yum, yum) and set about rustling myself up some comfort food. A mug of Heinz tomato soup the size of your average bathtub, and hunks of baker’s bread with tangy cheddar cheese melted into it. Lovely. For dessert, I took a couple of ibuprofen. I don’t like popping pills all the time, but my hip was really killing me, and every twinge was a reminder of Phil bloody Morrison. And the accident.

I’d been seventeen when it happened. I’d made the mistake of heading out to the shops on my own. Just as I turned a corner, I ran straight into Phil Morrison and his gang. Literally.

He hadn’t been pleased to see me. “Oi, watch where you’re going—bloody hell, it’s Poofski!”

“He was touching you up, Phil!” That was Wayne Hills, a nasty little shit who did an awful lot of arse-kissing for a rabid homophobe.

“Get him!”

After a greeting like that, there was only one thing to do. Run. When it came to verbal sparring, I liked to think I gave as good as I got, but there were four of them threatening to get very physical, very fast, and they were all bigger than me.

So I ran.

Unfortunately, my talent for knowing where things are didn’t extend to the oncoming car that hit me square on, shattering my pelvis and breaking my leg. With hindsight, it would have been a lot less painful to stand my ground and take the beating they’d threatened. As violent thugs went, Phil and his gang were strictly minor league. The car, on the other hand, was a four-by-four. With bull bars on the front.

So I ended up missing my A levels, and I never did go back and take them. My parents were disappointed, but with my older brother a consultant oncologist and my sister a barrister, I suppose they thought on average, they’d done all right by their kids. Either that or they were worn out with the whole thing by then. My sister’s ten years older than me, my brother, twelve—I’m fairly sure my parents thought I was the menopause. I’ve never quite dared ask if they were pleased or not to find out the truth.

The plumbing thing came about more or less by chance, although once I’d thought of it, it seemed like the obvious choice. We’d had a pipe burst under the floor, and after ten minutes idly watching the plumber effing and blinding as he tried to work out where the leak was, I realised I could tell him to the inch. His comment of “Are you trying to do me out of a job, son?” got me thinking.

Anyway, as my dad always says, it’s useful having a plumber in the family. Usually, he says this right before he asks me if I’ll take a look at the drip in the shower.

(At which point I generally say, “Oh, I didn’t realise my brother was visiting, and won’t he mind me staring at him?” Family rituals—you’ve got to love them.)

I put down my mug and scratched Arthur’s chin. He leaned into me and purred—he might look like a bruiser, he might even swagger like one, but he’s just a big softy at heart. Talking of swaggering bruisers . . . Phil Morrison, a poof. Who’d have thought it?

Of course, it occurred to me, just because Dave had heard Phil was queer didn’t mean he actually was. I smiled to myself. Maybe he’d been the other sort of bent copper, and Dave had got the wrong end of the stick. Now that I could believe.

I was eating my breakfast next morning when the doorbell rang, so I went to answer it with my hair uncombed, my face unshaven, and a slice of toast and marmalade in my hand. I don’t know anyone who manages to look presentable before eight o’clock in the morning. It’s just not natural.

I wasn’t pleased to find myself facing an immaculate Phil Morrison. His broad shoulders filled my doorway, and a hand rested casually in the pocket of his designer jeans. “How did you find out where I live?” I asked, just about managing not to spit crumbs all over his sweater. It looked expensively soft, maybe even cashmere, not that I’d be able to tell for sure without reading the label. Knowing him, if he had to get it dry-cleaned, he’d probably send me the bill.

He smirked. “Private investigator, remember?”

“What do you want?” I was uncomfortably aware I’d been wearing this shirt yesterday. I had a clean T-shirt on underneath—I’m not a slob—but he still made me feel like something the cats had dragged in and then played with for a bit before losing interest and batting it under the sofa.

“Can I come in?” Phil asked, sounding annoyingly reasonable.

My first instinct was to slam the door in his face, but I was brought up proper, so I muttered, “If you must,” and stood aside for him to enter. He walked in, casting a professional, and no doubt unimpressed, eye all over my little semidetached house, which I liked to think of as cosy and unpretentious. Morrison probably saw it as poky and scruffy.

“Nice place,” he said in a tone so completely devoid of sarcasm I reckoned he had to be taking the piss.

“Yeah, and the weather’s lovely for the time of year. Now are you going to get to the point? I’ve got a blocked drain that was put off yesterday, and all the jobs booked in for today.” I shoved the rest of my toast in my mouth impatiently, still standing in the hall. I wasn’t going to invite him to park his arse on my sofa and get comfortable. That was the last thing I wanted.

Morrison watched me chew for a moment. “Melanie Porter’s family want to meet you.”

“What? Why?” This time I did spit out a few crumbs.

“You found their daughter, remember?” His gaze was open and bland, and I didn’t trust it as far as I could throw its owner. “Maybe they think you’ll be able to tell them something about how she died.”

“I won’t.” I pushed past him and stalked off to the kitchen, where I’d left my morning cuppa. Merlin and Arthur were busy demolishing their breakfast, furry bums in the air. I envied them. Life was so much bloody simpler for a cat.

Morrison followed me in, and I briefly wished I’d gone for a couple of Dobermans. “Come off it, Paretski—you must have had some grounds for knowing where to find her.”

I took a long, steadying swallow of PG Tips. “I didn’t. I told you yesterday, I’m just good at finding things, that’s all. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got work to do.” I shoved my plate into the dishwasher, gulped down the rest of my tea, and rinsed out my mug.

“You’ve changed, Paretski,” he said, and this time the tone was clearly disapproving. His impressive bulk loomed even larger in the narrow confines of my kitchen, and it didn’t help that I was only in my socks. One of which had a hole in the toe, I noticed. “I’d never have thought you’d leave an old mate in the lurch like this.”

I whirled, droplets of water flying onto his tan leather jacket from the mug still in my hand. I hastily put it in the sink before I could ruin his entire wardrobe. “‘An old mate’? For fuck’s sake, Morrison, we hated each other’s guts!”

There was an odd look on his face. “Not me. Graham Carter.”

For a moment, I couldn’t place the name. It’d been so long since I’d heard it. Then it hit me.

We’d been friends at school, of a sort, me and Graham. He’d distanced himself from me after the Poofski thing broke, but I hadn’t blamed him really. The poor sod had had a hard enough time already, without being tarred with the same brush as me. He was a kids’ home boy, shy, nerdy, and crap at games. He really didn’t need to hand the bullies any more ammunition.

Now I thought about it, I couldn’t actually remember Morrison being a git to Graham. He’d saved that for me, the bastard.

“What the hell has Graham Carter go to do with all this?”

“Melanie Porter was his girlfriend. They lived together, up on Dyke Hill. He was the one who gave the Porters my number, back when Melanie first went missing.”

“You and Graham are friends?” I couldn’t keep the scepticism out of my voice. It was like hearing Tweety Pie and Sylvester had suddenly become BFFs. “How the hell did that happen?”

“That’s not important. What is important is that he’s being set up for this.”

I folded my arms and leant against the draining board. “I thought you were working for Melanie’s parents, not for Graham.”

“I am. They don’t believe he did it—and they want to find the bastard who did.”

It didn’t seem to add up to the picture I’d formed in my head. “Dave Southgate said Melanie’s boyfriend was a junkie.”

“He was. Past tense.” Morrison sighed. “Look, he went through a bad patch after leaving school. A lot of us did,” he added, but went on before I could ask him about it. Not that he’d have told me anything, I thought sourly. “He was living on the streets for a while, doing smack, petty crime, that sort of thing—but he’d started to sort his life out even before he met Melanie.”

“So at which point did you and he become friends? The junkie bit, or after?” I persisted.

Morrison folded his arms, mirroring my posture. I couldn’t help noticing he had a lot more trouble than I had getting his beefy forearms in position. “I help out at Crisis, all right? Saw Graham there and got talking to him.”

“Crisis?” My flabber was well and truly ghasted.

“The homelessness charity,” he supplied impatiently.

“I know what it is, all right? I just wouldn’t have imagined you playing the Good Samaritan to a bunch of tramps.” Then again, I’d never have imagined anyone telling me Phil Morrison was queer either.

“There’s a lot about me you don’t know, Paretski.”

Not as much as you think. I found myself giving him an appraising look and wondering what kind of bloke he liked, and if he was seeing someone at the moment. Then I gave myself a mental shake. Still perving over Phil Morrison after all these years, for God’s sake?

Trouble was, he was just the sort of bloke I go for. Always had been. He’d filled out a bit since his school days, but then so had my image of the perfect man. Physically, obviously, because personality-wise, I still couldn’t stand the git.

At least, that was what I’d thought. In the light of all these revelations, I wondered if I ought to revise my opinion.

He heaved a heavy sigh, his arms rising and falling with his chest. “Look, can we focus on what’s important here? Graham’s in trouble. Are you going to help, or not?”

“I . . .” I had to look away. “It’s not that I won’t help. I just don’t see how I can, that’s all.”

“Fine.” His jaw set, Morrison unfolded his arms and marched towards the door.

“Oh, for— Hang on a minute, okay?” I found myself chasing after him and grabbing hold of one granite forearm, only to drop it like a ton of, well, granite when he turned and glared at me. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t go and see them. I just don’t see how it can help. I don’t know anything. I just find stuff.”

He drew in a breath as if about to say something, then stopped and shook his head. “Okay, then. I’ll pick you up here at seven o’clock tonight, all right?”

“Okay,” I said, regretting it already. What would it do except raise hopes I couldn’t fulfil?

I felt in dire need of someone to talk to after that, but work came first, seeing as mortgage companies tend to get a bit nasty if you don’t cough up each month. But I called my mate Gary and asked him to meet me for lunch up the Dyke between jobs.

The Devil’s Dyke pub in Brock’s Hollow is actually named after the Iron Age earthworks still visible nearby, but you could be forgiven for thinking the place took its name from its landlady. Henrietta “Harry” Shire is over six feet tall and built like the proverbial outhouse. She might have hung up her boxing gloves, following not inconsiderable success on the amateur ladies’ circuit, but it’d still be a brave man who dared cause trouble in her pub. The place is staffed by a gaggle of pretty young girls who all seem to live in and never, ever have boyfriends. They’re referred to locally as Harry’s harem, but only when the speaker is one hundred and ten percent certain the Devil’s Dyke herself isn’t listening.

Anyway, they do decent pub grub up there. It’s down a quiet country lane, and there’s a large garden on one side of it, so summer weekends it gets pretty busy with kiddies playing football while their parents enjoy a pint. On a Wednesday lunchtime in November, there was still a respectable crowd, although we were all over school age and we stayed in the public bar and kept warm by the fire. The Devil’s Dyke is an old-fashioned country pub and still has two bars: the public bar and the lounge bar, only the latter of which they let the kiddies into. As is usual in these places, it’s the nicest one that’s adults only. It’s a shame, really, as Harry’s border collie Flossie makes her home in the public bar, whereas all the lounge bar has to recommend it is a secret passageway in the walk-in fireplace which is, in any case, locked and marked Private.

Flossie likes to lie down on top of the covered-up well. What a pub wants with an in-house well is beyond me—personally, I’d have thought they’d want to discourage the drinking of water—but maybe they had their reasons back in Ye Olde Times. Anyway, all that’s left now is a circular plinth about two feet high, with a glass cover you can look down to see that yes, it really does go all the way down. It keeps Flossie’s tail safe from being trodden on and gives her a vantage point from which to fix a beady eye on anyone daring to eat meat in the place. I generally go for fish when I have a meal there.

There are plenty of low beams, none of which I have to duck for, and the walls are tobacco-coloured, maybe to compensate for the fact you’re not allowed to smoke inside any longer. Pride of place on the walls is given to Harry’s collection of exotic beer bottles, with a few horse brasses tucked in apologetically here and there.

Gary was currently ruffling Julian’s neck fur as we waited for the food to arrive—Julian being his big Saint Bernard that’s as soft as he is, and who he treats like a furry baby. “Who’s Daddy’s sweetie, then?” he cooed.

“That’s a good question,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “What happened to that bloke you met in London?”

Gary made a face. He’s one of those blokes who are not exactly fat but still soft all over, like an overstuffed teddy bear, although in his case it conceals a quite respectably muscled upper body. He works from his house in Brock’s Hollow, doing something in IT—or as the website has it, “implementing software solutions for the forward-looking business.”

“Turned out to be a total cow. We shall not speak of him. No we won’t.” The last bit was to the dog. “And how’s your love life, darling?” That was to me, Julian’s love life having long been consigned to the vet’s dustbin.

“Dead as a dodo,” I admitted sadly. “Just don’t seem to meet any decent blokes these days.”

“Well, that’s a disappointment. I thought you’d dragged me up here to tell me all about your latest conquest.”

No one pouts like Gary, and I had to smile. “If only. Although I did have breakfast with a tall, well-built blond this morning . . .”

“Tom! I am agog!” He was too. His eyes were practically popping out on stalks. Even Julian was looking up at me, his tongue hanging out like a slice of Spam as he panted out bone-breath. “Tell me more. At once.”

I laughed. “Not nearly as good as it sounds. Sorry. He turned up on my doorstep before eight.”

“Now that’s just rude. Nobody’s got their face on at that hour.” Gary sat back in his seat, looking horrified on my behalf. Made me wonder just how much of a beauty routine he went through every morning.

“Yeah, well, that’s him all over. Bloke I knew at school. Phil Morrison.” I half wondered if Gary might have heard something about him. I don’t often meet a gay bloke from around here who Gary doesn’t know.

“Unlike yours truly, it doesn’t ring a bell.” Gary’s a campanologist. He likes to tell people he took up bell-ringing because he’s always up for anything with camp in the name. Some people even think he’s joking. “Old boyfriend?”

I made a face. “Old school bully.”

“And he’s knocking you up in the early hours of the morning because?”

I sighed and lowered my voice. “I found a body yesterday.”

Gary’s eyes widened to the size of the dinner plates the waitress chose that moment to put in front of us. “The girl from the estate agent’s—that was you?”

“Thanks, love,” I said, smiling mechanically at the waitress. She just gave me a funny look, probably because she’d heard what Gary had said. Thanks, Gary. “Well, I found her, yeah.” I stared at my battered cod, suddenly not feeling half as hungry as I had when I’d ordered it. “I didn’t put her there.”

“Well, go on.” Gary leaned forward over his lasagne. “Tell Uncle Gary all about it. Was she”—he lowered his voice—“naked?”

Gary’s a good bloke, really he is. It’s just—nobody ever really gets it. You tell anyone you’ve found a body, and it’s just not real to them. They think it’s like being an extra on Midsomer Murders. “No. I probably shouldn’t be talking about it, and to be honest, I really don’t want to. It wasn’t exactly the highlight of my week.”

“Sorry, sweetie. Poor you.” Gary laid a hand briefly on my arm, then chomped thoughtfully on his side salad for a minute. “To coin a phrase, if I had a gift like yours, I’d return it.”

I shrugged and picked at my chips. “At least she’s been found now. That’s got to be better for her family than not knowing.” I reached for the ketchup bottle, then thought better of it, visions of poor Melanie dancing in my head and threatening to take away my appetite. “Trouble is, the old-school bully is a private investigator now, and he doesn’t believe in my so-called gift. Thinks I must know something about her death I’m not telling.”

“But the police don’t think that, do they?” Gary patted my right knee, and Julian showed his concern by slobbering on the other.

Knowing from experience just how unpleasant it would be when the drool soaked through the denim, I pushed his ton-weight head off gently—the dog’s that is, not Gary’s. “No—but I ended up agreeing to talk to the girl’s parents this evening. What the hell am I going to say?”

“The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Gary declaimed, one hand on his heart and the other thrust skywards. Heads turned, as they often do when Gary’s around.

“It’s not going to be what they want to hear. Don’t s’pose you fancy meeting up for a drink afterwards, drown my sorrows and all that?”

“Can’t, sweetie—Wednesday is practice night, remember?”

I remembered. I hunched up one shoulder and did a passable imitation of Quasimodo lisping, “The bells! The bells!” Gary just smiled and gave me a V sign.

Morrison knocked on my door on the dot of seven that evening, which meant that, as a job had overrun, I was still shovelling pasta into my gob at the time. I answered the door, plate in hand, and gazed up at his bulky figure, still chewing. He’d dressed up to go and see the Porters, even put a jacket and tie on. He looked good—but it made him seem more remote, more dangerous, without his hard lines softened by cashmere. I jerked my head to indicate he should come in. It’s rude to talk with your mouth full.

“Do you ever stop eating?” he asked, once again following me into the kitchen like he owned the place.

I was stung and swallowed my mouthful a bit more quickly than I really wanted to. “Do you ever stop to consider it might be someone’s mealtime before you start beating down their door?”

He went to fold his arms, then obviously remembered it’d crumple his expensive jacket, and put his hands on his hips instead. The gesture could have looked camp but somehow, on him, it really didn’t. “First, do you think you could stop being so sodding touchy about everything? And second, we had an appointment.”

“Oh, excuse me. I suppose I should have left the lady with water dripping through her ceiling and told her I’d come back tomorrow, because sorry, I’ve got an appointment.” I rolled my eyes, shoving the plate back on the kitchen counter. I’d had enough anyway.

Morrison sort of huffed. “Does everything have to be such a bloody production with you?”

“Comes of being queer, I expect. Wouldn’t you say?” I put a bit of emphasis on the you, narked he was making me out to be such a drama queen. Anyway, it was about time we got it all out in the open.

He stilled. “Who told you?”

I wasn’t about to drop Dave in it, even though he probably couldn’t give a monkey’s if Morrison was pissed off with him. “Maybe I read your mind,” I joked weakly. “Maybe there’s no end to my psychic powers.”

For a split second, he actually looked worried. Then his expression relaxed. “Stop trying to mess with my head, Poof— Shit.” He looked away and didn’t say anything more.

I took a couple of deep breaths. I was about to say, Look, let’s just leave it, okay—but he beat me to it. “Sorry,” he said, like it caused him physical pain to say it. “That wasn’t— I didn’t mean anything by it.”

There was a short silence. I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded curtly. Acknowledging his apology, although not necessarily accepting it.

Morrison spoke again. “I checked up on you today. Apparently you’ve got previous, on the finding-things front. Doesn’t mean I believe in all this mumbo jumbo.”

Bloody fantastic. He’d checked up on me—so now he knew which porn I watched and had read all the rubbish I’d posted on Facebook after a few beers too many. “If you’re not going to believe what I say,” I said slowly, to make sure he was really listening, “then what’s the point of asking me questions?”

“Are you going to come with me to the Porters or not?” he asked, sidestepping the issue.

I sighed. “Let’s get this over with.”

This being late November, it was dark and beginning to get a bit nippy as we drove off in Morrison’s silver VW Golf. The car wasn’t new, but the interior was impersonal, devoid of any touches of personality like the “ironic” retro furry dice I had swinging from the rearview mirror of my Ford Fiesta like a couple of cubist bollocks. As we passed under a streetlamp, something glinted, and I noticed for the first time that Morrison was wearing a wedding ring.

“You’re married?” I blurted out, just managing to stop myself carrying on with, To a man?

Morrison’s gaze flickered over at me. For a moment, I thought there was something like hurt in his eyes, but it was gone before I could tell for sure, and he turned his attention back to the road. “No.”

“But you wear a ring.”

There was a pause before he answered. “People are more ready to trust a married man.”

God, and here I’d been thinking . . . I don’t know what I’d been thinking. But not this. “So it’s just a prop? For fuck’s sake, that’s so bloody cynical.” Disappointment sharpened my tone. “I suppose you’d do anything, say anything to get what you want.”

“And you’ve never told a customer work needs doing when it doesn’t, or got them to pay for fancy copper pipes when plastic would do?”

“No, actually, I haven’t. And I fucking well resent you even suggesting it.” I folded my arms and glared out of the window. I could see this being a very long evening. Why the hell hadn’t I brought my own car?

“Look,” Morrison said after a painful silence. “If I’m going to do my job—the job my clients pay me to do—sometimes I need to get people to trust me. So maybe some of it’s an act—but don’t go telling me you don’t do the same thing in your line of work.”

“What, lie to people? No, I don’t.”

“And I suppose you’ve never flirted with a housewife? Just so she won’t argue about the bill, or to make sure it’ll be you she calls in next time some work needs doing?”

“That’s different, and you know it.”

“Is it? Didn’t notice any rainbow stickers on your van.”

“Yeah, well, for some reason, I thought it might be safer not to advertise I’m queer. Can’t imagine where I got that impression, can you?”

“For fuck’s sake, I never laid a finger on you! It was that prick in the Chelsea tractor who did the damage, not me.” He was breathing hard, and his knuckles were white on the steering wheel. I was starting to wonder just how safe I was in his car when he spoke again. “What the hell do you expect me to do? I tried to apologise, but— Fuck it.” Morrison clammed up, his jaw tense.

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