“Come in, Chris and introduce me,” said Cleo.
Gary was giving PeggySue her supper when the front door bell rang. Cleo opened the door to Chris, who was accompanied by a young man. Gary introduced his little daughter briefly and went to put her to bed. PeggySue was tired. She would sleep all through whatever loud conversation and laughter ensued.
“This is Mike. He is my new partner.”
“Great! You’re most welcome here, Mike,” said Cleo. “I’m glad you are out of the closet at last, Chris.”
Cleo treated first Chris and then an astonished Mike to a welcoming hug and asked them what they would like to drink.
Gary returned to the party.
“Baby asleep. Any results, Chris?” he asked. “And thanks for helping to straighten out my father role. I am overjoyed.”
“No problem, Gary. I was delighted to be able to settle the quesion.”
“And I want to thank my two Ladies for putting me straight on the Grisham case,” Gary said, as if he needed an explanation for stepping over to Cleo and treating her to an embrace that had the body language of acute desire visible to anyone watching. Gary eventually moved back and Cleo turned away, astonished at Gary’s public show of sexual desire.
“Let me explain,” he said. “Not about that hug, of course.”
“Good, Gary. I’m not into peepshows,” said Chris.
“A peck on the cheek did not say what I wanted to, Chris,” said Gary, justifying himself.
“I thought it was rather nice,” said Mike. “I quite like demonstrations of desire.”
“Do you?” said Chris.
“Don’t you?” said Mike.
“I’m still learning,” said Chris.
“Gary gets a bit carried away, Mike,” said Cleo. “We have an unquenchable physical desire for one another. Don’t we Sweetheart? It’s great, but it can get in the way of social dialogue.”
“Don’t apologize, Cleo,” said Mike.
Gary looked piqued. Cleo was getting her revenge, he decided.
“Anyway, Dorothy and my SWEET wife have an idea about how that murder could have occurred,” he said, hoping to change the subject. “Now all we have to do is find the contrahenten and prove everything.”
“I’m tipping on a domestic issue,” said Chris with an amused look at Gary.
The double entendre was unmistakeable.
“The prints we found on the back of the seats were of a woman’s hand.”
“Women also work as agaents, Chris,” said Cleo.
“Less often,” said Chris. “The attack has to be forceful and deadly accurate. A woman might prefer a more delicate strategy.”
“But we are the weaker sex, so fewer people suspect us of such treachery,” said Cleo.
“You will have to come to the next brainstorming, Chris,” said Gary, regretting the indelicate pass he had made at Cleo. “These private sleuths are experts at thinking round corners!”
Everyone laughed. The ice was broken.
The evening was going to be a success.
“Reports tomorrow morning, Chris?”
“I hope so. Forensics have a lot of work to do analysing what we have. That corpse yesterday proved to be someone the drugs squad has been trying to corner. It might interest you too, Gary.”
“It will,” said Gary. “I’m surprised that the drugs squad have not yet passed the buck.”
“They will,” said Chris.
“What do you do for a living, Mike?” Dorothy asked.
“Nothing spectacular, Dorothy. I work in a bank.”
“It would be spectacular if you had a bank raid, Mike,” said Dorothy..
“Don’t wish that on us,” said Mike.
“I’ve never been involved in a bank raid,” said Dorothy wistfully.
“I’d rather you weren’t,” said Gary.
“I’d shoot if necessary,” she said.
“That’s a good reason for staying at home,” said Gary, who also declared that he could not use a bank raid right now anyway and could they please play snap instead.
“I have a daughter aged eleven, Mike,” Gary explained. “Kids’ games are great on social occasions. Not that we need to break the ice. Where is Charlie, anyway?”
“At the vicarage. Maths homework. She tutors Cedric.”
“I told her to be home before dark,” said Gary.
“She didn’t tell me that,” said Cleo.
“Won’t Charlie’s presence hamper Edith’s new-found sexuality?” said Gary.
Mike and Chris exchanged glances. Viewing Gary’s unmistakeable passion in his embrace with Cleo had been an eye-opener since their relationship was new and the talk about sexuality was scarifying.
“I thought that might help Edith cope since Beatrice will have gone home to Oscar by now,” said Cleo. “So I said it would be OK.”
“You can’t do that, Cleo.”
“Edith always acts normally with the kids. She’s better off not thinking about herself.”
“Who’s Oscar?” Gary asked.
“Beatrice’s husband. Our hero of the western world. A died-in-the-wool houseman. Much to be admired when you think what a dance Beatrice leads him.”
“Is that a hint, Cleo. Do you want me to be a houseman?”
“Of course not. You need your job as much as I need you - and mine!”
“I could go and collect Charlie,” said Dorothy.
“I’ll do that myself if she doesn’t turn up very soon,” said Gary. “But thanks anyway.”
“I once had a cat named Oscar,” said Mike. “He was really fierce. Went for the ankles of anyone who got anywhere near him.”
“He sounds delightful,” said Dorothy, who loved cats in any shape and form now she had one herself.
“That’s not what most people thought, Dorothy. Unfortunately he was run over. I grieved for ages.”
“Sometimes cats miscount the number of lives they have left, Mike,” said Dorothy. “When you visit me – which I hope you will – you can say hello to my cat Mimi, if she lets you. True to her name she almost sings at me when she wants to draw attention to herself.”
“Great,” said Mike. “We’ll certainly do that, won’t we, Chris.”
“I’d enjoy being there just for the baking! I’ve been to Dorothy’s cottage before, Mike. Her sitting-room is full of grand piano. I’d like to hear you play it.”
“A piano to play on and delicious baking? What more could I ask for?” said Mike.
“Dorothy is not only a great sleuth; she also makes the best bara brith I’ve ever tasted,” said Gary.
“What’s bara brith?”
“It’s Welsh currant bread, but you’ll have to ask Dorothy what she puts in it,” said Cleo.
“Let’s just say it would not be approved of at the AA,” said Gary.
“I’ve never heard you complain, Gary,” said Dorothy.
“I don’t belong to Alcoholics Anonymous.”
“The alcohol content is destroyed in the baking, Gary. Even I know that from making gravy laced with something out of a bottle that isn’t ketchup or soy sauce” said Cleo.
“You could set fire to it, like we do when we bake Christmas puddings,” said Dorothy. “I always think it’s a waste of good plonk, but it’s tradition and people enjoy the flames.”
“As far as I remember, you set fire to Christmas pudding after it is cooked,” said Gary. “And if the alcohol has gone up in smoke you can top up your own level with brandy sauce. I know my grandmother poured some in just before serving, so it really hit the spot.”
“What about you kids, Gary? Surely you did not get any,” said Cleo.
“We were meant to get custard, but I always put brandy sauce under it,” said Gary.
“Robert used to set fire to the frying pan sometimes,” said Cleo.
“Who’s Robert?” Mike asked.
“Robert is Cleo’s ex, Mike,” said Gary.
“I’d rather live with Gary and do the cooking myself,” said Cleo. “He’s a great lover and that definitely makes up for any deficits he has in the kitchen,” she added.
“Don’t tell everyone, Cleo,” said Gary. “You are embarrassing me.”
“Touché!” said Cleo “I didn’t know you were that conservative. I feel like shouting it all from the rooftops when you haven’t already displayed your intentions.”
“Cleo,” said Gary, who now had the grace to be embarrassed.
“And I can see we are definitely kindred cat-lover spirits, Mike,” said Dorothy, urgently trying to steer the chat into less muddy waters. “All we need now is a small, harmless bank raid to jolly things along.”
That final remark was made in jest, of course. Gary realized that in time to say “Amen to some of that small talk.”
“Not that small,” said Cleo.
“My talk is not that small,” said Dorothy.
“Wishful thinking a bank raid is not funny, either, Dorothy,” said Gary.
“I’ll drink to that,“ said Mike. Gary hastened to fill everyone’s glass so that they could bring out several toasts.
Chris was eternally grateful for the reception these lovely people had given him and Mike. It was the first time he had dared to go anywhere in his new identity and he realised that the anxiety he had had for as long as he could remember was gone like a puff of smoke. The rather risqué chat had been in joke, of course, but Chris had no doubt at all about the intensity of the relationship between Cleo and Gary.
“I can’t think why you were worried, Chris,” said Mike.
“Neither can I, Mike,” said Chris.
“And neither can I,” said Cleo.
“I’m an old woman, but I’d say ‘go for it!’” said Dorothy.
As if to deliberately disturb the joviality, the phone rang.
It was Edith in a panic.
“Why Edith, are you OK?”
Cleo switched the speakers on.
“I’m worried, Cleo. Albert has not come home.”
“Oh dear. What time does he usually get in?”
“He has baseball practice from 6 to 8 at the sports centre up in Huddlecourt Minor, then he sprints down through Monkton Wood and gets in at half past eight at the latest. I’m so worried.”
“Have you told Robert?”
“He’s out looking for him.”
“I’ll talk to Gary and ring you back very soon, Edith.”
“Who’s Robert?” Mike asked. “Your ex?”
“He’s Edith’s new lover now,” said Gary. “Upper Grumpsfield is a den of iniquity, Mike.”
“No it isn’t,” said Cleo. “It’s a den of profligate lovers.”
“She’s exaggerating,” said Dorothy. “I haven’t got one.”
“You almost did have, Dorothy,” said Gary. “Remember that we would have put him behind bars for tree-smuggling if someone hadn’t shot him first.”
“I expect someone is going to explain how you smuggle trees,” said Mike.
“Not now, Dorothy!” said Gary.
Dorothy ignored Gary’s groans.
“You can swap them for drugs then smuggle the drugs somewhere and sell them for a packet. Is that right, Gary?”
“More or less.”
“Sorry to interrupt,” said Cleo. “The Snap game will have to be postponed.”
“That’s true. We’ll have to help find that boy, Chris,” said Mike.
“I agree,” said Gary. “Let’s get moving.”
Cleo and Dorothy wanted to go with them but Gary reminded Cleo that she had an infant to care for and Dorothy should not be wandering around in the dark at her age. Apart from that, he was going make sure Charlie was home in no time.
“What’s wrong with my age,” said Dorothy.
“Nothing, Dorothy,” said Mike, “but Gary’s right. We might end up having to look for you and that would never do.”
“Thanks, Mike,” said Gary. “It’s good to hear someone talking sense. Let’s move!”
The three men left the cottage after Gary had asked Cleo to ring the vicarage and calm Edith down. She was to keepo Charlie there until he came for her.
“Gary, Chris and his friend Mike are out looking for Albert, Edith. Try to keep calm,” said Cleo. “Is Charlie still there?”
“Yes, Cleo. She was about to leave.”
“Don’t let her. Gary will collect her. Would you like Dorothy or me to come?”
Edith said yes please and Dorothy sighed deeply.
“Let’s hope the boy turns up soon,” she said. “A night of Edith with hysterics is not my idea of pleasure.”
“OK, Dorothy. You stay here and look after PeggySue and I’ll go to the vicarage.”
“Well, if you’re sure, Cleo. Won’t Gary be mad at you?”
“He’d better not be. Who knows, the boy may have turned up by the time I get there.”
“Let’s hope so. I’ve just thought of something.”
“Could Albert’s disappearance have anything to do with Frederick?”
“Now you’re asking!” said Cleo. “I suppose it’s possible.”
“Put that idea to Gary when you see him.”
“I will,” said Cleo. “I’ll just look in on PeggySue before I go.”
PeggySue was fast asleep. Dorothy could wrap herself in the plaid on the sofa and relax in front of the TV. Cleo was not planning to stay away longer than necessary. She hoped that Robert would stay at the vicarage all night once he returned, whatever arrangement he had with Edith. She had no intention of taking the vicar’s place and she did nto want to listen to Edith’s guilty conscience for a moment longer than necessary.
Albert’s disappearance was a flash in the pan. He turned up and explained that he’d had a phone-call from his father and was to meet him at Monkton Priory. But he had waited and waited and his father did not turn up. Eventually he had given up and run home.
Cleo phoned Gary on her mobile and told him that Albert had just turned up – no whys or wherefors. The three men would walk to the vicarage to collect her and Charlie.
Cleo was glad she had decided to go to the viucarage and waste no time before interviewing Albert.
“Did your father phone your mobile?” she asked
Albert was very proud to be grown up enough to have one. He had the only mobile phone in the vicarage household and had received it as a present from Uncle Oscar, who would have liked a son like Albert, had Beatrice not been too busy teaching other people’s children to have one of her own.
Albert nodded and on request found the voice mail for Cleo to listen to. It did sound like Frederick Parsnip, but Cleo passed the mobile for Edith to listen, to be quite sure.
Apart from that, if Albert’s mobile was the only one at the vicarage, Frederick can’t have phoned from one, unless he had a cell phone no one knew about. So the vicar had to be somewhere where there was a house phone. She said nothing of this simple reasoning to anyone. She also said nothing about Grisham. He may have had a cell phone. Did Parsnip steal it along with the guy’s wallet and papers?
When Albert told Edith that his father had phoned, she looked startled. When Albert told her that he had waited for the vicar for a full hour in the cold before deciding to run home, she was horrified.
“If it wasn’t Albert’s father,” Cleo said to Edith while Albert went to the bathroom, “Who was it? Have you heard that voice before?”
Albert had to face more questions when he came back.
“Weren’t you scared at the Priory,” Cleo asked. “It’s a very creepy place, Albert.”
“I was scared,” admitted Albert. “That’s why I hid. If someone came past, I would not want to be caught unawares.”
“Brilliant, Albert,” said Cleo. “It’s really time you did a bit of detecting. I did promise you that once, didn’t I.”
“Yes, Miss Hartley, but I’m now more interested in all that data you get from Mr Hurley. I’m writing a book, you see.”
“I’ll talk to him. He might have time to show you around at Headquarters.”
“That would be great, Miss Hartley.”
“You must promise not to arrange to meet anyone in a lonely place again, Albert,” Cleo said. “ While your father is away, you are head of the household here.”
“Not for long,” said the boy, meaning Robert, of course.
“I’m sure your father will be back soon since he did not go to Africa after all.”
“He won’t come back to live here. Mummy doesn’t love him anymore and he doesn’t care about us, Miss Hartley.”
How sad the boy looked, she thought, but he soon brightened up.
“Robert is going to live with us,” Albert said. “That will be real cool!”
As Albert said that, Robert came in through the kitchen door and was overjoyed that Albert had come home.
As he shook hands solemnly with Albert he realised Cleo was standing there. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-…”
“That’s OK, Albert. Your father and I are still friends, but he loves your mother now and I love Mr Hurley.”
“That how it is, Albert,” said Robert.
“Wow,” said the boy. “That’s awesome. We’ll get us a house together, Miss Hartley. We can’t go on living here because of Father having gone. The new vicar will need this house.”
“Or your father will continue to live here,” said Robert.
“Do you know what I think?” said Albert.
“No. Tell me!”
“I think my Father is out there somewhere.”
“He must be if he phoned you,” said Cleo.
“But it could have been someone pretending to be him on the phone, couldn’t it, Miss Hartley?”
That was exactly what Cleo had been thinking.
“That would be a very wicked thing to do,” she said.
“It might mean that he is a prisoner somewhere.”
“Have you any idea where, Albert?”
“Not really, but I’ll think about it, Miss Hartley. Is there any supper, Mummy?” he asked as a still frantic Edith came back in the kitchen.
Robert took Edith in his arms despite Cleo’s presence. He could not help thinking that she was like a frightened little bird. Cleo witnessed the scene and could not help thinking that Edith was laying on the helplessness rather thickly. She thought that might have been what was missing in her own marriage to Robert. Edith was not really helpless except in the eyes of Frederick Parsnip, who had nipped any attempt at independence in the bud. Apart from that, Robert was not a romantic, so his show was of pity rather than anything else, Cleo decided.
Cleo reflected that some women made a point of appearing helpless, though she thought Edith was probably not aware of her guile. Cleo had never acted helpless, although occasionally in the past she had wished someone would notice when she needed a bit of support. That wish had been heard at last. Gary did notice. Many of those hugs of his were timed to give her room to recover her equilibrium. The astonishing part was that it worked and had become part of their daily routine. They hugged one another, family, friends and even strangers if it seemed the right way forward.
“What are you actually doing here, Cleo?” Robert wanted to know.
“I won’t ask you that question, Robert. I came to support Edith.”
“Well, it looks as if the crisis has passed, so we won’t keep you,” said Robert.
“I’ll only stay until Gary and the others who have been out looking for Albert come to collect Charlie and me, Robert.”
“OK. Point taken.”
“You two are like cat and dog,” said Albert between large bites of a doorstep he had just made himself with ham, cheese and cucumber cut the long way. “You are only slightly better than my father was and he was often quite nasty to Mummy and us.”
Robert looked perturbed.
“It’s a weird situation, Albert,” said Cleo. “But we’ll sort it all out.”
“I never wanted to come between you and Robert, Cleo,” said Edith.
“You didn’t,” said Cleo. “I’ll phone Albert as soon as I can arrange that visit to HQ. Robert and I are still friends, aren’t we, Robert?”
“Remember, Robert, that it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.”
Edith tried to join in with the conversation. She was not really sure what was happening between Cleo and Robert, but when Gary came into the kitchen through the kitchen door and went straight to Cleo to put his arms round her and kiss her, she was quite sure that Cleo was only interested in Gary. Edith had decided that Robert wanted a life with her and the boys, so she went back to him and linked her arm through his. Cleo was privately amused by that possessive gesture. She had never seen Edith hook her arm into Frederick’s.
“I’m glad you came, Cleo,” said Edith, viewing the magnetism between Cleo and Gary with great awe. She had had some of that magnetism when they made love, she thought, but Robert seemed to unable to join in as she would have wished.
Edith was relieved to see that Robert and Cleo had no rapport. She knew what it was like to live with someone who was indifferent. Was her magnetism enough to keep Robert interested even if he wasn’t the passionate type she yearned for?
“Yes. Thanks, Cleo,” added Robert.
“Thanks, Miss Hartley. I’ll go to bed now,” said Albert. ”Maths test in the morning.”
“We should move,” said Gary. “Mike and Chris are waiting outside.”
“I’ll call Charlie,” said Cleo.
“So, young lady,” said Gary, after giving his daughter a hug. “We need to talk seriously about you staying out after dark.”
“Yes, Daddy. I was helping Cedric with his homework.”
“Very good of you, but worrying for us when you don’t come home as arranged. You can see how upsetting that is from Albert’s disappearance.”
Cleo wondered how Robert would cope with those boys and with Edith if she insisted on sex too often. He did not seem to be coping well, but that could be because she had been in the room. Cleo was glad that Gary was also anxious to get away from the vicarage. Cleo had not previously thought that Edith could be a henpecker, but she wondered now. Robert be unwilling to let his wife be the leading light in his next relationship. As Robert became more and more macho, it had become one of the problems in their marriage. The question was whether Edith would go through another partnership in which she was the little woman. She hoped Edith’s sister Clare would give her some useful advice and could not deny that one hazard was that Robert did not really like the idea of sexuality.
Everyone wasl glad to be outside in the frosty air. The atmosphere in the vicarage kitchen had been much frostier, Gary concluded.
Walking back to Cleo’s cottage, Mike asked Cleo if the man at the vicarage really was her ex-husband.
“You did right to get out, Cleo,” he said. “He’s rather awful, isn’t he?”
“Edith looks too timid for such a macho, Cleo,” said Chris.
“Don’t bet on it, said Gary. ”She has so much pent-up energy that he will get a good run for his money. I could see that at a glance. Anyway, Robert is not really a macho. He’s someone who wants things organized, like the chops on a tray in his counter display.”
“He’s a butcher, Mike,” said Cleo.
”A family butcher,” said Gary. “He’s getting five boys with Edith, so being a family butcher will be convenient.”
“I just hope they settle down together” said Cleo. “ I’m starting to find Edith quite tiresome and she’s more than welcome to Robert.“
“I think we need a hug,” said Gary beckoning to Chris and Mike to join in, then the four of them stood close together with their arms interlocked for about a minute.
“That’s much better,” he said. “I always think a hug gets rid of the evil spirits.”
Chris had never seen Gary in that kind of mood before. He was astonished. Mike thought he must be on a different planet, and Cleo just thought how much she loved Gary and what a big chump Robert really was.