“Exactly who is the new guy, Gary?”
Cleo decided that she and Dorothy would find out more about Grisham with their own methods. They would also make an effort to trace the vicar, though Cleo did not think there was much hope if he had decided to disappear. But they would trad carefully. No one should find out that they were doing their own bit of spying.
“He goes by the name Frank Cook; he’s experienced and unknown in these parts. That’s how he works, apparently. He goes to places where no one knows him, gets the job done and moves on.”
“That sounds good, but he’s sure to be known in the underworld. He can’t go unrecognized for ever,” said Cleo.
“We might not be talking about the nhormal criminal underworld, Cleo. I have a feeling that Grisham had something to do with espionage, MI5.”
“That’s out of the agency’s depth, anyway.”
“You could be in serious trouble if you happen to hit on something that would endanger national security.”
“How would I know that unless I delve deeper?” said Cleo.
“You’d inform me if you found out anything and I’d inform Roger. Normal procedure. No cloak and dagger stuff. But we would not know what is relevant, so we should not get our fingers into that pie, Cleo.”
“But surely a guy living in Lower Grumpsfield separated from a silly woman with a high voice is hardly likely to be involved with the MI5,” said Cleo.
“There’s always the MI6,” said Gary. “Foreign powers have a vested and often unhealthy interest in what goes on in this country.”
“I expect I’ve been investigated already then, and judged harmless.”
“We are not talking about local issues and mysteries.”
“I’d sure like to know what we are talking about,” said Cleo.
“The problem is that once you knew you could be in the thick of it. We don’t know anything about Grisham except that someone decided he would be more useful dead than alive for one reason or another. If there’s been some security leak, or spy exchange, or something of that nature is going on that Grisham knew about, he would be suspicious and possibly dangerous to the characters responsible for whatever is going on,” Gary said.
“OK, but what if Parsnip killed Grisham, so that he could get away from Edith?”
“Ridiculous. He wouldn’t have the brain or the imagination, Cleo.”
“How about this then? Parsnip gets Grisham to go off the road so that he can urinate, or he offers to drive, and then he makes off.”
“So what about the person who sat on the back seat?”
“If Grisham wais a spy or into undercover crime, or had done so at some time, he might be due for extermination.”
“And that’s why I think Roger Stone should have come clean, Cleo.”
"Dorothy will say it's only a domestic crime," said Cleo.
"She could be right, cleo. We have absolutely no idea why Grisham had to die."
Quite apart from this fruitless exchange, Gary was glad he had come home for lunch just to witness at first hand the tiger in Cleo as she defended her agency and was quite obviously not going to resist the temptation to do a little espionage of her own.
As for lunch, he didn’t seem to be getting any.
“I didn’t cook,” said Cleo. “I’m just going to have a snack with the girls. We’re cooking tonight. Shall I make you a sandwich?”
“Ham or cheese?”
“I’ll get it. Look after your daughters now you have two, Sweetheart!”
That was the first time Cleo had said that in so many words.
“I’m so glad Robert is out of it,” she said, embracing Gary with almost alarming intenxity.
“You literally took my breath away, Cleo,” said Gary.
“I love you to bits, remember?”
“I remember it well,” intoned Gary with a strong French accent.
“Maurice Chevalier has a rival,” said Cleo.
In the kitchen, Cleo opened the sliding door that Robert had freed from the tiles that someone had stuck over itm and peeled off the wallpaper on the dining-corner side. Robert had been very proud of that discovery and it was very useful if you wanted to cook and keep in contact with the party.
“Have you told Robert about PeggySue?” Gary asked.
“No, and Gloria can’t have because he’s sure to have phoned by now if she had.”
“So when are you going to tell him?”
“Later today, I suppose. He’s bringing me some steaks for this evening. Gloria has her line-dancing so she has no time. Robert does not know he’s going to lose a daughter. Ketchup Gary?”
“No thanks. As for PeggySue: he didn’t want her but he’s still legally her father, Cleo,” said Gary.
“He did want her once she arrived, Gary. As usual he had told himself to join it if he couldn’t beat it, the beating being my insistence on having a baby before it got too late for me.”
“It wasn’t too late and it obviously still isn’t, Cleo. Robert is a chump.”
“When you contest his father status he won’t fight the claim. He’s quite parsimonious when it suits him and I don’t think he will want to have to finance a kid that isn’t his.”
“Even if he loves her?”
“He apparently loved me but he walked out on me and if the truth be known, it was me who supported him as far as living quarters was concerned.”
“I hope you are not referring to me. Don’t I pay my share?”
“Of course you do. We’ve been through all that, Gary. I really meant this cottage and I think that’s one of the reasons he moved out, apart from having set his sights on Edith, of course.”
“The plot thickens,” said Gary. “The psychological component of losing the kid will be an issue for him, won’t it? It’s almost like a castration.”
“Don’t exaggerate. Anyway, he still has Julie to confirm that he could have been the father, and she was grownup before he even knew he had her.”
“Very convenient,” said Gary. He was starting to wonder about Robert, though he quite liked the guy.
“Of course, he might be bloody-minded enough to contest my claim just for the hell of it.”
“I shouldn’t think so. Anyway, you have clinical proof,” said Cleo, passing Gary’s sandwich through the hatch. “He’ll hate me for a bit, though I truly had no clear idea until your obvious empathy with PeggySue became more than wishful thinking for me. Charlie had actually noticed something we hadn’t.”
"Won't he be more bothered about our affair, Cleo?
"He knew about that, too."
"So why did he not challenge you about it?"
"For reasons best known to himself, I suppose I was a kind of trophy," said Cleo.
"I can't say that I saw you in that light, Cleo.”
"You were the one I wanted," said Cleo.
"Yes; hungry for decent sex and fed up with the boredom of being married to Robert," said Gary.
"I agree about the sex, sweetheart, but Robert was not that boring," said Cleo.
“He damn well was and is, and I have so many sweethearts now that I’m starting to be one myself.”
“To me you have always been one, Gary. Je t’aime!”
“So Robert has known about our relationship since it started, even if he didn’t challenge us,” said Cleo.
“If I’d been in that position I would never have married you, Cleo.”
“It takes all sorts, Gary, and I did kind of love him at the time. He was so vulnerable that I could not hurt him by crying off.”
“That’s about the stupidest reason for marrying someone that I’ve ever heard.”
“But he did marry me and that was good for my respectability in this village. Maybe he thought our marriage would kill off my infatuation for you.”
“But it didn’t.”
“I did try.”
“And failed miserably, Cleo, I'm happy to say. Do you want me here when he comes?”
“No. That would only complicate things.”
“OK. I’ll have to meet Cook anyway. He’s supposed to arrive today.”
“Bring him to dinner, then I can take a look at the guy whose usurping my agency.”
“He isn’t taking your place, Cleo.”
“I was joking…”
“Send me a text or call when Robert has left. If Robert has not been and gone, I’ll work at HQ until I get your all clear.”
“That sounds sensible.”
“Just one thought, Cleo. Supposing an accident had left Robert sterile, would he have told you?”
“I don’t know. Why do you ask?”
“If that were the case, he would know that PeggySue cannot possibly be his child.”
“I never thought of that.”
“Find out. You’re the sleuth here.”
In the meantime PeggySue had eaten everything on her plate. Gary picked her up and carried her around for a bit, whispering sweet nothings into her ear and dropping kisses on her cheeks. Then he went into the bathroom, changed her and put her to bed for her siesta.
“You’re just like something out of a women’s magazine,” said Cleo.
“I practised enough on Charlie. My wife was already too busy with her love life to bother about her daughter. I intend to be the ideal father so I might as well get some more practice in.”
“That’s fine by me. Are you planning a siesta or are you racing back to HQ?”
“A short siesta would be a good idea. It might get very late if Frank Cook comes for dinner.”
“Charlie announced that she was going to Helen’s to play with the Barbie dolls, of which they both had an enviable collection.”
Gary’s idea of a short siesta was an hour’s love-making followed by a ten minute nap and finished off with a pot of strong coffee drunk in gulps. Eventually he got into his car and drove off. PeggySue woke and demanded immediate attention. Cleo had just enough time to read a bit about the MI5 on the internet while her daughter contented herself with her box-in-a-box toy. It was past five and she expected Robert to turn up any minute. The idea that Robert could have kept it a secret from her that he was sterile went round and round in her head. She would ask him. Spying on him would be unworthy and undignified.
When Robert did turn up he was in a hurry. After some minutes humming and hawing he came out with the confession that he was on his way to the vicarage to stand by Edith.
Cleo was in one of her less charming moods.
“Stand by or sleep with, Robert? I’m not sure I caught what you said.”
Robert blushed. He had no reason to answer for his actions to Cleo, but he felt guilty all the same.
“So you know,” he said.
“It’s a small village, Robert.”
“Why don’t people mind their own business?” he said.
“Never mind that now. How is Edith coping with the news that Mr Parsnip was supposed to have been on a plane that crashed and then didn’t catch that plane at all and has disappeared, apparently without trace.”
“I haven’t really talked to her about it yet,” said Robert.
“Really? But that isn’t what I want to talk to you about, Robert.”
“Gloria dropped strange hints today.”
“What did she say?”
“Nothing concrete. I was to beware of the truth, she said.”
“Typical Gloria,” said Cleo. “I expect she wanted you to question her till she cracked and could tell you.”
“Tell me what? You know I would not put pressure on Gloria to tell me something because she might make something up that I would not believe anyway.”
“She was not to tell you that I had a test done on samples of PeggySue’s and Gary’s DNA.”
“I think I know what you were going to tell me, Cleo. I’ve known all along about not being PeggySue’s father so it’s actually a relief to get the truth out in the open.”
“How did you know, Robert? Because of that rugby accident?”
“How do you know about that, Cleo?”
“Little birds and guesswork, Robert. You could have been honest with me instead of making up that rigmarole about me being too old to have a baby.”
Robert did not question that.
"There's another one in here right now," said Cleo, patting her tummy.
"Well congratulations to you and your lover, Cleo," said Robert, who felt more humiliated than ever.
“I'll ignore the irony, Robert. Do you know what I think was really small-minded of you? You know I wanted a baby and you knew there was no danger of my having one with you.”
“You also knew about my affair with Gary, but you thought we would be careful, didn’t you?”
“But the truth comes to light eventually, Robert. That’s the problem with the truth. It likes to be out in the fresh air rather than smouldering in the breast of the dissembler.”
“I knew you were closer to Gary than you ever admitted. I just didn’t believe you were that close.”
“You didn’t want to believe that, but Gary is not a monk and I am not a nun, and we took no precautions. I wanted his baby and he wanted it to.”
“You mean you talked about it?”
“Is Gary going to contest what’s on the birth certificate?”
“Yes, Robert. We will have your statement that PeggySue cannot be your child quite apart from the DNA evidence that Gary is PeggySue's father. So are you going to resist his attempt to put the record straight?”
“No, and I’ll continue to support you if you have difficulty in giving your daughter a decent start in life.”
“That won’t be necessary, as you very well know, but thanks for the gesture.”
“It really doesn’t matter who the father is, does it, Cleo?”
“Of course it does. Gary has never been happier.”
“Then we have a happy end, Cleo. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Sure. Am I to say thank you? You’ve organized one for yourself, after all.”
”I didn’t organize it. Edith came to my flat and asked me to sleep with her.”
“She did that? I wouldn’t have thought she’d have the nerve. I hope she turned you on. I couldn’t.”
Robert was lost for words. Cleo was so angry that Gary’s suspicion about Robert was true that she couldn’t resist rubbing even more salt into the wound.
“I hope you tell Edith the truth about your sterilty, Robert. I’m sure she would like a daughter to go along with those five boys. She might want t look elsewhere for a sex partner who can give her one.”
“Are you threatening me, Cleo?”
“No. It’s your secret, not mine. For me the subject is closed, but I always told Edith I was not sure who the father is and she promised never to say a word. When I tell her that Gary is definitely PeggySue’s father she’s going to start wondering.”
Robert was silent for a moment.
“I’ll tell her when the time comes.”
“So you took precautions, I take it.”
Robert was embarrassed. He didn’t need precautions and Edith would not have bothered if she wanted another child.
“Can't we be friends, Cleo? We have to go on living in this village.”
“I thought we were friends, Robert.”
Cleo offered Robert her hand and he shook it, squeezed it and finally kissed it. There were tears in his eyes, but none in Cleo’s. She was thinking that he could share his tears with Edith in future.
“I’ve brought the order Gloria gave me. I’ll collect the tray another time. I’ve got to go now. Edith is waiting for me.”
With those words Robert left the cottage.
Cleo wondered how she could have lived with that same feeling of detachment she had felt during the final weeks of their marriage. Something labelled ‘love’ can’t consist of patches over the emptiness in a relationship, she mused. It must be instinctive, like the instinctive love Gary had had for his daughter long before he knew the truth.
In a relationship, once emptiness set in there was no turning back. Had she loved Robert once? She certainly had no feeling left for him now. That must have been how Edith had felt about Frederick Parsnip. Was the vicar’s disappearance going to change that? Whatever Gary said, they would have to find Frederick before anyone else did. Dorothy would work undercover. She didn’t miss a trick and knew lost of people. If Mr Parsnip had stopped off somewhere near, she would find him.