Friends & Lovers

(Annie McHugh PI Series: Book 3)
Maureen Martella

 

Reviews:

“Fast paced and funny.  I couldn’t help becoming addicted to this slightly daft PI and her unusual approach to investigating…” - Irish Mail on Sunday

“Quirky plot twists, interesting characters and some hilarious situations make for an enjoyable read…” – RTE Guide

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When a long-distance phone call summons private investigator Annie McHugh’s lover and business partner, Gerry, across the Atlantic Annie’s left in charge. She’s been looking forward to being in the hot-seat for so long but it seems as if someone doesn’t want her to succeed. And what’s more, the infuriating but intriguing Sizemore has been brought in to help her investigate a dodgy insurance claim. He’s got brains as well as brawn but Annie’s determined to prove she’s perfectly capable of managing on her own. Or is she?

With a case that’s proving harder to crack than a high-security safe, dirty phone calls, errant colleagues and Sizemore clamped to her side Annie faces her greatest challenge yet …

 ——-

(Published by Arrow, Random House)

(ebook published by Cornerstone Digital 2012)

Get your ebook or paperback at Amazon.co.uk or Random House

——–

Read the first chapter

Friends & Lovers

Chapter 1

 

I SAT ON the rumpled bed, watching in disbelief as Gerry ran around the room tearing open wardrobes and drawers, grabbing shirts and jeans, and throwing them into his holdall, as if his life depended on it.

I had tried pleading with him. Begged him to stop and think, or at least to calm down and listen. I had even (fleetingly) considered threatening him with his own gun, a fair indication of how high my emotions were running.

He turned. ‘Do I have any shorts?’

‘Shorts?’ My mind went blank.

‘It’s ninety degrees in Arizona. I thought maybe you . . . Sometimes you surprise me with . . . things!’ It sounded like an accusation.

‘Not shorts. I’d never surprise you with shorts.’

He was running again. ‘My razor. I’ll need my razor.’ He disappeared into the bathroom.

I slid off the bed to follow. ‘You can’t take a razor on a plane.’

‘What?’

‘Not when you’re only travelling with hand luggage.’ I indicated the holdall. ‘But you know that.’ Well, when your head isn’t up your arse you do.

‘Jesus. I won’t be able to shave.’ He clutched his chin as if this was cataclysmic news, as if chin stubble wasn’t practically his trademark.

‘No razors to be found in Arizona then?’ It was such a pathetic attempt at a joke that even as I was saying it I was squirming. But we used to laugh so much together, I thought it was worth a try, although flogging a dead horse did spring to mind.

‘What?’ His frown deepened.

OK forget the jokes. Try something else, Annie, quickly now.

‘Look, if you’ll just take a calming breath, and wait a while, I’ll bet Sally will be back on any minute now, to say everything is hunky-dory, and—’

‘Wait?’ He looked at me in disbelief. ‘My ten-year-old is wandering somewhere in a desert, and you think I should sit down and wait?’

‘Sally didn’t say he was wandering. She said he’s not in the house.’

‘She said he’s missing!’ He pulled his favourite shirt from the overflowing wash basket. A faded blue denim, it looked like it had been used to beat out bush fires. He sniffed it cautiously, before squashing it into the now bulging holdall.

‘She didn’t necessarily mean—’

‘She can’t find him, Annie!’ he yelled as if this was my fault.

I wanted to say Sally couldn’t find her arse without an AA roadmap, instead I heard myself saying meekly, ‘I’ll help you pack’.

I found two neatly ironed business shirts at the back of the wardrobe and exchanged them speedily for the grubby blue denim. I didn’t want his ex thinking we lived like slobs, although compared to her domestic perfection, we probably did. But I knew her game. This morning’s call was just another one of her attention-seeking ploys. Since her second marriage disintegrated, she had taken to ringing Gerry at the weirdest times. And always about the weirdest things. This week alone she had woken him twice, in the small hours. The first time to tell him of her growing concern about their elder son’s troublesome overbite, and then, twenty minutes later, she was back on again, this time in tears, to say she was worried about a serious outbreak of verrucas in the boys’ school. After eavesdropping for a boring five minutes, I had turned over and gone back to sleep.

Then came this morning’s call. The one guaranteed to scare the bejaysus out of Gerry.

‘Gerry! David is missing!’

I always suspected that under Sally’s saintly exterior, there lurked a repressed drama queen. This morning’s call was proof positive, and yet Gerry couldn’t see it. All he heard was the word missing. And the galling thing was that our morning had started on such a high note.

I had woken first, to find myself pinned to the mattress by Gerry’s fit body. Reason enough, I felt, to dismiss any lingering resentment over last night’s Class A row. Everyone rows, I told myself, and there can’t be a woman alive who hasn’t stormed off to bed, after a real barney, and given her man the cold shoulder when he followed. OK my shoulder was so cold it possibly appeared cryogenically frozen, but still. This was a brand new day. And his body felt so good against mine.

I ran a finger along his flat stomach.

No response.

I checked the bedside clock. Seven twenty-eight. Thirty-two minutes to go before the alarm would have us tearing about like lunatics. Throwing on jeans. Grabbing toast on the run. Abandoning half-finished coffees as we raced to make it to the detective agency before the phones began their daily chorus, and Naomi Lawlor-Billings flounced down from her middle-floor showrooms, spitting vitriol in all directions.

Still. Thirty-two minutes is thirty-two minutes. You can pack a surprising amount of pleasure into thirty-two short minutes, if the will is there, and the right man is pinning you to the mattress. And Gerry was looking über-right this morning. But then he never actually looked wrong. He never woke to find his hair had turned into a giant haystack overnight, or his eyelashes had glued solid with supposedly waterproof mascara.

This time I reached lower down to grab his attention.

‘Eeeeem.’ His eyes flew open.

‘Morning,’ I dimpled.

He smiled sleepily, his eyes crinkling up at the corners, in a way that was guaranteed to make me hot. Four years into our admittedly stormy relationship, yet one sleepy glance from those clear blue-green eyes could still set my hormones racing.

‘Morning.’ Strong fingers laced through my haystack, pulling my head down until our mouths met, and meshed. His tasted hot, and hungry and . . . bliss.

I melted into him, and his whole body went hard.

I was climbing on top when the phone shrilled. His mouth still working against mine, he reached for the receiver.

Sitting astride him I tried to wrestle it from his hand.

‘Let the machine take it.’

‘Jesus!’ He sprang into a sitting position, almost catapulting me from the bed.

‘Gerry!’

‘What do you mean missing?’ He was yelling. ‘Have you looked . . .? I am not yelling! No! You calm down. Have you tried . . . ? OK. OK. Let’s both calm down. I’m . . . yeah . . . yeah.’ He leaned back, the blood draining from his face, and another even more vital place.

‘Gerry?’

He threw aside the sheet. ‘Of course I will!’ He was bellowing now. ‘What do you take me for? Yes. No. Yes. I’ll do that.’ A pause. ‘Sometime tonight. I’ll fax you the details.’

‘Gerry?’ I reached for him, but he was already halfway across the room, and pulling on a pair of jeans.

Watching him close the zip I squealed, ‘What are you doing?’

He threw on a cotton shirt. Started scrabbling around for his shoes. ‘It’s David . . . Sally can’t find him . . . he’s gone missing.’

‘Missing?’ I gaped.

‘Yeah. She can’t find him.’

‘That doesn’t mean he’s missing.’

‘She’s been searching for hours.’

‘He’s obviously hiding,’ I chuckled. ‘Remember the last time? All that mad panic, and he was only up in the attic, fast asleep. He’s probably just . . . hiding up a tree?’

‘They live in a desert. Where’s he going to find a tree in a desert?’

‘You know what I mean. Boys love playing hide-and-seek and all that . . .’

‘Get real, Annie. He’s not playing hide-and-seek in some leafy Dublin suburb. He’s in the middle of feckin’ Arizona, where even schoolkids carry guns.’ He swallowed hard, then vented his fury on his shoelaces. ‘Stupid feckin’ laces . . . feckin’ stupid idea . . . expecting me to wear laced-up . . .’

Three weeks earlier I had surprised him with these Italian leather brogues, waiting until he was asleep to chuck his worn old loafers in a skip. Despite his reputation for never holding a grudge, he had yet to forgive me for that little surprise.

I racked my brain for the right thing to say.

‘Maybe . . . maybe you should just . . . wait a bit. Sit tight. Dashing off the second Sally rings is a bit stu— I mean you’ll look like a right eejit, if you tear off to Arizona and he turns out to be hiding in the pool-house!’

That was when he shot me a filthy look, and started packing.

‘I’ll drive you to the airport,’ I offered now. ‘Give me two minutes to shower and dress.’

‘I’ll drive myself. You concentrate on the agency. Try keeping it solvent ’til I get back.’

Our eyes locked, last night’s row threatening to rear its ugly head again.

‘Hey.’ He forced a tight smile. ‘You said you could run the agency without me. Here’s your chance to prove it.’

‘I never said . . .’ Actually, I did . . . but that was after too many double vodkas in The Randy Goat. After the kind of drinking session that has Barney, our youngest PI, spouting off about becoming a rock star, and Declan, our senior detective, swearing he’s going to join Alcoholics Anonymous.

Nobody took them seriously.

Gerry closed the holdall. ‘Keep an eye out for Mutual Irish. They want us to look into an insurance fraud. Keep them sweet. It could turn out to be a very lucrative case. And lead to a lot more.’

‘I’m to keep them sweet?’

‘Don’t look so worried. I’ll be back before anything can go wrong. Bluff them if you have to. Anyway, they haven’t sent us the case file yet.’

‘The case file?’ I squeaked in terror.

But he was busy on the phone again, sorting his flight. Snapping at the unfortunate ticket clerk. ‘That’s no good. What if I went via Heathrow? OK. I’ll take business class.’

He rattled off his credit card number. Our credit card number, since he decided to cut down on extra expenses last month. This meant I would be helping to pay for this visit to his increasingly neurotic ex. I didn’t really mind sharing his expenses. Not totally. Once that was all I was sharing. Sally’s persistent late-night calls were making me mega anxious. But then the thought of dealing with the all-powerful Mutual Irish without Gerry’s backup had me frozen with fear. Mutual Irish were the Goliath of insurance companies. Plus this was a trial run they were giving us. And only because Gerry had successfully investigated several insurance fraud cases for Ansans, a small private company Mutual had gobbled up without trace. It was Gerry’s expertise they wanted.

My only experience of insurance fraud had been watching my friend Fiona fill in a claim form for a broken picture window. A form that clearly stated sign here for accidental damage. Fiona signed with a flourish. Ignoring the fact that she had deliberately fired a stainless-steel pasta maker at the window, when her husband’s Italian relatives were less than complimentary about her fettuccini carbonara.

Gerry pulled on his jacket, and we exchanged a brief kiss. A sure sign that his mind was elsewhere?

He reached for his holdall.

‘Don’t go,’ I pleaded with his chest.

‘No choice, Annie. I can’t leave Sally to cope alone. She’s not like you. You’re . . .’

‘Scared shitless of Mutual Irish?’

‘See. Always the joker! That’s your strength.’ He smoothed my hair away from my eyes, and before the disobedient curls could spring back into place he was gone.

I went to the window to watch him getting into the jeep, and he waved. I was waving back when I realised he was saluting our next-door neighbour. The bulky blond Dane was obviously coming in off an early flight. He was a real eyeful in his fancy pilot’s uniform, his stylish Aviator glasses glinting in the sun. They exchanged a couple of words, and Gerry drove off like a bat out of hell.

I flopped down on the bed, choking back tears. He hadn’t even glanced back. There was a time when he would miss a train, a ferry, or even a plane rather than miss out on a hot session with me.

Bloody Sally, anyway. She couldn’t cope with a kid hiding up a tree? She had coped well enough with running off to a life in the sun, with her new man, while stinging Gerry for exorbitant child maintenance. I hadn’t believed then that an Olympic-sized swimming pool was utterly essential for any child emigrating to Arizona. And I didn’t believe now that David was genuinely missing.

The alarm suddenly pealed. I reached out to smack it into silence, but hit the phone by mistake.

‘You have awone amessage,’ a metallic voice announced.

This time I was aiming at the phone.

‘This message was recorded at athree aforty-afive a.m.,’ it continued.

Sally’s saccharin-sweet tones slid into the room. ‘It’s eight p.m. here Gerry, so I guess it’s three in the morning your time.’ Pause. ‘David is acting up again. He wants to spend the fourth of July weekend at that dude ranch he’s so crazy about. He says all his friends are going. His whole class. It is a special family weekend, so maybe we should go? Would you like to join us? It would please the boys no end. Think about it and get back to me ASAP.’

Hands trembling, I tried Gerry’s mobile. Busy.

I legged it into the shower. The cold water hit my skin like iced needles.

 

Chapter 2

IGNORING THE FRESHLY painted double-yellow lines, I parked the Honda Civic in my usual spot in Diggs Lane, and tore around the corner to the Café Naturalle to pick up my morning muffins.

‘What a heavenly day, Annie.’ Mary, the petite, dreadlocked waitress, was in love. She even had her boyfriend’s name tattooed (badly) on her upper arm.

‘Heavenly!’ I smiled. ‘And how is . . .’ I glanced at her arm, ‘. . . Hairy?’

‘Harry is perfect.’ She held out a wrist-full of beads for inspection. ‘Guess what he gave me last night?’

‘Nothing contagious, I hope?’ I pretended to shrink back.

‘Oh give over, you,’ she giggled. ‘Look closer!’

I did. On the third finger of her extended hand there was a twinkling little diamond. ‘You got engaged? Congratulations.’

The word engaged was enough to trigger a female stampede to the counter. You could practically smell the oestrogen in the air as a dozen girls leaned over the glass to admire Mary’s engagement ring, and enquire about her upcoming nuptials. Even the hard-core fund accountants, from the nearby Financial Services Centre, abandoned their lattes and corporate speak for long enough to twitter like tweenies over the neat little diamond.

I paid for the muffins and left.

‘You’ll never guess who just got engaged,’ I called out to our receptionist as I elbowed open the agency door. Sandra, a genuine romantic, likes to keep up with all the local news – engagements, births, marriages, deaths, and, most important of all, horoscopes.

But not this morning. This morning she was deeply immersed in conversation, with a pink-cheeked young cop.

‘What’s up?’ I glanced at her worried face.

‘I’ve told Brian about your calls.’

‘What calls?’ I feigned innocence.

‘You know very well!’ She waved a purple-painted talon in reprimand. ‘And Brian says I did the right thing, telling him. He says you have to take those calls seriously.’

Brian nodded, his pink cheeks gleaming with excitement, or maybe it was sweat, as even his light summer uniform couldn’t handle the Mediterranean heatwave that was startling Dublin right now. Then again, he may simply have been over-excited because Sandra was presenting him with a mug of coffee, and an already melting Hobnob.

‘We’re not going over that old ground again Sandra.’ I shot her a warning look.

‘Old ground? There was one this morning. A really sick one this time.’ Her big eyes widened in dread. ‘He always sounds like he’s talking through a sock. Pervert.’

My heart gave a lurch. ‘I hope you hung up on him.’

‘Yes. But he said filthy things, Annie. You can’t keep shrugging them off.’

Again I tried to send her a silent signal – please shut up! Too late. Brian was already taking notes. ‘He may be using a muffler.’

Shit. This morning was stressful enough without the hassle of having to regurgitate the sort of filth my weirdo liked whispering into a telephone.

‘He’s just a pathetic perv.’ I took Brian’s pen, and shoved it back in his pocket. ‘And I am a PI, remember?’ I stood tall. ‘I can handle it.’

‘You should have heard the things he said, Brian,’ Sandra persisted. ‘Dirty animal.’

‘I said I can handle it,’ I snapped. ‘He’s just some low life, who gets his kicks whispering dirty words into a phone. Sick? Yes. But hardly Jack the Ripper.’

‘He said he’s going to tick you! Or maybe it was stick!’ Sandra’s lip quivered.

‘This person is committing a serious offence under the harassment section of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. This makes it an offence to “by any means, including by use of the telephone, harass another person by persistently . . .”’

Brian was still rambling on when I held out my hand for my post.

‘Very interesting, Brian. Is this the lot, Sandra?’

I knew she was upset by my refusal to take these calls seriously. But they were just nuisance calls. And I could handle them. Besides, the last thing I wanted was for the other PIs to get wind of them, and start treating me like a girl again. It had been a massive uphill struggle to get them to treat me like an equal, and I wasn’t going back to the starting line again. Back to getting the girlygirl treatment. Especially with Gerry away.

‘Giving attention to a perv just feeds his ego.’ I checked to see if the lift was there. ‘Right, Brian?’

Once again Brian took refuge in Garda-speak. ‘This person is breaking several laws. Under section . . .’

‘My God. Is that the time?’ I checked my watch. ‘I’ll take Gerry’s post, Sandra. He’ll be away for a few days. When the other PIs come in, send them up to my office immediately, will you? I’ll have to assign cases,’ I said importantly, and ran.

I was at my desk, hammering away at my computer, when I realised I had forgotten to give Sandra her morning muffin, breaking a tradition that was nearly as old as the agency.

I swallowed hard, and tried to think only happy thoughts. But apart from the good news about Mary and Hairy, I couldn’t think of a single one, just knew in my bones that this whole day was on a downhill trajectory.

Declan and Barney arrived within seconds of each other. Barney whistling happily, in no way embarrassed, or inhibited, to be wearing a badly-fitting school uniform. The one Gerry insisted he wear in order to infiltrate a student shoplifting gang. Beside him, Declan moved like the undead, his eyes flat and lifeless, the collar of his long black coat turned up against the cold. In late June? In a heatwave? Did he really think a turned-up collar could disguise a hangover?

It was now four weeks since Gerry gave him his final ultimatum – Sign up for AA, or risk finding your P45 on your desk.

‘You . . . OK, Declan?’ I asked.

His lips moved a fraction. Then a nod. ‘I could do with a coffee, though.’ An understatement to the power of ten.

‘Help yourself.’ I indicated the tray. ‘And eat something. Try a muffin. That’ll raise your blood sugar.’ I encouraged hopefully.

Barney didn’t need encouraging. He was already halfway through a raisin muffin.

But then Barney is Declan’s polar opposite. He starts every day as if he’s been woken by fifty volts, and continues to radiate endless energy for the next twelve hours. Hardly surprising, given the amount of calories he consumes. And yet he never gains a single surplus ounce on his boyish body. As lean now as the day he joined the agency nine years ago, he could pass for seventeen (and frequently does) instead of his openly declared twenty-seven. Or twenty-eight, depending on who he is dating at the time.

‘So Gerry’s kid is lost in the desert?’ he mumbled through a mouthful of muffin.

‘How did you . . . ?’

He waved his mobile, and continued eating.

I turned to Declan. ‘Did he ring you?’

An affirmative nod.

Great. Gerry expected me to deal with a terrifying conglomerate like Mutual Irish, but he hadn’t trusted me to explain his sudden departure to his two investigators? Before I could comment, Barney was sniffing the air like a bloodhound.

‘Naomi is coming,’ he intoned like Count Dracula.

He was spot on. Naomi swanned in, her trademark Chanel No. 5 preceding her as usual. But, just back from a trade trip to Milan, she had clearly had a total fashion makeover. Gone was her familiar sleek, honey-blonde bob, and in its place was a pure Nancy Dell’Olio hairdo, complete with long curly extensions. Even more startling was the heavy black mascara, coal-black eyeliner, and lips outlined for business.

‘Jaysus,’ Barney muttered, dropping crumbs on the floor.

I hoped Sandra hadn’t seen Naomi’s new look. Always ready to push the boat out fashion-wise, Sandra wasn’t above copying any or all of Naomi’s more startling fashions, which usually proved to be harmless, but two Nancy Dell’Olios might be more than our building could take.

‘I want something done about that filthy window cleaner.’ With her spindly heels adding further inches to her already five ten, Naomi towered over me. ‘He’s vile.’

‘What do you want Annie to do?’ Barney snapped. ‘Give him a . . .’ He grinned cheekily, ‘. . . wedgie?’

Naomi cut him with a look. ‘I’m expecting a visit from a group of Japenese VIPs. Two yen billionaires and a diplomat. They adored my drawings of Shoji doors but asked to see samples in situ. An order from these people could bring Dreamland Interiors international recognition, on a grand scale.’ She threw her arms wide, then paused. ‘But cleanliness being an integral part of Japanese culture, I have a problem.’

Naomi always had a problem.

‘The window cleaner. That dreadful little man. He persists in wiping the grime from one side of my showroom windows to the other!’

‘Dick!’ Barney said.

‘What?’ Naomi swivelled angrily.

‘That dreadful little man. His name is Dick.’ Barney hates Naomi. But then he thinks anyone who doesn’t say Howya, is a poser.

‘I have no interest in the man’s name,’ Naomi shuddered. ‘I’m here to warn you that if that filthy creature loses me a single Japanese order, I’ll have my accountant deduct the monetary equivalent from our rental agreement. Or . . .’ She eyed me threateningly, ‘I may begin looking for alternative showrooms.’

‘I’ll see that he does a proper job, Naomi.’

Satisfied, she marched out, the click, click, of her stilettos echoing along the empty corridor.

‘Rotten auld mare!’ Barney slammed the door behind her. ‘Why do you let her talk to you like that, Annie? You should have smacked her across the kisser.’

‘I find that tends to antagonise some business people, Barney,’ I grinned.

He gave a snort of laughter.

Even Declan almost smiled.

They weren’t to know, of course, but I was so pleased to be asked to do something I could easily handle, I’d have let Naomi smack me across the kisser.

It was the thought of the impending Mutual Irish file that was giving me serious stomach cramps. Well either that or my notorious PMS.

Trying not to think about Mutual Irish, I collected a pile of enquiries from Gerry’s in-tray and took them to my office. At the very least sorting the dross would keep my mind occupied. But I might even find a case begging for my attention. Something so pressing I would just have to take it, and put Mutual Irish on the long finger. OK, I’d then have to face Gerry’s wrath when he got back. But anything would be better than taking on the Mutual Irish case and making a botch of it. Given that MI regularly swallowed up smaller insurance companies without compunction, imagine what they could do to a struggling detective agency that failed them.

The in-tray was a bit short of pressing cases. But then Monday morning habitually brought out the timewasters and head-bangers. Nutters who read our small ad over the weekend, and thought we could put their whole world to rights. Then there were the wannabe wits, the bored desk jockeys who spent the morning sending what they thought were funny emails – Could you please find my runaway wife. She’s a real bitch. Signed, A. Terrier.

Funny? Not.

Most of our actual cases came from word-of-mouth recommendations. Satisfied clients who passed on the name McHugh Dunning, and never questioned the VAT figures which were clearly printed on their bill, below our hourly rates.

 

©  Maureen Martella

 

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