A Perfect Partnership

(Annie McHugh PI Series: Book 2)
Maureen Martella

Reviews:

“Delightful. Private detective Annie McHugh, and her wild exploits and mistakes will have people laughing out loud” – Irish Examiner

“Fans of private detective agency boss Annie McHugh will be thrilled that her new adventure is out” – Bella

“Easy style, snazzy plot twists and wicked humour…” – Daily Record

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Annie McHugh should be happy. She’s 5′ 6′, seriously pretty, and despite a ravenous appetite for cream cakes, is a perfect size 10. Well -12-ish.

She also runs a detective agency with her delectable partner Gerry. But Annie has a secret. She longs to handle an investigation, to escape from her desk and get down and dirty with the agency detectives.

OK, she already gets down and dirty with Gerry-but that’s personal. Her dream is to become an investigator. All that’s standing in her way are three macho detectives, and an increasingly surly bank manager who calls with irritating regularity, demanding that she get the agency account out of the red, or else…

 

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(Published by Arrow, Random House)

(ebook published by Cornerstone Digital, 2012)

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

 

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Read the first chapter

 

A Perfect Partnership

 

Chapter 1

 

I PARKED THE Honda Civic in a narrow side street and strode around the corner to the agency, my heels tapping a furious tattoo on the frosty pavement. My black mood didn’t prevent me throwing a proud glance at the nameplate by the door. ‘McHugh Dunning Detective Agency’, it said in bright gold script. I had passed it daily for three years now, yet the sight of it never failed to thrill me. Except this morning.

This morning it would have taken a lot more than seeing my name etched in gold to cheer me up. Even the chorus of appreciative whistles from the building site opposite hadn’t managed that. And it was all Gerry’s fault. Gerry Dunning, the love of my life. My business partner. My life partner. A man so in love with me he had jumped at the chance of a solo trip to Kerry on his birthday, leaving me to finish our overdue tax returns. To add insult to injury, he had driven off at the crack of dawn in our brand new Jeep Cherokee. The one I barely got a chance to sit in before he commandeered it for what he called ‘a special case’.

Special my arse, I fumed as I pushed open the agency door. His special case was a run-of-the-mill missing person’s job that any of the agency’s three investigators could have handled without breaking sweat. But Gerry, the great egalitarian, had pulled rank, unilaterally deciding that what this case needed was his personal attention – as well as a four-wheel-drive.

I had braved a freezing wind to follow him out to the jeep. My only protection a bulky dressing gown and scuffed Bart Simpson slippers, I was determined to confront him about his obsession with missing women. Then he turned and smiled at me, and my well-prepared speech disintegrated.

‘I . . . you know I hate doing tax returns,’ I said, my teeth chattering like castanets.

‘Aw, but you’re so good at it, Annie.’ He threw his overnight bag into the back seat. A tad too enthusiastically for my liking. ‘And someone has to do it. Either that or we’ll both end up in the nick.’ He grinned cheerfully.

‘At least you’d be among friends,’ I snapped. Well he did spend a lot of time with lawbreakers. Although, to be fair, that was frequently a requirement of the job.

He didn’t take offence. Just laughed. That’s the trouble with Gerry, he’s a hard man to row with. Mainly because he’s a man of few words, but also because he’s too damn attractive for his own good. And mine. Even at such an ungodly hour I found him indecently appetising. But then the first time I saw him, at my friend Fiona’s very first engagement party, I thought George Clooney was making a personal appearance. And judging by the reaction of the other female party guests, I wasn’t the only one. I was the only one put off by the sight of his wedding ring. Fiona dismissed my concerns, saying he was separated, about to be divorced. But the sight of that gold ring still firmly in situ had worried me. I was once burned by a man wearing a wedding ring. And besides, separated men had never been my cup of tea. But then very few of them looked like George Clooney.

‘I’ll get back as soon as I can, Annie. We’ll celebrate my birthday at the weekend.’ He planted a kiss on my freezing lips and slid his fit body behind the wheel. ‘We’ll go to that Cajun restaurant you’re so fond of. I might even try the gumbo this time.’

Coming from Gerry this was a declaration of love. An unreformed steak and chips man, he had little time for trendy restaurants. Or any kind of socialising, if it came to that. The job was his life. Sometimes I thought it satisfied all his needs. Well, nearly all of them.

Fiona says he was born into the wrong century. ‘Gerry belongs on a big white charger, jousting with the other knights of honour, rescuing damsels in distress,’ she once sighed as he rushed away from yet another of her stylish dinner parties, this time to answer a call from a despairing father whose only child was joining the Moonies.

Fiona could be right. Gerry does take missing persons cases to heart. Especially when they involve the young and vulnerable. Today’s missing girl was barely fourteen. Three weeks of intensive Garda investigation had come up with zero. Her distraught family had contacted the agency, begging Gerry for help. Nothing unusual there. Our number was frequently slipped into the hands of distraught parents by sympathetic Gardai. Gerry had served on the force for eight years, and still had lots of friends there. And enemies.

Watching him turn up the collar of his sheepskin jacket I began to soften. After all, he was sacrificing the comfort of a centrally heated office for a long, hard drive down to the frozen Kerry mountains. Albeit in the new Cherokee.

Ashamed of my selfishness, I blew him a kiss. He waved, slipped his favourite Van Morrison tape into the player, and drove off, his hands practically caressing the steering wheel.

The noise in the agency hit me like a blow. Twenty decibels plus of shrilling phones, dog howls and Ronan Keating warbling with background static, it was head-wrecking.

I switched off the transistor, told Fred the dog to shut up, and picked up the phone.

‘McHugh Dunning Detective Agency.’

‘Gerry Dunning, please,’ a gruff voice demanded.

‘I’m sorry, Mr Dunning is not available right now. Could I be of any assistance? I’m his part—’

From behind the reception desk came the familiar chimes of the William Tell Overture. Sandra’s mobile. Our receptionist/general factotum has strict orders to keep her Nokia switched off during office hours. ‘Kill it, Sandra,’ I hissed.

My caller hung up.

Sandra’s shiny red head shot out from behind the desk. She took the phone from my hand, held it gingerly to avoid smudging her wet nails (a trick honed to perfection by long practice) and hit the line button.

‘Good morning, McHugh Dunning Detective Agency. May I help you?’ She listened wide-eyed for a second. ‘Oh, don’t worry about that, Mrs Murtha, we’ll have that information for you before the week is out. Mr Dunning is working on it even as we speak. No problem, Mrs Murtha. A pleasure.’ She hung up. ‘Shite! Gerry hasn’t even looked at that feckin’ file yet. What the hell is he doing driving down to bleedin’ Kerry on a busy day like this anyway?’ She blew on her nails.

‘Testing the Cherokee?’ I gritted my teeth.

‘The new jeep? Jesus!’ Her eyes popped. ‘I bet you’re sorry you bought that damn yoke?’

I was. But I wasn’t about to admit it to someone who left sticky bottles of Deep Plum nail varnish on our, almost new, mahogany reception desk. And used her Nokia during business hours. ‘We need it for work.’ I evil-eyed the bottle of varnish. ‘The van would never have passed its NCT. What is Fred doing here?’ I shook the pumping dog off my already distressed leather boot.

Sandra gave her thumbnail a tentative little dab. ‘Mags was on her way to mass. The new priest won’t let dogs in the church. I said she couldn’t leave Fred here. But you know Mags. She said Gerry wouldn’t mind.’

‘Well I do! We’re running a business here. Not a drop-in centre.’

Gerry had once saved old Mags from hypothermia. Or so she claimed. He did get her a place to live after finding her sleeping in the churchyard below Christchurch Cathedral. In hot pursuit of a couple of church vandals he had tripped over a bundle of damp rags and was shocked to hear it give a muffled protest, followed by a muted bark. That night he let Mags and her faithful dog sleep in his car, and eventually found her a permanent place to stay. Mags decided that this made her and Gerry soulmates, and consequently persisted in calling into the agency to pass on every whisper of gossip she picked up on the streets. Against everyone’s advice Gerry encouraged this by slipping her money. I wouldn’t mind if she even occasionally used soap and water. Or put manners on her dog. He tried to hump anything that moved, reminding me of an episode in my life that was best forgotten.

I shook him off my boot for the third time. I was wearing my new knee-hugging boots, and a very brief skirt, for a specific purpose. Gerry is a leg man, and I hadn’t yet given up all hope of him making it back tonight. Which was also why I hadn’t cancelled the romantic surprise dinner in the tiny French bistro where a Romanian violinist tiptoes to your table to play tunes nobody ever heard of. The perfect place for me to ask Gerry the question that had been on the tip of my tongue for weeks. The question that, given the right reply, could make me the happiest woman on earth.

‘I want you to keep Mags out of here, Sandra. She upsets the clients. She can still have the newspapers. Just don’t let her—’

The door opened and Mags’s wizened little face appeared around it. ‘Gerry here?’ she asked, her skin blue tinged with cold.

I sighed in defeat. ‘Come in, Mags. You can have one quick cup of coffee. Then you’ll have to leave,’ I added, feeling Sandra’s eyes on me.

‘I hope it’s not that decaffeinated stuff.’ Mags pursed her toothless mouth.

Sandra put a steaming cup in her hand. ‘Drink that and go. You and that dirty little dog.’ Sandra hates dogs. Even ones who don’t try to ride your leg.

Mags drew herself up to her full height. Nearly five foot. Although she thinks she’s a lot bigger. ‘I have important information for Gerry,’ she boasted.

‘You’ll have to give it to him another time.’ Her nails now safely dry, Sandra put the varnish bottle away and busied herself sorting the post.

‘No. He’ll want to hear this.’

‘He’s not here, Mags,’ I said.

‘I have something important to tell him,’ she sulked.

‘We all have something important to tell him, Mags. But he’s not here. Now finish your coffee and go home.’

‘I don’t have a home.’ Her lip was starting to quiver.

‘You do so! Didn’t Gerry get you a room?’ Sandra tore a leaf off her desk calendar, exposing a brand new platitude for the day – You only get out of life what you put into it.

‘I wanted a flat.’ Mags tone was scathing.

‘Jesus, who do you think we are? The feckin’ council? Here’s yesterday’s papers. Now buzz off. Go on over to the Financial Centre. They have The New York Times over there,’ she added encouragingly.

Mags is an obsessive newspaper collector. Nobody knows why. She can’t possibly read all of them. And since she no longer sleeps rough, she can’t be using them as bedding. But as Gerry is fond of reminding us, ours is not to reason why. We just hand them over. Glad to be rid of them, once Sandra had removed any cutting that might be relevant to any of our cases.

Mags was slandering the Financial Centre and everyone connected to it when Barney arrived. At twenty-six, Barney is our youngest investigator, but destined for great things according to Gerry, who is viewed as a bit of an oracle in the investigative business. Barney sometimes comes to work wearing jeans so threadbare they leave nothing to the imagination. And biker boots that were distressed long before fashion gurus invented the idea. His excuse for this ragbag look is that his girlfriend Hazel, an emerging actress/dancer/singer, used to take care of his clothes and she left him three months ago. Packed up lock, stock and barrel for the bright lights of London. ‘Took the keys of the wardrobe, did she?’ Gerry had asked dryly.

But when Barney pulled off his crash helmet you could see why he was so popular with the cappuccino set in the Café Naturalle down the road. He could easily pass for the lead singer in a popular boy band. If he could sing. Or even mime.

‘Morning.’ He tossed back his floppy fringe of wheat-coloured hair and threw the Irish Times on the desk, green eyes twinkling in his golden sun-god face.

‘Like butter wouldn’t melt,’ Gerry once described him to a client who was looking for someone to police his teenage daughter’s birthday party.

‘Don’t send me someone who looks like a gorilla in a suit,’ Billy Webb of Webb’s Wonder Motors had stipulated, possibly because he’s an expert on such types. He was so pleased when Barney turned up he was only just short of offering him his daughter’s hand in marriage, as well as a reliable second-hand Ford.

‘What’s that smell?’ Barney sniffed the air now.

‘Barney!’ I warned, always aware that under those pretty-boy features there lurks a will of steel. Admittedly no drawback in the investigative field, except when he clashes with Gerry or spots Mags hanging around the agency.

‘Oh, it’s fresh coffee! Just the job.’ He flashed me a dazzling smile and snatched the cup from Sandra’s hand. ‘Thanks, Sandra. Nice boots, Annie. Fancy!’ He looked me up and down. ‘I need to talk to you about that shoplifting case. Can we go up to your office?’

We took our coffees to the lift, leaving Sandra to deal with Mags. And the still hopeful Fred. The doors were closing behind us when there was a bloodcurdling screech. ‘Get off me, you randy little shite!’

Fred had found another victim.

Barney and I exchanged glances. ‘The start of another day in paradise, huh?’ He hit the button for the third floor.

The lift shuddered its way upwards. I pretended not to notice until there was no ignoring the waves of coffee splashing on to the sleeve of my new white blouse.

Barney rescued the styrofoam cup from my dripping hand. ‘You’ll have to get this lift sorted, Annie.’

I dabbed at the widening stain on my cuff. ‘I will?’

He took this to be a promise, and moved on. ‘We’re getting nowhere with that shoplifting case. The security cameras came up with zilch. The store detectives are flummoxed. Those thieves are like bloody magicians. The jewellery seems to disappear into thin air. We know it’s being lifted. We think we know who’s doing it. But we don’t know how. Or where they put it.’

I raised an inquiring eyebrow.

‘Nah. We did the body search. That nearly dropped us in it. If we try that again without hard evidence, we could end up in the dock.’

The lift gave a final shudder before halting on the third floor. Less than three years in service and already it was the office joke. The doors refused to open until Barney punched them with his free hand.

My office phone was jigging on my desk. I hoped it was good news. It wouldn’t take much to push me over the edge today.

‘It’s the Garda, Annie,’ Sandra said from reception. ‘They’re looking for Gerry. It sounds serious. Do you want to talk to them?’

Christ. I hadn’t even tasted the coffee yet.

‘Put them through.’ I directed Barney to a chair. He crossed to the window instead, looking out over the waking city.

‘Sergeant Tom O’Neill here.’ The voice on the phone was grim. ‘I used to work with Gerry.’

Terrific. This was all I needed. Another Garda looking to do a bit of moonlighting. Earn a little extra dosh by working undercover on his day off. Strictly off the books, of course.

I was already formulating a polite refusal, had the ‘things are a bit tight right now’ speech on the tip of my tongue, when he said, ‘I have some news on that missing girl in Kerry.’

I guessed by his tone that it wasn’t good. ‘Is it very bad?’ My stomach churned.

‘It’s not good.’

I held my breath.

‘We’ve had an anonymous call. Caller thinks the girl might be a runaway. With good reason. Her older brother could be the real problem there. The caller hinted at abuse. We have a new address for the girl, but it’s a long way from Kerry. We’ve already called in social services, so I thought I’d best give Gerry a shout. Save him driving all the way down there on a wild goose chase. The roads are somethin’ terrible this morning. These March frosts can be a killer. We’ve had two fatalities already. Tell Gerry to sit tight. Not to budge till we have further information.’

Gerry had left Dublin at six. Intent on beating the traffic.

Barney was now pacing impatiently, his blonde fringe falling into his eyes with every step. He checked his watch, waving his other hand to draw my attention. ‘Sorry to interrupt, Annie, but the store owners are meeting this morning and I’m supposed to be there. Like now.’ He pointed to the time. ‘One of them was dead set against bringing us in, from the start. Too costly, he reckoned. Now the case is dragging on, they’re all getting their knickers in a twist. I need to know if I can offer them a deal. A special rate?’ He didn’t look happy.

‘Are you still there, miss?’ The voice on the phone didn’t sound happy either. ‘Will you tell Gerry I’ll fill him in later? I’ll leave you my number.’

I was scrabbling for a pen when Declan, our senior detective, came in, his face grim as a tombstone. He was on the dry again, which never made for a happy detective.

‘Annie, Gerry’s been on to me. Says he’s been trying to get through all morning and would you please switch on your mobile. He says some of the figures for our tax returns can’t be right.’ His frown turned his already hawkish features even more forbidding. ‘You’re to redo the lot. And I’m to remind you that Friday is our deadline. Oh, and he said will you meet Mr Simon Boucher for him. It’s too late to cancel, and you know how important that meeting is. Sandra has the details. He said you’re to be extra careful. Treat Boucher with kid gloves, because he’s a touchy bastard at the best of times. And we need that contract. I’m off to Dundalk.’ He was gone.

‘The number here is 014 89 . . .’ the voice on the line was saying.

The clock on the wall said nine-twenty.

‘Did you get that?’ the Garda sergeant asked. ‘It’s azero awone afour . . .’

I hung up.

‘What do I tell them at the meeting, Annie?’ Barney stood over me.

‘Tell them whatever you bloody well like! Sorry, Barney. I . . . I have a blinding headache. Look, you deal with it. Revise the hourly costing if you have to. I have implicit faith in your judgement.’ I hurried out, leaving him staring after me.

I hit the lift running. Sandra kept the equivalent of a well-stocked pharmacy behind the reception desk, and I was in desperate need of something to ease my head. One of these days I was going to have my headaches checked out. One day when the sun was shining, and I got to actually taste my coffee before it got cold, and the lift worked properly, and I finally got to drive the Cherokee.

The lift gave a massive shudder before coming to a halt. Twelve inches above its target. I hit the emergency button. Nothing.

‘Sandra?’ I called through four inches of stainless steel. ‘The lift is stuck again.’

‘Give it a kick,’ she bellowed.

‘Ring the engineer,’ I yelled back.

I could hear Fred barking, then Mags’s high-pitched squeak: ‘Is Gerry in there with you?’

‘Fuck off, Mags!’ I exploded.

There was a long silence. Then the sound of Barney’s calm voice. ‘Make a fist, Annie. Hit the right door midway along. Level with the button. Hit it hard.’

I did exactly what he said. Nothing happened. For a second. Then the light blinked, and went out, and I was standing in complete darkness. Panic threatening to choke me, I kicked and punched both doors viciously. I was poised for another go when the light suddenly came on again, the lift gave a shudder, dropped and the doors shot open, catapulting me into reception. ‘You mechanical bollocks!’ I yelled, before catching sight of Barney’s frantic hand signals.

The reason for the signals was standing next to Sandra. A tall, distinguished-looking man with immaculate grey hair and an air of deep gravitas. Mr Simon Boucher, managing director of one of the largest international financial institutions to have sub offices in Ireland, had arrived early for his appointment with Gerry.

I wiped my sweaty palm on my skirt and rearranged my face into a welcoming smile.

‘Good morning, Mr Boucher.’ I held out my hand.

His sharp eyes zeroed in on my stained cuff, his patrician nose twitching in distaste. Then we were shaking hands and he began to relax. We were even making eye contact when Fred made his move. He launched himself enthusiastically at Mr Boucher’s beautifully tailored leg and began pumping.

Afterwards I kept thinking that maybe if Barney hadn’t tried to boot Fred so indelicately off Mr Boucher’s leg. Or if Mags hadn’t leaped to her pet’s defence and hit Mr Boucher with the Financial Times by mistake. Or if all our phones lines hadn’t started flashing at once, making Fred howl like a demented banshee. But they did.

Agonisingly aware of the importance of the Boucher security contract, I kept my smile rictus-firm. ‘Shall we go up to my office, Mr Boucher?’ I indicated the lift.

He glared at me, his lightly tanned face turning brick red. ‘Where . . . is . . . Mr . . . Dunning?’ The tone was icy.

‘Er . . . he was called away. An emergency,’ I lied. ‘I’m his partner, Annie McHugh. I run the agency when he’s not here.’ From the corner of my eye I could see Barney trying to push Mags out the door. She wasn’t having any of it. ‘I have important information for Gerry,’ she shouted. ‘Gerry relies on me for information, you ignorant bugger.’

‘My office, Mr Boucher?’ I widened my smile.

He turned on his heel.

I hurried after him, my heart rattling. If he walked out there would be hell to pay. This had been a bad year for us, and things were not looking up. There was plenty of investigative work on offer, but the competition was growing. The PI business was changing, being overrun by Techno Techs, Gerry said. And our overheads were spiralling out of control. The IT consultancy which had been happily renting our two middle floors had crashed without warning, leaving us with two vacant floors and no other tenant in sight. A long-term security contract like the one Boucher had to offer would make a world of difference to us. I daren’t let it slip through my fingers.

‘Would you like to make another appointment, Mr Boucher? We’re a little . . . under pressure this morning. You know how it is. Busy, busy, busy! The price one pays for success! The roar of the Celtic Tiger and all that.’

He gave me a withering look.

‘You have our card?’ I persisted. ‘You can ring us any time, day or night. We’re always here. Always ready to facilitate our clients. Ready to provide you with a reliable, and superior, service.’

He was gone.

Watching him drive away I knew there was only one route left open to me. But you can’t throw yourself down a lift shaft when you’re on the ground floor. I had to be satisfied with banging my head against the wall.

‘Don’t worry, Annie, he’ll be back.’ Sandra put a consoling hand on my shoulder.

‘Mr Boucher?’ I turned hopefully.

‘No!’ She shook her head. ‘Gerry.’

 

Chapter 2

 

‘ANNIE!’ FIONA THREW open her door to give me a close hug. Well, as close as she could given that she was preceded by the biggest pregnancy bump in living memory.

‘You brought food?’ She sniffed my canvas bag like a bloodhound. ‘Fish balls in batter? Oh, Annie, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘Pino at work?’ I glanced around her elegant living room. Pino is Fiona’s husband. Her second. As gregarious as her first husband was timid, Pino is tempestuous and passionate and great fun, but inclined to be a food snob. But then, as the owner/manager of two of the most fashionable restaurants in Dublin, he’s practically obliged to be. Fortunately Fiona isn’t, because for close on seven months now she’s had an insatiable craving for fish balls.

The glitterati of Dublin are rumoured to use blackmail, some say death threats, to get the highly coveted tables at Pino’s restaurants. And not just to see and be seen. Or even because he has signed a major TV contract to allow filming of his monthly gourmet dinner nights. But because the food in both places is to die for. However, from the moment the two red lines appeared on her home pregnancy test, Fiona’s taste buds went berserk.

She opened the brown paper bag with glee – ‘I’ll give these a quick blast in the microwave’ – and disappeared into the kitchen.

‘You haven’t eaten yet?’ It was gone nine.

‘Er . . . actually I have,’ she called back from her palatial kitchen. ‘We had Ribollita, Vitello Tonnato and brandy crêpes for dessert,’ she shouted as she clattered around her spacious cooking area, which has more knobs than Burke’s Peerage. ‘But I’ve been dreaming about fish balls.’ She came back, patting her bump. ‘Besides, I’m eating for two, remember?’

How could I forget? With six weeks still to go, she already looked as if she had swallowed the Hindenburg. If it weren’t for the scan confirming a single baby I’d have advised her to order multiples of everything. Her pregnancy had changed her beyond recognition. Practically overnight she had gone from being an edgy, fashion-conscious size ten to a spaced-out, yet blissfully happy, customer of rent-a-tent.

‘So how goes it at the cutting edge of crime?’ She wedged herself into a fireside chair. ‘What’s the word on the mean streets?’ she teased.

‘How should I know? I’m stuck in a bloody office all day.’ I threw myself on to her cream linen sofa. ‘Same old routine. Balancing the books. Filling in tax returns. Fouling up interviews.’ I winced, recalling Simon Boucher’s hasty exit.

‘Oooh, do I detect trouble in paradise?’ Her newly podgy cheeks dimpled.

‘What is all this paradise crap?’ I snapped. ‘Barney said the same thing today.’

‘Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten?’ She looked surprised. ‘When you and Gerry opened the new offices you christened it paradise. Remember?’

‘Oh, that was aeons ago.’ I was in no mood for rose-tinted nostalgia. My viewpoint wasn’t clouded by marital bliss. I didn’t live in a haze of maternal expectancy and lemon-scented Pledge. ‘I’ve had a brutal day.’ Ever the masochist, I put my feet up on the immaculate sofa and waited for her to chastise me.

She didn’t. The pre-pregnancy Fiona would have given me a slap on the head. This one stroked her bump lovingly. ‘You’re only miffed because Gerry’s not around for his birthday,’ she giggled.

‘Am not!’

‘Then why are you so crabby?’

‘I’m not crabby, just fed up. I’m tired of being a dogsbody. Tired of buttering up pompous gits who only want to talk to Gerry. Pacifying old grannies who think their flea-ridden mutts have been kidnapped by Al-Qaeda.’

‘But you love working in the agency.’

‘Who told you that?’ I snapped. Then realised it was probably me. But that was ages ago, back in the days when I considered it exciting, even borderline erotic, to be working with three attractive detectives. Well, two. Even Declan’s mother wouldn’t consider him attractive. But I had thought it a privilege to be typing out their badly written reports, helping with muddled expense sheets, discussing serial killers and axe murders as we drank gallons of black coffee laced with strong Bourbon deep into the recesses of the night. Oh no, cancel that last bit. That was in a movie I saw.

Fiona’s baby-pink forehead crinkled sweetly. ‘But didn’t you say . . . ?’

‘The detectives enjoy working in the agency,’ I sighed impatiently. ‘And why wouldn’t they? They get to do all the exciting things.’

‘Like?’

‘Like . . . like investigating,’ I said.

She smiled. ‘Would that be because they’re professional investigators?’

‘So? They’re not FBI men. Hardly Crime Busters Inc.’ I said nastily.

‘Maybe not, but Gerry’s a top detective. A highly regarded ex-cop.’ She was always quick to defend Gerry. Mainly because they have been friends for years. Not close friends like me and her. But still. Fiona and I go back as far as junior school. We used to be known as the terrible two. Constantly in trouble with dark moustached nuns for climbing the wall of the convent orchard while the boys gathered round below hoping for an apple, or at least a glimpse of our navy school knickers. The bonds of friendship don’t come stronger than that. Plus, I was the one who consoled her when her first marriage fell apart. Convinced her that there was life after divorce. In fact, I was the one who suggested we try a brand new Italian restaurant, whose proprietor turned out to be Pino Molino.

 

©  Maureen Martella

 

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