I woke with a start to pale sunlight filtering through a gap in the curtains and the sound of the toilet flushing. Weedgie trotted into the room as I donned the paisley dressing gown.
“Pat’s gone oot,” he said, crossing to the window. I came and stood beside him and drew back the curtains. Pat stood on the pavement below wearing blue slacks, ankle boots and a shiny black coat. She held a small suitcase in one hand and hailed a passing taxi with the other. I struggled to open the window as she jumped inside but I was too late to try and stop her or to hear the address she gave the driver.
The taxi moved off as Weedgie and I looked at each other.
“Maybe she’s just gone away for the weekend?” I suggested.
“She never said, did she? Must have decided quick.”
“Damn.” I gathered underwear, jeans, a white shirt and the flowery waistcoat. “I’m going for a quick wash and then we’ll hit the trail.”
“Ah’ve got something to do an’ a’.” Weedgie followed me from the room and ran off down the stairs.
Ten minutes later, I emerged from the bathroom and returned to the bedroom to collect my wallet and the van keys. Weedgie was nowhere in sight. I went down to the ground floor and met Sadie and Mary in the hallway, where Sadie had just picked up some post.
“Good morning,” I said, “Off out somewhere?”
“We’re going to have a seat out at the back,” Sadie said, “It’s not much of a garden but it gets the sun.”
“We have our breakfast out there,” Mary said, “It’s lovely and quiet first thing in the morning.”
“Saturday is DIY breakfast.” Sadie smiled. “Help yourself to cereal and if you want toast, I’ve left bread on the kitchen table.”
I followed them into the kitchen, thinking that Mary looked peaceful and relaxed. Her time with Sadie certainly seemed to be helping her. I hoped Don was enjoying his fishing trip.
The back door was beside a walk-in larder and as they passed, Sadie drew a curtain across the front of it. “It’s a bit untidy,” she said, “I could do with having a good old spring clean.”
“Oh, me too,” Mary said, “I haven’t had the strength to do much at all these past few months. I’ve mostly been in my bed or in an armchair. Don’s been doing all the cooking and I’m sure our kitchen will need a good scrub down.”
“Don’t you be trying anything like that.” Sadie wagged a finger at her. “Let Don put on his rubber gloves and get stuck in.”
They went out, laughing together, and I looked through the window at a small walled-in courtyard which held ceramic flowerpots and a wooden bench and table. It did seem to be a sun trap. Both women shaded their eyes as they sat down. A toast rack, coffee pot, plates, cups and cutlery lay on the table.
There was still no sign of Weedgie. Where was that dog? I went through to the dining room and he trotted in behind me and dropped a set of keys at my feet.
“Mary’s keys,” he said proudly, “Am ah guid or whit?”
“You’re good,” I said in surprise. Good and devious. A winning combination.
I scooped up the keys. “Mary thinks Don is cooking all her meals. He hasn’t told her about the caterer. We’ll have to find out why. Let’s head off then. Shall we get breakfast on the way?”
“Aye.” Weedgie headed for the front door and I followed, pocketing Mary’s keys as I went.
“Oh…damn,” I said as we settled in the van, “I forgot to ask Pat for her A to Z.”
“Look in yer glove box,” Weedgie suggested, “Ye never ken…”
I opened it, looked inside and took out a brand new A to Z.
Weedgie peered inside the glove box with a frown.
“Nae gloves,” he said, “That’s a disappointment…”
I looked up Don and Mary’s address. “Okay…we can take the ring road and…there’s a greasy spoon I know rather well about ten minutes away.”
“Braw!” Weedgie wriggled happily in anticipation as I started the van and moved off. Fifteen minutes later, I was seated at a table outside Bert’s Café, indulging in a large, greasy breakfast while Weedgie enjoyed half of it at my feet.
Vans and lorries pulled up around us. Men in overalls and dungarees trooped in and out of the café, fortifying themselves for the day ahead with artery-clogging fry-ups and cups of tea that could dissolve the spoons they stirred it with. No-one had heard of cholesterol in 1968.
A few of these workmen glanced my way and muttered something about ‘hippy’ and ‘layabout’ and then I heard one of them behind me say, “’Oi, darlin’. Can I buy you a cup of tea?”
I looked around at him and his face fell. He blushed bright red and hurried quickly inside as his mates joshed him about fancying a feller.
“It’s the hair,” Weedgie said, “And that Big Jessie waistcoat. Flooers. It’s got flooers oan it.”
“Embroidered flowers are very hip in 1968.”
“Let’s get going.” I finished the last fried tomato, glad I’d paid up front and didn’t need to re-enter the café. We got back in the van. Traffic was beginning to build up and I pulled away and nipped in front of a line of cars. I reckoned it would take half an hour to get to Fortesque Crescent and I was expecting Weedgie to chat away, but he was quiet.
“Musing on our case, partner?” I drawled in my own bad attempt at an American accent.
He sighed and I glanced over in surprise. “What’s up?” I said.
“The red bampot. Last night.” Weedgie carefully didn’t look at me. “He said somethin’ tae ye aboot us bein’ a team. Like he’d tellt ye already. Afore last night.” He turned to look at me then. “Had ye seen him afore last night?”
“Well, yes,” I said, suddenly feeling uncomfortable, remembering how I’d felt the morning before, “He appeared yesterday morning when I went to see my wife. Well, the woman who had been my wife…”
I tailed off, realising that it must seem suspicious to Weedgie that I hadn’t mentioned seeing Mr. Scarlet in London. Of course, I had still been intent on getting rid of Weedgie at that point.
He was right to feel suspicious.
I had to convince him I was on his side. I chose my words carefully.
“I should have told you yesterday but…I was…pretty upset. Upset and angry. He made me feel that this was my own personal hell and…I’d just started to realise my old life had disappeared. You knew that, of course.” I glanced at him again, remembering his confession about hearing Mr. Scarlet discussing me on the phone, and hoping he’d feel we were equal now.
“Yer own personal hell?” Weedgie’s lip curled back. “Is that whit ah am?”
Yes. Definitely. One hundred per cent.
“No, of course not,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster, “This saving people is my idea of hell. Well, it was but…I think I’m changing. I know I have to save people now and I…think I want to do it. With you. You’re my…partner. You and I are a team. He told me that. I just didn’t quite believe him then…”
I tailed off again, unsure if I’d said enough, or said the right things.
Weedgie turned away and pursed his lips. “But ye’re sure noo?” he said.
I nodded my head. “I’m sure. And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I’d seen him. I didn‘t want to worry you.”
We stopped at traffic lights and Weedgie turned back to me.
I looked at him; at the Elvis quiff, the too-big brown eyes and the Mick Jagger mouth and thought, my own personal hell…
And he was all I had in the world.
“Ye’re okay, Marty.” Weedgie nodded. “We’re a team.”
Relief. Relief and ridiculous happiness. And then blaring horns and curses from taxi drivers. The lights had changed to green.
“Numpty,” Weedgie said with a sly grin, as I hastily found first gear and moved off. We spent the rest of the journey murdering Beatles songs together and getting strange looks from other drivers. I found I didn’t care who saw me singing with a dog.
Boy, was I changing…
“Here we are.” I turned into a wide, tree-lined street, “Fortesque Crescent. Number four…six…eight. I’ll park here and we’ll nip along and go in as if we own the place.”
“Big posh hooses,” Weedgie said, looking at the row of substantial Georgian houses. Each had a smart wrought-iron railing around the front and stairs leading down to a basement. There were three stories to each house. “The wee sister’s daein’ better than the big yin.”
“Yes, Mary seems to have chosen the right sort of husband,” I said as we climbed out and stood on the street, “Unless he’s trying to kill her, that is. Let’s go.”
We marched along to number twelve and I dug the keys from my pocket and checked the front of the building. No alarm. Good.
A minute later, we were inside the hall and I closed the front door.
“Kitchen’s doon here,” Weedgie said confidently and led me down the back of the hall to a conservatory. “Huh,” he said, “That shouldnae be here.” We went back out, turned left and found the kitchen, tiled in lemon and white and with lemon-coloured units around three walls. The fourth wall held an enormous Aga which hosted the biggest kettle I‘d ever seen.
“Here’s the fridge.” Weedgie stopped in front of a bulbous white monstrosity. “Will it huv the freezer in it?”
“Nope.” I hauled the door open. “Just an ice-box.” I flipped the lid down. “Fish fingers. There are always fish fingers in these things.”
“Ye couldnae fit much more in there,” Weedgie said, “So…whaur’s the freezer he was talkin’ aboot?”
I went over to a door on the back wall and opened it. “Scullery,” I said and looked around, “Aha!” I stepped down into the cool room and Weedgie joined me. We approached a large chest freezer which thrummed noisily to itself against the far wall.
“Frinkin’ balloobies,” Weedgie’s eyebrows shot up, “Ye could hide a deid boady in there nae bother.”
I had been about to lift the lid and now I hesitated.
We looked at each other.
And then slowly I raised the heavy lid and saw…frozen peas. More fish fingers. And dozens of plastic boxes filled with a variety of different coloured substances.
“It’s the caterer’s stuff.” Weedgie stood up and placed his front paws on the rim of the freezer. “Jings bangs, it’s frinkin’ freezin’!” He dived back down and I pulled out some of the plastic containers. They were labelled pretty crudely with pieces of paper scrawled on in biro and held in place by elastic bands.
“Look at these.” I placed them on the floor by Weedgie’s paws. “Some have the initial M and some have D.”
“Don and Mary,” Weedgie screwed up his eyes and read some labels, “D - mince pie, D - cauliflower cheese, M - chicken curry, D - casserole, M - spicy stew.”
“What do you bet the ones with M are all poisoned?” I said, “But how can we prove that?”
“Well, ah’m no tryin’ ony.” Weedgie backed away. “But it has tae be someone close who knows Mary likes spicy things and Don likes plain borin’ things.”
I had to agree. Pat was still looking good for it. I bent and removed two of the labels, one with M and one with D.
“I’ll keep these to compare handwriting,” I said, “Y’know, this catering company doesn’t seem very professional. You would think they’d have their own printed labels, wouldn’t you?”
“Aye.” Weedgie watched as I loaded the boxes back into the freezer and shut the lid. “Somethin’ wi’ their name oan it. Maybe there’s a leaflet lying aroon’.”
We went back into the kitchen and I looked through some drawers but found nothing advertising a caterers.
“We’ll huv tae ask the neighbours,” Weedgie said. We left the kitchen, went back through the hall and opened the front door.
We got the chance sooner than we expected. A large, stern-faced woman was standing on the doorstep, arms akimbo, eyebrows raised.
“Jings bangs! Whit a torn-faced auld biddy.” Weedgie shuffled behind me and peeped out at her.
“Who the Dickens are you?” demanded the harridan as we stepped out and I closed the door and locked it.
I decided on the bold, upfront approach.
“Marty Hollis at your service, Madam.” I gave her my best smile and held out my hand. She ignored it.
“And why are you in my neighbours’ house?”
“Don asked me to pop round and check he’d turned the Aga off. He’s gone fishing for the weekend,” I said, “His sister-in-law is my landlady. And you are…?”
She was taken aback. “Oh. Er…Mrs. Thomson. Number twenty five.” She shook my hand now, with a grip that would have crushed steel.
“Lovely to meet you, Mrs. Thomson.” I winced and wiggled my fingers experimentally. I was surprised they all still worked. I looked across the street; her house was directly opposite. “Er…you might be able to help us.”
“Us?” She looked puzzled. “You and who else?”
“Heh. Heh. Heh. Ya numpty.”
“Just me and…my dog.” I looked at Weedgie and she followed my gaze and took a step back. “I meant to say, you could help me. Don forgot to give me the name of the caterer he uses and I need it for today. Would you happen to know who it is?”
She frowned. “Caterer? I didn’t know he used a caterer. Do you mean for parties? They haven’t entertained much recently. Mary has been ill.”
“The caterer comes in once a fortnight and cooks for them…? Have you seen a van, perhaps?”
Weedgie and I looked hopefully at her while she thought this through. I saw something flicker behind her eyes.
“You’ve remembered?” I said and she hesitated.
“Well…not really. I haven’t seen a van or anything like that but, once a fortnight…”
“Yes?” I leant forward.
“Aye?” Weedgie stepped forward.
“Every second Monday morning Don takes Mary out to see some specialist or other and then they have lunch somewhere and he brings her back. Just after they leave, a woman arrives in a taxi and goes inside. She’s always carrying heavy-looking bags and she stays there for an hour or so and then she leaves.”
“Frinkin’ nosey auld biddy,” Weedgie said, “She’s like MI5.”
A woman…looked like our suspicions were on the money.
“What does she look like?” I said, waiting for a description of Pat.
“Oh, I’m not sure. She usually has a headscarf worn quite low and her collar tuned up. Sometimes she wears dark glasses. Ridiculous things to wear in the middle of winter.”
“So she’s been coming for a while now?”
“Since the New Year anyway, I would say.”
That fitted in with the start of Mary’s illness. The poisoned meals must have taken effect over a few weeks and the symptoms would worsen each time Mary ate one.
I took a deep breath.
“Does she have blonde hair? Bright blonde?”
“No…I’m pretty sure it’s dark. Once her scarf blew back and I saw it.”
“Could it have been a dark wig?” As Mrs. Thomson frowned and looked confused, something else occurred to me. “Could it have been a man? Dressed as a woman?”
This was a step too far for Mrs. Thomson. Her eyes widened and her voice rose several octaves.
“Certainly not, young man! I can assure you, there are no men dressed as women in Fortesque Crescent!”
She turned and flounced off across the street, into number twenty five. The door closed with a slam. I turned to Weedgie.
“What do you think? Pat in a dark wig?”
“Could be…hing oan, there’s a wee scabby dug next door.” He bounded over to the railings which separated Don and Mary’s house form the one next door and looked down towards the basement. I followed and saw he was staring at a small terrier- cross which gazed back at us from the basement window. “Get us doon there, Marty, and ah’ll see if that dug saw onythin’.”
I lifted Weedgie up and over the railings and set him down on the stairs leading to the basement. He trotted down and went up to the window. To my astonishment, the terrier reached up and opened it from the inside. Weedgie and his new acquaintance had a muttered conversation, of which I could only understand Weedgie’s side. I heard the words wummin, dark-haired and scarf and then he trotted back up the stairs.
“See ye, pal.” He called as I lifted him back over the railings. The terrier closed his window again.
“Well?” I said nervously as we headed back to the van. I had a feeling Mrs. Thomson had witnessed our intrusion onto Don’s neighbours’ property and was probably calling the police. Or MI5.
“Much the same as the auld biddy,” Weedgie said, “He’s seen a wummin in a scarf. He didnae see her hair. He said she smelled like mince.”
“Maybe that was her perfume.” I unlocked the van and we climbed in. “Eau de Mince.”
We sat together and stared out of the windscreen.
“It doesn’t look too good for Pat,” I said, “Does it?”