“Frinkin’ balloobies!” Weedgie’s eyebrows shot up and he stared at me in horror. Jill came back carrying a tray and humming the theme to Goldfinger under her breath.
“I do like a bit of Shirley Bassey, don’t you?” She smiled as she set a coffee pot, cups, saucers, plates, milk jug and sugar bowl on the table in front of us.
“Ah like the whole o‘ Shirley Bassey!” Weedgie said.
“Help yourself, Marty.” She disappeared back into the kitchen and I poured coffee in a daze. Beside me, Weedgie shook his head.
“Pat. A serial-killer,” he said, “Ah cannae believe it, she seems that nice.”
“I was nice,” I said, “Women liked me.”
“They don’t seem too fond o’ ye noo.” Weedgie gave me a sly smile. “Some o’ them cannae remember yer name.”
“I don’t see many bitches flocking around you,” I retaliated, stung by his remark.
“Hoi! That’s no’ a nice word tae use aboot lady-dugs. You wash yer mooth oot wi’ soap.”
Jill was clattering about in the kitchen. I heard cupboards opening. I leaned towards Weedgie. “Are you gay?” I smiled sweetly.
“Naw ah’m no’!” He was scandalised. “Ah’m fae Glesca!” He sniffed. “Ah’m just no’ that bothered aboot winchin’, tae be honest.”
“Winching?” I was bewildered. “What does…oh, never mind. I don’t think I want to know.”
He smirked at me and my temper rose.
“Have you been…done?” My turn to smirk at him.
“Done?” He looked genuinely puzzled. “Whit dae ye mean?”
“Nothing.” I wasn’t going there. “My mistake. You’re just not that bothered about…lady-dogs.”
“Aye, that’s right.” Weedgie nodded. “Ah’d rather huv a fish supper.”
I was smiling at this when Jill returned with a large platter of biscuits and found a place for them on the table. She handed me a small plate and gestured to the biscuits. “Go on,” she said, “Lemon cookies. Take one for your dog.”
“Thanks.” I obeyed, took a cookie for myself and gave one to Weedgie. Jill carefully balanced her cup, saucer and plate with a cookie on it whilst lowering herself gingerly back into the bowl-shaped chair. Weedgie and I watched in fascination until she was settled. Then we started to eat.
The lemon cookies were delicious.
“These are braw.” Weedgie licked bits of cookie out of the shag-pile carpet. “Dae we get ony mair?”
I finished my cookie. “That was wonderful,” I said, “May we have another one?”
“Please do.” Jill was delighted. “I’ve got loads.”
I took another two cookies, gave one to Weedgie and poised before biting into mine.
“Did you bake these yourself?” I said and then took a mouthful. I sighed happily as the biscuit melted on my tongue, releasing a delicate taste of lemon.
“No,” she said, “Pat made them.”
Weedgie and I spat half-chewed pieces of cookie onto the shag-pile. Jill stared at us. “Is everything alright…?”
“Um…yes…sorry. Went down the wrong way.” I dived to the carpet and began picking up remnants of cookie, then leaned towards Weedgie and lowered my voice. “These must be okay - she’s not ill.”
“I’m sorry, did you say something?” Jill looked slightly alarmed and I sat back up and smiled at her.
“I was just wondering if you felt okay? Pat said everyone at work was ill and someone…died, didn’t they?”
Weedgie and I stared fixedly at her.
A tear rolled down her cheek.
“I’ve been trying not to think about it.” She sniffed. “But it was awful. Our boss, Bernard, he died yesterday. Betty at work called me to tell me and then Pat phoned and I told her. She was really upset. They were engaged, you know.”
“Who?” I thought about the ring in the box.
“Pat and Bernard. Oh, it was years ago. He called it off and married someone else. Pat was devastated, I don’t think she’s ever really got over it.” She sipped at her coffee.
“Do you know where she is?” I said.
She hesitated. “She phoned this morning. She’s in a hotel but she asked me to keep the name to myself, so I can’t tell you. She said she needed time to think, sort something out.”
“Is she coming back?”
“Oh, yes.” Jill frowned. “She’ll have to, won’t she? We‘ve got work, ’though I’m not sure what will happen now…I think Bernard’s wife might sell the company. We could be out of a job.”
“What will you do?” A single woman in her thirties, who had worked in the same office since leaving college. I imagined she’d be out of her depth in the big city looking for somewhere to work.
“I’ve been offered a job as a dancer on a cruise ship,” she said, and my eyebrows shot up. “I dance in a club on Saturday nights, that’s why I’m dressed like this.” She giggled. “Eric laughs at this outfit - calls me Minnie Mouse.”
“Eric?” I said, “Is that your boyfriend?”
“You’ll know him,” she said, “Lives at Sadie’s. That’s how I met him, through Pat. It was his friend Johnny who offered me the job.”
“Eric who works in the accountant’s?” My face must have given my thoughts away because she laughed again.
“I know. It’s such a boring job. He hates it. I keep trying to persuade him to return to his first love.”
“Which is…?” Stamp collecting? Train-spotting? Watching paint dry?
“Music. He’s a brilliant musician. Johnny is a drummer and he’s putting a band together for a contract he’s been given to play on the ship. In fact Johnny is in charge of entertainment, generally. He can hire who he likes.”
“Are you going to do it?” I said.
“You know…I just might.” She stared past us out of the window. “The last two days have shown me life can be short. If chances come your way you need to take them. I’d hate to leave Pat behind, ’though, especially if the company closes.”
“Did she hate your boss, then? Because he broke off their engagement?” This could be her motive.
“Ohno.” Jill shook her head. “Pat’s too nice for her own good. She still had a soft spot for him, even after all those years.”
I finished my coffee. There didn’t seem much point in asking anything else. “Thanks for the coffee and cookies,” I said, “Can we give you a lift to your club?”
“Oh, thanks, but Eric is coming over later to take me.”
“Eric has a car?” I was surprised; he hadn’t mentioned it.
“No.” She looked sheepish. “We go on the bus.”
“Ah. Right. Well, bye then.” We started for the door.
“Oh, wait a minute.” She dived into the kitchen again and came back out with a carrier bag. “Here. You can give this back to Pat. She left it at work and I brought it home.”
I peered into the bag and saw an empty plastic container. “No problem,” I said, “I’ll pass that on.”
We left the flat, summoned the lift and whooshed down to the ground floor, ears popping as we went.
“Eric’s a musician?” Weedgie said as we headed for the van, “Whit does he play, the spoons?”
“I know, I can’t quite imagine it either.”
We discussed Eric’s unlikely career for a while, imagining him playing all sorts of weird instruments, but we both knew we were putting off the moment when the conversation would have to return to Pat. Finally, I took the plunge.
“It looks even worse for Pat, now,” I said, “She made cakes and took them into work on Thursday. Only she and Jill didn’t have any and they were the only ones who weren’t ill.”
Something else occurred to me, and I looked at the plastic bag sitting beside me on the seat.
“Jill gave me Pat’s container, the one she took into work. It’s the same kind as the ones in Don’s freezer. I know it’s a long shot, you can buy those things in Woolworth, but still…”
“Let’s huv a shuftie.” Weedgie stuck his head in the bag and hauled out the plastic box. He set it down on the seat and his ears shot up in surprise. “Frinkin’ balloobies!”
“What? What?” I tried to look and negotiate a corner at the same time; it wasn’t a success and we bounced off the kerb.
“Oof!” Weedgie and the plastic box landed on the floor . “Ya numpty. Yer drivin’s pure mince.”
I swung the van over to the kerb and hauled the handbrake on. Weedgie jumped back up onto the seat with the box in his mouth.
“Look.” He set it down beside me and I saw what he had been excited about. A torn piece of paper was stuck on the lid with sticky tape. There was writing on it in biro, saying M - Cinnamon Buns.
“It’s the same writing.” Weedgie bounced excitedly. “Isn’t it? Is it? It is, isn’t it?”
I fished around for my wallet, where I’d stashed the labels I took from Don’s freezer. I opened it and found the label which said M - Spicy Stew. I held it beside the one on Pat’s box.
“The M’s identical,” I said, “And the s looks the same too.”
Weedgie sighed. “It’s her right enough.”
“Yes, looks like it.” I put the label back in my wallet and the box back in the carrier bag. “We have proof now to give to Eric.”
I put the van into gear and moved away again.
“Will he use it, ‘though?” Weedgie sounded worried. “His girlfriend is Pat’s best mate and he likes her too. He might no’ want tae dae onythin’.”
“We’ll have to take that risk. What else can we do? We can’t go to the police…”
This saving people lark was more complicated than I’d thought. Despite the odd moment of fury with Weedgie, I didn’t really rate the black nothingness as an option.
Two streets from Sadie’s, we spotted Eric gazing into a shop window. “Whit does that shop sell?” Weedgie said, “Ba’s?”
I laughed and parked the van right behind Eric. He was so engrossed in the window he didn’t notice us. “It’s a pawn shop,” I told Weedgie, “Those three balls are the sign they all have. Let’s go and see what he’s so interested in. We can sound him out about Pat while we’re at it.”
We came up behind him and stood for a few moments before he became aware of us. He jumped then laughed and pointed to a large amp which sat in the centre of the display. It was surrounded by musical instruments; acoustic guitars, a saxophone, a flute and a set of bongo drums.
“Sadie would be delighted if you bought those.” I pointed to the drums.
He grinned. “Yes…I’m almost tempted. But it’s that amp I’ve got my eye on. Need the guitar to go with it, ’though.”
I had an idea. I glanced at Weedgie.
“Are ye gonnae tell him we went tae see Jill?” he said, and I nodded.
“I’ve just come back from your girlfriend Jill’s,” I began, and then seeing the suspicious expression on his face, hurriedly explained; “I was worried about Pat. Seems she’s gone to a hotel for the weekend, on her own. Did you know about that?”
He looked puzzled. “No, I didn’t,” he said, “But how do you know Jill?”
My quick-thinking psychopathic lying came in handy sometimes.
“I met Isobel Taylor,” I said smoothly, “My parents knew her years ago. She lives on the same landing as Jill. I really am worried about Pat. Didn’t you think she was acting strangely yesterday?”
He thought about this. “I suppose…” he said eventually, “But then people had food-poisoning at her office. She was probably worried about that.”
“Her boss died yesterday,” I told him, “The man who broke off her engagement. The food-poisoning killed him.”
“Oh, well then.” He was shocked. “That’s why she was so upset. That’s terrible.”
“Look, Eric.” I glanced at my watch and then back at the amp in the window. “I know you have to go and pick up Jill tonight. I’ll give you a lift there after we’ve taken this amp back to Sadie’s.”
“What?” He blinked at me. “But I couldn’t possible buy…” He looked at it again. “I can’t afford it.”
“Yes you can,” I said, “And I’ve got a surprise for you back at Sadie’s.”
“Ye huv?” Weedgie was curious.
“C’mon, let’s go in.” I ushered Eric through the door into the gloomy shop. “And get your wallet out.”
Fifteen minutes later, we staggered back out carrying the amp between us. Weedgie danced around our feet, threatening to trip us at any moment. We made it to the back of the van and put the amp inside.
“I say, this is exciting,” Eric said, “I’ve been eyeing that up for months and couldn’t make up my mind. We’d better smuggle it past Sadie.”
“With a bit of luck, she’ll still be out,” I said as we all piled into the front of the van and I started it up.
She was still out, which let us struggle up to Eric’s room with the amp. Then I told him to come upstairs with us. When he entered our room, the first thing he saw was the guitar.
“Oh, my! That’s a beauty.” He picked it up and looked at me. “A brand new Stratocaster! Do you play in a band?”
I shook my head. “I don’t play at all, Eric. I’m not musical. Someone gave me that guitar. You can have it.”
“What? No, I couldn’t.” His body language said he definitely could, as he cradled the guitar in his arms. “You must let me pay you.”
“No way,” I said, “You either take it as a gift or not at all.”
“This is very generous of you, Marty.” He strummed the guitar, his face flushed with pleasure, then fiddled with the tuning pegs and tried a few chords. “Hey, come back downstairs and I’ll set up the amp.”
We all trooped back to his room and five minutes later he was treating us to some blues. Weedgie’s head bobbed from side to side. “He’s no’ bad,” he said, “Can he dae ‘Ten Guitars’?”
I didn’t know how to begin the conversation about Pat. I couldn’t just come out and say she was a poisoner, so I decided on a more roundabout approach.
“Does Pat have a boyfriend?” I asked and Eric stopped playing and looked at me in surprise.
“Er…I think you’re a bit young for her,” he said awkwardly, “Pat tends to go for older men.”
“Like Don, for instance?” Weedgie and I both watched his reaction carefully.
“Don?” He looked confused. “Mary’s husband Don? What do you mean?”
I sighed. Time to spell it out. “Are they having an affair?”
“No!” He was horrified. “They certainly are not! Pat doesn’t go after married men.” He shook his head. “She knows what it’s like to be dumped for someone else. I had a broken engagement too, before I came here and Pat’s been a good friend to me. And to Sadie.”
“Have you eaten Pat’s baking?” I tried a different tack. “Jill said she took some in to work.”
He looked bemused. “Yes, I’ve eaten loads of Pat’s recipes. She’s always trying out something new. I’ve got a tin of her shortbread here somewhere, if you’d like to try some…”
“No thanks, Eric, that’s okay.” I suddenly remembered the plastic box I’d left in the van. “You carry on playing, I’ve got to get something out the van. Tell me when you have to leave for Jill’s and I’ll give you a lift.”
“I will.” He turned his attention back to the guitar. “And thanks again, Marty.”
Weedgie and I went downstairs and he waited in the hall while I retrieved the carrier bag from the van. When I came back inside, Mary appeared from Sadie’s side of the house, looking sleepy.
“Oh, hello boys.” She patted the top of Weedgie’s head, and looked at the bag in my hand. “Is that a present for me? How lovely.”
“Er…no,” I said quickly, taking the container out to show her, “It’s for Pat.”
Mary laughed. “I was just teasing.” She looked closer at the top of the box. “Oh, is that one of my labels?”
“Your labels?” I stared at her.
“Don makes up meals for the freezer, and I volunteered to do the labels. I wrote out loads for M and D…” She frowned, and stared harder as if she was trying to remember something. “No, that can’t be mine. How odd…”
She shrugged and turned away towards the kitchen. “Oh well. Think I’ll make myself a nice cup of tea before Sadie comes back. See you later, boys.”