I accompanied Mary back to the lounge where tea was set out on a coffee table. Sadie was sitting beside Don on the settee and Pat was perched on the edge of an armchair with Weedgie at her feet. He was staring fixedly at Don.
Mary sank into the other armchair and I pulled up a round leather pouffe and sat beside Weedgie.
“Well, now we’re all here, let’s have some refreshments.” Sadie smiled brightly around the room, scowled briefly at Pat and started to pour tea and coffee. I watched Don carefully, trying to get a handle on him. He was poised and confident, helping Sadie hand out plates, asking Mary if she needed another cushion, reaching over to pat Weedgie on the head.
“Do have one of these, they’re freshly made,” Sadie said, holding out a plate piled high with small round biscuits. I took one.
“Hoi, whit aboot me?” A growl came from beside me. I quickly snatched another biscuit and slipped it down to him.
“Oh, look, Weedgie likes my home baking,” Sadie said, as he crunched messily, “Isn’t he sweet?”
No. He’s not. He’s anything but.
“So noo it’s fine fur me tae eat yin o‘ her biscuits,” Weedgie said, “Huh. Weemin.”
“Mmmph!” Don made a face and spat out a mouthful of biscuit into his hand. We all stared.
“Sorry,” Don said, “It’s just…ginger. I can’t stand it.”
“Neither he can,” Mary said, “Makes him sick. Me, I love it.” She crunched happily at her biscuit and took another.
“Oh dear.” Sadie was embarrassed. “I didn’t realise, Don, I’m sorry. Here, have a custard cream instead.” She handed him another plate, piled high with cheap yellow biscuits. He looked at her strangely then politely declined and fed the rest of his ginger biscuit to Weedgie.
“I’m such a boring eater,” he said with a smile at his wife, “Mary loves herbs and spices and garlic and flavourings and I eat the blandest meals. I think it’s a throwback to good old British nursery food, potatoes and butter, custard, tapioca…”
Sadie joined in to express her hatred of tapioca - “Looks like frog-spawn!” - and the conversation revolved around everyone’s favourite and least-liked food. Pat was the only one who didn’t contribute; she sat and nibbled her biscuit, a slight frown on her face. I looked at Weedgie and tried to catch his eye, then Don spoke decisively and ended the debate.
“I should be getting back, I have to drop in to the office before we close.” He drained his tea and stood up. Sadie stood with him.
“What a shame you have to leave us, Don,” she said, while Weedgie and I exchanged glances. The would-be murderer was escaping. I did some fast thinking.
“Where do you work?” I said, “I’m looking for a job right now and I wondered if there were any vacancies…?”
“Oh.” He looked me up and down, raising an eyebrow which reminded me of Mr. Scarlet. “Well…we may have something coming up in distribution soon. Can you operate a forklift?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“Well, then, pop round and have a word with Mr. Jenkins on Monday morning. If he likes you he’ll keep you in mind.”
“Can’t I come with you right now?” I did my best eager expression. He was taken aback and couldn‘t come up with a reason to refuse.
“You are keen.” He forced a laugh. “Well, I suppose you could come along…if you can make your own way back here.”
“No problem.” I smiled at his discomfiture and he turned away and addressed Sadie.
“Before I go I’ll just visit the…er…”
“Cludgie,” Weedgie said, “The bog. The lavvy.”
“The bathroom,” Don finished.
“Of course, Don, you know where it is,” Sadie said, as Don kissed Mary on the cheek.
“Goodbye, my dear. I’ll be back on Sunday evening.”
“Goodbye.” Mary looked almost tearful. She took his hand and gave it a squeeze.
Don left the room and Sadie began clearing up. Pat rose and helped her. I waited a few moments after they’d both gone and then crept down the hall to the kitchen, Weedgie at my heels.
“Where are ye going?” he said, and I held a finger to my lips as we approached the kitchen door. Pat’s voice was clearly audible.
“Sadie, I am so sorry,” she was saying, “I don’t know what made me say that. Please forgive me.”
“Well, Pat, I was deeply hurt and insulted by your comments but…I daresay we can put this unpleasantness behind us and not mention it to anyone. I trust you haven’t told anyone?” Sadie’s tone was sharp.
“No, no I haven’t. I want us to be friends again, Sadie. I’m sorry.”
“Fine. We’ll say no more about it.”
I signalled to Weedgie and we crept away again and waited by the front door.
“Whit’s up with Sadie and Pat?” Weedgie said, “They fallen oot or somethin’?”
“Well, Pat was apologising,” I said, “And I don’t know what about, but I have an odd feeling it may be important. We’ll have to find out.”
Weedgie grinned his Mick Jagger grin.
“Listen tae us,” he said, “Like proper detectives aff the telly. Starsky and Hutch. Morse and Lewis. Columbo and…his dug.”
“Do you watch a lot of television?” I said.
“Aye. The kennels had satellite TV in the main building. Ah used tae go there a lot and watch it. Once ah’d figured oot how tae open ma kennel. It was braw. Ah like a’ the car chases. Dae ye think we’ll get tae dae ony car chases?”
I had a mental image of Weedgie being ‘accidentally’ thrown from our speeding van.
“Maybe,” I said.
“So, whit dae ye think aboot him, then? This Don. Ah think he’s makin’ her ill. Ah think he’s poisonin’ her.”
For crying out loud…did this dog have to try and upstage me at every turn? How had he come to the same conclusion?
“Well, that’s what I suspect,” I said, “But how did you think of it?”
Weedgie frowned. “’Cause that’s whit ah wid dae if ah wanted tae murder someone. Make it look like an accident or like they’d been ill. Mary‘s ill.”
I looked at him.
Wondered if he ever thought of getting rid of me…
“Righto, then.” Don appeared in front of us with Sadie behind him. She frowned at Weedgie.
“Weedgie can stay here with me,” she said, “Don won’t want him messing up his nice new car.”
“Oh, he can sit on my knee,” I said cheerfully, happy at the prospect of Weedgie messing up Don’s new car, “He‘ll enjoy the walk back.” Weedgie looked at me in surprise and grinned.
“Braw,” he said, “Can ah stick ma heid oot the windae?”
I thought that might be dangerous.
“’Course you can,” I whispered to him as we followed Don out of the front door and down the steps. Sadie stood in the doorway.
“This is a nice big motor,” Weedgie said, looking at Don’s car.
“Ford Zodiac,” I said, “Is it new?”
“Yes.” Don unlocked the driver’s door and climbed in. “Three litre engine, automatic. She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” He leant across and unlocked the passenger door and Weedgie and I got in. The front seat was a long bench and I sat by the window and wound it down.
“There you are,” I said brightly to Weedgie as he climbed onto my knee, “Plenty of fresh air.”
Be sure to stick your head out as far as possible…
The big engine thrummed into life and we sailed away from the kerb. Don waved like royalty to Sadie who stood and watched until we’d turned the corner at the end of the street.
“How old are you, Marty?” Don said.
Wow. He’d remembered my name.
I wondered briefly what age to say. Thirty five? Nearly seventeen? Or something a bit older?
“I’m eighteen,” I said and Weedgie cast me a sidelong glance then went back to lolling his head out of the window.
“You look older than that,” Don said, “Must be all the hair. I’m afraid you’ll need a haircut if we give you a job. We run a tight ship, you know. Everything neat. Everything spick and span.”
“What does your company make?” I said and he laughed.
“Oh, it’s not my company, Marty, I wish it was. I’m simply the manager. We make optical lenses for spectacles. We have a manufacturing side, more like a laboratory, actually, and a warehouse for distribution. The company‘s doing very well, we‘re expanding across London. That‘s why I said there would be a post in distribution soon. You‘d have to start at the bottom, work your way up.”
“Ask him aboot Mary.” Weedgie brought his head in. “And shut that windae. Ma ee’en are watterin’.”
I sighed and wound the window back up. Don reached over and ruffled Weedgie’s fur.
“Let him sit on the seat,” he said, “I don’t mind. I like dogs.”
I shoved Weedgie off my lap and he sat between us and stared straight ahead through the windscreen.
“I’m sorry your wife is ill,” I said, giving Don a sideways glance, “She told me no-one knows what’s wrong with her.”
Don’s face hardened.
“Bloody doctors…” He shook his head. “I’ve tried the NHS and Harley Street. They all say the same thing. A virus. Hmmph. I just wish she’d get better, Marty. I hate seeing her so weak and sick.”
Weedgie and I exchanged a look. Either this guy was innocent or he really was a Hollywood actor.
“It must be hard at home,” I continued, “Looking after Mary. Do you cook the meals?”
He looked embarrassed. “Er…no. I get a…caterer in to do that. Once a fortnight. We have a large freezer so the caterer makes two weeks worth of meals and labels them. I simply take one out for each meal and heat it up.”
Heat it up…and add something to Mary‘s portion?
Weedgie and I exchanged another look.
“Well, here we are.” Don swung the car through between two large wrought-iron gates. He stopped in a space just left of the front doors of a large, modern building. A sign in front of the parking space said Mr. Steele. We got out and I looked up at a sea of windows set in a square concrete building. ‘Watkins & Scott’ was announced in large black letters above the doors.
Weedgie looked up and frowned. “Watkins and Scott,” he said, “Where huv ah seen that afore? Ah’ve seen it somewhere…the letters were smaller, but…”
“You can read?” I said and he gave me a withering look.
“’Course ah can read. Whit dae ye think ah am, a daftie?”
“Smart building, eh?” Don looked proud. “State of the art workshops, natural light, spacious rooms. Come inside for a moment and I’ll have Mr. Jenkins come by and take you to the warehouse.”
Weedgie and I followed him inside to an airy reception, with blue easy chairs and numerous pot plants. A desk was to one side and behind it sat a young woman with dark hair tied back in a loose ponytail. She had perfect make-up and red polished nails.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Steele,” she sang out as we passed.
“Afternoon, Stacey,” Don replied as he pressed a button at the first of two lifts at the back of the reception area. I made a mental note to try and speak to Stacey if I could; quiz her about the state of the Steeles’ marriage.
The lift arrived and whizzed us silently to the top floor where we emerged and followed Don along a carpeted corridor to another, smaller reception area. There was a desk here too but the woman behind this one was older and wore no make-up or nail polish. She looked up and frowned at the sight of Weedgie and myself.
“Mr. Steele…?” She looked quizzically at him and he smiled.
“This is Marty and Weedgie,” he said, looking at me and gesturing to the woman, “And this is Marjorie, my life-saver or personal secretary, as I believe her proper title is.”
“Bring in some coffee, would you, Marge? And a bowl of water for Weedgie.” Don passed her desk and swept through the door behind it while we followed and I thought, Marge? I wonder. Is she more than just a personal secretary…? Could she be the reason Don wants Mary out of the way?
Don’s office had windows on two sides with fabulous views across the city. I went and looked out and Weedgie arrived beside me and stood on his hind legs to try and see.
“Here you go, boy!” Don came over and scooped Weedgie up into his arms. He stood beside me and held him up to look at the view. “Stunning, isn’t it? I never tire of looking at London. Mary loves it, too. She often comes here and…well, she often used to…” His voice tailed off as Marjorie came in with a tray of coffee and biscuits and a small bowl of water. She set the tray down on a table near Don’s desk and put the bowl of water on the floor. Don placed Weedgie gently back down and he trotted over and had a noisy drink. Don laughed and Marjorie smiled.
“He’s a great dog,” Don said to me.
Really? In what way?
“Yes, he is.” I smiled at them both.
“Get Allan to come up here, would you, Marge? Thanks.” Don gestured for me to have a seat and Marjorie nodded and left the room. I sat on a low-slung metal framed chair and Weedgie came and sat at my feet. Don handed out coffee and biscuits and fed a few to Weedgie. Then Marjorie returned with an older man. He had slicked-back greying hair and wore a brown cloth coat.
“Allan, this is Marty. He’s eighteen, though he looks about twenty five, and he may be right for us in the warehouse. I’d like you to take him round it, give him a sort of tour and then bring him back here. Alright?”
I stood up and Allan Jenkins looked me up and down and fixed a wary smile on his face. “Right you are, Mr. Steele,” he said, “Come along, lad.”
I walked with him to the door while Weedgie stood and began to follow.
“Weedgie can stay here with me,” Don said, “We’ll keep each other company, eh, boy?” Weedgie looked up at him with wide eyes then ran over to me.
“Don’t leave me wi’ this frinkin’ murderer!” He grabbed at the leg of my jeans. “He might try an’ kill me!”
Chance would be a fine thing.
I prised his teeth away. “It’s alright, Weedgie, I’m coming back.” I gave Don an apologetic look. “He’s a bit nervous with people he doesn’t know. He’ll be fine.” I moved swiftly away and slipped through the door after Allan. I closed it on Weedgie’s furious rant; “Ya frinkin’ plinky poopy! See you, when ah get ma teeth intae ye…!”
“Sorry,” I said to Allen and Marjorie as I went past. Marjorie smiled sympathetically and Allan snorted. He took me to a staircase further down the corridor and we descended in silence. No lifts for the workforce then.
“So…how long have you worked here, Mr. Jenkins?”
He scowled at me as if I had no right to ask. “Man and boy,” he said. I tried again.
“Is Mr. Steele a good boss?”
“Do you ever see Mrs. Steele?”
By this time we had reached the ground floor and he took me through a set of doors at the back of the building. We crossed a small courtyard and approached an old building, made of red brick with long windows. I figured he wasn’t going to gossip about the Steeles so gave up asking.
We entered through a side-door into a large cavernous room which held rows of pallets laden with boxes. Allan pointed out various sections as we marched past and I feigned interest until we had finished the tour.
“Well, thank you, Mr. Jenkins.” I shook his hand and smiled at his bemused face. “I’ll find my own way back to Mr. Steele’s office.”
I left him standing in the middle of the warehouse, scratching his head. I left quickly, crossed the courtyard and nipped around to the front of the building, working out how best to approach Stacey.
I entered the main reception and smiled at her. She smiled back, unsure of where she’d seen me before. I explained and she looked relieved.
“Phew, thank goodness for that. For a moment I thought I was seeing double or you had a twin.”
I laughed and chatted about the building, admired her nails and gently brought the conversation around to the Steeles.
“I’m lodging with Mr. Steele’s sister-in-law,” I said, “I met his wife today. Lovely woman, isn’t she?”
“Oh, yes,” Stacey said, with a dreamy look on her face. She then went on to enthuse about her boss’s marriage and what a gentleman he was and how happy they were and she hoped she could be that happy someday. When I got a word in edgewise I asked if she had heard of any problems between Don and Mary but she denied this vehemently.
“He’s devoted to her. He’s been so worried since she’s been ill.”
I gave up, made my excuses and escaped back upstairs to chance my luck with Marjorie. She looked disapprovingly at me when I asked if the Steeles got along or not.
“Mr. Steele is my employer and I do not gossip about him or his wife.” She turned away and began typing. I took the hint and went back into Don’s office.
To my astonishment, Don was sitting behind his desk with Weedgie on his lap. They both looked at me as I entered the room and then Weedgie spoke:
“We’ve got it a’ wrang, Marty,” he said, “Don’s innocent. It’s no’ him!