Dave took a deep breath. "Right. Melanie Porter. She's a twenty-three-year-old estate agent, works down in the village. Boyfriend, as I said, a bit on the dodgy side. He's got previous for drugs, petty crime--that sort of thing. Supposed to have settled down since he met the young lady--at least, he's stayed out of trouble for nearly a year now. His story is she got a call Saturday night and told him she had to go out. They had a blazing row about it--we've got the neighbour's corroboration for that--and she left, and he hasn't seen her since. Or, depending which theory you subscribe to, he bludgeoned her to death and disposed of the body sometime in the early hours of Sunday morning."
"So why do you think she's here?" I nodded over at the trees.
"Anonymous tip-off. Said if we want to find Melanie, we're to look around here." He scratched his nose. Somebody really ought to buy him some nose-hair clippers for Christmas, I thought, distracted for a moment by the bushy growths that sprouted unchecked from his nostrils. "Be pretty convenient for him, if he did do it. They lived just over there, in a council flat." Dave inclined his head towards the Dyke Hill estate, an unlovely but functional collection of houses and flats for the less-well-off of the village.
"Right, let's get started, then," I suggested. The longer I stayed out here, the worse my hip would ache. And I still had Mrs. L.'s blocked drain hanging over me, metaphorically speaking. "Have you got anything for me?"
It doesn't always work, but sometimes a picture of the person I'm looking for will help. Dave handed me a snapshot, taken on a sunny day down by the river. Melanie Porter was a pretty girl, although she'd never make the cover of Vogue, or even Nuts. She had a roundish face, chestnut hair and large, blue eyes. Her smile was a little crooked, which gave her a sympathetic air.
Suddenly I didn't want to find her. She looked like the sort of girl you hoped your brother would marry.
"There's this too." Dave handed me a carrier bag with a cardigan in it. "She was wearing it at work, the day she disappeared."
"I'm not a bloody sniffer dog." I took it anyway, in case it had some vibes for me. I pointedly didn't sniff it. I didn't feel any vibes, either. It was just a plain, slightly bobbly cardie.
"Oh, bloody hell--how did he find out about this?" I looked up from the photo to see Dave glaring at a tall, blond figure striding our way across the common. The new guy was big in a totally different way to Dave--his shoulders were broad, his legs were long and lean, and the bulk of his chest wasn't all due to the bodywarmer he was wearing over a thick sweater. Well, it was a bit nippy up here, as I was finding to my cost. I gave my hip another rub.
There was something vaguely familiar about the bloke. "Who is he?"
"Private bloody investigator. Hired by our girl's mum and dad. Private bloody pain in the bum, if you ask me. Ex-copper, couldn't hack it, so left to go private." He gave me a speculative look. "Course, you might get on all right with him. He's one of your lot, not that you'd know it to look at him."
"What, a plumber?" I asked innocently.
"Piss off. And he's not a bloody psychic either. He's queer, all right? And if I catch you two canoodling on police time, I'm taking pictures and bunging them on the Internet."
"I'll try and control my raging homo desires," I said as dryly as I could. "I've managed to keep my hands off you all these years, haven't I?" I added to wind him up.
Dave shuddered. I wasn't offended. I was too busy fighting off a shudder myself. Dave's a great bloke, and I love him dearly, but not like that. Dear God, never like that.
I had to admit I wouldn't mind a bit of canoodling where the PI was concerned. Dave's comment about his sexuality had piqued my interest, no doubt about it. As he approached, the sense of familiarity deepened, and I wondered if I'd seen him around somewhere. I was fairly sure we'd never hooked up or anything embarrassing like that. This guy was way out of my league--with a body like that, and a square-jawed, classically handsome face above it, he could take his pick, and he looked like he knew it too.
He nodded at Dave as he got up to where we were standing. "Southgate."
Dave didn't so much nod as curl his lip. "Morrison."
And it hit me where I knew him from. It was all I could do not to stagger back, winded from the blow.
Morrison. Phil Morrison.
The last time I'd seen him, we'd still been at school. It wasn't a time I looked back on with a nostalgic, rosy glow. My last name's Paretski, a legacy of my great-grandma's Polish stepdad, so naturally enough I was known for most of my school life as Parrotski. With the occasional Parrot-face or Polly thrown in for variety. I didn't exactly like it, but I couldn't say it really bothered me either. Although I did feel a bit envious of my older brother for having managed to get away with plain old Ski as a nickname.
Then Phil Morrison caught me looking at him in the changing room after PE--well, who wouldn't look? He was the fittest lad in the school--tall, blond, athletic--and he came up with the bright idea of calling me Poofski.
It caught on instantly. Soon, hardly a day went by without a joke at my expense. Games lessons were the worst. "Don't let Poofski follow you into the shower!" was a gag that never seemed to get old. My maths teacher, Mr. Collymore, even called me it once. I mean, I'm sure it was a genuine slip of the tongue, and he apologised afterwards, but they were laughing about that one in the classroom for days afterwards.
For all I know, they laughed about it in the staff room too.
And now he was here. Against all laws of probability or even human decency, apparently queer. And I was supposed to get used to it?
Morrison must have noticed my reaction, as he looked at me with his eyes narrowed. Suddenly, his face cleared, and a half smile flickered across his lips. "Parrotski," he said with grim satisfaction.
Well, it could have been worse. And I was long over being intimidated by him. "That's Paretski, if you don't mind," I snapped.
"You've changed a bit," he said cryptically.
"So have you." I tried to inject as much meaning as I could into those three words. I wanted him to know I knew his little secret. I wanted him to feel like the bloody hypocrite he was.
Zero reaction. Either it didn't work, or more likely, he just didn't give a monkey's what I thought about him.
Dave huffed impatiently. "If you don't mind me interrupting this touching reunion, we do have a body to look for. And Morrison? Unless you're here to hand deliver a map drawn by the murderer, your services are not required. This is an official police investigation, not a bloody free-for-all."
Morrison raised an eyebrow. "Oh? When did you join the force, Parrot--Paretski? Good thing for you they dropped the height restrictions."
My jaw tensed. "I'm just here as a consultant."
"Know a lot about hiding bodies, do you?" God, I'd forgotten just how much his snide tone got up my nose.
"Used to think about it all the time back in school," I said pointedly.
"Girls!" Dave broke in with an exasperated shout.
We both whirled to look at him, probably with identical hangdog expressions. "Sorry, Dave," I said, to establish myself firmly as the reasonable one. "Time to get started?"
"Too bloody right. Come on. And Morrison? If I find you trampling on the evidence, you'll be cooling your heels in jail, understood? As soon as we find anything--if we find anything--the family will be informed." Dave grabbed my elbow and more or less hustled me into the trees. We stopped once we were out of sight of the grassland. "Right--do your stuff."
I sighed. "What, after all that?"
"Oh, come off it, Tom. Don't play the prima donna with me, now. What was all that with you and Morrison, anyway? The short version, please. Young love gone bad?"
"Don't let him hear you say that," I warned. "Not unless you fancy pulling him in on a charge of assaulting an officer. We went to school together, that's all. We weren't exactly friends."
I jumped as a hand like a bag full of sausages clapped me briefly on the shoulder. "School bully, was he? I know his type. All bluster and no bloody bollocks."
Phil Morrison had bollocks, all right. I remembered that from the school showers. You might say I'd made something of a study of the subject. Didn't think Dave would appreciate me mentioning it, though. I took a deep breath, and tried to clear my mind.
Phil Morrison's bollocks kept creeping back in there, though. Sod it.