Read Closer Still Online

Authors: Jo Bannister

Closer Still (3 page)

After Deacon left it was past noon. Brodie weighed up the chances of someone coming by in the next hour to offer her a valuable commission, and deciding they were slim she shut up shop. She thought she'd take Daniel out to lunch and quiz him discreetly about all the mistakes he was making with her business. She didn't know she was as discreet as a drill sergeant faced with a platoon of raw recruits.
Daniel had company. Brodie heard a woman's voice as she climbed the steps to his front door. (Extending the little house had done nothing to regularise its odd layout. Though there was now a second bedroom on the ground floor, the living room was still on the first floor so you had to climb in order to knock at the door.)
In ruthlessly honest moments, Brodie acknowledged that she had ambivalent feelings about Daniel. He was her best friend, her twin soul; he was not and could never be her lover, she simply couldn't see him in that light; at the same time, her heart refused to set him free to find someone who might feel about him the way he felt about Brodie. So when she found him alone – in this context a baby doesn't count – with an unexpected woman, she
felt a surge of something bilious which she declined to identify but which anyone else would have recognised as jealousy. She gave a perfunctory knock and didn't wait for an invitation before walking in.
It didn't appear to be a secret tryst she was interrupting. Daniel was cradling the baby on his knee. The woman was holding a pack of frozen peas to her cheek.
‘Brodie.' He didn't even sound surprised. Experience had taught him that, if something was afoot, it wasn't going to be afoot for long before Brodie became involved.
‘Daniel.' He heard the brittle note that implies the words
, You want to tell me what's going on here?
He edged up on the sofa to make room for her. ‘Ms Stretton had a bit of a shock. I brought her in for a coffee. Faith, this is my friend and Jonathan's mum, Mrs Brodie Farrell.'
Faith lowered the peas long enough to nod a greeting; and Brodie, returning it, couldn't see anything to justify a cold compress. ‘Anything I can do?' she asked coolly.
‘Thanks, but no,' said Faith. ‘My son's picking me up in a few minutes. Daniel thought I shouldn't drive. I'll come back for the car later.'
‘Yes? Fine,' said Brodie dismissively. Faith Stretton looked at her in surprise, but didn't care enough to pursue it.
Before any of them had to break the awkward silence there was the sound from outside of the shingle shifting under approaching feet. A man's feet: Daniel had lived here long enough to know from the chiming of the tiny stones displaced. The iron steps rang too, then a large fist was rapping on the door.
Daniel gave Jonathan to his mother and went to open it. ‘Mr Stretton? Come in, your mother's in here.'
Before she rose to meet him, Brodie noticed that Faith Stretton not only stopped nursing the pack of peas but dropped it to the back of the sofa and pulled a cushion over it. ‘It's all right, love, I'm fine. I just had …a bit of an accident. I'll tell you on the way home.'
When he saw Stretton, Daniel understood what he'd heard on the Promenade. Faith's son was Eurasian, a strong broad-shouldered man in his mid-twenties, as tall as Brodie with fine dark hair and chocolate-coloured eyes. A good-looking man, though right now he looked anxious as well. ‘An accident? In the car?'
‘Not exactly.' Faith linked her arm through her son's and steered him back towards the steps. ‘Please, take me home. I've imposed on my Good Samaritan long enough.' She cast Daniel a grateful smile. ‘Thanks again. It would have been even more unpleasant but for you. I'll see you again, I hope?'
Daniel gave an amiable shrug. ‘I'm always around.'
He and Brodie went out onto the iron gallery from which he did his star-gazing to see the Strettons off. Probably before they were out of earshot Brodie demanded, ‘Well, what have I missed? Who gave her the shiner?'
But Daniel made her wait until they were back inside with the door closed before he told her.
Her first instinct was to try to connect this event to what had gone before. But the closer she peered, the more it looked like coincidence. An odd coincidence, to be sure, but it's the nature of coincidence to look like a
mind at work. The likeliest explanation was simply that Joe Loomis was a bad man with more than one enemy. That was probably the only connection between Deacon's inquiry and Faith Stretton's bruised face.
In particular, Brodie saw no reason to read into this new episode any danger to herself and her baby. ‘He might go and throw stones at Faith Stretton's window. He might even come and throw them at yours. I can't see why he'd throw them at mine.'
‘No,' said Daniel slowly. He was playing the action again at the back of his eyes. ‘But he recognised Jonathan.'
At that Brodie felt a little stab of anxiety. But it was maternal instinct in overdrive. So what if Joe Loomis saw Deacon's baby on the Promenade? He could hardly hold the infant to blame for Faith's outburst. If Jonathan was in any danger from Loomis – and Brodie didn't think he was, but if he was – it was because Jack Deacon was after him, not because the child was passing when an old flame made a scene.
She forced a gruff little laugh. ‘He must think he's being haunted by white-eyed babies. Well – not for much longer.'
Daniel looked at her with compassion. She had the child tucked up in his buggy again, ready to leave. As she bent over him, Daniel could almost see the dome of protectiveness she spread over him like a magnetosphere. He said softly, ‘It's all right to grieve, you know.'
Brodie didn't glance at him. But for a second she froze, and the room froze around her. Her lips quivered, then firmed. ‘I know. But not yet. If I deal with this as a practical
problem, I can get through it. I'll grieve later. When he's safe.' Then she straightened up with a bright, brittle smile. ‘Lunch? My treat.'
 
Occasionally people wandered into The Rose in Rye Lane looking for a white wine spritzer and a pork pie. Mostly they left quite quickly. From the outside it looked a good copy of an ancient seafarers' inn, all black oak and tarry barrels and enough dust for Blind Pew to have lost his Black Spot in. But actually, it was all real. The oak was real, the age was real, the dust was real, even the disreputable customers leaning on the bar and the ferrety Wally Briggs serving them were all the genuine article. The Rose wasn't expensively modelled on a set from
Treasure Island
. Downstairs it was exactly what it appeared, a dark and dirty old pub with a clientele to match. Upstairs it was a brothel. The point about the painted sign above the door was not that it depicted a clipper's figurehead but that it showed a buxom young woman parting company with her chemise.
The sign was probably the best thing about The Rose. It wasn't even the best cathouse in Dimmock. The décor was grimy, the drinks were sour and the girls were tired. The place really only had two things to recommend it. One was a sea view from the front rooms upstairs. The other was a decent snooker table.
Joe Loomis was a good snooker player. If he'd wanted – if he hadn't opted for work that paid better and didn't require hours of practice – he could have turned professional. His first job had been as a bouncer in a pool hall, and he'd
promised himself a decent table when he had somewhere to put it. He preferred snooker to pool because he thought it was classier.
He was playing tonight. He'd been sitting alone in his office at the back, bringing his books up to date – he kept two sets of accounts: one for the tax man, one for himself – and brooding darkly on Dimmock CID's most unreasonable determination to restrain his trade. But Wally had put his head round the door to say a couple of punters were playing for money, and Joe never had so much that he didn't want more. Within ten minutes the first fifty-pound note had changed hands.
The third fifty-pound note was just about to change hands when the door of The Rose opened and shut, the bar fell suddenly quiet, and someone said, ‘It's closing time.'
Wally checked the clock above the optics. ‘No, there's another ten …'
‘It's closing time,' Jack Deacon said again, a weight in his voice like wet sand in a sock; and as a man the customers rose and headed obediently for the door. Every one of them knew him. Most of them had had their collars felt at some point in the last ten years. In normal circumstances this did not incline them to do as he asked; but there was a timbre in his voice and a steely look in his eye that warned them these were not normal circumstances. They drank up and left, and only one muttered, ‘Catch you later, Joe,' over his shoulder as he went.
Where five minutes before a dozen men had been drinking, now there were Joe Loomis and Jack Deacon
and Wally Briggs. And this didn't concern Wally Briggs.
Deacon came straight to the point. ‘You've been bothering my family, Joe.'
Loomis wasn't surprised to see him. He'd meant for what he said to Brodie to get back to Deacon, and he'd known Deacon wouldn't take it well. But he was gambling that, after Deacon had done the shouting and stamping around required of a man in his position, he'd remember that his partner and child were still out there and so was Joe, and he'd back off. An armed truce: no harm, no foul. Joe Loomis knew a lot about men like himself. He didn't know much about men like Deacon.
Loomis thought he might be in for a bloody nose. He thought it was worth it if afterwards Deacon decided to harass someone else. He thought that Deacon coming here showed his plan was working, and all he had to worry about now was getting through the next five minutes with his front teeth intact.
He tried for injured innocence. ‘I haven't been bothering anybody, Mr Deacon. I bumped into Mrs Farrell at the hospital. I admired her baby. Where's the harm in that?'
Here's a tip: don't feign innocence in front of an irritable senior detective. They have enough trouble believing in genuine innocence. Deacon's brow lowered like a portcullis. Loomis had to remind himself that they were in his pub, and if he shouted two or three men would storm in here. Knowing that should have made him feel safer than it did.
Deacon's voice was so low that it rumbled – like an elephant's, or the voice of a storm. ‘You know, I know and
Mrs Farrell knows exactly what you had in mind. Don't insult my intelligence by pretending it was anything other than a threat.'
Loomis had the sense to keep quiet. He didn't need to speak. His point had been made.
After a moment the detective nodded. It seemed his business was all but done. He let his attention stray to the snooker table. ‘You any good at this?'
‘Not bad, Mr Deacon,' said Loomis modestly. ‘Fancy a game?'
Deacon shook his heavy head. ‘No patience with little balls. I used to play rugby, but I had to stop.'
Loomis pretended sympathy. ‘The knees?'
Deacon nodded. ‘In a way. I kept breaking other people's.'
Loomis, too, knew when he was being threatened. ‘I thought there were rules against that …'
‘Oh, there are,' agreed Deacon. ‘I'm a big believer in rules. No low punches, no high tackles – and no bringing people's families into professional disputes.' He looked Loomis full in the eye. ‘Don't do that again, Joe. If you did, I'd have to do something about it.'
Loomis wriggled a little shrug that was meant,
I don't know what you're talking about, really I don't, but if I did I expect I'd agree with every word of it.
‘I'm sorry if there's been some misunderstanding …'
Deacon smiled. He didn't do it very often, and this is why – it frightened children, it frightened villains and it set dogs barking half a street away. It wasn't a nice smile. ‘No misunderstanding, Joe. We understand one another
perfectly. Oh.' He reached for the cue Loomis had left lying on the table. ‘I know one thing about snooker.'
‘Yes? What?'
It wasn't that long since Deacon gave up playing rugby. He could still move astonishingly fast if the incentive was there. He had his arm round Loomis's throat, pinning the smaller man to his bulky body, and the tip of the cue up his right nostril before Loomis realised what he intended. He tried to yell but couldn't manage more than a strangled squawk. Even someone listening at the keyhole wouldn't have heard it.
‘I know', said Deacon deliberately, ‘that the tip of a snooker cue, if propelled with enough force, will go straight up someone's nose into their brain. At which point they stop worrying about minor details like whether they'll be celebrating Christmas in Parkhurst.'
Joe Loomis was too scared even to struggle. Logically he knew that Dimmock's senior detective was not going to commit cold-blooded murder in the public bar of the victim's own hostelry. But his instincts told him that if something happened to startle Deacon, or if someone jogged his elbow, Loomis was just centimetres from being spoon-fed for the rest of his life. He froze rigid in Deacon's embrace. He could feel the big man's heart thumping.

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