To read previous episodes, click on the links: Episode 1
Episode 2: be careful what you wish for
Perched at his desk, hands busy turning steel paperclips into straight pieces of wire, Nigel grew irritated by the buzzing of a couple of fat bluebottles beating themselves to death against the grimy window. “You got in, so why can’t you get out the same way?” he grumbled. “I can’t open the window for you.” He wished he could, both to rid the office of flies and to let in some fresh air, but they had long been sealed shut by grime and layers of sloppily applied gloss paint.
The printer continued to spit out copies of the photographs he’d taken during the previous night’s surveillance. There was a ‘ping’ and Nigel groaned to see a warning flash up on the laptop screen informing him that the printer was running out of ink. He just had to hope and pray that there would be enough to finish this job, because he didn’t have any more cartridges.
He loosened his tie, undid the top two buttons of his shirt, and wiped his face with a tissue. It shredded into tiny flecks on a patch of stubble on his left cheek, and, not for the first time, he wished he’d remembered to put a proper handkerchief in his pocket. Would this heatwave never end?
He uncapped a black felt-tipped pen to write the name ‘Bingley’ across the front of a grey folder. The pen had dried up. Less than half an hour into the day and he wondered if things could get any worse. A new felt pen he could just about afford, but print cartridges, essential for his job, were so blasted expensive. The water and electricity bills would arrive any day, as would the rent demand. His credit card was racking up ridiculous interest fees, and, worst of all, the monthly maintenance payment to his ex-wife was a week overdue.
“Damn it,” he said out loud to the room, “So much for a new start. I hate this heat, I hate this job, I hate not having any money-”
“But you love me, I hope.”
Nigel gave a rueful grin as his wife of one glorious year and one month strolled in, a vision of fresh loveliness in her strappy lime-green summer dress and white sandals, her dark-chocolate hair swept back in a glossy, swinging ponytail. Her flawless skin positively glowed, and if he weren’t so horribly sweaty he would cheer himself up by taking her slender body in his arms and kissing her oh-so-kissable lips.
“I bring iced lemonade to cool your fevered brow.”
“Are you going to throw it in my face, then?”
“Ah, wry humour! That’s good. You were looking so gloomy I was worried you were beyond help.” Amelia set the glass of lemonade down and watched Nigel spread out the newly printed photographs. The last one was a bit stripy.
“Mr. Bingley, I presume?”
Nigel nodded. “You know, it’s one thing having to take pictures like these, at least then I’m concentrating on getting the light and the camera angles right rather than on the subject, but it’s quite another having to study them in full-blown colour. This poor chap’s soon going to be in very deep doo-doo with the terrifying Mrs. Bingley.”
He shuddered as the image of Mrs. Bingley wormed its way into his head, her flabby face a deep, mottled red, chins wobbling with indignation, her mean, mud-brown eyes piggy with righteous rage.
“Still,” said Amelia, picking up one of the pictures, “it looks like he had a good time last night. She’s a stunning woman, I must say; goodness knows how she can even move in those heels and, and … goodness, what is that she’s wearing? I bet she charges quite a bit for her services.”
“She does. And that’s how Mrs. Bingley got suspicious, because she checks the bank statements and noticed how much cash was being taken out every Tuesday.”
Truth was, Nigel felt rather sorry for Mr. Bingley, because his wife truly was a frightful woman, with no social graces whatsoever. However, it was Mrs. Bingley who was paying him and he desperately needed the money, so he gathered up the evidence of Mr. Bingley’s adulterous escapade, scribbled a quick note about hours worked on the case, and put everything in the file.
The phone warbled and Amelia reached across him to answer it, pressing the loudspeaker button so Nigel could hear both sides of the conversation.
In a bright, musical voice that made him smile, she said, “Good morning, Hellion-Rees Detective Agency, how can we help you?”
A woman answered with equal brightness, “Good morning, dear, it’s Dora Dash. I’m just calling to tell you that you can stop following my husband. This time I caught him red-handed myself!”
“Oh, Dora, what happened?”
She chuckled, “The silly sod had too much to drink at the Hunt Ball and bragged to everyone about his latest conquest. I had to save face, of course, so I hit him over the head with a champagne bottle – vintage Dom Perignon, naturally. He promised never to stray again and to replace the practically priceless Aubusson rug that was covered in blood from the gash on his forehead, and I get a brand spanking new Mercedes.”
Nigel rolled his eyes as Amelia replied, “Um, well, we’re glad that’s all sorted out, Dora.”
“Now be sure and send me your bill, and I’ll be in touch the next time some daft floozy catches the ever-roving eye of Mr. Dash. I hope it won’t be too long, because I need to replace my entire wardrobe. Goodbye now, dear, and do please give my warmest regards to your husband.”
Nigel leaned forward, wincing as his shirt stuck to the back of his chair then peeled away to damply and unpleasantly reaffix itself to his skin. “We really needed more money from that one, Amelia, we’ve got nothing else coming in. It’s just getting worse and worse.”
“I know. But Dora will settle up quickly, she always does, and she’ll probably include a small retainer for next time, so it’s not a complete loss.”
Nigel pushed both hands through his hair, and blinked with irritation as it flopped forward again into his eyes. “Do you remember when we first met Dora? She swept in here, swathed in furs and jewellery, that tiny little dog peeking out of her handbag, stopping dead in her tracks because she hadn’t known we’d taken over the business.”
“I’ll never forget it. You know, I asked her why she didn’t divorce her husband if he couldn’t be faithful for longer than a week.”
“Oh? You didn’t tell me. What did she say?”
“She said that she had no intention of leaving him, only of enjoying herself with his money. I was appalled at her mercenary attitude, but she said-” Amelia paused while she puffed out her chest and raised her chin before continuing in a voice that was a perfect rendering of Dora’s breathy, little-girl voice, “It may sound callous, my dear, but it’s all a game with me. When I was young love broke my heart and poverty almost broke my spirit, so I decided that it’s easier not to be in love and to have lots and lots of money. You know that song that says diamonds are a girl’s best friend? Well, believe me, sweet girl, they certainly are, and I’ve got lots of them!”
Nigel laughed, but he couldn’t stop himself giving a wistful glance at his wife’s engagement ring, its tiny diamond chip the one and only precious stone she owned. It couldn’t even begin to compare with the lowliest of the many rings that adorned Dora’s fingers, nor with the enormous square-cut emerald chosen by his first wife even before he had proposed. His shoulders drooped and he said, “Perhaps you should divorce me and marry a rich man.”
“Oh, Nigel, really! I won’t even grace that stupid comment with an answer.” She marched out, closing the door firmly behind her.
Nigel knew he’d have to apologise. Amelia hated it when he went on about how he couldn’t give her the things he’d been able to give Tansy. He knew absolutely that she loved him regardless, and he was damned lucky to have her. But just for a minute, maybe two, he wanted to wallow in self-pity. He pictured Dora Dash swanning around the showroom picking out her new car, the salesman fawning over her, as she demanded every extra gadget and gewgaws available. Maybe even gold cup holders and a mink-lined bed for her puffball of a dog.
He’d had a Mercedes once. Silver. With dark grey leather seats, walnut dashboard, rain-sensitive headlight wipers, a roof that folded majestically up and down at the touch of a button …
He stopped the thoughts in their tracks. What was the point in going over what he no longer had? What was the loss of a mere car compared to the gain of the most wonderful woman in the world, who in about seven and a half months time would be the mother of his first child?
Shame-faced, he went to Amelia’s desk and said he was sorry.
She smiled and his heart skipped a beat as she laced her slender fingers with his. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed each finger and the underside of her wrist. Her skin smelled of vanilla.
“Do you have any idea how much I love you?”
She nodded. “Yes, Nigel, I do. And you know I love you too. More than anything. But you really hate this business, don’t you? I know you thought it would be more about searching for missing persons than chasing after cheaters and thieves. If there’s anything else you’d rather do, you know I’ll always support you.”
“But what else can I do? The only career I want is closed to me, at least until Tansy remarries and her father stops using his money and influence to keep me out of property development. I’m an architect, Amelia, I want to design buildings and then see them get built.”
Amelia wiped the bits of tissue from Nigel’s cheek and affectionately brushed his floppy fringe out of his eyes. “Well, according to the gossip columns, your ex-wife has someone very firmly in mind, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, but we’ve been there twice before, remember? No, I’ll believe I’m rid of her when she actually has another man’s wedding ring on her finger. Just think, Amelia, I’d be able to get a job that would actually pay the bills. And there would be no more maintenance payments!”
As if on cue, the door crashed open and there was a cheerful “Hellooooooooo there!” as a large man barrelled into the office, followed by two even larger men in brown overalls.
“Greetings from the ex-wife, Nige, me old mate! You’re a week overdue; I don’t suppose you have the money?”
This was a monthly ritual that always played out the same way. Nigel shrugged and the big man shook his head in mock sadness. “Dear oh dear! So what shall we take in lieu this time, eh?” He looked around the tiny reception area, and then signalled to his cohorts to follow him into Nigel’s office.
Nigel and Amelia stayed where they were until the men trooped out again, the burly man wishing them a cheery goodbye until same time next month, the other two grunting under the weight of Nigel’s desk.
Standing together in the doorway of Nigel’s office Amelia said, “We could always bring in the kitchen table.”
“And, what, eat off the floor?” With a resigned sigh, Nigel dropped to his knees and started to gather up the files, papers and general detritus from his desk drawers that the men had strewn all over the grubby, worn carpet. The laptop had been unplugged and lay in one corner with the printer next to it, the digital camera perched on top. Nigel supposed he should be grateful that they could take nothing that would prevent him doing his job.
“This is ridiculous! I can’t keep on like this, we’ll soon have nothing left. She only takes it out of spite. And it’s high time we had a bit of cash to spend on ourselves.” He stood up and took Amelia in his arms. “I want us to have a decent house, Amelia.” He raised her left hand “I want to give you a proper engagement ring.”
Amelia laughed and said brightly, “Oh Nigel, all that will come in time, you know it will. And don’t you dare try and replace my precious ring, do you hear me?”
She covered it up well, but Nigel knew that she was dreadfully disappointed that the aftershocks of his short, disastrous marriage to Tansy just kept on rumbling, affecting her as much as it did him. And soon they would be a family of three.
He sighed. “We won’t be free of her until she finds herself another husband, and she seems in no hurry to find one, does she? Two broken engagements in less than a year! How many more, I wonder?” Nigel pushed his fringe out of his eyes; it flopped straight back down.
His ex-wife was ruthless and her father even more so. Nigel had begged for a clean break settlement, but he could not afford to hire a lawyer savvy enough to take on his father-in-law’s legal team and win. When they’d been married, Nigel had had to work longer and longer hours designing exclusive health complexes and mansions for multi-millionaires to earn the money to pay for his wife’s extravagant spending. When he’d discovered that Tansy had been unfaithful to him with her personal trainer, their gardener and the young chap who mucked out the stables where she kept her horse, he had, with some relief, demanded a divorce. She’d agreed on the condition that Nigel allowed her to divorce him on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour so that her reputation would be untainted. If he’d only known what giving Tansy her own way meant for his future, he would have fought her tooth and nail, and told her doting daddy the truth. He would still have lost his job, most likely, but his integrity would have been intact.
The only good thing to come out of the whole mess was Amelia, who had been his PA at the time. She had known the whole sorry story and had resigned in support of Nigel on the day he was fired. They’d ended up in the nearest pub together, two cardboard boxes of their personal effects from their desks on the floor at their feet. It had been her cousin who’d sold his PI business to Nigel, assuring Nigel that he’d make pots of money just like he had. However he’d made his money, Nigel soon learned, it hadn’t been through honest means. In the early days after he’d taken over and had his own name painted on the door, Nigel had had to turn away some very shady people. The cousin, meanwhile, had fled to a country that didn’t have extradition arrangements.
He’d had some very frightening moments, but those were forgotten every time Amelia popped in to see how he was getting on. He had eventually won her heart, and for that he’d be eternally grateful.
He forced his mind back to the present and looked at her. “I’m so sorry, Amelia, I seem to have made rather a mess of things.”
“Oh, don’t go all maudlin on me.” She kissed him and stroked his fringe out of his eyes. “We’ll get there, you’ll see. Now, I’m going to fetch a pair of scissors and cut that blasted fringe of yours.”
Nigel picked up a paper clip to unbend while Amelia went to fetch a pair of scissors. Truth was, in career terms, he was broke, trapped, bored and terrified. He loathed having to follow adulterous husbands and wives with his camera and recording equipment at the ready, writing reports about their seedy goings-on. This rundown office and his second-hand suits and worn out shoes depressed him. Not being able to buy for Amelia all the things he’d so easily and thoughtlessly bought for Tansy depressed him even more. And now there was a baby on way, and he was terrified that he’d fall short as a father just as he had in everything else. Tansy had taken everything from him, everything, and even though she didn’t need a bean from him she was still determined to bleed him dry.
Amelia returned and told Nigel to sit down. As she snipped at his fringe, Nigel closed his eyes tight and said, “I just wish something would happen to take us away from all this.”
Episode 3: introducing the good citizens of Ham-Under-Lymfold
I hope you enjoyed this episode. My dream is to see this story made into a TV series, so I’d really appreciate your ‘likes’ and comments.