“Oh, what now?” Jack Booker positively whined, as the car he was driving hiccupped once before cutting out entirely. He barely had enough momentum left to pull it over to the curb before it came to rest. He tried the ignition once, twice, to no avail, and smacked the steering wheel in frustration.
“What’s happened?” Kate Swift inquired from the passenger seat, perfectly groomed eyebrows knitted in puzzled annoyance.
“The car’s broken down,” Jack muttered, casting his eyes over the dials on the dashboard in search of some sort of warning light, or any other indicator that would let him know what was wrong.
“Yes, I can see that,” Kate shot back tersely. “Why has it broken down?”
“As if Jack’s going to know.” Gloria O’Grady, stuffed in the back seat as per usual, shifted the bundle of feathers in her hands and met her cellmate-cum-employer’s gaze glare for glare. “He forgets which way to put the CD in the stereo half the time.”
“Thanks,” Jack muttered sarcastically, undoing his safety belt. “If you’re such a technical genius, how about getting out and helping me figure out what’s wrong?”
“For once, he’s gotten it right,” Kate quipped, jerking her head at Gloria. “Come on. Time to put those ill-gotten street smarts of yours to the test.”
“What about Renata?” Gloria reminded, and the bundle of feathers in her arms quacked in agreement.
Kate eyed the animal with distaste. “I’m sure the duck will be fine in the interim. Leave her in the back. Crack a window or something. If we’re lucky, she’ll find her way back to the park.”
“She doesn’t mean that,” Gloria cooed to the duck, kissing its downy head before setting it carefully onto the seat beside her and turning to get out of the car. “All right, let’s see what’s doin’.”
Jack already had the bonnet up and was surveying the interior of the vehicle in dismay. Gloria joined him, and together they pondered the malfunctioning machinery with identical frowns of concentration.
“While you two work that out,” Kate said, breaking their focus, “I’m going in to get out of the sun.” She cast a worried glance upward towards the bright blue sky. “I’m very fair. I burn almost instantly.”
Gloria scrunched her face up incredulously. “Yeah? And I’m dark and swarthy, am I?”
“You’re Australian, darling,” Kate said matter-of-factly. “Your ancestors were built for sweating it out in intense heat.”
“Only because you sent us down under in the first place!”
“I do know my history, Gloria, and that never would have happened had previous generations of O’Gradys abided by the law.”
“And yours did?” Gloria snorted. “Mine probably got done for murdering your great-great grandmother, and right now, I don’t blame them.”
“Oh, hush, darling. You’re supposed to be helping Jack.”
“Nice of you to remember I’m here,” came Jack’s voice, muffled, from beneath the car’s bonnet.
“Of course I do,” Kate placated, patting him encouragingly on the shoulder. “I’ll be in the pub. Let me know when you get it working.”
“Oh, piss off,” Gloria snapped, and Kate did just that.
The pub was a fairly nice establishment, though all but empty at ten in the morning, too early for the lunch crowd, and much too early for the revellers or the lost souls looking to drown their sorrows. Kate made for the bar, calling out as she did so. “Hello? My car’s broken down out front. Do you mind if I wait here while it’s fixed?”
“That depends,” came a voice from below the bar. “Do you plan on waiting with a drink?”
Kate bristled. “I’m not planning on staying for long. And anyway, it’s not as though I’m taking up a seat for a paying customer.”
“I think it’s my job to decide that, don’t you?” the voice replied, getting nearer as its owner rose to his feet. “Why don’t you--?” The words died on the pub landlord’s lips when he saw her face. Instantly his own broke into a huge grin of recognition.
“As I live and breathe! Kate Swift!”
Kate returned the smile, unable to believe her eyes. “Charlie Doyle! It’s been ages!”
They embraced warmly over the bar, then pulled back to scan old friends with older eyes. “You’re looking well,” Kate opined, taking in the salt and pepper curly hair, and mischievous sparkle in the blue eyes.
“Not as well as you. You, Kate Swift, get more beautiful by the year.”
“Charlie...” Kate blushed and smiled wider. “You old flatterer. I’ll bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Just you. And my wife. I don’t dare press my luck beyond that,” Charlie quipped.
Kate sat up excitedly. “You’re married? How lovely.”
“Not for the first time,” Charlie reminded wearily. “You know my track record. But this time, with Donna, I’m hoping it sticks. We’re thinking of trying for a baby.”
“Oh, how wonderful,” Kate enthused. “Best of luck.”
“Thanks. Anyway, you said your car was out of commission?”
“Yes,” Kate confirmed, turning on her stool so she could look out the front window and see how Jack and Gloria were getting on. “We were on our way to some journalists’ conference, and took a wrong turn. Then the car stopped working. I haven’t the foggiest idea what’s wrong, but I’m sure they’ll sort it out.”
Charlie squinted at the view, took in Gloria shouting at Jack, who was flailing uselessly at the inner workings of the car with a rag as steam poured out from beneath the bonnet. He thought about saying something about ringing a garage, but Kate’s expression indicated she was unfazed by the whole display, and he kept silent. “Is that your daughter?” he asked instead, nodding at the girl as she dashed for the boot to retrieve the repair kit.
“Good heavens, no,” Kate bristled, turning back to face him. “Do I look like the maternal type? And anyway, I’m much too young to be anyone’s mother. No, she’s my Australian.”
“I suppose every home should have one,” Charlie said wryly, knowing that there was more to the story, but unwilling to ask unless Kate should volunteer. Luckily for him, she did.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Kate grumbled. “I picked her up in prison, the natural habitat for Australians. She just sort of...followed me home when I got out.” She seemed to realise what she had just said, bit her lip. “I suppose you read about the trial in the papers?”
“It was a bit hard to miss,” Charlie agreed, but his smile was kind. “It wasn’t right, Duncan leaving you holding the bag like that. I knew he could be a selfish bastard, but I never thought he’d stoop to letting his wife take the rap for his doings.”
“Yes, well, neither did I, but it seems that Dunc was very good at only showing you the sides of himself that he wanted you to see,” Kate said bitterly. “I’m sure I still don’t know half of what he got up to, but the adultery and missing money were revealing enough on their own.”
Charlie’s shoulders sagged. “Oh, Katie, I’m so sorry. I feel bad that I used to drink and play cards with him now.”
Kate snorted. “The drink and the cards were the least of his problems. It was the women and the illegal deals that were his undoing.”
“All the same, I wish you hadn’t had to go through all that.” He flushed slightly. “I mean, I don’t know if you ever noticed, but I had a bit of a thing for you back in the day, back in the ‘80s when we used to mix in the same circles. If you hadn’t been with Duncan, I would’ve tried my luck, but you only had eyes for him.”
“Oh, Charlie.” Kate covered his hand with hers. “I’m sorry. I always liked you. I probably would have been better off if you’d stepped in. I did notice you, but Dunc was very good at drawing everyone into his orbit, and sadly that included me.” She quirked a smile at him. “We would have been fabulous together, darling.”
“Do you think so?”
“Without question,” Kate assured, smile coy, and winked.
“If I’d known that and what he was going to do to you, I would have taken you up on that,” Charlie muttered. “Too bad he’s not around so I could sock him one. You must want to every day.”
Kate shrugged in a way meant to convey that she didn’t care, but didn’t quite pull it off. “He was a bastard, and I’ve come to live with that. He’s been gone seven years now, and I haven’t heard a peep from him, or found the missing money. Happily, I’ve been able to let go of both.”
“And yet you still wear a wedding ring,” Charlie observed, nodding at her left hand.
“What?” Kate followed his gaze, chuckled. “Oh, that’s not for Duncan,” she explained, nodding over her shoulder to where Gloria was now cleaning motor oil out of Jack’s eye. “That’s Jack Booker, ace reporter, out there, and he’s made an honest woman out of me. Or at the very least only mildly disgraceful.”
Charlie snapped his fingers in realisation. “I thought I recognised the face. Didn’t he sell out his source, and get you thrown in the nick?”
Kate winced, but smiled in spite of herself. “Yes, well, it wasn’t the most auspicious of introductions, but neither of us were at our best at the time. He was washed up, and I was looking for Duncan. I went to him for information, and we managed to start over.”
“No hard feelings?”
“Not really. Jack and I married three years ago,” she explained. “Of course, we were together long before that, but I was still legally married. I couldn’t exactly find Duncan and divorce him. We had to petition a judge to have him declared legally dead. We have a friend in the police department, Bobsy, who pulled some strings for us. He said he’d gladly do it if it meant I safely off the market.” Kate chuckled at the memory. “Poor man. He still pines for me, you know. But he was very helpful. Anyway, I’m fairly certain Duncan is dead, or at the very least so deep underground he may as well be. Mind you, I might wake up one morning and find him at my door, and me with two husbands.” She laughed throatily.
“If anyone could handle bigamy, it’s you, Katie.”
“Don’t put ideas in my head, Charlie. You own a pub now. I may press you into service.”
“Oh, no, I’m not ending up the subject of your husband’s next article. I’ve read his columns in The Daily Post. They’re very good.”
“Aren’t they?” Kate enthused. “It’s amazing what the man can do with words when he’s sober and motivated. The things he spits out of that computer of his, I never would have imagined coming out of that gin-soaked brain 7 years ago. Now that he’s become a teetotaller, it seems he can write on almost anything. It keeps us comfortable, let us hang onto the house, and kept Daddy in sherry.”
Charlie chuckled in disbelief. “Sir Horace? Is he still around?”
Kate cringed. “In spades. We had to take him in when we lost the family pile, but even though we’ve clawed it back, he can’t possibly live there on his own now. Gloria looks after him when she’s not out playing clubs.”
Charlie arched an eyebrow. “I hope she’s singing.”
“Of course she’s singing,” Kate said brusquely. “What else could she do onstage with those thick calves? She has a little back-up band, and they make the rounds at the clubs, casinos, and the like. They have a small recording contract, which they managed to attain through a friend of mine in the industry, I hasten to add. Apparently someone actually buys their CDs. But she won’t let me sing back-up.” Kate’s mouth twisted in annoyance, and Charlie tried very hard to keep a straight face. Kate Swift had many qualities, but singing was not one of them. He remembered one very drunken night when she had demonstrated that fact exceptionally well, but he knew better than to mention it.
Kate was looking at him now, and he realised he wasn’t doing a very job of keeping from laughing, and was probably going to pay for it. It was then that the pub door opened, and Jack and Gloria trundled in. Jack had somehow managed to get motor oil all over his top coat, and behind his ear. Gloria’s attire, in contrast, was flawless, but her sour expression told the world that the repair job had not exactly gone smoothly.
“Well?” Kate said expectantly, looking them both up and down. “Did you fix the car?”
“We did,” Jack confirmed, removing a handkerchief from his pocket and futilely trying to wipe away the worst of the grease. “We’ll still probably have to take it a garage, though.”
“More like I fixed it,” Gloria countered. “And then I had to fix Jack. He got his tie caught in the engine.”
“Oh, dear,” Kate murmured, regarding the shredded remains of the silk tie. “And that was my last anniversary present to you.”
“You sure?” Gloria scrunched up her face in thought. “You get him a tie every year. Maybe that was the one from 1999.”
“Oh, never mind,” Kate dismissed, turning to Charlie. “Listen, this is Charlie Doyle, an old friend of mine. He owns this pub. Charlie, this is my husband, Jack Booker, and Gloria O’
Grady, the Australian.”
“Kate’s so good at boiling people down to one, all-purpose label,” Gloria said sarcastically, as she took Charlie’s hand. “Nice to meet ya.”
“Charlie Doyle,” Jack repeated, and Charlie could see the telltale signs of jealousy in his eyes, could feel the tension in his handshake. “You and Kate knew each other well?”
“Oh, you know, just hung about as mates,” Charlie said cheerily, hoping to steer him onto the right path. “Duncan took up most of her time.”
“Oh.” Jack looked relieved at that, knew that Duncan between the sheets meant no Charlie to join her. “Well, then, always nice to meet an old friend of Kate’s.”
“And lovely to meet you, Mr. Booker. I’ve read your columns, and it’s an honour to have you in my pub. If your wife hadn’t told me you were trying to stay sober, I’d offer you a pint on the house.”
Jack looked hopeful. “On the house?” He looked from Kate to Gloria. “Well, he seems nice, and he is an old friend of yours. It would be rude to refuse.”
“No, no, no!” Kate and Gloria chorused. “You’ve only just had a pay raise. The last thing we need is a setback,” Kate added.
“Besides, you have to drive,” Gloria reminded.
“Why can’t you drive?” Jack protested.
“Someone has to sit in the back and look after the duck,” Gloria snapped back.
Charlie’s eyebrows shot up. “Duck?” he repeated incredulously.
“Renata the third,” Gloria supplied.
The eyebrows climbed higher. “The third?”
Kate rolled her eyes in exasperation. “The first one escaped the dinner table, and they sort of ...spawned, after that.” She flicked her hands at the wrist in an expression of disgust.
“Why can’t you drive, Kate?” Jack wanted to know, still fixated on his free drink.
“You know a lady such as myself never drives unless absolutely necessary. And you wanting to get plastered is not absolutely necessary.”
“Yeah, right,” Jack muttered sarcastically.
“Oh, don’t blame me for not wanting to spend the rest of my days with a useless, blithering drunk!” Kate snapped.
Charlie was taken aback. “That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?”
“Nonsense,” Kate dismissed. “We speak that way to one another all the time. Force of habit. But it’s meant affectionately. For example, when I call Gloria a born working class criminal with the manners of a boar, I mean it in the most affectionate of ways.” Kate elbowed the younger woman in the ribs. “Don’t I, Gloria?”
Gloria pasted a smile on her face. “Yeah, sure. I mean, Kate seems like an ancient, stuck up bitch with a pole up her arse and the morals of a mercenary, but she’s actually got a heart of gold.”
Kate’s smile, which had started out genuine, gradually became brittle as Gloria rattled off her list of adjectives, but she refused to be beaten. “You see?” she told Charlie through tightly-clenched teeth. “We don’t mean any of it. And on that note, I think it’s time we went.”
Jack glanced at his watch. “Gah! You’re right. We’ll miss the keynote address if we don’t get a move on.”
“Right, because that’d be a tragedy,” Gloria said dyly, following Jack as he started out the door. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Doyle.”
“Yeah, nice to meet you. Lovely, uh, pub!” Jack called out distractedly, waving at Charlie, and then turning the gesture into a beckoning motion for Kate. “Come on, come on!”
“All right, all right!” Kate shouted back, sliding reluctantly off her stool. “I’m coming.” She watched them exit the pub, sighed, and turned back to Charlie. “I’m afraid I simply must go. Jack’s giving his first presentation, and he needs me there for moral support.”
“I understand,” Charlie said kindly, giving her hand a squeeze. “It’s been nice seeing you again, Katie. We’ll have to meet up over a drink sometime, catch up properly.”
“I’d like that,” Kate agreed, then, on a whim, leaned in and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “Good-bye, Charlie.”
“Good-bye, Kate.” He watched her leave the pub, watched her climb into the car, and sweep out of his life just as quickly as she had swept back in. Then he shook his head, left the past behind, and turned his mind to the lunchtime preparations.