They still had careers advisors when I was at school, but I daresay the only people who wistfully lament their passing are those who never were subject to their ministrations.

    No, that’s unfair. Probably a great many of them gave excellent advice, I just never seemed to hear about any, though I never did find out if the story about the person who said he wanted to work with animals being told he could work in an abattoir was true or not, and it’s not very often I don’t find something out.

    Our careers advisor was called Mr Shannon, and he sported a jacket with leather elbow patches and an air of paternal chumminess. 

    “So, Francesca,” he said, “And what career do you have in mind?” I suppose at least he didn’t ask what I wanted to do when I grew up.

    “I want to be a private detective,” I said. It wasn’t meant to shock. It was just the truth. He didn’t exactly look shocked, and I don’t think he was that good at hiding his thoughts, but quite used to teenagers with outlandish ambitions. He probably encountered aspiring rock stars and soccer players and the like every day. 

    “That’s interesting,” he said. “I expect you like reading mystery books. I most certainly do.” I did, but if he thought I only wanted to be a private detective because of my mild addiction to Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey, he was much mistaken.

    After a pleasant but entirely pointless discussion he suggested that I might like to be a policewoman. We said policeman and policewoman then, not police officer. I thanked him for the suggestion (which was not entirely unexpected) and didn’t tell him that I had more intention of flying to the moon – and he probably had his fair share of potential future astronauts – than being a policewoman.

    Not that I’ve anything against the police force. Well, not as a matter of principle. Some of my best friends are in the police – honestly! 

    But I had already decided when I was eight that after I left school I was never going to wear a uniform again nor call any shouty pompous person with a couple of stripes “Sir”. If that was the kind of thing that turned me on I might as well join the army and at least get a bit of free travel out of it! Mind you, that was in the days when if you leave Northern Ireland out of it the army hardly ever got involved in any nasty things like wars.

    I genuinely don’t mean to come over all superior and bolshy about the police. I just knew I had absolutely no wish whatsoever to join their ranks.

    I saw Mr Shannon again a couple of years later, and he made out he remembered me, but this time he said that it was always a good idea to “get a good degree behind you”. I didn’t disagree with him and though I didn’t have the impatient fixation on student life some of my classmates did, it was still an experience I quite looked forward to. 

    So I got my degree in politics and history behind me (that surprised a few people who thought I’d be sure to major in English, but I prefer to read books, not analyse them) and resisted the temptation to get a teacher’s certificate. Too many people who got a temporary teaching job ended up retiring in their sixties and getting a table lamp and a limp bunch of carnations. 

    Though I was single-minded and even more determined than ever to follow my career choice, I was realistic enough to know that I couldn’t just, straight from university, with no experience or references and limited means put a small ad in the paper and in the phone directory and expect it to happen overnight.

    Though I had even less intention of being a secretary than I did of being a policewoman or a teacher, I had decided even before leaving school that it was sensible to equip myself with some secretarial skills. I was a quick and accurate typist, and (though the demand for this was dying out, it wasn’t dead yet and I could see the usefulness of it) could take things down in shorthand, though it was a strange variant form of Greggs and my own inventions and abbreviations. I had a phone manner that at least didn’t irritate folk and could muddle through most filing systems. 

    I dropped on lucky with covering for maternity leave at the local solicitors’ office. I’ve discovered now that Hugh Walpole invented a very fine word for that – serendipity – isn’t Google a wonderful thing?

    There was something that suited me fine about covering for maternity leave. It meant that my tenure was likely to be short term and I wouldn’t slip into being part of the furniture in Matthews and Maltby before I knew what had happened.

    I won’t say that I kept my ears open and my mouth shut – my mouth doesn’t take altogether kindly to being kept shut for too long – but I prided myself on being what Miss Marple called a “Noticing sort of person”. I noticed it when a client who was otherwise smartly dressed had shoes that were down at heel, and when someone who assured us they had all the time in the world kept furtively glancing at their watch. I was careful not to interfere in any of the cases, but did sometimes, casually, let something drop. Mr Matthews (there was still a Mr Matthews, the grandson of the original one, but no more Mr Maltby) was quite a noticing person himself, and one day he said, “You’re a very observant young woman, Francesca. Have you ever thought about doing a law degree?”

    No, I had not, and no, I was not going to, but I was still quite flattered. “Tell me to mind my own business,” he said, a couple of days later, “But what are you planning to do? Jessica will be back here soon, and it goes without saying I’ll give you a good reference, but you have a very keen brain and though there’s nothing at all wrong with office work, I fancy though you do it well, your heart isn’t entirely in it.”

    “I want to be a private detective,” I said. I didn’t exactly blurt it out, but hadn’t planned telling him. Rather to my surprise (I’m not infallible, after all!) he took me seriously. “We work with them sometimes, you know. If you’re really set on it I can put in a word.”

    Well, for all I had fine ideas about making my own way and not being beholden to anyone, I was also pragmatic, and by no means against Mr Matthews putting in a word. 

    So the word was duly put in, and I was introduced to Zacharias Flint. Zacharias Flint was such a perfect name for a private detective that I wondered if he’d had it changed by deed poll, but he assured me it was his given name, and I believed him. But like everyone else I called him Zach. Despite his glamorous name, he looked just like a solicitor himself, though without the tie. He was a quietly-spoken middle aged man with a liking for model boats and mint humbugs. 

    He was courteous to a fault, and didn’t fit into the stereotype of tongue-lashing and belittling his apprentice (as I thought of myself, though I don’t think Zach ever used the word) but was quite intent on finding out if I were serious. He set me a series of tedious tasks and I passed with flying colours. “You’re good, Francesca,” he said one day, in his simple way, and although he was no mindless spiller of insults, his compliments were still hard to come by. So life got more interesting and he had already said, “I’ll miss you, kid, but it’s time you were thinking of being your own boss.” Fond as I was of Zach, I very much liked the sound of being my own boss – but he was still my boss when I was assigned to the Morales case. Zach had rarely ailed a day in his life, as he was wont to boast, but rather to his own disgust he had a heart attack. He survived, and would be fine, but was on doctor’s (and wife’s) orders to rest for a couple of months. “Do you think you can handle the Morales case, Francesca?” he asked when I visited him in hospital.

    “You bet I can,” I assured him.

    I admit I had neglected to tell him that there was a degree of emotional involvement. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I had never met the author Conrad Morales. But he was certainly one of my favourite writers – his wry humour and deep emotional insights even made me overlook some of his plot weaknesses. He was a fascinating character, too. I told myself it didn’t matter that he was good looking though he was, with a smile that could be sardonic and sweet at the same time and – yes, I know it’s the oldest cliché in the book! – soulful dark eyes. Those eyes had more cause than usual to be soulful at the moment, as his partner, Adam, had been murdered.

    I know it sounds like protesting too much but I was glad that he was gay and I was straight. I wanted our relationship to be platonic and to never hope for it to be anything else. I hurriedly reminded myself that our relationship was to be a professional one. But it’s only human kindness to be compassionate to someone who’s suffered a bereavement, isn’t it? 

    He was every bit as charming and fascinating as his serial character Jeremy Cohen (whom he always said wasn’t an alter ego, but with a bit of a mischievous glint in his eyes) and as he appeared when he made his not infrequent TV appearances. And you’d have needed a heart of solid granite not to be moved by his bravery and dignity. He wore his grief with grace, but sometimes there was a red rim to those eyes of his. Though he had a reputation for a degree of impatience, he was very patient with me when my investigations seemed to meet dead ends. 

    Officially, of course, it was still in the hands of the police, and I was helping out. It didn’t suit them, but DI Lawrence Burton and I achieved a degree of reluctant mutual respect. I told you I had friends in the police. Okay, friends might be pushing it a bit. 

    We were both equally frustrated. True, Adam had been set upon on the canal towpath, not in the town centre of the like, but it was hardly the Amazon. People walked their dogs along it, or indulged their passion for night fishing, and there was a pub on its banks. His money and his bank card hadn’t been taken but his wedding ring (technically he and Conrad had only had a civil partnership ceremony, but I knew they definitely regarded the matching gold bands as wedding rings) had. “How cruel is THAT!” Lawrence had exclaimed – and I warmed to him. Though he wasn’t homophobic, he still had some mixed feelings, but it was plain he was sincere. Adam had also been very unlucky. Though the stab wound in his thigh was undeniably nasty, and he had lost a lot of blood, most men who, like him, were fairly young and had kept themselves fit, would probably have survived.

    There was something noble about Conrad. Once he said that the only reason he wanted the perpetrator caught was to protect other people – he wasn’t interested in vengeance. “And Adam wouldn’t have been,” he said.

    Zach was at home now, and for a man who was normally so pleasant and laid-back the crankiest of convalescents. “I won’t tell you two not to talk shop,” his wife Rhoda said, wryly, “It might help keep him – and me – sane!”

    But I should have known he wouldn’t let me get away with anodyne chitchat. He had realised now that I – to put it mildly – admired Conrad. “Now listen,” he said. “What I’m NOT going to do is lecture you about not getting on any further with the case. That happens to all of us, me most certainly included. Anyone who says any case can be solved is lying or delusional. Larry Burton seems to be getting no further, and I’ve time for him. But you’re too fond of Conrad Morales.”

    “You don’t like him, Zach! You hardly hide the fact!”

    “I don’t know the man apart from seeing him on TV sometimes. Fair enough, I’ve not taken to him, but he’s one of those Marmite characters. I realise that. And before you say it, Francesca, don’t. Don’t accuse me of being something you know perfectly well I’m not!” It had crossed my mind and I was a little ashamed. Unless it came to stupidity, nobody was more generally tolerant and broad-minded than Zach.

    We parted on good terms, but his words had still irritated me. Well, he hadn’t mentioned taking me off the case or anything like that, I thought, to my massive relief. There was also, of course, the anomaly. I wanted Adam’s killer to be traced and brought to justice, but also knew that though he had said we must stay in touch, it would probably mean the end of my spending so much time with Conrad. Though it was in circumstances I would never in a million lifetimes have wished for, I had become part of the life of someone whom I admired and found fascinating. That doesn’t happen to many of us. And I wasn’t disappointed either. He wasn’t boring or petty or anything to disillusion me. 

    All the same, we have a sense of duty. Oh, we don’t have an equivalent of the Hippocratic oath or anything like that, but getting to the bottom of things is what we do, just like teachers teach and doctors diagnose and particle physicists send protons round a tunnel. Yes, there’s the element of solving a puzzle, and it’s no coincidence that most of us are good at crosswords, but it’s about knowing what makes people tick. 

    Though Zach and I had parted amiably enough, I still had the sense of things not being quite right between us, and when someone’s had a brush with death that matters. I went round again the next evening. He looked very serious and said, “Francesca, even though I know how you admire Conrad Morales’ books, this is one of his earlier ones you might not have read.” I doubted it – and with Conrad “earlier” was relative as his rise to fame had been pretty meteoric. But I had to admit he was right. It was called Forgotten Flowers and – “It looks like a proof copy,” I said. 

    “It is. Please will you read it.”

    “Well, that’s hardly going to be a hardship,” I said. Zach’s expression unnerved me. There was something sad and troubled about it.

    But I read the book. The regular characters were already there, Jeremy and his best friend Magda, a no-nonsense mother substitute (though he never actually used that expression) and his partner Tommy. I could see why Conrad had no particular urge to push his back catalogue. I don’t think he could have written a bad book, but it definitely wasn’t one of his better ones. Though he didn’t pussyfoot about with twee euphemisms, he went easy on what he wryly termed the “bedroom bits” but there were sometimes tender scenes between Jeremy and Tommy. And in one of these, there was a reference – only a brief one – to a car crash Tommy had been involved in when he was a child. His life had never been in danger and he was insistent he was “over it” but he still had a scar on his right thigh and admitted, “The skin’s still tender. I bleed like a stuck pig if I even get a scratch there.” Jeremy was wont to tease Tommy about his “inelegant language” just as Tommy ragged him for “talking posh”. It was a part of their relationship.

    In an instant I knew. And I felt sick and cold and as if nothing in the world made sense any more. Because I knew that I had got to the bottom of it – or rather, Zach had – and that the wry, plucky, quirky man with the wonderful prose and the soulful eyes had betrayed Adam in the most terrible way imaginable.

    And though it was less terrible, and somehow, bathed in the sudden brutal banality of it all, I supposed there would be a day when I would get over this, he had betrayed me.

    One more thing – I know this doesn’t matter in what Zach calls the “Grand Scheme”. But he isn’t even really called Conrad Morales. He’s called Cedric Mudge. 

October 25, 2019 06:48

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Terry R Barca
02:15 Nov 02, 2019

I enjoyed reading your story. I also enjoyed your sense of humour. "Too many people who got a temporary teaching job ended up retiring in their sixties and getting a table lamp and a limp bunch of carnations. " I particularly enjoyed this sentence.


Deborah Mercer
09:56 Nov 03, 2019

Hi, Terry Thank you very much for your reply. I do like to inject some humour into even the darkest stories. All the very best to you Deborah


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