Ellerton Cambry-Wickenham, QC, was lifting his frothy, frosty mug of Fuller's to his lips when his mobile went off. He blinked, moved his eyes from side to side, and lifted the mug an inch closer. But the sound of Beethoven's "Für Elise" was not an auditory hallucination. It repeated, more insistent this time, he thought, and Ellerton was forced to return the mug to the counter and reach for his belt.
"Damn and blast," he muttered as he pulled the phone out of its leatherette housing and hoisted it to his face.
"Hello," he said in as civilised a tone as he could muster.
"Ellie," came a cheerful voice from the other end. "Glad I caught you."
Ellerton sighed. Try as he might, he could not get people to stop abbreviating his Christian name. Tom Chesterton was the worst of the lot, his annoyingly cheerful tones always allowing just a hint of disdain to bubble to the top.
"Well, not too difficult, is it?" Ellerton replied. "Always have this damned thing on my belt, don't I?"
"Indeed you do, Ellie," Tom said. "Indeed you do. Always on call, wot? Always on the clock. That's you, Ellie. To a tee."
Ellerton silently wondered when the mobile service provider was going to add the option to electrically shock the person on the other end of the line.
"What is it you want, Tom?" Ellerton said, perhaps a tad too gruffly.
Tom didn't seem to care about his tone. "Oh, it's been busy busy busy over here while you've been out, old chum. Seems your favorite client has been up to her old tricks again. Quite honestly, Ellie, this one's so good, I'd take it on myself, but I do know how much you love the old battleaxe."
Ellerton looked at the floor, certain he'd see blood there. He'd felt it drain out of his face, and he couldn't imagine where else it might have gone.
"Dear God," he murmured. "What is it this time?"
"Well," Tom drawled, "it seems that Lucille's Hair and Beauty, just off Tottenham Court on Goodge, has a new neighbor."
Ellerton could feel his temples beginning to throb. Not only was Tom about to tell him something horrible about Doris, he was also taking his bloody sweet time to do it.
"What does that have to do with anything?" Ellerton snorted.
"Well, according to the police report, our Mrs. Hobson was having her usual Tuesday boil-and-rinse at Lucille's, when said new neighbor, a certain Mister Charles "Chuck" Remington, who's opening a new coffee bar next door, came in to introduce himself to the hair ladies."
"Yes," Ellerton said, his temples pounding now.
"Well, our Mister Remington cuts rather a dashing figure, shall we say, and all the ladies in the salon were quite delighted to meet him, not the least of which--"
"Oh, good God..." Ellerton put his head in his free hand.
"Not the least of which," Tom repeated, "was our gal Doris."
"What did she do?" Ellerton asked. But he only asked because it was his job. He really didn't want to know.
"Well, according to a witness, one Miss Dina Ferrera--who was an employee of the establishment until early this afternoon, I understand--Mrs. Hobson stood abruptly from the sink, splashing hot water in every direction and inadvertently head-butting her beautician, one Miss Tina Falthwaite, and knocking her into the neighboring client. She swaggered over to Mister Remington, muttering 'Ooooh, isn't Chucky cheeky?' or words to that effect, and grabbed his buttock."
Ellerton tried to control his breathing, but he was unsuccessful. He feared he would soon need a paper bag to put over his mouth.
"Miss Ferrera also mentioned that Mrs. Hobson's choice of fragrance for the day appeared to be from the Stella Artois line."
Ellerton made a gurgling sound and closed his eyes. Of course Doris had been drinking. When had he ever know her not to be drinking?
"You still there, Ellie?" Tom was obviously enjoying himself.
"Yes. Yes. Unfortunately, yes."
"Well, to continue, Mister Remington tried very nicely and politely, according to Miss Ferrera, to extricate himself from Mrs. Hobson's vise-like grip, but she'd not be deterred. He began to back away towards the door, Doris hanging onto him like a rabid Rottweiler. She tried to plant a kiss on the poor bugger--"
"At which point two very unfortunate things happened simultaneously."
Ellerton now had his forehead on the bar and was getting odd looks from both the barman and the patrons around him.
"Do go on," he said, not meaning a syllable of it.
"Well, just as Mister Remington was having enough of all this and was deciding to be a bit more forceful in his escape attempt, the salon owner, one Mrs. Lucille de la Court, and one of her employees, the above-mentioned Miss Ferrera, rushed at Mrs. Hobson and grabbed her by either arm. Mister Remington thought he was going to have to push hard, but by the time he did push, she had already let go of him to deal with her assailants. So the laws of physics kicked in, and poor ole Chuck found himself barrelling backwards into a display of hair product."
"Which collapsed upon him, no doubt," Ellerton mumbled into the varnished wood surface of the bar.
"Indeed," Tom replied, "and the extra bit of force from his push sent Mrs. Hobson flailing into the two women who had grabbed her, one of whom, the above-mentioned Miss Ferrera, staggered backwards into the above-mentioned Miss Falthwaite, who had just then managed to get herself up from the floor. Both women are now at University College Hospital, under treatment for concussions."
Ellerton let out a long, stuttering breath.
"The owner, Mrs. de la Court, also staggered backwards, but into a haircutting station--"
"Nooooo," Ellerton rumbled.
"Well, let's just say she got off easy. If she'd landed an inch to the left, she'd have stood a very good chance of having a hair dryer invade a rather delicate piece of her anatomy. As it is, she just got a pair of scissors lodged in her bum cheek."
Ellerton rolled his head to the side, but found he still couldn't breathe all that well. He pulled himself up off the bar and slouched on his stool.
"I'll be right down."
He closed the mobile phone and shoved it back into its holster.
"You all right, mate?" the barman asked.
"Oh, never better," Ellerton replied, sliding off the stool. "My colleague sounds like Michael Palin, and my client fancies herself an octogenerian strumpet. I'm just dandy."
"Well," the barman said as Ellerton headed for the door, "it could be worse."
"Yes, it could." Ellerton called back to him. "I could have death watch beetles living inside my skull."
He allowed the door to slam.