Two gentlemen stepped onto Queen Street.
It was a short, narrow stretch of road, running between two rows of elegant townhouses all sandwiched together. Tall, thin buildings with tall, thin windows. No two were identical, but each a variation on the same theme.
One of the gentlemen pointed. Number twenty-two stood out as the only building with its facade left unpainted. The others distinguished themselves with noble whites, striking reds or smart blacks. Number twenty-two was content with the untarnished muddy-brown the bricks had been when they were first cemented into place. It made no effort to stand out and that was why it did.
The gentlemen crossed the road and stood for a few moments in the shadow of number twenty-two, looking up and down the height of the building. Then they looked at one another. The taller man nodded. They rang the bell.
The landlady answered the door. She was an elderly woman who wore her hair in a bun and her spectacles on a chain. Her smile vanished at the sight of the gentlemen.
‘Is one of you Mr Fox?’ she said.
‘I am Hugo Fox,’ said the shorter man.
The landlady held up her spectacles and peered at the taller gentleman. ‘And you are?’
‘Mr Bellamy.’ He removed his hat, revealing his bright, red hair, and bowed deeply. ‘But my friends call me Theodore.’
The landlady pursed her lips and turned back to Mr Fox. ‘When we spoke on the telephone, you did not mention there were two of you.’
The taller gentleman gave the shorter a worried look.
‘I understood this was a two bedroom flat?’ said Mr Fox.
‘It is,’ said the landlady. ‘But, if you don’t mind my saying so, it’s uncommon for men such as yourselves to share lodgings. In this area, at least.’
‘Men such as ourselves?’ Mr Bellamy repeated, raising a thick eyebrow.
‘Unmarried,’ said the landlady.
Understanding, and perhaps relief, dawned on the men’s faces. ‘Bachelors we may be, but we are partners,’ said Mr Bellamy. ‘That is, partners in business. And since we intend to conduct our business from home, it is convenient to share an address. I hope that won’t be a problem.’
The landlady narrowed her eyes. ‘What sort of business?’
Mr Fox reached into his jacket and passed a business card to her. She held up her spectacles as she eyed it suspiciously.
The Piccadilly Detective Agency
“For each man kills the thing he loves”
Above this was an etching of a hellenic deity, a winged man holding a bow and with only a flowing sheet to protect his dignity. There was no address or telephone number, only the words “Proof Copy” scribbled in the corner.
‘A detective agency?’ said the landlady. ‘You mean, private detectives?’
‘May we see the flat?’ said Mr Fox.
The landlady paused for a moment, perhaps searching for a reason to decline. But she passed the card back and said, ‘By all means.’
Once inside, the landlady introduced herself as Mrs Beck. She did not seem a first names sort of person.
She led them up four flights of stairs to the flat at the very top of the building. It was a loft conversion, meaning some of the walls were slanted, and the shape of the building made the flat far longer than it was wide. Nevertheless, it was roomy and comfortable.
‘It’s only recently been converted,’ said Mrs Beck. ‘If you take the place, you’ll be first to live here.’
The men nodded approvingly. Mrs Beck left them to explore the place at their leisure. As they surveyed the flat, she surveyed them.
They were not the sort of men she expected detectives to be. They certainly seemed like gentlemen. They were well-dressed, well-spoken, well-educated and well-mannered. They were not at all dissimilar to her usual tenants. Yet they were different, in a way she couldn’t place. Furthermore, they were curiously different from each other.
Mr Fox was short while Mr Bellamy was tall. Mr Fox was slender while Mr Bellamy was broad-shouldered. Mr Fox was quiet and pensive while Mr Bellamy was energetic and talkative. Mr Fox might have vanished into an empty room while Mr Bellamy could not help but stand out in a crowd.
Mr Fox was surely younger than thirty, though he bore the unfortunate trait of looking older than he was. His dark hair was receding and his eyes twinkled from behind little, round spectacles. His face was sternly expressionless and his movements tightly controlled. He dressed conservatively, matching his plain, black suit with a plain, black necktie and superbly polished plain black shoes.
Mr Bellamy’s height and figure might have made him intimidating, were it not for his jolly, boyish face. He had bushy, red hair and a bushier, red moustache, which more often than not framed a toothy grin. And there was something of the dandy about him. His bluish-grey suit had chequered patterns in the fabric and he splashed little pieces of colour upon it. A maroon bowtie, a turquoise handkerchief, a pink rose on his lapel. He even carried a cane, though it rarely touched the ground.
Mr Bellamy wandered through each room as if trying them on for size, prattling over the best place to put an armchair or what colour wallpaper would best suit the light. He had a strikingly deep and bassy voice, coupled with a peculiar habit of reciting poetry, seemingly at random and often inserted into the middle of a sentence. ‘The yellow leaves begin to fade, and flutter from the Temple elms. Yes, I think yellow would go very well in this room.’
Mr Fox rarely ventured further than the door, giving short yet sincere noises of agreement to whatever Mr Bellamy said. He spoke very little, and what little he did say was dry and quiet. Yet Mrs Beck did not feel he was distracted or daydreaming. He seemed keenly interested in his surroundings, casting his gaze across each room like the beam of a lighthouse.
The gentlemen were quickly taken with the flat, though Mrs Beck expected that would change once they saw the bedrooms. The first bedroom was airy and spacious with tall windows that looked out on the tree lined lawn of the mansion behind. The second bedroom was less than half the size, scantly lit by a small, circular window that offered a view of the neighbour’s drainpipes.
‘I take it this would not be suitable,’ said Mrs Beck with forced regret.
The gentlemen barely glanced at the second bedroom. ‘We’ll make an arrangement’ said Mr Bellamy.
‘Are you certain? This room is normally used by staff.’
‘We have no staff,’ said Mr Fox.
‘No staff?’ said Mrs Beck with a start. ‘I should warn you I don’t provide a kitchen service. I have a maid for daily cleaning but that’s all.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Mr Bellamy. ‘We can cook for ourselves.’
Mrs Beck frowned. ‘You aren’t sharing for financial reasons, are you?’
The gentlemen stared at her.
‘Do forgive my asking,’ she added, hurriedly. ‘Only the last gentleman who viewed the flat couldn’t afford the deposit. He wanted credit. I told him if money was an issue, he shouldn’t be looking for lodging in Mayfair.’
Mr Bellamy smiled widely, which curled his moustache. ‘We understand your concern, for loan oft loses both itself and friend.’
‘We can provide character references,’ said Mr Fox simply. ‘We both earn a wage. I am a law clerk at Willcox & Vicory and Mr Bellamy writes a monthly column for the Sunday Times.’
‘I thought you were detectives,’ said Mrs Beck, still frowning.
‘That’s more of a hobby,’ said Mr Bellamy. ‘Or a charity, you might say.’
This just perplexed Mrs Beck further. But before she could ask more, Mr Fox said, ‘What is the rent?’
Mrs Beck replied automatically. ‘Three pounds a week.’
‘It’s available immediately?’
‘What is your policy on tenant privacy?’
Mrs Beck swallowed her outrage. ‘Naturally, I have the utmost respect for the privacy of my tenants. Provided you pay rent on time and do not disturb your neighbours, this flat is yours to do with what you wish. It is none of my business.’
‘Very well.’ Mr Fox turned to Mr Bellamy. ‘What say you, Teddy?’
Mr Bellamy stroked his moustache thoughtfully. ‘Remind me the address.’
‘Twenty-two Queen Street,’ said Mrs Beck.
Mr Bellamy smiled. ‘O fortune, fortune! All men call thee fickle,’ he said. ‘We’ll take it.’
The gentlemen and Mrs Beck shook hands. Mrs Beck still seemed a little reluctant, but whatever qualms she had were not concrete enough to convince herself out of a sale. Mr Fox assured her they’d be in touch to work out the particulars.
At the end of Queen Street, Mr Bellamy paused to look back at number twenty-two. Mr Fox noticed a few steps later and backtracked.
‘Everything all right, Teddy?’ asked Mr Fox.
‘Do you think she knew?’ said Mr Bellamy.
‘No,’ said Mr Fox, firmly. ‘She’s clueless.’
‘Do you think we’ll be safe with her?’
‘So long as she minds her own business.’
Mr Bellamy still looked uneasy. ‘It feels risky, Huey,’ he said.
‘It is,’ said Mr Fox simply. He drew closer to Mr Bellamy, stroking his arm in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. ‘You can still back out. We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.’
Mr Bellamy’s bushy brow furrowed. ‘Do you mean the detective agency or sharing a flat?’
Mr Fox paused. ‘Either, I suppose.’
Mr Bellamy chuckled to himself. ‘The agency is not negotiable. If that means we must live together, I’ll just have to put up with you.’
Some people said that Mr Fox never smiled. Mr Bellamy didn’t know why. He saw Mr Fox smile all the time.
He leant down and planted a gentle kiss on Mr Fox’s lips. The moment didn’t last. The gentlemen broke apart, furtively looking up and down and the street and in the windows of the houses. Then they left, walking side by side but a foot apart.