References were sent, deposits were paid, contracts were signed and two weeks later a removal van was parked outside number twenty-two. Mr Fox and Mr Bellamy directed two men in dusty overalls to carry their things up to the top floor flat. By their furniture, it was clear they had fine taste, although the van was stuffed full to the brink of collapse. There were bookshelves and boxes of books to fill them. There were two large desks, one antique mahogany, the other leather-topped with several drawers. There was a large double bed and a plain-looking single. And paintings, more than could conceivably fit on the walls. At one point, the movers almost dropped a large, grandfather clock. Theodore rushed over to help them and ended up carrying it to the flat himself.
Mrs Beck came out to greet her new tenants—and to warn the movers not to scuff the walls with the furniture. At the sight of her, Mr Bellamy outstretched his arms and declared her name, as though she were an old friend he’d not seen in years. Mr Fox just gave a polite nod.
Mrs Beck didn’t entertain any small talk. Once she’d made her ‘hello’s and ‘welcome’s, she went back inside. It was inappropriate, she felt, for a landlady to be overly familiar with her tenants. Her relationship with the gentlemen was to remain strictly professional.
Once indoors, she found Kitty Hinshaw, peeking out the door of flat #1. Kitty was a rising star in the theatre, who’d moved to Queen Street after being suddenly cast in a big West End play. Not that Mrs Beck thought of her tenants as accessories to the house, but a celebrity like Kitty was quite the feather in her cap.
Kitty looked a little sheepish to have been caught spying. She gave up the pretence by stepping into the corridor. ‘Good morning, Mrs Beck. New neighbours?’
‘Good morning, Miss Hinshaw. Yes, that’s right.’ Mrs Beck stepped aside as the movers brought through a red leather chesterfield.
Nodding at the sofa, Kitty said, ‘Extravagant fellow, isn’t he?’
‘Fellows, actually,’ said Mrs Beck. ‘Mr Fox and Mr Bellamy are sharing the flat.’
‘Oh?’ said Kitty. With a little smirk, she added, ‘You know what they say about young men who share a flat, don’t you?’
‘No,’ said Mrs Beck, innocently curious. ‘What do they say?’
‘Oh, you know?’ Kitty turned red. ‘They might be friends of Oscar’s.’
‘Oscar? Who’s Oscar?’
‘Never mind. Forget I said anything.’
Kitty quickly excused herself. Mrs Beck thought no more about it.
In the week that followed, the gentlemen redecorated flat #4. Mrs Beck was a little disgruntled, since she’d only just had the place painted as part of the renovation. But the gentlemen were well-mannered enough to ask permission for every alteration they made and Mrs Beck had no reason to deny them. She hesitated, however, when they asked to have a sign-writer paint the name of their business on their door.
This detective agency did not sit right with her. It was not the sort of profession a gentleman was supposed to have. And if he did, she was certain he wouldn’t run it out of his sitting room. But the way they talked about it made it sound more like a hobby, an academic interest. They had other professions after all. Despite her reluctance, Mrs Beck permitted the sign-writer.
Other than that, Mr Fox and Mr Bellamy were model tenants. Not only were they always prompt on their rent, they also delivered it in person. Her other tenants either relied on bank transfers or put a cheque in her letterbox, yet every Sunday at 8:00am sharp, one of them would knock on her door.
If it was Mr Bellamy, she would hear him coming. He was easily distinguished by his bass, booming voice singing arias as his heavy feet clumped down the stairs. He would greet her with the same enthusiasm as the day he’d moved in. Sometimes he brought meringues or truffles to share with her. She always declined, to keep things professional, but she admired his manners.
Mr Fox was a quieter affair. Like Mrs Beck, he didn’t do smalltalk, which she appreciated. What’s more, his character reference had been written by one Sergeant Major Whitaker and detailed Mr Fox’s time as an officer during the war. Mrs Beck’s husband had died in the war. She couldn’t help but hold a begrudging respect for him.
All that being said, she couldn’t ignore that they were a little unusual. It seemed some of her other tenants had noticed too.
One evening, Mrs Beck was dropping a typed bulletin into each of the tenant’s pigeon-holes, letting them know about neighbouring construction work and other trivial matters. As she was doing this, Mr Glossop came downstairs, on his way out. He was the wealthy, young bachelor who lived in flat #3, one of many such bachelors Mrs Beck had rented to over the years. Compared to her newest tenants, Mr Glossop was more her idea of what a young gentleman ought to be like.
He gave her a polite nod as he passed, which Mrs Beck returned. Their interactions rarely amounted to more than that, which was as Mrs Beck preferred it. She tried to keep out of her tenant’s way if she could. However, just as Mr Glossop was reaching for the handle, the front door opened inward and nearly bowled him over.
‘Heavens!’ boomed Mr Bellamy. His arm shot out and grabbed Mr Glossop’s wrist before he stumbled. Mr Bellamy pulled Mr Glossop back to his feet, patting his shoulders to ensure he was stable. ‘I’m so sorry. I must learn to be more cautious. Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast.’
Before Mr Glossop could react react, Mr Bellamy shook him vigorously by the hand before he and Mr Fox—who had slipped past almost unnoticed—went upstairs. Mr Glossop was left by the half open door, stunned by the encounter.
A moment passed. Mr Glossop noticed Mrs Beck watching him.
‘The new neighbours?’ he asked.
‘Mr Fox and Mr Bellamy,’ said Mrs Beck. Feeling a need to justify this, she added, ‘They’re young bachelors, contemporaries of yours.’
Mr Glossop smirked. ‘No contemporary of mine would wear that burgundy suit and damask tie. The fellow looked the most dratted urning.’
‘Sorry, “urning”?’ said Mrs Beck.
‘You know?’ Mr Glossop shrugged. ‘Queer.’
‘Yes, they are a little peculiar. But they are gentlemen.’ Mrs Beck felt the need to press that point, for some reason.
Mr Glossop gave Mrs Beck an odd look, almost like pity. But excused himself without saying any more on the topic.
A month passed. Mr Fox and Mr Bellamy paid rent on time and kept to themselves, which was as it should be. Mrs Beck very almost forgot her concerns. Until she received a complaint.
Of all her tenants, Mrs Beck was most proud of the Rookwoods. The Rookwoods were an old, well-established family in Buckinghamshire. William Rookwood was the newly married heir to the estate and he and his wife had moved into flat #2 about a year ago. They added a little prestige to the place, so Mrs Beck was keen to keep them satisfied with their accommodation. As such, when Mrs Rookwood knocked on her door to complain about a broken light fixture, Mrs Beck was quick to assure her it would be fixed as quickly as possible.
‘It’s no trouble, I’m sure I can have an electrician out today. I’ll supervise the work, no need to let it change your schedule.’
‘That’s fine,’ said Mrs Rookwood with indifference.
‘Is there anything else I can help with?’
Mrs Rookwood shook her head, then paused. ‘Can I ask? The men in flat four?’
Mrs Beck’s stomach turned. ‘Yes?’
‘I understand they’re running some sort of business upstairs.’
‘Yes, it’s, ah, a detective agency,’ said Mrs Beck, cringing inwardly at the words.
Mrs Rookwood pursed her lips. ‘So the people who keep coming and going are clients of theirs?’
‘I believe so, yes,’ said Mrs Beck. She, too, had noticed the increased traffic of people passing through number twenty-two, though she hadn’t paid it much attention. ‘I can talk to them about noise if that’s a problem.’
‘No, it isn’t the noise,’ said Mrs Rookwood. She sucked her teeth. ‘It’s… have you seen what sort of people their clients are?’
Mrs Beck frowned. ‘Are they letting unsavoury characters into the house?’
‘No, no, not at all. They’re just… odd.’
Mrs Beck asked what she meant, but Mrs Rookwood couldn’t find the words to elaborate.
Mrs Beck lived in the basement flat, right beneath the front door. No matter which room she was in, she always heard when somebody used the front door. And the window above the kitchen sink looked out onto the basement patio. If she craned her neck, she could look up and discretely spy on whomever was at the door. After her conversation with Mrs Rookwood, she found herself rushing to the window whenever she heard the doorbell, to take a look at exactly who the gentlemen were entertaining.
A young man wearing a massive fur coat. A young woman in plus fours and braces. An overweight man in a toupee who insisted on taking his poodle upstairs with him. A working class boor whose bare arms were plastered in tattoos. A dark-skinned woman with feathers in her hair. A man whose cheeks were so red one would think he was wearing rouge.
The thought of having these strangers in her home didn’t sit right with Mrs Beck, but, like Mrs Rookwood, she was hard pressed to say why. She didn’t much fancy knocking on Mr Fox’s and Mr Bellamy’s door to complain. What would she say, that their clientele were ‘eccentric’? So long as these people weren’t making noise or trashing the house, it was none of her business.
Another month passed. Mrs Rookwood didn’t complain again. Kitty Hinshaw and Mr Glossop didn’t mention them. For all their quirks, Mr Fox and Mr Bellamy became part of the furniture at number twenty-two. Mrs Beck hardly concerned herself with them anymore, and so stopped noticing anything out of the ordinary.
Except for one thing. As Mrs Beck had mentioned when the gentlemen had first viewed the flat, she employed a maid, Gloria, for daily cleaning. One day, when Gloria came to collect her wages, she asked Mrs Beck if anyone used the second bedroom in flat #4.
‘Someone does,’ said Mrs Beck. ‘I don’t know what arrangement Mr Fox and Mr Bellamy came to, but one of them is using it, yes.’
Gloria shook her head. ‘Ma’am, ever since they moved in, the sheets in that bedroom have always been clean.’
‘That can’t be right.’
‘I’ve stopped changing them.’ Gloria shrugged.
Mrs Beck was about to scold her for neglecting her duties, but it was funny that the gentlemen hadn’t complained. ‘What are you suggesting? Are they cleaning the sheets themselves?’
Gloria shifted her weight between her feet. ‘My suspicion was more that they might be sharing the master bedroom.’
‘I shouldn’t think so,’ said Mrs Beck. ‘There’s only one bed in there.’
‘A double bed, ma’am.’
It took Mrs Beck a moment to grasp what Gloria was saying. ‘Why should they need to share that bed when there’s a perfectly good one in the next room?’
Gloria grimaced. ‘Ma’am, have you considered they might be… having a relationship?’
Mrs Beck just stared blankly.
Gloria was reluctant to spell it out. She leaned forward and whispered. ‘They’re having sex.’
Mrs Beck was momentarily stunned, simply for hearing the “S” word spoken aloud. And then a parade of realisations hit her all in one go.
‘Gloria, really!’ she gasped. ‘Mr Fox and Mr Bellamy are gentlemen! English gentlemen at that! How dare you suggest that I’d entertain degenerates in my home? How foolish do you think I am?’
‘I’m sorry, ma’am. I thought you should know.’
Mrs Beck grabbed Gloria’s cheque and practically threw it her. ‘That will cover you for the rest of the week. After that, I won’t be needing your services anymore.’
Gloria nodded and hurried out, fighting tears as she went.
That night, Mrs Beck lay awake in her bed, still fuming. The nerve of it, to cast aspersions on her tenants, whom Mrs Beck had vetted personally. What business was it of Gloria’s, anyway? Nevertheless, the notion had taken root in her mind. How else could she explain the clean sheets in the second bedroom?
The doorbell rang. It was undoubtedly another client of Mr Fox’s and Mr Bellamy’s, since none of the other tenants had callers at this hour of night. Mrs Beck had given up on spying, but tonight she was strangely compelled to leave her bed and take a peek.
She let out a sigh of relief. This time, it was a lady. And not one of those funny woman in collar and tie she sometimes saw. A proper lady in a dark gown, elbow-length gloves and wide-brim hat.
But when the lady spoke into the intercom, Mrs Beck was astonished at her voice. A deep voice. A man’s voice. A second look proved that this lady was, in truth, a man who had painted his face and put on women’s clothing. A second later, the door opened and Mrs Beck watched in horror as the ladyboy flounced through her front door.
A terrifying thought struck Mrs Beck. If Gloria was right, and Mr Fox and Mr Bellamy were committing acts of gross indecency in her home, what were these clients really visiting them for? Was this so-called detective agency actually a front for an entirely different sort of business altogether? It didn’t bear thinking about.
This was the last straw. She wouldn’t stand for it any longer, not in her home. Mrs Beck went straight to her key cabinet and took the spare key for flat #4. Then she waited. She wanted to catch them in the act, so they couldn’t wriggle their way out of it. Ten minutes she paced about her kitchen like a trapped bull until, possessed with a boldness that was quite unfamiliar to her, she marched up the stairs, straight to flat #4 and threw open the door.