Hugo Fox and Theodore Bellamy took their seats in Mrs Beck’s sitting room. Mrs Beck, meanwhile, went to rouse Kitty. Mrs Beck had offered her own bed so Kitty could try and get some sleep if she could.
The sitting room was the part of the basement flat that received the most light, although it was still rather gloomy. Mrs Beck had done the best she could with the space, decorating it with potted plants and bone china and covering as much of the stone floor with patterned carpet as she could. It almost resembled a countryside cottage, though she hadn’t quite masked the utilitarian blandness that came with the room.
Mrs Beck returned with Kitty. It could not be lost on the detectives that the young woman was very beautiful, albeit bedraggled and bleary eyed. She had a striking face, with a sharp jaw and narrow eyebrows that she raised at the sight of the two men.
‘So you’re the private detectives who live upstairs?’ she said.
Theodore smiled. ‘Won’t you take a seat, Miss Hinshaw? We’d like to ask you a few questions.’
During interviews like this—and often during casual conversation as well—Hugo usually left the talking to Theodore. It wasn’t that Hugo disliked talking, even about unpleasant matters like a recent murder. He wasn’t shy, either. He had no problem speaking his mind when he felt the need to. And he was always listening, feeling just as active in any conversation as the speakers. The trouble was, when he did speak, he could be very frank.
Hugo did not fear the truth. It was what it was. As a detective and a law clerk, he spent every day considering what was true, what was likely, what was provable and what was as yet unknown. He didn’t get upset if somebody told him his hairline was receding or pointed out a mistake he’d made in his work. These things were simply true. But not everyone was as appreciative of the truth. Some preferred to shy away from it entirely.
Kitty, it soon turned out, was not one of these people. After she took Theodore’s invitation to sit, she said, ‘Are the two of you queer?’
Mrs Beck almost tripped on the way to her seat, gawping at Kitty in horror. Hugo didn’t know why. There was no need to be coy, since everyone else in the room already knew the truth. And now it was spoken, they could carry on without dancing around the fact.
Theodore saw the sense of this too. ‘Indeed,’ he said. ‘Mrs Beck knows.’
‘You don’t say,’ said Kitty, suddenly fascinated. ‘A couple of queer detectives. Partners in crime, in every sense.’ She seemed a little delirious, perhaps a symptom of shock.
Hugo wasn’t much good at small talk, though he could see it had its uses. It must have been useful now, because instead of embarking on his questioning, Theodore humoured Kitty.
‘We operate a secret agency for other inverts,’ he said, ‘or, indeed, anyone who can’t trust the police for help.’
‘Oh, how interesting,’ said Kitty. ‘But if it’s a secret, how do people know how to find you?’
This was a question Hugo could answer. ‘By word of mouth. And by ensuring these are distributed to the right people.’ He reached into his inside pocket and passed Kitty a business card like the one he’d shown Mrs Beck. This one wasn’t a proof copy. It clearly listed their phone number and the address of number twenty-two Queen Street.
Kitty held the card between her thumbs and admired it. ‘“The Piccadilly Detective Agency”,’ she read. ‘Funny name. I know we’re only a stone’s throw from the street but we’re a walk from the Circus. Why not “The Mayfair Detective Agency” or “The Queen Street Detective Agency”?’
‘The name was Teddy’s idea,’ said Hugo, turning to Theodore with a smile.
‘It’s a code of sorts,’ Theodore explained. ‘If regular folk get ahold of a card, they’ll presume the name’s geographic, as you did. But to our folk, “The ‘Dilly” is where one visits to procure certain other services.’
Kitty gasped in understanding. ‘Oh, like Dilly boys.’
‘Dilly what?’ said Mrs Beck.
‘Dilly boys,’ said Kitty with a shrug. ‘West End pansies. Queans, you know, effeminate, flamboyant men. Or those rent boys on the West End who dress like ladies and wear make-up. They hang about the theatre sometimes.’
Mrs Beck looked mortified.
‘So, not the detective agency of Piccadilly, but rather the agency of ‘Dilly detectives,’ said Kitty.
Theodore nodded. ‘The idea is it’s an association that potential clients are more likely to make.’
‘I see…’ Kitty seemed fascinated by it all. ‘And I see the name also lets you have the statue of Eros as your motif,’ she added, thumbing the hellenic deity on the card. ‘Regular folk just see a harmless reference to the fountain at Piccadilly Circus, but others see a nude man who represents sexual desire.’
‘True enough,’ said Theodore. ‘Although that statue is actually Eros’ brother, Anteros, who represents reciprocated love and punishment to those who scorn it. That statue is in fact a symbol of charity. But it’s a common enough mistake.’
While Theodore was skilled at detecting subtleties in the temperament of others, he was not always so good at subtlety himself. Mrs Beck stiffened. Hugo suspected she could tell these last comments were directed at her.
This idle chatter had served its purpose. When Theodore next spoke, his tone was heavy.
‘Miss Hinshaw. We’d like to talk to you about what happened tonight.’
Kitty swallowed. ‘All right.’
Hugo got out his notebook. He sometimes made the odd note during an interview, though he didn’t really need to. Theodore had an excellent memory for things people said. Hugo had to take care to remember any promises he made. Nevertheless, if Hugo didn’t have his notebook, his quiet attentiveness sometimes made people uncomfortable. If he at least appeared to be making the odd transcript, people were more likely to disregard him, which suited him and Theodore both.
‘Shall we start from the very beginning?’ said Theodore. ‘Why don’t you tell us about yourself, from before you came to London?’
‘Oh.’ Kitty seemed to appreciate the choice of topic. ‘Well, I grew up in Lancashire. A big country house, near Preston.’
‘And your parents?’
‘My mother died when I was very young so I can’t tell you much about her. But my father was, and still is, a very loving man. He’s a vicar and does a lot of charity work, though not as much as he used to.’
‘A vicar’s daughter?’ Theodore stroked his moustache pensively. ‘What does he think of your chosen profession?’
‘Does he object, do you mean? If he does he hasn’t mentioned it.’
‘How did you come by the theatre?’
‘It sort of came by me. But I feel like that’s true of most professions, don’t you? I used to play pretend as a child. Father was away a lot and it was a big, empty house in the middle of nowhere, so what else do you do? I played as pirates and adventurers and wizards, anything and everything from my storybooks. And I suppose I never grew out of it.
‘When I was a bit older, Mrs Little, my nanny, found a casting call at the local playhouse. They were doing The Wizard of Oz and needed a Dorothy and Mrs Little thought I should audition. I didn’t think much of the idea, but it had been one of my favourite books, so I went along. Needless to say, I got the part. And I’ve had the bug ever since.’
‘How did you get the part in “Head Over Heels”?’
Kitty flushed. ‘By some miracle,’ she said. ‘Out of the blue, I got a letter offering it to me. The producer had seen me at the Blackpool Grand Theatre and thought I was perfect for the part.’
‘So you came to London and moved into Queen Street.’
‘When was this?’
Kitty paused to think. ‘Two years ago next month.’
‘And when did you meet Mr Jackson?’
‘Um,’ Kitty faltered. This question was an unwelcome reminder of where the conversation was headed. ‘Well. I met him maybe a couple of months ago. It was after a show. He was waiting outside the stage door with a bouquet of flowers. He wasn’t the first fan to do this, of course, but by chance, they were orchids. Dendrobiums are my favourites. I like to believe the world is stranger than we give it credit for, so when he asked if he could take me out to dinner, I said yes.’
Hugo didn’t believe in fate or signs or any of that nonsense, and so had to ask, ‘Could Mr Jackson have found out about your favourite flower beforehand?’
‘I doubt it,’ said Kitty, turning her nose up at the question. ‘I hadn’t told anyone in London.’
‘There’s no other way? Do you keep a diary he might have seen?’
Theodore suggested, ‘Maybe he broke into your dressing room at the theatre?’
Kitty blinked. ‘Why do you say that?’
‘Just thinking aloud.’ Theodore flashed Hugo a sidelong grin. ‘Something wrong?’
‘It’s just that, yes, a fan did break into my dressing room. But that was only a week ago, long after I’d met Harry. How curious that you should guess that…’
‘What makes you say it was a fan?’ said Theodore.
‘Oh, because they didn’t take much,’ said Kitty. ‘One of my costumes and some make-up. But I’d kept a string of pearls on the dresser and they didn’t touch them. Only a fan would think those spoils were more valuable than pearls, wouldn’t you say?’
Hugo made made a quick note of this. He had no idea how Theodore had intuited this detail or why it was significant, but Theodore was reliable for his good hunches.
Theodore got back on track. ‘So you had dinner with Mr Jackson and two months later he moved into your flat?’
He’d asked in the same calm and measured way he’d asked every other question. Nevertheless, Kitty must have felt some disapproval, for she answered very defensively. ‘Only because he needed a place to stay. It wouldn’t have been more than a few weeks.’
‘Can you take me through the today’s events?’ said Theodore. He seemed oblivious to Kitty’s reaction but Hugo knew Theodore better than that.
‘All right.’ Kitty took a deep breath. ‘Sunday’s my day off, so I’d arranged to meet Harry for breakfast in the morning. He had his suitcase with him. When I asked about it he explained his housing predicament. That afternoon he was going to look at another lodging house in Croydon. I didn’t like the idea of him living south of the river, so I suggested he come stay with me. Well, he said yes right away.
‘Around noon, we came to ask Mrs Beck for the spare key and went up to the flat. Then we just hung around there for the day, not doing very much, chatting and lounging. I felt like he was a bit restless, but whenever I suggested going out he wasn’t so keen. We did go for dinner at six o’clock, but around seven we came straight back because Harry said he was tired. At nine thirty, we went to bed. I’ve not gone to bed that early since I was a child.’ She huffed, clearly still disgruntled by this injustice.
‘And you woke up an hour later?’
Kitty paused for a moment, before nodding. ‘He wasn’t in bed, so I went to look for him.’ Again, she paused. Then she looked away, her eyes watering.
Theodore often said Hugo was good in a crisis. But Theodore’s definition of a crisis was when somebody pulled a gun or a suspect made a dash for it. When confronted by a stranger in tears, Hugo was completely at sea.
Theodore nodded sombrely. ‘I think we can guess what you found,’ he said. He waited a moment so Kitty could compose herself, but not too long. ‘Do you know why Mr Jackson left his bed in the night?’
‘I haven’t the foggiest,’ she said.
‘You weren’t disturbed when he left?’
‘You didn’t hear sounds of a struggle? You didn’t hear the door?’
‘Whatever happened during that hour, you slept through it all?’
Kitty looked askance at Theodore. ‘I suppose I must’ve.’
‘So what was it that awoke you?’
‘Well, I…’ Kitty stared into space. ‘You know, I’ve no idea. Just woke up, I suppose.’
She laughed, nervously. Theodore looked meaningfully at Hugo, who was already copying Kitty’s claim into his notebook. Kitty stopped laughing.
‘I swear it’s the truth,’ she said.
Theodore nodded. ‘Very well, Miss Hinshaw. I think that’s all the questions we have.’
‘One more,’ said Hugo, raising a finger. ‘Could you give us a sample of your handwriting?’
‘Er.’ Kitty’s voice caught. Her eyes flickered between the two detectives, her brain stuck between processing this question and the previous one. Then she looked at the ceiling, worry knitted into her face.
Mrs Beck suddenly came forward. ‘I can fetch one for them,’ she said, putting a hand on Kitty’s knee. ‘Why don’t you go back to bed?’
Kitty was hesitant, as if she wanted to say something more. But eventually she rose and disappeared back into Mrs Beck’s bedroom. The door closed with a thud.
Mrs Beck glared at the detectives. ‘Come along, then.’
She led them back into Kitty’s flat. She covered her eyes while stepping over the body and headed for the fold-out writing desk in the corner. Here, she found a half-finished letter Kitty had penned to her aunt, which she thrust forcefully into Hugo’s hand.
‘Something bothering you?’ Theodore asked her.
‘That last question,’ she spat. ‘I hired you to prove Kitty’s innocence, not treat her like a criminal.’
‘We don’t know she’s innocent,’ said Hugo, matter-of-factly.
Mrs Beck flinched in surprise. ‘What about this whole business about swapping knives and dumping the body?’
‘I try not to commit to any theory too quickly,’ said Hugo. ‘After all, Miss Hinshaw was the one who discouraged calling the police.’
‘If you’d seen her after she found the body, sobbing and traumatised, you wouldn’t doubt for an instant that she’s innocent,’ said Mrs Beck, proudly.
‘Perhaps,’ said Theodore. ‘But then again, she’s supposed to be a pretty good actress.’
Mrs Beck scowled. She couldn’t argue with that.
Theodore tried to reassure her. ‘We’re not accusing anybody yet. But until we can prove someone guilty, we can’t presume anyone is innocent.’
Mrs Beck folded her arms. ‘Are you going to check that letter or not?’
Theodore sighed. He passed Hugo the letter they’d found in Harry’s suitcase. Hugo calmly held it side by side with Kitty’s sample, his eyes flitting from one to the other, comparing letter form, line quality and spacing.
‘Well,’ said Mrs Beck shrilly. ‘Did she write the letter or not?’
Hugo looked up. ‘She didn’t.’
The colour drained from Mrs Beck’s face. ‘No, that can’t be right.’
‘It’s very clear.’ Hugo showed her the two documents. ‘Miss Hinshaw has a distinctive slant to her ascenders which is not at all visible in Mr Jackson’s letter.’
Mrs Beck crossed her arms, pointedly. ‘If Harry was having a secret relationship with anyone, I can guarantee you it wasn’t with any of my tenants.’
Hugo had no patience for this sort of wilful stubbornness. ‘Mrs Beck, regardless of how highly you esteem them, the fact remains that one of your tenants is likely a murderer.’
‘That’s for you to prove, Mr Fox.’
Hugo let out an impatient breath. ‘Very well.’
Theodore grinned. ‘Time to meet the neighbours.’