For the third time in a week, Mrs Beck was surprised to find herself sat in the armchair in Hugo and Theodore’s sitting room. The first time, she’d been making the accusations. Now, she had the sinking feeling that she was the suspect.
Hugo was sat in his usual spot on the sofa, silently reviewing his notes. After a few minutes, Theodore emerged from the kitchen with three cups of coffee and a plate of biscuits on a silver tray. He placed this on the table and passed a cup to Mrs Beck.
‘Thank you,’ she said automatically. Though she was grateful. It was coming up on two in the morning.
Hugo tore a sheet from his notebook and placed it in front of Mrs Beck. Borrowing his pen, she neatly wrote the words, ‘You will find that my handwriting is not a match for that letter,’ and shoved it back at Hugo. He made his comparison. Mrs Beck smiled smugly when he shook his head.
Theodore looked disappointed, but his voice was bright when he said, ‘So, Mrs Beck, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself.’
‘I didn’t murder Harry,’ said Mrs Beck.
‘Of course not,’ said Theodore, in a way that didn’t sound at all sincere. ‘But one never knows what may turn out to be relevant.’
‘I’m a widow who makes her living renting out apartments. What more do you want me to say?’
Theodore cocked his head. ‘Come now, Mrs Beck. We’ve shared an address for two months and we hardly know a thing about you. What about your childhood? Where were you born?’
Mrs Beck sighed. It seemed there was no avoiding this charade. ‘I was born in my childhood home in Hanover Square. I had an older brother and a younger sister. My father was a banker.’ She glanced at Hugo, who was reviewing his notes and paying no attention to Mrs Beck. She scowled. ‘Is this of any interest to you?’
‘Certainly,’ said Theodore. His enthusiasm only irritated Mrs Beck further. ‘When did you move to Queen Street?’
‘In seventy-seven when I married.’
‘And your husband?’
‘Have you any children?’
Mrs Beck locked eyes with Theodore. She had grown up in a world where certain things were not spoken of.
Theodore changed tack. ‘What of the rest of your family? Your brother and sister?’
‘My sister died of scarlet fever as a child. My brother died of natural causes a decade ago.’
‘So you’re alone?’ said Theodore.
Mrs Beck glowered. She would not have him pity her.
‘Could you tell us a bit about this house? Is it valuable?’
‘Valuable?’ Mrs Beck frowned. ‘Certainly, but no more or less than any other apartment building in the area.’
Theodore’s brow furrowed, as though this had been the wrong answer. ‘How did you come to own it?’
‘I inherited it when my husband died.’
‘And that’s when you converted it into flats?’
Mrs Beck nodded. ‘I had no income and thought I’d have to sell. That’s what many of my friends and neighbours were doing. After the war, it was just too expensive to keep that kind of household anymore. But when I went to my estate agent, he suggested I could make a tidy living letting luxury apartments.’
‘If I may,’ said Theodore softly, ‘how did your husband die?’
‘In the war,’ said Mrs Beck.
Theodore nodded. There was nothing else to be said. Until Hugo looked up from his notes with a puzzled expression. ‘What age was he?’
Mrs Beck sighed. Enough husbands and fathers had been lost to the war that people didn’t normally question her. Perhaps it had been optimistic to hope it would get past the detectives. ‘You’re thinking if he was married to me, he must have been too old for conscription. You’re correct. He was fifty-nine when he died.’
Theodore’s bushy brow rose. ‘So he didn’t die in the war?’
‘He didn’t die on the front line but it was the war that killed him.’
The detectives waited patiently for her to explain. Mrs Beck had known they would expect her to, but she didn’t want to do it until they asked. They didn’t. But their expectant silence was unbearable.
‘My husband was a physician at Westminster Hospital. He treated the soldiers that came back from the front. And with them, they brought the Spanish Flu. It wasn’t really mentioned in the newspapers, bad for morale, you see. Nevertheless, it was the worst pandemic my husband had ever known of.
‘He didn’t want to admit he was sick, because it meant he wouldn’t be able to keep working. He couldn’t rest knowing there were soldiers who needed his help. He didn’t put his feet up for a single minute during the whole war. My husband was a good man. That’s what killed him.’
She smiled to herself a moment, before looking back to the detectives. She feared they might use this as an opportunity to change her mind about them, perhaps by comparing themselves to her late husband or trying to convince her that they too belonged to that dying stock of gentlemen. They didn’t. Hugo had put away his notebook. Theodore wore a pained, sympathetic smile.
‘You must miss him,’ said Theodore.
‘Of course I miss him,’ Mrs Beck scoffed. What a useless thing to say.
‘What I mean is,’ he added, ‘your life changed a lot after he died. You used to share this house with just your husband, now you live in the basement and your home is full of strangers.’
Mrs Beck didn’t know what he expected her to say. ‘Certainly, I hoped for better at this time in my life, but many came out of the war with worse.’
‘You never feel sad or angry about it?’
‘It was seven years ago. I’ve put him to rest.’
Theodore couldn’t mask his frustration. He seemed determined to find unresolved misery and trauma in her. The truth was, Mrs Beck didn’t much think about her late husband these days. She had fond memories of him, yes, but she wasn’t one to dwell on the past. Her husband had always been the more romantic and, yes, there were times when she missed that. But romance didn’t put food on the table. It didn’t get the laundry done or the bills paid.
Hugo gently placed a hand on Theodore’s shoulder. Theodore stared at him a moment, with an annoyed frown, before he took a deep breath. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘This isn’t relevant. We should find another lead. Thank you for your time, Mrs Beck.’
The detectives left their seats and went to their desks, to work. They hadn’t asked her to leave, so Mrs Beck just stayed in the armchair, lost in thought.
It was such a small thing, the way Hugo had calmed Theodore with a touch. It occurred to Mrs Beck that her husband used to do something similar. She’d almost forgotten, but he would hold her hand whenever she grew impatient or wound up about something. Just another thing she missed.
She wondered what her husband would have made of the detectives. He would have agreed with her decision to evict them, she was sure. They were criminals after all. Even so, she could imagine him being quite interested in their detective agency. They’d probably have had a lot to talk about.
She looked down at her hands. Slowly, feeling a little silly as she did it, she grasped one hand with the other, like her husband used to do. To her surprise, she felt a little better.