Murder at Queen Street – Chapter 11

15 Chapters. 31,000 words. PG-13 – Some mild violence
First Chapter • 2 • 3 • 4 • 5 • 67 • 8 • 9 • 10 • 11 • 12 • 13 • 14 • 15

Hugo sat at his desk. The letter they had found in Harry’s suitcase was placed squarely in the centre, with all the collected samples in a circle around it. He had been staring at them, hoping to find something he’d missed. His eyes were sore. He was certain the ticking of the grandfather clock was getting louder.

A cup of coffee appeared on his desk. ‘Could one of them have faked their sample?’ suggested Theodore. ‘Or given us a sample that wasn’t their own?’

‘Perhaps,’ said Hugo, unconvinced.

Mrs Beck cleared her throat impatiently. ‘I’m telling you, it’s not from one of my tenants.’

Hugo ignored her. He didn’t know why she was still there.

Theodore leant over Hugo’s shoulder to get a better look at the letter. ‘“I’ve been trying to see you. I’m not angry. If you’ve changed your mind, I’ll understand.” What’s that referencing?’

‘It sounds like the author has been out of contact with the addressee,’ said Hugo. ‘But Jackson has been in touch with everyone in the building at least once in the past year.’

‘Indeed,’ said Theodore, twirling the tip of his moustache. ‘And I sincerely doubt that’s a coincidence.

‘Oh, that’s easily explained,’ Mrs Beck said, nonchalantly.

The detectives turned to her in surprise. ‘Is that so?’ said Theodore.

Mrs Beck crossed her arms. ‘We already know Harry was pursuing Kitty, to the point that he’d steal Mr Glossop’s plan to seduce her. Presumably, he only made friends with Mr Glossop in the first place to get closer to her. After all, that’s why he pretended to view the flat before you moved in.’

The detectives stared. ‘He pretended to the view the flat?’ said Hugo.

‘Oh, did I not mention that?’

‘You mean to say, you also met him before yesterday?’ said Theodore.

‘Well,’ Mrs Beck spluttered. ‘Yes!’

The detectives continued to stare.

‘Look, there really isn’t much to tell,’ she insisted. ‘It was before you took the flat, maybe three months ago. He came for a viewing, but when he asked for credit on the deposit I turned him out. I swear I told you this already.’

‘You did,’ Theodore nodded. ‘When we first viewed the flat. But you never told us that was Mr Jackson. And you also didn’t tell us he was “pretending”.’

‘I only found that out later. When I met him yesterday morning, I recognised him and he admitted he was only trying to get into the building for a day or two so he might have a chance to speak to Kitty.’

Theodore looked sceptical, but if he thought she was lying, he didn’t say anything about it. ‘Could you take us through that first meeting with him?’

Mrs Beck thought back. ‘It happened much the same as your viewing did. Although, I can’t say I thought much of him then. His clothes were shoddy and he wore a’—she shuddered—‘flatcap. I told him what the rent was straight away but he didn’t seem put out. I went ahead and brought him upstairs, though I rather rushed the viewing. He seemed impatient to get it over with as well; I now realise the quality of the flat wouldn’t have mattered to him. Once the viewing was finished, he said he’d like to move in immediately, that day even, except he wouldn’t be able to pay for another day or two. I told him that was out of the question. He tried to convince me and assured me he was, ahem, “good for it”. I told him that quite aside from the money, he would not be moving in without supplying a character reference, though I felt that I’d already received a good indication of his character. I escorted him from the building at once. The whole viewing only lasted ten minutes.’

Hugo looked at Theodore. His brow was knitted in thought. Then he brightened.

‘Still,’ he said, clapping his hands together, ‘this doesn’t solve our letter problem.’

Hugo frowned over the samples again. ‘Do you still have the envelope, Teddy?’

Theodore thought for a moment, then felt inside his jacket pocket. Sure enough, the envelope for Harry’s letter was there. He passed it to Hugo.

‘Whitechapel,’ he murmured. ‘We’ve run out of things to do here. It could be worth a look.’

Mrs Beck balked. ‘You’re not suggesting going there now.’

‘When else?’ said Hugo, making a pointed glance at the clock.

‘Whitechapel’s on the complete other side of London,’ said Mrs Beck. ‘And it’s the middle of night. What if you travel all the way there only to find it’s locked up? You could waste hours.’

But Theodore was already taking his hat and coat from the hatstand. ‘Hope is a lover’s staff,’ he said, grandly. ‘Walk hence with that, and manage it against despairing thoughts.’

‘Excuse me?’ said Mrs Beck.

‘What he means to say,’ said Hugo, putting on his own coat, ‘is that it is better to find nothing than to miss a potential clue simply because we doubted we’d find one.’

Mrs Beck sighed. ‘Very well. Let me get my coat.’

The detectives froze. ‘Pardon me?’ said Hugo.

‘I’m coming too, of course.’

Hugo looked to Theodore, trusting he could read the panic in his face. Theodore just smiled and placed a comforting hand on Mrs Beck’s hand. ‘You’re welcome to join us, of course. However, one of us should remain behind. We need to be certain nobody tries to leave before we return.’

Theodore left the unspoken implication to settle. Mrs Beck scowled. ‘Very well, I’ll stay.’

‘Bless you, Mrs Beck.’

London was a different place at night. Streetlights glared through the damp air, casting bright reflections on the wet roads, yet doing little to stave off the murky dark. The streets, once packed with traffic, were deserted save for the odd figure seen walking the pavements, always alone, their crisp footsteps echoing off the stone.

Aboard the empty night bus, Theodore turned to Hugo. ‘I feel like she’s coming around.’

‘She may be getting used to us. That doesn’t mean she’s had a change of heart.’

Theodore shrugged. ‘Maybe getting used to us is enough.’

The bus rattled eastwards. The marble and stone rushing past the windows gave way to brick and cobble.

‘I sense you’re onto something,’ said Hugo.

‘Maybe,’ said Theodore ‘But it’s unworkable until we figure out the letter. It makes no sense if somebody invited Harry to Queen Street. I’m starting to wish you’d never found it…’

‘I’m in the same boat,’ said Hugo. ‘I feel I’ve almost grasped the step-by-steps of the murder, only I can’t account for that damn arsenic bottle.’

‘Who’s your money on?’

‘One of two,’ said Hugo. He gave a discrete glance around the bus, even though it was just as empty as it had been, before uttering the names under his breath.

Theodore’s nose wrinkled. ‘Why?’

‘Because of the carpets.’

‘The carpets?’ Theodore frowned. Then he gasped. ‘Ohhh… still not sure I believe it, though.’

‘I just do the how,’ Hugo shrugged. ‘The why is your area.’

The bus didn’t take them the whole way, so they travelled the last stretch on foot. Hugo had studied a map and memorised the route before they left, and so led the way. Theodore made a motion to hold onto Hugo’s arm as they walked, but thought better of it. The streets were empty now, but that could change.

Morley House belonged to a terrace of identical redbrick buildings. The windows were small and dark and the facade almost perfectly flat. The small gas-lamp over the door was barely bright enough to light the step. A painted sign on the wall read “Cheap Lodging for Single, Working Men. One meal a day.”

‘What a miserable place,’ said Theodore, glumly.

‘One meal a day,’ Hugo shrugged. ‘That’s better than Mrs Beck provides.’

He smiled his little smile at Theodore, who rolled his eyes.

The door was not locked. A bell tinkled. It opened onto a dark, narrow hallway, with a grimy, tiled floor and a dusty, wooden staircase.

‘Oi,’ said a voice. ‘You lost?’

To their left was an open doorway, leading to a small reception room. A stout woman had her feet up on the desk and the paper on her lap. There was an open snuff box on the desk and a dark smudge around her nose. A wireless radio crackled with quiet, tinny music.

Theodore approached her. ‘Good evening, madam,’ he said, cheerily. ‘My name is Mr Bellamy. I take it you’re the night porter, Mrs…?’

‘Shaw,’ said the woman, doubtfully. ‘And it’s Miss.’

‘Ah, Miss Shaw. We’re investigating a murder. May we ask you a few questions.’

Miss Shaw studied them. ‘You ain’t coppers,’ she said. It wasn’t a question.

‘Indeed not, we are private detectives.’

‘Is that right?’

Hugo put a hand on Theodore’s shoulder. Theodore hesitated, but stepped aside.

‘We understand a man named Harold Jackson lived here,’ said Hugo.

Miss Shaw sucked her teeth and stared Hugo down. Hugo waited a moment, then reached into his coat, pulled out a pound note, placed it on the desk and slid it toward her.

Miss Shaw didn’t even glance at the note. Her eyes remained fixed on Hugo, unblinking. Then, she took her feet off the desk, dropped her paper on the floor and took the note.

‘As far as I’m concerned,’ she said, ‘he still lives ‘ere. Is it him that’s been murdered?’

Hugo raised an eyebrow. ‘We understood he was forced to leave due to renovations.’

‘Renovations?’ The word didn’t fit in her mouth. ‘Look around. Management don’t spare tuppence for a new coat of paint. Renovations…’

Hugo looked to Theodore, who stepped forward again. ‘What was your impression of him?’

‘I didn’t know him, I just work here.’

‘You knew the name.’

‘Well, yeah, you get to recognise the long-termers. And he sticks out with his country accent. But he’s just like any of the other fellas.’

‘Is this what one pound is worth?’ said Hugo, flatly.

‘S’not my fault. That’s all I know.’ She sniffed. ‘I dunno. I s’pose it’s strange he pays weekly.’

‘Why is that strange?’ asked Theodore.

‘It’s cheaper to pay by the month. He’s been here getting on a year.’

Theodore and Hugo looked at one another. ‘He didn’t want to commit to staying that long?’ Theodore suggested.

He was speaking to Hugo, but Miss Shaw replied. ‘How should I know?’

‘His room was number twelve, yes?’ said Hugo. ‘We’d like to take a look.’

Miss Shaw’s stare returned. She opened the wall-mounted cabinet beside her and took out a key, keeping her eyes on Hugo the whole time. ‘First floor. Ten minutes. Don’t make me fetch you.’ She dropped the key on the desk.

Hugo nodded and took it.

Harry Jackson had a room to himself, which was better than many lodging houses offered, though there was hardly room for even the sparse furnishings. A single bed, unmade, a wardrobe, a chipped basin on a small table, a chamber pot and a steamer trunk that clearly hadn’t come with the room. The air was cold; the small, black stove in the corner hadn’t been lit for at least a day. The faded wallpaper was decorated with garish floral patterns and there were ugly, brown stains on the ceiling.

With only a look to each other, the detectives divvied up the room. With near mathematical precision, they turned the place over. The wardrobe and the steamer trunk were the obvious first targets, but both were empty. Theodore moved every large piece of furniture, either lifting them or shoving them out of position. Hugo ran his hand under the bed, down the back of the wardrobe, behind the stovepipe and any other small gap he could find. When he felt beneath the mattress, his fingers brushed against glass.

‘Could you help me with this, Teddy?’

Theodore joined him at the bed and helped him lift the mattress. Placed carefully between the slats were several rows of glass bottles. Harry had affixed a sheet to the underside of the bed to keep them from falling through the gaps. They came in different shapes and sizes, containing pills, powders and liquids, wearing labels with words like “Diamorphine”, “Diethyl Ether”, “Chloroform”, and “Cocaine Hydrochloride”.

‘An addict?’ said Theodore.

‘More likely a dealer,’ said Hugo. ‘These look to be wholesale. He must have a contact in a factory or hospital. Some of these could be recreational, many are used as surgical sedatives. This one, however…’

He indicated a bottle at one end of the bedframe. There were only a couple like it, but it was very familiar. “Arsenic Trioxide.” Hugo produced the bottle he’d pocketed in the basement patio and held it beside one of these bottles. In size and shape, they were identical.

‘So Harry brought the arsenic into the house?’ said Theodore. ‘He was planning to poison someone?’

‘I’m not so certain,’ Hugo murmured. The bottle on the bed looked brand new, whereas the one in his hand was two-thirds empty and, by comparison, the label had faded significantly.

‘Let’s not waste time,’ said Hugo. With Theodore’s help, they replaced the mattress.

They gave the room one last cursory glance. Hugo didn’t expect to find anything else, at least nothing more useful than the secret stash of drugs, until Theodore said, ‘Oh!’

Hugo watched as Theodore went to the wardrobe, reached up and pulled down a blue, striped hat box. It had been pushed to the very back, so that in the small room it could only be seen by someone of Theodore’s height. He took the box to the bed and opened it.

‘Aha!’ Theodore cried. ‘I knew it!’

At first, all Hugo saw was a jumble of black fabric. They turned out to be several items stuffed together into the box, which Theodore took out one by one. The was a large belladonna hat, matching gloves, a pair of high-heeled pumps, a wooden make-up box and, lastly, a long, dark dress. Theodore tutted as he laid each item on the mattress. ‘That’s no way to store delicate things like this.’

‘Why would Harry keep such things?’ said Hugo.

‘You don’t recognise it?’ said Theodore. He held up the dress and hat as if modelling them on an invisible person.

Hugo looked at him blankly.

‘You really don’t take me to theatre enough,’ Theodore chided, playfully. ‘This is Kitty’s costume. I recognise it from the poster in her flat.’

‘The one that was stolen?’ said Hugo.

‘The very same. After all, Harry was already seeing Kitty at that time. He must’ve visited her in her dressing room from time to time. He would have had ample opportunity to take it.’

Hugo was about to ask why Harry would do this, but his internal clock was nagging. He checked his pocket-watch. ‘We’d better go. We can discuss back at Queen Street.’

They took a few moments to straighten to the room before heading back downstairs. Theodore waited in the corridor while Hugo returned the key to Miss Shaw. He placed it on her desk without a word and she made no sign of noticing him.

On their way out, they passed the post pigeon-holes in the hall. Each space bore a little label with the room number and occupant’s name. Hugo couldn’t help spotting Harry’s pigeon-hole. His name was still there. It was empty now, but this must have been where he had first found the letter that wound up in his suitcase. This was still on Hugo’s mind as he left the building. It reminded him of the story Maxwell Glossop had told about stealing Kitty’s post. And this led to another thought.

Hugo was not prone to gasps of surprise or sudden proclamations of ‘Eureka!’. Nevertheless, he paused for a moment on the front step. Just for a second. Then he quickened his pace to match Theodore’s.

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