Before Mr Butterfield allowed the detectives into the bathhouse, he asked them to remove their shoes. This was the non-negotiable policy of the Hammam, to ensure the baths remained “un-polluted”.
The double doors opened, but before they had even embarked down the stairs, Theodore was hit by the familiar smell of the perfumed air, the sound of the trickling fountain. All at once, the years fell away and it was as though Theodore had never left.
The meshlakh was just as he remembered. The wooden columns that separated the changing cubicles, the triangular beams and their geometric patterns, the narrow plunge pool that ran down the room to the grand arch at the far end. And bare flesh everywhere. Men, young and old, patrolling the room wearing only a towel or less, all sense of modesty handed in at the reception desk. Theodore caught himself staring. He’d forgotten it was like this.
‘The body is inside the baths?’ Hugo asked Mr Butterfield.
‘Keep your voice down,’ Mr Butterfield snapped.
‘Why not clear the room?’
‘As I said, the investigation must not interfere with the smooth-running of the Hammam. As far as the patrons are concerned, you are ordinary members of staff. Inspectors or some such. I’d have you pose as attendants if you had the complexion.’
Hugo gave Theodore an, ‘I told you so,’ look.
Mr Butterfield brought them to one of the cubicles. The curtain was drawn tight, with an ‘Out of Service’ sign pinned to it. Furqan was guarding it dutifully, standing with arms crossed behind his back, so still he didn’t even appear to breathe. He stepped aside when they approached.
‘Keep your voices down,’ Mr Butterfield hissed at the detectives. ‘These cubicles aren’t exactly soundproof.’
Mr Butterfield lifted the curtain the slightest amount, slipping through in profile, leaving no gap for curious eyes to catch a glimpse through. The detectives politely followed his example, though lumbering Theodore almost pulled the curtain down in the process. Once through, he was about to make some jovial remark to excuse his clumsiness, but all words left him when he saw what was inside.
The man’s face was twisted into an expression of abject terror. His pale, naked body splayed awkwardly on the divan at a bizarre angle, an arm and a leg hanging over the side. And there were jagged shapes carved into his chest. Letters? It was hard to tell with the clumsy cuts and the bleeding, but when Theodore squinted he could just about make out the word.
This was far from the first body Theodore had seen. Many had been in worse shape than this. Even so, the sight of it chilled Theodore. His fingers trembled and his throat was too dry to utter a sound.
Hugo, on the other hand, was as stoic as always. He produced his notebook and bent over the body.
‘Bruising around the neck,’ he observed. ‘Choked to death, most likely. The letters were done afterwards.’ He looked closer. ‘Signs of a struggle, judging by the position of the body and the bruise on the right cheek.’ He pointed to a towel strewn on the floor. ‘Must have come loose during the exchange.’
Hugo straightened and looked to Theodore. ‘Theodore?’ he said, with a note of concern.
Get a grip, Theodore told himself. He cleared his throat and tried to affect the same air of professionalism. ‘It appears the killer did not approve of the victim’s sexual habits.’
‘You don’t say,’ scoffed Mr Butterfield.
Theodore scowled, but persevered. ‘My guess is that the victim propositioned someone, a stranger or at least someone he didn’t know well. Perhaps the towel was dropped as part of a lewd display. Needless to say, it was not well received and the stranger responded with violence. Choking would be the best option. As you say, these cubicles are not soundproof, but some muffled grunts wouldn’t be unusual. After the deed was done, the killer “branded” the body as a way of justifying the crime, perhaps as much to himself as whomever would find the body. At best, this was a crime of opportunity. At worst, there is a queer killer at large who may well strike again.’
Mr Butterfield nodded, more impressed this time. Hugo moved a fraction of an inch closer to Theodore, as if about to offer some comfort. Theodore didn’t want Hugo to think he was overwrought, and so quickly approached the body for a closer look.
He did his best to look past the grotesque details and see the man himself. While alive, he might have been quite handsome. Pale and slender, with freckled shoulders and thick, curly red hair. There was a dark blemish on his abdomen that Theodore had taken for a birthmark, but a second look revealed it to be a tattoo. A small silhouette of a rearing horse.
‘Look at this.’ Theodore pointed it out to Hugo.
Hugo studied it. ‘A souvenir from the war, perhaps. He may have belonged to a cavalry regiment.’
‘Who was he?’ Theodore asked Mr Butterfield.
He shrugged. ‘Not a clue.’
‘You don’t know his name?’ said Hugo. ‘He must have given it when he checked in.’
‘I’m sure he did,’ said Mr Butterfield. ‘But we don’t assign cubicles. The only way we could find him in the ledger is by looking up his name, which would rather defeat the point.’
Theodore thought for a moment, resting his fingers on his lips, before scanning about the room. The cubicle was a small, square space. The walls of curtain and trellised wood didn’t extend all the way up to the high, sloped ceiling above. There were no furnishings aside from the two divan beds and the stack of cubbyholes where bathers could store their clothes. In one of these cubbyholes was a pile of folded clothes.
‘Perhaps he kept his identification with him,’ said Theodore, taking the clothes and laying them out on the second divan. It was a simple, grey suit with a chequered tie and a felt hat. Theodore searched every pocket he could find, but all were empty. ‘He must have handed all his valuables in.’
‘Where do you keep them?’ said Hugo.
‘We have a set of lockers behind reception,’ said Mr Butterfield. ‘Everyone is assigned one when they check in. But, again, we find a person’s locker by looking up their name in the ledger.’
Hugo made a pointed sniff. ‘I’m seeing a flaw in this system.’
Mr Butterfield looked indignant. ‘We’ve never had a situation where a patron cannot provide his own name.’
‘Perhaps the member of staff who served him will recognise him,’ said Theodore.
Mr Butterfield did not share Theodore’s optimism. ‘We deal with five hundred men on our busiest days. We don’t expect our staff to remember them all. That’s what the ledger is for. And, as I’ve said, I’d rather keep my staff from knowing about what’s happened. They’re not to see the body.’
This line of investigation was proving fruitless. Theodore tried another angle. ‘Who found the body?’
‘Furqan, on his rounds. And it’s lucky he did. I don’t need to tell you our patrons are a nosy lot.’
‘At what time?’
‘It was a quarter to eight when he told me, so shortly before that.’
‘Twenty-five minutes before you telephoned us,’ said Theodore. He didn’t phrase this as a question, just a fact.
Mr Butterfield wasn’t phased. ‘I deliberated over calling the police until I remembered you and your detective agency. Thankfully, I’d kept one of your cards on file.’
Hugo spoke again. ‘Why didn’t you call the police?’
Mr Butterfield stared at Hugo. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘Isn’t this the sort of thing you deal with?’
‘We normally represent innocent people who might be arrested if they go to the proper authorities,’ said Hugo, somewhat standoffishly. ‘You don’t have that problem.’
Mr Butterfield straightened his waistcoat. ‘That may be,’ he said, tight-lipped. ‘Nevertheless, there are many men of your sort who rely on this place.’
‘And it has nothing to do with keeping a significant portion of your most regular clients from learning there’s a murderer at large who’d like to kill them? Business as usual, after all.’
Mr Butterfield narrowed his eyes. ‘If the police see the body with that word scratched into it, they’ll put two and two together and investigate this place for sodomy. I’m sure you want that as little as I do.’
Hugo shrugged. ‘We don’t have the power to arrest or imprison anyone. We have a difficult relationship with the law, certainly, but we rely on the police to carry out justice. Once we find the killer, we’ll have no choice but to report the crime.’
‘No,’ said Mr Butterfield, flatly. ‘You can’t hand this killer over to police without also explaining his motive. The police can never find out.’
‘Then what do you expect us to do with the killer?’ said Hugo.
Mr Butterfield folded his arms. ‘You tell me.’
Theodore looked from one to the other, feeling like he was caught in the eye of a hurricane. With a decisive sniff, Hugo reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out Mr Butterfield’s money. But before he could return it, Theodore placed a hand on his shoulder. Hugo froze.
Theodore knew why Hugo had misgivings, but this wouldn’t be the first time they resolved a case without involving the police. It wasn’t always possible, even with the help of their contacts within the force, to report a crime without exposing an innocent queer person to investigation. In these cases, the detectives would resort to what Hugo called ‘vigilante justice’.
Twice they’d forced a murderer into exile—one in Saudi Arabia, one in South Africa—by way of blackmail. Often, they found a criminal was also guilty of some other crime and would have them imprisoned on that charge instead. Just once, they’d broken a murderer’s legs. That had been an accident. After being accused, the killer had fled and wound up falling down two flights of stairs in the ensuing chase. He’d been committed to a wheelchair for life and the detectives, feeling partly responsible, thought this would serve as a punishment.
Theodore knew Hugo disliked it when cases ended this way. Hugo hardly agreed with every letter of the law, but he felt as though these criminals were getting off lightly. He’d accepted it in the past because the crime had been an accident or self defence, or because they could be confident the murderer wouldn’t kill again, or simply because it was the best they could do under the circumstances. It wasn’t fair to let this killer off the hook just because Mr Butterfield didn’t want to endanger his business.
Mr Butterfield unfolded and re-folded his arms. ‘We can decide what to do with the killer when you catch him. Will you take the case or not?’
Theodore and Hugo looked at one another. This was the Hammam. This was where hundreds of men like them met, socialised and fell in love, safe from the eyes of those that would wish them harm. For God’s sake, this was where the two of them had found each other. A man was dead. A murderer was at large. They had to help, even if it meant accepting Mr Butterfield’s conditions for the time being. And they had to do it without endangering the Hammam’s patrons.
After a moment, Hugo nodded.
‘We’ll take it,’ said Theodore. There was no question about that. Once upon a time, it could so easily have been himself lying naked and rotting on that bed.