At around six o’clock, the detectives reminded Furqan of their agreement. There was a moment where it seemed he might have changed his mind. Instead, he impressed upon the detectives that they were not to take the ledger from the premises. He then revised this to say they were to be confined to the records room and that they’d better get all the information they needed in one sitting for they were unlikely to have another. Hugo sighed, but agreed.
The records room was a small study, with a desk and several bookshelves stacked full of folders and binders. An attendant was waiting for them with a tray, bearing a steaming teapot and a full complement of milk, sugar, lemon slices and rich tea biscuits. When they entered, Furqan snapped his fingers and the attendant hastily poured two cups, put a slice of lemon in each and hurried out. Only then did Furqan hand the ledger to Hugo. It was a large, black, cloth-bound notebook, with the Hammam’s name proudly embossed on the cover.
‘We only use one ledger at a time,’ Furqan explained. ‘To keep all the information in one place. So you see why it is so valuable.’
Hugo flicked through the pages. Each double page was printed with a table in red ink, with columns for the specific information the Hammam kept. About half the entries were men checking in, noting when they had arrived, what they had paid, which locker they’d been allocated and other such details. The other half were the more sparsely detailed entries of men checking out, occasionally noting any outstanding charges to be paid. Very rarely came the entries of men extending their stay or deciding to take a private chamber late in the evening.
‘How far back does it go?’ said Hugo.
‘We replace it every month or so.’
Hugo sat down and took out his notebook, now retrieved along with his spectacles. Sensing he was no longer needed, Furqan left them to it.
‘Right,’ said Hugo. ‘We need a list of everyone who was checked in in at the time of the murder. Let’s begin by making a list of everyone who checked in before seven o’clock last night and subtract everyone who checked out before that time.’
‘All right,’ said Theodore.
Hugo’s use of the word ‘we’ turned out to be generous. He used a very careful system to organise all the information, making several lists at once. Theodore, meanwhile, slumped in his chair and glanced at the clock.
‘You’re bored,’ said Hugo.
Theodore was about to deny it, but didn’t see the point. ‘I’m not really much use here, am I?’
‘It’s all right. You needn’t hang around if you don’t want to.’
Theodore blinked. It was normally a given that whatever the detectives did, business or pleasure, they did it together. ‘In that case,’ said Theodore slowly, ‘would you mind if I went to see Art at the Criterion?’
Hugo’s eyes narrowed. Theodore quickly added, ‘He is an old friend of mine. And it wouldn’t just be a social meeting. Perhaps I can get him to remember some more details about this man he saw the victim with. Or about the chap in the changing rooms. You’d be welcome to come along but I know you wouldn’t enjoy it.’
Hugo took a sip of his tea. ‘Why should I mind?’
Theodore knew Hugo wasn’t pleased. But the prospect of dinner at somewhere other than the Lilypond was too good to pass up.
If a man wished to find a bar in London that catered to men and women with alternative tastes, one simply had to stand in the middle of Piccadilly Circus and pick a direction to walk in. The Criterion Bar was on the south side of the Circus and gave every impression of being a respectable establishment. The travel guides described it as “London’s most fashionable resort for afternoon tea”. Nevertheless, at a time of night far too late for tea, a very different kind of clientele referred to it as the Witches’ Cauldron. Men would roam from table to table, flirting, kissing and not giving a damn who saw. Some wore make-up. Others wore frocks. After dark, it was a place where if a man was so bold as to be himself he would be met with applause.
Theodore descended the wide, sweeping staircase that led to the long room of marble and mirrors. It was too early in the evening for anything interesting to be going on. Theodore didn’t even expect Art to have arrived yet, but when he gave Art’s name he was surprised when the waiter led him to a table.
Art smiled as Theodore approached. Here in the outside world, Art was a very different sight. His hair was slicked back with grease and he wore a narrow tuxedo with a white waistcoat. Though years had left the odd grey hair on his head and line in his face, his smile hadn’t changed an inch.
He rose to shake Theodore’s hand. ‘I’m glad you came.’
‘Me too,’ said Theodore, trying to shake his nerves.
Art gestured to the table. They sat. As they did, Art’s eyes flickered up and down Theodore, appraising him like a mended watch just back from the jewellers. Despite having seen each other only a few hours earlier, this meeting felt more real. Perhaps because they were alone.
‘Have a light?’ he asked, pulling a cigarette case from his front pocket.
As luck would have it, Theodore had a book of matches in his jacket. He struck one and lit the cigarette Art held out. ‘Why is it you always have cigarettes but never any matches?’
‘It’s a conversation starter,’ said Art, flashing a devious smile. ‘You’ve gained weight.’
Theodore was well insulated against Art’s habit to provoke. ‘So have you.’
Art frowned, looking down at himself. ‘The wedding ring,’ said Theodore, nodding at the gold band on Art’s finger.
Art sighed. ‘You still don’t miss a trick, do you?’
‘You’re married, yet you still spend nights at the Hammam?’ said Theodore, trying to keep accusation out of his tone.
Before Art could respond, a waiter arrived and offered drinks. Art ordered a Gordon’s. Theodore, finding himself unable to remember any beverages he liked, ordered the same.
Once the waiter left, Art smirked. ‘Are you going to tell on me?’
‘Of course not,’ said Theodore. ‘I’m just… curious.’
Art shrugged. ‘It’s a sham wedding, obviously. Jenny’s her name, a decent enough girl. Doesn’t fuss much.’
‘Does she know about your habits?’
‘I daresay she suspects. But she was as desperate to marry as I.’
Theodore screwed up his nose. ‘Why?’
‘Oh, she was approaching a certain age…’
‘No, I mean why marry? Are you stuck for money?’
Art gave Theodore a condescending look, as a parent might give a child who had just asked where the sun went at night. ‘Tell me, Theo, would you marry Hugo?’
Theodore was almost struck dumb by the question. ‘We can’t marry so I’ve never had to think about it.’
‘But if you could?’
Theodore thought about it now. ‘Yes, I would.’
‘And would you live in a house together in the countryside?’
‘No, I love the city too much. And our work…’
‘All right, not today. But maybe when you’re older, wouldn’t you like to settle down, maybe raise some children?’
Theodore let out a snort of laughter. He pictured Hugo reacting to the suggestion, who didn’t like hypotheticals at the best of times, let alone biological impossibilities. ‘What’s the point? That’s never going to happen.’
Art nodded to himself. ‘That’s what I mean. Your relationship is never going to change.’
Theodore stopped laughing. The waiter returned with their drinks. The pair sat in awkward silence as he set them down. Sensing the mood, the waiter knew better than to ask if they were ready to order food. He bowed and left without a word.
Art reached across the table to pat Theodore’s hand. ‘I don’t blame you for wanting that life. But the sad truth is they won’t let us have it. That’s why our relationships don’t last. Best case scenario, you get stuck in a rut and your love turns stale. Worst case… one day, sooner than you expect, they’ll wonder why you’ve spent so many years a bachelor living with the same man. They’ll figure you out. And they’ll make sure you never see each other—or anyone else—ever again. Don’t you realise what a risk you’re taking by staying with Hugo?’
Theodore was stunned. Of course, he knew living with Hugo was a risk. He’d be a fool not to. But they’d gotten away with it so long he didn’t really think about that anymore. It had never occurred to him that it might get more dangerous as time passed. He had never really considered that things wouldn’t always be the way they were.
Theodore pulled his hand away from Art. ‘I didn’t ask for your opinion on my relationship.’
‘You asked me why I married,’ said Art, unashamed as ever. ‘For men like us, our curse is our blessing. We may not be allowed the house in the countryside, but we needn’t love by their rules. Who says we must pledge ourselves to one person, even when we love them madly? I believe love should be shared, and generously at that. You’re the one who taught me the value of variety. It’s what keeps me safe.’
For a time, Theodore stayed quiet, drawing his finger absently across the rim of his glass. ‘What are you saying? You think I should leave Hugo?’
‘Not at all. I say love him as fiercely and for as long as you can,’ said Art, plainly. ‘But think about the future, won’t you? For your own sake.’
Theodore could feel the blood firing through his veins. He hated Art for saying these things, but he couldn’t find the words to disagree with him. Instead, he forced himself to chuckle. ‘It’s just a detective agency. It’s not like we’re committed to each other for life.’
Theodore had believed himself when he’d said it. So why did it feel like betrayal?
Art shrugged. ‘If you say so.’ He moved on to other trivial topics and forgot the matter entirely. Theodore smiled and chatted and pretended all was well, but even as he did he already knew he would remember nothing else about tonight.
He forgot to ask a single question about the case.