‘Jack was new,’ said Percy. He left his seat at the dressing table and went to an armchair by the window, where he rummaged through a coat that was draped over the back. Theodore assumed he was searching for a cigarette case, but he ended up taking out a small paper bag filled with toffees. He offered one to Theodore, who declined, before unwrapping one for himself. ‘When I met Jack, it was his very first time at the Hammam. Though I saw him many times since.’
‘When was that, when you first met him?’
‘Let’s say a month or two ago.’
‘Can you tell me about that meeting?’
‘Oh, Theo, I remember it like it was a dream.’ He leant back in the armchair, eyes shut. ‘It was well into the evening shift, the witching hour, you know what I mean, just when the mood of the Hammam is beginning to turn. He caught my eye from the other end of hot room, sat there with his body out, all glistening with sweat. But his hair, that was the thing, redder than yours, even. Our eyes met, he smiled, and I loved him at once.’
‘Did you and he…?’ Theodore chose not to finish that question. He never had the chance to, because at that moment the bathroom door opened.
Dougie emerged, fully dressed. If Percy could be said to have a type, Dougie was it. Young, for starters, barely twenty and rake-thin. His shirtsleeves were rolled up past the elbows and he wore suspenders over his waistcoat. His hair was shorn to the skin at the sides and he wore a peaked cap on his head. Theodore noted he had a heavy brow that perhaps could be described as surly. A voice that sounded like Hugo reminded Theodore that Art’s description was vague enough to apply to many people.
Dougie perched on the end of the bed. His presence did not interrupt Percy’s story in the slightest.
‘Were we intimate?’ said Percy. ‘Regrettably not. You see, Jack was what I call a window shopper. Very interested in the product but, for whatever reason, reluctant to make a purchase.’
‘He never approached anyone?’
‘Never. Perfectly affable, of course. Very happy to chat, Irish accent like a song, you know? Even showed me his tattoo. But he politely declined all my offers to take a bed somewhere. And, naturally, I wasn’t the only one who offered. He never took up a one of them. Another waste…’
Theodore’s brow furrowed. ‘So how do you know he was like us?’
‘Oh, sweetheart,’ Percy sighed, ‘I told you he was there often. A person can only get so clean. And let me tell you, his attention was never on washing.’
Theodore’s brow furrowed deeper. ‘I’ve heard he had relations with Arthur Greenwood.’
‘Who?’ said Percy. ‘Oh, you mean that rower friend of yours. Frightfully rude fellow, if you don’t mind my saying so. Well, I can’t speak for anything that happened outside the Hammam, but whenever I saw Jack, which was often, he only liked to look.’
‘I’ve seen him with someone,’ said Dougie.
Both Theodore and Percy stared at him. ‘You have not,’ said Percy, indignantly.
‘Irish lad? Red hair?’ Dougie tutted indignantly. ‘Yeah, he goes to bed with lots of boys. Last time I saw him, he was talking to a fella in the cold room. Then they went into a changing cubicle together and pulled the curtain. I don’t reckon they were sleeping, do you?’ He wrinkled his nose.
‘Who?’ said Percy.
‘How should I know?’
‘Could you describe the man?’ said Theodore.
‘Young,’ said Dougie. ‘Very young, actually, maybe only just out of school. Floppy blond hair, he had. Wore his other towel on his shoulders.’
‘Ah, towel over the shoulders,’ said Percy, knowingly. ‘That’s how you know.’
‘When was this?’ said Theodore.
‘I dunno. Evening.’
‘Did you see either of them leave?’
‘Think!’ Theodore had not intended to snap. Seeing the look of surprise on Dougie’s face, he quickly followed with a softer, ‘Please. I need you to be certain.’
‘I didn’t see them leave,’ he said. ‘Speaking of which, I think I should head off too.’
Dougie stood, and Percy let out a wail of anguish. ‘Oh, don’t go, darling. You said we’d have breakfast.’
‘It’s gone noon,’ said Dougie, noncommittally.
‘Ah, that’s my fault I suppose. Very well, be off with you.’
Dougie did not leave. An awkward moment passed.
‘Oh!’ Percy rummaged through his coat again and pulled out his pocket book. He placed a few coins in Dougie’s hand. A second’s thought, and he added a few more. ‘And if we cannot breakfast together, at least get something tasty on my behalf.’
Dougie had his hand on the door. Theodore acted fast. ‘If I need to ask more about what you saw, where can I find you?’
‘Er,’ Dougie’s eyes flitted towards Percy. ‘I’d rather not have someone from here come visit me at home or at work, if it’s all the same. I swear, I don’t know any more.’
Percy patted Theodore’s knee. ‘Worry not, Theo, I can get the pair of you in touch if need be. So long, my dear.’
The door shut. Theodore cursed himself, though in truth he doubted there was much more that Dougie could tell him. It was a ghost of a lead on the killer at least, though he had no idea how to pursue it.
His thoughts were scattered when Percy’s knee-patting changed into a sudden—though gentle—slap on the thigh.
‘Damn you, Theo, you spooked him.’ His tone was playful, though Theodore detected some genuine irritation.
‘Is he… what is your relationship, can I ask?’ said Theodore.
Percy sucked his teeth. ‘If I had to characterise it, I’d say I’m his mentor. Or perhaps avuncular is a better word.’
‘But you pay him?’
‘Oh, that?’ Percy scoffed, unwrapping another toffee. ‘That’s just a formality. Men like Dougie—proper men, I mean—feel more comfortable if they can tell themselves it’s a transaction. So long as they can say they’re only doing it for the three-bob, they don’t need to worry themselves about why they’re laying in bed with a man until lunchtime.’
‘So, it’s a mutual thing?’ said Theodore. There was a touch more incredulity in his voice than he’d intended.
Percy cocked his head. ‘I know it may surprise you to see a dish like him in bed with an old fart like me’—Percy unconsciously adjusted his hairpiece—‘but experience has its own attractions. A lot of the new boys are grateful for a skilled hand. It’s a dangerous world we love in, after all, and, well, a handsome face is not always a trustworthy one.’
Percy leaned closer, smiling. It was only then that Theodore realised Percy’s hand was still touching his knee, though now it was slowly drifting upwards along his thigh.
‘That said,’ Percy went on in a low voice, ‘your face is just as handsome as I remember.’
Theodore smiled at Percy, but lifted his hand away. ‘You know full well I’m in a relationship.’
‘The more the merrier,’ said Percy, not a crack in his smile.
Theodore stood. ‘No, thank you.’
‘Goodness,’ Percy gasped. ‘You’ve become such a prude, Theo. It’s only sex.’ He said the word as casually as if he were talking about afternoon tea. ‘This man of yours must be quite the catch to make you chaste. I’d love to meet him. Good looking, is he? Tall? Strapping? Blond, I expect, I remember that was your achilles heel. And he must be very gifted in the bedroom for you to forego other flavours of meat.’
Theodore said nothing.
‘Oh, you’re not angry with me, Theo.’ Percy pouted and batted his eyelids. ‘You can’t blame a girl for trying. I always regretted we didn’t know each other better. Such a waste, such a waste…’
‘Thank you for your time,’ said Theodore, heading for the door.
‘You’re sure I can’t tempt you?’
Theodore was about to tell Percy that if he didn’t forget the idea he would wind up with a broken nose, until he saw that Percy was holding out the bag of toffees again.
Percy smiled at Theodore, but without much conviction. ‘Suit yourself.’
It occurred to Theodore that all Percy really wanted was company. Looking at him now, sitting alone in this dark, messy room which smelled of four days’ worth of sweat, Theodore was so consumed with sorrow he considered staying. But there was work to be done.
On his way downstairs, Theodore wondered if he had changed. Was he a prude? That was basically what Art had said at dinner. No matter which way he cut it, his life was different with Hugo. He’d never used to go to bed reading a novel or argue about which restaurant to go to. It had happened without his noticing.
And what would Percy say if he ever met Hugo? Hugo certainly wouldn’t measure up to the fair-haired adonis he was picturing. Percy would know, then, that Theodore had become a boring, priggish stick-in-the-mud. Strangely, as he thought of it now, the idea didn’t worry Theodore as much as he might have expected.
Something else worried him more. If things had shaped up slightly differently, if on that day in the bathhouse Theodore had not stopped to talk to Hugo, if he had dismissed him as he had intended to, as Percy surely would have done, then Theodore’s life would have taken a wholly different path. He wouldn’t have become a detective. He might have shared a flat with someone, though he doubted for very long. He would have continued to be a regular at the Hammam and continued to enjoy a collection of passionate relationships, each one lasting as long as it took for Theodore to grow bored. He might never have settled down. Would he have wound up like Percy? Old, lonely and paying young men to just to spend time with him. Or would he have followed Art’s example? In a sham marriage, trapped for life with someone he could never love.
He looked back up the stairwell. He could no longer see Percy’s door, but it was easy to imagine him still sat in his armchair, alone. Was it fair to pity him? According to Art, Percy had made the wiser choice.
Theodore had never considered what a gamble he was taking by choosing Hugo. But he was starting to think the game had no winning moves.