Hugo had taken great care dressing that morning. Not that he was normally careless or that he didn’t dress well, but he rarely spent more than a few minutes on the task. He kept a collection of prepared outfits and never allowed a garment from one ensemble to stray toward another. Although, if he did, his clothes were all so similar that nobody would notice.
Today, he had chosen a drab, grey suit which Theodore hated and paired it with a blue tie that had no pattern. He’d dug out a musty bowler hat he never wore as well as an old, scuffed briefcase weighted with a few books. He’d also taken an umbrella. It wasn’t raining but props always helped.
He was also wearing an old pair of spectacles he’d found in his desk. His eyes had worsened since he’d first got them and they didn’t quite match his prescription anymore, but he hadn’t wanted to go into the master bedroom that morning to fetch his usual pair. He felt silly about it now. If he had gone, he’d have found his notebook, which he was also missing. He was so used to always having it, he hadn’t paid it any thought that morning. He felt like a fool, but it was too late to go back for it now.
He left the Underground at Westminster and joined a throng of men in similar, drab suits and bowler hats, crossing Westminster Bridge like marching soldiers. At the south side was County Hall, a wide, limestone building that stretched down the riverbank. Some of the crowd entered by a side entrance, but Hugo let the others take him around the back of the building and through one of the five doors that led to the main entrance hall. Nobody stopped him. Nobody paid him much notice at all. Hugo had a skill for blending in. He knew you could walk into almost anywhere so long as you looked as if you were supposed to be there.
Inside, the suited men dispersed across the marble floor, stepping over the mosaic of the Council coat of arms, disappearing into doorways or up stairwell or—for a noble, precious few—past the great, bronze gate that barricaded the entrance to the main council chamber. Hugo would stand out if he looked aimless, so he approached a man who looked in a hurry. ‘Excuse me, sir, can you direct me to the post room?’
The man, a white-haired gentleman with thick spectacles, was too flustered to pay much attention to Hugo. Without stopping, he pointed vaguely. Hugo thanked him and followed his direction.
Keeping up a determined pace, Hugo wandered the corridors, all dark-panelled walls and high, arching ceilings. After a few wrong turns and repeated steps, Hugo stumbled across a door that said ‘POST’.
The post room was a long, windowless cave of a room. A row of tables ran down the centre, each one piled up with letters and parcels. A team of men and women—mostly women—leafed through the piles, periodically spinning on their chairs to sort the post into the wooden pigeonholes that lined the walls.
‘Excuse me?’ said Hugo.
The nearest worker, a middle-aged woman with large, round spectacles, looked up. ‘Can I help?’
‘Yes, I’m expecting an important delivery soon, but I’ve recently changed office. Can I check you have the correct location on file for me?’
The woman looked at Hugo as if he’d insulted her mother. Nevertheless, she pushed her chair out and went to a tall cabinet at the head of the room. Here, she found black ledger. ‘Name?’
She flicked through, licking her finger before every page. ‘Keegan Doyle. Regulation and Licensing, block 7, sixth floor, main typing pool.’ Her eyes flicked at Keegan at these last words.
‘Ah, that’s correct, thank you.’ He let himself out.
It took Hugo almost an entire lap of the building to find block 7, since the blocks didn’t seem to be numbered in any logical order. Finding the main typing pool, on the other hand, was easy. Though there was no sign on the door, Hugo could hear the clacking keys from the hall.
Inside was a long room with white-washed walls and hardwood floors. Shafts of overcast light fell in through the tall windows that lined one side, casting the rows of desks into sharp relief. The keystrokes surrounded Hugo like popping gunfire, occasionally broken by a dinging bell, followed by a whirr and thud or the whoosh of a sheet being pulled. About twenty or thirty men and women—again, mostly women—tapped furiously. One or two looked up at Hugo, but all were too absorbed by their work to pay him much mind. One desk, in the middle of the room, was vacant. Even so, it clearly belonged to someone, for there were still papers upon it, as well as a large photo-frame.
Hugo approached, walking the aisle between the desks. The photo-frame was turned away from him, yet his eyes remained fixed on it so firmly that he felt as though it were actually approaching him, moving the entire room with it. At last, it was within reach. His fingers grasped the edge and spun it around.
A newlywed couple stood stoically under a church doorway. The woman was Molly Doyle, smiling slightly, a bouquet in her arms and her long, fair hair dressed up in ringlets. The man, looking severe in top hat and black tie, was unmistakably the freckled, red-haired man lying dead in the spare room. Hugo felt a thrill of satisfaction.
‘If you’re looking for Keegan, he’s not in.’ It was the woman at the desk next door, raising her voice slightly to be heard above the clattering. She wore her hair in fashionable ringlets.
‘Do you know when he’ll be back?’ asked Hugo, curious as to what they made of his absence.
‘If you ask me,’ said the middle-aged woman with large spectacles one desk over, ‘I don’t reckon he’s coming back.’
This gave Hugo pause. He was about to ask what on earth she meant, but the long-necked woman on the row in front said, ‘Don’t act like you know something, Flora. We don’t know anything ‘til Wednesday.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Hugo. ‘Where is Mr Doyle?’
All together, the three woman grumbled indistinctly. ‘We’re not supposed to talk about it,’ said the woman with ringlets.
‘Oh, give over, you talk about it more than anyone,’ said the long-necked woman. ‘Keegan’s been suspended. Happened about three weeks ago. His disciplinary hearing’s next week.’
‘What did he do?’ said Hugo.
‘Who knows?’ scoffed the long-necked woman.
‘I heard he was caught snooping through confidential documents,’ said the woman with spectacles.
‘No, it was when he was taking minutes for the committee meetings, he spoke out of turn,’ said the woman with ringlets.
‘You’re all wrong, all three of you,’ said a young man with rosy cheeks, from the desk on Hugo’s other side. ‘Keegan’s not been suspended, he’s on paid leave. On account of his health.’
‘His health?’ scoffed the woman with ringlets.
‘His mental health,’ said the man, tapping his forehead. ‘The hearing isn’t a disciplinary, it’s to assess his wellbeing. He was affected by one of the cases he transcribed. That bathhouse with the indecent conduct. Got into his head. Kept asking questions about it. Affected his work. Slowcombe offered to let him have a little break, get himself back in his right mind.’
The three women sneered their incredulity. The woman with spectacles said, ‘There weren’t no indecent conduct. They proved that in the hearing, their clientele is far too respectable for that sort of thing. You’re talking out your arse.’
The gap-toothed woman two desks over said, ‘If you lot don’t hush it sharpish, Slowcombe’s gonna have you all suspended and all!’
The group made disgruntled though conciliatory noises and went back to their typing. The gap-toothed woman glared at Hugo. Afraid she might ask who he was and why he was there, he took his leave. Nobody had noticed him slipping Keegan’s wedding photograph inside his jacket.