‘Ready?’ said Hugo. He had smeared a layer of Vicks under his nose.
Theodore nodded. Not wanting to get Vicks in his moustache, he’d opted for a handkerchief dabbed with peppermint oil and tied around his face. He might have looked like a Wild West outlaw, if it weren’t for the handkerchief’s bright, floral pattern.
Hugo opened the door and the two of them rushed through, shutting themselves, and the smell, inside.
Three flies had found their way into the spare bedroom and were buzzing happily around the hamper. Theodore could feel the corpse’s presence, as though the room itself knew it had become a tomb. Hugo felt nothing of the sort, because rooms cannot know anything.
Hugo lifted the lid on the hamper. Theodore coughed,
It was not a pretty sight. The corpse had begun to bloat. The skin had turned pale, except where large red and green blotches had appeared. But this was nothing compared to the indignity of it all.
‘It’s so much worse now I know his name,’ said Theodore. ‘And poor Dougie. Oh, and his wife.’
‘Focus, now, Teddy,’ said Hugo. ‘It’s going to be harder this time. I don’t think we can use the hamper again, what with the smell. It’ll get worse when the body is disturbed.’
‘Can we cover it up, with some perfume or something?’
‘It’ll stand out, but it’d better than the way it smells now. We could wrap it but I’m wary of leaving behind threads or fibres.’
‘We have his clothes. The least we can do is dress him.’
‘Yes, good,’ said Hugo. ‘And I have my steamer trunk. It’s not airtight exactly but it should contain the smell better than the hamper will. We can present ourselves as travellers on our way to Paddington station. Hyde Park is en route.’ He checked his pocket watch. ‘It’ll be fully dark soon.’
‘Oh.’ Theodore’s guilty expression was hidden beneath his handkerchief. ‘I’m not set on dumping the body anymore. I don’t mind seeing if Eustace can make it disappear through the Necropolis, if you think that’s safer.’
‘No, you were right,’ said Hugo. ‘Molly deserves closure. I think we can do this.’
‘All right,’ Theodore nodded. ‘Thank you, Huey.’
The detectives got to work. Hugo ran the bath while Theodore went through his dresser to find every bottle of scent and strong-smelling cologne he was willing to part with. These, he upturned into the bath, creating a pungent soup of flowery, fruity aromas.
Together, they lifted the hamper into the bathroom and tipped the contents into the bath. It slid out and made an unpleasant slap as it hit the water. The detectives allowed themselves a moment’s reluctance. Then Hugo offered Theodore a pair of gloves. ‘Let’s get it over with.’
They rolled up their sleeves and started to scrub. Hugo tried to treat it as any perfunctory chore, to keep his mind on what he was doing without thinking too hard about it. Theodore did better by imagining he was far away, picturing himself at the beach or remembering the last chapters of the novel he was reading, letting his hands do the work by themselves. But though they both managed to make the task that little bit less unpleasant, their stomach still turned at the sound of someone knocking at the front door.
They froze. For a brief moment, they could almost believe they’d imagined it. Until the door knocked again.
Without sharing a word, the detectives agreed on a plan. Theodore yanked the handkerchief off his face and tossed it to Hugo, who used it to wipe the Vicks from his lip. Then, after leaving the bathroom with the door firmly closed, they split up. Theodore ran to his dresser and grabbed a bottle of english lavender and aggressively sprayed the hallway and bedrooms. Meanwhile, Hugo dried his hands on a tea towel and hurried to answer the door.
It was their landlady, Mrs Beck, an elderly woman with her grey hair in a bun and her spectacles on a chain. With her was a uniformed policeman.
‘Good evening,’ said Hugo, calmly. ‘Mrs Beck, can I help you and this gentleman?’
Mrs Beck pursed her lips. She knew the detectives were more than just work partners, though made every effort to pretend she didn’t. Normally, she avoided Hugo and Theodore, and was visibly disgruntled to be knocking at their door, let alone doing so with a policeman.
‘The neighbours have complained about noise,’ she said, haughtily.
Hugo frowned. ‘We haven’t been loud.’
‘They were adamant it was your flat, sir,’ said the policeman. He was a young man, who stood with his back straight and his chest puffed out.
‘What sort of noise have they complained about?’
‘I’d happy to discuss it with you, sir,’ said the policeman. ‘May we talk inside?’
Hugo hesitated. ‘Actually, we were just about to head out. We’re already late.’
‘Just a quick conversation. I shan’t keep you for more than a few minutes,’ said the policeman.
‘I would like to sort this out quickly, if you don’t mind,’ huffed Mrs Beck.
The policeman smiled. Mrs Beck tapped her foot impatiently. There was nothing Hugo wanted less than to invite them in. He knew he had no legal obligation to agree, but he would only arouse suspicion if he denied them again. He’d already paused too long.
‘Very well.’ He held open the door.
As Mrs Beck and the policemen entered the sitting room, Theodore joined them. ‘Hello there, Mrs Beck. Oh, and hello, sir. What’s the occasion?’
Mrs Beck just frowned at him. ‘Why are you wearing your sleeves like that?’
Theodore looked. His sleeves were still rolled up. ‘Oh,’ he said, with a quick glance of panic at Hugo. ‘I’ve been doing the dishes.’
Mrs Beck huffed. Theodore unrolled his sleeves.
The policeman frowned. ‘You two live together?’
‘We’re business partners,’ said Theodore, a slight crack in his voice.
‘Right, your door said detective agency?’ He cast an amused look about the cork-boards and filing cabinets. ‘You run it from your home?’
‘That’s right, sir,’ said Theodore.
‘Is this a case you’re working on? Investigating what?’
‘Fraud,’ said Hugo, very quickly.
‘Can we hurry this along?’ said Mrs Beck. ‘I’m an old woman and I’ve just climbed four flights of stairs.’
‘Very well,’ said the policeman. ‘Your next door neighbours have complained about your dog barking.’
Theodore’s brow furrowed. ‘But we don’t have a dog.’
‘I should hope not,’ tutted Mrs Beck. ‘We have a strict no pets policy, as well you know.’
‘Are you certain?’ smiled the policeman. ‘They were quite insistent.’
‘We don’t have a dog,’ Hugo said firmly.
The policeman looked thoughtful. ‘Would you mind showing me the rest of the flat? Not that I don’t believe you, but if your neighbours complain again I’ll need to be able to say I was thorough.’
‘Yes, I’d like to have a look around too,’ said Mrs Beck.
Hugo didn’t dare look at Theodore. It was a beautiful trap they were in. If they had confessed, pretended they did have a dog, Mrs Beck would have thrown a fit, the policeman would have delivered his warning and both would have left. But even with something to hide, they hadn’t been able to accept a false accusation. Having denied it, if they refused or stalled or changed their story, the policeman would know they were hiding something. Once he knew that, they wouldn’t be able to stop him from searching the place.
The policeman smiled at the detectives. Mrs Beck’s expectant eyes darted between them. Hugo cursed himself. He should never have let them in.
‘By all means,’ said Hugo. ‘This way.’