The policeman sniffed.
‘What are these clothes doing here?’ said Mrs Beck.
The sitting room led straight into the dining room, where all of Hugo’s clothes were still neatly folded and stacked on the dining table. Both Theodore and Hugo had forgotten all about it.
‘They’re mine,’ said Hugo, using a nugget of truth to stall for time. Mrs Beck and the policeman looked at him, waiting for him to elaborate. ‘Moth problem,’ he shrugged.
‘You have moths?’ said Mrs Beck, both concerned and disgruntled.
‘I think they’ve laid eggs in my wardrobe, so I’ve moved my clothes here for the time being.’
The policeman studied Hugo for a moment. ‘The bedrooms?’
‘Yes, through here.’ Hugo gestured. As the policeman looked, he shared a glance of panic with Theodore. With every second, they were leading him closer to the body in the bathroom.
Once the door to the corridor opened, the smell hit them like a wall. A bizarre concoction of eye-watering sweetness, like an orchard growing in a sweetshop.
‘What on earth is that stench?’ said Mrs Beck with a gasp.
Theodore answered as though he’d been zapped by an electric current. ‘It’s-a-natural-remedy-to-get-rid-of-the-moths.’ Mrs Beck and the policeman stared. Theodore coughed.
Hugo rescued him. ‘Mothballs weren’t working, so a friend recommended it. We didn’t realise the smell would be quite so strong.’
Mrs Beck made a grumbling noise. ‘I wish you’d consulted me before you sprayed the place with chemicals.’
‘Only the wardrobe,’ said Hugo. ‘But it is quite strong, if you’d rather steer clear of that side of the flat…’
‘I’ll have to check every room,’ said the policeman, opening the door to the master bedroom.
Theodore felt Hugo touch his arm. It was only then he realised how quickly he was breathing. It was a living nightmare. The policeman would reach the bathroom eventually. What would they do then? Pretend to be surprised?
‘This is the master bedroom, is it?’ said the policeman, looking around the finely decorated room. ‘Who sleeps here?’
‘I do,’ said Theodore.
‘Huh,’ said the policeman. ‘I would have thought it was the other gentleman.’
Theodore paused. ‘Why’s that, sir?’
‘Well, on account of those.’ He pointed to the bedside table, where Hugo had left his spectacles the night before.
Ice shot through Theodore’s veins. Art’s words echoed through his brain like a ringing bell.
They’ll figure you out. And they’ll make sure you never see each other—or anyone else—ever again.
‘Oh, those!’ Theodore laughed nervously. ‘Those are mine. For reading, you know?’
‘And you have two water glasses?’ the policeman smirked. ‘On each side of the bed?’
‘I get thirsty.’
Mrs Beck cleared her throat. ‘There’s no dog here. Does it really matter what’s on the tables?’ She looked a little nervous herself. She knew full well that Hugo and Theodore shared the bed and was just as keen to keep it secret. ‘Can we hurry this along, please?’
‘The spare bedroom, then?’
Theodore was so relieved that he was about to give loud and energetic directions but Hugo interrupted before he had the chance.
‘We don’t have a spare bedroom, sir. Just the two.’
The policeman smiled at Hugo. ‘Of course, sir. I mean the second bedroom.’
‘Last door on the left.’ The last door on the left was immediately opposite the bathroom.
As they filed out of the master bedroom, Theodore saw Hugo pick up a pewter candlestick from Theodore’s dresser. The two of them shared the briefest of looks before following the others. Theodore’s heart thudded like an earthquake. Hugo didn’t know what he was planning, but he couldn’t do nothing.
The smell only worsened as they approached the spare bedroom. What’s more, it didn’t fully cover the stench of corpse. The unmistakable rotten scent was still present, intermingled with lavender and soap.
Mrs Beck covered her nose. ‘That herbal remedy is very pungent, you know?’
The detectives kept their eyes on the policeman. Mrs Beck might continue to believe the moth deterrent ruse, but the smell of a corpse is one you never forget. The man was still young. They could only hope he’d never worked on a murder case.
They stepped into the spare bedroom. The policeman paced around, peering at everything, more thoroughly than he had in any other room. He even checked under the bed. Though he hadn’t once tried whistling for a dog.
‘This is your bedroom? The one with the moths?’ the policeman asked Hugo.
‘Yes,’ said Hugo. He held the candlestick firmly behind his back.
The policeman opened the wardrobe and had a look. ‘I don’t see any moths.’
‘Hopefully, that means the remedy is working.’
‘Good point.’ He shut the wardrobe.
A moment’s pause. The detectives held their breath, waiting for the policeman to ask to see the bathroom. Hugo’s hands were so damp with sweat, his grip on the candle was slipping. For the longest time, the policeman just stood there, frowning. Then, without warning, he clapped his hands together. ‘Well, gentlemen, it’s obvious there’s no dog here. I think you may have been the victim of a joke call. I shan’t take any more of your time.’
Before the detectives could register what had happened, the policeman had doffed his helmet at them and was heading back down the corridor. Even Mrs Beck looked confused. ‘But you haven’t—’
‘Shh!’ Theodore hissed at her.
She had a face like she was about to object, but saw the urgency in Theodore’s eyes. She said nothing.
They caught up with the policeman in the sitting room, where he turned to say goodbye. ‘Once again, sorry for keeping you. I hope I haven’t made you too late.’
He shook all three of their hands in turn. As he finished shaking Hugo’s hand, he happened to glance at the sofa, which was still made up for someone to sleep on.
He paused to stare at it. The detectives held their breath.
‘I take it you slept there last night,’ the policeman said to Hugo. ‘Because of the smell?’
‘Good eye,’ said Hugo with a smile. ‘You’ll make a great detective someday.’
‘Thank you kindly, sir.’ He doffed his helmet once again and left.
Mrs Beck followed him out. As she shut the door behind her, she paused to hiss at them. ‘You’d better not be hiding a dog.’
‘I promise you we aren’t,’ said Theodore.
She harrumphed. The door shut. Hugo dropped the candle at once and collapsed into the armchair.
‘He knew!’ said Theodore. ‘He knew the body had been in there. It was never about any dog. He was only interested in the spare room from the start!’
‘I know,’ said Hugo. ‘The moment he called it the spare room.’
Theodore, not bothering to find a chair, lowered himself until he was face down on the floor. ‘How did we get away with that?’ he mumbled into the carpet.
The question was rhetorical but Hugo answered anyway. ‘Dumb luck,’ he said, ‘with a bit of good timing.’
‘What do we do? What if the police are watching the house now?’
‘It was an anonymous tip,’ said Hugo. ‘The police won’t be interested anymore.’
‘So we can still move the body?’
‘No,’ said Hugo. ‘Not yet.’
Theodore looked up at him.
Hugo smiled. ‘I think you should give Arthur a call.’