Sunday was the seventh anniversary of the day Hugo and Theodore met. And, for once, they had plans.
Lyon’s Coventry Street Corner House was only a short walk down the road from the Criterion, and yet was a world apart. It was known to some as the Lilypond, supposedly a nod to the flowers it had painted on its walls, though some fancied themselves the “lilies” and the crowded tables their “pond”. It was respectable, yet affordable and effected a cosy, garden party atmosphere. And yet it was a large, bustling building, with five floors of delicatessens, salons, booking agencies, tea shops, music halls and restaurants of differing themes. It was the first floor restaurant in particular that was popular among London’s queer underbelly.
Unlike the Hammam, the management were not pleased about their more alternative clientele. Floor managers might turn away any man or woman who looked a bit too queer, but it was no challenge to simply walk around to the second entrance where one of the waitresses—the so-called “Nippies” who dashed about the place in their signature black frocks and white caps—would happily seat you in a booth outside the manager’s view.
Today Hugo and Theodore were greeted by Maude, a waitress who they, as regulars, had come to know well. Her eyes lit up at the sight of them. ‘Well, look at this, it’s the famous Dilly Detectives!’
‘Good evening, Maude,’ said Hugo.
‘It’s our anniversary,’ said Theodore, unable to contain himself.
‘Oh, you darlings. I’m sure I can sneak you some cream cake. Usual table?’
‘Not today, actually,’ said Hugo.
‘Table for four, please. We’re expecting company.’
Maude raised an eyebrow but asked no questions. ‘Certainly, gentlemen. Right this way.’
She led them through the large, crowded hall, between the art deco pillars and past the stage where the live band was playing gentle string music, to a dainty square table with a white tablecloth. They ordered drinks and Maude left them with the menu.
‘We don’t have to eat here,’ said Hugo, eyeing Theodore warily.
‘The food’s good,’ said Theodore. ‘Why don’t we have a quick bite and see how we feel?’
It wasn’t long before their first guest arrived. Maude brought Dougie to the table. He’d dressed up in a nice jacket, though he’d kept the peaked cap. He was fascinated by the place, so busy looking about that when he sat he almost missed his seat.
‘This place is full of queers,’ he hissed at the detectives, his eyes still flitting around the room.
‘Oh, yes,’ said Hugo, as though he’d only just noticed.
‘And queer women too. Look at her, she’s wearing a top hat!’
‘Suits her, doesn’t it?’ said Theodore.
It took Dougie a while to pull away his stare. ‘I never knew places like this existed.’
‘Oh, there’s plenty!’ said Theodore. ‘You should try Gennaro’s. Or the Black Cat. Chez Victor. Café Royal. Here, let me write these down.’
Theodore took out a pen and hastily scribbled some names on a napkin. ‘Actually, Hugo and I are planning on visiting a few of these places tonight. You’d be welcome to join.’
Dougie stared at the napkin Theodore held out to him, the hint of a sneer on his lip. But a moment passed and his face softened. He took the napkin, seeming to surprise himself as he did it.
‘I think I need some time to figure myself out,’ he said.
‘Another night, then?’
‘Maybe.’ Then, with some confidence, he added, ‘Yeah, maybe.’
Percy approached the table, arms outstretched. It was the first time Theodore had seen him wearing more than a dressing gown, and it was quite a sight. A red, pinstriped jacket paired with tan trousers and white, suede shoes. And on his lapel, the largest green carnation Theodore had ever seen.
‘I must tell you, it’s been ages since a boy has invited me out to dinner. Though you naughty boys didn’t say you were inviting Dougie along.’ He took the empty seat and planted a playful slap on Dougie’s shoulder. ‘I’m very relieved to hear you’re not a murderer, darling.’
‘Thank you?’ said Dougie with an amused frown.
‘So, what’s the occasion?’
‘We’ve solved the case,’ said Hugo. ‘And we want to tell you what we’ve learned.’
Dougie immediately sat up. Percy made rapid, tiny claps with his hands. ‘How exciting!’
For the third time in as many days, Hugo and Theodore told the story of Keegan’s murder. Percy gasped and whistled at every turn, as though it was entertainment. Dougie, on the other hand, listened with steely concentration. And when the story was finished, he spoke without hesitation.
‘Bastard. He deserved it.’
An awkward silence graced the table. Then Theodore said, ‘He deserved to die?’
Dougie looked at his plate.
‘I must say this is very troubling,’ said Percy. ‘The manager! A murderer! All because this man said the wrong thing? I don’t know how I can go back to the Hammam now.’
‘Don’t,’ said Hugo. ‘That’s part of our plan actually.’
Percy raised an eyebrow. ‘You have a plan?’
Hugo and Theodore shared a grin.
‘We are planning to visit several queer-friendly establishments tonight,’ said Hugo. ‘Places we’re pretty well known, places where many have received one of our business cards. And we’re going to tell this story to as many queer gentlemen who will listen. We expect they will have similar misgivings about patronising the Hammam in future and we’ll encourage them to write letters of complaint to Hammam’s board of directors, explaining in no uncertain terms that they will continue to withhold their custom until Frank Butterfield is replaced.’
Theodore wore a mischievous smile. ‘Butterfield thinks he can profit off of us. Queers are good for business, he says. He doesn’t realised the arrangement we have is mutually beneficial. And if we don’t like the way he runs things, he’ll find out just how bad for business we can be.’
‘Ha!’ Percy slapped his knee. ‘Brilliant! I’ll certainly write. I own a decent number of shares in the Hammam too. I doubt they’ll be pleased to hear I’m thinking about selling.’
‘And you’ll tell the story to every queer man you know?’ asked Hugo.
‘Happy to, gentlemen.’
‘What about you, Dougie?’ said Theodore. ‘Will you help?’
Dougie lifted his head. He nodded. ‘Yeah. I can tell my regular fellas. They never liked Butterfield anyway.’
Maude returned and they all ordered. The detectives each went for the soup of the day, not planning to stay much longer, though Maude made good on her promise to sneak them some cream cake. Before they moved on, Hugo made sure to give Dougie a business card, in case he ever needed to talk. He seemed to appreciate it.
‘Where next?’ said Theodore as they stepped onto Coventry Street.
‘Wherever you like,’ said Hugo.
‘Now, now. We’ve talked about this.’
‘All right,’ Hugo chuckled. ‘Somewhere the music’s not too loud and we’re sure to get seats.’
‘I know just the place.’
He proffered an arm. Hugo locked his own around it. Together, they disappeared into the narrow side streets of the West End.