Simon stood in an almost-crouch, his weight centered, one with the mat beneath his thin athletic shoes. His back was straight, his arms were bent at an angle designed to protect his upper body and to unleash a sudden strike. Both fists were balled in the fisticuff style, his wrists not rigid but supple, waiting for an opening.
He was bored, and he was angry.
His opponent was dancing before him, bobbing up and down like the Punch figure from a street theater show. Simon remained still, even though the scant jock strap under his tight athletic pants had begun to ride into his crotch. Hell and damn! He mentally chastised himself for the curse words no gentleman should grow accustomed to bandying about, even to himself. And then he cursed again.
Son of a sea-cook! He needed to end this bout so he could scratch his sweating testicles.
The longer he stood facing the scowling fellow in front of him, the more rage built and simmered, now almost at the surface.
He was vaguely angry at his opponent for not knowing when to attack.
He was out-of-sorts with his landlady for making a bit of a commotion about the rent. He’d have a new roomer soon, he’d told her. Give him a few more days for someone to answer the advert.
He was embittered by the world, by everyone he saw and everyone who tried to console him for his “recent loss.” Bugger the fools. What did they know? They knew only that Sargent was his former partner, his roomer, his colleague. They did not know, and they would never know, that Sargent was his friend, his confidant. And perhaps only one night away from being…even closer.
And they would never know, and he would never know either. For all the world would ever discover, Simon Hart was a bachelor, a bad-tempered private affairs investigator, most lately of Liverpool, a dedicated loner who solved problems for money. He had lived with a man, a foxhole friend from the war, a man they called Sargent. Lieutenant Sargent. It would be humorous except Sargent would never again share the jest.
The sudden thought of his russet-haired, grinning friend Sullivan Castleton lying dead with a 12-bore hole in his chest brought Simon’s mind to a knife-sharp focus. The heavy-jowled man in front of him had taken too long, and now Simon was out of patience. He shifted his weight a fraction and drove his left fist into the other man’s solar plexus in a strike so quick his adversary merely said, “Ooof,” before crumpling to the mat.
Simon helped him to his feet and forgot the man. He walked away, balanced as always on the balls of his feet, knowing at some level that he moved the way a tiger sought prey. He was out of patience, he was hungry, and he was angry.
The large tiled bathing room of the Dun Linden Gentlemen’s Club was almost vacant this early on a rainy Saturday. He found a corner bench and stripped, pulling a hasty towel around his waist. While walking to the opposite corner, Simon saw a pair of size-tens poking from the stall of the concrete shower and heard the drizzle of water. He noticed one duffer sitting on a smooth wooden bench ten feet from the stall, draped in a thin towel, contemplating his Meerschaum pipe and a splintered fighting stick.
“Pity,” he said, as he passed the gent. He knew his name, Harkness, but he did not use it.
“Um,” the man said in return.
Simon stood impatiently outside the shower cubicle and waited for its occupant to emerge. He deliberately kept his mind on the present.
Now with the funeral and the burial over, he reminded himself that he needed to begin to live again.
He needed to pull himself together and try to solve a crime, without suffering a chest choked for air and a belly cramped in grief. He needed to talk to the gaffer who had been the last to see Sargent alive at their place of business, the old man who took care of the boiler room and security for the warehouse. He’d been putting off the interview, not wanting to re-live the circumstances of his friend’s death.
He sighed without knowing he sighed, just as a puffy-faced man, a sometime fisticuff and fighting stick opponent named Gifford, left the shower enclosure. The man had not bothered to pull a towel around his barrel-like middle to hide his floppy testicles. Keeping his eyes on the ceiling and his fist tight on the knot of his towel, Simon stepped into the shower and put the thin cloth on an upper dry-shelf.
The idea of a public bathing room went against all Simon’s experience and breeding, except, of course, for what happened in the Great War. There, fellows were lucky to wash at all, and everyone saw what lay under everyone else’s kaffies, those baggy godforsaken trousers. No getting around it. The war had been a necessary evil and was, thank God, another remnant of his past.
He also had to suffer a public lavatory at his flat, and he’d almost gotten used to bathing on his landlady’s schedule. Always, he bolted the door behind himself. He’d never liked the idea of letting public eyes view his private parts.
He’d been living a life sheltered from the craning necks of Dun Linden, except for his ill luck at the present and having to take in a boarder. Soon, by necessity, there would be some stranger who would share his breathing space, who might knock ashes on his oriental rug, who might look with cocked eyebrow on his penchant for wearing jockstraps as undergarments.
As soon as the business picked up, he could live without a roomer. He could probably do it now, he thought briefly, if he gave up a few expensive habits he’d acquired the past few years. Oriental rugs and museum-quality paintings. Antique weapons. Bushmills whisky. Fine clothing.
He turned the handle on the twisted and tarnished metal, letting the tepid water from the overhead pipe run off his skin. Allowing an outsider to see his inner sanctum was only a temporary accommodation. Soon, when the investigation business began to bring in the kind of money Sargent had assured him it would, he could afford a posh flat of his own, without having to sacrifice anything at all. But with Sargent gone, how could he keep up the sometimes-intensive investigations that brought in money?
Simon let the water play off his thick-matted chest and run down into the wiry groin hairs, standing with his knees somewhat bent, like the natural athlete he was. He soaped his crotch, ridding himself of the odious itching, and relaxed into the warm drizzle of water. Soon his hand began to ride along his shaft, his fingers pressing slightly on the ridged cowl as he came off his stiff flesh and then jammed his fisted hand down again, steady and slow. A bare knuckles bout with myself.
He shut his eyes, imagining a faceless lover caressing his privates with a bottomless mouth. After less than a minute, he climaxed in his own soapy hand.
The physical relief of downing an opponent and exhausting his own pent-up seed made Simon expel his breath and relax his stomach muscles. At last, after almost a week of hollow-eyed numbness, he had returned to his own balled-fist lover. He would survive.
He dried off, then tied the towel around his hips again and left the stall. The droop-lidded Harkness, now without his Meerschaum, stood ready to take his turn in the shower. Simon carefully avoided eye contact.
* * *
The space he and Sargent used as an office was near the docks, in an oriental rug warehouse. The building was brick, crumbling in places where a riot two years before had resulted in assault rifle fire directed at the heavy walls. The office had been donated by Sargent’s brother James—one who called himself “Jackie,” a man of means who would not even now take back the office space after his brother died. He had assured Simon the office was his to keep, rent-free.
Their office—my office, he reminded himself with a twinge to his gut—was on the second floor, up a flight of worn wooden stairs. Dressed in comfortable cotton trousers and canvas shoes, he took the stairs two at a time, in a hurry to interview the super and get back to the athletic club to change for luncheon. He gave himself one hour.
The second floor contained several rooms, empty since the end of the war, along with his own sanctum. The office door opened onto a rough pine plank floor stretching twenty-five feet, almost like a hallway, used sometime in the past as a storage room for extra-fine wool rugs from India and China. There were no longer any rugs, except for one grand oval specimen from Madras set in front of a handsome mahogany desk. He averted his eyes from the leather-edged surface, topped with a blotter, stained and scratched from years of ink, wine, fine-tip fountain pens, and worse.
He sat in a heavy matching chair and swiveled, waiting, glancing at his pocket watch. It was three minutes of the hour. The old man was supposed to see him at ten precisely. He drummed his fingers on the chair arms, avoiding the desktop, trying not to think about Sargent. A small sound made him lift his head.
An old man stood at the door, hesitating. Dressed in baggy trousers held up with wide suspenders, he held his cotton flat cap, twisting it around and around, waiting for Simon to notice him.
He saw a thin man in his sixties, his watery blue eyes wide in fear. Or perhaps it was merely a fit of nerves. The man was clearly cowed in his presence, but Simon was not in the mood to force a cheerful attitude.
“Mr. O’Reilly. Please, come in. Tell me what you remember about Mr. Castleton. The last time you saw him.”
“An’ ’twere last Saturday, I remember, because it be me day to oil the window locks. I come to your office. Just a quick job, ye see? ’Twere almost time to go. Almost five o’ the clock. Tried not to bother Mr. Castleton, ye see?”
“It’s perfectly all right, Mr. O’Reilly. What was he doing?”
“Why, he was for sitting in that very chair, Mr. Hart. Not for doing anything I could tell.”
“No, ah, papers in front of him? No object on the desk he might have been looking at?”
“None as I recall. Or mebbe so. Fayder. I’m sorry—”
Simon brushed off the apology with a wave of his fingers and an indulgent smile. “And what did he say to you?”
“Why, nothing at all. He looked at me, sure an’ he seemed to be looking through me. I thought he must be very busy. I checked the windows. They was already well oiled an’ the locks was fine. So I left.”
“And how long did you remain in the building?”
“Ah, ’twere me last duty, Mr. Hart. I left. Went ’round to lock up me tools. At five of the clock. Or thereabouts, ye see? Just like always.”
“And you heard no loud sound? Like a gunshot?”
The old man hung his head. “Ah, sure an’ I wish I could be tellin’ ye I heard something. But—”
“Thank you kindly, Mr. O’Reilly. If you think of anything at all, will you be sure to let me know right away?”
After the man left, Simon continued to sit and swivel. This was the chair Sargent had been sitting in when he had found him Sunday morning, barely twelve hours after old man O’Reilly had seen him alive. Six days ago. He’d been sunk forward onto the leather top, the blood from his wound a garish smear he could not scrub clean. There had been nothing at all on the desk. Not a scrap of paper, not a pen, not even a haze of dust. Only his dear friend, and blood soaked into the fibers of the blotter and deep into the fabric of his memory.
Simon had found one small item, hardly even a clue. It was wadding on the planks next to the desk, ejected from a 12-bore shotgun. A piece of cotton, and nothing more, revealed by the gas light from a lamp mounted on the nearby wall. It had told him one singular fact: the shooter had stood only a few feet from his friend.
Whoever had shot Sargent had made sure there was no trace of life—only death. Simon’s head sank to his chest, swiveling, turning, back and forth, in time with the movements of the chair. And then his eye caught the merest shimmer of red. There, caught on a pine plank a foot from the side of the desk… He leaned forward and pried up a tiny feather.
It was not red, really, but a kind of crimson or cardinal. He held it gingerly between his thumb and forefinger and opened the center drawer of the desk. He drew out a small specimen envelope and dropped the feather inside. Then he folded the envelope and put it in his billfold.
A clue? Or just a bit of flotsam from the sole of his wingtips?
He sighed and stood. Time to get on with his life.
* * *
Before he could take the first step to his flat, Alain accosted him.
Simon watched the copper-haired lad run from the back of the bar and almost trip on a spit-jar in the corner. But Alain was sure of foot. He jumped over the spittoon and landed at the bottom of the stairs with a squeaking of his too-small shoes.
“Omi on the lookout. South by southwest, near the dustbin.”
“Think not, Mr. Simon. Too old.”
So he wasn’t a street policeman, the commonplace lads thrown onto the cobblestones to combat the crime of Dun Linden.
The boy shrugged. “Fayder.” The word was a lame attempt to pronounce the Gaelic word for “maybe.”
“Monday, Mr. Simon.”
The lad shook his head.
“Good man. You wrote down a description? Notes on when you saw him?”
Alain grinned and handed him a torn-off piece of cheap, thin paper. “Sure.”
Simon glanced at the boy’s rough penciled writing. Twice a me. Red hair or gold? Mo. W. Fr. “And you’re just now telling me?”
The boy shrugged. “Ye’re not here much, Mr. Simon.”
It was true. The last tormented five days, he’d been sleeping sometimes at the club or coming home late with a bottle of whiskey, trying to replace the ache in his gut.
He put the note in his pocket and turned to leave. He thought of another question, probably unimportant. “Omi or blue?”
The boy shrugged again. “Knows the lingo.” Usually, Alain could pick up a whiff of a homosexual, a man his hired lads called a “blue.” Interesting that Alain didn’t know. Simon tossed a ha’penny in a high spinning arc, and Alain seemed almost to leave his shoes to bring it down.
Simon’s lads, wise in the ways of the back alleys, had indirectly taught him the language of the streets, the polari, older even than the building he lived in. He knew it was a special parlance that sought to protect the homosexuals from the omis, regular fellows like himself. In exchange for their tutoring, he’d taught them the rudiments of the King’s English. A bit of writing, even less reading. No luck with the butchered syllables themselves.
“Good work. Keep an eye. You know what to do.”
The lad nodded and left, running to the door, deftly moving through the men crowding the bar, around the diners seated at tables. Simon turned again to the stairs and climbed to the second landing to a door marked 3-C. He inserted a long metal key in the lock and pushed the door open by degrees, standing flush to the wall as he opened it.
The room seemed normal. No sign of entry. He glanced at the strip at the bottom doorjamb where he had strung a long strand of black sewing thread his boy Squeak had found for him. The thread was ankle-high and taut, held in place by tiny nails on each side of the door. No one had crossed the threshold.
He walked to his wingback chair and stripped off his shirt. He sat heavily, not bothering to take off his wool twill trousers or his wingtip shoes. He was exhausted. Not in body, but in spirit. Yesterday, Friday, had marked the end of all the commitments to the funeral, social obligations to Sargent’s family, all the minute details of sweeping up a life one needed to forget. He had done everything Sargent would have done for him. And now it was time to deposit the sweepings into a neat little file marked “Castleton” and begin to look into the life of a man he thought he knew. The fact someone wanted him dead meant Simon had been missing something crucial.
Starting with a tiny red feather, he would find out. If only his gut would stop aching long enough for him to concentrate.
He was mildly surprised when a knock sounded on his door. A glance at his ornate mantle timepiece told him it was exactly four of the clock and then he remembered his advert. How many potential roomers had he missed this week in his reluctance to face everyday life?
Simon walked quickly to his room and shrugged on his dressing gown over his trousers. He decided the robe would cover his singlet well enough.
He strode to the door and opened it. He would soon have a roomer again. Perhaps his fortunes were beginning to improve.