Dr. Coppersmith and Dr. Stewart felt nervous, as anyone in their situation would, standing outside the hallowed sanctum of the Master of St. Bride’s like a pair of naughty schoolboys summoned to see the headmaster over fighting in the dorm. It felt like the end of the world. Their future at the college, or at least the immediate part of it, was at present being discussed in Dr. Peters’ study the other side of the heavy oak door. No matter how hard Orlando stared at the thing, willing it to yield its secrets, it was keeping them in ignorance.
“Now I know how young Ingleby felt when he was summoned here for playing his ukulele too loudly. I’m scared enough—he must have been petrified.” Jonty grinned, but he was obviously nervous and not at all his usual witty, confident self.
“This is a serious business, Dr. Stewart. I just wish they would reach a decision more quickly. How long can it take to work out whether we’re leaving the college?”
“Perhaps the longer they take, the better, assuming…” Jonty didn’t have the chance to finish his sentence, as the door swung open, making Orlando jump and produce what Jonty always alleged afterwards was a squeal.
“Gentlemen, come in.” Dr. Peters beamed, beckoning them into the room. Tall, handsome and rather austere, when he smiled his appearance changed from medieval abbot to chevalier. “Chief Inspector Wilson has persuaded me that he needs you much more than your university will these next few months. You’re both to be granted a sabbatical.” He indicated two august figures behind him. “And these gentlemen have reluctantly agreed, given the special circumstances of this case, to allow it. Mr. Wilson can be very persuasive.”
Anxiety turned to smiles, they shook hands all round and a decanter of sherry appeared almost from thin air.
“Are we to be told exactly what’s going on?” Jonty could barely stop the glass shaking in his hand, from what Orlando hoped was excitement, not fear. Whichever it was, this was clearly going to be a two sherries, at least, conversation. “All we know is that Chief Inspector Wilson requires our services but we don’t know how long or what for.”
“As much time as is required.” The dean, Dr. Peters’ second-in-command, spoke through clenched teeth. No one would have been pleased at being deprived of two such shining stars.
“I have negotiated a little something with the relevant parties to oil the wheels.” Chief Inspector Wilson resembled neither abbot nor chevalier. He looked like a headmaster with an enormous intellect and radical views, and he carefully avoided the use of the words “bribe” or “douceur”. Whatever had been employed, it had at least stopped the bursar vetoing things. He was clutching his sherry in a happy financial haze.
“Gentlemen, I refuse to agree to anything until I know who these parties are and what they expect of us.” Orlando’s commanding streak, which only appeared in moments of great importance—or high passion—asserted itself.
“A lady has been found dead, in a fashionable hotel just outside Pegwell Bay in Kent. I believe you know the area, Dr. Coppersmith?” Mr. Wilson raised both an eyebrow and his sherry glass in enquiry.
“I do. My grandmother lives nearby.” The combination of a suspicious death and familiar ground eased the tension; so far, so good.
“Two doctors couldn’t agree whether it was due to natural causes. A third doctor, one who said he could see nothing suspicious, swayed official opinion.”
“And?” Jonty had finished the first sherry and was eyeing the decanter hopefully.
“The identity of the victim meant cogs got set into motion.” Mr. Wilson inclined his head. “Lady Jennifer Johnson was the mistress of the king for the best part of two decades when he was still Prince of Wales. Those initial doubts have put a bee in His Majesty’s bonnet. He wants his old friend’s death investigated properly.”
“I wonder if there would have been all this interest if it had just been one of the chambermaids found dead?” Orlando sniffed, derisive of the class system which seemed to make one death worth more than another.
“I can just imagine him talking to Papa.” Jonty produced an uncanny impersonation of the king’s tones. “I have a feeling in my bones that she’s been murdered, Richard.” He turned to Dr. Peters. “I’m right in assuming my father got involved in this somehow?”
“So I believe.” Dr. Peters nodded his austerely handsome head. “The chief inspector says His Majesty knows all about your penchant for sleuthing.”
“No doubt. Papa must have bored him about it enough times.” Jonty seemed pleased to see his glass refilled; one needed all the help one could get in this sort of situation. “I can imagine the palace applying pressure on the University.”
Wilson nodded. “Quite so. And on the constabulary. What’s needed here is efficiency.”
Peters glowed with pleasure—probably totting up how many high calibre students would be attracted to St. Bride’s on the back of another successful investigation. “I feel we should be paying for the privilege of you taking on the case.” The Master ignored the bursar nearly dropping his glass. “This college’s name was in the descendant at the turn of the century and the case of the St. Bride’s murders didn’t help. But for a college to have its own Holmes and Watson is without precedent.” Of course it was—now Bride’s star shone and its fame had been renewed throughout the land.
Wilson inclined his head. “When I was asked in to solve a case needing the utmost diplomacy, where else would I turn? I wanted the very best men alongside me. Having someone—” he nodded towards Jonty, “—with a connection to the nobility will be a great advantage. This pair will prove invaluable.”
Orlando was deep in thought, wondering what attributes he could possibly possess which would make him invaluable. Apart from his brains.
“We’re to travel down there as soon as possible, I take it?” The sherry had worked its emboldening effect on Jonty. “Have we rooms booked?”
“Ah. For Dr. Stewart, yes.” Wilson suddenly found his sherry glass to be of great interest. “Dr. Coppersmith, we have a special commission for you. Almost in the nature of espionage.”
Orlando’s ears pricked up, like a horse in sight of the winning post. “Are you suggesting I take a post at this hotel to spy from the inside?”
Wilson nodded, at last brave enough to face Orlando eye to eye. “You would gain the confidence of both staff and guests, while Dr. Stewart works in a more obviously formal capacity.”
Jonty grinned. “Splendid. Even old Sherlock Holmes puts on his dressing-up clothes to further investigations.” It wasn’t the best example to give.
Orlando started. “Dressing-up clothes?”
“We thought the role of professional dancing partner would be an ideal one.” Mr. Wilson addressed a spot just behind Orlando’s left ear. “For accessing confidential information. His Majesty is relying on us. On you.”
The door bursting open forestalled Orlando’s disgruntled reply.
“Is it settled then?” The Master’s sister swept into the room, grinning broadly. “Dr. Coppersmith’s off to be a gigolo?”
* * *
Jonty almost danced all the way back up the Madingley Road, full of the prospect of the seaside, dancing and high society.
“Of course, you’ll love every moment of this investigation.” Orlando took a swipe at a branch which had dared to get in his way.
“Absolutely. And so will you. Don’t pretend you won’t be thrilled to have a murder to solve. You like them as much as your beloved mathematical puzzles.” Jonty’s broad, handsome grin made him look like a boy at Christmas, bouncing with excitement at the prospect of the weeks ahead.
“I suppose so. Only…”
“I was just wondering—” Orlando felt himself colour, not just with annoyance, “—what a gigolo actually does.”
“I love Miss Peters more than any other woman to whom I’m not related, but I could cheerfully have killed her today, coming in and saying that. In front of the bursar and all. You will not be a gigolo.” Jonty sighed. “No one expects you to be anything more than a professional dancing partner at the hotel.”
“Why can’t you do the gigolo bit? Why does everyone say it has to be me?”
Jonty threw up his hands. “If we were going to the farthest-flung parts of the empire perhaps, but some of these people will have met me. Besides, look here.” He turned Orlando’s face towards his own. “This face, the Jonty Stewart fizzog, it’s a case of once seen never forgotten, isn’t it?”
Orlando looked at his lover’s fine profile as if seeing it for the first time. The bright blue eyes were as stunning and unnerving as when they’d first met, the nose perfectly formed and the mouth full of promise. He snorted. “It’s a face getting too big for its own flannel if you ask me.”
“For once I wasn’t being vain. My mother and father are both striking-looking creatures and anyone who’d met them would take one look at me and think there’s a Stewart sprog if I ever saw one. It just can’t be done.”
“But I’m hopeless with women. I can’t flirt or make small talk. They’ll turn their noses up at me.”
“You don’t have to flirt. You can dance, can’t you?”
“In fact you dance very well. That’s all you’ll need to do, dance with them and talk a little about current affairs. You’ll be stern, aloof and handsome and it will drive them absolutely insane, just like it did me when we first met. They’ll be like putty in your hands and you’ll get all sorts of information out of them.” He drew closer to Orlando, laid his hands briefly on the man’s lapels and looked into his eyes. “Besides, you look absolutely gorgeous in a dinner suit. If there are any women who don’t fall in love with you they’ll either be followers of Sappho or have hearts of absolute stone.” He quickly spoke again, grinning as he did so. “And I won’t under any circumstances give an explanation as to the significance of that minx.”
They’d reached their house, a little Tudor cottage with a lot of recent refurbishment, and turned in by the gate and through the door into their haven of security from a world which wouldn’t approve of how they lived.
“But that can’t be all a gigolo does or why would everyone keep smirking when the term is used?”
Jonty produced a radiant smile. “Ah, well, you see, it’s a term that can also be applied to a man who—um—sells his services to women.”
“What sort of services?”
“If you have to ask the question I’m not sure you’ll understand the answer. Bed. You know.” Jonty tipped his head towards the stairs and winked.
Orlando worked his mouth, temporarily unable to speak. This was scandalous. “They never do.”
“Oh yes, it goes on all over the place. I told you when we were in Bath that there had always been male and female prostitutes.”
“But I assumed they were like the boys we came across in the course of solving that very first murder. Sold themselves to men, I mean.”
“They don’t restrict themselves to that, although whether it’s the same chaps doing the selling, or others, I have no idea and don’t want to find out. Women pay and these men oblige.”
“Well, I’m shocked. The absolute cads. And however did Miss Peters learn such a disgraceful term?”
* * *
Forsythia Cottage was becoming used to being the scene of discussion of crime and Mrs. Ward, the housekeeper, had become accustomed to the arrival of members of the constabulary to consult her gentlemen. Just so this fine late September afternoon when Mr. Wilson appeared bearing his most solemn look and praising her baking to high heaven. She’d borne forth the fruits of her kitchen then retreated there to leave her lads to their endeavours.
“I’ll have to find some excuse for being there, at the hotel.” Jonty had indulged in some pastries and while his inner man was satisfied, he wasn’t pleased about his position in the investigation. “It’s easy for you, you just change your name to hide the fact that you’re the Dr. Coppersmith of The Times fame and you can get away with anything. But even if I change my name, there are plenty of folk who would recognise me in the circles in which we’ll move. I bet some of them even remember dear old grandmamma and I’m said to be her image.”
“Could you invite your family along and make it some innocent Stewart excursion?” Wilson raised a distinguished eyebrow and gestured with his teaspoon.
Orlando shook his head. “I won’t have Mrs. Stewart seeing me dressed as a dancing partner. If she’s involved then I’ll give up the case, immediately.”
“What about Papa? We could pretend he’s had an operation or something and needs the sea air for convalescence. We’ll have to find a way to make him look in less than ruddy good health of course, but it might just work.” Jonty found the idea more and more appealing. “Then I could have a legitimate reason to be there, to look after the old geezer. And, Chief Inspector, if you think Dr. Coppersmith does the business in terms of charming the ladies, you should see my father. He can turn the heads of girls young enough to be his granddaughters.”
“I can’t believe that. Your father is such an adherent of the Ten Commandments—no adultery and all the rest.” Orlando found this a shock to top all the rest. “He’s the scourge of—what does he call them—those who ought to know better. I can’t imagine him chatting up women.”
“That’s half the appeal of him, Dr. Coppersmith. The women know they’re absolutely safe and so do their husbands or fathers, so he’s told all sorts of things that other men wouldn’t be privy to.” A thought occurred to Jonty. “Actually, do we need to have an innocent excuse? Ever since The Times printed that story we’ve been labelled as Holmes and Watson. No one would believe I was at Pegwell Bay for any other reason than to look into this business. Why not use that fact to our advantage?”
“It might work, you know. If people there think you’re doing the sleuthing they might be more likely to let some little indiscretion slip to Dr. Coppersmith. No secrets then—you can be there with your deerstalker and everyone can know it.”
Jonty grinned; he was looking forward to this case, not least because it postponed meeting his dunderheads of students. This new intake was said to be particularly obtuse. “Now, Chief Inspector, I have my notebook to hand and no doubt Dr. Coppersmith has his, sharpened pencil and all. Before he gets to the matter of writing his packing list, might we have a resumé of the case as you know it?”
“Of course, Dr. Stewart. I’ve prepared a set of notes for you to read—perhaps you might peruse them now, and then I can try to answer any of your questions?” Wilson produced two identical documents and let his hosts read them.
The matter as set out was fairly straightforward. Lady Jennifer Johnson had been found dead in her suite on September 21st 1907, just the previous week, at the Regal Hotel, Pegwell Bay. The chambermaid, bearing early morning tea and a biscuit, had found the body, spilt said tea and run to fetch the housekeeper and, via her, a doctor. His report said the woman had died peacefully in her sleep, probably of heart failure. Agnew, the hotel manager—who had seen Lady Jennifer taking plenty of exercise and always appearing hale and hearty—had called for a second opinion.
The second physician had some doubts that the matter had been entirely natural, but by this time the police had already been called in and the chief constable notified, via his godson, who happened to be the same Mr. Agnew. The third medical opinion—heart failure—had proved decisive in most people’s minds. No one had been ordered to stay at the hotel as the police supposedly had no case to pursue. They’d just taken contact details from all who had been present at the time, under the police’s favourite guise of Routine, sir. Normal procedures, ma’am.
Orlando and Jonty were struck by the similarity between this and the last case they’d tackled, except the thing seemed to be turned on its head. The last time, a suspicious death had been deliberately treated as natural to deflect attention from the important personages who’d been involved with the victim. Here was a case where what might well turn out to be an innocent event was being treated as suspicious, partly because the victim had contacts in very high places, ones who were determined to see that justice would be done.
“What was she like, Mr. Wilson?” Orlando laid down the papers and smoothed them.
“Lady Jennifer wasn’t a great beauty like her alliterative counterpart Lillie Langtry.” The chief inspector smiled. “I understand she was plump, pretty and more like a dairymaid than a great lady. They say she was sweet natured and exceedingly discreet.”
“I suppose she was.” Jonty rubbed his nose where his reading spectacles pinched a bit. “I’ve been on the telephone to Papa. He says her relationship with royalty went on for years, but it’s only coming to light now. Was she a great favourite of the prince, as he was then? I don’t remember her name being mentioned by my father until now.” Mr. Stewart had always taken a pretty dim view of the morals of royalty. Jonty remembered seeing some lady at a function wearing a huge brooch which she’d been given for services rendered. Papa had muttered under his breath that it would probably be easier to give some sort of a badge to those women who hadn’t rendered services to His Royal Highness. It would certainly involve fewer pieces of jewellery.
“I think she was someone with whom he could relax and be entirely himself. I’ve spoken to someone else who knew her and their opinion is that she was a genuinely nice woman who rarely spoke ill of anyone nor sought to further herself above her station. She was content in life and didn’t nag others about how they lived theirs. Both of them are endearing qualities.”
“And yet she was the mistress of a married man.” Orlando’s voice was quiet, disapproving.
“That’s the rub. Some nice people do things which horrify you and some nasty people obey every jot and tittle of what they believe to be the law. Remember Mrs. Tattersall?” Jonty smiled, knowing full well that the world was full of people who did things Orlando didn’t approve of. No wonder he got on so well with Papa.
“I shall never forget her.” Orlando shivered, even though it remained a mild and pleasant day.
“We must never judge those we seek to find justice for.” Wilson stared out of the window, addressing his sermon to the trees. “The law must be absolutely neutral, in spite of what some of my colleagues feel. Although I do worry that the investigation of this crime will be given much more precedence than if the victim had been of less illustrious stock. Money and influence talk.”
“I’d still seek to find the killer whatever the station in life of the victim, and even if I absolutely hated them.” Orlando cast a sideways glance at Jonty; they were both aware of the consequences of such a course of action.
“What happens next I will leave to you, but I believe the truth must be served, whatever the circumstances.” Wilson stared into his empty cup, as if he might find some desperate criminal hidden under one of the stray tea leaves at the bottom.
“Had the lady any family? Papa and Mama would be useful in gaining information about and from them, I’d warrant.” Jonty had his pencil ready to take down the names.
“She’d been widowed these last ten years, but she has a son, Sir Laurence Johnson—he’s been travelling in Egypt with his bride and was contacted with the sad news as soon as possible. Otherwise there is a sort of cousin who acted as companion, a Miss Lynette Jordan, and she was at the hotel at the time. Those are the only close kin. You’ll be able to see both of them in Kent, I hope.”
“Are there any enemies spoken of?” Jonty had little hope that some threatening letter or wronged acquaintance might turn up and make life easy. In his growing experience, nothing about murder was straightforward and the only constant between their cases was that Orlando would try to seduce him at every opportunity. The thought that the chances for such fun would be rather limited this time around made him suddenly sad. Finding opportunities to be together would present just as much of a challenge as the solving of the case.
“Lady Jennifer doesn’t seem to have made enemies, or so the initial gossip has it. But the fact remains that someone must have disliked her enough to kill her in cold blood—if this is murder—and we need to find out everything we possibly can about what’s been going on down at Pegwell Bay.” Wilson fixed Orlando with an intent but kindly gaze, like a headmaster outlining his expectations of a pupil’s performance in an entrance examination. Orlando wouldn’t let the policeman down. “Now, we have to find you an alias.”
“An alias? Why?”
“Oh, for goodness sake.” Jonty punched his friend’s arm. “If I can’t hide my face you can’t hide your name. Coppersmith is becoming a bit too well known, with all those newspaper reports of our detective prowess. Here.” He fetched a dictionary of names from the bookshelf.
What seemed like hundreds of names and their meanings were consulted, but the intended bearer rejected every one of them as inapt.
Jonty soon lost patience. “What about Duncan Disorderly or Ivor Grumpyface?”
“Don’t be stupid.” Orlando ignored all the suggestions, even when they verged on the obscene. “I rather like the name Hugh.”
Jonty couldn’t hide an enormous grin. “I can think of lots of surnames which would work well with that. What about Jamp…” Before he was allowed to divulge any more he was unceremoniously bundled out of the room and not allowed to return until he could be sensible.
Wilson suggested they use the initials O.C. “It would mean any monogrammed articles won’t seem out of place and you might have more of a chance of remembering to respond to it.”
“Oliver Carberry.” Orlando put down books and notepad. “That’s a name I could use.”
“Oliver Carberry it is.” Wilson made a careful note. “Now, you should travel to Kent as soon as possible—probably tomorrow—and have a day or two to settle in as the new dancing partner, escort, or whatever smart title they bestow upon you.”
“And you can assure us that this Agnew is beyond all suspicion of murder?” Jonty had been looking through the police report again. “We can’t have Mr. Carberry walking into the lion’s den.”
“White as snow. He was staying with the chief constable of the county the night in question. We’ve had him party to the plan from the start and we’ve turned his scepticism around. He sees it would be much better to have respectable persons, albeit ones incognito, conducting the investigations rather than clodhopping policemen getting into everything and upsetting the guests.” Wilson knew the value of maintaining the hotel’s reputation. “Once Oliver Carberry is ensconced and beginning to make headway, you can arrive, with your father.”
“Then the fun can really begin.” Jonty rubbed his hands in anticipation. “And I suppose you’ve some strange lines of communication established as neither of us can be in touch directly with Orlando.”
“And I daren’t talk directly to the police.”
“It’s all in hand, gentlemen.” Wilson rose to take his leave.
Jonty began to be excited at all these little aspects of the case. He loved subterfuge and playing games so the whole thing struck him as enormous fun. Only when he looked at Orlando, to find him casting a peculiar longing glance in his direction, did the glamour begin to wear off things. They would be apart but together, close but not intimate, able to talk but not in any depth, separated socially and physically. Most importantly of all, not able to kiss or touch, and this status quo would remain until the end of the case.
Suddenly, playing at detectives didn’t seem such an attractive prospect.