As Old Faithful pushed past to hurry up the stairs, Mainwaring turned and spread his arms to usher the other men out of the vault. Eric, peering under Mainwaring’s outstretched arm, had just enough time to take in a few further details, such as the box on the table, and the open door to box 13, Benson’s box.
Beside him, Garrett, open-mouthed, stumbled backwards and said, "Mainwaring, isn’t that ... that’s your letter opener in his chest, isn’t it?"
Wolfe, who had hung back while the others crowded about the vault door, turned to climb the stairs.
"You’re not leaving the premises, Wolfe!" Mainwaring shouted after him. "Get back here!"
Wolfe stopped at the top of the stairs. "I’m not an idiot, Mainwaring," he said, half-turning to look down at the club president. "I know perfectly well how it looks, and how much worse it would look if I ran right now. But I am not going to spend the next hour standing about in that filthy little room with a body rotting not five feet away. If you need me, I will be in the lounge."
And with that, he departed.
Eric glanced around at the other two men. Mainwaring’s pipe was quivering as he chewed nervously at the stem, and Garrett was looking rather white.
"Wolfe is right," Eric said. "There’s no sense in waiting around down here. We’d better wait for the police up in the lounge. And tell the attendants not to let anyone leave the building."
Not, Eric thought, that it would do much good. If he had to guess, he would say that Benson had been killed several hours ago ... certainly before Old Faithful came on duty and the Vet began to wake up. Someone would have seen Benson coming down from his room otherwise. Whoever the killer was, he would have had ample time to make his escape, and might be halfway to the Hebrides by now, for all they knew.
Unless it was Wolfe. But would Wolfe’s rather excessive pride allow him to leave such a mess behind?
And there was also the question of the hypodermic kit Wolfe mentioned having left behind. Eric had seen no indication of any such kit on the scene, and he’d been on the lookout especially for it.
Mainwaring’s office was no more than five feet from the door to the vault stairwell. Muttering that he’d wait for the police here, Mainwaring tried the handle, and cursed when he found the door unlocked. Given the choice of murder weapons, Eric thought, this was to be expected, however much Mainwaring insisted that he knew he’d locked the door last night.
"At least nothing else appears to have been disturbed," said Mainwaring, looking around the room from the corridor. There was a neatly ordered desk, minus one letter opener, with a comfortable office chair behind it. There were two small armchairs and a small, round table, on top of which were an ashtray and decanter of Port. Across the walls were an eclectic mix of paintings, prints, and photographs, all left there by successive generations of past presidents: smoky battle scenes hung beside bucolic landscapes, both giving way to a succession of group photographs of the Vet’s cricket team and one rather cheeky poster from a French cabaret. Mainwaring’s own contribution of personality had come in the form of a pair of potted ferns that spilled their fronds from their perch on the window sill.
Mainwaring strode into the room and peered at the dial of the little safe embedded into the wall. "Safe’s still locked; can’t tell if it’s been tampered with, though." He went to the desk and opened the second drawer. He pushed aside a few papers, then breathed a sigh of relief as he withdrew a large and rather nasty-looking German pistol, a Mauser C96 with the characteristic red "9" burned into the grip. "Well, at least nobody’s pinched this. Small mercies. I say, Peterkin: I don’t suppose I could trouble you to hold on to this for a bit?"
Eric blinked. It was obvious to him that Mainwaring was in fact asking him to conceal potential evidence. "You’d better leave it where it is, Mainwaring. The police—"
"Bother the police. I don’t want to explain this to them, and it’s plainly not relevant to the murder. Benson was stabbed, not shot."
"I’ll deal with it," said Bradshaw from the doorway. Mainwaring put the Mauser in his outstretched hand, and he disappeared into his own office next door with it.
"I’m guessing you haven’t the proper certificate for that pistol," said Eric.
Mainwaring shrugged and settled into his chair. "It was a souvenir from the War. Nothing more than that. Shouldn’t need certificates for bloody souvenirs. More trouble than it’s worth, really." He frowned. "You’re not going to cause any trouble over that, I hope."
"I admit I don’t see the relevance either."
Mainwaring snapped open his newspaper with a brisk rustle and raised like a barrier between Eric and himself: they were done here.
Eric slipped away. He understood quite well the sort of thinking at play here, and, to a certain extent, he quite appreciated it. But he would have preferred not to have to hide anything from anyone. It was just so much easier to keep things open and above-board. Though it was true that he couldn’t see the relevance of Mainwaring’s little war souvenir, the very fact that it had to be hidden from the police filled him with unease.
Back in the lounge, Wolfe and Garrett had distanced themselves from each other and were waiting with some barely-concealed agitation for the arrival of the police. Thankfully, there were no other club members in the lounge at this time: what few there were had stopped in for a bite of lunch in the dining room downstairs, and would not, Eric supposed, be particularly happy about being detained. Eric had taken it upon himself to make a list of those members obliviously dining, before making his own way up to the lounge; he supposed that it might prove a useful precaution.
And of course, a dining room attendant was waiting for him in the lounge with the helping of steak and kidney pie he had ordered earlier. Well, no sense letting that go to waste, Eric thought as he sat down. It wouldn’t do anyone any favours to meet the police with an empty stomach.
Eric was just polishing off the final crumbs of his meal when the police arrived, in the form of several burly constables headed by an Inspector Horatio Parker. This was a very thin, round-shouldered little man about Eric’s own height, with a shock of dark hair and an old scar puckering up his left cheek from eye to jaw.
Mainwaring, summoned by an alert attendant, hurried up to greet the man personally, and instructed the attendant to escort the inspector and his men down to the vault. Inspector Parker glanced sharply from Eric to Wolfe to Garrett—Wolfe was feigning nonchalance at the bar, while Garrett paced nervously near the meeting room doors—before turning to follow the attendant. Mainwaring mopped his brow with his handkerchief and dropped into the chair opposite Eric.
"Well, that’s that," Mainwaring said. "Parker should have the whole matter settled in an hour or so. He’s a regular magician, he is."
"You know him?"
"We met briefly when we were hospitalised together at Sotheby Manor. Saved ... well, we shan’t get into that. Garrett’s invited him a few times to join us here, but Parker’s not much for clubs and the like. Probably just as well, all things considered. Might be a conflict of interest if he were already a member."
It was at this point that the lounge doors flew open to admit Martha Garrett. She marched, with all the purpose of a field nurse on a mission, past the attendants trying to bar her way and towards her husband, who came to meet her.
"Edward! I stopped by the bank, and they said you were here. And then there were policemen at the doors when I got here, and they say there’s been a murder! What exactly is going on?"
Garrett pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation. "Martha," he said, "you shouldn’t be here."
"Quite right: I should be in the dining room of the Cavendish, trying to decide between the duck and the lamb. Please answer me, Edward."
"I see the police have had about as much success as our attendants at keeping Mrs. Garrett out of our lounge," murmured Mainwaring with an amused chuckle.
Garrett in the meantime was trying as discreetly as possible to explain the situation to his wife, all the while edging towards the lounge doors. Mrs. Garrett was quite appropriately horrified once she understood.
"Benson!" she cried. "That’s just awful! I told you we should have let him stay over at our place while he was here!"
"Martha, in the first place, you said no such thing. And in the second place, it would hardly have been proper—"
"Bother propriety! What sort of security have you got here, I’d like to know, if a man can just get stabbed to death in the middle of the night?"
Mainwaring turned from the spectacle of the Garretts’ conversation and said to Eric: "That reminds me, the inspector will certainly want to see Benson’s room. Be a good chap and have Old Faithful open it up for him, won’t you? And stick around when you do, make sure the good fellow doesn’t set foot inside. Fair’s fair, after all, and we can’t exclude him from suspicion just yet."
As Old Faithful led the way to Benson’s room, Eric observed that very little appeared to have changed since his last visit up here, two years ago now. The wallpaper was still as green and grimy as he remembered it, and still threatening to peel right off the walls. The carpet was still threadbare down the middle and plush along the sides. The portrait of King George was new: the last time Eric was here, Queen Victoria was still staring down the length of the hallway. Poor old Edward VII had evidently been bypassed entirely. The doors were new, too: solid, heavy, and much better quality than what Eric remembered.
Old Faithful stopped at the first door in the hallway and opened it.
"I should have known there was summat amiss when I found it open this morning, sir," he said. "But it looked like he’d only stepped out for a moment, maybe to use the facilities. I just closed the door without locking it. Nobody else has been in there yet."
"You did well, Porter. I’ll take it from here."
Eric knew better than to walk into a room that the police might want to examine, but from his vantage point he could see quite a good deal. The window was open, and he could hear all the sounds of the street funnelling down the alleyway and echoing back.
Old Faithful shifted from one foot to the other, and said: "It’s awful what’s happened to Mr. Benson, isn’t it, sir? Never seen the like of it before, not in all the time I’ve been here. And I never saw nor heard nothing. I was downstairs all the time. After I showed Mr. Benson to the room and gave him the key, I never came up again until Mr. Norris came wanting a room too. He’s in the room at the far end of the corridor, just around the corner. I’m sure he’ll vouch for me, sir."
"No one’s accusing you of anything."
Eric was more interested in looking around Benson’s room from the hallway than in listening to Old Faithful’s alibi. Eric knew quite well that it would be foolish to dismiss him as a suspect simply on the basis of character; even so, it seemed ridiculous to consider him as such. And in any case it was a matter for the police, not Eric Peterkin.
"I think it’s only a matter of time, sir. They’ll know I’ve been down in the vault, too; my fingerprints will be on the vault door. Mr. Wolfe wanted a box, you see, and I couldn’t quite remember the combination—I never can. I had to reset the wheel a couple of times."
"Did he, now," said Eric, barely listening. The rooms at the club were fairly Spartan, each containing a single bed, a washstand, a dresser, and a single chair that had probably seen long years of service in the public rooms below before being retired to the lodging rooms above. Benson’s room had an armchair similar to those in the lounge, though considerably more threadbare; his jacket and waistcoat were flung carelessly over its back, and his necktie lay on the floor beside it. The bed, positioned lengthwise about a foot from the window, was a similarly untidy situation: its covers were heaped up on the near side and practically spilling over onto the floor, as if violently cast aside.
"Yes, it must have been close on ten o’clock. I did recall thinking it odd that he would suddenly want a box so late, but it’s not my place to question the members’ requests. And he was uncommonly nice about it, too. Usually he’s so particular, but he said he was so pleased with the last time I’d picked out a box for him that he wanted the same one again. There’s no difference between the boxes, of course, but there you go."
Eric nodded. He didn’t much care about Wolfe’s choice of boxes, but he’d noticed a photograph lying on top of Benson’s dresser, among the toiletries. An older couple stood behind a small table, on which a small cake was displayed, gazing at the camera with a fixed expression. A group of nurses stood smiling to either side of them, and among the nurses were the two from Benson’s other picture. Also in the picture were a number of men, among them Mainwaring and Inspector Parker. Mainwaring had mentioned being hospitalised together with Parker at some point during the War, but Eric was surprised to see evidence of it among Benson’s personal effects.
Eric was alerted to the inspector’s approach by the sound of the man pounding up the stairs in a dreadful hurry. At the other end of the hallway, Patrick Norris stuck his head around the corner to investigate, as Eric stepped back from the threshold of Benson’s room door.
"Thank you," said the inspector briskly, slipping into the room around Eric. "You haven’t gone inside, I hope? Mainwaring had no business opening up the room until I asked him to." There was something cold and hostile in the inspector’s gaze as he sized Eric up, more so than when they’d met earlier, and Eric half-expected to be arrested on the spot. But at the last moment, Parker turned on his heel to enter the room, saying, "You’ll wait downstairs in the lounge with everybody else, Mr. Peterkin. I’ll call you when I want you."
"Of course." Eric withdrew and turned towards the stairs. Already he could hear the tromp of policeman feet coming up the stairs, their tread as measured and regular as any military route march; Old Faithful was hurrying off to meet them. Eric hesitated, remembering the glimpse of Norris peeking around the corner at the opposite end of the hallway, and decided to have a word with the man. In turning back, Eric glanced into Benson’s room, and what he saw made him stop in his tracks in shock. Inside, the inspector was hastily stuffing the photograph from the dresser into his inside jacket pocket. From his furtive manner and the distinct lack of careful handling, it seemed clear that he was disposing of the evidence rather than collecting it.
Eric slipped to the other side of the door before the inspector could see him, then trotted, as quickly and quietly as he could, around the corner to where Norris awaited him with an upraised brow at the door of the last room down the hall.
"I overheard what Old Faithful said," Norris said as he let Eric into his room and shut the door behind him. "Not that it was all that enlightening. What’s happened to Benson, and why are the police invading the Vet?"
"Benson’s been found dead, that’s what. He was found down in the vault, bleeding all over the place. He’d been stabbed. I suppose you know about his bet with Wolfe and Garrett?"
Norris nodded and rummaged around in a dresser drawer for a cigarette case. "Wolfe will be the prime suspect, then. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. Cigarette?"
Eric, who had never quite got used to the practice of smoking, absently accepted the proffered cigarette and began to gnaw at the butt. "If you’re wondering if Wolfe could have done it, I don’t know. He was here with us when we found the body. He seemed as surprised as we were. I don’t know if he’s so good an actor, or if he has quite the bloody cheek to stick around after doing the deed."
Norris blew out a smoke ring and chuckled. "Wolfe’s got plenty of cheek. That’s what I like about the fellow. And what do you think? I saw the look on your face when you peeked into Benson’s room just now, and you seemed rather anxious to avoid the inspector’s eye afterwards. Saw something unseemly, I take it?"
"Only Inspector Parker tampering with the evidence. Benson had a photograph, some sort of group picture with a lot of nurses and patients, including Inspector Parker himself—war hospital, I imagine—and the inspector was destroying it. He’s mixed up in this somehow. Someone has to inform the Yard and get him reassigned."
"It’s your word against his, you know. And Horatio Parker is a VC."
"A ... the Victoria Cross? Inspector Parker’s got the Victoria Cross?" As the highest award in the Empire for battlefield valour, the Victoria Cross was exactly the sort of thing to make Eric sit up and take notice. In spite of what he’d just witnessed, Eric found himself burning to run back and push a beer into Parker’s hands in hopes of hearing the full story behind it.
"He’s a brave man, is our inspector," said Norris. "How do you think he got that scar? Are you going to light up or not?"
Eric looked down at the sodden, unserviceable mass in his hand in surprise. There was certainly no sense in even trying to apply a match to the remains of his cigarette, and he apologetically disposed of it. "Sorry. I tend to forget I have these things, usually after I light them. Penny—my sister—says that between me leaving lit cigarettes lying around and Dad falling asleep with his pipe, it’s a wonder we haven’t burned down the house."
"You won’t mind if I never offer you another one, then."
Eric shrugged. "What do you know about Inspector Parker and his connection to Patrick Benson?"
"Benson was an orderly at the hospital where Parker and Mainwaring were sent, near the end of the War. You probably guessed that from the photograph. I can’t think that there might be anything suspicious about that. I don’t think they were there at the same time, in fact: Benson did decide at the end to join in the actual fighting, after all. Perhaps Parker has other unrelated reasons for wanting to get rid of the photograph."
Eric did recall Wolfe mentioning, the night before, that Benson had been a hospital orderly through most of the War. "Do you know anything about that photograph?"
"I’m just going by what you’ve said about it, Peterkin. I haven’t actually seen it myself. Incidentally, telling me about it might not have been the wisest move. I did spend the night just down the corridor from where our friend Benson was billeted, remember, which puts me right on the scene for the time of the murder. I’m surprised you haven’t twigged to me being a possible suspect."
Eric stopped and peered at Norris. The latter’s eyebrows were drawn up in an expression of mock-innocence.
"Perhaps I have," Eric said slowly. "Perhaps I, like Wolfe, also have the bloody cheek to play dumb in the face of the enemy."
Norris grinned. "Word of warning, Peterkin: Wolfe’s a rank amateur next to the likes of Mainwaring. I think you’ll find that most of those involved will have cheek to spare, and I don’t think you could compete."
"You know who’s involved?"
"Wolfe had that bet going, as did Garrett. There’s Mainwaring downstairs and there’s me right here. There’s you, and there’s Inspector Parker. If you know of anyone else, you’ve got the advantage of me."
"And you were here all morning?" asked Eric, changing tacks. "You didn’t only just wake up, I can see."
"I’ve been at work." Norris gestured to the armchair, where a sheaf of sheet music was draped over one arm, and a clipboard full of written notes balanced on the other. A fountain pen lay on the seat, a dark blot of ink soaking into the threadbare fabric beneath its nib. "You’d be surprised at how difficult it can be to set words to music and vice-versa. I just got this music from my composer friend yesterday, and I’ve been struggling with the lyrics since I woke up. If I hadn’t been working with the door open, I might not have heard Parker’s elephantine pounding on the stairs, or noticed anything was amiss at all."
"You said you’d overheard some of what Old Faithful was saying to me," said Eric suspiciously, "and that was before Inspector Parker arrived."
"Did I? I forget."
Eric gave him a minute, but Norris seemed to have no intention of explaining himself—nor did he seem aware that any explanation was necessary. Finally, Eric said, "Well, there’s bloody cheek for you, I suppose. Your officers’ meetings must be jolly interesting affairs."
"Perhaps you should consider running for office."
"What was last night’s meeting about, incidentally? Wolfe said it must be about Benson’s membership, but Bradshaw seemed to imply that that matter was over and done with, and Benson had been accepted in quite the usual way."
"Wolfe is a bloody snob." Norris ground out the remains of his cigarette with a little more vigour than necessary. "There’s no love lost between us, I’ll have you know. He fusses over all the trappings of being a gentleman, but, underneath it all, he’s nothing but a cad. He tried to have me blackballed, once. I didn’t even know who he was, at the time."
"He wasn’t an officer of the club, but he did everything he could, made his case to all the officers of the time. He got old Winthrop to pass the motion, and if one more officer had agreed, I would have been out of here. If Mainwaring hadn’t spoken up, and of course Bradshaw’s a regular bleeding-heart Socialist ... oh, and your father: I don’t know the details, but your father put Wolfe in his place, he did. One of the reasons I was so happy to have you in, you know."
"Thanks, I suppose." Eric felt uncomfortably aware that his military service seemed to count for very little in the consideration of his membership.
Norris waved a hand. "Oh, think nothing of it. Least I could do for the old Colonel. You should have seen Wolfe’s face when I was named an officer of the club! I half expected him to announce his withdrawal, but I think now he’s just waiting for me to try to have him expelled—he’s probably got the whole scene prepared and rehearsed—as if I could be bothered with the likes of him."
"So the meeting wasn’t about Benson, then," Eric said, bringing the subject back around. "You don’t think Wolfe might have tried to blackball Benson as well?"
Norris shrugged and said: "Mainwaring doesn’t like Benson, for some unaccountable reason. If Wolfe wanted to try anything, he’d start there. He’d need one more officer on his side, of course; Bradshaw never wants to exclude anyone, and Wolfe knows I’m no friend of his. That leaves Garrett and Saxon. Garrett was the one who proposed Benson in the first place, and Saxon ... well, Saxon seemed rather unexpectedly chummy with Benson, don’t you think? I wonder what that was all about."
Saxon was a dark horse, Eric agreed: a queer figure who haunted the club with his shirt tails hanging out and his collar wide open. Unkempt, unshaven, and almost certainly unwashed, with no table manners whatsoever; he drank nothing but lemonade and seemed to eat nothing but apples. Everyone knew he was the son of an earl and he clearly didn’t care tuppence what people thought of him; nobody knew much of anything else beyond that. Eric had seen him more than once, huddled up in a corner of the reading room with his feet tucked under him, munching on an apple with his mouth open; the one time Eric had wandered close, Saxon stopped in mid-chew and gave him such a suspicious look that Eric felt sure the man would bite him if he took another step closer.
Eric had, however, managed to get close enough to ascertain that Saxon’s choice of reading material was entirely written in Greek.
"Saxon’s not usually that chummy, I take it."
"He’s all right if you humour him. If you don’t rouse his temper. Why don’t you try speaking to him? He hasn’t actually bitten anyone since Garrett crossed him last month."
Norris opened the door, and Eric was surprised at the volume of the noise outside.
It was Oliver Saxon, giving vent to a stream of bitter invective as a pair of burly constables manhandled him up the stairs. He stopped abruptly when Inspector Parker stepped out of Benson’s room and fixed a stern eye on him.
"We caught him sneaking in from the back entrance," one of the constables announced. "Mighty suspicious, wouldn’t you say?"
Saxon only glared sullenly at the inspector. Getting his cooperation, thought Eric, would be a job and a half.
"Of course there was no question of even looking at the manuscript after that," Eric told his sister. "What with the police trooping in and out, asking all sorts of questions, the Vet was a madhouse."
"You’re making excuses," Penny told him. "I know you don’t usually stop into the Vet on Sundays, and you could have got whatever reading you wanted done at home. Is it really very bad?"
They were in the darkened conservatory of a country house belonging to the family of one of Penny Peterkin’s old school friends. The house party that had begun on Hallowe’en was still going strong elsewhere, with cheerful discussions of the upcoming Bonfire Night celebrations that could be followed even here—much like Penny herself, Penny’s friends tended to be a very horsey, outdoorsy crowd with no concept of an "indoors voice"—but Eric had chosen instead to pace the cracked tiles of the conservatory and watch the rising moon through the wide, leadened panes. He’d had about half an hour’s worth of fretfulness before Penny came to find him, and he repeated to her now what he’d told Wolfe back when the whole mess began.
"I did promise to come down after the weekend," he finished, "and here I am. But I’ve failed to deliver the evaluation before setting out, I’m afraid. It’s a good thing I’d made no promises about the evaluation one way or another: I don’t know what I’d do if I had." Eric lived in mortal fear of breaking his word.
He’d told all of the assembled house party, over supper, about the whole adventure thus far involving Benson’s murder. Everyone had been very anxious to know all the details, but that was at supper time, and everyone had moved on by now. Everyone, that is, except for Eric himself.
"I’ll tell you what’s going on," Penny said. "You’re itching to poke your nose into Scotland Yard’s business again. It’s nothing to do with their interruption of your schedule or the quality of the thing you’re reading at all. You can’t concentrate on anything as long as your curiosity is straining to get out the magnifying glass and go hunting for footprints and cigarette ash."
"Can you blame me, Penny? The Scotland Yard inspector was tampering with the evidence. He’s got to be taken off the case. Norris doesn’t think anyone will believe me, but I spoke to Bradshaw—he’s the one who gets things done around the Vet, and if that doesn’t manage it, nothing ever will."
"And has he done anything about it?"
Eric shrugged. "How would I know? It was Saturday when I spoke to him; I doubt if anything could have been done on the Sunday, and I’d set out from London too early this morning to have heard anything. But I’m sure the wheels are turning."
"You could send him a telegram."
"Just to know if anything is happening? You must be mad."
"And you certainly will be, if you keep this up. Did you even hear a word of Robert’s story at supper? Everyone laughed but you."
"What, the one about the penguins?"
"That was last year! Really, Eric, you’re impossible. I think you should cut this visit short and head straight back to London at first light tomorrow morning, because you’re certainly no fun while you’re this obsessed. You can take the motor car, too: I’ll take the train back on Thursday. God willing, you’ll have solved the mystery by then, because I don’t want next weekend to turn out to be as boring as you’re being right now."
Eric cracked a smile. "Avery will be on hand, of course. You can depend on him for a spot of fun." One of Eric’s greatest failures in life thus far had been the project to match his sister up with his best friend. Penny and Avery got on like passengers on a train, but they somehow never got off in a similar fashion. Such a shame, he thought: the two made a very handsome couple together. Unlike Eric, Penny took after their father, and could easily pass for an Anglo-Saxon thoroughbred. She was taller than her brother, and really did look like one of a pair with the similarly tall, Anglo-Saxon Avery Ferrett. And Avery, to his credit, seemed completely unfazed by Penny’s determined, mannish stride, which some men found threatening in a lady her age.
Perhaps it was Penny’s obsession with horses. Avery was an urban creature who couldn’t abide the smell of a stable, while Penny would have dined and slept on horseback if it were possible.
"At the very least," Penny said as she got up to return to the drawing room, "I’ll expect an evening at the Mahogany and a visit to the Wembley Exhibition the next day."
The Mahogany was Eric’s favourite music hall. In his opinion, no other music hall in the Empire came halfway close. But mention of that establishment only deepened the frown on his face. "The Mahogany’s shut down," he said. "As I understand it, there were artistic differences between the main act and the London fire department."
"Oh! Well, that’s a shame, but there are other music halls. Or you can spend the evening telling me just who murdered your Mr. Benson."
"The Mahogany may have spoiled me for any other music hall," Eric said, ignoring the comment on his continued obsession with the mystery of Benson’s murder.
"That, dear brother of mine, is not my problem. Ask around at the Vet: somebody there must have a recommendation. What’s the use of a club, if you can’t get help from your friends there?"
As Penny swung out of the conservatory to rejoin the others in the drawing room, a plan began to form in Eric’s mind. What was a club for, after all, but to bring people together? Hadn’t his father said something of the sort, years ago when he’d first joined? He could apply to Mainwaring ... not that the dour club president was likely to know many establishments of unadulterated joie-de-vivre, but perhaps his sobriety would bring Penny a little more down to earth. And Penny’s natural effervescence might serve to uplift Mainwaring’s perpetually drooping spirits. Yes ... Mainwaring’s darkness and Penny’s light, two halves of a whole. They could bond over their mutual love for the open countryside. Horses and heather. That was definitely an idea worth pursuing.
Eric returned to London on Tuesday morning, rather earlier than was strictly polite, but most of the others at the house party knew something about Eric’s Quixotic nature, and Penny had already explained to them that this was at her request rather than his.
The journey back to London was about three or four hours. With Eric at the wheel, the family motor car sped down the road like a whisper, turning the corners with barely a grumble. It was promising to be a clear day, and Eric had the top down so as to get the full benefit of the wind in his hair. It was as if the wind were blowing his worries away. Already, the previous night’s fretfulness was evaporating, and Eric began to tell himself that of course there was nothing to worry about. Bradshaw would handle Parker, and Scotland Yard would handle the rest.
Bradshaw was an ally, Eric thought. Not everyone at the Vet was a condescending ass like Wolfe, and it might be that none of them were. But Wolfe’s constant barbs had sometimes caused Eric to forget that he had friends and allies there, and Bradshaw was assuredly one of them. Eric had known that since the first day he’d set foot into the Vet.
That had been the summer of 1919, five years ago. Eric, still in uniform, arrived at the Vet that afternoon as per his father’s instructions ... and promptly got into a brawl. His father, Colonel Berkeley Peterkin, found him wrestling a club attendant just inside the passage next to the Vet.
"I heard a cry for help," Eric gasped, struggling to hold down the other man, "and I saw this fellow come tearing down the way. You’d better go and look, Dad: someone down the passage needs assistance."
Colonel Peterkin didn’t move. "There’s no one there, Eric."
"Behind those dustbins! I swear I heard—"
"I know what you heard. There’s no one there. You want to let go of our friend, who’s very new, and as unfamiliar with the rather odd echoes you get around here as you are. And you want to apologise."
Eric sheepishly got to his feet and helped the attendant up. He brushed the attendant down, and the attendant did the same for him. Colonel Peterkin waited for them to be done, then pointed to an open window overlooking the interior court from the second floor. "One of the members is taking an afternoon nap in a room upstairs," he said, "and he isn’t known for his restful sleep." Then he turned and led the way back into Vet by the front doors, and Eric followed with a strong sense of having made a bad impression.
After sending an attendant upstairs with Eric’s duffel, the Colonel brought Eric down to a homely little office a little overcome with pictures of tortoises, and introduced him to Jacob Bradshaw. Bradshaw was club secretary in that summer of 1919, just as he was now, though none of the other present officers were in place yet. The club president that year was a man named Winthrop, with whom Eric was glad to have spoken only once in the ensuing five years.
"I’ve had the papers pre-signed," Bradshaw said, producing the club application form from a desk drawer. "Of course it was easy: there have always been Peterkins at the Vet, after all. Winthrop even said that anyone you want to sponsor, he’d be happy to accept and no questions asked."
"Winthrop said that, did he?" There was an amusement in the Colonel’s voice which signalled to Eric that something was afoot. "I wonder what he’d say if I were to sponsor poor old Rowland Cathcart’s eldest girl, Martha. There’ve always been Cathcarts at the Vet, too, and a nurse with a Military Medal is nothing to be sneezed at." Martha Cathcart would later marry Edward Garrett and become Martha Garrett, infamous for the lack of notice she paid to the Vet attendants barring her from speaking to her husband in the club lounge. The Colonel continued, "Isn’t that new fellow, Oscar Mainwaring, trying to argue for his brother who’d never lifted a gun in his life?"
"Oh, I’d be happy to have them both," Bradshaw replied. "You know how I feel about club exclusivity. I’ve met Mainwaring’s brother William once or twice, and he seemed a decent sort. Pity about his being judged medically unfit to serve, but that was hardly his fault. Now, Peterkin—Eric—if you’ll just ... please, put down that paperweight."
"Where did you find this? I’d almost swear it was a real tortoise, but of course it’s only glazed pottery...."
Bradshaw took the china tortoise out of Eric’s hands and replaced it with a pen. "If you’ll just sign right here—"
The door behind Eric opened, and a man with a wild bristle of whiskers popped in. "I say, Bradshaw, did you manage to—what’s this?" The whiskered gentleman’s eye fell on Eric, and something in his expression turned to ice. Eric felt the toe of his father’s shoe nudge him in the shins, and he looked up to see his father’s eye dart meaningfully in the direction of the application form. Hastily, Eric signed his name, and Bradshaw whisked the form away.
"Major Winthrop," the Colonel said, rising to his feet. "So glad you could join us. This is my son, Eric: our newest member." There was the faintest hint of emphasis on the word "Major," and Eric wondered if his father was pulling rank—and why.
Winthrop, meanwhile, was staring hard at Eric, and making him feel more than a little self-conscious. "When you said your son was applying, I thought—"
"You thought what?"
Unlike his son, the Colonel was a big man, and the heavy Peterkin brows were augmented by a decade of no longer caring to trim the damned things back. Between his height and the sheer, bristling weight of those brows, the Colonel could look very intimidating when he wasn’t fast asleep in an armchair, his usual posture.
Winthrop withdrew with a mutinous expression. "The board will hear of this, Colonel."
"I’m sure they will, and I’m sure they’d appreciate the trouble."
"Of course. Bradshaw, I see you’re busy right now. I’ll speak to you later." Major Winthrop didn’t wait for a reply, but shut the door and stalked off down the hall.
"He means to have me on the carpet, I suppose," said Bradshaw, "but both he and the rest of the Vet know I’m too useful to chuck."
"What was that all about?" Eric finally managed to ask.
The Colonel settled back into his chair and said, "Son, the Vet was founded on the principle that any man could be a gentleman—a rather more liberal interpretation of the word, if you will. Some people—Winthrop, for instance—seem to think a gentleman should be English—"
"I _am_ English!" But Eric knew, from certain experiences in the Army, the response to that one. He quickly added, "This Major Winthrop isn’t going to cut up rough about it, is he?"
"It takes just one objection to block an application," said Bradshaw, "but it takes two board officers and a good excuse to expel a member afterwards. Winthrop will have to find an ally and something better than mere prejudice, and I doubt it’ll be easy. Your father is a _very_ popular man around here. And once the Vet’s grown used to having you around, nobody will care one way or another."
Eric nodded. It was troubling to know that his membership was not universally accepted, and he would later decline to join the Army as a regular on the grounds that it would simply be more of the same. He understood, now, the significance of the pre-signed application form: none of the signing board officers were meant to know about his mixed heritage until it was too late.
As it so happened, Winthrop didn’t last more than a few months afterwards, and the next batch of officers was a rowdy crowd from an Oxfordshire regiment, who cared more about Eric’s skill on the cricket pitch than about who his mother had been. And Bradshaw stayed on as club secretary of course ... no doubt pulling the strings for more than a few other members after Eric.
Yes, thought Eric as he crossed the city limits into London. Bradshaw could be depended upon to get this done. Why, Parker was almost certainly shuffled on by now, onto some case where he was not somehow an interested party, and could be counted upon to not tamper with the evidence.
Well ... Bradshaw might be able to effect a change in management, but the new police inspector, whoever he was, would still have to be informed as to what Eric had seen. It might be that Bradshaw, in the interest of discretion, had not informed the Yard of the reasons for Parker’s dismissal from the case. Bradshaw could hardly be called a witness to Parker’s lapse, and if it ever came to trial.... Eric slowed, then determinedly turned the wheel in the direction of Scotland Yard. He’d have to speak to the new investigating officer himself.
(Was it only an excuse? Perhaps it was. Eric was the sort of person who opened the oven every two minutes to see if the cake was rising.)
At any rate, Eric was not unknown at the Yard, having been of assistance on a number of previous occasions—whether such assistance was welcome being a matter of dispute. There was no objection to him having a word with the investigating officer, who was, according to the sergeant on duty, a marvelously even-handed fellow, a diligent, relentless force of nature who left nothing unexamined or unquestioned in the quest for Justice. Of course he would be anxious to hear whatever Eric had to say.
Eric was shown into Horatio Parker’s office.
"Mr. Peterkin," said Parker, checking his pocket watch. "This is unexpected. Was there something you needed to tell me? Something you only now remembered?"
Eric was at a loss for words. Had Bradshaw not yet managed to have Parker removed from the case? Or had he not tried at all? He _had_ seemed reluctant to try, now Eric thought about it....
"I wanted to know if there’d been any progress," Eric said at last. "It’s a matter of great concern, as you might imagine."
"I’m not at liberty to discuss the case," Parker frowned. "Especially not with an interested party. If you want all the gruesome details, you’ll have to wait for the inquest."
Eric barely caught himself on the brink of flinging an accusation at Parker. Casting about for something to say, he settled instead on: "Well, then, has Bradshaw spoken to you? I understand you have a standing invitation to join the Vet."
"At this point, that would be a conflict of interest. Not that it’s stopped Mr. Garrett from offering, thank you, but Mr. Bradshaw knows better. So no. He hasn’t spoken to me; at least, not about that."
"I also understand you were awarded the Victoria Cross for what you did in the War." That sort of thing was always of great interest to Eric, and he couldn’t resist. A quick glance around the office revealed no sign of the award, but perhaps Parker had it on display at home instead.
"And the VC especially qualifies me for club membership, does it?" A hint of a smile flickered on Parker’s lips, but never reached his eyes. Eric found himself staring instead at the scar disfiguring his left cheek. "The VC honours courage," Parker said, "but there are plenty of criminals who exhibit just as much courage in the pursuit of villainy. Set them out in the battlefield, and there’s nothing to separate the good from the bad, is there? I know better than to think a medal really means anything."
"Of course it means something! It’s the highest honour in the British Empire!"
"Is it?" Parker yanked open a desk drawer and tossed a familiar, cruciform medal onto his desk blotter. "If you want it, it’s yours."
Eric just stared.
"Is there anything else, Mr. Peterkin? I’m a very busy man. Bonfire Night is tomorrow, as I’m sure you’re aware, and the last thing we want is another gunpowder plot to slip by under our collective noses, to say nothing of the usual chaos."
Eric simply muttered his goodbyes and backpedaled out of the office. As the door closed, he saw Parker check his pocket watch again, then toss the Victoria Cross back into its drawer with a carelessness that made Eric wince.
The Arabica was a small coffee house just off Soho Square. It was narrow and smoky, with pretensions of being somehow Oriental without making any firm commitments to Turkey or Arabia or India. Eric, who had spent a significant part of his youth in India, found the decor laughable at best, annoying at worst. The proprietor was a very European fellow of Chinese extraction by the name of Chiang, who really should have known better than to make such a hodge-podge of eastern cultures, but he claimed it was good for business. Whether or not this was true, Eric couldn’t tell; but his friend Avery Ferrett was fond of the coffee.
Avery was there that Tuesday night, quite as usual: his tall, lanky frame ensconced in one of the booths near the back of the establishment, with a clove cigarette on his lips, a cup of coffee in his hand, and a Tarot spread on the table before him. Eric slammed the door coming in, drawing curious looks from the rest of the patrons, and stalked over to his friend’s booth. Raising a brow, Avery remarked, "Someone’s in a temper."
"Bradshaw’s failed me," Eric said, sliding into the seat across from his friend. Nobody at the Arabica cared if Eric put his feet up on the seat, and he sat now sideways in the booth with his knees pulled up to receive a pair of heavily disgruntled elbows.
"Bradshaw’s that fellow who never fails, isn’t he?"
"He’s failed me," Eric repeated.
"I suppose that means you’ll be taking matters into—"
"I tried," Eric snapped. "Do you think I didn’t try, as soon as I knew Parker was still on the case after all? I went straight to his superiors at the Yard, and do you know what they did? They laughed at me! Me! I’m not even sure they heard a word I said—I think they’d made up their mind before I even opened my mouth to tell them what I’d seen Parker do. So I went back to the Vet—maybe I’d been hasty, I thought, maybe Bradshaw simply hadn’t quite got the ball rolling yet—and oh, Bradshaw was very apologetic but really he’d made no promises, had he? He’s only human, he can’t do everything, he’d tried his best, and maybe that’s true—maybe I shouldn’t be as angry with him as I am—but those hoity-toity higher-ups at Scotland Yard laughed at me, and Parker’s still on the case, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were the guilty party in the first place!"
"Oh dear. Who is this Parker?"
Eric stopped short. Of course, Avery had no idea what he was talking about: they hadn’t had a chance to speak since they’d parted at the steps of the Vet back on Hallowe’en. And Avery never touched the newspapers more than he could help, or he’d at least have learnt something of the current events that way. Drawing a deep breath, Eric launched into a brief but dramatic account of the murder, laced perhaps with somewhat stronger language than the version he’d given his sister and their friends. He ended the story with a more detailed account of his treatment at the Yard: "The superintendent actually told me that he, and I quote, ’didn’t know how things are handled in Hong Kong, but here in England we want better evidence than one man’s word against another’s.’ Hong Kong! What do I know of Hong Kong? I’ve never been to the beastly place!"
"Yes, it is very ’beastly’, is it?" said someone standing just outside the booth, and Eric looked up. It appeared that his diatribe had caught the attention of Mr. Chiang himself, the proprietor of the Arabica, and the man now stood by the booth with a calculatedly inscrutable expression on his face.
Eric flushed bright red. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—"
"I also have never been to Hong Kong," Chiang said, breaking into an amused grin. "My home province is Shandong, but people always assume."
"There, now, Eric," said Avery in a conciliatory tone as he carefully positioned the Knight of Swords in the centre of the table. "You really worry too much about things beyond your control. You’ve had a few successes in the past, and that’s spoiled you for failure—"
"Well, not failure, exactly, but ... just sitting back and letting things take their course."
Chiang nodded as Avery began laying out a fresh reading around the Knight of Swords. "Life is too short to waste on fruitless endeavours, Mr. Peterkin. You know I once tried to join your Veterans’ Club? It’s true! That was a long time ago now...." Chiang had been a translator in the Weihaiwei Regiment during the Boxer Rebellion, before settling in London. This qualified him for membership at the Vet, though his application was rejected for reasons unstated but easily guessed at. "Did I worry about that? No! I moved on, and now I can say I am happy, because I learned to enjoy what I have. I don’t know if I would be any happier if that club membership had been delivered to me, like with some people, on a silver platter—"
"On a silver platter!" Eric sat up abruptly, bumping the table and upsetting Avery’s carefully constructed Tarot spread. "You don’t think I deserve to be in the Vet either, do you?"
Chiang glanced over at Avery, at a loss for words, and Avery hastily cried, "That’s not it at all! Of course you deserve it! But look, neither Mr. Chiang nor I get to even set foot in there, so—"
"But I dare say what you do have doesn’t come with the likes of Mortimer Wolfe snidely implying that you belong somewhere else, or bloody police superintendents laughing you off when you’ve got a legitimate travesty of justice on your hands. What’s the point of a so-called privilege if it comes with people looking down their noses at you?"
"You’re going to give it up, then?"
Eric stopped. He couldn’t give up his membership at the Vet. It wasn’t simply because his father would have a coronary if he did: Eric still saw membership at the Vet and the society of war heroes as a mark of honour, and to give that up—unthinkable! "No," he said. "I’m going to make them listen. I’m going to put together a case so good and so complete that they’ll have to listen, whether they like it or not. We’ll see who ’deserves’ what then!" He swung his legs out of the booth so suddenly, Chiang hopped back in surprise. "Avery! You’re coming with me!"
"I haven’t paid for—"
Eric slapped two shillings into Chiang’s open hand, and Avery barely had time to sweep up his Tarot cards before following his friend out the door into the cold November evening.