9 June, 1928
"Scotland Yard, Detective Sergeant Paget speaking," the beloved voice came crooning over the wire.
"Twister, I need your help. Are you free this evening, or are you working late?" I implored into the telephone, having just completed a series of callisthenic exercises in order to sound breathless.
"I was just about to head home. What’s up?" he sounded concerned, as I’d intended.
"I’m on a case," I sort-of lied, "and there’s a house I need to be watching right now, but I can’t get there until the man I’m following comes to roost. It’s not far from your office, I hoped you could watch the house for me until I can get there."
"Where are you calling from?" he wondered, somewhat ungrammatically.
"A phone-box in a hotel lobby in Kensington," I lied outright. I was actually in the exquisitely appointed sitting-room of my suite at the Hyacinth House Hotel on St. James’s Street, Westminster.
"Where’s the house you need watching?" he sounded as if he’d bought that—I wasn’t sure he would, I’m such a terrible liar, though I frequently get away with it if I’m on the telephone and he can’t see my face.
"Fourteen Queen Anne’s Gate," I replied, my voice dripping gratitude, "I’ll meet you there as soon as I can get away from here."
"Nice neighborhood," he remarked, and I could hear him scribbling the address on a piece of paper, "I can be there in ten minutes."
"You’re an absolute angel," I dripped some more gratitude, and hoped nobody eavesdropping on the call would misconstrue the appellation. I always imagined a nosy-parkering switchboard operator listening to every call I made to Twister’s office, and censored my speech accordingly just in case someone was listening, "I owe you dinner for this."
After ringing off, I sat a moment or two longer in my chair, smoking a celebratory cigarette and gloating over the success of this leg of the plan. It was one of my better plans, if I do say so myself, and I was terrifically pleased with it; but if Twister hadn’t been in his office and just about to leave, or if he’d detected that I was fibbing to him, the whole thing would have fallen apart.
Getting up and crossing over to the bookcase to the left of my fireplace, I pushed a button concealed in the egg-and-dart moulding, and danced a little with excitement as the lower third of the bookcase swung outward, revealing a sharply descending tunnel into a dim emptiness. I’d recently had this swinging cupboard installed, with the gracious permission of the hotel’s owner (my close friend and mentor, Lord Arthur Longueville), and could spend several delighted hours opening and closing the thing, driving my valet to distraction and putting a year’s wear on the mechanism.
Sitting down on the floor, I thrust my legs through the opening and found foothold on the first of the steep steps that led down from the cupboard, grasping the new brass rails to steady my descent, and was soon standing inside a wardrobe, confronting the barest shadow of my own reflection in the glass inside the door. Pushing on the catch of the doors, I stepped out of the wardrobe into a comfortably furnished but perfectly anonymous-looking office.
Midway through the previous summer, I’d found a corpse in this office: exploring the original fireside cupboard in my sitting-room, I’d heard voices coming through the back of it, where the cupboard was recessed so far into the rear wall of the hotel that only a thin layer of wood separated me from the bricks of the abutting building; fired with curiosity, I’d gone around to find out what was on the other side of that wall, discovering an office-block with a shop on the ground floor that faced on Bury Street; on the floor nearly level to my own rooms, I discovered a long-unoccupied and sturdily locked office in which there should not have been any voices at all; prevailing upon the janitor, I got into the office, where the remains of a very recently and violently deceased Bulgarian gangster were partially concealed under a dust sheet.
I shan’t go into the details of that adventure, which are related elsewhere amongst my memoirs, but at the conclusion of the case I had taken the lease on the office so as to prevent anyone else moving in and disturbing me with noises through my fireside cupboard—the nice thing about being terrifically rich, or rather one of the many nice things about being terrifically rich, is that one can arrange one’s surroundings to the utmost convenience and comfort without regard to expense. More recently, when the opportunity to buy the whole office-block came up, I jumped at it, and was therefore in a position to knock a big hole in the party wall and build a secret passage.
Before donning one of the disguises that hung in the wardrobe, I took another gloating moment to examine my reflection in the glass of the wardrobe door. My perfectly cut suit of quietly pinstriped navy serge perfectly accentuated my graceful figure and exquisite strawberries-and-cream complexion, glossy auburn curls gleamed luxuriously on my shapely head, big chestnut-colour eyes sparkled with excitement and scarlet cheeks glowed on the face of a Botticelli angel. I was quite simply breathtaking.
I am not being conceited in reporting my extraordinary beauty, it is merely a statement of fact, no more or less relevant than my name or my age, backed up by scores of independent experts—including that great arbiter of æsthetics Cecil Beaton, who had declared me "The Realm’s Loveliest Lord" (taking a bit of poetic license, of course, since I was only Viscount Foxbridge by courtesy, and my father the 10th Earl of Vere still up and kicking) in the pages of The Tatler on which his photographs of me appeared.
However, great beauty, like a grand title, can be a serious liability in the profession of detecting crime: one cannot slither around the streets of London unnoticed, a shadowy figure in the alleys and areas, observing without being observed. I had therefore stocked my secret office with a variety of disguises, provided by a theatrical costumier I know, that could turn the jewel-like flower of my perfection (also courtesy of Mr. Beaton) into a drab pile of anonymity indistinguishable from its background.
I first kicked off my shoes, noticeably but not emphatically elegant paragons of the cobbler’s art, and replaced them with a slightly grubby pair of cloth-top boots two sizes too large and comfortably stuffed with cotton wadding that gave me an extra inch of height; next came a deeply anonymous Burberry coat, also much too large and stuffed at the shoulders and waist with more cotton wadding, giving the impression of a burly figure, short neck, and sloppy midriff; then came a wide-brimmed slouch hat, much crumpled and big enough for a gorilla, filled out with the curling dark hair of a discreet wig; finally a pair of fawn kid gloves, again too large and lightly stuffed, a pair of thick horn-rimmed eyeglasses, and a lightweight muffler wrapped twice around my neck as if for fear of draughts. I put my shoes and a rather clever folding felt trilby into the commodious pockets of the Burberry and was ready to go.
It was rather warm for the balmy June weather (particularly with all the padding), but I see lots of men going about muffled to the ears in the midst of summer—I’d always thought it was because so many people are afraid of germs since the Influenza, but have since learned it’s also because coats and mufflers keep the inevitable grime of City life off one’s suits and shirts, which saves money at the cleaners’.
If someone stopped directly in front of me and looked me square in the face, I might be recognized; but from the side or at any distance greater than five feet, I just looked like an ordinary chap, heavy but not fat, tall but not remarkably so, shabby but not disreputable. Completely anonymous, like a million other blokes wandering the streets of London.
This disguise had a name and profession: Mr. Rowland Mugg, a conveyancer for Lillie & Co. Importers, which was the name on the door of my office. There were other disguises in the wardrobe, each with its own identity: Mr. Everard Lillie, an elderly gentleman with a white beard and pronounced stoop; his thickset and quiet confidential secretary, Miss Jane Glossington; and his bespectacled half-caste clerk, Mr Aubrey Singh. Each of these persons had made brief and fleeting appearances in the last two weeks, coming in and out of the Bury Street offices, becoming familiar sights in the neighbourhood without drawing undue attention to themselves.
I nevertheless had elaborate histories of these characters memorized, in order to lend colour and authority to my voice when I spoke of them as if they were real people. I’d learned over the last few months that the only way I could ever get away with lying was if I believed what I said, or if what I said was technically true. The case I had mentioned to Twister over the phone was essentially fictional, an ongoing investigation into the lives and habits of fictional people in a fictional firm, but was nevertheless a real case—I only had to omit the facts that the client was myself and that I was inventing the information I received in the course of my "investigation."
It would be easier to simply not lie, I know, but not nearly as much fun.
As Rowland Mugg, I made my way out of the office and down Bury Street, cutting through Crown Passage to Pall Mall, where I crossed the street and continued down Marlborough Road to St. James’s Park, which I crossed at a leisurely pace (hurrying through parks is suspicious, I think); I exited the park and cut through the old carriageway into Queen Anne’s Gate, turned left, and hurried up the street to Number 14. I didn’t see Twister as I passed, but knew he must be there, as Scotland Yard was a good bit closer than the Bury Street office, and he hadn’t wasted time gloating to himself or getting up in fancy dress; he was probably concealed in a doorway a short distance up Carteret Street, where he could watch the house unseen.
I, or rather Rowland Mugg hurried up the short steps of Number 14, which was a narrow Georgian house of red brick and Portland stone with a discreet sign in the window advertising gentlemen’s rooms to let, opened the front door with his latchkey, and climbed up to the second floor front where he made an unnecessary fuss closing the curtains to draw Twister’s attention to the appropriate window. Then I hastily shed my disguise, put on my shoes and hat, and ran like a rabbit back downstairs and through the back garden onto Birdcage Walk, where my man Pond was waiting with a taxicab as arranged.
"Your lordship’s hat is somewhat disarranged," he said austerely as I came abreast, plucking the thing off my head and smoothing out the crown and brim with practiced hands. He disapproved of my novelty folding trilby, but had found it the lesser of two evils when presented with the only other option that would fit in the coat-pocket, a cloth cap—and he'd rather swallow hot coals than let his gentleman be seen wearing a cloth cap in Town.
"Thank you, Pond," I took the hat back and placed it on my head at a rakishly negligent angle, watching with amusement as his neat fingers twitched and his dark ferrety eyes narrowed, the thwarted desire to reach up and put the thing straight straining his small frame; I love Pond dearly, but I cannot resist teasing him, any more than I could resist teasing my Nanny when I was little, "I’ll send the taxi back as soon as I’m done."
"No need, my lord," he bowed formally and adjusted his own smart black bowler instructively, "I shall enjoy the walk."
"See you at home then," I leapt into the taxi and waved it on. Continuing up Birdcage Walk, we turned right onto Storey Gate and then onto Old Queen Street, jogging around the short curve of Dartmouth Street before coming to a stop in front of Number 14 Queen Anne’s Gate again. I got out of the cab, tossed the jarvey a sovereign, and ambled about on the corner looking for Twister’s hiding-place.
"Not very discreet, popping out of a taxi on the very doorstep," he scolded me gently, lurking in the area steps of the house on the western corner of Carteret Street.
"I’m not trying to hide," I shrugged negligently, feasting my eyes on his matinée-idol face. While I might be the Realm’s Loveliest Lord, my beloved Twister (Sir Oliver Paget, 15th Baronet to you) was far and away the Yard’s Comeliest Copper, with his Roman profile and Grecian physique, crisp golden hair and glowing amber eyes, "What have I missed?"
"A uniformed maid came out twice," he consulted the notes in his regulation notebook, all business in public though his eyes had already telegraphed a greeting kiss, "Once to shake a rug and once to flirt with the postman. A middle-aged woman with dyed red hair and a yellow-and-green print dress came out to scold the maid for flirting with the postman. And a heavyset man in a Burberry and slouch hat went in just a few minutes ago and closed the curtains of the second-floor windows."
"That’s my man," I said.
"Who is he?" Twister wondered, putting his notebook back in his pocket and taking another quick look at the house in question before resting his eyes back on my face.
"Fellow by the name of Mugg," I explained, "He’s involved somehow with a suspicious importing business I’m looking into. I think he lives here."
"Pretty posh address for a shady importer."
"Well, it is just a rooming house, though it calls itself ‘gentlemen’s lodgings.’"
"Still, a far cry from Craven Street," he smiled at my attitude, referencing the perfectly respectable little street where he lived in comfortable rooms that unfortunately backed onto Charing Cross railway station. It wasn’t really noisy, but the back windows had to be washed daily to keep the soot off.
"I hate to ask, but can you keep watch on this end?" I said all in a rush, as if I’d just thought of it, "It occurs to me that these houses have gardens opening onto Birdcage Walk, he might come out the back."
"My pleasure," he smiled warmly, making my insides go all wobbly, "But how will we signal to each other if he comes out either end?"
"Oh, I don’t know," I frowned thoughtfully—and sadly, it was true, I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought of that wrinkle, but tried to come up with a solution on the fly, "I guess just follow him if he comes out this end, and I’ll follow if he comes out my end, and whichever one of us is on the track can try to get a message to the other one. Here’s a few crowns, you can send a taxi-driver after me if you’re on the scent, and I’ll do the same."
"That’s very good," he smiled again, all approval, which made me even wobblier inside, and pocketed the coins I’d handed him, "See you later."
I ran off back toward the carriage-gate and onto Birdcage Walk, singing a happy little song from nursery days and thinking about what I was going to do to Twister when I got him alone, then turned in at the garden gate of Number 14. Back in my Mr. Mugg disguise, I came out the front door and started walking slowly to Bury Street, confident that Twister was on the march not far behind.
I worried for a bit about what would happen if he sent a taxi-driver after me on Birdcage Walk and the taxi-driver didn’t find me there; but then as I was crossing over to the Park I heard a sharp whistle behind me, the short blast of an unmistakable police-whistle, and realized he was signaling to me—the me who was supposed to be watching the back of the house just a hundred yards to the east, not the me he was following—and there would be no need of taxis and messages. Hopefully he wouldn’t wait around to see if I followed from my supposed vantage-post; to make sure he didn’t, I ducked behind a bush for a moment to force him to come looking for me—the me he was following, don’t you know, not the me he expected to follow him (confusing, isn’t it?)
In due course I got back to the office and shed my disguise again, climbed up through the secret passage into my sitting-room, and dashed back out through the hotel onto St. James’s Street. Then I had to go the long way around the block, down past Boodle’s to Ryder Street instead of just three doors up to Jermyn Street, so that I would appear to be coming from the proper direction. I spotted him apparently examining the show windows of a shop called Monsieur Alcide’s in the ground floor of the Bury Street building.
"What kept you?" Twister eyed me with concern when I reached him, sweating freely and breathing rather hard, "I was starting to worry you hadn’t got my signal on Birdcage Walk."
"I ran into a friend on Pall Mall and couldn’t get away from him?" I panted, hearing the obviousness of the lie in my own voice.
"What’s going on, Foxy?" he narrowed his eyes at me.
"Tell me what you observed about Mr. Mugg as you followed him?" I countered, letting a pleased smirk grace my visage as I wiped my heavily bedewed forehead with a handkerchief.
"Nothing much to observe," he replied, still eyeing me suspiciously, "Just under six feet, I’d guess fifteen stone, around about forty years old, dark curly hair, horn-rim glasses, rather muffled up for June, maybe a hypochondriac. Nothing notable in his gait or behaviour."
"Do you think it may have been a disguise?"
"Perhaps the muffling-up was meant to disguise him, but he didn’t strike a false note, if that’s what you mean."
"Excellent!" I crowed happily, clapping my hands.
"What are you up to?" he demanded, grabbing my arm.
"Come with me, I’ll show you," I dragged him into the shop, which sold gentlemen’s luxury goods like velvet dressing-gowns and silver boutonnières; the proprietor was a friend of mine, and let me enter the building through the shop if I ever had occasion to enter in my own guise, since the well-known fashion-plate Lord Foxbridge was considerably more likely to buy a dressing-gown than to visit an office. Slipping through the back of the shop into the service staircase, I led him up to the second floor and down the corridor to the door at the end.
"Lillie & Co. Importers?" Twister read the legend on the door as I produced my key and let us in, "Is this the business you’re investigating?"
"Yes and no," I smirked again, leading the way through the outer office, where the fictional Mr. Singh and Miss Glossington had their own desks, into the inner office where the fictional Mr. Lillie might hold court, "I am Lillie and Co., as a matter of fact. And I am the heavyset, middle-aged, dark-haired hypochondriac Rowland Mugg you followed here."
"You!" he gasped, shocked to his core. It was one thing for me to play silly games, he was used to it; but to be told he’d followed his own lover for two thirds of a mile without recognizing him, closely observing a back that he should know blindfold in the dark but falling for a cheap trick of padding, that wounded his professional pride, "Why?"
"All in good time, I just wanted to confirm that you, who know me better than most, did not recognize me in Mr. Mugg."
"Not even a ghost of a suspicion," he breathed, his wounded pride giving way to a glimmering admiration for my clever disguise.
"Do you recognize this office?" I asked, sitting down behind the desk.
"No," he looked around him with interest, then suddenly realized when he’d seen it before, "Wait, this is the office where you found that body last summer. The one on the other side of your sitting-room wall."
"Precisely," I beamed, getting up again and going over to the wardrobe, where I pressed another hidden button and caused the doors to spring open, "Follow me."
"Well, I’ll be damned," he gasped, impressed, when we emerged into my sitting-room, where Pond was just laying out a Lucullan tea for the both of us.
"More than likely," I grinned, throwing my arms around his neck and kissing him soundly, "What do you think?"
"It’s very thorough, and very clever," he said, smiling into my eyes, "But what’s it all for?"
"Get me a cup of tea and I’ll show you," I released him and led the way over to the window, where a large-scale map of the City of Westminster was spread out on my dining-table, weighted down with a motley assortment of objets de vertu I’d gathered from around my rooms to demonstrate my plan.
"What’s the little blue bug?" he asked after he’d brought my tea and taken a hearty swig of his own, "It’s sitting on where I live in Craven Street."
"The lapis lazuli scarab is you, and be careful, it's four thousand years old," I explained, picking up the little stone object I’d chosen to represent Twister because it was the most precious thing I had to hand, then picked up a little gold fox studded with garnets that surmounted the agate seal I used on my letters, "and the garnet fox is me, here at Hyacinth House. The china matchcase on Bury Street is Rowland Mugg."
"All right," he said, leaning comfortably over my shoulder.
"Now, Detective Sergeant Paget has decided to let his country-house in Cheshire, since he never gets to go there anymore," I picked up the scarab and wiggled it as if it was a toy soldier I was about to put in play, "This means he’ll have a little extra money in his pockets, and what better way to spend that extra money than to find some nicer rooms that aren’t under the shadow of a great railway terminus."
"Okay," he agreed tentatively.
"Sergeant Paget’s good friend Lord Foxbridge has heard of some rooms in a very desirable location that are going remarkably (but not suspiciously) cheap," I picked up the garnet fox and wiggled it as well, and brought the two figurines together in the air an inch above where 14 Queen Anne’s Gate appeared on the map, "He takes Sergeant Paget to see these rooms, Sergeant Paget approves of the rooms, Sergeant Paget moves into the rooms."
"I’m not sure I want it to be known at the Yard that I’ve moved into Queen Anne’s Gate, especially on the Park side. I already get chaffed for living in Westminster."
"You get chaffed for everything you do," I plunked the scarab down squarely and decisively in Queen Anne’s Gate, "If you went and lived in Mile End or Limehouse, they’d still chaff you about your title or your school or something."
"True," he conceded.
"Sergeant Paget now lives in lovely new rooms with a Park view," I went on, dancing the garnet fox back and forth on the map between St. James’s Street and Queen Anne’s Gate, "and his friend Lord Foxbridge comes to visit every once in a while, since he’ so close by, but not more often than one would expect of a pair of ordinarily chummy chums, and always leaving at a respectable hour."
"As Sergeant Paget is always visiting Lord Foxbridge at his rooms, not too often and always leaving at a respectable hour," he added.
"Precisely. Now, in the meantime," I picked up the china matchcase, making galloping motions between Queen Anne’s Gate and Bury Street, "Sergeant Paget’s lodging-house neighbor, Mr. Mugg, works in an office on Bury Street that bears no apparent connection to either Lord Foxbridge or Sergeant Paget. Mugg can be observed leaving Queen Anne’s Gate in the mornings and returning there in the evenings, and sometimes he will take a third-class ticket to a place in Suffolk or somewhere that he might have family."
"Why?" Twister wondered.
"Because anybody who might be interested in watching Sergeant Paget’s movements," I picked up another piece, a diamond-eyed bulldog carved from amber that was meant to represent Scotland Yard or the Home Office, and set it on the corner of Queen Anne’s Gate and Carteret Street where it could ‘observe’ Number 14, "will, in observing his home and the behaviour of his friends, take notice of the inconsequential Mr. Mugg and follow him. Nobody, not even the conscientious Mugg, goes to the office on a Sunday. But he has to leave the house anyway, so he has to go somewhere. He takes a third to Suffolk, whither only the most diligent of bulldogs would follow him, gets off two stops later dressed in a different disguise, and effectively disappears for a couple of days."
"But again, why?"
"Because Foxy, who is deeply in love with Twister, dreams of nothing better than to regularly wake up in his arms of a morning. Of course, Foxy is a bit spoilt, and would rather wake up in Queen Anne’s Gate than in Mile End or Limehouse. And so, most evenings, Lord Foxbridge returns to his rooms in St. James’s, keeping peculiarly early hours for a gentleman of his age and station, but otherwise presenting no suspicious behaviour. Then Lord Foxbridge becomes Mr. Mugg," and here I put the garnet fox inside the china matchcase, then trotted it across to Queen Anne’s Gate, "who is a regular and innocuous feature at Twister’s lodgings; once inside, he becomes Foxy again, and spends the blissful night with Twister. Of a blissful morning, Foxy becomes Mugg again, trots back to Bury Street, slips through the passage and becomes Lord Foxbridge, and goes about the business of being Lord Foxbridge, plain for all the world to see."
"I see," he sounded a little worried, and a little steamed up, one of his more peculiar combination moods, "Isn’t that an awful lot of work? How long can you keep it up?"
"I only have to keep it up for a few months," I plucked another piece off the margins, the white queen from my chessboard, a beautifully fashioned silver figure with gold enamel details, "In due course, likely late next spring, Lord Foxbridge will marry Lady Caroline Chatroy. He will have to be absent from his beloved Twister because of this, but only for a couple of months. Returning from their honeymoon, the Viscount and Viscountess Foxbridge move into their new home at Number 16 Queen Anne’s Gate. A passage will, by then, have been built into the wall between the two houses, and Foxy and Twister spend every night together, all ease and comfort."
"And that’s not suspicious? Moving in next door to me?"
"Not suspicious at all," I said, arranging the figures in a row on the map, the silver queen on the left and the lapis scarab on the right, with the garnet fox in between, "You see, Lord Foxbridge already owns the house, he bought it months before Sergeant Paget moved to Number 14. It was while inspecting his new property at Number 16 that Lord Foxbridge discovered the desirable rooms available at Number 14, about which he told his good friend Sergeant Paget. Lord Foxbridge is a happily married man, essentially above suspicion, and neither he nor Sergeant Paget is ever seen coming in or out of their respective houses at suggestive hours. What could be more natural?"
"Who owns Number 14, and why will he allow you to knock a hole in the wall?" he wasn’t convinced, but was getting there.
"Number 14, as well as the rest of that row of houses, is owned by Paschal Properties, Ltd, from whom Lord Foxbridge bought Number 16."
"And who owns Paschal Properties?" he pursued.
"I do," I replied, grinning like a Cheshire cat, "behind three layers of dummy corporations, one of which is Lillie & Co. Importers. That’s why Mr. Mugg lives at such a nice address."
"You created dummy corporations and bought a whole row of mansions in the most expensive part of London just for this scheme?" he gaped at me in astonishment.
"It was a good investment," I shrugged, "My broker pointed it out to me, a row of desirable houses, freehold no less, going at a very advantageous price from an estate being divided among a contentious lot of joint heirs. House property isn’t as lucrative as shares and securities, but it’s a good deal safer. And everyone uses dummy corporations to hide their money from the good old Inland Revenue, my broker set them all up long before this scheme. It was the combination of the dummy corporations, the houses, and the office on Bury Street that gave me the idea for the scheme."
"You’re brilliant," he said, kissing me passionately; that led to something of a tussle, but then he stopped suddenly, "Wait. What about Lady Caroline? Has she agreed to this?"
"Not yet, I wanted to get you on board first."
"What will you do if she won’t play ball? I mean, that’s pretty imperious of you to buy a house without consulting her first."
"It’s the lord’s duty to provide the house, and the lady’s duty to make it comfortable," I said pompously, "She’s the daughter of a duke and knows that, she would naturally expect me to already have a house. I mean, if I’d already acceded, we’d have gone to live at Vere House without question."
"I think you’d better consult her anyway, before you start counting your chickens," he advised, caressing my face gently, "She's a headstrong young woman, very much accustomed to getting her own way."
"Of course," I agreed, "Though I’m pretty sure she’ll like the scheme. It is a very nice house, after all. And part of the draw of a whole row of houses is that we can set up her lover, whoever she might be and whenever she might appear, on the other side in Number 18."
"That sounds very French," he teased, kissing me again, "What about when you do accede? What happens to me when you have to move to Vere House?"
"We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it," I said into his mouth.
"What would you have done if I didn’t agree?"
"You do agree?" I ignored his question to pounce on the implication.
"How could I not? It’s too beautifully planned. But what if I hadn’t agreed?"
"I’d have beat you with a stick until you changed your mind," I said with great decision and authority.
"What kind of a stick?" he asked playfully, his eyes smouldering all they could.
"If you’d care to step into the next room, I’ll show you."