Well…I forgot about this thing. Hopefully this time I’ll take better care of it! Which is, I think, what I said last time I forgot about it too…
Here’s the first chapter of a detective story involving, among other things, private eyes, cross-dressing, an alternate version of the 1920s, spies, circuses, WWI, fairy tales, sarcasm, a talking lion, and an Irishman. If any of those things appeal to you, read on! The working title is “Prince & West”. Open to suggestions on that front. Also to constructive criticism of any kind.
Charlie slumped back in her chair, eyes closed. The window was open and the noise of the street – along with its smell – wafted in on a limp, humid excuse for a breeze. She groaned.
Stanford looked up from the biography he was reading. “Seriously?” he asked, gesturing with an expressive paw to his enormous mane.
She cracked one eye. “Doesn’t count. You’re a desert animal. Used to this sort of ungodly heat. Adapted to it. Your natural environment.”
“You know perfectly well that I grew up in Liverpool.”
“Yes, well, yes, fine. If you want to split hairs. It’s similar to a desert, though. At least, culturally speaking,” she grinned.
Stanford rolled his eyes.
“But let’s be honest, Stan, you must have desert bred into you somewhere. If not, how else do you wear those suits on top of all that fur? I’m dying and I’ve just got skin and a bit of cotton undershirt.”
“Which reminds me,” the lion tapped one claw purposefully on his desk. “Get dressed before a client sees you.”
Charlie moaned. “But it’s so ho-ot, Stanford.”
“And stop whining while you’re at it.”
Huffing, Charlie pulled a wrinkled white button-down shirt from the depths of one of her desk’s many drawers and shrugged it on. She did up three of the buttons and tucked in one of the ends. From a drawer on the other side of the desk, she pulled an already knotted black tie and slung it over her head.
“It ruins the ties if you leave them knotted,” Stanford said without looking up from his book.
“This tie’s so cheap it hardly matters.”
“Then why’d you buy it?”
“So that I could leave it knotted.”
Stanford sighed and turned the page. “At least comb your hair.”
Charlie’s hair was bright red and impenetrably thick, standing nearly straight up in the front. When she was feeling fancy, she would coerce it into a pompadour that resembled nothing so much as Hokusai’s Wave.
For now, she contented herself with dragging her fingers through it a few time.
Stanford sighed again.
“Oh fine, all right.” Charlie tucked her shirt in entirely.
Stanford smiled a little, still focussed on his reading.
Charlie, to reward herself for her good behaviour, reached down and pulled a bottle of gin from a tin wastepaper basket that sat by her desk. The bottle dripped onto the floor. She made a face.
“My ice’s melted.” Sure enough, when she leaned over to peer into the basket, it was half full of water.
Setting the bottle down on the desk with a damp thunk, she pulled a glass from the same drawer her tie had been in.
As she was pouring, the office door opened. Stanford and Charlie both looked up. In the doorway stood a thin man of awkward proportions. He had a large round face, sloping shoulders and a torso that was too long for his legs. His clothes were fashionable but ready-made and accentuated his odd shape in a way tailored clothes would have hidden. He was breathing a little heavily from the three flights of stairs and his breath whistled a little as he exhaled. Charlie put down the gin bottle.
“Hello,” she said.
The man looked uncomfortable, his eyes sliding surreptitiously to Stanford, then back to Charlie. “Your assistant told me to come right in,” he said, as if trying to excuse his presence.
“Of course she did.” Only Stanford caught the dour note in Charlie’s voice. “Please, sit.”
The man looked at the chair in front of Charlie’s desk then at something in his hand. He hesitated.
“Sorry,” said Charlie, “where are my manners?” She pulled another glass from the drawer. “Would you like some gin? It’s… well, it’s cooler than the air, at least.” She held up the bottle for him to inspect.
“No, thank you,” said the man.
Charlie shrugged. “Well, if you don’t want to sit and you don’t want to drink, what can we do for you?”
He held up the card he was holding. “This is Prince & West, right?”
“That’s us,” said Charlie.
“My friend gave me your card. He said you were the best.”
“And he was right. Please,” Charlie tried again, “take a seat. What’s your problem?”
The man stayed where he was. “I didn’t realise you were…”
Charlie raised her eyebrows. “Redheads?”
The man frowned. “What? No, no I meant that you were… a woman and a – a mammalian.”
“Is that going to be an issue?” asked Charlie. “Because, I mean, feel free to solve your own problem if you think that you, by the sole virtue of being both human and male, could do a better job than a woman and a mammalian.”
“Charlie,” Stanford said evenly.
“Well, you have to admit it’s a bit unorthodox,” said the man, drawing himself up, trying to bluster his way through.
Charlie swirled the gin in her glass, leaning back in her seat. “Didn’t serve in the war, did you?”
“I— no. How did you— ”
“You’ve got asthma. They wouldn’t have let you.”
“How — well, it’s not like you did either!”
Charlie smiled, showing her incisors. “Wrong. We both did. You can see Stanford’s medals if you want. He still has them somewhere. Waste of space if you ask me. Sold mine.” She gestured once more to the seat in front of her desk. “And this is why we are the private investigators and you are the client. Now either sit down and tell us your problem or get the hell out. It’s too hot for me to be getting annoyed.”
The man sat.
“That’s better,” said Charlie. “Now, who are you?”
“Marcroft. Thomas Marcroft. I’m an accountant—”
Charlie snorted derisively.
“Charlie.” Stanford’s voice was less even this time.
“I’m an accountant with Peters & Peters in the City. But it’s my sister that’s in trouble. At least, I think she’s in trouble.”
Thomas placed his leather briefcase on Charlie’s desk. Popping it open, he pulled out a thin file folder. The corner of a newspaper clipping stuck out one end. He laid the folder on the desk, closed the briefcase, and returned it to the floor. Every movement he made was short, careful, and precise, as though he were afraid of disturbing something or someone.
Delicately, he opened the file, nudging it toward Charlie. It was full of newspaper articles, mostly in French, with a smattering of German and a few, brief, snippets in English. Charlie pulled the folder closer, picking up the top article. Despite herself, she looked a little impressed.
“I can’t read the German ones, a friend working in Trier sent them to me when he heard about Cymbeline. He made me some translations if you want them,” Marcroft offered.
Charlie shook her head as she read. “That would be your sister? Cymbeline?”
He nodded. “You speak German?”
“And French. And Italian and Serbian, if you’re curious. We divvied up the continent and Stanford got the Iberian Peninsula. I got the rest.”
“She’s joking,” said Stanford. “Her Portuguese is perfectly passable.”
“As do I. Your sister ran away to join the circus, did she?”
Thomas Marcroft sighed, sinking his head into his hands. Once his head was thus supported, he nodded slowly.
“And she’s not answering your letters, I’m assuming?”
“No! She promised. She swore to me! Our mother has cut her off you know. I’m the only one— and it’s been two months.”
“Well, she could just be busy,” Charlie pointed out. But she was eyeing the stack of articles with narrowed eyes.
“I thought you could read French?” Marcroft shot back, pointing to the title of one of the articles.
Charlie smiled a little. “Point taken. Why don’t you start from the beginning, Mr. Marcroft?”
The thin man composed himself. “It was in March. In Twickenham. That’s where my family lives, Twickenham. Though it’s just my mother, my aunt and Cymbeline now. Or, I suppose, then. Anyway, Diamond Dave’s Miraculous Marvels came to town in March. I was visiting for the weekend and Cymbeline and I went on Saturday. It was all the usual stuff, bearded lady, Siamese twins, a dwarf or two, a sword-swallower. It was actually quite good. Nothing looked obviously fake, you know?”
Charlie and Stanford nodded encouragingly.
“Anyway, I left her to buy us some cotton candy and, Cymbeline, she struck up a conversation with the ring master. The owner, actually, I suppose. Diamond Dave. He was crossing to the big top and saw her and stopped to talk. At least, that’s what she told me when I found them. I believe it. Men are always stopping to talk to her. Oh, the photo!” He paused in his story, reaching into his jacket.
Out of the inner pocket he withdrew a small, black and white photograph of a pretty, smiling girl of about 18. Her hair was black and fashionably done in a curly bob and her thin eyebrows rose with laughter above large, dark eyes. She had a small nose and a pert mouth. She looked nothing like her brother.
“She got the looks in the family,” Marcroft said, smiling for the first time since he’d arrived.
“She’s lovely,” Charlie agreed. “And this Diamond Dave took a shine to her?”
“Yes. Invited her backstage to meet some of the performers. Told her to come back again the next day.”
“Which she did?”
“Which she did. That’s Cymbeline. I told her not to, of course. I was leaving the next morning and thought it wouldn’t be proper for her to go alone. Anyway, the next week I get a letter postmarked in Nantes saying she’s madly in love with Diamond Dave and she’s run away with him and his circus and she’s over the moon and working as his assistant in the big top.”
“Did you bring the letters too?”
“Of course. Of course. Sorry, I seem to be rather out of sorts today.” From another pocket he withdrew a parcel hastily wrapped in waxed brown paper.
“Quite all right,” said Charlie, taking the letters. Seeing people worry about their loved ones always won Charlie over, despite her best efforts.
“Of course I began to look into the circus, I mean, who wouldn’t? At first I didn’t find anything – that had been their first trip to England, usually they work in France and Germany – so, I let it go for a while. Cymbeline’s letters were always so happy. She loved the other performers, she loved the travel, she love Diamond Dave. But then the letters suddenly stopped. They were headed to Freiburg to tour the Black Forest, and the letters stopped. Then I began hunting in earnest and that’s when I found these.”
“Three girls reported missing, two from Alsace and one from Baden.” Charlie looked up. “I’m afraid, Mr. Marcroft, that the sad fact of the matter is that girls go missing all the time.”
“I know, I know. It seems like coincidence. But I then I read this one here,” he fished out the earliest article from the pile, “and something lit up in my brain. It was pure chance that the reporter mentioned that the circus had been in town at the same time but it got me thinking. That it should be the same circus! I wrote to the authorities in the other two towns and they both confirmed my suspicions. Diamond Dave’s circus had been visiting when their girls disappeared.”
Stanford, no longer able to feign indifference, stood and came to lean over Charlie’s shoulder and delicately tapped the first article with one enormous claw. “The first disappearance was in 1913,” he said. “Alsace-Lorraine was German then.”
Thomas Marcroft nodded excitedly. “Exactly. When the circus went through again in 1920 everyone had forgotten all about it and the French authorities had no record of it.”
“And the next girl, in 1922, was German,” Stanford’s claw drifted to the next article.
Again, their client nodded. “From Tutlingen.”
Charlie chuckled. Marcroft turned from Stanford to her. “Do you find this funny, Miss Prince?”
“No, sorry, Marcroft, I just…” she waved a hand vaguely. “It’s those German town names. They get me every time. Tutlingen. Ha!” She snorted with laughter .
“Charlie,” Stanford sighed.
She cleared her throat. “Yes, erm, right. Maybe not the time. Anyway. Mr. Marcroft, what, exactly, would you like us to do?”
Marcroft looked down at his lap for a moment. “I would like…” he began slowly, “I would like you to find my sister and bring her home, if…if she’s…”
Charlie, suddenly very solemn, poured gin into the clean glass and slid it across the desk to him. “It would be our pleasure,” she said.
Thomas Marcroft downed the gin in one go. “Thank you,” he said.
Charlie strained to hear the sound of the main door shut. When, faintly, it did, she ripped off her tie and threw it down on the desk.
“Thank God,” she groaned, taking hold of her collar in one hand and flapping it back and forth in an attempt to get some air flowing between her and the cotton of her shirt.
“This will be interesting,” Stanford said.
She nodded, eyes closed as she fanned herself. “He’s a narrow-minded twit but he’s a good brother.”
“He’s clearly under a lot of pressure at work. People like that are always looking to blow off steam at someone else’s expense. It’s not like he’s the only person in the world who would baulk at hiring a woman and a mammalian.”
“Oh, stop being such a saint.”
“I’m not a saint, I’m just resigned.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“Ah, to be young again.”
“Oh, stuff it, Stan.” Charlie stood up abruptly, grabbing her tin wastepaper basket as she went. Water sloshed over its lip and onto the floor. She ignored this and, tucking the basket securely under one arm, strode out the office door.
Stanford shrugged and went back to his biography.
The blonde didn’t look up from filing her nails. Charlie made a moue of displeasure and thumped her wastepaper basket down on Lucy’s desk. Water splashed everywhere.
“Oh great, thanks, Charlie. You’re such a prince.” Lucy tugged at her cardigan, now liberally splattered with water.
“A) what have I said about making puns with my last name? And b) how many times have I told you not to let clients into the office unannounced!?”
Lucy rolled her lovely tawny eyes. Charlie steeled herself. Those eyes were precisely the reason she was having this discussion in the first place.
“You’re just mad because he caught you without your costume on. I mean, it’s true, you totally do pass. If you would just keep your shirt on!”
“She’s not wrong!” came Stanford’s voice from inside the office.
Charlie ignored him. “Well, if you warned me someone was coming I’d have time to put my shirt on, wouldn’t I?”
“Too bad you still wouldn’t have time to iron it. That thing looks like it’s been through more war zones than you have.”
“Don’t change the subject, Lucy.”
“Oh well, it didn’t matter, did it? He still hired you. And besides, you should stop being such a wimp. Come out of the closet already. It’s not like Stanford can put a different shirt on.”
“That is not the point!”
“Well, then what is?” Lucy crossed her arms, intentionally pushing up her breasts, and raised a challenging eyebrow.
Charlie breathed in through her nose. “I need more ice,” she said, pointing to the wastepaper basket.
“Oh, come on, Prince, in this heat? Don’t make me walk—”
“Shouldn’t have taken the job if you didn’t want to work,” Charlie interrupted her, before marching back into the office and slamming the door.
Lucy pouted at the wastepaper basket as if this were all somehow its fault. After a minute of fruitless sulking, she stood, scraping her chair noisily against the wood floor. “You’ll have to answer the phone yourself!” she yelled.
Usually, this was an effective threat. They had had a brand new black candlestick telephone installed two months ago and Charlie avoided it with a passion. She was overly fond of describing it as the bastard love child of male penis envy and a dying cat and what was wrong with telegraphs anyway?
However, this time no response came from inside the office. Huffing, Lucy grabbed the wastepaper basket and clicked angrily out the door on her T-strap heels.
Stanford winced as the walls shivered from the force of Lucy slamming the front door. “You know…”
“Oh, don’t you start,” said Charlie. “I know, already, I know.”
“At least they’re particularly nice eyes.”
Charlie slid down in her chair, looking up at the ceiling with a dreamy smile. “Aren’t they just, though?”