Not fully satisfied with this chapter. Smells suspiciously of my teenage writing style – too many words! I can’t decide if I like that for this story or not. Time will tell! But for now it’ll do – otherwise I’ll just sit on it forever. Should anyone other than Audrey read this, feedback much appreciated (et evidement le tien aussi, cherie!)
“How do you want to handle this?”
“I know how you want me to want to handle this.”
“Yes, but is that how you actually want handle it?”
Stanford slid an unopened letter into his book to mark the page, closed the book, and carefully set it aside. He folded his paws one over the other and rested them on the desk before him. The desk was tidy, with neat, sorted stacks of correspondence – unopened to the left, read and answered to the right. In one corner a shallow dish filled with various stamps sat next to a squat stoneware jug holding his fountain pens.
The jug had a raised imprint of a bearded man on it. Stanford had bought it in Germany during the war and brought it back with him. It was, to the best of Charlie’s knowledge, his only souvenir. He said the man, with his wild unkempt beard, was a comrade in arms. In response, Charlie had said something ungracious about its German maker and comradeship which Stanford had ignored. Charlie enjoyed being crass in the way only those who have been thoroughly over-educated do.
“We may as well do it your way,” he said. “Mr. Marcroft has done most of the preliminary work. All that’s really left is for us to go there, track her down, or what’s left of her at least, and bring her back.”
Charlie grimaced. “’Or what’s left of her’? Really, Stanford?”
The lion shrugged unapologetically. “We both know there’s a very good chance she’s already dead.”
Charlie toyed with the photograph Thomas Marcroft had left. “Sure, but do we have to be so blunt about it? A little hope never hurt anyone.”
Stanford, tactfully choosing not to argue, changed the subject. “How do you want to play it? Man or woman? What’s the act?”
Doing things “Charlie’s way” was not something Stanford agreed to very often. It meant an involved process including the assuming of an elaborate cover identity, complete with a highly detailed and mostly unnecessary back story, which Charlie would create, force him to memorise, and, once he had, promptly revise three or four times.
Once, Stanford had accused her of going extremes and she had said of course she was, this was the fun part. After all, undercover work was the only reason anyone ever bothered becoming a private detective in the first place. Well, she’d paused thoughtfully, that and being able to drink on the job.
Seeing that this didn’t entirely satisfy Stanford, Charlie had told him to blame the war, and the Secret Intelligence Service in particular, for having encouraged her theatrical tendencies. And now that she’d left the service, she had pointed out, she had no other outlet for her talents besides undercover work.
When he’d repeated this conversation to their secretary at the time and she had scoffed and asked, well isn’t parading about as a bloke enough for her? Stanford had tried to explain that that wasn’t an act, that was who Charlie was. However, after the woman had nodded but said, yeah, sure, but she’s still a woman, in’t she? for the third time, he’d given up and made a mental note to find a new secretary.
Charlie sucked on her lower lip as she thought. “Knife throwing? And I’m honestly tempted to go in drag. It’s been a while since I played a woman.”
“Practically speaking, a mammalian and a woman travelling alone together is more scandal than we want to deal with at the moment,” Stanford pointed out.
“Even if I were the one throwing the knives?”
“Even so. Though maybe,” he grinned, “you could be a lion tamer.”
“That’s not funny, Stanford.”
Charlie took mammalphobia much more personally than he did. Once, on the street, a young man in a shiny new car – let’s call him Myles – had yelled some obscenity at them as he sped by. Charlie had looked up his licence plate in the registry and the next thing that Myles knew he was being thrown out of every brothel in the city.
It had actually been quite the community event. The girls had gathered in doorways, hung out of windows, and collected on roofs, while they fondled themselves and described in detail what he was no longer allowed to do to them. Exiled to the pavement and already hard, Myles watched this debauched display in simultaneous humiliation and discomfort, with nothing he could do about either (Charlie later told Stanford that she had impressed upon the girls the need for humiliation above all else. She’d been sure they could deliver this better than anyone as being shamed, she’d pointed out, was something these women had a keen understanding of).
Soon other johns, drawn by the noise, had joined in, catcalling and wolf whistling and generally displaying such an impressive repertoire of ersatz animals sounds that visitors would have been forgiven for thinking they’d taken a wrong turn and ended up in the London Zoo instead of Soho. It took four tries before Myles had finally got back into his shiny car and sped away. The last anyone had heard, Myles – the heir to a rather large estate, as it turned out – now had to drive all the way to Ipswich if he wanted a good time, such was the London prostitutes’ devotion to Charlie.
Stanford still didn’t fully understand Charlie’s hold over London’s professionals. As far he knew she had never visited a brothel, at least not for its intended purpose. But it seemed to him, whenever they were in seedier parts of town, that she could greet every whore, madam, and fatherless brothel baby by name, and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all their most intimate hopes and dreams. Stanford honestly wondered if she had decided to court their affections simply to spite the rest of society. It wouldn’t have surprised him.
“Alright, alright, let’s compromise,” said Stanford. “A man, a lion, and a knife act. But you’re booking the ferry tickets.”
Charlie’s pointy face crumpled like a bride abandoned at the altar.
Lucy nearly dropped the bucket of ice.
“No, no, two tick— yes, two tickets. Thank you,” Charlie dropped the mouthpiece into its cradle with a violent clatter and, her face twisted in disgust, wiped her hand on the edge of the desk as if she had just touched something indescribably revolting. “Christ almighty! Good thing it was just two tickets. God knows how long it would have taken him to count to three! Some people should have been stillborn.”
Lucy ignored Charlie’s deliberate outrageousness and shifted the ice from one hip to the other. “Did Stanford have to dial for you?” she asked.
Charlie glared at the secretary.
“Yes,” Stanford’s voice floated in from the office.
Charlie’s glare transferred itself to the office door. “E tu, Brute?” she yelled.
“Lucy deserves the truth!” came Stanford’s reply.
“Well, I’m proud of you anyway,” Lucy said. “It’s not every day that you wait until someone’s out of earshot to wish they were dead.”
Charlie snorted and turned her attention to the ice. “Is that for me?”
“Is there anyone else I would be willing to cart a tonne of ice through the streets for?” Lucy held the wastepaper basket out to her boss.
“Your paycheque?” Charlie likewise hefted the bucket onto one hip; it was possibly the only truly feminine gestures left in her daily repertoire.
“Always have bring things down to your level, don’t you?”
“What can I say? I’m a realist.”
“Oh, is that what we’re calling poor manners these days? Realism?” Lucy flounced into her desk chair and pulled a dress catalogue out from under a stack of paperwork. The cheap paper creased under her perfect red nails.
Charlie threw her free hand up in the air. “Couldn’t you at least wait till I’m not in the room to blatantly do nothing?”
Lucy shrugged without looking up from her magazine. “I respect you too much to hide the truth from you.”
“Oh, good,” said Charlie. “And here I was worried that you just didn’t care.”
“A little of column A, a little of column B…” Lucy turned the page.
Throwing her hand up once more, Charlie retreated back to the office, nursing her ice.
“Lucy is very nice,” Stanford said when she’d closed the door. It was possibly the most innocuous comment ever uttered in that office.
Thrusting her gin bottle deep into the waste paper basket, Charlie flopped back into her chair and stretched her long legs out in front of her. “Sure. For a spoiled former hairdresser.”
Stanford shook his head. “You like her.”
Leering, Charlie said, “Well, I think we both know what I like about her.”
Stanford continued as if he hadn’t heard. “If you didn’t like her, you’d have fired her months ago.”
Charlie frowned suddenly, sensing an ulterior motive. “Where’s this going, Stanford?”
“Nowhere. I’m simply stating, for the record, that she’s a nice girl and you like her.”
“It’s been a while since you liked someone enough to put up their idiosyncrasies.”
“I put up with your idiosyncrasies,” Charlie pointed out, catching his drift and leaping to change the subject.
“That’s different. I’m the love of your life.”
Charlie chuckled, acknowledging the truth in the joke. She had known Stanford for nearly eight years now. The last person she’d known that long had been her father. She had loved him nearly as much as Stanford. “If only my great aunt Liza could see me now! She did so want me to marry well.”
Stanford nodded gravely. Aunt Liza’s dashed hopes and dreams were recurring characters in Charlie and Stanford’s patter. After nearly a decade their banter was well worn, full of tropes and familiar faces. Even the words themselves were soft, like the fabric of a favourite shirt. The pair used this gentle teasing to convey all sorts of subliminal messages – ones of devotion, love, comfort – as sarcasm was really the only way Charlie knew how to express affection.
“It’s been four years, Charlie. Don’t you think it’s time to move on?” But today Stanford was not in a bantering mood.
Charlie’s wide mouth rolled itself up into a thin, repressive line. “Stanford.”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“And therefore we’ve not talked about it. For four years.”
“Oh, for the love—I have moved on!”
“Well, you’ve certainly moved around. But I don’t think having casual sex with half the female population of London counts as ‘moving on’.”
“It’s not just—what about what’s-her-name? You know. The one with the face.”
“The one with the face,” Stanford repeated this back to her in case she had missed how ridiculous it sounded the first time.
“Yes, yes, you remember, the face and the hair.”
“Ah, with the face and the hair! Of course.”
“Oh, come off it, Stanford! With the hair!”
“Right! Yes, Laura. Or was it Samantha? I always get those two confused.”
Stanford nodded. “Yes. Clearly meaningful and fulfilling relationships the both of them. And the hair was Laura. Samantha had the nose.”
“What would I do without you, Stanford?”
“Be drunk more often, I don’t doubt. There’d be nothing else to keep you entertained between bouts of very meaningful sex with your beloved what’s-her-names.”
Charlie rolled her eyes. “That or I’d waste loads more money on the movies.”
“Better than liver failure.”
“Though not nearly as tasty,” Charlie countered.
Stanford let the conversation hang for a moment before he continued. The silence was comfortable, Charlie secure in the belief that she had successfully distracted him. The familiar sounds of a car driver shouting obscenities at a carriage driver drifted up to them through the sweaty city air.
“Just think about it, Charlie.”
“Why on earth would I want to go and get embroiled in some labyrinthine meaningful relationship, Stanford? Like you said, I’ve already found the love of my life. A woman would just complicate things. Wouldn’t want you to feel unappreciated, after all, would I?”
The fine hair of Stanford’s mane rippled as laughter rumbled through him. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t feel neglected. I’d probably take a vacation. Go on a weekend trip to Bath or something. Taking care of you is a full time job. ” He smiled, exposing his perfectly white teeth, “You’d be doing it for my sake, Charlie. After all, don’t you love me?”
Charlie shook her head, reaching for her gin. “Of course I do, Stanford. Which is why I’m remaining faithful. You say you wouldn’t mind but I know better. It’s for your own good, darling.”
“That’s exactly what they used to say when they carted us off to the formatories as kids.”
Charlie looked up, stricken, and Stanford, not for the first time, wished that she would have more of a sense of humour when it came to mammalphobia.
“It was a joke, Charlie. You know perfectly well that I got a scholarship and went to a well-respected grammar school.”
Stanford sighed. “Look, Charlie, if you’re not going to leave me then at least be a good spouse and pour me some of that gin while you’re at it.”
She chuckled. “It’s like we were made for each other, Stan.”
“I hate it when you call me that.”
“I know. And I really can’t decide if the pleasure of annoying you outweighs the pain of having to speak such an ugly name out loud. It’s a very tricky situation to be in.”
“My heart bleeds for you.”