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It was a dark and stormy night, but that wasn’t too unusual for London in December. In fact, I think most tourists, and even residents, would have been disappointed with anything else. London without fog is like Russia without political dysfunction, simply unrecognizable.
As I regarded the mottled Ionic columns that faced authoritatively onto Great Russell Street, I took a moment to consider my presence here. Ten years ago, I would have been part of the woodwork, now I was an unwelcome harbinger of uncomfortable questions. Though maybe that characterization wasn’t entirely fair. Uncomfortable questions were how I ended up in this spot in the first place.
Thursday at 6 pm was an ideal time for my endeavours. The museum had been cleared of the curious for an hour, and I would be left to deal only with night guards and employees, like Sir John Tawney. At this hour, I was sure that he would be tucked into the comfort of his elevated office, willing only to venture out into the beating rain when a cab had been called. He was unlikely to share with me and, anyway, I didn’t belong in Kensington.
With one sharp rap, I called the aging curator’s name and pushed open the door.
“Am I to presume that you come bearing more questions?”
He smiled wanly at that. Despite his considered coldness in most matters, the man had a sense of humor, and I was left to wonder idly about what he was like under normal circumstances. Most likely the same, though a childish part of me wished it to be untrue.
“I wanted to confirm a few details with you, about Tuesday night.”
“Your statement indicates that Raymond left at 8 pm. This was typical of him?
“Very. He had no wife and children, there was no obligation for him to be home.”
“No partner, even?”
“Not lately. He was my assistant, though, detective, not my charge. For all I know he spent his nights cavorting in Soho. So long as he did not bring it in with him in the morning, or to the press, I had no desire to know.”
No desire to know. Well, the old man won for selectivity on that front. Much as he may not have cared who Acton was diddling in his off-hours, the young man’s peers had been quite clear that who he worshipped on his own time had mattered a whole hell of a lot.
“You liked him?”
“According to his peers, he spent all day, every day with you. There is an extra desk in this office for him. It could not be irrelevant.”
“I was training him to be the next head curator for Coins and Medals, it would not have mattered if I liked him, only that he could do his job.”
Small wonder Acton’s journals indicated his frustration with this man, he wouldn’t even reveal to him that he was being groomed as a protege. Tawney had never bothered to lift his head from the book he was studying, and I took the chance to cast my eye over the comparatively tiny oak desk shoved into the foremost wall of the spacious room. Unlike Tawney’s desk, it was untidy, and among all of the various detritus, a small box of elaborately shaped filled chocolates lay open.
“Were those chocolates his? Expensive looking.”
“They were a gift to me from a dear friend. My wife would not have liked such things, so I left them for him.”
The slightest hint of strain peeked out of the graying man’s absent final “r.” For the first time since I had entered the room, his eyes strayed from the book, and now rested on the shadowed desk. In a way that I did not recall from our earlier meeting, his pale green eyes were slightly pink in the whites, and his thin bottom lip scarred by a barely healed bite mark across the middle. Trimmed and impeccably clean, the ivory crescent of his right thumb nail was pressed painfully into the open book. All desire to continue the interview left me, guilt and doubt settling like bile at the base of my throat, but I pushed ahead.
“I have only a few more questions, if you would entertain me. Were you working on any projects with Mr. Acton, the last night that you saw him?”
“We were finalizing paperwork for an acquisition, and beginning plans on its display.”
“He was excited by this?”
“It crossed into both of our specialties within the field, so there was mutual interest.”
“So at 8, you finished this paperwork and then?”
“A cab, he had called a cab for me earlier when I was out of the room. Insistent that I was working myself too hard. We closed up the office together, descended the necessary floors, and went our separate ways. I took my cab, and he set off towards King’s Cross.”
“And this was the last that you saw of him.”
“Fine. Thank you for confirming these details for me. I’ll be in touch soon with further enquiries, and information.”
His head bowed again, and I took my dismissal.
Maybe I should have brought an umbrella with me. My absent-mindedness in this regard, really my lack of willingness to tote around such an object when coats worked perfectly fine, was one of the most “dead giveaways” to the fact that I was a foreigner. Or so my friends said. After fifty years in the country, I had accepted that my quirks, like my accent, would never be regarded as just my own, but always as part of a long distant place.
Weeks ago I had promised William that I would meet him at the tiny Xi’an restaurant wedged between a pub and an upscale hotel just across Russell Square. It seemed I would have no excuse to break off the 7 pm meeting, and, if I were truthful with myself, I might even have been looking forward to it. Master Wei’s was a decades-long haunt for us, and in torrential weather, I was drawn to the idea of such a well-worn comfort like a moth to open flame. At the fountain, I paused to look out upon the Kimpton Fitzroy. The sun having long since departed, the elaborate terra cotta facade seemed ablaze, illuminated by the hundreds of small glass windows engraved on all sides. Beauty would not pause for our small human concerns.
“Здравствуйте, мистер Хаим.”
Alvarez’s voice, so much deeper and richer than one would have guessed with his stature, rang out of the back of the restaurant as I pushed open the distinctive aquamarine door. We had been playing this game for years, almost since he began; conducting our exchanges in a variety of different languages, him seeing which I could comprehend and pushing the limits of my fluency. Perhaps he had managed to sense my desire for comfort, the same way he sensed my arrival by the fall of my unique footsteps, and had thus settled on something we were both fluent in.
“Извини Альварес, но Уильям ест со мной. Нам придется говорить по-английски.”
With much muttering about the worthlessness of economists, my waiter materialized. Only four feet tall, the quality of his voice appeared to take up the missing space in his stature, and the singular formation of his features, curly hair pinned with a small black cap and almond-shaped eyes the color of over brewed tea, likewise stole attention from his diminutive stance. Despite our games, and his knowledge of my trials, I had never pushed Alvarez on his own past, and beyond small mentions of his parents and formative years in Hong Kong, all offered as explanations for his linguistic prowess, he had volunteered almost nothing. William, meanwhile, had been poking intermittently into his history for years, and suspected, based on conversations with Whitehall chums, that he had once been an advisor to the Thatcher government. Even a right hand for the Boss herself.
“Just a pot of Oolong until Will arrives, please. It’ll probably be beef Biang Biang for me and the tomato, with light chili oil, for him.”
“椒盐鱿鱼 for the table.”
Damn him, I at least knew the menu in Chinese, even if I didn’t feel like trying to order in the native language of the tiny spot tonight.
“Should I comment on this lovely day, or will you only start to moan about the English preoccupation with the weather.”
The words fell upon my head at the same time Will’s hand made contact with my aching shoulder, squeezing briefly before he swung around to face me at the opposite side of the dining table. Despite the mirth in his voice, his long fingers, just beginning to gnarl, were toying incessantly with the fabric of the college scarf that he had removed upon entering.
“My advanced age hasn’t rendered me blind quite yet, so I think I can just about do without your comments on the rain.”
“It’s only a matter of time now, my boy. Only a matter of time for the whole lot of us. I take it you’ve already ordered for me?”
“You assume correctly.”
Hearing his words dissipated the warmth that being in the familiar place had begun to kindle within me, and the awful, gnawing dread at what they hinted made me sure that even a roaring fireplace would stand little chance at revivifying the feeling. Certainly, the hiss and crackle of the shatteringly hot wok behind me wasn’t doing much on that front.
“Having fun at work?”
“Hardly, but that’s nothing new. I don’t believe I am meant to have fun anymore, that was rather the intent of my career change.”
“I’ve been your friend for more than fifty years, Will, so I think we’ve just reached the point where it’s appropriate for you to overcome your British reticence and tell me what’s going on.”
I wish his grin didn’t strike a match over the sea of dread roiling my stomach.
“It’s gotten bad again, David. Very bad.”
More than that, I wish I didn’t know just what he meant.
“Why? They were doing fine, touring together again. There have been hiccups, but by and large they’re better than they have been in twenty years.”
“The best I can understand, from what Edward’s said, Michael made a rather injudicious comment about his personality and habits in a tutorial. He insists that it wasn’t the only motivator, that Michael has been pushing and testing for ages and he’s finally lost his patience with it. Michael says it was all in jest, and this reaction only shows why Edward is impossible to stand anymore.”
With considerable practice, I restrained the urge to throw the steaming Tetsubin cast-iron teapot into the opposite alcove, where an antique camera and an elaborate abacus, among other small treasures grabbed by the restaurant’s owners in their flight from Maoist China, rested behind glass. Restraint didn’t quite quell my anger, however. If anything drove me to an early grave, it might just be Michael and Edward.
The bad boys of the British musical establishment, I had known Edward Downing and Michael Haverstock as long as I had Will, when they were just two starving music students at Christ Church who shared a floor with the economist and I. They had known each other since they were children, but easily accepted both myself and my Harrow educated companion into their small circle. Though a fairly talented violinist, Edward’s real brilliance was composition and conducting, the perfect complement to Michael, a virtuosic harpsichordist and pianist. When we finished our three years, and Will and I moved to London to take graduate degrees, they came likewise to finish their studies at the Royal Academy of Music.
From then on, it was triumph to triumph for them, at least professionally. Performing both Michael’s compositions and canonical classics, they had traveled the world for what felt like eons to work with the best orchestras and fill the most exclusive venues. For the first two decades, there had been arguments, but no more than one would expect between two men who had spent so much of their lives attached at the hip. And then in the early ‘90s, everything began to crumble spectacularly. Will and I still struggled to understand exactly what had happened, but neither of us wanted to return to that seven-year interlude.
Through a frankly heroic amount of wheedling, cajoling, begging, and demanding, we had gotten them to begin speaking again a few months before the turn of the century, and appearing together within a year. In the intervening twenty years, though, that immutable quality which gave such magic to their relationship had ceased to be present. I would see sparks of it when Michael began to play a piece of Edward’s work, especially one that had been composed during our time as residents of the fourth-floor landing. The joy on both of their faces was so uncomplicated, so unlike the strained, poorly cobbled together thing that now constituted their friendship.
In the last few years, joint fellows at the RAM, they seemed to have made a particular hobby out of poking holes in each other with the press, mindless of the fact that they once would have laid flat anyone who dared do such a thing. I wouldn’t go so far as to pretend that it was harmless, but we all had become fairly desensitized to the occasional slinging of arrows. Or so I thought, until after a particularly nasty bout of it last year, when Michael had accused Edward of taking his struggle with alcohol as an excuse to assert greater creative control over their partnership. A few nights later, in his dim Hyde Park flat, I found Edward knee-deep in old records and, before I could even get out a word, beginning to sob in a way I had never seen over the whole mess.
“Neither of them likes being in this state, why can they not make a real effort at fixing it?”
“Pride, hurt, history. Who knows with those two. The funny thing is, considering how much effort they’ve made to stake out separate lives and lifestyles in the last thirty years, they’ve both aged just the same. I believe they match gray hair for gray hair and wrinkle for wrinkle.”
It was funny, in the sad sort of way that such gloomy occurrences became funny as one grew older, and then simply old.
“One of them is going to die, it’s only a matter of time at this point, and the other is going to be utterly destroyed. Not only to have to let go, but to have wasted so much time and caused this pain.”
Without comment, Alvarez deposited the crispy octopus tentacles onto our table, removed the no longer steaming tea pot, and vanished again. I had no doubt that he was listening to the whole exchange, but I felt a sense of implicit trust with the man. Besides, what could he bring to the press that Edward and Michael hadn’t already done so with themselves.
“I truly don’t know what we’re going to do, then. Someone is either going to have to keep Michael from vanishing into the whisky, or Edward from simply vanishing.”
At least the food had been good. Much as I enjoyed seeing my former colleague, and needed to be updated on the goings on with the other half of our quartet, the whole convoluted situation filled me with disquiet. Enough that there was no desire left in me to hop the Tube back towards Shoreditch. Instead, after I bid Will a fond farewell and saw him off towards Holborn and his office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, I retraced my route through Russell Square and past the museum, twisting lazily towards Charing Cross.
As I progressed down the seemingly always construction laden street, the scene shifted like a cinematic sleight of hand. The conversations around me dropped almost completely out of English, the scent of fresh taiyaki and roasted duck filled the empty spots in the night air, and the neat white and black street signs became bilingual. Another world within the one which I, and millions of others, so easily inhabited, Tawney’s mention of Soho had led me almost without thought here. I was well aware that, on the surface at least, he had been making reference to midnight peep shows and sleazy shops, but I doubted that they were Acton’s destination. Just as likely, his not so veiled jab had been a sly reference to Notre Dame de France. The real question was whether he meant the implication, or had allowed a tired, fond joke to pass by accident.
It would have been a lie to say that my prime suspect’s opaque hints were the only reason I was exercising my unquiet mind in this neighborhood. This was also the last place I had seen James, or at the very least had seen James whole. What I saw after I couldn’t consider to be him, not in any substantial sense.
Burning lanterns put me, in a way only melancholy mixed with four Tsingtao beers could, in mind of brilliant minds that burn out too soon. He had been such a pleasure as a student, James Eden, already well educated (with just a touch of the arrogance mixed with uncertainty that marks out a scholarship boy) and charming and naturally bright. There had been no doubt that he would enter the foreign service, and I delighted, when he came at all odd and random hours to my Sardinia Street office, in listening to his tales. Being so young, they mostly used him as a courier, relaying messages between London and the British embassies in Russia and China, or to those governments.
That there was increasingly a single thread between all of his stories was something that I had failed to pick up on, consumed as I was with my own disgrace. That disgrace only seemed doubled when he appeared in the very same office while I stripped it bare, assuring me that he had called in a favor from a friend in the Home Office, and that I would be employed as a special liaison to the Met for matters of forgery and academic crimes, with the possibility of full entrance into the force if I completed the requisite training. His sticking his neck out for me mattered less than I ever might have guessed.
Only a few weeks later, barely settled into my new professional Westminster digs, Will had called uncharacteristically early in the morning.
“Selwyn phoned, they picked James up this morning deboarding his flight from Lahore.”
“Picked him up? Who?”
“Some friends from the Foreign Office, and a wellness officer. It seems that whatever delusions he’s been harboring for all of these years, a money-making conspiracy between some ranking diplomats and their Chinese and Russian counterparts that he read into the courier pattern, finally got the best of him. He confided to one of his colleagues about all of the research that he has been doing on off-hours, proof about bribes concealed within development aid packages delivered to neighboring countries. Once he figured out that James wasn’t joking, he got the others involved.”
“Where are they taking him?”
“Maudsley, for now, on a temporary hold. I believe the intent is a diagnosis, but I have no idea what they’ll do with him after. He’s hardly suited for a return to work, certainly never in Westminster again. The parents haven’t any money for a private clinic, much as they might not want him in NHS care.”
The parents never did have to solve their conundrum.
My last memory of James, hale and healthy, was here. He had been chattering excitedly about a thrilling kind of boba tea he had tried during a vacation to Taipei to visit another of my former pupils, and insisted that we go inside a sunshine yellow storefront, festooned with cheerfully block printed white characters. Try as he might, I wouldn’t even consider touching his lemon kumquat green tea with QQ. Plain milk tea was as much as I would tolerate, and once he had received those, and paid the old woman who made fresh fish cakes £2 for a small, steaming bag of the Japanese treat, we had settled on the stairs of an aging apartment complex.
Much as I mused over it, I could never actually remember what we discussed that day. All I could recall was the ancient man in a spotless wife-beater sitting beside us, puffing happily on a hand-rolled cigarette, and how James had smilingly offered him one of the red bean fish. The man had relented, but only when he was allowed to give my former student one of his expertly crafted cigarettes in turn.
I considered the shop now, filled with contented looking young people pouring over the menu and gossiping with each other. Two university-aged girls stood together, a blonde and a much smaller brunette with crinkled almond eyes, giggling as the taller of the two struggled to produce her desired order in Chinese. Shih-chung hadn’t returned to London in the decade since that call, and I had never mustered the courage to reenter the little storefront.
Very possibly, I looked rougher than I had estimated after my midnight jaunt around Soho (and the countless hours, until morning dawned and the noise of the city began to rise with it, that I spent wandering aimlessly along the river). The way Arnold Gibb was eyeing me suggested that this was the case, and that he doubted my credentials as a police detective.
“Wait, Haim? Didn’t I read something by you in Middle Eastern Studies a couple of years ago?”
“I have no idea what you’ve been reading there, Mr. Gibb. Besides, your specialty is economic history, is it not?”
“And you think the medieval economy of Europe was not profoundly affected by Middle Eastern gold flows. Well, I guess you certainly aren’t that Haim.”
Smarmy, arrogant little intellectual lightweight. Clamping down on the urge to tell him that in fact, I knew more about those gold flows as a first-year than he would after decades stumbling around the field, I could at least appreciate that underselling myself had the exact result I wished. Now I would just have to sit straight-faced through Gibb’s ‘early modern economic history for dummies’ lecture, and marvel at the patience of undergraduates.
“I was hoping to discuss things a little closer to this day and age, Mr. Gibb. Like your relationship with Raymond Acton.”
“We were at Gonville & Caius together, and enrolled in similar master’s programs, though I chose to remain at Cambridge while he moved on to Oxford.”
“And you both applied for the junior curator’s position at the British Museum?”
“Yes, and as you are already well aware, he got it. It didn’t concern me much, in fact, it seemed like his win was to my benefit. He hasn’t published anything worth reading in five years, and no university of note has made a pass at him for the same amount of time. By my lights, it seemed that he was content to rot away with Sir John, and all the more power to him for it.”
So three articles in The Economic History Review and an offer of employment from MIT was “rotting away.” My my, I must have been out of the game too long if this is what was considered academic death.
“You still traveled in many of the same circles, though. When was the last time that you saw him?”
“Months, it must have been. Probably at one of those tedious museum receptions.”
Either too blind or too stupid to notice CCTV cameras, then.
“Mr. Acton’s boss mentioned that you met up with him on the day of his death, that he saw you two greeting each other at the museum’s back entrance, and then set off towards King’s Cross.”
“The old man is getting confused in his dotage.”
“Mr. Gibb, why might you have been talking to Mr. Acton. And meeting him, for that matter?”
“One of his godforsaken articles was built on a concept that I had done research on as an undergrad, that I had done almost all of the groundwork for. And there was no mention of it.”
“How did this end with you meeting him?”
“How do you think? I called him, after I spoke to Sir John to no avail, and told him that we were going to have a meeting to sort this all out.”
“Because he stole your position at the museum, and then your work?”
“No, it had nothing to do with the bloody museum, or undergraduate prizes, or any of the silliness which you all might have dug up from the past. It was a simple matter of academic misconduct, something bordering on plagiarism, and I wanted it fixed.”
“So you pushed him?”
“I have it on good authority that you pushed Acton when the two of you met. Maybe even shoved him into a wall. Is that how he ended up stabbed, the pushing wasn’t doing the trick and you were sick of the entire mess?”
He shot a nervous glance at the ornate letter opener which lay across his desk, the Murano glass handle shaped with a splatter of deep red encased in a clear teardrop grip. In truth, the CCTV footage dropped out between the museum and St. Pancras’ Station, but it wouldn’t hurt to put him back on his feet. Besides, I really didn’t know what happened to either of them after they passed the station, and it was as likely as anything that I could get something out of him here.
“No, no. I’m not a common criminal, detective, I don’t lance people for disagreeing with me, even if they deserve it. It seems that I gave your men my barrister’s phone number when they questioned me the first time. From here on out, that will have to be your preferred means of contacting me.”
“Of course, sir.”
Provided your preferred means of contacting him is through glass partitions.Published in