She didn’t even knock. She just strolled into my office as though it were her own living-room. Mrs Sandra Riley. Her features were bleached white with powder and a fierce red gash of lipstick gave the impression that someone had cut her face open. Along with her intimidating manner, she was in possession of a glance like an acetylene lamp. The fur of some dead creature loitered around her shoulders. She fancied herself did Mrs Sandra Riley all right. Her whole demeanour announced to the world that she believed that she was irresistible. She was mistaken. I could resist her. Women like that terrify me. But that’s my problem. Her problem was of a different kind.
‘I believe my husband is being unfaithful to me.’
He wouldn’t dare.
Over several cigarettes she told me her sad story. It was delivered in a dramatic Joan Crawford fashion, peppered with sighs and emotional pauses but the eyes remained dry and the make-up firmly in place. It was quite a performance. Apparently hubby Walter was playing away from home with some trashy femme fatale in the city. Or that’s what Mrs Riley suspected. She wanted me to obtain proof of Walter’s lapse so that she could instigate divorce proceedings. During her recital she demonstrated no real feelings of being hurt or distressed at the thought of her husband’s infidelity; she just wanted ‘to nail the bastard’. I got the impression that she saw a rosy future for herself as an attractive divorcee, wrapped in furs and dripping in diamonds, enjoying a very pleasant lifestyle financed by most of Walter’s money.
Being a private detective in London during the war is like riding a dysfunctional big dipper with more lows than highs. Sometimes I do have challenging and financially rewarding cases which take me up to the heights, but more often than not I am zooming downwards to the deepest depths where the mundane and generally grubby investigations just about keep me above the breadline. This was going to be one of those cases.
The war seemed to have relaxed and loosened many people’s morals. It was a case of snatch some happiness, warmth, love, today, however illicit, for God knows if there’ll be a tomorrow. As a result, I spend a fair bit of my time checking up on errant husbands or wives, exposing their desperate attempts to bring a little love and joy into their insecure lives. It certainly wasn’t what I expected or desired when I set up Hawke Investigations at the end of 1939. I had been invalided out of the army because a rifle exploded in my face during army training, causing me to lose an eye. As a young but fragile Cyclops I was offered only a safe desk job by my old employers, the police, so I decided to set up as a private detective and enjoy the adventure and high drama of the profession as portrayed in the thousand films featuring the breed that I’d been watching since I was in short trousers.
If I couldn’t fight the Hun in some foreign field, I could at least make some meaningful contribution on the home front. Well, that had been the plan.
And so here I was about to peek through another bedroom keyhole.
Sure enough, some days later after my encounter with Sandra Riley I found myself sitting in the foyer of a cheap hotel off the Strand waiting for the arrival of her husband Walter’s illicit lady friend.
According to his wife, Walter was employed at the War Office. He regularly worked late on Tuesdays and Thursdays, not getting home until past midnight. It was on these evenings that Mrs R thought that he was seeing his new paramour. He came home ‘smelling of alcohol and perfume’ and on one occasion she had found an ear-ring in his jacket pocket.
The following Thursday I tailed Walter. Contrary to his story, he left the office building early, just after four, carrying with him a suitcase and a rather guilty look. It seemed as though my lady client’s suspicions were correct. He ate a meal in a small café in Piccadilly on his own and then repaired to the aforementioned seedy hotel. Apparently he had already had a room booked there in the name of W. Riley.
With the aid of a shilling, I obtained the room number from the desk clerk, an ancient fellow whom I guessed from his weary expression and mechanical manner was used to such enquiries. It was that kind of hotel: it smelt of damp and casual sin. The guests drifted surreptitiously through the foyer like guilty shadows.
After a decent interval – the only thing decent in the whole establishment – I made my way up the narrow ill-lit staircase to the room and listened at the door. It was most probable that the girl had already been waiting for Walter. However, there was no sound at all from within. Crouching down, I applied my ear to the keyhole. Still nothing. Not a squeak of a bed spring, not a rattle of a bed head, not a suppressed moan – nothing. Don’t tell me that I’d missed all the action and they’d fallen asleep.
I waited a while longer but I still heard nothing through the door. There was only one course of action to me. I sighed and knocked discreetly. There was no response. I was beginning to think I had the wrong room. I knocked again, much less discreetly this time. More like a hammer blow. Loud enough at least to prompt a head to poke out into the corridor two doors down. It flashed me a guilty look and then vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
At last I got a response from Walter’s room. I heard a muffled female voice say, ‘Just a minute.’
Eventually the door opened, and, boy, was I in for a surprise.
Standing before me was a heavily made up blonde, rather plump in proportion, ineffectually squeezed into a black evening gown. She fluttered her sooty eyelashes inexpertly at me.
‘Yes, what is it?’ she said, in a rather throaty manner, not quite achieving the more desirable higher register.
For a moment I was lost for words and then I couldn’t help it: I had to smile. ‘Oh, Walter,’ I said, ‘what have you been up to?’
Half an hour later I was sitting opposite Wilma Riley – as Walter preferred to be called when wearing his feminine attire – in a drinks club known as The Loophole. The place was full of gentlemen of a similar persuasion to Walter/Wilma, some decidedly and convincingly glamorous, some comically less so. Somehow stubble and face powder don’t mix. And there is a way of crossing your legs that ladies have that doesn’t involve creating a draught. As one of the few men wearing trousers in the place, I felt strangely uncomfortable.
‘I’ve always had a liking for women’s clothes,’ Wilma was saying, fingering her glass of gin and tonic nervously. ‘When I was a kid, I’d go upstairs when my mother was out and try on her things. At first it was just for the novelty … and then it became a sort of compulsion. I can’t really explain it: it just makes me feel … good, makes me feel safe. And when my marriage to Sandra started to hit the rocks, I sought solace in dressing up properly. Make-up, high-heeled shoes – the lot. And so Wilma was born. I actually went out and bought clothes for her. It was the best fun I’d had in years.’ He gave me a wan smile. ‘Then I found out about this place and realized that I wasn’t alone. There were others like me. Others who get a thrill out of slipping on a pair of silk stockings and a brassiere.’
I held up my hand. ‘Whoa. More information than I need,’ I said, as gently as I could, pushing the unbidden image of paunchy Walter in his female undies from my mind. I didn’t pretend to understand this strange obsession, but I certainly didn’t want to be presented with graphic details to further my education. I’m a little queasy that way. However, I did sympathize with Riley’s plight. We all have innate drives which we are helpless to subdue.
‘I’m not a homosexual, you know,’ my companion announced suddenly. ‘I still feel normal passions towards women. This’ – he indicated his wig and evening dress – ‘is simply a kind of escape – a screen for me to hide behind. I’m in a rotten marriage with a bully for a wife and so twice a week I come here and mingle with my own kind for a few hours. Is that wrong?’
‘Well, I suppose there are far worse things you could be doing. It’s not for me to pass moral judgement.’
‘But you don’t approve.’
I shrugged. ‘It’s not that. I just have a little trouble comprehending. I suppose we all have our own individual forms of escape. With me it’s jazz, booze and fags.’
‘Are you going to tell Sandra?’
‘She is my client …’
‘And my behaviour would certainly give her grounds for divorce. She’d have great fun taking me to the cleaners, emptying my bank account … not to mention the scandal. It … it would ruin me.’
An image of the hard-faced Sandra Riley, with those vicious lips and gorgon eyes flashed before me. I could easily picture her playing the distraught wife in the witness box, dabbing the imaginary tears away with a lace handkerchief: a cunning performance full of gestures and sobs. A starring role, in fact.
‘Well,’ I said reflectively, ‘she did ask me to find out if you were seeing another woman, not if you were changing into one. I suppose I wouldn’t be lying if I told her that adultery has never been committed nor even contemplated.’
Riley smiled for the first time since I’d met him. He looked rather odd and somewhat pathetic in that obvious blonde wig and heavy make-up, clownish rather than alluring. He didn’t make a convincing woman.
‘As long as you don’t tell her that the other woman in my life … is me.’ Now he chuckled. It was a robust manly chuckle. His false chest rose and fell in a disconcerting fashion.
I smiled back indulgently. Walter/Wilma might have escaped the plotting of Sandra this time, but my instinct told me that she was not a lady to give up easily. ‘I reckon you’ve got to stop this routine or find a way to divorce Sandra on your own terms. If you don’t, she’ll nail you in time. Another investigator may not be quite as sympathetic as me.’
‘I expect you are right. People like me are easy prey to blackmail, I know.’ The smile faded and the face sagged. ‘I really have to get my house in order. I’m glad I met you. You’ve made me realize that I cannot go on living this lie. Whatever the consequences, I have to start being me.’
I nodded. ‘I reckon you’ll be happier in the end.’ I wondered why I didn’t fully believe him. Walter came over as rather a sad character, but somehow I felt I wasn’t seeing the full picture. I was sure there was an element of steel in his nature that he was doing his best to disguise.
My companion gave a wry grin. ‘You have been very kind. I must pay you for your trouble.’
I shook my head. ‘No need. Sandra has paid my expenses. She hired me. I have come up with the answers to her enquiry; they may not be the ones she wants to hear but I still get paid.’
‘OK. I suppose it still comes out of my wallet anyway.’
We both laughed.
‘Let me get you another drink at least. Indulge yourself in one of your escapes, eh?’ said Wilma as she rose unsteadily to her feet and then tottered in her high heels to the bar.
I stayed another half an hour in the club chatting amiably to my new, strange girlfriend and then suddenly I felt the need for some fresh air and the sad, stale taint of normality. As I rose to leave, so did Wilma. ‘I’m not in the mood for socializing tonight,’ she said, brushing back her blonde curls and looking nervously over her shoulder as though she expected someone to be standing there. ‘After what’s happened, I think I’d better get home. I’ve a lot of sorting out to do.’
Just as we were leaving, a figure emerged from the smoky gloom and led Wilma aside. It was a tall elegant creature in a long evening gown. I presumed it was a man, but he made a very convincing woman. The face was expertly made-up to emphasize the narrow features, high cheekbones and a pair of lustrous eyes. Had I not been in this particular establishment, I would have been taken in completely. Even with this knowledge, as I stared at her, I felt my libido stirring. Steady, Johnny, I told myself. This place is messing with your brain.
The two of them slipped immediately into a heated discussion. They were too far away for me to hear what they were talking about, but the expression on the beautiful stranger’s face told me that she was incandescent with rage. At one point she grabbed hold of Wilma’s shoulders and shook her. Wilma pulled away, issued some kind of warning with a wagging finger and then joined me on the stairs.
I raised my eyebrows in silent query.
‘Just another jealous bitch,’ was all Wilma said.
As we emerged on to the pavement together, the October breeze had stiffened. I buttoned my raincoat but to little avail as the creeping cold still penetrated the thin material, chilling me to the marrow.
Wilma held out her hand. ‘I can’t thank you enough.’
‘The best of luck,’ I said sincerely, thinking that he certainly would need it with Sandra. I watched him walk back in the direction of the hotel, looking as though he was stepping on hot coals. Size ten male feet are really not suitable for high heels. They must have been killing him, I thought, as I lit up a cigarette. I was just about to head homewards when I saw a black Wolseley screech to a halt by the kerb just in front of Riley. The side street was quiet with no other pedestrians about. The driver jumped out of the car and ran towards Riley who had stopped in his tracks, frozen with surprise.
I felt the hairs on the back of my head begin to prickle. Something was not right here. The driver was not asking for directions, or a light, or the time of day. His demeanour was threatening. Sensing danger, I started to walk briskly towards the two characters. I saw the man tug at Riley’s handbag, trying to snatch it from him. Voices were raised, but Riley clung on to the bag. Then his assailant pulled back and drew a gun from his overcoat pocket. There was a sharp crack and Riley staggered backwards, uttering a strangled, guttural croak, before crashing down onto the pavement. The gunman scooped up the bag and within seconds was back in the car and speeding away down the street. By the time I got there, the Wolseley was already disappearing into the darkness of the night.
I knelt down by Riley. He had been shot in the chest and blood was seeping through the thin material of his dress.
‘Walter, it’s me Johnny Hawke,’ I said cradling his head.
He turned his face in my direction, his eyes already misting over with the opaque veil of death.
‘That was no way to treat a lady,’ he said softly, and then his head fell to one side, his eyes remaining open in a glassy stare. All Walter and Wilma’s troubles were now over.