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For a little more than an hour on that May morning in 1850, the only sound in the flat in St. James’s Square was the rustling of newspapers, punctuated occasionally by the crisp shear of a pair of sharpened scissors through newsprint.
There were two men at the highly polished breakfast table by the window, three stories above street level. One was in an impeccable gray suit, the other in a ratty brown smoking jacket. Both were too intent upon their work to glance out from this high vantage at their panoramic view of the soft spring day: the shy sunlight; the irregular outlines of the two nearby parks, lying serene within the smoke and stone of the city; the new leaves upon the trees, making their innocent green way into life, on branches still so skinny that they quivered like the legs of a foal.
Finally Charles Lenox—the one in the smoking jacket—threw down the last of his newspapers.
“Ha! Done,” he said. “You’re as slow as a milk train, Graham.”
There was a teapot on the table, and Lenox poured himself another cup from it, adding a spoonful of sugar from a small silver bowl. He took a satisfied bite from a piece of cinnamon toast whose existence he had previously forgotten, and which had been prepared by the discreetly well dressed man sitting opposite him, his valet.
“It’s not speed but quality of attention that matters, sir,” Graham said. He didn’t look up from his own newspaper, the second-to-last of a towering pile.
“What a lot of nonsense,” replied Lenox, rising and stretching his arms out. “Anyway, I’ll get dressed while you finish. How many have you got so far?”
“Ten for me.”
Graham’s pile of clipped articles was much tidier than Lenox’s. But he did look up now—as if tempted to say something less than entirely respectful—and then gave his familiar slight smile, shook his head, and resumed his study. He was a compact, sandy-haired person, with a face that was gentle and temperate but looked as if it could keep a secret.
There were few people Lenox cared for or trusted more.
When the young master of the house emerged again, he was changed out of his shabby jacket and into a handsome suit of his own, a heather gray two shades lighter than Graham’s and perhaps thirty times as expensive. Such was life in England: Lenox had been born to a family of aristocrats, Graham to a family of tenant farmers. Yet they were true friends. Graham had been Lenox’s scout throughout his three years at Balliol College, Oxford, and following Lenox’s graduation seven months before had moved to London with him as his manservant—seven months, for Lenox, of exhilaration, missteps, uncertainty, and novelty.
Why? Because as his peers from Oxford were settling into the usual pursuits, Lenox was trying, against the better advice of nearly every soul he encountered, and so far with absolutely no success at all, to become something that did not exist: a private detective.
He was also, most unhappily, in love.
Graham was done now. “How many did you finish with?”
Lenox asked this question as he peered into an oval mirror and straightened his tie. He had a bright face, with a very short-clipped beard and light brown hair and eyes. He still did not quite believe himself to be an adult. But evidently he was, for he was the possessor of these airy and spacious rooms in the heart of Mayfair.
This one, large and central, had the atmosphere of a gentlemen’s club. There were books scattered about it, comfortable armchairs, and handsome oil paintings on the wall, though the brightness of the sunlight in the windows made it feel less confined than most gentlemen’s clubs. It also contained (to his knowledge) no slumbering gentlemen, whereas gentlemen’s clubs generally did, in Lenox’s experience. There were tokens here and there of his two great interests, besides detection, that was. These were travel and the world of Ancient Rome. There was a small—but authentic—bust of Marcus Aurelius tilted window-ward on one bookshelf, and everywhere were numerous stacks of maps, many of them much-marked and overcrossed with penciled itineraries, fantasies of adventure. Russia was his current preoccupation.
It was this room in which he spent all but his sleeping hours.
“Ten articles, sir,” said Graham, who also spent a great deal of time here.
“Evens, then. Shall we go over them this afternoon?”
“By all means, sir.”
Normally they would have compared their findings immediately. Graham—sharper than all but a few of the fellow students that Lenox had known at England’s greatest university—had become his most valuable sounding board as he embarked on his new career. Every morning they each read the same set of papers and cut out the articles they thought were of any relevance, however oblique, to the matter of crime in London.
They rarely matched more than seven or eight of their selections. (Ten was about an average total.) Half the fun was in seeing where they hadn’t overlapped. The other half was in the immense chronology of crime-related articles that Lenox, who was by nature a perfectionist, a completist, had managed so far to accumulate.
This morning he had an engagement, however, so they would have to wait to add to their archive.
Lenox donned a light overcoat. Graham saw him to the door. “A very happy birthday, Mr. Lenox, sir.”
“Ah!” Lenox grinned. “I reckoned you’d forgot. Thank you, Graham, thank you very much. Are my gloves at hand?”
“In the pocket of your coat, sir.”
Lenox patted his pockets and felt them. “So they are.” Then he smiled. “At hand? Did you catch that?”
“Very good, sir.”
“It was a pun. Gloves, hands.”
Graham nodded seriously. “One of these retroactive puns you hear so much about, sir, conceived only during its accidental commission.”
“On the contrary, very carefully plotted, and then executed flawlessly, which is what really counts.”
He checked his tie in the mirror once more, and then left, bounding downstairs with the energy of a man who had youth, money, and the prospect before him that day of breakfast with an amiable party.
On the sidewalk, however, he hesitated. Something had stuck in his mind. Worth bothering about? Reluctantly, he decided that it was, yes.
He took the stairs back up two at a time. Graham was tidying away their breakfast, and looked up expectantly when Lenox entered. “Sir?”
“The one about the month ‘anniversary’?” Lenox said. “You saw that?”
“Of course, sir.”
Lenox nodded. “I assumed—but it was in that dishrag, the Challenger.” This was one of the least reputable newspapers in England. “Still, if today’s May second—pull out the clippings from April eighth to the thirteenth, say, would you? Perhaps even the seventh and the fourteenth, to be careful.”
“By all means, sir.”
Lenox felt better for having come back upstairs. The letter had bothered him. He touched his hat. “Obliged, Graham. Good luck with Mrs. Huggins. Just steer clear of her, I say.”
Graham frowned. Mrs. Huggins was Lenox’s housekeeper. Lenox neither wished to have nor enjoyed having a housekeeper, but his mother had insisted immovably upon her employment when he moved to London, and both Lenox and Graham were in the midst of dealing with the consequences of that rigidity. “Well—”
“No, I know. Close quarters. Anyhow I shall be back before long. Keep heart till then.”
This time Lenox went downstairs and strode into the streets without turning back.
From St. James’s Square he walked up Pall Mall, with its imposing row of private clubs. There was a scent of tobacco on the breeze. The sky was smoothing from white into a pure blue. No clouds.
He had been twenty-three for nine hours.
Rum, he thought. It felt a very advanced age. Yesterday, or thereabouts, he had been fourteen; then in a flash nineteen; tomorrow, no doubt, he would be white haired, his grandchildren (or the younger members of a gentlemen’s club) ignoring him as he sat in his comfortable spot by the fire.
Ah, well, such was life.
The clip they had both taken from the Challenger that morning, May 2, remained on his mind as he walked. He had always had a very good recall, and the piece had been short. He was therefore able to run over it exactly in his mind, probing for points of softness, susceptibility.
It has been roughly a week shy of one month since I committed the perfect crime.
Perhaps in doing so I should have foreseen how little remark the press would make upon it, and how little progress the police make in solving it. Nevertheless it has been an anti-climax—especially as murder is a crime generally taken quite seriously (too seriously, if we are honest with ourselves about the numerousness and average intellectual capacity of our population) in our society—to witness how little comment my own small effort has aroused.
I therefore give you advance warning that I shall commit another perfect crime to mark this “anniversary.” A second woman. It seems only just to my mind. Perhaps this declaration will excite the generally sluggish energies of England’s press and police into action; though I place no great faith in the notion.
Far and away the likeliest thing was that this letter was a fraud. An editor at the Challenger who needed to fill three inches of column. The second likeliest was that it was a hoax; the third likeliest was that it was a harmless delusion; far down the list, four or five spots, was the chance that someone had in fact committed a perfect crime a little less than a month earlier, and written to boast of it.
Four or five spots, though—not so far down the list, really, as to make it impossible. Lenox cast his mind back to the period three weeks or so before, which was populated with several crimes of interest.
Most of them solved, however. None of them perfect, either, that he could recall. But Graham would pull the clippings. And hadn’t there been—?
But now Lenox found that he was turning up Singletary Street, which put him in sight of Rules. Soon he would be sitting next to Elizabeth. His heart began to beat a little more quickly, and as he opened the door of the restaurant where his elder brother had arranged a birthday breakfast for him, the letter slipped out of his mind.
Copyright © 2018 by Charles Finch