Hammersmith: A Titled Visitor (chapter twenty-two)
Vic, as Aimee with Curach, longed for an opportunity to pull a confidant aside (in this case, Monty Hogben would have to do), and ask—what’s it all about?
Mossbunker’s height put the two of them knee to knee, Vic bouncing along eyeing the mogul’s chin (not to seem standoffish; not, on the other hand, inviting of conversation). Piggott and Hogben had it roomier on their half of the cab. No one spoke.
Traffic was thick, here where a quad of tall buildings graced an intersection with frosty shade and tunneled wind, and two of the electric trolley cars were engaged in passing. A glossy delivery wagon, pulled by a smart white horse, and touting a mercantiler’s downtown flagship, began to edge ahead, angling round, drawing shouts from the southbound car’s conductor. A man pushing a bicycle wove himself through the tangle’s heart…
Vic took this moment when momentum had stalled to organize his facts mentally. That fool’s errand after Minnie’s lineage had turned itself, in some way he was not journalist enough to detect, into a project. Vic guessed he was composing an exposé—and resented it. The only hot story that mattered to him was what his daughter, under the spell of an insinuating Sicilian, might be getting up to in his absence. But…
Suppose now, that nephew of Aimee’s could write a punctuated sentence…? Suppose Littler could take a little dictation? The potential in this notion made Vic sit up.
Mossbunker sat up. “Piggott. Step out and see what’s making all this delay.”
“No, sir,” Vic said. “I’ll step out. Hogben, you come along.”
They shuffled into a density of new riders accessing the cars through entries the public regards as free. Hogben said at once: “I can’t tell you much.”
“Known the professor many years?”
“Bout six or seven. Our way was to head off separate, him get us a venue, me eye over the crowd we were up against. Every town’s different…and you never know when someone in the same line didn’t just pass that way. Folks get riled up, takes em a while to simmer down.”
Time was short. A gap had grown between the parting rears.
“You mean,” Vic said, “he had plenty chance to strike off on his own, if he had other business he liked to take care of.”
“That’s about it.”
They turned, saw Piggott’s crooked fingers summoning them…sardonically, if that were possible.
“But,” Vic said, “did Bellfountain never sit down of an evening to write the homefolks? What’d the two of you do at holiday times? What about the ladies? Some gal he went to court?”
These demands were too many to be answered in a jaunt of thirty feet. Hogben got as far as, “Not Bellfountain, Le Fontainebleau.”
“Not even that,” Vic sighed, mounting to his place, and giving Mossbunker the good word.
They were soon trotted out of the tall commercial stretch, and turned where a corner oak and a white wrought-iron fence indicated a square of houses, where whistling and whip-cracking unearthed a gateman, and where the hackney trundled to a stop.
Mossbunker alit, planting his stick, a fulcrum on which he arched to stare at an upper story window. This colonial-attached, under the hitching ring, identified itself with a plaque sized about a quarter-page advert: “Swan”.
“Vic. I’d rather you didn’t come up. To be frank, you aren’t needed. I’d rather you would walk about Chantry Place, and if any visitor should approach this house during our interview with Professor Le Fontainebleau, hail him in a friendly manner, and take up a bit of his time with conversation.”
Mossbunker’s sudden captaincy, his command reducing guest to underling, recalled to Vic that he’d taken an oath. He had sworn to obey the Head Patriot, play myrmidon to Mossbunker’s Achilles. He found it disappointing, how failure to complete his virgin assignment hadn’t prevented his being tasked with another.
A woman, from an alley crossing the end of the square, emerged…urgently after her own task, the ferrying of a letter or telegram…
An item of paper, at any rate, rolled in a fist. Now and then uncurled for use as a fan.
Urgency, Vic thought, be damned. “Secondofyourtimema’am…”
He blocked her progress with crabwise feints, feeling up and down his pockets. It was in keeping with Mossbunker’s instruction, but also a chance to put a question of his own. “That’s right. Just what the card says, Victor B. Mack of the Hammersmith Daily Clew. May I have a word with you?”
The mouth that had looked poised to scream clamped shut in a disbelieving grimace.
“Now, ma’am…you live hereabouts? Chantry Place, I mean?”
“Nuh uh, mister. I live over the way. At Mrs. Alison’s.”
“But you pass by here, you cross the square here, fairly often, going about your mistress’s affairs?”
She stared at him, and said, “What’s that? What you mean, affairs?”
“Errands. Sorties of a business nature. Otherwise, perhaps, a clandestine liaison. Who knows? Who knows?”
“Count,” said the woman, simpering a curtsy to the stranger who’d spoken.
“You will not want this card. I therefore take it from you. Go now.”
The stranger wore a round hat and short coat, single-breasted, cut away above the knees—definitely the style. Vic carried advertising for the local haberdasher’s, and all was illustrated with just such gents, puffing out their chests, trousers tapering over shapely legs, swagger…and something effete, in the poses given them.
“Keep that if you like,” he said.
“Aha!” The man chuckled, unchided, not offering his own name or card. “Hammersmith, I read.” He read with a mighty show of possessing secret news. “My sister has informed me straightaway of some activities, and I have come to see our friend. I arrive a moment late. Now it will do for us to think of a plan, what is best to be done.”
This fellow was capable, no doubt, of the royal we. If not, he was enlisting Vic as a confederate. This was not only cheeky, but contrary to what—seen with belated clarity—must be Mossbunker’s very objective.
A Titled Visitor
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)