With apologies that it took so long to finish.
The Inadvertent Adventures of Johnny Stewart
Johnny Stewart is the great nephew of Jonty Stewart. His story is told by Mrs Cochrane, official biographer to the Stewart family.
Roger Henley looked out at the Thames from his mother’s hotel suite. This was going to be a wearing evening and they hadn’t even got round to the dinner guests arriving, let alone sitting down. His godmother had burst her appendix, so a last minute replacement had to be found—probably in the form of cousin Mary—but worse still, Sophia was going to be here.
He’d be the one who’d have to take Sophia in on his arm, have to put up with her flirting all evening and, worse still, also have to contend with his mother’s insinuations about what a nice couple they’d make. She’d got brother Henry engaged to be married within a few months and therefore the possibility of grandchildren pretty well sewn up, so why make such a palaver with him?
And, worse than Sophia, Johnny Stewart would be there. The evening had the potential to be disastrous.
“Are you even listening, Roger?” His mother’s voice cut into his thoughts.
“Of course,” he lied.
“And do you agree?” She fixed him with a gimlet gaze. What would he be letting himself in for if he just said “Yes”? It wasn’t worth the risk.
“Sorry, mother, you were right. I wasn’t paying attention.” He needed to defuse the potential explosion. “There was a rather pretty girl out on the embankment and I got a bit distracted.”
“Ah.” His mother’s tone softened. “All I said was that I suspect that in regard to your reference to your godmother’s medical condition, the word is appendices and not appendixes but we’ll let that go. Was she as pretty as Sophia?”
Roger narrowly avoided asking, “who?”, but he’d always been good at thinking on his feet and managed, “How can I answer that without getting myself into trouble with one or other of you? Would ‘equally pretty’ do?”
“A diplomatic answer, dear.” She sighed. “If only your cousin Mary were as pretty.”
Roger span round to answer her, then decided he preferred the view of the Thames to the view of a condescending maternal face.
“I hope Mary meets a duke one day. One who falls head over heels in love, as a result of which she makes a more brilliant marriage for herself than any other female in the family.”
“Since when have you appointed yourself as Mary’s knight in armour?” Roger’s mother’s voice was cool and languid, the one she adopted when she wanted to let his temper blow itself out.
“Since I was old enough to realise how rotten the family is to her. God preserve all spinsters and save them from the machinations of their married relatives.” Roger turned on his heels, and left the room, with a dismissive, “This tie needs straightening.”
He ran into his maternal aunt on the way to finding a mirror, which was blessing in that she sorted it for him and kept him out of his mother’s way until he could calm down.
“I hear Johnny Stewart will be here tonight. I’ll enjoy sitting next to him. There.” Aunt Jacinta added the finishing touch to the bow.
“Better you than me. Johnny’s the most insufferable person it’s ever been my misfortune to come across.” Roger ran his hands through his hair.
“You must dislike him intensely,” his aunt said, drily, “to employ that particular gesture. You always used to do it as a lad when you came to stay and we presented you with something you didn’t want to eat. Or asked you a question you didn’t want to answer.”
He felt a bloody embarrassing flush rising up his neck; why did Aunt Jacinta always see straight through him? Did she know exactly what was going on inside his mind to make him so defensive?
Johnny bloody Stewart. Why had he got to keep coming back and making life so difficult?
Roger tried to rally. “Anyone would run their hands through their hair—or tear great clumps of it out—if they had to deal with him for any length of time. He was bad enough at school and hasn’t improved with maturity.”
“That sounds like you then, dear. Peas in a pod.” Aunt Jacinta fixed him with a smile like an auger. She might look one hundred and forty three in her bombazine and lace, but that look, and the machinations of the mind behind it, could strike fear in any man. “Just don’t vex him, would you, Roger? If he’s hardly your favourite person, at least be polite.”
“I will do my utmost.” He swallowed hard. Normally, medical students would be beneath his mother’s notice, but this one being the great-grandson of a lord made a difference and she’d been delighted to invite him in the absence of Roger’s godfather, who was at his now hopefully appendix-less wife’s bedside.
How could Roger ever explain about Johnny? There were two insurmountable obstacles—finding the right words to make anyone else understand the feelings he’d had for Johnny since he first caught sight of him as a spotty youth of sixteen and having to deal with his aunt’s inevitably negative reaction if he did get his point across. He supposed he was too old, and the matter too serious, to just get away with being taken over her knee, whacked, sent to his room and then allowed to come down half an hour later if he showed the right amount of contrition.
Not even Aunt Jacinta could be as understanding about things as to allow that.
Disgrace, disorder, his mother’s tears, his father’s horsewhip? Not that his father would actually resort to the whip, no matter how often he talked about using it on miscreants, although the outcome would be just about the same. Cut off without a penny and none of the Henleys ever talking to him again. And while that idea might be an attractive one in the case of Uncle Frederick, the general aspect didn’t appeal.
Try as he might, Roger couldn’t think of any way to sweeten the pill, whatever words he could use to describe how he felt.
There was this chap at school. Stewart, J.O. Year below me; came to the place when I was seventeen. I liked the look of him from the start; he had an air about him, power restrained and all that. He matured and filled out a bit faster than more of the spotty oiks of his age. Lost most of the spots, too. Cocky little sod, though. Opinionated.
“Yes, aunt?” His mind came back from school days to the present, and two females, his mother having appeared, trying to usher him out of the suite.
“Daydreaming again. His worst fault,” she said, bundling him through the door.
Roger reminded himself that if that remained her opinion of what was his worst fault, then all in the garden was still rosy.
Johnny was already in the foyer, chatting to Sophia. His dark blond hair was under control, for once, while his blue eyes seemed to dance with pleasure at the arrival of his hostess. Roger thought his heart was going to lunge straight through his rib cage.
“Mrs. Henley!” He bowed over her hand. “Thank you so much for inviting me as locum tenens.”
“Thank you for stepping in.” Mrs. Henley was clearly delighted. “Cousin Mary will be delighted to meet you.”
Johnny looked at Roger, one eyebrow raised. “I didn’t know you had a cousin, Roger. Where have you been hiding her?”
“Away from rogues like you. Sophia,” Roger said, heading off any comment Johnny was going to make, “you look lovely.”
“Thank you. It’s just an old thing.” She smoothed her dress, one which was clearly anything but old.
“Johnny,” Mrs. Henley waved her hands airily, “would you be a sweetheart and take in Aunt Jacinta when we progress to dinner?”
“It would be my pleasure.” It sounded like it would be the highlight of Johnny’s evening. Roger wasn’t sure if his discomfort was irritation at the man’s oiliness or simple jealousy. Why couldn’t he be on Johnny’s arm?
“I was sorry to hear about Mr. Henley’s accident,” he continued. “He’s quite right to rest that leg up for a while. Sorry he’s missing all the fun, though. Was the matinee good?”
“Excellent thank you,” Mrs. Henley purred, blossoming under the attention. Roger noted that every woman in the party had slowly drifted into Johnny’s vicinity, like bees after honey. Or wasps after jam. “Malcolm won’t be sorry he missed that part. He’s never one for the theatre, or for coming up to town in general.”
“Do you think he hurt his leg deliberately to get out of it? Shall I horsewhip him for you?” Maybe only Johnny could have said that and got away with it. Roger had met his great uncle, Jonty when he was up at Cambridge, and the man was the same. Able to charm the birds from the trees.
“Only if he doesn’t enjoy the birthday dinner I have planned when we get home. And this is for me, of course. My friends. Old and new.” Mrs. Henley looked graciously around her guests then took Detective Superintendent Matthew Firestone—Henry’s godfather’s—arm. “I’m so pleased you could all come. Shall we go through? They’ve laid on some cocktails for us.”
“Oh, lovely,” Sophia said, slipping her arm through Roger’s. Johnny smirked at him, the swine, and they processed towards the private dining room.
The table looked lovely, but the cocktails looked even lovelier, if they’d help Roger cope with the twin trials of Sophia’s doe eyes and Johnny’s…everything. Roger had given up any hope of the bloke fancying him, but the chap could at least be civil. Mary had arrived almost unnoticed and Mrs. Henley was asking how her journey from Loughton had been, with none of the gratitude on display that she’d shown to Johnny.
“My mother pushes that poor girl from pillar to post.” Roger hissed at Matthew, wondering how many cocktails he could consume and still manage to get all his sibilants out. He managed to detach himself temporarily from Sophia on the pretext of circulating and was half way through his perambulations when the manager slipped into the room, making a beeline for Matthew. He appeared to be delivering some sort of intriguing message, given the expression on the policeman’s face, but before Roger could manoeuvre himself into hearing range, his mother nabbed him.
“Roger. Why did I never meet this delightful young man when you were at school together?”
“I didn’t realise it was de rigeur for me to bring everyone back for tea” Roger didn’t want to talk about Johnny Stewart, not when the half heard words being spoken behind him by the manager were so much more interesting.
“I wish he had invited me to tea. Did you have apple cake?” Johnny directed the questions at Roger’s mother, which at least saved Roger having to try not to say, “I couldn’t trust myself enough to invite you.”
Mrs. Henley beamed. “You would have made a change from some of the spotty specimens he dragged along.”
Roger bridled. How ridiculous, his own mother flirting with a man young enough to be her son! He rolled his eyes, but the protest he wanted to make got cut off, as Matthew tapped him on the shoulder.
“Sorry to interrupt. Got a question for you. Did Ivor Gregg seem quite himself at the matinee?”
Roger frowned. “Quite himself? I think so. In good voice, as ever.”
“He was marvellous,” Mrs. Henley said, girlishly.
“Why do you ask?” And why had Matthew adopted his professional, rather than avuncular, tones?
“Because he’s disappeared. Not turned up for the evening performance, and can’t be found in any of his usual haunts. Totally out of character.”
“Perhaps he’s had an accident?” Mrs. Henley flapped her hands.
“Perhaps, although the management say they’ve rung round all the likely hospitals where he’d be if he had.” Matthew shrugged.
Aunt Jacinta had joined the group. “That doesn’t strike me as being the sort of case you’d be called in on, Matthew.”
“It wouldn’t be, normally. But he’s apparently had threats made to him.” Matthew bowed over Mrs. Henley’s hand. “I’m afraid I have to take my leave, my dear.”
“Phew.” Johnny whistled. “The thick plottens.”
Ivor Gregg wasn’t in any of the local hospitals, or so Matthew’s highly efficient second in command reported when he rang in to Scotland Yard. Johnny Stewart couldn’t actually hear all the conversation but a man of intelligence could put something together from the half he possessed, rather like vertebrate palaeontologists could construct a whole creature from just a few bones. Not that he’d acquired this particular talent from any scientist—his great uncle Jonty had learned the skill as soon as his partner Orlando Coppersmith decided that the telephone was an instrument to be trusted and employed, and he’d given Johnny some useful tips.
Johnny didn’t exactly offer his help to Matthew Firestone, as that might be a touch premature at present, but was hovering in the background trying to look indispensable. He’d dragged Roger with him, the old surly faced toad having “ummed” and “ahhed” and only agreed when Sophia had insisted he didn’t go and play detectives.
“What makes you think you can find him? The police have all the resources, not us,” Roger hissed in his ear.
“Who says I was thinking I could find him?”
“Your smug looking face and the greyhound look in your eyes says. Say.” Roger frowned. “And why else would you be hanging around here?”
Jonny neatly avoided answering the question. “Ivor Gregg has to be somewhere and there has to have been a sort trail that could be followed, between his leaving the theatre and arriving there, wherever ‘there’ is. QED he can be found.”
“I’d forgotten your logical streak.” The words didn’t sound complimentary. “Typical medic. But maybe you’re wrong this time. What if he’s been whisked away by whoever made the threats and is even now on his way up the Thames in a fast boat? Or lying at the bottom of said river with a weight tied to his ankles? Or put in a furnace and burned, so all that remains is some ashes? And those have been scattered to the wind?”
“Must you always explode my favourite theories?” Johnny frowned. “You’re so bloody defeatist. No sense of adventure or romance.”
“Who needs adventure or romance?”
Johnny wished he could control the flush he could feel forming behind his ears, trying by willpower alone to make it stop there and not spread to his face. Who needed romance? Anybody with an ounce of fire in their soul.
“I—” Johnny was interrupted by Matthew.
“Sorry to butt in, lads. Just wanted to say that you can return to your dinner. I’ve set the wheels in motion and now I’ll have to go and check that they’re grinding small enough.”
“If there’s anything we can do…”
“Taking after your great uncle, are we, young Jonathan?” Matthew slapped his shoulder. “You’d better leave this to the experts.” He backed off a step or two then stopped. “Actually…”
“Yes?” Roger and Johnny spoke in unison, then looked at each other aghast at having done so.
“If you could talk to the people backstage at the theatre, that would be very useful. They’re being less than frank with us, my Inspector says. I believe you have some connections there?”
“I do.” Johnny wasn’t going to specify exactly what those connections were. He looked at Roger who—seemingly reluctantly—nodded. “We’re your men.”
Johnny led the way to the theatre, trying to play down any qualms at what might confront him there. They had no trouble getting past the doorman, this being a route that Johnny had taken on many occasions, so all that had to do was wait backstage and not get themselves under anyone’s feet.
“Hello, dear.” A deep but slightly camp voice sounded in Johnny’s ear, making him start.
“Rupert.” He whispered, turning round. “Just the man I want to see.”
“Lucky me.” Rupert, who had a boyish charm despite being ten years older than his cheeky expression suggested, grinned delightedly. “I’ve got ten minutes before I’m on again, come to the dressing room.”
The transition from dark to light as they stepped into the room made Johnny blink, and Roger looked slightly stupefied, if not a touch disgusted.
“You have done well for yourself,” Rupert said, eyeing Roger up and down.
Johnny laughed and waved his hand airily. “Alas, we’re not here for chit chat. It’s about Ivor Gregg.” Best to get down to business before Roger could ask what “doing well for himself” might refer to.
“He’s done a bunk, dear.” Rupert casually lit a cigarette.
“We know. We’re trying to help find him. Maybe people will be a little more willing to talk to us than to the police.”
“You’re better looking than the police, certainly. But what more can we say?” Rupert flicked some ash into a glass ashtray. “I don’t know where he’s got himself off to any more than anyone else does.”
Roger was clearly tired of just being part of a dumb show. “He had threatening letters.”
“He speaks!” Rupert cried, delightedly. “And yes, he did. The company are aware of the fact but not the content.”
“So what is it you’re keeping back from the police?” Roger frowned. “Because we’re aware of that fact, if not the content.”
“He’s clever with it. Why have you never brought him round the back before?”
“Just answer the question,” Johnny said wearily, aware that Roger looked fit to burst with anger.
“Ah, well, you see, Ivor is rather too fond of certain things. Certain illegal things. We wouldn’t want to besmirch his good name.”
Roger pounced again. “What sort of illegal things?”
“Oh, not what you’re thinking of, dearie. Not errand boys and cottages or anything like that.”
“Drugs, then?” Johnny asked, before Roger could ask something like, “What does an errand boy delivering a telegram to a nice cottage with roses round the door have to do with anything?”
“No. Gambling. The tables. And he’s not very good at it, or not very lucky, or goes to places where they stack the odds, or whatever’s caused his huge losing streak.” Rupert leaned forward, confidentially. “I didn’t say any of this, of course.”
“Of course you didn’t. Nor did you tell me where these dens of iniquity are.” Johnny smiled his most alluring smile, which produced the desired effect, Rupert reaching for a pen and paper to jot down a name and address. Shame the alluring smile didn’t ever seem to work on Roger, who was looking dyspeptic, as usual.
They left the theatre, address in hand, stopping on the pavement to decide their next step.
“What did he mean by ‘you’ve done well for yourself’?” Roger, still scowling, looked up and down the road, as though the answer might be written on the side of a taxi cab.
“Oh, he was just being saucy. Actors usually are. You learn to ignore it.” Johnny kept his voice airy.
“And what did he mean by cottages?”
“Actors’ slang.” Johnny rapidly changed the subject. “What next? Fancy going round here?” He waved the piece of paper.
“That’s Matthew’s job. Or one of his merry men.”
“Are the police that merry?” Johnny asked, immediately regretting it as Roger gave him a dirty look. Why did life have to be quite so complicated?
He remembered the first time they’d met, in Cambridge, when Roger had been visiting a mutual friend at Johnny’s college, St. Bride’s. They’d almost collided on the stairs up to some of the garret rooms, and he’d not been exactly polite to Roger, but then he’d been taken entirely by surprise by what a handsome chap he was.
“Haven’t you got anything useful to do, rather than hanging around here getting in people’s way?” he’d said, then swept past, as an apology followed him down the stairs and made him stop.
“Sorry.” There was no real contrition in Roger’s voice, just the touch of aggression Johnny had come to realise was typical of him. Or at least typical in Johnny’s company; other people seemed to get away lightly. “I wasn’t aware I was hanging around.” Roger had turned on his heels and gone, whistling a jaunty tune.
Johnny thought about following, to confront the man and ask why he’d been so rude. But that would have involved having to look into those deep brown eyes once more, trying hard not to look at the lines of the mouth or the curve of his chin, the pronounced cheekbones that gave the man’s face such grace. Too much looking at such a face was going to lead to sordid thoughts and sullied actions, exploration alone in bed with only thoughts as a companion and a lip bitten hard to stave off shouting out.
“Haven’t you got your own bloody college to infect?” He’d shouted up the stairs, as a departing thrust. As a reproof it was harsh, but it covered up all the mixed emotions swimming through Johnny’s brain.
Those emotions hadn’t got much better over the next few weeks, when their paths seemed determined to cross. It was bad enough catching sight of Roger—he’d learned by now, with careful questioning, that was his name—out at rugby practice or wandering off to some lecture but to have him loitering about St. Bride’s with his pals, looking stupidly gorgeous, was too much.
Roger’s voice, very much in the present day, cut into Johnny’s thoughts. “I said, are you going to give Matthew that address or not?”
“Yes. Only not yet. What if Rupert’s got it wrong? We should make sure we’re passing on reliable information. We don’t want the police going on a wild goose chase.” He hadn’t actually intended to say that, or be quite so forceful, but those memories had befuddled his brain.
“So what are you proposing? Going to that club ourselves?”
“Why not? I can think of a million reasons why not. The top of the list being that if Ivor Gregg’s gone missing, we don’t want to end up missing as well.”
It was a valid point but Johnny wasn’t in any mood to be sensible. “If you’re scared you can hurry back to your beloved Sophia. I’m sure she’ll be delighted to have you back at her side.”
They stood, staring at each other in silence for what seemed an age.
“I’m not scared, just level-headed. And I’m coming with you. Somebody has to make sure you don’t get your head kicked in.”
Johnny swallowed hard. For all these years he’d been suppressing his attraction to Roger, certain that any hope was in vain, that the chap would marry one of the succession of fillies Mrs. Henley lined up for him. Was he now reading something into that reply which hadn’t been there? Surely the decision to go with him rather than return to the dinner couldn’t be based on taking pleasure in his company? Roger had always appeared to make it plain he despised him.
“You’re off again.” Roger’s voice cut once more into Johnny’s thoughts.
“I’m just thinking of our entry strategy.” Lucky he could think quickly. “We can’t use Ivor’s name, for obvious reasons. I’ve got an idea, though. Rupert was a touch too quick at providing a name and address for the club. I bet he’s been there. We can legitimately say we’re his friends.”
“And have to hope he hasn’t blotted his copybook there.”
“He won’t.” Johnny just stopped himself saying that Rupert had blotted his copybook in many a club, only not the sort of establishment they were going to. “Looks like you’ll have to make time for adventure, then. Maybe you’ll even find romance,” he added, boldly.
Roger turned towards the road, looking to hail a cab. “I never think of romance.”
“More fool you.” Johnny couldn’t think of anything but romance at times like this, with Roger so close, so full of life and energy, and seemingly ready to take on some escapade together.
“Better a fool than a broken heart.” And with that enigmatic pronouncement, Roger’s arm shot out, a cab drew up, and the game was afoot.
Johnny gave the taxi driver the name of a road, one Roger had never heard of, although the driver nodded his recognition and set off.
“And do you have your questioning strategy ready?” Roger asked, as he watched out of the cab window.
“Oh, no. We’ll wing it.”
“I’ll remember that when we’re banged up in a police cell for causing trouble. I sometimes wish we’d never met, because my life would have been a lot simpler, then.” It would have contained less heartache, certainly. And fewer times he’d have had to hold his tongue and sit on his hands.
Johnny grabbed his arm, forcing Roger to face him. “Must you always put such a dampener on things? If I have one regret about Cambridge it’s encountering you for the first time there.”
“Cambridge wasn’t the first time we met, you know. We were at school together.” Roger immediately regretted pointing that out. Better to have pretended he hadn’t noticed the blighter back then.
“Were we? I’m not sure I remember…” Jonny wrinkled his nose in thought, an expression which was decidedly unsettling, especially when they were confined so closely together.
“You wouldn’t, would you? Not likely to take any notice of somebody from such an unfashionable house as Telfer’s.” Typical of Johnny to be so oblivious of anybody else. He’d been the same at Cambridge, that fatal day when they’d collided on the stairs. The reasonable part of Roger’s brain told him that if the man hadn’t remembered him then he couldn’t have deliberately ignored him on that staircase, but he wasn’t ready to listen to any reasonable voice.
“Telfer’s? Oh. Oh! No. Never. You can’t have been the spotty oik who used to hang around with Rendell minor?”
“I was never spotty. That was you. Face like a blotting pad. What’s so funny?”
“You, of course.” Johnny grinned, then spun his head round as the taxi pulled into the kerb. “And here we are.”
Roger couldn’t help but follow him out of the door and onto the pavement. The desire to lay Johnny out with one punch vied with the desire to drag him up the nearest alley and snog him stupid, the conflicting desires Roger always felt in the presence of this annoying, alluring man. “Where now?”
“There.” Johnny pointed at an unprepossessing door at the top of a flight of stairs up which he leaped. He rapped on the knocker, then whispered something through a small flap which opened at his thump. Whatever he’d said seemed to work the oracle, because the door opened and Roger found himself being dragged up the last stair and inside.
He’d expected something more louche, but the hallway resembled that of a gentleman’s club, discreet furnishings and immaculately polished wood on all sides. The evening clothes he and Johnny wore were entirely in keeping with the attire of the other habitués, so they could ease themselves into the company without comment, finding their bearings. An entirely stag affair, this, not a woman to be seen, even ones selling cigarettes or pouring drinks.
“This way.” Johnny led them into a large room, where the gentle clicking of a roulette wheel vied with the murmur from the baccarat tables. They purchased some chips, circulated, played on red and won, circulated some more, played on black and lost. Nobody seemed to take any notice of them, above the odd smile or nod, although Roger couldn’t help but be amused when he was blanked by a man he was fairly certain used to be the bishop of the diocese in which his mother lived and who had confirmed him a dozen years previously.
Of Ivor Gregg there was no sign, but that was to be expected. Even if it begged the question of what they were doing in the place.
“Are you intending to just swan around the whole evening?” he asked Johnny, when all their chips had gone following a valiant bet on number 36.
“I’m about to leap into action. Just watch.” He moved them in the direction of one of the croupiers, who had just stood down from duty. “Excuse me. Has Mr. Gregg been in today?”
“Not that I’m aware of, sir.” The croupier smiled, then returned to his business, face giving away nothing.
“Well, that was a great success.” Roger sneered.
“Just warming up.” Johnny took his arm and threaded them through the group of men watching the blackjack players and into a smaller room where everyone was engaged at vingt-et-un. He sidled up to one of the observers. “Hello, Geoffrey. Fancy seeing you here.”
“Johnny! Not one of your usual haunts.”
“No. Spreading my wings a bit, tonight.” Johnny lowered his voice. “You won’t tell mother, will you? She wouldn’t approve.”
“Of course.” Geoffrey murmured, with an inclination of the head.
“Don’t tell Roger’s mother, either. She’d approve less. Roger, this is Geoffrey.”
They shook hands, passed a few pleasantries, then made some deprecating remarks about mothers and their tendency to regard their sons as still being only seven years old.
“Is Ivor here, by any chance?” Johnny enquired, when all the small talk was done with.
“Ivor?” Geoffrey glanced warily at Roger who felt he’d kept mum long enough.
“Yes, Ivor Gregg.”
“I’d have thought he’d be on stage at present.” The cautious edge in Geoffrey’s voice matched his expression.
“He’s never where you’re supposed to find him.”
Geoffrey grinned. “Oh, yes, that’s Ivor. Sorry, one can’t be too careful. You never know who’s coming in and asking questions, even if they’re a pal of Johnny’s.”
Johnny nodded. “You’re quite right. And it’s not just the police. You both know that my great uncle was always poking his nose in where it wasn’t wanted. Always with the best of motives, of course, but it’s a wonder he didn’t get said nose punched on a regular basis.”
Roger resisted offering to perform the same function on Johnny’s nose.
“Why are you looking for Gregg?” Geoffrey asked. “Does he owe you money?”
“Not us. We’re too sensible to fall for that.” Johnny clearly knew a lot more about Ivor’s personality than Roger did, unless he was making lucky stabs in the dark. “Just asking on behalf of a friend.”
“I wish I could help. Ivor’s not been here for a week or so. Gone to ground.” Geoffrey lowered his voice. “Not because of the tables, though. Women trouble.”
“Would women trouble be enough for him to miss a performance?”
Geoffrey whistled. “Blow me down. That doesn’t sound like him at all. Nothing gets in the way of the career.”
“That’s what we thought.” Roger felt himself warming to this investigating lark. “Any idea where he could have got to?”
Geoffrey’s eyes narrowed, as he weighed up his questioners and seemed to find them not found wanting in the balance. “Let’s find somewhere we can’t be overheard.”
He led them out onto a small balcony, offered them a cigarette, lit one for himself, then asked in a low voice, “Are the police after him?”
“Not on behalf of an irate husband or a creditor. Only because Ivor’s missing and the theatre management are concerned. He did today’s matinee and then,” Johnny made an expressive gesture with his hands, “vanished.”
Roger held his tongue. It had struck him from the first that the police had been called in a touch too quickly, and at a surprisingly senior level.
“And why are you looking for him?” Geoffrey casually flicked some ash over the railing.
“We’re concerned, too. He’s an old family friend.”
“Is anybody not an old family friend of the Stewarts?” Geoffrey raised his eyebrows. “That connection would make sense, though. Ivor did something frightfully hush-hush during the war and it wouldn’t surprise me if your great Uncle hadn’t got his finger in similar pies.”
Roger nodded. This was starting to make some sort of sense. “Do you think it possible that Ivor’s disappearance could be connected to his war service? You clearly believe it’s serious.”
“I think it’s possible. Ivor is an entirely reliable man, in my experience. No,” Geoffrey wagged a finger, “I should clarify that. I wouldn’t trust his judgement on whether to place your chips on pair or impair, nor would I be inclined to let my daughter go to dinner with him, but in matters of real importance, he’s solid.”
“So where should we look for him?” Johnny glanced from Roger to Geoffrey, frowning.
“How should I know? Although I can think of somebody who might. Have you spoken to your great uncle?”
Roger groaned. He’d met Jonty Stewart and the man was perfectly good company—if burdened by a grumpy old codger of a housemate—but this was their investigation, not his.
“I haven’t,” Johnny averred, “but I’ll give him a call. Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” Geoffrey inclined his head, graciously.
Johnny rubbed his hands together. “We’d better get back to the hotel and use the telephone in your suite.”
“If I might…you’d possibly be best advised to ring from here, and as soon as is convenient.” Geoffrey’s voice made it plain this was less advice than an order. “I can arrange for you to use a private line in one of the offices.”
“Thank you again” Johnny made a “Well, what’s all this about?” face at Roger and the pair of them followed Geoffrey once more. Whatever he said and whoever he was saying it to—it wasn’t easy to tell staff from clientele—worked the oracle and they were soon ensconced in private, with Johnny having the call put through.
“I just hope the old codger’s still…Oh, hello, Aged Uncle.”
Roger, perching on the edge of the desk, waited patiently as the introductory pleasantries were got through, frustrated—inevitably—at only hearing one half of what was being said and trying to guess the rest.
“Can I pick your brains about Ivor Gregg? He seems to have gone missing…Yes, that’s the one. Geoffrey Rutter said I should ask you…Yes, alone. Well, Roger Henley’s here…Yes, that Roger. We can trust him.” Johnny gave him a sidelong glance, and a grin.
Roger made a face then studied the desk while Johnny briefed his illustrious relative on what had happened. Best not to look, in case he grinned again; that smile always went straight to Roger’s trousers.
“So that’s where we are. Anything you can say to enlighten us?” There was a long pause as Jonty Stewart must have been divulging some pretty serious stuff, given how sombre his great-nephew’s expression had become. Johnny did little more than nod and say “Hmm” for a while, before finishing with, “Thanks for that. We’ll get on it straight away…Yes, I’ve got a moment…Sorry?”
There was another pause as Johnny listened. Whatever his great uncle was saying, it was having a profound effect, as Johnny had gone bright red from forehead to neck. “Yes,” he said, meekly, “yes, alright. I will. I promise. No. Fine. Thank you.”
When the call eventually finished, Roger, itching to know what had been said, asked, “What was that last bit all about? Looked like you were in the headmaster’s study getting a wigging about not doing your homework.”
“Something like that. Family business.” Johnny took a deep breath. “As for Ivor Gregg, apparently he received death threats after the war. The aged uncle wasn’t sure if they were related to whatever he did in the war, deep in the countryside, but he was sufficiently concerned to give me a name and address and an introduction, which he’ll be effecting over the phone as we speak. We’d better find another taxi as there’s somebody we’ve got to see.”
“You’ll soon find out.” Johnny had his hand on the door handle, but Roger wasn’t moving.
“How do I know this isn’t all some wild goose chase you’re leading me? Wouldn’t we be better telling Matthew Firestone if this is about death threats and the like?” It would be just like Johnny to chance his arm too far. Roger was no coward, but he didn’t want to end up with threats coming in his direction.
“Uncle Jonty asked us not to. Gregg didn’t tell the police about the threats because he said he didn’t trust them. These are murky waters, Roger. I’d understand if you didn’t want to jump into them.” The usual cocky expression on Johnny’s face had gone, replaced by one of deadly gravity.
“I’m not backing out now, if this is as serious as you make out.”
“It certainly appears to be. I always feel a bit miffed that I was too young to serve, and that other blokes got all the glory.”
“I’m sure some of the poor buggers at Dunkirk would have swopped places with you,” Roger responded, hackles rising again.
“I know that, and it isn’t what I mean. It’s just that this could be a chance to do something that really matters.”
“Do you really think we’ve a cat in hell’s chance of finding Ivor Gregg? Or is this just imitating your great uncle and grabbing some of his glory? War hero, world expert on the sonnets—oh and, yes, solves murder mysteries which nobody else can. Superman himself.”
“Oh leave off. You never met him. You have no idea.” Something in Johnny’s tone suggested more than just familial loyalty.
“I did meet him, actually. At Fenners.” Roger didn’t add that he’d been impressed with how a man in his seventies could still look so handsome. “We talked about the cricket. The risks of a pull shot on a turning wicket. The batsman would have benefitted from his advice.”
Johnny stared, dumbstruck; when he eventually spoke his voice contained none of its usual tone of banter. “You have no idea how much you infuriate me. You were pain enough at Cambridge—must you continue being such a prick now that you’re a grown man?”
“I infuriate you? You’re lucky I haven’t punched your nose before now.” Roger had to control his fists. Such contrasting emotions, between punching Johnny or grabbing the bastard, pinning him down and rogering him senseless. “You were the worst of all the know-it-alls. Still are. Only you’re not the sort of know-it-all who actually does. Know everything, I mean.”
Johnny stared, mouth working up and down, then lunged forward. Roger shut his eyes, raising his arms to fend off the inevitable blow. Instead, he felt two strong hands take hold of his face, and a mouth get applied to his. He opened his eyes as Johnny pulled away and headed for the door.
“What—” There was no point in finishing the question, because Johnny had gone, leaving only the feel of his fingers on Roger’s cheeks and the taste of his lips.
“Will you stop right now?” Roger’s voice behind him—so loud, so insistent—made Johnny grind to a halt and spin on his heel.
“And will you stop making a scene?”
“Me?” Roger laughed. “Where are we going? Who’s this man we’re supposed to see?”
“Oh.” That wasn’t what he’d expected. “Jerry. That’s the only name I have. I believe we’ll meet him at his club, unless we get there and find a note to say the aged uncle hasn’t located him.”
“And this Jerry was involved in the same hush hush stuff that Ivor Gregg was?”
“Apparently. Look, I appreciate it’s an act of faith, but when Uncle Jonty gives advice, it’s worth listening. He knows what he’s talking about.” Johnny felt himself flush. Come on.”
They made their way to the entrance without exchanging a word and not just because of the confidential nature of the wartime work they might be going to hear about.
Why wasn’t Roger referring to the kiss? Was he so disgusted that he couldn’t even land Johnny a right hook? Or was he keeping that for when the Ivor Gregg business was over? Worse still was the possibility that he was never going to mention it, on the principle that if the incident was ignored it might prove never to have happened. And then their friendship—an icy friendship which was showing the first signs of a thaw—could be frozen over again, leaving Roger with enough ammunition to shoot Johnny’s reputation clean out of the water any time he wanted to.
As they waited to hail a taxi, Johnny kept his gaze fixed on the road, weighing up all his options. The appearance of an available cab, followed by Roger’s arm shooting out to attract its attention, kept all matters in the present. Nothing was going to be done on the romance front while they were in view of the world, so he’d have to concentrate on the matter in hand.
He gave the cabby the name of the club, got in and looked out of the window.
“Are we going to conduct this entire journey in silence?” Roger asked, tetchily.
“I’d rather not discuss what the aged relative said over the telephone. He practically swore me to silence over much of it.”
He leaned closer; Roger closed his eyes briefly, almost flinching, before opening them again with a frown. Johnny couldn’t pull back—he needed to whisper even if it risked getting a fist on the nose.
“Listen,” he hissed, “official secrets and all that. Whatever these chaps were up to in deepest darkest Buckinghamshire, which is all the detail I know about it, they’re sworn not to discuss the matter with anyone. National security.”
Roger’s eyes shone. “So has somebody discovered Gregg’s involvement and wants to threaten him into revealing what went on?”
“That’s what this chap Jerry might be able to tell us. Uncle Jonty says he and Gregg were thick as thieves when they were working wherever they were.”
“Let’s hope they’re still so.” Roger suddenly produced a devastatingly warm smile and turned his attention to what was going on outside the cab window, leaving Johnny to his thoughts, none of which—like what Jonty Stewart had done during the war—were subject for open conversation.
They arrived at the club in a more amiable state than they’d ever been in, despite the lack of words exchanged during the journey. Either that kiss had been a stroke of genius, lessening the tension that had always hung between them, or it had been the nail in the coffin. The thought that Roger’s politeness was simply because he now knew where he stood and was building up Johnny for a fall, weighed heavy on the negative side of the scale. But that smile, as warm and friendly as Roger had ever favoured him with, balanced everything out, didn’t it?
Johnny took a deep breath, told his dilemma it would have to wait, and concentrated on Ivor Gregg.
Jerry had left a message at the front desk of the club to have his guests brought to him forthwith; they found him in a small, quiet corner of a small, quiet room, evidently chosen to facilitate confidential discussions. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, and an invitation to help themselves to a sherry, Jerry cut straight to the matter in hand.
“About Gregg,” he said, with a tight-lipped smile. “I clearly cannot discuss anything that took place during the war. You must understand that.”
“We do. Uncle Jonty’s drummed it into me often enough.” Two wars’ worth of service, much of which couldn’t even be alluded to. “All we want to do is help the authorities to find the man.”
“Detective Superintendent Matthew Firestone is my brother’s godfather,” Roger chipped in. “He brought the matter to our attention.”
That made it sound more like an official commission than was strictly true, but Johnny held his tongue.
“Firestone?” Jerry nodded, approvingly. “He’s a good man. Begs the question why you’re here and not him. Or is that a stupid question?” His brow wrinkled. “Sound policeman, but doesn’t always have the luck. Or possess the right connections. As you clearly do.”
“Something like that.” Johnny sighed in relief. Maybe they were getting somewhere at last.
“I’ll try to help, then. All your great uncle said was that Gregg didn’t turn up for his performance.”
“Which everyone says is worryingly out of character. We know he was receiving threatening letters and believe they weren’t to do with his gambling or his love life.” Johnny waited, but Jerry made no indication one way or the other as to the accuracy of their assumptions. “Is he scared? Is that why he’s disappeared?”
Jerry sat thinking, fingers steepled beneath his chin, before nodding. Somewhere inside that formidable brain, a decision had been made. “Gregg always had a marvellous imagination. It held him in good stead while serving his king and country. In a time of peace, such a rampant mind might find itself turning its abilities to less fruitful matters.”
“I don’t follow,” Roger said.
“He received one genuine threat, from an aggrieved husband, but perhaps the other ones he spoke about were…”Jerry spread his hands.
“A product of his rampant imagination?” Roger suggested.
Johnny frowned. “But why?”
“Because threats of a vague provenance provide a useful resource to draw on should you want to disappear for a while.” Jerry contemplated his sherry. “They provide a good background story.”
“Especially if you’ve hinted that they’re to do with your war service.” Roger beamed at his bright idea. “Nobody would dare question too closely, especially if national security were referred to.”
“Indeed.” Jerry inclined his head. “Although if Gregg has been alluding to a connection between these so-called threats and what he did during the war then somebody needs to have a word with him. Anybody with an ounce of sense and decency never refers to what went on during those years.”
“There’s no chance the threats to Gregg are real?” Johnny asked.
“I doubt it. I saw the chap only last week and he didn’t refer to them, even though I’d heard rumours about what was going on and probed him in a roundabout way.” Jerry raised his eyebrows. “He never could lie to me, so he wouldn’t have risked it.”
“So he’s taken this convenient opportunity he’s created to disappear?” Roger asked. “What on earth for?”
Jerry narrowed his eyes, glanced over at the door, leaned forward, lowered his voice and said, “This goes no further than these four walls.”
Roger glanced from Jerry to Johnny and back again, as though watching a tennis rally. “What about Firestone? Can’t we tell him?”
“You can tell him to stand down his search party. If he wants to know more about why, he can come and see me. The rest you keep to yourselves, understand?”
“We understand,” Johnny agreed, delighted to see the sparkle of delight in Roger’s eye. Did great uncle Jonty take the same pleasure in watching Professor Coppersmith on the detection trail?
“There was a chap, during the war. Fearsomely clever if incredibly naive. Your great uncle and his pal knew him from Cambridge. This chap thought it would be a good idea to buy a load of silver and bury it in the woods. Protecting his savings or some such nonsensical idea.” Jerry rolled his eyes. “Anyway, when the whole shooting match was done, he couldn’t find where he’d put the stuff.”
Roger nodded. “That doesn’t surprise me. Some of the most brilliant people I’ve known have possessed as much common sense as a parsnip.”
“Alas, that’s very true. Gregg had less of a brilliant mind but a bit more in the way of acumen; once he told me he reckoned he could find that stash if he ever needed to.”
“Like if he had gambling debts to pay?” Johnny asked.
“Quite possibly. And pretending he had gone to ground to protect himself from these ‘threats’ would give an effective cover for when he was treasure hunting.” Jerry spread his hands. “I’m not saying this is what has happened, but it’s my best guess. Go and ring Firestone and we’ll sort it out between us.”
Johnny, slightly aggrieved at what seemed an abrupt dismissal, was about to protest, but the warning look in Jerry’s eye gave him pause. They’d probably been told as much as they could be, and thereby put into a position of trust they had to respect. He settled for a simple, “Thank you. We won’t let you down.”
They shook Jerry’s hand and took their leave, to catch another cab and complete their commission.
Reporting back to Matthew Firestone was surprisingly painless and surprisingly quick, especially once Jerry’s name was mentioned. The police officer said that he’d take it from there, would talk to Jerry himself, thanked them—in what sounded a genuinely sincere manner—for their help and apologised for ruining their evening. Johnny just stopped himself thanking Firestone for having accidentally been part of engineering what had been a perfect evening in many ways and had the potential to be so much more.
Dinner was long finished by the time they got back to the hotel; Mrs Henley had left a note with the night porter telling her son not to wake her and that Sophia was devastated at his having to go. Roger had snorted on reading it, although the note from Aunt Jacinta, “You were saved much agony, dear,” made him smile.
A smile that went straight to Johnny’s nether regions. “Fancy a nightcap?” he asked, bluffly.
“Absolutely.” Roger fingered his collar. “I’m gasping for one.”
The night porter nodded. “Let me know what you require, gentlemen.”
Johnny couldn’t dare say what he required at the moment, the thrill of a successful chase still coursing through him and loosening his defences.
“A couple of brandies, please,” Roger answered. “And quick as you like. I’m dead on my feet.”
Alone at last, having taken their nightcaps to Roger’s room, Johnny tried to summon up the courage to refer to what had happened earlier, but he was beaten to it.
“Why did you kiss me, back at that club?”
“Ah, sorry about that.” Johnny studied his shoes.
“Oh, don’t apologise. Just answer the question.”
Johnny looked up; there was no point in pretending any more. Anyway, the small, secretive smile which had appeared on Roger’s face was encouragement enough. “Because I fancy you, you clot. Always have done.”
“Aha. I see.” Roger drew him closer, for a more tender, more extended—and totally unexpected—version of what had happened at the club, before asking, “But why then, in that club, after all the years of being such a stand-offish bastard?”
“It was Great-uncle Jonty’s advice. Carpe diem. Might as well be hung for a horse as for a sheep and all that.”
“What?” Roger stepped back. “How the hell did he know anything about this? Did you tell him?”
“Of course not. But he must have guessed, from when I’ve spoken about you or something.” Johnny grinned, sheepishly. “As a matter of fact, I once asked his advice. Said it was about something really important but I made such a hash of trying to explain what I meant that the whole thing ground to a halt. Then the arrival of Great Aunt Lavinia and her boisterous grandchildren put a stop to any conversation.”
“So he worked it all out from nothing?”
“Not from nothing. Don’t forget that he and Professor Coppersmith have always managed to solve mysteries from three half clues and a bit of intuition. Too astute by half.” Johnny shrugged. “He must have seen right through me.”
“Then he’s more astute than either of us gave him credit for. Perhaps it’s all the sonnets he’s read.” Roger led them to the sofa, where they could settle down for another kiss or three.
“He’s not just extraordinarily perceptive. He’s got a bloke of his own, of course,” Johnny confided, when they came up for air.
“Has he?” Roger’s brow crinkled. “Not that grumpy old codger he lives with?”
“The very same. They’ve been sharing a house for forty odd years and that’s not just a case of sharing a house. I realised very young that they shared the same bed.”
“Which is why I felt so confident about going to ask his advice. He dropped me a line after the whole debacle that simply said, ‘Seize the day’. I should have acted on that advice years ago. I wasn’t brave enough.” Johnny ran his hands through Roger’s hair. It felt smooth and clean, and would look wonderful tousled in the light of morning.
“So what changed your mind?”
“That phone call this evening. It wasn’t just him talking about Gregg and Jerry and the six years’ worth of secrets they share. Once Uncle Jonty knew you were there he gave me another stiff dose of encouragement.” He drew his hand down to Roger’s cheek. “Told me to take my chance or forever regret it or something like that.”
Roger nuzzled Johnny’s hand, before breaking the contact and reaching for their brandies. “Here,” he handed Johnny a glass.
“Thanks. I think.” Had Johnny misled the signals? Was Roger offering him one for the road before shooing him out of the door?
“Don’t worry. I’m not getting rid of you just yet. I felt a toast would be appropriate. To Jonty Stewart and his excellent advice.”
Johnny clinked his glass against Roger’s. “To the aged uncle. May we be as wise as him.”
“Indeed.” Roger laid his glass down, then pulled Johnny closer. “I think it’s going to take a long time to explore all the aspects of his wisdom. We’ll never manage it all in the half an hour or so you’ve got before the night porter becomes suspicious.”
“We could make a pretty good start, though.”
Which they did.