Grover Chance, Shammy as he calls himself, colludes with me in many of my adventures. He seated his massive frame on the edge of my bed across from me. He wore a broad top hat, one that would swallow a less expansive head. His body was blanketed in several layers of well-worn wool. Ofttimes, he worked the wee hours as a cabby and his heavy wardrobe served as a sleeping roll as he snoozed in place in the driver’s seat of his hansom. He needed no boxlight announcing his cab’s presence: his snore broadcast far and wide the availability of his service.
He threw back a snort from a tin flask. “I have me a neighbor,” he said, “in me building where I stow meself, and he is asking for some help, some help that needs a detective’s eye. Someun who can be ‘delicate with the truth’ he says, ‘and don’t get concerned when the truth goes missing. I don’t exactly needs me a Sherlock Holmes,’ and so I told him of you, Jules Pfennig, not exactly a Sherlock Holmes.”
The very name of that impudent detective made my blood boil. I am more than exactly Sherlock Holmes. I am a sleuth to every degree his equal. Nay, his superior! His building is next to mine and I share a wall with him, assaulted by the infernal scratchings of his violin.
“Now, me neighbor who goes asking me, he’s a peculiar chap.” Shammy said. “Ferguson, that’s his Christian name, Ferguson Clay. Calls himself Figgy like the Christmastide pudding. Up in his forties and built hard as a doorknob but with wrinkles. His wife up and died.” Shammy took off his hat and stared into it for a respectful moment. “Only she needs to die again.”
This took me aback. “But she’s still dead?” I asked.
“Of course, she is. Except I can’t no more explain it better than the what, what I has said. Talk to Figgy. He’ll pay you for the murder.”
As usual, Shammy had spun a story that confused more than enlightened. However, killing a dead person wasn’t a crime and I did need the money. The day-old biscuits in my cupboard were a week-old and about as edible as the shelving.
Shammy and Figgy lived in a building by the Cannon Street Railway and the Thames. The ground beneath our feet rumbled with the passing trains and the fetid air sopped my skin with a malodorous sweat. The moment we entered the lobby, all daylight faded. A single gas lamp fought against the shadows and lost.
“Come this way,” Shammy said, stepping on a stair.
I looked up the stairwell. So many floors rose above us and the ceiling was lost in darkness.
Five flights. Shammy plodded all the way, huffing like a steam engine. He halted and aimed a shaky finger at a man perched on the top step. “Figgy,” he whispered.
Figgy was hunched over, his hands dangling between his thighs, his fingers pointing down. A toothbrush mustache rested above lips that seemed permanently puckered. His eyebrows were raised and he stared wide-eyed and far away as though he were viewing a distant, fearful world. He must have been waiting for us but made no acknowledgement of our arrival.
“Mister . . .”
“Figgy,” he completed my greeting. “No mister. Just plain Figgy.”
“I am Jules Pfennig.”
“The one I told you about who can do the helping,” Shammy said. “He’s a famous detective and reliable and dubious. A friend of substitute truths.”
“That is what I am looking for,” Figgy said. “Me and Shammy can do the deed but we need an unimpeacheable witness to speak out. Mr. Milton, our landlord, knows me and my cabby friend and doesn’t exactly believe us.”
He stayed silent for nearly a minute, considering me with sad eyes. Finally, he said, “I loved my wife. Lillian. She was delicate and bewitching and as sweet as yam pie. She was twenty years my junior. I was so lucky to have espoused such a young beauty; I would do anything for her. Undemanding, except for one vexatious habit. She had to bathe every day like it was Easter Sunday.”
Every day? I thought. What sort of fixation could drive a woman to do that?
“I’m no prince when it comes to coin, but I bought her a bathtub, a fancy one with a bonnet. Of course, in such a building as this here, we got no indoor piping. So, every morning I had to fill up bucket after bucket from the hand pump on the street corner and haul them up the five floors. I fired them up on my stove to make the water warm.”
“Today I found her in the bathtub, stiff as a stone.” He placed his hand over his face. “Drowned.” I heard soft sobs.