EPISODE THREE: FORTESCUE’S FICTIONAL DETECTIVE AGENCY
I stepped down from the bus into the narrow street and was instantly struck by the sweltering heat that swept between the buildings like a runaway train. It was a heavy, oppressive humidity that made all activity feel as though it were being conducted through a layer of molten treacle. The conditions undoubtedly discouraged much sight-seeing. Even my companion, Michael, normally so curious and eager to explore, was disinclined to venture too far. Under the circumstances he proved unusually amenable to my suggestion that we retire to the nearest hostelry as the best way to get our bearings.
It wasn’t long before we discovered an open doorway leading into a dingy bar. Inside, an assortment of middle-aged, mostly male patrons were gently dozing over glasses of a mysterious dark spirit. In the centre of the room a low ceiling fan wheezed arthritically round in circles, stirring up the warm air from one side of the room and depositing it on the other. As air-conditioning systems go it wasn’t particularly effective but the opportunity to sink into a chair at one of the cracked tables and steam quietly on the spot seemed preferable to keeping on the move. I sat and fanned myself ineffectually with a discarded newspaper whilst Michael, who had lost the toss, attempted to procure cooling drinks from the bar.
We had been travelling through the landscape of the imagination now for three days. Well, it seemed like three days. One of the first things I had discovered about the landscape was that time here seemed to be a rather elastic concept. Minutes and hours had a habit of contracting or expanding at will so that it was very difficult to keep a track on just where you were. But since we had fallen through the door in the wall we had seen the sun set and then rise again three times and that made it three days of travelling in my book.
I think it was fair to say that our search for the missing author CJ Sturridge was not going to plan. Actually, perhaps I should re-phrase that. For if I say things aren’t exactly going to plan then that may give the entirely misleading impression that we actually had a plan to start with. But certainly I could say that in the time we had been here we had had no sightings, no leads and no hope really of ever picking up Sturridge’s trail. I might have been quite tempted to give up and go home… if only I had any idea of how to get home, that is.
However, there was at least one aspect of life in the landscape to which my companion had taken like a duck to water. A life without currency, it seemed, held no fears for Michael. After a few minutes he returned from the bar proudly bearing two glasses of heavily iced liquid. “There you are, two lemonades,” he proclaimed, setting them down on the table.
I was so hot that if it hadn’t been for the impractical narrowness of the glass I might have been quite tempted to just shove my whole head directly into the drink. As it was, I settled for taking a long, refreshing gulp. “Nice going,” I remarked admiringly. “How did you manage to come up with these?”
“I persuaded the barman to take a tin of Edward’s out of date salmon for them,” explained Michael.
“Well, I did throw in a quick recital of the ‘my kingdom for a horse’ speech from Richard III,” he conceded.
“You’ve really got a hang of this bartering lark,” I noted. “You’re like those people who trade their way across the internet. They start off with a paper clip and end up with a Harrier jump jet.”
Michael looked at me blankly. “The inter-what?”
I shook my head. There were drawbacks, I was discovering, to travelling with someone who in the real world had died in 1985. I was particularly irked by Michael’s apparent lack of curiosity about events that had taken place since his demise. When it came to exploring the landscape he was permanently wide-eyed and eager but regarding updates on the real world he couldn’t appear less interested. “Really Redgrave,” I said in a tone of exasperation. “You’re going to have to make something of an effort to catch up with world events. Being dead is no excuse for being out of date.”
Michael shrugged. “I don’t see that I am all that out of date,” he replied. “Least of all here. This is the landscape of the imagination, after all – past, present and future are all rolled into one. What happens when we find ourselves travelling through a time period that’s beyond your experience?”
I paused for a moment as, in all honesty, I had not yet stopped to consider such an eventuality. After a minutes contemplation though I waved away his question nonchalantly. “I can handle the future,” I insisted. “I used to have a boyfriend with a very unhealthy Star Wars obsession.”
“Anyway,” continued Michael, “while I was haggling for drinks I remembered to ask the barman about transport round here. He thinks our best bet would be to head down to the docks where we should be able to catch a ship of some kind. Unfortunately, he didn’t really have any idea where said ship might take us.”
I sighed. This, it seemed to me, was our problem in a nutshell. Our journey so far had been helped along by a succession of benevolent locals, all keen to point us from bus to boat to train without having any real idea of where they might be sending us. In terms of tracking down Sturridge I didn’t see how it could possibly prove effective.
“All this dashing aimlessly from one place to another really isn’t getting us anywhere,” I complained. “I think we need to reconsider our strategy.”
“I wasn’t aware we actually had a strategy.”
“So just what do you propose we do instead? We can’t just sit on our backsides and hope Sturridge comes to us.”
“I propose we get ourselves some professional help,” I replied. “While you were bartering with the barman I found this.” I held up the newspaper that I had originally picked up as an improvised fan.
Michael peered at it in surprise. “The Havana Tribune,” he noted. “Are we in Havana then?”
“Apparently.” I turned to the page that had caught my eye and passed it to Michael. “There. What do you think of that?”
“Fortescue’s Fictional Detective Agency,” he read. “The finest sleuths of the imagination at your service. All cases considered, excellent rates. Apply Felicity Fortescue, proprietor, 33 Calle San Miguel.” Michael looked up at me rather dubiously. “A detective agency? Seriously?”
“Why not?” I replied. “What we have is essentially a missing persons case. We just need a bit of help to get us started, that’s all.”
“From Felicity Fortescue?” Michael continued to wrinkle up his nose. “She doesn’t exactly sound like a hard-boiled private eye.”
“Neither did Miss Marple,” I retorted, “but she got the job done.”
“And in my experience excellent rates are usually pretty expensive rates. Just what do you propose we should use for payment?”
“I don’t know. You’ll think of something,” I insisted cheerfully. “You haven’t done too badly so far.” I raised my glass. “Come on. Just what have you got to lose?”
No 33, Calle San Miguel turned out to be a crumbling, slender building set in the middle of a colonnaded terrace. The ground floor was given over to a poky tobacco shop in which a small bronzed walnut of a man sat surrounded by every kind of electrical cooling device known to man. He directed us up a staircase by the shop doorway which a faded sign indicated would lead to Fortescue’s Fictional Detective Agency.
After three rickety flights we passed through a doorway into a disordered office. There we found a young lad of about eighteen gently dozing with his feet up on a paper-strewn desk. A discreet cough from Michael brought him reluctantly back to the land of the living and he regarded us suspiciously from beneath an unruly fringe of thick black hair.
“Hello,” I said cheerfully. “We’d like to speak to someone about engaging a detective.”
“Do you have an appointment?” asked the boy rather sleepily.
“Do we need an appointment?” Michael asked.
The boy shrugged. “Not really.” Without removing his feet from the desk he swivelled his chair slightly, leaned back and knocked casually on a door of frosted glass behind him. “Senora Fortescue, you got customers,” he called out.
There was a brief pause before the door opened and a head looked out. At first it seemed incapable of noticing anything but the young lad, whom it regarded with an expression of pure thunder. Breath was drawn and a hand was raised as though an explosion of quite catastrophic proportions were about to be unleashed. But something in the expression of its antagonist caused it to look up just before detonation and the head then registered the presence of Michael and I, hovering uncertainly beyond the desk. The expression transformed within seconds as a figure darted forward to shake our hands.
“Good gracious, delightful to see you. I’m Felicity Fortescue, proprietor of Fortescue’s Fictional Detective Agency. Do come through.”
As we passed through the frosted door, she whipped out a hand and gave her sullen young receptionist a sharp smack round the head. “Feet off the furniture Rodrigo,” she hissed before following us through and shutting the door behind her.
The office beyond was small but neatly kept. It was dominated by an oversized desk behind which was lined up a row of cupboards and filing cabinets. Felicity Fortescue settled herself into an opulent black leather chair on one side of the desk, whilst Michael and I took the somewhat less plush seats opposite.
“Now then, what can I do for you?”
Despite the heat she was dressed smartly in a tailored suit, her blonde waved hair betraying just a hint of grey. I found it difficult to judge her age; she could just have easily been a youthful fifty year old as a careworn thirty-five. Or indeed, anywhere on a sliding scale in between. But she sat up straight in her chair and regarded us with bright, keen eyes.
“We’re interested in hiring a detective,” I explained. “We need a bit of help in trying to locate someone.”
“Excellent. You’ve certainly come to the right place.” Felicity Fortescue drew a notepad towards her and sat with pen poised. “You don’t mind if I take a few notes, do you? Perhaps I could start with your names?”
“Of course. I’m Natasha Everingham and this is my, er, colleague, Michael Redgrave.”
Felicity Fortescue’s eyes widened. “Not the Michael Redgrave?”
Michael nodded rather warily.
“Oh how marvellous. I’m such an admirer of yours,” she declared, dropping her pen in her excitement. “I used to be such a devotee of the theatre in my time. Let me see now, I saw you in As You Like It at the Old Vic. Oooh, when will that have been? ’37? ’38? A most dashing Orlando if you don’t mind my saying so.”
To his credit, I could see that Michael was trying not to preen too much at this rather gushing compliment. To his discredit, he really made rather a poor job of it.
Felicity Fortescue continued to regard him wistfully for a moment or two before finally pulling herself together and picking up her pen. “Anyway, to the business at hand. You said you were looking for someone?”
“CJ Sturridge. He’s an author,” I explained briskly. “We know he’s somewhere here in the landscape but we really don’t know where. And it’s apparently quite important that we find him.”
“You’ve no clue as to his whereabouts?”
I shook my head rather helplessly. “We know he came through the same door in the wall into the landscape as us but I’ve been reliably informed that doesn’t count for anything.”
Felicity Fortescue looked at us sharply. “Ah, so you’re all fellow refugees from reality, are you? I should have guessed really. But then I meet so few people from the other world these days, it’s hard to keep up.”
“So, you’re not actually from the imagination yourself?” said Michael, looking mildly confused.
“Oh good lord no,” she replied. “I’m as real as either of you two. I used to be an author myself back in the other world. Detective fiction was my line. The ongoing adventures of Lord Jeremy Tinsdale, debonair playboy detective. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”
“’Fraid not,” I said ruefully.
“No, well, they were mostly awful. I mean, they sold quite well but, let’s face it, they were for the most part the most appalling tosh. Apart from The Persian Peril. That’s where Lord Jeremy disguises himself as a Bedouin Arab to uncover treachery along the silk route to China. I was quite proud of that one.”
She seemed to drift off for a moment, lost in the recall of some half-remembered plot. “Sounds gripping,” I remarked politely.
“Nonsense really,” she said dismissively, returning abruptly to the here and now. “I only really took up writing for the money.”
“So, how did you come to end up in the landscape of the imagination?” asked Michael. I could understand his curiosity. After all, this was the first time in our travelling we had encountered anyone from the same world as ourselves.
Felicity Fortescue hesitantly twirled her pen for a moment, then she sighed. “It was all the fault of my husband really,” she explained slowly. “I married the most awful cad, you see. Everyone warned me about him but I was young and naive and imagined I was in love. I tried to make a go of it, really I did. I even took up writing those bloody books in an effort to square off some of his debts. But it turns out he was a confirmed shit and sometime late in 1938 he ran off to Cannes with a tart of a waitress.” She looked up at us as if expecting some response but, unable to think of an appropriate reply, I contented myself with a sympathetic look.
“Well, shortly afterwards I found my door in the wall,” she continued. “I only really came for a quick look, a chance to get away from things. But then, while I was here, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to look up my character, Lord Jeremy Tinsdale. And, well…” The confessions of Felicity Fortescue tailed off as she resumed twirling her pen.
“So did you find him?” prompted Michael.
“Oh yes, I found him alright,” she continued with a heavy sigh. “I had imagined he might be putting his talents to good use – solving mysteries, dispensing justice. So you can well envisage what a shock it was to discover him living on a houseboat and offering his services to…,” she paused and cleared her throat awkwardly. “Well, shall we say ladies of a lonely disposition?”
“What? A gigolo?” I exclaimed.
“I think they prefer to use the term escort.”
“I suppose that must be one of the perils of authorship,” suggested Michael understandingly. “Once your characters take life there’s just no telling what they might choose to do.”
“Oh but he wasn’t doing that through choice,” insisted Felicity Fortescue. “He would have much preferred to be engaged on detective work but it seems that, left to his own devices, he really wasn’t much good at what you might call the business end of the profession. Acquiring clients, organising his case-load, handling accounts.”
“We can’t all be good at everything,” I remarked sympathetically.
“And when I looked into it I found quite a number of fictional detectives were in the same boat. Awfully good at solving puzzles, not so clever when it comes to day-to-day life. That’s why so many of them have sidekicks, you see. To sort out the practical side.”
“So I suppose I saw a gap in the market and opened Fortescue’s Fictional Detective Agency. Because if there’s one thing I do quite pride myself on, it’s my organisational skills. I handle the clients, assign the cases, manage the paperwork and the detectives can get on with detecting.”
“Very smart,” noted Michael admiringly.
Felicity Fortescue surveyed her tiny empire with a satisfied smile for a moment before decisively setting down her pen. “Anyway, we really ought to be seeing about assigning a detective to your case,” she announced, suddenly business-like once more. “I’m sure we can find someone for you.”
She wheeled her chair around and opened the door of a cupboard behind her desk. As she burrowed amongst files and papers I couldn’t help noticing the clink of hidden bottles from somewhere deep within.
Eventually she turned back and placed a thick folder on the desk in front of her. She opened it up and I was able to see that the front page consisted of an index of all the detectives in her employ. “I’m afraid we do find ourselves a little short staffed at the moment,” she said, running her finger down the list of names and contact details. “Not really the best time of year, I’m afraid.”
As she continued to hum and haw over the contents I couldn’t resist craning my neck forward to try and get a peek at the names she was considering. I was hampered slightly by the necessity of reading upside down but thankfully, nosiness being an incurable vice of mine, I was quite practiced at assimilating information from awkward angles.
My first impression was that it was a remarkably complete list of every famous fictional detective in the English language. Amongst the names I noted were an H Poirot, a Lord P Wimsey and an A Campion. Unfortunately, on closer inspection all of these highly impressive entries were accompanied by a neat red stamp denoting ‘dismissed’. A J Marple was recorded as ‘retired’ whilst the stamp by P Marlowe bore the handwritten annotation ‘drinker’. Somehow, all of these famous names had failed to maintain employment with Fortescue’s Fictional Detective Agency. I couldn’t help surmising that fictional detectives appeared no more amenable to Felicity Fortescue’s brand of organisation than they were to organising themselves. Even Lord J Tinsdale, her own creation, had been stamped as ‘dismissed’.
Felicity Fortescue plucked out a couple of names that had avoided being stamped. But it was hard to respond positively as neither I nor Michael had ever heard of them or the works of fiction they had apparently appeared in. Having seen the ones who had got away it was rather difficult to get excited about the detectives who remained.
However, as I continued to peer nosily forwards there was one un-stamped name on the list that stood out. “I’m sorry but S Holmes,” I said with a tremor of excitement. “Is that Sherlock Holmes?”
Felicity Fortescue looked up sharply and drew the folder closer to her. “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is.”
Michael’s eyes widened along with mine. “Do you think we could get Sherlock Holmes to help us?” he asked eagerly.
“I’m afraid Mr Holmes is already engaged upon another case,” replied Felicity Fortescue dismissively.
“Well then, we’ll wait for him to finish,” I suggested.
Felicity Fortescue shook her head doubtfully. “It’s a very tricky case. I couldn’t say how long it might take him.”
“What, Sherlock Holmes? Surely, he’ll have it cracked in no time,” declared Michael hopefully.
“I really couldn’t say,” Felicity Fortescue insisted. “Why don’t you try Reginald Baxter, like I suggested. He’s available immediately and, what’s more, he’s police trained.”
“Well, he was in an episode of Z Cars.”
“An episode of Z Cars?” I didn’t intend to sound quite so sarcastic but my disappointment rather overwhelmed me.
Felicity Fortescue at least had the good grace to look rather sheepish. “Not every fictional character gets the breaks he deserves,” she protested feebly. “He would have been a recurring character but for an unfortunately timed writers’ strike.”
I glanced at Michael and shook my head. It was very hard to be accepting of Reginald Baxters when you had seen Sherlock Holmes dangled tantalisingly before you. “Perhaps if we were to think it over,” I said slowly. “Maybe call back later.”
“I can do you an excellent rate if you sign on now,” Felicity Fortescue tried with just a hint of desperation. “A special discount for fine Shakespearean actors.” She eyed Michael hopefully but seemed to sense she was fighting a losing battle.
“Natasha’s right. I think we really ought to talk it over before we commit to anything.”
Felicity Fortescue slumped back in her chair, looking more than a little annoyed.
“Don’t worry, we’ll see ourselves out,” I said hastily, mildly concerned that if we didn’t manage to make a smooth exit now things might turn unpleasant.
“But thank-you for your time,” Michael added apologetically.
She gave a dismissive wave as if to indicate that she washed her hands of all hope of our custom and watched sourly as we retreated through the door.
As we passed back through the outer office Rodrigo was dozing gently with his feet up on the desk once more. We were careful not to wake him as we slipped quietly down the stairs.
Once we reached the street outside we paused in the stifling heat, unsure what to do next. “I guess that puts us right back to square one,” mused Michael unhappily. “Nothing for it but to head for the docks and see if we can catch a ship.”
“I bet if we had Sherlock Holmes on our side we would find Sturridge in no time,” I muttered, reluctant to give up on my brilliant plan quite so easily.
“It is a shame he should be busy just now,” agreed Michael.
“Who’s to say he is so busy?”
“Well, Felicity Fortescue, for one. She knows what he’s working on.”
“She’s just being over-protective,” I argued. “He’s Sherlock Holmes, for Christ’s sake! The search for Sturridge is just the kind of thing he’d love to get his teeth into. I bet he’d jump at the chance if we asked him.”
“But we can’t ask him. We don’t even know where he is.”
“Felicity Fortescue must know where he is,” I said slowly. The germ of an idea was beginning to formulate.
Michael looked at me suspiciously. “She’s not going to tell us.”
“If I could just get five minutes alone with that folder of hers,” I suggested. “All his details have got to be in there.”
“You intend to try and steal a detective?” Michael shook his head dubiously.
“What rights has she got to keep him all to herself?” I complained.
“She’s his employer. You’re talking about breaking and entering for a start.”
“C’mon Redgrave,” I coaxed. “You’re the one who’s always reminding me how important it is that we track Sturridge down.”
Michael paused to trace a pattern in the dusty pavement with his shoes for a moment. I could see he was wavering.
“If those ‘powers that be’ of yours are so desperate for us to find him surely they won’t mind us bending the rules a little,” I pressed.
Eventually Michael looked up. “I guess it would be quite nice to meet the actual Sherlock Holmes,” he conceded.
I smiled. It seemed ‘Operation Detective Steal’ was a go.