EPISODE THREE: FORTESCUE’S FICTIONAL DETECTIVE AGENCY
We were just joining in the smattering of applause that greeted the climax of the latest number from the band when Mario reappeared and deftly steered a tall dark man into the vacant seat at our table. Mario leaned forward and murmured, “Senor Holmes” in a low tone by way of explanation. Then, straightening up he cheerily added, “More drinks now?”
I distractedly waved him away as I concentrated my attention on the newcomer. He presented a figure that was far from the one I had anticipated. I was well aware that since his creation there had been numerous versions of the original (there were probably a hundred Sherlock Holmes roaming the landscape of the imagination) but in all my experience I had never come across an incarnation that looked quite so well fed. He was appropriately tall but his build could only be described as chunky and the face, which I was conditioned to imagine as lean and ascetic looking, bore the contented plumpness of a family butcher. His dress, a sharp grey suit, was pretty nondescript. The only definitively Sherlock-esque item was a deerstalker hat which he carried rather awkwardly as though he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.
I glanced across to note that Michael was regarding our Sherlock with an equally uncertain expression.
The man himself, having finally opted to set his deerstalker down upon the table, appeared oblivious to our doubts. “Mr Redgrave?” he said, addressing Michael. “I believe you have some information for me.” His voice sounded more than a little strange.
“Sorry, but who are you?” asked Michael uncertainly.
“I’m Sherlock Holmes,” replied the detective, looking rather aggrieved by the question.
“Really?” I said.
“Really,” he insisted.
I glared at him suspiciously.
“I am Sherlock Holmes,” protested the interloper. “Didn’t you hear the waiter introduce me?”
“Come off it, you’re no more Sherlock Holmes than I am,” I retorted. I was quite sure the real Sherlock Holmes – or any Sherlock Holmes of legitimate provenance at least – would never resort to such a pathetic and frankly illogical argument.
The imposter’s face ran hastily through a gamut of emotions, from indignation to disappointment, but finding no encouragement to his mute appeal, he eventually slumped his shoulders and sighed heavily. “Sid Hitchins, pleased to meet you,” he finally announced, his voice settling comfortably into a cheery cockney accent. “What was it give me away? Is it the hat? I’ve tried wearing it but the bloody thing makes my ears itch.” He glared unhappily at the offending deerstalker.
“Why are you pretending to be Sherlock Holmes?” I asked, ignoring his question.
“I need the work, don’t I? It’s not easy going legit. I mean, who’s gonna hire Sid Hitchins for a detective job? I ain’t got no track record, have I? Sherlock Holmes on the other hand…”
“Going legit?” queried Michael.
“I used to run with a gang out of a crime caper film,” explained Sid. “Bank jobs, jewel heists, that sort of thing. Nothing heavy, you understand.” Sid paused and Michael and I nodded obligingly. “But that’s a young man’s game. It ain’t good for the nerves, I tell you.”
“So you thought you’d try life on the other side of the law?” I suggested.
“Exactly,” Sid nodded enthusiastically. “There was a bit of bother, the gang was splitting up anyway. I decided the time was right to move on.”
“And come to Havana?” said Michael.
“Fancied a bit of sunshine, didn’t I? Anyway, when I got here I was scouting about for something to do and that’s when I saw the advert for the detective agency.”
“Fortescue’s Fictional Detective Agency?”
“That’s the one. I heard they was always on the lookout for a famous face to join the team so I figured I’d buy meself a hat and chance my arm.”
“As Sherlock Holmes?” I said doubtfully.
“Well, no-one was going to mistake me for Miss Marple and I really didn’t fancy having to grow a Poirot moustache.”
“And Felicity Fortescue fell for this?” said Michael in a tone of mild incredulity. I could see where he was coming from. Felicity Fortescue undoubtedly had her share of faults but I hadn’t counted extreme gullibility as one of them.
“Well, for about five minutes,” conceded Sid with a rueful grin. “But it turns out she’s running a little short on detectives. It don’t seem like many of them stick around for too long.” Sid leaned in confidentially. “Between you and me I think Dame Fortescue is a bit fond of the sauce and she ain’t a happy drunk, if you catch my drift.” Michael, clearly catching Sid’s drift, nodded fervently. “So, her having this case on at the Copacabana, she agreed to give me a whirl. Which is where you folks come in. You said you had information for me?”
Michael looked awkwardly at me and I looked awkwardly at Michael.
“I’m afraid we may have lied slightly about the information,” said Michael.
“We just wanted a chance to talk to Sherlock Holmes,” I explained. “We have a case of our own that we really wanted his help with.”
Sid’s shoulders sunk even lower. “You’re joking, ain’t you? I was really counting on catching a break with you guys.”
“Sorry,” said Michael.
Sid picked up his hat and grimly twisted it. “Well, that’s that then I s’pose. My first case and it’s a complete washout.”
“Things not going too well then?” I asked guiltily.
“Bleeding hopeless just about sums it up,” complained Sid. “I mean, I thought how hard can it be? Surely the criminal’s the one with the tricky job. They’re the ones as has to lay the plans, work out the job, see it all through. All a detective has to do is look at what’s been done and figure out who’s done it.” I had to admit it was a fairly succinct definition of the role. “But this thing has me proper baffled.”
There was a definite appeal in his tone of voice that had me torn. Now that we had struck out on meeting Sherlock Holmes the sensible thing was surely to make a sharp exit from the Copacabana and plough on with our search for Sturridge alone. But there was something so despairing about Sid’s hangdog expression that I couldn’t help responding to. And I suppose I did feel a mite guilty about our groundlessly raising his hopes with stories of fresh information.
It seemed Michael was having similar thoughts. After a brief hesitation he sighed and said to Sid, “So, just what seems to be the trouble?”
A flush of colour instantly brightened Sid’s cheeks. “One of the dancers at the club seems to have gone missing. She left the club in the early hours of Tuesday morning and nobody’s seen her since.”
“And they suspect foul play, do they?” I asked.
Sid shrugged. “Hard to say. To be perfectly honest, nobody I’ve spoken to seems particularly fussed about having her back. But I s’pose they feel like they ought to go through the motions.”
“Have you found any clues at all?” asked Michael.
Sid looked blank. He twisted his deerstalker thoughtfully. “I did take a look at her room. Place looked like it had been properly done over,” he said cheerfully. Then his face fell. “But the landlady says she always keeps it like that.” Sid gestured with his hat as if to ask what more he could have done.
“Perhaps if we went right back to the beginning,” I suggested. “Why don’t you tell us everything you know about the missing girl?”
Sid fished in the pockets of his coat for a moment and then brought out a neat, new notebook, clearly purchased especially for his new role. He opened to the first page and carefully read from his notes. “Her name was Lola. She was a showgirl. With yellow feathers in her hair. And her dress cut down to there.” He seemed to lose his place momentarily and flicked back and forth anxiously, scouring for more details.
Something was stirring in my memory. “Say that again,” I said.
Sid went back to the beginning. “Her name was Lola. She was a showgirl. With yellow feathers in her hair. And her dress cut down to there.” He looked up rather sheepishly.
“Not much to go on, is it?” complained Michael.
“It’s the song!” I exclaimed, the dusty memories suddenly clicking into place. “Don’t you see? That’s how the song goes.”
“What song?” asked Michael dubiously.
“Copacabana by Barry Manilow,” I announced in a mild tone of triumph. “Those are the opening lines.” For good measure, I burst into tune. “Her name was Lola, She was a showgirl…”
“Alright, we get the picture,” Michael hastily cut in.
“I don’t,” Sid looked blankly at each of us in turn. “What are you talking about? What song?”
There was a moments pause while I considered how to explain to Sid that he appeared to have found himself investigating a seventies disco ballad. “Let’s just say we’re familiar with the circumstances,” I said. Sid merely maintained the vacant look that appeared to be his default expression.
“So, if we work our way through the song we should be able to figure out what has happened to Lola,” suggested Michael as he thought through the implications.
“I’m not so sure,” I cautioned with a frown. I was busy trying to hum my way through as much of the tune as I could remember. “I don’t recall any part of the song in which Lola goes missing.”
Michael looked at me curiously. “You seem to be awfully familiar with this song,” he said in a rather accusatory tone.
“My mam was a bit of a Barry Manilow fan,” I replied with an affected shrug. “She used to do the ironing to his greatest hits when I was little.” I did not intend to add that at the age of seven I was accustomed to dancing around the kitchen to Copacabana with a duster wrapped round my head to simulate feathers in my hair. There are some things that should never be confessed under any circumstances. “If I could just remember the next bit,” I mused.
Sid, who had been flicking back and forth in his notes, gave a sudden gesture of discovery. “Ha!” he exclaimed. “I knew there was more. It says here… She would merengue. And do the cha-cha. While she tried to be a star, Tony always tended bar.” Sid looked up with a puzzled expression. “I’m not entirely sure who Tony is though.”
I couldn’t wonder that Sid’s detective skills had failed to bring about any breakthrough in the case so far.
“Her boyfriend perhaps?” suggested Michael.
“Ah,” said Sid.
“Have you questioned Tony?” I asked.
Sid looked rather sheepish. “Er, no, not yet,” he confessed.
“Then that’s where I suggest we try next,” I said.
Sid nodded and snapped shut his notebook. “Here, thanks for your help guys,” he said. “I really appreciate it.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get to the bottom of this mystery,” I said, patting him reassuringly on the arm. “If I could just remember as far as the second verse,” I added under my breath.
A momentary lull in the music before the start of the floorshow offered the perfect opportunity to spy out Tony. We called over Mario to assist with identification, a task he performed most grudgingly after discovering that he still couldn’t persuade us into agreeing to more drinks. Our target was to be observed somewhat distractedly mixing cocktails and opening champagne bottles. A slightly built young man, a little under average height, he was possessed of dark eyes and a firm jaw line that would not have disgraced a Hollywood leading man. At present his preoccupied, slightly moody air suggested he was auditioning for the lead in a romantic melodrama.
After a hasty discussion it was decided that Sid should take the lead in the proposed interrogation. He was, after all, the only one with any real authority to conduct enquiries in this matter. But in response to his despairing look Michael and I assured him that we would be right behind him every step of the way. So it was that we approached the bar in an arrow formation, Sid forming the spearhead and Michael and I doing duty on the flanks.
Sid began by calling Tony over and informing him that he wished to direct a few questions about the missing dancer to him. Tony glared sullenly at him but made no objections. “So, er, right then. What can you tell me about the missing girl?” was how Sid opened his interrogation proper.
His questioning technique undoubtedly left a lot to be desired.
Tony casually twirled a cocktail shaker in his right hand. “Her name was Lola. She was a showgirl,” he said with a shrug. “With yellow feathers in her hair. And her dress cut down to there.”
“Yes, yes, we know all that,” I cut in impatiently. At this rate we were never going to solve the mystery. And there was also the fact that the opening lines of the song were now bringing back memories of a later version sung in the schoolyard in which Lola had been possessed of nits and lice in her hair and had boobs which sagged down to there. It made it very difficult to concentrate on the matter in hand.
“What was your relationship with Lola?” I questioned in my best Columbo manner. “Was she your girlfriend?”
Tony flung his arms wide in a noncommittal gesture. “I suppose,” he replied.
“A happy relationship?” asked Michael suggestively.
Again came the gesture. “As happy as any relationship between a man and a woman can be,” replied Tony.
“Did she give any indication she might be thinking of leaving?” I persisted.
Tony was saved from an immediate answer by the distraction of what appeared to be an important arrival across the other side of the dance floor. The whole club seemed to pause for a moment as a tall man with slick dark hair and wearing an expensive suit and an abundance of jewellery was guided to a table in a prime position. He was accompanied by a beefy, close cropped minder and fawned over with an exceedingly oily obsequiousness by Senor Delgado. A moment of hush descended when Senor Delgado asked if everything was to the gentleman’s satisfaction, as if his answer were of vital importance to the peace of mind of every single inhabitant of the club.
The gentleman in question indicated his acceptance of the hospitality on offer with a casual flick of his head and immediately the room, breathing an audible sigh of relief, returned to its business.
Turning my attention back to the bar I couldn’t help noticing Tony staring across the room at the newcomer with a peculiarly intense glance. Then, recollecting himself, he turned back to me. “You are wasting your time looking for Lola. She is gone,” he said mournfully.
“Hang on a mo. Does that mean you know something?” demanded Sid, who had been rather struggling to keep up with matters so far.
“Who is that man?” Michael asked Tony, also noting the acute expression with which he had gazed across the room.
Tony hesitated, looking uncomfortable.
“He’s Rico, isn’t he?” I remarked in triumph, grateful to have dusted off another piece of information from the distant recesses of my memory.
Tony’s awkward expression suggested I’d landed a bulls eye.
“Who’s Rico?” asked Sid and Michael simultaneously.
“I’ve remembered the beginning of the second verse,” I explained. “His name was Rico, he wore a diamond. He was escorted to his chair…”
“And?” said Michael.
“And that’s as much as I can remember,” I confessed.
“So how do we link him to Lola’s disappearance?” asked Michael with a frown.
“I don’t know exactly but he’s got to be involved,” I insisted.
“I don’t get it,” muttered Sid.
“Never mind,” I said impatiently. “But I think our next move should undoubtedly be to question Rico.”
“You should not get involved, I told you,” interjected Tony, casting a worried glance across the dance floor.
“Then tell us what happened,” I urged. “Did he take a shine to Lola? Did things get out of hand?”
Tony said nothing.
“Just who is this Rico?” asked Michael.
“He is a very dangerous man,” replied Tony. “A gangster.”
“That’s no reason to let him get away with it,” I retorted.
“Get away with what?” asked Tony.
I shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. Whatever he might have done.”
Tony shook his head unhappily. “This will not end well,” he murmured.
Sid, meanwhile, was eyeing Rico’s burly minder with a degree of apprehension. “I’m not entirely sure this is such a good idea,” he said. “Senor Delgado was very insistent that the investigation not impact on the running of the club. He did say he didn’t want any of the punters bothered.”
I gave him a withering glare. He really did do a very poor imitation of Sherlock Holmes. “Don’t you want to solve the case?” I protested. “Don’t you want to find out the truth?”
“Not if it costs me a broken spine,” Sid muttered beneath his breath.
“Fine, then we’ll do it,” I retorted, turning to my companion. “Won’t we Michael?”
Michael slowly nodded his head in a not entirely convincing manner. He too was eyeing up Rico’s table with just a hint of apprehension.
I, on the other hand, was not about to allow anything to get in the way of my search for the truth. I was not by nature a particularly gung-ho kind of girl but when it came to a battle between my sense of curiosity and my sense of self-preservation, curiosity was going to win every time. With an air of greater confidence than I perhaps felt inside I marched determinedly away from the bar. With a rather pointed sigh Michael trudged wearily after me.