The house looked immediately like a stroke of mischief. It was from the late-Victorian period and so symmetrical that it could have only ever been two semi-detached properties. Yet one of the households had recently had their sandstone exterior cleaned with a pressure hose and the other hadn’t. One side of the building was therefore a dazzling pink, as though it had been just sprung upon the world, whilst the other wore that wan, gaunt look that is so typical today of Edinburgh’s Victoriana.
Rufus Stewart was almost persuaded of what he knew not to be true: that these two houses had been built a century apart. In reality, he knew that their stone had been probably quarried on the same morning. Rufus now wondered – in common with every passer-by who had ever noticed this structure – what acrimony had caused or resulted from the pressure cleaning. Perhaps the neighbours never spoke and so the divergence between their houses had never occasioned any remark between them. Perhaps they were so familiar with these exteriors that they never looked at them and they had hence failed to register the contrast. Or perhaps there was some merry joke between them in which they called each other “Mr White House” and “Mrs Black House.”
Rufus studied the sheet of paper in his hand. It had been printed off his home computer and the logo on the paper had that characteristically washed-out look. On his computer screen the logo had been orange but on paper it was a milky peach colour. Beneath the logo there was a cartoon schoolboy dressed in the costume of Sherlock Holmes, along with the caption “Ronnie Rabindranath, Boy Detective.” The schoolboy had had nut-brown skin on the screen. On paper he was beige.
Which semi did the boy detective live in? Rufus consulted the paper. Number twelve. He looked up again at the houses. “Mr White House.”
After he had rung the doorbell, the door was answered by a stout lady in tinted spectacles and a long, sequinned, cobweb-coloured shawl. She was breathless with the shock of opening the door and she could only wheeze at him in greeting. Although she might have been wearing a myriad of colours about her person, they had somehow succeeded in neutralising each other, so that she now resembled a toneless shadow.
Rufus felt as though his stomach was suspended on galloping hooves. He requested to speak to the boy detective and he heard his own voice splitting like cracking plastic in its aghast hilarity. Yes, the advert had been on Craigslist but it had looked like a legitimate business. Until he was facing the boy detective’s mother, it had seemed unproblematic that a middle-aged man might want to avail himself of a schoolboy.
Shedding thick blinks behind her sepia glass, and apparently frowning in her effort not to display any encouragement, the lady revolved slowly around to take in her own house. Rufus’s stomach resumed its galloping even more frantically as she bawled, “Amir!”
Instead, a large teenaged girl showed her face at a door behind the lady. She stood tense for a second and she then took a step forward.
Her expression might have been stroppy or even insolent but finally something had settled within it, like a cat tucking away its paws beneath itself, and she met Rufus with a level, professional look. “He’s in the toilet. I’m his agent.”
Every cell in Rufus’ body was throbbing with the instinct to run away but his own face floated on through this nightmare. “His agent?” He echoed the word just to keep the scene moving.
The mother and daughter exchanged a look that must have been, Rufus guessed, meaningful in some way. At last the mother breathed out, stood back and pointed him into the yawning interior. “Here please.”
Rufus was following the girl into a sitting room. As they passed a closed door in the corridor, the girl tapped sharply on it and yelled, “Hurry up! You have a client!” There was a very alert-sounding silence from within.
The sitting room was an everyday suburban sitting room, with a clutter of dainty china detritus, figurines of shepherds and sheepdogs, crowding over every surface. On the far wall, however, there was, in lieu of wallpaper, a high-definition photo print of Robbie Williams, presented topless on a tropical beach and with his mouth hanging agape in Muppet-like joy. The print stretched floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, tipping Robbie into slightly unnatural proportions, a bit too near to eight foot to be properly human. It was in such high definition that it was clearer and more dazzling than everything else in the room, as though somebody had photographed a hallucination.
Eyeing the singer crossly, Rufus sank into the nearest sofa and, in this temporary relief, he quickly became too comfortable. He tried to wake himself up by taking an interest in the dense thicket of family photographs on the table beside him. He was very glad that the father was not here.
The girl was molesting the bathroom door again. “Hurry up!”
Rufus’ face swept dolefully across the room like an industrial pendulum. He was oddly heartened by the boy detective’s unresponsiveness. He had been anxious that this detective would immediately put on a shtick and start performing. In this performance, the boy detective would come to extravagant conclusions about Rufus’ lifestyle from a patch of mud on his trousers or the cleanliness of his fingernails. Oh how brilliant, boy detective, Rufus would have to recite when prompted. Now, Rufus would have to comply with a different cliché. The boy detective would be moody and autistic. A prickly, sour-smelling young genius who would not be able to look Rufus in the eye. He would be…
The door opened and the boy detective shut it silently behind him. He stole carefully into the room, as though he was picking his way across ice. He was amazingly small and delicate-looking. He came to a stop in front of Rufus’ sofa and stood to attention.
“Good afternoon,” Rufus said cordially. “I am…” he sighed to himself, “I am Mr Stewart.”
“I am Amir.” The boy detective had a small, hard, bleating voice. Rufus studied him again and saw a youth who was dressed with an unwonted neatness, in a white shirt, tan trousers, and a sleek, red, woollen sweater. Casual clothes that Rufus saw more often on men far older than himself. The youth had a shapely tummy and glassy eyes that popped faintly.
“Amir, not Ronnie?”
Amir or Ronnie began to gibber excruciatingly in explanation but his sister cut across him. “Nobody can say his first name so they call him Ronnie. His middle name is Amir.” The boy detective had instantly quietened at his sister’s voice.
“How many clients have you had, Ronnie?”
The boy detective looked at his sister and she looked disconcerted and guilty. “He has been in the paper,” she said loudly. “This is what started all of this. We have the page in the kitchen.”
She ran to retrieve the article. Rufus imagined her unfixing it from
magnets on a fridge. He and the boy detective waited, watching each other shyly.
“The article is embarrassing,” the boy detective mumbled. He began to stir within himself with the effort of explaining, like a mountain that vaguely wanted to dance. Next his sister was back. She waved the newspaper page in front of Rufus so that he could not read it, but he could see that it was fresh or relatively unfaded. “There was a dinner lady at our school who was stealing things and Amir laid a trap to catch her. They found this huge block of bacon in her bag.”
When Rufus turned to the boy detective for confirmation, there was a split second, so brief that anybody else would have missed it, in which the youth appeared to be speechless with misery. It was only for a split second and he was now stammering out the facts. The dinner lady had lost her job. She had worked at the school for fifteen years. After that, the boy detective gibbered, virtually white-faced, she would be unable to find another job anywhere else. His tortures continued. The dinner lady was Catholic, from a large family and with numerous adult sons. The boy detective’s parents were currently forbidding him to leave the house by himself. They were all afraid of the sons’ viciousness. Rufus pictured a bunch of louts sitting around a kitchen table, eating meatballs in their vests whilst their mother washed their work overalls.
“This is just the thing that I am looking for,” Rufus decided. “I need somebody who is keen, somebody who knows what they are doing, and who will keep out of sight.” The boy detective nodded gravely in agreement. “I would like you to watch a suspect for me and bring me information about her.”
“Her?” the boy detective repeated with evident unhappiness, as if to say “another her?”
“Yes. She won’t get into any trouble,” Rufus lied. “Or not if she has not something very wrong.”
“Is she your wife?” the boy detective asked.
This was inevitable, Rufus supposed to himself. In truth, he was the detective in this situation and the boy detective was meant to be something like Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars. Still, his helpful assistant could not be too gormless – he would need a bit of guile or some commonsensical instinct. Rufus smiled kindly. “Did you deduce that?”
“No, I just knew,” the boy detective reported. “I knew before you said ‘her’ – when you said ‘suspect.’”
Rufus was aching to be free of this household; the print of Robbie seemed to stand crowing over him, like some hypnogogic demon, for as long as he sat here. He addressed the boy detective at a brisker pace. “I will pay well – I will double your standard fee, which didn’t look very steep to start with.” Even doubled, it would be three times lower than the sum charged by any commercial detective. “You will report daily and I will review your progress daily. You can carry out your mission however you want but I have one instruction that must be obeyed whatever happens. Keep your distance. Never approach the suspect and especially never approach any of her friends.”
Rufus reflected. “Two instructions. If the suspect realises that she is being watched, the investigation must be abandoned. I will automatically hire a new detective.”
The sister took this as the point for her to barge in. She had been watching Rufus greedily for some time and he sensed that soon as he left she would whoop and screech to herself with exuberance. She was writing down bank details for Rufus and he did not need a detective to know that they were her bank details. He eyed her steadily.
“I can see that your brother knows what he is doing. I’m only going to say that there must be total discretion. I don’t know how hotshot an agent you are…” He left the word “hotshot” hanging in the air so that it sounded extra fanciful. “But if any confidential information is released to anybody, I will pursue legal action.”
The sister’s eyes shone with a see-through innocence and she wore an expression as though she might not have heard him. Rufus rose from his seat, leaving this odd household to no doubt confer frantically once he was gone. “I already have your email. I will email everything. We are in contact.”
Outside, the world trembled with a minor but definite miracle – the sun was shining. As Edinburgh does in the sunshine, the street looked like it had been spirited several hundred miles south, to appear repainted in unfamiliar Mediterranean colours.
An elderly lady was standing in the front garden of the Black House. She was making adjustments to a brittle, colourless tree, with precise snips of some dwarf secateurs. She glanced at Rufus without any active curiosity but she was then suddenly holding his gaze.
“Are they in trouble?” she asked, in a surprisingly warm, almost flirtatious voice. She chuckled and Rufus was alarmed by the spitefulness of the sound. “Don’t tell me, HMRC?” She turned back to her tree and surveyed it reprovingly, choosing where to inflict the next snip. “People like that always think they can get away with it but it catches up with them in the end…”