It was only after we’d dined and seated ourselves before the roaring fire of the clubroom, a bottle of brandy between us, that Aiba began his investigation of my circumstances. I should have felt more alarmed to be the subject of a detective’s attention, but I possessed very little fear of Aiba uncovering anything I did not wish to tell him. We’d already established ourselves as Oxford men with a common circle of acquaintances, and I expected no more than the typical cock-and-bull stories that usually pass between men at the club. Besides, my doubts about Aiba’s acumen had already been amply confirmed—the man had tried to give the waiter a franc, had apologized and shoved a five pound note into his hand instead upon realizing his mistake, then failed to notice when he spilt soup on his jacket, and he had just gone into a violent coughing fit after a single puff on his pipe.
“I do apologize,” he coughed out weakly, wiping the tears from his eyes with my (dirty) handkerchief as he tried to compose himself. “I’ve been trying to take up the habit lately, but it doesn’t seem to agree with me,” he grimaced.
I couldn’t help laughing at his explanation. “As a doctor, I would recommend that you don’t take it up at all.” I took a drink, enjoying the way the brandy warmed me from within.
“Really?” he inquired eagerly, “Is that your professional opinion?”
“Well, the men I know who smoke get terribly winded after very little exertion. Though to be honest I made a habit of it myself while I was in the Sudan. Needed something to calm my nerves.” I frowned, wondering why I had just confessed my (former) vice.
Aiba didn’t pursue my confession. “But I’ve heard that smoking a pipe is excellent for developing one’s contemplative faculties. Indeed, I cannot think of a detective without the habit!”
“Do you speak from actual or from literary experience?” I teased with a small smile.
“Both, my good man, both!” he replied jovially, the liquid sloshing as he poured himself another glass. Were we on our second glass already?
I frowned. “Yes, and other men—even some physicians of my acquaintance—take quantities of opium to sharpen their focus, or to dull their pain.”
“And you disapprove of this measure?”
“I believe that results achieved through unnatural stimulants are not worthy of a man of integrity.”
“And pain? As a doctor, you would not recommend opium to relieve a patient’s suffering?” He was pouring me another glass already.
“For those who cannot endure it, of course I would prescribe it. But for a man—I mean, for a man trying to achieve real fortitude—the sufferance of pain is nobler.”
“So you take nothing for your leg? It must be quite painful in this damp weather.”
If another man had spoken the words, I would have left the place instantly. But I could not doubt Aiba’s good intentions as he sat before the fire, his eyes wide with innocent concern. Besides, the alcohol was making me feel rather generally pleased with humanity.
“No,” I responded shortly.
Aiba turned to the fire with a half smile. “Yes, yes, I see it all clearly,” he murmured, looking strangely gleeful as he began poking enthusiastically at the fire.
My goodwill began to dissipate as I felt myself growing hot under the collar, “May I inquire as to your meaning, detective?” I tried for a note of sarcasm.
“Dr. Matsumoto Jun,” he turned to me with a smile, his dark eyes dancing in the firelight, “You are a positive stoic. From your appearance and conversation, I can deduce that not only are you a gentleman of good education, extremely fashionable, but you are also exceedingly strong and unbearably stubborn. Of perfect integrity in all things. Admired by many, but close to very few. I suspect you were injured in some feat of daring, perhaps saving the life of one of your company. You may be hot-tempered—you must have contested your discharge from the expedition and angered your superiors, so a story of your heroism has not appeared in the papers. You are absolutely trustworthy, but you have not yet learned to handle your liquor,” he concluded with a cheerful smile, as though he had finished making a casual observation about the weather.
Feeling myself turn bright red—with anger or embarrassment, I could not be sure—I struggled to my feet, unsure of whether to shake hands with him for his conclusions or to storm out of the room in a rage.
“Jun!” he cried, looking genuinely alarmed and getting hastily to his feet. “Oh dear,” he said, looking lost and beginning to brandish the iron poker about in a rather dangerous fashion, “I do apologize if…I’m afraid that I sometimes…Nino is always warning me to hold my tongue…” he looked so distressed (and close to impaling himself on the poker) that I hesitated, swaying (just slightly) with drink. “Jun,” he positively whimpered, “are you leaving?”
I considered it. “I am trying to decide whether I am affronted or not,” I finally replied, carefully lowering myself back down.
Aiba’s expression instantly transformed into one of such relief that I felt my last wall of resistance crumble, and I poured myself another drink with a smile, “Forgive me for my poor sportsmanship—I should be congratulating you on your accurate surmise. That is, I did contest my dismissal. I am hot-tempered and stubborn. And I am extremely fashionable, of course.”
“Truly?” Aiba exclaimed, crashing our glasses together in a one-sided toast. “My first—no, my second—victory as an amateur detective! I rescued your hat earlier this evening!”
Just what did Aiba think a detective did? Return items to the lost and found office? Pick up dropped handkerchiefs? And, more importantly, just how long had it taken him to achieve these successes? “And when did you begin…er…pursuing the life of an amateur detective?”
“Oh, for about a year now, my dear fellow. I’m starting to get the trick of it lately,” he replied, smiling blissfully at me before knocking back another glass.
As I have taken a solemn oath (presided over by Aiba and his valet) to recount only the truth of my history in these pages, I find it unfortunately necessary to report to the reader that the next morning found me pressed face first into the most hideous orange chintz cushion that I have ever encountered in my very extensive travels. Like many a foolish young man, I allowed the sudden flush of drink and company to carry me to regrettable lengths; in short, I awoke plastered to Aiba’s sofa, my head throbbing like the dickens after a night of revelry.
My manner of waking was as curious as the orange sofa I found myself on; I gradually became aware of what felt like the claws of a very large cat kneading at my back, and a quiet, “You! Come and have your milk,” pronounced in a voice that was not familiar to me. For a moment, I believed I was being invited for a glass of milk—but when I heard a loud “meow” in response and the claws disappeared from by back, I guessed that it was time for the cat’s breakfast. It is some indication of the state I was in that I simply continued to lie upon the sofa.
A sudden beating of wings beside my ear, however, had me up in a moment, my heart racing as I was confronted by the beady eyes of a large green parrot perched smugly on the arm of the sofa.
“Watson!” the unfamiliar, mild voice appeared again, “Come back to your cage and have your breakfast, you blasted scoundrel.”
In my confusion, I only perceived the most general characteristics of the room—large, with a fireplace, filled with regrettable furnishings and an incredible amount of crumpled paper—before I located the source of the quiet voice: a slight, good-looking young man with short hair and remarkably full, fetching-looking cheeks. He stared back at me with an expression of complete disinterest, and I guessed from his (rumpled, stained) uniform that he was some sort of servant.
“Beg pardon, sir,” he offered in a monotone, raising a hand to scratch at his right nostril, “I did not mean to wake you.” I watched in horror as the finger actually entered the nostril, “I am Ohno, Mr. Aiba’s valet.”
Unable to tear my eyes away from the abomination as his finger moved in deeper, I managed to stutter out a response, “Er…delighted…please excuse my appearance…I’m not quite entirely sure…”
Finally removing the finger from his nose and placing his hands behind his back, he seemed to assume a more official air, “Mr. Aiba will return shortly. He has instructed me to lead you to the bath. He also instructed me to convey…” his brow creased for a moment as though he were struggling to recall something “…to convey his sincere apologies for your current predicament.” He dropped his hands, apparently abandoning the prepared monologue, “Believe me, sir, we did everything in our power to lead you toward the spare bedroom, but you would not stop fighting us. You kept shouting something about ‘not being that kind of boy’ and ‘not being so easily won over by a few smiles,’ and you would not quiet until we allowed you to sleep on the sofa. Though you wouldn’t let go of our hands when we tried to undress you, so we had no choice but to have you sleep in so uncomfortable a position. Sir,” he added as an afterthought, his finger returning to the side of his nose as he lapsed back into silence.
Apparently this damned valet was loquacious enough when he chose to be. My headache evaporating under the scalding influence of mortification, I practically fled the room for the bath, hardly allowing the man time to direct me.
Shut away safely from beasts and valets, soaking gratefully in the burning water, I contemplated my current position with a scowl. I could recall very little of the previous night, but I did have a few, disconcertingly vivid flashes of myself singing in the streets—my arm about Aiba’s shoulder—and even, I think, of swinging about a lamppost and then arguing quite violently with a policeman. It was also entirely too probable that Aiba had burst into a storm of tears when I embraced him in the entryway, assuring him of my gratitude for my rescued hat.
Sinking deeper into the water, I firmly resolved to make my apologies and—as they say in the army—to “cut and run” from the premises as soon as possible.
Upon emerging freshly washed and dressed, however, I discovered Aiba comfortably seated and reading the newspaper in the parlor, his cheerful face positively beaming when he caught sight of me. Tossing the paper to the floor, he nearly shouted his greeting, “Good morning, my dear fellow!” Apparently, he was entirely unaffected by last night’s drinking. “I’ve been out having your handkerchief cleaned and your top hat refurbished,” he smiled, gesturing toward the now-gleaming articles on a side table.
I flushed uncomfortably, “You did not have to…”
“Nonsense! No trouble at all. Will you stay for breakfast?” he gestured toward a small table laid with tea and scones.
Who would blame me for relenting under the influence of such constant good nature? Indeed, the reader may instead blame me for my hardness of heart in my previous resolve to depart from my new friend as expeditiously as possible. But the reader must excuse me on the grounds of my nature’s lifelong love of order and regularity—I had not been intoxicated for several years, and I found myself equally interested in and appalled by my surroundings. The room was undoubtedly cozy and warm, but it was also in such a state of disarray that I felt an almost irresistible urge to straighten it. One half of the room—bordered by a series of large windows—seemed entirely given over to the cultivation of strange, odorous plants, while the other side of the room contained a massive desk piled high with books and papers as well as some rather suspicious-looking cages (one of which must have been the home of Watson). The floor was covered in oriental carpets, newspapers, and cushions, most bearing the distinctive claw marks of a cat. Books, maps, and paintings covered the walls, and an orange settee, two comfortable leather chairs, and a tea table fronted the large fireplace.
It was as I was passing Aiba an (unfortunately rather dry) scone with clotted cream and jam that my host suddenly blushed and became remarkably tongue-tied, turning his gaze to the floor, apparently at a loss for words. I waited curiously until he finally raised his bright gaze to mine and softly pronounced, “Jun, I’m afraid I have something of a confession to make.”
Was it just my imagination, or had the room suddenly become a few degrees warmer?
“I might have taken you to your hotel last night, but I’m afraid I brought you here with…ulterior motives.”
It must have been the cup of Earl Gray that was making my heart beat so rapidly.
“I’m not certain if you…recall…but last night…”
My face was turning crimson.
“You mentioned that you were searching for an apartment with rooms suited for conducting a medical practice. I possess a spare bedroom, and a set of rooms downstairs that I think would answer the purpose admirably. Would you consider…establishingyourpracticehere?” he rushed out the last words in a mumble.
Oh. I sipped my tea meditatively while Aiba waited, looking as though he were holding his breath, his soft hair appealingly rumpled in the morning light. “That is an extremely generous offer. I would have to inspect the rooms before agreeing, but I sincerely thank you.” Aiba released a long breath, his characteristic grin returning. His smile reminded me uncomfortably of sunshine and meadows. “But…” his face fell instantly as I lowered my teacup, “I cannot help but wonder why you would make such an offer after so short an acquaintance. After a single night—in which, I believe, I may not have been at my best—how can you be certain that I would make a desirable tenant?”
His gaze returned to the floor, a half smile tugging at his lips. “How can you be certain that I would make a desirable landlord?” he returned.
I reflected. “You cleaned my hat and handkerchief. You cared for me last night. You see, detective, I have evidence to support my good opinion of you,” I smiled.
Aiba’s eyes twinkled as they met mine, and I felt my chest clench, “Evidence is all very well, doctor, but have you never heard of intuition?”
Before I could protest that such an attitude was a dangerous one for any detective, professional or amateur, a large calico cat sped into the room and promptly upset the tea table, followed in no time at all by the dastardly green parrot, who squawked about excitedly as we tackled the mess with Ohno’s (lethargic) assistance.
Somehow, clearing away the tea things resulted in a tour of the room (Aiba was anxious to show me his framed portraits of Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Bucket, and Sergeant Cuff), and then a tour of the apartment, and then a series of alarming formal introductions to Holmes (the cat) and Watson (the parrot) (Aiba pronounced their names without a trace of embarrassment, naturally). And it will likely come as no surprise to any of my readers that—with Ohno’s blessing (at least, the valet shrugged his shoulders and scratched his nose when told of Aiba’s proposal)—by that afternoon, I had ordered my belongings from the hotel and found myself permanently installed in no. 5, Garden Place, with (amateur) detective Aiba Masaki.
Looking back, I can only attribute my hasty decision to both my weakened physical and mental state at the time and to my friend’s extraordinary personal charisma. No other combination of factors, I am convinced, could have resulted in my taking rooms in a residence that—peopled as it was by a delusional detective, a careless valet, an imperious calico cat, and an excitable parrot—might as well have doubled as an Asylum for the Urban Maladjusted.
But it would be unjust to my friend to deny the contentment I felt over tea later that afternoon as we discussed the conditions of my residence (the sofa cushions would have to go, and I had a recipe for scones that needed to be implemented immediately). The atmosphere was undoubtedly cozy as Holmes happily purred away in Ohno’s lap while the valet sat on the sofa intently cutting out letters from newspaper headlines (all part of an ongoing study of criminal behavior, Aiba assured me).
This peaceful state of affairs was short-lived, however, as we were all surprised by the sound of the doorbell being rung repeatedly and even frantically belowstairs. Ignoring Holmes’ whine of protest, Ohno set the paper and scissors to the side and disappeared down the stairs, re-emerging half a minute later to announce that a young woman requested an interview with the detective, “She seems to be in some great distress, sir.”
Aiba was nearly vibrating with excitement at the news. “Please tell her to come up,” he managed to pronounce calmly before leaping to his feet and beginning to tear at the revolting orange sofa cushion in his arms. His eyes seemed to catch fire as he paced about the room. “My first client, Jun! From the moment I first laid eyes on you, I knew our meeting was a sign of excellent things to come!”
Trying to suppress a blush and a smile, I waited nearly as anxiously as my friend to discover the cause of the young lady’s distress, and particularly to discover what had led her to the conclusion that Aiba was a trustworthy detective worthy of consultation. Indeed, I was determined to make sure that my friend was not taken in by some adventuress.
But upon the applicants’ entrance, I instantly blanched and—losing my head—I jumped to my feet, pointing an accusing finger at the client. “Thief!” I cried, “The despicable hat thief! Disguised as a gentlewoman!” As unbelievable as it may sound, before me stood the living image (in a dress) of the young knave who had abducted my top hat the previous evening.
Her—his?—expression of anxious distress was replaced instantly by one of icy displeasure. “Pardon me, sir, but I have not the pleasure of understanding you. I am no hat thief. You are addressing—with extreme rudeness, I might add—Lady Riisa Kazunari.”