A D.S. Billings Victorian Mystery – Book 1
“Ah, Doctor Smith,” the shopkeeper said as Billings walked tentatively into the dimly lit shop. “How are you? So nice to see you again.”
“I am well, thank you.” Billings’ face was tense and his hands were trembling. He clenched his fist behind his back and gritted his teeth. He instantly regretted entering the shop. “I believe you have a new series in,” he asked.
“I do indeed, I do indeed. I have it right here.” The shopkeeper crouched down and took a large brown paper envelope from beneath the counter. He was a short corpulent man with dark, oily skin. Of Arab descent, perhaps. Or maybe Greek. He called himself Al Bull, but Billings knew that that wasn’t his real name. He smiled sleazily, almost mockingly, as he pulled a series of cabinet cards out of the envelope and displayed them one by one on the counter. They were albumen photographs of young, nude men, practising various sports in a forest meadow. There was one of a naked discus thrower looking like a Greek statue. There was one of two men wrestling by a river, and one of a naked man leaning against a tree holding a javelin. Billings could feel the blood rush to his face as he looked at the photographs.
“They’re from a German sports camp,” the shopkeeper said. “They have the young men exercise in the nude, in keeping with the custom of the original Greek Olympics.”
Billings looked away, desperate to conceal his blushing. “These will do. Thank you,” he said, swallowing.
“I thought they would.” The shopkeeper smiled as he collected the pictures and pushed them back into the envelope. “Are the anatomical classes going well, Doctor Smith?”
“Very well, thank you.”
“I’m sure these photographs will be of great benefit to your students.”
“I’m sure they will. How much are they, please?”
“Seven and sixpence, please.”
Billings ruffled in his pockets for the money.
“I also have a series of photographs from the South Seas,” the shopkeeper continued, “of very young boys in provocative poses. Would that perhaps be of interest to your anatomy students?”
“No, thank you. Just these will do.” Billings lay the money on the counter and picked up the envelope. He tried sticking it into the inside pocket of his great coat, but it wouldn’t fit. He folded the envelope and tried again, but still it was too big.
The shopkeeper watched with an amused glint in his eye as a flustered and harried Billings continued to struggle with the envelope. “You’ll damage the pictures like that,” he said.
Billings didn’t reply and tried one more fold.
“Is it just muscle structures your students are interested in?” the shopkeeper asked after Billings finally succeeded in putting the envelope away. “Or do they like young, lithe physiques as well? Because if so, I have some pictures in the back room which might interest you.”
“No, thank you, Mr Bull. I’m in a hurry.”
“Oh, it won’t take long, Doctor Smith. My assistant Charlie will gladly show you. You haven’t met Charlie yet, have you? He is a very pleasant young man. I am sure you’ll like him – Charlie!”
A young man pulled open the black curtains which divided the shop from the storage room and moved to stand behind the counter next to the shopkeeper. He had a gleeful and cocksure expression in his hazel-green eyes. His thick, dark blond hair was ragged and uncombed (it was so thick, it was practically uncombable). His shirt was only half-tucked into his trousers and the top buttons were undone, revealing pale flesh and a few curly chest hairs. Billings, who had been desperate to turn his back on the shopkeeper and rush out of the shop, raised his head to look at him and was instantly infatuated. Everything about the young man displayed confidence and carelessness, the exact qualities Billings never possessed, and he was fascinated.
“Charlie, this is Doctor Smith,” the shopkeeper said. “Doctor Smith is an expert in anatomy. Doctor Smith, this is Charlie,” he now pointed to his assistant, “who, as you can see, has a very lovely anatomy.” He laughed. And Charlie laughed along with him. But Billings was not amused and looked away embarrassed. “Go on, Doctor Smith,” the shopkeeper continued. “Let Charlie show you what he’s got. It won’t take long, but I’m sure it’ll be to your satisfaction. Ain’t that right, Charlie?”
“That’s right, Mr Bull,” Charlie answered with that nasal Cockney twang which Billings always found so ugly, but which now sounded so lovely coming from Charlie’s lips.
There is an intricate link between delusion and depravity, Billings thought afterwards. The one always precedes the other. He’d had a deluded notion that it was better to love and lose than never to love at all; that a man needed to be touched and held regularly in order to function properly; that all men were entitled to some carnal satisfaction, regardless of their preference or inclination. These deluded notions had passed through his mind shortly before committing the act of depravity which was to follow.
He followed Charlie into the back room. The room was packed with crates and boxes. Billings stood in the middle of the room rigidly, pale and nervous, while Charlie closed the black curtain and turned around to face him.
“Well then, Doctor Smith,” he said, looking at Billings with that cheeky smile. “What do you want to do?”
“Do?” Billings was trembling and sweating. “I thought you were going to show me some more pictures?”
“Pictures?” he laughed. “What do you wanna see pictures for, if you can have the real thing? It’s a bob for a rub, a shilling and sixpence for a bagpipe, and a half crown if you want the full story. But we’d have to do that somewhere more discreet. Mr Bull has a room with a bed available upstairs which you can rent for a shilling. So what will it be, then?”
“You’re in a hurry, ain’t ya? So I’ll give you a bagpipe. It won’t take long. You got the money on ya?”
Billings rummaged in his pocket and took out some coins to show Charlie.
“You can pay Mr Bull on your way out. Now, come and stand by the light.” Charlie walked towards the wall opposite the window and turned the key on the gas lamp. Billings remained standing on the spot, unsurely, putting the coins back in his pocket. Charlie looked back at him and frowned. “Well, come on then.”
“I… um… I think I’d rather look at the pictures,” Billings said.
Charlie laughed. “Will you stop going on about the pictures. Can’t you see I’m offering you the real thing? Now come here.”
Billings approached him reluctantly. Charlie grabbed the lapels of Billings’s greatcoat and pulled him towards him, then proceeded to cover his face and neck with kisses. Billings felt his heart pound as Charlie’s hands reached into his greatcoat and grabbed hold of his chest. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists as Charlie proceeded to slide his hand down towards his crotch. Goosebumps rose all over his body and shudders rushed through him like electric current when Charlie knelt down before him and started unbuttoning his trousers. He took a deep breath and flung his head back when suddenly, through his closed eyelids, he saw a flash of light which woke him from his erotic trance.
“What was that?” he said, pushing Charlie’s fumbling fingers away from his trouser buttons.
Charlie looked up and frowned. “What?”
“There was a flash of light.”
“I didn’t see nothing.”
Billings’s heart was still pounding, but this time with alarm, rather than titillation. “There was a light,” he said as he rushed towards the window and opened the shutter. “I clearly saw a light.”
“It was probably lightning.” Charlie was still on his knees by the gas lamp.
“It can’t have been lightning. It’s not raining.”
Billings stuck his head out of the window and looked up and down the narrow alleyway which led from the shop’s back entrance to Praed Street. There was nothing there other than a few empty crates which had been stacked against the wall.
“It must’ve been dry lightning, Doctor Smith. Nothing to worry about. Now, come over here and let me finish giving you your bagpipe. I ain’t even started yet.”
Billings turned to look back at Charlie, kneeling on the cold brick floor. The gaslight flooded his head and Billings could see the dirt on the back of his neck and his shirt collar. He also saw black specks crawling through his unruly hair. Was it lice? Charlie suddenly didn’t look so appealing anymore. That cheeky, cocksure smile was replaced by a bored and impatient frown and Billings felt dirty and sleazy. The thought of that dirty boy’s hands all over him suddenly made his whole body itch. How could he have allowed himself to sink to this?
“I had better go,” he said, buttoning up his trousers and tucking in his shirt.
“Ain’t you gonna let me finish giving you your bagpipe?”
“I’m sorry. I have to go.”
“You are still gonna pay me ain’t ya?”
Billings dug into his pocket and took out some coins. “I have two shillings,” he said and held out the coins to Charlie.
“You gotta pay Mr Bull at the counter.”
“Why don’t you take them off me?”
“I don’t know, Doctor Smith,” Charlie said hesitantly. “I ain’t supposed to. You gotta pay Mr Bull at the counter.”
Billings approached him, grabbed his hand and placed the two shillings in it. “Keep the money for yourself.” He closed Charlie’s fingers over the coins. “I’ll tell Mr Bull that I changed my mind and that nothing happened. Which is the truth.” He then turned his back on Charlie, cut through the black drapes and walked back into the shop.
“Finished already?” the shopkeeper asked, confused.
“I have to go, Mr Bull.”
Billings rushed passed him and out of the shop. As he crossed the corner into Edgware Road, he bumped into a man carrying a heavy black leather case over his shoulder, knocking the man’s hat off his head.
“Oh, I do apologise,” Billings said while the man crouched down to pick up his hat.
The man lifted his head and looked at him. Then a broad smile appeared on his face. “You again!” It was Jeremiah Rook. “What a coincidence!”
Billings looked at him suspiciously. Was it really a coincidence that he should bump into the reporter twice on the same day, in two different towns?
“You should watch where you’re going, Mr Billings,” the reporter continued. “You nearly made me drop my equipment.”
Billings looked at the leather case hanging from the reporter’s shoulder and wondered what it contained.
“’Ere, you’re not shadowing me, are ya?” the reporter asked with a cheeky smile.
“I might ask you the same question?” Billings replied tersely.
“Why would I shadow you? Have you been doing something you shouldn’t have?” There was a mocking glint in the reporter’s eyes as he asked this, and Billings’s attention was again drawn to the suspicious case on the reporter’s shoulder.
“I expect it’s just a coincidence, then,” Billings concluded. “We must’ve taken the same train back from Oxford and we must both be on our way home.”
“I expect that must be the case.”
“Well, good day to you then, Mr Rook.” Billings tipped his hat at him. “I’d best be on my way.”
“Good day to you, Mr Billings.”
When he got back home, Billings rushed straight to his room, took the envelope out of his pocket, grabbed a box of matches from the windowsill, crouched down before the fireplace and set fire to it and its contents. Watching the cindered remains disappearing down the roster, he decided he’d take a generous dose of morphine that night. He was determined to sleep soundly. He’d sleep so soundly that, when he’d wake up the following morning, it would be as if this whole day had never occurred. As if the day had just been a bad dream. Like one of those morphine-induced nightmares he sometimes had. He hadn’t given in to temptation. He hadn’t soiled his consciousness. He hadn’t plotted to maltreat another fellow human being. He hadn’t risked jeopardizing his career. It had all been a bad dream, that’s all. A bad, disturbing dream, the likes of which he’d had many times before.
‘The Ornamental Hermit’ is a thrilling mystery which leads the reader on a colourful journey into Victorian England.’
The year is 1890. Detective Sergeant John Billings is a Quaker. He sees God in everyone and takes other people’s suffering to heart. He is an honest and hard working man who has risen swiftly through the ranks to become one of Scotland Yard’s youngest detectives. But in his private life he struggles with the demons of loneliness, morphine addiction and homosexuality.
More about author Olivier Bosman:
Born to Dutch parents and raised in Colombia and England, I am a rootless wanderer with itchy feet. I’ve spent the last few years living and working in The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Sudan and Bulgaria, but I have now finally settled down among the olive groves of Andalucia.
For updates on my latest projects and the occasional freebie, please join my mailing list.