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‘I’m afraid Mr Horne is out of town. I trust I might be of assistance?’ Lady H_____ seated herself at the small table by the window, and shuddered inwardly. She had never met the man who stood before her, did not know a thing about him. But just one glance told her all she needed to learn. He was young, he’d recently come into a lot of money, and he thought the entire world was at his beck and call. Nevertheless, since Ambrose obviously held him in high enough regard to hand him her card, she should at least find out what he wanted.
Her caller, who did indeed fit that description like a glove, looked disdainfully towards his hostess. ‘I was hoping to speak to Mr Horne personally.’
‘I told you, Mr Horne is out of town and, at the risk of seeming impertinent, I would imagine he apprised you of that fact, before suggesting you called upon me.’
The man nodded. ‘He did say something of that sort, but that was before we were properly introduced.’
‘Before, after, I really don’t see how that makes a difference.’ Lady H_____ was fast losing patience with the insolent pup. ‘Unless you intend travelling to India to complete your acquaintance?’
‘India. Damn it. I need to see him today.’ For the first time, Lady H_____ felt a prickling of curiosity.
‘If it is about a case, Mr Horne has already apprised me of his current schedule,’ she replied, softening her voice a little. ‘If you would be so kind as to ...’ She intended asking his name, to check against the handful of files that Horne had handed her before he departed. But the visitor did not, it appeared, intend being kind enough to do anything of the sort.
‘It really is too bad,’ he growled. ‘I travelled a long way to be here today, spent a small fortune in carriage fares to cross this dreadful city, and now you tell me that I might as well have stayed at home, because your master is sunning himself in the furthest reaches of the empire.’
Lady H_____ bit her tongue. ‘Well, you are correct in one respect. Perhaps you should have stayed at home. In fact, if you take your leave now, you may find yourself still in one piece when you return there.’ Her hand moved slowly towards the bell-rope that would summon her footman from the bowels of the house, but paused as the visitor let loose a mighty sigh, and finally took the chair she had offered him when he entered.
‘I apologise for my rudeness. But it was a long journey. I’m just tired and, I confess, I am at my wits’ end. Horne was the only man who could help me, and I was sure that he would. Our correspondence was quite firm on that point.’ Reaching into his top pocket, he produced a pair of letters, both addressed in Ambrose’s distinctive handwriting. Lady H_____ took them, and read the first: ‘My dear Goffman ...’
She halted. ‘Alexander Goffman?’
The man nodded.
‘If you’d only said that when you arrived. I was just reading your case this morning.’ Of all the modern fads that had descended upon London society in recent years, the insistence of certain people to announce themselves simply as ‘a gentleman’ when they called upon strangers was one of the most infuriating.
‘I’m sorry. You were reading my case?’
‘Mr Horne is meticulous in his record keeping and, before he departed, he entrusted me with the details of each of his on-going investigations, that I might be able to inform him of any developments during his absence. Yours, if I might say so, is by far the most fascinating of them all.’
Goffman blanched. ‘You have read everything?’ He spoke slowly, his words as stiff as his mortified expression. He repeated, ‘everything?’
Lady H_____ nodded. ‘Of course. Is something amiss?’
‘But it’s so personal,’ Goffman whispered, but Lady H_____ merely smiled. ‘I think that it is because you kept it personal that you find yourself in your present predicament. If you had sought assistance when the matter first arose ...’
Goffman interrupted her. ‘No matter who I spoke with, they would have laughed in my face. That’s why I was so desperate to speak to Mr Horne. He is the only man I know of ...’
Now it was Lady H_____’s turn to interrupt. ‘The only man, perhaps. But Mr Horne no more works alone than any other detective of this age. Now, your problem, as I see it, is, you believe someone has stolen your penis.’
His face an absolute portrait of despair, Goffman nodded. ‘They have.’
‘May I see?’ Lady H_____ rose, and drew the curtains. She turned back, to find Goffman had remained resolutely seated. She smiled. ‘Come, Mr Goffman, I can assure you that, if it has miraculously returned, it will be nothing I have not seen before. And if it hasn’t returned, then nothing is what I shall see, and your dignity will be maintained. Correct?’
The wretched man groaned, then slowly stood and, as though he was handling live coals, began to unbutton his trousers.
He granted her little more than a fleeting glimpse, but it was clear that the man was not mistaken. Where once there had hung an organ, there was now a featureless patch of bare flesh. The pubic hair was still in place, and the testicles were certainly present. But, unless the man was the most abject rantallion, his penis was most definitely absent.
‘Oh dear.’ Lady H_____ could not suppress the outburst, but Goffman was so concerned with reassembling his dress that he barely heard her.
She picked up Horne’s notes, smiling at the border of characteristic doodles that surrounded his handwritten comments; then suppressed the smile in case Goffman should think she found his state amusing. ‘Now, the missing item; Mr Horne notes that you describe it as around nine inches long, close to two in circumference ... tell me, is that in an aroused state? Or otherwise?’