Stoker & Bash
The Case of the Missing Christmas Cheer
by Selina Kray
December 24th, 1873
DI Tim Stoker leaned against a lamppost, coughing his lungs out. A dense pillow of fog had smothered the city for weeks. Not even the first breath of winter’s chill had thinned it, or the torrents of icy rain that flooded the city. There on the Strand, near the river, the night was so thick that the gas lamps’ aura didn’t reach the ground. Pedestrians fumbled their way forward through a blanket of grey mist, aiming for the next floating orb of light.
His boots waterlogged and his overcoat soaked through, Tim lurched into an alcove to collect himself before sprinting the last half block to the Gaiety. A few measured inhalations—and half his windpipe hacked into his handkerchief—and his chest settled. He’d spent all day outside the back entrance to the Spanish embassy on the lookout for the private secretary to the Duke of Wellington. His lordship suspected the formerly trusted Mr. Tolliver of selling some family portraits to the ambassador’s wife, an ungrateful cousin. An umbrella being too conspicuous, Tim was forced to do without. Thus his moist and congested state.
He wiped a line of condensation off one of the windows in a vain attempt at catching his reflection. After shaking the rain off the brim of his hat, he combed his hair into something tamer than unruly spikes, fingers rigid from cold. He thought again about returning to the meager warmth and poky comforts of his flat or, better yet, slumping in a nearby corner to sleep off his exhaustion. But he had missed every performance of Three Ghosts A-Haunting, the Gaiety’s take on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which Hiero played both Marley-Bone Jacobs and the Ghost of Father Christmas’s Knickers.
Tonight was his final chance, but his omnibus had been delayed by the fog, and he’d missed the first two acts. If Tim hurried—and every inch of his body ached not to—he’d catch the last act and perhaps dry off enough to venture backstage afterward, where the fainting couch in Hiero’s dressing room might get put to its actual use. Because the thought of rushing out into the foggy, frigid damp gave Tim a turn.
Hunching up his collar, he legged it to the Gaiety’s door, only to find it locked. He tried a second one. A third. Biting his tongue to keep from howling in despair, he then noticed a billboard advertising the afternoon show, which had been sold out. Tim punched a fist into the door, hissed as pain exploded across his knuckles. Another coughing fit seized him, and he fell against it, wanting nothing more than to crawl into a ball on the stoop. Instead he hobbled around to the stage door.
Which opened at his touch. Tim stumbled in, shook himself off. The backstage area was fully lit. Perhaps someone lingered? Certainly Mr. Marcus, the manager, would recognize him, as would a few of the stagehands. Tim crept through the serpentine corridors, too shy to call out but hoping to encounter a sympathetic soul. The farther he ventured into the theater, the stronger the savory scent of a roast grew. His stomach urged him past the artisans’ quarters—all empty—and around the bend to the dressing rooms.
He caught the distant hum of conversation and the strum of music. Tim wondered if he’d interrupted some sort of private celebration. He considered retreating to Hiero’s dressing room for the night—he could make quick work of the lock—so as not to disturb them but thought it better to make his presence known. Tucking his hands into his armpits in the hope of restoring his circulation, he pressed on.
A drunken pair he recognized from the troupe skipped into view at the far end of the corridor. And into each other’s arms against the far wall. Before too many layers of clothing could be shed, Tim cleared his throat.
“Oi, it’s Mr. Kipling!” Bertie shouted, shoving his would-be lover off. “Best of the season to you, sir!”
Hiero had introduced him by his middle name to the Gaiety staff so as to avoid anyone identifying him as a detective. Not that Hiero tended to use Tim’s given name much at all.
“He’s been waiting for you.” Giselle, a dancer, slathered the words with innuendo. “Keeps looking at the door.”
“Then he might have left it unlocked.” Tim tried for a playful tone but only sounded grumpy. Possibly something to do with his chattering teeth and soggy boots. “Have I missed the play?”
“Oh, aye. But don’t worry,” Giselle reassured him, “the night’s still young. Plenty of drama left to be lived.”
“Marcus is trying it on with Nell,” Bertie said in a whisper more bullhorn than stage. “Though he’s just broken with Kitty.”
“And his wife’s here looking scammered.” She tittered. “Nell’s been stringing Irving along for ages—price of doing work, that—while juggling some foreign count and a marchioness…”
“But they ain’t here tonight!” Both cackled.
Tim chuckled, buoyed by their high spirits. “And where, pray tell, can I find Mr. Beastly?”
“Where else?” Giselle grinned, gesturing toward where they came. “Center stage.”
After thanking them, Tim wove his way into the wings. Or what would have been the wings, had the usual tiered curtains not been replaced with a backdrop that blocked out the entire side of the stage. A few more revelers exiting toward the back end made quick work of the obstacle. Tim traced back their steps until he came to a small tinsel archway hung between the back and side drops. He glanced inside to make sure he wasn’t interrupting a performance…
And caught his breath. Not from another fit of coughing, but the sight before him.
A table as magnificent as the one at Buckingham Palace dominated the stage, laden with a Christmas feast to rival the royals’. Roast goose, a hock of ham, a rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding, oysters, potatoes, peas, and mince pies, just for a start, with at least five sauces, had Tim wiping the drool from his mouth. A bushel of children almost hid the smaller sweets table at the back, where Tim spotted trifle, Nesselrode pudding, and Lumps of Delight, as well as a near-empty bowl of Roman punch.
The set had been decorated in the manner of a stately home, with candelabra at every corner and a huge, candle-laden chandelier above. An impromptu band hung off the front of the stage, playing Christmas carols on their tin flutes, drums, and fiddles. Every member of the company—other than those already overtaken by amorousness—had a full plate and a group to chat with and had come in full costume. The lively crowd, which Tim guessed included a few family members, spilled out into the audience, everyone twinkle-eyed and smiling.
Tim coughed into his sleeve, his throat suddenly tight.
He spotted Han first in a jade-green brocade coat, arm-wrestling with Angus, who flew his clan colors in a tartan kilt. Little bun-headed Ting cheered them on, a Christmas fairy in gauzy wings. Jie and Minnie snickered into their punch as part of a circle of dancers, while Callie, in a fancier version of her Archie togs, raced some boys up the center aisle. Aldridge, in a powdery barrister’s wig and regal blue robes, played harmonica with the band. And Hiero, the master of ceremonies himself, in a floor-length coat of military red with two flanks of buttons and a gold top hat, held court at the head of the table, half listening as Lady Odile de Volanges moaned over yet another soured love affair.
Tim took a few hesitant steps forward. A glance of his starburst eyes was all Tim got before Hiero leapt to his feet, marching over to greet him to his own eccentric beat.
“You came!” Hiero grabbed the hand Kip reached out to him, spun him into close quarters. “Only the first of the evening’s many eruptions, I hope.”
“I think you mean disruptions,” Kip murmured, taking a step back so as not to dampen his clothes.
“Of course not.” Hiero tisked. “It’s as if you’ve never known me at all.”
“Oh, I’m well aware of your tongue’s… deviousness.”
“Care for further demonstration?”
“Not here,” Tim admonished, curling his fingers into Hiero’s lapels to warm them and keep him at a respectable distance. “Though a brandy would do nicely.”
It was only then Hiero seemed to notice the state of him.
“Goodness! Did they dredge you out of a swamp?”
“Something of the like.” Tim’s stomach snarled like a starving wolf. “Some of that roast might go a long ways toward drying me off—”
“Nonsense. You have no costume.”
“Don’t I make a fetching half-drowned, half-frozen, half-suffocated detective?”
“Forgive me, dear Kip, but that’s rather uninspired.” Hiero sighed, but his black eyes glittered with promise. “I’ll just have to sweep you off—”
“By the Fates, Horace,” Lady Odile blessedly intervened, twining Tim’s arm so tight against her it almost cradled her bosom, “can’t you see the lad’s in desperate shape. Come along, Mr. Kipling, I’ll make you a plate.”
Two heaping helpings and a brandy heated by candle flame later, Tim began to feel more like a prince than a toad. Not that Hiero’s attentions had wavered during this inner transformation. A press of fingertips to his wrist, a knock of foot, a nudge of knee, a smirk so arrow pointed it shot straight to Tim’s funny bone. Lady Odile took great relish in once again recounting the lonely tale of William, her suitor-not-to-be, to which Hiero provided such color commentary that Tim snorted cranberry sauce up his nose. All the while the crackle of Hiero’s regard fuzzed the right edge of his vision, growing in force and intensity until Tim’s skin tingled from its sear.
When Lady Odile called for a slice of the Nesselrode pudding, it was Tim who shushed her.
“Later,” he promised, patting her hand. “I could do with a change of clothes.”
Hiero sprang out of his seat before Lady Odile could answer.
“Allow me to escort you.” He wove a possessive arm around Tim’s middle, steering him toward the backstage. “Man of inconvenient appetites.”
“Myself, or Lady Odile?”
“Both. Neither.” Hiero backed away a step. “You’re very wet.”
“Said the bishop to the nun.”
Hiero threw his head back and laughed. “And in better spirits. Good. Now we just need to pretty you up…”
They’d slipped through a door at the far side of the stage and down a rickety staircase to the bowels of the theater.
“Oh, is that why you’ve lured me down here?”
Something in Tim thrilled at being led blind through the dark to an undisclosed—and intimate—location. Away from the revels and with some senses blocked, Hiero’s natural musk, of smoke, strong coffee, and a touch of sweat, tempted him closer.
The flick of the gaslights murdered the illusion.
The green, sickly cast and the underground gloom muted the vibrant colors of the costumes. Tim wondered how the actors looked so sharp if this was where they had their fittings. Beside a pair of sewing machines and a wall of mirrors, a maze of costume racks stretched on to infinity—or perhaps just the end of the room, obscured by furs and felts and feathers in every style and from every era. Tim recognized Hiero’s phallic horns and red cape from a recent production of Faust, or Who the Devil Wouldn’t? His performance as Misanthrophiles had inspired a great deal of sinning and swearing in Tim, though he hadn’t gone so far as to sign over his soul. As of yet.
No sooner had the door shut than Hiero pinned him against a wall, clammy clothes and squishy boots be damned. His kiss scorched Tim down to the tips of his toes, sensuous and mustached in perfect measure. Hiero was rarely forceful, but the height and size of him thrilled Tim, licking tongues of sensation wherever they touched. He wanted to crawl into his skin, wrap himself in Hiero’s velvet pelt.
But just as suddenly, his heat and heft was gone.
“Strip!” Hiero commanded, then disappeared into the racks.
“I thought that fell under your purview.”
With a chuckle, Tim shed a few layers, relieved to discover the damp hadn’t seeped all the way to his skin. Not that being dry saved him from the chill. By the time Hiero emerged with a dusty quilt, shivers wracked his body. He moaned when Hiero wrapped the quilt around him.
“Don’t get too cozy.” He stepped back, scrutinizing Tim with a master’s eye.
“Oh, forget all that. Any old sack will do. Come here.”
Hiero deftly evaded his grabby hands. “Costume first, whilst my mind is clear.”
Tim laughed. “We haven’t got an eternity. They’ll find us here weeks from now, sword pricked and savage. Rut-meo and Fool-liet.”
Hiero raised a pointed brow. “Have you ever thought of writing for the theater?”
“I prefer to fuck in them.”
“Testy.” A scapegrace smile. “Just how I like you. Oh, hell.”
He lunged at Tim, scooping him up and setting him on a fat-cushioned ottoman pushed against a prop throne. Hiero yanked the quilt from under them to serve as a cover, cocooning in their body heat. The oddity of their surroundings—or perhaps the night in general—gave Tim a fit of the giggles. Hiero silenced them with another breath-stealing kiss. Tim surrendered himself to his tender, passionate care, the softness of his lips and the grind of his hips, the brand of his teeth on his taught chest, the bliss found in the depths of his throat.
Tim lay there afterward, crushed by Hiero’s slinky but solid frame, his spirits floating up to the ceiling. He felt golden; he felt adored. More, he felt grateful, for this man and his ministrations, for this little oasis from the sleet and the smog and the drone of city life. He could be at his lodging house, warm and dry but alone. Instead he played couch to a slumbering giant who’d fed him and loved him and would later revel with him till the wee hours.
“Thank you,” Tim whispered into the dark waves of his hair.
“For being you. For welcoming me into your world.”
“That’s a rather generous description of recent events.”
“Your magnanimity is starting to rub off on me.”
“Rub off? Intriguing. Tell me more…”
Tim blew one of the holly leaves from his crown out of his eyes before settling in beside Hiero on the divan. The entire company had oohed and ahhed at their entrance—with a few catcalls thrown in for good measure. Hiero had exchanged his ringmaster getup for a dark wizard/Father Time-esque ensemble, while Tim—his so-called masterpiece—had been forced into a Puck costume. He had bartered the green hose for Robin Hood’s cape and trousers, but at the price of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s holly crown. He even let Hiero paint his eyes. Though he would never admit it if pressed, he didn’t hate the overall effect. It made him see something different in himself, and he strode back into the gathering with new confidence.
By the time they returned, the table had been moved to the back and the chairs set up as a small audience to one side. Mr. Marcus’s office had been raided for a divan and a few wingback chairs, on which Hiero and family were given pride of place since they’d provided all the food and drink, a fact that made Tim’s stomach do a little flip but came as no surprise. Beastly or Bash or whichever birth name remained undiscovered, the Hieronymus whose presence at his side warmed Tim to the core was a man of the people. And on this night, Tim was proud to be counted among his nearest and dearest.
After bowls of pudding and tots of hot buttered rum were distributed, the performances commenced. A few of the children enacted a little skit, folk and festive songs were sung, and a couple of stagehands braved the criticism of their actor peers by reading a poem or reciting a monologue. Callie shocked them all with a mellifluous rendition of Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, which had all the ladies nodding along to the rhythm. Lady Odile played opera diva with an aria from Handel’s Messiah. And then Tim found the spot beside him empty as Hiero rose for his turn.
Tim had heard his tongue-twisty librettos and pompous villain solos from the burlesques the Gaiety put on, comedic or melodramatic tunes that suited his undeniable panache. But as the fiddler strummed out the first strains of Silent Night, Tim realized he had never really heard Hiero sing.
His voice, rich and smooth as the rum in Tim’s cup, with just a hint of rasp for spice, made the stage, the hall, the entire theater tipsy with contentment. Tim curled his legs up and listened, transported out of himself to a hush winter landscape by that sonorous voice. A spark, not unlike the birth of a star, glimmered deep in his heart.
Their gazes met, locked. Tim felt the blush stain his cheeks but gave in to the cosmic thrall of Hiero’s eyes.
A song, a look, a Christmas gift for him alone.
Wishing you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday season and a very happy New Year! Much love from Hiero, Tim, Callie, Han… and me!