“How the hell did you get in here?” Florian White stood in the doorway of his drawing room. The middle-aged man at the fireplace ceased his inspection of the ornaments on the mantelpiece.
“Oh, a sneaky fiver to the butler,” he grinned.
“Then Birkworth is dismissed at once,” said White, his jaw clenched tight. “And now I ask you to leave.”
“It’s good to see you and all, Flo.”
White’s eyebrows leapt. No one had called him ‘Flo’ for a very long time.
“Albert?” He stepped into the room to get a closer look at his uninvited guest.
“The very same,” Albert made an expansive gesture but White did not reciprocate with as much as a handshake.
“How did you find me?”
But Albert was too preoccupied with looking around. He whistled, impressed. “You have done well for yourself, Flo. All this must have set you back a pretty penny.”
“Talk of money is always so very vulgar, don’t you find?” White kept nervous eyes on the interloper. “Is that why you’ve come? Money?”
He gripped the back of a Louis XIV chair as though he would strangle it.
“Don’t you be vulgar!” Albert chuckled. “I’ve come a long way. It would be good of you to put me up for a couple of nights. Give us chance to catch up and talk about the old days.”
“I have no desire to go raking up the past.”
“No, I bet you don’t! And I bet you don’t want your fancy London friends knowing you come from circus folk and all.”
White blenched. He had to clear his throat before he could speak. “I’ll have Birkworth prepare you a room.”
“Cheers. Here, you are looking well though, Flo. You don’t look a day older.”
But Albert’s host had left him alone again.
They dined in silence. Albert enjoyed seeing White squirm. Oh, he had questions all right – tons of them! But they could wait. Albert was keen to enjoy the high life for a few days at least.
He was accommodated in a large and sumptuous room but then all the rooms in this Belgravia mansion were large and sumptuous – apart from, he’d be willing to wager, Birkworth’s lowly quarters.
Despite the comfort and luxury, he found his sleep was disturbed. At first he thought he was imagining it, in that state between waking and dreaming, but the sound came again: a low moan, like the wind, punctuated by sobs.
The next day however, he forgot all about it. His host left early on some undisclosed errand, leaving Albert with the run of the house, Birkworth informed him. He was free to enjoy the library and the garden while he waited for Mr White to return with something Albert would find ‘advantageous to his future’.
But, on no account was he to venture into the cellar; the butler explained the stairs were rotten and dangerous. Mr White was expecting a tradesman.
Albert toured the house, taking inventory of the oil paintings and the delicate ceramics, rubbing his hands in anticipation of treasure to come his way.
At dinner that evening, White pushed a bulging enveloped across the table. “Two thousand pounds,” he said flatly. “By noon tomorrow, you will be gone.”
Despite the itching in his fingertips to riffle through so many banknotes, Albert left the envelope where it was. “Oh, no, Flo, no; you don’t state the terms of my departure. We haven’t had our little chat yet. How is your brother, by the way? You know, after the operation?”
White looked down at his plate; his meal remained untouched. “He did not survive.”
“Oh. Shame. But look at you now! You’re flourishing! You’re thriving! If he could see you now, eh? And still in the pink! Must be good for you, all this wealth. You haven’t aged a day.”
White rang a little bell to summon Birkworth to clear the table.
“How’d you do it, Flo? To come from a humble background in a tatty old circus to this? What’s your secret?”
White cringed. “What makes you think I have a secret?”
“Then how’d you come by all this lot?”
White strode from the room without another word.
Again, Albert’s sleep was disturbed by the moans and the sobs. He knew he would be unable to rest until he had investigated the source. He left his room and padded down the stairs to the ground floor. His ears were pricked like a hunter’s. Along a narrow corridor that led past the kitchen, he came to the cellar door. The sounds were coming from behind it!
He twisted the doorknob and was surprised to find it unlocked. Unheeding the warning about rotten stairs, he crept down towards a pool of lamplight and the source of the sobs.
He gasped to see Florian White cradling a shrivelled, pitiful creature, rocking it gently in his lap. The creature’s head was speckled with brown spots and sparse tufts of long white hair. It was emaciated and skeletal, a thing of bones and papery skin. It looked to be at least a hundred years old.
The creature’s rheumy eyes opened and it caught sight of Albert at the foot of the stairs. It hissed like an angry cat. White smiled sadly at the intruder.
“To answer your question, Albert: my wealth comes from rich gentlemen who take a shine to my youthful looks. I give them a few years of incalculable pleasure and they leave me everything in their wills. Since the operation I find myself blessed with eternal youth. My brother was not so fortunate.”
The fragile creature whimpered. Albert’s jaw dropped open. So this was what had become of the other Siamese twin!
“That’s disgusting,” he managed to say before Birkworth behind him slit his throat with a carving knife.
“I have to keep my brother alive, you see, or all the aging he has done on my behalf will come back to me. I am sure your blood will sustain him as well as any rich gentleman’s.”