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The Clairvoyant Curse

 

The

Clairvoyant

Curse

ANNA LORD

Book Four

Watson & The Countess Series

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by Anna Lord

Melbourne, Australia

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any

form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information

storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations

embodied in critical articles or reviews—without written permission.

 

 

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are

used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is

purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Chapter 1 – Camera Obscura

 

“Fake Sherlocks! Here’s another one! The third sham Sherlock this week!”

Countess Volodymyrovna tossed her copy of Tatler on the breakfast table in the manner of someone throwing down a gauntlet in the hope of catching Dr Watson’s deliberately downcast eye. She wanted answers to this latest outbreak of Sherlocks and she was not about to be fobbed off with the usual twaddle. If Sherlock had truly perished at Reichenbach Falls how was it that he was being spotted all over London? And not just skulking in the shadows like some phantom of the night but out and about in broad daylight, in full public view, solving crimes, settling cases, catching criminals, being hailed the hero in at least three London newspapers of good repute!

First it was The Times then The Spectator and now Tatler. Okay, two. Surely all three couldn’t be making it up? But where did the stories spring from? It was maddening not being able to follow them up first hand but by the time she travelled by train from York to London the stories would be yesterday’s news. She had always felt there was something missing regarding the death of Sherlock in Switzerland. No eye witnesses. No bodies ever recovered. Death by waterfall was a bit too wishy-washy for her liking. So it wasn’t exactly surprising when stories had started surfacing about the great detective suddenly turning up in London and carrying on business as usual.

But she had visited his little sitting room at 221B Baker Street. And though she had seen the proof of his existence for herself – the slipper stuffed with shag, the meerschaum on the desk, the Stradivarius in the corner, they were like items in a museum, a bit like a collection of Egyptian antiquities – the tools, the artefacts, the trappings from the tomb, everything but the actual living person who would have used them. She couldn’t help feeling that the little sitting room had been set up like a carefully arranged mise en scene with the items belonging to Sherlock like props on a stage with the main actor missing from the performance. A perfect diorama with everything in its perfect place except for one thing – there was no sense of him being there.

Who was feeding the newspapers this misinformation? Who was hoaxing the public? And why? Who stood to gain from perpetuating the myth that Sherlock had survived Reichenbach Falls? Was it Dr Watson hoping to keep his lucrative writing career flourishing by fictionalising cases that had never happened? Or perhaps Mycroft Holmes, hoping that to have a famous brother die in spectacular circumstances and then be miraculously resurrected might perpetuate his own godlike sense of infallibility and lend credence to his mystical political persona? Or perhaps Inspector Lestrade because it might boost his standing with Scotland Yard, yes, to continue to be associated with the greatest consulting detective who ever lived might earn the bumbling inspector a promotion within the new Detective Branch. Or could someone from clan Moriarty be concocting the rebirth of Sherlock Holmes for his or her own vengeful ends? Or that ruthless rogue, Colonel Sebastian Moran – a handsome scoundrel with a talent for mendacity – how might it profit him?

Or was she looking at this from the wrong angle?

Perhaps Sherlock was alive! Perhaps he had never died in the first place. She had been sixteen years of age, travelling with her peripatetic step-aunt, Countess Zoya Volodymyrovna, when the incident at Reichenbach Falls took place and news of the death of the famous British detective shook the world. What little she knew of it she had gleaned well after the event, most of it from the pen of Dr Watson. There was no other version save his, no one to verify what really took place, and even he had not been an eye witness to the tragedy. Was the good doctor now rewriting his own fiction to suit himself?

Was Sherlock dead or alive?

Was he dead and was some clever impersonator merely pretending to be him in order to cash in on his fame? Or was he alive but choosing to live as though he were dead to his family and friends in order to avoid endangering their lives?

“Well?” she said interrogatively, staring fiercely across the breakfast table.

“We are moving into the Age of Fakery,” the doctor responded with diverting simplicity, sensing the ferocity of her scrutiny without even lifting his bleary eyeballs from his broadsheet, compliments of another sleepless night battling bronchitis. “Lunatic asylums are full of fake Sherlocks, fake Queen Victorias, fake Jack the Rippers and fake Napoleon Bonapartes. These days everyone wants to be someone else.”

“Except this fake Sherlock isn’t in an asylum,” she pointed out with the same sort of belligerence that usually started a war. “He’s on the streets! And on page three! How do you account for it, Dr Watson?”

“I don’t. I’m not an editor. I’m not responsible for the things newspapers print.”

“So you’re saying it’s another bogus story?”

He warned himself against meeting her curmudgeonly gaze. It would be like the foolhardy charge of the Light Brigade but even more disastrous, and he didn’t even have the energy to mount his high-horse. “I’m not saying anything. I haven’t read the article.”

“I suppose you didn’t read the other two articles this week either?”

“As a matter of fact I didn’t.”

Suddenly it struck him that she never referred to Sherlock as ‘father’. Lack of sleep was making him slow-witted, or perhaps just slower-witted. To her he was always Sherlock. The only other people who referred to him that way were Mycroft and himself. He wondered if she referred to her mother as Irene. Come to think of it, apart from the first night they met, when she announced matter-of-factly that her mother was Irene Adler, he could not recall her referring to her mother at all.

Was it common for children adopted-out at birth to refer to their biological parents by their first names? Perhaps, not having much experience with such things, it was less unusual than he imagined. She was already an adult when she discovered the names of her birth parents and she was currently twenty-four years of age. On the tongue of a grown woman the epithets ‘father’ and ‘mother’ might have sounded impossibly twee. He also imagined them jarring with his own perspective – Sherlock as a father! Heaven forbid! It was possibly better for all concerned that she desisted from employing such quaint endearments.

Even supposing for a moment that Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler really had been her birth parents, there had been no emotional bond, no close attachment, none of the things that go to make up the sum of cherished childhood memories, so why imply otherwise? Moreover, Slavs were well known for their love of family and she had certainly been well-loved by her adoptive father and his unmarried sister, so why negate all that now? Yes, all in all, she had been extraordinarily lucky. Her up-bringing had been better than anything any child born out of wedlock could have hoped for. In fact, much better and much luckier than if she had been raised either by her so-called real mother or real father. He shuddered at the thought of any child being saddled with a diva for a mother and having Sherlock for…

“One fake Sherlock is creative licence,” she declared hotly, “two is careless journalism, but three in one week and I start to smell a rat!”

Good grief! If Mycroft didn’t pull his head in, she would soon hit the nail on the noggin and crack their little game wide open. He made a mental note to dispatch a telegram to the Diogenes Club as soon as practicable. In the meantime a bit of creative licence was called for.

“I say! Look at this! It’s an advertisement for -”

“Stop trying to distract me!”

“Very well, don’t look.”

Deliberately, he placed the page face down on the breakfast table as he prepared to pour himself a fresh cup of Earl Grey tea to clear the phlegm gumming the sides of his throat. He knew the ploy would ignite burning curiosity like touch paper to a live flame. He stirred in some sugar and took a gulp of tea without thinking…Hell’s bells! He tried not to yelp.

“Tonight you can wear that Tharvet travelling thuit I’m tho fond of,” he managed to lisp after a few moments had passed and his scalded tongue felt slightly less numb and thick. “I will purthath thome ticketth firtht thing thith morning and treat you to a night at the theatre to thelebrate the thuthethful concluthion of the penny dreadful murderth.”

She regarded him oddly. “What’s wrong with your articulation? You sound as if you have had a stroke. I hope your bronchitis is not a precursor to something more serious such as lymphatic disease or brain fever. You should get your chest seen to by a specialist. The walls in this hotel are paper thin. Your coughing kept me awake half the night.”

“My lymph and brain is fine, as for my cough, I apologise unreservedly, and I intend to get it seen to as soon as we return to London, but about tonight.”

“Throw in a champagne supper and I’ll say oui,” she assented, selecting a slice of toast from the silver rack and absently applying a slather of golden butter. “But I have something far more chic than my Charvet. You have not yet seen my new winter ensemble – an emerald green, velvet costume edged in ermine. It arrived the day before yesterday, all the way from la rue de la Veuve. Madame Coquelicot is a genius with a needle and thread and always sends me the best of her Parisian couture prior to the commencement of each saison. The women of York will be green with envy. And the men will say: Who is that delightful creature on the arm of Dr John Watson? Which theatre do you have in mind? Friargate? The York Barbican? Or the Theatre Royal?”

“I have in mind the Unitarian Church Hall.”

“Oh spare me! Surely you are not hoping to save my soul? The last thing I need is a lecture on hellfire and damnation.”

Smiling cagily, he flipped the newspaper with the sort of cavalier insouciance he had always secretly admired in others. “Read for yourself.”

 

PHANTASMAGORIA

Monsieur Champollion Croquemort

Master of Ceremonies

invites you to a

MAGIC LANTERN SHOW

featuring amazing tri-unal lens

with piano accompaniment by

Mr Crispin Ffrench

Singalong to all your favourite melodies

and witness the paranormal powers of the incomparable

MADAME MOGHRA

The most famous medium in all of London

At her final performance in York

Unitarian Church Hall

Spen Lane

7 o’clock

 

“Well spotted!” she gushed. “That’s a nice stroke of luck. I can give Madame Moghra the thistle brooch. Is that the plan?”

“Yes and no. You can let her know you have a gift from Lady Moira Cruddock to pass on to her – though I don’t think the old fraud deserves such a valuable keepsake – and then arrange for a more suitable time to deliver it. A silver and amethyst ornament is not the sort of thing to take into a bawdy house swarming with pickpockets. Have you ever been to a magic lantern show?”

She shook her head. “My education regarding bawdy houses has been remiss. I will be happy to rectify that tonight. I can see now why you suggested the Charvet suit. Green velvet edged in ermine will make me stand out like an elegant swan in a farmyard full of ugly ducklings, frowsy old chooks and seedy looking roosters.”

Her vanity barely registered. What did Sherlock once say? A man cannot think logically and be held to ransom by false modesty. A man cannot be tortured by poor esteem and trust in his superior powers of deduction concomitantly. Notions such as modesty and humility are for those who are prisoner to their emotions. They are not for the rational man.

Or woman!

“Indeed,” he murmured. “I will treat your lady’s maid and manservant, Xenia and Fedir, to some tickets too,” he added magnanimously, feeling rather pleased with himself for pulling off that rummy bit of insouciance.

Chapter 2 – Laterna Magica

 

A singalong was in full swing by the time they pulled up in a hired landau on Spen Lane and joined the queue stretching around the corner. The Unitarian Church Hall had once been a Masonic Lodge, evidenced by the insignia above the door, but had become surplus to supply when the freemasons moved to grander premises on the other side of the River Ouse. It was an austere, windowless, grey stucco cube and the last place you would expect would play host to the celebration of all things godless.

Despite his croaky cough, Dr Watson was soon swept up in the gay abandon of the raucous chorus:

“Oh, come all you thoughtless men,

A warning take by me,

And think upon my unhappy fate,

To be hanged upon a tree …”

“What is the song called?” interrupted the Countess.

“The Murder of Mary Marten,” he wheezed asthmatically, gathering breath.

“How do you know the words?”

“Everyone knows the words.”

“I don’t.”

“Another omission in your education,” he teased.

“It sounds extremely merry for a murder song.”

No sooner had the singsong stopped than it started up again. It was clearly a favourite with the theatre crowd. The mood was buoyant, full of excited anticipation, and they hadn’t even passed through the doors yet.

“Who was Mary Marten?” she asked.

“The daughter of a mole-catcher.”

“Mole-catcher? Is that a profession?”

“Certainly.”

“What sort of girl was she?”

“A chaste young milkmaid, much loved by her family.”

“Who killed her?”

“A young man, her beau, is singing the verse. He is repenting of his wickedness.”

“Merry murder and jolly repentance – what next!”

“People regard the story as they do a fairy tale or moral fable. They have sugar-coated the good character and blackened the bad. The crime was originally called The Red Barn Murder. You may have heard of it. The murder was solved when Mary’s step-mother had a dream about where the body of Mary was buried.”

“Oh, that sounds rather suspicious. That flies in the face of rational understanding. If I had been investigating the crime I would have suspected her immediately. Was she ever charged with being an accomplice?”

“Of course not! She became a heroine!”

“Really? How queer. People’s thinking is so odd.”

He croaked out a few more bars as they shuffled to the front of the queue and passed into the church hall.

“Adieu, adieu, my loving friends,

My glass is almost run,

Monday next will be my last,

When I am to be hanged,

So all young men who do pass by,

With pity look on me,

For murdering Mary Marten,

I was hanged upon a tree…”

The exterior of the church hall was no predictor of the interior. The outside had been bland and grey, the inside was like stumbling into Van Gogh’s studio straight after he’d sliced off his ear. The balcony of the upper gallery was painted blood red. The walls were sponged in sickly mauve. The smoke-stained ceiling was mottled in a nauseating yellow and the mouldings were vomit-orange. The doors were lurid pink, the architraves were putrid green and the skirting boards were a deranged shade of purple. At the front of the hall was a dais which had been transformed into a stage hung with gold and silver gaufraged velvet curtains. An old black piano stood to one side of the stage and at the keyboard sat a young man with a whirlwind mane of blond hair that kicked wildly against his collar as his fingers flew back and forth furiously, pounding out the notes. A quartet of singers was leading the singsong, two men and two women. They were clearly meant to be dressed as characters from the ballad of Mary Marten. The cute one with bright yellow plaits that curled outward in such a way as to defy gravity was obviously Mary. The one wearing a transparent negligee over some silken corsetry was probably the step-mother. An older gent with one hand locked manfully around a shovel and the other hand clutching a furry toy which was probably meant to be a mole was most likely the father. And the fourth had a hangman’s noose dangling around his neck – clearly the remorseful beau.

Dr Watson had managed to purchase two tickets for the upper gallery and two for downstairs. He and the Countess opted for the gallery while Xenia and Fedir went to locate their seats in the wooden pews. The hall was already packed and there were at least another fifty hopefuls lined up outside. A new singsong started up – The Cat Who Ate the Canary! Everyone bar the Countess knew the words to that one too. The quartet had shuffled off the stage and a duo had emerged to replace them. They were dressed as a cat and a canary and performed a vaudevillian pantomime to the accompaniment of the words much to the hilarity of the audience who clapped their hands, stamped their feet and screeched with gusto. It was like no theatre the Countess had ever encountered. From Odessa to Vienna, from Paris to Milan, theatre-goers arrived elegantly attired, moved decorously to their allocated seats and whispered amongst themselves until the curtain went up and a collective hush descended. Here, it was the mayhem of the marketplace run amok.

“Is it always this noisy?” She shouted to be heard above the din.

Dr Watson, busy humming along, nodded enthusiastically.

The hall was packed to the brim. Whoever had sold the tickets must have known there would not be enough seats. It was a case of first come-first served. Scuffles broke out but the threat of eviction was ever present and several young women agreed to perch on men’s laps to keep the peace. The aisles were as packed as the pews and many preferred to stand so that they would have a better view of the stage.

The singsong finished abruptly. The audience cheered and stamped their feet so violently the floor vibrated and the mauve walls shook, and just when the Countess thought the mottled yellow ceiling was about to come crashing down a gaunt figure dressed like an undertaker but resembling a spider in a top hat – specifically a daddy long legs which wasn’t really a spider at all though everyone imagined it as one and the description suited him so perfectly because he moved like a daddy long legs, like a double-jointed man on stilts, rather than a scuttling spider – appeared on the stage. The hush the Countess never expected came suddenly. The mortuary-spider projected his voice using a megaphonic mouthpiece and it was like the voice of the damned speaking from the grave, dry as dust, vibrating through the centuries. He made ‘good-evening’ sound like a curse. Half the audience shivered with fear and the other half froze with fright. It was Master of Ceremonies: Monsieur Croquemort.

“He used to be a magician,” someone behind them whispered loudly.

“I thought he was a mesmerist,” came the rejoinder.

“I meant the last time he did a show in York. He don’t do magic now.”

“Why not?”

“Something happened.”

“What?”

“All I know is that it was something bad.”

“I heard tell he was a hypnotist?” interjected a third.

“That’s the same as a mesmerist.”

“His name means death-eater,” a fourth added ominously.

“Don’t look into his eyes,” warned another. “He has the evil eye.”

Monsieur Croquemort possessed a soporific monotone with just the hint of a French accent that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as it lulled you into dreamy somnolence. How else to explain the extraordinary effect his voice had on the rioters as he outlined the order of proceedings for the evening in the tone of a doomsayer predicting the end of the world.

At the same time, the wild-haired young pianist removed himself from the stage and busied himself with setting up the magic lantern at the foot of the stage. A small fence, a bit like a sheep-fold, had been erected around the camera to deter incursions of curious lunatics.

Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna had a bird’s eye view of the wonderful contraption being set up on tripod legs. This was for two reasons. The first as already mentioned was because the hall was not as large as a theatre and the distance from the upper gallery to the stage was not vast. Moreover, Dr Watson had paid a premium for the tickets, ensuring a superlative vantage spot.

“Bravo, Dr Watson,” praised the Countess, watching with mounting interest as the painted backdrop of a red barn planted in a rural idyll disappeared from view and a plain white sheet unfurled to take its place just as the magic lantern flamed to life. “We have the best seats!”

First up was another old favourite called: The Ratcatcher. Everyone except the Countess was familiar with the bizarre sketch and they all shrieked in anticipation of the big black rat that would scamper across the bed of a sleeping man snoring heavily, and scurry down his open gorge. The comical effect was achieved using painted slides that the wild-haired young man inserted into an aperture, which was then projected via the lens onto the white backdrop, creating a moving image. The audience fell about in paroxysms, clutching their sides and slapping their knees, and did not seem to grow tired of watching the same scene over and over and over. It was cleverly done but once was enough for the Countess. She found the chuckleheads more riveting than the show. Their expostulations of childish glee were astonishing, especially as they knew what to expect.

The death-eater reappeared to announce the next act – a ghost story.

This is what magic lanterns did best. They lent themselves rather wonderfully to the supernatural. Whatever their original purpose, this is what they had become – ‘lanterns of fright’.

An eerie country churchyard came into focus. Hoary gravestones and an old yew framed the foreground while in the background stood a village church with a slender steeple. A full moon began rising behind the old church. The scene was rife with ominous foreboding and everyone felt the unnerving thrill of fear. Soon there appeared the lone figure of a young man traversing the spook-haunted yard. He came to rest by one of the graves, head bowed in quiet contemplation. This was where the beauty of the tri-unal lens worked its occult magic best, projecting one image over another, layering the effect, creating stillness and movement at the same time. Everyone watched with bated breath as the moon sailed slowly across the night sky, tracing a golden arc, compliments of some clever lighting to aid imagination. When the moon disappeared behind some riffling clouds in the shape of gauzy shrouds lowered by means of invisible wires that sometimes caught the light to no ill effect, a pale shroud appeared to emanate from the grave where the man stood. It hovered momentarily above the young man’s head before fluttering back and forth across the graveyard to the haunting accompaniment of a harp, ably played by an ethereal young woman who emerged from behind the curtain and now sat on the edge of the stage strumming some harp strings, and as the cloth floated to and fro the image of a female ghost miraculously appeared on the shroud.

“How the deuce is that ghost image being projected onto the moving cloth?” whispered Dr Watson who was au fait with magic lanterns of the bi-unal and tri-unal type.

“Magic,” teased the Countess whose imagination was now totally electrified.

“Not possible,” he muttered.

“Shhh!” someone hissed.

He lowered his tone accordingly. “One lens is projecting the churchyard, the second is projecting the young man, and the third is projecting the moon.”

“The moon has disappeared behind some clouds,” she reminded. “So the third is now projecting the ghost onto the cloth.”

“Not possible,” he repeated. “The cloth is fluttering back and forth. Lenses cannot move willy-nilly. If one lens moves they all have to move but the churchyard remains stock still.”

“He must have another camera hidden behind the curtains.”

“Shut-up!” someone threatened.

Dr Watson shook his head stubbornly. “Not possible,” he whispered behind a cupped hand. “The cloth is moving not only back and forth but up and down. A slide can go back and forth but a fixed lens cannot. And neither of them can go up and down.”

“All right! The image was on the cloth in the first place.”

“That cannot be right. It wasn’t there when it first appeared.”

“Lighting,” she said simply. “Someone backstage manoeuvred the cloth so that you couldn’t see the image until the light hit it at just the right angle.”

He was still thinking about this latest suggestion when the lovely harpist started to sing a melancholy refrain. It was the familiar ballad of Mary Marten but sung in the most sublimely haunting tones ever heard, like a Celtic hymn of infinite sadness. Before long half the audience was sobbing while the other half, mostly men, were sniffing back manly tears, pretending that their tougher heartstrings were not being tugged, though one by one, hard hearts melted and turned to mush. Even the Countess, who cared nothing for Mary Marten, wept. And even the shroud-obsessed doctor could be seen to wipe away a tear or two.

No one noticed Monsieur Croquemort reappear. They heard his doom-saying voice before they saw his spidery outline darkening the gaufrage curtains on the opposite wing. He was calling for a volunteer to step up to the stage, a brave soul willing to be hypnotised. Dozens of hands immediately shot up, including that of the Countess’s manservant, Fedir, but the death-eater chose a young woman with throbbing red hair and lips to match. Exuding an air of virtuous vulnerability despite the scandalously out-of-control tresses, she clambered gracefully onto the stage and turned to smile winsomely at the audience, immediately endearing herself to the rough-necks in the crowd who whistled and whooped and threw their hats in the air.

“What a brave young woman,” croaked the doctor – a sucker for redheads – shelving all thought of the ghostly shroud.

“What a stooge.”

“What do you mean?”

“She is the perfect victim.”

“Shush!” someone frothed with deadly earnest.

A chair was quickly procured for the shy young woman and the hypnotist went into the usual routine, dangling a pocket watch on a chain in front of her face.

“You are growing sleepy…listen to my voice…when I count to three you will be in my power…one, two, three.”

The vivid redhead slumped to one side and some pouty red lips parted rather fetchingly. The creepy spider lifted a delicate limp wrist and let it drop suddenly to prove the girl was truly at his mercy. The audience was totally convinced though the Countess thought the pretty stooge might star in the West End in the not too distant future. The little actress performed admirably as a mewling cat, a French burlesque dancer and a chook laying an egg. The gullible lapped it up, particularly the bit where she lifted her skirts and kicked up her heels. This received thunderous applause and earned several encores. Eventually the sleepyhead was awakened from her entertaining trance. She returned to her seat seemingly oblivious to her newfound fame.

Another victim was selected and this time to avoid the coincidence of sameness it was a male of middling age. He performed admirably as a woodchopper, a man on a horse, and then the horse itself, in the style of Moliere’s cheval, prancing and pawing the ground, rearing up and throwing back his mane. His horsey act was so hilarious the wild guffaws almost brought the house down. As he cantered back to his seat, acknowledging the tumultuous plaudits with a toss of his horsey head, the stage lights dimmed and the camera obscura projected images of moons and stars swirling around the universe. Everyone was once again as spellbound as they had been during the song but in a different way. This time the magic worked itself on the eyes rather than the ears. Shimmery clouds of gauzy muslin obscured the occult heavens and when the floaty veils finally parted there on a throne, like the Empress in the Tarot pack, sat the renowned medium, Madame Moghra.

“I sense a presence,” she rasped and paused, waiting for total silence.

“Why is it that spiritualists all sound as if they have swallowed cobwebs?” whispered the Countess before the rational part of her brain slowly succumbed to the emotional. Tone of voice, setting, all had something to do with it, but it was also some innate human desire to give oneself over to the supernatural.

Dr Watson barely acknowledged her observation, the rational man of medical science was falling under the spell of the supernatural too.

“I sense a presence,” repeated the Empress. “A restless spirit, recently departed, wants to speak to someone called Lizzy…Lissy…Sissy.”

“That’s me!” shouted a young woman, springing up from her seat. “Harry is that you?” She tilted her face up to the sickly ceiling, searching for a sign in the jaundiced heavens. “Harry? Harry? I know you’re there!”

“Harry is with you,” rasped the medium. “He is watching over you,” she offered soothingly. “He says you can remarry. He will not stand in your way. He approves of your choice. He is happy for you. He is at peace.”

The young woman began to sob on the shoulder of the young man who swept her into his arms. The Countess remained sceptical though she was full of admiration for the power of the performance and its ability to grip. These things were so easy to stage-craft. But what happened next changed her view dramatically.

“I sense another restless spirit,” the Empress rasped. “It is an unhappy spirit who is not at peace with himself, who haunts the dark pages of our past, in particular the past lives of two who have joined us this evening, a doctor and a foreign lady, who cling tightly to the unhappy soul and refuse to relinquish him. He begs to be released…to be allowed to find peace…”

Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna tried to stymie the chill running up their spines, but when Fedir and Xenia, seated in the stalls, inclined their heads, other heads followed suit and soon the entire audience was staring in their direction.

Madame Moghra did not name the dead spirit she alluded to despite repeated calls of Who? Who is it? Tell us! But she did allow her eyes to drift to the upper gallery, indicating she knew very well who she was targeting. However, without a hook on which to attach their supernatural hats the audience grew increasingly restless. It was time to offer some fresh otherworldly fodder.

Madame Moghra went into a slight faint. Her head lolled and she moaned as if in pain. Harp strings could be heard plaintively in the background and then her throne began to levitate. It appeared to hover in mid-air for several seconds. When the chair clunked back down with a resounding bang the medium was jolted from her trance. There was a collective gasp from the audience and all were once again riveted.

“Xenia! Xenia!”

Xenia froze in her seat.

“Show yourself, Xenia. You are one of us. You have the power of second sight. Do not be frightened. Do not be frightened of your mystic power. Do not be frightened of who you are. Show yourself, Xenia.”

Shaking like a leaf, Xenia stood up. At the same time the blood rushed out of her head and she gripped the wooden top-bar of the pew to stop from fainting.

“The spirit world speaks to you, Xenia. The spirit world speaks through you, Xenia. You have the gift. I am your spirit guide. I am the one you have been waiting for. You must follow your soul path. You must reach out to me so that you too can guide others when your time comes. You have come from afar. You have travelled over the seven seas. You are from an ancient tribe. You have lived many lives. You are almost there, Xenia. One more lifetime and eternity is yours…yours…”

Without warning Madame Moghra began gasping for breath. Her hand flew to her throat in desperation as she gagged and choked on her own saliva. She twisted and writhed as if in an agony of convulsion. The doctor had once witnessed someone die from strychnine poisoning. Her convulsions were much the same. Gasping, she collapsed suddenly onto the stage, hitting the floor with a dramatic thump!

“She’s dead!” someone called out. “The spirit world has spoken!”

Several women screamed.

The Countess might have shown more concern for the fate of the medium but at the exact same time as Madame Moghra thudded to the floor the magic lantern flared to life. Occult symbols flashed across the starry heavens bamboozling the eyes. It was a touch too coincidental for a rationalist. Besides, the Countess was still meditating on the strange message Madame Moghra had delivered to her personal maid. Every atheistic instinct screamed out that she was being targeted along with Dr Watson: first, the allusion to a restless soul, meaning Sherlock, and then the cryptic message enticing Xenia to go over to the other side. What game was this?

There were several ways the medium could have known they were in the audience. A telegram sent from Lady Moira Cruddock telling her to expect a gift which would be delivered by Dr John Watson and his sleuthing companion, Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna – and that was just for starters. The medium may have gone through the same routine every night this past week waiting to strike it lucky. Of course, someone from the clairvoyant troupe, someone in the ticket booth perhaps, may even have recognized Dr Watson from a photo in the newspapers and reported to the medium that the doctor was finally purchasing tickets for a performance. It would not have been difficult to attain extra information regarding the name of the Countess, her personal maid or her background. Even the traditional Ukrainian clothing Xenia and Fedir favoured would have given them away at a glance. Someone at the door could have been told to look out for two Slavs with a well-dressed foreign lady in the company of an older man of conservative frame. What appeared to be supernatural could usually be explained by rational deduction. Still, Madame Moghra was good at her game.

It was time to seek her out.

Our four bemused heroes waited until last to emerge from the Unitarian Church Hall. Xenia was still shaking when the quartet met up on the pavement and discussed what to do next.

“Fedir and Xenia will go to Ye Old Jorvik Tavern and wait for us there,” announced the Countess, worried about the pallor of her normally russet-cheeked maid, handing Fedir some money for drinks and a light supper before turning to the doctor. “In the meantime, let’s go down the side lane to the stage door and hand a calling card to the doorman. Something tells me Madame Moghra will be expecting us.”

A beefy thug with a face like a vicious bulldog took one look at the Countess’s calling card and waved them through. “Follow those stairs and watch your step,” he mumbled out of the side of his misshapen mouth. “The walls are dripping with damp and the stones get slippery-like.”

The subterranean world beneath the church hall was not as large as the undercroft of a proper theatre, nevertheless it was a twisted maze of narrow corridors, fetid cellars and large vaulted crypts that resembled caves for storing barrels of wine or possibly human remains, recalling the catacombs under Montmartre that had started life as limestone quarries and ended up as bone yards. There was no electric power and the sepulchral caverns were illuminated solely by candlelight that distorted every passing shadow, transforming them into hellish hollows more macabre than anything the camera obscura could have achieved. What the freemasons ever did down here was a mystery that was perhaps best left to posterity, though the medieval vaulting in the largest of the crypts suggested that this netherworld may have predated the Masonic hall by several centuries.

As if the moment had been pre-ordained, they were met in the largest cavern by the wild-haired blond pianist. He did not bother to make eye-contact nor introduce himself, but they remembered his stuttering name. It was the same young man who had deftly operated the complex camera obscura.

In the cavernous dimness it was hard to tell his age but a bit of intelligent guesswork would have put him at around thirty. Poetically handsome in a dissipated sort of way, he called to mind a poorer version of some broody Byron, shabby and down-at-heel, sadly self-neglected, like a once beautiful garden that had gone to seed or a once lovely house that had gone to wrack and ruin, beyond repair, the inhabitants fallen on hard times, beyond redemption.

“Follow me,” he soughed and sighed, sounding bored with life in general and his life in particular, tired, deflated, emptied-out of empathy and emotion in the manner of a disembodied spirit whose soul had checked out long ago.

How many admirers, how many acolytes, how many victims, had he ushered to the feet of the Empress of the Underworld? He paused at a wooden door and did not bother to knock.

“Go right in. She will be expecting you.”

The emphasis on the ‘She’ suggested he meant it to have a capital S, and yet in that moment of cynical italicising, just before he turned on a down-trodden heel, he used a fine-boned pianist’s hand to smooth back a tangle of untidy locks that had fallen over a pair of bloodshot eyes, and it was the deep-seated ache in his eyes contrasted with the gesture that belied everything else you noticed about him. It forced you to remember a man could not be a musician without feeling or a scientist without caring.

Dr Watson caught the elbow of the Countess before she could push open the door, his grip was fierce and his undertone grave.

“I think I should tell you that Madame Moghra and I have met before.”

An elegant brow registered the gravity of this last minute confession. “When?”

“Several years ago.”

“Where?”

“London.”

“What for?”

“A séance.”

Her intuition was as sharp as ever, barely a heartbeat passed before she guessed. “After Mary died?”

He grimaced painfully. “And Sherlock.”

She didn’t reply. She was staring at the ceiling of the vaulted chamber where sinister shadows were performing a dance macabre on the concave brickwork – fire, earth and air; light, stone and space – a dance as old as time, the laws of nature in natural step, except for one shadow standing motionless in the darkness, like Death waiting in the wings.

Chapter 3 – Madame Moghra

 

The dressing room of the famous medium was a billowy boudoir, tented in colourful Indian silks to disguise the fetid walls, damp ceiling and dungeonesque dimensions.

The maid who rushed to the door had more than a passing resemblance to the virtuously vulnerable young woman who had volunteered to be hypnotised, though she was no longer a throbbing redhead, rather a plain little thing with severely up-pinned hair as dull as London ditchwater. The Countess wondered if Dr Watson noted the resemblance too. Probably not. Men were not attuned to the specifics of female features. Her ex-husband had once told her the Chinese females on the Bendigo goldfields all looked the same to him; he could not distinguish one chink from another. Later, she realized it was because of the sameness of their hair. Put four brunettes of similar propinquity in a group and most men could not tell you at a glance how many women were there gathered, but make one a blonde, one a redhead, one a brunette and one raven-haired and a man could say instantly there were four.

The unassuming maid promptly closed the door after them and then began fussing over the dressing table, straightening the ivory combs and silver hair brushes, smoothing the elaborate hair pieces, including a stunning scarlet wig, tidying the maquillage, the ribbons, and the various glittery bits and bobs arrayed in velvet trays. Ah, yes, the spirit world provided for a comfortable material existence.

Reclining presciently on a silk divan was the porcelain-cheeked Empress still wearing her stage make-up in a stage-crafted scene: the languid aristocrat in repose. Draped across her outstretched legs was a paisley cashmere shawl, heavily fringed, artfully arranged.

“Please be seated,” purred Madame Moghra. “I have been expecting you.”

“And we have been expecting you to expect us,” parried the Countess with more than a trace of irony, picturing a mythical chimera concealed beneath the regal blanket, a hybrid creature with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent, a grafted goddess who knew how to appeal to the dark side of human imagination. Khimaira originally meant she-goat, before the connotation became unflattering, long before this tripartite She-creature came down from the mountain and chose to dwell in the world of the living-dead, making death her life’s work.

Madame Moghra was a woman of indeterminate age, anywhere between fifty and eighty, a woman who had lavished several lifetimes of care upon herself. Her head was held aloft like the noble head of a lion crowned by a bouffant mane of white hair, piled up right-royally like Marie Antoinette before her untidy fall from grace. The less flattering might have likened the fanciful coif to a puffy meringue or fluffy choufleur, but none could have denied it was a chimerical work of art. Her voice was a soft purr but the Countess could easily imagine when the goddess was displeased how the purr might morph into a devouring growl. Her shoulders were slender for she was not a heavy set woman, yet neither frail, she looked strong and hardy and had that determined, stubborn look of the goat in her eyes. Her legs were crossed at the ankles making the two seem like one, like a serpent’s tail, or perhaps a fish’s tail, for that was the other meaning of Chimaeridae – it denoted a member of the fish family.

“We meet again, Dr Watson.” The lioness purred in such a way as to pack the innocent observation with obscure meaning.

The doctor returned a politely rictus grin. It made him look like a smiling corpse. The Countess was as yet unaware that it was the skulduddery of Madame Moghra that had prompted her friend to join the Ghost Club and he had never forgiven himself nor forgotten her.

The lioness had inflicted the first wound, it was a coup de grace. She smiled vindictively and turned to her next victim.

“Countess Volodymyrovna, it is both an honour and a pleasure to meet you at long last. I was acquainted with your late step-aunt, Countess Zoya Volodymyrovna. I met her in St Petersburg the year I toured Russia and then again a second time in Montenegro a few years later. She was a great believer in the spirit world.”

“Indeed,” smiled the Countess beatifically. “How else could mad monks hold such sway over the nobility? Superstition is the lifeblood of the Slavs. Pagans at heart, they see gods in everything. The forest and the river, the birch and the oak, will always hold more awe for them than a Greek temple or Roman basilica. Why else would Homer have called Ukraine the country of dreams? Why else would Ovid have designated it the Gateway to Hades? Why else would he have believed it to be the land where Cerberus dwelled and where Medea collected aconites for her poison potions? Why else would Donn be the name of the Celtic god of the Underworld? And when the Vikings wanted somewhere to stage their myths, why, where else but west of the river Don – the playground of the gods, where the Vanir battled it out with Aesir? It is where the mythic meme was born.”

Madame Moghra unfolded and refolded her ankles. It was like watching a python shape-shifting, the serpentine vertebrae appeared to stretch and contract from end to end.

“You are well-versed in the classics,” the Empress praised, settling back into the divan with reptilian elegance, intuiting a battle royal for the heart and mind and soul of this vanity-driven Slav.

But vanity was a double-edged sword. The Countess possessed enough of it to never need be swayed by the flattery of others. She found flattery to be unconvincing and ultimately demeaning. Her insincere response was thus always the same – sincerely given.

“Thank you, my step-aunt was also a great believer in education.”

Madame Moghra found something in the aristocratic tone that jarred with her spiritual sensibilities. “Did you enjoy our little performance tonight?”

“Yes, it was very entertaining.”

“I hope it was also educational.”

“Oh, certainly, all entertainment is educational.”

“Perhaps you also found it enlightening?”

“Of course, bien sur, that goes without saying.”

“Are you familiar with magic lanterns?”

“Not at all. Tonight was my introduction to the wonder of the camera obscura. Your operator, Mr Ffrench, appeared to handle the intricacies of the tri-unal device with admirable skill.”

“He is quite the lantern magician,” purred the lioness.

“May I ask who trained him?” intervened Dr Watson, who had been holding himself together rather stiffly, but decided to loosen up now that the colloquy had shifted to a safer topic closer to his scientific heart.

“He is self-trained.”

The doctor was impressed. “Not an easy discipline to master?”

“His background is similar to your own, Dr Watson. He has a medical degree and is a sceptic.”

The second wound was inflicted before the doctor had time to duck and weave.

“He is not too bad at the piano either,” interjected the Countess, noting how her counterpart flinched.

“He is a valuable asset to our spiritual menagerie,” agreed the Empress magisterially.

The maid finished folding the satin gowns and silk petticoats that had been hanging over the backs of chairs, packing them carefully into a large travelling trunk. She curtsied at her exalted mistress in an effort to catch her basilisk eye.

“Sissy,” instructed the Pythoness, “inform Mr Ffrench to bring some champagne, a bottle of the Chateau D’Yquem and three glasses.”

“Tonight was your final performance in York,” observed the Countess, noting the leather trunks lined up along the wall by the door. “You will soon be moving on?”

“Yes,” confirmed the chimera. “Tomorrow we rest and then the day after that we travel by train to Glasgow.”

“Will you stay long in Glasgow?” asked the doctor, having recovered from his flesh wound.

“One night.”

“So you don’t intend to do any shows in the land of the superstitious Celts?” he pursued.

“We have been touring non-stop for thirteen months. We are all exhausted. There is a Spiritualist Congress in Biarritz next week. We will take a short break there. Some sea air and a daily promenade along the boardwalk will do wonders for our psyches. We can mingle with others of our ilk and prepare ourselves for our next tour.”

“Where does the next tour take you?” the Countess pitched.

“The United States of America. We are always well received in the land of Hope and Glory.”

“It is fortunate we came tonight, then,” said the Countess, broaching the reason for their visit. “We have a gift from Lady Moira Cruddock. She was hoping to attend one of your performances here in York but unforeseen circumstances made it impossible for her to travel. The gift is valuable. We did not bring it with us. Perhaps we can arrange a mutually convenient time to meet tomorrow?”

Snake eyes gleamed in the golden candlelight. “How very kind of Lady Moira to remember me! As it happens, I am hosting a small soiree tomorrow evening. Consider yourselves invited. When Mr Ffrench arrives with our champagne he will write down the address which currently eludes me. We are staying in a ghost-haunted house, Tudor style, quite the genuine thing.”

“Tudor or ghosts?” asked the Countess.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Genuine Tudor or genuine ghosts?”

“Oh, yes, well, both – we have all of us seen apparitions during our stay.”

“We?” queried the doctor.

“Myself and my little menagerie: Monsieur Croquemort, Mr Ffrench, Miss Morningstar, Reverend Blackadder and Sissy.”

“What sort of ghosts?” pursued the doctor. “Are we talking ectoplasm? Clanking chains? Headless nuns?”

“Ah, I was once an unbeliever too, doctor. One day something will happen that will force you to change your mind, as it did to me.”

“Is that your professional prediction?”

“What sort of ghosts?” interrupted the Countess.

Madame Moghra shifted her basilisk eyes back to the vain aristocrat. “I saw a ghost child, Miss Morningstar saw a ghost cat, and Reverend Blackadder saw a headless lady on the stairs.”

“I have always wanted to visit a haunted house,” enthused the Countess. “What time should we arrive?”

“Any time after 7 o’clock.”

“May I ask why you chose not to stay at an hotel?” Out of habit, she pronounced it as the French did.

Madame Moghra mimicked her, though it sounded a touch affectatious on her tongue. “I try never to stay at an hotel if I can help it. It is often impossible to reserve rooms ensemble let alone on the same floor. And we travel with so much paraphernalia, so many costumes and props, and we do like to spread out. We also prefer to speak freely amongst ourselves, to speak our minds without being overheard, to discuss the show and make subtle changes, that sort of thing. You’d be surprised how many people attempt to bail you up and recount a supernatural experience they’ve had or how many want to be hypnotized or want to know everything about how a magic lantern works. You mentioned Lady Moira’s health?”

They discussed the failing health of the grande-dame until the champagne arrived.

“Crispin,” the Empress said imperiously as flutes of bubbly were passed round, “I have invited Countess Volodymyrovna and Dr Watson to join our little farewell party. Please write the address of the house we have been leasing. I cannot for the life of me remember it – so many different houses, so many different addresses, so many different cities – it all becomes a bit of a blur after a lifetime of travelling. There’s some notepaper in the top drawer of the dressing table.” She raised her flute and drank healthily.

Obligingly, Mr Ffrench scribbled the address on a page of floral scented notepaper and passed it to Dr Watson.

“Marsh House, Fish Court.” Dr Watson looked quizzically at the young man. “Is that near the King’s Fishpond?”

The other nodded without meeting his gaze.

The doctor retrieved a map of York from the pocket of his tweed jacket and unfolded it. “Would you be so good as to show me where it is?”

The melancholic lantern magician pointed to a cul-de-sac that came off Fossgate before backtracking out of the room like a lackey, eyes downcast.

In that moment, between the door opening and closing, a slight draught caused something to flutter. It was the ghost shroud draped over one of the travelling trunks.

“Take a closer look,” invited the medium, noting the Countess’s curiosity.

The Countess had once seen the mystical cloth known as the Sindone di Torino while touring Italy with her late step-aunt. It was said to be a burial shroud bearing the image of the crucified Jesus. Historical references were plentiful and unverifiable. The ghost image reminded her of the image on the Italian shroud.

“It reminds me of the Shroud of Turin,” she said, bringing it up to her face in an attempt to discern the odd smell.

“A very perceptive observation, Countess. It is identical in every way except for the religious significance and the date. It is said to be the burial shroud of a Druidic priestess who was sacrificed to her god in the year 13 AD.”

“Linen flax?”

“Yes, a herringbone weave, same as the other shroud.”

“It has an unusual odour?”

“The smell of damp, decay and death.”

The doctor pocketed his map and stepped up to take a closer look. “What are these darkish pigments? Blood?”

“Most likely,” confirmed the medium unemotionally. “The shroud will be on display tomorrow evening at the farewell party along with my levitating chair and the camera obscura. You will be welcome to examine them at your leisure.”

Dr Watson could barely hide his surprise. “Your props will be on display?”

“Certainly! The public is enthralled by such things. Magic objects have always held fascination to mere mortals.”

That clinched it. He was thinking of begging off but now he wouldn’t miss the farewell party for the world. To have a close look at the tri-unal camera obscura would be a treat, while to examine the so-called levitating chair would be something to savour, as for the sepia image on the ghost shroud, he decided it had probably been achieved using various pigments mixed with blood and dismissed it out of hand.

Carefully, the Countess draped the ghost shroud over the top of a folding screen so that it hung down to its full height and she could get a better look at it. Yes, it reminded her of the Shroud of Turin, right down to the mystery of its provenance.

Madame Moghra put her fingers to her temples and rubbed gently then closed her eyes. “I’m afraid I must ask you to leave now. I sense I am starting to develop a headache. The shows always take a lot out of me. Until the morrow…”

As soon as the two sleuths turned their back on the silken dungeon they became conscious of all that remained unsaid: the allusion to the restless spirit of Sherlock Holmes, the supposed second sight of Xenia, the séance that left such a bitter taste in the mouth of the doctor and the fact that a famous medium could not recall her most recent address. There was a time the Countess would have pursued such points of interest with wilful determination but during the last month she had learned to bite her tongue and bide her time. She put it down to maturity. She was no longer the same headstrong young woman who on a whim decided to move to the other side of the world in search of her roots, to discover what she could about the amazing life and strange death of her father, to introduce herself to her uncle, to get to know her father’s one true friend…

Dr Watson was trumpeting on about how much he would give to see the medium laid out in a coffin when they met Madame Moghra’s maid coming towards them. She was carrying a tea tray on which sat a cup of hot tisane.

“I admired your performance earlier this evening,” complimented the Countess.

“Whatever do you mean, Madame?” replied the girl, feigning ignorance.

“Red hair becomes you,” the Countess persisted pleasantly. “I can see you on the stage in the West End in the not too distant future or perhaps at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. You are very talented. Please accept this token of my appreciation.” She placed a generous amount of money on the tray.

Forgetting herself momentarily, the girl curtseyed and spilled some of the tisane onto the tray. “La comtesse,” she said blushingly, “I you thank.”

“Your mistress mentioned you would soon be travelling to Glasgow and then Biarritz?”

“Yes,” confirmed the girl, quite loquacious now. “There is a steamer ship departing Glasgow on the morning of the eighteenth – the SS Pleiades. It is French owned, but made in the shipyards on the Clyde. It will be making its first voyage, but not its maiden voyage, there being a difference, so to speak. It other words, it will not be sailing with a full complement of passengers. But, as good fortune would have it, or the sort of good fortune that seems to come easily to Madame Moghra, Captain Lanfranc deemed it a good idea to have a handful of passengers on board to put the crew through their paces, and since it is going directly to the port where the World Spiritualist Congress is to be held it will be perfect for our little troupe. I heard Monsieur Croquemort say there will be three other passengers besides us. The entire voyage will take but two days. This new steam ship travel is unfathomable. We will be in Biarritz by the twentieth of the month.”

 

“Happy accidents,” pronounced the Countess breezily as they emerged from the bowels of Dis into the moonlit lane and the doctor gasped for oxygen like a drowning man. “I like a happy accident. We can deliver the brooch tomorrow night and be on our way back to London the very next morning. I will have a whole month in which to complete my Christmas shopping. I have heard tell of a wonderful tailor in Savile Row who specializes in smoking jackets. It’s probably not too late to place an order for something in dark green velvet with contrasting quilted silk lapels in chartreuse.”

Doctor Watson broke out into a fit of violent coughing. He didn’t know which was worse. The fact he hadn’t even thought about Christmas shopping or the fact she was determined to saddle him with a velvet smoking jacket! “Unlucky accident more like it!” he spluttered. “The dank air down in that dungeon was noxious. I hope it chokes the old fraud to death. I could barely breathe. It has ratcheted up my bronchitis. Please turn your face the other way,” he delivered advisedly. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to expectorate before this gob of phlegm and the notion of a smoking jacket chokes me to death.”

Smiling wryly, she turned her face to the brick wall and winced at the horrible gurgling sounds emanating from his throat. His cough had been getting progressively worse long before they went down into the damp crypt. Before she knew it her thoughts were running away from her, running ahead of themselves, proving that the headstrong, wilful, whimsical part of her had not been entirely subsumed by the mature young woman she imagined she had turned into.

“What you need is a spell in the sun, mon ami. How does Biarritz sound?”

His eyes bulged from their sockets as his flushed face went from red to apoplectic purple. “Oh! So that’s what all that cajolerie was about with the maid! Well, for your information, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being in Biarritz with a bunch of loonies promenading along the boardwalk, debating the science of ectoplasm, the health benefits of auras and the grooming habits of unicorns! Besides, that’s where I picked up this bout of bronchitis in the first place! And yet I count myself luckier than the rest of the unfortunates who shared a spot at the roulette table of the casino that fateful evening. I’m sure the croupier had Spanish flu. I heard several people had been taken to hospital the next day. One died. Fortunately, I had strong lungs. My immune system fought off the worst of the Spanish bugs. But the battle has weakened my chest. And no matter how many cigarettes I smoke it doesn’t seem to improve matters.”

By the time he gurgled out the last word he was gasping.

“Well it’s either the foggy-brained in Biarritz or the bronchial fog off the Thames,” she returned somewhat flippantly, making light of his long-winded rejoinder, not because she didn’t care – she cared deeply – but because she knew there was no point arguing when he was so het up. This séance business with Madame Moghra had certainly gotten under his skin. That was another reason to travel to Biarritz on the SS Pleiades. He would have a chance to get off his chest all the negative emotion he had bottled up years ago. No wonder he was having trouble breathing. He needed to clear the air with the medium and if that meant having some sort of confrontation, so be it. At least the party would be a small one and the voyage would be brief. And it should not prove too difficult to get four tickets for a steam ship that was practically empty. Her mind was made up. He would thank her later.

Chapter 4 – Marsh House

 

Back in the mists of time when some feudal lord decided to create a defensive moat for York Castle he commanded some luckless peasants to dig out a large ditch east of the city where the River Fosse meandered past an old manor house overlooking rich green pasture where cows and sheep grazed in a sheltered hollow. By and by, the moat silted up, the river spread her banks and the ditch became known as the King’s Fishpond. Gradually, the moat disappeared altogether and the King’s Fishpond became a boggy marshland full of noisy water birds. The cows and sheep had long gone, but the manor house remained. It had long ago been christened Marsh House by everyone who knew it, and over the years it had been extended countless times by various owners using fieldstone, red brick and half-timbering until it possessed a bewildering number of irregular wings and gables punctuated with turrets, dormers and tall chimneystacks. The garden was overgrown, full of trailing ivy, rambling roses and mossy paths overshadowed by ancient oaks and weeping willows. It was the only house standing in the cul-de-sac called Fish Court and if any house in York was going to be haunted it was Marsh House.

Dr Watson had spent the day in bed resting, his breathing laboured, and his persistent cough turning into a virulent bark. Countess Volodymyrovna tried to talk him into staying in bed while she went to deliver the brooch on her own but he wouldn’t hear of it. It was as if he was frightened she might be adversely affected by the haunted house or become possessed by demonic spirits. Or perhaps fall for the charm of his arch nemesis, Madame Moghra. The Countess still hadn’t managed to coax out of him exactly what had happened at the séance several years ago that had caused him to amass so much animosity toward the famous medium. It wasn’t like him to nurse ill-will toward others for long. Some people he liked and others he didn’t and he didn’t dwell on the whys and wherefores too much. The fact he had lived with Sherlock’s idiosyncratic habits, pedantic methodologies, messy scientific experimentations, mood swings, erratic comings and goings, cocaine habit, and violin scraping for all those years proved what an easy going nature he had. So it seemed out of character for him to hold onto a grudge.

Marsh House had not yet been electrified and candles could be seen flickering in most of the latticed windows. Dozens of chimneystacks sent ribbons of white smoke spiralling into the starless night sky.

As was the custom at this time of year, the manor house had been leased cheaply with a small retinue of servants while the owners decamped to the south of France for the winter. The covered porch framing the heavy oak door ushered directly into a traditional, double-storied, great hall which featured a massive hammerbeam roof. On one side of the vast space a log fire blazed in a huge brick hearth. At least forty guests had arrived ahead of them, including the mayor in his mayoral robes and regalia, a bishop, several clergymen, and some of York’s most prominent citizens. Six musicians were playing medieval instruments in the minstrels’ gallery, including a queer looking violin player, towering head and shoulders above the rest. A young woman was singing a Celtic ballad. The Tudors knew how to entertain on a grand scale and Madame Moghra knew how to throw a memorable soiree. She was holding court, thrilling her sycophants with tales of the supernatural. On her head was another rococo excrescence a la Madame de Pompadour. Dr Watson took one look then broadcast how much he’d like to murder the old fraud, and he didn’t care who heard him!

As promised, the props from the show were on display. The levitating throne was positioned in a large bay window. The camera obscura with the tri-unal lens had been set up on its tripod stand in the adjoining library where the melancholic Mr Ffrench was demonstrating its scientific wonders to a swarm of enthusiasts buzzing around it like bees around a honey pot. The ghost shroud was draped over the bannister of the minstrels’ gallery, fluttering like a pennant in the breeze. Dr Watson was keen to inspect the camera obscura but decided to wait until the crowd thinned. Experience had taught him that this usually happened around the time that supper was served.

“Let’s get a drink before we go any further,” he suggested grumpily.

They collected glasses of sweet sherry from a nearby tray table and glanced up at the minstrels’ gallery.

“I think that voice might belong to the same sublime songstress we heard at the Unitarian Church Hall,” commented the Countess.

The doctor nodded. “I was thinking the same thing myself. That young woman has been blessed with the voice of an angel.”

“She’s been blessed with the face of an angel as well,” added the Countess, taking the words right out of the doctor’s mouth. “The maid mentioned a troupe of six. I hope the songstress is part of the six-some. She will make for a sublime shipboard companion.”

Hang on! Hadn’t he stated in no uncertain terms he would NOT be travelling to Biarritz on the SS Pleiades!

“Over my dead body!” he had stated bluntly.

“Be careful what you wish for,” she had tossed back carelessly.

After casting her eyes back over the shroud dangling over the bannister her elegant brows puckered. “I feel the need to do a little sleuthing.”

He looked around to make sure they weren’t being overheard. “Sleuthing?”

“I want to know how that ghost image was forged.”

“Forget it,” he dismissed, thankful that she didn’t mean sleuthing-sleuthing. “Some things are unknowable.”

“As in supernatural things?” she teased.

“Take that shroud in Milan –”

“Turin,” she corrected.

“Yes, that one, well nobody knows how the image impregnated itself on the cloth. I’m loath to admit it, but the supernatural explanation is the one that actually makes the best sense.”

She gave a cynical laugh. “And you call yourself a rationalist!”

“A realist,” he corrected sternly.

She rolled her eyes. “And I’m a pragmatist – I work with facts. I don’t believe in immaculate conception, or miraculous acheiropoieta, and I most certainly don’t believe an image can impregnate itself on a cloth!”

“All right,” he conceded, “bad choice of words. What on earth is acheiro…?”

She didn’t wait for him to finish. “An image made without hands, usually an ikon. In other words, produced by some divine miracle, par example: the Mandylion of Edessa and the Hodegretia.”

He’d never heard of them. “Miraculous or not, we are both familiar with the facts regarding the Shroud of Turin. None of the scientific explanations can adequately account for it. The image is a good likeness of a corpse, in other words, anatomically correct. The wounds correspond to those inflicted on Jesus. How was the image formed? That question has been asked time and again. And yet every explanation has failed to provide a definitive answer. I have lost count of the various hypotheses.” He began to count on his fingers. “Red paint mixed with saliva? Human blood? Plant pigment? Hematite? Albumin? Iron oxide? Ferrous oxide? Dust? Wood pulp? A mixture of several of the above? Some invisible weaving technique? Leakage from the corpse after burial? The current list is as long as your arm.”

“You failed to mention my favourite – placing the cloth on top of a heated bas-relief to produce a 3 dimensional scorch mark that cannot be washed out.”

“Well, that’s a new one on me!”

“I haven’t studied any of the latest theories, and I’m not saying I could offer a better explanation than the ones already offered, but I’m fairly certain if I turned my mind to it I could probably work out how that ghost image ended up on that bit of flax.”

“The crucifixion image has kept the best minds baffled for centuries and that ghost image looks to be of the same provenance. Heaven knows where Madame Moghra came across it, though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she had pilfered it from some filthy unconsecrated grave which would account for the bad smell. You’ll never manage to work it out. Besides, we’re only here for a few hours.”

“That should be enough time.”

It was his turn to laugh. “What! A few hours!”

“What are you willing to wager?”

“Wager?”

“Yes, let’s make it interesting. Let’s make a bet,” she dared. “You say I cannot work out how the image was put on the cloth and I say I can.”

“Before we leave here tonight?” he tested.

She nodded.

“Let’s say by midnight,” he qualified just to be on the safe side, glancing at the old grandfather clock leaning against the linenfold panelling.

“Midnight it is. If I win you will travel on the SS Pleiades to Biarritz,” she asserted confidently.

He glanced back at the longcase clock. It was twenty minutes past seven. She had less than five hours. His sour face cleared to a winning smile. “And if I win we return to London straight after breakfast.”

They shook on it.

Unbeknown to the doctor, she had more at stake than he knew. She had already purchased two first class seats in a private smoker on tomorrow’s train, plus two second class tickets for her maid and manservant, arranged accommodation at the Mungo Arms Hotel in Glasgow for four, and reserved four tickets for the inaugural voyage on the SS Pleiades – two luxe cabins on the Promenade deck and two superior cabins on B deck. Oh, well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Besides, she had not revealed to the doctor the latest information pertaining to the Torino Shroud.

Last year an amateur photographer by the name of Secondo Pia had photographed the shroud for the first time in its long history and discovered something startling. The black and white tones on the photograph turned out to be more distinctive than the actual sepia tones on the cloth. In other words, the negative image was more vivid than the positive image. That little known discovery germinated in her mind an intriguing idea that the ghost image was somehow linked to the camera obscura.

As they were shaking hands, a tall shadow loomed up behind them.

“Good evening,” the shadow said hypnotically with the hint of a French accent.

They turned to find the charismatic Master of Ceremonies, Monsieur Croquemort, looking decidedly shorter minus silk top hat, though still tall enough to tower over them. His height would have been on a par with Sherlock’s and it enhanced the striking effect of his supernatural persona. He was endowed with an impeccably groomed moustache, thin and curling, pomaded black hair, and magnetic black eyes that gleamed with the promise of the power of black magic. He had teamed a maroon velvet smoking jacket with a chartreuse silk cravat and black velvet trousers. On most men the outfit would have looked foppish, possibly even vulgar. Perhaps because he was a Frenchman he could pull off the dandy look without appearing anything of the sort.

“I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation just now,” he continued with the confidence of the conjuror performing a trick. “You are in two minds whether to travel to Biarritz or return to London. I do not think you will regret sailing on the SS Pleiades. I am Monsieur Champollion Croquemort, but you know that already. The steam ship is the latest design and even features a ship to shore wireless device. She has been fitted with every luxury and will cruise the French coast and La Manche after she deposits us in Biarritz.”

“I was in Biarritz last summer,” returned the doctor peevishly, doing his best to ignore the velvet smoking jacket. “It was overrun with Swiss and German tourists. There was a bout of Spanish flu going about. I picked up a chest infection that has stayed with me all autumn and I have no intention of returning any time soon for more of the same now that winter is almost upon us.”

“I’m not surprised you did not enjoy your sojourn, Dr Watson,” the velvet patterer returned. “Summer is the worst time to visit Biarritz. Late autumn is perfect. The weather is milder.” He saw the doctor’s eyes steal toward the bay window. “Have you had a chance to inspect the levitating chair? Are you interested in such things?”

The doctor noted that the odious medium and her sycophants had moved on. The chair was currently free from nosy parkers. “Keenly interested,” he admitted freely. “I shall go straight over. It was a pleasure to meet you, Monsieur Croquemort.” He delivered that last briskly and deliberately pronounced the ‘t’. It was a blunt hint that he did not want company.

The Countess did not want company either. She had also noted that the musicians had recently vacated the gallery. There was no time to lose if she wanted to win that impulsive wager. “It has been lovely talking to you, Monsieur Croquemort. Do excuse me, s’il vous plait.”

Determined to locate the stairs leading up to the minstrels’ gallery, her eyes had already scanned the great hall whilst they had been conversing with the Master of Ceremonies. She had spotted no doorways leading to stairwells. However, a quick inspection of the adjoining library revealed a jib door in the book-shelving. Through the open door she could see a narrow passage leading to a set of spiral stairs. Voila! She was on her way, tripping up the stairs as fast as her silk petticoats would allow whilst at the same time fumbling for the magnifying glass buried at the bottom of her beaded evening purse…

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

Startled, she dropped the glass. It thudded to the floor and made a dull thwack on the bare oak boards. The minstrels’ gallery appeared empty so where did the voice spring from? Perhaps Marsh House really was haunted!

“Do you believe in ghosts?” the fairy voice repeated.

The Countess spun round and there, perched on a bench in a niche like a pixie on a toadstool, was the sublime young songstress.

“You must be psychic,” the Countess responded flippantly, checking to make sure the magnifying lens wasn’t broken – fortunately such lenses were extremely hardy. “I have been pondering that very question all evening,” she invented artlessly. “I thought I might satisfy my curiosity by taking a close look at the ghost shroud. It has been fascinating me ever since I saw the performance last night.”

“Did you enjoy it?”

“The performance? Bien sur, it was extraordinaire!”

“You speak French,” observed the fey creature. “I wish I could speak French. I can sing French, of course, how do you say? – bien sur – but I haven’t a clue what I’m singing. It’s just tuneful words. I can sing Latin too. And Gaelic. That’s my favourite. Everything Gaelic sounds heavenly. Moghra is Gaelic. It means love.”

“I think anything you sing would sound heavenly. You have a sublime voice. My travelling companion, Dr Watson, and I were just saying so, admiring your voice yet again.”

The fairy glided straight over the compliment as if she had heard it a thousand times. “Oh, I’m glad he’s not your husband. He’s too old and not very handsome, or even very rich by the looks of it. I saw when the two of you came in and I thought you could do better.”

“I was married once to an older man. They’re not all bad. Some can make quite good husbands.”

“Only if they’re rich. Was your husband rich?”

“Yes, he was quite wealthy. I’m a widow now.”

“Did he leave you all his money?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, you are sooo lucky! I wish I were lucky! I wish I had a rich husband who would die and leave me all his money. Life is sooo unfair. Especially for women. Men make all the rules and they make them to suit themselves. Do you think that is true?”

“Yes, quite true.”

“It’s sooo unfair, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” agreed the Countess, “most unfair.”

“Sublime – I like that word. Some men say my voice is a gift from God. I think it’s a gift from the angels. What do you think?”

“I really cannot say either way. Does it matter?”

“Oh, yes! I speak to angels, you see. I think they might stop speaking to me if I turned my back on them. I see auras too. You have a lovely aura, all yellow and blue, like fields of sunflowers and stretches of summer sky.”

The grandfather clock chimed the hour. It was eight o’clock. Time was ticking away, but the observation of sunflowers and blue skies pulled the Countess up short – yellow and blue – the colours of the Ukrainian flag. The Countess urged herself to get a grip before her fertile imagination got the better of her. It was time to get to work.

“Do you mind if I take a closer look at the shroud?”

“Oh, not at all! Here, let me help you.”

In the blink of an eye the diaphanous fairy leapt off her perch and caught hold of the shroud. It fluttered over their heads like a giant butterfly before coming to rest on the floor of the gallery. Before the Countess could thank the sprite she had disappeared. Thank goodness for that, she thought, happy to be able to examine the ghost image without interruption. But just as suddenly as the sprite had disappeared she suddenly reappeared, this time with a glittering silver candelabra in her hand.

“I thought you might need more light,” she said helpfully, placing the candelabra carefully on the bare boards.

The Countess was on her hands and knees going over the every inch of the ghost image while the fey creature garbled on about angels and auras. She had a heart-shaped face and lips that formed a perpetual smile that would have looked happy even when the person inside was sad. Hundreds of women would have killed for that smile. One of the Countess’s tutors had once informed her that the size of our eyes at birth, are the size they will always be. The fairy creature had eyes so large she looked like she’d just been born. They sparkled incessantly and looked so full of wide-eyed innocence they charmed without even trying. It was impossible to imagine them ever looking dishonest or coquettish which made them even more irresistible.

“Your companion has a pale aura. He must be suffering poor health. There is an unhealthy cloud hanging over him.”

The fairy expressed her personal opinions with all the candour and youthful naivety of a girl-child, refreshing at first, but after a short time the sweet sing-song voice began to grate. There were several times during the one-sided colloquy the Countess wanted to stop what she was doing, take the young woman by the shoulders and give her a violent shake. In the end she simply stopped listening and gave her concentration over to the shroud.

After a brief examination it became obvious that it was not a scorch mark that had produced the image and that meant her initial germ of an idea was all wrong. The image could not have been achieved by placing the wet cloth on a heated bas-relief in order to transfer the likeness of the 3 dimensional carving onto the cloth. Back in Odessa she had had free run of the estate of her step-father and had often visited the serfs at their labours. One of her favourite serfs was Xenia’s godmother who worked in the ironing room. It was a prestigious position. To iron the damask tablecloths, the fine bed-linen, and the expensive dresses of the ladies of the house without scorching the garments required great care and not a little knowledge of all the different delicate fabrics such as satin, silk, taffeta, velvet, muslin and linen, and in particular their different reactions to heat. There were dozens of irons, some hotter than others, some heavier, some bigger and some smaller. Too hot and the fabric was ruined, too cold and the creases remained. On a neighbouring estate a female serf had been flogged to death for scorching some new Brussels lace. Usually the garments were hung in the steam room while still wet and the creases fell out as the garment dried but occasionally dresses would need ironing without being washed, especially after being packed for long periods in travel trunks, especially if they belonged to her peripatetic aunt. Frequent washing was the ruin of garments. Everyone knew that. The poor did not wash their clothes often because it wore the clothes out. They had to make their garments last longer. Even the rich understood it was better to air clothes and brush them and iron them than to wash them. Things were folded carefully into chests or rolled up so as not to cause creases. But sometimes they needed ironing despite all these precautions. Xenia’s godmother used an old linen cloth to stop the clothes from scorching. She never ironed directly onto the garment itself, hence the Countess had seen the effects of scorch marks on linen, she had smelled it, she had remembered it, and this ghost shroud did not look or smell like the cloth in the ironing room. Her hopes were dashed. Her Faustian bargain lost.

“Do you mind if I ask what you’re looking for?” said the fairy.

The Countess sat back on her haunches. “I was trying to work out how this ghost image came to be on the cloth.”

“Oh, that’s easy. It was made by a ghost.”

The Countess sighed with exasperation. “I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“That’s what everyone says until they get the shivers. Take this house. If you don’t believe in ghosts before coming here you’ll believe in ghosts by the time you leave.”

The Countess was annoyed with herself and her annoyance was transferring itself to the young woman with the annoying sing-song voice. It was one thing to look like a fairy but quite another to sound like one, especially after the age of about six. “Really?”

Bien sur – it’s haunted.”

“Is that so?”

Bien sur. Wait a few hours and you’ll see what I mean.”

“I doubt I will see anything you mean.”

“I mean you will start to feel a ghostly presence.”

“I doubt it.”

“Some people are more receptive than others.”

“I guess it’s the same with angels and auras.” The facetious tone did not seem to discourage the fee-fey-fairy.

“Exactly, bien sur! There’s a ghost cat here. I saw it the first night we arrived. It was sitting on the doorstep and we hadn’t even crossed the threshold.”

“A black cat, no doubt – do you mind lying down here next to this shroud for a moment.”

“What for?”

“I want to ascertain how tall the ghost was.”

“Oh, yes, of course, bien sur!” Obligingly, the ethereal creature stretched herself out on the floor beside the shroud. She was about six inches shorter than the Countess which put the shroud at five foot and two inches. “How did you know?”

“Know what?”

“Know that the ghost cat was black.”

“I’m psychic.”

The young woman ignored the cynical refrain, or perhaps she failed to notice it. For someone who claimed to be receptive she was not very perceptive. She simply moved right along as children do who are telling a story and will not be silenced before they get to the end, no matter how unengaged the listener might be. “Madame Moghra saw a little ghost girl with a porcelain dolly in her arms. She was crying because she had lost her mother.”

“That was careless. She should have taken better care of her.”

“Oh, yes, bien sur.”

That particular phrase was beginning to rankle. The Countess decided she would throttle the young woman the next time she employed it and then there really would be a ghost at Marsh House. She bent down to smell the cloth. The smell was pungent and unpleasant but she couldn’t place it. She tried again but it proved elusive.

“What are you doing now?”

“I’m trying to work out what this cloth smells like.”

“Oh, that’s easy, it smells like wee.”

“What?”

“I used to wet the bed and it smells like that.”

Good grief! The annoying fairy was right! The Countess almost hugged her. The wee word triggered something new in her imagination. Urine had an ammonia smell. What was ammonia used for? What was its property? What uses did it have?

“Apart from when you used to wet the bed have you smelled that smell anywhere else?”

The young woman shook her head. “No, you won’t tell anyone will you?”

“Tell them what?”

“I used to be a bed-wetter.”

“I won’t tell a soul, you have my word.”

“I believe you because you have an honest aura. Oh, I just told a lie!”

“A lie?”

“I said no when it wasn’t true. I smelled that smell the other day in the locked-room.”

The Countess pulled herself up and looked earnestly at the aggravating fairy. “Go on?” she encouraged patiently.

“Yes, it was in the locked-room.”

The Countess’s mind boggled. She imagined something sinister, perhaps a hypnotist’s chamber with lots of mirrors, or the diabolical torture chamber of Bluebeard, or some sort of monstrous experimental surgery where corpses floating in baths of amniotic fluid were attached to electric nodes in an attempt to bring them back to life akin to the hideous chamber of Dr Frankenstein. “The locked-room? Is that some sort of secret chamber?”

“No, it’s the dark room where Crispin, I mean Mr Ffrench, develops his photographs.”

Relief washed over the Countess and she burst out laughing. “Bien sur!”

Chapter 5 – The Ghost Shroud

 

“Can you show me where the dark room is?”

“Now?”

“Yes, now, right this very minute.”

“I’m supposed to sing another song soon.”

“We won’t be gone long,” promised the Countess, desperate to win that bet. “You can show me and then leave me to it.”

“To what?”

“To, er, to search for ghosts. I’m starting to see what you mean about this house being haunted. I feel a presence.” She concocted a little shiver.

Vindicated, the elfin-eyed songstress smiled and turned to go. “I told you so. Follow me.”

The Countess waited until they were in the passage. “By the way, I’m Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna.”

“Is that your real name? I ask because it sounds like a song I used to know.” La gamine hummed a few bars. “La, la, la – la, la, la – lah, lah, lah!”

“Yes, it’s my real name.”

“It’s not French is it?”

The passage turned a corner and went down a few steps. The Countess, who considered herself elegant and light of step, suddenly felt like an elephant compared to the thistledown fairy.

“Ukrainian.”

“Really! Madame Moghra said we might visit Moscow and St Petersburg and Kyiv and Odessa after we have visited America. The Tsar is a great believer in ghosts and he’s very rich. I’m Melody Morningstar.”

They turned another corner and descended a steep flight of servant’s stairs where a small high window curtained in cobwebs provided the only light. The Countess correctly surmised they had passed into the domestic wing of the rambling old house. The layout was utilitarian, there were no rugs, no candle-sconces, the floor boards were no longer polished and the walls were devoid of hangings.

“Is that your real name?”

“Oh, good heavens no! I was born Betsy Bottomley. Reverend Blackadder unchristened me and then baptized me afresh. He thinks that someone who speaks to angels and sees auras should have a name that signifies their specialness.”

“Is he part of the troupe?”

“The horse.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“He’s the horse.”

“Oh, the man who was part of the hypnotist’s act, the one who came on after Sissy?”

“That’s right. He saw a ghost on the stairs – a headless lady.”

“She certainly gets around.”

“What?”

“The headless ghost must be incredibly busy. I think she haunts the staircases of several abbeys, castles, and inns.”

The lovely nymph nodded in childish agreement as she came to a standstill and pushed open a door set in a cruck frame. “Here we are. Please don’t break anything. Crispin, I mean Mr Ffrench, gets really angry if anything gets spilled or broken or moved out of place. I accidentally knocked over one of his beakers the other day and he refused to speak to me for hours. His aura is very murky. He’s very troubled. I have to run. I can hear the musicians starting up. They’ll wonder where I am.” She turned to go then spun back on tiptoe like a fairy pirouetting on current of air. “I almost forgot, that ghost you were after is now in Madame Moghra’s bedroom.”

“I’m not really interested in the headless lady. When you’ve seen one headless ghost you’ve seen them all.”

“Not the headless lady, the one on the shroud.”

The Countess caught the young woman by the sleeve. She was in two minds whether to slap the fairy or kiss her.

“Where will I find Madame Moghra’s bedroom?”

“It’s at the front of the house, directly above the library, facing south onto the old sunken garden. I have to run.”

 

Photography was the most popular pastime in England. Most large country houses had their own dark room and the Countess had visited enough dark rooms to know her way around them blindfolded. She had almost lost her virginity in one during a visit to Castle Coeur when Captain Longwyck offered to give a demonstration of his box camera. Mmm, now there was man who knew all about apertures!

This dark room was unlike any she had previously seen. It was probably the old wash house, made up of several small chambers. There was still a mangle in the corner and a huge cauldron for boiling clothes. Suspended from the ceiling were racks for drying bed-sheets and tablecloths and such. A number of shrouds identical to one in the gallery, with exactly the same image, were suspended from the racks. That did away with the theory that the ghost shroud had been the burial shroud of a Druidic priestess or even purloined from a cemetery. Someone was mass producing them. A line of large buckets was giving off a pungent odour that smelled like urine, most likely it was ammonia. The Countess wondered if the cloths with the images had been dipped in the ammonia buckets. Yes, they all had that same horrid wee smell.

In an adjoining room, cloths with no images were hanging up to dry. These had a different smell. They hadn’t been dipped in ammonia. The Countess conducted a quick search and in a corner, behind a line of shrouds, she found an old copper bath full of silver sulphate.

Aware that time was of the essence, she moved on, despite needing time to process it all. An adjoining windowless room was being used as a proper dark room for developing photographs. There were the usual trays of chemicals and a Belfast sink. Another windowless room at the rear was being used as a storeroom. There was another camera obscura on a tripod stand. This one had a bi-unal lens. On a table were several Kodak box cameras.

Ammonia? Silver sulphate? Shrouds with images? Shrouds with no images? Cameras? She was sure there had to be a link, a cause and effect, but it proved as elusive as fairy dust. She returned to the first room with the ghost shrouds smelling of ammonia, sat down on a creepie stool and closed her eyes in an effort to block out extraneous thoughts.

Something the young woman said began stirring vaguely in the back of the Countess’s mind, floating in the ether of unconscious thought, shapeless, formless, out of reach. Just as her thoughts began to take semblance she felt something brush her leg and got such a fright she fell backwards, landing inelegantly with her legs in the air. From the corner of her eye she spotted a weird black shape dart across the room. It leapt onto the windowsill where eerie moonlight bathed it in surreal bluish hues. When it meowed to be let out through the casement window left slightly ajar, she laughed at herself. This was no ghost moggie…Ghost?

Bien sur!

She was about to set the cat free and then go directly to Madame Moghra’s bedroom when she heard the door to the passage open and close and decided to stay put on the floor. A tilt of her head gave her a reasonable view of the room through the gaps in the hanging ghosts.

The cat meowed louder and the person who had entered the room shuffled to the window to let it out. The ghost shrouds seemed to sough and sigh at the passing. Moonlight caught the figure full on the face and for one horrible moment the spooky immobility of that pale face framed in the gloaming marsh light made the visage look slightly mad. It was the brooding magic lantern expert, Mr Ffrench. He opened the casement window using one hand and watched as the cat leapt out. The draught from the open window endowed the shrouds with a life of their own causing them to waft to and fro like ghosts. Real ghosts! He did not bother to secure the window, most likely thinking it might help the ammonia fumes escape or possibly he was thinking of the cat. In his other hand was a bottle of lurid green liquid. The Countess watched, horrified, as he tilted back his pale head and took a gulp, winced, shivered, stiffened, and then took another swig straight from the bottle. The Countess gasped, leapt to her feet and battled her way through the hanging ghosts.

“Give that to me!” She wrenched the bottle of green stuff out of his hands.

“What the hell! Where did you spring from?”

“Never mind that! You cannot drink this stuff!”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s poison!”

“So?” He looked past her shoulder as though expecting more apparitions to emerge from behind the ghost shrouds. “If I choose to drink poison, that’s my choice, surely? Maybe you should try it! Go ahead! Try it!”

She would not be goaded by the disturbed young man and averted her face.

“One swig won’t hurt,” he persisted. “The little green fairy might be a godsend. You’ll sleep like a baby.”

“The little green fairy?” She checked the label on the bottle and kicked herself. “Absinthe!”

A convulsive, mocking laugh erupted from his throat. “What else!” He laughed again, spitefully and sarcastically, snatching back the bottle. “What did you think it was? Oh, don’t bother answering. What are you doing down here anyway?”

Feeling suddenly stupid, she snatched the bottle back and took a gulp. What a night! She’d developed a taste for absinthe in Melbourne after the death of her aunt. There were several things about the death that troubled her. She couldn’t put her finger on them and turned to the green fairy for enlightenment but all the fee-fey-fairy did was cloud her judgement. Jack did not discourage her dependence, in fact, it seemed to amuse him. She had acquired a taste for it before she realized how addictive it was. It was addictive still. She took another gulp.

“Looking for ghosts,” she said.

His next laugh was less sarcastic but still mocking. “Well,” he said, gesturing with both hands, “you struck it lucky! Here be ghosts!”

She took another gulp. “Why so many?”

He gave a lazy shrug of his shoulders. “Why not?”

She gazed at the floating shrouds, took another swig of wormwood to aid imagination then handed back the bottle and tried to reason, but her conjecture was really nothing more than a wild stab in the dark. “This is your domain, your little workshop. You’re creating these ghosts. You’re experimenting, working out how to perfect the images.”

“They’re already perfect,” he boasted, meeting her gaze for the first time.

“Then why make so many?” she challenged, looking him in the eye, and seeing once again the empty ache of the poet blurred with the cold truth of the scientist.

He immediately averted his wretched gaze, moved away from the window and fought his way through the hanging ghosts back to the bench by the door where he put the lid on the bottle and hid it behind some bottles of chemicals. The absinthe had clearly loosened his tongue, and the taciturn broody Byron had turned into a talkative Royal Academician, keen to share his knowledge.

“They’re going to be used in America. Instead of one ghost shroud we’ll do dozens of them. They’ll float all around the hall, over the heads of the audience, on invisible wires. The crowd will go mad. It will be pandemonium. The publicity will be enormous. We’ll set up dozens of camera obscuras and project dozens of ghosts onto the walls and ceiling at the same time. Camera obscuras can be made from cardboard boxes. I’ve got several on the go, trying to work out the best size. But we will need to hire the right hall and train enough operators. I’m instructing Reverend Blackadder at the moment but he’s proving to be a slow learner. He doesn’t have a scientific brain. He’s a Theosophist,” he said, as if that explained it.

“Whose idea is it? All the ghosts, I mean? Madame Moghra’s?”

He shook his head in disgust and his untidy blond hair kicked in wild unison. “No, she’s good at what she does, the spiritual stuff, but she hasn’t got the sort of imagination that can dream up the truly dramatic. That’s Champollion’s metier. Croquemort is a genius at that sort of thing. He used to be a magician.”

“And now he’s a hypnotist.”

“Mesmerist,” he corrected, lighting a candle in a wooden holder. “A hypnotist can actually put someone in a trance and make them recall things from the dim dark depths of their memory, or make an auto-suggestion that will be acted upon once the subject wakes from their trance, such as no longer being terrified of spiders or dogs or ghosts. A mesmerist is a showman. It’s an act. You’ve met Sissy. She wears different wigs and can act out almost any part you want. You should see her as an old cripple. She’s got a gift. Reverend Blackadder isn’t half as good but he’s passable. Sometimes Champollion hires an actor or actress so that the routine doesn’t get stale, especially if we stay in a city longer than planned.”

The Countess turned to study one of the shrouds in the candlelight, letting the cloth run through her fingers. Was it still a fair bet if she found out how the shroud was created, not by using her own imagination or brain, but by simply asking the creator? She would win the bet, yes, but might she hate herself later?

“Dr Watson and I have made a wager that I cannot work out how the ghost image was created. I don’t want you to tell me how it was done, but could you nod if I’m right and shake your head if I’m wrong.”

“Is that the same Dr John Watson who is the friend of the great consulting detective Mr Sherlock Holmes?”

She wanted to say: And I’m the daughter of the great consulting detective Mr Sherlock Holmes, but managed to bite her tongue and nod at the same time. “Dr Watson and I are travelling companions. I’m Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna.”

“That’s a good stage name. Go ahead. Ask away.”

“First of all, Dr Watson wondered how the shroud that first appeared in the graveyard scene had no image and then suddenly did have an image. I’m guessing you used one of the blank shrouds and then whipped it away as it was flying back and forth, and had the other one, possibly underneath, ready to take its place.”

He nodded. “It’s the standard illusionist’s sleight-of-hand. Direct the audience’s attention elsewhere while you perform the magic.”

“You used the lovely harpist to divert the eye while the first cloth flew out of sight and the second cloth with the image appeared.”

He nodded. “Miss Morningstar.”

“She of the sublime singing voice and irritating speaking voice.”

“Ah! I see you’ve met her too. I’m guessing she was the one who led you here?”

“Please don’t hold it against her. I can be very persuasive.”

“And she can be very naïve.”

“Let me go back to my train of thought before I lose it. How is the image created on the cloth? It reminds me of the Shroud of Turin and no one has been able to figure it out for centuries but I wondered if it had something to do with a camera.”

“You’ve read about Secondo Pia’s photograph then?”

“Yes, though I haven’t actually seen it for myself – only a photo of the photo.”

“Same here, but I’ve seen the Shroud. I lived in Italy for several years. It was Champollion’s idea to make a shroud for the show. We could have merely used a slide as most of the magic lantern shows do but Champollion likes to give the audience something tangible to touch afterwards, hence the levitating chair and the camera obscura. He asked me to come up with something similar to the Shroud. I’d already spent years wondering about the Turin Shroud and rose to the challenge.”

The Countess put up her hand to stop him. “Let me guess from here. You dipped the linen in a solution of silver sulphate and hung it up to dry.”

He nodded.

“The silver sulphate gave the linen cloth the same properties as photographic paper and that’s why the images on the shroud look like negatives.”

Again he nodded.

“You used a camera and set it on long exposure, possibly for six hours.”

He gave a wave of his hand to indicate more, like a conductor waving a baton or a magician waving a wand.

“Seven hours.”

He waved his wand-like hand higher.

“Eight hours.”

He nodded.

“That means you had to have something to photograph such as a human female form, but as it was long exposure and no one would be able to stand motionless for eight hours, it suggests you used a life-size statue. You photographed through the cloth so that the image appeared on the cloth without using any pigments.”

He nodded.

“Next, you washed the cloth with the negative image on it in a solution of ammonia to remove the silver so no one would ever associate it with a photograph.”

“A woman with an algebraic brain,” he noted not unkindly, “that’s rare.”

She accepted the back-handed compliment with good grace. “Do you think the Shroud of Turin was made the same way?”

“It’s possible. Magic lanterns were in use by the 1650’s using an oil lamp or candle so it’s not improbable that they might have been used by some clever forger. In fact there are stories of forgers being tortured to confess the shroud is a forgery. Later, it’s the opposite. What did Calvin say: St John must be a liar!”

“That reminds me of Pope Gregory’s tenet: The more outrageous the religious claim the more the people must rely on faith.”

“And the less they will apply any logical thinking,” he finished for her as people do who are following the same thought.

“How about some more of la fee verte before I leave?” proposed the Countess. “I’d like to toast my success in advance.”

“Artemisia wins the day yet again!” He retrieved the bottle and removed the cap. “But you still don’t know what the image was.”

“Not yet,” she said confidently, “but I think I might find it Madame Moghra’s bedroom and that’s where I’m going when I leave here.”

He raised the bottle high in the air in the form of a mock toast and passed it to her. “Congratulations on your success, Artemisia. I hope your wager was for something substantial.”

She took a swig of absinthe. “A cruise on the SS Pleiades.”

Shaggy blond brows registered his surprise. “I predict we will meet again in the not too distant future, Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna.”

“You have the gift of second sight, Mr Ffrench,” she teased as she turned her back on the room full of ghost shrouds and the poet-scientist who had probably solved a religious mystery without anyone ever knowing it.

Chapter 6 – The Green Fairy

 

Unsure of the time, the Countess was hurrying back to the minstrels’ gallery, concentrating on remembering the labyrinthine twists and turns, dizzy with success, when a small man wearing a clerical collar and a tight dinner suit that looked as if it was wearing him rather than the other way around stepped directly into her path. His pipsqueak voice matched his pipkin frame which was topped off with flat yellow hair centred with a bald patch that looked like a halo stuck on the back of his little, round, bowl-shaped head. His face possessed no distinguishing features and resembled every other nondescript cleric she’d ever met.

“Are you lost?” he squeaked.

“No, er, yes,” she replied, feeling suddenly woozy and lightheaded – the after-effects of too much wormwood on an empty stomach. “I was looking for Madame Moghra but I think I took a wrong turn. All these dark corridors look alike. I’ve been trying to find my way back to the minstrels’ gallery for the last ten minutes.”

“You are nowhere near the minstrels’ gallery,” he said, watching as she appeared to sway like a bobble toy in a bath, “and Madame Moghra is in the great hall where she has been all evening.”

“Oh, yes, quite, well, I was not entirely honest with you,” she confessed sheepishly. “I actually have in my possession a valuable gift for Madame Moghra from Lady Moira Cruddock and I didn’t want to deliver it in front of all her guests. I thought I might leave it in her bedroom. You must be Reverend Blacksnake?”

“Blackadder, and you must be the Countess, this way to Madame Moghra’s bedroom.”

She used the hollow halo at the back of his head as a point of reference. It was glowing like a corpse candle in the dark, lighting the way to beautiful death as she trailed after him, trying to think of something to say, though she was not normally lost for words and found making conversation with total strangers extremely easy.

“Have you been long with Madame Moghra’s menagerie?”

He stopped abruptly and she almost ran into him. Before she could apologize he aimed a venomous look over a tightly upholstered shoulder. “Menagerie?”

Oh, dear, that was clumsy and tactless. La fee verte was playing havoc with her tongue-tied brain. Reverend Blackadder was clearly the sort of little man who took offence easily. The slightest slight probably got his back up. “I’m, er, sorry. I, er, meant…” she began stutteringly before he cut her off.

“Don’t bother apologizing – I’m guessing you heard that term from the white witch. That’s how she usually refers to us. She makes us sound like a bunch of circus freaks who have escaped from a zoo.”

“Speaking of zoos – I enjoyed your performance last night. Moliere’s cheval, wasn’t it?”

He beamed, and walked on. He had a light, quick, bouncy step that favoured his toes – his heels hardly touched the ground. “Moliere was a genius. I used to be on the stage before I found God and then Madame Blavatsky.”

“You’re a Theosophist,” she said, following the bouncing beacon – it was like following a will o’ the wisp through a dark swamp.

“Yes, how did you know?”

“Someone mentioned it,” she replied vaguely, unable to remember who. The white witch? The singing fairy? The death-eater? The ghost maker?”

The corridor widened and she caught up to him so they could walk abreast and avoid any more collisions.

“It’s an interesting religion,” she said when her brain caught up to her feet.

“Theosophy is a philosophy,” he corrected acerbically, “not a religion. Do you know much about Madame Blavatsky?”

“I can’t say that I do.” Right now she didn’t know much about anything at all and was having trouble putting one foot in front of another.

“It’s a shame we don’t have more time. I could enlighten you. It could change your life. But getting back to your original question – it is not Madame Moghra’s menagerie even though she likes everyone to think so and is careful to cultivate that impression. It is Monsieur Croquemort’s troupe.”

“I thought he was simply the Master of Ceremonies. She gets top billing and the show seems to revolve around her.”

“Yes, that’s how it seems, but he actually formed the group more than fifteen years ago. He was a magician back then, quite a good one, but something tragic happened and he was forced to step aside. Madame Moghra worked for him. She was just a second rate crystal ball gazer so out of tune with the nuance of the spirit world it made you weep. But he needed someone to take over the top billing. He built her up, gave her finesse, made her famous. At the same time he stepped back, stepped into the role of Master of Ceremonies and hypnotist.”

“Mesmerist.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“A hypnotist is different to a mesmerist.”

“Oh, yes, quite right, but most people don’t know that. Yes, he’s a mesmerist, and like all the things he puts his mind to, he is a maestro.”

They walked a little further without speaking.

“You mentioned something tragic happened?”

“An accident on stage – someone was killed.”

“Someone from the audience?”

“Yes and no – same as his current hypnotic, er, mesmeric act. The person was chosen from the audience but they were actually part of the troupe.”

“The same way that you and Sissy are?” she blurted.

He looked askance. “Yes, how do you know about Sissy?” he said before answering his own question. “I suppose Miss Morningstar has been blabbing as usual. I saw you chatting to her earlier in the evening up in the minstrels’ gallery.”

“We only discussed angels, auras, and the ghost shroud.”

“The ghost shroud?”

“Dr Watson and I made a bet. He bet I cannot work out how it was made and I bet that I could.”

“Oh, you will lose. You will never work it out. The way it is made is pure genius.”

“I’ve already worked it out. What time is it?”

“I lost my pocket watch recently so I cannot tell you the time but we’re almost there.”

“Almost where?”

“Madame Moghra’s bedroom.”

She felt confused. “Don’t we need to go along the minstrels’ gallery to get there?”

“We skirted round it. The minstrels are still playing. You can hear Miss Morningstar singing the Ballad of Mary Marten. It’s her last song for the night. It took a bit longer this way but here we are.”

Oh, yes, now she could hear it.

He stopped and pushed open a heavy oak door.

“Where’s the light thwitch?” she slurred, brushing past him.

“Marsh House hasn’t been electrified,” he reminded. “I can light a candle if you like.”

Moonlight filtering in through large latticed windows where the curtains had been left open provided sufficient light for him to navigate his way around the furniture to the timber mantel where he located some lucifers and a candle in a silver holder.

“There you go,” he said, “you can leave the gift here on the mantel.”

Now that she had stopped walking, her head had started spinning. She fell into a large comfortable wingback chair to stop from falling on the floor. “What gift?”

“The gift the white witch has been boasting about it all day. Are you all right? You look as white as a ghost,” he observed.

She wanted to close her eyes but she kept remembering something important. It had something to do with midnight. “What time is it?”

He glanced at the bracket clock on the mantel. “It has just gone ten. Are you intoxicated? Shall I send Dr Watson up to see you?”

“Yes, yes, send him straight, straight, straight…”

Just before she closed her eyes she saw the life-size marble statue in the corner of the bedroom. That was it! Just gone ten! But where was Dr Watson? She had to tell him before midnight or she would lose. Lose what? Her head felt heavy. Her brain hurt. Her eyelids drooped…

 

Dr Watson had gone straight to the levitating chair in the bay window. It was a fine piece of furniture, the workmanship was first rate. It had filigrees of ironwork embedded in the elaborately carved woodwork, and that gave him an idea about how the chair might be raised a few inches from the ground. There had to be a tiny lever or hidden switch that caused the chair to rise up, either from the legs or from the seat. The feet of the throne-like chair had been carved like lion’s paws. He searched the feet, pressing the claws, the toes, and the backs – nothing. Disappointed, he moved onto the seat, pressing and twisting every conceivable piece of metal and knot of wood. Again nothing.

He stood back and observed the chair for several moments while he lighted a cigarette and inhaled long and hard. The mechanism for lifting the chair had to be able to be operated whilst seated. Madame Moghra had to be in control of her own chair. There was no one on stage with her when the chair levitated. That meant the lever or switch had to be within arm’s reach of the person sitting on the seat. He sat himself down on the chair and began feeling with his fingers. He tried one side at a time then decided that to stay balanced the seat would need to lift from both sides simultaneously. He put his cigarette between his lips and used both hands to feel for the secret switch. It took a while but he suddenly heard a click and felt a wobble. Slowly, the seat began lifting with him still in it.

Of course, it would have appeared a lot more magical if he had been wearing flowing robes that concealed the legs of the chair and if he had swayed from side to side whilst seated it would have added to the airy illusion. He enjoyed the levitating experience while he took a few puffs of his cigarette.

“Bravo, Dr Watson,” congratulated Monsieur Croquemort, moving silently on spider feet. “Shall we return the seat to its original position before anyone else sees you levitating?”

The hypnotic tone brooked no argument. Dr Watson was inclined not to comply, but with his scientific curiosity well and truly sated he obligingly pressed the double levers and the seat slowly descended with a whirr and a click. He would have been embarrassed to call attention to himself anyway. He was not one for seeking the limelight and not in the habit of offending his hosts, whatever his private opinion of them. Solving the puzzle for its own sake was enough.

“That is an ingenious piece of furniture,” he declared as the throne clicked back into place. “My compliments to the designer.”

“Thank you,” said the other modestly.

Bushy brows lifted. “You designed it?”

“You sound surprised?”

“You didn’t construct it as well?”

“No, that was done by a talented cabinet maker working in collaboration with and a gifted blacksmith.”

“Madame Moghra owes them and you a debt of gratitude,” the doctor delivered with an ironic inflection.

“You have met the psychic before?”

“Several years ago,” the doctor dismissed curtly, gritting his teeth at the word psychic. She was no more psychic than that chair!

“Some impressions never leave us,” the other mused philosophically.

“Especially when those impressions are the result of personal stupidity,” returned the doctor with chagrin.

The death-eater gave a mellow smile steeped in sympathy, and had the good sense to digress. “Are you familiar with magic lanterns?”

“I have seen a camera obscura in action several times but I wouldn’t mind having a close look at the tri-unal lens. Has the crowd thinned?”

“I believe it has. Supper is being served in the dining room. Would you care to have something to eat first?”

“No, this wretched bronchitis has ruined my appetite but you go ahead. I’m quite happy to take a look on my own.”

“I’m not hungry either and it will be a pleasure to go over the mechanics of the camera with someone who appreciates the wonder of it from a scientific point of view.”

“You’re a scientist?”

He gave a good-natured laugh. “Not as such. I’m an alchemist, an illusionist, though some might say that’s not so different from being a scientist. We are both interested in the manipulation of physical matter and the secrets of the natural world.”

Dr Watson glanced up at the minstrels’ gallery as he crossed the great hall. The ghost shroud was no longer draped over the bannister. The musicians were no longer playing their medieval instruments and the lovely songstress was no longer singing, moreover, the Countess was nowhere to be seen. He tossed his cigarette onto the flames of the fire as he passed.

In the library the moody young man with the untidy blond hair was sorting through a box of painted slides, picking them up and slotting them back into place. His jittery fingers moved from one to the other in rapid succession, creating order out of chaos.

“Can I leave you to it, Champollion?” he mumbled, as soon as they entered.

The Master of Ceremonies gave a quick nod. “Why don’t you go and get yourself something to eat from the dining room, Crispin?”

“No fear! I’ve had enough of daft questions. I want to get back to my dark room.”

“Well, make sure you get some food from the kitchen on your way. You need to line your stomach.”

“Stop fussing! You sound more like an old woman than that white witch!”

“That’s an interesting young man,” commented the doctor when there was just the two of them in the library.

“He’s one of your ilk – a medical man – a truly bright mind and a brilliant surgeon.”

“Does he still practice medicine?”

“He’s been deregistered; a drinking problem.”

“That’s what you meant by lining the stomach?”

“He’s addicted to the green fairy.”

“Excuse me?”

“Absinthe.”

“You said he was deregistered?”

“One death too many on the operating table. His drunkenness could no longer be hushed up by his colleagues.”

The two men began to examine the camera.

“I must say,” admitted the doctor, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by tonight.”

“In what way?”

“You haven’t bothered to hide the cabalistic tricks of your trade.”

The Master of Ceremonies smiled indulgently and slipped momentarily into French. “Pensez donc. Think about it, Dr Watson. The bulk of our audience is not here tonight. Poor people aren’t interested in how things work. They just want to be entertained. The people who have been invited tonight don’t even come to our shows. They may have been to a magic lantern show at one time in their lives but what they want is to feel important. They need to feel au courant, in the know, they want to meet the famous personages of their time, and they are the ones who will hold private séances where Madame Moghra will be paid handsomely for her rapport with the spirit world. We always host a soiree on our last evening in the understanding that when we return we will be assured of top billing and will be able to hire an excellent venue which will cater to the masses – the servants and factory hands and shop girls will flock to our shows. And in its own way, this is a show too – we are still performing.”

The doctor nodded thoughtfully, appreciative of the candour of his host. The charismatic illusionist was actually a hard-headed materialist and unafraid to own up to it. He was not sorry he had attended the soiree after all. He turned his attention to the box of painted slides. “Who paints the images on your glass slides?”

“Reverend Blackadder – oh, speak of the devil!”

A red-faced little man wearing a clerical collar stepped through the jib door in the shelving and hurried toward them. “Dr Watson, I presume,” he said breathlessly, not waiting for a response. “I have just left your companion upstairs. She appears to be, er, intoxicated.”

“Intoxicated? Are you sure?”

The red-faced man nodded. “Quite sure!”

“Has she been chatting with Crispin?” intervened Monsieur Croquemort, correctly reading the nervous flicker in the reverend’s eyes.

“I believe so. I encountered her near the back stairs that lead up from the wash room.”

“I see,” murmured the MC, looking meaningfully at the doctor. “Crispin has his dark room and his studio in the wash room. It is his private space. He goes there to be alone. He is partial to absinthe and keeps a bottle or two down there.”

The doctor had treated numerous alcoholics over the years and understood at once what ‘private space’ meant. Most alcoholics started off as social drinkers and ended by drinking alone. “I suppose you’d better lead me to her,” he sighed heavily, secretly annoyed at having his inspection of the slides interrupted. His brother had been a hopeless drunk and he’d lost count of the number of times he’d bailed him out of trouble and sat with him while he sobered up, and though the Countess had not shown any signs of being partial to green demon drink so far, the thought of acting as the sober one yet again left a bitter taste in his mouth. It also proved how little he knew about her. “Where did you say you left the Countess?”

“In Madame Moghra’s bedroom.”

It was Monsieur Croquemort’s turn to look taken aback. His disapproving black brows formed a sinister slant. “Madame Moghra’s bedroom?”

“She has a gift for the white witch,” the reverend reminded with a sneer, “and she didn’t want to deliver it in front of all the guests. She thought she might deposit it in her bedroom. That’s where she was going when I came across her.”

“Lead the way,” sighed the doctor.

The grandfather clock in the great hall began to chime the half hour.

“I’m afraid I must dash,” the reverend begged off. “I am due to give a lecture on Theosophy in the long gallery at half past ten. That’s where I was going when I bumped into your companion. It has delayed me no end.”

And off he raced toward the staircase hall.

The chime of the clock reminded the doctor of the wager he’d made with the Countess and he willed his heart to harden. He’d enjoyed the soiree but he did not wish to cruise down the Irish Sea with his hosts, and he most certainly did not wish to return to Biarritz any time soon. Perhaps the Countess could just sleep off her unfortunate encounter with the green fairy. It might teach her a lesson for pursuing the incomprehensible in pursuit of the ineffable. It might also teach her a valuable lesson about always being so damned sure of herself. She was no doubt safe and warm in Madame Moghra’s bedroom. He would look in on her later. In the meantime he would attend that lecture on Theosophy and then return to look at the slides and perhaps even grab a bite to eat.

Chapter 7 – The Midnight Hour

 

After the Theosophy lecture Dr Watson found himself drifting toward the dining room where the sight of food made him realize just how hungry he was. The lecture had gone much longer than he anticipated.

“Did you enjoy my lecture?” asked the reverend, appearing suddenly at his side.

He admitted it was all very interesting but it was not a philosophy he could personally adopt.

The siren songstress joined them.

“Have you met Miss Morningstar?” said the reverend, sensing some negativity.

The doctor was delighted to make the young woman’s acquaintance and watched her dance around the dining table, heaping food on her plate.

Quite a few of the guests began to drift away. He found a quiet spot on a window seat in the dining room and was soon joined by the singing siren.

“You’re a friend of the Countess’s?” she said, sitting alongside him.

He nodded.

She could breathe, talk and chew at the same time and did most of the talking which suited him because most of the time his mouth was full and he was not blessed with the same tripartite talent. She had been with the troupe four years. She was nineteen years of age but looked much, much younger. It was on account of having a heart-shaped face and big eyes and being small-boned and always looking like she was smiling. Most people thought she was still a girl of thirteen or thereabouts. Reverend Blackadder told everyone she was his niece to save awkward questions being asked. They both had fair features so it fooled most people but it wasn’t true. She was an orphan with no family whatsoever and had only met him after she joined the troupe. That was shortly after the terrible accident when the girl died and they needed a replacement. Monsieur Croquemort was a magician then and it was a magic show. Magic shows were very popular back then but phantasmagoric shows are all the fashion now. He knows just what people want. A bit of comedy, a bit of singing, something scary with the magic lantern, a bit of hypnotizing, and Madame Moghra to finish. All their shows were sold out.

“How did the girl die?”

She stopped talking and looked at him with wide-eyed stupefaction. “What girl?”

“The one you just mentioned who died in a terrible accident.”

“Antoinette?”

“If you say so – how did she die?”

“She lost her head like the French queen.”

“Like Marie Antoinette?”

“Yes, that’s the one – it happened the same way.”

“By guillotine?” he said sceptically.

She nodded with tremendous animation. “It used to be part of the magic act. It was the grand finale. Monsieur Croquemort, or the Grand Maestro as he was known back then, had a guillotine and Antoinette was his assistant. She would put her head on the chopping block and he would strut about and wave his magic wand and say abracadabra and that sort of thing. Crispin, I mean Mr Ffrench, would bang on the piano to get everyone feeling rattled and then down would come the blade – bang!”

The doctor jumped.

“What are you blathering on about now, missy?”

The squeaky rebuke came from the vicinity of the door. It was Reverend Blackadder.

“How you can prattle on, young lady! I swear you could talk underwater. But we’ve got a busy day tomorrow; bags to pack and a million things to do. It’s off to Glasgow on the 11.45. Give your uncle a kiss and off you go to bed.”

She bounced dutifully to her feet, giving the doctor a wink out of the side of her face, kissed her so-called uncle and skipped out of the room like an obedient child. The reverend waited until she had vacated the room.

“A case of arrested development,” he sighed half-humorously. “I wouldn’t be surprised to discover her mother, my dear sister, had dropped her on her head when she was just a baby. But seriously, she can talk without drawing breath. I hope she did not bore you to tears, Dr Watson?”

“Not at all,” he returned tactfully.

The doctor checked his pocket watch only to find the hands had stopped at twenty minutes past eleven. He had better track down the Countess and get her home. Hopefully she would have slept off the worst of the wormwood elixir and learned a bitter lesson. She had once said she never made the same mistake twice. Let’s hope she stayed true to her word. Still, he had won the wager. That was a blessed relief. Some people were interesting and tolerable in small doses. And that went double for phantasmagogic types. That beautiful girl with the sublime voice was as nutty as a Christmas cake and the rest of the troupe were not much better.

“Can you direct me to Madame Moghra’s bedroom? I better collect Countess Volodymyrovna and get her home to bed. I didn’t realize the lateness of the hour.”

The camera and the slides had been packed away. There were only a few stragglers in the great hall, putting on their cloaks and hats and gloves. Monsieur Croquemort was conducting the farewells. The performance was almost over. The medium was nowhere to be seen.

 

Madame Moghra was not entirely surprised to find the Countess fast asleep in a chair in her bedroom. She had been eagerly looking forward to receiving her ‘valuable’ gift from Lady Moira Cruddock all evening and several times had made a discrete exploration of the grand rooms on the pretext of circulating amongst her guests but the Countess remained elusive. At one stage she concluded the Countess had left the soiree early but then she spotted Dr Watson inspecting the levitating chair or chatting to Monsieur Croquemort in the library or listening to the Theosophy lecture and realised that was not the case.

Orphaned early in life, she had been a member of one travelling circus or performing troupe most of her life and recognized intoxication in the fair members of her sex when she saw it. Men tended to become belligerent and violent but women tended to go to sleep. She sent Sissy to make some strong coffee. Sissy was due back any moment. While she waited she lit some candles and added some more coals to the fire. These old houses were perpetually draughty and she gave a shiver. She was looking forward to some warmer weather in Biarritz. The Hotel du Palais was built as a summer villa for the Empress Eugenie on the Bay Basque and was now a grand hotel with electric lighting, a French chef and lots of interesting people to impress. It was just the ticket. She would be in her spiritual element.

Despite Champollion’s plans, she had no intention of travelling to America. Once the World Spiritualist Congress came to an end she would bid adieu, not au revoir, to the menagerie and travel to Monte Carlo where she would rent a villa overlooking the bay. Why go to America, when the Americans were willing to come to her? Her reputation was established. Her star had finally risen. She could hold séances in the comfort of her own drawing room and give private spiritual readings to rich clients. Yes, she would break the news to Champollion straight after they boarded ship. He wouldn’t like it, of course. He would try to talk her out of it. She was the star of the show. He would struggle to find a new draw card but she was sick to death of living out of a suitcase. The gift from her friend, Lady Moira, was a godsend. She wondered how valuable the brooch might be and aimed a shrewd glance at the sleepy Countess.

Curiosity got the better of her and she was about to check the beaded evening bag in the Countess’s lap when there was a rap on the door.

“Come in,” she called, putting a diplomatic distance between herself and the Sleeping Beauty.

It was Reverend Blackadder and behind him came Dr Watson. The doctor apologised for the intrusion and went straight to the chair to rouse his companion. Slowly, she stirred.

“Where am I?”

“You’re in my bedroom,” replied Madame Moghra somewhat shortly, keen to receive the gift she had been eagerly anticipating since yesterday and keen to see the backs of her last two guests.

The Countess straightened up but her head pounded and the room continued to sway. She felt seasick and wondered if they were already sailing on the SS Pleiades down the Irish Sea to Biarritz. Reality dawned suddenly. “What time is it?”

“It is five minutes past twelve,” replied Dr Watson calmly, checking the time on the bracket clock, a note of ineluctable triumph evident in his tone.

“Oh, no!” she cried, sitting bolt upright. “Too late! I lost!”

He tried not to smile too broadly.

Madame Moghra became alarmed. “Lost what, my dear Countess? You don’t mean to say you have lost the gift from Lady Moira Cruddock!”

Everything came flooding back – the wager, the gift, the statue! The ghastly shock was just what the Countess needed to snap her out of her absinthe-addled state. She checked a cry and gesticulated wildly, pointing at the marble statue in the corner of the bedroom like someone pointing at a hideous apparition.

“There! There! That’s it!” she stammered, looking desperately at her companion and disregarding her hostess, making her feel as invisible as one of the ghosts haunting Marsh House. “The image on the shroud! I know how it was done!”

“Too late,” Dr Watson said with sobriety, hardly giving the statue a second glance. “You lost and I won.”

The Countess’s head fell into her hands and she almost wept. She had a massive thumping headache but it was nothing compared to the pain of losing the bet. She would have to forfeit all those prepaid tickets but even that was nothing compared to the ignominy of failure.

“Five minutes!” she moaned. “A lousy five minutes!”

“What are you talking about?” intervened Madame Moghra tetchily, not taking kindly to being ignored in her own bedroom.

Dr Watson, wearing a winning smile, explained as succinctly as possible. “The Countess and I had a bet regarding the shroud. She said she would be able to ascertain how it was made. I said she would not. The bet finished at midnight.”

Madame Moghra followed his winning smile all the way to the bracket clock on the mantel. “That clock is fifteen minutes fast. I always set the time on the clock in my bedroom fifteen minutes early so that I am never late for a show. It is the habit of a lifetime. A show must run like clockwork.”

That bit of news reanimated the Countess. Red blood pumping through sluggish veins brought her back from the land of green fairies. She still had a few minutes to explain her theory. She talked quickly and slurred most of the words but she was desperate to get them out before the clock struck twelve.

“Crispin washes the linen cloth in silver sulphate to give it a quality not unlike photography paper. He then drapes a cloth in front of that statue and sets the camera on long exposure, about eight hours. The image of the statue is thus transferred to the cloth. It looks like a negative photographic image. He then rinses the cloth in ammonia to remove all traces of the silver. And voila! He is left with a ghost image of a woman on a linen shroud. There are dozens of the same images hanging in the wash house!”

By the time she finished her heart was beating fast and she felt like she was going to vomit. The hand on the bracket clock flicked up to twelve and the clock gave a dull dong. At the same time all the antique pendules and horloges scattered throughout the rambling Tudor manor chimed the midnight hour. It was the sweetest sound the Countess had ever heard.

Dr Watson sank into the nearest chair and groaned.

Chapter 8 – Mrs Merle

 

The next morning found the Countess and the doctor ensconced in separate corners like a pair of po-faced prize-fighters about to go ten rounds. They were in a first class smoker rattling toward Glasgow and hadn’t spoken since the night before. Dr Watson was still seething about losing that bet at the eleventh hour – make that the twelfth hour! He couldn’t believe anyone would set a clock fifteen minutes ahead of time. Where was the logic? What was the point? Why bother with a clock at all? If Madame Moghra wanted her life to run like clockwork why not run it according to Greenwich Mean Time like everyone else! It was just one more thing to dislike about the medium as far as he was concerned.

The Countess lit up one of her gold-tipped foreign cigarettes while she perused The Quotidienne. She had woken with a splitting headache and had carefully avoided the doctor’s glowering face all morning. But, really, she was just thinking of him. He’d had a frightful cough for months and it wasn’t getting any better. In fact, it was getting worse. And his bronchitis was beginning to seriously worry her. If he wasn’t careful he would end up with pneumonia or become permanently consumptive. What he needed was a rest cure. A calm sea voyage and a week or two of bracing sea air to clear out his lungs. It would be just the ticket before they returned to London for the busy Christmas season. Men were all the same. They needed an uppity woman to take them in hand and do what was best for them, even if that meant acting against their express wishes. He would thank her later.

Unfortunately, there was also a downside. A vacation in Biarritz would delay her Christmas shopping, meaning she would not be able to order that velvet smoking jacket which she had set her heart on. She drummed her fingers on the padded leather seat while she pondered all the possible avenues and the answer came like a bolt from the blue. The Mayfair residence, which she had inherited from her late aunt, had been shut-up for months but the full retinue of servants was still on hand, presumably twiddling their thumbs. She would telegraph to the butler, Ponsonby, and instruct him to allocate the Christmas shopping to the parlourmaid, housemaid, footman, hall porter and so on according to the list she would send through the post. The trip to Savile Row he could undertake personally. He could also oversee the putting up of the Christmas tree and the Christmas wreath and the distribution of alms to the poor. She wanted her first Christmas in London to be jolly and festive and memorable even if she had to spend it by herself. Feeling immeasurably happier she extinguished her cigarette, pushed to feet and addressed her sullen travelling companion in the peremptory tone of a stern mater to a sooky la-la.

“When you have finished sulking you will find me in the dining car. I will be pleased to have your company as soon as you have ditched that chip on your shoulder.”

She didn’t wait for a response and promptly closed the carriage door on his spluttering, gurgling, exaggerated indignation.

Lunch had come and gone and the dining car was practically empty. A couple of young men were playing a game of cards whilst finishing off a bottle of grand cru and a large woman wearing a preposterously large hat with a large white ostrich feather was reading an American novel whilst nursing a cup of black coffee. Waiters were tracking to and fro the kitchen, clearing the tables and setting up for the next session. The Maitre d’ rushed down the length of the carriage to inform the Countess in his most apologetic voice that the dining car was now closed. A generous inducement, however, quickly procured a clean table, the promise of a plate of sandwiches and a pot of tea.

“Make that two of everything,” she said, adding an advance tip when Dr Watson arrived.

Incensed at being addressed in such a high-handed manner, the doctor had bristled and got his back up at once, but eventually he realized he was a doomed man. He had agreed to sail on the SS Pleiades and there was nothing he could do about it. Once they reached Biarritz he could book a berth on the first ferry heading for Southampton, until then he was stuck. She had won fair and square. He had entered into the bet of his own free will. It wasn’t her fault that the puffed-up psychic fraud had set her bedroom clock fifteen minutes early. Besides, he’d deliberately woken late that morning, sat through breakfast in a bad mood, hardly ate a thing, and now felt famished. A plate of sandwiches and a pot of tea was the culinary equivalent of heaven.

Immeasurably relieved to find the dining car devoid of the loony troupe, he immediately felt his blood pressure drop. During the forthcoming voyage he would keep to his cabin as much as possible and promenade only on the deck where he was least likely to encounter any spiritualists debating psychic phenomena that defied the laws of science and laughed in the face of common sense. On a steamship with only nine passengers, plus themselves, this was a modest wish likely to be granted.

“This trip will do you the world of good,” smiled the Countess, placing her hand tenderly on his as soon as he joined her. “Think of it as a rest cure. One day, when you are feeling better you might even explain your vehement dislike of Madame Moghra. I understand you regard her as a charlatan and she probably duped you during a séance at a time when you were feeling particularly vulnerable but your antipathy seems to be rooted in something deeper than merely feeling fleeced.”

“Antipathy doesn’t cover it,” he growled in a loud voice, “I’d like to see her dead!” And with that pronouncement his throat contracted, his chest tightened, and he broke into a virulent cough that took on a malignant life of its own.

The young men paused in their card game and the lady in the preposterous millinery looked up from her book. The apprehensive look on their faces said it all. They were wondering if they had a murderer in the midst and if the cough was contagious. The men decided in the affirmative, packed up their cards, re-corked their wine and marched out. The lady continued to regard him warily through a gold-rimmed lorgnette attached to a fine gold chain twined around the thick folds of her neck. The cough refused to abate. She bookmarked her page and removed her lorgnette from her nose. The lorgnette bounced once or twice against a massive mono-bosom before coming to rest on a soft, plump, matronly curve. Resting on the chair beside her was an enormous embroidered bag the size of a carpet bag. She rummaged through it, extracting all sorts of esoteric treasures – a box of lucifers, a box of cartridges, a necklace of wooden beads, a dream-catcher, a Colt 45, a magnifying glass, a box of ginger chocolates, a Bowie knife, a compass – until she finally found what she was searching for.

“Try these,” she instructed, tossing a small packet his way. “I never travel without them.”

She had a big, deep, husky man’s voice fugued with a distinctive trans-Atlantic accent redolent of the American west coast. Everything about her, from the size of her hat and bag to the width of her strapping shoulders, was as big as the Grand Canyon. If not for the female garments and the mono-bosom she might have been mistaken for a man. Bordering on ugly, her face looked as if it had been hacked out of a lump of redwood with a blunt tomahawk. If she stood next to a totem pole it would have been hard to tell the difference.

Dr Watson stopped coughing long enough to study the offering with a dubious eye: Dr Dreadnought’s Cough Drops. He’d never heard of them. Snake-oil pills, most likely. He considered cough drops to be as efficacious as boiled lollies.

“Try them,” she repeated rambunctiously. “You sure scared those two boys to death with that mean old bark. They high-tailed it out of here so fast you couldn’t see them for dust. Mrs Merle, howdy!”

The Countess realized the American was introducing herself. “Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna, how do you do? This is my travelling companion, Dr John Watson.”

They were briefly interrupted by the Maitre d’ who brought their sandwiches and tea out personally.

“Another cup of coffee, while you’re at it,” said Mrs Merle, staring distastefully at the cold sludge sitting at the bottom of her cup as the man turned to go.

“The dining car is now closed, Madame,” came the pontifical reply.

Mrs Merle studied the Maitre d’ through her lorgnette. “And a plate of them dainty little sandwiches, sonny.”

The man heaved a sigh and decided it was quicker to comply than argue with an American lady with a booming voice who was twice his size and wielded diamond rings like knuckledusters. He also noted with a mortal shiver the Colt 45 and the Bowie knife on the table. The cook was taking his half hour break but life was short and the blade was long. He would personally make the sandwiches and the coffee.

“Do try one,” pressed Mrs Merle for the third time, looking earnestly at the doctor.

Dr Watson gave a resigned sigh not unlike the Maitre d’, popped a lolly into his mouth and tried not to gag when the venomous gobbet got stuck half way down his throat. He took a gulp of tea to help it on its way.

“You are supposed to suck Dreadnoughts,” admonished Mrs Merle, shaking her head at the sad ignorance of her trans-Atlantic cousins, “not swallow! What’s the point of sending a Dreadnought straight to your stomach? That’s not where the sick frog sits. The froggie is in your throat. And you call yourself a doctor!”

The Countess could see that Dr Watson was doing an admirable job of keeping his temper in check, though she had to admit he’d had ample practice in the last twenty-four hours. She poured him a fresh cup of tea and directed an amiable smile at the American.

“Are you intending to stay long in Glasgow?”

“Just the one night,” returned Mrs Merle.

“Do you have acquaintances in Scotland?”

“None.”

“Have you visited Scotland before?”

“Never.”

“Where do you intend to travel after Glasgow?”

“Biarritz.”

The doctor gave a groan like man in pain.

“Are you all right?” enquired Mrs Merle. “Perhaps you should see a doctor.”

“I am a doctor!”

The Countess decided the best thing to do was move right along.

“Will you be attending the World Spiritualist Congress?”

“Yes,” replied Mrs Merle importantly, “I’m an astrologer.”

Dr Watson gave another groan.

“Is your friend all right?” Mrs Merle asked anxiously.

“Yes, he’s fine, just a bout of bronchitis. We are taking a rest cure.”

“In Glasgow?”

“Biarritz.”

“Really!” Round orbs twinkled like twin stars in some distant galaxy. “So you’ll be travelling on the SS Pleiades too?”

The Countess nodded.

“Oh, let me guess! You’re a psychic? Yes! You have lovely witchy eyes and a beguiling face that could convince anyone of anything.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” returned the Countess modestly, “but we are travelling to Biarritz for the sea air. The fact the Spiritualist Congress is being held there is a mere coincidence.”

“Coincidence? There’s no such thing. Everything is written in the stars. Oh, here come my sandwiches and a fresh pot of coffee.”

Dr Watson groaned again.

“If you will excuse me,” he croaked, clearing the gobbet from his throat with a hefty harrumph before straightening up. “I will return to my compartment and my copy of The Times. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance Mrs Merle. Thank you for the Dreadnought.”

“Oh, you must take the Dreadnoughts with you,” she said with dangerous emphasis when he dropped the packet on her table. “I insist. Consider it a gift.”

“No, no,” he demurred, smiling stiffly in the face of wooden-headed obstinacy.

“I am no Indian giver, Dr Watson. I shall simply track you down to your compartment and thrust the Dreadnoughts straight back at you.”

He blanched as he scooped them up. “In that case, thank you and good bye.”

“I’m very worried about your doctor friend,” Mrs Merle said to the Countess in a husky tone when he was out of earshot. “He seems a very nervy sort of man intent on doing something he will regret. What star sign is he?”

The Countess shrugged. “I honestly cannot say. We only met two months ago.”

“Oh, very remiss of you not to check,” warned Mrs Merle portentously. “I would never choose a travelling companion without checking his star sign and ascendant planet. It is asking for trouble, serious trouble,” she added ominously.

Mrs Merle liked to talk about herself and an unknown length of time passed before she paused for breath. She was widowed early; her dear Elmer would be gone twenty-five years come spring. They lived in New Jersey when they first hitched up. She now lived in New York in a nice brownstone on the west side of town. Most of her clients resided in Washington Square or on Park Avenue on the east side, that’s where the real money was, but she hoped to settle in Nantucket when she saved up enough to retire. There was good money to be made in casting horoscopes for the rich and famous. She had cast a horoscope for Mrs Dolly Throgmorten the 3rd, the second wife of the fourth richest man in America. Or was it the fourth wife of the second richest man? Stage actresses were all keen to have their horoscopes cast too. Some of them refused to accept a part in a big music show before they consulted her. Some of the magazines and newspapers were now including a weekly horoscope page and she thought if she could write for several of them at the same time she might make easy money; they called it syndicating. She gobbled the ribbon sandwiches down in one go like a starving turkey fattening herself up for Thanksgiving. The big white ostrich feather and the folds of skin at her neck bobbed and flapped while she gabbled.

When she stood up to return to her compartment she proved to be well over six feet tall, a true gigantesse. Some women were born like that, more masculine than feminine. She walked with a rolling gait, as if she were striding the deck of the SS Pleiades already, though it was probably a trait that had developed naturally over a lifetime and served to square the totemic height with the dangling counterweight.

As the Countess was passing through the saloon car she encountered Madame Moghra. The medium was ensconced in an upholstered bucket chair. A frilly green hat like a leafy cabbage was perched on top of her white cauliflower coif. She was writing a letter to her dear friend in Scotland, Lady Moira Cruddock, thanking her for the brooch. The amethyst and silver thistle was emblazoned on an aubergine velvet collar.

“I see you have a similar brooch, Countess,” she ambushed by way of conversation.

The Countess intended to exchange a cursory smile and return to her compartment but she was forced to acknowledge the observation and take a seat.

“Who was that large woman walking ahead of you?” the prophetess enquired, casting a basilisk eye down the length of the carriage. “I saw you chatting with her in the dining car. She looks familiar but I cannot recall the name.”

“That was Mrs Merle.”

“Mrs Evangeline Merle? The American astrologer?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know if she intends travelling to Biarritz on the SS Pleiades?”

“Yes, she does.”

Madame Moghra crossed her ankles and turned to look out of the window at the cows whizzing past. “I see,” she murmured.

“Are you acquainted with Mrs Merle?”

“No,” she said mono-syllabically before adding, “We have never met. I have heard of her, that’s all, and I wondered, just wondered, who she was. She is built large for a woman, more like a man. Are you interested in astrology?”

“I take an interest in most things.”

“Oh, yes,” she said half-mockingly, remembering, “part of your on-going education.”

Bristling, the Countess glanced down at the table to avoid eye contact and noted a second letter written on white paper partially concealed beneath the floral notepaper with the thank you. Though the letter was upside down the Countess had no trouble reading it. It was addressed to a notary in Monte Carlo agreeing to the terms for the lease of a villa for an extended period.

“You’ll be holidaying on the Riviera prior to travelling to America?” She used the term the English favoured rather than the one favoured by the French before swapping over. “The Cote d’Azur is not at its best during winter. The Mistral is at its worst.”

Madame Moghra flushed red and looked around to make sure they were still alone in the saloon car before leaning forward, a cold-blooded glimmer in her unblinking eyes. “I implore you not to mention your discovery, Countess. I will not be travelling to America at all. I will soon bid adieu to the menagerie. I have not yet informed Monsieur Croquemort. I fear he will not take it well. I will need to pick my moment carefully. I would appreciate it if you did not mention my secret to Dr Watson. Once a secret is out there is no stopping it.”

The Countess promised to keep it to herself and saw an opportunity to delve into a secret of another sort.

“Tell me about the séance in London, the one attended by Dr Watson.”

Madame Moghra leaned back and regarded her shrewdly. “That was shortly after the much publicised death of his friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes, and the less public death of his wife. She died of consumption. He desired to make contact with their departed souls. I was the conduit for the spirit world. The spirits conveyed some news that shocked him, news for which he was ill prepared and which he refused to accept. It upset him terribly and he stormed out. Regrettable, of course – he cannot accept the truth even to this day.”

“The truth being…?”

“Professional prudence precludes me from divulging such a confidence.”

The Countess was forced to respect the medium’s silence however much she disliked it – professional pretension, more like it!

Dr Watson was buried behind his broadsheet when the Countess finally returned to their compartment. He didn’t even wait for her to sit down.

“Listen to this,” he pitched, sounding excited and a touch neurotic. “It’s an article from yesterday’s Times all about that feather-brained, pompadour-poufed, poison pill pusher. Her full name is Mrs Evangeline Merle and she is quite the popular celebrity in New York’s star-struck society.”

Tout a fait, she was telling me all about herself and has offered to cast my natal horoscope for a modest fee.”

“Did she mention she does consulting work for the Detective Branch of the New York Police Force?”

The Countess was taken aback. “No, she didn’t mention that.”

“It says here, on page three, that when the New York police have a baffling case that they cannot solve they call her in. She is a consulting detective! Can you believe it! Can you credit it! That star-struck seer solves crimes! The newspaper likens her to Sherlock Holmes! Last year she solved a kidnapping case involving a missing heiress: The Case of the Green Velvet Glove! And earlier this year she proved that the accidental death of a bishop killed by falling masonry was actually a nasty murder: The Case of the Wingless Gargoyle! And a month ago she finally put an end to a series of disturbing burglaries plaguing the summer mansions of Rhode Island: The Curious Case of the Cat in the Night! What’s worse – she claims to use astrology to help her solve the cases!”

The doctor threw his crumpled copy of The Times down in disgust and waited for a response that affirmed his disdain.

“Well, she cannot be as stupid as she seems,” concluded the Countess blandly.

“Sherlock would turn in his grave!”

“Presuming he had one.”

The doctor coughed and composed himself. “Er, yes, indeed.”

“I wonder how she does it,” muttered the Countess, lighting up a cigarette and falling back into her seat, her brow corrugating under the weight of contemplation. “Mrs Merle, I mean. How would astrology help solve cases as diverse as kidnapping, murder and burglary?”

“Lucky guesses!” he sneered.

“Three lucky guesses in a row is more than dumb luck.” The Countess retrieved the newspaper and read the article for herself. After a few minutes she replaced it. “A pity the article doesn’t explain how she does it.”

“A pity the article doesn’t question how she does it. Gone are the days when journalists had brains. These days they are merely reporters. They just rehash each other’s stories. Mark my words, tomorrow morning the same article will appear in Tatler.”

The Countess was not deterred. “It’s an interesting theory – astrology and crime. Have there been any serious studies? Has anyone ever found a link?”

“If they have they’ve got a one in twelve chance of being right.”

“Mmm, I suppose that’s true. The fact that most murderers have brown eyes doesn’t mean that children with brown eyes will grow up to be murderers. There’s no actual cause and effect between eye colour and propensity to murder.”

“I have brown eyes and I have a propensity to murder!” he quipped mordantly. “I might murder the psychic fraud before we reach Biarritz!”

“Shhh,” she warned, glancing at the door, “you never know who is listening.”

“I don’t care who hears me!”

“Mrs Merle has been right at least three times,” said the Countess, returning to the topic and thinking about the three cases she had recently solved. They had taken hours of painstaking fact-gathering, the intelligent elimination of irrelevant information, a careful analysis of human nature, in other words, the sifting of the improbable from the impossible and seeing what was left.

The doctor seemed to read her thoughts. “Don’t forget the police only call her in after they’ve done all the hard work. Most likely she just notices a small detail they’ve been too busy to notice and then she takes all the credit. She reminds me of those so-called psychics who come forward to help the police, claiming to know where a body is buried.”

“You mean like the mother of Mary Marten?”

“Not her specifically, but, well, yes, that sort of thing. They say something general like: the body is buried somewhere near water. That covers just about everywhere you can imagine. Rivers, lakes, ponds, wells, horse troughs, puddles, and the entire coastline of the world.”

“Speaking of water,” said the Countess, gazing out of the window, “there’s the Firth of Clyde.”

As the train pulled into Glasgow station and they prepared to disembark, the Countess noticed the packet of Dr Dreadnought’s Cough Drops poking out from under the discarded newspaper. She picked it up and slipped it into the pocket of the doctor’s tweed jacket without him noticing. He would thank her later.

Chapter 9 – Dr Hu

 

“Do you believe in Fate?”

Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna were dining in the restaurant of the Mungo Arms Hotel and were just rounding off their meal with a coffee when the doctor posed the question to his counterpart.

She did not answer immediately. It signalled she was not about to dismiss his question out of hand as he feared she might. She was weighing her response carefully.

“Not really, no,” she said thoughtfully. “I realize I am going against the grain here since most cultures around the world have a word for it and if you have a word for something you generally accept the concept of it – karma, kismet, luck, destiny, and of course the will or whim of the gods. The notion has been with us since the dawn of time. It is my view that people believe in Fate when life is difficult. They tend to attribute bad luck to forces outside themselves. Good fortune is attributed to innate skill, personal talent or a deserving disposition. But of course bad things happen to good people and vice versa. Still, the concept persists. I think Sherlock would have derided the concept of Fate, preferring the ‘character is destiny’ argument, but the fatalists would have replied that he was fated to succeed while simultaneously deriding the concept of Fate. Really, Fate is whatever you want it to be. And since we are discussing esoteric subjects – what star sign are you, Dr Watson?”

He was still ruminating meditatively on her response, especially the bit about Sherlock, and how well she seemed to understand the man without ever meeting him, when the question caught him by surprise. “I have no idea,” he shrugged unconvincingly.

“Oh rubbish! Everyone knows their own star sign – a rabbi, an imam and a cardinal would know their star sign.”

“Why do you want to know?” he rebounded defensively.

“No reason, but the fact you refuse to answer shows just how much credence you really put on star-quackery despite your protestations to the contrary.”

“Nonsense! I simply prefer to keep my birth date to myself!”

“Why?”

“Well, for starters, I know how you much of a fuss you will make about the date and how you will probably want to throw a huge surprise birthday party to celebrate, or how you will start reading things into my character, or possibly even have my horoscope cast by that horror-scoper and then start turning random events into self-fulfilling prophecies to prove the astro-logicalness of the starry heavens!”

“How prescient of you,” she said, lacing her tone with sarcasm. “But what leads you to think we will still be together long enough for me to throw you a surprise birthday party?”

“There is no escaping we will be together for the next few days. The next bit of my destiny is preordained. After that, I admit it is all wide open to chance.”

“So solly to intellupt.”

The doctor and the Countess almost gave themselves whiplash. The folding screen standing alongside their dining table, affording them some privacy between their table and the next, suddenly folded back and a benign oriental face appeared.

“Please to excuse me,” the Chinaman addressed their way, smiling ebulliently and bowing his head politely. “I cannot help but hear your vely interlesting conversation. I enjoy your wisdom words on subject of Fate,” he smiled effusively and inclined his head specifically toward the Countess, “and I like vely much your discussion on the mystelies of western zodiac. If you will permit me to say – in my countly once you know the year of birth the sign of zodiac is also known. There can be no seclecy. Allow me to intloduce myself.”

He procured an exquisite ivory box and extracted two cards, handing one to the doctor and one to the Countess. He had small, feminine hands with long slender fingers and exceedingly long fingernails. The cards read:

Dr Hu – Advisor to the Empress of All China

Master of Feng Shui, Shengxiao and the I Ching

Geomancer

Dr Hu was a small man with a smooth hairless face apart from two long strands of hair that sprouted from his top lip and hung down either side of his small mouth well past a small chin. He had thin lips and twinkly black eyes. On his head sat a small black silk hat not unlike a Fez but with a brim that stood upright. No hair was visible from the front view but reflected in the mirror on the wall behind him one could observe a long dark plait hanging down his back. His ears, though small, stuck out from the side of his head and gave him a slightly comical appearance.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Dr Watson, relieved to have some diverting conversation even if that meant meeting another nutter who would most probably be cruising on the ship of fools to Biarritz. Unlike the vast majority of his countrymen he did not dislike foreigners at first sight, perhaps because he had served in Afghanistan and India and had noticed that human suffering was universal. Or perhaps he did not harbour the same prejudices as his compatriots because he was a medical man and had met all nationalities in the course of his doctoring. “I am Dr John Watson and this is my travelling companion, Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna.”

The Countess pocketed Dr Hu’s card in her evening purse. “What animal is this year?”

Dr Hu pulled his chair around the edge of the screen to better enable him to converse with ease. “1899 is Year of Pig.”

“Your zodiac, I believe, is a true zodiac since it is twelve animals, unlike the western zodiac which features signs which are not all animals, such as the scales of Libra.”

“Your observation is collect, Countess. We have twelve animals: Lat, Ox, Tiger, Labbit, Dlagon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Looster, Dog, Pig.”

“There are so many animals in the world – how were the twelve animals chosen?” asked Dr Watson, signalling for the waiter, not because he wanted the bill but because he thought a post prandial drink would go down well with their coffee. He recalled how Mary had begun to express an interest in I Ching shortly before she fell ill and how he occasionally found her arranging queer little tiles with strange symbols on them on the kitchen table and trying to read something into them or from them, yet he had never bothered to take an interest. Guilt gnawed at him almost constantly now for the things he had omitted to do before she died.

“Ancient Han Empelor summon animals to his loyal court and this twelve animals allive in order, starting with Lat who is fastest.”

When the waiter rushed across to them Dr Watson ordered a whiskey for himself, the Countess opted for a Cointreau and Dr Hu chose a sweet sherry.

“What is Shengxiao?” asked the doctor.

“It is meaning ‘birthlikeness’. You are light, Dr Watson, not to leveal your zodiac sign. To leveal your zodiac sign is to leveal your inner nature, your seclet chalacter. We Chinese call the birth animal the ‘birthlikeness’.”

There was a bit of commotion on the other side of the dining room when the Magic Lantern menagerie finished their evening meal and all six stood up at the same time, pushing back their chairs, shuffling about, gathering their evening bags and cigarette cases, preparing to retire to their rooms for the night. Dr Hu acknowledged Monsieur Croquemort with a slight inclination of his head as the other passed by his chair on his way out. The latter bowed stiffly in return but did not stop to exchange a greeting.

“You are acquainted with Monsieur Croquemort?” observed the Countess.

“We met once in Palis.”

“Do you mean Paris?” confirmed the doctor.

“Yes, Palis. Monsieur Cloquemort was then magician – Le Gland Maestlo.”

The Countess decided to play a game to liven up the conversation. “What animal would you say each person who is leaving the dining room is in the pantheon of Chinese animals, Dr Hu?”

“Meaning birthlikeness?” he clarified.

“Yes, what birthlikeness would you attribute to each of them?”

Dr Hu studied the people noisily exiting through the double doors and waited until things quieted down and the drinks waiter came and went.

“Monsieur Cloquemort, he is Looster.”

“You don’t think he is a Dragon?” questioned the Countess.

Dr Hu shook his head. “Dlagon is lucky – he has not the luck of the Dlagon.”

“Why has he not the luck?” pursued Dr Watson, taking a sudden interest in the party game and entering into the poltroonery of the thing the way an adult enters into the spirit of Hallowe’en for the sake of the child but ends up enjoying bobbing for apples and carving jack-o-lanterns just as much or even more. “I mean, why do you think he has no luck?”

“His magic act close after misfortunate death.”

“Death?”

“Assistant die on stage duling magic act.”

“During a magic act?’

“Yes, duling the act – her head chop off.”

“How extraordinary!” exclaimed the doctor. “Miss Morningstar told a similar story but I thought she might be telling tales. It sounded most unlikely.”

Dr Hu took a sip of his sherry and met the doctor’s incredulous gaze. “It is tlue. I see with my own two eyes. Head bounce into basket. Much blood evelywhere. Ladies scleam! I am shocked! Monsieur Cloquemort, he is shocked too!”

“I’m not surprised! What sort of magic show would attempt to pull off such a dangerous stunt?” the doctor huffed. “A guillotine is not for messing about with!”

“A guillotine?” said the Countess, looking for confirmation from the Chinaman.

He began nodding. “Guillotine, yes, with sharp blade – thwack! It chop off pletty head of pletty assistant. Much blood!” he repeated with relish. “Evelywhere!”

“Did Croquemort go to prison?” pressed the doctor.

“He is allested by police but he no go to plison. It is all tellible accident. Blade not meant to chop head. But Monsieur Cloquemort, his magic act it is finished. His magic show, it close down in shame. He go to England and make the Magic Lantern Show. Vely popular. He do the hypnotism now. He is good but Madame Moghla is big star now, not him.”

“Mesmerism,” corrected the Countess. “He is a mesmerist not a hypnotist.”

Dr Hu appeared to marvel at the distinction. There was a quizzical puckering of his thin lips and long moustache as he processed the difference.

“Speaking of Madame Moghra,” continued the Countess, “what birthlikeness do you attribute to her?”

Dr Hu took another sip of sherry and gazed up at the coffered ceiling as if looking to the heavens for inspiration. “Madame Moghla, she is Goat.”

“Not a Snake?” quizzed Dr Watson.

Dr Hu shook his head. “Goat,” he repeated with certainty.

“What about the handsome young man with the longish hair?” pursued the Countess.

“Dog.”

They all agreed that Mr Crispin Ffrench had the appearance of a lovable yet mangy cur, unbrushed and underfed. The way the hair fell permanently over his eyes reminded them of a long-haired hound or perhaps a scruffy spaniel.

“What about the lovely young lady with the fair hair?” asked Dr Watson.

“Monkey,” Dr Hu said without hesitation.

“You don’t think she is more like a soft, cuddly, vulnerable bunny, er, I mean Rabbit?” quizzed the other.

“Monkey,” repeated Dr Hu with unequivocal resolve.

“And the Theosophist, Reverend Blackadder?” asked the Countess. “Don’t tell me he is the Snake?”

“Lat,” Dr Hu said with conviction. “He is Lat.”

“Oh, you mean Rat?” said Dr Watson, cottoning on to the mispronunciation.

“Yes, I say Lat.”

“Well, that makes for an interesting circle of animals – Rooster, Goat, Dog, Rabbit and Rat,” pronounced Dr Watson, concluding that ‘menagerie’ was definitely a more appropriate description for the zodiacal zoo than troupe. “A Magic Lantern Menagerie!”

“That only makes five,” the Countess noted. “We forgot the maid, Sissy. She left the table a few minutes after the others because she was retrieving something that had fallen under the table – the handkerchief of Madame Moghra, I think. Did you notice her, Dr Hu?”

“I notice all things. That one, she is Tiger.”

“That makes six in all,” said Dr Watson, satisfied they had covered them all before changing the subject. “Will you be sailing on the SS Pleiades to Biarritz, Dr Hu?”

“Yes, I go to World Spilitualist Congless. You make tlavel to Bialitz tomollow?”

“Yes,” replied Dr Watson morosely.

Dr Hu stood up to go, bowing to his newfound friends. “I thank you for the shelly and I look forward to our coming journey.”

They watched him shuffle out. He moved across the parquetry like someone walking on water, his splendid blue silk gown rippling in the scattered light of the chandelier.

“Perhaps Dr Hu will explain the art of Feng Shui to me,” observed the Countess. “I have always meant to study eastern philosophy in more depth.”

“And Geomancy to me – whatever that is!”

They both laughed.

“1854 – the year of the Tiger,” she said blithely.

“1875 – the year of the Pig,” he tossed back.

They laughed again.

As they were crossing the foyer of the hotel the Countess slipped her arm through the crook of the doctor’s elbow. The gesture felt so light and natural the doctor hardly noticed until she stopped dead and almost yanked his arm off.

“Look at that,” she said, indicating a large painted sign resting on an easel planted outside the double doors leading to the reading room:

Madame Sosostras

The Magnificent Gypsy Queen

Tarot cards. Palm reading. Phrenology.

Enter if you dare!

Dr Watson groaned. “Absolutely not!” he declared, reading her mind. “If it is my destiny to murder Madame Moghra I don’t want to know in advance. It might encourage me!”

“Stop tempting Fate,” she admonished, cutting a glance at the wall clock above the reception desk. “It’s just gone ten. You realize who Madame Sosostras is, don’t you?”

“Another shameless charlatan,” he returned tongue-in-cheek.

She tried not to laugh. “She is the final member of our sailing party. Remember when Sissy said there would be the troupe plus three extra passengers on the SS Pleiades. We have met Mrs Merle and Dr Hu, well, here is the mysterious third. We simply must go in and meet her.”

Brusquely, he dropped her arm. “I don’t want to tempt Fate! You’ll have to go it alone…if you dare!”

Chapter 10 – Madame Sosostras

 

The moment the image of the Hanged Man appeared the Countess knew she’d made a mistake. But it was too late to withdraw and too late to flip the card and return it to the pack. The twelfth card of the Major Arcana was hers.

She studied the doomed figure, appalled at his dumb suffering and the casual cruelty. Not even having the dignity of being hanged right-side up but dangling upside down, and dangling not by two feet but one. Too cruel, too awful, it did not bear thinking about for too long. Of all the random chances, the shuffled possibilities, the turns of the cards – why did she draw this one?

Fate? Fortune? Destiny?

What were they really? Why would anyone choose to know their future? What good would come from it? Why do people seek out clairvoyants and fortune tellers? Why do they seek to interpret the stars, the constellations, the planets? Astro-logical quackery or natural astronomical configurations and mathematical alignments? Venus conjunct with Mars. Jupiter trine the Sun and Moon. What did it really mean? And could the starry heavens really affect the here and now on planet Earth?

Life? Luck? Love?

Too cruel for some, too kind to others. The deserving did not always get what they deserved and the underserving did not always get their just desserts. Who decided?

A toss of the dice, a four leaf clover, a horseshoe, a lucky number – who decided it? And what about the opposite – an unlucky number and bad luck – did some attract it more than others? How did you attract bad luck? Was misfortune like a magnet, a lodestone, an invisible millstone around your neck? Like the noose around the Hanged Man’s foot?

She had always been lucky. Things always worked out just as she expected. But lately she had started to doubt her luck. Things had not gone according to plan. Here she was in Scotland, no nearer to meeting Uncle Mycroft, no closer to solving the conundrum of her father’s so-called death at Reichenbach Falls.

Was she charting her own course or was Dr Watson leading her on a clever goose chase – keeping her out of London and away from the questions she wanted answered?

The Countess’s thoughts were full of random constructions, endless hypotheses and inexplicable yearning – the burning need to feel that she belonged somewhere to someone, that she and Dr Watson were not just ships in the night, that she had a purpose in life…a destiny.

The heavy velvet drapes were drawn. The double doors were closed. The little reading room was smotheringly warm. A sliver of golden gaslight from the street lamp beyond the window leaked in through a gap in the curtains. It quivered on motes of smoke from incense sticks. Phosphorescent haloes of ghostly candlelight dotted the room, sending ribbons of smoke up to the smoke-stained ceiling.

Madame Sosostras, mistress of the Arcana, sensed the Countess’s unease but misinterpreted it. “The Hanged Man is not what he seems,” she said in a low, plangent, accented voice that reverberated around the closeted bookroom full of scented fumes and ghostly vapours.

A skilled fortune teller, the gypsy queen waved a sacerdotal hand in the murky air then ran a bright red fingernail around the rim of the ominous, ill-omened, tarot card, tapping a sharp talon on the vitals of the doomed man lying on the purple velour cloth.

“He is not Death… not La Mort.”

Oddly, it sounded less distressing in French. French was the language of noblesse oblige, laissez faire, courtly verse, fluent intonation and amour. But the gypsy queen was not French, not a queen, not even a proper gypsy. She was Hungarian, though she had the gypsy’s love of colourful clothing and jangly jewellery – adorning her neck, fingers, ears and wrists were bangles, necklaces, rings and hooped gold earrings. Khol smudged her sorceress eyes, emphasising their saucer-size, a beauty spot above her lip, which may have been artificially applied, added to the Romany theatricality.

The Countess found some momentary comfort in the exotic but not for long. The configuration on the table was not positive whatever the language. Death was death. Hanging was never good. The image conjured up gibbets and scaffolds, carcasses swinging in the wind, eyes pecked out by ravens, flesh like shredded rags…no it was never good.

Of all the cards of the Major Arcana: the Hierophant, the Priestess, the Magician, the Chariot, the Lovers – why did she draw the Hanged Man? What did it mean? Did it mean anything at all? She knew she would not be hanged. The meaning was more obscure than that, less literal, steeped in ancient symbolism and sacred lore and esoteric understanding. The meaning eluded her like a secret. Like all the other secrets that lately eluded her.

Madame Sosostras, keeper of secrets, watched closely. “The Hanged Man is not as helpless as he seems.”

The Countess was not entirely reassured. The unknown, the unknowable, had become a worry since the sudden death of her step-aunt and then three years later her husband. Until then she had been confident and carefree. She was no longer so careless.

She used to laugh at superstition. She was young, rational, educated. She had read Jung and Freud. She understood Fate was another word for habit. She comprehended self-fulfilling prophecy. She had always been determined to cut a swathe to her own destiny.

Madame Sosostras’s voice droned in the background like a dirge. “The Hanged Man is not to be feared, he is not catastrophic.”

The hot, stuffy air in the book room was adding to a feeling of claustrophobia. The Countess’s eyes were beginning to water from all the perfumed vapours. She asked the gypsy if she would mind her opening the window and door to allow a cross current of air to clear the fumes. After a few minutes the air became breathable.

She picked another card…

 

All the guests travelling on the SS Pleiades had woken earlier than was their wont and were taking breakfast with more haste than was their custom. Bags were already packed and lined up in the foyer of the Mungo Arms Hotel, ready to transport to the ship standing ready to set sail with the outgoing tide. Everything was going according to plan until Constable MacTavish arrived to deliver the news to Madame Moghra in the dining room that a member of the Magic Lantern Show had been found at first light floating face-down in the Clyde.

The medium took the news well. She appeared only mildly shocked. She had assumed her maid, Sissy, had woken early, breakfasted, and was running some last minute errands for Monsieur Croquemort. It was not unusual for the maid to eat before the others. Madame Moghra was accustomed to doing things for herself on travelling days because there was always something else for the maid to get on with. Sissy was a reliable and punctual girl. No one thought to enquire why she did not appear at breakfast. They all expected to see her prior to their departure.

The constable turned to Monsieur Croquemort.

“You are in charge of the troupe?”

“Yes,” replied the Master of Ceremonies.

“Did you send the girl on an errand last night?”

Monsieur Croquemort shook his head, looking momentarily bewildered. “No, I’m sure she followed us out of the dining room. We all went to our rooms to get an early night.”

“I will need to speak to the members of your troupe to confirm that statement. Is anyone, apart from the girl, missing?”

Monsieur Croquemort’s eyes quickly scanned the magic cirque. “We are all here.”

Mrs Merle, the American astrologer, pushed abruptly to her feet and addressed herself to the young constable, fixing him with her lorgnette. She had been seated at a table for one by the small bay window overlooking the river. When she rose it was as if a tall-masted galleon had suddenly steered itself through the window and pulled into dry dock. “Does this mean the sailing time will be delayed?”

“And you are?” he put to her rather brusquely, keen to assert himself.

“Mrs Evangeline Merle.”

“I take it you are referring to the SS Pleiades?”

“Yes, and I hope to arrive in Biarritz on the twentieth. I will be giving a lecture at the World Spiritualist Congress on the morning of the twenty-first on the topic of the significance of Mercury retrograde in astrological forecasting.”

The young constable had no idea what she was blathering on about and did not wish to be bullied. “I have already contacted the captain of the vessel, Captain Lanfranc. He assures me he will have you in Biarritz on the twentieth provided we sort things here by midday.”

“Midday!” interjected Dr Watson, sounding surprised. “That’s rather fast for a murder investigation.”

“Who mentioned the word murder?” said the constable, undaunted, turning to look at a doughty fellow Scot before allowing his inquisitive, pioneering gaze to drift in the direction of his elegantly attired, much younger, glamorous companion. “The dead girl was not violated nor was she assaulted. She either slipped into the river after losing her footing, perhaps venturing too close to the edge in the fog while enjoying a last cigarette before going up to bed – smoking being prohibited in rooms above the first floor – or she took her own life. More than likely it was the latter. We fish a lassie out of the Clyde almost every day of the week. It is always the same story: pregnant, unmarried, jobless, penniless…a sorry state but there it is. I will need to speak to all the people intending to travel on the SS Pleiades. Captain Lanfranc informed me there were only a handful of passengers booked for the voyage – the vessel being not yet in official service.” The constable pulled a paper out of his coat pocket and unfolded it as his eyes counted off the heads in the dining room. “I have a list of thirteen names here. I presume two are currently absent?”

“Thirteen?” echoed Mrs Merle ominously. “That does not bode well. Are you sure it is thirteen?”

The constable straightened his shoulders. “Quite sure, madame.”

“I thought there were to be eleven,” queried Dr Watson.

“The two extra would be my maid and manservant,” responded the Countess. “I have booked them into twin rooms on B deck. And it is twelve passengers now that Sissy is dead.”

The constable was surprised that a lady would book cabins on B deck for her servants. He’d heard these luxurious new steamer ships were extremely large, plus the ship having such a small complement… but still. He had several cousins who were seamen. They told him the most commodious cabins were to be found on the Promenade deck. They were fitted with porthole windows and had doors that opened directly into the open air, not into tight corridors that smelled of spew and bilge water. B deck was next for stateliness but not even the inspector of police could expect to afford that level of comfort. C Deck was for the working classes, while D deck was reserved for servants and riff-raff. Crew members were below that in hammocks which they oftentimes had to share 2 to a bed, taking alternating shifts, day and night to avoid doubling up. Either the lady had cash to burn or she was a fool.

“And you are?” he said, raising his voice an octave or two.

“Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna.”

It took a moment for the multi-syllabic foreign name to register.

“I must ask you all not to leave the hotel this morning,” he said, his voice shooting up another octave while looking directly at the Countess but addressing the room. “I will be in the reading room across the foyer which the manager of the hotel has made available to me for interviewing purposes. If you will please come in one at a time, starting with Monsieur Croquemort, and then the rest of the Magic Lantern troupe and then the others following in any order you choose.”

“Interview?” said Mrs Merle, taking umbrage and rising to her full six feet once again. “What on earth do you want to interview us for, constable?”

The young constable remained officiously steadfast against the intimidating bulk of the giantess. “It is my task to establish everyone’s whereabouts during last night.”

“We were all in bed!” blared the American astrologer indignantly. “Where else would we be!”

“If that is the case, madame, then the interviews will be brief and you will all be on your way in no time at all. But until I can satisfy such-like for myself I must ask you to be patient. The sooner we start the sooner we will finish.”

Mrs Merle was about to voice her thoughts on the matter of the young constable’s satisfaction but took heed of the dark looks of her fellow passengers who were keen to start sooner rather than later and finish the same way. She sucked back an exasperated breath and sat down. A palpable sigh of collective relief could be heard as the young constable marched out, followed by the spidery Master of Ceremonies.

As soon as the door to the dining room closed, however, Mrs Merle voiced her concerns.

“I hope this tragic accident will not delay our departure past midday,” she boomed across the room, although it was more like a threat, and woe betide anyone who might choose to provide the constable with anything other than a brief explanation of their sleeping habits.

“Might as well have another cup of tea,” announced Dr Watson, feeling suddenly chipper, wondering if perhaps his luck had changed for the better and that voyage on the ship of fools might be cancelled altogether. Now, there was a thought! Feeling optimistic, he made his way to the buffet, whistling to himself as he poured a fresh cup of Earl Grey plus another for the Countess, but when he returned to the table she was nowhere to be seen.

Countess Volodymyrovna had slipped unobtrusively out of the dining room, overtook Monsieur Croquemort as he crossed the foyer, and caught up to the constable as he entered the reading room. She closed the door on the Master of Ceremonies with a courteous: “Un moment, s’il vous plait.

The young constable was feeling rather pleased with himself. He had handled that hulking biddy rather well. He’d been with the police force less than six months. Normally he dealt with all the boring tasks, chasing street urchins and pickpockets, or else he fished girls out of the drink. This was the first time he’d had the chance to prove his worth. He opened the curtains, arranged two chairs at the small round library table, looked hopefully toward the door and his face dropped. “Where’s the Frenchie?”

The Countess, who felt the young constable was out of his depth and could do with some assistance, radiated an irresistible smile. “I would like to have a brief word or two, Inspector MacTavish, before you commence your interviews. Monsieur Croquemort is waiting outside.”

These hoity-toity types really got up his goat. Always had to be first in everything. Aristocratic entitlement was putting it mildly! “It’s constable, not inspector,” he corrected, wondering if she had done that deliberately to butter him up. “You will get your turn when the time comes – if you wouldn’t mind returning to the dining room until then, Duchess.”

He couldn’t recall her name off-hand. All he could remember was how it was a foreign mouthful, and he didn’t want to check the list of names in case he got the pronunciation wrong. But Duchess was a good moniker for any one with airs and graces – half the tarts touting their titties were called Duchess!

It was an inept and obvious attempt to butter him up so she ignored his impertinence, what’s more she had already decided to skip the preamble she had rehearsed while crossing the foyer. “I wonder if you would mind if I sat in on the interviews?”

That took the cake! Who did this blueblood think she was! He congratulated himself in advance on keeping a straight face while he told her exactly what he thought of her idea. “I think not, Duchess. Please return to the dining room so that we, meaning me, can get started.”

“I don’t like to blow my own trumpet, Constable MacTavish, but you are possibly unaware that I recently solved the Baskerville case in Devon involving the unfortunate death of the baronet, the Lammas golf course murders here in Scotland on the Cruddock estate, and the murders in York involving the authoresses of Penny Dreadfuls.”

Constable MacTavish was astounded. Well blow me down! He had heard about the murders, of course, and the so-called beautiful, rich, young lady who had solved them but he believed the stories to be sensationalized for the sake of selling newspapers, or as the Reverend Taft liked to put it in his Sunday sermons – apocryphal.

She decided to take advantage of his stunned silence. “I may be able to help, you see. I stayed up late to have a tarot card reading from Madame Sosostras here in this very room, after my companion, Dr John Watson, the confidante of the great consulting detective, Mr Sherlock Holmes, had retired for the night, and I saw several people, coming and going. I will be able to verify if they are telling the truth. It will help you to establish the facts without delay, otherwise obfuscations and contradictions may muddy the waters and the death of the maid may never be adequately resolved – and certainly not before midday. I am Countess Volodymyrovna.”

Gobsmacked, he nodded and motioned her to a chair, having weighed the pros and cons of her rather longwinded speech, telling himself that it couldn’t really hurt his chances of success if she sat in. This wasn’t a murder investigation as such, just a preliminary inquiry to back up the initial presumption of suicide that Detective Inspector MacBride had formed after the body of the girl was fished out of the drink even though she turned out to be a travelling tart rather than another poor Glaswegian lassie.

He waited until she settled herself in the chair directly opposite his, facing the window, smoothing down her skirt and placing her unblemished hands on the table, one elegant hand over the other, revealing a gold wedding band on the right hand which seemed to him the wrong hand. He checked his own hands to make sure his right and left was the same as always and had not switched itself around while he wasn’t looking.

“I would appreciate it if you did not interrupt and if you left me to take the lead with the questioning. In other words, don’t speak unless you have to – understood, Countess?”

Chapter 11 – Constable MacTavish

 

Constable MacTavish had a flat crop of short brown hair, the makings of a moustache that was yet to flourish, and a face full of freckles that made him appear even more boyish. He reminded the Countess of a Jack Russell terrier – keen, alert, eager to please, quick to bark, and when he listened he put his head to one side the way a dog does when listening to its master.

“Come in!” he called sharply, summoning the man waiting patiently on the other side of the door. It sounded like yap, yap.

Monsieur Croquemort entered with oily dignity, his pomaded hair and curling moustache impeccably in situ, noting with a quirk of wily dark brows the Countess seated at the table in the chair meant for him. He had lit up a cigarette while waiting in the foyer and had brought an ashtray with him. He paused to exhale before closing the door.

“I was under the impression I was to be the first to be interviewed?”

“That is correct,” confirmed the constable peremptorily – another yap, yap, yap. “Please pull up a chair. The Countess is assisting in the capacity, of, er…”

“In the capacity of consulting detective having assisted Scotland Yard several times with similar enquiries,” she finished smoothly for him.

The constable was astute enough to envisage the same question being asked with monotonous regularity by each subsequent interviewee and decided to nip it in the bud.

“At the conclusion of this interview, upon your return to the dining room, Monsieur Croquemort, if you will let the others know the Countess is assisting the police, it will help to speed things along. Now, as to your whereabouts during the night?”

The keen young constable flipped a brand new notebook and licked the tip of his freshly sharpened pencil while the man on the other side of the table gathered his thoughts.

“We finished dinner at around a quarter to ten and went upstairs to our rooms.”

“We?” prompted the constable – one yap.

“The six members of the Magic Lantern troupe – Madame Moghra, Reverend Blackadder, Miss Morningstar, Mr Crispin Ffrench, Sissy and myself.”

“Did you leave your room at any time during the night?”

“No.”

The Countess coughed discretely behind her hand.

“Oh,” added Monsieur Croquemort, adopting a softly hypnotic voice as he flicked some cigarette ash into the ash tray by his elbow. “I just remembered I did leave my room about ten minutes later. I came downstairs to the reception desk to see if any messages had been left for me.”

“You were expecting a message?”

“Yes, from Captain Lanfranc. He was born in Marseilles,” he explained obliquely before launching into an oily elaboration of irrelevant facts. “We grew up in the same region in the south of France, you see. I am from Toulon. Since we are compatriots we thought we might catch up for a drink prior to sailing. We agreed to meet at the little inn on the corner.”

“The Old Anchor?” Yap, yap, yap!

“Yes, that’s the one.”

“And was there a message?”

“There was no one at the reception desk. It was late and I thought they might be having their supper. I didn’t want to bother them so I hurried to the inn but Lanfranc was not there. I waited for a bit then returned to the hotel and went up to my room.”

“How long would you say you were out?”

“Twenty minutes, no more.”

“Did you see the dead girl, I mean while she was still alive?”

Monsieur Croquemort’s curling moustache hid the semblance of a smile. “No, it was foggy. The few people who passed me on the pavement looked like ghosts. If Lisbette was out there I doubt I would even have recognized her.”

“So, you were back in your room before half past ten?” put the constable, licking his pencil and noting down the time he’d put forward before the other even answered.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Did you see anyone else from the hotel while you were out and about?”

“No, no one at all, as I said – just ghosts.”

“Thank you Monsieur Croquemort. Please send in the next person.”

The constable waited until the door was fully closed.

“Well?” he yapped, glad that he had decided to let the Countess sit in on the interviews after all. That discrete cough had saved him countless toing and froing.

“That’s a fairly accurate account,” she confirmed. “I saw him slipping out of the hotel as Dr Watson and I were crossing the foyer after dinner. We were the last to leave the dining room. I heard the front door creak and looked back and through the gap spotted a tall dark figure melting into the fog. A short time later I saw through the window here in this room when he returned alone to the hotel. The gap in the curtains was not wide but it was enough to see out. There’s a streetlamp directly outside the window. As for the door to the foyer, it was ajar because the room was stuffy with smoke. The gypsy and I were sitting side-on to the door as you and I are doing now. I could see into the foyer without difficulty.”

There was a rap on the door and then in bounced a clerical popinjay, the antithesis of the tall, dark, dignified Frenchman who had recently vacated the room. Reverend Blackadder glanced dubiously at the Countess before smiling smarmily in an effort to disguise his umbrage. Constable MacTavish wasted no time on preliminaries.

“Please take a seat. You left the dining room at a quarter before ten,” he put to the reverend, “and went up to your room. Did you leave your room during the night?”

Reverend Blackadder, a beacon of haloed light now, owned up at once.

“Yes, I found myself unable to sleep. I think it was the coffee at dinnertime. It is supposed to aid slumber but I find it always keep me awake. I decided to borrow a book from the reading room since I was wide awake but when I came downstairs I remembered the gypsy was reading fortunes. I popped my head in the door and saw she was busy with the Countess.” He shifted in his seat, remembered to give another smarmy smile in her direction, and almost put his elbow in the ash tray. “I apologized and went into the dining room and spotted a book on one of the tables. I borrowed that one and went back up to my room. I fell asleep about two hours later.”

“The name of the book?” Five yaps!

Reverend Blackadder pushed the ash tray into the centre of the table. The action gave him a moment to think. “It was one of those maritime stories, about a white whale, it did ramble on a bit – Moby Dock.”

“I think you might mean Moby Dick,” said the Countess. “Whenever I read it I am left with the impression the author finished the novel and then went back and added the first line: ‘Call me Ishmael’. It always seems like an afterthought, as if Herman Melville suddenly remembered he’d forgotten to introduce his main character.”

“Yes, quite,” concurred the reverend readily, flashing another smarmy smile.

“Did you see anyone else while you were about?” asked the constable, frowning at the unnecessary conversational detour.

The reverend shook his head. “I heard the doctor coughing. It’s quite a frightful bark he has. Oh, yes, I saw that Chinese chap on the landing.”

The constable glanced down at the list of names. He was like a dog after a bone that he knew was buried somewhere near. Up he came with the prize! Yap, yap! “Dr Hu?”

“I’m not sure of his name but there’s only one Chinese chap staying here so it must be him. He wasn’t in the foyer when I came down. Nor was he in the dining room or the reading room. I think I heard someone rustling about in the butler’s pantry that leads from the dining room through to the kitchen. But I cannot vouch for who it was. Is that all?”

“Yes, you can send in the next person,” said the constable somewhat briskly, licking his pencil and noting down a few details in his notebook while the reverend bounced out of sight. “Well?” Yap!

The Countess nodded. “He popped his head in the door of the reading room just as he said – looking for a book. It was about half past ten.”

Madame Moghra did not bother to knock. She found the door ajar and sauntered straight in, smiling charmingly at the Countess before slithering into her seat and crossing her ankles. The silver thistle brooch was pinned to the velvet lapel of her gold brocade jacket. She was painfully overdressed for the morning. The Countess recalled her step-aunt saying that girls who grew up poor tended to over-compensate later in life when they had money to spend on luxuries. She wondered if Madame Moghra had grown up poor. The choufleur hair was piled up as usual and kept in place by an elaborate network of diamante combs. The jewels were also overdone.

The medium did not wait to be asked a question. Most likely having conferred briefly with Monsieur Croquemort before making her entrance, she had prepared what to say in advance. She drummed her bejewelled fingers on the table while she spoke. It seemed to add a rhythmic cadence to her tone, though it may also have been a ploy to direct attention to her splendid diamond, emerald and ruby rings.

“I left the dining room with the others at a quarter before ten and went straight up to my room: Room 6 on the first floor. I was feeling fatigued from the day’s journey. Train travel always leaves me with a headache.” She lifted her hand and touched her fingers to her temple, circling gently a couple of times before recommencing the drumming. “It is all that rattling – quite jarring on the bones. When I got into bed I found I had only one pillow. I prefer two. It supports the head. I had the lumpiest pillow I have ever had the misfortune to rest my head on.” She lifted her hand to her hair and gave it a reassuring pat. “It had a bit of an unpleasant odour too. I wouldn’t like to guess what it was. Quite disgusting!” At this point her nose wrinkled up. “There was no way I could have slept soundly so I put my velvet opera coat over the top of my satin nightwear and buttoned it right up, and came down to reception to request a new pillow. Much to my chagrin there was no one at the desk – terrible service! But that is what one puts up with at these cheap hotels. The Hotel du Palais in Biarritz will be quite different. I have stayed there once before. The French hoteliers know how to treat their guests. Anyway, I marched back upstairs to Sissy’s room on the third floor to borrow a pillow from her but her door was locked and she was not answering. I didn’t think anything of it – she is a sound sleeper. I knocked and knocked and finally Miss Morningstar opened her door. She was the next room along. I explained my dilemma and she gave me both her pillows. I said I couldn’t possibly take both but she insisted. She said she would use a cushion as she wasn’t too fussed. The young are like that. They can sleep anywhere. I said thank you and went down to my room and fell asleep fairly quickly. I glanced at my bedside clock as I switched off the electric light and saw it was about ten minutes before eleven o’clock.”

“You didn’t happen to see anyone while you were going about?”

“I saw that hulking American Amazon going to the bathroom as I was going up to Sissy’s room. She is so huge you really cannot mistake her for anyone else. I heard someone coughing on the second floor. I presumed it was Dr Watson. Pity the person in the room next door to him.”

She stopped drumming her fingers on the table as soon as she stopped speaking and patted her piled-up pouf as if to make sure it was still all there.

“Thank you, madame, please send in the next person.” Once again the constable licked his pencil and noted down some details. He also put a tick against the names of the three people who had given their stories so far. “Well?”

“I cannot confirm Madame Moghra’s story. I didn’t actually see her when she came down to reception but I suppose we could ask Miss Morningstar about the pillows.”

The inspector licked the tip of his lead pencil and made a note in his book: pillows?

Miss Morningstar moved noiselessly on tiny fairy feet and must have overheard them because before the constable had a chance to ask a question she waltzed across the room, spun herself into a chair like a sugar-plum fairy, and said in a most annoying singsong voice, “Yes, Madame Moghra took my two pillows. She’s terribly fussy about things like that. I heard her pounding her fists on Sissy’s door so I opened my door to check what was going on and, well, what could I say when she asked point blank if she could have my pillows? She was wearing her velvet coat and a silly looking velvet turban. I thought she looked ridiculous but I didn’t say anything. Later, I rolled up my flannel dressing gown and used it as a pillow. Old people can be such fusspots! I wasn’t asleep because I was waiting for everyone to finish their ablutions so that I could sneak downstairs and have my fortune read by the gypsy. I daren’t do it with Reverend Blackadder on the prowl. He can be such a bore about doing anything that isn’t approved by his creed.”

“His creed?” quizzed the constable – yap, yap!

“Theosophy – anyone would think Madame Blavatsky was God the way he goes on. Divine Wisdom! Divine Knowledge! Divine Truth! The Astral body! The Illusion body! The Spiritual Self! I cannot understand any of it but don’t let on I said that!”

The constable licked the tip of his pencil and wrote: Thoesophie?

“What time did you go downstairs?”

Miss Morningstar smiled angelically. For someone who did not comprehend the divine she certainly understood how to harness it. “I wasn’t sure of the time. I don’t have a bedside clock. But when I got downstairs I saw on the longcase clock in the foyer that it was twenty minutes after eleven. That American woman was in the dining room. I don’t know what she was doing in there – probably searching for food. She must have an enormous appetite. She reminds me of an omnibus on wooden legs. As luck would have it, by the time I got to the reading room Madame Sosostras was packing up her cards, but she promised to tell my fortune once we were sailing on the SS Pleiades. Satisfied with that, I went back up to my room on the third floor. Oh, hang on! I saw that American woman again as I passed the second floor. She was going to the bathroom. Does that help you, constable?”

“Thank you, Miss Morningstar,” said the constable, meeting her alluring blue gaze and holding it for several seconds. “You have been most helpful. Please send in the next person.”

She twirled to the door and could be heard to say: “You can go in now Mr Ffrench.”

In shambled the shaggy-haired young man, head bent and shoulders drooped, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He tripped over his own feet and practically fell into the chair, but when he spoke he proved to be no fool.

“I suppose you have heard the same thing over and over from everyone else. We, meaning the menagerie, left the dining room at a quarter to ten. Sissy was not following because she had stopped to retrieve something from under the table. It was a piece of paper that had been folded up inside her handkerchief – fairly daft place to put it if you ask me. Anyway, she must have forgotten she’d put it there because she pulled her handkerchief out of her sleeve and went to wipe her nose causing the paper to fall under the table. As I said, she stayed to retrieve it while the rest of us exited. My room is on the third floor. I saw when she caught up to us, meaning me and Miss Morningstar. She went into her room and closed the door. I heard the key turn in the lock. Miss Morningstar tried to engage me in inane prattle but I managed to shake her off. I heard her lock her door too. Old habits die hard. I did the same. I decided to have a drink or two before bed. Another diehard old habit. I must have dozed off. I woke to a loud banging sound coming from the hall. I could tell from the self-important voice calling out for Sissy that it was the white witch, meaning Madame Moghra, doing the banging. She expects Sissy to be at her beck and call. I gathered Sissy didn’t answer because I heard the old witch exchange some words with Miss Morningstar and then all was quiet again.” He paused to flick a length of ash into the ash tray but his hand trembled when he extended it and the ash fell on the table. He brushed it off using his sleeve before bringing the cigarette to his lips, his hand still trembling, and inhaled deeply, holding the cigarette not between his fingers but between his thumb and index finger.

“You didn’t leave your room?” Five yaps!

“It would be no use lying,” sighed Mr Crispin Ffrench aiming a meaningful bloodshot glance at the Countess before dropping his head and hunching his shoulders. “I went downstairs sometime after that noisy fracas. I had finished my bottle of wormwood and I was rather desperate for another drop of the green fairy. I had spotted a bottle in the butler’s pantry prior to dinner and I noticed that the key to the pantry was kept at reception on a hook by the light switch. Handy when these things are labelled so clearly. Men like me have a deucedly sly eye for detail like that. Did I mention old habits? Anyway, when I got downstairs the blasted key was not on the blasted hook. I was about to return to my room when, on impulse, I decided to check the butler’s pantry and sure enough I was in luck for a change. It was unlocked. Someone was moving about in the kitchen. I don’t think it was the char or the sous-chef. There was a strange sort of fluttery movement and some heavy breathing, as if someone was inhaling and exhaling. I decided it was the better part of valour not to investigate, grabbed the bottle of absinthe, and high-tailed it back to my room. The funny thing is,” he paused and looked up as he butted out his cigarette, his dull brown eyes had a sick gleam to them, “when I went past Sissy’s door I could have sworn it was open a fraction. I remember thinking it odd because it was going on for midnight, so I looked back over my shoulder to double-check, but I was mistaken. The door was closed.”

“Thank you, Mr Ffrench,” yapped the constable, wondering just how much weight he should put on the information of a self-confessed plonker, “you were most helpful. As you are the last of the Magic Lantern troupe would you mind sending in one of your fellow passengers when you return to the dining room?”

The constable waited until the alcoholic shuffled out.

“What do you make of his statement?”

“It is quite believable. He does have an addiction to absinthe which he freely admits to. I also think it accurate to suggest Miss Morningstar is attracted to him but I don’t think he returns her affection. I think he finds her immature and rather annoying.”

“Do you think he might have been attracted to the other one – Sissy?”

“Do you mean was he having an illicit liaison?”

“Yes.” Yap!

“I don’t think so. He did not pay her any particular attention on the occasion when I saw the two of them together – there was no meeting of eyes, no long sighs, that sort of thing – and she was not a very attractive looking girl, whereas Mr Ffrench is rather handsome and like tends to go with like except where vast amounts of money is concerned.”

“You reckon he is handsome?”

“Certainly, he has the soul of a poet, the brains of a scientist, and a broken heart that needs mending – what woman would be able to resist that?”

The constable’s head was angled until he thought to straighten it. “But he seemed to notice a lot about her – the paper in the handkerchief, her door being open, the fact she is put upon by – what did he call her? – the old witch?”

“Yes, the paper in the handkerchief is interesting. I saw her pick it up after the others were filing out of the dining room. I presumed it was a handkerchief she was retrieving, possibly for Madame Moghra, but the fact it was a piece of paper makes it somehow significant.”

“Significant?”

“Why would a young woman fold a piece of paper and hide it inside her handkerchief?”

The constable angled his head. “I was hoping you could tell me, being a woman and all.”

“Well, it had to be something private, something she wanted to keep hidden from the others. She waited until the other members of the troupe had left the table before retrieving it, but it was important enough to retrieve quickly and not leave for later, and not a scrap of paper that could be left on the floor and swept up with the crumbs.”

“A love letter?” Yap, yap, yap!

“If it were a love letter she would have put it somewhere safe. The fact she tucked it into her handkerchief suggests she didn’t have time to put it away anywhere else. That suggests she received it on her way down to the dining-room.”

“Someone put it straight into her hand?”

“So it seems, and yet it is unlikely – she knew everyone in the troupe. They could have pushed it under her door if they had wanted it to be kept secret. It would be risky to give it to her in front of the others in full view. Oh, wait! Of course! She could have picked it up as she passed the reception desk.”

“A message left by someone outside the hotel?”

“Yes – possibly an assignation.”

“A message to meet someone?”

“That would account for her door being open though it was going on for midnight – she was about to go out when she heard Mr Ffrench returning to his room and closed her door and waited a few moments. And the time fits. Midnight is a good time to meet someone in secret for a tryst.”

He slapped his hand on the table. “That fits the theory! Her lover ditches her and she throws herself in the river – suicide!”

“Or else he throws her in the river.”

The constable’s eyes lit up. He had been sent to interview these people because Detective Inspector MacBride considered the open and shut case to be trivial. Just another hard-up lass washed up in the Clyde – but now it looked like a genuine murder case. This was his lucky day!

“That would make it murder!”

“Yes, it would.”

“But that means you wouldn’t be able to sail at midday.”

“But if the murderer-cum-lover is not part of the troupe, and we discount Dr Hu and Dr Watson, then we can still sail. Your murderer is someone living or visiting Glasgow. Not a fellow passenger.”

There was a quiet knock on the door.

“Come in!” Yap, yap!

Dr Hu pattered across the room, bowed politely to the Countess and the young constable, then sat down, folded his small feminine hands and waited respectfully for the first question. The constable obliged.

“At what time, Dr Hu, did you go up to your room last night?”

“I am not certain of time. After my dinner, I exchange most pleasant conversation with the Countess and her tlavelling companion on subject of Chinese holloscope.”

“Hollow-scope?”

“The Chinese have their own horoscope,” explained the Countess.

“Oh, I see, please go on Dr Hu.”

“It is Year of Pig.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“1899 is the Year of the Pig according to the Chinese zodiac,” illuminated the Countess. “Everyone born this year is a Pig regardless of the month of birth.”

The constable angled his head. “Is this relevant?”

“I establish conversation,” Dr Hu defended amiably, stroking his moustache using two hands symmetrically, both moving in perfect synchronicity from top to bottom.

“Very well, please go on.”

“I go all way to my loom – ”

“Loom?”

“Loom eight on second floor.”

“Ah, yes, room number eight, please continue.”

“I plepare my bags for the morning and I hear Dr Watson in loom next door, loom seven, cough, cough, cough. I say to myself: I must have the tisane to aid sleep. I go back down the stair. I hear Countess’s voice in leading loom.” He paused and smiled courteously in her direction. “No one at leception desk. I take key flom hook and go to small loom called butler pantly. I find hot water in urn and cup on shelf. I make tisane with tea and lemon. I need the herb. I go to kitchen for herb. Chef have mint sauce for dinner with the lamb – vely nice. Chef must have the mint leaf. I look and look and find. I add to tisane. I dlink. I feel happy and do the t’ai chi –”

“Tie what?”

“It is an ancient form of Chinese martial art,” enlightened the Countess. “It involves breathing and stretching that aids fitness and balance and helps to calm the mind and body.”

“You did these exercises in the kitchen?”

Dr Hu nodded. “There is plenty space for stletching.” He rose to his feet and gave a demonstration. “This is yang style t’ai chi ch’uan – English call: single whip.”

The constable looked alarmed as the little Chinaman whirled around twirling his arms like an angry hissing human snake caught in the spokes of a spinning wheel. “Yes, well, thank you for that, Dr Hu. Please be re-seated. Did you see anyone while you were in the kitchen or the pantry?”

“I see young man with hair like dog.”

“Mr Ffrench,” explained the Countess.

“Yes, Mr Fflench, he has the ploblem – I think he is addicted to the absint as many of my people are addicted to opium. I see him take bottle from shelf. I continue the t’ai chi for good while and then go to bed. I sleep stlaight away.”

“You didn’t see anyone else as you made your way back to your room?”

“No one – but I hear the footsteps on the stair.”

“Someone else going up to their room?”

The Chinaman shook his head. “No,” he said, stroking his moustache, “going down.”

“A man or a woman, do you think?”

“Woman – light of step and in hully.”

“Hully?”

“Hurry,” the Countess translated.

“What time do you think that was?”

“Not midnight. I know because clock not yet stlike.”

“Strike,” said the Countess.

“Yes, yes,” yapped the constable irritably. “I got that. Thank you Dr Hu. Please send in another person.” The constable licked his pencil and made some notes after the Chinaman bowed low and pattered out. “Do you think that could have been Sissy going to meet someone outside the hotel?”

“It does appear to fit the facts,” she said. “But who the mystery man could be is anyone’s guess.”

The constable’s excitement was short-lived. “Like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” he moaned.

“That’s what detective work is all about.”

“But where would I start?” he whined.

“You would seek out anyone and everyone on the riverbank. Check the inns, the ships, the warehouses, the doss houses, and the whorehouses. Speak to the sailors, the vagrants, the prostitutes, and the pickpockets.”

“They would not make reliable witnesses,” he protested. “Detective Inspector McBride says they –”

“They make the best witnesses,” contradicted the Countess. “The river is their world. They know when someone belongs and when they don’t, they recognize a new face and an old one. They know when something’s not right. They know exactly when a girl goes into the water and where and why and who was with her or whether she was on her own. That would immediately suggest to you if it was suicide or murder. A suicide does not need company. A murderer needs a victim.”

There was a sharp rap on the door that reverberated around the little reading room like a death knell.

The constable jumped and yapped at the same time. “Come in!”

Mrs Merle stumped in as if she might have splints on her legs, swaying from side to side. The rolling gait seemed to propel her along. The chair creaked under her bulk, groaning in protest as she humped her carpet bag onto her large lap.

“Before we start, Constable MacTavish,” she began robustly, “I want to report a stolen item.”

He cocked his head – all ears.

“I left my novel in the dining room last night and when I returned for it a short time later it was gone. I know it is of no great value but it is the principle of the thing.”

“Yes, indeed, Mrs, er -”

“I think you will find that Reverend Blackadder picked up your novel – Moby Dick, wasn’t it? – thinking that it was one of the books from the reading room,” interceded the Countess. “I’m sure he will be happy to return it to you at the first opportunity, Mrs Merle.”

The American astrologer gave an approving snort. “Well, I’m glad that is cleared up. Now, how can I help you, young man?”

“You can start by telling me what time you went to your room, Mrs Merle.”

“I left the dining room at precisely half past nine. There was no point lingering. The coffee was tepid and the Victoria sponge was stale. The meal was extremely disappointing, quite inadequate really, I am hoping for better fayre on the SS Pleiades. I went straight to my room on the first floor and went over my notes for the lecture on Mercury retrograde. There were a few changes I wanted to make. Not everyone is aware of the pitfalls of travelling, purchasing property, commencing new business ventures and getting married during Mercury retrograde. I wanted to emphasise such points in no uncertain terms.”

The constable still had no idea what she was talking about. Americans had turned into a strange race who now spoke a totally different language beyond the comprehension of the general English speaker. “You left your room briefly at what time?”

“When I realized I had left my novel in the dining room, you mean?”

“Yes.” Yap!

“It was twenty minutes after eleven. There was no one about. I made my way downstairs as quietly as I could but the stairs have a terrible creak. My novel was not where I had left it on my table. I thought perhaps the waitress had removed it whilst clearing up so I searched high and low for it on the sideboard and the dresser. Alas! I helped myself to a couple of currant buns that had been put out ready for breakfast while I was searching. They were already stale. The quality of the food is appalling but I was feeling alarmingly peckish. My book was nowhere to be seen so I returned to my room.”

“You didn’t see anyone during your visit to the dining room?”

“I was just getting to that, young man.”

“Please go on.”

“There was a waxing moon. It will be a full moon tomorrow night – a full moon in Taurus in opposition to the sun in Scorpio. My table was by the window and I stopped to gaze at the fullness of the moon but the fog was –”

“So you didn’t actually see anyone?”

“Are you asking me or telling me, young man?”

The constable gritted his canines. “I am asking.”

“In that case, the answer is yes, I did see someone. It was the dead girl. What I mean is that it was the dead girl before she was dead, before she went into the river. She was on the pavement directly outside the window standing under a flickering gaslight. I could see her as clearly as I can you see you now, constable. She was rugged up as if she was going to take a walk – coat, hat, gloves and scarf. I thought it odd at that late hour but there are odd types in this world and I have met most of them in my line of work.”

The constable was about to ask what line that was but remembering she was American bit his tongue and clenched his canines. “What direction did she go?”

“She didn’t go off in any direction, not while I was looking, she just stood on the pavement and rubbed her hands to ward off the cold.”

“Did she appear agitated?” asked the Countess.

Mrs Merle gave a moment’s consideration to the question. “No, I don’t think so. She paced a little, but I think that was to keep warm.”

“Don’t you think that is odd,” pointed out the Countess. “If she was going to take a walk why not go at once? Why wait around to get cold?”

“Oh, yes, I see what you mean. Well, perhaps she was waiting for someone. Yes, now that you mention it, it does seem as if she was waiting for someone to join her.”

“You didn’t see anyone else on the street?” asked the constable hopefully.

“It was quite deserted – what I could see of it because of the fog – not a living soul.”

“Did the girl see you looking at her?” asked the Countess.

“No, I didn’t have the light on. I have the eyes of an owl. I met a genuine Sioux chieftan once and he christened me Owl-of-the-wood. “The gaslight was bright enough for my needs.”

“You didn’t see anyone else on your way back to your room?”

“Not a living soul.”

“Thank you, Mrs Owl, er, I mean Mrs Merle. Please send in the next person. We are almost done.”

A creature of habit, the constable licked the tip of his pencil and scribbled down some notes while he waited for the door to close.

“Do you think her story sounds credible, about the dead girl, I mean?”

The Countess nodded. “It fits the facts. We know it was close to midnight when Sissy must have gone out. But the really important fact is the clothing and that can be easily verified by checking her room. I doubt that anyone intending to commit suicide would take the trouble to dress warmly. And she would have appeared more agitated if she was in a vexed state of mind. I think she would have walked swiftly to the river too and contemplated death while gazing at the water, not while standing under a gaslight. I think it highly likely she was waiting for someone. And I cannot accept the theory she committed suicide on the spur of the moment after being jilted. She gave no indication of being unstable.”

There was a knock on the door, followed by a tell-tale cough that announced Dr Watson. He was smoking a cigarette and looked tired though the day had barely started. There were puffy bags under his eyes and his smile was strained. The sooner they got underway to Biarritz the better. This unfortunate delay was doing his chest no good at all.

“How can I help you, constable?” His voice was hoarse and he settled himself sideways on the chair as if he didn’t intend to stay long.

“You can help by telling me what time you went to your room, Dr Watson.”

He coughed to clear his phlegmy throat. “It was about ten o’clock or just a little thereafter. I bid the Countess a pleasant good night in the foyer and went up to my room on the second floor.”

“You did not leave your room during the night?”

“No, I was feeling achy. I got straight into bed. I didn’t really sleep. This wretched cough keeps me up most of the night. But I snatched some shut-eye on and off until about eight this morning.”

“You didn’t hear anyone or anything unusual during the night?”

“I heard doors opening and closing and footsteps in the hall and stairs creaking and running water but nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that you wouldn’t hear in any other hotel.”

“In that case, thank you, Dr Watson. Please send in the next person.”

“There is only one person left, Madame Sosostras.”

“Very well, send her in and we will be done in plenty of time to have you all aboard your steamer ship for midday.”

Dr Watson grimaced at his counterpart before violently stubbing out his cigarette and taking his leave in an asthmatic harrumph.

Madame Sosostras could be heard long before she could be seen; her jangly jewellery preceded her by several paces. She swirled across the room in a bohemian flurry of colourful garments and flounced into the chair whereby she immediately smoothed down her layered skirt and straightened her multi-stranded necklaces made up of gold, silver and semi-precious gemstones. The mole above her lip looked darker and the khol around her eyes looked fresh. In her left hand she clutched her precious tarot cards.

Conscious of the time, the constable continued to dispense with the customary background details of those he had been sent to interview, such as: full name, address, nationality, and so on. He merely wished to know about last night. Everything else, as far as he was concerned, was not relevant.

“Last night, what time did you go to your room, Madame Sosostras?”

She ran a blood-red talon around the topmost card, the Hierophant.

“I finished reading the Countess’s future in the cards shortly before eleven. After she left the room I packed up my cards and blew out the candles. I threw the incense sticks on the embers – the scent of them lingers in the air still. You can smell the chypre and myrrh. It was late but I was not tired. I had slept on the train from Edinburgh. I sat in the armchair in the corner,” she indicated a comfortable velvet sofa with her dark gypsy eyes, “and meditated on life and death.”

“Did you see anyone or hear anything while you were, er, meditating?”

“I saw no one, though I heard several people coming and going, in and out of the dining room on the other side of the foyer. I heard someone leave the hotel – the door creaks – and I presumed it was the girl who was found dead this morning because the girl I saw through the gap in the door and through the window was not among the guests having breakfast.”

“Can you describe the girl you saw?”

“She was not very attractive, not as attractive as the fair demoiselle who poked her head in while I was packing up my cards. I promised to give her a reading once we were on board the SS Pleiades. The unattractive plain girl paced outside the window for a short length of time. I closed my eyes. I always do while meditating. When I re-opened my eyes she had gone.”

“You didn’t see anyone else outside?”

Madame Sosostras shook her head and her gold-hoop earrings danced. “No, but I thought I heard a voice outside the window. I think someone spoke to her.”

“A man or a woman?”

“The voice was deep, more like that of a man.”

“So someone engaged her in conversation – did they approach her from the street or from the inside of the hotel?”

“I cannot say with certainty. I thought I heard the front door creak but I may have been imagining it. I was in that place between sleeping and waking and midnight is the time when the spirits move among us.”

The constable licked his pencil and made a note in his notebook: dreaming?

“On your way to your room, did you see anyone?”

She shook her head once more causing the gold hoops to flick back and forth.

“What time was it that you went upstairs?”

“Just after midnight – would you like your fortune read in the cards? For the police I do it for free – no charge. The cards never lie.”

She fanned the cards out with her hand and gave a sly look when she thought the constable wasn’t looking at her. The Countess got the impression the gypsy was wary of the police, as many of her compatriots were wont to be, and had learnt early in life how to manipulate them. Madame Sosostras was playing with the constable the way a crafty fox plays with a dopey puppy on his first excursion into the forest.

The constable was momentarily mesmerized by the esoteric intricacy of the beautiful designs but declined the offer. He wondered if the gypsy was like her cards and never lied. It now seemed more than likely that Sissy did meet someone at midnight and it is highly probably that he, for it did seem to be a he, pushed her in the river.

And that made it murder.

Chapter 12 – Captain Lanfranc

 

“It’s murder all right!” said the constable, an edgy excitement to his yappy tone.

The Countess agreed. “You will need to get to work immediately. Question the hotel staff first of all. Then track down anyone who works on the river, lives hereabouts, or passes this way on a regular basis. Leave no stone unturned and don’t overlook any comment, no matter how trivial you may think it to be. Take lots of notes. Check and double check the times we were given tonight. Don’t forget to check the dead girl’s clothing and make sure you visit The Old Anchor. Check with the concierge at reception for any messages left during the day. Speak to the chef, the sous chef, the waiters, the porter, the chambermaids, and so on. Don’t discount the menial help such as the coal man, the scullery maid or the laundress. Don’t allow personal prejudice to colour your view. Keep an open mind.”

While he wrote furiously in his notebook, she continued.

“If any fresh information comes to light you can send a telegraphic message to the SS Pleiades. It has been fitted with the latest electronic wireless device for ship to shore messaging. In fact, you can keep me abreast of anything you discover. Remember, nothing is irrelevant in a murder investigation. In the meantime, I will continue to converse with the people we just interviewed to see if they change their story or if there are any contradictions. Do you mind if I have a look at your notes?”

He slid his notebook across the table.

His note-taking was methodical, though his spelling and handwriting were atrocious. He had scribbled down against each person’s misspelt name: their bedtimes, the times they had seen someone, times they came downstairs, times they returned to their rooms again, and placed question marks against points that he possibly meant to look into such as Theosophy, t’ai chi and currant buns.

“You have been thorough, Constable MacTavish,” she praised generously, “and your thoroughness has brought to light our first discrepancy.” She pointed at the name of the American astrologer. “Mrs Merle claims she went to the dining room at twenty minutes past eleven but a short time later at eleven-thirty and eleven-forty, neither Dr Hu nor Mr Ffrench mentioned seeing her. Moreover, she was seen going to the bathroom at half past eleven by Miss Morningstar. That means that if the American astrologer really did see Sissy on the street she must have returned to the dining room a second time. She couldn’t possibly have seen the girl before midnight. Either she returned to the dining room at midnight or she is lying about what time she was there.”

“I can call her back in and ask her.”

The Countess nodded. “Yes, do that.”

The constable went to summon the American. The two of them returned a short time later, the latter protesting loudly.

“I thought you had finished your interviews?” she said with exasperation, hauling herself into the spindly chair and depositing her voluminous carpet bag on the floor as if dropping anchor. “What is it now?”

The constable tactfully gestured for the Countess to proceed.

“There seems to be a discrepancy in your statement, Mrs Merle, which we hope you can clarify.”

“Discrepancy?” she hooted.

“You say you went down to the dining room at twenty minutes after eleven, but Sissy did not go out until midnight.”

“That’s hardly a discrepancy,” she challenged, remaining wooden-faced.

“Well, two guests have confirmed they were in the dining room at eleven-thirty and eleven-forty and neither mentions seeing you. What’s more, you were seen going to the upstairs bathroom at eleven thirty. So, either you returned to the dining room some time later or you couldn’t have seen what you say you saw.”

Mrs Merle’s totemic face appeared to redden. “Oh, yes, of course! I needed to go to the bathroom. I decided to unpin my hair while I was there and plait it ready for bed. I always sleep with my hair in a long single braid, have done ever since I was a girl. That took about thirty minutes. When I was done I was feeling peckish again and decided to have another currant bun to tide me over until breakfast. I went down to the dining room a second time. It was about midnight. That’s when I saw the girl.”

“Thank you,” said the Countess, smiling beatifically. “That clears up the discrepancy very neatly.” She turned to the constable. “Was there anything else?”

His head was angled and looked quite queer. When he shook it, it appeared to be broken. He was busy scribbling down the new times and had his tongue between his teeth the way small children do when giving all their concentration to a mighty effort. He straightened up and retracted his tongue suddenly.

“That’s all,” he yappetty-yapped. “You may rejoin the others in the dining room and you will soon be on your way to Biarritz, Mrs Merle.”

There was a knock on the door and then Dr Watson poked his head in.

“I just wanted to let you know that Captain Lanfranc has arrived. He was wondering if he could have a word to Constable MacTavish.”

“Send him straight in,” yapped the young constable, feeling pleased with himself.

The captain had the swarthy look of the seafaring Marseillaise – tall and dark with a touch of Carthaginian blood running through his Mediterranean veins, not unlike his compatriot Monsieur Croquemort, but without the stage-crafted vanity of the lounge lizard. His tousled hair was windswept and his silvery beard had not been preened and primped to within an inch of its life. He greeted the constable with deference though the constable was half his age, a mere cadet in the life of men.

Bonjour, I have come the check if there is any chance we will be sailing today.” His voice was manly and deep and seemed to come from the back of his throat like a foghorn tempered by long distance, softened by the accent of le francais which was one of the most mellifluous accents in the world according to the ear of the Countess. “The crew is anxious for extra shore-leave and as everything is ship-shape I am loath to deny them unless I have good reason.”

The constable exchanged a brief glance with the Countess. The return look reassured him all was ship-shape. The murderer was somewhere out there and he meant to track them down. He felt as twitchy as a tethered ratter about to be unleashed, nervous yet excited at the prospect of putting his detective skills to the test. He marvelled that he had learned more from the Countess in one hour than he had learned from Detective Inspector MacBride in six months.

“You can sail as soon as you are ready. The passengers are free to go.”

Captain Lanfranc looked relieved. “Bon! Bon! I So, the dead girl was a suicide?”

The constable was about to yap ‘murder’ but caught the Countess’s eye and immediately contained his eager panting. “I have decided to keep an open mind on the matter. It is too early to draw a definite conclusion. But my findings should not delay you.”

“In that case, we sail at once.”

From this point on, Captain Lanfranc and his chief steward, Monsieur Bresant, took charge. Wagonettes and drays were organized for the luggage, including the paraphernalia belonging to the Magic Lantern troupe, which included the levitating throne, two magic lanterns, a trunk full of costumes, another for shrouds, a third for photographic equipment, a fourth for painted scenery, and a fifth for props. While all that was being loaded and transported dockside the passengers were offered morning tea by the owner of the hotel, Mr Tonkinson, who was also the publican of The Old Anchor and the owner of several other inns and hotels along the Firth of Clyde. He had heard about the death of one of his female guests and had come at once to check that nothing was amiss in his prized establishment.

“Thank the stars we will soon be underway!” blustered Mrs Merle who had not eaten for at least an hour and was leading the charge to the buffet. “It is all due to Mars moving into Libra, the house of short journeys, that this matter has been resolved so expeditiously.”

“It was most misfortunate that girl is choosing last night to commit suicide,” responded Dr Hu sympathetically, following in her totemic shadow.

“Misfortunate! It was a nuisance – that’s what it was!” hooted the American. “Why she didn’t choose to wait until she was aboard the SS Pleiades and then just leap into the Irish Sea is beyond me!”

“That is a most unkind remark,” chastised Reverend Blackadder, pitting himself against the American in a battle reminiscent of David versus Goliath. “Sissy will be greatly missed.”

“Maids can be found anywhere,” dismissed the American tactlessly.

“Sissy was more than a maid,” intervened Monsieur Croquemort with a savage scowl. “She was also a valued member of the troupe. She will be hard to replace.” He was already wondering whether to start looking for a replacement in Biarritz at the Spiritualist Congress or wait until they reached the United States. He would need to find someone the same size, of course, otherwise all the costumes would need to be altered. And someone who could appease the old witch – Sissy was good at that. She wasn’t really employed as Madame Moghra’s maid but she made it seem so with her fussing. She was a good little actress.

Mrs Merle did not heap her plate up too much. The dainty cake plates were too small anyway. It was all she could do to balance a scone on top of a couple of fish paste sandwiches and squeeze a dollop of jam and clotted cream on the side. She intended to return for seconds as soon as a space cleared at the buffet but some people were so slow, umm-ing and ahh-ing over the Bakewell tart and the Madeira cake, or taking their jolly time at the tea trolley.

Madame Sosostras had no such trouble. She ate like a sparrow. A few crumbs were enough to satisfy her. “I don’t think it was suicide,” she said softly as she helped herself to three ginger biscuits which she liked to dunk in her tea when no one was looking.

“I beg your pardon?” said Dr Watson, standing directly behind her, his ears slightly blocked, making him hard of hearing.

“I don’t think it was suicide,” repeated the gypsy in a plangent accent.

“You think it was murder?” queried Dr Watson, waiting patiently for the milk jug.

The gypsy queen nodded. “Yes.”

“Shut up!” hissed the American under her breath as she brushed past, aiming a sideways glance at Constable MacTavish and Captain Lanfranc, who had both been persuaded to join them for morning tea. “Or you will have us stuck here in Glasgow for days on end.”

The gypsy queen flushed scarlet and moved off quickly to a table set between two plaster urns on plinths. Dr Watson helped himself to a couple of fish paste sandwiches, his sweet-tooth having suffered a serious dent since his dry cough had morphed into a phlegmatic bark. The gypsy’s theory explained why the Countess had contrived to sit in on the interviews. He had been wondering what her interest could be.

“May I join you?” Dr Watson voiced his request with the utmost courtesy before settling at the table for two and launching into: “What makes you think it was murder?”

Madame Sosostras had a soft voice to begin with but made sure to speak in an even lower quaver. Dr Watson leaned forward to listen.

“You will recall I insisted on going last to be interviewed,” she reminded, waiting for him to nod, “well, that is because I was the last to see the girl alive. I was sitting in the reading room in the dark and I saw her go out of the hotel. She was wearing her warmest clothes. She did not hurry away but paced under the streetlight. I saw when a man came up to her. He said a few words and they went off together. The next morning she was dead.”

“I see, did you get a good look at the man?”

The gypsy shook her head. “He had his back to the window. He was tall – that is all I can say.”

“You told this to the constable?” he checked.

“Yes.”

“And the Countess?” he double-checked.

“Yes.”

Dr Watson was suddenly torn between bringing this information to the attention of everyone present and thus delaying sailing yet again or else keeping quiet. He glanced around the dining room at the crowd wolfing down scones and cake and gulping back tea and coffee, eager to be on their way to Biarritz. He didn’t have the strength to stand in their way and sighed forlornly. The Countess was not present. He knew she had gone to speak to Xenia and Fedir and was organizing for them to have something to eat. She must have decided to leave matters in the hands of the Glasgow constabulary and who was he to argue with that?

When he’d first met the Countess on the eve of his departure for Baskerville Castle he had been desperate to prove he could solve a case without the help of his friend Sherlock – that was September. Here they were in November and he’d already had enough of sleuthing. He was loath to admit it but he really could do with some warmer weather and some briny sea air.

Countess Volodymyrovna helped herself to whatever was left after Mrs Merle had finished helping herself to thirds. She scanned for a vacant seat and decided to join Madame Moghra who was seated on her own, away from the other members of the menagerie, looking deathly pale and uncharacteristically introspective.

“Are you feeling all right?” she asked when she joined the medium.

Startled, Madame Moghra looked up quickly – her mind had clearly been drifting in some far off realm. “Oh, yes, quite all right, thank you, yes, do join me, Countess. I was just thinking about –” Her voice became softer, more strained, before trailing off to nothing.

“About Sissy?” prompted the Countess gently.

“About death.”

The Countess thought the philosophical difference between the two things to be one of degrees. After death we tend to contemplate Death. But that’s not what the medium meant. Her contemplation was not metaphysical – she had meant death; as in her own.

“I have had a premonition about death,” she croaked, staring across the room with a fatalistic look in her eyes as if she had literally seen the Grim Reaper. “He has finally come for me,” she whispered presciently.

The Countess followed the doomed gaze to try to ascertain what or who the medium might be staring at but several people were milling around the buffet, Mrs Merle among them. Reverend Blackadder was at the tea trolley with Mr Ffrench. Monsieur Croquemort and Captain Lanfranc were chatting together on their way to the door. Constable MacTavish and Monsieur Bresant were ushering one step ahead of them. And Mr Tonkinson had just entered to make sure everything was going smoothly. Feeling lucky, he had invited a newspaper reporter around to let him in on the full story, or what he knew of it, hence the offer of morning tea. Murder always made the front page. It meant free publicity for the Mungo Arms and all his other establishments. To get a photo of some famous personages would be a bonus, especially as business was slow coming into winter. But the reporter had not yet arrived. If he didn’t get a hurry-on it would be too late. When a string of hansom cabs arrived at the front of the hotel, Fate stepped in and his luck ran out.

Chapter 13 – SS Pleiades

 

The SS Pleiades was an elegant vessel with a sleek black hull; a hybrid yacht-cum-paddle steamer, longer and more slender than the paddle steamers that plied the Mississippi or the Swiss lakes, though her wheel was well hidden. She had a huge red funnel with a black riband at the top that resembled a giant cigarette, especially when she blew smoke. The funnel was set halfway between two masts, one fore and one aft. Sails were still de rigeur on steamer ships to catch the wind and save on coal whenever the chance arose.

She would eventually ply the waters between Le Havre, St Malo and the Channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey when she went into service, thus she was not as large as the new steam ships being commissioned in the Glasgow shipyards for trans-Atlantic crossings. They were true dreadnoughts, massive, with the capacity for 100 first class passengers and another 100 in steerage. Because she was not yet in service, she was doing this leg of the journey with a half crew. There was no chief mate or second officer, no physician or nurse, fewer servants and kitchen hands, however, this was not envisaged to be too much of a problem.

The SS Pleiades had eight first class cabins on the Promenade deck. The rest of the space was taken up by the wheelhouse, instrument room and telegraph room. Public state rooms were to be found one level below: the lounge saloon, dining saloon, library, billiard room and so forth were state of the art regarding comfort and style with gilded mouldings and plush furnishings not unworthy of a luxurious Mayfair mansion. A massive lantern roof maximized natural light.

Soon after boarding, a dilemma arose concerning the cabins, not that there was anything wrong with them, but this was a superstitious group of passengers and the chief steward had failed to foresee the hidden pitfalls.

Dr Hu had been allocated cabin 4, however in the Chinese language the word for ‘four’ sounded like the word for ‘death’. This was catastrophic to a Chinaman. Dr Hu insisted on being moved to a more suitable cabin, meaning one with a more fortunate number. Alas, all the cabins on the Promenade deck had been allocated and everyone’s bags had already been deposited in their respective rooms.

Monsieur Bresant was at a loss to know what to do. It was thanks to Dr Watson that the problem was solved. He agreed to swap cabins, and as he had cabin 8, a most fortunate number according to the Chinese, all was amicably settled. Dr Watson did not know it at the time but he had won a friend for life in Monsieur Bresant.

However, the incident caused the other passengers to cast a jaundiced eye over their cabin numbers. Reverend Blackadder insisted on having cabin 7, a cosmic number of vital significance to Theosophists.

“A Septenary system is fundamental to Theosophy,” he stated forthrightly. “There are seven forces in nature, seven planes of being, and seven states of consciousness. There are seven symbols, seven principles and seven bodies in the universe. Mrs Blavatsky argues most convincingly in her book The Secret Doctrine that there are seven human groups and seven sections on the globe. In every religion, seven is a sacred number. I must insist on -”

“Stop!” Madame Sosostras, who was in cabin 7, had heard enough. She had witnessed religious mania in all its guises – Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim – and had heard every reason put forward for accepting unreason. She agreed to transfer to another cabin, but which one?

Mrs Merle proved a godsend. “What star sign are you?”

“I’m a Pisces,” said the gypsy.

“Well, why don’t you take cabin 12. It is on B deck but it is a fortunate number for you, being the twelfth sign of the zodiac, and you will be closer to water, most auspicious for a water sign, which should help you to stay in harmony with the universe.”

Right now being in harmony with herself was what mattered. “Very well,” she agreed.

Of course that meant that Monsieur Croquemort, who happened to be in cabin 12 on B deck, would have to shift as well. Luckily, he agreed to take cabin 3 on the Promenade deck from the reverend. So the trio did a three-way swap.

Dr Watson moved to the hand-rail to gaze at the banks of the Clyde one last time and to try and dismiss from his mind that he was aboard the ship of fools, afloat on a sea of superstition, where the tongues of men and angels had been supplanted by that of gibbering idiots.

The Countess had no trouble entering into the idiocy of the voyage of the damned. “I don’t suppose it has occurred to anyone that we are sailing on the Pleiades – the constellation named after the seven sisters. The entire ship is a seven!”

Reverend Blackadder brightened up considerably. “That’s augers well.”

“Since we are still talking numbers,” pouted Madame Moghra magisterially. “I must insist on taking cabin 5 which relates to my sign – Leo.”

She aimed some enormous leonine eyes directly at Mr Crispin Ffrench.

“Oh, for pity’s sake! This is childish! You can have cabin 5! I shall go down to B deck! I don’t care what number it is! I shall go to cabin 13 just to prove that the number doesn’t make any difference at all to the universe!”

And off he stormed to get his bags.

Miss Morningstar looked wistfully at the back of the man marching off before gazing longingly at her cabin number then looking back sadly at the receding back of the man soon to be ensconced below deck. She had liked number 6 because it corresponded to Virgo, the Virgin of the zodiac, but in the interests of universal harmony and wishful thinking she decided to give it up to Mrs Merle who was also a Virgo, though the two women could not have been greater polar opposites much to the bemusement of any adherent of astrological theory. Without further ado Miss Morningstar took herself off to B deck and into cabin 11, which happened to be right next door to Mr Ffrench.

Thus the cabins were decided. Cabin 1 was vacant. Monsieur Croquemort was in 3, Madame Moghra in 5, Reverend Blackadder in 7 – all on the starboard side. Port side was the Countess in cabin 2, Dr Watson in 4, Mrs Merle in 6, and Dr Hu in 8. On B deck could be found Madame Sosostras in 12, Xenia and Fedir in 14 and 16 respectively, Miss Morningstar in 11 and Mr Ffrench in unlucky number 13.

When Dr Hu placed an amulet on his door handle to ward off evil spirits it set off another chain of events. Everyone agreed that because of the possible confusion that might arise from swapping cabins at the last minute it was in everyone’s best interests to place some sort of symbol on their door to avoid going into the wrong cabin. No one called it a lucky charm except Dr Watson who refused to hang anything on his door at all. Wrong cabin, indeed! That’s why numbers were put on doors in the first place!

“I refuse to be part of such superstitious nonsense!” he remonstrated. “People will know it is my cabin because it won’t display a talismanic charm!”

Dr Hu chose the yin-yang symbol for promoting good balance between male and female energy. Monsieur Croquemort chose the item he sometimes used for hypnotizing his stage victims – a carnelian gemstone on a gold chain. Mrs Merle hung a dream-catcher on her door. This was a circlet of eagle feathers and wolf’s teeth given to her by a genuine Sioux chieftan. Reverend Blackadder placed the Theosophist symbol of a serpent swallowing its own tail on his door. Madame Sosostras had a silver bullet on a fine silver chain which she said was handy for warding off vampires – giving rise to the suspicion that perhaps she was a member of the persecuted and much maligned Romany race and not Hungarian after all. Madame Moghra chose a traditional Celtic cross on an imitation gold chain. It was made of brass and had a bit of verdigris on it which lent it a lovely antique patina. The Countess, who did not own a talisman as such, decided to enter into the novelty of the thing and chose a black velvet ribbon with a cameo brooch attached to it. It was a pretty bauble and the least valuable of her jewels.

Miss Morningstar was tempted to tie a blue ribbon to her handle. The only thing that stopped her was the violent ribbing she would receive from Mr Ffrench.

Competition was fierce between rival shipping lines, particularly the Norwegian, Germanic and British lines, and the newer steam ships made it part of company policy to entertain their first class passengers. Promenading on deck was well and good but luxury travel was all about amusement. On the aft deck was an area set aside for games. There was something called ‘deck shuffleboard’ which was a bit like hockey without the physical exertion. It involved long-handled wooden paddles, wooden pucks called biscuits, and an elongated rectangle about twenty feet long with numbered sections marked on it, not unlike hopscotch, which earned points if you landed your biscuit on the right number.

Mr Ffrench, Miss Morningstar, Countess Volodymyrovna and Reverend Blackadder decided to give deck shuffleboard a go. The first two teamed up against the second two. Miss Morningstar proved to be extremely co-ordinated with her paddle and biscuit and could land it in the scoring area more often than not. Mr Ffrench had a decent reach but his co-ordination was not all it could have been because of his shaky hands. Reverend Blackadder tried to block their game by planting his biscuit in their way but tended to disadvantage himself by landing in the 10-off section and losing points. He had a minus forty score within a short time and it quickly got worse. He was a sore loser who argued every point. It spoiled the enjoyment of the game. The game ended on a rancorous note when he called Mr Ffrench a cheat.

Madame Moghra, who was still looking morbidly pale and distracted, was persuaded by Dr Hu to participate in a game of quoits – this involved tossing a small, stiff, coiled rope onto an upright stick. It was, like most childish pastimes, much harder than it looked. Neither had much success.

Dr Watson and Monsieur Croquemort preferred darts and were soon joined by Madame Sosostras. The men offered to make it easier for her since she was a woman and suggested she stand closer but she declined and amazed them with her accuracy. Beginner’s luck, she laughed! She scored a bull’s eye so often it became embarrassing.

When Madame Moghra retired to the library with a headache, the gypsy moved to join the Chinaman at quoits and even there she proved that beginner’s luck had nothing to do with it. She rarely missed nailing the quoit.

Lunch was served in the lavish dining saloon. It was a buffet repast of equally lavish proportions that pleased Mrs Merle, who had spent the preceding hour plonked in a deck chair, faint with hunger. They sat at a large round table for ten centred with one of those ship’s-in-a-glass-bottle made by Monsieur Bresant in his spare time.

Dr Watson was still wondering about the dead girl and it was not something he could let go of. Was her death suicide or murder? Now that they were cruising the Irish Sea he felt it safe to broach the subject. Little did he know it would be like firing a cannonball into the centre of the table and blowing it to smithereens!

“It seems that Sissy may have been murdered?” he said matter-of-factly.

“What makes you say that?” queried Monsieur Croquemort.

“I heard someone say it back in Glasgow,” replied the doctor vaguely.

“Probably that inexperienced young constable!” sneered Reverend Blackadder.

“The silly young man was out of his depth,” disdained Madame Moghra. “If Sissy was murdered he will never find the killer.”

“He was practically illiterate,” said Mrs Merle snidely. “I could see his notes. You couldn’t make head or tail of the scrawl.”

“I thought he looked intelligent,” offered Miss Morningstar.

“You would,” said Mr Ffrench sardonically.

She tried not to take offence. “He cocked his head the way a dog does,” she defended. “I think that shows intelligence. I knew a dog that did that and he was really smart.”

“You mean he could fetch and play dead!” jibed Mr Ffrench.

The young lady concentrated on her lobster bisque after that unkind put-down and there was a moment of awkward silence.

“It was a good night for murder,” said Dr Hu, who felt he should say something to keep up the conversation his end the way the English expected.

“What do you mean by that?” snapped Monsieur Croquemort.

“I mean nothing,” defended the Chinaman. “I mean it was making foggy.”

“And a full moon,” added Madame Sosostras coming to the rescue of the little Oriental.

“It was not a full moon,” argued the American astrologer.

“Well, not that you could see it,” agreed the gypsy, “through that blanket of fog.”

“I meant it was not a full moon at all, regardless of the fog. The full moon takes place tonight in the sign of Taurus. We are currently in Scorpio, meaning the sun is travelling through the constellation of Scorpio. The new moon always falls in the sign the sun is travelling through and the full moon falls in the opposite sign. That’s why emotions are running high.”

“Emotions are running high because my maid was found dead!” reminded Madame Moghra with asperity.

“She was not your maid,” pointed out the reverend bluntly. “She just play-acted the part the way she play-acted being hypnotized.”

“Mesmerised,” corrected Dr Watson. “Don’t you mean mesmerised?”

“No,” contradicted the brainiac among them. “Monsieur Croquemort might be a mesmerist but he was pretending to be a hypnotist therefore Sissy was pretending to be hypnotized not mesmerised.”

While everyone else was getting their heads around the difference between hypnotism and mesmerism, Mrs Merle got back to the subject. “Did she have a gentleman friend?”

“No,” said Madame Moghra. “We were always travelling. It’s a lonely life for a young girl. Even though she was not my maid I would have known if she had had a friend, especially a gentleman friend. Girls are silly about that sort of thing. They lose their heads too easily. And it is written all over their faces for all to see.”

“There is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy,” jibed Mr Ffrench.

“But she must have known someone in Glasgow,” argued the American, ignoring the facetious young man.

“Why do you say that?” questioned Monsieur Croquemort, shooting a dark look at Crispin, his drinking really was getting worse. Perhaps he should seek a replacement there too.

“I saw her on the street outside the hotel,” explained Mrs Merle. “She was dressed for going out walking but instead of going off right away as I expected on such a cold night she appeared to be waiting for someone to join her. What makes it so odd is that it was midnight.”

“I saw her too,” piped up the gypsy. “She did meet up with someone. I saw a man. They went off together.”

“That’s impossible,” said Madame Moghra. “I know for sure Sissy didn’t know anyone in Glasgow.”

“How do you know?” quizzed the reverend.

“She told me.”

“Perhaps she was lying,” suggested Mrs Merle. “What star sign was she? Some star signs are more mendacious than others.”

“The fault, my dears, is not in the stars but in ourselves,” gibed the bard.

“Everyone tells lies – it has nothing to do with star signs,” offered Madame Sosostras. “That is why I trust the cards. They never lie.”

“I-Ching never lie,” added Dr Hu, keeping up his end without inflaming the situation.

“Sissy wasn’t the sort to tell lies,” argued Madame Moghra indignantly. “She was an honest, simple, foolish girl.”

Mr Ffrench laughed loudly. “So honest and simple she didn’t bother to tell you about the piece of paper wrapped in her handkerchief that she dropped under the table after dinner last night and waited to retrieve only after we all left the dining room.”

“What paper?” asked Monsieur Croquemort.

Mr Ffrench shrugged.

Miss Morningstar sighed softly. “A love note perhaps?”

“What are you suggesting?” demanded the reverend, directing his question not at the young damsel but at the brainiac.

“I’m not suggesting anything,” asserted Mr Ffrench.

“She must have been going out to meet a beau!” sighed Miss Morningstar dreamily.

“And he is murdler,” said the Chinaman, voicing what everyone else was thinking.

 

The afternoon was spent on less strenuous pursuits. The wind off the Irish Sea picked up and the deckchairs were quickly abandoned after Mrs Merle’s millinery bore wings and took flight. After this, the alcove with the card table became popular for Solitaire, and the library table was taken over for demonstrations of I-Ching, tarot card reading and palmistry.

This was the first opportunity Dr Watson had of speaking to the Countess alone since the previous evening. He directed her to a deck chair on the lee side where they wrapped themselves in blankets to keep warm.

“Was it murder?” he put to her point blank.

“It does appear so. You heard the facts about the warm clothes she was wearing and the paper hidden in the handkerchief, but there’s something else that has been puzzling me.”

“Go on,” he prompted.

“Everyone calls her Sissy but Monsieur Croquemort referred to her as Lisbette.”

“That’s natural for a Frenchman. John becomes Jean, Peter becomes Pierre and so forth. And I recall Madame Moghra using various versions of the name in her act: Lizzy or Lissy.”

“Yes, but do you remember when we bumped into her in the vaulted passage? She referred to me as la comtesse, not Countess, and then she blushed. I thought she blushed at receiving the money I put on her tray but now that I think on it, it could be because she made a slip of the tongue. And she seemed inordinately proud that the SS Pleiades had been made in the Glasgow shipyards, but it could also have been that she was proud it was a French vessel. I think she was French even though she lacked the accent.”

“Scottish? French? What difference does it make? The only important thing is whether it was suicide or murder.”

“Constable MacTavish is continuing to look into that. He has promised to telegraph any fresh findings using the ship to shore telegraphic wireless device.”

Dr Watson pulled himself upright. “I say! That sounds worth a look. I read a paper issued by The Royal Society about the enormous strides being made in electric wave telegraphy. I might speak to the chief steward about organizing an inspection. What was his name? Braison? Breton?”

“Bresant.”

“A most amiable chap, good-looking too, pity about the ruddy complexion and the gap in his teeth. How he managed to stay calm with all that room swapping going on is beyond me. What did you say his name was?”

“Monsieur Bresant – and a toothy gap is supposed to signify wealth.”

He rolled his eyes. “So much for that superstition! I don’t think there’s much chance of striking it rich as chief steward.” He rose to his feet and checked his pocket watch. “I promised Fedir a game of darts at four o’clock so that gives me plenty of time to track down the gap-toothed Midas. Do you have any plans for this afternoon?”

“I am meeting up with Dr Hu on the fore deck. He has promised to give me a private lesson in t’ai chi. And Mrs Merle has been busy casting my natal horoscope in her spare time. I have arranged to meet her in the saloon for afternoon tea to discuss the trines, sextiles and conjunctions.”

He rolled his eyes again and went away singing:

“Adieu, adieu, my loving friend, my soul is almost free,

For murdering Madame Moghra I was hung upon a tree…”

Chapter 14 – Mirror, Mirror

 

Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the maddest of them all?

Dr Watson was in a much better mood, having spent a couple of hours examining the electronic wireless device and having a private tour of the wheelhouse. His cough was better too. He hated to admit it but those Dreadnoughts he found in his pocket were proving surprisingly efficacious. And the sea air was a boon. Perhaps his ill-health had turned a corner. Dining at the Captain’s table might even encourage a more academic tone. And in answer to his question – not him! He was the sanest of the lot! Though, he had better not find himself seated next to that psychic fraud. There was no guarantee his sanity would not stretch and snap – hang it all!

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the cleverest of them all?

The Countess lamented the fact she’d had insufficient time to organize a nautical wardrobe for luxury cruising. Not too clever there! The green velvet gown with the shawl collar would have to do. The parure of emeralds would dress it up. It was so much easier for men – white tie and tails – they didn’t even have to think. Dining at the Captain’s table was always special even if it was the only table to be had. Emotions had been running high at lunch and if the same happened at dinner it might well lead to someone betraying themselves. She crossed her fingers.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the craftiest of them all?

Madame Sosostras was dressed in another colourful creation of layered silks concealing a multitude of secret pockets. The myriad assortment of jangly beads helped to distract and deceive. If she played her cards right she might profit handsomely from this little cruise. That silver brooch had to be worth a franc or two. The hand was quicker than the eye and her hand was as quick as a wink. She winked at herself and laughed!

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the palest of them all?

Madame Moghra resembled Marie Antoinette and not just because of the bouffant coif and the valuable silver and amethyst brooch. She couldn’t shake the feeling of impending doom and her face was deathly pale. A bit more rouge on her cheeks! Oh, no, that was worse! But what was the premonition that was feeding her fear? What ghost had returned from the grave to haunt her? Champollion’s violent reaction had unnerved her as well. Really! He did go on! Pathetic man! She smoothed down her black satin gown, jerked the bodice into place, and realized too late that she looked like Moll Flanders dressed for a funeral. She just hoped it was not her own.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the ugliest of them all?

Mrs Merle stooped. People always hung mirrors too low. They cut off her head. Not that there was anything to look at. Big hats were handy for drawing the eye away from her deficiencies but tonight she limited herself to an art nouveau headband that matched the art nouveau frock the saleswoman in New York assured her would soon be the height of fashion. Women could be so cruel, especially to each other. At least the matching cape disguised her sagging mono-bosom. Oh, Elmer, Elmer, why did you cheat on me with that old cow? It was one humiliation too far!

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the tricksiest of them all?

Some drops of belladonna and: what big eyes you have! Miss Morningstar twirled on her toes like a ballerina in a music box. She would be the belle of the ball as usual and one day her prince would come, though she would have to wait for the ball gown and glass slipper. Until then the flowery chintz sheath made from old curtains and the second-hand ballet slippers would do. All she needed was a fairy godmother. She had pinned her hopes on the old hag. What a mistake! Jealous crone! Perhaps that rich Countess was the one. She blew herself a kiss for luck.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the wisest of them all?

Dr Hu that’s who! He was Buddha and Sun Tzu rolled into one – philosopher and military tactician. London and Glasgow was a roundabout way to get to Biarritz but the Empress had advised caution. The British, the French and the Russians would one day pay for the humiliation of the Opium Wars. Until that day dawned it was one assassination at a time. He knew Croquemort would not betray him to the gendarmes; he had too many secrets of his own. Dr Hu performed the t’ai chi ch’uan – slow, no contact, then fast, strike the air, kick, spin like yin-yang, rotate the arms, then back to core stillness – wuji. He breathed in, bowed low at his respectful-self, breathed out. Confucius say: Goat is no match for Dlagon.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the surest of them all?

Reverend Blackadder licked his fingers and patted down his golden halo, smiling smarmily at his own godlike reflection. If the white witch thought she could throw him over for someone else she was sadly mistaken. What did she say? She was tired of him; she needed someone new; someone younger! Over his dead body! Or better yet – hers!

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the wretchedest of them all?

Dr Crispin Ffrench despised his haggard image. It reminded him of all he had thrown away – his career, his hopes, his dreams. And all that he had lost – his love, his happiness, his darling Antoinette! He despised that old witch! Despite what the police said, she had gotten away with murder! Justice had never been served. Someone ought to teach her a lesson. He poured himself a glass of la fee verte, toasted himself in the miroir, skulled the bitter wormwood and winced.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the greatest of them all?

Monsieur Croquemort, Grand Maestro, twirled his curling moustache between the tips of his long fingers but he did not smile at his own immaculate image. He had spent years training her, building her up, promoting her – and for what? So she could just turn her back on him and walk away as though none of it mattered? Monte Carlo! She was retiring to the Riviera! Ha! And what about him? He could go to hell! And the troupe? What did she care! She owed them nothing! Nothing! She had been nothing when he picked her up. He had created her! And he could destroy her too!

Chapter 15 – The Captain’s Table

 

“Was it possible to side-step Fate?”

Madame Moghra had overdone the stage make-up and looked like a painted porcelain doll that had lost its polish as she threw the question to the group at dinner.

“A moot point,” replied Dr Watson, “one cannot side-step something that does not exist.”

“Panosophy, the knowledge of divine things, should not be mocked,” objected Reverend Blackadder.

“Did Madame Blavatsky say that?” queried Miss Morningstar.

“Not in so many words,” the reverend replied knowingly. “I am paraphrasing.”

“Deciphering the hieroglyphics of the universe is not for amateurs,” advised Mrs Merle.

“Aerial spirits are the guardians of mankind,” offered Madame Sosostras, quoting someone or other.

“Plato?” checked Monsieur Croquemort.

“I believe it is the word of Confucius,” interceded Dr Hu.

“Hesiod,” contradicted Mr Ffrench. “It is Hesiod.”

“Fate is another word for destiny,” said Captain Lanfranc.

“And destiny is derived from destination,” added the Countess, “and all living things have but one destiny…”

“Death,” they all mouthed at the same time.

No one mentioned the dead girl and Captain Lanfranc proved to be a host par excellence. Dinner passed more amicably than expected considering they each had their own vengeful and jealous god to promote. The captain had the nous to wait until the end of the meal to inform them a storm was brewing, advising them to speak to the chief steward, Monsieur Bresant, about medication before retiring for the night if they suffered from seasickness. To allay any fears he stayed back to answer meteorological questions, gallantly dispensing tea and coffee from the samovar on the sideboard to cover for being short-staffed. Madame Moghra appeared even more distressed. She retreated to the library straight after dessert, mumbling something about her planchette. She was a firm believer in spirit writing and asked not to be disturbed. Captain Lanfranc checked that she was not suffering from mal de mer when he took her a cup of strong black coffee. The Countess was about to follow him into the library when a seaman arrived with a telegraphic message. She took one look and felt a cold chill.

“When did this come through?”

Perplexed, the seaman shook his head. “Ne parle pas l’anglais.”

Quand as-tu recu ceci?” she rephrased.

Ce soir, la comtesse, en ce moment.”

The Countess glanced once more at the brief but chilling message:

Countess V. Murderer on board ship. Stop.

Dr Watson decided to retire early. The Countess caught up to him on the Promenade deck.

“Read this,” she said, thrusting the telegram at him.

“It’s too dark,” he protested. “There’s too much cloud cover. So much for that full moon! No one will see it! Does the power of a full moon diminish if it is unseen? Another moot point! However, I did see when the seaman brought this in. Is it from Constable MacTavish? What does it say?

“Murderer on board ship.”

“What else?”

“That’s it.”

“That’s it? What’s the point of a message like that? The constable has left it wide open.”

“Not really. It has to be one of the eight passengers who embarked with us. That’s why he is short on detail. He doesn’t want the murderer to know he is onto him.”

“Or her – let’s hope it is Madame Moghra! Now there’s some wishful thinking!” The doctor had reached his cabin on the port side. He unlocked the door and stifled a yawn, comprehending the futility of trying to talk her out of playing at sleuthing. He just hoped her so-called destiny was not the death of her as well. “Our fellow passengers remind me of religious fanatics, followers of some Manichaean death cult. They are all death-eaters in their own way, like vultures and maggots they gain strength and succour from fear and death. Take care how you go,” he warned, humming what had become his favourite ditty:

“Adieu, adieu, my loving friend, my soul is almost free,

For murdering Madame Moghra, I was hanged upon a tree!”

Alone on the deck, she turned toward the hand-rail and gazed at the inky darkness holding them afloat and was reminded of a line from Alexander Pope:

‘On life’s vast ocean we sail, reason’s the card, but passion the gale.’

Vous avez malade?”

It was Captain Lanfranc. He thought she was suffering from mal de mer because she was leaning over the rail.

Pas du tout,” she reassured, watching his inky outline emerge from the sea-fog that had settled since dinner. “I never suffer from seasickness though I admit the sea could be calmer.”

“The wind has turned to a south-easterly. It is blowing 4 at the moment but by tomorrow it will be a gale at 6 or 7. A heavy rainstorm is on the cards. If you are planning an early night it might be a good idea. Tomorrow night will be rough.”

“Rough seas hold no fear and your ship inspires confidence. Is there any chance of a tour of the wheelhouse?”

Mon plaisir, la comtesse. Not many women take an interest in such things. Your companion was most interested in our new ship to shore wireless device. Would you care to see that first?”

Oui, bien sur, je vous remercie.”

“I believe you received an electronic message after dinner?” he said by way of conversation as they skirted the darkened cabins and made their way to the well-lit fore deck.

“Yes, a telegraph from my London butler,” she lied. “I am hoping to have the Mayfair mansion made ready for Christmas prior to my return from Biarritz. Is there any chance of sending a communique?”

Le telegrapheur will be at your service, la comtesse.”

 

To maximize the natural light filtering in through the magnificent roof lantern the public spaces had been segregated using frosted glass screens and classical marble columns, some in the form of giant caryatids. It was an ingenious decorative strategy that opened up the spacious saloons even further, making them appear larger and more airy.

When the Countess rejoined her fellow passengers in the grand saloon Miss Morningstar was performing a series of sea shanties with Mr Ffrench accompanying on the piano. What a wonderful pair they made, and not just musically, when they weren’t rubbing each other the wrong way.

Mrs Merle, ensconced in a velvet fauteuil, with her feet on an ottoman in an effort to appease her varicose veins, was ploughing through Moby Dick and a tiered plate of petit fours, though every now and then she paused long enough to join in the chorus…

Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest,

Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum!

Madame Moghra, visible through the frosted glass partition separating the grand saloon from the library, appeared to have tired of her planchette and was dozing in a wing chair. Something was clearly troubling the medium and the Countess made a mental note to broach the subject of old ghosts straight after breakfast.

Drink and the Devil do for the rest,

Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum!

A Ouija board had been procured by Monsieur Croquemort who was demonstrating its use to the gypsy and the Chinaman who had never participated in a séance that married Franco-Germanic occult lore with English spelling rules. Reverend Blackadder joined them but he was sceptical of prescriptive divination and didn’t stay long. Madame Sosostras and Dr Hu were asking their spirit guides to settle the question posed by Madame Moghra at dinner regarding the side-stepping of fate, but the aerial angels were proving elusive. Monsieur Croquemort offered his chair to the Countess when she appeared and retreated to the library to check out the latest French novels which Captain Lanfranc had assured him were to be found on the shelves. He soon found one he liked and went to fix a nightcap prior to retiring to his cabin to read.

Before long, Madame Sosostras became frustrated with Dr Hu’s atrocious spelling and offered to relieve Mr Ffrench at the piano. The gypsy was an excellent pianist with a repertoire that included Chopin and Mozart.

Miss Morningstar watched Mr Ffrench enter the library and ceased her warbling. She decided to lubricate her throat and made her way to the dining room where the samovar was still simmering. She wondered if Mr Ffrench might want a coffee too but he’d already left the library and had gone to the bar to join Monsieur Croquemort in a nightcap. Annoyed with him, she went to see if Madame Moghra might want a cocoa but the medium was fast asleep.

Reverend Blackadder retrieved his cigarettes and lucifers from the library then made it his mission to steer Crispin away from the absinthe.

Mrs Merle remembered she needed to find an almanac to check some facts for her lecture on Mercury retrograde and went to the library, but one almanac was written in French and the other in Arabic. What on earth would the Arabs know about astrology! She swore in disgust and went to bed, but not before topping up her plate of petit fours.

Madame Sosostras played one more Chopin tune, yawned, stretched, went to locate the tarot cards she had left in the library earlier that afternoon then practically flew up the stairs in a swirl of coloured silk like an exotic Rosella flitting through the treetops.

Dr Hu had already retired for the night when he realized he did not have his precious I-Ching with him. He returned wearing a wonderful blue silk dressing gown covered in gold dragons, bowed winsomely at the Countess, located his treasure in the library, bid Madame Moghra goodnight and mounted the stairs like a water dragon swimming upstream.

Waves were pounding the sides of the ship, giving the steel hull a bit of a battering, though they were not yet swamping the deck. The Countess was the only one left in the grand saloon. She decided to finish her cigarette before calling it a night and was more than a touch surprised to see Dr Watson descending the grand staircase. She watched him through the frosted glass partition and presumed he was still suffering from insomnia. Poor, restless, sleep-deprived spirit! Perhaps she could offer to make him a hot tisane with lemon and honey? She stubbed out her cigarette and made her way to the smoking room, thinking that’s where he’d gone, but he was nowhere to be seen. She checked the adjoining billiard room and spotted his reflection in a large gilt mirror. He was moving in the direction of the bar but when she got there he had moved on. She looked into the dining saloon but he was not there either. She thought he might have gone into the alcove where the card table was situated, perhaps to play Solitaire, but no, he wasn’t there either. She mounted the stairs and went onto the promenade deck, hoping to catch up to him before he reached his cabin. The wind was ferocious and the temperature had plummeted, flecks of freezing cold sea spray stung her cheeks. No moon or stars were visible. Monsieur Bresant and a handful of seamen were battening down the hatches. They assured her they had not seen anyone pass by so she hurried back to the grand saloon and saw the doctor through the glass partition. He was standing in the middle of the library, looking slightly lost. She wondered if he was sleepwalking. By the time she skirted several fauteuils and coffee tables, whirled around the grand piano and traversed the dance floor, he had disappeared again.

Madame Moghra was still dead to the world.

Chapter 16 – Old Ghosts

 

Countess Volodymyrovna awoke to the news that Madame Moghra was dead. White light was just beginning to touch the grey clouds banking up over the Irish Sea when she first heard it from her personal maid, Xenia, who understood that her mistress’s passion for sleuthing overrode her desire for slumber or food.

Xenia and Fedir had been taking their breakfast before any of the other passengers had risen (entitled as they were with cabins on B deck but not wishing to put noses out of joint) and had heard a distressing cry. One of the maids cleaning up the glasses and ashtrays from the night before had stumbled upon the dead body.

“Dead?” echoed the Countess, sitting up and smoothing back her baroque brunette mane, her faculties not yet honed to sharpness.

“In the library,” expounded Xenia, passing her mistress a cup of tea.

“You mean she hadn’t been to bed?”

Xenia nodded. “She die in her sleep in library.”

The Countess digested that extraordinary statement as she gulped back her tea, rushed through her toilette and settled on the only navy and white nautical-style costume in her wardrobe that was suited to shipboard life, and the more she thought about it, the less likely it seemed. Madame Moghra had foreseen her own death and the Countess had not taken her premonition seriously enough. The medium had been pale and distrait all of yesterday. She had seen something that unsettled her: A ghost from the grave!

“Where’s Fedir?”

Xenia was brushing the voluptuous rococo tresses, taming them into something that could withstand gale force winds. “He go to cabin of Dr Watson with cup of tea as you instruct and to make the bath for the doctor and lay out his clothes.”

“Fedir’s English is not as good as yours,” the Countess said, thinking quickly now. “Go at once to the cabin of Dr Watson. Inform the doctor of the death of Madame Moghra. Tell the doctor to meet me in the library as soon as he is ready.”

Xenia finished pinning a jaunty straw boater into place then hurried away while the Countess rushed off to the library, hanging onto her hat to avoid losing it overboard. Captain Lanfranc and Monsieur Bresant had arrived ahead of her and the two men were surprised to see a passenger up and about at first light, especially une jeune femme a particule.

The maid who had discovered the body was standing by the bookshelves, wringing her hands and wiping her runny nose with her apron as she stuttered out her story. She had come in to clear up and straighten the furniture when she saw the lady slumped in the chair. She thought the lady was asleep and went about her task quietly, but then she noticed the lady seemed very still. She tried to rouse her, to tell her it was morning, but the lady did not wake. When she touched the lady’s hand it felt like ice and she jumped back, knowing then that the lady was dead. She cried out, not because she was frightened of death but because the body slumped to the side and the lady’s hair slumped too. It looked like a soufflé after someone had opened the oven door too early. She tried to straighten it but one of the curls got caught in her cuff. She jerked back her arm and the hair fell off. It gave her a shock.

Captain Lanfranc indicated with a nod of his head for the maid to leave. She shuffled to the door, then paused and looked back as though she had something further to say on the subject of soufflés or wigs, but a dark look sent her on her way.

Madame Moghra did indeed look shocking without the customary pompadour pouf perched on her head. Baldness on men was common and could look quite handsome, but on women it looked unnatural and freakish. The Countess picked up the bouffant wig which had become wedged between a stiff cold shoulder and the wing of the chair and noticed a red dot on top of the medium’s head. She peered closer.

“What are you looking at?” quizzed Captain Lanfranc.

“I’m not sure,” she said, indicating the red dot. “It looks like a drop of dried blood.”

“She might have pricked herself when pinning her wig in place,” he suggested.

Monsieur Bresant took a look for himself. “A mole that has been scratched, I think.”

Captain Lanfranc addressed the Countess forthrightly, though years of practice as master of one vessel or another ensured a diplomatic tone. He relieved her of the wig and placed it on the dead woman’s knees. It looked like a fluffy white lap dog curled up to go to sleep.

“Did Madame Moghra move from this chair last night?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“She was here when you went to bed?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know who went last to bed?”

“It was me.”

“Do you remember who was the last to go into the library?”

“Dr Watson – although I cannot say what happened later in the night; if anyone came and went unseen.”

The captain turned to his chief steward. “What think you, Bresant? Le crise de coeur?”

Bresant nodded sourly, defacing his good looks, as if he had just sucked on a lemon. The death of a passenger on an inaugural voyage was a bad omen. The men would not like it. Sailors were the most superstitious of all breeds. He remembered being on a ship when it was discovered someone had smuggled a cat on board. It had almost ended in mutiny. He knew Captain Lanfranc was thinking the same thing about bad omens, though hopefully this leg of the journey did not qualify as the maiden voyage and this bizarre group of clairvoyants did not qualify as genuine passengers.

“I have seen this sort of thing before. The passengers over-eat and over-drink when they make the holiday cruise. That big American will be next.”

“Dr Watson is on his way,” intervened the Countess helpfully, catching the worried exchanges between the two men. “He can examine the body and give us a more definite cause of death.”

“I think not,” contradicted the captain tensely. “This ship is French territory. The police surgeon in Biarritz will tell us the cause of death. Until then the body will go into cold storage.” He turned to his steward. “Bresant,” he instructed curtly, “take care of it.”

“Are you thinking it could be murder?” challenged the Countess, who was thinking the exact same thing, and had in fact been thinking it all morning.

The captain shrugged casually in an effort to downplay his uncertainty. “Who can say? Not me. Not you. And not all the clairvoyants in the world!” He smiled at his little joke as he turned to go.

“There is another doctor on board the ship,” volunteered the Countess, stopping him before he reached to glass partition. “I believe he is a French citizen.”

Captain Lanfranc cast a curious backward glance over a broad shoulder. “Who?”

“Mr Crispin Ffrench is a trained surgeon.”

“You mean the one addicted to absinthe?” scoffed Bresant.

“He is a clear thinker and quite sharp when he is sober. He can examine the body.”

“It is not necessary to have him examine the body,” declared the captain, angling away from her. “We will wait until Biarritz.”

“Wait,” called the Countess. “I think it was murder!”

The captain spun back swiftly and regarded her intently. “Why do you say that?”

“Yesterday morning in the hotel in Glasgow Madame Moghra became pale and distrait. She saw something or someone that unsettled her. She was worried about something all evening. You could see it on her face. She retired to the library with her planchette for that reason. I think something was troubling her deeply. I think she knew she was going to die. And this red dot on the crown of her head is not a mole nor was it made by a pin. Her wig is on a net. It fits like a cloche. It does not require a pin to keep it in place.”

She picked up the wig to show him.

The captain gave a dismissive snort, removed it from her hands and placed it on a book trolley. “That is not enough to convince me to tamper with a dead body.”

“And her brooch is missing,” added the Countess. “Last night she was wearing a valuable silver and amethyst brooch. She is no longer wearing it.”

Stiffening, the captain turned to his chief steward, his eyes were flashing dark and his face was flushed. “Question the maid. Search her room at once. Interrogate the cabin staff and then the others. If the brooch does not turn up, search all cabins and storerooms, the kitchens and the engine room, in that order.” He looked back at the dead body; a purple vein was throbbing in his neck. “Very well, la comtesse. Sober up the young doctor. The body will be taken to the infirmary. Mr Ffrench can make a preliminary examination. If it is a question of theft and murder I will initiate an investigation using my full powers as master of this vessel.”

The other passengers were still asleep, though pearlescent light was brightening the orient and a cold November sun was trying valiantly to find a gap in the silver-tinted storm clouds. The Countess decided to find out what was delaying Dr Watson. It was imperative that she speak with him. When she arrived at his cabin, Xenia and Fedir were still trying to rouse him. On his bedside table was a half empty bottle of whiskey, an empty glass, and the Dreadnoughts. There was only one cough drop left. Presumably, he had consumed the others. She checked the packet. One of the ingredients was valerian, a sedative. Mixed with the whiskey, it had knocked him out cold. She instructed Xenia to stay with him until he woke. Fedir was to follow her to the cabin of Mr Ffrench.

The magic lantern expert in cabin 13 on B deck proved easier to rouse. Unluckily, or possibly luckily, he had knocked over his bottle of absinthe and it had soaked into the bedside rug. That act of clumsiness meant he was practically sober. She left Fedir to act as valet and informed Mr Ffrench to meet her in the breakfast room as soon as he was dressed. She didn’t actually know if he was a French citizen or not, in fact, she thought it unlikely but the name was handy.

“Madame Moghra is dead,” she announced peremptorily before closing the door to his cabin, hoping to shock him into hurrying. “I need you to examine the body.”

Twenty minutes later Mr Ffrench had joined the Countess for breakfast. News of the death of the old witch had perked up his spirits and his appetite. He enjoyed a full English breakfast while the Countess explained about the missing brooch, the wig, and the red pinprick of blood on her head. Together they went to the infirmary.

“I don’t think she’s been poisoned with any of the usual culprits,” he said after a cursory examination. “There’s no discolouration of the nails or lips, no swelling of the tongue, no unusual smell such as almonds, and her eyes are clear. The dot on her head is dried blood, as you assumed. It appears she was stabbed with something sharp prior to death.”

“What do you think it was?”

“A needle perhaps – something like a darning needle, the sort for darning socks, or an embroidery needle, or a crochet hook, something much larger than a sewing needle. The indentation looks deep. I don’t think that’s what killed her though, unless the needle was dipped in something such as wolf’s bane, something that might have paralysed her and caused respiratory distress or heart failure.”

“Why do you say that?”

“When I went into the library last night to see if there was a copy of Les Miserables on the shelf I assumed she was asleep, but I remember thinking she seemed almost comatose. Her mouth had dropped open but she wasn’t snoring. I admit I didn’t pay much attention. I could barely bring myself to look at her when I had to. I despised the old witch.”

“Any reason?”

“Just the one.”

“Care to share it as we undress her and check the body for contusions, puncture marks or possible wounds?”

He shrugged carelessly in an attempt to belie how much he truly cared about what he was about to impart. “Ten years ago I was engaged to the love of my life called Antoinette. She was part of the troupe, assistant to Croquemort when he was Le Grand Maestro. He did a magic act with a guillotine – a bit of French Revolution stuff. It really got the audience excited. Antoinette would put her head on the chopping block and it would appear as if the blade would chop her head off. Of course the real blade stayed put by way of a key inserted into the drop mechanism. A fake blade with a convenient neck gap would come down and a fake head would roll into the basket. Antoinette would later take a bow…except for the night someone forgot to insert the key.”

“Whose job was it to insert the key?”

“Madame Moghra’s. She was a talentless nobody back then who helped out with the magic act and did some spiritual stuff between curtain changes. She was insanely jealous of Antoinette. She swore she inserted the key and that someone else removed it. Croquemort was arrested, but in the end there was not enough evidence to charge him with murder and since it was not his job to check for the key he could not be held accountable. The rest of the troupe backed him up.”

“You think she did it deliberately?”

He nodded gravely.

“It was her job to check the key was in place just before the blade came down. She was on the stage for that reason, and that reason alone, play-acting the part of Antoinette’s distressed aristocratic lover.”

“She played the part of a man?”

“She was a hopeless actress but Antoinette covered for her.”

“What was Madame Moghra’s defence?”

“She claimed she was distracted at a crucial moment. Someone in the audience cried out: Vive la France! Down with the English! A violent mellee broke out. The curtain was in the process of coming down when tempers calmed and Croquemort decided to the show must go on. Several stage-hands had leapt onto the stage in the meantime to make sure the hot-headed members of the audience did not over-run the place and cause damage to the props. It was suggested that any one of them could have removed the key.”

“But you still think it was her?”

“It was her job,” he repeated emphatically. “I have since come to the conclusion she was born with a pathological jealousy of her own sex. She hated Antoinette. She hated Sissy and Miss Morningstar too, though neither of them gave her any reason to feel jealous. Neither posed a threat to her greatness.”

Madame Moghra lay naked on a table, her flaws and freckles and moles exposed to the clear light of day. There were no puncture marks, no wounds, no visible scars; at one stage she had given birth to a baby. Heart failure appeared the likeliest cause of death and the pin-prick of blood was soon dismissed as one of those anomalies that are never adequately explained.

“Did you know she wore a wig?”

He shook his head. “I thought as much but I was not interested enough to care.”

“What made you think so?”

“You saw her,” he sneered, flicking back his wild blond locks long enough to make eye-contact. “You saw how much stage make-up she used. She must have had small pox as a child or perhaps she once had a lot of pimples. That may explain the jealousy. Venetian ceruse is powdered white lead mixed with vinegar. It causes hair loss. Queen Elizabeth used it. It is widely believed she may have died from lead poisoning. It has been linked to a decline in mental faculties. It was declared a poison as far back as the 16oo’s. Only the incredibly vain or the incredibly desperate use it now.”

“Psyn mylhium in Greek or Cerussa in Latin,” said the Countess. “I know several women who still use it and you are right – they are vain and desperate. I believe it is also used in photography?”

“That’s right. Known as mercury chloride. It works as an intensifier. It whitens and thickens the image, increasing the opacity of the shadows, creating the illusion of a positive image. I experimented with it on the ghost shrouds.”

“Did you return to the library at any stage during the night?”

“You mean did I come back and kill her?”

“If that’s how you prefer to phrase it – yes.”

“I wished the old witch dead more often than I can say. I murdered her in my imagination every waking moment and in my sleep every night. I avenged Antoinette with every cowardly mouthful of wormwood and I salute whoever beat me to it, but no, I passed out when I knocked over the green fairy.”

“Who else might have wished her dead?”

“Your friend, Dr Watson, for starters. Everyone heard him singing that morbid little song. He made no secret of his intense dislike of the old crone. And then everyone else who ever met her. She was that sort of woman.”

“Please keep what we have learned here in the infirmary regarding the dead body to yourself until we can be sure it is not murder.”

The two of them looked back at the top of the bald head where some tufts of hair sprouted and where a tiny dark red drop of dried blood indicated the spot where a sharp instrument had penetrated the skull.

The Countess locked the door of the infirmary, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Dr Watson did indeed make no secret of his intense dislike of Madame Moghra. He harboured an obsessive hatred of the medium. Did he kill her in that short space of time when he was alone with her in the library at the last? Did he know what he was doing? Did he kill her in his sleep? Was it possible to murder someone while sleepwalking?

Chapter 17 – Homicidal Somnambulism

 

First things first, Countess Volodymyrovna needed to search the library for clues. No sentry had yet been posted to keep people out – that oversight on the part of Captain Lanfranc was a blessing to her. She was heading straight for the table with the planchette when she almost fell over the gypsy. Madame Sosostras was crouching by the side of the wing chair. In her hand was the bouffant wig.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” apologized the Countess, contriving a falsely courteous tone. “I didn’t see you down there. Is that Madame Moghra’s wig?”

“Yes,” said the gypsy, placing the wig back on the chair before straightening up and smoothing down her multi-layered skirts. “I found it on the floor and was picking it up when you came rushing in. I came to see with my own eyes if the news was true, that Madame Moghra was truly dead, but the body has been removed. It is simply terrible.”

“Yes terrible,” agreed the Countess, wondering if the gypsy meant it was terrible that the medium was dead or terrible that the body was no longer on show. “A great loss.”

“A heart attack, they say.”

“So I have heard.”

The gypsy moved around the library table, adjusting her fluttery skirts and jangly beads. “Madame Moghra looked fearfully pale all day. I fear she may have had a heart condition of which she was unaware.”

“She did appear unwell.”

The Countess looked back at the fluffy choufleur resting on the chair and realised it could not have fallen on the floor of its own accord, and especially not by the side of the chair. Either someone had removed it from the book trolley and put it on the floor before the gypsy arrived or the gypsy had removed it herself. But why? And what was she doing with it?

“Do they still bury bodies at sea?” pondered the gypsy as she whirled herself to the bookshelf and ran a red talon along a row of books, choosing one and then another before settling on neither.

The Countess feigned interest in the design of the planchette. Her voice was a deliberately neutral monotone with the sting in the tail. “I don’t think that will be the case here. We will arrive in Biarritz tomorrow morning. The body will be checked by the police surgeon.”

“Police surgeon?” The gypsy’s clipped tone betrayed an innate fear of authority. “I thought it was a heart attack?”

“That is the prevailing theory but it will need to be confirmed. Her brooch is missing. Her death may have been the result of theft and possibly foul play.”

“You mean murder?”

“Yes.”

“You think whoever stole the brooch also killed her?”

“It seems likely.”

The gypsy’s low-strung violin-voice was suddenly aquiver. “But not all thieves are murderers.”

“When someone is robbed and killed on the same night it stands to reason that one person committed both acts. Did you ever meet Madame Moghra in the course of your travels?”

The gypsy appeared distracted by the books on a high shelf, or perhaps by the question. She took a moment to answer. “No, no, I met her for the first time in Glasgow. I had heard of her, of course, but we had never crossed paths. I think I will get some breakfast now. Will you care to join me, Countess?”

Non, merci, I think I will take a look at her spirit writing.”

“Oh, that’s right, you are a consulting detective, you and your friend, Dr Watson.”

The gypsy’s tone was condescending and the Countess was glad to see the back of her. She waited until she was alone before checking the wig. What had the gypsy been doing with it? Had she been examining it or tampering with it? There was a tiny pinprick of blood on the inside. It suggested the medium was wearing the wig when she was stabbed through the top of the head. Did the killer, presuming there was a killer, know she wore a wig? It seemed an odd way to kill someone.

The Countess picked up the planchette and studied it carefully. There was nothing unusual about the spirit writing instrument compared to the others she had previously seen. They were a means to a poor form of divination, open to fraudulent manipulation of the most blatant sort. The papers on the table were covered with illegible scribbling where the pencil had wandered as aimlessly as an absinthe-addled spider. One could make of it whatever one wanted. A letter here, a symbol there, a sign from the heavens – hang on! Here was a word! It looked unfinished:

l-o-d-i….

The Countess pocketed the paper before the chief steward dispatched it to the coal furnace. She was about to re-check the other papers when Xenia appeared. Dr Watson was ready to see her.

“Bundle up those papers on the table and take them to my cabin,” she directed. “Find my writing compendium and leave it on the desk in my cabin. I will use it later this morning.”

Dr Watson was sitting up in bed, eating his breakfast from a tray. He was wearing his favourite, stripy, flannel pyjamas. There were pillowy bags under his puffy eyes. Fortunately, his brain was working as well as ever.

“What’s this I hear about Madame Moghra?” he said at once. “Fedir tells me she’s dead. Is that true?”

“Yes,” said the Countess, dismissing her manservant with a nod of her head.

“Heart failure – is that right?”

“It appears so. She died last night in her sleep. She never left the library.”

“Well, I cannot say I’m surprised. She looked poorly all day. I cannot say I’m sorry either. She was a thorn in my side.” He speared some bacon and eggs on the end of his fork and chewed with gusto.

The Countess had one of those sudden thoughts that spring from nowhere whilst she perched herself on the end of his bed. “Do you think the death of Madame Moghra might be a connected to the death of the girl in Glasgow?”

He washed down the next mouthful of food with a mouthful of tea. “Drowning and heart attack are hardly linked,” he dismissed.

“It may not be heart attack and according to Constable MacTavish the murderer of Sissy is with us on the ship.”

“If that is the case, the murderer was more likely to kill Mrs Merle or Madame Sosostras than Madame Moghra.”

“Because they both claim they saw Sissy outside the hotel?”

“Yes,” he said, stabbing a fried sausage. “And the gypsy claims she saw a man too.”

“Shall I pour you some more tea?”

“Thank you.”

“What do you know about ceruse?”

“Mercury chloride?”

“Also known as Cerussa or Psyn mylhium.”

“Also known as sublimate of mercury. It has lots of different names and has been around for a long time. Its uses are myriad. The Arabs and Chinese used it for disinfecting wounds. It was used for treating syphilis until not so long ago. It was inhaled, ingested, injected and applied topically. Salt of white mercury was the common medical term. It is a common household remedy. My father used it to remove warts. Mostly it has been used as a cosmetic. Mary, my late wife, used it to bleach her freckles until I forbade it. Women have mixed it with everything imaginable: lemon juice, egg whites, borax powder, hog’s bones, ground orris – you name it – and applied it to their faces in the hope of whitening their complexions. It’s a poison.”

“Is that why you forbade Mary using it?”

“Yes. It’s slow suicide. It can cause muscle paralysis. Why the sudden interest?”

“I believe Madame Moghra used it as stage make-up.”

“I think she used it off-stage as well. That’s why she looked like a ghost. Do you think she paralysed herself from over-use and thus invited heart failure? Is that the theory?”

The Countess shook her head as she leapt off her perch and paced the end of the bed. “Not really. There are too many other factors at play.”

“Such as?”

“There was a pinprick of blood on the top of her head.”

“How could you see it through all that furry blancmange!”

“She wore a wig.”

“Oh, that makes sense. Mercury chloride causes baldness. Queen Bess was supposed to be bald from the prolonged application of lead powder to her face. Please go on.”

“Her wig fell off this morning. That’s why the maid screamed.”

“Hang on. You’ve lost me. Slow down and speak plainly.”

The Countess drew breath and explained the events in the order they occurred, starting with the maid’s discovery of the body and finishing with Mr Ffrench’s examination of it.

“Better him than me!” joked Dr Watson, humour restored. “Was he sober enough?”

“Quite sober – he’d knocked over the bottle of absinthe he’d purloined from the bar and ended up falling asleep instead of drinking himself into oblivion. He was delighted to hear Madame Moghra had died and he ate a hearty breakfast.”

“I know how he feels,” he jibed, mopping up his runny eggs with a tranche of bread.”

“He blamed her for the death of Antoinette and that explains the drinking.”

“Drowning his sorrows, you mean? Who’s Antoinette?”

“The girl who had her head chopped off by the guillotine,” she reminded. “She was the love of his life. It was Madame Moghra’s job to make sure the key was in place to secure the drop mechanism of the blade. She claims she was distracted and someone removed it. He has never forgiven her. He claims she was jealous of Antoinette and removed it deliberately. He also says she was jealous of Sissy – that she was driven by a pathological hatred of women.”

“I’m not surprised. A monstrous case of narcissism. Star-struck by her own stardom. Although the death of Antoinette does give Mr Crispin Ffrench a fantastically good motive for killing the old fraud.”

“So you think there’s something to the drop of dried blood after all?”

“It does seem queer.”

“Mr Ffrench did seem to know a lot about white lead powder. Do you mind if I help myself to a slice of toast? I didn’t have much breakfast.”

“Butter one for me while you’re at it. Don’t start reading things into that. He was a surgeon once. It was his job to know such things. I’d be suspicious if he didn’t know.”

“Oh, dear, I hope I didn’t do the wrong thing by inviting him to make an examination of the dead body.”

“He didn’t tamper with it, did he?”

She talked between mouthfuls of toast. “No, but he discounted poison rather quickly and I trusted what he said.”

“The police surgeon in Biarritz will do a proper post mortem if there is any doubt.”

“Yes, you’re probably right. And speaking of tampering – when I returned to the library Madame Sosostras was examining, or possibly tampering, with Madame Moghra’s wig?”

“I’m not surprised. Our fellow passengers remind me of the adherents of some Manichaean sect whose god is Death. She was probably trying to pilfer it – a morbid memento mori or some such thing. She probably believes it now possesses supernatural powers.”

“You could be right. She was behaving rather nervily, as if she had something to hide.”

“Congratulations, you’re starting to see the light! The livid glare of lunacy has been obvious to me from day one. If it weren’t for this rotten cough laying me low I would have challenged their humbuggery at every turn. I say! I just remembered! Don’t the Chinese stick long needles into people to cure all manner of things, including headaches?”

“Are you referring to acupuncture?”

“Yes, that’s it, acupuncture. Madame Moghra suffered from headaches. You might want to speak to Dr Hu. He might know something about sticking needles into skulls and turning people into porcupines. It might be a simple case of eastern medicine gone awry.”

Fedir reappeared to announce the bathroom was free and the doctor’s bath was ready. His shaving kit had also been laid out.

“I say, I have always scoffed at the idea of employing a valet but having your man on hand these last two months has made me reconsider.”

The Countess got all the way to the door before she realized she hadn’t asked the doctor about his sleepwalking. Oh, well, it would have to wait until later. No, that would never do. Too many big ears! She gave him about ten minutes then walked in on him in the bathroom.

“What the hell!” he spluttered, overcome with embarrassment as he ducked down as far as he dared and bathwater splashed over the sides. “What on earth do you think you’re doing?”

“I have a few more questions and I don’t want to raise them with you in the grand saloon.”

“So you thought you’d waltz in here!”

“I’m a widow,” she reminded coolly. “I have seen a naked man in a bath before.”

“I don’t care how many naked men you’ve seen in a bath – I don’t intend to be added to that illustrious list!”

“Oh, do calm down,” she advised. “I’ll sit over here on this stool and face the other way. You won’t even know I’m here except for my voice…Sleepwalking.”

“What?”

“I wanted to ask you about sleepwalking.”

“Oh, good grief – don’t tell me Madame Moghra was sleepwalking last night!”

“No,” she said, “I think you were.”

“Nonsense!”

“I saw you.”

“Ridiculous!”

“Have you ever sleepwalked?”

“None of your business!”

“Just answer my question,” she threatened with a coy smile, “or I will come over and sponge you myself.”

“Get out!” he shouted angrily. “Get out of this bathroom right this minute!”

“Or what? You will throw me out?”

“If I have to!

“Go ahead. I’m waiting. Climb out of that slippery bath and throw me out. Naked. You realize you will have to pick me up. Naked. I don’t intend to go quietly.”

“Oh, this it too much! You really are the most exasperating woman I have ever had the misfortune to meet!”

“Be that as it may, answer my question.”

“Do you promise to leave me in peace if I answer?”

“That depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“Depends on whether the answer to my question prompts another question that requires a further answer.”

He groaned out loud and ducked under the soapy water. When he came up for air, gasping for breath, she was still seated on the stool.

“Ready?” she said.

“Go ahead,” he replied dismally, clearing soap suds from his eyes.

“I take it by your reticence to answer that you have been known to sleepwalk.”

“Yes.”

“Often?”

“I don’t see where this is leading?”

“Just answer the question and I will leave you in peace sooner.”

“Not often.”

“How often?”

“It has been years since I’ve sleepwalked.”

“But you used to do it regularly?”

“If you must know, when I was a boy, about five or six years of age, I suffered from night terrors. I used to believe there was a ghost owl in the tree outside my window. I often had nightmares about this wretched white bird and sleepwalked to the bedroom of my parents. I eventually grew out of it. Or so I thought. When I returned from military service in Afghanistan where I served as a medic I began suffering from night terrors again. It is a common affliction with men returning from war. I was plagued by nightmares and started walking in my sleep. After I moved into Baker Street with Sherlock the sleepwalking gradually got less and less and then just stopped.”

“Sherlock was aware of your sleepwalking?”

“Yes, he was an insomniac, awake at all hours of the night. I would apparently walk in on him while he was working on a problem. He would turn me around and walk me back to bed. Occasionally, he would chat to me about what he was working on and I would reply. The funny thing is I would have no memory of it the next day. He called me a ‘parasomniac’ – someone who is stuck in a state between sleeping and waking.”

“So it is possible that you could have sleepwalked last night?” she suggested.

“I am not currently suffering from night terrors,” he pointed out.

“But you have been feeling unwell for some time, battling bronchitis, travelling away from the familiar comforts of home, doping up on valerian cough drops, drinking more whiskey than is good for you, and you have to admit you have been seriously sleep-deprived of late.”

“Very well,” he conceded reluctantly. “It is possible. You’ve proved your point. Can you leave me in peace now?”

“Not yet, there’s something else I need to know and you are probably the best person to ask.”

He felt flattered by her faith in his vast storehouse of knowledge and experience. She was no slouch in the knowledge department herself, though her worldly experience was not yet on a par with his.

“Ask away,” he said, “but first turn your head the other way and stop looking at me via that mirror.”

Obligingly, she angled her face so that she couldn’t see him in the glass. “Is it possible to murder someone while sleepwalking?”

“Yes, certainly, I believe the first recorded case of homicidal somnambulism was in Paris in 1650 or thereabouts. There was a more recent case in Le Havre involving a chap by the name of Ledru. That was about 1880. Why do you ask?”

“You were the last person to be seen coming out of the library.”

Her words were like a slap to the face with a wet washcloth. “Oh! I see where you’re leading! You think I killed the old fraud in my sleep because I had a grudge against her!”

“Of course not!” she denied stridently, lying through her teeth. “I don’t think any such thing but that’s how it might appear to others.”

He took a deep breath and tried to calm his pulse, his heart was pounding and blood had rushed to his face, he felt as if he’d just jogged the length of the deck naked. “Who claims to have seen me in the library?”

“Me.”

He took another deep breath and swallowed dry. “Oh, I see.”

Neither spoke for several minutes while he digested the full implication of that admission. Did she think him capable of murder? Certainly, he had wished the old fraud dead more than once and had made no secret of it. More to the point, did he believe himself capable of murder? He had always said anyone was capable of murder if all the factors came together. But surely he would recollect something as terrible as murder, despite being a parasomniac.

“Did anyone else see me in the library?”

“No, they had all taken themselves off to bed.”

That was a relief. “You didn’t actually see me do the, er, deed, did you?”

“No.”

Relief washed over him and he felt cleansed. “Well, that’s a good thing. I mean, if you didn’t actually see me do it then it could have been someone else who killed her, I mean, presuming she was killed and didn’t die from heart failure.” He was clutching at straws. “I mean, there must be other people on board this ship who disliked her. Mr Crispin Ffrench, for instance – you said he blamed her for the death of Antoinette. He might have had one absinthe too many and killed her in anger.”

She pushed up from the stool and began to toy with his tortoise-shell hairbrushes as her mind ticked over the possibilities and then kept ticking. “There’s also Monsieur Croquemort. Madame Moghra was planning to leave the menagerie and retire to the south of France. She was going to break the news to him once we set sail. She was worried about how he would take it.”

“Mmm, not too well, I imagine,” he offered hopefully.

“Especially as she was the one who had ruined his original magic act with that incident involving the guillotine in the first place which almost landed him on the end of a rope.”

“Revenge is a dish best served cold,” he reminded with ghoulish relish.

“And there’s some sort of dubious connection between Mrs Merle and Madame Moghra. Something happened on the train to Glasgow. I cannot put my finger on it but I suspected at the time that the two women knew each other but didn’t want anyone to know it.”

The bath water had gone cold. Goosebumps were forming on his forearms. “Maybe we are jumping the gun here,” he said optimistically. “It might just be a heart attack after all.”

“Somehow I don’t think so. That pinprick of blood points to a needle being inserted into her skull. That requires an explanation. If we don’t come up with an adequate explanation the police surgeon in Biarritz will be sure to follow up and I think the conclusion will be foul play.”

“That brings us back to the Chinaman. Does he have any needles or any connection to Madame Moghra?”

“Not that I know of.”

“There’s also the death of Sissy,” he reminded, back-tracking. “I know I just said there couldn’t be a link, but if Constable MacTavish believes the murderer is on board the ship with us and it turns out that Madame Moghra was murdered then it stands to reason that it must be the same person. The mistress and the maid both dead – it cannot be a coincidence.”

“I agree. We need to start questioning everyone on board. I will go to my cabin and draw up a timeline of suspects.”

“A timeline?”

“Last night I sat in the grand saloon and watched as one person after another went into the library. That means everyone had the opportunity to kill Madame Moghra. I need to recall the order that each person entered and exited. By the time you went in, she may have already been dead. If you were sleepwalking you would not have noticed. In fact, the others may not have noticed either. Mr Ffrench said he thought she was asleep. Her mouth had dropped open but she wasn’t snoring. She may already have been dead.”

“Everyone had opportunity but who had the means?”

“And who had motive?”

“Yes,” he said eagerly, feeling quite optimistic that he had not murdered the old fraud in his sleep. “I’d say that puts me in the clear. As soon as you leave I will get dressed and go to the infirmary. I want to look at the body for myself. Pass me a towel.”

She did as he requested. “You can’t go to the infirmary. You were the last person in the library. If it turns out to be murder…”

“Turn your back.”

“You can search Dr Hu’s cabin instead,” she suggested quickly. “I will keep him busy while you look for an acupuncture kit. Mr Ffrench said the sharp instrument was something like a darning needle or a large embroidery needle or even a crochet hook. If you don’t find anything in his cabin we will search the other cabins one by one. We can get Xenia and Fedir to help.”

He finished drying himself and wrapped the towel around his hips. “Pass me another towel.”

She complied while she retrieved the paper she had pocketed earlier. “There’s one last thing before I leave you in peace. This piece of paper has a word on it, or half a word. I found it on the library table where Madame Moghra was doing her spirit writing.”

She unfolded it and held it up for him to read while he dried his hair.

“Not much to go on. That’s the stupid thing about spirit writing. It could be any gibberish: l-o-d-i. What do you think it spells?”

“I suppose it would be too much to hope that she wrote the name of her killer.”

He laughed out loud despite the dire predicament he found himself in.

“It’s not that far-fetched,” she defended with a sanguine smile. “Madame Moghra predicted her own death as early as yesterday morning in Glasgow.”

He laughed again, a bitter, cynical, asthmatic laugh that ended in a consumptive cough, just short of the sort that brings up blood. “An old fraud to the last! I wouldn’t be surprised if she committed suicide just to prove herself right!”

Chapter 18 – Needle in a Haystack

 

Countess Volodymyrovna was ready to leave Dr Watson to complete his morning toilette in peace when the bathroom door burst open. It was hard to know who was more shocked: the Countess, the doctor, the captain or his chief steward.

“I beg your pardon, Countess Volodymyrovna,” addressed Captain Lanfranc stiffly. “I expected to find Dr Watson taking his bath.”

“I was just leaving,” she said coolly, sailing past him through the door obligingly held open by a puritanically disapproving Monsieur Bresant.

She waited for the door to close with a resounding bang before looking both ways and putting her ear to the panel.

“I presume you have heard the news regarding the death of Madame Moghra?” said the captain sternly, passing the doctor his dressing gown.

“Yes,” replied Dr Watson, who was covered in goosebumps from neck to knees thanks to the wind off the Irish Sea.

“I have just had a most interesting conversation with Mr Ffrench, whom you are aware was once a respected surgeon, and he informs me that the death of Madame Moghra was most likely caused by something long and sharp being inserted into the top of her head which could not be the result of accident. In other words, I am looking at murder.”

“Yes,” said Dr Watson, anticipating something dire, the hairs on his forearms standing on end despite there being no cold draught at present.

“Since you were the last person to leave the library I am placing you under arrest.”

“Arrest!”

“Please fasten your dressing gown cord and follow me.”

“But I haven’t finished my ablutions,” the doctor protested as the Countess threw open the door and almost knocked the chief steward off his feet.

Saloperie!” she cried, trembling violently, flitting wildly from French to English as she did when feeling folle à lier. “You cannot charge him with murder! C’est un gros malentendu!”

Captain Lanfranc swore savagely. “Bon Dieu! Tout de meme, la comtesse, it is my duty. I have a responsibility to the other passengers. I am aware the proof is circumstantial. Dr Watson will be confined to his cabin. It is not my intent to lock him in the brig. A seaman will stand guard. The doctor will be accorded every courtesy until we arrive in Biarritz.”

“And then what?” she demanded, chin thrust forward pugnaciously.

“The authorities will take over. It will be out of my hands.”

She knew there was no point arguing with the captain. He’d made up his mind and his first duty was to the safety of the passengers and crew. Her time would be better spent in proving the doctor’s innocence. She needed to start compiling that timeline before she forgot who went into the library in what order. The details were already becoming hazy and the shock of the arrest did not help. Her head was spinning.

“Do you have a medical bag containing surgical instruments?” she heard Lanfranc say to the doctor as she rushed away.

Opportunity, means and motive: her head was full of wild hypotheses and deranged ideas as she took a corner and ran smack-bang into the scatterbrained songstress who was taking a brisk promenade around the deck prior to breakfast.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Miss Morningstar apologized sincerely even though she was not at fault. “I just heard about Madame Moghra from Crispin, I mean, Mr Ffrench. It’s absolutely awful! I can hardly believe it! Dead!”

“Yes, yes, absolutely awful,” mumbled the Countess absently, wondering where the mooncalf ingénue fit on the timeline.

“I woke up so happy this morning,” the golden child warbled in her irritating sing-song childish voice. “I saw the bluebird of happiness outside my porthole window and I knew something good was going to happen – Oh! I don’t mean-” She clamped her hand over her mouth, realizing too late what she’d said.

The Countess did not bother with a moralistic reprimand. “That’s all right. I understand how you feel. I imagine Madame Moghra would have been difficult to work with.”

“Oh, I’m so relieved you understand. It’s not nice to speak ill of the dead. But she was really horrible. Always finding fault, acting as if the Magic Lantern troupe was hers and not Monsieur Croquemort’s. I don’t know how he put up with it. He has the patience of a saint. Crispin, I mean Mr Ffrench, couldn’t stand her. He hated her. I mean really, really hated her. He said more than once that he wanted to murder her!”

“You haven’t heard all, then?”

“Heard all?”

“Madame Moghra was murdered. Captain Lanfranc has just arrested Dr Watson.”

The Countess was ready to hurry away to avoid answering lots of annoying, pointless, childish questions when she remembered something vital.

“Do you have an embroidery needle I can borrow”’ she said. “I broke mine yesterday and I so desperately want to finish the cushion cover I am working on before Christmas.”

Miss Morningstar shook her head. Her prominent bright blue eyes looked brighter than that happy bluebird fluttering outside her porthole. “I never do embroidery. You might ask the American. I saw her doing some fancy stitching when we were all on the aft deck playing games. I passed her a few moments ago on the stairs. She was on her way to breakfast and I tried not to get in her way.”

The Countess tossed up whether to go down to the dining saloon or continue to her room. The arrival on the deck of a wretched-looking Dr Watson clad in tartan dressing gown and tartan slippers, being ignominiously escorted by two able seamen and the chief steward decided it for her. She watched them lock him into his cabin. One seaman remained on duty. The chief steward took charge of the key.

She had wanted to say: Dear Dr Watson! Be bold and brave! Remember your Jacobite roots! I shall save you! But her heart sank and her throat felt choked. He looked like William Wallace about to be hung, drawn and quartered, or Robert the Bruce just after his heart had been cut out. He had thrown in the towel already. He didn’t even believe in his own innocence! Impulsively, she had rushed forward and kissed him on the cheek. He had looked up without speaking, without seeing, his dead-brown eyes reflecting nothing but the dull-hued daylight engulfing them.

That timeline was her first priority. Mrs Merle could keep. She settled at her desk with her compendium and tried to martial mercurial memory. Monsieur Croquemort was first. He vacated his seat at the Ouija board and went into the library. He came out a short time later with a book. Mr Ffrench was second. He gave up playing the piano when Madame Sosostras took over. He went into the library, glanced at a few books, left empty-handed, and went to the bar in search of the green goddess. Third was Miss Morningstar. She went to make herself a hot beverage in the dining saloon, skipped across to the library, spoke to Madame Moghra, then returned to her cup of coffee or cocoa. So far so good but who was fourth? The Countess wracked her brains. Madame Sosostras was still at the piano. It must have been Mrs Merle. No! It was Reverend Blackadder. He went into the library next. He was fourth. He moved about as if he were looking for something. He leaned toward the chair where the medium was sleeping. He came out with something in his hand – not a book – and went to the bar to join Monsieur Croquemort and Mr Ffrench. Mrs Merle must have been next. She was fifth. She went to the non-fiction bookshelf, pulled a couple of large books off the shelf and flipped through them, then lumbered out empty-handed. She said something to Madame Moghra on her way out. The Countess was sitting alone in the grand saloon when Dr Hu appeared. He had retired earlier. He acknowledged her with a bobbing bow of his small head as he crossed to the library, located his I-Ching and rippled back up the stairs. No, that was wrong! Madame Sosostras went into the library before Dr Hu. She had stopped playing the piano because no one was listening. She went into the library to get her tarot cards. Yes! She was sixth. Dr Hu was seventh. The Countess had lit up a cigarette. She was sitting alone when Dr Watson materialised on the stairs. She stubbed out her cigarette and tried to find him. She searched in vain and finally tracked him down to the library. He was standing in the centre of the room looking lost. He was eighth. By the time she skirted the grand saloon he had disappeared. She was ninth. She didn’t speak to Madame Moghra. The medium was asleep. Or dead!

The Countess looked back over her notes. Nine people had gone into the library. None had stayed longer than a few minutes. She decided to write them down in order.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Monsieur Croquemort

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Mr Ffrench

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Miss Morningstar

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Reverend Blackadder

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Mrs Merle

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Madame Sosostras

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Dr Hu

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Dr Watson

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Moi

Well, she could discount herself and put a line through moi, but of the other eight, any one of them could have inserted a needle into the skull of the sleeping medium, and if the needle was dipped in some paralyzing poison that accounted for the fact no cry was heard. It could even have been the first person who went in. And though a couple of people spoke to the medium, there is no indication she spoke back. It could even have been a ruse on the part of the killer to make it appear as if the medium was still alive.

It was imperative to find that needle, but where to start? It could be a hat pin, a tie pin, a skewer from the kitchen, an instrument from the wheelhouse, a tool from the infirmary…

Forget about the needle in a haystack. She had to speak to each of the suspects in turn to see who noticed what – especially the missing brooch. When did it disappear? Was it at the beginning of the evening or at the end? And who noticed? That was important. Captain Lanfranc had instigated a search of the ship but the Countess didn’t hold out much hope of it suddenly turning up. There were simply too many places to hide it. And if a jewel thief believed the brooch might implicate him or her in murder they were just as likely to throw it overboard as not.

Good grief! She suddenly remembered the twelfth card: The Hanged Man!

Heaven forbid Dr Watson had stolen the brooch in his sleep after he killed the old fraud!

The mere thought brought her out in a cold sweat. No! If she believed that she might as well give up the ghost right now. Last night, when she had spotted him through the glass partition he did not look like a homicidal somnambulist in the throes of murder – he looked like a little boy lost. She would remind herself of that image whenever she doubted him. Never was so much at stake. She had to find out who killed the clairvoyant before they reached Biarritz. Dr Watson’s freedom depended on it. His life depended on it!

 

Dr Watson stayed in his tired tartan dressing gown all day. He felt shell-shocked, he didn’t have the energy or the will to dress himself. He had heard men charged with murder liken the experience to being in some sort of strange dream where events take on a life of their own, where they had no volition, no control over their own lives, no control over their destiny. They expected to wake up at any moment and find that none of it was real. That’s how he felt: powerless, dazed, unreal, trapped in some bizarre nightmare from which there was no escape. His mind wandered. He imagined different scenarios. He pictured himself killing the old fraud with a surgical instrument. Captain Lanfranc had taken his medical bag. Of course it contained a needle! They had searched his cabin for the missing brooch. He was as surprised as they were when nothing turned up. That was another of the nightmarish scenarios. He imagined the Countess planting the brooch in his cabin to frame him. What did he really know about her? The illegitimate daughter of Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes! Or so she claimed. She could be the daughter of Professor Moriarty for all he knew. Mycroft was still awaiting verification of various documents, collating information, putting out feelers in the far-flung corners of the world without arousing suspicion. Who was Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna? Where did her vast fortune spring from? He had met her less than two months ago. He had taken her into his confidence. He had trusted her. Was that part of the plan? Lull him into a false sense of security and then fit him up for murder?

Chapter 19 – Sea of Suspicion

 

The wind was gusting from the south-east, buffeting the SS Pleiades. Waves were swamping the deck. The promenade became so precarious that care had to be taken not to be swept overboard.

Mrs Merle was in cabin 6, next door to Dr Watson in number 4. She had returned to her cabin straight after breakfast, balancing a plate of brioches on top of a French almanac. Mercury retrograde was a scamp to deal with, her lecture notes were all over the place, and now the death of Madame Moghra on top of it all. How could she possibly concentrate? Captain Lanfranc was a dunce, worse than the New York constabulary. He needed help from the stars but he had dismissed her offer with a cynical roll of his piratical eyes. The moon was full in Taurus, opposite Scorpio, making a square to Leo. It was so obvious! Madame Moghra was a Leo…

There was a knock on the door and then the Countess entered. Her birth chart was sprinkled with grand trines, sextiles and conjunctions, no squares, no oppositions – several planets were exalted. Some people led charmed lives.

“Such a terrible business about Dr Watson,” commiserated the astrologer sympathetically. “He must be a Taurus with planets in Scorpio, perhaps Mars and Pluto – secretive, dark and edgy. Take a seat. Help yourself to a brioche. I’m glad to see you. I need someone to translate this French almanac. Can you translate pages 768 and 971 for me? I think a few French quotes will help to tie my notes together. I wonder if Voltaire said anything clever about the stars. Let me know if you come across anything by Voltaire.”

The Countess found several worthy quotes, nothing alas by Voltaire. She talked while she wrote them down in English.

“I came in to borrow a darning needle for my maid. The clumsy girl broke hers. A large embroidery needle will do if you don’t have a darning needle. Or even a crochet hook. She might be able to manage with a crochet hook.”

“I have a needle but it is not very large. I was finishing off a monogram on a handkerchief.” She went to her carpet bag and pulled out a square of linen beautifully hemmed, with the beginnings of an elaborate curlicued M in the corner. “Will this do?”

The needle was woefully small and narrow. The Countess shook her head. “I might ask Madame Sosostras.”

“Yes, I saw her re-threading some amber beads using a needle.”

“Large or small beads?”

“Oh, they were quite the largest amber beads I have seen, like golden cherries on a string. I complimented her on how lovely they were and she blushed like a silly schoolgirl. Some people need to learn to accept compliments gracefully. Help yourself to a brioche.”

The Countess took a pastry to keep the American happy and because it helped to contrive a conversational tone. “I was just wondering about that time we first met on the train. Madame Moghra was seated in the lounge car as we were returning to our respective carriages.”

“Yes?” said the other, mild curiosity disguising a guarded tone.

“I couldn’t help wondering if you’d met Madame Moghra before, perhaps at one of her séances.”

“What made you think that?”

“She seemed to recognize you after you passed through the carriage.”

“My face has often appeared in the newspaper.”

“She knew your Christian name.”

“My name is quite well known the world over.”

“I thought it was more than that – something personal rather than public.”

The thick neck folds flushed an unhealthy shade of crimson while the astrologer turkey-gobbled the last brioche, stuffing it holus-bolus into her mouth; an Adam’s apple jigged up and down as the lumpen treat went down the corrugated gullet.

“What are you implying, Countess?”

Means and opportunity were wide open to one and all, so ascribing motive to the other passengers was absolutely vital in proving Dr Watson wasn’t the only passenger who wished Madame Moghra dead. The Countess expected obfuscation to be thicker than the fog currently obscuring the Irish Sea and she intuited the only way to steer a straight course would be with blatant lies that cut through any subversive humbug.

“I’m not implying anything, Mrs Merle, but when we dock in Biarritz tomorrow morning the French authorities will naturally check into everyone’s background to establish a possible motive for the murder of Madame Moghra. It is no secret that Dr Watson harboured a grudge against the medium but what is less known is if anyone else felt the same. It might be better for all concerned to reveal any secrets now, during my tentative investigation undertaken at the behest of Captain Lanfranc, than to have secrets exposed for tout le monde.”

The totem pole had finally run into an indomitable hacksaw and the blunt edges were now less sharp than usual. “Very well” the large American huffed, picturing dirty linen hanging on a wire between the tenements of New York, and shrinking back a touch at the sordid image. “I never actually met Madame Moghra but I knew all about her shady past. About thirty-five years ago she was touring the States with a travelling circus. She was a painted trollop telling fortunes, earning what she could on the side, and I don’t mean with a crystal ball. My Elmer fell for her fancy ways hook, line and sinker, a simple country boy with star-shine in his eyes. When the circus up and moved, he did too. He followed her from city to city like a love-struck puppy. It made her laugh. Eventually he came crawling back to me but he was already dying – liver disease from too much hooch. If you think that gives me reason to murder her, well, so it does. She ruined my marriage. She killed my Elmer as sure as if she gave him a cup of poison.”

“You went into the library last night to look at some books?”

“Yes, I was after an almanac, but they only had this one,” she indicated the tome on the table, “and another in Arabic. I left them both on the shelf.”

“When did you go back to get this one?”

“I got it straight after breakfast. That helpful steward saw me. He told me it was written in French but I knew that already.”

“You spoke to Madame Moghra last night while you were in the library.”

“Did I?”

“Yes, I saw you through the glass partition.”

“Oh, I was just muttering to myself. I do that a lot nowadays. I was annoyed the almanacs weren’t written in plain American. Arabic! What would the Arabs know about stars! Madame Moghra was asleep. I decided to get some shut-eye too. How did she die, by the way? That moody pianist knows but he wouldn’t let on – quite handsome but blind to his own good-looks – if only he brushed his hair he wouldn’t look like such an anarchist! That silly girl is quite in love with him, poor child, he hardly knows she exists and cares even less. So, how was the old cow done in?”

“I’m afraid I cannot let on either – mainly because I would only be guessing and it is best left to the police surgeon in Biarritz.” The Countess ended on that blunt note, hoping to leave the starry mystic making of it what she wanted, heartened at least that Mr Ffrench was heeding her caution to keep things to himself. She got to the door before she remembered the brooch.

“When you went into the library last night did you happen to notice if Madame Moghra was wearing her brooch?”

The corrugations on her heavy forehead matched those on her turkey neck as she shook her head and everything wobbled. “I can’t say that I did notice. Is it missing? Was it stolen by the killer? Is that why she was killed?”

“Perhaps the stars can help answer those questions,” said the Countess.

 

Dr Hu was in cabin 8, the next one along. There was no reply to her knock and the door was locked. She pried off her hat pin, toyed with the lock, and let herself in. It was handy having a husband who came from a family of forgers who was adept at picking locks – darling Jack – may he rest in peace. She immediately began to search for an acupuncture kit. Having no idea what one looked like didn’t help, though she imagined something not unlike her writing compendium – a large, flat, leather envelope. She was nearly to the bottom of the travel trunk when the door opened.

“Countess!”

She was perched on the end of the bed, straw boater in her hands. “Dr Hu,” she smiled benignly, improvising an excuse for being in his cabin, “I was hoping to speak to you in private about the death of Madame Moghra and with the wind blowing a gale, well, I thought you wouldn’t mind if I waited inside your cabin rather than out on the deck. My hat almost blew overboard, you see. You don’t mind, do you?”

He looked momentarily confused. His small obsidian eyes flew from her to the door and back again. “No, no, not at all, dear Countess, but door was locked. How…”

“You are mistaken, Dr Hu. The door was unlocked. I simply walked straight in. If it had been locked I wouldn’t be here now, would I?”

He bowed to her logic. “How may I be of service?”

“You have heard about the death of Madame Moghra?”

He was dressed in another pale blue silk gown embroidered with golden dragons that swept the floor and made a soft swishing sound. He resembled a walking a waterfall as he paced. “Tlagic! The good Captain, he allest Dr Watson?”

“Yes, it appears he killed her in his sleep.”

“I have heard such a thing happen once in loyal court in Forbidden City.”

“I am of the opinion my good friend did not do it. I am conducting a preliminary investigation at the behest of the good Captain,” she lied, “and I am speaking to all the passengers about what they saw when they went into the library last night.”

“I see nothing. Madame Moghla asleep. I find I-Ching and go out.”

“Yes, I remember. I was sitting up, having one last cigarette. Did you happen to notice if Madame Moghra was wearing her brooch?”

He stopped pacing and the swishing sound ceased. “She was not wearling blooch.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes – no blooch. I notice all things. No blooch.”

“Thank you, I’m not sure if that will help my friend but if it turns out it was theft, the thief may also have been the killer. Madame Moghra may have woken while he or she was in the process of stealing it. Did you see anyone as you made your way back to your cabin? I ask because you were the last person, discounting Dr Watson and myself, who was still up and about.”

“You think it me who steal blooch?”

“No, no, of course not!” She put her fingers either side of her neck and gave a firm rub.

He seemed reassured. “You have neck ache?”

“Yes,” she lied, pulling a painful face, “I slept badly. The wind was howling and the ship was rocking from side to side and I couldn’t get comfortable. I don’t suppose you know anything about acupuncture?”

He went straight to his portmanteau. “I have acupuncture instluments here. I can lelieve plessure on neck. You lie down on bed.”

He opened up his kit and the Countess saw that all the needles were in place. That, alone, did not exonerate him, but she could also see that the needles were exceedingly fine. The indentation on the top of the medium’s skull had been done with something much thicker as Mr Ffrench had correctly surmised upon examination.

“Perhaps some other time, Dr Hu, I need to speak to the other passengers first.”

He looked disappointed but not surprised. “It no hurt. I am master of needle. You please to lie down. I fix neck.”

The Countess pushed up squeamishly from the bed. “Not right now, thank you, Dr Hu, you have been most helpful, by the way, did you ever meet Madame Moghra in the course of your travels?”

“Never.”

 

Morning tea time found the Countess in the dining saloon with her fellow passengers. They were bandying about wild theories regarding homicidal somnambulism, pirates, ghost mermaids and shipboard poltergeists. The Marie Celeste was mentioned more than once. She feigned interest and ignorance in equal measure. Mr Ffrench did the same. His credulity regarding kraken and assorted monsters of the deep such as a giant squid with twenty-foot long tentacles was worthy of a standing ovation. He sidled up to her at the samovar and spoke in a lowered tone.

“I hear your companion has been confined to his cabin and you are conducting a preliminary enquiry on behalf of Captain Lanfranc?”

Without looking at him, she nodded and continued filling her tea cup. “You told the captain you thought it was murder.”

“He asked me for my medical opinion and I couldn’t very well pretend the mark on the top of her head was achieved accidentally.”

“I understand. Get yourself a cup of tea and follow me into the billiard room.”

A velvet banquette tucked into a cosy corner where they would not be seen or overheard was the perfect spot. He arrived a few moments later.

“What can you tell me about homicidal somnambulism?”

He looked surprised. His shaggy blond brows arched north and disappeared under his wild fringe. “Is that the theory? Dr Watson killed Madame Moghra in his sleep?”

“Yes, is it possible?”

“If you are speaking generally, not specifically, then yes, quite possible. There have been several documented cases. The sleeper may have no memory of the event upon waking. The sleeper doesn’t even have to hold a grudge against the victim. It is an unconscious act.”

“What if the killer does hold a grudge?”

“Then it is likely to go against him in a court of law. A case could be mounted by the prosecution saying he merely pretended to be asleep to mitigate looking guilty. Does Dr Watson sleepwalk?”

“He used to years ago but I fear he may have started up again. He has been sleeping badly, talking cough drops with valerian and drinking whiskey before bed. If he did kill her in his sleep and it can be proved he was sleepwalking at the time what will be the likely sentence?”

“He will not be hanged, thankfully, but committed to a lunatic asylum for the criminally insane.”

The blood drained out of her and her skin ran to gooseflesh – hanging sounded kinder.

Mr Ffrench drained his coffee cup before speaking. “Who saw Dr Watson in the library?”

“I did.”

“I see,” he murmured pessimistically. “Do you think he was sleepwalking?”

She forced herself to think back and pictured the scene in her mind’s eye. “He did look odd.”

“In what way?”

“He seemed stiff and unnatural.”

“Rigidity is indicative of sleepwalking. Anything else?”

“He just seemed to be standing in the centre of the room. He didn’t move about the way the others did when they went in. It was as if he didn’t know why he was there.”

“That does not bode well either.”

Her heart sank, it did seem hopeless. Either way, Dr Watson stood condemned. “I need to discover if anyone else had a motive to kill Madame Moghra.”

“I can help you there. As you know I had the best motive. I blamed the old witch for the death of Antoinette.”

“Yes, I considered that but you have had ample opportunity to take revenge. And why would you steal the brooch?”

“Why would Dr Watson steal it?”

“I have wracked my brains over that very point. We met up with Madame Moghra in York specifically to give her the brooch. I have an almost identical one given to me by the same benefactress, Lady Cruddock. The only thing I can think of is that he felt Madame Moghra did not deserve hers. He is very black and white about matters of right and wrong.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Perhaps I can steer you in another direction. When I met up with Croquemort and Blackadder in the bar last night, Croquemort told us the old witch planned to retire to Monte Carlo. He was livid. The Magic Lantern troupe was as good as dead. I’m not saying he killed her for that reason but if you want to draw suspicion away from your friend I think there are plenty of other places where you can point the finger.”

“Yes, Madame Moghra told me on the train to Glasgow that he would not take the news well, but he went first into the library and did not return again before Dr Watson, that’s if he did return at all. If he killed her then everyone else who went in after him did not notice she was already dead. Do you think that’s possible?”

“Improbable but not impossible.”

“When you saw her sleeping with her mouth agape could she have been dead?”

He rubbed his stubbly blond chin and made a self-incriminating confession of sorts that should have determined his guilt but did the opposite. “I fantasised about her death every waking moment. If I thought she looked dead it would be because I was hoping for her to be dead. In other words, my observation would be prejudiced by wishful thinking.”

“Did you notice if she was wearing her brooch at the time?”

“Now that’s a good question. In all honesty, I cannot say for sure one way or another. I didn’t notice the brooch but is that because I didn’t care or because it wasn’t there?”

Reverend Blackadder popped his haloed head in the door, saw that there was a private tête a tête going on and backed off rather abruptly.

“You might want to speak to Blackadder about motive,” suggested Mr Ffrench, watching in the gilt mirror as the hollow halo receded.

“Motive?”

“In the bar, as we three men were drinking our lees, being frank with each other and tempers running high, Reverend Blackadder let slip he was the old witch’s lover. I often wondered why Croquemort kept him on. He didn’t really pull his weight. Apart from painting the slides for the magic lantern, he was fairly useless. I see now it was to appease the old witch. Anyway, she was planning to replace him with a younger lover once she retired to Monte Carlo – she told him there were plenty of young gigolos to be had on the Riviera. He was livid about being thrown over for what he termed: a syphilitic dago.”

The Countess stood up and adjusted her jaunty nautical jacket and straw boater. “Thank you, Mr Ffrench, please keep our conversation confidential. I don’t need to point out that it could be a matter of life and death.”

She left him to sink a few balls and ponder his future and went in search of Reverend Blackadder. In the dining saloon she could see Xenia and Fedir by the samovar. Fedir, good man, had taken it upon himself to make sure the doctor was being looked after. Monsieur Bresant, being favourably disposed to the doctor for his timely assistance regarding the room numbers, had given permission for Fedir to come and go as required in and out of cabin 4.

Miss Morningstar was alone in the card room playing Solitaire. The Countess decided to speak to the thistledown fairy before she flitted off elsewhere, reminding herself there was no love lost between the songstress and the medium, and that the theft and murder appeared opportunistic, requiring the dexterity of a monkey and the audacity of youth, and who but a poor gamine might covet a silver and amethyst brooch? And there was that obtuse spirit writing as well. The Countess had wracked her brain over that too.

She pulled up a chair facing the elfin-eyed sprite. “What do you think this word is?”

Miss Morningstar placed the king of spades on top of the ace of spades and drew another card, cast a cursory glance at the paper and shrugged her slender shoulders. “l-o-d-i…is that a spirit guide or an incantation like abracadabra?”

“Madame Moghra wrote it last night with her planchette.”

“In that case it could be anything.”

“I think it might be a name.”

“Well, I suppose it could be my name – Melody – but my name ends in y, not i or i-e. So if it is my name the spirits cannot spell,” she said with a churlish smile.

“Is there any reason Madame Moghra might want to write your name?”

“Not really. She hated me. She was a jealous old hag. She bad-mouthed me to Crispin, I mean Mr Ffrench, every chance she got. If she had had her way I wouldn’t have gotten any time on stage at all and would have played the harp and sung from backstage.”

“You have heard that Dr Watson has been confined to his cabin on the suspicion that he killed her in his sleep?”

She re-shuffled the cards left in the pack. “Yes, and I hope he gets away with it. He was right about her. She was a big fraud. She was planning to spring some big trick on him. I don’t know what it was but I wouldn’t be surprised if she killed herself just to get him charged with murder. That’s what she was like – spiteful and vindictive!”

“That would be going a bit far, wouldn’t it?”

“You didn’t really know her – that’s probably why she wrote my name with the planchette – to make me look guilty.”

“Did you want her dead as well?”

Bien sur!”

“When you went into the library last night was Madame Moghra awake?”

Miss Morningstar shook her golden head emphatically. “No, I went in to ask her if she wanted a cup of hot cocoa but she was asleep.”

“Do you think she might already have been dead?”

Surprised, Miss Morningstar looked up quickly. Her blue eyes were as round as Wedgwood wall plaques. “I never thought, but, yes, she was sitting very still. I spoke to her and she didn’t stir. Sometimes people who are sleeping will shift or murmur in their sleep if they are spoken to, but she didn’t move a muscle.”

“Did you happen to notice if she was wearing her brooch?”

“You are wondering if I stole it, aren’t you?” she said with the sort of simplicity that is oblivious of outcomes.

“I am wondering when it went missing?”

She appeared indifferent to the subtle degree of difference. “She was wearing it because it caught the light from the table lamp and a bit of purply sparkle caught my eye. I thought how lovely it looked. Not at all like a real thistle which is all dull and prickly.”

“Would you have killed her if you had had the chance?”

Bien sur – but like you said, she might already have been dead. It might have been heart failure after all. Your friend will be in the clear. I can say that in court if you want.”

“Say what?”

“Say that she was sitting very still like she was already dead.”

“I wouldn’t want you to lie.”

“Why ever not? I’m quite good at it. I have been doing it all my life. A judge and jury will believe me. I lied once at the Bow Street Magistrate’s Court and got away with it.”

“But there might be more evidence to come of which you are unaware,” the Countess pointed out weightily, “and perjury is a serious offence.”

“Oh, I never thought of that.”

“And then the finger might be pointed at you.”

“It will be pointed at lots more before me,” she said confidently.

“If you mean Monsieur Croquemort and Reverend Blackadder and Mr Ffrench – I already know they wanted her dead.”

“I meant that greedy, grasping, greasy gypsy. I saw her eyeing the brooch more than once. She was licking her lips like she wanted to eat it all up.”

The Countess was taken aback, not because the gypsy was eyeing off the brooch but that Miss Morningstar had such an eloquent grasp of alliteration.

“And that funny little Chinaman – something dropped out of his pocket when he was swishing up the stairs at the Mungo Arms. I was skipping up behind him and stopped to pick it up and blow me down if it wasn’t a little photo of Madame Moghra, looking much younger, with real hair.”

“You knew she wore a wig?”

Bien sur.”

“Tell me about the photo.”

“There was man in it. He looked like one of them well-fed Catholic priests who are keen to lecture young women who are starving hungry on the mysterious ways of the Good Lord.”

“Perhaps it had been dropped earlier by Madame Moghra and Dr Hu was planning to return it to her?”

She shook her head firmly and followed with a triumphant smile. “There was Chinese writing on the back of it – that’s how I knew it belonged to him.”

“What did he say when you returned it?”

“Nothing. He went into the bathroom, so I slipped it under his door later that night.”

Chapter 20 – Snookered!

 

It was the calm before the storm. The strong south-easterly wind that had been buffeting them all morning suddenly died. Huge black storm clouds banked up, obscuring the grey glint of the sun. The sky was full of ominous menace.

Inside, things were looking brighter. There were several people who wanted the medium dead apart from Dr Watson. This was a positive step forward if it came to a criminal trial. Unfortunately, the brooch had not yet been found and no likely weapon had turned up.

Yesterday, the library was the most popular place on the ship, today it was empty. Given that departed spirits posed no problem to those who made their living from death it was surprising, though perhaps the spiritualists wanted to distance themselves from the murder scene lest their morbid interest point the fickle finger of fate their way.

The Countess decided to check for any clues she may have overlooked. She went to the bookshelf, stood with her back to it, and surveyed the comfortably furnished room. The wing chair, table lamp and planchette had not been moved. She checked the floor, the cushions and the remainder of the furniture. The killer was not stupid enough to drop the weapon. She closed her eyes and tried to picture Dr Watson standing in the centre of the room. She went to the place where he stood to aid her recollection. His hands had not been clenched – that suggested he had not been gripping a weapon. Hang on! He had been wearing his tweed suit! That was odd! Surely he should have been wearing his tartan dressing gown or even those quaint flannel pyjamas he favoured. Did sleepwalkers get dressed before going walking? Did they bother to conceal their weapons? Surely that would imply some sort of awareness of their actions. Was that a positive or a negative? Better not to mention it to anyone just yet.

She turned to look at the bookshelf. There were several gaps where books had been removed, including the French almanac. The Arabic almanac had been replaced upside down. She turned it right way up. The two books Madame Sosostras had looked at were not flush with the others. The Countess often did the same thing to mark a book she wanted to come back to later. She decided to leave them as they were.

From the corner of her eye she spotted Reverend Blackadder flit past. He was returning to the billiard room that had been vacated by Mr Ffrench who had since decamped to the bar to drown his sorrows. The reverend was stacking the red balls in the triangle when the Countess walked in on him.

“Care for a game of snooker?”

His thin lips formed a wry smile as he set the seven black balls on the green baize. “I won’t say no.”

“We are in for quite a storm tonight,” she said conversationally as she selected a cue and chalked the end. “Has the wind started up again?”

“I’ll say it has! Blowing a gale! Croquemort and I tried to play a game of quoits on the aft deck but it was impossible to stay on our feet. We were nearly blown overboard! By the way, you need to speak to your man. He has run off with the darts.”

“Are you sure?”

He placed the six coloured balls on their correct spots on the table. “Yes, we looked everywhere for the second set. He had them last. He was playing a game with Dr Watson yesterday afternoon. You can break first.”

“He does not normally misplace things,” she offered in Fedir’s defence as she whacked the white and scattered the reds in a dozen different directions. “He may have taken them to Dr Watson’s cabin to help him pass the time.”

“Nice break! Maybe they blew overboard!”

His quip was not really funny but she laughed anyway, it helped to smooth the path for what was to come, but he pre-empted her.

“Go ahead and ask,” he said. “You are going about questioning everyone to see if they had a motive for killing the white witch.”

“Who told you that?”

She managed to pot a red and then a coloured ball in a side pocket. The coloured ball was returned to the table as per the rules of the game. She repeated the shot, then struck a red but failed to pot it.

“Bad luck,” he said. “I heard you talking to Crispin. I also heard my name being mentioned as I turned to go so I decided to hang about. I hid behind that green baize folding screen where I am painting some ghost images on glass slides ready for our American show, which may be a waste of time now that our trip may not go ahead since the star of the show is dead. Anyway, I heard him dob me in.”

The white ball hit the edge, ricocheted to the other side, and knocked in a red. He beamed and knocked in a coloured ball next, but failed to follow up by missing the red, creating a foul.

“You don’t sound too upset about being dobbed in?” she commented, fouling her shot deliberately and allowing him back into the game.

He chalked his cue. “Being her lover would have come out eventually. Better to get it out in the open. Yes, I could have killed her when she told me she was retiring and dumping me but I didn’t get the chance. By the way, if your friend killed her in his sleep how did he do it? I understand Crispin did an examination of the body this morning. I hope he was sober.”

“Yes, but his findings were inconclusive.”

“Probably poisoned,” he suggested casually, taking his shot and missing, creating another foul. “That’s a doctor’s usual method.”

“When you went into the library last night did you think it possible Madame Moghra may already have been dead?”

She potted the red and a colour, another red, then sank the white.

“Heart failure? Good theory! Stick with that! You just sank the cue ball!”

“Oh, dear, I was going for that yellow one. What do you think?”

“About her being dead?” he said as he lined up his shot.

“Yes.”

“Hey! Did you see that! The red rebounded three times before going in! That was a good shot even if I say so myself! It’s certainly possible.”

“You went in for your cigarettes?”

“And my lucifers – I finally found them on the desk by the porthole window. Someone had moved them from the side table where I’d left them.” He sank a coloured ball and then another red and then the pink and so on until all the reds were potted.

It was time to pot the colours in order: yellow, green, brown, blue, pink and black. He missed his shot and hit the green instead.

“It looked as if you spoke to her. Did she answer back?” She deliberately whacked the white ball so hard it almost bounced off the table. She elicited a small silvery laugh to signal embarrassed relief when it rebounded and sank the yellow as if by fluke, then carefully missed the next one.

He laughed too. “Take it easy! Don’t try so hard,” he advised, lining up his shot. “Yes, I asked her if she’d seen my lucifers but she didn’t answer. I thought she was pretending to be asleep.”

“Pretending?”

“Her mouth was open but she wasn’t snoring. People usually snore if they sleep with their mouth open. I thought maybe she didn’t want to speak to me.”

He sank the green and then the brown and then the blue, but missed the pink. He patted down his golden halo of hair, pleased with himself overall.

“You appeared to lean over her for some reason?” She potted the pink and several black then missed.

His eyes narrowed as he leaned over the table and the low-hanging billiard light caught him full on the face. The electric glare cast downward slanted shadows. He suddenly looked like one of those vaudevillian villains everyone loves to boo.

“I didn’t realize you were watching me so closely?”

“It was an innocent observation. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”

“Yes, well, I thought something was caught in her hair.” He played and missed.

“Did you know she wore a wig?”

“Of course! It’s the result of too much Venetian ceruse. She did not know the meaning of moderation.”

She positioned the cue ball in an impossible spot for him to get around, a classic snooker shot. “So what did you think was caught in her hair?”

He chalked his cue as he circumambulated the table thinking about how to get around the cue ball. “It was something metallic. It caught the light. But when I leaned closer it was just one of those feathery geegaws women fancy, a hairpin that must have become dislodged when she fell asleep and ended up tangled up in all that fluffy flummery she wore to hide her baldness.”

He took his best shot and sank the cue ball.

“Oh, bad luck,” she said sincerely before finishing off the game. “Did you happen to notice if she was wearing her brooch?”

He grimaced. “She was definitely wearing it. It was the first time I saw it close up. I could see the fine detail in the silverwork, the way the leaves furled, and the bevelling on the amethysts to give them depth. I remember thinking that it was a nice bit of workmanship by a master jeweller. Another game?”

The Countess smiled magnanimously as she replaced her cue on the rack. “I might quit while I’m ahead and it is almost time for lunch. I better change into something more appropriate.”

Xenia would have laid out the oyster grey moiré satin an hour or two ago. Fashion etiquette said she should have changed into it prior to midday.

His voice caught her at the door. “Before you rush off, I wonder if you have considered the possibility that Croquemort hypnotized Dr Watson?”

His suggestion grabbed her imagination with both hands and gave it a violent shake before she reminded herself – and him – that Croquemort was a mesmerist not a hypnotist.

“On stage he is a mesmerist,” he dismissed, “but off-stage I’ve seen him hypnotise dozens of people, and since we are dobbing each other in, well, he had the best reason in the world to wish the white witch dead.”

The Countess was so stunned she almost walked into the green baize screen.

“Watch how you go,” he warned, laughing good-naturedly, “or you’ll up-end the camera obscura, the paintbox, and all the glass slides that I’ve spread out on the table to dry.”

She mumbled an apology as she rushed toward the stairs.

The sound of a gong alerted her to the buffet lunch being served in the dining room. It could be heard throughout the public rooms. She would have to change her clothes after her meal – a sartorial calamity if the ship had had its full complement of passengers, but something she might get away with in an intimate group considering the circumstances.

Captain Lanfranc would apparently not be joining them at table. The approaching storm was keeping him busy in the wheelhouse. Monsieur Bresant was there to answer any of their questions. He proved to be a man who kept his cards close to his chest. No, the brooch had not been found. A thorough search was still underway. None of the crew had been discovered to be hiding anything suspicious. The maid who discovered the body was of good character and very much distressed at being implicated in anything untoward. No murder weapon had turned up, if in fact Madame Moghra had been murdered – there was still the possibility she may have died from natural causes and the brooch simply mislaid or lost. This had been his experience on previous voyages where valuable jewels had gone missing and then suddenly turned up in some unlikely spot prior to disembarkation. Thanks to the latest modern equipment fitted on board the SS Pleiades, meaning the ship to shore wireless device, a member of the Surete would be meeting the ship in Biarritz as soon it docked. The French police inspector would take charge of the investigation and any further questions might best be saved and directed at him once he was apprised of the facts.

Monsieur Bresant, mindful of his position, did not join them at table, but stood with his hands clasped behind his back and his legs braced as he answered all questions as truthfully as discretion permitted, before bidding them bon appetit.

Miss Morningstar’s sing-song voice was the first to break the silence. “I think Madame Moghra killed herself,” she announced with cheerful childish relish like a naughty schoolgirl announcing to all and sundry during a special school dinner that the headmistress had a hairy wart on her chin and the school chaplain had hairs growing out of his nose. “Madame Moghra was growing old and she couldn’t stand the thought of turning into a wrinkly hag plus her aura had changed colour. It wasn’t blue-green anymore, it was an evil murky shade like marsh slime.”

“Oh, do shut-up,” slurred Mr Ffrench, slurping from his spoon. “You are turning me off my oyster soup.”

“I think Miss Morningstar might have a point,” said Reverend Blackadder, buttering some bread. “Madame Moghra had been acting strangely all day.”

“In what way?” pressed the Countess.

“As if she’d seen a ghost or something,” he replied vaguely.

“Talk about old age!” sneered Mr Ffrench, still slurping. “You are growing feeble in your thinking, Blackadder, reading too much Madame Blavatsky and not enough Rousseau or Carlyle. It has warped your brain.”

“No, no,” the other defended, taking slight and reddening, “I saw her staring into the middle distance more than once yesterday, like someone who has seen a vision.”

“Or Death,” interposed the gypsy dramatically, chasing the last oyster around her bowl.

“The spilit world works in mystelious ways,” commented Dr Hu, who felt he should contribute something to the conversation since he had finished his oyster soup and was about to head back to the buffet for some crayfish claws.

“There were powerful planets in opposition to Leo last night,” pointed out Mrs Merle portentously. “I knew something bad was going to happen. This lobster thermidor is overcooked. It tastes like leather. I might try another one and see if it is any better.”

“If you knew something bad was going to happen then why didn’t you say so?” said Monsieur Croquemort acerbically.

The astrologer towered over the table like a granite lighthouse with twin searchlights scorching everything it illuminated. “Knowing something bad will happen and knowing what that something is are quite different,” she responded high and mightily. “The stars are a guide. I merely interpret their configuration. I cannot stop something from happening any more than I can stop the sun from rising.”

“Whatever is going to happen will always happen,” offered Mr Ffrench flippantly. “Pass the white wine, Blackadder.”

“Oh, do shut-up, Crispin,” snapped the reverend, not having recovered from the earlier jibe as he slapped the bottle of Moselle into a shaky hand. “I’ve just about had enough of you! Just because you lost your god years ago it’s no reason to mock everyone else’s!”

“I wasn’t mocking anyone’s god,” the wild-haired cynic retorted, filling his wine glass to the brim, “the gods do a good job of mocking themselves without any help from me.”

“Calm down, everyone,” advised the Master of Ceremonies in his most hypnotic voice. “Calm down,” he repeated like a benevolent father admonishing his recalcitrant brood.

Everyone took a deep breath and there was enough of an intermission of silence for tempers to cool. Everyone returned to the buffet to fill their plates with seafood delights.

To everyone’s surprise it was Monsieur Croquemort who returned to the subject once they re-settled at the table.

“I also noticed Madame Moghra behaving out of character and not looking herself all day yesterday.”

“I thought you just advised us to drop it?” challenged the reverend indignantly.

“No,” replied Mr Ffrench, grinning dangerously, “he advised us to calm down. It’s not the same thing as dropping it. We have a dead body. We need to discuss it. An inspector from the French Surete will be waiting to greet us when we dock in Biarritz. The more we can thrash out now the better it will be for us and the quicker we can get on with our lives.”

“I agree,” said Mrs Merle shrewdly, chewing and swallowing at the same time, her neck folds wibble-wobbling in the process. “We cannot ignore the elephant in the room.”

All eyes dropped simultaneously – the reference to elephants opened up a potential minefield that needed to be tip-toed around carefully.

“Never a truer word said,” offered the Countess, breaking the awkward silence. “Madame Moghra mentioned to me while we were still in Glasgow that she thought she saw a ghost from the grave come back to haunt her.”

“Were they her exact words?” quizzed Mr Ffrench, draining his wine glass.

“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. So much had happened that morning. I had just finished sitting in on the interviews with Constable MacTavish and my mind was pre-occupied with all the details that had not yet had a chance to sink in. I was still thinking about the death of Sissy.”

“Yes,” mused Reverend Blackadder, salting his whitebait, “we’ve all forgotten about Sissy.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” responded Monsieur Croquemort shortly. “Pass the salt, Blackadder.”

“Do you think the two deaths could be related?” asked Mrs Merle in her usual blunderbuss fashion, shovelling down the last mouthful of leathery lobster.

“I don’t know what to think?” replied Monsieur Croquemort, staring morosely at his Dover sole.

“It doesn’t really matter what we think,” said the gypsy, spearing a curly tentacle of pickled octopus drowning in black ink. “The French inspector will think what he likes. If he thinks the two deaths are related no one can say otherwise. The police are a law unto themselves.”

“Let’s get back to Madame Moghra,” intervened Mr Ffrench, who was draining his second glass of Moselle. “Do we think she was murdered for her brooch?”

His heavily hooded eyes slowly circled the table and one by one they all nodded. He turned to the Countess.

“You were sitting in the grand saloon and had a direct line of vision into the library all evening. Who went in first?”

“Monsieur Croquemort.”

Mr Ffrench turned to the Master of Ceremonies. “Was the old witch wearing her brooch?”

“I cannot say. I didn’t look at her. I went in and out. I was looking for a specific book – The Count of Monte Cristo. As soon as I found it I went to the bar to fix a nightcap.”

“Who went in second?” asked Mr Ffrench.

“You did,” replied the Countess.

“Oh, yes, that’s right. I cannot recall seeing the brooch but that does not mean it wasn’t there. I was under the weather and I never paid attention to what the old witch was wearing.”

“Blind drunk,” muttered the reverend offensively, “as usual.”

Mr Ffrench ignored the rude remark, probably because it was perfectly warranted.

“Who was third?”

“It was Miss Morningstar.”

La gamine looked up wide-eyed from her crab and shrimp cocktail – balancing between her delicate fingers her cocktail fork in mid-air on which was stuck a perfectly tiny, pink shrimp. “I told the Countess this morning that I saw the brooch. It sparkled and caught the light from the reading lamp. It looked quite lovely.”

Mr Ffrench moved right along. “Who was fourth?”

“Reverend Blackadder.”

“I’ve already told the Countess that I saw it. I remember it distinctly. The old witch was definitely still wearing it when I went into the library to get my cigarettes and lucifers.”

“Who was fifth?”

“Mrs Merle.”

All eyes turned to the elephantine astrologer.

She put down her fork and burped into the back of her hand. “I cannot say because I didn’t look. I went in to look for an almanac. I didn’t look at Madame Moghra. I thought she was asleep so there was no point acknowledging her presence with a howdy-do.”

“Who was sixth?”

“Madame Sosostras.”

The gypsy was leaning on her elbows, anticipating her turn. “I cannot swear either way – she was wearing it or not wearing it. I do not know. I went into the library to get my tarot cards. I have eyes only for my precious cards. I find cards and go out. It is late. I go to bed.”

“Who was seventh?”

“Dr Hu.”

The Chinaman, too, was prepared for his turn. He had wiped the sides of his lips where food often gathered and clung to the long thin moustache that hung down either side of his small mouth and tiny chin. “I go to cabin and lemember I not have my I-Ching. I go back to libaly and find I-Ching. Madame Moghla not wearling her blooch. I notice. I notice all things. No blooch.”

“Dr Watson was eighth?” speculated Mr French, reaching across the table for the bottle of French burgundy.

“Yes,” confirmed the Countess.

“I thought he’d gone to bed straight after dinner,” questioned Monsieur Croquemort, sounding like a procureur of the Paris court. “What was he doing returning to the library at that hour?”

The Countess realized she would have to say something in the doctor’s defence but she knew how it would sound and hedged. “I have no idea.”

“Was he getting a book?” checked Mrs Merle, mopping up the buerre blanc on her plate with her finger.

“No,” said the Countess. “He appeared to be sleepwalking.”

“There was a case in the New York newspapers recently about a theft during a nightwalking episode,” regaled the American astrologer divertingly. “Everyone thought it was the paid companion of the lady of the house but it turned out to be the lady herself stealing her own jewels in her sleep!”

“Let’s not forget the doctor wanted her dead,” reminded Reverend Blackadder grimly. “He made no secret of his dislike of her. Let’s not forget that.”

“What about the Countess?” said Madame Sosostras, pointing with the sharp end of her knife. “We did not yet hear if she went into the library.”

All eyes turned toward the Countess.

“Yes,” she admitted readily. “I went in ninth.”

“Why did you go in?” pressed Monsieur Croquemort, pushing his plate away with a grimace.

“I went in to speak to Dr Watson. I was concerned for his health.”

“His state of mind, you mean?” said the reverend snidely.

“Well,” said Mr Ffrench, “was the old witch wearing the brooch or not?”

The Countess had always prided herself on having a photographic memory, but for the first time in her life the image was grainy, like a daguerreotype suffering from lack of light and faulty exposure. Never had she felt so inadequate and so helpless. “I honestly didn’t notice.”

 

Following lunch the Countess returned to her cabin to change her nautical matinee costume for something more appropriate for the afternoon. Xenia had the oyster grey moiré satin laid out on the bed with matching accessories and accoutrements, including shoes, stockings, handkerchief and a silver grey cashmere shawl that brought out the grey highlights in her blue-grey eyes.

“How is Dr Watson doing?” she asked her maid.

“Fedir say he is looking like scarecrow. He is not speaking. He is sitting on bed like man of straw.”

“Has he had something to eat?”

“Fedir take him lunch but Dr Watson no eat.”

“What about a cup of tea?”

“He no drink tea. He ask for whiskey.”

“How is his cough?”

“Not good.”

“Leave me, I need to think. Find Fedir and go and get yourselves some lunch. Tell Fedir to return the darts to the aft deck. If Dr Watson is not making use of them there is no point leaving them in his cabin. Come back to help me dress when you have finished lunch. I will have a lie down in the meantime.”

Scenes rolled in and out of her mind’s eye like the scenes from a poorly focused camera obscura in a darkened room. Try as she might she could not call into focus the picture of Madame Moghra and whether she was wearing her brooch.

Did Dr Watson kill Madame Moghra in his sleep? Did he steal the brooch because he felt she did not deserve it? Is that why she couldn’t recall seeing it? Did she block out the vision of the brooch that wasn’t there because the implication was too awful to comprehend?

Was Dr Watson pretending to be asleep when he killed Madame Moghra? Did he think the charge for murder would be lesser if he could prove he was sleepwalking? Did he deliberately steal the brooch to divert suspicion?

Who else wanted Madame Moghra dead?

She had not interviewed everyone as yet but of those she had, all had good reason to see the medium off swiftly to the Otherworld.

Reverend Blackadder was a little man who took offence easily. He made no bones about being annoyed at being dumped on the roadside like a broken bike. Were hurt feelings enough to kill for?

And Miss Morningstar – she talked like a child, she looked like a child, but she was not a child. Her feelings for Mr Ffrench were the feelings of a grown woman and it was the medium who had stood in the way of her imagined happiness, not to mention her professional advancement. Was the fairy-child capable of cold-blooded murder?

And Mr Ffrench – he had been candid and co-operative, willingly assisting with the examination of the dead body, yet he had the strongest motive of all. He held the medium responsible for the tragic death of his fiancé. That was motive enough in anyone’s eyes. Was his co-operation an act? Was his drunkenness an act? Was he too clever by half? Who’s to say whether he spilled the absinthe deliberately before he drank a single drop? He could have been perfectly sober all night, able to dispose of the weapon and plant false clues all night long.

And Mrs Merle – she knew all about crime from her work with the Detective Branch of the New York police. She understood about genuine clues and false clues. She understood the importance of an alibi and the advantage of spreading suspicion far and wide. And she had a motive – she blamed the medium for the ruin of her marriage and the death of her dear Elmer.

And what was she to make of Madame Sosostras? What was the gypsy really doing with the wig? And did she covet the brooch as much as Miss Morningstar intimated? It was worth speaking to the gypsy further.

And what of Dr Hu? Did he really have a photo of Madame Moghra as a young woman? How did he come across it? Why did he have it? What was the significance of it? Or was Miss Morningstar lying? She had admitted to being a good liar. Was she lying about the gypsy too? Who would she be protecting with her lies – herself or Mr Ffrench?

The Countess had not even begun to consider if two or more of them were in it together. Perhaps the entire troupe wanted to get even with Madame Moghra for leaving them in the lurch and they conspired together, providing alibis and lies for each other. Their constant bickering might be a ruse to steer her away from the possibility. She hadn’t yet spoken to Monsieur Croquemort, the master of the menagerie, the maestro of mesmerism, the hypnotic death-eater – was he in reality the grand puppet-master pulling the strings?

Conscious that time slipping away from her, she had only half a day and one night left to find the killer and save Dr Watson from a sojourn in a French prison. The Countess had begun to dress herself when Xenia returned and took over the task in her usual motherly manner.

“Fedir say no darts in cabin,” she said in broken English, fastening the looped buttons that ran down the entire length of the back of the dress from the slender curve of the neck to the wider curve of the female derriere. “He no take darts to Dr Watson.”

“Is he sure?”

“Sure he sure,” said Xenia grumpily, rising to her brother’s defence. “He play game with Dr Watson yesterday. Dr Watson have blue darts. Fedir have red. Darts go in box for darts when game of darts is finish.”

“Dr Watson had the blue darts?”

“Blue darts for Dr Watson,” repeated Xenia as if her mistress was suddenly hard of hearing. “Red darts for Fedir.”

The Countess straightened her shoulders and appeared to grow a couple of inches in stature, putting the buttons and loops through their paces. Her voice likewise lifted, the softer chords heightened by the urgency of the higher octaves. “I want you to tell Fedir to go at once to the cabin of Dr Watson and search for the blue darts. He should check the pockets of the tweed jacket first and then the brown wool herringbone coat second and then look everywhere else. When you finish looping the last button go. I can put on my own shoes and tidy my own hair.”

The Countess was fairly certain she had just solved the mystery of the unknown murder weapon – but where did the blue darts disappear to?

Chapter 21 – Spirit Writing

 

Before she did anything else she had to send a wireless message to Constable MacTavish in Glasgow. She needed to inform him that Madame Moghra was dead and that the death was suspicious. She needed to make it crystal clear that Dr Watson was likely to be charged with the murder once they reached Biarritz. It was also imperative to find out just what the constable had discovered pertaining to the death of Sissy. Did he really know who the murderer was? And why had he not attached the name of the murderer to his message?

Storm clouds were building and little squalls of rain blew in and out all afternoon but the ship was still steaming ahead, making good time…unfortunately.

The Countess by-passed the wheelhouse and raced directly to the telegraphic room. The same seaman who had delivered the message the previous evening and spoke no English was on duty; his eyes were closed and he was dozing in his chair. She slammed the door and watched him jump.

“I need to send a message to Glasgow,” she announced in French, shaking him out of his lethargy.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” replied the seaman respectfully in his native tongue, leaping to his feet upon recognizing the foreign Countess as a rare member of her sex who showed an interest in electronic devices and seemed to know what she was talking about. “The storm has affected the machine. There are no messages coming through and none can go out neither. The electronic signal is being affected by the high winds and the squally rain.”

“When was the last message able to be sent?”

“It was just after midnight. It was telegraphed to Plymouth and then forwarded on to Biarritz. We were receiving a return message when the wireless went dead. There has been nothing since. I have not left my post since midnight and nothing has come through. I don’t expect anything until the worst of the storm has passed over us. By then we will be three-quarters of the way across the Channel.”

“Will you alert me at once when the wireless is up and running again?”

He gestured a half salute.

She thrust a five pound note into his hand and he shifted uneasily.

“That is not necessary, la comtesse.”

“Necessary or not – let me know at once.”

She leaned into the blustery wind as she fought her way along the deck, sea-spray slapping her in the face until she reached the heavy steel door leading down to the public rooms. Mr Ffrench was propping up the bar, Miss Morningstar was learning about I-Ching from Dr Hu, Mrs Merle was in the grand saloon with her varicose veins supported by an ottoman and her eyes half-closed, and Madame Sosostras was reading a book in the library. It was Monsieur Croquemort the Countess wanted to speak to and she soon tracked him down.

“I was wondering when you were going to get around to me,” he said with disarming candour, the French accent adding a husky vibration to the mellifluous tone that almost, almost, lulled her into softening her stance.

Looking immaculate and debonair, he was wearing a purple velvet smoking jacket and rather appropriately lounging in the smoking room with its tobacco coloured walls and wide leather armchairs, soaking up its gently dark, smoky intimacy while puffing on a fat cigar, giving the impression of a man of the world rather than a man whose world has just crashed.

“Light up one for me?” She arranged herself with soigne elegance in an adjoining armchair and flung off her cashmere shawl.

“Cuban or Mexican?”

“A corona gordia if you can find one in the humidor.”

“You’re in luck.” He lighted it and transferred it into her waiting hand.

She inhaled and blew some bluish bracelets into the cigar-scented air. “You have the best motive of all for killing Madame Moghra.”

“Is that a question?”

“An observation.”

“Then here is my response to your observation: I was furious when she announced she was retiring to Monte Carlo! Just like that! I built her up! I made her famous! I created her! I begged her to reconsider! She laughed in my face! I wanted to kill her then and there!”

“When did she announce to you that she was retiring?” she asked calmly, wondering how much time he might have had for planning a murder, and whether he had roped the others in to helping him.

“It was just prior to dinner. We’d all had a turn at having our palms read by Madame Sosostras in the library and were going back to our cabins to dress for dinner. She whispered for me to come to her cabin. As I said earlier at lunch I thought she’d been behaving strangely all day but I didn’t explain why I thought that. I thought she wanted to speak to me about the Chinaman. It was as if she was frightened of him. Whenever he came near her she moved away. I thought at first I was imagining it but it happened every time he got close. She was keeping a measured distance. But when I went to her room it had nothing to do with the Chinaman. She told me she was leaving the troupe. I could have struck her down with my fist.”

“But you didn’t?”

He puffed furiously on his cigar, sending curls of smoke up to the coffered ceiling. The hand resting by the side of his body was bunched so tightly the knuckles were coming up white. “No, I stormed off instead. I took a turn of the deck while I gathered my thoughts and salvaged my pride. I bumped into Blackadder and told him the news. He was just as angry as I was and went straight to her cabin to confront her with it. I caught up with him a few minutes later and he was even angrier because she’d told him in her usual blunt manner that she was trading him in for a more virile lover.”

“So the two of you could have plotted her death together?”

“Yes,” he admitted with barely restrained rage, “and as soon as you tell me how she died I can mount my defence. I cannot speak for Blackadder, or even Crispin, but she didn’t die by my hand – more’s the pity.”

“It may simply have been a heart attack,” she suggested mildly, backtracking, sending a plume of smoke into the clouds.

He gave a dismissive, disbelieving, scornful laugh. “You are speaking to a conjuror, Countess. I can see through an attempt at a sleight-of-hand with my eyes closed. Madame Moghra didn’t have a heart!”

“A conjuror and a mesmerist,” she commented airily, drawing him out.

He gave a modest nod.

“And a hypnotist?”

“Another astute observation? Yes, I have hypnotized dozens of credulous fools but it’s not something I do on stage. Too many things can go wrong.”

“Do your subjects always have to be credulous and foolish?”

He puffed dramatically and shrugged melodramatically. “It helps.”

“What sorts of things can go wrong?”

“The subjects don’t always come out of the trance when you want them too. Sometimes they stay hypnotized much longer than is good for them. They behave queerly in ways you don’t expect.”

“How do you mean?”

“I think they allow their own subconscious to take over and direct their actions in ways they wouldn’t if they were fully awake. Why are you suddenly interested in hypnotism?”

She decided to be brutally honest since time was of the essence. “I was wondering if you hypnotized Dr Watson.”

“To kill Madame Moghra?”

“Yes.”

He threw back his head and laughed richly. “I wish I had thought of it! What a scheme! Is your travelling companion such a credulous fool as that!”

“Dr Watson wished Madame Moghra dead as much as anyone.”

“That’s true, he didn’t hide his hate like some of the others, and that would have made him a more willing subject, gullible of mind, ready to do my bidding since it coincided with his own subconscious desire to kill her. Congratulations, Countess! If only you could prove it!”

She tried not to wince and almost bit off the end of her cigar when she clenched her teeth. “Whose idea was it for you to attend the World Spiritualist Congress in Biarritz?”

“It was Madame Moghra’s idea and I see now why she was so keen to go to France prior to visiting America.”

“A short train ride from a villa in Monte Carlo?”

“Yes,” he hissed malevolently, “and she might pick up a few clients along the way.”

“But it was you who arranged this passage on the SS Pleiades?”

“Yes, but it was initially her idea. She read about it in the newspaper. I contacted the captain of the vessel, Jacques Lanfranc, a fellow Frenchman, and suggested that it might be in his best interests to take a small group of passengers from Glasgow to Biarritz to put the crew through their paces before the ship went into official service. He contacted the shipping company and they agreed. We stayed on in York for an extra week of shows so that our final performance would coincide with the voyage of the SS Pleiades. Otherwise we would have departed earlier and travelled by train to Southampton and then taken the ferry across the Channel and then again the train to Biarritz. It worked out well for all concerned – or so I thought.”

“I was under the impression Captain Lanfranc was a copain of yours?”

“I don’t know who gave you that impression. We are both from the south of France, he from Marseilles, me from Toulon, but we met for the first time in Glasgow. The south of France is large. One cannot meet everyone. I am a magician, he is a mariner – I can assure you our paths have never crossed.”

The hypnotic effect of his voice and the mesmerising effect of his magnetic eyes was powerful but they were nothing compared to the dark power of his personality which was slowly but surely conspiring to evoke in the Countess a feeling of feminine sympathy, to believe every word he said. She had to break the charismatic spell.

“Tell me about the time that Antoinette was killed.”

He blinked and the magic spell was broken.

She breathed a sigh of relief and inhaled deeply.

He smoked moodily for several long moments, battling to contain his anger and the wretchedness that came with remembering the tragedy in all its gory detail.

“We had done the guillotine act several dozen times. It was foolproof. There was nothing that could go wrong unless someone removed the key for the blade mechanism at the last moment. It couldn’t be put in earlier because the audience had to see the real blade come down. I demonstrated its sharpness with a cabbage or cauliflower to whet their appetites. Madame Moghra, dressed as Antoinette’s aristocratic lover, pranced manfully around the stage waving a sword, I did likewise, when I performed a flourish with my scarlet and black cape, creating a diversion and covering for her, she slipped the key into place. She never failed. Until that fateful time when someone in the audience called out: Vive la France! Down with the English! A violent brawl erupted, punches were thrown, chairs were smashed. The curtain was coming down when everyone suddenly calmed down and I decided to continue with the show. It was a large theatre. Several ouvriers had leapt onto the stage to protect the props, the scenery and to stop any hot-headed charge in its tracks. Madame Moghra claims she put the key in place and that someone removed it. The key was never found. Elodie died.”

“Elodie? You just said Elodie?”

“Elodie was her real name. Her stage name was Antoinette.”

The Countess’s heart was beating so fast she felt the extra blood rush to her face. The spirit writing must have been an attempt to spell out the name: Elodie. But why was the planchette spelling the name of the dead girl? Did Madame Moghra do it deliberately or was it an unconscious act, perhaps a guilty conscience? If so, the suggestion of suicide was looking more likely, and yet, the small hole in the top of her head could not be ignored. No one in their right mind would stab themselves with a dart!

The facts! The facts! Everything had to fit the facts. She could not ignore the facts that didn’t suit in the hope of closing a case for convenience sake, even when Dr Watson’s life depended on it. That was wishful thinking at its worst.

“What did Elodie look like? Describe her to me.”

He took one last puff of his cigar then butted it out in the crystal ash tray. “She was very pretty – stage assistants are generally easy on the eye; it helps with the sleight-of-hand.”

“Blonde?”

“What makes you say that?”

“Miss Morningstar is golden-haired so I just presumed…”

“Ah, yes, a woman who is blonde does not have to be too beautiful to be considered the highest of her sex, whereas a brunette has to be exceptional to be considered at all,” he mused, smiling sagely with one eyebrow ironically cocked.

“Too true! But Mr Ffrench was her fiancé and so I also presumed, since he is fair-haired, like might gravitate to like.”

“Have you never heard of opposites attracting? Elodie was raven-haired with olive skin and dark flashing eyes, gypsyish in appearance, as are most of the girls along the Cote d’Azur with the blood of Barbary pirates, Corsicans, Carthaginians, and Moors flowing through their hot-blooded veins.”

“Where did you meet her?”

“Monte Carlo – I was doing a magic show with a travelling carnival and she was separating men from their purses. We met when she tried to steal mine. I could see her potential and offered her a position as my assistant. She took to it like a duck to water.”

“What was her family name?”

“She never said. She was guarded about her background. I got the impression she was running away from something – father, husband, brother, gendarmes.”

“How old was she when she joined you?”

“Fifteen – but girls from the south were married off early in those days. I got the impression she was escaping from a misalliance.”

He paused and checked his pocket watch. “Crispin happened along a few years later, drifting aimlessly from town to town. They were good for each other. He came to a magic show, fell head over heels in love, a real coup de foudre, and joined into the act playing the piano. He didn’t drink back then. It started after Elodie died. If you will excuse me, I arranged to meet up with Blackadder to look at the ghost slides he has painted for our American tour that I fear will have to be cancelled. We will probably end up discussing breaking up instead.”

The Countess sat alone in the cocooning darkness of the smoking room to finish her cigar and gather her thoughts. And the longer she thought, the more she believed the murder of Madame Moghra was connected to the death of Elodie-Antoinette.

Miss Morningstar was looking less likely as a suspect. She had never met Elodie so the gruesome death could have had no effect on her. What’s more, she would hardly be likely to care if Madame Moghra planned to leave the menagerie. It might even benefit her – she would not have to put up with the medium bad-mouthing her, and she might end up with a starring role on stage. In that case, she would have no reason to lie about Madame Sosostras greedily eyeing the brooch or Dr Hu possessing a photo of Madame Moghra.

The likeliest suspects were Monsieur Croquemort and Mr Ffrench. Perhaps they were even in cahoots with each other – and what a formidable team they would make – a maestro of manipulation and a genius of the first order. Had they been playing her for a credulous fool all along? Had Dr Watson been set up from the start?

Come into my parlour said the spider to the fly!

 

The Countess joined Mr Ffrench who was still propping up the bar, leaning heavily on his elbows to stop from falling on his face. She sat on the stool alongside and asked for a glass of vodka. Monsieur Bresant was manning the bar but the Countess gestured with her eyes for him to make himself scarce. He placed the vodka bottle on the bar next to the bottle of absinthe and obligingly vanished through a jib door.

“Have you had a chance to think about the murder weapon?” she put to the wild-haired pianist.

His hand shook as he poured himself another shot of ghastly green syrup which gleamed in the golden glow of the gasolier like some lethal love potion or sickly poison. “I thought you were chasing it up, making discreet enquiries about embroidery needles and acupuncture tools. Any luck?”

Wincing, she shook her head and changed tack. “Tell me about Antoinette.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Did she have a stage name?”

“That was her stage name.”

“What was her real name?”

“Elodie.”

“What about her family name?”

“She never said.”

“Really? Not even to you – her fiancé?”

“Not even to me – she was terrified someone might discover where she was.”

“Who?”

He gave a lazy shrug and drained his glass with purpose; the one belied the other. “What does it matter now? She’s dead.”

“What was she like?”

“Intoxicating.”

“Blonde and pretty like Miss Morningstar?”

He laughed harshly. “The exact opposite!”

“I think Miss Morningstar cares very much about you.”

“She’s a child!”

“She’s nineteen.”

“She will always be a child!”

“Someone who cares for her could help her to grow up.”

“I know what you’re getting at, but I cannot even help myself.”

“Perhaps you could help each other. She might even surprise you.”

“If you have come to play match-maker you are way off the mark, Countess Volodymyrovna. I am halfway to hell and I have no intention of taking anyone with me.”

“What about Madame Moghra – would you have taken her?”

“For all your privileged education and feminine shrewdness and worldly ways you don’t understand men like me. I am a coward. All drunks are cowards. That’s why we are drunks.” He gripped his bottle of bitter wormwood as he slid off his stool and tried to steady himself. “Enjoy your vodka! Nazdorovya!”

Her voice caught him as he spun round and tried to stay on his feet without toppling over like a nine pin, desperately hugging the bottle as if it might be his last.

“Before you go to hell,” she said matter-of-factly, “can you tell me when you found out Madame Moghra intended to retire to the south of France?”

“I could tell you anything I want. I could make it up. I could even tell you to go to hell yourself. But the truth is – I cannot remember.”

His voice was as brittle as the green glass god he gripped so lovingly to his dead-sick heart.

 

Miss Morningstar was passing the time in the card room, playing another game of Solitaire. Her elfin eyes had glazed over with boredom and her hand moved mechanically, slapping one card on top of another, shuffling robotically, repeating the process ad infinitum. The nimble fairy looked like she was on her way to hell too; she had already arrived in limbo, a prisoner of her own lonely purgatory and it wouldn’t be long before she hit rock bottom.

Funny that! Because the Countess always thought the definition of boredom was heaven – the same sunny Elysian Fields every day, everyone smiling endlessly, no difficulties, no dramas, no puzzles to solve, nothing to do but sip ambrosia, listen to harp music and float around on fluffy white clouds totally oblivious to the pain and suffering of others.

And then there was the question of her heavenly companions. St Augustine summed it up rather neatly: Give me chastity and continence but not yet. Heaven was a club for hypocrites. Look who got in. And look who was left out – the pagans, heretics, unbelievers and suicides – Hypatia, Socrates, Plato, Galileo, Tyndale, Tyler, Sherlock – a roll call of the brightest and best!

“May I join you?” she said, pulling up a chair.

Startled, Miss Morningstar dropped her cards. She raked them up and began to shuffle.

“What will you do when the Magic Lantern troupe disbands?”

Miss Morningstar dropped the cards a second time and this time they scattered far and wide. “Who said we were disbanding? Who told you that?”

“No one, I just assumed, what with Madame Moghra, the star of the show, dead and all the bad publicity that will follow and a possible criminal trial, well, it will probably come out in the end that Dr Watson is innocent and Mr Ffrench guilty.”

“No! He couldn’t have done it! Not Crispin, I mean, Mr Ffrench!”

“He had the best motive.”

“No!” she cried.

“He hated the old witch more than Dr Watson,” the Countess said provokingly.

“He would never do such a thing!”

“Everyone is capable of murder.”

“You’re just being mean!” she pouted like a spoilt child.

“He probably wanted to avenge the woman he loved.”

“You’re just making it up!”

“Why would I make it up?”

“Because you don’t know!”

“Don’t know what?”

“That it was the gypsy!”

The Countess caught her breath. “Madame Sosostras?”

“Shush!” hissed the fairy, lowering her sing-song voice a dozen or more decibels. “I saw her steal the brooch.”

“When?”

“When she went into the library to get her tarot cards.”

The Countess looked back furtively over her shoulder then leaned closer and lowered her tone. “Tell me what you saw.”

“I was annoyed with Crispin for drinking so much all the time, I was so annoyed I was shaking, so I took my coffee into the card room where I could let off steam in private. Everyone thought I had gone to bed because I put out the gasolier and sat in the dark but I could see in the mirror on the wall behind you,” she paused and waited for the Countess to turn and check the Venetian mirror. “Madame Sosostras went into the library to get her tarot cards. She looked around as if she was checking to make sure no one was watching. You were sitting in the grand saloon but you were looking out of the porthole window at the time. Anyway, she found her cards and said something to Madame Moghra and then she sort of froze. Next, she leaned forward and then she jumped back as if she got a fright. Then, quick as lightning she whips off the brooch and blow me down if she doesn’t do the strangest thing…”

“Yes?” prompted the Countess, intrigued.

“She shoved the brooch into Madame Moghra’s wig.”

The Countess was rarely caught by surprise when she was following a story. She was generally able to predict what was to come, but Miss Morningstar took her by complete surprise.

“Her wig?”

Miss Morningstar nodded affirmatively. “Dr Hu suddenly appeared at the bottom of the stairs and I saw her hide the brooch inside the wig.”

If the Countess had learned anything in the last few months it was that stories that are unbelievable are usually the sort that a sleuth should believe. Most people covering their tracks tended to make up something that sounded plausible, not outlandish. She decided to give the fairy the benefit of the doubt. “What did she do after that?”

“She swanned out as though nothing had happened.”

Again, unbelievable! Therefore plausible! The other thing that lent credence to Miss Morningstar’s fantastic story was that Madame Sosostras had been paying special interest to the wig the morning after the murder. Had she waited all night to retrieve the brooch? And where was the brooch now?

During lunch, unbeknownst to the passengers, Captain Lanfranc had extended the search for the brooch to the cabins of his passengers. If anything had been found they would have heard by now. The fact they hadn’t located the brooch lent credence to the theory it had been hidden in the public rooms – most likely the library. The Countess pushed quickly to her feet.

“Before I go can you tell me when you first heard Madame Moghra was planning to leave the troupe and retire to Monte Carlo?”

“Blow me down!” Miss Morningstar cried like a shantyman. “No one tells me anything! If that’s true I just heard it now from your own lips!” Tears welled up in her big bucket eyes as she flung the pack of cards across the room in a fit of pique and cursed like a drunken sailor.

Chapter 22 – Feng Shui

 

Dr Hu was in the library, browsing. He smiled enigmatically as the Countess galloped inelegantly around the corner and reined herself in rather sharply. His oriental eyes had a refulgent gleam and he was looking rather pleased with himself. She wondered if he’d just discovered the brooch by sheer chance.

“What have you got there, Dr Hu?” she asked somewhat breathlessly before he had a chance to dream up a cover story.

“Book on ancient art of Chinese geomancy,” he said proudly. “It is litten by master of feng shui, Zhou Ling; man I long admire.

Not the brooch – just as well! Never averse to learning something new, she smiled encouragingly. “Ah, feng shui, a fascinating subject that I have always meant to become better acquainted with. Can you describe the feng shui of this room to me?”

“It will be an honour to explain the auspicious energies for harnessing good fortune to one as enlightened as you, Countess Volodymylovna. Observe the features of this loom and tell me what you see.”

She gazed around thoughtfully while searching for a likely hiding spot – assuming the brooch was still waiting to be found. “I see a pleasant arrangement of English and French antiques, floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookshelves along two walls, one porthole window, a concave mirror above a Louis quatorze bureau plat with some notepaper featuring the SS Pleiades, several comfortable reading chairs, small side tables on which sit ashtrays and reading lamps, a book trolley and a drum table with a tooled leather surface centred with an ormolu candelabra.”

“It is not cluttered and pleasing to the eye, yes?”

“Yes, but I would have limited it either to the English or French style, not mixed the two in a room of this size.”

“Indeed, now please to observe the poison allows.”

“Poison aloes?”

“Allows.”

“Oh, the poison arrows.”

“This is the chair where Madame Moghla is sitting when she die, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Chair is placed dilectly below beam – this is bad energy on her head. She is having big wolly on some subject that is plessing down on her.”

“Oh, I see, yes she was worried about something that was pressing on her mind.”

“Bad place for chair. Please to observe square pillar.”

“The one at the end of the glass partition?”

“Yes, please to observe how chair is facing corners of pillar.”

“Oh, yes, poison arrows again.”

He nodded. “Squares send killing energy to Madame Moghla. Sha-qui energy. Now, please to observe bookshelves.”

“Bookshelves must be good energy, they are positive things, full of wisdom and all that.”

He shook his head sadly. “More sha-qui. Poison flows flom the killing shelves like long daggers. They must be closed in with doors like cupboard. Chair of Madame Moghla is facing killing energy. More badness for her.”

“Oh, dear, no wonder she died,” the Countess murmured indulgently.

“Please to observe glass scleen behind chair of Madame Moghla.”

“More badness, is it?”

He nodded philosophically. “On glass scleen is image of water. Water is auspicious but one must face water. Water on back is missed chance, good chi energy flow away flom you. Should be big mountain in back for stlength and support.”

“Oh, I didn’t notice the etching on the glass partition, yes, it is a waterfall scene. It should be mountains to symbolize strength. And glass is fragile too. I suppose that doesn’t help?”

“Yes, glass is weak, good in flont, not behind; mountains never in flont, only behind, or you must face mountains in your life and path is hard.”

“I’m starting to understand how this chi energy thing goes, please go on, Dr Hu.”

“Please to observe lound table.”

“It is round so it has no killing arrows.”

He seemed pleased that she was finally gaining understanding. “It aids chi energy to flow. It makes harmony in loom.”

“I’ll try to remember that. I suppose round pillars are good for the same reason?”

“Yes, chi energy flows alound the pillars. Please to observe the millor.”

“The mirror is round – that’s auspicious – the same as the porthole window.”

“Yes, but millor is facing other millor outside entlance of libaly. This makes badness, like door facing door. Chi energy not flow in curves but come in and go out too quickly.”

“A mirror is like a door. How interesting – so often in literature a mirror is used as a metaphor – a doorway to another world. I see how this feng shui thing works now. It is the metaphorical and pictorial taken literally. Thank you Dr Hu.”

“Madame Moghla not stand a chance.”

“Yes, I see that now, poor old dear. Once she sat down in that chair she was done for. The inauspicious elements of the room conspired against her. Oh, please excuse me, there’s my personal maid signalling to me.”

Dr Hu bowed his head and gushed away like a waterfall as Xenia rushed in to take his place. She looked flushed in the face as if she’d been running. Her voice was jerky.

“I am looking for you in all places, Countess. Monsieur like spider, he say you go to room for playing cards. American lady, she say you go to the room for billiards. Bolshevik spy with long hair, he say you go to room for smoking. Girl like angel say you go to liberry.”

“Yes, well, here I am, what is it?”

“Fedir look for blue darts, like you say. He find them in cabin of Dr Watson. They are in pocket of brown coat. One dart is not there. Only two darts. Not three.”

“So where is the third dart?”

Xenia shrugged her stocky shoulders and shook her head at the same time. “Fedir look and look.”

“Did he ask Dr Watson?”

“Yes, Dr Watson say he not know how darts get in pocket. He not know what happen to dart that is not there. He is looking unhappy more and more. He say you make bad luck for him.”

The Countess turned away and paced to the bureau plat, feeling guilty. Dr Watson blamed her! What’s more, she blamed herself! He must have realised straight away how bad that missing dart would look for him. Plus the fact the other darts were found in the pocket of his herringbone coat, the one he wore when he played darts with Fedir on the aft deck the day of the murder. It would not be difficult to mount a case that he had put the darts into his own pocket after the game, thus proving he had planned the murder of Madame Moghra well in advance of any sleepwalking episode. The fact one dart was missing was even worse. It would not be difficult for a police surgeon to establish it was used to stab Madame Moghra in the head, possibly laced with some sort of paralyzing poison, poisons being the specialty of doctors. If the third dart was not found the police would claim he threw it overboard after the stabbing. The case against him was building despite all her efforts to flush out an alternative killer. And there were so many to choose from. Perhaps that was the point. There were too many.

The Countess turned and gazed through the glass screen etched with the waterfall scene. Dr Hu had taken the feng shui book with him and was sitting in the grand saloon. He had chosen a chair not under a beam, not facing toward any square pillars; at its back a trompe l’oeil mural featuring a parterre in perspective to a mythical chateau on a hill. He looked in total harmony with his surrounds.

She was about to spoil his Eden with a killing arrow and confront him about the photo of Madame Moghra when she thought better of it and turned to address Xenia.

“Find Fedir. I want him to search the cabin of Dr Hu. You will mount guard. Stay on the deck as a lookout. If Dr Hu returns to his cabin you must pretend to faint into his arms and beg him to help you back to your cabin, giving Fedir a chance to escape.” The Countess extracted a long hairpin from her luxuriantly up-pinned brunette mane. “Here, use this to force the lock. Tell Fedir I want him to find a photo of Madame Moghra when she was younger. In the photo is a man, possibly a Catholic priest.”

Fedir and Xenia never questioned the strange ways of their mistress, which had become ever stranger since she had come to the land of the English in search of the father who gave her life and met up with the Scottish doctor instead. In her short life she’d had too many fathers. It was not good for a beautiful young woman to have so many fathers in her life and so few lovers. First, the Count of Odessa – such a good man – taken in his prime. Then that Australian bandit who acted more like another father than a husband – another life taken too soon. And now this Scottish doctor – was he marked for death too?

Was the Countess cursed? Or was she, herself, the curse?

Xenia bit her tongue and crossed herself three times in the Orthodox fashion as she hurried away to find her brother. Heaven forbid she should think such things. The Devil was always listening to secret thoughts and just thinking something bad in secret could make it happen. God forgive her! God have mercy on them all!

 

Preceded by her jangly jewellery, Madame Sosostras could be heard long before she could be seen. The Countess chose her chair with great care, heeding her recent lesson in feng shui, and had time to arrange herself with casual elegance facing the entrance, no beam overhead, no poison arrows shooting killing energy her way. This next encounter was important and she wanted to harness all the chi at her disposal.

“Good afternoon,” she said pleasantly, catching the gypsy by surprise.

The gypsy stiffened visibly. “I will come back later.”

“Oh, no, don’t go. You won’t even know I’m here. I’m just meditating. I won’t get in your way. I suppose you have come to retrieve those two books you marked for borrowing yesterday morning?”

“Yes,” said the other, glancing anxiously at the bookshelf where the two books were still poking out a little.

“You won’t have much time to read them,” sighed the Countess. “We will be docking tomorrow morning.”

“I’m a fast reader,” said the gypsy, smiling stiffly.

The Countess had memorised the titles. “Mountaineering for Beginners by Werner Von Herzgog and Travelling Down the Zambesi in a Canoe by Major Dicky Arbuthnot. They sound fascinating. Here, let me get them down for you from that high shelf. I’m much taller.”

The gypsy launched herself at the bookshelf. “No, no, please don’t put yourself out, Countess Volodymyrovna!”

With lithe grace, the Countess stepped around her. “Oh, it’s no bother.”

“No, no! You are right! I will not have time to read them! I will not borrow them after all! You may leave them on the shelf!”

“In that case, I might get some afternoon tea. I see they are bringing out some dainty patisseries. Will you join me?”

“I will be along in a moment. I want to, er, check a word, yes, in the dictionary.”

“What word? I might be able to save you the effort. I’m quite good with words.”

There was a pregnant pause.

“Gesamtkunstwerk.”

“Oh, you’ve stumped there. I’ll leave you to it. I might go and see if Miss Morningstar is still in the card room. I’ll let her know afternoon tea is being served. We can’t let Mrs Merle have all those delicious pastries to herself now, can we?”

The gypsy laughed at her joke and the laugh followed the Countess out as she glided around the corner and watched in the Venetian mirror while the gypsy scurried to the shelf, grappled with the two books, extracted a small glittery object and shoved it down the side of her red leather boot.

“I just remembered: total work of art.”

The gypsy spun round on her heel with such dexterity she would have put the Cossacks to shame. “I beg your pardon, Countess?”

“Gesamtkunstwerk means a synthesis of the visual, poetic, musical, and dramatic – a total work of art – as are you, Madame Sosostras. Please take a seat so that we can talk.”

The Countess waved her to the death chair.

The gypsy tossed up whether to oblige the invitation to chat or flounce off to her cabin. The arrival of Captain Lanfranc and Monsieur Bresant in the dining saloon decided for her. She sank into the chair of doom and crossed her arms defiantly, confident she could talk her way out of any accusation. Besides, this boastful Ukrainian aristocrat had no authority over her.

“It would be terrible to be tried for murder when one is merely a thief.”

“I do not know what you are talking about, Countess.”

“I’m talking about that brooch you have in your boot.”

Swarthy complexions drained of colour look horribly unattractive. The gypsy blanched and her shiny brown face turned the colour of dirty clay. “Brooch?”

“The one you stole from Madame Moghra the night she was killed.”

“How dare you accuse -”

“You were seen stealing the brooch.”

“Who?” she howled like a starving she-wolf in winter. “Who dares to accuse me? Give to me a name and I will tell to you the name of a liar!”

The Countess applauded softly. “Worthy of Verdi! Congratulations, but your dramatic performance is wasted on me. I merely thought to make sure you are not charged with murder.” She pulled an imaginary fleck of lint from her oyster grey, moiré satin gown and stood up to go. “I will leave your fate in the hands of the French inspector. Bon chance!”

“Wait!” Bristling fiercely, the gypsy checked over her shoulder to make sure no one was coming into the library. “You believe me when I say I did not kill Madame Moghra?”

“Yes.”

“Please sit back down, Countess, and tell me how you know I am innocent?”

“Logic.”

“Ah, you rationalists are all the same!” Thunderous brows drew down darkly in agony of nerves disguised as disdain.

“You were observed in the act,” reminded the Countess. “And the observer believes you murdered Madame Moghra but I know you did no such thing.”

“What observer? Not that sneaky little Oriental,” she spat out hatefully. “He has the ways of a smiling assassin, always lurking. I have met his type before.”

“Not Dr Hu, no, but I believe he is the reason you put the brooch inside the wig.”

Cold hard incredulity caused the magenta lips to part like the Red Sea but no sound issued forth except for a strangled gurgle. “You are truly a witch with the gift of second sight.”

“Hardly, but the testimony of the eye-witness may yet save your neck from the gallows.”

“Please go on,” the sloe-eyed gypsy said, swallowing dry, leaning forward and clutching her multi-coloured skirts with bony talons.

“Let me outline what took place last night applying logic: You came into the library to retrieve your tarot cards. You spoke to Madame Moghra to check if she was asleep. You leaned closer and then jumped back in fright. You removed the brooch. You had it in your hand when Dr Hu approached. You couldn’t be sure he would not accuse you of theft and murder. You had to hide the brooch but there were so few hiding places in the library and you could not risk the brooch being found in the event of a search. You hid it in the only place close at hand – the wig. The next day you returned to the library, but not too early, you were careful not to be the first to find the body. You were retrieving the brooch when I walked in and interrupted you. You pretended the wig had fallen from the chair onto the floor but of course it couldn’t have since it was on the book trolley under the porthole window, not the chair. You now had the brooch but you knew a search would soon be made. You went to the bookshelf and got down two books from a high shelf, pretending to be interested in them. It had to be high so that even if the books were removed no one would see the brooch at the back of the shelf. And so the brooch sat behind the books until now when you came to reclaim it, knowing the cabins had already been searched. So, how do I know you did not kill Madame Moghra? I know because logic tells me you jumped back in fright when you realized she was dead. If you had killed her you would not have jumped back. Nor would you have put the brooch inside the wig. And finally, the eye-witness does not mention you stabbing Madame Moghra in the top of the head. May I suggest you drop the brooch on the patisserie tray in the dining saloon when you help yourself to afternoon tea?”

Cold incredulity turned to impressive astonishment as the gypsy smiled slyly and not a little gratefully, her hand unconsciously fingering her slender throat. “You have done me a service, Countess. I will do one for you in return. When I hid the brooch inside the wig I felt something there already. It was a dart.”

That confirmed the murder weapon. It also confirmed that the thief and the murderer were not one and the same. Unfortunately, it did not clear Dr Watson. The killer was still to be determined and time was running out.

“Before you go, Madame Sosostras, tell me one last thing. Did you know Madame Moghra wore a wig?”

“Of course! I know a wig when I see one! Especially one that looks like something the cat has dragged in! Besides, a woman past a certain age who applies Venetian ceruse with a shovel is bound to be bald!”

The Hungarian gypsy marched out with her dignity and her neck intact, and the healthy colour restored to her swarthy complexion.

It was another ten minutes before the Countess heard Monsieur Bresant cry out: “The brooch! The brooch! It is found! It has turned up just as I predicted!”

While everyone crowded around the pastry trolley to witness the miracle of the thistle the Countess went in search of Fedir and Xenia. She found them on the deck. They had successfully completed a search of Dr Hu’s cabin and were coming to find her. The mysterious photo had been found.

“Where did you find it?”

“I find it in lining of silk slipper,” said Fedir, passing the photo to his mistress, while Xenia stood guard, shielding the transfer from view.

“Excellent work,” praised the Countess. “I won’t examine it here. I will take it to my cabin. Go and get yourselves some afternoon tea. When you have finished your tea, Xenia can bring my tea to my cabin and you can take some tea to the cabin of Dr Watson.”

Fedir clamped his hand brusquely on his mistress’s sleeve in an effort to stop her moving away, a presumptuous act for a manservant. The Countess was momentarily stunned by the impertinence of the unprecedented gesture and Xenia gasped audibly, wondering if her brother had gone mad like Odysseus and would need to be tied to the mast while they rode out the storm. Her brother had recounted to her that Dr Watson blamed the Countess for his ill-fortune and the predicament he found himself in. It had been the Countess who had insisted he come on this voyage against his wishes. It had been she who had befriended Madame Moghra against his better judgement and now he was likely to be hanged for the murder. Had the Scottish doctor found a sympathetic ear in Fedir? Had Fedir decided to throw his lot in with the doctor and go against his mistress?

Fedir lowered his tone and removed his hand but did not apologise, his voice vibrated with fear though he was no coward. “I find something else in slipper – gold ring with symbol of water dragon. I saw such a ring when I go with Count of Odessos to Lake Baikal. It is ring of Chinese assassin. Beware, mistress,” he warned, barely able to get the words out as a shiver ran down the spines of the women.

The sky was darkening prematurely, daylight had turned into dusk though it was still mid-afternoon.

Just when the Countess thought she might be making headway here came a fresh piece of information that could not be ignored. Had Madame Moghra been assassinated by a Chinese spy?

She looked again at the dog-eared, faded, sepia photo. It was decades old. Madame Moghra looked about sixteen years of age – young and pretty, her thick wavy hair was fair, there was a sprinkling of freckles across her cheeks, she was smiling shyly into the camera.

The man in the photo was several decades her senior, stern and guarded. He was not a Catholic priest, possibly a foreign missionary of some standing, possibly her father or uncle. The Countess studied the photo again and changed her mind. The way the two bodies were angled did not suggest a familial bond. The man could have been her lover, though the disparity in ages made her doubt it – the man looked about fifty.

The Countess turned the photo over in her hand and studied the Chinese writing. Unfortunately, it was not a language she was familiar with. If she had the luxury of time she could wait until they reached Biarritz, have the writing translated, pore over the possibilities of a Chinese connection, draw conclusions, and wait for logic to take care of the rest – but she did not have the luxury of time. There was only one thing for it. She would have to reveal her hand and call the assassin’s bluff.

Dr Hu had returned to his cabin. She knocked and entered. His enigmatic smile – the sort that never parted at the lips – told her he knew his room had been searched.

“Please to take a seat, Countess Volodymylovna,” he gestured courteously. “How may I be of assistance to you? A question about feng shui, perhaps?”

She made herself comfortable in a velour fauteuil while he paced the length of the room, not nervily like a cat on hot bricks but like someone calmly pacing themself.

“I have come for a history lesson.”

“Ah, whose histoly?”

“Chinese history.”

“The histoly of China is longer than the Gleat Wall – any peliod in particular?”

“The Opium Wars.”

He pacing did not skip a beat. “First or Second?”

She considered for a moment. “The second – what years were they?”

“1856 – 1860.”

“Not so long ago really,” she commented airily, noting how he could reel the war years off without blinking. “Someone who might have been, let’s say, sixteen when the Opium War finished would have recently turned fifty-five.”

“Yes.”

“Do you have much memory of the war, personally I mean?”

“War is never forgotten. I was a young boy but I lemember. I lemember mostly the absence of my mother and father, they are killed at the start of the war. I was laised by an uncle.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that. I was raised by a step-aunt. My childhood was blessed, but it is not the same as having parents.”

He bowed his head in acknowledgement of her observation but refrained from comment. Perhaps his childhood had not been so blessed.

“I believe the Chinese did not call it the Opium War. They gave it another name?”

“Allow War.”

“Oh, yes, that’s right! They named it after the British ship – the Arrow. Why was the Arrow so important?”

“Chinese sink Allow; Blitish not happy.”

“If I recall my history tutor correctly, the Arrow was involved in piracy?”

He nodded sombrely. “Blitish, Flench and Lussian, they join forces to destloy Chinese.”

“Not exactly a glorious period for the British, French and Russians, but very lucrative, what with trade deals and so forth. I recall in the end they completely destroyed the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace out of retribution.”

“Yihe Yuan and Yuan Ming Yuan.”

“They looted the artworks, is that right – to the victor go the spoils?”

“Yes.”

“I think one day, perhaps centuries from now, the Chinese will avenge themselves on the British, French and Russians, what do you think Dr Hu?”

His enigmatic smile returned and lengthened. “I think perhaps you are light, Countess.”

“Until that day comes, the Empress may have to be satisfied with taking her revenge one person at a time, quietly and in secret, what think you of that Dr Hu?”

“Perhaps you are light again.”

“Which brings me to the reason I’m here in your cabin having a lesson in Chinese history.” She extracted the old photo from her beaded reticule. “Can you tell me why you had a photo of Madame Moghra in the lining of your slipper? And before you consider doing something reckless with one of your acupuncture needles I should let you know my maid and manservant are privy to my whereabouts and are in possession of a letter outlining everything I know regarding this matter which they will hand to Captain Lanfranc should I end up looking like a porcupine. Some answers – that is all I seek. I wish to prove the innocence of Dr Watson but I have no great wish to see you banged up on Devil’s Island.”

He digested her curious confession while he settled on the end of his bed. His feet did not reach the floor, but dangled in mid-air like those of a child. Of course the last bit about the letter to Captain Lanfranc was a complete fantasy but he had no way of knowing that.

“Let me prompt you,” she said in a reasonably friendly tone. “Along with the photo in your slipper you have a gold ring featuring a water dragon – the symbol of a Chinese assassin.”

Still he did not speak, though she thought she caught a flicker of fear – not of death but being exposed.

“I have never seen such a symbol but I imagine it might look like Capricorn, the head and body of a fire-breathing goat-like creature and the tail of a scaly leviathan. If you would be so kind, I would like very much to see it. I believe it is still in your slipper.”

He slid off the bed and went to find the ring, and she knew in that moment she had won him over. He was about to open up and lead her one step closer to the truth.

He handed her the ring to study at her leisure and settled back on the bed.

“It is my duty to kill Madame Moghla. I spend years tlacking her flom Amelica to Flance to England. Last night I wait until all go to bed. There is just you, Countess, in the gland saloon. I take my chance. I go to libaly to get I-Ching. I have acupuncture needle hidden in sleeve. I go to chair, I go to Madame Moghla, but I see she is dead aleady. The blooch is missing. I think the gypsy has it. I think the gypsy kill Madame Moghla. I am lobbed of chance to avenge my uncle. I fail in my duty.”

She handed back the ring. “Why was it your duty to kill Madame Moghra?”

He slipped the ring onto the index finger of his right hand and held it up to the gaslight to gaze at the filigreed silver water dragon. “She betlay my uncle. He is taken plisoner by the Blitish. He is shamed. He takes own life in plison.”

“How did she betray him? She was only a girl at the time, about fifteen or sixteen years of age – not yet a woman.”

“Not yet a woman and aleady a courtesan. She was the lover of my uncle. It was seen as high status to take a young foleign mistless. She might one day be concubine but foleign concubine not good in time of war. My uncle not know she is Anglo-Flench spy. She is also lover of Monsieur Henli de Finistere. He is head of Flench Foleign Missionaly Society. She betlay my uncle to Flench. I must avenge my uncle. But I fail. Madame Sosostlas beat me.”

“No, Madame Sosostras did not kill Madame Moghra.”

“Not Madame Sosostlas?”

“That’s right, the gypsy stole the brooch but she did not kill Madame Moghra, just as you did not kill her either. You didn’t have enough time for a start. I know that because I watched you. I just wanted to know what connected Madame Moghra to a Chinese assassin. I’m afraid it doesn’t help me much. I’m still no closer to finding the killer. All I know is that it had to be number one, two, three, four or five. I guess that narrows it down a bit but not enough unfortunately.”

He twirled the ring around his finger. “I could not say anything earlier for fear of betlaying myself, but as I go back to my loom I see man in billiard loom hiding behind the gleen scleen.”

“What do you think he was doing there?”

“I think he was doing something to camela.”

“The camera obscura?’

He nodded.

 

The Countess guessed correctly that Miss Morningstar might be taking a break from eternal boredom. There was no way la gamine could be mistaken for a man but the Countess had to know what else she’d seen while she’d been sitting in the darkness of the card room. There was no time for any preamble. The fairy-child was curled up on her bed, crying.

“After you saw Madame Sosostras leave the library, what happened?”

Startled, Miss Morningstar mopped her eyes with the corner of her quilted blanket. “Oh, it’s you. I didn’t see anything else after that. I was glad the old witch had had her brooch stolen. I didn’t know she was dead at the time. I didn’t want to be accused of stealing her precious thistle so I slipped out through the jib door that Monsieur Bresant uses – you know the one the crew use so as not to get in the way of the passengers. I thought if anyone sees me I can just act childish and say I got lost. I came up the back stairs onto B deck and went to my cabin.”

“You didn’t see anyone in the billiard room?”

“Now that you mention it, I thought there was someone there, but I didn’t see anyone. It was probably the person who stole the slides back for more.”

“What slides?”

“Reverend Blackadder spread the glass slides on the table as soon as he unpacked his bags. He wanted to check if any were broken. He counted them out. There were fifteen – three for each camera obscura. Later that afternoon, after we finished playing games on the aft deck, he noticed three slides had gone missing. Mr Ffrench said he probably miscounted. Monsieur Croquemort, ever the saint, said it didn’t matter, as there were still enough for the ghostly effect he wanted to achieve in our next magic lantern show.”

The Countess noticed how Miss Morningstar no longer referred to her love-interest as Crispin and then self-corrected. “Fifteen? But that makes five cameras? I thought you only had the two obscuras?”

“Three are made out of cardboard. Mr Ffrench put them together yesterday. He was teaching Reverend Blackadder how to use them. I asked him to teach me too but he just scoffed. He can be very cruel sometimes. I’m really not that stupid.”

“I’m sure you’re not. Never sell yourself short. Where are the cameras being stored?”

“They’re all in the billiard room because Mr Ffrench and Reverend Blackadder have been testing out the new slides. The ghostly images are quite good if you ask me. It’s a crying shame the show might…might…” She turned away and began to sob quietly into her pillow.

The ship was suddenly battered by a monster wave side-on. It almost tipped the Countess off her feet. She fell against the dressing table, bracing herself with her arms, and aimed a terrified glance at the porthole window where massive waves lashed the glass.

“This morning, when you saw the bluebird of happiness, was it flying sideways from bow to stern, or was it going the other way?”

Miss Morningstar lifted her face and sniffed back some tears. “It was, er, it was going, oh, no! It was not going sideways! It was going down! It was not the bluebird of happiness after all! It was an omen of doom! We are all going down!” she wailed hysterically.

“You mean it was diving straight into the water?”

“Yes! That is exactly what I mean! Down, down, down!”

The Countess returned to her cabin to find a cold cup of tea and a plate of pastries waiting. If she were her father she would have pulled out a violin and tortured her ears. But she was not her father and she had no violin so she did the next best thing. She had a cup of cold tea and a good lie down.

The wind was howling and the ship was being battered by every wave it met.

What did she have so far: a ghost from the grave, a bluebird, some spirit writing, Elodie, Sissy, five camera obscuras, someone in the billiard room, a missing blue dart, three missing glass slides, a pinprick of blood, acupuncture needles, a wig, a thistle brooch, poison arrows, mirrors and doors, sleepwalking, Dr Watson in his tweed suit… the scenes in her mind’s eye rolled one after another like glass slides being put through a magic lantern viewed through fog.

What was she not seeing?

The rolling images were coming thick and fast now but they were all mixed up. One obscure scene was overlaid on top of another: a ghost in the mirror, an arrow like a bird, a bird like a dart, Death wearing a white wig, Sissy floating on the water with ghost hair, a planchette spelling LOVE, a blue water dragon with silver wings, the number 4, a green fairy, a dream-catcher, a pocket watch for hypnotizing, a grave that was a guillotine, seven stars, a scrying glass like a dirty moon, the Empress, the Hanged Man, a ship like a coffin, a coffin like a camera, a shroud like a ghost bird, a bath full of thistles, Dr Watson sleepwalking on the water, Dr Watson with needles through his eyes, Dr Watson naked…Dr Watson dead!

The Countess sat bolt upright.

Someone was screaming.

“Man overboard!”

Chapter 23 – Woman Overboard!

 

Fearing the worst, the Countess raced out of her cabin. Dr Watson’s cabin door was wide open and the sentry was nowhere to be seen. All the strange images that had been crowding her brain were supplanted by one vivid impression – Dr Watson ending it all!

She spotted Captain Lanfranc leaning desperately over the rail. With her heart in her throat she rushed to his side. He had just tossed a life buoy into the water where a darkish figure bobbed up and down in the huge swell. Visibility was poor. The encroaching darkness and the constant salt-spray that came from every pounding wave made it impossible to see more than a dozen yards.

Her heart sank and she cursed herself for ever suggesting this voyage. She blamed herself for cajoling him into coming. He had been dead set against it from the start. Perhaps he intuited no good would come of it. He had his reasons for disliking Madame Moghra and she should have accepted that. The past was the past and could not be changed!

Suddenly Monsieur Bresant and the sentry rushed out of Dr Watson’s cabin. They crowded at the captain’s side and the look that passed between the trio of men said it all – whoever had gone overboard didn’t stand a chance in the freezing cold, unforgiving sea.

“Who was it?” shouted the steward, cupping his hands around his mouth, trying to be heard above the angry wind. But the ferocious wind was having none of it and whipped his words away. The captain simply shrugged and shook his head despairingly.

If Monsieur Bresant didn’t know who it was then it couldn’t have been Dr Watson! The Countess almost cried and surely would have except the young seaman with red hair burst out of the telegraphic room and ran frantically up and down the rail, crying out piteously, “Claudette! Claudette!”

By the time Dr Hu arrived on the scene the young seaman was tearing at his hair and looking helplessly into the maelstrom where waves churned and boiled and nothing was visible but a blue-black seething mass.

“Who’s Claudette?” Dr Hu shouted into the ear of the Countess.

“It must be his petite-amie,” she said sadly.

Dr Hu nodded understandingly as the steward led the distressed seaman back into the telegraphic room. The sentry returned to his post, closing but not locking the door to Dr Watson’s cabin. The Countess caught a glimpse of her dear friend. He had not even stirred off the bed. He looked like a corpse laid out on a catafalque, ready for burial at sea.

News spread quickly. Mrs Merle appeared on deck like a huge hulking lighthouse, her twin searchlights scanning the rolling waves. Soon came Croquemort, Blackadder, and the rest. But they came too late. There was nothing to see. The watery abyss had claimed whoever it was. They avoided eye contact and retreated to their respective cabins without speaking. It was time to dress for dinner. The banality of the task helped take their minds off the senseless tragedy. They could try to make sense of it later, they could offer comfort to each other, they could thank their lucky stars it wasn’t them…

 

It was while the Countess was having an exquisite emerald hairpin artfully arranged in her hair that she recalled the blue dart. Madame Sosostras said it had been inside the wig the night she hid the brooch, but by the time the body had been found the next morning it had not been there. That meant it had not been inside the wig when she first handled it. So where did it go? Who removed it? And when?

She slid into her emerald green velvet gown, adjusted the huge shawl collar with the low décolletage to accommodate her breasts, and made her way speedily to the public rooms before any of the others arrived for cocktails. She wanted to thoroughly check the billiard room, including the table behind the green baize screen, and take one last look in the library.

“Have you heard?”

The Countess was examining one of the cardboard camera obscuras when she whirled round to find Mr Ffrench leaning against the door jamb, an errant lock of hair covering his eyes, moodily puffing on a pungent cigarette that was stuffed with more than mere tobacco.

“Heard what?” she replied shortly, annoyed at being interrupted.

“The seaman who works the wireless device has been placed in the brig. He was having a tryst with someone called Claudette in the telegraphic room whilst on duty. It was she who went into the drink. She must have been scurrying back to kitchen duties when a rogue wave washed her overboard. Captain Lanfranc is furious. I just heard him tearing strips off the hapless beau.”

Her hackles rose. He appeared to be making light of what was a terrible tragedy. An innocent girl had drowned. His own personal loss did not excuse his lack of concern. “And so he should,” she returned testily. First a murder and now a tragic accident – this inaugural voyage was turning into a disaster for the captain. If she could nail the murderer before they reached Biarritz she might save the good captain a good deal of trouble and perhaps spare the SS Pleiades being christened the ship of doom, condemning it to some backwater for the rest of its days. “I understand three glass slides disappeared from this table the day we set sail?”

“So says Blackadder. But he’s a clumsy ass. He probably shoved them into the bottom of his bag and broke them during transport.”

“You made these three cardboard camera obscuras?”

“Yes.”

“They work in the same way as the proper ones?”

“Yes, of course, the image can be a bit fuzzier, but they are easier to handle – especially for amateurs. Blackadder is finally getting the hang of it.”

“Does anyone else know how to use the camera obscura?”

“Well, there’s Croquemort of course, but any man who can handle a rudimentary scientific instrument can work it out for himself.”

“By that you mean something like a telescope or wireless device?”

“Yes, that sort of thing. Why do you ask? A camera obscura cannot be adapted to shoot needles or poison gas!”

She was still laughing at this absurdity when a jangle of jewellery coming down the stairs claimed her attention.

“Madame Sosostras!” she called, catching up to the gypsy. “When you retrieved the brooch from the wig this morning, did you notice if the dart was still inside?”

The gypsy looked back surreptitiously over her shoulder. “I did,” she whispered, relieved that the untidy anarchist had disappeared to join his ilk in the grand saloon. “And the answer is no, it was not.”

“Thank you,” said the Countess, feeling more than pleased with that response, “shall we join the others for pre-dinner drinks and canapés?”

Captain Lanfranc arrived looking grim, but his swarthy face lost its dark stain when he informed them the worst of the storm had passed. In a few hours, by midnight at most, they would be entering the Bay of Biscay, where the wind would drop considerably. In other words, a decent night’s sleep should be had by all. The strain in his voice seemed to melt away and he seemed to breathe a sigh of relief that he, his half-crew, and the SS Pleiades had weathered the worst of the storm and survived. By morning the mopping up would be done by the Surete.

The popping of corks of the finest French champagne signalled the start of less troubled waters. He waved away his steward and personally filled the champagne glasses, leaving the Countess till last, for a reason that soon became obvious.

“It has come to my attention that you have been conducting an investigation of your own?” he challenged in a tone that sounded amused more than affronted.

“You didn’t expect me to occupy myself with Solitaire and deck shuffleboard while my innocent friend was confined to his cabin under a cloud of suspicion?”

He cocked a bemused brow. “Have you made any headway?”

“Some,” she admitted vaguely, wondering whether to share what she had discovered so far – but the images and impressions were all too fuzzy and she didn’t know where to start.

His brow darkened. “You play a dangerous game, Countess Volodymyrovna, if your friend really is innocent it means a murderer is at large on my ship.”

She gulped her champagne, not because she feared a murderer at large, but because she feared not being able to catch him, or worse, that the murderer might even be her dearest friend. She held out her glass for a refill. “Chateau Latour – an excellent choice, Captain.”

He obliged her thirst. “Beware false courage, Countess. If you have any idea who might be responsible -”

Monsieur Bresant interrupted them with a tactful cough.

“Captain, you are wanted at once in the wheelhouse.”

Captain Lanfranc picked up on the terse phrase and commanded his steward to take over as ship’s host.

The Countess had a moment to herself. She allowed her eyes to drift across the luxurious saloon with its sumptuous velvet fauteuils, glittering Waterford chandeliers and floral axminster moquette like a floating garden, gazing from one to another of her fellow passengers. Who wanted Madame Moghra dead more than anyone? Who hated Dr Watson enough to frame him? Who was the most audacious? Who was the most desperate? Who was the best liar? Who was the biggest fraud? Who could throw a veil of deceit over every action, every word and every happenstance? Who shuffled the cards, who interpreted the stars, who directed the energy of the universe? Who was playing with their lives? Who was Death?

 

The halcyon bird laid her eggs on the water, on the sea conceiving them – hence the term halcyon days – meaning days and nights of calm. The Countess slept as peacefully as a halcyon bird. The gentle rocking of the ship was like the rocking of a cradle.

Come morning, she dispatched Fedir to assist Dr Watson with his toilette. She would not have him emerge from his cabin looking like a homeless tramp with untrimmed beard and crumpled clothes. She wanted him to look his best when he came face to face with the Surete. Likewise, she dressed with deliberation, instructing Xenia to take particular care with her rich rococo mane, but to spare the ornamentation. She wanted to dazzle the inspector with her intellect not her costly glitter.

The French coast was within sight, a thin line running like a silver thread across the horizon. Inspector de Guise boarded early while the passengers were still in their beds. He commandeered a fishing trawler and sailed out to meet the SS Pleiades. He was a man who left nothing to chance. If there was a murderer on board he wanted to apprehend the villain before the ship dropped anchor. Contact had been re-established several hours ago and he was now fully apprised of the incident in the library. Since boarding he had spent the time going over the events leading up to and following the death of Madame Moghra, listening first to Captain Lanfranc and then Monsieur Bresant.

The passengers had been allowed to have their breakfast in peace and quiet. He now intended to address them en masse in their native tongue to save time and to see how they reacted to each other before interrogating them individually. He had heard they were a queer bunch. A bizarre group of clairvoyants and carnival freaks: a Hungarian gypsy, a Chinaman, an American astrologer, a Ukrainian Countess and the main suspect – Dr John Watson – the man who played second fiddle to the famous London consulting detective, Mr Sherlock Holmes. The superintendent had warned him to tread warily – Don’t step on any toes; Mr Holmes has swept dirt under the moquette for several royal houses of Europe!

Inspector Didier de Guise was the seventh son of an impoverished noble family that had gradually lost their fortune and their vast estate after they backed the wrong side at every battle since Agincourt. He looked nothing like Napoleon or Clemenceau or Zola; neither a military man, nor a statesman, nor a man of letters. His features were forgettable – his hair brown, his eyes like toasted hazelnuts, but out of them shone something rare: sincerity.

He had reached thirty-nine years of age and was intelligent enough to earn his living using his wits by legal means, the first of his kind to do so. It meant being disowned but he didn’t have much time for his feckless famille anyway. The Surete was his family and if he wanted to rise to the position of superintendent he needed to keep getting it right. He was diligent, clever, hard-working and thorough, as honest as the day was long – much to the disappointment of the noble name of Guise, a name that had been won in a game of cards when things like honour still mattered, except to those whose highest ideal was cheating at cards. Guise had a nobler ring to it that Grosseteste and came with the self-important de. He could spot an embezzler, a blackmailer, and an aristocratic prostitute at a glance. His family was littered with them. Murderers were trickier. His family was not very imaginative or subtle. A dose of arsenic in the sirop de cassis usually did the job.

The wind had dropped overnight and the day had dawned cold but sunny. He’d organized for deck chairs to be arranged on the aft deck so as not to upset anyone’s constitution during breakfast. The passengers were being ushered forth. He waited patiently, wearing an affable face. No need to upset the queers too early. There would be time for that later.

He had memorized the passenger list and had no trouble putting a face to a name as soon as the weird cast of characters assembled. There were no surprises. He had just finished introducing himself when la comtesse pushed to her silky-shod feet.

“May I have a word in private, Inspector?”

“Not right now,” he rebuffed, wondering if she charged by the hour or the night.

“I really must insist.”

He recalled tender toes – the crushing of – and drew breath. “Very well, Countess Volodymyrovna.” He reeled the name off like a throwaway line from Chekov as he exhaled, wondering if she’d won it in a card game.

She steered him toward the stern where they would not be overheard. They had an uninterrupted view of the Bay Basque. He studied the azure waters with feigned interest rather than look at her. He had already noted her titillating vanity and didn’t intend to puff it up by ogling her like an adoring lap dog. There was a large vessel sailing out to open sea and dozens of fishing boats bobbing on the water.

“Yes?” he said, remembering to smile courteously.

“I know who the murderer is, Inspector, and if you will allow me to explain how the murder was committed and so forth I think we should have this terrible business neatly wrapped up by the time we drop anchor in Biarritz.”

He stared at her open-mouthed – by the hour, he decided.

“Scotland Yard may work that way but at the Surete we do things differently – we prefer the find the killer for ourselves rather than taking someone’s word for it.”

“And I’m sure you are very successful in your own way but the last thing the Surete needs is to arrest the wrong man. This could turn out to be a high profile case, especially with the World Spiritualist Congress underway. Likewise, the kudos for solving the crime in record time will be enormous, and let me assure you, the credit will be yours entirely.”

She was right about one thing – the murder on board the SS Pleiades had already made the front page of every Paris newspaper. He couldn’t afford to make le gaffe.

Reluctantly, he conceded to her request though it was unorthodox and went against his gut instinct. “Tell me who you think is the murderer and I will decide what to do from there.”

“I meant you should allow me to address everyone, Inspector, and then you can decide what to do afterwards.”

He tried not to laugh. “I think not, la comtesse.”

“You will save yourself a lot of trouble, Inspector. The people gathered here are master manipulators, dealers in obfuscation. Their notion of truth is not the same as yours and mine. They inhabit a world of magic, make-believe and fantasy, the supernatural is their specialty, their stock-in-trade is Death. Take a look,” she invited breezily.

He angled a backward glance over an insubstantial shoulder that was made broader by the padding in his coat and there, before his unsentimental eyes, unfolded every sort of trickster, scoundrel, charlatan, cad, crapule, canaille and criminal, including two Marxist provocateurs. The wretched suspect was the odd man out, wrung out like a tattered rag and hung out to dry. He would last less than six months in a French prison; six weeks on Devil’s Island. The gallows would be a godsend.

“I will grant you ten minutes and not one minute more.”

Her titillating smile came wreathed in gratitude.

 

“The murder of Madame Moghra appears to be spontaneous but on the contrary it has been many years in the planning. It includes the death of Sissy in Glasgow but started long before that. It started with the death of someone called Elodie, whose stage-name was Antoinette, killed when a guillotine act went horribly wrong.”

The Countess spoke quickly and clearly, pausing every now and again so that the facts could be digested in small bites rather than huge gulps.

“All the passengers on this ship, with the exception of me, would have rejoiced to see Madame Moghra dead. First and foremost, Monsieur Croquemort because Madame Moghra was responsible for ruining his previous magic show and was soon to ruin his current magic lantern show by retiring to Monte Carlo. Reverend Blackadder, likewise, who discovered he was about to be cast aside and replaced by a more virile lover. Mr Ffrench, who had been engaged to be married to Elodie, blamed Madame Moghra for his fiancé’s death. Miss Morningstar, whose career was thwarted and character denigrated by a jealous Madame Moghra. Then there is Dr Hu who wanted to avenge the betrayal of his uncle during the second Opium War during which time Madame Moghra acted as a double agent. Madame Sosostras stole from Madame Moghra (and later returned) the silver thistle brooch. Mrs Merle harboured animosity toward Madame Moghra for the ruination of her marriage and the premature death of her faithless husband. And lastly, Dr Watson regarded Madame Moghra with unnatural loathing for reasons he did not wish to share.”

Inspector de Guise managed to maintain a flat featureless face but in every way he was astounded. Such knowledge, and thus motivation, would have taken him painstaking months to gather. He’d watched each suspect squirm as the finger was pointed yet remained none the wiser. Perhaps they were all guilty. He indicated for the Countess to continue.

“Each person had a reason to want Madame Moghra dead but who had the means? When Madame Moghra retired to the library that fateful night what was the order of events? Monsieur Croquemort went first into the library. He could have killed her with the blue dart which we know is the murder weapon, possibly laced with some paralyzing poison. Each subsequent visitor to the library may have assumed Madame Moghra was asleep. Second was Mr Ffrench – the same scenario – and so forth followed by Miss Morningstar, Reverend Blackadder, Mrs Merle, Madame Sosostras, Dr Hu and Dr Watson. However, when Madame Sosostras stole the brooch she noted that Madame Moghra was already dead. Miss Morningstar who was sitting in the darkness of the card room was witness to her startled reaction. Thus we can rule out Dr Hu and Dr Watson since they came later.”

A gust of wind lifted Mrs Merle’s preposterous hat. It flew across the aft deck and was caught by the Inspector in the nick of time. Gallantly, he returned le grand chapeau to la grande femme and the Countess continued her monologue as though nothing had happened.

“Anyone could have stolen the blue darts after Dr Watson played a game with Fedir. But not everyone had a chance to slip them into the pocket of Dr Watson’s herringbone coat the morning after the murder. We know the darts could not have been slipped into the pocket during the night because Madame Sosostras hid the brooch inside Madame Moghra’s wig when Dr Hu entered the library and a dart was still stuck in the skull – the killer had not removed it. Why not? Probably because they did not have time. This murder was carried out swiftly in full public view. Did the killer know Madame Moghra wore a wig? We can assume they did. It was not a secret and her heavy use of Venetian ceruse was evident for all to see. The killer may have assumed the dart would stay hidden until such time it could be retrieved, which was done the morning after the murder, and then disposed of. Again, we thank Miss Morningstar who saw a bluebird outside her porthole window flying neither east nor west but straight down into the Irish Sea. Unlikely. Even more unlikely considering there was a wild storm. What Miss Morningstar saw was the blue dart being thrown into the water at the time that Dr Watson was still in his cabin asleep, attended at all times by my personal maid. I will return to the blue dart later.”

Dr Watson straightened his back and shoulders. A healthy hue had returned to his bloodless cheeks and he began to draw breath as if for the first time since being suspected of murder and wondering if it were possible that he was guilty. When a man does not believe in himself it is generally impossible to have others believe in him but the Countess had not given up the ghost. She had believed in him all along and it now gave him self-belief in spades.

“Let me now briefly touch upon homicidal somnambulism. When I observed Dr Watson in the library that fateful night I thought he appeared to be sleepwalking. This played beautifully into the hands of the killer. Dr Watson, himself, could not refute it. How was this effect achieved? By use of camera obscuras, of course, three cardboard cameras to be precise, which would have been easy to carry, set up, and return to the billiard room table afterwards, where, by the way, three glass slides had mysteriously disappeared some time earlier. Why three? It was three times that I observed Dr Watson sleepwalking that night: descending the main staircase, departing the billiard room, and standing lifelessly in the library. Whoever used the three camera obscuras painted three slides of the doctor. The slides were used to make it seem as if the doctor was out and about when in fact he was sleeping in his cabin having imbibed too much whiskey and taken too many cough drops laced with valerian. The cameras were strategically positioned in such a way as to reflect an image in a mirror, even a double reflection from one mirror to another. The camera operator could thus remain unobserved behind the green baize screen, the jib door, and the square pillar in the library. Everyone had gone to bed. There was no one about except me, oh, and Miss Morningstar sitting in the dark in the card room; no chance of being seen. Quite ingenious! Though if it had not been me who observed Dr Watson, someone else would have sufficed. What else alerted me to the fact it was not the real Dr Watson sleepwalking? In the images he was wearing his tweed suit. It is unlikely a man would remove his pyjamas and put on his tweed suit to go sleepwalking. Why not just put on a dressing gown or even go about naked! My ten minutes are up, Inspector.”

“Have you finished?” he asked, astonished at her grasp of details, still none the wiser.

“Not yet.”

“Then please continue.”

“Back in Glasgow Madame Moghra told me she saw a ghost from the grave. She even predicted her own death. I took this to mean she believed she had had some sort of supernatural experience or premonition but I see now she recognized someone from her past. She recognized Elodie. But Elodie was long dead. Of course, she recognized the inherited features of Elodie in another face. She even wrote the word l-o-d-i with her planchette – guilty conscience or vague recollection or genuine spirit writing? We will never know but what we do know is that it goes back to Elodie. It is about vengeance. In the same way, Sissy was killed in Glasgow for the simple reason she either unwittingly stepped into Elodie’s shoes or because she was Madame Moghra’s dresser and it was necessary to remove her in case she might witness something she shouldn’t. Sissy was not an attractive girl and it would have been easy to lure her out late at night with the promise of a romantic tryst. Constable MacTavish may be able to confirm the name of her killer once we reach Biarritz.”

Mrs Merle shot up like Scylla and Charybdis combined in all their fearsome glory. “You’re saying the killer is a man!”

“Yes,” replied the Countess.

“Well, that’s a blessed relief! I was getting worried you were gonna try and pin this murder on me! My major planets are in opposition to my sun sign. The portent is all bad news!”

She sat back down with a heavy thump and almost broke the deck chair.

“No more interruptions,” announced the Inspector brusquely before turning to the Countess. “Continuez.”

“The question arose in my mind – what did Elodie look like? I assumed she was fair of face, but no, she was like the girls from the south of France with the blood of Mediterranean pirates in her veins, like Claudette who fell overboard, the same Claudette who discovered the body of Madame Moghra, and who wanted to say something when she was being interviewed by Captain Lanfranc, but held her tongue and thus ended up dead. Yes, a third murder.”

The Countess paused to gather her thoughts before summing up.

“Are you almost done?” asked the Inspector, suitably impressed but withholding judgment on whether she could pull the rabbit out of the hat when it came to the grand finale.

“Yes,” she said confidently. “The killer of Sissy, Madame Moghra and Claudette was a blood-relation of Elodie. The killer decided to frame Dr Watson for no reason other than it was hugely advantageous to divert suspicion. The killer is with us now. It is someone who was able to steal the darts, use one as a murder weapon and plant two on Dr Watson. Someone who was able to steal the slides, paint them and work the camera obscuras. Someone who was familiar with the layout of the ship. Someone Sissy would regard as trustworthy and respectable. Someone who had time to push Claudette overboard. Someone who could remove the dart from the wig even though they might be seen by Claudette. Someone who came from the south of France. Someone who –”

Captain Lanfranc, who had been leaning casually against the starboard rail, cried out: “Bresant!”

All eyes turned to the steward. His frozen face reminded the Countess of a terrified baby possum that had fallen down a chimney and landed in a room full of hostile humans.

“No! No!” he denied furiously, foaming at the mouth with fear. “I didn’t kill anyone! I am innocent! Remember Dreyfus!”

“We remember,” said the Countess calmly, recalling the recent gross miscarriage of justice. “I am not accusing you. I am accusing Captain Lanfranc.”

The captain laughed risibly, dismissing the accusation as a grotesque slander. “J’accuse! You forget something, la comtesse. I did not go into the library.”

“You went first of all,” she contradicted. “You took Madame Moghra her cup of coffee. She was dead before the first suspect even went in.”

The captain pulled out a pistol and levelled it at the Inspector to stall his advance. “Stay back,” he warned as he edged toward the stern, then, just before he leapt overboard to his death he fired off a shot at the Countess.

The bullet flew past her ear and hit the dart board – a perfect bull’s eye!

 

If further proof of guilt was needed, Inspector de Guise found it in the captain’s cabin when he opened a wooden box and almost died of heart failure. Inside the box was a decapitated head – the fake waxwork head of Elodie that had been used in the guillotine act. There was also a log book, detailed notes on how to use a camera obscura, three glass slides with images of Dr Watson, and a diagram of the public rooms depicting the position of various mirrors, plus a vial of unknown poison, most likely curare, for the captain had recently visited South America. So confident was he of not being caught he had got rid of none of the incriminating evidence apart from the dart.

Most damning of all was some correspondence dating back several years with the owner of the shipping company. It soon became clear that Captain Lanfranc was Elodie’s father. He had apparently promised her in marriage to the owner of the shipping company in exchange for promotion to captain but she fled on the eve of the wedding. By the time he had tracked her down, she was dead. The unscrupulous shipping owner wanted revenge and demanded blood in exchange for sparing the captain’s life. Lanfranc had been instructed to frame Croquemort for the murder of Madame Moghra, thus killing two birds with one stone, but when the captain met Dr Watson he took it upon himself to frame the man who professed such deep hatred for the woman he was about to kill and thus divert suspicion from himself. This he had outlined in a letter to the shipping owner which he had not yet posted.

Inspector de Guise shared his discovery with the Countess and made a friend for life.

“Captain Lanfranc did not foresee the framing of Dr Watson to offer up any difficulty,” he conjectured, “especially with his famous colleague, Mr Sherlock Holmes, removed from the scene, but he did not count on you, Countess Volodymyrovna. I take my hat off to your sleuthing skills. If you are ever in need of police assistance, do not hesitate to call upon the services of Didier de Guise.”

 

Dr Watson stepped down the gangway into the bright Basque sunshine like a man reborn with shoulders back and head erect. Feeling as generous as a king, he tossed some coins to the ragged brown urchins and old salts who crossed his path, taking no particular notice of them, neither the lame nor the limbless, nor those riddled with lice and fleas and scabies, though his eyes lingered a moment on the filthy long-haired ruffian slumped among the coiled ropes and lobster cages, a fag end dangling from his lips…No! Impossible! He shook himself and caught up to the Countess striding ahead and together they began to walk bras d’ssus-bras d’ssous toward the waiting fiacre.

She waited until they were comfortably seated in the open air carriage. “Now, will you finally share with me the reason you wished Madame Moghra dead?”

In the background, the splendid Hotel du Palais shimmered like a belle époque mirage, as unreal as what had just taken place. Dr Watson had not yet thanked her properly for saving him from the ignominy of a murder trial and sometimes words were inadequate, even for a seasoned author. He drew breath and braced for the pain that gripped his heart whenever his thoughts returned to what he termed the blackest days of his life.

“Madame Moghra told me Mary was with child when she died of tuberculosis.”

“Are you saying you didn’t know?”

He nodded glumly.

“The news took you by surprise?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think it was true?”

“I don’t know – that’s the wretched part.”

“Do you want it to be true?”

“Yes and no – I’m not sure – that’s the wretched part.”

“You can believe whatever you want since it cannot be proven either way.”

“Yes, but what comfort is that?”

She took his hand and held it tenderly in her own. “You must believe whatever brings you most comfort – that is the essence of belief.”

 


The Clairvoyant Curse

Book 4 in a series of chronological stand-alone plots. England 1899. Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna travel on the SS Pleiades during its inaugural voyage through the Irish Sea from Glasgow to Biarritz. On board are a bizarre handful of passengers travelling to a World Spiritualist Congress. When Madame Moghra (the most famous medium in all of Britain) is found dead and Dr Watson is accused of homicidal somnambulism Countess V must unmask the real killer in order to spare her fellow sleuth being charged with murder once they reach the French port. Everyone becomes a suspect: Monsieur Croquemort and Mr Crispin Ffrench, who perform in the same Magic Lantern Show as the famous medium. Dr Hu the Chinese Feng Shui master. Mrs Merle the American astrologer. Madame Sosostras the Hungarian tarot card reader. Reverend Blackadder the Theosophist, and last but not least, his ethereal niece, Miss Morningstar. Each character has a motive for killing the medium, but it was Dr Watson who most fervently wished her dead. Obfuscation is thicker than the fog over the Irish Sea, and she has only one day in which to do it. Can Countess V separate the true grains of wheat from the airy-fairy chaff?

  • Author: Anna Lord
  • Published: 2015-12-23 03:20:14
  • Words: 83045
The Clairvoyant Curse The Clairvoyant Curse