Dr Watson was not the sort of Englishman abroad who went about with intolerable airs and graces, a pretentious twat, a pompous arse, an insufferable bore, who enjoyed lording it over harried hotel staff and hapless foreigners by virtue of some unspoken birthright of Queen and country but it was a question of health, namely his own. It might even be the death of him.
A violent shade of menopausal pink flushed through his face as he addressed the Napoleonic mountebank garrisoned behind the polished mahogany reception desk of the Hotel du Palais in the sort of priggish tone he would never have dreamed of employing back home.
“My room was reserved in advance. It is the same room I have whenever I come to Biarritz. Room one-two-seven.”
He shot-gunned each digit separately to emphasize his point – bang, bang bang! – probably because he felt like shooting the condescending buffoon outfitted in Hussar-style military jacket adorned with pretentious frog-fastening buttons and ridiculous gold-tasselled epaulets. It was all he could do to stop from shouting: Remember Waterloo!
“It had a view over the terrace towards the lighthouse and…”
“Oui, oui, monsieur,” cut off the concierge with a supercilious shrug of golden shoulders, “but I cannot evict the guest who is now occupying chambre cent vingt-sept.”
Dr Watson was loath to make a fuss but now that he had taken a stand he would not back down. It was a matter of principle. “I am not asking you to evict the person in room one-two-seven, but the room you gave me had a view of the stable yard. I had to sleep with my window closed because of the odour of horse dung. My bronchitis flared up from the fetid, stale, rank air and I found it difficult to breathe. It was most unsatisfactory. Surely in a palatial establishment of this size you have another room of which I could avail myself.”
“Un moment, s’il vous plait.” The concierge swivelled on his heel to check the keys hanging on the brass hooks behind him. He swung back almost immediately. “I am sorry monsieur le doctor, but we are tres occupé, with the exception of rooms 401 to 456. They are on the fourth floor. It is – how you call it? – le grenier, the attic. There is no ascensor to this etage and the stairs they are steep and narrow, not good for those with the breathing problème. The windows they are miniscule and they give a view of the service yard where the smoke it blows from the kitchens day and night, again not good for the lungs. I think you will not like these rooms. They are reserved for the lost baggage, the broken furniture and the lowliest servants. The room you have, it is better for you, vous comprenez?”
Dr Watson comprehended only too well. The nerves stretched to breaking point were testament to that. “If it is not too much of a bother can you determine if any guests will be checking out in the not too distant future?”
The concierge heaved a long sigh, ran a forefinger down the hotel register, flipped the page and continued running his digit down the list of dates and rooms. He did this for the next three pages. “I am sorry, monsieur le doctor, but we have no personage checking out until lundi the week next. We have the World Spiritualist Congress en ce moment,” he reminded unnecessarily, mixing English with French which the doctor would normally have found interesting but today found merely irritating. “Last Wed-nes-day there arrive here in Biarritz a large group of Theosophists from America with epouses – how do you say? – their wifes. The day before yesterday there docks in the Bay Basque a sailing ship from the Baltic with the German, the Polish, the Latvian and the Russian spiritualists who come for the congress. And yesterday there comes your steamer ship with the clairvoyants. C’est impossible! I can move you to the honeymoon suite on Monday next – no sooner, monsieur.”
That did it! The doctor noticed the concierge flick his beady black eyes lasciviously over the Countess – and not for the first time! “I am not requesting the honeymoon suite!” he ground out through gritted teeth, no longer worried about sounding like a pompous English twat. “A room with a window allowing for entry of fresh sea air not tinged with horse dung, belching chimneys and coal dust is all I ask!”
Sensing that the battle for self-control was about to be lost, the Countess placed her hand gently on the doctor’s arm. The rigid muscles felt like tensioned steel fastened with rusty rivets and she feared the structure was about to crack under the strain. “We can always try another hotel,” she suggested tactfully, hoping he would not burst a blood vessel when those rivets popped. “The boulevards are lined with quaint little inns and comfortable boarding houses.”
“I refuse to decamp to a boarding house when you have paid good money for my room in advance.”
The money was of no consequence to her but he had Calvinist-Methodist-Protestant blood coursing through his Scottish veins. “What about that interesting hotel perched like a small chateau on the rock that jutted into the sea? We passed it last night when we took some air after dinner and took a wrong turn at the end of the esplanade. It had wrought iron balconies at the French windows with lace curtains billowing in the breeze. It would be sure to have an uninterrupted view from every window and an abundance of fresh air.”
The tension in his face visibly melted. “Oh, yes,” he said eagerly, recalling the peppercorn turrets like little witch’s hats crowning what was most likely a maritime fort that had gone the way of most historic buildings that no longer served their purpose until someone with creative vision and deep pockets rescued them and with a little imagination brought them back to life, “just down from the lighthouse at the end of the Plage Miramar. Do you recall the name of it?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t pay attention to the name. But I noticed through the wrought iron gate that it had a sheltered courtyard garden with an angel fountain and not a soul in sight. It looked a haven of tranquillity. I think it might be that little bit too far from the main boulevard for most of the tourists.”
Tranquillity – that’s what he needed. He pictured a bedroom simply furnished with a few inexpensive antiques, one window overlooking the sea, another overlooking the courtyard garden where the only noise to disturb the peace and quiet would be the sweet chirrup of birdsong and the soothing burble of water.
“Are you quite done?”
Startled by the abrupt tone, Dr Watson whirled round. “I beg your pardon?”
The speaker was a portly man with a magnificent handle-bar moustache and a ripe New York twang. “I said: Are you done yet? You have been taking a fearfully long time sorting out your room, old chap, and the lady-wife and I would like our key from the major-domo.”
Mortified, the doctor stepped back to allow the husband and wife to approach the reception desk. He hated to think of the fuss he had made now that the heat had gone out of his anger, and even worse, that he had made a fool of himself in public. He had the Englishman’s dread of public fuss-making. He took the Countess by the arm and steered her toward some potted palms set in a discrete corner of the bustling marble foyer.
“There is no need for you to relocate. You can stay here. You have a perfectly lovely suite with a marvellous view of the sea. And Xenia and Fedir have settled into servants’ rooms at the end of the hall. It will be difficult to replicate such an arrangement in a small hotel and I don’t want to disrupt you. I will pack my belongings and move to that, er, establishment on the rock.”
He was almost going to say fortress but stopped himself in the nick of time, though a fortress was what he wanted – a fortress against a harsh, modern, superstitious world.
She wasn’t about to start arguing with him. He looked like he’d suffered enough and she feared his next room would be in a private sanitorium which specialized in health cures for treating psychological disorders or perhaps a padded cell in a mental hospital equipped with breathing apparatus and a straightjacket.
“Let’s take a fiacre right away. We can check if the hotel has a vacancy before you pack your bags and move out of the Hotel du Palais and end up sleeping on the street.”
Biarritz was the most fashionable resort on the Bay Basque, and though it was the unseasonable end of November the promenade was packed with wealthy foreign tourists cocooned in furs that muffled them from the biting west wind that blew straight off the Atlantic and almost blew them off their feet. The ladies had their large hats tied down with colourful scarves to stop them blowing away and though frilly parasols were de rigeur whatever the season they were rarely opened at this time of year. A few hardy souls were even braving the freezing cold water – sporting the latest in scandalous bathing costumes.
The fiacre followed the Avenue de l’Imperatrice until the end of the Plage Miramar where the crowds thinned and the winding avenue began to gradually narrow until they could go no further and had to go the rest of the way on foot. That explained why a hotel with so much outward charm was not overrun with paying guests.
Steps gouged out of the rock followed the natural curve of the promontory until they came to a pair of scrolled iron gates. A brass plaque set in one of the stone pillars announced: Roche des Chanteurs. Its twin had a brass plaque that announced: Hotel Louve. A third sign set in a small manicured lawn announced: Property privée. And a fourth in the garden bed said: No trespassing.
“I think they’ve spelled the name wrong,” wheezed Dr Watson as they mounted the last few steps to the front door. “Shouldn’t it be Louvre with an R?”
“You are thinking of the Louvre in Paris,” she countered. “Louve means she-wolf.”
“That explains the picture of the wolf on the sign above the door – what an odd name for a hotel by the sea. I wonder if it was originally sea-wolf not she-wolf. There doesn’t seem to be anyone about. I think the wind puts people off staying here. It is certainly blowy.”
“If it worries you…” she began, thankful that she had swapped her wide-brimmed French chapeau for a snug fur toque.
“Not at all,” he cut off. “Let’s go inside.”
The entrance hall of an historic fort-cum-hotel might easily be a bleak and austere space of cold grey stone glinting with military hardware but this one was decked out like a comfortable private sitting room. It contained an unpretentious mix of provincial Spanish and French antiques. There was not a scimitar or sword in sight. A faded Flemish tapestry in bluish hues depicting a galleon at sea graced one entire wall. Beneath it stood a country-style sideboard. Groupings of armchairs were upholstered in embroidered fabric depicting fruit and flowers. The side tables had nicks and chinks from wear and tear that were more endearing for being less than perfect. Huge wooden candlesticks like those found in Italian cathedrals dotted the surfaces. There were no tropical potted palms with spiky leaves, just cachepots of fresh flowers that looked like they’d been plucked from a country garden and arranged artlessly in colourful bunches. An old wrought-iron Venetian-style lantern, rather than a glittery chandelier, was suspended from the centre boss of the vaulted ceiling. The floor was laid using red bricks that felt warmer than slabs of chequered black and white marble.
“Bonjour monsieur et madame,” greeted the concierge with extreme geniality sans oily attitude and slick smile.
Dr Watson noted the lack of epaulets and warmed to the man at once. “Bon-jour,” he returned in his best schoolboy French.
“I may perhaps you help?” the man said, switching at once to English, guessing that the tired-looking, wheezy, older man and the attractive young lady who had just entered minus baggage might be les Anglais, touring le phare, and now in need of directions to the popular Bellevue Casino.
Full of renewed optimism, Dr Watson addressed the man with none of the bitterness that had soured his tone less than half an hour ago. “Oui, oui, mon-sieur, I am enquiring if you have a vacancy?”
The concierge didn’t often get it wrong. He scanned the curious couple a second time. The tired-looking man with the puffy pillows under his eyes and the badly trimmed moustache, dressed in tweed wool under a brown herringbone coat with a brown wool scarf that looked like it had been hand-knitted by a great-aunt a hundred years ago, and the jeune femme, much more cosmopolitan, wearing a charming costume Chasseur in velour de laine, fur-trimmed, and carrying a fur muff that looked like genuine mink which matched a Slavic-style mink hat, defied classification.
Vacancy – quelle surprise!
“Monsieur, will be requiring a double suite? Non? Chambres ensemble? Separate salles de bain? Is that what monsieur would prefer?”
“Oh, I should have clarified,” muttered Dr Watson, feeling slightly embarrassed, “just the one room with salle de bain and if possible,” he finished slightly less hopefully, “a view of the sea and the lighthouse or perhaps a window overlooking the courtyard garden.”
The concierge cocked a thin dark eyebrow and smiled at the Countess. “Madame will not be requiring a room of her own?”
The Countess felt the welcoming ambience of the foyer tug at her heartstrings. It was a homely establishment and the last thing she expected to find in a popular seaside resort brimming with glitz, glamour, and bourgeois trimmings.
“I have a perfectly adequate suite at the Hotel du Palais but your establishment has a welcoming ambience and it would be most convenient if I could stay at the same hotel as my travelling companion and good friend, Dr Watson. If it is possible to have a suite on the same floor – une chambre avec salle de bain donner sur le mer – I will arrange to transfer my belongings toute de suite. Cependent, j’ai besoin de deux chambres pres de moi pour deux servants. C’est possible?”
“Certainement, madame,” obliged the concierge, slipping once more into his native tongue. “Nous avons deux chambres, deux salles de bain, donner sur le mer et le phare, avec le balcon et le petit salon tres joli sur le troisieme etage. Pas problem! Nous n’avons que quatre personnes actuellement. Ce n’est pas le haut saison.”
The Countess bestowed a luminous smile on the concierge that never failed to find favour. “Je vous remercie. Je suis la comtesse Volodymyrovna.” She swapped back to English for the benefit of Dr Watson. “My two servants will be along shortly with our luggage. I will pay for all four rooms in advance – let us say a sojourn of one week. Your hotel serves breakfast and dinner?”
“Le petit dejeuner, le dejeuner et le diner, la comtesse. Il y a chef formidable!”
She turned to her companion. “Did you catch all that?”
Dr Watson was beaming. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner – let’s go back and arrange to transfer our luggage at once. But I must insist on paying for all four rooms. And please don’t argue. It is my treat!”
Waiting discretely in the shadows but listening attentively to the exchange was a lobby boy, not much more than twelve or thirteen years of age. He wore the standard uniform of lobby boys with shiny brass buttons, a trim of gold gimp and a cap like a fez. The tightness of his trousers indicated that like most boys his age he was growing out of his uniform rather rapidly. The trouser hem sat above his ankles, revealing a pair of thick woollen socks and a pair of spit-polished lace-up boots. It was a good profession for boys from impoverished families and some of the cleverer lads could even rise to the role of concierge in the course of time.
The concierge clicked his fingers and the boy snapped to attention. He stood as stiff as a ramrod while being addressed.
“Milo, tell Desi to prepare the twin chambers on the third floor at once, plus the two small chambers in the west wing for two servants.”
The boy moved like the mistral but without any of the destructiveness.
The Countess arranged for the cost of all meals to be charged to her account and for her servants to have their meals in their own rooms to avoid other guests getting their noses out of joint. She and Dr Watson would not be taking lunch for she had already set her heart on lunching at the crêperie overlooking the Plage Miramar, but they reserved a table for two for dinner in the hotel dining room.
As they turned to go, the door flew open, letting in a gust of icy cold Atlantic wind, a fine flurry of Basque sand and a tall, thin, angular, immaculately groomed gentleman. He crossed the foyer with buoyant steps, moving briskly straight toward them, taking in the pair of mismatched interlopers at a glance and briefly meeting the Countess’s gaze with an appraising glint in his sky blue eyes, before breaking off abruptly and veering adroitly toward the desk of the concierge. Some ruffled flaxen curls contrasted with a well-trimmed triangular wedge of golden fluff sprouting from a pointy chin. One couldn’t help thinking that he had been born into the wrong century for he had the air of a Regency dandy and moved with the dandified swagger of a minor aristocrat born with a silver spoon in one hand and a cheroot in the other from which he supped and smoked with equal pleasure – the sort of gentleman who would have cut an equal dash in a saddle as on a dance floor.
The concierge addressed him as Prince Orczy.
A blustery breeze whistled around the rock and stung their faces, playing havoc with the sign above the door which swung back and forth in violent protest. There would be a squall by nightfall, possibly a storm. The doctor and the Countess had just gone a few steps down the path when the she-wolf broke loose. Had they been standing on the front step the sign might have cracked a skull or two. The Prince and the concierge came rushing out to check on the destruction.
Anxious to get on with transferring their luggage before rain set in, our two sleuths walked quickly down the rocky steps to the point where the path curved, then paused and looked back to see how the men were faring with the broken sign. The sign had been taken down and the two men had disappeared back inside the hotel.
A woman wearing a black peignoir was now standing on the balcony that opened out from the topmost room in the tallest tower. Long black hair was blowing back from her face as she faced toward the open sea. The blown-back hair was held aloft by the wind, giving it the appearance of the plumage of a bird in flight, wings extended, effortlessly riding the thermals – not a common rook or an old crow, but a black eagle, glorious and majestic…l’aigle noire.
Plage Miramar ran into the Grande Plage and finished at the pretty Port des Pecheurs. Along one side unfurled a path like a silk ribbon – the Quai de la Grande Plage Allée – which was the promenade of choice for those who wished to be seen since it skirted right past the Belle Epoque edifice known to all and sundry as the Hotel du Palais.
Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna had decided to work off their crepes and beat the storm by walking to the Port des Pecheurs straight after lunch rather than returning to the Hotel Louve to see how Fedir and Xenia were faring with the luggage when they bumped into an acquaintance of the Countess, or rather an old acquaintance of her late step-aunt. It was the Princess Roskovsky.
The frail, white-haired, old lady, who looked as fragile as a flower, was on her way to the Eglise Orthodox on the rue de russie just behind the Hotel du Palais to light a candle for her long deceased son when she immediately latched onto the arm of the Countess like a barnacle and beseeched her to accompany her so that she could catch up on all the latest news concerning the step-child of her dear departed friend, Countess Zoya Volodymyrovna.
Dr Watson, hiding his disappointment rather badly, continued the promenade to the Port des Pecheurs alone.
The two women walked arm in arm, chatting about the tragic death of dear Countess Zoya, bitten by a tiger snake in Australia and buried so far from her Ukrainian homeland before moving on to the Countess’s short-lived marriage to an Australian who took his own life after a tragic horse-riding accident that left him crippled.
Russians loved nothing more than a rich tragedy and the old Princess was in maudlin heaven with her shuddering sighs. After they had said a silent prayer and lit a candle for Prince Dmitri and several dozen dear departed souls, they decamped to the nearest Viennese coffee shop where the Countess decided to lighten the tone.
“What can you tell me about Prince Orczy?”
Princess Roskovsky’s barely-there blonde eyebrows registered her surprise. “Are you searching for a new husband?”
The Countess laughed. “Certainly not!”
“Then why the interest in Orczy?”
“He is staying at the same hotel and I just wondered about his background.”
“Are you not staying at the Hotel du Palais?”
“No, I checked out this morning. I moved into the Hotel Louve.”
The Princess gave a shocked gasp. “You are not serious?”
“Yes, quite, why do you ask?”
“It has a certain reputation.”
“Hardly any women stay there, by that I mean none that would be welcomed into decent society, and it attracts the most – how shall I put it? – radical men.”
The Countess was intrigued. “Radical?”
“Men of dubious character, men who flaunt convention, men who tear up social rules and then proceed to rewrite them to suit themselves as if none of it matters, men like Anton Orczy. He is Montenegrin, related to several royal families on his mother’s side – a black sheep, no, worse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing; they say he killed a man in cold blood. A duel – can you credit it! – in this day and age! He behaves like a character from a Dostoyevsky novel. He moves from one baccarat table to the next. His poor mother is always settling his bills, paying off his creditors, hushing things up. Monte Carlo, Alexandria, Constantinople, Biarritz – he goes wherever there is a casino and a clutch of dull, ugly, American heiresses he can charm. But why on earth are you staying at the Hotel Louve?”
The Countess explained about the unfortunate mix-up with Dr Watson’s room.
“Surely there are other hotels?” the Princess lamented, rolling a pair of rheumy old eyes that still had spark, wondering why a cosmopolitan Countess would choose as her travelling companion a provincial Scottish doctor sans title and wealth.
“With the World Spiritualist Congress in full swing, decent rooms are hard to come by. Besides, the Louve looks utterly charming.”
“Just like Orczy,” the old Princess sneered sardonically.
“It has a tranquil ambience and only four other guests.”
“That says it all, my dear Varvaruchka!”
“By the way, who owns the hotel?”
“Ah, good question! It is owned by a woman who goes by the name of the Singing Wolf, an ex-opera singer as dubious as her guests. No one really knows anything about her, and what they think they know cannot be verified. I’ve heard her called everything from Portuguese to Catalan; Syrian to Persian; Corsican to Moroccan; Sardinian to Sicilian; the list goes on and on. People will swear she is this or that but when you press them they cannot say why they think so or who told them.”
“Is the hotel her only source of income?”
“Oh, hardly, she’s fabulously wealthy, but that is the other thing – no one knows where her vast fortune came from. There are rumours, of course, but nothing you can believe. She couldn’t have earned it singing. She wasn’t at it for long enough. She was a truly brilliant soprano, a real diva, for it is only sopranos who can be called diva, but she cannot be much more than forty and she has been retired at least six or seven years now. I heard her sing Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in St Petersburg many years back. Her performance was stupendous – the Tsarina was thrilled. That little maritime fort perched on that windswept rock facing the full force of every Atlantic gale would lose money, not earn it, and who would put up with the glare from le phare burning through the windows all night long – I hope you requested a room on the garden side! On a brighter note, I’ve heard she does occasionally perform an impromptu aria to the delight of her paying guests, so I suppose that’s why she hangs onto the hotel – once a diva, always a diva.”
The Countess decided to backtrack. “You mentioned rumours about her wealth?”
The old aristocrat waved a suede-gloved hand in the air like someone fanning a fly. “There are so many rumours they become a blur. I can hardly distinguish one from another. The only one that comes to mind is the one that tells how she discovered a cache of gold buried by the Cathars – le tresor cathar! – in some mountain stronghold not far from Lourdes. A romantic fairy tale! I wouldn’t be surprised if she put it about herself to add to her own mystique. And I seriously doubt it for another reason – her jewellery is all shiny and new. There is no old gold or antique silver. It is that horrible modern rubbish. She is never seen without some hideous new bauble designed by that talentless Rene Lolloque.”
“I think you might mean Lalique.”
“If you say so. What do they call it? Art Nouve?”
“Art Nouveau. Shall I order us another café au lait?”
The Princess groaned. “Oh, no, I shall be awake half the night. It’s just as well I will be staying up late. It is the final performance by the Imperial Warsaw Opera before they move on to the teatro alla Scala. La traviata is not one of my favourites, but that is the tiresome thing about seaside resorts – it behoves one to be seen to be keeping oneself amused. It was lovely to see you, Countess Varvara. Your late aunt would be proud of how you have turned – Oh, I am such a stupid old lady! – I have a spare ticket! My god-daughter has developed an ear infection and has been confined to her bed for at least the next five days. You simply must come with me tonight. Don’t say no – I couldn’t bear it!” The Princess’s rheumy old sparklers lit up and she smiled slyly. “I bet the Singing Wolf will be there. You can see what I mean about the hideous modern jewellery for yourself. If not, well, at least you will meet Prince Anton Orczy and see for yourself how charmless he really is.”
Countess Volodymyrovna accepted the invitation with alacrity and they agreed to meet at the top of the stairs on the mezzanine level in the foyer of the opera house at seven o’clock.
The dining room of the Hotel Louve overlooked the sheltered courtyard garden with the burbling cherubic fountain. Pots of orchids clustered together in rare pockets of November sunshine. Biarritz enjoyed a mild climate and things that would have been shunted off to a glasshouse anywhere else still managed to flower at the seaside resort.
The waiter was a handsome Spaniard called Velazquez. He used to be a toreador but after the tragic death of a fellow bull-fighter during the annual bull-run in Pamplona he developed a type of stage-fright which manifested as violent physical trembling. Everyone took pity on the beautiful young man and pretended not to notice how his hands shook as he served at table. He often strummed a lively toque on his guitar toward the end of a meal when guests were enjoying dessert and coffee and it was only while he was performing that the tremors ceased.
“I say, this is the best meal I’ve had for some time,” declared Dr Watson enthusiastically, tucking into some mussels in white wine. “Something simple, done in a simple style, always goes down a treat. How is your paella?”
“Wonderful – the chef really is formidable! The menu appears to be an interesting blend of Spanish and French cuisine. The guitarist is good too.”
“I cannot believe we are the only two guests enjoying this first rate fayre. The others don’t know what they’re missing. I shall make it a point to dine-in every night. I spoke to the concierge while you were out with the Russian barnacle and he says the femme de chambre doing my room who doubles as a waitress when the dining room is full is also Spanish and she comes out to do a flamenco dance – oh, here she comes now!”
Like a true daughter of the gitanos, the dancer wearing a long, colourful, flouncy garment carried herself proudly with her head flung back and her back arched. The provocative flamenco called for a lot of foot-stamping and robust hand-clapping between interludes of the guitar, a pair of castanets added to the boisterousness of the performance.
“Bravo!” applauded Dr Watson when the baille came to a breathless halt. “Well, what did you think of that?” he put to his counterpart.
“The Hotel du Palais pales in comparison to the Hotel Louve!”
“I’m glad it has worked out so well.”
“I am not well-versed with Spanish culture but I shall make it a point to acquaint myself with the intricacies of flamenco while we are staying here. I might start tonight when the dancer comes to turn down my bed.”
The Countess thought how nice it would be to have Velazquez turn down her bed while he educated her on the finer points of flamenco but the femme de chambre allocated to her room was a thick-lipped, frizzy-haired, heavy-handed Negress about fifteen years of age. Her name was Desi and the Countess thought it might be short for Desiderata. The sweet name was the only thing in the girl’s favour. She was extremely gauche, bumping into this, knocking into that, moving as clunkily as a black battleship in a regatta of sleek white yachts.
Nevertheless, the Countess was genuinely happy for Dr Watson. After that bad start at the Hotel du Palais this holiday was turning out rather well. Another day or two and all his recent worries would start to melt away. It was time to tell him that she was going to the opera with the Russian barnacle.
The final performance of La traviata meant that the best seats were sold out months ago, however, the Princess Roskovsky having all the right connections had managed to secure a private box on the second tier. She was running late and the two women had just enough time to get to their places before the lights dimmed and the curtain went up on the first act. They got out their opera glasses at once and scanned the rows of seats in the stalls then did the same with the boxes on the first and second tiers.
“There’s Prince Orczy,” whispered the Russian aristocrat, indicating a flaxen helmet of hair in the fourth row from the front. “He is escorting an American heiress – Miss Marjorie Mayflower and her mama from New York. They are wearing new tiaras. I heard they picked them up this morning from Bisous on the rue des pins.”
The Countess trained her glass on the prince first and the coronets second. “Oh, yes, I see, very nice, but not a match for your jewelled diadem, Princess Roskovsky.”
“This old Byzantine thing,” the old aristocrat dismissed with an airy wave of her silk-gloved hand. “I did some asking around this afternoon,” continued the Princess, “and box 2 on the first tier is permanently reserved for the Singing Wolf.”
The Countess retrained her glass. “That must be the vacant box on the other side from us but one level down. I wonder if she will make an appearance tonight.”
“I am reliably informed she is very fond of Verdi.”
The two women gave their concentration over to the performance. The Imperial Warsaw Opera was dear to the heart of the Countess for her birth mother, Miss Irene Adler, had started her career with the Polish operatic company. Box 2 remained disappointingly vacant throughout the first act.
During the first interval came the chance to mingle. French champagne was being dispensed gratis to opera patrons to celebrate the successful conclusion of the French tour. The Princess Roskovsky managed to catch the eye of Prince Orczy. He extricated himself from the Mayflowers and came straight over, planting a trio of kisses on the crêpey cheeks of the Russian Princess while running an appraising eye over the Countess at the same time.
“Let me introduce, Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna,” said the Princess proudly.
Prince Orczy recognized the patronymic at once and made a great show of kissing her hand. “I have fond memories of your step-papa, the Count of Odessos. I stayed as a house-guest in the summer of 79. I remember a pretty little girl in the cherry orchard and a basket brimming with something ripe and juicy.”
“I remember the cherry orchard but I confess I have no memory of you, Prince Orczy.”
His self-deprecating laugh was deep and throaty. “Perhaps I can leave a greater impression this time round.”
“Perhaps you will,” said the Countess coquettishly – for everything about the charmer from his dancing eyes to the right royal tilt of his princely chin invited flirtation, “We are apparently staying at the same hotel.”
Blond brows arched with mischievous interest. “Ah, that explains your presence in the foyer…”
The little bell rang, signalling a return to seats.
“A bientôt,” he promised with a sharp click of his heels, cutting off his own conjecture.
As the lights dimmed, the Countess noticed that box 2 was now occupied by three people – two men and a woman. The female occupant was the same stunning lady she had seen standing on the balcony of the Hotel Louve. Madly curious, she nevertheless managed to wait until the curtain went up before training her opera glass for a closer look.
When she was a young girl growing up in Odessa, the Countess possessed a book of fairy tales. One of her favourite tales was Snow White. The striking woman sitting opposite reminded her not of the insipid main character but the unrepentantly defiant, vainglorious Queen. She had the same widow’s peak and the same scandalous black hair, the same dark flashing eyes and the same sharp raptor’s nose, the same dangerous red mouth and the same queenly mien. She was, in a word, magnificent.
Next, the two consorts came in for some undivided attention. They were both handsome men of indeterminate age – a quaint euphemism for men who had passed the age of forty. Both men possessed that indefinable quality that tells the world they know their own worth down to the last shilling and that it is substantial – arrogant, proud and rich was stamped all over them.
The Princess Roskovsky leaned closer. “I see you have noticed the occupants of box 2.”
“Who are the two men?”
The Princess allowed for a discrete interval before training her glass, and then another safe interval before whispering behind her silk fan, “Baron Frederik Reichenbach and Herr Gustav von Gunn.”
Reichenbach! Now there was name to make the blood run cold!
When the next interval came the Countess hurried to the mezzanine, heart beating to a staccato drum, dragging the old Princess along by the elbow somewhat unceremoniously, and ran straight into Prince Orczy and the two Mayflowers – looking a little wilted though the night was still young. Mama Mayflower gushed about the interior decoration of Orthodox churches and it was impossible to get away. The Singing Wolf did not make an appearance though her two consorts could be seen enjoying a cigar at the top of the stairs.
The little bell rang and it was a return to seats.
Though it cost an effort, the Countess did not once glance in the direction of box 2, but her curiosity screamed to be settled.
“Which man is,” she paused and cautioned herself from appearing too eager to learn which man was Baron Reichenbach so she asked about the other, “Gustav von Gunn?”
“I thought you said you weren’t after a husband?” teased the old aristocrat.
“I’m just trying to put a name to a face.”
The Princess regarded her sceptically over the top of her fan. “Gustav is the one with the moustache like stunted stalks of golden stubble and a head like a wheatfield after the harvest. He manufactures munitions or armaments – or are they the same thing? Governments fall all over themselves to get on his good side, though from what I’ve heard he doesn’t actually have a good side. Despite my little joke, you could do a lot worse than become the next Madame von Gunn. He owns twelve castles – one for every month of the year.”
“And the other one – what did you say his name was?”
“Frederik Reichenbach. He is Prussian and descends from a famous military family. He has the eyes to prove it – they are Prussian blue – ha-ha…quite mesmerizing – and that leonine mane of white hair is extraordinary, n’est-ce pas?”
“Oui, he lives in Switzerland?”
“What makes you ask that?”
“There is a place in Switzerland called Reichenbach Falls, popular with hikers. I went there when I was at finishing school,” she lied.
“Oh, yes, the Thunder of Reichenbach. He may have a chalet somewhere thereabouts but I believe he has a castle in Swabia or Styria or someplace starting with S. He doesn’t have the same wealth as Herr von Gunn but he has an illustrious history that goes back to Charlemagne. You could do a lot worse than become the next Baroness of S.”
The ominous storm that had been marshalling forces all afternoon was now making rumbling threatening noises much closer to home. Lurid flashes electrified the darkness of heaven every now and again, though the claps of thunder were delayed by several seconds, indicating that the enemy would not attack until after midnight. Nevertheless, it was a long queue for a fiacre for the short ride to the Bellevue Casino. The Princess Roskovsky was partial to a flutter on the roulette wheel which she said always reminded her of her favourite game.
“I adore when the little wheel spins one way and the little ball goes the other way and then the tiny metallic click when the ball falls into place just like the click of the barrel before one shoots one’s brains out!”
“Do you think the Singing Wolf will go to the casino?” asked the Countess who did not share the same fondness for roulette or the same taste for gallows’ humour. “Half these people are directing their coaches to the ballroom of the Hotel du Palais.”
“Trust me, Countess Varvara. The Singing Wolf and her entourage will be at the casino. There she goes now!” The Princess indicated a black and gold barouche pulled by two black carriage horses.
Of all the carriages in existence, the barouche was the most elegant: lightly sprung so that is seemed suspended on a cushion of air and sensuously curved, imbuing those who sat inside with an aura of sensuousness to match. The hood was folded down – a sign the occupants were unafraid of the god of thunder and his invincible hammer.
“You can see the two vassals sitting vis-à-vis opposite their lady like doting minions – men are such fools for love!” tittered the old aristocrat happily, as the black and gold barouche floated past and they shuffled closer to the front of the queue. “There goes Prince Orczy in the landau with the two Mayflowers,” said the old Princess, who didn’t seem to miss a trick despite her rheumy eyes and advancing age. “They must be heading to the casino too for they are going the same way. Oh, here we are – a fiacre at last!”
The Bellevue Casino had a rather underwhelming façade. It had borrowed something from every style since chateau construction commenced as if it couldn’t quite make up its mind what it wanted to be: Louis Quatorze, Napoleon 111, et al. It had a mansard roof, dormers, turrets, windows that were round, square, rectangular and French door.
Prince Orczy was cutting a flaxen-haired dash at the baccarat table. Miss Mayflower and Mama Mayflower were poised awkwardly, one at each shoulder, trying desperately to look as if they were enjoying themselves but even flutes of expensive French bubbly failed to lift their sagging chins. When the Prince continued to lose at a furious pace and the pretence all got too much for the drooping dispositions of the American Puritans they made a beeline for the exit. A princely title was a coveted trophy across the Atlantic but not if it came tied to the coat tails of a profligate gambler. Fortunes larger than theirs had been squandered on matrimonial enterprises and lessons had been learned.
“Miss Mayflower is not so dull after all,” commented the Countess with a cynical smile.
“Hopefully, she and mama will book a passage on the first steamer ship bound for New York,” returned the Princess with a chuckle. “While they still have the means to pay for two tickets in first class and not in steerage.”
“Prince Orczy must be losing his charm as well as his luck.”
“Or else he has set his sights on a new demoiselle.”
The Countess dismissed the sardonic suggestion with a good-humoured laugh. “A man would have to be exceptional for me to ever consider sacrificing my independence.”
“Bravo, Varvaruchka, it warms an old woman’s heart to know the blood of Scythian matriarchs still flows in Slavic veins. Remind yourself of this conversation when you meet this exception. After you lose your head and he gains control of your fortune it will be too late. Now, let us make our way to the wheel of misfortune?”
They passed through various gilded salons where the crème de la crème of Europe and America came to squander their inheritances; a spin here, a flutter there, a few hours of idle amusement, repeat ad infinitum. They entered an octagonal chamber frescoed with scenes from the Sistine chapel – the painted ceiling depicting God reaching out his hand as if to grasp the last shekel from an unwise Adam.
The Singing Wolf was sitting regally at the roulette table. Either side of her, like loyal vassals, stood Baron Reichenbach and Herr von Gunn. She did not appear to acknowledge either man, nor did she speak to the croupier, nor to anyone around her, but remained as unapproachable as a mythic Saracen queen seated on her throne, placing her bets, always on the same number – black thirteen. There were women who were pretty, women who were beautiful and women who were stunning – the Singing Wolf was the latter, everything about her denoted style and substance, wealth and power, and that indefinable factor – mystique.
The Countess had observed for herself early in life that a petite blonde did not need to be exceptional to be considered the highest of her sex, whereas a brunette needed to be exceptional to be considered at all. The Countess was a brunette. She was what might be deemed: attractive. The chief attribute of her attractiveness was her confidence. And despite what many a cynic might say, it was not something money could buy. It stemmed from innate self-belief, and though it included a certain amount of vanity, it had nothing to do with conceit, which was aligned to arrogance and superiority devoid of reason, like a goddess without purpose.
The Princess Roskovsky made a great show of winning, clapping her hands and expostulating with childish glee, and just as great a show of losing, castigating the little wheel as if it had a mind of its own but lacked a Russian soul. The Singing Wolf was the opposite. Whether she won or lost, it was of no consequence. She hardly batted an eyelash whether black thirteen came up or not. The two minions standing either side kept her supplied with betting chips which she placed mechanically and unemotionally after each spin of the wheel.
After about an hour of time had passed and the Princess had suffered a run of bad luck and the long losing streak was about to claim her last chip, she suddenly cried out excitedly, clapped her hands exuberantly, and grabbed the stack of chips the croupier piled on top of black thirteen. A frisson of fear ran around the table and breaths were drawn.
“I believe they are mine,” said the Singing Wolf, addressing the old aristocrat.
“Oh, no,” countered the other. “I believe you are mistaken. These chips are mine.”
“Black thirteen is my number.”
“You failed to place your bet in time. The croupier called: No more bets. He pushed your chip back to you.”
“I believe it was your chip that failed to be placed in time.”
The Princess turned to her companion for confirmation. “Countess Varvara, can you tell this lady she is mistaken. The winning chip was mine.”
The Countess glanced from one implacable female face to the other and shook her head. “To be honest, I was not watching. Prince Orczy was having a glass of champagne thrown in his face by a lady in red and it momentarily claimed my attention.”
The Singing Wolf looked at the two minions either side of her for positive confirmation in her own favour but they cited the same lapse in concentration. Prince Orczy being splashed with champagne was a sight not to be missed.
The manager of the casino was summoned. He took one look at the Singing Wolf, trembled a little, mopped his forehead with his handkerchief, and instructed the hapless croupier to pay both women equal winnings.
The Singing Wolf looked down her raptor’s nose at the Princess Roskovsky. “You may keep both,” she said haughtily before sweeping out of the glittering salon, disdaining the company of her two disappointing male attendants with a cursive wave of a manicured hand. The manager trailed in her regal wake, muttering grovelling apologies. When they reached the foyer he called for her fur cloak and personally draped acres of mink over her shoulders, signalling for the doorman to summon the black and gold barouche without delay.
Soggy and humiliated, Prince Orczy begged to be allowed to accompany the Singing Wolf back to the Hotel Louve and deferentially kissed her hand when she relented.
The little drama left the Princess Roskovsky fatigued. She immediately announced that she too would be returning to her hotel.
The Countess was accompanying the Princess to the cloakroom when the old lady turned to her and took hold of both her hands.
“The night is young and something tells me you have certain fish to fry, Countess Varvara. It has been an interesting evening. The best I have had in years. No doubt we will cross paths again soon now that you have finally returned from the antipodes. A bientôt, Varvaruchka.”
Smiling, the Countess bestowed a trio of kisses on her late aunt’s wily compatriot and prepared to return to the roulette table when Baron Reichenbach and Herr von Gunn insinuated themselves into her path, introduced themselves, and invited her to join them at a private table set in a romantic candlelit booth where a bottle of French champagne chilled in a silver ice bucket and three crystal flutes stood ready. They appeared to know her name already.
“Prince Orczy pointed you out,” explained the Baron when she asked how they knew it. “It was an amusing stand-off just now, n’est-ce pas?” he continued cheerfully, filling three crystal flutes and handing the first to her.
“Quite,” said the Countess.
“I did not think either woman would back down,” added Herr von Gunn convivially. “Shall we drink a toast to the Princess Roskovsky and the Singing Wolf.”
The raising of glasses cemented the start of their relationship.
“Does the Singing Wolf have a name?” enquired the Countess.
“She goes by many names,” replied the Baron. “Iolaire Dubh is my favourite.”
“Louve D’Oc is mine,” added von Gunn.
“Black eagle. She-wolf of Oc. They sound fantastical and invented.”
The Prussian laughed throatily. “That’s why they suit her so well!”
“You are staying at the Hotel Louve with a travelling companion?” stated the German, deftly changing the subject as he topped up her glass.
“Did you get that information from Prince Orczy too?”
“Evidement, la comtesse – I take it that your travelling companion did not choose to join you tonight?”
“Dr John Watson, no, he is not fond of the opera.” She watched carefully for a reaction from the Baron but he did not betray himself. What’s in a name? There were possibly hundreds of Reichenbachs in the world with no connection to the place where Sherlock rumbled to his so-called death.
The German asked how she came to choose the small hotel on the rock and while she explained about the mix-up with rooms at the Hotel du Palais she got the distinct impression her listeners seemed not only bemused but dismayed that she ended up at the Hotel Louve.
The two men came once a year to Biarritz, always in the month of November, and always stayed at the Hotel Louve. Its location away from the main boulevards suited them. Neither man was currently married. The Prussian had been widowed seven years now. The German had been twice married and twice divorced. When the champagne had been drunk they clambered into the black and gold barouche which the Singing Wolf had dispatched for their return journey. It was a generous gesture and the sort of touch that made staying at a small hotel worthwhile.
They beat the storm by mere minutes. No sooner had they reached their rooms than the heavens opened up. Rain flooded the smart boulevards and sent the last of the pleasure seekers scurrying for cover.
Xenia and Fedir were waiting up for their mistress. They had rooms in the west wing and took turns keeping an eye out for the return of the barouche from the time it had been dispatched to the casino to fetch the last of the hotel’s guests.
Just after the stroke of midnight the Countess returned to startling news. Fedir stood guard in the corridor while Xenia lowered her voice and informed her mistress that a fourth man had checked into the hotel during her absence. He apparently always came to Biarritz at this time of year and always took the same room on the second floor. It was the room just below that of the Countess. His name was Colonel James Isambard Moriarty.
The Countess tossed and turned, snatching sleep for short periods. She would close her eyes, drift off then find herself wide awake an hour later, staring at the painted ceiling. She put her sleeplessness down to the electrical storm, the blinding light from le phare, and the roar of the Atlantic Ocean as it crashed onto the rock, but in truth she was worried. The name Moriarty coming on top of Reichenbach was not something she could dismiss and yet there could be no connection. She and Dr Watson had checked into the Hotel Louve on the spur of the moment, almost on a whim, by pure chance. No one could have foreseen their transfer from the Hotel du Palais in advance. There were hundreds of hotels they could have gone to. And even if Dr Watson’s room mix-up was contrived, what followed was not predictable. They had come across the Hotel Louve by happenstance after becoming lost. No one had proposed it to them. There had been no power of suggestion, no hint had been dropped, no invisible hand had guided them this way and yet…
And yet she could not help recalling the words of the Princess Roskovsky – the hotel had a certain reputation; hardly any women stayed there; the men who checked in were radical.
What did that mean? Radical? The word haunted her sleep and plagued her waking hours. It followed her in the dark as she moved restlessly to the window to watch the storm sweep across the sky, as she tossed a log on the fire where the dying embers glowed faintly red, as she paced the elegant bedchamber and fretted about the mental health of her travelling companion. What would be his reaction when he heard the name Reichenbach? What would be his over-reaction when he heard the name Moriarty? Would he insist on catching the first ferry back to England? Would he attempt to avenge his old friend?
Morning broke the back of the storm and the day dawned at peace with itself. The same could not be said of the Countess. Lack of sleep had her nerves stretched on tenterhooks, and though she was no coward, she could not bear the thought of an ugly scene so early in the day. She requested breakfast in bed and pondered the likelihood of a violent confrontation in the dining room. But neither Xenia nor Fedir brought tidings of anything untoward.
“Where is Dr Watson?” she finally asked after she’d fortified herself with a cup of tea.
Fedir informed her that Dr Watson had slept soundly and breakfasted early and was taking a walk to le phare. Xenia added that she heard him telling the concierge he had always been fascinated by lighthouses and would not return until midday and to reserve a table for lunch.
“Is there anyone in the dining room at present?”
“Yes,” replied Fedir. The gist of his monologue was that four men were taking their breakfast. They appeared to know each other well and seemed to be on very good terms.
This news should have pleased the Countess but it made her feel uneasy. What could the four men have in common? What thread connected them? A penniless playboy prince, a munitions manufacturer, a Prussian with military ties and an Irish colonel seemed an odd assortment? It was the last man who interested her the most. Probably because she had met the others and thus her curiosity was settled. The three she had met had come across as charming and intelligent, endowed with good humour and good manners, and restraint, yes, the Prussian and the German had handled the misunderstanding at the roulette table with admirable aplomb. As for Prince Orczy, at least he had had the good sense to leave the casino once the glass of champagne washed over him thus avoiding a heated exchange with the unknown lady in red.
Her mind wandered. The men came every year to the Hotel Louve, always at the same time – why? What was the drawcard? Were they all fools for love? Was the Singing Wolf the thread that drew them? Did she summon all four specifically to watch them fawn and flatter, pay court, vie for her favours?
She tried to recall what Professor Moriarty looked like. There had been an unflattering illustration in one of the chronicles penned by Dr Watson of a wild-haired, rake-thin man with a cadaverous face and mad staring eyes. The artist had captured perfectly the look of fanatical determination one associates with a cold-blooded murderer. She knew there was a younger brother. Could there also be a nephew? Or possibly a son!
She completed her toilette and tossed up whether to catch up to Dr Watson at the lighthouse or take a turn around the courtyard garden. Lack of sleep decided for her. And that’s how she found herself face to face with the fourth guest.
He spotted her from his balcony and acknowledged her with an inclination of his head. By the time she had completed one circuit of the cherub fountain he was by her side. He looked at her as if he knew her, as if he saw something in her features that reminded him of someone else, and the uncanny thing was that she felt as if she knew him too. They greeted each other for the first time not as strangers but more like childhood companions who have not seen each other for untold years, as if the eons that separated them were but a blink in time, as if they both just stepped out of the same page of the Irish Book of Conquests and could pick up some ancient mystical connection at will.
His voice was imbued with a soft Irish lilt, playful and ironic. There was nothing harsh or discordant in the tone, nothing dangerous or menacing behind his words. He had milky blue eyes, like translucent glass with a drop of summer sky in them. His head was bald. Now, there are some women who do not like bald men, but the Countess was not one of them. A bald head reminded her of other appendages that stimulated feminine imagination. He was not exactly handsome but what he lacked in looks he made up in personal presence. And in men that counted for more.
He introduced himself and she pretended she hadn’t heard the name before. He played along, though she got the impression he didn’t believe it for a moment. He did not attempt to flirt with her – that’s probably why he felt like a childhood friend. Friends understood each other. They did not play emotional games. Their rapport was natural and comfortable and devoid of artifice. Within a few minutes of meeting he had discovered several crucial things: her name, the fact she had been married for three years to an Australian, that fact she was independently wealthy, that she had just recently returned to the continent, that she was raised in Ukraine, the step-daughter of the Count of Odessos, had travelled most of the world with her step-aunt, Countess Zoya Volodymyrovna, and that she was fiercely intelligent.
They sat on a garden bench out of the wind, though the walled garden was fairly sheltered already. She learned he was born the youngest of three brothers. The other two were dead. He hailed from an impoverished Irish family whose wealth was being restored after decades of destitute penury. He was currently restoring his mother’s family seat, Ballyfolly Castle, which had been nothing but a ruin for several generations. He made her promise if she was ever in Ireland to make a visit. He was fiercely proud.
“Isambard is an unusual choice of name for an Irishman,” she observed.
“We are an unusual Irish family,” he parried lightly. “All three brothers were christened James. James Hieronymous Moriarty. James Vercengetorix Moriarty. James Isambard Moriarty. Our pater believed it would force us to toughen up.”
“And did it?”
“To be sure!” he laughed loud and long. “We stood up to the bullies and my two siblings excelled at their lessons, particularly in spelling. My eldest brother was a mathematical genius, my second was a great musician and composer able to harness the musical spheres, as for me, well, modesty forbids me to sing my own praises. What sort of man would I be if I boasted of my achievements upon our first meeting?”
She had been prepared to dislike him intensely. His eldest brother had been her father’s arch nemesis, responsible for hounding him to his death in Switzerland. She had warned herself against finding anything good in him. But the inescapable fact was he was surprisingly easy to like. He came across as so honest and sincere she believed that if she asked him point blank about the death of Sherlock he would probably tell her exactly what had happened and why. But she bit her tongue.
The Singing Wolf appeared briefly on her balcony. She was once again wearing a black peignoir, a diaphanous garment that conjured up a magical vision in the pearly light of morning.
Prince Orczy affected a mock salute in their direction as he hurried down the steps that led to the gated pillars. His undue haste told them he was probably on his way to the same baccarat table he had been forced to retire from prematurely the previous evening.
More languidly, the other two male guests emerged from the dining room and found a pocket of sunshine on the slate-paved terrace where they sat down to enjoy a leisurely cigarette.
“Shall we make one more circuit of the garden before we join Baron Reichenbach and Herr von Gunn?” suggested Colonel Moriarty, gallantly offering his arm.
They walked arm in arm without speaking and were coming round the cherub fountain when palls of black smoke began billowing from the little windows of the sous-sol that provided ventilation and light to the basement of the hotel.
“Stay here,” he said urgently, releasing her arm and patting her hand reassuringly. “I fear there may be a fire in the kitchens.”
And off he dashed.
The two men on the terrace had not yet noticed the plumes of black smoke. They appeared to find his impulsive sprint amusing. But when he called: “Fire! Fire!” they understood the urgency, tossed their cigarettes into the garden bed and followed hot on his heels.
The Countess did not heed his warning to stay put but rushed straight upstairs to her bedroom where Xenia had already started packing up her jewels, safeguarding them in fact, for they had once stayed at a hotel where a fire had broken out and in the ensuing panic several rooms had been ransacked.
Even if the fire was genuine there was always the possibility of it spreading beyond the underground rooms. Xenia had the luggage standing by and all the essentials within reach. Fedir had fetched the trunks and portmanteaux out of the box room at the end of the hall and then raced downstairs to offer assistance.
From her balcony window the Countess could see Dr Watson in the distance, exploring the base of the lighthouse with a handful of tourists. Someone pointed in the direction of the hotel and everyone turned to look. Alerted to the billowing funnel of black smoke, he began to hurry back across the rocks toward the footbridge that joined le phare to the mainland. It would take him at least twenty minutes to make his way back.
The Countess instructed Xenia to hold off any packing. A maritime fortress would be bound to have thick stone walls and sturdy foundations. She doubted the fire would spread beyond the domestic rooms, and certainly not rapidly. She stepped back inside the bedroom and closed the French doors to keep out the smell of smoke and any cinders that might blow in on currents of air. Xenia remained in the bedchamber while the Countess hurried downstairs to ascertain the extent of the fire and to await the arrival of Dr Watson. He would have worked himself up into a lather, and she wanted to allay any fears before he panicked.
The concierge had deserted his desk and the lobby boy was nowhere to be seen. She could hear loud voices and banging sounds coming from the stairwell that led down to the underground rooms. Smoke was creeping up the stairs and lingering in the foyer but not at an alarming rate. She opened the heavy front doors to allow the tendrils of smoke to vent, wedging the double doors with a pair of carved Spanish chairs, before remembering that oxygen would feed the flames below. Quickly she closed them again. As she paced the patterned brickwork, trepidation mounting despite what she’d just told herself about the sturdiness of fortresses, the heavy front doors flew open. It was Prince Orczy. He was red in the face from running.
“What’s happening?” he gasped, panting heavily. “I had reached the boulevard and was about to climb into a fiacre when the cabbie pointed out the black clouds engulfing the hotel. He made some joke about the Apocalypse before I realized it was smoke. I ran all the way back. Where’s the fire?”
That question was answered by the loud shouting and clatter of metal objects coming from the floor below. He turned and raced downstairs without waiting for a reply. At the same time, the Singing Wolf made an appearance. She was now dressed in black satin from head to toe, a colour that made most complexions appear sallow, but her olive skin, reminiscent of the ancient race of Mediterranean pirates who had long ago settled in this part of the world, could withstand the leeching effect. In fact, it complimented the sultry features, highlighting the black eyes and raven hair and the ruby red of her lips. She was astonishingly calm.
“Good-morning, Countess Volodymyrovna. The fire should be under control in a minute or two. Let us remove ourselves into the sitting room and await the others. We will open a fresh bottle of amontillado in anticipation.”
Her accented voice was warm and husky, not a trace of anxiety was attached to a single, solitary, sang-froid note. It was the first time the Singing Wolf had addressed her.
No sooner had they opened that bottle of amontillado, took a glass for themselves, and settled into armchairs by the fireplace where a log fire crackled cheerily, than the men tramped in with soot-blackened faces grimed with sweat. They marched straight to the sideboard and helped themselves to a drink, draining the first glass in one gulp to quench parched throats before measuring a second and then a third.
“Well, the good news is the fire has not spread beyond the kitchens,” declared Moriarty.
“Was anyone injured?” probed the Countess.
“Not seriously,” replied the Baron. “The chef got a spot of soot in his eye. It is looking fearfully bloodshot and inflamed. He’s gone to have a rest in his room. Inez is making him a saline wash and preparing some cold compresses.”
“The lobby boy scalded his hands when he placed them on a hot metal surface,” added the German, refreshing his glass. “Desi fetched a bucket of cold water for him to plunge his hands into. She is now smearing his hands with butter. He will nurse some nasty blisters for a few days but he is young, his hands will heal.”
“All in all, we were frightfully fortunate,” commented Moriarty. “It could have been beastly bad luck if the kitchen had been fitted with one of those new-fangled gas ovens. Not a day goes by in London that one of those things does not explode.”
“Yes, damned dangerous things,” agreed the Baron, “it’s the same in Paris. The morning papers are full of it. A family with six children in Montparnasse went to their Maker just last week.”
“And Germany the same,” concurred Herr von Gunn. “Worse than Greek fire! No flues in most of the contraptions, gas builds up all night and then in the morning the maid strikes a lucifer and bang! The whole kitchen goes up like a burst of hygron pyr!”
“Fearfully lucky we managed to contain the flames to one room of the kitchen,” commented Moriarty, getting back on track. “That’s the good thing about these really old places. The kitchens were compartmentalized according to tasks – dairy room, salting room, meat room, bakery room, and so forth, not like some modern kitchens with everything taking place in the one room and just a larder or scullery off the side. But I’m afraid there will be no suckling pig for dinner,” he finished on a lighter note.
Felipe, the concierge entered, his dark eyes were red-rimmed and streaming.
“What is it Felipe?” asked the Singing Wolf.
“I wish to inform our guests that morning tea was set out in the dining room just prior to the fire breaking out. If the Countess’s maid could help serve the tea and coffee…”
“Bon idée,” pronounced the Singing Wolf, before addressing her concierge. “Some cold vichysoisse and extra sandwiches, si tu plais. It will suffice for an early lunch. The hotel is closed to new guests as of now. I want a crew of workmen in as soon as possible. You will personally oversee the repairs. Spare no expense. That is all. Freshen yourself up then see to it at once.”
The men decided to change out of their smoke-stained clothes before decamping to the dining room. Dr Watson bumped into them in the foyer as he came hurtling in and was amazed that they were unhurt and seemed in such good spirits. They briefly recounted what had happened, describing astonishing acts of courage as nothing out of the ordinary.
The fire had started when a spark caught hold of a cloth hanging on a rail above the cooking fire where a whole pig was roasting on a spit. The burning cloth fell into a vat of oil which ignited some hot dripping in a pan. Before the chef could quell the flames the whole chimney was alight and the pig was incinerated. Anything that was flammable was consumed by leaping tongues of fire. However, the conflagration was quickly contained and it was only because of the low ceiling and dearth of windows that the acrid black smoke, which sought to vent itself through every possible aperture, made it seem far worse than it actually was.
Dr Watson retrieved his medical bag and went to see what he could do for the chef and the lobby boy. Their injuries were minor and the curative measures already undertaken were as good as anything he could think of in the circumstances. He decided to check on Fedir in the west wing. The manservant was lying on his pallet. His eyes were smarting from the smoke but the damage was minimal. He recommended an eye wash using salt water and then bed rest for the remainder of the day. By the time he tidied himself up and arrived in the dining room the others had eaten and departed. He helped himself to some cold soup, rosbif sandwiches, drained two cups of tepid tea, and finally caught up to the Countess in her bedchamber. She was supervising the packing of her trunks, portmanteaux and hatboxes. She seemed in a frightful hurry.
“Are you transferring to another hotel?”
“Haven’t you heard?” she said.
“We have been invited to spend the rest of the week at the mountain retreat of the Singing Wolf.”
“An odd name for a hotel: The Mountain Retreat of the Singing Wolf. I don’t believe I have ever heard of it. Is it far out of town? I was hoping to play a round of golf tomorrow.”
“Oh, dear,” she sighed, realizing he had missed out on all the gossip relayed by the Princess Roskovsky and had probably not yet met their mysterious hostess either. “Take a seat and I will explain.”
She decided to keep it simple so as not to confuse him, deliberately omitting details pertaining to unsubstantiated rumours regarding wealth and nationality.
“An opera singer,” he said dubiously. “I cannot say I have heard of her. Do you think she could have been a friend of…” he paused, wondering how to phrase it and finally settled on, “Miss Adler?”
“You mean my mother?” she said with conviction.
“Yes, I suppose so,” he conceded, though he was still not convinced.
“She is of similar age – about forty years plus, and she did sing with the Warsaw Opera, so it is entirely possible.”
“I think it might be best not to mention the fact Miss Adler is…”
“Yes, yes,” she cut off. “I have no intention of letting the cat out of the bag.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. He was still awaiting further confirmation from Mycroft regarding where she had sprung from. Until then, they both needed to play their cards close to their chests. There was more at stake than she knew.
“So where are we off to?” he asked with a frown, changing the subject. “A damn shame about that kitchen fire. I was looking forward to staying here. I am starting to think I might be cursed with regard to hotels.”
“It is called Chanteloup. A day’s journey into the hinterland.”
“A days’ journey! It’s already midday! Are we expected to trek through the Pyrenees in the pitch dark on horseback and arrive at some isolated farmhouse at midnight?”
“Private train – overnight sleeper, individual compartments for everyone; did I forget to mention the Singing Wolf is frightfully rich?”
Shaggy grey brows travelled north, followed by a smile.
Within the hour everyone’s luggage was on board a private train chugging east, skirting the rugged foothills of the Pyrenees. The train had been decommissioned by the Belgians several years ago when the fashion for carriage cars became wider and longer. It had since undergone a complete refurbishment. It was painted black and gold with an elaborate SW monogram on each car. The interior was now fit for royalty with polished mahogany panelling, plush velvet upholstery, black damask curtains with gold fringing and shiny brass fittings. There were five cars including the locomotive and an observation car at the rear with a little platform like a miniature balcony with wrought iron railing which was perfect for watching the scenery whizz by while smoking a cigarette. The fifth car doubled as the sitting car. There was no dining car as such but provisions had been loaded aboard for dinner and breakfast so that they would not need to stop at any of the stations en route. A couple of quick stops to take on water and coal would keep them going with minimal interruption.
Everything had happened at a furious pace after the Singing Wolf issued her invitation while they were lunching, making it sound like a fait accompli. None of the men had attempted to beg off and the Countess had wondered what would have happened had Dr Watson been present when the announcement had been made, for that’s what it was, an announcement, a decree, a royal edict. The Countess considered declining the kind offer but then thought twice about swimming against the tide. It was as if all the events leading up to this point been had been set in motion by some force greater than the sum of all she understood to be rational and real: The mix-up with the rooms at the Hotel du Palais, the four radical men assembling here at the Hotel Louve, and the fire in the kitchen. A series of strange coincidences? Or some diabolical piece of theatre? It was at times like these that she gave herself over to unknown forces, or for want of a better term, the forces of Fate.
Dr Watson had had no chance to meet his fellow travellers until they arrived at the bustling train station in Biarritz, and even there, because of the flurry of fiacres, the unloading of wagonettes, the hauling of luggage into different cars, and not having as many servants as they would have liked for all the tasks, that introductions were hurried – a quick nod, a brief shake of hands, a jumble of names shouted above the whistle of the train – Frederick, Gustav, James – the hiss of steam, the clatter of wooden trolleys, and the frantic call: “All aboard! All aboard! Express to Chanteloup! Train privée! Stand back! Stand back!”
The sultry flamenco dancer, Inez, the Singing Wolf’s personal maid and occasional femme de chambre, was included in the party, as was Velazquez and Milo, the lobby boy, his hands bandaged. There was also clumsy Desi, the lumpen Negress with frizzy hair. The remainder of the staff at the Hotel Louve stayed behind to assist Felipe, who had been charged with supervising repairs and renovations. There was minimal damage from the flames but the smell of smoke had permeated most of the rooms. Everything would need to be aired, including rugs, curtains and soft furnishings.
The Countess decided to give Dr Watson a chance to formally meet his fellow travellers in the observation car for himself. Xenia had been told to make herself scarce and not return for an hour. The Countess waited alone in her compartment for the door to burst open. It took twenty minutes from the time of boarding for the doctor to appear. He was frothing at the mouth.
“Are you mad!” he foamed.
“Close the door,” she relied calmly.
He did as she asked, making sure to lock it. “Are you mad!” he repeated apoplectically.
“I take it by that rhetorical rejoinder that you have met our fellow travellers?”
“If you mean Reichenbach and Moriarty – yes, I have met them!”
“Lower your tone and take a seat.”
“What game is this!” he gurgled, throwing himself down with exaggerated effort.
“I don’t know,” she replied truthfully. “I think we have stumbled into a nest of vipers.”
“Oh, so you admit it then!”
“Calm down – and let’s think clearly.”
“It is all clear enough to me!”
“If so, then you will have to admit this journey could not have been planned in advance.”
“I will admit no such thing!”
“No one could have foreseen you and me transferring to the Hotel Louve. Whatever game is afoot it has nothing to do with us.”
“You mean it had nothing to do with us.”
“Yes, I concede we are in it now, whatever it is.”
“Up to our necks!”
“The four men we are travelling with come every year to the Hotel Louve – always at the same time of year. I met Prince Orczy last night at the opera, and then later at the casino I met Baron Reichenbach and Herr von Gunn. I didn’t meet Moriarty until this morning. It was just before the fire broke out.”
“He was probably busy lighting it!”
She ignored the incendiary accusation. “He was with me in the garden at the time. The prince was heading toward the boulevard and the other two men were on the terrace taking a post-petit-dejeuner cigarette. None of them were anywhere near the kitchen when the fire started.”
He exhaled for the first time since storming her carriage and practically ripping the door off its hinges. “Well, at least it sounds as if you’ve been giving the matter some serious and careful consideration. I thought perhaps you were going to dismiss this coincidence as some sort of…coincidence.”
“I was as vexed as you when I heard the name Reichenbach. He is Prussian, by the way, not Swiss. There must be hundreds of Reichenbachs in Europe. The Princess Roskovsky said his roots go back to Charlemagne.”
“And Moriarty – did that name vex you?”
“I admit I felt alarmed. I tossed and turned all night when Xenia informed me last night that someone of that name had checked into the hotel.”
He slapped the side of his head and groaned quietly. “Don’t tell me your two servants are privy to the circumstances of the death of Sherlock?”
“Yes, of course they are. They have been with me constantly since childhood. My step-father instilled in me from a young age that I would always have three shadows – my own plus theirs. Slavery has been abolished. Serfdom went the same way in 1861. But some servants are for life. I have no secrets from them. I also learnt early in life that if they are to protect me from kidnappers, provocateurs, gold-diggers and assassins then they need to be privy to whoever enters my circle. Odessa is not London. We do things differently there. We think differently.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment or two. “What else did the Russian barnacle say?”
“Prince Anton Orczy is penniless. He drifts from one baccarat table to the next. His mother is always bailing him out of debt. I gather he is a bit of a charming wastrel.”
“Sounds harmless – that immediately makes me suspicious of him.”
She nodded meditatively. “Herr Gustav von Gunn is a German munitions manufacturer. He must be incredibly wealthy because he owns twelve castles. European governments fall all over themselves to court him.”
“I’m not surprised. Europe seems to lurch from one war to the next with brief interludes of peace but nothing permanent despite the best diplomatic efforts of the War Office and intelligent men like Mycroft. What about Moriarty?”
“I did not meet him until this morning, as I stated earlier, so the Princess Roskovsky was not able to offer any information that might prove enlightening. I learned his other two brothers are dead. They hail from an impoverished Irish clan. Their wealth has now been restored and he is restoring his mother’s family seat. I do not know how he earns his money.”
“I’ll tell you how he earns his money! He has stepped into his brother’s shoes! He is the new Napoleon of Crime!”
“Colonel of Crime,” she corrected acerbically. “His brother, Professor James Hieronymous Moriarty, was the Napoleon of Crime. I was told the second brother, James Vercengetorix, was a musical genius, but this one is the third sibling – James Isambard Moriarty.”
“Insanity must run in the family! All right – Colonel of Crime! That will help us to distinguish one evil nutter from another!”
“We can refer to the second as the Composer of Crime.”
“He was a talented composer – it will help us to distinguish, as you said.”
“I’ve never heard of him and I pride myself on keeping up with the latest composers.”
“I think his musical scores may have been esoteric, out of this world, not for common consumption – compositions based on musical spheres and astronomical measurements or heavenly predictions.”
“Oh, good grief! What did I just say! Another nutter! But you mentioned he was dead?”
“Yes, so I believe, but if we need to refer to him…”
“Very well: Composer of Crime! Let’s hope there isn’t a fourth nutter waiting in the wings! We will run out of ridiculous nicknames starting with C!” Dr Watson, face flushed, turned to look out of the window at the forest whizzing past while his anger cooled. Armies of soldierly fir trees stood straight and tall like a phalanx of warriors. The military image was unnerving. “Nest of vipers,” he muttered uneasily. “What can these four rogues be up to?”
The Countess had also been gazing at the phallic fir forest and she felt oddly unnerved by the masculine force of nature. “I have been giving the matter some thought and it might be a simple case of unrequited love?”
His brows found something interesting in the suggestion. “The Singing Wolf?”
She nodded. “The four men could be vying for her favour.”
“Or her hand?”
“She does not strike me as the marrying kind.”
“All women are the marrying kind.”
“A common male misconception! A poor woman must marry out of economic necessity but a rich one, well, there are few incentives apart from social status or procreation.”
“Is that your step-aunt talking?”
“Yes, I was thoroughly indoctrinated until I could see for myself how right she was.”
“So, you think the four men come together each year to court the Singing Wolf?”
“Yes,” he agreed circumspectly. “She snaps her fingers and they come running. She is a stunning looking lady.”
“Let’s not forget how wealthy she is purported to be. No man could resist such a prize. Moriarty could restore his old family seat sparing no expense, von Gunn could double the size of his manufactories and double his profits, Orczy could pay off his debts and gamble to his heart’s content, and Reichenbach could recapture the glory days of Charlemagne.”
“Do you think she toys with them?”
“Yes, I think she keeps them on a string. The promise of passion, untold wealth, tangible beauty, the prospective sweetness of taming something wild and free – it is always there, dangling just in front of their eyes, close enough to see, yet just out of reach.”
“Do you consider the men weak?”
“Pas du tout, mon ami. They are courageous, strong, driven – they remind me of Parzival on a quest after the Holy Grail. They regard the conquest of the Singing Wolf as one of life’s challenges. They come willingly to Biarritz. She does not drag them kicking and screaming. This morning they ran to put out the fire in the kitchens without any thought of personal danger. They could have stood back and watched the place go up in smoke but they reacted without hesitation. There was no moment of doubt, no consideration given to the threat to their own safety. A father running into a burning building to save his only child could not have outrun them.”
“I suppose when you put it that way, it must be love that drives them and yet…” He paused and rubbed his bristly chin.
“Something doesn’t sit right.”
She glanced out of the window while he extracted a cigarette and lighted it.
“I agree – something doesn’t sit right.”
“It’s that phrase you used – nest of vipers – I cannot rid myself of it.”
“Nor can I,” she admitted frankly, “even though I plucked it out of thin air.”
“Did you? Did you really?”
She steepled her fingers while she wrestled with that question. The subconscious mind was a masterful interplay of unspoken thoughts, beliefs and impressions formed behind the veneer of logical thinking.
“Light one up for me. Xenia packed in a hurry and my cigarettes are in my cosmetic case.”
Obligingly, he passed her his own glowing Bradley before lighting another and returning to the same question. “Something must have prompted the phrase.”
She took a long deep inhalation of tobacco and felt it go deep into her lungs. “The names most likely – Reichenbach and Moriarty. But I have since wondered whether I might have simply jumped the gun. This Moriarty is not the same Moriarty who hounded Sherlock to his death. To tar him with the same brush is morally unjust.”
“Innocent until proven guilty; sins of the brother and all that.”
“Yes, yes, all that. As for Reichenbach – you would never condemn someone called York simply because someone you knew had died in the city of York. It makes no sense. The connection is purely geographic.”
“And yet…” she sighed heavily. “I think there is something about the four men, a thread, if you will, that connects them in some way that is subversive. I cannot say what makes me think so, perhaps it is my un-English up-bringing in Odessa, or being raised by an uninhibited adventuress, a remarkably shrewd woman when it came to dubious men, but I sense something dark, possibly even dangerous about our four fellow travellers. A wealthy young woman of independent means who has not led a sheltered life develops a sixth sense about men who have something to hide. I cannot shrug off the feeling that the annual get-together in Biarritz is not limited exclusively to the pursuit of the goddess of love. A Balkan prince, a German munitions manufacturer, a Prussian with a strong military background and an Irish colonel – there is some secret that binds them, something shadowy, something sinister, having said that, the obvious conclusion seems too obvious and thus totally wrong.”
“Armaments, military ties, enemies of Great Britain,” he reeled off gravely. “How can something that is obvious be wrong?”
“It is the presence of the fifth.”
“The Singing Wolf.”
Dr Watson chewed his bottom lip. “I wish I could whip off a telegram to Mycroft. He would settle the mystery of the four men in a trice. He would know all there is to know about our mysterious hostess too. Do you know if we are stopping at Lourdes?”
“Fedir overheard the station master talking to the engine driver. We go as far as the way-station in Bogomil. It falls short several miles of Lourdes. We must find out as much as we can about our fellow travellers without arousing their suspicion.”
“How do you suggest we do that?”
“We quiz them on how they met, where they met, when they met, but always in a conversational tone.”
He began shaking his head. “It won’t work. I cannot do it. As soon as I ask a question it will look as if I am prying. I have not perfected the art of being a sneak.”
“Very well, leave it to me. In fact, it will be better that way. As far as our fellow travellers are concerned there is no connection between myself and Sherlock, but as for you, well, when Moriarty mentions the name Sherlock to you do not react defensively.”
“How do you know he will mention it?”
“You are sounding defensive already,” she pointed out crisply. “He will mention it because he will not wish to appear as if he has something to hide.”
“Your logic is topsy-turvy. Appearing as if he has nothing to hide means he has something to hide. Presumably, then, when one has nothing to hide one appears as if one has something to hide.”
“Exactement, mon ami. People who have nothing to hide lead uneventful lives of no interest to anyone, including themselves, but they do not wish anyone else to know they may be shallow and boring, thus they behave as if they have something to hide to make themselves appear mysterious and interesting. That is called Society.”
“Oh, spare me!” he groaned. “Give me a good book for company any day!”
She laughed lightly but the laugh was short-lived. “I’ve just seen the flaw in my flawless logic. The Singing Wolf has veiled herself in mystery. Does that mean she has nothing to hide? Or is she pulling off the perfect double bluff? Appearing mysterious to hide the fact she has something to hide?”
Dr Watson groaned again. “I’ll see you in the observation car. Give me about fifteen minutes before following. We don’t want to appear as if we are arriving together and have nothing to hide.”
The observation car reminded the doctor of a gentleman’s smoking room in a Parisian hotel in the Marais where he had briefly stayed with Sherlock during the case of the haunted synagogue which he never wrote up, ceding to the request of the League de Judaisme. The banquettes and bergeres were upholstered in black and gold gaufrage velvet trimmed with matching black bullion fringing, cut-glass candle holders dotted the tables and some of the candles were already a-flicker though it was only mid-afternoon for the sky had clouded over and the light was a gloomy grey. The seating was arranged in intimate groupings suited to conversation or a game of cards. Prince Orczy was engaged in a game of chess with Baron Reichenbach. Herr von Gunn was reading a German newspaper and puffing on a cigar. Aromatic scent filled the car. Colonel Moriarty was smoking a cigarette and leaning precariously on the wrought iron railing of the little balcony at the rear of the train.
Dr Watson decided to bite the bullet. If he had something unpleasant or distasteful to do, he always preferred to get it out of the way. Ergo if there were sprouts for dinner he ate them first then enjoyed the rest of his meal. He regarded Colonel Moriarty as he would a sprout. He took a deep breath, pulled a sour face, and swallowed hard. For a brief moment he allowed himself to imagine what might happen if the train lurched suddenly and the Irishman took a tumble. It was during his momentary fantasy that someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was the sultry flamenco dancer, Inez.
“My mistress extends an invitation for you, signor, to join her in her private car.”
His sour face cleared to a smile. He thanked the young woman and turned at once on his heel to follow her, though he knew the private car of the Singing Wolf was the second after the locomotive engine. The first after the locomotive, which caught the soot from the fire if the windows were left opened, was reserved for baggage and servants. The third and fourth cars, known as the wagons-lit, each housed three sleeping compartments and a bathroom. A narrow corridor ran along one side of the cars and at each end was a door that enabled a person to step from one car to the next. People were mindful that a mis-step meant slipping between the cars onto the tracks. Some of the older trains did not allow such crossover. Some of the newer ones were being designed in such a way as to make the crossover safer.
Dr Watson had not yet met their hostess and presumed that was why he had received the personal invitation. A tray table sat ready with two glasses and a bottle of amontillado. He felt instantly relieved and self-importantly chuffed that there would be no third party present.
“Please make yourself comfortable, Dr Watson,” she said in a mellifluous accent that he could not quite pin down, indicating the sumptuously padded velvet banquette opposite her own with an elegant wave of her hand.
“The countryside changes rather dramatically in this part of the world,” she continued as Inez filled two glasses with Spanish sherry. “The land to the west is like the forests of Europe, like the Black Forest, dark, wet and treed, and then we move inland and the land dries out, as if someone has squeezed it dry. I always think it has cried itself out. The history of the Cathars is tragic. The landscape reflects the suffering. We are seeing the start of that now. If you look out of the window you will see fewer trees and more rocks. Are you familiar with the Pyrenees?”
“No, this is my first visit.”
“Then you are in for a treat. Is that how the Engleesh say such things? Treat?”
“You are Scotteesh, no?”
“Yes, I was born in Edinburgh.”
“You have travelled much?”
“Yes, I think it might be safe to say so – I have travelled a good deal in the last few years on the Continent.”
“You Engleesh have a funny way of saying things – might be safe – as if there is danger in saying what is true. You are modest, I think.”
He could feel himself turning pink and took a sip of sherry to disguise the fact. “I like to think so, yes, modesty is a virtue, boasting is not good form.”
“To say you travel a good deal is not boasting. To have the good fortune to travel is admirable if it broadens the mind and feeds the soul.”
“Oh, yes, indeed – that is the chief aim of travelling as far as I am concerned: to educate, to enlighten, to grow as a person.”
“To have the luck or wealth to do this is good, no? There is no shame in luck or wealth.”
“Certainly not, as long as they are earned.”
“Earned? How Scotteesh! How Engleesh! How foreign is such an idea! To earn luck! If it is earned then it is not luck. Luck is happenstance. Luck is chance. Luck is a wish fulfilled. Earned? No! Never!”
“It must be my Scottish roots but I like to think that luck goes to the deserving.”
She threw back her head and laughed without reserve. “But you must see that the world does not work that way! No, never! I have never met a deserving beggar who has the luck on his side. Have you ever met such a lucky beggar in your travels, Dr Watson?”
He was quite pink at this stage and squirming uncomfortably. His philosophies never matched the real world and yet he persisted with adhering to them. He felt quite foolish when pressed. “No,” he admitted, “my world view and reality never match. I’m afraid my philosophy is akin to wishful thinking.”
“Ah, you are a romantic! I like that very much in a man! There are not enough romantic men in the world! There a lot of men who pretend to be romantic, who woo, pay court, play at romance, but that is not the same, no?”
“It is like someone who goes to church to pray but in his heart says: there is no God.”
“Yes, quite, the head says one thing but the heart says another.”
“Which one do you believe, Dr Watson?”
“About God, you mean?”
“About your head or heart.”
“I don’t have a cut and dried rule, as such, that I follow rigidly. I weigh up what to believe as it arises. It has to be based on rational thinking, yes, but I acknowledge feelings play a part in all of our decisions. We are sentient beings but we are also influenced by our emotions.”
“Bravo! I like the way you explained that. You are an intelligent man as well as a romantic – that is rare. Countess Varvara is very lucky to have such a wise travelling companion. Are you intimately acquainted?”
Okay! That did it! He turned bright red. The word intimate could be translated several different ways, especially by fiery, hot-blooded, sensual foreigners. “We met only two months ago, so you see we are not intimately acquainted, no, just good friends.”
She smiled knowingly, motioning for her maid to top up the glasses then leave them.
“Do you see how the scenery changes, Dr Watson?”
He turned to look out of the window and breathed a sigh of relief. The conversation was getting a touch too personal for a stiff-lipped Scotsman.
“Some interesting rock formations,” he said blandly.
“Do you know the legend of the Pyrenees?”
He shook his head. “I really don’t know much about this part of the world at all.”
“The Pyrenees get their name from Pyrene, a princess, daughter of Bebryx, a ruler from Gaul. Hercules, that mythical hero of men, raped her and then left her to give birth to a serpent. When she fled her home from shame and wept out her story to the trees she was torn to pieces by wild beasts. Only the mountains wept for her and sighed: Pyrene, Pyrene, Pyrene.”
Countess Volodymyrovna arrived in the observation car and wondered where Dr Watson had disappeared. Prince Orczy and Baron Reichenbach were engaged in a game of chess. The Baron was bound to call checkmate in the next three moves. Herr von Gunn was reading a newspaper in German and smoking a Havana. The exotic aroma was quite tantalizing. Colonel Moriarty was on the rear balcony, leaning negligently against the railing. For a fleeting moment she wondered if he had pushed Dr Watson off the train and her heart skipped a beat, but then Herr von Gunn looked up from his newspaper.
“Your friend has gone to have a tête-a-tête with our hostess in her private car.”
Prince Orczy added with emphasis, “Inez came to issue a personal invitation. We were all green with envy.”
“Checkmate!” declared the Baron.
“Oh, thank God for that!” exclaimed the Prince. “I have been trying my hardest to lose for the last ten minutes.”
“Balderdash! You just cannot admit when you have been beaten by a better player! How about a game von Gunn?”
“Very well, but I will go ivory. You can take the ebony pieces this time.”
“Another brandy, gentlemen?” asked the Prince, cracking open a fresh bottle.
“Yes, top up the glasses, Orczy,” replied the Baron.
The Countess declined the offer of an afternoon aperitif and slipped out to join Moriarty on the observation deck. She watched him toss his spent cigarette onto the railway track and immediately light up another. He offered it to her, transferring it from his lips, and she took it.
“We have left the forest behind,” he said laconically. “More rocks, fewer trees.”
She inhaled deeply and blew bracelets of smoke into the wind. “Turkish or Russian?”
“My own blend. There’s a tobacconist on Old Bond Street. He makes them up for me and keeps me supplied. Eugene Goostman & Sons. The Prince of Wales is a client. Sarah Bernhardt swears by him. Oscar Wilde, when he had the funds, was a regular customer. I could have some sent to your London address. In fact, I would consider it an honour, Countess Varvara, if you would allow me to make a gift of them.”
“I don’t know how long I intend to be travelling on the Continent. I may not return to London for several months,” she lied, noting that he addressed her less formally.
“You will not be returning to the capital for Christmas?” he pressed.
“I have no plans at this stage.”
“They have a long life,” he persisted.
She gazed up at the blanket of woolly clouds while she inhaled. “I’m sure they do. We might be in for another rainstorm.”
“Let us hope not.”
She discerned a note of tension. “Do you fear the track might flood?”
“I fear we are entering Sarazan’s territory and the track might flood.”
“The local warlord. The region we are entering is rife with brigands who make a living robbing train travellers and extorting money from hapless pilgrims and farmers. Not even the poor are spared. If the track floods we will be at his mercy.”
“Does he always target trains?”
He gave a curt nod. “Trains are lucrative. Most of the passengers will have money and valuables on them. The French government has started employing armed guards on this particular line but one or two armed guards against ruthless bandits is an exercise in futility. Last month an engine driver and several passengers were killed in a gun fight.”
“I presume the Singing Wolf took some precautions, by that I mean we have some weapons and ammunition on board?”
“I presume so too, yes, since she is no fool, plus we all carry our own weapon of choice. You too, Countess?”
He did not look surprised. “And your servants?”
“They know how to shoot. I can arm them if the need arises.”
“Once the need arises it will be too late. We need to confer before dinner to decide how we intend to defend ourselves. After dinner we will be deep inside lawless territory and there will be no time to dream up a defensive strategy.” He glanced through the window into the observation car. “There’s Dr Watson and our hostess coming to join us now. Let’s go in and discuss a plan of action.”
Inez was lighting the candles in the crystal holders. Velazquez was refreshing the brandy balloons. Colonel Moriarty took the floor.
“The Countess and I were just discussing Sarazan. What are we going to do in the event of an attack?”
Velazquez dropped a crystal glass.
Inez went quickly to help him gather up the broken pieces.
Dr Watson felt puzzled and alarmed in equal measure. “I beg your pardon, Colonel? What is Sarazan? And what attack are we talking about?”
Herr von Gunn answered for him. “Sarazan is the leader of a group of brigands who roam this region and terrorize the locals. He is also known to attack trains.” He paused and allowed his eyes to circle the interior of the car. “We are all armed, are we not?”
“We must arm the servants too,” pronounced the Baron. “From this point on, until we reach the safety of Chanteloup, everyone should remain armed at all times. If the attack does not come tonight, it may come tomorrow as we travel on horseback.”
“I’d wager that is the more likely scenario,” said the Prince. “Sarazan is unlikely to attack a private train because he will have no way of knowing who is on board and how much of a fight he will have on his hands, but tomorrow as we trek through narrow mountain passes he can pick us off one by one at his leisure.”
Dr Watson’s heart began beating fast. He was no coward. He had witnessed war first hand and fought in several battles where men around him gasped their last and he had not disgraced himself, but this sounded outrageous. The phrase ‘sitting ducks’ stuck in his craw. What sort of holiday was this! What sort of hell was this! What sort of vipers had he got himself involved with! They were discussing holding off ruthless brigands armed to the teeth the way most men would discuss the best strategy for tackling a scrum of thick-necked rugby players. He turned to his hostess. She had failed to mention any of this while he had been enjoying an amontillado in her private car and he felt incensed at being kept in the dark.
“Has the train ever been attacked?” he put point blank.
“Once,” she replied without a trace of tension, “the bandits blocked the train track using a felled tree trunk. It forced us to come to a sudden halt, but as soon as they attempted to board and we fired off a few bullets they fled back to the mountains. They are opportunistic not stupid. They have no wish to die. They prefer to tackle those who are weak and defenceless. As soon as they realize they are in for a fight they turn tail and run.”
That sounded nominally reassuring. Dr Watson breathed easier.
Colonel Moriarty took the floor again. “I suggest we take turns keeping watch tonight just to be on the safe side. The observation platform at the rear of the train is our weak point. If bandits are going to board the train that will most likely be the point of entry. I can take the first watch and then Reichenbach can take over at three o’clock. The second weak point is the locomotive.” He turned to the Countess. “You said your man knew how to shoot. He proved himself a brave fellow during that kitchen fire. I think he should stay with the engine driver and the stoker. They will be too busy keeping the train going to defend themselves. It is vital they have someone to provide cover.”
She was impressed by his astuteness. “I can supply him with a weapon.”
Moriarty continued calling the shots by the sheer force of his personality which everyone tacitly acknowledged. “Dr Watson, you can guard the third wagon-lit where the Countess will remain with her personal maid by her side. Orczy can take turns with von Gunn in guarding our hostess in her private car. The four servants from the Hotel Louve can remain in the baggage car. If all four are armed they should be able to fend off an attack.” He turned to the handsome toreador. “Velazquez, you will be in charge. Make sure that Milo and Desi understand the need to remain vigilant at all times.”
“Let’s dine early,” suggested the Baron peremptorily. “It will soon be dark and we don’t want to be caught out.”
“I propose we eschew getting changed for dinner and stay as we are,” added von Gunn melodramatically. “The sooner we are prepared to fend off an attack the better.”
The night passed tensely but without drama. Everyone played their part and nerves were so stretched no one slept for more than hour. The day dawned dull and grey with a thick November mist that veiled the view from the train’s widows as the locomotive chugged into the wayside station of Bogomil, a hamlet of stone hovels, which if they could see, was actually in the middle of nowhere. Waiting for them was a string of donkeys and a small herd of fine looking Andalusian horses. They breakfasted under some dwarfish pine trees while the entire population of Bogomil, meaning three men, five women and eleven children, loaded the luggage onto the backs of the donkeys. There was no sign of any brigands and none had been spotted for several weeks said one of the Bogomils – a craggy-faced, pipe-smoking, back-bent crone.
The man who supplied the horses was called El Lopes. He owned a prosperous farm outside Lourdes and was of the opinion that Sarazan had moved east, closer to Carcassonne, to warmer climes ahead of the winter chill and the first snowfall. He greeted the Singing Wolf in the manner of a loyal subject greeting Bramimonde, the Queen of Saragossa, and it seemed he trusted her implicitly to return his precious horses and pack of donkeys, bidding the party adios and riding off into the mist with his retinue of heavily armed farmhands as soon as the loading of bags was underway.
The late autumn sun was struggling to break through the grey curtain of the Pyrenees as they set forth north, heading into wild and windswept terrain. This was poor country, dry and barren in summer, freezing cold in winter. Granite outcrops dotted the treeless plain.
Colonel Moriarty rode at the front of the party. Herr von Gunn took up a position in the middle. Dr Watson and Baron Reichenbach remained at the rear. In between Moriarty and von Gunn came the horses, after von Gunn stretched the donkeys and several boys from the clan Bogomil who came along to keep the animals in line. They would return home once the party reached its destination safely. Milo, his hands still bandaged, rode with Velazquez. Desi doubled up with Inez, and everyone noted that the two women resembled a fairy and an elephant sitting astride a horse.
As soon as the morning mist lifted they could see the peak known as Chanteloup rising in the near-distance. The Chateau de Chanteloup was still under cloud cover. It was reputed to be a Cathar stronghold, but in reality most of the fortresses in these parts pre-dated Catharism. Some had foundations that went back to the days of Roman domination. Later they served as French garrisons strengthened during the Hundred Years War. Many were again enlarged during the Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Huguenots. They were amazing feats of architecture, not because of their style – for they had none of the beauty of the Romanesque or Gothic – but because they were perched precariously on precipices that defied belief. They had walls ten feet thick and vertiginous defensive towers that soared skyward.
The journey was slow-going. The terrain was rough and the donkeys were plodders. Everyone was wary of being ambushed whenever they passed a copse of scraggly oaks or a cluster of rocks that might provide hiding places for brigands. By midday they reached the southern foothills of Chanteloup and stopped at a small clearing where the horses and donkeys could crop some grass.
“Plat de cremats,” whispered the Bogomil boys, crossing themselves Catholic style, “the place where heretics were burned in the year of Our Lord 1244.”
Lunch was a cup of cold coffee and some crusty bread. They did not light a fire for fear of bringing attention to themselves, and the irony was not lost on any of the travellers. The young Bogomils kept watch while they wolfed down their simple repast.
“Chateau de Chanteloup is not a chateau according to the romantic French imagination,” explained the Singing Wolf when the Countess enquired about the history of the ancient fortress. “None of the Cathar fortresses were grand or impressive, apart from Carcassonne, which is really a large village or town. Half way up the mountain, as we ascend the path to the north gate, we will pass a clutch of stone cottages built into the hillside. My servants live there. I confess to being a recluse. I prefer my own company when I am in residence, and for the four months when I am not in residence Chanteloup is completely cut off from the world. I retain just two caretakers year round. The other servants arrive each day at first light and return to their homes when darkness falls. The castle gates are then locked to keep out wolves. I think you will find it comfortable enough, though to be honest I have never stayed during the winter months. Between November and March I always stay in Biarritz. Chanteloup has no radiators, just open fires, no electric lights and no gasoliers, just candles. You may find it Spartan compared to what you are accustomed…”
A rifle shot rang out. Everyone dropped what they were doing and dived for cover. Velazquez jumped like a jack-in-the-box and ended up with cold coffee all over his crotch. Milo and Desi clung tightly to each other as they huddled behind a bush of spiky thorns and tried not to get stabbed in the eye. Spooked by the loud noise, several of the horses might have bolted but Baron Reichenbach and Dr Watson had made sure they were tethered as soon as the riders dismounted.
More rifle shots rang out. The shots were coming from a group of rocks to the left. Dr Watson and Baron Reichenbach, stationed further back than the others, managed to return fire, and when one of the bandits was brazen enough to raise his head above the rocky parapet a bullet from the gun-barrel of the Baron found its mark and the outlaw plummeted down the side of the rock-face.
For a few minutes no one moved a muscle. Colonel Moriarty was the first to break cover, drawing fire in order to flush out the hiding places of the bandits. Several shots were exchanged as Moriarty shift around to the right. A hail of bullets suddenly rained down from above and another careless bandit fell to his death.
Without warning a rifle shot rang out from behind them. One of the bandits had positioned himself on a rocky ledge to the rear of their temporary encampment. The danger was immediately evident to everyone.
“Sarazan!” cried one of the Bogomils when a man appeared at the top of the ridge.
The Countess was in the best position to take a shot and did not hesitate. Sarazan leapt back in surprise and cried out but appeared unharmed because a few moments later he could be seen signalling to someone down below to hold fire. In the meantime one of the bandits had managed to scramble closer to where the donkeys were tethered. He was about to cut them loose when a dagger flew through the air and found a home in his chest. He cried out and crumpled in the dust. Velazquez, crouching behind a rock, took credit for the timely kill.
With three bandits down and a stand-off stretching into a cold November night looking the likeliest scenario, Sarazan, to everyone’s astonishment, suddenly gave a whistle. His men fell back then began to retreat. Colonel Moriarty, astounded by this turnaround, and thinking it might be some sort of ruse, quickly clambered to the top of the ridge and managed to wound another brigand as he and his cohort fled on horseback. Fedir followed and brought down a fifth.
Gradually, the party of travellers crept out of hiding and re-grouped near to where the horses stamped and pawed the dust. Velazquez was limping. He had twisted his ankle when the first shot rang out and he jumped in fright, landing awkwardly. One of the Bogomil boys suffered slight concussion when he fell and hit his head on a rock. Milo had pinpricks of blood all over his face from the thorns. Dr Watson tended to the injuries as quickly as possible. Reichenbach ordered Velazquez and Milo to collect all weapons and ammunition from the dead brigands. Desi retrieved the dagger. The ambush had set them back and they needed to get underway as soon as possible. Travelling after dark in these parts was nothing short of a death wish.
They soon began the ascent, following a narrow snaking road that had been gouged out of the rock centuries ago. The wind grew stronger the higher they climbed. The temperature dropped dramatically. Collars were raised, scarves tightened and hats firmly secured. When they reached the place where the cottages of the servants were tucked into the hillside they dismounted, took stock of their surrounds, and paused for breath. There did not appear to be any brigands pursuing them or lying in wait to ambush them a second time.
From this point on the road zigzagged sharply up the slope, making it impossible to stay in the saddle, so the rest of the journey was completed on foot. The pack donkeys struggled with the steep incline and everyone breathed a sigh of relief when a raised portcullis came into view.
It led them into the outer bailey, now a grassy courtyard where the stables were situated. The horses and donkeys went no further. A set of stone steps took the intrepid travellers higher. Through an open arch was a smaller courtyard, the inner bailey. At the far end yet another archway led them even higher. The fortress was stepped up, built on several levels for defensive purposes, and because it was easier for the original masons to follow the natural contour of the rocky terrain.
The Countess looked back down the mountain through the open gate and then up at the thick stone walls and vertical towers rising steeply at her back. Did men ever climb that high? What drove them to place one rock after another with such painstaking perfection that this bastion was still standing strong today? Chanteloup was an extraordinary structure, a monument to place and time and suffering. It sat halfway between earth and sky, neither in heaven nor in hell, yet there must have been many times in its long history when it was viewed as one or the other. What was it now, she wondered, heaven or hell?
Heaven, decided the Countess when she ascended one last set of stone steps and found herself inside great vaulted hall with a fireplace big enough for ten men to stand upright. It devoured not logs but entire tree trunks and threw out an enormous amount of heat which was just as well for the dimensions of the hall were immense. This was the donjon, the keep, the most secure part of any castle, with the thickest, sturdiest, strongest walls. In the middle of the hall, stood a massive stone column that resembled a giant palm tree. It fanned out across the vaulted roof with each frond of the so-called palm tree branching off to form a separate vaulting. The donjon was so vast it served as entry, sitting room, dining room, library and chapel. A series of lofty lancet windows invited thin beams of oblique light to enter which illumined the vast chamber and dispelled the gloom between dawn and dusk. The windows also helped to vent wisps of smoke which might otherwise have gathered in the cavernous vaults of the ceiling. The furnishings were reminiscent of the provincial Spanish and French furniture found in the Hotel Louve. There were no actual timber doors in the donjon; instead the doorways were hung with tapestries depicting scenes from the Chanson de Geste. There were four in all, leading to the east and west wings, a spiral staircase, and the kitchen stairs. They also served to keep out unwanted courants d’air.
The travellers congregated by the fire and fortified themselves with a local Muscat de Rivesalles while the Singing Wolf slipped out of sight.
“I say,” began Dr Watson, “that was a damn good bit of knife throwing by Velazquez.”
“Incredibly accurate!” agreed von Gunn.
“Must be a skill he honed as a toreador,” supplied the Baron.
“Lucky for us he spotted that blackguard by the donkeys or it would have been curtains to our luggage,” added the Prince.
“Well, gentlemen,” interrupted the Countess, gazing up at the multitudinous vaulting of the donjon, “what do we think of Chanteloup?”
The response was unanimous: “Staggering! Stupendous! Splendid! Breathtaking!”
“No wonder our hostess keeps it to herself,” summed up Dr Watson. “It was certainly worth the arduous trek.”
Had our travellers not been so weary they might have explored the castle and found that the east and west wings spanned the length of the plateau, adhering to no formal design, jutting in and out, rising and falling, according to the lay of the land. The long corridors lit by flaming torcheres in fixed iron holders supplied both light and warmth. Every window faced inwardly onto paved courtyards. The un-breachable outer walls were all windowless. The rooms with fireplaces had been converted into comfortable bedrooms. Copper hip-baths full of hot water sat ready and waiting beside the hearths. Tucked into the thickness of the end walls were garderobes – cloakrooms that doubled as medieval latrines – still doing the job they were built for.
On a lower level, between the stables and donjon, they would have discovered the domestic rooms. Here were the kitchens and storerooms where sacks of grain, barrels of wine and jars of oil were kept, plus the all-important well-head that allowed access to a massive cistern, vital in times of siege, protected in an enclosed space of its own. Some of the rooms might have been workshops for weavers, leather workers and boot-makers. The old caretaker couple, Almaric and Hortense, slept in what had originally been the bakery. It had a large fireplace and a hive of bread ovens. An adjoining scullery now served as their bathroom.
Underground, they would have found the armoury and dungeons, along with a torture chamber fitted out with all the usual grisly playthings.
The young Bogomils scoffed down some bean soup and crusty bread and hurried back down the zigzag path to the cottages before darkness fell. It was the Chanteloup servants who saw to the unloading of the luggage, settled the guests in their rooms, and then likewise retreated to their cottages despite it already being dark for they knew every zig and zag in the path.
“I say,” began Dr Watson when they all reconvened refreshed and in high spirits in the donjon dressed in formal attire prior to dinner, “our hostess has proved herself to be remarkably well organized.”
“She dashed off a telegram to Lourdes straight after she invited us to come to Chanteloup,” explained von Gunn as he offered the doctor a German cigarette. “I overheard her giving directions to Felipe. She entrusted that El Lopes fellow with organizing transport and provisions and instructing the servants to ensure every comfort was in place upon our arrival.”
“Well, she thought of everything,” approved the Baron, helping himself to a generous measure of Muscat. “My bones welcomed that hot bath. I didn’t expect such luxury.”
The Countess didn’t want to sound unappreciative. Her bedroom was comfortable but hardly luxurious. Perhaps she just had higher standards. “A view of the surrounding countryside would have been the icing on the cake,” she offered solicitously.
“Here! Here!” came the chorus.
“Merde! What the hell was that!” The Prince leapt to his feet so abruptly his dining chair crashed to the floor.
“It sounded like an earthquake,” exclaimed von Gunn.
“Yes!” agreed Dr Watson, sounding alarmed. “I felt the tremor.”
“I did too,” said the Baron, replacing his knife and fork in preparation for flight.
Colonel Moriarty’s eyes darted up to the stone vaulting, searching for cracks in the masonry. He resembled the biblical Samson, head shorn, bracing himself for imminent doom.
“Do not be alarmed, gentlemen,” said the Singing Wolf with apparent unconcern. “It was merely a rockslide. They are frequent hereabouts, especially following a heavy rainstorm. My servants are constantly clearing rocks from the track.”
Prince Orczy and Colonel Moriarty retook their seats, feeling suddenly foolish for over-reacting. Both men took a gulp of local Gaillac wine to settle their nerves, and then refilled their own glasses to save the servants the trouble. The other men followed suit.
“Is this region known for earthquakes?” pursued Dr Watson tensely.
“Not particularly,” replied their hostess reassuringly. “There is the odd tremor but you must remember that Chanteloup has been standing for hundreds of years.”
“I’ll drink to that!” pronounced the Prince to lighten the tone.
They all laughed and the Countess decided to change the subject. She broached a question that had been niggling since the ambush.
“Is it my imagination or did the outlaw who attacked us from behind appear to be dark-skinned?”
“Sarazan, you mean?” clarified Moriarty.
“I thought the same thing,” concurred von Gunn.
“Yes, definitely dark-skinned,” agreed Prince Orczy. “I was standing front-on and a shaft of sunlight broke through the cloud and caught him full on the face. He was much darker than the Spanish gypsies who inhabit the Pyrenees.”
“But not as dark as Desi,” added the Baron.
“Yes,” confirmed the Singing Wolf. “Sarazan is of Moorish descent. The original ruler of Lourdes was called Mirat the Moor. Mirat, so the legend goes, was attacked and besieged by Charlemagne. Legend also has it that when an eagle appeared in the sky and dropped a trout in his compound, he interpreted the act as a bad omen, surrendered at once, took himself off to pay his respects to the Black Virgin of Puy, and immediately converted to Christianity.”
“How long has Sarazan been terrorizing this region?” asked the Baron, chest-puffing out at the mention of his illustrious ancestor, Charlemagne.
“For as long as I have been here,” replied the Singing Wolf.
“The French Army should do something about it,” declared the Baron.
“The French army regards the south of France as a foreign country,” said their hostess.
“That sort of thing would not be tolerated in Prussia.”
“Nor Germany,” vowed von Gunn.
“The Balkans is overrun with outlaws,” countered Prince Orczy wryly. “It adds to the romance of the place. Women find dangerous men and wild places exciting and erotic. Germany and Prussia lack soul. They are too industrialised, too urbanized, too sterile. Wolves and bears and lynx are being killed off in huge numbers…”
“Speaking of wolves,” interrupted Moriarty who was not in the mood for a lecture from a penniless princeling whom he had noticed aiming more than a casual glance at the Countess. “I’m sure I heard a wolf howling as I was dressing for dinner.”
“Do not worry, gentlemen,” teased their hostess. “The gate is barred. The portcullis is down. You are safe. Nothing can get in.”
“Or out,” joked Dr Watson, feeling immeasurably relieved the building wasn’t about to crash around their ears. “I must congratulate your cook. The jugged hare for entrée was delicious but this venison du chasseur is superb.”
“The black truffle sauce was a brilliant accompaniment,” complimented the Baron, mopping up the noir-ish juices on his plate with a tranche of bread.
Velazquez came to clear the plates and they all congratulated him of his knife-throwing. The handsome toreador seemed embarrassed by all the praise and limped away awkwardly, juggling an armload of Sevres china. Everyone held their breath, but no violent crash could be heard. He had made it safely down the stairs to the kitchens.
Inez and Desi brought out a lemon posset for dessert and it rounded off the meal wonderfully.
Prince Orczy turned to the Countess. “I meant to tell you yesterday but, well, with everything that has happened in the last twenty-four hours I hope you will forgive me.”
“Yes,” she prompted, curiosity rising.
“Princess Roskovsky died the day we set off for Chanteloup.”
“Died! No! Pas possible!”
He continued sadly. “I’m afraid it’s true. She was run over by a carriage on the rue de russie as she was crossing the road to the Orthodox church.”
“How do you know?” quizzed Moriarty, who was not the sort of man to accept announcements of sudden death at face value.
“I heard it from the cabbie the morning of the fire. I was heading off early to the casino and had hailed a fiacre. The cabbie had just come from the rue de russie and he thought that since I had a Slavic-style accent I might be interested to know that a Russian princess had just been killed.”
“Did the carriage driver stop?” asked the Countess.
“No, that’s the thing – he just kept going as if nothing happened.”
“What sort of carriage was it?” she probed further.
“I put the very same question to the cabbie and he told me it was a brougham.”
“Cabbies are maniacs!” declared von Gunn vociferously. “I was nearly run down on the rue des pins. I was forced to leap for my life as a landau tore past with total disregard to pedestrians and perambulators alike.”
“Did the brougham have a monogram?” pursued the Countess.
“The cabbie said it had no coat of arms and no markings of any sort,” replied the Prince.
“It could not have been a private carriage, then,” reasoned Moriarty.
“It is akin to murder,” concluded Dr Watson gravely, his sympathy going out to his counterpart, for though he had not taken a liking to the Russian barnacle, he would not have wished her dead.
“Yes, indeed!” expostulated the Baron. “The Princess Roskovsky was murdered by a lunatic in charge of a horse. Such things would never be allowed to happen in Prussia.”
“Nor in Germany,” vowed von Gunn.
The two men glared at Prince Orczy, daring him to say such things were commonplace in the Balkans – he did not disappoint.
“Pedestrians are run down and killed every day in Montenegro. It is practically a national pastime.”
“I suppose it adds to the romance of the place,” sneered von Gunn.
“And the erotic danger,” jibed the Baron.
“Let us not make light of death, gentlemen,” interceded their illustrious hostess solemnly. “The Princess Roskovsky is dead. I will light a candle for her departed soul. Anyone who would like to join me in the chapel will be welcome.”
The simple altar was graced by a distinctive Occitan cross made of solid gold with hollowed out arms and three small spheres on the end of each arm. Candle-stands fitted with dozens of beeswax candles were reflected in the tripartite golden arms.
The men went down on one knee, resting an elbow on the other knee so as to support the chin in the classical pose of the thinker. The two ladies knelt on both knees. Heads were bowed and each person made a silent prayer. Their hostess sang a mournful hymn and everyone felt choked by the sadness of the melody for there is no doubting that music by-passes the brain and goes straight to the heart. The lyrics were in the ancient language of Oc but heartfelt emotion is universal and everyone understood the sentiment. At the end of the hymnodia they blew out the candles and drifted into the sitting area where comfortable settees and tapestried wing chairs faced toward the fire which was no longer blazing fiercely. Prince Orczy passed around a humidor in the shape of a Cathar castle. Baron Reichenbach handed out glasses of Madeira. The atmosphere at Chanteloup was far less formal and thus far less constraining than they were accustomed to in the stately homes of Europe where guests interacted within a rigid set of social rules. Here, in this ancient stronghold that had seen social customs come and go, things were far more relaxed. There were no servants hovering behind their backs for a start, and they took pleasure in doing things for themselves instead of being waited upon hand and foot. That’s probably what helped them to drop their guard and speak more freely. Dr Watson set the ball rolling with a candid confession.
“I was thinking while I was praying for the Princess Roskovsky that there must be many murderers who are never brought to justice.”
“Yes,” agreed their hostess, smiling benignly at the doctor while holding her cigar steady for Moriarty to light. “I’m sure we can all remember an incident where a murder has occurred and no one has been brought to justice.”
“What an odd thing to think while praying,” mused the Prince as he lit his own cigar using a faggot from the fire. “I was thinking of numbers spinning on a roulette wheel.”
“You would,” jibed the Baron sardonically.
“My mind was blank,” admitted von Gunn, puffing on a fat cigar. “That’s what happens whenever I step foot inside a church.”
“Lutheran dogma will do that to you,” derided Moriarty, half in jest. “I wish my mind would go blank in church. I think about battlefields and picture limbless men and writhing horses. It’s the horses I feel sorry for.”
“You sound like you are suffering from some sort of psychosis,” returned von Gunn with odd good humour. “You Irish love your horses more than your women from what I’ve heard.”
Moriarty laughed richly. “To be sure! To be sure! But we men cannot dominate the conversation when there are two ladies present.” He turned to their benevolent hostess. “Dear lady, what were you thinking while you were praying?”
“I was thinking about sin.”
Moriarty turned to the Countess. “And what was Countess Varvara thinking while praying for the Princess Roskovsky?”
“I was thinking about the last time I spoke to her.”
“Bravo!” congratulated the Singing Wolf. “At least one of us has an ability to focus. Why don’t we put our focus to the test and recount an incident where a murderer has gone undetected.”
“Unpunished or undetected?” clarified Dr Watson.
“Undetected,” she replied.
“Undetected but not unsuspected?” checked the Countess.
“Yes, otherwise we would merely have a death and not a murder. Murder presupposes the death to be suspicious and thus there must be a suspect.”
Herr von Gunn pushed to his feet. “I must beg off. Today’s trek has completely –”
“Nonsense!” snapped their hostess, cutting him off and fixing her sights on the men who were squirming in their seats, preparing to also beg off. “Don’t tell me you are tired, gentlemen. We dined early to make up for missing lunch. It is not yet eight o’clock. As a guest it is your duty to indulge the whim of your hostess. Indulge me. Who wants to go first?”
Dr Watson, who already had in mind a murder where the murderer got clean away, volunteered. He was really beginning to enjoy himself and couldn’t remember the last time he actually offered to go first in a party game. Since arriving at Chanteloup his misgivings had melted away and his body and soul felt lighter.
“My story is set in Edinburgh,” began Dr Watson. “I was a boy of twelve and too young to realize the implications of all that happened until much later. One of our more prosperous neighbours decided to wallpaper his wife’s bedroom as a surprise for her birthday while she was visiting her family up north. He selected a vivid green flock paper with scrolls of foliage. It looked like a fairy tale forest and was much admired by everyone who saw it. The praise went to his head and he decided to paper the ceiling, the door and even the bedroom furniture. Thrilled with the result, he purchased vivid green moquette to match. Within the year the wife fell ill. Nothing was diagnosed though she visited many doctors, including my father, and tried every cure imaginable. She spent more and more time in her room, growing weaker and weaker. Eventually she died. Several years later an article was published in a medical journal linking green dye with arsenical poisoning. Why do I think the husband got away with murder? He had taken out a substantial insurance policy on his wife the week he began papering her room. He worked as a law clerk next door to a wallpaper manufactory. Whenever he papered he wore a breathing mask and gloves. A month after the wife died he sold the house and migrated to Australia.”
“An excellent recount, plainly and clearly expressed, Dr Watson,” praised their hostess. “The husband got away with murder. Who will go next?”
“I will,” said Prince Orczy, who was born with a competitive nature and did not like the idea of going last, even going second irritated him, but the slow-witted Scottish doctor had been quick off the mark and beat him to the punch.
“Very well,” said the Singing Wolf, giving the nod to the Prince.
“My story is set in an area renowned for having a large and pristine lake. Two brothers, rivals for the same girl, go out rowing one evening just as the sun is setting. They are strong rowers and have no fear, though clouds are banking up and a summer storm is brewing. All the other boats have gone back to shore. They know the waters of the lake well for their home is on the southern bank and they have grown up there. They know the shallow spots and the deep water. They row and row. The storm breaks. Darkness falls. Next morning the eldest brother is found dead, floating face down where the water laps the southern bank. A search is mounted. God is merciful. The second brother is found alive. He has managed to swim all the way to the northern shore. The dinghy has sunk without trace. How do I know the second brother killed the first?”
“He married the girl,” joked Moriarty.
“Yes, he married the girl. He also swam every day. The elder brother suffered from asthma. He tired easily in water and cold water always sapped his strength.”
“That is a bit feeble,” grumbled von Gunn.
“Ah, but a third party was standing on a balcony looking through a telescope at the silvery waters in the storm. That person saw one brother stand up in the dinghy and rock dangerously from side to side just before the dinghy capsized.”
“That sounds like boyish high-jinks,” observed the doctor.
“Manslaughter at worst,” commented the Colonel.
“At the inquest the observer could not swear which of the brothers had rocked the boat and since he was merely holidaying by the lake he soon departed and the incident was forgotten. The surviving son inherited a not insubstantial fortune.”
“Thank you, Anton,” said the Singing Wolf. “Who will go next?”
“I will,” jumped in von Gunn. “My story is set in a military academy highly regarded for turning out well-heeled officers. It likewise involves two men.”
“Two brothers?” posed the baron.
“No, just friends.”
“And a girl – there is always a girl?” said the Colonel teasingly.
“Cherchez la femme!” laughed the Prince.
“Yes, there is a girl in the background, but this one is a sister of one of the men.”
Von Gunn paused to draw on his cigar. He was not used to storytelling. He was a businessman not a raconteur like Anton or a natural wit like the Irishman or a born strategist like Reichenbach who understood the complexities of a beginning, middle and end.
“Go on,” prompted the Baron. “We are an impatient bunch.”
“Accustomed to being readily gratified,” jibed the Prince.
“Well, one of the men said something which dishonoured the sister. The second man, her brother, challenged him to a duel.”
“I thought duelling was unlawful?” said the Prince.
“It is,” replied Moriarty dryly, “and so is murder.”
“Go on, Gustav,” encouraged the Singing Wolf. “A duel sounds very romantic.”
The German licked his lips. “Well, the two men faced off one morning on the firing range in the grounds of the academy. Someone managed to procure two old duelling pistols – magnificent weapons with some nice copper-nickel alloy embellishment, also known as German silver which -”
“We don’t need a description of the pistols,” interrupted the Baron. “We all know what antique duelling pistols look like, just as we did not require a description of the dinghy or the furniture in the green bedroom.”
“Yes, quite,” mumbled von Gunn, licking his lips, “well, one of the pistols failed to fire. One man survived and the other didn’t.”
“And the reason you suspect murder as opposed to bad luck?” quizzed Moriarty.
“Oh, yes, the firing pin had been deliberately jammed. The dead man’s second accused the survivor of tampering with the pin – the survivor denied it. The dead body was left on the firing range and when target practice got underway the next day it appeared as if the dead man had been accidentally shot. Only those present at the duel knew otherwise.”
“I suppose several people had access to the duelling pistols?” quizzed the doctor.
“Yes,” replied von Gunn. “They were in a display case in the gun room and the survivor had been seen admiring them the week before he issued the challenge.”
“Laissez-faire,” dismissed the Baron. “I’ll go next if no one objects?”
Reichenbach took a sip of brandy to wet his whistle. “My story involves two men, not brothers – a father and son. The father is a cruel sot. When he is not debauching the housemaids he is horse-whipping the grooms and kicking the hunting dogs. His wife has long since died of shame and ill-treatment. The two eldest sons have long since fled the foul nest. The third son is much younger, one of those change-of-life babies who come late in life to women past their prime, conceived in a drunken rage. The boy spends most of his time hiding from the old man. He cowers on the servants’ stairs where he may receive advance notice when to run. He watches as each servant trips on the same step – always the ninth. He is a bright boy. He finds a ruler and measures each riser and discovers that the ninth riser is a fraction of an inch out. It is a miniscule difference and yet everyone trips going up and coming down. He gets an idea. He waits until the old man is called away to business in town and must stay overnight. He dismantles the fourteenth plank on the main stairs and then replaces it. The servants are baffled but they know how to hold their tongues. The sot returns the next day and trips going up the stairs. Later that same night as he comes down to dinner he trips and falls to his death at the base of the staircase.”
Everyone clapped. The Baron knew how to tell a good story with just the right amount of detail. The inference was clear. The boy had murdered his father by altering the height of the riser a fraction of an inch. If any of the servants suspected foul play they stayed silent for they had no love for the tyrant who had tormented them.
“I wonder if the boy went on to commit other murders,” mused Dr Watson circumspectly. “Having succeeded early in life and finding murder an easy thing to get away with, well, it might have gone to his young head.”
“Yes,” said the Baron, “I see what you are getting at – the next time the bright boy comes across a despot he dreams up a clever plan to get rid of him too.”
“Have there been a spate of step murders in Europe?” asked the Prince with an ironic grin.
“Dr Watson might be the best one to answer that,” responded Moriarty drily, “since he worked alongside the famous London consulting detective, Mr Sherlock Holmes.”
Astonishment was registered all round and the doctor turned pink, not because he was embarrassed about the association but because he was suddenly the centre of attention, something that always made him feel uncomfortable, moreover, he did not wish to discuss his time with Sherlock or expound on the tragic incident in Switzerland. It was the Singing Wolf who came to his rescue.
“We are getting off piste. We have not all had a turn yet. James, you go next.”
The Irishman pushed to his feet and moved to the fire where he prodded the embers with a poker. “The men have been hogging the limelight all evening. It is generally the rule that ladies should go before gentlemen and we have two ladies present.”
The two women insisted that he go next. He resisted. They persisted.
“In that case,” he said, conceding defeat, “my story involves murder on a mass scale yet is not half as interesting as the baron’s simple tale. A young radical is filled with the zeal of the political revolutionary – there are so many unhappy men roaming the streets, hungry for bread, hungry for reform, hungry to overthrow the ruling elite. He decides to punish the Jewish owner of a large glove factory who grows fat from the sweat of his workers. He breaks into the factory one night and sets up some amateurish homemade bombs. They fail to detonate. Before he has time to check what had gone wrong he is spotted by the night-watchman and must make a run for it. A few hours later the workforce, mostly women, arrive. They settle at their work-stations and the first bomb suddenly goes off. It sets off the others. Those who are not blown to kingdom-come are burned to death or trampled in the stampede to get to the exits which are all bolted from the outside as is the normal practice in factories to stop late-comers sneaking in. The Jewish owner is enjoying his breakfast across town when the terrible news reaches him. He opens a new factory the following year. The young radical is never caught. He remains free to roam.”
“The zealot didn’t actually intend to commit murder,” pointed out the Prince.
Moriarty cocked a blond brow. “One may reason that making a bomb and planting a bomb inside a large factory is likely to result in the death of many whether the intention was there or not. Otherwise a murderer might argue that he had his eyes closed when he pulled the trigger and thus cannot be held responsible for the death of the man he shot at point blank range. Actions have consequences. Idiotic actions have unintended consequences.”
“The only problem,” said Dr Watson, “is that with the other stories there was one suspect who was known to someone. In your story the culprit is unknown.”
“I did not say he was unknown,” replied the Colonel. “Only that he remained at large.”
Dr Watson conceded the point.
The Singing Wolf thanked the colonel and looked at the Countess. “Your turn,” she said.
There was something in the dark flash of the eyes that alerted the Countess to the fact her hostess was looking forward to her story with uncommon interest. The Countess had several murder stories she could pull out of her weird grab bag of worldly adventures, having travelled widely and having been exposed to situations both strange and dangerous. But she intuited something intensely personal in tonight’s recount and decided to stay true to theme.
“My story is set in Australia. A group of people go for a picnic to a place called Hanging Rock – it is an extraordinary place, not dis-similar to the rock on which Chanteloup is perched. It is also the setting for the supernatural disappearance of three girls on Valentine’s Day several years before my story is set. While the picnickers picnic in the shade of a gum tree a tiger snake bites one of the women. She consequently dies. She was bitten on the hand. The snake was inside the picnic hamper. Now, since the hamper had a lid it would have been impossible for the snake to have slithered inside. It must have been placed there by someone who wanted one of the picnickers to die. The snake was not able to discriminate between victims. It bit the first hand that went into the basket. Was the murderer successful? The wealthy niece of the woman who died married a handsome rogue shortly after the tragic picnic. She would never have contemplated marriage if her aunt had not died. The rogue was not present at the picnic but the hamper had been a Valentine’s Day gift from him to the niece the day before the picnic. The question is: did he place the snake inside the basket? Did he wish to kill the young woman who had turned down his initial marriage proposal? Or did he know the aunt would fuss as was her wont and pay the price with her life?”
“An interesting story, Countess Varvara,” said the Singing Wolf. “Did the young woman marry the handsome rogue knowing he may have orchestrated the death of her aunt?”
“No, she was overcome by grief and was not able to think clearly. It was about three years later when the possibility caught up with her. By then it was too late – her husband had also died.”
The clock chimed the ninth hour when the Singing Wolf commenced her tale.
“My story is set in Switzerland. It involves two men, two murders and two murderers. It is a story of intrigue, arch enemies and a fight to the death between two powerful men – not physically powerful but intellectually powerful. One man sets a trap for the other and lures him to a treacherous spot where he plans to murder him, at the same time exposing himself to grave danger since the man he intends to kill also plans to kill him. When the two men finally confront each other they battle it out, neither wishing to fail in the attempt to kill the other, determined to succeed even if it means suicide. In the struggle they both fall to their deaths into an abyss. No bodies are ever recovered. And then several years later, rumours start circulating that one of the men has survived. How? It seems impossible! And yet the rumours persist and grow louder! Will the survivor return to public life? Will he be charged with murder? He cannot claim self-defence since his actions were pre-meditated. What will he do? What should he do? Will anyone seek to avenge the death of the other man? Will one murder beget another murder and so on ad infinitum until there is no one left who cares? Is one murder ever enough?”
Dr Watson listened to the wind hurling itself against the ramparts of Chanteloup. He felt under siege and full of fear. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the Countess came to his bedroom. She arrived a few minutes after ten.
“Nest of vipers,” he hissed as she tip-toed across to the four-poster, navigating her way using the red glow from the fire.
“Keep your voice down,” she warned.
“No one will hear me – the walls in this wing are three feet thick.”
“That should keep the vipers out.”
“The vipers are inside already,” he said peevishly. “To tell you the truth, I was feeling relaxed until that last story. What did you make of it?”
She sat on the end of his bed and wrapped a quilt around her shoulders to keep warm. “There was only one thing I could make of it – it was a reference to Sherlock.”
“If our hostess is trying to put the wind up me she has succeeded. I feel rattled. I’d like to put it down to the rockslide and that howler battering the walls but I’m spooked. I think we need to give serious consideration to fleeing this place at first light. We can grab four horses from the stable and make a run for it to Lourdes. The luggage can be sent on later.”
“What? We flee across lawless terrain rife with roaming brigands? That’s not a plan, that’s a deathwish!”
“What’s the alternative? Stay here and end up like the Cathars – a footnote in history: Here lies the final resting place of Dr John Watson and Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna. I read that some Cathars were walled alive inside caves and were never seen again. They were the lucky ones. The rest got barbecued and ended up as appetisers for wolves. I think a sprint across bandit territory by comparison is a walk in the park.”
“No, no,” she tempered, “we are not the main game here. Remember we only arrived at the last minute. Our presence here is pure chance. Nothing was contrived to lure us here.”
“Do you mean game as in prey or game as in play?”
She thought for a moment. “Both – prey and play. A game is being played out but we are not players, we are spectators. We are not prey, we are observers of the hunt.”
“Who is being hunted?”
“One of the men, or possibly all four.”
“But that story about Sherlock?” he bleated, backtracking.
“It was designed to unnerve you.”
“Well, it succeeded.”
“It is no secret you are the best friend of Sherlock Holmes and worked alongside him. Our hostess was just letting you know that she knew it. There was nothing sinister about it. It may even have been her way of warning you to keep your nose out of things.”
“What things? How can I keep my nose out of something if I have no idea what that something is? It is like playing a game that has no rules.”
“All games have rules even if the rule is that there are no rules.”
“Don’t start with that gobbledygook logic – my brain is fagged out.”
“Tread warily, that’s all. This game is like blind man’s bluff.”
“I hate games!” he moaned. “Especially blind man’s bluff. I shall refuse to play.”
“Too late! The game’s afoot and tonight was the opening gambit.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Our hostess insisted on the session of story-telling. The men squirmed in the seats and looked uncomfortable. Herr von Gunn tried to beg off. She cut him off at the knees. The others quickly fell into line. You went first and paved the way. That spared the men. It gave them some breathing space. By the way, your story was excellent. I never knew green wallpaper was loaded with arsenic. I think the drawing room in Mayfair has green flock wallpaper. I shall be reviewing it as soon as we return to London.”
“If we return to London,” he whined.
“Stay focused. Where were we? Oh, yes, opening gambit, stories, murder, getting away with murder – my brain has reached a dead end.”
“I know you said not to think the obvious but I still think it has something to do with armaments and munitions and war. I think our hostess is the go-between. She is bringing together different military powers and revolutionaries such as the Fenians, radical groups that wouldn’t normally engage in dialogue.”
“Mmm, Germany, Prussia, Ireland and the Balkans. Where is Russia? You cannot have a war without Russia.”
“She is dead.”
“She got run over by a carriage.”
The Countess was suddenly intrigued. “Are you referring to the Princess Roskovsky?”
“No, no, she was a frail old lady.”
“The best spy is the one you never suspect.”
The Countess continued shaking her head. “I cannot even begin to conceive –”
“She has ties to the Tsar – what is better?”
“Who killed her and why?”
He shrugged. “My job is to do or die, your job is to figure out how and why.”
“Very droll! My thoughts have reached an impasse. I’m going back to bed.”
His voice stopped her at the door. “Tell me again who has a bedroom in our wing. I didn’t pay attention when we were being ushered to our rooms.”
“Just the two of us, plus Xenia and Fedir. The four men are in the west wing on the opposite side of the great hall. Our hostess has her own apartments in the south tower which can only be reached by the spiral stairs. Think of Chanteloup as an eagle in full flight. The great hall is the body. The south tower is the head, round in shape. There are two elongated wings – east and west – for guests. In the belly are the domestic rooms where Velazquez, Inez, Desi, Milo and the caretaker couple are housed. The entry gate is the tail of the bird. It faces north. Do you want Fedir to stand guard tonight?”
He shook his head. “No, let him sleep. He needs to rest his eyes. Just make sure you lock your door and keep your gun handy. Do Fedir and Xenia still have the weapons you issued to them on the train?”
“Let them hang onto them for the duration of our visit here.”
Dr Watson’s fears were compounded the next morning when he came down to breakfast to discover that none of the servants from the village had shown up. The Countess and the other four guests were discussing the matter around the breakfast table. Faces ranged from seriously annoyed to seriously concerned.
“We should dispatch Velazquez to find out what has happened,” suggested von Gunn as he tucked into a plateful of fried potatoes and a garlicky German sausage.
Desi was helping with the breakfast to cover for the missing servants and tripped over her own clunky feet as she was advancing toward the table. A stack of crispy bacon rashers kissed the cold stone floor.
“Clumsy oaf!” rebuked von Gunn. “Pick that up before the cat gets to it! No! Don’t take it back to the kitchen. Everything else will be cold by the time you fry more bacon. Just put it here on the table and go!”
“Velazquez should not go alone to the village,” suggested the Countess. “My man, Fedir can go with him.”
“Make sure they are both armed,” advised the Baron between mouthfuls of spicy sausage and runny egg.
“I’ll go with them,” volunteered Moriarty, picking up on the Countess’s unvoiced fear. “It could be some sort of trap on the part of Sarazan. I’ll just finish my coffee first.”
“I’ll go too,” said Dr Watson, finding himself in agreement with the Irishman.
“I’ll station myself by the gate,” added von Gunn. “Reichenbach can provide back-up. We may need to shut the portcullis in a hurry.”
“Should we wake our hostess?” asked Moriarty. “I think she should be informed.”
“No,” responded the Baron forcefully, wiping egg yolk from his upper lip. “Let her sleep. We don’t need women getting in the way.” He looked directly at the Countess. “It might be best to remain in your bedchamber until we ascertain what is going on.”
She tried not to laugh. “Should I lock my door?”
Moriarty smiled wryly. “Sarazan will be in for a surprise should he get past all of us. I suggest you leave it wide open, Countess, as if you are expecting him. The surprise will be all the sweeter.”
“That is an outrageous thing to say!” spluttered Dr Watson. “I find it highly offensive! Apologise at once to the lady!”
“It was said in jest, Dr Watson. I think the lady knows that. Besides, a bit of humour helps to settle nerves before a dangerous sortie.”
“Did you learn that from the Fenians?”
As soon as Dr Watson said it he could have cut out his tongue.
Moriarty’s self-control was masterful. “I shall overlook that remark. I shall put it down to the tension of the moment. I suggest we return to our rooms to gather our firearms, gentlemen, and meet back here in ten minutes. Does anyone have a spare weapon for Velazquez?”
“I do,” said von Gunn, shifting uneasily in his seat.
The Countess waited for the great hall to clear before following Dr Watson to his room.
“What on earth possessed you to accuse Moriarty of being a Fenian?”
He rubbed his face with both hands to get the blood flowing back into his face. He was still white around the gills. “It just came out,” he moaned. “I was incensed at his crude remark. He had no right to say -”
She cut him off. “Thank you for standing up for my honour, but I took his remark with a pinch of salt. I was not at all offended. You should hear how Australians speak about their womenfolk.”
He got his back up and squared his shoulders. “This is not the Antipodes!”
“I think you should apologise.”
“Me! He’s the one who -”
“Grovel if you have to.”
“Listen to me,” she said bluntly. “You have made an enemy of a man we may need on our side when the time comes.”
“What time? When?”
“If I knew that I would tell you. Watch your back.”
“Oh, so now I need eyes in the back of my head as well as the front!”
“Stay close to Fedir.”
“I can handle myself,” he grumbled. “I don’t need protecting.”
“I am not saying you need protecting.”
“What then? That I don’t measure up to the four military heroes in our midst? Is that it?”
“Of course not!”
“Perhaps you take me for a coward?”
Good grief! He really was wound up. Perhaps she should just whack him on the head with that wooden candlestick and knock him out cold before he started accusing her of siding with the enemy. Hang on! Enemy? Where did that spring from? Why should she think that? Why should she imagine the other men, Moriarty in particular, as the enemy? The men had given her no reason to suspect them of being anything other than brave. What’s in a name! Yes! Yes! But what? “I know you served bravely in Afghanistan.”
“As a medic – not as an officer and a gentleman or the colonel of a regiment!”
Oh, so that was it! He was jealous! It was male rivalry talking! There was only one way to handle this discussion. She pulled out her lacy handkerchief and tucked it into the pocket of his tweed jacket.
“There you go.” She gave it a gentle pat.
“What are you doing?”
“You are my champion,” she said, tongue-in-cheek, giving him a kiss on the forehead. “I’m giving you my colours before you go into battle.”
He yanked the lacy thing out of his pocket, tossed it on the floor and stomped out.
While the men made a sortie beyond the impregnable walls of Chanteloup, the Countess made her way to the private apartments in the south tower. It was time to wake the Singing Wolf. Unlike the Baron, the Countess felt their hostess should be informed her servants had failed to turn up. In the event of an attack by Sarazan it was better for her to be prepared. Inez would normally have helped her mistress with her morning toilette but she was busy in the kitchen, covering for the missing servants, as was Xenia.
The door to the main bedchamber at the top of the stairs was unbolted so the Countess simply knocked and walked in. The bed was empty. It had been neatly turned down by the femme de chambre, the top sheet tucked back in a perfect V and the pillows perfectly plumped. It appeared it had not been slept in. She tried the adjoining dressing rooms which ran enfilade in a radiating circle that ended with the bathroom. There was no one in any of them.
The travel trunks and hat boxes had been unpacked. The clothes had been neatly laid out in storage chests and tidily hung in the armoires. The dressing table had the scent bottles and hair brushes laid out. The basin and ewer of water stood ready with a linen cloth for wiping. The copper hip-bath from the night before was still full of scented water. One of the maids should have used the water to flush the latrine in the garderobe but no maid had arrived.
The Countess quickly came to the conclusion the Singing Wolf had spent the night in someone else’s bed and would soon return to her own bedchamber to perform her ablutions and dress. She made herself comfortable on the daybed, passing the time by studying the medieval tapestries depicting Le Roman de la Rose.
When the chilliness of the chamber started to bite she decided to visit the west wing instead. The bedrooms of the male guests were all similarly decorated with four poster beds and sumptuous hangings. There was no sign of their hostess and there did not appear to be any feminine garments or accoutrements trailing the floor.
Perhaps the Singing Wolf had slept in the great hall where the coals from the huge fire would have warmed the room well into the morning, although that didn’t explain where she was at present. Something wasn’t right.
It was time to meet the caretaker couple. What were their names? Oh, yes, Almaric and Hortense. Perhaps they could shed light on the whereabouts of their mysterious mistress.
A piglet was roasting on a spit, game birds were being plucked, vegetables were being chopped and loaves of warm bread were cooling on a rack on the table. Inez spotted the Countess and assumed breakfast had finished. She went to clear the table. Xenia followed her out. Desi was in the secondary scullery scrubbing the pots and pans. Milo was fetching wood from the yard. The old woman was doing the chopping of the vegetables and the old man was doing the plucking. They were both seated at a large kitchen table. The Countess pulled up a stool. She addressed them in their native tongue, starting with a friendly greeting and a few general observations about the history of Chanteloup before discovering they also spoke English and launching into the mystery at hand.
“I am looking for your mistress Have you seen her this morning?”
They both shook their heads.
“Your mistress did not appear to sleep in her bed last night. Do you know where she slept?”
They both shook their heads.
“Is she in the habit of going out early – perhaps for a walk on the ramparts?”
They both shook their heads.
This line of questioning was leading nowhere. The Countess decided to seek out Inez.
The sultry female servant had not seen her mistress since last night. She had unpacked the clothes and turned down the bed and was then told not to bother returning until she was summoned in the morning. That summons had not come. She presumed her mistress was still sleeping and was surprised the bed had not been slept in.
“Is your mistress the lover of one of the male guests?”
Inez did not look shocked. She said she could not possibly answer such a question, except to say that her mistress always slept alone in her own bed. Always.
The Countess understood that to mean the Singing Wolf may well have had a lover but she did not spend the night in his bed. In fact, it was not inconceivable that each of the men had been a lover at some stage, or even that one, two, three or all four men were still her lovers now.
She questioned Milo, Desi, Fedir and Xenia but none had seen the Singing Wolf since the previous evening. Perhaps the men could solve the mystery of their missing hostess when they returned. She settled herself comfortably in the great hall and did not have long to wait.
The men returned looking grave. A rockslide now blocked the zigzag path. There was no way of gaining entry into the chateau unless one grew wings and learned to fly. The top half of the mountain was vertiginous and only the most skilled rock-climbers would even contemplate the near-impossible feat of scaling the sides. The men reported hearing loud voices echoing from below and assumed the servants had started clearing the rocks from their side. It was impossible to say how long it might take for the path to be cleared. They tried shifting a few rocks themselves but fear of setting off an avalanche and burying the servants put paid to that idea. They had no choice but to return to the chateau. They made sure to lower the portcullis, shut the gate and put the bar in place just to be on the safe side. Fortunately, they had brought plenty of provisions with them and would be able to sit it out for a few days, possibly a week.
“Let’s have a drink,” suggested the Baron, marching to the sideboard that served as a bar. “We might as well get used to serving ourselves. Who’s for a bracing brandy, gentlemen?”
“Make mine a double,” said the Prince.
“Make mine a cognac,” said von Gunn.
“Nothing for me,” said Dr Watson. “Where’s our hostess. She should be told about the rockslide.”
Moriarty checked the time on the grandfather clock. “Don’t tell me she’s still in bed! It’s almost midday! Pour me a malt whiskey, Reichenbach.” He turned to the Countess. “Do you know where our hostess is at present?”
“I was thinking she might be with you.”
He looked amused. “Why would you think that?”
“She’s not in her bedchamber. Her bed has not been slept in. And none of the servants have seen her since last night.”
“Are you sure?” quizzed Dr Watson.
“On second thoughts,” he said, reading the worried look in his companion’s eyes. “I’ll have a large whiskey.”
He gazed at the four men wondering which of them was going to own up to hosting their beautiful hostess in their bed for the night.
“Does anyone know where our hostess might have spent the night,” he said to get the ball rolling. His money was on the Fenian.
The men all shook their heads and looked mystified.
“At the risk of upsetting anyone,” confessed the Countess, “I took the liberty of checking the bedrooms in the west wing. I didn’t go in. I just poked my head in while looking for our hostess. There was no sign of her.”
A series of awkward surreptitious glances followed. Herr von Gunn was the first to react.
“Of course there was no sign of her! We all bid our hostess goodnight at the same time and retreated to our rooms.”
The other three men all nodded, backing him up.
“She said she was going to finish her cigar and then retire,” reminded the Baron as he helped himself to a cigarette from an exquisite Faberge cigarette box encrusted with cabochons before passing it on.
“I recall Velazquez was clearing the glasses,” added Prince Orczy, taking a cigarette before passing it along. “He must have been the last one to see her.”
Moriarty took a cigarette and passed the box to the next person. “Let’s speak to him now.” He looked around for a bell-pull but the chateau pre-dated such modern trappings.
“I’ll go down to the kitchens,” volunteered the Countess. “Since we are short-staffed that is where I think he will probably be found. I’ll summon Inez as well.”
Velazquez and Inez resembled carved stone caryatids poised either side of the fireplace as the men took turns interrogating them.
“When did you last see your mistress?” asked the Baron, looking steadfastly at Inez.
“I saw her last when I helped to serve the dinner.”
“What did you do after that?” put the Prince.
“I went up to her private apartment to unpack her travel bags and turn down her bed. I used the back stairs that the old man showed me. They lead up to the south tower from the room with the well. I did not cross the great hall.”
“I can confirm the bags were unpacked and the dresses and accoutrements arranged as they should be,” said the Countess. “The bed had been turned down and the pillows fluffed up.”
Inez looked gratefully at the Countess.
Von Gunn went next. “You did not see your mistress this morning?”
“No signor, I was told not to disturb my mistress until I was summoned. No summons came. I was busy in the kitchen helping the old woman to prepare the breakfast.”
“Do you have any idea where your mistress might be?” Dr Watson used a less interrogative tone.
Inez shook her head and her vibrant dark locks seemed to take on a life of their own.
“No signor, I do not know where my mistress could be.”
Her eyes filled up with tears and she suddenly looked frightened.
The Countess’s tone was sympathetic. “Have you ever visited Chanteloup before?”
“Never, when the mistress came here I remained at the Hotel Louve.”
“Are you from these parts?”
“I was born in Seville. When my mistress came to Seville with the opera and saw me dancing barefoot in the street she gave me the job at the hotel in Biarritz.”
Moriarty trained his sights on the handsome toreador.
“When did you last see your mistress?”
Velazquez opened and closed his mouth but no words came out.
“It’s all right,” said the Irishman, “this is not the Inquisition. We are simply trying to establish where your mistress might have gone.”
Velazquez looked only slightly reassured but this time he managed to get out some words. “I saw her last when I served the dinner.”
“Are you sure?” questioned the Baron. “Weren’t you clearing the glasses at the end of the evening?”
Velazquez began to shake, even his voice sounded shaky. “Oh, yes, signor, I remember now I saw her on the chair where the Countess is now seated.”
The Baron appeared satisfied with the amendment. Bad nerves can make a man forgetful.
Prince Orczy went next. “What did you do after you cleared the glasses?”
“I took them down the stairs to the room where Desi was washing the cups and the little plates then I went to my room.”
“Did you see your mistress this morning?” continued the Prince.
Velazquez shook his handsome head and clamped both hands together to minimize the trembling.
“Is this your first visit to Chanteloup?” asked Moriarty.
“Your mistress never brought you with her when she came to stay here?” checked Moriarty.
The Countess asked the penultimate question. “Are you from these parts?”
“No, señora, I was born in Pamplona. I have never visited these parts before yesterday.”
The final question was posed by Dr Watson.
“Where do you think your mistress may have gone?”
Velazquez looked genuinely baffled and not a little scared, his voice had a discordant quiver, as if he’d strummed the wrong note on his guitar.
“I…I cannot say, signor. I…I do not know.”
“Thank you,” dismissed von Gunn curtly. “You can both go back to your duties.”
Moriarty waited just long enough for the two servants to depart then said what they were all thinking. “Well, that left us exactly where we started.”
“None the wiser,” agreed the doctor morosely.
“Is anyone else thinking what I’m thinking?” said Prince Orczy.
“Stop being cryptic!” rebuked the Baron, feeling suddenly short-tempered.
“I’m thinking about that rockslide,” elaborated the Prince.
“Yes,” agreed von Gunn. “I was thinking it too.”
Dr Watson looked surprised. “You think our hostess may be buried under all those rocks.”
“It’s possible,” said von Gunn.
“No it’s not.”
The five men turned to look at the one lady amongst them who had spoken.
“The rockslide happened before we all said goodnight.”
The men all kicked themselves for having forgotten it.
“All right,” persisted von Gunn, throwing down the gauntlet, “she’s not exactly buried under the rocks but she’s somewhere in that pile of rocks.”
The Countess picked up the challenge.
“Was the portcullis down this morning?”
“Yes,” they all said.
“Was the gate barred?”
“In that case, last night she must have climbed up to the ramparts and abseiled down the other side in the dark and after managing that feat she then traversed the fallen rocks but somehow slipped beneath some loose boulders without setting off another rockslide – and all for what purpose? To escape a place she clearly loved. Look how beautifully this place is furnished. Look how much consideration has gone into every detail. The placement of every item is harmonious and pleasing. The furniture is not grand, not expensive, but it is supremely comfortable. This is a much-loved home, a haven, a place of refuge and sanctuary. Note the abundance of votive candles and ikons – it has the ambience of a private convent.”
As they were contemplating the monastic decor the clock stuck twelve and they retreated to their rooms to freshen up. Lunch was waiting for them when they returned. It took the form of platters of bread, goose pate, rabbit terrine, cold smoked ham, cheese, olives and fruit. They helped themselves. There was no point attempting genial conversation. Their minds were on one thing and one thing only.
“It could be a practical joke,” offered Dr Watson, ever the optimist.
“She did not have that sort of sense of humour,” rebuffed the Baron.
“She was definitely not a practical joker,” seconded the Prince.
“In that case,” asserted Moriarty, “she either met with an accident during the night or she met with foul play.”
No one said anything after that. They all needed some time to digest the implication. An accident was a distinct possibility. It was also the better option because the alternative implied they had a murderer in their midst. Discounting the two elderly caretakers and the Countess’s servants that left the four servants from the Hotel Louve – if not them then it had to be someone seated at the table.
An accident was debated. Their hostess may have leaned too far over the ramparts and fallen to her death, or some stones may have come loose as she leaned against a parapet. She may have fallen down some stairs which they were yet to discover. There were several plausible possibilities and they explored them all.
Foul play was more awkward, although Prince Orczy, ever the gambler, immediately put forward the most palatable winner.
“My money is on that bandit, Sarazan.”
The Countess challenged the assumption. “How did he gain entry? The gate was locked and the portcullis was down,” she reminded.
Herr von Gunn cleared his gullet and raked his stubbly wheatfield. “I own twelve castles and I can assure you that every castle has a secret tunnel. I do not believe castle builders ever erected a pile of stones without including at least one secret tunnel. Some were so ingeniously incorporated into a buttressed wall or a fake wellhead they were not discovered until a castle actually fell into total ruin suddenly exposing a large drain or postern that seemed to have no purpose.”
“Accepting that Sarazan entered via a secret tunnel, presumably during the night, and kidnapped our hostess,” reasoned Moriarty, “it seems odd that he did not slit our throats while we slept. And though we agree the furnishings here are not lavish I’d wager the ikons are priceless and the gold and silver candlesticks as valuable as anything found in Versailles. And we all have personal items amongst our luggage – gold pocket watches, diamond tie pins, silver cigarette cases and so on. No, I don’t buy into that theory.”
“Very well,” postulated von Gunn. “Perhaps it was not Sarazan who came in, but our hostess who went out. Posterns were escape routes in times of siege.”
“But why would she go?” demanded the Baron, banging his fist on the table. “We are not at war and we are not under siege.”
“Not yet,” said the Prince half in jest, but even as he said it he felt a cold shiver run up his spine, which must have been contagious for the others felt the same shiver infect their own backbones.
The Countess waited until they all shuffled back to the sitting area for coffee and cigars and had rid themselves of fanciful theories.
“There is only one thing to be done. We must organize a thorough search of the castle. May I suggest we search in pairs to avoid any possibility of overlooking, er, some vital clue.” What she meant to say was: covering something up.
The catch in her throat was duly noted. Suspicions were not yet mounting, but the first seed had taken root. If their hostess had met with foul play there was no escaping the fact that one of the four men was probably hiding something. Last night they had discussed getting away with murder. Had one of those stories touched a raw nerve? Had the long-ago killer suddenly realized that his crime was not a secret? Did the Singing Wolf visit one of the men in the night and tell him she knew his secret? Did she threaten to expose him? Did he decide to silence her then and there?
“Each pair should take a different part of the castle so that we don’t double up,” proposed Dr Watson, who knew he would be unable to relax until the mystery of their missing hostess was cleared up.
“I think it might be a good idea if we don’t go with someone we are familiar with,” added the Irishman, “to avoid any accusations of collusion. I’ll go with the Countess.”
“That was a bit fast,” argued the Prince.
“I cannot help it if you are slow off the mark, Orczy. You can go with von Gunn.”
“Why von Gunn?” the Prince challenged, scowling.
“Because you and Reichenbach are known to move in the same social circle, whereas you only see von Gunn once a year in Biarritz, moreover, Reichenbach is good friends with both you and von Gunn, same as me, who is likewise good friends with all three of you, so it makes sense for me to go with the Countess and Reichenbach to pair up with Dr Watson.”
His reasoning was quick as well as clever and by the time anyone had had a chance to think about the logic behind it the moment had passed. Further argument was a waste of time.
The great hall was immediately eliminated from the search. It was in effect one great room of double height with a vaulted roof and just the one gigantic column in the centre. Once any niches had been discounted and the furniture checked there was nowhere a body could be concealed.
Dr Watson and Baron Reichenbach opted to search the outside, including the stables, barns, outhouses, ramparts and courtyards. They would also check the outer perimeter using binoculars.
Herr von Gunn and Prince Orczy opted to search the domestic rooms which included the kitchens, storerooms, laundry room, well room, cellar, armoury, dungeon and torture chamber. This section was vast and contained more chambers than the two wings and the south tower put together.
That left the east and west wing and the private apartments of the Singing Wolf to the Countess and the Irishman.
Chateau de Chanteloup was not a large castle. The size had been limited by the plateau on which it was built. It was not an exercise in grandiosity, not a statement of majesty and power, it was predominantly a refuge in a time of religious persecution when war was conducted via hand-to-hand combat and siege engines. Nevertheless, they all agreed it would take the rest of the afternoon. They would not meet up again until dinnertime.
The ramparts followed the craggy outline of the rocky plateau thus no line was straight for long. The Countess’s description of an eagle with wings outstretched was a good one. In fact, it came as no surprise to find an eagle riding the thermals. What was surprising was that the great bird was not above their heads but below where they were standing.
“It is not often one looks down at an eagle,” marvelled Dr Watson.
Reichenbach trained his binoculars on the bird of prey. “You should come to Switzerland. I can show you some nature scenes that will take your breath away. You will not only stand higher than the eagle, you will feel like you can fly.”
“I have been to Switzerland,” replied the other dryly, a catch in his throat. “In fact, I have been to a place called Reichenbach Falls.”
“A tremendous waterfall, named after a mountaineering forebear of mine, but I imagine it holds no good memories for you,” the Baron commiserated. “I understand your friend, Mr Holmes, met his end there.”
Dr Watson turned to study the black eagle soaring en plein air. He was not very good at dissembling and needed to avert his gaze lest his blurry eyes betray him. “Yes, I intend to make a pilgrimage there some time soon.”
“You must let me know when you are coming. You can stay at my summer chalet on Lac Lucerne. I can show you some marvellous sights. Are you interested in fishing?”
A passion for fishing was not something the doctor needed to feign. He nodded enthusiastically.
“Wonderful! Wonderful!” declared the Baron. “The stones here are loose but none show any signs of recently falling away. Shall we walk on?”
The crenellations were likewise largely intact and the height of the walls, designed to shield archers, made a mockery of the idea that anyone might lean over and fall accidentally to their death. The black eagle was still riding the current of air below them, it seemed to be following them around the ramparts. Baron Reichenbach thrust the binoculars at Dr Watson.
“Here, take a look. Our hostess, known by all and sundry as the Singing Wolf, occasionally went by the name Iolaire Dubh. It means black eagle. I heard a story once that she was raised by eagles and wolves. I think she made it up herself to add to her own aura of mystery. It was the sort of thing she would do. I hope this eagle is not going to drop a trout!” He gave a hearty chuckle.
Dr Watson was grateful to have an excuse to look away. “How did you meet her?”
“It was about seven years ago at the Passion Play in Oberammergau near Innsbruck. She was performing on the stage. We met afterwards at a party thrown by Baron Adelbert Gruner. Are you acquainted with Gruner?”
The doctor shook his head.
“More’s the pity for you! He is a true Renaissance man. His palace near Schwanenberg puts the palace of Mad Ludwig in the shade. Neuschwanstein is a mere bagatelle compared to Gruner’s piece de resistance.”
The doctor always blanched whenever the term Renaissance man was trotted out to describe someone. Renaissance men such as those from the clan Medici were no better than gangsters and thugs, the looters and murderers of their day, no different from Sarazan, just more successful. The artists who created their masterpieces were treated no better than slaves and most died in terrible poverty.
“Our mysterious missing hostess seems like a true Renaissance woman,” commented the doctor airily in an attempt to elicit more information. “How wealthy do you imagine she is?”
“I imagine she is extraordinarily wealthy,” admitted the Baron, pausing to gaze over the parapet at the steep terrain below.
“I suppose she gained her wealth through her singing?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” agreed the Baron unconvincingly, sounding like a Medici Pope claiming he earned his wealth through the power of prayer. “Although there is a story she found some Cathar loot but it puts me in mind of that story about the eagles and wolves.”
Dr Watson handed back the binoculars. “More myth that truth?”
“Designed to make her sound mysterious.”
“I say, wouldn’t it be interesting if it turned out that the story was true and she found the treasure here inside Chanteloup!”
The two men laughed and walked on. The black eagle cleaving the sky was now a pinprick in the distance. The only thing following them round was the shadow of Chanteloup like the arm of a sundial casting its long shadow on the flat featureless plain below.
The steep mountainside was matted with low-growing saxifrage, tufts of grass and patches of winter wildflowers. The few trees that had managed to take root between cracks in the rock barely clung to life, spindly examples of their robust botanical cousins. There was no sign of a dead body, although they did spot a pack of wolves resting among the rocks and checked carefully to make sure they had not recently devoured something human. There was no sign of any bones and no sign of torn clothing.
Upon completing their inspection of the ramparts and immediate outskirts, Dr Watson and Baron Reichenbach turned their sights to the stables, barns and outbuildings. Since the servants had not arrived, it fell to them to feed and water the horses and donkeys. They took the opportunity to scour the stalls and pens. They moved through the outer bailey, the inner bailey, and the various courtyards. They checked the wood yard, sheds, workshops, coops, and last of all, the kitchen courtyard which was by far the most cluttered. They did not find anything that led them to believe the Singing Wolf had been killed. That is not to say they could swear to having examined every inch of ground with a fine tooth comb. If someone had wanted to dispose of a dead body they could have managed it by stuffing it in a barrel and nailing the lid or burying it under a pile of rubble – but the effort would have outweighed the necessity. And it certainly ruled out the hand of Sarazan.
Herr von Gunn and Prince Orczy started their search in the kitchens. There were plenty of nooks and crannies to choose from. Unfortunately none of the hidey-holes was stuffed with a dead body. Most of the storage space in the dairy room, meat room, plate room, and so on, consisted of open shelving. They could see at a glance what was contained within. The larder and cool room were stacked from floor to ceiling with bags of flour and sugar, jars of oil and olives, and boxes of vegetables, but no dead body.
The well room came next. The pulley with the bucket attached would have made it difficult to shove a dead body down without some sort of help. The water was clear and cold. Nothing had tainted the water supply. The cistern below was probably immense but there was no access except through the well-head.
Though it was barely mid-afternoon, the next level was drear and dark so they lit some hurricane lamps and descended some dank stairs. The wine cellar was cavernous but sparingly stocked. They reminded themselves that only one occupant normally lived here. Some fresh cases that had recently arrived lay about unopened. They were not big enough to hide anything larger than a dog and none looked as if they had been tampered with.
“Here’s a Chateau d’Yquem,” said Prince Orczy, blowing a layer of dust from the side of the bottle. “We’ll take this with us.”
“I’ll grab this cognac,” said von Gunn. “The other bottle is getting low. There’s not much here but the quality is good.”
“Let’s leave the bottles here,” suggested von Gunn. “We can come back for them.”
The dungeons came next, a series of small cells. A vile stench made them feel sick. The narrow dark stinking corridor opened into a torture chamber with all the usual grisly toys: iron chair, iron maiden, strappado, Judas cradle, heretic’s fork and Procrustean bed. They tried not to think of the poor wretches who had ended their days here at the sadistic whim of religious fanatics. Some must simply have gone mad listening to the horrific screams of fellow human beings, women and children as well as men.
“Do you think that story about the hidden Cathar loot is true?” asked the Prince, peering closely at some scratches in the wall, trying to make out the name of someone who wanted to be remembered for their suffering, for their faith, for their death.
“Do you mean in general or specifically related to the Singing Wolf?”
“Let’s take the general first.”
“Yes, certainly, the Cathars knew they were going to be tortured so why would they enrich their torturers? The Inquisitors showed no mercy to heretics rich or poor. They were in it for the fun. Wealth was something that mattered to their Catholic masters in Rome, not to them. The Cathars had time to hide their riches so it makes sense that they would.”
“All right, the specific.”
Von Gunn looked around the grotesque chamber and gave a shudder. “I never really believed it. I always thought it was just a fairy story put about by hopeless romantics. But this place, and I don’t just mean this sickening chamber we are standing in, but this whole mountain certainly makes one believe such stories could be true. Yes, it is possible the Singing Wolf bought Chanteloup as a personal refuge and stumbled upon a hidden hoard of gold and jewels.”
“The fact she retired early from the opera lends credence to the fairy story. I’ll check the cells. You keep checking in here.”
Clumps of mouldering straw had gathered in the corners. Von Gunn gave each pile a quick prod with his silver-topped walking stick. But the only things hiding in the straw were cockroaches, rats and vermin.
They retrieved their bottles and followed another set of stairs that wound back up and began to breathe easier knowing they were leaving the chamber of horror behind them. A turning on the stairs led them into an armoury crammed full of medieval weaponry, rusty armour, and spare furniture. This took a little longer to check but the result was the same. The bedrooms of the four servants from Biarritz came next and once again revealed nothing of interest. Further along was the room where the old caretaker couple slept. It was part of the kitchen complex and they could smell food cooking. It was oddly reassuring. The old man and woman must have had a daughter at some stage because there was a second room adjoining their own with a child’s cot and a chest full of girl’s clothes. Later, when Prince Orczy questioned Almaric and Hortense they looked sadly at each other, hung their heads and fell mute. Out of sympathy, he let the matter drop.
The two men took it upon themselves to quiz Milo when they came across him while checking the back stairs that Inez had mentioned during her questioning. The lobby boy was bringing up a bucket of water from the well and carrying it through to the scullery where Desi was washing up the platters from lunch. The glasses from the night before were standing on a wooden sideboard. Each goblet was a rare specimen of beautiful coloured glass said to have belonged to the Doges of Venice – another priceless horde that Sarazan might have made off with had he been motivated by plunder. And what brigand was not?
“When did you last see your mistress?” von Gunn put abruptly to the lobby boy.
The boy picked up on the blunt tone and shifted uneasily. He was accustomed to being spoken to harshly. He had hardened himself to the demeaning insults of men, for it was mostly men, and no longer resented the servility that was his lot in life, but he had not failed to notice the strange goings-on all morning starting with the failure of the other servants to turn up for duty and it made him nervous. He knew at once it meant more toil for him but it also made him feel queer in his stomach when the foreign lady came down to the kitchen before lunch. Such ladies did not usually visit kitchens. He quickly resigned himself to being back where he started when his own mother turned him out the door – turning the spit in a sweltering kitchen, sweating so much he almost passed out, smoke burning his eyes, cleaning out the hot ash, flecks of soot stabbing what was left of his eyeballs, laying fires at the crack of dawn, carting wood and water until his blisters wept and his hands were red raw with pus and bleeding sores. He had not spoken to Desi. What could he say? She was scared too. He could see it in her coal-black eyes. There was no point speaking to the old couple. They talked only together in hushed tones in a dialect of their own. And he had seen the men going in and out of the rooms, even into his own little airless chamber which he shared with Velazquez, and then Desi’s too. And the men walking along the walls, as if searching for something they had lost. With a sudden sense of sickening shock he realized what they were looking for.
“I did not see her from the time we arrived here at this place, signor.”
Von Gunn was not convinced. “You did not see her in the evening?”
“No, signor, I was put to work in the kitchens and that is where I stayed.”
“You did not help with the bags?”
“No, signor, the other servants took the bags to the rooms because they knew where to take them. They prepared the baths and the fires too. I did not leave the kitchens.”
“Did you carry wood into the great hall last night?”
“No signor, I was told plentiful wood was there already.”
“What about this morning?”
“Yes, signor, I carted wood to the great hall this morning and laid the kindling to start the fire but I did not see the mistress.”
“You did not help with clearing the plates last night?”
“No, signor, Velazquez and Inez served the dinner and cleared the plates. I stayed in the kitchens.”
Prince Orczy interrupted. “What is the point of this line of questioning, von Gunn? You are barking up the wrong tree. The boy was stuck down here in the kitchens. He has told you so three times already. How many times do you need to hear it? My throat is parched. It’s time for a drink.”
Von Gunn grunted something unsavoury that it was better for the Prince not to hear. “Not yet. I want to speak to that ugly fat Negress. If you want to hurry things along then go and question the old man and his wife.”
“What would they know?” argued the Prince hotly while gazing thirstily at his bottle of wine. “One is half deaf and the other half blind. If they suspected foul play regarding their mistress they would have said something by now.”
Von Gunn marched off to the scullery where Desi was drying the dishes with a linen cloth. She had heard the exchange between the two men. She had heard all that Milo had said. She knew it was her turn to be interrogated. She resolved to show no fear, nor resentment, which was trickier for she had heard the gross insult.
“When did you last see your mistress?”
The German could not see the point of varying his interrogation or altering his tone. He was not very imaginative and the idea of catching flies using either vinegar or honey never occurred to him – if he wanted to swat a fly he smashed it with whatever was to hand.
A precious Limoges dish almost slipped between slippery fat fingers but Desi steadied in time. “I saw the mistress last when we arrived here at this place and I came down to the kitchens.”
“You did not see her in the evening?”
“You did not help to clear the table?”
“You did not help with the unpacking of her bags?”
“What about this morning?”
Von Gunn scowled. “No, monsieur, what?”
Desi looked momentarily confused. “No, monsieur, I did not see the mistress this morning.”
Von Gunn was growing increasingly exasperated. “Do you think it odd that your mistress has not been seen since last night?”
“You do not think it odd?”
“No, monsieur, I do not think.”
Von Gunn stomped out of the scullery cursing stupid blacks, especially the female of the species. Slavery should never have been abolished. The world would rue the day. He found Orczy interrogating the old couple and he could see by their averted eyes that they had something to hide. Orczy could see it too and flashed him a warning to shut-up. He leaned against the door jamb and listened.
“How often did your mistress come to Chanteloup?”
The old man briefly lifted his gaze, his eyes looked cloudy and filmy – he must have been the one half blind and his wife the one half deaf.
“Whenever it suited her to come, monsieur.”
“Did she ever bring anyone with her?”
The old man shook his head.
“What did she do when she stayed here?”
The old man seemed not to understand the question.
Orczy repeated it.
“She is mistress of Chanteloup – she does as it pleases her.”
“Yes, yes,” said Orczy impatiently, changing direction. “Do you have any idea where she might have gone?”
The old man shook his head.
“Was she in the habit of going walking or horse riding?”
The old man shook his head.
Von Gunn goose-stepped toward the kitchen table. “Look at me when I address you. Are there any secret tunnels inside the castle?”
The old man lifted his eyes without lifting his head, neither he nor his wife flinched. Von Gunn had been watching carefully for a tell-tale sign of guilt and felt instantly disappointed. It is possible the old woman did not hear him clearly though he had made a point of speaking volubly. The old man struck him was a wily old retainer, loyal unto death, part of the old medieval school of servants who could be relied upon to take a secret to the grave. They did not make servants like that anymore. His servants were a lazy shiftless lot, no sense of loyalty or pride in their work. The Countess’s maid and manservant looked as if they were cut from the same loyal cloth as these two. Serfs were born that way. He had heard that some had refused to forego serving their masters even after being granted their freedom. It is little wonder the word slaves was derived from Slavs. So many were sold into slavery by their rulers they peopled the world with blonde hair and blue eyes. The old man and woman had probably been here at Chanteloup all their lives. If there was a secret tunnel they would know of it, but how to pry it out of them – that was the question.
“How long until dinner is served?” asked the Prince, always thinking of gratifying his immediate needs and baser instincts.
The old woman turned to look at the piglet turning on the spit. “Within the hour, monsieur.”
The two men turned their backs on the kitchen without realizing the old woman had no difficulty hearing the question that was put to no one in particular.
“How long have you been acquainted with Dr Watson?”
The Countess did not fear Moriarty’s question. It was not her association with the doctor that she need have any qualms about.
He looked surprised. “May I ask how you met?”
“We met at an unrolling party in Belgravia. It was quite a disaster for our hostess, Lady Fanshawe. The Egyptian mummy who was thought to be female at the commencement of proceedings turned out to be neither female nor an Egyptian mummy – just a cadaver from an unconsecrated cemetery somewhere in Southwark.”
He didn’t pick up on the topic of Egyptian mummies though she had provided him with the perfect opening and it was a hot topic among the London beau monde. She braced for further probing.
“It seems an unlikely friendship.”
“Most good friendships are.”
He found something interesting in the speed of the return statement. “There is hope for another good friendship then.”
“Between us, you mean?”
“Yes, I’m sure I have even less in common with you than Dr Watson.”
She laughed lightly. “In that case we shall be lifelong friends.”
They had reached the west wing where the four men had their bedchambers. At the end of the corridor were a garderobe and an iron-studded door that opened onto the ramparts. The rooms were large for they must have originally garrisoned small armies of men who could be quickly mobilized to fend off an attack. They were also devoid of architectural ornamentation, but the austerity was disguised by sumptuously embroidered bed hangings, Flemish tapestries, Turkey rugs, a richness of painted Italian furniture and a large stone fireplace. Each of the bedrooms varied little in size and shape. They did not take long to search. There were no secret doorways. A quick check under the bed, inside storage chests, armoires, and travelling trunks revealed no hidden body. It was the personal items that distinguished one man’s room from another.
Moriarty did not proclaim: This is my bedchamber. He simply allowed her to guess from the clothing and male accoutrements. She remembered his gold tie pin shaped like a shamrock and the monogrammed gold cufflinks: engraved JIM – James Isambard Moriarty – Jim short for James, a playful wink at his name and initials in one.
The garderobe was essentially a walk-in cloak closet with a hole in the floor which angled away from the castle walls in order to drain the effluent and excrement. The hole was fitted part way down with a heavy iron grate so that even if an enemy combatant could scale the vertical walls he could not gain entry into the castle. Their hostess had placed a wooden seat around the hole for comfort and provided a porcelain bowl, a ewer of rose-scented water and a stack of linen towels. Bath water was used to flush the garderobes at the end of each day and the stones were luminous with centuries-old fluorescent green moss.
“November is an unusual time to sojourn in Biarritz,” commented Moriarty as they crossed the great hall and made their way to the east wing.
Here again were four large bedchambers and a garderobe coming off a long corridor with an iron-studded door at the end opening onto the ramparts. Dr Watson’s room came first, followed by that of the Countess, then her maid and manservant. She always made a point of having her servants sleep as close as possible to her own bedchamber. If there was no adjoining dressing room with day bed, she insisted on a box room or small secondary bedroom. If she stayed in a hotel she reserved extra rooms on the same floor so that her servants could remain nearby. If only one room was available, Fedir and Xenia pretended to be husband and wife. They were in fact brother and sister and felt no shame in sharing. They had been with her for as long as she could remember, acting as childhood companions, bodyguards and servants as the need arose.
“Dr Watson has been battling a chest infection for some time and I thought a rest cure in Biarritz might be just the thing before winter set in.”
“He is lucky to have found such a glamorous travelling companion to look out for his health. I am jealous.”
“I’m sure you have had your fair share of glamorous travelling companions, including those who cared for your health?”
“It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise, nevertheless, I am still jealous.”
The Countess always found candour disarming and dangerously attractive. That’s probably what attracted her to her roguish husband. Such types were rare. More common were flatterers, gigolos and playboys who dissembled for a living and elevated disingenuousness to an artform. Her late husband would have called them bullshit artists! Moriarty was also intelligent, another dangerous quality in a man. It rendered him doubly dangerous. She warned herself against falling for his easy Irish charm. He had done enough probing. It was her turn.
“What brought you to Biarritz?”
His response was laconic, open and honest, yet did not give much away. “I could say the weather but the west wind off the Atlantic at this time of year would soon prove the lie. I could say the gambling but there are better casinos. I could say the opera but there are better operas. To be honest, the four of us, meaning Orczy, Reichenbach, von Gunn and myself, always come to Biarritz at this time of year.”
“You always stay at the Hotel Louve?”
“How long have you known the Singing Wolf?”
“So you have been coming to Biarritz for seven years?”
“And the other three men?”
It was time to take a risk. “Are you all in love with the Singing Wolf?”
She expected a heated denial and was surprised when he confirmed her daring question instead. “We used to be, but I do not believe that is the case any longer, well, not for me anyhow, and I think I can speak for the others when I say they are no longer in her thrall.”
“Yet you still come to Biarritz?”
“You find that curious?”
“Men are creatures of habit, most are not very imaginative, they tend to invent a tradition and then stick to it as if their lives depend upon it. Our journey to Biarritz could best be described as a pilgrimage, the original purpose of which is lost in the mists of time.”
“You make is sound like an act of worship.”
“Is this Dr Watson’s room?”
“I do not believe the doctor is concealing a corpse but let us take a quick look in the interests of thoroughness.”
Dr Watson was an excessively tidy man. It probably stemmed from his military service and medical background. Compared to the previous four rooms where clothes were in slight disarray, hanging over the backs of chairs, cufflinks and tie pins scattered on top of chests of drawers, boots and shoes tossed haphazardly into corners, this room was in perfect order. To be fair, Fedir enjoyed acting as valet to the doctor and had tidied up anything the doctor may have omitted to put away.
“Dr Watson travels light,” observed Moriarty, opening and closing drawers in a desultory way. “Did you travel from Southampton directly to Biarritz?”
“No, we travelled from Glasgow. We were staying in York after visiting Scotland. Dr Watson was instrumental in solving the Lammermoor Golf Course murders in the Borders and the Penny Dreadful murders in York. You may have heard of them. The doctor used to partner the famous consulting detective, Mr Sherlock Holmes.”
She had decided to come clean. A man like Colonel Moriarty would check up on her relationship with Dr Watson the moment he could get to a telegraph office and put his bloodhounds to the scent. If she didn’t mention the murders they had solved together he would immediately know she had something to hide. She tried to sound wide-eyed and in awe of her travelling companion, the second fiddle in an amateur sleuthing theatrical.
“I’m aware of his attachment to Mr Holmes. I don’t know if you are aware that my eldest brother, Professor Moriarty, was instrumental in the death of Mr Holmes.”
“I believe I read something about it while I was travelling with my step-aunt. The name did not mean anything to me at the time. I was wondering when you first introduced yourself if the man was a relation of yours.”
“Does that bother you?”
“Should it bother me?”
“Surely that is up to you.”
“Let’s go into my bedchamber while I think about it.”
He paused before following.
She sat on the end of the bed and watched while he opened and closed the oak storage chests and fruitwood armoires. He seemed to take pleasure in fingering her silken corsetry, frilly petticoats and lacy under-garments, her millinery less so.
“May I ask where you are storing your large travelling trunks, not that I am suggesting you are hiding a dead body in one of them? It’s just that I noticed you did not travel light.”
“I never travel light. They are stored in the next two bedchambers, occupied by my maid and manservant.”
“They always travel with you?”
“Always. I’m a little surprised you and your three compatriots do not have your own valets.”
“As a general rule we do travel with our valets.”
“But not when you come to Biarritz?”
There were three words that did not sound as pushy in French as they did in English – how, what, why. “Comment?”
He gave a careless shrug. “Velazquez is well-versed in taking care of our needs. We are all simple men at heart who enjoy a break from pomp and fuss. And we did not expect to end up here at Chanteloup.”
Her inflection rose. “You did not expect it?”
His eyebrows registered her scepticism. “Did you?”
“Me? No, certainly not. The doctor and I arrived by chance at the last moment and so found ourselves coming along for the ride, but I’m surprised you can say the same.”
“You are starting to intrigue me, please go on.”
“You do not think the fire in the kitchen at the Hotel Louve was contrived?”
“Now I really am intrigued,” he said. “You think it was deliberately lit?”
“The thought crossed my mind.”
“To what end?”
“To bring you here to Chanteloup.”
He appeared slightly stunned and sat down on the bed beside her. “You think the Singing Wolf lit the fire?”
“It could only be her since she is the only one who could have arranged for us to come here to her mountain refuge. If someone else had lit the fire, say a staff member or one of your friends, we would all have been forced to transfer to another hotel.”
He began nodding. “Yes, yes, I see your reasoning. It could only be her. But why?”
“I haven’t the foggiest.”
“It must have something to do with the four of us.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “There must be a link, a common denominator, something our hostess wanted to achieve by bringing the four of you here. Something she could not do in Biarritz. Can you think what that might be?”
“Murder comes to mind but…” He paused and didn’t continue the sentence. Whether he continued the thought behind it is another matter.
She picked up where he left off. “But then why not push you from the train or shoot you in the back during the attack by Sarazan or poison your dinner?”
He regarded her in a fresh light. “I can see now why Dr Watson keeps you to himself.”
Gently, he cupped her head and trailed kisses down the side of her neck. When he heard the soft purr that told him how much she was enjoying the sensuous assault he pushed up from the bed, a dangerous gleam in his Irish eyes that said: you’ll keep.
“Let’s check those trunks. I’m starting to take this disappearance seriously.”
She had no choice but to follow, though a few more minutes wouldn’t have hurt.
Xenia’s room and Fedir’s room revealed nothing untoward. But they weren’t expecting them to. The same with the garderobe. It was the private apartments of the Singing Wolf that they were most anxious to examine. And it was here they would leave no stone unturned.
They returned to the great hall and took the spiral stairs inside the south tower that led directly into the main bedchamber. Here, the search began in earnest. They were searching not just for a hidden body now but for a clue. A clue that told them who the Singing Wolf was, where she had come from, where she had disappeared to, and why she had lured them to her private sanctuary.
The bedchamber of Queen Isabella of Spain or Eleanor of Aquitaine could not have been lovelier than this chamber. The wall hangings told the romantic tale of Le Roman de la Rose. The furniture was of a higher quality than elsewhere, inlaid with mother of pearl and ivory. Ikons abounded between a scatter of votive candles and on the dressing table amongst the silver hair brushes and expensive scent bottles was a framed photo of a baby wearing a christening robe.
“Did she have a child?” asked the Countess, taking a closer look at the photo.
Moriarty came to dressing table to glance at the image in question. “Not that I know of.”
Their eyes met briefly in the looking glass – and that determined dangerous gleam was still evident.
Inside a jewellery casket there was a painted miniature of a young girl about three years of age, delicately executed, angelic and sweet, the only thing missing was the customary halo.
“Here’s another image of a child.”
“The girl is blonde,” he dismissed. “The Singing Wolf was as dark as midnight. It cannot be hers.”
“How did you meet the Singing Wolf?”
“We met at the Paris Opera. She was at her peak, singing Aida.”
“What about Reichenbach – do you know how he met her?”
“He met her in Oberammergau. She was in the Passion Play.”
“What about von Gunn?”
“He met her at La Scala in Milan.”
“He met her in St Petersburg. Again at the opera. Admirers flocked to her like flies around a honey pot. There was no shortage of male acolytes worshipping at her feet. We men are weak when it comes to the promise of paradise. Let’s check the connecting rooms. We should go together so that there can be no question of anything being overlooked.”
There was a circular enfilade of dressing rooms dedicated to daywear, evening dresses, cloaks, furs, hats and shoes. There was even a room dedicated to her operatic costumes, including numerous elaborate headdresses decorated with ostrich plumes and semi-precious jewels. Last in the circle was the luxurious bathroom. The scented bath water had not yet been emptied, flecks of rose petals were still floating on top of the cold soap scum. A large cheval glass with angled wings was attached to one wall so that it provided a triple aspect of the bather. A small wooden door opened into the smallest closet of all which housed the third garderobe. The drop from the latrine followed the angle of the exterior buttress. The hole in the floor had a heavy iron grate draped with moss, same as the others, but thicker. Neither ingress nor egress was possible. A tiny mullioned lancet window sans glass allowed fresh air to circulate freely. It currently served to frame a majestic black eagle and a grey sky melting into infinity.
They returned to the queenly bedchamber and stood in the centre of the room feeling bewildered. It was as if their hostess had metamorphosed into that rara avis and had flown out that window, which was the only one to face outwards. Perhaps the others had had more luck.
The Countess was taking one last look around when she noticed something that had escaped her attention when they first entered.
“That’s odd,” she said.
Moriarty, who had reached the door, turned back. “What’s odd?”
“Someone has been in that bed since this morning.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, positive. This morning while you all went to investigate why the servants had not arrived, I came upstairs to inform our hostess. I noticed the bed was perfectly turned back, but had not been slept in. The top sheet had been turned back in a perfect V. The pillows had been perfectly fluffed. Now there is a dent in one of the pillows as if someone has laid their head on it and the sheets and blankets have been slightly ruffled. The perfect V is no longer there.”
Moriarty swivelled on his heel, he did a complete revolution of 360 degrees. He even scanned the vaulted brick ceiling to check that nothing could be suspended above their heads. He pulled back the Turkey rugs one at a time and checked the wooden floor, crawling on his hands and knees, looking for gaps, unusual joins, or signs of scuff marks on the oak boards.
“She can’t have vanished into thin air! I’m going to shift the furniture away from the walls. Von Gunn could be right. There might be a secret tunnel after all. You check the bed. Pull back the bedding and check the mattress, the headboard, and underneath for hidden panels.”
The Countess threw the pillows on the floor and felt her breath catch. At first she thought she was looking at a dead baby, but it was a doll – a beautiful rag doll with a floppy body, a delicately painted face of porcelain and long golden ringlets made from human hair.
Countess Volodymyrovna dressed quickly for dinner, choosing something for warmth rather than show, and was waiting for Dr Watson in his room. The discovery of the doll had rattled her and she didn’t know what to make of it. She was certain it had not been under the pillows the first time she went into the bedchamber, though she could not swear to it. But the ruffled bedding she could swear to. It had definitely been mussed up since she had first seen it. The obvious answer was one of the servants. But Fedir and Xenia had assured her none of the servants had left the kitchen except to go briefly into one of the storerooms for provisions.
Moriarty had been on his hands and knees checking the floorboards and the Countess stripping the bed when Desi appeared. The Negress had looked totally dismayed, as well she might. She could have been excused for thinking two guests had lost their minds. They were behaving like inmates in a lunatic asylum. The Negress appeared genuinely frightened and was preparing to backtrack when Moriarty spotted her ungainly feet.
“Yes,” he barked, annoyed with himself and his inability to supply any answers as to the whereabouts of their mysterious hostess. “What is it?”
“Excusez-moi, m…monsieur,” Desi stammered, “I…I have come to empty the bath water. Inez sent me up here. I…I did not expect to find…”
“Yes, yes,” dismissed Moriarty, noting for the first time the bucket in each hand. “Go right ahead and if you find your mistress under all those rose petals let us know at once.”
Desi wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. She decided it was safer to err on the side of caution. She poured bucket after bucket down the latrine, wiped down the copper bath, the angled mirror, and returned to the bedchamber to find it free of lunatics. The bedding was still on the floor, the furniture was in disarray, and the rugs were pushed up against the walls. More work! As if there wasn’t enough to do! But she knew if she didn’t do it then she would simply have to trudge up the stairs again later and do it when she was even more tired. She was a strong girl, heavily built, solid and sturdy, with muscles many men would envy. She pushed back the furniture, straightened the rugs, and re-made the bed.
“Something queer is going on,” said the Countess as soon as Dr Watson returned to his bedchamber. She was seated in a tapestried wing chair, smoking one of her foreign gold-tipped cigarettes. A thin scroll of pungent smoke was spirally vertically up to the ceiling. The doll was resting in her lap.
“Your capacity for understatement is exceeded only by your inability to see the obvious until it is staring you in the face. Put out that foreign gasper. The smell will linger all night long and play havoc with my breathing.”
His short tone betrayed his grumpy mood.
Obligingly, she tossed her cigarette onto the glowing embers. “Did you discover anything?”
He shed his gloves, hat, scarf, and woollen coat. “I take it by that question you are intending to stay and watch me dress for dinner?”
She tried to appease his grumpiness. “Fedir put some warm water, a sponge and a towel behind the screen. He also laid out your dinner suit. We can talk while you dress. I promise not to peek.”
He disappeared behind the painted screen. “Baron Reichenbach and I discovered zilch. During our search he brought up the topic of Reichenbach Falls and invited me to stay at his summer house on Lake Lucerne should I ever decide to make a pilgrimage to the spot where Sherlock met his end. I’m still not sure whether he was mocking me or being serious. We bumped into Orczy and von Gunn in the great hall as we came in. Their search was as fruitless as ours. We were all hoping you and MMMMoriarty – he had trouble pronouncing the name out loud – might have discovered something useful, a clue, a dead body, a way out of this nightmare.”
“I’m afraid we didn’t discover anything of the sort. We did however find something, but it just begs more questions.”
He poked his head around the screen. “Okay – I’m all ears.”
“We found this doll.”
She held it up and watched him roll his eyes.
“I hope it’s a ventriloquist’s doll and comes with a ventriloquist who can provide some answers.”
His pawky humour was doing a poor job of covering up his confusion. Unfortunately, she felt equally confused, and unless Moriarty was a brilliant actor, he was confused too. She decided to run her theory past him.
“I think the fire in the hotel was deliberately lit to lure the four men to this isolated outpost.”
“When did this occur to you?”
“Sometime today, I cannot quite say when. I think the idea had been sitting at the back of mind for several hours before I finally noticed it. When I mentioned it to Moriarty he seemed genuinely taken aback. I asked him what motive the Singing Wolf might have had for luring the four of them here and he just said: murder – and then failed to elaborate.”
“I wouldn’t mind murdering him myself!”
“He is not his brother’s keeper,” she defended.
“Made from the same evil mould. Crawled out of the same swamp. I bet he has taken over his brother’s criminal empire. Those four men all have something to hide. Mark my words. Make sure you lock your door at night and keep that pocket pistol of yours handy at all times. Have you still got it on you?”
She patted her pocket. He looked reassured and his voice took on an incisive inflection.
“Forget queer! There’s something sinister going on here. Our hostess has disappeared without trace. I think the four of them are behind it. We need to stay alive long enough to get out of here as soon as that rockslide is cleared. In the meantime, don’t hint that we suspect them of anything. Just play along as if the disappearance of our hostess is a complete mystery. You can play the superstitious angle, as if our hostess has turned into an eagle and taken flight. There was a black eagle soaring in the sky today and there is a legend our hostess was raised by eagles.”
She decided not to argue. “And you?”
“I will pretend to be totally baffled – although I won’t actually need to do any pretending. I am totally baffled.”
“Then here’s something else to add to your bafflement. The doll by itself is not significant, except that it was found under a pillow. Now, why would a grown woman keep a doll under her pillow? Furthermore, on the dressing table was a photo of a baby in a christening robe. Moriarty said he and the others have been acquainted with the Singing Wolf for seven years yet he claimed he did not know whether she had ever had a child. A woman’s dressing table is a very personal space. A woman sits and contemplates her past and her future as she brushes her hair and gazes in the mirror. Everything on a dressing table has personal or sentimental value. The photo was something she treasured. Hence the image in the photo is important. The child in that photo means a lot to her. What’s more, inside her jewellery casket was a painted miniature of a young girl about three or four years of age, a lovely girl with blonde hair. It is not the sort of piece a woman has in her bijou collection unless it means something to her. I have oodles of jewels but I don’t have a painted miniature and I wouldn’t bother purchasing a miniature of someone I didn’t know. That miniature holds personal value. I think it might be the same child. The child in the photo was blonde. The doll is blonde…”
“Yes, yes,” he cut off impatiently, “but what has a blonde child got to do with her disappearance? Let’s say she had a child or adopted a child and the child died – what then? How is it relevant? Even if she was suffering from maternal melancholia, which didn’t appear to be the case judging from the time I spent in her company, then what – she throws herself off the ramparts in a delayed pique of melancholic grief? No, no, Reichenbach and I scoured the rocks and the parapets. There was no sign of anything or anyone anywhere. There were some wolves sleeping in between the rocks and we checked that spot even more carefully. The wolves weren’t gnawing away at any bones. There was no hint, no trace, of any clothing or blood. The eagle theory is starting to look plausible. I cannot believe I just said that!”
He emerged from behind the screen looking dapper and reached for his silver etui. For a man who had reached his forty-sixth year he was still quite fit and trim. He had not grown paunchy as so many men his age had done, though that persistent cough had drained him of healthy colour and vigour.
“Have I got time for a cigarette?”
“Not really, light one up and we can talk as we go. I’ve saved the best for last.”
She straightened his white tie while he took his first puff.
“Go on,” he prompted, enjoying the personal feminine attention but trying not to show it.
“Someone visited the bed of our hostess between my first visit to her chamber to inform her that her servants did not turn up this morning and when I returned with Moriarty this afternoon.”
“You said bed not bedroom.”
“Quite! Now, it could not have been any of the servants because Xenia and Fedir swore they had not left the kitchen area. It could not have been any of us since we were all pre-occupied. You must trust me when I say the bed had been disturbed. Moriarty and I searched everywhere for a possible secret tunnel – nothing!”
He stopped walking and looked her squarely in the eye. “You realize what that means?”
Unable to trust her voice, she nodded and looked back over her shoulder.
Prince Orczy was uncorking a bottle of burgundy. The other three men were hovering around the dining table. Food was being kept warm using silver cloches. Meaty broth was steaming in a large tureen. Moriarty had informed Inez and Velazquez to ladle out the soup and then return to the kitchen. They would continue to serve themselves. The discussion began in earnest once the six dinner guests were sure they were alone in the great hall.
Baron Reichenbach explained that he and his counterpart had not found anything to suggest foul play or even suicide. Dr Watson backed him up. The view from the ramparts provided an uninterrupted vantage point of the surrounding terrain and the slope. He mentioned the wolves, and the fact the rockslide was still being cleared.
Von Gunn went next. He described how he and his comrade had checked the domestic rooms, armoury, well, and dungeons. They could not swear there was no dead body hidden somewhere in all those storerooms but if that was the case someone had gone to a good deal of effort to hide it.
Moriarty described how he and the Countess had checked the eight guest bedrooms and found nothing untoward. The garderobes were likewise checked and the iron grids meant it would have been impossible to dispose of a body down the chutes. When he got to the bedchamber of the Singing Wolf he allowed the Countess to take over.
Not one to waste words she launched straight into the doll under the pillow, the photo on the bedside table and the painted miniature.
“Well, that’s interesting,” said the Prince. “There was a small chamber adjoining the bedroom of the old couple. It contained a child’s cot and a chest of girl’s clothes. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I presumed they had had a child who had since died. But if we link it to the things found in the bedchamber of the Singing Wolf then it puts a different perspective on it.”
“Yes,” concurred the Baron, leaping ahead. “The old couple might have murdered the girl they had been charged to care for while the Singing Wolf was in Biarritz. They then murdered their mistress too and stashed the body somewhere. They are frail but they had all night in which to conceal it and no one would know the secrets of this castle better than they.”
“But why?” asked Dr Watson, who was a stickler for things like motive.
The Baron shrugged his shoulders as he slurped his soup.
“The girl might have died by accident,” supplied Von Gunn. “They may have been negligent in their duty and knew they would be in serious trouble once their mistress returned. You would be appalled to discover what some servants try to get away with. The old man and woman are always averting their gaze, refusing to look you in the eye. I don’t believe they are half-blind and half-deaf. I think it’s a ruse to feign ignorance.”
“Or else they are deranged,” suggested the Prince, giving his imagination free reign. “A lifetime of being cooped up in this isolated stronghold with that dungeon downstairs attached to that gruesome torture chamber might have sent them mad. They might have killed the girl and chopped her into a thousand pieces. Did anyone check what went into this broth?”
“Shut-up!” barked Moriarty. “We want clear-thinking not gothique fiction!”
The Baron leapt to the Prince’s defence. “I think Orczy has a point. I don’t mean about the broth. I mean about the old couple being strange. They are definitely hiding something.”
Dr Watson swallowed the last mouthful of broth and tried not to gag. “I am loath to promote fanciful theories but generations of in-breeding in isolated areas have been known to increase lunacy in family members. Eighty years of living in a Cathar castle with its grisly history, well, it might just tip the scales of minor madness into full-blown insanity.”
“I would push me over the edge!” declared the Prince.
“Anything would push you over the edge!” derided von Gunn.
“Let us stay focused, gentlemen,” advised Moriarty. “We cannot afford to fall out amongst ourselves. It will play into the hands of our enemy.”
“Enemy?” challenged the Baron, uncorking another red and passing it round.
Moriarty looked meaningfully at the Countess. “Please explain about the bed.”
While the men helped themselves to suckling pig and roasted vegetables she explained that someone had been in the bed of the Singing Wolf between the morning and the afternoon, and that it could not have been any of the servants.
A strange uneasy silence fell over the table while the men digested this latest bit of news, and to say a cold shiver passed down their spines would not have been putting too fine a point on it. Moriarty broke the tranced spell, lowering his voice so as not to be overheard.
“Just in case it needs spelling out, gentlemen, we are not alone in this castle.”
The spectre of some all-pervading fear suddenly took form. Six pairs of eyes glanced furtively past the shoulders of those seated opposite.
“That lends credence to my suggestion about a secret tunnel,” asserted von Gunn.
“Keep your voice down,” growled Moriarty. “But yes, I’m afraid it does.”
“When you say enemy,” said Dr Watson, backtracking, “I presume you mean Sarazan?”
Moriarty nodded grimly.
Everyone began drawing their own conclusions. Herr von Gunn was the first to voice them.
“The old crazy couple would be sure to know if there is a secret tunnel.”
“They could have been threatened by Sarazan,” added the Baron, who always found his servants to be loyal and steadfast, “and it’s possible his band of brigands will enter the castle tonight aided and abetted by the old couple against their will.”
“The murderous thugs will slit our throats one by one as we sleep in our beds,” predicted the Prince, and this time no one bothered to deride his gothique imagination – they were all thinking the same thing.
“Gentleman,” said Moriarty, “may I remind you we have a lady in our midst. Alarming prognostication might be better reserved for later in the night.”
The Countess was quick to up-braid him. “Such thinking, though well-meaning is counter-productive. We are in this together, gentlemen. I think we need to air all manner of possibilities now, no matter how distasteful. If there is going to be some sort of attack by Sarazan, or even if we have two deranged servants in our midst, we need to prepare -”
“Mon Dieu!” cried the Prince. “What if the food has been poisoned!”
“Then we won’t need to worry about an attack by Sarazan,” said Moriarty dryly, spearing a piece of pork.
Dr Watson intervened. “We need to prepare ourselves – is that what you were going to say?”
The Countess nodded.
Reichenbach’s military background came to the fore. “To avoid being picked off one by one we should all sleep in the great hall tonight. There is safety in numbers. Two men will take turns keeping watch. I can take first watch with Orczy. Von Gunn and Dr Watson will take the second. Moriarty and Velazquez will take the third.”
“I don’t think we should let the servants know what we are doing,” argued von Gunn. “If the old couple gets wind of our plan from Velazquez they may tip Sarazan off.”
“He’s right,” agreed Moriarty. “The Countess’s man could take the third watch with me. If there is an attack it will come from the direction of the domestic rooms. The two doors at the end of the wings are solid oak with good bolts. I checked them today. It would take a battering ram to force entry. There is no way anyone can scale the south tower and get through the window in the latrine – which, by the way, is the only window facing outwards. We can tip the dining table on its side and it will provide good cover in the event of a gun fight.”
“We can do the same with the desk in the library and the pews in the chapel,” suggested the Prince who was actually feeling a rush of adrenaline similar to when he gambled. “That will allow us to spread out and draw fire.”
“Good thinking,” said Moriarty. “The Countess and her maid can sleep by the fire. Two men can sleep in the library, two in the chapel, two in the dining room. With a bit of luck we should be able to hold off an attack that can come from only two directions – the south tower via those back spiral stairs and the stairs from the kitchen.”
“You presume it will not come from the front door?” put von Gunn.
They all turned to look at the heavy iron-studded door and noticed that the bolts were not in place. No one had bothered to lock it. Dr Watson moved quickly to remedy the oversight.
“It would take a battering ram to get through there,” he asserted, sounding a lot more confident than he felt.
They moved to the settees by the fire and passed around the humidor. The bottle of cognac that von Gunn had brought up from the cellar remained unopened. By the time Inez and Velazquez arrived to clear the table the six guests appeared comfortably sated, puffing on their cigars. No one wanted dessert and the apple tart was taken back down to the kitchen. But the coffee was welcomed and Baron Reichenbach, sensing it was going to be a long night, asked for another two pots to be sent up.
Orczy suggested a game of cards to help pass the time until the servants retired for the night. Moriarty and the Countess begged off. The four men adjourned to a corner of the library.
“Do you work for a living, Colonel Moriarty?” posed the Countess as soon as she was alone with the Irishman, having pondered a good deal about Dr Watson’s remark regarding criminal empires and the control of.
He did not take offence at her probing. “I would like to say I am independently wealthy but that is not the case. I’m a speculator.”
“What sort of speculator?”
“The sort who makes money.”
“Is there anything in particular you speculate in – art, books, property, stocks, railway bonds, government bonds?” She refrained from adding bank robbery, murder on demand, extortion and so on, though to be fair he had so far behaved impeccably and if she was about to find herself under attack from brigands she could not think of a better champion to have at her side. That went for the other men as well. There was not a coward among them.
“All of the aforesaid – and every penny has been ploughed into the family folly known as Ballyfolly in Ballygally Bay, county Antrim, Ireland – a spectacular ruin that I have decided to make my life’s work. If you know of any heiresses with matrimony in mind do not hesitate to point them in my direction for it is universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a large fortune is in need of a husband to relieve her of it.”
The Countess laughed. “A nice paraphrasing of Miss Austin but as someone in possession of a large fortune I can assure you the last thing a woman needs is a husband to relieve her of it.”
“I am under the impression you have two large fortunes.”
“Who told you that?”
“Orczy was acquainted with your step-father and step-aunt. He assures me you inherited both their fortunes.”
“You have been misinformed. I am, in fact, in possession of three large fortunes. My late husband was an extremely wealthy man. I have extensive land-holdings in Australia from which I derive a substantial income.”
“In that case I would deprive you of only one fortune. You could keep the other two.”
“I prefer to keep all three.
“More’s the pity.”
She decided to change the subject. His disarming charm was becoming alarmingly attractive. If she wasn’t careful she would end up bankrolling a folly and have no fortune at all.
“Do you think the rockslide was deliberate?”
“Engineered to stop us leaving?”
He gave it a quick thought and shook his head. “No, the rockfall was substantial. If not for the dry moat the entire barbican gate might have collapsed. The fire, however, I have given some considerable thought to and I believe you are right. It was deliberately lit. The speed with which our hostess had us all up here suggests this trip was planned in advance.”
“That theory is substantiated by the bedchambers.”
“Our hostess was a self-confessed recluse. This was her private sanctuary. She described it as her mountain retreat. Yet there are four guest rooms in the west wing all beautifully furnished, plus four more in the east wing which are comfortable but not sumptuous. It is my guess the four bedrooms in the west wing were decorated specifically for each of you. Your bedroom, for instance, has paintings of Ireland and is decorated in emerald green. Herr von Gunn’s has a Germanic feel and is decorated in burgundy. Baron Reichenbach’s has a lot of medieval hardware such as swords and shields and is decorated in Prussian blue. Prince Orczy’s room features some small European masterpieces and is decorated in royal purple.”
He regarded her with astonishment. “Bloody hell! You’re right!”
She ignored the profanity. “The Singing Wolf was not expecting Dr Watson or me to be on this trip. Our rooms are comfortable but not on a par. There are no expensive artworks, the candlesticks are wooden, and the furniture is mis-matched. There’s just one problem.”
“Why go to all that trouble and then disappear?”
Later that same evening Countess Volodymyrovna informed her two servants of the plan that had been hatched at the dinner table. She sent Xenia and Fedir back down to the kitchens to keep watch. It was ten minutes before eleven when the pair returned to the great hall to inform her that the other servants had taken themselves off to bed and that the doors leading into the courtyard from the kitchen, laundry room and scullery had been bolted. This was only slightly reassuring for the thought of a secret tunnel lingered at the back of everyone’s mind.
The return of Fedir and Xenia triggered a frenzy of activity. Bedding was dragged into the hall to create makeshift beds. Guns were checked and ammunition was counted.
“Don’t waste your bullets, gentlemen,” advised Reichenbach. “We don’t have an unlimited supply.”
“Are you thinking there will be more than one attack?” asked Dr Watson, thinking ahead to the next night and then the one after that with a terrible sinking feeling.
“It’s not something we can discount,” added the Baron grimly.
“Then we should aim to kill as many as possible tonight,” responded von Gunn. “I say an all-out assault should be our plan. Spare no bullets. Let Sarazan know we mean business.”
“How many brigands did Sarazan have?” posed the Countess. “You got the best look as they retreated, Colonel Moriarty. How many would you say?”
“I’d estimate there were about fifteen.”
“That’s not many,” said the Prince optimistically. “We should see them off easily. One bullet will have them fleeing down the stairs.”
“That’s not a good strategy,” countered the Colonel unequivocally. “We should let as many as possible enter the great hall before we open fire. If we allow them to flee back down the stairs we will not be able to follow without endangering our own lives. Once we break cover and give chase we are lost.”
“We also then open ourselves up to a long siege,” predicted the Countess. “Sarazan can sit it out for as long as it takes. He will simply wait for us to run out of ammunition or starve to death. I suggest one person gives the word to shoot. We should all hold fire until the signal is given.”
“I can do that,” volunteered von Gunn.
The Baron got his back up at once. “You have no military experience. Manufacturing munitions is not the same as leading a battle charge. My military record speaks for itself. My family history goes back to Charlemagne. I should give the signal.”
“You want to save bullets!” argued von Gunn vehemently. “You will simply wait until it is too late and the hall is flooded with brigands! And what has Charlemagne got to do with Sarazan?”
“I too have military experience,” chipped in the Prince in an attempt to take the heat out of the argument. “And though my family tree is not as illustrious as Reichenbach’s I know how to count to three.”
“This is serious,” interceded Moriarty, sensing further disagreement. “I can give the signal as I am unlikely to go off half-cocked.”
“What does that mean?” challenged the Prince.
“You are a gambler,” reminded the Colonel, “you will be thinking of the odds instead of thinking logically.”
“So naturally you want to put yourself forward!” flushed the Prince.
Moriarty took a deep breath. “If that does not suit you, Orczy, and to settle this argument before it gets out of hand, I put forward Dr Watson. He has military experience and a cool medical head. Who’s in favour?”
A chorus of grumbling settled it.
Dr Watson was so taken aback he didn’t know what to say. It was the last thing he expected from the brother of his best friend’s arch enemy. Perhaps he had misjudged the man after all. Once the matter of who was to give the signal to shoot was settled to everyone’s satisfaction, or more properly to everyone’s dissatisfaction, they got on with preparing their defensive barriers. The dining table, desk and pews were up-turned to provide cover and everyone took up their positions. The candles were then blown out leaving the great hall in darkness except for the eerie reddish glow from the embers in the cavernous fireplace and a faint moonbeam from the high lancet window. The only sound that could be heard was the wind howling around the ramparts.
Just before midnight some blood-curdling howls broke the silence. This was immediately followed by a series of violent rumbling noises which shook the foundations of Chanteloup. It was as if the wolves were giving forewarning of something stirring within the bowels of the earth. It would not be the first time animals had sensed an earthquake or some such natural disaster long before it occurred. No-one was yet asleep, nerves were too highly strung for slumber. Everyone’s heart stopped beating for several seconds while the rumbling noises were processed by over-taxed brains. Reichenbach was the first to speak.
“It’s another rockslide.”
“I think it was an earthquake this time,” said von Gunn. “Last time the wolves didn’t howl.”
“Keep your voices down,” reminded Moriarty. “We’re supposed to be asleep in our beds.”
“It sounded to me like a section of wall has come down,” hissed von Gunn, heeding the warning and lowering his tone.
“Sarazan is on his way,” whispered the Prince ominously.
No one said anything after that. In the hellish reddish darkness bodies twitched and tensed in anticipation of imminent attack. Just when muscles were starting to relax, there came the sound of a footfall on the stone stairs. Everyone heard it.
Several guns were cocked so that they were ready to fire when the time came, and so that the faint triggering sound would not alert Sarazan and his men to the trap they were walking into.
The Countess’s heart was beating fast as she and Xenia, pistols in hand, hunkered down behind the settee. A Deringer pocket pistol is an excellent weapon for lady to keep in her beaded reticule or the pocket of her cloak but it is no match for a brigand armed with a repeating rifle. A pocket pistol can fire only one shot. The two women were painfully aware of their lack of fire power. Colonel Moriarty must have realized it too, for he suddenly deserted his post behind the pews and darted across the great hall to join the ladies. He cupped the back of the Countess’s head and pressed a kiss in the darkness.
“Did the earth just move for you?”
“Yes,” she whispered breathlessly, “but it was somewhat delayed.”
The footfalls reached the top of the stairs, paused momentarily, then picked up again. Someone had come up the staircase from the kitchen and was now standing in the great hall.
How many men were on the stairs was impossible to tell. The archway that gave entrance was angled away from the fire which gave off the only light and that only faintly now the embers were growing cold. Dr Watson felt the pressure mounting, his heart was pounding and the blood had rushed to his head. Instead of helping him to think clearly it actually had the opposite effect. The rush of blood flooded his brain and overwhelmed him. If he gave the signal too soon it would be as the Colonel feared and the brigands would flee back down the stairs. If he waited too long the eight of them might be hopelessly outgunned. Adding to his dilemma was the fact he had spotted the Colonel fly across the hall toward the Countess. All his instincts screamed a warning that she was in mortal danger. Nothing was as it seemed. Nothing was certain. His eyes sieved the darkness. Something was moving. A shadow was advancing, but was it Sarazan?
Suddenly an outrageous idea struck the doctor. What if it was their missing hostess?
He could not dismiss the idea from his head. He could not give the signal to shoot until he was sure it was an outlaw. He would not have the death of the Singing Wolf on his conscience. He strained to see but the more he strained the less he saw. Blackness had a life of its own. It seemed to move when it was standing still and stand still when it was moving. It was all around and yet it was nowhere. It was solid and yet it was a void. It was everything and nothing at the same time. It was devilish hard to make out. The shadow crept stealthily forward. It did not appear to be carrying a weapon. And he was certain there was just the one shadow. Something wasn’t right.
“Hold fire!” he cried.
The shadow began to sprint back toward the stairs. Fedir gave chase, pounced and tackled it to the ground. There was a brief struggle.
In the meantime, several candles were lit. Darkness was banished and reason returned. Fedir dragged the man forward into the light.
“It’s Velazquez!” declared Prince Orczy, sounding as stunned as the others felt.
“What the hell is he playing at?” fumed von Gunn as he and the others crept out from behind their hiding places.
Moriarty, ever vigilant and innately suspicious, sent Xenia to watch one set of stairs and Fedir to watch the other lest the toreador be part of a clever trap. Only then did he join the party.
Velazquez was shaking like a leaf, terrified out of his wits. His dark eyes were darting from one person to another, looking at them as if they were demons. Dr Watson, feeling vindicated in his decision to hold fire, brought the man a chair before he fainted clear away. The servant took the weight off his legs and hung his head to avoid further eye contact.
“What the hell are you doing sneaking around at midnight?” demanded Reichenbach.
Velazquez began to stutter. “I…I came to…to…”
The Countess had seen him lick his lips and glance desperately at the bottles on the sideboard. “He came to get a drink,” she said.
“The cognac!” blurted von Gunn, checking the two bottles on the sideboard. One almost empty and one still unopened.
“I think you came up here last night too,” guessed the Countess, directing her statement at Velazquez. “Is that right?”
The handsome toreador nodded, hardly able to bring himself to believe the lengths rich people would go to preserve a few mouthfuls of cognac.
“Bastard!” shouted von Gunn. “I thought the bottle of cognac looked emptier this morning.” He raised his fist to strike the toreador but Moriarty caught it.
“Calm down!” he cautioned. “Don’t you see what this means?”
“The man is a thief!” gurgled von Gunn angrily, breaking free from the Colonel’s vice-like grip. “That’s what it means!”
“A thief and a coward!” denounced Reichenbach, siding with the German.
“Why are you standing up for him, Moriarty?” challenged the Prince, making it three against one.
The Countess came to the Colonel’s aid. “Because it means Velazquez was roaming the castle last night when our hostess went missing.”
“So?” said the von Gunn, still thinking about cognac.
“He probably killed her!” condemned the Prince, grabbing the wrong end of the stick. “A thief, a coward and a murderer!”
“Tie him to the chair,” instructed Reichenbach. “I will soon beat the truth out of him.”
“Why make a mess of the hall?” said the Prince. “That’s what torture chambers were designed for.”
Von Gunn stepped forward. “Help me drag him down there, Orczy, and then Reichenbach can get to work. He’ll soon force the truth out of him.”
Velazquez fainted from sheer terror, a wet patch appeared between his legs as he thudded to the floor.
Dr Watson had decided to take no part of such intimidation and had gone to re-start the fire, but sickened by what he heard, he could remain silent no longer. “I will not be party to this. You cannot torture this man. You have no proof he is guilty of killing anyone.”
Reichenbach gave a dismissive laugh. “Settle down, Doctor. I have no intention of torturing the poor fellow. I was just trying to scare him into confessing, as were my two compatriots. For, as the Countess just pointed out, he was roaming the castle last night, thus it stands to reason he is the main suspect. If the Singing Wolf caught him in the act of stealing the cognac or perhaps the silver candlesticks he may have lashed out and killed her unintentionally. Let us find out.”
Von Gunn was fervently nodding. “We cannot let this moment pass. What is the alternative, comrades? That we clear out of here in a day or two, provided we survive, and leave the remains of our hostess to rot? What if she isn’t dead?”
Moriarty heaved a sigh. “I agree with that, we not only have a death, we have a missing body. That is worse than a death. Let’s revive him and see what he as to say?”
“Now you’re talking sense,” praised the Prince. “The unknown is worse than the known. We owe it to our hostess to find out what happened.”
“Very well,” conceded Dr Watson, “I agree to Baron Reichenbach questioning Velazquez but I will not stand idly by if things turn ugly. The Countess should retire to her chamber now.”
“I will not be retiring anywhere,” she stated firmly. “You missed my point completely, gentlemen. I meant that Velazquez may have seen or heard something while he was stealing a drink. I don’t for a minute believe he killed our hostess. He does not know the castle well enough to hide the body leaving no trace. And I don’t believe the old couple did it either. They have something to hide, yes, but I do not think they are murderers. If you will grant me five or ten minutes with Velazquez before you interrogate him I would be grateful.”
“Alone?” quizzed Von Gunn dubiously.
The Prince laughed crudely. “Would you like to question him in your bedchamber?”
“Shut-up!” snapped Moriarty.
The Prince would not be deterred. “You can question me second!”
“And me third!” laughed Reichenbach.
“We will be over here by the fire,” said Dr Watson, unamused.
The handsome toreador began to revive.
The Countess was secretly enjoying proceedings. Nothing got her juices flowing quicker than a mystery. She had a first rate mystery on her hands and the company of five interesting men, four of them intriguing, one of them a potential lover. Oh, yes, being a widow was simply wonderful! Had she been unmarried such a trip would have been out of the question, scandalous, utterly impossible, and had she been still married it would simply not have happened. Widowhood was wonderful! Rich widowhood was even better! She practically whirled her way to the sideboard.
“Colonel Moriarty,” she entreated, “would you be so good as to pour everyone a shot of cognac, including Velazquez. It may help to settle fraught nerves.”
“And will you also take a measure, Countess?”
Yes,” she said. “Yes, I believe I will though my nerves are just fine.”
“I can see that for myself,” he returned blandly. “An heiress three times over and nerves of steel – be still my beating heart.”
She would have laughed but Dr Watson was watching closely, a scowl souring his vinegar face adding no end of grief to his vat of worries. He only enjoyed mysteries once they were solved. She was definitely her father’s daughter – it was the pursuit, the unravelling and the challenge that made life worth living. Nothing else mattered.
Velazquez crawled back into his seat to await his fate. She tossed him a cushion to cover his lap. It was important for a man, even a servant, to maintain his dignity. She then passed him a glass of cognac. He glanced fearfully at the men by the fire.
“Fear not,” she reassured, emptying her own glass in front of him to show it was not their intention to poison him. “The men were only jesting with you. Drink up and have another one.” She waited till he gulped down the first then refilled his glass and watched as he downed the second. His hand was shaking more than usual. “Now,” she began, adopting a gentle maternal tone, “perhaps you could think back to last night when you stole up here to the great hall to have a drink after everyone had gone to bed. Can you remember if you saw or heard anything out of the ordinary that might shed some light on the disappearance of your mistress?”
He didn’t say anything for a moment and she took that as a positive sign. He was thinking about something, possibly weighing up whether it was worth telling, or even if he should mention it at all. If he had not seen or heard anything he would have been happy to say so at once. It would have been a relief to declare his ignorance in the matter. But he hesitated. She refilled his glass and passed it to him and waited patiently. She wondered if his eyes might drift to one of the men by the fire thus implicating that man in something underhand but his eyes drifted to the other side of the great hall where Xenia had been posted.
“Did you hear a noise?” she encouraged, lowering her tone.
The colour returned to his swarthy face and he nodded. “Yes, I heard voices.”
“Coming from over there.” He indicated the archway leading to the spiral stairs. Fedir had been posted to the opposite archway that led down to the kitchens because, naturally, that is where Moriarty expected the attack to come from.
“The voice of your mistress?”
“Yes, I recognized hers and there was one other.”
“A man’s voice.”
“I did not recognize it.”
“Were they speaking normally to each other?”
“No, they were angry but they were not shouting. It was more like the quiet anger of deep hatred. Not the fury of the volcano but the black pit of despair.”
“Did you hear anything that was said?”
His handsome brow puckered. “I thought I heard the deeper voice say: lack or black.”
“The man’s voice?”
“Yes, and then I heard…”
“What?” she prompted when he pressed his sensual Spanish lips together.
“I cannot say in front of a lady.”
In her head she began to eliminate the sorts of things he would be able to say in front of a lady – singing, dancing, laughing – Oh! Of course! “You heard the sounds of love-making?”
He looked relieved and nodded.
“You heard heavy breathing?”
“You know what female pleasure sounds like?”
This handsome toreador had the grace to blush. “Yes, there was much sound from the throat of a woman pleasured.”
The Countess glanced at the five men by the fireplace. Which one? Which one? According to her late step-aunt appearances could be deceiving. Mild mannered, bookish, soft-spoken men could be excellent lovers and swaggering lotharios were often the most selfish and least satisfying.
“You didn’t hear any names?”
He shook his head.
“What happened then? Did the love-making go on or did it stop?”
“It goes more, there is much roughness, the breathing, the panting, the gagging of the woman who begs for more…and then…it stops.”
“Did the man come down the stairs?”
He scratched his head. “No, there is a clanking noise.”
“Like the clanking of chains?”
He shook his head. “A clanking noise – just once – like something heavy is dropped on the stones.”
“Did this noise come from upstairs or from downstairs?”
“Are you sure of that?” She wondered if he might suddenly be confusing the direction of the sound, and in his imagination connecting the two sounds that were not in fact connected. There was a well downstairs with a handle for lowering and raising the bucket. The cranking sound might sound like a clanking sound. The bucket might bang against the side of the well. The stairwell might distort the echo. The great hall came midway in the spiral staircase between the chamber with the well and the bedchamber of the Singing Wolf.
“I get a fright and go closer to listen. I lift tapestry and hear more noises but not like before. There is scraping sound, like something dragging on the stones. I go quickly down the stairs to my room and go to sleep.”
The only problem with his statement was that she knew the bed had not been subject to rough love-making. However, she could not dismiss it out of hand. There had been numerous times Jack had taken her on the daybed in her boudoir to avoid getting a wet patch on her freshly laundered sheets. There had also been moments of savage passion when he had taken her on the rug in front of the fire or on the chaise longue and once when he had simply pushed her up against the wall. The memory of such passionate incidences supported Velazquez’ statement rather than negated it. If the love-making had happened not in the bed but nearer the door the sound might carry down the stairs and that’s why he’d heard it.
The Countess now had a dilemma on her hands. The moment she revealed what Velazquez just told her about the sounds he heard in the bedchamber then the secret lover who had been with the Singing Wolf yet claimed not to have seen her from the time the four men left the great hall would be exposed as a liar. She leaned closer and lowered her voice.
“Are you sure about what you heard?”
“Yes,” he vowed, crossing himself. “I swear on my mother’s grave.”
“And you have no idea which man it was?”
“None.” His eyes now drifted to the fireplace where the five men stood together, and she could see the flicker of fear. “If you tell them what I say I am dead man.”
She gave him another drink. He was going to need it.
“Our turn,” declared Reichenbach, growing impatient with the secretive line of questioning. This was clearly men’s business and women should play no part in it. They had humoured the Countess long enough.
“Let’s get the truth out of him,” said von Gunn with sadistic relish.
The men were helping themselves to a second measure of cognac prior to interrogating the terrified toreador when Xenia signalled with her hand. She heard a noise on the stairs.
In a wink the candles were extinguished and darkness flooded the hall except for the embers which glowed red once more. Guns at the ready, the men took up their earlier positions. Velazquez took cover with the women behind the settee. It was now he understood they had not been lying in wait for him but for someone else. And that someone could only be Sarazan. He tried not to wet himself a second time. Someone was definitely moving on the stairs but the footsteps were coming down not going up! Had one of Sarazen’s men managed to scale the walls and squeeze through the lancet window in the latrine? Was this person now coming to unbolt the front door and the main gate to allow his fellow brigands in? Or did a secret tunnel lead right up to the top of the south tower, perhaps inside a buttress, thus catching by surprise whoever was holed up inside the castle expecting an attack to come from below?
Cold despite the fire, breaths on hold, hearts pounding, they lay in wait, poised for battle, when they heard a supernatural sound like an angel singing, heavenly and eerily beautiful. Each man thought he might be hearing things, froze with fear then shook himself, reminding himself he did not believe in angels or devils or ghosts. The sublime singing seemed to grow slightly louder, pass right past the archway, just on the other side of the tapestry, then grow gradually softer, as though fading away. Moriarty was the first to break cover. He raced toward the archway, realizing nothing was going according to plan, and that whoever had just passed was getting clean away.
“Reichenbach,” he whispered as loudly as he dared, “the other stairs!”
The Prussian was swift to act. He knew Moriarty meant for him to take the kitchen stairs and head off whoever it was. They would corner the supernatural singer, coming at the strange creature from both directions. Reichenbach had to get to the chamber with the well before the singing phantom had a chance to disappear. Prince Orczy followed hot on the heels of Reichenbach. Von Gunn chased after him. Dr Watson ordered Fedir to stay with the Countess then took off in pursuit of the Irishman.
Moriarty flew down the spiral stairs several curves ahead of Dr Watson. The stone corkscrew was steep, dark and narrow and it took all his concentration not to break his neck. Chanteloup was not designed for royal courtiers and ladies-in-waiting to traipse daintily back and forth, it was a medieval fortress for a suzerain and a place of refuge for hapless villagers in times of war. Reichenbach and his cohort fared better. The kitchen stairs were built wider so that servants could pass two abreast. The stairs turned just once near the base as they opened into the main kitchen where foodstuffs were plated-up just before serving, thus avoiding rank food smells and smoke from the cooking fires venting into the great hall.
Moriarty reached the chamber that housed the well, took a huge mouthful of air to replace what had been expended, and looked quickly around. A door on the far side was bolted this side and the room was empty. He cursed loudly and made a dash through various storerooms, past the larder and pantry and scullery which were all similarly bolted this side, and stopped abruptly outside the door of the old bakery, the room where the old couple slept because it was warm and adjacent to the main kitchen. A fire was crackling in the hearth warming the bread oven. The old couple was seated at the bread table, cutting a slice of bread from yesterday’s loaf. In front of them sat two cups of steaming bouillon broth and a flickering candle in a wooden holder. Before he could question them, Reichenbach came from the opposite direction, followed by Orczy and von Gunn. Stupefied, the four men stood outside the doorway and stared at each other while they recovered their wits and breaths. Dr Watson, panting heavily, arrived a few moments later. He was the first to speak.
“Well?” he said, wondering what he’d missed, looking eagerly from one man to another until his eyes spotted the old couple who appeared to be having supper or perhaps breakfast. He actually wondered if they were just going to bed or just getting up. “What happened?”
Moriarty looked vexed. “Nothing!”
“Nothing!” repeated Reichenbach.
The five men packed themselves into the bakery and fired off a fusillade of questions at the old couple: Did you see anyone? Did you see anything? Did someone just rush past? Are you hiding someone? Does someone else live in the castle? Is there a secret tunnel? Where is the Singing Wolf? Where is your mistress? What’s going on?
The old man and his near-deaf wife remained nonplussed. They dipped crusty morsels of bread into their cups of steaming hot bouillon broth and chewed the crusts with toothless gums and shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads. Exasperated, the men made a cursory search of the room then gave up in frustration and returned to the great hall.
“I’m telling you there was no place to hide on those stairs,” snarled the Irishman when von Gunn accused him of rushing straight past the fantom in his wild panic.
When they returned to the great hall it was Xenia, who, having posted herself back at the same archway as before, confirmed that no creature had doubled back. Reichenbach and his cohort likewise asserted that there did not appear to be anyone in the main kitchen as they rushed through it to meet up with Moriarty. Prince Orczy suggested they mount a search of the domestic storerooms but in truth they were all exhausted and, besides, they didn’t even know what they were searching for. They all agreed an attack by Sarazan was unlikely but they would nevertheless see out the night in the great hall. The bedrooms in the west wing were freezing cold, and the fires in the east wing would have burned themselves out by now. Just to be on the safe side, Velazquez was ordered to remain with them until morning.
The remainder of the night passed uneventfully and it was not until breakfast when they were all seated bleary-eyed back around the dining table that Moriarty voiced something that had been troubling him before he fell into fitful sleep.
“Last night, as I was rushing down the stairs I smelled something unusual.” He looked to Dr Watson for a response and was not disappointed.
“I smelled something too – perfume.”
Moriarty was bracing for the inevitable gibe from his cohort but it never came. The next comment came from the Countess.
“Why don’t the two of you go up to the south tower after breakfast and check the scent bottles on the dressing table. See if you can pinpoint the smell.”
Von Gunn gave a snort. “What’s the use of that? We all agree there is someone else here in the castle. It may well be that our hostess has lost her mind. Or it could be a lunatic, some mad servant or a crazy relation who has murdered the Singing Wolf and intends to do the same to us. Who cares what scent the maniac prefers! Which reminds me – we haven’t interrogated Velazquez. I noticed it was Inez and Desi serving the breakfast. This time it was a rack of toast on the floor. That black bitch is getting clumsier by the day. I think the toreador is keeping out of sight. I will catch up with him straight after breakfast.”
Reichenbach was the voice of reason. “First up, I think we need to check if there was another rockslide during the night and if there has been any damage to the walls or ramparts. If we all take a different section of wall it will be quicker.”
They all nodded.
“We should also check how the rock clearing is progressing,” suggested the Prince. “I can do that after we check the walls.”
“No,” said Moriarty with determined emphasis. “When we open the gates and the portcullis I think it is important that we are all there together. If Sarazan is waiting on the other side we need to be prepared to back each other up. Until we know what’s going on and what we are up against we must remain vigilant. That means no wandering off on your own, gentleman, and lady in particular.” He looked meaningfully at the Countess. “It is advisable that you keep your muff pistol handy and one of your trusty servants by your side any time you are not with one of us.”
Dr Watson waited until they all spread out to check the walls. He followed Moriarty and caught up to him when the latter stopped to light a cigarette, shielding the lucifer from the wind with his hand; a gold signet ring glinting in the dull morning light highlighted a shamrock.
“Do you think the Countess might be in personal danger from whoever is at large?”
Moriarty offered a cigarette to the doctor and waited for him to light it. “Anything is possible at this stage and if there’s a lunatic on the loose who has a penchant for perfume and dolls and has murdered our hostess and disposed of her body, well, it could well be a mad woman with a grudge against her own sex.”
The two men climbed up to the ramparts and gazed out across the southward spreading plain. They were standing at the highest point of the steepest part of the plateau. The drop was almost vertical – fortunately it had not suffered any damage. A rockfall here would bring down the entire south tower.
“By the way,” said the doctor as they were making their way to the portcullis to meet up with the others. “I thought I smelled that same perfume in the room where the old couple sat.”
Moriarty turned sharply. “I did too. I wasn’t sure because of the smell of the bread and the bouillon, but I thought it was there. We can check the scent bottles later this morning.”
They reconvened in the shadow of the barbican. Prince Orczy informed them there had been a minor rockslide on the western side. None of the walls had suffered any damage. It was time to open the gate and the portcullis. This was a painstaking exercise that could not be hurried. Cautiously, they ventured outside and down the zig-zag path, some continued further while others took up defensive positions behind the rocks. The villagers were still hard at it, clearing the way. Their voices could be heard shouting directions, and every now and then rocks like giant marbles could be heard rolling down the slope. Prince Orczy clambered onto a large boulder to speak to the one of the villagers but as soon as he called out to the man a gunshot rang out. He leapt back in fright and landed awkwardly. Dr Watson, dodging a hail of bullets, rushed forward to see if the Prince had injured himself. Fortunately, he was only bruised and winded. Gradually, the two men inched their way back to safety.
They could have immediately retreated behind the safety of the gate but they had the advantage of higher ground and Reichenbach urged them to make the most of it. Fedir and the Countess were positioned on the ramparts which gave them a bird’s eye view of the battleground. Sarazan had posted only eight men to keep watch. If they could dispatch all eight now it would be easier for them when they eventually tried to leave. Fedir shot the nearest bandit clean through the head. The Countess claimed another. Reichenbach winged a third. It was hard to know who scored next but in less than twenty minutes they had taken down seven men. The eighth could be seen fleeing for his life back to his horse.
They were congratulating themselves when someone shot out of the gate and down the slope. It was Velazquez.
“What the hell is he doing?” cried Moriarty.
“Come back!” called Dr Watson. “Don’t be a fool!”
But Velazquez was running for his life, dragging his injured leg. He tripped and fell, picked himself up, and pushed on, limping awkwardly one moment, sprinting like a drunkard with the devil on his tail the next. Only the Countess understood how terrified he was of being interrogated. He preferred to take his chances with the brigands than with the men inside Chanteloup.
Suddenly they heard a gunshot. Velazquez fell and this time he did not get up. His body rolled and rolled down the mountainside, crashing against the rocks, until it came to a precipice and went over the edge into freefall. They did not hear the thud when it crash-landed, but there was no way Velazquez would have survived the bone-crunching punishment. Badly shaken, they retreated inside Chanteloup, lowered the portcullis and barred the gate.
Coffee and seed cake was waiting for them in the great hall.
“That was damn bad business with Velazquez,” pronounced Reichenbach, pouring himself a cup of strong hot black coffee. “What possessed him to run like that?”
Everyone shrugged and shook their heads, lost for words.
“It went well for us at least,” noted Moriarty. “Sarazan will know he’s not dealing with amateurs.”
“It certainly lifted the odds in our favour,” said the Prince. “That was a first rate shot by the Countess’s man.”
Von Gunn preferred something stronger than coffee and went to the sideboard. “Blast that lily-livered bull-fighter! He polished off the cognac before he bolted. He must have been blind drunk. I’ll bring up another bottle.”
“Bring two,” said the Prince. “We might need it tonight.” He looked at the Prussian. “I presume we are following the same defensive plan tonight?”
“I think it would be wise. The same possibility exists about being picked off one at a time. And as the Colonel cautioned – until we know what we are up against we should not take chances.”
Reichenbach and Prince Orczy opted to catch up on some sleep. They were not expecting Sarazan to launch a counter-offensive so soon after suffering severe losses and with their doors locked they felt safe from murderous attacks by singing phantoms. The Countess opted to do the same but when she reached her bedroom the first thing she noticed was that the mysterious doll she had deposited on her bed had disappeared. She quizzed Xenia but the maid had not seen it since they all set off after breakfast to check the ramparts and she had gone to help in the kitchen. That meant a third party had visited her bedroom in her absence.
“Light the fire,” she said to her maid, feeling a cold chill that had more to do with the missing doll than the temperature of the chamber, “and instruct Desi to bring up some hot water. I will take a bath this afternoon and wash my hair.”
Xenia waited until her mistress reached the door. “That man not good for you.”
The Countess looked back over her shoulder. “What are you talking about?”
“The Irish – he trouble.”
“I can look out for myself.”
“He want your money.”
“Then he will be disappointed.”
“He want marry to you.”
“I’m not after a husband.”
“Wait! I come with you!”
The Countess was annoyed with her maid for speaking out of line, though their relationship had long ago moved beyond maid and mistress. If truth be told she was actually annoyed that her maid was right. The Irishman was trouble and he did want her money and he did want to marry her – he had declared himself from the start. He played by a different set of rules to most suitors and it fired her imagination more than she cared to admit.
“No, stay here and light the fire. I’m going up to the south tower to speak to Dr Watson. I want to tell him the doll has gone missing.”
“The Irish – he is there too,” warned Xenia. “Take care, mistress.”
As she climbed the spiral stairs the Countess told herself that there was no such thing as singing phantoms and murderous ghosts and disappearing bodies, she warned herself not to let her imagination run wild, but she couldn’t help looking back over her shoulder more than once.
“This one,” she heard Moriarty say as she entered the bedchamber of the Singing Wolf. He was holding a bottle of scent for Dr Watson to sniff.
“Yes,” agreed the doctor. “That’s it. That’s the smell. That means the lunatic who is at large in the castle was in this room dabbing on perfume as we barricaded ourselves in the hall.”
“I swear I flew down those stairs. When I got to the chamber that houses the well the door on the far side was closed with the bolt drawn this side. They could not have fled down to the cellar unless they passed right through the old timbers. The storerooms are lined with open shelving. It would be impossible to hide and not be seen. And the perfume smell in the bread room suggests that our phantom entered that room. But where did they go after that?”
“The bread oven was alight. They could not have hidden inside. They could not have gone up the chimney for the same reason. The twin beds had the blankets folded back. There was nowhere to hide inside the beds and we could see under the beds clearly.”
“Von Gunn checked the armoire. There were a few cloaks hanging on hooks but they did not trail to the floor of the cupboard, so unless the phantom had no legs he or she could not hide inside. Orczy checked the storage chest. It was full of old sabots and hats and scarves. I saw when he opened it and poked about.”
“What about that door at the end of bread room?”
“I checked that myself. It was bolted and a small sack of flour was standing in front of it. There was flour and sawdust on the floor which had not been disturbed. If someone had darted that way there would have been footprints or tell-tale marks. The sack had not been placed hurriedly in front of the door for the same reason. There’s no way that old couple had time to hide anyone in that room, slide home the bolt and sprinkle sawdust and flour on the floor. I checked their hands just in case. They were clean.”
“Where might that door lead?”
“I believe it leads to the room Orczy described as a child’s bedroom.”
“Oh, that’s right – the dead child.”
“Any luck?” said the Countess, interrupting the men.
“Yes,” said Dr Watson. “This is the perfume.” He held out an artfully sculptured greenish-blue glass bottle.
“It’s Lalique,” she said.
“Is that the name of the fragrance?” checked the Irishman.
“No, it’s the name of the glass maker – Rene Lalique. He also specializes in Art Nouveau jewellery. The Princess Roskovsky told me the Singing Wolf never failed to adorn herself with a piece of Art Nouveau. You can see some pieces in her casket on the dressing table. They’re dramatic and striking and angular – a bit like her. The vase on the sideboard in the great hall is Lalique and so is the altar-piece in the chapel. I don’t recognize this fragrance. It’s probably an individual parfum she had blended for herself at a parfumerie in Biarritz.”
Moriarty yawned and strode to the door. “I’m going to have a kip. Wake me in time for lunch.”
Dr Watson checked the jewellery casket. “Yes, I see what you mean – the pieces are very bold and modern. I can’t say I like them. Mary preferred pearls. I wonder who will inherit this lot. I wonder if our hostess thought about a Will and Testament.”
The Countess waited for the footsteps on the stairs to fade before recounting to the doctor all that Velazquez had told her the previous evening about over-hearing some loud love-making and suspecting one of the men.
“That means one of the men was lying about not seeing the Singing Wolf since saying goodnight to her, hang on, you said the bed hadn’t been slept in” reminded Dr Watson.
“Yes, I thought about that, but not everyone has intercourse in bed. In fact, if the intercourse had not been conducted in bed they would have been closer to the door and more likely to be overheard.”
“Er, yes,” muttered Dr Watson, turning pink. “Well, no wonder poor Velazquez bolted. He looked scared out of his wits last night and when he raced past me today I could have sworn he thought the devil was after him. Poor chap. Which man do you think was, er, with our hostess in her room?”
“I have wracked my brains. It could have been any one of them.”
“Including the Colonel?” he tested.
“Especially the Colonel!”
“You’re not falling for him, then?”
“Trust me – I know what I’m doing.”
“Don’t play games! You might find you have bitten off more than you can chew when it comes to clan Moriarty. I think he is dangerous but you know that already. I don’t trust him one bit but you know that too. Remember: blood is thicker than water.”
She took to wandering the perimeter of the odd-shaped room while he delivered the well-meaning lecture. By the time he’d finished dishing out avuncular advice she had paused in front of an oil painting of a girl with a kitten. It was either a genuine Jean-Baptiste Perronneau or a very good imitation. The kitten looked feral but the girl looked sweet with soft fair hair and a blue silk dress adorned with tiny rosettes. “Oh, I just remembered what I came up here to tell you. Someone entered my bedroom while we were checking the ramparts. They took the doll.”
“Why is the doll so important?”
“I have no idea but it clearly matters to someone. It was hidden under the pillow in this bed.” She checked to make sure it had not been put back under the pillow. “And now it has disappeared just like our hostess. I find that curious.”
Dr Watson stifled a yawn. “We should have a nap before lunch too.”
“You go ahead. I want to search the dressing rooms a second time.”
He was reluctant to leave her on her own. “I’ll just stretch out on this bed then. Wake me when you’re done.”
The collection of clothes belonging to the Singing Wolf was almost as enormous as the collection belonging to the Countess herself, and the quality was equally excellent, but it was the dressing room with the opera costumes that interested the Countess most of all. The Singing Wolf must have starred in almost every opera ever written: Aida, Rigoletto, Macbeth, Otello – and had the costumes to prove it. There was just one costume that seemed out of place. It consisted of a pair of black leather trousers with a matching black leather gilet that laced up at the front, and came with a pair of black riding boots, black gloves, black neckerchief, and even a gun belt. The Countess couldn’t think of any – Sacre Bleu!
The Singing Wolf’s lover was Sarazan!
She must have let him into the castle after everyone else had gone to bed. He must have killed her after the act, and he must have taken the body away with him – that’s why it couldn’t be found. Sarazan was the mysterious lover Velazquez had heard that night. The terrified toreador was not in mortal danger from any of the men inside the castle. That was one mystery solved and yet the Countess could not rejoice. There was inexpressible relief that it could not have been Moriarty and yet great pity that Velazquez had died in vain.
Philosophical about the absurdity of life and possessing a stoic soul, the Countess forced herself to remain focussed. She checked the garderobe and gave special attention to the lancet window that faced outwards, though there was no question anyone had climbed in now that it was clear the Singing Wolf had opened the door to her own killer. The floor was badly scratched where Desi had probably dragged the heavy buckets across the stones to flush the chute. Moss clung thickly to the iron grate of the latrine, more-so than the one in the east wing, nearest her bedroom. This seemed odd since it faced south and was flushed more often that any of the others, but perhaps that’s why the moss flourished – it was wet for longer periods.
In the bathroom Desi had wiped down the copper bath and the triple aspect cheval glass. The surfaces gleamed in the dim half-light. She was about to turn her back on the room when the mirror caught her eye. The middle section was fixed to the stone wall and yet it protruded at least twelve inches. The two wings were on hinges and were much thinner, merely the thickness of the glass and the carved backboard. The mirror had been designed so that someone could relax in the bath and gaze at themselves at the same time. Ah, vanity!
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the vainest of them all!
The Countess decided to give Dr Watson a bit more time to nap. She curled up in the chair by the door, wrapped a quilted blanket around herself to keep warm since there was no fire, and closed her eyes…
Barely had she the time to drift off when some sublime singing reached her ears. There was no mistaking it. It was the elusive singing phantom. Every muscle in her body tensed and her first instinct was to rouse Dr Watson from his slumber but she knew if she moved from her chosen spot she would alert the phantom to her presence. It was better to stay put and wait until the door was opened and the phantom revealed itself. Her heart was beating fast, she was holding onto her last indrawn breath, the door was creaking on its hinges when Dr Watson stirred, snorted and rolled over.
In an instant the door slammed shut and the phantom fled. The Countess gave chase. By the time she’d thrown open the door and hitched up her petticoats, the elusive creature had the advantage of several yards. She caught no glimpse of it as she hurtled down the dark and narrow spiral stairs in furious pursuit.
She had reached the one and only landing midway in the corkscrew when something grabbed hold of her elbow and almost wrenched her arm out of its socket, violently halting her momentum.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“Let go!” she demanded fervently but already it was too late. The phantom had eluded capture a second time. Incensed, she confronted her assailant. “Why did you grab me like that?”
Moriarty, visibly chagrined, released her arm and stepped back into the great hall. “I thought you were about to fall headlong down the stairs.”
“I was chasing the singing phantom – did you see it?”
“No, I was looking at that Lalique vase you spoke of, the one on the sideboard, when I heard what I thought was a swishing-pattering sound. It sounded like a dog. As it got louder, I kid you not – I thought it might be a pack of wolves coming down the stairs and then I heard a cat miaow.”
“You didn’t hear any singing?”
“Are you sure you didn’t see anyone rush down the stairs ahead of me?”
“Well, as I said I was looking at the vase. In the time it took me to replace it and lift back the tapestry someone could have raced past.”
Anger subsided and her breathing returned to normal. She had to admit that what he said was reasonable. She had been hurtling like a mad woman down the stairs and one mis-step could have sent her plunging to her death. She recalled that story someone told on their first night at the castle about the boy who altered the height of the riser and killed his drunken father. Moriarty might have recalled it too when he spotted her flying along.
She was tossing up whether to tell him about the outlaw costume in the closet upstairs when Inez entered with a tureen of leak and potato soup. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying. The death of Velazquez had hit her hard. The Countess wondered if they had been lovers.
Xenia arrived bearing a platter of cold meats and cheeses, and Desi appeared with a basket of freshly baked bread and current buns and was being extra careful not to drop it. Moriarty went to wake his friends and the Countess went to fetch Dr Watson.
“Where’s von Gunn?” said the Baron, glancing at the comptoise clock leaning against the wall as they took their seats at the large oak table. “He went down to the cellar ages ago. He should have returned with those two bottles of cognac by now.”
“He’s probably been sampling them to make sure they haven’t spoiled,” gibed Prince Orczy, uncorking a bottle of local Gaillac wine. “Let him sleep. I’ll go and wake him after I’ve eaten. I didn’t take much breakfast and I’m famished. I’ll hunt out some grand cru while I’m down there.”
“I’ll go with you,” offered the Countess. “I wouldn’t mind some champagne tonight.”
“Bring up a sweet sherry while you’re at it,” said Dr Watson. “You can have the champagne to yourself.” He was in a much better mood since his nap, though the senseless death of the toreador weighed heavily on him. He raised his glass. “Let us drink to the memory of Velazquez.”
“To Velazquez,” they solemnly chorused.
They discussed the plan for tonight. It was exactly the same as the previous evening, though with Sarazan’s forces seriously depleted it was unlikely he would be contemplating an all-out assault, especially as he was under no illusion that he was up against men who knew one end of a gun from another. If the brigand had any sense he would go back to robbing pilgrims and unarmed train travellers. So, it was not Sarazan that concerned them. It was the fact there was a lunatic at large who was likely to slit their throats one by one while they slept. When the Countess told them about hearing the singing phantom just prior to lunch it confirmed their resolve to stick together. And that’s when they remembered von Gunn a second time.
“This talk of lunatics,” said the Prince, adopting an ominous undertone, “makes me think von Gunn has been gone a long time.”
Reichenbach pushed abruptly to his feet and checked the chamber of his gun for bullets. “I’m going down to the cellar.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Moriarty, his hand on his revolver.
In the end it was only Dr Watson who chose to remain in the great hall. He sat with his back against the wall and kept his hand on his Webley. Someone needed to stay back in case that elusive phantom turned up unannounced.
The servants were enjoying hot soup and crusty bread and fairly jumped out of their skins when three men and one woman streamed through the main kitchen brandishing loaded weapons. Fortunately, the quartet paused only long enough to light some lanterns before continuing straight down to the cellar.
Von Gunn was nowhere to be seen. Two bottles of cognac standing by the cellar stairs indicated he had come this way. They wasted no time and ran down some more stairs to the dungeon and torture chamber. It was a relief not to find him strapped to the rack or strung up on a strappado. Everyone had been imagining the worst.
“Here he is!” shouted the Prince not long after they spread out to widen the search.
Von Gunn was found at the bottom of an oubliette – literally a small pit in the floor where a prisoner could be dispatched and forgotten, hence the name. It was too deep to climb out of and not wide enough to stretch out. A few days of being doubled-up and bent in such a small hole would have been an agony on the bones. Some times more than one prisoner went in and the poor fellows sat in their own filth until they starved to death.
A ladder was found and Prince Orczy, being tall and slim, volunteered to go down to help the German climb the rungs. He appeared groggy and dazed and had a lump on his head the size of a bird’s egg. He couldn’t say whether he had been pushed or whether he had merely stumbled in the dark and thus ended up in the oubliette by accident.
“What made you come down to the dungeon” asked the Baron.
“I thought I heard singing.”
A quick search of the tiny cells and torture chamber revealed no sign of life apart from rats and cockroaches. They were glad to return to the cellar, grab what they wanted by way of liquid refreshment, and bolt the door behind them.
The Countess hung back and waited for Moriarty to catch up to her.
“Here,” she said, handing him the bottle of champagne, “take this upstairs. I want to search the child’s room. I need you to instruct the servants to accompany you to the great hall. You can say you want to interrogate them about what just happened to Herr von Gunn.”
“Do you want me to stay with you? Reichenbach can deal with the servants.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want the old couple to think anyone is searching their private quarters.”
He understood. “I’ll leave your maid and manservant with you.”
The Countess pretended to be interested in the preparations Xenia was undertaking toward their dinner – cooking green borscht, much tastier than the red version, made from chervil rather than beetroot – and waited until the others disappeared.
“Keep an eye out,” she instructed Fedir, who had just brought in a load of wood. “Warn me if anyone comes.”
Hurrying into the bakery room, she immediately set about checking the armoire and the storage chest but it was exactly as Moriarty had described to the doctor: sabots, scarves, hats and cloaks. Loaves of bread baked that morning were cooling on the small table in the centre of the room which was still covered with a fine dusting of flour. It was a proper bread-making table, the sort found in most peasant homes, with a lid that opened and a hatch underneath for the dough so that it could be kept warm while the yeast expanded prior to baking. Twin beds were pressed against the wall nearest the bread oven. The blankets had been pulled back, allowing the beds to air. The stale smell of sweat and the odour of old people clung to the bedding. The floor around the door to the child’s room was as Moriarty had said – covered with sawdust and flour. The sack of flour was now half-empty. She slipped the bolt and went inside. There was no window and the light was dim. It took a moment to adjust to the darkness. A child’s cot stood against the far wall and a beautifully carved storage chest stood near the door. The room was small. The only other furniture was a comfortable nursing chair and a wicker basket full of toys. The child’s cot was shaped like a sleigh, elaborately carved with images of reindeer. The bedding was made from good quality linen and smelled freshly laundered. The quilt was plump and the pillow was stuffed with goose-down. This child had been cossetted and well-loved. Inside the chest was a collection of clothes for a young girl who had been about four or five years of age. The fabric was silk and satin and velvet, edged in lace and frills and ruffles and bows. There were two pairs of satin slippers and even a pair of sabots for dainty little feet. Tucked into the corners of the chest were pouches of dried lavender. The smell was sweet and lovely. This child had not only been cossetted, she had been supremely spoiled. The old couple could never have afforded this level of luxury for their child without the generosity of their mistress. Their benefactress must have doted on the child too.
The Countess replaced everything as she had found it and retreated, being careful to make the flour and sawdust by the door appear undisturbed. Her hands and nails were dirty by the time she finished covering her footprints and she understood what Moriarty had meant when he told the doctor the hands of the old couple were clean.
The death of this much-loved child had possibly driven someone over the edge into madness – perhaps a wet nurse or a nursery maid, or perhaps the real mother, yes, a lady of rank, for it seemed unlikely that the clothes in the chest belonged to the child of the poor old couple. The garments were too new, too fresh, too costly. If the child had been theirs it would have died more than sixty years ago. No, it could not possibly be their child who had owned these things. They were custodians of this treasure trove of keepsakes but they did not own them. Knowing that, it soon became clear that they knew who did. And that meant they knew who the mad woman was. It was time to see what they had to say.
Inez was sobbing. She looked wretched and scared stiff sitting in the chair at the end of the dining table facing the four men who were taking turns interrogating her. Dr Watson, wanting no part of such proceedings, had taken it upon himself to help Fedir bring up some wood and re-stack the fire baskets. If they were going to sit up all night they would need more fuel.
Milo, Desi and the old couple were seated on a pew in the chapel, awaiting their turn.
“I tell you I did not see when Herr von Gunn went to the cellar. I was in the laundry room. My back was to the door. I not know what happen to him. I tell you I did not hear any singing. Velazquez was not my lover. Never! How could I know what was in his head when he decide to run away? He liked to drink, yes, I know that. He was always shaking, always nervous, I think that was the drink making him do that. I tell you I do not know what happen to our mistress. After our mistress go missing, Velazquez is afraid even more, always jumping at every leetle sound, always looking over his shoulder. I am afraid too. I think he see something that night but he not tell me. We not have time to talk about such things. I tell you he was not my lover!” she repeated fervently, sobbing so much by the time she finished they could get nothing more out of her.
Inez, still weeping, sashayed back to the pew with a natural dancer’s grace and Desi was summoned. The lumpy Negress shuffled to the chair and slumped inelegantly onto the seat. Her hands were folded in her lap, perhaps to stop them shaking, though she did not appear nervous or afraid merely bewildered.
“Did you see when Herr von Gunn went into the cellar?” began Reichenbach a little less harshly since he did not want another flood of tears.
She shook her frizzy head and looked directly at the Prussian. “I am in scullery. I have my back to door. People come and go. I not look. I am busy, always busy. Always there is work to do. The other servants they do not come, there is more work for me.”
“Did you hear any singing?”
“I am busy, too busy to hear singing. I never hear singing except when the mistress sings. She has good voice. I like her voice. I stop and listen when she sing. I think she will not sing more. I think that is the end of her singing.”
“What makes you so sure she will not sing anymore?”
She shrugged her big broad shoulders. “I think she is finished singing.”
She shrugged again. “She is gone.”
The Negress looked up to the vaulted roof or perhaps to heaven. “Gone.”
Von Gunn jumped in. “You think she is dead?”
The Negress nodded without elaborating or looking at her interrogator.
“What makes you think that?”
“The mistress make no more singing. I like her singing. But now she sing no more.”
Reichenbach decided to move on, the girl’s answers were becoming repetitive.
“Did you notice when Velazquez got up in the night? I am referring to the first night we stayed here in Chanteloup.”
She scratched her thick black neck and nodded. “I hear him. He trips on stones. He falls down. He gets up. He goes into big kitchen. Bang! He knocks chair. He picks chair up. He is going to get some drink. He likes to drink at night. This everyone knows. He goes up the stairs. He trips again. He falls down. He gets up. All is quiet.”
“Did you hear when he came back?”
“Yes, he go to wrong room. He go to room of Inez. She tells him go away. He comes to me. I tell him same. Go away. I need sleep. I am tired. He tells me he is cold. He want to get in bed with me. He say to me he hear singing. He is scared. I tell him go or I will scream. He go and all is quiet.”
Reichenbach could hardly believe the handsome toreador would prefer the ugly negress to the sultry lithe flamenco dancer but it wouldn’t be the first time drink had rendered a man blind to reality. “Did he often want to get into bed with you?”
The Negress glanced toward the pew where Inez was sitting with her head in her hands. “Sometime – when he drink too much.”
Von Gunn guffawed raucously. He was thinking the same as Reichenbach, but he could see the funny side of it. Poor deluded Velazquez!
A dark shadow fell over the heavy brow of the Negress and she scowled, squared her substantial shoulders and tilted her double chin to a noble angle. The Baron decided to throw up the questioning to the others. The Countess took him up on the invitation.
“Did you hear anyone else that night, Desi?”
“Who you mean?”
“The singing ghost perhaps?”
“No ghost. Velazquez is drunk. He always see ghosts.”
“What sort of ghosts?”
“Ghost of his friend.”
“Friend he kill in Pamplona.”
“Who told you this?”
Desi looked across at Inez who had suddenly stopped weeping and was listening intently. “I hear when Velazquez tell to Inez one night when he go to her bed.”
“Liar! Liar!” shouted the sultry dancer. “Velazquez never came to my bed! I wouldn’t let him!” She began to sob again, even more hysterically.
“Be quiet, woman!” ordered von Gunn. “Or I will lock you in the dungeon!”
Inez took him at his word, cried out in fear, and began to suck back huge gulps of air that ended in hiccups. Milo patted her on the back with his bandaged hand to calm her down. The old couple clung to each other in trepidation. They were probably thinking this was the beginning of a new Inquisition. The Countess continued, though she doubted the line of questioning would produce anything useful, but at this stage who knew where anything might lead.
“What did you overhear, Desi? Is that short for Desiderata?”
Desi shook her head. “Desdemona.”
The Countess offered a friendly smile that matched her tone. “Desdemona – like the name of the heroine in Otello. Your mistress sang the part of Desdemona. I saw a costume in the closet where she keeps her opera clothes. It was made of red and gold silk. Did you see it?”
The Negress began to nod then shook her head firmly, as if she had misunderstood the question. The Countess smiled indulgently and returned to her original question.
“What did you overhear between Velazquez and Inez?”
“I hear him tell Inez he kill his friend. He is running with bulls and he push his friend under the bull. His friend is killed.”
“Liar!” shouted Inez, hiccupping violently.
The Negress appeared to be enjoying herself or perhaps she was enjoying the distress of Inez. Until this moment no one could have suspected that the relationship between these two female servants was anything but amicable.
“Be quiet!” warned von Gunn, thumping his fist on the table.
“Did Velazquez say why he did that?” continued the Countess calmly.
Desi scowled and nodded. “He say friend steal his lover.”
The machismo of toreadors was confirmed yet again in the imagination of the listeners but they did not really need to dwell on the immorality of hot-blooded types. Nevertheless, the story went some way to explaining why he chose to bolt. Fear, guilt and excessive drink made for a dangerous mix.
“Let me go back to last night,” said the Countess. “Velazquez brought the glasses down to the scullery for you to wash, is that right?”
The Negress nodded.
“What did you do after you finished washing the glasses?”
“I go to bed.”
“Did you go straight to bed?”
She nodded, but this time there was some stiffness to her bobbing head.
“It had been a long tiring day and we had not had much lunch. I notice you are large and strong. I think no one would mind if you had decided to have something extra to eat before bed.”
The Negress squeezed her fingers together and nodded sheepishly. “I am hungry. I have extra bread and cup of cold tea from pot on table.”
“Was anyone else still up?”
She shook her head.
“You did not hear anyone using the back stairs?”
“No, who you mean?”
“No one,” said the Countess vaguely. “I was just wondering.” She left it at that.
Reichenbach called for any further questions, but they all thought they had got everything they were ever going to get out of the Negress. The way she kept asking ‘who’ when she was asked a question indicated she had been used to being told what to think. She clearly harboured a grudge against Inez and it was not difficult to see why. The Spanish dancer was everything she was not – slim, graceful, attractive and desirable.
Milo was summoned. Bandages were still wrapped around his hands. Dr Watson had checked them during the day and changed them. The blisters had burst and there was a lot of pus but they had not become infected. The boy was strong and healthy. The Countess decided to put the boy at his ease before the men got stuck into him.
“How are your hands?”
“They get better, thank you, signora. The English doctor, he look after my hands.”
“How old are you, Milo?”
“Where do you come from?”
“How did you come to work at the Hotel Louve?”
“I am begging in the street when lovely lady come in her carriage and take me to her hotel and give me bath and give me bed and give me food and give me job. I am very happy there, signora.”
“You are not so happy to come here, is that right, Milo?”
“Why is that?”
“The bandits they kill us. There is many bandits in Sicily. They kill my sister. And now the mistress she is killed too.”
“How do you know she has been killed?”
“She goes in the night from her bed – like my sister.”
“Do you think the bandits took your mistress?”
He pressed his lips together and nodded.
Reichenbach cleared his throat with a dry cough before interrupting.
“Did you see Herr von Gunn go down to the cellar before lunch?”
“Did you hear any singing?”
“Where were you when you saw Herr von Gunn go into the cellar?”
“I am in room with well. I am getting water in bucket.”
“Did you see anyone else?”
Milo indicated the old man sitting on the pew. “I see him.”
“What was he doing when you saw him?”
“He is going into cellar after Herr von Gunn.”
Von Gunn looked livid. If not for the lump on his head and the restraining hand of Moriarty on his elbow, the German would have leapt to his feet, rushed across the room and hauled the old man up by the scruff of his neck.
“What happened next?”
“I take bucket of water to kitchen.”
“Did you see Almaric, for that is his name, after you went into the kitchen?”
“Yes, he comes with bottle of wine. His wife she pours red wine in pot with rabbit and puts on fire.”
“Where did you go then?”
“I take bucket back to well.”
“You didn’t hear any singing then or hear anything strange?”
“Did you notice if the door to the cellar was bolted?”
“No, signor, I did not look.”
Reichenbach invited others to put forward any questions. Von Gunn was keen to interrogate the boy but Moriarty shot him a warning look. Prince Orczy had lit up yet another cigarette and put his feet up on the dining table. He appeared amused and relaxed. Dr Watson stepped up. He did not want to give von Gunn the opportunity to badger the poor lad. He had been listening and knew enough to carry on.
“You share a room with Velazquez?”
“Si, signor doctor.”
“Did you hear Velazquez get out of bed last night?”
“Si, signor doctor.”
“Where did you think he was going?”
“To get some drink.”
“Did he often get up in the night to get some drink?”
“Si, signor, and sometimes he…” The boy glanced at Inez and stopped dead.
Dr Watson moved along. “Did you hear anyone else up and about during the night?”
The boy looked back at the pew then dropped his gaze. But who was he looking at? The four figures were all huddled closely together. It was impossible to tell. He wondered if the Countess had noticed the boy’s line of gaze.
“That is all,” said Dr Watson. “If you remember anything else please come and tell me at once.”
Milo went back to the pew and the old couple stood up to come forward without waiting to be summoned. As they advanced, Reichenbach instructed the other three servants to return to the kitchen. He had decided the old couple might be more forthcoming if they did not have an audience, especially as Milo had implicated the old man in the attack on von Gunn. A chair was brought forward by Moriarty for the woman. Reichenbach addressed the old couple in English for he had noticed that they had understood the questions put to them the previous evening, though comprehending and replying were two separate skills. He hoped their taciturnity was not linked to some peasant dialect.
“You understand that your mistress is missing and we are concerned for her safety?”
The old man, who was clearly going to be the spokesperson for the half-deaf-half-blind pair, replied. “Oui.”
“Do you have any idea what may have happened to your mistress?”
“Was she in the habit of disappearing for a few days when she came to stay here?”
“What do you think happened to her? Do not be frightened to speak. We are anxious to hear what you have to say.”
The old man clasped the hand of his wife tighter than ever and reverted to English, and he was clearly not a French peasant who had spent his life chopping vegetables at Chanteloup. He was well-educated and his grammar was better than that of the Inez, Desi and Milo.
“She is being reborn.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Our mistress is being reborn as more perfect.”
“Are you saying you believe she is being reincarnated?”
Von Gunn expostulated, “Now I’ve heard it all! This is a mad house, gentlemen!”
Prince Orczy sneered. “Let me guess! She is coming back as an eagle!”
“Or perhaps a wolf!” scoffed Moriarty, who was losing patience and had started to pace the length of the bookshelf. Lack of sleep was getting to him.
“The Singing Wolf was that already!” reminded the Prince, laughing snidely.
The old man was not deterred. “She will become a Perfecti.”
Lessons in religious studies from various classics tutors came flooding back to the Countess. “You are referring to the ancient Cathar belief about human spirit being genderless like the spirits of the angels. Humans are cursed to be reincarnated until they achieve salvation through the ritual of consolamentum and become Pure Ones – is that it?”
The old man and even the half-deaf woman looked stunned that she knew anything about their religion.
“Oui, oui, our mistress will become like Madame Carcas,” croaked the old woman.
The Countess decided to enlighten the men so that they too would understand why this strange old couple did not seem overly concerned by the inexplicable disappearance of their mistress, which is no doubt something that had been puzzling them the same as her.
“The Cathars were persecuted by the Catholics because they considered their religion to be less corrupt, more pure. They deemed women to be equal to men, a dangerous idea to a male centric church. Mary Magdalen was more important than St Peter. Women were able to offer the sacrament and to preach. They believed that each incarnation would bring them closer to God. A Perfecti is the highest form of enlightenment before godliness. Since the soul is immaterial the Cathars believed it was also sexless. Madame Carcas refers to the chatelaine of Carcassonne who endured a long siege and saved the city from destruction. Some Cathars believe the last incarnation will be as a male.”
“What are you saying?” pressed Reichenbach. “Are we looking at suicide again?”
“I’m not sure that suicide is the right word. More like martyrdom. If the Singing Wolf believed she would be reincarnated she might have offered herself up to martyrdom.”
“Martyrdom at whose hands?” said Moriarty gruffly.
“I have no idea, but Sarazan springs to mind.”
Von Gunn slammed his fist on the table again. “Balderdash! This is rubbish! If you believe that you are mad too!”
“I didn’t say I believed it,” defended the Countess, “I am only explaining it as I understand it to be.”
Certain things began to fall into place as she spoke: the black leather outfit in the closet that clearly belonged to a man, for starters. Perhaps it was not Sarazan’s after all. Perhaps the Singing Wolf meant it to be her costume in the next and final incarnation. Yes, she had appeared to be almost androgynous in appearance and she had preferred jewellery that was masculine in design. Were those things deliberate choices to help her in the next life? And the physical love-making the night she died – did it take the form of ecstasy-in-death? It was a fairly common belief that the expending of sperm was a type of death, and such belief was not limited to the religious or poetic fraternity, but included scientists and doctors, though what was less well understood was that women ejaculated too. Was Sarazan a believer? Did he participate willingly? Or was he merely an acolyte? And the fact her physical body had disappeared imbued her death with mystical aura. Of course, none of those things explained why she had brought the four men to Chanteloup. Unless they were doing a magnificent job of feigning disbelief, they could not be adherents of Catharism. Perhaps it simply amused her to have them here. Or perhaps, as for most religions, she required witnesses to her miraculous death.
Von Gunn’s anger was mounting. “Let’s get back to who coshed me on the head in the dungeon. I say the old man did it and I will get the truth out of him even if I have to -”
“Calm down,” advised Moriarty, catching the German by the arm as he sprang forward, “you could simply have fallen into that oubliette and hit your head against the stone.”
“The boy saw the old man follow me into the cellar!”
“Yes,” agreed the doctor, siding with the Irishman. “And he saw him come out with a bottle of red for the rabbit stew. What were you doing in the dungeon anyway?”
Von Gunn shook free and shifted uncomfortably. “I told you I heard singing. I went to investigate. Oh, believe what you like! I’m going to get some fresh air! My head is thumping and I’ve heard enough!”
The interrogation of the old couple broke up sooner than any of them would have liked. They still had no answers to any of their questions. Just more questions. But after von Gunn’s outburst and the unbelievable claims by the old man about reincarnation it was impossible to return to common-sense. Lack of sleep compounded their irritability. And tonight would be more of the same – sleeping on makeshift beds, listening to the slightest noise, suspicious and anxious.
Baron Reichenbach and Prince Orczy volunteered to see to the horses and donkeys. Fedir had let the animals out of the stable to graze in the outer bailey. It was time to bring them in before darkness fell. Moriarty announced he intended stealing forty winks. They all agreed it was best to let von Gunn cool his heels until dinnertime. Dr Watson walked with the Countess to the east wing where a hot bath awaited her in her bedroom.
“You didn’t believe that piffle about reincarnation?”
“If you mean do I believe in reincarnation per se then the answer is no, but if you mean did I believe that the old couple believed it then the answer is yes.”
She told him about the black leather outfit: trousers, gilet, hat, neckerchief, boots and gun belt. She told him about the masculine style jewellery. She told him about the androgynous appearance of their hostess – she had been tall and angular, her face sculpted and chiselled, there had been something altogether masculine about her that defied the long lustrous tawny hair and pouty red lips. She had been striking in appearance not because she had been the feminine epitome of the perfect woman but because she had been bold and formidable. She had lacked the grace of Inez but she had not lacked grace. Her grace had been the lupine grace of the wolf, the powerful grace of the eagle, the dangerous grace of the warrior.
“You said Sarazan springs to mind in connection to her martyrdom?”
“Yes, don’t you see, it might have been Sarazan in her room making love to her unto death, not any of our fellow inmates.”
“How would he have gained entry?”
“She let him in.”
The doctor stopped walking while he processed the idea. “You mean she simply waited until everyone had gone to bed and then opened the door?”
“And the gate and the portcullis?”
“Good grief! Sarazan could have murdered us in our beds!”
“Except he didn’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
“She had him under her control.”
“But what about the attack on us as we travelled?”
“He didn’t realise who we were until it was too late. She normally came alone. She was a recluse. We were a large party. He attacked us before he realised his mistake. She couldn’t very well wave to him and call out his name. Remember he stood up on the rock and waved at someone. I think he was waving to her. He signalled his mistake and backed off.”
“But the attack this morning outside the gate?”
“She is now dead. We are now fair game.”
He began walking again. “I need time to absorb this information.”
They walked without talking until they reached her bedroom door.
“What about von Gunn,” he said, “in that oubliette?”
“He fell and hit his head on the stones – just as Moriarty suggested.”
“What about the singing?”
“It could have been Inez or Desi down in the scullery. Sound travels up the spiral staircase and we think it is someone on the stairs. Same with von Gunn. He hears singing and follows the sound down to the dungeon but it might have been coming from somewhere else. There may be hollows between the walls. The guards might have wanted to hear what the prisoners were saying amongst themselves. Or there may be secret tunnels that carry the sound.”
“But the sound of someone running?”
“We were all on edge. Our imaginations were running rampant. We were tired too. None were thinking clearly. It might have been a cat or several cats. Who knows how many cats live here inside the castle. I’ve seen at least six. Or perhaps a small flock of birds which came in through the lancet window in the garderobe in the south tower and flew down the stairs and ended up in the kitchen.”
He nodded. “Yes, yes, it makes sense. You’ve clearly thought this through. The only thing we need to worry about is Sarazan.”
“Hopefully his group of brigands has been seriously depleted.”
“Hopefully. Well, I’ll see you at dinner. I’m going to have a lie down and think about what we just discussed. I can’t rid myself of the suspicion the four men were invited for a reason we know nothing about. It just seems too much of a coincidence that they all have some sort of military connection. I agree the fire was deliberately lit.”
Fedir and Xenia were waiting for the Countess in her bedchamber. The bath was ready, the water scented with herbs, the towels warming by the fire. Her maid and manservant had been busy while the others were being interrogated. Fedir spoke first while the Countess went behind the screen to remove her many layers of clothes with Xenia’s help.
“I think the four men are up to something,” he said in his native tongue, lowering his voice just in case.
The Countess almost groaned – just when she thought she had thought everything through here was something else. “What makes you say that?”
“I heard the old man tell his wife he saw the German sneaking down to the dungeon when he went into the cellar to get a bottle of red wine for the pot. He said the German lied about the singing. The German was searching for something.”
“He used the word: sneaking?”
“Did he say what he thought the German was looking for?”
“No, but he told his wife he went down to take a look and the German called out to him: What are doing, old man. Get out of here…So he left.”
“Is that all?”
Fedir shook his head. “This morning when the men said they were having a sleep. I went to take them some fresh water for washing and I could hear them inside their rooms. They were moving furniture. When I knocked, the Prussian told me to leave the water jug on the floor outside the door. He didn’t want to open the door to me.”
“The Prince opened the door but just wide enough for me to pass the jug of water through the gap. He didn’t want me to go into his room.”
“Mmm, what about the Irishman?”
“He was with you in the tower at first and then he was in the great hall. He didn’t go to his room for a rest. He was studying the bible in the chapel when I first saw him and when I came back that way he was checking the books on the shelf in the library. As soon as he spotted me he moved quickly to the cabinet to look at the vase. He didn’t want me to think he was looking for something in the books. He told me to leave the jug of water in his room and to bolt the door on my way out.”
Well, this was an unwelcome piece of news. It appeared the four men were looking for something other than a dead body. Cathar treasure was the obvious conclusion to jump to. But then why search the bookshelf and the bible? Perhaps they had heard about a secret map? Did the men engineer the fire so as to come to Chanteloup to search for that legendary Cathar treasure the Singing Wolf was reputed to have discovered? Did they kill her after all? Were the four of them in it together?
If so, it would explain why the body had not been found. The men could easily pretend to have searched and found nothing. She and Dr Watson would have no way of knowing.
Dr Watson might be right after all, or at least half right. The four men were up to something but it had nothing to do with military conspiracy. Whatever the truth, there was more to discover. The conclusion she had reached earlier did not take into account the men having an ulterior motive. It put the death of the Singing Wolf in a different light. It put the testimony of the servants back in the spotlight. She had thought at the time of the interrogations that one or more of them had been lying.
The Countess came out from behind her screen wrapped in a white velvet dressing gown edged in ermine. She addressed both servants.
“I want you to find out all you can about the servants. Chat to them about their backgrounds. Where they were born? Where they came from? Do not make it seem as if you are questioning them. Talk about yourselves and then ask them a question or two so that it sounds natural. Show sympathy. The boy lost his sister to bandits. The Negress is always tired and over-worked. Inez was once a dancer. I think she was the lover of Velazquez but she doesn’t want to admit it. Why? What is she ashamed of? What can they tell you about their mistress? You can make things up about me if it helps you to gain their trust. Most of all, what were they really doing during that first night? Let me know anything you learn as soon as you learn it. I will take my bath now. I will bolt the door after you go. Xenia, you can return to help me dress for dinner in one hour. I will be safe until your return. Five knocks and I will open the door.”
As the Countess soaked in the copper bath she cursed the mystery she found herself unable to unravel. In the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, according to the chronicles of Dr Watson, a series of problems presented themselves which Sherlock then methodically deduced and solved. Voila! If Dr Watson were ever to chronicle her sleuthing adventures he would present to the reader a set of problems and then just when she looked set to solve them turn everything on its head, forcing her to start again, and then when she felt she was making headway he would throw in some new information that had nothing to do with the original mystery, forcing her to revise all her deductions, and then he would pile on yet more unforeseen problems until it was impossible to make head or tail of anything!
She dried herself, slipped back into her dressing gown and sat by the fire to dry a cascade of brunette hair while she pondered all the facts. Was this a simple treasure hunt? Was it a military conspiracy? Was it a case of religious mania? Was the singing phantom merely a figment of their over-worked imaginations? Were the servants lying because they feared they might be in trouble for helping themselves to extra food? The facts could be made to fit any one of those theories except for several minor points. Firstly, the doll – who had taken it from her room and where was it now? Secondly, the bed of the Singing Wolf – who had mussed it up between the first time she saw it and such time as she returned with Moriarty? And thirdly, the dead body – where was it? If Sarazan had carried it away how did he clamber over the fallen rocks in the dark with a body in his arms without setting off a further rockslide? More to the point, who lowered the portcullis and barred the gate after him?
Xenia returned after one hour and already she had news. Fedir had just spoken to Milo. The boy was supposed to be filling baskets with kindling, ready for re-starting the fires in the morning, but he wasn’t in the wood shed, he was throwing a knife at a hitching post near the main gate. The thing Fedir found interesting was that the boy with bandaged hands could hit the post at twenty paces with astonishing accuracy. He spoke to the boy about where he had picked up such skill. The boy told him he had learned it from his father. Vendettas were rife in his homeland and everyone carried a dagger from a young age. Then the boy let slip he had stabbed the man who murdered his sister. His own mother had turned him out of the house before the entire family was murdered to avenge the man he had murdered to avenge his sister. That’s how he ended up starving on the streets of Biarritz.
The Countess immediately wondered if it was Milo who had thrown the knife that killed the bandit and not Velazquez. Velazquez had shaky hands, after all. It was not really relevant, it merely underscored not to jump to conclusions.
Moriarty was dressed less formally than social dictate allowed. He was wearing a dark green velvet smoking jacket which the Countess found extremely becoming. He was smoking a cigarette and appeared to be studying the ikons in the chapel.
“Do you know what this says? I think it’s in Greek.”
The Countess was not fluent in Greek but the Cyrillic alphabet was enough of a likeness to be able to guess. “It says: Pantocrator. They’ve made it into two words: Panto-crator, either side of the saint’s image.”
“What about this ikon of the Virgin and Child?”
She peered closer. “It says: Krym. That refers to the Crimea. Are you interested in ikons?”
“I’m thinking of purchasing some for the chapel at Ballyfolly,” he replied briskly, grabbing the nearest candelabra and moving to the front door where a recent inscription could be seen carved into the stone lintel. “This is Latin. What do you make of it?”
“Homo homini lupus est – that translates as: Man to men a wolf is.”
“Man is a wolf to other men?”
She nodded. “I thought Latin was on the syllabus at Eton and Oxford?”
“My two brothers attended Oxford and were fluent in Latin but my education was not on a par. The family fortune had seriously dwindled by the time I came along and I was pretty much left to educate myself. There was no money for tutors and the brave few who took up the paltry offer of room and board didn’t stay long. Fortunately, the old pile had a well-stocked library, albeit moth-eaten and mildewed. I taught myself to read.”
“You mentioned your first brother was a mathematician?”
“And an astronomer. You may have heard of his book: The Dynamics of an Asteroid.”
She had actually read it and found it rather obtuse and rambling. “And the second was a musical composer?”
“Yes, his magnum opus is titled: The Seven Spheres of Heaven.”
“And you entered the military?”
“Yes, it was the making of me. I took to killing with natural born flair.”
“Indeed. Speaking of killing, I have something you can help me with.”
“What makes you assume I undertake private commissions?” His tone was dry.
“I never assume anything.”
“Very wise – has Dr Watson outgrown his charm?”
“Certainly not, besides, if I wanted to bump him off I would do it myself.”
“Indeed. It might be the making of you.”
This sort of banter was jolly fun but she was conscious they didn’t have much time before the others joined them in the great hall, and Xenia had just entered to set the table for dinner, which made the timing perfect.
“What I have in mind is a little experiment. It seems that the Singing Wolf was entertaining someone in her bedchamber the night she disappeared. Velazquez claimed to have heard panting and heavy breathing from the doorway that leads to the spiral – ”
Moriarty threw back his head and laughed loudly. “How on earth did you manage to squeeze that out of the toreador?”
“Not with the threat of torture,” she returned flatly. “Anyhow, I just want to see if it is possible to hear heavy breathing from behind the tapestry. I see my maid is setting the table. We can enlist her help. She will remain here and we will slip upstairs and engage in some heavy breathing.”
“Must I limit myself to heavy breathing?”
“Panting is allowed.”
“I will do the groaning.”
“I presume thrusting is out of the question?”
“You can thrust all you like but not in my direction.”
“More’s the pity.”
The Countess quickly explained to Xenia what was expected. She was to stand by the sideboard and listen. Then lift back the tapestry and listen again. It would not take long.
As soon as they entered the bedchamber Moriarty leapt on to the bed, stretched out his legs and placed his hands behind his head; the breadth of his smile and the twinkle in his Irish eyes told her how much he was enjoying himself.
“Get off the bed,” she instructed curtly. “If the Singing Wolf was entertaining someone in here she was not doing it in her bed. The bed was unruffled. You can take up a position on the floor at the foot of the bed and I will take the daybed.”
“I haven’t had this much fun since my fifth birthday.”
“What happened on your fifth birthday?”
“I got a pony.”
“I suppose you were a natural born horseman?”
“Not really. I fell off and apparently bawled my eyes out. My father was disgusted.”
“I bet you stopped crying and got straight back up onto that little pony?”
“And it was the making of you! Let’s start.”
“I take it this heavy breathing and panting turned a bit rough?”
“I believe it did. Can you extemporise?”
“I’ll just close my eyes and think of that pony.”
It was all they could do to stop from bursting out laughing, but who could have guessed that feigning ecstasy could be so hilarious. Moriarty was astounded the Countess had gotten the faking of it down to such a fine art. At one stage he looked across to the daybed to see if perhaps she really had entered a state of female bliss. By the time they had finished he was convinced that aural stimulation played a much bigger part in pleasure than he had hitherto imagined.
In the meantime, Dr Watson entered the great hall and asked Xenia what she was doing.
“Listening to the Countess,” she said. “She is with the bad Irish upstairs.”
Dr Watson joined Xenia under the arch, turned brick red, whirled on his heel and stomped downstairs to the kitchen, livid with anger. He was still so rigid with indignation when it came time to change the bandages on Milo’s hands he could barely re-wrap them.
“What happened to your pony?”
“The next time I fell off it my father shot it.”
“One of them was lying,” declared Prince Orczy as he popped the cork on the champagne and poured a glass for the Countess and himself.
“I think they were all lying,” asserted Reichenbach, eschewing French bubbly and opting for cognac. “Where on earth is von Gunn now? I knocked on his door as I was passing and didn’t get a reply. Dinner is about to be served. It is damned bad manners.”
“I’ll go and hurry him up,” volunteered Moriarty, feeling benevolent to all mankind, including wealthy German industrialists.
Dr Watson arrived looking red-faced.
“Where have you been?” quizzed Moriarty good-humouredly on his way out. “Don’t tell me you’ve been chasing the elusive phantom again!”
Dr Watson grunted something as he tramped to the sideboard, poured a generous measure of sweet sherry into a wine goblet and drained the lot. Alarmed, the Countess immediately sidled up to him.
“Is everything all right?”
“Just dandy,” he ground out through gritted teeth as he showed her a cold shoulder and went to take out his anger on the coals in the fireplace, stabbing them viciously with the poker, creating a flurry of sparks, several of which singed the Turkey rug.
“I’ve just bedded the fire down,” said the Baron.
Dr Watson glared at the Prussian and viciously stabbed the coals a second time.
The Countess decided to divert any unpleasantness and settle a point of curiosity at the same time. “Baron Reichenbach, do you know which opera launched the career of the Singing Wolf?”
He considered the question briefly. “I believe it was the Oberammergau Passion Play.”
“That’s not an opera,” argued the Prince. “It was Otello. I cannot remember the exact year.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right,” agreed the Baron. “La Scala. She caused a sensation in that red and gold dress you mentioned earlier, Countess.”
“And the fact she was a good head taller than the leading man,” laughed the Prince.
Reichenbach guffawed loudly. “That’s right! Otello was supposed to be a military hero and here was this short, fat, roly-poly figure with too much grease-paint! Half way through the second act his face began to melt. I must admit he could sing all right. But she saved the night. She was sensational! Every man in the audience fell in love with her that night.” He sighed wistfully.
Moriarty returned looking vexed, some tightness in his throat betrayed his agitation. “Von Gunn’s not in his room. The door at the end of the west wing has been unbolted. I’ll check the western ramparts. Reichenbach, you and Orczy check outside – go out through the kitchen. Dr Watson, if you could locate the Countess’s manservant – then check the cellar and dungeons. Countess, you remain here, should he come back while we’re out you can let us know.”
As soon as the men dispersed the Countess ventured down the west corridor to peek into the bedrooms to see what furniture had in fact been moved when she heard a groaning sound. It was coming from the garderobe. Von Gunn was lying on the floor. Either he had fainted due to that concussion he’d suffered earlier or he was still searching for Cathar loot and had passed out when he leaned over too quickly. She helped him to his feet. By the time they got to his room he was feeling better and waved away the offer of her manservant to help him dress.
“Have a cognac standing by!” he shouted as she left him to it.
She was passing Moriarty’s room when she paused and looked back over her shoulder to check no one was coming then tiptoed in. His furniture had not been deranged but she saw at a glance that he had cut the backing away from the frames around the oil paintings of Irish scenes and exposed the canvases. He had also cut the leather binding away from three books on the history of the Cathars. There was no doubt he was searching for some sort of paper. It had to be a map. There was nothing else it could be. She could hear the door at the end of the corridor slam shut. The bolt slid home. She hurried out to meet him.
“I found von Gunn in the garderobe. He’d fainted. He’s in his room changing for dinner. He’ll join us shortly.”
“Bloody fool!” cursed the Irishman, glancing at the bolt to his room – it was sitting a fraction short of the end yet he knew he had shot it home.
Xenia was in the dining room. She’d brought up a tureen of green borscht. The Countess sent her to alert the others that von Gunn had been found. Twenty minutes later they were seated around the table. Dr Watson took the chair farthest from the Countess. He drained a full glass of grand cru and poured himself another before he’d had his first mouthful of soup. He looked like thunder and the Countess was worried. The tension was clearly getting to him. It was time to apprise the men of her thoughts in the hope one of them might betray himself.
“Last night when I was interrogating Velazquez he admitted he had crept upstairs to have something to drink on our first night at Chanteloup. While he was in the great hall he heard a noise coming from the bedroom in the south tower. He believed the Singing Wolf was entertaining someone in her bedchamber.”
“Are you saying she had a man in her bed?” exclaimed the Baron.
“Not in her bed, specifically, for the bedding was untouched from the time it had been turned down by the chamber maid, but in her room, yes.”
“Are we talking intercourse?” clarified von Gunn, rubbing his throbbing egg.
“Who was it?” asked the Prince looking to spot the guilty party and wondering why Moriarty seemed unsurprised.
“That’s a good question,” replied the Countess. “Velazquez thought it was one of you and was terrified of being murdered if he spoke up – that incidentally is why he fled – but it now appears that it may have been Sarazan.”
“What!” spluttered the Baron, spraying green soup across the table.
“Impossible!” exploded von Gunn.
Prince Orczy laughed dismissively. “How did Sarazan get in?”
“She let him in.”
The men exchanged incredulous glances, and this time Moriarty was also surprised, for though he was aware the Countess believed a man had been in the south tower on that first fateful night he had assumed it to be one of his compatriots.
“What about the rockslide? How did the outlaw get past that?” he pressed sceptically.
“He would know the mountain tracks like the back of his hand. If he didn’t need to use the zigzag path, meaning he didn’t arrive on horseback at the gate, then he may have clambered up on foot, found the portcullis and gate open, the front door open and simply walked in. There was a man’s costume hanging in the closet upstairs. It was the sort of thing a brigand would wear.”
“In the closet of the Singing Wolf?” clarified the Prince.
“That implies he was a regular visitor,” reasoned the Irishman.
“I recall the front door was unbolted the next day when we checked,” said Reichenbach grimly, “but who closed the gate and lowered the portcullis?”
“If the Singing Wolf was alive she would have done it,” offered von Gunn. “But if Sarazan killed her then it could only be the old man. I can beat the truth out of him after dinner.”
“There’s no need for that,” tempered the Countess. “I think it is highly likely Sarazan took the body with him when he left. It may have been part of that reincarnation belief. In which case, it could only have been the old man. There is no need to beat the truth out of someone when the truth is glaringly obvious.”
“Typical response from a woman!” grunted von Gunn. “That’s why things of this nature are best left to men.”
“Hang on!” said Reichenbach, dabbing his chin with his napkin and frowning. “Sarazan may well have been the Singing Wolf’s lover but our bedrooms all face inwardly toward the north gate. We would surely have heard the portcullis being raised and lowered. Have any of you heard the clanking sound those old gates make?”
“I have,” said the German. “Seven of my castles have portcullises. They creak and groan. I agree we would have woken.”
Inez arrived carrying a large earthenware pot. An appetising smell filled the hall. Desi brought a basket of bread for mopping up the juices of their rabbit in red wine with mushrooms and potatoes. It was Inez who served the meal and Desi who carted the soup bowls away.
Conversation ceased while the two female servants remained in the hall, not only because suspicions were running high, and the least said the better, but because Inez had some huge red welts on one half of her face and had clearly been crying bitterly.
Prince Orczy broke the silence as soon as Inez retreated. “Did you see her face?”
“Yes,” the others muttered.
“Since this is an issue concerning female domestics,” said Reichenbach. “It might be best left to the Countess to deal with. My advice, gentlemen, is to ignore it.”
“Pass the salt and pepper,” nodded the Prince, directing his request at Dr Watson who had remained morosely silent so far. “I agree about the portcullis. It makes a racket and it is damned difficult to raise and lower. Fedir turned the shaft this morning and his face showed the strain. There is no way the old man could have done it on his own, nor could the Singing Wolf have done it after her lover left her.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” said Moriarty. “And who’s to say Velazquez was not lying when he claimed he heard, er, certain noises from the bedchamber. He might have been the lover in question and was covering his tracks.”
Von Gunn nodded. “I sometimes wondered why the Singing Wolf kept him on. He was a nervy drunk, everyone could see that, and yet she retained his services.”
“Devilishly handsome though,” mused the Prince. “The sort women go for.”
“We shall take your word for it,” affirmed the Irishman sardonically. “I think it fair to say you have extensive experience in that regard.”
Orczy laughed, taking no offence.
“Velazquez might have been doing more than covering his tracks,” suggested Reichenbach. “He might have been giving himself an alibi.”
“You mean he might have killed the Singing Wolf?” posed von Gunn.
“That would explain why he fled,” agreed the Irishman circumspectly. “It may not even have been a deliberate killing, but accidental, something that happened in the heat of the moment, during some rather rough and heavy, er, love-making.” He was careful not to look at the Countess. “He may have panicked afterwards and disposed of the body.”
“How?” challenged the Countess, forcing his gaze. “We’ve been over that? A search revealed nothing.”
“A cursory search,” reminded Moriarty, undaunted. “There are any number of ways he could have disposed of the body. If we put our minds to it we could probably come up with a dozen ways right now.”
“Very well,” she said briskly, “let’s do that.”
“A secret chamber,” offered von Gunn, first up, who was obviously still thinking about hidden loot and secret tunnels. “All castles have one. Call them what you will. Priest’s holes, silver rooms, medieval safes for storing gold coins, escape hatches or oubliettes.”
“The chute in the garderobe,” suggested the Baron. “I know it is fitted with an iron grid but the spacing is wider than that of the portcullis. If the body had been chopped up it could have been pushed through the openings. He had all night. He could have used the axe in the wood yard, wrapped the bloody limbs in rags or even used garments from her closet, and shoved them out of sight that way.”
“A bit gruesome,” said the Prince distastefully, spearing a morsel of stewed bunny swimming red juices. “Remind me not to get on your wrong side, Reichenbach. However, I see nothing wrong with your reasoning. And since we are talking axes – he could have chopped the body up and thrown it over the side for the wolves to feast on.”
“They are probably feasting on him as we speak,” observed von Gunn blandly. “It is a fitting end to the handsome devil if that is the case.”
“He could have simply hidden the body under the wood stack,” offered Moriarty. “The simplest alternative is often the most successful despite what some of these gothique novelists would have us believe. I don’t believe Velazquez had a lot of imagination. Recall that story Desi told about him murdering his friend by shoving him in the way of el toro during the bull-run in Pamplona – simple, effective and successful.” He finished speaking and looked directly at the lady seated to his right.
“I cannot offer a scenario,” she said simply. “I don’t believe he murdered the Singing Wolf.”
She looked at Dr Watson seated at the far end of the table. He had not spoken a single syllable since they sat down to dinner. He gave a careless shrug of his shoulders as he drained his glass of grand cru. He was looking a little red-faced but it was not from exertion or embarrassment. He’d had enough red wine to drown a whole vat of hapless bunnies.
“I have no opinion on the matter whatsoever.”
As far as he was concerned he couldn’t care less who murdered their missing hostess or where her body had been stashed. He was sick to death of murder mysteries. He was through with chasing down clues and speculating about motive and catching criminals. What the Countess had done was criminal. He wanted to take her by the shoulders and give her a violent shake. In fact, he was so angry he could have hit her – a shocking thing to admit, especially as he had always prided himself on being a gentleman. If not for the memory of his dear departed Mary, he might have lost control. It was only the preciousness of his undying love for her that compelled him to remember not every woman had the same moral principles. Still, it came as a blow. He had grown fond of the Countess. He had started to regard her as a boon companion. They had experienced much in the short time they had been thrust together, and though he had often carped and complained, he had secretly enjoyed every minute. She had given his stale old life new purpose and meaning and fillip – a joie de vivre no man his age could sensibly hope for. Sometimes, he even regarded her as the daughter he’d never had. How often had he said to himself: Mary would have liked her. Mary would have approved. In fanciful moments he even imagined Mary looking down at him and smiling, happy that he had found someone with whom to share fresh adventures. He had told himself Sherlock would have approved too. He had almost managed to convince himself that she was who she said she was and that all would end well. He had even started to picture a happy family reunion in Sussex at Christmastime. Ha! Fool that he was! Old fool! The worst sort! If she was who she claimed to be then she was her mother’s daughter, NOT her father’s! She had betrayed the memory of her father, no, worse, she had trampled that memory in the dust, she had trampled all over it, she had sullied it and soiled it, she was undeserving of respect and credit, she did not deserve to be acknowledged as the daughter of Sherlock Holmes!
“I thall call it a night, gentlemen,” he lisped.
“Are you all right?” queried the Irishman, noting how the doctor appeared to sway dangerously from side to side as he pushed to his feet.
“I am perfectly fine, thank you, Colonel Moriarty,” he returned somewhat pompously, wondering why the room had started spinning. He navigated his way past the sideboard, snatched up the bottle of sherry, and began weaving like a drunken sailor in a storm toward the archway that led to the east corridor, though it appeared that someone had moved it since he had last ventured that way. “A pleathant goodnight to one and all,” he slurred, “and the Counteth too.”
They watched him wrestle with the tapestry until he found an opening and squeezed through it.
“I cannot abide men who cannot hold their liquor,” pronounced von Gunn, mopping up the last of his juices.
“I’d say someone has rubbed the good doctor the wrong way,” commented the Prince a little more sympathetically.
“Don’t look at me!” defended Moriarty. “I had nothing to do with what happened to his friend. I am not my brother!”
“Nor me!” vowed Reichenbach. “I have gone out of my way to be civil to the doctor.”
“I suppose it was the death of his friend that turned him into a dipsomaniac,” said the Prince sadly. “He probably blamed himself for not doing enough to prevent it.” He turned to the Countess. “How long have you been acquainted with the doctor?”
“We met two months ago.”
“And you have been travelling together since?”
“Yes – and I have never known him to drink to excess.”
“I believe I read in one of his stories that his brother was an alcoholic,” said the Baron. “It is a moral aberration that can run in families. Shall we go back to what we were discussing?”
“There is no point speculating further as to the whereabouts of the body of our hostess,” said Moriarty crisply. “We have no idea where it is and that is that. Can we have a show of hands: Who thinks she was murdered by Sarazan?” The Countess raised her hand. “Who thinks she was murdered by Velazquez?” The four men all raised their hands.
That was that!
Desi and Xenia arrived to clear the plates. Inez, puffy-eyed, served the apple pie that had remained untouched from the night before. Conversation moved to the topic of the opera while the servants were present.
Reichenbach directed his question at von Gunn. “The Countess was enquiring prior to dinner which opera launched the career of the Singing Wolf. Orczy said it was Otello. But I have since wondered if in fact it might have been Rigoletto and she sang the role of Gilda.”
“No, no, definitely Otello! She wore a red and gold dress that clung to every curve. I remember it well. How could you forget? I admit it was many years ago but it made a lasting impression on me! Remember the role of the jealous hero! He was as black as the ace of spades and as fat as a plum pudding on legs! Iago was handsomer and stronger but he was the wrong colour!”
“No, no,” said the Prince. “Otello’s blacking almost melted in the limelight. It was Iago who was actually black. They powdered his face to whiten it. It took on a sickly hue and made him look even more evil. The lady I was with trembled every time he came on stage. I remember her grabbing my thigh whenever he sang the high notes.”
“That sounds right!” laughed von Gunn. “That’s exactly the sort of thing you would remember, Orczy! You lucky devil!”
The servants retreated and the Countess changed the subject.
“I think there is no need to sleep in here tonight, gentlemen. It is clear the phantom does not exist. It was merely someone in the kitchen singing, the sound floated up the stairwell and even into the dungeon. Our imaginations did the rest. The gate is locked. The portcullis is down. We can bolt our doors. I do not believe we will be murdered in our beds. Whether it was Sarazan or Velazquez or even a third party who killed our hostess and disposed of her body seems immaterial. By tomorrow the path should be clear of rocks and we can place the mystery into the hands of the gendarmerie. They will summon the Surete if there is any question of foul play.”
“Here! Here!” came the chorus. There was but one dissenter.
It was Moriarty.
“I don’t agree. I cannot dismiss what has happened so breezily. I cannot put it down to heightened imagination. There are too many unresolved questions. If you wouldn’t mind allowing your manservant, Fedir, to join me here in the great hall, the two of us can take turns keeping watch during the night. I do not ask that anyone else disturb themselves. All I ask is that you, Countess, keep your maid with you in your bedroom throughout the night and that you keep your door bolted.”
Xenia and Fedir were waiting for the Countess in her bedchamber. She asked Fedir if he would mind keeping the Irishman company in the great hall for the night, stressing that there would be just the two of them. He said he was happy to do it.
“Do you trust him?” she asked her manservant, interested to hear what he would say since she already knew Xenia didn’t trust the Irishman one inch.
“Yes,” said Fedir. “He thinks before he speaks and he is neither a coward like the Spaniard nor a blusterer like the German.”
“Hmm, well, make sure you do not divulge anything about my background. Pretend not to understand him if he asks you any questions. Xenia will be sleeping in my bedchamber tonight. Wake me should anything happen. Dr Watson has had too much to drink. Let him sleep late tomorrow. Keep your wits about you.”
Fedir departed and Xenia bolted the door.
“Did you learn anything else from the servants?” the Countess put to her maid as the candles were extinguished and there was just the red glow from the fire casting strange shadows against the stones.
“Yes,” said Xenia. “I know where the doll went. Inez had it in her room. She had it hidden under her pillow. The old woman was looking for it everywhere and she accused Inez of stealing it. Inez tried to hang onto it but the old woman slapped her hard across the face.”
“Oh, yes, I saw the red welts.”
“Inez screamed out some horrible things in Spanish but the old woman laughed at her and snatched the doll away from her. She made some curses to Inez and made the sign of slitting the throat. Inez looked terrified and fell to her knees and sobbed and sobbed. I went to console her and she confessed she had once had a baby. She had been raped by a priest and had given birth to a little girl. The baby had been given away as soon as it was born and she was still pining for it. It broke my heart to listen to her story.”
“Yes, a sad story but what interests me is that the old woman is not as frail and helpless as she seems?”
“No, she was not afraid to stand up to Inez who has the fiery temper of the gitanos in her hot Spanish blood.”
“Did you learn anything about Desi?”
“Only that she is an orphan. She does not like to talk about herself. Every time I asked something she would start moaning about being over-worked and always tired.”
“There appears to be bad blood between her and Inez?”
“Yes, I think it is jealousy. Desi is jealous of Inez because Velazquez goes to the bed of Inez. I think Desi was in love with Velazquez but he would not look at her unless he was very drunk.”
“But Inez seems to hold some grudge against Desi too, though it cannot be jealousy because she could have had Velazquez any time she wanted.”
“I think Desi knows about Inez’ secret baby. She threatens Inez with the telling.”
“Yes, that makes sense. Inez is Catholic, she wouldn’t want it known she had a baby out of wedlock, though it would be commonplace among poor girls and men of power. It makes my blood boil when I think of the hypocrisy of the men involved and the misogyny of the church. I was fortunate my mother saw fit to sell me to the Count of Odessos who loved me as a father should. My life might have been quite different otherwise.”
Xenia didn’t reply. Some people were born lucky and others weren’t. It was the will of God or the gods or the stars – she wasn’t sure which but the older she got the more she thought it might be down to dumb luck.
The Countess closed her eyes and allowed her mind to drift. She thought about her happy childhood in Odessa. She thought about the doll Inez tried to hide, she thought about the dead girl-child who had once belonged to someone here in the castle, she thought about the Singing Wolf – a mysterious creature who seemed to surround herself with servants who had a dark secret in their lives. Velazquez, Inez and Milo all had something to hide. Desi was the odd one out. Her past was probably as uneventful as her present. That’s why she never spoke of it. There was nothing to speak of. That is not to say there would have been no suffering, but it was the sort of daily suffering that was borne stoically. She complained endlessly about being over-worked and tired because that was all she had to complain about, little realizing that no one was listening.
“What do you think of Desi?”
“She is spiteful, that one. Sometimes I see a look on her face that gives me the shiver from Siberia.”
“Mmm, I want you to find out if Desi has a secret, something she doesn’t like to talk about. It won’t be easy to get it out of her. Perhaps Inez or Milo knows something. Ask them first. Now, lets’ go to sleep.”
Cold white light was streaming in through the latticed glass in the lancet windows when Xenia heard a tap on the door. It was Fedir. He and Moriarty had taken turns keeping watch during the night and had thought they were on a fool’s errand when about thirty minutes ago something had flitted up the spiral stairs. They were both wide awake because a loud noise from the kitchen had woken them. They gave chase immediately. They both swore it went into the bedchamber of the south tower, but search as they might, they could find nothing. Moriarty was currently poised on the landing to make sure that whatever or whoever it was did not flee back down the stairs. It was Fedir who insisted on waking his mistress, so here he was.
The Countess threw on her winter dressing gown of white velvet edged in ermine, snatched up the ivory-handled pocket pistol from under her pillow and followed him.
Together, the three of them returned to the south tower. Nothing appeared to have been disturbed. While Fedir stood guard at the door, Moriarty checked for loose floorboards, loose stones and a secret door. The Countess checked the dressing rooms and closets. Almost at once she noticed that the red and gold dress from the Singing Wolf’s first ever opera had been slashed with a knife. It was still hanging on its hanger but it had been reduced to rags. She called Moriarty to have a look.
“That confirms someone has been in this chamber without us knowing it,” he said.
“Yes, but when? This could have been done any time yesterday afternoon, during dinner or even during the night.”
“Have any other garments been slashed?”
She quickly checked. “No, just this one.”
He rubbed his hand over his unshaved chin. “This is an act of hate.”
“Yes, I agree.”
“That rules out theories about rough love-making gone wrong and reincarnation through divine suicide. We come back to murder.”
“What is it that you thought you heard flitting up the stairs?”
“Something small, fast and nimble, larger than a cat, smaller than a man. Fedir heard it too. We weren’t dreaming. A loud noise from downstairs had already woken us.”
“No, I don’t think so. More like the slamming of a door or a piece of furniture being thrown.”
Her breath caught. “Not the portcullis?”
“Relax. Fedir checked. It’s down.”
She drew breath. “Was it at first light? I think the old couple rise at first light and rekindle the fire for the bread oven. They might have dropped a log of wood.”
“Impossible to say when – the high windows face south and don’t offer much light. The tapestry covering the kitchen stairs has been hitched back since yesterday and that’s what makes me think the noise came from the kitchen. If it had come from any other direction it would have been muffled.”
“Let’s forget the noise and the dress for the moment. I’ll continue searching the dressing rooms and the bathroom. Fedir should check the bedrooms to make sure everyone is all right. You should question the servants. They must have heard something too. Concentrate on that old couple. They’ve been hiding something since the day we arrived.”
“I’m not leaving you up here alone. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m spooked. I don’t believe in ghosts or shape-shifting demons but something flew up those stairs, came in here and vanished.”
“Very well,” she conceded while remaining undeterred about pinpointing the current whereabouts of everyone as quickly as possible. “Send Fedir to check on the others, including the servants. You stand guard at the door. I’ll keep looking.”
The remaining dressing rooms and closets revealed nothing worth noting. The garderobe had developed an unpleasant odour. She made a mental note to tell Desi to sluice it. But the bathroom was a different story. Inside the copper bath was the golden-haired doll. Someone had dropped it into the empty bath. Since the old woman had taken possession of the doll, it could only have been her, though it was a stretch of the imagination to picture her as nimble.
The Countess showed Moriarty the doll and told him of the incident between Inez and the old woman.
“So how did the doll end up in the bath?” he quizzed.
The Countess had no answer. It was time to set another trap. She lowered her voice and told him her plan. He began shaking his head.
“I don’t like the idea of leaving you up here on your own.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts or shape-shifting demons either, that means whoever came up here is human. They are vulnerable to bullets and I have a gun.” She showed him her elegant ivory-handled pocket pistol. “I’m going to sit in that chair by the door with my finger on the trigger. Whoever emerges after they think we have both gone downstairs will be in for a surprise. Make a great show of speaking loudly and tramping down the stairs on your way out. Position yourself on the landing to the great hall. If you hear me scream, come running.”
Reluctantly, he removed himself to the landing. His gun was cocked and his heart was beating fast. Every tick of the clock felt like an hour.
The Countess had positioned the chair behind the door. Her heart was beating equally fast and her hand was shaking. She reminded herself to take deep slow breaths. The sound of the wind whistling around the merlins of the tower was the only thing that could be heard. The Countess was about to give up when she heard a faint click like the opening of a door or window except all the doors in the tower were open and there was only one window in the garderobe and it was not fitted with glass. Her heartbeat accelerated and she fought to steady her hand. A soft swishing sound came next. It was the sound of silk or satin in motion. A moment later came a tuneful humming. Her heart was in her throat and the thrashing of it almost deafened her. She counted to three then showed herself.
Something had been standing in the doorway to the first dressing room. It gave a tiny cry and jumped back. The door slammed. The next door slammed. The Countess gave chase. Another door slammed. Finally the bathroom door slammed. The Countess was breathing hard though she had barely covered any distance at all. She checked the bath where she had earlier replaced the doll. It had gone. The bath was now empty. She checked the japanned cabinets. Empty. She stared at herself in the mirror and that’s when she saw it. Fingerprints smudged on the silvered glass. The middle mirror, which protruded about twelve inches from the wall, was actually a door concealing a tall thin cabinet.
The Countess trained her gun, pressed her fingers to the glass and waited for the door to spring back.
“Where’s my maman?” said the golden-haired child clutching the pretty porcelain doll that looked a perfect likeness of its young owner.
“I wish I knew,” sighed the Countess, pocketing her gun. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Lalique, you have been playing a very merry game of hide and seek.”
“I know. I wasn’t supposed to let you find me. You win. What’s your name?”
“Your name is not as pretty as mine.”
“That’s true. I think you were named for the lovely coloured glass on your maman’s dressing table.”
“Yes. Why don’t you come out of there and I can show you.”
The Countess took the girl gently by the hand and led her into the bedchamber where she sat on an ottoman and lifted the life-size doll onto her lap. The little girl leaned on her elbows and studied herself in the oval glass. Her face puckered disapprovingly.
“Hortense has not had time to do my hair. She normally does it in rags and when the rags come out I have golden ringlets.”
“My maid can do your hair for you.”
“Can she do ringlets?”
“I have worn this dress for three days now. It smells because I have been sleeping in the stable with the donkeys.”
“Do you normally sleep in the stable?”
“Oh, no, I have my own cot and when maman comes I sleep in the big bed with her. I like it when maman comes to stay.”
“You don’t know where your maman went?”
The girl shook her head and her lips drooped. “Hortense doesn’t know either. I asked her. She has had no time to look for maman because she has been busy baking bread and making soup because maman brought four friends here to meet me and then she went away and Hortense doesn’t know where.”
“Six friends,” corrected the Countess.
“Hortense said there was only supposed to be four friends. She said she didn’t know about the man and the lady. That’s you, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s me.”
“Hortense told me we had to play hide and seek until maman came back. I like hide and seek but I’m getting tired of hiding in the stable. I want to wear my new dress and my new slippers. Maman wanted me to look pretty for her friends. I don’t look pretty now, do I?”
“Oh, I think you still look very pretty.”
“Hortense says I should never tell lies. She says God doesn’t like little girls who tell lies. Do you tell lies?”
“Only when it is important not to tell the truth.”
“I don’t think I understand. Is this the coloured glass that has my name?”
“Yes, it’s called Lalique. Is this a photo of you in this silver frame?”
“Oc. I was just a baby then. I had my birthday last summer. Next year I will have six years. If you look at the back of the photo you will see something maman wrote. I asked her what it was she was writing but she said she would tell me when I was a little older. You can read it to me, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Certainly.” The Countess removed the photo from the frame and read: “Baron Frederik Reichenbach. Herr Gustav von Gunn. Prince Anton Orczy. Colonel James Isambard Moriarty.” Each name was followed by a question mark.
“I think they must be the names of maman’s four friends.”
“Yes, I rather think they are. How would you like to play a new game?”
“I won’t have to sleep in the stable?”
“Do you promise not to take Lally away again?”
“I took Lally from your bed when you weren’t looking. It wasn’t really stealing because it was my doll. Then that servant took it when I left it in the bread room. Hortense got it back for me. Hortense was very cross. What game?”
“It’s a game called: Surprise! My maid will do your hair in ringlets and you can have a bath in my room and you can put on your new dress and slippers and when you are ready you can come out and give your maman’s four friends a big surprise. How does that sound?”
The girl clapped her hands. “Oh, oc! I cannot wait to wear my new dress!” She leapt to her feet. “I will go and fetch it. It’s in the chest in the cot room.”
The Countess caught the girl by the hand. “My maid can get it.”
“She won’t know which one,” pouted the girl.
“It’s the red and gold one, isn’t it?”
“How did you know?”
“Your maman told me,” the Countess lied, though there was no sorcery to her guess – the red and gold dress looked brand new and the matching silk slippers looked unworn. “I will tell my maid and she will fetch it. You see, one of your maman’s friends is on the stairs waiting to catch you in hide and seek. You cannot let him win. I will send him away and then you can run to my room. Knock five times and my maid will let you in. I will meet you there. Can you count to five?”
“Oh, oc!” She knocked on the dressing table to prove it then danced around the room and bounced on the bed and threw her doll in the air.
“Shhh,” hushed the Countess. “It has to be a surprise, remember. While I’m speaking to your maman’s friend you can find that nice little brooch with your face painted on it. I will pin it on your dress. I’ll be back in a moment. Wait here and don’t make any noise.”
While the girl was bouncing up and down on the bed, the Countess noticed whorls of talcum powder filling the air. It wasn’t until she’d met up with Moriarty that she realized that the talcum powder was in fact flour and that one of the girl’s hiding places had been the compartment under the bread table. No wonder the men had tracked the phantom to the bread room and then lost sight of it. The old couple, a picture of innocence, had seated themselves at the table with their bread and broth and candle. Who would think to look in the dough hatch!
The girl had led them a merry dance and had no doubt given the old couple more than few heart-stopping moments. But the secret was out now. They would all soon know it. And slowly, bit by bit, the lies would be exposed and the truth would be revealed.
Xenia was sworn to secrecy and somehow managed to pilfer the red and gold dress and silk slippers from the chest while no one was looking. Neither she nor Fedir could quite believe that the lunatic everyone feared turned out to be a harmless little girl. Xenia knew she would never have children of her own so she was eager to lavish maternal attention on the girl.
In the meantime, the Countess dressed herself and went to breakfast. Understandably, Dr Watson had not yet surfaced but the other four men were seated around the table, discussing the latest mysterious incident which Moriarty was attempting to describe, swearing that both he and Fedir had heard something flitting up the spiral stairs at first light.
“Are you sure you weren’t sharing the same dream?” jibed the Prince, breaking the corner off a warm flaky croissant and popping it into his mouth.
Moriarty looked like thunder. Lack of sleep was taking its toll and the first thing to suffer in such a case was always a sense of humour. He was about to give the Montenegrin an uncensored serve when Fedir interrupted them.
“What is it?” said the Countess.
“It is the boy, Milo, he is missing.”
“Missing?” queried the Baron.
“He has not been seen since last night when he went to bed.”
“Who was the last to see him?” quizzed the Prince.
“Inez and Desi both said goodnight to him and saw him go into his room.”
“Has his bed been slept in?” asked the Irishman.
“What about his clothes?” asked the Countess, reading the worried look on the face of her manservant. Here was a new mystery to worry about just when she thought all would soon be resolved. “Are his clothes hanging on his chair or is he wearing them?”
“His clothes are not on his chair.”
“Then he either did not bother getting undressed and slipped out during the night or he got dressed early this morning and has gone off somewhere.” She wondered if the boy had got wind of the legend of the Cathar loot and decided to do some treasure hunting of his own. “Has the dungeon been checked?”
“Yes, I did that myself.”
“What about the gate?” pitched the Baron.
“It is barred and the portcullis is down. I also checked that myself.”
Von Gunn replaced his coffee cup and gave a grunt. “What about the stable and the yard? The boy probably went out early to let the horses and the donkeys into the outer bailey and is malingering to avoid his chores.”
“The animals are still in the stable. The old man checked.”
“What about the cellar?” continued von Gunn. “The boy could have decided to follow in the footsteps of that nervy toreador. He might have been helping himself to some wine in the middle of the night and has passed out.”
“Inez checked the cellar.”
“And the well?” said the Prince.
“Desi checked the well.”
“Look!” intervened Moriarty impatiently, slapping his hand on the table. “We could go on like this all morning. It’s a damn nuisance but there is nothing for it but to go over every inch of this place ourselves, gentlemen. If this was the first such disappearance I would say: damn the boy! He wouldn’t be the first boy to run off and join some brigands, thinking of it in terms of a romantic adventure, a chance to escape a life of servitude, an opportunity to make an easy fortune and have some damned fool fun along the way, but it is not the first disappearance. Have we all forgotten the Singing Wolf? Have we all just pushed her disappearance to the back of our minds? I tell you, Fedir and I heard something rushing up the stairs. We were both wide awake because we heard a loud bang. We both thought the loud bang came from the kitchen. It is time for more than a cursory search and a shrug of the shoulders.”
He sounded like someone rallying troops for war. The men responded in a positive vein. They gulped down the remainder of their breakfast while they discussed which section of the castle each would be responsible for then marched off to their rooms to gather their weapons. The Countess was secretly annoyed that she would have to delay introducing Lalique to the four men and consoled herself with the belief Milo had had an accident while searching for treasure and would soon be found injured but certainly alive. She made her way to the east wing to look in on Dr Watson since Fedir had been too busy searching for Milo all morning to act as valet. She didn’t bother knocking. The door was unbolted and she went in. Remnants of his dinner suit were strewn across the floor. His stripy pyjamas were still under his pillow. The bed was cold. The sherry bottle was on the bedside table along with a water glass. One was half empty, the other half full and the liquid in the glass was not water. Dr Watson was nowhere to be seen.
She hurried to her own room and gave five knocks. Xenia was in the process of brushing Lalique’s long golden hair which had just been washed. The girl was still sitting in the scented bath water.
“Is it time for the surprise?” asked the girl eagerly.
“Not yet,” said the Countess, smiling indulgently. You need to curl your hair and get dressed first.” She turned to Xenia. “How long before you are ready?”
“Not for an hour at least.”
“That’s fine. We are currently busy searching for Milo. He’s gone missing.”
Lalique piped up: “Is that the boy with the knife down his sock?”
“How do you know he has a knife down his sock?”
“I saw him when I was hiding in the hen house. He got a knife out from his sock and threw it at the side of the hen house. It gave me such a fright. I almost cried and let him win but I closed my eyes and was very brave. This morning he was throwing his knife in the woodshed.”
“You saw him in the woodshed this morning?”
“But you were hiding behind the mirror,” she reminded gently.
“I saw him before I hid behind the mirror,” pouted the girl. “Almaric came to the stable to bring me some breakfast. When he left me on my own I felt cross. I was tired of sleeping in the stable. I wanted to sleep in my cot. I jumped down from the loft and was running to the kitchen when I saw the boy with the knife go into the woodshed. I could hear him throw his knife at the wood stack. I heard the kitchen door open and I jumped behind the wheelbarrow. Someone went into the woodshed. I heard a loud noise. I think the big stack of wood fell down. I ran as fast as I could into the kitchen and up the stairs. Hortense told me to hide behind the mirror whenever I felt frightened.”
“When you were hiding behind the wheelbarrow did you see who went into the woodshed?”
She shook her head. “I had my eyes closed.”
“Did you hear them speak?”
She shook her head.
The Countess turned to her maid. “If Fedir comes by tell him Dr Watson is not in his room. He drank too much last night and he may have passed out in the garderobe. I don’t have time to check. Fedir can prepare him a bath. I’m going down to the woodshed.”
Von Gunn had taken it upon himself to interrogate Inez and Desi in the main kitchen. He was barking out questions concerning the whereabouts of Milo. Both servants were sobbing wretchedly into their hands. Reichenbach was interrogating the old man in the bakery and Moriarty was doing the same to the old woman in the scullery. Neither was getting very far. Prince Orczy was scouting the ramparts and Fedir was checking the outbuildings. The Countess signalled to Fedir to join her in the woodshed.
One glance revealed that the wood stack had buried the boy. Poking out from under the small mountain of logs was a boot, no longer spit-polished, but dusty and grimy. Fedir began to clear the logs while the Countess went to inform the others. Milo’s body was soon exposed and it was clear he had not died accidentally. He had been stabbed through the heart with a dagger. The killer had most likely removed the uprights that held back the wood stack. The logs had rolled forward and buried the body. If not for the girl they might have searched fruitlessly for hours.
Moriarty extracted the dagger and studied it intently. “This is a stiletto, the sort favoured by criminal gangs from the south of Italy, common in Naples and Sicily. You can see the markings on the handle. It’s like a calling card. It tells everyone what gang you belong to. How the hell did it end up here?”
“Sarazan must have entered during the night and killed him,” suggested von Gunn.
“Let’s not start that again,” said Reichenbach gruffly.
“The boy was a Sicilian orphan,” reminded the Countess. “My manservant saw Milo throwing his dagger against the hitching post the other day. The boy told him he got the dagger from his father and learned to use it from an early age. I think he kept it in his sock.”
“How do you know he kept it in his sock?” Moriarty passed the stiletto to the Prussian to study. His abrupt tone indicated suspicions were running high.
“I believe that is the usual hiding place.”
“Yes, but how do you know?”
“I travelled extensively with my step-aunt. We spent some time in the south of Italy with the Duc d’Otranto. I remember someone mentioning that was the case.”
“I can verify the boy wore extremely thick socks even in summer,” said von Gunn. “I spoke to him about it once and he just smiled stupidly at me.”
Reichenbach looked at Fedir. “Was the body buried under these logs?”
Reichenbach turned to Moriarty. “I think we now know what that loud noise was this morning. This wood stack rolled forward and banged against the stone wall here that connects to the kitchen. It would have sounded like a minor earthquake. Whoever removed the uprights was able to move swiftly to avoid causing themself a serious injury. That rules out the old man and his wife.”
“Sarazan,” said von Gunn with emphasis. “I keep repeating it because it is so obvious.”
Reichenbach ignored the German. “Let’s get the body into the cellar. We’ll need a blanket. The body is like a sack of broken bones. There’s been a lot of blood spilled and the fact it has not turned to gore indicates the stabbing was not done last night but probably this morning. I’ll hang onto this stiletto if no one has any objections. I can pass it onto the authorities if it ever comes to that.”
The Countess sent Fedir to locate a blanket. In the meantime they were joined by Prince Orczy and went over the details all over again.
“But why kill the boy?” said the Prince, shaking his head in disbelief.
“He must have known more than he let on the first time we interrogated him,” reasoned Moriarty. “He might have seen someone other than Velazquez creeping about the night the Singing Wolf went missing.”
“Then why didn’t he say so?” huffed von Gunn. “By the way, where’s Dr Watson? Does anyone else find it suspicious that he is conveniently absent?”
“Shut-up,” snapped Moriarty, lighting up a cigarette before striding off toward the stables to release the animals into the outer bailey.
Dr Watson regained consciousness on the floor of the garderobe. He was clad in soiled long-johns. There was yellow vomit down the front of his new singlet and horrid bits of dry sick were stuck in his beard. His mouth felt like the inside of a piss-pot, his breath smelled like dog turd, his head throbbed and his body was stiff with cold. He hauled himself back to his bedroom, stripped off and practically fell into the hot bath Fedir had prepared in his absence.
The Countess arrived fifteen minutes later with a cup of hot black coffee. He was getting used to having her walk in on him while he was taking a bath and didn’t bat an eyelid, or perhaps more to the point, he didn’t have the strength to bat an eyelid. And since he would have killed for that coffee he wasn’t about to order her out when she perched herself on the end of his bed.
“Spare me the lecture,” he groaned, clutching the cup with both hands as he brought it to his lips. “What time is it?”
He took a sip of piping hot coffee and felt it kick-start his heart. The blood hadn’t reached his brain as yet and he felt only half human and it was for this reason he was only half listening. She was blathering on about the lobby boy when his grey cells sparked to life.
“Are you telling me Milo is dead?”
“Yes, haven’t you been listening?”
“I’m a bit slow today. You may need to repeat what you just said.”
“All of it.”
She rolled her eyes and decided to keep the details to a minimum. “Milo was found dead this morning in the woodshed. He had been stabbed through the heart with his own stiletto.”
“Yes, it’s a thin-bladed dagger popular in the south of Italy with -”
“I know what a stiletto is. But who told you it was a stiletto?”
Feeling prickly, she picked up on the dubious intonation. “What does that mean?”
“You suspect him of the killing Milo because he can recognize a stiletto when he sees one?” she challenged.
“Don’t shout. I have a splitting head. I am not accusing anyone at this stage, though I find it interesting that he can recognize a stiletto at a glance.”
“Who said he could recognize it at a glance?”
“Are you defending him?”
“No! Yes! Maybe.”
“You still don’t even know what he does for a living.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. I know exactly what he does for a living.”
“He told you a pack of lies and you swallowed it hook, line and sinker,” he accused somewhat unfairly. “Let me guess,” he continued facetiously. “He is a philanthropist who builds almshouses for the poor when he’s not busy training thoroughbreds at his family castle or fighting for Queen and country with his regiment of loyal Irish Guards.”
“He told me nothing of the sort.”
“What did he tell you then?”
“He told me he is a speculator.”
“Ha! And you believed it!”
“I didn’t believe it for a minute.”
“That means there was a whole minute when you did believe it!”
“Actually it was much longer than a minute,” she admitted, “but I now know what he really does.”
“How do you know?”
“I deduced it for myself.”
He burst out laughing then groaned loudly and clutched his aching head. “Get me an aspirin, will you. There’s a fresh box in my medical bag.”
He gulped two aspirin down with his coffee and felt instantly better though the tablets had not even had a chance to work their efficacious magic, but such was the placebo effect of modern medicine that placated human over-indulgence it worked faster than a visit to the confessional for the absolution of sin, a catholic cure-all without the hail Marys. “All right then, what does he do for a living?”
“I’m not saying.”
“I rest my case – you know it will incriminate him?”
She caught herself pouting and decided to return to the topic at hand. “After Milo was stabbed the killer removed the uprights holding back the wood stack and the mountain of logs rolled on top of him and buried him.”
His brain was slowly kicking in. “Who found the body?”
“I did,” she said, stretching the truth because she didn’t want to explain about Lalique until the four men had met her. It was their reactions that she was most interested in. “I spotted his boot sticking out. Fedir moved the logs.” She explained about Milo being of Sicilian extraction and keeping a stiletto down his sock.
“Well, who would have guessed it?” murmured the doctor, musing as to why he should still be surprised by the queer habits of humans.
“Sherlock,” she said with emphatic self-disgust. “He would have spotted it at ten paces.”
Oh, yes, Sherlock – mention of the name reminded him that his night of over-indulgence was due to disgust of another sort. “No need to castigate yourself for your sleuthing failures when moral failures are far more important in the scheme of things.”
“Er, yes,” she agreed, putting his philosophical rambling and inability to concentrate down to his fondness for sherry. “I was wondering how one could tell if a knife entered the body by being thrown from a short distance as opposed to being thrust at close range?”
“Several ways – angle of penetration, depth of penetration. Who extracted the stiletto?”
This time she had the good sense to ignore the dubious intonation. “Milo was throwing his knife at the logs of wood. I think he liked to practice his knife-throwing as often as possible. Fedir caught him doing the same the day before. That’s how we know the stiletto belonged to the boy. By the way, I think it was Milo who threw the dagger that killed the bandit when we were ambushed, not Velazquez. If you recall the toreador had shaky hands and I believe it was Milo who ran to extract the knife from the dead bandit.”
“No, I thought it was Desi who ran to get the knife. Reichenbach ordered Milo to collect the weapons and ammunition from the dead bodies.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right.”
“Were there any footprints in the woodshed?”
“It was impossible to tell. In fact, that could be why the killer decided to create the log fall. They buried the body and hid the footprints at the same time. Fedir and Moriarty kept watch in the great hall last night and they heard a loud bang at first light. Reichenbach suggested it was the logs rolling down and hitting the stone wall that abuts the kitchen that made the noise. That puts the murder at first light.”
“In that case, Fedir gives Moriarty an alibi.”
“Yes, yes he does.”
“That points to one of the servants as the killer,” he said, noting that she seemed relieved it could not have been Moriarty, “unless there really is a lunatic phantom on the loose.”
She dropped her gaze and spotted his pocket watch on the floor amongst his discarded clothes, and like her father she had no difficulty reading upside down. It was almost half past eleven. “I better get a move on. I’ve got a few things to take care of before lunch. Will you be joining us?”
The thought of rich food made him dry retch. “No, I want to nurse my head a bit longer, if you could send Xenia along in an hour or so with some plain bread and another cup of hot black coffee that will suffice. Oh, and take the sherry with you when you go.”
“Good decision,” she approved, scooping up the bottle and the glass. “There’s no need to follow in your brother’s footsteps just because things have been difficult of late.”
“Where did that thought spring from?”
“I understand from one of your chronicles that your brother had a fondness for liquor.”
“I am not my brother!”
He managed to dry himself without falling over and crawled back into bed until such time as someone ceased using his head as a war drum. She had been half right about his brother – it was not so much a fondness for liquor that his brother had. It was more like a violent love affair. He was like all alcoholics, totally obsessed with his next drink right up until the moment it killed him. The effect of his physical and moral dissipation had ruined his family and almost destroyed his long-suffering wife. As a consequence the doctor harboured no fear he would ever follow in his brother’s footsteps. Last night was a rare moment of personal weakness where he was unable to put into words what he felt and had thus turned his silent disgust back on himself.
But the morning after, as every alcoholic knows, there is always remorse and the promise to oneself that things will be different from now on. While he lay in bed he told himself that her moral choices had nothing to do with him. She was free to live her own life according to her own moral dictates. He had no right to tell her who she could befriend or who she could love. Even if she chose to marry Moriarty, so be it.
Lunch was being served early because breakfast had been interrupted and morning tea had been by-passed. It consisted of French onion soup, crusty bread and an assortment of cheeses. The tureen and platters were standing ready on the table and they would serve themselves. Inez and Desi were inconsolable. They had spent most of the morning sobbing into their aprons. The old couple had turned even more taciturn than usual. The four men were milling around the great hall, agitated by the death of the boy, anxious to find the killer, annoyed at not knowing what had happened to their hostess. They were even starting to suspect each other.
“I’ve got a cast iron alibi,” growled Moriarty when the other three ganged-up. “I was in here with Fedir all night until we heard a noise at first light and raced up the stairs to the south tower. Fedir ran to wake the Countess, as instructed earlier, and I stayed in the south tower to make sure whoever it was didn’t escape.”
“Except there was no one there,” reminded von Gunn.
“Very convenient for you,” noted the Prince flippantly.
“What are you implying?” barked Moriarty.
“He is intimating you could have raced downstairs and killed the boy while Fedir was fetching his mistress,” pointed out Reichenbach bluntly.
“Except I had no reason to kill him,” argued the Irishman.
“Like you said,” returned von Gunn, “the boy might have seen something he wasn’t meant to see the night the Singing Wolf disappeared.”
“I had no reason to kill her either!”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, let us desist, there is a lady present.” Prince Orczy turned to the Countess, who had just entered, noting the half-empty sherry bottle in her hands. “Will Dr Watson be joining us for lunch?”
“No, he is still nursing a sore head, but there is someone else who will be joining us,” she said mysteriously. “Let me introduce our elusive phantom.”
“Enchante, messieurs.” The girl employing impeccable French looked like an animated golden-haired doll with bouncy ringlets as she made a charming curtsey.
To describe the four men as stunned would be an understatement. The ash from Reichenbach’s cigarette dropped on the Turkey rug. Von Gunn missed his mouth and dribbled cognac down his chin. Prince Orczy, who was in the process of stubbing his cigarette in an ashtray, mis-judged and ground the butt into the walnut sideboard. Moriarty, who was still inwardly seething from the verbal attack, looked gobsmacked. Snake-haired Medusa could not have had a more stupefying effect.
Lalique waited courteously for someone to say something, smiling prettily at the four stupid men who were trying desperately to apply reason to this new and bizarre state of affairs. The Countess conducted introductions and the girl curtsied afresh at each man in turn.
“Baron Reichenbach, I would like to present to you Lalique, the daughter of the Singing Wolf.”
And so it went three more times with Herr von Gunn, Prince Orczy and Colonel Moriarty, which was just as well for it took some time to sink in.
“Let us sit down to lunch before the soup turns cold,” suggested the Countess. “Colonel Moriarty, would you be so kind as to bring some cushions for our youngest guest to sit on so that she may reach the table. I will serve. Lalique can carry the soup bowls to each guest.”
The men looked doubtful but the precocious girl beamed. She was in her natural element. She adored being the centre of attention and had been starved of an audience her entire life. Never again would the little coquette be confined to a luxurious prison. The world was her stage and she meant to play the star. She transported the soup bowls without spilling a drop and sipped her soup daintily. The men didn’t quite know how to respond and wavered between treating the girl like a playful new puppy and the exotic princess of some far-off kingdom. The Countess, too, had very little experience with children, having none of her own, and rarely meeting any except for brief formal family occasions – the offspring of her acquaintances being raised by nannies and governesses. The girl however had spent her life with adults and felt quite comfortable. She had never had playmates her own age and would have found young friends profoundly odd.
The girl proved to be quite a chatterbox and was happy to reveal her various hiding places and how much fun she had had playing hide and seek. The men were speechless. She asked each man if he knew where her maman was. An answer in the negative did not dent her sanguine nature. Part way through the meal the men discovered the girl had expected to meet them. Her maman had told her she would be returning to Chanteloup with four friends before the month was out. If they had any doubts that the fire at the Hotel Louve had been deliberately lit, that doubt was instantly dispelled. The Singing Wolf had planned for the four men to meet Lalique. But why?
Slowly, over the space of lunch, the answer became obvious. One of the men was the girl’s father. When the Countess passed around the baby photo with the four names on the back, followed by four question marks, the matter was more or less confirmed. It appeared that the Singing Wolf did not know who had fathered her child and had been hoping to settle the matter of paternity once the four men came together.
Inez and Desi came to clear the table and serve coffee. They were shocked to see a little girl seated at the table and the sight immediately took their minds off the death of Milo. They hurried back to the kitchen to inform the old couple. A few moments later, fearing the worst, Almaric and Hortense appeared in the great hall.
“You need have no fear,” said Lalique, addressing the old servants and sounding quite grown up. “Maman’s friends are very jolly and I have been minding my manners. I will not be sleeping in the stable any more. From now on I will be sleeping in the big bed.”
Almaric, wringing his hands and biting his lip, looked beseechingly to the Countess for a response.
“We understand what has been happening with Lalique,” she said. “Your desire to protect her is commendable. We will take care of her for the time being. She is quite safe with us. If you know what has happened to her maman now would be a good time to tell us.”
“We have no idea where she is or what has happened,” croaked the old man earnestly. “She was looking forward to introducing the child to her friends. Preparations were made. She was looking forward to the event eagerly, as was the child. After her disappearance everything was thrown into confusion. My wife and I have been beset with worry ever since. If you can shed any light on what has happened we would be eternally grateful. And since the death of the boy this morning -”
“Yes, yes,” cut off Reichenbach, thinking of the girl. “This is not the time for such discussion. You may return to the kitchen. If anything comes to light we will inform you.”
After lunch, Lalique sang a French song and performed a dance that she had been diligently rehearsing. The men were impressed and the applause was genuine. It was clear the girl would one day be on the stage, perhaps she would even be as talented as the Singing Wolf. Shortly afterwards, Xenia came to collect the girl for her afternoon nap and though the little demoiselle stamped her foot and resisted, a promise was made whereby she would be allowed to join the adults for dinner if she had a short sleep now. Her departure opened up frank discussion.
“Well, it’s not me!” declared von Gunn.
“Nor me!” voiced the Irishman firmly.
“You can count me out!” vowed Reichenbach.
“Don’t look at me!” snapped the Prince. “Though I concede she is blonde.”
“She’s a pretty little thing too,” agreed the Prussian, softening momentarily.
“Quite,” said the German, tenderly, “but she does not have Aryan features.”
“If by that you mean she doesn’t look like a Valkyrie,” challenged Moriarty acrimoniously, still nursing grievances from the earlier attack, “you are right, but there is no denying she has your blue eyes.”
“And yours, Irishman!”
“We all have blue eyes,” reminded the Prussian, “though mine are the bluest.”
“What does that mean?” quizzed the Prince. “Blue is blue!”
“Mine are Prussian blue.”
“Prussian blue, sky blue, ice blue – you are measuring difference by degrees!”
“So I am! The same with hair! The girl’s hair was yellow blonde. Mine is white blond. It is referred to as platinum blond. Quite different!”
“Cow shit!” Moriarty’s expletive was fierce. “I have seen girls from the same family all sporting different shades of blondeness from white to yellow to gold to reddish blonde.”
Reichenbach flared. “The same goes for you then. Just because you’re bald on top does not mean you can disguise your blondness. I’ve seen your hairy legs!”
“We’re missing the point,” barked von Gunn. “The Singing Wolf selected the four of us because we all have blond hair and blue eyes but don’t you see – the child could not possibly be hers! She was dark and swarthy! Catalan, Moroccan, Corsican, Syrian, Persian, whatever she was, she was not, repeat not, Viking or Saxon or Celt!”
“I beg to differ,” said the Countess.
The men had forgotten she was still in the great hall.
While she attempted to lecture them in the plainest of voices on the theory of heredity they lit up cigars and helped themselves to some cognac. It provided a breather and helped to calm them down.
“You may be familiar with the work of the Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel, if not I will enlighten you. His work on pea plants, published in 1866, was notable for its application to the theory of heredity. He followed in the footsteps of the early hybridizers such as Linnaeus, Kolreuter, von Gartner, Naudin and Sagaret.”
“I’m familiar with Linnaeus,” said the Baron.
“Shut up,” snapped Moriarty, “and we might all learn something new.”
The Countess continued. “Notably, it was Sagaret who first established the theory of dominant and recessive inheritance, noting that an ancestral characteristic found in neither parent can be found in an offspring. Mendel expanded on the theme and went on to show that inherited traits obey scientific rules.”
“Yes, but we are not interested in pea plants,” pointed out von Gunn. “We are dealing with human traits.”
“I’m getting to that. Scientific evidence has progressed to include human traits. It is scientifically impossible for two blue-eyed parents to have a brown-eyed child. Blue eyes are recessive. Brown eyes are dominant. However, a brown-eyed parent may have a blue-eyed child because the blue-eyed trait may have been carried by the ancestor which did not appear in, but still existed in, the brown-eyed parent, and so was passed to the offspring. In other words, you, gentlemen, are blue-eyed but the Singing Wolf was brown-eyed – if she had blue eyes in her ancestry and was carrying that trait, though she did not show it, it is possible for her to have a blue-eyed child.”
Prince Orczy was the first to catch on. “I see it in terms of gambling. Brown is dominant, brown wins; blue is recessive, blue loses; for blue to win there must be two blues together, even if the blue is cheating, meaning it is hiding behind a brown.”
“Exactly,” smiled the Countess, “and it is the same with hair colour. Brown is dominant. Blond is recessive. Two blond parents cannot produce and brown haired child. They have only their blondness to pass on. But two brown haired parents can produce a blond child if they had blondeness in their ancestral chain, though it did not show up in either parent. The blondeness can hide behind the brown. You, gentlemen, are blond, the Singing Wolf was dark haired. If she was carrying a blond trait from an ancestor, though it did not show up in her, she could have produced a blonde haired child.”
The men did not speak. They were absorbing the scientific information and the near-certain probability that one of them had fathered Lalique.
“Having said all that,” continued the Countess. “I think it is obvious that the Singing Wolf selected the four of you not for the colour of your hair and eyes, but because approximately six and a half years ago she was sleeping with you at the time. I think that would be the first prerequisite, gentlemen.”
“Not me!” denied the Prussian.
“Cow shit!” It was Moriarty again. “I know for a fact you were her lover at the time because she was open and honest about that sort of thing and she told me to my face one night as she was leaving my bed that she was going to yours!”
Prince Orczy laughed throatily. “And I know for a fact that six and half years ago she was visiting my bed too!”
“And mine!” admitted the German reluctantly.
“All right! All right!” conceded the Prussian. “I was her lover about six and a half years ago as well.”
“That settles it, gentlemen,” Moriarty stated unequivocally. “One of us fathered that girl.”
The Countess sighed. “But which one?”
“My head is about to explode,” said von Gunn, patting his throbbing egg. “I’m going for a walk on the ramparts.”
“I’ll join you,” said the Prince, grabbing another cigar from the humidor.
“I’ll bring in the horses and donkeys,” volunteered the Baron. “Do you want to come?” he directed at the Irishman.
Moriarty shook his head. “Not right now.” He waited until the others had disappeared and he was alone with the Countess. “That was a very impressive lecture. I haven’t heard anything like that since my brother tried to explain his treatise on binomial theorem to a roomful of starry-eyed boffins. One word of advice, you’ll never snag a husband if you go about lecturing men. Men don’t like to feel stupid.”
“Tant pis! A husband is the last thing I want to snag. Besides, if a man cannot keep up with my brain he is never going to satisfy my body. Excuse me, s’il vous plait, I’m going to check on Dr Watson.”
She got as far as the tapestry before he snagged her arm, pushed her roughly up against the wall and delivered a stunning kiss.
“What were you trying to prove with that?” she said icily when he allowed her to come up for air.
“Nothing, I just felt like doing it.”
“And this is something I just feel like doing.”
The slap to his face left him stinging.
Dr Watson was sitting up in bed. A healthier hue had replaced the green-grey gills and his eyes were no longer bloodshot. It was time to apprise him of the latest development called Lalique.
“Brace yourself,” she warned after enquiring how he was feeling then cutting him off halfway through his response, not because she didn’t care, but because she was angry with the Irishman and it was affecting her empathy.
“Not another murder?” he said tensely.
“No, no, thank goodness, I think we are done with death.”
“Have you solved the disappearance of our hostess?” he said hopefully, praying it was the work of Moriarty and that’s why she was pacing the hearth like a caged tigress, unhappy to admit her lover was a ruthless criminal.
“No, unfortunately I am no closer to solving that mystery. It is something that may never be solved, well, not in our lifetime anyway. I have come to inform you that the elusive phantom does actually exist. I found her this morning hiding in a secret compartment behind the mirror in the bathroom in the south tower. She is five years old and goes by the name Lalique.”
“I’d laugh but you sound serious.”
“Quite. The girl is sleeping in my room as we speak, having an afternoon nap. I didn’t want you to arrive in the great hall and think you were seeing visions.”
“Have the others seen her?”
“Yes, the girl joined us for lunch.”
“Where did she come from?”
“She lives here at Chanteloup. This is her home. She is the daughter of the Singing Wolf. Almaric and Hortense are charged with caring for her year round. When the Singing Wolf vanished the old couple became worried and hid the girl. She is charming, precocious, spoilt and very pretty. Her presence has explained a lot but not everything.”
“The Singing Wolf does not know who fathered her child. She must have narrowed it down to the four men she contrived to lure to Chanteloup, hence the fire in the kitchen at the Hotel Louve. She made advance preparations for the four men to meet Lalique. Lalique knew she was going to meet her maman’s four friends. She was given a new dress and new slippers to mark the occasion. I don’t quite understand how the Singing Wolf expected to determine the father, since all four men were sleeping with her at the time of conception.”
He grunted disapprovingly. “Hmph, that’s what comes when morality goes out the window.”
“As it did for my father and mother?” she said coldly.
He’d completely forgotten about Sherlock and That Woman. It was damn difficult to lecture her on morality in such a case. He forced himself to remain objective. “Perhaps she was hoping one of the men would recognize a family trait and do the honourable thing.”
“Well, it’s interesting you should say that. Are you familiar with Mendelian Inheritance?”
“His book on pea plants?”
“I was thinking of its application to inherited traits in humans.”
“Go on,” he invited dubiously.
“All four men are blond and blue-eyed, as is Lalique, whereas the Singing Wolf was brown-eyed and dark haired. The men were disputing the child could be hers. I explained to them about dominant and recessive traits.”
He smiled to himself. “Did they comprehend the science?”
“I think so. The existence of the girl has shocked them. I think they accept one of them has fathered the girl but they don’t know what to do about it, especially as the Singing Wolf is no longer around to confirm or deny anything. I just thought I should explain things to you before you joined us for dinner. You may find the dinner table conversation a little strange and the men flummoxed.”
“Well, that will make a change. They are an arrogant bunch. Did you say the girl will be present too?”
“I might get up now. I want to take a look at Milo’s body. Where was it taken?”
“To the cellar.”
“I want to look at the stiletto too.”
“Baron Reichenbach has it.”
“What? It should be with the body so that the gendarmes can hand it to the police surgeon or the Surete. It may not even be the murder weapon.”
“It was sticking out of his chest when the body was discovered,” she reminded.
He rolled his eyes. “And you call yourself a consulting detective. You should know better. Verify all facts.”
She stopped pacing and slapped the side of her head. “You’re right. I’ve been stupid.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. At least you found the phantom.” He refrained from asking what she was doing in the bathroom of the south tower, mainly because embarrassment had a way of rebounding and in the end he would be the one to turn bright red.
“Mmm,” she muttered. “I wonder if the existence of the girl puts Velazquez’s testimony in a different light.”
“Well, Velazquez said he heard heavy breathing and panting coming from the south tower as if the Singing Wolf was entertaining a man in her bed which I assumed might be Sarazan or even Velazquez, but the girl told me she slept in her mother’s bed whenever her mother came to Chanteloup. Moriarty and I even conducted an experiment of heavy breathing to verify whether the sound would carry down stairs. Xenia was listening at the landing. But now I’m wondering if -”
“Say that again.”
“Now I’m wondering if the girl may have been with her mother that night.”
“Yes, er, yes, that’s a natural assumption to make. Sometimes it takes time for assumptions to catch up with us. We make an assumption based on what we understand at the time only to find out later that we have been mistaken.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “I might have to rethink the black leather costume. I assumed it belonged to Sarazan and he was a regular visitor to the south tower but it might just be an opera costume after all. And speaking of costumes – the red and gold dress has been puzzling me. No one likes to think badly of children but I wonder if Lalique slashed it to punish her maman for her long absences or for inexplicably vanishing and spoiling the happy occasion she was expecting when the four male visitors arrived. I’ll need to think about it some more. See you at dinner.”
Lalique looked as fragile as a glass angel, a china doll with vibrant yellow hair that curled out like a shimmering aureole across the pillow. The Countess sat at the side of the bed and listened to her soft breathing, contemplating the maternal instinct. If such a thing was inherited along with eye colour and hair colour her chance of having inherited it was unlikely. Neither of her parents had been cut out for parenthood. That’s not to say they would not have loved her unreservedly, but they would have loved other things more. She might have been the one sleeping in this bed with a stranger looking down at her, fondly yet sadly; a collection of unknown fathers to choose from and an absent mother who had vanished into thin air. What mother would wish that on a child?
Who would love this child? Who would care for her now?
Prince Orczy had no place to call home, just a string of hotels, and no money either. He moved from one gaming salon to another, one step ahead of his creditors. Moriarty had no habitable family seat as yet and a dubious career as what? A speculator? A Fenian? A hired assassin? Not much of a life for a little girl, being dragged from one kill to another. Von Gunn had twelve castles and plenty of money, but that just meant the girl would have more places in which to feel truly lonely. Reichenbach was the oldest of the men, a confirmed bachelor, but did he really want to take on the up-bringing of a girl-child at this stage in his life? But what was the alternative? Leave the girl here in this isolated stronghold to be raised by Almaric and Hortense? Children needed the company of other children. They needed playmates. The girl had reached an age where she would soon need a proper governess and decent tutors. Who would employ them? Who would supervise them? Who would look out for her best interests?
Lalique yawned and stretched and smiled drowsily. “Is it time for dinner?”
“Nearly, I just want to ask you one question before you get dressed.”
“Is it about maman?”
“Yes, I was wondering if you slept in the big bed the night your maman arrived with her friends?”
Lalique shook her head. “No, I was already tucked into my cot. Maman came down to the little room and kissed me and told me I needed to stay in the cot until she came back to get me. She told me she was busy with her visitors and that I would need to be patient a little longer. She said she was saving the grand surprise for the next day. She promised she would come to get me later in the night and take me to her big bed but she never came back. I waited and waited but she did not come.”
“While you were waiting did you see anyone?”
“Oc, after Almaric and Hortense fell asleep I crept out of bed. I saw the ugly black girl in the kitchen dipping some bread into the little dish of aioli and drinking a cup of cold tea. She had terrible manners. She stuffed the bread into her big fat mouth and slurped her tea so loudly I could hear it from my hiding spot.”
“Did you see anyone else?”
“Oc, I saw the Spanish servant go up the stairs to the great hall. While he was gone I saw the boy with the knife in his sock come to get some bread too. He cut the bread with his knife; he cut two slices. He dipped it in the aioli and chewed with his mouth open. He had even worse manners than the black girl. He wiped his chin with his sleeve. I did that once and got a smack on the head from Hortense.”
“What else happened?”
“The boy went to the stairs and listened as if he heard something.”
“The round stairs to maman’s bedchamber. I thought maman was coming to get me. But no one came.”
“Did you see what the boy did next?”
“He went back to the bread and cut another slice. This time he cut it really thick. He dipped it in the aioli and tore it with his teeth and swallowed it without even chewing.”
She thought for a moment. “He must have heard a noise that gave him a fright. He put his knife in his sock and hurried back to his bed.”
“What happened then?”
“The Spanish one came back.”
“Did he go into the room of the black girl?”
She puckered her little forehead and shook her golden locks. “No, he went into the room of the pretty one. I heard her tell him to get out.”
“Where did he go then?”
“Back to his own room that he shared with the boy.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oc, I waited a little time then I crawled into bed with Hortense and fell asleep. In the morning I woke up back in my own cot and that’s when Almaric told me we had to play hide and seek.”
Who was lying? Milo, Desi, Inez, Velazquez or Lalique?
Although lying might be too harsh a term. A lapse of memory, a bit of hedging, a slight dissimulation might be more to the point. Milo didn’t mention getting anything to eat. He didn’t mention hearing a noise on the back stairs. Were these just innocent oversights or deliberate obfuscations? Desi said Velazquez went to Inez’s room first and then after being rebuffed came into her room. But Lalique said he went to his own room after being rebuffed by Inez. Was Desi speaking out of jealousy? Was it all fantasy? She was a fifteen year old girl and Velazquez was a handsome toreador – why not dream a little. Was Milo killed because he saw somebody that night? Did he confront them and pay the price? Did Lalique really remember what happened in such perfect order? Or was she just making it up the way a child makes up a fairy story? She was certainly precocious enough to invent things and here at Chanteloup in the heart of the Pays d’Oc where troubadours refined the art of story-telling and the word trobar meant to invent she had been constantly surrounded by vivid fabliaux from which to draw inspiration. Prior to dinner she had entertained them with Occitan folk songs and had even managed to recite a couple of stanzas from Le Roman de la Rose, and if her mother had been the black rose, the daughter was the yellow.
Dinner consisted of cassoulet. This was a tasty white bean stew with meaty chunks of pork cooked in a cassole which was carried steaming hot to the table to be served into large bowls. It was best eaten with a soup spoon.
The cassoulet smelled divine and Dr Watson was starving. “Where’s von Gunn?” he asked as he measured out libations of Gaillac wine to go with the meal, skipping his own glass.
“He’s probably sleeping,” said the Prince. “I left him on the ramparts when the wind kept blowing out my cigar. He said he was going to walk a bit further and then have a rest in his room. His head was pounding.”
“Let him sleep. We can start without him,” decided Moriarty, who was also feeling hungrier than usual.
They discussed the rockslide and agreed it was likely to be cleared by tomorrow. That meant they would be able to leave. They had a disappearance and a death to contend with but it was unanimously agreed to leave it to the gendarmes in Lourdes. They did not expect the brigands to be a problem. Their numbers were depleted and if they had any sense they would have high-tailed it east ahead of the winter snow.
Dessert was a clafoutis of black cherries. It was followed by coffee and a few favourite cheeses, including a Roquefort and a Bleu Auvergne.
After dinner, feeling sated and secretly relieved that their sojourn at Chanteloup was coming to an end, they lit some cigars and decamped to the comfortable chairs by the fire. The Countess read a chapter of Le Roman de la Rose in fluent French while Lalique mimed the actions, proving once again that she was a natural born actress.
At ten o’clock the girl kissed everyone goodnight, and in case she had not yet endeared herself to the men, that sweet gesture cemented her adorableness. Off she went to sleep in the big bed in the south tower. After she’d skipped out of the hall thoughts turned to the German.
“I’ll go and check on him,” said the Prince, echoing the concerns of the others. Under normal circumstances they would have left him to sleep until morning, but nothing at Chanteloup could be considered normal.
Prince Orczy returned a few moments later to say that von Gunn was nowhere to be found. He had checked the garderobe and looked quickly into all the bedrooms, even though their doors had been bolted from the outside. The door at the end of the corridor was also bolted. That meant von Gunn was still outside. Storm lanterns were organized and everyone bar the Countess set off to scour the ramparts. When the ramparts came up empty they searched the stable and outbuildings, courtyards and baileys. They were about to move the search inside when Dr Watson noticed the main gate was open. It stunned them all. Von Gunn was found nearby. The portcullis had been raised and had come down on top of him. A couple of wolves were prowling around the body. Moriarty grabbed a flaming torch to scare them off. It allowed the others to drag the body in and secure the gates. Von Gunn was dead.
The body was carried into the armoury and placed on a table. With the aid of several lanterns Dr Watson managed a cursory examination. A single deep gash in the chest indicated the German had been stabbed before being positioned under the portcullis to make it appear as though he had been crushed and speared by the medieval gate. It would have taken significant strength to debar the gate, raise the portcullis, move the body into position and then lower the portcullis – and for what? The theatrical effect? The dramatic pose? The sense of horror and fear it created in the hearts and minds of those who found it? If not for the deep gash they might all have assumed the German had been attempting to flee. That he had opened the gate and raised the portcullis just high enough to squeeze under and had met with a fatal accident, but the stab wound to the chest disproved that theory. Von Gunn had been murdered.
They were back to square one. Was Sarazan able to come and go at will? Was there a lunatic at large? And then the terrible realization they did not wish to voice – was the Singing Wolf orchestrating the bizarre set of events? Was she a murderess? Was she seeking revenge against the four men for the fathering of her child?
Xenia had been charged with keeping watch over the sleeping girl. All was safe there.
The Countess retired to the quiet of her bedroom to think about this latest murder while the men interrogated the servants. She summoned Inez to her room a short time later. The sultry flamenco dancer had been crying bitterly and looked scared to death. She fell gratefully into the chair the Countess waved her to when her long legs appeared to give way.
“Did you know your mistress had a child?”
Inez shook her head firmly. “No, no, never! When I saw the girl at the dinner table I thought she was an angel from heaven. Desi thought the girl was a ghost. Her black face went white and she trembled all over. She could not speak for hours and hours. It was like she had lost the power of speech. I think she is very easily frightened by things she does not understand. She grew up in an orphanage and she told me once that the sisters were cruel. They were especially cruel to her because of her black skin. Every noise makes her jump now. I thought the old couple was behaving strangely from the first day the mistress went missing but I thought maybe they had killed her. I never thought they might be hiding a child.”
“Was Velazquez the lover of the Singing Wolf?”
“No, the mistress could pick and choose the men she wanted in her bed and she chose men who were both rich and handsome.”
“Was Velazquez your lover?”
“No.” She bit her lip and twisted the damp handkerchief in her lap.
“No? Why not? You are young and lovely. And he was a hot-blooded toreador. There is no shame in passion. Did the Singing Wolf not approve?”
Inez dropped her gaze. “It was not like that. Velazquez, well, he preferred men. He went to the bed of men who liked to sleep with men. Sometimes he went to the beds of the ladies who came to the hotel, but there were not many ladies, and he did not like it much.”
“He was a male gigolo?”
Inez looked up quickly, a fiery flash of defiance in her dark Spanish eyes. “No! No! He was not like that. He was shy. It was his -”
The Countess waited while Inez bit her lip some more. “It was his…what?”
The Countess repeated the broken phrases for her own benefit. “He slept with the guests who came to the Hotel Louve because it was his duty. In other words, the Singing Wolf instructed him to sleep with the guests. If we had stayed there longer he would have slept with me, though he would have preferred a man. But if he is not a gigolo then – oh, I see, it allowed the Singing Wolf to blackmail her guests afterwards.”
The penny dropped, or in this case, two pennies – a handsome toreador and a beautiful flamenco dancer!
“It was your job to sleep with the men who came to the hotel, the men who preferred women!”
Inez flushed dark red and dropped her gaze once more.
“If we had stayed longer at the hotel you would have slept with Dr Watson? You slept with the four men who are here at Chanteloup right now? Am I right?”
“No! Never! They belonged to the mistress!”
The Countess began thinking out loud, ordering her thoughts, groping for meaning. “You slept with the ones the mistress did not want. But what shame is there if the men have slept with you? This is a foreign country. Such things are permissible. Some men would even brag about it back home with their friends. It could only be Velazquez who could be useful for blackmail – oh, hang on, of course! The story-telling! You extract secrets from the men you bed during moments of intimacy. Perhaps they have had too much to drink and you ask them certain questions about their past. You pass the information onto your mistress and she then blackmails them. That is what happens!”
“Yes,” admitted Inez and this time there was no dark red flush. “The men I sleep with they have committed some bad deed – robbery, murder, forgery – they must pay for their sin. It is right and fitting in the eyes of God to atone for sin on this earth and then later in heaven. I helped the mistress to bring justice before the Day of Judgement.”
“You were doing a good deed?”
“Yes, yes, it is good in the eyes of God to confess sin and pay for wrong-doing.”
“I see. After the mistress went missing, do you think Velazquez decided to do some good deeds in the eyes of God for himself?”
Inez shook her head fervently. “No, no, he is not brave, he is timid, and he does not know any stories about the sins of the four señores.”
“Only the mistress knew about the four señores – is that what you swear?”
“Yes, yes, not me and not Velazquez. He only goes to the bed of men who like to be with men and the two fat English ladies who came one time to the Hotel Louve by mistake. They are dead three years last summer and there is no more chantage to pay.”
The Countess pondered this fresh information. It meant Velazquez could not have been attempting to blackmail the four men. That meant they had no reason to kill him. But they had plenty of reason to kill the Singing Wolf. Did Velazquez inadvertently spoil their murderous plan? Was he in the wrong place at the wrong time that night? He was certainly terrified of them. To run out of the gate and take his chances in hostile territory was an act of sheer terror. So what did he really hear that night? It was looking less and less likely that it was Sarazan. It had to be one of the men making love to their hostess prior to killing her. Velazquez’s explanation concerning the heavy breathing seemed genuine. He had been genuinely embarrassed to have to say it in front of her. He had believed it. What happened afterwards was anybody’s guess. All four men may have been involved with the disposing of the body.
“Did you believe Velazquez when he said he went to get a drink in the middle of the night?”
“Yes, he went often to get a drink in the night. Everyone knew that.”
“Were you awake?’
“Yes, I sleep badly because the bed is lumpy and I am sore from riding the horse all day and the noises are strange. I hear the wolves howling. I hear the wind crying. I am frightened of more rockslides. I hear when Velazquez goes past. I hear when Desi goes to the kitchen for food. I hear when Milo goes to the kitchen for -”
“Hang on a moment,” interrupted the Countess, remembering something the girl said about the order of events. “Were Desi and Milo in the kitchen at the same time?”
Inez did not answer right away. She fixed her gaze on the crackling fire. “No, I think not. But Desi did not go back to her bed either. I did not hear her bed creak. That’s how I knew she was lying when she said Velazquez went to her room after visiting me. She was not there and he never went to her room. Never! He preferred men and she was black and hairy like an ape. She disgusted him. She worked as a freak in a circus when she ran away from the orphanage. She was truly savage when she first came to the Hotel Louve begging for work. I think she went to the dairy room for some butter while Milo was in the kitchen. She likes to eat the butter straight from the knife. Milo ran back to his bed like he saw a ghost. I saw him run past my door just before Velazquez came back. Velazquez came to my room to talk but I shouted at him to go away. That’s all I remember.”
“You don’t remember hearing Desi go back to bed?”
“No, I was asleep by then. Desi likes to eat as much as Velazquez likes to drink.”
“What do you think happened to your mistress?”
“I think the old man and his wife killed her.”
“Why would they do that?”
Inez had clearly given the question some thought. She did not hesitate. “I think they want to keep the little girl for themselves. I think they know where the Cathar tresor is hidden. I think they want to keep that for themselves too.”
“Who do you think killed Milo?”
“I think it was the old man. I think Milo saw something he should not see.”
“Did you know he carried a knife?”
“Yes, that is why he wore two pairs of socks. Everyone knew that.”
“What about Herr von Gunn? Who do you think killed him?”
Inez glanced fearfully at the door. “I think he was opening the gate for the bandits when the gate fell on him. I think we will all be murdered in our beds tonight. I will pray to God to grant me mercy, to make my end swift and painless.” She made the sign of the cross.
The Countess did not contradict Inez but it was not possible for the portcullis to fall accidentally. It took considerable strength to turn the shaft.
“Before you go back to the kitchen I want you to go to the south tower and bring me the black leather costume. My maid will show you where to find it. She is keeping watch over the girl. You can sleep in here tonight. I will have need of a maidservant to help me with my toilette. Xenia will remain in the tower all night. Do not tell anyone about the costume. Make sure no one sees you.”
The Countess closed her eyes and played with different scenarios in her head. Every time a fact did not fit she had to start again. What gave her the most concern was the death of von Gunn. Why kill him? The only thing that made sense was that he had had a falling out with the other men. Perhaps he had wanted to confess and they had silenced him.
Desi arrived to empty Dr Watson’s bath. The Countess caught up to her as she was sluicing the chute in the garderobe of the east wing.
“I want to speak to you. It will not take long. Did you see anyone else creeping about during the night your mistress disappeared? I know Velazquez was in the great hall having a drink and Milo was cutting some bread. Did you notice anyone else?”
Desi shook her frowzy head and, disappointed, the Countess changed tack.
“You liked Velazquez – was he sometimes cruel to you?”
She nodded and then nodded harder.
“What about Milo? Did you like him?”
She nodded again.
“Was he sometimes cruel?”
She shook her head and her bottom lip appeared to quiver.
“And Inez – do you like her?”
“Is she sometimes cruel?”
“Was your mistress sometimes cruel?”
She shrugged her big broad shoulders, though not carelessly the way some people do, it was more as if to say this was the way of the world and she was resigned to it.
“People can be cruel. Herr von Gunn was cruel when he spoke to you.”
Desi shrugged again, the action implied – such is life!
Wearily, the Countess made her way to the great hall to find Dr Watson bedding down the fire. The three men had retired to their rooms. The death of von Gunn had affected them greatly. They didn’t know what to make of it and were looking forward to packing up and turning their backs on Chanteloup. Nothing had been decided about the girl. They would probably turn their backs on her as well. Dr Watson, suppressing a yawn, bid the Countess goodnight and left her sitting alone staring blankly at the embers. Their sojourn at Chanteloup had the feel of an allegorical dream, full of troubadours, jongleurs, a dark queen, a fair princess, jealous vassals and guarded secrets – as strange and surreal as the images on the tapestries depicting le chanson de geste – the song of deeds. Tomorrow they would wake up and it would be over. Perhaps they would find none of it was real.
The clock struck midnight as the Countess sat bolt upright, vivified by an epopayaic revelation. The rush of blood to her head left her feeling giddy. There was no time to lose.
Fedir, who had taken it upon himself to act as personal bodyguard while his mistress dozed in the chair by the fire, was slumped out of sight on a bench tucked into an unobtrusive alcove. She summoned him to her side and informed him of her plan.
Next, she hurried to the west wing. Moriarty’s door was bolted. She knocked softly, trying not to wake anyone else. Nothing happened. She knocked again, slightly harder. Slowly the door opened and she crossed the threshold into the dark maw of his bedroom.
“Put that down,” she said, using an index finger to push away the gun barrel pressed to her temple.
He was poised behind the door and obligingly lowered his weapon. “Is this a social call or are all my dreams about to come true?”
“This is serious. Shut-up and listen. There isn’t much time to explain. I think there’s going to be an attempt on the life of the girl tonight. I’ve just dispatched Fedir to the south tower to take his sister’s place. He’s armed and hiding in the closet. I need you to provide back-up. Put on some clothes.”
“You trust me?” There was genuine surprise in his intonation.
“I have no other choice.”
“That’s not an answer – yes or no?”
“Yes – is that what you need to hear?”
He made an unsavoury grunt deep in his throat as he fumbled around in the dark for his trousers and began to tug them on. “It will suffice for now. How do you know there will be an attempt on the girl’s life?”
She braced herself for the usual glib retort. “Female intuition – I don’t have a better explanation and before you mock -”
“I’m not about to mock anything. What women call ‘female intuition’ men call ‘gut instinct’. If more people paid attention to it they would save themselves a lot of strife. Who do you think is going to attempt to kill the girl?”
“I’m not going to say. I don’t want to give you any preconceived ideas.”
He chuckled mirthlessly as he located a smelly shirt and thrust his arms into the sleeves. “The Foreign Office should put women in charge of military operations,” he mused sardonically, mismatching buttons to button-holes. “I will petition the Queen upon my return – presuming I live long enough to ever get home: Attack that ridge and overpower the enemy but I’m not going to tell you who we’re fighting or where the enemy is or even how many of the buggers there might be – I don’t want to give you any preconceived ideas!”
She was not in the mood for drollery. “Are you dressed yet?”
“Almost – it would help if there was some candlelight.”
“We cannot risk it.”
“Help me find my socks.”
“Here’s one.” She tossed it to him where he was sitting on the end of the bed.
“You sound serious – and worried.”
“I am – oh, here’s the other sock.”
She had been standing with her back to him, arms crossed, nervously tapping her foot on the old oak boards as she kept an eye on the corridor to make sure she hadn’t woken anyone else.
“Shoes,” he whispered.
“There are some leather boots here by the door.”
“They’ll do. Pass them across.”
“Are you done?”
“My other Webley is under the pillow. I’ll just grab it in the event I need two guns.”
“Let’s hurry. We could be too late already.”
“Hang on a minute.” He caught her arm. “We?”
“I’m going with you. I’ll hide behind the daybed.”
“In case you’re unable to comprehend Irish humour, I was kidding about women on campaign. I prefer to operate solo. I’m making an exception in the case of your manservant because you leave me no choice and I’m still in the dark about who or what or how many buggers I’m expected to overpower.”
She broke free. “You’re wasting time. Let’s go.”
He was forced to follow in her wake though some throaty rumbling made it clear he wasn’t too happy about it. There was even a fleeting moment when they crossed the great hall whereby he wondered if he was being set-up. A cold draught of air from the kitchen stairs reminded him von Gunn was dead. Was he next in line for an appointment with the Grim Reaper?
They were about to lift the tapestry and step onto the spiral stairs when he swung her into his arms and delivered a brutal kiss that was even more audacious than the one that left him stinging. But this time she kissed him back. It put fire in his belly and poured cold water on his doubts and fears at the same time. That’s why women made such damned good assassins. Men could never see the bullet coming.
“Not now,” she said when he came up for air.
He laughed softly into the side of her neck. “You’ve got a lot to learn about granting a man going off to war his dying wish.”
“Hush!” She put her finger to her lips while she lifted back the tapestry and listened for the slightest noise. When she was satisfied there was no one on the stairs she signalled for him to follow her up to the south tower where a single candle flickered in a silver holder on the bedside table, creating surreal shadows on the exquisite fabliaux of Le Roman de la Rose.
Fedir was in position, que vivre. He appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye. The girl was sleeping in the big bed, her vibrant yellow hair forming a throbbing sinuous halo on the pillow. The Countess crouched behind the daybed and Moriarty slipped behind the door.
Experience had taught him that nerves taut with tension were a good thing. His body was preparing itself for imminent attack. The only problem was he didn’t know from what direction the attack might come. There was Fedir hiding in the closet, the Countess behind the day bed, and the door that gave entry to the chamber ready to admit who, what, how many? He needed to keep an eye out for the sleeping girl too. He could not overlook her in the hope she would take care of herself in the event of a gun battle. His blood was pumping, his limbs were pumped.
The trio remained in hiding for an unknown length of time. The candle burnt down to a fat stump and began to splutter. The wick poked out of a tiny pool of hot wax that ran down the side of the candlestick and dripped on the bedside table, leaving a soft clumpy mass. Pretty soon they would be left in the dark. Moriarty began to wonder if he was on a fool’s errand and even the Countess began to doubt herself when at last they were alerted to a footfall on the stone stairs. Someone was coming.
Moriarty thought there might be just the one assailant from the sounds of it, but his instincts warned him not to relax his guard. The moment a man underestimated his enemy he was done for. The first might be a scout. The others might be hanging back. His gun was cocked, his breath was drawn. Someone was standing in the doorway.
Come on, come on, urged the Irishman, as a dark shadow crept stealthily forward.
Moriarty was tossing up whether to make a bold move or hold back when the decision was wrenched from him. A knife whistled through the darksome air and found its mark. The girl in the bed didn’t stand a chance, she didn’t even cry out. There was just a sickening crunch as the knife lodged in the small golden head. It sounded like the cracking of a walnut. He slammed the door to stop the killer fleeing. The backdraft blew out what was left of the flickering wick. The killer lashed out and lurched toward the closet. Moriarty copped a fist to his head and slammed back against the wall, winded. Fedir stepped forward to block the path of the killer and was knocked to the ground with a well-placed fist to the face. It knocked him out cold. The killer must have been familiar with the enfilade of dressing rooms. Moriarty picked himself up and gave chase. The killer ran straight for the garderobe and slammed the door. The bolt rammed home. Moriarty drew the bolt this side and there was no escape. The killer was trapped!
In the meantime, the Countess had lighted several fresh candles and was attempting to rouse her manservant. Moriarty retraced his steps, passing both of them, to check on the girl though he didn’t hold out much hope that he would find her alive. He cursed himself for his momentary inaction as he pulled back the feathered quilt and braced for the gruesome sight. But the sight that confronted him knocked for six. It was the doll! The porcelain head had been cracked by a sharp blade. The girl was nowhere to be seen. He shook himself, picked up the doll and sat down on the side of the bed as he tried to gather his senses. Everything had happened so quickly he hardly had time to get his head around it.
The Countess joined him a few minutes later. She looked calm and in control and it unnerved him more. What the hell was going on?
“How’s your manservant?” he asked first up, sounding slightly dazed, though not from the physical knock to the head.
“He’s got a bloody nose. He’s gone to the bathroom to wash his face.”
“Where’s the girl?”
“She’s safe and sound in my room with my maid. I placed the doll in the bed and padded it up to make it look like Lalique. I couldn’t risk her waking up at the wrong moment or even, as you see, getting killed.”
He drew breath for the first time in what seemed like an age. “Everything happened so fast. I didn’t even get to see who it was. Who,” he stammered, “who was it?”
The Countess picked up the lethal blade and studied it. “I think we’ll find this is the carving knife from the kitchen.”
“But why? Why?” he repeated, shaking his head in disbelief.
“I’d only be guessing if I answered that question, though I’m fairly certain I’ve got the right answer. I’m going to speak to her now.”
“Don’t even dream of unbolting that door,” he warned sternly, tossing the doll on the bed and following quickly after her. “Desi’s dangerous, possibly mad. There’s no saying what murderous rage she’ll unleash the moment she gets out of that garderobe.”
“I promise not to unbolt the door. Let me do the talking. She’ll clam up if she knows you’re listening. You need to keep your trap shut.”
The Countess put her ear to the door. Within, all was quiet.
“Desi I know you’re in there. I know you had your reasons for doing what you did. Life can be cruel. Life was cruel to you. No girl should have had to endure what you endured.”
Fists pounded on the door and the voice was choked with hatred. “What do you know! What do you know! How can you know what I have endured?”
“I know your father and mother both turned their backs on you. Mine did the same.”
“Liar!” she shouted convulsively. “Liar!”
“My story could have been yours. But where I was sold to a good man you were left to cruel Fate. An orphanage where you were mistreated -”
“The holy sisters of mercy! Monsters without hearts!”
“A circus where you were abused and humiliated -”
“I was half-ape half-woman from the Congo! They put me in a cage so that men could poke sticks at me and butt their cigarettes on me and laugh.”
The Countess winced and felt choked with pity. She swallowed hard and forced herself to go on. “You learned to throw knives in the circus?”
“Yes! Alfonso taught me to throw knives. He had a pretty assistant, Violetta, who would stand still while he threw knives at her. I threw a knife at her once. I got her in the throat. Serves her right for laughing at me! After that I ran away.”
“You ran to where you knew you would find your mother?”
“You got her name from the holy sisters?”
“You begged for a job? Did your mother know who you were?”
“No – not until the night I came to her room and told her. She called me a liar but I could see in her eyes she knew it was true. She gave me away. She wanted to forget me. But she knew I was her flesh and blood. She told me that when we returned to Biarritz I would have to leave the Hotel Louve. She told me not to try to blackmail her. She knew what to do with blackmailers. I strangled her. I put my hands around her throat and…and…”
“And then you hid the body?”
“Yes – you will never find it!”
The Countess knew now was not the time to press the point. If Desi did not wish to reveal where she had hidden the body no words would force it out of her. Better to move on and perhaps come back to the point later.
“You guessed the name of your father?”
“How do you know?”
“You guessed correctly that you were conceived the night your mother played Desdemona. You were named after the tragic heroine. Your father was Iago. That was not his real name. What was it?”
“Of course! The famous Black Baritone! He was a great singer but not considered handsome enough for the role of the hero. He took his own life when Otello finished up. He probably never even knew the Singing Wolf was having his baby.”
Desi began to sob bitterly and pound on the door with her fists. “She was selfish! A vain witch! I hated her! She deserved to die for what she did to me!”
“But you took your revenge – where did you put her body?”
Desi stopped crying. “Ha! You’ll never find it!”
The Countess changed tack. “You killed Milo too – why? He was never cruel. You said you liked him.”
Desi’s voice sounded thick with tears again. “I had to kill him. He knew it was me. I didn’t know he was in the kitchen getting food that night. Inez told me. He had to die. He was in the woodshed throwing his knife. We had a competition to see who was the best knife-thrower. He was good but I was better. I threw it at his heart. I never miss. It was me who killed the bandit. Milo’s hands were still sore and he gave me his knife. We pretended it was Velazquez because that’s what everyone thought. Velazquez was proud to look so brave. I didn’t want to kill Milo. He was the only one who was never cruel to me. He was my friend but I had to kill him. I had to…”
She began to weep and the Countess gave her time to mourn her only friend. When the tears had finally run their course the Countess continued to piece together the tragic picture.
“Herr von Gunn was cruel – did he deserve to die too for his cruelty?”
“Yes!” she spat out vehemently. “He was always speaking to me like I was a dog. I threw the knife at him. I never miss. I opened the big gate and pulled up the other gate and dragged him under it and let it down so you would think it was the gate that killed him. Good riddance to men who are pigs!”
“What about Lalique? She was not a man or a pig or cruel. She was your half-sister. Were you jealous?”
“Yes! Yes! She had been given everything and I had been given nothing! She had been cherished. I had been slapped and kicked and caged and burned. She had laughed while I had been laughed at. She had played while I had toiled. She had been born pretty while I had been born ugly. She had been loved…I had not.”
Tears pricked the Countess’s eyes when she looked beseechingly at Moriarty, her voice was choked with pity.
“You cannot stay in there forever, Desi. I am going to open the door this side. You can slip the bolt on your side and come out when you are ready.”
The Countess freed the bolt and signalled to Moriarty and Fedir to stand ready to subdue the girl the moment the door swung back.
“No! No! Never!” Desi screamed shrilly. “I will die in here!”
They heard a hard grunting sound as if a huge weight was being lifted, and then a heavy scraping sound, followed by a massive clang. The Countess wondered what was happening. There was no way someone Desi’s size would fit through the lancet window and the stone wall was simply too thick to break. They waited for a short time but no further sound came. Moriarty and Fedir put their shoulders to the door and on the third attempt they burst through when the rusty bolt gave way.
In an instant they understood where the body of the Singing Wolf had been hidden. The iron grate that covered the chute was now resting on the floor of the garderobe. It had in fact never been fixed into the stone. Unlike the other grates, it had simply sat on a square stone lip. The south tower was so high off the ground and the steepness of the cliff so treacherous it was never likely to be breached. The iron grate had been put in place to stop someone falling to their death, it was never designed to stop anyone gaining ingress. Wrapped around one of the iron grids was a thin rusty chain, most likely stolen from the torture chamber, and at the other end of the chain was the body of the Singing Wolf. The chain had been concealed by extra moss and the dangling body had remained hidden because the chute angled away from the castle wall. The body gave off a vile stench as it was dragged up and they tried not to gag. Desi was nowhere to be seen but they knew if they searched the ground at the base of the cliff they would find her remains. She had hoisted up the iron grate using brute strength and jumped to her death.
Human tragedy has a way of leaving one mentally drained and emotionally numb. Countess Volodymyrovna, Moriarty and Fedir left the body of the Singing Wolf on the floor of the garderobe and removed themselves to their respective beds, utterly exhausted. There would be time tomorrow to deal with the aftermath.
The Countess asked Moriarty not to mention anything about the events of the previous evening during breakfast while Lalique was present. The inexplicable disappearance of Desi would be treated as yet another mystery for the duration of the meal. Straight after breakfast Xenia and Fedir took Lalique for a walk along the ramparts on the pretext of showing her the view from Chanteloup which she had never before seen from such dizzy heights. It gave the Countess the chance to summon the old couple into the great hall where the three men had gathered along with Dr Watson.
Moriarty knew what she would say, but even he would be surprised by her reasoning.
She dealt matter-of-factly with the events in the order that they happened: the disappearance of the Singing Wolf, murdered by Desi, the abandoned daughter whose life had been unbearably cruel. The mistaken belief of Velazquez who presumed one of the men had killed the Singing Wolf, and his morbid apprehension, fuelled by liquor, that he would eventually be killed too and who thus ran to his death. The murder of Milo in the woodshed by Desi because he had heard someone on the spiral stairs and knew that Desi was not in her bed when she said she was, nor in the dairy room as Inez believed, and that it could only have been Desi in the south tower that fateful night. And finally the death of Herr von Gunn, who had spoken harshly to Desi once too often and thus signed his own death warrant.
The moral ring fence that stops most people from murdering those who are perhaps deserving of death had been breached the first night they arrived at Chanteloup, and once that barrier had been broken and the first murder had been committed the rest was almost inevitable.
The old couple returned to the kitchen weeping for their dead mistress. Their future was uncertain and the future of Lalique, whom they dearly loved, also hung in the balance. As soon as they departed, Inez entered as she had been instructed. She was wearing the black leather costume and it fit almost like a glove for she was of similar size and shape to the Singing Wolf, though not as tall.
“Gentlemen,” announced the Countess, “I give you Sarazan. Not Inez, of course, but the Singing Wolf as she would have appeared with her brigands. It is my belief there never was any Cathar loot to be found at Chanteloup. It was a convenient and romantic tale put about by the Singing Wolf to disguise the fact she earned her wealth through brigandage. The day we were ambushed we were a large party and her fellow outlaws did not immediately recognize that she was with our group. Once they realized their mistake they backed off.”
“Then why attack us at the gate?” expostulated Reichenbach.
“I think they were angry that several of their group had been shot after they backed off. They may have been wondering what was going on. They may have been trying to force a confrontation with their boss. There were only eight of them at the gate so they may even have splintered off and formed a rival group of outlaws.”
The men conferred amongst themselves and agreed that such a scenario was possible.
Inez returned to change back into her own clothes and the men went up to the south tower to inspect the garderobe and confirm that the dead body was indeed that of the Singing Wolf. A short time later they returned to the great hall.
“A sad business,” sighed Reichenbach, summing up what they were all feeling. “What about the girl? We need to make a decision before we leave, gentlemen.”
“I cannot accept responsibility,” said Prince Orczy flatly. “I have no formal residence and I am currently short of funds.”
“My situation is less than ideal,” admitted Moriarty. “My family seat is not fit for purpose, renovations could take another twelve months or more, and I am hardly ever home as it is. It is up to you to step up Reichenbach. Otherwise the girl stays here. We can all contribute to her up-bringing but that is about it.”
The Prussian ran his vivid blue eye over the great hall of Chanteloup, an ancient fortress steeped in grisly history and where so many recent murders had taken place. “The girl will go with me. I have an unmarried sister who lives permanently at my summer villa on Lac Lucerne. She can take charge of the girl’s up-bringing. I will recognize the girl as my ward. I will not ask for any contribution, gentlemen. If you choose to make an endowment, so be it. I will employ Inez as nursery governess for the time being and see how that works out.”
“The Singing Wolf may have left a Last Will and Testament,” suggested Dr Watson optimistically. “Lalique might be her only beneficiary.”
“Mmm,” murmured Reichenbach doubtfully, “it is my belief those who are young and fearless regard themselves as immortal. I anticipate there will be no Will.”
By midday the last of the rocks had been cleared and the village servants poured into Chanteloup. They were followed by a small regiment of French troops who had been alerted to the threat of brigands in the area by the Bogomil boys. The commander took charge of the dead bodies once he had been apprised of events. Straight after lunch the little party of travellers from Biarritz were free to leave, escorted by several armed soldiers as a matter of precaution. The old couple wept bitterly and Reichenbach promised to return with the girl for a visit next spring.
It was not until they were back on board the private train of the Singing Wolf that Dr Watson had a private moment with his counterpart. They closed the carriage door on the world and took a deep breath.
“I still don’t see how you deduced the Singing Wolf and Sarazan were one and the same,” he vexed.
“I deduced it as soon as I stopped trying to force the facts to fit my preconceived notions. The black leather costume was in her closet among her opera gowns yet I presumed it belonged to someone else. I presumed it belonged to her lover, ignoring the fact it would have fit her like a glove. I took for granted she gained her wealth from opera singing or some secret Cathar hoard for which there had never been an ounce of proof, only rumour and hearsay. I presumed Moriarty was searching for secret tunnels and treasure maps on the occasions when he was scouring floorboards, furniture, paintings and books, ignoring the possibility he might have been searching for something else – namely a stash of incriminating proofs used for blackmail.”
“The Singing Wolf earned most of her income through blackmail. A chanteur is a singer but a maître chanteur is not a master singer, it is a blackmailer. The Singing Wolf was a maître chanteur femme. She was blackmailing the four men. The stories they told that first night made that clear. That’s why the men were reluctant to join in the story-telling.”
“I told a story too,” he reminded. “It had nothing to do with me personally.”
“Yes, but she knew their stories were true to them, they had no way of fudging. In the end they recounted each other’s stories to thwart her. They were asserting themselves against the power she held over them.”
“Four strong-willed powerful men would baulk at being blackmailed by a woman and made to perform for her amusement. She was toying with them. Remember, the next day she was going to drop the bombshell of the illegitimate daughter. I think she was making sure they understood who held the reins of power. The Hotel Louve should have given me fair warning something was going on behind the scenes. It was isolated and preferred male guests, very few women stayed there. It employed an exceedingly handsome homosexual ex-toreador and a beautiful flamenco dancer who entertained guests and serviced their rooms. When Inez told me she and Velazquez were employed to extract information from guests which could then be used for blackmail I wasn’t really surprised. They were being blackmailed too. They too had something in their past that they did not wish anyone to know. Velazquez had killed his best friend in the bull-run in Pamplona and Inez had given birth to a baby girl whilst unmarried. The Singing Wolf seemed to pick up employees who had something to hide. Milo had killed a man in Sicily. When Desi came begging for work the Singing Wolf must have thought to herself that the girl would have a secret or two that she would not want the world to know. That presentiment was a savage piece of irony that led to her own death at the hands of her own daughter.”
“Hang on! If the four men were being blackmailed and recounting each other’s stories that means they were, er, are actually murderers!”
“Yes, exactly, they came every year to the Hotel Louve out of season not to enjoy the brisk sea air of Biarritz but to pay chantage. They have been coming for seven years. They must have come to know each other well, recognized in each other a fellow victim, and eventually learned each other’s stories. If the Singing Wolf had discovered something about us we would have returned each year to pay up too. Inez would have gone to your bed and Velazquez to mine.”
“Remember how smitten you were by Inez that first night at dinner? You were being set up from the very start. She would have flirted with you in your room, demonstrated some flamenco, and voila, who’s to say what might have happened thereafter.”
He turned brick red and decided to backtrack. “Er, yes, but, well, how do you know the men’s stories weren’t their own?”
“The Princess Roskovsky had already recounted to me a story about Prince Orczy and a duel he had fought. Yet the story about a duel was told by Herr von Gunn, not the Prince. If that story was told by the wrong person then it stood to reason that the other stories had been too. Baron Reichenbach owns a summer villa on Lac Lucerne yet a story about two boys in a boat on a lake was told not by him but by Prince Orczy. Moriarty told a story about a political revolutionary and some homemade bombs. It could only have been Herr von Gunn he was referring to. And finally the story about the poor boy who killed his drunken father by altering the height of one step was told by Baron Reichenbach.”
“That boy was MMMoriarty!”
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“The men are all cold-blooded killers!”
“Hush! Keep your voice down!” She flicked a telling glance at the carriage door.
Dr Watson lowered his tone, though moral indignation clung to every grating syllable. “They will never be brought to justice, you realize that?”
“Yes, the crimes were committed long ago. The chance for justice died with the Singing Wolf. Incriminating papers may come to light but I doubt it. I don’t think the Singing Wolf kept written proof. The men searched in vain when they ransacked their own rooms. I think she kept it all up here.” The Countess tapped the side of her head.
The doctor suddenly remembered the role of the flamenco dancer. “What about Inez? Her life is in mortal danger if she goes off with Reichenbach!”
“No, she told me it was the Singing Wolf who slept with the four men. Inez would be aware of some sort of blackmail but she would not know the details.”
He slapped the side of his head. “What about the girl? We cannot leave her in the hands of murderers!”
“What is the alternative? We leave her at Chanteloup? One of those men is her father. Children love their parents and wish to be with them regardless of their murky past. It takes a lot to kill unconditional love. I believe it is the best outcome for Lalique to be with one of the men and Baron Reichenbach seems best fitted to provide for her up-bringing. I intend visiting Reichenbach Falls next year. If you are free at the time you might wish to accompany me. We can look in on the girl and see how she is faring. You mentioned the Baron invited you to stay at his villa on Lac Lucerne. We can kill two birds with one stone.” She saw a pained look pass over him and realized her poor choice of phrase. “I’m sorry. I realize the Falls must conjure painful…”
“No, no, it’s all right. I was thinking of going back to the Falls at some future time. I would welcome your company.”
They both turned to look out of the train window as it skirted the foothill of the Pyrenees and while Dr Watson recounted the tragic myth of Pyrene he took out his silver cigarette case and extracted a Bradley. “Shall I light one for you?”
She shook her head and proceeded to light one of her own cigarettes. Bradleys were fine occasionally but she preferred her own gold-tipped foreign cigarettes. They were darker, slimmer and more sophisticated. It was like the difference between a stodgy bread and butter pudding and a chocolate soufflé. The carriage soon filled with aromatic wisps of blue smoke. Dr Watson finished his cigarette and stood up to open the window an inch or two to vent the foreign fumes. He found the pungent aroma of the exotic gaspers overpowering. It was like the difference between a pot of freshly brewed tea and a pot of burnt hot chocolate. It wouldn’t surprise him if the vile tobacco had been deliberately tainted with opium, though it didn’t seem to cloud her judgement, perhaps it even enhanced it.
“What made you suspect Desi?”
She butted her cigarette in the ashtray before tossing it out of the window and slamming it shut to keep out the cold west wind.
“It wasn’t a conscious realisation. I was dozing off when it suddenly struck me. Again, it was only when my preconceived notions fell away that I realized Desi fit all the facts. I presumed that what Velazquez heard that first night was the Singing Wolf making love to a man – as did he – but the heavy breathing and panting could have been the sound of someone being throttled to death. Ecstasy and the throes of death are surprisingly similar. Strangulation takes brute strength so that meant it had to be someone strong. I thought the clanging sound Velazquez described was the bucket in the well room but it was the iron grate in the garderobe. Later, I presumed it was Lalique who out of childish spite against a neglectful mother slashed the red and gold dress the Singing Wolf wore when she sang the role of Desdemona, but Desi was short for Desdemona and she was the right age for being conceived at the same time as the opera was being performed, fifteen years ago, and one of the men mentioned that Iago was actually black, meaning he was Negro. It is highly likely he fathered Desi. The Singing Wolf was just beginning her career so it made sense that she did not wish to be encumbered with a child, especially a black child that everyone would guess belonged to the Black Baritone. Desi had been ill-treated all her life. She harboured great animosity toward the mother who had abandoned her to a life of suffering. Driven by the sheer rage that still burned within her even after she had killed her own mother, she slashed the dress. It is easy for us to tut-tut but who knows what any of us is capable of under such circumstances. We like to tell ourselves we are more moral, more rational, more sanguine, but I suspect a lifetime of lovelessness, humiliation and abuse can turn the mildest creature into a monster.
She was driven to killing Milo even though she liked him. He was her only friend but it was a matter of survival. He knew she wasn’t where she said she was the night the Singing Wolf was killed. She was strong enough to remove the log that held the wood stack back and quick enough to leap out of the way before the falling wood crushed her leg. She was adept with a knife, having worked in a circus. She was usually in the scullery, nearby to the woodshed. Once she had killed her mother it was easier for her to kill again.
It was the same with Herr von Gunn. She murdered him because he had spoken harshly to her more than once. I think she’d finally had enough of being insulted and belittled. Likewise, his murderer had to be someone who could throw a knife and who was physically strong. She fit the bill both times.
Inez told me Desi was lying about Velazquez ever visiting her bed. He preferred men. He was disgusted by Desi. If he went to Inez’ room it was probably to converse in private. They were both Spanish and had much in common regarding their roles at the Hotel Louve. They probably viewed each other as confidantes, more like brother and sister, never as lovers.
After those things fell into place it suddenly occurred to me that Lalique’s life might be in danger. If Desi had killed three times there was nothing stopping her killing a fourth time. She would have felt as much hatred for the pretty girl as for the selfish mother who had disowned her. To suddenly discover she had a beautiful little half-sister who had been loved and cossetted must have come as a disturbing shock. I knew she would have to strike that night because the next day she would be gone from Chanteloup and the chance would be forever lost. I arranged for Fedir to take Xenia’s place in the south tower, for Lalique to transfer to my bed, and for Moriarty to act as back-up should Desi prove too strong to overpower. And before you rebuke me, I decided not to wake you because I was aware you had slept badly the night before and you were not feeling your best.”
Wincing inwardly, he pressed his lips together and didn’t reply though he knew what she said made sense. His feelings were nevertheless hurt. Why Moriarty? Why not Reichenbach? But he knew the answer. She was attracted to the Irishman despite his family’s criminality. He consoled himself with the fact she had not slept with the Fenian. It was small consolation but it was something. Guilt caused another inward wince and a wrench of shame. Lulled by the gentle rocking motion of the train he closed his eyes and pressed his head into the crook of the padded headrest. She left him to catch up on some sleep.
In the saloon car Prince Orczy was teaching Lalique how to shuffle cards. Baron Reichenbach was dozing in an armchair. Moriarty was smoking a cigarette and leaning his hips on the rail of the rear balcony. Behind him the French countryside was fading into the distance. They would soon arrive in Biarritz and look back on the last few days as if remembering an allegorical dream.
“I haven’t thanked you for stepping up when I asked for your help.”
He gave a careless shrug and tossed his spent cigarette onto the receding train tracks. “I haven’t figured out how you knew it was Desi.”
“I suppose Dr Watson’s sleuthing skills must have rubbed off on me,” she returned blithely.
“Assuming he had any to begin with,” he dismissed with a sarcastic rejoinder. “It is my impression his companion in crime fighting, Mr Holmes, was the brains and brawn. I don’t know what part Dr Watson ever played, unless it was as general dogsbody.”
“That is a rather harsh assessment.”
“Harsh but true.”
“Were you acquainted with Mr Holmes through your brother?” she tested.
“No, I was quite a few years younger than my brother. We did not move in the same circles. It is just an impression I formed from passing conversation while I was growing up.”
“In that case, it is time to reassess your opinion. Dr Watson has recently successfully solved the Baskerville murders, the Lammermoor murders, the penny dreadful murders in York, and the recent murder of a clairvoyant – all without the assistance of Mr Holmes.”
He seemed to find something interesting in that run of information. “Were you travelling with him during the solving of those cases?”
“Yes, I was fortunate enough to witness him in action.”
Moriarty laughed crudely. “Perhaps my brother targeted the wrong sleuth!”
That derisory remark was made entirely in jest but the Countess felt a cold chill.
“A pointless death,” she mused, suppressing a repellent shiver.
“Two pointless deaths,” he corrected blandly. “But since all life is pointless – death is merely the end of pointlessness.”
“A realist,” he corrected.
“Cynic or Stoic?”
“Yes to both.”
“You should consider joining the Diogenes Club. I hear they are like-minded in their philosophy.”
“I have been put up for membership three times and thrice rejected.”
“Take heart,” she parried sardonically, “they will not allow me to join either.”
He laughed richly and cupped the back of her head.
“Take care,” she warned when her heart started thumping and she fought against aiming a nervous backward glance to see who might be watching, praying that Dr Watson was still sleeping soundly where she had left him, “we have an audience in the saloon car.”
“Reichenbach is snoring and Orczy is facing the other way.”
“The girl is a natural born coquette, she will get an early lesson in the wicked ways of unscrupulous men.”
“Are you admitting to being unscrupulous?”
The kiss that followed said it all.
When he broke off the passionate assault he braced for the slap that never came.
“You didn’t slap me,” he mocked with a self-deprecating yet triumphant smile. “Does that mean you enjoyed it this time round?”
“What makes you think I didn’t enjoy the previous times? Perhaps I am as unscrupulous as you.”
With his heart pounding and his belly on fire, he was holding onto himself as tightly as it was possible for a man to do who was about to self-combust with lust. “We would make a brilliant partnership – you and I – your money and brains; my strength and cunning.”
“I’m not after a husband,” she reminded with feminine froideur. “The role of obedient wife does not suit me.”
“How does disobedient mistress suit?”
The locomotive lurched suddenly, threatening to unbalance her. She gripped the handrail for support, ignoring his proffered arm. “It has certain possibilities. I will let you know if I ever decide to take you up on the offer, Colonel Moriarty.”
Book 5 in a series of chronological stand-alone plots: France 1899. Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna are holidaying in Biarritz when a fire breaks out in the kitchen of their petit hotel. The hotel’s owner (a retired opera singer known as the Singing Wolf) invites the handful of guests to stay at her isolated mountain retreat in a remote area rife with wolves and lawless brigands led by the murderous outlaw, Sarazan. Among the guests are Colonel James Isambard Moriarty, Baron Frederik Reichenbach, Herr Gustav von Gunn and Prince Anton Orczy. The four names send a shiver up the spines of our two sleuths but after arriving at the ancient Cathar fortress it is too late to turn back. During the night their hostess mysteriously vanishes. Suspicion falls on the brigands, the old servants, and then the gang of four when it becomes apparent that the original hotel fire was deliberately engineered to lure them all to Chanteloup. The mystery of the disappearance of their hostess deepens. Is she dead or alive? Is there a lunatic at large? Is one of the men a murderer? Could all four be involved? Various motives present themselves: military conspiracy, religious martyrdom, sexual jealousy and hidden Cathar loot. Complicating the case is Countess V’s growing attraction to the Irishman and his ardent pursuit of her affections.