Copyright © 2016 by Anna Lord
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any
form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information
storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations
embodied in critical articles or reviews—without written permission.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are
used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is
purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Mycroft Holmes was rasping into one of those new telephonic devices and his deadpan monotone sounded like it was echoing down a vibrating wind tunnel before dropping off a cliff.
“Clarges Hotel,” he repeated windily, “not Claridge’s.”
Telephones were not expected to replace the telegraph any time soon despite the number of kiosks springing up on street corners. There were simply too many telegraph offices and an endless supply of errand boys who were quick, efficient and reliable. Nevertheless, there were now more than five hundred subscribers in London, drawn mostly from prosperous merchants or rich individuals who considered them a novelty.
Countess Volodymyrovna was not yet a subscriber but while enjoying afternoon tea with Miss de Merville at Brown’s Hotel something happened that made her mind up for her.
The concierge informed her there was a telephone message which she could take at the reception desk.
“I heard you the first time but your voice sounds tightly wired. The words seem to be suffering from sound delay. It must be a faulty connection.” She smiled politely at the concierge while talking into the mouthpiece to Mycroft; it seemed odd to be making eye contact with one person while having a conversation with someone who was not even present. She wondered if this new device would eventually play havoc with the hemispheres of the brain.
Mycroft either didn’t hear what she said or chose to ignore it, which of course was much easier to do on a telephone. “My ADC will be arriving shortly to pick you up in my carriage. You remember my aide de camp, Major Nash?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Don’t mention to anyone where you are going.”
There was an abrupt click at the other end of the line, and no sooner had she hung up the receiver her end than the ADC appeared in the foyer.
Major Inigo Nash, endowed with Icelandic eyes, a rich backsweep of Danegold hair, Norse features and Viking proportions, always put her in mind of Thor. In accord with the personification of a mythic being, he wasted no time on preamble.
“I see you’ve just received the call. Shall we go?”
Whew! These new devices were ushering in social change at a cracking pace. “First, I must settle the bill for afternoon tea and bid goodbye to Miss de Merville.”
“I’ll settle the bill,” he said sharply. “You are aware you cannot mention -”
“Yes, yes, but I cannot just run out on my friend. I have to supply a reason for leaving at short notice or she will think I am conducting an illicit liaison with you at Clarges Hotel. She is gazing curiously at you through the double door and wondering about you already.”
He immediately angled his muscular frame to avoid scrutiny. “Please refrain from mentioning the name of the hotel until we are in the carriage. And it doesn’t really matter what she thinks as long as she doesn’t guess at the truth. Tell her it has something to do with the Princess of Wales and leave it at that. If she presses you for more information just say something vague along the lines of it being highly confidential.”
A few moments later they were seated in an unmarked black carriage with the black velvet curtains half-drawn. He appeared to be preoccupied with flicking his wolken gaze from one side of the gap in the curtain to the other without moving his head. She got the distinct impression he was checking to make sure they weren’t being followed.
“I presume Clarges Hotel is in Clarges Street,” she said, “is that the same street that runs off Piccadilly near the end of Green Park?”
“You have never been there before?” The question betrayed mild skepticism.
“No, I have never even heard of it before.”
He was probably wondering about her connection to Mycroft Holmes. The way he was studying her when he thought she wasn’t looking suggested he thought she might be conducting an illicit liaison with the imperious civil servant at Clarges Hotel.
“I’m guessing my hasty summons has nothing to do with the Princess of Wales or you wouldn’t have offered the royal name up as an excuse to run out on Miss de Merville.”
“I am not at liberty to say.”
She pressed on undeterred. “What sort of hotel is Clarges?”
She didn’t reply; he could make of that word what he liked.
He met her gaze for the first time since taking the seat directly opposite and it was like a melding of metallic hues from blue to grey. “It is a small private hotel owned by the Fisk-Manders family, with a reputation for…discretion.”
Hmm, the way he paused before relaying that final word suggested that perhaps Mycroft was the one conducting an illicit liaison and had just been caught out by a disgruntled husband. He did sound rather breathless and desperate on the telephone, although it was hard to tell if he was actually gasping for breath or if it was the result of a poor connection.
Nevertheless, the speed at which one could communicate convinced her to install a telephone in number 6 Mayfair Mews. She pictured a candlestick device in gold and ivory.
She hadn’t seen Major Nash since Christmas Eve and since he wasn’t about to divulge any further useful information there was no point sitting in stony silence dreaming up a thousand cock-eyed scenarios involving Mycroft and an unhappy husband.
“Did you spend a pleasant Christmas in Kent, Major Nash?” she enquired amiably to pass the short time it would take them to travel from Albemarle Street to Clarges.
“Yes, thank you.”
The courtesy was woefully short on content. “I believe you once mentioned your family seat was in Kent?”
“Yes, not far from the hamlet of Longchamps.”
“You don’t mean Longchamps Hall?”
“It is referred to as Longchamps. The word Hall was dropped in 1753.”
“Has it been in the family all that time?”
“It has been in the family since the reign of Henry VIII; 1515 to be precise.”
“I remember catching a glimpse of it from the train; a large Tudor house. It appeared to sit comfortably in the weald not far from Leeds Castle. Do you go home often?”
“Rarely. The title of baronet and the family seat did not come with any wealth attached. I am obliged to earn a living in the City.
“Have you held the post of ADC for long?”
It was like extracting blood from a stone. “Will you be celebrating New Year’s Eve in London?”
Tonight was the last day of the nineteenth century and grand parties to usher in the twentieth century were planned for the length and breadth of England, the largest and grandest being the Prince Regent’s costume ball in Battersea Park where a miniature replica of the Brighton Pavilion had been erected especially for the gala occasion.
“I am obliged to go where Mr Holmes goes.”
She didn’t realize Mycroft considered his ADC quite so indispensible. She had not given the matter much thought, but she would have assumed his duties did not extend very far beyond the walls of the Diogenes Club and the precinct of Pall Mall.
“Here we are at Clarges,” he said as they pulled up in front of a tripartite Georgian terrace which had been converted into an understated hotel. “Mr Holmes awaits you on the third floor. It is the topmost level of the hotel apart from servants’ quarters in the attic. There is no elevator. We will have to use the stairs. I have been given strict instructions to take you up via the back stairs to avoid being observed by any of the hotel’s guests.”
It sounded as if Mycroft had definitely been caught with his pants down. What was it about men in positions of power and illicit affairs! She wondered if she would have to step in to rescue the reputation of some high-born married lady. She couldn’t keep putting herself forward as the ‘other’ woman or her own reputation would start to suffer.
He paused at each landing to allow her to catch up, and although she considered herself fit, he was fitter, plus it was no rummy-fun swishing all those petticoats and flounces on a set of steep, narrow, poorly lit, servants’ stairs.
“I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath,” he said when they reached the third floor. “This entire level has been taken up by one guest. You need not fear being seen going into the bedroom.”
The corridor was furnished like a Mayfair mansion with tasteful antiques and hand-painted wall paper in the chinoiserie style. Gasoliers designed to look like Chinese lanterns gave off a red and gold glow that dispelled the wintry gloom.
Mycroft was waiting for her in what appeared to be an enfilade of bedroom and dressing rooms. Fortunately, he was wearing his trousers and there was no distressed naked damsel weeping into the pillow of the vigorously rumpled bed.
“Close the door, Nash, and stand guard. I don’t wish to be disturbed. No one is to enter this room until I give the say so.”
The tense tone belied the appearance of normality. It could have been any luxurious hotel room in any city in the world. Without another word Mycroft waited until the door closed then ushered her into the adjacent bathroom where a woman lay in a claw-foot bath. There were splashes of water on the floor and the woman was dead. Her head had lolled back on the curved rim of the enamel bath and one arm dangled over the side. She was an attractive woman in her late thirties or early forties. Her honey-coloured hair was up-pinned to save it getting wet.
The bathwater was icy cold, indicating the woman had been in the bath for several hours, presuming the water was warm when she got in. There were no obvious sign of foul play. She had not been strangled, shot, stabbed or bludgeoned to death. An empty glass bottle, round in shape, measuring three to four fluid ounces, lay on the floor of the bathroom in a shallow puddle tinted with a trace of reddish fluid that had dribbled from the neck of the bottle. Not blood. Tincture of opium. Otherwise known as laudanum.
“Suicide?” she guessed, noting that even if the bottle had been only a quarter full it would have been sufficient to cause death; death being so quick the body would have still been warm for some time afterwards.
“Yes,” said Mycroft.
“Who is she?”
“The wife of Prince Sergei?”
“Isn’t he the new Russian ambassador?”
“Yes, the prince and princess recently agreed to a mutual separation. He couldn’t very well move out of the official Russian residence so she agreed to move instead. A large hotel was out of the question; too many tongues wagging in the foyer. She took the topmost floor of Clarges. She’s been resident here for a week.”
“Who found the body?”
“Her lady’s maid.”
“Who ran the bath?”
“I presume it was the same maid. Why do you ask?”
“There are no flowers petals or scented suds. A lady’s maid would have scented the bath water with perfumed unguents and rose petals. Either the princess took this bath in a hurry or someone else ran the bath for her but not her lady’s maid.”
Mycroft appeared uncharacteristically anxious as he glanced back at the claw-foot bath. “Is there anything else that looks out of place?”
She realized now why she had been summoned. She circled the bath and studied the dead woman with greater deliberation. “The princess is wearing her pearl and diamond choker and all her rings. It is unusual for her not to have removed her jewellery before getting into the bath. The jewels look far too valuable to risk immersing in bathwater, especially as this bath has been plumbed. The risk of losing a valuable jewel down the plug-hole is not a risk most women would take. And the claws holding the jewels in place might catch on the sea sponge, which I notice is resting on a table by the vanity basin with the rose petals and bath oils; not within easy reach of the bath. Who else apart from the lady’s maid has seen the body?”
“Mr Fisk-Manders, the owner of the hotel. The maid summoned him at once and he came immediately to check if his exalted foreign guest was indeed dead. He is a man of immense discretion. He understood the delicacy of the situation regarding the estranged husband. He also understood the likely brouhaha if he called Scotland Yard. He contacted the Home Office who contacted me. You are the fourth person to see the body.”
“Fifth,” she corrected, “you forgot your aide de camp.”
“Nash hasn’t seen it yet. Which reminds me – I want to have a quick word with him about tonight. See if you can spot anything else that strikes you as odd. Try not to move anything. The Yard will have to be contacted and they don’t take kindly to having a murder scene tampered with.”
Murder scene? His thoughts had already shifted from suicide to murder. Hers had too. There was something about the gentle and lovely aspect of the jewelled body that recalled sleeping beauty. The round bottle of laudanum had apparently dropped from her dead hand and yet it had not rolled from the spot where it had apparently landed with a clunk, as indicated by the reddish stain which must have dribbled from the neck of the bottle. Either the bottle had miraculously landed and stayed put, or someone had carefully placed it there after death.
Floating in the bathwater was something brightly coloured which caught the Countess’s eye. She rolled up her silk sleeve as far as it would go and carefully fished it out.
Mycroft returned a few moments later. “Notice anything else?”
She held out the palm of her hand, still dripping wet. “This.”
Bushy brows registered surprise as he peered through his lorgnette. “A child’s toy?”
“A Matryoshka doll.”
“In the bath?”
“Yes – underneath her legs. It’s also called a nesting doll.” She opened it up to demonstrate. “One doll fits neatly inside the other as they shrink in size. There are four dolls altogether. They have been created for this year’s Paris Fair. They have not yet gone on sale. It would be impossible to acquire one in the shops. The princess may have been given some in advance of the Fair to offer as gifts to her friends and to curry favour with Russia’s allies. Wait! There should be a fifth doll.”
The Countess turned back to the bath and fished around a bit more and finally located the tiny object, not much larger than an acorn.
“Here it is. It was wedged between her legs; pushed gently into the vulva to be precise.”
Mycroft turned bright red. “Good God!”
Several interesting scenarios ran through the Countess’s head; she settled on the most obvious and least sordid. “Did Princess Paraskovia have a lover?”
His face went from red to white as if someone had pulled a plug on him and all the blood had drained out. “There were several rumours she had left her husband for another man.”
“Does the man have a name?”
Mycroft mopped his pallid brow which was showing signs of stress in the form of beads of sweat. “Several names were hinted at but it was all very hush-hush. You cannot repeat these four names outside this room: Viscount Cazenove. Sir James Damery. General de Merville. The Prince of Wales.”
The Countess studied the smallest doll before placing it into the heart of the nesting dolls and closing them up. “I think we can assume the princess was with child.”
Mycroft appeared to sway. The news clearly rocked him. He looked slightly seasick as he removed himself from the bathroom and went to stare blankly at the rumpled bed which had recently been occupied not by one person but two, evidenced by the twin duck-feather pillows with indentations and the blankets being thrown back on both sides. A poor sleeper might toss from pillow to pillow but a person could only ever get out of one side of the bed.
Mycroft paced the foot of the bed, clearly agitated. “Heaven help us if the heir to the throne is implicated in fathering a child to the wife of the Russian ambassador. Relations have only just resumed civility since the end of that wretched Crimean War.”
The Countess moved to the Chippendale dressing table set in a small bay window screened with lace curtains. She placed the Matryoshka doll next to the tortoise shell hair brushes then began to check the drawers, hoping the contents might reveal something of interest.
“I presume you have searched for love letters or a diary?”
He nodded weakly.
“No jewellery missing?”
“I’m afraid we can rule out burglary,” he said bleakly.
She glanced at the Matryoshka doll and recalled the four illustrious names; particularly the one Mycroft had saved for last. “Hmm, heaven help England if the heir to the throne murdered, or ordered to be murdered, a member of a royal Russian house because she was carrying his bastard. I think the post mortem will reveal she was in the first trimester.”
Mycroft swallowed hard. “In that case, there won’t be a post mortem.”
A sharp rap on the door caused Mycroft to swivel. When the door opened and Major Nash’s handsome blond head appeared in the gap, Mycroft was ready to bite it off.
“I gave strict instructions not to be disturbed, Nash.”
“The Russian ambassador is in the hall, sir. He would like a word with you on a matter of some urgency.”
Major Nash still hadn’t been informed as to what was going on and his puzzlement was evident, but he intuited it was something of national importance and acted accordingly.
Quickly Mycroft indicated for the Countess to hide herself in the bathroom. There was a folding screen which would provide cover but allow her to listen in on the conversation.
“Show him in, Nash, and then stand guard and stay alert. I don’t want anyone else visiting the third floor. Is that clear?”
Suavity personified, Prince Sergei sauntered in looking dangerously dignified, casually smoking a black Russian cigarette with the air of a debonair aristocrat at his leisure. The face could have belonged to a man in his forties, the body to a man in his fifties, but the silver sweep of hair indicated a man closer to sixty. Here was a well-preserved royal who clearly shared a bloodline with Tsar Nicholas and had adopted similar grooming habits, apparent in the tidy moustache and neatly trimmed beard.
“How do you do, Mr Holmes,” he greeted with a clipped Russian accent and a slight bow of his head.
“A pleasure to meet you, Prince Malamtov. How may I help you?”
“It is how I may help you, Mr Holmes.” Prince Sergei continued to saunter around the room, apparently in search of an ashtray. Not finding anything suitable, he used a vase of hyacinths on the dressing table instead.
“In what way?” Mycroft was wondering how much the prince knew when the question was answered for him.
“It has come to my attention that my wife was found dead this morning in her bath.”
“Who told you that?”
“What does it matter? I know – that is all that matters. Why else would I be here?”
“You don’t sound very concerned for your wife.”
“I ceased being concerned for the princess when she moved out of our marital home and into this…this place.” His eyes roved around the bedroom with visible contempt, lingering on the rumpled bed with undisguised disgust.
“I repeat, how may I help you?”
“And I repeat – it is how I may help you. You will not yet be aware of the fact – but my wife was with child. The child she was carrying was not mine. We have not had conjugal relations for three years. The father of her child was the Prince of Wales. This information could be very damaging to our respective governments. I will leave it with you to handle the information as you see fit from this point on. I have been informed you can be relied upon to do the right thing.”
“Are you saying Scotland Yard should bring in a finding of suicide?”
“I am saying I leave it in your capable hands, Mr Holmes.” Prince Sergei dropped his spent cigarette into a vase of pink tulips and gave a confident click of his boot heels. His departure was as cavalier as his arrival. The visit raised more questions than it answered.
How did the prince know his wife was dead?
It was either Mr Fisk-Manders or the maid. Most likely the maid. Russians often bribed servants to spy on members of their own family. Spying was a national pastime.
That would also explain how he was privy to the death in record time. Mycroft had only learned of it an hour ago and the Countess only in the last fifteen minutes.
The death had been staged to look like suicide, so suicide would be the official version. Heaven help them if Prince Sergei was right and the heir to the throne was having an extra-marital affair with Princess Paraskovia. Bertie was notorious for his philandering ways, especially with married women, but they were generally English or Scottish. Their husbands knew how to play the game. If a husband became aggrieved and insisted on a divorce a co-respondent could usually be found to step up to cover for the prince. But Russians were a different kettle of fish altogether. It was a matter of honour with them that often resulted in a duel to the death. Heaven help them if Prince Sergei challenged Bertie to a duel. Heaven help them if Bertie accepted.
The Countess waited until she heard the slam of the door then counted to ten just to make sure.
“Strange,” she mused, “but Prince Sergei didn’t ask to see his wife.”
“He’s a cold fish. They don’t call him The Silver Sturgeon for nothing. Are you acquainted with the prince?”
“I met him when he visited the estate of my late step-father in Odessa. He stayed for about a month but I don’t think you could call it an acquaintanceship. I was but a child, no more than five.”
“And the princess?”
“We never met. I believe she was born in Belgrade to minor nobility. She was considered a great beauty and soon gravitated to the court of St Petersburg where she quickly caught the eye of the prince whose first wife died in childbirth. Where are the nesting dolls?”
“Didn’t you leave them on the dressing table?”
“Yes, but they’re not here.”
Mycroft blasphemed under his breath then bellowed, “Nash!”
Feet could be heard running quickly along the corridor. The Major poked his head in the door a moment later. “Yes?”
“Stop Prince Sergei before he gets to his carriage.”
The Countess had moved to the window to peer through the lace curtains. “Too late. He’s getting into his carriage as we speak.”
“Dammit!” blasted Mycroft. “Never mind, Nash – as you were.”
The door closed and Mycroft went back into the bathroom to look once more at the dead body, as if hoping it might all be a bad dream and the princess might wake up at any moment. He seemed, dare she say it, lacking his usual composure. The Countess wondered if Princess Paraskovia meant more to the civil servant than he cared to admit. Or was it the Russian prince who tested Mycroft’s equanimity? Something had definitely got under his skin.
Why was he treating this death with such sensitivity? It seemed more than just a matter of delicate diplomacy. It was as if he was taking it personally.
He was gazing strangely at the lifeless face, a far-away look in his eyes. “Can I ask you to please check the body one more time? I will wait in the other room. I don’t know what I expect you to find.”
Obligingly, the Countess checked the corpse thoroughly to see if anything else might be lodged in any orifices. She then checked the up-pinned hair and felt something odd. Carefully, she extracted a handful of curious bits from amongst the up-pinned bunch of honeyed curls. Mycroft was sitting on the bed waiting for her to emerge.
“Yes.” She showed him a handful of white, mottled, leprous peelings.
“What on earth is it?”
“Bits of birch bark.”
“Slavs believe that the souls of the dead inhabit birch trees.”
“Are you saying the death of Princess Paraskovia was some sort of religious ritual?”
“No, I’m saying whoever killed her wanted her soul to go to a sacred place.”
“You mean whoever killed her actually cared about her?”
“Yes, the killer must have cared deeply.”
Mycroft processed this latest bit of information in stunned silence while the Countess wrapped the peelings carefully in one of the princess’s own monogrammed linen handkerchiefs.
“I understand now why Prince Sergei did not ask to see the body of his wife,” she said.
Mycroft seemed to force himself back from some dark place when she placed the handkerchief with the embroidered ‘P’ into his limp hand. “I’m sorry – you understand what?”
“Prince Sergei didn’t ask to see the body of his wife because he had already seen it.”
Mycroft forgot himself. “Bloody hell! Are you saying he killed his own wife?”
“Yes, and I think he dropped the name of the Prince of Wales in order to put the wind up you.”
“Well, it worked,” admitted Mycroft without even apologizing for the expletive.
“I’ve just had another thought,” she said gravely. “I think he dropped the royal name not merely to circumvent you linking him to the death, but to let you know that if you ever attempted to accuse him he would counter the accusation by incriminating the heir to the throne.”
Mycroft stared ruefully at the handkerchief. “In other words, he doesn’t really believe the Prince of Wales is responsible for the death of the princess but he will say so knowing that such an accusation would be impossible to deny.”
“Yes, something along that line.”
“Suicide it is, then.”
“Was Princess Paraskovia invited to Bertie’s New Year’s Eve costume ball?”
“Yes – her invitation is on the mantelpiece with a string of others. Why do you ask?”
“Her absence will be noted. That means you will not be able to keep her death a secret for very long. Prince Sergei will have a captive audience should he wish to put about any rumours. Will you be going to the ball?”
“I was going to send Nash in my place to keep an eye on things. I hate these costume galas. But it seems I will need to make a personal appearance after all. If any rumours start up I may need to nip them in the bud.”
“If I need to find you quickly, what costume will you be wearing?”
“Sir Walter Raleigh.”
Royal servant, courtier, spy – what else! “Do you have a pearl earring?”
He rubbed his ear and winced. “Not anymore. I turned it into a tie pin.”
“I’ll send one around to the Diogenes Club. It clips on. Your outfit will not be complete without it.”
He decided not to argue; his mind was elsewhere. “What costume have you chosen?”
“The Snow Queen – lots of white fur and diamantiferous sparkle topped off with a splendid pearl and diamond kokoshnik. I’m arriving by troika, but it will have hidden wheels because there isn’t any snow. What costume will Major Nash be wearing?”
“He usually goes to these sorts of childish dress-ups as the fictional Horatio Hornblower. The man looks ridiculously dapper in naval uniform.”
“Major Nash would look dapper in any uniform,” she quipped without thinking.
Mycroft looked up quickly. “Are you setting your sights on the dashing baronet?”
“I am not setting my sights on anyone, Uncle Mycroft. I enjoy being my own mistress. But that doesn’t mean I am immune to a man in uniform. I think the ball should prove to be more exciting than I had anticipated. Are we done here? Can Major Nash summon a cab to take me back to Brown’s Hotel? I just remembered I left my carriage there.”
“Nash can take you in my carriage. I’m going to stay here for a while longer. Close the door on your way out. I need time to think.”
She reached the door then paused. “Where’s the princess’s costume?’
“In the adjoining dressing room. Why?”
“Do you mind if I steal it?”
Avuncular disapproval was evident in the stern rejoinder. “You already have a costume.”
“Yes, but my Ukrainian maid can wear the princess’s costume and mingle incognito with the illustrious guests. I think an extra pair of eyes and ears tonight might come in handy.”
“In that case, take the invitation as well.”
“I believe the most eligible widow in England has just been supplanted, gentlemen.”
General de Merville was enjoying a Macanudo cigar with Sir James Damery and Mr Bruce Blague, the wealthy American cigar tycoon, when a troika drawn by three white stallions arrived at the orientalist pavilion in Battersea Park.
The stately pleasure dome that ‘Kublai Khan’ decreed for New Year’s Eve was a perfect replica of the Brighton Pavilion on the exterior, however, the interior had shrunk significantly until all that was left was a vast ballroom and twin banqueting rooms, one at either end. These were the grandest rooms, double-storied and topped with soaring Mughal domes, five in all, the largest of which centred the middle of the ballroom. A mezzanine punctuated with box balconies ran the full perimeter of the dance floor. Dozens of glass doors on both levels faced north toward London and the River Thames.
On the other side of this perfectly symmetrical building were a large man-made lake and a small wood. This was the entrance side, not as beautiful but beautiful enough, with a columned veranda interspersed with filigreed peacock arches designed to disguise a series of smaller windows that belonged to the latrines and cloakrooms. On the upper level were small sitting rooms for the ladies to retire to and smoking rooms for the gentlemen.
A far pavilion in the Mughal style served as a carriage porch. From here a set of steps led to the octagonal entrance foyer dominated by a grand staircase. Further afield, separate to the main pavilion, were guardrooms for the soldiers charged with ensuring the safety of the noble guests and stables for their horses.
As soon as New Year’s Eve was done and dusted the orientalist pavilion would be remodelled into a cricket pavilion, ditching its Mughal splendour and morphing into something quaintly English.
A thick white Wilton carpet strewn with gold stars formed the path from the carriage porch to the front door of the foyer. It was conceived in the event of a snowfall, but snow was not expected until the middle of January. The path was lined with flaming torcheres and Praetorian Guards chosen especially for their Roman attributes.
As carriages disgorged costumed guests the three gentlemen smoking under the shelter of the colonnaded veranda of the pavilion watched with interest.
“I’m guessing you are referring to the Snow Queen – that vision in white?” said Mr Blague, exhaling a plume of smoke into the nithering darkness.
“Yes – Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna.”
“That’s a mouthful and a half!” joked Mr Blague. “And who has she supplanted?”
“I bet it is the celebrated Spanish beauty,” volunteered Sir James Damery, the silver-tongued Irish diplomat who enjoyed enormous favour with the royal family. “Is that right de Merville?”
“On the money, Damery, as usual!”
The two elder statesmen were referring to Mrs Isadora Klein, a woman with the Hispanic blood of the Conquistadores in her veins, and the most eligible widow in England, having inherited the full fortune of her late German husband, the sugar king, Adolphus Klein.
Mr Blague continued to watch the Snow Queen blaze a virginous white trail from her elaborately carved white troika to the carved white doors of the pleasure dome. “Is the Snow Queen one of those Russian royals I have heard is going to be here tonight?”
“The Countess is Ukrainian,” supplied the immaculate Damery before turning to his slightly rumpled, old friend, who considered grooming a waste of time and a good hobby for nancy-boys who weren’t up to the rough and tumble of the battle-ground. “Are you thinking of tying the knot again, De Merville?”
General de Merville took a querulous puff of his cigar. “Well, as you know my daughter, Violet, means the world to me and I wouldn’t want to do anything to upset the girl, but she gets on surprisingly well with the Countess. They are practically the same age. It might even do Violet’s strong-willed nature some good to have a feminine influence in the house. She has spent far too much time exclusively in the company of men since her dear mother died, and now that I have banned her from any more of those blasted suffragette meetings it has gone back to nothing but men visitors to the house.”
“The Countess’s wealth would not go astray either,” quipped Damery, smiling broadly enough to make his Irish eyes dance and sing.
General de Merville took no offence; he had known James Damery for years and the two men got along famously. The two old soldiers understood each other perfectly and each would have done anything for the other, including taking a bullet. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with having a wealthy wife. It beats a poor one any day.”
The trio of men guffawed raucously as men do when there are no women about.
Mr Bruce Blague’s tobacco farms in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, and his cigar factory in Florida churned out Havanas by the thousands making him richer than Croesus. He never had to think about things like wives with money. “I might have challenged you, General de Merville, for the fair hand of that Snow Queen, but I have been widowed just six months and my sweet innocent daughter, Mona, would faint clean away if I announced I was thinking of tying the knot again. Besides, Mona tells me the Countess is an unashamed know-it-all. I cannot abide women who get above themselves or try to act like men. Those suffragettes should be locked up. I blame the husbands. The unmarried ones should be horse-whipped.”
“An uppity woman does not frighten me,” said General de Merville heartily, sucking on his aromatic stub. “I enjoy a good battle. It makes victory all the sweeter. Ah, here comes the inimitable Mrs Isadora Klein. I would love to be present when she meets the Countess for the first time.”
Sir James Damery gave a low whistle of masculine approval. “Another uppity woman, Mr Blague. I will introduce you later. Mrs Klein can be very intimidating, and I see she has dressed as a Valkyrie tonight, possibly in honour of her late husband. You might need back-up.”
“She looks like a female warrior all right, but we deal differently with uppity women where I come from, gentlemen. We do not encourage them.”
“How so?” asked Damery.
“We marry them off to blackguards who horse-whip them every time they step out of line, men with little sympathy for uppity opinions, men with stamina when it comes to conjugal rights. Demure and compliant is how we like our women.”
“Indeed,” said Damery, adopting an ironic inflection the American failed to pick up on. “Hopefully your dear sweet innocent daughter will steer clear of such a husband, being demure and compliant by nature, I mean. How is Miss Blague? I did not see her arrive with you. Is she coming separately in her own carriage?”
Glowering darkly, Mr Blague threw his stub to the ground and stomped it viciously. “She is bereft, gentlemen, crying her dear sweet innocent eyes out. She refuses to get out of bed and will not be attending the costume ball though her costume cost me a king’s ransom and I bought a brand new diamond tiara this very morning from Old Bond Street to try and coax the poor girl out of bed.”
“What has brought that on?” asked de Merville with a tinge of alarm. He could commiserate on the inexplicable behaviour of daughters, and likewise took out his fatherly frustration on his spent Macanudo.
“That article in the newspaper the other day regarding Viscount Cazenove did it.”
“What?” said Damery; somewhat surprised. “The one penned by Agrippa?”
A full page article had been syndicated to all the London dailies outlining in glowing terms how Viscount Cazenove, who had had no military training whatsoever, had been personally invited by General Hawksmoor to lead a regiment against the Boers in South Africa in recognition of the outstanding military service rendered by his ailing father the Earl of Winchester who had suffered a debilitating stroke and was now lingering on his deathbed.
“Yes,” confirmed Mr Blague with violent dismay. “My dear Mona was quite smitten with the handsome young Viscount though she understood his first interest was directed at your dear daughter, General de Merville, – though we were led to believe there was no formal engagement between the pair of them – but when Viscount Cazenove upped and went to the Transvaal sudden-like, in fact the day after he paid us an extended visit in South Audley Street, it played with her sensitive nature something shocking. I doubt she will get over it for days, maybe not even for weeks. Heaven forbid!”
Damery turned to his trusty old friend. “Did you have something to do with Freddy Cazenove’s meteoric promotion to Lieutenant?”
General de Merville shook his head adamantly and harrumphed. “Absolutely not! I was a shocked as anyone. Violet was shocked too. In fact, Freddy was shocked most of all. I saw him the day the article appeared in all the dailies. He blamed me. His behaviour did him no credit that day. He ranted and raved and accused me of getting Hawksmoor to rig-up that bogus Lieutenant position because I had once mooted the idea of his spending a few weeks at Sandhurst and then getting rapidly promoted in order to experience the thrill of battle first-hand, but I had backed down from that idea for family reasons. Whoever dreamed up Freddy’s meteoric promotion and transfer to the Transvaal did it without my knowledge.”
Damery stamped on his cigar and cogitated. “There aren’t too many men in London with the clout to pull off such a stunt.”
“I can think of only one,” said de Merville, frowning darkly.
Damery met his friend’s gaze and the two old soldiers read each other’s thoughts. “But whose interests would be served? Not the Diogenes Club. Freddy isn’t even a member.”
“I asked myself that very same question about whose interests would be served and reached no satisfactory conclusion. The whole episode still leaves me flabbergasted. The exact same article appeared in all of the newspapers on the exact same day, no advance notice was given to Freddy, so that even if Freddy wanted to turn down Hawksmoor’s offer to go the Transvaal he couldn’t do it without looking like a lily-livered coward. He left England on a troop ship that same day.”
The three men began to feel the cold.
“Ah, here is Prince Sergei, the new Russian ambassador,” noted Damery. “It appears he has arrived alone. The princess does not appear to be with him. It confirms the rumour they are estranged and she has moved into Clarges Hotel.”
“Shall we return to the party, gentlemen?” suggested General de Merville; warding off an icy shiver.
Unbeknownst to them, a fourth figure had been smoking a cigarette on the veranda, though this man had chosen to keep a low profile, pressing himself into an architectural recess, out of sight. He caught up to the three men who all happened to be dressed as Henry VIII.
“Good evening, General de Merville,” he called, employing his most genial Irish accent, greeting the one with the widest girth and highest rank first.
The General looked back over a padded shoulder. “Oh, it’s you, Colonel Moriarty. I didn’t recognize you in that ridiculous get-up and that ludicrous curly wig. One of the Three Musketeers, is it? I can never remember the names. Pathos, Amos…You are acquainted with Sir James Damery, but have you met Mr Bruce Blague, from across the Atlantic.”
Colonel Moriarty fought the urge to scratch his bald head – prayed the wig wasn’t infested with lice – and acknowledged the newcomer. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir, I had the pleasure of meeting your daughter at a pre-Christmas dinner party at the General’s house in Berkeley Square. Will Miss Blague be here this evening?”
He knew very well she wouldn’t, because he had listened in on the entire conversation and had tried not to laugh out loud. Miss Moneybags was not on his dance list, not that such a thing existed on the cusp of the twentieth century, but if it did, no amount of money would induce him to put her name on it. He preferred his women smart and with spark. He already had a doormat. The uppity Countess was top of his dance list.
“Alas, she will not be joining us. My daughter is currently not feeling herself.”
“I’m sorry to hear it, sir. I hope she recovers full health soon.”
The news that had rendered the poor girl bereft had had the opposite effect on the colonel. It had given him a new lease on life and spurred him to travel from Ireland to London in time for the Prince Regent’s New Year’s Eve Ball, imaginatively titled: Last Night Forever.
The sudden removal of Viscount Cazenove from London was a godsend. He had borrowed the theatrical Musketeer costume from a fellow Irishman who did odd jobs in Covent Garden and had connections to several theatres.
“But you don’t have a ticket to the ball,” his friend had warned, digging out the Musketeer outfit from the bottom of a chest full of moth-eaten costumes and bedraggled wigs. “You will never get away with it, Jim. You will land yourself in a military brig – not an auspicious start to the twentieth century.”
“Let me worry about that,” he had shrugged off, and so here he was about to walk through the door with three worthies from the English-American establishment.
“Oh, dammit!” cussed Mr Blague. “I left my invitation in my coat pocket after we went in the first time. It must be in the cloak room.”
“Don’t worry about it,” dismissed General de Merville. “I know the chap on duty at the door. Captain Thompson will not cause a fuss.”
“Oh, bother!” cursed Colonel Moriarty with uncharacteristic mildness for an Irishman, after turning out his moth-eaten pockets. “I seemed to have done the same thing. My invitation is in the pocket of my stormcoat.”
“Well, lucky I have my mine!” laughed Damery. “What about you de Merville? Did you leave your invitation inside too?”
General de Merville scowled. “Yes, I did – blast it! – but Captain Thompson will remember me. I made a point of congratulating him on his recent promotion. The chap will not make a fuss. I’ll handle it.”
They reached the door just as several carriages arrived in quick succession.
“Hello, Thompson. I just stepped out to the veranda to have a cigar with these gentlemen, and it seems that three of us have left our invitations in the cloak room. No need to make a fuss, there’s a good fellow. Have a happy and prosperous New Year, Captain. Give my regards to that good wife of yours.”
Moriarty, still fighting the urge to scratch an itch, scanned for potential trouble as soon as he entered the Moorish foyer and quickly spotted it in the form of Major – Horatio Hornblower – Nash on patrol by the main door leading into the ballroom. Nash wasn’t head of security; he was a paper-shuffler in the War Office. The Prince of Wales would have a crack team of Varangian guards looking out for him, but it would be just like Nash to ask to see his invitation. He always did things by the book.
The Irishman had recently checked with a few friends about who Nash’s superior officer was in the paper-shuffling department. Every single one gave a different answer. One said Nash was spying for the foreign office in Shanghai. Another said Nash had resigned his commission and was married and living in Sydney. A third said he thought Nash was dead. His instincts smelled a rat and tonight he planned to get to the bottom of the rat hole.
But that’s not the main reason he had been keen to attend this royal shindig. He wanted to remind the Countess of his existence. They had parted as friends but friendship was not what he wanted and if Nash was the man standing between him and the woman he intended to marry – so be it. Nash would have to go.
He sprinted for the stairs just as Horatio ‘bloody’ Hornblower turned to scan the deck.
Thanks to that conversation he’d listened in on he knew the Countess would be dressed as the Snow Queen. Among the violent verisimilitude of garish costumes her white gown would stand out like a breath of fresh air. He didn’t intend to play his hand too early and risk drawing attention to himself. As long as she was by his side at midnight for the first kiss of the new century that’s all that mattered.
Major Inigo Nash had spent years observing foreigners dressed in any number of outlandish disguises. He had learned to pick out the traits that mattered. The way they smiled, the way they tilted their head and the way they ran when they forgot themselves. It was the little details that had saved his life more than once. So when he spotted the Musketeer rushing for the stairs he knew at once who it was. He’d observed Jim in motion plenty of times; they were at military college together and had shared the same dormitory; possibly even the same secret benefactor who had paid their fees and supplied them with a stipend. He knew everything about Colonel James Isambard Moriarty, including how his head wobbled when he was drunk, what triggered his Irish temper, and exactly how bankrupt he was.
No way had Jim received a royal invitation. But Jim was good at getting into places he was never invited to. The night was young. Let him get his hopes up. There was plenty of time to throw him out later; about a quarter to midnight would be the perfect time to alert the royal body guards to the Irish interloper. He knew very well Jim would be making a play for the Countess’s affection but it would be over his dead body. Or better still, Jim’s dead body.
She was the most desirable woman he’d ever met, probably the wealthiest, and most certainly the smartest. She was everything he wanted in a wife and he’d be damned if he’d let Jim get between him and the object of his desire.
But right now he had other things on his mind and a job to do. Mycroft Holmes had filled him in on the suicide-death of Princess Paraskovia. His job was to keep an eye on the Russian ambassador – specifically to see who he talked to, and to keep his ear to the ground – to note if any dirty rumours started up regarding the death of the princess.
He intended to keep track of the Countess too. There were a few questions he wanted answered. What connection did she have to Mycroft Holmes? Why did Mycroft call her in before calling Scotland Yard? Why did he discuss the suicide-death of the princess with the Countess before discussing it with his trusted ADC?
And now here was Jim turning up like a bad smell. What connection did he have to the Countess? Were they lovers? Were they working together? Was she a Fenian sympathiser? Or was she a Russian spy working against the British effort in the Boer War?
Dr Watson always wore his Scottish kilt on New Year’s Eve and he wasn’t about to mess with tradition just because he’d been invited to the Prince Regent’s gala ball. He hoped there was going to be a reel. Nothing fired up his Scottish blood more than a lively Scottish reel followed by a chorus or two of Auld Lang Syne.
He’d spotted the white troika among the carriages in the park and knew that the Countess had arrived ahead of him. A glass of alcoholic punch to whet his whistle and then he would track her down among the five hundred illustrious guests.
“Hello, Major Nash,” he greeted as he paused in the doorway leading to the magnificent ballroom, feeling chipper and in high spirits. “I say, that naval outfit looks the real thing. Did Countess Volodymyrovna come this way?”
“Good evening, Dr Watson. Yes, the Countess came this way about fifteen minutes ago.”
The doctor scanned the vast ballroom which had been delineated into three parts and topped with domes. “What a splendid crowd. Is Mr Mycroft Holmes here tonight?”
“Yes, he is dressed as Sir Walter Raleigh.”
“Marvellous, marvellous! Well, I shall be off to snaffle a beverage from that blackamoor with the drinks tray. Are you on door duty? Shall I bring you an alcoholic punch to lubricate your throat?”
“Thank you for the offer, Dr Watson. I am not on door duty,” he lied. “I am waiting for a fellow officer.”
“In that case, I’ll be off to locate the Countess. Enjoy the festivities, Major.”
Major Inigo Nash decided it was high time to start circulating. If Dr Watson thought he was on door duty then the other guests were probably thinking the same thing. He needed to start acting as if he actually belonged at this costly knees-up.
Prince Sergei first.
And then the whereabouts of the Countess.
No! Other way around! He didn’t want Jim to get the jump on him.
Some celebrated beauties were merely celebrated and hardly beautiful. Very few could lay claim to being both. Mrs Greville was one and Lola O’Hara another. In her heyday, none could match Isadora Klein when it came to goddess status but that day had passed. She was still a cut above mortal beauties, but more like Hera than Aphrodite.
Dressed as a Valkyrie with a winged helmet and a metallic cuirass that curved around a pair of voluptuous breasts, Mrs Isadora Klein, smouldering, seductive and sultry, was holding court among a circle of eager young acolytes at the top of the stairs where the paired symmetrical risers met in the centre and led to the mezzanine that overlooked the ballroom.
The scene reminded Major Nash of something unpleasant he’d once seen in Mexico. It was a hungry shark in a tank full of slow swimming sardines. Undeniably dangerous, and yet there was no denying the mesmerizing allure of the languorous beauty of the predator as it bided its time. There was something primal, sexual, hypnotic, masturbatory, in the danger; like a wet dream. He’d gone back the next day but there was only the shark circling round and round. Someone told him sharks never rested. Even when they slept they propelled themselves forward, unable to find stasis. It sounded like a teleological nightmare that had no reason for existence except that it existed.
Like a naïve fool, he’d fallen for the predatory charm, behaving like one of her adoring lapdogs, before realising her interest in him was a matter of his own self-delusion. As soon as she discovered he was a penniless baronet she made an example of him. He still felt the sting.
Prince Sergei wasn’t after a new wife. The old one had only been dead a few hours. But he recalled the pretty little girl in the cherry orchard that time he paid a visit to his comrade Volodya Volodymyr on his estate just outside Odessa.
How old was the step-child? Four or five years? No matter. Cute as a doll and stupendously precocious, singing and dancing and showing off. Volodya doted on her; spoiled her rotten and indulged her every whim; a terrible tragedy that he died so young. The girlchild had inherited his entire fortune.
Later, she had inherited the fortune of Volodya’s mad sister too. Zoya Volodymyrovna was always a fearless firebrand. No man had the balls to take her on. She died in Australia from snake bite. The snake probably died later.
He wouldn’t mind a large estate in west Ukraine to add to his farms in Minsk and Kharkiv. And the young countess apparently had vast land holdings in Australia too. They counted land there by the square mile. Farms there were bigger than European principalities. The girl must be twenty-four or twenty-five years of age by now. Not too young for him. He was not yet sixty and in remarkably good shape; still young enough to father a brood of little princes and princesses as long as the wife was healthy. She was a childless widow. That suited him. He could not abide other men’s brats and he could never be bothered with simpering virgins. He preferred his women well-versed in bed; broken in like his horses.
It was time to rekindle old family ties.
Dr Watson spotted the Snow Queen on the far side of the ballroom. She was chatting to a distinguished foreign-looking chap with silver hair who was wearing a long-line military jacket in black adorned with a royal blue sash and decorated with lots of gold braid and several large gold stars that glittered like a Mayfair Christmas tree. It was probably the new Russian ambassador he’d heard so much about. In a sea of smart red military jackets the black stood out with conspicuous sharpness.
Ploughing through perfume was like wading through treacle. He by-passed three Cleopatras, six Marie Antoinettes, two Guineveres, five Helens of Troy, and a lady wearing a bird cage on her head. The men reeking of Macassar hair oil were just as bad. There were seven Sun Kings, three Francis Drakes, and every Knight who ever graced the round table in L’Mort d’Arthur. He was almost within reach of the Snow Queen when he bumped into the reincarnation of Blackbeard and took a quick step back.
This chap was taking dressing-up to a whole new level – grizzled beard, blackened teeth, eye-patch, hook for a hand, gold hoop earrings, filthy pantaloons, scruffy boots, twin cutlasses, two antique firearms, and a smell like rotten fish.
There was no way known this unwashed pirate had received a royal invitation to the ball. It wasn’t just the bad breath and foul body odour that told the good doctor this fishy buccaneer needed to be reported at once; there was something menacing about his demeanour.
Ah, there was the vigilant Horatio Hornblower standing in one of the box balconies that punctuated the mezzanine. Major Nash would know what to do.
Dr Watson executed an about face sharpish and was racing up the stairs, taking them by twos when a man in a Musketeer outfit came rushing down, almost bowling him over. He could have sworn it was Colonel Moriarty but there was no way the Irishman would have been issued with an invitation to the royal ball either. He watched the Musketeer disappear swiftly around a corner as if he was up to something fishy as well.
Now, he knew the Countess had a soft spot for the Irish colonel, perhaps even a secret affection she was loath to admit to, but warning lights began flashing in his head. He needed to find Major Nash at once.
By the time he reached the box balcony it was vacant. Quickly, he scanned the ocean of froufrou and saw that Horatio Hornblower had changed direction and taken a different set of stairs and was currently tacking windward toward the Snow Queen who was conversing with a woman dressed as a Valkyrie with scandalous body armour that left little to the imagination.
Turning hastily on his heel, he doubled back and had reached the top of the landing when he tripped and fell down the stairs. He felt every painful thud and clunk as he bounced and crash landed in the corner where the stairs turned. That’s probably what saved his life. It was the shortest flight and not the longest; otherwise he would have been a goner.
Just before he blacked out he realized someone had deliberately tripped him up. In that moment, just before nothingness closed around him, he glanced back up and he could have sworn he saw a face he recognized.
And then it was gone.
Major Nash lost sight of the Russian ambassador. From the vantage point of the balcony, he’d observed the nobleman chatting to the Countess but by the time he came down the stairs she was conversing with the Valkyrie. He kicked himself twice. Firstly, because he’d lost sight of his quarry. Secondly, because he could not approach the object of his desire while she was in the company of a femme fatale he detested. He then kicked himself a third time. He’d lost sight of Jim as well.
Something was happening in the foyer. People were milling round and there was an unhealthy buzz. With more force than necessary he elbowed his way through the elegant crush and arrived in time to see a man wearing a tartan kilt being carried off by four guardsmen.
A senior officer recognized him and saluted. “This chap took a tumble down the stairs, Major Nash. He’s out cold. There’s no infirmary so we’re taking him to the guardroom where someone can keep an eye on him till he comes round.”
“What’s your name, Captain?”
“Well done, Thompson. Is there a doctor who can take a look at him?”
“There’s Frye, sir. He’s a medical orderly. He’s on duty outside the gentlemen’s latrines.”
“Get him to take a look. If there’s anything serious let me know at once. I want to know when this man comes round as well. That’s all, Captain.”
Major Nash developed a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach as he watched them cart Dr Watson away. He lingered in the foyer, eavesdropping on conversations.
“That Scotsman was rushing backwards and forwards like a lunatic!”
“He barged right into me!”
“Some men cannot hold their liquor. It is disgraceful!”
“Disgraceful who they will allow into these events nowadays too! Have you seen that foul-smelling pirate? There was a time when…”
The well-honed instincts of Major Nash warned him that something wasn’t right. Dr Watson wasn’t the type to rush about like a lunatic and he was no drunk either. He backed himself against a wall between a pair of marble columns that marked the corridor to the gents cloak rooms and ran a canny eye over the Mughal foyer.
At the top of the double staircase was a superbly dressed lady in a purple and gold brocaded Renaissance costume with lots of expensive jewels that looked like the real thing but she hadn’t spoken to anyone all night. He’d spotted her several times out of the corner of his eye. She casually circumambulated the mezzanine as if looking for someone but she was always alone.
There was General de Merville and Sir James Damery at the top of the stairs too. They were with the American cigar tycoon, Mr Bruce Blague. Perhaps they’d seen something suspicious? But if they had they would have reported it. It wasn’t the right time to question them.
Leaning against the balustrade that looked down into the foyer was the official photographer. He was carrying a new type of folding Kodak camera that did not require masses of equipment or a tripod stand. There was a second photographer in a studio directly above them. The studio had a beautiful painted backdrop of the Brighton Pavilion for those who wanted the traditional style portrait to commemorate the night, but this chap was roving and snapping whoever didn’t object to being immortalized au natural.
Mycroft Holmes was in a private sitting room at the far end of the pavilion. His boss hated these sorts of events and preferred to keep out of sight.
Major Nash was in two minds. Should he report what had happened? Or let it go? What if Dr Watson’s tumble had been nothing more than an accident and he jeopardized his real mission by putting the wind up everyone?
Should he tell the Countess her friend had had an accident? But what if she insisted on sending the doctor home in her troika and then decided to accompany him? He wanted to be with her at midnight. He wanted more than anything to take her in his arms and deliver that first magic kiss just as the old century ticked over into the new one.
Jim! Where the hell was Jim? He wouldn’t be surprised to learn a Musketeer had been standing at the top of the stairs when the so-called accident happened. No time to track him either. His prime mission was to keep an eye on the Russian ambassador.
Nerves were kicking in. He was feeling edgy. A quick search of the smoking rooms was called for. Jim was probably holed up in one of them. Maybe he should have had him evicted straight away. Why wait? Something wasn’t right. He could feel it in his gut. The longer he left it to take action the worse it would get.
When he re-entered the ballroom two things alarmed him.
The Countess was standing in one of the box balconies chatting to the mysterious Renaissance lady in purple and gold. It appeared as if they knew each other and it gave him a slight shock.
In the adjoining box, was an evil-looking chap in a bizarre pirate costume. It wasn’t just the sinister get-up that set off alarm bells, it was the fact the man was armed to the hilt. Two gleaming cutlasses and two flintlock pistols were tucked comfortably in his leather belt. This costly knees-up was turning into a fucking nightmare!
He was about to take the stairs by twos and collar the Blackbeard lookalike when a voice waylaid him. It was Captain Thompson.
“Just wanted to let you know, sir, that the chap who took a tumble is not seriously injured. No broken bones. He has some heavy bruising and slight concussion. A proper doctor was found among the guests and he has given the chap a sedative to calm him. He was a bit delirious when he came round. Ranting and raving and not making much sense. He’s sleeping now and will probably not wake until the fireworks are over.”
“Thank you, Captain Thompson. Before you go, there’s something you can do for me. There’s a guest here dressed as Blackbeard the pirate. He is heavily armed with flintlock weapons and I don’t like the look of him. Choose two men you trust and corner him but do it discretely. I’d like to interrogate him. If you can escort him to the stable without him making too much of a fuss that would be appreciated.”
“Yes, sir, right away, sir.”
The string quartet was being replaced by an orchestra. The dancing was about to start.
Major Nash was ready to track down the Russian ambassador when another voice waylaid him. This one was seductive, husky and deadly.
“Good evening, Major Nash, are you here in a private capacity or as staff?”
It was the voluptuous Valkyrie, breasts as dangerous as a set of matching cannon balls about to go kaboom. He didn’t want to give her the pleasure of seeing him drool so he made sure to fix his sights on her winged helmet. The last word was pronounced with disdain.
“Staff,” he said flatly. He might have lied but what would be the point? She’d already humiliated him once and she’d probably do the same again if he pretended to be more than what he was – a penniless baronet. The bigger the audience, the more she enjoyed rubbing salt into the wound. The rich young men trailing in her breathless wake looked like a bunch of smug arseholes.
“Oh, what a pity,” she purred condescendingly wearing the smile of a shark about to go in for the kill. “I was about to save you the first waltz.”
“That wouldn’t be possible,” interrupted someone else. “Major Nash has promised the first waltz to me. I understand he is never off-duty but I begged him to spare me a few minutes of his valuable time.”
The Valkyrie swung round, and the twin cannons swung round with her. “Oh, it’s you, Countess Volodymyrovna. How fortuitous. The orchestra is starting with a Viennese number. Have you seen Prince Sergei?”
“Yes, he is dancing with Miss Violet de Merville who is dressed as a shepherdess. I can see them through the archway as we speak. I wish we could converse some more, Mrs Klein, but a Viennese waltz waits for no woman. By the way, your mouche has slipped.”
Mouche meant fly in French but the Countess was referring to the beauty spot that was the height of fashion last century. Mouches came in silk and velvet and all manner of shapes. Isadora Klein’s mouche was heart-shaped.
Major Nash took her arm and led her onto the dance floor, and she was pleasantly surprised to discover the baronet did not have two left feet.
“Have you seen Dr Watson?” she asked as soon as they fell into step. “I haven’t seen him all evening.”
“Yes, he took a tumble down the stairs.” He heard her gasp and felt her pull away; his grip tightened and he made sure to pull her closer. “No need to feel alarmed. A doctor has seen him. He is sleeping calmly in the guardroom. A sedative will keep him there until after the fireworks.”
A flicker of genuine concern was evident in the wide-eyed startlement of the blue-grey eyes. “You can assure me he is not injured?”
“I can assure you he is fine. By the way, thank you for intervening back there.”
“I presume that you and Mrs Klein have some history?”
“We did but it’s over.”
“I imagine she eats handsome young men for breakfast.”
He laughed and they both began to relax. “She prefers her admirers young and rich. When she discovered I could not afford to buy her any baubles from Old Bond Street she decided to make an example of me.”
“Her loss is my gain – you dance very well.”
He glanced up to make sure the crazy pirate wasn’t on the mezzanine, and spotted Jim instead. The Irishman was watching them hungrily from behind some red velvet curtains – let him eat his heart out. He pulled her as close as he dared and off they went spinning.
As soon as the dance was over she convinced him escort her to the guardroom to see Dr Watson for herself. The guardroom was a separate building at the far end of the pavilion. It meant they had to go outside through the foyer and along the full length of the veranda. He knew Jim would follow them and this was his chance to get the Irishman evicted. Once Jim was outside it would be impossible for him to come back in again without an invitation that had his name calligraphied in fancy gold lettering.
The doctor was sleeping like a baby on a makeshift bed set behind a partition wall. Reassured that her friend had not suffered any serious injury and that he was quite comfortable, they began making their way back to the foyer, passing the Musketeer on the way, tucked tightly into a niche. Major Nash pretended not to notice.
Once they returned to the foyer, Prince Sergei claimed her in a dance and it freed Major Nash to issue some instructions. He spotted Captain Thompson as he was about to go outside.
“Did you collar the pirate?”
“No, sir, he is proving elusive. I have six men scouting the pavilion but he appears to have gone to ground. Should I put more men on it?”
Nash frowned. “No, we don’t want to alarm the guests. Keep the six men at it. There’s someone else who shouldn’t be here. He may be a Fenian sympathiser. He is currently outside and will try to gain entry. I want you to take charge personally. Stand guard at this door with four of your most trustworthy men. This man is dressed as a Musketeer. As soon as he appears I want you to arrest him and then have your men escort him to the police wagon by the stable block. Lock him inside. I’ll deal with him later tonight.”
Major Nash glanced at his watch. It was getting on for half past ten o’clock. The Russian ambassador was still dancing with the Countess. The photographer was roaming the mezzanine, snapping pictures of couples on the dance floor. The mysterious lady in purple and gold was nowhere to be seen. Supper was being served in the twin banqueting rooms and quite a few of the dancers were drifting away. If he was quick he could personally check the gentlemen’s smoking rooms for that damned elusive pirate.
No sooner had he dashed up the stairs than a man in a tartan kilt appeared at the entrance. He had an invitation in the name of Dr John Watson. Captain Thompson thought the tartan looked vaguely familiar but he was looking out for a Musketeer not a Scotsman with a curly wig. He checked the gold-emblazoned name on the gilt-edged card a second time and nodded him through.
Too easy! Colonel Moriarty smiled as he followed the crowd into the banqueting rooms. He was hungry and did not stint on the royal fayre. He was helping himself to seconds of smoked salmon in aspic when Horatio ‘bloody’ Hornblower appeared in the doorway looking vexed.
Moriarty slipped out the nearest door and took the servants’ stairs to the next level. A lady in a purple and gold dress was looking strangely at him so he gave her a wide berth and mounted a set of narrow spiral stairs that led up to the top of one of the Mughal domes.
He’d already carried out an exploration of the pavilion and knew that the two end domes housed a couple of oriental type divans and some hookahs, probably to keep in with the oriental theme. He could hide in one of them until just before midnight then locate the Countess and whisk her away while everyone else was distracted by the fireworks. At least, that was the plan.
He yanked off the curly wig and scratched his bald head with both hands then stretched out comfortably on the divan and closed his eyes for about ten minutes when the door opened suddenly. There was nowhere to hide in a round room so he braced for the unknown but what happened next took his breath away.
Every nerve ending was suddenly on fire. “Close the door. Did anyone follow you?”
“What are you doing here? Why are you dressed in Dr Watson’s kilt?”
His heart was banging against his ribs. “How did you know I was up here?”
“My maid saw you sneaking up the stairs.”
“The purple and gold dress was your maid?”
Xenia was wearing Princess Paraskovia’s Renaissance costume along with a splendid amethyst parure that belonged to the Countess to make sure she looked the part.
“What are you up to? What are you doing in Dr Watson’s kilt?”
“It was the only way I could get through the front door.”
“You stole his kilt!”
“And his invitation. He didn’t need it. He’s sleeping soundly. I left him covered with a blanket. He’s fine.”
“This is madness. You cannot gate-crash the Prince Regent’s ball and impersonate another man. You will end up court martialed and drummed out of the army.”
“I can always join Freddy’s regiment,” he quipped. “If someone who isn’t even in the army can get promoted to Lieutenant then it shouldn’t be too difficult to get a posting as cannon fodder on the front line.”
She ignored the gung-ho rejoinder. “So you’ve heard?”
“Yes, but what no one seems to know is who organized it and why?”
She adjusted her ermine-edged décolletage to accommodate her pert breasts. “It’s truly baffling.”
The ploy distracted him but momentarily. “Beautiful liar. You always know exactly what’s going on. There’s something else. There’s been a whisper all night about the wife of the new Russian ambassador. She’s not here tonight and there are all sorts of wild rumours floating round.”
She looked unconcerned as she patted the ermine cuff to make sure the fur was going in the same direction. “I heard that she had separated from her husband and chose not to come to the ball to save embarrassment.”
“Let’s hope you’re right. Otherwise England will be fighting a war on two fronts. Do you know the Russian ambassador, Prince Sergei?”
“We met once in Odessa. I was about five years of age.”
“What about his wife?”
“We were never introduced.”
His brain was jumping from one thing to another. “I saw you dancing with Nash.”
“This is a ball,” she reminded frostily in keeping with the resplendent Snow Queen froideur. “I didn’t realize you knew Major Nash?”
“We were at military college together. Do you know who he works for?”
“I presume he goes by the title of Major because he works for the army.”
“There you go again. Beautiful liar. It must be someone high up if you’re not willing to divulge the name. What does he mean to you?”
That was it! She spun round on her heel, ready to leave him to work it out for himself. “Really! This conversation is growing exasperating. Happy New…”
The sentence was cut short by the door being thrown open.
It heralded the arrival of Prince Sergei, General de Merville, Sir James Damery and Mr Bruce Blague. The foursome of smokers had decided to escape the dancing and partake of the hookahs that vaporized flavoured tobacco known as shisha.
There was no telling which of them was most stunned, but suffice to say another couple of minutes and it could have been a disaster from which there was no recovery. Moriarty was about to sweep the Countess into his arms and put her in no doubt as to what she meant to him.
Sir James Damery, the Irish diplomatist, was the first to find his silver-tongue. “Countess Volodymyrovna and Colonel Moriarty, I see you have had the same clever idea as we have had. These Safavid water-pipes are a brilliant invention. Have you tried one before? Oh, I am forgetting myself. Are we all acquainted?”
The only two who had not met were the Russian and the Irishman. As soon as introductions were out of the way the Countess took charge with customary hauteur.
“I see there are only five huqqahs and six of us. As I have already tried a huqqah whilst travelling with my late step-aunt in Persia I will leave you gentlemen to your pleasure. I believe dessert was being served at eleven o’clock. Does anyone have the time?”
All five men checked their pocket watches. General de Merville was the quickest.
“It is fifteen minutes past the hour of eleven.”
“Splendid,” she said. “I will have time for a lime sherbet and a chocolate mousse before the fireworks. Good evening, gentlemen.”
As she was going out the door, Major Nash was coming in. There was no verbal exchange. She felt sorry for Colonel Moriarty but he deserved everything that was coming to him.
Colonel Moriarty felt like a rat trapped in a rat hole. There was nowhere to run and he couldn’t very well shoot five men in cold blood. He wondered if the Countess had set him up by alerting Nash to his hiding place.
Major Nash had his revolver drawn and cocked, ready to fire, and the other four men were looking slightly confused, not only because of the weapon, but because three of them had seen the colonel dressed as a Musketeer with a curly wig, and he was now bald and wearing a tartan kilt. Nevertheless, they were all war-hardened soldiers, used to thinking fast. They summed up the seriousness of the situation, if not the detail, in the blink of an eye.
“Hello, Nash,” Moriarty said with cavalier disdain.
“I hope you are not thinking of doing something reckless, Jim,” returned Major Nash. “You’re in enough trouble as it is. Stealing the clothes off a man’s back while he is sedated. Making off with his invitation. Impersonating a guest. Breeching the security of the Prince Regent’s ball. Shall I go on?”
“No, that covers it fairly well but we both know why you want to arrest me and it has nothing to do with what you just reeled off.”
“Shut up, Jim,” warned Nash, “or you’ll make things worse for yourself. Hand over your weapon and you might not get charged with treason.”
“Treason now is it?”
General de Merville, who had just parked his derriere on a divan and was tinkering with the pipes on the hookahs, visibly stiffened. “That’s a serious accusation, Major Nash. Do you have anything to support it?”
Sir James Damery, a fellow Irishman, could see where this was leading. It was too easy to accuse an Irishman in the British army of being a Fenian sympathiser. Once the charge was levelled there was no escaping it. A hangman’s rope or a long stint in prison followed. “What did you mean, Colonel Moriarty, when you said this had nothing to do with what Major Nash reeled off? Which I might add were all serious offences.”
“Not as serious as treason,” iterated General de Merville, who did not appreciate being side-lined.
Moriarty handed across his weapon before Nash had an excuse to shoot him. “It has to do with a certain lady.”
Prince Sergei chuckled richly. “Ha! Now we are getting to the bottom of things – a crime passionnelle!”
“Which lady?” pressed Damery; unamused.
Major Nash guessed where Jim was going with this and decided to get there first. “He is referring to the Countess.”
“Varvara Volodymyrovna!” gasped the Russian.
Mr Blague snorted. “Uppity women! That’s what happens when you don’t put them in their place. Nothing but trouble, mark my words, gentlemen!”
Damery was the first to comprehend that this confrontation was about male rivalry for the affections of a lady, probably because he was the only man in the room who did not have designs on the rich young widow. Even Mr Blague, for all his misogynist bluster, had kept one eye on the Countess for most of the night. The Russian ambassador had engineered several encounters with the Countess all evening, adding fuel to the rumour he and the princess were estranged and she had moved into Clarges. And his old friend, de Merville, had freely admitted he was considering matrimony. Now these two fine officers were in the running too. The personal fortune she was said to possess was a desirable draw card of course, but there was no denying her provocative allure.
If this situation wasn’t nipped in the bud in this room it could take on a life of its own. There was also the small problem of the Countess being discovered alone with Moriarty. Her reputation would suffer enormously once it became known publicly. The four of them could have kept it to themselves but once Major Nash arrived and this flare up had turned into a conflagration there was no putting out any spot fires.
Sir James Damery understood everything but he had no solution. “Colonel Moriarty, are you suggesting Major Nash may hold a grudge against you because of a certain lady you are both hoping to pursue?”
General de Merville was incensed at the audacity of the two hot-blooded young bucks who believed they could steal the rich young widow from under his nose. “Dammit, Damery! Stop couching everything in diplomatic terms. Both these men should be locked up in the brig until we can sort out what the deuce is going on.”
“The sun will soon be sinking on the British Empire,” predicted the American. “It will come about from allowing uppity women to run amok.”
“In my country this matter would be dealt with swiftly,” mused the Russian, lighting up a black cigarette in lieu of sampling some shisha.
“How so?” asked Damery, who still couldn’t see a face-saving solution to this mess.
“A duel,” replied the Russian.
Such a proposition would normally have been dismissed, laughed off even. Duelling might be fine in Russia where personal honour took precedence over the law of the land, but in England a man could be charged with murder, which is exactly what happened to the Earl of Cardigan when he shot one of his former officers in a duel.
“It just so happens I have two duelling pistols in my carriage,” added the Russian, flicking ash on the floor as he sauntered around the outskirts of the round room, looking bored.
“Duelling is against the law,” pointed out Damery.
“Duelling was forbidden by Tsar Peter in our country too but the ban runs counter to the noble spirit of men and the romantic Russian soul. Pushkin fought nearly thirty duels. Every Russian worth his salt has fought a duel.”
The fact the Russian had brought duelling pistols with him to the New Year’s Eve ball sent cold shockwaves through the men assembled under the roof of the Mughal dome.
As well as the rumour of the estrangement of Prince Sergei and Princess Paraskovia, it was also rumoured that she had taken a lover. It was not yet whispered publicly who the lover was but suffice to say two possible paramours were in that room – General de Merville and Sir James Damery. There was also the royal host of the gala ball – the Prince of Wales.
Viscount Cazenove was the fourth possible paramour but he was now out of the picture.
Several scenarios played out rapidly in everyone’s head.
General de Merville and Prince Sergei realized that if the two young men shot each other they would no longer count as rivals for the Countess’s affections.
Mr Blague, who had been bored for most of the evening, was suddenly excited by the prospect of witnessing a duel. Duels used to be common is the South until the Yankee government outlawed them. He had even participated in one himself when he was young and foolhardy and in love. Challenging someone to a duel was a democratic right. America was great because of its gunslingers, frontiersmen and quick draw fighters.
American Presidents were not averse to fighting duels either, notably Andrew Jackson; and Abraham Lincoln would have if his second had not interfered. Vice-President Aaron Burr, and Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, had also fought a duel. It was a rite of passage for politicians and it proved they understood the great American dream.
Sir James Damery still had no solution but at least a duel would turn the spotlight away from things like Fenians. He liked both Nash and Moriarty enormously. They were both courageous and clever and the sort of men the Empire needed. Maybe they would both shoot in the air. What did they call it? Dumb shooting? Deloping? It had been known to happen, though it went against the accepted rules of conduct.
Failing that, at least it meant the Russian would not throw down the gauntlet to the heir to the throne, which is probably why he had brought the duelling pistols along in the first place. Just as Freddy Cazenove could not risk being labelled a lily-livered coward, neither could any other man, including the Prince of Wales, risk turning down a duel if openly challenged.
In other words, a duel between two officers was preferable to a duel between Prince Sergei and the Prince Regent.
Major Inigo Nash measured his chances. He was not reckless or foolhardy, but that’s not to say he didn’t take risks. Of course he did. A man couldn’t survive long in a foreign hell-hole without taking risks, and he’d been in most of them, but he preferred the odds to be on his side. Maybe this was meant to be. While waltzing with the Countess he had imagined taking out his revolver, aiming up at the balcony, and shooting Jim between the eyes.
Colonel Moriarty fought to downplay his eagerness. He struggled to keep the light out of his Irish eyes and the cocky smile off his face. Duels were second nature to him. He was a crack shot and his hand was rock steady. Most men weren’t used to the weightiness of an old-fashioned duelling pistol and the way it fit into a man’s hand. They had grown accustomed to Webleys and Derringers and Smith & Wessons. They didn’t take into account the length of the barrel and how to use it to aim at the heart of a target. They never allowed for the stiffness of the old-style trigger. Even with one hand tied behind his back and a blindfold he couldn’t miss. He could smell fear at fifty paces. At ten paces it was like shooting at a stationery omnibus.
Damery waited for the howls of protest but there were none. “So be it,” he said sternly. “It is customary to allow for a change of heart. Shall we say tomorrow at dawn?”
“Why wait?” challenged the American. “I say let them settle it now. We can get it over with before the fireworks start.”
“This is a matter of personal honour,” added the Russian. “We are not deciding on a time for a picnic.”
“But there’s no light,” pointed out Damery.
“Perhaps you think they should throw billiard balls at each other like those two idiotic Frenchmen, or perhaps beat each other over the head with pork sausages like Bismark and Virchow!” He was alluding to the Code Duello that allowed men to choose their own weapons, and his sarcastic tone drew some sniggers.
“Duelling with lanterns is permitted,” argued General de Merville, leaping up from his perch. “When I was a lad fencing manuals included lessons with lanterns. They were permitted for parrying blows and blinding an opponent. The tradition of placing the left arm behind the back stems from holding the lantern to the rear. We can set up two lanterns on the ground at the ‘points’, meaning where the men stand and turn.”
“What about the field of honour?” asked Damery, who was starting to have second thoughts. “The cricket pitch has been turned into a carriage park.”
“We don’t need much space,” barked General de Merville, who was already at the door with one hand on the knob. “Twenty paces ought to do it; the greater the grievance the shorter the number of paces.” He looked from Nash to Moriarty. “Will twenty paces suit?”
“Ten,” declared Major Nash.
Moriarty fought valiantly to suppress his delight. “Ten suits me.”
“What about seconds?” asked Damery, who wanted everything to be in accord with the Code Duello.
“We don’t need seconds,” hectored General de Merville. “These two men don’t need someone else to measure the ground for them. They can count to ten. They don’t need someone to hold their hand. And they don’t expect someone else to step in for them in case they don’t understand the mechanics of the weapon. Let’s get this over and done with by midnight. Then we can enjoy the fireworks. I’ll organize for two lanterns from Captain Thompson and I’ll let him know there will be some bullets fired in the trees by the lake so that there is no panic. I’ll tell him we are doing a spot of night-shooting. We don’t want to encourage any sightseers.”
“I’ll get the pistols,” offered the Russian eagerly. “Each one comes in its own velvet-lined, mahogany case with six silver cartridges. They are fairly heavy. Mr Blague would you care to carry one and I will carry the other? We’ll meet up by the lake.”
General de Merville rushed away, followed by Mr Blague and Prince Sergei. Sir Damery and the two duellists remained.
“Not too late to pull out,” said Damery hopefully, but even as he said it he knew it was pointless. This was not about honour or satisfaction. This was not about first blood where the first wound no matter how minor ended the duel. This was about a fight to the finish. What was the term? A l’outrance?
According to the Code Duello each man would fire one shot. If no one was hit (in this case unlikely) then the challenger (presumably Nash) could declare satisfaction and the duel would end without fatality.
If the challenger was not satisfied, a second round would be fired. In the event of another miss the same thing would occur and a third round would take place.
It was unprecedented to have more than three rounds. It was considered uncivilized and patently ridiculous. It reflected badly on the duellists. To intentionally miss was worse. It was the equivalent of a dishonourable discharge. No man would ever live it down.
“I suggest we have a quick brandy in the smoking room and then head down to the lake. No one is to mention to any other man he meets, or woman, that a duel is about to take place. Is that clear?”
“Quite clear,” said Nash.
“Understood,” said Moriarty.
Damery paused at the door and held out his hand. “I’ll hold onto the other weapons for the time being, Major Nash.”
The Countess was dancing with the Prince of Wales when the trio of men passed through the foyer. She presumed Colonel Moriarty was under arrest and being escorted to the nearest cell. Once again she felt immensely sorry for him but if any man was able to sabotage himself, it was the Irishman.
As the men were crossing the lawn Captain Thompson called out. “Major Nash!”
“What is it, Captain?”
“I understand you are going to do a spot of night-shooting, sir, but I wanted to let you know we just collared the pirate trying to sneak into the guardroom. We are taking him to the tack room off the stables. You were right about him being strange. There is something queer about him. And his flintlocks look queer too. I’ve never seen anything like them for weapons.”
Nash wondered what the captain meant by queer but he had no time to dwell on it. He wondered if the pirate was a deadly foreign assassin. “Keep a close eye on him, Captain. I’ll be back shortly to deal with him.”
“Not likely,” came a cocky whisper in the dark.
Prince Sergei, Mr Blague and General de Merville had arrived ahead of them. The field of honour had been chosen. A clearing in a small wood of Copper Beeches was the spot. Two lanterns were already spaced twenty feet apart and the midpoint from which the two duellists would count off was marked by a fallen branch.
Prince Sergei, being the most experienced with duels, explained the methodus pugnandi to make sure there was no confusion.
“Stand back to back where you see the log. General de Merville will give the word to begin counting off ten paces. You should reach the lantern which is your ‘point’ to turn and take aim. You will not be firing alternatively. You will fire simultaneously when the signal ‘fire’ is given by Sir James Damery. Good luck, gentlemen.”
It doesn’t matter how brave or confident a man is, when he is looking death in the eye in the form a loaded gun, it is a frightening experience. Add a cold winter’s night, a dark wood, a moonless sky, tendrils of mist, two flickering lanterns casting sinister shadows, silhouetting your opponent, turning him into a supernatural demon, and the blood in a man’s veins can curdle.
“Take up your positions, gentlemen,” said Prince Sergei when the duelling pistols had been handed out and loaded.
It was fifteen minutes before midnight. There was plenty of time to settle things and still get back to the pavilion in time to find a spot on the veranda and enjoy the choreography of fireworks that would usher in the new century. Captain Thompson could deal with the grisly aftermath should one man be seriously injured which was the most likely scenario. Most duels, despite being outlawed, no longer resulted in death simply because most men were no longer accurate enough with their aim, and that was in broad daylight. Dark shifting shadows writhed in mist, distorted by flickering lamplight, would make the job even more difficult.
Sir James Damery tried one more time to call the whole thing off. “No change of heart?” he said hopefully as the duellists stood back to back.
“This is your chance to save yourself, Nash,” whispered Moriarty.
“I’m going to enjoy plugging you between the eyes, Jim.”
“You’ll be dead before I blink.”
“I’m not planning to wait for you to blink.”
“Even if you survive, you don’t stand a chance with her.”
“More chance than a bankrupt Fenian.”
“That’s my point, Nash. She doesn’t like stupid men.”
“She’ll fancy an Irish corpse even less.”
They were interrupted by General de Merville. “Count off to ten, gentlemen.”
And so the pacing began until they reached the ‘point’, turned and aimed their pistols.
Damery drew breath and was about to call, “Fire!” when a loud explosion filled the air.
At first, the three observers thought the duellists had fired early but the blast came from the direction of the pavilion.
“Dammit!” cussed Mr Blague, squinting through the tracery of bare winter branches. “They’ve started the fireworks early.”
Neither Nash nor Moriarty could afford to get distracted; nerves stretched to breaking, bodies poised on a knife-edge, eyes fixed on the target, neither dared to blink.
The next explosion came a few heartbeats later and in that instant both Nash and Moriarty knew they weren’t listening to fireworks.
“A bomb!” shouted Nash, dropping his weapon and swivelling round to Damery. “Throw me my gun!”
Damery reacted spontaneously. He tossed the two young men their weapons and watched them sprint for the pavilion just as a third bomb went off. General de Merville suddenly seemed to rouse himself, perhaps only just realising his beloved daughter was still inside the building. He raced after them, putting his old war pegs through their paces as fast as they would go. Damery caught up to his friend, but they had no hope of catching up to the younger pair. Prince Sergei stayed to collect his valuable pistols and Mr Blague stayed with him. There was no telling if the third bomb was the last. The lake was the best place to be.
Sections of the pavilion were on fire. Debris and shards of glass were everywhere. Men were shouting and ladies were screaming; some of the guests were staggering, some limping, and others needed to be carried; blood was streaming everywhere. The scene was one of utter chaos.
Nevertheless, from a distance – say the distance from the pavilion to the lake – it was clear the damage was not as devastating as it could have been. Whoever set the bombs had messed up badly. The first two bombs blew the lids off the domes that stood at either end; the ones that housed the divans and hookahs. The third bomb went off in the foyer. The huge ballroom with the airy triptych of domes where the majority of the guests, cloaked and mantled, were probably gathering prior to stepping out to the lawn facing the river for the best view of the fireworks had been miraculously spared.
Moriarty shirt-fronted Nash as they hurtled up the grassy knoll; his breath came in desperate heaves. “No playing the fucking hero! Duty comes first!”
“Are you saying we’re on the same side?”
“We’re never going to be on the same side, Nash, and not because I’m Irish and you’re stupid, but because she can only ever choose one of us.”
“Are you denying your Irish friends had anything to do with those bombs?”
“Did you see those domes blow sky-high? I was planning to be inside one of them till midnight. If my friends had anything to do with it then I wouldn’t need any enemies.”
There was another series of violent explosions, a burst of panic, and deafening screams. It took a moment to realize that this time it was the actual fireworks. They had been set up on a barge on the river and the men in charge had no idea the three bombs weren’t part of the entertainment. The sky rained stars and diamonds and the mad midnight scene became wildly surreal because of what had already taken place. Some people laughed and others cried. Some, suffering shock, were too traumatised to care.
With no thought for their own safety, Nash and Moriarty, rushed inside the pavilion and began clearing away heavy timbers, mostly from the shattered staircase, and chunks of ceiling plaster that blocked the exit. Captain Thompson, having raced across from the stable block, joined them. He began directing his men to assist the injured, the elderly, and those in shock.
It was a credit to the Prince of Wales that, suffering only minor abrasions, he refused to be whisked away to safety. His natural warmth and bonhomie went a long way to calming nerves and restoring order.
The Princess of Wales, who had been in the cloak room, and suffered only a few scratches, likewise refused to leave without her husband. She organized a line of older ladies to make bandages out of torn petticoats, and a younger group to bandage wounds and staunch bleeding. Miss de Merville was among this second group, her indomitable spirit acting as an example to others who might have been squeamish at the sight of so much blood.
Mrs Klein, looking fiercely magnificent in her Valkyrie costume, rallied any man who might otherwise have given into fear. Before long she had a conga line of men relaying buckets of water from the lake up to the pavilion to help put out spot fires.
Fireworks continued to boom and blaze luridly across the cold black sky and most people didn’t know whether the glorious unreality of it all was a dream or a nightmare.
Nash and Moriarty began the search for the Countess. She wasn’t among the injured on the lawn. The serious casualties had been taken to the guardroom. The dead had been taken to the stable block. Moriarty checked the former; Nash the latter. Fearing the worst, they met up ten minutes later at the front of the pavilion.
Nash’s voice crackled with indignation. “She’s not in the stable. The tack room is empty – was the pirate one of your so-called friends?”
Moriarty summoned all his willpower and ignored the accusation; his tone was tense and strained and hanging by a thread. “She’s not in the guardroom either and I swear I have no idea who that pirate was. I saw him earlier and tried to follow him but he gave me the slip. Do you think he’s our bomb man?”
With his mind now splintering off in a hundred different directions like those fireworks, Major Nash was about to reply when he remembered he hadn’t seen Mycroft Holmes all night and that the first bomb had taken off the roof of a dome near to where he was holed up. “I have to check something,” he said urgently, berating himself for getting sucked into a duel with Jim when he had more important things to do. “Find that fucking pirate!”
Major Nash ran back inside the pavilion, crossed the foyer, hurdled chunks of plaster and fragments of wood, crunched broken glass in the ballroom, and raced straight up the staircase at the far end of the dance floor.
Moriarty wondered where to start looking. If the pirate was the bomb man he would be long gone by now unless he was setting off a second round of bombs inside the pavilion. He raced back inside in time to see the major mounting the stairs like a man on a mission and decided to follow.
Major Nash reached the top of the stairs and disappeared behind a red velvet curtain. Moriarty presumed the curtain hid a broom cupboard. He hadn’t seen anyone going that way all night. Behind the curtain was a narrow, dimly lit passage. At the end of the passage was a door that appeared to be locked from the inside.
Moriarty watched the major draw his weapon, shoot the lock off and use his boot to kick the door in. The action had been bold and deft. Moriarty had clearly underestimated his rival; all those apocryphal stories about Khartoum and the Suez came back to him. Nash was no paper-shuffler in the War Office.
What the major expected to find inside the room intrigued Moriarty no end. He crept down the passage, pressed himself against the wall in order to listen, and got the shock of his life when he heard the voice of the Countess.
“Major Nash!” she gasped when he burst into the room.
Ready to blow someone’s head off, the major didn’t really know what to expect when he kicked the door in – so many different and dangerous scenarios had flitted through his head as he bolted up the stairs – but the sight that greeted him left him feeling punch-drunk.
Mycroft Holmes was seated in a wing chair, a cigar in one hand and a glass of port in the other, acting as if nothing untoward had happened, yet shards of glass littered the floor. Discounting the broken windows and the smashed door, the room was otherwise intact.
Seated opposite him in a matching wing chair was Dr Watson wearing a Musketeer outfit; the same one that had adorned Moriarty at the start of the ball. The doctor appeared a little groggy, most likely from the after-effects of the sedative.
Standing behind Dr Watson’s chair was the Countess. Her kokoshnik was in place but her hair was mussed and her snow-white gown was blood splattered, but she was in one piece. Thank heaven! She was holding a muff pistol which was aimed straight at his heart.
But it was the sight of the fourth person in the room that disturbed him the greatest. It was the nefarious pirate with the queer weapons. With both firearms trained his way, the man was a frightening sight to behold.
“Does your ADC always enter a room with such bravado? Really, Mycroft, you should teach him to knock?”
Mycroft rolled his eyes. “Come in Nash. Ignore my brother. What took you so long? I was expecting you half an hour ago.”
Major Nash was still gathering his wits about him and it was impossible to tear his eyes away from the bizarre-looking pirate, though the man had thankfully lowered the twin flintlock firearms. So that was the famous Mr Sherlock Holmes in one of his masterful disguises. The major would have laughed but he still wasn’t sure what was going on.
“How did you get away from the tack room?” he asked straight up.
“Child’s play!” said the younger Mr Holmes. “Once the first bomb went off and the guards ran to see what was happening I was able to loosen the bonds they used to secure me to a post. They don’t teach men to tie proper knots any more. And a hook is not a hand but a very handy tool.” He demonstrated how the hook resting on the table simply sat inside his sleeve. “It was easy to slip off the hook and loosen the knots. Child’s play, as I said!”
“May I look at your firearms?”
“No, you may not. You might hurt yourself. They have been modified to fire darts. Some are quite lethal. Curare. Others will simply put you to sleep for a while.”
“Stop showing off, Sherlock,” reprimanded Mycroft. “I want to hear what Nash has to say. Has the bomb man been apprehended?”
“No, sir, I suspected the other Mr Holmes.”
Sherlock laughed richly before switching to serious. “What was happening in the Copper Beech wood? As I was being escorted to the stable I saw you and several others heading that way. I believe it was Damery and Moriarty. Who else was there?”
“General de Merville, Prince Sergei and Mr Blague.”
“What were the six of you doing by the lake?” pursued Mycroft tetchily.
“Having a duel, sir.”
“A duel!” laughed Sherlock, clearly enjoying himself. “This is turning into a night to remember! Last Night Forever, indeed! And who were the duellists, Major Nash?”
Major Nash winced. “Colonel Moriarty and myself.”
A tremolando in the Countess’s normally confident tone betrayed how much she cared for the Irishman. “Since you are here and in one piece, Major Nash, are we to assume that Colonel Moriarty has been fatally wounded?”
“No, the first bomb went off just as we were preparing to fire. The colonel is currently searching for the pirate.” He decided to change the subject lest his emotions betray him. “How are you feeling, Dr Watson?”
“Can you recall what caused you to tumble down the stairs?”
“Yes, I believe someone deliberately tripped me. I was searching for you, Major Nash. I thought the pirate looked fishy and I noticed Colonel Moriarty rushing about as if he was up to no good. I wanted to report them to you at once.”
“You didn’t see who tripped you?”
Dr Watson shook his head glumly. “I thought I recognized a face but the vision is hazy. It may come back to me as the sedative wears off. I believe I have you to thank for the medical attention and care I received whilst recovering.”
Nash grimaced at the undue praise. He looked squarely at Mycroft. “I shirked my duty tonight, sir. I ignored my orders. I abandoned my post. All I can say in my defence is that at least the Prince of Wales is uninjured and the casualties appear to be at a minimum.”
Sherlock scratched an itch behind the piratical eye-patch before replacing it. “Of course the Prince of Wales is uninjured and the casualties minimal. The intended target was my brother.”
Shock was still coursing through everyone’s veins and now here came a fresh wave. All eyes turned to Sherlock.
“Explain yourself,” said Mycroft sternly.
“It is elementary. The first bomb in the dome at the far end of the pavilion was intended to create a spectacle. Nothing more. The second bomb at the opposite end likewise. They were intended to make sure everyone ran for their lives out of the building as fast as they could go through the dozens of French doors leading from the ballroom and the banqueting rooms.
The bomb in the foyer was a little more serious but the bomb went off under the stairs. It demolished the staircase but the timbers actually served to smother what could have been far worse destruction. The solid marble columns that underpin the dome room easily withstood the blast. Ceiling plaster caved in and the studio being used by the photographer was mildly destroyed by the upward force of the blast but the photographer was fortunately not in his studio.
Most of the injuries tonight are due to fragments of broken glass; an unavoidable hazard of bombs. The third bomb was the serious one and yet few people were killed. The only people killed outright were those on the stairs; an unavoidable consequence of bad timing. Had my brother chosen to occupy the larger sitting room above the foyer which he chose to make available to the photographer at the last minute because of its proximity to the stairs he would now be plastered to the top of a Mughal dome. The last minute decision to take the smaller sitting room, the room we currently occupy, saved his life.
Now, what sort of bomb man plants three bombs at a royal ball-cum-banquet and omits the ballrooms and the banqueting rooms? And why place the third bomb under the stairs where it will do the least damage? Either he is the clumsiest and stupidest bomb man in existence or the intended target was my brother and the third bomb, intended to destroy the studio, was moved at the last minute.
I believe this to be the case because I recall seeing the folding Kodak camera sitting on the hall table that centred the foyer where a large urn was filled with Christmas lilies. I think it probable that someone inadvertently picked up that camera and moved it to the cupboard under the stairs just prior to the fireworks. It may have been the studio photographer who was on his way to the veranda and decided to do his fellow photographer a favour – saving the camera from being tampered with, damaged, or even stolen.
We may never know who moved that camera but if it had remained on the table I feel certain it would have blown a massive hole in the ceiling and destroyed the studio above – the room my brother was intending to occupy.”
The Countess replaced her muff pistol in a hidden pocket of her gown. “I recall seeing the Kodak camera on the table as I was preparing to collect my cloak prior to the fireworks, but are you saying the bomb man wanted to injure the fewest number of the guests possible?”
“Yes, and what does that tell you?”
She didn’t need to think for long. “The bomb man was the photographer, but the man behind the bomb man was not a saboteur, not a foreign agent, no an anti-monarchist, not a Fenian. He was probably a guest.”
Sherlock smiled proudly at her reasoning as he moved to the door. “Excellent deduction, my dear.” He raised his voice several decibels. “You may come in now Colonel Moriarty. Please feel free to join us.”
The colonel entered looking as stunned as the others, and not a little sheepish. How the hell Mr Sherlock Holmes knew he was in the corridor was one of those mysteries that were never likely to be explained.
“No need for the gun,” said Sherlock pleasantly. “You are among friends.”
Reluctantly, Colonel Moriarty rehoused his weapon, daring Major Nash to do likewise with a fiercely challenging look. With equal reluctance, the latter followed suit.
Irish eyes scanned the room, sizing things up – there was the brother of Mr Sherlock Holmes, presiding in a wing chair. He was clearly the man whom Nash worked for, but it made no sense. Mycroft Holmes was the President of the Diogenes Club. He was highly respected, but he was no high government official. Oh, hang on! Bloody good cover for the Secret Service! No wonder the club was impossible to get into and membership restricted to one or two men per annum.
There was Dr Watson looking battered and bruised. He wanted to apologise for stealing the doctor’s kilt but he couldn’t find the right words. He would make it up to him later.
His eyes met the Countess and one look told him everything he needed to know. She was relieved he wasn’t dead. That meant she hadn’t betrayed him to Nash. But even if she had – it was the reason he was still breathing. If he had stayed in the dome room they would have been scraping him off the Mughal roof.
There was Nash looking bitter and peeved that he hadn’t left him in the dome room to get blown to bits by that first bomb. Despite being on the same side they were never going to fully trust each other. He and Nash always had more in common than not – poverty, ambition, useless fathers, surviving on their wits, relying on merit to get promoted – but the Countess would always come between them now.
And Mr Sherlock Holmes – something odd there. It wasn’t just the queer firearms. His left arm seemed gimpy, and the hook seemed to fit very neatly onto his leather-gloved hand, and he moved with a springy gait, and he hadn’t yet removed his eye patch despite the fancy dress party being over. Where had he been all these years? Tending bees in Sussex – pull the other one! That Reichenbach business happened back in 1891 and the year had just ticked over to 1900.
“I believe you are acquainted with everyone here,” said Sherlock, “apart from my brother and myself.”
“Get on with it, Sherlock!” reproved the elder sibling. “We don’t have time for long-winded introductions. This isn’t a social gathering.”
Sherlock smiled to himself. It was like old times. Oh, and how he had missed being in the midst of a life and death adventure, and among such an interesting and disparate coterie, including his daughter, his best friend, his big brother, and two up-standing officers of her Majesty’s army.
“Well, here we are at the beginning of the twentieth century. Not the most auspicious start to a new era but let’s see if we can improve on it. Let us put our heads together. Someone here tonight wished to blow my brother up. Now, I admit I have often entertained the same wish myself but family loyalty prevented me acting on it. Obviously no such sentiment prevented our bomb man. So what could be his motivation? All ideas will be considered.”
After a brief interval of silence Major Nash spoke up. “There’s the forthcoming vote on changing the constitution of the Diogenes Club.”
“Yes,” said Sherlock, impressed by the young man’s suggestion. “If the primus baro is suddenly eliminated the vote will have to be postponed until such time as a new primus baro can be sworn in. That could take months and by then several members may have changed their minds or the amendment to the constitution might have been quietly dropped. What else?”
“There’s the question of forming a regiment of Irish Guards,” offered Moriarty. “It is my understanding Queen Victoria is in favour of forming an Irish regiment but the idea is being opposed by several high-ranking military officers with great influence in court. Now, I do not know if Mr Mycroft Holmes has any influence in government,” he added with all honesty, “but if he did then his word might sway the argument one way or another.”
“Good, good,” muttered Sherlock. “Now we are getting somewhere. What else?”
“There’s the death of Princess Paraskovia,” suggested the Countess, bracing for a swift rebuke from Mycroft, but he did not even blink which meant he was in accord with airing all possibilities. “She was found dead in her bath this afternoon at Clarges Hotel.”
Sherlock was taken by surprise. “Is that true, Mycroft?”
“Yes, the death was made to look like suicide but it was murder. Please continue, Countess. You may as well tell these gentlemen the rest.”
“Everything?” she tested.
“Yes, everything,” he confirmed sombrely, pulling off his pearl earring and rubbing his inflamed ear. “There can be no secrets kept back if we are to discover whoever set those bombs. You can have this trinket back too. I shan’t be needing it again.”
After pocketing the earring she perched herself on the arm of Dr Watson’s wing chair and made herself comfortable. It suggested the confidential information she was about to impart would not be confined to just one sentence.
“The princess was found in her bath. The bath had not been run by her lady’s maid. She was wearing valuable jewels. It appeared as if she had consumed a goodly quantity of laudanum. A bottle measuring three to four fluid ounces was found at the side of the bath. However, as the bottle dropped from her dead hand it did not roll but merely landed and stayed put, giving rise to the impression it had been placed there after death.
The princess was recently estranged from her husband and had moved into Clarges Hotel. She had been living there for a week. There is word she had taken a lover. Four names have been mooted: Viscount Cazenove, General de Merville, Sir James Damery and the Prince of Wales.”
The number of raised eyebrows indicated the listeners suddenly comprehended the serious implications of the princess’s demise. No one interrupted her so she continued.
“Prince Sergei had already learned of the death of his wife before Scotland Yard had been notified. How he became aware of it so quickly is open to conjecture. He informed Mr Holmes this morning at Clarges that his wife was with child and that the child was not his as he and his wife had not shared conjugal relations for several years. It is possible the father of the unborn child is one of the men mentioned. Prince Sergei named the Prince of Wales as the father. He left it to Mr Holmes to handle the news as he saw fit.”
“Good grief!” exclaimed Dr Watson, unable to contain his shock.
“Is that it?” asked Sherlock.
“No,” she said. “There’s an interesting detail. In the bath with the dead body was a Matryoshka doll. It is also called a Russian nesting doll. They were designed for this year’s Paris Fair. None have yet gone on sale. A Matryoshka doll is a series of small wooden dolls, usually three, four or five, brightly painted, and scaled in size so that one doll fits neatly inside the other. This particular doll was made up of five separate pieces. The doll was found wedged under the legs of the princess. The fifth and smallest doll, no bigger than an acorn, was found wedged in her vulva.”
Dr Watson was speechless. The other four men all suddenly found something fascinating in the stitching of their shoes. Sherlock broke the embarrassed silence.
“Do you think she was using it as a dildo?”
“It’s possible,” replied the Countess thoughtfully, “though I can think of several items in the bedroom and bathroom which would have been more satisfying. I think it was a hint to whoever found the body that she was with child. It may have been placed there after death by the killer.”
“That suggests the killer was intimate with the princess,” observed Sherlock, flicking his eyes from his implacable Buddha-like brother, still rubbing his red and swollen lobe, back to the Countess. “It implicates both the mysterious lover as well as the estranged husband. Was the bed made or unmade?”
“And yet it was mid-afternoon.”
She nodded. “It was my impression two people had recently occupied the bed. Both duck-feather pillows had indentations which is not itself an indication that two people shared the bed, but both sides of the bed had the covers thrown back. Since a person can only ever get out of one side of the bed it is a good indication two people emerged from the bed.”
“Anything else?” prompted Sherlock, smiling proudly.
“I have saved the best for last. Make of it what you will. The princess’s hair was up-pinned to save it getting wet. It indicated she was preparing to take a bath. But recall that she was wearing a pearl and diamond choker and some valuable rings. Tucked into her up-pinned hair was a small handful of birch bark.”
Sherlock clapped gleefully. “Oh, excellent! Excellent!” he sang happily.
Everyone else, apart from Mycroft who had already had the theory of the birch peelings explained to him, looked baffled.
“Please explain,” invited Sherlock, who could see that the Countess understood the spiritual significance of the birch.
“Slavs believe the souls of the dead inhabit birch trees. I think that whoever placed the birch bark into the princess’s hair did so because they wanted her soul to be connected to a sacred place.”
“That means the murderer had an understanding of Slavic folklore,” said Dr Watson who had only just recovered from hearing the word dildo spoken out loud in mixed company.
“That cuts out General de Merville, Sir James Damery and the Prince of Wales,” reasoned Major Nash.
“And we can eliminate Freddy Cazenove,” added Colonel Moriarty dryly, “because he has been promoted to the Transvaal.”
“That leaves Prince Sergei,” concluded Sherlock, going along with the main theory for now. “But would the prince really kill his estranged wife because she was conducting an illicit affair? I believe everyone in Russia conducts illicit affairs. No, no, the simplest explanation is that she did commit suicide and she put the birch bark in her own hair as she pinned it, and ran her own bath and did not need rose petals and unguents because she knew she would not be going anywhere afterwards, and she wore her best jewels because, well, that’s what a vain rich woman would do.”
“She was not vain!” snapped Mycroft.
“It is my understanding all princesses are cut from the same vain cloth.”
Sherlock laughed dismissively, incensing his brother further.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about!” shouted the elder.
Sherlock ignored the insult. “I think it is clear she understood the repercussions of having a child out of wedlock and decided to end it all when her lover let her know he would not be acknowledging the baby.”
“You don’t even know if there was a lover!”
“Oh, there was a lover all right – he was in the bed when the prince showed up out of the blue, probably using his own key which he would have acquired at some earlier time either from the maid or Mr Fisk-Manders. The lover disappeared into a dressing room to pull his trousers on. He didn’t wait to listen to the heated exchange between prince and princess. He high-tailed it out of Clarges by the back door so as not to be discovered.”
Mycroft was flushed to the gills and frothing apoplectically. “Shut up! Why don’t you! Just shut up and go back to Sussex! You’re not fit for anything except those stupid bees! Get out! Get out everyone! Get out and leave me alone to think!”
Sherlock and Dr Watson took a hackney cab to number 221B Baker Street. Neither spoke for the duration of the journey. The doctor was now feeling gobsmacked as well as groggy. The vehemence of the tone had shocked him. He put the violent outburst down to the horror of knowing innocent lives had been lost. Mycroft had a lot on his conscience and yet none of it had been his fault.
Sherlock lapsed into one of his introspective silences.
Ne ultra crepidam judicaret…rubbish!
The Countess waved them off then went to locate her maid. Xenia was helping Miss de Merville tend to the wounded, though several doctors had arrived on the scene to see to the serious cases and all that was left were some minor cuts and scrapes.
As Sherlock had pointed out, most of the guests were uninjured.
In the meantime, the Prince and Princess of Wales had departed and all of the important guests had followed suit. The party to usher in the new century – Last Night Forever! – expected to last till dawn had ended prematurely. A few dazed stragglers remained.
The Countess, in the company of Major Nash and Colonel Moriarty, made a brief tour of the interior of the pavilion and it was as Sherlock had surmised: the two domes blown clear off, the foyer a wreck, the studio above the foyer mildly damaged, but the remainder of the building largely intact. Someone wanted Mycroft dead but they wanted injuries kept to a minimum. The third bomb had been removed to the cupboard under the stairs, most likely by the studio photographer who may have noticed the folding camera on the hall table and stored it away for safe keeping until such time as the fireworks finished.
Neither man got the kiss he was expecting but at least he was still alive. That had to count for something. They watched the snow-white troika melt into the winter darkness and, utterly exhausted, turned to go back up the grassy knoll. Palls of smoke hanging over the pavilion mingled with mist creeping up from the river. They needed to start questioning servants and soldiers about the three bombs. They needed to ascertain as quickly as possible, before memories were dulled, if anyone had seen anything unusual at any time during the night.
“I’m going to run this past you,” said Major Nash, stopping to light a cigarette and offering one to his Irish counterpart as he gazed up at the frosted stars that had lost their sparkle. “Tonight I got the distinct impression that the Countess is secretly married to Dr Watson. Her reaction to his stumble down the stairs seemed more than just concern for a friend. And when I took her to see the doctor in the guardroom she stroked his forehead and patted his hair in a way that suggested intimacy, if you know what I mean. And the way she perched herself on the arm of his chair suggested a closeness that is usually only shared by married couples. My sister sits on the arm of a chair occupied by her husband but she wouldn’t do it to the arm of a chair occupied by me and I am her brother, and certainly not to a chair occupied by a man she is not related to. Feel free to disagree.”
Colonel Moriarty took a few puffs on his cigarette while he turned Nash’s idea over in his head. Tobacco smoke filled his lungs and he realized he hadn’t had a cigarette since before the commencement of the ball when he fell in with Damery, de Merville, and the American cigar tycoon on the veranda. It had been a strange night from start to finish and here was another strange thing on top of it. It was the last thing he expected to be discussing with his rival.
“You could be right. They live in separate residences in London but that could be to put everyone off the scent. I believe he spends a lot of time at the Mayfair house and takes most of his meals there. They travel together most of the time anyway and away from London it could be a different arrangement altogether. But why the secrecy?”
“She hasn’t been widowed long, maybe less than twelve months, and if they married in haste they might not want anyone to know. A lot of people still frown on anything less than widow’s weeds for the full twelve months of mourning. And to marry before three years is still considered bad form in some circles. As for the place in Baker Street, it is a place of business as much as a home, so he retains it but he couldn’t expect her to live there.”
“Mmm, yes, it’s the place you associate with Sherlock Holmes the consulting detective so I suppose the doctor doesn’t want to mess things up there, but from what I gathered from something the brother said, Sherlock spends most of his time in Sussex.”
Nash nodded. “He’s got a place on the South Downs. Mycroft Holmes, Dr Watson and the Countess went there for Christmas but she stayed in a village house. It could be that she and the doctor are keeping their marriage a secret from Sherlock too so as not to rock the boat.”
This was news to Moriarty! “Are you saying she didn’t spend Christmas with you?”
Nash blew a plume of smoke into the frosty air and gave a cynical laugh. “Next time you call someone stupid – you should check the mirror. I was at Longchamps with my sister and her family. Her husband is a violin maker. They have five children ranging in age from four years to twelve years and all of them play the violin. Individual lessons from their pater go from breakfast till mid-afternoon and then in the evening there are recitals and performances for the enjoyment of family members. Do you know how boring that is? Needless to say, making a violin and having the talent to play one is not the same thing.”
Moriarty laughed heartily. “At least you had company. I had my Irish Setter for company and he found me boring.”
The two men laughed and it was almost like old times when they were at military college together pitting themselves against the snobbery of their wealthier cadres.
“So what do you think of my theory?” asked Nash, enjoying the warm smoke from his cigarette against the cold night air that nipped at his face. “It would explain why we cannot get past the first post and yet we have never had any trouble with anyone else.”
“Apart from Isadora Klein, you mean,” reminded Moriarty, smarting at the memory of the humiliation at the hands of the dark seductress. The only thing that consoled him was the knowledge that Nash had suffered the same fate.
“Yes, apart from that bitch.”
Now that Moriarty had given the matter of passing the first post, namely the failure of, despite all his best efforts, serious consideration he wondered if Nash wasn’t onto something but got it slightly wrong. “The Countess might be secretly married all right, but I thought there was something going on between her and your boss.”
“What! Mycroft Holmes! Absolutely not!”
“Why not? I know he’s got as much appeal as a fat slug but he wields power and influence, and with women that counts for more.”
Nash was shaking his head. “No, no, you’re way off the mark.”
“Name all the women you know who would lend a valuable pearl earring to a man who is a mere acquaintance.”
“She’s probably got heaps to spare.”
“And think how he just handed it back to her as if the jewel was a mere bagatelle. What did he call it? Trinket?”
“He had a lot on his mind.”
“And when she perched herself on the arm of the doctor’s chair she was looking directly at Mycroft. There was a fair bit of subtle eye-contact and they were in accord about something.”
“The death of the princess, that’s all.”
“See, that’s what intrigues me. He called her in. He gave her permission to discuss it. She deferred to him. I have never seen her defer to anyone. Not once!”
Nash was still shaking his head but not as forcefully. “He’s not the type to get married.”
“Neither are we the type – we like our freedom too much – and yet we’d marry her tomorrow if she would say yes.”
“No argument there.”
“And did you say Mycroft was in Sussex too?”
“Maybe it was him she wanted to be with. Who invited her to spend Christmas in Sussex?”
“See, they’re keeping the marriage a secret from Sherlock and Dr Watson so as not to rock the boat. Hang on! Or else the other two are in on it and are protective of her for the sake of social approval, or should that be disapproval. There’s something else. I’ve always thought someone high up in government was protecting her. I think it could be your boss. He’s got influence, hasn’t he?”
“More influence than you can imagine.”
“I bet he’s been looking out for her.”
Nash nodded in the dark, recalling how his boss’s behaviour had altered since the Countess had arrived in London. He swallowed hard and tossed his spent cigarette on the damp grass. “Let’s go. This business isn’t going to sort itself out. We need to nail that mysterious photographer before he makes a better job of it next time.”
They reached the top of the rise when Moriarty paused. “Maybe we should let him.”
“May be we should let him clear the path to the church.”
Nash laughed crudely. “You haven’t changed! Still the same cunning cocky bastard!”
“All’s fair in love and war!”
Nash caught Moriarty by the arm as he commenced to stride off. “Why don’t the two of us act smart for a change?”
“How do you mean? And let go my arm if you know what’s good for you.”
Nash released his grip. “Let’s leave the small fry to Scotland Yard. We want to nail the bastard who commissioned the bomb man. Like the Countess said – it has to be one of the guests.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“We can cross most of the guests straight off the list. The Marchioness of Minterne-Magna is hardly likely to hire a bomb man to take out Mycroft Holmes because he turned down her invitation to afternoon tea. He never socializes anyway. It has to be one of the male guests, someone high up, someone who has a lot to lose regarding the amendment to the constitution of the Diogenes Club, the Irish regiment question, or the death of the princess.”
Moriarty was nodding. “I’m in agreement with you so far but how can we question people who don’t want to be questioned? They aren’t likely to take kindly to you and me nosing into their private affairs. Prince Sergei isn’t going to give me two minutes of his time.”
“I agree my plan needs some thought. Let’s sleep on it. We can meet up tomorrow night. Let’s say ten o’clock in the Copper Beech wood. That gives us plenty of time to mull it over.”
“You realize we’ll have stiff competition nailing the mysterious guest. Sherlock, Dr Watson and the Countess will be after him too.”
“Speaking of the Countess,” said Nash, “if it turns out she isn’t married to Dr Watson or Mycroft Holmes may the best man win.”
“I just had a terrible thought,” confessed Moriarty, suppressing a shudder, “what if she’s secretly married to Sherlock Holmes.”
Countess Volodymyrovna had arranged to meet with Miss de Merville at midday at their favourite restaurant in Covent Garden to discuss ramping up the suffragette campaign now that a new era had dawned, never dreaming the conversation would be hijacked by the bomb incident.
Rules was the oldest restaurant in London and the two women adored it because it was the closest they would ever get to a private gentlemen’s club. It was always full of aromatic cigar smoke, the menu featured things like venison, rabbit and oysters, and the décor was masculine, dark and clubby. Miss de Merville always reserved the same table.
“Oh, thank goodness you are uninjured!” she sighed dramatically as the Countess slipped into the banquette with an elegance that defied gravity. “Lady Northbridger was on the stairs when the third bomb went off. She died instantly. And Miss Lucinda Faversham was cut to pieces by flying glass. She has lost the sight in her right eye. It is ghastly. One feels guilty to come away unscathed.”
Two black velvets – champagne and Guinness – were brought to the table at once.
“Quite. Nazdorovya! Where were you when the first bomb went off?”
“I was in the ballroom having one last dance with Pugsy Setterfield. What about you?”
“I was collecting my Snow Queen cloak. Did your papa suffer any injuries?” The Countess knew very well the General was fine, but it was time to fish for information. It was often the smallest detail that led to something substantive.
“No, he was tremendously lucky! He had gone up to the dome room to smoke a hookah with Prince Sergei, Sir James Damery and Mr Bruce Blague when they bumped into Colonel Moriarty and Major Nash. I have never met the latter. I believe he is a baronet who is as poor as a church mouse,” she digressed before pausing expectantly.
“Yes, his family seat is in Kent. He was dressed as Horatio Hornblower. Shall we order?”
Miss de Merville blushed becomingly. “Oh, yes, blond and broad-shouldered. Frightfully handsome. You order this time. He will need a rich wife. You would suit.”
The Countess scanned the menu. “It would suit me better to remain unwed. You were saying…”
“Oh, where was I?”
“Your father had just gone up to the dome room when he bumped into…”
“Colonel Moriarty and Major Nash, yes, that’s right.” Her voice rose in feminine pitch as if excited by something. “They were at loggerheads over a woman and it was decided to have a duel. Can you believe it! Who do you think it was? The woman, I mean. I have been wracking my brains all morning.”
The waiter came across to take their order.
“Celeriac and apple soup to start. Venison curry. And to finish a Bombe Alaska.”
Miss de Merville groaned. “Three courses – do you think we should?”
“I hardly ate a thing last night and I skipped breakfast this morning.”
“Me too, but I’m wearing a new corset and there’s no give.”
“We’ll ease up on the Black Velvets. Miss Mona Blague would be my guess.”
“What? Oh, yes, of course! I forgot her because she wasn’t at the ball. She’s in the market for a husband with title. Major Nash would be perfect. What regiment is he with?”
“He works as aide de camp to Mr Mycroft Holmes.”
“Really? ADC to the primus baro of the Diogenes? How fascinating!”
Either the new corset was causing hot flushes or she blushed some more. “Oh, the Diogenes recently had their elections for the new primus baro, when I say recently, I mean about three months ago. Papa was in the running. He was quite confident of his chances and was terribly put out when Mr Holmes pipped him at the post. I remember him whining because Mr Holmes’s ADC, who is also a member of the club, cast the deciding vote. Until then it was a tie. I wondered at the time who the ADC was and pictured a dull milksop.”
“Who was the previous primus baro?”
“The Earl of Winchester, but the poor dear is past it. The stroke has left him incapacitated. The position of primus baro is held for life but three doctors certified him medically unfit, hence the elections.”
“Do you recall the names of the other candidates?”
Miss de Merville’s pretty brow creased. “There was just one other. A good friend of papa’s. Oh, what was his name?”
“Sir James Damery?”
“No, he’s Irish. He’s a member of the Carlton Club. There’s some silly rule that Irishmen cannot be members of the Diogenes. Papa says it’s ridiculous because Damery has done more for Britain than any other member of the club. There’s going to be a vote on changing the constitution shortly – something about allowing Irish and Americans in, but not Jews, Blacks, Orientals, Arabs or Russians. Oh, now I remember, the third candidate was Admiral Quantock. He died in a boating accident last month. His yacht capsized in the Solent.”
The remainder of the meal was spent discussing the enfranchisement of women. As they were saying goodbye in Maiden Lane it was Miss de Merville who returned to the topic of Major Nash.
“Was it Major Nash who came to pick you up yesterday at Brown’s?”
“Yes, it was. The Princess of Wales wanted to ask me something about protocol for the Russian royal family,” she lied. “And he acted as courier since he was passing through that part of London.”
Miss de Merville appeared satisfied. “Have you heard the rumour about Princess Paraskovia? They are saying she has moved into Clarges Hotel.”
The Countess who had stiffened, immediately relaxed. “Yes, I heard the same rumour. Scandalous!”
“Absolutely scandalous! I have to get home and release this corset. It is strangling me. I can feel the Bombe Alaska sitting here.” She pressed her fingers between her breasts. “Speaking of bombs. Papa told me the duellists were about to fire the first shot when the first bomb went off. If not for that bomb Colonel Moriarty or Major Nash might now be dead.”
The Countess had already thought the same thing. She also thought it extremely fortuitous that the men in the dome did not get blown up by the first bomb. Did one man deliberately lead the others up there? Did he plan to make some sort of excuse – a call of nature perhaps – and rush off just prior to midnight leaving the others to their fate? Who suggested the duel? Who opposed it? Who procured the weapons? Who wanted Mycroft dead?
The Buttery was a medieval building stuck on the end of Temple Library, opposite Temple Church. It started life as a dairy for the Knights Templar in the Middle Ages and had sat empty for the last few decades because of its prohibitive dimensions and lack of modern comforts. It was tall, narrow, dark, fusty, and a perfect bolt hole in London.
The Countess had taken a leaf out of Sherlock’s book and decided to maintain a separate residence should the need ever arise. She was meeting Dr Watson and Sherlock inside The Buttery now that it had been furnished with Tudor pieces and gimcracks. All she needed was a housekeeper to live-in.
“May I suggest Mr Steve Dixie,” said Sherlock after they had been given a tour of the different levels. “He is an amiable villain who has just finished enjoying a holiday at the pleasure of Her Majesty. He can put his hand to anything and is not averse to a dangerous undertaking. If left to his own devices he will soon fall in with artful dodgers. If you have nothing against American Negroes, he might be your man.”
“Nothing at all,” she said.
Dr Watson frowned. “He won’t run off with the pewterware?”
“I can impress upon him that it would not be in his long-term interests,” said Sherlock.
“What would stop him betraying the Countess?” persisted the doctor.
“The same goes for anyone else,” replied Sherlock with an unconcerned inflection.
“How soon can you arrange a meeting with Mr Dixie?” she said.
“Why don’t we adjourn to Ye Old Cock Tavern on the Strand where we can discuss the details and I’m sure Mr Dixie will arrive within the hour?”
Sherlock soon found one of his errand boys and the message was quickly relayed. The speed at which Mr Dixie appeared at the tavern would have put the telephone to shame.
“Hello, Masser Holmes,” he delivered in his distinctive Southern drawl, eyeing the consulting detective and sensing something different. “I hear you is keen to reacquaint yourself with Mr Steve Dixie, late of Wormwood Scrubs.”
“I am, Mr Dixie. Please take a seat. My friend, Watson will buy you a drink. A cup of hot cocoa fine for you?”
Mr Dixie pulled a wobbly face and Holmes laughed uproariously.
“Only joshing, Mr Dixie. A pint of porter for Mr Dixie, if you will, Watson.” Holmes waited for Watson to repair to the bar. “I would like to introduce you to a dear friend of mine. Yes, I have one or two. Her name is the Countess. She is in need of a fixer.”
Mr Dixie studied the lady using the wary coal-black eye of an ex-slave that knew how not to betray itself while summing up the rich and powerful. He had met plenty of tarted-up dollymops but he could tell she was the genuine thing. A high-class whore for dukes and lords; may be even the Prince of Wales. “I don’t have to kill no one, Masser Holmes. I swore off murder after Perkins.”
“No, no, nothing like that, rest assured, Mr Dixie. You will act as caretaker at an abode not far from here. You will come and go and make sure everything is neat and dandy. And when it transpires that the Countess arrives on the doorstep to stay for a day or two you will act as lookout. That is all.”
Mr Dixie appeared skeptical. “I don’t need to bruise no one?”
“No, no bruising. Ah! Here is your porter. Drink up. The Countess will set up an account here at the tavern for you to take your meals. She will also put money into a bank account quarterly in your name and you can access the money when you see fit. You will not need to pay for lodgings because you will be living for free in the establishment you will be caretaking. Do you follow?”
Mr Dixie stared into the unpatched eye; he nodded and swallowed at the same time. “How much is we talking, Masser Holmes?”
“Enough to keep you on the straight and narrow, Mr Dixie. Enough to keep you out of The Scrubs. Of course, if you should get light-fingered or lapse into the old ways or start inviting all your old friends around for parlour games you will find me very unforgiving. I will be forced to have a long chat to Inspector Lestrade. Wormwood will seem like a picnic. I may even have to mention the name Perkins. A hangman’s rope is a possibility. Finish up your porter and we will take a stroll around the corner to visit your new home. It is not grand but you will have your own room and the run of the place until such time, as I mentioned earlier, the Countess arrives to stay for a few days.”
Mr Dixie liked The Buttery and he moved in that same night. It had a smell like a posh knocking shop – camphor and beeswax and wood polish and perfumed candles. But it was like no brothel he had ever seen. There was only one bedroom right at the top of the stairs. And though it was decked out beautiful, it weren’t done in red velvet with lots of mirrors and paintings of ladies with no clothes on. His bedroom was off the kitchen which had a new coal range that would banish the cold. The bedroom had a proper big bed for a man his size, with crisp clean sheets and two pillows without any stains, and some sturdy furniture that was not likely to fall to pieces the moment he touched it. Best of all was the tavern on the Strand. For the first time since being granted freedom he would not have to worry about where his next meal was coming from. It seemed too good to be true.
“What do you mean: it isn’t the first time?” demanded Sherlock, eye-balling his big brother with one daunting unpatched eye.
“Don’t be so melodramatic, Sherlock,” rebuked Mycroft, frowning at his golden-smudged reflection in the verre églomisé walls which in the hands of a lesser master could have been a decorating disaster. Gold-leafed glass could be garish if not handled correctly, but here the artist had demonstrated restraint. Burnished clouds of gold reflected the candlelight in a way that was quite magical. The Countess had been sensible not to electrify the chandelier.
“What happened?” pursued Dr Watson, recalling his own lucky escape on the stairs of the pavilion the night before. He was glad there was just the four of them for dinner at number 6 Mayfair Mews; he had been expecting Major Nash and Colonel Moriarty.
“I was nearly killed by a barrel,” said Mycroft blandly, refreshing his glass and passing on the decanter of port. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time but last night when my head hit the pillow I recalled that it was a near miss.”
“When was this?” asked Sherlock.
“Just prior to Christmas. I had been to the barber in Jermyn Street and was taking a short cut back to Pall Mall. I was walking along Bury Street where a horse and cart was parked at the corner of Ryder Street. It appeared to be securing its load of barrels. I had just gone past the cart when one of the barrels must have broken loose. It rolled off the cart and came hurtling down the street. It would have bowled me over and killed me instantly had not a stranger grabbed my arm and jerked me into a recessed doorway.”
“Was it usual for you to walk to and fro the barber?” probed Sherlock.
“Yes, the distance is quite short and to circumvent further pointless conjecture, yes, I always take the same short cut. Anyone who knows my routine would know that.”
“Anyone who knows you would know you are a stickler for routine,” disparaged the younger Holmes. “May I suggest you vary your routine for the time being.”
“A stickler does not vary,” responded the elder with disdain.
“Then take precaution,” advised Sherlock. “If someone has twice failed to eliminate you they are hardly likely to give up. They will try even harder next time.”
“You think there will be a next time?” pressed Dr Watson.
“Without a doubt, my friend, without a doubt,” he assured, frowning. “I would go undercover at that monastic establishment in Pall Mall but an eye-patch rather gives the game away and a mechanical arm is a darned nuisance when it comes to balancing a tray of brandy balloons.”
“I could do it,” offered Dr Watson. “I could go undercover as a waiter.”
“Butler,” corrected Mycroft with asperity. “And it is out of the question. Apart from the fact you would be spotted in ten seconds flat as an interloper by a proper butler, the uproar from the members would see me hanged for treason. And quite rightly!”
Dr Watson conceded he would probably make a rum job of it. A genuine butler would spot a fake at once. Sherlock could have pulled it off but a mechanical arm was not something you could disguise while butlering.
The Countess, having dismissed her own butler once dinner was over so that they could talk in private, personally proffered a box of cigars to her three male guests. “If this matter pertains to the amendment to the club’s constitution then it is more than likely the person out to kill you is someone within your own club and doing nothing is not an option. We cannot just wait for the next near miss. The rolling barrel was a long shot staged to look accidental, but three bombs upped the ante dramatically. If the third attempt follows from the second it will be something more serious than three bombs.”
Feeling suddenly nervy, Dr Watson lit up his calabash pipe in preference to a cigar. “How many people died last night?”
“Five,” said Mycroft.
“And how many were injured?” pressed Sherlock.
“Thirty-two,” replied the elder sibling. “Six of them with life-threatening injuries that may yet add to the body count.”
“Can your ADC go undercover as a butler?” pursued Sherlock.
Mycroft shook his head firmly. “Nash could probably pull it off but his role as my aide de camp is non-negotiable and quite frankly if anyone is going to prevent another near miss it will be my ADC going about his normal duty.”
The others all agreed Nash was better suited to personal body-guard than butler and the idea was shelved. The Countess moved on quickly.
“I was lunching with Miss de Merville today and she mentioned the amendment to the constitution had something to do with relaxing club membership – is that correct?”
Mycroft scowled. “She must have got that from her father. De Merville isn’t supposed to discuss club matters with outsiders. He probably discussed it with Damery too. The two of them are as thick as thieves. I wouldn’t be discussing it with you now if lives other than mine weren’t at stake. Yes, the amendment, if passed, will allow for Americans and Irishmen to join the club. It is currently restricted to English, Scottish and Welsh nationals.”
“Is that really worth killing for?” quizzed Dr Watson dubiously. “I mean Americans and Irishmen are not exactly the enemy at the gates.”
“Quite so,” agreed Mycroft. “I’m in favour of the amendment but a lot of our members feel threatened. Some Irishmen are Fenian sympathisers and though they can infiltrate labour organisations and working men’s clubs it is currently difficult for them to infiltrate the sorts of clubs where political matters or national secrets are privately aired in the Stranger’s Room. As for Americans, it is possible they will sway trade arguments in favour of our Atlantic cousins rather than our own people – money talks and they have a lot of voice at their disposal.”
“Miss de Merville also mentioned about the recent vote for primus baro. You won by a single vote, Uncle Mycroft. As the position is held for life there can be no new vote unless something fatal befalls you.”
Mycroft appeared unconcerned. “Yes, de Merville missed out by a whisker. But he is hardly likely to bump me off simply because he wants to be primus baro.”
“I understand the other candidate, Admiral Quantock, has since died?”
“Yes; drowned in the Solent. If you are suggesting de Merville bumped him off to eliminate future competition I would find that hard to swallow. I have known de Merville for more than twenty years. He is a brave soldier and an excellent leader of men.”
“Where does he stand on the Irish Guards question?” she asked.
“I refuse to discuss his views on the subject.”
“What about your views on the subject?” she persisted.
Mycroft hesitated before deciding he was amongst family – or the closest to family he would ever have – and that the three individuals around the table had his best interests at heart. “I am in favour of forming a regiment of Irish Guards. It is long overdue. The Irish have always conducted themselves honourably in battle. We already have a regiment of Highlanders. Keeping men who are affiliated in the same regiment makes sense. Moreover, a single Irish regiment limits the opportunity for an uprising from within our own ranks. If they are all contained to one regiment they have less chance to spread chaos.”
Dr Watson withdrew his calabash and rested it on the edge of an ashtray while he refilled his port glass. “What are the objections?”
Mycroft declined another glass of port; he’d had three already, and that was on top of the Moselle, Cabernet, and Madeira. “The Irish Guards question comes at the end of an acrimonious shake-up of the army: administration, dress, tactics, weaponry – the whole kit and caboodle. Board of Ordnance versus Commissariat versus War Office. Camp Roberts versus Camp Wolseley. Africa versus India. Many men prefer the status quo. Change can be unnerving. If it were left up to certain high-ranking officers we would still be charging the enemy with cold steel in Swaziland. It worked at Waterloo in 1815 they would say!”
“Lord Roberts is in favour?” checked Dr Watson.
“Sir James Damery would be in Camp Roberts,” noted the Countess, “since he is Irish.”
“It would appear so,” replied Mycroft without committing himself.
“He would also be in favour of the amendment,” added Dr Watson.
“Most likely,” said Mycroft vaguely.
“Where does de Merville stand on this?”
“If you want to know de Merville’s views you must ask him.”
“If he is opposed,” opined Sherlock, “that would put him at odds to his friend Damery.”
Mycroft glanced at his fob watch then pushed to his feet and directed his words to his hostess and niece. “Thank you for dinner. I have an early start tomorrow. Don’t let me break up the party. I instructed my coachman to return for ten o’clock and it is a quarter after the hour. I don’t want to leave him sitting out in the cold for too long. Please don’t inconvenience yourself. I will see myself out.”
Despite Mycroft’s declaration, the Countess walked with him to the door to satisfy herself that his coachman was indeed where he should be. When she returned, Dr Watson and Sherlock had removed themselves to the library end of the drawing room. A coal fire having burned quietly in the grate all evening warmed the length of the room nicely. Dr Watson re-lighted his calabash and closed his eyes. Sherlock lighted his briar pipe and looked earnestly at his daughter.
“Do you still have the Russian nesting doll?” he asked, curious to see what such a doll actually looked like.
She shook her head. “I put it on the dressing table in Clarges Hotel and after Prince Sergei’s visit it disappeared.”
“He took it with him?”
“I wonder why?”
“A memento mori perhaps?”
“But then why place it in the bath with her – presuming he killed her?”
“Perhaps it was a spontaneous decision to take it when he spotted it on the dressing table. The prince must have assumed Mycroft found the dolls, including the smallest doll. By taking the dolls he let Mycroft know they were not his to keep.”
“Hmm, it is up to the three of us to save my brother,” he said bluntly. “There will undoubtedly be a third attempt on his life and I don’t think we will need to wait too long to see what form it will take. We could go round and round in circles debating the Irish question and the amendment to the constitution of the club – my thought is that they are linked. There is no doubt de Merville and Damery have taken sides, either together or opposed. Appearances can be deceiving. They may even appear to be opposed but working in cahoots. Men are generally self-serving. If it is in their interests they will oppose their own mother without compunction. Now, it is impossible for me to go undercover inside the club, and likewise Watson, so that leaves, you.”
He looked directly into her blue-grey eyes, the spitting sharpness of his. “With some clever make up, a wig, a moustache and a small beard, I think you might pull it off. The main obstacle would be the hands. Fortunately the butlers in the Diogenes Club are required to wear white gloves. The ‘no speaking’ rule eliminates any voice problem. You have grown up with butlers around you so you are familiar with butlers’ duties. I think it might be easier to pull off than we suppose. What do you say?”
The prospect of going undercover inside a gentlemen’s club was too tempting. She didn’t need to think too long. “Yes, of course. I regard it as an opportunity to help Uncle Mycroft, and a challenge that any novice detective would not hesitate to take up. If I am going to garner a scandalous reputation I would rather it be for what I did rather than who I slept with.”
“Splendid,” said Sherlock, before turning to look squarely at his friend who had been listening despite resting his eyes. “Watson, you will not be idle. It is common knowledge that members of the Diogenes Club can often be found in the Turkish Baths on Northumberland Avenue. In fact, the baths are often referred to as the Greek Pool as a nod to Diogenes and not homosexuals as many erroneously believe. Clandestine conferences are known to be held there. Again, it is impossible for a man with a mechanical arm and no left foot to make use of a Turkish Bath and remain incognito, so it will be up to you, Watson, to hang about there as often as possible to see who comes and goes. You will need to put it about that you are suffering from lumbago or an imbalance of the humours, whatever you wish. Not such a bad assignment, hey?”
“Not at all,” said Dr Watson, feeling confident that he could pull off a bit of lounging around and watching who comes and goes. He hadn’t been to the Turkish Baths for ages, in fact, not since the incident at Reichenbach Falls. Going there always reminded him of the intimate times he had shared with Sherlock. It wasn’t the same without him.
“That leaves me,” said Sherlock. “I shall not be idle. I shall find myself a role. But if you don’t mind I will keep it to myself.”
“We haven’t touched on the death of the princess yet,” said the Countess. “Uncle Mycroft’s reaction to her death has been puzzling me.”
“In what way?” asked Sherlock.
“He seemed to take it personally, as if, well, as if he had somehow caused it. At first I thought it might simply be a delicate diplomatic incident that needed careful handling, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed somehow personal. And his over-reaction to your comment about the vanity of princesses seemed to trigger something.”
“I certainly touched a raw nerve,” admitted Sherlock.
Dr Watson withdrew his ebony mouthpiece. “Quite frankly, I was shocked. I have never even heard Mycroft raise his voice. I put it down to nerves and a guilty conscience – not that I am suggesting he had anything to feel guilty about. The bombs may have been intended for him but he is not personally responsible for them. Even tonight he seemed on edge and reticent to discuss things with his customary candour. It was as if he was being guarded and obscurantist.”
“He is definitely holding something back,” agreed Sherlock, “in fact it is not an exaggeration to say he may even work against us in this matter, against his own best interests. It is up to us to watch out for him since he is unwilling to watch out for himself.”
No one spoke for a few minutes. It was the Countess who broke the silence.
“We have not even touched on Prince Sergei. When he spoke to Uncle Mycroft in the hotel room I got the impression the two men were duelling – lunge, thrust, parry – it was like a fencing competition in which they understood the rules but no one else had a clue. What remained unspoken seemed more relevant than what was said.”
Sherlock placed his briar pipe on an ashtray and steepled his fingers. “Yes, the death of the princess may be at the root of this matter and my brother is keeping something important to himself. I don’t think there is any point pushing him. It will be counterproductive. He will simply pull up the draw-bridge.”
Later that night, after Sherlock and Dr Watson had taken themselves off to Baker Street, the Countess couldn’t help feeling that Sherlock was holding something back as well.
Tendrils of mist like milky whey curled on the surface of the lake and snaked through the wood of Copper Beeches, throwing a mantle over the furtive rendezvous.
“Let’s get this over with,” growled Colonel Moriarty as soon as a familiar shadowy figure stepped out from the inky darkness swamping the trees. “It’s bloody cold out here. Got any smart ideas? If not -”
“Just one,” interrupted Major Nash in deep and throaty muffled tones signalling intense irritation. “If I hadn’t been busy chasing you or that pirate, or wondering about the lady in the purple and gold dress who turned out to be the Countess’s maid, or keeping an eye on the Russian ambassador, I would have paid more attention to that roaming photographer.”
Moriarty had spent a good part of the day beating himself up about his lack of attention as well. “Yes, he had to be the bomb man. He was free to roam. If anyone questioned what he was doing he could immediately pretend to be fixing something on his camera. We don’t even know if his camera worked. He could have had bombs concealed inside the device. Though it’s pretty clear someone else directed him where to place them. Today, I spoke to the men who had been on guard duty and no one remembers seeing him after the bombs exploded.”
“What about the other photographer – the one working in the studio?”
“Well, he’s different. He was stuck in the studio the whole time. The roaming man is the one who would have had the chance to do serious damage.”
“We need to follow-up both men.”
“Agreed,” said Moriarty. “Did you have a chance to think about how – shhh!”
Military training kicked in when a rustling sound in the undergrowth alerted them to the fact they might not be the only two men in the wood. Instinctively they moved to take cover, silently extracting the revolvers buried deep in their coat pockets whilst straining for the next sound and sieving it from the usual nocturnal noises.
After a few anxious moments with breaths on hold, a red fox emerged from the coppery bracken equally alert to any danger. It froze, twitched some whiskers, cocked its ears, and sensing peril, fled. The two men relaxed their guard.
“Where did you leave your horse?” whispered Moriarty.
“By the stable block. I hung around for a bit to make sure I wasn’t being followed before heading this way.”
“I left my horse in the carriage porch and wandered around a bit to make sure no one was tagging along. Let’s move to the other side of the lake. You go that way. I’ll go this. Meet you in about ten or fifteen minutes by the pump house.”
Both men heard a dull splash as if a creature was going for a midnight swim but it was too dark to make anything out. They continued skirting the lake and by the time they reached the pump house they had convinced themselves that nerves had caused them to over-react.
“You were saying?” prompted Major Nash, keen to get on with the rendezvous.
“Did you come up with any ideas how we might proceed?”
“You were right in that we cannot go about questioning de Merville or Damery or Prince Sergei. Even if they agreed to see us they would either lie through their teeth or simply string us along. It would be a waste t of time.”
Moriarty was surprised he and Nash were in accord yet again; he couldn’t remember the last time the two of them could agree on anything discounting the time they cornered The Hon. Pugsy Setterfield in a corner of the Hellfire Club and forced him cough up what he owed them. That was the thing with the self-entitled – they settled their debts with their betters but never their inferiors. Most tradesmen went broke because the self-entitled rich never paid them for the work they had commissioned.
“So that leaves us nowhere.”
“Not quite. Listen to my proposal. It’s a long shot but it might just get us moving in the right direction.”
Moriarty was willing to consider all ideas at least once no matter how dunder-headed. “Go ahead, I’m listening.”
“We need to gather the main suspects together in one place and let interaction and conversation take its natural course while we listen and observe.”
Dunder-headed scheme was right. “Where did this idea spring from?”
“Last night when Mycroft Holmes lost his rag it got me thinking. Something must have got under his skin. In five years I’ve never heard him so much as raise his monotone above a low-level drone. If we hadn’t been sent packing we might have learned something useful in the conversation that followed.”
Moriarty wasn’t convinced. “So where exactly did you have in mind for this gathering of main suspects?”
“I thought the Countess could hold a dinner party at her house in Mayfair. The only hiccup is that people are on their best behaviour at dinner parties and –”
Moriarty laughed risibly. “We must move in different circles!”
“Any way, then came the spark. We could gather under the roof at my place in Kent.”
Moriarty tried not to laugh even more risibly but it was impossible; he guffawed loudly. “You mean that wobbly-walled Tudor barn! Has it still got a roof?”
Nash took no offence; he hated the old Tudor millstone around his neck that held no happy childhood memories. “A new slate roof – as a matter of fact.”
“I presume some half-timbered stumps are holding it up?”
Nash decided to nip sarcasm in the bud. “My great-aunt died three years ago in Canada. It was her dream to see the family seat restored to its original glory. She entailed enough money in her will for the restoration of Longchamps. It meant I couldn’t spend the money on anything else but at least the Tudor barn won’t collapse under my watch.”
“What did you call it?”
“Longchamps.” He pronounced it like the French.
“I thought it was called Crowditch or Cowbyre?”
“They’re the names of some of the cottages on the estate.”
“All right, Kent it is, but how do you expect to lure anyone to Longchamps? Prince Sergei Malamtov is hardly likely to accept an invitation issued by a penniless baronet.”
“I’ve been giving it some thought. Mycroft will have to issue the invitations. He can explain how he wants to bring everyone together to discuss who set the bombs to kill the Prince Regent and he can say he wants to hold the meeting away from London’s gossip-mongers, hence the private country house of his aide de camp.”
“The bombs weren’t intended for the Prince Regent,” pointed out Moriarty.
“We know that but as far as anyone else is concerned that’s who the bombs were meant to kill. No one will want to look like they’re not concerned for the good health of the heir to the throne. Ergo, they will attend. The Countess will have to be in on it because I don’t have any servants, just one old retainer who is on his last legs. She has about fifteen servants in Mayfair. The more she can spare the better.”
Moriarty began nodding; the plan was not as dunder-headed as he first thought. “Who do you plan to invite?”
“Mycroft, the Countess, Dr Watson, General de Merville, Miss de Merville, Sir James Damery, the Russian prince, and the woman we love to hate.”
“Isadora Klein – why her?”
“She’ll even out the ratio of men to women and she could act as a catalyst, cat among the pigeons, so to speak.”
“That makes ten,” said Moriarty.
“Nine,” corrected Nash. “You’re not invited. If you turn up everyone will smell a rat.”
“I’ll have a bath before I come.”
Nash squared his lantern jaw. “The men know we’re rivals for the affections of the Countess. If you get invited it will look dodgy.”
Moriarty hated that Nash was right and decided not to twist the self-inflicted knife any further. “What about Blague?”
“The American tycoon?”
“It just occurred to me he was with the others all night. Someone led those men to the dome for some shisha prior to the bomb going off. If you hadn’t turned up all trigger-happy and we hadn’t gone out to the wood for a spot of night-shooting I wonder what would have happened. Would all four of them have gone down to view the fireworks? Would one sneak off and leave the others up there to get blown to smithereens?”
“Now you mention it, the amendment to the constitution of the club involves Americans. The vote is on extending membership to Americans and Irishmen.”
“Irishmen?” Moriarty’s tone betrayed intense surprise.
Nash picked up on the underlying note of quiet excitement. “Exactly – so how far would Blague go to ensure membership of the Diogenes Club? How far would Damery go? It is my impression he’s had his Irish nose out of joint for years.”
Indignation flared and Moriarty gave thanks for the lack of moonlight – easy to talk about noses out of joint when you were born a titled Englishman in England. “If you invite Blague you will have to invite his daughter.”
“I wasn’t aware he had one?”
“Miss Mona Blague is a true Southern belle. You’re in for a treat. She was so cut up about Freddy Cazenove skipping off to the Transvaal she couldn’t muster the wherewithal to get out of bed for the costume ball. Daddy tried to coax her with a new tiara from Old Bond Street but the mere thought of Freddy suffering a flesh wound was too much for her sensitive nature.”
Nash pictured Freddy taking an Enfield bullet and smiled in the dark; the beautiful and accomplished Violet de Merville was too good for that reckless prig; no earldom would compensate being married to a profligate gambler, womanizer and bully. “Just one daughter?”
“One and only – and on the market for a poor sap with a title. If anyone could make her forget Lieutenant Cazenove it could be a young baronet with a Tudor barn. Watch your back.”
“I gather she looks like a dog?”
Moriarty shook his head. “Wrong – try blonde, petite, pretty, with a ripe set of tits and enough money to buy up half of Kent should you wish to add acreage to your long-fields. And don’t ever compare a woman to a dog. I like dogs.”
“So what’s the drawback?”
“I’ll leave you to figure it out for yourself.”
That meant there was one. “I’ll add the Blagues to the list of guests. That will make eleven all up.”
“How many bedrooms in the barn?”
“A connecting master-mistress suite, four principal bedrooms, six secondary bedrooms, four minor bedrooms, and a nursery wing – all recently refurbished in the style suited to the period – and a separate servants’ wing.”
The Irishman was impressed. “Whew! All you need to do is convince Mycroft Holmes to go along with your daft scheme.”
“I’ve convinced you, haven’t I?”
Moriarty laughed throatily and began to stride away. “Let’s check out the photographer’s studio while we’re here.”
“The pavilion has been boarded up.”
Nash smiled wryly as he caught up to the colonel and they began striding in step; it was like old times when they were young and brash and whole world was theirs to conquer. “I’m gagging for a cigarette.”
“I’ve been gagging for the last ten minutes.”
“So you thought there was someone in the wood as well?” Nash was referring to the fact neither of them dared light up a cigarette for fear of alerting the watcher in the dark to their presence.
“I’ve never known a fox to crash through the undergrowth like he’s wearing hobnail boots. Someone trailed one of us all right. Let’s light up as we head up to the pavilion. We’ll soon find out if he’s still out there.”
Grand architectural pediments above the double doors of the new coronial offices on the High Street hinted at a Town Hall, Royal Academy, Museum or Public Library so as not to alarm nearby residents by drawing attention to the morgue at the rear which could be entered separately through a side lane.
The flash of an official government card had the night-watchman politely waving him through the wrought-iron gate that led to a darkened courtyard where several black ambulances were parked. The foul stench from a broken pipe in the yards-man’s WC assailed his sensitive nostrils as he crossed the bluestone cobbles and entered an unlocked door at the rear.
Inside, all was cold and sterile. It matched his mood. The stench of raw effluent was replaced by the sharp smell of disinfectant. He didn’t know which was worse as he by-passed the washroom and the post mortem rooms and ignored the sleepy mortuary attendant dozing at his desk where a gas lamp burned dimly, lighting the way. He knew where the bodies were stored and wasted no time.
The order had gone out. There would be no post mortem. Tomorrow the body would be temporarily interred in a secluded birchwood in a corner of the arboretum belonging to the Earl of Winchester until such time as Prince Sergei returned to his homeland and the body would be sufficiently decomposed to travel with him for burial in the family crypt in Minsk. It was the only solution; Slavs did not believe in cremation.
He found a box of candles on a shelf and lighted one. It flickered faintly, enough for him to see the outlines of things. He located the trolley and lifted back the cold grey sheet. Gently, he stroked the lifeless cheek, as cold as ice, as hard as stone, as white as death. Pain squeezed the organ beating in his chest and tears pricked his limpid owlish eyes; his throat constricted and he found it hard to swallow or breathe.
Wavering bluish candlelight washed around him and he felt like he was drowning. Emotions threatened to engulf him and drag him down to some watery abyss. The sensation was strange, unfathomable, and the experience unlike anything he could comprehend or explain. He wondered if he was dying.
Some men feared death, others feared life.
He had no fear of either.
He did not believe in heaven or hell.
He was not ruled by existential terrors.
He tried blinking back the tears but they flowed like a warm stream down his hot cheeks and he felt ashamed. He felt ashamed for giving into emotion. He felt ashamed for being weak. He felt ashamed for betraying his philosophy. He felt ashamed for being like everyone else.
He fell across the lifeless body of the princess and wept quietly.
He wept for something he had lost. He wept for something he would never have. He wept because he couldn’t help it. He wept because he was human.
When a door slammed somewhere at the far end of a corridor and a cold draught blew the candle out, he drew comfort from the darkness. Light was a greatly overrated thing. Harsh. Severe. Unforgiving. Darkness was softer. A man could embrace the darkness. Without darkness there would be no dreams, no desires, no moon, no stars, no secrets…
“Who the hell are you?” It was the sleepy attendant now wide awake, holding a lantern that sprayed blinding light enough to wake the dead.
Mycroft pulled himself together. “Never you mind!”
With his lachrymose emotions once more in stoic check, he walked briskly back out into the world that would always now be one shade colder, blacker and emptier.
Major Nash and Colonel Moriarty pried away a loose board that had been nailed slipshod across a shattered French window and climbed inside the pavilion. The acrid smell of charred timbers and burnt fabrics mingled with ghostly puffs of smoke and ash and wraiths of plaster dust that drifted like phantoms stirred to life by cross-currents of cold air and human visitation. Fine, white, chalky powder coated their clothes and skin, pervading their nostrils, forcing them to draw shallow breaths. Gaps in the boards invited motes of moonlight, enough to guide the way to the second level where the studio sat above the octagonal foyer, or what was left of it.
“What exactly are we looking for?” whispered Nash; boots crunching bits of broken glass that started life as a crystal chandelier, and chunks of ornamental plaster cornicing that lay scattered in the aftermath of shredded curtains, a torn backdrop of the Brighton Pavilion, and a camera still attached to its tripod stand lying flat on the ground.
Picking his way gingerly across creaking timbers that had withstood the blast but now threatened to give way under the weight of him, Moriarty shrugged. “I don’t know. Rolls of film. Photographic plates. A link between this photographer and the one who was roaming around. Were they working in tandem? Did they know each other?”
Carefully they sifted through bomb debris looking for clues until Nash threw back the painted backdrop and felt his breath catch.
“This is interesting,” he said with remarkable understatement.
Moriarty turned to look and felt his breath catch too.
The photographer who had been working in the studio was lying dead. He had been strangled with a goodly length of the hem of a petticoat. It was still wrapped tightly around the neck. The body was stiff and stone cold. The remnant of broderie anglais (donated by some grand dame for the staunching of wounds) indicated the victim had been murdered well after the bombs had been detonated, possibly when he returned to the studio to salvage what he could of his expensive equipment. The murderer had probably casually picked up the frill and later used it to strangle him. Strangling required brute strength – the killer was a man.
Those same thoughts ran through the minds of both Nash and Moriarty and required no clarification. Other points needed thrashing out.
“Why kill him after the event?” posed Moriarty in a neutral tone.
“If he was going to be interviewed by Scotland Yard he might give too much away,” suggested Nash. “If we suspected the roaming photographer, it wouldn’t take long for the Yard to do the same.”
“Or he might have been able to identify the roaming photographer,” offered the colonel.
“He might even have guessed the other wasn’t a proper photographer at all but a stooge with an empty folding box – especially if he picked it up and put it under the stairs.”
“He might have seen something suspicious which didn’t mean anything at the time but later seemed out of place. Not necessarily something the other photographer did, but perhaps one of the guests.”
“He might have overheard someone talking about the bombs while he was preoccupied behind the backdrop and only later did the speaker realize the photographer heard every word.”
“We could probably find a dozen more reasons. Check his pockets. Does he have a business card with an address on it?”
Nash poked around in the pockets of the frock coat. “Here’s a card.” He struck a lucifer and his eyes skimmed the fine print before the match barbecued his fingers. “Mr Aubrey Ambrose, 44 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.”
“That’s just across the river. The Battersea Bridge will have us there in no time.”
“Posh address,” noted the Major. “He must have been one of those society photographers popular with the ladies. Let’s go. We’ll rendezvous on the bridge.”
Sherlock didn’t return to Baker Street with Dr Watson. He explained he had a few things to take care of and his old friend knew what that meant. There was no point pressing the matter. Sherlock would explain in his own good time.
The consulting detective felt a frisson of the old excitement as he returned to Clarges Hotel where he had earlier in the day checked in. The lobby was dead quiet as he collected his key from the night porter and went to his room on the second floor, staying just long enough to snatch up a kerosene switch-marker lantern with a Bangor blue lens that diffused the light and was not too glary. Without ado, he stole up the servants’ stairs to the third level. The Russian maid was sleeping in a room at the end of the hall. He could hear her snores as he tip-toed along the corridor and slipped into the main bedroom.
He was intrigued as to what a Matryoshka doll looked like and he hoped there might be more nesting dolls stored in boxes in the dressing room. If the princess had one doll she was likely to have others to hand out to loyal friends of Mother Russia.
He also wanted to familiarize himself with the layout of the rooms so that he could return during the day and make a detailed search for any clues as to who the lover was. His brother was behaving peculiarly and it worried him. He didn’t seriously believe Mycroft killed the princess but if he knew who did kill her and was thinking of taking his revenge that was different.
The maid had started to pack up the princess’s personal possessions, probably at the instigation of the prince. That actually made the search easier. It also meant that if things were disturbed it would not be as noticeable. He worked quickly and methodically using the blue tinted lamp to direct the light to where it was needed.
There were no nesting dolls to be had in the dressing room so he moved into the bedroom and found something even better. A solid gold cufflink was lying under the dressing table. It was engraved with a capital ‘J’.
James, Josiah, Jim, Jonathan, Jantzen, John…
Sir James Damery.
General Josiah de Merville.
Inigo Belvedere Fortescue Nash son of Jonathan Nash and Gabriella Jantzen.
John Hamish Watson.
Sherlock dismissed that last name and breathed a sigh of relief that he was not looking at a cufflink engraved with a capital M or H.
Major Nash and Colonel Moriarty were standing in the shadow of a towering oak tree in Cheyne Walk on the embankment side looking through a translucent grey veil of mist at a large sash window on the second level of number 44 where the flame from a lantern flickered erratically as it moved hither and thither behind a drawn blind.
“Someone beat us to it,” said Nash bitterly, feeling the damp settle into his clothes. “Someone’s searching the premises and it’s not Scotland Yard unless they’ve decided to start working round the clock.”
“What do you think they’re looking for?”
“Same as us – something that links the studio photographer to the photographer roaming around with the folding camera which must have housed the third bomb.”
“Since we’re here, let’s find out who it is.”
Like most Georgian terraces, those in Cheyne Walk were constructed with a basement kitchen which had a window below ground level that could be accessed from the street by leaping over a hand-rail into a light-well. This particular basement window had been obligingly pried open. It was a simple case of slipping inside and creeping up the stairs; revolvers drawn and cocked, ready to fire at a moment’s notice.
The two men hugged the wall and kept to the shadows, thankful for the skylight that filtered moonlight through opaque glass. They reached the landing where the stairs turned when one of the oak boards creaked and whoever was upstairs in the front parlour immediately extinguished the light, alerted to the fact someone else had entered the house.
There was no going back so they pressed on, breaths drawn. They reached the top landing and moved to separate doors, both ajar; hearts pounding in expectation of danger. There was no sound anywhere except for the ticking of the longcase clock at the turn of the stairs. As they stepped simultaneously through the twin doorways there came a ton of pain and then the world went black.
An unknown shortness of time later, with skulls throbbing and a dull pain between the eyes, they returned to the land of the living to find a huge black giant standing over them wielding a nasty looking cosh, and behind the giant there appeared a dreamy vision bathed in golden lamplight that resembled the Countess holding a large wooden candlestick.
“Good evening, gentlemen, I apologise for the headache you may have tomorrow, but it was a necessary precaution in case you turned out to be someone undesirable.”
“Bloody hell!” muttered Major Nash as he rubbed the back of his head and tried not to wince.
Colonel Moriarty didn’t bother suppressing a loud groan. “Did your manservant just transform himself into a black devil or am I still seeing things?”
“This is Mr Steve Dixie,” she said, replacing the wooden candlestick on a chiffonier and re-lighting the lantern. “He has lately joined my employ. Fedir is with the landau parked in Cheyne Row. I presume we are all here for the same reason. Mr Aubrey Ambrose has not returned to number 44 since the costume ball. I had several people watching his house yesterday. I don’t suppose you happen to know his whereabouts?”
“Yes,” said Moriarty without hesitation, deciding they were on the same side and there was no point prevaricating. “He’s lying in the pavilion with a strip of broderie anglais wrapped around his neck.”
“I thought I made that clear; he was strangled.”
She moved to the window and peered through a gap in the blind to check the street below to make sure no one else was about to show up uninvited. “What about the second photographer – the one wandering about with the Kodak camera who hasn’t been seen since the bombs went off?”
Major Nash pushed abruptly to his feet and tried to steady his swimmy head. “We wondered if there might be a clue here. Sherlock presumed Mr Ambrose moved the camera with the bomb but what if the two photographers were working in tandem.”
“Unlikely,” she said. “I made enquiries. Mr Ambrose worked alone apart from two junior assistants who are totally stunned that their employer has not been seen since the costume ball. They reported for work here early this morning ready to develop as many photographs as possible as stipulated by their employer. This was their most lucrative assignment to date and Mr Ambrose was hoping it would be an entrée into royal patronage. He is hardly likely to jeopardise that by teaming up with a bomb man.”
“If you already knew he wasn’t the bomb man,” reasoned Major Nash, “why did you bother to come here tonight?”
“I wanted to ascertain if Mr Ambrose had gone into hiding. It would have suggested he saw something or knew something and was frightened for his life. It looks as if that was the case and the killer didn’t hesitate to silence him. If you knew he was already dead, why did you come here tonight?”
Moriarty straightened up and gave another unabashed groan. “If the two photographers were both in the same line of work it’s possible they knew each other and perhaps even exchanged business cards. Have you searched his study?”
She shook her head. “According to Mr Dixie, who made a quick survey of the premises when we arrived, there’s an office in the attic. The next level up is a bedroom, bathroom and dressing room. At the rear of this level is a studio. Colonel Moriarty, you take the office. Major Nash you can check the bedroom and dressing room. Mr Dixie can check the kitchen and pantry just in case there are dust coats or jackets with cards in the pockets. I’ll check the studio, which is where I was heading when I was interrupted.”
As Moriarty was trudging up the stairs nursing a sore head he contemplated the advantages of a doormat for a wife. Nah! Making love to a doormat was never going to make his blood run hot. He wondered if the Countess would try bossing him around in the bedroom. That he’d like to see! “No wonder her husband shot himself,” he quipped to Nash.
The major chuckled, picturing fireworks on the wedding night – and he wasn’t picturing them outside the bedroom. “If she’s too much for you to handle…”
The sound of a gunshot had them hurtling back down the stairs, past the Countess on the landing, and into the kitchen where the back door had been thrown open. The Negro was giving chase across the rear courtyard. Someone was scaling the wall. The unknown person dropped down the other side and disappeared. The four of them met up a few moments later in the kitchen where the Countess addressed Mr Dixie.
“I comes down here, Missus, to find a man comin’ through yonder door. He takes his best shot but he would have no luck hitting the side of a charabanc.”
“Did you get a good look at him?”
Mr Dixie shook his head. “Too dark to see, Missus.”
“I wonder if it was the other photographer,” she said.
“Or the killer,” mused Colonel Moriarty.
“Or the bomb man,” added Major Nash.
“I wonder if they are one and the same,” she finished. “Let’s get the search underway. That intruder tells us there must be something here worth finding.”
Half an hour later they reconvened in the kitchen. Between them they found one card for a rival photographer, three cards for traders of new and used cameras and two cards for suppliers of photographic equipment. The Countess collected all six cards.
“I can put people onto this first thing tomorrow.”
“Before we part ways,” said Major Nash. “I’ll run an idea past you that may help to flush out the man behind the scheme to kill Mycroft Holmes.”
They sat around the scrubbed pine table while Major Nash outlined his plan to invite the most likely suspects to Longchamps for the weekend. The Countess nodded encouragingly as she listened, agreeing that having everyone under the same roof was worth a try.
“You can have as many servants at your disposal as you need. I will dispatch a team of servants to prepare the house this week. The hiring of extra kitchen staff, plus a few more femmes de chambres and possibly two more valets and a boot boy will not go astray. The weekend of the epiphany on the sixth of January will be perfect. It is also Orthodox Christmas that weekend. Mycroft can stress the seriousness of the gathering. I will convince Miss Violet de Merville and Miss Mona Blague how much fun it will be. They will put pressure on their respective fathers. Mrs Klein may decline the invitation but if I put it about that I don’t want her to attend she will be sure to come. Prince Sergei will need coaxing. I may have to flirt outrageously with the old silver fox. It may just work. Excellent plan, Major Nash.”
Princess Paraskovia was laid to rest in a forest of birch trees in a corner of the estate belonging to the Earl of Winchester. News of her death had not yet been made public so the funeral was a private Orthodox service led by a priest in gold vestments, with only five mourners who had been sworn to secrecy. The priest was persuaded to omit the traditional pre-funeral masses which he was assured would be duly observed once the body was transferred to its proper resting place in Minsk.
Countess Volodymyrovna attended the funeral, telling the prince that Mycroft Holmes, realizing she was Orthodox, explained to her about the untimely death of the princess and asked her to attend as a mark of respect on his behalf. What the prince made of that explanation was anybody’s guess, but the fact her step-father had been an old comrade added weight to the story.
In reality, it was an opportunity to put into place the plan to ensure Prince Sergei accepted the invitation to Longchamps when it was offered in the next day or two. A widower was emotionally vulnerable upon the death of a wife and a clever woman could inveigle herself into the sudden void in his life. This did not call for outrageous flirting but the thing women had mastered over thousands of years while being denied an education, vocation and any meaningful activity other than child-bearing. It called for emotional nurturing of the male of the species and it worked like a charm.
As Prince Sergei walked with her back to her carriage past the leprous white ghosts that were sacred to Slavs she made sure to mention she would be spending Orthodox Christmas (as measured by the Julian calendar) at Longchamps. To those people who were Christian it would be epiphany. And to those who were pagan it would be the twelfth day after the winter solstice and the time of wassailing the apple tree. As one religion trumped another, tradition remained timeless. And though many might claim God was Nature; it was always the other way around.
The Turkish Baths on Northumberland Avenue had recently changed hands and were now called the Aga Hammam Baths. The baths had previously been modelled on ancient Roman principles with lots of intricate mosaics, heavy stonework and sculptural columns delineating the various areas – tepidarium, caldarium, frigidarium – but the Pompeiian influence now gave way to Moorish design with Arabic-style decorative tiles in soft blues and soothing greens and hidden skylights that picked out the watery colours in the ceramics. There was even a tea room for men to have a refreshing herbal tonic prior to getting dressed.
Dr Watson stripped off, collected a towel form the attendant, and made his way to the warm room, or tepidarium, to build up a sweat. There were a couple of men perspiring away on the benches but he didn’t recognize any faces. Most of them had their eyes closed and were leaning back against the wall, their minds aimlessly drifting.
Before too long, he moved into the hot room, or caldarium, where sweat really started pouring and most of the men began to resemble cooked lobsters. He never stayed long in the caldarium. There didn’t seem to be anyone he knew there either.
A dip in the cold pool, or frigidarium, came next and then he would have a massage in one of the alcoves. That’s what he really enjoyed – a good vigorous rub down.
A masseur was now referred to as a tellak and the massage table was called a globek tasi, which apparently meant ‘tummy stone’. Despite the changes the massage was as good as ever.
Another new feature of the hammam was a series of alcoves for napping. The doctor had been sleeping badly and decided to avail himself of one of the pallets. It didn’t take him long to fall into a deep-dreaming sleep.
Now, it is a curious feature of dreams that something in the real world just beyond the consciousness of the dreamer will sometimes impress itself into the dream. A barking dog or a thunderstorm will feature in a dream that has nothing to do with dogs or thunderstorms. And that seemed to be the case here. Dr Watson was dreaming about birch trees and when he awoke he realized that someone was talking about birches. It was a man in the next alcove with a clipped Russian accent. It wasn’t difficult to overhear every word because the walls only went three-quarters of the way up and were then designed to have a trellis of gaps to encourage the circulation of steam and good ventilation.
“We call it a banya,” the Russian was saying. “A masseur will whip you with birch twigs. It will make your eyes water but it will get all the poison out of the body.”
“I tried it once,” said a refined Irish voice the doctor guessed might belong to Sir James Damery. “I was in Moscow in the summer of ’85. Damned painful! I could barely put my shirt back on when the sadist finished flaying me!”
A third man laughed phlegmatically. “Can’t see something like that taking off here in London. You Russians are a hardy race. We English are growing soft. What we need is another Rorke’s Drift to sort out the mollycoddled sheep from the tough mountain goats. Eleven Victoria Crosses awarded in a single battle! Send all those poncy boys to the Transvaal! Freddy Cazenove will come back a new man. Violet will be a damned lucky girl when she stops all this suffragette nonsense and allows Freddy to put a ring on her finger. She’s turned him down three times. If she’s not careful that little Mona Blague will snatch the prize from under her nose and she will be left with that namby-pamby drip, Pugsy Setterfield. He fainted with fright when the first bomb went off. Captain Thompson thought he was dead and directed him to be carted him off to the stable. Well, you should have heard the ruckus when Pugsy woke up. He’s trying to have the captain court martialled for dereliction of duty.”
“There’s something queer about those bombs,” said Damery.
“How do you mean?” asked the Russian.
“Well, three bombs and hardly any damage. Only five dead. The third bomb was placed under the stairs. What’s the point of a bomb under the stairs?”
“Are you sure?” asked the third voice, which must have belonged to General de Merville. “Under the stairs?”
“Quite sure. I got it from Bebbington who got it from Hubbard at the Carlton Club.”
The Russian coughed to clear his throat. “The bombs, they were meant for the Prince of Wales?”
“So they say,” said Damery. “Rum business trying to kill the heir to the throne.”
“Made a complete botch of it,” added de Merville with disgust. “We English can’t even set bombs properly. Not that I am suggesting I want to see the heir to the throne blown to kingdom come.”
“It would never happen in Russia. Everyone loves the Tsar.”
“Lucky thing we didn’t stay in the room with the hookahs right up till the fireworks like we intended,” mused Damery. “Lucky thing we went outside for that duel. Lucky you insisted we do the duel before the fireworks, Malamtov, or was it Blague who insisted we get it over and done with?”
“It was both of us,” said the prince.
“And me too,” added the general. “I suggested the lamps. It was only you who wanted to wait for first light, Damery. Lucky none of us listened to your damn fool caution. Carpe diem! That’s my motto.”
Damery grimaced. “Whose idea was it to go up there in the first place?”
“That was the American,” said the prince. “He heard about the shisha from that Valkyrie – my God but she is magnificent!”
De Merville laughed heartily. “Mrs Klein was formidable rallying those poncy boys putting out those spot fires. She had them lined up like proper soldiers. Dipping buckets in the lake and handing them up in relay formation. The Transvaal could use her talents. Wasn’t she meant to join us in the dome room?”
“Yes,” confirmed Damery. “I think I heard Blague mention something like that. Just as well she got caught up somewhere else.”
“What do you think the Countess was doing up there with the colonel?” asked the prince adopting a curious inflection.
“I wondered about that too,” said de Merville gravely. “If they were setting up that bomb God help us all.”
“You have a problem with some of the Irish in the army?” pursued the prince.
“Some, yes,” replied Damery, sensitive to the question of Fenians. “But the colonel is genuine. I think he and the Countess may have been having an assignation but you won’t hear me say that outside these four walls. Did you ever meet the Countess in Odessa, Malamtov?”
“Twenty years ago. I knew her step-father. A good man. Not like his sister. Beautiful but mad. She ruined the girl. Varvara Volodymyrovna will need a firm husband.”
“Do you have anyone in mind, Malamtov?” probed Damery, careful not to smile.
The prince looked cagily from one man to the other. “You have no doubt heard the rumour, gentlemen, the princess and I are estranged. She moved into Clarges Hotel last week.”
De Merville pretended to be surprised. “That’s why your wife wasn’t at the ball?”
“Da, gentlemen,” replied the prince in clipped Slavic tones, curtailing the conversation by pushing to his royal feet. “If you will excuse me? I must take my leave. I am lunching with a Valkyrie at The Criterion.”
Damery waited for the prince to disappear into the changing room.
“Don’t repeat this to another soul,” warned Damery sternly, “but O’Connell from the Carlton Club told me a body turned up at the mortuary the night of the ball. His brother is the coroner and he works in the same building. It was someone who remained untagged, in other words, nameless. The body was removed at first light this morning and put in an expensive hearse. It was a lady in her early forties with honey coloured hair. Suicide. Laudanum. No post mortem. She had a strawberry birthmark on her right thigh.”
De Merville reacted as if he’d just been punched in the gut. “Princess Paraskovia!” he gasped, and in that moment Damery knew that his friend and he had both been making love to the same woman. “So that’s why she wasn’t at the ball. I was worried all night that…” He didn’t finish the sentence; he’d said too much already.
“I was worried too.”
De Merville looked up quickly, and in that moment he knew it too. “Et tu, my old friend?”
“Yes – she was irresistible.”
For a long interval neither man said anything and Dr Watson thought they might have removed themselves to the changing room but then came more.
“Suicide?” grunted de Merville. “Not a snowball’s chance in hell. Paraskovia was looking forward to the ball. She had a new costume specially made. I saw her at Clarges earlier that day. I took her some hyacinths.”
Damery nodded grimly. “Me too. Clarges had to be the worst kept secret in London. I took her some pink tulips. Paraskovia wasn’t the type to commit suicide. She was looking forward to something. She said she had wonderful news. She was going to tell me at the ball.”
“Me too. She said the same to me. I took it to mean the cold fish had finally agreed to a divorce. When she didn’t turn up I told myself she was trying to avoid the gossip-mongers.”
“I tried to see her yesterday morning but Fisk-Manders gave me the brush off.”
“Fisk-Manders wouldn’t allow me past the reception desk. He had a burly porter standing guard at the stairs. I got the impression the fellow was some sort of professional wrestler or single-stick champion.”
“I don’t like any part of this,” said Damery.
“There’s something not right about it,” agreed de Merville. “That third bomb under the stairs has put the wind up me too.”
“Yes, that’s when you rallied and realized Violet was in the pavilion. I haven’t seen you run so fast since that tiger leapt into your tent. Do you think Mycroft knows what’s going on?”
“The man’s a Machiavellian schemer. Political expediency above Morality is his credo. He knows everything that goes on in London. I think he’s the one who got Freddy that sudden promotion to the Transvaal.”
Damery’s fair brow creased. “He might be Machiavellian but he always acts with reason and that promotion makes absolutely no bloody sense.”
De Merville chewed on his moustache. “Hang on! There was a rumour Freddy was bedding the princess.”
“I heard that rumour too but I thought Freddy had eyes only for Violet?”
“Yes, of course, but they’re not engaged yet. The boy is still sowing his wild oats and who can blame him. Once he marries Violet he’ll settle down all right.”
“But I still don’t see what that has to do with Mycroft?”
“Mycroft might have viewed it as a threat to Anglo-Russian relations. He was trying to patch things up after we gave the Tsar a hiding in the Crimea. Removing Freddy removes any awkwardness with Malamtov.”
Damery went white. “Good God! Let’s hope Mycroft never finds out we were bedding her as well. I’m not like you. I’m a diplomat not a soldier. I don’t fancy a posting in Swaziland. Not at my age.”
The general blanched. “I’m past it too, old boy. I wouldn’t last a week in that terrain.”
Dr Watson rushed straight around to number 6 Mayfair Mews to impart all he had heard before it escaped him. Sherlock was there helping the Countess transform herself into a butler. While the transformation was taking place he recounted everything, not in any particular order.
“Well done, Watson,” praised the consulting detective, re-ordering the haphazard details such as whose idea it was to go up to the dome room (Blague), who suggested it to him (Isadora), who was keen to leave quickly (Blague, de Merville and Malamtov), who was keen for them to stay (Damery). He turned to his daughter. “Now, if it is none of my business, just say so, but I must ask: What were you doing in the dome room with Colonel Moriarty?”
She used an index finger to pat down her moustache and survey herself in the dressing table mirror. “Xenia alerted me to the fact the colonel was wearing Dr Watson’s kilt and that he had raced up the spiral stairs as if his sporran was on fire. I naturally went to investigate.”
Sherlock nodded with approval and realized there came a time in every father’s life when he knew his off-spring would one day take over from him. Cogitation had always been restricted to him alone with Watson filling any action-inspired gaps where required but perhaps the time had come to share the cogitation part too. “I spoke with Major Nash this morning at the Diogenes Club to ascertain details regarding the duel. Malamtov brought the pistols to the ball, possibly to challenge the Prince of Wales to a duel. It was de Merville’s idea to go down to the lake. After the first two bombs went off, Nash and Moriarty raced back to the pavilion. De Merville and Damery didn’t move until after the third bomb went off. Blague and Malamtov remained by the lake. Nash spotted Blague leaving a short time later in his carriage. Malamtov’s carriage was still there but the prince was nowhere to be seen. De Merville, once he had satisfied himself that his daughter was uninjured, took charge in the guardroom where the injured were being taken. Damery took it upon himself to oversee the orderly departure of carriages from the carriage park. The question that springs to mind is what was Malamtov doing after the bombs went off? This becomes crucial when we take into account the strangling of the studio photographer after the event.”
The Countess adjusted her glued on eyebrows and tried wiggling them to make sure they weren’t about to fall off. “I understand strangling is a male modus operandi but I don’t think we can dismiss a female. It is more likely for a woman to have picked up a length of torn petticoat unnoticed than a man, or even to have torn it from her own undergarment without anyone seeing, and if that woman caught the photographer from behind by surprise, she could quite easily have choked the life out of him. If that woman was strong and the man was puny, as our studio photographer was, then we cannot ignore it.”
Sherlock nodded. “I presume you’re talking about Mrs Klein?”
“Yes. What’s more, soon after she organized all those young men to relay buckets of water from the lake, Xenia told me Mrs Klein disappeared but her carriage was still in the carriage park.”
“What else did your maid see?”
“She was frantically searching for me and couldn’t find me anywhere so she went down to the carriage park to check if the troika was still there and she said she saw a man seated in Mrs Klein’s carriage and that it was rocking violently.”
Sherlock’s eyebrows shot up. “I don’t suppose she recognized the man?”
“It was too dark. She tried to get a closer look but several carriages rolled past and one of them almost knocked her over. She came back to the pavilion and began helping Miss de Merville patch up the injured.” The Countess stood in front of the cheval glass and spun round several times. “Well, what do you think? Shall I pass muster as a butler?”
“Marvellous!” said Dr Watson, amazed at the transformation. “Try out your butlering skills on us,” he suggested enthusiastically. “Serve us some perfume on that decoupage tray.”
“The only problem will be Major Nash,” warned Sherlock, watching as she moved about with agility but not the litheness of the female of the species. “He used to work for the Foreign Office abroad. He has a canny eye for fakery. Try to avoid being in the same room, especially the Stranger’s Room. Don’t make eye-contact with him at all. What time did Mycroft tell you to arrive?”
“Prior to midday – in time to serve luncheon in the dining room.”
“Good luck,” said Dr Watson.
“I would wish you luck,” said Sherlock dryly, “but I don’t believe in it. While you’re gone I will fill Watson in about what you imparted earlier – specifically regarding the dead photographer and the weekend in Kent. We are making steady progress. I envisage a role for Mr Dixie in the Longchamps stable as a groom and I can be his dithering stable-hand; mucking-out has always been my forte. How are you finding Mr Dixie?”
“He earned his money last night. I foresee a positive future.”
“Excellent! Excellent!” Sherlock pocketed the six business cards which had been deposited on the dressing table. “Watson and I will follow these up after we’ve had a bite to eat at Simpson’s on the Strand.”
Card number one – the rival photographer proved a waste of time. The man turned out to be a woman who took photographs of ladies in burlesque poses which were later made into post cards and sold in tobacco shops. The studio was on the Fulham Broadway in Fulham, and several plump beauties in various stages of undress were on hand to have their flesh immortalised.
The second card led them to a shop on the Uxbridge Road in Shepherd’s Bush. The supplier was in fact a camera repairer and an elderly gentleman, half deaf and almost blind. He worked with his widowed daughter who did most of the technical work while caring for her three young children.
The third, who called himself a photographic specialist, sold new and used cameras. His shop was on Churton Street in Pimlico. The shop was closed and the milliner next door said the young man had not been seen for several days. He thought the young man might have gone on holiday because he had recently bought himself a fine new beaver top hat – the most lustrous in the shop – a fine new coat, a pair of new leather boots and a large suitcase.
“That sounds promising,” said Sherlock as they proceeded to number four. “I think he might be our man but we are obliged to follow up all leads.”
Number four, on Theobolds Road in Clerkenwell, was another supplier of photographic equipment, plus he had a dark room where camera enthusiasts could develop their own negatives or for a fee have him do it for them. He was middle-aged and worked with three apprentices, none of whom remotely resembled the roaming photographer. The shop was prosperous and business was brisk. Sherlock and Watson thanked the man kindly and left to track down number five though they both felt certain number three was the man they were after.
Number five worked from home. He sold magic lanterns or, as they were also known, camera obscuras from the attic of his house on Stepney Green in Stepney. He was a portly man with a ruddy complexion and several chins. His wife conducted séances every Saturday evening at eight o’clock in the front parlour of their home.
Number six on Broxash Road near Clapham Common was a fashionable camera shop which featured the latest in folding Kodak cameras as favoured by the roaming photographer. The owner was happy to demonstrate how weightless the new cameras were and how easy they were to operate; he readily showed them his book of sales which listed a certain Mr Myles Trotter who owned a camera shop in Churton Street, Pimlico. Mr Trotter had purchased two folding Kodak cameras only last week and had paid in full. He was dressed very smartly and he did not attempt to haggle about the price. He appeared to be flush with funds and he knew his way around a camera.
“Mr Myles Trotter of Pimlico is our man,” concluded Sherlock as they hailed a hansom and returned to number 221B Baker Street ahead of the depressing fog which dropped its sooty mantle over the city every afternoon at about four o’clock. “First thing tomorrow the Countess can put her gang to watching the shop in Churton Street, alas, I fear the bird has flown the coop.”
So much for not being caught in the same room as Major Nash! It was the major who vetted all the new faces who stepped through the door of the Diogenes Club. He cornered her in the butler’s pantry, a long and narrow room like a corridor with cupboards running either side. It had connecting doors to the kitchen, scullery, bar, wine cellar, tea and coffee making room, china room and silver vault.
“I see you’ve already got your uniform. Good, that saves time. You can start in the dining room. They’ll be serving lunch in fifteen minutes. Pettigrew, the maître d’ will be in charge. He manages all the butlers. Has he spoken to you about what is expected?”
She kept her eyes glued to the floor and shook her head.
“Members help themselves to the starters and the soup from a sideboard. The principle course is always a choice of three roast meats and seasonal vegetables. It comes on a trolley. The diner will point to what he wants and you will serve. It is the same for the dessert trolley. The cheeseboard is on a separate sideboard with a selection of breads. A sommelier takes care of the wine. You are aware there is a no talking rule observed at all times?”
She nodded; eyes still glued to the floor.
“Good,” he said, glancing down at the list of names in his hand. “Well, good luck, Grimsby, and try to keep your back straight and your head up. Looking confident is half the trick to conquering shyness.”
He reached the door that led to the bar and paused. She had just breathed a huge sigh of relief and dropped her guard when his voice propelled her to swivel round and meet his gaze.
“By the way, I’m Major Nash. I have an office at the top of the stairs, first door to the right. You can bring me a gin and tonic before you report to Pettigrew. No ice.”
Her heart was beating fast. Did he notice? Did he guess? Was the directive to bring him a gin and tonic genuine or did he want to scrutinize her at close quarters? This would be the first test of her grand deception. If she could pull it off in front of him, she could fool anyone.
A brisk rap of knuckles five minutes later had her in his office balancing a tray with a gin and tonic she had measured herself – first time ever. She erred on the side of too strong rather than too weak and hoped there would be no complaints as she placed it on a corner of the desk.
Two large Georgian windows gave onto Pall Mall. A built-in bookcase lined with law books was set with a jib door, slightly ajar. It probably led to his private apartments. She had not considered the question of his place of habitation in London but it would have made sense that if Mycroft resided in the dome room at the top of the Diogenes Club then his ADC also resided on the premises.
Major Nash was seated at a large writing desk in the style of William IV with four turned legs and a tooled leather surface. Twin desk lamps had been electrified and a brass inkwell with two glass pots added to the symmetry. He finished perusing an official looking document and used a dip pen to put his signature to it. His voice caught her at the door.
“Always use a coaster, Grimsby. You don’t want to stain the antique leather surface of the desk. Same goes for the furniture downstairs in the members’ rooms. Nerves are no excuse for sloppiness.”
Whew! She had pulled it off! At the base of the stairs she paused to draw breath and noticed Mycroft going into the dining room with a newspaper tucked under his arm. Tables were set for one and all faced a lacquered Chinese screen, Corinthian column or oak-panelled wall. None were placed near the window. Privacy was paramount at most gentlemen’s clubs but at the Diogenes it was taken to extreme.
Pettigrew proved a real martinet but any faux pas during the serving of the meals went unobserved simply because most of the diners had their noses in a book or newspaper. If she slopped some gravy on the lip of the gilt-edged plate or carved the roast beef a little too thickly no one seemed to notice. She did not have the honour of serving the primus baro – that honour was reserved for Pettigrew – but she understood Mycroft would have come downstairs for his midday meal to make sure she managed to pull off the charade.
He had been vehemently opposed to her going undercover at the club – A woman of all things! Are you mad! Have you lost your senses completely! – but Sherlock whispered some sort of threat into his brother’s ear and Mycroft relented. What the secret threat was no one knew but it seemed to put the wind up Mycroft and he turned white for a brief moment.
Throughout lunch, which lasted from midday until two o’clock, she had been dreading the arrival of Major Nash. But he did not make an appearance in the dining room and she presumed he had decided to take lunch elsewhere.
From two o’clock onwards there were the inevitable whiskies and brandies to be served and she was kept busy, running backwards and forwards from the bar to the reading room, library and billiards room where one of the members appeared to be playing a game of snooker with himself. The Diogenes Club, she concluded, was a luxurious lunatic asylum where the inmates had the keys to their own cells.
After lunch, a majority of the members retired to their rooms to avail themselves of a nap. It was the job of the longest-serving butler to remain in the butler’s pantry where a set of small electric lights flashed for each bedroom. Since he knew everyone’s tipple, once the light flashed he wrote down the room number and the respective tipple required. No words were exchanged and whichever butler was available took the drink upstairs to the appropriate sleepyhead. It was during her fourth trip up the stairs that she bumped into Major Nash as he was coming out of his private office.
“Grimsby,” he said in a lowered tone “I had some paperwork to finish and completely forgot about lunch. Bring a tray up to my room. No starters, no soup, a slice of roast beef with duchesse potatoes and buttered parsnips, and if there is any apple pie left I will have a serve of that with clotted cream. No need to heat any of it up. I will eat it cold.”
He remained at the top of the landing and she could feel his eyes watch her traipse manfully down the stairs.
She went straight to the kitchen and asked the cook for the requisite meal, mentioning that it did not need to be heated up.
The matronly cook, wearing a mob cap, looked put out. “Bollocks! Are you new?”
“What’s wrong with your throat? Sounds like you swallowed a hornet’s nest.”
“Laryngitis,” she rasped.
“Gargle with warm water and salt, morning and night. Lunch is finished. This isn’t an all-day restaurant. Who requested this meal?”
She made an exaggerated swallow and added a painful wince. “Major Nash.”
“Why didn’t you say so? I wouldn’t do this for any other man. This place is a loony bin and he is the only one here who isn’t a loon. When you deliver this up to his room come back down and I will have a nice cup of hot tea and a thick slice of my special ginger cake fresh from the oven ready to go. What’s your name?”
“Grimsby, ma’am,” corrected the cook with asperity.
“Do you know where the Major’s rooms are, Grimsby?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she returned snappily as she snatched up the tray.
So far, so good, but several hours had disappeared and she had learned nothing new except that butlers were grossly underpaid. She really needed to get to the Stranger’s Room since it was the only room that permitted speaking. She had spotted General de Merville in the dining room but had lost sight of him after he mounted the stairs. She wondered if it was worth searching his room. She wondered how likely it might be that a man would store something in the private bedroom of his club that he might not want to store at home.
Hmm, worth following up.
The door to Major Nash’s office was closed but she could hear his voice clearly. Strangely, there didn’t appear to be a second voice. It was as if he was talking to himself. The words were muffled, barely audible, but she got the impression they were throbbing with understated anger. When she gave a knock – no easy feat whilst balancing a food tray – his voice immediately ceased and when he opened the door there was only one person in the room, and that person was him. The jib door which had previously been ajar was now closed.
With an abstract wave of his hand, he indicated for her to place the tray on a drum table. As she was closing the door she could have sworn she spotted a Matryoshka doll on his desk poking out from under a sheaf of papers that had been haphazardly placed over the top in a clumsy attempt to conceal it.
At the top of the landing she saw General de Merville hurrying down the stairs and yet the landing had been vacant when she came up and there were no other doors opening off from the landing apart from the two doors leading to Major Nash’s suite of rooms. There had been no time for anyone to emerge from their bedrooms, cross the landing and descend the stairs. Had the general been in the room with the major and then fled through the jib door when she knocked? Or had he been listening from behind the jib door? But then who was Major Nash talking to? And where did they go?
She reached the base of the stairs in time to see General de Merville slip into the Stranger’s Room. She pretended to be adjusting the limp tapers on the Christmas tree that centred the entrance hall and a few moments later her malingering paid off. Sir James Damery and Mr Blague arrived and were ushered by the hall porter into the same room, the room for visitors, the only room where talking was tolerated.
Completely forgetting about the major’s cup of tea and ginger cake she raced to the bar, located the most expensive bottle of Scotch whiskey she could find, grabbed six glasses, not three, and put them on a tray. Not many men would look a double-matured single-malt gift horse in the mouth. Hopefully they would put the ambrosia down to a mistake by the new butler and have a laugh about it afterwards. Three glasses would have appeared suspicious but six would hint at the six founding members of the club who probably held board meetings somewhere sometime.
She didn’t bother to knock.
“There’s too much damn saddlery,” General de Merville was pontificating. “A horse lasts less than six weeks in the Transvaal.”
“I can probably provide a hundred horses,” offered Mr Blague generously. “How will that go over with the committee?”
“Good fellow!” praised the general. “That will definitely improve your membership chances once that amendment goes through.”
“Will it go through?” asked Damery dubiously. “I heard…”
“What the blazes is this!” interrupted the general, spotting the butler with the tray standing by the door. “We didn’t order whiskey!”
“You must have made some sort of mistake,” said Damery with more tact, noting the six glasses.
De Merville rolled his eyes. “It’s the new butler. Take it away and bring…”
“Don’t be too hasty, gentlemen,” intervened Mr Blague. “Have you seen the label? I’ve been hankering to sample that Scotch for years. Cannot be got for love nor money in Charleston or Florida.”
“Who instructed you to bring that in here?” asked Damery abruptly.
She adopted a throaty timbre. “I was told to bring it to the meeting room, sir, by the old butler in the pantry, sir.”
“That’s old Colchester,” explained de Merville. “He’s seventy if he’s a day and long past it. Very well, leave it here and we’ll deal with it. What’s your name?”
She was ready to leave the room when she decided to pour the whiskey instead. A measure of two fingers was considered sufficient, so she made sure to make it three. No one quibbled.
“Cheers, gentlemen!” said de Merville, raising a glass. “And don’t worry about that amendment; it will go through like a shot unopposed.”
“Mycroft is for it too?” checked Damery.
“Yes, but as primus baro he has right of veto on individual applications. Not every American or Irishman who applies will get in. That young colonel you seem to be so fond of, Damery, hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in hell. But don’t worry, by the time your applications are received there won’t be any…What are you doing, Grimsby?”
“Checking the humidor, sir. I thought it might need topping up with fresh cigars, sir.”
“Not now, Grimsby. Close the door on your way out.”
Unable to argue, she did as instructed but before the door closed she heard de Merville say in a lower tone, somewhat conspiratorially. “I just heard something extraordinary, gentlemen. You will be the first, apart from Scotland Yard and our own Machiavelli, to learn they just found the man who set the three bombs.”
She forgot herself and slammed the door harder than necessary.
When she returned to the butler’s pantry Pettigrew was waiting for her and the dark storm cloud hanging over him did not bode well.
“Where have you been, Grimsby?” His voice was a thunderous rumble.
She remembered to adopt a manly refrain. “The Stranger’s Room, sir.”
“What were you doing…Never mind! Mrs Babcock, the cook, is furious. We endeavour to keep Mrs Babcock happy because our members adore her plain English cooking. They do not want a fancy French or Swiss chef. They want food like their nanny used to make, made by someone who reminds them of their nanny. Cook has tipped three cups of perfectly good tea down the plug-hole and her ginger cake has gone cold. Don’t bother explaining yourself. Just get to the kitchen. Grab the tea tray for Major Nash and get it up to his room without fail. And do it without getting side-tracked.”
Right this minute her well-balanced humours were teetering on the edge. Why couldn’t the cook-cum-nanny have allocated someone else to deliver the tea tray? There were a dozen butlers on duty, though half of them seemed to have disappeared.
Desperate to get back to the Stranger’s Room to hear about the bomb man, she resolved to give the tea tray to the first butler she passed on the stairs but as luck would have it there were none. It forced her to personally complete the task. Nonetheless, as soon as she dumped the tray she would grab a box of cigars from the pantry and return to the Stranger’s Room to refill the humidor despite what de Merville said. Hopefully, she would not be too late to overhear something vital.
She didn’t bother knocking but barged straight into Major Nash’s office, ready to dump the tray and rush away, but the room was devoid of life. Tant pis! All she had to do was deliver the nanny tray, not feed him morsels of ginger cake with a silver spoon! Cook might enjoy playing nanny in this lunatic asylum but she wasn’t about to encourage the lunatics.
He had apparently eaten his lunch for the other tray was resting on his desk. The Matryoshka doll was nowhere to be seen. She placed the tea tray on the drum table, ignored the lunch tray, and was about to flee when she heard a familiar voice on the other side of the jib door, once again ajar.
“Bring it in here, Grimsby.”
Here turned out to be a bedroom decorated in masculine tones and Major Nash was sitting up in bed looking masculine. The lower half of his body was thankfully covered with a feather quilt but the rest of him was naked from the waist up.
She dropped her gaze and tried not to drop the tray.
“Put it here on the bedside table, Grimsby, and stir the tea for me.”
She was about to tell him to stir his own tea when she remembered herself and gave the brew a vigorous anti-clockwise spin.
“Hand me my dressing-gown, Grimsby. It’s hanging on a hook on the back of the bathroom door.” He indicated a second door with a cavalier wave of his hand.
She located a shabby dressing-gown with a frayed cord and wondered if he would throw back the quilt and step naked out of the bed to put it on, or ask her to run his bath and soap his back! Upon returning to the bedroom, she braced for the worst, but what happened took her breath away.
Major Nash threw back the quilt with a flourish to reveal he was wearing his trousers and even his socks and shoes. She was feeling unbelievably confused when he moved fast and pinned her up against the wall and she felt four stinging sensations across her face that made her cry out four times in quick succession.
“Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!”
In a flash he had torn off her carefully glued moustache, beard, and eyebrows.
“Hello, Countess,” he grinned triumphantly, backing off.
Her face was stinging and her head was spinning. “When did you guess?”
He located a clean shirt with a winged collar and thrust his arms through the sleeves. “I admit I was slow. I can normally spot a dupe in less than five minutes but I doubted myself. Doubting oneself is deadly in my line of work. There’s no room for second guessing. The disguise was good and the wig is convincing, I’ll admit that.”
“So what gave it away?”
He began to do up the buttons of his shirt. “The way you closed the door.”
“Closed the door?”
“A man steps through a door and then just pulls it after him. It is one action, performed without a break. A lady accustomed all her life to wearing a number of petticoats and swishy skirts steps through a door and then turns back to close it. She cannot risk catching the train of her gown in the door. It is two separate actions.”
“I will bear that in mind for next time.”
“Next time I go undercover dressed as a man.”
“I presume Mycroft Holmes knows of your charade?”
“Yes, I and I need to speak to him urgently. Is he upstairs in the dome room?”
“How do you know about the dome room?” He slapped the side of his head and gave a mock laugh. “Don’t tell me you’ve been here before?”
“You missed the last button.”
“I never do the last button – stop changing the subject. Have you been inside the Diogenes Club before today?”
“I refuse to answer,” she pouted.
“That means yes. Are you and Mycroft Holmes husband and wife?”
She burst out laughing.
He closed the distance between them in a single breath. One hand clamped the back of her head; the other covered her mouth. “Shut up,” he hissed, aiming a dangerous glance at the bedroom door that opened to the landing. “Are you married to Mycroft?” he repeated, removing his hand from her mouth but still brusquely hanging onto the back of her head.
“No,” she said, feeling anger radiate off his body like a wave of heat. “He’s my…” She was almost going to say ‘uncle’ but remembered herself in the nick of time. “Friend.”
He knew she was going to say something else and few interesting alternatives ran through his mind. “Friend is good because I would hate to kiss Mycroft’s wife.”
Sensuously, seditiously, he helped himself to a searing kiss that caught her by surprise.
“Happy New Year,” he whispered breathily when he’d finished.
This was too much! He was running rings around her and if she wasn’t careful the next one would be on her finger. It was time to put a stop to it before she found herself on her honeymoon. She had been kissed desirously for most of her life, the first time when she was just eight years old by the woodcutter’s son in a larch forest. Major Nash was rather better than most but that did not excuse her pathetic acquiescence. Her vow to be scandalously remembered for what she did, rather than who she slept with, would turn into empty rhetoric if she did not meet male expectation head on.
“I presume you have been saving that up since the New Year’s Eve ball?”
“Yes,” he confirmed as he tucked his shirt into the waistband of his trousers, looking more than pleased with himself. “So what are you doing here inside the club?”
She located her eyebrows, beard and moustache where he had carelessly dropped them on the floor by the tallboy. “I’m hoping to learn something about the identity of the man trying to kill Mycroft.”
“You think he’s a club member? Can you see my waistcoat anywhere?”
“Don’t you? Do you mean the navy and green striped one?”
“Yes and yes.”
“It’s hanging on the end of the trouser press in the bathroom.” She disappeared into the bathroom and tossed it to him from the door. “Catch!”
He had excellent reflexes. By the time she had re-glued her hairy caterpillar bits with the aid of the bathroom mirror and returned to the bedroom he was wearing a waistcoat, neck tie and frock coat and was washing his ginger cake down with a cup of cold tea.
They repaired to the adjoining office and that’s when she noticed one of those new telephonic devices. It was a wall-mounted wooden box with a bell crank, large mouthpiece and an earpiece attached to an electric cord. She had not noticed it earlier because it blended into the wooden panelling and was positioned behind the door.
“You were speaking to someone on the telephone just before I delivered your lunch?” she prompted.
“What of it?” he said defensively, moving onto the back foot.
“I think General de Merville might have been listening on the other side of the jib door.”
He looked alarmed. “Are you sure?”
“Not really, it’s an educated guess. I deposited the lunch tray on the drum table and when I reached the top of the stairs he was hurrying down and had almost reached the hall but he hadn’t previously been on the landing and there are no other doors except the door from your office and bedroom.”
He rubbed his chiselled jaw and looked genuinely worried. “Do you know if he signed himself out after he reached the hall?”
“He didn’t sign himself out. He went to the Stanger’s Room. Sir James Damery and Mr Blague joined him. I served them some Scotch – by the way if anyone accuses Colchester of pilfering the most expensive bottle of Scotch from the bar he is innocent; I’ll happily replace it – anyway I heard de Merville talking about the amendment. He was saying it would go through, that Mycroft was in favour, and that the membership applications of both Damery and Blague would be approved. He said Mycroft had right of veto but it was not a problem. Blague is donating a hundred horses to the war effort to win favour with the committee Are you on the committee?”
“No, it is made up of the six founding members, one of whom has recently died.”
“I won’t bother asking how you knew that. I might not want to know the answer,” he jibed, still thinking about the pilfered Scotch he didn’t want to know about either.
“Is de Merville a founding member?”
“Yes, but if you want to know any other names you can ask your friend, Mycroft.”
She ignored the cynical intonation. “Who votes for a new committee member to join the group of six?”
“The remaining five.”
“Any member can be voted in no matter how new?”
“It would not be too difficult to stack the committee with cronies,” she observed.
“It has never been attempted in the past.”
“Are you suggesting de Merville is plotting some sort of coup d’etat?”
“He missed out on being primus baro by one vote – that would rankle. And the deciding vote was yours.”
“How the hell do you – ! Forget I said that! I don’t want to know that either! Are you sure you’re not married to Mycroft Holmes?”
“Quite sure – the last time I checked I was still a desperate widow.”
He smiled wryly. Desperate is not a word that sprang to mind. Even dressed as a butler, with her breasts flattened beneath a sexless jacket, the rich chestnut hair tucked under a plain wig, bushy eyebrows, moustache and beard he found her exasperatingly desirable. It had taken every ounce of willpower he possessed to resist throwing her onto his bed and giving her a proper foretaste of things to come.
“Is it Dr Watson?” he said.
“Is it Dr Watson what?”
“Are you married to Dr Watson?”
The question this time concerning her marital status did not surprise her; she had been expecting it to crop up sooner or later. A widow and a widower travelling together for months on end were bound to attract speculation. She refused to warrant her relationship to Dr Watson with an explanation. “You need to concentrate. Is Mycroft upstairs in the dome?”
He noticed how she didn’t deny it. In his experience a lack of denial was an affirmation. No accounting for taste, but a woman who didn’t need to marry for money often made the oddest choices. One of his sister’s rich girlfriends married a mediocre Welsh poet with bandy legs and Lady Brocklseby-Brown married a penniless farmer from Cumbria after being widowed. A middle-aged Scottish doctor who was not the sharpest tool in the box was probably a prize compared to the above.
“No, something came up suddenly and Mr Holmes went out after lunch.”
“After your phone call?”
He tried not to show surprise; her guesses were uncanny. “Yes.”
“Was it something to do with the bomb man? Is that what you were discussing on the phone just before I delivered your lunch?”
Uncanny was an understatement. He had to get to the bottom of how she could possibly know either of those two things. Mounting the telephonic device on the wall by the door that gave onto the landing was a grave mistake. He believed it should have been mounted between the two windows, furthest from the door and yet within reach of his desk. “Did you overhear the telephone conversation from the landing?”
“No, I told you I thought de Merville might have listened through the jib door. When I was leaving the Stranger’s Room I heard de Merville say to Damery and Blague that he had just learned something extraordinary that only Scotland Yard and Machiavelli knew – that the bomb man had been found.”
There was no disguising his shock. “Did he actually use the word Machiavelli or is that one of your embellishments?”
“He said our own Machiavelli.”
“Judging by the look on your face, Major Nash, de Merville heard every word you said. Who were you speaking to?”
There was no point lying. She knew too much already and there was nothing to be gained by keeping the rest from her. “Inspector Lestrade.”
“He arrested the bomb man? The roaming photographer?”
“No he fished him out of the lake in Battersea Park.”
“Oh, excellent ! Excellent!’ she trilled, and it reminded him of someone he knew but he couldn’t think who.
“Are they the invitations to Longchamps?”
The Countess was about to go back down to the butler’s pantry before Pettigrew became suspicious of her long absence when she spotted a stack of envelopes on the desk.
“Yes,” said Major Nash. “And you can take three of them down to the Stranger’s Room right away.” He sifted through them to find the ones for Damery, de Merville and Blague. “I was going to hand deliver them this evening and you will save me quite a bit of time. If they ask, just say they’re from Mr Holmes but I instructed you to deliver them. They will think I spotted their names in the sign-in book. Don’t enter into any conversation, especially about where Mr Holmes has gone.”
She hurried out and left the two trays behind so that she would have an excuse to return to his office later. On her way to the Stranger’s Room she snatched a box of cigars from the pantry, telling Colchester that de Merville instructed her to restock the humidor.
She was about to knock when she thought better of it and just walked in. The three men had polished off most of the whiskey and were slumped in their seats. Damery was facing the door and noticed her before the others, despite his droopy eyelids.
“Fresh cigars,” he slurred. “Good job.”
She stepped forward briskly and put all of the invitations into his hand. “Major Nash instructed me to deliver these, sir, on behalf of Mr Holmes.”
With her back to the three men but her ears pealed, she restocked the humidor as slowly as possible. She removed all the old cigars one at a time and lined them up on the sideboard, then put them back one at a time. She did the same with the new batch.
“What the devil is Machiavelli playing at now?” grumbled de Merville when he ran his bloodshot eyeballs over his invitation. “Longchamps? Kent? This weekend! I’m going to a regimental dinner at Horse Guards! And I know where I’d rather be!”
“Well, I will be going,” asserted Mr Blague. “I promised to go to the opera with Batty and Dolly Vanderlinden. I cannot stand all that goddam caterwauling. Any excuse to get out of it will be welcome. My invitation includes my daughter, but I cannot see Mona going to Kent for some blasted conference to thrash out that New Year’s Eve bash and the threat to the Prince Regent. She wasn’t even there. She’ll be bored to tears and we’ve had enough of them lately. She can take my place at the opera.”
“I’m going to accept too,” decided Damery. “It will look as if I don’t give two hoots for the Prince Regent if I decline. And look who else is going. Mycroft has provided a list of invitees. Prince Sergei is invited. It will be bad form to turn it down.”
“Trust you to play the diplomat, Damery. Don’t you ever give it a rest? The prince has been invited but that doesn’t mean he’ll turn up. I heard he was going down to Scotland to do a spot of grouse shooting. I doubt he’ll change his plans at the last moment to go to Kent.”
“Look at the names again,” suggested Damery, putting the insult of his old friend down to too much single-malt. “Isadora has been invited. And the Countess too. I think that will sway things in favour of Kent. The prince fancies himself as a ladies’ man. And Violet’s name is there too. Didn’t you say she got on well with the Countess? I think she’ll relish a weekend away from the smog of London.”
“But look at the name of the house,” lamented de Merville. “Longchamps is the tumbledown hovel belonging to Mycroft’s aide de camp. The last baronet shot himself after running up gambling debts and the place has been allowed to run to wrack and ruin. Privacy and discretion! My arse! We might as well stay in an igloo on the frozen tundra! I will forbid Violet going. She will catch her death. Kent is one big marsh. There’s more miasma in Kent than in the whole of London.”
“Kent is not that bad,” argued Damery. “And I got it from Hubbard who got it from Bebbington at the Carlton Club that Longchamps has been rejuvenated.”
“That’s just gossip dressed up as news. Once you get membership here you won’t have to spend time with idiots like Hubbard and Bebbington. The Carlton Club will go into serious decline when everyone jumps ship. We can double the membership fee here and buy our own golf course. I was thinking about that course in St Andrews.”
The conversation drifted to golf courses and the men seemed to sober up.
“Grimsby,” snapped de Merville, “leave those blasted cigars alone – you look like you’re putting them to bed – and fetch three strong black coffees as fast as you can.”
She returned with coffee to find that the three men had returned to topic of Longchamps.
“Nash inherited some money from his great-aunt that had been earmarked specifically for the family seat,” Damery was saying. “I’ve been meaning to go down and have a look. The Forsyths were passing through Kent last November and the old family retainer at Longchamps gave them a tour. They couldn’t believe the transformation.”
“Well, that’s sealed it for me,” declared the American tycoon. “I wouldn’t mind a weekend away from the soot and smoke. If the Valkyrie and the Snow Queen are there it will improve the view as long as they understand their role is to entertain the gentlemen. We can get that damned bomb business out of the way on the first night and enjoy a few hands of whist.”
“Well, I’m not changing my mind,” emphasised de Merville strenuously. “And Violet won’t be going either. You can have all that whist to yourself. Grimsby put some more coals on the fire and give it a good poke. Then take this empty bottle and get rid of it behind the bar. No need to say who drank it. If anyone asks, you have no idea, is that clear?”
She was crossing the entrance hall when Pettigrew loomed into view. His voice was a low threatening snarl.
“I haven’t seen you all afternoon, Grimsby. If I find you’ve been loafing off somewhere, having a cigarette on the sly in the latrine, it will be your first and last day in one. What have you got there behind your back?”
She gulped. “An empty bottle, sir.”
He checked the label and his face darkened. “Where did you find that?”
“Under the Christmas tree, sir. I was straightening the limp candles when –”
“It’s all right, Pettigrew,” interrupted Major Nash, coming down the stairs. “The Scotch was compliments of Mr Holmes to the three gentlemen in the Stranger’s Room.” He turned his attention to her. “Colchester will direct you where to put the empty bottle, Grimsby, and then make me a gin and tonic and bring it up to my office. No ice. Let’s make that the last word before there is a formal complaint from one of the members.”
He was waiting for her in his office when she arrived with his gin and tonic plus a slab of ginger cake and a cup of tea.
“How did the invitations go down?” he quizzed. “What’s this? I didn’t request more cake and another cup of tea?”
“It’s for me. I’m famished. I missed my lunch because I was up here talking to you.” She chewed and talked at the same time. “Damery and Blague are all for going to Kent but de Merville was adamant he and Violet weren’t going.”
Major Nash’s bold brow drew down in a thoughtful frown. “If what you said earlier about de Merville listening in on the telephone conversation was accurate then it’s imperative for him to be there. If he’s planning a coup d’etat it puts him in the frame for the bombs. We either need to expose him or put the wind up him enough to back off. But to do that we have to get him to Longchamps.”
She moved to the window to look out on Pall Mall as she gulped her tea. Winter had dropped its dark mantle hours ago but how wondrously the gaslights burned through the fog, creating haloes of moony light. In 1807 Pall Mall was the first street in London to have gas-lamps installed. It reduced the crime rate and was considered a marvel. Almost one hundred years later, in the year 1900, it was still a marvel.
“I want to better understand something and I would ask Mycroft but he’s not here right now,” she said quizzically. “Explain to me the importance of the role of primus baro. I still can’t see how it really matters. This is a gentlemen’s club, albeit with important members, not parliament.”
He didn’t reply straight away but moved to the second window, gin and tonic in hand, and stared at the golden glow of aureoles banishing the gloom while he considered her relationship to Mycroft Holmes. There was definitely something between them though she had denied they were married. Lovers perhaps? Yes, that made sense. Mycroft Holmes had been behaving strangely ever since the Countess returned to London with Dr Watson nearly a month ago, and she usually referred to him as Mycroft, not Mr Holmes, or even Mycroft Holmes, and she softened the sound of his name when she said it. He wasn’t just imagining it. She did it again just a moment ago.
“Primus baro means first baron. Mycroft Holmes might not sit in parliament but he controls almost everything behind the scenes.”
“How? Why? Who grants him such power?”
“You’ve heard of the Knights Templar?”
“Yes, of course.”
“They were the world’s bankers. That was their power. Nothing’s changed.”
She felt the enormity of that simple explanation when the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. “So whoever is elected primus baro wields enormous financial clout throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom?”
“Further than that.”
“So it is important for the primus baro to be an honest man rather than a self-serving megalomaniac?”
“The alternative for England and the world could be a nightmare.”
His capacity for understatement served to emphasise just how terrible the nightmare could be. “Mycroft was elected about three months ago. Tell me how the elections work.”
“Primus baro is a position for life. The next primus baro can only get elected if Mycroft dies. Only the six committee members can put themselves up for election, five now that Admiral Quantock is deceased. Two don’t want the job and the third is the incapacitated Earl of Winchester. He’s still a committee member but no longer primus baro. That only leaves de Merville. If anything happens to Mycroft it’s a one horse race.”
She replaced her empty tea cup on the tray. “If you have no objection, I will use your bathroom. I cannot use the gentlemen’s latrines for obvious reasons and I cannot use the ladies’ WC either.”
As she was returning to his office, passing through the bedroom, she caught sight of the Matryoshka doll she had spotted earlier on his desk. It was sitting on the opposite bedside table, split into its five individual pieces. She scooped them up.
“Where did you get this?”
He managed to hide his surprise after the first stupefied blink. “Is that the one from my bedside table?”
“Yes, where did it come from?”
He took a deep breath. “De Merville’s room. I conducted a search while he was at lunch. He will know I’ve got it but he won’t say anything because it will incriminate him.”
“Apparently the princess gave a nesting doll to each of her lovers. That doll proves de Merville was one of her lovers and had a motive to kill her.”
She put the five nesting dolls back together and closed them up. “It also means he didn’t murder her. The nesting doll in the bathtub must have belonged to the killer but if this one belongs to de Merville then he cannot be the killer.”
He quickly revised his theory and agreed with her logic. “I’ve got some men searching Damery’s house right now for that same reason. I put some of my best men onto it when you told me he was currently in the Stranger’s Room with de Merville. They should report back soon.”
She thought about the other illustrious lovers. “Did Freddy Cazenove have a doll?”
“Yes, his room at the Carlton Club was searched last night, along with Damery’s, I might add. There was a nesting doll in Freddy’s wardrobe but nothing was found amongst Damery’s possessions. Freddy’s doll is currently in my desk drawer. And, no, we won’t be conducting a search of Marlborough House. It’s true the Prince of Wales met with Princess Paraskovia on two occasions while visiting the dying Earl of Winchester and that he spent time with the princess in an upstairs bedroom but to suggest he murdered her because of that fleeting liaison is stretching credulity. He would need to murder half the ladies at court and a quite a few from the royal courts of Europe. Mycroft also met with the princess while visiting the Earl. They walked in the gardens on at least six occasions. I believe she was sounding him out about her estrangement from the prince. He may have advised her on Clarges Hotel.”
“If it turns out that Damery has a nesting doll,” she reasoned, “then we can assume Prince Sergei killed his own wife – he’s the only one left. The doll in the bath must have been his and that’s why he took it. He paid a visit to the hotel to speak to Mycroft to put the wind up him and to see if he could retrieve his doll.”
He nodded as he put his hand out for her to give him the doll then unlocked his desk drawer using a small key in his pocket and locked de Merville’s doll inside with Freddy’s.
She gathered up the crockery and the three trays. “I better get downstairs before Pettigrew has my guts for garters.”
He chuckled softly. “Where did a Ukrainian countess learn a phrase like that?”
“You might be shocked by the answer so I will spare you.”
He noted the coquettish smile under the moustache and fought the urge to sweep her back into his arms. “No,” he said blandly, eyeing the sexless butler’s uniform, “I don’t think anything you say or do will ever shock me again.” He picked up one of the invitations on the desk and grimaced. “Wish me luck.”
“I’m going to deliver Mrs Klein’s invitation in person. If I hurry I will make it just in time before she changes out of her tea gown into her robe de shark.”
She thought he said chic. “Robe de diner,” she corrected.
“If that’s what you want to call it.”
So that’s why he had put on the clean shirt and the brocade waistcoat. She presumed he had spruced himself up for her benefit. Vanity suffered a flesh wound. “Make sure you drop the hint that I am hoping she will decline. And don’t worry about de Merville. I will invite Violet to lunch tomorrow and tell her how much fun Longchamps will be. I think she fancies you. She will put the pressure on papa. I will invite Miss Blague too, just to make sure Mr Blague does not pull out at the last moment. You will have to fight her off with a stick when she discovers you’re a baronet. I won’t mention you have mastered the mechanics of kissing. She will wet herself.”
There were more than a dozen different responses to that tease, all ending with a demonstration of something else he had mastered the mechanics of. But he had also mastered the mechanics of restraint. He snatched up his Savile Row coat and silk topper from a chair in the corner, well-satisfied that he had just raced past the first post and galloped ahead of Jim. “You really are a force to be reckoned with!”
As Major Nash travelled from Pall Mall to Grosvenor Square he thought about the irony called Life: He could have any woman he wanted except the one he wanted.
He thought about Mycroft’s relationship to the Countess too. As soon as the idea struck him that the two of them were lovers he couldn’t shake it. He recalled the secret dossier Mycroft Holmes had compiled on Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna. It ran to more than a hundred pages. He’d never even heard of her until Mycroft instructed him to find out everything he could. It made for fascinating reading. She had been born out of wedlock to a nameless stage actress – a euphemism for prostitute. The father was unknown, most likely the Count of Odessos, presumably a client of the prostitute, and the man who paid generously to adopt the child.
He’d always assumed Mycroft was planning to recruit the Countess to spy on Russia but perhaps it was more personal than that. Or perhaps both – spy and lover? That was the usual way. Mycroft made Machiavelli look like a rank amateur. Heaven help England if he ever decided to swap sides.
Spy and lover? Yes, that’s probably why Mycroft took all those walks in the garden with the princess while supposedly visiting the dying Earl of Winchester. He’d told her six walks but it was double that. Mycroft was probably gathering more information on the Countess’s early life. There were no secrets among Russia’s nobility. Hmm, odd that Prince Sergei should be staying in Odessa around the time of the death of the Count of Odessos. Did the princess know more about that sudden death? Did she pass the information to Mycroft? Was Mycroft planning to use it against Russia’s new ambassador in order to extort favours?
It’s no wonder Mycroft called the Countess in when the body of the princess was discovered in the bathtub. And it’s no wonder she came running. She found the nesting dolls, including the littlest, and the birch bark too. She knew what to look for. She understood the significance. She did Mycroft’s bidding.
Mycroft went briefly to Battersea Park to view the bloated face of the man who had set the bombs. He didn’t expect to recognize him. The man was a petty criminal. He would have placed the bombs where he had been told to place them. The positioning of the bombs could not have been done earlier because they might have been discovered by the Prince’s guardsmen or even one of the guests, as had happened to the third bomb – inadvertently moved by someone at the last moment and put under the stairs. Someone else at the ball, possibly a member of staff, would have switched on the timers ready for detonation and fled.
By tomorrow Lestrade would give up trying to identify the bomb man and Sherlock would be summoned. He would leave Sherlock to deal with the petty criminals.
He exchanged a few words with Lestrade then proceeded to the estate of the Earl of Winchester. He would sit for a few minutes by the bedside of his old friend and then walk down to the birch wood before it got dark. There was a lake and a folly; nothing grand, not a Greek Temple to the gods but a little wooden tea-house. The sort of thing you see in children’s fairy tales about Hansel and Gretel.
“Where have you been, Grimsby?” Pettigrew seemed to be in a perennially bad mood. Not that she could blame him. Her butlering skills left a lot to be desired and her erratic behaviour would have driven most maître d’s to distraction. He was glaring at the three trays covered with an assortment of dirty plates, cups and glasses.
“I was tidying Major Nash’s office, sir. He spilled his tea on his desk and it made a mess of his papers, sir. He asked me to clean it up.”
He regarded her suspiciously. “You were in his office unsupervised?”
“No, sir, Major Nash was there to supervise. He has now gone out. I saw him go out the door as I was crossing the hall, sir.”
Pettigrew seemed satisfied. “You missed your tea break. You can take it now. There are cold roast beef sandwiches and slices of ginger cake in the staff dining room off the kitchen. I think you missed your lunch too. You can take an extra ten minutes for your tea, Grimsby, and then I want you to set the tables for dinner. One setting per table.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Oh, God! She couldn’t take any more of this punishment! She had always thought of herself as hardy – rich and spoilt but never pampered – until she put on this horrid butler’s uniform. She would never complain about a tight corset again after having her breasts strapped with bandages. Her feet were throbbing like crazy and her legs were ready to drop off. She’d been up and down the staircase a hundred times. She pictured Dr Watson lazing about on a cushioned bench in the Turkish Baths and almost wept.
Mycroft Holmes returned to find her folding linen napkins into the shape of fleur-de-lis. It was like origami for idiots.
“You’re the new butler?” he addressed her way, loud enough for Pettigrew to hear. “Grimsby, isn’t it?”
“I will be dining in my room tonight, Grimsby. It is the dome room at the top of the stairs. You can bring my meal up as soon as you are done folding these napkins, that way you will familiarize yourself with all the different areas of our club. Bring your silver polishing cloth. My collection of silver wine coasters needs a good clean. I will have the Beef Wellington with mushy peas and mash, a slice of Bakewell Tart and a bottle of the Romanee-Conti Grand Cru.”
“The 82 or 83, sir?”
“Which one do you recommend, Grimsby?”
“The 83, sir.”
As soon as she delivered Mycroft’s dinner she threw the polishing cloth on the floor and fell in a heap on his settee. “I cannot take much more of this. I have another an hour to go and I think I will die.” After several more minutes of pathetic whining she hardened up. “Did you view the body of the bomb man?”
“Yes, but…no matter, the man was a petty criminal, nothing more. He was strangled and then thrown in the lake so that he would not lead us to the person who hired him. Sherlock can follow it up tomorrow. Where’s Major Nash? The hall porter said he went out more than an hour ago.”
“He wanted to deliver the invitation to Mrs Klein in person.”
She then went on to explain about what had transpired in his absence as she helped herself to his glass of Grand Cru to dull the pain shooting up her legs. He listened carefully, especially when she paraphrased the conversation between the three men in the Stranger’s Room and the fact Major Nash had found a Matryoshka doll in de Merville’s bedroom. She finished with the news the general had listened in on the telephone conversation concerning the bomb man.
“That settles it,” said Mycroft sternly, eating mushy peas straight from his knife like a naughty schoolboy when he thinks no one is looking. “The telephone will have to be moved. Nash was right. It will be mounted between the windows.”
She was lying on her back on the settee, counting down the minutes while absently reading the Latin inscription from Plato’s Republic that ran around the perimeter of the dome: A true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seas, the heavens, the stars, the winds and everything proper to the craft if he is to really rule the ship.
Mycroft was the philosopher-king ruling the ship of state just as Jacques de Molay was the true pilot during the time of the Crusades but who was the French king?
“Dieu n’est pas content, nous avons des ennemis de la foi dans Le Royaume.”
Mycroft’s keenly balanced knife dropped into his portly lap, smearing green mush over his immaculate crotch. “What did you just say, young lady?”
She didn’t bother to translate – God is not happy, we have some enemies of the faith in the kingdom – he spoke fluent French and there was nothing wrong with his hearing. “The Diogenes Club is not unlike the Order of the Knights Templar during the times of the Crusades but who is the French king of the day?”
“Who told you that? It was Nash, wasn’t it? The man has been trained to withstand torture and the moment my back is turned he blabs out everything! I won’t ask what sort of torture you applied!”
“Calm down, Uncle Mycroft, you’ll give yourself indigestion. And don’t blame Major Nash. It was not difficult to move deductively from primus baro to first baron to Templar Knight. Besides, the fact the humidor in the Stranger’s Room is shaped like the Temple of Solomon rather gives the game away.”
“Damn Sherlock! That’s what comes of allowing clever women into gentlemen’s clubs! No one else has ever made the connection!”
“Well, they wouldn’t unless they were Jewish and as you are only considering extending membership to Americans and Irishmen it will be a while yet. I travelled with my step-aunt through the Holy Land and we had an excellent dragoman who was an expert on ancient history. The humidor is rather splendid, especially that secret compartment…”
“Enough, young lady!”
She redirected her quizzical gaze to the inscription gracing the dome. “King and Pope? But who is Philip and who is Clement?”
“Don’t ever repeat what you just said outside this room,” he warned severely. “I love you dearly but I will not tolerate any disobedience on this matter.”
She threw her arms around his thick neck where a vein throbbed violently, and was about to bestow a reassuring, devoted kiss on his pasty, avuncular forehead when Major Nash walked in clutching a Matryoshka doll.
Mycroft pulled back from the sentimental embrace that did nothing to calm his agitation. “Damery’s doll, is it?”
“Yes, sir. Our men found it this afternoon while searching his townhouse. It was necessary to create a diversion to get the servants out of the house. A small gas explosion was staged in the attic. Several roof tiles blew off. No one was injured.”
Mycroft used his napkin to spread the stain on his trousers even further; it added to his black mood. “Lock it away with the others, Nash, and first thing tomorrow organize to have that wall-mounted telephonic device moved away from the door. Did Mrs Klein accept the invitation to join us at Longchamps?”
Major Nash continued to stand stiffly by the door, sensing some tension between the lovers. “Yes, sir, she did.”
“Pour yourself a drink. You’ve earned it. You know where the extra glasses are kept. Did Mrs Klein seem keen to accept?”
Major Nash ignored the invitation to have a drink and continued to stand by the door as if attending some sort of martial drill. “Not at first, sir, but when I mentioned I heard the Countess say she would be pleased to see as few ladies as possible at Longchamps Mrs Klein changed her mind.”
“Mrs Klein will act as the draw card for Prince Sergei. When he learns four eligible ladies will be at Longchamps I think he will alter his grouse shooting plans. Fetch a glass for the Countess while you are getting one for yourself, Nash. That’s the second glass of my Romanee-Conti she has drained.”
Major Nash returned with just the one glass. He filled it and passed it to her without meeting her gaze. “I won’t have a drink, sir. I think I will have an early night for a change. Do you want me to escort the Countess home in your carriage before I turn in? I see it is parked at the end of the street and she is off-duty in thirty minutes.”
Major Nash was talking as if she wasn’t even there and he still hadn’t met her gaze; in fact he was deliberately avoiding it.
It didn’t take a genius to understand why.
“No, you go to bed, Nash. You’ve been burning the candle at both ends. I will see the Countess home. I think we will need to stage a sprained ankle on the stairs for the benefit of Pettigrew. I will tell him I am going out to visit someone and I can drop Grimsby home at the same time.”
“I will organize for one of our crack shooters to sit alongside the coachman.”
Mycroft sighed heavily, trying to downplay the two assassination attempts at his life; he hoped the weekend might expose the enemy in their kingdom because this business was distracting him from more important affairs of state. “If you feel that is necessary.”
“Merely a precaution – in the event of an incident may I ask where you will be going?”
“Number 6 Mayfair Mews and then 221B Baker Street.”
“Excellent! Excellent!” sang Sherlock, his one good eye twinkling excitedly when Mycroft told him the bomb man had been fished out of the lake. “Drowned?”
Sherlock immediately ceased playing the Stradivarius, folded his lanky frame into the padded armchair by the fire, wrapped his faded dressing gown around his bones, steepled his fingers, closed his eyes and retreated into his mind palace.
It was up to Dr Watson to explain to Mycroft about Mr Myles Trotter of Pimlico. “No doubt the great detective will be in Battersea Park at first light scouring the water’s edge for clues.”
Mycroft studied his younger sibling in the low-burning gaslight – the ocular lens in his right eye, the exo-skeleton contraption that supported his weak left arm, the knee-high boot strapped to his left leg to make up for the fact he had no left foot – and duly lowered his tone. “Walk me to the door and tell me how he’s going?”
“Surprisingly well,” whispered the doctor, looking back over his shoulder. “He has hardly touched his supply of cocaine all day; just enough to allay the pain in his leg from that heavy boot. And tonight he managed to keep down most of his dinner. He is thrilled with this case. It’s like the old days have come back. How did the Countess go at the Diogenes Club? Did she pull it off?”
“I don’t know how she did it but she managed the impossible. Major Nash saw through the disguise but that’s his job and he’s good at what he does. I didn’t hire him for his looks, though he has those as well. She overheard some useful information. You can tell Sherlock that Damery, de Merville and Freddy Cazenove each had a Matryoshka doll in their possession. He will understand the significance. Major Nash has the dolls under lock and key. Damery and de Merville will guess I’ve got them and will be on their guard at Longchamps. The weekend could blow up in our faces if we’re not careful.”
They reached the bottom of the stairs.
“Is Sherlock planning to come to Longchamps?” asked Mycroft, glancing back up the stairwell to make sure his brother wasn’t eavesdropping.
“Yes, he’s going to disguise himself as an old stable-hand.”
“At least that will keep him out of the house. If he confines himself to the stable he won’t get underfoot and ruin things.”
Dr Watson bristled. The comment sounded harsh. He wondered what Mycroft meant by it but he was loath to ask. He unlocked the door and a blast of Arctic air slapped his face, whooshed through the narrow hall, flew up the stairs rattling picture frames and slammed the door at the top of the landing.
“Where’s your carriage?” he said, peering into the soot-soaked gloom.
Mycroft clung tightly to his top hat to stop it blowing away. “Circling the block. According to Major Nash a moving target is harder to keep track of. It will come round in a minute or two. Go inside and close the door. No need for you to freeze as well. Ah, here it comes now. I can hear the clip-clop of equus. Goodnight, Dr Watson.”
Dr Watson waited till he saw two yellow carriage lamps swimming toward him through the wild swirl of wind and fog and smoke playing merry hell with the night then closed the door and was in the process of bolting it when he heard a series of terrifying sounds that curdled his blood – a thunder clap, the sound of terrified horses, a runaway carriage, the primal yowl of a ferocious beast, a massive crash that almost took the front door off its hinges and a gunshot.
It was enough to wake the dead.
Frightened out of his wits, he couldn’t remember whether he had bolted the door or not. He then bolted it. Realising his mistake, he tried to remedy it, but his fingers, tangled at sixes and sevens, refused to obey his brain. The faster he tried to free the bolt the more it jammed.
Sherlock came hurtling down the stairs, taking them by twos and threes, no easy feat for a man with one good leg and the other footless peg strapped into a heavy boot.
“Watson!” he screamed. “Open that door!”
Mrs Hudson, shaking like a leaf, appeared at the end of the hall. “What’s going on?” she cried, adding to the mayhem. “What’s going on?”
Dr Watson flung open the door and Mycroft fell backwards onto the floor with a sickening thud, landing on top of Sherlock. Dr Watson ran to render assistance. He thought Mycroft had been shot but there didn’t seem to be any blood.
Mrs Hudson kept crying. “Oh, Lordy! Oh, Lordy! What’s happening now!”
The two Holmes boys found their feet and neither was seriously injured, merely winded and stunned. On the doorstep was a huge black dog – a Great Dane by the looks of it. It had been shot dead and was lying on its side. Blood had soaked into the doormat and was trickling down the step, along the cracks in the footpath and into the gutter. The muzzle of the dog was covered with hideous white foam, a sign the beast had been rabid.
Standing to one side of the door was Colonel Moriarty, a large package under his arm and a smoking revolver in his hand. He was breathing hard as if he had been running.
Sherlock turned back to the distressed housekeeper. “It’s all right, Mrs Hudson. It’s just a dog. It was run over by my brother’s carriage. I will clean up the mess. Go back to bed. Nothing to worry about here. Just an accident. Goodnight, Mrs Hudson.”
It took more than an hour for the four men to locate a wheelbarrow, cart the dog and the bloody doormat to the nearest waste-ground, build a bonfire, add some paraffin, burn the remains, sluice the step, and clean themselves up.
By then the carriage had returned, having careered out of control for a good fifteen minutes. The coachman having no idea where he was by the time he regained control of the terrified horses took nearly an hour to work his way back to Baker Street with the help of the crack shooter still clinging to his seat, wondering what had happened. All he could remember was the black beast from hell that came out of the fog, growling and frothing as it leapt at the throat of Mr Holmes. Someone fired a shot but it wasn’t him. His gun was still cold. The horses bolted and the world turned black as pitch.
The coachman and his armed sidekick enjoyed a cup of tea in the kitchen with Mrs Hudson who was too rattled to sleep. She was happy to have company and brewing a cuppa always helped to calm her nerves.
The other four opted for something stronger. Brandy was called for and the first round went down without touching the sides. While Dr Watson refreshed the glasses, Sherlock directed the first question at Colonel Moriarty, who seemed to be studying his host with utmost curiosity.
“What were you doing in Baker Street at eleven o’clock at night?”
“I came to return Dr Watson’s kilt.” He indicated the package on the table by the window without removing his gaze from Sherlock’s ocular device. “The woman who does my laundry washed and ironed it. It is like new. I was informed you and the doctor are night owls so I thought eleven o’clock would be a suitable time to call.”
“You shot the dog?” continued Sherlock interrogatively.
“Yes, I was approaching the house when a large black dog came out of nowhere. It loped straight past me, almost knocking me over, and leapt at Mr Holmes. He fell back against the door and I put a bullet into the beast as it went in for the kill.”
“I want to thank you,” said Mycroft, voice still slightly shaky. “It was a terrifying sight and I’m not ashamed to admit that mad dog will haunt my sleep for several weeks.”
“I thought I heard a thunder clap?” said Dr Watson. “It came at the start.”
“Yes,” agreed the colonel, staring at Sherlock’s knee-high boot. “I heard it too. It was the thing that caused the horses to take fright. It seemed to unnerve the dog as well. He began to run toward Mr Holmes when it exploded. I think it might have been a penny banger.”
“That suggests the dog was trained to act on command of a sound,” said Dr Watson, recalling the case of the horrible hound of the Baskervilles. “Did you recently lose an item of clothing, Mycroft?”
“Yes, I misplaced my herringbone wool scarf. It turned up a week later inside my carriage. It’s the same one I’m wearing now.”
“That’s why the dog leapt at your throat,” said Sherlock without a skerrick of emotion, “a well-trained beast and deliberately infected with rabies too. That, gentlemen, was the third attempt to kill my brother.”
A chill ran down every spine. Another round of drinks did little to dispel the horror of what they had recently experienced. If not for Colonel Moriarty, Mycroft would have been the one bleeding on the doormat, his throat ripped out, infected with rabies just in case he survived the vicious mauling.
“It is more imperative than ever to find the man behind this,” said Sherlock, reaching for his briar pipe, filling it with shag and lighting it. “I will be at Battersea Park first thing tomorrow morning. Whoever strangled the photographer and dumped him in the lake may have left a vital clue.”
Moriarty coughed to clear his throat and because he wasn’t sure if he should speak up or not – oh what the heck! “Major Nash and I met up by the lake the night after the ball to discuss certain matters. We both got the impression there was someone else in the wood. We also heard a dull splash, as if something went into the lake. It could have been the body of the photographer.”
“Hmm,” said Sherlock. “I find it hard to believe he would risk returning to the scene of his crime the night after the ball. However, I do not doubt what you say is true. The facts must fit,” he muttered to himself. “The facts must fit.”
Dr Watson wondered if his friend had been injecting himself in secret; his mind seemed less sharp. “I will come with you to Battersea. An extra pair of eyes will not go astray.”
Sherlock withdrew his pipe and rested his elbow on the mantelpiece. “No, Watson you must return to the Turkish Baths. What you discovered today was of vital interest. We have ground to cover. We cannot all keep to the same patch.”
“The Turkish Baths?” said Moriarty. “The ones on Northumberland Avenue?”
“Yes,” replied the doctor. “The Aga Hammam Baths. Do you sometimes go there?”
“Never – they are owned by Mrs Isadora Klein.”
The three men seemed taken aback.
“Are you sure?” questioned Mycroft, wondering how such a fact had skipped his attention; he really had allowed himself to become distracted by family business – first his brother and now his niece.
“I heard it from Freddy Cazenove. She bought out the previous owner when he went bankrupt. The Roman Baths were a bit tired looking according to Freddy so she set about renovating them, changing them into something more exotic, like her – that’s what he said. He told me she is of Spanish extraction and has the blood of Conquistadores in her veins. Her late husband, the sugar baron, Mr Adolphus Klein, was immensely wealthy but she is going through the fortune fairly quickly and needs a regular income to supplement her investments and her spending.”
“How did you find the Turkish Baths, Watson?” quizzed Sherlock. “Up to scratch?”
“They were superb. I couldn’t fault them. Clean, airy, well-ventilated, excellent masseurs, and beautifully decorated with Moorish tiles. Mrs Klein has superb taste and has certainly improved things.”
“Many men there?” he pursued.
“Oh, yes, the place was busier than Trafalgar Square, men coming and going, here and there, in and out, and yet I was surprised at how easy it was to hear the conversation in the next alcove.”
“Well, I put it down to the trellis of brickwork. The walls only go part way up and then they are trellised. It allows for steam to circulate and promotes healthy ventilation.”
“According to Freddy it promotes other things,” gibed Moriarty.
The other three men turned to look at him.
“Explain yourself,” said Sherlock.
“Well, Freddy claims some of the bricks are hollow and listening devices have been installed. They amplify the sound and direct it to various hidden chambers.”
“For the purposes of blackmail?” reasoned Sherlock.
“So it would seem,” said Moriarty. “What’s more, some rooms are restricted to young men who pay a premium for a private massage.”
“More blackmail,” added Sherlock with disgust.
Moriarty nodded. “I cannot confirm any of what I just told you. I didn’t ask Freddy where he got it from. He does tend to exaggerate things. It’s a way of big-noting himself.”
“Understood,” said Sherlock, comprehending why the colonel said ‘never’ with such conviction.
Mycroft drained his brandy and with a yawn levered his bulky frame out of his padded seat. “Goodnight, gentlemen, I shall catch up with you shortly in Kent, except for you, Colonel Moriarty. Thank you once again for saving my life.” He reached the door and paused. “By the way, January the sixth, which happens to be epiphany or twelfth night or Orthodox Christmas Eve – whichever you prefer – marks the twenty-fifth birthday of Countess Volodymyrovna. We shall not turn the event into a fanfare but a small gift may be appropriate. Bear in mind nothing you buy will be as valuable as that which she can buy for herself. A few lines of original heartfelt verse on a scrap of paper will be appreciated more than the Crown jewels of England.”
Sherlock was up at first light, rugged up in his Inverness cape and deerstalker hat, tramping around the lake in search of the mythical Snark. He quickly found the spot where the body went into the water, evidenced by two sets of footprints and something heavy being dragged along the muddy waterline.
There were also five sets of footprints around the pump house. Now, Colonel Moriarty had stayed behind last night to recount the events of the night he met Major Nash in the Copper Beech wood. The two men had started off in the wood then moved separately around the perimeter of the lake and met up again by the pump house. That meant two sets of prints belonged to the two of them and three belonged to persons unknown.
A peremptory search of the pump house immediately revealed scraps of fabric that had been caught on protruding nails. Someone had strangled the photographer by hand, either inside the pump house, or somewhere else and then tossed the body into the pump house for a short period of time. So, was the man strangled before he went into the pump house or after he went in?
Logic suggested the photographer needed to disappear in a hurry after placing that third bomb in position on the hall table. The pump house made for a perfect hiding place. Someone later turned up, time unknown, strangled him and left him for dead. The following night two men – as indicated by the footprints – dragged the dead body to the lake and dumped it.
The splash heard by Major Nash and Colonel Moriarty suggests the body remained hidden in the pump house until the following night when it could be safely disposed of.
Yes, it fit the facts.
Unfortunately, it did not tell him who hired the photographer in the first place. That would require deductive reasoning beyond a series of physical clues. It would require an intuitive grasp of the eternal human motivators called revenge, greed, ambition, power and lust.
Roses are red, violets are blue…
Dr Watson tried for an hour to pen a few lines of original heartfelt verse before giving up and remembering he had something on his bookshelf that was better. He tied it with a bow and proceeded to the Aga Hammam Baths. Colonel Moriarty was there ahead of him, collecting his towel from the attendant.
“Hello, Dr Watson.”
“I thought you said you never came here?”
“I changed my mind. Tell me which comes first. Is it tepidarium or caldarium?”
“Tepidarium, caldarium, frigidarium and then it’s the massage?”
“I’ve booked a private massage for later.”
“Brave man – good luck with that.”
Colonel Moriarty laughed and accompanied the doctor to the tepidarium.
“What was Sherlock Holmes doing with that telescopic device fitted over his right eye?”
Dr Watson had noted the colonel’s curious gaze the previous evening and had been expecting the questions to come thick and fast as he showed him to the door; he had therefore prepared his answers in advance. “He was studying some cigar ash when that terrible business with the black dog happened. He just left it on. Sometimes he leaves it on all day. He forgets it’s even there.”
Colonel Moriarty seemed to accept the explanation as they settled on some benches in the warm steam room.
“I could have sworn I heard his left arm crank and whirr when he and I picked up the dead dog and tossed it into the wheelbarrow. It hissed like a mechanical snake.”
Thankfully Sherlock had his old dressing gown over the top of his exo-skeleton arm. “You’re very perceptive. He was experimenting with a mechanical sleeve. He has attached a clock and various useful battery-fed devices to a leather sleeve.”
“He is hoping to do away with pockets – he is forever losing things – plus it allows him to have numerous useful items on hand at all times; handy in his line of work.”
A couple of men joined them on the benches and nothing more was said until they transferred themselves to the caldarium which they had to themselves.
“I was wondering about Sherlock’s left boot,” said Moriarty with a curious inflection. “It didn’t match the boot on his right leg.”
“A result of his accident from that time at Reichenbach Falls in 1891. The plunge over the cliff left him with a slight limp. He is a bit embarrassed about it. He can be quite vain.”
Mention of Reichenbach Falls always caused Moriarty to flinch. It was no secret his mad, professorial, elder sibling had tried to kill Mr Holmes, and over the years he had discovered it was common for people to hold the entire clan guilty for the actions of one. He was thus sensitive to the long draw of the bow.
“This heat is getting to me. I’ll leave you to it and try out the frigidarium before I take that private massage.”
The cold plunge pool took the heat out of his sensitivity so that by the time he stretched out on the bench for his massage he was back in control of his emotions. When the handsome young masseur got around to his private parts, a swift kick to his groin was all it took to set him straight about where to keep his hands. A peep hole in the mural of the Alhambra told him there was a camera lens on the other side of the wall. It was aimed at the bed.
A nice little earner for Mrs Isadora Klein.
When he emerged from his private massage he decided to hunt out Dr Watson in one of the alcoves but ran into Inigo Nash in the frigidarium instead.
“What are you doing here?” he snarled.
“Same as you.”
“Have you seen Dr Watson?”
“He just left. Why?”
Moriarty decided to take the plunge. He shed his towel and hopped in next to Nash.
“Not too close,” warned Nash. “People will talk and you’re not my type.”
“Shut up and listen.” He lowered his voice and told him who owned the Baths and also about the private massage room.
“That explains the entourage of dopey puppies trailing in her wake,” said Nash ruefully, glancing round to make sure no one was watching them. The frigidarium sat in the centre of the Aga Hammam Baths making it possible to see everyone coming and going. “Don’t look now but Malamtov just arrived. Take your best shot at my jaw.”
Moriarty smiled broadly. “This must be my lucky day.”
He balled his fist and let fly but Nash dodged. Before he knew it he was on the receiving end of something that felt like a sledgehammer. He fell backwards with a mighty splash, swallowed a mouthful of ice water, surfaced, shook himself the way a dog does when it wants to dry off, and took aim a second time, determined not to miss, but Nash blocked him and a wrestling match ensued where neither man could best the other. They resembled two fighting fish in a freezing cold pool. A small crowd gathered, including Prince Malamtov. Some of the men were taking bets. It was almost like old times. No, it was exactly like old times.
Wild horses would not keep Miss Mona Blague from Longchamps. After missing out on the heart-stopping excitement of three bombs she was determined to go to Kent. Even before arriving for lunch at Mayfair Mews she had heard all about the dashing Major ‘Horatio Hornblower’ Nash and the genuine Russian prince who was newly widowed. When her daddy suggested she take his place at the opera with the Vanderlindens she laughed in his face, picked up her reticule and went to the House of Papillon to order three new evening gowns, a white lace peignoir, and a black silk corset with red ribbon lacing.
Violet de Merville was equally determined. “I made sure papa RSVP’d Mr Holmes and Major Nash at the Diogenes Club first thing this morning. Kent is lovely at this time of year if one overlooks the sea-fog, the marsh mist and the constant drizzle.”
Prince Sergei was enjoying the warm air in the tepidarium when Sir James Damery sauntered in, feeling lethargic and out of sorts.
“You just missed a spectacle,” said the prince eagerly.
“Really,” remarked the other, feigning interest, “what was that?”
“Two men brawling in the frigidarium. It was the same two men who were duelling on the night of the ball.”
Damery perked up. “Major Nash and Colonel Moriarty?”
“Yes, they were frog-marched out of here by four Mamelukes and told not to return for the rest of the month.”
“What was the brawl about? Do you know?”
“Probably that provocative Ukrainian – Varvara Volodymyrovna! Her step-aunt was exactly the same. Zoya Volodymyrovna only had to look at a man to provoke him. Men duelled over her every month. The Tsar tried to put a stop to it when he realized half his equerries were dead or seriously injured but it was impossible. Those two young men did not resolve anything on the night of the ball and it is festering. Fortunately the Irishman is not on the guest list for Longchamps or it would be a debacle.”
“Will we see you at Longchamps, Prince Malamtov?”
“I have plans to go to Scotland – some grouse shooting. I am not really interested in this bomb business. It has nothing to do with me. In Russia we would line up all the suspects and shoot them. Do you know if the Valkyrie is going to Kent?”
“Yes, she has accepted the invitation.”
“And Countess Varvara?”
“She is going too.”
“And Miss de Merville?”
“The invitation was declined by the general but Miss de Merville forced a turnaround.”
Malamtov laughed heartily. “He of Khyber Pass fame raised the white flag! Ha! What about the daughter of that rich American?”
“Oh, yes, Miss Mona Blague is definitely going.”
Prince Sergei leaned against the wall of the tepidarium and closed his eyes for a few minutes. “I think grouse shooting is highly overrated as a sport. One might as well shoot chickens in a hen-house. I think I might go to Kent instead.”
“We need to talk,” said Major Nash after he and Colonel Moriarty were ignominiously evicted from the Aga Hammam Baths by four Persians who looked like angry djinns out of the Arabian Nights.
They were standing on one of the busiest thoroughfares in London with shirts hanging out, waistcoats unbuttoned, damp socks and perfectly matching scowls.
Moriarty got his back up at once. He knew exactly what the baronet wanted to discuss and he wasn’t about to back off. It rankled that he had been excluded from the weekend at Longchamps and now that he knew it was the Countess’s birthday it rankled even more.
“Forget it,” he snarled. “I’m not giving you a clear run past the first post.”
“Too late. But that’s not what I want to discuss. This is serious.”
“And the Countess isn’t? What do you mean – too late?”
“Forget I said it. Let’s get some lunch.”
“Where did you have in mind? The way we look we won’t get into anything except a gin palace.”
Major Nash smoothed back his wet hair and considered their options. “We’ll go to the Carlton Club. I’m a member there as well as the Diogenes and they’re not as fussy about wet socks and mismatched buttons.”
Hearing that Nash was a member of two exclusive clubs while he was a member of none, pissed Moriarty off even more but he wasn’t about to turn down a free lunch and the chance to step foot inside the prestigious Carlton Club. He hailed a hansom and off they went, aligning mismatched buttons, tucking in their shirts and doing up their waistcoats as the cab swung past Trafalgar Square and rolled smoothly down Pall Mall, past the firmly shut doors of the Diogenes Club.
“Before I start on the topic I want to discuss,” said Major Nash, adopting the tone of a city banker about to tell someone they are overdrawn, “I want to say I heard what happened last night.”
Moriarty got his back up again. “If you’re about to accuse me of staging that dog incident so that I could -”
“I wasn’t about to accuse you of anything. I know you’re not smart enough to think of anything that complicated. You’re more visceral”
A reply was forestalled by their arrival at the Carlton Club. Major Nash signed his visitor in and they proceeded without incident to the dining room. It was getting on to the tail end of lunch and the room was only a quarter full. The major selected a table to the rear, against a wall, where they were least likely to be interrupted or overheard. The menu was a la carte and Colonel Moriarty made the most of it. They washed it down with a Puligny-Montrachet.
“Last night’s incident convinced me that Mycroft Holmes needs someone looking out for him who is able to think…” Major Nash was about to say ‘like an assassin’.
Colonel Moriarty filled the gap, “Viscerally.”
“Yes, that’s it – viscerally.”
“And you naturally thought of me?”
“It needs to be someone the assassin is not looking out for; someone who thinks like an assassin.”
“Hang on a minute!”
“I’m not making any accusations. I’m making you an offer.”
“Mycroft Holmes will need someone watching his back at Longchamps. It cannot be me because I’m hosting the weekend and because the assassin will strike the moment my back is turned.”
“You’re inviting me to Longchamps?”
“Try to keep up. You pretend to socialize with the guests but in reality you’re protecting Mycroft Holmes. There’s no money in it. This isn’t a contract. But if it works out it could actually be the only way you will ever gain membership of a decent London club. I’m not promising entrée into the Diogenes but maybe the Carlton Club.”
Moriarty began nodding; the plan had several angles of appeal apart from the obvious, but the drawback was obvious too. “You forget I haven’t been invited. As soon as I turn up everyone will know something is afoot, especially if I stick like dog turd to Mr Holmes.”
“I thought about that. You just need to act your cocky self. You make it seem as if you and I are still feuding over the Countess and you have no intention of not being invited because you are wracked with jealousy. I play the part of the aggrieved host who is being forced to put up with an uninvited guest. We won’t tell Mycroft Holmes you’re protecting him. It will work better if he doesn’t know. This is between you and me.”
“Why are you being so protective? It’s not like he’s the next King of England.”
“Trust me on this one. He’s more important than the next King of England.”
Moriarty was so stunned by that rejoinder her drained his glass in one fell swoop and refilled it without waiting for the butler to do it for him. “You will need to allocate me a bedroom next door to his.”
“I already have. I think it might be a good idea if you head down to Longchamps this afternoon.” Major Nash reached into his pocket and extracted a calling card and a small pencil. He scribbled a few words and put his signature to it. “Take this with you and show it to my old retainer, name of Yardley, he will grant you entry to look around all you like. When you finish memorizing the layout of the place, especially the 15 staircases so that you can shadow Mr Holmes without making it look obvious, take a room at an inn and wait until midday Saturday then just arrive unannounced.”
“After that we play it by ear?”
Major Nash nodded. “Think you can pull it off?”
“I think I can manage wracked with jealousy. By the way, what did you mean when you said: Too late?”
“Don’t get distracted. Remember what you’re going to Longchamps for.”
They ordered cognac and cigars as if celebrating success already.
Colonel Moriarty savoured the golden nectar and the expensive tobacco aroma; he could get used to a club like the Carlton. It wasn’t the Diogenes but it was a foot in the door. “Did you ever wonder who your secret benefactor was?”
Major Nash leaned back in his chair, blew some rings of cigar smoke into the air and watched them hover above the little crimson shade of the table-lamp. He had thought often about the unknown person who paid their fees at the Royal Military Academy and provided them with a generous allowance as well. The purchase of commissions had been abolished but it was still only the sons of the wealthy who could afford to graduate from places like Sandhurst or Woolwich. “I thought it might be General de Merville. What about you?”
“I thought it might be Sir James Damery.”
“Hmm, I thought that’s what you’d say, because he’s Irish, but our benefactor had to be the same man because our stipends were identical and our fees paid at the exact same time. And lately, just lately, I have started thinking our secret benefactor was Mycroft Holmes.”
Lunch finished early when Miss Blague decided she needed new shoes to go with her new gowns and Violet de Merville decided she would not be left out in the cold when it came to a lacy peignoir. The Countess – who had enough peignoirs for everyone in Kent – decided to finally call on the Earl of Winchester. She had been back in London for almost a month and had not yet paid a visit. The fact he’d had a stroke and could no longer speak was no excuse for her lack of good manners.
Death comes to us all but when it also strips us of dignity it is a terrible thing. How much luckier to be strangled and thrown in the lake, blown to smithereens by a bomb, or shot outright by a duelling pistol, than to be reduced to skin and bone, unable to feed oneself, toilet oneself, or move about, unable to take pleasure in a simple walk in the garden. It is a sorry sight when a man who was once athletic and vigorous is reduced to a caricature of Dying.
The Countess pushed the paralysed Earl in his wheelchair around the terraced garden and talked to him about things past – his visit to Australia, the time they gazed at the Southern Cross and saw a shower of shooting stars, the time they went horse-riding down to the creek and saw a platypus, the first time he saw a kangaroo with a joey in its pouch…
When the nurse came to take him inside for his bath, the Countess kissed him tenderly on the forehead and walked down to the birch wood to gaze once more upon the temporary grave of Princess Paraskovia. How much kinder to drink some laudanum than wither away like the flower that fadeth…
The winter light of late afternoon slanted through the leprous trees and the air felt crisp and sharp, rather than cold and harsh.
Did the princess drink the laudanum of her own free will? Did she fear the shame of having a child out of wedlock at her age? Did she dread her impending divorce?
Or did someone force her to drink poison? Did they hold a terrible threat over her head? Or a gun to her forehead?
The lonely grave sat in a dip in the wood, out of sight of the Palladian mansion. On the other side of the lake was a summerhouse half hidden by a weeping willow. In Ukraine they would have called it a dacha. It was elaborately edged with gingerbread fretwork depicting a world of fairy tale fantasy in a rural idyll. She walked around the lake and tried to peer through the doll-like windows but the lace curtains were drawn and the darkness trapped inside deflected the rays of light attempting to break through the tiny gaps.
“Can I help you, madame?” It was one of the gardeners.
“Who has the key to the summerhouse?”
“It is above the door, madame, where it always is.” He seemed surprised she didn’t know.
She found the key and went inside. It was immaculate, free of cobwebs and dust, simply furnished with a table and two chairs, a daybed and a small wood-burning stove. She couldn’t imagine the Earl of Winchester being wheeled down here; the ground was too boggy. Nor could she imagine Freddy Cazenove making use of the summerhouse; it was too twee for him.
“Who uses this summerhouse?”
The gardener shifted awkwardly. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, madame.”
Historic, atmospheric and romantic, Longchamps had spent more than three hundred years mellowing into itself.
Since 1515 it had sat in the same fold in the weald with a dark cluster of trees at its back, like a verdant shawl around it shoulders, protecting it from the winter wind. It sat midway between London and the English Channel and had been designed for entertaining large numbers of guests in the days when the reigning monarch travelled to the coast to sail to France or Holland and half the royal court travelled with him.
There were 115 rooms and every single one of them had been refurbished, staying true to the taste of the Tudors.
The Countess had dispatched ten servants to prepare the house for visitors, hired another ten, put Ponsonby in charge, organized for one hundred men to tidy up the garden, and was now on her way to Kent one day before everyone was expected to arrive to ensure all was as it should be. Accompanying her on the train was Dr Watson.
Fedir and Xenia were motoring down in the new Semper Vivus.
Mr Dixie and Sherlock Holmes had arrived ahead of her. Helping them out in the stable were two ostlers and eight stable boys who knew their way around a bridle and bit blindfolded; they had no idea what was going on between the tough-talking Negro and the dithering stable-hand with the eye-patch, clockwork arm and gammy leg but they were being well paid to do their job and keep their traps shut.
“I’m more worried than ever about Mycroft Holmes,” said Dr Watson, after recounting the incident with the dog in the night. “A rambling pile like Longchamps will only make it easier for the killer. How many rooms did you say it had?”
“One hundred and fifteen.”
He grimaced. “The killer could be hiding in one of them right now. The hired servants won’t be able to recognize an interloper since most of them have never previously met; he could even be one of them!”
“What alternative do we have? We must flush out who is behind this scheme. Mycroft cannot stay under lock and key inside the Diogenes Club for the remainder of his life.”
“But how will we flush him out?”
“Chance will flush him out and Opportunity will unmask him.”
“I thought you never left anything to chance?”
“Au contraire, mon ami, every action is open to chance. The man who leaves nothing to chance is always unprepared.”
A small Tudor porch greeted visitors and ushered them into a long gallery which featured suits of armour and Flemish tapestries. Adjoining this was the beating heart of the house and one of the most magnificent Tudor great halls in England. It served as the primary staircase hall and was a breathtaking double height room with three superb glass lanterns punctuating the roof rafters. A huge Elizabethan chimneypiece dominated the great hall and there were enough needlepoint wing chairs, velvet settees and damask sofas for twenty people. Family portraits in gilded frames, embroidered cushions and quirky collectibles abounded.
It was the sort of room one could quite happily never leave. If it rained all weekend they would be content. Ten bedrooms opened directly off the upper gallery that ran around the perimeter of the great hall and Yardley, the old retainer, had placed nametags on doors according to the instructions of his master who had personally allocated all the bedrooms.
The Countess had the principal bedchamber for the lady of the house. It connected to the master suite which she presumed would be occupied by Major Nash but when she opened the connecting door she found Dr Watson.
“I say, we’ve been allocated very nice bedrooms,” he gushed. “Have you seen the view of the topiary garden from your triple bay window yet? I think the entire hamlet of Longchamps could fit into my four poster bed. Do you think this portrait of Henry VIII is a genuine Holbein?”
“Yes, I have Jane Seymour in my room and the view is stunning.”
“If you want to lock the connecting door, go ahead, it doesn’t bother me.”
“Let’s leave it as is. I’m going to check out who is staying where.”
“I’m going down to the stable to speak to the, er, dithering old stable-hand. Do you mind if I take the Semper Vivus out for a spin after lunch?”
“Not at all, take the old stable-hand with you. I want to have a word to Ponsonby about the servant situation and I want to explore the house.”
Ten houseguests; ten bedrooms off the galleried landing. Perfect.
Bafflingly, none of them had been allocated to Mycroft Holmes. His bedroom was on the ground floor adjacent to the dining room. Yardley informed her it was the bedroom where the old master, the 9th baronet, slept because he couldn’t afford to heat more than two rooms. Next door was a bedroom for his valet. The whole arrangement was poorly protected with doors going everywhere, including out to the stable-yard.
Even more bafflingly, where was Major Nash sleeping?
Yardley told her the young master preferred the same room he had as a boy. It was a small bedroom, sparsely furnished, at the top of a narrow staircase hidden behind a tapestry in the long gallery. It may originally have been used as an oratory. It jutted out over the Tudor porch and had two other doors that led to matching antechambers with steep spiral staircases going up to the tennis-play on the floor above.
Longchamps was one of the few stately homes in England that had retained its Tudor tennis court in situ. Back in Tudor times, tennis was played indoors and was accompanied by heady gambling. Henry VII and Henry VIII had both been keen on the game, and though neither had played at Longchamps, many of their courtiers had.
There was no way on earth Major Nash was going to protect Mycroft Holmes from an assassin all the way from the oratory. The ADC had messed up badly and she wasted no time in telling him when he arrived first thing Saturday morning on the milk train (to avoid any chance of assassination attempts on the normal train) with Mycroft Holmes in tow looking bleary-eyed and bewildered to be so far from Pall Mall.
“I know what I’m doing,” the major responded obstinately. “Don’t tell me how to protect Mr Holmes. Having said that, thank you for the use of your servants and all you’ve done to make this weekend pleasant for all concerned. Leave the rest to me.”
Leave the rest to me!
Shooting Mycroft would be like shooting a big fish in a small barrel. She went straight to Dr Watson, still sleeping in his four poster hamlet.
“One of us needs to swap bedrooms with Mycroft,” she said with peremptory bluntness, outlining the dangers. “I would go but Xenia and Fedir have settled themselves in the adjoining boudoir and dressing room.”
“I’ll go,” he volunteered at once. “It will put me closer to the stable-yard and I’ll be able to keep an eye on Sherlock. He seems a bit jittery. I don’t know if he’s taking too much cocaine or not enough. Yesterday, during the spin in the Semper Vivus, he kept muttering jay, jay, jay, jay, jay…”
Major Nash was furious when he discovered Mycroft Holmes had moved into the connecting master suite at the behest of the Countess, and that Dr Watson had transferred his belongings to the downstairs bedroom.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed when he cornered her on the stairs straight after breakfast.
“Protecting a man I care about deeply,” she returned with hauteur, staring coldly at the hand manacling her upper arm. “Don’t make this personal.”
“Don’t make this personal,” she repeated calmly. “You need to remain objective and unemotional or this weekend will turn into a disaster. Now, let go my arm.”
He was about to tell her the weekend had already turned into a disaster when the first of their guests arrived. It was Sir James Damery, General de Merville and Violet de Merville. They had caught the first train out of London so that Violet could catch a glimpse of ‘dawn’s dappled light’ on the weald. Unfortunately, the fog was so thick it was impossible to see beyond the train track.
Unbeknownst to them, on the same train had been Mr Blague and Miss Mona Blague, but their carriage driver got lost in the fog once they left Hollingbourne Station and they did not arrive at Longchamps for three-quarters of an hour, having detoured through the hamlets of Knyvely, Chaffley and Netherwoodly.
As soon as the young ladies had changed out of their travelling costumes and appeared downstairs in the great hall in suitable morning dresses, morning tea was served. Everyone was impressed with the house, especially the general who had described it as a hovel.
“Splendid house, Nash,” he praised magnanimously, picturing Violet as the next chatelaine of Longchamps.
Mr Blague was picturing Mona in the same role; Lady Mona Nash had a nice ring to it and he needed an intelligent son-in-law who could take over the family business one day. The major was an enterprising fellow and completely wasted in the role of glorified nurse-maid to that simpering Mr Holmes.
Major Nash cemented his high-standing in the eyes of his guests when he gave them a tour of the Elizabethan knot garden and the topiary garden which had been shaped in the likeness of figures on a chess board.
Mycroft and the Countess stood side by side at the triple bay window in the master suite and gazed pensively at the visitors strolling along the gravel path.
“This is a waste of time. I’ve got a million things to do back in London.”
“Nice try Uncle Mycroft but burying your head in the sand isn’t going to help. We both know that someone inside your club is after your job. If it is not one of our guests it must be someone who is using them to further their own ends. That incident with the dog in the night was another near miss. How many people knew you were going to Baker Street?”
“No one knew. I only just decided it when I decided to escort you home.”
“Well, someone clearly knew. They had the rabid dog at the scene in record time.”
Mycroft shuddered at the memory.
She gazed down at the young baronet leading the party. He played the role of host and statesman rather well. And he was in the dome room when Mycroft announced his plans. And he had rushed away to organize a shooter to sit alongside the coachman. Had he also organized the man with the dog? “Do you consider Major Nash ambitious?”
“All young men of reasonable intelligence are ambitious. I’d be concerned if they weren’t. What are you implying, young lady?”
“You recent promotion to primus baro has raised his profile too?”
“If you think he is trying to bump me off to further his career you are way off the mark.”
“But if he were elected to the committee he could then put himself up for election as primus baro?”
“Are you saying it is impossible?”
“I’m saying it is nonsensical!”
She gazed back down at the party strolling in the garden. Had Major Nash proposed this weekend to further his own ambitions? Was it a chance for him to ingratiate himself with Damery, Blague and de Merville, three men whose future support could be invaluable? Or was one of them backing him already? Unquestionably, Major Nash had been a loyal ADC but he wouldn’t be the first ambitious young man who saw a chance to better himself and by changing sides, seized the day. Is that why he was so angry she had re-allocated Mycroft’s bedroom?
Before Major Nash returned to the house with his guests, she slipped out to the stable to speak to Sherlock and Dr Watson and air her suspicions regarding their charming host. Mr Dixie kept an eye out to make sure they weren’t about to be interrupted.
“This weekend was his idea,” reminded Dr Watson, “and I didn’t like the sound of it from the start. Mycroft is a sitting duck in this rambling pile.”
Agitated and restless, aware of all the things that could go wrong now that they were at Longchamps, unhappy about the number of things out of his control, Sherlock paced the horse stalls. “Jay, jay, jay, jay,” he mumbled over and over before plucking the cufflink from his pocket. “I found this under the dressing table in the princess’s bedroom at Clarges Hotel,” he said, handing it to his daughter.
“J,” she said, relieved he wasn’t losing the plot after all. “You think it might belong to the mysterious lover you believed was in bed with the princess the morning the prince arrived unannounced?”
Sherlock nodded. “We can deduce from Prince Sergei’s behaviour in the hotel room that he had already seen the body of his wife in the bath. We extrapolated from that deduction that he killed her or induced her to commit suicide, but what if he arrived after her lover had just done the deed and was preparing to leave when the prince arrived unannounced? The prince saw the body in the bath but he did not kill the princess because she was already dead. Whoever was in bed with the princess could have fled unseen.”
“J is the lover,” agreed the Countess, “But who is J? James Damery?”
“Or Josiah de Merville,” supplied Sherlock as an alternative to the obvious.
“Colonel James Moriarty!” cried Dr Watson.
The Countess shook her head. “This cufflink is solid gold. I don’t believe he could afford it. Besides, his cufflinks are all engraved with the initials JIM.”
“Nicely observed, my dear,” praised Sherlock with a wry grin. “Did you happen to observe the cufflinks of our handsome host?”
She rolled her eyes. “No need, his name is Inigo.”
“Yes, but his father was Jonathan Nash and his mother’s maiden name was Jantzen. He may have inherited some family keepsakes which he occasionally wears.”
She made a mental note to check for a cufflink box in the oratory at the first opportunity.
“What is Mr Blague’s first name?” quizzed Sherlock.
“Bruce,” supplied the Countess. “I better get back to the house. I’ve left Mycroft alone for too long.”
“Before you go,” said Sherlock. “One of the men in the dome room on the night of the ball must have set the timer on the first bomb. It might be worth finding out more about what was going on in there just prior to everyone leaving to go to the lake.”
“I can answer some of it,” she replied. “Mrs Klein made the suggestion to Mr Blague about smoking a hookah. She was supposed to join the men up there but she did not arrive. When the notion of a duel presented itself, which was proposed by Prince Sergei who happened to have duelling pistols in his carriage, three men were keen to follow through immediately. They were Mr Blague, General de Merville and Prince Sergei. They wanted to vacate the dome room as soon as possible, only Sir Damery demurred. He even suggested they wait till the next morning, which I believe is in accord with the Code Duello. Major Nash and Colonel Moriarty were both keen to go ahead as soon as possible. So, apart from Damery, the other five were keen to leave.”
“Hmm,” murmured Sherlock circumspectly. “I wonder who was last to leave the room?”
“I was on the dance floor and saw General de Merville, Prince Sergei and Mr Blague cross the foyer together well ahead of the others. Sir Damery came later with Major Nash and Colonel Moriarty in tow.”
“Speak to your maid again,” suggested Sherlock, spotting Mr Dixie gesticulating wildly. “Ask her if she remembers anyone else milling about who could have gone up to that room afterwards. Someone must be coming. Let’s move out of sight behind these hay bales.”
The arrival of Colonel Moriarty on his horse knocked them for six. Was he here in the capacity of assassin? And who had hired him? Fear held them rigid as they waited for him to dismount, unsaddle his carpet bag and head toward the front porch whistling an Irish folk tune.
Mr Dixie began to unsaddle the horse. “This horse ain’t come from London. It ain’t sheened with sweat and lather. It’s come from somewhere nearby.”
Terrified and intrigued, Dr Watson and the Countess re-entered the house using the door closest to the stable-yard and arrived in the great hall, joining up with the rest of the party, just as Colonel Moriarty was being shown in by Ponsonby.
Major Nash leapt from his seat; eyes blazing fiercely. “What the deuce!” he cursed, forgetting himself in front of the ladies. “What are you doing here?” he demanded brusquely, noting the bulging carpet bag that signalled a houseguest who intended to stay.
Undeterred, the colonel appeared as cocky as ever, if not cockier. “My invitation must have gone astray; an easy thing to happen since I move about a fair bit when I’m in London. I hope I’m not too late for lunch.”
The grandfather clock began to strike twelve and everyone braced for the possibility of Major Nash striking Colonel Moriarty. Breaths were drawn as everyone recalled the duel by the lake that didn’t quite play out to the bitter end.
But Major Nash was quick to temper himself. The dark flush highlighting his cut-glass cheekbones that signalled rousing anger faded away as swiftly as it came. He addressed himself to Ponsonby. “I’ll show the colonel to his room. Leave it with me. Serve lunch in half an hour. We cannot wait any longer for Prince Sergei and Mrs Klein. As soon as the ladies change into fresh clothes we will sit down.”
He flashed a devastating smile at his female guests who took the hint and proceeded upstairs to put on something dressier that would take them into the afternoon. Morning costumes tended to be unfussy, usually in cotton or wool, perhaps with soutache swirls, a touch of embroidery, a contrasting ribbon or a pinch-pleated frill, while afternoon costumes featured beautiful brocades and velvets edged in fur. Tea gowns tended to be more romantic: cutwork linen or delicate Bobbin lace or Irish crochet, but the real fashion show would not start until after dark when ladies would appear as painterly visions draped in lustrous fabrics – silk, satin, taffeta, chiffon – like kinetic works of art covered in beads and jewels that glittered in the candlelight.
The men likewise thought they might freshen up prior to lunch and followed the ladies.
Major Nash indicated for the colonel to follow him in the opposite direction and the Countess guessed their host intended to install his uninvited guest in the valet’s room next door to Dr Watson who had taken over the ground floor bedroom from Mycroft. A wise choice, she thought, until she realized he would be able to see from his small window every time Dr Watson visited the stable, and he would soon see through Mr Dixie’s and Sherlock’s disguise too.
“There’s a spare room upstairs,” she called after the two men, deciding it would be easier to keep an eye on the colonel if his bedroom came off the upper gallery.
Major Nash looked back over his shoulder and another dark flush highlighted his cheekbones. “What?”
“There are ten bedrooms coming off the upper gallery and only nine of them are being used. Colonel Moriarty can take the tenth.”
Colonel Moriarty had already started to wonder where Nash might be leading him. He had noticed the other guests tripping up the main stairs. He suspected his old cadre might be ushering him to the servants’ quarters. He wouldn’t put it past the baronet to treat him like the hired help. He swivelled on his heel and began to follow the Countess up the stairs. He liked her plan better.
Major Nash was livid. He blasphemed before storming off outside for a few deep breaths of frigid air that might help restore his sanity. He lit a cigarette and puffed furiously as he paced the knot garden, counting off the angry strides to stop from cursing her name. She was turning all his carefully laid plans on their head.
And he was jealous too. He didn’t mind admitting it. But slow and steady won the race. Jim’s double life exhausted people. His constant lying eventually grew tiresome. She would soon see through him. In the end she would choose a man who would honour, cherish and protect her. A man who would love her with every breath of his body. A man who would be a decent father to her children. A man who could provide the sort of life every woman dreamed of.
When a magnificent red carriage with a royal Russian emblem on the door rolled beneath the arch of the gatehouse, he stepped back quickly behind a tall topiary and watched as Isadora Klein emerged like a tsarina, bolstering her cannons and smoothing back her luxurious black mane.
Prince Sergei emerged a moment later from the opposite side of the carriage, straightening his waistcoat and smoothing back his rich sweep of silver hair.
That explained the late arrival. There had been no hurry to rush the journey.
A few moments later Mrs Klein’s lacquered carriage arrived with her luggage on it so that it appeared as if they had travelled in two carriages instead of one.
Colonel Moriarty waited until the Countess paused at the bedroom door. He thanked her courteously as he flung it open and hauled her inside like a piece of baggage, checking to make sure no one was watching, before closing the door behind himself. The action had been fluid, bold, reckless, and completely in character.
“Do you and Nash have an understanding?” he said, standing in front of the door should she decide to leave before he had received a satisfactory reply.
Feigning calm, she strolled to the window to catch her breath; her heart always beat a little faster in his presence. “I think this view of the garden is better than the stable-yard.”
Like most men he had a one track mind and repeated the question a little more volubly. “Do you and Nash have an understanding?”
She turned her head and looked him in the eye because looking at him always thrilled her, though he was not the handsomest man she’d ever met, not by a long shot. But what he lacked in physical attractiveness he made up in sheer physicality; there radiated off him an aura of virility that throbbed and burned and warned her not to get too close.
“Major Nash and I have no understanding whatsoever, neither the sort you are alluding to, nor any other. The man is behaving most peculiarly. If I didn’t know better I’d say he is not serious about protecting Mycroft.” She waited to see what he would make of that confession.
His poker face ran a gamut of emotions but it was fear that sharpened his features as he stepped away from the door. “Lower your voice. What makes you say that?”
“Several things which I don’t have time to go into right now (and don’t wish to share with you because I don’t know if I can trust you either) because I need to change for lunch. But I am starting to suspect our host might have designs on being the next primus baro.”
His stomach did a sickly somersault and he for once he was glad it was empty. Was he being played for a sucker by Nash? Was Nash playing a game of double bluff? Was Nash setting up an Irishman to take the blame for Mycroft’s assassination?
Moriarty caught her arm as she swept past him; there was a discordant note of desperation in the Irish lilt. “I presume you have good reason for saying that?”
“Not really, it’s more of a feeling. You better not be here on business,” she flared, feeling the heat from his hand like a flame from a candle.
“I’m not here to assassinate him, if that’s what you mean. If I had a contract Mycroft wouldn’t have stepped foot off the milk train.”
“How did you know he came on the milk train?”
Bang! Bang! He’s just shot himself in the foot! His hand fell limply away. “None of your business.”
“If anything bad happens to Mycroft and I find out you had something to do with it I won’t rest. There won’t be anywhere for you to hide. I will hunt you down.”
He met her steely gaze. “You care for him that much?”
“More than you can imagine.”
“I can imagine a lot.”
“Then start imagining how you’re going to keep him alive.”
His next words caught her before she reached the door. “Happy birthday, Varvara – this is for you.”
She whirled round, expecting to find herself in his arms and his lips stealing a punishing kiss but instead she was staring at something weirdly mottled with a white tassel hanging on the end of it. “What is it?”
He looked slightly hurt. “A book mark made of birch bark.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” She could see he had carefully cut little love hearts into soft white flesh of the sacred tree. “I will treasure it,” she said sincerely, “thank you.”
A deerstalker hat awaited the Countess on her bed when she returned to her bedroom to change into a cream lace afternoon gown that finished with a slight train that swept the floor in her wake. The gift came with a card signed SH. She smiled and put it on, hoping for inspiration, as she pondered who was lying. Was it Major Nash or Colonel Moriarty?
Or were they conspiring together?
If Nash was elected primus baro he could conceivably approve Moriarty’s entry into the Diogenes Club. It would be a huge step up for two penniless sons from fallen families. What a coup de grace for two young men to control all that went on behind the scenes of government: to decide the Irish Guards question, to decide on membership of the most exclusive club in London, to control the world’s bank. Ambition, indeed!
Philip and Clement. King and Pope. They could easily have set the bombs. They were everywhere that night. Including in the dome room and then duelling down by the lake at just the right time. They could have strangled the studio photographer, then strangled the other one too, hidden him in the pump house and then dumped his body the following night when they met in the wood. And they might have broken into the house in Cheyne Walk to make sure no evidence pointed to them. And the incident with the dog – Nash knew where Mycroft was going and Moriarty happened along at just the right time. Coincidence? Perhaps they were making sure that when Mycroft was actually assassinated they were not considered as suspects. Moriarty had already saved his life! And Nash was the loyal ADC!
What about Princess Paraskovia? Could they be linked to the death of princess too? It was not as preposterous as it sounded. They had both been in love with Isadora Klein, and both had been rejected by her. Did they make a habit of sleeping with the same woman?
No, no, no, the theory was too pat, too neat, too obvious.
Lunch passed pleasantly and no one raised the topic of the bombs.
After lunch Dr Watson gave the Countess a hand-written copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles which he hoped one day to publish. The case had taken place in 1889 and the story had been serialized and made famous, but the doctor had high hopes of one day turning it into a proper novel.
“Returning to Baskerville with you,” he said; eyes slightly misty, “was the start of our friendship and I will always remember our time there together as something special. Happy birthday, dear lady.”
Rain set in and continued all afternoon. Guests moved seamlessly from the whist table to the seating around the fireplace in the great hall to the billiards room then back again. A jolly game of charades was organized by Miss Blague and even Mycroft joined in. Afternoon tea was served and then guests began to drift off. Some went to have a nap, some went to the gun room with their host to look at the new Purdeys; others decided to curl up with a book.
Now that everyone had gone their separate ways it was the perfect time to seek answers to questions such as: who left the dome room last, where did Prince Sergei go after he left the lake, where did Mrs Klein go after organizing the bucket brigade…But first, a visit to the oratory to check for cufflinks.
It was clear Major Nash did not come often to Longchamps. He brought what he needed with him from London and stored very little in his tiny cramped bedroom. In the top drawer of a tallboy sat a box made of mother-of-pearl inlay, the sort of thing tourists buy in the souks in Egypt and Morocco. It housed a few odd buttons, some jet tie pins and a couple of cheap cufflinks.
“Were you looking for me?”
Major Nash’s voice ambushed her at the base of the stairs in the long gallery. He must have heard her ferreting about in his room and simply waited for her to emerge from behind the tapestry.
“No,” she said with perfect candour, “I was searching for a cufflink.”
Truth was always unnerving and it amused her to see sure-footed men thrown off-balance by it.
“A cufflink was found in the princess’s suite at Clarges Hotel.”
“Just one cufflink?”
“And you thought I might have the matching pair?”
He aimed a nervous glance back over his shoulder; the long gallery was like an echo chamber. “We can’t talk here. Go back up the stairs.”
Even in the oratory he was not satisfied they would not be overheard.
“Keep going up,” he directed, indicating the spiral stairs that went up to the tennis-play; a huge indoor Tudor tennis court with penthouses along one wall for waiting players and two viewing decks at either end for spectators. “You suspect me of killing Princess Paraskovia?”
She rarely replied to the obvious and she needed to keep the focus on him, not switch it to herself. “Did she give you a nesting doll?”
“You’re asking me if I was one of her lovers?”
“She didn’t give me a nesting doll.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“You didn’t answer mine.”
She conceded the point and decided there was nothing for it but to unnerve him further. “Did you invite Colonel Moriarty here to assassinate Mycroft?”
He reacted as if he’d been slapped but recovery was swift. “No.”
“Did you invite Colonel Moriarty here to assassinate someone else?”
“I’m not in the habit of assassinating houseguests. If I wanted to assassinate someone I’d do it myself. You know about his double life?”
She snatched up a tennis racquet and swished the air. “Yes but I’d like to know more about yours.”
“I don’t have a double life.”
“Everyone does. Let’s play a game. What are the rules?”
He found a second racquet and picked up something small that was a cross between a ball and a shuttlecock. “Let’s keep it simple. No hitting into the penthouses or above the 18 foot line on the wall. Hitting the roof is permitted. Points are scored by the distance from the net the unreturned ball travels. You serve first.”
He had the advantage of trousers and being born a man. He was stronger, fitter and physically co-ordinated. The only way she was going to win was if he threw a game. She was glad he didn’t.
“Game, set, match,” she conceded graciously; breasts rising and falling in an effort to reign in her breath, “you win.”
“If only it were that easy.” His smile was a masterstroke that mingled love and desire and melted her defences, and when he used a finger to smooth back a loose curl of her up-pinned hair she was almost ready to concede defeat all over again and melt into his arms, but his restraint was as masterful as his game, and his voice a husky purr. “We seem to be on opposing sides. I don’t know how it happened. Mycroft’s safety is my only concern. Try not to get in my way. I know what I’m doing.”
“Good for you, Major Nash, because I have no idea what I’m doing but I intend to keep on doing it until I find the person who is trying to kill Mycroft. Try to stay out of my way.”
Sir James Damery was playing a game of Solitaire where the card table had been set up near the drinks trolley in the great hall. There was no one within earshot so she decided to start with him. “May I join you?”
Ever the diplomat, he stood up and pulled out a chair for her. “Certainly, Countess, I presume you have some questions about the night of the ball. That’s why we’re here, is it not?”
She was relieved he wasn’t going to be obstreperous. “Who was the last person to leave the room with the hookahs when you went out for the duel?”
“It was I. Major Nash went first. Colonel Moriarty followed. I closed the door.”
“Later in the night, you helped to supervise the departure of the carriages. What do you recall happening in the carriage park?”
“Nothing at all, it was all quite orderly, oh, apart from a woman in a purple and gold dress who appeared to be frantically searching for someone. She was almost hit by one of the carriages.”
“It was Mr Blague’s. The horses were skittish and the driver seemed reckless.”
“Was there anything else you remember happening in the carriage park?”
“Well, it was a busy place, there was a lot happening, but not in the sense of anything unusual. After the Prince Regent left, most of the carriages did the same.”
“Which ones stayed till last?”
“Your troika, de Mervilles’ landau – I came with them and was checking to make sure they didn’t leave me behind, Lord Faversham’s carriage, Mrs Klein’s brougham, Prince Sergei’s distinctive red carriage, and one or two others.”
“I thought I saw a man in Mrs Klein’s carriage as I was crossing the carriage park,” she lied.
Damery dropped his diplomatic gaze. “Well, I wouldn’t know about that,” he replied tactfully and evasively, confirming that Xenia’s keen eye was not to be doubted.
“Do you recall seeing a camera on the hall table as you were going out to the lake?”
He shook his head. “No, I can’t recall seeing one but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. I wasn’t looking. Do you think the third bomb was inside the camera?”
“It does seem likely. Mrs Klein was meant to join you in the dome room but she failed to arrive. Do you know why?”
“I believe I heard Blague say she went up to the wrong room. There were two rooms with hookahs, you see, and she went to the other one and was surprised no one was there so she came back down to the dance floor.”
Mr Blague was randomly potting coloured balls on the billiard table when the Countess joined him.
“May I ask you some questions about the night of the ball?”
“Go ahead. Care for a game of snooker while we talk?”
“Certainly.” She chalked her cue while he set up the balls. “It was Mrs Klein who suggested you try the hookahs, is that right?”
He nodded briskly. “I’ll break. The balls scatter better if a man breaks. Yes, she seemed very keen on the idea; she’d tried out the water pipes in Cairo. She said she’d meet us up there because she was supposed to have a dance with Pugswell or someone of that name but then that duel business happened and we all left.” He missed his shot and cussed.
The Countess sank three balls in arrow. “She apparently went up to the wrong room?”
“Nice play for a woman. Yes, she went to the room on the other side of the pavilion.”
He missed again.
“When you were discussing the duel can you recall what everyone was doing?” She sank another couple balls then deliberately missed the next.
“Bad luck,” he said, not unhappily, sinking a few. “Just arguing – that’s what we were doing!”
“Were you sampling the shisha while the argument was raging? Nice shot.”
He beamed. “No, everyone was just milling about. Major Nash was pointing his pistol with menace and the Irish interloper was stood in the centre of the room with nowhere to run. Malamtov lit a cigarette and sauntered round the room looking bored. De Merville examined the water pipes and played around with them for a bit. Damery positioned himself between the two young bucks. I checked out the shisha. Being in the tobacco business, you see, it interested me quite a bit. I was keen to learn more but I never got the chance.”
“You remained with Prince Sergei by the lake after the bombs went off?”
He was going for his shot but missed. “I might take that shot again,” he said, “your question put me off my game.”
“Oh, yes, certainly, I’ll wait till you’ve finished.”
He potted the ball and felt vindicated. “You were saying?”
“Did you remain long by the lake after the bombs went off?” she rephrased, watching as he missed and she was forced to have a turn. She made sure to be wide of the mark.
“Not long. I can’t say exactly how long though. Malamtov collected his weapons, which had just been tossed to the ground. He was furious because they are valuable heirlooms. I helped him to clean them up; ruined a brand new silk handkerchief in the process. Then we shared a cigarette and I helped him carry them to his carriage. Duelling pistols are quite heavy and the boxes are even heavier.”
“You left immediately after that?”
He chalked his cue. “I couldn’t see the point of staying longer. The ball was over. It was better to leave it all to the troops to deal with.” He potted the next two balls and beamed triumphantly. “I sat in the carriage for a bit and waited for some of the carriages to clear out. The prince sat in his carriage too. He was closer to the gate. I thought he was going to leave but when he just sat and sat I ordered the coachman to go around him. The coach went wide and almost hit a lady who seemed to be lost.”
“Did you see anything unusual in the carriage park?”
“I’m not sure what you mean by unusual. I didn’t see the bomb man skulking around, though I did see the photographer; he had ditched his folding camera and was getting into one of the carriages.” He potted the last of the balls and tried to look modest.
“Congratulations. Did you happen to notice which one?”
“No, but as I was leaving I noticed the carriage was doing quite a bit of shaking, if you know what I mean.”
“Do you recall where the carriage was parked?”
“It was parked right next to Malamtov’s. Yes, now I remember it was the brougham belonging to that Valkyrie. But she wasn’t inside it. I can swear to that. She was down by the lake organizing a line of bucket boys. I could see her metallic helmet flashing gold as some of the spot fires were being put out.”
“Is General de Merville still in the gun room?”
“No, I believe he went down to the wine cellar with Malamtov to sample some Scotch. In fact, I might join them. Care to come?”
She politely declined. She did not want to interview the general while he was in the company of others so she knocked on the door of Mrs Klein’s bedroom instead. A lady’s maid ushered her in. The celebrated Spanish beauty was sitting in a copper hip bath which had been placed in front of the fire. Her naked breasts glowed in the flickering firelight and her gorgeous dark hair fell wetly around her proud shoulders.
“Come in, Countess Varvara. Make yourself comfortable in that armchair by the pie crust table. Dolores can serve you a glass of Madeira while we chat. I will have one too. I won’t bother to cover up. I can see you are not offended by the naked female form. Not like Miss Blague, who would be horrified to look at her own breasts. You want to know what I remember about the night of the ball. I’m afraid the night was a blur after those terrible bombs.”
The Countess knew she would need to tread carefully. Isadora Klein was no fool. Flattery would be pointless and subtlety would get her nowhere. She needed to steer a gentle course between the two. “Mmm, a true vinho da roda; was it aged in an estufas?”
“I see you know your wines, Countess. It has been distilled from one of the last batches of the vitis vinifera grapes to grow on the island of Madeira. Phylloxera wiped out the rest. The vines were ripped out and they grow cane sugar now. Times change but not always for the best. We have both seen off rich husbands. We have more in common than you know.”
She soaped her voluptuous breasts while she spoke. The nipples stood out like bullets.
“Did you know that a man was sitting in your carriage while you were organizing the brigade of bucketeers?”
Isadora was sang-froid personified. “Poor thing! He was probably terrified and clambered into the first womb-like place he could find. Men are such babies, don’t you think?”
“And such hopeless romantics too! Take our brooding host and that intense Irish colonel, two men who wear matching chips on their shoulders like badges of honour, one on the right and the other on the left – fighting a duel over a woman!”
“I believe it was Miss Blague.”
Isadora laughed breathily and it was like the sirocco, hot and sultry, reminiscent of the dry red Saharan dust that can turn tropical and stormy when met with a cold continental current of air. “Miss Blague is not for hot-blooded men. She will marry the Hon. Pugsy Setterfield and settle happily in Shropshire. I believe it was you they were duelling over. Please do not bother with an ingenuous denial. They could hardly keep their eyes off you at lunch. Some men not only make a virtue of poverty, they flaunt it. Of course, you are not interested – you do not wish to relinquish control of your fortune to a new husband – and that only encourages them all the more. Some men never tire of punishment. See, we have more in common than you think. What else do you want to know?”
Was Mrs Klein implying they had the major and the colonel in common as well as widowhood and that she wished to humiliate them by toying with their affections? Or that Mrs Klein had not finished humiliating them and had more in store? Did the colonel suffer the same humiliation at the hands of the ruthless Queen of the Conquistadores as the major?
“I believe it was you who suggested visiting the room with the shisha and the hookahs?”
“Yes, I had sampled some shisha in Cairo and when I mentioned the hookahs to the American he seemed very excited. It was his idea to go straight up and the others seemed equally keen. Just like babies! I had promised the last dance to Pugsy and said I would join them as soon as I was free.”
“You went to the wrong room?”
“Yes, I was in a hurry because dear sweet Pugsy wanted to chat after our dance. I shamelessly brushed him off and raced up the stairs but when I got there the room was empty and I realized my mistake.”
“You didn’t go to the other room?”
“No, I bumped into the Princess of Wales who was going to get her cloak in preparation for the fireworks. I decided it was too late for shisha and collected my cloak as well.”
“While you were in the foyer did you notice if there was a camera on the hall table?”
Mrs Klein sipped her Madeira; it was the first time she had hesitated. “Yes, yes, I did, now you mention it. The studio photographer was coming down the stairs and he picked up the folding camera resting on the table and put it in the cupboard under the stairs. I remember at the time thinking it was an odd thing to do. That was the bomb wasn’t it?”
“Yes, I believe so. After you organized the relay of buckets you disappeared somewhere but you didn’t leave. Your carriage was still in the carriage park. Can you remember where you went?”
“I went to powder my nose. I spoke to a few people on my way out but I cannot recall any names now. It was all just a blur. I think I went straight home after that. Yes, yes, I did.”
“The terrified man was no longer in your carriage?”
“No, it was quite empty. He must have gathered up his courage or realized he was in the wrong carriage and fled before being discovered.”
“Do you remember if Prince Sergei’s carriage was still there?”
“No, I was very tired by then and I paid no attention to anything.”
Prince Sergei was returning to his bedroom when the Countess spotted him. It was an opportune time to catch him alone before he took a nap or a bath. She knocked on his door and waited for his valet to open it.
“Who is it, Ivanchyk?” called the prince, shrugging off his frock coat. “Ah, Countess Varvara, entrez-vous, s’il vous plait, enchanté.”
She spotted the hip bath by the fire. “I hope I’m not holding you up from your banya?”
“Not at all,” he assured, signalling for his valet to leave them. “Mr Blague said you were asking questions about the night of the ball. You want to speak to everyone, da? You are now an English detective, da?” He gave a hearty laugh as he offered her a Russian cigarette.
She waited until he had lighted it for her and then waited some more while he lighted one for himself. They settled in armchairs either side of the copper bath.
“What is it you wish to ask?” he prompted, enjoying that first deep inhalation.
“When the duellists ran back to the pavilion you stayed in the wood with the American?”
His distinguished face creased into an undistinguished scowl as he exhaled. “Da, the major and the colonel simply tossed the duelling pistols into the merde and fled. I was incensed. The trigger mechanisms on antique pistols are delicate, you understand, sensitive and delicate. One should treat them with respect, as one treats a beautiful woman.” He essayed a charming smile her way. “One does not toss them aside like a spent cigarette. Mr Blague helped me to clean them up and re-house them. He helped to carry one of the boxes back to my carriage.”
“You did not return to the pavilion?”
“Certainly not! The place was a madhouse. I could see all that from the wood. Bombs going off. Women screaming. Men rushing about like headless chooks. Mon Dieu! That Hispanic beauty was braver than all those Englishmen put together! True daughter of a hidalgo! I watched from my carriage as she rallied some weaklings to fill buckets with water from the lake. She whipped them into shape by sheer force of female will. You witnessed this too, da?”
“Mrs Klein was certainly extraordinary.” She wondered if he’d already chosen his next wife as she blew a plume of tobacco smoke across the top of the bath and watched it merge with tendrils of steamy water vapour like two will-o-the-wisps entwining. “I believe Mr Blague left immediately. You did not follow?”
“As I said, I watched from my carriage. The spectacle of the pavilion was more dramatic than the fireworks. It was not a wise time to leave anyway. Blague’s horses threatened to bolt. His coachman did his best to keep them steady. He almost knocked over a lady looking for her carriage. The other horses were spooked by the loud noises, pawing the ground and stamping their feet. Coachmen were struggling to calm their steeds. I lit a cigarette and thought to myself it was like watching a war from the side-lines.”
“While you were watching, did you see a man enter Mrs Klein’s carriage? I believe her brougham was parked alongside your coach.”
He had the habit of sweeping back his silver mane at regular intervals; it seemed to be an unconscious gesture not related to preening. “Her coach was parked alongside but it was on the other side, not facing the pavilion I mean, and her curtains were closed. I saw a man running away from the pavilion but I paid no attention to where he went. I was watching the spectacle. If he leapt into her carriage I’m not surprised. He might have been looking for a place to hide. Some men who have been to war are easily frightened by fireworks. It reminds them of cannons and death.”
She flicked some ash into the fireplace and the conversation shifted to mutual friends and acquaintances in Ukraine and Russia, and then to the untimely demise of Princess Paraskovia.
“The birchwood is an inspired resting place, very peaceful and symbolic, a perfect choice. I visited the graveside again when I paid a visit to the Earl of Winchester the other day.”
“Da,” he agreed, flicking his cigarette into the fire. “A perfect resting place for the princess but I did not choose it. It was suggested to me by Mr Holmes.”
She flicked her cigarette into the fire to hide her surprise. “A man for all seasons,” she mused, smiling gently. “The birchwood reminds me of our homeland. There is a dacha on the other side of the lake. You can just glimpse it through the trees. Did you notice it?”
He stared at the water in the bath as if staring into the abyss. “No, I did not notice it. Is there anything else? The bathwater grows cold.”
She took the hint. “Yes, of course, just one last question. Did anyone join you in your carriage as you watched the spectacle?”
“No,” he said, ushering her to the door. “No one joined me.”
Mycroft was waiting for her in her bedroom. “Making any progress?”
Yes, she thought ruefully, but not the sort she was hoping for. “Not really,” she lied.
He shrugged his rounded shoulders as he handed her a small gift. “This is for you, happy birthday, my dear.”
She tore away some tissue paper to find a stunning trezyb hat pin studded with diamonds. “This looks bespoke? Who designed it?”
“It was made to my own design. I hope you like it.”
“How could I not like the trezyb! It’s beautiful! Simply beautiful! Thank you so much.”
She was giving him a kiss on the cheek when the silhouette of a man framed in the connecting door caught Mycroft’s eye.
“Come in, Nash,” he said. “Did you want to speak to me?”
The brooding major looked sheepishly at his boss. “Yes, sir, but it can keep.”
“There is no keeping a secret from the Countess, Nash. You will learn that soon enough if you haven’t already discovered it for yourself. What is it? Nothing serious I hope.”
“General de Merville has over-indulged, sir. He is looking seedy and has been put to bed by his daughter. Dr Watson advised that he be left to sleep off the effects of too much whiskey even if it means missing out on his dinner.”
For a heavy-set man, Mycroft moved with surprising suppleness. “I’ll look in on him on my way down to the great hall. I promised Damery a game of chess before dinner.”
Major Nash waited until the door closed.
“Why didn’t you tell me it was your birthday?”
“I thought you knew.”
“Why would you think that?’
“I thought you knew everything.”
He gave a self-deprecating laugh as he turned to go. “So did I.”
Her voice stopped him before he reached the door. “Does Mycroft know you slept with the princess?”
He didn’t bother turning around. “I never said I did.”
When faced with a brick wall it was always wise to change direction. “The humiliating episode with Mrs Klein,” she reminded, “did a similar humiliation happen to Colonel Moriarty?”
He turned now, and there was a flash of anger in the sky-blue eyes, like a summer storm about to break, but virtuous self-control won the day. “Yes, what of it?”
“I’m wondering if Mrs Klein considers the episodes finished.”
He smiled wryly and relaxed his shoulders. “A true sadist is never finished. There is always one more turn of the screw. You’ve read history. The Conquistadores spread typhus, influenza, smallpox, malaria and yellow fever to the natives. And one of their forebears is still spreading it. Some people are the disease.”
She noted the vehemence infecting his carefully modulated tone. “You cannot allow the past to skew your view. You need to remain brutally objective or we will never nail Mycroft’s assassin. It’s almost time to dress for dinner and we are no closer to finding who set those bombs than when we started.”
“I am being brutally objective,” he argued, with an emphasis on the brutal part, “and as much as I would like to pin the bombs on the woman I love to hate there is no way she is behind them. The last person on earth to ever gain membership of the Diogenes Club will be a woman. No woman will ever be primus baro.”
It rankled that Major Nash was right. No woman would ever step through the doors of the Diogenes Club unless she denied her sex and turned herself into a man.
“Did you learn anything new today?” she put to him as she picked up the trezyb and tried not to dwell on the unfairness of being born female.
He watched the diamonds catch the light as she twirled her new hat pin round and round between her fingers. “You mean apart from the fact your birthday coincides with epiphany, Mr Dixie and Sherlock Holmes are wearing woeful disguises, Miss Mona Blague is not as innocent as she seems, Miss de Merville cheats at whist, Mr Bruce Blague is looking for a son-in-law to help run his cigar empire, Isadora Klein threatens to visit my bed tonight, Damery wears insteps in his shoes, Prince Sergei Ilych Ivanovich Malamtov wears a stomacher, and General de Merville cannot hold his liquor, then no. What did you call that thing?”
She stopped twirling the hat pin. “Trezyb.”
“Ah, Neptune’s trident – the national symbol for Ukraine.”
“Trident is one theory. It might also be a stylized image of Pershoboh, the winged god of the ancient people of the Eurasian Steppe, or a stylized gryphon, a name attributed to Ukrainians in ancient times, or a stylized bridle and spurs to signify where horses were first domesticated, or a holy triptych of flames, or an abbreviated word: VOLYA, meaning willpower, freedom.”
“Quite a choice! What’s this?” He picked up the birchbark book mark and noted the cut-out hearts with an unamused roll of eyes. “It seems I’m the only one who didn’t know it was your birthday this weekend. I didn’t prepare a gift in advance. You might have to settle for me visiting your bed tonight to demonstrate the mechanics of things I’ve mastered.”
“You better come early,” she parried tongue in cheek to make light of his glib threat, “it might get crowded.”
“If you’re expecting the colonel you will soon discover he’ll be otherwise engaged fending off Miss Blague. I told her the colonel had a large castle in Ireland and that he was the rightful king of the Irish and that as soon as Queen Victoria dies he’ll be crowned.”
“No one would ever be stupid enough to believe such a fairy tale.”
As soon as Major Nash left to check on his guests, Xenia entered. She had been patiently waiting in the dressing room. The Countess wanted to confirm once more what her maid saw in the carriage park on the night of the ball.
“Tell me again,” she said, “while you re-do my hair with some jewelled pins.”
“I look for troika. It is there. I see man running – he is not servant or soldier or rich man. He goes into carriage and sits. I know not which one. Two men come, but not coachman, they go into carriage and there is much shaking.”
“Wait! What two men?”
“Two men who stand on back of carriage when it goes.”
“Oh, like two livered footmen?’
“Yes, yes, they have nice uniform like Tsar’s men.”
“That was definitely the carriage of Mrs Klein. She arrived here with two liveried footmen standing on the backboard. Was the curtain open or closed?”
Xenia brushed the long chestnut mane of her mistress while she pondered the question. “Open at first and then when two men go in it is closed.”
“You’re sure of this?”
“Yes. I see man sitting alone but when there is shaking I not see what is happening because curtain it is closed.”
“I see prince in his carriage. He is sitting alone. Curtains open. Later when I come back to check again for troika curtain is closed.”
“You went twice to the carriage park?”
“Yes, two times I look for troika.”
“The first time you went you saw the prince in his carriage but the second time his curtains were closed and you couldn’t tell if he was there or not?”
“When you went the first time the fireworks were going?”
“When you went back the second time the fireworks had finished?”
“Most of the carriages had gone by then?’
“Yes, not much left.”
“The carriage that had the man in it, was it still there?”
“Yes, it is standing next to carriage of Russian prince.”
“Think carefully. Were the curtains closed in both carriages?”
“Yes, both closed.”
“Excellent! Excellent! Now, think back to when you were inside the pavilion. Did you see the woman dressed like a warrior queen go up the stairs to the room at the top on the other side to where the colonel went?”
Xenia nodded. “Yes, she hurries much up the stairs and then comes down straight away.”
Damn! That confirmed that Mrs Klein did go up to the wrong dome room.
“Did you see what she did after that?”
“Yes she get her cloak and goes outside.”
Damn! Mrs Klein was telling the truth.
“Now, this is important. Did you see the folding camera on the table in the foyer?”
“Yes, camera on table. Man comes down stairs and he put camera in cupboard under stairs.”
“Man I not see all night. He is not dressed fancy. He is small, with neck like chicken.”
That had to be the studio photographer, Mr Aubrey Ambrose. He was a puny little thing. Once again, Mrs Klein had been telling the truth. The studio photographer removed the camera. That put him in the clear for setting the bombs. And it was possibly the reason he was strangled. He would have been able to point the finger at the roaming photographer and he would have been able to identify him too. If he had the calling card of Mr Trotter in his office it meant they had met at some stage, possibly prior to the ball. But who returned to the pavilion to strangle Mr Aubrey Ambrose?
“Did you see anyone come back inside the pavilion while the injured were being carried out and everyone was on the lawn?”
“There is much coming and going. Many people in and out.”
“Did Prince Sergei return?”
Xenia shook her head. “I not see him.”
“What about General de Merville or Sir Damery, the two men who are here this weekend?”
Xenia shook her head again. “I not see them. I see the woman go in.”
“Yes, she goes to lady room.”
“Did you see when she came out?”
“No, I wait for you there but then I go to help with bandages.”
A knock at the door curtailed the conversation. It was Miss de Merville.
Violet de Merville was usually described in the poetic terms reserved for the idealized female subjects of Reynolds or Gainsborough – calm, assured, graceful, transcending common beauty – but right at this minute it looked as if the canvas had suffered debasement. The determined general’s daughter who stood no nonsense looked like a woman on the verge of tears and for someone who prided herself on her fortitude and strength it was totally out of character.
“I’m not disturbing you, am I?” she said croakily. “I mean, you’re not getting changed for dinner already?”
“Not at all. Xenia was just finishing my hair.” She waved Xenia away and put in the last few pins herself. “Sit down and tell me how your dear papa is going. I heard he wasn’t well.”
Miss de Merville took a deep breath to steady her voice. “I don’t understand what’s happened to him. He never drinks too much. He despises dipsomaniacs. But the other night he came home from the Diogenes Club and he was drunk and now again today. It’s not like him. He’s been having terrible dreams too. He frequently calls out in his sleep and he’s never done that before either.”
“He probably has a lot on his mind. I’m sure he will soon be back to normal.”
“That’s what I keep telling myself but I don’t really believe it. Not anymore.”
“New Year’s Eve probably unnerved him. Prince Sergei told me men who have experienced war can be frightened of fireworks.”
“Yes, yes, it started after New Year’s Eve. I think the bombs unnerved him. Dr Watson said terrible memories can come flooding back to a man who has experienced the horrors of the battlefield. And while I was sitting with him just now he kept mumbling strange things in his sleep about the third bomb. I’m ashamed to say I was frightened.”
“We all feel frightened when our loved ones are unwell.”
“I feel guilty too. He didn’t want to come to Kent. He was worried about something. I forced him to come. I’m vain and selfish and a terrible daughter.”
“Don’t punish yourself. I think this weekend has helped him to relax. He enjoyed the charades. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard him belly laugh. He’s among friends. A good night’s sleep and he’ll wake refreshed.”
“But that’s just it. He won’t have a good night’s sleep. He keeps raving about the Oracle at Delphi and a man with a lamp. Something awful is preying on his mind. Or else he’s going mad. I’m worried sick about him.”
“Lots of people talk in their sleep. It’s not a form of madness. It’s dreaming out loud. That’s all.”
“I wish I could believe that. I’m not coming to dinner. That’s what I came to tell you. Please make my apologies to Major Nash. I’m going to sit with papa.”
“Nonsense, you need company. You’re all wound up and being on your own will only make it worse. I’m half-dressed already. I’ll slip into my robe de diner and sit with him while you get ready and then my manservant can take over. Your papa would be upset if he knew you were worrying for nothing. Trust me, he’ll be fine.”
The Countess dressed quickly in an evening gown of ivory silk with an overlay of black Chantilly lace cinched with a high-waisted, black silk sash. It featured lace sleeves and a modest train. The gown had been especially designed for showing off a stunning choker of diamonds in the shape of ribbons and bows from which cascaded garlands of pearls.
While she sat with the general she could see why Violet was worried sick. He kept repeating things over and over like a demented madman: Looking for an honest dog; the doll is under the stairs; the oracle is over a barrel; third bomb, third bomb; the earl-king is dead; long live the prince; Machiavelli is mad; get out of my shadow; step away from the sun; the princess is in Delphi now…
When Fedir – who’d slept on and off all day on the understanding he would need to stay alert during the night – came to take her place she was greatly relieved.
Colonel Moriarty caught her at the top of the stairs and pulled her swiftly into his room while no one was looking. “I haven’t seen you since lunch. What were you doing in de Merville’s room?”
“He’s had too much to drink and it’s upset Violet. I promised to sit with him while she dressed for dinner. Have you thought about what I said?”
“The part about making sure Mycroft doesn’t meet with a fatal accident this weekend. If something is going to happen it will happen tonight.”
He managed to stay looking serious. “I thought I might keep an eye on him from your bedroom since you have connecting rooms.”
“You need to come up with an alternative plan,” she said coldly. “What have you been doing? Your shirt is untucked and your waistcoat has three buttons undone. Or should I not ask to save you having to lie to me?”
“No lies, then,” he said brusquely as he shrugged off his waistcoat and shed his shirt while she listened. “I’ve been fighting off Miss Mona Blague. She’s not as naïve as she looks. For some reason she has got it into her head that I’m a better catch than a baronet. That’s another reason I need to hide in your bedroom. I’m scared she’s going to pay me a visit in the night.”
The top half of a naked man was designed for ogling, the bottom half merely for thrusting. He knew full well the effect his broad chest and powerful back ripped with muscle would have on her, but she had never been naïve and was not about to start now just because the sight of him stirred dormant feminine juices.
“Poor you – you could end up rich and happy, but then again you’ll probably just sabotage yourself as usual. Miss Moneybags is your problem. Bear in mind, if anything bad happens to Mycroft and I think you’re responsible I’ll pay you a visit in the night and put a bullet in your thick skull.”
He liked the first half of that threat but he wasn’t sure about the second. He wanted to tell her he had actually been charged with protecting Mycroft but he had promised Nash they would keep his mission to themselves. Not knowing who the assassin was or where the next attack might come from meant it was best if no one but Nash knew why he had really come to Longchamps. Experience had taught him that it was easy to betray the best laid plan by a single gesture or a wayward flick of eyes. A clever opponent was always attuned to the unconscious language of the body.
And then there was the added complication of Major Inigo Nash. Was Nash as loyal as he appeared or was he more ambitious than he made out? He had been ingratiating himself with de Merville, Damery, Blague and even the Russian ambassador all day. Showing off his new hammerless Purdeys in the gun room. Inviting the men to sample the new batch of whiskey in the cellar. Letting Blague win at snooker. Nash hadn’t lost a game of snooker in twenty years.
What game was he really playing? What were the stakes? What was the prize?
More importantly, had Nash set him up to take the blame?
The Countess left Moriarty’s bedroom but she did not go immediately down to the great hall. She went back to her room for her muff pistol. While she was checking to make sure it was loaded with flint, she heard a barely-there noise in the adjoining room that surprised her because she knew Mycroft was still playing chess with Damery. She opened the door a fraction and was intrigued to find Major Nash checking the drawer of the bedside table.
It was perfectly appropriate for an ADC to be looking inside the bedside cabinet of the man he was employed to aid but there was something furtive about his stance. He had his back to her, so it was impossible to see what he might be doing but when she opened the door still further and he heard the sound, he swung round sharply and the look on his face told her that what he was doing was suspect.
“What are you doing with that?” He indicated the muff pistol in her hand.
“I’m making sure it’s loaded.” She lifted her skirt and tucked the small neat gun into a frilled garter that sat just above her knee. Since her evening gown lacked pockets it was the only convenient place to store a pistol but it had the added advantage of distracting him.
He watched her smooth down her Chantilly lace gown while discretely closing the drawer. “Just make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot.”
The bedside table had three drawers and she noted that his interest had been directed to the middle one. “Major Nash, you know as well as I do that even if I were to tumble down the stairs the sliding bracket which surrounds the hammer ends in a pin which prevents the frizzen from opening and discharging accidentally. Mr Derringer was very careful about making sure his design would not go off even when half-cocked. The drop-down trigger is foolproof. What use is a pocket pistol that discharges inside a pocket?”
“Indeed,” he said with a poker face. “Were you looking for Mycroft?”
“Yes, it’s time for him to dress for dinner and he always needs help with his neck tie.” She said that deliberately to goad him – he would start thinking: how would you know that if you weren’t married to him? Time to goad him some more. “Your neck tie needs a little tweak too.”
She stepped up and pretended to straighten it. “There, that’s better.”
He waited for her to finish brushing up against him, and his restraint was masterful. “Finished?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling sweetly, before feigning ignorance. “Do you know where Mycroft is at present?”
“He’s with Damery. Do you want me to send him upstairs to get dressed?”
He turned to go then turned back. “By the way, it’s a Webley.”
“My neck tie was fine. I saw it in the mirror before you straightened it, so next time you want to check if I’m packing a pistol you should try asking me, though rubbing up against me and toying with my neck tie will not go unappreciated.”
She would have blushed but the guilty never blushed. Blushing was reserved for the innocent who felt guilty on behalf of others.
This time he got all the way to the door. “What were you doing in the colonel’s room just now and don’t tell me you were straightening his neck tie?”
Countess Volodymyrovna’s brain whirred. Was the assassin really Colonel Moriarty or was that too obvious? Was the danger to Mycroft closer to home? Why did Major Nash really want to invite everyone down to Longchamps?
Handsomer than any man had a right to be, he had no doubt grown immune to feminine advances. Women had probably been googly-eyed about him since he first opened his baby blue eyes and burped. No wonder he had seen through her infantile play-acting more than once. It was time to lift her game…and put the spotlight on the man whose name was Moriarty.
“He wasn’t wearing a neck tie. In fact, he wasn’t wearing much at all. I was reminding him that if anything bad happened to Mycroft I would visit his room in the night and shoot him.”
Major Nash waited until he was on the other side of the door then gave one of those roaring laughs that echo up to the rafters.
Plan number one: Let Major Nash think she suspected Moriarty.
Though the more she thought about it the less likely it seemed that Moriarty was here to assassinate Mycroft. It was too clumsy. If Moriarty wanted Mycroft dead he would already be stone cold; he wouldn’t have stepped off that milk train.
When Sherlock drew Colonel Moriarty into their group on the night of the ball she had assumed it might be to expose him, to bring him out into the open, or perhaps to lull him into a false sense of security, never did she think it might be because he trusted the Irishman, the brother of his arch enemy, above the loyal ADC.
She wanted to check the drawer but that’s what Major Nash would expect her to do. He might even double-back on some pretence and catch her at it. She went to de Merville’s bedroom instead. Miss de Merville and Fedir were both there. She instructed her manservant in Ukrainian to go and help Mycroft dress for dinner, then she explained about the middle drawer of the bedside table, telling him to let her know when the room was vacant, and to note if Mycroft went to the bedside cabinet to withdraw anything.
Major Nash came back up the stairs and escorted the two ladies downstairs to the great hall where he fixed them with a flute of French champagne. Miss Blague, looking youthful and flirtatious, was there ahead of them, sipping stars already. It was time to put plan number two into action. It was time to free up Colonel Moriarty and put Major Nash squarely in the frame; it was time to restrict his movement; it was time to force him to watch his back all night long.
“My, oh, my,” sighed the Countess, fanning her face with her hand as she sidled up to the bosomy American beauty. “Is it hot in here or is it me?”
“Are you feeling unwell?” asked Miss Blague hopefully.
The Countess lowered her voice conspiratorially, as if imparting a terrible secret. “He will be the most eligible man in England when his uncle in Norfolk succumbs to pthisis. He does not like to talk of it because he does not wish to be besieged by gold-diggers. He wants a wife who has a fortune to match his own. He wants most of all to make a love match. Is that not the most romantic thing you have ever heard? He is actually very shy with ladies.”
Miss Blague followed the Countess’s dewy-eyed gaze across the vast hall. “Are you talking about our host?”
“Who else? I don’t wish to shock you, Miss Blague, I know you are innocent and not yet nineteen, but I have never encountered a man who has mastered the mechanics of kissing so thoroughly as our host. The Irish colonel is a clumsy oaf in comparison.”
Miss Blague looked shocked but not for the reasons imagined; her eyes were flashing greener than her emeralds. “You have been kissed by both?”
“Please, you must not judge me harshly – I am a widow.”
“Yes, yes, but how did you manage it?”
“Oh, here comes that trumped-up colonel. Let’s play a duet on the piano to avoid his company. He is such a frightful bore. I believe acomia is contagious and I don’t know about you but I don’t want to end up bald.”
Isadora Klein made a grand entrance in a red and gold gown of taffeta that made her look like a sticky toffee apple; oozing syrupy sweetness on the outside, unpalatable inside, and something you immediately regret biting into.
She accepted a flute of champagne from their host, sashayed past all the men in the room and singled out Miss de Merville for conversation. “How is your dear papa? I heard he was not feeling well?”
Miss de Merville was not one to wallow in self-pity for long. Just as Diogenes had surpassed Antisthenes, and Zeno had surpassed Crato, she too had elevated herself above the Cynics and was a true daughter of the Stoics. If any woman deserved membership of the Diogenes Club it was Violet de Merville.
“He is sleeping soundly now, but he was quite agitated earlier on.”
“Oh, talking in his sleep and that sort of thing. But Dr Watson gave him something to calm him.”
“Does he talk often in his sleep?’
“No never, well, not until recently. I think the bombs unnerved him.”
“I think they unnerved us all. I have had some terrible dreams since the night of the ball.”
“Yes, yes, me too.”
“Be sure to mention that I asked after him.”
“Yes, certainly, he will be most heartened to hear you enquired about his health.”
Mycroft arrived last of all and the Countess knew the bedroom would now be free. She slipped quickly up the stairs and into her room then through the connecting door. Fedir and Xenia stood sentry at the two doors while she checked the middle drawer and found a Remington Derringer tucked underneath some handkerchiefs, a pistol similar to her own but with a double barrel which meant it fired two rounds whereas hers fired just the one.
She felt guilty for suspecting Major Nash of anything underhand. He was probably checking to make sure Mycroft had a weapon close to hand, or possibly placing it there in case things turned deadly during the night. She was about to return to the great hall when she decided to check the other two drawers.
The top drawer was empty and she expected the same of the bottom one but she found several pairs of socks including a pair of thick walking socks folded as men do. There seemed to be a large bulge as if something might be hidden inside. She hesitated a moment, wondering if she should invade his privacy; he was her uncle after all, but something – call it curiosity or the instinct of a detective – made her look. It was a Matryoshka doll.
In a state of shock, she dropped it as if it were a red-hot coal. It bounced on the bare oak boards and snapped apart. Normally the dolls fitted snugly together, top half to bottom half, but for some reason these were looser, slightly warped, as if bent out of shape. The smallest doll rolled under the four poster bed.
A frenzy of thoughts scattered, like the dolls, in several different directions. What was Mycroft doing with a Matryoshka doll in his possession? Did Major Nash plant it there? Was he about to implicate Mycroft in the death of the princess? Or was he searching for the doll? Did that mean Mycroft was one of the princess’s lovers?
She was on her knees, reaching under the bed, when Fedir signalled that someone was coming. With no time to flee back to her bedroom, she crawled under the bed and tucked her voluminous skirt around her as much as possible.
When Mycroft entered, Fedir pretended to be tending to the fire in the grate.
“Leave that,” said Mycroft. “Go and get yourself some supper.” He picked up the silver and crocodile skin travelling cigar case – since receiving it from the Countess for Christmas, he never went anywhere without it – and noticed the bottom drawer of his bedside table sitting slightly out. “Have you been sorting my socks?”
“No”, said Fedir, feigning ignorance, “Major Nash, he sort.”
She waited for the all clear then crawled out gingerly, giving thanks to the diligence of her servants who swept under the bed as thoroughly as they did elsewhere.
Her brain was still in shock when she attempted to put the doll back into the socks exactly as she found it. She couldn’t quite remember how the socks were folded. Was the doll in the top sock or the bottom sock? Was the sock angled at two o’clock from the right hand corner of the drawer or was it a forty-five degree angle? She cursed herself for not paying attention as she hurried back to the great hall via her own bedroom in time to be escorted into the dining room by Sir James Damery who was at the tail end of diners.
The Countess barely listened to the conversation during dinner which mostly revolved around the Tudor tennis court. Her mind was unable to move beyond the Matryoshka doll. How had Major Nash put it?
“Apparently the princess gave one to each of her lovers…”
‘Apparently’ implied something unverified, an account from a second source.
Who told him? Who planted the idea in his head?
The only way to find out would be to ask him but that would be admitting she had found the doll in the drawer. He would then know she suspected him of planting it, or suspected Mycroft of killing the princess. Was Major Nash protecting Mycroft? Or was he setting him up?
She realized someone was addressing her. “I beg your pardon?”
“Can we count you in?” repeated Mrs Klein testily.
“Count me in?”
Colonel Moriarty came to her rescue. “A game of tennis tomorrow morning straight after breakfast,” he explained.
“Oh, yes, certainly. Sounds jolly fun!”
“Did you pack some sporting attire?” checked Miss Blague eagerly. “I will have to wear a promenade dress. It’s the only thing that doesn’t have a train.”
“Yes, I packed a golf ensemble and a riding habit. I shall wear the golf skirt and the cropped jacket. A riding habit is really just a skirt with a train on the side. Are we playing in teams?”
“Yes,” said Prince Sergei. “We will play in pairs; two to a side, the lowest scoring team is eliminated until we have a clear winner. We can draw names out of a hat after dinner.”
Straight after dinner a pencil and some paper were procured by Ponsonby.
“Count me out,” begged off Mycroft, “too strenuous for me.”
“Me too,” said Mr Blague, grimacing with pain. “I have an old battle scar that plays up when I over-stretch and lunge.”
“And me too,” said Damery, noting that they would have an odd man out if he played, “I haven’t been sleeping well lately and I feel a bit sluggish.”
“That leaves eight,” reasoned the colonel. “Why not just write the names of the four men on pieces of paper and the four ladies can choose a name.”
Major Nash followed that suggestion and placed the four names in a large silver punch bowl.
Miss Blague, flushed with excitement and feeling lucky, drew first. When she read the name it was clear her luck was all bad. It was as if she had a quail bone stuck in her throat. “C…C…Colonel M…M…Moriarty.”
Miss de Merville drew next. “Dr Watson,” she said not unhappily.
Mrs Klein had a turn. “Prince Sergei,” she announced triumphantly, making it sound as if they had already won.
Major Nash looked pleased. “That leaves me and Countess Volodymyrovna.”
“In the interest of fair play I will draw the last name,” she insisted, plucking the last paper out of the punch bowl. “Oh, there seems to be some error! I have drawn Colonel Moriarty too!”
“What!” blurted Major Nash. “That can’t be right!”
“You must have written my name twice,” asserted the colonel.
“I’ve seen that done before,” added the prince. “I was in St Petersburg. It was an archery competition. An easy mistake to make.”
“I don’t make mistakes of that nature,” insisted Major Nash. “Let me see that paper.”
“This one?” said the Countess as she tossed it into the fire.
“You’ll have to write out the two names again,” suggested Dr Watson, mindful of the nature of fair play.
Major Nash gritted his teeth and wrote out the two names again, folded them several times and tossed them into the punch bowl. The Countess insisted on going first because she had gone last the other time. She fished around for an undue length of time and plucked out ‘Colonel Moriarty’.
Miss Blague, fingers crossed, checked her paper just to be sure, and breathed a huge sigh of relief when she read out ‘Major Nash’.
That was settled and the men returned to the dining room to pass around the port.
“I thought we were invited here for the weekend to discuss the bombs?” said Sir Damery, as he lighted up a Havana.
“Yes,” agreed Mycroft, “but de Merville needs to be in on the discussion. It will keep until tomorrow after lunch. There’s no hurry. No one is planning to leave until Monday.”
“Well, I can’t see what you hope to learn,” said Mr Blague flatly.
“A collective thrashing out of what everyone witnessed,” explained Mycroft calmly. “It may help us to piece together some vital clues.”
“But you already have the bomb man,” pointed out the American, puffing on one of his own cigars. “He was fished out of the lake.”
“Yes,” replied Mycroft blandly. “But we are interested in the person who put him in the lake.”
“You’ll never catch him,” predicted Sir James Damery. “It is a sad fact of life that some people just don’t like the monarchy. Such people have been with us from day one. Security needs to be stepped up around the Prince Regent, especially now that Queen Victoria is growing frail. Prevention is better than cure.”
“Well put,” praised Mr Blague. “Look forward, not back. That’s my motto.”
Major Nash slipped out of the dining room when he spotted the Countess going early to bed. He caught up to her on the upper landing in a dimly lit spot between the minstrel’s gallery and a rood screen.
“Don’t think I didn’t notice,” he hissed. “You threw that paper on the fire deliberately because you didn’t want to partner me.”
Denial was pointless. “In case it has slipped your notice, I’m helping you co-host this weekend. A good host ensures their guests are happy. It was obvious Miss Blague did not want to partner Colonel Moriarty. I was merely making sure she was not unhappy.”
Blond brows drew down in a skeptical frown. “She was all over him like a rash yesterday.”
“Something must have happened to put her off.”
“Was that your doing?”
She managed to sound indignant. “Certainly not! The colonel must have behaved inappropriately.”
He rolled his eyes and grunted. “I wouldn’t put it past Jim. On another note, I’ve got the only key to the master suite. I’m going to lock Mycroft in after he goes to bed tonight. If anyone wants to get to his room the only way they can go is through your room. That puts you in danger but your manservant doesn’t need to sit with de Merville. He can guard you instead.”
“What about you? Where will you be?”
He was about to answer then changed his mind. “I’ll be around.”
“And Colonel Moriarty?”
“I’ve got him covered, don’t worry.”
Worried she was. If Major Nash had the only key to the master suite he could easily enter in the night, kill Mycroft, and concoct an alibi. That’s when she decided it was much safer for Mycroft to sleep in her bed. She could sleep in the boudoir on the day bed. She wasn’t planning to get much sleep anyway.
Wearing a filmy peignoir, she was sitting by the fire in her room, waiting for Mycroft to come upstairs, when a soft rap on the door brought a visitor. It was Colonel Moriarty and he was grinning as if he’d just been crowned king of Ireland.
“I like the way you arranged that swap. You watched Nash fold the papers before he put them in the bowl and you knew which one to choose.”
“I did it to save Miss Blague,” she retorted.
He gave a careless shrug. “I don’t know what happened between lunch and dinner but it was as if I had suddenly caught the plague. All evening she looked terrified every time I came near her.”
“It must be that Irish charm,” she quipped.
“I’d rather partner you anyway. Will Fedir be on duty in here tonight?”
“Yes,” she said firmly, “where will you be?”
“Now that I don’t have to hide from Miss Blague, I might just get some shut-eye in that big four poster bed. No one’s going to assassinate Mycroft during the night.”
Now, if anyone else had said that she would have dismissed it as bravado or bluff, but he had excellent instincts about what assassins did and didn’t do. She sat up and paid attention. “What makes you say that?”
“An assassin would have put a bullet into Mycroft Holmes long before now. Mycroft would have to be one of the easiest targets in London – a man of unchanging habit. But that’s not what the killer wants. This killer is after a certain effect. It’s about the type of death, rather than the death itself.”
“I’ve underestimated you,” she said, head reeling at the elegance of a simple truth compared to the messiness of everything else.
“I wondered when you’d finally see the light,” he returned glibly.
“Goodnight,” she said, pushing him to the door. “I need to think.”
His arms caught her in a tender embrace while his lips delivered a playful demonstration of the other way she had underestimated him. “Happy birthday,” he whispered. “I love you.”
But she wasn’t listening. Her head and heart were miles apart.
Of course! The killer was after a certain effect!
She stared at the fire as if seeing the flames for the first time. The first attempt was a near miss with a runaway barrel. The second attempt was the three bombs. The third attempt was the rabid dog. What was the link?
Think! Think! Think!
There was now no need to make Mycroft transfer to her bed since it was highly unlikely anything would happen during the night, so she crawled between the sheets and fell asleep.
At first light inspiration struck like a bolt from the blue.
Diogenes was a philosopher of ancient Greece, a doggish student of the ascetic Antisthenes. He became a Cynic, a dogged inspiration to Crato and Zeno, the first Stoics. Exiled from his homeland for debasing the currency (prompted by the Oracle at Delphi; his father was a banker; he claimed to have confused real currency with political currency!) he became a citizen of the world, the first person to coin the term cosmopolitan. He considered dogs better than people because they had no shame, no self-delusion, were not interested in abstract philosophy, and could tell their enemies from their friends. He lived in a barrel and spent his life exposing the hypocrisy of men.
Hypocrites call those who tell the truth Cynics.
Who coined that phrase?
Never mind, there were too many parallels: Bankers, currency, politics, dogs, friends, barrel…death.
How did Diogenes die?
There was no definitive account. Several theories: he held his breath (unlikely unless smothered), he was bitten by an infected dog (attempt number three), he ate raw octopus (not likely to be on the menu at Longchamps).
He asked to be thrown to wild animals after his death.
She was overthinking things.
The elegance of a simple truth; the elegance of a simple truth.
First thing she did was check that Mycroft had not been smothered with a pillow but the snores coming from under the covers indicated he was still breathing. Bathing and dressing quickly, she made her way to the stable to speak to Sherlock. He and Mr Dixie had taken turns keeping watch during the night and reported that all had been strangely quiet.
She told him what Colonel Moriarty said about the effect rather than merely the death of Mycroft and the parallels to Diogenes the Cynic, expecting him to tut-tut dismissively, but he murmured, “I wondered when someone would notice.”
She told him about the furtive behaviour of Major Nash and the Matryoshka doll in Mycroft’s drawer. “Do you think the ADC is trying to implicate Mycroft in the death of the princess?”
“I would reply in the affirmative but Mycroft is hiding something. He is keeping something from us. He may already suspect his ADC of treason and be playing a game of double bluff. Hmm, I would dearly love to see that Russian doll. Is my brother up yet? Is anything happening this morning?”
“He’s still sleeping. There will be a game of tennis after breakfast.”
“There’s no tennis court – I have explored the grounds. Do you mean croquet?”
“There’s a Tudor tennis court on the top floor. Mycroft’s not playing but he may come to watch.”
“Ah, good, good, a good time to check his room. Leave your door open, and window too, in the event I need to make a quick exit. There’s a drain pipe which may come in handy. Did anything out of the ordinary happen last night?”
“Not really. I slept like a log after that astute comment from Colonel Moriarty. Fedir and Xenia kept watch. They are now sleeping soundly in my boudoir and dressing room; best to avoid those rooms when you break in. Xenia said Miss Blague went to Major Nash’s room in the night. She’s still there. Prince Sergei went to Mrs Klein’s room. He stayed for over an hour. Colonel Moriarty didn’t leave his room all night. Neither did Damery or Blague. Miss de Merville checked on her father twice during the night –”
“Wait! Why did she do that?”
“He drank too much whiskey yesterday and fell ill. He’s been having nightmares since the bombs went off. She’s worried about him.”
“Ah, yes, proceed.”
“That’s it really.”
“What about Major Nash?”
“I presume he was with Miss Blague.”
“Never presume anything.” He looked past her shoulder. “Ah, here comes Watson. Anything to report, old friend?”
“Not really. I fell asleep soon after midnight. I knew Xenia and Fedir were keeping watch inside, and you and Mr Dixie were doing the same outside, so I didn’t think there was any need for me to be up too. Something woke me around five o’clock this morning. I had a quick peek out my bedroom door and saw Major Nash coming out of Mrs Klein’s bedroom. That’s about it.”
The Countess reeled back. “Are you sure?”
“Quite. The odd thing is, up until last night I could have sworn he’d been giving her the cold shoulder, but after you went to bed early, and Miss de Merville and Miss Blague followed, he started paying the Spanish donna a lot of attention. Prince Sergei was livid with jealousy but Major Nash must be one of the handsomest men in England; impossible for the ladies to resist when he turns on the charm, I’d say.”
The Countess felt herself go hot and cold then hot again. “But Miss Blague was in his room all night and is still there by all accounts.”
“Well, that just proves my point. The major must have gone from the American to the Spaniard and back to the American. I wonder if he’ll still have the stamina for tennis. Lucky you’re no longer partnering him. I think Miss de Merville and I stand a good chance of winning. She plays lawn tennis regularly and I don’t wish to blow my own trumpet but I was a championship player in my schooldays before rugby won out.”
Sherlock slapped his friend heartily on the back. “I wish I could come to cheer you on, Watson, but if your tennis is half as good as your rugby you have the prize in the bag!” He turned to his daughter. “Who are you partnering?”
“Hmm, if he can keep his Irish temper in check you might provide some decent competition for Watson and co.”
It was too early for breakfast so she decided to make a quick promenade around the house to cool her heels. She pulled her fur-trimmed dolman coat closer and reached the corner of the stable-yard where she bumped into Mr Dixie loitering by the carriage house. He jumped with fright when she came up behind him.
“Shhh,” he warned, gesturing for her to double back to the stable where they joined Sherlock and Dr Watson, still in conversation.
“What is it, Mr Dixie?” she prompted. “What were you looking at?”
He lowered his deep southern drawl to an ominous drone. “I reckon the men who came on the back of the last carriage is from Barney’s gang. They is dressed different, wif false beards and curly wigs, but I reckon they is Larry the Lurker and Thumper.”
Sherlock had been adjusting the time on the clock that sat snugly on his mechanical arm but straightened up at the mention of the names. “Do you mean the Barney Stockdale gang?”
“Yes, Masser Holmes, that’s what I mean.”
Sherlock decided to translate for the benefit of the others. “Mr Dixie thinks the two liveried footmen who arrived yesterday on the back of the carriage belonging to Mrs Klein may be members of the criminal fraternity led by Barney Stockdale, a nasty bunch of thugs for hire who break bones, dislocate limbs, intimidate witnesses and inflict punishment for a price.”
Dr Watson felt simultaneously alarmed and unconvinced. “You’re not suggesting Mrs Klein knowingly hired two criminals? No, no, the men must have left the gang and gained employment as body-guards. Mrs Klein is a rich woman. She has need of protection. Let’s not forget she owns the Turkish Baths. I heard there was a brawl there the other day. Two men were evicted. It is perfectly understandable for a wealthy businesswoman to employ strong-arm men, especially when travelling long distances in the countryside.”
Sherlock continued to play around with the clock hands. “Mrs Klein is a subtle woman. I doubt she would hire two thugs to beat Mycroft to a pulp. Nevertheless, we will need to keep an eye on them. Best if I handle it. Best for you to stay out of sight, Mr Dixie. Best for us to disperse now. The household is stirring. The game’s afoot.”
Isadora Klein had receded into the background, not a natural position for a celebrated beauty who courted controversy. It was time to shine a spotlight on the dark queen.
Countess Volodymyrovna instructed Xenia to search Mrs Klein’s bedroom during the tennis game. Likewise, Fedir would search Prince Sergei’s room. There was something about the dalliance between the Conquistador queen and the Russian prince that hinted at intimacy beyond the usual animal attraction.
She needed to speak to Damery again about what he saw in the carriage park now that she knew Mrs Klein employed two liveried footmen of dubious repute. But it would be impossible to speak frankly in the breakfast room so she knocked on his door, though it was unprecedented for a woman to enter a gentleman’s bedroom so early in the day. He was wearing a paisley silk dressing gown over paisley silk pyjamas. A valet was preparing his clothes, laying them out on the bed. She apologized for the intrusion and he waved away the servant, telling him to return in fifteen minutes.
“I gather you wish to speak privately?” he said diplomatically, indicating a comfortable chair by the fire.
“Yes, I was wondering, since you were possibly the last person to leave the carriage park on the night of the ball, if you saw when Mrs Klein returned to her brougham?”
He concentrated on lighting a cigarette, which she declined, so he smoked it himself.
“Yes, I did.”
“Was a man waiting for her inside her carriage?”
Damery appeared amused. “No.”
The Countess felt momentarily confused because she expected the answer to be ‘yes’. “Are you sure?’ she pressed.
“Quite sure,” he said silkily. “I don’t think it will hurt her reputation any but she didn’t get into her own carriage right away.”
Confusion cleared in an instant. “Oh, I see, she got into the carriage of Prince Sergei.”
“That’s why his curtains were drawn the second time.”
“Never mind. There was a man seen in her carriage much earlier. Did you see when he left? Did you see where he went?”
“There was man in her carriage, as you say, earlier on, around the time of the fireworks, but her burly footmen soon sorted him out. I didn’t see what happened to him.”
“After she finished in Prince Sergei’s carriage did she return to the pavilion?”
“No, she hopped into her own brougham, but I think her coachman was drunk. He made a huge circuit of the park, pausing every now and again as if he was lost or confused. She got out to reprimand him which I thought was most unfair considering the bombs must have upset a lot of people. The poor chap made another circuit then finally found the gates and left.”
“Prince Sergei was still there?”
“No, he went straight away, as soon as she hopped out.”
“Thank you, Sir Damery, you’ve been very helpful.”
Major Nash was waiting for her in her bedroom. “You’ve been busy this morning. I tried to track you down several times. How did you sleep?”
“Better than you.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You were busy last night – Miss Blague and Isadora Klein.”
“Oh,” he said before recovering his equanimity. “You sound jealous.”
“I hope you didn’t catch a disease,” she parried facetiously, “from the woman you love to hate,” she added caustically to cover the fact she was jealous. Why, oh, why, Isadora Klein? If it had been Violet de Merville she would have been happy for him.
“What can I say? I’m a sucker for punishment. I like blondes and sadists.”
“Then you’re in for a treat. Colonel Moriarty and I will show no mercy. We will wipe the court with you and Miss Mona Blague.”
Unconcerned, he began striding to the door. “I don’t doubt it.”
“Miss Blague is just waking up now. I had a feeling she might storm my room last night so I prepared some defences. I plied her with French champagne. She passed out and slept all night. Her hymen is still intact but her head exploded just after midnight. I fear our game will suffer.”
The Countess tried not to smile. Mona Blague was all her fault and the outcome could have been far worse in the hands of a man less scrupulous. “And Isadora Klein?”
“Is none of your concern.”
Everyone gathered on the ‘tennys-play’ at eleven o’clock. The rules were simplified in the interests of those not familiar with the game. Sir Damery and Mr Blague agreed to jointly referee. Mycroft said he had a few things to take care of and would join them later. Miss Blague, determined not to disappoint her partner any more than she did last night by imbibing too much champagne and passing out, soldiered on magnificently.
Nevertheless, Major Nash and Miss Blague were the first to be eliminated. They were followed quickly by Prince Sergei and Mrs Klein. The final match was a hard fought duel but Miss de Merville was an exemplary player and Dr Watson’s service was second to none.
Hearty congratulations were offered to the winners and everyone was enjoying a round of thirst-quenching drinks when the Countess noticed Major Nash and Mrs Klein were absent. The thought that they might be having another assignation did not worry her as much as the thought that if they went to Mrs Klein’s bedroom they might walk in on Xenia.
Busy concentrating on the game, the Countess had failed to notice when the pair slipped out. She was halfway down the main stairs leading to the great hall when a small but loud explosion stopped her in her tracks. The noise came from the vicinity of the front porch.
Panic-stricken shouting ensued. It echoed through the big house, shattering the normal tranquillity where the only sound to disturb the peace and quiet – now the tennis game was over – was the tick-tock of the antique clocks. Screams were suddenly punctuated by monstrous growls – “Get back! Get back! Look out!” – and baffled rejoinders from upstairs – “What the hell is going on? What on earth was that? Good God! I’ve never heard anything like it!”
Colonel Moriarty hurtling pell-mell, passed her on the stairs, revolver poised to blast whatever it was that was on the porch. He’d heard that exploding noise before and knew exactly what it was. An adrenaline rush propelled her forward and she was right behind him when he threw open the front door and pumped three bullets into a massive beast that made the ghastly, luminous-jawed, Baskerville hound look like a playful puppy.
Rabid white foam bubbling around the dog’s muzzle explained the frenzied state the beast was in. White froth coated Sherlock’s limp mechanical arm as he supported it using his right hand; sharp canines had to be prized off his special boot after the dog collapsed on its side and whimpered for the last time.
Mycroft was lying on the ground, arm raised as if to protect himself though the beast was now dead. The elder sibling’s brain hadn’t caught up with reality and it showed in every fibre of his being – the terror-stricken stare, the desperate panting, the dry mouth and the bloodless pallor. Only slowly did it dawn on him that he had survived a second deadly dog attack and that once again he had the colonel to thank, though this time huge credit had to go to the younger Holmes as well.
The arrival of the other house-guests, breathless and confused, forestalled any discussion about what had really taken place.
Sherlock slinked back to the stable before the Irishman recognized him, leaving Colonel Moriarty and the Countess to help Mycroft to his feet. He was still badly shaken and unable to field the barrage of questions: What happened? Where did the dog come from? What’s all that white froth?
He promised to explain everything over lunch in one hour.
Major Nash arrived last of all, shirt rumpled and hair mussed. He looked flushed and angry as he exchanged fleeting eye-contact with the colonel, grabbed hold of Mycroft’s elbow and ushered him inside.
“I’m all right, Nash,” grumbled the elder. “Let go my arm. I can walk. I’m not an invalid. No harm done.”
The men headed straight for the drinks trolley while the ladies went to have a sponge bath and change out of their perspiration-soaked sporting ensembles. After a stiff brandy or two, Mycroft found the strength to mount the stairs without his jelly legs turning to water.
Conspicuous by absence was Mrs Klein. The only conclusion one could draw was that her state of undress when the attack happened was even greater than the major’s.
The Countess followed the ladies up the main stairs then veered toward the back stairs and hurried to the stable.
Perched on a hay bale, Sherlock was inspecting the tooth marks in his badly mauled boot. “Lucky I strapped all those leather bits around it, though the boot is ruined. I have a spare at home but I didn’t think to pack it. Still, it did the job admirably, especially the steel-capped toe.”
His mechanical arm was much the same. He had strapped it with some hardy leather from an old saddle. The dog had shredded the tough hide and the mechanics were ruined but his withered arm had managed to remain in one piece.
“But how did you know?” pressed the Countess, awestruck by her father’s composure and prescience. Everyone else, including her, was still shuddering and still baffled.
“How did I know there would be another dog attack?”
“Put simply, yes.”
“I thought long and hard about that conversation we had this morning regarding effect. The next attack, like the others, had to send a message to those who understood about Diogenes – the philosopher and the club. I actually expected an attack by some wild beast in accord with the philosopher’s death-wish. I thought it might be a wolf or wild boar or even some sort of jungle cat. Noblemen often keep wild animals in a private zoo and there are plenty of travelling circuses. It would not have been difficult to steal one of the poor beasts, starve it, treat it cruelly, and wait for the right moment to unleash it on the chosen victim.
“But the timing? How could anyone time an attack to coincide with Mycroft stepping onto the front porch?”
Sherlock paused momentarily from unstrapping the foam-slobbered leather strips wrapped around his arm, glanced up at his daughter, inviting her with his eyes to answer her own query.
She took up the challenge. “Hmm, whoever was behind the dog attack must have sent Mycroft a note: Meet me on the front porch during the tennis game…I know who the bomb man is…come alone…or some such thing. Mycroft is no position to decline. He has no time to discuss it with his ADC. He goes out to the porch and voila! The rabid dog comes bounding around the corner. But the killer doesn’t take into account the dithering stable-hand being on hand to leap into the fray.” Smiling broadly, she shook her head with happy disbelief. “That gimpy arm and gammy leg just saved your brother’s life.”
Sherlock chuckled. “If anyone else had said that I might have taken offence but coming from you it sounds like a compliment. Ah, here’s Watson, looking concerned for my welfare. Did you hear what she said, old friend? Gimpy arm and gammy leg!” he laughed uproariously.
Dr Watson laughed too, but it was laughter spurred by delayed relief. He agreed the explanation she proffered a second time for his benefit made good sense. “But where was the dog kept?”
“The answer is obviously not too far from here,” replied Sherlock. “Mr Dixie and I scoured the outbuildings when we arrived and none was being used to house anything but garden implements, broken furniture and farm equipment, but there are numerous cottages on the estate. Not all have been renovated. It would not have been difficult to kennel the dog until required. A lackey could have brought the dog over, muzzled until ready to unleash. I’d say the two dogs were infected with rabies together. The breed is the same. They were both trained to attack Mycroft. There may be others.”
The trio looked nervously over their shoulders and froze at the sound of footsteps.
Mr Dixie had just completed an exploration of the stable-yard. “All is quiet, Masser Holmes” he reported, looking queerly at the limp arm. “Larry the Lurker and Thumper is having a game of cards in back of the carriage house. The ostler and the stable boys are seeing to the dead dog. Major Nash told them to bury it behind the wall of the kitchen garden in the apple orchard.”
Dr Watson nibbled his lip and frowned. “I don’t wish to cast aspersions on our host, I cannot fault him for hospitality and courtesy, but he disappeared halfway through the final game of tennis.”
Plucking the shattered clock out of his mechanical arm, which he had just spent considerable time repairing; Sherlock looked up with an unhappy scowl. “You think Major Nash may have given the signal for the dog to be unleashed?”
“I don’t want to think anything of the sort but…”
The Countess understood why Dr Watson didn’t want to finish the sentence. She had had the same misgivings concerning their handsome host; she could scarcely bring herself to believe her suspicions let alone voice them. “Did you notice when Mrs Klein left the tennys-play?”
“I didn’t notice that she had.”
“She wasn’t on the porch either. I think she and Major Nash were having another assignation. He looked dishevelled when he appeared. They appear to be very friendly all of a sudden. You don’t think…”
Sherlock finished the sentence for her when she paused, clearly unwilling to accuse Mycroft’s ADC of treachery. “…think the two of them are in it together?”
Dr Watson looked back over his shoulder again and lowered his voice. “Major Nash certainly gets around and he knows exactly where Mycroft is going to be at any given time. And didn’t you say this weekend was his idea?”
“Yes,” confirmed the Countess grimly.
“But what’s in it for him?” pursued the doctor, shaking his head dourly.
The Countess explained what she learned while butlering at the club. “Once Mycroft is out of the way de Merville becomes the new primus baro by default; no one else wants the job. I’d say it wouldn’t be long before the major was part of the influential committee of six. This weekend could have been designed to ingratiate him with de Merville, Damery and Blague, all soon to become members of the club providing the new constitution is adopted. As Mycroft’s ADC he must know everyone’s secrets. That sort of information could bring him enormous clout. In time he could bump off de Merville and be voted in as the new primus baro.”
“But how would Mrs Klein help?” asked the doctor.
“She holds sway over powerful men. Think about the Turkish Baths,” she reminded. “The right men backing the ADC might help him get on the committee sooner rather than later. Plus she has the funds to bankroll any scheme that needs implementing. Once he’s in power he could make financial decisions that favour her. I’m starting to think his violent dislike of Mrs Klein has been an act.”
She went on to explain about the Matryoshka doll in Mycroft’s drawer. “Major Nash may have been putting it there to implicate Mycroft in the death of the princess.”
“But where would he get a Matryoshka doll?” quizzed the doctor, sounding more and more worried. “You said they were impossible to obtain.”
She heard a noise at the entrance to the stable and paused before replying.
Sherlock heard it too. “Come in, Colonel Moriarty.”
The Irishman didn’t look quite so sheepish this time, though it was clear he had been listening for the last few minutes. “I thought that might be you on the porch, Mr Holmes. Keep going,” he invited, looking from one face to another before settling on the female one. “I’d like to hear your theory on Nash and the doll.”
“I think Major Nash was one of the princess’s lovers.”
Moriarty gave a low phwoar of male approval. “He certainly gets around.”
The Countess tried not to show disapproval. “You refer to Isadora Klein?”
Moriarty nodded briskly. “I think he lost the tennis game on purpose. He could have played singles with one arm tied behind his back and still beaten all of us put together. No offence Dr Watson but he’s a master at Tudor tennis. He slipped out shortly after Mrs Klein disappeared and he turned up on the porch looking like he’d been working up a sweat at something other than a game you play with a racquet.”
Sherlock pulled on his jacket to cover his damaged mechanical sleeve before it invited too much unwanted attention. “Being together also provides the two of them with an alibi for the dog incident.”
“Very convenient,” agreed the colonel with a cynical smirk. “And I’d like to thrash out the whys and wherefores but I came here in search of the doctor. General de Merville has been found in the cellar. It looks like he dragged himself out of bed and got stuck into the whiskey while we were at tennis. He’s passed out cold and isn’t responding. Miss de Merville is distressed and may need attending to as well.”
Dr Watson and the Countess hurried back to the house.
Sherlock’s voice caught the Irishman as he turned to follow. “Nice shooting, Colonel. Three bullets in the skull of a mad dog during a frenzied attack involving flailing limbs and wild desperation is quite a feat.”
Moriarty shrugged. “Lucky your boot held off the dog until I arrived. Your brother is lucky to be alive.”
“Your unerring marksmanship and my perspicacity have nothing to do with luck. What really brought you to Longchamps? No lies, now.”
The colonel’s eyes fell on the mangled boot and he knew he was not seeing the full picture. To arrive in the stable to find the Countess candidly discussing Mycroft’s near-death with Sherlock forced him to reconsider what was real. He no longer believed she was married to Dr Watson. He went back to his original idea – she was secretly married to Mycroft Holmes. If it wasn’t for her threat to hold him to account if anything happened to Mycroft he would have let the dog finish him off.
“The fresh Kent air, Mr Holmes.”
“You can do better than that. We are on the same side.”
With that the colonel wandered back to the house the long way via the topiary garden, lighting up a cigarette to ward off the freezing cold air that stung his face and nipped his hands. The winter sun had not yet broken through the blanket of Kentish fog and frost rimed the chess pieces. They took on the appearance of hoary kings and queens and knights frozen in time, adding to the unreality of what was going on at Longchamps.
Trust was thin on the ground and he always, always, played his cards close to his chest. There was no other way for a lone Irish wolf to survive. Besides, trust worked two-ways, or not at all. If someone was keeping something from him, he was not inclined to share what he knew with them. Until he could figure out who to trust, he would trust no one.
Dr Watson read the scene in the cellar with the experienced eye of a medical man who had dealt with hundreds of soldiers in the messy aftermath of battle. “It’s lucky he didn’t choke to death. Who rolled him over?”
“I did,” said Ponsonby, stepping forward. “I came down to the cellar to select the wine for lunch, to uncork it to let it breathe, and the general was lying there on his back. I thought he was dead. It gave me quite a turn to see him sprawled on the cold stones. As if that wasn’t bad enough I almost keeled over when he started to gag. I realized he was choking on his own vomit and rolled him onto his side. He retched and gasped for air and I ran for help.”
It was getting crowded in the cellar. All the men were there, milling about, handkerchiefs over their mouths to blanket the stench of fresh puke, except for the colonel who was still walking in the garden. Ponsonby was praised and dismissed.
“I’ll need some help getting him up to his room,” said the doctor, looking for volunteers.
“It’s too far to go,” supplied Major Nash pragmatically. “We can put him in the valet’s room next door to you. It’s only one flight up to ground level from here. There’s a bathroom there too. It will be easier to prepare a bath. He can be taken up to his own room later, when he’s recovered.”
The plan made sense and General de Merville was duly undressed by a couple of servants then helped to the bathroom where a bath with steaming hot water awaited. He had come to his senses by then and felt heartily ashamed though the details of how he got to the cellar, why he went, and what he did when he got there were hazy. He fell into bed and fell into a fitful sleep, exhausted by the experience.
Miss de Merville was teary-eyed and refused to countenance lunch. She refused any type of sedative and asked to be left alone. The Countess sat with her briefly but they hardly spoke. Miss de Merville just kept repeating, “It’s not like him. I don’t understand what’s happening. It’s not like papa to drink to excess.”
The Countess knew that Violet de Merville was an astute and intelligent member of her sex, not a woman who had trouble separating reality from fantasy, not someone who pushed the unpalatable things in life to the back of her mind, not someone who pretended things were different in order to cope. So the question that begged to be asked was what had caused General de Merville to act out of character? Was it a guilty conscience? Guilt stemming from the bombs? Guilt over the death of Princess Paraskovia? Or was he the one who secretly passed the note (presuming there was one) to Mycroft that lured him to the porch?
The Countess returned to her bedroom to change for lunch and found Xenia waiting for her with fresh news that merely added to the puzzle of who was guilty of what.
A Matryoshka doll was found in Mrs Klein’s bedroom. It was not exactly hidden but sitting openly in a box of maquillage on the dressing table.
The news was exciting but it made no sense. The only way Mrs Klein would have been able to obtain a doll that hadn’t yet gone on sale was to receive one as a gift. But from whom? Not Viscount Cazenove, not General de Merville, not Sir James Damery – their dolls were all locked in Major Nash’s desk. Did Major Nash give her a doll? Or did she receive one from Prince Sergei?
Xenia also reported that Mrs Klein did not return to her room early. She was spotted coming down the stairs from the tennis court while play was in progress. She proceeded into the long gallery then slipped behind the tapestry, presumably to meet the baronet in the oratory that sat over the porch.
That made sense. Major Nash could easily have slipped out of the door at the end of the tennys-play that led down to the oratory. If he locked the door after himself, no one could follow.
Did they choose that spot for their assignation knowing they would hear every rabid and ferocious growl as the mad dog tore Mycroft to pieces?
Fedir had already relayed to Xenia that no Matryoshka doll was found in the prince’s bedroom. The room was thoroughly searched. He also reported that he spotted Mrs Klein coming down the stairs from the tennys-play when everyone was gathered around the front porch.
It stood to reason she had slipped out of the oratory and climbed the narrow stairs to the tennys-play and then returned to her room while everyone was distracted. The major on the other hand had pulled on his clothes and hurried down to the porch to see what was happening.
Was he disappointed that Mycroft had survived?
What was the meaning of the fleeting glance between Nash and Moriarty?
As soon as the Countess changed into an afternoon dress of ice-blue figured silk trimmed with mink around the hem and cuffs she hurried to the prince’s room to speak to him before he went down to lunch.
Ivanchyk, the prince’s valet, ushered her in. Prince Sergei was checking the time on his Breguet gold timepiece against the carriage clock on the mantelpiece.
There was no time for preliminary banter and no point pretending she was making a social call, besides, Slavs tended to be straight-talkers when amongst their own kymry. The Countess gestured for Ivanchyk to leave them, excused her peremptory bluntness on the recent attack on Mycroft Holmes then fired off some questions.
“Did you give Mrs Klein a Matryoshka doll?”
“Nyet! What a strange thing to ask!”
“When you visited the princess’s hotel room on the day of her death – don’t ask how I know – did you see a Matryoshka doll on the dressing table?”
“Da, what of it? What is the sudden interest in Matryoshka dolls?
“Did you take the doll on the dressing table when you left?”
“Nyet and nyet again! I have a crate full of identical, worthless, peasant dolls back in London. No one will be interested in buying one at the Paris Fair. Russia will be saddled with thousands of useless, sentimental, mass produced mementoes. Folk art! Ha! I could never understand what Paraskovia saw in them. As soon as the Fair finishes they will be consigned to the rubbish bin of history.”
“Had you ever met Mrs Klein before coming to London?”
“Nyet, I met her for the first time on the day of the ball. What has any of this got to do with Mr Holmes? I thought we had been invited here to discuss the bombs that threatened the life of that uber-useless son of that puffed-up Saxe-Coburg popinjay?”
“When you were sitting in your carriage in the carriage park did Mrs Klein at any stage join you?”
He dropped his gaze and twirled his gold wedding band. “I suppose Damery saw her getting into my carriage. Da, she joined me in my carriage to offer me comfort. I don’t need to remind you I had just lost my wife that same day.”
“While playing tennis this morning, did you notice when Mrs Klein left the court?”
“Da, she left a few minutes after we were eliminated.”
“And Major Nash – did you happen to notice when he left?”
“Da, he left shortly after the final game commenced.”
“He did not leave first?”
“Nyet, she left first.”
“Did he leave by the main stairs?”
“Nyet, he went through the door at the end of the court.”
“Who do you think killed your wife?”
“That I cannot tell you but if you know about the Matryoshka doll on the dressing table then you probably know about the bottle of laudanum. You probably know that she was with child and the child was not mine. You probably know she had several lovers.”
“Was Mycroft Holmes one of them?”
Prince Sergei flinched and regarded her coldly. “I thought for a moment you might be like Zoya. She was Rusalka and Baba Yaga rolled into one, a formidable witch, but you have still a lot to learn, Varvara Volodymyrovna. This conversation is terminated.”
Disappointed and not sure if she had even asked the right questions, the Countess hurried back across the landing, noting that Mycroft had recovered his composure and was in the great hall with the others. It was almost time for lunch.
Parrhesia was the term that Diogenes would have used for telling the truth.
Was the prince telling the truth?
And if part of what he said was true, did that make all of it true?
He had admitted to having Mrs Klein in his carriage on the night of the ball. Of course, she might have been offering comfort to the grieving prince, but the sort of comfort Mrs Klein was reputed to offer was not generally the sort you would offer in public. Not that there was anything disturbing about that. Some people were more carnal than others and Mrs Klein was on the hypersexual end of that carnal scale.
If it was true that the Prince had not met Mrs Klein before the ball it was unlikely they had had enough time to concoct any sort of scheme to kill Mycroft. That brought her full circle back to the fact the person who wanted Mycroft dead was a member of the Diogenes Club.
And what was she to make of the bombshell statement about the doll? If the prince did not purloin the Matryoshka doll, then who did?
It could only have been one person – and it rocked her to the core.
Did Mycroft pocket the doll and then pass it onto his ADC who then passed it on to Mrs Klein? But for what purpose? Why give a doll to Mrs Klein? If Mrs Klein simply wanted a Matryoshka doll because she had heard about them, she could have asked the prince for one since he had a crate of them back in London.
Was Mycroft (with the aid of his loyal ADC) planning to implicate Mrs Klein in the murder of the princess? Did Mrs Klein even know the princess? The prince had not met the Spanish beauty before the day of the ball so it might be deduced from that that the princess had not met her either. So why would Mrs Klein want to kill a woman she had never met?
Did she consider the princess as a rival? If the princess had several lovers on the go at the same time did that make her hypersexual as well? Was there not room for two hypersexual women in a city the size of London?
For Mrs Klein, sex was also a weapon. She used it to humiliate, reward, and blackmail men. She used it to further her ambitions and feather her financial nest. Throughout history, women equated sex with power because it was the only power they were permitted. Did Princess Paraskovia, an attractive woman born to minor nobility who had experienced the back-stabbing machinations of the royal Russian court, equate sex with power too? The answer was obvious.
Sex, power, death… propelled the Countess to her bedroom where she raced through the connecting door to check if Mycroft’s Matryoshka doll was still in its sock.
She was shocked to find that it was. The sight of it threw her off kilter. She had hoped that Major Nash had taken the doll and passed it to Mrs Klein because it was the easiest explanation to swallow, but that was not the case, so she had to come up with a new theory for how the Spanish widow acquired her doll.
She was carefully stuffing the doll back into the sock when the connecting door rolled back silently. A frisson of panic unnerved her and she almost dropped the doll a second time. She was expecting Major Nash and was desperately trying to think up a convincing lie to explain herself but it turned out to be Sherlock.
He had revised his earlier plan to check Mycroft’s doll during the game of tennis. He had correctly and fortuitously guessed that another attack on his brother was imminent and that the most propitious time for that attack might be while everyone was on the tennis court.
“Is that the doll? Show me?”
She passed him the doll and went to the door that opened to the landing to make sure no one was about to walk in on them. He studied it intently for a few moments, pulling it apart before closing it up again and passing it back.
“A cheap gimcrack,” he said, sounding disappointed. “It doesn’t even fit back together neatly. The wood has warped already and some of the paint is peeling.”
Yes, the dolls really were just tawdry keepsakes, the sorts of things visitors to fairs buy – cheap, colourful and novel. They are light to carry, they mark the occasion, and twelve months later they are consigned to the rubbish bin of history.
Sherlock was shimmying down the drainpipe – having deemed the upper landing too risky to skirt while everyone was gathering in the great hall – when Major Nash knocked on her bedroom door.
“I came to let you know that Mycroft is about to explain what happened on the porch.” He poked his head in the door, not intending to come in, but noted at once that one side of her triple bay window was wide open, letting in a considerable draught, and that she seemed to be extremely interested in the fog banking up around the half-timbered walls of the house. “Let me close that window for you,” he offered, striding across the room before she had a chance to forestall him. “The lead casement can sometimes jam.”
She heard Sherlock leap the last few feet to the ground and wondered if the major heard it too as he pulled the window into place and secured the catch then watched through the diamond-leaded panes as the figure of man darted through the fog and disappeared. But he was too clever, too cagey, to question her.
“Have you spoken to Miss de Merville?” he asked blandly to deflect from his own suspicions. “Is she coming to lunch?”
Feeling the mounting pressure to solve the case as physical tension pressing in from all sides, like the fog pressing in on the house, the Countess could not let the moment pass. It was midday Sunday and they were running out of time to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. It was now or never.
“Why did you give a Matryoshka doll to Isadora Klein?”
The look of mild shock on his face could not have been feigned. “What?”
She repeated the question.
He continued to look stunned. “Who told you I did?”
“No one – I surmised it for myself.”
Shock turned to mild amusement. “Because I renewed relations with her?”
“Because she has one in her room and you renewed relations with her.”
Amusement morphed into avid interest. “You searched her room? No! Let me rephrase that. Your maid searched her room?”
“What difference does it make who did the searching – did she receive it from you?”
“Where would I get one from?”
“From the princess.”
“She only gave them to her lovers,” he reminded.
“So you say. Who told you that?”
He appeared to consider the question, indicating he wasn’t sure what the right answer was, surprising, because he was very good at having all the right answers to hand at the drop of a hat. “Who do you think?” he challenged.
There was only one answer. “How would Mycroft know that unless he had been her lover too?”
“If you were as close to Mycroft Holmes as you pretend to be then you would know how ridiculous that accusation was.”
“Then how did he get hold of a doll?”
In the blink of an eye he understood that she had seen the doll inside the sock. “You searched his drawer?”
“So did you. Or did you plant that doll? Are you planning to implicate him in the murder of the princess to deflect from your lover?”
A muscle in his square jaw tightened and he bunched his fists aggressively as the cloak of courtesy fell away. She tried to step around him but he blocked her passage to the door, and an intensely handsome hulk of a man when filled with bottled-up fury can be a formidable obstacle to dodge.
Apprehension rising, she moved quickly to the connecting door but he blocked that egress too. There was a brief senseless struggle that only served to reinforce his physical superiority, whereby he grabbed both her wrists and pulled her into him. His voice was vibrating with anger and his muscular powerhouse of a body was as taut as a drawn bow. “Don’t get in my way,” he warned, bristling fiercely. “I’ve had enough of your meddling.”
“Am I interrupting something?”
Colonel Moriarty was framed in the doorway and the tension in his face matched the tension in the room.
Major Nash released his vice-like grip and stormed past the colonel.
“She’s all yours,” he growled as he deliberately cannoned into a broad shoulder that seemed to be in his way.
Colonel Moriarty had never seen Nash lose his temper. Even in the midst of a brawl at the Hellfire Club or the barracks at Woolwich, Nash could be relied upon to keep a cool head.
“What’s going on?” the colonel directed her way as soon as he closed the door to afford them some privacy. “I thought you said you and Nash had no understanding?”
“We now have a perfect understanding,” she said, lacing her tone with sarcasm before harnessing her embryonic understanding of what had just happened and switching her focus, not to mention frustration, his way. “Why did you really come to Longchamps? And please don’t tell me it was to vie for my hand or I will have you declared dangerous and demand that you be locked in the cellar until this weekend is finished.”
“So much for gratitude,” he mocked with gung-ho disdain. “I save Mycroft’s life for the second time as you requested, or should that be threatened, and that’s the thanks I get. Quite frankly, I expected better: a medal for bravery, a grateful kiss, a declaration of undying love, a Homeric ode paying homage to my heroic attributes, my unerring marksmanship, my manly prowess, my…”
“Shut-up! When you arrived at Longchamps you were whistling a confident tune, as if you were certain of not being turned away, and when you stepped into the hall Major Nash over-egged the theatrics. We both know his fury is the slow-burning type. He is not prone to exaggerated public outbursts which he then does an about-face of twenty seconds later. He chose the bedrooms with care. He knew there was a spare room upstairs and yet he started to lead you to the valet’s room. The room he believed would be conveniently next door to Mycroft before I convinced Dr Watson to swap. So, two conclusions can be drawn. Either you came here at the invitation of Major Nash to assassinate Mycroft…”
“The facts don’t bear that out.”
“Never interrupt a Ukrainian woman when she is theorising and speaking at the same time…Or you came to protect Mycroft from an assassin.”
“An Irishman doesn’t ask permission to speak or make love or shoot someone. And right now I’m veering toward the latter. Although throwing you on the bed and giving you a few pointers on gratitude is coming a close second. You got the last bit right.”
She believed him because the look on his face as he hurtled past her on the stairs was that of a man who did not intend to arrive late to save someone’s life, or to deliberately misfire. Having settled his role to her satisfaction, she drew breath and thought back to the fleeting exchange of male eyes when the major burst onto the porch and saw that the dog was dead. “The question that springs to mind – did Major Nash hope that you would fail?”
“Good question. I’ve been wondering the same thing since you told me he has aspirations to replace Mycroft Holmes as primus baro.”
“You’ve known him a long time. Is he capable of treachery? Is he ambitious? Is he ruthless?”
“It doesn’t matter how long you have known someone, you never really know them. All men wear a mask. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of the man behind the mask. Sometimes the mask slips and you see something you didn’t expect.”
She nodded. “What do you make of his liaison with Isadora Klein?”
“Why do you suddenly care so much about who he beds?”
“When a man does an about face, as Major Nash has done with Mrs Klein, there must be a good reason. I want to get to the bottom of it.”
“Then ask him.”
The lunch gong sounded, presumably for their benefit since the others were already downstairs; apart from the de Mervilles who were not up to joining the luncheon party.
“We better go down using separate stairs,” he reasoned, “so people don’t guess we’ve been together.”
“Don’t be so Irish,” she returned flippantly. “That never works.”
He had never met a woman he wanted to slap and kiss at the same time. “I presume you know that because you’ve tried it and failed?”
“I know it because I’ve seen Lola O’Hara try it and fail.”
“You’ve met Lola O’Hara?” He sounded impressed.
“Of course, who hasn’t met Lola O’Hara? By the way, I want you to think about my question over lunch. I’ll ask you again later.”
His mind was still on the stunning Irish actress. “What question?”
“Major Nash and Isadora Klein,” she reminded testily before placing her hand tenderly on his arm as they descended the stairs together. “And just for the record, I am grateful for what you did and I’m glad you came this weekend.”
He liked the feel of her hand on his arm but he wasn’t about to show it. “Well, you have a very Ukrainian way of expressing it.”
Lunch passed pleasantly without any mention of why they had come to Longchamps, and while they were all in high spirits the conversation flowed effortlessly. The incident with the dog did not spoil hearty appetites, and the only low point was the health of General de Merville.
Colonel Moriarty sidled up behind the Countess as she stood up from her chair at the end of the meal. His voice was a whisper into the back of her head.
“I’ll meet you by the sundial in the topiary garden in half an hour.”
The fog had barely lifted all day, which was a good thing because it would provide them with cover from prying eyes, especially from the rooms that overlooked that part of the garden. Most of the guests, exhausted from the tennis game, opted for a rest in their rooms. That made it easy to sneak out wearing a fur dolman and a pair of fur lined carriage boots without having to enter into an explanation as to why anyone would choose to walk in the garden in thick fog.
Feet crunching gravel alerted him to her arrival. Colonel Moriarty stepped out from behind a giant green Rook and steered her to a garden seat at the end of the path. Visibility was reduced to about ten feet as they sat by side trying not to shiver and kept their voices to a minimum.
“You wanted to know what I thought of Nash rekindling relations with Isadora Klein – he cannot stand her guts.”
“But he has been paying her a surprising amount of attention; fawning over her would be a better way to express it, and he was seen coming out of her room in the early hours of the morning.”
“He’s up to something for sure, but like you said earlier – he’s over-egging it. Mask or no mask I’ve seen him around women. A man as good-looking as Nash doesn’t need to try hard. Within five minutes of entering a room every woman in that room is in love with him, young and old, starry-eyed and cynical; some do a good job of feigning indifference but they’re the ones who are truly smitten. Men are the same. Every man either wants to be him or be his friend. It’s like he swallowed a bottle of likeability elixir at birth. I’ve tried hard to hate him plenty of times but I always come round. And don’t forget a good-looking man can use his looks as much as a woman. I bet he had loads of practise while working for the Foreign Office. Some of the best foreign spies are women and honey traps can catch a queen bee as well as drones.”
“If he is feigning his attraction to Mrs Klein that rather puts her in the frame for the bombs – could the French king of the day be a woman?”
“What are you talking about?”
He was hoping to take her hands in his but she had them tucked inside a fur muff, so he shoved his hands into his pockets. “Did you happen to notice how Isadora Klein was also flirting with Miss Blague during lunch?”
Startled, her eyes flicked sideways. “You’re not saying…?”
“She likes women as well as men – of course she does. Group trysts fire her blood. She was flirting madly with you on the first day – don’t tell me you didn’t notice – because she thought you and Nash had some sort of understanding and she started picturing a threesome but when he turned his attention to Miss Blague, so did she.”
She kicked herself. How could she have missed all the overtures, all the subtle flirtatious signals? How, indeed! She had been thinking this case was about wealth, power and politics, which it was, but not exclusively. It never was! There is always the human element – jealousy, fornication, gratification. “The humiliation! You and Nash were the threesome!”
Despite the aching cold, his cheeks flushed red and the heat spread right up to his bald head, and though he didn’t say so directly, his next sentence confirmed it. “Nash isn’t a sucker for punishment. He has too much self-respect. That’s why the manly charm directed Isadora Klein’s way is bogus. I don’t believe he’d offer Miss Blague up as a sacrificial lamb either. Not under his own roof. If Miss Blague is so inclined when she returns to London so be it, but Nash will make sure it doesn’t happen tonight. You think his behaviour puts Isadora in the frame for the bombs; I think Nash is using this weekend to take his revenge.”
“Every time I look at her smug face I want to shoot it but in my line of work when a man blurs the line between personal and professional he’s finished. I managed to put what happened behind me probably because I had a lot more practice at dealing with humiliation than Nash. I’ve set my sights on someone else…not that I’m about to leave my bedroom door unlocked tonight. When you come to my bed it will be because you want to be there not because you feel grateful.”
Her heart was beating so fast, pumping so much blood, she might as well have been sitting in front of a roaring fire, and though she wanted him more than any man she’d ever met, she was not about to ruin things between them by having him confuse love with gratitude. “I have a lot to think about tonight.”
“I know you do. I’ve seen that look in your eyes before. That look you get when you’re all fired up with ideas and theories and everything is about to fall into place. I could have taken you a dozen times this weekend but I want our first time to be special.”
No one who’d ever met her could ever accuse her of being a Romantic with a capital R. A man had to appeal to her cerebrally before she would give him the time of day let alone consider him as a lover, and though Colonel Moriarty clearly lacked the genius of his elder sibling he more than made up for it in wit and passion, not passion in the over-used sense, but strength of character and staying power. She sensed he was not a man who would disappoint – neither in bed and nor out of it. “Are we talking rose petals on the bed and a Celtic choir in the background?”
“I was waiting for that sardonic retort. Be as flippant as you like. Every trite word tells me you feel exactly the same. Shall we go inside using the same door?”
“You go in,” she said, keeping a level tone while marvelling at his ability to read her mind, “I’m going to pay a visit to the stable…and although I won’t be paying your bed a visit tonight, I’m more grateful than you can imagine, and one day I will ask you to leave your bedroom door open so that I can express exactly how I feel…and it will have nothing to do with gratitude.”
Her parting glance was as intimate as anything ever shared between two lovers.
Mr Dixie was loitering by the stable door, keeping watch; he had earned himself a nice fat remission for his vigilance. Not only had he spotted two members of the Barney Stockdale gang but he had kept a protective eye on Sherlock too.
Dr Watson was in the stable, chatting to the great detective. Finally, he was able to recall the person who tripped him up on the stairs. It had been someone dressed as Henry VIII.
“But there were three such characters,” pressed Sherlock. “Can you recall if it was Blague, Damery or de Merville standing closest to the top of the stairs?”
“That is asking too much,” bleated the doctor. “They were standing together. It could have been any one of them who stuck his foot out.”
“How is de Merville doing?” enquired the Countess as she joined them.
The two men swung round. Dr Watson knew the question was meant for him.
“He has recovered from this morning’s episode but he feels heartily ashamed of himself and refuses to join the others downstairs, which is unusual in my experience because most drunks have no recollection of their past intoxication and consequently feel no shame. Damery has gone to persuade him no one holds him in low esteem. This last week has been a harrowing experience for everyone.”
“What about Miss de Merville?” she asked.
“I think she will be ready to rejoin the party for afternoon tea. Mrs Klein went in to sit with her. They were talking tea gowns and Mrs Klein was brushing Miss de Merville’s hair for her. It was very touching.”
Sherlock glanced at his daughter and he could see by the sudden spark in her eye that there was a bright light of understanding burning deep inside her. He had felt that same knowing light burning deep inside himself more times than he could say.
“By Jove!” he exclaimed, “You’ve solved it! You know who set the bombs and who is trying to kill Mycroft!”
“Yes,” she said in a quiet voice, the sort that conveyed utmost conviction. “I believe I have it but I need to order my thoughts in private before I share them.”
Sherlock laughed. “Ah! The palace of the mind! What a wondrous place!”
Dr Watson rolled his eyes; having to deal with one Sherlock was bad enough but he was now outnumbered. “I believe we need to gather everyone together in the great hall and thrash out this bomb matter, not because it is likely to shed any light on what happened but because that is what everyone was invited for. If we do not discuss the bombs everyone will start to suspect their invitation to Longchamps was for something other than a duty to the heir to the throne.”
Sherlock slapped his old friend on the back and chuckled. “Right as usual, Watson! I shall be here, mucking out the stable, should you need my services!”
They all gathered in the great hall and discussed the night of the ball ad infinitum until it was time to dress for dinner. Nothing was achieved but it gave the Countess a chance to go over the facts and discard the bits that didn’t fit.
Dinner passed pleasantly and everyone slept soundly, except for those who hardly slept at all because they were busy doing other things.
As soon as breakfast was out of the way, Major Nash bid goodbye to his houseguests and returned to the great hall where Mycroft, Sherlock, Dr Watson and the Countess had gathered around the fire. Cigars, cigarettes and pipes were lit and everyone threw themselves into the most comfortable chair they could find.
Colonel Moriarty, who had mounted his horse and galloped away half an hour ago had merely gone a few miles down the road and then doubled back across the fields.
“Do you mind if I join you?” he said as he sauntered in, guessing that there would be some sort of debriefing session.
No one had any objection, so he helped himself to one of Mr Blague’s finest Macanudos and found a seat.
“Did we achieve anything during the last two days?” said Mycroft, heaving a breath as he puffed on a fat cigar. “Who wants to get the ball rolling?”
“I think we made headway,” replied Sherlock chirpily, smiling cagily at his daughter. “Ladies first is the rule. Why don’t we start with the Countess? She can outline her theory and we can debate any points of contention as we go.”
No one took issue with that suggestion. Most of them were worn out with conversation and were happy for someone else to take the floor. That was the usual way after a weekend spent socializing in the countryside. Everyone returned to the city more exhausted than when they departed. Apart from extroverted lunatics most people could only stomach so much of other people’s company before they went stark raving mad.
Major Nash threw a log on the fire then threw himself into a tapestry wing chair just outside the circle of settees and sofas, eschewed a cigar, and put his feet up on an ottoman. Unlike the others present, he had never witnessed the Countess sum up a case from start to finish. He closed his eyes and hoped he would be able to stay awake or at least look like he was awake. He’d hardly had any sleep the last two nights and had gone beyond the call of duty for little or no gain. The weekend had not achieved all that he had hoped and he felt disappointed.
The Countess rose to her feet and stood with her back to the fire where the flames brought out the rich autumnal hues in her chestnut hair. She was wearing one of the newer style gowns that made the female form appear slimmer; the fabrics were softer and the silhouette more fluid. She had lit a cigarette but realized now that she did not wish to smoke and talk at the same time so she tossed it on the flames.
“I presume nothing is out of bounds?’ she said, looking squarely at Mycroft.
The imperious portly body shifted uneasily. It suddenly dawned on him why Sherlock suggested the Countess go first. She had probably figured out more than most, more even than he had given her credit for. He had wondered more than once who had tampered with his sock drawer and put it down to Nash or Sherlock but he realized now she was the most likely culprit since she occupied the connecting bedroom.
But he was weary of this business, weary of being attacked by rabid dogs and rolling barrels and exploding bombs. Most of all he was weary of endless blather. He wanted to go back to the Diogenes Club, to the dome room, to privacy, to silence.
For that to happen he had to put an end to whoever was behind this business to kill him off. It had to be settled before he returned to London and the next attempt proved successful.
“Nothing,” he confirmed, sighing heavily. “Speak freely.” And, he wanted to add, speak concisely and quickly for all our sakes!
“So be it: Dogs bite their enemies, I bite my friends to save them,” she warned, quoting Diogenes. “I want to stress I have no proof for what I am about to put forward. This weekend has proven enlightening by way of hearsay or anecdote and you may disagree with any part of it. That is up to you. I shall start with the night of the ball.
It started with Dr Watson being tripped on the stairs. He recognized the face before he blacked out but he couldn’t remember exactly who it was when he woke up. Yesterday he remembered it was someone dressed as Henry VIII. There were three such figures at the top of the stairs: Damery, Blague and de Merville. Now, he had not met Mr Blague, nor was he personally acquainted with Sir Damery, but whether one is acquainted with General de Merville or not, his photograph has appeared in newspapers on numerous occasions. In other words, everyone is acquainted with the general. If Dr Watson recognised a face from the trio, it would most likely be that of General de Merville.
We proceed to the dome room where the first bomb went off. Someone, presumably the roaming photographer, placed the bomb in the room but someone needed to set the timer. It couldn’t be done hours in advance in case it was found and defused. It could only be done minutes beforehand, perhaps ten or twenty at most.
There were six men in that room. It could have been any one of them who flicked a switch to start the bomb ticking. Let us remind ourselves it was Isadora Klein who suggested trying the hookahs and Blague who was most keen. Damery was positioned in the centre of the room, acting as mediator. Major Nash had his weapon pointed at Colonel Moriarty and the colonel was in the spotlight. That leaves the general and the prince free to see to the bomb. Mr Blague recalled the prince lighting a cigarette and wandering around the perimeter of the room, looking bored. The general, also bored, tinkered with the water pipes on the hookahs.
Whoever switched on the timer knew he had only a certain amount of time to get out of the room before the bomb exploded. Mr Blague and Prince Sergei were keen for the duel to go ahead but it was the general who argued most fiercely in favour of not wasting time.”
She turned to Major Nash and Colonel Moriarty. “Is that how you remember it?”
They both nodded.
“Yes, it was de Merville who suggested the lanterns,” said Major Nash, sitting up and paying attention despite his fatigue.
“He shot down everything Damery said to postpone things,” added the colonel. “And he raced away first. The others followed.”
“In other words,” said the Countess, “he wanted to make sure he was not inside the dome room when it blew up.”
“Bastard!” muttered Moriarty under his breath.
“Don’t be hasty,” tempered Mycroft, loath to point the finger at his old friend. “Let’s hear all the anecdotal evidence and let’s bear in mind it is only anecdotal.” He indicated for her to continue.
“Mrs Klein was meant to join the men for some shisha but she never made it. She was dancing with Pugsy Setterfield and when she managed to get away she claimed she went to the wrong room. My maid confirmed seeing Mrs Klein rushing up to the dome room on the other side of the building, staying but a moment and rushing back down the stairs.
Now, one must ask, who set off the second timer? The one person seen going up to the dome room before the blast was Mrs Klein. So, was she going to the wrong room? Or was it in fact the right room? If she knew the general was setting the timer for the first dome room, she could set the second and make her escape in plenty of time.
Mrs Klein claimed she saw the Princess of Wales going to get her cloak as she was coming down the stairs but we know the Princess of Wales was in the cloak room when the bombs went off so she would hardly be getting her cloak twice.
Though let us give her the benefit of the doubt.
Nevertheless, there is also the question of Pugsy Setterfield. Miss de Merville also claimed she was having the last dance with Pugsy, so one of the women is lying. I was dancing with the Prince of Wales when the three men were crossing the foyer prior to the bombs going off and I can confirm seeing Miss de Merville, though I cannot recall Pugsy, and I cannot recall seeing Mrs Klein on the dance floor either and yet she is not an easy woman to overlook.
Furthermore, Mrs Klein claimed she saw the studio photographer moving the camera under the stairs as she was descending the staircase, but she must have come down much earlier and already have had her cloak and gone out to the veranda as far from the pavilion as possible. Her gown and cloak had no blood on them whatsoever as she directed the bucket brigade.
The only reason I can think for her to say she saw the photographer would be to divert suspicion away from herself. If she saw someone moving the camera and thought it odd or thought nothing of it, she could not possibly be accused of knowing there was a bomb inside that was meant to be on the table.
Much later, after she organized the bucket brigade she disappeared inside the pavilion. My maid saw her go to the powder room. But my maid did not see when she came out. That suggests she was in there for longer than a few minutes. She had time to follow the studio photographer up the second staircase when he went to salvage his equipment; she had time to strangle him with a length of petticoat which she could easily have picked up. She is certainly strong enough to overpower a puny man who is unprepared.
Of all the guests at the ball, Mrs Klein was in the two places where someone needed to be to set off the second bomb and strangle the photographer. Coincidence, unfortunate timing or meticulous planning?”
Sherlock was smiling proudly.
Mycroft was growing uncomfortable.
Major Nash was sitting upright, staring at the Countess as if seeing her for the first time.
Moriarty was muttering obscenities under his breath along the lines of: Bitch…!
Dr Watson was listening with interest, having missed most of the action.
“If no one has anything to add, I will go on.”
The five men all nodded.
“This part, I admit, is pure conjecture. My maid went twice to the carriage park to check for my troika. On the first occasion she saw a man sitting in Mrs Klein’s carriage. The carriage curtains were open. The man was not a guest at the ball, in other words he was not wearing a costume, nor was he wearing the livery of a servant or a military uniform. I suggest it was the roaming photographer who had placed the camera on the hall table as he had been instructed and then ran for his life. Mrs Klein claimed the unknown man must have leapt into her carriage out of fear but it is noteworthy that of all the carriages in the park he leapt into hers.
A short time later the two footmen went into the carriage and there was a lot of shaking. The curtains were now closed. We now know the two footmen were part of the Barney Stockdale gang. I think it highly likely they were strangling him. He was strangled by hand so it had to be someone strong. Not a woman. Sir Damery said the man later left the carriage but he did not actually see him go. Prince Sergei, whose carriage was parked alongside that of Mrs Klein, was in his carriage the entire time but he did not mention the man apart from seeing him running in a panic across the lawn toward the carriages.
According to Sir Damery, when Mrs Klein arrived at the carriage park, she went not into her own carriage but into that of the prince who then suddenly had his curtains closed. I presume they were having an assignation but it also gave her an alibi, in that the prince witnessed her getting into her own carriage which presumably had a dead body inside. So, should someone claim the man never got out of her carriage she could call their bluff, call on the prince to confirm he saw her getting into her carriage and making no fuss whatsoever over a man being inside her carriage, not even a dead man!
But here is the interesting thing, witnessed by Sir Damery. Her coachman drives right around the perimeter of the park, stopping several times for no apparent reason. He goes around twice and then presumably finds the gate that other drivers have had no trouble locating.
This makes no sense unless the footmen used that time to dump the body of the photographer in the pump house. The first time the carriage went round they leapt out with the body and dragged it to the pump house. The second time, they climbed back on the backboard. Hence the reason for going around twice.
Mrs Klein made a great show of berating her coachman for being drunk but I believe that’s what it was – a show.”
Major Nash and Colonel Moriarty were both nodding. They had both wondered why the photographer had run all the way down to the pump house to hide. It was dark. Everyone was distracted. Why didn’t he just keep running? Or better still, if he had planted the bombs surely he would have arranged for transport to flee the scene. But if it had been agreed that he would get into Mrs Klein’s carriage and hide until she came, perhaps to pay him off for a job well done, then it made sense.
If she had employed two punishers from the Barney Stockdale gang it made even more sense that the dead body would be dumped in the pump house and then dumped in the lake the following night, hopefully so that no one would link the body to the pump house and recall that her carriage had stopped near the pump house twice on the night of the ball.
“Well done,” praised Sherlock. “You put together the missing links: where the man was killed, who killed him, when he was killed, how his body got into the pump house, and how it then got into the lake. The facts speak for themselves.”
Mycroft could not refute the facts as stated. “I agree it looks as if Isadora Klein organized the bombs but the evidence against de Merville is circumstantial and weak. I cannot condemn a decorated war general on such flimsy evidence.”
The Countess conceded the evidence was weak. “This may help to convince you, though it is also mere conjecture. When the men were duelling in the wood, de Merville did not react to the bombs until the third bomb went off. The first two didn’t seem to bother him though his most beloved and only daughter was somewhere inside the pavilion. I suggest he knew the first two bombs were for show, merely to blow the roofs off the two end domes and give Mycroft a bit of a scare. I think this is what Isadora told him in order to get him to set the timer on the first bomb. But when that third bomb went off he ran as fast as he could toward the pavilion, terrified for Violet. I think the third bomb was a complete surprise to him.
When he was intoxicated he was saying things like: third bomb, doll under the stairs, oracle over a barrel, an honest dog…and so on. They are all jumbled allusions to Diogenes and what took place on the night of the ball or thereafter.
And that explains his sudden addiction to whiskey. He is a hardened soldier and yet he was more distressed after the night of the ball than any young lady in London. I think he was trying to drown his guilt, his fear of being found out, his regret at the part he had played in setting off the first bomb, and his regret at being duped by Isadora Klein.
She enquired after his health and made sure to emphasise to Violet to let her father know she had enquired. It was as if she was sending a message to de Merville to hold his nerve. I wouldn’t be surprised if she paid him a visit when she left the tennis court (she had ample time before meeting up with Major Nash) and threatened him with exposure or threatened harm to Violet and that’s why he went down to the cellar again – perhaps to drown his sorrows, perhaps to end it all.”
Dr Watson was nodding. “Yes, I heard him muttering the same sorts of things. They made no sense at the time but it was clear his conscience was deeply troubled.”
Major Nash, still flushed at being so-named, agreed with the Countess. “I recall he didn’t want to come to Longchamps. He didn’t want to discuss the bombs and yet he would normally have been the first to convene a meeting to discover all that he could to find the men responsible for such a heinous act. In all the years I have observed the general inside the club house I have never known him to drink to excess. He is definitely troubled. And in my defence…”
“Shut up, Nash,” interrupted Moriarty, “before you make an ass of yourself. No one here believes you were genuinely interested in Isadora. We know you were acting under orders to work your magic charm on the bitch or doing some special undercover work of your own. Let’s leave it at that.”
Moriarty could afford to be magnanimous. The Countess had all but declared her love for him. It was only a matter of time before they were spoken of in terms of having an understanding, marital or otherwise.
Besides, Nash was going to come out of this looking like a hero for inventing this little get-together and the Countess was going to thank him kindly for giving her the opportunity to figure it all out, but he wasn’t about to let Nash take the floor and recount how much he had sacrificed in the name of Queen, country and club house.
Magnanimity only stretched so far!
“So,” said Sherlock, getting back on track, “we are all in agreement it is Mrs Klein behind the threat to kill my brother?”
“Yes,” agreed Major Nash, who had suspected the haughty Spanish beauty since yesterday. “And if she is behind the bombs, she must also be behind the dog attacks. Her two footmen could easily have signalled a man to bring the dog to the front of the house when they spotted Mycroft standing under the porch. Once this fog lifts, a search of the cottages will probably reveal the hiding place of the dog.” He looked earnestly at his boss. “Something will have to be done about her, sir.”
Mycroft nodded grimly. “Yes, the French king of the day may have to go into exile. A quiet word in her ear about the Turkish Baths might be enough to see her decide to take a long holiday abroad. If she is obstinate, a small leak to the press about what goes on in the private massage rooms will put the wind up her. I imagine quite a few gentlemen will be very upset, upset enough to employ the services of Colonel Moriarty. A full blown public scandal would see her declared persona non grata amongst the sort of society she craves for the rest of her life.”
“And General de Merville?” pursued the ADC.
Mycroft grimaced, thinking of the general’s Khyber Pass fame. “A bit trickier considering his reputation. Exile from the Diogenes Club is probably the way to go. He poses no threat to my position if he is not a member; he is never going to be elected primus baro. Resign he must. He loses face, of course, but it will appear to be sour grapes at losing the election. The Carlton Club does not have the same prestige but Damery is there to console his wounded pride.”
Sherlock was in agreement with his elder sibling and decided to paraphrase the ancient philosopher. “If Diogenes can live without de Merville, then de Merville can live without Diogenes!”
“Pure hubris,” added the doctor sadly. “Ironic that he was probably motivated by status, and status is what will now be lost to him!”
“Isadora would have done it for the power and the money,” condemned Moriarty, wondering how he could profit from the dirty Turkish Baths business and take on several rich clients for the one hit. It would be the most lucrative and enjoyable contract of his career.
The Countess recalled what Major Nash said about the parallel between the Diogenes Club and the world’s bankers. The thought of having someone like Isadora Klein pulling the strings of the primus baro (de Merville) was quite terrifying. But she was mindful of Mycroft’s wrath should she mention it. “I think exile from the Diogenes is the best way to go. Violet will not have her matrimonial prospects ruined by scandal. Now, should I go on and outline my theory on the death of the princess?”
The five men, all slouching in their chairs, suddenly sat up. They had presumed the business that brought them to Longchamps had been satisfactorily settled. They had long forgotten about the body in the bath.
“I bite my friends to save them,” she reminded, holding out her hand for the ‘J’ cufflink which Sherlock extracted from his pocket. “Here goes,” she said, placing the cufflink on the small table that centred the seating area where it glittered in the flickering firelight.
“The princess had numerous lovers – Damery, de Merville, Cazenove – and that is just for starters. This ‘J’ cufflink which Sherlock found in her bedroom could have belonged to any one of them: James, Josiah, Jonathan, Jantzen, John.”
Several men shifted awkwardly in their seats but chose not to call attention to themselves by voicing a protest.
“It could also represent the patronymic Ivanovych as in Prince Sergei Ilych Ivanovych Malamtov. Ivan is the Russian version of John. However there is no letter J in the Cyrillic alphabet but there is in Serbian and the princess came originally from Belgrade. A gift to her husband? This is a solid gold cufflink. Prince Sergei wears only gold jewellery. He may have visited his wife’s bedroom on the day she died and dropped this cufflink. In fact, that is what I think happened.
I believe this cufflink was dropped the day she died because hotel rooms of the standard of Clarges are cleaned thoroughly and yet this valuable cufflink was not swept up. I agree with Sherlock that when the husband entered his wife’s bedroom, having procured his own key, he discovered her in bed with a lover, but not one of the men named. The princess also slept with women which I was slow to recognize, and I thank the colonel for pointing it out too me. I think the person in her bed that morning was Isadora Klein.”
She waited for the gasps to subside.
“Why do I think so? Isadora Klein had a Matryoshka doll in her possession. I presumed Major Nash gave her the doll. I presumed the major had slept with the princess and thus acquired for himself a doll. I did not think Isadora acquired the doll for herself. But I now believe she did. I apologise to Major Nash for suspecting him of lying.
The major also castigated me for thinking Mycroft slept with the princess. He was right again to do so and it forced me to revise my thinking. Mycroft, like Diogenes, had long done away with the artificiality of human relationships. That is not to say Mycroft does not make use of people. When one ‘knows no trade but that of governing men’ one makes good use of them, including the female of the species.
Mycroft’s concern for the death of the princess hinted that she was most likely a double agent, working for the Russians and the British, reporting specifically to Mycroft. That is why she had numerous high profile lovers, including her own estranged husband, and that is why Mycroft, of all the men involved with the princess, had no doll of his own. He therefore purloined the doll on the dressing table, a Matryoshka doll that was warped and peeling as a result of being immersed for hours in warm water.
Mycroft wanted a keepsake, though he is no sentimentalist, no romantic, but sometimes we are touched and we feel a close attachment to someone that defies rational explanation, and when that person dies suddenly we are bereft. We even choose their last resting place for them. We choose a place which meant so much to us and was associated with, let’s say, a small dacha where many hours were spent in their exclusive company exchanging secrets.”
Again, the Countess paused for the five men to take in the full extent of the words falling from her lips. Silence filled the room except for the crackling of the fire.
“Mycroft called me in when he found the princess dead in her bath because he was genuinely baffled for the first time in his life. Here was a woman who he felt a close attachment to, a woman who was working as a double agent and risking her life for him, a woman who was suddenly dead.
Who had killed her and why?
We have the bottle of laudanum, the jewels, the Matryoshka doll, the baby doll in the vulva – this is not an assassination. This is deeply personal.
I think that when the prince arrived unannounced in the hotel room and found Isadora in his wife’s bed a threesome may have taken place. The prince was a man of carnal appetite and so was Isadora. The princess was hardly likely to object since one was her lover and the other her husband. She must have been a woman of carnal appetite too, going by the number of lovers she juggled.
When Prince Sergei claimed he did not meet Isadora until the day of the ball it struck me as odd that he said ‘day’ not ‘night’. Most people would say ‘night of the ball’. But, you see, if he had met her that morning that’s exactly what he would say. That is why they could arrange an assignation in his carriage so easily. It was not the first time they had enjoyed a physical tryst. And again here at Longchamps they continued the mutual love affair with ease.
So, who killed the princess?
If what I say so far is a true assessment then it could only have been suicide.
Remember the Matryoshka doll in the bath and the hidden baby doll – a message to Mycroft that she is with child. But she must have had time to arrange it. And the jewels? Here was a princess. Not conceited, but proud of her beauty and status. She wanted to be seen in the best light even in death.
Most likely the prince stayed to watch over his wife and it was he who placed the bottle of laudanum on the floor of the bath. Recall, he already knew about the death before he arrived to speak to Mycroft that afternoon. He did not need to see the body because he had already seen it. And the birch bark? It was a loving gesture. Perhaps the princess had some soft white bark from a tree that meant something to her, as some women keep a lock of their lover’s hair. She may even have asked him to arrange the peelings in her hair or she may have done it herself.
I believe that when Isadora left, and husband and wife discussed the unborn baby the princess was carrying, the prince refused to acknowledge it as his own. He knew he was infertile. She must have known it too. Other people may also have known it. There was no pulling the wool over people’s eyes. And the prince was proud. Some men do not wish to raise other men’s bastards.
I believe the prince thought the father of her child was Mycroft. But he was wrong. Mycroft loved the princess but he was not her lover. If he had been her lover he would have had a doll and I doubt he would have shared her with other men, no matter how beneficial it may have been to Queen and country.
The morality of our Age is such that a middle-aged woman, married into a royal Russian house, cannot have baby out of wedlock and remain in society. It is as simple as that. And who was the father of her child? It could have been any number of men. We will never know. If all her lovers came forward to claim paternity the scandal would have been unthinkable. The princess understood she had no choice. Embracing death was her salvation.
She was at peace with her decision.
She was at peace when she died.”
No one dared look at Mycroft and no one dared speak. When a Victoria sponge was wheeled in with the morning tea trolley everyone gave thanks for the distraction.
Happy Birthday was sung three times.
Major Nash, who had been the only man not to give a birthday present to the Countess, raced away and returned a few moments later with a small but lovely rosewood sewing box.
“Open it,” he urged, watching keenly as she lifted back the lid.
Her obvious delight at the contents wiped the smirk off Moriarty’s face.
“A Remington Derringer!” she cried with delight, recognising the double-barrelled muff pistol that had sat in Mycroft’s bedside drawer.
They sang Happy Birthday once more and when Mycroft called for a bottle of French champagne, the Countess knew all was forgiven, and that unlike Diogenes she would not need a lamp to help her find an honest man.
She had five of them in her life, and though they might occasionally bite, they did it because – dare she say it – they loved her in their own inimitable way.
Book 8 in a series of chronological stand-alone plots. London 1899. The Prince Regent’s New Year’s Eve ball is in full swing when several explosions shatter the festivity. Were they an attempt to assassinate the heir to the throne or, as it seems, intended for Mycroft Holmes himself? What is even less clear is the casus belli - is it related to the powerful Diogenes Club, or perhaps to the untimely death of Princess Paraskovia - the estranged wife of the Russian ambassador. When Mycroft admits it is not the first attempt on his life, Sherlock, Dr Watson and Countess V decide to take matters into their own hands. The Countess goes undercover, whilst Dr Watson gathers information from within the Turkish baths. Things really start to heat up when most of the suspects gather at ‘Longchamps’ -the country house of Major Nash, Mycroft’s aide de camp. Will there be another attempt on the life of Mycroft Holmes? Rivalry between Colonel Moriarty and the Major also begins to heat up - both are reckless, bold, arrogant, and absolutely determined to win the affections of the Countess. This Victorian murder mystery resurrects several characters from the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for the enjoyment of all Sherlockians.