The route to the cellar took us towards the kitchens where a narrow staircase led to the wine cellar and then, presumably, to other areas below stairs. Pushing the door open, I was glad to see the owner of the house (whoever he or she turned out to be) had installed electric lighting in the cellar. Unfortunately, the wiring that ran along the wall didn’t seem to have a switch attached to it.
‘Hold on,’ said Holmes, barring the doorway. ‘Better take lanterns. I don’t relish total darkness.’
Back in the kitchen, we located the butler’s stock of hurricane lamps, and after lighting two and ensuring each had enough wick to keep burning for an hour or so, we headed back to the cellar door.
Holmes went first, followed by Johnny, me, and Lestrade. The stone stairs had no railing for support and with no sense of what we might find at the bottom, I began to wish I’d kept my mouth shut.
‘There’s another door down there,’ said Johnny, turning to look at me. He gave me a quick smile but couldn’t hide the dread in his eyes.
At the foot of the stairs, we gathered in the small space. Johnny and Holmes readied themselves, revolvers held high. Grasping the handle of the door, Holmes twisted it.
‘Locked, eh?’ said Lestrade.
‘No,’ said Holmes. ‘In fact, it’s not a door at all. Like the library books, it’s painted on, with a handle to make it look real.’
‘Look for a light switch,’ I said, feeling around on the wall beside me. Before I could locate anything useful, a familiar sensation began to make itself known.
As one, we looked at the floor. It had begun to vibrate, and I struggled to stay upright as the ground dropped slowly away.
‘Keep together,’ said Holmes, grabbing my hand and Johnny’s sleeve. ‘Lestrade—stay close.’
A spurt of steam shot up along the edges of the floor as the ground dropped steadily. I’d experienced modern elevators like the Americans have, but this was something different. The mechanism for moving the floor up and down would have to be immense. Gripping my husband’s hand, I waited as we sank below the level of the walls, leaving an open and indistinct space all around us. It felt as if we were standing on a sinking island in the middle of a dark and unfriendly ocean.
A sudden jerk as the floor thudded to a stop might have caused me to collapse in a heap had it not been for the support of my companions. For a moment, we stood there, the small pool of light from our lanterns illuminating our faces and little else, as we stared into the blackness that engulfed us.
‘Proceed?’ whispered Holmes. But the question remained unanswered, for at that moment there was a sharp report, like metal on metal, and the whole place lit up.
For a long moment, none of us could speak. The scene before us was one of such absurdity that I could scarcely take it in. The square stone floor we stood on had come to rest at one end of a vast arena. The height of the place must have been something close to sixty feet, with a ceiling crisscrossed by a pattern of steel girders, gears, pulleys, and ropes. Staring upwards, I could make out the layout of the rooms above us, the dining, library, and drawing rooms recognisable from their particular shapes. Attached to the floors of each of these were lengthy iron struts, each one connected to a massive steam engine located in the centre of the vast space. I realised the engine must enable the rise or fall of each room at the flick of a lever. Oddly, the engine seemed to have no link to the floor we stood on, meaning this one must be controlled separately.
‘How nice of you to join us,’ said a voice in the distance.
Only now, as I moved away from Johnny to see who had spoken, did I notice the six enormous square tables that took up the main area of the space before us. Covering each table were huge maps, dotted with models of buildings, landmarks, flags and other identifying features. Groups of men and women in white coats clutched clipboards and moved around the tables, shifting pieces on the maps as if it were some gigantic board game.
‘It’s Londen,’ gasped Holmes, gazing at each one in turn. ‘The whole bloody city, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, Fleet Street, Londen Bridge …’
‘Well, I never,’ said Lestrade, ‘they’ve even got Scotland Yard. See that tobacco-stained window? That’s where my office is.’
Holmes gave him a withering look, and the inspector regained his composure.
‘Yes, yes, it’s all there,’ said the voice, moving closer. ‘City of delights and dossers, prostitutes and peasants, rich men, poor men … If only there were a network of devilishly devious individuals, wicked enough and clever enough to exert the right amount of pressure in those high government places, easing out the good, ushering in the bad, bringing pain and death where necessary.’ He laughed gaily, as if describing some grand and beneficial plan for the future of mankind. ‘It is a beautiful dream, is it not? A dream that can, and will, become a reality. As you can see,’ he waved a hand around the room, ‘The scene is set. All that remains is to take care of a certain group of do-gooders who repeatedly, continually, constantly get in our bloody way.’ He paused. ‘That’s you, in case you hadn’t guessed.’
The speaker had moved to within a few feet of our little group. Though his appearance was familiar, the voice didn’t match that of the man I’d expected.
‘Mister Lombardi?’ I said, staring at his face.
‘For a while, yes.’ He turned to Johnny. ‘I must admit to feeling a little disappointed, Doctor. I had begun to hope the infamous sidekick of Sherlock Holmes might have a bit more about him than playing the role of ‘rather stupid friend’ to a famous detective. I thought you of all people would have made the connection.’
‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ said Johnny, puffing his chest out. ‘Tell us who the hell you are.’
‘Ah, no, no, no,’ said the other, laughing. ‘Indulge me for a moment.’ He assumed a pose, one finger resting against the side of his face as if in pensive mood. ‘While you were stretched out on that table a little while ago, pretending to be dead, and you listened as three sets of footsteps approached the dining room door, did you not think to yourself that one of those sets of footsteps sounded familiar?’
Johnny hesitated, and I could tell he was momentarily stumped, then I heard a sharp intake of breath.
‘I did,’ he said, his voice low. ‘I thought one man’s step was light and quick. It reminded me of the confident, swaggering gait of …’ His eyes flared. ‘That infernal ice-cream seller, Mario.’
‘There now,’ said the other man, clapping his hands delightedly. ‘I knew you could do it.’
‘You utter bastard,’ I muttered. ‘Why, if I were a man, I’d …’
‘But you’re not, Mary, so shut the fuck up.’
His voice had changed again. This time it had a deep timbre to it and a hint of a Scandinavian inflection. Puzzled, I felt my anger slip away.
‘All those hours taking advantage of a silly little woman, who imagined a handsome and virile ice-cream seller would have nothing better to do than spend time giving pleasure to a wonky-eyed doctor’s wife …’ he laughed again. ‘No, my intentions were far simpler—to lay the groundwork of this little play of ours which has entertained us so much over the last few days. But now, let me enlighten you further …’ Reaching up, he grasped his left cheek, pulled, and the features we’d known as Lombardi’s peeled away. Underneath was the face of Mario Garganelli, his handlebar moustache (the one that had tickled me in places I daren’t even think about) twitching impertinently. But then the fellow began to pull at the other side of his neck, shedding a second layer of rubber, hair, and whiskers. A moment later, the man’s real face emerged.
‘Oh dear.’ I felt my legs go all wobbly.