Having searched the guest bedroom and a couple of nearby closets, Holmes and I decided to go back to the dining room.
Back at our table, we found the Watsons had not returned.
‘How long have they been gone?’ said Holmes to his brother.
Mycroft checked his Half Hunter. ‘It’s just after seven, so almost fifteen minutes. Hadn’t you better go and look for them?’
Holmes started to rise from his seat, then sat down again. I followed his gaze to the far end of the room where a woman had stepped onto the stage. Standing at the lectern, she stared at the audience.
‘It’s Klopp,’ muttered Holmes.
While she waited for the diners to fall silent, I picked up my spoon and was about to start on the pea soup when Holmes touched my hand. His eyes went from mine to the soup bowl and back again.
I looked at Mycroft and the two ambassadors, who had all finished their soups. With my stomach grumbling, I was about to complain that I hadn’t eaten for hours, when Professor Klopp began to speak.
‘Gentlemen and gentlemen, I vould like to zank you all for coming here tonight to hear my thoughts about bringing economic equality to ze world. Unfortunately, zer vould be no point in telling you zat, because by eight o’clock tonight you vill all be dead.’
A murmur of disapproval ran around the room, but rather unexpectedly, no-one stood up to protest. I glanced at Holmes whose beady eyes were scanning the other diners. When I looked at Mycroft and the ambassadors, I saw they were all sitting very still, with only their eyes moving.
‘What’s happenin, Holmes?’ I whispered.
‘It’s the soup. They’ve all eaten it. Probably laced with a formula taken from that damned book of Ravenscroft’s, or perhaps a substance similar to the one Blackwood used to murder his father.’ He leaned over and poked Mycroft in the chest. Mycroft’s eyes widened but he did not move.
‘They’re bloody paralysed.’
‘But still able to hear,’ said Holmes.
‘Yes, Mr Holmes,’ said Lord Henry Blackwood, who had now arrived on the stage, a tall black hat and long cape giving him the appearance of some sort of posh wizard. ‘In fact, you and the inspector are the only individuals still able to move. Unfortunately, you are also unable to escape, as all the doors and shutters have been locked from the outside. Your friends Mr and Mrs Watson are,’ he laughed, ‘also unavoidably detained. Anyway, on with the show. I’d like to welcome the American and Russian ambassadors, gentlemen of the British government and various other industrialists and businessmen. You were all invited here in the belief that you would hear something to your advantage. Sadly, that is not the case. As you will have guessed by now, you have all been poisoned. Our good friend, the world’s first and only consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, assisted me in locating a certain ancient book of spells. It is this book that has allowed me to develop a poison that would take effect approximately 30 minutes after imbibing it. However, the bombs we have planted above your heads will ensure that anyone who does not succumb, will be blown up.’
Holmes jumped to his feet. ‘You won’t get away with this, you fiend.’
‘Ah, Sherlock. Your rather stupid friend, Doctor Watson, said something along the same lines. Alas, he and his good lady are currently tied up in the company of one of my explosive devices and therefore won’t be with us for the rest of their lives. But I would not wish to kill everyone here without giving you, Sherlock, a small chance to save a few individuals, so I have hidden in this building, somewhere, a bottle of antidote. If you can locate it and give three or four drops to anyone still alive, you can save them. Of course, you still risk being blown to hell when the bombs go off, but you can’t have it all ways.’
‘Even if you kill us all,’ said Holmes, ‘you’ll still have half the government and the whole of the Metropolitan Police Force to contend with.’
Blackwood grinned. ‘The Government, yes, but not the dreaded fuzz. My men have also placed bombs at Scotland Yard and have utilised the services of a local soup kitchen to provide my special soup to any officers wishing to partake. So, you see, one way or the other, most of my current enemies will be dead by this time tomorrow.’
‘You’ve forgotten one thing, Blackwood,’ said Holmes. ‘You’re still here.’
‘For the moment, yes, but I have arranged an escape route for myself and my team.’ He glanced at his pocket watch. ‘In half an hour, I shall be dining at my country estate in the company of several elder politicians who share my beliefs on the future of Londen. Which gives me what I believe the gentlemen of the law would call a water-tight alibi.’
With that, he grabbed Klopp’s hand and hurried offstage.
‘What the bleedin hell are we goin ter do now, Holmes?’ said I.
‘Find that bleedin antidote, that’s what.’ He pushed his chair back. ‘And save John and Mary, and find the bombs and…’ He sighed. ‘Or at least give it a bloody good go.’
Inspector Lestrade flashed his warrant card at a passing Hackney and pressured the cabbie into taking us to the Diogenes Club. Spurred on by the promise of a mention in The Police Gazette, the man completed the journey in less than five minutes.
‘What are we going to do when we get inside?’ said Mary, as I assisted her onto the pavement.
‘Haven’t the foggiest,’ I said. We ran up the steps to the front doors, where the doorman seemed about to bar our way. On recognising my distinguished features, he grinned.
‘Evening, Mr Holmes. Will you be joining your brother for dinner?’
‘That’s right, Clacker.’
He blinked and muttered, ‘It’s Clackett, sir.’
‘Of course it is. Now, I suppose there won’t be any trouble signing in my friends, here?’
The doorman cast an eye at Mary as I pushed her through the doorway.
‘You do know ladies aren’t allowed in the Diogenes, don’t you, sir?’
I coughed. ‘Course I do, but as we are attempting to prevent a master criminal from taking over Londen, I’m sure you can make an exception.’
His eyes widened and he leaned closer. ‘Who is it, sir, Moriarty of Moran?’
‘Oh, fuck. He’s a proper bad ‘un, that one. Tell you what—I did a bit of time in Wormwood Scrubs before landing this job, so if you need a good bloke with a cosh, just tip me the wink.’
‘I’m obliged, Clackett, but I think we’ll need more than a cosh on this occasion.’
‘You’d better have this for the lady,’ he said, dipping a hand into his outer pocket.
Taking the necktie from him, I nodded my thanks and followed the others into the foyer. Lifting Mary’s collar, I fashioned a quick Half-Windsor knot. ‘Remember, talking isn’t allowed in the Club except in the dining room.’
Hurrying up the stairs, I wrote a note for the attendant that we were guests of Mycroft Holmes. While he scribbled a reply, I took the opportunity to whisper a final instruction to my companions.
‘Whatever Blackwood’s got planned, he’ll expect us to try to stop him, so keep a sharp eye out for anything suspicious.’
‘Would help if we had weapons, Holmes,’ whispered Lestrade.
‘We do have weapons,’ I whispered back. ‘They’re just not loaded.’
As soon as I opened the door to the dining room, my heart sank. The place was packed to the rafters. All eyes turned towards us as we made our way into the centre of the room, where I spied Mycroft sitting with the American and Russian ambassadors. My brother gave me one of his For-Fuck’s-Sake looks and stood up as we approached. The table had been set for four, so I clicked my fingers at one of the waiters and indicated our need for three more chairs.
‘Sherlock, how good of you to come,’ said the elder Holmes, glancing at Watson and Lestrade. When he caught sight of Mary, however, his mouth dropped open. ‘Ahm, yes. Inspector Lestrade, Doctor and…Mr Watson. May I introduce Ambassador Slobinov of Moscow, and Ambassador Diddlysqit of Washington.
The two representatives stood and bowed, and we all shook hands, apart from Mary, who curtsied, blushed and then looked at her feet.
Two waiters brought the additional chairs and managed to squeeze all seven of us into spaces around a table meant for four.
As the general hum of conversation returned to the room, I scanned the faces of our fellow diners. Most were not members and had likely come along in the hope of insinuating themselves into the good books of one of the ambassadorial guests, while the others were the usual bunch of indolent politicians and greedy industrialists—in other words, the cream of the upper classes. At one end of the room, I noticed a small stage.
‘Are there to be speeches?’ I said to Mycroft.
‘Indeed.’ He nodded to the ambassadors. ‘Following our meeting, I’ve arranged an after-dinner speaker. To lighten the mood.’
‘Anyone we know?’
Mycroft gave a little shrug. ‘Just some chappie from the Londen School of Economics. Professor…’ He frowned, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small card. ‘Professor H. Ppolk. With two ‘p’s.’ He paused. ‘Are you all right, Sherlock? You’ve gone rather pale.’
Leaning towards him, I whispered in his ear. ‘It’s Klopp, you cretin. Professor Helga Klopp.’
He laughed. ‘I don’t think so, Sherlock. As you told me yourself, she died on Huge Island. Besides, women aren’t allowed in the Diogenes Club.’ Glancing at Mary, he coughed. ‘Usually.’
John tapped my leg. ‘Holmes, I think we ought to check out the backstage area.’
‘Good idea, Watson, except there isn’t a backstage area. Only toilets, the kitchens and a guest bedroom.’
‘In that case I suggest we check out the toilets, the kitchens and the guest bedroom.’
Mycroft sighed loudly. ‘Sherlock, I realise it’s a lot to ask, but d’you think you could possibly pay attention while I outline our government’s proposals with our guests?’ He indicated the two ambassadors, who by now were becoming restless.
‘Is it a matter of life or death?’
‘No, little brother, but it is a matter of national security and I’d appreciate your input.’
I smiled politely at the ambassadors, then turned back to Mycroft. ‘Lord Henry Blackwood is alive and well and almost certainly planning to kill everyone here. If we don’t stop him, national security will be the least of your problems.’
‘Ah. I see. In that case, is there anything I can do to help?’
‘Keep the ambassadors talking. If they’re seen leaving, Blackwood may do something drastic. Nevertheless, if anything untoward occurs before I return, I suggest you exit the building with all speed.’
I signalled to the Watsons and Lestrade and we removed ourselves from the table and made our way to a door at the far end of the room. Closing it behind me, I glanced around. We were in a hallway with several doors leading to the aforementioned toilets, kitchens and guest bedroom.
‘What’s the plan, Holmes?’ said Watson.
‘The guest speaker is Helga Klopp. I expect her speech will be used as a distraction while Blackwood carries out his evil deeds.’
‘And do we know what those evil deeds involve?’ said Mary.
‘No, which is why we need to find him. Lestrade, you come with me. Watsons, check the toilets and kitchens. Meet back here in five minutes.’
Quite what we would do when we located the criminal mastermind and his villainous gang, I had no idea, but I did know we had no choice but to try.
We reached the river at Richmond Hill within twenty minutes and with the aid of my revolver, engaged the services of a coal barge and its truculent captain.
‘Good thing he doesn’t know this is loaded with blanks,’ I muttered to Holmes as we clambered aboard.
‘Yes. Like you, Watson, most individuals see but they do not observe.’ He paused. ‘Of course, he wouldn’t be able to see into the barrel and identify the actual bullets.’
Holmes busied himself reading a copy of The Times he’d borrowed from the harbourmaster. We settled down for the voyage into the city and I finally had the chance to ask Mary about her encounter with Maudie Ratched.
‘Blackwood said you’d injured two of his associates.’
Mary nodded. ‘Ratched made the mistake of trying to interfere with me, so I broke her wrist with a move I learned at my Kung Fu for Ladies class. That’s when her friend intervened.’
‘Yes.’ Mary gave me a sly smile. ‘She had disguised herself as a man, with a bushy moustache and a ridiculous wig, but her distinctive voice allowed me to identify her as an old adversary of ours.’
‘Really?’ said Holmes, putting down the newspaper to listen in to our conversation. ‘Who?’
‘See if you can guess. Up until the point when I smacked her in the mouth, she hadn’t spoken, but then she said something that gave her away— I vill haf wewenge on you, Mary Vatson.’
‘Wewenge?’ said Holmes, his face draining of colour. ‘Oh, God. Professor Helga Klopp. So, I did see her in Massachusetts during the Lizzie Borden affair.’
‘It seems so,’ said Mary.
Holmes rubbed his chin thoughtfully. I did the same, but it didn’t help. Then I realised something. ‘Why were Klopp and Ratched not with Blackwood just now?’
‘I think I know,’ said Mary. ‘Klopp said she would see me later and that I’d be sorry. I assumed she’d be there in the workshop.’
‘But she actually meant she’d see you somewhere else entirely,’ muttered Holmes. ‘In which case she must have known Moran’s real identity.’
‘Then why did Blackwood go through that whole palaver of pretending to kill us?’ I said.
Holmes grimaced. ‘Don’t forget, in the guise of Moran, he had to be dramatic and vengeful—that’s what Moran was known for. Blackwood, on the other hand, enjoys tormenting his victims, dragging out their agony. Look what he did to his own father.’
I recalled the crime scene all too readily. Being Sir Thomas Rotheram’s illegitimate son had always riled Blackwood. Using his knowledge of chemistry, the villainous lord drowned Sir Thomas in his own bath, baffling the police for days until Holmes revealed the source of the paralysing substance discharged into the bathwater. I shuddered to think what torments the man might have in store for us at the Diogenes Club.
‘How long til we reach the city?’ yelled Holmes to the barge captain.
The surly fellow sniffed and nodded up-river. ‘Ten minutes. Oi can drop yous at Lambeth Bridge.’
‘Westminster Bridge, if you don’t mind,’ said Holmes.
‘Suppose you’ll blow me brains out if Oi does mind, eh?’
‘Quite probably.’ Holmes turned to me. ‘I’d happily pay the fellow if we had any cash.’ He returned to scanning his copy of The Times and we fell into a companionable silence until Holmes broke it with a sudden yelp.
‘My God!’ He folded the paper over and pointed to a tiny column at the foot of the page.
Diogenes Club, Carlton House Terrace
Government representative Mr Mycroft Holmes will be entertaining the Russian and American Ambassadors this evening as part of a plan to bring the two sides together in a bid to secure world peace. It is rumoured that Mr Holmes will also be joined by his younger brother, the private detective Mr Sherlock Holmes…
‘Blackwood intends to provoke a war,’ I said, aghast.
‘At the very least,’ muttered Holmes. ‘And if I’m not much mistaken, he plans to murder Mycroft and the four of us in the process. Replacing us with his puppet stooges, he’ll be able to put out whatever story he likes—probably blaming the British Government for allowing criminals to run riot across Londen.’
‘I’ve never been to the Diogenes Club before,’ said Mary.
‘And you won’t be going this time,’ said Holmes. ‘Women are forbidden to enter, even when attempting to avert a world war.’
Mary made a growling noise. ‘If you lot think I’m missing out on this, you can think again.’
Lestrade examined his feet. Holmes and I twiddled our thumbs.
‘I’m serious,’ Mary went on. ‘If I have to dress up as a…as a…’ She looked around for inspiration. ‘As a bloody barge captain, I’m going to be there.’
And so the truculent captain suffered yet further indignities as Mary demanded he remove his clothes and put on her dress instead. Emerging from the tiny cabin a few minutes later, Mary barely looked human in a pair of black trousers, a grease-stained shirt, and a heavy black coat. With her hair bundled up into a woollen hat and black grease smeared across her face to give the appearance of an unshaven chin, she definitely resembled a man, though I could not say with any certainty that even the most defective doorman would deign to allow her entry to the most exclusive gentleman’s retreat in the city.
‘D’you think they’ll let me in?’ she said, in a deep voice.
Holmes and I nodded. ‘Absolutely.’
The captain clambered out of his cabin a few minutes later, Mary’s dress hitched up around his knees. ‘Oi ain’t ‘appy about this, mind,’ he muttered. He continued to moan and gripe until we reached Westminster Bridge.
It had started to get dark by the time we climbed up the steps to the quayside. Pulling my collar up against the cool breeze, it occurred to me that this might well be the last case Holmes and I, and indeed Mary and Lestrade, would work on together. At that moment I determined that if we survived whatever ordeal we were about to embark on, I would return to my medical practice and relinquish my crime-solving activities for ever.
A collective gasp went around the room and the man with the face fungus took several steps backwards.
For a moment, I thought he’d continue to deny everything, but then he took a long breath and exhaled slowly, as if allowing his real self to emerge. Straightening up, his entire torso seemed to fill out. With one hand, he took hold of his whiskers and peeled them off, revealing the smooth and manly chin of Lord Henry Blackwood.
When he spoke again, his voice had dropped almost an octave, but its rich deep timbre had a far more menacing tone to it than Moran’s ever had.
‘Moriarty told me not to underestimate you, Holmes. Seems he was right.’ Blackwood rubbed the remaining bits of makeup from his face, took off the brown wig and pushed his fingers through his long black hair.
‘Right, matey,’ said Lestrade, striding forwards. ‘I’m arrestin you in the name of the law.’
Blackwood laughed. ‘I wouldn’t bank on it, Inspector.’ With a quick movement, he whipped out a pistol and aimed it at Sherlock’s heart. ‘Surprised you took so long to work it out, Holmesy. Just goes to show the deductive powers ain’t what they used to be. Never mind, I’ve other plans for your demise that’ll work just as well.’ Turning the gun on me, he smiled. ‘Would’ve been nice to see you skewered, Mary.’ Then with a wink, added, ‘Nice tits, though.’
‘You won’t get away with this,’ said Holmes.
The villain rolled his eyes at me, as if we shared a private joke. ‘Don’t think too badly of me, Mary—I’m a sucker for a stupid doctor and a wonky-eyed woman.’ Leaning closer, he lowered his voice. ‘The best is yet to come. I’ll see the Holmes later.’
Moving around the other side of the table, he nodded to his henchmen. ‘You chaps may have once been Moriarty’s men, but now you have the opportunity to join me in creating the largest criminal empire in England. Are you with me?’
The thugs nodded like the imbecilic morons they were. Opening the double doors, they followed Blackwood outside. The moment the doors clanged shut we heard bolts slammed into place on the other side.
Holmes sprang into action. ‘Get dressed, Mary. Watson, Lestrade—go after him.’
Lestrade reached the doors first. ‘No use, Holmes—we’ll never get through here. See if there’s an axe or a crowbar.’
At the other side of the workshop, Holmes searched for something to use but all the tools had been locked away. Spying a length of timber, he picked it up. ‘Stand aside, chaps.’
With a short burst of speed, he ran towards the doors and crashed into them, bouncing back into the room.
‘Humph,’ he said. ‘Stronger than they look.’
Johnny and Lestrade joined him with the makeshift battering ram and took another run at the doors. On their third try, the bolts gave way.
Outside, we found ourselves in a wide courtyard. The building we’d vacated turned out to be part of a country house. At the far side of the courtyard, a high wall ran down to the gates, opposite a stable block. Directly in front of us stood the main building—a country house of some considerable size.
Lestrade let out a yell and pointed to one of the ground floor windows of the house. ‘He’s in there.’
We ran across to the ornate front doors and Holmes gave the knocker a series of sharp raps.
After a moment, we heard footsteps and the door opened. A bald man in what I took to be a servant’s outfit gave us a bow.
‘Good day, sirs, madam. What can I do for you?’
‘Where’s Lord Blackwood?’ demanded Holmes.
‘Blackwood, sir? There’s no Lord Blackwood here.’
‘Then who was that lookin out of the window just now?’ said Lestrade.
‘Oh, that were just me, sir. Heard a commotion.’
‘Now look here my good man,’ said Holmes, adopting an authoritative tone. ‘Who lives in this house?’
The old man shrugged. ‘No-one, sir. Dene House Manor is owned by the National Trust. We’re open to visitors from August to December, but the place is empty just now. I’m the caretaker, see.’
Holmes frowned. ‘So, you don’t know Lord Blackwood?’
‘Never heard of him, sir.’
‘Then who’s been using the workshop over there?’
The man leaned forwards and muttered in a conspiratorial manner, ‘That be part of a secret Government project, sir. I ain’t supposed to say.’
Holmes clenched his jaw. I hoped he wasn’t about to get physical with the caretaker. ‘Look. If you don’t tell me who has been working in there, I shall—’
‘No, no, you’re alright. I ain’t no hero, sir. It’s just that it’s meant to be top secret, that’s all.’
‘Yes, yes, I understand that,’ said Holmes, his voice rising with each syllable. ‘Just tell me his name.’
The man leaned closer. ‘Sherlock Holmes.’
The big-nosed detective went a shade of purple, but his anger dissipated instantly, and he let out a gentle laugh. ‘Of course, of course, who else could it have been?’ He patted the old man on the shoulder. ‘Obliged for your assistance, sir. Now, where’s the nearest town or village?’
‘That’d be Richmond Hill. Follow the road for half a mile and it’ll take you down to the river. You’ll be able to get transport there, I expect.’
‘He must have had an escape plan,’ said Holmes, as we retreated across the courtyard. ‘Better check the stables.’
We hurried off towards the stable block, where a wide door had been left open. Inside, we found six box stalls but no horses. Holmes dropped to the ground and began crawling around on hands and knees.
‘What’s he doin?’ said Lestrade.
‘Looking for clues,’ I said.
‘Here we are,’ said Holmes. ‘Four horses, two carriages…no—make that one carriage and a Brougham. But they must have been brought outside some time earlier, otherwise we’d have heard them leaving.’ Getting to his feet, he brushed himself down. ‘Suppose we’d better start walking.’
‘Look on the bright side,’ said Johnny. ‘At least we’re still alive.’
The consulting detective dropped his chin to his chest. ‘Yes, yes, I suppose that is something.’
‘It certainly is,’ I said. ‘I’m much happier not having a steel phallus shoved up my—’
‘Thank you, Mary,’ said Holmes. ‘Though as my deductive powers were on top form, I don’t think you were ever in any real danger.’ He gave me a sardonic smile.
‘Oh, you don’t, do you?’ Curling my fingers into a fist, I made ready to smack him in the mouth.
‘Later, dear,’ said Johnny, holding me back. ‘I rather think we ought to save our energy for finding Blackwood, eh?’
We stood for a minute, looking at each other. Then I remembered something. ‘Holmes, what did he mean by seeing you later?’
Holmes scratched his chin. ‘I’m sorry to say I have no idea, Mary. After his criminal activities first came to light, he was banned from entering any public meeting place in Londen.’
He started to walk down the driveway to the gates, but I caught hold of his arm. ‘Wait. Blackwood isn’t known for his conversation. I got the feeling that when he says something, he says it for a reason. Could it be some sort of clue?’
He stopped and looked at me. ‘Blackwood was talking to you, at the time.’ He rubbed his chin. ‘If he meant it as a clue, why not say it directly to me?’
‘Because he was looking at my tits. Anyway, he said he’d see the Holmes later.’
‘D’yer fink he’s expectin ter see yer somewhere specific?’ said Lestrade. ‘Somewhere you’d know about.’
‘Oh, hell,’ I muttered. ‘What if he didn’t mean Holmes, but Holmes’s, as in both of you—Sherlock and Mycroft?’
Holmes swallowed hard. ‘The Diogenes Club.’ He slapped a hand against his forehead. ‘Of course. I’ve been so blind. Mycroft has been sending me dinner invitations for weeks. Something is going to happen at the Club and Blackwood’s expecting both of us to be there.’
Johnny butted in. ‘But if it’s just dinner…’
‘No, no, no,’ said Holmes. ‘It’s never just dinner with Mycroft—he’ll have some ulterior motive. Something he needs me to do, some vital mission for the Government—saving the world or something like that.’
‘Did Mycroft mention a date?’
‘He did, Mary, but as I only read the first part of the invitation, I took no notice of the details.’
‘We need to get a newspaper,’ said Johnny. ‘If something important is due to happen at the Club, it could be what Blackwood’s been waiting for.’
With that, we set off at a pace for Richmond Hill. As we hurried along, I couldn’t help wondering why Blackwood had walked away from his plan to kill us. Could it be that the whole thing had been a diversion to distract us from his real target? Whatever the reason, I knew he wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of creating stand-ins for the four of us if he meant to keep us alive.
Hearing the door of the cell next to mine creak open, I listened keenly as Moran’s voice echoed from the passageway outside. I heard Sherlock reply but couldn’t make out the words. A rattle of keys in my own door prompted me to step backwards. As the door swung open, one of the thugs stepped inside and grabbed my wrist.
‘Come on, you,’ he said, dragging me into the corridor.
Holmes, Lestrade and my own dear husband were waiting there, guarded by another thug with a gun. Johnny tried to embrace me, but Moran held him back. ‘You’ll get your chance to say goodbye, Doctor, but not just yet.’
Pushing us into a line, we were herded along the passage, up two flights of stairs and into what appeared to be a workshop. So far, I’d seen no windows and had no idea of our location. The room we now found ourselves in had stone walls like the cells, and a set of high wooden doors at one end, wide enough to admit a horse and trap. The edges of the doors didn’t quite meet in the middle, allowing a shaft of daylight to flicker across the floor. Workbenches were fixed around the remaining walls, but our attention centred on a shape in the middle of the room. Covered with a grubby white sheet, I estimated it to be about the size of a large dining table.
‘Now,’ said Moran, ‘I think as Mrs Watson has already injured two of my associates, I shall give her the pleasure of being the first to try out my latest device.’
Johnny glanced at me. ‘Injured two of them? Good for you, old girl.’
I gave him my best winning smile, but already my hands trembled in uneasy anticipation.
One of the thugs drew back the sheet covering the table, revealing a wide metal bench with a slightly raised section in the middle and several leather straps hanging from the sides. At first sight, there seemed to be nothing particularly threatening about it, then Moran walked to a set of wheels and levers attached to the wall and I saw they were linked to a contraption higher up by a series of belts and ropes. As Moran twisted the wheels and operated each of the levers in order, a grinding noise began to vibrate all through the room, causing my stomach to jiggle and my legs to shake, so much so that I thought I might wet myself. Looking up, I observed a complicated contrivance juddering down from the rafters. As it came into view, it reminded me of an iron-maiden—one of those horrendous coffin-shaped devices embellished with short spikes. The only difference with this one lay in the central spike, which stuck out at an acute angle in what I estimated to be the location of the victim’s private parts.
As the contraception came to a halt a few feet above the table, Moran moved to another lever.
‘Now, ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure you can see the possibilities of this machine. The smaller spikes, of course, are intended to pierce the victim’s skin as the top of the machine descends upon them, however, my particular delight with this one is the central spike, which as you will see…’
He pushed the lever, and the central spike began to extend downwards at an angle.
‘The victim is strapped into place, face down, with the hindquarters uppermost over the raised area of the table, and with legs apart. Thus, allowing the Buggering Tool, as I like to call it, to do its job. Though of course the smaller spikes will cause some damage, it is the Buggering Tool that will force its way into the victim’s body and continue up through the bowels, slicing through various internal organs until the victim is no longer alive.’ He scratched his beard thoughtfully. ‘Of course, I haven’t seen it at work on an actual victim, yet, so can’t comment on exactly how long the process will take, but I should imagine it will be exceptionally painful. As our old friend Moriarty would say—Mwah, hah, hah.’
At this, my legs gave way. Falling to the ground, something in my churning stomach began to work its way up to my throat, emerging as an animalistic howl.
‘Come, come, Mrs Watson,’ said Moran, waving a hand at his henchmen. ‘A little more decorum, if you please.’
Two of the thugs helped me to my feet, but Johnny pushed them aside. To their credit, they let him support me and I clung to him, hiding my face from Moran.
Though my churning guts were real enough, I had no intention of having my bottom pierced. Looking up into my husband’s eyes, I whispered, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.’
He smiled at me in a rather pitying way, as if nothing I could do would make the slightest difference to our fates.
I stepped forwards. ‘Come on, then. Do your worst.’
‘That’s more like it,’ said Moran. ‘So, if you’d like to strip naked, please.’
Clutching the silver teaspoon in one hand, I took off my jacket and began to undo the buttons on my blouse. Holmes, Lestrade and Johnny stood by, their eyes firmly fixed on the floor. As I slid the blouse off my shoulders revealing my pert breasts, Holmes looked up.
‘You can stop now, Mary. I think this has gone far enough.’
I hesitated and looked at him, as did everyone else in the room.
‘Oh, Holmesy,’ said Moran. ‘Don’t be a spoilsport, we’re just getting to the interesting part.’
‘Indeed,’ said Holmes, ‘but first of all, I should be obliged if you would remove that silly beard.’
Moran gave him an odd look. ‘Granted, this may not be the most stylish set of whiskers, but I can assure you, it is real.’
Holmes laughed sardonically. ‘Yes, about as real as those ridiculous stories of derring-do and swordsmanship we’ve been hearing about for the last fifteen years.’
Moran’s grin had disappeared and for the first time he seemed unsure of himself. ‘Those stories are all true. In fact,’ he pointed to Johnny, ‘your own bloody biographer wrote about them.’
Holmes nodded to Johnny. ‘He did. However, Watson does have a habit of exaggerating certain aspects of his tales—a remnant from his soldiering days in Afghanistan, you know.’
‘You cannot put me off, Holmes. I mean to kill you all and I want it to really hurt!’
Holmes waved a hand around the room, indicating Moran’s men. ‘They know, do they? Who you really are?’
‘Don’t play games, Holmes, or you shall go first.’
‘I must say I’d never have twigged if it hadn’t been for your manicured fingernails and that Wedgewood tea set. It’s obvious you created the character of Sebastian Moran to infiltrate Moriarty’s gang, which I have to say you did exceedingly well. So well, in fact that I suspect you allowed your double identities to go on for several more years than you had originally intended. But that tea set especially let you down. A man like Moran, as you created him, would never use such fine china. If he really had been educated at Eton and Oxford as you would have us believe, he would naturally have the social graces to go with that education. But you made the mistake of forgetting that Moran is supposed to be a solider, used to rough soldierly ways and manners. Watson here was a soldier too, but he is also a doctor, and even he prefers drinking from a mug rather than a fine bone china teacup. When you created Moran, you mixed up his background with your own and a love of the finer things in life.’ He glanced at the thugs, who had suddenly become interested in what he had to say.
‘This is rubbish,’ Moran blustered, waving his hands. ‘You two, take off Mrs Watson’s clothes and strap her onto the machine.’
But the thugs didn’t move.
‘I suspect they are as interested as we are to see what is underneath that disguise of yours. Now, take off the beard, Lord Henry Blackwood.’
Though I do not usually succumb to Watson’s habit of recording my reflections on our adventures, the probability of our imminent demise encouraged me to put down on paper what may well be the last words I ever write. Borrowing a few pages from Watson’s diary, I collected my thoughts.
With Mary now in the clutches of Maudie Ratched, the time had come to make a move. But before I could proceed, Watson leaned forwards.
‘A teaspoon, Holmes?’
I shrugged. ‘Had Moran’s men issued us with a paring knife, I would of course have urged Mary to secrete it about her person.’
‘Maybe she could sharpen it on a brick,’ said Lestrade. ‘That’s what the blokes do in Wormwood Scrubs.’
‘Of course,’ muttered Watson with more than a smidgen of sarcasm. ‘And perhaps she could stab Ratched and Moran and all the other villains, allowing us to make our escape.’
I waved a hand at him. ‘Keep your voice down, John. Walls have ears.’ I glanced at the two thugs by the door, but they were engaged in a game of cards and took no notice.
‘I suppose you’ve got a better plan, eh?’ said Watson, giving me a hard stare.
Picking up my cup, I shook out the tealeaves and examined its base. ‘Not a plan as such, John, but a possibility.’
‘I see,’ said my effervescent companion. ‘We’ll bash their heads in with bone china.’
I allowed myself a sardonic smile. ‘You’ve written a good deal about Colonel Moran, haven’t you, Watson?’
He sniffed. ‘Suppose I have.’
‘Would you say he were the sort of chap to use fine china?’
He frowned. ‘Actually, no. Not at all. If anything, I’d expect him to drink from a workman’s mug, the sort of thing labourers might use.’
‘Precisely,’ said I, examining the saucer. ‘So, why are we drinking from Wedgewood teacups?’
Watson picked up his own cup and looked at it. ‘Wedgewood. Well, I never.’
We sat for a moment, each of us staring at the teacups, when Lestrade chipped in.
‘Posh stuff, ain’t it? More the sort of fing a lord would use, eh?’
‘For once, Lestrade, you’re absolutely right.’ I grinned and waited for the proverbial coin to hit the floor.
‘Oh, fuck,’ said Watson. ‘They’re not Moran’s—they’re Blackwood’s.’
‘Which means what?’
‘That he is in league with Blackwood after all.’
‘Possibly,’ said I, ‘though there may be another explanation. Also, Mary’s observations are suggestive.’
‘Of what?’ said Watson. ‘You don’t think…’
At this point, whatever toxic substance Moran had put in our drinks began to take effect. Watson nodded off in mid-sentence. While trying to wake him, Lestrade slid to the floor, eyes flickering and tongue lolling like a dog on a hot day. Making myself comfortable, I waited for sleep or death, whichever option our enemy had chosen for us.
Some hours later, I awoke to find I had been laid on a rough wooden bench in a room without windows. Testing the air, I inhaled deeply, finding a distinct aroma of damp, decay and an oddly familiar fragrance. Peering through the gloom, I made out a hunched figure against the far wall. Struggling to my feet, I stumbled across the stone floor and grasped Lestrade’s hand, shaking it.
‘Wha…’ he murmured. ‘Wha’s goin on?’ Sitting up, he blinked and stared at me. ‘Shirl? That you?’
‘It is. Where’s Watson?’
Lestrade stood up, holding on to me for support. ‘There’s somethin in the corner.’
We stumbled across the room to what appeared to be a pile of mouldy blankets next to a heavy door with iron hinges and found John Watson hunched beside it, breathing heavily.
I gave him a nudge. ‘Watson? Come along, old chap. Wake up.’
He blinked several times and after a moment or two came to his senses. ‘Where are we?’
‘Some sort of cellar,’ said Lestrade.
‘Dungeon, more like,’ said I. ‘Clearly our captors have moved us to another location, though if they still intend to kill us, it would hardly seem worth the effort.’
Struggling to his feet, Watson examined the rest of our prison. ‘Where’s Mary? She’s not here, Holmes.’
‘No, but a certain aroma suggests she may be nearby.’
‘Yes, Watson.’ I waited while he sniffed the air.
‘What is it,’ he muttered, still sniffing.
‘As always, John, you inhale but you do not evaluate. I suggest a combination of Bulgarian rose, musk, ambergris and bergamot, if I’m not mistaken.’
‘Of course—Fleurs de Bulgarie. Mary’s favourite scent.’
‘What de what?’ said Lestrade.
I resisted rolling my eyes. ‘A perfume presented to the old queen in the mid-eighteen-forties. It has become quite popular with ladies of Mary’s class.’
Watson took out a box of Swan Vestas and lit a match. Holding it up, all three of us searched the upper walls of our cell until we spotted a barred window near the ceiling.
Taking Lestrade’s arm, I pulled him to a spot beneath the aperture. ‘Be a good fellow and make a step.’
Cupping his hands, Lestrade leaned against the wall while I planted one foot in his grip and hauled myself upwards, almost level with the window. ‘Mary?’ I whispered. ‘Are you in there?’
I perceived a scuffling noise from the cell next door. ‘Sherlock? Is that you?’
‘It is,’ I said. ‘I’m in here with John and Lestrade. Are you hurt?’
She gave a short laugh. ‘No, but Maudie Rached won’t be sticking her fingers into anyone for a while.’
‘Are you in a position to escape?’ I listened hard, eager for some morsel of hope.
‘No. There’s only the cell door and this tiny window.’
I dropped to the floor and crossed to our own door, running my hands up and down its frame, examining the hinges and lock.
‘What d’you think, Holmes?’ said Watson.
‘I think we’re in a tight spot. As is your wife.’
We stood and looked at each other in the gloom, each of us no doubt wondering how much longer we might have left to live.
At that precise moment, a key rattled in the lock and the door opened. Colonel Moran stood there, a pistol in one hand and two of his henchmen on either side.
‘Ah, Holmes,’ he said, caressing his beard. ‘Glad to see you and your friends are awake at last. I expect you’re wondering how much longer you have to live, eh?’
‘Actually,’ I quipped, ‘we were speculating how much longer you have left to live.’
Moran forced a smile. ‘Very funny, Holmes. Now, if you’d all like to come with us, I shall introduce you to the machinery which will bring about your deaths.’
I glanced at my companions and let out a heartfelt sigh. ‘My apologies, friends. I should never have dragged you into this mess.’
Watson laid a hand on my arm. ‘Don’t worry, Holmes. We’ll come through this, one way or another.’
I opened my mouth to reply but no sound came out. Fearing my emotions might for once get the better of me, I simply coughed, held up my head and walked through the door. Whatever fate awaited us, it seemed the world’s greatest detective had met his match.
True to his word, Moran sent in one his henchmen with bowls of chicken broth, bread, and a pot of tea. I noticed the patterned milk jug matched the cups and saucers, which, along with a single silver teaspoon, added a nice touch—not the sort of thing you’d expect from a master criminal and crack-shot assassin. When the thug had gone, Mary played mother and we sat for a few minutes concentrating on filling our stomachs. Lestrade’s slurping would normally have irritated me, but the knowledge the inspector would be dead in less than a day, pushed such self-interested thoughts from my mind.
Collecting the empty bowls, Mary piled them up on the tray and poured herself another cup of tea. “By the way,” she said. “I noticed Moran’s fingers.”
“Oh, yes? What about them?”
“Manicured. Seemed a bit odd considering his background. You don’t think he prefers men, do you?”
Holmes laughed. “Not if the stories about him and Lady Windermere’s fanny are true.”
“Just a thought.” She sipped her tea for a moment, then, “So, d’you have any ideas? Some clever scheme to get us out of this mess?”
“Several, my dear,” said the big-nosed detective. “But none that would bear fruit in our current situation.” He eyed the two thugs still guarding the door to the basement. “Left to our own devices we might have a chance but with our two friends here, I doubt we’d make it out of this room alive.”
“D’you still think Blackwood is involved in this?” I said.
Holmes shrugged. “It seems unlikely, given their previous relationship. However, I can’t imagine he’d allow Moran to take over Londen’s criminal empire without a fight.” He took out his meerschaum and began stuffing it with tobacco. “Besides, Blackwood still has that damned book of Ravensburg’s. Christ knows what he might achieve with that.”
Lestrade took a slurp of tea and swallowed noisily. “What exactly is this book he’s got, then?”
“Magic and witchcraft,” I said.
“Oh. Gonna murder us wiv magic?”
“I doubt it,” said Holmes. “Blackwood is far too clever to believe in such nonsense.”
“But you told me he brought himself back from the dead,” put in Mary.
Holmes let out a sigh. “Mary, Mary, Mary. The book may be stuffed with ancient spells and incantations, but we all know magic doesn’t exist. Whatever Blackwood did to apparently come to life again, will have a perfectly simple explanation. That book will prove effective for him only if he can make others believe he possesses supernatural powers.”
Lestrade straightened up in his chair. “He made out he were able ter cast a spell over all the politicians an that in the ‘ouses of Parliament. Course, what he really done was try to gas them with cyanide, after givin his own men the antidote.” He winked at Holmes. “Would’ve got away wiv it, too, if it weren’t for Sherl.”
“Yes,” said Holmes, a smile creasing his face. “We chased him across tower bridge, which at the time was still under construction. Silly sod fell off and hanged himself from a loose chain.”
I nodded. “Still bloody survived, though didn’t he?”
“Perhaps, Doctor,” said Holmes, banging a fist on the arm of his chair, “we may be getting away from the point.”
“Which is, that by this time tomorrow we shall all be as dead as dumplings unless we come up with an escape plan.”
One of the thugs looked over. “Don’t mind us. We won’t say nufink, will we, Bert?” He guffawed loudly and after a moment, his mate joined in.
“And we shall have to do it,” added Holmes, “quietly.”
The door to the other room opened and one of the other thugs came in, picked up the tray with the soup bowls and went out, leaving the door open. For a moment, I wondered if it might be worth having a look inside, but just then Maudie Ratched appeared. She crooked a finger at Mary.
“Come along, girlie. Me an you are going to have some fun.”
I saw Mary press herself into her chair, gripping the arms with white knuckles. “I’m not going anywhere with you, bitch.”
Maudie produced a dagger and waved it around. “We can do it the easy way or the fuckin painful way. You choose—I don’t care.”
Holmes had his back to the door. He raised an eyebrow at Mary and, opening his hand, showed the silver teaspoon he’d been hiding. Mary gave a quick nod.
“Very well,” she said, standing. Crossing to me, she crouched and kissed my cheek. She did the same with Lestrade (which must have made his day) then, passing Sherlock, bent down to kiss him and slid the teaspoon up the sleeve of her dress.
“Bye boys,” she said, turning at the door. “If you hear screaming, it won’t be me.”
On hearing a key turn in the lock, the brace of thugs guarding the door pulled out their weapons and took up a readied stance. One of the men nodded to his mate, then pulled the door open. In the dim light beyond, three figures stumbled into the room.
“Johnny,” I murmured, jumping up. No-one tried to stop me as I ran over and flung my arms around him, kissing his mouth as if we’d not seen each other in months.
Picking a morsel of bread from his chin, I said, “Cheese sandwiches?”
“Dorset Blue Vinney, actually.” He squeezed my bottom, making me go all squidgy inside, then straightening up, he peered around the room.
“At least we’re all safe,” he said. “For now.”
Inspector Lestrade tipped his hat. “Mrs Watson.” He gave me a dopey grin. “Fraid we ain’t here ter save yer from certain death.”
Seeing Holmes by the fire, the pair hurried over to embrace him. As I turned to look at the third man, a gasp escaped my lips. Except for an oddly flattened nose, the person standing in front of me might have been Sherlock Holmes himself.
“So you’re the fake Holmes,” I said, barely supressing a laugh.
“Fake enough to fool your nitwit of a husband and that stupid copper,” he muttered, pushing past me.
Two more thugs came in, followed by Colonel Moran. For a moment, I stared at him, my mouth involuntarily sliding into a sneer.
Moran grinned. “How lovely you look tonight, Mary.” He glanced at the group by the fire, then leaning towards me, whispered, “Y’know, if things were different, you and I would make a damned attractive couple.” He licked his lips in what he no doubt imagined to be a seductive fashion.
“In your dreams, mate.”
Taking my hand in his, he raised it to his lips and for the first time, I noticed how finely manicured his fingernails were. Nevertheless, I pulled my hand away before he could slobber over it with his villainous mouth.
“Oh, Mary,” he murmured, “what a delight you are.”
The fake Sherlock disappeared into the back room with the two new thugs, leaving Moran to wander over and lean an elbow on the mantle, a satisfied smirk spreading across his features. Idly twirling his moustache, he addressed Holmes.
“Shame we weren’t able to drag out our little performance a little further, but I think the point has been made.”
Holmes smirked. “That a mere amateur can take my place, leaving you and Blackwood to run the biggest criminal empire in Londen, must be every master-criminal’s dream. But that’s all it is—a dream.” He sniffed. “Besides, you have yet to demonstrate your ability to replace Lestrade and the Watsons as well, which of course would be essential to allow you any chance of making this evil plan work.”
“Replacing you was my biggest problem, Sherlock,” said Moran. “Luckily, your biographer here provided plenty of background material in the form all those silly stories in The Strand Magazine and other periodicals.” He glanced at Johnny and gave him a big wink.
I fancied this disclosure may have unsettled Sherlock, but his face betrayed no emotion. It also hadn’t escaped my attention that Moran hadn’t denied the Blackwood connection.
Holmes sniffed. “Let’s wait and see, shall we?”
“No need,” said Moran, with a flourish. “Bring them in,” he called.
A moment later the back-room door opened, and three individuals marched into the room. They stood in a line next to Moran, as if their entrance had been rehearsed.
I felt my mouth drop open and perceived from the deathly silence around me that my companions were suffering the same sense of disbelief. The woman standing opposite me, sported my favourite blue dress and bonnet, the very one I’d worn at Roderick Usher’s house only a few short weeks earlier. But it was the woman’s face that took my breath away. Apart from the embroidered eyepatch, I might have been staring at a reflection of myself.
Moran coughed. “Obviously we couldn’t easily replicate your wonky eye, Mary, hence the patch, but aside from that, I’m sure you’ll agree, the likeliness is remarkable.”
I nodded dumbly, turning my head to look at the man next to the fake Mary. Again, it might have been an exact reflection of my own dear husband, from the bowler hat and checked waistcoat to the Windsor knot in his tie. Only the colour of his eyes differed from John’s.
“Nothing like me,” muttered Johnny, but his face had turned pale and the nervous rumbling in his stomach echoed around the room.
I glanced at Lestrade, whose attention focused on his own representation. The imposter’s weasel-like countenance replicated the real inspector from his tight-fitting suit to the scuff marks on his shoes.
Moran cleared his throat. “You were saying, Sherlock?”
Holmes let out a gruff laugh. “I suppose you intend to install your imposter at my lodgings in Baker Street, eh?”
“As I mentioned earlier,” said Moran, “I had hoped to drag this little charade out a bit longer. Purely for my own amusement, you understand, but yes—in fact my Sherlock Holmes will be moving into 221B tonight, while the Watsons make themselves comfortable in their little house in Marlborough Hill and Lestrade takes up residence with his good lady wife.”
“Good luck wiv my missus,” said Lestrade, nodding at his mirror image. “She’ll eat this fucker for breakfast.”
“You’re forgetting one thing,” said Holmes, to Moran. “While Mrs Lestrade sees little of her husband and may therefore remain unaware of the imposter while riding him like a Grand National jockey, no-one could fool my trusty housekeeper Mrs Hudson. She’ll see through this puppet of yours in a flash.”
Moran nodded sagely. “That may be so, in which case the newspapers will reveal how her sordid sexual adventures with a brace of barrow boys from Bow led to a case of autoerotic asphyxia. I’m sure Maudie would be happy to instruct you in the procedure, should you wish to try it for yourself.”
“You sadistic fiend,” spat Sherlock. “If you hurt one hair—”
Holmes sprang forwards, hands outstretched, but the fake Watsons grabbed his arms before he could get close enough to ring the villain’s neck.
Sebastian Moran sniggered. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have evil plots to work on. I shall arrange food and drink for you, but you can be assured that all four of you will be dead within the next twenty-four hours.” He started towards the door, then turned to Mary. “Apart from you, my dear. Maudie has a yen to practice her fisting techniques. I dare say she’ll widen your horizons before you’re much older.”
The door closed and we heard a bolt slide into place on the other side.
Sherlock turned to me. “Fisting, Mary? What on earth’s that?”
Johnny and Lestrade looked at each other and muttered simultaneously, “Don’t ask.”
While ruminating on the problem the young lad had thrust upon me, I spent a few minutes making sandwiches for Doctor Watson and Holmes (or whoever the man with the meerschaum might be). Leaving the lad to finish his sandwiches, I trudged back upstairs, trying to think of an unobtrusive means of working out the truth, and a way to let Watson know we might be dealing with an imposter.
As I entered the room, I found my companions checking their revolvers by the fireside, and standing watching them, it seemed ridiculous that Watson could possibly be unaware Holmes might not be Holmes.
“Ah,” said the big-nosed detective. “Food for the workers. Good show, Lestrade.”
I handed over the plates of food and retired to a chair by the window.
Between mouthfuls, Holmes said, “Our urchin friend’s gone, has he?”
“Er, yes. Must ‘ave.”
Holmes gave me an odd look, but before I had time to think about it, his face had resumed its normal bland expression.
“So,” I said, hoping to change the subject, “we still goin lookin for Mary, then?”
Watson nodded. “Soon as it’s dark.”
Taking out my police notebook, I made a show of catching up on my notes, while keeping a close eye on Holmes. Watching him eat the cheese sandwich, I tried to see any movements or mannerisms that didn’t ring true with the Sherlock Holmes I knew, but if this man really was an imposter, he appeared to be doing a first-rate job. It wasn’t until my subject had finished eating and taken out his pipe again that I had the opportunity to observe his pipe-lighting techniques. But instead of holding the pipe and matchbox in his right hand as my informant had insisted, Holmes held them in his left hand—just as the real Holmes would do. As he struck the Swan Vesta, he glanced up at me.
“Very quiet, Lestrade. Not sickening for anything, are you?” He strolled over to where I sat and gazed out of the window into the street below.
“Er, no, Mr ‘Olmes. Just checking me notes and whatnot.” I dropped my gaze to the notebook, feeling that to continue staring at him might give me away. Then, realising Holmes might see what I’d been writing, I flipped the notebook shut and swivelled round in my chair. Peering out into the darkening street, I saw the boy from downstairs leave the shop and trot across the lane. I couldn’t tell from the detective’s face if he too had seen the lad.
“Yes, indeed,” said Holmes, half to himself. “Think I might go for a stroll.”
Watson looked up sharply. “Not outside?”
“No, obviously not. Just need to stretch my legs etc.” Crossing the room, he stepped out onto the landing, and we heard him walk along the passage to the top of the stairs where a window looked out onto the back of the building. No further sound came to my ears, suggesting he must be looking out of the window.
I glanced at Watson. “Everyfing all right, Doc?”
“Aside from my missing wife, yes.”
“Course. No, I just meant, is everyfing all right wiv his nibs?”
Watson blinked. “How d’you mean?”
I had no answer to this, so simply said, “Just generally, yer know?” He nodded, but I could see from his expression something bothered him. With an ear cocked in case Holmes returned, I continued in a low voice. “I always thought he were right-handed.”
“He is.” He inclined his head. “Is something wrong, Lestrade?”
“Nah, not really. Just…”
He watched me carefully and I could see I’d piqued his interest.
“Just that the lad, the messenger boy, yer know, he said somefing that got me finking.”
Watson glanced at the door then back at me. “Something about Holmes using his left hand?”
“Somefing about that.”
“You do know he’s ambidextrous, don’t you?”
“Dextrous. He can use both hands, though tends to favour the right one.”
“Is there something I should know, Inspector?”
“No, nofing ter worry about. Just me being thick.”
“That’s not like you, Lestrade,” he said, but I suspected he didn’t mean it.
A couple of minutes later, Holmes came back into the room, and I continued my observation exercise, albeit feeling less sure of my theory.
A few hours later, the sky had darkened considerably and the three of us agreed to go in search of Mary Watson.
Slipping out via the back door, we crept along a narrow alley and out onto Drury Lane. The wind had picked up and I pulled my collar up against the cold. By keeping to the shadows, we managed to avoid eye contact with the various passers-by, who, seemingly intent on reaching their presumed destinations, stalked along the street with their heads down.
“Once we get to Russell Square it’ll be difficult to stay out of sight,” said Holmes.
“How we goin ter find Mary, then?” said I.
“We’re not. Her abductors will find us.”
Watson whirled round to face Holmes. “Have you gone mad? We’d be walking right into Moran’s hands.”
“Precisely,” said Holmes, pushing past him.
Watson looked at me. Keeping his voice low, he muttered, “Does this sound like something Sherlock Holmes would do?”
I shrugged. “Honestly, Doc, I’m runnin out of opinions on what he would or wouldn’t do.” I paused, then, “He does act a bit weird sometimes.”
The doctor nodded. “True. Let’s go along with his plan, but if I give you the nod, make a run for it.”
We trotted off after Holmes, keeping our eyes peeled for anyone acting suspiciously.
At the corner of Russell Square and Montague Street, Holmes pulled up short and stood for a moment, gazing across the large garden square before us. I couldn’t imagine what he might be looking for since the place lay in darkness, with trees and bushes blocking out anything that might be lurking in the undergrowth.
“Right, chaps,” he said, turning his beady eyes on us. “Let us find the nearest lamppost and deposit ourselves beneath it.”
Watson and I exchanged glances but followed our apparent leader along to a position close to the statue of Bartholomew Cavendish. Next to the monument, a gas lamp illuminated the area nearby. Standing beneath it, Holmes leaned against the post.
“Might as well make ourselves comfortable, eh?” And with that, he took out his meerschaum and began stuffing it with tobacco.
Taking Watson to one side, I muttered, “So? Is he Sherlock Holmes or is he not?”
“If he isn’t, why would he bother trying to find Mary?”
He had a point. I peered at Holmes as the big-nosed detective struck a Swan Vesta. Just as he sucked the flame into the pipe, a gust of wind caught all three of us and the match flared up.
Throwing the match and the pipe to the ground, Holmes clasped his hands to his face.
Quick as a flash, Watson stepped forwards. Taking out a handkerchief, he took hold of the detective’s hands and forced them downwards.
“What the hell are you doing?” yelled Holmes. “I burned my ducking dose!”
“Yes,” said Watson. “And I’m a doctor, so hold still while I examine you.”
Holmes let out a whimpering sigh but allowed Watson to check the damage. Dabbing at the injured organ, Watson wiped the area around the singed bit. “You’ll be fine. Just don’t touch it.”
Watson stepped back while Holmes continued whimpering.
“Well,” said the doctor, taking my arm. “It appears you’re right.”
Watson opened his handkerchief where he’d folded it over, revealing a lump of what looked like plasticine.
“What’s that?” said I.
“That,” said the other, in a low voice, “is what actors call face putty.”
We stood looking at each other for a long moment.
“What now?” I said.
“Let’s wait and see what he’s up to. If Mary really is being kept prisoner around here, he can only be leading us into a trap.”
“For once, John-Boy, you’re absolutely right,” said a voice behind me.
Whirling round, I stared up at the statue of Bartholomew Cavendish. “Bloody Norah— a talking monument.”
Watson squeezed my arm and pointed to a dark shape emerging from behind the huge erection. “Colonel Moran, I believe.”
“Doctor. Inspector. Good of you to come along. Saved us the hassle of chasing after you.” He clicked his fingers and two thugs appeared, both holding pistols.
Walking past us, Moran looked at the man pretending to be Holmes and gave him a sharp slap across the face. “You stupid prick. Why’d you bring them here?”
The tall man with the beady eyes rubbed his face, then began peeling off the remnants of his false nose. “The boy noticed I’m left-handed. I’m pretty sure he told Lestrade.”
“So what? They wouldn’t have known for sure if you’d stuck to the plan.” He shook his head. “Bloody amateurs. I should send you back to Am-Dram Central, or wherever it is you lesbians hang out.”
“It’s Thespians, actually,” said the actor and made as if to walk away.
“On second thoughts, stay there.” Moran waved a hand at Watson. “Give me your gun, would you, Doctor?”
Watson blinked rapidly. “I don’t have it with me.”
“Yes, you do—it’s in your outside right jacket pocket.” He clicked his fingers impatiently. “Come on, come on.”
Careful not to make any sudden movements, Watson took out the weapon and handed it over.
Moran checked it over, cocked the revolver and pointed it at the actor.
“Be careful with that,” said Watson. “It’s loaded.”
“I know,” said Moran, “and this is what happens to people who let me down.” Taking aim, he shot the actor in the chest. The man fell to the ground with a faint sigh.
“You killed him,” said Watson.
“I shouldn’t worry, Doctor, he’s died on stage enough times to know the real thing when it happens.” He paused, sighed, and looked down at the actor who had begun to moan softly. “Don’t milk it.”
The fake Sherlock moved his head, looked up and patted his chest. “Ooh, that really hurt.”
Moran handed the gun back to Watson. “Yes. Unfortunately, blanks do sting a bit.” He waved an admonishing finger at the thespian. “Don’t let me down again or next time the bullets will be real.” He nodded at me and Doctor Watson and pointed to a house across the road. “Now, if you don’t mind, gentlemen…”
Watson and I walked across the street escorted by the two thugs. Giving Watson a nudge, I muttered, “Clever trick that.”
“Yes,” I said. “That bloody actor must’ve swapped the bullets while we were checking the revolvers earlier.”
Through a gate, we were pushed down a flight of steps towards what I presumed would be the basement of the house. Whatever awaited us, I guessed it wasn’t going to be pleasant.
As Doctor Watson would say—unfortunately, I was right.
Colonel Moran and his nursey sidekick stood there grinning at us for a moment, before slinking off into another room, leaving the two thugs guarding the door.
“Where did they pick you up?” I said, keeping my voice low.
“Literally seconds after I’d left the Marks Brothers shop,” said Holmes. “I turned a corner, and someone put a knife to my throat.” He nodded towards one of the thugs.
“They made no attempt to disguise themselves, then?”
He gave me a sad smile. “I know what you’re thinking, Mary—we’ve seen their faces, so they clearly have no intention of keeping us alive.”
“But why have they only taken you and I?”
Holmes made a face. “I can only surmise they’re holding your husband and Lestrade somewhere else.” He frowned. “Though that makes little sense—why use two hideouts when one would do just as well? And if they intend to kill us anyway…”
“Unless they haven’t been taken,” I said.
Holmes rubbed his chin. “But if that’s the case, Johnny and Lestrade would surely notice our absence.”
“Maybe that’s what they want—to create confusion.”
Pulling up a chair to the fire, I sat for a moment, contemplating our situation. “Could Moran be in league with Blackwood?”
Holmes shook his head. “As I recall, Blackwood had Moran horsewhipped for fornicating with Blackwood’s own mistress. The pair hate each other’s guts. Which means it’s unlikely the two are now working together.”
I felt my mouth drop open. “Sherlock, d’you realise you’ve just quoted from one of Johnny’s stories?”
He frowned. “Really? One of my famous explanations?”
I coughed. “Well, no, actually. It’s from a piece Johnny wrote a few years ago about the murder of Lady Campanula Tottington of Tottington Hall—you suspected Blackwood and Moran but couldn’t prove it.”
“So it is one of my famous explanations?”
I bit my lip. “No, Holmes. Johnny told me how you’d gone into this long monologue about the rivalry between Blackwood and Moran, but that it was far too longwinded to use in the story, so he…paraphrased it.”
Holmes made an ‘O’ shape with his mouth. “Oh, well. I suppose one’s biographer must exercise the editorial red pen at times. Yes… Blackwood had a solid alibi and Moran couldn’t be traced. But in any case, it seemed unlikely the pair would have been in cahoots.” He peered at me. “The story didn’t appear in The Strand Magazine, did it?”
I looked away. “It didn’t, but Johnny submitted it to a periodical in Ireland—The Irish Investigator Monthly. They published it with the proviso that the case couldn’t be proved.”
Holmes let out a long sigh. “Which doesn’t alter the fact that Moran and Blackwood are highly unlikely to be in this together.”
“Unless Moran is trying to get rid of both Blackwood and us at the same time. With Moriarty dead, that would leave Moran free to take over both criminal empires.”
“Who says Moriarty is dead?”
“Moran told me. In the cab.”
“And you believed him?”
I shrugged. “Why would he lie?”
At that point, Moran himself came back into the room. “So, Mr Sherlock-Cleverclogs-Holmes…have you worked it out, yet?”
Holmes stared at him. “Where are Watson and Lestrade?”
Moran smiled. “All in good time. I’ve arranged a little entertainment for them. It’ll be interesting to see how they react when they realise the Sherlock Holmes they’ve been conversing with at the Olde Gin Shoppe, isn’t their Sherlock Holmes.”
Holmes laughed quietly. “A stooge. You’ve put a stooge in my place? And you seriously expect they won’t notice?”
Moran ran a tongue along his lower lip. “They haven’t so far.”
“And what’s the point?” I said.
“The point, Mrs Watson, is to have a little fun before…” He sniggered. “Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?”
Still giggling away to himself, he went out, leaving us to ponder on his words.
We sat quietly for a few minutes, considering what we knew. Or rather, what we didn’t know. I couldn’t see any reason for carrying out the charade of replacing Holmes with a lookalike simply to entertain Moran. Then something occurred to me.
“Sherlock, d’you think it’s a test? A way of trying out their stooge to see if Johnny and the inspector notice?”
Holmes nodded slowly. “If this ‘stooge’ is good, he might fool them for a short while, or even fool them completely, and if he can deceive two individuals who know me well…”
“He could fool anyone.”
His mouth tightened into a hard line. “Because, Mary, if Londen’s only consulting detective and his closest friends could be replaced with an imposter, the entire city would be open to the worst cravings of the criminal underworld. And if one man controlled that underworld…”
“Shit indeed.” Holmes rubbed a hand over his face. “Our only hope is that Blackwood puts a stop to Moran’s plans before everything gets out of control.”