The Lady Sherlock Series, Book 3
Charlotte Holmes returns for a case that is far from elementary in the Victorian-set Lady Sherlock series from USA Today bestselling author Sherry Thomas.
Under the cover of “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes puts her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. Aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, Charlotte draws those in need to her and makes it her business to know what other people don’t.
When the estranged wife of her dear friend Lord Ingram is discovered dead on his estate, all signs point to him as the murderer. With Scotland Yard closing in, Charlotte goes under disguise to find out the truth.
SPOILER ALERT: If you have not read A Conspiracy in Belgravia, this excerpt will give away EVERYTHING. Which would be a shame. And spoilers start from the first paragraph.
“Hello, brother,” murmured Charlotte Holmes to the man who helped her descend from the carriage.
The man, who had hitherto presented himself as Mott, groom and coachman to the Holmes family, half bowed.
They stood in the coach house behind the town residence that Sir Henry, their father, had hired for the Season. Charlotte’s sister Livia had just been delivered to the front door. And the entire family, with the exception of Charlotte, would be setting out for the country in the morning, as it was nearly the end of July, a fashionable time to leave London.
“May I offer you some tea?” asked Mr. Myron Finch, her half brother, pulling off his driving gloves.
He seemed entirely unconcerned that she’d peeled back his secret. Then again, he had read the note she’d pressed into his hand when he’d helped her into the carriage earlier, requesting that he put the vehicle directly to the coach house after Livia stepped off. He might not have known that she wished to discuss his true identity, but he would have braced himself for something.
“Tea would be much appreciated,” she said.
He showed her to a stool near an uneven-looking folding table. “I’m afraid I haven’t any decent foodstuffs on hand. I’ll be vacating the place as soon as I’ve taken your family to the railway station tomorrow morning.”
“Not to worry. I have just the thing.”
She opened her handbag and took out a small wrapped package. Having briefly lived on the edge of hunger earlier in the summer, after she’d run away from home, she never left Mrs. Watson’s house without a supply of comestibles.
The package contained three slices of plum cake. “Shall I serve you a piece, Mr. Finch?”
“Certainly,” he replied, echoing her elaborate politeness. “Let me light the Etna stove.”
The Etna stove, made for travelers, was said to boil water in three minutes flat. Charlotte was content to wait in silence; apparently, so was her father’s illegitimate son.
He was an unremarkable-looking man: his features neither handsome enough nor odd enough to attract notice. But as with most other seemingly ordinary faces, a closer study yielded interesting details: fine-textured skin, long lashes, a strong jawline.
“How did you think to hide here?” she asked, after tea had been made and served.
She occupied the only seat. He stood against a brick column, a dented tin mug in one hand, a piece of plum cake in the other.
“When we realized the kind of danger we’d put ourselves in, Jenkins and I agreed to go our separate ways.”
There was a pause before he mentioned Jenkins by name, the first hint of deeper emotions. Jenkins had been his friend from school, and the two men had served Moriarty, a man of dangerous aims. Years later, they had left Moriarty’s service together.
But Moriarty rewarded deserters with death. Jenkins had already met his. Mr. Finch, as of now, was still in one piece. But for how long?
“It stood to reason that two lone men would be more difficult to track down than two men traveling and rooming together,” he went on. “For me, it would be better to disappear into the bowels of London. But where in London would I be safest? Where would Moriarty’s minions be least likely to look for me?
“Moriarty preferred to bring into his service young men born on the wrong side of the blanket. The subject of our fathers came up from time to time—and I’d always said that I would never introduce myself to the man who’d sired me. Not even if I somehow became Home Secretary—or rich as Croesus. He would need to come to me, hat in hand.
“They believed me, because I was—and am—sincere in those sentiments. I decided to take advantage of that and tuck myself away in the last place they would expect.”
She had wondered what he had made of the Holmes family—and whether he had been disappointed in their father, even though he couldn’t have expected much to begin with. To Sir Henry, Myron Finch had only ever been an abstract inconvenience addressed via family solicitors. How had Mr. Finch felt then, standing before the father who did not know what he looked like—nor had ever cared to find out? “We are not the easiest people to work for.”
“You and Miss Livia are all right.”
They met a minimum standard of decency and consideration. But their parents . . .
Charlotte nodded. “An excellent strategy. I thought you were more than you let on—but often people are. I didn’t in the least suspect anything while I lived here.”
“When did you realize? And how?” he asked, as if the questions had only then occurred to him.
In his nonchalance, this brother might be more similar to her than any of the siblings with whom she had shared an upbringing. “Very recently. When I went to your old school and asked to see photographs of cricketers from your batch.”
“And what prompted you to do such a thing?”
“It’s a long story.”
She gave him a condensed version of the maneuvers, on the part of a Moriarty ally, to find him. The ally, who had known of both Charlotte’s connection to Myron Finch and that she was taking consulting clients under the guise of Sherlock Holmes, had asked Sherlock Holmes to find the errant Mr. Finch. And the irregularities of the case had eventually led Charlotte not only to unmask Mr. Finch but also to expose the Moriarty ally.
He listened without interruption. And except for a widening of the eyes when she mentioned that she was Sherlock Holmes, he could have been nodding along to a stranger’s account of garden pests.
But when she fell silent, he exhaled, a shaky breath—he was not free from fear, after all. “I knew that if they found me, I’d be dead. But I had no idea so much effort had been expended toward that end.”
If he only knew. She had not told him that the Moriarty ally was none other than her friend Lord Ingram Ashburton’s estranged wife, who had been passing along crucial information that she’d gathered from spying on her husband, himself an agent of the Crown. As a result of coming to Sherlock Holmes, her secret had been exposed. And she was now a fugitive, her children essentially motherless.
But Lady Ingram’s fate was not Mr. Finch’s concern. He had enough of his own worries.
“I understand you have taken something of value from Moriarty,” said Charlotte. “But I imagine, theft or not, he must make an example out of everyone who deserts him—or his other minions might think they could abscond at will.”
“Not many wish to. Then again, those who do choose not to express that desire aloud. Jenkins and I were unusual in that we knew each other before we pledged our fealty to Moriarty. Most others come into his service singly and alone.”
“And his organization becomes the only family they know.”
She wondered, then, and not for the first time, what had compelled him to leave this “family”. Had it been the culmination of years of ever-increasing urge? Or had he, like her, made up his mind within minutes, when his circumstances deteriorated abruptly?
She did not ask that question. She asked, “If you don’t mind my curiosity, what did you do for Moriarty, exactly?”
“I was his cryptographer.”
Similarities. “I had to solve a Vigenère cipher recently. It nearly broke my will to live.”
He smiled and made no response.
Charlotte took a sip of her tea, a strong, brisk Assam, served without milk or sugar. “What do you plan to do now?”
“I think you know I plan to disappear again. But that isn’t what you are asking, is it?”
“You are correct,” said Charlotte. She nibbled on her slice of plum cake, which had held up well despite having spent the evening in her rather cramped handbag. “I am more interested in what you intend to do with what you stole from Moriarty.”
“I didn’t steal anything from Moriarty,” said Mr. Finch.
Charlotte raised a brow.
He smiled slightly. “That is the official version. Moriarty will deny, to his dying breath, that anything has been taken from him in an unauthorized manner. I don’t know how you came by your information, but it most certainly wouldn’t have been one of his usual agents. To them he would have said only that we were traitors—and that would be reason enough to hunt down and eliminate us.”
“I received my intelligence from people who call themselves the Marbletons. Mrs. Marbleton was once married to Moriarty. Or perhaps I should say, she still is, since she did not die, as is commonly believed.”
“And which late Mrs. Moriarty is she?”
“There are three late Mrs. Moriartys.”
“First died in childbirth. Second in a skiing accident in the Swiss Alps. Third of an embolism of the heart.”
“This would be the second Mrs. Moriarty—still alive after all these years. Then again, she might not be Mrs. Moriarty at all, if the first Mrs. Moriarty also turns out to be still alive somewhere. Is there a current Mrs. Moriarty?”
“Not that I know of. There is a mistress whom Moriarty seems fond of—but he is determined not to marry again, since he considers himself an agent of misfortune to any woman named Mrs. Moriarty.”
“How thoughtful,” Charlotte murmured.
“Anyway, please go on. The second Mrs. Moriarty is still alive and well.”
“And it is from her associates that I learned that you may have something of value to Moriarty.”
“I’m going to toe the official line and say that there is no such thing.”
Because it would be better for her not to know? “The Marbletons want to meet you. They’d like to offer you a safe haven. In exchange, they desire to weaken Moriarty by exploiting the item you have not stolen and are not carrying.”
“They have very rosy expectations.”
“They claim—or at least one of them claims—that they are tired of running and hiding. They wish to be on the offensive. To better ensure their safety and well-being by making Moriarty fear them instead.”
Mr. Finch rubbed a hand along his chin. “I’m not convinced about the existence of this Marbleton clan. You sign your own death sentence upon leaving Moriarty.”
“According to one Marbleton, that they have managed to evade Moriarty for this long is precisely why you ought to join forces with them. They can help you stay alive longer than Jenkins managed to.”
He was silent.
“I am only the messenger—the choice is yours. If you decide to accept their offer, you can call for a letter for Mr. Ethelwin Emery at Charing Cross Post Office. The letter will contain further instructions.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“And I must warn you, the Crown is now also interested in your whereabouts. Agents of the Crown may not wish you dead, but if I were you, I would avoid crossing paths with them. I don’t trust that they will have your best interests at heart.”
“I have heard talk about Lord Bancroft Ashburton. I am forewarned.” Mr. Finch cocked his head. “Did you accept his proposal, in the end?”
He had been present at the memorable occasion when Lord Ingram announced to a room of men there specifically to drag her back home that she was considering a proposal from Lord Bancroft.
She raised a brow. “Why? Do you think a Lady Bancroft would have as dire a rate of survival as a Mrs. Moriarty?”
“Of that I haven’t the slightest notion. But you yourself said, when Sir Henry asked why you hadn’t accepted Lord Bancroft, that you weren’t enamored of the idea.”
“Is that all?”
“Is that not reason enough?”
Most people would be outraged that she, in her state of disgraced exile, declined a perfectly good proposal to please herself, when there were so many parties she could have better pleased by becoming Lord Bancroft’s wife.
Was Mr. Finch truly so liberal in his thinking?
Before she could say anything, however, he pushed away from the pillar against which he stood. “Someone’s coming.”
The furrow in his brow conveyed the unwelcomeness of this visitor. Charlotte, too, rose. The lamp on the wall flickered. One of the carriage horses snorted, its tail swishing. Her hand clenched around the edge of the folding table, its surfaces pitted and rough beneath her skin.
Knocks came, three taps in rapid succession, followed by two louder thumps spaced farther apart.
She had thought it possible that it was Livia, coming to speak a few words to Mr. Finch on the eve of her departure, since she had relied on and trusted him to help her, without knowing that he was their brother. But this was not Livia.
The knocks came again, in exactly the same pattern.
The letters S and M in Morse Code.
“I might know who this is.” Charlotte drew out her double-barrel derringer, which she’d carried on her person ever since the day her father attempted to abduct her. “You hide behind the coach, just in case.”
He did as she asked.
Charlotte opened the door of the carriage house a crack and in slipped a woman. No, not a woman: Stephen Marbleton in a dress and a purple summer cape.
She’d last seen Mr. Marbleton a week ago, when he and his injured sister had stayed overnight at 18 Upper Baker Street, to avoid being captured by Moriarty’s minions. Then he had sported a full beard; but now he was shaven, and his features possessed a delicacy that was further emphasized by the enormous pouf of violet-and-cream ribbons on the velvet-lined traveling hat that completed his disguise.
“Mr. Marbleton. Did you follow me?”
Immediately she knew that hadn’t been the case. When they’d last met, she’d just discovered that he had been impersonating Mr. Finch. They’d had no idea then, either of them, who or where the real Mr. Finch was. “You were following my sister.”
Did he flush? It was difficult to tell in the barely adequate light.
“I have not been following you, but I believe others were. If you are meeting with Mr. Finch, he had better leave right now.”
Mr. Finch came out from behind the carriage. Mr. Marbleton’s eyes widened. More proof that he had been following Livia: He recognized the coachman who drove her around town.
“Where are they stationed now,” asked Mr. Finch, “the men who have followed Miss Charlotte here?”
“One in front of her parents’ house. One at either end of the carriage lane.”
Mr. Finch returned Charlotte’s derringer and indicated a knapsack he carried, which earlier had been hanging on a peg beside one of the stalls. “I have a loaded revolver in here. I should be all right.”
“Wait a second,” said Charlotte. She turned to Mr. Marbleton. “Where were you? Did those men see you come in here?”
“I was in the house next door—the tenants have already left town. And more likely than not, the men in the carriage lane saw me. But that couldn’t be helped.”
“No, it’s good that they saw you. There might be a way for Mr. Finch to reach safety unseen, but I will need your help, Mr. Marbleton.”
He grinned. “Will you put in a good word for me with your sister?”
“Absolutely not. But if you wish to prove the sincerity—and capability—of the Marbletons to Mr. Finch, there is no better way.”
Mr. Marbleton glanced at Mr. Finch, then back at Charlotte. He grinned again—he really was quite attractive with that seemingly lighthearted expression. “Well, then, what are we waiting for?”
“Mr. Finch, will you be disappointed not to use your revolver?”
“Not at all. I dislike both blood and loud noises.”
“You will be pleased with my plan, then,” said Charlotte. “First, let us disrobe.”
Livia sneaked down the stairs and tiptoed toward the back door.
Only when she was outside, closing the door behind her, did she remember—how stupid of her—that Mott wouldn’t have returned yet from driving Charlotte to Mrs. Watson’s house. She glanced down at the small gift in her hand. She supposed she could place it by the door of the carriage house, but what if he didn’t see it before he took the Holmeses to the railway station tomorrow and then left their employ forever?
The light in the carriage house was on. Had he come back, then, so swiftly?
She was still hesitating when the light in the carriage house went out and its door opened a few inches. It was hard to see in the dark, but could that be the corner of a summer cape, not unlike the one Charlotte had been wearing?
Charlotte was still here?
Livia’s heart flooded with wild hopes.
They had spoken about Charlotte’s plans to poach Livia and Bernadine from their parents, but Livia had understood it to be intentions for a too-distant future. What if she was wrong? What if Charlotte meant to put everything in motion tonight, right after she’d spoken to and perhaps bribed Mott?
But as Charlotte fully emerged from the carriage house, she didn’t look quite right. When did she change her cape to a dark one? Not to mention—no, no, it wasn’t Charlotte at all, but Mott dressed in women’s clothes!
She stared at him, her jaw somewhere around her feet. He saw her and raised his index finger to his lips, signaling for silence. After looking in both directions, he crossed the completely deserted carriage lane and let himself into the small rear garden of the house next door.
She rushed to the low fence that separated the gardens. “What’s going on?” she whispered. “Where are you going dressed like this?”
He looked indecisive for a moment. “I’m in some trouble—some bad people I was mixed up with before I entered service. They are after me now, and Miss Charlotte is helping me to get away. I’ll wait in this empty house until the coast is clear. You go back inside and don’t come out again. If anything should happen to you, Miss Charlotte will have my hide.”
If anything should happen to Livia? What about Charlotte?
As if he’d heard her question, Mott said, “She has a gentleman with her, someone you both know. Please, Miss Livia, go back and stay inside.”
She still hesitated.
Mott’s voice grew more urgent. “Hurry. There’s no time to lose.”
Her knees shook. How she hated to be so useless when Charlotte was headed toward danger. But Mott was right. She would help no one by not knowing what to do.
With another glance at the carriage house, Livia did as she was told.
“You would have made a pretty girl,” said Charlotte to Mr. Marbleton, now wearing Charlotte’s evening toque and her bright yellow silk cape.
He smiled cheekily. “Thank you. I take pride in passing for a comely woman, at least at first glance. You as a man, on the other hand, would not have attracted ladies by the gross.”
Charlotte glanced down at Mr. Finch’s mackintosh, which reached past her knees. Underneath that she wore a pair of his rough woolen trousers over her own pantalets. “Maybe they’d stay away before they learned of my genius. But afterward . . . I would need to beat them off with a volume of the Britannica.”
Their lighthearted words did nothing to dispel the tension in the carriage house.
“Ready?” asked Mr. Marbleton.
She nodded tightly.
He helped her up the coachman’s perch on the town coach and opened the carriage house doors, before getting into the vehicle. She teased the carriage into the lane and inhaled deeply.
At this point, the most likely place for them to be stopped was right here in the carriage lane. She shook the reins and urged the horses into a fast trot, much faster than was strictly safe.
Houses began to rush by. She was a competent enough driver, but she was much more accustomed to handling one-horse carts on sparsely traveled country lanes. While the night was getting late, this was still London during the Season. The major thoroughfares would be heavily trafficked and she had never driven under similar circumstances.
And she wouldn’t, if she couldn’t even get out of the carriage lane.
A man stood at the end of the lane, waving his arms, signaling her to slow down. She drove faster. The man waved more exaggeratedly. Over the pounding of hooves—and that of her heart—she could vaguely make out him shouting orders.
The houses blurred. He leaped out of her way. She yanked the horses into a hard right turn, followed by one more, and would have collided with another carriage if it hadn’t swerved.
Still she drove as fast as she dared, weaving between other carriages, cutting in front of fancy broughams with inches to spare, to the vocal displeasure of their coachmen.
Mr. Marbleton knocked from within the coach. She looked ahead and saw a large omnibus parked by the side of the street. She slowed and pulled as close to the vehicle as her skills allowed. The moment she passed the omnibus, Mr. Marbleton jumped out, so accomplished at these sort of things that he somehow managed to slam the carriage door shut behind himself.
When she glanced back again, he had already disappeared into the night.
She was almost at her destination when another, far more thorough attempt was made to stop her.
She complied immediately.
A man came up to the carriage. “Mr. Finch, we’ll need you to come with us, please.”
She recognized him: Mr. Underwood, Lord Bancroft’s right-hand man. “I’m not Mr. Finch.”
Mr. Underwood’s eyes narrowed. “Miss Holmes, I see. You are dressed as a man.”
“Much safer this way, don’t you think, to be driving at night?” she answered, climbing down from her perch. “And I must confess, Mr. Underwood, I’m not sure why you think my brother is involved in this. I’m only rendering some assistance to our family groom, who has served my sister faithfully over the summer.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, his name is Mott. He told me just now that he was in trouble with some unsavory people and needed to leave, and if I would please return the carriage to the company my father hired it from. I promised him I would see to it.” She cocked her head to one side and smiled. “Would you mind if I went on my way, Mr. Underwood?”
Mr. Underwood considered her. “It’s late, Miss Holmes. Why don’t you let us do that for you? I’ll see you home.”
Plainly he didn’t believe her. In that case, he—and Lord Bancroft—must understand that she would play no part in their hunt for Mr. Finch.
“I happily yield the carriage into your care, Mr. Underwood. But do not trouble yourself to accompany me. I am well equipped for a stroll.”
She let him see her double-barrel derringer—not exactly a show of force but not a subtle gesture either.
“Well, then,” said Mr. Underwood. “Good night, Miss Holmes.”
London after dark was not pleasant for an unaccompanied woman. Even if she traveled on streets lined by parks and fine town houses, she could still count on men assuming her to be a light skirt and therefore fair target for everything from lewd whistles to unwanted touching.
But a woman dressed as a man, though she still had to worry about actual criminals, was at least spared casual insults and crude insinuations.
No small freedom, that.
Charlotte remained preoccupied with the events of the evening. She had no means to contact Mr. Finch, but she hoped that he would send her a message once he reached safety. And to think, she had very nearly compromised that safety tonight—
A carriage drew abreast of Mrs. Watson’s house at the precise moment Charlotte did.
She had not been particularly worried about being followed by Lord Bancroft’s underlings—he already knew where she lived and worked—but still she had paid attention on her journey home. And she was sure this particular carriage hadn’t been behind her at any point.
Where had it come from, then?
A light rain drifted down, the drops as insubstantial as mist. The coachman, like Charlotte, was covered by a large mackintosh, his features invisible. The door of the carriage opened.
“Miss Holmes? Miss Charlotte Holmes?”
She approached the carriage and its single passenger, largely in shadows. “And you are . . . ?”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance at last, Miss Holmes,” said the man. His fingers tapped against his walking stick. His voice, soft but confident, betrayed a hint of amusement. “My name is Moriarty.”