The Lady Sherlock Series, Book 6
Charlotte Holmes comes face to face with her enemy when Moriarty turns to her in his hour of need, in the USA Today bestselling series set in Victorian England.
A most unexpected client shows up at Charlotte Holmes’s doorstep: Moriarty himself. Moriarty fears that tragedy has befallen his daughter and wants Charlotte to find out the truth.
Charlotte and Mrs. Watson travel to a remote community of occult practitioners where Moriarty’s daughter was last seen, a place full of lies and liars. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s sister Livia tries to make sense of a mysterious message from her beau Mr. Marbleton. And Charlotte’s longtime friend and ally Lord Ingram at last turns his seductive prowess on Charlotte—or is it the other way around?
But the more secrets Charlotte unravels about Miss Moriarty’s disappearance, the more she wonders why Moriarty has entrusted this delicate matter to her of all people. Is it merely to test Charlotte’s skills as an investigator, or has the man of shadows trapped her in a nest of vipers?
(Audiobook links will come later as audiobook recording cannot begin until text is finalized. An excerpt will be posted after the book has been copyedited.)
Alain de Lacey sprang up from his chair. “What did you say?”
He had not been de Lacey very long. At his immense mahogany desk, flanked by eighteenth-century oil portraits, sometimes he felt as if he had been reborn into the household of a manufacturer wealthy enough to buy a viscount for a son-in-law. And on most days, the sight of his secretary at the door, relaying the latest news with deference, only reinforced the impression that he had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Today, however, he broke into a sweat.
“Mr. Baxter is coming to Britain, sir,” repeated his secretary. “And he wants you to make an appointment for him to call on Sherlock Holmes.”
So he’d heard correctly the first time. But didn’t Mr. Baxter usually visit Britain in summer? It was only February.
And Sherlock Holmes—or Charlotte Holmes, rather—had been under surveillance since Christmas. If anything, De Lacey would have thought that Mr. Baxter wished to get rid of the woman, not to undertake a formal visit.
An interview followed by a bullet or a strangling? But that was not de Lacey’s concern. Visits to Britain typically did not please Mr. Baxter. De Lacey needed to check everything he’d done since becoming de Lacey to make sure he hadn’t made any mistakes that would bring down Mr. Baxter’s wrath.
He took a deep breath and waved away the secretary. “Very well. Go prepare for Mr. Baxter’s arrival and I will have Sherlock Holmes ready to receive him.”
Allow me to set the scene.
The day is cold and drizzly. A fire crackles in the grate. I am seated at the desk in my room, a cup of hot cocoa to my left, and a plate of still-warm plum cake to my right.
I’ve portrayed my usual sybaritic setting, you say? Why, patience, my old friend.
For what do I see when I look down but enough lace and frill to astonish Louis XIV himself, an eruption of white foam upon a wildly pink sea. Yes, I am wearing my very first tea gown, which you kindly gifted me at Christmas.
Alas, I had to put on a dressing gown over this fuchsia splendor. Even with a fire in the room, the tea gown by itself is still too insubstantial a garment for this time of the year.
Now that you can picture me, let me relay some news.
It has been three weeks since we eliminated both milk and bread from my sister Bernadine’s diet. Not only does she no longer curl up into a ball after her meals, holding her innards in pain, she has gained five pounds. Madame Gascoigne remains astonished. Earlier she was convinced that nothing could be more wholesome than milk and bread. But I’ve long suspected that it must be some very common foodstuff that caused Bernadine’s perennial gastrointestinal distress. At home I couldn’t persuade my parents to agree to a scientific trial, but here I was able to put my ideas to the test.
I would have liked to give Livia a thorough account of Bernadine’s improvement. Unfortunately, what with the sums I remitted home last December for the family’s upkeep, my parents have become much more interested in the contents of the post and Livia can no longer count on always being the first person to examine incoming letters. In the end I conveyed my news in a small notice in the paper.
But in a small notice, there is no room to describe Bernadine’s new peacefulness or the beginning of a healthy blush to her complexion. Similarly, I can assure Livia that Sherlock Holmes flourishes, but must wait for a future moment to let her know that Mrs. Watson and I solved five cases in the past three days and that my esteemed partner levied from one client an exorbitant seven pounds eleven shillings for our trouble. Mrs. Watson can always smell those who will be happier with the services they receive if they are charged more, a valuable skill too seldom taught to young ladies such as my former self.
Ahem. Are you impatiently scanning this rambling letter, my friend? Well, skim no more, for here is where I at last thank you for the lovely, lovely microscope I received for Valentine’s Day.
I have heard of elaborate Valentine’s Day cards that can conceal a watch or some other small valuable items inside, but I must be the first person of my acquaintance to find a Valentine’s Day card amidst the scattered straws of a packing crate.
I digress. But what a shining beauty. What a perfect apparatus. After the unboxing, I sat and admired the microscope for a solid quarter hour before opening the instructional manual you’d so thoughtfully sent along.
After learning the controls, I quickly went through the dry-mount slides that had been supplied alongside the telescope. This past week saw me invade the kitchen on numerous occasions, to Madame Gascoigne’s wry amusement, to borrow bits of vegetable matter that I then sliced with a scalpel to make my own wet-mount slides.
I’ll spare you a full treatise of what I’ve learned about dying the specimens and illuminating them for maximum clarity and resolution, as this letter is running long. But allow me to express my gratitude once again. I adore the microscope and I can’t say enough good things about it.
P.S. But the letter isn’t so long that I can’t append a postscript or two. Apologies for using my own shorthand from this point forward as I answer the questions you posed in your letter. No, since you last inquired, I have not heard from either of the gentlemen in question. Our erstwhile companion in mischief has been silent since his abrupt departure last December. And my kin, after his brief but welcome message in the papers early in January, has also abstained from further communication.
P.P.S. I do worry a little about Livia. Granted, the swift acceptance of her Sherlock Holmes story for publication in Beeton’s Christmas Annual put her in a state of euphoria. But euphoria never lasts long in the Holmes household and she has been stuck there too long without a respite.
P.P.P.S. The surveillance has been more or less the same. I wonder what will come next.
P.P.P.P.S. Were you beginning to believe, my friend, that I would never arrive at addressing your other Valentine’s Day gift?
I am wearing them now, those very pink silk stockings and the no less frou-frou suspender, beneath my tea gown. For a moment I marveled at how you managed to locate the exact same fabric as the one used in the tea gown, only to realize that the entire ensemble had been conceived and executed at the same time, but given to me in two installments.
I am amazed, Ash.
It warms the cockles of my heart, knowing that to an already scandalous tea gown, you chose to add an even more outrageous pair of stockings. One of these days you must recount for me what passed between you and the dressmaker. I hope she was appalled—and secretly titillated, of course.
And now we come at last to the reason that I am replying to you only now, after the passage of an entire week: I needed time to compose a suitable response to your extraordinary gift. It is in the smaller, waxed-sealed envelope. I hope, with every fiber of my being, that it will achieve its intended effect.
* * * * *
I have marvelous news. Mrs. Newell, our beloved Mrs. Newell, has invited me for a visit. A fortnight away from home!
Of course, part of me bemoans the fact that we shall be in the dreariest stretch of the year, the last bitter dregs of winter. I’m tempted to reimagine this visit at the height of summer, with the sun all warm and liquid—or at least warmer and more liquid—and myself in muslin, strolling the parklands for days on end.
But I’m grateful. Oh so grateful to be given this reprieve. I will not describe for you the latest scenes of domestic strife in the Holmes household. Suffice it to say that whatever good cheer our parents derived from the funds you provided—and from being temporarily away from each other—evaporated after they were once again reunited under the same roof. In fact, they loathe each other more after an absence.
But let me waste no more ink on them.
Now that I have expounded sufficiently on this latest development in my life, allow me to at last thank you for the wonderful typewriter. (And how clever of you to have hidden it inside a box of painted pebbles from Bernadine’s “institution.” Neither Mamma nor Papa displayed the least interest and I was able to whisk the box away to my room.)
For weeks after I received my news, I smiled until my cheeks hurt: I am no longer a mere scribbler, but a scribbler for whose words publishers—or at least one publisher—would part with real pounds sterling.
And I can’t thank you enough—you, Mrs. Watson, and especially Miss Redmayne—for finding the chap who would lend me his name for this story. I do chafe a little at the thought of this deception, at the contortions I must perform and the credit I must sacrifice. But then I think of you, you whose very perceptiveness and audacity inspired the story. I think of the rigmarole you go through in order to make a living and tell myself that if you can put up with it, so can I.
But your genius is incontrovertible. Whereas my story has yet to face its true test. What if everyone who opens a copy of the Christmas Annual simply skips over my tale? Or what if everyone does read it but loathes it? I usually manage to keep such thoughts to the side, but sometimes, when Mamma is in an ill humor—
Let me not speak any more about that. Instead let me thank you again for your generous present and your even more generous note. You are right that I would be unlikely to use this typewriter, for as long as I live under our parents’ roof, for fear of attracting their attention. But I held your note close to my heart and imagined, as you asked me to, the day when I would be free. When I can dash up and down staircases, saunter from room to room, and, my goodness, even pound upon the stubborn keys of a new typewriter without incurring anyone’s disdain and wrath.
Here’s to that day. Here’s to us.
P.S. I am all right. I miss our young friend and I worry about him. But I understand that it may be a long time before we can do anything and I am determined to be patient. And to be useful, when the day comes.
* * * * *
I met Miss Olivia yesterday afternoon—a happy surprise I had not anticipated when I’d accepted Mrs. Newell’s invitation to tea.
The three of us passed a very pleasant time. Afterward Miss Olivia and I took a walk by ourselves in Mrs. Newell’s gardens. There I was at last able to congratulate her on the upcoming publication, albeit not for some months yet, of her novel. She was flustered—very nearly giddy. It took me a moment to realize that although she had written to you, this must be the first time she had been able to celebrate that achievement in person with anyone.
We parted ways with promises of many meetings during her time in Derbyshire, even though I suspect that Mrs. Newell plans to surprise her with a trip to London instead.
I haven’t told you this, but the previous time I saw Mrs. Newell, she pulled me aside and asked whether I had news of you. With great care I related that according to Inspector Treadles, who had met you during the course of the investigation at Stern Hollow, you seemed to be faring surprisingly well. Mrs. Newell responded rather archly that she thought I’d have more direct news. When I equivocated, she sighed and said, “Of course I understand. You needn’t say more, my dear.”
She is far from the only person, by the way, who had approached me in the months since your departure from Society, whether in person or by post, and inquired after your well-being. I have become expert at deflecting questions about you, especially from those who simply desire to gossip or, worse, entertain themselves at your expense. But it does make me wistful that I also cannot answer the ones who are sincerely concerned.
I barely know some of the individuals. But over the years they have benefited from your perspicacity in one way or another. It comforts me that despite your public disgrace they have not forgotten your generosity. Some of the inquiries come with heartfelt offers of help attached. Yours, Holmes, has been an existence that has made a material difference in the lives of many.
In other news—
In other news, my letter-writing was interrupted by the post, which brought new correspondence from you. Upon opening the seal of the inner envelope and seeing that it was written entirely in your own shorthand, my heart fell, fearing news of the most unwelcome sort from our adversary.
Imagine my utter disorientation, then, when I realized that it was not the literary equivalent of a beacon lit in alarm.
I am flabbergasted—flabbergasted—Holmes, by what you saw fit to transmit by post. Did you for a moment think of all those who had labored to revolutionize our system of letter delivery, eliminating abuse and corruption and instituting efficient modern methods so that we may send a letter anywhere in the United Kingdom for all of one penny?
Or were you smiling to yourself at how much smut you could convey in half an ounce of ink and paper? No, no, I’m sure your face remained impassive throughout, but dear God—in my stupefaction I have now profaned in writing for the first time in my life. But dear God—I might as well repeat the offense now—how can one penny ferry this much epistolary prurience to my doorstep?
You shoved a stone’s worth of obscenity into a small, defenseless envelope. And then affixed our sovereign’s blameless visage upon the entire enterprise to give it a gloss of respectability, so that it may safely pass through many pairs of trusting hands before landing with an inaudible exhalation of sulfur upon my desk.
As soon as I finished reading, I glanced at the window to make sure there wasn’t a rain of fire and brimstone outside. I then sent a prayer of thanksgiving heavenward that your erotic tale was composed entirely in shorthand. Even if twice I was brought up short by what the man was doing with his “crock”—and laughed out loud the second time—it did not lessen my gratitude that I needed not fear this tale’s discovery by an overeager servant or my unwary descendants.
And then I paced. And occasionally rested my forehead against the cold glass panes of the window, as if that could restore clarity of thinking and purpose of action. I hope you are happy to learn that I shall be completely useless the rest of the day and very likely half of tomorrow as well.
Oh, Holmes, what have you done?
Your bewildered servant
P.S. To at last finish that previously abandoned train of thought, in other news I still have not managed to speak to the children about my impending divorce.
Every night, unprompted, they pray for their mother. They pray for her good health, her happiness, and her safe return without expecting their wishes to be granted in the near or even the intermediate future.
About her continued absence they are wistful, rather than forlorn. It is but a condition of their existence now. Some children stutter. Some are frail and sickly. And Lucinda and Carlisle have a mother who no longer lives with them.
I admire the resilience with which they have borne this great change to their lives. At the same time, I suspect that what I see, this seeming equanimity, is but a steadfast patience: They can endure her absence because they believe deeply and unquestioningly in the certainty of her return.
To take away that certainty—in fact, to inform them that we will never again live together as a family—I fear their serenity will crumble. And so night after night, after their bedtime stories, I say only good night and nothing else.
P.P.S. When I met Miss Olivia, we spoke briefly about our young friend. Though I could sense her inner disturbance, she remained stoic. She has often been a pessimist in the past, but this time it appears she has opted for hope. It both gladdens me and makes my chest pull taut. Hers—and ours, too—is a most slender hope, as frail as the single hair holding up the sword of Damocles.
P.P.P.S. Help me, to pass this long evening, I have now sat at my desk and copied out, in my own dreadfully legible longhand, the entirety of your salacious tale.
* * * * *
My dear, dear Ash,
I would set the scene for you again except I am wearing thoroughly sensible garments and it is too early in the day for my next slice of cake—it says something about your letter that I cannot wait to reply.
I adore the portrayal of your pure and unblemished self sputtering like an altar flame when the church door flings open on a dark and stormy night. Would you have dropped to your couch in a dead faint, to the panic of your house steward, if my almost-innocent little story had not simply featured a man watching a woman undress, but physical contact?
You play the abstemious gentleman perfectly. Someone who reads only your letter would never guess the very provocative role you played in the matter. Indeed, sometimes even I wonder whether I have hallucinated those fuchsia stockings.
Is there an equally scandalous item of clothing a woman may gift a man? I have become familiar with a gentleman’s wardrobe, from having dressed as one numerous times, yet I have no answer to that question. Which leads me to ponder
Mrs. Watson knocked on my door some minutes ago. As soon as I opened the door she thrust a letter into my hand. “This came for Sherlock Holmes.”
Below I reproduce this letter in its entirety.
I would like to arrange for a meeting with you at the earliest possible date, to discuss a matter of great importance.
Alain de Lacey
The letter was written on De Lacey Industries stationery. I need not remind you to whom that particular enterprise belongs. When I looked up from the letter, Mrs. Watson had her fist in her mouth. I pulled her hand down and saw teeth marks around her knuckles.
“What should we do?” she asked, her eyes so wide I could see a rim of white around each pupil. “I have a thousand pounds in cash and two satchels already packed. Has the time come for us to run?”
I also have ready banknotes, though an order of magnitude fewer. In that moment, I calculated how long eleven hundred pounds would last us, if we took only Bernadine as opposed to if we took Mrs. Watson’s entire household.
No, not too excessive a reaction when a representative of Moriarty declares his intention to call.
But when I spoke, I said only, “If Moriarty wishes to endanger us, he need not send a note first.”
Mrs. Watson swallowed. “You said something similar on New Year’s Eve, my dear, when you told me that we were under surveillance and would be for the foreseeable future. Then, too, you said that we need not worry for our safety. But the situation has clearly escalated, has it not? First he sent people to watch us. Now he’s sending someone to interrogate us. How long would it be before we are whisked away somewhere like Château Vaudrieu’s dungeons?”
“Let me say the same thing now that I said to you then, ma’am,” I answered. “Moriarty needs to watch us and speak to us because he doesn’t know what we have done. He has suspicions but no firm evidence. If we run, however, it will be an unequivocal admission of guilt.”
Mrs. Watson said nothing.
I walked to the window. No one lingered outside in the rain, but then again, no one needed to. Moriarty’s underlings have taken two flats nearby, one diagonally across from 18 Upper Baker Street, the other a mansard on Allsop Place, high enough that its view of the back of Mrs. Watson’s house is not obstructed by the mews.
I turned back to Mrs. Watson, who now held on to a bedpost with both hands. “Since you usually reply to clients, ma’am, may I ask that you offer Mr. de Lacey an appointment late in the day tomorrow?”
“What if he’s going to ask you about—”
“Then there is even less chance for us to escape undetected.” I took Mrs. Watson’s hands. “Let us listen to de Lacey and find out what he knows and what he wants. And then we will make our decisions as to what to do.”
Mrs. Watson took some convincing. But in the end she agreed to reply to de Lacey. I asked for a plate of cake, consumed all the slices, and doubted myself with every bite. Even now I am not sure whether I haven’t placed everyone in greater jeopardy by not fleeing immediately.
But my choice has been made and I will meet with Moriarty’s lieutenant.