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Authors: Sam Christer

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BOOK: The House Of Smoke
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‘I believe you are not an unintelligent man. That beyond your savagery is a cultured brain. One capable of reason.’

I forced open my eyes. The silhouette of a head slid briefly into my limited view. Unexpectedly, the manacle around my right wrist grew tight, then slackened. Seconds later, the same happened on my left side.

‘You can sit up,’ the shadow added. ‘I have loosened your restraints to grant you some movement. Do it slowly, or you are most certain to pass out.’

I lifted my arms. Chains slithered away like heavy, cold snakes. I struggled upright. The pain in my chest was agonising. Blood rushed my head. I felt woozy. But one thing was clear: I now recognised my visitor.

Sherlock Holmes.


Simeon Lynch
,’ he proclaimed. ‘Caught, convicted of two murders and now condemned to death.’

‘Go to hell, Holmes.’ I peered at him and remembered how close I had once come to killing the legendary detective. Moriarty owned an entire building opposite the investigator’s modest chambers in Baker Street and for three weeks had tasked me with occupying a room there, overlooking 221b. I had chronicled Holmes’s every movement and also those of his sycophantic biographer and doting housekeeper.

As wise and nocturnal as an owl, the man had allowed me little sleep during those days. In the end, I traced both his main cocaine supplier and a lady of the night with whom he took comfort in a less-than-salubrious brothel in West Street. I chronicled his vulnerabilities, his weak spots, and given the word would have done my duty. ‘I could have killed you several times,’ I told him.

‘That is a
preposterous
assertion,’ he answered with such levity it was as though I had told him a tale of great amusement. ‘I know you followed me and spied upon me. Hid in shadows and peered from windows as I sought recreation and work. But dear fellow, you could never have been anything more than my voyeur.’

‘What do you want, Holmes?’ I sounded disinterested, but my mind was racing to fathom out why he had come and what advantage his presence might afford me.

‘Well,’ he began in a thoughtful tone as he walked towards the end of the bunk where my feet remained securely chained to the floor, ‘you have asked two questions of me and they require different but of course not unconnected answers. Like most decent people,
what I want –
is to see you hang. Unfortunately, I have been charged with offering you a way to avoid the noose.’

He paused to gauge my reaction, but I gave him none. I stared at the medieval iron cuffs fixed on me. These were certainly too strong to break without a chisel and a heavy hammer. I had no chance of endangering him, taking him hostage or in any way using him to fashion an escape.

‘You have committed a great many crimes,’ Holmes continued. ‘Of that I am certain. But I suspect you did so entirely at Moriarty’s behest. And yet, here you are, alone in this cell, while that
demon
enjoys all the trappings of a wealthy and free man.’

‘Come to the point, or preferably just leave. Time, I have learned, is not something I have an abundance of.’

‘Turn Queen’s Evidence. Give the police details of that scoundrel’s criminal activities and the home secretary will hold a clemency hearing. Your death sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment, and then if a successful prosecution of James Moriarty follows, I believe you may be pardoned.’

I laughed at him for not knowing the real power lay with Brogan. ‘You want me to testify against
James
Moriarty?’

‘I do. I most sincerely do.’

‘Save your breath.’

‘I can afford to squander a little, as I, unlike you, have many more years to replenish the supply to my lungs.’

‘My, aren’t you the wit.’ I laid back and stared at the ceiling. A spider had spun a fine, taut web in the far corner. A still-fluttering fly was already caught. Its struggle to escape was pointless, but struggle it did. The predator moved slowly towards it. Death would soon be dispensed. I knew the ritual all too well.

‘I am offering you the chance to save your life, wipe the slate clean and begin again.’

‘Deportation, you mean?’

‘Not necessarily. There are options on English soil. But wouldn’t even that be preferable to death?’

I looked at Holmes and wondered who was the spider and who the fly. He thought me about to get caught in his web, but I saw things differently. I was needed. The law needed me. I could, for the moment, safely reject this offer for I was certain Holmes would come back to press his case and in doing so he would perhaps afford me a chance to escape without me having to make any traitorous testimony. My mind was made up.

‘Please go away, Mr Holmes. And take your desperation with you.’

He scowled at me, then walked to the door and rapped on it to summon the gaolers. Before it opened he added, ‘I must tell you one last thing: I have had a wager with my colleague, Dr Watson. He’s a military man as you might know, and he says people like you behave in a military manner.’

‘Go away!’

‘It is his belief that you will take your intimate knowledge of Moriarty, his crimes and his cohorts to your grave. My bet is to the contrary. You are a killer, Lynch. You deal in death and therefore know the value of your own life, which is of course greater to you than any loyalties you may have. So I have wagered twenty pounds that after some vacillation and pretence to the contrary, you will eventually seize my offer with all the eagerness of a young thief left alone in a cloakroom.’

The door opened and a gaoler asked, ‘Are you ready, Mr Holmes?’

‘I am,’ he answered, ‘I am, indeed.’ He threw a final comment to me. ‘No sooner will this door close than you will begin to consider my proposal and its attractiveness. Use your brain, Lynch, instead of your fists, it might just save your neck.’

The door banged shut. Keys clicked in the lock and once more I was fastened in.

The great Sherlock Holmes had visited and propositioned me. Now wasn’t that a thing?

Above me, the spider devoured the fly. The scene made me smile. Perhaps when I escaped I would visit Holmes with a proposition of my own. Death by knife? Or by my bare hands?

Manchester, 1885

Brogan Moriarty.

The name had meant nothing to me when the steely-eyed stranger introduced himself in the shadows of Sebastian’s rooms. Had it done, then I would have fought to the death to escape. But I was young, ignorant and arrogant. Mistakenly confident that I could bide my time and give him and his men the slip, as and when the fancy took me.

In the light outside the Mancunian mill, the first of Moriarty’s companions appeared to be a well-built, handsome man in his mid-twenties. He was a professional type, a senior clerk perhaps, with shoulder-length black hair, grey eyes and a blue twill suit as perfectly tailored as his smile. With him was a smaller, thinner fellow, drearily clad in an ill-fitting, baggy grey jacket, tattered brown vest and frayed pants, topped by a flat cap far too big for his ragamuffin head. I supposed him to be an errand boy, kept close at hand to run hither or thither as his master wished.

The four of us climbed into the grandest carriage I had ever seen. Painted glossy black, it boasted a golden crest on the doors and gleaming brass lamps to the front. An immaculately uniformed coachman, sitting soldier-straight above the elegant steeds, controlled a team of white horses.

I settled into a rear-facing seat, opposite Moriarty and the thin scrap of an errand boy, while the well-dressed one installed himself next to me. I already had the measure of things. As soon as the carriage stopped for any reason I would open the door, dart out and disappear.

The professor caught my eye. ‘While I have quite taken to steam travel and appreciate its speed and convenience, I find old carriages like this afford me invaluable privacy.’ He ran a hand proudly over the door panel at his side. ‘It is a former mail coach, so it is roomy enough. Though I had the springs adjusted by a French mechanic, as the French understand the necessity of a less tumultuous ride.’

‘Where are you from, mister? You talk like a toff but have an accent unlike any I’ve heard.’

His companions laughed and a thin smile moved his lips. ‘I’m as English as you are, but I spend a lot of time in America on business. It’s like a second home to me and I have only recently returned. The accent sticks for some time because I spent a lot of my childhood there.’

I had grown bored with his tale and my impatient eyes had spied a set of cut glasses and decanters fixed on pads of velvet, tethered by straps of leather and stowed in a door well. I couldn’t help but think that I knew plenty of flash houses where fancy goods like that would fetch a pretty penny.

We’ll refresh ourselves in a moment,’ he said, in a voice that chastised my gaze. ‘But first, some introductions. This is Miss Surrey Breed.’ He placed his right hand on the urchin’s left knee and smiled. ‘Quite an extraordinary young lady.’


Lady?
’ I blurted.

‘Aye, a
lady,
’ she stressed in a thick Scottish accent, ‘so doon’ yoo go playin’ the daft laddie an’ forgit it.’ She took off the large cap, withdrew a hairpin and a waterfall of black locks tumbled over her narrow shoulders. Now she looked undeniably feminine and not a lot older than me. She tilted her head in a coquettish manner and her whole countenance, voice and status instantly changed. ‘Honestly, don’t you find that first appearances can be
dangerously
deceiving, Mr Lynch?’ She had assumed the most refined of English accents. ‘It is such an aberration of sound judgement to make sweeping presumptions of class, status or even gender, based solely upon how a stranger appears.’

The professor laughed. ‘Miss Breed is a cultural chameleon, an invaluable creature given the pomposity of the age we live in.’ He nodded to the man next to me. ‘And this is Mr Sirius Gunn. Do not be deceived by his occasional good manners and his constantly prim appearance. Beneath that fine facade lurks a devil that puts Satan to shame.’

Gunn lifted his hat indifferently but spoke not a word. His eyes conveyed in one fleeting look that he did not care for me. In return, mine told him that given the chance I would beat him black and blue and rob him blind.

I turned my attention to the carriage window. Trees and fields flew past as the magnificent horses picked up speed. Soon we would be miles from Manchester. I looked to the professor. ‘Where are we going, sir?’

‘We will come to that in a moment. First, it is time, I think, for those refreshments.’ He leaned to his left and plucked three shimmering glasses from their holders and handed them round. Next, he grasped the cut-glass decanter and added, ‘A little
aqua vitae
, to stiffen our resolve for the journey.’ He removed the stopper from the decanter and poured a generous amount of pale amber liquid into my glass.

‘Try it,’ he nodded at me in encouragement. ‘I am intrigued to know what you think.’ He dispensed similar measures for the others and then took a fourth glass for himself.

I lifted the liquid to my nose and smelled it. In the workhouse I had learned that meals and drinks with a bad odour were best avoided if you didn’t want to spend the rest of the week in the privy. The best I could discern was that it contained some sort of alcohol. ‘What spirit is this?’

‘Whisky,’ answered Miss Breed, back in Scottish guise. ‘Now dunny be a stookie, git it doon ya neck.’

I sank most of it like a dose of medicine.


Aqua vitae
,’ added the professor, contentedly sniffing his own drink, ‘Latin for “water of life”. It’s also a term applied to distilled alcohol, one Gaelic distillers use for whisky. Mixed with water, or other substances, it can have transformative effects on the body’s physiology.’

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but I was thirsty enough to drain the glass.

‘For example,’ he continued, ‘your brain is now telling you that you have almost quenched your thirst. That’s a good feeling, isn’t it?’

I nodded. He was right about that. It had been some time since I had drunk anything and my morning exercises had left me somewhat parched.

He looked pleased. ‘A little more?’

I held out my glass. This time he was less generous in his measure. He resealed the decanter and returned it to its holder as I drank. ‘You are currently relaxing in the assured knowledge that you are rehydrating. That is because water comprises an enormous amount of the human body – more than half, possibly as much as three quarters.’

I couldn’t see how that could be, but I emptied the glass again.

‘Better?’

‘Yes, I suppose I am almost, what’s the word,
rehydrated
?’

‘Very good.’ He smiled, then leaned forwards and studied my face. ‘Your pupils have already dilated. I suspect you are feeling light-headed and a little weak?’

I had not noticed the sensation until he mentioned it, but again, he was correct.

Moriarty reached out and took the glass from me. ‘I’ll take this from you. It’s expensive and I’d hate you to break it. You see, I have given you a sedative and you are now in the process of losing consciousness.’

‘What?’

‘The drink contained a sweet toxic honey called rhododendron nectar. It lowers your blood pressure to the point that you become dizzy and pass out. It’s a crude form of anaesthetic.’

I made a clumsy move for the door.

Gunn slapped an arm across my chest. I tried to lift my hands to fight him, but my limbs felt numb. I stumbled off my seat.

‘Don’t fight it,’ said Moriarty. ‘You’ll sleep now. When you awake, we will be at our destination.’

The sedative sewed my eyes together. In the blackness, our carriage rose from the ground. Horses galloped into clouds. The air became thin and cold. We were high in the night sky and beneath us everything was turning black. Gradually, images floated up at me.

A tavern. Bawdy men clinking ale tankards, playing cards, arguing over winnings. Coarse women laughing and flaunting themselves. The noise was deafening.

Then suddenly silence; people moved apart. A woman collapsed. Screamed in pain, her face twisted by the agony. Men were laughing at her. Some of the women pulled at her clothes. There was blood. Blood everywhere.

BOOK: The House Of Smoke
13.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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