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Authors: Sam Christer

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BOOK: The House Of Smoke
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I lowered myself onto the edge of the bunk and grimaced a little. ‘Before you ask, I was half asleep when I was attacked. I never even saw the face of the dead man, or the fellow with him.’

‘I realise all that.’

‘You do?’

‘Obviously,’ he said with a hint of irritation. ‘The large bruise on the deceased’s skull, distinctive injuries under his chin, abrasion on the front of his neck and patterned indentations on his skin all validate your claim.’

‘In what way?’

He looked perplexed. ‘I just explained the
way
. It would appear that like a hopeful fisherman on a darkened day, you cast your manacle chain blindly and got lucky with your catch. The bruises on his forehead show where you snagged him.’ He raised his fists and mimed the actions as he continued. ‘Once you had him, you yanked hard on the chain and reeled him in. Where, from the look of the skin around his neck, you set about choking him.’ His eyes lit up. ‘Somewhat ingeniously I imagine, for you must have been seated or even lying on your back. To escape strangulation, the fellow tried to grab at your face and injure you.’ He pointed down my left cheek. ‘You have fingernail scratches consistent with this on your face.’

‘I didn’t kill him …’

‘Also blatantly true. But you
would
have done, had his accomplice not mistakenly driven a makeshift knife into his heart instead of yours.’

‘Then I thank him for his mistake and you for your exoneration. Who was he and why did he try to kill me?’

‘Dear, oh dear.’ The detective frowned at me disappointedly. ‘Those are
entirely
the wrong questions to ask. The name of the dead man is of no consequence to you. None whatsoever. Of far more value is the identity of his accomplice, the man who killed him and then vanished into the gaol.’

I began to see his point. ‘How was it possible that two prisoners could come and go from their cells as they wished?’

‘It wasn’t,’ declared Holmes, ‘unless they were assisted by a turnkey, or indeed, if one of them was a turnkey. Either of those options proffers a credible explanation. But of even greater interest is the identification of the person who commissioned them to carry out such an act.’

‘I have a long list of enemies, Mr Holmes.’

‘Of that I have no doubt.’ He grew thoughtful then added, ‘Tell me, Lynch, if you were to assemble said list in order of those who despise or fear you the most, whose name would be top of it?’

‘I have no idea.’

‘Think, man! Who is so impatient to have you buried that he cannot wait but a fortnight for the hangman to do the job for him?’

My mind spun with possibilities. Relatives or business associates of people I had killed. Perhaps police officers who had hunted me over the years. Rival gangs and criminals. Maybe even Johncock.

‘I see you are overwhelmed with candidates, so I will tell you.’

‘Please do.’

‘Moriarty.’

I huffed out a laugh.

‘Mark my words. This is the work of the master schemer. James Moriarty wants you dead. I saw it in his eyes in the Old Bailey courtroom when you were convicted. That man would hang you himself if he could.’

‘And why would he do that, Mr Holmes?’

‘You may spill family secrets. Might endanger him and his cohorts.’

‘You are a fantasist, sir.’

‘To the contrary. I am a realist. Moriarty’s agents will have told him I have been here. He will suspect an offer has been made to you and he knows that turning Queen’s Evidence would save your neck and endanger his own. The betrayal of a wicked master by a desperate servant is a common enough occurrence to prompt his hand and his darkest acts.’

‘You are deluded, Mr Holmes. As brilliant as you are, you are a blind fool when it comes to James Moriarty. He is not my master and I am not his servant. You really should stay clear of those opium dens or at least reduce your cocaine consumption; your judgement is impaired.’

‘I suspect you are more proficient at dispensing violence than insults.’ He rapped on the door so he might be released, then added, ‘Madness is coming for you, Lynch. Be certain of that. Make your deal now, before the stink and solitude of this place takes your sanity, before time runs out and, most importantly, before those playing chess with your life become bored and resort to other means of dispelling their worries.’

Derbyshire, September 1885

Mr Bailey, the effusive head of Heating, Bathing and Laundry, had been correct. Hanging in my room was a selection of shirts, both with and without collars, some ties and neckcloths, formal and informal trousers, waistcoats, a suit, several hats and caps, a pair of black shoes and sturdy boots. It was more clothing than I had ever owned.

I chose a pair of brown striped trousers, a red silk waistcoat and white flannel shirt. Dressing was an ordeal. Not because the items didn’t fit. They did. Perfectly. Someone had either guessed my size to the exact proportions or measured me in my sleep. No, the ordeal came because of the pain in my ribs. It seemed to me that the seaweed bath had done precious little to ease the suffering.

Having struggled into the garments, I stood before a wall mirror and considered myself quite a dandy. But why had I been given these clothes? Why was I here? Why had I been plucked from the spartan rooms of a northern mill and brought to this luxurious country estate?

What did the professor want of me?

I was still searching for answers when a well-dressed man appeared in my open doorway and gave a genteel cough to catch my attention. He was tall and gaunt, in his late forties, with greying hair and heavy, curly eyebrows.

‘I am Cornwell, sir, the butler. I am here to show you to the drawing room.’

I smoothed down my new clothes and nervously glanced again in the mirror.

The reflection of Cornwell appeared over my shoulder, ‘Might I recommend the
brown
waistcoat instead of the red, sir?’

‘You might, but I like this one.’

‘It is not a
good
choice; but as you wish, sir. Are you ready to attend Lady Elizabeth?’

I took one last look at myself, pulled at the waistcoat for a final time. ‘Yes. I most certainly am.’

Cornwell’s lips twitched with the suggestion he might once more try to talk me into the brown garment then he turned and walked out.

I followed his well-polished heels along the now-familiar route into the main body of the house, across polished parquet floors and richly woven carpets and rugs. He opened a door, stepped aside and announced, ‘Master Simeon, my lady.’

Elizabeth broke from looking out of the window on the far side of a large room and thanked him. She was dressed in a delicate white blouse and simple black skirt. To her left stood a round wooden table, covered in lace and laid for tea. Adjacent was a small piano and a little further away a sloping-topped writing desk.

Cornwell closed the door and Elizabeth’s smile lit up the room like a thousand gasoliers as she approached me and asked, ‘How are you, Simeon? I heard you endured something of a bruising encounter with Mr Brannigan.’

‘You could say that, my lady.’

She looked amused and motioned for me to take a seat at the table. ‘When we are alone, you should be informal and call me Elizabeth and I shall call you Simeon. I presume you are already on such first-name terms with Sirius and Surrey?’

I tried not to show my awkwardness as I sat. ‘Not yet.’

‘Then from now on, you will be. You must set the pace or next thing you know they’ll have you doffing your cap to them.’

‘I understand. Thank you.’

‘You are very welcome.’ She smiled as she settled. ‘This room is, ironically, called a drawing room.’

‘Why?

‘Why do you think?’

‘Because people draw in it?’

Her eyes laughed at me. ‘No, but I see why you might hazard such a guess.’

For a moment, my mind was not on her words, her explanations or whatever lessons she had in mind for me. It was on the locks of her hair that glistened like spun gold. It was on the soft creases near her eyes and mouth that underlined how beautiful she was. It was on her voice, how sensual it sounded. ‘Are you listening to me?’

The question pulled me up and made me redden.

‘I was saying,’ she continued, ‘the name is derived from its original title, the
withdrawing room
. It was a place where people of great wealth could withdraw from company in the house and be alone, be less social. And as my task is
not
to make you more withdrawn, but to enable you to be more social, it is ironic.’

‘And is withdrawn such a bad thing to be?’

‘Not by choice. But you must also have the skills to be outgoing, in order to mix with all and sundry.’

‘Why?’

She laughed. ‘Is
why
your favourite word? The short answer to your question is, because this is what the professor wants. And we all do what the professor wants.’

‘Do we?’

‘We do,’ she said, sternly. ‘And if you learn nothing else today, learn that we do
whatever
the professor wants,
whenever
he wants it done.’ Point made, she relaxed again, ‘Now, tell me about yourself. About your family and upbringing.’

‘I would rather not.’

‘I heard you were orphaned,’ she persisted, ‘which means you were probably brought up in a workhouse, where education is seldom a priority. Can you read or write?’

‘I was taught some reading and writing. Enough to create a hunger for it. And I was around good people who encouraged me to think for myself and talk proper.’

‘Talk properly. Not proper.’

I reddened again and wished the damned lesson were already over.

‘So tell me then, what books do you have knowledge of?’

‘Many,’ I lied, then checked myself, ‘but none to speak to you about.’ I looked down at my feet to avoid her questioning eyes.

‘The professor is very interested in Russian writings on nihilism and American developments in ontology. Do you have any particular views on these kinds of subjects?’

I shook my head. ‘I don’t even know what those things are.’

‘Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature and relations of being. Nihilism is a belief that all values are baseless.’

I am sure that by this time my face must have been the colour of a beetroot, for Lady Elizabeth put one of her cool and gentle hands over mine. ‘Don’t be ashamed, my dear. I am not trying to humiliate you. We are finding our starting point, a mark from which we can measure your progress.’

I believe I struck such a sight that she took pity, for she stood, straightened her dress and walked closer to me. ‘Just look at you! You are unbearably tense and crumpled. Your head is bent and those big fists of yours are clenched so tightly your knuckles are white.’ She pushed me gently upright and slid my arms down by my side. ‘Relax a little. Allow your mind to open up to new challenges and to grow.’ She used her cool, slender fingers to unclasp my right fist. ‘You can’t fight yourself out of every eventuality in life, Simeon. Sometimes you will have to think your way to victory. Battles are more often won with the mind than the body.’ She worked free the fingers of my left hand and I fought an urge to hold hers, to raise it and kiss it, to place it against my heart so she might feel how insanely it beat for her.

Contrary to all my previous desires for the lesson to end, I now wished it would never cease, for I was sure I wanted to spend eternity with this beautiful, beguiling woman.

Two Weeks to Execution
Newgate, 4 January 1900

Some force other than the Crown wished me dead. One not limited by the letter of the law or the bureaucracy of having to make an appointment to take my life. This force was powerful enough to bypass the turnkeys of Newgate, unlock my cell and attempt to cheat the hangman of his coin.

I had three suspects in mind as perpetrators of the attack on my life: Tobias Johncock, James Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes was the cleverest but the least likely. He certainly had the ability to disguise himself, pick locks and then fade into the shadows.

Johncock was more probable. The assistant keeper’s hatred of me and the savagery of the beating he orchestrated made me believe he bore me a personal grudge. Perhaps I had wronged someone close to him. Or he was in the pay of a rival gang to the Moriarties and would only be financially rewarded if I were killed in prison.

Then there was James Moriarty. He and his family had the most to lose, should my tongue and hand choose to give testimony against them. I had not lied to Holmes. I was no servant of James nor was he my master. And I was not wrong in stating that the detective’s impeccable powers of deduction were blinkered as far as he was concerned, for it was the reclusive Brogan, not the extrovert James who was the driving power of the family. Brogan, who from the obscurity of Derbyshire and his connections in New York and Boston had shaped a criminal empire that stretched across the world. His brother, brilliant as he was, had merely been foolish enough to draw Holmes’s attention in London and to have personally baited and toyed with him.

In all honesty, it was difficult to rule James out as the architect of the attack on me. While we had never previously crossed swords, it was well within his character to have me killed, rather than risk me betraying the family. Brogan, on the other hand, would never dream of such a thing.

I could also not discount the possibility that my would-be assassin had in fact been a gaoler and not a convict. If that were the case, then it was possible he murdered the convict deliberately so his part in the attempt on my life could never be told.

Cell five! Door open!

The declaration came back to me, and the more I thought about it, the more I believed the second man in my room might well have been the turnkey who raised the alarm. What could have been easier than to have simply stepped outside the cell and shouted for help? The best of illusionists know the centre of attention is the perfect place to hide.

I was sitting on the pot in the corner of the cell when my thoughts and privacy were rudely interrupted by the opening of the door. I expected Johncock and his cronies but instead there was Boardman and with him a fresh-faced turnkey I had never seen before.

BOOK: The House Of Smoke
13.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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