Authors: Vaughn Entwistle
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This book is dedicated to my wife, Shelley, my inamorata now and forever…
First and foremost I have to thank my beloved wife, Shelley, for believing in me and encouraging my lifelong dream of becoming a novelist. For this and myriad other reasons, she continues to be the best part of my time on earth.
Thanks to my agent, Kimberley Cameron, of Kimberley Cameron and Associates. Kind, supportive, and immensely capable, Kimberley is a writer’s dream agent.
Thanks to my posse of faithful readers: Cindy Thompson, Andrea Steckler, Nancy Coy, and Kristina Wright. I am lucky to have friends like these, who’ve diligently read most of everything I’ve written and have provided me with vital feedback.
I would also like to thank St. Martin’s Press and my illustrious editors, executive editor Keith Kahla and his editorial assistant, Hannah Braaten, for their guidance and support through the publishing process.
Finally, I must acknowledge Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, true literary giants whose genius has left an enduring legacy for readers and writers alike.
A VOICE IN THE DARK
Sherlock Holmes is dead … and I have killed him.
The smartly dressed young Scotsman stared blindly through raindrops beading down the hansom cab window. Submerged in reverie, he did not notice that the cab had stopped. He did not see the limestone residences, nor their marble steps guarded by iron railings. All he heard, all he saw, were the misty wraiths of the world’s greatest consulting detective and his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, as they plummeted into a cataract of roaring waters, grappling in a final death-struggle.
A hatch in the ceiling above his head opened, and the driver of the hansom cab rained down a patter of gravelly syllables: “We’re here, guv’nor.”
The words jolted Arthur Conan Doyle into awareness. The seething vapors of the Reichenbach Falls evaporated and a London street materialized before him. He blinked, at a momentary loss. Where was he? Why had he taken a cab? Then he looked down at his lap and the torn envelope curling in the grip of his rain-dampened gloves.
A courier had delivered the letter that morning to his South Norwood home in the suburbs of London. He drew the cream-colored paper from its envelope and shook it open. The handwriting was elegant and unmistakably feminine. For a moment, Conan Doyle’s soft brown eyes traced the loops and whorls of the penmanship.
Dear Dr. Doyle,
I crave an audience with the noted author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries on a concern of the utmost gravity. This is a matter of mortal peril, and I believe that only an intellect such as yours can prevent a tragedy. Please visit me at number 42 ______ Crescent on Tuesday morning. Arrive no earlier than ten a.m.
Please help. I am a lady in desperate straits.
In place of a signature, the letter was signed with an elegant flourish.
An anonymous address.
A nameless summoner.
But as he tilted the page to the light, a phoenix watermark floated up from the fine stationery. Despite himself, he felt the stirrings of a coalescing mystery that would have intrigued his Sherlock Holmes.
A figure brushed past the cab window—he caught a vague, rain-blurred impression of a man in a hat, walking head down, a hand to his chin. No, holding something to his mouth—a cigarette or a pipe.
It was the briefest of glimpses. A momentary flash. And then it was gone.
The cab driver yanked a lever; the cab door flung open and Conan Doyle stepped down from the hansom. As he rummaged his pockets for loose change, a wraith of tobacco smoke swirled in the damp London air. His head snapped up as he caught a whiff. He threw a quick glance to his side, but saw only rain-puddled pavements and the endless parade of city traffic: black two- and four-wheelers drawn by plodding horses, their breath pluming in the damp air, hooves clop-clopping on the wet cobblestones.
The smoker had vanished.
He shook the image from his head and handed up two shillings to the driver. As he turned and took a step toward the glistening marble steps, it occurred to him to ask the cabbie to wait.
But too late—the driver whistled, shook the reins, and the cab rattled away.
Conan Doyle paused to peer up at the elegant, six-storey Mayfair home. But when he raised his head, an icy March rain needled his eyes. He dropped his gaze and, in a fashion surprisingly nimble for a big man, skipped up the rain-slick steps, anxious not to dampen his best top hat and coat.
The entrance of number 42 ______ Crescent featured a magnificent eight-paneled oak door painted a deep Venetian red. A large brass knocker provided the door’s centerpiece—a phoenix rising from its nest of flames.
The exact double of the notepaper’s watermark.
His gloved fingers grasped the knocker, raised it, and brought it sharply down upon its anvil with the percussive report of a pistol shot. He was about to knock a second time when the door flung inward, snatching the brass phoenix from his grasp.
A red-turbaned footman—a Sikh gentleman—swept the door aside as if he’d been lurking behind it.
Wordlessly, the servant drew Conan Doyle inside with a low bow and a beckoning wave of his white-gloved hand. The entrance hall, though opulent, was a gloomy snare of shadows. His breath fogged the air—it was colder inside than out. The footman took his hat and coat without a word, hung them upon a naked coat stand, and led the way to a closed set of double doors.
“Please to wait inside, sahib,” he said in heavily accented English.
The servant bowed again and held the door open. Conan Doyle stepped inside—and recoiled. The room was some kind of windowless antechamber, sparsely furnished with low couches and bookshelves. But further detail was hard to make out, as the room was even darker than the entrance hall. The only illumination came from the stuttering light of a single gas jet turned low.
“Just one moment!” Conan Doyle began to protest. “Am I to be cast into the darkness?”
Despite his complaints, the door was softly but firmly shut in his face.
“Wait! What? What is the meaning?” he yelled, and snatched at the door handle, which refused to turn.
Outraged, he rattled the handle and banged a meaty fist on the door.
“See here you fool, you’ve locked me…” Conan Doyle fell silent as he tumbled to the truth: it was no accident.
In rising dudgeon, he strode across the room to the far door and seized the knob. But a firm yank revealed that it, too, was locked. The young doctor released a gasp of astonished umbrage and looked about. For several seconds he wrestled with the notion of seizing one of the end tables to use as a battering ram. But then the words of the letter ran through his head:
This is a matter of mortal peril, and I believe that only an intellect such as yours can prevent a tragedy.
Already half-convinced that he was being drawn into a web of charlatanism, Conan Doyle hitched up the legs of his trousers and dropped onto a cold leather couch, nostrils flaring as he gave a snort of indignation.
Minutes passed. Anger turned to curiosity as he idled, peering around the room. It became an interesting game, trying to fathom what was going on—the kind of game that Holmes—
NO! That part of my writing life is over. Holmes is dead and I am finally free to write the serious books I wish to write