Authors: George Mann
Also Available from Titan Books
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Sherlock Holmes: The Thinking Engine
Sherlock Holmes: The Spirit Box
Print edition ISBN: 9781781160022
E-book edition ISBN: 9781781160091
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: August 2014
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Names, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead (except for satirical purposes), is entirely coincidental.
George Mann asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
Copyright © 2014 by George Mann
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
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For Miranda Jewess and her marvellous red pen
War had come to London.
It was late in the summer of 1915, and at night we looked to the leaden skies in fear of enemy zeppelins. When they came, they unleashed terrible firestorms across the rooftops of the city – a stark reminder of the conflict that was ravaging the continent.
The newspapers were full of death and destruction, and repair crews toiled to clear the wreckage of burned-out civic buildings and homes. There were those whose charred remains had to be extracted from what was left of their beds.
As a young man, surrounded by the maimed and the dying in the parched killing fields of Afghanistan, I had thanked God that my loved ones back in London would be spared such scenes. It changes a man, to bear witness to such things, to see the savagery with which one human being can end the life of another, or to hold the hand of a wounded comrade as he slips away into oblivion. It hardens one’s soul.
For years I thought that I had left such things behind in that hot, troubled land, but during that fateful, war-torn summer I found myself wondering more than once if those nightmares had somehow followed me here, to London, finally catching up with me after all this time.
Nothing brought this home to me more than the death of my nephew, Joseph Watson, the sole child of my late brother and the last of the Watson line. That dear boy was now lying somewhere in a field in France, another forgotten face, another entry in the tally chart of the dead, cut down by the chatter of machine-gun fire as he’d gone over the top. The thought of it haunted me as I rattled uselessly around my small house in Ealing, wishing there was more that I could do.
I was old, and somewhat curmudgeonly, and had refused to evacuate myself to the country. This was not, I fear, the stoic resolve of an old soldier, but more a stubbornness born of an unwillingness to allow the devilish Kaiser Wilhelm to unseat me from my home. I was not above allowing myself a small measure of hypocrisy, however; I had sent my wife to stay with her sister in the Lincolnshire countryside, in the hope of sparing her the worst of the danger. We do what we must for those we love.
Consequently, with little else to fill my time, I’d offered my services to my old regiment, and although they had dutifully expressed their gratitude, I knew that there was little a man of my advancing years might do directly to aid the efforts of our men abroad. They had suggested I might accept an advisory position, but it soon became clear that even my medical expertise had been superseded by advancements of which I’d not had the time or inclination to remain appraised.
I was feeling morose, and I was not alone. With the coming of the German bombs a terrible malaise seemed to have struck London. For the first time since the war had begun, people were losing hope. The war was wearing us all down, slowly and deliberately eroding the spirit of the nation. Thoughts of victory seemed further from people’s minds than ever before, and I feared the country was condemning an entire generation of brave young men to a miserable, prolonged death in the muddy trenches of the continent. It seemed endless. I had no doubt that it was necessary – noble, even, to make such a concerted stand for freedom – but nevertheless, endless.
For a week I had been unable to shake the black mood that had settled over me, ever since receiving the telegram containing news of Joseph’s death. Mrs. Watson had been in the country for close to a month, and I was deeply in need of companionship. I’d attempted to concentrate on my writing – I was engaged in the early stages of writing a novel – but even this had offered little solace. I’d never been a man to dwell on his misfortunes, but those lonely weeks, along with a growing sense of attrition at the hands of the German bombers, were beginning to take their toll.
It was just at this lowest of ebbs that my fortunes took a sudden, unexpected shift for the better, and I was to find myself once again reacquainted with my old, dear friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
* * *
It began, rather inauspiciously, with a rap at the door. I had just settled down to a meagre lunch of tea and buttered crumpets – a far cry from the once magnificent repasts of Mrs. Hudson – when the unexpected caller made their presence apparent. Sighing, I abandoned my plate on the hearth and, stretching to ease my stiff back, made haste to the door.
A young man – hardly more than a boy – was standing on the doorstep, apparently admiring the flowerbeds beneath the bay window. He looked up when he heard the door open, and smiled warmly. He was dressed in a smart black suit, with a starched collar and tie, and was wearing a peaked cap jauntily on his head.
“Dr. Watson?” he said, in a broad cockney accent.
I raised an expectant eyebrow. “You have me at a disadvantage, sir,” I replied.
The man laughed. “My name is Carter. I’m here on behalf of Mr. Mycroft Holmes.” He paused for a moment to allow the name to sink in. “He requests your immediate assistance with a somewhat…
“Mycroft Holmes,” I muttered, a little taken aback. It had been some years since I’d had the pleasure. I couldn’t begin to imagine what use I might be to a man like Mycroft, but I understood enough about his methods to know that it had to be important if he’d sent a man to fetch me from my home. “Immediate, you say?”
“I fear so, Dr. Watson,” said Carter, with a quick glance at his watch. “If you’re willing, we have an important appointment to keep.”
“Yes, yes,” I replied, all thoughts of my abandoned crumpets gone. I admit that I felt the stirrings of an old vitality at the thought of this new, unexpected intrigue, and besides, any opportunity to get out of the house and actually
something seemed most appealing. “Just hold on a moment while I fetch my coat.”
Carter had parked his motorcar just a few yards from the bottom of the garden path: a sleek, black beast of a vehicle, which gleamed in the watery afternoon sunlight. The automobile was open-topped, but the canopy was raised to ward off the threatened shift in the weather; the sky was bruised and smeared with the grey thumbprints of rain clouds. I turned my collar up, and – with some trepidation – stepped up onto the running board and clambered into the back seat.
I was still adjusting to such mechanical modes of transport, and to be truthful, I had yet to feel entirely secure hurtling along the roads at speed. It was not that I yearned for the simpler days of hansom cabs and horse-drawn carriages – I had never been fearful of progress – rather that I simply couldn’t help but wonder what effect such rapid velocities might have upon the human form. Or, perhaps more truthfully, I feared what a sudden impact at such speeds might do to my fragile old bones.
Mycroft’s summons had somewhat lifted my spirits, however, and so I banished such considerations and decided to throw myself wholeheartedly into this new endeavour, whatever it might prove to be.
I watched as Carter finished cranking the engine, and – checking his watch again and grimacing as he took note of the time – hopped up into the driver’s seat and released the parking brake. We shot away down the road, rocking me back in my seat. I grabbed for the armrest.
I’d meant to ask the young man precisely where we were headed, but I’d missed my chance, all hope of conversation now drowned out by the bass rumbling of the engine. I eased myself back on the leather seat and tried to relax, making the most of the fleeting, stuttering view, and attempting to ignore the unwholesome effluvia of the city.
It was some time before we crossed into the city proper, and as the familiar landmarks shot by, I was struck by a sudden realisation: we were heading in the wrong direction.
I leaned forward in my seat, tapping Carter on the shoulder. He glanced back to see what was wrong. “Is everything quite well, Dr. Watson?” he called, raising his voice in order to be heard.
“Yes, well enough,” I replied, “only – where are you taking me? This isn’t Whitehall.”
“I’m sorry Dr. Watson, but you’ll have to speak up. I can’t hear you over the noise of the engine.”
I sighed. “I said – this isn’t
,” I repeated.
“No,” confirmed Carter, nodding. He returned his attention to his driving. Exasperated, I shook my head. Did the man take me for an old, addled fool?
Presently we turned down Belgrave Street, narrowly avoiding a collision with a horse and carriage coming in the opposite direction. The startled animal reared up, threatening to bolt, and the driver, perched upon his dickey-box, bellowed an outrageous curse and waved his fist in our direction. Laughing, Carter swerved out of the way, sending me sprawling across the back seat.
“Apologies, Dr. Watson!” he called, before parping his horn to warn a gaggle of nearby pedestrians to clear the way, and finally drawing the motorcar to a stop outside the entrance to Victoria Station.
Carter shut off the engine and jumped down from the driver’s seat. He opened the passenger door for me. “Here we are, Dr. Watson. And just in the nick of time, too,” he added, with genuine relief. He sounded a little breathless.