Read an Excerpt
The Baker Street Letters
By Michael Robertson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Michael Robertson
All rights reserved.
London, six weeks later
"Why are you staring at me that way?"
Laura hardly looked up from her dinner to ask this. She arched one eyebrow over one olive green eye.
"Your hair," lied Reggie, "is in your champagne."
She laughed, and Reggie hoped it was because she remembered a September picnic in Kensington Gardens, when her red hair had indeed been in the champagne, and pretty much everywhere else.
He wanted her to think of that, because tonight, with moonlight streaming into his Butler's Wharf penthouse, he was beginning to fear that she did not intend to let it down at all.
Nor had she the week before. And so Reggie had begun to stare.
But now there was a noise from the kitchen, and Mrs. Hampstead — who should have been getting ready to bring out Blackwell tarts — brought the phone instead.
"It's your brother," she said.
"I'll return it in the morning."
"Your brother!" Mrs. Hampstead said emphatically, thrusting the phone again between Reggie and Laura. "He says it is urgent."
"Tell him I'll call him back," repeated Reggie. "In the morning."
"Suit yourself. Just as though he's not the only brother you've got."
Mrs. Hampstead had an uncanny knack for spouting phrases that Reggie used to hear from his mother.
"Quite right, Mrs. Hampstead," said Laura. "Reggie, there's no use in being stubborn."
Reggie looked across and tried to read Laura's expression, but she did not meet his gaze.
He accepted the phone and spoke brusquely.
"What is it, Nigel?"
"I can't explain it over the phone," said Nigel. "You'll have to see it for yourself."
The concern in his younger brother's voice was evident, but to Reggie that was not proof of a crisis. At thirty-three, Nigel was just two years younger than Reggie — but the brothers did not always rate the crises of life on the same scale.
"I'm sure it can wait —," began Reggie.
Laura looked up from her plate. "It's all right," she said, and she glanced at her watch as she said it. "I should be going anyway."
Reggie tried quickly to see her eyes, but she looked away again.
"I'll be along shortly," he said, annoyed, into the phone.
Laura gathered a cream-colored wrap around bare, freckled shoulders, and they took the exterior lift down from the penthouse.
They walked from the shining metal-and-glass lift onto the wharf and then got in Reggie's XJS.
For a long moment, as they drove along the Embankment, with the damp air and river scents being stirred up by a light rain, neither of them spoke.
Then Laura said, "You shouldn't be so sharp with your brother."
"Was I sharp?"
"Yes. And he only got out a month ago."
"I'm aware of that," said Reggie, and he was, though he was tired of having to think about it. "My mind was on something else," he said.
"I'm tired tonight anyway," Laura replied, and then added, "I'm sure it will be late when you're through."
Reggie thought she said this as though she were relying on it. This was worrisome. He said, "I was just beginning to think I'd found him a position he couldn't bollix up. And this was only because his predecessor came back from holiday in America and stepped in front of a double-decker. You can't count on breaks like that for all your positions." Reggie realized he was speaking sharply again, and he fell silent.
"The poor man," said Laura, and Reggie, to his astonishment, realized that he was becoming jealous now even of her sympathy. Sympathy for a stranger, for that matter. For a dead stranger, in fact.
"Must have forgotten which way the traffic moves," added Laura.
"Mashed like a potato," Reggie said tightly.
He turned right onto a narrow Chelsea street and then into the drive for Laura's ivy-covered brick mews.
They walked on damp flagstones through the front courtyard. Then Laura stood in the doorway, kissed Reggie once lightly, and said good night. He wondered just what alternative plans she might have for the remainder of the evening — but he managed not to ask.
He got in his car and drove around the eastern perimeter of Hyde Park toward Marylebone. He continued almost to Regents Park and then turned south onto Baker Street.
He drove half a block and then parked. He was now at Dorset House — a structure that headquartered the Dorset National Building Society and that made up the entire Two Hundred block of Baker Street.
It was late as Reggie entered the building, and the lobby was deserted except for a security guard, who nodded as Reggie passed by.
Reggie crossed to the lifts, his footsteps echoing on the marble floor.
He had just recently leased the next floor above for his new law chambers. The location was uncommonly far from the Inns of Court — few barristers in London had chambers beyond easy walking distance of the Inns and their clubbiness — but Reggie was willing to break that convention. And the lease from Dorset National was at a very decent bargain. Such a good deal, in fact, that at first he had been suspicious — but he was beginning to accept it now as just good fortune.
He took the lift up one floor and stepped out — almost knocking down Ms. Brinks, who was trying to step in.
"Oh," she said. "So sorry, I wasn't expecting —"
"I wasn't either," said Reggie. "Just on your way out?"
"Yes," she said. "But since you're here ..."
Reggie waited as his very efficient secretary — she had many years on the job and was often happy to say so — sorted quickly through the stack of papers in her arms.
"Perhaps you'd like to sign these?" she said. "Your broker at Lloyd's sent them over. I wanted to have them ready for you Monday morning, but here you are now. He's uneasy about your presence in the construction trades, and thought you might prefer to underwrite something at lower risk."
"A media conglomerate, I believe he said. Entertainment and such."
Reggie took the papers and began to look them over. Ms. Brinks — fiftyish, thin as a rail, and hyperactive by nature — waited impatiently.
"He says it's a low rate of return, but lower risk," she continued. "After all, who ever filed a claim over a flick?"
"Yes," said Reggie, signing the forms and giving them back. "Thank you, Ms. Brinks. My brother still in?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Good night, then."
Ms. Brinks took the lift, and Reggie continued on his way down the corridor, between shoulder-high gray cubicle partitions. The cubicles were dark and mostly empty — they were left over from Dorset National's previous operations there, and Reggie's chambers wasn't large enough to make use of them. Not yet.
At this hour, the main lamps were off. But there was residual light coming through the windows on the Baker Street side, intermittent glimmers from the senior clerk's PC at the opposite side, and, at the end of the corridor, the light escaping through the blinds and doorway of Nigel's office.
The air-conditioning was off as well. The temperature was tolerable, but the air was nevertheless stifling, the lack of circulation allowing scents of printer toner and old paper to accumulate.
He hoped this wouldn't take long.
The door to Nigel's office was half-open. Reggie stopped in the doorway and took a moment to note whether Nigel's working habits had improved.
They had not.
Crumpled balls of paper and confection wrappers littered the floor around the wastebasket in the near corner, where Nigel had attempted bank shots and missed. On his desk, a package of sweet biscuits spilled crumbs onto a stained blotter. And the incoming-letter basket fairly overflowed with correspondence that Nigel had yet to act upon.
Next to the incoming basket, beneath a scattered handful of chocolate Smarties, was an opened letter addressed to Nigel from the Law Society.
That had to be the reason he had called.
Nigel was doing something with the drawers of a tall wooden filing cabinet, his back toward the door. Reggie rapped his knuckles on the door frame. Nigel swiveled his desk chair to face Reggie, in the process mangling half a dozen blank forms that had slipped to the floor.
"Oh," Nigel said almost immediately. "You were with Laura."
"And you realize that just now because ...?"
"That perplexed look you've had of late."
Reggie didn't want to talk about it. "Is it the disciplinary tribunal?" he asked, pointing at the Law Society letter.
"That? Oh, yes."
"What does it say? Have they scheduled your reinstatement hearing?"
"Yes. The tribunal convenes Monday morning."
"Excellent. It's about time you wound that up. You can drop all this clerical stuff and get back to what suits you."
"Of course," said Nigel, with no particular emphasis.
"Did they say anything about the substance of the charge?"
"Apparently they feel I've done my penance; they're no longer threatening to revoke my solicitor's license permanently."
"As expected. They've been sensitive to this 'inappropriate conduct' stuff ever since that lawyer in Staffordshire made page one of the Daily Mail by shagging a client's wife. He probably shouldn't have, given the client was in the House of Lords. But your hearing should be just a formality. You'll make nice, and I'll sit at the table to show support. No doubt at all you'll be reinstated."
Nigel listened to all that without objection — though he had begun to drum his fingers, and one knee jittered slightly. "I'm sure it will all be fine," he said now. "But, as to the reason I called —"
"It wasn't this?"
"Of course not," said Nigel, and he attacked the mess on his desk, shoving aside the tube of Smarties and the sweet biscuit crumbs. He opened the folder he had just taken from the file cabinet, and he began to push letters from it onto the blotter. Then he stopped.
"Perhaps I shouldn't have phoned. You won't understand this."
"You mean I won't agree," Reggie said suspiciously.
"No, you would agree if you understood. But you won't understand."
"Nigel, Laura is waiting. Will you tell me what is wrong?"
Nigel separated the letters and displayed them on the desk in front of Reggie.
"Part of my job is to reply to correspondence that should have been delivered elsewhere — or rather, not at all."
"What's the problem? If it's misdelivered, send it back."
"I can't. It's in the lease."
"That the tenant receive these letters, and not complain to the postmaster to get them stopped, but instead respond to them — with these bloody forms I have around here someplace."
"I still don't know what you're talking about."
"The in-basket is full of them. Just take one off the top."
Reggie did so. He began to read one letter — and then he stopped abruptly. He stared at the name of the addressee for a moment, and he gave his brother an incredulous look.
"Nigel, is this a joke?"
"It's not a joke."
Reggie read aloud the address on the envelope: "Mr. Sherlock Holmes, 221b Baker Street, London."
He tossed the letter dismissively back onto the desk in front of Nigel.
Nigel was unfazed. "Look at the others," he said.
Reggie picked up another letter and read the address: "Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, 221b Baker Street."
And another: "Mr. Sherlock Holmes, Bee Keeper, c/o 221b Baker Street."
Nigel nodded and folded his arms as though he'd made his point.
"Are you telling me everything in this basket is addressed to him?" demanded Reggie.
"Yes — they're pretty much all like that, although most aren't so much interested in the beekeeping aspect."
Reggie stared at the letters in his hand and then back at Nigel again.
"You mean simply because our address is —"
"Yes," said Nigel. "Simply because you've located your new chambers in a building that takes up the entire Two Hundred block of Baker Street."
"But surely no one could actually believe —"
"Apparently some would do."
Reggie looked again at the letters that had piled up in the basket. There were dozens of them, in all kinds of formats — scrawled in longhand and typed on ancient Remingtons; laser-printed and hand-lettered on lined yellow pads.
In fact, the letters to Sherlock Holmes outnumbered all the legitimate correspondence. This was annoying.
"Doesn't it occur to these people that if he were real, he'd be long dead and rotten?"
Nigel shrugged. "What can I tell you? Dorset House has been getting and responding to the letters for years. The Baker Street Tourist Board loves them for it."
"Then let them handle the responses. Why should we worry about —"
"Because the letters have always been delivered to this floor of this building — and now you've taken a leasehold on it. And as you know, the lease specifically says that the occupant of these premises takes responsibility for the letters."
Reggie said nothing for a moment, and now it was Nigel's turn to give his older brother an incredulous stare.
"You did know this, of course," said Nigel. "I mean, you did read the full lease agreement before signing?"
"Of course," said Reggie.
"Article 3d, paragraph 2a, of addendum G?"
Reggie was silent. He knew what had happened, though he was loath to admit it — especially to Nigel. The lease terms had been too favorable — and he had been too eager.
He sighed and sat down. "It just seemed so damn inconsequential at the time," he said.
"It's true that most of the letters are trivial," said Nigel. "A surprising number of cat owners seem to believe he must be not only real and alive but also eager to come out of retirement to track down a stray tabby that is just out having the time of its life anyway. But —"
"My mistake," Reggie interrupted. "I'll get it stricken from the lease in the next go-round. And in the meantime, I'll speak to Ocher — handling these bloody things can be assigned to someone else. You should have more responsible tasks." He stood and picked up his overcoat.
"But that's not the problem," said Nigel.
"What, then?" Reggie stopped in the doorway.
"It's these," said Nigel, holding up three letters. "All of them, ostensibly, from the same person. This one came this morning. It references another that was in the file from a month back. But both of them refer to yet another, which I finally tracked down, filed out of order in the archive drawer. And that one — the original letter from the archives — was received here nearly twenty years ago."
"And that creates a problem because ...?"
"See for yourself."
Reggie picked up the archived letter and read it quickly. It was handwritten and a bit faded — but quite legible, with a return address in Los Angeles.
"She's looking for her father. He disappeared shortly before Christmas. She wants help in finding him. She encloses something she calls 'Daddy's maps' to assist in that search." Reggie stopped reading. "To find the father who abandoned her, she's writing to a character of fiction."
"It's touching. Or pathetic. But —"
"Pathetic, perhaps," said Nigel, "if she wrote that letter as an adult. I would guess she was no more than eight years of age at the time, from the obvious pride and care she took in her cursives."
"That and the fact that she appears to have signed in wax crayon."
"Yes. Now look at the other two."
Reggie glanced at the next two letters. There was no crayon now; both were laser-printed and signed in ink. "She asks if we still have the enclosures sent in her original letter, and that we kindly return them if we have them. Then she asks the same question again, a bit more insistently." He put the letters on the desk.
"Do you see the problem?" asked Nigel.
"I suppose," said Reggie. "But it's no great crisis. Return the enclosures if you can dredge them up; if not, send the standard form with apologies."
"You're missing the point," said Nigel. "She didn't write the recent letters. She wrote only the first one, as a child. These last two are written in her name, but they are clearly forgeries."
Reggie sighed. "I blame myself," he began. "I should have found you a position that was a little less —"
"If you'll only look!" said Nigel, standing and leaning precariously across the desk to display the letters just inches from Reggie's face. "The signatures are all wrong. They're careful and deliberate and perfect, exactly like the others except for the crayon. But no adult continues to sign exactly as they did as a child. It cannot be her signature, and Mara did not write these!"
"Mara?" said Reggie.
Nigel turned red and inched back into his chair. "That is her name," he said.
Reggie could only stare and try to discern if Nigel's mental state was real cause for concern — or if he was just on another annoying but nonlethal tear, which would occupy his interest for a few days but do no harm other than distracting him from more ordinary or more responsible activities.
"Nigel," Reggie said carefully, "surely you have not contacted this young woman?"
Excerpted from The Baker Street Letters by Michael Robertson. Copyright © 2009 Michael Robertson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.