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A child is a burden, after a mile.
After two miles in the cold sea air, stumbling through the night up the side of a hill and down again, becoming all too aware of previously unnoticed burns and bruises, and having already put on eight miles that nighthalf of it carrying a man on a stretcherevena small, drowsy three-and-a-half-year-old becomes a strain.
At three miles, aching all over, wincing at the crunch of gravel underfoot, spine tingling with the certain knowledge of a madman's stealthy pursuit, a loud snort broke the silence, so close I could feel it. My nerves screamed as I struggled to draw therevolver without dropping the child.
Then the meaning of the snort penetrated the adrenaline blasting my nerves: A mad killer was not about to make that wet noise before attacking.
I went still. Over my pounding heart came a lesser version of the sound; the rush of relief made me stumble forward to drop my armful atop the low stone wall, just visible in the creeping dawn. The cow jerked back, then ambled towards us in curiosity untilthe child was patting its sloppy nose. I bent my head over her, letting reaction ebb.
Estelle Adler was the lovely, bright, half-Chinese child of my husband's long-lost son: Sherlock Holmes' granddaughter. I had made her acquaintance little more than two hours before, and known of her existence for less than three weeks, but if the maniacwho had tried to sacrifice her fatherand who had apparently intended to take the child for his ownhad appeared from the night, I would not hesitate to give my life for hers.
She had been drugged by said maniac the night before, which no doubt contributed to her drowsiness, but now she studied the cow with an almost academic curiosity, leaning against my arms to examine its white-splashed nose. Which meant that the light wasgrowing too strong to linger. I settled the straps of my rucksack, lumpy with her possessions, and reached to collect this precious and troublesome burden.
"Are you" she began, in full voice.
"Shh!" I interrupted. "We need to whisper, Estelle."
"Are you tired?" she tried again, in a voice that, although far from a whisper, at least was not as carrying.
"My arms are," I breathed in her ear, "but I'm fine."
"I could ride pickaback," she said.
"Are you sure?"
"I do with Papa."
Well, if she could cling to the back of that tall young man, she could probably hang on to me. I shifted the rucksack around and let her climb onto my back, her little hands gripping my collar. I bent, tucking my arms under her legs, and set off again.
It was a good thing Estelle knew what to do, because I was probably the most incompetent nurse-maid ever to be put in charge of a child. I knew precisely nothing about children; the only one I had been around for any length of time was an Indian streeturchin three times this one's age and with more maturity than many English adults. I had much to learn about small children. Such as the ability to ride pickaback, and the inability to whisper.
The child's suggestion allowed me to move faster down the rutted track. We were in the Orkneys, a scatter of islands past the north of Scotland, coming down from the hill that divided the main island's two parts. Every step took us farther away from myhusband; from Estelle's father, Damian; and from the bloody, fire-stained prehistoric altar-stone where Thomas Brothers had nearly killed both of them.
Why not bring in the police, one might ask. They can be useful, and after all, Brothers had killed at least three others. However, things were complicatednot that complicated wasn't a frequent state of affairs in the vicinity of Sherlock Holmes, butin this case the complication took the form of warrants posted for my husband, his son, and me. Estelle was the only family member not being actively hunted by Scotland Yard.
Including, apparently and incredibly, Holmes' brother. For forty-odd years, Mycroft Holmes had strolled each morning to a grey office in Whitehall and settled in to a grey job of accountingeven his longtime personal secretary was a grey man, an ageless,sexless individual with the leaking-balloon name of Sosa. Prime Ministers came and went, Victoria gave way to Edward and Edward to George, budgets were slashed and expanded, wars were fought, decades of bureaucrats flourished and died, while Mycroft walkedeach morning to his office and settled to his account books. Except that Mycroft's grey job was that of eminence grise of the British Empire. He inhabited the shadowy world of Intelligence, but he belonged neither to the domestic Secret Service nor to the international Secret Intelligence Service. Instead, he hadshaped his own department within the walls of Treasury, one that ran parallel to both the domestic branch and the SIS. After forty years, his power was formidable.
If I stopped to think about it, such unchecked authority in one individual's hands would scare me witless, even though I had made use of it more than once. But if Mycroft Holmes was occasionally cold and always enigmatic, he was also sea-green incorruptible,the fixed point in my universe, the ultimate source of assistance, shelter, information, and knowledge.
He was also untouchable, or so I had thought.
The day before, a telegram had managed to find me, with a report of Mycroft being questioned by Scotland Yard, and his home raided. It was hard to creditpicturing Mycroft's wrath raining down on Chief Inspector Lestrade came near to making me smilebutuntil I could disprove it, I could not call on Mycroft's assistance. I was on my own. Were it not for the child on my back, I might have simply presented myself to the police station in Kirkwall and used the time behind bars to catch up on sleep. I was certain that the warrants had only been issued because of Chief Inspector John Lestrade'spiqueeven at the best of times, Lestrade disapproved of civilians like us interfering in an official investigation. Once his point was made and his temper faded, we would be freed.
Then again, were it not for the child, I would not be on this side of the island at all. I would have stayed at the Stones, where even now my training and instincts were shouting that I belonged, hunting down Brothers before he could sail off and starthis dangerous religion anew in some other place.
This concept of women and children fleeing danger was a thing I did not at all care for.
But as I said, children are a burden, whether three years old or thirty. My only hope of sorting this out peacefully, without inflicting further trauma on the child or locking her disastrously claustrophobic and seriously wounded father behind bars, wasto avoid the police, both here and in the British mainland. And my only hope of avoiding the Orcadian police was a flimsy, sputtering, freezing cold aeroplane. The same machine in which I had arrived on Orkney the previous afternoon, and sworn never to enteragain.
The aeroplane's pilot was an American ex-RAF flyer named Javitz, who had brought me on a literally whirlwind trip from London and left me in a field south of Orkney's main town. Or rather, I had left him. I thought he would stay there until I reappeared.
I hoped he would.
The wind was not as powerful as it had been the day before, crossing from Thurso, but it rose with the sun, and the seas rose with it. By full light, all the fittings in the Fifie's cabin were rattling wildly, and although Damian's arm was bound to hisside, half an hour out of Orkney the toss and fret of the fifty-footlong boat was making him hiss with pain. When the heap of blankets and spare clothing keeping him warm was pulled away, the dressings showed scarlet. Sherlock Holmes rearranged the insulation around his son and tossed another scoop of coal onto the stove before climbing the open companionway to the deck. The young captain looked as if he was clinging to the wheel as much as he was controlling it. Holmesraised his voice against the wind.
"Mr Gordon, is there nothing we can do to calm the boat?"
The young man took his eyes from the sails long enough to confirm the unexpected note of concern in the older man's voice, then studied the waves and the rigging overhead. "Only thing we could do is change course. To sail with the wind, y'see?"
Holmes saw. Coming out of Scapa Flow, they had aimed for Strathy, farther west along the coast of northern Scotlandin truth, any village but Thurso would do, so long as it had some kind of medical facility.
But going west meant battling wind and sea: Even unladen, the boat had waves breaking across her bow, and the dip and rise of her fifty-foot length was troubling even to the unwounded on board.
Thurso was close and it would have a doctor; however, he and Russell had both passed through that town the day before, and although the unkempt Englishman who hired a fishing boat to sail into a storm might have escaped official notice, rumour of a youngwoman in an aeroplane would have spread. He hoped Russell would instruct her American pilot to avoid Thurso, but if notwell, the worst she could expect was an inconvenient arrest. He, on the other hand, dared not risk sailing into constabulary arms.
"Very well," he said. "Change course."
"Thurso, good." Gordon sounded relieved.
"No. Wick." A fishing town, big enough to have a doctorperhaps even a rudimentary hospital. Police, too, of course, but warrants or not, what village constable would take note of one fishing boat in a harbour full of them?
"Wick? Oh, but I don't know anyone there. My cousin in Strathy"
"The lad will be dead by Strathy."
Gordon thought for a moment, then nodded. "Take that line. Be ready when I say."
The change of tack quieted the boat's wallow considerably. When Holmes descended again to the cabin, the stillness made him take two quick steps to the bunkbut it was merely sleep.
The madman's bullet had circled along Damian's ribs, cracking at least one, before burying itself in the musculature around the shoulder bladetoo deep for amateur excavation. Had it been the left arm, Holmes might have risked it, but Damian was an artist,a right-handed artist, an artist whose technique required precise motions with the most delicate control. Digging through muscle and nerve for a piece of lead could turn the lad into a former artist.
Were Watson here, Holmes would permit his old friend to take out his scalpel, even considering the faint hand tremor he'd seen the last time they had met. But Watson was on his way home from AustraliaHolmes suspected a new lady friendand was at themoment somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
He could only hope that Wick's medical man had steady hands and didn't drink. If they were not so fortunate, he should have to face the distressing option of coming to the surface to summon a real surgeon.
Which would Damian hate more: the loss of his skill, or the loss of his freedom?
It was not really a question. Even now, Holmes knew that if he were to remove the wedge holding the cabin's hatch open, in minutes Damian would be sweating with horror and struggling to rise, to breathe, to flee.
No: A painter robbed of his technique could form another life for himself; a man driven insane by confinement could not. If they found no help in Wick, he might have to turn surgeon.
The thought made his gut run cold. Not the surgery itselfhe'd done worsebut the idea of Damian's expression when he tried to control a brush, and could not.
Imagine: Sherlock Holmes dodging responsibility.
Standing over his son's form, he became aware of the most peculiar sensation, disturbingly primitive and almost entirely foreign.
Reverend Thomas Brothers (or James Harmony Hayden or Henry Smythe or whatever names he had claimed) lay dead among the standing stone circle. But had the corpse been to hand, Sherlock Holmes would have ripped out the mad bastard's heart and savagely kickedhis remains across the deck and into the sea.