Read an Excerpt
and the Alice in Wonderland Murders
By Barry Day
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1998 Barry Day
All rights reserved.
I can't honestly say I've ever thought of myself as much of a fisherman. In fact, put me behind a rod and line and I find I'm closer to Isaac Newton contemplating the universe than Isaak Walton trying to outwit some benighted bass or sturgeon or whatever. Which is why I confess myself surprised to receive Holmes's telegram.
"MY DEAR FELLOW STOP NEED YOU ON SCOTTISH FISHING EXPEDITION STOP COME IF CONVENIENT IF NOT COME ANYWAY STOP SH."
I must admit the prospect of sitting on some yon bonnie bank with the Scots mist finding the chinks in my ulster didn't precisely fire my imagination but the prospect of seeing my old friend more than compensated for that. I had long nourished a shrewd suspicion that he regarded me as just as much of a fixture in his life as his pipe, his violin, his cuttings books — even his smelly old chemical apparatus. Equally, I knew that he wouldn't willingly give up one of them, if he had the choice.
In any case, I was content to be a part of the furniture that occasionally came to life for him.
My practice — if one could call it that — had not really received my full attention for some time. If the truth be told, I found it rather dull after some of the more bizarre little episodes Holmes and I had been through together since his return from what he ironically referred to as the Great Moriarty Hiatus a couple of years earlier.
I had another reason for welcoming his invitation, characteristically unvarnished though it might be. But then, I had long since given up expecting the irrelevant trappings society commonly expected. In the time since his 'renaissance' he had thrown himself into his work with feverish energy. It was almost as though he felt he had to run twice as fast to catch up the time he had lost and, indeed, the criminal population of the metropolis were already counting the cost. In the spring of the previous year — summoning up as much gravitas as I felt he would accept — I advised him as his medical man, as well as his friend, that he must take a break or risk a complete breakdown. I could see that my professional opinion left him unmoved but my final argument was what clinched matters.
"Wouldn't it be ironic," I mused aloud, "if you were to put yourself out of action when the good Professor so singularly failed?"
A week later we were ensconced in Poldhu Bay, a small village on the Cornish coast, where I did my best to keep the world at bay. There was, it must be admitted, one brief interruption, when Holmes was called upon to solve a rather irritating case of multiple murder by exotic poison — which I intend to write up one of these days under the working title of The Adventure of the Devil's Foot. Even now I can hear him muttering about another of my "lurid tales" — but so be it! I have heard him refer to the affair as the 'Cornish Horror' from his own lips.
"The strangest case I have ever handled, Watson."
That aside — and perhaps because of it — for a brief while I was able to get him to relax as much as someone of his hyperactive nature is capable of doing. But now, a short year later, I could see the signs recurring. The tension in the muscles of that angular jaw, the constant tapping of those steepled fingers in front of his face as he sat before the empty summer fireplace in Baker Street, his head wreathed in the smoke generated by the noxious shag he insisted on smoking — all these signs betokened a man with his mainspring too tightly coiled.
I had been wracking my brains to come up with another ruse to distract him when Holmes solved the problem for me with his telegram. He had disappeared in his typically mysterious fashion a few days earlier and I knew enough by now not to worry and to wait his pleasure. I had always found plenty to occupy my time in our great city. In fact, so busy was I with one thing and another that it was a trifle inconvenient to leave London at such short notice. But since it was so clearly a question of carpe diem, I did precisely that. Fortunately, my military experience had at least made enforced travelling second nature and my needs are few. Which is why I then found myself that mid-October afternoon in 1898, my worst fears justified, sitting on a large damp rock on the shore of an apparently endless Scottish loch. If the water harboured fish, it was certainly hoarding them with true Scots parsimony and my principal activity these past several hours had been an unsuccessful attempt to hold my rod steady and keep my pipe dry at the same time. To add injury to insult the damp was causing the old war wound from that infernal Jezail bullet to play up.
The loch itself was shrouded with mist, as it had been for each of the three days we had been there. It was one of those mists that part and meet like theatre curtains opening and closing, giving tantalising glimpses of the far shore and distorting sounds. Someone of a poetical nature would no doubt wax lyrical about its dreamlike, ethereal quality but for me the persistent drizzle was all too real.
Holmes had long since given up the pleasures of rod and line and taken himself off along the shore line. This, I might add, surprised me less than the fact that we were there in the first place. Over the years I had heard him frequently express the view that neither the country nor the sea presented the slightest attraction to him, yet here we were, up to our ears in both! In fact, as the days had gone by, I had received the clear impression that fishing was strictly secondary on whatever agenda he had devised for himself. As long as he was away from Baker Street and the endless round of trivial pursuits — what he once referred to dismissively as "recovering lead pencils and giving advice to young ladies from boarding schools" — I was not about to complain. Or, at least, not about that.
At that moment the subject of my reverie materialised. Wearing the long travelling cloak and the closefitting cloth cap that was his invariable attire when out of town, he was an impressively spectral sight as he parted the curtain of mist and appeared at my side. It was on the tip of my tongue to enquire whether he had enjoyed his solitary perambulation when something about his expression, now that I could see it, made me hold my peace. That all-too-familiar concentration in his gaze told me he had reached some point of decision. Before I could question him, a sharp tug on my line almost took the rod out of my hand.
"Good heavens, Holmes," I cried, "I do believe ..."
And then, to my amazement, that infuriating man snatched it from my hand and cast it on the ground.
"No time for that, Watson," I heard him say, as he took me by the elbow and propelled me through the mist towards the track that had brought us there from the nearby inn where we were staying. "We have other fish to fry." And as the mist once more enshrouded us, I heard a peal of ghostly laughter.
A few minutes later bowling along in the trap we had hired for our stay he had the grace to come as near to an apology as I was likely to receive.
"I'm afraid I've been a little preoccupied these last few days, old fellow," he said. And then, patting me briefly on my affronted arm — "Don't worry. Tonight I shall stand you the freshest trout and the coldest Chablis mine host can provide. Perhaps even a few oysters. There is, you will no doubt have observed, an 'R' in the month. And by the by, the fishing in the river that runs by the inn is in every way superior to the overgrown pond that was occupying your afternoon's efforts."
Before I could point out that the 'pond' had been at his insistence, he went on: "And as for the rod ... top of the line at the Army & Navy Stores what — five? six? — years ago ... briefly lent to an old army friend ... left handed ... a former gunner, unless I miss my mark, now somewhat arthritic in the forefinger ... don't worry about that. I'll have the boy from the inn go straight back and retrieve it. The fish, too, if he's lucky."
He took his eye off the track to give me a sidelong glance knowing full well he had me hooked as tightly as I'd had that fish, which would grow in size with every retelling. On this occasion I felt I had indulged him enough for one afternoon, so after a pause he continued — "Not being one of nature's predators but an amateur in the true sense of the word, when you bought a rod, you would naturally buy the best and since the Army & Navy draws you like a homing pigeon ... You are right-handed yet the wear on the — what do you call it? — the handle clearly indicates a left-handed person. And then the wear marks are uneven, indicating the user was not exerting the usual pressure on the finger most of us rely on ..."
At that point I capitulated, as he knew I would.
"Yes, yes, elementary, my dear Holmes," I said, imitating his distinctive voice as best I could, "but how did you know about old Tug being in the Engineers ...?"
"A man may rise to the highest rank, Watson, but he will never entirely rid his nostrils of the smell of cordite nor his fingers from ingrained gunpowder. But enough of my parlour tricks. Watson, I confess I have been less that candid with you. The purpose of our little trip was not fishing ..."
"That," I said with as much irony as I could muster, "I had deduced for myself."
"No," Holmes continued, as though I had not spoken, "there is a party I am anxious to attend."
"A party?" Anyone less social than my old friend would be hard to imagine.
"You've dragged me to this godforsaken spot for a party?"
Before I could vent my frustrations any further, something about his expression caught my eye. His face was turned in profile to me and instinctively I recalled how in times of crisis he would never make eye contact with me. It was as though to do so would break his concentration.
An anaemic sun was trying to break through the mist and it illuminated that distinctive aquiline profile that could so easily have adorned a Roman coin. The gaze was focused somewhere just beyond the apparent horizon. I prepared to listen to what he had to say, for I knew it was not idle chatter.
"You and I are about to be uninvited guests at what I believe is called a Press Party. Our host will be one John Moxton ..."
"That newspaper chap who's causing all the fuss?"
"The very same, Watson. Since he arrived from America just over two years ago with apparently unlimited resources, Mr. Moxton has — according to his admittedly jealous rivals in Fleet Street — undermined the very foundations of serious journalism as we know it."
"Foundations built on sand, if I'm any judge," I interrupted. "Why some of the things I've read in the popular press lately would shock my maiden aunt ..."
"If you had a maiden aunt — which to the best of my knowledge you do not. Nonetheless, your sentiments are shared by many, old fellow. Not that I can claim to be anything of an expert in matters journalistic. As you well know, I read nothing but the police reports and the agony columns. As far as human aspiration and misery are concerned, they more than suffice. However, supposing Fleet Street is in need of a shake up, then this man is in the process of administering it."
A recollection came to me. "Didn't his paper — what's it called? The Clarion? run those articles on parliamentary indiscretions over the ages?"
"Commons Ladies — a series of interviews with women who claimed to have had liaisons with Members of Parliament? Quite right, Watson. Not that you actually read them, of course. But the clever thing was that Moxton's justification for the piece lay in the fact of aristocratic indiscretion as a British tradition going back to King Charles and Nell Gwynne and even further. And he does the same thing with all of his exposés, as he calls them. The public's right to know. In one of them he even quotes the American Constitution and freedom of speech ... In another he argues that comparable Presidential dalliances are rendered impossible because of the puritanical influence of the Founding Fathers. I wonder ..."
"Then why doesn't the fellow go back to America or wherever he came from?" I demanded. "I'm afraid I don't have too much patience with people who come over trying to change things that have worked perfectly well for longer than some of these countries have been countries."
Holmes, however, was not to be distracted from his theme: "What friend Moxton seems to have hit on is the fact that there is a new and reasonably literate middle class emerging who want to be talked to in their own idiom and not talked down to. When Moxton talks about the 'popular press' from one of his soap boxes — and you'll notice the man is quoted constantly in his own paper, as if he were some kind of messiah — he strikes an emotional chord with a lot of people. I believe such men can be forces for good or ill but, being a pessimist by nature — as you know better than anyone, Watson — I suspect their motives. So much power can so easily corrupt those it touches. I am anxious to study the first of the species to emerge on our shores. I very much doubt that he will be the last. Ah, here we are ..."CHAPTER 2
The trap turned into what must originally have been a large meadow that led down to the shores of the loch. On a day in high summer I imagine it must have been pleasant for the locals to picnic here but the sight that met our eyes was very different.
A large marquee had been erected, open to the water and a temporary flooring of planks had been laid, largely covered with what seemed to my untutored eye some rather valuable carpets. I spotted at least a couple of designs that seemed vaguely familiar from my days in the Raj. Clearly, no expense had been spared for this occasion — whatever it happened to be.
Circulating around this elegantly improvised drawing room were some hundred or so equally elegant people, while moving unobtrusively among them were almost as many flunkeys in formal uniform dispensing flutes of champagne and canapés. It was, to say the least, not a sight one would have expected to see in this remote spot.
Holmes resolved at least one of the questions going through my mind when he murmured: "Our friend Moxton hired a special train, I believe, to transport his guests here for the occasion."
"Yes, Holmes," I murmured in reply, "but what is the occasion, pray?"
Before my friend could answer, there was a sharp tinkling sound of a spoon or fork tapping the side of a glass, which quickly silenced the chatter of conversation. All eyes turned to the edge of the room nearest the water, where a tall grey haired man had moved into a space where he could command his audience. Instinctively, those nearest drew back to give him room and, indeed, there was something about his presence which seemed to demand deference.
He may have been an inch or so over six feet but his general bearing and the immaculate cut of what was obviously an expensive suit — tailored, I observed, thanks to Holmes' persistent training in the rather more relaxed style of our North American cousins — gave the impression of a much bigger man.
Come to think of it, though, it was less his build than his eyes that dominated that assembly. Piercing and almost coal black, they shone forth from bushy white brows, leaving everyone in the room, I felt sure, with the same impression they created on me, that he had sought them out for his undivided attention. I suddenly realised that I had only seen one other pair of eyes remotely like them in my life — and they belonged to the man standing next to me.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," he was saying as two flunkeys placed a small podium in front of him, so that he could lean at his ease while addressing his guests. "My name is John Moxton and for my sins I run this little news sheet some of you may be familiar with."
Here he held up a newspaper that had been lying on the podium. There was a ripple of polite laughter from his guests. I had seen his 'little news sheet' before, of course, on the vendors' stands as I went about my business but it had never crossed my mind to purchase it. My Daily Chronicle kept me abreast of the world's woes and, if I needed further bad news, the Evening Standard would inform me of the further damage our four legged friends were inflicting on my Army pension. This was the first occasion I had had to actually study it and I have to say, my instinctive fears were justified.
Excerpted from Sherlock Holmes by Barry Day. Copyright © 1998 Barry Day. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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.