In Gone Before Christmas, this delightfully absorbing short Christmas story in the bestselling Charles Lenox mystery series, Lenox must find a soldier who ran into a cloakroom for his hat—and never returned.
Charles Lenox’s holiday preparations are interrupted when an officer vanishes at Charing Cross Station. Lieutenant Austen, by all accounts an upstanding member of the elite Grenadier Guards, disappears, and his friends, searching the cloakroom of the station where they had been waiting for their trains together, find only a spray of blood on the wall above a scattering of his personal items—his train ticket among them.
Scotland Yard is baffled. Has the Lieutenant, who had a hand in intelligence, been kidnapped by French operatives? Or is there some more personal grudge at work? The situation grows graver by the hour, and Lenox knows that he will have to work quickly and brilliantly to have any chance of discovering the missing soldier—and getting home in time for his own Christmas dinner.
Includes a sneak peek of The Woman In the Water, a prequel to the Charles Lenox series.
About the Author
Charles Finch is the USA Today bestselling author of the Charles Lenox historical mysteries, which begin with A Beautiful Blue Death. His contemporary novel The Last Enchantments, is also available from St. Martin's Press.
Finch received the 2017 Nona Balakian Citation Award, for excellence in reviewing, from the National Book Critics Circle. His essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Washington Post, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
The two brothers stood motionless upon the top step of a fine London townhouse, each with arms crossed, assessing a correspondingly motionless pair of trees propped against a railing.
"The one on the left looks as if it has minutes of life left in it," said Charles Lenox, finally.
"Then that ought to be yours. You always had a green thumb."
That was his older brother, Sir Edmund Lenox, speaking. "That's nonsense."
"If there's a strong wind all of its needles will fall off."
"Anyway, the one on the right isn't much better."
"It's much less dead."
Edmund flung his arms open expansively. "Death is the great spiritual adventure toward which all living things must lean forward in hope and humility, in neither fear nor anger."
"That may well be the case, but I still want the less-dead one."
"Look here, though, that's the one I want."
The house on whose steps they were having this conversation was Charles's. It stood in the little cobblestone street at the heart of London's West End called Hampden Lane. It had not snowed so far in that December of 1877, though this morning it felt as if it were very near — a gray, wind-whipped day, each little shop across the way a small orange glow of comfort beckoning one inward. Neither brother wanted to extend the debate; when it was finished there would be a cup of tea waiting for them in Charles's study, and already their noses and fingers were bitten with the cold.
"Listen," Edmund reasoned, "the dying one will have a terrible time getting back to my house. It will die on the way. Here, with immediate attention, in your warm, nurturing —"
"Oh, blast you — fine," said Charles irritably. He knew that his brother was correct on that point. Through the glass on either side of the front door he motioned toward Kirk, the house's vast, dignified butler, who was standing just inside, enshrouded in an immense fur-lined overcoat. Kirk emerged in response, and Lenox said, "Please take this dying tree inside and put it in some water immediately. You ought to get Massey to help. It's bound to be sticky."
"The dying one, sir?"
Charles picked the tree on the left up by its trunk and thrust it toward Kirk. A cascade of needles fell.
Edmund, gracious in victory, tried not to smile. He motioned toward his carriage on the street below, and the driver came up the steps and hoisted the better of the two trees onto his shoulders, then transported it down and began to bind it to the four-wheeler's back ledge with rope.
Two trees came each year from the grounds of Lenox House in Sussex, Sir Edmund's house, and it was to Edmund's credit that Charles received one at all. That was the other, unspoken element of his concession in the choice — but of course Charles had a daughter of five, Sophia, and to children of five Christmas trees may be significant in the extreme. Edmund's two sons were much older, one a junior officer at sea aboard the Lucy, the other managing a coffee farm in Kenya.
"Well," said Charles, sighing, "I hope it may last the next three days, anyhow."
"Until Christmas morning."
"Yes, then it can slink off to some corner and die."
Edmund smiled. "What about that cup of tea, then?" he said, rubbing his hands together.
The two brothers looked alike, lean and thoughtful, though Charles had a short dark beard matching his hair, while Edmund was cleans-haven and carried a bit more heft in his shoulders. Edmund was a prominent member of Parliament, on a dashing break before the evening session at the House of Commons, just down Whitehall from Lenox's home.
Charles was a detective.
"All right," he said moodily, "fine. Tea."
"I wouldn't turn down a stack of toast, either."
"Tea, toast, the better of the trees, my left arm, why not take them all," said Charles, following Kirk and the footman named Massey inside, bearing tenderly between them the feeble Christmas tree of which he was now owner. "Let's find a place near the fire anyway."
"Capital idea," said Edmund. "I'm curious to hear about this disappearance in Charing Cross."
"Yes, it's an odd one."
Edmund frowned. "Is it true that he vanished without a trace, the poor chap?"
"Nobody vanishes without a trace."
Lieutenant Ernest Austen of the Grenadier Guards had, however; even Lenox would be forced to concede, come close.
The circumstances — the circumstances that had left Scotland Yard so baffled that they had agreed that he, a private detective, might be invited to consult upon the matter — were surpassingly simple.
They began with the Grenadiers.
This was one of the oldest regiments in Her Majesty's army; so old, indeed, that it took first precedent among all regiments, and therefore its colonel-in-chief was by tradition in fact Great Britain's monarch herself. (This occasionally led to the humorous sight of Queen Victoria, generally situated in careful stateliness beneath an elaborate hat, riding next to the extremely proper colonel of the regiment, together conducting an official review of the troops.) The Coldstream Guards were perhaps more aristocratic, the Welsh Guards more rakishly glamorous, but the Grenadiers considered themselves to outshine all competitors in both glory and grace.
They were billeted in the Wellington barracks in London. (Arthur Wellesley — later to become the Duke of Wellington, following his triumph at the Battle of Waterloo — had been a member of the Grens during the early part of his military career.)
In times of peace, the officers were allowed to rotate from thence to their homes at Christmas.
"Austen was bound for home, then?" Edmund asked.
Lenox nodded. "Via Charing Cross."
They were now in Lenox's book-lined library, which had a long row of windows overlooking the slender cobblestone street outside. Tea was just arriving, steam curling gently from the delft-blue pot in which it was brewing. Kirk, against all protocol, still wore his overcoat as he delivered the tray — but it was hard to blame him, on a day when the chill stayed in your flesh long after you had come inside, and besides which when he was covered in pine needles, and would need to remove the coat carefully downstairs to avoid scattering them across the upstairs quarters.
"You look like a Russian general in that coat," commented Charles.
Kirk was too noble to reply to this directly. "May I bring anything besides toast, sir?" he asked, setting down the tray.
"Lord, yes, everything," said Edmund. "I'm famished. If there are preserves laid against the winter months I want to eat them down to nothing."
"Feel free to treat my home as your own," said Charles.
Kirk, whose limberness of intellect was perhaps not the foremost of his many excellent qualities, grimaced in consternation. Would sandwiches and gingerbread satisfy the request? Both brothers nodded; they would do very well; thanked him; he withdrew, grimace gone.
Charles, lifting his cup of tea and taking a very small sip, leaned back in his armchair and took up Edmund's question. "To answer you — yes, he was returning to Suffolk. His father is a clergyman there. Independent means, from all reports."
That was unsurprising; life in any of the six Guards regiments ran very dear. "Where in Suffolk?"
"The countryside just beyond Ipswich, Inspector Larchmont tells me — a small but substantial country estate. Mother dead, but two sisters still living there, keeping house for the father."
"It was Inspector Larchmont who brought you aboard?"
"Well then," said Edmund, carefully drawing his own teacup to his lips and taking a small sip to mirror his brother's, then emitting a contented sigh, "spin your tale."
The facts were of a simplicity to please Charles Lenox's mind. As a detective, he enjoyed puzzles that were clean and strange, uncomplicated except by one enormous complication. This was the sort of mystery he had read about as a boy — a missing ruby necklace, a gunshot wound in the temple of a marquis who had been quietly reading papers in his study.
But the vast majority of murders, of burglaries, of assaults, of bludgeonings, of thefts, were, in disappointing contrariety, messy, foolish, and obvious in both their motivation and actors. Generally, they involved love or money.
As it happened, however, Austen's case was one of those simple, confounding ones Lenox liked so much.
The lieutenant had been dining in a small restaurant at Charing Cross called Olivetti's. An Italian of the same name owned it, though he served standard British fare. The other three officers with whom Austen had been in the restaurant were all rotating home for the Christmas holiday as well. (Their names were Price, Curbishley, and Boothby. None was a suspect — thus far.) They had decided to split cab fare from the barracks to Charing Cross and then pass the time before their respective journeys with a meal together. According to Inspector Larchmont, the quartet had been friends, companions of the officers' mess, Austen included.
Austen's had been the first train scheduled to leave, the 1:09 to Ipswich, but the others were due to depart soon thereafter, all within twenty or thirty minutes. They had therefore paid their bill at five minutes before the hour, then left the restaurant together and gone to the army cloakroom, which was a room behind lock and key near the ticketing agents, a place where army officers could stow their belongings while they waited for their trains. The four had left their bags there earlier.
The cloakroom had been empty when they returned. They'd retrieved their bags without any trouble and emerged again into the bustle of the station.
Standing outside the door together — in uniform — they had begun to say their goodbyes, when Austen had smacked his forehead. "Dash it all, I've forgotten my hat, haven't I. Give me a moment, chaps."
Then he had gone back in.
Charles described all of this, then sat back in his seat and took another sip of tea. In the silence, the fire crackled.
"And?" said Edmund.
"That's all. He hasn't been seen since."
Edmund whistled. "Goodness."
"Yes, very odd."
"And so what did you do?"
"I went to see the cloakroom for myself this morning."
He had arrived on the spot roughly twenty-four hours after Austen's disappearance. The gent from Scotland Yard who had met him there, Inspector Larchmont, was rather new to the force, recently promoted from a beat in the south end of London. He was a rough-and-ready kind of person, toweringly large, though in surprising contrast to his beefiness he had proved, in Lenox's scattered experiences with him in the eleven months since his promotion, quite sensitive to the emotional overtones of the men and women he interviewed and investigated.
He had a ruddy face; his hair was slicked back into a firm shellac, with what Lenox was absolutely positive from the scent was beef suet, a common unguent for the control of flyaway hair among the less refined classes. Scotland Yard, stolidly professional, generally whipped that sort of habit out of a fellow. Lenox rather liked that Larchmont had kept it, remaining true to himself.
They'd shaken hands. "And this is it, the infamous room?" Lenox asked Larchmont.
The cloakroom had been in the papers that morning, already the subject of a great deal of speculation. Charing Cross was hardly a private site, of course. The Grenadiers were also famous throughout the empire, which made Austen's disappearance attractive fodder for the press.
Larchmont nodded. "Yes, here it is. Preserved since yesterday as we found it. Which is not to say it hasn't been interfered with. Our people were thirty minutes in arriving."
Austen's three friends had gone back into the cloakroom in search of him after only a few moments, and found it empty — and also found, the reason for their alarm and the immediate involvement of the Yard and subsequently Lenox, a wide spray of blood against the wall.
"Blood!" said Edmund as Lenox recounted this.
"Well? What then?"
Lenox and Larchmont had entered the cloakroom together, each touching their hat to a youthful, fat-cheeked bobby who was standing guard at its door. "Wilkinson," said Larchmont in a commanding voice.
They passed Wilkinson and went inside.
The cloakroom was a small, square chamber with benches ringing it on all sides, and hooks and cubbies lining the walls above these. The walls from floor to ceiling were of a highly polished dark wood, benches too. The room smelled of tobacco, and at the rear of the room was a very large sofa and a pair of armchairs with a small circular table between them, on it a stack of copies of the army's own Gazette.
The most significant immediate fact that Lenox observed about the room was that there was no door other than the one through which they had entered.
No window either.
Lenox looked up. Larchmont followed his gaze, and, reading his thoughts, said, "Nothing above eye level."
"He really did vanish, then," Lenox had muttered.
"No, I know that, of course. I was being facetious."
"Ah. Facetious. Noted." Larchmont nodded stiffly. "No, this is the only possible egress."
The inspector led Lenox behind the sofa and pointed to a grate low in the wall. It was about three feet across and two feet high. Larchmont himself would have had trouble wriggling down it.
"Where does it lead?" asked Lenox.
"Into the steam room. It's a fairly straight shot, approximately ninety yards. From there you can go anywhere you please — it lets straight out into the street or into the station, two doors. Locked from the outside of course, but not the inside."
Lenox knelt down and peered into the black depths of the tunnel. The panel that had been covering the grate was leaning against the wall next to it, a solid piece of oak pierced with even rows of holes, along with four heavy bolts that had evidently been keeping it in place.
"You found this panel removed?"
"Yes," said Larchmont.
Lenox reached an exploratory hand inside — very warm to the touch, which made sense since it was so close to the steam room.
He pulled his hand out again, brushing the dust off of his jacket.
"What can you tell me about Austen?" he said.
Larchmont raised his eyebrows. "Ah. There we're having something of a tricky time. A bit of a runaround from the Grenadiers. It seems that he was in intelligence. From what I can piece together, he had recently recruited a very valuable French agent here in London."
That seemed a clearly consequential fact, and Lenox nodded.
He had reached his point in the story when he was interrupted by the sound of the front door. "That must be Jane and Sophia," he said, set down his teacup, and rose from his chair.
Charles's wife and child brought the cold inside with them, heavily wrapped themselves, carrying parcels and bags. Each embraced the two brothers, and each asked immediately if they could have something hot to drink (tea for Jane, cocoa for Sophia), filling the quiet room with a sudden liveliness.
They had been out shopping together in the arcades by Piccadilly — it was the twenty-second of December, not much time before Christmas — but had returned for Sophia's lunch.
She was five now, and abjured naps as childish; for his part Lenox could think of few more serious grown-up joys, but she was stubborn in her opinion. Nevertheless she regularly had a period of quiet rest after lunch, in which she lay wide awake and considered, who knew — life, the tears of the world, her toys — which her governess was very severely insistent still be called a nap. And this hour, too, was approaching.
"We've brought you a tree from the country, Sophia!" said Edmund. He was selling it very hard in advance, Charles noted. "A lovely green Christmas tree."
"Can we see it, Papa?" said Sophia, who was in Charles's lap.
"Well, I suppose. Brace yourself."
They trooped into the dining room. The tree was propped up in a steel bucket full of tepid water.
Lady Jane was silent for a moment and then said, "I don't recall founding an arboretum for terminally ill fir trees."
"It's a pine tree, which shows what you know," said Charles, though he wasn't sure why he was defending it.
Sophia looked thoughtful. "The presents will crush its branches, papa. But I do like it."
"It will look better with tinsel in it," he said, squeezing her.
As was the custom all across England, St. Nicholas left the Christmas presents at the Lenox house (many rather large, in their boxes, their tissue paper, their string) amidst the branches of the trees. If there were any that positively wouldn't fit they were placed beneath the tree — but that was considered poorish form.
Jane said, "I'm afraid she's right, these branches won't bear the weight of the presents."
"We can bind them in there with rope."
"We're not the Swiss Family Robinson."
"Not with that attitude!" said Charles.
"Our guests will think we've grown very economical."
Excerpted from "Gone Before Christmas"
Copyright © 2017 Charles Finch.
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.
Table of Contents
1. Title Page,
2. Copyright Notice,
3. Begin Reading,
4. Excerpt: Woman in the Water,
5. About the Author,
6. Also by Charles Finch,
7. Copyright Page,