Contrary to Doctor Watson’s chronicles, the biggest drawback to Sherlock Holmes’s character wasn’t his use of cocaine, or smoking shag tobacco, or his—admittedly somewhat accurate—view of himself as vastly more intelligent than the entire rest of the human race.
No. I decided within a week of knowing him that the real trouble with Sherlock Holmes was that he had no switch to turn his mental powers off and on. Entering into conversation with him was like being a butterfly and asking to be skewered by an entomologist’s pin; if you spoke to Sherlock Holmes, you placed yourself under the fierce lens of his scrutiny—inescapably.
It made him an excellent detective. As a father, however, it made him more than slightly maddening.
At the moment, he was fixing me with the keen gray gaze that felt as though it could penetrate clear to the back of my skull.
“I understand that you are seeing Constable Kelly tonight.”
“How?” I demanded. “How can you possibly know that?”
We were standing in the sitting room of number 221A Baker Street, where I had been living for the past two months.
In fairness, it would probably have been easier to keep secrets from Holmes if I had not been living directly downstairs from his own address of 221B. But despite my best efforts, the thought of returning to the flat I kept in Exeter Street still made my skin crawl.
“No, wait, don’t tell me.” I let my eyes travel across the room. “While I haven’t yet changed clothes, the boots I intend to wear are standing ready by the door, I’ve re-done my hair three times—which is far more trouble than I usually take with it—as evidenced by the scattering of hairpins on my dressing table. And the corner of the music I intend to give to Becky tonight is visible at the top of my handbag.”
It was five o’clock on a September evening, which meant that my curtains were drawn against the fog that crawled through the London streets outside. The gas jets above the mantel were lighted, their glow patching Holmes’s hawk-like countenance with shadow and throwing his sharp, intelligent features into relief.
He gave me a calm look. “While all those indicators are, now that you mention it, entirely true, in this case my knowledge stems from the telephone call I received earlier from young Miss Kelly. She wished to make sure that you would be coming to St. Giles tonight.”
I blew out a breath, silently counting to ten inside my head.
It was not Holmes’s fault that I had spent much of the past ten weeks alternately feeling as though my skin was stretched too tight with the effort of containing my frustration with life in general and then at other moments jumping at every noise and seeing an intruder lurking in every shadow.
Holmes was still watching me. “How is Constable Kelly faring?”
“He’s … fine.”
If struggling to adjust to a life of having a badly damaged leg could be considered fine.
“He says that he’s managing.”
Holmes’s expression didn’t change, exactly. But the look in his gray eyes told me that he was no more convinced by Jack’s statement than I had been.
“I will turn my attention to thinking what may be done for him.”
“Have you any thoughts on what may be done for him?” Ordinarily, I would respect Jack’s privacy too much to consult with Holmes about him, but at the moment I was willing to try anything.
Holmes’s brow furrowed. He was wearing an elaborately patterned silk dressing gown over shirt and trousers, which I took to mean that he wasn’t currently involved in any cases.
“My own sovereign remedy springs to mind.” He spoke half to himself.
“I think Jack has troubles enough without your encouraging him to become addicted to cocaine.”
“That was not the solution to which I was referring.” Holmes was silent a moment as though pondering something, then turned his attention back to me. “And how are you faring?”
“Fine. Also fine.”
Holmes’s eyebrows rose slightly, but he didn’t question my answer. He had no need to. I knew from looking in the mirror that I had faint purple shadows under my eyes; it wouldn’t take a deductive mind like Holmes’s to conclude that I hadn’t been sleeping well.
Knowing him, he had probably deduced the subject of my recurring nightmare too, though at least he refrained from saying, I told you so.
He had warned me of the cost of taking part in his investigations, but I had refused to leave him to face the danger of tracking down a particularly vicious traitor to the crown alone.
And, really, nightmares were a small price to pay for the fact that my father was alive and unharmed.
“Hmmm.” Holmes’s eyes unfocused, his expression turning to the faintly bored look that meant his thoughts were following some complicated inner track. “I believe I might have heard of something that would suit …”
Without another word, he turned and vanished back up the stairs.
I crossed to close the door behind him and then went into the bedroom to change.
The second disadvantage to having Holmes for a parent: Only now, after nearly two years’ acquaintance, was I becoming even remotely skilled at guessing what he was thinking. And in this case, I had no idea at all.
The extra trouble I had taken with my hair was actually wasted since whenever I visited Becky and Jack I tucked it under a cloth newsboy’s cap. I also wore boots, trousers, and a loose-fitting tweed overcoat so that I could pass for a boy somewhere in his teen years.
Becky and Jack’s neighborhood of St. Giles was a warren of dirty, poverty-stricken streets and houses so decrepit that they looked as though a single push would send them falling over. Those same houses were also dens for criminals of all types: pickpockets, smash-and-grab men, prostitutes and their procurers …
The street where Becky and Jack lived was too narrow to accommodate a carriage, so I had to walk the last block or two. I attracted less notice if I wore male attire and, in the event I had to defend myself, boots and trousers were also significantly more convenient for fighting than petticoats and corsets.
Tonight, a small girl with blond braids was waiting for me at the end of the road, with an enormous brown and white dog seated on the ground beside her.
There were a few other pedestrians about, but even the roughest-looking gave the pair of them a wide berth. Prince, Jack and Becky’s mastiff, was an extremely effective deterrent against being assaulted or robbed.
“Becky!” My heart tried to jump up into my throat at the sight of her. “Is something wrong?”
Jack’s wounds were healed—externally so, at any rate—and the danger of sepsis had passed. His life could well and truly be considered out of danger. But I couldn’t prevent the unpleasant lurch of fear. Another memento of the days when we weren’t sure whether Jack was going to live or die.
“Yes—I mean, no.” Becky shook her head, looking up at me. “I mean, it’s Jack. He’s not sick or anything, but he’s …” She stopped, clearly searching for the right words. “He’s all wrong.”
“What do you mean?” I was fairly sure that I already knew the answer, but I didn’t want to say it out loud, especially not to Jack’s little sister.
Becky’s shoulders were stiff. “He hates it. I know he does. He hates everything about not being able to walk properly anymore. But he never says so, and he never complains, never.”
“It will take time, but he is getting better—” I started.
“Pigswill!” Becky interrupted. She looked up at me. In the greenish glare of the street lamps, I could see that there were tears standing in her blue eyes.
“Jack’s never out of temper, he’s never anything but calm—because he never lets himself be anything but calm,” Becky went on. “It’s like he’s keeping himself locked up, tight. But he barely sleeps, and he does those exercises that Doctor Watson gave him so often that I’m afraid he’ll hurt himself. I can hear him at night, when he thinks I’ve gone to bed. He almost never laughs anymore, either, and he won’t talk to me, not really, not about anything important, and it’s all wrong.”
Becky stopped, swiping a hand angrily across her eyes.
I put an arm around her, and she leaned against me.
When Becky and I had first met—nearly a year ago now—she had been dressed up as a boy and running away from an enraged tavern owner because she had snuck in to secretly play his piano.
I had known on the spot that we were kindred spirits.
“I’m sorry,” I told her now. “It is all wrong. The trouble is, I have no idea how to put it right again.”
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