Vanishing Girl, page 1
To Sophie, my remarkable girl,
who will never vanish.
Thanks again to editor Kathryn Cole and publisher Kathy Lowinger of Tundra Books, two invaluable allies as we together make our way through this series. I am also grateful to The National Railway Museum in York, UK, whose employees were patient with me as I pestered them with endless questions about 1860s and ’70s British trains and how one might board them, jump from them, climb out their roofs, run up and down their aisles, all while said locomotives moved at top speed – I hope they forgive the liberties I took in the name of art and adventure. The Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth, UK was also helpful as were the amazing London Walking Tours, several of which I have taken and benefited from. And lastly to my family – three girls and a boy, who are constantly subjected to my agonies of creation and are the most patient with me of all.
MAP OF LONDON
4 RASH DECISIONS
5 A DANGEROUS RIDE
6 THE HOUSE ON THE HILL
8 RACING BACK
9 ALCHEMY AND THE ART OF OPTIMISM
10 THE SECOND CRIME
11 THE SETUP
12 THE RATHBONE BALL
13 THE SECRET
16 THEIR PORTSMOUTH LAIR
17 GRIMWOOD’S SECRETS
18 THE THREE PEOPLE
22 LESTRADE TRIUMPHANT
23 THE VANISHING BOY
The wind was blowing down the hill and over the marshy field on the night they left for London. Windows were rattling, threatening to shatter. But the man with the scar and the man with the limp smiled as they rode south. They had found a girl and a victim, too. They had found a frightening place. This would be the perfect crime; make her vanish again and again, and make him vanish, too. They would all be rich beyond their imaginations. The captain’s plan was working. No one could stop them; no one would track them; no one would figure this out.
Sherlock Holmes was asleep in the city by that hour, dreaming of a life in which he, and he alone, was the undisputed hero.
“A flush of colour sprang to Holmes’s pale cheeks, and he bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience. It was at such moments that for an instant he ceased to be a reasoning machine, and betrayed his human love for admiration and applause.”
– Dr. Watson in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons
Irene Doyle gasps. She is standing in the cavernous dining hall of the Ratcliff Workhouse in Stepney in the East End of London, staring at a little boy. A few candles dimly light the room. He is in bare feet, dressed in a ragged gray uniform, his red-blond hair disheveled; every nail on every toe is black. All the other urchins, lined up against a wall, are mesmerized by the beautiful young visitor whose lavender dress looks to them like something from a fairy tale. But the thin little lad stares straight down.
“Paul?” Irene blurts out.
The boy looks up.
“Why, Miss Doyle, ‘e never responds to ‘is Christian name!” exclaims the fat beadle with the fleshy face. “You must ‘ave a ‘old on ‘im.”
She puts her hand to her mouth.
“His name is Paul?”
“Yes, Miss, of course, just as you said, though it confounds me to know ‘ow you knew such a thing.”
“You didn’t? But –”
“Why does he stare like that? Why are his eyes so red? Has he been crying?”
“No, Miss, ‘e ‘as a disease.”
“Yes, Miss, a bad un. Seems to be getting worse, much worse.”
“My father will help him.”
“Can’t be done, Miss. We ‘ave lots of lads with debilitations; eyes and limbs and what-’ave-you, their little machines not workin’ proper. This one ‘as a certain ‘aunted look about ‘im, ‘e does, and it draws attention when philanthropic-like folks come a-visitin’. We’ve ‘ad a wealthy one or two in ‘ere, Miss, like you and Mr. Doyle, ‘o’ve wanted to ‘elp this little scruff. But no fancy doctor they’ve sent ‘im to can solve ‘is problem. It don’t seem fixable. ‘e’s goin’ blind, poor rat.”
Irene reaches out and puts one of her gloved hands against the lad’s cheek. “Boys are precious.”
For many years she has similarly caressed the image in a painting that sits against a wall in a closet in her father’s house … the image of her brother. The boy had been Andrew Doyle’s heir, his little man, and his death had broken the good man’s heart. Her brother’s life, his very existence, is something they never talk about with anyone. His name hasn’t been spoken in their home since the day he died.
Mr. Doyle had been inconsolable after his loss. Nothing could make him smile. Then his step lightened when Irene’s mother was with child again the following year. But the baby was a girl, and his wife, after a long labor, did not survive. It was then that he turned to philanthropy, to helping others. All he had left was Irene who, he insisted, was enough. He taught her himself, molded her to be as independent as a boy. But he never forgot his son … his little Paul.
“I will find a way,” says Irene. “There must be people we know who can help. This little boy will not go blind.”
The following day, Andrew Doyle stands in front of tiny Paul at the workhouse, fighting back tears, unable to speak. His boy, his Paul, the only son he would ever have, has come back to life in the shape of a poor little waif in an East End workhouse: bone-thin, green-skinned, and cloudy-eyed. It has always been Andrew C. Doyle’s policy not to adopt any of the thousands of children he aids through his organizations every year. There are simply too many: he cannot play favorites. He just tries to help. But he is sorely tested on this day. In fact, he has to turn away. The boy before him is five years old, the very age his son will always be.
“If he loses his sight … he will surely die,” Doyle murmurs to Irene as they leave the workhouse. “I know someone who can have him cured. If anyone in England can, then it is he. We will rescue this child from darkness, or I am not worth my word.”
But the very next day, a stunning incident in central London renders the boy’s savior helpless.
It happens in broad daylight. Fourteen-year-old Victoria Rathbone steps down from her gleaming carriage as she is being promenaded on Rotten Row in Hyde Park during the last fashionable display of the season, and nears the crowd that is gazing at the rich. She pretends to be taking an opportunity to stretch her delicate legs, but is actually upset that she is not truly being seen in this evening parade of professional beauties and handsome toffs. She wants to show off her new scarlet dress to the great unwashed.
“Can’t see you, Miss,” someone cries. She moves closer. A pair of thick arms appears out of the masses and seizes her. She disappears into the crowd, pulled into it as though she were a duckling sucked down a whirlpool. The culprit makes off with her, and whatever protests she emits mix with the horses’ neighs and the buzz of spectators. For several moments no one misses her. Then her coachman becomes alarmed.
The girl has vanished into thin air.
The moment Sherlock Holmes reads about it in a morning paper, he thinks of it as a case for him: a notorious crime of genius and daring that rivets London’s attention. But Irene’s response is different: it breaks her heart. She and her father had been to see Lord Rathbone only that morning, on a mission to save the Stepney boy’s sight.
But neither her reaction nor Sherlock’s or even that of the Metropolitan London Police Force matters, because everything about the incident, every shred of evidence, every last player, including the victim and the criminals – even their apparent interest in gaining anything from their crime – instantly evaporates. Days pass, then weeks; the daring abduction remains an impenetrable mystery, without a ransom note, a single clue, or even public information.
Is Victoria Rathbone dead? Or are the culprits simply trying to frighten her noble family, terrify them so thoroughly that they will give in to any demand when it, at last, arrives? What is their game?
Her father is an eminent man, a member of the House of Lords and advisor to Prime Minister Derby’s cabinet on judicial affairs. He is stern and ruthless, a crusader for exacting extreme punishment upon criminals. Never give them an inch, reads his motto, etched in a plaque on his desk.
He doesn’t appear to be frightened by the silence from the kidnappers. In fact, he contributes to it, refusing to utter a single public word about their villainy, as if it had never happened. He remains aggressive about crime in general, and just a month after Victoria’s disappearance, calls for stiffer sentencing in all criminal convictions. “One must be brutal with brutal people,” he asserts. And he gives an example: “If we were to cut off the hands of London’s thieves, there would be no thieves in London.”
The summer ends, autumn almost passes, and still, Rathbone is mute about the crime. He not only puts on a brave face, but forces the police to remain silent, too. He and his household shall not play cricket with evil. It seems as though he will let his daughter die before he allows the devils who took her to scare him, to win, to have any of his money, to cause him even the slightest public grief. He goes on with his job, impressing his peers, making more jarring statements about criminal issues in the House.
“Unlawfulness,” he proclaims on the two-month anniversary of the crime, “comes mostly from our underclasses. When they learn to help themselves more, to give up holding out their hands to their betters, they shall better themselves, and we all shall be better off.”
But he is known to have said privately that the kidnappers shall be caught and severely punished – and if they harm his daughter, he will personally see to it that they are hanged in the street outside the walls of Newgate Prison, before a crowd at whose head he shall proudly stand.
Lady Rathbone, of course, says nothing publicly either. But then, such statements and certainly politics aren’t of interest to her. Twenty years her Lord’s junior, she is still a stunning belle of the London scene at age forty. In her youth, she was known to society as “the blind beauty.” Her bewitching brown eyes growing steadily dimmer with every passing year. By the time she met her husband they had become almost sightless. He put her into the hands of his remarkable personal physician, who gave her back her vision with one of his miraculous chemical cures.
No talents, however, and no one’s power, can help Rathbone with the brilliant and sinister abduction of his daughter. By the time November comes and London’s thickest yellow fogs with it, there is still not a solitary clue to this mystery and the police are desperate. It remains unprecedented in the annals of crime: quiet reigns unabated on all sides.
Then finally, on the third day of that month, the silence is broken. Almost instantly, everything changes.
Sherlock Holmes is ready for the news when it comes that morning.
It has been four months since he solved the unusual case of the Crystal Palace flying-trapeze accident and almost single-handedly caused the arrest of the notorious Brixton Gang. But the public doesn’t know the role he played, or of his earlier genius in catching the Whitechapel murderer. Inspector Lestrade and Scotland Yard have made sure of that. While Sherlock hasn’t wavered in his vow to fight injustice with his very life, to avenge his mother’s murder, he reminds himself daily that such aspirations will take time. And so the boy’s world is filled with frustration – it seems to be taking forever to become the man he hopes to be.
He still lives with strange old Sigerson Bell, the Denmark-Street apothecary as he continues to rebuild himself: working hard at school and studies, rereading Samuel Smiles’ best seller Self Help, learning the fighting art of “Bellitsu,” the manly art of pugilism, and gleaning all he can about chemistry.
Though the old apothecary’s business was recently sagging as badly as his flesh, he is back on his financial feet these days, saved from the clutches of his miserly landlord by a steady stream of money, thanks to the young trapeze star known as The Swallow. That remarkable boy, whom Sherlock befriended after the Crystal Palace accident, has directed many of his show-business friends (including The Great Farini and his son, El Niño) in the direction of the smelly little London shop. Their sore limbs and aching backs are now the beneficiaries of Bell’s often unorthodox, but always effective treatments. He requires them to spend hours locked in poses that actually stretch and loosen their muscles – it is most unusual. And sheep bile, rubbed into the joints, was never so valued by a group of patients.
“It reeks like the wrong end of a donkey, sir,” said an aerialist one day, happily rotating his arms in their sockets as if they were gale-driven windmills. “But it does a powerful job making me limbs work.”
“Never mind the stench, Icarus. It’s the effect that matters. I pondered prescribing horse vomit for you, to be taken orally, so consider yourself lucky.”
“The way you’ve fixed me up, good doctor, I’d try anything you propose, short of you chopping off me ‘ead and replacing it with a pig’s.”
“Don’t tempt me, Icarus. The Pig-headed Flying Man would be a showstopper!”
But such spectacular personalities coming and going from the shop haven’t been enough of a distraction for Master Holmes. On the pages of the old man’s Daily Telegraph, in the glorious Illustrated Police News, and the legless newsboy Dupin’s News of the World, he keeps searching for what really excites him; for what makes his blood race. There is unchecked evil everywhere. He sees notices of robberies, assaults, extortion, and even murder – crimes in the dark East End, Southwark, Rotherhithe, and Brixton. Only one of these villainies truly measures up to Sherlock’s needs; is spectacular enough that a solution would gain him his due. He first read of it nearly three months ago … the case of the vanishing girl.
But it is such a maddening crime to even consider solving. There is nowhere to start, neither for the police nor … Sherlock Holmes.
Until that morning: when Lestrade makes his move.
“Have you noticed this little bit in the Telegraph?” inquires Bell in his high-pitched voice at dawn on the eve of Guy Fawkes Day. They are taking one of their unusual breakfasts in the chemical laboratory at the back of the shop; clams this time, washed down with flavored ice and tea. Both partakers are still perspiring, and each sports a darkened eye, the result of a vigorous morning of pugilism during which each struck the other at least one mighty blow to the visage, scientifically delivered, but with maximum force.
Sherlock’s hawk nose rises from his plate. The old man has been keeping the newspaper from him this morning, and he’s been wondering why.
“What little bit is that, sir?”
The white-haired apothecary has only a slightly disguised grin on his face.
“There might be a spot of interest in it for you.”
Bell knows this boy well, this lad after his own heart, and is aware that the newspaper article will fascinate him. He holds it up so Sherlock can see it, but keeps it just beyond his grasp.
“POLICE TO SPEAK ABOUT RATHBONE CASE,” states the headline.
Sherlock’s eyes widen and he reaches out. Bell pulls the paper back. Then he smiles and hands it over. Holmes dives into the article.
“Scotland Yard admits that a ransom note was indeed received from the kidnappers of Victoria Rathbone yesterday, but Lord Rathbone, having refused to pay the required sum, at first forbade the me
“You may be away from both school and this establishment tomorrow morning, until one hour past midday,” says Bell the instant he sees that Sherlock has finished reading.
The singular boy has frightened the old man many times since he came into his employment, and not just because of those dangerous solo trips deep into spooky Rotherhithe during the Brixton Gang case, or even the growing competence of his right cross to the jaw. It’s the boy’s disposition that unsettles him – his moods can grow disturbingly dark. Friendless and inward, Sherlock can descend instantly into silence, his mind far away. There have been times when he has been virtually immobile, like a sort of living cadaver, sitting here at the laboratory table while they take their meals. His gray eyes grow narrow and distant, his face alarmingly pale, and his breathing barely palpable.
This lad needs stimulation, thinks the apothecary. He needs it the way an opium addict needs the narcotic jolt of the poppy seed.
The old man observes Sherlock as he sets down the paper. He is not frightened for him today.
The boy’s face is lit up.
Scotland Yard’s famous offices are in White Hall not far from Trafalgar Square in the center of stinking, eardrum-popping London. But Sherlock pays little attention to the rush of rumbling omnibuses and sprite hansom cabs, the advertising signs, the desperate poor, or even the celebrated faces. His mind and his senses are riveted on what will take place outside the redbrick exterior of the Yard, and what he hopes to hear from the mouth of the police spokesman who will break the silence on the Rathbone case. He imagines what he would do if he were to pursue this case: he would be alert for even a whiff of a clue, of something that could open the tiniest of cracks in this mystery. This could be his one chance.
SHANE PEACOCK SERIES:
Other author's books:
- The Secret Fiend tbsh-4Bone Beds of the BadlandsThe Dragon TurnLast MessageDouble You: The Seven SequelsDeath in the AirBecoming HolmesEye of the Crow
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