Summer, 1915. As Zeppelins rain death upon the rooftops of London, eminent members of society begin to behave erratically: a Member of Parliament throws himself naked into the Thames after giving a pro-German speech to the House; a senior military advisor suggests surrender before feeding himself to a tiger at London Zoo; a famed suffragette suddenly renounces the women’s liberation movement and throws herself under a train.
In desperation, an aged Mycroft Holmes sends to Sussex for the help of his brother, Sherlock.
George Mann’s Sherlock Holmes: The Spirit Box is available August 19th from Titan Books. Check out an excerpt below!
FROM THE NOTEBOOKS OF JOHN H. WATSON, MD
War had come to London.
It was late in the summer of 1915, and at night we looked to the leaden skies in fear of enemy zeppelins. When they came, they unleashed terrible firestorms across the rooftops of the city – a stark reminder of the conflict that was ravaging the continent.
The newspapers were full of the death and destruction, and repair crews toiled to clear the wreckage of burned out civic buildings and homes. There were those whose charred remains had to be extracted from what was left of their beds.
As a young man, surrounded by the maimed and the dying in the parched killing fields of Afghanistan, I had thanked God that my loved ones back in London would be spared such scenes. It changes a man, to bear witness to such things, to see the savagery with which one human being can end the life of another, or to hold the hand of a wounded comrade as he slips away into oblivion. It hardens one’s soul.
For years I thought that I had left such things behind in that hot, troubled land, but during that fateful, war-torn summer I found myself wondering more than once if those nightmares had somehow followed me here, to London, finally catching up with me after all this time.
Nothing brought this home to me more than the death of my nephew, Joseph Watson, the sole child of my late brother and the last of the Watson line. That dear boy was now lying somewhere in a field in France, another forgotten face, another nameless scratch in the tally chart of the dead, cut down by the chatter of machine-gun fire as he’d gone over the top. The thought of it haunted me as I rattled uselessly around my small house in Ealing, wishing there was more that I could do.
I was old, and somewhat curmudgeonly, and had refused to evacuate myself to the country. This was not, I fear, the stoic resolve of an old soldier, but more a stubbornness born of an unwillingness to allow the devilish Wilhelm to unseat me from my home. I was not above allowing myself a small measure of hypocrisy, however; I had sent my wife to stay with her sister in the Lincolnshire countryside, in the hope of sparing her the worst of the danger. We do what we must for those we love.
Consequently, with little else to fill my time, I’d offered my services to my old regiment, and although they had dutifully expressed their gratitude, I knew that there was little a man of my advancing years might do to directly aid the efforts of our men abroad. They had suggested I might accept an advisory position, but it soon became clear that even my medical expertise had been superseded by advancements of which I’d had not the time or inclination to remain appraised.
I was feeling morose, and I was not alone. With the coming of the German bombs a terrible malaise seemed to have struck London. For the first time since the war had begun, people were losing hope. The war was wearing us all down, slowly and deliberately eroding the spirit of the nation. Thoughts of victory seemed further from people’s minds than ever before, and I feared the country was condemning an entire generation of brave young men to a miserable, prolonged death in the muddy trenches of the continent. It seemed endless. I had no doubt that it was necessary – noble, even, to make such a concerted stand for freedom – but nevertheless, endless.
For a week I had been unable to shake the black mood that had settled over me, ever since receiving the telegram containing news of Joseph’s death. Mrs. Watson had been in the country for close to a month, and I was deeply in need of companionship. I’d attempted to concentrate on my writing – I was engaged in the early stages of writing a novel – but even this had offered little solace. I’d never been a man to dwell on his misfortunes, but those cold, lonely weeks, along with a growing sense of attrition at the hands of the German bombers, were beginning to take their toll.
It was just at this lowest of ebbs that my fortunes took a sudden, unexpected shift for the better, and I was to find myself once again reacquainted with my old, dear friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
It began, rather inauspiciously, with a rap at the door. I had just settled down to a meagre lunch of tea and buttered crumpets – a far cry from the once magnificent repasts of Mrs. Hudson – when the unexpected caller made their presence apparent. Sighing, I abandoned my plate on the hearth and, stretching to ease my stiff back, made haste to the door.
A young man was standing on the doorstep, apparently admiring the flowerbeds beneath the bay window. He looked up when he heard the door open, and smiled warmly. He was dressed in a smart black suit, with a starched collar and tie, and was wearing a peaked cap jauntily on his head.
“Doctor Watson?” he said, in a broad cockney accent.
I raised an expectant eyebrow. “You have me at a disadvantage, sir,” I replied.
The man laughed. “My name is Carter. I’m here on behalf of Mr. Mycroft Holmes.” He paused for a moment to allow the name to sink in. “He requests your immediate assistance with a somewhat… delicate matter.”
“Mycroft Holmes,” I muttered, a little taken aback. It had been some years since I’d had the pleasure. I couldn’t begin to imagine what use I might be to a man like Mycroft, but I understood enough about his methods to know that it had to be important if he’d sent a man to fetch me from my home. “Immediate, you say?”
“I fear so, Dr. Watson,” said Carter, with a quick glance at his watch. “If you’re willing, we have an important appointment to keep.”
“Yes, yes,” I replied, all thoughts of my abandoned crumpets gone. I admit that I felt the stirrings of an old vitality at the thought of this new, unexpected intrigue, and besides, any opportunity to get out of the house and actually do something seemed most appealing. “Just hold on a moment while I fetch my coat.”
Carter had parked his motorcar just a few yards from the bottom of the garden path: a sleek, black beast of a vehicle, which gleamed in the watery afternoon sunlight. The automobile was open-sided, but the canopy was raised to ward off the threatened shift in the weather; the sky was bruised and smeared with the grey thumbprints of rain clouds. I turned my collar up, and – with some trepidation – stepped up onto the running board and clambered into the back seat.
I was still adjusting to such mechanical modes of transport, and to be truthful, I had yet to feel entirely secure hurtling along the roads at speed. It was not that I yearned for the simpler days of hansom cabs and horse-drawn carriages – I had never been fearful of progress – rather that I simply couldn’t help but wonder what effect such rapid velocities might have upon the human form. Or, perhaps more truthfully, I feared what a sudden impact at such speeds might do to my fragile old bones.
Mycroft’s summons had somewhat lifted my spirits, however, and so I banished such considerations and decided to throw myself wholeheartedly into this new endeavour, whatever it might prove to be.
I watched as Carter finished cranking the engine, and – checking his watch again and grimacing as he took note of the time – hopped up into the driver’s seat and released the parking brake. We shot away down the road, rocking me back in my seat. I grabbed for the armrest.
I’d meant to ask the young man precisely where we were headed, but I’d missed my chance, all hope of conversation now drowned out by the bass rumbling of the engine. I eased myself back on the leather seat and tried to relax, making the most of the fleeting, stuttering view, and attempting to ignore the unwholesome effluvia of the city.
It was some time before we crossed into the boundaries of the city proper, and as the familiar landmarks shot by, I was struck by a sudden realisation: we were heading in the wrong direction.
I leaned forward in my seat, tapping Carter on the shoulder. He glanced back to see what was wrong. “Is everything quite well, Dr. Watson?” he called, raising his voice in order to be heard.
“Yes, well enough,” I replied, “Only – where are you taking me? This isn’t Whitehall.”
“I’m sorry Dr. Watson, but you’ll have to speak up. I can’t hear you over the noise of the engine.”
I sighed. “I said – this isn’t Whitehall,” I repeated.
“No,” confirmed Carter, nodding. He returned his attention to his driving. Exasperated, I shook my head. Did the man take me for an old, addled fool?
Presently we turned down Belgrave Street, narrowly avoiding a collision with a horse and carriage coming in the opposite direction. The startled animals reared up, threatening to bolt, and the driver, perched upon his dickey box, bellowed an outrageous curse and waved his fist in our direction. Laughing, Carter swerved out of the way, sending me sprawling across the back seat.
“Apologies, Dr. Watson!” he called, before parping his horn to warn a gaggle of nearby pedestrians to clear the way, and finally drawing the motorcar to a stop outside the entrance to Victoria Station.
Carter shut off the engine and jumped down from the driver’s seat. He opened the passenger door for me. “Here we are, Dr. Watson. And just in the nick of time, too,” he added, with genuine relief. He sounded a little breathless.
“I’m confounded if I know what we’re doing here,” I muttered as I climbed out of the vehicle. “I hope you’re not expecting me to take a train. You said we were on our way to see Mycroft Holmes.”
Carter gave another, infuriating smile.
“Look,” I said, trying to keep the accusation from my voice, “I’m not particularly fond of surprises. Are we here to meet Mr. Holmes, or not?” I was aware that I was growing a little cantankerous, but I was simply looking to the man to give me a straight answer.
“We are,” said Carter. “He’ll be arriving in just a moment. We’re to meet him from his train. If you’ll come this way?”
“Very well,” I replied, following him through the main station doors.
Inside, the place was bustling, and I wrinkled my nose at the thick, familiar scents of oil and steam. Engines wheezed at two of the platforms, billowing clouds of smoke, which mingled in the still air, forming fleeting clouds amongst the steel rafters. They dispersed as I watched, rolling away across the underside of the glass roof and out into the pale afternoon beyond. The noise of chatter was close to deafening.
A crowd appeared to be concentrating around platform three, and Carter pointed it out, indicating that we should join them.
A train had just pulled in at the platform here, pulled by a recent model of electric engine, and the throng appeared to be predominantly comprised of people who had come to the station to greet their friends and loved ones.
“What train is this?” I demanded.
“The two o’clock arrival from Brighton,” said Carter, with a knowing grin.
“Brighton?” I echoed. “Then…” I trailed off. The very thought of it seemed too much. “Oh, it can’t be?”
I searched the platform, trying to discern the faces of the disembarking passengers: two clergymen with heavy overcoats and hats; a portly fellow with a neat moustache; a young man with a hair lip; an elderly woman with a scarf around her head; a group of three soldiers, each of them looking dour and forlorn. All of life was here. All except…
I saw him then, emerging from one of the first class carriages, carrying a small leather case.
It had been some time, but that familiar, aquiline profile was unmistakable – the jutting, inquisitive chin, the hawk-like nose, the thinning black hair swept back from his forehead, now speckled with strands of grey. His face was lined, but he wore his age well. He looked lean and fit, and I found myself wondering if he’d finally given up on those dreadful chemicals he’d insisted on administering to himself for so many years.
He turned and looked in our direction, and I saw his eyes twinkle in recognition. His thin lips curled into a smile.
“Holmes!” I exclaimed, rushing forward to clasp his hand. “Sherlock Holmes!”
“As enthusiastic a welcome as I could ever hope for,” said Holmes. “I see the war is treating you badly, Watson. You’ve lost five pounds.”
“The war is treating us all badly, Holmes. And it’s four. No more than that.”
“Five, I think, Watson, but let us not quibble. It’s good to see you.”
“It’s been too long,” I said. “London misses you.”
Holmes laughed, that familiar, exuberant, derisive laugh. “Really, Watson. I think it is only Scotland Yard that misses me. The criminals, I am sure, are quite satisfied with the arrangement.”
“And how are your bees?” I asked. I had not known what to make of Holmes’s declaration, all those many years ago, of his intention to relocate to the Sussex countryside to study the lifecycles of bees. At first I’d wondered if it had all been an elaborate joke, its punch line somehow lost on me, but it had soon become apparent that he was perfectly serious. He’d vacated our old lodgings at Baker Street, packed up his books, files and other ephemera, and moved himself wholesale to the country.
For a while afterwards I expected him to return to London with his tail between his legs, having found life in Sussex too sedentary, too downright boring, but it seemed his newfound interest in apiculture was enough to occupy his considerable mind. I’d visited him once in the interim, and found him quietly content amongst his hives.
“Fascinating,” replied Holmes. “I’m compiling a second volume of my observations. Human beings could learn a great deal from those magnificent creatures, Watson. Their social structures are defined and organised with admirable logic.”
I grinned. “I’m pleased to discover you haven’t changed at all, Holmes. All that country air must be doing you the world of good.”
“Ever the doctor, Watson,” he replied.
I suddenly realised that in my haste I had not yet established the reason for his visit. Surely he would not have journeyed into the heart of a war zone simply to make a social call? Although, I reflected, nothing at all would surprise me about Sherlock Holmes.
I glanced back at Carter, who was politely watching us from the far end of the platform, allowing two old friends a moment of privacy to reacquaint themselves with one another. “The driver – he said it was Mycroft?” I began, the confusion evident in my voice. “I mean, when he came to collect me, he indicated it was Mycroft who organised all of this?”
“Ah, yes. Of course – it’s not yet been explained,” said Holmes. “Well, no fear, Watson. All will become clear in time.”
“Now look here,” I said, “I’ll not stand for any of your cryptic pronouncements. Not this time.”
Holmes put his hand on my shoulder, fixing me with his cool, penetrating gaze. His tone was suddenly serious, direct. “We have a case, Watson, of a most timely and sensitive nature.”
“A case!” I exclaimed. “I thought you’d retired?”
“As you so eloquently described, Watson, the war is treating us all badly.” He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Come. I shall explain further during the journey.”
He started off toward Carter, leaving me momentarily alone on the platform.
“You’ll be lucky,” I muttered, hurrying to catch up. “The damn thing makes an infernal racket.”
Sherlock Holmes: The Spirit Box © George Mann, 2014