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Authors: Anna Lord

Tags: #london, #xmas, #sherlock, #ripper, #mayfair, #fetch, #suffragette, #crossbones, #angelmaker, #graverobber

The Curse of Christmas

BOOK: The Curse of Christmas
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The Curse
Of
Christmas

 

 

 

 

 

Book Seven
Watson & The Countess Series

 

 

ANNA LORD

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by Anna Lord

Melbourne, Australia

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this
book may be reproduced in any

form or by any electronic or mechanical
means including information

storage and retrieval systems—except in
the case of brief quotations

embodied in critical articles or
reviews—without written permission.

 

 

The characters and events portrayed in
this book are fictitious or are

used fictitiously. Any similarity to
real persons, living or dead, is

purely coincidental and not intended by
the author.

 

 

Prologue

 

Condemned by Original Sin to
lonely graves, this blighted bit of earth was an urban cemetery
where the outcast dead were buried. Chancing upon the Devil was
more likely here than an encounter with the Holy Ghost. Clumps of
clay marked the random charnel beds of female hearts broken on the
wheel, blanketed now with withered weeds and thorny things that
clutched and tore. The heaped up clods looked like slag heaps
pricked with wooden crosses that tilted like tipsy scarecrows, some
already lying flat and helpless between the tormenting
prickles.

In the heart of this boneyard
stood the one and only headstone; wind-whipped, rain-lashed, yet
still standing defiantly upright. It had no engraving, no epitaph,
but it must have been erected to mark the last resting place of
someone important enough to remain anonymous throughout
eternity.

The whiff of something sour hung
on the dank air as if in supernatural sympathy with the icy malice
of the place. The oozy waste-ground festered something rotten which
had the look of fermented marrow from discarded bones. Stinking
juices seeped continuously to the surface like a wound turned
septic or a sore that refused to heal.

Crossbones Cemetery was brimmed
with soot-stained bricks on one side where the slums of the poor
rose up to accommodate them. The rear was marked by a railway
viaduct that looked down on the neglected garden not more than half
an acre in size and must have given train travellers pause for
thought: There but for the grace of God...

The other two sides were defined
by a spiky iron fence that deterred foolhardy trespassers. One side
fronted a brothel on Union Street which had a bright red door and
some illustrious clients. The other side was punctuated with a gate
that opened onto Redcross Way. This was a narrow lane that ran
under the railway viaduct and came out onto the busy thoroughfare
of Southwark Street. Opposite the gate was the broad back of a grey
ghost of a church that blent into its grim surrounds.

In the fetid darkness two
grave-diggers were scratching away at the blotted earth. Toiling
industriously, toiling sinisterly - toiling in secret. Sweat
sheened their dirty faces, vivid with fear under the rolling
midnight moon, cold and bleak as death. Black clouds swarmed like
harbingers of hell, minions of the Prince of Darkness, to shield
them from the eyes of heaven. The winter wind hectored and bullied
and gave a chilling cry.

Hark! Hist! Scat! The fetch is
coming!

Driven by one soulless quest, a
fetch prowled the streets in search of itself, peering through
uncurtained windows in the hope of seeing its own image…

Full of twitchy dread, the two
grave-diggers worked feverishly, jumping at every shadow, starting
at the haunted weeds that swayed to and fro like revenants stirring
to unholy life, rising from the dead. Our body-snatchers appeared
to be after a fresh corpse but...

Something queer shimmered in the
lane.

Abandoning the gaping grave,
they ran for their lives.

Chapter 1 - Pall Mall

 

Number 6 Mayfair Mews was not
immune to the jaundiced ghosts of London winter. Reflected in the
shallow grey puddles pockmarked with raindrops was spectral yellow
gaslight, shivering and sickly, proof that not even the posh
pavements gracing the red brick mansions would be spared the jolly
curse of Christmastime.

The original mews had been torn
down years ago when horse-riding on Rotten Row – previously known
as the Route du Roi - fell out of fashion and hundreds of stables
near Hyde Park were no longer required. Most of the horses were
shipped off to foreign wars and some went to the knackery. The
stables were replaced by an elegant terrace of Victorian mansions
featuring a virtuoso flourish of architectural details and grand
bay windows that projected self-importance. The property developer
tried to christen his handiwork Mayfair Mansions, but the old Mews
name had stuck and there was nothing doing.

“Pall Mall and it is an extra
two shillings if you hurry, driver!”

A tallish figure clad in
Inverness cape and deerstalker hat clambered into the hansom as the
cabbie whipped-up the beast frothed in sweat despite the Arctic
air.

The cabbie and his horse had
been going since dawn and it was nigh on dusk with another
poisonous fog creeping up from the river, blurring the hard red
edges of the bricks. This would be his last fare for the day. Not
far to go he told dobbin as they turned into Old Park Lane and the
horse broke into a brisk trot, scenting the lush wet grass of Green
Park.

Left into Piccadilly, and it was
a smooth canter along the wide thoroughfare where the gas-lamps
burned brighter and the fog seemed to quiver and glow like the
hallowed light inside a grand old church lit with holy candles and
God’s love. Right into St James’s for a short stretch followed
quickly by a wide left curve in front of the royal palace with its
twisty chimneystacks reaching up to the darkness of heaven then
into proud Pall Mall, bold and warlike, and yet for all its
grandness proclaiming the War Office and the Midland Bank it was a
bankrupt-looking street, garrisoned both sides with grey blocks of
stone like the walls of Jericho or Thebes or Troy before they
fell.

Funny that, because the broad
alley was once bounded by a high wall to save the dust being kicked
up by carriages spoiling the field where they played a game with a
ball and a straw mallet: pelemele, pale mail, palla malleus, as it
was called back then, in the days when the King’s men wore powdered
wigs and parlayed French and the ground was paved with powdered
cockle shells to deaden the ball.

No accounting for it, but at the
tail end of 1899 this was where rich gents still came to have their
fun. The Army and Navy Club on the left at number 36. The Oxford
and Cambridge Club on the right at number 71. The Reform Club at
104. The Athenaeum at 107. Which club was this gent favouring on
this miserable, wet, winter’s night?

Bang! Bang! with his
silver-topped walking stick on the floor of the hansom.

“Stop here, driver!”

Ah! So that was it! The club
named after some dead Greek whose name he could never pronounce
without a wry curl of Cockney lip.

The cabbie pocketed his last
fare for the day plus the extra two shillings and plodded home
round Charing Cross toward the muddy embankment where the pea-soup
thickened to a rancid stew and even blind dobbin knew he would soon
be crossing to the other side where the manufactories hummed and
whirred and cranked through the long night, and the red-brick
chimneys belched black smoke like the perpetual fires of Hades - a
penny for the old guy, ha’penny for the poxy tart, Charon hard at
it…no rest for the wicked.

Queer chap, that last one,
rugged up like an Eskimo in a snow storm with a woollen muffler
covering half his face and the deerstalker pulled down low over his
brow and the up-turned collar swallowing his neck, as if he had a
face not fit to be seen in public, and his voice all muffled and
queer too, as if he had a frog in his throat or was trying to
disguise a poncy accent. No accounting for it.

 

A ten-foot Christmas tree in a
classical garden urn graced the marble entrance hall of the
Diogenes Club - a nod to the Prince Consort who had introduced the
Teutonic tradition to Mother England. Pendulous branches, thick
with needles, were decorated with red baubles and little white
candles that were never lit thanks to Samuel Pepys and memories of
1666. Nevertheless, it gave off a wonderful woody scent that
recalled huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’ parties in Scotland.

The hall porter had witnessed
all types come through the front door of the exclusive gentlemen’s
club and knew better than to bat an eye when the stranger flashed a
deckle-edged calling card then eschewed removing his damp coat,
hunting hat and woolly muffler, indicating with a cavalier gesture
that he knew his way to the Stranger’s Room and would not be
requiring the services of a liveried footman as he scribbled a
signature in the visitor’s book.

Well, well, so that was the
great consulting detective, Mr Sherlock Holmes; not as tall as he
imagined - heroes were always a little disappointing in real life -
must be paying his brother a visit. Dr Watson had arrived a few
minutes ahead of him. Something was afoot.

What a coup! The muffled
stranger felt an exalted frisson as he skirted the Teutonic tree
and traversed the chequered marble floor, glancing briefly into the
reading room that reeked of expensive cigars, hair oil and
flatulent men.

Fortunately the door to the
Stranger’s Room was clearly marked and there was no chance of a
cock-up. He walked straight in and closed the door behind him.
There was no going back now. The room was imbued with a distinctly
masculine ambience. Dark oakwood panelling and a weird otherworldly
glow from a scatter of table lamps with green shades gave it the
feel of a necromancer’s den or alchemist’s lair.

Mycroft Holmes and Dr Watson
were the only two occupants. Like brother wizards swapping magic
spells, they were seated in leather wing chairs either side of the
fireplace where a coal fire burned quietly in the grate, bathing
one half of them in sympathetic light and the other half in shadowy
darkness. They were both smoking - one a fat cigar, the other a
calabash pipe.

“Good evening, gentlemen.”

Mycroft was the first to
recover. He balanced his cigar on the lip of a cut-glass ashtray,
levered his bulky carapace upright with an effort, and extended a
pudgy hand.

“Countess Volodymyrovna, a
pleasure to make your acquaintance at long last.”

The voice was warm and
diplomatic, peppered with a mere tincture of irony, adding piquancy
to the cautious smile. The hand felt hot and squishy, though the
handshake was firm enough; not as limp as she imagined from toasted
butterball. He reminded her of Oscar Wilde sans deathwish;
hopefully a genuine genius rather than a frightful egoist with a
penchant for paradox: Thinking man loved a paradox, unthinking man
adored it – Oscar was greatly adored! Men applauded! He never had
anything very clever to say but he said it very cleverly. The
applause was deafening!

Mycroft waved the Countess to a
chair and lowered himself back into his seat, tactfully ignoring
the painful groan of the other man. “I believe you are acquainted
with Dr Watson.”

“Good evening, Doctor,” she
greeted amiably. “How is your cough bearing up now that we are back
in London?”

The doctor managed to articulate
his asthmatic discontent into a semi-grammatical groan. “My cough
is, er, how did you get past the hall porter?”

Before responding to the
aggrieved rejoinder, she tore off her leather gloves, peeled back
the muffler, the deerstalker hat and the Inverness cape -
depositing them all in a damp pile on the pristine Turkey rug. “I
thought that would have been fairly obvious,” she returned dryly,
crossing one leg over the other, relishing the astonishing freedom
that trousers afforded the wearer. “What better disguise than
Sherlock Holmes?” she continued coyly. “Please don’t punish the
hall porter, Uncle Mycroft. He dutifully scanned my calling card. I
had twenty of them printed up yesterday. I thought they might come
in handy during future cases.”

She decided to slip the ‘Uncle
Mycroft’ incendiary bomb in early to see what explosion might ensue
but Mycroft was a born diplomatist and Dr Watson was too
distressed.

Future cases! Dr Watson rolled
his eyes. “I cannot believe the hall porter didn’t see straight
through that ridiculous disguise despite the blatant forgery!”

She decided to move right along,
talking faster than was her wont in order to keep the disdainers
charmed. “I agree I could have done better but I only had a couple
of hours to put it all together.”

BOOK: The Curse of Christmas
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