Read The Curse Of The Diogenes Club Online

Authors: Anna Lord

Tags: #murder, #london, #bomb, #sherlock, #turkish bath, #pall mall, #matryoshka, #mycroft

The Curse Of The Diogenes Club (2 page)

BOOK: The Curse Of The Diogenes Club
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“Mr Fisk-Manders, the owner of
the hotel. The maid summoned him at once and he came immediately to
check if his exalted foreign guest was indeed dead. He is a man of
immense discretion. He understood the delicacy of the situation
regarding the estranged husband. He also understood the likely
brouhaha if he called Scotland Yard. He contacted the Home Office
who contacted me. You are the fourth person to see the body.”

“Fifth,” she corrected, “you
forgot your aide de camp.”

“Nash hasn’t seen it yet. Which
reminds me - I want to have a quick word with him about tonight.
See if you can spot anything else that strikes you as odd. Try not
to move anything. The Yard will have to be contacted and they don’t
take kindly to having a murder scene tampered with.”

Murder scene? His thoughts had
already shifted from suicide to murder. Hers had too. There was
something about the gentle and lovely aspect of the jewelled body
that recalled sleeping beauty. The round bottle of laudanum had
apparently dropped from her dead hand and yet it had not rolled
from the spot where it had apparently landed with a clunk, as
indicated by the reddish stain which must have dribbled from the
neck of the bottle. Either the bottle had miraculously landed and
stayed put, or someone had carefully placed it there after
death.

Floating in the bathwater was
something brightly coloured which caught the Countess’s eye. She
rolled up her silk sleeve as far as it would go and carefully
fished it out.

Mycroft returned a few moments
later. “Notice anything else?”

She held out the palm of her
hand, still dripping wet. “This.”

Bushy brows registered surprise
as he peered through his lorgnette. “A child’s toy?”

“A Matryoshka doll.”

“In the bath?”

“Yes - underneath her legs.
It’s also called a nesting doll.” She opened it up to demonstrate.
“One doll fits neatly inside the other as they shrink in size.
There are four dolls altogether. They have been created for this
year’s Paris Fair. They have not yet gone on sale. It would be
impossible to acquire one in the shops. The princess may have been
given some in advance of the Fair to offer as gifts to her friends
and to curry favour with Russia’s allies. Wait! There should be a
fifth doll.”

The Countess turned back to the
bath and fished around a bit more and finally located the tiny
object, not much larger than an acorn.

“Here it is. It was wedged
between her legs; pushed gently into the vulva to be precise.”

Mycroft turned bright red.
“Good God!”

Several interesting scenarios
ran through the Countess’s head; she settled on the most obvious
and least sordid. “Did Princess Paraskovia have a lover?”

His face went from red to white
as if someone had pulled a plug on him and all the blood had
drained out. “There were several rumours she had left her husband
for another man.”

“Does the man have a name?”

Mycroft mopped his pallid brow
which was showing signs of stress in the form of beads of sweat.
“Several names were hinted at but it was all very hush-hush. You
cannot repeat these four names outside this room: Viscount
Cazenove. Sir James Damery. General de Merville. The Prince of
Wales.”

The Countess studied the
smallest doll before placing it into the heart of the nesting dolls
and closing them up. “I think we can assume the princess was with
child.”

Mycroft appeared to sway. The
news clearly rocked him. He looked slightly seasick as he removed
himself from the bathroom and went to stare blankly at the rumpled
bed which had recently been occupied not by one person but two,
evidenced by the twin duck-feather pillows with indentations and
the blankets being thrown back on both sides. A poor sleeper might
toss from pillow to pillow but a person could only ever get out of
one side of the bed.

Mycroft paced the foot of the
bed, clearly agitated. “Heaven help us if the heir to the throne is
implicated in fathering a child to the wife of the Russian
ambassador. Relations have only just resumed civility since the end
of that wretched Crimean War.”

The Countess moved to the
Chippendale dressing table set in a small bay window screened with
lace curtains. She placed the Matryoshka doll next to the tortoise
shell hair brushes then began to check the drawers, hoping the
contents might reveal something of interest.

“I presume you have searched
for love letters or a diary?”

He nodded weakly.

“No jewellery missing?”

“I’m afraid we can rule out
burglary,” he said bleakly.

She glanced at the Matryoshka
doll and recalled the four illustrious names; particularly the one
Mycroft had saved for last. “Hmm, heaven help England if the heir
to the throne murdered, or ordered to be murdered, a member of a
royal Russian house because she was carrying his bastard. I think
the post mortem will reveal she was in the first trimester.”

Mycroft swallowed hard. “In
that case, there won’t be a post mortem.”

A sharp rap on the door caused
Mycroft to swivel. When the door opened and Major Nash’s handsome
blond head appeared in the gap, Mycroft was ready to bite it
off.

“I gave strict instructions not
to be disturbed, Nash.”

“The Russian ambassador is in
the hall, sir. He would like a word with you on a matter of some
urgency.”

Major Nash still hadn’t been
informed as to what was going on and his puzzlement was evident,
but he intuited it was something of national importance and acted
accordingly.

Quickly Mycroft indicated for
the Countess to hide herself in the bathroom. There was a folding
screen which would provide cover but allow her to listen in on the
conversation.

“Show him in, Nash, and then
stand guard and stay alert. I don’t want anyone else visiting the
third floor. Is that clear?”

Suavity personified, Prince
Sergei sauntered in looking dangerously dignified, casually smoking
a black Russian cigarette with the air of a debonair aristocrat at
his leisure. The face could have belonged to a man in his forties,
the body to a man in his fifties, but the silver sweep of hair
indicated a man closer to sixty. Here was a well-preserved royal
who clearly shared a bloodline with Tsar Nicholas and had adopted
similar grooming habits, apparent in the tidy moustache and neatly
trimmed beard.

“How do you do, Mr Holmes,” he
greeted with a clipped Russian accent and a slight bow of his
head.

“A pleasure to meet you, Prince
Malamtov. How may I help you?”

“It is how I may help you, Mr
Holmes.” Prince Sergei continued to saunter around the room,
apparently in search of an ashtray. Not finding anything suitable,
he used a vase of hyacinths on the dressing table instead.

“In what way?” Mycroft was
wondering how much the prince knew when the question was answered
for him.

“It has come to my attention
that my wife was found dead this morning in her bath.”

“Who told you that?”

“What does it matter? I know -
that is all that matters. Why else would I be here?”

“You don’t sound very concerned
for your wife.”

“I ceased being concerned for
the princess when she moved out of our marital home and into
this…this place.” His eyes roved around the bedroom with visible
contempt, lingering on the rumpled bed with undisguised
disgust.

“I repeat, how may I help
you?”

“And I repeat – it is how I may
help you. You will not yet be aware of the fact – but my wife was
with child. The child she was carrying was not mine. We have not
had conjugal relations for three years. The father of her child was
the Prince of Wales. This information could be very damaging to our
respective governments. I will leave it with you to handle the
information as you see fit from this point on. I have been informed
you can be relied upon to do the right thing.”

“Are you saying Scotland Yard
should bring in a finding of suicide?”

“I am saying I leave it in your
capable hands, Mr Holmes.” Prince Sergei dropped his spent
cigarette into a vase of pink tulips and gave a confident click of
his boot heels. His departure was as cavalier as his arrival. The
visit raised more questions than it answered.

How did the prince know his
wife was dead?

It was either Mr Fisk-Manders
or the maid. Most likely the maid. Russians often bribed servants
to spy on members of their own family. Spying was a national
pastime.

That would also explain how he
was privy to the death in record time. Mycroft had only learned of
it an hour ago and the Countess only in the last fifteen
minutes.

The death had been staged to
look like suicide, so suicide would be the official version. Heaven
help them if Prince Sergei was right and the heir to the throne was
having an extra-marital affair with Princess Paraskovia. Bertie was
notorious for his philandering ways, especially with married women,
but they were generally English or Scottish. Their husbands knew
how to play the game. If a husband became aggrieved and insisted on
a divorce a co-respondent could usually be found to step up to
cover for the prince. But Russians were a different kettle of fish
altogether. It was a matter of honour with them that often resulted
in a duel to the death. Heaven help them if Prince Sergei
challenged Bertie to a duel. Heaven help them if Bertie
accepted.

The Countess waited until she
heard the slam of the door then counted to ten just to make
sure.

“Strange,” she mused, “but
Prince Sergei didn’t ask to see his wife.”

“He’s a cold fish. They don’t
call him The Silver Sturgeon for nothing. Are you acquainted with
the prince?”

“I met him when he visited the
estate of my late step-father in Odessa. He stayed for about a
month but I don’t think you could call it an acquaintanceship. I
was but a child, no more than five.”

“And the princess?”

“We never met. I believe she
was born in Belgrade to minor nobility. She was considered a great
beauty and soon gravitated to the court of St Petersburg where she
quickly caught the eye of the prince whose first wife died in
childbirth. Where are the nesting dolls?”

“Didn’t you leave them on the
dressing table?”

“Yes, but they’re not
here.”

Mycroft blasphemed under his
breath then bellowed, “Nash!”

Feet could be heard running
quickly along the corridor. The Major poked his head in the door a
moment later. “Yes?”

“Stop Prince Sergei before he
gets to his carriage.”

The Countess had moved to the
window to peer through the lace curtains. “Too late. He’s getting
into his carriage as we speak.”

“Dammit!” blasted Mycroft.
“Never mind, Nash – as you were.”

The door closed and Mycroft
went back into the bathroom to look once more at the dead body, as
if hoping it might all be a bad dream and the princess might wake
up at any moment. He seemed, dare she say it, lacking his usual
composure. The Countess wondered if Princess Paraskovia meant more
to the civil servant than he cared to admit. Or was it the Russian
prince who tested Mycroft’s equanimity? Something had definitely
got under his skin.

Why was he treating this death
with such sensitivity? It seemed more than just a matter of
delicate diplomacy. It was as if he was taking it personally.

He was gazing strangely at the
lifeless face, a far-away look in his eyes. “Can I ask you to
please check the body one more time? I will wait in the other room.
I don’t know what I expect you to find.”

Obligingly, the Countess
checked the corpse thoroughly to see if anything else might be
lodged in any orifices. She then checked the up-pinned hair and
felt something odd. Carefully, she extracted a handful of curious
bits from amongst the up-pinned bunch of honeyed curls. Mycroft was
sitting on the bed waiting for her to emerge.

“Find anything?”

“Yes.” She showed him a handful
of white, mottled, leprous peelings.

“What on earth is it?”

“Bits of birch bark.”

“Birch bark!”

“Slavs believe that the souls
of the dead inhabit birch trees.”

“Are you saying the death of
Princess Paraskovia was some sort of religious ritual?”

“No, I’m saying whoever killed
her wanted her soul to go to a sacred place.”

“You mean whoever killed her
actually cared about her?”

“Yes, the killer must have
cared deeply.”

Mycroft processed this latest
bit of information in stunned silence while the Countess wrapped
the peelings carefully in one of the princess’s own monogrammed
linen handkerchiefs.

“I understand now why Prince
Sergei did not ask to see the body of his wife,” she said.

Mycroft seemed to force himself
back from some dark place when she placed the handkerchief with the
embroidered ‘P’ into his limp hand. “I’m sorry - you understand
what?”

“Prince Sergei didn’t ask to
see the body of his wife because he had already seen it.”

Mycroft forgot himself. “Bloody
hell! Are you saying he killed his own wife?”

“Yes, and I think he dropped
the name of the Prince of Wales in order to put the wind up
you.”

“Well, it worked,” admitted
Mycroft without even apologizing for the expletive.

“I’ve just had another
thought,” she said gravely. “I think he dropped the royal name not
merely to circumvent you linking him to the death, but to let you
know that if you ever attempted to accuse him he would counter the
accusation by incriminating the heir to the throne.”

Mycroft stared ruefully at the
handkerchief. “In other words, he doesn’t really believe the Prince
of Wales is responsible for the death of the princess but he will
say so knowing that such an accusation would be impossible to
deny.”

BOOK: The Curse Of The Diogenes Club
2.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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