From ART IN THE BLOOD: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure

By Bonnie MacBird

Published by Collins Crime Club/HarperCollins on October 6, 2015

 

It's 1888 and Sherlock Holmes, 34, is lying depressed and back on cocaine after a disastrous Ripper investigation. Watson arrives at 221B and is alarmed to find he can't rouse his friend until a strange letter arrives with a doubly encoded message from Paris. A famous French chanteuse writes that her illegitimate son by a famous earl has gone missing and she has been attacked in the street. Upon decoding a second hidden message, Holmes is intrigued, and the two race off to Paris where they meet their client for the first time in the scene which follows here.

 

The door was opened by one of the most beautiful women I have seen in my life.  Cherie Cerise, née Emmeline La Victoire, stood before us, in a velvet dressing gown of the same deep green, perfectly accentuating her startling green eyes and auburn hair.  But it was not merely her physical beauty that struck me, but a rare quality which emanated from the lady – a sparkle of intelligence coupled with a womanly allure that nearly took my breath away.

But there were shadows under her bright eyes, and a pallor that spoke of grief and worry.  Her eyes swept us both, taking in every detail in an instant.

“Ah, Monsieur Holmes,” she said with a smile to my companion.  “I am so relieved.”  She turned to face me with radiant warmth.  I flushed for no reason at all.  “And you must be Mr. Holmes’ most wonderful of friends, Dr. Watson, I believe?”  I held out my hand to shake hers, but instead she leaned in to kiss me, and then Holmes on both cheeks in the French manner.

She smelled of the same delicious scent as her letter – Jicky perfume, Holmes had called it – and it took considerable self-control not to grin from ear to ear.  But we were there on serious business.  “Mademoiselle, we are at your service,” I offered.

“Madame,” she corrected.  “Merci.  Thank you for coming, and so quickly.”  Her charming French accent only added to her allure.

Moments later we found ourselves seated in front of a small, cheery fireplace in the salon of her sumptuous apartment, decorated in the French style in shades of tan and cream, with high ceilings, a light-coloured oriental carpet and silk-upholstered furniture in subtle stripes.  Bright against this neutral background were several bouquets of fresh flowers, expensive at this time of year, and a rainbow array of silk scarves strewn about.  Our client was clearly a woman of sophisticated tastes.

With apologies for the absence of servants, the lady herself brought us hot cups of coffee.

“My husband will return soon,” she said.  “And the maid, with groceries.”

Holmes sighed.

Mademoiselle La Victoire studied him.  “It is true; I did not mention a husband.”

“You are not married,” stated Holmes.

“Ah, but I am,” began the lady. Holmes grunted and stood up abruptly.  “Watson, come.  I fear our journey has been a waste of time.”

The lady leapt to her feet.  “Monsieur Holmes, non! I beg of you!”

“Mademoiselle, you are not married.  If you desire my assistance, I require nothing less than complete frankness.  Do not waste my time.”

She paused, considering.  I reluctantly rose to my feet.  Holmes reached for his hat.

“Sit please,” she said finally, doing so herself.  “I will agree.  The matter is urgent.  But how did you know?”

I sat, but Holmes remained standing.

“You have claimed to have a husband and his name is mentioned in several articles about you.  And yet he is never seen, nor described.  My inquiries have revealed no one has seen him.  And now, in your apartment, I note many female, but no male, touches; your scarves left over the back of the one easy chair which would be his, if he existed, the choice of books on your mantelpiece, the lack of smoking paraphernalia except for your own cigarette case here.”  He indicated a small delicately worked silver case on a side table.

“Yes, it is mine.  Would you care to smoke, Mr. Holmes?  It will not bother me.”

“Clearly, but no, thank you.  The details I mention are small indications, but the proof is the ring on your left hand.  False, I perceive, and not only of poor design, but slightly too large for you.  Given the careful attention to the colour and fit of your attire, and the decoration of this room, this oversight indicates that your marriage is a fiction which I must assume is to keep male admirers off balance as you require.  It is helpful that you seem quite out of bounds.”

It all seemed so obvious, and yet I had noticed none of these facts.

Mlle. La Victoire remained silent, but a slight smile played upon her face. “Well all that is clear enough,” she said.  “But it merely shows you to be more observant than most.”

Holmes snorted.  “There is more.”

“Holmes—” I warned.

“My theory, and this is unproven, but I judge it likely from the first moments of our meeting, is that you trust no man.”

“I am merely assessing your capabilities,” said she.

“No.  You have already done so.  The letter.”

“Then how do you arrive at this intimate pronouncement, from five minutes of contact and a view of my salon?”

“Holmes,” I entreated again. We were headed into dangerous territory.

He ignored me, leaning forward, his grey eyes boring into hers. “You are an artist, a great one from your reputation, and therefore are expected to be tempestuous, changeable… and vulnerable to flights of fancy as well as fits of despair.  Your talent in music, when added to the exquisite sense of colour and refined taste shown both in your decor here and your personal attire attest to the acutely sensitive nature of the fully developed artist. You mask your strongly emotional nature with a crisp and intelligent manner.  But it is not just a mask; your critical thinking has enabled you to create a successful career on your own, in spite of these personal weaknesses. Nonetheless, you deceive yourself; you are at heart and quite essentially -- a creature driven by emotion.”

“I am an artist; we are emotional.  There is nothing new here,” she said sharply.

“Ah, but I have not got to my point,” said Holmes.

I placed my cup back into its saucer with a clatter.  “Coffee.  This is quite delicious.  Would it be possible to have another cup?” I asked.

They both ignored me.

“And what is your point?” asked the lady.

“You have an illegitimate son by the Earl.  While I do not yet know the particulars, you must have been quite young.  Most probably this was your first love.  You were how old?”

Mlle. La Victoire sat very still.  I could not read her, but the temperature had dropped in the room.  “Eighteen.”

“Ah, I see that I am right.”

Peut-être.  Go on.”

“His betrayal, obvious since you are not married to the Earl, must have wounded a young person of your sensitivity quite deeply.  It is my belief that since this time you have trusted no man and yet you long to with every part of your romantic soul.”

A small gasp came from our client.

Holmes’ words hung in the room like tiny icicles.  He occasionally was unaware of how his words might wound.  However, Mlle. La Victoire recovered in an instant.

“Bravo, Mr. Holmes,” she said with a smile.  “It is as though you have personal knowledge of the subject.”

“I had no prior information—”

“Ah, non!  I perceive that you speak from personal experience.”

A flicker of surprise crossed his face, gone in an instant.   “Hardly. But now, let us turn to the matter at hand and examine the facts of your case.”

“Yes, indeed,” said the lady.

Both of them sat back in their chairs composing themselves and taking in the other with something akin to the guarded admiration of champion boxers before a match.  I became aware that I was sitting nervously on the very edge of my chair.  I cleared my throat and sat back, attempting to relax.

“Cigarette, anyone?” I ventured.

“No,” they said simultaneously.