Lessons in Love: Taking Some Risks With History and Culture
At almost 70 000 words, this is the longest piece of writing I’ve completed in the genre. The working title through its long gestation has been Lusitania; I’ve tentatively chosen Lessons in Love as the final title. This is not really satisfactory because it seems to suggest a love story. There is plenty of love interest – of a chaste kind, I guess – but through the action my heroines learn some important lessons about the heart. Interested? Let me explain.
History first. I wanted to use two dramatic incidents in history as the brackets for the story. The first one of these was the sinking of the British passenger liner, the Lusitania by a German U Boat off the coast of Ireland in April 1915. The British ship sank very quickly with great loss of life and the American outrage at the attack on a passenger ship was a propaganda success for the British government. They claimed that the German action was a criminal act. The Lusitania, however, was almost certainly carrying munitions of war, making it a legal target for German attack. The second historical incident that brackets the story was the Zimmerman telegram. In February 1917, the German government calculated [rightly] that the United States would soon be provoked into joining the war on the Allied side. They made a rather ham fisted attempt to divert American aid to the Allies by soliciting Mexico to attack the United States. The reward the Germans offered to the Mexican government was the return of the territories lost to the United States in earlier wars – including Texas and New Mexico. The British intercepted the telegram and published it to devastating effect. The United Sates entered the war on the Allied side soon after.
I usually try to be scrupulous in the way I use historical incidents but the temptation to put the two dramatic incident together got the better of me. I have also introduced an inaccuracy in the character of Eleanor Roosevelt. This lady is one of my personal heroes and I have tried to catch her voice and vision in the character who appears here. Unfortunately, I needed Mrs Roosevelt in New York – not in Washington as she was through the war years, bringing up a very large family. I’ve leap frogged the lady by ten years, putting her at the Todhunter School on 49th Street where Mrs Roosevelt was the Deputy Principal from 1926. Her husband, Franklin, is true to character as the Secretary for the Navy in Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet.
Now for the risky part – as if trifling with history isn’t dangerous enough. I wanted to do something more adventurous in the character development this time and with the permission of Katie and Emily themselves, I wrote in my first gay character in the person of Billy Edwards. It isn’t gratuitous: I think this works artistically and as the novel progressed, I felt more and more comfortable with this person. I tried to make sure that I avoided the stock way gay characters were once used in fiction – as sad, alienated people who are ultimately punished for their deviance. Billy is in many ways a noble soul and the moral centre of the story. I’ve also tried to make him witty and fun. Young Patrick, the shoe shine boy from Grand Central Station, is another ambiguous character: I leave it to the reader to decide whether these ideas work out. Patrick is also one of many boys and girls in my stories who show great courage and resilience to overcome a background of poverty and abuse. Sorry if this sounds preachy but it’s an important part of the theme of redeeming love. Of course the whole idea of a gay identity or sensibility is a conflicted one to use in historical fiction – although historians insist that New York developed a lively homosexual subculture in the last decades of the nineteenth century.
If you’re a careful reader of my stories, you’ll bristle at the “out of step” nature of the narrative. In sequence, this should after A Time of Shadows and before Ten Cents a Dance. I’m sorry about the disconnect but it should still all work.
Lessons in Love
By Old Grandad
Chapter 1: Disaster at Sea
It had been a quick crossing. No one was surprised: after all, the RMS Lusitania had held the blue riband before the War as the fastest ocean liner crossing the Atlantic. The ship was sleek, slick and beautiful: from its launch, the Lusitania had also become a by-word for elegance, comfort and speed. Passengers in the First Class section travelled in unsurpassed luxury but even the Third Class passengers shared bathrooms and sat in dining rooms of an elegance and comfort that must have startled the humble passengers. Since it left New York a week ago, the great ship had sailed on slight seas in cool May weather, emerging from a patch of fog on that last Sunday into a sunny day. By the afternoon of the seventh day of the crossing, the coast of Ireland was almost visible from the bridge. Captain William Turner must have thought that the danger to his beautiful ship and its people was almost over.
The danger, however, was very present but out of sight. Most of the battleships of the Imperial Germany Navy were idle, riding at anchor in the ports of Wilhelmshaven and Kiel with the Royal Navy in constant patrol to prevent their leaving to engage and endanger British ships. It was a different story below the grey waters of the North Atlantic. German submarines prowled the waters around Britain, sinking British naval ships and making any journey to Britain from America and the Empire a hazardous and dangerous undertaking. But the passengers sailing on the Lusitania felt relatively safe. The Lusitania was fast; she could outrun any military vessel - especially the slow moving submarines. She was also a passenger liner; surely the German government would respect a civilian vessel? The ship had already made the Atlantic crossing many times since the start of the Great War. True, the Germans had posted notices in American newspapers threatening to attack British civilian vessels but there were many passengers from neutral America on board. It would be folly for Germany to buy a fight with the United States by killing innocent passengers on an ocean liner. With the Lusitania’s destination almost in sight, any fears the passengers might have had for their safety seemed unreasonable. That afternoon many of them were in their cabins packing trunks and cases; the Lusitania would dock in Liverpool after dinner.
Some of the passengers were on deck, however, lured by the thin sunshine and the hope of being the first to see the coast of Ireland. Tommy Wellers stood at the rail of the Third Class deck on the starboard side and took the hand of the primly dressed young woman standing beside him. Tommy was only twenty years old; dark and handsome but short of stature and slim with an eager, intense face that spoke both of privation and deep intelligence. His quick, alert manner revealed his big city background; despite his fashionable clothes, Tommy retained a trace of the sharp, larrikin working class air that told the world that he was resilient and determined. The girl beside him was Nancy Meadows, his sweetheart of all of five days – and now his fiancé. She was a year younger than Tommy and dressed against the cool breeze in a warm green tweed travelling dress. They made an unlikely couple. Nancy was a country girl and came from a different world from Tommy. In England, her family would have sniffed and thought Miss Nancy was too good for this low bred city boy. It was just as well then, that her father, [the country solicitor], and her uncle, [the vicar of the parish church in the same village], were still some distance away. Tithegate – the home of father and daughter and uncle - was a prosperous but dull village in the Yorkshire hills. It was peopled by respectable families and no one in Tithegate, Nancy thought with a shudder, was more respectable than the solicitor and his brother, the vicar. At this moment, Tithegate and all its grim respectability was just a dark cloud on the horizon.
For Tommy and Nancy, theirs was a shipboard romance with all the urgency and hope that can touch only the young who are at sea. Tommy and Nancy had met at lifeboat drill on C Deck on the night the Lusitania had set out from New York; they had been inseparable ever since. It was preposterous and impossible but on the night before that Sunday afternoon in May 1915 Tommy had proposed to Nancy and she had accepted without a thought for tomorrow. It was wartime, after all, and both the young lovers knew many young men who had died for King and Country and for whom there was no tomorrow of any kind to think about. All the problems and impediments in their way seemed unimportant that night; their love could overcome everything.
Nancy had found it difficult to sleep after she had kissed Tommy goodnight in the shadows of C Deck after accepting his proposal. It was a passionate kiss – their first – and it left Nancy breathless with hope. She had never met anyone as quick-witted and as sparky as Tommy in her home village. He was intelligent and full of fun. He had travelled; he casually mentioned that he had spent time in Istanbul, Washington and St Petersburg. Tommy carefully avoided saying what he had done in all of these places and Nancy could only sigh and say with feeling that she had long hoped to travel beyond the confines of the predictable Yorkshire village. Tommy had also read widely: he mentioned authors like George Bernard Shaw and H G Wells whose fame was yet to reach Tithegate. He was overwhelmingly charming and engaging but Nancy realised as she tried to settle into the narrow bunk bed in her cabin that she knew almost nothing about him. Almost all their conversations had revolved around her: her experiences, her dreams and her home in Yorkshire. It was Tommy’s unusual ability to listen that was so disarming: Nancy realised with a stab that he listened to her in a way no man or boy at home had ever done. It was what had won her heart so quickly.
Even so, Nancy thought, for all Tommy’s politeness there was little enough of interest for anyone to learn about herself. This most exciting moment in her life – travel to the United States – had come as an unexpected blessing. Nancy had been working for two years in her father’s office when the war started; she had been saving every penny to escape the claustrophobic village – perhaps to begin a new life in Australia or New Zealand. The war scotched that hope: it seemed appalling to desert your country at a time of emergency. Tithegate seemed stiller and bleaker than ever in that first grim winter of the war.
Then it had all changed unexpectedly. Lady Lydia du Lac called upon her father one April morning. The du Lacs, Nancy explained to Tommy, were the local gentry family who owned most of Tithegate and vast estates in the county. Their family seat, Bakelite Hall, was one of the great houses of the kingdom. Lord Gervase du Lac was the Lord Lieutenant of the county and the principal client of her father. His Lordship sat in the Parliament and was the local magistrate; he owned the living and commanded the front pew in All Saints, her uncle’s parish church. The war had cleared the village of most of its young men but, oddly given their prominence, there were no du Lacs in uniform. Indeed, the du Lac family was quietly sending all their children away to the safety of the United States. A sixteen year old brother to Lady Mabel had already been sent on to Canada.
Her Ladyship announced to Mr Meadows that she was determined that young Lady Mabel would go to an exclusive New York school to be “finished”. The girl needed an older woman to chaperone her across the Atlantic: would Nancy accompany her? Nancy had gladly accepted the commission as an answer to prayer. Here was a way to travel at no expense to herself and with a clear conscience. The world beyond her little village beckoned and Nancy jumped at the chance. The great temptation she faced was to cancel the return ticket and remain in the United States but this hope was quashed in the week before she left by her father’s sudden ill health. He needed her back in Tithegate as soon as she could return; still, the journey itself would be an education for the country girl. The voyage out to the United States had, of course, been in the comfort of a first class cabin on the RMS Mauretania; nothing so grand was required for the solicitor’s daughter on her return and Nancy was obliged to share a cabin in Third Class with two other girls on the Mauretania’s sister ship, the Lusitania . The voyage home was nowhere near as splendid as the voyage out– but of course, in first class she would never have met Tommy.
In their conversations as they walked the deck and shared their meals, Tommy drew her out, listening to her talk of the village, her uncle and father, the death of her mother when she was just a child and the trying behaviour of the spoiled Lady Mabel. Nancy spoke of the glamorous hotel in New York where she had briefly stayed and the truly elegant and formidable Headmistress to whom Nancy had gladly handed her charge on the day the Lusitania sailed for home. Tommy wanted every detail of the village and the life she had lived, of her hopes and dreams. He said little of his own life except that his family had been very poor; that he had grown up in the squalid East End of London but had managed to find work out of that world. Certainly his speech was that of a Londoner but Tommy spoke with a confident, light accent that proclaimed education and ambition. He may have started life in a poor home but he had lost all trace of that in his accent.
On their third day at sea with the relationship taking on a life of its own, Nancy tried to give Tommy the chance to talk. “You’re not in uniform, Tommy?” said Nancy. Almost every young man of twenty whom she knew was wearing the uniform of the King; how was it that Tommy had missed out on volunteering to serve, she wondered?
Tommy was silent for a long beat before he replied, “No, Nancy, I’m not in uniform as you can see.”
Nancy waited for him to go on; when he didn’t, she said, “Are you in business then? I know that many men have to travel for business. Lord du Lac says the war will be very good for business.” Tommy noticed that her voice sounded bitter; he would have been disappointed if Nancy had ventured this idea as her own.
A relieved Tommy hastened to agree. “Yes, I dare say that the war is good for some businessmen – and I’m certainly in business of a kind. But tell me again about your hotel in New York. Did you say it was on Fifth Avenue? It sounds very posh.”
Nancy was happy enough to be led away and into a long description of the elegance of the hotel in which she had stayed so briefly. But her mind returned to the topic of Tommy’s occupation in another way. “I only ever see men of business in my father’s office, Tommy – and it’s not inspiring really. It’s such a boring job I have. If I had been a boy, my father would gladly have articled me as his clerk; I’d have almost completed my professional training by now if I hadn’t been born a girl. Instead I make father’s appointments, type his letters, file his documents and pour his tea. Father says I make excellent tea. I suppose I am also the housekeeper at the family home – it goes by the grand name of Bell House – although an exceptionally kind and competent housekeeper really manages the home. So I have a job – of sorts – and a kind of dignity as the daughter of a comfortably well off, respectable man. I suppose that makes me a comfortably well off, respectable woman.”
She hesitated before going on, trying to choose her words very carefully. “Tommy, it’s not enough: deep down I long for something more – something bigger. I thought that the war, perhaps, would give me that chance and here I am at sea but I don’t count taking Lady Mabel to New York as a promising career move.” The day was brisk and chilly; Tommy put his arm around the girl and tucked her into his shoulder. They walked in comfortable silence until tea time when Tommy cheekily ventured to ask for the secret of Nancy’s famous tea making prowess.
On that last day, with Tithegate so close and the embarrassing memory before her of how little she had actually learned about Tommy before committing to him, Nancy resolved to be more demanding. She took his hand in hers, wondering at the fragility of the fine bones in the wrist and the long, artistic fingers. “Be more candid with me, Tommy, please. I’ve told you I’ll marry you – and I’m not thinking of anything else in the world, really – but who are you? And what do you do when you’re not travelling third class on the Lusitania? And how am I ever going to persuade my father to let us marry if I can’t tell him these things? What if he says no? I won’t be of age when I can choose for myself for two more years. You’re like a being from another planet – I love you most for being so different from Tithegate. And I know I couldn’t wait two years for you. I can barely abide being away from you for two minutes!”
Tommy coloured and looked into her grey eyes as if he were struggling to find words he could share. He reached up and carefully tucked a strand of her blonde hair back under her green felt hat. He grinned an embarrassed smile and looked beyond the girl into the grey water below them. Nancy was puzzled but patient; she had quickly discerned that there was more to Tommy than he was willing to disclose. In the silence, Tommy leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the lips, ignoring the stares of other passengers who were walking the deck.
There was a long pause before he went on. “Who am I? Well, let me think about how best to answer that.” Tommy paused as if struggling to make a difficult choice. Finally he went on: “Have you ever been so hungry in Tithegate, Nancy, that your head ached and your stomach clutched as you walked down the street? Have you ever slept eight to a room? Can you even imagine the smell of that, my love? Have you ever seen men in the street so drunk they couldn’t stand? Have you ever had a little sister die of whooping cough because there was no money for a doctor or medicine? I’ve seen all of this and more – horrors that would confound and astonish you – and your father the solicitor or your uncle the vicar. Imagine what it is like for a bright and ambitious boy who works hard at school and does well but who can have no thought of doing any better in the world than to follow his broken father into work on the docks. Can you imagine my world, Nancy?”
Tommy paused and draw breath, hardly trusting himself to go on. Until now he had spoken to the rail of the ship, to the water below; now he turned Nancy to face him and held her to him. “Now imagine this boy at thirteen with a skinny frame and bad teeth meeting someone who can open a door to another life – another world completely. It doesn’t happen quickly at first – just by degrees. There’s a chance here to earn a little money, then the chance to travel away with three or four other boys for the summer – all the time learning, all the time thinking beyond Whitechapel.”
“A gentleman just took you in?” said Nancy incredulously. “Just like that, out of the goodness of his heart?” The caution in her voice was clear. Nancy may have led a sheltered life but working in her father’s office had given her some sense of the wickedness of the wide world. Tommy shook his head with a smile.
“Believe me, I was cautious and suspicious at first. I have seen gentlemen come to the East End looking for boys who were desperate for a few shillings and no matter how much I wanted to better myself that was something I couldn’t do. But there was none of that – early or late. And at first, the gentleman didn’t take me in. I remained at home; my value to him depended on my being in place. I was to keep my eyes and my ears open and know my patch of Whitechapel and everything that happened there. I met with the gentleman in pubs just outside my patch – sometimes with nothing much to say, sometimes with scraps of information about my street and my part of the city of interest to him. Corrupt police officers and criminals don’t even notice a kid from the neighbourhood who might be about. I seemed to please my Governor and after a year of simply being on report and earning half a crown here and there this gentleman came to meet my mother and father and offered to take me on.”
“Tommy, I believe you of course but who is this gentleman and what do you do? How did you learn to speak without an East End accent? And what are you doing on board right now?” Nancy was a little anxious but she was very intrigued. For years in the dullness of Tithegate she had thought that some gentleman – or someone – would turn up and rescue her from the dismal present and a joyless future. It was a preposterous hope but it had been born of frustration, keen intelligence and an active imagination. Tommy looked for encouragement to continue speaking and asked shyly, “You won’t change your mind knowing what poverty I’ve come from, Nancy?”
Nancy squeezed his hand. “Please go on,” she said lightly. “I’m loving you more and more the better I know you.”
Tommy breathed deeply, as if uncertain whether to share the next confidence but went on in the most unexpected way. “Have you perhaps read any of the stories written by Dr John Watson about the great detective, Mr Sherlock Holmes?” Tommy’s voice was tentative but Nancy’s face lit up immediately.
“Indeed I have – I have the latest story, The Strange Incident of the Pussy Cat’s Bow, in my cabin right now. I bought it in New York thinking that I could read it on the way home. But since I met you, Tommy, I haven’t thought to read at all. You’re much more interesting than even Dr Watson and his friend, Sherlock Holmes. My father says that the stories are ridiculous: I have to hide my copies of the Strand Magazine under my pillow. Father says that no one could believe in anyone as fantastic as Mr Holmes. But how does this connect with your employment and prospects, Tommy?”
“My darling Nancy: I shouldn’t tell you any of this because my work is secret and sometimes dangerous but if you’re going to share my life, this is me. Mr Sherlock Holmes is real – although the stories are written by Dr Watson to mask his friend as much as celebrate him. It wouldn’t do for the world to know all that he does. He was the gentleman who rescued me from poverty when I was thirteen years old. I worked for him as his eyes and ears in Whitechapel for two years when I was snapped up by Mr Sherlock Holmes’s brother, Mycroft. Mr Sherlock Holmes was not best pleased – I’m not the first of Mr Sherlock’s boys whom the older brother has lured away, by the way. Mr Mycroft Holmes took me from Whitechapel and when I’m not out of the country I have lived for five years in a house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, with other boys who are the protégés of Mr Mycroft Holmes. It’s just as much a finishing school as the one to which you took the Honourable Lady Mabel du Lac – and much more exclusive, I would think. Most of the days there are taken up with study: languages, mathematics, political economy. I’ve spent four months training with the Royal Marines on Dartmoor learning hand to hand fighting and how to use a pistol and a rifle. Last autumn I spent the same length of time in Woolich learning codes and cyphers. I put all of these skills to use in Istanbul and St Petersburg – and Washington. And the accent? Nancy, accents are easy to come by and discard when you have been trained to listen as intently as I have.”
“So you work for Mr Mycroft Holmes then, in some sort of secret organisation? That’s why you’re not in uniform.” Nancy said these words with an intake of breath, as if this couldn’t be possible but knowing from the intense look in Tommy’s face that he was telling the truth. It was really unbelievable and with her heart racing in equal parts of confusion and joy, Nancy hugged the young man to her and whispered the first, impulsive word that came to her mouth. “Does Mr Mycroft Holmes only employ boys, Tommy? Do you think he might consider a bright young woman from Tithegate?”
Tommy laughed and shared in the wonder of the moment. “You wouldn’t be the first – I know of two sisters who have worked for Mr Holmes and there are other girls in training now at Cheyne Walk. There are big parts of his work that I know nothing about; he might be employing chimney sweeps and char women as well as bright boys and girls for all I know. The secrecy is important because the work can be dangerous. My guess is that the gentleman will employ anyone with the right talents.”
Tommy broke the embrace to kiss Nancy in a long, happy and uncomplicated moment of joy. Here were two lost souls who had found each other in the most extraordinary way. They separated and turned back to look at the grey water below them. And at that moment, Tommy noticed a line of bubbles powering towards the side of the ship and he knew immediately what that meant. Without thinking, he drew Nancy to him and hugged her as the torpedo struck the ship just below where they were standing. In a moment, there was a second explosion as the steam engines of the great ship broke apart and the Lusitania shuddered in a spasm that sent her lurching to one side. From the moment Tommy saw the bubbles in the grey water, he knew that the dream of a life with Nancy and a future for them together had vanished just like the ocean mist that had surrounded them that morning.
The explosions below them were quickly followed by other noises: the piercing blast of the ship’s whistle; orders being barked to crew members; the screams and shouts of frightened passengers milling around them. Soon the deck was a scene of absolute mayhem. Tommy’s years of training in Mr Holmes’s special agency asserted itself immediately, however, and he suddenly became cool and confident in a way that astonished Nancy. “Please stay here at the rail,” he said with authority. “Don’t move from here no matter what happens. I’ll be back in a moment. You have to trust me completely. Agreed?”
Nancy wanted to say a great deal but Tommy’s manner brooked no opposition and she nodded dully as Tommy turned and pushed against the press of frightened people for the stairs to his own cabin. As it was, complete chaos seemed to descend on the ship within moments of the explosion. Hours before, Captain Turner had ordered the lifeboats swung out ready for use in case a submarine attack came on them in the most dangerous part of the journey; realising the imminent danger, passengers clambered to try to get into the boats and away to safety. All around, people were struggling as the crew tried to keep order among so many frightened people. As it was, Nancy didn’t obey Tommy’s orders; a little girl of about seven years old was standing close by crying in fear. She had been separated from her mother and Nancy instinctively took her hand and led the girl to the first lifeboat accepting passengers. The ship had started to list to starboard and entering the lifeboats was becoming increasingly difficult. With the frightened girl safely on one of the lifeboats, Nancy returned to the place where Tommy had left her. He was standing anxiously and she fell into his arms.
To Nancy’s astonishment, Tommy was clutching a briefcase that was handcuffed to his wrist. Ignoring Nancy’s questions, Tommy opened the case and pushed into her hands a leather purse of money, and a parcel wrapped in oilskin and secured with string and official looking bright red wax ties. He also held a white note card. “Just listen, my love. I’m going to get you into one of the boats and then I’ll try to get away myself as best I can. If all goes well – and I’ll do all I can to make that so – I’ll come calling at your father’s office in Tithegate – without an appointment. If I don’t come, you have to believe that for the last six days you’ve made me the happiest man in the world and I love you more than life itself. You wanted to be the first woman to serve Mr Holmes; here’s your chance. Take this for safekeeping,” Tommy said as he pushed the purse and the oilskin parcel into her hands. “Don’t show them to anyone: not to your father, your uncle or anyone at all. Can you deliver them to the man whose address is here? He’ll know what to do with them. Don’t give them to anyone else. There’s a second address on the card in case that one fails. The money is for you; it’s all I’ve got; yours now. Now it’s time to go. And I love you. Never forget that.” As he said these words, Tommy hugged Nancy to him and held her despite the great ship listing again to starboard. They hung together for a moment longer, ignoring the clamour of people milling around them. The world that had promised so much was disintegrating in the piercing wail of the ship’s whistle.
Tommy had to hurry them past two full lifeboats that were being lowered to the grey waves below the sinking ship. The confusion that met them at the third boat was chaotic; the situation seemed hopeless. The boat was almost full and Tommy noticed with grim revulsion that many of the passengers in the lifeboat were men, belligerently defending their places and defying anyone to challenge them. Several other men were thumping frightened women and children out of the way in their determination to get into the boats. There were several young sailors standing by trying to maintain order but one of them had a bloodied nose and a split lip showing that the frightened bullies had already knocked anyone out of the way who tried to stop them. The situation was desperate now because only the young sailors knew how to lower the boat and they had been knocked to the side. Unless something were done soon, the lifeboat would never be launched and everyone in it would die with those left of the deck.
Nancy never forgot the next dreadful moment when Tommy, slight and looking ridiculously young, grabbed the closest bully by the shoulder and pulled him back. The angry man swung around, furious that anyone would defy him and astonished that the person who might try to stop him was so young and unassuming. Tommy didn’t wait for words; he swung his arm carrying the briefcase and struck the bully in the forehead with the briefcase attached to his wrist with the handcuff. The startled man went down on his knees and Tommy followed through the first blow with a knee to the man’s chin. The man’s mates turned to settle the matter with a string of swear words; at this point, Tommy coolly drew a pistol and fired two shots into the air. Despite the frenzy, everyone drew back and something like silence fell across the scrum at the boat. “The next shot,” said Tommy, ‘is for any man in the lifeboat who hesitates to get out now. Now move – out of the boat and right over out of the way. Let the women and children on in your place. ” There was no movement and Tommy fired again, the shot sailing close enough to the men in the lifeboat for them to duck – and then scramble out. The eight men who had scrambled from the boat now formed a sullen, seething knot on Tommy’s right.
“Can you man this boat once it hits the water?” Tommy asked the young sailor whose lip was cut.
“Indeed I can sir, but I can’t do it on my own,” the boy replied.
“Take two of your mates and get into the boat now,” Tommy ordered. The three boys scrambled in quickly and then reached across to assist the waiting women and children. When the boat was full, Tommy hugged Nancy one last time and lifted her into the arms of the young sailors, just as the boat lurched again and tipped even further.
“Let me stay,” Nancy cried. “Someone else can have my place. Please, Tommy. I’d rather take my chances here with you.”
“I’m selfish enough to want you to live, Nancy – and deliver the parcel I have given you. Please: don’t fail me. You’re Mr Holmes’s man now; it’s just what you wanted, remember?” He hazarded a shy smile and then he was gone out of the way, standing back as the sailors did their work.
With the ship listing so heavily, it was awkward getting the lifeboat away; finally it swung out and began to descend. Tommy didn’t take his eyes off the bullies seething on the deck until the lifeboat had reached the grey water below and the young sailors had pushed off, rowing gamely to take the lifeboat out of danger.
Nancy was numb with fear and loss. She slipped the parcel under her coat and did her best not to give in to her grief. Then over the cacophony above her she heard three more shots and savage screams of rage and frustration. A moment later, the once proud Lusitania rose up and those left on the decks were sent tumbling into the cold water below. Then there was another explosion and the ship was gone. People struggled in the water until finally the oily surface lay still. In the distance, Royal Naval vessels were steaming at speed toward them. Nancy struggled to suppress her agony; it was not until she had helped the last of the children in the lifeboat into the arms of waiting boats let down to rescue them that she allowed her own tears to fall. All this time the oilskin parcel was clutched to her chest and the precious card with the address for delivery was safe in her coat pocket.
Chapter 2: The House at Cheyne Walk.
It took three months for Nancy to deliver her parcel. The news of the sinking of the Lusitania made headlines all over the world but in Tithegate, Jonathon Meadows was too ill to register what had happened to his daughter. He had been unwell with a persistent late winter cough when Nancy set off for New York but it was only when his daughter began the return journey that he was suddenly struck down with pneumonia. A resident nurse had been employed to care for him for the last week or so because the man had stubbornly refused to go to hospital; the Reverend Walter Meadows could see how ill his brother was and he prayed for Nancy’s return as the only thing that could lift the dying man out of his danger. The local doctor – a wise man who had nursed Nancy’s mother through her last illness and knew the family intimately – was pessimistic however. Meadows was very ill but perhaps he might yet recover. And yes, he agreed with the vicar that Nancy couldn’t return soon enough.
There were polite questions from Dr Evans and the vicar when Nancy finally made it home. From the Royal Naval vessel which rescued her and took her with other survivors to Liverpool, Nancy had travelled first to Leeds and then to Tithegate. The whole journey from torpedo to home took three days and when she presented herself at Bell House in Tithegate she was wearing the same clothes that she had had on when the Lusitania slipped beneath the Atlantic waves. She was exhausted and broken hearted: her loss seemed overwhelming, especially because she didn’t know how to share any of it with her father. She had never felt so desolate and alone as she had at that moment that she turned into the driveway to Bell House as a castaway.
She was spared the agony, however, of deciding what she might tell her father about her escape from death. Jonathon Meadows was near to death himself and Nancy was plunged immediately into the role of nurse and keeper. There was so much to think about; so much to keep to herself. For a moment, Nancy was the village celebrity. She was the local girl who had survived the famous wreck that had left twelve hundred other people dead or missing. She could hear people whispering and pointing at her in church. Friends called asking for details of the attack and seemed disappointed that Nancy was mostly silent and withdrawn. Lady du Lac sent a card summoning her to Bakelite Hall to hear for herself what had happened; Nancy returned a polite note thanking her ladyship for her concern but pleading that she could not leave her father for a moment. When he was quite recovered, she wrote, she hoped to be at leisure to meet her Ladyship and satisfy her interest.
Nancy’s letter was half true at least. Jonathon Meadows was dangerously unwell and Nancy spent hours at his bedside as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Days and nights blurred into one another and Nancy was surprised to realise with a stab of pain that three weeks had slipped by since the tragedy. She always had hot soup and tea at hand and when her father stirred out of his sleep she would coax a little food into him. He seemed to be surviving on determination alone. There were times when he was awake and lucid but at these moments, he was just as likely to call Nancy by her mother’s name - Peggy – and to want to hold her hand and babble about events of many years gone. Nancy was frightened of these moments at first but quickly found that her greatest fear – that her reaction would somehow hasten her father’s death – were quite unfounded. Dr Evans quickly came to trust Nancy’s work as a nurse and encouraged her to continue to speak to her father even when he appeared to be unconscious. Nancy rarely left the sick room; she slept first in a big arm chair beside her father’s bed and later on a cot set up in a corner.
Nancy’s days settled into a dull routine of nursing and endless domestic service. She had no time to devote to her father’s office but quite unbidden, a young man who gave his name as Lionel Trilby arrived from Harrogate to take over Meadows’ legal practice. He asserted confidently that he was at Miss Meadow’s service until Mr Meadows was well enough to resume his duties. Even though he seemed competent and willing, Trilby needed frequent assistance locating documents in the files and Nancy couldn’t help but think that Mr Trilby created opportunities to call on her at home. He was a suitably dull fellow, however, in his late twenties – already balding - and [Nancy knew immediately from his slow and cautious speech] - spectacularly respectable in the worst possible Tithegate way. He called on Miss Meadows often and on one of these visits, Nancy realised with a shudder that the man was probably courting her. Six months ago, the attentions of a man -any man however dull, respectable and suitable – would have been a welcome treat. But Nancy had met Tommy Wellers on the Lusitania and Mr Trilby’s chances of success with her were quite extinguished.
When something like a routine had been imposed on her life, Nancy was more able to deal with the heavy weight of grief in her heart. For a whole week she harboured the hope that somehow Tommy might have survived the loss of the Lusitania. He was young and fit and resourceful. If anyone could swim through the cold grey water to the rescue of a lifeboat then Tommy might do that. Her last thoughts at night, however, were of the gunshots above her as her lifeboat slipped away. She dreaded what those sounds must mean. In the cold light of morning, Nancy realised that these hopes were fanciful.
Then one morning her uncle called by to see his brother. The Reverend Walter Meadows brought a copy of the Times for Nancy to read; a reporter had written a long piece on the aftermath of the tragedy and Nancy was mentioned briefly. So was an unnamed young man who had gallantly commandeered a lifeboat and forced frightened and cowardly men back on to the deck so women and children could escape. This young man, the journalist wrote, was one of the unsung heroes of the tragedy. He was, the writer thought, most probably a true English gentleman who had learned his gallantry in some great public school. This conclusion drew a bitter smile from Nancy. On another page of the edition of the Times was the first full list of all those lost in the sinking of the ship. And sure enough, Mr Thomas Wellers was listed among the third class passengers who were missing, presumed dead. Only then did Nancy surrender herself completely to her grief.
She walked out into the garden; it was a beautiful summer’s morning and the neglected garden was still astonishingly beautiful with roses and clematis. On a day like this, Nancy thought, she could have brought Tommy home to Tithegate to meet her father and her uncle. And on such a beautiful day, she thought, no one could object to their love. She sobbed openly, overwhelmed by the cruelty and unfairness of the world before folding up the newspaper and putting it aside. The headlines were of the terrible fighting continuing in France and Belgium and on the Gallipoli Peninsular. There were other casualty lists from these conflicts and Nancy was sensible enough to realise that every name on those lists represented a loss just like her own. At that moment, women and children all over Britain were facing life without a much-loved brother, a father, a husband or a son. It was just a little comfort that her pain was shared by so many others.
Nancy kept the precious oilskin parcel under the pillow of her cot in her father’s room; for those first weeks after her return it never left her sight. She had taken over all the responsibilities of nursing her father so no housemaid was likely to find it there. She turned the address over in her hands every night. The packet was a puzzle, of course, but the addresses on the card which Tommy had given her were even more challenging. The first address read:
Mr Wally Beavers,
The second address was as follows:
Miss Katie Bland
London, of course, was only five hours away from Tithegate by train; Nancy reflected gloomily that it might just as well be on the other side of the world. She couldn’t leave her father even for a day. He was still dangerously ill and anyway, explaining to Dr Evans or Fr Walter [or even Mrs Grant, the kindly housekeeper] why she needed to go to London would take much more courage than she could muster. The pressure to honour Tommy’s commission, however, weighed heavily and when it became clear that she couldn’t go to London, she decided that she would see if London might come to her.
One rainy afternoon with her father sleeping restlessly, Nancy sat in the dining room of her home and wrote a letter. Knowing the secrecy that had attended Tommy’s work, she was fearful of saying very much but determined to give enough information to act as a magnet to anyone from within Tommy’s circle. Her letter went through several drafts – all of which Nancy was careful to collect afterwards and burn in the kitchen range. Finally she settled on a simple postcard she bought at the post office in Tithegate. It showed the little town with Bakelite Hall dominating the park in the foreground of the scene and the elegant bulk of All Saints Church rising in the background. The message Nancy wrote on the other side of the card read simply:
28 August 1915
Dear Mr Beavers,
I have a Christmas present for Mr Holmes from his nephew, Tommy. Could you call on me at Bell House, Tithegate, Yorkshire, to take delivery?
Miss Nancy Meadows
It was a message, she hoped, that might gladden Tommy’s heart if he were still with them. Sending it off the next morning brought her the first relaxed, contented moment since the day of the tragedy. She suddenly felt connected with Tommy again and the bleak world of Tithegate seemed just a little less oppressive.
Nancy thought no more of her post card for days afterwards because the day on which she dropped the hopeful card in the letter box her father’s condition took a sudden turn for the worse. A long and difficult time followed in which days and weeks melted into one another. Dr Evans was called, shook his head and did his avuncular best to prepare Nancy. He left a supply of laudanum – the powerful opiate that could dull pain and free wounded spirits – and shook Nancy’s hand solemnly. The vicar came, read the psalm and anointed his brother. Nancy remained by her father’s bedside; ten days after she had sent the letter, Jonathon Meadows died just before dawn on a clear and beautiful late summer morning. Nancy washed and dressed her father’s body in his Sunday suit. She then extinguished the candle that had burnt on the bedside table for days and weeks. Nancy was struck by how much that flickering light symbolised her own diminished hopes. Mrs Grant was then beside her with tea and the two women walked into the garden and Nancy cried into the shoulder of the woman who had comforted her so many years ago on the death of her mother.
There was a great deal to do in the next few days. Mr Trilby kindly offered to make the necessary funeral arrangements leaving Nancy with almost nothing to occupy her mind. Her uncle thought that Nancy’s cool grief showed commendable courage and pluck: he had no idea of the plans formulating in Nancy’s busy heart. One ray of comfort that encouraged her at this moment was a visit from Mr Trilby of a quite unexpected kind. He was able to tell Nancy that her father had left her very comfortably provided for. Jonathon Meadows had worked hard, lived simply and never spent his income; Nancy was his only heir. Bell House was hers now and there were considerable investments in property in Harrogate and savings held in a London bank. As well, Meadows had never revealed to his daughter that she could look forward to a legacy from a grandmother when she came of age in two years. Even without her father’s estate, the legacy would give Nancy a comfortable income – and genuine independence. Mr Trilby, apprised of all this, was suddenly even more interested in Nancy and it took all of Nancy’s polite powers to discourage the gentleman. While she nursed her father, Nancy had resolved that as soon as she could, she would be off and volunteer for war work. She had legal and secretarial experience but that didn’t seem to count for much in the war. If being truly useful meant training to be a nurse then she would train. No matter what, she would be leaving Tithegate.
The last day was just a blur. She had walked through the funeral service seated in the front pew of All Saints Church; she had followed her father’s coffin to the churchyard and then stood with dignity in the drawing room of Bell House to receive the formal comfort of the respectable people of Tithegate. Mrs Grant had quietly organised a most respectable afternoon tea for the mourners who came back to Bell House after the bell had rung and the sexton had done his work. Lady du Lac condescended to attend the funeral and she reminded Nancy as he left Bell House afterwards that the girl had promised to call at Bakelite Hall to tell her first hand about the wreck of the Lusitania. Nancy returned a thin smile and nodded an ambiguous reply that Lady du Lac was pleased to receive. She swept out leaving Nancy feeling desolate. She was in a trance through it all: playing a part, smiling weakly, nodding, hearing nothing and feeling numb and broken.
On the evening of her father’s funeral, Nancy was sitting in the garden trying to compose her thoughts and plan the next step. The only thing sustaining her that summer afternoon was the hope of escape. She didn’t have any real idea how she might make the next step; there was no one who could really advise her. Now that it was so close, she was bewildered – and missing Tommy’s cheerful, disarming confidence. Of course he would know what to do. Her tea had gone cold as she walked about under apple and pear trees; she had settled at last on a garden bench. The day was so beautiful; it seemed extraordinary that a terrible war could be happening somewhere distant and that the war had robbed her of all her hopes for happiness. Ironically, that same war now offered a way out of the narrow cloister in which she lived. But exactly how should she proceed?
Then Mrs Grant was at her elbow: “There’s a young lady and a gentleman to see you, Ma’am. I’ve explained that you have just had to bury the Master and that you are not really well enough to receive visitors but they insist on seeing you. Shall I bring them to you here or will you meet them inside?”
Nancy was not expecting anyone but the distraction from the challenge facing her was welcome. “Please have them come through to me here, Mrs Grant.” The woman nodded and Nancy stood, arranging her black clothes and wondering who might be visiting.
Mrs Grant returned with two people. A middle aged, ample gentleman in a city suit and hat greeted her with a tentative bow. He carried a briefcase and a rolled umbrella. “Miss Meadows, I presume. I am sorry to call on you – today of all days. Your housekeeper has just informed me that we come at a most inconvenient time. Perhaps we should come back tomorrow?”
The gentleman was accompanied by an intelligent looking young woman with brown hair, a grey dress and the kindest face Nancy had ever seen. While the gentleman spoke, this woman had reached out and taken her hand – it was a gesture that had comforted Nancy deeply and strangely brought her to tears. The young woman immediately registered Nancy’s reaction and turned to Mrs Grant. “Will you be so kind as to bring us all some tea, Ma’am. I’m sure that Miss Meadows would appreciate a little time to compose herself.”
Mrs Grant left them and the man and woman instinctively drew closer. Again, the woman took her hand and smiled - and it was at this moment that Nancy Meadows knew who her visitors must be. They were kind and gracious, certainly, but that was not the reason Nancy’s heart swelled with the most unreasonable and fortifying hope. Quite simply, the visitors came from Tommy’s world – a world she hadn’t even known existed until she had met Tommy on the deck of the Lusitania as it sailed out of New York harbour. Her whole world was divided into two unequal parts: the part before that moment and the part afterwards.
“Are you Miss Katie Bland?” asked Nancy. “And are you Mr Beavers then?” she continued. “Thank you for coming. I do apologise for my clumsy beginning, Sir: I rather thought that Mr Beavers might be a younger person.”
The gentleman smiled and raised his hat. “Mr Mycroft Holmes at your service, Miss Meadows. I am sorry that Mr Beavers is not able to be here; he is actually away in Belgium right now.” Here, Mr Holmes took something from his coat pocket and offered it to Nancy; it was the postcard she had sent off to Liversley Lane.
He went on carefully: “Mr Beavers was not at home to receive your card but he does have a most excellent younger sister, Maisie. When your card was delivered, unfortunately, it was put aside with other mail for Wally to read on the unknown date when he returns home from the war. No one else in the house thought much about it but Maisie happened upon the letter while she was helping her mother clean her brother’s room. It had been with a bundle of post for some four weeks, apparently. A letter addressed to her brother, of course, she would not open but a postcard is more public and even though Maisie knows only a little of her brother’s work, she recognised a serious note when she saw it. She took the card to Miss Bland – and she came immediately to me.” Here, Mr Holmes paused and looked at Nancy intently. “I’m guessing that somehow this card connects you to one of my young associates: Mr Tommy Wellers, perhaps?”
Nancy remained standing, composed and silent for a long beat before crumpling like an autumn leaf in a fire and sinking down on the garden bench. For three months she had been silent about what had happened to her heart on the Lusitania. There was no one with whom she could share her grief; no one with whom she could share the secrets that sometimes threatened to overwhelm her. She had been brave and cool as she nursed her father; she had resisted the officious efforts of her uncle and Lady du Lac to offer comfort in exchange for her confidence. She had dealt gently with the clumsy advances of Mr Trilby. All of this was a great deal to ask of any nineteen year old girl whose whole life had been one of service and duty at the cost of her imagination and initiative. For a moment, Nancy was overwhelmed and disabled – not just by grief but with a kind of relief for which she had prayed. Her loss of control was momentary and she found herself swept up by Katie who had watched her intently to see her reaction to the mention of Tommy’s name. Katie held her and Nancy hugged her like the sister she had never had.
Mrs Grant arrived with tea at this moment and the little English ritual of cups and teapot made the awkward beginning easier to manage. Mr Holmes led the conversation in a way that astonished Nancy. “Miss Meadows, there is a great deal to be said, I’m sure, and I would love to hear the story of your escape from the Lusitania but time is precious, unfortunately. Later perhaps. I have only three questions to ask you now. The rest can wait for later. Firstly, were you well acquainted with Mr Wellers? I am guessing that you met him on the Lusitania on the way back to England from New York.”
Nancy paused and replied simply, “Mr Wellers was my fiancé. He asked me to marry him on the Saturday night of the voyage home – the night before the ship was struck by the torpedo. So yes, I was well acquainted with Mr Wellers but he told me almost nothing of his work or his life. You will think that this was a frivolous basis on which to accept a gentleman’s proposal of marriage, perhaps, but even though I had only known him for a week …” here Nancy paused and looked at Katie for encouragement, “I felt as if I had been waiting for Tommy to appear all my life.”
“It’s as I expected, then,” said Mr Holmes with a trace of satisfaction in his voice. “Now for my second question. Did Mr Wellers, perhaps, give you something before you parted on that Sunday afternoon?”
Nancy coloured. “Sir, I suppose that if I were really clever and cautious I would demand that you produce some evidence of your identity before I were to answer that question. Could you please give me that satisfaction?”
Now it was Mr Holmes’s turn to colour. “Well done, Miss Meadows,” he said simply. He reached for his briefcase and produced a passport that he quickly opened and showed to Nancy. She sighed and returned it with a bow. “In answer to your question, Sir: yes, Mr Wellers did give me something which was to go to Mr Beavers or to Miss Bland. He stated that the parcel was tremendously important. I was to send it to Mr Beavers or Miss Bland but the parcel was for you and so I suppose I can hand it to you without violating the promise I made to Mr Wellers. I’ll fetch it directly.”
“I’ll go with you, Nancy,” said Katie.
“And that will leave me with a moment to enjoy my tea and admire your roses, Miss Meadows,” said Mycroft Holmes.
Nancy led the way upstairs and into her father’s bedroom. She had spent a whole morning on the day before the funeral carefully removing her father’s clothes and effects, then she and Mrs Grant and a housemaid had aired and cleaned the room. It retained its masculine feel, however, in the dark colours and heavy furniture. She entered the room now, gesturing for Katie to accompany her. “There is a safe here in Father’s room,” Nancy said simply. “Until his death, the parcel was under my pillow – always with me. Tommy said that it was precious and I believed him. When Father died and I had to leave the house more often, I locked it away securely for safekeeping.”
Nancy went straight to a fine oak cupboard near the fireplace and swung the left door. The safe had been built into the left corner and was heavy, old fashioned and commodious. The key to the lock was in a drawer of the desk against the window. Nancy opened the safe carefully, swinging the heavy metal door wide. There were various large envelopes and boxes stacked into the safe; like everything in Jonathon Meadows’ life, the safe was well organised and tidy. From the bottom of the pile, Nancy extracted the oilskin parcel. She locked the safe again but lingered at the cupboard for a moment. “I know that I must give this to Mr Holmes but Miss Bland, while I’ve had this, I’ve felt that I still had a connection to Tommy. Once I give it away, that thread is broken forever. I have no idea what the parcel contains; it’s foolish, isn’t it, but I wonder if Mr Holmes would give me the oilskin wrapping once it’s been opened? ”
“You may be surprised, Miss Meadows,” said Katie kindly. “I don’t know what the parcel contains either, I must say. Mr Holmes has a great store of secrets, you see. Sometimes it’s safer not to know things. I’ll certainly ask Mr Holmes to give you the oilskin – or you can ask him yourself. Do you mind, Miss Meadows? I know that Mr Holmes is pressured by time: the train to Leeds and on to London leaves in forty minutes and we should not miss it.”
A moment later, Nancy and Katie rejoined Mr Holmes in the garden. The sun had disappeared behind a cloud and the beautiful afternoon began to look a little like rain. Mr Holmes looked at the parcel and his face beamed. Nancy held it to him and he took it in both hands with a bow. He slipped it into the briefcase and snapped the lock closed.
“His Majesty’s government is very grateful to you for your faithfulness, my dear.” Nancy was tempted for a moment to ask what made the parcel so precious; after all, it had cost Tommy his life. Mr Holmes’s cool manner, however, did not invite careless questions and Nancy remembered Tommy’s reluctance to say anything about his work. The parcel was gone now anyway; Nancy felt a deep, ragged pain in her heart and struggled to retain her composure. More than the parcel, Tommy himself was certainly gone from her now and forever.
With a supreme effort of will, Nancy affected a control she did not feel. “You said that there were three questions you had for me, Mr Holmes. I think I have answered your first two. How else can I help you?”
Mr Holmes stood and reached for the umbrella with his briefcase. He checked his watch and looked tentatively at the glowering sky. He said simply, “Well then: third question. Right. Can you be ready to come to London with us this afternoon? The train leaves in thirty minutes, so you will have to be quick.”
Nancy always thought afterwards that the two greatest decisions of her life – to accept Tommy’s proposal of marriage and to leave Bell House that afternoon - had been made without a moment’s sober reflection. For the daughter of a respected solicitor, her actions had become extraordinarily impulsive and feckless. How very differently her life would have turned out, she thought, if she had been sober and cautious at those two moments. But Nancy didn’t hesitate for a second.
She smiled broadly. “Will you help me pack, Miss Bland? I promise I’ll be quick.” Nancy asked. The three of them strode into the house now and Katie followed Nancy up the stairs, leaving Mr Holmes in the drawing room.
Nancy’s heart was bursting as she struggled to tackle the practicalities of the moment. She took a carpet bag from the top of a wardrobe and quickly began assembling things on the bed. “I can’t take much, Miss Bland, because I lost my suitcase and many of my clothes when the Lusitania went down and I have nothing to travel with. I will need a few small and necessary things, I suppose. Mrs Grant can send some more things later, perhaps. How long do you think I will be away from Tithegate?”
“My dear,” said Katie with the warmest smile, “with a little luck you may never come back to Tithegate again!” Nancy couldn’t stifle a giggle. It was such a long time since she had felt as happy as she did at that moment. The carpet bag was quickly filled; Nancy took her most commodious handbag with her and before she went downstairs, she stopped long enough in her father’s room to extract from the safe the leather purse of gold sovereigns that Tommy had given to her on C Deck of the Lusitania.
Fifteen minutes later, a startled Mrs Grant hugged her and promised to care for Bell House while the mistress was away. “Mr Holmes,” said Nancy at the door, “Can you give Mrs Grant an address for me in London in case she needs to reach me?
“Of course, Miss Meadows. You already have Miss Bland’s address at Curzon St, Mayfair. Until you can settle, I believe that you will be staying at Kew House, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.” Nancy scribbled the address on note paper in the hall and swept out as she fixed her hat and raised an umbrella against the misty rain. It was the start of a completely new life for her – and Nancy was excited and fearful and hopeful and exhilarated all at once.
By the time their train had reached London’s Charring Cross Station, Katie and Nancy had become firm friends. You can learn a lot about someone in five hours of conversation, Nancy thought afterwards. Mr Holmes was friendly but distant and once the travelers had shared tea, Mr Holmes withdrew to a separate carriage with his briefcase of work and left the young women to themselves. They chatted comfortably until dinner time giving Nancy every chance to tell Katie what had happened on board the Lusitania. She told Katie about Tommy’s courtship, his wit and humour, his hopes – and the courage he maintained right to the end. Katie admitted shyly that she had once met Tommy at Kew House and Nancy wasn’t satisfied until Katie had told her what a splendid young man she thought he was – how handsome and witty and brave. Over dinner served in the train’s dining car, Nancy also spoke frankly to Katie and Mr Holmes of the wretched moments when Tommy had cleared the lifeboat of cowardly men and saved the lives of Nancy and many of the third class passengers with her. It was something she had told no one else.
Mr Holmes had been careful to say nothing about the parcel or why he might need it so urgently. He was charming and good company but Nancy noticed that Katie, too, was reticent on personal details. Neither Katie nor Mr Holmes seemed willing to explain the commission to leave Tithegate without delay; Nancy could only hope that an explanation would come soon enough. These two people were from Tommy’s world; they represented hope and a future she hadn’t dared to entertain only hours before.
Nancy was a little surprised that there was a chauffeur in a uniform not the King’s waiting for them on the platform when they arrived at Charing Cross. It was ten o’clock in the evening but the station itself and the city streets were still busy with people on the move – many of them in uniform and many of them, Nancy saw with a shudder, were on crutches or showing the effects of wounds received on the battlefield. Their car stopped outside a large, imposing home in an elegant part of the city; there was nothing to indicate the purpose of Kew House although Nancy noticed that there were two soldiers in uniform in the street in front of the house. A little guard house had been erected on the pavement to give the men some shelter from the weather. The gates swung open at their approach and closed behind them. The chauffeur got out and opened the door for Katie and Nancy; Mr Holmes lifted his hat to say farewell but said that no doubt he would see the ladies at some time soon. This, apparently was all the explanation Nancy was going to have that night. Katie rang the doorbell and it was opened immediately by a matronly woman in an elegant black silk dress who greeted Katie by name and hugged her as if she were a favourite niece coming home for the holidays. When the woman spoke, it was in a cultured, Scottish accent. Katie introduced the lady to Nancy as Mrs Hudson; Nancy wondered immediately if this were the Mrs Hudson who features in Dr Watson’s stories about Mr Sherlock Holmes.
“Aye, we’ve been expecting you, Miss Bland and Miss Meadows. I suppose you dined on the train but there’s a bowl of soup on the stove and I’ll have it sent up to your room directly. The house is rather quiet just at the moment; most of Mr Holmes’s young people are away on some job or other. You’ll meet everyone else at breakfast, I suppose. I’ve made up the Norfolk Suite for you; you should be very comfortable there. And breakfast is at 7 pm promptly, remember, Miss Bland.”
Katie smiled and Nancy guessed that there must be a story attached to this little warning but was wise enough to wait for an explanation later. Nancy felt exhausted as she climbed the sweeping white staircase to the gallery above. “It’s a beautiful house,” she said at last to Katie.
“Someone will tell you about it tomorrow, I’m sure,” said Katie. “It originally belonged to Mr Holmes’s grandmother, Lady Grosvenor, I believe. When he inherited it ten years ago, he turned it into a kind of private hotel I suppose.” Katie stopped outside a white door and opened it to reveal beds, desks and wardrobes in a functional arrangement. It could hardly be called Spartan but nor was it anything like the elegant boudoir one might have expected in so grand a setting. There was an adjoining bathroom, however, and when Nancy went in to use it, she noticed sparkling white tiles, fluffy towels and scented soaps set out beside the hand basin. There was a large enamel bath and Nancy was overwhelmed by the desire to sink into a hot tub and catch her breath. So much had happened that day - beginning with her father’s funeral and ending with this unexpected and fantastic journey. Nancy took off her hat, swung the carpet bag on to one of the beds and stooped to take off her shoes. Katie had gone to the bathroom when there was a cheerful knock at the door.
“Can you get that, Nancy?” Katie called. “It will be the trays of soup Mrs Hudson promised us.”
Nancy stepped up and opened the door. There was no soup and no trays. Instead, Nancy confronted the grinning face of Mr Lionel Trilby and the warm, earnest smile of Tommy Wellers who ignored her squeal of shock and swept her into the most complete and satisfying hug. If she had been a conventional young lady, Nancy Meadows might have swooned away in shock. Instead, her heart was pounding and she realised that this was exactly what she had dared to hope for from the moment the lifeboat descended leaving C Deck out of sight.
￼ Chapter 3: The Contents of the Oil Skin Package
Nancy barely had time to recover herself before Mrs Hudson arrived – not with the promised hot soup but with a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket and four glasses on a silver tray. “I believe that you’re celebrating an engagement, Miss Meadows,” said Mrs Hudson airily – as if extraordinary encounters like this happened every day of the week at Cheyne Walk. “Mr Holmes sends his compliments to the happy couple.” Katie tactfully engaged Mr Trilby in popping the cork on the champagne as Nancy and Tommy held one another and kissed with the kind of happiness and joy that can happen only rarely in wartime.
“Tommy,” Nancy stuttered at last through her tears, “I never stopped hoping that something like this would happen. Every time the doorbell rang at Bell Cottage or the post was delivered I hoped that you were there. Why did you take so long to reach me?”
“Well that part of the story is a little hard to tell, Nancy. It begins with the sinking of the Lusitania itself – or rather, it starts in the British Embassy in Washington some twelve months earlier. You know this gentleman as the pedestrian Mr Lionel Trilby; I first met him here at Cheyne Walk three years ago. Then, as now, he was Mr Billy Edwards.”
“At your service, Miss Meadows,” said Lionel- now Billy – in the suffocatingly dull voice he had used in Tithegate. He made Katie a little bow as well and went on, with an afterthought, “Oh, and will you marry me, by the way? This could be our champagne!”
Katie and Billy laughed; Nancy coloured deeply and Tommy punched his friend in the shoulder. “More of that later. We have other things to discuss, my friend, other than your devious attempts to pinch my girl!” Despite the levity, Tommy suddenly became serious and led the friends to a table where they could sit over their flutes of champagne. “We’ll be more comfortable here. Katie knows some of this story but I’m not certain what Mr Holmes has told her.”
“You know him, Tommy,” said Katie, “not much at all. But I’m guessing that he wouldn’t have brought the four of us together if he wasn’t happy for the pieces of the story we each know to be shared and connected.”
The knowing nods around the table indicated to Nancy that all three of the friends had had their own experiences with Mr Holmes’s way of working. Tommy went on: “When the war broke out in August last year, Billy here was stationed in the Washington Embassy. He was one of Mr Holmes’s first protégés, and like all of his best agents, spotted when he was already in the service of Mr Sherlock Holmes. He’s not a Whitechapel boy like me; he comes from Poplar. Same crime, same poverty as Whitechapel; different part of the river bank.” Tommy looked to Billy who took up the story.
“When Mr Mycroft Holmes took me in,” said Billy in the clipped, blunt accent of his home streets, “I was pretty wild: my Ma had died, I was dodging school and my old man, helping myself to things like, hanging about like lots of other lads in the streets. Mr Sherlock Holmes gave me a chance and had me reporting to him on all sorts of larks – opium coming in to London on boats from Belgium, the odd coiner, bent coppers. Then he set me watching the comings and goings of Irish American fellows who never seemed to be far from trouble of a different kind. Mr Mycroft Holmes saw what I did and liked my prospects. He brought me here to Cheyne Walk, cleaned me up and gave me another sort of education. There were half a dozen other lads here in Mr Holmes’s academy then – no girls at that stage - and all of us cut out of the same cloth: lots of native cunning and no prospects at all. Mr Mycroft Holmes was our Pied Piper. For the first three months, he had me work with a teacher catching up on all the classes I’d dodged at school in Poplar. I learned to forget my Poplar accent. Once I was presentable, I put on a collar and tie and a coat and worked in a solicitor’s office in Chelsea. My governor then was a friend of Mr Holmes from his club. That’s when I became Lionel Trilby; all my certificates and qualifications are in that name. I think I liked being someone so dull and plodding. You see a lot when people don’t value or expect much from you. I’d already learned that on the docks in Poplar – and you’ve probably learned it yourself, Miss Meadows. I rather fancy that your lot working in your father’s office wasn’t very different from mine.”
Billy stopped now and Nancy realised that over the course of telling his story, Billy’s speech had changed from the broad East End working class accent of his origins to a warm, intelligent but flat speech that betrayed no trace of his early days. It was Tommy’s accent too. And Nancy was struck by the young man’s wisdom and insight in seeing her situation in Tithegate for what it was. She was overwhelmed at that moment by something she hadn’t met before in her life: conscious acceptance of her ability and potential as a person. When she tried to explain this to Katie later, she shyly admitted that it might just have been the champagne at work but both of them knew that that wasn’t the case.
“By the time I was qualified as a solicitor,” said Billy, “Mr Holmes had other plans for me. I was sent off to the British Embassy in Washington with the exalted title of Third Class Clerk in the legal section; only the Ambassador – Sir Cecil Spring Rice and another friend of Mr Holmes – knew who I really was. I worked under the name of Lionel Trilby there. I hadn’t been to the posh schools that other Embassy staff had so I was on the outer, as it were. It didn’t matter; I worked hard, did my job and spent weekends in New York, making the acquaintance of Irish American fellows like the ones I’d watched on the docks of Poplar. They didn’t know I worked at the Embassy, of course, and I was able to send a steady stream of information back to Cheyne Walk.”
“My role changed with the outbreak of the war. The Embassy became very busy and my trips to New York a little less frequent; there was plenty at that stage to take my attention in Washington. The German Embassy was determined to keep America out of the war, of course, and they were particularly attentive to newspaper men and women and to members of the American Congress. A lot of Deutschmarks went on boozy lunches for Senators and newspaper editors; occasionally I found myself in an apron taking orders and waiting on tables in posh restaurants in Georgetown, listening for snatches of conversation. More serious money changed hands, you see, to keep these people on side.”
Tommy interrupted his friend here. “The details aren’t important, Nancy, and the fewer people who know about Billy’s work in Washington the safer he and all of us will be. The fact is that in April he had made a startling discovery that could affect the whole course of the war. Handling this information called for a different kind of response; Sir Cecil himself came to London to warn Mr Holmes of what had been found and he suggested that Billy return to London to brief himself and the Prime Minister directly on what he had found. It was dangerous; if one of the many German agents in Washington or New York learned what had been found then Billy was as good as dead. We knew about the danger from the very beginning; Billy had been moving with some pretty rum fellows in New York. Mr Holmes sent me out to Washington to bring him home. I didn’t tell you, Nancy, but I travelled out to New York on the Mauretania when you did. We didn’t meet, of course, because I was travelling Third Class and you were with young Lady du Lac. Billy brought his secret in the form of an oilskin parcel from Washington and met me in New York; he shared a cabin with me on the Lusitania. I didn’t see much of him, of course, after I met you on board.”
“And what German agents in Washington and New York couldn’t do,” said Billy with a bitter smile, “a German submarine almost did off the coast of Ireland. As soon as the torpedo struck, Tommy and I both realised that we might die that afternoon and it was important – vitally important – that the parcel get back to Mr Holmes. Once Tommy was able to see you and the precious parcel away, I was there at the lifeboat station with my pistol. You must have heard the gunshots above you at that terrible moment? We stood the bullies back just long enough for the two of us to make our way to the very stern of the ship. We dived into the water and swam as hard we could, managing to catch a lifebuoy and another piece of floating debris. It was a chilly ten minutes in the water and then a freezing two hours as we huddled on the upturned wreckage until we were picked up by a boat launched from one of the Royal Naval vessels that steamed to us. Did you see the mention of Tommy in the Times by the way? “Unnamed, unknown hero – and obviously a gentleman from a great school! Tommy, I wonder if Kew House, Cheyne Walk, counts as a great school?”
Tommy laughed but Nancy held his hand tightly; Billy had described the escape from the Lusitania as a kind of lark. Katie might be deceived perhaps but Nancy had been there. She knew how miraculous it was that the three of them had lived to tell the tale. And when Nancy had the chance to know Katie better, she understood that the young teacher had had her own share of escapes while on duty for Mr Holmes and that the laughter the four friends shared was a brave way of dealing with the terror that can come from dangerous but important work.
“What I want to know,” said Nancy more seriously. “is why you sent Lionel Trilby to Tithegate – and didn’t come yourself? You could have saved me months of misery if you had done that.”
Now it was Tommy’s turn to be serious. “You have to remember, Nancy, that I broke one of the cardinal rules of the community of souls who have trained here to work for Mr Holmes: I told an outsider what I did and invited that person into the circle without permission. As soon as Bill and I were back in London, I had an awkward interview with Mr Holmes in which I had to explain that I had survived the sinking of the Lusitania but the precious package had not. What was worse, I had given the parcel into the hands of someone I had known for just a few days with an instruction to return it to London at all costs. Days turned into weeks and no parcel arrived. Things became pretty warm here I can assure you, with my Governor not best pleased with me. After a week of hearing nothing, Mr Holmes decided to send Lionel Trilby to Tithegate to explore – and that’s when I learned that your father was dangerously ill. That explained why you hadn’t sent the parcel as you were instructed. Taking a personal interest in you was his way of ascertaining whether you were playing fair – keeping your commitment to Tommy, as it were. ”
Billy took up the story: “It wasn’t hard to present myself in Tithegate as a substitute for your father in his business. Your uncle, Nancy, took me on face value but my background in law was useful to me of course. Once I showed myself as a competent if thoroughly boring character who fitted into Tithegate like a hand in a glove no one thought to question who I was and where I came from. More than anything, being on site there helped me to confirm for Holmes that Tommy had confided in a thoroughly trustworthy person – someone in fact, who would be more comfortable and at home in Kew House than in Bell House. In time, you gave us notice that you were with us. Your intriguing postcard wasn’t what we expected, of course, and there was the awkward delay when it was put aside at the Beavers’ residence in Whitechapel. Just as well that young Maisie came upon it at last.”
“Billy,” said Nancy, “I can forgive almost all your deceit except your obvious designs on me! What would you have done if I’d welcomed your attentions? After all, I thought that the man I truly love was forever lost. Lionel Trilby might be no substitute for Tommy Wellers – but perhaps I might have been tempted?” Nancy looked at Tommy and her teasing smile brought a blush to his handsome face.
“Not for a moment, my dear!” said Tommy confidently. “You might have been desperate and disordered – overwhelmed by grief at the loss of your boyfriend and your father in short order – but I guessed [rightly] that young Lionel Trilby did not represent a great danger to my happiness. Besides, as I’d always hoped, you had more faith in me than that. Nancy, I’ve felt your presence many times in the last three months. It always gave me hope that you would wait – even though you had been told that I was gone forever.”
Billy and Katie were a little embarrassed to be the witnesses to this declaration. Katie had not long ago left her own heartbreak in Brussels and the intoxicating talk of love unto death had her reaching for her handkerchief. The same story had Billy reaching for the champagne and the bottle was soon dispatched. Everyone was tired – exhausted by sadness and hope and happiness and tragedy all mingled together. Once the champagne was drunk, Mrs Hudson was at the door to take away the ice bucket and bottle and gently hurry the young ones off to bed. Nancy eventually got her bath and soaked in the glorious hot water while she listened as Katie sat on the edge of the tub to talk through the events of the day.
The lights had been out for fifteen minutes and Nancy lay in her bed listening to Katie’s regular breathing; her friend was lost in sleep. Nancy was too excited to settle but as she reviewed the amazing day she made a mental note to ask Katie about her own experiences; she was sure that there were times in the evening’s celebrations when she felt that Katie’s heart was full to bursting with her own grief. In the darkness, Nancy heard the gentle knock at the door of the Norfolk Suite and was on her feet immediately.
“Can you get dressed?” came a welcome, familiar voice. Two minutes later, Nancy and Tommy were greeting the soldiers on duty outside Kew House as they slipped through the gate. It was a beautiful summer night and Tommy led them towards the Thames Embankment. They had had such a short courtship – and such a long separation. Hand in hand, they walked through the night, each one telling the other again every detail of the separation and reunion. There was so much to say and so little. They had lost each other and found one another again. In all the horrible news of the war, in all the pain of the daily casualty lists, the sight of wounded men in the streets, in the privation and grief everywhere, this little miracle had happened. Under a streetlight on the Chelsea Bridge, Tommy kissed Nancy as if he would never let her go again. He took from his breast pocket a modern jeweler’s box that opened to reveal the simplest of old fashioned gold rings with a tiny fragment of diamond, hardly bigger than a pinhead. “This was my mother’s,” he said simply. “It’s not much as an engagement ring but after what we’ve lost and found, I don’t think that matters so much.” To Nancy’s great joy but little surprise in that day of glorious surprises, the ring fitted her hand perfectly. The young lovers walked and talked until the sun came up and tired but happy they presented themselves promptly for breakfast at Kew House as directed.
The last precious joy of that extraordinary day and night came in a simple aside from Mrs Hudson as she set up the breakfast buffet for the ten or so hungry young people who gathered at 7 am. Once she had been introduced to the company, Nancy had wondered out loud where she might be able to find a more permanent lodging close by. The housekeeper stepped in confidently: “This is your home now, Miss Meadows. Did Mr Holmes not stress that to you last night? Perhaps he forgot, what with all the excitement and the champagne.”
“And I forgot to stress that too,” said Tommy. “I was quite distracted last night, one way or another. It means, of course, that you’re one of us now. You’ve passed the test, Nancy: Mr Holmes is pleased to take you on.”
The conversation stretched over several cups of tea as Nancy told the story of her escape to the assembled team; everyone was interested – and kindly gentle with her when the story reached its conclusion in Tithegate with the funeral of her father. Nancy noticed that Tommy said very little about his own part in the drama; she guessed that reticence and discretion were qualities valued in a group engaged in secret business in the national interest. When the story had been told, Mrs Hudson stepped in to clear away the breakfast and to send Tommy and Nancy off to their separate rooms to sleep. “Mr Holmes will be here for tea and he won’t be best pleased if you aren’t fresh and alert,” she said.
When Katie arrived at 11 am, she brought Emily with her. Emily had actually just come off shift at the Royal Free Hospital but she was anxious not to miss the excitement unfolding at Cheyne Walk. That morning she was looking forward to a hot bath, a long sleep-in and two days off work before her rounds continued next week. Once Emily was refreshed [and fortified by Mrs Hudson in the kitchen with a second breakfast] the girls spent what was left of the morning sitting in the garden of the Cheyne Walk house enjoying the company of Billy Edwards. Everyone else was busy with class work or study of some kind. The girls had never been residential students at Mr Holmes’s exclusive school but they had sometimes gone there between assignments and they knew the place – and many of the students – well. Emily had had the whole of the story from her sister but she was keen to hear again Billy’s droll recitation of his role in the drama. This he did with great flourish for an appreciative audience, amplifying his ardour as the suitor of Miss Nancy Meadows and repeating his declarations of undying love in the banal and monotonous voice of Mr Lionel Trilby.
“I can’t imagine how any girl could resist you,” said Emily at last. “Nancy Meadows must be a remarkable young lady indeed if she were proof against your passion. I’m looking forward to making her acquaintance when she finally wakes up to join us for tea.”
There was much more to discuss; Billy gently led the conversation to the experiences the girls had had in Belgium before their escape but the whole thing was too raw for them at that moment; besides, they were bound by the same secrecy provisions that made Billy himself very cautious about revealing anything beyond the mischief of his role as a suitor for his friend’s girl. He said nothing about his work in Washington or his own escape from the Lusitania.
At tea time, everyone gathered at the table in the garden and Mr Holmes arrived promptly. He cheerfully played mother, pouring the tea with a happy, avuncular air. It was obvious to Nancy how much respect the young people had for their patron – and how genuinely he cared for each of them. Perhaps Tommy was right: the house at Cheyne Walk was as much a family as a finishing school. Most of the young people seemed to have little in the way of conventional family; it was one of the things that made them such apt pupils for dangerous and secret work.
As she listened, Nancy was struck by a rising sense of hope and optimism. She had lost her father, certainly, but she had unexpectedly found another family to care for her. She had been her father’s only child and the life at Bell House had been comfortable but lonely; now she suddenly had brothers and sisters who seemed to be interesting and sparky people. And she – the frustrated and unhappy young woman from the most sterile and dull background – had been warmly included as a peer in this charmed circle. It promised so much. On that sunny summer afternoon, it was easy to forget that the war that could shatter this happy fellowship was continuing its pitiless course on land and sea and would sooner or later reach out and wound them again.
A knowing nod from Mr Holmes brought the friends back to the task at hand. “We have work to do, young people. It’s time to be busy. Most of you have lessons to attend to. Nancy and Tommy, Katie and Billy, can you come with me? And Miss Emily: I’ll be needing your sharp brain before the afternoon is out. Can you spare me an hour or so?”
This was exactly what Emmy had been hoping for. Katie was on school holidays and able to give all her time to the friends at Cheyne Walk; Emily, by way of contrast, was stretched very thin at the Royal Free Hospital. Even a weekend off duty was an unexpected treat for the busy young doctor. She followed the group up the oak staircase to a large, sunny room on the first floor. It must once have been an elegant drawing room when Kew House was a grand, gentleman’s residence; now it was a classroom with a black board, lecture chairs, maps and shelves of books. The company settled at a large mahogany table and with a dramatic flourish, Mr Holmes produced the oilskin package from his briefcase. He turned to Tommy and Billy. “Have you any idea what this contains or where it comes from?” he asked. “Do you know why it was so important to save it from the sinking Lusitania – even at the cost of your own lives, if necessary?”
“Well I know where it came from, Sir,” said Billy. “I wrapped it myself in the oilskin against damage at sea. On the other side of the oilskin is a leather bag, stitched shut. Beyond that I have no idea. I do have an inkling of what the contents may relate to; I was in Washington when the parcel first came into my possession in a most remarkable way. The red wax seals were put in place by the ambassador, Sir Cecil Spring Rice. That’s his seal – marked by his signet ring.”
Everyone else was silent as Billy spoke and Katie couldn’t help struggling to connect the dots as she knew them. It took only a moment to realise how very little she did know. Billy had been working on some matter of great importance for Mr Holmes from his base at the Embassy in Washington. Somehow he had received a parcel to do with that great work and the Ambassador himself had decided to send the parcel to Mr Holmes directly and not trust it in the Diplomatic Bag. The contents of the parcel could be said to worth more than the lives of two of Mr Holmes’s best operatives – and knowing how much Mr Holmes prized and loved his agents, Katie guessed that the parcel must be precious indeed.
“Well I must tell you,” said Mr Holmes, “that I know even less for certain than you, Mr Edwards. Sir Cecil Spring Rice is an old chum of mine from school days and he wrote to me a week after the loss of the Lusitania. I hoped when I received his letter that it would explain why the parcel was so very important. Instead, he wrote to tell me that he had learned that the person who gave it to you, Billy, was dead. His body was dragged from the Hudson River and showed clear signs of terrible violence. When it was given to you, Tommy, to deliver to me you were told that this parcel was a matter of life or death. It has clearly taken one life already; you should all of you be very vigilant and alert. It may take another.”
Mr Holmes’s voice was unusually gentle and kind and his eyes were on Billy as he spoke. Despite the iron control that the boy attempted, his face clouded over and tears welled in his eyes. Billy felt Tommy’s hand take his own and squeeze it gently. Katie registered all of this too; in fact, every one of those alert and loving young people realised that something was deeply amiss with their friend. No one spoke for a long moment.
Then Billy himself spoke. “He had a name – the boy who gave me this parcel. It was Juan Diaz: the young man whose body was taken from the river. I knew him …”
“Perhaps you should say no more, Billy,” said Mr Holmes. “You know our rules well enough by now.” There was another long pause until Mr Holmes tried to cover the awkwardness by pushing the oil skin parcel towards Nancy. “In such an important matter I think our newest recruit should do the honours. This was, after all, delivered into your hands, Nancy. And Tommy, perhaps you might see if Mrs Hudson has another pot of tea in the kettle. I’ve a feeling we’re all going to need something comforting tonight.”
Tommy stepped away from the table to the kitchen but returned quickly to see what would happen next. Nancy felt every eye on her as she reached out for the parcel and gently worked the red wax seals loose. The parcel, once unwrapped, revealed a bulky leather envelope formed by sewing two pieces of soft leather together with silk thread; the parcel so formed was not heavy and it seemed unlikely from a first glance to contain metal. From its weight, Nancy had expected the parcel to contain documents of some kind; instead it rattled when shaken.
She set to unpicking the binding at a corner – a laborious and frustrating activity until Tommy offered her a penknife. The sharp blade swept through the silk and soon one whole side had been opened. Her hands shaking with excitement, Nancy gently shook the parcel and the contents of the leather envelope spilled on to the oak table. Nancy gasped in astonishment. There in front of the little company were the tumbled pieces of a wooden jigsaw puzzle.
Chapter 4: A Puzzle Indeed
What followed was the oddest afternoon. Mr Holmes surveyed the table for a moment and gave a mirthless chuckle. “Well, my dears, some of you, I know, really appreciate a mystery. I hadn’t expected to be confronted with such an obvious puzzle. We won’t know why this puzzle has already cost one young man his life until it’s all made up. Tommy, will you please telephone me at my club once you’ve finished the puzzle? I leave the mystery in your capable hands – and I expect that you will have solved it by the time my dinner hour is gone. Billy, perhaps you can come to whistle up my chauffeur?”
Mr Holmes stood and gave a courtly bow to the table, taking his leave just as Mrs Hudson appeared at the door with the teapot. It was a welcome distraction. Billy tried to smile at his friends as he left the table but his faced creased into a grimace that was as close to a silent howl as it was possible to be. The two men left the room and the company could hear their steps on the oak staircase.
The awkward silence in the room seemed painful for everyone. Tommy looked about hoping for permission from someone to go after his friend but it was Emily who had the courage to stand and follow them without a moment’s thought. Her whole life as a doctor was devoted to healing hurt and responding to pain and she had read both those burdens in Billy’s wounded face. She had only just met him but for Emily, Billy had the courage and larrikin spirit of so many of the young men she had treated at the hospital who were convalescing from wounds to both the body and the spirit from the cruel war. Her standing to follow him was in defiance of all the rules, of course: Mr Holmes had called Billy to silence and that powerful British quality of not making a fuss at another’s discomfort had effectively silenced most of the others. “But I’m not British,” Emily thought – not for the first time. Years spent growing up in Hong Kong and then working in the man’s world of the Royal Free Hospital had given her a different view on what was proper behaviour. She could not turn away from pain as if it didn’t exist. If the little school at Cheyne Walk was really a family, she thought, then she was going to be a good sister to Billy.
At the bottom of the stairs, she watched Mr Holmes solemnly shaking hands with Billy who struggled to control his feelings. As soon as the older man was gone and door closed between them, Billy abandoned all pretense of control; he turned to the wall and held his head in a shuddering sob. The friends gathered at the table upstairs must have heard it. Emily was behind him in a moment, taking him into her arms and holding him close as he cried. When the worst of the storm was over, Emily said simply: “Walk?”
Billy shook his head and tried to smile but Emily reached for his hat from the hall stand and the boy submitted with another shuddering sob. He simply couldn’t face the awkward kindness of the little group upstairs sitting at the jigsaw puzzle. In a moment, the two friends were greeting the soldiers at the gate and heading down Cheyne Walk towards the Embankment – the same route that Tommy and Nancy had taken in such different circumstances the night before. Emily walked with her arm around the young man’s shoulder. Neither said anything for a long while but the silence was comfortable and calming. There were lots of people about, even though the afternoon had turned grey and rain was threatening. At the Physic Garden, Billy and Emily turned in away from the busy street and Emily felt her friend relax a little now that they were a little out of public view. He dropped his shoulders and tried a wan kind of smile.
Billy finally spoke, the smile replaced by a look of earnest seriousness. “Have you ever loved someone, Emily – and then lost them?”
Emily did not reply but squeezed Billy’s hand in hers. “You loved Juan.”
“I did,” said Billy. “And he is dead because of me.” Emily was wise enough to wait for Billy to go on. “Mr Holmes has told me to be silent but I don’t know how we can put the puzzle together without knowing where it came from. And if Tommy is the friend I think he is, he’ll be giving Nancy and Katie the same story as we talk.”
More silence. Then Billy went on: “Juan was employed at the Embassy of the Mexican Republic in Washington. He was a poor kid like me and like me he didn’t fit in with the other diplomats in the embassy who came from great families and had known only comfort and hope their entire lives. He wasn’t a diplomat anyway; he was a servant - the valet to the Ambassador, Senor Eliseo Arredondo. I believe that Juan was actually Senor Arredondo’s son – a child fathered on some servant girl in the household when the Ambassador wasn’t much more than a boy himself. I’ve seen quite a lot of that sort of face saving stuff in my time away from Poplar; I think we’re more honest there. Juan’s father took him to Washington planning to leave him there, I think. The Ambassador had political ambitions and a bastard child on the scene might have been a liability. He probably thought that Juan would have had a better chance at life in the United States than in Mexico – and he was right about that. Juan lived at the embassy with his father, he had a great deal of free time to make friends with people like me. He paused and then corrected himself: “with boys like me.” Billy looked to Emily for assurance; she simply nodded to encourage him to go on.
“We had to be careful in Washington; well, we had to be careful everywhere, of course.” Billy’s voice retained just a trace of the excitement that the relationship brought. “Both of us had to be discreet at work, of course, but that wasn’t a problem. It was after hours that the trouble could come. The police were pitiless with men like me and if they made things warm for you, you were lucky to get out of it with just a black eye or a cracked rib. I had both during my time in Washington. But it was worth it, Emily.” Billy paused and then he went on in little more than a whisper: “Juan could sometimes get away to my flat; other times we met at a rum sort of café in Georgetown called Attende-ici. Unusually in Washington, the café served both black and white men and women – and all sorts of queer people. Believe me, Juan and I weren’t the most unusual by any means. We felt safe there.”
Billy lifted up his right hand for Emily to see; he wore a gold ring on his ring finger. It was a simple enough band but it carried a ruby chip in its setting. “We bought identical rings a year after we met. It meant the same to us as a ring does for every couple. We wore our rings on the right hand; that made for fewer explanations – and black eyes and broken ribs too. For a time, we felt very happy.”
Billy’s face creased with the pain of continuing his story. “And then it all changed – my fault, too. Juan sometimes accompanied me to New York. I had work to do there for Mr Holmes and out of the little pool of the Washington diplomatic world we could both be more relaxed. I don’t remember telling Juan very much about what I did but he soon learned that I was leading a double life. I certainly hadn’t intended that he share the danger I was in as I spent time with enemies of His Majesty’s Government posing as a friend. To be honest, Emily, those times together in New York were the happiest we had. I left dull Lionel Trilby behind in Washington; among the queer folk of New York I was Billy Edwards and Juan was my friend. It was work, however, for me at least. Mr Holmes had me meeting Irish Americans who were looking to buy American arms for Irish rebels emboldened by the war. With the war on, this was an ideal time for Irish rebels to challenge the British government. There were German Americans, too, who had their own plans and schemes and money to spend. I thought that I was the one in danger during these interesting excursions.”
“Then,” said Billy in a whisper, “Juan had something himself to share with me – something completely unexpected. A senior German diplomat had arrived from Berlin, bringing with him an extraordinary proposal. It was too dangerous to send by cable or in the diplomatic bag: too dangerous even for the diplomat to call at the Embassy. They were wise at least on this: there were British agents watching the Embassy all of the time. Instead, the German met Senor Arredondo at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. Juan was present for the discussion, pouring coffee and drinks, doing his best to be the perfect servant – invisible and silent. Later that day, the diplomat gave the Ambassador a valise full of American dollars; the promise was that there would be much, much more if the Ambassador proved himself a friend of the German Empire.”
Emily was silent as the story unfolded; she thought on several occasions that she should warn Billy not to say any more but his trust in Emily’s discretion seemed to be complete. “The fact is, Emily, that I didn’t immediately share all of this with the Ambassador. Sir Cecil is a good man but I was frightened that my friendship with Juan might have been enough to have me sent back to London under a cloud. I told him directly, however, about the visit by the German diplomat and the exchange of money without disclosing how I had learned of it. Sir Cecil guessed the importance of what I was on to and wrote to Mr Holmes alerting him to what was happening. That’s when Tommy was ordered out to New York to support me.”
“Another meeting was planned for a fortnight later and so I was back in New York this time shadowing Juan and his father – and with the exchange of some American dollars on my part, pulling on the uniform of a footman at the Algonquin. I had only a sliver of the story, of course, but Juan had much more. His father was extremely frightened that something would leak and he kept Juan in the hotel room throughout the visit. This time, the German diplomat was accompanied by another man: a dark looking fellow with a goatee beard and hooded eyes. The three men left the Algonquin late on a Saturday night, Juan with them carrying two heavy suitcases. I watched them get into a taxi outside the hotel and drive towards Times Square; two hours later, they returned without the suitcases. Juan and his father entered the hotel; the German diplomat and the other man walked away. That was the last time I saw Juan.”
“I took the train back to Washington the next morning and to my surprise, a parcel was delivered to me in the post the next day without any note or return address. When it was unwrapped, the parcel contained the leather envelope and a postcard of a New York street scene with the simple word Wait. No signature - but I recognised Juan’s handwriting on the address on the brown paper wrapping of the parcel. Then nothing for a week – no word from Juan and no response to my notes sent to him care of the café in Georgetown.”
Billy was nearing the end of his story now and he stopped on the path of the Physic Garden while he summoned his thoughts. “I was despairing by now and took the parcel to my own ambassador. Sir Cecil was kind enough not to demand to know why I had not given it to him as soon as it had arrived. On the same day, Tommy arrived from Mr Holmes to take me back to London. The parcel would go with us. Sir Cecil wrapped the parcel in oilskin and attached his seals – as you saw for yourself. Then I was back in role as Lionel Trilby, sharing a third class cabin on the Lusitania with Tommy Wellers.
“What happened, Billy?” Emily said at last. She had had enough adventures in Mr Holmes’s employ to know how fruitless this question must be: agents in the field rarely know more than a quarter of the big story unfolding around them. But the pain of the friend beside her encouraged her to ask the impossible.
“Can’t you see, Emily,” said Billy with a sigh. Their walk had brought them through the last hour in a great loop through Chelsea. They were now back in Cheyne Walk and could see the two soldiers outside the home they had left. There was little time left for confidences. “Juan did what he did out of love for me, I know. He didn’t betray his country for money or envy; he told me as much as he could about the strange visit by the German diplomat and the other man to his father, the Ambassador. It may have been a state secret but I don’t suppose Juan betrayed Mexico at all.”
Billy walked in silence then turned to Emily with a sigh: “You ask what happened? Well, for a couple of months Juan and I were very happy.”
He seemed reluctant to go on and Emily realised with a stab of pain that he had answered her question from the most honest and human point of view. Of course this was what had happened and Emily was ashamed for a moment that she had blundered in asking the question so bluntly. But Billy quickly recovered himself to answer what she most wanted to know at that moment. “What happened to Juan? Perhaps I was careless – or unlucky. It wasn’t always easy keeping my Washington and my New York characters separate. Perhaps one of the Irish American gangsters who were my New York pals recognised me in the different role or realised I was not playing straight. Perhaps. Juan always said that he suspected that one of the staff in the Mexican Embassy was in the pay of the German government. They tried to bribe his father; they most certainly would have tried to bribe others. It’s likely that despite our caution, Juan might have been watched and the fact that he’d tried to contact me with the parcel was enough to bring on his death.”
Emily wanted to say something comforting and kind to Billy. She realised what a great risk he had taken in sharing the story honestly; there were many who would judge and shame him. Emily fought to find the words to say but could do nothing better when the time came to turn into the gate than the obvious: “You’re a good man, Billy. Juan was blessed to have you – even for a little while.” Quite ignoring the soldiers on duty, Billy hugged Emily to him and kissed her on the cheek. The soldiers on duty didn’t even register what had happened; it seemed that lately there were always happy couples coming and going from Kew House.
When Billy and Emily climbed the oak staircase to the upstairs classroom, they found Tommy, Nancy and Katie all standing and grimly absorbed by the jigsaw puzzle spread out in front of them. Mrs Hudson had brought in the tea trolley just as the serious business of starting out began and at her suggestion, work was suspended until she could return with a large white linen sheet that could cover the dark mahogany table. “You young ones never consider the damage you might be doing to your eyes!” she cautioned. “Now take your time and I’ll be back with more tea and some scones in an hour.”
A frustrating hour later, there had been another change with Katie suggesting that they move the table so that it was under the tall windows; in that way they could catch the best of the early evening light. All the same, progress was very slow and the friends were pleased at the return of Billy and Emily – and Mrs Hudson at the same moment with the long awaited scones.
The little company was pleased with the opportunity to take a break. “It’s the devil’s own job doing this puzzle,” said Tommy, “and that’s a fact. The trouble is that we don’t have a picture to work from. It’s obviously a street scene of some kind and there are buildings, people, tramcars, posters and such but how the bits fit together I’ve no idea.” The friends had been working for an hour with little to show for their endeavours. Katie had finally managed to put in the border frame; Tommy and Nancy had assembled the pieces that formed a fragment of a news billboard; some other pieces were joined to show tired faces in the street and there were other hats and faces on what was probably the top of an open omnibus. There was a large, ornate clock face that didn’t seem to connect to anything else in the picture. The puzzle had been made from a photograph and one of the infuriating features of the thing was that there was little real contrast in the black, white and grey pieces. As soon as Emily saw how little progress had been made, she doubted that Mr Holmes would be called away early from his dinner at the Diogenes Club. It was already about 6 o’clock.
“Here, Billy!” said Tommy in the bluff way men sometimes speak to one another when they are a little shy or embarrassed. Tommy had seen his friend leave the room and heard his howl of grief on the stairs; he might have followed him out if Emily hadn’t gone without thinking. Not knowing quite what to say – but wanting to say so much – Tommy simply put his arm on his friend’s shoulder and gave him an awkward sort of hug. Billy met his friend’s eyes with a reassuring smile that encouraged Tommy to go on in the same chaffing tone: “You’ve been skiving off with Dr Emily! We need all the patience we can assemble. Your eyes are fresh – and mine are tired and won’t work at all unless I have at least three of Mrs Hudson’s famous scones.” Tommy matched word with deed, hoovering up three of the aforementioned pastries, complete with the raspberry jam and clotted cream that supported them on the plate. Billy wanted to say with a tiny prickle in his voice that Tommy’s eyesight probably wasn’t helped by the fact that he had spent the whole of the last night wandering around Chelsea with his sweetheart. Instead, he found he needed a scone too: baring his soul to a pretty young lady gives one a good appetite. Nothing was said for the next few minutes as the five friends dealt with the excellent scones and tea. Emily took her teacup to the table, however, idly turning the pieces around, hoping that they would make just a little more sense in a new light.
Billy at last abandoned the tea trolley, wiped his sticky fingers on a napkin and came closer to the puzzle. “Do you recognise the street, Billy?” Emily asked. “From the little I can work out, it might not be somewhere in England. Perhaps it’s in America?”
Billy looked again carefully and Emily felt him shudder. “I certainly know the place.” Everyone was silent now and gathered around him. “It’s Grand Central Station on 42nd Street in New York. I was there often enough with Juan on the weekends we went to New York.”
“Wait,” said Emily in a whisper.
“Wait!” said Billy, his excitement rising. Nancy, Tommy and Katie looked puzzled and couldn’t connect with the excitement that was possessing Emily and Billy. “Here!” said Billy reaching into the pocket of his jacket. He held out a simple envelope and with a flourish slipped out a postcard. It was the kind of cheap card sold at tobacconists and newsstands all over the world but in this case, the company gasped. There was the street scene outside the imposing façade of the great railway terminus. There was the ornate clock; there was the banner headline on the newspaper board; there was the omnibus into which listless passengers were filing. “This was the last word I had from Juan,” said Billy, turning the card over. The simple word Wait was all that was written on the message side of the card. There was no address.
Billy felt as if the hand of the young man he had lost had reached out and touched his heart. Everyone felt that they had been admitted to something private, precious and fragile. No one wanted to say a word to break the spell of hope that had suddenly caught them.
“I’m thinking that with this picture to guide us, we should soon be able to complete the puzzle,” said Billy. It was all the encouragement they need to press ahead.
And indeed, progress on the puzzle was so much quicker with the picture to use as a reference. Having Emily and Billy’s assistance also lifted production – as did Mrs Hudson’s excellent dinner which was served to the whole company of the house at 7 pm. It was good for the friends to leave the puzzle and sit down in the company of the other pupils of Mr Holmes’s finishing school and share their stories. Two of the boys had been undergoing training in unarmed combat; one of them delighted the table with his stories of being able to kill a man with his bare hands – and leave not a trace of the combat behind. Emily was impressed! Three young women – all of them outstanding musicians, as it turned out – were engaged in a code breaking activity at the Admiralty. They spoke brightly about their music – and not at all about the code breaking. No one bothered to ask the friends what they had been doing for the last three hours in the classroom. Nancy was beginning to appreciate that service with Mr Holmes required not just an acute mind but a large capacity to seal off different parts of one’s life in watertight compartments.
With pudding over, the friends excused themselves and took their tea cups back to the classroom. Fresh and well fed, the puzzle came together quickly. At precisely 8.35, Nancy put the last piece into place and the friends could stand back and consider their achievement. Infuriatingly, there was a piece of the puzzle missing. It showed the face of the ornate clock that dominated the street scene. Tommy’s finger went again and again to the empty space in the completed picture, hoping that the touch alone would somehow resolve the problem. Emily had only just gone back to the leather pouch, turning it out again to ensure that the missing piece wasn’t left there.
“Well, said Tommy, “it’s done - almost. Mr Holmes will be pleased – I suppose.” But what had they actually managed to do? “There’s a message here, surely,” he muttered. “But what is it? Billy, did Grand Central Station have any particular meaning or message that Juan would have wanted to bring to you?”
Billy shook his head glumly. “Well, I suppose we occasionally ate there coming and going from Washington. I had my shoes shined there one time by a coloured boy who became a friend over time. It’s a grand place, certainly, but I can’t think of any other connection.” Tommy shook his head and left the group to call Mr Holmes at the Diogenes Club. He hated to say it, but their governor might have an idea of the significance of the building or the scene that they had missed. At the beginning of the adventure that afternoon, Tommy had hoped that they would be presenting a solution to Mr Holmes when he came from his club to see their handiwork.
Katie kept fidgeting with the wooden pieces, wondering at what it might mean. Perhaps the news banner proclaiming Yankees Beat Red Socks in last Inning had some significance? It meant nothing to her and Kate asked both Tommy and Billy about this. Alas, the banner gave a fairly ordinary baseball result; there was little here that could excite interest – certainly nothing that could lead to the death of a young man. Perhaps the station was the location of something critical; perhaps there was someone at the station who would know about the German plans involving the Mexican Ambassador? It seemed a long bow to draw but nothing else seemed to help.
Then there was the vexing business of the missing piece of puzzle. Perhaps the message was there – in what was left out? Mrs Hudson arrived at that moment with the tea trolley and Katie handed her the teacups. When she lifted away Nancy’s cup, the delinquent piece of puzzle was found underneath it. There was a gasp of satisfaction all round and Katie had the pleasure of putting in the last piece. Alas: the now completed puzzle seemed no more helpful than it had been in its unreformed state.
It was Katie who made the crucial connection and as soon as the words were out of her mouth, the others were howling at their folly at overlooking the obvious. “Underneath it!” she cried. “The missing piece was underneath the cup. Nothing wonderful there. But what if the message from Juan isn’t in the picture side of the puzzle? What if it’s underneath the picture – on the side now facing the linen sheet?”
“Of course!” said Timmy. “Of course! I am a fool! If any one of those three lovely musicians who shared our dinner were here they’d have spotted it immediately. I’m glad we twigged to this before the Governor arrived; he’d think he was wasting money on our education if we hadn’t cleared that. But how to turn it over without breaking it all up? I say, Nancy,” said Billy in the character of Lionel Trilby, “You’re a brick. Will you just think how we might do this without dismantling the puzzle piece by piece?”
All of this took a little longer than the friends had thought it might. Everyone was impatient to see what might be on the wooden pieces; Nancy had had a feeling, she confided, that she had seen something on some of the pieces but everyone was so keen to turn the pieces right side up and begin to assemble the puzzle that she had brushed aside these thought. Mrs Hudson finally supplied the component parts: a large, flat cutting board was slid gently under the sheet until it was settled under the puzzle. Then another board was placed on top of this and the puzzle sandwiched between the boards could be turned right over. This was a delicate operation – the linen sheet seemed to be in everyone’s way and threatened to upend the whole process. Only Emily [who had performed lots of genuine surgery with her steady hand and keen eye] was trusted at the crucial moment and she rewarded everyone’s faith in her. She finally managed to move the board with the upturned puzzle back to the mahogany table and set it under the best light possible at that time of the evening.
It took good eyes to find the message on the wooden jigsaw pieces and at first Emily thought that the inspiration of turning the puzzle had proven fruitless. But no: there in the middle of the puzzle in small but clear writing were a series of figures. Katie carefully called the numbers aloud; Tommy copied them on to a blackboard. And that’s where the challenge really began. Before anyone could assay a suggestion on what the figures might mean, Mr Holmes’s heavy tread could be heard on the staircase. He joined the little company just in time to lead the next crucial stage of the investigation.
Here is the conundrum that confronted the friends assembled at the table: the blackboard displayed these figures, copied down in the same order in which they appeared on the puzzle:
Mr Holmes had had a very good dinner and a large glass of Burgundy wine; under normal circumstances, this would have been an excellent preparation for the challenge represented by the numbers. The ample gentleman swaggered around the room, stroking his chin, looking to the ceiling for inspiration - but finding none to hand. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely and was full of praise for the young people for turning up this mystery. But what did it all mean?
Mr Holmes finally stopped walking about – much to the relief of the others who found it difficult to concentrate on the figures when their governor was so agitated. “Now here we are all together – the brightest and the best of all my young people gathered at the one table. Surely we have it among us to solve this together. But we must think! And think hard! We have to think as a brave and loving young man might think; when he wrote this message for us. Mr Edwards, I’m thinking that perhaps young Juan Diaz already knew that his life and yours were in danger. This is his last message to you. It’s vitally important.”
Billy was pale but determined. “It wasn’t quite his last message – or at least, perhaps he sent us three messages all at once and we won’t have his meaning unless we put the three pieces together. There’s the picture on the jigsaw puzzle and my postcard. It came to me at the Embassy with the leather pouch containing the jigsaw puzzle.”
Here Billy shyly tendered the postcard to Mr Holmes who took it carefully, checked the scene on 42nd Street outside the Grand Central Railway Station and read the single word on the back. He handed it back to Billy with a thin smile. “To be sure, Billy,” he said, “to be sure. You may know more than I do what the picture and the word signifies. But before we get to that, do you all agree that the figures written on the board are accurate and that they are the only message on the back of the puzzle?”
“We’ve all checked, Sir. There may be some other message written in invisible ink or such like,” said Billy with just a little exasperation in his voice. “But Juan didn’t go in for that sort of stuff. I’ve checked the puzzle: these are the only things written on the pieces.”
“As I thought,” said Mr Holmes with a twinkle in his voice. “I’m sure you know best, Billy. Very well then: this is a schoolroom and all of you will have plenty of ideas. Here’s what I want you to do. Take a seat where you can see the figures on the board; I think we can probably turn the puzzle back now to the picture side. And Billy, if you wouldn’t mind leaving the postcard itself on the table, that might be helpful. I’m going to call us to silence for a full half hour. Not a word, please, from anyone. You might have to get up to look again at the picture or the postcard but please do so in a way that doesn’t distract anyone else. Can you take your places please? Let’s just see who thinks the deepest and the best. And do try to think beyond the obvious. There’s paper and pencil to hand if you think best with a pencil in your hand or mouth.”
Mr Holmes hovered at the front for a little while and then slipped quietly out of the room. The little company settled as they had been instructed to do. Nancy was astonished. In all her life she had never been instructed to think hard. For nineteen years she had been told to sit up straight, mind her manners, listen, obey, submit and conform. These were all things that were demanded of one often in Tithegate – and not just of young women and girls, either, she knew. Nothing that had happened since she met Tommy – not even the sinking of the great Lusitania or his miraculous reappearance at Kew House in Cheyne Walk – was as astonishing as this. Here she was being told to think – and to think differently! Her pride piqued in this way, Nancy was determined to be able to produce the most spectacular idea.
I think Emily was a great disadvantage in this company. She had already shown her brain to be the equal of every other in the company – but none of them had just come to the classroom from a sixty hour week on her feet in the busiest hospital in London. As soon as she was told to sit still and think for half an hour the strain of her work disabled her and Emily was in grave danger of falling asleep before any ideas – good, bad or banal – could be summoned. She was saved from this embarrassment by the return of Mr Holmes who had equipped himself with a silver dish of the most exquisite chocolates. Such treasures had long ago been driven from the shelves of English grocers by German submarines and this made them all the more precious. He casually dropped one of the luscious sweets on the desk of each of the friends, coming to Emily last of all. She couldn’t contain a tiny squeak and coloured just a little when Mr Holmes quietly tipped the whole dish on to her desk.
The half hour of silence came to an abrupt end when Mr Holmes tapped the blackboard with a pencil. “And now, my friends, let us see who has been able to see a way through this.”
No one spoke for a moment and Tommy volunteered with a cheerful smile. “Well, Mr Holmes,” he said, “number puzzles are always the most challenging ones to crack. We have four numbers; perhaps we should add them up and see where that takes us.”
“Instead of four numbers then, Tommy, we would have five,” said Mr Holmes. “I’m not sure that takes us very far – unless the fifth number is the only number we should consider. What is it?” Mr Holmes paused as he did the arithmetic in his head. “What: 10640? Does that mean anything?”
Tommy shrugged impatiently. “Nothing to me: it’s just an idea. What about this then: maybe the numbers relate to the street grid of New York City.” He continued cautiously: “Grand Central Station is on 42nd Street, isn’t it? Maybe we are being directed to four different properties: Number 43 on 11th Street – or number 143 on First Street. Or Number 11 on 43rd Street. Of course, that doesn’t connect us with the picture, does it?” It seemed like a good idea but there were an infinite number of possible combinations. Tommy stood and stretched his legs, feeling that a tantalizing idea was just out of reach. Others felt it too; it was a common feeling at Kew House when Mr Holmes set his agents thinking.
“I’m looking at the numbers and wondering what the connection can be with the railway station or the crowd on the street,” said Katie. People around the little classroom shook their heads in wonder.
“Well, I didn’t have any ideas until some delicious chocolates were delivered to my desk,” said Emily with a giggle. “Five chocolates later and I’m still not very certain how to proceed. I wonder, however, if this is just a New York puzzle or whether we have to incorporate the Washington end of the train line? Maybe that’s the message: find a way to link the Washington and the New York parts of the puzzle.”
“Well done, Dr Emily,” said Mr Holmes. “And how might you be able to do that, I wonder?”
Emily shrugged her shoulders. “I think I was only able to make that connection, Mr Holmes, under the powerful influence of the excellent chocolates; you wouldn’t happen to have another dish of the treats about you, Sir? They might supply me with more inspiration.”
Everyone tittered at this clever aside and there was a general murmur from the company about the need for more chocolates but Mr Holmes was implacable. There would be no more chocolates until progress was made in solving the mystery. There was a silence for a while before Nancy suggested: “I think that we are forgetting that this is not a message to us but to Billy. In fact, I think that one purpose of the numbers and the postcard is to make this a message that only Billy can decipher. Of course if it’s clever, it’s going to be impenetrable for everyone but Billy – and I think that Juan was probably a very clever person.”
“My dear, you are fulfilling every hope that Tommy and I might have had for you!” said Mr Holmes with a chuckle. “Of course you are right. And the person who is best placed to answer the puzzle has said nothing to us at all yet.”
Billy smiled shyly and looked around at his friends. This was indeed a moment when reading Juan’s last message to him threatened to intrude into a personal relationship and trample on Billy’s privacy. Finally he spoke, “You’re right, Mr Holmes: I’m the only one who can read the whole message – and even then much of this is a guess on my part. We know that the Germans were trying to bribe the Mexican Ambassador; because Juan is dead, we are almost certain that they managed to bribe at least one other diplomat from Mexico.” Billy was quiet for a long while before he went on: “The last time I saw Juan he was carrying two suitcases. I wonder what they contained?”
The room was silent; down the corridor, the friends could hear the squeak of Mrs Hudson’s tea trolley and the other students of the Kew House school coming into the dining room for their supper. Without thinking, Mr Holmes went to close the door to the school room. Billy went on, his voice hushed.
“I have an idea what the numbers mean. Grand Central Station is like the lip of an ants’ nest in New York; tens of thousands of people pass through the station doors every day. Now that the New York subway has a station under the main concourse, more and more people use the station. It’s a perfect place to keep something private by hiding it in plain sight: no one notices anything strange or untoward with so many people about. One expects to see strange people in New York. Well, the station is enormous and has many of the facilities of a small city. There are shops, and restaurants, a hotel and even a Turkish bath. And there is an extensive locker system for passengers at the station. You can safely leave things for a couple of hours – or rent a locker for months at a time. From time to time, Juan and I had to leave things – our Washington things – in a safe place when we went off to do interesting things in New York. That’s when we discovered the locker system. Perhaps the numbers on the back of the puzzle relate to the left luggage lockers?”
“Well that makes sense,” Katie exclaimed. “Juan had to carry the German’s suitcases – and I for one can’t begin to imagine what they held. Perhaps Juan saw the contents of the luggage stacked into these lockers.”
“Or maybe the things in the luggage were stored somewhere else first – and Juan came back, retrieved the things and placed them for safety in the lockers,” said Emily.
“The idea is interesting,” said Mr Holmes cautiously, “but all of this happened some three months ago now. Unless Juan paid for the locker well in advance, whatever was in the lockers has probably been long ago cleared away by the Grand Central Station people. Is there anything else speaking to you, Billy?”
Mr Holmes had an alert sense of the strengths and weaknesses of his prize pupils – and there was something in Billy’s reactions that indicated he wasn’t telling the whole story.
“There’s something missing, Governor – something I’m not reading. I feel as if it’s staring me in the face and I just can’t reach out and touch it. I have a feeling that Juan would be disappointed by my dim wits.” Billy stood up and paced about the room, his face a picture of concentration. He kept returning to the puzzle – now turned with the big photograph face upwards and the postcard beside it.
“I wonder,” he said, almost to himself. “I wonder if there isn’t another piece of the puzzle – the most important part – still to be found and that’s why we can’t penetrate this mystery.” Billy picked up the card and turned it over again to read again the simplest of messages written carefully on the back. “Juan tells me to wait – but even when he sent this he must have known that he was being followed and his secret was out. He tells me to wait – but he already fears that he will never see me again. And he doesn’t write ‘Wait for me’ – which is the kind of greeting that the kind of friend Juan was to me might write. Instead he writes the simplest of directions – a command - Wait!”
Nancy stepped up now and put a kind hand on Billy’s shoulder. “You seem to put a great store on the tone of the command,” she said in a kindly voice. “But remember that English was not Juan’s first language. Perhaps the word sounds spare and harsh because he wasn’t as familiar as you are with the way the word would come about.”
“That’s it!” said Emily, stepping forward in her excitement and taking the postcard from Billy’s hand. “A foreign language! What was the name of the queer café in Georgetown, Billy, where you could go with Juan to be safe and comfortable?”
“Well,” said Billy, catching Emily’s excitement, “It was a kind of French affair called Attende ici. In English, that means Wait here! Emily, I’m sure you’re right. The last piece of the puzzle is waiting for me at Attende ici!”
The company was excited and realised immediately that together they had done just what Mr Holmes had asked them to do. Tommy clapped his friend of the shoulder in a hearty greeting. Nancy hugged Tommy; Katie and Emily grinned their excitement. And in a moment, the most luscious chocolates seemed to be raining down on them, with Mr Holmes looking like a cross between everyone’s eccentric uncle and a beardless Father Christmas.
“Now,” said Mr Holmes with a congenial smile, “I am going to need some good people on the ground in the United States. The happy couple first. Miss Meadows: are you willing to climb back on board an ocean liner and return through the submarine infested North Atlantic to the United States? Or has your last brush with ocean liners made you a little cautious?”
Nancy coloured just a little. “I’ll go anywhere you ask, Mr Holmes – except back to Tithegate – as long as Tommy accompanies me.”
“And you, Miss Katie? After your adventures in Belgium, perhaps you are looking forward to more of the quiet life at your school in Whitechapel?” Mr Holmes retained a smile despite the seriousness of the moment.
Before Katie could answer, Emily registered the hesitation in her sister’s manner and guessed the cause. This was going to be an adventure that Katie had to have without her. “I’m sure Katie will want to do everything she can to help the King and serve the Empire,” said Emily with a strong trace of sadness in her voice, “as do we all. But I can’t go this time, Mr Holmes. The hospital is badly understaffed right now – and look at what excellent people you have here to call upon. I’m assuming that Billy and Tommy are already committed to serve.”
“Indeed they are,” said Mr Holmes. “They’ve signed up for the length of the war. Katie, you are your own person. Emily has put her hand on exactly what I must say – that I cannot ask the Royal Free hospital to spare her yet again. The Medical Superintendent is an old school chum of mine and a fellow member of the Diogenes Club but I know how much he values Emily’s work there – and how loath he would be to spare her again for my work. Every time he sees me he reminds me how many favours I owe him.”
“Then I’ll accept your commission, Mr Holmes,” said Katie and here she turned to Emily and hugged her. “And I promise I’ll come back all alive and well. Indeed I will!”
Billy put another arm around Katie and said mildly [but thoughtlessly]: “We’ll look after you, Katie; you can count on Tommy and me to do that.” As soon as he had said it, Billy knew it was a foolish boast and he winced as if in pain, covering his head with an arm as if Emily were going to descend on him with an umbrella. “It just goes to show,” said Katie afterwards, “that even clever people can say silly things at times.” At that moment, poor Emily [who had spoken nobly but who was really deeply sorry that she couldn’t go with Katie] rather lost her control. “Mr Weller,” she said with all the dignity she could muster – in the very voice in which she addressed the most senior male carbuncle in the Royal Free Hospital – “Katie is much more like to bring you back safely than the other way around!”
It was the one moment of awkwardness in the whole wonderful afternoon but Mr Holmes bowed to Emily, enjoying the moment immensely. It was moments like this, after all, that confirmed for him the extraordinary qualities of the comrades of Kew House. It was his plan that stepping through the doors of Kew House relieved its pupils of all the prejudice and woolly thinking that was so common everywhere else. Billy had the wit at this moment to fall straight back into character as Lionel Trilby and say in his best boring voice, “I beg your pardon, Dr Emily. A man sometimes forgets his manners when he stops thinking. And if Miss Katie saves me alive I’ll be very grateful indeed – as you must know!” He bowed to Emily and pretended to doff his hat. Emily couldn’t help but giggle; most of the old barnacles at the hospital couldn’t even understand why their patronising ways were so offensive.
Katie quickly defused the situation by squeezing Emily’s hand and saying cheerfully, “Mr Holmes, Nancy and I will do our very best to keep these two young gentleman alive and kicking – and thinking straight - and respectfully. For doing this, we will expect a hefty bonus on our return – and you can find us a down payment now in the form of lots more chocolates. And did I hear Mrs Hudson’s tea trolley a moment ago? I think we could all do with a cup of tea if we’re going to plan to be away from base for a month or so.”
It was neatly done and Emily reached up and drew Billy into a hug. He kissed her lightly on the cheek and the moment passed as he murmured a sincere apology. Later that night at Curzon St, Emily couldn’t help giving way to tears of disappointment, however, and it took another large pot of tea and a big serve of Yi Mu’s famous dumplings to restore her spirits. It wasn’t Billy comment, of course, that broke her heart but the prospect of Katie disappearing on adventures without her. It was, she thought, just one more wretched thing that the horrible war had done to them.
Chapter 5: At the Algonquin Hotel
Overnight, Mr Holmes worked his considerable magic to produce four berths on the Mauretania, leaving from Liverpool in just twenty-four hours. The train for the North West would be leaving at lunch time and so there was little time to think very clearly about what would have to be done. Every moment was precious now and the five friends [including a remarkably resilient Emily] met at Cheyne Walk for a late breakfast, Katie bringing her luggage with her in a taxi cab. The suitcase sat reproachfully in the hall as the two girls went up the oak staircase to the dining room.
That last night, Emily had indulged in some very confronting self-talk after the last of the dumplings were eaten. She resolved, she told herself sternly, that she would not mind one bit if Katie did go off on her own leaving her to contend with the aching hours at the Royal Free Hospital and dismal London autumn weather on her own. It almost worked and when breakfast was dispatched and Mr Holmes’s chauffeur was at the door of Kew House, Emily was determined to be very adult and controlled. She couldn’t go with the friends to the station to see them off; even with a cab in tow to carry the luggage, there was no room at all in Mr Holmes’s Rolls Royce for another passenger. Hearty farewells were made in the narrow drive and Emily cheerfully kissed Nancy, Billy and Tommy goodbye before hugging Katie to herself. She controlled her tears until the two vehicles had turned out of the drive heading off to Euston Station. As the cars left the yard, Emily had to fight the overwhelming feeling that she would never see her sister alive again. She struggled to dismiss the fear and it reluctantly slipped away but it had done its work and despite the late summer sunshine, Emily was suddenly cold and chill.
Mrs Hudson stood quietly by her with her own handkerchief at work; she loved the young people as if they were her own children. After a suitable long pause in which both women collected their thoughts and arranged their faces, Mrs Hudson warmly proposed a cup of tea and Emily was pleased to agree to the distraction as she settled into the warm kitchen at the back of the grand house. Mrs Hudson was tactfully busy with the tea thing while Emily’s handkerchief did its last work for the day.
Of course the conversation turned immediately to Mr Sherlock Holmes and over a large pot of Emily’s favourite Oolong, Mrs Hudson was able to report that the great detective and Dr Watson had been quietly commissioned by a Chicago millionaire to recover some very embarrassing photographs that were threatening the political career of the gentleman’s son. Apparently the quest for the blackmailers had taken Mr Holmes and Dr Watson first to Texas and then to Los Angeles where the gentleman’s son was found to be embroiled with a movie star and an international jewel thief. Mrs Hudson had had a brief telegram from Mr Holmes followed by a letter to say that after considerable drama [off the movie screen], the photographs had been recovered, the erring son was safe and well and sorry and that the jewel thief had decided to have a long holiday in Mexico and was unlikely to return to the United States very soon. The career of the screen siren was apparently much enhanced by rumours of gentlemen with guns competing for her favours. [There was a full page spread in the latest edition of Screen Siren that Mrs Hudson offered to Emily; a quick read revealed that most of the story was about the movie star’s frocks with just a thin paragraph to support the blazing headline: Dixie Daniels close brush with death: “I thought I was going to meet the Big Producer in the Sky!”] Mr Holmes and Dr Watson were taking no chances, however, and they were delivering the young man to his anxious father in Chicago – far away from the clutches of criminals, journalists and glamorous movie stars. It was just the sort of story that Emily needed that awful morning and revived in spirits, she began to walk back to Curzon St just as Katie and her friends were heading by train towards the great port city of Liverpool.
In their railway compartment, tea was ordered and the friends were joined by Mr Mycroft Holmes. No one seemed to think that this was surprising; he needed to give them very clear instructions, he said, on what they were to do once they reached the United States. “Under normal circumstances,” Mr Holmes said, “you would report to the British Ambassador: Billy, you know him already and he trusts you completely. The trouble is, of course, that Sir Cecil is in Washington and most of the inquiries you need to make will be in New York.”
“I do have to go to the Attende Ici in Georgetown, Sir,” said Billy. “My guess is that at least one piece of the puzzle is waiting for me there.”
“Certainly,” said Mr Holmes cautiously. “When you go there, however, I don’t want you going alone. That goes for all of you. Your first stop will be the locker room at Grand Central Station, I would think. After that, you will have to use your own initiative. Normally I would nominate one of you as the leader of the group but the most experienced one of you – and that would be you, Miss Katie – knows nothing of the lie of the land in New York. Mr Edwards will have to take the lead there. You’ll have to work as a team: it’s just as well you’re the best people I could ever choose for a job like this. I’m now regretting that Dr Emily isn’t in the party; you may miss her agile brain before you’re finished.”
Katie was so moved to hear Mr Holmes speak like this that she wished that she had perhaps been a little more assertive in arguing Emily’s case. She was already missing her sister. Mr Holmes went on: “Never forget – you more than anyone, Mr Weller - that you are dealing with people who have not hesitated to kill. And Billy, you must know that when Juan’s body was recovered, it showed the clear signs of torture. It may be that your young man took the secret of your relationship with him to the Hudson River – I know he was a brave fellow – but it might be safer to assume that the German agents who killed him forced secrets from him before he died. You should also be very cautious of the Irish fellows with whom you dealt while you were under cover. They may not be pleased to see you again.”
“I’ve already thought of that,” said Billy sadly.
“For safety sake we can’t have the four of you travelling together like a holiday party in peacetime. It’s my guess that German agents may be on board the Mauretania and they will certainly be on the docks when you arrive in Liverpool – and in New York. Ladies, your cover in New York is one with which you should be comfortable. Nancy, you’re going to be a kind of Lady Mabel du Lac, going out to the United States to escape wartime privations and to be finished at a posh school in New York. The Todhunter School in Manhattan is a little less posh than the grand place in upstate New York where Lady Mabel is in residence but I know the Deputy Principal there, Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, and she’ll maintain your cover if you run into trouble. It’s to that lady that you should turn in a crisis; she’s more or less the manager of my business in the city. You know the name, of course. The Roosevelts are like royalty in the United States. Her uncle was the President; her husband is the Secretary for the Navy in President Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet. Of course it won’t hurt to be supported by such a powerful figure. Katie, you’ve got the role of the respectable lady companion. Look stern – and make sure young Nancy doesn’t accept any unwelcome attention from gentlemen. You’re travelling First Class, of course. There’s a little problem: you won’t have packed too many evening things, I would think?”
“None of my evening things survived the sinking of the Lusitania,” said Nancy with a sigh. “It’s another thing I hate the Germans for!”
“I didn’t think to bring anything very fine with me,” said Katie. “It’s mostly warm tweeds and sensible shoes in my case, I’m afraid.” She thought for a moment that Mr Holmes was just a little too much like a man of a certain age who would forget to mention an important detail like this to ladies who were packing to travel.
“There is very good room service on the Mauretania,” said Tommy cheerfully. “I’ve had it myself. And anyway, we can ask the Maître D’ to put us at the same table in a corner of the dining room and no one will mind if we have only one suit of formal things. It’s war time; the Head Waiter can expect a spot of economy.”
“Perhaps, Mr Weller, but the Maître D’ will not countenance Third Class passengers trying to crash the First Class Dining Room!” said Mr Holmes severely. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but even I wasn’t able to produce two First Class cabins on demand. You’re travelling below decks and there will be very few opportunities for you to mingle with the First Class passengers.”
“How are we get on then?” Katie asked. “Do we say goodbye to the boys at the station and then reconnect in New York? I would have thought we had a great deal of work to do together before we land in New York. And with respect, Mr Holmes, your clear instructions on what we are supposed to do have left me a little confused. ”
“Now that is where I can help you, Katie,” said Mr Holmes with a smile. “The chaplain on the Mauretania is the Reverend Canon Benefice Cassock. He is a man of great piety who much prefers to spend his days in contemplation and prayer rather than attending to his duties as the cure of souls on the ship – although I am sure that some of the sailors have terrible sins to confess. He’s an old chum from my Cambridge days and I’ve briefed him in advance; you’re to have free run of his cabin on the Navigation Deck for your meetings. You can trust Benny implicitly: he’s a reliable gentleman.”
Of course Katie was sorry that the boys would be spared the splendours of First Class on the elegant Mauretania; she again missed Emily who at this moment would have greatly savoured the niceness of the girls travelling so well while the boys were below stairs. Before he left them, Mr Holmes was suddenly very serious. “It’s quite likely that you’ll be separated at some time. In the event of a crisis in New York, seek out Mrs Roosevelt at the Todhunter. If you encounter a crisis in Washington, Billy’s refuge at the Attende Ici might be a better rendezvous than the Embassy. I’m giving you the crisis money, Katie,” said Mr Holmes. Here he handed to Katie a pocketbook with a zip fastener. “You know the rules. Don’t let me down.”
It was the signal that the interview was over. The four friends stood and solemnly shook hands with their Governor. Then he was gone and Katie looked for him in vain among the passengers departing from the boat train in Liverpool. The young men tactfully separated from the ladies on the platform as porters stepped up to take the first class luggage; Tommy and Billy carried their own bags to the embarkation point and later that afternoon stood together on the Third Class rail looking over the rainy city as the great ocean liner slipped into the grey waters of the Irish Sea.
Waiting for them in their cabin, the girls found an ivory coloured envelope with the ship’s monogram grandly embossed on the back. A simple card read: Dear Miss Bland and Miss Meadows, will you please call at my cabin  on the Navigation Deck at 4 pm for tea and Evening Prayer? It was signed with a flourish Fr Benefice Cassock. The handwriting troubled Katie with its vague familiarity but there were too many things to be done before the 4 pm meeting to dwell on the note. It was enough that they would have a safe place to sit and plan what they would do in the great city waiting ahead of them on the other side of the ocean. Mr Holmes’s lack of direction continued to worry her. Of course it was flattering that he thought that the four friends could confront dangerous German agents, defy armed Irish bandits, identify the murderer of young Juan Diaz and take their revenge - and solve the diplomatic mystery of the German connection with the Mexican Embassy - but it was, Katie thought, an enormous challenge when they had only a jigsaw puzzle and a postcard to guide them. Katie pushed all of this aside as they bustled to their cabin on the First Class deck with porters in tow. Nancy was keen to see the last of Liverpool and as soon as Katie had hidden the pocketbook of cash under the mattress of her bed, the girls were outside on the Promenade Deck with the fashionably dressed First Class passengers. It was a chilly afternoon and Nancy felt suddenly lonely; she was comforted to know that Tommy was taking in the same view from two decks below. These were the waters, off course, where the Lusitania had been sunk and Nancy shuddered at the sight of the grey waves cutting away below the deck. Ahead and behind the Mauretania, however, were Royal Navy destroyers who blew their horns in greeting as the pilot was lowered from the deck of the ocean liner. The German government had announced in April that after the outrage that followed the sinking of the Lusitania, the Kreigmarine would not torpedo passenger liners again. All the same, the destroyers would stay with the Mauretania until it was well off the Irish coast and into the North Atlantic.
When the last of the land had slipped from view and the girls had faithfully attended the Muster Station for lifeboat drill, it was time to take a stroll through the public areas of the elegant ship and climb the staircase to the Navigation Deck where the senior crew members had their cabins. Both the girls had travelled at sea before [Katie on several occasions] but the Navigation Deck on ocean liners was generally out of bounds to passengers. A polite young Steward directed them once they had reached the deck, however, and when they arrived at the door of Cabin 104 they were surprised to hear some very unecclesiastical laughter coming from within.
Nancy thought for a moment that they had the wrong cabin number but Katie pointed out the name card inserted into a little bracket on the oak door; this was indeed the cabin of the Reverend Canon Benefice Cassock: Ship’s Chaplain. More muffled laughter followed and Nancy recognised Tommy’s distinctive, hearty chuckle. She looked at Katie, knocked tentatively and the door was swung open almost immediately by Tommy who drew her into a tight hug. Nancy looked confused and abashed and turned to Katie whose face was suddenly wreathed in the most open, happy smile. Standing at the trolley with the tea pot in one hand and a plate of scones in the other was a tall, angular gentleman dressed all in black. He made a little bow to the newly arrived ladies. The costume was clearly that of a respectable Anglican clergyman; the knowing smile, however, belonged to Mr Sherlock Holmes, the world’s most famous detective.
Of course, thought Katie: Mr Holmes did not give us very clear instructions because he had arranged for his brother to be close at hand. The thought did little to comfort her, however. She knew now just how dangerous their mission in New York was likely to be. At the moment, however, Mr Holmes was hugely enjoying the joke and relishing his disguise.
The real conversation could not begin, however, until a lavish cream tea had been dispensed with. A very proper steward in white gloves arrived with a trolley of scones and sandwiches; Mr Holmes was suddenly in character, looking pious and holy and calling the Steward [a gentleman in his sixties] “my Son”. Now that the girls had arrived, the serious business of dispensing with the tea could begin. Mr Holmes stood first with the tea pot and then with a chafing dish while the company loaded the fragrant warm scones with luscious raspberry jam and thick Cornish cream. All the time this was happening, Mr Holmes played the part of the enthusiastic priest with a sober face, interrogating the friends in turn on whether they were observing all the Commandments and remembering to say their prayers regularly. The show was quite as delicious as the scones; Billy rose to the theatrical challenge acknowledging his delinquent spirit and offering to make a full confession on his knees. Finally the poker faced steward departed and Nancy [remembering the laughter they had heard through the door] tranquilised the company until the poor man was well away.
With the steward gone, Mr Holmes could boast in his own inimitable way about his last adventure in the United States. With a flourish, he produced from his cassock a postcard photograph of the famous actress at the heart of the scandal he had resolved. And to the great admiration of the boys, he showed the autograph written on the back: “To Sherlock, my new leading man!” To Billy’s questions, he affirmed that the young lady was quite as beautiful as she appeared on screen but perhaps giving her heart to a Chicago gangster was not the sign of a steady mind. At this point, Mr Holmes recovered himself and sobered into the mercurial but sanguine character whom Katie had long known. “We can laugh now, my dears,” he said. “There may be little enough to laugh about when we reach New York.”
“How much do you know about our mission, Mr Holmes?” Katie asked. Everyone was silent now and the jolly atmosphere was largely gone.
“I was on the train with you from Euston,” said Sherlock Holmes. “It was my brother’s idea that we travel down that way. He’s devilishly spooked about this matter and wanted to guard against the stray observation of sinister strangers. To tell you the truth, Watson and I only got back to Baker St yesterday. I’ve only had time enough to recover the good Mrs Hudson from Cheyne Walk and pick up some clean clothes; Watson is going back to work for the War Office. I know exactly what you know – although I had a couple of days in New York before the crossing and was able to follow up some leads there on instructions from Mycroft. You’re mixing with a dangerous crowd, you know.”
Here, Sherlock looked straight at Billy. “I’m sorry for your loss, Mr Edwards. By all accounts, your friend was a fine fellow.”
Billy nodded, hardly trusting himself to speak. Finally he said, “Did you find who killed him, Mr Holmes? Please don’t tell me that someone whom we trusted betrayed us.”
“I’m working with the same contacts that you used, Billy, and it seems that all those people are loyally with me. No: it seems that the Germans were less trusting of the Mexican diplomats than you realised. A woman posing as a chamber maid searched the Ambassador’s room at the Algonquin and finding nothing in his luggage turned out Juan’s things as well. I understand, Billy, that she found two letters from you.”
Here, Mr Holmes reached again into his cassock and placed two envelopes on the table in front of Billy. Billy coloured deeply at this and looked away. “There’s nothing in the letters, Billy, that reveal your special work for the British government but you have left Juan [and anyone else who might read the letters] in no doubt about the nature of your relationship.”
Billy lifted his head and searched Mr Holmes’s face. “The Germans were delighted to have the letters, of course,” the great detective went on. “Here was the perfect lever for them to call on. They would have Juan in the Mexican Embassy at their mercy - someone who could be frightened into doing their will: someone who could be blackmailed into bringing every secret to them. And they would have you in the British Embassy. Given to the police, the letters could spell ruin for you – perhaps even a term in prison. Fortunately for all of us, Juan was made of sterner stuff than they expected. When two German thugs came to the Algonquin on that night after Juan had left carrying the suitcases, the message they sent up to the room purported to come from you, Billy. It’s my guess that Juan missed the letters, realised that he was in danger and assembled the clues that you deciphered so cleverly. The window in which he could work must have been just a few hours but he was determined to warn you and help you as much as he could. Juan posted the parcel to you through the concierge at the Algonquin and waited for the axe to fall. When the summons came, Juan came down stairs hoping to find you; instead, his worst fears were confirmed. He was abducted and taken off to a German safe house in Brooklyn. I gather he was presented with the letters and threatened with exposure – both to the Embassy and the police. He faced jail and ruin – and so did you. Or he could work quietly and conscientiously for a German control as their man in the Mexican Embassy.”
“Juan would never do that,” said Billy simply. “He would never betray me.”
“You are right,” said Mr Holmes with real feeling in his voice. “He refused to be blackmailed and when threats failed, the thugs tried more direct persuasion. Juan died in silence, Billy. He is the kind of hero, unfortunately, whose sacrifice can never be acknowledged with a medal or a name on a monument.”
A deep, painful silence now settled on the little group. Billy reached out and took the letters in hand – letters he had written and which had caused the death of his friend. “How did you acquire the letters, Sir?” asked Nancy quietly.
“When the attempt to blackmail Juan failed, the Germans transferred their interest to you, Billy. An agent – a plausible Irish woman - called for you at the British Embassy in Washington. When Juan went missing, Sir Cecil had alerted the staff to be on the watch for a contact like this. The receptionist on the front desk guessed that there was a problem and kept the German agent busy while you were sent for. Of course you were off the scene by now headed back to England on the Lusitania. But the Irish woman was asked to wait while they summoned you.”
Tommy looked at Nancy as the friends realised what had been happening in Washington as they travelled across the North Atlantic. “Well, we can be lucky sometimes,” said Mr Holmes. “The woman sat waiting in the Embassy reception room for twenty minutes. It turned out that the innocuous looking large middle-aged black woman who happened to be mopping the marble floor in the reception hall is one of Mycroft’s best agents in the city and worth her considerable weight in gold. She managed a neat piece of handiwork that separated the agent from her handbag just long enough to remove the letters. You would be wise, Billy, not to trust your feelings to paper again. I’m surprised that that is not a lesson my brother taught early in his famous course of study at Kew House.”
There was no answer to this comment. Every one of the young people – even Nancy - knew that agents in the field must be both cautious and discreet. There was an awkward silence until Billy proffered a simple apology: “I’m sorry, Sir. Mr Holmes taught me that lesson, but I didn’t learn it very well.”
“Yes, well: as I said, we can be lucky sometime. The cleaning lady not only managed to swipe the letters. She sent her son off as a tail on the woman when she left and she went straight to the German Embassy. That’s one fewer of the German Agents in the city we have to identify.” Mr Holmes recovered a little of his cheeky spark. “The Algonquin seems to be the place where it all happens; I’ve booked the four of you in there: Katie and Nancy together in role as lady and chaperone as it were – and Billy and Tommy separately. You’re back in character as Lionel Trilby, Billy. If anyone asks, you’re working on establishing tax credits for the British government among American financiers on Wall Street. Is that a dull enough topic for Lionel Trilby to pursue? Tommy, your cover is as a purchasing officer for British machine tools. I doubt, actually, that you’ll need to be in cover very long. I have a strong lead on the location of the agents who killed Juan Diaz: I’ve been there once myself already. And you have unanswered questions waiting for you at Grand Central Station.”
The weather was surprisingly mild for September and days on board were filled with busy activity. For Nancy and Tommy, the crossing was the happiest time in their lives with hours spent together falling properly in love after the whirlwind romance of the Lusitania crossing. Geography was a bit of a problem at first until Tommy found to his surprise that the stewards on board turned a blind eye to this Third Class passenger squiring a First Class lady around the Promenade Deck. [Was there nothing Mr Mycroft Holmes could not arrange?] Mr Sherlock Holmes spent hours with Billy, taking him again and again through the story of his relationship with Juan, trying to capture details that might become important later as the case progressed. Katie was left out of these activities but sensibly spent her days knitting and reading Dr Watson’s latest case study written up for the Strand Magazine. It was The Case of Blue Tailed Fly and very thrilling; even though Sherlock Holmes snorted in derision when he saw it in Katie’s handbag he was obviously chuffed that Katie was still following his adventures.
And all five friends spent an hour every day in a special section of the crew’s quarters in the hold of the ship practicing their skills with a pistol. They fired at targets set up on bales of hay; it was a noisy activity and hard on the nerves but it was, Mr Holmes said, essential that they could hold their own in a tight spot. They were sometimes joined in this activity by officers of the Royal Navy who were sailing with them; every passenger vessel now carried a small squad of Royal Navy men as added security. The gallant young officers were very attentive to Katie and despite ringing ears and an aching jaw Katie began to look forward to the daily exercise.
Tommy and Billy had long ago learned to use a weapon; they were cool and competent with the pistols offered to them. Katie and Nancy, however, were new at all this and not even certain that they wanted to learn. Mr Mycroft Holmes had always been cautious about arming agents who could not be trained to be an excellent shot; a bad shot, he insisted, was more dangerous than someone who couldn’t shoot at all. Katie explained that she had been in a number of tight spots and had never fired a shot in anger. Mr Holmes made a sour face at this suggestion: “I happen to know the kind of people you’re going to be encountering,” was all he would say. Then, “Katie, squeeze a little harder on the trigger as you set up your shot and don’t take your eyes off your target after you get your first shot away. It may be that second shot that saves your life.” By the time the Mauretania reached New York, both the girls were showing a lot of promise; all the same, Katie felt cold and apprehensive when she accepted the pistol and a box of ammunition from Mr Holmes after their final practice session. She packed these reluctantly into the bottom of her suitcase. Billy and Tommy, she knew, always carried their pistols with them in a holster under the shoulder.
In a last dinner together in Mr Holmes’s cabin before the Mauretania docked in New York, Mr Holmes gave the friends the clearest indication of how they would be working. Disembarkation would be on a Sunday; there would be time on that afternoon to do a first reconnaissance to the Grand Central Station perhaps but little else. Mr Holmes had things he particularly wanted to attend to himself before they could tackle the mystery; the hard work of solving the mystery would begin in earnest on Monday. “And Billy,” said Mr Holmes keenly, “there is more to solving this mystery than finding the person who killed your friend. We have to find out what was in the suitcases that appeared and disappeared from the Algonquin Hotel with the German agent and the Mexican Ambassador. What game are the Germans playing here? And what about the Irish gangs in the city? Where do they fit in? A great deal is riding on those locker numbers you found on the back of the jigsaw puzzle.”
Mr Holmes was silent for a long beat and hesitated to go on. Tommy registered his caution and looked quickly at Billy. Clearly there were things the two boys had discussed between themselves alone and for a moment, Katie felt left out. It was Billy who spoke up at last. “Mr Holmes, no doubt you have your own reasons for everything you do in this great matter and I may be speaking out of turn but from the beginning – ever since you opened the door to your stateroom in the black habit of the Reverend Canon Benefice Cassock – I have had the feeling that you haven’t been completely square with us. Is there something that you’re not telling us?”
As soon as Billy spoke, Katie realised that she had entertained the same vague feeling: that there was something being held back from them. If Emily had been with them the girls would have talked it over together – the way Tommy and Billy appeared to have done.
Instead of prickling and denying what Billy had put down on the table as it were, Mr Holmes chuckled and smiled a bitter smile. “I keep forgetting that I am dealing with the best agents that my brother can put on the ground – almost all of them, I might add, first recruited by me! You’ve been trained to listen and learn – and to trust your first instincts. So yes, Billy, you have caught me out.”
Mr Holmes now did something that alarmed Katie more than anything that had happened so far. He went silently to the door of his cabin and swung the door open without warning. There was no one in the corridor, however, and the great detective shrugged with a trace of embarrassment.
When he had closed the door and locked it, he resumed his seat. Before he could speak, Katie broke the silence. “It’s Professor Moriaty, Mr Holmes, isn’t it? Of course: that’s the missing piece of the puzzle.”
“But he’s only in Dr Watson’s stories, surely,” said Tommy lightly. “What with German spies and Irish gangs, there are enough real villains in this mix without adding in fantastic shadows. He can’t be real.”
“He is real,” said Katie with a shudder. “I have met him twice. He was in disguise both times but once he beat me – tortured me – and it was only by luck that I survived.”
“Luck?” said Mr Holmes grimly. “You are too modest, Katie. It was your courage that saved your life. And you are all going to need a great deal of courage – aye, and a great deal of luck - if you are going to survive this challenge. Mr Weller, my dear friend Dr Watson, is many things but he is not a fabulist. Watson has hinted at my great rival - the arch criminal, Professor Jim Moriaty - and true enough, Mr Weller: in the good doctor’s stories there is something of the ghostly and the diabolical about the man. He is nevertheless very real.”
Holmes began to pace the cabin, agitation showing in his face. “The Great War has brought pain and misery to millions of people. You have all of you seen the war close up. You may have seen soldiers in the street, Katie, or the suffering of people whose ship has been has been sunk, Nancy. But do you know that the most important battles are sometimes fought far away from the noise of guns or the groans of wounded men? Powerful people in the comfort of some drawing room in a gentlemen’s club or an elegant hotel will agree on a criminal enterprise – the theft of conquered property, perhaps, or the enslavement of people who have lost their homes. Banks in a conquered city will be robbed by grey officials; money will be paid for a nation to change sides in the heat of battle. For good people, war is a time of terror and fear and suffering; for criminals, war is a time of golden opportunity. The greatest criminal in the world, believe me, is enjoying this war immensely. Sometimes he works for the Germans; sometimes for the Russians; sometimes for the Japanese; always for himself. And his finger prints are all over this particular enterprise.”
“Is Professor Moriaty involved in the death of Juan?” asked Billy, his voice trembling.
“I have spent a long time with you on this voyage, Billy, asking you to recall every detail Juan might have told you about the men who met the Mexican Ambassador at the Algonquin Hotel. You gave me a description of the German diplomat who came to see Senor Arredondo, certainly, and the Ambassador is a public figure known to everyone. But Juan told you that there was another man with him as well: a dark man with hooded eyes and a goatee beard. Does he sound familiar to you, Katie?”
Katie shuddered at the memory of that awful night spent aboard the SS Chiko Rollin an anchorage in the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London. Then she had come face to face with the evil criminal and he had been cold and brutal with her. She guessed that if a boy like Juan had fallen into his hands that he would be absolutely pitiless. There was no need for Katie to reply; her face confirmed for the friends that what Mr Holmes had said was right.
“But there: Mr Weller; perhaps you are right and I am frightened by shadows,” said Sherlock Holmes. “I am not normally a timid man, however, and my instincts tell me that the great criminal is calling us to New York. He will relish your coming; perhaps he has not abandoned his hopes of corrupting you, Mr Edwards, and making you his man in the British Embassy in Washington. You were listed among the missing on the Lusitania, Mr Weller, but Moriaty probably knows by now that you survived. Then there is the business between the Mexican and the German governments to conclude, of course, but I suspect that Professor Moriaty is also hopeful that I will be engaged in the business against him. He delights in matching his wits with mine. I hope that this time, I will be able to snare the villain myself.”
“If he has killed Juan,” said Billy, “you can have him, Mr Holmes, after I have finished with him.”
Billy said this with a cool, unblinking manner, causing Mr Holmes to prickle: “You will need a cool head on your shoulders, young man, if you are to do anything with the villain at all except put your friends in danger. Among yourselves, you might ask Katie to explain why I am so cautious.” There was a long period of awkward silence as each of the friends was lost in their own thoughts; without thinking, Katie reached over and took Billy’s hand in hers. Mr Holmes concluded: “As to the prospect of meeting Professor Moriaty face to face, I’m afraid, there is nothing we can do except be alert and prepared for danger. Billy and Tommy, I want you to go to Grand Central Station tomorrow afternoon and see whether our lockers are still in use. Nothing more, mind. It’s my guess that Moriaty will have someone alert on the docks and he may even have agents among the New York Police Force with licence to go about everywhere as he directs. If you tip our hand too early we might find the lockers cleaned out before we have the chance to examine their contents – assuming there is anything to find in the first place, of course. Katie and Emily, you are going to take tea with Mrs Roosevelt at the Todhunter School tomorrow afternoon. It will keep your cover intact if you do exactly what you are pretending to do from the moment you arrive here. And something tells me that you will enjoy the encounter. ”
“And you, Mr Holmes?” asked Nancy. “Where will you be tomorrow afternoon?”
“I am a music lover, as you all know,” said Mr Holmes airily. “I think I will take in a little music where it can best be found.” He said nothing more and the friends had to accept that nothing more would be revealed until Mr Holmes chose the moment.
The MS Mauretania came sailing into New York harbour on a crisp autumn morning with the friends watching from their different decks, wondering what the city would bring. The city skyline was bathed in cold light. Tens of thousands of migrants had come to the United States through this harbour and Katie’s heart leapt up when she saw the figure of the Statue of Liberty towering above the press of boats sailing in and out of one of the busiest ports in the world. It was a grand sight. With what great hopes had so many people entered that harbour before! The air was chilly but the first snows of the season were still two months away. Now Katie was grateful for the sensible tweed skirts and jackets she had packed.
There was tremendous bustle at the dock. The Mauretania was a noble ship and was given the honour of the Number One berth in the port. As First Class Passengers, Katie and Nancy were among the first to disembark. A cheerful group of Royal Naval officers were there to wish them well; one of them in particular – young Lieutenant Richard Walters – had been quite attentive through the voyage. He sought her out at tea time and wanted to know about Katie’s work in the tough schools of the East End; he also tried to draw her out on what she had been doing for the war effort. Katie, of course, could not make honest answer to these polite inquiries; she rather hoped that he would be stationed on whatever ocean liner they were on for the return voyage, however. It was hard to think about handsome naval officers when there were so many dangers to be encountered in the city ahead of them. It was probably foolhardy, Katie realised, to even assume that there would be a return voyage.
As Nancy and Katie crossed into the arrivals terminal, they were watched from the Third Class deck by Billy and Tommy whose eyes raked the dock for signs of untoward interest in them. Katie and Nancy were thinking the same thing but there were so many people and so much activity around them that trying to spot a sinister observer in the throng was a hopeless task. Their papers were quickly approved and the girls made their way into the spacious hall where their luggage was waiting for them – along with a throng of young men in uniform eager to carry their luggage to waiting taxi cabs. It took all Katie’s stern teacher voice to sort out just two porters and one taxi cab. Katie gave the address of the Algonquin Hotel and the ladies had almost been delivered to the dark wood lobby of that famous place by the time Tommy and Billy had negotiated the endless queue of Third Class passengers from the Mauretania. They had little luggage between them and at Billy’s suggestion, they made their way to the subway entrance near the dock. Billy knew this city well and loved showing it off to his friend. Besides, he thought that it would be much more in character if the boys arrived at the Algonquin on foot rather than in a taxi. Billy seemed to forget that most Third Class passengers from the Mauretania couldn’t dream of staying at somewhere like the Algonquin.
The girls loved the famous hotel immediately. When she arrived in New York with young Lady du Lac, Nancy had stayed in an opulent place on Fifth Avenue but then she was little more than a servant; here she was the mistress of her own destiny. And indeed, there was much to love about the hotel – even for a passenger coming from the luxury of a First Class cabin on the Mauretania. There was a splendid, middle aged gentleman with a goatee beard in a dark blue and gold livery standing outside the hotel to greet them and command a team of four boys all dressed in a juvenile version of the splendid livery to attend to their luggage. The hotel foyer [lobby, Katie thought, now that they were in New York] was small but cosy and elegant with a Turkey rug, lots of polished brass and a dark wood counter and fittings. A cheerful woman at the desk introduced herself as Mrs Westin, greeted them as if they were regular and welcome guests, asked after the weather on the crossing and wondered whether they would soon be needing a cup of coffee. She could send a pot up to their room or order it for half an hour in the snug dining room adjoining the lobby. Katie glanced at Nancy who winked: yes, coffee in their own room would be very welcome. Mrs Westin handed over the heavy brass key to the girls’ room on the fourth floor, recalled the small army of boys to attend to the luggage and indicated the lift [elevator was the word she used]. “Oh”, said Mrs Westin just as they turned to go: “this was delivered for you, Miss Bland, not long ago”. Mrs Westin handed over an ivory coloured envelope; on the bottom corner was the crest and the address of the Todhunter School, Manhattan.
Within the security of their own room, Katie could relax a little. The room was comfortable and elegant if a little small. A sparkling, tiled bathroom promised much more hot water than the Mauretania could spare. Unpacking the luggage could wait; there was the immediate interest of the creamy coloured envelope and the promise of coffee to negotiate first. When Katie opened the letter, there was a simple greeting in strong, confident handwriting.
Sunday 11 September 2015
Dear Miss Bland and Miss Meadows,
Welcome to New York. I hope that you will be comfortable at the Algonquin after your voyage from England. Mrs Westin is an old pal of mine from university days.
Can you call on me for tea at 4 pm this afternoon? Our friend in London has told me much about you. Do be careful of the traffic in the streets.
With best wishes,
Katie returned the letter to the envelope and put it carefully into her purse in the inside pocket of her tweed jacket. It was now 11 am and three quarters of an hour, Katie guessed, before they could expect to see the boys. “Katie,” said Nancy as she handed back the note, “I hope I have time for a bath before the gentlemen arrive and claim our attention.”
“Good idea, Nancy,” said Katie. She had gone to the window looking over the narrow, busy street below them, hoping to catch a glimpse of Billy and Tommy arriving. Katie remained there entranced by the busy life of the street below, listening while Nancy ran the water and calling back to her as Nancy gave a little commentary on the delicious soap and toilet things that awaited her when it was her turn. Nancy took her time but finally emerged looking radiant. She was bare footed and wearing a dressing gown with her hair wrapped in thick towel.
At this moment, there was a curt knock at the door and Nancy instinctively slipped back into the bathroom. It wouldn’t do for a proper lady be seen in her state if the coffee were being carried by one of the boy porters. Katie went directly, expecting to find a tray of cups, saucers and a steaming pot of coffee. Instead she encountered with a start the doorman who had greeted her at door of the Algonquin. He was shepherding a gleaming brass luggage trolley with a large sea chest on it.
“Miss Bland, I presume?” the man said. There was no radiant smile now; instead there a sinister, wolfish sneer and a gloved hand which held a thick handkerchief that carried the heavy smell of chloroform. In a hideous flash, Katie realised where had seen that face before. A hand swept out and covered her face with the foul chemical smell. Katie had time only to scream a warning as another figure slipped past the struggling Katie into the body of the hotel room. The door to the corridor closed quickly. Katie had the presence of mind to kick out as hard as she could, her boot connecting with the man’s body. Katie heard the man swear and gasp in pain. No matter what she did, however, she couldn’t dislodge the wad of anaesthetic that covered her mouth and nose. Strong hands now seized her from behind and Katie, still struggling, collapsed unconscious on the floor.
Chapter 5: At the Norddeutscher Lloyd Company
Emily was just finishing her shift at the Royal Free Hospital; it was late - well past the time when she should have left work for home in Curzon Street. She had promised the Medical Superintendent, however, that she would sort out the rosters for young doctors on the wards before going and it was taking her longer than she had planned. The fact was that with Katie gone off on her mission to the United States the prospect of going home to an empty house was less and less attractive for the doctor. It was better to work hard and make the hours until Katie returned pass quickly. Besides, Emily knew that no matter what the hour, Yi Mu would be there to meet her with strong tea and a filling meal. Emily loved her Chinese housekeeper like a second mother but all week her thoughts had been with her sister. She relaxed a little when she knew that the Mauretania had escaped the most dangerous part of the journey through the Irish Sea; Mr Mycroft Holmes had kindly sent a note to this effect to her at the Royal. Her sober, scientific self told her that her sister must only be just arriving in New York; she couldn’t even expect a letter from Katie for at least another week. Still, she couldn’t escape the niggling fear that something was amiss.
There was a knock at the open door of her office. Emily’s heart stopped with the appearance of a teenaged boy dressed in the uniform of the Royal Post Office standing in the doorway. He was timidly holding out to her a red telegram – the most dreaded thing that could be delivered to any home in those beak days of the war. The boy’s face showed genuine compassion; clearly the lad was used to bringing heartbreak to complete strangers. A regular telegram could bring any kind of news but the Urgent telegram on its distinctive coloured form could mean only bad news. Emily struggled to affect a confidence she did not feel and even managed to find a sixpence in her purse to tip the boy. Then with her heart bursting and the door closed between her and the world, Emily tore the envelope open.
The form read simply:
Please pack warm clothes and your black bag and come immediately to Cheyne Walk. My car will be downstairs. MH
Emily read the nineteen words again and again, sometimes finding reason to hope but generally registering the exact opposite. She was collected enough to spend two minutes completing the roster and taking it to the notice board of the Nurses’ Station on the ward, walking as if in a trance. Even as she was doing this, however, she was running through the things she would have to gather at Curzon Street. Sure enough, Mr Holmes’ Rolls Royce was in the hospital yard, his driver, Dickson, was alert and looking for her. He greeted Emily, raising his hat and giving her a smile but said nothing to her until she had come back to the car with her doctor’s bag, a carpet bag suitcase and a warm winter coat. “Mr Holmes told me to be quick, Ma’am. I’m glad you’re so well organised.”
At Cheyne Walk, Mr Holmes was waiting for her anxiously and took both her hands as she alighted from the car. His first words were cheerfully delivered but his eyes betrayed the optimism of his words: “Don’t despair, Dr Emily. I have bad news but it isn’t the worst you might fear. But we can talk about this as we drive to Portsmouth.”
Emily struggled to control her fears but her years of training as a doctor and her experience as one of Mr Holmes’s agents in the field kicked in just when she needed it. “Thank you, Mr Holmes,” she said. Soon London was passing in a blur as the car sped south.
The great disappointment for Emily was that there was little enough to tell. Katie had arrived safely in New York – and disappeared almost immediately.
“Disappeared?” demanded Emily.
“Bad choice of words, I’m sorry. It would seem,” said Mr Holmes carefully, “that Katie has been abducted. An attempt was made to snatch both Nancy and Katie within an hour of their arriving at their hotel; by dint of Katie’s courage and plain good luck, Nancy survived the attempt. The boys hadn’t even arrived at the time of the attack. Mr Sherlock Holmes is in New York and I have only the barest outline of what happened in an urgent telegram from him which I received just half an hour before I sent for you. I said again and again while this was being planned that I would need your clever brain in the team – but your responsibilities here seemed to make that impossible. Now I need you in New York – no matter how much you are needed here.” Mr Holmes wasn’t asking Emily’s consent but given that she might be needed in the rescue of her sister, there was nothing that Emily wanted more than to be there at the scene of the action and play her part.
“Mr Holmes, of course I’ll go. But my responsibilities here still have to be met.” Emily had learned long ago that in wartime, personal feelings sometimes counted for very little when duty called.
“You can go to New York with a clear conscience, Emily. There isn’t another ocean liner for four more days; you’ll get there quicker on a Royal naval vessel. You’ll be working your passage - that’s for sure - and not skiving off on an ocean cruise. Dr John Watson is waiting for you in Southampton along with a shipload of wounded Canadian soldiers returning home. You’ll be attached to the medical unit on board the RMS Aurania. They go to New York first and then on to Halifax. And you might be pleased to know that you will outrank Dr Watson; his experience is much less current than yours. You’ll both be busy.”
On the drive from London, Mr Holmes told Emily what little he knew. The telegram from Sherlock had been brief and promised more detail soon; Mr Holmes expected this news to be waiting for him at the Diogenes Club on his return. Katie had been snatched from her room in the Algonquin hotel only an hour after her arrival there. There was no explanation of why Katie and not Nancy had been taken. For all of that – and a million other details - Emily would have to wait.
The Aurania was waiting for their arrival in Southampton harbour. Unlike all the other ships riding at anchor, the Aurania was lit up dramatically so that everyone could see the huge red crosses painted on the side of the ship. Hospital ships were protected by international treaty but, Emily thought with a shudder, so were ordinary passenger liners. That protection hadn’t stopped German submarines from sinking the Lusitania. The gangway was still down when Mr Holmes’s car rolled on to the dock but the lines had already been cast away and the ship was ready to go. As soon as she had shaken hands with Mr Holmes and slipped up the gangway, the Aurania nudged quietly out of its berth. By the time Emily was seated with Dr Watson and the other medical staff enjoying a very late dinner, England was out of sight.
Back in New York, the little group of friends who had set out so hopefully were struck raw. Nancy was something of the hero of the day. She had heard Katie’s scream and knowing that there was danger at the door and she was wearing only her dressing gown she locked the door of the bathroom and struggled to open the little window looking out on to an alley. The fire escape was right outside the window and as the door was battered in, she managed to slide the window up and clamber out and run down the metal gangway as fast as she could to reach the ladder leading down to the alley. It was four floors down to safety – much too far to jump. It was difficult negotiating the metal ladder in her dressing gown but fear drove her on. All of this took only seconds but it seemed to Nancy’s fevered brain that it took an age. Finally, with her heart racing and fear gripping her, she skipped the last few rungs of the ladder and leapt to the pavement of the alley.
Nancy, of course, had not seen who was at the door but the sound of the struggle and the scream warned her of the danger that might even now be coming after her. In the oddest of instincts, Nancy’s Tithegate past suddenly caught up with her; her life was in danger but her greatest fear at this moment was the shame of appearing in a New York street barefooted and in her dressing gown. The towel around her hair had been lost somewhere on the fire escape. Nancy drew the cord on the dressing gown tight, put her shoulders back and looked both ways down the alley to see where safety might be found.
She realised with a start that she was not alone: people were coming and going through the alley. There were restaurant dustbins being emptied, a parked car obscured her view to the street beyond and she was surprised to see a chestnut seller’s cart leaning against the wall with the manager of this little business enjoying a quiet smoke. And here Nancy found that the great, sprawling ants nest of New York had its blessings. If anyone passing her in the alley thought that it was remarkable that a young lady would be out for a walk in her dressing gown with wet hair and bare feet then no one showed it in word or action. Nancy was pleased at first by the reaction of passers-by and she stepped out with a little more confidence. Alas, the polite behaviour of the New York Natives who ignored her also meant that no one stopped and offered to help. What could she do? Nancy was disoriented by her sudden exit from the street-front elegance of the Algonqin to its gritty back side. How to get back in? She slipped down the alley to find a busy city street – but no hotel in sight. She must have turned the other way in her desperation.
At this moment, Nancy lost all her confidence. She had been wonderfully brave in the heat of the moment but now the terror of the situation seemed overwhelming. Nancy knew that her friend had been attacked but she had no idea what had happened at the door of the hotel room. She had no clothes and was even uncertain about whether she was wise to go back to the hotel. Had the danger passed there or were the men who came to her room simply waiting for her to return? At this blackest of moments, Nancy’s spirits failed and she raised her hands to cover her face; tears seemed at this moment to be the best short term option. Then she heard running on the pavement and felt strong arms around her, pulling her into a hug. She responded immediately with a spurt of terror but found when she opened her eyes that the strong arms belonged to Tommy and that Billy was standing close by with their luggage, his face a picture of overwhelming compassion and concern. At the same time, she realised that she was only metres from the gleaming brass door of the Algonquin. The dignified doorman was at that moment helping a customer of the hotel to load a sea chest from a luggage trolley into the back of a waiting van. The three friends hurried past him to the relative shelter of the lobby and the warm arms of an alarmed Mrs Westin.
The next hour was horrible for Katie who slowly came out of her groggy state to find herself confined in a sort of coffin. Her stomach was heaving from the acrid smell of the chloroform and the lurching of the van as it negotiated street corners only added to her nausea. But she was alive and she was increasingly alert. She had had little of the formal training that the other pupils at Kew House had enjoyed on how to manage in these circumstances but she had plenty of pluck and common sense. What was more, she had managed situations almost exactly like this in the past. She realised that her life depended on keeping her head; nothing was to be gained by giving in to fear. Her terror was all the more acute because she had recognised the face of the man who had drugged her. She had seen that face before on the night in which she had been held captive on the MS Chiko Roll. He was no ordinary criminal and it was in keeping with his power and contempt for his foes that he had struck at the friends so soon after their arrival in the city. Clearly he had wanted both the girls; his disappointment at being denied this prize would be extreme. Katie knew that she would need all her wits to survive this encounter with Professor Moriaty.
Being drugged, of course, made all of this much more difficult. She had been unconscious for the first part of the journey so had no idea how long the van had been travelling. She gingerly pushed against the lid of the sea chest making as little noise as possible but it was securely locked. After what seemed like an age, the jolting ceased and Katie strained to hear the ambient sounds of the place where the van had stopped. There was the low, mournful wail of a ship’s siren in the middle distance; closer by she could hear the sounds of activity – cars or vans moving, men calling and machinery at work - all around her. Then the back of the van was open and there were orders barked by someone with an accent. Katie was carried none too gently out of the van and, it soon felt, up a flight of stairs. A door slammed shut and the sea chest was dropped to the floor. Katie knew that the next moments were vital to her safety and she stilled her racing heart to offer her best impersonation of an unconscious body against the moment when the lid would be removed.
This did not come immediately and for something like half an hour Katie struggled against the impulse to scream and beat against the lid of the chest. She could hear muted conversation – much of it shouted and peppered with bad language before there was more slamming of the door and then silence. Soon after, the lid to the coffin was levered open and Katie could breathe fresh air at last. The need to feign unconsciousness was made unnecessary when she felt water splashed across her face and the sea chest shaken. She lifted her head dully to meet the face of Lieutenant Richard Walters smiling malevolently at her. He was holding a length of rope and he reached into the sea chest to pull Katie into a sitting position to secure her hands and feet. The charming and well-mannered young naval officer who had walked her about the Promenade Deck of the Mauretania had been working all along for the enemies of the King. Lieutenant Walters enjoyed the flash of recognition that clouded Katie’s face as she realised how she had been deceived.
As she struggled to sit up, Katie tried to register where she was – and how she might escape. The room in which she was being held seemed to be an office of some sort at the docks somewhere – New York, she imagined. Windows along one side of the room looked over the harbour: the grey water below was packed with boats of all kinds. There were shelves of books and ledgers on the other side of the office with a banner proclaiming the Norddeutscher Lloyd Company and framed photographs of steam ships at sea. There was also, Katie noticed with a shudder, a portrait of the German Kaiser in pride of place. It made sense, Katie thought. The United States was neutral in the Great War and a German shipping company could operate openly; such a place would be a likely shelter for German agents.
When Katie was telling this part of the story to Emily many days later, she couldn’t resist adding as much drama as she could to the action. Her life was in the most immediate danger; a man with evil in his heart and a length of rope in his hands was approaching her as she tried to sit up in a coffin of a sea chest. This moment called for the boldest of responses and in a flash of the most exhilarating inspiration, Katie found it in her heart to leap in and embrace the danger. She could have, she said, waited until Lieutenant Walters was within reach and then she could try to land a lucky punch on his temple. For one split second, Katie had envisaged then seizing something [anything] that might come to hand, smashing the glass windows that stood over the dock, leaping out into the water, landing in the harbour below and swimming to safety. This was very like what she had done on the MS Chiko Roll and perhaps it would work again. At the crucial moment, however, Katie decided to try something very different indeed. It saved her life and – as it turned out – the whole enterprise on which they had been launched just that morning.
When Lieutenant Walters came close to the sea chest holding the rope Katie did lunge – but only to throw her arms around and hug him to her chest. “Oh my dear Lieutenant Walters!” She gasped in a way that would have done credit to the acting powers of Miss Dixie Daniels – the screen siren from whom Sherlock Holmes had rescued the son of the Chicago millionaire. Katie went on: “Now I know that God answers prayers! I have been carried here against my will, Sir, and as I woke in this horrible sea chest prison, I prayed that some brave man would step forward and rescue me - and here you are! But Sir, Sir, we must be quick! You know my friends, I am sure – Mr Weller, Miss Meadows and Mr Edwards. Mr Sherlock Holmes has schooled us what to do in the event of this very emergency. We are all to meet in the safe house on 75th St in Manhattan. We have obviously been betrayed and found out – please take me to the safe house now and unite me with my friends. Mr Holmes himself will not be there but all the others will be. Oh, Sir – please take me there now.”
While this last speech was being delivered, Katie was stepping out of the sea chest, never once letting go of the British Naval Officer and she sagged in his arms. “My head feels so faint! I fear some mischief has been done to me! But thank God you are here.” Again Katie melted into the handsome young man’s arms.
What was Lieutenant Walters to think? Before Professor Moriaty had left him, the man had shouted abuse and blamed the English Officer for not crashing through the hotel door and seizing Nancy Meadows before she could escape. Moriaty blamed the English officer for the debacle – and threatened the man with a terrible revenge if the four young friends escaped his clutches after the trap had been so carefully set. Breaking up the enterprise so early after their arrival in New York was to have been the most complete triumph by Professor Moriaty over his rival, the great Sherlock Holmes. Now that plan had failed and Moriaty feared that the triumph would be that of Sherlock Holmes – not him. Lieutenant Walter feared his boss – he had seen other men who failed his service die in agony. And here was this empty headed girl promising to take him straight to where all of the friends might easily be taken! He would show the boss what he could do; it would be his cunning that would turn the situation around.
Katie, for all her fainting fit, was watching the Lieutenant sharply and could see where his mind was taking him. She played her next card carefully; “We must make haste, Sir, – that’s part of the plan. If we are scattered, we are to meet at the safe house; if we are not all assembled by 4 pm, those who can escape are to do so – splitting up and making their way to the British Embassy in Washington. But Lieutenant, I feel too faint to hurry. Could you speak for a cup of tea, please. If I could just have a mouthful, I would recover enough to take us away from here. Now where did I write down that address on 75th St?”
Walters was still suspicious but made his decision in a moment and the rope was dropped to the floor. He couldn’t think of a single logical reason to offer Katie for why he would be there in the lair of the villain so he offered none. The girl may have had too much chloroform, he thought, to be thinking straight. She had called him an answer to prayer! What fools these agents of Sherlock Holmes were. His manner now was suddenly heroic and supportive. He would play his part as the Royal Naval officer– and lure the girl into revealing where the safe house was. He would take here there, play the same tricks on the others and deliver the four of them to his boss that afternoon. They would trust him if he arrived with Katie – and a story of his heroism and true British honour! And who would have the last laugh then? There was the business of the tea to negotiate but he had a little time. Moriaty had left saying that he would not be back until after dark – and there was a full hour before the four o’clock deadline when the friends would scatter.
“Do compose yourself, Madam,” Walters said as he wriggled out of Katie’s embrace. “I’ll speak for the tea directly. Please sit on this chair by the fresh air at the window. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
And he was gone. In his absence, Katie quickly checked her pockets. Her purse [with the letter from Mrs Roosevelt] was intact in the inner pocket of her coat. If it came to a fight, Katie knew that it was going to be a very unequal contest. She had no pistol or knife and was too frightened to begin searching the desk in the room to find a weapon in case Walters returned and discovered her. No, this was a case for patience as well as pluck. She willed herself to sit still and think.
It was just as well; Walters was back in a moment. He had been cautious enough to lock the door as he left and he locked it on his return, pocketing the key in his breast pocket. The tea had been spoken for and would be here in a moment, he announced. Katie’s plan at this stage was desperate. There was no safe house to go to, of course: she had conjured an address out of her imagination. If she were going to challenge Walters, it would have to be soon. The man was sure to be armed. Once he was with her out in the street, her chances of carrying out the escape plan would shrivel. No, everything depended on the next few moments when the tea things came.
Katie did pray now, recalling the steely determination of her sister and the kind, trusting courage of her mother. Then there was the knock; a light, cheerful voice speaking German announced the tea tray and Walters was moving, hesitating at the door to recover the key. It was the only moment Katie would have. In one fluid movement, she was on her feet and the wooden chair was swept up into a wide arc.
The terror of the moment gave Katie all the strength she needed to accomplish this manoeuvre; Lieutenant Walters bent to insert the key – and copped the full force of the chair as Katie brought it down hard on his head and shoulders. He fell forward, his head crashing into the door where he was sprawled unconscious and to the side.
Walters had already inserted the key in the lock and Katie, in her best German [honed on officers of the German Imperial Army in Brussels] called for a moment’s patience. She lugged the body of her captor to one side, straightened her hair and opened the door a fraction. There, in the white and burgundy livery of the Norddeutscher Lloyd Company was a teenaged boy with a tray, two teacups and saucers and a steaming pot. The lad smiled, gave a polite greeting in German, and went to come in.
Katie was ready for this and instead, pushed the lad back gently into the corridor. She took the tray from the boy and said: “Excuse me: I am deep in private conversation here with a gentleman. Just wait a moment, please.” Katie closed the door, took the tray quickly to the desk and found her purse. “The gentleman and I will be wanting absolute privacy for the next couple of hours. Please don’t interrupt us – or be concerned if you hear any strange noises. Two hours, mind! And absolute privacy!”
Katie found a silver quarter dollar in her purse and handed it over with a wink. Moments before in her time of greatest need she had thought of her kind and gentle mother – and here she was acting now like some low woman of the street. Her poor mother would not approve of such behaviour in her daughter under any circumstances. The wonder was, however, that the boy didn’t seem to think that there was anything remarkable in the request. Strange things – and strange noises –seem to have been a regular occurrence in this office. The boy tipped his hat, returned the wink and trousered the tip.
Katie ached to close the door behind her and run for her life but her common sense kicked in. Instead, she locked the door, found the rope that Lieutenant Walter would lately have used on her and tied the inert man’s legs and arms securely. She recovered the handkerchief still sodden with chloroform from the sea chest and stuffed it into the man’s mouth. She would have loved to inspect the contents of the desk – documents here might be very useful later. Instead, she took just a moment to check her face in the looking glass and calmly walk to the door. She locked it from the other side and walked as calmly as she could down the corridor to the stairs. The corridor was busy and no one stopped her; at the bottom of the stairs, she headed through the foyer of the shipping company, greeting the receptionist in German and stepping into the busy New York street. She willed herself to be calm until she had put some distance between herself and the office door before she was brave enough to look back. No one was following her; there was no hue and cry. There was a taxi standing idle at a rank at the next corner and Katie climbed into the back seat. A grizzled driver gave her a quizzical look, waiting for directions. It was at this moment that Katie remembered the invitation from Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt and recovered the note and its envelope. “Can you take me please to the Todhunter School on East 89th Street?” The driver grunted and nudged the cab into the traffic away from the docks.
Katie checked her wristwatch; it was 3.10 pm and the taxi pulled up some twenty minutes later at the door of the Todhunter School. The driver called the fare and Katie doubled it, saying as she stepped out, “Can you please forget that you picked up this fare if anyone makes inquiries?” The driver winked [so many winks from gentlemen in one day!] and waved as he sped away. The door to the school was locked [it was a Sunday, of course] and Katie was obliged to ring the bell. There were some anxious minutes until the door was opened by a kindly looking, middle aged woman with large, intelligent eyes. “Miss Bland, I presume,” said the woman, extending her arm in greeting. Katie knew immediately how intelligent and alert the woman was when she used the handshake to draw Katie quickly into the entry way of the school and lock and bolt the door after her. Only then did the woman say with a smile, “I’m Eleanor Roosevelt, the Deputy Principal here at the Todhunter School. Our English friend led me to expect four of you; there’s no trouble, I hope?” The woman had never let go of Katie’s hand; now she drew her into a warm hug. This was all the permission that Katie needed to breathe deeply and cry into that gentle shoulder. Katie had been brave and gallant when her life depended on it; now she could indulge for just a moment the feelings that had threatened to overwhelm her.
Mrs Roosevelt was wise enough to ask no direct questions and to leave to Katie alone the scope of what she might want to share with this stranger. They sat in silence for some time while the kettle boiled and then slowly, cautiously Katie told her story as the tea pot was emptied. Mr Holmes had already briefed his special agent in New York that the four friends were his best agents in the field but the respect Mrs Roosevelt felt for this brave young woman grew enormously as the story unfolded. Katie had encountered the world’s most dangerous criminal and escaped from his clutches. What was more, she now knew details of the location of Professor Moriaty’s “front of house” and the headquarters for dangerous German agents in the city. It probably wouldn’t be safe for the friends to remain at the Algonquin but finding another hotel in New York was nothing compared with the bother that Moriaty would meet with having to move his headquarters. The whole thing was just remarkable and the two women quickly found that they could trust each other completely. The climax of the story as Katie wielded the chair and charmed the young German steward into serving tea while Lieutenant Walters was tied up in a corner brought gasps of admiration from Mrs Roosevelt. Soon, Katie was able to forget something of the terror that had threatened when her life was in very real danger and she laughed at the mention of the grim taxi driver who had carried her away to 89th Street.
Just before 4 pm, the doorbell rang and Mrs Roosevelt went silently to her window to check that there wasn’t a gang of German or Irish thugs waiting to come in. She smiled at Katie and suggested that she might like to answer the door herself. Nancy, Billy and Timmy stood on the pavement looking disconsolate and frightened when Katie opened the door; she was affecting a relaxed swagger and seemed to be pretending that besting international criminals and escaping from the jaws of death were just an everyday occurrence for her. This little pose didn’t last long, however, as she was bombarded with vigorous hugs and excited hoots from the friends whose world was turned upside down for the second time in the one day. The noisy, squealing little gang took over the foyer of the staid Todhunter School, laughing and crying both at once and filling Mrs Roosevelt with hope that if anyone could triumph over the evil forces ranged against the King and the Republic then they were here waiting to have tea with her in her office.
Chapter 6: At the Deutsch Oompah Band Café
Mrs Westin was quite used to having unusual things come to pass at the Algonquin Hotel but that clear, cool day in September was proving exceptional. The bell boy who had carried up the tray of coffee to the English ladies on the fourth floor had returned soon after with the tray still in hand; he told Mrs Westin that he had found the door to their suite left ajar and signs of considerable turmoil within. More guests arrived just at this moment complaining that there had been no door man to greet them and attend to their luggage. Soon after that, two young Englishmen arrived with a lady wearing nothing more than a dressing gown. Mrs Westin recognised the young lady and realised immediately that something was seriously amiss. She took Nancy by the shoulder and drew her aside but wasn’t prepared for Nancy’s whispered warning that her friend had been abducted from her room.
The lobby was busy and this kind of public display was clearly not good for business. Mrs Westin thought best to shepherd the little party into her own parlour behind the counter. In the middle of all this drama, the bell boy returned with a whey faced elderly gentleman in his underwear. He had been found in a cubicle of the gentlemen’s toilets bound and gagged and stripped of his uniform. He was, of course, the genuine doorman of the Algonquin. It was Nancy who connected the dots first. Despite her embarrassment at being out in the street in her dressing gown, she had noticed as she found refuge in the splendid brass door of the Algonquin that the doorman of the hotel was removing a large sea chest from the luggage trolley into a van parked in the street. Katie was in that sea chest! Mr Holmes had warned them to be alert and careful but no one had expected a strike before the boys arrived from their subway journey.
It was Billy who took charge now, knowing how difficult this was going to be if they lost not only Katie but their cover at the Algonquin. He signaled the others to be quiet and turned to Mrs Westin: “I beg your pardon, Ma’am,” he said in the most cultured English accent he could muster. “This is deucedly awkward, don’t you know, and a terrible shame to visit on a respectable and distinguished place like the Algonquin Hotel. My name is Lionel Trilby; I’m with the British Embassy in Washington. How d’ye do?” Lionel extended his hand and shook with Mrs Westin. “This is Mr Tommy Weller; I think you have already met his fiancé, Miss Nancy Meadows of Tithegate, Yorkshire. Tithegate is, you must know, a most respectable village.”
Mrs Westin saved Billy any further explanation by saying simply: “The less said about some of these matters the better, Mr Trilby. I am already acquainted with a certain English gentleman who has been a guest in this hotel before. Miss Bland is missing – Miss Meadows would have been taken as well if she hadn’t been so determined. I am sorry: things like this do not happen at the Algonquin. I’m guessing, however, that you do not want me to call the police?”
In the next half hour, the three friends struggled to make sense of what had happened. Nothing could be discussed until Nancy was put to rights; Mrs Westin herself went back to the room on the fourth floor and waited while Nancy washed again and dressed. An Irish chambermaid worked at Mrs Westin’s direction to put the room to rights. Billy moved the boys’ luggage into their room; while all this was happening, Tommy stood guard outside Nancy’s room, his pistol in the holster under his shoulder. The coffee was called for again and it was a grim little team who assembled in the boys’ room to plan a response.
Katie was missing and they had to presume the worst. Given what Nancy had seen at the door of the Algonquin, it was likely that she had been snatched by Professor Moriaty himself. If Katie were not dead already, she would be held as some sort of bait or lure to bring them all – including Mr Holmes - into the criminal’s net. During the voyage on the Mauretania, Katie had told Nancy of her last encounter with Professor Moriaty; now Nancy forced herself to share the full horror of that story with the boys. The crisis had left them all numb and fearful.
They had no lead on how to proceed although Tommy was fairly certain that Mr Holmes would not want them to engage the police at this moment. The immediate problem was that they had no way of connecting with Mr Sherlock Holmes. He had told them that he would see them at the Algonquin but had not specified a time. Nancy recalled the invitation to afternoon tea with Mrs Roosevelt but when she went looking for the note on the dressing table in the room she shared with Katie it wasn’t to be found. They all recalled Mr Holmes’s direction to contact Mrs Roosevelt at the Todhunter School if there were an emergency. It was now 1.30pm; Tommy suggested that they give Mr Holmes until 3 pm; if he had not returned by then, they would telephone Mrs Roosevelt. There was no other plan on offer and so the three friends settled down for what they expected would be the longest ninety minutes of their lives.
As it was, Mr Holmes arrived only twenty minutes later: silky and swaggering in his confidence. One look at the assembled friends took the good mood straight from him and he listened in stony silence as the bad news was delivered. Just at this moment, Mrs Westin arrived with a trolley of sandwiches and soup. The friends ate in silence as Mr Holmes gave the little group a lesson in forensics. He stood with a notebook in his hand and pressed each of them to tell their story, beginning with Nancy and taking things very slowly. He interrupted the story frequently, forcing Nancy to recall as much detail as she could of the fleeting moment when she had witnessed the arrival of the doorman and his accomplice. The boys were pressed to recall the moment at the door to the Algonquin when the luggage trolley was being unloaded. Then the great detective reread his notes aloud, demanding that each of the friends confirm the exact details of what they had seen or inferred. When he had finished, there was a long silence. Mr Holmes paced the room, his face working angrily to assimilate all the details into pattern and order.
When Billy could stand the silence no longer, he said simply, “I know we’ve let Katie down, Sir, and I feel we’ve also let you and Mr Mycroft Holmes down as well. Can you tell us what you think, Mr Holmes?”
Mr Holmes stood looking out the window into busy 44th Street. Finally he spoke: “I think, Mr Edwards, that young Miss Meadows is very lucky to have survived this ordeal; she fulfils all the hopes that my brother Mycroft has for her. The first thing I must do now is contact Mycroft and let him know what has happened to Miss Bland. I’m pretty certain that he will exercise all his influence to have Dr Emily join us as soon as possible.”
Then Mr Holmes turned to the three friends and his face tried to show a confidence that his heart did not feel. “I do hope, Mr Edwards and Mr Weller, that you will not go about blaming yourself for what has happened to Miss Bland. You are all of you young and innocent; none of you can begin to imagine the kind of man with whom we are dealing. I know him: I know him and I sent you into this dangerous moment unprepared for the danger. If anyone should feel guilty at what has happened, it is I. But let us not despair: not yet, anyway. I have unlimited faith in young Miss Bland. She is the Deputy Principal in one of the toughest schools in the East End of London; there’s really nothing she can’t do when she has to. I would think that the best thing now is to trust her and to keep your appointment at the Todhunter School with Mrs Roosevelt; I’ll meet you there once I have sent a telegram to my brother. If you move now, you’ll probably arrive just in time for tea. And please feel free to tell her what has happened. She has her own eyes and ears in this city – just as I have in London. You can trust her.”
Mr Holmes was already reaching for his hat and heading for the door. The friends followed soon after. Mr Holmes was positive and hopeful; that counted for something, surely. But as they left the Algonquin, Nancy shivered with fear as their taxi negotiated the same streets in which she had lately been a fugitive in a dressing gown. She hadn’t expected adventures with the pupils of Mr Holmes’s school at Kew House to be like this.
Katie had to tell her story three times that day: to a gently nodding Mrs Roosevelt, to an admiring trio of friends who were in awe of her cool in outfoxing the treacherous Lieutenant Walters and to an intense Mr Holmes who subjected Katie to the same forensic scrutiny that he had brought to Nancy’s story of her abduction at the Algonquin. When the friends had eaten their way through Mrs Roosevelt’s excellent tea listening to Katie’s story, Mr Holmes finally closed up his note book and looked at Katie with a mixture of awe and amazement. “You never fail to impress me, Miss Bland. Your sister the doctor pretends to have all the vinegar in the pair of you, leaving you to look like sweetness and light. What a dangerous assumption to make! Our Lieutenant Walters isn’t the first man to underestimate your ginger; I believe I’ve done it myself once or twice. When we are safely back at Kew House in Cheyne Walk I’m going to recommend to my dear brother that he include your chair swinging skills in the curriculum for all his pupils. Well done, young lady!”
Katie blushed and shyly lowered her head. Of course she was chuffed by Mr Holmes’s flattery – although she quietly wondered whether her mother would be completely pleased to hear her daughters described as vinegar and ginger. These feelings couldn’t be indulged for very long, however: there was work to do.
Mr Holmes took the floor again and began to give orders in quick succession. Katie’s escape had given his spirits an extraordinary boost and his excitement was contagious. The girls, he declared, had had quite enough excitement for the day and both deserved brandy, chocolates and a hot bath. “There’s no doubt that your cover at the Algonquin will be compromised now but in a way that makes our decision easier to make. If we try to move you, you’re sure to be followed and right now Mrs Westin at the Algonquin is on side and sympathetic. It will be safer to stay put, I think. Thanks to our Katie, Professor Moriaty is on the back foot now: let him scramble to hide his crooked self from us! Mr Weller, I’m guessing that you won’t be comfortable until you have Miss Meadows safely back where you can protect her to your heart’s content.”
Tommy wanted to challenge this but Mr Holmes was adamant. “Pawsh! Every lover wants to feel a hero in front of his lady and you won’t be any different. Just make sure you have your revolver handy. I will be leaving here to see a senior detective I know well in the New York City Police; by the time you have finished a long soak in the tub, Miss Katie, there will be plenty of armed plain clothes detectives lolling about in the foyer of the Algonquin or smoking on the corner of 44th Street. The Algonqin will be the safest place for all of you for the next few days. The same detective can take a squad of his best men to the Norddeutscher Lloyd Company offices – although I’d be surprised if there will be anything incriminating to find there once the alarm has been raised.”
“Billy, you can come with me and..” Here Mr Holmes turned to Mrs Roosevelt with a little bow: “Mr Edwards and I are hoping that you have a musical bent, my dear. We will have our supper at the very centre of German espionage work in this great city. The Norddeutscher Lloyd Company offices are where their agents gather by day; their real work is carried out in plain sight at the Deutsch Oompah Band Café in Brooklyn.”
“I know the place,” said Billy, “and it’s exactly as you describe it. There’s no shortage of rum folk there so we need to be very alert. My work with the Embassy took me there once or twice. I went with Juan, actually but I don’t think I’ll be recognised.”
“You may not be noticed but Mrs Roosevelt and I will be recognised as soon as we go in through the front door. That’s why we’re going in separately from you. Our job will be to alarm the Germans and hope that we can provoke a response. Your job will be to watch and see what you can learn. You can watch the ladies serving the beer, young man. If I recall correctly, they seem to be chosen for the splendid sight they make in their low cut chemises. I think we should go by the subway – as they call it here. Taxi drivers have a nasty habit of remembering details of their passengers when offered a big enough bribe. In your case, however, Mr Weller, I think a cab to take the ladies back to the Algonquin is perfectly in order. ”
Mr Holmes rose – the clear sign that the tea party was over. It was only early evening but so much had happened that day that all the friends were feeling drained and exhausted. They left looking for a taxi – and the chocolates Mr Holmes had promised. Billy still had a night’s work ahead of him but he enjoyed his status as a trusted agent and slowing only long enough to hug Katie again, he was out the door of the Todhunter School and heading towards the subway as the soft autumn light of the New York evening came down.
Their first call, however, was not in Brooklyn but at the offices of the New York City Police Department in Manhattan. It was Sunday and most of the senior detectives were absent; Mr Holmes, however, quickly located the man he needed – Inspector Anthony Jerome – and introduced Billy and Mrs Roosevelt. Inspector Jerome was a heavy set young man with intelligent, intense eyes and a cautious smile. He treated Mr Holmes as a comrade but extended the most old fashioned, thorough deference to Mrs Roosevelt. He stood as she entered his office and Billy was sure that something like a bow escaped the man before he could take her extended arm and shake hands. The Roosevelt name clearly impressed the Police Inspector. It was not simply Mr Holmes’s unique contacts that opened doors but the name of the lady with him. “No wonder that he calls her Ma’am,” Billy thought.
Mr Holmes quickly told Inspector Jerome some of the story: enough to convince the senior police officer that there was high crime at work in his own backyard. Inspector Jerome said little and asked no questions but promised to have a squad of plain clothes detectives protecting the friends at the Algonquin as soon as possible. “It’s unlikely that there will be more trouble,” Mr Holmes said airily, “but displays like this are often very welcome for other reasons. My own people will feel safer if they know that your men are about.”
Inspector Jerome pressed Mrs Roosevelt to stay for coffee or a drink but she pleaded “a musical engagement” and made her apologies. From the police headquarters it was another subway ride to Brooklyn. Katie and Nancy were relishing the chance to take a hot bath and enjoy a glass of champagne [compliments of Mrs Westin and the Algonquin] when Billy arrived at the Deutsch Oompah Band Café. Mr Holmes wanted him seated and alert before he made an entrance with Mrs Roosevelt. It was still early and the place was just coming to life. The café was a large, high room with a circular stage at one end and a bar running the length of the wall. Billy was seated near the little stage and was immediately supplied with a tankard of foaming beer served by a blonde fraulein whose personal attributes were exactly as Mr Holmes had described them.
Over his beer, Billy surveyed the customers. There were men who must have been sailors, beefy stevedores and office workers in suits. Everyone was drinking and the ladies who waited at table seemed adept at whisking away empty beer tankards and returning with frothy replacements. There was the hearty sound of laughter and merriment. Billy had almost downed his first tankard when Mr Holmes and Mrs Roosevelt entered and were shown to a table on the other side of the cavernous hall.
The Deutsch Oompah Band Café was a fixture on the Brooklyn culture; for forty years it had served the German residents of the city with treats from their homeland. There was German beer on tap, the restaurant served giant schnitzels, sizzling bratwurst and pretzels and the waitresses were famous throughout the city for their friendly greetings and large bosoms. At least that was the burden of the description Mr Holmes gave to Billy and Mrs Roosevelt as their subway carriage rattled towards Brooklyn. Being a lady, Mrs Roosevelt challenged this slur on the women of the café but Billy now saw that it was true. Heads turned as Mr Holmes and Mrs Roosevelt entered and instead of one of the sweet young frauleins coming with beer and a hearty smile, the couple drew the attention of the café’s famous Maître D’ – Frau Lederhosen.
This lady was anything but warm and welcoming. “Mr Holmes,” she said coldly, “I am surprised that you have returned so soon after your last unfortunate visit.”
“Frau Lederhosen,” said Sherlock Holmes with a bow as he casually sat at the table, “I have come for your most excellent beer and delightful music. And I think we have a common acquaintance whom I would hope to meet here. If he is in the house perhaps you could fetch him? But ah! Here come the musicians now.”
As he spoke, six bearded men all dressed alike in green velvet jackets and brown leather pants came on to the stage carrying their instruments. There was a tuba, two saxophones, two trumpets and a piano accordion: they formed, of course, the famous Oompah Band after which the café was named. The gentlemen bowed and then launched into their first set – a medley of famous Bavarian melodies – followed by their signature piece, Underneath the Cherry Tree with My Favourite Frisian Cow. Sherlock Holmes rolled his eyes in disgust but the growing crowd loved the music and thumped their beer tankards on the table in tune with the oompah beat. Frau Lederhosen gave up looking bleak and stomped away; two tankards of frothy beer suds soon arrived and Billy watched as Mr Holmes took a deep drink. He was enjoying himself immensely bearding his great enemy on the day when Professor Moriaty had been bested by one of England’s best agents.
Billy was beginning to wonder if indulging Mr Holmes’s vanity was the only reason for the visit. He kept looking around the beer hall anxious that he might encounter a German agent or an Irish gang member he had met in another life, when he had visited with Juan. He drank another tankard of beer and ate his way through a large serve of schnitzel with frites and coleslaw; Mr Holmes and Mrs Roosevelt seemed to be doing the same. The band played for half an hour, their accordionist giving a bravura performance and winning lively cheers from the audience. At the end of the set, most of the musicians went among the audience to receive their hearty response before retiring to the bar to enjoy their own beer. Billy was expecting Mr Holmes to leave soon; it seemed like a wasted night. He was quite unprepared for what happened next.
One of the buxom frauleins clearing the tables came to his table to collect his plate and tankard on a tray. She stopped and reached inside her bosom to retrieve an envelope and handed it to Billy with a smile. The envelope was addressed to Mr Lionel Trilby and Billy knew as soon as he touched it that it could only bring him grief. His hands shaking, he opened the envelope and a simple gold ring set with a chip of ruby fell into his hands. The note with it said simply:
I had great pleasure in taking this from a boy who gave it up most reluctantly. JM.
Billy erupted with an agony that tore at his soul and he stood awkwardly, pushing back the table, knocking his tankard over and spilling the beer on the sawdust floor. Silence fell upon the room; Frau Lederhosen quickly appeared, expecting trouble. Before Billy could do anything more, however, Sherlock Holmes was beside him, shepherding him towards the door. The crowd relaxed and the oompah band was back on stage warming up for their next set. They assembled without their piano accordion, however, and it was only as Mrs Roosevelt, Mr Holmes and the distraught Billy were on the pavement outside the café that Billy registered the enormity of what had happened before their eyes. The bearded musician who had delighted the audience had taken his own revenge on Sherlock Holmes and shown that even if he were denied one victory he was happy enough to savour another. His face ashen, Mr Holmes was whistling for a taxi and sending Mrs Roosevelt off back to 44th Street. He walked in silence with Billy until both had calmed down and only then would Mr Holmes trust them to a taxi back to the Algonquin.
When Billy returned, he found to his great relief that all three of the friends had waited up for him. It was late; everyone was exhausted but Billy forced himself to tell the story and to show the ring that matched his own. He told his story but so much was left unsaid, each of the friends filling in the gaps as best they could from their knowledge of Billy. Each wanted to respect his privacy but each one of them also wanted to show their care for him. The bitter day finished with Nancy and Katie talking long after the light had been put out on their room – and Billy and Tommy doing much the same thing in their room.
So much had happened on that first day in New York City that despite their late bedtime all of the friends had an unsettled and restless night. New York is a noisy place even for the locals who grow up with the constant drone of traffic, the wail of sirens and the bells of emergency vehicles. The Algonquin was elegant and comfortable but nothing could block out the life of the streets that seemed to Nancy – used to the genteel tranquility of Tithegate – to be never ending. Mr Holmes allowed them to sleep but at 8 am, a gentle tap at the door of each of the hotel rooms delivered steaming coffee and a note inviting the friends to share breakfast in the dining room at 9 am.
The Algonquin seemed unusually busy that morning. Most of the leather armchairs in the lobby were occupied by young men very busy reading newspapers and smoking; they were obviously the detectives Inspector Jerome had called in for protection. Tommy smiled broadly at one of them as he left the elevator and was rewarded with a friendly wink. Just as Billy and Tommy were settling to order a full breakfast, Katie and Nancy arrived. There were smiles and hugs all round; it was not a very British greeting, perhaps, but the raw events of the day before had left them all protective of one another. Each of the four young people was hugely cheered by the presence of their friends – and the sight of the large breakfast under the silver dishes on the sideboard. The United States, of course, was suffering none of the privations of war time and the chafing dishes laden with bacon, eggs and pancakes reminded everyone that the work of escaping from international criminals and besting enemy agents could give one a healthy appetite. Billy had returned to the Algonquin the night before in a stricken mood; this morning, he had recovered most of his good spirits. Katie had passed several hours yesterday in danger of her life; this morning, she was her usual happy self. And Nancy who had clambered out of the Algonquin fire escape to saunter around busy 44th Street was happy just to have her Tommy close at hand and seated beside her for breakfast. Mr Holmes and Mrs Roosevelt arrived just as the plates were being cleared and the second cup of coffee was being poured.
The great detective brought bad news. “Your escape from the hands of Professor Moriaty has certainly upset the applecart here, Katie.” There was both satisfaction and warning in Mr Holmes’s voice that all the young friends detected. “He isn’t used to being thwarted in this way and his bad temper has reached out in every direction. You saw that for yourself last night, Mr Edwards.”
“My people on the ground tell me that German agents and the criminals with Professor Moriaty have been alerted to make you their number one priority,” said Mrs Roosevelt with caution in her voice. “They’ll be out in force – and headed for where they think they will find you easiest – here at the Algonquin. All this attention is quite an honour for the four of you but it does make your task all the more challenging.”
Mrs Roosevelt’s tone was light but the enormity of what they were facing was clear in the faces of all the young friends. Billy spoke for all of them: “Sir,” he said, turning to Mr Holmes, “This morning I want to go to Grand Central Station and see what I can find there. We have the numbers for the lockers; what we are looking for may be there right within reach. We might solve this puzzle this morning. And with your permission, I want to go back to the Deutsch Oompah Band Café. Someone there will know what happened to Juan.”
“It’s precisely because of your natural impatience, young man, that that is not what will happen this morning. Your capacity to move freely around the city is now much diminished, I’m afraid. My arrangement with Inspector Jerome is that you will be shadowed every time you leave the Algonquin; you will be safe, perhaps, but hemmed in, I’m sure. If you go now to the Grand Central Station, Mr Edwards, Professor Moriarty will learn immediately where he must seek for the answers to the same mystery we’re chasing. And besides; while I’d like to think that Inspector Jerome can trust the probity of every one of his young officers, the reality is that my great enemy has deep pockets. If he can suborn an officer of the Royal Navy – as he did with Lieutenant Walters – then he can buy any number of New York detectives.”
“Are we to just wait here then for Professor Moriarty to come to us, Mr Holmes?” Katie shuddered as she spoke: that was exactly what happened yesterday. Despite the best efforts of Inspector Jerome, it was unlikely that they would survive another brazen attack on them here at the hotel.
“I think not,” said Mr Holmes with a twinkle. “Mrs Roosevelt has proposed a nice solution that will give us a little of what we most need: time to penetrate the gloom surrounding this case. But perhaps you won’t much like the first part of the solution: I suggest that you finish your excellent breakfast and toughen your hearts and minds for the rest of the morning.”
Half an hour later, the friends had finished their breakfast and repacked their luggage. The four friends assembled in the girls’ room and waited, wondering what their next move would be. They didn’t have to wait long. A young coloured woman in the smart black and white uniform of a chambermaid at the Algonquin came to the door with a feather duster in one hand a twinkle in her eye; she dropped a curtsey and introduced herself as Matilda in the soft accent of the South. “Mrs Roosevelt has asked you to follow me please.” She checked that the corridor was clear before escorting them silently down the service stairs to the back rooms of the hotel. The laundry and the kitchen areas of the Algonquin faced a cheerless alley; Nancy knew the area from her flight the day before. Mrs Roosevelt and Mrs Westin were there fronting four big wicker baskets with bags of soiled hotel linen piled up around them.
“Well, my dears,” said Mrs Roosevelt to Katie and Nancy, “you arrived in New York travelling first class on the Mauretania. This is quite a come down, I’m sorry, to be leaving the city in the Algonquin laundry van – but it will be infinitely safer for us all if you are off the scene for a few days. Mr Weller, would you be so kind as to help Miss Meadows into her hamper?”
There were giggles as this was done; Billy gallantly did the same for Katie. When all four laundry baskets were full, some towels and sheets were dumped on each one of them before Matilda was opening the door to the alley and calling for help in moving the baskets into the back of the black van. Then they were moving slowly into the New York traffic and away from the safety – and confinement – of the Algonquin. It was a slow journey with the first hour spent negotiating traffic before the van could speed up on what must have been country roads. Finally, the friends could feel the van come to a halt on gravel, then turn through a gate. Billy had long ago become bored with the uncomfortable journey and was quickly out of his hamper; he was the only one standing when the doors were finally open. Matilda, it turned out, had been their driver. She was now standing with a beaming Mrs Roosevelt at the back of a stately country house surrounded by woods and farmland. “Welcome to Hyde Park, my dears. I’ve only just arrived myself; Mr Holmes thought it was sensible for someone to follow the van to ensure that you had made your escape unencumbered. I think it must be time for morning tea: Matilda, will you join us?”
The whole experience that first day at Hyde Park was an extraordinary contrast for the four friends. Yesterday they had each of them been involved in encounters in the streets of New York that tested their courage and left them exhausted; today they were sitting under an oak tree in the grounds of a lovely country house in the New York woodlands, drinking tea and chatting amiably with their gracious hostess. Matilda turned out to be a lively member of the company. She was witty and clever and from her position as chambermaid in the hotel was able to see and hear things that regular guests might have missed. By the time the tea had been drunk, another Algonquin Hotel van had arrived with their luggage. Mrs Roosevelt showed the friends to their bedrooms and gave them time to collect their thoughts. A formal conference would take place that afternoon in the library. The rest of the day was free, Mrs Roosevelt asking only that the friends stay close to the house and away from the nearby village. The purpose of this tactical retreat, as she called it, was to confuse the enemy; it wouldn’t do if Professor Moriarty knew immediately where he could find them.
Katie spent the afternoon in the library writing first to Emily and then to her mother and father. Her sister was wise to the restraint placed on agents in the field and could certainly interpret Katie’s simple references to “interesting adventures with the gentleman I met once on the SS Chiko Roll”. To her parents, Katie could say very little beyond the fact that she was in the United States and enjoying the hospitality of a distinguished political family. Billy sat opposite her reading; Katie enjoyed his company and appreciated the young man’s witty comments. Up close, Katie could see more of the resilience and courage in him which she loved so much in the poor East End boys in her school. She could also detect the deep sadness that Billy carried and hoped that he would some time open up to her as he had to Emily on that last night at Cheyne Walk. Nancy and Tommy walked together in the woods around Hyde Park, enjoying the autumn sunshine and relishing something that they had never had in their relationship: time together away from people. They missed the afternoon tea that was served under the oak tree but Mrs Roosevelt didn’t seem surprised.
That evening after dinner, the friends gathered with Mrs Roosevelt in the library. She poured the coffee and offered brandy but once the discussion began in earnest the conference was sober and serious. She reviewed their progress to date. Katie and Nancy had survived a most determined and malicious attack: that was something to celebrate, certainly. The Norddeutscher Lloyd Shipping Line and the Deutsch Oompah Band Café were positively identified as the centre of Professor Moriaty’s energy in New York although, Mrs Roosevelt acknowledged, this was already well known. But the plain fact was that they were no closer to solving the mystery captured in the jigsaw puzzle and the postcard than they had been in Cheyne Walk.
Billy felt particularly affronted by this. “I can understand that Mr Holmes might not want all of us out and about given what has happened, but I wish that he had just let me go alone to check the lockers at Grand Central Station. I could also be in Washington in a matter of hours and see what is waiting for me at the Attende Ici café. All our endeavours have been put on hold. It really is most provoking!”
Katie quietly took his hand but no one spoke. The friends might not have been wearing the uniform of the king, but they understood the importance of discipline. Like soldiers in the field, their lives depended on one another‘s following orders and their commanding officer [in the person of Mr Sherlock Holmes] had been quite explicit: Wait quietly. That was what they all must do now, however restless they might feel. Mrs Roosevelt gently smoothed the matter by saying, “Of course, Mr Edwards, we are all keen to be up and doing. Let us hope that Mr Holmes gives us the route soon. I expect we’ll see him here someday soon.”
But the next day Mr Holmes did not come, nor the next. On that second free day, Mrs Roosevelt took the friends to the stables and gave Billy and Tommy their first riding lesson. Nancy, of course, was a competent rider and Katie had some experience from her visits to her friends in Hampshire but there was great merriment as the boys were hoisted up and trusted with the reins. With Mrs Roosevelt leading the way, they walked their horses through oak forests in the estate up into the hills above the Hudson Valley. The day was warm. Billy and Katie chatted with Mrs Roosevelt about life in Washington and Billy was able to remind his hostess that they had met briefly at the British Embassy at a reception given for the Governor General of Canada and his daughter, Princess Patricia. Nancy and Tommy loitered shamelessly behind the rest of the riders and only caught up with the rest of the party for a picnic lunch. The third day was wet and the friends ate a long breakfast then played cards together. It was unreal, Katie thought: down the Hudson Valley was the great city of New York with its dangers and mysteries. Across the ocean, the war was raging pitilessly. Yet for three days, there was perfect peace for them and a reminder that the world could still be a safe and beautiful place.
Mr Holmes arrived on that fourth day, joining them for afternoon tea. Katie, always alert to the feelings of others, saw immediately that he was troubled and was looking for an opportunity to introduce an awkward topic. “You have something to tell us, Mr Holmes,” she said.
Mr Holmes said nothing; instead, he pushed the morning’s edition of The New York Times towards them, open at a brief report on page three headed “Gruesome Find in Hudson River.” Billy picked it up and read aloud to the others: “Police have positively identified two bodies recently found floating in the Hudson River opposite the city’s main porting facilities. The body of an adult male has been identified as that of Lieutenant Richard Walters, thirty-three years old, of the Royal Navy. The second body is that of Helmut Diener, thirteen years old, a junior steward in the employ of the Norddeutscher Lloyd Shipping Line.” Katie gasped as Billy read on: “Both bodies showed signs of abuse in the form of wounds to body and head consistent with a severe beating. New York police have declined to say whether the crime is linked with other murders in 1915 although they admit that these two bodies showed wounds similar to those found on the body of a young Mexican man recovered from the river last year.”
Katie burst into tears. She had no sympathy for Lieutenant Walters who was a traitor to the King and who would have killed her and Nancy in a heartbeat if he were ordered to by Professor Moriaty. But the thirteen year old junior steward could only be the polite boy who brought her tea after she had begun her escape from the Norddeutscher Lloyd offices. And the Mexican boy mentioned in the article could only be Billy’s friend, Juan Diaz. The cruelty of this murder filled Katie with anger and outrage and she sobbed into Billy’s shoulder as he stood up to comfort her. There were tears of anger and frustration in his eyes as well.
Mr Holmes was grim: “Miss Katie is shocked but, I suspect, not surprised by this. All of you mark what kind of man is confronting us. He returns to the Norddeutscher Lloyd offices to find Katie gone and his creature bound and gagged. In his anger and frustration, he reaches out and strikes down the first innocent body to come to hand. Young Helmut Diener is there and has played an unwitting part in Katie’s escape; it is enough to cost the boy his life. Understand this: Professor Moriaty will not hesitate for a moment to do the same to any one of you – or any of the staff at the Algonquin or any one of Mrs Roosevelt’s servants: anyone who thwarts or crosses him. That is why, Mr Edwards, you have to do exactly as I say. He’s waiting for us: that much is clear. Together, you can defeat him: if you go off on your own, he’ll take you one at a time.” Mr Holmes’s voice attempted to change tone and he affected a positive air. “We have to succeed,” he said with a chuckle. “If I do not return all of you safe and sound to my brother Mycroft it will be the devil to pay, believe me.”
There were some shy smiles at this sally but Nancy was unmoved. “How can we combat something so evil – so wicked?” she asked. “There’s only us against this awful power. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do to beat us.” The others had had to confront this very idea many times before; it sounded, however, as if this were the moment when Nancy realised for the first time how vulnerable they all were.
Tommy took her hand and spoke for all of them. “That’s right, Nancy: there’s nothing Professor Moriaty and his creatures will not do – and there’s a great many things you will not do. You will not stoop to betray your country for money – as Lieutenant Richard Walters did. You don’t act out of fear – the way his agents must. You wouldn’t put an innocent boy to death as Helmut Diener was murdered to terrify others into doing your bidding. But these are not weaknesses, Nancy. These are our strengths. Mr Holmes says that if we work together we can be stronger than Professor Moriaty – and he is right.” Tommy turned to the group: “Nancy says that she cannot imagine the depth of the wickedness ranged against us; well, Professor Moriaty cannot understand the powers of sacrifice and love that we can summon when we need them. And these powers can prevail. Ask Katie. Ask Billy. Don’t imagine we are weak – we are stronger than we think.”
It was an electric moment and all the friends felt at that moment stronger and more hopeful than they had been at any moment since leaving the Mauretania. Deep down, all of them know that what Tommy had said was true. Even Mr Holmes who always attempted to be hard boiled and cynical felt his eyes prick with tears. He reached out and took Tommy’s hand and shook it. Then there were awkward hugs all around the little group. Mrs Roosevelt, always positive and practical, thought that this might be the perfect time for another pot of tea.
Chapter7: At the Grand Central Station
The friends had arrived in New York on a Sunday; it was not until the next Sunday afternoon that the word came for action – and then in the most unexpected way. The friends had gone to church with Mrs Roosevelt and were sitting with her on the sunny terrace enjoying a late morning cup of coffee. All of them were growing restless: this was not what they expected to be doing in New York City. Billy was especially challenged by the inactivity, until Nancy directed him to the simple word on the postcard: Wait. Mr Holmes had been in New York for three days alone, working on a possible lead at the Norddeutscher Lloyd offices. “It’s possible – but unlikely,” said Mrs Roosevelt, “that he will be able to find some employee there with a grievance who is willing to help us. He has money, too, to help things along. Mr Holmes is hoping that the murder of young Helmut Diener will shock someone with a heart and a conscience into speaking frankly.”
In the end, however, the opening came not from Norddeutscher Lloyd but from the Deutsch Oompah Band Café. Matilda, the gently spoken chamber maid from the Algonquin, arrived at Hyde Park after dinner and joined the company gathered over their coffee.
“A gel with a German accent came to the hotel this morning, Ma’am,” she addressed Mrs Roosevelt. “She be asking to see the manager and Mrs Westin, ever alert, took the girl to her office and called me within hearing. The gel says she has an important letter – a matter of life and death, she says. It was for the young gentleman who had lately been with Mr Homes at the café – and that Mrs Westin would know who that be. Mrs Westin is cautious and says that she knows nothing about any of this, of course, but the young woman was most insistent and kept looking about her. She was mighty skittish. She pressed this envelope into Mrs Westin’s hands and then took off. Mrs Westin gave the envelope to me and I have brought it to you. She thought it might be important. ” Matilda dropped a little curtsey and waited.
“Thank you, Matilda. You’ve done well to come immediately. I’m sure that there will be some dinner for you in the kitchen – but perhaps you’d like to stay and see what the precious message is?” Mrs Roosevelt said this with a twinkle in her eye and Katie marveled at the good sense of the lady whose treatment of servants and people of colour was so unlike what she had seen in other parts of New York.
The envelope was very simple; there was no name or address. Tommy solemnly handed the envelope to Billy who opened it with shaking hands. The message read:
I was the fraulein who delivered you a message at the café last Sunday. I have more to give you and more to tell you but I am very frightened. I need money. Bring $1000 in cash if you want what I have. Can you meet me at the Grand Central Station on Tuesday evening at 5 pm? I will be standing outside the Munich Pretzel Bar near the clock on the main concourse. Wear a boater hat so I can recognise you. Come alone. Be careful. They will kill me if they know I am meeting you. They will kill you too!
Fraulein Heidi Knackwurst
“Perhaps this is the result of Mr Holmes’s quiet inquiries,” said Katie.
“The trouble is that Mr Holmes is quiet with all of us, even me,” said Mrs Roosevelt. “He has been with Inspector Jerome about the Norddeutscher Lloyd Offices, hoping to connect with someone there. I didn’t think he would be trying to persuade ladies like Fraulein Knackwurst to develop a conscience. She has other attributes that are more obvious, don’t you think, Mr Edwards?”
Billy snorted in a suppressed laugh; the rest of the friends who had not been present to witness the young lady’s considerable attributes missed the joke entirely. Billy picked up the letter and looked at it again carefully. “The appeal for money is right, of course. This can be a nasty business, I must tell you, and few of the people at the sharp end of the business are as nobly inspired as we might be. Fraulein Knackwurst may be frightened but she is also greedy. Can we afford to miss this chance?” Billy asked. He could feel the fidgeting delay deep in his bones and was, of course, inclined to hope that the offer were true.
“It won’t be hard to find the money,” said Mrs Roosevelt. “The question is whether the letter promises anything more than treachery. I don’t believe we should do anything until it is cleared by Mr Holmes.”
“Do you know where he is?” asked Katie timidly. She realised that the movements of the great detective were often secret – as much to protect the friends as to preserve Mr Holmes’s cover.
“I believe Mr Holmes is at the Algonquin,” said Mrs Roosevelt. “And regardless of the honesty of the note, I think it might be time for all of us to be there too. Inspector Jerome will have made things warm for Professor Moriaty and the Germans; they’ve had a chance to wonder where you might be; now it’s time to find what you came to New York for. I can send a message to Mr Holmes through Matilda. If we go up by train tomorrow afternoon, we have all Tuesday morning to plan for the meeting with Fraulein Knackwurst – provided, of course, that Mr Holmes gives his approval.”
There was considerable restlessness the next day as the four friends made their preparations. Most of them expected Mr Holmes to see the letter as a shallow trap and to insist that no one show up for the meeting; Billy was particularly raw on this point. After breakfast, Nancy and Tommy went off for a long walk through the woods. Their unstated assumption – one that neither of them could bear to say outright – was that this might be their last happy time together. Katie and Billy walked too and the young man spoke to Katie about his early life and the difference that Juan had made to his happiness. Katie found herself in the role of listener: it was a role she fell into often. Emily always insisted that Katie made everyone feel special just by the way she listened. It was her special gift.
The seriousness of the business they were about was recalled after morning tea. The friends were sent up to pack their things ready to leave on the 2.30 pm train and then Mrs Roosevelt led them out into the woods for an hour’s practice with their pistols. Katie hadn’t fired her revolver since the crossing on the Mauretania; she remembered with a shudder that the last time she did this she was in the company of Lieutenant Richard Walters who at that time showed her every attention. Then it was time for a late lunch and the drive to the station at Hyde Park village. An hour and a half later, the local train pulled into the busy splendour of Grand Central Station.
Mrs Roosevelt had insisted that this moment would be the most dangerous in the journey and that the friends mustn’t make it easier for their enemies by arriving together. The cover was simple but effective. The boys would get off the train at the station in Haarlem; only the girls would continue on to Grand Central Station. It would mean a taxi ride for both little groups but agents of Professor Moriaty who were alerted to watch for four young people travelling together wouldn’t notice two young women among the stream of passengers. It all appeared to work well – although Nancy and Katie were much relieved when the boys arrived twenty minutes after they did. It was all too like their arrival eight days ago to be comfortable. And to round out their spirits, Mr Holmes presented himself and asked them all to a private dining room at the hotel to consider the next day. Matilda, the gently spoken chamber maid, took on the role of waitress and in her presence, the company could relax. He read the letter from Fraulein Knackwurst turning it over carefully in his hands, looking for some malevolent hidden meaning. He snorted dismissively but to everyone’s surprise, he didn’t veto the proposed rendezvous – at least not immediately.
He looked straight at Billy and said patiently, “Mr Edwards, what experience have you had with any of the characters in this awful drama that leads you to imagine that this is anything other than a cruel trick? At the very least, you will wait under your straw boater near the Munich Pretzel stand while unseen observers mock your heartache. At the worst, you may be lured into a captivity that will end as it has for Richard Walters, Helmut Diener – and your own Juan Diaz. Are you prepared to take the risk knowing that that may be the outcome?”
Billy didn’t answer the question but his response was cool and measured. “Sir: we haven’t yet tested the clue from Juan – the reference is to the locker system at the station. Nor have I been to Attende Ici in Washington to see what awaits me there. Quite frankly, I think we need to be a little more assertive. Professor Moriaty has had all the running since we arrived in New York – but we are the ones who have actually done the running. The stay at Hyde Park was an unexpected treat but we all know that sooner or later we have to confront the worst that Professor Moriaty can throw at us.”
“That’s exactly what I think too,” said Mr Holmes, an excited smile animating his face. “I haven’t been idle while you’ve been at Hyde Park either. I’ve made my own reconnoiter of the station and I can assure you that four lockers with the numbers inscribed on the back of the jigsaw puzzle are presently in long term use. They were originally reserved for a month but the monthly rental has, in fact, been paid regularly to retain them in use.”
This announcement brought gasps from the company – as Mr Holmes’s theatrical delivery intended. “Have you opened the lockers?” Billy demanded. He was intensely curious but also a little annoyed at his governor’s actions. He was intimately engaged with this mystery; if anyone were to open them, it should be him.
“And who paid the monthly rent on the lockers?” demanded Tommy.
Mrs Roosevelt had said nothing until this point but her half smile gave her away. Katie was seated opposite Mrs Roosevelt at dinner; in fact, Mt Holmes was out of her direct line of sight. Katie had been watching her carefully since the conversation began and guessed that she knew more than she was saying. She was sure that Mrs Roosevelt was catching Matilda’s eye from time to time.
“Well, Mr Weller, you must know that Professor Moriaty isn’t the only person capable of putting good people on the ground. Mrs Roosevelt just happens to have an outstanding agent at Grand Central Station; perhaps you will meet them before too long. From their unrivaled vantage point, this agent sees something of what has happened with Juan Diaz and understands just a little, perhaps. But they know that there is something in the lockers that has brought the death of a young man; it’s enough for them to want to preserve the lockers as they are until they can be opened by the right person.”
“Do you have a plan, Mr Holmes?” asked Nancy. “I’ll go with Billy; a couple together might draw less attention than one gentleman on his own.”
“You can be certain that we will be under the scrutiny of the master criminal from the moment you step outside these walls. But yes, I have a plan – and it involves all of you. Now listen carefully: your lives depend on your getting it right.”
Mr Holmes remained cautious about the promise offered by Fraulein Heide Knackwurst’s letter; that was still an untested [and possibly lethal] path to follow. Perhaps – probably – nothing would come of it. But there was still the promise of the lockers numbered clearly on the back of the jigsaw puzzle. Everyone itched to see what the lockers might yield to them. The great difficulty, of course, was opening the lockers without the keys. The locker area was in a separate area of the concourse, out of the way of the main traffic. It might be possible for a bright boy to pick a lock – one lock – before the security guard patrolling the concourse returned to the locker area in his regular beat. It might be possible for a plausible young woman to persuade the locker desk that she had misplaced a key and charm someone into opening a locker – one locker. But there were four lockers to negotiate and all of this would have to be done in front of the multitude of people using the station at any one time. It wouldn’t do. There had to be another way of opening the lockers and scrutinising their contents – and then carrying away whatever was there. And when pressed, Mr Holmes reluctantly admitted that his plan didn’t comprehend emptying the lockers.
This was a problem but Mr Holmes was upbeat. On the reliable proposition that nothing was a problem if it could be solved with money he suggested an extended reconnoiter of the area before the meeting with Fraulein Knackwurst. They would locate the lockers, verify that they were still in use, see the lie of the land and show themselves openly to Professor Moriaty. Billy would keep the rendezvous at the Munich Pretzel bar. Mr Holmes predicted that the German girl would not appear as promised, in which case they would leave. It might be worth planning a similar expedition to some other public place such as the New York City Library or the Post Office – somewhere comparable to the station so that their interest in that place might be less suggestive. Later, someone [one of Mrs Roosevelt’s good people on the ground, perhaps] would quietly approach the person attending the locker room desk, offer a large sum of cash and see about picking up a master key that could open the lockers at some quieter, later date. Billy was impatient and he could think of a hundred objections or limitations to what was being offered here but at least they would be out and doing.
It took some little time to allocate roles to everyone. Mr Holmes rather liked Nancy’s suggestion that she accompany Billy; she was a fresh face [Katie must be well known to Professor Moriaty after her capture and escape] and very keen to see action after her own escape down the fire escape at the Algonquin. Tommy would be supplied with a cleaner’s cart and broom and work within sight of the Pretzel stand. Billy advised that there was a newsstand and bookshop on the concourse nearby where Katie could stand and browse; Mr Holmes would position himself in a coffee shop a little way distant. They would leave the Algonquin in the laundry van and arrive at the station individually. The fall back place in case of trouble was the Todhunter School; Mrs Roosevelt would wait there for them.
There were three hours before they could set out for their rendezvous and each of the friends had something important to do. Billy, of course, had to find a straw boater hat. He slipped out of the hotel with Tommy to head for a department store on Madison Avenue. Mr Holmes had to put together one thousand dollars for Billy to give to Fraulein Knackwurst; if by some chance this were a genuine offer, he wanted the transaction to proceed without delay. The cash at hand would show that they were serious. Mr Holmes also took great care to check the weapons allocated to each of his agents and to supply the friends with ammunition for their pistols. The boys were used to carrying their weapons in a holster under their shoulder; Katie’s pistol went into a capacious handbag that she had long ago bought for school use. Nancy slipped her pistol into the inner pocket of her brown tweed coat. All the pistols were ready loaded; Mr Holmes wanted no repeat of the abduction that had snatched Katie and almost trapped Nancy. A shoot-out on the concourse of Grand Central Station was not the outcome he hoped for but it was clear that they were dealing with desperate people and they needed to be prepared.
With an hour to go, Katie did the most practical things she could. She said her prayers then carefully packed up all her things in an orderly way in case she were not coming back to the snug hotel room she had shared with Nancy. Her grim foresight was almost fatalistic: she had seen soldiers in Belgium do the same thing when they feared that their lives were in danger.1 Then she sat down and wrote two letters. To Mr Mycroft Holmes she wrote a brief note asking him to care for Emily if she didn’t return. Then she found a cup of coffee and wrote a much longer letter to her sister, telling her little of what had happened [She could not be certain, of course, that the letter wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands] but affirming how happy she was that she could play her small part in the cruel war that had destroyed the happiness of so many people. She referred Emily to Mrs Roosevelt at the Todhunter School on 49th Street for a full account of her time in the United States; the time would come, Katie wrote, when the girls could give a complete account of their war time work to their parents in Hong Kong. The two letters were addressed and left on the desk in her room at the Algonquin.
At 4 pm it was time to move and the friends hugged one another before going their own ways, travelling separately or in pairs but all of them headed for the same point on the concourse of Grand Central Station. Mr Holmes set out in a taxi, affecting a calm optimism that he hoped would be inspiring. Billy and Nancy travelled by subway; theirs was the quickest journey and gave them ample time to scrutinize the rendezvous point before 5 pm. Katie went to the station by omnibus; to calm herself, she carried the most recent edition of the Strand Magazine with Dr Watson’s story of Mr Holmes’s latest adventure, The Case of the Cunning Countess and tried very hard to read the text as the omnibus crawled through the heavy Manhattan traffic. Tommy had the most interesting journey, walking across the city. The autumn evening was clear and bright – almost a summer’s day. All of the friends believed that their work in the city was drawing to a climax.
When the omnibus pulled up in 42nd Street, Katie recognised the unmistakable, imposing façade of the station from the jigsaw puzzle and the postcard. There was the same clock, the same billboards [with different headlines, of course], and there were what looked like the same harassed, tired people hurrying along the sidewalk and climbing into buses on the busy street. Katie swept through the ornate brass doors into the concourse and was struck by the enormity of what faced the little group of friends. The great hall of the station was a gigantic stage on which to play out this drama; the scale of the place seemed to dwarf everything. The hall was lofty and elegant with imposing granite columns and a vast expanse of coloured marble paving. The classical façade of the building was repeated in the details within: the painted ceiling with its mythological scenes looked as if it had been designed for some fabulous European palace. The ticket booths featured columns of warm wood with polished brass features and the clock rising above the confusion below was dignified with four opalescent faces. This, thought Katie, was a public building fit for one of the great cities of the world.
She checked the great clock and realised that she had ten minutes to wait. There was an enormous commercial area on the concourse to negotiate: the station featured cafes and restaurants, vendors selling quick snacks for busy passengers from carts and booths, a pharmacy, a laundry, a beauty salon and a hotel. And there close to the imposing entrance to the station platforms was the Munich Pretzel Stand, hung with a giant pretzel and an alpine scene from far away Bavaria. The newsstand nearby was her post and she sauntered there in a distracted way as if she were a passenger who had just missed her train and was obliged to wait another half an hour for the next service. To her considerable comfort, she noticed that the stand had a little rack of souvenirs of the great city including postcards of New York landmarks - and boxed jigsaw puzzles, one of which showed the scene that had brought them to the heart of the mystery. Katie casually took down some of the postcards and found the one that she was looking for. As she looked up, she caught a glimpse of Tommy wheeling his cart with brooms and a bucket and mop along the concourse not far from her. And there, sharing a pretzel like two lovers out on the town were Billy under his straw boater hat and Nancy happily smiling and looking fondly at what the world might think was her beau. Try as she might, Katie couldn’t see Mr Holmes anywhere. It was two minutes to 5 pm.
Katie also registered other people: a little knot of roughly dressed labourers were standing at a bar drinking beer and enjoying the end of their working day. A respectably dressed woman was wheeling a large black baby carriage: she looked like a London nursemaid taking her tiny charge out for an airing. Three sailors who were obviously out on the town and looking for fun stood about looking at the girls as they passed through the station. One particularly cheeky sailor doffed his hat and called a greeting to every pretty girl. Well-dressed ladies carrying bags with labels from the most exclusive shops on Park Avenue were headed for the coffee shops on the concourse for some rest and refreshment after the ardures of shopping. There were businessmen heading home from the office; a New York police officer walked about, casually swinging his truncheon, taking in the scene and looking for signs of trouble. And everywhere, people were on the move.
Against one of the marble walls was a shoeshine stand; like everything else in the concourse it was larger than life and imposing in its grandeur. A colourful sign invited travelers to: Face the World With a Shine! There were two large padded leather chairs on a kind of stage. The chairs were more like thrones, Katie thought – set into a mahogany stand with a multitude of shelves and cupboards on both sides and two steps up to the dais. Gentleman looking for a shine ascended the dais in state and relaxed on the giant chairs. Two coloured boys who couldn’t have been more than teenagers worked hard on their knees, cleaning the shoes of gentlemen who mostly lounged and read the evening papers while the boys worked briskly. As one of the boys finished his job with a flourish and a bow, a satisfied gentleman under a trilby hat rose from the throne, inspected his shoes and found fifty cents as payment. It was an incredibly generous action - the sign on the shoeshine stand advertised a dazzling shine for five cents – and the boy gave a winning smile and raised his hat in thanks. As the gentleman walked away, the coloured boy looked directly at Katie and shook his head in silent warning. Katie instinctively nodded a cautious greeting back but reached into her handbag just to check that the pistol was still in place.
Five o’clock came and went. Katie became conscious of how conspicuous and obvious her time wasting behaviour must now be. Surely people passing by would notice that she was loitering; it was hard to look busily engaged with the magazines and newspapers on the stand when all the while her eye was drawn to the pretzel vendor. Her eye caught the latest edition of Screen Sirens with a luscious looking Dixie Daniels on the cover under the headline: I Met the Man of My Dreams in Texas. After what seemed like an eternity, she noticed an anxious looking young woman come timidly to the pretzel stand. She was carrying a leather bag and her blonde hair was tied back in a scarf. All the same, Katie assumed from the obvious attributes under the dark trench coat that this must be Fraulein Heidi Knackwurst. Katie registered that Tommy was also alert; he had stopped with his mop in mid sweep as he worked at some imaginary stain on the marble floor. Fraulein Heidi ignored Billy for a little while and then turned directly to him. Her back shielded Billy and Nancy from her sight although it appeared as if Fraulein Knackwurst was opening the bag on her shoulder. Just as Katie thought she should move to keep her friends in clear sight, there was an almighty disturbance not far from her and everyone on the concourse stopped and looked at them.
The woman pushing the black baby carriage was screaming wildly and calling on everyone to aid her. “Help me! Help me!” she cried. “He’s snatched my baby! My little boy! Help me!” Indeed the baby carriage was overturned and the bedclothes were tumbled on to the marble floor. Without thinking, Katie dropped the postcards in her hand back on to the rack of the newsstand and looked anxiously towards the woman. Where was the person with the baby? He must be still at hand. Other people around her had the same reaction. The uproar was contagious; people seemed to come running from every direction.
Then suddenly the uproar on the concourse took on a wholly different and sinister character. Katie looked with alarm as the three sailors barreled towards Tommy and swept him off his feet. Picking him up lightly, they swept towards the glass doors leading to the trains. The police officer who had been patrolling the concourse was suddenly with Fraulein Knackwurst: together they were manhandling an inert Billy and Nancy on to a luggage trolley. The policeman took off, his gun drawn, pushing the trolley towards the glass doors and warning everyone out of the way. With terror rising in her heart, Katie reached into her handbag to find her pistol – even now perhaps she could turn things around and rescue her friends. Instead, she felt strong hands seizing her from behind and a stream of filthy language in her ear. She recognised again the sickening smell of chloroform and a heavy hand swamped her face with a damp cloth. Katie dropped her bag and used all that was left of her strength to kick back against the body overwhelming her. She caught sight of a glimpse of blonde hair and a dark trench coat before the cloth fell away and the woman slumped against her. Katie turned to see the frightened eyes of the shoeshine boy who had abandoned his post. In his hands was her own handbag; Fraulein Knackwurst had effectively been knocked down with Katie’s pistol swung with great force.
There was no time to reflect on any of this. Policemen now were running in every direction and the teenaged boy dragged Katie back. Katie caught a glimpse of Mr Holmes struggling with the knot of labourers who had abandoned their beer to try to wrestle him to the ground. He struck back angrily with his umbrella and left sore heads in his wake as he rushed towards the trains. Sherlock Holmes hurtled past Katie with his pistol drawn; he grabbed her other hand and drew both Katie and her young rescuer with him to the glass doors. Just as they reached the platform, the train in front of them pulled out. The guard’s van was open and Katie recognised with horror the bodies of Tommy, Billy and Nancy slumped on the floor at the feet of the railway guard. Standing above them were the police officer and the sailors, looking exultant and excited. And with them was the man dressed as the train guard. His hooded eyes flashed with joy; he stroked his goatee beard and waved a triumphant greeting to Mr Holmes as the train pulled out and gathered speed.
Chapter 8: On the Waterfront
The next few minutes were as confusing as the assault on the concourse of the Grand Central Railway Station had been. The gang of labourers, seeing that their part of the plan had failed, took off, pelting for the great doors on to busy 42nd Street. With many more exciting things to look at, the crowd didn’t notice that the respectably dressed woman whose baby had been snatched had quietly abandoned the overturned carriage and headed for the doors leading to the trains. Real police officers [including some of Inspector Jerome’s detectives] were suddenly very busy but even people who had been standing close by and had seen what had happened were left confused and puzzled. It had all happened so fast. Mr Holmes himself disappeared into the platform area to find where the train with his arch enemy was headed. For a moment, Katie was left alone with the coloured boy beside. Katie noticed with a shudder the wad of fabric soaked with chloroform still in her hand. Katie looked about her, caught the kind eyes of the coloured boy and tried to stammer her thanks to him for rescuing her.
“No time for that, lady – at least not for a while. Come with me, quick!” said the boy, leading her by the elbow past his stand where his companion was waiting anxiously. They kept walking to a door set into the marble panel that was labeled Staff Only: the boy pushed her inside. The room was small and shabby compared with the opulence outside the door and lit by a single bulb that cast a gloomy light. There was a cot bed set up on one side, a peg on the wall with clothes hanging from it, a cupboard of cleaning products and a rough table with two chairs. The boy quickly locked the door with the key. The locked door was unsettling and for one awful moment, Katie wasn’t sure that the boy hadn’t been part of Professor Moriaty’s evil scheme. She tentatively felt for the pistol in her handbag. The boy’s smile, however, was dazzling and his next word’s dispelled all her fear.
“You’re here with Billy, aren’t you? Relax, Miss: I think you might also know my Aunt Mattie who works at the Algonquin – and at Hyde Park?” Of course: Mrs Roosevelt had hinted more than once that she had a special agent on the ground at Grand Central Station. Katie might have slumped in relief at this moment if she hadn’t just seen Billy, Tommy and Nancy lying on the floor of the guard’s van.
“I’m Patrick,” said the boy cheerfully. “I know it looks bad right now, Ma’am, but remember that your friends are brave and good. I know a little of Billy – and the friend he lost, Juan. They are good men. The others will be just as good, I’m sure. Don’t despair; it’ll be okay.”
It was these words that won Katie over. She looked again at the boy who had just saved her life. He was very young – probably only eighteen or nineteen, she guessed - with light chocolate coloured skin, a buzzed haircut and a slim, spare body. He was wearing denim jeans, rough shoes and a white calico shirt with brown wool jacket and a cloth cap. His handsome young face was open and yet his eyes showed a knowledge of the world that most adults would never achieve. She had seen those eyes before: in the pinched faces of her students at school in the Durwood Street School in the East End. Those eyes had known pain and hunger and poverty - as well as resilience and hope. Patrick’s face was open and honest. From his position on the concourse of the great railway station he had seen the best and the worst that the city could bring. The boy’s words of muted hope were just what Katie needed to hear; she felt reassured that despite the terror and uncertainty of the moment, she could be strong for her friends who needed her now.
Suddenly the door was rattled and there was a sharp, distinctive knock. “That will be my cousin, Jerry,” said Patrick cheerfully as he turned the key and opened the door. The second coloured boy appeared and with him a white-faced Mr Holmes.
“New Jersey,” he said simply. The great detective looked completely overwhelmed. “Jerome has four of them under arrest; unfortunately our Miss Heidi Knackwurst has escaped. I’ve had Jerome on that one; this particular lady is well known as a German agent in the city. Her real name is Grafin Mausi von Schnitzel of the German Secret Service. She is better known as the Hamburg Heart Throb: she’s pulled tricks like this with her significant attributes on four continent. No, our only real lead is the train itself. The train now carrying three of Mycroft’s best agents is headed for Hoboken in New Jersey. But how we’re going to find them there I don’t know.”
Katie was struck by Mr Holmes’s sudden loss of confidence but struggled to stay focused; she had survived and Mr Holmes had survived a very determined effort to take them all – and in a public place. The audacity of it was overwhelming. She recovered herself quickly, however, and extended her hand to shake that of the second boy. “I’m greatly indebted to you two young men,” she said. “I’m Katie Bland; this is Mr Sherlock Holmes. Goodness knows what is happening right now out on the concourse; there might be others waiting to take us too. After what we saw happen to Billy and Nancy, we can’t even trust a man in a policeman’s uniform.”
“Boys like me learn that mighty fast,” said Patrick with a bitter grin. “It’s better to trust your brothers and your friends. They’ll be depending on you now,” he continued.
“Well, you can count on us too,” said Jerry jauntily. “Honestly, I’ve only been the silent partner in the business – Patrick here is the official person in Mrs Roosevelt’s employ. I can’t leave the shoeshine stand unattended but he can see you out.” Katie impulsively hugged the boy. He was a slightly older version of Patrick with the same engaging eyes and open face.
“Is there another way out of here that won’t take us back into the confusion outside?” asked Mr Holmes urgently.
“Come with me,” Patrick said, headed for the door. He opened it tentatively and stepped outside but was soon back, leading them to another door set in the wall that opened into the service area of the railway station.
Of course this side of Grand Central Station was nowhere near as elegant as the front of house. Instead of marble and brass there was concrete and exposed timber and the route Patrick took them on skirted the perimeter of the main concourse. There were storage areas, cleaning facilities, rubbish bins, giant hoses and wooden crates stacked high against the concrete wall. In the midst of all this there was a coffee shop set up where people working at the station could pause and relax. Mr Holmes hurried them forward, even though the sight of a black boy dashing ahead of a thin, determined man and a worried looking young woman caused most of the people working behind the scenes to look up in astonishment. Finally, heavy doors swung open to deposit the three fugitives on a landing bay above a narrow alley. The heavy sound of New York traffic came to them from both ends of the alley. Mr Holmes led them to the right past more rubbish bins and storage sheds to the wide city street beyond. Within minutes, the three survivors of the attack were in 42nd St and climbing into a taxi. The elegant façade of Grand Central Station that had looked so imposing only an hour ago now looked sinister and severe. The journey to the Todhunter School on 49th St was conducted in grim silence, relieved only for a moment when Katie realised that Patrick, beside her in the taxi, was grinning broadly. The smile was fixed to his handsome face, she realised, because he had never seen the inside of a taxi before.
The events on the concourse of the station had been brief but intense: the attack, their escape and the taxi journey took little more than an hour and the last of the evening light was disappearing as they climbed up the stoop outside the elegant school building. Their urgent ringing of the doorbell was quickly answered by an anxious Mrs Roosevelt; in their plan, the Todhunter School had been their fallback position. The fact that half the group was absent – and the group included young Patrick – could only mean bad news. The friends slipped quickly inside and followed Mrs Roosevelt to her little office. As Katie entered the crowded room, her heart stopped. A familiar, middle aged man with an intelligent, kind face stood to greet them. “Watson!” said Sherlock Holmes, heartily seizing the hand of his friend, “Thank goodness you’re here!”
Katie took this in in a glance but her whole heart and energy were elsewhere. For there, waiting for her with outstretched arms was her sister, Emily.
Sherlock Holmes had known for over a week that Emily and Dr Watson were on their way to New York. At first Mr Holmes didn’t tell Katie because in the excitement of moving them to Hyde Park he had simply forgotten. He had sent Mycroft Holmes the good news of Katie’s escape from the Norddeutscher Lloyd offices but there had been no communication between the two brothers since that time other than the simple reassurance from Sherlock that “inquiries were progressing”. In the planning for the rendezvous at the pretzel stand, Sherlock Holmes had not figured that this would be the same day that the Aurania would berth in New York.
The passage from Southampton had certainly been hard work both for Emily and Dr Watson. Most of the passengers on board ship were civilians moving between Britain and the United States but the 200 wounded Canadian soldiers and officers required a high level of care. They had all been wounded in the fighting in France and although most of them had had periods of convalescence in Scotland and the west of England, there was still much for the doctors to do. Dr Watson – himself an old soldier – knew that the emotional and spiritual wounds of these young men were every bit as painful as the physical injuries they had suffered. Emily and Dr Watson took over the card room on the promenade deck and turned it into a clinic of sorts; this was where they worked every morning on wound and pain management. They were assisted by a small team of Canadian nursing sisters with whom Emily quickly built a strong respect. Their real work, however, was in the afternoon clinic – often conducted in long walks around the decks or over cups of tea or in the writing room – where Emily simply listened to the stories these young men told them. Emily encouraged the young nurses to do the same – and then found herself having to support and encourage these young women whose hearts had been touched by the suffering of the Canadian boys.
The young men would always begin with stories of home – of the farms they came from in Alberta and Saskatchewan or the fishing villages in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia. Then, when their trust in Emily had been quietly established, they could talk about the things that were heavy on their hearts: the disabling trauma they felt in battle and the grief at lost friends who were killed beside them. Some of them, hesitantly and with long periods of silence, spoke to Emily about the wives or sweethearts they had left behind – and whether they could ever be real husbands or lovers again. Despite her anxiety to be reunited with Katie, there were times when Emily wished that the voyage could be longer believing that the listening and encouraging could be truly transforming and therapeutic if it had time to grow.
Emily knew from the second day of the voyage out that Katie was safe; Mr Mycroft Holmes had sent a radio message to the captain of the Aurania. It took the form of a simple nine word message that lifted Emily’s heart immediately: Please tell Dr Bland that her sister is safe. Emily was immediately relieved but not particularly surprised. When people first met Katie they noticed immediately her gentle kindness; Katie’s steel determination and courage were less obvious but no less real. Katie had already escaped once from Professor Moriaty; it wasn’t wonderful that she could do this again. There were no details on what had happened and no follow-up from Katie: for all those things, she would have to wait until New York. But the welcome news did make Emily’s job of working with the wounded soldiers so much easier: it would have been very difficult to be positive and cheerful as she listened to their stories if her own heart were breaking.
The Aurania sailed into New York harbour at noon on that Tuesday after an eight day crossing. The port was very busy and their allocated berth was not on the Brooklyn waterfront but forty miles away in Hoboken, New Jersey. Among the first people on board that morning was a team of Canadian army doctors; they had come to relieve Emily and Dr Watson and they stayed with them through the morning clinic. There were hearty thanks and much good natured chaff as the handover was made. Several of the Canadian soldiers struggled to hide their tears as their kind young doctor made her farewells. With a relieved heart, Emily and John Watson were free to go out on deck to see what they could of the great city.
The passenger terminal at Hoboken was squeezed into an area of the docks that normally serviced cargo vessels. The only other passenger vessel, Emily noticed, was a sleek black ship flying the German national flag. The white letters on the prow gave the ship’s name as Barbarossa. The funnel of the ship carried the Norddeutscher Lloyd logo. Emily shuddered: she had seen quite enough of the German flag waving insolently over occupied Brussels in Belgium. It was painful to see it here but the United States, of course, was a neutral country. Emily wondered for a moment where the Barbarossa could be sailing to; the Royal Navy had closed European ports to German shipping.
By four o’clock, the two friends had left the Aurania and were headed into Manhattan. They knew that the friends had been at the Algonquin and when they reached the hotel, Mrs Westin greeted them warmly and directed them upstairs: Dr Watson to the suite occupied by Sherlock Holmes and Emily to the room Katie shared with Nancy.
Emily was deeply comforted to see Katie’s familiar things in the bathroom and in the wardrobe but surprised to find a letter addressed to her on the dressing table. The letter, once it was opened, turned the surprise into outright fear. Katie obviously didn’t expect to see her sister very soon; in fact, the letter was clearly written as a way of saying goodbye in case the rendezvous proved to be a trick with deadly outcomes. She was on her feet in a moment and knocking on Dr Watson’s door. His reaction confirmed Emily’s fears. They were down the stairs and headed for the Todhunter School as soon as they could raise a taxi.
Emily and Dr Watson had been with Mrs Roosevelt only long enough for her to give them the bare bones of what had happened in the last eight days. There were hundreds of questions both Emily and Dr Watson wanted to ask but all inquiries were suspended by the anxious ringing at the front door of the school. In a moment, there was Sherlock, Katie and Patrick. Their faces told enough of the story to convince everyone that the master criminal had struck hard - and in a deadly way.
“Don’t despair, Mr Holmes,” said Mrs Roosevelt. “We are not defeated yet. You have your inestimable companion, Dr Watson, now at hand – and we have Emily too. I’ve only just met this young woman but I already have strong cause to believe that she will bring a great deal to this investigation.”
And in her own quiet way, Emily had drawn the same conclusions about Mrs Roosevelt. Here was an independent and astute woman with shrewd grey eyes and an obvious heart for others. Emily had noticed immediately the respect Mrs Roosevelt extended to Patrick, greeting him warmly and drawing his chair into the circle that quickly gathered around her desk. Her confidence seemed to infect others and Emily was pleased to notice the jaunty bounce returning to Sherlock’s tone.
“This much we know, Watson: we have to be quick before Moriaty can have his triumph in any indelible way.” Sherlock Homes stood; sitting at the desk seemed to inhibit his thinking and he stretched his long legs and began to circle the room. “He obviously doesn’t want us dead. God knows that with all the muscle he and the Germans could pull together today in a public place that all of us could be dead many times over.”
“Heidi Knackwurst tried to chloroform me,” said Katie. “She could have shot me at close range.”
“The same is true of Tommy and Billy and Nancy,” said Emily. “That means that Professor Moriaty still hasn’t recovered whatever Juan moved in the suitcases. He’s hoping that one of us – or all of us together – can be persuaded to cooperate and share what we know.”
“Oh, the persuasion part is very much part of his plan”, said Mr Holmes with a grim chuckle. “Tommy Weller is as good and as brave an agent as any I’ve seen. There’s no way he would give up his secrets, no matter what the Professor might do to him. But I wonder how long he could hold his tongue if the person being flogged and brutalized in front of him were Nancy? And how long could Billy keep his secrets if he were forced to watch the Professor’s creatures abuse his friends.”
“And I think, Mr Holmes,” said Mrs Roosevelt coldly, “ that Professor Moriaty has never abandoned the hope that he could somehow turn one of these young people to serve him – as he persuaded Lieutenant Richard Walters to abandon his King and country. Information on the suitcases is important certainly but imagine the long term damage that Billy might do if he were returned to the British Embassy as Moriaty’s creature.”
“Then I’m afraid for all of them,” said Katie, “in a way I wasn’t afraid a moment ago.” Her voice was broken and close to tears.
“I warned you, Katie, that you and your friends had no idea of the wickedness you were confronting. Well in this case, that wickedness may just help us along. Before he turns to torture and pain, Professor Moriaty will try his own silky ways to secure the obedience of those he has captured. He will want to try them on individuals and on the whole group. He’ll then move to threats and the offer of money before he raises a fist. Somewhere in New Jersey, he may be even now beginning the process of seducing Nancy, Billy and Tommy to his side. It won’t work - not if I know these young people – and he won’t be able to try until the stupefying drugs that allowed him to snatch the three young people have worn off. That gives us a little time at least.”
Patrick broke into the conversation now, his voice cautious. “I’ve been watching for these ones on the station concourse for some days now as you told me to, Mrs Roosevelt Ma’am. Mr Holmes is right. You are dealing with very dangerous folks. I’ve seen that woman that Miss Katie knocked down often enough, and sometimes there were men with her dressed as New York City police officers. They walked every inch of the station. Those sailors who barreled Billy and Miss Nancy were always hanging about too – although the sailor suits was a new touch. You’all walked right into a trap.”
“Perhaps we need to go back to the offices of Norddeutscher Lloyd,” said Katie. “Yes, the train with Moriaty and his crew was headed for Hoboken but the Germans could have got off at the next stop in Queens and transferred to a van. We only know that the terminus of that train was New Jersey.”
“Norddeutscher Lloyd?” asked Emily. “There was a Norddeutscher Lloyd passenger ship docked beside us this morning in Hoboken. It was the Barbarossa, I think. I didn’t think that German ships could operate to the Continent now that the Royal Navy had blockaded German ports.”
“Upon my word, Holmes,” said Dr Watson. “Emily is right – on both counts. It was there as bold as brass, flying the German flag beside our Union Jack.”
Holmes seemed to find the simple information intoxicating. “Madam,” he turned to Mrs Roosevelt, “do you have this morning’s edition of The New York Times?”
Mrs Roosevelt left and returned a minute later, the folded paper in her hand. Holmes scrambled through the classified section until he found the Port of New York Daily Notices. He gasped and put the paper down in triumph: “The Barbarossa leaves Hoboken tomorrow evening at 6 pm for Havana, Cuba, en route to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It’s my belief that this whole snatch and grab activity has been geared around that singular event. Moriaty will hold his captives until he is out at sea, well out of the reach of anyone who would stay his cruel hand. If he succeeds in coercing the cooperation of one of his captives, he can easily slip back to New York from Havana. And if he fails to persuade any one of them to give up their secrets, it will be easy to dispose of a body over the side of the ship into the Caribbean. Mark my words: our friends are even now in some grim, secure prison in the bowels of the Barbarossa. Watson, do you have your pistol on you?”
“I do, Holmes, although I haven’t fired in anger for many years,” said Dr Watson.
“You’ll be needing it before tomorrow night is out,” said Mr Holmes. “On the Barbarossa: that’s where they’ll be -and the clock is ticking. We have until 6 pm tomorrow to find Mr Edwards, Mr Weller and Miss Meadows: their lives depend on us!
Everyone seemed energised by this information and wanted to be up and doing but Mrs Roosevelt remained placid and cautious. “Before you go off to Hoboken, please stop for a moment, Mr Holmes, and think. You have a dangerous master criminal with great resources at his disposal on a ship guarded by German agents. How can you possibly force your way in to rescue the young people? You already know that he has suborned members of the New York City police force; he may even have some of Inspector Jerome’s detectives in his pay. We have to have more of a plan of action than simply appearing at the gangway of the Barbarossa and demanding the return of our friends. And even if we were to get on board, how are you going to find three people on a great ocean liner? There are innumerable places where they could be hidden – alive or dead.”
The mood of the company fell with the cold realisation that Mrs Roosevelt was probably right. Mr Holmes slumped back in his chair looking deflated but Mrs Roosevelt wasn’t finished. “Of course you know Professor Moriaty better than I do, Mr Holmes, but I rather suspect that as he works on the young people in his grasp he might enjoy himself immensely. Why would he loiter about in some steel vault below the waterline when he could be set up in the most elegant stateroom on the Barbarossa? That rather chimes with the kind of person I imagine the Professor to be.”
“Madam, you’re right!” said Dr Watson. “If only we had someone there on board, to spring a rescue. We might catch the villains by surprise!”
“I’ve been thinking much the same thing,” said Mrs Roosevelt. “It’s a desperate idea but it just might work. Much will depend on courage and surprise –but your young people, Mr Holmes, seem to have these in abundance.”
She paused and looked across the table to the girls. “They’ve made two attempts to capture you, Katie, so they will recognise you immediately. That eliminates the hope of surprise – although you do come with plenty of pluck. It seems to me that Dr Emily is the only one of us not known to Professor Moriaty and his crew at this moment. Even young Patrick, I’m afraid, is probably going to be recognised. And this is one of those situations when I think I can reasonably call on all the help I can find. Once I’m finished explaining my idea, I’ll have to place a telephone call to my husband, Franklin. He may be of great help before tomorrow evening is over.”
Franklin Roosevelt was, as Billy had reminded them, the Secretary of the Navy in President Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet. Mrs Roosevelt’s work for Mr Holmes always had to be discreet so that Franklin wasn’t embarrassed by any kind of political incident. Perhaps taking on the German Secret Service was rather political, Katie thought, but Mrs Roosevelt was right: at this moment, they certainly needed all the friends they could muster. Mrs Roosevelt paused and looked very solemn as she struggled for a place to start. “So: here’s a suggestion on what we might do. …”
The girls hardly slept that night. Kate had so much to tell Emily and it didn’t seem right to be so comfortable in the Algonquin Hotel when their friends were being held by the criminals on board the Barbarossa and might be enduring terrible suffering at that very moment. They took Mrs Roosevelt’s plan apart, sometimes feeling that it might work but at other times feeling that nothing could succeed and turn the tide in their favour. When they did fall asleep, it was to broken dreams of the great black ship and the dangers it possessed. Just before dawn, however, Katie slipped into a dream in which she was back in Hong Kong as a child with her parents, walking in sunshine and smelling the beautiful garden at Monteith. It was a wonderful comfort to her troubled spirit.
The little party gathered again at the Algonquin for breakfast. Mr Holmes came in late but looking very pleased with himself. “You have a First Class Cabin on A Deck, Dr Emily: or should I call you now by your cover name: Contessa Maxima da Costa. The Norddeutscher Lloyd office was surprised to have such a late booking but the war has played havoc with the passenger trade and few of their ships are sailing at capacity. They were happy to have a first class booking all the way to Rio. You are officially the Portuguese widow of a distinguished Brazilian gentleman and you need to report to the passenger terminal at Hoboken at 2 pm. I’m sorry if you don’t like your new name, Emily, but it was the only passport I was able to get my hands on that you might be able to use. And Emily, apparently you’re the only passenger on the First Class deck so I can promise you impeccable service – although if all goes to plan, you and our three lost friends will be off the boat soon after sailing.”
Mrs Roosevelt furnished the party with a large sea chest; Katie went out shopping and bought her sister a black silk dress and net veil to wear; she would certainly look the part of the wealthy widow when she arrived at the gangplank of the Barbarossa. Mr Holmes made sure that Emily had not only her own revolver with her but those belonging to the other friends as well. At 1 pm, a taxi was whistled up and Emily made her farewells to Mrs Roosevelt and Katie, then descended the stairs into 44th Street with three porters from the Algonquin struggling with her sea chest and carpet bag. Mr Holmes, dressed as a humble porter, accompanied her in a second taxi to the passenger terminal in Hoboken.
Emily knew that the next few minutes were going to be the most dangerous part of the whole adventure. If her false passport were challenged, the rescue attempt would be over before it had even begun. To Emily’s great relief, she was waived through the embarkation procedures and Mr Holmes was even allowed to accompany her to the gangway at one end of the sea chest. At that point he was dismissed by the surly Chief Purser; he doffed his cap in greeting, winked in encouragement and was gone.
The Barbarossa was a beautiful ship: not as opulent, perhaps, as the Mauretania, but elegant and sleek and comfortable. Emily’s stateroom was on the top cabin deck with large windows looking out into the harbour; her name, beautifully crafted in German text, appeared on a card inserted in a brass frame on the door. The only floor above her was the navigation deck where the captain and the senior crew were stationed. Emily took in at a glance the cedar wardrobes along one wall, a large bed with silk counterpane, a desk with a reading lamp, a chaise-lounge and a small dining room table with fine china bearing the Norddeutscher Lloyd hallmark. Large windows gave a view on to the harbour and seemed to face a little balcony. Emily almost regretted that her stay in the stateroom would be so very brief. Three teenaged boys in the uniform of Norddeutscher Lloyd struggled with the luggage. Emily, her face muffled in black net, tipped all three of the porters and closed the door behind her. She lifted back the black veil: so far; so good.
Almost immediately there was a knock at the stateroom door and Emily slipped the veil back on; it was the Senior Purser – a distinguished gentleman in a white suit - who came to pay his respects to the Contessa and offer her tea. The offer was made in German and Emily nodded her response with all the dignity she could muster. Soon the gentleman returned with a large trolley and an assortment of good things to eat. He left the trolley, bowed and promised to send a boy to collect it in an hour.
Emily now bolted the door, lifted away her veil and went to the sea chest. The chest was padlocked and Emily took a moment to spring the lock. When the lid was lifted, there was the smiling, handsome face of young Patrick, looking more relaxed and confident than a teenaged boy who has been locked in a sea chest for an hour could be expected to be. He fitted snugly into the sea chest and was pleased to be able to stand and stretch his legs. Patrick brightened at the sight of the trolley and despite the danger and the urgency of the moment, Emily did the most English thing imaginable and poured a cup of tea for them both. Patrick quickly went to work eating up the contents of the tea trolley as the two conspirators quietly plotted their next move. Emily was keen to have Patrick well fed; much would depend on his agility and pluck if any rescue were to be successful.
Emily and Patrick decided that the most important thing at this stage was to determine that Professor Moriaty actually had their friends on board. That was not going to be easy and it was made all the more challenging because Patrick obviously couldn’t move about the ship. The best move then was to send Emily out to check the area on the First Class Deck as carefully as she could. She cautioned Patrick to be very quiet, wheeled the tea trolley into the bathroom on her stateroom and went out to explore. The black clothes and thick veil gave her a certain anonymity as she walked the length of the corridor.
It was almost empty: Mr Holmes had told her that she was the only passenger on the deck and that appeared to be the case. None of the other cabins had a name card fixed in the door. Emily decided to extend her reconnaissance to the public areas of the ship. A few second class passengers had taken up position in the Palm Court, enjoying their afternoon tea or drinking at the bar. Smartly dressed ships officers came and went but there was nothing untoward which might suggest that the ship was the site of a sinister kidnapping. Emily decided to return reluctantly to her cabin.
At the top of the elegant staircase, however, she noticed the service lift open and a tall man in the uniform of the Norddeutscher Lloyd Line emerge pushing a very large laundry hamper on wheels. He scanned the corridor carefully before pushing the heavy burden into the corridor and then to the door of the cabin two down from Emily’s. He nodded respectfully as he passed Emily, knocked sharply and the door opened immediately. It may have been nothing, of course: no doubt soiled laundry had to be moved about the boat somehow but the man’s furtive glances aroused Emily’s suspicion. And what would be the point of taking a large hamper of soiled laundry into an empty cabin?
Emily waited a few minutes then slipped back to the cabin where the hamper had disappeared. There was no name card in the brass bracket on the door and the Senior Purser had already confirmed that there were no other First Class passengers on the floor. Then Emily heard a dull thud coming from inside the cabin and a muffled moan. Her heart stopped; this may be where the friends were being held.
Just at that moment, she could hear confident footsteps coming up the staircase and Emily quickly walked down towards the stairway herself. She would walk about the public rooms a little more to deflect interest before returning to her own floor. It was only an hour before the ship was scheduled to sail away; in that tight schedule, Emily would have to locate the captives, free them and help them make their escape. As Emily walked through from the Palm Court to the library and smoking room, she passed another cheerful steward pushing a rack of neatly pressed Norddeutscher Lloyd uniforms. He tipped his pillbox hat in greeting but before he could say anything he was interrupted for a moment by an officer calling to him to assist with some heavy luggage. The young man shrugged, smiled at Emily and parked the trolley to one side of the corridor as he ran to help. This was Emily’s chance. She quickly snatched up a uniform and turned before anyone could see her. The walk back to her own cabin was fraught; how could she possibly explain the folded uniform in her arms if she were challenged? As it was, luck was with her and once the door was locked behind her, she could relax. At the sound of the key in the lock, Patrick had stood off to one side out of view of the door. As Emily entered clutching the uniform to her chest, Patrick smiled in relief.
“I’m sure glad you’re back, Doc Emily,” said Patrick anxiously. “I can hear noises coming from a cabin nearby. If you open the window, you can hear better. And Dr Emily, the little balcony runs down towards the cabin where the noises are coming from. I’d have slipped down myself to see but didn’t want to do that until you returned. ”
“Patrick, you’re brilliant. I think we’ve both managed to find where our friends are,” Emily said. “And look at this! This will allow both of us to move about the ship.” Emily held the smart white and burgundy uniform up to Patrick. There were trousers, a jacket and a pill box hat. To Emily’s joy, it was a perfect fit for the teenaged boy.
“I’m not sure, Miss Emily,” said Patrick cautiously. “Have you seen many other coloured boys on board ship? I think this might just make me look all the more out of place.”
Emily laughed: of course it was true. “Well, let’s just keep it handy, Patrick. More importantly right now, let’s take a look at the balcony.” Both of them could now hear the dull thuds coming from a room near to them. Then there was a muffled scream. Their work was urgent.
The balcony outside the window was little more than an embellishment or decoration. It didn’t continue in a continuous sweep past all the windows of the adjoining cabins; instead, each cabin had its own small balcony that was little more than a bracketed ledge. Climbing out of the windows on to the narrow ledge was much easier for Patrick than it would have been for Emily; the black dress and net veil may had got her on to the ship but they were quite impractical to get her on to the narrow balcony. Emily reluctantly surrendered this task to Patrick who shook his lithe body, stretched like a cat and slipped out the window in a moment. The harbour was below them – a long drop into cold grey water. It was an anxious moment for Emily as she watched Patrick stretch across to connect with the balcony on the next cabin but it was quickly accomplished and he grinned broadly to Emily who lifted a finger to her lips in a warning to remain silent. The next stretch would take him to the cabin where they suspected their friends were being held. The boy stretched again, moved like a shadow and slipped against the wall before he made any attempt to survey the scene in the cabin.
Emily was breathless as she waited. It seemed an age before Patrick made the return journey but his face told her immediately that he had found what they were looking for. “It sure looks bad, Doc Emily,” the boy said. “There’s only a slight gap in the curtains but enough for me to see Billy and Tommy tied into chairs with rope. They had gags in their mouths. Miss Nancy was also there but she was standing.”
“How many men are with them?” Katie asked.
“Two men that I can see, Doc Emily – and one woman. One man is older – tall and with a goatee beard. The second one is a thug: a tall brute with a shaven head and an ugly face. I’ve seen him on the concourse at the station before in the company of the older man. The woman is the same one who tried to use the chloroform on Miss Katie – the one Billy called Fraulein Heidi Knackwurst. I’ve seen her too in the company of the older man. She’s poison, Doc. I’m sure that she had something to do with the death of Juan, Billy’s friend. She will use that to torment him, I’m sure – just as she’ll use Miss Nancy to torment Tommy. We have to do something soon.” Just at this moment, the ship’s whistle sounded loudly: three piercing blasts. It was, Emily knew, the call for everyone not travelling on with the Barbarossa to leave the ship and go on shore. The great ship was preparing to depart.
Mrs Roosevelt’s plan had not been very explicit on how the escape for the friends was to be managed. Once Emily and Patrick were safely on board the vessel, it would be up to them to decide on their next move. They had their revolvers, certainly, although Patrick quickly confessed that he had never shot a gun of any kind before. It would be up to Emily to carry the field in any shoot-out. The firearms were obviously going to have to be their very last – and desperate - resort. Something else would have to present itself - and soon.
It was Patrick who had the flash of inspiration that made all the difference to the outcome of that fateful day. “There’s more of them and they’ll not hesitate to use their guns on us. Seems to me, Doc, that we’ve got to be smarter than them. If once we can untie Billy and Tommy and Miss Nancy, then we’ll have a chance. All that we have on our side is the Steward’s uniform and the tea trolley – but it just might be enough.”
The sketchiest of plans were made. Quite clearly they couldn’t burst into the room firing guns; it was more than likely that they would kill or injure one of their own in the melee that would follow. The thug was going to be the most difficult to bring down although Katie had been clear when telling her story at the Todhunter School that Heidi Knackwurst was as tough and as strong as any man. The simple plan was to strike with surprise, try to take out the thug first and then free some of their friends to even the fight. As they made this hasty plan, they were alarmed to feel the great ship moving away from the dock, blowing its mournful whistle and heading out to sea. Once there, their chances of escape were greatly reduced.
Five minutes later, both Emily and Patrick had been transformed. Emily had sent Patrick into the bathroom while she shed her black mourning dress and struggled to fit into the burgundy and white uniform of a Norddeutscher Lloyd steward. Her white blonde hair was piled up under the pillbox hat. Emily looked in the mirror: “It’s a tight fit – I wish I had pinched something just a little larger,” she said. “For the very first time in my life, I’m pleased I don’t have the attributes of a Heidi Knackwurst!” Patrick grinned; he was certainly enjoying this part of the adventure. Dr Emily was showing herself to be as courageous and as plucky as any of the others. The odds that they would survive the next half hour might have been ridiculously low but their hopes were buoyed by their pluck and their simple faith in one another. Emily was certain of this: “Nancy, Billy and Tommy will be ready – they’ll be expecting us. I’d certainly be expecting them if I were in this pickle. And the last thing that Professor Moriaty will expect is that we will try to thwart him even now on his own turf. Mr Holmes always insists that his evil heart is accompanied by a lack of moral imagination. And he’s right!”
“Agreed!” said Patrick. “I figure a poor coloured boy and a skinny English lady are just about a match for the three crooks waiting for us down the corridor!” Emily couldn’t suppress a grin and she hugged Patrick for a moment before the movement of the ship sent them into action. It was time to move.
The tea things were now unloaded from the tea trolley and the bottom shelf that normally held spare cups and saucers was slipped out; Patrick then shook hands with Emily and joined her in a silent prayer before taking the next irretrievable step. He slipped as much as he could into the bottom of the tea trolley. Emily then passed him her large handbag containing the three revolvers that she had brought on board. The teenaged boy was lithe and small for his age; all the same, there was no room to spare under the trolley once he was packed in and the handbag added to the space. A white linen cloth from the dining room table was found to be sufficient to cover the trolley. Finally, the silver coffee pot and cups and saucers were restored to the top of the trolley to complete the disguise. Emily set her shoulders, pushed the heavy trolley to the door, opened it awkwardly and navigated down the corridor to the cabin where their friends were being held. As if to hasten their quest, they heard the distinct sound of another groan, a thump and a scream as they positioned themselves outside the door. Emily paused for just a moment before thumping loudly on the door in the most masculine knock she could summon.
There was a strained pause and the sound of a scuffle inside the room before the door was opened just a fraction. It was all Emily needed; she had positioned herself a foot from the door and at the first sign of its opening had barreled forward with the trolley. “Here is the coffee you ordered, Mein Herr!” she called, knocking the door open and startling everyone inside. Heidi Knackwurst [or as she was in reality, Grafin von Schnitzel], had answered the door and was knocked aside. Emily quickly pushed the trolley right into the room. She targeted the two men: the older one was holding Nancy by the shoulders while a heavily muscled thug stood above Tommy, bound in a chair, with a folded belt in his hand. Livid lines and blood on Tommy’s face showed where he had been beaten. The wickedness of the thing struck Emily fiercely in a moment. Gentle persuasion, threats and bribery had clearly failed. Her blood boiled that Professor Moriaty obviously thought that the quickest way now to break the friends was to have Nancy forced to watch Tommy beaten. The thug paused, confused for a moment and he looked instinctively to the sinister face of Professor Moriaty for direction.
“On him, you fool!” the Professor cried. But at exactly this moment, Patrick sprang from under the trolley, scattering most of the tea things all over the room and coming out like a jack in the box. Just as Katie had swung the chair in the Norddeutscher Lloyd office to such effect, Patrick brought Emily’s handbag with the three pistols inside it in a wide arc and collected the thug full in the face. He dropped the belt and fell to his knees, howling in fury.
Three other things happened at this moment. Emily swept up the heavy silver coffee pot from the floor where it had fallen from the trolley and leapt at Fraulein Knackwurst. She caught her in the head and opening a cut behind her ear. Now there was blood, mixed with the coffee that came splashing all over the woman’s face. Patrick swung the handbag one last time and the Hamburg Heart Throb fell to her knees. Tommy was galvanized by what had happened and although his arms were bound into the chair, he managed to kick out and connect with the older man who had been holding Nancy in his grip. And Nancy herself struggled free and used all the strength she could muster to shove an elbow into the man’s belly. He too fell to the ground. A second swing with the heavy handbag connected with the thug’s head and he collapsed unconscious.
Patrick now threw the handbag to Emily and addressed the ropes tying Tommy and Billy. The struggle now was a more equal one, with Emily doing her best to hold off the bleeding Grafin and watching the older man struggling to recover from kicks and blows. The ropes around Tommy finally gave and Patrick could transfer his attentions to Billy who was quickly freed. The older man was clearly winded by the blow to his belly but Tommy was on him in a minute. Professor Moriaty was still strong enough to struggle to his feet and spring - not back into action against the friends but for the door – and escape and reinforcements.
“I never doubted that you’d come,” said Nancy, hugging Emily.
“We’re not safe yet, Lady,” said Patrick. “We have to move.”
Just as he said this, the ship’s alarm sounded and they could hear activity all around them. “Let’s sort these two,” said Patrick. He quickly dragged the body of the Hamburg Heart Throb into the bathroom; Tommy and Billy between them manhandled the body of the thug in beside her and locked the door. He ran to the door of the cabin – still ajar - and locked that as well. “We can hardly go back out into the corridor; we’ll have to go this way!” called Patrick. “Billy, can you bring some of the ropes with you? We might need them before we’re finished.”
Patrick ran to the big windows giving out on to the narrow balcony and pushed them open. There were two decks of cabins below them before the promenade deck with the ship’s lifeboats hanging out on divots. Below them, there was nothing but a sheer drop to the grey water of the harbour. Patrick went first, moving first to the balcony of the middle cabin between their prison and the cabin from which he and Emily had launched their rescue mission. It was difficult for Nancy in her heavy woolen skirt to manage the leap and Emily was grateful for the steward’s trousers she was wearing. The friends moved quickly, working together to make the leaps between the adjoining balconies. They could hear the drumming on the door of the cabin they had just left as they reached the relative safety of the open windows in their original cabin. The sounds of the ship’s alarms became louder and more insistent; to complete their terror, they could see the great ship heading out beyond the harbour into the open sea in the last of the evening light.
Until now, Patrick had shepherded the little group; now Billy seemed to take on that role. “Our best hope,” he said, “is to make it down to the lifeboat deck and get away in one of them down the side of the ship. The only other way out might be to jump from there into the sea. Can you swim, Patrick?”
“Lawdy, no, Billy! Don’t ask that of me, please,” Patrick wailed.
“Right then: it’s the lifeboat for us,” said Billy. “But first, we have to get down to the promenade deck. Follow me: Tommy, you’re first. Then Emily, Nancy and Patrick. I’ll come last. It’s up to you, Tommy, to secure the lifeboat.”
“You’ll need this, Tommy, if you’re leading the way and Billy, you’ll need another if you’re staying here until the end,” said Emily. She handed over a pistol to each of the young men. “Nancy, I recall that Katie said that you were the best shot of the team. You take the third one.”
While Emily was dealing out the guns and ammunition, Tommy had made the rope fast to the balcony and was already over the side and heading down. He was remarkably quick and called for the Emily to follow. This was a challenge but Emily simply took off her glasses, put them in the pocket and moved more confidently than anyone expected her to do. [She told Katie afterwards that not being able to see anything as she descended took all the fear out of what was happening.] Nancy followed; by the time she had reached the deck, Tommy had secured a lifeboat and had begun the process to launch it over the side. Emily was quickly on board, coolly finding her glasses and working at Tommy’s direction to loosen the bolts that held the boat in place. Patrick came next, as agile as a circus performer. The lifeboat was by now swung out over the water, ready to be lowered. Then to their dismay, they heard the sound of shooting above them; Nancy realised with a stab of pain that this was the Lusitania all over again: danger all around them, shots above them and a life boat precariously held over the water. And in an agonising moment, the friends heard a cry of pain and saw Billy falling past them into the cold water below.
Tommy didn’t hesitate for a moment now. There was an axe among the safety equipment in the bottom of the lifeboat and Tommy used it to cut the ropes away. The lifeboat lurched and descended quickly; now there was shouting and threats right above them and more gunshots. The lifeboat hit the water with a jarring thud but Tommy was already cutting it away and calling on the others to find the oars and row. More shots were fired but for the moment, the boat was under the line of sight of those on the deck above; soon, however, it would be clearly vulnerable to shots from above them. Everyone expected the shots to resume with deadly effect until suddenly the ship lurched like an animal in pain and the mighty engines throbbed with power. The ship turned as this happened and made all steam away from them. It seemed extraordinary to everyone that the Barbarossa would abandon its pursuit when they were so close and vulnerable. Patrick was the one who had ignored this development and all of the cacophony above him as he scanned the grey water in the failing light for Billy’s body. He saw the hand raised and the body slipping away and the boy howled a warning to the others.
It was Emily who sprang forward without a moment’s thought. She jumped from the side of the lifeboat and swam determinedly towards Billy, catching him by the waist and lifting him up. The young man was freezing cold and there was blood on his shoulder from a gunshot wound. It took all of Nancy and Tommy’s strength to pull the young man’s body back into the boat with Emily after him, tormenting his wounded shoulder as they did so. Emily’s experience as a doctor immediately took over and she was assessing the wound in the grey light when a searchlight swept the lifeboat with its powerful beam. There were shouts in familiar voices and after a moment, the American Coast Guard vessel Alamo emerged beside them out of the darkness. It was the arrival of the American naval vessels, of course, that had frightened the Barbarossa into the safety of international waters.
The escapees were quickly transferred to the Coast Guard vessel, young American sailors taking the lifeboat in tow and hoisting the friends to safety. A stretcher was lowered so that Billy could be retrieved; Emily was the last one to leave the lifeboat. A navy nurse and doctor were ready to receive them and Emily only let Billy out of her sight when she was assured that he would be well cared for and his wound dressed. She was cold and fearful for her friend but the doctor working at Billy’s shoulder confirmed what she had already found: that the bullet seemed to have passed right through Billy’s shoulder without fatal effect. The doctor positioned Billy on his side and worked to expel the seawater that Billy had swallowed in the water. The young man shuddered and retched as the grey sludge tricked out on to the deck. The brave young man who had remained to face the foe so that his friends could escape was then coaxed back to consciousness with a little brandy. Patrick knelt and gave Billy the news that all the friends had survived. Billy took Patrick’s hand and held it, drawing strength from the boy’s remarkable courage. Emily was overwhelmed by elation that she had survived and brought her friends out of danger but the shooting of Billy and the chilly rescue in the water added to her anger. The men and women who had sought to kill them had escaped. She looked miserably back at the great ship steaming at speed out to sea.
Nothing, however, could tranquilise the excitement of the others assembled on the deck of the coastguard vessel. Here on board were Katie, Mr Holmes, Mrs Roosevelt and a smiling and smartly dressed middle aged man smoking a cigarette in a long, elegant holder and looking immensely pleased with himself. Emily was wet and bedraggled and unwilling to leave her care of Billy even for a moment but she hugged her sister, nodded to an exultant Mr Holmes and a beaming Mrs Roosevelt. This good lady shyly introduced everyone to her husband, Franklin Roosevelt, the Secretary for the Navy. It was his call that had produced the Alamo, and two other coastguard vessels in close proximity. A nurse wrapped Billy in a blanket but there was nothing warm for Emily to change into until Mr Roosevelt gallantly surrendered his tweed jacket and cashmere scarf. Hot tea was called for and Mr Holmes made Patrick and Emily describe their escape in detail. Mr Holmes deferred hearing what had happened to those abducted on the Grand Central Station concourse until dinner had been served. The Alamo deposited its precious cargo at a Manhattan wharf. Mr Holmes took Nancy, Tommy and Katie back to the Algonquin in a taxi; Emily and Patrick went with Billy in an ambulance to the Naval Hospital in the Brooklyn Naval Yard. They were with him when he woke from surgery the next morning.
Chapter 9: The Puzzle is Solved
A day later, Billy was well enough to leave the hospital and Mr Roosevelt’s own government car ferried Emily and the convalescing Billy to Hyde Park. The lovely tranquility of the estate, the glory of the trees turning their gold and red autumn colours seemed a world away from the sordid danger of New York streets, the grim waterfront and the Deutsch Oompah Café. Nancy, Katie and Tommy were waiting for them and the friends enjoyed an afternoon in the glorious autumn sunshine: walking, sharing their fears and feelings and voicing their hopes for the future. Tommy carried the bruises on his face and neck of the beating he had sustained while Billy and Nancy had been forced to look on helplessly. Nancy found the bruises on her arms where Professor Moriaty had held her fiercely. Billy’s arm was in a sling, his face was drawn and pale and he seemed to have lost all his energy. None of this seemed to matter, however. They had survived almost certain death and with Moriaty and the German agents on the run, their prospects of successfully resolving the mystery seemed good.
That evening, Mr Holmes and Dr Watson had motored up from New York with Mr and Mrs Roosevelt and an ebullient young Patrick. Ever the enterprising businessman, Patrick had had to return to his shoe shine stand as soon as he had returned from the Barbarossa – at least until he could arrange for Jerry to employ his little brother, Marvin, for a couple of days. It wouldn’t do for the best shoe shine stand in the city to be understaffed for more than an afternoon. The friends assembled in the dining room that night, with Patrick shyly seated between Billy and Emily. It was the first time that all the friends had been together since the “business of the Barbarossa” as Dr Watson described it. Katie could just see the doctor quietly working up one of his famous stories for the Strand Magazine: perhaps The Strange Case of the Hamburg Heart Throb or The Mysterious Affair of the Loaded Tea Trolley. The merest mention of the possibility of such a story brought an avalanche of scorn down on the good doctor’s head: “These are matters of state!” Mr Holmes thundered, “not grist for some pulp fiction magazine story.” Both the girls knew, of course, that Mr Holmes secretly relished the celebrity that Dr Watson’s stories had brought him; they were, if nothing else, a constant source of irritation to his pompous brother, Mycroft.
Mr Holmes took the part of the circus ringmaster and had each of the friends recall exactly what they had seen and done as part of the adventure. He sat with a notebook, making entries and sometime calling for clarification or for greater detail. Mr Holmes was particularly taxing with Billy, Nancy and Tommy; they had had the most direct contact with Professor Moriaty and his creatures. No detail seemed too trivial for Mr Holmes to note and record. Emily and Patrick – the heroes of the rescue - were called upon to tell their story and receive the acclaim of everyone present. Emily was determined that Patrick would have due recognition for what he had done and although the boy shyly looked down at his plate, the moment in Emily’s recitation when Patrick sprang out from the tea trolley swinging the handbag was the climax of the tale – the moment when success was brought within their grasp. Billy, the true hero of the escape, was everywhere praised for his courage in staying to face the German agents so that his friends could escape. There were tears and sighs when Nancy described the cruelty of Professor Moriaty as he directed his thug to beat Tommy. Katie watched the moment carefully and had to concur with Mr Holmes: every lover appreciates the opportunity to appear a hero to his lady. Tommy’s bruises were real enough, however, and his ingenuity in getting the lifeboat away gave him no small share in the glory of the escape.
For the friends who had been on the Barbarossa, the most surprising part of this careful unpacking of the event were the comments by their host, Franklin Roosevelt. The coast guard vessels had been in position in the harbour long before Emily and Patrick had arrived on board the Barbarossa. As well, a naval cruiser had been stationed just within American waters in case it were necessary to try a direct rescue if everything else filed. “I watched you through my field glasses, young Patrick,” said Mr Roosevelt, “leaping from balcony to balcony – and saw you come out of the same window with your friends in tow. Once we could see you headed for the lifeboats, we knew that you were almost there. Still, it’s surprising that only one of you was wounded. Eleanor said that you were a plucky gang: I think Mr Mycroft Holmes will be delighted with the report I send him.”
How to proceed now? Billy was adamant that his arm wasn’t badly wounded and that there was nothing to prevent their all going to the Grand Central Station the very next day to see what the lockers might contain. “I don’t think that that’s wise, Mr Edwards,” Mrs Roosevelt said. “Even in New York, an attack on the concourse of the station is a remarkable event. The newspapers have part of the story and would like to have a great deal more. I can tell you that there have also been newspaper reports of shots fired from the deck of the Barbarossa but no one has yet connected the dots and realised that the two incidents are related. I can’t imagine that any one of you will want to be left out of things, but going as a group to the station after what has happened will draw a great deal of attention to what should be a stealthy affair.”
“I’ll go on my own then,” said Billy. “All along I’ve wanted to settle this. It needn’t put any one else in more danger.”
Mr Roosevelt shook his head. “No one will be in danger and no one will be left out. I can understand, Mr Edwards, that you feel this very personally but be just a little more patient. If what Eleanor tells me is true, there is still at least one surprise waiting for us at the station.” Mr Roosevelt lit his cigarette, ignoring a glare from his lady wife seated opposite him. He finally went on: “When do you do your last shine for the day, Patrick?”
“Well, Sir: the last train leaves the station at 11.30; that’s the latest I ever work. There are men who come to fix the tracks – they always appear after quitting time. The cleaning staff come in then too– a big mess of them. I know they’re usually gone by 1 am. The whole place is quiet after that save for the night watchmen.”
Franklin looked at his watch; the long conversation had taken them through an excellent roast beef, a slow dessert and coffee. “It’s 10.30 now; perhaps you’d like to go up and change and meet me downstairs at 11 am. It’s a two hour drive back to New York, even when the traffic is light. There should be little to disturb us when we reach Grand Central Station.
Moving the party to New York required two cars. Franklin, Katie and Emily travelled together in Mr Roosevelt’s official car, the chauffeur up front and the three friends in the spacious back seat. As they drove, Mr Roosevelt asked the girls lots of questions about how the war had affected ordinary English people. It was a serious conversation and Emily in particular was impressed by the man’s willingness to be quiet and listen rather than to talk. It was a more convivial party in Mrs Roosevelt’s smaller car with Patrick seated beside the middle aged school teacher and Billy, Nancy and Tommy in the back seat.
At the station, everyone waited while Patrick led the way through the alley to the side door. The place was badly lit but once through the service area, the main lights in the concourse remained on but there was no one to be seen. The lofty and stately station concourse, usually bustling with people coming and going, was as still as a great cathedral. It was eerie in the silence: shadows that must have been there by day when the place was crowded and energetic now made the whole cavernous space seem sinister. There was the newsstand and gift shop where Katie had waited looking at postcards; Nancy saw with a shudder the Munich Pretzel Bar where she and Billy had stood waiting for Fraulein Heidi Knackwurst to appear. The locker room stretched away in a corridor to their right: the solution to the great mystery was now so close that Katie felt one could reach out and grasp it. Tommy took from his coat pocket a note book in which he had recorded the numbers of the lockers from the jigsaw puzzle so long ago in the house at Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.
Patrick looked to Mrs Roosevelt for encouragement and she nodded. He called the friends over to his shoe shine stand with its elegant mahogany moulding, shelves and cupboards, now forlornly deserted. The boy opened a drawer in the steps that led up to the dais on which the throne like leather chairs were mounted and pulled out a little bunch of keys. “Would you perhaps be looking for lockers numbered 1143, 2004, 3366 and 4127?” Patrick asked with a twinkle in his eye.
“I always knew that you were a surprise packet, Patrick!” said Billy. “How the dickens did you manage to acquire these?”
“It’s a bit of a long story: you know a little of it, Mrs Roosevelt knows some other bits.” Patrick turned to the company and even though there was no one about to hear them, his voice was little more than a whisper. “I knew Mr Edwards and Mr Diaz from their visits to New York, of course. They always called in to have a shine and to say hello; I was already working for Mrs Roosevelt by then and I quickly worked out that Mr Edwards, at least, was in the same sort of game as I was. From then on we looked out for one another.” At this point, Patrick hesitated but went on, “We shared other interests too.”
Billy spoke now: “Patrick and his own friend, Des, would sometimes come with Juan and me to clubs that don’t judge people on the colour of their skin – or on any other thing for that matter. Juan and I grew to trust Patrick; he got us out of more than one scrape while we were in New York.”
Patrick went on: “That last time I saw Juan he was with a Mexican gentleman and the tall man with the goatee beard. Juan was dressed in his servant’s livery- the uniform he wore at the Embassy. He was carrying two heavy suitcases; the gentlemen were indifferent to the weight of them – or to Juan for that matter. They ordered him about gruffly or spoke in front of him as if he didn’t even exist. I see a lot of that on my shoe shine stand. Juan caught my eye as he struggled past with these men in front of him; he was clearly worried and skittish. Well, I left the stand with Jerry and followed them careful like. The man with the beard was as alert as a cat but he didn’t notice me in the picture at all – a coloured boy makes no never minds to someone like him. Well, the two men took Juan into the locker room and I saw them take two of the biggest lockers in the bottom of the rack. The Mexican gentleman took the keys to the lockers and the men left, Juan in tow.”
Later that evening, I saw Juan come back alone. He was dressed casually this time, wearing the blue jeans and the brown leather jacket I had seen him in before. It was a cool night in early spring. Juan winked at me as he went past – straight to the locker room. He came out fifteen minutes later but just as he did so, the man with the beard came walking up the concourse towards him. The bearded man may have had his own plans for the lockers; I don’t think he expected to bump into the boy who had silently struggled with the cases that afternoon. A terrible anger possessed the man. I could see Juan’s face cloud over: he knew at that moment that he was dead, I reckon. This was a public place: the man couldn’t hurt him there but Juan saw that the game was up.”
“What did Juan do next?” Billy demanded. These moments were clearly precious to Billy as he assembled the incidents in the last day of his friend’s life.
“Juan pretended to be cool and relaxed,” Patrick said. “He went over to the newsstand and I saw him buy a postcard and some sort of puzzle. He slipped these into his leather jacket. Then he came as bold as brass and sat up on one of my chairs for a shine. It was impossible to talk freely: the man had positioned himself close by and could have overheard anything we said. When the shine was finished, Juan reached into his pocket for his wallet and gave me everything he had. It was almost $20 – an enormous sum for me. He turned his back to the man watching him and slipped into my hands the four locker keys. Under his breath he said simply: ‘Fix up the lockers: Billy will come by one day. Take care.’ Loudly he greeted me with his charming Mexican accent, telling me to keep the change. Juan left with the postcard in his pocket and the puzzle under his arm – and I never saw him again. Mrs Roosevelt has told me that he was taken late that night from the Algonquin.”
“I know from Mrs Westin that he was called down stairs from his room by a woman claiming to be a friend of Billy,” said Mrs Roosevelt. “I believe the woman was Grafin Mausi von Schnitzel. She had some yarn to pitch but Juan knew that he was going to his death. Professor Moriaty and the bald thug were waiting in the street. I know that his room at the Algonquin was searched that night but nothing was found. As you already know, Billy, Juan died an heroic, noble death. Juan held out under torture two days: many men and women have willingly given Moriaty exactly what he wanted once he took to them.”
Mr Holmes interrupted here: “Patrick: the Mexican gentleman and Moriaty had Juan struggling with two suitcases that went into two lockers – but Juan gave you four keys. What happened there?”
“I believe that when Juan came back that night he had to decide how to manage the contents of the suitcases. He pinched the keys to the two big lockers from his boss, the Mexican Ambassador. He clearly wanted to tell all this to Billy but there was no way to carry away the contents of the bags: perhaps there was nowhere safe to move them anyway and the lockers at the station was as good a place as anywhere for them. What Juan did in the locker room – out of sight of Professor Moriaty – was swap the contents of the two bottom lockers for four of the smaller lockers in the top row. The big, empty suitcases went back into the bottom lockers; I believe that if he hadn’t been caught by the bearded gent, Juan would have simply returned the keys to his boss and perhaps no one would know what he had done. It took all of fifteen minutes to make the switch. Once he had handed the keys to me, he could hope that the secret would be safe. I’ve run through the $20 Juan gave me keeping the payment on the lockers current.”
There was a long pause, each of the people assembled outside the shoe shine stand lost in their own thoughts. “I think,” said Mr Roosevelt finally, “that it’s time to open the lockers.” The mystery had been tantalizing them ever since the jigsaw puzzle had been completed; now, the solution was only steps away. Mr Holmes divided the keys and gave one to each of Billy, Tommy, Nancy and Katie. The four friends who had set out on the Mauretania with such high hopes would be the ones who would open the lockers and solve the puzzle.
Nancy was the first to find the locker that matched her key: Number 1143. The key fitted the heavy oak locker and turned smoothly in the lock. When the door swung open, Nancy gasped. “Nothing!” she cried.
“And nothing here in 2004 either,” cried Billy.
“Nothing here in 3366,” said Katie with a brittle laugh.
“And 4127 - the same,” said Tommy with a deep slump in his voice.
Emily had been watching the proceedings with keen eyes. Something was obviously amiss; Mrs Roosevelt picked it up too. It was Patrick’s reaction that spoke most loudly. He had seen his friend go to his death for the contents of the lockers and yet he now evidenced no great surprise.
“You never told me all of this, Patrick,” said Mrs Roosevelt gently. “I’m beginning to wonder whether my agent on the ground in Grand Central Station is as good as I thought he was.”
“Ma’am,” he said simply, “parts of this haven’t been my story to tell. Billy and Juan was private; my friendship with them was private too. I couldn’t share any of this without sharing that as well. I didn’t know if I would suddenly find myself on the wrong side of a policeman’s boot – as has happened often enough.”
“Well,” said Billy with a dry laugh, “now is the time to be as open as you like. There are no secrets between any of us now.”
Patrick smiled at Billy. “Well, things happened fast after I saw Juan leave that night. It didn’t take long for the whole thing with the lockers to unravel. Two days later – just long enough for the bearded gent to find that there was no way to beat anything out of Juan – four masked men came to the station in the middle of the night – just about the time we are here now. I often sleep over in my storage area back there and I was up and saw them come and go. They’d lubricated things nicely before they came and they had master keys to the locker complex. They went through every single one – tossing the contents of many of the lockers down on the floor and making a terrible mess. But they didn’t find a thing and they became more and more stung as the night went on. The bearded gent turned up in the middle of all this, swearing and looking like thunder when there was nothing to show for it. The police arrived as soon as they had left: I’m guessing they were squared too – like the woman in the locker booth who manages the keys.”
Patrick carefully closed the four lockers and collected the keys from the four friends. He led them back into the concourse to his shoe shine stand. A puzzled silence fell on the group; in the vast, empty chasm of the railway concourse, the sadness and torment of the whole adventure seemed raw and painful.
Emily broke the silence: “You cleaned the lockers out before the men came, didn’t you, Patrick. Juan told you to take care of the lockers – and that’s exactly what you did.” Emily took the boy’s hand. On the Barbarossa, she had risked her life alongside the humble coloured boy who had been the witness to so much pain and abuse. In the end, he had done his best for his friends, Juan and Billy, who showed him simple kindness and respect.
Patrick smiled broadly at her: “You’re pretty good, Doc, when it comes to using your brain. You’re pretty good with your heart too, you know.” Then to the whole group, Patrick said simply. “Late that night I went to the Algonquin where I knew Juan was staying. He was already gone. I did my charming best to learn what had happened but the lady on the desk would only tell me that a woman had come looking for him. Oh, and she told me that he had also posted two parcels – but they had already gone in the mail.”
Patrick paused before he stepped back to his stand, leaning on it thoughtfully. “When the station was quiet, I found the lockers that matched the keys that Juan had given me. They were full of canvas bags. I moved them all here.”
And now Patrick swung open one of the mahogany cupboards that fitted into the frame of the shoe shine stand. There was a large number of brushes, rags and cans of polish stacked there; Patrick carefully lifted these out of the way and loosened the false back of the cupboard. In the large, exposed cavity were a number of carefully stacked canvas bank bags. Patrick handed one to Mr Roosevelt; the seal was unbroken and it took a moment and a penknife borrowed from Billy to force it open. Inside were wads of crisp $100 bank notes.
Patrick found a trolley in one of the service areas behind the concourse to move the canvas bags to the boot of Mr Roosevelt’s car. It was time to leave the great building behind them. Most of the friends slept on that long drive back to Hyde Park. Billy sat and talked through the night with Mrs Roosevelt while Nancy and Tommy snuggled into each other and slept in the back seat. In the government car, Katie and Emily chatted with Mr Roosevelt about life in Washington – as much to keep him awake and alert on the drive. Patrick elected to remain in New York, asking only that the English friends come to say goodbye before they left to return home.
When they arrived at Hyde Park, it was still two hours until dawn. Everyone was tired but no one wanted to go to bed while there was still mystery to solve. Mrs Roosevelt and Katie went to the kitchen to brew coffee and find some biscuits to share; while they did this, the rest of the company moved the contents of the boot of the car to the dining room table. There were some fifty canvas bags, each one of them holding clean new banknotes still wrapped in the bundles used by banks to manage large amounts of money. Mr Roosevelt counted the contents of the one bag that had been opened; there was $100 000 in $100 bills.
“I’m guessing,” said Mr Roosevelt cautiously, “that each of these fifty bags contains the same amount of money.”
“So we’re looking,” said Tommy, “at five million dollars.”
“What could the money have been for?” Katie said. “Why would the German government give money like that to the Mexican Embassy?”
“I suspect, Katie,” said Mr Roosevelt, “that the money was not intended for the Embassy at all – not in any official capacity, anyway. The money was put in front of the Ambassador, Senor Eliseo Arredondo, as a demonstration of the power that Professor Moriaty could command. The United States government has long known that the German Embassy has commanded large amounts of money to be spent securing the warm support of important people here in New York and Washington. The money would be dibbled out over time to bribe diplomats, members of the US Congress, police officers and journalists. No, the money put in front of Senor Arredondo was for a different purpose. It was headed to Mexico as part of another plan.”
“And what is that?” asked Tommy.
“I think that the answer to that part of the puzzle is still waiting to be discovered,” said Mr Holmes.
“It’s in Washington,” said Billy simply. “At the Attende Ici Café. Patrick said that he learned that Juan had posted two parcels form the Algonquin before he was taken. One of them contained the puzzle and jig saw puzzle. I’ll bet that the second parcel is waiting for me there. ”
“Mr Edwards, I think it might be a wise idea if you go there now and find what there is to be found,” said Mrs Roosevelt. “Given the gravity of the situation, I think it might be wise to move quickly. Take my car, Billy – once you’ve had just a little rest.”
Billy looked at the canvas bags spread out across the dining room table. “Five million dollars: that’s the price of the life of a humble young Mexican man.” Billy’s face changed shape and he struggled to control the pain in his heart. Emily reached over and took his hand.
Billy went on: “You were so good to me that night at Kew House when I learned about Juan’s death, Emily. Will you come with me to Washington?”
Emily smiled and nodded. Sleep certainly did beckon to all of them but there was a general promise to gather for a late lunch. Billy and Emily would set off for Washington at 2 pm; the rest of the friends would follow on the 4 pm train. If all went well, they would meet at the British Embassy at 8 pm.
The friends left quietly to sleep. Mr Holmes snatched only a couple of hours of rest before going to the Post Office in Hyde Park to send a telegram to Mycroft. He sat at the dining room table to write a longer report that he could send through the Embassy later that evening. Dr Watson, his body febrile with exhaustion, played his part too, sitting at the table with his revolver close by, guarding the five million dollars until officers from the Federal Reserve summoned by Franklin Roosevelt arrived to take it away.
There were long periods of comfortable silence on the drive to Washington. Emily drove the car while Billy took advantage of Emily’s quiet presence to speak at length about Juan, their brief time together and the pain of the double life he was forced to live. Emily said little but her generous sympathy [and occasional bouts of angry indignation at what her friend had suffered] brought a measure of comfort and quiet to his wounded spirit. It was like their long conversation on Cheyne Walk: there was so much to say but little remedy for the injustice of a world that was so judgmental and cruel.
Emily wondered how Billy would explain her presence at the café; she needn’t have worried. He dreaded having to give explanations of any kind to the friends he knew there; instead, he parked the car, left Emily in the Georgetown street and returned a moment later, a brown paper parcel in his hands. His eyes were red as he dropped the package on the back seat of the car and nudged the vehicle back towards the city.
Billy drove the car in silence to Rockwell Park. “I used to come here with Juan,’ he said simply. “Walk with me, please.” Billy collected the parcel from the back seat and walked with Emily up the pebble path into the forest. The evening was cold and the light was failing quickly. Autumn has stripped the trees in the park of most of their leaves. At a picnic table, Billy used his pen knife to cut the string and open the parcel.
He gasped: there was Juan’s brown leather jacket - the one he had been wearing when he went back to retrieve the contents of the lockers at the station on the night he was taken. Billy picked it up and he winced in pain: the jacket still smelled of his friend. He checked the pockets carefully but there was no farewell note, nothing personal and nothing to connect the jacket even with the name of his friend. It seemed like the most banal conclusion to an extraordinary adventure.
Billy sat lost in thought as the cold wind whipped around them. The night was coming on. Emily picked up the jacket and examined it carefully. Her eyes widened and she took the penknife up from the table. “May I?” she asked.
Billy was suddenly alert as she found the inside seam where a grey silk lining had ben sewn to support the soft brown leather finish. Emily could see that the sewing had been disturbed: unpicked and then restitched a little clumsily. The thread gave way quickly and Emily put her hand into the space between leather and lining and produced two envelopes. One was typed and was obviously an official communication of some kind. It ran through eight pages and appeared to be written in both Spanish and German. The second was a hand written letter, brief and confined to a single sheet of writing paper. In what was left of the evening light, Billy read the note and then sobbed into the kind, supportive arms of his friend.
At the Embassy, the friends gathered at the big formal table in the dining room. The Ambassador, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, had welcomed them and managed to find accommodation for everyone in the elegant colonial brick building: Mr Holmes and Dr Watson had murmured their thanks to the Ambassador but they had gone off to enjoy the comforts of the Washington Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue opposite the White House. Billy had his own flat within the Embassy, of course, and he could share with Tommy. Lady Florence took care of domestic arrangements for the visitors. Katie and Emily were put into a small bedroom in the wing of the Embassy that had once hosted bedrooms for the Embassy servants. Nancy found herself in the tiniest room in the Embassy; all three girls, however, were obliged to share the one bathroom and there was some awkward moments as they all needed it to be ready for dinner at 8 pm. Dr Watson and Mr Holmes were waiting for them in the drawing room with Sir Cecil and Lady Florence Spring-Rice. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt arrived from their Washington home just before the Embassy’s distinguished looking butler sounded the gong to summon everyone to dinner.
The dinner was a happy one once the girls were able to relax about their sad absence of formal attire. Billy fitted Tommy out with his second best evening suit. Emily wished that she had somehow managed to retain the black silk mourning dress that she had left behind in the cabin of the Barbarossa; she was certain that Grafin Mausi von Schnitzel was probably parading about in it at that very moment. Lady Florence [an ample woman with thick legs and a kind heart] had no clothes that might have fitted any one of the girls she but managed to find them each a cashmere shawl to drape around their shoulders. To this she added the best jewels that had been in the family for generations and the girls felt that they could now walk into the Embassy drawing room with their heads high.
Sir Cecil was hugely delighted with the success that his guests could share. Billy’s great worth, he declared, was already well known to him. But what could be said about Katie’s daring in escaping from the Norddeutscher Lloyd offices and from the clutches of Grafin Mausi on the concourse of the Grand Central Station? How could we praise enough Emily’s courage in going into the lion’s den to bring out her captured friends? And what about Miss Nancy’s dashing dash down the fire escape of the Algonquin Hotel? Tommy’s management of the lifeboat under fire from German crooks on the promenade deck also drew praise. And five million dollars withdrawn from the pool used to bribe American senators and journalists? Extraordinary!
“One of the true heroes of the enterprise, Sir Cecil, can’t be here to share in your praise – although no one did more than he did in the heat of danger,” said Mrs Roosevelt. “I’m referring young Patrick Jackson, the shoe shine boy at the Grand Central Station.”
“To be sure, Eleanor,” said Sir Cecil warmly, “that excellent young man will not be forgotten.”
The splendid dinner seemed to take forever; Katie and Emily were struck again by the bounty in the United States compared with the frugality of wartime England. Finally, the cheese had been served; this would normally be the moment when Lady Florence would invite the ladies to withdraw and leave the gentlemen to their port but the good, elderly woman could see that important and confidential business remained to be transacted. She rose, kissed the girls good night and shook hands with all the gentlemen. When she had gone, Sir Cecil led the company to the security of his office. Neither Emily nor Billy had said anything to the others about what they had found at the Attende-ici Cafe.
All eyes looked to Billy who said immediately to the Ambassador: “Sir, is it possible to ask Miss Elliott to join us? I’ve already mentioned this to the First Secretary and she should be waiting to be asked to come up.”
Sir Cecil readily assented and rang the bell to summon the butler. They were soon joined by a middle aged woman in a sensible grey suit who greeted the Ambassador with a smile. Katie was immediately struck by the similarity between this woman and Mrs Roosevelt. Both had the same immediate intelligence, energy and intensity. Miss Elliot was a Second Secretary but was also something of a dragoman at the Embassy. She was fluent in French, German, Spanish and Russian. She sat beside Sir Cecil as Billy took an envelope from the inner pocket of his dinner jacket. He handed it the Ambassador with the words: “I retrieved this, Sir, and believe it may be important.”
Sir Cecil took it solemnly and scanned the text before handing it to Miss Elliott. In a moment she said, “This appears to be a letter from the Foreign Minister in the Imperial German government to the President of Mexico. The German text is repeated in Spanish; with your permission, Sir Cecil, I’ll work from the German text. By the quickest of readings, Sir, I have to say that this would be absolutely top secret. Are you comfortable if I proceed to translate it for you?”
The whole room was deathly silent. Emily looked around the table at her friends: men and women who had risked their lives for this. She could see Billy’s face: Juan had died rather than betray his friend – and were they to be denied knowing what they had been involved in? Sir Cecil saw these looks too and quickly settled the matter: “You are very wise to be cautious, Miss Elliott: very wise indeed. But everyone at this table has proved their worth time and again in the last few weeks. No one here would betray a secret, I’m sure. Pray go on.”
Miss Elliott cleared her throat and began the translation. There were compliments and diplomatic circumlocutions in the opening paragraphs until the real meat of the letter was arrived at. His Imperial Majesty, the German Kaiser, knew how much Mexico had suffered in the past from attack from the United States. Vast areas of territory now part of the United States – including the states of Texas and New Mexico – had once been part of Mexico. Did Mexico wish to recover these territories? The German Government expected that their policy of submarine warfare that involved sinking ships like the Lusitania would sooner or later bring America into the war. If this happened, could Mexico be ready to strike hard and attack the United States on its southern border? A war with Mexico would distract the United Sates and make it unlikely that they could be much help to Britain and France for a long time. Germany fully expected to win the war; in the peace settlement, Mexico would receive back the territories it had lost. It was understood that such a risky proposal may not be popular in the short term in Mexico; the Imperial German government therefore offered the President of Mexico a sum of five million American dollars to be used to persuade others to support the idea. More money could be found if it were necessary. The Imperial German government had appointed Professor James Moriaty to act on their behalf to settle this matter to the advantage of both Germany and Mexico.”
“So this money wasn’t intended to bribe American senators or journalists!” said Tommy.
“Oh there’s plenty of that money on offer, believe me,” said Sir Cecil warmly. “It’s what the German Embassy here in Washington does best. That’s why we’ve all assumed that the money that’s been held at the Grand Central Station for these long months is part of that enterprise.”
While the young friends were astonished at what had been read to them, it was the older members of the group who grasped immediately the significance of the letter. No one felt this more than Franklin Roosevelt. “Can you imagine the storm that would fall on the American government once it is known that Germany was conspiring with Mexico to provoke a war of conquest? There would be no keeping the United States out of the war then! There would soon be American soldiers fighting Germans in France and Belgium.”
“This is why Juan was murdered,” said Billy sadly. “Not for the money, but for this letter. If it fell into the wrong hands – our hands – it would be a disaster for Germany and would break the heart of the man arranging it all – Professor Moriaty.”
“I think I need to take this immediately to London,” said Sir Cecil. “There’s been nothing as dramatic as this in the whole war so far. It will change everything. Mr Roosevelt, if I make a copy for you, can you take it yourself to President Wilson? But please delay for just a little while. I think that the British Prime Minister and the American President should receive this on the very same day.”
“I’m certain that can be arranged,” said Mr Roosevelt. He was as astonished as anyone present at what had been uncovered. ”I’d like to think that our security forces here in the capital are as good as they need to be but something tells me that there will be hell to pay once the story is out.” He turned to the friends: “For all your sakes, I think you might be safer back in England – and sooner than later.”
The solemn meeting broke up with Sir Cecil carefully folding up the explosive letter and securing it in the safe in his office. As he did this, Mr Holmes was repeating [quite unnecessarily, he admitted] the need for the most absolute silence on what had happened. Katie groaned; there would be no confidential letter to her parents in Hong Kong and she didn’t know what she could say back in the Durwood Street School to excuse her absence from her classroom in the busiest weeks at the opening of term “Don’t worry about that for a moment,” Mr Holmes said airily. “My fat brother can pitch them a yarn, I’m sure. Dr Emily’s absence has already been explained away at the Royal Free Hospital. And Mycroft won’t relax until Miss Meadows, Mr Edwards and Mr Weller are safely back at Cheyne Walk. I suspect the Foreign Secretary will be delighted to find a promotion for you, Billy: few other diplomats, I would say, Sir Cecil, could claim to have changed the course of the war as you have, Billy. No: the commitment to silence applies most of all to you, especially to my esteemed colleague, Dr Watson. I don’t want this adventure or anything like it written up in the Strand Magazine!”
Sir Cecil bowed them out of the room. Mr Holmes promised to expedite their return to England; he would call the next morning to explain arrangements. In the meantime, everyone should remain mum and close at hand. There were kisses and handshakes now as the friends went their own ways. Emily looked a little anxiously at Billy, wanting to say so much, but Tommy had taken his friend in hand and was promising to be at the flat as soon as had said goodbye to Nancy. The girls kept their fondest farewells for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt who pressed them to come for tea the next day if Mr Holmes’s arrangements allowed it. That last dinner together really felt like the end of the adventure.
Well not quite. Two other things needed to be settled before they could all move on. They were all at breakfast the next morning with Lady Florence when Mr Holmes smoothly disturbed their routine to proclaim that he had not been able to secure an appropriate passage from New York until late Sunday afternoon; it was now Friday and so they could tarry a little. “Given all that has happened,” he said, “I think it might be safer to remain here in Washington rather than returning to New York – if we can trespass on this good lady’s hospitality for a couple more days?”
Mr Holmes bowed to Lady Florence who replied, “I’d be honoured if you remained at the Embassy until Sunday. Actually, Sir Cecil is going to Canada that same day with an important parcel. He’ll be headed to London on a Royal Navy destroyer. Of course, I know nothing at all about any such matters,” she said with a solemn face. “Perhaps you know why he’s too busy to come breakfast his morning?” The innocent effect was a little lost, however, with the broad wink she directed to Katie.
“I’m sure I don’t know, Madam,” said Mr Holmes. “It’s the Mauretania again, you’ll be pleased to know. There’s three first class cabins available: Miss Meadows, you will have the luxury of crossing the Atlantic in some state in a single cabin. Let it be a treat after all your exertions. It will hardly be a trial for the other four of you to share cabins in First Class, I would think.”
“You’re not coming with us?” asked Tommy.
“Sir Cecil will be reporting directly to Mycroft – as you will, of course, so there’s no need for all of us to leave. Besides, I’ve had an interesting telegram from Sir Clovis Beauchamp, the Yukon gold millionaire. Something about a young man who has turned up claiming to be his long lost son and wanting a large fortune before he’ll go away. Watson and I are off to Alaska this evening. Perhaps you can write this one up for your infernal magazine eh, Watson? What could you call it: The Case of Fresh Heir in the Yukon Wilderness?” Dr Watson snorted but Mr Holmes thought this was a huge joke.
“Oh,” said Nancy dully. “I was rather hoping you’d be around to give me away. Tommy and I don’t want to travel back to England in separate cabins, you see. We decided last night that if the return could be delayed for just twenty-four hours that we would try to marry here in Washington. Tommy thought Billy might be his Best Man – and Katie and Emily could be my bridesmaids.”
Now there was general excitement – and of such a feminine kind that Holmes and Watson made their excuses quickly promising that if the hadn’t already committed to go to Alaska they’d be happy to stay etc. Mr Holmes did propose that Sir Cecil could make a very respectable substitute for him as the father of the bride. The Ambassador himself appeared just at this moment and warmly pressed the happy couple to have the service in the Embassy chapel on Sunday morning. The breakfast could be served in the dining room which would leave them all plenty of time to catch the 2 pm train to New York for the 5 pm sailing.
The next day passed in a blur as Lady Florence took the three girls aside to plan for the happy occasion. A smart shop in downtown Washington furnished two silk dresses of identical style but different colour for the bridesmaids – and Katie sensibly thought that such a dress might even meet the demands of the first class dining room on the Mauretania. By the happiest of coincidences, Nancy found that she fitted perfectly into the white wedding dress that Lady Florence had used so many years ago and carefully folded away. The stately lady offered it shyly to the young bride and there were tears in her eyes when Nancy modeled it and Lady Florence recalled a time before a growing waistline and thickening ankles had taken her beauty. Of necessity, the wedding was very quiet and private with only the Roosevelts and Miss Elliott adding to the party. Sir Cecil called for the Embassy Rolls Royce to take the five friends to Washington’s Union Station where they caught the train to New York.
Here the friends confronted the last remaining piece of the puzzle. Patrick Jackson, the humble teenager who manned the shoe shine stand at Grand Central Station, had played a major part the success of the venture. There were no honours or medals for him; in fact, by remaining so prominently at his stand in the station concourse, Patrick remained in danger of a determined Professor Moriaty who would certainly recover his insolence and return to wreak a terrible vengeance on the boy. On the Friday before the wedding while the girls were away with Lady Florence, Billy and Tommy went together to find Sir Cecil and ask for his assistance. The good man had been thoroughly briefed on what His Majesty’s government owed to Patrick and was eager to arrange some sort of reward to the youngster. He delayed making any commitment only until Mrs Roosevelt could be called to take part in the discussion.
Mrs Roosevelt had herself been turning this issue over. Some idea of what Patrick had done would inevitably pass around certain quarters in New York. Even if most of the story remained secret, Patrick’s cover would soon be blown and his value as an on the spot observer of the high and low life of the city lost to her forever. But how to reward him – and keep him safe?
For some time, Billy advanced the idea that Patrick might be relocated to the comparative safety of England or Canada. What Patrick might think of this idea was impossible to say; it seemed unlikely that he would be keen to oblige. Billy insisted that the boy deserved a reward that would allow him to go away and start a new life in more comfortable circumstances. Could the Ambassador see his way clear to find $5 000 for this purpose? This was a great deal of money but Sir Cecil shyly admitted that the German Embassy weren’t alone in buying the support of journalists and politicians. $5 000, he admitted, happened to be the going rate for the warm support of a United States Senator on the floor of the Congress; it seemed little enough to offer to a brave and honourable young man who had risked his life for the King. Sir Cecil retrieved the money from the Embassy safe; Billy was authorised to make the offer to Patrick on Sunday as they travelled through the city on their way to the Mauretania.
At the station, all their luggage was packed on to two trolleys with a lad porter pushing each from the Washington train across the concourse towards the shoe shine stand. There was Patrick, busily supervising Jerry and his little brother Marvin as they worked their brushes and rags. He greeted them all with a wave and a hearty handshake, saving his warmest greeting for Dr Emily, to whom he bowed as the Contessa Maxima da Costa.
“What do you think of my sign?” he asked indicating a carefully lettered banner that obscured the standing promise of a dazzling sign. It read: Under New Management: Different Boss But Same Great Service. Patrick grinned at the astonishment of the friends gathered around him. “Well, I can’t stay here, Billy, and wait for your bearded gent to return, can I?” he said. “I figure he’s got a few scores to settle with me – even though it was you who kicked him so hard when you were tied to the chair.”
“What will you do?” Emily asked anxiously. “You’re leaving your livelihood behind you here.”
“My livelihood aintt worth much to me if I’m dead, Doc,” said Patrick with a grin. “Jerry will take care of things while I’m away. The fact is I’ve always had a hankering to see California. My friend, Des, feels much the same way. We’re catching the train this evening to Los Angeles. Maybe we can open a business there. Who knows: I could make it big in the movies. I don’t think they have many coloured boys acting in the pictures yet!”
Tommy and Billy visibly relaxed: the most difficult job they faced – convincing Patrick that he would have to leave his stand – was already done. Billy, guessing at how embarrassed Patrick would be at receiving the money in front of everyone, found an excuse to steer the teenager off to the shabby room off the concourse. They returned a few minutes later - both of them with smiles that couldn’t hide the tears that they had shared. There was nothing left now but to move on. The friends gathered around Patrick to take their leave. Nancy, Katie and Emily felt that they owed the young man so much; a hug was so little thanks for what he had done.
It was just at this minute with porters waiting and the last greetings being shared that the most extraordinary thing happened.
Nancy heard her name being called in a high, English voice. She looked up in astonishment as a young, fashionably dressed woman came swanning over to meet them. She was with two other young women who were clearly her friends. They seemed to share the same unfortunate smirk of greeting. Nancy recognised immediately the simpering face of Lady Mabel du Lac.
“Why, Nancy Meadows! What are you doing back here in New York City? The last time I saw you, you were sailing back to England, travelling third class as I recall. And what are you doing with these people? I saw you hug that nigger boy! What are respectable people back in Tithegate going to say when I tell them what you’ve been up to?” Lady du Lac was hugely enjoying herself in front of these young women whom Nancy imagined must be her friends from the exclusive school in upstate New York.
The most profound chill settled on the company. Jerry and Marvin stepped back a little, ashamed to be the witnesses to such a display. Emily caught Patrick’s face and winced at the pain that showed there: nothing that Professor Moriaty had inflicted could wound so much as these cruel words. Billy was seething with anger and Katie quietly took Emily’s hand, fearful that her sister might lose her temper and punch the insolent Englishwoman on the nose. Uncaring of the impression she was making, Lady Mabel du Lac continued to smirk in a familiar saucy way, clearly expecting some deferential response.
It was Tommy who rescued the awkward moment, stepping forward, raising his hat and saying in the most upper class accent he could summon, “Why, you must be the famous Lady Mabel du Lac. I’m honoured to meet Your Ladyship. Miss Meadows has told me a great deal about you – and you are just as she described! But let me share the good news; Miss Meadows is now my wife. She is from this very morning Mrs Thomas Wellers of Cheyne Walk Chelsea. I don’t think you’ve met Dr Emily and Miss Bland of Hong Kong, China,” Tommy said indicating the girls, “or Mr Lionel Trilby of His Majesty’s Embassy in Washington. Oh, and let me present to you Mr Patrick Jackson – a businessman of New York City and soon to be a motion picture star in Hollywood, California. And these are his colleagues and business partners, Mr Jerry Jackson and Mr Marvin Jackson. But we are delaying you good ladies; no doubt you have many calls of a similar kind to make. Will you excuse us?” He proffered a bow; Billy and Patrick and Jerry and Marvin quickly caught the moment and joined in the bow. Their laughter could be heard by Lady Mabel du Lac and her friends long after they had turned on their heel and left the scene.
That evening, Billy, Katie and Emily stood at the rail of the Mauretania and watched as the ship slipped out of the great city headed for the open sea. Tommy’s wit had rescued the embarrassing moment on the concourse of the Grand Central Station but all three of the friends gathered in silence felt oppressed by the despicable spirit that had reached out to soil them. Katie struggled to say what all of them felt at that moment: “All of our effort: all of our energy: all of our courage: the sacrifice of Juan and the bravery of Patrick: all of it to preserve the world of people like Lady Mabel du Lac. Why did we bother?”
“It’s also the precious world of Cheyne Walk – and thee decent world of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt,” said Billy. “The days of the world of Lady du Lac are numbered, I can tell you that.”
The silence was punctuated by the wail of the ship’s whistle as it proudly headed home. It was almost time to dress for dinner but Emily wanted to keep them at the rail a moment longer. “I’ve been thinking,” she said: “You know, when we were there in New York the wickedness of Professor Moriaty and his creatures looked powerful beyond imagining. But he was defeated by the goodness of simple people. By people like Juan, who found a way to reach out to you, Billy, before he went calmly to his death. And by Patrick, who poor as he was, sat with five million dollars in the cupboard of his shoe shine stand waiting to hand it faithfully of his friend. Mabel du Lac may have left me feeing soiled, Billy, but I am richer for knowing people like you and Patrick” She reached up and kissed the young man who had touched her spirit so deeply. Katie put her arm around the young man who had lost so much but who had taught her an important lesson about love.
Back in London, the friends met with an ebullient Mycroft Holmes who arrived for dinner at Kew House in Cheyne Walk with a magnum of French champagne. Mrs Hudson did her best with the war time rations available to turn out a delicious dinner; there were speeches honouring the bride and groom, toasts to Dr Emily and the Contessa Maxima da Costa, and a moving toast proposed by Billy to absent friends. Things returned to normal: or at least, the kind of normal that the cruel war allowed. Nancy took Tommy back to Tithegate to settle her affairs there and to allow her husband to see the life she had escaped. After that, Mr Holmes declared that he was taking advantage of having his first husband and wife team to fill an urgent need for intelligence on what was happening in China. Nancy and Tommy were headed out to the British Embassy in Peking. Billy was promoted within the Foreign Office and sent to a post in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Katie went back to her classroom at Durwood Street School; Emily went back to her unrelenting work at the Royal Free Hospital.
The girls spoke often through that winter of their unexpected adventure in the United States. Their conversations always began with the obvious and the spectacular: Katie’s escape from the Norddeutscher Lloyd Shipping Office or Emily’s rescuing the prisoners from certain death on board the Barbarossa. Given the austerity of the winter there were often reflections on the bounty they had enjoyed at the breakfast table in the Algonquin Hotel. But the things they always finished with in their conversations – the things that had touched them most deeply – were the experiences that had brought them real and rich lessons on love. For both of them, these lessons stayed long after the excitement of chase and escape had died away and comforted them deeply through the second awful winter of the pitiless war that surrounded them.