The Downstairs Tenant
Summary: When Russell takes a new flat, her upstairs neighbour - a detective novelist - gets rather more than he bargained for.
Warnings: Erm. Offspring.
Fandom: Mary Russell (Sherlock Holmes)
Spoilers: None, really.
Disclaimer: Russell is the property of Laurie R. King. Holmes is public domain, although it's probably only fair to name-check Arthur Conan Doyle.
Notes: May be considered a prequel to my earlier fic "Seasons". No close plottish ties, merely the presence of the same Holmes/Russell offspring. I have a lot of plans for him, y'see.
On moving into my new Bloomsbury flat, I was quickly blessed and cursed with a detailed knowledge of the building's inhabitants, from Miss Crown, an aspiring actress who yearned to be in moving pictures, to Mrs Willis, an elderly woman who followed current fashion and the movements of her neighbours with equal obsession.
The other residents were equally unremarkable: a young married couple – he was a dramaturge, she had been a prompt until her marriage and retirement – a single man of middle age; and a lady of whom almost little was known, save that she occupied the flat for only short periods, irregularly spaced, and that she had a young child.
I might have left it there, but my new book was proving difficult to write, and I was eager for distraction. So I drank tea with Mrs Willis, and let her tell me all she knew about Miss Russell. Who was perhaps thirty, or possibly a little younger, soft spoken and apparently educated, dressed in expensive clothes that both Mrs Willis and Miss Crown dismissed as "dowdy", and kept to herself as much as possible. It was this last trait that most distressed her audience. With Mrs Willis the dominant social force, the block of flats had an atmosphere reminiscent of an Austen novel. Here was the gossiping matriarch, the flirt, the reserved young woman, and here was I, the newly arrived bachelor.
Miss Crown's interpretation of the situation was less charitable: Miss Russell had been seen at least once in the company of an older gentleman, and although she had once mentioned a husband, it was plain that she was carrying on behind his back.
"With a small child in tow?" I asked.
"Perhaps her lover is the kid's real father, and this is the only way he can meet his son?"
I laughed. "You've been in too many bad plays," I told her.
I had been living there for six weeks before I even saw the mysterious Miss Russell. It was a Friday afternoon in May when, on my way up to my own apartment, I saw an unfamiliar figure on the landing beneath mine.
She was tall, which no one had bothered to mention; she could almost meet my eyes without tilting her head. Her hair – she wore no hat – was blonde, pinned neatly out of her face. Behind her spectacles, she had bright blue eyes, and there was a hint of amusement in her lips. Despite her good looks, there was something mannish about her; even had she not been wearing trousers, she would have presented a curiously androgynous figure.
A small boy, with the same blue eyes, but darker hair, was trying to talk to her as she unlocked the door.
I paused for a second, just to stare. She looked up, her smile fading into a politely uncertain mask.
"Good afternoon," she said. She had a deep voice, for a woman.
"I'm sorry," I said, recalling myself. "I don't believe we've been introduced – I'm Christopher Tovey, I live in the flat right above yours."
"Oh. Lovely to meet you." Her handshake was firm, and she wore a ring on her right hand. "Mary Russell. And my son, Jonathan."
He, too, shook my hand, with childish solemnity.
We made meaningless discussion for a couple of minutes, and then I excused myself and made my way upstairs.
I was on my way out on Saturday morning, when I heard her door opening. I paused on the stairs above, and looking down, caught a glimpse of the lady and her son. This time, she wore a neat dress, complete with hat and gloves. Her son, too, was dressed up; were it not a Saturday, I would have thought they were going to church.
I realised belatedly that I would look rather a fool if she saw me, but she gave no sign that she was aware of my presence.
She was gone again by Sunday, and I returned to the tedious routine of attempting to write.
Returning from the war, I had been unfit for any sensible occupation. My nerves had been shot, and I had found myself unable to concentrate on anything but my own imaginings. A literary friend had suggested that this made me perfectly fit for a career as a novelist, which was all very well, but no one wanted to buy my novel. Finally, an editor had taken a liking to me, and suggested that, while serious literature might not be my forte, he would be interested to see any popular fiction I should happen to produce. Detective fiction, for example, was constantly popular, and they were always eager to publish new authors.
Three books later, I enjoyed moderate popular success, combined with a total lack of critical praise. Rather the opposite, in fact. It was easy enough to ignore the reviews when I was happy with my work, but now I was bored of my character and his tedious little milieu, and the memory of the reviews somehow left me unable to write.
Or perhaps I was simply grasping for any excuse. One day, for example, not long after I'd met Miss Russell, I returned to my flat and found two books mis-shelved. I was generally careful about my books – obsessive, my sister said – and this disturbed me to the point where I had to rearrange all of my shelves, and then my desk. In the process, I discovered a number of tiny discrepancies. I tried to laugh at the dangers of combining a compulsive need for order with a faulty memory, but I could not shake the feeling that someone had been in my flat. That night, I dreamt of the Front, which hadn't touched my mind for two years, and when I encountered Miss Russell on the stairs the next morning, I was too exhausted to do more than tip my hat in greeting.
The months passed, and we saw very little of Miss Russell. The young married couple had a noisy argument, following which the wife went home to her mother, and the husband took to spending a great deal of time with Miss Crown. The single gentleman, my comrade in bachelorhood, married a widow and moved to Battersea; his flat – the one opposite mine – was taken by a salesman with shiny shoes and an endless array of cheap suits. Mrs Willis kept apprised of all of their movements, and presumably mine as well.
I met her once, when we found ourselves coming home at the same time. It was late on a Wednesday night, and she was wearing a disreputable man's coat over an evening gown.
"Good evening," she said.
"Miss Russell. You look…" I was about to say 'lovely', but then I caught a glimpse of the red-brown marks staining her dress, and blurted out, "is that blood?"
"Blood?" She looked down. "Goodness, no. Merely red wine. Some people are frightfully clumsy."
I had just come from a long, alcohol-sodden dinner with friends, and had I been sober, I would not have replied, "Don't talk nonsense. I know blood when I see it. That's too thick for wine, and it's the wrong colour besides."
She tilted her head back, and I had the impression that I was being examined. For what, I don't know, but I suddenly felt as though I were a scientific specimen that had demonstrated some unusual and interesting habit.
"Very well," she said at last. "It is blood; a man tried to kill me at the opera. Which I found a relief, but my husband took offence."
"There's no need to make fun of me, Miss Russell."
"You were a soldier, I believe?"
"Er, yes. Demobbed in 1917. Nerves, you know."
I had the feeling that she did know. "Any experience as a field medic?"
"A little. I can set a broken bone, if you don't mind a great deal of agony, and I was said to have a nice, neat hand with stitches."
"Excellent." She pulled up the sleeve of her coat, revealing a long, deep gash on her left arm. "I'm terribly sorry to impose, but would you mind giving me a hand with this? I'm left handed, you see, and not terribly good with a needle at the best of times."
She let me into her flat and added, "The rest of the blood isn't mine, by the way. If you're worried."
"I'm … not entirely unsurprised, Miss Russell."
She chuckled, and left me for a moment to change her clothes.
Her flat, I found, was laid out on exactly the same lines as my own. It had the air of a place that was used only occasionally, although there were a number of books in the shelves. They were haphazardly organised, a stark contrast to my own neat arrangements. There was a Hebrew Bible in company with a child's picture book, and a number of difficult-looking religious texts. Very few novels, I noted, but among them were mine. I picked one up, grimaced at the garish front cover, and flipped through it, enjoying as always the realisation that this book was my creation, and my work.
"I enjoyed that," she said, emerging from an inner room. She was clad again in trousers, a man's white shirt, and bare feet. "I don't normally read detective fiction, but you have a good eye for details."
She set a box on the dining table; inside was a surprisingly complete first aid kit.
"Did you like old Segrave?" I asked, cleaning the wound.
"Not much, I'm afraid." She looked away as I sterilised the needle and thread. "He tried very hard to be charming, but I'm afraid he just felt like an assemblage of habits. Sorry."
"Not at all." She didn't flinch as I made the first stitch. "He's a hollow puppet, and I'd be glad to be rid of him."
"Even master criminals get a lucky shot once in a while."
"True. I don't suppose anyone would complain if Segrave went over a cliff in Switzerland."
"You don't sound like a fan of Doyle's," she said.
"I'm not. Speaking of detectives who feel like assemblages of habits … sorry, did I hurt you?"
"No. Or at least, that's what I get for jerking about while a man sews up my arm. Terribly sorry. You're quite right, though. Very annoying habits, too. I always wondered that none of his friends tried to kill him in his sleep."
I laughed, but that reminded me of a question I'd yet to ask. "Tell me, do people try to kill you often?"
"It's not so common as to be habitual. In this case, it was a rather embarrassing case of mistaken identity."
"You shall have to tell me about that one day."
"Perhaps. I'm sure Mrs Willis could come up with an explanation, if you asked. It will no doubt involve my husband, whom she has never actually met, my hypothetical lover, or lovers, and a melodramatic public confrontation."
"She credits me with far too much, I'm afraid."
"I wouldn't go that far."
She raised her eyebrows, and for a second, the moment became awkward. But only a second. She stood up, flexing her injured arm.
"Thank you," she said, "you do lovely work."
"It will leave a scar, I'm afraid."
"I'm rather used to it. Would you like a cup of tea? Or coffee?"
"Isn't it rather late?"
"My husband shall arrive soon."
I was deeply curious to meet her mysterious spouse, but I was still slightly drunk, and exhausted, and I was on the verge of becoming embarrassingly talkative. So I made excuses and left her alone. In the morning, the encounter seemed almost like a dream.
I saw nothing of Miss Russell for some weeks
I was returning home from a long, unsatisfactory lunch with my editor on a grey Friday afternoon, when I saw that Miss Russell's door was ajar. I was tempted to invite myself in for tea, but I suspected she was the kind of woman who didn't appreciate intrusion. I merely called a greeting and moved on.
I happened to glance out the window as I went upstairs. A taxi was pulling up to the door, and from it emerged Miss Russell herself, followed by her son.
I opened my mouth to shout down to her, and then stopped. Some movement must have caught her attention, though, because she looked up, and met my eyes.
I waved for her to stay where she was, and made my way downstairs, telling myself all the while that it was probably nothing. A tradesman had let himself in, perhaps. Nothing to worry about. No danger.
As I passed her door, my heart was pounding so loudly I thought my veins might explode. It reminded me of the trenches, a thought which paralysed me for a moment, until I forced myself to move on.
Miss Russell was leaning against the wall beside the entranceway when I came out, looking not-entirely-nonchalant. She kept one hand in the pocket of her coat, and I realised with shock that she was armed.
"What happened?" she asked.
"Is there meant to be anyone in your flat?"
Her lips thinned. "No. Actually." And then, "thank you." She slipped her empty hand out of her pocket, and I relaxed. Slightly.
"Not at all."
Her son peeked out from behind her, his face grave. She followed my gaze and said, "My first priority is his safety."
"Of course. Anything I can do to help—"
She gave me a long look, and said, slowly, "Take my taxi. Find a telephone box in a public place, outside of your usual area. Call this number," she rummaged in her hand-bag, drew out a notebook and scribbled. "Tell the man who answers that Miss Russell sent you, that there's trouble in her flat, and she sent you with her son. You'll be given an address, I expect, and there you'll be safe."
I must have looked as ill as I felt, because she smiled and patted my arm. "Don't worry," she said. "If they left my door open, then they're obviously disorganised and scared. They won't think to follow you."
"You seem very sure of that."
"This is a very quiet street, Mr Tovey. Aside from my taxi, there's only one unfamiliar car, and that is empty. They didn't have enough people to leave someone to watch for me."
She gave me a disarming smile. "I seem to impose on you at the worst possible times, don't I?" She took her son by his shoulders, and crouched down to say, "Mr Tovey will take you to your uncle, Jonathan. Be good. Do what he says."
The boy whispered something in her ear. She gave him a tight hug, murmuring reassurances until he was able to push himself away from her and straighten his spine. He preceded me into the taxi. I got in and gave the curious driver instructions, and looked back as we pulled away. Miss Russell was sauntering into the building, looking entirely at ease.
"Don't worry," said Jonathan. "She's very brave."
"I don't doubt it."
"Father says she's one of the bravest people he's ever met, and he's met millions of people."
This was delivered without the slightest trace of hyperbole. "What does your father do, precisely?"
"He keeps bees."
"In hives. They make honey."
"Of course. Bees."
Something nagged on the edge of my memory, but it was gone before I could put a name to it. Jonathan gave me a smile, which I returned.
I kept him close by my side as I called the number Miss Russell had given me, but there was no disturbance as the serious man at the other end directed me to a tobacconist's shop near Waterloo Station. There, we were ushered into an upstairs flat and plied with sweet tea and cream cakes by a solicitous old woman who apparently saw nothing unusual in having her home turned into a halfway house for … what? Government spies? Bolshevic spies? Renegade beekeepers?
"Mother said you write books," said Jonathan, finishing his second cream cake.
"I try to, yes."
"Is it difficult?"
"At the moment? Very."
I explained that I was bored of my character, but my contract demanded two more books about the man. This necessitated an explanation of the commercial publishing industry, which was followed by a long discussion about critical reviews. Jonathan informed me that his parents both wrote books, but not stories, although his uncle John used to write stories, which he was sometimes allowed to read.
"How old are you?" I asked at one point.
"Oh. No reason."
It was dark when I heard voices below, followed by heavy footsteps on the stairs. The tobacconist and his wife sounded welcoming rather than afraid. I hoped it was a sign of rescue, not betrayal.
The door opened slowly, and I had a brief impression of a tall, thin man with grey hair before Jonathan threw himself at him. The boy was lifted high into the air, then set carefully on his feet before his father turned to me.
"Mr Tovey? My wife and I owe you our thanks, it seems."
"It was nothing, really. I'm sorry, I don't know your name."
"My name is Holmes, and it was considerably more than nothing. I'm told you're the man who stitched Russell's arm up last month, too."
"Er, yes. Is she all right?"
"Russell? Of course. Slightly bruised, but in considerably better shape than the men who set out to kill her. Which she wishes me to assure you is truly an uncommon occurrence."
"By whose measurements?"
"You're welcome to ask her that question, but you'll be taking your life into your hands."
He led the way downstairs, deep in conversation with his son. I watched them for a moment, and smiled.
We made our way to police headquarters, where we found Miss Russell herself, smiling despite a cut on her cheek and a heavy bandage on her hand. She greeted her son with open arms, and welcomed her husband with an acerbic remark about leaving her to deal with his unfinished business. Then the police took me aside to answer questions and give a statement, and the family had gone before I was finished.
I arrived home to find the building still in uproar. Miss Crown had heard gunshots; Mrs Willis had heard a woman screaming, although I was inclined to think it was Miss Crown she'd heard. One man had died; another had been arrested, and really, Mrs Willis said, something had better be done about that Miss Russell, because a dangerous young woman like that had no business living with decent people.
"And where, might I add, have you been all this time?" she demanded when this monologue had run its course.
"I was taking care of Miss Russell's son," I told her, with more than a little smugness.
"Hah. Got you in her nets well and good."
"Probably," I said, and went up to bed.
A week later, Miss Russell paid me a visit. She looked well; her injuries were healing nicely, and her eyes were very bright.
"I've come to thank you properly," she said, accepting a cup of tea. "We don't normally involve strangers in our affairs, you know, but your assistance was invaluable."
"You're very welcome. One can hardly stand around and let a neighbour get murdered by thugs, really."
"From the look Mrs Willis gave me when I came in, she rather wishes you had. I owe you an apology, too."
She tapped her fingers against her teacup, and there was a hint of a blush in her cheek. "I broke into your flat a few months ago. After you introduced yourself. You seemed rather too interested in me, and I was afraid – well. Paranoia can have ugly consequences."
I didn't know what to say, except that I wasn't really surprised, or even disappointed. Or shocked.
"I read your manuscript, too," she said, looking rather shamefaced. "I'm terribly sorry."
I felt a brief stab of indignation; I was intensely protective of my manuscripts. Even the lifeless and impossible ones.
"You must have thought it a bit of a laugh," I said. "I figured who your husband was, eventually. Beekeeper indeed."
"Is that what he told you?"
"Your son, actually."
"Oh. I see he's inherited his father's sense of humour. How awful. Not that it's technically untrue, of course, but Holmes's retirement is…"
"So. As a lady detective, what is your opinion of the inherent flaw in my manuscript?"
She raised her eyebrows. "There's a gap between reality and fiction, you know."
"Very well, then. The plot is relying too heavily on characters who remember tiny details which, frankly, most people miss all together. Setting it in Segrave's home town is sensible, since you say you want him to be less of a caricature, but right now, the background is entirely too simplistic, and the romantic interest is insipid."
"Oh. Well." My voice was strangled, and I had to stop and drink my tea before I could say, "that sums it up rather nicely, I suppose."
"Of course, I'm not a literary critic, by any means. Nor a great reader of fiction."
"No, no. Your points are…"
"I'm sorry." She got to her feet. "I came to thank you, and wind up by insulting your work. I should go."
"No," I said, "wait." She turned. "You're not planning to move, are you?"
The ghost of a smile touched her lips, and she said, "I hope not. I like these flats. They're conveniently located, and the neighbours are pleasant."
"You don't mind that..."
"That a man died violently in my flat? I must be very callous; it hardly bothers me at all."
She did not, I noticed, say she didn't mind entirely.
"Actually, I was thinking of Mrs Willis. She can be downright defamatory when she sets her mind to it."
"Oh, that's all right. It's quite amusing. I can't say we take her very seriously."
I smiled ruefully. "I had rather hoped, at one stage, to tempt you into a spot of adultery. I suppose you're not really in the market, are you?"
"Not at all. Terribly flattering, but really, I'd drive you mad. And there'd be no way to keep it from my husband, and he wouldn't appreciate it at all."
She stepped forward and planted a quick kiss at the corner of my mouth. "Thank you again," she said, and was gone.
I stood in my doorway, and listened to the echo of her retreating footsteps. I heard her put her key in the lock, and then I closed my door and turned at last to my manuscript.
Feedback is very welcome; please feel free to leave a review, or email me at elizabeth underscore barr at yahoo dot com dot au.