A/N: This is the third in my ongoing braided novel, after "Elementary, My Dear Natsuki" and "Come, Natsuki, The Game is Afoot." You don't absolutely have to read the previous two stories to get this one, as it should be entirely obvious what roles they take in this AU and the way things are developing, but hey, if you haven't already, why not go check them out anyway?
~X X X~
I wasn't feeling particularly merry that mid-December of 1898. All the wreaths and garlands and Christmas decorations going up and the carols on people's lips somehow served to annoy rather than relax me, and every reference I heard to how it was only one year to the new century supposedly just around the corner made me grit my teeth at the fact that I lived in an entire nation of people who couldn't count to one hundred. Shizuru had said that the century was an artificial commemoration of an arbitrary date so that it made as much sense to commemorate it now as next year, but it still bugged me.
Admittedly, my foul mood had little to do with the holidays. I'd have been more than happy to see Christmas come if I'd lived in Australia. I just didn't like the winter. The slush of an early snow had dampened my boots so that my toes were freezing, the afternoon wind bit like a knife even through my dress and traveling-cloak, and my hands were like ice on account of my choice to wear kid gloves thin enough to fit through the trigger guard of a .32 Smith and Wesson Safety Hammerless—hey, a girl has to know how to accessorize, and a trip to Soho made weapons definitely in fashion. The warmth of the smoke from my cigarette just reminded me of how cold the rest of my body was, so I finally plucked the damn thing out of my mouth, threw it down, and ground it out underfoot.
I supposed that I might have been better able to ignore the discomfort if my trip to Soho hadn't proven to be a complete bust. None of my underworld contacts had any information about men who wore triangular obsidian cuff links with a gold ball like an eye near one point. Part of me couldn't help wondering if I wasn't just fooling myself. Even if the fact that two men, two murderers had worn the same unusual cuff links wasn't just a coincidence, the incident had been fourteen years ago.
Maybe that was why the talk of a new century bothered me. The whole city seemed to be looking forward towards the future, and here I was, looking back desperately into a past populated only by fragments of memory. It was like I was caught up in a relentless tide, sweeping me away from where I wanted to go.
The memory had haunted me for years. A jostling crowd separating us, then me looking back, seeing the thrust of a hand blocked from others' view by a second body. A scream, a tumbling figure, and my mother going over the rail, plunging into the frigid waters of the North Sea. It had shaped my life from that moment, made me who I was, what I'd driven myself to become.
How could I look forward when the past was always there, with its sovereign claim? No—how could I afford to lose that past, so I fought towards it with all I had. I didn't want to face the future, not if it meant cutting ties with nothing resolved.
These were the kind of thoughts that plagued me as I scrambled up Baker Street towards the door of 221. I was sure that when I returned to 221B that Shizuru would tease me about my appearance, but in a strange kind of way, I found myself looking forward to it. There was a "hominess" about it, that feeling of closeness where one didn't have to restrict oneself to the distance of polite conversation. And in thinking that, I realized that in the few months we'd shared lodgings Shizuru Viola had gotten closer to me than I'd let anyone get since the Friesland had docked.
Why don't you ask her? a traitorous bit of my mind asked as I mounted the front step. If anyone could find an answer for me it would be her. It was her job, after all, London's only "consulting detective": more than just a private inquiry agent, she received the majority of her cases from other detectives when they were at their wits' end—including the official force.
But I couldn't do that. I didn't want her poking around in my life, probing at it like a doctor exploring the depth of a wound. One of the reasons we got along was that she never did pry. God only knew how much she saw; this was the woman who deduced people's life histories from their trouser knees, after all. But she never said anything, never pried, never demanded more from me than I was willing to give. That was the difference between her and people like Mai Tohika, who was a mothering kind. Mai would want to fix my problems, so I always hesitated around her. I didn't have to with Shizuru, because I knew she would respect that privacy. It was a closeness born of distance.
But then, I thought as I stamped snow off my boots, she was helping in another way. For some reason, Shizuru seemed to enjoy bringing me along on her cases, and it was starting to become part of our routine. Since our return from Dartmoor I'd watched her find the true solution of the Nelligan securities theft and how it related to a harpooning in a cabin done up like a ship's berth, thwart the machinations of a detestable baron whose taste ran to the collection of porcelain and women both, and brought to light the way in which the William Acton land squabble had led to burglary and then murder. I'd written out the events of the latter case, mostly to get things straight in my own mind, and somewhere along the way it had turned into a story, like the mystery fiction I was so fond of.
Shizuru had teased me so much about the story that in a fit of temper I'd actually sent the manuscript off to the Strand Magazine, with names and addresses changed. The joke was on me when they accepted the thing, with a nice fee besides and a request for more. "I told Natsuki that," was Shizuru's reply, which made me realize that she'd provoked me on purpose, to make me find the courage to submit the manuscript. And the money helped, too, when I was seemingly trying to pay off half the London underworld on a limited budget.
So yes, she was already doing her part to assist. And besides, it was better to cope with one issue at a time, wasn't it?
I wiped the last of the wetness from my feet, and climbed the stairs to 221B. There was a faint, foul smell in the air on the landing, and when I opened the door the reason rushed out at me. The room was choked with a haze of vile-smelling smoke, thick enough that my first thought was that something had caught fire.
"Ara, Natsuki is here!" Shizuru greeted me cheerily.
I gaped at her a little too long, resulting in a slug of smoke getting me into my lungs. Coughing, I said, "Shizuru, what the hell are you doing?"
She blinked at me, her oddly scarlet eyes widening in apparent confusion.
"But isn't it obvious? I am following in Natsuki's footsteps. The independent, modern woman has as much right to tobacco as does any man, is that not so?" She held up the elegant meerschaum with its curved handle, amber mouthpiece, and ivory lip that she must have been puffing at for at least a couple of solid hours, and with a mixture of shag that made "ship's" seem like clean, country air.
"You hate my smoking," I pointed out, coughing again. How could she breathe in here?
"Doesn't the saying go, if you cannot beat someone, then join them?"
"I'll quit right now!" I said desperately, pulling my cigarette case out of my vest pocket and throwing it on the coffee table.
"But I thought that you insisted on your right to it?" Shizuru asked.
"If you promise me that you'll never light that thing again, it's worth it."
"Oh, thank God," she said, the teasing completely gone from her voice, "I don't think I could stand it another minute."
"Wait—you did all this to get me to quit?"
She set the pipe down in its ashtray and extinguished it.
"Rather, I did it to demonstrate to you why I wanted you to quit." She tilted her head slightly to her side, a faintly sad look in her eyes. "I would not hold Natsuki to her promise, of course."
"No, I—I was thinking of giving it up anyway," I blustered. "I mean, I mostly took it up because it showed I was independent of convention, but what's the point of doing exactly what all the other independent-thinking women are doing, right?"
And you can't just admit you're quitting because you didn't realize how much it really bothered her until now? I asked myself. But the answer was obvious: of course I couldn't. I could barely believe that I was seriously making a lifestyle change—reflexively, even impulsively—for someone else's sake. To come right out and say it out loud? That would be admitting to a lot more than just the smoking. No way was I handing over that kind of power.
"If you're sure...Then, can we open the windows and clear the air?"
We flung the front windows overlooking Baker Street open. I coughed again as a surge of smoke washed over me on its way out.
"Can we get out of here?" I asked.
"But Natsuki just came in."
"Yeah, well, I'd rather be able to breathe than be warm."
Shizuru giggled, smiling.
"All right, then. Shall we have our tea at the Climbing Rose? It's almost time, and the air should be clear by the time we're done."
"That's fine." The lace-doily atmosphere of a tea shop did not suit me in the slightest, but it would be warm and smoke-free, my two highest priorities at the moment.
She donned her gloves, traveling cloak, and hat over her lilac skirt and jacket and cream-colored shirtwaist, catching up to me on the landing where I had retreated for the sake of my lungs. I still had no idea how she'd managed to get a small bonfire's worth of smoke out of that pipe! The doorbell rang as we were on our way downstairs, but before we could get to it the red-haired Scotswoman who was our landlady had popped out of her apartment to admit a uniformed telegraph boy.
"Telegram for Miss Shizuru Viola," he said.
Mrs. Hudson half-turned to indicate the stairs, and then grinned as she saw us descending.
"You're in luck; there she is."
I edged aside so Shizuru could get past me; she tore open the telegram and read it quickly.
"Any reply, ma'am?" the boy asked.
"Yes, thank you. Mrs. Hudson, may I borrow a pen?"
"Sure, help yourself."
Shizuru ducked into Mrs. Hudson's rooms, then emerged a minute later and handed the reply form to the boy. I got a glimpse of what she'd written: "I am, as always, at your service." That was about four words too many for a telegram—hell, I'd just have said "yes" and left it at that—but that was Shizuru, refusing to abandon politeness for the sake of the medium just to save a few pennies. She tipped the telegraph boy and smiled.
"Thank you, ma'am!"
He touched the bill of his cap to her and went back out.
"Well, Natsuki, I'm afraid that our tea is going to have to be postponed." She managed to put a twinge of regret into her voice, but her eyes were laughing. That meant, so far as I could tell, only one thing.
"You have a case?"
She handed me the telegram.
"'Viola,'" I read. "'Come at once to Odessa. Smith dead. Trepoff guilty. Scandal impossible to pregnant.' Wait, what? 'Armitage.' Odessa? This telegram is calling you to Russia, just like that? And you're going to go? Who are Smith and Trepoff? Who's pregnant? Who the hell is Armitage that you'll drop everything and go running off like that?"
"Ara, ara, such a flood of questions! Natsuki must be very excited. Would you like to come with me? I can explain on the way."
"Come with you? To the Ukraine?"
She laughed lightly.
"No, this particular Odessa is in Surrey. If we hurry, we can be at Victoria Station within the half-hour to catch the next train."
"All right, but what about the rest of it?"
Ignoring me, she turned to our landlady.
"Mrs. Hudson, we left the windows open to clear the air. Since we may not be returning until tomorrow or later, would you please close them in half an hour or so?"
"Clear the air? What were you doing, chemical experiments?"
"Of a sort. I had to show Natsuki something that could not be explained in words."
"If you say so. Thanks for telling me, or else I'd end up with snow all over the rugs."
"Shizuru, what about--" I began, but she'd already gone past me and out the door, leaving me trailing in her wake. She waved a hand, seeming to conjure a growler out of thin air instead of merely calling one over. Once the cab was underway, she took pity on me.
"Now, Natsuki was wondering about Odessa?"
"Yeah, I've never heard of any village called Odessa. And you knew at once where it was without any information besides the name."
"That's because it is not a village. Odessa is the name of the country estate of the Searrs family, named because the wife of its builder was from that city and he wished to commemorate her home."
"I see. Hey, that name, Searrs, it sounds familiar somehow?"
"They are very prominent in trade and finance. They were among the initial investors in the East India Company as well as profitable ventures in the New World. More recently they have backed the spread of railroads and have a controlling stake in several mining and industrial concerns as well."
They sounded like the kind of people my father would appreciate. Gerhart Kruger, German industrial magnate, had built a fortune in steel, ships, and munitions.
"In recent years, however, the Searrs family's luck has been confined to the monetary," Shizuru continued. "Seven years ago, David and Jessamyn Searrs were killed when the Sophy Anderson went down."
I winced; I'd heard of that disaster even at a tender age, the sinking of a bark run down in the mist by a steamer. Death at sea by itself hit home too closely for my own comfort.
"They left behind two children, both daughters, heiresses to a vast fortune. The elder, Rena, was fourteen at the time, while the younger, Alyssa, was only three, barely more than a baby. The Searrses had provided for their deaths in a will, and a trust was set up, a sort of foundation, for the preservation and management of the family's interests. The trustee was one of the highest-ranking Searrs executives, a man with the unusually dull name of John Smith."
"Smith! The telegram said--"
"I have to assume that this is the 'Smith' referred to in the telegram, yes, though the economy of words allowed might permit some error." She sighed. "But I'm getting ahead of myself."
"Oh, yes. Rena Searrs grew into a charming and beautiful young woman, one of the darlings of the social world. She made her debut at age nineteen, was presented at Court, and was considered one of the greatest marital prizes of the 1896 Season. You could scarcely pick up a paper without the society column containing some mention of her. Natsuki does not recall the name?"
"Shizuru, have you ever seen me read a society column? The lifestyles of the rich and overbred don't appeal to me in the slightest."
Shizuru touched her finger to her lower lip in a parody of a thoughtful mien.
"Ara, that is a point. Nonetheless, she was quite celebrated."
I supposed the girls at the seminary I'd been supposed to be attending at the time would have been fascinated by the doings of Society; indeed, several of them would likely be looking forward to their own debuts. Maybe even me. The bastard daughter of a foreigner and his mistress wasn't going to be presented at Court anytime soon, but I might have become a proper ornament to the household of some professional, City man, or squire. If I'd been possessed by the spirit of somebody else, maybe.
"So who'd she marry?"
"No one?" I echoed.
"She attracted many offers, of course, being beautiful, charming, and wealthy. Moreover, the fact that her parents were deceased meant that her fortune would be immediately accessible to her husband rather than being tied up in marriage settlements or doled out by the whims of a father-in-law who'd have to be placated. As you might gather, there were many fortune hunters. However, she settled on a Russian, perhaps with some regard to her own family history. He was a younger son of a minor family, distantly related to Prince Yusupov, and was a bit of an adventurer. However, he was no fortune hunter, having obtained a position of responsibility as the guardian of the child of a wealthy Italian count. They'd been friends in their adventuring days, you see."
"I'm guessing things didn't run all that smoothly, though."
"No." Shizuru shook her head sadly, "They were to be married at the end of August, but that July, Rena Searrs died tragically. She was hosting a house-party at Odessa and had gone for a ride, when a saddle-girth broke while she was taking a jump. Her neck was broken, leaving her eight-year-old sister as the last survivor of the Searrs family."
"That's why you said that they've been fortunate only as it regards money."
"And in that respect they have been very fortunate. Under Smith's direction the Searrs holdings have increased significantly. He had a reputation in the City as a very astute and extremely ruthless businessman. Were he an American, he would no doubt have been one of those 'robber barons' one reads about. Of course, a man like that would be twice as dangerous with a financial stake the size of Searrs's backing him."
"You mean, he's the type of man who'd made enemies. Competitors overcome, business partners forced to take a less-profitable arrangement due to the Searrs trust's financial power, or people injured by harsh, even outright shady business practices?" Shizuru looked at me oddly. "What? Just because I don't read the social gossip doesn't mean that I don't know how the important stuff works."
"I must remember not to underestimate Natsuki."
"Damn right," I said, feeling faintly insulted. Did I come off as that much of an ignorant sapskull just because I didn't like to dress stuff up in a pretty picture with a bow on it? "So this Trepoff person..."
"The telegram just gave the name as if you'd know whom he or she was like Smith and Odessa."
"That's quite true."
The cab was slowing to a stop; I glanced out the window and recognized the facade of Victoria Station.
"So who is he? Some business rival?"
Shizuru shook her head.
"Not in the sense that you mean. Sergay Trepoff was Rena Searrs's fiance."
~X X X~
A/N: As I noted back in "Elementary, My Dear Natsuki," I made Natsuki a smoker solely so I could insert a joke given to me by my friend RadiantBeam, and here it was!
As in "Come, Natsuki, The Game is Afoot," the other cases mentioned by Natsuki as being solved in between stories are taken from the original Sherlock Holmes canon. Try to figure out which ones!
A growler, also called a four-wheeler, is the more common type of cab from the era (although the hansom is more famous), a small closed carriage.