It happens in broad daylight. Fourteen-year-old Victoria Rathbone steps down from her gleaming carriage as she is being promenaded on Rotten Row in Hyde Park during the last fashionable display of the season, and nears the crowd that is gazing at the rich. She pretends to be taking an opportunity to stretch her delicate legs, but is actually upset that she is not truly being seen in this evening parade of professional beauties and handsome toffs. She wants to show off her new scarlet dress to the great unwashed.

“Can’t see you, Miss,” someone cries. She moves closer. A pair of thick arms appears out of the masses and seizes her. She disappears into the crowd, pulled into it as though she were a duckling sucked down a whirlpool. The culprit makes off with her, and whatever protests she emits mix with the horses’ neighs and the buzz of spectators. For several moments no one misses her. Then her coachman becomes alarmed.

The girl has vanished into thin air.

The moment Sherlock Holmes reads about it in a morning paper, he thinks of it as a case for him: a notorious crime of genius and daring that rivets London’s attention. But Irene’s response is different: it breaks her heart. She and her father had been to see Lord Rathbone only that morning, on a mission to save the Stepney boy’s sight. Now, the child will be forgotten.

But neither her reaction nor Sherlock’s or even that of the Metropolitan London Police Force matters, because everything about the incident, every shred of evidence, every last player, including the victim and the criminals – even their apparent interest in gaining anything from their crime – instantly evaporates. Days pass, then weeks; the daring abduction remains an impenetrable mystery, without a ransom note, a single clue, or even public information.

Is Victoria Rathbone dead? Or are the culprits simply trying to frighten her noble family, terrify them so thoroughly that they will give in to any demand when it, at last, arrives? What is their game?

Her father is an eminent man, a member of the House of Lords and advisor to Prime Minister Derby’s cabinet on judicial affairs. He is stern and ruthless, a crusader for exacting extreme punishment upon criminals. Never give them an inch, reads his motto, etched in a plaque on his desk.

He doesn’t appear to be frightened by the silence from the kidnappers. In fact, he contributes to it, refusing to utter a single public word about their villainy, as if it had never happened. He remains aggressive about crime in general, and just a month after Victoria’s disappearance, calls for stiffer sentencing in all criminal convictions. “One must be brutal with brutal people,” he asserts. And he gives an example: “If we were to cut off the hands of London’s thieves, there would be no thieves in London.”

The summer ends, autumn almost passes, and still, Rathbone is mute about the crime. He not only puts on a brave face, but forces the police to remain silent, too. He and his household shall not play cricket with evil. It seems as though he will let his daughter die before he allows the devils who took her to scare him, to win, to have any of his money, to cause him even the slightest public grief. He goes on with his job, impressing his peers, making more jarring statements about criminal issues in the House.

“Unlawfulness,” he proclaims on the two-month anniversary of the crime, “comes mostly from our underclasses. When they learn to help themselves more, to give up holding out their hands to their betters, they shall better themselves, and we all shall be better off.”

But he is known to have said privately that the kidnappers shall be caught and severely punished – and if they harm his daughter, he will personally see to it that they are hanged in the street outside the walls of Newgate Prison, before a crowd at whose head he shall proudly stand.

Lady Rathbone, of course, says nothing publicly either. But then, such statements and certainly politics aren’t of interest to her. Twenty years her Lord’s junior, she is still a stunning belle of the London scene at age forty. In her youth, she was known to society as “the blind beauty.” Her bewitching brown eyes growing steadily dimmer with every passing year. By the time she met her husband they had become almost sightless. He put her into the hands of his remarkable personal physician, who gave her back her vision with one of his miraculous chemical cures.

No talents, however, and no one’s power, can help Rathbone with the brilliant and sinister abduction of his daughter. By the time November comes and London’s thickest yellow fogs with it, there is still not a solitary clue to this mystery and the police are desperate. It remains unprecedented in the annals of crime: quiet reigns unabated on all sides.

Then finally, on the third day of that month, the silence is broken. Almost instantly, everything changes.

Sherlock Holmes is ready for the news when it comes that morning.

It has been four months since he solved the unusual case of the Crystal Palace flying-trapeze accident and almost single-handedly caused the arrest of the notorious Brixton Gang. But the public doesn’t know the role he played, or of his earlier genius in catching the Whitechapel murderer. Inspector Lestrade and Scotland Yard have made sure of that. While Sherlock hasn’t wavered in his vow to fight injustice with his very life, to avenge his mother’s murder, he reminds himself daily that such aspirations will take time. And so the boy’s world is filled with frustration – it seems to be taking forever to become the man he hopes to be.

He still lives with strange old Sigerson Bell, the Denmark-Street apothecary as he continues to rebuild himself: working hard at school and studies, rereading Samuel Smiles’ best seller Self Help, learning the fighting art of “Bellitsu,” the manly art of pugilism, and gleaning all he can about chemistry.

Though the old apothecary’s business was recently sagging as badly as his flesh, he is back on his financial feet these days, saved from the clutches of his miserly landlord by a steady stream of money, thanks to the young trapeze star known as The Swallow. That remarkable boy, whom Sherlock befriended after the Crystal Palace accident, has directed many of his show-business friends (including The Great Farini and his son, El Nino) in the direction of the smelly little London shop. Their sore limbs and aching backs are now the beneficiaries of Bell’s often unorthodox, but always effective treatments. He requires them to spend hours locked in poses that actually stretch and loosen their muscles – it is most unusual. And sheep bile, rubbed into the joints, was never so valued by a group of patients.

“It reeks like the wrong end of a donkey, sir,” said an aerialist one day, happily rotating his arms in their sockets as if they were gale-driven windmills. “But it does a powerful job making me limbs work.”

“Never mind the stench, Icarus. It’s the effect that matters. I pondered prescribing horse vomit for you, to be taken orally, so consider yourself lucky.”

“The way you’ve fixed me up, good doctor, I’d try anything you propose, short of you chopping off me ‘ead and replacing it with a pig’s.”

“Don’t tempt me, Icarus. The Pig-headed Flying Man would be a showstopper!”

But such spectacular personalities coming and going from the shop haven’t been enough of a distraction for Master Holmes. On the pages of the old man’s Daily Telegraph, in the glorious Illustrated Police News, and the legless newsboy Dupin’s News of the World, he keeps searching for what really excites him; for what makes his blood race. There is unchecked evil everywhere. He sees notices of robberies, assaults, extortion, and even murder – crimes in the dark East End, Southwark, Rotherhithe, and Brixton. Only one of these villainies truly measures up to Sherlock’s needs; is spectacular enough that a solution would gain him his due. He first read of it nearly three months ago … the case of the vanishing girl.

But it is such a maddening crime to even consider solving. There is nowhere to start, neither for the police nor … Sherlock Holmes.

Until that morning: when Lestrade makes his move.

“Have you noticed this little bit in the Telegraph?” inquires Bell in his high-pitched voice at dawn on the eve of Guy Fawkes Day. They are taking one of their unusual breakfasts in the chemical laboratory at the back of the shop; clams this time, washed down with flavored ice and tea. Both partakers are still perspiring, and each sports a darkened eye, the result of a vigorous morning of pugilism during which each struck the other at least one mighty blow to the visage, scientifically delivered, but with maximum force.

Sherlock’s hawk nose rises from his plate. The old man has been keeping the newspaper from him this morning, and he’s been wondering why.

Вы читаете Vanishing Girl
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату