Dreaming Spies

February 17, 2015 (US and UK)
Dreaming Spies High Res JPEG image

 

Excerpt One

Chapter One

Old grey stone travels

Moss-covered, cradled in straw,

Blinks at English spring.

 

”It’s a rock, Holmes.”
Sherlock Holmes raised his tea-cup to his lips. He swallowed absently, then glanced down in surprise, as if the homecoming drink had brought to mind the face of a long-forgotten friend. “Is it the water from our well that makes Mrs Hudson’s tea so distinctive,” he mused, “or the milk from Mrs Philpott’s cows?”

My lack of reply had no effect on his pursuit of the idea.

“It would make for an interesting monograph,” he continued. “The significance of a society’s hallmark beverage. Tea: Moroccan mint, Japanese green, English black. In America, there is—well, one can hardly call it ‘coffee.’ The Bedouin, of course . . .”

I only half-listened to his reverie. Truth to tell, I was enjoying not only the contents of my cup, but the lack of fretting waves beneath my feet and the peace of this cool spring afternoon. We had just returned, after what began as a brief, light-hearted trip to Lisbon became (need I even add the word “inevitably”?) tumultuous months in several countries. This was far from the first time I had stood on the terrace with a cup of tea, appreciating not being elsewhere. Although it did seem that no sooner was I enjoying the peace than something would come along to shatter it: an urgent telegram, a bleeding stranger at the door. I stirred.

“Holmes, the rock.”

“You are right, it’s probably best to leave America out of the matter. Although possibly—”

“Holmes!”

“Yes, Russell, it is a rock. A rather fine rock, would you not agree? An almost . . . Japanese sort of a rock?”

I turned my eyes from husband to granitic intruder.

Higher than my knee, with an interesting pattern of moss and lichen and a tracery of dark veins running through it, the stone had been planted—for “planted” was the word—in the flower bed encircling the terrace. And not in a central position, but asymmetrically, half-concealed behind a rounded juniper. In the spring, it would almost disappear beneath Mrs Hudson’s peonies.

Almost disappear. As it was almost Japanese. As I reflected on the massive and permanent shape, I realised that it looked as if it had risen from the Sussex earth long before juniper and peony were introduced. Before the old flint house behind me was built, for that matter—although it had definitely not been there when I left for Portugal the previous November.

“It was most peculiar.” Mrs Hudson’s voice behind us sounded apologetic. “These four Oriental gentlemen drove up in a lorry, and while the three young ones began to unpack the thing—it was wearing a sort of straw overcoat!—the older one marched back here to look at the terrace. He poked at the ground for a few minutes—hard as stone itself, it being that cold snap we had in December—and asked me what colour my peonies were. It’s beyond me how he knew there were peonies at all. He was polite, you understand, but a little . . . quiet.”

We both turned sharply to look at her. “Did he threaten you?” Holmes demanded.

“Heavens, no. I told you he was polite. Just . . . well, once or twice you’ve had folk here who, shall we say, give one the feeling that it’s good they’re on your side. If you know what I mean?”

“Dangerous.”

“I suppose. Although honestly, it was only his nature, not in the least aimed at us. In any event, Patrick was here.” A complete non-sequitur, since our farm-manager looked about as threatening as one of his draught horses. “But the fellow clearly wasn’t about to explain. So I told him—what colour they were, that is—and he said he was terribly sorry, his men would need to move one of them, but that the darker one should be fine where it was, and that’s what they did. They were careful, give them that. Seemed to know what they were doing. After they left, I’d have had Patrick put Daisy into harness and drag the thing away into the orchard, but I thought it might be something you’d arranged and forgot to mention. In any event, once I’d lived with it for a few days, it grew on me, like. Peculiar ornament for an herbaceous border, but not all that bad. And I could see that the peony would be better where the Oriental gentlemen put it. So, shall I have Patrick remove it?”

“No!”

Under other circumstances, I’d have read Holmes’ quick reply as an urgent need to keep her from danger, but I thought it pretty unlikely that this massive object could be hiding a bomb. Instead, I took his fast refusal to mean that this drastic addition to our accustomed view was having the same effect on him as it was on me: once the eyes had accepted the shape, the mind began to rearrange the entire garden around it. In less than the time it took to drain one cup of tea, I was beginning to suspect that, were Patrick to hitch up his horse and haul this foreign stone into the fields, our terrace would forever be a lesser place.

As Mrs Hudson said, the thing grew on a person.

“They didn’t leave a message?” I asked our housekeeper.

“Not as such. Although he did say one odd thing. When they were done, the others went back to the lorry but he sat, all cross-legged and right on the paving stones, just looking at his rock. In the cold! I brought him out a travelling rug, I was that worried that he would freeze, but he took no notice.

“I went back inside, looking out at him every so often, and I was just wondering if what I needed was Constable Beckett or the doctor, when the fellow stood up again. He walked all the way around the thing, then came and knocked on the kitchen door to give me back the rug. Neatly folded, too. I offered him a cup of tea, but he said thank you, he had to be getting on. And then he said, ‘Tell your master he has a chrysanthemum in his garden,’ although how he’d know that at this time of—”

At the name of the flower, Holmes and I looked at each other, startled.

“Mrs Hudson,” I interrupted, “what did the fellow look like? Other than being Oriental.”

“Well, I suppose he was a bit taller than usual. Certainly he was bigger than the other three.”

“With a scar on his hand?” Holmes asked.

“Yes, now that you ask. All down the back of his hand, it was—”

But we didn’t wait to hear the rest of it. As one, we set our cups upon the table and strode across the terrace to the steps leading to the orchard and the Downs beyond. At the small inner gate, we turned to look. This, the more hidden side, looked as if someone had tried to carve a flower on it, a thousand years before.

Not a chrysanthemum: the Chrysanthemum.

A venerable stone we had last seen a year ago in the Emperor’s garden in Tokyo.

 

Excerpt Two

Chapter Two

Scholar-gipsy, I,

Homecoming to a strange land,

Trinity Term’s mist.

 

The following morning was wet and blustery. We took our breakfast in front of the fire, reading an accumulation of newspapers. Inevitably, the news was all about the horrors of the weather (a woman killed when a tree fell across her house), imminent threats to world peace, and the attempts at good-humoured news that convince one the human race is a lost cause. With yesterday’s reminder of Japan, my eyes were caught no fewer than three times by the country’s name: an art display in London, the Japanese-Russian treaty that was going into effect soon, and the results of an inquest into a drowned Japanese translator named Hirakawa. At this last, I glanced out the window at the rain-soaked rock, and closed the newspaper.

Minutes later, I abandoned Holmes to The Mystery of the Emperor’s Stone (as well as a meeting he had that afternoon in London, concerning Turkey’s upcoming Hat Law) to turn my face towards Oxford. I took the Morris, having tasks to do along the way, and although the drive promised to be difficult, as I passed through tiny East Dean, I found myself humming in time with the pistons. When I crossed the Cuckmere, I was singing aloud—tunelessly, yes, but with modern music, who cares?

Once my business in Eastleigh was concluded (an elderly tutor, installed there and in need of good cheer and enticing reading material), I turned north. Traffic crept around an overturned wagon outside of Winchester, and again slowed out in the countryside twenty miles later, for some reason I never did see. As a result, although I’d intended to be in Oxford before tea-time, I could tell that it would not be until after dark. I was glumly bent over the wheel, bleary-eyed and trying to ignore the growing headache (a bad knock in December had yet to heal completely), when a snug and ancient building rose up alongside the road ahead: grey stone, heavy vines, yellow glow from ancient windows, wood-smoke curling from a chimney dating to Elizabeth. With Japan so recently in my mind, for a brief instant I saw the building as a ryokan—an ancient inn, with steaming baths and a waiting masseur. A cook who had worked there his entire life, a welcoming tray of pale, scalding, deliciously bitter tea …But no, it was just a pub.

Still, my arms were already turning the steering wheel. The quiet of shutting down the engine made my ears tingle. I picked up my bag and, coat pinched over my head against the heavy drops, scurried for the door.

Heaven lay within, an ancient gathering space that could only be in England, every breath testifying to its centuries of smoke and beer, damp dogs, and the sweat of working men. I made for the massive stone fireplace, and stood close enough to feel the scorch of the glowing coals through the back of my coat. A placid barmaid took my order, while I continued to stand, revolving slowly, divesting myself bit by bit of the layers. Heavy gloves, woollen scarf, and fur hat migrated to a nearby chair, eventually joined by my fur-lined driving coat. When my food came, I was down to a heavy cardigan, and my bright pink fingers were restored enough to grasp fork and knife.

After a few bites, I paused to retrieve a pair of books from the bag. The first was an unlikely but colourful novel I had bought in the Gare de Lyon two days earlier, by an Englishman named Forster. It was a year since Holmes and I had watched Bombay fade behind us—almost exactly a year, come to that: seemed like a decade —and I’d bought it thinking that Forster’s Passage might remind me of the pleasanter aspects of our trip. Instead, I was finding the plot increasingly difficult, and after another chapter I closed the covers on Dr Aziz and the criminally ridiculous Adela, to pick up the other volume, a melancholy old friend.

What is it about Oxford that puts one in a poetical state of mind? One would think that a long-time resident like me would grow inured to Oxford poetry, if for no other reason than the sheer volume of the stuff. Every undergraduate (and most tourists) who walked through one of her doors found it necessary to sit down and compose verse about the experience, all of it romantic and most of it twaddle. But still, in private moments, Matthew Arnold crept under my guard. Who would not wish to be a scholar-gipsy, leaving the safe walls—this strange disease of modern life, with its sick hurry, its divided aims—to learn the eternal secrets of the gipsies, like some latter-day Merlin? Which of us had not deliberately chosen to return to the city by way of Boar’s Hill, in hopes of glimpsing one of the few remaining views of the city below, and thus be given an excuse to murmur Arnold’s enchanting phrase:

And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,

She needs not June for beauty’s heightening.

 

Excerpt Three

 

I sighed, and squinted at the pub’s rain-streaked window. Not much of June’s beauty-heightening today. Were it not for the pull of Oxford— less its dreaming spires than its comfortable bed and waiting fire—I would have taken a room here and ordered another pint of the man’s very decent beer. Instead, warm through and well fed, I paid for my meal and dashed back through the rain, wishing I had Arnold’s luck. This winter eve is warm, Humid the air; leafless, yet soft as spring.

It was spring by the calendar alone, with no softness in sight. I got the wiper-blades going and turned cautiously back out onto the road, hoping the headlamps would last until I got in.

Newbury. Abingdon. Here came I often, in old days. Too rare, too rare grow now my visits . . .

Rare, indeed. Every time I set out with the firm intention of installing myself as a fixture amongst the stacks in Oxford’s ever-blessed libraries, some figurative bomb went off under my feet and hauled me away. Once, a literal bomb.

Littlemore; Iffley. The morning’s singing had long given way to groans of tedium. To keep myself awake, I recited mathematical formulae, irregular verbs, and poetry. Haiku was ideal for the purpose, being both mathematical and poetic: the 5/7/5 structure was deceptively simple, which I supposed was why old Basho came up with so many of them on his wanderings. What would the man have produced if he’d been driving through rain? Perhaps—

Sweet city of minds:
Her spires dream, wrapped in earth’s folds. June gilds the lily.

Or what about:

Dark tyres splash along, Wanting nothing better than A place for the night.

I snorted. Matsuo Basho need feel no threat from me.

The tyres did indeed splash along, down the darkening road, until the edges of civilisation came down to greet me. Much more of this weather and the two Hinkseys would again be separated by swamp—despite the efforts of that other poet, Oscar Wilde, during his unlikely road-building days at Magdalene. I noticed (as Matthew Arnold had foretold) that yet more houses had been raised since I last drove this way: the dreaming spires would soon vanish beneath a tide of suburban villas.

At Folly Bridge, the heavy raindrops turned to sleet. Grandpont was all but afloat. Christchurch probably had a lake at its door instead of a meadow. Even the Scholar-Gipsy would require a roof over his head tonight. The shops on the High were shuttered, the restaurants closing, and only the drinking establishments glowed in contentment.

Dodging trams and the odd umbrella-blinded pedestrian, I wound my way through Carfax and Cornmarket, past St Michael’s and the martyr’s memorial, giving a tip of the hat to the Ashmolean (without actually taking my eyes from the road). At long last, more than half a day since I’d left Sussex, I turned off the many-named Banbury Road into my own lane, and my own front gate, left standing open for me.

The car tyres eased into their place for the night. The engine gave a small shudder of gratitude, and went still.

I had been blessed, three years earlier, to find a house and a housekeeper in one, when one of my aged college dons died and her lifelong companion fell on hard times. Miss Pidgeon understood the conflicting urges of comfort and privacy, and provided the first without threatening the second. She lived in what had once been the servants’ quarters, separated by a small garden from the house proper, and with so much as a few hours’ warning, I would arrive to find the ice-box filled with milk and essentials, a fire laid (if not actually burning), newspapers beside the settee, and never more sign of an actual person than a brief note of welcome on the kitchen table. She never made the mistake of tidying my papers, and she had an unexpectedly good eye for who might be an intruder and who looked like one of the owner’s odd friends.

I could, therefore, rest assured that although I should have to carry my own belongings from car to door, once inside I would find warmth, refreshment . . . and silence.

Holmes and I had been in each other’s pockets for a bit too long.

The house was still, weighty with the comfort of a thousand books. The air was warm from the radiators, and fragrant with the housekeeper’s lemon-scented wax. As I drew closer to the kitchen, the scent gave way to bay and onions: a soup kept warm on the back of the stove.

Tea caddy, pot, and cup were on an ancient tray beside the modern electrical kettle. I checked it for water—full, of course—switched it on, and carried my bag upstairs.

I was rather longer than I anticipated, since halfway up I decided to change out of my driving clothes into more comfortable garments, and needed to dig slippers from the depths of the wardrobe. I came back down the stairway at a trot, hearing the kettle spouting furious gusts of steam into the kitchen, but even with that distraction, my head snapped up the moment I left the last step: the air from the kitchen doorway was nowhere near as warm and moist as it should have been. In fact, it felt decidedly chilly—and scented with the sharp tang of rosemary.

A rosemary bush grew outside of the back door.

One of Miss Pidgeon’s estimable qualities was her horror of invading my privacy: even when she suspected the house was empty she would first knock, then ring the bell, and finally call loudly as she ventured inside. For her simply to walk in was unthinkable.

My response was automatic: I took three steps to the side, stretched for a high shelf, thumbed a latch, and wrapped my fingers around one of the house’s three resident revolvers. The weight assured me it was loaded. I laid it against my thigh as I moved stealthily towards the kitchen door.

From the hallway, I could see that the door to the garden was shut. I could also see footprints marring the clean tiles: prints composed of rain, and mud, and something more brilliant than mud.

I raised the weapon. “I am armed. Stand where I can see you.”

The sound of movement came—not from just inside the door, where an attacker would wait, but from the pantry across the room. Its light was off, but enough spilled from the kitchen to show me the dim figure inside.

A tiny woman with short black hair and the epicanthic fold of Asia about her eyes. Her muscular body was inadequately clothed, as if she had fled into the rain too fast to grab a coat. Her shoes were sodden, her trousers showed mud to the knees.

Her right arm lay across her chest, the fingers encircling the left biceps dark with blood.

“Mary-san,” she said. “Help me.”

 

 

Book One

Bombay to Kobe
The year before: April 1924

Chapter Three

Bombay: oppressive
Harsh sky pounds the land below.
Faint breeze thrills the spine.

 

The only thing that made Bombay’s heat anywhere near bearable was a faint breeze off the sea, stirring the back of my neck. To think that when we’d first come down from the Himalayan foothills the week before, I had actually welcomed the balmy tropical climate! Now, with clothing that scraped my skin’s prickly-heat and spectacles that slipped continually down my nose, any change from this torpid steam-room would be for the better. If someone had handed me a razor, I’d have shaved off what little hair I possessed.

“Why aren’t we leaving?” I complained. “Three days, and it’s been one delay after another.” A diabolical conspiracy of bureaucracy, inefficiency, and the traditional bland face of the Sub-continent had put us here, on just about the last ship Holmes and I would have chosen: one designed not for the brisk transport of goods, mail, and the occasional paying passenger, but an actual cruising steamer, with all the social life and interaction that entailed. Holmes had suggested the alternative of aeroplane journeys, but with a nearly catastrophic one still trembling in our bones, it was a relief to discover the lack of anything resembling commercial air flight in this part of the globe. As a compromise, we had taken the berths offered, but intended to transfer away as soon as one of the touristic pauses coincided with a nice quick freighter heading for Japan without the tedium of Society.

At the moment, I was not the only one to be questioning the delay. Half the population of the Thomas Carlyle was leaning on the rails, sweating into their flimsiest garments and glaring down at terra firma, while the great engines throbbed and the sun bellowed its way up the eastern sky.

“There.” Holmes nodded up the docks, past the nearly-completed Gateway, physical assertion of the British Empire’s claim to the lands beyond. A carriage bearing three passengers drove hard towards us, its horse dripping lather. When they were below us, the poor animal was allowed to stagger to a halt. I thought the creature would collapse then and there, but it managed to brace itself, head down and legs splayed, while two Englishmen (they could only be English) descended to the rough boards.

 

Excerpt Four

 

The first was a vigorous, bare-headed, blond-haired fellow in his early twenties whose first act was that apparent impossibility of looking down his nose at people looming far above. As if the ship had been placed there for his entertainment, then caused to wait for his convenience. My prickly-heat burst into fresh life as I reacted instantaneously to his aristocratic priggery: my face took on its own expression of amused scorn, my mind instantly classifying his taxonomic rank: Phylum: Priapulida; Class: upper; Order: giving of; Family: not mine, thank God

I caught myself, and felt a flush of embarrassment rise over that of the heat. Don’t be a child, Russell! It’s been a very long time since you’ve felt inferior to a boor.

I shot Holmes a glance, finding him blessedly unaware of this vestige of my adolescence, then went back to watching the arrivals. The young man was probably only trying hard to conceal his own chagrin.

The second man was a large, once-muscular figure in his late fifties, who turned to help the remaining passenger down from the carriage: a woman, not as old as he. A daughter? The prig’s wife? (But the younger generation made no effort to assist, merely marched around to the bags strapped to the rear of the carriage and, pompously and predictably, began to tell the ship’s men how to do their jobs.

Meanwhile, the woman took the older man’s hand—no girl, this, but with a womanly shape and a gleam of chestnut hair beneath the wide brim of her hat—to descend gracefully to the boards. Once there, she straightened her hat, tucked her gloved hand through her companion’s arm—gloves, in this heat!—and strolled towards the gangway, ignoring the figures swarming around their bags as blithely as she ignored the rows of disapproving, downturned faces. Seeing the possessive tuck of his arm against her, I decided that this was neither daughter nor daughter-in-law. This was the older man’s wife. His second wife.

“Good thing they caught us,” I remarked to the man at my side. “Their trunks must be loaded already.” A woman that polished would be furious to watch her belongings sail away down the coast of India. But Holmes was not looking at them, nor was he taking any note of the young man, bullying the stevedores towards the gangway.

He was squinting through the sun at another fast-approaching passenger, inadvertent beneficiary of the trio’s tardiness. The others were halfway up the ramp when a tiny black-haired figure trotted out from behind the quayside sheds, slipping around stevedores, carts, carriages, and one exhausted horse in the direction of the gangway, a valise in one hand. Its gait was not that of a child—but only when the figure raised its head to thank the purser’s steward at the base of the ramp did I see that it was a woman.

The English couple came to a halt on the one remaining gangway, immediately below us. I thought for a moment that they were hesitant about committing their exalted feet to the Thomas Carlyle’s admittedly mature decking, but then a brilliant white sleeve came into view. Leaning out a bit, I confirmed that it was attached to our Captain. The great man had descended from the heights for this greeting.

Hat brims concealed the newcomers’ faces, but the lady’s voice was quite clear as she withdrew her gloved fingers from her husband’s sleeve and held them languidly out. “I can’t think what the Viceroy’s man was up to!” she pronounced. “Ludicrous, simply ludicrous. However, Captain, it is good to see you again.”

The Captain bowed over the lady’s hand before straightening to shake the man’s.

“Terribly sorry,” the husband told him. “Idiot boy the Viceroy sent, some peculiar business with forms. Typical of Isaacs. I’ll be having a word with the PM when I get back. Never would have happened under Baldwin.”

His words were less an apology than a means of venting irritation. Clearly, there had been no question but that the boat would be held for them. And steamship captains being as politically savvy as any Prime Minister, this one took care not to rebuke the late-comers, or even cast a meaningful glance at the queue of bag-laden men piling up behind them. He merely stepped onto the gangway to offer the lady his elbow. She slipped her arm through his, and allowed herself to be drawn onboard. Her husband paused to remove his hat, running a hand through a thick head of greying hair before glancing upwards. His ruddy skin indicated some weeks in the tropics, but not months. He had the son’s same aristocratic manner of simultaneously expecting, surveying, and discounting his audience, with features that were handsome at fifty but would sag into petulance by seventy. In other words, a face that warned of that most dangerous of personality flaws: charm.

There was a sudden commotion among the passengers farther along the rails. A tall woman with dramatically cropped brown hair hurried for the ship’s interior, loosing a sudden wave of fellow passengers, their contemplation broken by the advent of progress. Below, the train of baggage handlers was filing rapidly on, the son herding them before him. The tiny black-haired girl slipped onboard in his wake, ungreeted and unwelcomed.

With a ship-wide sigh of relief, the gangway was pulled in, the great hawsers went slack, and the throb of the engines deepened.

“I wonder who those people are we waited for?” I mused aloud. Important, wealthy: probably minor aristocrats, accustomed to the bows of captains and the scattering of crowds. Just what we had hoped to avoid. I glanced at my wrist-watch. “Only three hours late. I think I’ll go sort out my things, and then take a book onto the deck. What do you—good heavens, Holmes, you look as if you’d bitten into something rotten. What is it?”

“ ‘Rotten’ is the word. That was the Earl of Darley.” “Sorry, do I know Lord Darley?”
“I hope for your sake you do not.”
“Holmes . . .”

“He is what might be termed an amateur blackmailer.”

I shied away from the main classification. “Amateur? What would be the point of that?”

The objects of his dagger look having disappeared from the deck below, Holmes turned his scowl to the receding Gateway. “Perhaps ‘occasional’ rather than ‘amateur.’ James Darley is a famous clubman, an amiable aristocrat long on social connections and short on cash. I am fairly certain that he acted as informant for a French blackmailer by the name of Émile Paget. I was assisting the Surété with a case of extortion in early 1914, just before I went back to America in pursuit of Von Bork.∗ Since German spies took priority over French extortionists, I was forced to abandon the investigation. In any event, they told me in June that they were closing in on Paget. Once War was declared, they lost sight of him. Permanently. They eventually decided he had been killed on the Front.”

“Do you agree?”
“I’ve yet to catch wind of him, so perhaps that is the case.”
“And you’re fairly certain the blackmailer wasn’t actually Lord Darley?”
Reluctantly, Holmes shook his head. “I never thought he had the brains for independent planning.”
“Well, have you any reason to think Darley is still active? Either on his own or working for some other blackmailer?”
“Again, not that I’ve heard.”
“I should think you would have.” For both personal and professional reasons, Holmes detested blackmailers with a passion reserved for no other wrongdoer: he had witnessed, first hand and at an impressionable age, the devastation that can be wrought when a good person fears public shame. There was no doubt in my mind that any rumour of Darley’s continuing activities would have caught his attention.

“It is possible,” he admitted.

“This is all the more reason to make certain we’re not seated at the Captain’s table,” I said.

“What if they are only going as far as Colombo?”

I prayed they would be. But then I realised what that would mean. “Oh, please don’t tell me you want to follow them off,” I pleaded.

“I shall ask the purser.”

“Do that.” That should give me time to come up with a good reason why we couldn’t hie off through Ceylon in pursuit of a gentleman crook. “Perhaps if we were at the Captain’s table, we might have the opportunity to—”

“Holmes, no! Surely you can find something better to do for the next three weeks than listen in on a clubman’s inane conversation in hopes of catching him at something.”

To my relief, he did not persist. However, I would not leave it to chance, that we might be honoured by seats alongside the Captain and his most revered guests. Table assignments are what shipboard bribes are designed for.

We watched Bombay recede, then went below to arrange our possessions, and our bribes.

 

Excerpt Five

 

We had been in India since the middle of January, working on a case for Holmes’ brother Mycroft, recently concluded.  Rather than turn back for England, we were now heading for California, where the pressure of my long-neglected family business could no longer be ignored.

It was also, truth be known, something of a holiday. Not that Holmes or I took holidays, but a change of focus can refresh the mind, and we intended to break our journey for a few days in southern Japan. As I unpacked my possessions in the sweltering cabin, I was aware of a distinct glow of satisfaction: for once, we were heading to a place as foreign to Holmes as it was to me. I would not be following in his footsteps, racing to catch up with skills he had mastered before I was even born.

While I arranged on a shelf the half-dozen books I had brought with me from England and never opened, then reached back into my case for the toiletries, Holmes flung a few odds and ends into a drawer, kicked his trunk under the bed, patted his pockets, drew out his cigarette case, and found it empty. With a grumble, he bent to drag the trunk back out from under the bunk. I sighed. It was going to be a long twenty-three days. Normally, we had more to keep us occupied during ocean voyages.

Perhaps I should turn him loose on Darley, after all? No, things would have to be desperate for that.

“It is going to feel odd,” I remarked, “to be on a ship without having a new language beaten into me.”

His voice came, rendered hollow by the lid of his trunk. “I thought I’d put the cigarettes in here. I don’t suppose they’re in your bags?”

“No. You probably put them into the ‘trunks not wanted.’” He rarely used the middle option of “wanted on journey,” being convinced he knew his own mind, and his own possessions.

“Drat. Would it be cheaper to bribe the purser for access to the hold, or to buy onboard tobacco?” he wondered aloud. “And, I’ve never beaten you.”

“Metaphorically.”

He began to wrestle the trunk away. “You do not enjoy our intense language tutorials?”

“Oh, I’ll admit they have their satisfactions”—(chief among them: survival)—“but I don’t know that I’m masochist enough to use the word ‘enjoy.’”

“I do wish I knew more than a few words of Japanese,” he complained.

“Perhaps there’s a phrase-book in the ship’s library.”
“There isn’t.”
“Well, there’s sure to be a native speaker onboard. Maybe down in

Third Class—or in the engine room?”
“I wonder where that girl went to?”
“Which girl?”
“The one who followed on the Darleys’ heels.”

“You think she was Japanese?”

“Certainly.”
“Sorry, I find the various Oriental faces hard to distinguish.”
“The Japanese tend to be longer in face and sharper in feature than the inhabitants of China or Korea. However, it’s more the way she held her body and that little bow she gave as she ducked around them.”

“Well, if she’s in First she may have better things to do than give language lessons. You’d have better luck in Second or Third.” I latched my trunk and slid it smoothly out of the way, then rose, brushing off my hands and reaching for a book. “I’m going for a nice peaceful read. You are welcome to borrow one of my books, but you are not to go through my trunk looking for something you imagine might be there.”

“I shall let you know if I find a tutor.”

“Holmes, I’m very happy to make use of a native guide, just this once.” And so saying, I picked up my wide-brimmed hat and left the cabin, ignoring the disapproving glare against the back of my head.

A quick survey of the Thomas Carlyle gave me its layout: main deck below, promenade deck with our staterooms and First-Class dining, boat deck above us with saloon bar, smoking room, and a few more elaborate staterooms. Above that was the sun deck, from which rose the ship’s bridge, wireless rooms, and the like. I claimed a relatively peaceful deck chair on the shaded promenade. Tropical coastline glided past. The damp pages turned. For two hours, absolutely nothing happened: no shots rang out, no tusked boars rampaged down the decks, no flimsy aeroplanes beckoned.

Normal life can be extraordinarily restful.
I came to the end of a chapter, and let myself surface. I had been aware of activity around me, voices bemoaning cabins and climate, exclaiming over chance-met friends, embarking on those preliminary conversations found among those who intend to engage fully in the compulsory social life of a sea voyage. But the racket had faded as I read, and now, closing the book, I found the area around me nearly devoid of passengers.

That indicated it was lunch-time. I stretched, luxuriously anticipating twenty-three days of enforced leisure, and—

“You did not hear the bell, Miss, I think?”

I jumped, completely unaware of any person so close behind me. I spun around on the cushions and found myself beneath the dark gaze of the small Japanese girl we had seen board.

Her features were, as Holmes had described, more angular than those of the Chinese people I had grown up around in San Francisco. She was wearing ordinary Western clothing, although her frock must have been made for her diminutive frame: put her in a frilly dress and bonnet and she’d pass for a child of ten. Even with her pleated skirt and pearls, she looked no more than fifteen—until she opened her mouth, and the urge to ask if her parents were onboard faded.

I realised that she’d asked me a question, and gave her a smile. “No, I don’t tend to spend much time belowdecks on a ship.”

“Keezy?”
I listened to the word in my memory: queasy.

“Fresh air is better,” I agreed.

“I feel right at home/Lazily drifting asleep/In my house of air.”

I raised my eyebrows politely.

“Bashō,” she told me. “One of my country’s greatest poets.”

I’d heard the name. I reflected on his words: finding comfort in a house made of air. I smiled, then climbed out of the deck-chair and approached her, hand out. “Mary Russell. Headed for Nagasaki.”

Standing, she barely came to my chin. “Haruki Sato,” she said, giving a slight emphasis to the Ha. “I go to Kobe.” Her handshake was practised, although I vaguely recalled that hands were not much shaken in her country.

“Am I right in thinking that in Japan you would be known as Sato Haruki?”

Her face lit up. “That is correct. Easier to turn names around than say to every European that no, I not ‘Miss Haruki.’” She had a charming little gap between her front teeth, and she worked hard to push the R sound to the back of her tongue, away from the L. “Correct” came out closer to collect, and “European”—well, perhaps I could provide her with a synonym.

“What about you?” I asked Haruki-san. “Does the sea make you queasy as well?”

“Western food make me kee—queasy,” she said, giving it three syllables in an attempt at the W sound. “If I wait until all are finished, I can go talk the cook into some rice and vegetables.”

“But you sound as if you’d spent time among Westerners.” Beneath the accent, her English was more American than British, and too colloquial for language school. New York, my ear told me.

“Over one year,” she replied. “My father think that Japan’s future lies in its relations with the West.”

“So, he sent you to school?”
“NYU.”
Not school: university. “What did you read?”

Her eyebrows drew together. “Read? I read many—”

“Sorry—I meant, what was your major field of study?”

“Ah, so. Economic.”

Economics. “Does your family run a business? Sorry, that was nosey.”

“Not at all. Economic is useful, yes, but not immediately to my family’s . . . ‘business.’”

I waited, not about to be caught out twice in the intrusive queries endemic to shipboard society. If she wanted to tell me, fine, but I would not enquire further.

To my surprise, she grinned, as if she’d read my thoughts. “I do not think you would ever guess the nature of my family’s emproyment.”

“You’re probably right.” The possibilities were extensive, given what little I knew of Japanese society: rickshaw runners, bamboo farmers, ninja assassins, pearl divers. Octopus fishermen.

She leaned towards me a little. “If I say, will you promise not to tell the others? If it become known, it would be . . . distracting for me.”

Oh, heavens: she was from a long line of geisha? “Very well.”

“We have been acrobats. For generations, my family performed for the royalty of Japan. Juggling, tight-wire walking, gymnastics. My grandmother was the Emperor Meiji’s favourite contortionist.”

I was delighted: I’d never met a professional acrobat before. “How superb! What is your specialty?”

“Oh, sorry, all that is the past. You see, when I was small, my father fell. From a wire. He was famous jester, you understand? Like—you know Harold Lloyd?” It took me a moment to identify the name with its transposed Rs and Ls, but who didn’t know Harold Lloyd’s character with the round glasses, dangling from extraordinary situations and snatching victory from precarious perches? I nodded. “Father would fool on the high wire and do silly jokes.”

“Stunts?”

“Stunts, yes. His Majesty the Meiji Emperor laugh very hard at him. Father was so proud.

“And then he fell. He near to died, but His Majesty sent his own doctors and he did not die, and then His Majesty sent his . . . anma. Massage man?”

“Masseur.”

“Yes, masseur. With them, Father learn to—learned again to walk. But he could not work. And more, it made him look at what he wished for his children. He decided to move us away from the, um, uncertainties of life as an acrobat. He retired to the family ryokan—inn, of the traditional sort, with hot springs. When his uncle died, Father became its owner. Some years ago, he saw that the future of Japan lies in its relations with the West. He think, perhaps English-speaking tourists would be most happy to come to traditional inn, but one where their language is spoken, their food and customs understood. And so five year ago, Father send my cousin to university in London. Next, he send me—sent me—to America for one year. My younger brother will go to New York for school as well.”

I studied her exotic features, a question mark bubbling up on the heels of my initial delight. Shipboard life was conducive to self-invention. In the course of too many sea voyages, I’d met a “professional gambler” who disembarked wearing a priest’s collar; a self-proclaimed dowager countess whom Holmes recognised as a brothel-owner; two remarkably indiscreet “secret agents”; seventeen married couples who weren’t; eight American retired Congressmen, three Senators, and a Vice President, only two of whom appeared in the Congressional Record; and enough superfluous Royals to fill a supplemental volume of Debrett’s. My approach to all was the same I gave Miss Sato now: a face of willing belief.

“Fascinating. So you are on your way home?”

“I am. Although not by a direct route—I decided to see something of the world on my way. But I will be very glad to get back to proper food. And an actual bath.”

“I’ve heard about Japanese baths. They sound . . . interesting.” They sounded like giant cannibal pots in which the sexes casually simmered shoulder to shoulder, but “interesting” would do to begin with.

She was traditional enough to cover her mouth when she laughed. “Westerners do find them a puzzling side of Japan, it is true.” The word “puzzling” coming from her mouth made me want to pinch her cheeks.

“As the Japanese no doubt find our beef pies and boiled vegetables. Although I agree, one disadvantage in travel is how it makes one crave certain foods.”

“Wrapping her dumplings/in bamboo leaves, the girl’s hand/tidies a stray lock.”

“Bashō again?”

“Bashō spent most of his life wandering; how he must have missed his mother’s cooking!” She glanced down at her wrist-watch. “I shall now go and smile at the cooks. Can I bring you something?”

“No, thanks. They’ll come by with tea in a while.”

She gave a little grimace. “English tea, with milk: another thing I never learn to enjoy.”

She dipped her torso at me and walked away.

I watched her go, with two thoughts in my mind. First, that my chances of getting through the coming days without “intense tutorials” had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. And two, for someone who was not being groomed as a gymnast, the slim figure disappearing down the steps possessed a lot of hard muscle.

 

Excerpt Six

Chapter Four

Pert gaze, quick sure flight.

What brings this lady sparrow

Onboard a great ship?

 

A short time later, Holmes found me, to deliver the news that the Darleys were not scheduled to abandon ship in Colombo. To the contrary, they planned to sail all the way to Japan. “Oh, good,” I said gloomily.
“You don’t sound too pleased, Russell.”
“Holmes, I have several printed means of keeping the boredom at bay.

I have no wish to hound the footsteps of a man who may or may not have had a criminal past, ten years ago. If you want something to do, why don’t you keep an eye on his son? He looks the sort who cheats at cards.”

Holmes paused in the act of lighting a cigarette. “Cards. Excellent idea, Russell. Thank you.” He strode happily away. I sighed, and went back to my book. I would let the purser know that there was a hefty tip in it for him if he managed to transfer us onto a faster ship to Japan. Perhaps I could convince Holmes that Darley had recognised him?

I did not tell Holmes about Miss Sato, not then. I wanted to see what she would do next.

Were it not for the muscle, and the sharp intelligence in those black eyes, I would more readily have accepted her as nothing more than a fellow passenger. After all, a sea voyage goes more quickly if one has sympathetic company, and a woman on her own might be expected to seek out another of her kind, even if not of her race.

But there were other possible reasons for a stranger to seek me out. Yes, Sherlock Holmes was currently travelling under the name “Robert Russell,” but neither of us was unknown, and this oh-so-casual meeting could be the preamble to any number of things. So I anticipated a second approach.

It did not come. She did emerge back on the deck after a time, carrying a book of her own, but merely nodded in a friendly fashion before settling into a shaded corner to read. A glance at the cover showed it to be a volume of Shakespeare’s plays, heavy going for someone to whom modern English was a foreign country. From the corner of my eye, I watched her struggles, and waited for her to put forward a question.

She did not. Two hours later, when she closed the book and stood up, I expected her to “notice” me and resume our conversation. Instead, she briefly joined a group of fellow passengers exclaiming at a pod of dolphins riding our bow-wake, then went below without so much as a glance.

When the sun was hovering at the horizon, with the sea reassuringly calm, I went to the cabin to get ready for dinner—for which, it being the first night, formal dress was not required. In any event, I needed to survey the options for table companions. We had followed our standard shipboard survival plan of booking an entire table with the purser, telling him that we would provide the names later. Over the course of the day, I had identified a handful of candidates for the remaining seats: two solitary schoolteachers, a young wife travelling alone (but for a pair of small children and their omnipresent nanny), an elderly woman artist gone contentedly deaf, and a professor of botany from an American agricultural college. During pre-dinner cocktails in the Palm Lounge, each of these proved almost pathetically grateful to be invited to join us, and I was about to take the list of names to the purser (and tell him firmly that we would begin such arrangements tonight) when I spotted Miss Sato in the doorway.

She did not look fifteen years old now. Paint emphasised her mouth and eyes, heels brought her up to a more adult height, and her dress made the most of her boyish figure. Again I waited for an overture. Again, she gave me a friendly dip of the upper torso, then began threading her way through the crowded room towards another young Japanese woman a couple of inches taller than Miss Sato. The two greeted each other with bows rather than embraces, and their expressions seemed to contain the reserve of near-strangers. As I watched their apparently brittle conversation, I reflected that the vocabulary of non-verbal interactions was at times more foreign than a language: I could not tell if these two had recently met, or were long-time friends—or long-lost sisters. The two accepted drinks from the tray of a passing waiter. Within seconds, a pair of young American men came up, drawn like wasps around a picnic, causing shy giggles and knowing glances. Before long, several other Westerners, male and female, had joined them.

I felt almost jilted.

“Whom are you studying so intently, Russell?”

I turned away from the social gathering with a wry smile. “A perfect innocent whom I suspected of hidden plots. Holmes, your misanthropy is contagious.”

“The alert young lady with the muscles of a gymnast?”

“Precisely! What gave her away?”

“Less the build than the balance. A typhoon wouldn’t tip her over.”

“Well, now she juggles books rather than clubs. She lingered on deck earlier, and I feared she might be playing up to me. It would appear that she was merely being friendly.” I glanced at his fingernails, wrapped around a glass. He’d scrubbed away the engine-room grime, leaving the skin a bit raw: I for one had no intention of joining him for lessons from that instructor. “If you’re interested in language tutorials that don’t involve smothering heat and asphyxiating smoke, Miss Sato might be worth asking.”

Thus, from being a suspicious character, Miss Sato became a resource. We were too late to claim her for our table, but she dutifully introduced us to her friend, Fumiko Katagawa, and once I had reciprocated with my husband, “Mr Russell,” the names began to run past us. The Americans were Clifford Adair from New York, dressed in a blinding white linen suit; Edward Blankenship from Iowa, whose evening wear looked borrowed from an elder brother; and Virginia and Harold Wilton, a shy brother and sister from Utah. There were two Australians, nearly identical brothers named John and James Arthur in rumpled tropical suits, who laughed loud and often and who both answered to the nickname of “Jack.”

Then came the five English travellers in my fellow group of under thirties. Two of them knew no one onboard: an ebony-haired woman in her late twenties with a knowing look and the unlikely name of Lady Lucy Awlwright, and Harold Mitchell, a very young man headed for a job at an uncle’s business in Hong Kong, whose pronounced Northern accent, spotty face, and off-the-rack suit suggested he would find friendship here an ill fit. Two of the others were travelling together, an extended version of the Grand Tour that signalled their families’ enthusiasm to have them safely out from under foot for a long time: Reginald Townsman and the Honourable Percy Perdue (“I’m Reggie” “Call me Percy”), both of whom were Eton and King’s College. They were acquainted with the other man, Thomas, Viscount Darley, the fair-haired snob who had so absurdly set my hackles on edge the moment he stepped down from the carriage in Bombay. I resolved to be friendly to him, to make up for the slight.

On a simple Atlantic crossing, the numbers of young and unattached passengers would have been much higher, but this was the end of the world when it came to wealthy Westerners, thus the population of the Thomas Carlyle was more heavily weighted to married couples in Colonial service, retired Europeans and Americans, and Asians from Subcontinental to Chinese.

No doubt there were more Westerners onboard, attached or otherwise, but on this first night out of Bombay, nine young men and two women drew together like nervous cattle, pulling into their sphere a pair of Japanese women, a delicate lad from Singapore, a stunning Parsee girl whose husband was abed with a sore tooth—and one Mary Russell.

With a murmur in my ear—“You ‘young things’ are better without me”—Holmes faded away. And it was true: once he had left, the younger men relaxed, their voices growing louder as they began to crow before the women and jostle for superiority.

In no time at all, aided by the emptying of glasses, the competition had sorted itself out on national lines, with the Australian brothers on one side, the four British men on the other, and the Americans undecided between them.

Talk veered, perhaps inevitably, into sport: specifically, the kind of football—or as the Americans called it, soccer—they had witnessed in India. At that point, Thomas Darley lifted his glass and said, “To the Colonies, long may they take our cast-offs.”

American and Australian eyes met, and a common loyalty was declared.

His indiscreet words, added to the slow and deliberate blink of his eyes, pointed to his being well on the way to drunkenness—which surprised me, as he did not seem to be drinking very rapidly. I kept an eye on him as I listened to the conversation, nodding at random points, and saw the deft way in which he stepped aside to take a drink from a passing tray, then re-inserted himself into the circle next to Miss Sato. He sipped from his glass and made a remark that brought a gust of laughter. A few minutes later, he raised his hand to make another comment. When he lowered it again, somehow it ended up across Miss Sato’s shoulder.

She gave Miss Katagawa an uncomfortable little smile and tittered into her hand, but the arm remained heavily in place. After a while, he lowered his head to say something into her ear. She replied, he said something else —but at her next response, his grin locked. He drew back slightly. A few moments later, his possessive hand dropped from her shoulder and slid with feigned nonchalance into his pocket.

What had she said? He was charming (that sinister word again) and educated and clearly had money at his command: if he hadn’t emerged as the leader of the ship’s rich, bored, and unattached populace by midday tomorrow, I would eat my cloche. He looked about my age—twenty four—which meant that either he had not seen active service during the War, or if he had, it was limited to the final months. He also looked to be exaggerating his drunkenness as an excuse for misbehaviour.

A few minutes later, he repeated the ritual of freshening his glass, using it to end up beside the Awlwright girl. No: perhaps I would not reconsider my initial impression of young Darley. But as his absence created a space beside Miss Sato, I moved into it.

“Mrs Russell,” she said, with that charming little half-bow. “Not so queasy now?”

“Much better, thank you. But I have to ask. What did you tell the viscount that put him off?”

The look she gave me was wide-eyed and oh-so-demure. “He ask me where I live in Japan. I tell him, Kobe, where my father is big manufacture of guns. Also my four brothers.”

I laughed; she raised her glass, and her dark eyes sparkled at me over the rim. “Well, for fear of inviting a similar rebuke, my husband and I have a rather different kind of proposal for you. We wondered if you might be interested in teaching two foreigners a bit of Japanese, both language and customs?”

She demurred, on the grounds that she was a poor teacher.

“I can understand if you’re not interested, but we would be happy to pay you.”

At that, she turned pink and tittered through her fingers. “Oh, no, I could not take your money!”

“Still, think about it. We’d be grateful for any time you could give us, paid or not.”

“But I would be most happy to meet with you and talk about Japan, teach you useful phrases. Many people in America did such for me. This would repay some kindness.”

“Say, I’d like to learn a little Jap-talk— er, that is, Japan-talk, too.” This from the corn-fed Iowan, Mr Blankenship.

I realised belatedly that I should not have made my request in such a public venue, since every young man in earshot chimed in to say they’d love Japanese lessons, too, followed (with a degree less enthusiasm) by the women. I started to object, then thought the better of it. Instead, I extended my hand to my petite neighbour. “That is most generous of you, Miss Sato. Shall we say seven o’clock tomorrow morning, in the library?”

The early hour rather deflated the interest of the others, which was what I’d had in mind, but Miss Sato gave a little bob and said she would see us then.

When the dinner bell sounded, Holmes collected me for our stroll down the grand stairway to the First-Class dining room, and our chosen table. He claimed a chair with a clear view of the Captain’s table: I did not comment, merely greeted our invited fellows as they arrived, making introductions all the while. A few deft questions dispelled any awkwardness, and soon the table was launched into the discovery of shared enthusiasms. When the purser came by with his seating chart, halfway through the fish course, none at our table indicated that they might be moving elsewhere.

The two schoolteachers—a man and a woman—discovered a mutual passion for Greek mythology. The deaf artist, when she’d had the topic shouted into her ear, happily turned the page on her small sketch-book and began to punctuate the conversation with a series of witty (and occasionally risqué) interpretations of Olympus, with Zeus bearing a striking resemblance to our captain and Athena wearing a pair of spectacles remarkably like mine. Even the botany professor chimed in, with his opinion that the rites of Dionysius were fuelled not by wine but by a particular mountain herb, and that led to a merry debate on poisonous plants and the difficulties of determining cause of death. All in all, an auspicious beginning for a lengthy voyage.

 

Excerpt Seven

 

Holmes, in between comments and food consumption, kept his eye on the Captain’s table. I, too, glanced that way from time to time, but all I could tell was that Lady Darley and her stepson were (as happened, when inheritances were on the line) barely on speaking terms, and that she was more quick-witted than her husband. Still, even in his slowness, Darley possessed a certain easygoing attraction. The Captain seemed honestly to enjoy him, and certainly the rest of the table laughed at his remarks. Granted, one might expect a blackmailer to have mastered the art of easy banter, as a tool to disarm the unwary, but easygoing conversation did not a villain make. Some men just liked to talk.

We came to the meal’s end. The schoolteachers shyly agreed to risk an attempt at the after-dinner dancing. The artist tore off a few sketches and handed them around. While the botany professor went off to examine the contents of one of the large flower arrangements, the young mother said in a wistful voice that she ought to go and see if her children needed her—then rapidly allowed the two schoolteachers to talk her into just a few minutes of dancing.

I watched the Captain’s table disband, and was relieved to see the two elder Darleys head for their cabins rather than the Palm-Lounge turned-ballroom.

Holmes had been hoping to draw both male Darleys into a card game, but not even Holmes would try to follow a man into his private quarters.

Chapter Five

Cups of morning tea:
Clear, clean, Japanese for me—
Or cool English murk?

 

That first night of dancing went on until late. At seven the next morning, there was not a young man to be seen.

I had not slept terribly well myself. First came the racket of late-goers to their bunks, then a vivid and dread-filled dream about a flying deck of playing cards—no doubt born of an overheard conversation between an earnest child and her bored nanny, and the dawning horror that I was trapped for three weeks with a juvenile whose devotion to Alice in Wonderland knew no bounds. Eventually, I pushed the dream away, but in no time at all, the rush of hoses and clatter of mop buckets and holystones on the deck outside wrenched me into a still-dark day.

At seven sharp, Miss Sato appeared in the door of the library, fresh as a spring flower. Holmes rose as she came across the room.

“You are here,” she noted.

“You were in some doubt?” Holmes replied.

She gave a complex little motion of the head to indicate that she would not have been entirely surprised if some more important activity had claimed us. We shook hands as Westerners, copied her bow as students of Japan, and sat down again.

She looked at the table, and her eyes went wide. “Tea!”

Two trays sat on the library table, and two pots. One had all the paraphernalia of the English tea-set, with porcelain cups, silver spoons, a silver strainer, sugar and milk.

But the other held a small earthenware pot, no spoons or extraneous substances, and little cups without handles. She reached for the pot, tentatively poured a dribble of pale liquid into the diminutive bowl, then held it to her face to breathe in the aroma. Her face glowed with pleasure.

“Where did you find proper tea?” she exclaimed.

“Between the ship’s seventeen Japanese passengers,” Holmes said, “and six of the ship’s personnel, I knew that at least one of them would have something you would consider drinkable.”

She took a sip with the reverence of a Catholic at a Vatican mass, then set down the cup and stood. The bow she gave Holmes was several degrees lower than the one she’d used earlier, and held for longer. The eloquence of respect.

She resumed her seat, and her back straightened in the attitude of every schoolmaster I’d ever had. She touched her cup and pronounced a slow string of syllables, then pointed at my cup with its beverage of milky brown, shook the finger from side to side in admonition, and repeated the syllables, with a small difference: Korē wa ocha des’; sorē wa ocha de wa nai des’: This is tea; that is not tea. Our lessons had begun.

That first morning we learned a nice collection of nouns and a few key constructions: This is . . . Where is . . . ? I am . . . She had clearly already decided that, given the few days at our disposal, we should concentrate on the spoken word rather than attempt a conquest of the writing.

One tends to think of Japanese women as timid, even submissive, but Miss Sato disabused me of that notion in no time. Once convinced that we were in fact interested in both language and customs, she assumed the role of a merciless instructor.

Only later did it occur to me that this was the first time I’d actually watched Holmes devour an extended course of information. To be honest, I had to stretch myself to the utmost to keep up with him—whoever coined the phrase about old dogs and new tricks never watched Sherlock Holmes truly apply himself. That first morning, the gears of my brain were on the verge of slipping when came a fortuitous interruption. The library door banged open and in crowded a herd of young men, nervously eyeing the books on the wall, loudly greeting Miss Sato: two Brits, three Yanks, and the matched pair of Aussies—Thomas Darley not among them. One of the Americans asked the steward if he had read all those books. The man smiled politely, and didn’t bother rising from behind his desk to help them.

There were only seven, but with the collective mass of several more. Three of them looked like football players (American football) and two like amateur boxers with their noses still intact. None was older than twenty-three, thus a shade younger than I, and they tumbled across the room like a litter of alarmingly oversized puppies.

“Howdy, Haruki,” said Clifford Adair, clearly the self-appointed wit of the group. “Class starting?”

“You have missed the first lesson,” she told him, friendly but firm. “Mr and Mrs Russell already have their vocabulary assignments.”

“Yeah, well, about that. We were talking, the guys and me, and we thought maybe you could just give us some tips about the other things. Like, the food and the . . . the baths and things.”

“Japanese customs, not Japanese language?”

“Sure. The kinds of things that, you know, might keep us from putting a foot wrong when we get there.”

It was a surprisingly sensible request. I was relieved when he went on to explain where it had come from.

“Me and Ed here, we were talking to the purser about maybe spending a few days seeing your country, but we’ve heard, well, you do things pretty different there. And we’re willing to give it a go, but the more we hear, the more it seems that we ought to learn the playbook first. The rules, you get it? One of the old guys at dinner last night, he was saying what an almighty uproar there was in his hotel when he took his bar of soap into the bath-tub and started scrubbing his back. Ended up having to pay a fine—well, not a fine exactly, but an apology, even though it seemed to him that’s what a bath was for. So anyway, the purser said we should talk to you, and we were wondering if you could maybe give us a few, well, lessons, like, on what to eat and how to take a bath and—”

“And taking off your shoes!” Edward Blankenship contributed. “—and that. And, and . . bars and stuff.”

“Bars?”

I bent to murmur into Miss Sato’s ear. She looked up at the young giant in surprise. “Do you mean geisha house?”
All seven males turned bright red and examined their fingernails. She managed to keep control of her mouth, and nodded solemnly. “I see.” The purser’s suggestion had no doubt been twofold: he not only wished to provide a service (indeed, his income went up when his passengers were kept satisfied), but pursers and stewards were always looking for some means of keeping boredom at bay for the civilians— particularly those large and energetic near-boys apt to work off excess energy by launching into a ship-wide game of tag or blind-man’s bluff, oblivious of any small children and aged ladies in the vicinity. And if he could offer an informal shipboard course with no cost to the ship, so much the better.
Miss Sato had no doubt intended the voyage to be a time of quiet before a busy homecoming. Instead, she was in danger of becoming the centre of an impromptu, three-week-long Japanese university.

“I don’t know that Miss Sato needs to spend her days doing what a decent guide-book could accomplish,” I said repressively, and began to clear away the bits of paper that had accumulated, to illustrate just how much work she had already put in that morning.

But Miss Sato would not be protected. “I do not mind in the least,” she said. “Perhaps we could arrange for use of the library in the afternoon.”

The library steward, whose job seemed to be reading his way through the books on his shelves, stirred, and not from an abundance of enthusiasm. Without missing a beat, Miss Sato continued. “Or perhaps the Palm Lounge would be better. That would give us more room, if others were interested.”

The young hearties looked as relieved as the steward, if for different reasons. A time was arranged, and the pack eagerly fled the disapproving gaze of a thousand book spines. Miss Sato’s smile was amused.

“Sorry,” I told her. “I don’t imagine you’d intended to spend your whole voyage teaching Westerners.”

“It will help the time to pass quickly.”

The purser proved happy to host Miss Sato’s Lectures for Young Men. In fact, so happy was he that, following the boat-wide lifeboat drill, a notice was posted on the boards beneath the day’s news headlines, directing the passengers’ attention to a talk by Miss Haruki Sato on the topic of Japanese Customs, in the Palm Lounge at 2:30.

When Holmes and I walked in, we found potted palms shoved back to the walls, rows of chairs arrayed before the band’s stage, and a surprisingly large portion of the First Class eager for enlightenment, or at least entertainment. While the purser’s men were bringing more chairs up from the dining room, he bent his head to consult with Miss Sato. Behind them on the low stage stood a half-circle of older Japanese persons, two women and a man. The two older women were snugly wrapped in bright native dress. The man wore a suit and high collar. All held fans.

At 2:31, with sufficient chairs added, the purser and Miss Sato turned to the room. On her face was the firm, expectant look of an experienced school-teacher. Chatter quieted, attention was paid. She gave the room a bow of approval, bowed more deeply to the purser, then took a little step back to grant him the floor.

“Good afternoon,” he said, a vestigial Australian accent emerging as he raised his voice. “You know why you’re here, so I won’t delay matters, but before Miss Sato begins, I’d like to know if anyone here has seen the occupant of cabin 312? Her name is—yes?”

His attention had been caught by a stir at the back of the room. After a minute, Clifford Adair spoke up. “Oh, it was nothing—just that Tommy here has the next rooms.”

“Sorry, I didn’t see her,” Tommy replied: Thomas, Viscount Darley. The purser craned his head a bit to see the second speaker, who was considerably shorter than his hulking fellows.

“Did you hear her at all? Moving around?”

“I probably had the gramophone going,” young Darley said.

“Ah, yes.” The purser might have added, So, you’re the one the complaints have been about. But he did not voice his rebuke, merely returned to the question at hand. “The young lady’s name is Miss, er, Roland—Wilma Roland? An American lady, travelling by herself. Did anyone see her? No? Well, no matter,” he said by way of reassurance. “Miss Roland seems to have got left behind, so we’ll ship her cases back to Bombay once we reach Colombo. With no further ado, Miss Haruki Sato.”

Neither Holmes nor I joined in the polite applause, Holmes because he was unconscious of it, and me because I was watching him with growing consternation. He wore his hunting-dog look, as if the purser had just sounded the horn.

“Holmes, what—” But he was up and away, following the purser through the side door.

I half-rose, then sank back: whatever was on his mind, he couldn’t very well leave the ship without me.

 

Excerpt Eight

 

At the front of the room, Miss Sato and her fellows were straightening from a group bow. She then turned and bowed to them, a salutation they returned, before all four Japanese citizens sank gracefully to the floor, settling onto their heels, backs straight and hands in their laps. Their fans began to move the sultry air. Heads craned side to side as fifty-some Westerners wondered how on earth two grey-haired women could look so comfortable with their knees on hard boards.

“This is how we sit,” Miss Sato told the room. “In Western-style hotels and restaurants, you will find chairs, but we Japanese live simply, on the floor. Those floors are fitted with soft, clean mats called ‘tatami,’ very thick, woven from a kind of grass. Tatami are quite uniform. Our houses are built around them, so they fit together to keep out draughts from below. Every year, we take each house to pieces and clean it, from attic to foundation: this is required, by our government. Even then, so sorry, you will often find fleas. All—” She broke off, confused by the chuckles. With a glance at her fellows, she waited until the response subsided, then she resumed. “All year, we sit on the tatami. We take our meals from low tables set on tatami, which also serve our children for doing homework. At night, the tables are moved aside and bedding is brought out from cupboards, and we sleep on the tatami.

“I begin with tatami so you will understand why taking off one’s shoes is so basic to everything in Japan. Think of them not as carpeting, but upholstery. A muddy pair of boots will ruin the house.”

She paused, allowing every mind’s eye to picture the catastrophe of footprints across pristine woven grass. Then she went on.

“But why do we not have floorboards, tiles, and carpeting, like you have in the West? It is not, as you may have heard, because we are a primitive people. Yes, we lived behind locked doors until seventy years ago—but picture, please, what your country would look like if your grandparents had been born into the technology of Elizabethan times.

“However, it is not simply our long isolation. Tell me, how many of you have experienced an earthquake?” Another stir ran through the room, fed by the images that had dominated newspapers for weeks, the previous September. The two largest cities in Japan had been flattened by a huge tremor. Those buildings that survived the shaking later burned in the terrible firestorms. Few of us had been through such a thing ourselves—I had spent part of my childhood in San Francisco, where the 1906 earthquake was an omnipresent memory—but we all nodded our understanding. “Please allow me to warn you: if you find yourself in a brick building when the earth begins to shake, get away from it as quickly as you can. Brick and stone collapse. In Yokohama, half of all the brick buildings fell. Hundreds died. I lost friends, in Tokyo.”

A low murmur of sympathy ran through the room, which she did not acknowledge.

“In Japan, the earth moves often. In a Japanese house, roof tiles may fall, cups and plates may smash, but the house itself is soon repaired. It is built of wooden beams that lock together and move.” She held up her intertwined fingers, by way of illustration. “Traditional Japanese house not even—does not even have windows. If an earthquake destroys a house—or a city—in Japan, it is because of the fire, not the shaking. In September, the earthquake came at a terrible time: at noon, when all the cooking fires were lit. Mr Yamaguchi here is an architect, and he will talk to you about the way the house is made.”

Low bows were exchanged—his not quite so deep as hers—and he began to speak. Mr Yamaguchi’s English was more heavily accented than hers, but clear, and at the end of ten minutes, even the native brick dwellers in his audience had a glimmer of how this utterly foreign style of house was created. Miss Sato bowed, and then she and the others talked about their homes, not only as machines of shelter but as places of comfort and welcome.

At the end of an hour they rose—rocking back onto their heels and flowing upright as gracefully as they had knelt—and bowed to our applause.

As a lecture, it had been quite impressive, not only leaving fifty strangers with a sense of how the cities they would see functioned, but the inevitability of the choices made by the country’s traditional builders—and why such things as removable shoes and sliding walls were necessary. I had little doubt that even the muscular young men, who had come with little more in mind than lessons in colourful customs, had received instead a degree of insight into how the land, the houses, and the lives that went on inside them were as interlocked as the joints of post and beam, mortise and tenon.

The day was heating up, the Palm Lounge temperature becoming uncomfortable. Many of the audience made for the doors. However, quite a few moved in the other direction, towards the front, to have words with the speakers— or, in the case of the women, to have a closer look at the kimonos. One of those who moved forward had come in towards the end: Lady Darley.

 

Chapter Six

Tiny thread of moon.
Vast bright cavalcade of stars.
Dark water beckons.

 

As, as one might imagine, interested in the wife of a blackmailing earl. Charlotte Bridgeford Darley—the name on the printed passenger list—was in her early thirties, with no sign of grey in her shining chestnut hair. She was of medium height and curvaceous enough to look faintly ridiculous in modern fashion geared towards those with my own stick-like torso. Fortunately, she made no such attempt, but chose soft fabrics that draped and complemented, cut in a way that made the young women around her look childish. The rest of her matched: hair short enough for fashion while avoiding the extremes, hands manicured but not showy, necklace and earrings tasteful, solid, and comfortable.

The countess looked expensive, but the money had been well spent. My estimation of the earl went up a notch: this was not the wife a complete fool would choose.

I had drifted forward to join the group. Lady Darley stood patiently, with no attempt to push to the fore, yet her very presence made others fall back a little at her approach. She moved smoothly into the series of empty spaces until she stood in the front rank. She bent to admire the complex garments the older women wore, then turned to Miss Sato with a smile.

“That was a terribly interesting talk, thank you so much.” Her accent was a rich amalgam of London and Europe overlaying a Yorkshire childhood.

Miss Sato and the others all bobbed down in bows, and thanked Lady Darley in return.

“May I ask—my husband and I plan to be some weeks in Japan, where, among other things, he will be representing a friend’s business. Hosting social events and the like. Do you feel I shall need a kimono?”

Miss Sato and the others assured her that it was by no means necessary, although if she was interested, any good hotel would have tailors who could make up a costume for her, as well as maids who could assist her in wearing it. This led to questions about the wide belt that held the loose garment in place—the obi—and soon there was a gathering of women exclaiming over the way it all worked. One of the other English women, a Kent native of about Lady Darley’s age if not her rank, asked what kind of business it was that Lord Darley was representing.

“Porcelain china.” The lady gave a small laugh. “I know—coals to Newcastle. But I believe the thought was that, considering how much destruction the earthquake caused, this could be a good time to move into the Asian marketplace. Our friend plans a trip out himself later in the year, but since we were coming through Japan on our world tour, my husband offered to, as it were, pave the way. Now, this one is made of silk, is it not? And that one of cotton?”

Talk turned to details, and thence to the undergarments. The men made haste to move away, although we did not get so far as to begin unwrapping the two kimono-clad ladies. Miss Sato kept up a stream of two-way translation, and after a few minutes, one of the older ladies had a question of her own. Miss Sato answered, and the three ladies erupted into a stream of Japanese and polite giggles, until Lady Darley broke in.

“May one ask, what so amuses the ladies?”

Miss Sato immediately turned and gave her an apologetic bow. “So sorry, the question was what Western women wear, and I was telling Onoko-san that I would be happy to demonstrate later.”

“A ladies’ salon!”

“Japanese people have as many questions about Western customs as you have about ours.”

The Kentish woman spoke up. “Maybe we could make the afternoon lectures work in both directions? There aren’t very many Japanese passengers, but it only seems fair.”

Miss Sato’s eyebrows came up. “There are more, but mostly in Second Class.”

“You think anyone would mind if they were invited up? I for one would enjoy meeting a few more of your people.”

“The purser . . .” Miss Sato said.

“I shall speak with the purser,” Lady Darley told her, leaving no doubt as to the result of that conversation.

Miss Sato turned to the other two for a brief explanation. One of them nodded in approval, but the other made a face and said something that caused the others to raise their hands and laugh.

Miss Sato turned back to us, eyes twinkling. “It is proposed that the first topic of mutual explanation needs to be this substance you English call ‘tea.’”

A storm of other possibilities flew, but since the stewards were moving into the edges of the room to prepare it for precisely that, the gathering broke up with a flurry of bows.

I found myself moving towards the door beside Lady Darley. She noticed me, and stopped, holding out her hand. “Good afternoon,” she said, with that slight lilt of enquiry that I replied to with my name.

“That was very interesting, wasn’t it?” I asked.

“Quite. I think I shall need to explore the possibilities of the kimono,” she said with an almost girlish gleam in her eye.

“They are lovely. Although I don’t know that I’d be able to stand up that smoothly—certainly not after I’d been on my knees for an hour.”

As I spoke, I watched Lady Darley perform that automatic mental sorting that was ingrained in any member of English society: accent; attitude; expensive shirt slightly out of date; careless haircut; cropped nails; and no makeup. Conclusion: wealthy bohemian. Which in fact was a fair category for me.

“You’re married to that older man, aren’t you?” she asked.

Holmes was not an “older man”; he was . . . well, Holmes. However, I admitted to the relationship. “And you’re travelling with your husband’s son as well, aren’t you?” I asked.

A tiny reaction, instantly brought under control. The countess gave me a cool smile. “Yes, Thomas. Some people found it odd that we should take him on what is, after all, a honeymoon, but this is also by way of a business trip, seeing friends. My husband is very fond of Tommy. And perhaps he wished to keep an eye on him, just a little.”

“Indeed,” I said, and was rewarded by a slightly warmer version of the smile.

 

Excerpt Nine

 

I found my “older man” standing at the rail with a cigarette, scowling at the waves. I planted my backside against the railing. “You missed fascinating talk.” He said nothing. “About the implications of tatami mats. I also spoke with Lady Darley. I get the distinct feeling that she’s led an unorthodox life. Not as completely sure of herself, socially speaking, as she appears to be. I’d say an earldom is a big step up from where she started. I wonder if that’s why she’s travelling without maids? Servants can be so intimidating.” His reply was a grunt. I sighed.

“Are you going to tell me who Wilma Roland is?” “I have no idea.”

“Then why did you sprint out after the purser?”

“I did not sprint.”

“Holmes.”

“I am considering revealing my identity, that I might look at her things before they are packed away.”

“Oh, Lord, please don’t do that.” Invoking the name of Sherlock Holmes to the purser would spread it across the ship in no time flat, condemning him—and worse, me—to three weeks of sidling away from earnest passengers with the most interesting problems, or three weeks in our cabin.

“A woman disappears from the ship a blackmailer is on. And do not tell me that coincidences have been known to occur.”

“Although they do happen. You think the purser will hurry to clear her cabin?”

“They’re sending her trunks back from Colombo.”

“Then we’ll have to break in. If I provide a distraction, how long would you need?”

“Six or seven minutes should do it.”

“Most everyone is busy with tea, including the purser’s men. If it were done . . .”

He flicked the end of his cigarette into the wind. “. . . ’twere well it were done quickly.”

On our way, I caught up a large flower arrangement from a meeting place of the hallways, and stood with it outside the door to 312. Holmes tried the handle, tapped gently at the door, then dropped to his heels to work his lock-picks. He paused.

“Scratches.”

“Every lock on the ship is scratched, Holmes.” Keys were not easy to aim when the seas were up.

“Recent.”
“Just get on with it, please.”
The laden vase was heavy. Flowers tickled my nose. I was just about to offer to trade places when I heard a click. He stepped inside, shut the door—and two uniformed men walked around the corner.

The vase did not break when it hit the carpeting, although I’d tried hard, but it did vomit flowers in all directions. Water glugged across the corridor, soaking the wool, and the exclamations of the men mingled with my own cries of horror and loud apologies and . . .

And it was well more than seven minutes before the catastrophe was cleared and the last apology given, along with a fervent promise that, yes, next time one of the old ladies wanted a bouquet of flowers I’d tell her to order it from the ship’s florist.

Fortunately, cabin 312 had a generous porthole, and Holmes was gone when the two men went inside. Back on deck, the state of his buttons told me how close the fit had been, while the set of his shoulders testified that our bit of chicanery had not given him much.

“Did you find any further signs that someone broke in?” I asked him. “Nothing obvious.”
No hastily scrubbed bloodstains, no upturned mattresses, then. “Tell me I didn’t spoil that nice bit of carpet for nothing?”

“Oh, Miss Roland was definitely onboard at some point.”

“Could she have got off again in Bombay?” We’d been sitting at the docks long enough for the entire passenger list to march up and down the gangways ten times.

“There were three hairs on the bedcover, but none on the pillow-case beneath. The imprint of a body, less the shoes.”

“As if she’d lain down for a time on top of the bed.”

“Also, it won’t take the steward long to pack up her goods. Most of it remains in her trunk or her handbag.”

“Perhaps she’s secreted away with a lover?”

“The purser said that no other passenger has failed to appear for at least one of the meals.”

“He could be down in Second Class? Or she,” I amended, then amended further. “Or Third.”

“This purser is an old hand. He’d have asked the stewards before he put it before the passengers.”

“It might help if we had a photograph.”

Obligingly, he removed an envelope from his breast pocket.

I took it. “What else did you find? Or, not find, for that matter?”

“Wallet, passport, money, an expensive wrist-watch, all there. She’d used her fountain pen quite recently, since it was on the top of her handbag’s contents. No journal or stationery, other than a box of paper in the trunk beneath her bunk. But, no key.”

“You mean, to the trunk?”
“I mean, to her cabin door.”
Interesting.
The envelope contained four snapshots, all taken in India. Only one face appeared in all four, a tall, thin, tentative-looking woman in her thirties with a modern haircut and friendly eyes.

I studied the face: she smiled like someone coming back to life after a long illness, not fully trusting her health. Her clothing did not look new, unlike the modern cut of her hair. I wondered which of her friends had talked her into that exaggeratedly sharp cut. Possibly the one whose blonde hair had a similar shape? Hmm. I’d seen that head before, though not from the front. Where . . . ?

I suddenly had it. “She was onboard, when we cast off. I saw her in that crowd about fifty feet down the railings from us. As the gangway came in, she turned to go inside.”

Holmes thought for a moment, recalling the sequence. “As we cast off? Or as Lord and Lady Darley passed beneath us?”

The earl’s hands had come up, removing his hat, smoothing his hair. Revealing his face.

My eyes came up to meet his. “What, so this woman recognised him and panicked? Why?”

“We know his methods.”

“You’re suggesting that Darley was blackmailing Miss Roland? Ten years ago?”

“Few criminals reform without reason. Darley was never even accused.”

“You think he’s still active? More than that—you think he’s moved on from merely providing information to active blackmail.”

“I think it a possibility.”

“But that it was a coincidence that she found herself on the same ship with him?”

“That remains to be seen.” Holmes did not readily concede to chance.

“And she was trapped because the ship cast off the instant Darley came on.”

“Yes.”

“If she’s not hiding out in her room, for fear that he knows she’s here, then she’s hiding somewhere else. Ships are big. And she only needs to stay out of his way until we reach Colombo. She’d probably figure that her things would be taken off there, too.”

“That is one possibility.”
“You have a more likely one?”
“She lay on her bunk waiting for the dark, then stepped overboard.” “What? Holmes, I . . .” I stopped, considering my words. “Holmes, not everyone commits suicide when threatened with exposure.”

He pushed aside what I was saying for an earlier concern. “Say it was a coincidence. Would she have believed it? Blackmail oozes into every corner of the victim’s life, colours every surface, weaves a thread of terror through every innocent happenstance. Those photographs were taken over a period of three or four weeks. They show her progress from a haunted creature unable to eat to a young woman with a new haircut and a tentative interest in makeup. She’s gained several pounds, despite it being the tropics.”
I fanned out the pictures, arranging them in the sequence he had in mind, then reversed them. “They could as well go the other way around.” He jabbed an impatient finger at the one with the healthiest-looking woman, standing in a marketplace. “Russell: the background. What fruit is that?”

Mangoes. Which had only just begun to appear our last week in the city. “All right, let’s go with your theory. Was Darley in fact following her?”

“Much as I dislike the idea of coincidence, blackmailers do not generally hound victims to their deaths.”

“What if it wasn’t blackmail? Perhaps they’d had an affair, and she broke it off, but he didn’t accept that.”

“Does she look the sort to rouse a man like Darley to passion?”

I thumbed through the four pictures again. Her friends were younger, with careful makeup and clothing chosen to emphasise their youth: the “fishing fleet,” sailing to India in hopes of catching a young officer. Miss Roland, on the other hand, looked like an intelligent woman with more on her mind than hooking a husband. Still . . .

“Stranger things have happened.” I handed him the photos. “But in truth, I can’t see Lady Darley giving him that much free rein. She doesn’t seem like a woman who misses much.”

I told him then about the salon gathering. He waited with small patience through the substance of Miss Sato’s presentation, then showed more interest when I told him what Lady Darley had said.

He grunted, and took out his tobacco.

“Their being here does sound reasonable,” I mused. “I’d guess there is a growing market for fancy English goods in Japan, especially after their Prince Regent visited Britain three years ago. As for Darley, there could be money in it for him, if he provided his friend with any likely contacts.” It was one of the few jobs for which impoverished nobles were qualified: converting the Old Boys’ Network into hard cash. And if the wife had money of her own, well, the wife didn’t have to know about the transfer of pounds sterling from one old boy to another.

Holmes scowled, but he did not argue.

 

Excerpt Ten

Chapter Seven

Black from their shovels,

White with their pure thoughts and prayers,

Red runs through the veins.

 

We docked at Colombo early the next morning, after a night in which my card-dreams turned to earthquakes, no doubt inspired by Miss Sato’s lecture and underscored by the nauseating roll of heavy seas. I’d spent the latter portion of the night seeking fresh air on the top-most deck, trying to count the blessings of a rolling ship: an absence of competing musical airs wafting from the staterooms (the skip of needles being hard on gramophone records); no mid-night shuffleboard or deck-tennis games; less danger of being set upon by the profoundly intoxicated (who were kept gently but firmly behind doors by the stewards whenever the seas were rough).

Not that counting had led to much sleep. However, the day’s lesson with Miss Sato was to be delayed, as she wished to go ashore with her admirers during our half-day in port. I intended to take advantage of her absence, and the motionless decks, to sleep.

Once, that is, the tumult had died down. While the Colombo-bound passengers and day-trippers jostled noisily down one set of gangways and the coal and coconuts streamed up another, I retired to a deck-chair with my book. Holmes glowered down at the teeming dock-side below. I pointedly kept my eyes on the pages.

“What do you make of her, Russell?”

He was not asking about Lady Darley. “Miss Sato? She seems both intelligent and competent.”

“Yes.” He drew out the word. I was not surprised when it was followed by the sound of his cigarette case clicking open.

I sighed, and let the book fall. There are drawbacks to having a husband with a restless mind. “Too competent, you think?”

“Your initial impulse was suspicion,” he reminded me. “Your instincts have been well honed.”

“‘Instinct’ is hardly the word. More like ‘reflex.’ I see nothing in Miss Sato to make me doubt that she is what she said, unlikely as it sounds.”

“The daughter of an acrobatic dynasty, sent for education to an American university.”
“No more dubious than half the people we come across. What are you—” I stopped. Oh, for heaven’s sake: were blackmailers not sufficient challenge for a simple sea voyage? Now we had to add espionage to the mix? “You think Miss Sato is a Japanese spy? Or do you mean she’s working for Mycroft?” It was true that if anyone could envision Haruki Sato as a secret agent, it would be Mycroft Holmes. My brother-in-law’s complex, imaginative, and apparently ubiquitous information-gathering machinery left the official Intelligence of any nation in the dust. If Japan’s secret police were up to that level of creativity, I was prepared to be impressed.

“Why would one of my brother’s agents not have identified herself?” “Because it’s your brother.”
“Hmm. And if she’s not his?”
“Who else — oh. Your blackmailer?” I felt a headache coming on. “Because she came aboard just after he and his wife did?”

“Because two unusual events are often linked.”

“Oh, Holmes. Do you have any reason whatsoever to suspect that the Earl of Darley is a crook? Any evidence that he ever was, for that matter? Or that Haruki Sato is not what she appears?”

“None,” he replied serenely.

I rested my head back against the deck-chair and closed my eyes. I was well accustomed to my husband’s need to manufacture work for himself, but doing so two days into what might be considered a holiday did not bode well for the coming weeks. “Do you want to stop the lessons?”

“I see no reason to do so,” he said. “She is a more effective teacher than the stoker.”

“And lessons with her won’t leave you black with coal dust.”

Neither of us needed to add the additional reason: keeping her close kept her under observation.

I attempted to push the conversation past this random assortment of criminal suspicions. “Do you think we’ll have enough of the language to stumble through on our own?”

“I imagine we shall find schoolboys in every village, following us about, eager to practise their English.”

“Yes, I don’t suppose there’s much point in trying to go incognito.” “Not unless you’re willing to act the hunchback day in and day out.” He and I would have to lose six or eight inches to pass for even a tall Japanese —to say nothing of arduous makeup. “I’m too young to begin a lifetime of back problems, thank you. We’ll have to resign ourselves to attracting attention wherever we go.”

“Perhaps not.”

“You have an alternative? Other than amputating our legs?”

“We will be conspicuous no matter what. The trick is to be easily dismissed thereafter.”

He had something in mind: I waited for it. “Russell, I propose we become Buddhist pilgrims.”

I snorted at the picture of Sherlock Holmes in pilgrim garb, chanting his rosary.

“You believe me uninterested in Nirvana?” he asked.

“I was thinking more about the Buddhist tenet that all things are illusion.”

“That is one doctrine I might have difficulty espousing,” he admitted.

“Surely we’d stand out even more in those white pilgrim robes? Do they wear robes?”

“A short jacket and trousers, white, plus a hat and staff. In which we would no doubt attract notice. But once the locals had marvelled over us, their minds would be at rest.”

“English Buddhists?”

“Mad Westerners are all over.”

With that, I had to agree. And having just left India, where to be a foreigner is to become a magnet for every beggar, cab-driver, and tout for miles, I had no wish to repeat the rôle. “If we don’t want to go as ordinary tourists, I’d guess pilgrim is worth a try. Surely it won’t be difficult to memorise a few prayers and hymns.”

“There is a group of touring American Buddhists down in Third Class, robes and all.”

Third Class?”

“Practicing humility, one supposes.”

Inwardly, I sighed. Outwardly, I put on an attempt at enthusiasm.

“Oh, good.”
Abruptly, he stepped away from the railing and made for the companionway. “You’re going down now?” I asked him in surprise.

“Miss Sato has just left the ship. The Darleys went twelve minutes ago.”Oh, dear. I called out at his back, “Holmes, there may be servants.” “I enquired. The earl, his wife, and his son are all doing without on this voyage.”

“Really?”

“So I am told.”

“Well, would you like me to stand by with another vase of flowers?” He did not reply. As the top of his head vanished down the steps, I muttered under my breath, “Please don’t get caught.”

He did not get caught breaking into the cabins—not quite. His search of the Darley staterooms was briefer than he’d have liked, since the cleaners were working their inexorable way down the line of rooms, but he managed to overturn all the relevant parts of the suite. However, he found nothing to support his suspicions. When it came to the Darleys, the most incriminating evidence he discovered was the earl’s collection of outré books and photographs, and even those would have been legal in some of the countries we put into. Lady Darley’s shelves testified to an intense interest in Oriental art, including two what he termed “sprightly” volumes of erotica. Her clothing was expensive, her jewellery extensive, and she appeared to spend an inordinate amount of time before her dressing table mirror.

Miss Sato’s rooms were the very opposite: her clothing and personal goods were sparse enough to cause speculation. Were the First-Class accommodations a gift from someone with greater means? When I pointed out that her hasty arrival might have prevented her trunks from joining her, and that in any event, the few clothes she did have were far from cheap, Holmes reluctantly agreed that even the pyjamas he had seen beneath her pillow were made of heavy silk.

“There’s your answer,” I told him. “Even if her trunks did make it on, she has the sense to limit what she exposes to the trials of sea travel.” Between smuts, sticky salt air, and the occasional burning ember from the stacks, the experienced traveller locked away the bulk of her wardrobe.

His search left Holmes, as one might expect, unconvinced.

The day-trippers began to trickle back as lunch was being cleared. When Miss Sato had refreshed herself and washed away the grime of the city, we met for a brief language tutorial. As she was writing down the words we were to commit to memory before the next day, the purser came in to ask if she still wished for the salon that afternoon, considering the lateness of the hour.

“Not if it is inconvenient,” she told him. “Or if you like, we could take afternoon tea along with conversation. Japanese tea as well as the English? I bought some in Colombo, for the purpose,” she added.

“What about those special cups?” he asked. “They might be harder to duplicate.”

“Western tea-cups would do nicely.”

After a few more questions, and after Miss Sato’s polite but firm reminder that he had agreed to welcome those of her countrymen who were in Second Class, he retreated.

Her eyes lingered on the empty doorway. “He is very helpful, considering the extra work.”

“A purser’s job is to keep people happy,” I replied mildly. Indeed, the man was probably overjoyed to be given the means of entertaining those passengers who could be even more of a handful than energetic young males—namely, wealthy older women. Yes, he’d been reluctant to encourage the mixing of the classes, but he could see that bringing up a few more Japanese passengers—guest lecturers, as it were —would more than compensate for any complaints from their excluded Caucasian fellows.

The afternoon’s demonstration of o-cha—honourable tea—included comments on the taste, the equipment, and the ceremonial aspects of both Japanese and English tea. The more or less captive audience guaranteed that curiosity was roused for the remainder of the voyage. As the days went on, the informal lecture series expanded to include food, flower arranging, calligraphy, furniture (or the lack thereof), games, the disinclination of Japanese to shake hands and the subtleties of the bow (and especially the matter of how to perform the tricky simultaneous bow-handshake with a Japanese businessman without cracking into his skull), and the best methods of stepping out of shoes and into slippers. I doubted that most of the assembled would remember to give and to take with both hands, and I could not imagine any of them would replace their handkerchiefs with slips of Japanese tissue; however, the salon was packed to the windows with the eagerly attentive on the days given over to those two all-important questions the young men had first requested: communal bathing, and what a geisha was for.

But all that came later.

Colombo marked the beginning of the greater voyage. The temporary residents of the Thomas Carlyle disembarked, with new passengers bound for Manila, Hong Kong, Kobe, and beyond. Seating at dinner and on the decks was re-shuffled, groups re-formed, conversations were repeated, new friendships begun. And old friendships re-kindled.

In the salon that night before dinner, amidst a mixture of evening wear (the continuing passengers) and not (the freshly boarded and therefore un-ironed), all eyes surveyed the room for the new and interesting. Having lost the professor of botany, our table was so sparsely populated that we risked being assigned random passengers by the purser. Rather than face that danger, Holmes and I were watching for one or two likely replacements. I had proposed an old lady with a wicked gleam to her eyes, a tall man with weathered skin and the scar of frostbite on one ear, and a duo of lesbians. Holmes had countered with a nervous-looking scientific woman with acid stains on her fingers, a too smooth man with the manners of a gigolo, and two stocky individuals who could only be a criminal and his bodyguard.

Our debate over these options was interrupted by a loud drawl coming from the scrum behind me.

“By God, is that Pike-Elton? Monty, old man, what are you doing in these parts?”

Everyone there who was not completely deaf turned to watch Thomas Darley make his way to the entrance and exchange handshakes with a slim young fellow with sharp-looking teeth and sleek black hair.

“Tommy, my good chap, I could ask the same of you!”

The talk rose around us again as people turned back to their interrupted conversations. Holmes and I kept one eye on the pair now making their way towards the cluster of the viscount’s particular friends, which included, unlikely as that seemed, Haruki Sato.

(Our table picks, by the way, were Holmes’ nervous lady scientist and my mountain-climber. As it turned out, his was by far the more interesting choice—but there is a story for another time.)

After dinner Holmes and I divided forces: he to the smoking room where the men gathered over cards, and me to the cocktail lounge with the Young Things. I settled with my lurid drink into a seat between two middle-aged owners of Ceylonese tea plantations. They looked at me in surprise, but I gave them a bright and slightly tipsy smile and asked them how things were in Ceylon. That took care of conversation for the next half hour. I pretended to sip and feigned interest, but my ears and brain were entirely taken up with the conversation going on behind my shoulders.

“Sorry to see your time among the Babus has ruined your palate, old man.” Thomas Darley’s drawl, answered by Monty Pike-Elton’s nasal honk.

“What’s wrong with gin, you snob?”

“Mother’s ruin.”

“It does the job. But speaking of mothers, that new one you’ve picked up — good work, man!”

“What, the Pater’s wife? Not bad.”

“A toasty crumpet, my man. How’d the old codger—”

“Monty, for God’s sake, can’t you at least pretend at civilised manners?”

“Touchy, eh? When’d they get hitched?”

“Last summer. They’ve known each other for yonks—she was married to some bloke the Pater knew in the War. After Mamá died, he said the house felt empty, and when they came across each other at some tedious party, she was at something of a loose end as well. They hit it off.”

“So, what, this is their honeymoon?”

“More like a world tour. They both have old friends, here and there.”

“And they brought Tommy-the-Lad on the honeymoon?” Monty’s laugh was goose-like.

“Not sure she was all that keen on it, but I guess she wanted to show that she didn’t intend to push him around. Fitting in with the family, you know?”

“I’d be happy to fit in, too, if there’s room.” His meaning was so unmistakeable, even Lady Darley’s unwilling stepson had to object.

His drawl became more marked. “Monty, have some respect, she is the Pater’s wife. She’s . . . well, she’s not a bad sort, really. Had a tough time of it, for a while.”

“What, your old man married an adventuress?”

“Monty, in another minute I’m going to have to stand up and hit you.”

“Ah, you know I’m just digging at you. Seriously, chap, I’m happy for your Pa. Nice enough bloke.”

“Thank you. How’s your family?”

“Don’t think Ceylon is doing what they’d hoped for the family fortunes. Father’s drinking himself to death. The Mother has herself a poodle-faker she drags around to garden parties.” I snorted into my mauve liquid, startling my tea-planters into silence. When I had them going again, my ears swivelled back to the two men behind me. They were talking about cards, a technical and complicit conversation that had me making a mental note: warn Holmes against playing with these two.

*  *

…and for the rest of the story, Dreaming Spies will be on sale February 17, 2015.

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