The Mystic Dagon's Curse by Nene
Adams ©1999 - All rights reserved
--And my language is plain
--That for ways that are dark,
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar.
---Bret Harte, The Plain Language of Truthful James
The house in Grosvenor Square was very quiet that Sunday morning; the servants had taken their weekly half-day off, leaving Lina and Rhiannon completely alone.
The two women sat in the cozy confines of the drawing room, sipping tea, nestled together on an enormous linen-covered davenport and enjoying the slight breeze that floated in through the open windows. Lina's extraordinary emerald green eyes were half-closed, her jet black hair twisted up into a loose knot at the nape of her neck. In deference to the summer heat, she wore only a thin cotton shift and lace-edged pantaloons, both dyed a green so pale as to appear nearly white; her long legs were bare, ivory flesh gleaming in the dust-speckled sunlight that poured in through the open curtains.
Rhiannon's legs were curled up beneath her; she leaned against her taller partner with a small satisfied sigh. Her red-gold hair was confined in a net snood with a dark blue velvet band arching across the top of her head, and like Lina she was dressed to combat the stifling heat in a pretty, frilly camisole and a thin cotton petticoat.
''Lina?'' Rhiannon said, sitting up slightly to pour herself another cup of tea, ''Have you heard from Holmes recently?''
Lina snorted, nearly upsetting the cup she had balanced on her stomach. Her mentor and friend, the great consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, had been unusually quiet of late; the peer suspected that he was working on some secret case, and in a way resented both his industry and his penchance for keeping quiet about details.
''No, I have not,'' Lina replied acidly, ''and I hope he goes to the Devil for it!''
Rhiannon giggled. ''Really, love! Don't you think you're being a little harsh?''
''No, I do not. I am bored, my dear. So bored, in fact, that should Satan himself appear in a puff of brimstone and offer an adventure in exchange for my eternal soul, I would give the matter serious consideration!''
''Lina!'' Rhiannon sat up straight. ''Surely you don't mean that! Why, it was only last month that we traveled to Scotland...''
''Yes, my dear, I know.'' Lina slumped further down on the sofa. ''But since then, there has not been even the merest whiff of criminal activity in London. I believe all the criminals have fled for the seashore to escape the infernal heat and stench of the city. Perhaps we should go to Brighton; surely there we can find an heiress in distress, a taste of blackmail, or even a murder to whet my appetite.''
Rhiannon rolled her turquoise blue eyes. ''Honestly, Lina! Would you wish disaster upon innocent heads simply because you're bored?''
Lina sighed. ''No, I suppose not.'' She drained her teacup listlessly.
Rhiannon sat in silence a moment, thinking. ''Tell me, love,'' she began, passing a plate of crisp biscuits to Lina, ''didn't you and Holmes investigate some matters before you and I met?''
''Yes,'' Lina replied. She sat up a bit and took a biscuit. ''In fact, he and I shared some amazing adventures together... but that was long ago.''
''Oh, I don't think it was all that long ago,'' Rhiannon said. ''After all, you're not exactly an old woman, are you?''
''True. Once again I bow to your impeccable logic,'' Lina said. Her emerald eyes twinkled. ''Is this a hint, my dear?''
''You mean, would I like to hear of an adventure? You know how I love a ripping good yarn!'' Rhiannon relaxed against her wife, caressing her bare calf with one hand. ''And besides, it will take your mind off your lack of employment. It's the best distraction I can think of.''
''I believe I can think of other distractions,'' Lina purred, grinning at the blush that spread across Rhiannon's sweet face. ''However, it is too bloody hot to repair to the bedroom at this moment. Unfortunately.'' She waggled an eyebrow. ''In that case, what shall it be, my dear? Extortion? Theft? Criminal masterminds? Ah... perhaps bloody murder is more to my lady's taste?''
''Ooooh, Lina...'' Rhiannon shivered a little. ''I'm all over goosebumps at the thought!''
''Good.'' Lina grabbed a handful of biscuits and propped herself up against the arm of the sofa, cradling Rhiannon with one strong arm. ''Then I believe it is time you learned of a case I encountered a few years ago... a strange little adventure involving a mysterious Eastern magician, a magic bullet and murder...''
Rhiannon closed her eyes as Lina
began to recount the details of the case she called... The Mystic Dragon's
Lina said, ''Holmes has always been fond of the theater. Do not misunderstand - his interest has always lain more with the concert hall rather than the music hall; however, he does have a fascination with a form of popular entertainment that captivates both the low audience as well as the high. I speak, of course, of stage magicians.
''It was his custom to attend the music hall theater upon those occasions when magicians offered their performances - more for the purposes of deducing their methods than being enchanted by them, I fear. I sometimes accompanied him when our lives and caseloads allowed, but for me, it was more of a learning experience than an entertaining distraction.
''Holmes, with his keen observation skills and razor-sharp intellect, was never at a loss to explain the seemingly astonishing illusions we were confronted with - sometimes forgetting himself to such an extent that his raised voice caused considerable consternation from other audience members. I can recall being tossed out of such establishments on more than one occasion due to Holmes' disregard for his fellow man's enjoyment... particularly when he was offended by the gross simplicity of some performer's so-called ''magic act.''
''That night, we were attending a performance at the Green Jenny, a relatively prestigious theater which had often hosted magicians on their stage. Little did we know that the events we were to see portrayed within those walls would end in one man's death... and perhaps even nearly my own.''
Sherlock Holmes glanced down his aquiline nose at his companion. His gray eyes were hooded and seemed glazed with contempt. ''No, I confess that I have not,'' he drawled. ''Wang Chung, the Mystic Dragon of the East.'' He glanced at the playbill he clutched in his gloved hands and snorted. ''No doubt a charlatan like the rest.''
''Really, Holmes!'' Lina smiled, green eyes sparkling with mischief. ''If you dislike magicians so, why on earth do you subject yourself to their distasteful wares?''
''My dear Lady Lina, it is not the performer's offerings to which I object. It is the deliberately provocative and misleading nature of their publicity and their claims of using 'real' magic in a transparent attempt to fool the gullible into believing that their illusions are true. In fact, I rather enjoy deducing their modus operandi; seated in a theater box, at some distance from the actual stage, I find such deductions a challenge. If only they were more honest in their claims...''
''Holmes, honesty is not the point! Why, you know yourself that if you point out to the average man that the illusion he has just witnessed and been amazed at has been perpetuated by nothing more than smoke, mirrors and the magician's skills at misdirection, he grows enraged at having his comfortable fantasy disrupted.'' Lina fanned herself with her playbill. ''And can you blame him? He comes to the theater for distraction, not reality.''
Holmes snorted again and slumped down in his seat, arms crossed over his chest - a clear indication that he wanted to be left alone.
Lina continued to fan herself, glancing down at the seats below, which were filled to capacity. Wang Chung had been performing to a packed house since coming to London a few weeks earlier; once he had given a Royal Command Performance for Prince Albert and most of the British peerage, the public couldn't get enough of the mysterious Chinese magician..
She sat back in her seat and adjusted
the skirts of her claret silk evening gown. She was looking forward to
having a fun evening; having her mentor and friend Sherlock Holmes in
attendance only made the evening more special - even if he was as cross
as a galled badger. As the gaslights dimmed and the voices of the audience
died down to a whisper of excitement, Lina relaxed and kept her eyes locked
on the stage.
The curtains slowly rose, accompanied by thunderous applause from the audience. The stage settings were Oriental, with lacquered screens, potted palms in giant jars and prettily dressed young boys scurrying about in brightly colored silk robes, waving miniature banners and paper dragons. Dark red and gold carpets with extravagant fringe littered the floor; an iron brazier smoked in one corner, sending up a cloud of musky sweet incense.
Into this scene strode the mysterious figure of Wang Chung, hands concealed within the belled sleeves of his floor length robe. He bowed deeply, the thin fringe of his wispy beard nearly touching the floor. His eyes were squeezed into near slits, and the scrawny moustaches that drooped on either side of his mouth gave him a faintly sinister air.
For nearly an hour, he astounded and mystified the audience members, conjuring tiny dogs from thin air, producing yards of silk from the depths of his apparently empty hat, even causing the ''ghost'' of a Chinese princess to appear in a cloud of colored smoke. Since Wang Chung spoke no English, his actions were narrated by his assistant - an ancient and bent Oriental crone who perched within an open palanquin, her wavering voice made all the more eerie by echoes cast back by the theater walls.
Lina was enchanted; Holmes less so.
''See?'' he said, pointing. ''While you are distracted by his smoke bomb - a trick I have used myself from time to time - he deftly plucks the so-called magic coins from the pocket of his robe. Really, Lady Lina... a child would have little difficulty in divining the nature of his 'magic'.''
Lina sighed. ''Holmes, for once in your life, can you not simply enjoy yourself? I realize you are never less than logical...''
Holmes interrupted her. ''And that ghost! Why, it is very nearly laughable! A magic lantern, no doubt operated by a confederate, which projects the image onto the smoke screen. After viewing such a travesty, I begin to understand the wisdom of our government in refusing to repeal the antique witchcraft laws.''
''Do you truly believe that Her Majesty's government would prosecute a magician for performing? It would be just as well to haul you away, my friend. Many believe you to possess occult powers.''
''I cannot deny that, however I have never advertised myself as a necromancer or sorceror. Therein lies the difference.''
Lina opened her mouth to continue the argument, then thought the better of it. If Holmes is determined to be indignant, she thought, so be it. I will at least not allow him to spoil my evening.
Wang Chung's act had come to its dramatic finale - "The Emperor's Firing Squad.'' The Chinese magician stood upon the stage with a blindfold across his eyes, clutching a plate to his chest. Two young men dressed in Oriental costume took their positions in front of him; both of them were armed with front-loading rifles.
Lina leaned forward, one hand clutching the rail in front of her. This was the much-talked-about climax to Wang Chung's performance - both rifles would fire simultaneously and he would catch the bullets in his teeth. This death-defying action had made the magician's reputation and the audience was breathless with anticipation.
When the assistant asked for volunteers from the audience to come up and examine the bullets, Lina half expected Holmes to rise from his seat. But he did not; the saturnine detective merely harrumphed and continued to slump in his chair, eyes glimmering faintly in the darkness of the theater.
The bullets having been pronounced real by a former Army general and a baronet, the young marksmen loaded their rifles, ramming the bullets home with a gunpowder charge. Wang Chung calmly stood in position; he would spit the bullets out into the plate he held after catching them.
There was silence, then from the orchestra came a drum roll. The crone gave the order: ''Fire!''... and the rifles barked simultaneously, puffs of gray smoke wafting across the stage.
Wang Chung slumped to the stage,
the plate he had held shattered into pieces. For a long moment, the audience
members rustled and whispered, obviously wondering if this was some sort
of dramatic act, comparing it to the performances they had seen before.
Finally, the stage assistants realized that something was terribly wrong
and rushed over to the fallen Chinaman... and to their horror, the audience
realized that the red stain blossoming on Wang Chung's elaborate robe
was not dye - it was his own life's blood.
At the first shouts of ''Murder!'' Sherlock Holmes sat up, electrified. ''Let us go, my lady,'' he said shortly, disappearing from the theater box. Lina had no choice but to follow.
Several gentlemen from the audience had responded to the assistants' pleas for a doctor and were engaged in examining the unfortunate Wang Chung. Holmes rudely pushed through to the stage, ruthlessly using his bony elbows to part the milling throng that crowded the front of the theater in the hopes of seeing either Wang Chung's resurrection or his dead body; half of them were convinced it was part of the act but the other half was nearly hysterical with fear.
Lina followed Holmes, ruefully consigning her best hat to the crush when it fell off her head. She was nearly as tall as Holmes and just as strong, so she had little difficulty in shoving the well-fed patrons to one side in order to clamber up onto the stage itself. Fortunately, the skirts of her dress were widely cut and hampered her only a little, but Holmes' absently extended hand was still a help.
Lina surveyed the scene; the theater manager, a Russian emigree named Ivan Petrovitch, was wringing his hands and muttering. Stepping over porcelain shards, Lina confronted him. ''Have you called the police?'' she asked.
Petrovitch babbled something unintelligible in Russian, so Lina said, ''Sir, please calm yourself. Have you summoned a police officer? You do realize the necessity of having a representative of the law on the scene?''
''What?'' Petrovitch's watery blue eyes stared from behind the pince-nez perched on his nose. ''What, what, what? The police? Why are we needing the police? It was an accident, an accident, by God!''
''I am certain it was,'' Lina replied soothingly. ''However, the local constabulary must be notified...''
Petrovitch waved her away. ''I have no time, woman! The stage must be cleaned for tomorrow's matinee!''
He wandered backstage and Lina allowed him to go. He's hysterical, poor man, she thought. Let him get away and come to his senses by himself.
In the meantime, Holmes had crouched down beside the body. ''Lady Lina! Come here!'' he barked.
Lina hastened to comply; if anyone else had spoken to her in such a fashion, she probably would have boxed his ears, but her deep and abiding respect for Holmes allowed him to get away with behavior she would not otherwise have tolerated.
When Lina arrived, he pointed at the lax features of Wang Chung. ''This gentleman was not Chinese,'' he said. ''Note the lack of any epicanthic fold about the eyelids. Furthermore, this moustache and beard are artificial, and the saffron tone to his skin has been achieved by the careful application of stage makeup. From my admittedly cursory examination, I would judge that this fellow is English by birth.''
Lina looked thoughtful. ''Hardly a crime, Holmes. Many entertainers use a stage name as well as make-up to alter their appearance. You have done so yourself.''
''To combat criminals, my lady. Not to fool the general public.'' Holmes sat back on his heels. ''No one may leave the building until the police have arrived and determined the nature of the unfortunate gentleman's death. See to it, if you please.''
''What about you, Holmes?'' Lina knelt down beside her friend and pitched her voice low to avoid being overheard. ''Will you not lend your investigative talents to help solve Wang Chung's death?''
Holmes drew in a breath and let it out again slowly. ''My dear Lady Lina, from what I have already observed, I would say that Master Chung's death was accidental. If anyone is so foolish as to stand in front of a firing squad holding loaded weapons, when he is shot it should come as a surprise to no one, including himself.''
Lina argued, but Holmes was adamant - he had absolutely no interest in the case.
''Very well, Holmes,'' Lina finally said. ''I trust you will have no objection if I begin an investigation?''
''If you wish to waste your time, I cannot stop you.'' Holmes saw the burly figures of several policemen entering the theater. ''Now, if you will excuse me...''
He departed from the stage, leaving Lina alone with a rapidly cooling corpse, several crying children... and a Chinese crone whose papier-mache wrinkles were rapidly sliding off her tear-stained face.
Lina walked over to the weeping woman and offered her a clean handkerchief. ''My name is Lady Evangeline St. Claire,'' she said. ''Judging from your dissolving features, you are neither Chinese nor as ancient as you seemed. What is your name?''
The woman snuffled, wiping her face with the lace trimmed cloth. ''Miss Mabel Shanks, my lady,'' she replied in a broken voice.
''Miss Shanks... I offer you my sincerest condolences on your most unfortunate loss.'' Lina snagged a loose length of linen from a passing stagehand and gave it to Mabel, indicating she should wipe her face. ''Perhaps you would care to retire to a more private place to await the police? I am certain they will be at their questioning for hours.''
Lina attempted to lead her away, but when Mabel saw the two young marksmen being taken away in handcuffs, she burst into a fresh storm of weeping. ''Me Albert! They're takin' away me Albert!,'' she cried.
''One of those men is your financee?''
''Yes! Oh, please, my lady... don't let 'em hurt me Albert!''
''I am sure the police are only taking precautions,'' Lina replied. ''Come; do you have a dressing room? Let us repair there; it will be much more quiet and we can consider what we are to do about your Albert.''
Mabel's dressing room was tiny, scarcely able to hold a small dressing table, mirror, chair and a trunk of costumes. The table was littered with cosmetics; half-open drawers were nearly bursting with wigs, feathers, masks and other paraphernalia of the theater.
Lina got Mabel settled and helped the woman clean her face with some cream from a jar. Beneath the elaborate Oriental makeup she proved to be a pretty young girl of about twenty with mousy blonde hair and brown eyes that were swollen with tears. She blew her nose vigorously and said, ''I'm sorry, my lady. It's just that me an' Albert have been engaged for ever so long, and now who knows when we can have the weddin'?''
''I quite understand, Miss Shanks.'' After glancing about, Lina settled onto the closed lid of the trunk. ''Perhaps you can tell me precisely what happened this evening.''
''I dunno, my lady,'' Mabel sniffled. ''It were just like any other night. Nuffin' special about it.''
''So nothing happened that was out of the ordinary? Nothing at all?''
''Nope.'' Mabel scratched her head. ''Me Albert and that fellow Simms done it just like always, same bullets and all. Only now he's dead and me Albert's in gaol! Oh, lady... can you help him? Me Albert, I mean.''
''I will certainly make it my business to exonerate your fiancee,'' Lina replied, ''providing, of course, he is not a guilty party.''
''Oh no, my lady! Me Albert's a good boy, he is... we was plannin' on getting married next spring, we was just waitin' for me dowry... Master Chung said he was gonna give me fifty whole pounds to spend on the weddin'.''
''I see.'' Lina was about to ask
another question when she was interrupted by a loud knock on the door.
It was the stage manager, Petrovitch. He had collected himself and was no longer hysterical. ''Mabel,'' he began upon entering, but stopped when he saw Lina. ''I am begging your pardon, my lady,'' he continued with a small tilt of his head. ''The police wish to question Miss Shanks.''
''Very well.'' Lina stood and exited the small room. When Mabel had gone, she turned her attention to the theater manager. ''Mister Petrovitch,'' she asked, ''did you notice anything unusual about tonight's performance?''
Petrovitch's left eye twitched. ''Nyet. All was as usual, my lady. May I ask, what is your interest in this matter?''
Lina considered a moment before replying. ''I am a private consulting detective, Mister Petrovitch. I have been engaged by Miss Shanks to ensure that her fiancee, Albert, is not incarcerated unduly by the police.''
''Ah.'' The Russian's eye twitched more rapidly. ''An unusual occupation for a lady, no?''
''Some may consider it so.'' Lina pulled the white gloves from her hands and thrust them into the small reticule that hung from one of her wrists. ''May I ask, sir - how well did you know the deceased?''
''I was knowing him only a few weeks, my lady,'' Petrovitch answered calmly, although his eye continued its convulsions. His voice held the faintest traceof a Russian accent. ''He was a performer, like so many others; I do not become intimately acquainted with every magician or actor who graces my stage.''
''How long have you been in England, Mister Petrovitch?''
''Many years. I came here as a boy. My family remained behind in Russia, but I still support them.'' The twitching in his eye began to slow down. ''If you are excusing me, my lady, I must go. I have much to do.'' He bowed from the waist.
Lina nodded and the theater manager left.
Lina swept past a clustered knot of police officers who were attempting to comfort the three Chinese children - none of whom spoke much English - and confronted Holmes. He was speaking quietly with Detective-Inspector Adam Livingston. ''Holmes? Has anything of importance been uncovered yet?'' Lina asked.
Livingston eyed her warily. ''And how would you be involved in this affair, madame?''
''If I had my way, not at all,'' Holmes muttered, then said more loudly, ''Lady Evangeline St. Claire, Inspector Livingston. A colleague and good friend of mine. In answer to your question, Lady Lina, the only thing we have uncovered is unmistakable evidence that points to an accidental death.''
''What evidence?'' Lina asked eagerly.
Livingston cleared his throat. He was a short, slightly rotund gentleman with a large fluff of mutton-chop sideburn framing his florid face. ''If you'll excuse me, Mister Holmes,'' he said. ''I've got a few details to clear up before we can allow these people to go home.''
''Of course.'' Holmes watched him go, then turned to Lina. ''Well?'' he asked.
''Thus far, I have discovered that the Chinese crone is a young Englishwoman named Mabel Shanks, and that the theater manager, Petrovitch, has a nasty twitch in his eye. Oh, and young Mabel is affianced to Albert, one of the marksmen. Neither of them noticed anything unusual or out of place in tonight's performance.''
''Nor should they have.'' Holmes indicated a small table; in the midst of the Oriental splendor that still decorated the stage, the little table, all battered and paint-splattered, seemed incongruous. ''These are the instruments of destruction, or, I should more correctly say, this one in particular.'' He picked up a rifle and brandished it at Lina.
She took it from his hand and sniffed the barrel. ''Recently fired,'' she observed, then peered down the barrel. ''As it is no longer loaded, I would agree with your conclusion.''
''It is good of you to do so,'' Holmes replied. ''Now, then... would you wish to learn Master Chung's secret of catching bullets?''
''Of course.'' Lina laid down the rifle and took up the other one. ''However, it would be more sporting of you to allow me to figure it out myself.''
Holmes fidgeted in silence while Lina examined the still loaded weapon. ''Ah,'' she finally crooned. ''I do believe I have it.''
The detective snatched the rifle from her hand. ''While I admire you greatly, Lady Lina, and count you among my closest friends, you can nevertheless be quite infuriating!''
''Because I did not allow you to amaze me with your deductions? Come, Holmes, I thought us beyond such parlor tricks.''
''It is no trick, as you well know, but the exercise of many years practice in the art of deductive reasoning. But I will not sully my gentlemanly reputation by arguing with a lady,'' he replied with a mocking little bow. ''Since you have examined the evidence yourself, have you reached a conclusion?''
''Yes.'' Lina let Holmes fidget a
moment longer before explaining how Wang Chung the Mystical Dragon eluded
death by catching bullets... until the fateful night when a bullet caught
"It is really quite simple once one knows the trick to it,'' Lina said. ''The guns have obviously been altered. Observe.''
She quickly took the rifle apart. ''You see here, in the barrel where one would place a percussion cap - that has been sealed off with a screw and a channel has been bored in the ramrod tube. When this weapon is fired, instead of setting off a blast in the barrel to fire a bullet, a blast is set off in the ramrod tube.''
She shook the barrel upside down and a bit of paper fell to the floor. ''A small and harmless charge of gunpowder is placed within the ramrod tube; this causes the bang and puffs of smoke we expect to see when a rifle is fired. However, the dangerous bullet remains snug within his chamber, causing harm to no one. Master Chung would then produce bullets from somewhere about his person, conceal them within his mouth when the audience was distracted by the firing guns, and pretend to catch the missiles. Ingenious.''
She peered thoughtfully at the disassembled rifle. ''However, tonight something clearly went wrong.''
''Now it is I who must take up the tale,'' Holmes said. ''I took the liberty of examining Master Chung's dressing room while you were comforting maidens in distress. It seems that the gentleman used specially marked bullets in his performances. In order to avoid damaging the bullets, he used the unorthodox method of unscrewing the breech of the rifle in order to remove the bullet instead of the more usual corkscrew. Since he has been performing this feat for some years, his repeated entries into the breech have caused the entire assembly to become unstable. And as Master Chung is inordinately fond of a very fine grain gunpowder - this due to some aesthetic sense, I suppose...''
Lina interrupted. ''I see! Some of the gunpowder undoubtedly trickled through the worn threads of the screw and into the barrel itself. When the trigger was pulled, the bullet fired, and Chung was killed instantly. Poor man!''
''Not so poor, I am afraid. Our Mystic Dragon received well over five hundred pounds a week from his performances; more, of course, when entertaining royalty. His manager - the gentleman in the corner wearing the rather unfortunate plaid suit - assures me that Chung has played his role in every European nation on earth, to crowned heads and the more humble. If he has less than twenty thousand in the bank today I would be greatly surprised.''
''Does he have any heirs?'' Lina asked.
''As I was not engaged as his solicitor, such information is beyond my ken,'' Holmes replied. ''Now, I hope you are satisfied that what we witnessed tonight was nothing more than an accident due to man's carelessness and not murder?''
Lina took another look at the rifles and shook her head. ''I am still not entirely certain, Holmes... but for the moment I will agree that something happened here - and a man lost his life in the doing of it.''
The following day, Lina was startled to receive a visit from Chung's manager, Martin Mallory.
''Beggin' yer pardon, yer ladyship,'' Mallory said humbly, snatching the hat from his head and exposing heavily pomaded red hair. ''But I hopes ta have a word er two wit' ya about me poor boy Chung, seein' as how I heard ya was interested and all.''
''Of course, Mister Mallory. Do come in,'' Lina answered, showing him into the drawing room of her home in Grosvenor Square.
Mallory was clearly nervous and constantly pleated the ends of the polka-dotted tie he wore around his neck. ''Ya sees, everybody's twigged onto the fact that he weren't exactly a Chinaman. His real name was Christopher George and he come from London. Been on stage his whole life, I reckon, his mum bein' a nightingale and his da the brain in a head act.''
''I beg your pardon?''
''His mum were a singer and his da did a mentalist act,'' Mallory explained. ''Ya knows; one of them fellows what puts on a blindfold and gets his assistant ta go through the crowd and he tells folks what's in their pockets, that sorta thing.''
''I see. Pray continue, Mister Mallory.'' Lina began to take notes as the manager spoke.
''Well... he weren't exactly successful as a magician till he got the idea of dressin' up as a Chinaman, people bein' fascinated by the Orient and all. Been goin' the rounds fer nearly eight years, he has, and a right proud act he had, too. Did his stuff fer royalty and the like.''
''This is all quite fascinating, Mister Mallory, but what has it to do with me?''
''Well, ya sees, yer ladyship... I think Georgie was murdered.''
Tea arrived and Lina poured for both of them while Mallory squirmed in his seat with impatience. At last, sipping her tea, she said, ''You interest me strangely, sir. What makes you think Mister George - or Master Chung - was murdered?''
Mallory leaned forward. ''Ya sees, I figures he was killed on account of them people what was followin' him,'' he said in a conspiratorial whisper.
''He was being followed? By whom?''
''I dunno.'' Mallory sat back. ''After we left Russia and got back to London, I started noticin' that wherever we went, there was these fellows right behind us. Everywhere, I tells ya! Enough ta give an honest man a fright. Georgie never noticed 'em, or if he did he ain't never said. And right before the performance last night, I seen one of those fellows comin' outta Georgie's dressin' room. Plain as day I seen it! So now I knows somethin' nasty's up.''
''Did you tell Mister George of your observation?''
''Nope. Didn't have no time. He were out the door and onto the stage before I could say 'Jack Robinson' so I figures I'll tell him after the show's over. Only he got shot. And it were no accident; I don't care what the bloody police say, beggin' your pardon, yer ladyship.''
Lina put her teacup down with a click. ''Why come to me, Mister Mallory? Surely your suspicions would be better off in the hands of the police.''
''Police? Bah!'' Mallory spat. ''They thinks they got a closed case and there's an end to it! No, I was hopin' you'd get Mister Sherlock Holmes in on it, seein' as how you two are such good friends and all.''
Lina felt a flush creep across her face. Holmes! Although she loved the man dearly, there were times when she wished he would vanish off the face of the earth!
However, she replied calmly, ''I assure you, Mister Mallory, I shall do whatever is within my power to see that Mister George's death has a proper investigation.'' And leave it at that, she silently commanded.
Fortunately, Mallory seemed satisfied. After much thanks and handshaking, he took his leave at last.
After he was gone, Lina hurried upstairs
to change, ordering her carriage to be brought around from the nearby
stables so she could pay a visit to Mister Sherlock Holmes.
"Did you hear what I said, Holmes?'' Lina was nearing the end of her patience and there was a raw edge to her voice that was a clear warning to push no further.
Holmes disregarded that warning. ''I assure you, my dear Lady Lina, I am hardly incapable of hearing. Let me see if I have all the facts at my fingertips.''
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his long legs in front of him in a relaxed posture. ''You say Chung's stage manager came to visit you this morning. He told you that Chung was, in reality, an Englishman named Christopher George. He also told you that Master Chung was being followed by mysterious persons bent upon some unknown but presumably nefarious purpose. Am I correct?''
''You are,'' Lina replied shortly. Her green eyes snapped with ire; Holmes' cavalier attitude infuriated her sometimes. She took a cigarette from the box near her elbow and lit it with a lucifer, ignoring the sharp tang of sulpher. ''Do you think this has no significance, Holmes?''
''I cannot say. Perhaps these gentlemen were merely enamoured of Master Chung's performance and wished to pay their respects but were shy of thrusting themselves forward. It may all be perfectly innocent, you know.'' His gray eyes were the merest slits as he lounged lazily in his chair.
Smoke curled from Lina's nostrils, wreathing her beautiful face in coiling mist. ''And was Mister Mallory correct in his belief of Master Chung's true identity?''
''As a matter of fact, he is quite correct,'' Holmes drawled. ''Christopher George, son of Mildred Barnstable and Donald George, both veterans of the music hall stage. Began performing simple magic tricks at the age of five; had no great success within the theater until he traveled to Europe and began billing himself as Wang Chung, the Mystical Dragon of the East. He developed his special bullet-catching illusion around the same time and it quickly became his hallmark.
''You should know, Lady Lina, that the bullet-catch has quite the ill reputation among performers, something of the same character as Macbeth has to the acting community.''
''The Scottish play?'' Lina smiled slightly. ''It is considered bad luck to say the name of the play within the theater. Actors are often superstitious creatures and prone to concoct queer rituals in order to calm their overwrought nerves.''
''You should pay heed to old superstitions, my dear Lady Lina. They have a way of coming true when one least expects it. In the case of the cursed bullet-catch, a number of people have been killed performing this illusion and a host of others wounded. You have perhaps heard of the Belgian magician, Monsieur Fantasm?''
''No, I fear not.'' Lina settled back in her chair with a resigned sigh; it was no use interrupted Holmes when he was in the midst of anecdote fever.
''Ah.'' Holmes steepled his fingertips together. ''It seems that Monsieur Fantasm also had a bullet-catch in his repertoire. His modus operandi was substantially different from Chung's, however. He would load the bullet into the rifle using his magic wand; a small ball of wax on the end of the wand ensured the retrieval of the bullet, which he then spirited into one of his coat pockets without anyone being the wiser. As an added fillip, he thrust the other end of his ivory-tipped wand into the barrel in order to continue the illusion that there was a bullet within. Unfortunately for the Monsieur, he failed to notice that the ivory tip of his wand broke off in the barrel. When the rifle was fired, he was shot with an ivory bullet and killed instantly.''
''Holmes! What does this have to do with my case?''
''You have no case, my lady! I tell you this story to illustrate the fact that Chung's death was purely accidental and the result of his own carelessness. The authorities have said so and there rests the case.''
''Will you please leave go of this? I beg of you, Lady Lina, do not waste your time or your energy on this non-existent bugaboo, this phantom that haunts your mind... Let it go.''
''I have no more to say on the subject. If you wish to continue this fruitless pursuit, you do so without my assistance or my blessing.''
Lina flicked her cigarette into the fireplace and stood up. ''Very well, Holmes. So be it.'' She gathered up her shawl, reticule and bonnet and left, shutting the door firmly behind her.
Sherlock Holmes stared after her for a long time, his eyes hooded and haunted with shadows of regret.
Lina visited the police station, the theater and several other places, saving Chung's hotel for last. She wanted to search his room to see if she could find anything of interest, anything at all; she had hit a dead end in her investigation and was grasping at straws. Even Mabel, having her beloved Albert back, was of the opinion that the case was closed and there was nothing more to be done, except get married to her fiancee in two weeks. The date of the wedding had been moved up considerably, and Lina wished the couple a happy life together. At the moment, her own life was becoming more and more frustrating by the second.
Chung had been staying at The Whitsun Royale, a respectable hotel in one of London's more fashionable areas. By the simple expedient of bribing the desk clerk, Lina easily obtained the key to Chung's room. As she walked up the stairs to the fourth floor, she sincerely hoped that none of the magician's admirers had gotten the key in the same fashion and inadvertantly destroyed vital evidence... if there was any to be found.
I fear this may yet be another wild goose chase, Lina thought. However, I still have suspicions... of what I cannot yet say. Holmes would say that I am behaving illogically and he would be right, but my intuition tells me that something about Chung's death - or perhaps his life - just does not ring true.
She reached Chung's room - number 401, the Royale suite and the best to be had in the Whitsun. Placing the key in the lock, she opened the door and stepped inside... then stopped in shock.
Lina was not alone.
A pair of gentlemen dressed in nondescript dark gray suits stared back at her, then they moved swiftly in her direction.
Lina, sensing the threat, readied herself; feeling fully prepared to meet any attack with her skill in the deadly Oriental martial art of baritsu.
One of the men made as if to grab her arm - this was a grave mistake on his part. Lina's foot whipped up and struck him in the knee; as he went down clutching the injured joint, she was already dancing out of the way, skirts held up in one hand, the other slashing across the back of the falling man's neck and sending him into blissful oblivion.
The second man halted, mouth working. Both men wore blue spectacles and had coffee-brown moustaches; Lina noticed out of the corner of her eye that the unconscious man's moustache was dangling from his lip. It was clearly a fake, a disguise to conceal his true features.
Lina fumbled in her pocket with her free hand and produced a small pistol. She held it at arms-length, pointing it steadily at her second assailant. ''Stay right there, my good man!'' she commanded. ''I believe I have the advantage.''
The cold barrel of a pistol pressed against the side of her head and a strong arm encircled her neck. ''No longer, your ladyship,'' said a cold, silky voice directly in her ear. ''Drop your weapon, if you please.''
Lina's pistol dropped to the floor with a clatter.
''Who are you?'' Lina asked as the blue-spectacled man tied her firmly to a chair.
''It does not matter who we are, your ladyship. Only that something of importance was stolen from us and we wish its return.'' The gentleman she spoke to was utterly nondescript in height, weight and appearance except for a thin scar that curved from his forehead, over the bridge of his nose and ended in a point at his chin.
''It must be clear to you that I have only just arrived here,'' Lina said. ''How could I have taken anything of yours?''
''I did not accuse, I merely explain,'' the scarred man replied. He lit a cheroot with a lucifer and inhaled deeply. ''You did attack my men, however. It is a good thing for them that I decided to return early, otherwise they may never have lived down the shame of being beaten by a woman.''
Lina twisted against her bonds convincingly. Lacking rope, the scarred man had ordered her bound with strips torn from the bedlinens, keeping her covered with his revolver the entire time she had been free. Lina hadn't dared disobey his orders; thus far he had not shown any inclination for violence - and she wanted to keep it that way.
''They frightened me,'' she said, blowing a stray lock of black hair out of her eyes. ''The desk manager assured me the room was ready for my occupation... imagine my shock upon finding it torn apart by two apparent burglars.''
''A pleasant story, Lady Evangeline, but one which I unfortunately cannot believe. I do believe that you have no knowledge of what we seek, otherwise...''
The scarred man grinned. ''Otherwise, I would be forced to kill you.''
His voice betrayed a hint of accent... with a start, Lina realized that the accent was Russian and very similar to Petrovitch's. She wondered aloud if there could be a connection.
''Do you truly believe that now, having rendered you helpless for the moment, I shall foolishly reveal to you all my secrets?'' The scarred man's black eyes sparkled with good humor. ''My very dear Lady Evangeline... as long as you are ignorant, you are safe. It would hardly be gentlemanly of me to place you in danger, would it?''
Lina was furious. ''You are no gentleman!'' she spat. ''If you had anything to do with Chung's death, I swear that you shall pay for it!''
''Perhaps, my lady. Perhaps.'' He turned and glared at his two confederates; the unconscious man had wakened and, although groggy, was clearly ambulatory. He said something in Russian and the two men left, one half-supporting the other.
Turning back to Lina, the scarred man gave her a courtly bow. ''I hope that you will not take this ill, my lady, but it is my sincerest hope that we never meet again.'' With this sally, he departed, closing the door gently behind him.
Lina ground her teeth... then set about the serious task of loosening her bonds and setting herself free.
It took Lina only five minutes to break free of her linen bonds. When her captor had been tying her up, she had surreptitiously held her wrists slightly apart, flexing the muscles in her arms so as to provide a bit of slack when she relaxed. This, too, was a magician's trick, one she had learned while attending an escape artist's show with Sherlock Holmes. That method, combined with her natural agility and strength, made breaking free a matter of mere moments.
It is a good thing that I pay attention to more than being entertained, Lina thought as she made her way down the stairs, every fiber alert for a possible attack from the Russians. Otherwise, I would be just another heroine in distress, tearfully waiting for the hero of the story to rescue me from certain doom.
In the lobby, the desk clerk was eager to tell Lina where the three strangers had gone - for a price. Having already primed the pump with five pounds, Lina was not eager to surrender a further sum but relented when she considered the alternative.
I have no wish to be flung into gaol on an assault charge, she thought, even if this bloody clerk is the greediest bastard who has ever been corrupted by the root of all evil.
The clerk, his memory lubricated with a further five pounds, hastened to tell Lina that the gentlemen in question had been overheard ordering a cab to take them to Woolsey Street, an address near the Billingsgate docks and one of the seediest places in London.
Lina wasted no time in hailing her
own hansom cab, bent on pursuit and revenge.
Lina tracked the men down to a dilapidated house on Woolsey Street. The unbelievable stench of the Billingsgate docks was well nigh overwhelming, especially in the unusual heat of that year's spring; the smells of rotting fish, overflowing gutters and horse dung nearly scalded the nostrils and caused the eyes to water in defense.
Picking her way through the garbage strewn yard, Lina fought hard to push the overgrown branches of a lilac bush out of her way so she could peer through a dirty window on the ground floor. It was the house's library, and to her gratification, the three gentlemen were within, gathered around a table, smoking cigars and talking to one another.
By pressing her ear to the glass, Lina could just make out what they were saying; unfortunately, it was all in Russian. So she settled down within the prickly confines of the lilac bush, nursing bloody scratches on her arms and keeping one eye cocked on the proceedings.
After an hour had passed, the crunch of carriage wheels up the crushed-shell drive announced a new arrival. Not wanting to give her position away, Lina stayed where she was. Her patience was soon rewarded, for Petrovitch entered the library and began speaking to the Russians.
Although she was unable to understand their speech, it was clear that Petrovitch was highly peturbed about something. He was sweating freely and his eye twitched uncontrollably. He waved his arms in an agitated fashion, his voice rising higher and higher... until a sharp word from the scarred man made him fall silent.
The scarred man, clearly the leader of the organization, spoke kindly but firmly to Petrovitch, even going so far as to put a fatherly arm around the other man's shoulders. Petrovitch's eye danced more frenzidly at this, but his voice remained in control as he softly answered the scarred man's inquiries.
Eventually, shoulders slumped in defeat, Petrovitch took his leave, his departing back speaking eloquently of his distress.
As soon as his carriage rolled away, Lina extracted herself from the clutches of the lilac bush and, hailing a cab, followed him back to his hotel - not surprisingly, the Whitsun Royale.
Petrovitch was clearly taken aback by Lina's appearance at his door. Her fashionable visiting gown of blue-gray silk was ripped, even shredded in places; the lace trim and silk roses that swagged the skirts hung crazily from one side. Her bonnet was askew, gloves black with filth, and her dark hair a tangled mess that straggled across one eye. But the one green eye visible was bright with undeniable purpose and the theater manager was unable to prevent Lina from entering his rooms.
She stripped off her gloves, glancing at them with a grimace before tossing them into a nearby wastepaper basket. ''Thank you for agreeing to see me, Mister Petrovitch,'' Lina said, perching on a tufted ottoman and arranging her torn skirts as neatly as possible. ''I assure you that the matter is of some importance, otherwise I would hardly have arrived at your doorstep in such an unsuitable state.''
''That is all right, your ladyship,'' Petrovitch replied. ''I am offering you anything you like; maybe a nice cup of tea?''
''No, thank you.'' Lina looked around the room, absently untying her wrecked bonnet and placing it on a nearby table. ''I have come, Mister Petrovitch, because I have reason to believe that you were involved in the death of the magician Wang Chung, also known as Christopher George.''
''My dear lady!'' Petrovitch's eye twitched. ''How can you be making such accusations?!''
Lina leaned forward, her expression one of triumph. ''Because not an hour ago I saw you enter a house, Mister Petrovitch. A house containing three Russians whom I believe to be agents of a foreign power bent upon doing some harm to Her Majesty's Empire. I tell you, sir, that you seem to be involved in dangerous affairs that may have international consquences far beyond those of a simple magician's death. Tell me I am wrong, and I shall tender my apologies and leave at once.''
Petrovitch collapsed into a chair, rubbing his temples with one hand. ''I cannot, Lady Evangeline. You are correct. What am I to be doing? I cannot tell you, for if I do then innocents may die.''
''I assure you, Mister Petrovitch, that I will do everything within my power to protect you and these innocents of which you speak. Tell me, please... what evil is afoot and how are you involved?''
Petrovitch's watery blue eyes seemed to shimmer with unshed tears as he searched her face. At last, with a sigh, the Russian surrendered, deciding he could no longer conceal that which he had kept hidden for so long. ''Very well, my lady. I shall reveal all and trusting you I will be.''
Lina settled down to listen to Petrovitch's tale. When he was finished, she stood up and swiftly gathered her things. ''Sir... we must go at once to Sherlock Holmes.''
''Can he help us?''
Lina looked down at the mournful Russian. ''Mister Petrovitch, at this moment only Sherlock Holmes can save us all.'' Her green eyes glittered with excitement. ''We must leave immediately. There are more lives at stake than you know.''
She led Petrovitch downstairs, keeping
her pistol handy... and soon they were on their way to Baker Street.
Holmes lit his pipe and allowed a trickle of smoke to escape his lips. ''Lady Lina! And Mister Petrovitch! What a pleasant surprise! Do come in.''
Lina led Petrovitch past the stout form of the housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, and nodded to the recumbant figure of Holmes. The great detective lazed on the sofa, legs covered by a knitted afghan, a snifter of brandy at hand. Mrs. Hudson, with a disapproving sniff, shut the door and left the three of them alone.
''Well, my lady,'' Holmes said, eyeing Lina's torn dress, ''I trust that something of moment has occured in your little investigation? Or perhaps in your personal life?'' he jibed.
''A deduction, Holmes?'' Lina raised an ebony brow and indicated the scratches on her arms. ''I assure you they were not caused by an hysterical female, but rather an overly aggressive lilac bush.''
''Ah.'' Holmes took another puff of his pipe. ''You have been in Billingsgate, have you not? In Woolsey Street, if I am not mistaken, where you crouched in the dirt and endured the prickly tentacles of the lilac bush whilst spying upon three Russians. A fourth entered, whom you knew, so you abandoned your post in favor of confronting this fourth party... and that is Mister Petrovitch, I assume?''
''Correct. You doubtless deduced my presence in Billingsgate by the still detectable odor of the mud on the hem of my skirts; the Woolsey street connection by the clods of dirt on my shoes... but how on earth did you know about the Russians?''
Holmes let out a barking little laugh. ''I have known about the Russians since my brother Mycroft informed me of them yesterday evening. He also provided information on Mister Petrovitch's involvement in this affair. It involves far more than you know, Lady Lina.''
Lina snorted. ''I know quite a bit, Holmes. Let me see if I have all the facts at my fingertips,'' she said in a sarcastic imitation of the great detective. ''From what Mister Petrovitch revealed to me, the three Russians are agents of that government, sent to retrieve a highly sensitive document, the contents of which our good theater manager is ignorant. His role in this little drama was simple; he informed the Russians of Master Chung's movements while in London and provided them with access to the backstage area of the theater... he further revealed to them the secret of Master Chung's altered rifles.''
Petrovitch stirred in his chair. ''I was overseeing him one evening when he thought he was alone. Illyanovitch, the chief, was wanting to be informed of every detail, so this I told him, too. He must have sabotaged the rifle to kill Chung. I swear I did not know!''
''That is quite all right, Mister Petrovitch,'' Holmes said. His gray eyes gleamed. ''Do go on, my dear lady.''
Lina inclined her head. ''Mister Petrovitch was laboring under pressure; his family still resides in Russia, and their lives were threatened. If he did not cooperate, his family would be killed. He had no choice but to do as they commanded.''
''Quite understandable,'' Holmes replied.
''Wang Chung, the Mystic Dragon of the East - or Christopher George - was not only a magician. He was an agent of Her Majesty's government, charged with seeking out information about foreign powers that might be relevant to the Empire's international security. His disguise as a Chinaman was a stroke of brilliance; as a skilled performer and an Oriental, he would be welcomed in courts around the world, and as it was believed that he spoke only Chinese, people would not be overly cautious about what was said in his presence.''
Lina pushed a strand of black hair out of her eyes before continuing. ''At any rate, Chung discovered something in his recent visit to the Czar's court; his natural agility, sleight-of-hand skill and other tricks in the magician's repertoire can also be used for a more nefarious purpose - that of burglery. Some document was stolen, concealed within his trunks, and brought back to London.''
''Correct.'' Holmes tapped his pipe against the hearth; a shower of sparks littered the carpet and were extinguished by his foot. ''What then, my lady?''
Lina delicately scratched her cheek. ''The Russians discovered the theft and sent agents to retrieve the document. But Chung was too clever; he destroyed the original, but made a copy and hid it in such a way that they could not find it. So they began to follow him, hoping to observe him passing the document to British agents.''
''Allow me to finish the tale,'' Holmes said. ''The document in question is the draft of a highly secret treaty being explored between the governments of France and Russia. As Her Majesty's government has already made agreements with France, you can imagine the consquences if such a treaty were to come to light.''
Lina nodded. ''Of course. The Great Game must continue, eh Holmes?''
''Born in the deserts of Afghanistan, who knows where and how it will end?'' Holmes grimaced at his empty pipe and laid it aside. ''I detest this cloak and dagger nonsense, but Mycroft insisted the details be kept concealed from everyone, including yourself. Chung was supposed to pass the treaty to British agents following the show last evening but was killed by the Russians. They had already searched his dressing room... I assume they believed they had their property, otherwise they would hardly have murdered the only person who knew where it was hidden.''
''They found some papers written in code,'' Petrovitch mumbled. ''They were thinking it was the copy of the treaty, but it turned out to be Chung's personal notes on some of his magic tricks.''
''I can imagine their chagrin,'' Lina said. ''With Chung dead, they had no way of locating the treaty.''
''Precisely.'' Holmes looked grim. ''Mycroft has charged me with locating the missing treaty. I searched Chung's dressing room and his trunks, costumes and the like, and came up empty. I also searched his hotel room.''
''So did the Russians.'' Lina smiled ruefully. ''That is how I met them, Holmes. Fortunately, they did nothing more harmful than securing me to a chair.''
''As you are my protege, you know you are of interest to foreign powers, my dear lady.'' Holmes' brows came together in a frown. ''I am gratified that you came to no harm, but after all my warnings...''
''You protested too much, Holmes! You know I can never resist a challenge. I applaud your actor's skills, however this time you laid it on a bit thick. I was more determined than ever to get to the bottom of this mess.'' Lina sat down with a sigh. ''Now all we need to do is find the missing treaty.''
There was silence while Lina thought... then she suddenly grinned from ear to ear. ''Holmes!,'' she announced with an air of triumph. ''I know where the treaty is!''
''You do?'' Holmes sat up straight, knocking over his brandy snifter. ''But how?''
Lina raised an eyebrow and her grin widened. ''Because like any well mannered cavalier, I always render aid to damsels in distress!''
Both Holmes and Petrovitch looked
askance... until Lina explained.
The door cracked open, one brown eye visible in the faint trace of daylight left. ''Yes?'' a woman's voice said.
''Miss Mabel Shanks?'' Lina asked. ''Remember me? Lady St. Claire?''
''Oh, yes!'' The door swung wide open, revealing the pretty young stage assistant. ''Good evenin', yer ladyship.'' She bobbed her head and made a small curtsy. ''What can I do for you?''
''Mabel, I hope you can help me,'' Lina said, entering the small flat. She had taken the time to change her ruined clothing, ignoring Holmes' chuffs and exclamations of impatience. Now clad in a lovely cream and navy striped dress with yards of ruffled trim, she looked the very picture of an aristocratic lady of means.
Holmes followed at Lina's heels, earning a startled glance from Mabel. ''Who's he?'' she asked, backing away in alarm.
''It is quite all right, Mabel,'' Lina said. ''This is Mister Sherlock Holmes; he escorted me here.''
''Miss Shanks,'' Holmes said with a sardonic tilt to his head. ''I trust we have not unduly discommoded you.''
''Well, I dunno,'' Mabel answered, hitching at the neck of her thread-bare robe. ''What do you want?''
''We have come here regarding something that was taken from Master Chung's dressing room...,'' Holmes began.
Mabel's mouth opened and closed several times, then her face crumpled. ''Ooooooh!'' she wailed, ''Don't send me ta gaol! Please, yer ladyship! I didn't mean nuffink by it! It were only me due, that! And me Albert didn't do nuffnik wrong, neither!''
Lina hastened to comfort the weeping woman. ''I told you, Mabel, it is all right. We are not here to arrest you. We only want information.''
Mabel snuffled heavily. ''I didn't mean no harm... I was only takin' me due.''
''I know.'' Rolling her eyes, Lina offered the sniveling young woman a clean handkerchief from her reticule. After Mabel had blown her nose and wiped her wet face, the peer continued, ''What did you take from Master Chung? Was it your money?''
''Yes.'' Mabel plopped down on an ottoman. ''He was dead, wasn't he? And him what promised me fifty pounds fer my weddin' with me Albert. It was only what was owed to me, nuffink more or less.''
''I understand.'' Lina ignored Holmes' muffled snort. ''So after the police finished questioning you, you went back to Master Chang's dressing room and took fifty pounds...''
''Not quite.'' Mabel stared at the tips of her embroidered slippers. ''He owed me fer the week, didn't he? And me Albert, too.''
''How much did you take, Miss Shanks?,'' Holmes asked.
Mabel mumbled, ''Hundred pounds.'' She looked up and her brown eyes flashed with defiance. ''It were me due!,'' she insisted.
''Now listen to me, Mabel,'' Lina said seriously, crouching down so she could look the young woman in the eye. ''This is very important so I want you to think hard before you answer me. Was the money lying lying loosely on the table or was it wrapped up in something, a paper perhaps?''
Mabel looked puzzled. ''No... not paper...''
Holmes sagged and sank down into a nearby chair. ''A complete waste of time,'' he muttered beneath his breath.
Lina shot him a searing glare, then bestowed a more patient look on Mabel. ''Not paper? Then it was wrapped in something? What was it? A cloth? A strip of leather?''
Mabel frowned in disgust. ''No,'' she said in the tone reserved for speaking to very small children or the mentally ill. ''It was in a nice clean envelope.''
''An envelope?'' Lina's voice betrayed her excitement. ''Do you still have it?''
''Mmmm...'' Mabel's eyes scrunched up in contemplation. ''I think it's in me bureau. I always keep nice bits of paper and such. I'll just go have a look, shall I?''
By this time, Holmes had sat up, electrified. Could the solution be so close at hand? he wondered. Could it be this simple?
The soft smile that curved Lina's lips answered him simply: Yes. It can.
In a few moments, Mabel returned bearing in her hands a simple cream envelope. Lina took it from her reverently. Holmes rose from his chair to stand directly over Lina's shoulder, peering at the envelope with intense concentration.
Mabel scratched her head. ''How come a posh lady like you wants a plain old envelope? I'd have thought you could afford to buy much fancier ones.''
Lina walked over to the hearth and stirred up the fire with the iron poker. ''Ah, but I could never buy an envelope such as this, my dear Mabel. For this is a magic envelope. Observe! Abracadabra!''
She carefully used the small jacknife Holmes handed her to cut apart the flaps that held the envelope in its shape. When she finished, she held a flat, oddly shaped piece of paper with several deep creases. Lina then held the paper close to the fire, taking care not to scorch it.
In a few moments, dark brown lettering began to appear on the pristine surface.
''Ooooooh!,'' Mabel squealed. ''Ain't that a proper trick!''
''Yes, isn't it?'' Lina answered, but her eyes sought out Holmes'. ''Quite a proper magician's trick, I should say.''
''And you would be absolutely correct,'' the detective answered. He took the paper from Lina's hands and examined the writing. ''A more expensive envelope could hardly be found; the cost was a man's life,'' he said, folding it up and storing it away inside his inner coat pocket. ''I shall see that no time is wasted delivering it into my brother Mycroft's hands.''
Holmes disappeared into the night...
And Lina watched her friend and mentor go, a warm sense of satisfaction at solving the unsolvable glowing down to her very bones.
Rhiannon rolled her turquoise blue eyes and huffed, ''But Lina! You haven't finished the story!''
''Have I not?'' Lina bestowed a warm smile on the woman she loved. ''The copy of the treaty was recovered, thus ending both investigation and my tale.''
''But I have some questions!'' Rhiannon's voice took on a wheedling tone. ''Oh, please, Lina...'' Her backs of her fingers slid up the bodice of Lina's thin shift and caressed the edge of her jaw. ''Please...''
Lina laughed, trying without success to elude Rhiannon's tickling fingers. ''Very well, my dear. Ask your questions and I shall answer them, although I should have thought that everything was quite obvious.''
''Hmph!'' Rhiannon rolled over onto her stomach, laying between Lina's outstretched legs, her head pillowed on the other woman's stomach. ''Well, one thing I can surely puzzle out for myself.''
''And what is that, my dear?''
''It's an old nursery trick. Remember, my father was a tutor and I grew up in the classroom. When children want to play at sending 'secret messages' to one another, they use milk or lemon juice as ink. It disappears on the paper, but when it's heated, the lettering reappears as if by magic,'' Rhiannon said smugly.
''Well done!,'' Lina replied. ''Although I never heard of that particular trick myself until Holmes and I exposed a false medium who used that same method to cause 'spirit messages' to appear before the eyes of bereaved and vulnerable relatives.''
Rhiannon smiled. ''But how did you know that Mabel had the copy of the treaty? Even Holmes was unable to locate it...''
Lina sighed. ''Sometimes Holmes can be very obtuse, especially when it comes to members of the female sex. He finds their behavior illogical and quite baffling.''
''Apparently, so do I.'' Rhiannon thought hard but finally admitted defeat.
Lina provided an explanation. ''Remember when I told you that Mabel and her Albert had been unable to get married because of the fifty pound dowry promised by Master Chung? And yet, when I visited Miss Shanks the day after the murder, their wedding had been planned for two weeks hence instead of the following spring. I admit that I did not make the necessary connection at the time...''
Rhiannon interrupted. ''Of course! Mabel Shanks was a very practical woman, wasn't she? Lack of money was the only obstacle standing between her and wedded bliss with Albert. So it follows that she must have obtained the necessary funds in an incredibly short amount of time. And the only way she could have done this was by taking it from a source where it wouldn't be missed... Master Chung's dressing room!''
''Yes, my dear. Once I realized that the treaty had been searched for by experts and remained out of sight, the only possible conclusion was that it had been removed from its place of concealment. Where could it be? And since it had not yet surfaced, it had obviously been taken by a person ignorant of its contents. Thus my hypothesis that Mabel was the unwitting thief, which proved to be a correct one.''
''When you explain it everything sounds so simple,'' Rhiannon said.
She lay quietly for a while, listening to Lina breathe. Finally, she opened her eyes and said, ''I suppose Holmes was furious.''
Lina smiled to herself. ''Not quite, although he never again attended the performance of a magician at the theater. And when I presented him with a magic wand on the following Christmas Day, the poor man did not speak to me for a fortnight!''
Both women's laughter echoed through the empty house...
While outside, the dreadful summer
heat was finally broken by a thin and cooling rainshower.
On a Saturday in March, 1918, the famous magician Chang Ling Soo performed his magic act for the last time. The finale of his performance, as it had been for twelve years, was the bullet catch known as "Condemned To Death By The Boxers.''
This time, however, the trick went wrong. Soo was shot in the chest and died in the hospital soon after.
The details of the alteration of the rifles and the method used for this particular trick came out during the official inquiry into Soo's death. Some speculation remains as to whether Soo's death was accident (the official verdict), sucide or murder.
I have used Soo's methods for performing the bullet-catch illusion in my story, however I do not suggest you try this at home. To date, twelve people have died trying to perform this magic trick and many other magicians have been wounded.
The bullet-catch illusion is considered by many to be cursed.