An exclusive excerpt from Sherlock Holmes – The Stuff of Nightmares by James Lovegrove, a new, steampunk-inflected adventure pitting Holmes and Watson against Moriarty, anarchists, and a weaponized stranger (available August 27, 2013).
It's the autumn of 1890, and a spate of bombings has hit London. The newspapers are full of fevered speculation about anarchists, anti-monarchists and Fenians. But one man suspects an even more sinister hand behind the violence. Sherlock Holmes believes Professor Moriarty is orchestrating a nationwide campaign of terror, but to what end? At the same time, a bizarrely garbed figure has been spotted on the rooftops and in the grimy back alleys of the capital. He moves with the extraordinary agility of a latter-day Spring-heeled Jack. He possesses weaponry and armour of unprecedented sophistication. He is known only by the name Baron Cauchemar, and he appears to be a scourge of crime and villainy. But is this masked man truly the force for good that he seems? Is he connected somehow to the bombings?
A Study In Contrasts
A hansom took us to Pall Mall, and on the way we saw around us a London in ferment. The third and deadliest yet of the bomb attacks had made the headlines of the late editions of the papers. On every other street corner people gathered to hear someone read the relevant article aloud, and cries of shock and groans of dismay greeted almost every sentence. Several times there were loud and angry denunciations of the Irish and their desire for independence and home rule, since Fenians seemed the likeliest perpetrators of these barbaric acts. They had had some form in that department since the Rising in 1867 and the Dynamite Campaign of the early ’eighties. I regretted my fellow countrymen’s readiness to condemn an entire nation for the deeds of a single political faction, and moreover without proof or verification. Nonetheless I harboured the same suspicions and felt the same burning need to find someone to blame, perhaps even more strongly than the average person did owing to my first-hand experience of the effects of the Waterloo Station bomb blast.
Once we were inside the Diogenes Club, however, it was as though such concerns simply did not exist. The denizens of that august institution sat ensconced in armchairs, smoking, drinking, perusing books and periodicals, or gazing softly into the middle distance, seemingly without a care in the world. The club’s thick walls and cherished traditions appeared to have an insulating effect, cutting its members off from all external troubles.
Of course, even if these gentlemen had wished to discuss the current situation, they would have been forbidden from doing so by the club’s principal and strictest rule. All conversation – even the smallest of small talk – was banned on the premises, on pain of permanent exclusion. The only place where one might utter a word was the Stranger’s Room, whither Holmes and I were ushered by a suitably muted attendant.
Holmes’s brother awaited us there, and the pair fell to talking immediately, without preamble or greeting, as was their wont. I never failed to be amazed by the difference between them – the corpulent and well-connected Mycroft, the wiry and antisocial Sherlock. It seemed almost inconceivable that two such dissimilar creatures could have sprung from the same set of loins. The sole feature this study in contrasts shared was a prodigious, voracious intelligence.
“First a restaurant on Cheapside, then the bandstand at Regent’s Park,” said Mycroft Holmes. “Now this. It is quite baffling. I cannot fathom any pattern to the attacks. They have taken place at differing hours of the day, in a variety of locations, with no common target other than civilians, bystanders. There is no apparent logic, no obvious motive other than to kill and maim blindly.”
“Sometimes that alone is enough,” said the junior of the two Holmeses. “Madmen need no rationale for their deeds beyond the perverted satisfaction of seeing others hurt.”
“You think this is the work of madmen, Sherlock?”
“It is one theory. The alternative is that it is the work of sane, highly calculating individuals who wish to be seen to be mad. The apparent randomness of the bombings is, in that sense, a pattern of its own. We are meant to think there is no order behind it, and the locations have been carefully selected to reinforce that impression.”
“Fiendish,” said Mycroft. “So our foes want us underestimate them.”
“Maybe. What is clear is that the attacks are escalating in audacity and severity. The number of dead at the Cheapside restaurant was three, was it not? And at Regent’s Park a dozen. And today…?”
“The death toll stands at thirty-one, with a further six not likely to survive the night, according to my sources.”
I felt a stab of sorrow and regret, wondering how many of those six I had ministered to at the station. Possibly all of them.
“There is a special session of parliament scheduled for later this evening,” Mycroft Holmes continued. “The bombings will be urgently debated. It’s fair to say, however, that not much will be achieved. With scant evidence available, the Prime Minister can only make vague threats against nameless culprits and promise some form of retribution – platitudes to reassure the masses. There will be plenty of indignation and hot air in the House but precious little concrete policy.”
“And Her Majesty?” said Holmes. Mycroft – it can be revealed here, although it was never a matter of official record – was a frequent habitué of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. Those were almost the only two places he would deign to visit, beyond his rooms on Pall Mall and the Diogenes. I have it on good authority that he was even known by our monarch as her “second Albert”, but one daren’t speculate on the full implications of that.
“Affronted, alarmed, deeply concerned for the plight of her subjects,” Mycroft said. “What else would one expect? Her abiding fear is that, if the bombings continue, the result will be widespread civil unrest.”
“She has good cause to believe that. Watson and I witnessed considerable public agitation on the way here. Scared people are apt to take the law into their own hands and lash out at anyone they believe guilty.”
“Or,” I interjected, “they become a mob and turn on their leaders.”
“Quite so,” said Holmes. “I presume Special Branch are leaving no stone unturned.”
“Melville’s men are combing through the wreckage at Waterloo for clues even as we speak,” said Mycroft. “The bomb was planted in the gentlemen’s lavatories, of all places.”
“That at least tells us something about the bomber. He is male.”
“Though no gentleman,” said Mycroft with a curl of the lip. “Special Branch are also preparing to roust out potential suspects all across the capital. There hasn’t been a mobilisation of their forces like this since the Jubilee Plot back in ’eighty-seven. Known anarchists and Irish nationalists should sleep uneasy in their beds tonight, in anticipation of the three-AM knock and the holding cell below Scotland Yard.”
“Then everything would appear to be in hand,” said his brother. “I can’t understand why you wished to consult me, Mycroft. My presence here seems superfluous in the extreme.”
I was startled by the brisk dismissiveness with which Holmes spoke, as though the unfolding crisis was of no significance to him.
Mycroft was similarly taken aback. For several seconds the older Holmes blinked at his seven-years-younger sibling.
Then he said, “I had thought, Sherlock, that you would be keen to see the bombers caught and a state of calm restored, and that this was a goal to which you would be willing to apply yourself. I realise now that I may have been mistaken. Is it a question of money? I’m sure I can raid the Treasury coffers, if it is. What’s the going rate for the services of the great sage of Baker Street?”
“You misunderstand,” said Holmes, untroubled by his brother’s broadside of sarcasm and scorn. “This is not the type of case I normally investigate. Far from it. The police have ample resources and manpower to deal with it.”
“Holmes, really!” I ejaculated, unable to contain myself. “I can scarcely credit what I’m hearing. Surely you can’t stand idly by while mass murderers rampage unchecked and the cohesion of our society is imperilled. This is not like you at all.”
“Your friend is right,” Mycroft chimed in. “How dare you shirk your patriotic duty, Sherlock. Granted, there is nothing glamorous here as there usually is in your cases. Nobody has been murdered inside a locked room. There are no exotic, deadly animals involved, no strange faces at windows, no Mitteleuropean monarchs or contested legacies. All the same, I would have thought that mere love of queen and country would persuade you to devote your energies to this problem, for all that it is outside your customary remit.” He made an effort to look humble and importunate. It did not come naturally to him. “I would regard it as a personal favour if you agreed to help, dear boy.”
“I never said that I wouldn’t help,” Holmes replied. “But the bombings themselves seem to me to be of secondary importance.”
“I beg your pardon? Secondary to what?”
“There is another phenomenon that has featured in the newspapers of late. It may not have made the front pages or consumed as many column inches, but it is a great deal more peculiar and, I am almost certain, has relevance to the matter under discussion.”
Mycroft Holmes cocked a bushy eyebrow. “Why do I have the feeling I’m not going to like what I’m about to hear?”
“Put it down to your general choleric disposition,” said his brother. “Or else dyspepsia from the devilled kidneys you had for lunch.”
“The devilled –? Oh, Sherlock, there is a time and place for these little parlour games you so enjoy, and this is not it.”
“Hardly a parlour game, brother. I was trying discreetly to draw your attention to the morsel of food adhering to your left lapel. Conceivably I could have been less subtle about it, but manners – and a concern for what others might think of you – would not permit me to overlook it altogether.”
Mycroft looked down at his ample front, located the offending fragment of his midday meal, and whisked it away with his handkerchief and a loud harrumph.
“But as we’re on the subject of your haberdashery,” Sherlock Holmes continued, “I see that your tailor has at last handed in his notice.”
Mycroft set his face in an expression that was both resigned and exasperated.
“Let me guess. The stitching on my trousers.”
Holmes nodded. “The waistband has been let out a couple of inches – again – but the quality of the workmanship isn’t up to the usual standard. You remain loyal to your outfitters, Messrs Reade and Whittle of Jermyn Street, because you have been their customer for over fifteen years and it would not be like you to change now, you being such a creature of habit. The elderly Mr Popplewell at that establishment was a particular genius with needle and thread, and any alterations he made to your clothing were always nigh on invisible. That it was apparent that your trousers had been altered at all indicated to me that Popplewell was not involved. At his advanced age, the likeliest explanation was that he has retired. Death was also a possibility, but I plumped for the less morbid of the two options. Besides, a master craftsman like him would have merited a mention in the Times obituary column, of which I am an avid reader, and I have seen none.”
The older Holmes heaved a testy sigh. “Yes, yes, all very ingenious, and I know how your deductive talents impress the police and the rest of the lower orders. But you forget that you are talking to a man every inch your mental equal, if not more so, and I am just not in the mood for such footling diversions today. Pray enlighten me about this ‘other phenomenon’ that you rank above the continued wellbeing of Britain and its imperial dependencies – even though I have a suspicion I already know what it is.”
“Baron Cauchemar,” said Holmes.
“Ha-ha!” His brother slapped his meaty hands together. “Yes. I thought as much. Once again your predilection for the bizarre and outré shows itself. Not for Sherlock Holmes something so mundane as a hunt for terrorists. Oh no. He would rather pursue a phantom, a will-o’-the-wisp, a fictitious figure to whose existence only the worst kind of sensationalist journalism gives credence.”
“Reports of Baron Cauchemar’s deeds are consistent and well corroborated. Sightings of him may have been few, but the eyewitnesses are nearly always reliable and every person describes him in the same way. He has even been spotted by two members of the constabulary, and their testimony cannot be called into question, can it?”
“Pah! You mean to say you actually think this figment of the imagination is real? A prancing jack-in-a-box, popping up hither and yon in the East End, scaring burglars and impeding robberies in progress? Really, Sherlock, I can accept Watson here falling for such shilling-shocker claptrap, but you?”
I made to protest at the insult that had been levelled against me, but my friend got there first.
“Mycroft, Watson is as astute a judge of the facts as any man. He may embellish and romanticise his accounts of my exploits somewhat, in order to make them more pleasing as literary entertainment, but he has an eye for detail and a nose for the truth, and I will not have you impugning his character or his acumen.”
Mycroft, abashed, turned to me and grumbled an apology, something about his having spoken out of turn, the pressure he was under, great weight on his shoulders, no offence meant.
I myself was flattered beyond measure by Holmes’s praise. He was not usually so unstinting with his compliments, least of all where my intellectual prowess or my writing skills were concerned. There were times in his company, and more so in the company of him and his brother together, that I was made to feel as though I were a member of an inferior species, a reasonably gifted ape perhaps. It was nice to be reminded that my companion thought more highly of me than that.
“But seriously, Sherlock,” Mycroft said, “this absurd Baron Cauchemar rumour, there’s no more substance to it than there was to Spring-heeled Jack. In fact, I would maintain that the former is an adjunct of the latter, a modern updating of a fifty-year-old myth, the only difference being that Cauchemar foils crimes whereas Spring-heeled Jack, with his propensity for assaulting strangers and molesting women, perpetrated them.”
“It is a crucial difference, one that outweighs any superficial similarities between the two.”
“Baron Cauchemar is a story that residents of a dismal, overcrowded corner of London have dreamed up in order to bring a touch of colour and excitement to their otherwise drab, squalid lives,” Mycroft insisted. “He is a fantasy, as insubstantial as this table is solid.” He thumped the top of the oak dining table to underscore his point. “They say he can leap twenty feet in the air. They say he can break down a brick wall with his hands. They say he can stun a man with a jolt of electricity or knock him out with a puff of gas expelled from his hand. I believe not one iota of it. The slums and rookeries of this city breed all manner of superstition and old wives’ tale: giant rats in the sewers, baby-abducting ghouls, flying boats, ghostly coachmen, sinister Chinamen with the power to bend your will to theirs via sheer animal magnetism, and whatnot. I’m almost ashamed to call you my brother if you’re going to start putting store by any of that nonsense.”
“There is a compelling case for thinking that Baron Cauchemar is more than mere fancy, Mycroft,” said Holmes. “I am also of the view that his emergence into the public eye in the past few weeks is not unconnected with the bombings.”
“Oh, is that so?”
“Yes indeed,” said Holmes stoutly. “And, to that end, Baron Cauchemar is the avenue of investigation I intend to pursue.”
“And you’re not prepared to accept that it’s pure happenstance, this fairytale creature appearing at the same time as a fresh wave of insurrectionist bombings hits the capital? At the very least coincidence?”
“In as much as I’m innately suspicious of coincidences, no. To my mind, it seems more likely than not that the one set of extraordinary occurrences should in some way be related to the other. And if I am wrong, and if the existence of Baron Cauchemar is impossible, as you insist, then at least I will have eliminated that impossibility from my enquiries, leaving me one step closer to the truth, however improbable.”
Mycroft’s chin sank into the fold of blubber that bulged out over his shirt collar.
“If that is your choice, Sherlock, so be it,” he said in a sullen growl, fixing his watery grey eyes on his brother. “Go and chase your silly chimera. I will be in touch again in a couple of days’ time to see what progress you have made – which will be none, I’ll wager. Then, perhaps, you will change your mind and make the sensible decision to work directly for me after all.”
“We shall see,” said Holmes. “Come, Watson! We’ve stayed long enough.”
And so we left the silent Diogenes Club and an equally silent, and fuming, Mycroft.
Outside in the street, removed from the club’s stifling confines, I once again remonstrated with my friend. “Holmes, should you not at the very least visit Waterloo Station? It is most unlike you to turn down the opportunity to inspect a crime scene. The terrorists might well have left clues.”
“Did I say I was not going to look there?”
“You did not say that you were. Come on, a little of your time. Set aside this Baron Cauchemar business for just one moment.”
“I’m almost certain it would be pointless. Special Branch will have already trampled all over the place in their hobnailed boots, leaving little useful evidence for someone with a keener eye to detect.”
“I would be in your debt if you would go,” I said. “You weren’t there. It was terrible. Those people – innocents – ripped to bits. And don’t forget how close I came to being one of the victims. Anything that can be done to bring us that bit nearer to finding the persons responsible…”
I admit I was playing upon his sympathies. Some might even call it a kind of blackmail. Yet I felt I had a very personal stake in the matter.
“Very well,” said Holmes. “Since you insist. I’ll warrant something may have survived Special Branch’s clodhopping vandalism.”
He turned his feet in the direction of Waterloo with what seemed to be a show of great reluctance, yet I had the sneaking suspicion it had been his intention to survey the scene of the bombing all along, even without my cajoling. He just hadn’t wanted to Mycroft to know this, not wishing to appear meekly subservient to his brother’s wishes. Whatever sibling rivalries had characterised the youthful years of the two Holmeses remained in force even in adulthood. I don’t believe there is a younger brother alive who would willingly be at his older brother’s beck and call, and Holmes, for all his genius and his detachment from the tidal pull of base emotions, was no exception to this rule.
Copyright © 2013 James Lovegrove
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James Lovegrove is the New York Times best-selling author of The Age of Odin, the third novel in his critically-acclaimed Pantheon military SF series. He was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1998 for his novel Days and for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2004 for his novel Untied Kingdom. He also reviews fiction for the Financial Times.