A Summons at Midnight
There are a limited number of excuses for a young, intelligent woman of seventeen to be traversing the fog-shrouded streets of London at midnight. A matter of protecting one's life or preventing another's death are two obvious ones.
But as far as I knew, I was neither in danger for my life, nor was I about to forestall the death of another.
Being a Holmes, I had my theories and suspicions as to who had summoned me and why.
The handwritten message had told me that its author was not only female, but a person of high intellect, excellent taste, and measurable wealth. Its content had been straightforward:
Your assistance is requested in a most pressing matter. If you are willing to follow in the footsteps of your family, please present yourself at the British Museum tonight at midnight. Further direction will be provided at that time.
As I looked at the letter, I saw so much more than those simple yet mysterious words.
Lack of name and address, no seal or watermark-the anonymous sender hand delivered the message.
Heavy creme paper, neat feminine handwriting lacking embellishment and free of ink blots and errors-an intelligent, pragmatic woman of considerable wealth.
Faint perfume scent-expensive but in excellent taste; from the incomparable Mrs. Sofrit's on Upper Bond.
Traces of rice powder and a smudge of silver glitter-sender is involved with the theater, likely La Theatre du Monde in Paris.
Big Ben tolled as I walked along the middle level of New Oxford-street, the soft yellow glow of the streetlamp cutting into the ever-present fog. I heard a soft scuttling sound followed by a low, dull clank and slowed to listen, my hand covering the weapon at my waist as I peered into the dim light.
I had borrowed from Uncle Sherlock the Steam-Stream gun that hung in my unfeminine belt over loose gabardine trousers. One pull of the trigger would release a puff of searing air, a concentration of burning steam. Enough to incapacitate a grown man or slice through his skin, my uncle had assured me. The beauty of this steam-powered gadget was that it never needed to be reloaded.
Not only was I armed, but I was suitably attired-for bustles, crinolines, and tight sleeves are cumbersome and impractical for a pedestrian on shadowy streetwalks. Between the weight of the layers of my normal ensemble and its incessant rustling (not to mention the length of the dratted skirts), I would have been a walking target for anyone, from whore-mongers looking to find a new girl, to the footpads who lurked in the shadows-or to any threats that existed for a tall, gawky, yet intelligent young woman who'd been cursed with the beak-like Holmes nose.
I felt confident I was prepared for whatever dangers I might encounter.
One of the self-propelled Night-Illuminators trundled below on its four wheels. I looked down from the raised walkway on which I stood and watched its welcome glow putter through the shadowy night. The cool air stirred, bringing with it the familiar scents of dampness, dry ether, burning coal, and sewage. Below, at the ground level, I heard other common sounds of night: the clip-clop of hooves, the rattle of various wheeled conveyances, shouts and laughter and, threaded through it all, the constant hiss of steam.
Steam: the lifeblood of London.
I paid two pence to take a street-lift to the middle level of the block, where it was ostensibly safer to walk alone. But at midnight in London, I wasn't certain that any street level was safe.
The entire day had been rainy and dark clouded. Trapped inside, I read three books from cover to cover (including the amusing, fanciful, American novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court), worked on two different projects in the lab, and managed to annoy Mrs. Raskill enough that she refused to cook me dinner before she retired for the evening. I hadn't meant to knock over the flask of silver polish, but my elbows and arms always seem to get in the way.
I didn't clean it up well enough for her (I confess, I found conducting my lab work a better use of time than getting on my knees and scrubbing), so instead of cooking, she mopped, then emptied the bucket of dirty water from Tufference's Super-Strength-Mop-Wringer. All the while, she complained. Why couldn't Mr. Tufference invent a way to make the device empty the mop water afterward as well? To punctuate her foul mood, Mrs. Raskill turned off the mechanized levers on the stove and fairly slammed a plate of cold meat and cheese onto the counter for my dinner.
It was a shame, for what she lacked in competence in the way of chaperonage, Mrs. Raskill more than made up for in the kitchen. I counted both as benefits. Her skill with the culinary arts was the reason those layers of crinolines over the torture chamber of my corset had become a tad more difficult to fasten around my waist as of late. Before Mother left, our meals hadn't been quite as fancy and overloaded with gravies, sauces, and butter because she'd been the one planning the menus.
I thrust away the pang of grief and emptiness. Mother had been gone for more than a year, and other than a few brief letters from Paris, I'd heard nothing from her. I'd taken to wandering into her empty bedchamber just to remind myself that she had, indeed, existed.
The Night-Illuminator had rumbled off as I walked over an arching fly-bridge to cross the air-canal half a block from Russell-street. Just a few steps away were the hallowed halls of the British Museum, one of the few buildings left in London that had grounds. Real grass and even trees surrounded it.
Above me, the buildings rose so tall they seemed to meet, blocking the sky. Great dark sky-anchors soared above the cornices of the tallest structures. They floated like eerie gray clouds chained to the roofs, keeping the uppermost parts of the buildings stable.
To the south were the spires of Westminster, barely visible in the drassy moonlight. Or perhaps I just inherently knew their location, as I did the steeple of St. Paul's Cathedral, Big Ben's glowing face, and the more recent landmark of the turrets at Oligary's. Uncle Sherlock boasted he knew every level of every block of every street, alley, and mews in all of London-and so did I.
At last I approached the stately columns of the museum, and for the first time since leaving my house, I paused. My palms were damp beneath my lacy, fingerless gloves. Was I to boldly climb the steps to the front entrance and present myself? Would the doors be open? Or-
I turned to see a cloaked figure, one of the female race, beckoning to me from a clump of bushes along the west wing of the museum. After a moment of hesitation, I edged toward her, fingers curling over the hilt of my Steam-Stream gun. As I approached, I noticed a patch of yellow glowing from beneath the wall of the museum. A door.
"I expect you've been summoned just as I have," said the figure. She peered at me from beneath a heavy hood, holding what appeared to be a wooden dagger. A remarkably incompetent weapon in comparison to my own more lethal one.