‘The Spy’s Daughter’ is an alternate universe pastiche that I wrote for Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, in which a 15-year-old girl encounters Sherlock Holmes. The Mary Russell Mysteries happen to be my favorite book series of all time! This pastiche originally appeared as a daily serial (with historical tidbits) on The Letters of Mary Yahoo Group after a question was posed: What if the Accident never occurred? It is a full length novel and available for download from the Letters of Mary Yahoo Group Stories file section. If you are a fan of the series, then you may appreciate this alternate meeting, but if you haven’t read the first book, I highly suggest that you do so at once!
** Excerpt **
Disclaimer: This is a work of Fanfiction. It is not for resale. The characters of Mary Russell, Sherlock Holmes, and Phryne Fisher do not belong to me. They belong to Laurie R. King, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Kerry Greenwood. This is a labor of love and nothing more.
10th April 1915
A GREYING MAN trudged wearily through the threshold of his flint cottage. He stopped in the foyer, closed his eyes and arched his neck towards the rafters with a sigh, letting the leather rucksack fall from his hand. Glass clattered, and then settled, unbroken.
Tomorrow, he thought, tomorrow would be the day to end all days.
He removed his cap, flung it aside, and shrugged out of his worn coat. His thoughts were in turmoil, his life bleak, and so distracted with tedium, he failed to notice the hat, stick, and gloves of a guest until he hung his coat on the hook.
Sherlock Holmes recognised the large apparel as that of his brother Mycroft Holmes. A faint stir of curiosity propelled him into the great room, where he found his guest happily ensconced at a breakfast table.
Holmes flung himself in the chair opposite, regarding his portly brother with irritation.
“Whatever Mrs Hudson and Watson told you, is false. I’m perfectly fine.”
Mycroft looked up from his toast, eyeing the thin, sickly caricature of his sibling.
“I’ve seen dead men who looked healthier.”
“I was not coerced to the country, Sherlock. I came of my own free will.”
“As you see, the ‘national treasure’ that I am, is perfectly safe and sound from the Kaiser’s bullets.” The voice was a blade of scorn, dripping with loathing.
“I need your help,” Mycroft said, simply, blunting the blade.
“As a consultant,” he muttered petulantly.
“Unfortunately, no, nothing so mundane.” Sherlock Holmes came to attention, bristling with sudden interest. “Do you remember Charles Russell?”
“Of course. Mr Russell was the American Intelligence officer who I trained shortly after the Von Bork case.”
“Yes, a promising agent, who has disappeared in occupied France.”
“Mr Russell was in the north, gathering intelligence and organising resistance fighters. Some weeks ago, he failed to appear at a scheduled meeting, nothing has been heard of him since. He was declared ‘missing in action’ and assumed dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear.” Holmes was sincere, he had liked the man’s wit and intelligence, but above all, his integrity. “A hazard of the profession, I’m afraid.”
“Indeed.” Mycroft grimly pushed his plate aside, losing his appetite. “There is more, of course. Shortly after Mr Russell joined the Intelligence branch, his wife moved their family to a property in Sussex, seven miles from here, so she might be closer to her husband if he should return, or be injured. They have two children: Levi, a boy of ten, who is quite brilliant and a daughter, one Mary Russell, who is fifteen and not so brilliant. She has run off to search for her father.”
Holmes inhaled his tea, snorting the scalding liquid. “Good God!” he exclaimed when he had recovered. “What do you mean she’s ‘run off’?”
“The child left a note for her mother, dated the 1st of April, of which was not found until the following day. It was confirmed that she forged papers and joined a VAD unit that shipped to France two days later. Further enquiries have come to nothing. The child’s trail is non-existant.”
Holmes arched a brow, wondering what was responsible, the blundering offices that were searching for her or some spark of intelligence in the child herself?
“How long has she been missing?”
“Ten days.” Mycroft crossed his hands over his labouring waistcoat. “Charles Russell is a cousin of Theodore Roosevelt. Their family is not without influence. Needless, to say, our inability to locate a runaway child who forged document papers to join an official military branch has become something of an embarrassment to Britain. The American Government is livid.”
“So you want me to find this—plucky young idiot?”
“She is a young woman in a hostile country, Sherlock. That she managed as much as she did, indicates that she might have managed more.”
“In all likelihood, she has managed to get herself killed, or worse, forced into a brothel.”
“Find her then, dead or ruined, but by God find this girl, Sherlock. If she is alive, and the Kaiser discovers her identity first, they will have a most valuable pawn with which to bargain.”
The brothers Holmes regarded one another gravely, and finally, the younger nodded in acceptance.
“I’ll start with the mother.”
THE RUSSELL FARMHOUSE was like any other in Sussex: solid, weathered, and well-loved.
“Wait for me,” Sherlock Holmes instructed the cab driver. He unfolded himself from the motorcar, strode to the front door, and knocked. A diminutive black-haired woman with dark, intelligent eyes answered the door. She wore trousers and a soft blouse, sleeves rolled up to her elbows.
“Mr Sherlock Holmes, I presume?” There was no doubt as to who this woman was. She was pale with strain and worn by grief. And yet, she exuded confidence, self-assurance, but above all, determination.
“You presume correctly, Madame Russell.” The edge of her lip quirked, in what was, despite the circumstances, amusement. Holmes took her extended hand, making to bow over the offered appendage, but before he could do so, she shook his hand, quite firmly.
“Come in, Mr Holmes.” Her accent was English, muddled with the distinct tones of California, while her features indicated a Jewish heritage. He followed her inside to a spacious great room of polished wood and shelves ladened with books. A boy of ten sat at a desk, scribbling furiously in an abused notepad. He shared his mother’s dark colouring and slight build. “This is my son, Levi. Whatever questions you have, ask. Whatever information you need, you shall have it. We are grateful that you have come.”
Holmes regarded the woman for a silent moment. Her spine was stiff, her shoulders readied in preparation for what was to come. This was a strong, steady woman, stalwart in the face of tragedy. She was not what he expected, not at all. And he wondered if her daughter, Mary Russell, shared her unshakable spirit. If so, the Great Detective would have a challenging chase ahead.
“I shall do what I can to find your daughter, Mrs Russell. Firstly, start at the beginning, when your husband joined the Intelligence office.”
Judith blinked in surprise, but did not question his request for information that, at first glance, appeared irrelevant. “Tea, Mr Holmes?” He shook his head, making a circuit of the great room, pausing at the desk where the boy sat. The notepad was full of numbers, calculations, formulas, so complex that it caught him off guard.
“Sit, if you wish.” Holmes tore his eyes from the advanced algorithms, glancing at Judith in question. “Levi is—well he’s gifted, and focused as you can see. Moreso then usual. Numbers bring him comfort.”
“I see,” Holmes murmured, taking a seat across from Judith. He crossed his long legs, rested his elbows on the armrests, and pressed his fingertips together. Judith began without prompting.
“When the war started, Charles was livid over America’s refusal to aide England. He wanted to do his part for the war effort, but with his bad leg, the Army wouldn’t take him, so he joined Intelligence. In September, a week before he was scheduled to leave for England, we attempted to take a family vacation to our lodge along the coast for the weekend. Things were—tense between me and Charles. I didn’t want him to go, you see. And he wanted us to move to Boston, to stay with his family while he was gone. The children were irritable. Mary wanted to go to Yosemite with some friends—” Here, a crack appeared in her calm façade, but to her credit, she forced the tumult of emotion down, swallowing it with tenacity.
“The trip was a disaster, nearly worse. Not far from San Francisco, we stopped at a small market off the road for refreshments. Five minutes after continuing, a squirrel darted in front of the motorcar, Charles applied the breaks and they failed—we ran over the squirrel, skidded off the side of the road, and hit a tree. The bonnet was crushed, and the front wheels crooked, but no one was injured. It could have been worse, far worse, if the breaks had failed five minutes later, where the road twists along a cliff. We had the motorcar towed to a local mechanic, rented another, and I made Charles abandon the trip. We drove home to San Francisco.”
Judith pressed her lips together, gazing into the cold hearth, no doubt, her thoughts lingering on the arguments that had followed the crash.
“It was not a pleasant weekend. Nerves were raw. The children were fighting—Charles and I were fighting, so Charles took Mary out for a drive, to spend time with her.” Judith smiled in memory. “He taught her to drive that weekend. And then, as it turned out, another friend of hers was heading to Yosemite. They offered to take her for the week. Things were so hectic and strained that we agreed. She said goodbye to her father, and left. That was the last she saw of him.” Judith closed her eyes, took a shaky breath, and continued, her voice steady. “Charles left for England, however, our trip to Boston was delayed, because Mary went missing in Yosemite.”
“Well, not precisely, she left a note for the family with which she was staying. It seems she spent very little time with her friend, or the family. All her days were spent in the company of a guide, a Native American of the Miwok tribe. A harmless old fellow who had spent his entire life in the valley. I’d like to tell you that it wasn’t something she’d normally do, Mr Holmes, but Mary is strong-willed and above all, curious. If something catches her attention, she doesn’t surface until she has learned all there is to know, or mastered something she wishes to learn. And perhaps, I think, part of her disappearance was out of spite. She dislikes Boston immensely, and to be honest, I don’t care for Charles’ family either. As soon as the family discovered Mary was missing, Rangers were dispatched, and instead of getting on the train to Boston, I took Levi to Yosemite, where eventually, my daughter returned—safely.”
“Where did the guide take her?”
“Apparently everywhere. He taught her to hunt, to track, everything he could teach her in two week’s time.” Judith wearily rubbed the bridge of her nose. “There was nothing to say to her, really. How do you reprimand an obstinate and utterly defiant adolescent, when the root of the issue lay with her father’s departure?”
The question was rhetorical, thankfully, because Holmes had no answer to give. Mary Russell’s actions sounded like something he might have done as a youth. It also complicated matters. He mentally added driving, shooting, survival, and tracking to the runaway girl’s list of abilities.
“Instead of moving to Boston as Charles wanted, I decided to come here, to be closer when he was on leave, or worse, if he should be injured. Charles had already received his orders, and left by the time we arrived.”
“Was he aware that you had changed your plans?”
“Yes, we corresponded of course, and after, we received two letters from him while he was in France. Then nothing, for months, until the telegram—” With the upswell of grief, tears shimmered in her dark eyes and her voice finally broke. “The news of his disappearance hit us hard, as you can imagine. I am riddled with guilt, for our last week was spent quarrelling. In retrospect, it was idiotic, utterly foolish behaviour. And Mary—I think she felt guilty for leaving, instead of spending a final week with her father.
“A week passed, and Mary grew restless. She didn’t believe that Charles was dead. I spoke with her daily, at length, trying to explain the likelihood of his survival, that the news was accurate, but she refused to listen. She began going to the local war offices to make enquires, growing ever more furious when the officers dismissed her requests. As far as I knew, her efforts came of nothing, but now I’m not so sure.”
“You think she learned something of her father there?”
“Why else would she go to France? She must have had some idea of his last known whereabouts. Mary is stubborn and independent, but above all, she’s practical. Not at all given to flights of fancy.”
“During your time in Sussex, between arrival and the news of Mr Russell’s disappearance, what did your daughter do?”
“She wanted to go to Oxford, to study Theology.” Judith smiled at the older man’s grimace. This girl, Mary Russell, Holmes thought, was full of surprises. “I’m afraid she inherited something of my passion for the subject. As soon as we arrived, I hired a tutor for both Levi and Mary. When she wasn’t studying, she was roaming the Downs, or exploring the town.”
“Yes, as far as I know. Mary is not a socialite. She has little in common with other girls her age. Regardless, I have nothing else to add to the narrative, save the note she left ten days ago.”
Without prompting, Judith stood, and removed a folded slip of paper from the desk where Levi silently navigated his private universe of mathematical substance.
Holmes took the note from her hand. The handwriting was precise, confident, without apology or fear.
I must find father, dead or alive. I cannot rest until I see him. I know you will understand, but not approve. Do not worry. I have made plans.
“Was there one officer in particular who she was questioning?”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant Allen.”
“May I see the letters you received from your husband?”
Colour rose on her delicate cheekbones, however, she rose, walked over to a shelf and selected a tattered book in Hebrew. She pulled two envelopes from between its pages.
Holmes read both letters, recognising the handwriting as the same man whom he had trained months ago. Charles Russell’s wit leaped from the pages, his integrity shone, and the love he held for his family united the words. In both letters, a page was reserved for his wife. Holmes read pages both private and intimate, picking out the small nuances that betrayed his location. A word in French, a spelling indicative of the north, rather than south. Charles spoke of the conditions in France, the people, and marvelled how the country reminded him of California.
Certainly, the letters contained enough information to pinpoint a region. It would take only a small leap of the imagination to form a hypothesis in regards to Charles Russell’s orders. And Holmes suspected that Mary Russell was quite capable of making such a deduction.
“Mary might have written something in her journal.” Levi spoke for the first time. Both adults turned to the boy who pushed his chair back and stood, openly regarding the stranger as if he were a specimen to be studied rather than a guest.
“Show me,” Holmes said, unperturbed by the boy’s intense scrutiny. Levi nodded, leading the way to his sister’s room.
“Mary keeps it in her desk. There is a lock,” Levi added, sullenly. The room was extremely tidy, lined with shelves full of books, all arranged categorically by subject. The girl’s tastes were eclectic, not at all what he imagined a fifteen-year old girl would stock in her bedroom. Holmes arched his brow at the various languages.
“How many languages does your daughter speak, Mrs Russell?”
“Eight, including English. French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, and Spanish.”
Judith and Levi watched the lean, grey detective as he rummaged through Mary’s room, searching for clues as to what she planned. After questioning Judith, he determined that two pairs of boots were gone. A number of personals. Two sets of trousers, shirts, jumpers, and one warm jacket. A lighter, compass, her spare spectacles, and a utility knife.
Lastly, Holmes came to her desk, which was immaculate in its orderliness. A Greek book by Virgil sat perfectly aligned in the middle of the desk, a page marker primly tucked in its centre. Under the family’s amused eyes, Holmes withdrew his lockpicks, deftly unlocking the centre drawer. A worn, leather journal occupied the space along with a photograph of her family.
Interesting, Holmes thought, that the child would hide such a photograph, one that she clearly valued. She was either a private individual, not given to open displays of affection, guarding her heart and emotions, or the photograph pained her—a reminder of guilt. Staring from its black and white gloss was a grinning Charles Russell, holding a cricket bat, and his gangly, bespectacled daughter leaning against a motorcar with ball in hand. Inwardly, Holmes grimaced, imagining the golden-haired girl in plaits wandering a war torn France alone.
“That photograph was taken the weekend Charles taught her how to drive. Before he left.”
“May I take this to have a copy made for identification purposes?”
“Keep it. I have the negative.”
Holmes tucked the photograph away, and picked up the journal, flipping through its pages. He stopped at the last entry and blinked, trying to make sense of the cryptic lines flowing across the page. It appeared to be some sort of short-hand code, a mixture of eight languages and her own, personal symbols. Some, he recognised as Coptic, and a number of hieroglyphs.
Noting the detective’s surprise, Judith explained, “I’m afraid Levi kept sneaking in to read his sister’s journal, so she started writing in this manner to deter him.”
“Have you deciphered it?” Holmes asked of Levi, who shook his head, looking slightly embarrassed. A tumult of emotion warred in Holmes’ heart, both disappointment and profound wonder, for this fifteen-year old girl’s cryptic short-hand would take considerable time for him to decipher.
Of what was a mind such as this capable? Furthermore, how far would she travel in search of her father?
The answer came unbidden, bringing a profound sense of urgency to his search, and a pang of regret. Sherlock Holmes greatly desired to meet this girl, yet he held little hope of her survival.
THE RUSTY BELL thudded against the wooden door. If it had ever rang cheerfully, then no one was alive to remember save the crooked old man bent over his desk. The proprietor of the The Able Scribe did not bother with pleasantries, so without taking his pale eyes from his work, he croaked, “I’m busy, go away.”
If the squinty-eyed old man treated his customers with more graciousness, then it stood to reason that his dusty shop full of dog-eared yellowed books might be in a better state. However, for as long as anyone in Eastbourne could remember, The Able Scribe was as disreputable a bookstore now, as the day it opened.
“Go away, says he,” Sherlock Holmes mused to the old man’s back. “You should know by now, Crouch, that I am notoriously difficult to remove.”
“Gawd, isn’t that the bloody truth of it. Damn busy-body, pokin’ yer beak in an innocent man’s business.”
“Far from innocent, Crouch, for you are more than guilty for the state of these books.”
“When the book police come o’ callin’ then I’ll pay my dues.” Crouch turned a rheumy eye on the tall younger man perusing the dusty shelves. “Can I interest you in the unintelligible drivel of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or did you just want to look at the pretty pictures of yourself, Holmes?”
“My sharp beak is on the trail of a girl.”
“‘Bout time ya found one.”
“She may have sought your services. A girl of fifteen, blond, wearing spectacles. Her name is Mary Russell.”
Crouch lifted his shoulders, sitting back, yet still perpetually hunched forward, resembling a grizzled vulture eyeing a carcass. He tugged on his white moustaches with nimble fingers that defied the rest of his crooked form.
“I do not recall such a girl.”
Holmes moved behind the counter, fished for a photograph in his coat pocket, and tossed it on Crouch’s desk. The old man picked up his magnifying glass, studying the photograph that had been carefully torn from its missing half.
“So many eager boys come filing through that door of mine, Holmes. I feel as if I’m forging their death certificates, but it’s their right. Now girls, I don’t help girls into the hell-hole yonder. I might have helped her brother though.”
“How long ago?”
“Oh, I don’t know, let’s see—” Crouch consulted a nearby ledger. “Must ‘ave been about fifteen days ago. I remember him well. He didn’t want a forgery, he wanted to be taught how to forge documents.”
“And you taught him?” There was a hint of shock in the detective’s tone, not that Crouch would teach another, but that the girl should think of such a thing.
“Well, yes. Who wouldn’t with what he paid. The boy paid a hundred quid. A man’s got to plan for his retirement.”
“You are retired, Crouch.”
“I need more stuffin‘ fer me mattress. It’s gettin’ flat, and these old bones o’ mine don’t hold up like they used to.”
“That’s a good amount of padding, Crouch. What else did he want you to teach him?”
Crouch shifted, turning his magnifying glass nervously in his fingers. Finally, he picked up the picture and returned it to his looming interrogator.
“That boy was this girl you’re lookin‘ for—Mary Russell?”
“She’s a smart one, then. Sharp and quick. I only spent a day with him—her, but took to everything like a duck to water.”
“What else did you teach her, Crouch?” Holmes pressed, both knowing and dreading the answer.
“Lock-picking,” Crouch admitted, and then defended, “I thought she was a boy. He spun a story about wanting to know how to get out of a pair of handcuffs if the Hun caught him. I thought it was foolish, told him he’d likely get a bullet through his head first, but—well he was insistent and he had the money. So I taught him, and he learnt just fine, showed a knack for it in fact, so I threw in an old set o’ mine.”
The edge of Sherlock Holmes‘ lip twitched as he mentally added ‘lock-picking’, ‘forgery’, and ‘disguise’ to the growing repertoire of one Mary Russell.
MILITARY PERSONNEL SWARMED around the town of Folkestone with a drone of activity. Hotels, private homes, and warehouses had been commandeered, serving the soldiers training to embark on what was likely their final destination. Orderly tin barracks rolled in straight lines with the surrounding hills, making a valiant effort to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, nurses, and refugees who moved with the exhausting pace set by the distant guns.
The cab stopped for a long line of khaki coloured soldiers marching through town, rifles erect, trousers creased, fresh young faces full of pride, naive to the horrors awaiting them on the distant shores. Small boys raced alongside, shouting encouragement, while refugees from Belgium stood silent, watching with grief-stricken eyes and selfish hope.
When the fresh supply of men threaded their way to the harbour, the cabbie pulled into the street, turning towards the military headquarters that coordinated the Intelligence officers.
The cab stopped at a makeshift sentry post that guarded the driveway to an ivy-covered manor house. Holmes paid his fee, told the driver to move on, and unfolded himself out of the cab. Two guards, with rifles in hand, moved to intercept him.
Holmes flashed his official papers at the guards, which bore an instantly recognisable seal. The pair swiftly saluted, remaining at attention.
“At ease, gentlemen” Holmes said, simultaneously tucking his papers away and removing the photograph of Mary Russell. “Tell me, do you recognise this girl?” Both soldiers studied the photograph of the plaited girl in spectacles. The first shook his head, but the second hesitated. “She’s familiar?”
“I’m not sure, sir,” the second admitted. “It might be her, but maybe not.”
“Tell me all the same.”
“Surely, you remember Miss Russell, Dwight?”
“Miss Russell? That’s not, Miss Russell, Jones.”
“Can you describe Miss Russell?” Holmes questioned.
“Her hair was—” Jones hesitated, blushing. “Well, sir, it was golden and fairly glowed like a crown atop her head.”
“She wasn’t wearing them trousers and spectacles, that’s for sure. A real looker, sir. High society and pleasant as could be. We weren’t supposed to let her in, but she was so distressed and we didn’t have the heart, so we asked and she was granted a meeting. General Sinclair spoke with her himself.”
It was clear from both young men’s eyes that they remembered Miss Russell perfectly. Yet another facet of this young woman that Sherlock Holmes tucked away.
Dwight escorted Holmes to the converted manor house, passing him off to a Captain who, when shown the papers, snapped to attention and saluted.
Inside, the hallways echoed with the quickened stride of boots clicking from one office to the next, relaying messages and orders as a constant stream of information poured into the Intelligence Headquarters. Despite the rushed atmosphere, Holmes was shown into General Sinclair’s private office straightaway.
“It’s an honour to meet you, Mr Holmes.” General Sinclair stood, shaking his hand with a firm grip and a brisk manner. The General was a portly gentleman with shrewd dark eyes set deep in his weathered face. “Excellent work with the Von Bork spy ring.”
“Thank you, General Sinclair.”
“What can I do for you, Mr Holmes?”
“I won’t take much of your time. I’m looking for information on a young woman by the name of Mary Russell who met with you two weeks ago.”
“Lovely young woman. I do not generally entertain such requests, but young men, and I suppose older, are hopeless when confronted with a distressed member of the gentler sex.”
“A request for information?”
“Yes, in regards to her father Charles Russell. A good man, and an excellent agent. Before his disappearance, he communicated a great deal of vital information to the war effort. It was a shame to lose him, and I felt obligated to speak with his daughter.”
“What were her questions?” The General indicated the chair across before settling into his own.
“The poor girl wasn’t convinced he was dead. She wondered what efforts were being made to search for him. I assured her that everything that could be done, was done, and the chances of him surviving were non-existent. She requested details of his assignment—where he was posted, where he disappeared, and so forth, but I couldn’t divulge such information, as it is confidential.” The General folded his hands heavily over his girth. “My firm words distressed Miss Russell a great deal, so much so, that she fainted, right here in my office. Darned nuisance, it was.”
“Fainted, you say?” Holmes arched an interested eyebrow.
“Indeed. I had to call for my secretary. We roused her, but she wasn’t fit to be moved, so she laid here for a bit before she recovered. We brought in cushions and propped her in the more comfortable chair.”
“I see.” Holmes said, simply. “General Sinclair, did you, at any time, leave Miss Russell unattended in your office?”
“As I said, it was a damn nuisance. I had matters to attend to, and I could hardly do that with her in my office. So I stepped out for a number of minutes to conduct business.”
“Interesting.” Holmes stood, walking over to the wall of file cabinets. Each drawer was secured with a lock. He eyed the cabinet labelled with an R, noting the minuscule scratches on the lock, whereas the other locks showed no signs of tampering. “May I see Charles Russell’s file?”
“Of course. You have clearance for ‘most confidential’.” The General rose, withdrawing a key from his pocket that was connected to a chain. He slipped the key into the cabinet lock bearing the letter R, and selected Charles Russell’s file.
“Russell infiltrated France via neutral Holland, posing as an American business tycoon on the lookout for investments. From Holland he crossed into Belgium, and then into France, where he infiltrated occupied Lille. He was helping to organise the resistance. Civilian conditions under German rule is appalling in the city, but still, when a pilot went down in a suburb, the resistance was able to hide him and smuggle him back to England with the help of Russell. In early March, we began coordinating with Russell across the Front, ordering him south, to scout Neuve–Chappelle for an offensive. The information he gleaned, along with an Agent Leonard Smith was paramount in its retaking.”
An offensive that was not without cost. Over eleven thousand lives were exchanged for a two kilometre gain.
“Russell communicated with Smith on the night before the attack, on the ninth. He told Agent Smith that he was headed back to Lille to investigate an unspecified lead, but Russell never showed for their next scheduled rendezvous, nor did he communicate via other established methods. As you can see, Russell was meticulous about communication, never missing a rendezvous. Given the intensity of the fighting near Neuve–Chappelle, and his uncharacteristic silence, I declared him MIA. Fighting is fierce between the ridges and there’s no way to retrieve the bodies rotting in the mud.”
As the General spoke, Holmes flipped through the impressive file, memorising dates, positions, names, contacts—all the information that the ‘swooning’ Mary Russell had access to while the General was conducting business outside his office door.
“Is Agent Smith still serving near Neuve-Chappelle?”
“He’s been reassigned to Arras, just thirty-three kilometres south of Neuve–Chappelle. They know him there as ‘Smithie’, an artist with a knack for details and nerves of steel.”
“Thank you, General.” Holmes handed the file back, choosing not to divulge Mary Russell’s breach of security lest she be accused of spying. “I’ll need passage on the first available transport to Arras, along with uniform and gear.”
“A ship is leaving this very hour. Do you have orders to search for Russell, Mr Holmes?”
“Yes, I’m to search for Russell,” Holmes replied, vaguely.
THE CHANNEL TOSSED a spiteful head at the transport ploughing through its dark waters. The transport lurched, men rose with the swell, fought the roll of their stomachs, and steeled themselves to repeat the tired process. A gust of wind plucked at the pages of an open book, and a firm hand shot out to stop its impending abduction, rescuing the Hebrew translation guide from a soggy doom. Sherlock Holmes huddled in his British warm on the officer’s deck, glaring mightily at the offending journal in his hand, ignoring the robust conversations of his fellow khaki-coloured travellers.
Miss Mary Russell had a ten day lead on the greying wolfhound. If he were to have any hope of locating her in a war torn country, then it was imperative that he anticipate rather than chase the slip of a girl. An afternoon spent on her trail had already provided him with a glimpse into her complex mind. A mind that was agile, imaginative, and above all, formidable.
Holmes used the Hebrew translation guide as a bookmark for Mary Russell’s cryptic journal, closing the worn leather book with an irritated slap. For the first time in two hours, he glanced at the transport’s progress, glimpsing Calais on the darkening horizon, its red brick clock tower standing proud on an otherwise flat landscape filled with slate warships and startling white medical vessels emblazoned with the Red Cross.
He reached into his pocket for his pipe, but instead, brought forth the photograph of his young quarry along with his magnifying glass, directing the lens over the grinning girl in plaits. She was left-handed, as indicated by her grip on the Cricket ball and the pleasant tilt of her handwriting. She appeared relaxed and happy, leaning on the motorcar as if she owned it. That she loved her father was apparent by her body language, the easy comfort with which she stood at his side. Her eyes were obscured by her spectacles, and he wondered at their colour. Did she share her father’s colouring in all respects, or did she have her mother’s dark eyes? Moreover, did those eyes reveal the intelligence lurking in her innocent appearance?
Holmes was finding it difficult to connect the mind in the journal with the girl in the photograph and reports of the young woman who fainted in a General’s office. Her’s was a mind that was proving a challenge to unlock—a mind similar to his own, if a raw, unpolished version.
Thus far, he had made very little progress with her esoteric shorthand. The few segments that he had deciphered were only possible because he had been looking for a reference to dates, names, and Agent Smith’s name in the last pages of her writing, which he had painstakingly unraveled.
However, his efforts were not in vain. It was clear that she knew of Agent Smith, that he had been the last person to see her father alive, therefore, he deduced that she would seek the Agent out rather than charge blindly into Neuve–Chappelle.
The VAD unit that she had forged her way into was headed for the military hospital in St. Omer, however, given her ingenuity so far, she was quite capable of assuming another identity once she had her bearings. There was no question in Holmes’ mind whether she would discover the whereabouts of the reassigned Agent Smith. It was only a matter of time before she made her way to Arras, where he hoped to bridge the gaping chasm of her ten day advantage to intercept her before she undertook something truly hazardous. The question that remained, was not how she would do it, but rather, how long it would take her to reach Arras?
Amid his disputations, Holmes toyed with the journal, unconsciously exploring its supple leather with long fingers, prompting a single question to separate itself from the others mingling in his thoughts: Where are you, Mary Russell?
4th April 1915
Six days earlier
Inhuman screams competed with whirring sirens, squashing lesser groans into silence. The building shuddered with a great heaving protest, rattling the electrical bulbs in their sockets. Light flickered sporadically, plunging the ward and its miserable occupants into darkness. Stones battered my winged cap. I coughed up the stony dust, and my hands recalled the task with which they were occupied. Moving by memory rather than sight, I lowered my end of the stretcher to the floor, turned to the waiting one, gripped what felt like a slab of meat and heaved the new arrival onto his commandeered cot.
The electric lights rallied, flashing images of my new patient. A frantic eye stared from a cradle of filthy bandage, the lower half of his jaw strangely sunken. Shadow and illusion, I thought. The emergency lights fought, steadied, then burst to life, revealing illusion for truth—his lower jaw was indeed absent.
Artillery answered the enemy shelling with a pounding that shook my teeth. A distant drone over No.10 St. Omer Hospital signalled another mortar. The ground trembled; the lights held. I plucked a chart off the end of the cot, placed it on the soldier with trench foot now occupying the floor and picked up the identity card of the man with the missing jaw. A transfer from CCS 32—the Casualty Clearing Station in Arras. The river of wounded were arriving from the very place I needed to travel.
The ward was filled to capacity with medical personnel consumed by their present tasks. If ever there was a time to make a discreet exit; it was now. I quickly jotted down notes in the file, marking the man, who would be my last patient, for surgery, and then called a nurse over to wheel him into the theatre. With a twinge of guilt, I abandoned the dying.
Yesterday, by the expedient method of packing a small parcel full of biscuits, addressing it to Private Leonard Smith and taking it to the military postal hub, I located the whereabouts of the last man to speak with my father. The British post, during war time or peace, is ever reliable. An elementary method, really.
The opportunity I had been waiting for had arrived, and I seized it, hurrying across the dark grounds to the empty nurses barracks. I ripped off my splotched apron, tossed the ridiculous hat into the trunk at the end of my cot, and exchanged frock for sensible trousers and jumper. I slipped into a concealing greatcoat, wrapped a thick scarf around my neck, and tucked my plaits beneath a cap emblazoned with a Red Cross.
Shouldering my rucksack, I paused in front of a corroded mirror, observing the effect. The fresh faced girl from Blighty had been replaced with someone I did not entirely recognise. That she was haggard, was apparent by the dark circles under her eyes, and it was those eyes, more than anything, that were changed. With a shiver, I jerked away from the reflection, dumping my VAD uniform into the laundry with finality before darting into the night.
The whine of aeroplanes buzzed in my ears, chasing my shoulders as I skittered like a rabbit from one hole to the next. It was well and good that St. Omer was being bombed, for it would make my deception easier.
Orderly chaos reigned at the unloading station. An expedient exchange of broken bodies for fresh bandages, petrol, and tins of Bully Beef loaded into the flimsy canvas covered truck beds. I stopped beside a desolate café, watching the convoy of ambulances, singling out the driver who was clearly in charge. She was a small woman, self-assured, utterly relaxed and possessed of a great deal of what the French called élan. Even the tilt of her cap managed to give one the impression of style, despite her muddy greatcoat.
I blew out an anxious breath, committed myself, and walked towards the convoy. As I approached the small woman, I immediately observed two revealing facts. Firstly, I doubted she was a day over eighteen, and secondly, her startling green eyes missed very little.
“Hello there,” I greeted, easily. “I’m transferring to the CCS 32 ambulance division.” Confidently, I presented my forged documents, feeling extremely gangly in comparison to her natural elegance. She was, I noted, wearing rouge and eyeliner. She glanced at my forged papers, then craned her neck back to study me from beneath dark eyelashes. Her scrutiny traveled over my greatcoat, to my trousers, and boots, and finally back to my eyes.
“A fair forgery, but not very convincing.” A lump rose in my throat, a burst of light illuminated the skyline, and by the time its white hot embers dissipated, I had recovered my wits.
“I’ve only had four days to practice. Give me another four and you’ll be impressed.”
“I don’t have four days.”
“And I can’t wait eight years.”
“Why are you so keen on going to Arras, Miss Russell?”
Only the truth would deceive her appraising eyes, so I told her half of it.
“There’s a soldier I need to find—Private Smith.”
Red lips curved sumptuously. “I know Smithie.” She plucked out a pack of gaspers, offered me one, which I declined, and then lit her own with a flourish. A long line of smoke swirled from her lips.
“Can you drive?”
“Not to everyone.”
“I should think the same applies to your real age.”
She smiled, cheeks dimpling, eyes flashing with mirth.
“Phryne Fisher,” she said, thrusting out a hand.
“Mary Russell,” I replied, returning her firm grip.
“I think we’ll get along smashingly, Mary.”
“Take the second ambulance from the end. The keys are in the ignition. Ignore the bloody canvas, the former driver took some shrapnel on the trip here.” I turned towards my waiting vehicle, only to pause at her next words. “And whatever you do, Mary old girl, don’t stop. You’re in for a wild ride tonight,” she flashed a daring grin, “the Huns are terribly riled.”
** You can read the rest of the story here… **