Monday, April 26, 2010

The Case of the Black Diamond Bride Part VII

An hour later found me ensconced in my laboratory, a plate of half eaten sandwiches and empty tea cups at one elbow and my jotted notes at the other. Shirt-sleeves role up and clear of any staining liquids that I had been using, collar undone, and a disgruntled expression complete my worn ad weary look. The results of the test were not promising, though hardly useless.

The ink was a high quality Indian ink, for sale at a select few shops in London. It was, however, the most popular version of said ink. The paper was exactly what I had taken it for, and could be purchased at almost any stationary story in the city. There were no fingerprints on the paper except for my own and those I judge to belong to Lady Radcliff. The writing itself was blocky and indicated a right handed author, most likely a man. The surety of the script indicated he had been well trained in his penmanship, but had enough years to develop individual quirks that were generally beaten out of a student in primary school.

Some in my profession, at least of the alchemical one, would have scoffed at using the sacred alchemic laboratory for such mundane concerns as crimes and the processing of clues. However, I found that I was most at home here, and could not afford the extra space for a separate lab even if I had wanted. Still, I was careful to shield my will and thoughts, lest it cause one of my more delicate workings to go awry.

Feeling the need to stretch my legs, I walked over to one of the cabinets and opened it. Inside were a wild variety of vials, jars, and other glass containers of multiple colors, each containing a different potion, elixir, or tincture. Alchemic work took time, and those required care and attention ever so often. The cabinet had seven shelves, each one labeled with a weekday, in accordance to the fact that every plant, animal, mineral, and metal was ruled by a planetary body which governed a day of the week. Lemon Balm, for example, was tied to Jupiter, which rules Thursday. To properly use it one needed to work with that plant in the first hour of daylight on a Thursday.

I drew one of the containers and calmed my mind. The process of creating tinctures and potions required that every so often by mixing the herb, in the case of a tincture, or the salt ashes, in a potion, by the light shaking of the mixture. I focused on what I wanted the mixture to accomplish. A potion to clear the mind, another to soothe aches and pains, one to draw out the essences of poison and a second that would cause a minor explosion like a grenade. Each one I place my will into and stirred up the energies, binding them together and making them far stronger than a mere chemical reaction. I took my time, letting each have my undivided attention as I sensed where it was in the process and where I wanted it to go. Some had been there less than a week, tinctures still soaking the essences of a plant into the pure alcohol of red grapes. Others had been in there close to a year, growing ever darker and more potent, till a single drop would accomplish more than a hundred time that which could be done with a mere chemical process.

It took almost an hour to work my way through a single planet’s potions, but by the time I had finished I felt both drained and relieved. It was amazing, how little rituals succeeded in calming the nerves and ordering the mind. I closed and locked the cabinet, glancing over at the next one and considered working on the next group of my workings, but decided against it. There was other work to be done, and a rather harsh deadline at the end.

Instead I left my laboratory and went downstairs, carrying the dishes with me as I would not violate the rule of an alchemist being the only one allowed in his laboratory. After handing the dishes off to Miss Connor, I went into the room next to my library where I kept my Difference Engine. Starting it up, I quickly accessed the TeleNet and sent off a few queries. The first to a professor of Eastern Religions at London University concerning the ritual Lady Radcliff had described.
The second to a contact I had in the police to see if one Rodrigo de la Mancha was in London. The last was to see if I had any messages that had arrived while my DE was turned off.

The DE returned that I had three messages on hold, which were then displayed by the small projector that had connected to the machine. Two were mere advertisements, one for a paten medicine from America promising better health, and the second one from the local booksellers offering me a discount on my next purchase. I instructed the first to be removed and printed off the second on a short strip of tickertape.
The last message was from a charming American alchemist I had taken to corresponding with by the name of Miranda Wolfe. She informed me of the success of her latest experiment involving a tincture made of honey, willow bark, and wolfs bane. She also passed on a rumor involving the latest American president and an anonymous English noblewoman, though she failed to give me a reason for its importance.

I sent back a reply, lightly tapping the delicate ivory keys of the keyboard, congratulating Miranda on her success. I also asked to confirm she would be arriving in England for the Alchemists Conference in three weeks. The message went off in a clatter of gears. When it was done I shut down the Difference Engine. I would go around the police station myself, along with a gift for my contact’s troubles, since such information was best kept between professionals and not upon the TeleNet. I doubted the professor’s information would be all that vital and could wait for the next time I accessed my messages.

Miss Connor was waiting for me when I came back into the library. Her garments were slightly wet, indicating she’d been out in the rain, and the unhappy expression on her young face indicated that either the weather was to blame or whatever had driven her into it. The envelope she was clutching in her small hands was even wetter than she was, but the ink on it remained legible enough to tell me came from the law offices that she was want to sometimes employ.

“Is there a problem, Miss Connor?” I asked.

Her face turned even more rebellious, if possible. “Bloody hell there is!” she snapped, “My Aunt has decided that I am too young to run my own house by myself and that it is disgraceful for me to be living unmarried with a bachelor under my roof!”

I felt my normally pale skin grow a few shades lighter. Megan’s Aunt was a short, stout, angry catholic woman who had been married once, born nine children, put eight in the ground, and disowned the last for taking up with a young man of questionable virtue and unquestionable lack of finances. Her husband had been driven tot eh bottle, then the grave, no doubt by her harping, high toned voice. I had met her but one, and that was enough to tell me that she was more devout than any of the Southern Baptist from the Americas that my adventurous cousin had told me about. She would most likely come after me for being a devil worshiper at best.

I had relied greatly on Megan Connor’s tolerance and understanding of my strange ways during my time as her tenant. Should her aunt arrive to take control I could count only upon a shear lack of that understanding and tolerance. My options were few, and mostly desperate. I would have to find a way to hold off the aged harpy.

“When will she be arriving?” I asked, breaking Megan from her continued ranting.

“Three days,” she replied, crumpling the letter in her hands, “With promises to legally take control of this house! She’s already got a barrister doing the paperwork!”

Three days for Megan’s Aunt. Two days for Lord Radcliff. At least if I failed and the latter got me, I wouldn’t have to worry about the former.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Case of the Black Diamond Bride Part VI

The Telenet was a rather new invention. It began as an experiment of connecting departmental difference engines, which had evolved from simple calculations to being able to process textual documents that were coded into them, so that professors and upper level students could communicate more quickly and share their findings. Swiftly the English Crown had adopted the system to the government, which initially gave the Empire a leg up over the other European nations. This was remedied quickly, mainly by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then France. Germany was still not unified enough to manage building one, but they had succeeded in mastering the creation of difference engines all the same.

A little over five years after the Telenet being adopted by the British Empire, it had spread to the civilian population. While only the very wealthy could afford it at first, it had trickled down. I personally had a small difference engine connected to the London Telenet, but long distance and international communication was still handled mainly by the telegraph offices, which had the machines and energy to send messages farther.

I pulled my automobile up to the telegraph office closes to my flat and got out. I didn’t put out the fire this time, as sending a telegraph shouldn’t take me long. It was the response that would, though hopefully not too long. The bell over the door rang as I walked in and the operator looked up. A thin, spare man with his sleeves rolled up to the elbow and a pencil tucked behind his left ear, the old man gave me a gap-toothed smile.

“Good day, sonny, will you be sending a telegram of missive?”

I gave him a polite bow of my head as I reached the desk. “A telegram, to New York, care of one Gunnar Erikson,” I replied.

His pencil scratched against the paper as he wrote down the details. “And what will ye be saying, sonny?”

I thought for a second. Since this was mostly involved Amanda’s Tarot reading, I was hesitant to mention Lady Radcliff’s case. While Gunnar’s knowledge of the occult was more expansive than mine for various reasons, I wasn’t sure I’d need his help. I was, after all, hired to catch a blackmailer and a thief, the ring’s past was incidental for all I knew. I’d keep the message on Amanda then, and worry about anything else later.

“Cousin, a Norn plays games. Stop. Requesting aid as convenient. Stop.”

The old man nodded and scribbled. When finished he gave me an odd look. “This all, sonny?”

I nodded, and passed over the required amount. “Yes, and please send it out as soon as possible, if you would,” I said, slipping a few shillings to the man. Bribery wasn’t needed, but it rarely hurt to give someone a little extra when possible. People remember the generous fondly. The gap-toothed smile flashed with reassurances it would go right out.

Giving the man my thanks I left and got back into my automobile. I considered my next step as I put it in gear. The note was in my pocket and testing it at my lab would be a good idea. On the other hand, I could use a bit of food and some more information. If I could find out skilled burglars who were in town, I might be able to narrow down my suspects. Since the list of people who knew Lady Radcliff’s secret was supposed to be short already, narrowing it down further would only aid me. Still, something about Lord Radcliff’s sudden plans to return struck me as odd. I couldn’t rule out that he had some part of this.

I eased the automobile through the London traffic, dodging angry shouts and fishwives. The rain had driven most of the latter under cover, but there were still plenty of the former. I decided that the rain was likely to have driven most of the London underground into various shelters this early in the day, rather than congregating them in a few locations, I decided to turn to home.

I had just pulled up to an intersection and stopped when a figure in a heavy coat and bowler hat pulled low stepped onto the running board of my car. Though I couldn’t see much of his face, I could see the small gun in his hand quite well.
He reeked of tobacco and cheep booze, with the body of a dockworker under the coat.

“Best lay off ‘he Lady Radcliff, mate,” he growled at me, a slight accent of the Australian colonies in his voice. “Roight messy it is, wouldn’t want to see you get ‘urt.”

My hand moved towards one of the potions on my belt, but he vanished into the rain a second later. I bit back a growl, scanning around for him, but then people behind me started shouting for me to move and I had to drive on. Still, while I knew little of my assailant, he had told me more than just to drop the case.

Clearly someone had a vested interest in Lady Radcliff’s blackmail that went beyond getting three thousand pounds. She’d told me the amount would be enough to draw her husband’s attention. Now it seemed that attention was wanted more than the money, since anyone who had researched my client to the point of knowing her secret and where she kept her jewelry so precisely would know she couldn’t pay out that sum. Now, the question was not so much as to who had the skill to commit this crime, but rather who would profit from it the most. I wanted to raise Lord Radcliff’s viability as a suspect, but realized that had more to do with personal feelings towards a man I’d never met rather than evidence, so I pushed it aside. The father of Lady Radcliff’s child, however, would most likely know both her secret and desire revenge for her gaining such a wealthy marriage. Certain members of both her and her husband’s family were also possible suspects, though I knew none of them. Perhaps the Radcliffs had discovered her secret after the wedding and felt that a divorce and Lady Radcliff’s disgrace would free up the Lord Radcliff and permit him to marry a much more wealthy and higher born girl.

I sped up as I headed home, the note weighing heavily in my pocket. It held vital clues and if my brief passenger had been any indication, could be the key not only to the case, but my continued health.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Case of the Black Diamond Bride Part V

For the Alchemist, the world is governed and composed of the four elements, the quintessence that arises from them, and the three essences. The four elements are earth, air, fire, water. The quintessence is born from the union of the four elements and is know my many names; chi, life, spirit, wood, and lightning. The three essences are salt, sulfur, and mercury, which are the ash, flame and smoke that is created when a thing is purified by the alchemist’s fire. All that is, was and will be are made of, ruled by, and are, those elements and essences.

So too, is every crime. Means, opportunity, and motive are the salt, sulfur, and mercury. Means is the salt, the physical components of the crime. Opportunity is the sulfur, the moment of burning flame of action that releases the mercury and salt in heat and light. Motive is the mercury, ethereal in nature of thought and desire. Each person and substance involved are made and governed by the four elements, each under the sway of those primal forces. The way a crime was committed could tell a lot about a person, including their elemental humor and that would lead to some suspects and rule out others. As an alchemist I would need to recombine all these elements and essences in order to release the true nature of the crime and its perpetrator.

These thoughts filled my head as Lady Radcliff led me to her bedchambers and the scene of the crime. This went beyond behavior, at least by the Queen’s standards, but there was little choice in the matter. If I was to help my client, a few social norms were acceptable. Still, I could not help but wonder why she had asked about my skills in the occult. So far, nothing in this case indicated a connection to the arcane and occult arts. Either she was holding back information or she was on who wanted the comfort of something higher aiding her. I’d face both types of clients in the past and both were equally troubling in their own way.

Lady Radcliff’s chambers were as well appointed and lavish as the sitting room she’d met me in, though it was clear she shared them with her husband, the Lord Radcliff. Just as clearly, he held complete dominion here. Various trophies were placed about the room, from the mundane horse racing to the exotic hunting. A stuffed lion’s head, full of mane and sharp of tooth, was placed above the marriage bed in a symbol of power. I suspected it excited the Lord Radcliff more than his wife. There were only two photographs, one on her night table that was of her and a woman I took to be a sister, the other a large portraiture of Lord Radcliff himself hanging opposite the foot of the bed.

The Lord Radcliff was a powerfully built man, with a large and fashionable mustache, slick black hair, and the bearing of a military officer who deserved the uniform he was wearing. He was clearly a man who loved power and brooked no softness. It was clear that he had married the Lady Radcliff for her beauty and valued her as nothing more than another trophy of conquest. He was a man to be respected, feared, and most likely enjoyed the adoration of both his equals and lesser. I’d met his kind in the past, and rarely got along with them. Perhaps because we were so similar.

Similar, but not the same.

Before I could ask her for it, Lady Radcliff handed me the note her blackmailers had left on her pillow. It was short, to the point, and revealed a little of the blackmailer’s character. Printed on cheap paper, but not so cheap the ink had run or bled through, with perfect spelling and diction. An educated person, then, but without more than the three lines it took to inform Lady Radcliff of the price of her secret and its nature, little more could be drawn at the moment.

The jewelry box in which she’d kept her black diamond was a bit more telling. There were only a few scratches on the key hole, letting me know it was picked, but by a very skilled hand. Her other jewelry boxes revealed no such marks, which meant the they had know precisely which box the diamond was kept in. there were most likely a limited number of people with such knowledge in the house. And, since the diamond had presumably been taken as Lady Radcliff had been sleeping and left the note when they were done, it shrank the number of possible thieves drastically. The question was why take the black diamond in the first place.
Clearly the blackmail and theft were connected, but not by anything obviously apparent. If it was to show they could reach her, the note proved that well enough, and I wasn’t sure how the ring would be used against her in the instance of blackmail.

Perhaps the diamond was the target, and the blackmail a diversion. I would have to check, but black diamonds were rare and likely worth far in excess of three thousand pounds. A thought poked at my brain and I turned to Lady Radcliff.

“M’Lady, what can you tell me about the diamond that was stolen?”

If the look on Lady Radcliff’s face when she told me of her illegitimate and dead child was trouble, then the one she wore at my question would have sent a lesser man screaming in terror at its implications. I am not a lesser man, more’s the pity.

“My father obtained it, in his youth on a trip to India. Aeroships had just come to be more available and he commissioned one along with some friends, to go exploring the Orient. He often told me the story when I was a little girl, because I thought it rather romantic,” she said, sitting lightly on the edge of the bed. “They were three days into the jungle, when they came across a beautiful native woman who was bound to an altar. My father freed her, much to her gratitude, and she led them to her village. Her father was the chief and was very happy to see his daughter again, but the village priest was angry. The girl had been given as a sacrifice to the jungle gods, to do with as they pleased before consuming her. The priest said that the jungle gods would grow angry and attack, but my father saw it all as petty superstition.”

“That night, after a great feast, the village was attacked. My father and his friends fought bravely, but the young princess was carried off, along with other young women as the huts burned. My father and his friends raced after them, until a day later they came to a mountain top where they found the priest about to sacrifice the girls. My father shot the priest, and took from him a ring with the black diamond,” she continued. “He said he rescued her and the other girls and returned them to the village.”

Lady Radcliff was silent for a long time, the spoke very softly, “It took me years to find out the truth. My father wrote the true story in his journal. He and his friends failed to rescue the girls. The truth was that the priest had conducted some sort of ritual, and all around him were the bodies of tigers and the captured women, placed on giant stakes and hanging in the air in an alternating g pattern, with their blood flowing down to the altar. The princess was bound to the altar and the priest was on top of her. My father arrived just as the priest finished having his way with the princess and stabbed an obsidian dagger into her heart. My father shot the priest, right then and there, but it was too late. According to the journal, the ritual could not be stopped and all the bodies and blood were pulled into a vortex above the altar, where it they spun until it formed a sphere. The noise and sight was so terrible that one of his friends went insane. My father said it felt like his very body and soul was being torn apart and drawn into the vortex. He said it felt like an eternity.”

She swallowed and looked sick. “It was noon when he awoke from that midnight ritual, all alone. Everyone else was gone and on the altar sat a black stone that he was later told to be a diamond. There was no sign of the bodies of the women, animals, priest, or his friends. Just the black stone. His journal said he felt possessed to take it and so he carried it off and later had it made into a ring. He wore it all the time. He wrote that late at night, he could hear the cries of the princess and the other women, his friends the roar of tigers and the dark laughter of the priest promising that he would once again be free and that the gods would repay my father for destroying his village and its people.”

I might not be a lesser man, but a shiver ran down my spine. It was doubtful Lady Radcliff’s father had enjoyed a pleasant life with the black diamond, and equally likely he could not be rid of it. How Lady Radcliff ended up with it probably had more to do with wanting a keepsake of her father, rather than his desire for her to have it. Doubtlessly, he would have wanted to take it the grave with him.
It explained why she wanted my help. Undoubtedly, she could have gotten Holmes, but his views on the supernatural were well known. I, on the other hand, would be more likely to believe her story about the diamond’s creation as well as being able to see reasons beyond simple theft for its disappearance. I watched as she sat on the bed, looking despondent, clearly shamed about her father and his past. No doubt there was even more to that story than she was telling, but she hadn’t liked about a word of it. Nor had she lied about her affair. Now, I just needed to figure out the connection between the two.

“Does anyone but you know of the diamond’s creation?” I asked, peering at her closely. She shook her head, raising a white silk handkerchief to her eyes. It came away wet, with a trace of light blue eye shadow. No false tears, which was something. I’d had women fake their tears before.

The letter might reveal something more, when I could run some tests on it. The ring’s creation disturbed me though, especially since I had no experience with Easter magic, and this sounded a far cry from the scholarly wizardry I was used to. I would have to get in touch with someone more knowledgeable about it.
Lady Radcliff sat there, looking small and vulnerable. Her hair had come loose, a curly wave of honey brown locks that framed a lovely, if distraught, face. She was beautiful, and a part of me felt rather disappointed that she was taken and controlled by Lord Radcliff. She was not a high born woman, but still of clearly good breeding, hence why the Lord could still marry her. I subtly shook my head, clearing away such thoughts. Still, before I could marshal my mental forces, I did notice that she’d changed in to different clothing from earlier and her new violet dress was far more fitted and low cut, revealing creamy pale skin. I forced myself to look about the room again, just in case I missed something. Nothing jumped out.

A few moments later Lady Radcliff and I bid our goodbyes and I promised to contact her with any results as soon as I got them. She thanked me and pleaded with me to hurry. Neither of us mentioned that Lord Radcliff’s return in two day would raise awkward questions for the both of us.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Case of the Black Diamond Bride Part IV

Lady Radcliff lived in a castle. Not surprising, considering her status as Upper Nobility and her husband’s wealth, but this castle was rather impressive. The only one I could think of that might compare to it was Buckingham palace. I pulled the automobile up to the gate and watched as the gatekeeper came over to my vehicle.

“I’m here to see lady Radcliff, I have an appointment,” I said, before he could speak, “I’d appreciate it if you could let me on through.”

The gatekeeper was a short and stout man, well dressed, but the clothes were worn ill-worn. A glimpse his mouth revealed poor teeth, missing the right incisor. He was a rough man, his walk a rolling, limping step. He glowered at me, but I stared back imperiously before checking my watch. I’d found that when a giant of a man looks like he’ll walk (or in this case drive) right over you, people tended to let him through.

The gatekeeper grumbled but opened the massive wrought iron gates and I put the car back into gear, before coasting smoothly up to the front door of the mansion. Here, I would have to be polite. The gate keeper was from at best a middle class background, but the butler for a family like the Radcliff’s would have been well trained and as haughty as they would be. Lady Radcliff might need my help, but in the eyes of her family and staff I’d be nothing more than an immigrant with ideas, betrayed by the lightest traces of my accent. Were I professor, I’d be accorded greater respect, but a private detective ranked somewhere below policeman and above chimney sweep. Holmes might have romanticized the profession, but that didn’t mean much in the old circles.

I parked and got out of the automobile, doused the fire with the pull of a lever, and released the excess steam with a hiss. It was important to do that, both because it saved coal and because keeping the pipes under pressure for a long period of time could have bad results, from burst pipes to rust. Once completed I made my way up the steps and knocked on the door.

If the gatekeeper had been in a foul mood, the butler was worse. He was everything you’d think the butler of an old family would be, and then some, right down to tiny mustache and pressed clothing. After giving me a disapproving sniff, my automobile and even bigger one, and my car another to the point where he was practically snorting in his tiny mustache. It did not help that I was a half foot taller than him and he was trying to look down his nose at me at the same time as the sniffing.

I was shown, very reluctantly, to Lady Radcliff’s private parlor and left there. My entire flat could be placed into the room, which held a welter of small figurines, lace, books, and numerous other things. Holmes no doubt could have memorized everything, but I went for generalizations. The figurines, many of which were of dancers, told me that Lady Radcliff held a great interest in that art. A pair of worn, but elegant, ballerina slippers were perched within easy reach of a phonograph and empty area of the floor, but were hidden behind a set of books on embroidery. She danced the, but it was a secret thing to be kept from the other Radcliffs.

Most of the books were about topic suitable for a lady of her station, but I saw a dozen yellow romances stuffed between and under more serious books. Her music collection ran to the classics, but at the bottom of the pile one stuck out that I recognized as belonging to a rather popular band of new musical styling that emphasized a heavier beat and more mechanical sound. So, it seemed there was more to the Lady Radcliff than being a traditional member of the nobility. It seemed she kept up appearances, but did not long for the lifestyle of her husband’s family. She had struck me as young during our meeting, and the papers had listed her age as twenty when she was married. Lord Radcliff was closer to thirty, if my memory served. It was an arranged marriage, common still among the upper class. I would have to research the details when I returned home, since it had something to do with Lady Radcliff’s current situation.

Lady Radcliff entered, her skirts swirling around the door. Her expression was one of grave concern and panic, which relaxed slightly upon seeing me. “Oh thank God,” she said softly, making her way over to me, “Oliver told me you had arrived, but I fear there has been a complication.”

My eyebrow arched slightly. Complications rarely meant a fun time for me, and the more complex a case the more clients tended to meddle. “Tell me, what has happened?” I said.

Lady Radcliff took a deep breath before she started. “My husband, Lord Radcliff, was meant to be out of town for two weeks, but I just received a telegram that he is coming home right away,” she said, wringing her hands. “I fear that the blackmailers have already contacted him.”

I nodded slowly. This was a complication, especially if Lord Radcliff knew about whatever the problem was. I could get caught in the crossfire, and while I knew several people of means, none could equal the power of Lord Radcliff. If he wanted to punish me for his wife’s deception, there wasn’t much I could do about it. Still, I’d taken the job and I couldn’t leave it undone.

I guided Lady Radcliff over to a chair and encouraged her to sit, before taking the chair opposite of hers. “Perhaps it would be best if you told me just what you were being black mailed about. It might help me to find who is behind this,” I said softly.

Lady Radcliff looked reluctant, but nodded. “When I was seventeen, my parents permitted me to study ballet, because I’d loved dancing since I was a child. I loved it, more than anything, and while I was learning I met a young Spaniard named Rodrigo de la Mancha, the son of a lesser noble family,” she said, looking outside dreamily. “He was very exotic and passionate.”

I nodded, folding my hands before my face. She continued, sitting very still as she spoke, her tone far away. “Well, I’m sure you can grasp where this is leading. I gave Rodrigo my virginity, and he gave me a child before he left for Spain, but not a ring. My family was scandalized, and sent me off to the country side to have my child,” she said.

Then, Lady Radcliff looked down and wiped a tear away. “The child was stillborn, dead before I could even hold it. Everyone was sworn to secrecy, I returned home, an no one was the wiser. Two years later, I was engaged and married to Lord Radcliff. He never knew, and since the midwife said I wouldn’t have a problem giving birth I didn’t think it would be an issue in our marriage,” she finished.

I pushed my glasses up with my middle finger and cursed mentally. Not like life could ever be easy. Still, it was a place to start, and a few suspects I could run down. Now I just needed to see the crime scene and the note.

The Case of the Black Diamond Bride Part III

Before I went to Lady Radcliff’s mansion, I made a stop at the home of one Amanda Howett, a charming young woman I’d come to know shortly after my arrival in London. We had courted briefly, before her strict grandparents had sent her off to family in Kent. She had returned to London a week ago, but this was the first time I had seen her since her departure years ago.

The flat she was living in was a modest affair, as befitted a newly graduated student of university, and matched her well. I was shown in by the landlady, who gave me a disapproving look from a foot shorter than I, yet still managed to look up her nose at me.

Amanda herself had changed since I last saw her. Back when we first met, she had been pleasantly gifted a bit extra to her form, but the years had caused her to lose some in one area and gain it in others that suited her quite nicely. She was also wearing the latest in fashion for women her age, consisting of a corset and a shorter skirt that ended just above the knee, in contrast with the Queen’s strict views on proper behavior. The look suited her well, as did the knee high boots with four centimeters heels. The pink fabric complimented her pale skin, and the black leather of the corset and boots provided a fine counterpoint of color. Her blonde hair, a few shades darker than my own, was pulled into a but and her smile was as kind and playful as I remembered.

“Sven, my dear, it is so nice to see you again,” Amanda said, offering her hands.

I took them and bowed, lightly kissing her wrist. “And you as well, it has been far too long. I apologize for not coming to see you sooner, Miss Amanda,” I replied, straightening up.

“Charmer,” she said, giving a small laugh, “I am amazed you had time to see me at all. According to the papers, you’re in demand almost as much as Mister Holmes.”

A wry smile tugged at my mouth. “Yes, well, one has bills to pay and I am easier to hire than he is,” I replied, “But tell me, how have things been with you? I was surprised to learn you were back in London.”

Amanda sat down and smoothed her skirt. “Well, I was surprised myself actually,” she said, refusing to look at me. “I hadn’t intended to come back, but eth cards said it was best that I do so.”

The cards. Amanda had a gift for the Tarot, to about the same degree I had for alchemy, though if they told her the future of if she created it with them I had yet to determine. It was rare for her to use them, after having predicted the death of a close friend’s fiancĂ©. Still, her skills were not to be denied, whatever the consequences. If they, or she, had caused her to come to London, was doubtfully a minor reason.

“I see, when did you take them back up?” I asked, sitting down across from her. She crossed her legs, a promising glimpse of things seen long ago, and exhaled. Amanda’s eyes met mine for a brief instant before looking away again.

“Two months ago,” she replied, “I was cleaning my room and came across my deck. Three of the cards fell to the floor. I read them, then did another reading. Then another. I’m not sure what the message was meant to say, but afterwards I knew I had to come here to London and that I was to meet with you. I’m hoping, soon, that they will reveal more to me and I can understand why I was brought back here.”

I watched her, taking in the way her hands were nervously smoothing her skirt and how she would glance at me, only to look away instantly. It was clear she wasn’t telling me everything, and while part of me wondered if it had anything to do with our past together, another part felt it was something completely different.

“Would you like some tea?” Amanda asked after a moment, “I hate to be a bad host the first time you come over.”

“Thank you, but I’m afraid I don’t have time today,” I said, but continued upon her disappointed expression, “I was hired for a case this morning and it is important that I resolve it quickly.”

She nodded, a lock of blonde hair falling from her bun and landing on her bare shoulder. “I see, another time then. Do you have to leave soon?”

I pulled a watch from my vest pocket and looked at the time. A quarter past one, and I needed to be at Lady Radcliffs by two, even though I hadn’t set an appointment with her. “I’m afraid so, but I brought you a gift,” I said. I pulled out the little blue vial from my lab from a pocket. “An elixer, made of rosemary and white willow. Two drops in your morning tea will help ease the stress of London life, “ I said, giving her the vial with a slight smile. “London is a terrible place for keeping relaxed and I know moving here could not have been all that enjoyable.”

Amanda smile and took the vial, holding it to the light. “Thank you, Sven,” she said, “I’ve been eager to see how your alchemy has progressed.”

A few minutes later out goodbyes were said and I was on my way, my automobile steaming along the London streets towards Lady Radcliff. It was odd, seeing an old ladyfriend. Not that I’d had many, love being one of the fields in which my fortunes ranged from unfortunate to downright terrible. Yet here one was, brought by fate of desire, I couldn’t tell. While I didn’t go in for the Tarot, I wouldn’t deny the power Amanda had in those cards. If they were keeping secrets, it could only be because something larger was happening. My limited skills with sorcery weren’t going to help me, and alchemy had little interest in predicting the future, though my knowledge of astronomy might provide a hint. Still, there was someone else I’d rather call on if there was a matter of the fates. The only problem was, could I reach him in time for it to matter.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Case of the Black Diamond Bride Part II

Despite my little fireball for Lady Radcliff’s benefit, magic was not my strong suit. In fact I’d only been studying it seriously for the last two years. Rather, where my true talents lay was in the field of Alchemy, which I’d been studying for over a decade. The oldest of the sciences, the father of all sciences, the true nature of the world revealed and mine to guide and use. Alchemy was more than mixing substances, it was the infusion of person, matter, and spirit.

After Lady Radcliff had left I made my way up to my attic laboratory, where I did most of my alchemic work. If the library downstairs was stocked with books, this place was even more so, with the addition of all manner of scientific equipment, and a wide variety of substances ranging from the purely harmless to the highly deadly.
These were my ingredients, whose degradation, purification, and alteration could heal the sick, make a man stronger than he ever dreamed, and possibly turn lead into gold and grant immortality.

Since the people who were blackmailing Lady Radcliff had to be somewhat skilled at their job, I didn’t want to be unprepared. Fortunately, the last few years of doing jobs like this had taught me the importance of packing a kit to take along with me.
A belt and case of soft black leather hung from a coat tree just inside the door. I buckled it around my waist and made my way into my laboratory. The case itself was divided into small partitions, each perfectly spaced to hold a vial or potion. The lab itself was fairly long room, with an oven at one end and tables lining the two longest walls, the wall opposite the oven was where the door was next to the door was a large cabinet matched by two others on either side of the oven. These three cabinets were where I kept my potions, elixirs, and tinctures. The ones by the oven served as incubators for the potions that were still being formed, while the one by the door held those I’d finished.

I drew an assortment of vials from the cabinet by the door, each filled with different powders or liquids. Carefully, I slipped them into the different partitions in the case and buckled it shut once they were full. Then I grabbed a light blue potion and slipped it into my vest pocket. A week ago, an old friend of mine had moved to London and since she was on the way to Lady Radcliff’s, I figured I’d stop by. The potion would make an excellent gift.

Next I went back to the coat tree and grabbed a long black coat, which I had treated with various potions to increase the strength of the fabric. Between advances in medicine and my own alchemy I didn’t fear getting shot all that much, but it still hurt and this coat was virtually bulletproof. I’d made it after getting shot once, in a place not polite to mention in mixed company, and hadn’t been able to sit for close to two weeks. I’d rather not repeat the experience. Next was a pair of brass goggles, which could protect my eyes, act as magnification lenses, and had a couple of other functions as well. I donned the coat and set the goggles around my neck before heading downstairs.

My housekeeper was standing at the bottom of the stairs and looked up at me. “Master Larson, do you think you’ll be home in time for supper?” she asked. I noticed her hands were clutching the banister. Something upset her, though I didn’t know what.

“I’m not sure, but I shall call should I be too late,” I replied, “I doubt this will take very long.”

She nodded, though she still didn’t look happy. “I have a bad feeling about this one,” she said, “Be careful.”

I smiled as reached the bottom of the stairs and lightly bumped her chin with my finger, making her look up at me. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep my wits about me. Have I ever failed to make it home?” I replied.

Megan gave me a blank stare. “Yes, on several occasions, and I’d rather not have to run round to the hospital again because you were a damned fool.” She said, coolly.

I held a hand to my heart, acting wounded. “My dear lady, I am offended at your lack of faith,” I shot back.

Megan stared up at me for a moment, before looking away and placing her hand over mine. Her small hand felt cool and hot at the same time. “I’d rather offend you than have to look for another tenant, Master Larson. I doubt I could find one as pleasant as you.”

I bowed my head and lightly took her hand in mine. “Then, as your tenant, I shall be sure to return and be fully capable of paying the rent in one piece.” I said. Then with a wink I kissed her hand and walked out the front door.

I was back in within two seconds, cursing the rain that had soaked me.

My landlady laughed as I snatched up an umbrella in a huff and stormed out again, closing the door firmly behind me. Under the protection of the umbrella, I went back around my flat building to the garage and went inside. There was my automobile, a rather new steam-powered contraption made of smooth lines with an artist’s touch. It had been a gift from a client who made them, after I found his daughter in the arms of an Arab who had kidnapped her. The father had been pleased, the girl not so much.
The kidnapper wasn’t around to feel much of anything.

It took a few moments to fire up the boiler, but soon I was driving through the wet London streets in something close to style, though I’ll admit my car was one of the more normal ones on the road, compared to the horse drawn carriages and the heavily modified contraptions some other people drove. It was fashionable, for anyone with enough know how, to modify their automobiles to have pipes and all manner of other decorations just to set it apart from another’s.

The automobile had only been out for about two decades, yet already it was reaching new heights in speed and comfort. I’d heard rumors that some now had climate controls, to keep the interior warm in the cooler months, involving the use of excess steam to heat the compartment. It was something I wanted to look into, when I had the time. But for now, I had a job to do, and a friend to see.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Case of the Black Diamond Bride Part I

This story, like so many others, begins with heartbreak. It was in the fifth year of my immigration from Oslo to London and my second working as a private detective, that I was introduced to Lady Emma Radcliff. I’m still unsure if I should regret it.
It was raining that morning. It seemed like it was always raining in England, to the point where I had considered trading in my new automobile for a boat, were it not for the fact that the streets were flooded only three days out of seven. Well, perhaps that is an exaggeration, but in comparison with my native land, this much water was a pain.

I was sitting my library, a small room, but the shelves ran from floor to ceiling and were covered in books and odd artifacts I had collected in my short life. A book on Newton’s alchemy theory was open before, but my attention was outside the room, watching the black thunder clouds rumble like chariot wheels. Steam from the cup of tea beside me drifted lazily upwards, leaving a hint of peppermint in the air behind it.

“Master Larson, there is a woman here to see you,” said a soft voice from the door way. I turned to find my housekeeper and landlady, Megan Conner, looking at me expectantly. She was a small woman, a few years older than I was who had inherited the place from her mother and found she needed more money than she had to keep the place, with bright ginger hair hidden under a bonnet of green.

“Thank you, Miss Connor, could you show her in please?” I replied, in what I have been told was a pleasing tenor.

She nodded and showed Lady Radcliff into the library, announcing her title and name for me. I stood as the young woman made her way over too me. She was slender, with light brown hair that was pulled into the latest hairstyle and wearing a violet dress that would please the Queen with its elegance and modesty. Her face betrayed a nervous energy matched by the ringing of her hands.

“I am honored by your visit, My Lady,” I said as we each took a chair, “What is it I can do for you?”

Lady Radcliff sat frozen, her eyes darting around the room, flashing from books on
alchemy and magic to the latest scientific texts and fiction. “I’ve heard rumors about you, Mister Larson,” She said after a long moment, “That you can work with the utmost delicacy.”

I simply nodded, pushing my glasses back up my nose. “So they say,” I replied, “Though I can’t say who says it.”

A slight smile tugged her lips and she let out a breath. “They also say that you know things,” she hesitated for a moment before continuing, “Thing that should not be, that exist beyond the keen of other men.”

I bowed my head again. “They say that too.”

“Is it true, Mister Larson,” she asked, “Or is it just an act?”

I stared into her eyes, only the barrier of clear glass between us. There was a slight tugging sensation, as if I was being drawn into her, but she looked away before it could grow stronger. Casually I rolled back the sleeve of my right arm and held out my hand. Her eyes followed my hand as I rolled it around, revealing nothing to be there, before I stopped with my palm facing upwards. Lights danced over my palm, first white, then yellow, orange, and red as a small flame appeared an inch above my skin.

A flick of my wrist and the flame was gone, though its ghost danced in her softly blue eyes. “Truth is what we make it, Lady Radcliff,” I said, “I’ll leave you to be the judge of what is true.”

She was silent for a long time. The clock on the wall ticked away, rain pattered against the windows, and the world moved as it always did. Finally, she spoke, her words hurried.

“I am being blackmailed. Three days ago a letter appeared on my pillow case with a note saying if I did not come up with three thousand pounds in two weeks a past indiscretion of mine would be made known to my husband. I cannot let that happen, but it is impossible for me to obtain that sum without my husband knowing of it, he keeps tight control of all our finances. They took a ring of mine, a very precious one set with a black diamond and said that should I fail to obtain the money they will use it against me.”

I nodded slowly. It was easy to come up with several possible indiscretions the Lady Radcliff could have committed, though I found the sum asked to be a bit odd. Three thousand pounds was no small sum, but Lord Radcliff was acknowledged as one of the wealthiest men in England and it was a paltry amount to his sums. Even the most dimwitted thief from the outback was sure to know this. Which either meant the blackmailer was stupid, unlikely as they were capable of gaining access to the Lady’s bedchamber, or they were very well informed.

“Will you take my case, Mister Larson?” she asked.

“My fee is five pounds a day, two day minimum,” I said, “If you willing to pay that, I’ll take the case.”

Lady Radcliff nodded and pulled fifteen pounds from her purse and set it on the table. This was outside normal behavior, but I understood the message. I bowed my head and stood with her.

“I shall be by your place within the day, if that is acceptable, My Lady,” I said. She nodded her head and left, passing my housekeeper, who followed to show her out. I took the money off the table and slipped it into my pocket.

How did that bastard Holmes put it? Ah, right. The game was afoot.