(Author’s Note: This week, I face a problem I’m likely to encounter about twice more in this project: I’m at a story whose characters – one of the most iconic of characters, too – I can’t include in one of these snippets because they’re in use already in the two in-progress novels. I can’t give you Charlotte meeting Irene, because it already happens further along in her timeline. Same problem’s going to come with Moriarty, too.
But, I’ve got a few name-dropped cases mentioned in “Scandal” to choose from, and an original character I’ve mentioned in passing but never introduced yet, to play with. So, let me properly introduce you to Fidelia Thomas (and Charlotte Holmes, of course), in “The Darlington Substitution.”)
I sit on a pristine cream divan in the even more pristine and cream lobby of the Langham Hotel, smiling intermittently a a glaring concierge. He has been assigned to “keep an eye on” me, as the manager said. In case I do what, I don’t know. My warden leans against the reception desk with his arms crossed over his chest, watching me as if I might try to run off with his sofa, or will defile it somehow if he looks away for a second. His suspicion – his supervisor’s as well – relate directly to the somewhat unconventional state of my appearance. Of course, when one receives a knock on one’s door at three in the morning, requesting their assistance in a matter of utmost importance, one’s first thought does not tend towards their apparel. Mine hadn’t.
This is why I am sitting on a divan in the lobby of one of the poshest hotels in London in my pajamas.
“How long has your wife been away?” I ask the concierge, to interrupt the quiet and for lack of any other source of amusement.
He looks down his short, blunt nose at me; his eyes never rise higher than my chin. His abject disgust is palpable. “I beg your pardon?”
“By the look of your suit jacket, it’s only received a cursory cleaning of late. And whoever reattached the button on your right cuff has a clumsy, unfamiliar hand with a needle.” I nod to the cuff in question. He tucks it behind his other arm, out of sight. “Then there is te matter of the fit of your coat.”
He scoffs, but tugs self-consciously at his sleeve all the same. “There is nothing wrong with the fit of my suit.”
It’s a half size too large, in fact. See how the center button sags a bit instead of laying flat against your midsection, as it likely did when you originally had it tailored? You’ve lost at least five pounds since you purchased it. Haven’t quite adapted to your own cooking yet. Your wife took the cook with her, I presume?”
The concierge opens his mouth to protest, but the quick click of hard-soled shoes over the tile interrupts our exchange. The night manager rushes towards us, as much as his stiff bearing allows for such things.
“I apologize, Miss Holmes,” he says. His voice is tight and gruff – more annoyance than repentance. “After speaking with Miss Thomas, I have confirmed your version of events, and the existence of the message you speak of. You will, of course, forgive us for assuming as we did. When a woman arrives at our establishment at this time of night, dressed as you are, its only natural to think…” He shrugs one stiff shoulder.
“Of course,” I say, meeting his shrug with a sweet grin. “Do most of the prostitutes that frequent your establishment often show up in flannel pajamas, slippers, and a bathrobe?” Before he can answer, I stand, silencing him with a cluck of my tongue. “Never mind. Could someone direct me to Ms. Thomas’ room, please?”
The concierge loses whatever silent argument the two men share via glares and pointed glances and escorts me to the central lift. By the look on his face as he stops in front of it, he expects the sight of it to impress me. As if I have never seen such magical contraptions before. I resist the urge to point out that I’ve visited the hotel before – have seen other elevators before as well, thank you. I leave the explanation unspoken and my expression bland. Lack of conversation may be best at this point, I decide.
I’m deposited on the second floor and abandoned to my own resources with the delivered message as my only guide. Fidelia’s request was brief in its urgency:
Charlotte: I am in need of your assistance. Please come to the Langham Hotel, room 214, as soon as possible. It is a desperate situation. – FT
Since meeting her over the course of the investigation into the restaurant critic’s murder, Fi and I have continued our association. She is a rather intriguing woman with a vast and varied collection of experience I find amazing, and she is similarly entertained by the tales of my investigations. I think, though, my awkward foibles with Watson amuse her more.
I find the appointed door and knock, unsure now that I’m here what to expect. Her summons is vague, after all, and makes no explanation of the source of the desperation. The door cracks after a second knock, just wide enough for a tall, thin man with light hair and a greying mustache to peek through. I discern both height and girth by the position of his head and the width of his neck., I glance at the note, then the room number, and the back to him.
“I’m sorry, I must have the wrong…”
“You’re Holmes?” His lips barely move beneath the thick cropping of hair planted upon the top one. I nod, half fascinated by the abundance of the decoration. Watson’s previous mustache, in all its military glory, falls short in the face of this. He appears as confused by my appearance at the door as I feel by his . “But you’re a woman.”
“Yes, at last I checked.”
“I was expecting…oh, never mind, then. Come in. Step to. Can’t keep the door open all night.” The odd fellow steps out of view to pull the door open wider. I step in, glancing about as I do. It’s a very simple suite, elegant and yet minimal, holding a bed, a pair of side tables, a desk, a lounger placed in one corner, and a small chair placed in front of the desk. The bed, normally dressed in opulent linens, is a mess of tangled sheets. The duvet is kicked to the footboard. It doesn’t take a brilliant mind to discern what’s happened there, and quite recently.
“Is Fidelia in? By her message and the manager’s words I expected…” I turn slowly to face the gentleman and stop mid-sentence. He stands by the door draped in a pale green silk robe that barely reaches his knees. It’s obvious the garment isn’t his, and that he has nothing at all beneath it. “I’m sorry. Where are your…”
“Charlotte! Oh, thank goodness you’ve come.” FIdelia steps out of the bathroom and crosses the room in three long strides. She moves as a dancer should – fluidly, precisely, every sweep of the arm and extension of the leg a smooth and graceful arc. It’s not hard to see the former ballerina in her; nearly impossible to spot signs of the back injury that put an end to that particular career. She embraces me warmly with a kiss to each cheek, then steps back into flawless first position as naturally as I draw breath. The shimmery mint gown she wears appears a perfect match to the robe her guest is wearing. “I apologize for the time and the urgency. I honestly couldn’t think of anyone else to send for.”
“It’s fine.” I force my attention away from the awkward man at the door, who has taken to holding the lower part of his robe closed in the unlikely case a stray wind blows through and sends the hem over his head, or he moves wrong and it causes a revealing gap. “I’m quite glad to be of assistance to you and…”
“John Smith,” her companion supplies quickly, casting a warning look to Fidelia. “The name is John Smith.”
“Actually, it’s William Darlington, of Darlington Shipping, but we can play your game if you’d like.” His eyes shoot to Fidelia, accusation burning in his eyes. I chuckle. “She didn’t have to tell me anything, you fool. Your face has graced the front page of the Times on more the one occasion.”
“Yes, well…” He casts a wary look my direction without entirely removing his focus from Fi. “Are you sure she can be trusted?”
“I would trust her with my very life, Willie. She’s the sole of discretion, I promise you. And may be the only one who can help you with your current predicament.”
“It involves Mr. Darlington’s lack of proper attire, I assume?” I take the lounger in the corner, my elbows resting on the arms as I watch Mr. Darlington fidget in his gown. “I doubt he finds himself borrowing part of your matching sets often, Fi.”
“You’re bloody right I don’t,” he huffs as he tugs at the lower hem. “Wouldn’t be now if someone hadn’t come in and made off with my things while we…I…was in the shower.”
“We?” I cock an eyebrow at Fi. She shrugs. Her gentleman caller squirms. “Have you checked with housekeeping to see if they gathered them up accidentally?”
“If it were that simple, do you think we would have called you?” Darlington strides to the desk, picking up a folded sheet of paper, which he tosses into my lap. “That was found in place of my belongings.”
What he hands me is a note, brief and direct, written on plain white paper. It looks like a female hand, though an unhappy one. The anger is clear in the sharp breaks between words; the gender of the author evident in the graceful loops and the light press of the pen to the paper. Its brief message read:
I know about your whore. And all of London is going to know, too. If you try to request assistance from the hotel staff, you will expose yourself. If you send for the staff to bring you replacements, you will expose yourself. If you try to leave discreetly, you will expose yourself. There is no option that allows for you to sneak out unseen.
I will ruin you, William. It seems appropriate, after what you’ve put me through.
“I suppose that explains the few members of the press I saw lurking in the public house across the street,” I say, flipping the page over out of habit. No watermark or seal, no markings specific to a personalized stationary set. Just random, simple paper. “What precisely is it you wish me to do?”
“Find my clothes, of course! Or a way to get me out of this situation with my reputation in tact.”
I tap the note against my chin, running the options through a filter of potential success or lunacy. Despite Watson’s assurances, I don’t lean automatically and unfairly toward the lunacy option. “Assuming the thief didn’t return them back to your home, which would be the best option for them and the worst for you, that leaves the hotel. There are roughly four hundred guest rooms here. A dozen maintenance, storage, or office spaces. That’s a full day’s worth of searching for the possibility of finding nothing at all, and that’s only a cursory inspection. A thorough search might take two days. The scandal you’re so worried about won’t be put off that long.”
“Which leaves us with what option, Charlotte?” Fi kneels in front of my chair, her clasped hands resting on my knee. “There has to be something.”
I sit in silence a moment, pondering the option lingering in the lunacy section of my brain. For once, Watson, I think, lunacy is the best option. “I do have an idea. I don’t think Mr. Darlington is going to appreciate it, but it is likely his best chance.”
“I will do anything.” His desperation is evident in his tone. There is no shame or penance alongside it. He’s not sorry for what he’s done. He’s only sorry he’s been caught doing it.
I smile and turn to Fidelia. “Do you happen to have a razor?”
An hour later, concealed in Fi’s corset, dress, hat, and a good two layers of makeup and without his impressive mustache, William Darlington walks out of the lobby of the Langham hotel, ignored by the Fleet Street gents loitering on the same couch I started my interrupted evening. Fidelia and I watch from the anonymity of the elevator corridor. Each awkward step he takes in Fi’s ill-fitting shoes elicits a giggle from me. The third earns me a poke in the ribs.
“I almost think you came up with this plan just to torture him,” Fidelia says. I hear a laugh bubbling at the edges of her words.
“I won’t deny a bit of amusement. He did bring it on himself. Since his wife can’t punish him fairly in divorce court, he should suffer somehow, even if I can’t stand for making him do so in the public eye.” I glance at her from my periphery. “Do you ever feel badly, offering ‘companionship’ to married men?”
Fi leans against the wall, arms crossed beneath her chest. She’s reclaimed the robe that matches her gown, now that Darlington doesn’t need it anymore. “Marriage does not always equate to happiness, and fault can be applied equally to either party. And some men would rather not destroy their families or leave their wives destitute just to seek out a small piece of happiness for themselves. Not all men who philander do so because they’re scum.” She shrugs her shoulders. “I choose my ‘companions’ carefully. I don’t have time for louts and bastards.”
I nod. It wasn’t a fair question. I’m too tired for tact, and have so little of it to start. “Shall we go back upstairs and request a good, hearty breakfast? I’ve sent word to Watson to bring ‘round a few changes of clothes. Enough to get us both home without raising too many eyebrows.”
“A brilliant idea. They do a lovely breakfast. And I could certainly use a considerable amount of tea as well.” She slides one of her arms around mine and spins me for the elevator. “While we wait, you can tell me more about this incident in the bath. We were interrupted by Willie needing help with his stockings.”