The clockwork scarab, p.2
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       The Clockwork Scarab, p.2

         Part #1 of Stoker & Holmes series by Colleen Gleason
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Chapter 2

  Miss Holmes

  In Which Our Heroines Accept an Intriguing Invitation

  "Yes. " I should have thought about it more carefully-the risks, the dangers, the commitment. But I was feeling impetuous, spurred by my infatuation with Irene Adler and my desire to do something other than rattle about my empty house or sit in my mother's vacant chambers, and read book after book and study experiment after experiment in the laboratory. I wanted to put my knowledge and deductive abilities to the test in something real.

  "Yes, I am willing," I said again.

  Miss Adler was offering me a way to prove that, despite my gender, I was a Holmes in more than mere name and the size of my nose.

  At the same moment as my response, Miss Stoker said, "Certainly I will. The Stokers have long been in service to the Crown. "

  A light of relief and determination came snapping into Miss Adler's dark eyes. "Thank you. Her Royal Highness shall be more than pleased. But I must warn you that your service to the princess-and by extension to His Royal Highness Prince Edward-must be a secret from the very start. " Miss Adler looked at us both. "Are you willing to keep this arrangement a secret, even to your death?"

  I nodded regally and peeked at my companion for her reaction. Miss Stoker nodded as well. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. She didn't look like the sort of girl who could keep a secret.

  "Very well. Perhaps you are wondering how I came to be employed by the British Museum as keeper of the antiquities. " Miss Adler's eyes twinkled with humor as she met my gaze. "You may be aware of my reputation as a singer throughout Europe. But what you cannot know is that I used my travels as an entertainer to obscure my other work for both the American and British governments.

  "After some recent events, including my brief marriage to Mr. Godfrey Norton, I've chosen to retire from the stage. Since then, I have been engaged by the director of this great institution"-here she indicated the walls around us-"to catalogue and study the large number of antiquities that were acquired from Egypt in the fifties and sixties. But in reality, I am here at the request of the princess and am serving her in a variety of ways. The two of you are well suited to one of the problems currently of concern to Her Royal Highness.

  "But before I tell you any more, perhaps I should further acquaint you with one another, for you shall be working together very closely. "

  I detected a faint sniff from Miss Stoker, but resisted the urge to look over. Miss Adler nodded to my companion. "Miss Evaline Stoker, granddaughter of the famous Yancy Gardella Stoker, great-grandniece of Victoria Gardella-both vampire hunters of excellent repute. "

  I was familiar with Miss Stoker's family, whose legacy of vampire hunters from Italy had been written about in an old, rare book called The Venators. Mr. Starcasset's book detailed the story of her ancestors and how they were given the responsibility and skills to keep the world safe from the blood-feeding demons. Her elder brother, Bram, happened to be an acquaintance of my uncle's, and I understood Mr. Stoker was writing a novel about a vampire named Count Dracula.

  "Vampires are nearly extinct," Miss Stoker noted. "My great-great-aunt Victoria and her husband killed off most of them more than sixty-five years ago, in the twenties. That has left me and other chosen members of my family with little to do in recent years. "

  "You will find plenty to do in service to the princess, even if it doesn't involve slaying vampires," said our hostess. "Now, you've already met Miss Alvermina Holmes. Niece of the famous Sherlock and daughter of the indispensable Sir Mycroft Holmes. "

  "I'm familiar with your uncle, of course," said Miss Stoker. "But I know nothing of your father. "

  "Uncle Sherlock claims Mycroft is even more brilliant than he and would be his greatest competitor should my father ever bestir himself to action. But he refuses to go out in public or to social events. He is never found anywhere but at his office or his club, even sometimes neglecting to come home to sleep. "

  That was in part the reason my mother had left us. The other reasons were best ignored, even by someone as practical as myself.

  "Mina is just as brilliant at observation and deduction as her uncle and father," said Miss Adler. I was relieved she'd used the shorter version of my name, for, in the tradition of the Holmes family, my given one is ridiculous. Even Mother couldn't convince my father to give me an unassuming name like Jane or Charity, and instead I was encumbered with the hideous appellation Alvermina.

  Miss Adler continued, "I am certain you understand why the princess and I chose the two of you for this . . . well, shall we call it a secret society? But let me be clear-your invitation is not only due to your families' loyalty and service to the Crown. It's also because of who you are, and the talents and skills you have. "

  "Of course," I said. "As young members of 'the weaker sex,' we would be dismissed as flighty and unintelligent. Never mind that males our age go to war and fight for our country. Women haven't even the right to vote. Our brains are hardly acknowledged-let alone our brawn. "

  I glanced at Miss Stoker. According to The Venators, the vampire hunters of her family were endowed with superior physical strength and unnatural speed. I wondered if it was true. She certainly didn't appear dangerous. "Thus we two would be considered incapable of doing anything important, of being any sort of threat. In addition, I am an excellent candidate for secretive undertakings because I am fairly independent and"-I hesitated, then forged on-"somewhat reclusive. "

  I saw wariness in Miss Stoker's expression and a twinkle of humor in Miss Adler's, so I finished my thoughts. "In other words, we're both relatively solitary individuals who haven't many other obligations of family or friends who might ask questions or be potential recipients of our secrets. We're eccentric wallflowers. "

  "It might be true for you, Miss Holmes," Miss Stoker said, "that your social obligations are few and far between, but that's not the case for me. I have a stack of notecards and invitations overflowing the platter in the front hall of Grantworth House. "

  My chest felt tight, for I had just enumerated my shortcomings and pointed out my shameful lack of social invitations, and Miss Stoker had done just the opposite. It was difficult to make me feel inadequate, but her pointed comment bruised my feelings more than I cared to admit. Things might have been different if Mother were here to usher me through the intricacies of Society, but she was not.

  Despite my discomfiture, I continued, "The number of invitations and obligations aside, Miss Stoker, I suspect you'd rather be doing something other than attending parties or dances. You might have obligations, but perhaps you would prefer not to have to accept them. "

  She closed her mouth rather sharply, and I recognized her tacit agreement. It was obvious through her demeanor and tones that she had an underlying need to prove herself worthy of her family legacy.

  Perhaps we had more in common than I realized.

  "You are quite correct, Mina," Miss Adler said. "Now, shall we move on? Are either of you acquainted with Miss Lilly Corteville?"

  The name, though familiar, did not produce the image of a face or personality. In many ways, London Society was a foreign environment to me. The thought of dressing up and lining the walls at a party waiting to be asked to dance by some eligible young man terrified me. I knew I'd be standing against the wall alone all night, watching everyone else spin about the dance floor. And even if I was asked to dance, I'd either smash the poor man's foot or trip and fall on my face. Which was why I preferred not to waste my time with such nonsense as balls and the theater and shopping.

  "I've met Miss Corteville," said my companion. "She's Viscount Fauntley's daughter, and she's engaged to Sir Rodney Greebles. "

  "Indeed," Miss Adler said. "She's gone missing since the twenty-fifth of April, three weeks ago. "

  "Could she have eloped? Run away? Been abducted?" Miss Stoker's eyes glinted with the same interest that bubbled inside me, although my fascination was tempered by concern. I wasn't c
onvinced one could say the same for the other young woman. "We must conduct a search for her!"

  "Of course the search has been ongoing. " Miss Adler smiled, and Miss Stoker settled back into her chair looking disappointed. "The facts are Miss Corteville left no note or other message. It appears she absconded in the middle of the night, and there was no evidence of struggle. "

  "Perhaps she didn't wish to marry Sir Rodney and eloped with someone else. He's not at all attractive, and he's more than twice her age," suggested Miss Stoker.

  "It's possible. Yet, according to her maid, Miss Corteville didn't appear to have packed any personal items to take with her as she'd do if she were going away permanently-eloping, for example. "

  "Unless she didn't plan to be gone for more than a brief time," I interjected.

  "Indeed. However, there was one other thing. We found this slipped down behind her dressing table and the wall. " Our hostess laid an object on the table for both of us to see.

  "An Egyptian scarab," I said. There were countless examples of the beetle-shaped medallions here in the British Museum. Miss Adler handed the item to me for closer perusal. "No . . . something modern that's made to look like one. This amulet isn't thousands of years old. "

  The object was made from soft metal, unlike an original Egyptian artifact (which would have been crafted of stone), and it was in the shape of a very large beetle that would fit comfortably in the center of my palm. Twice as large as a coin, and a bit heavier.

  "Scarabs were like talismans," I mused, turning it over in my fingers, noting the coolness of the metal, its smooth edges, and the intricate embossing on it. "They were put in Egyptian tombs or used as jewelry or even a token of affection. "

  "They could also be employed as a sort of identification," Miss Adler said, "among a connected society. "

  The scarab's bottom was flat, and the top rounded like an insect with two wings folded tightly over its dome-like body. It was made of verdigris metal, and the ridged carvings were filled in with black and green paint. I pressed on the wings, the head, and even the edges to see if it might open like the Royal Medallions. When I squeezed the tiny pincers at the head, at last something clicked and whirred, bringing the scarab to mechanized life. I watched in fascination as the shiny wings opened to reveal clock-like inner workings of tiny cogs and gears.

  I turned it over. On the reverse were carvings, and I identified the image of a half beast, half man. "A cartouche? Of a lion-headed pharaoh? No . . . it's not a pharaoh. It's a god. " I frowned at Miss Adler. "A goddess. It's Sekhmet. "

  She nodded as Miss Stoker spoke up, her voice peremptory: "If you don't mind. "

  I handed her the object, seizing the opportunity to educate her as she examined it. "Sekhmet is the Egyptian goddess of war and destruction. She has the head of a lion because she's known as a great warrior and ferocious fighter. She's also been known as the Lady of Flame and the Lady of Slaughter. "

  "Legend has it that her breath was so hot and powerful it created the desert," Miss Adler said. "She is also the goddess of immortality and the underworld. "

  "You believe this has something to do with Miss Corteville's disappearance?" Miss Stoker smoothed her finger over the round top of the beetle.

  "We wouldn't have thought so if there hadn't been another, similar object among the belongings of Miss Allison Martindale. "

  My new partner's face sobered. "Miss Martindale? Didn't she hang herself?"

  "Yes. It was a most tragic and horrifying discovery. She was found dangling from a tree in Hyde Park. The family tried to hush it up, but news does travel. "

  "Do you mean to say Miss Martindale had a scarab as well?" I asked.

  "It was found among her personal effects. It could be a coincidence, but I don't believe so. Two young women of the same age, within the same month. One took her own life, and the other disappeared. "

  "There must be a connection. Uncle Sherlock doesn't believe in coincidences. "

  "Why is Princess Alexandra taking such an interest in something like this?" asked Miss Stoker. A crease had appeared between her brows.

  "Because-" Miss Adler hesitated and looked down at the scarab that had just been handed back to her. "Because she is very fond of Lady Fauntley, one of her ladies-in-waiting, and wishes to help find her daughter. "

  "Is there anything more?" I prompted.

  "If these two events are connected, the only clues we have are the scarabs. The two girls were acquainted, but they weren't particular friends. Neither was known to have a deep interest in Egyptology, although they both visited the museum at least once. "

  Just then, I heard a sound in the distance beyond the door inside a vast museum that should have been empty. The rumbling of a heavy door closing.

  Miss Adler stood abruptly as Miss Stoker bolted to her feet. I did likewise. "Hurry," our hostess said, moving toward a door through which we hadn't entered.

  The soft hiss of steam and a quiet squeak heralded an opening into a small square alcove. Our hostess hurried us through a silent, shadowy corridor that smelled of lemon wood polish. Mahogany floors shone unevenly in the moonlight, filtering through glass cases and over the paneled walls and mechanized cabinets that rotated slowly, even here at night.

  I strained, listening for sounds of an intruder as we rushed through a back room of shelves, tables, and crates of antiquities.

  "This way," Miss Adler said.

  We followed her through a little transept approaching the long, narrow Egyptian gallery where the famous Rosetta Stone was displayed. We all stopped beneath the ornate arch. I caught my breath at the sight before us.

  A young man knelt in the center of the gallery, bathed in the moonlight. A large knife glinted in his hand, and he was looking down at a lump that even an untrained observer would recognize as the dead body of a woman.

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