Chapter 1 - The Case of The Engineer's Petard by A.J. Hall
“No, no, no, NO! Of course the friend from uni isn’t the killer. Haven’t you seen his backpack? Don’t touch anything. I’m coming over right now.”
Sherlock stabbed his finger down on the phone’s “off” button, cutting off Lestrade in mid squawk.
“So, a large number of people brutally murdered in unusual ways, then?” John put a tick next to the photograph of the “secluded villa with swimming pool” on the printout Mary had given him this morning, thought for a moment, re-read the blurb, and converted the tick into a question mark.
“Christmas, John. Christmas. Nothing above a five for three whole months. Now, unless this is Scotland Yard being incompetent beyond the dreams of Anderson, this is at least a nine-and-a-half.”
“Splendid. And how many dead?”
“Five. At least.” Sherlock began ticking off enthusiastically on his fingers. “First, there’s Elsindustries’ CEO. His wife: two. His wife’s son — Claude’s stepson — three. The Polonskya boy: four. Those are the bodies they found this morning. But —”
The phone rang again. Sherlock picked it up.
“Yes, of course you need to exhume old Hamnetsson; I told you so two months ago. Even those idiots can’t say you don’t have probable cause now. And get me the files on Edwin Polonskya and his daughter. Everything there is. I’ll collect it when I arrive. And whatever else they do, make sure none of your morons touches the fencing foils. Even Anderson, amusing though it might be.”
John’s world lurched. He put his coffee mug very carefully down on the table.
“Sherlock?” he enquired. “Did you say ‘old Hamnetsson’?”
“Oh, do pay attention. You’re the one who’s always telling me to watch the news. Yes. Georg Hamnetsson the Danish billionaire. Died a couple of months ago. Supposed to be anaphylactic shock from a wasp sting in the garden of his house in Kensington. Less than a week later his brother, Claude, married his widow.”
John scrabbled desperately for sanity. “It probably saved on catering costs. Combining the wedding and the funeral.”
That whooshed straight over Sherlock’s head without disarranging a hair.
“Really, John, which part of the word ‘billionaire’ didn’t you understand? You may be obsessed with the cost of mass-catered functions at the moment, but it’s hardly going to upset the Hamnetssons. They’re one of the richest families in Scandinavia. Have been for generations.”
“Practically royalty, one might say?” John put all the emphasis he could on royalty. Again, Sherlock remained oblivious.
“Do at least try to keep to the point. I told Lestrade at the time it was murder, but Hamnetsson’s own doctor signed the certificate, his medical records confirmed the allergy, he’d an epipen — empty, as it turned out — in his jacket pocket. No-one else made the connection. Before his brother’s death promoted him to CEO, Claude Hamnetsson headed Elsindustries’ fine chemicals division. Toxins, John. Toxins. But those idiots at Scotland Yard refused to listen.”
John drew a deep breath. “Look, doesn’t it all strike you as a bit of an odd coincidence?”
“Of course it’s not a coincidence. Someone must have reached the same conclusion about Claude Hamnetsson as I did. Whether that was his stepson, or his wife or Laertes Polonskya —”
“Edwin Polonskya’s wife was Greek. Both his children had Greek names. No reason to suspect that’s relevant.”
“No relevance? Look, Sherlock, maybe I’m missing something but —”
He swallowed, hard. This had to be a wind-up, hadn’t it? And yet — it was the first of September, not the first of April. And Lestrade’s voice, from what he could tell from the distorted noises coming from the other end of the phone, hadn’t sounded at all like someone setting in motion an elaborate prank.
As a matter of fact John would have said Lestrade had sounded like a man who’d woken up on an average Wednesday and been forcibly shown there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Which, to be fair, was pretty much the definition of “an average Wednesday.” If one worked with Sherlock Holmes.
He sighed. “So, to recap, we’ve got an older man called Hamnetsson who died two months ago in suspicious circumstances. His brother, the chief suspect, married the dead man’s widow within days —”
“From what Lestrade tells me, Claude and Gertrud had been having an affair for years, more-or-less with Georg’s blessing. All very civilised and Nordic.”
“Very civilised, if it ended up in a five corpse bloodbath.” He thought of Lisbeth Salander, for whom Mary cherished an unreasonable affection, and added, “Also, very Nordic. And did I hear you say, ‘Gertrud’?”
“Honestly, John, what is this thing with you and names today? Yes. Gertrud. Or, if you prefer, Mrs Hamnetsson. Twice over. Though I don’t know why they bothered, given all their marriage did was upset Gertrud’s son, who must have been about the only person in the family not in on the secret. He’d been at Berkeley for the last five years, never quite finishing a PhD on newts.”
A ferocious beeping horn sounded outside. Sherlock shrugged on his coat.
“Come on, John, no time to waste. Off to Kensington. The game is on!”
Hamnetsson’s London mansion looked like a Christou installation done in police tape. A small army of forensics people in blue non-contamination suits swarmed over everything. Staff from the diplomatic residences on either side surveyed events with wary detachment, as if contemplating upping the official threat level.
Sally was leaning against one of the pair of stone griffons which flanked the shallow flight of steps up to the front door. Sherlock bounded past her with scarcely more than an acknowledging glare on either side. She beckoned John over before he could follow.
“Have you broken the news to Freak?” she hissed. “The guv couldn’t believe he hadn’t realised, when he called him this morning.”
“I’ve tried,” John muttered. “But he didn’t let me get a word in edgeways until the taxi got to Hyde Park Corner. Then, the moment I mentioned Shakespeare, he had a hissy fit. Said he’d deleted the Bard and all his works, ever since being forced to read one at school where the whole plot depended on a fundamental misconception about basic human physiology.”
“Midsummer Night’s Dream?”
“Twelfth Night. Anyway, trust me, he wouldn’t recognise the Melancholy Dane if he got up and stabbed him through the arras.”
At this point John noticed the morose figure sitting — crouching, really — on top of an Army-surplus backpack at the far end of the plinth, head sunk in his hands. He looked enquiringly at Sally. She shrugged.
“That’s young Hamnetsson’s friend from Berkeley. Met him through LARPing or wargaming or something. From the little he’s said, he must have been about the first normal person Hamnetsson had ever talked to. Comes from some council estate on the outskirts of Norwich. Bright as buttons — scholarship kid, obviously. Must have been like a glimpse into a fairy-tale, him meeting Hamnetsson. Poor kid’s gutted.”
Sally pulled out a packet of extra-strong mints and offered them to John, who took one gratefully.
“Mind you, if it hadn’t been for Freak, the kid would have been out of here in cuffs, all the same. The guv wasn’t going to let a 400 year old play stand between him and arresting the last man left standing in the middle of a four-body crime scene. Only Freak said no, and the guv listened.”
“Any idea why?” The mint’s sharp bite cut through the fur in John’s mouth, aftermath of last night’s no-more-unsuccessful-than-usual attempt to effect a reconciliation with Harry.
“S’easy, isn’t it? Freak’s the only person who doesn’t think he knows whodunnit. Which might — in an odd sort of way — be just what we need. So, don’t push the Shakespeare stuff. Don’t want to contaminate Freak’s lily-white innocence, do we?”
While John was still too boggled by that phrase to speak, Sally said, “Look, do you mind if I tell you something? Just between the two of us, OK?”
“Tell away,” John said. “Trust me. I’m a doctor.”
“Mind your backs. Coming through.” Two blue-suited men, carrying a stretcher, clattered up the stairs.
Once they had vanished into the house, Sally stepped very close and hissed into John’s ear, “My kid sister’s an actor.”
Reflexively, he dropped his voice to the same conspiratorial undertone. “Will I have seen her in anything?”
Sally scowled. Her voice resumed its normal volume. “Well, if you have, you’ll have seen most of her. You know casting directors. Junkie. Hooker. Junkie hooker. Dead junkie hooker. She got cast as a nurse, once. Chuffed to bits. Then, of course, turned out her character was forging diamorphine prescriptions. Bloody Holby City.”
It seemed unlikely Sally wanted him to write a letter of complaint to the show runners, but “unlikely” was at least a couple of steps up from “impossible”, which had described the rest of his day so far. He made a puzzled, encouraging face.
“Anyway, for a change, last year Cesca got the part as the wife in I Have Been Here Before. J.B. Priestley. Leicester Playhouse. And did I get to hear all about it. I reckon she must have read everything that guy ever wrote, and he wrote a lot. Plus, she read everyone he’d got his ideas from, and everyone who’d ever commented on them. Acting’s a tough enough gig at the best of times, but someone like Cesca’s got to be fifty times better than anyone else. Otherwise it’s junkie hookers all the way down.”
John cleared his throat, awkwardly. “So, how’s that relevant?”
Both of them stepped aside to let another pair of blue-clad men run past.
“J.B.Priestley’d got a bee in his bonnet about time. And destiny. It all started with a theory by a bloke called Ouspensky, who reckoned time went round in circles. Everyone endlessly relives their own histories. Except they don’t know they’re doing it.”
Sally’s eye had a combative gleam. “Is it? Take you and Freak. Ouspensky’s theory says you’re always coming back from Afghanistan, a wounded veteran, and you’re always going to meet a man called Sherlock Holmes, in a lab. And you’ll always move in with him less than a week later.”
“Well, and if that were true, how would I know?”
It came out a little louder, a little whinier than John had intended. He bit his lip, considering. OK, on the umpteenth time of discovering human skin in the toaster or some other such unwelcome surprise, he might have thought, “What did I do to get into this?” And, he might have vaguely wondered what would have happened if he’d gone with his original impulse, and pretended not to have heard Stamford’s shout. Beyond that point, imagination failed. Life without Sherlock, life after Sherlock: both equally unimaginable.
Bit not good, for a man due to be married in less than three months.
“Ouspensky said most people never even guessed what was going on, but sometimes — if you trained yourself, through hypnotism, or if your story collided with a stronger story — you might break out of one cycle and start something fresh. I Have Been Here Before is about a bunch of people doing just that. And Elsindustries sponsored it.”
Sally said the last words so quietly that, for a moment, John thought he had misheard. Then, light dawned.
“They were interested in Ouspenky, too?”
“If you were a Dane called Hamnetsson, wouldn’t you start wondering?”
In John’s private opinion, had he been a Dane called Hamnetsson he’d have changed his name and emigrated, just to avoid the ribbing.
“Well, like I said, Cesca read everything. So when old Hamnetsson ended up dead in his garden, Cesca was on the phone to me even before Freak got on to the guv. She was in a right state. You see, she was probably one of only five people in the country who’d read old old Hamnetsson’s book on Ouspensky.”
“Old old —?” John enquired.
“Claude and Georg’s dad, Georg being the brother who was offed in the orchard with the wasp-sting that wasn’t.”
“Oh, so you did think Claude murdered his brother?”
“How thick do you and Freak think us lot are? No, on second thoughts, don’t answer that. Of course that whole business stank. But there’s a little thing called ‘due process’. You may not have heard of it in Baker Street, but, trust me, it’s a big deal at the Yard. And due process says you can’t go round digging up deceased billionaires just on some arrogant tosser’s say-so. Actually, given the sort of clout the Hamnetssons had, I doubt the Assistant Commissioner would’ve been interested even if Georg’s ghost had walked through the walls of his office and clattered his chains at him.”
“The unsupported testimony of a self-interested revenant spirit is no basis for an objective system of forensic analysis,” John quoted reminiscently. At Sally’s surprised expression he added, “I did a course on forensic toxicology at Guy’s. The lecturer was a Shakespeare nut. Anyway, tell me about their dad and his book.”
“The first thing you’ve got to bear in mind is that Granddad Hamnetsson is where the money came from in the first place. He set up Elsindustries after the war, got into civil engineering and reconstruction projects at first, then diversified later. If it weren’t for him, Claude and Georg would just have been minor Danish aristos, complaining about how the Nazis nicked their family fortunes. Anyway, Granddad went a bit eccentric in his old age —”
“Well, with that many million kroner in the bank, no-one was going to call him a fruit-bat, were they?”
Put like that, he saw Sally’s point. “Go on. Assume he was a fruit bat. How did he show it?”
“He started digging into his ancestry. I suppose his sons thought the worst that could happen was their old man would end up convinced he was the Holy Roman Emperor or descended from Odin or something. And it kept dad out of their way. Until the old man became obsessed with Hamlet and —”
“John! What’s keeping you? We’ve only got ten minutes, Lestrade says, and then he’s moving the bodies.”
Sherlock’s voice rang out from an upper window. Sally made a shooing gesture.
“Run along, then. Good dog. Master’s calling.”
That, more than anything, made him dig his heels in. “No. Finish it.”
Sally slid another mint into her mouth. “Not much more to say. Like I said, they were Danish aristos. Naturally, once Granddad began digging he found affairs and duels and family secrets and people inheriting estates a bit too conveniently and so on and so forth. And you know conspiracy theorists.”
“Well, I know Anderson.”
She did not acknowledge the hit. “Granddad convinced himself the Hamnetssons had been quite happily cycling through their destinies, just like Ouspensky said, until bam! Up comes Shakespeare and there’s a whole new story on the block. That set up a tug-of-war within time itself. Part of it was trying to get back to how it ought to be, and part was trying to go after the new story. Only, as the Shakespeare story got more and more popular, that side started winning. Granddad’s book came out some time in the eighties and, according to his graphs and statistics, the Hamnetssons were overdue for the big one even then.”
A frantic blasting of a car horn sounded from the road. A navy-blue Renault Megane skidded to a halt at the perimeter tape. A middle-aged couple climbed out and began what looked like a vigorous argument with the uniformed policeman stationed there.
The depressed student got to his feet and looked uncertainly at Sally.
“Those your parents? Better go along with them. Give the duty constable your contact details. You’ll be needed for the inquest — don’t try to leave the country — trust us, your passport details will be logged with the UK Border Force — and — look, if you need to talk to anyone, here are some numbers.”
She thrust a folded piece of paper into his hand. He turned it over and over, as if trying to puzzle out what it might be. She gave him a gentle shove between the shoulder-blades.
“Run along, Horatio. And try to look after yourself, hm? If we’re going to get the bastard who killed your friend, we’ll need your evidence. Think of that if you find yourself wondering about — about doing something stupid, OK?
The student, moving like a sleepwalker, shouldered his pack and made his way down the driveway towards the Megane.
John felt like Doctor No trying to cling to a perpendicular steel beam with frictionless titanium claws, a bath of liquid nitrogen yawning below.
“Horatio. You didn’t mention that one.”
Sally’s expression was what a non-card player might have called a perfect poker face.
“Like I said, the kid’s from Norfolk. Big fans of Lord Nelson in those parts. Local boy made good. Kid’s father used to be in the Navy, too.”
He thought, again, about the power of stories, and of students — so blindingly, electrically sharp in some ways, so carelessly cruel in others. How many Berkeley students, knowing them both, wouldn’t try to see what happened if they manoeuvred a meeting between Horatio the scholarship boy from England and Hamnetsson, the heir of the Danish tycoon?
Fated meetings — Mike Stamford in the park — cycles of time —
From above, Sherlock’s voice rang out again.
“John! Stop wasting your time with Sally. She can’t tell you anything useful. I need you up here. Now.”
Eastenders was running an ADHD storyline. John didn’t watch soaps, but by the time he’d had the third mother through his surgery door demanding Ritalin for her offspring he’d begun to suspect something of the sort. By way of confirmation, he called Mrs Hudson during his mid-afternoon coffee break. Having had one set of suspicions confirmed, he thought he might as well ask after Sherlock. The silence since yesterday’s return from Kensington had begun to feel oppressive.
“Well, I didn’t hear a peep out of him all morning — you know how he gets — and when I looked in a couple of times to see if he wanted a cup of tea he was just sitting cross-legged on the sofa in his dressing gown and jimjams, staring into space, like he does. But a minute or so after noon — I know, because You and Yours had just started — I heard him run into his bedroom. Then, a few minutes later, he came tumbling down the stairs, all in a rush — silly boy, he’s going to break an ankle doing that, one of these days, if it’s not his neck — and when I asked him where he was off to and did he need anything to eat, he shouted, ‘No time! I’m due at the London Aquarium!’ and was off, just like that.”
John digested this news for a minute or two. Then he opened his laptop.
“Lethal sea creatures,” he typed into the Google search box.
Ten minutes later his mind was whirling. After seeing the many and varied ways aquatic creatures killed and maimed, from the Lion’s Mane jellyfish which trailed stinging tentacles a hundred feet behind it, to the minuscule yet terrifying toothpick fish of the Amazon, whose method of attack had John crossing his legs in sympathetic horror, he might never again feel safe going to the loo, let alone into the sea.
Still, while it gave him a general impression of what Sherlock might be up to, it was utterly useless on specifics. Surely John could not have overlooked a Great White shark or an electric eel amid the crime scene in the mansion’s ballroom?
He drained the last of his now-cold coffee, the buzzer went, and he turned his attention once more to hyperactivity.
Eastenders proved to be the beginning of an epidemic. In short order,Coronation Street discovered autism. Hollyoaks, by way of variation, went for narcissistic personality disorder (John wondered how the other characters could tell.) Perhaps as a nod to the age of the show, perhaps to the presumed average age of its audience, The Archers decided to do dementia. He spared a kindly thought for Ambridge as he signed a couple of referrals to the mental health services with less than a quarter of the normal push-back.
The routine of the surgery absorbed the next two days and whatever Sherlock was up to did not impinge upon it. On the third morning, John received a text:
HAMNETSSONS, NOW. THINGS HAPPENING. SH
He looked down the list of appointments (two Eastenders, a probable Coronation Street and a bunch of repeat prescriptions) and ruthlessly rearranged his workload. Thirty minutes later he was in a cab heading towards Kensington.
Hamnetssons’ mansion was still festooned with crime-scene tape, but it had a limp, over-looked air, like tinsel allowed to linger into the third week of January. None of the diplomatic residences’ staff were on show. Doubtless they eyed the desultory police activity from behind their shutters, counting down the minutes until the normal course of international intrigue could resume, undistracted by blood and violence actually on the doorstep.
Lestrade met him in the hallway.
“Do you know what he’s up to?”
John shook his head. “Not seen him since Tuesday. Last I heard, he was off to the London Aquarium.”
“Dear God, tell me it’s not an octopus. That’s all I need, a bleeding octopus.”
“Er, what? What’s an octopus got to do with — ” John cast a surreptitious glance around. The view remained reassuringly Sherlock-free. “To do with Hamlet?”
Lestrade shuddered. “Don’t ask. Last time me and the wife were trying to make it work, she was going through an experimental drama phase and I got dragged along to some right stuff, to show willing. Octopuses — well, put it this way. There’s no place for octopuses in Shakespeare at all, in my opinion, but if you have got to put octopuses into Shakespeare, at least don’t put them there.”
His expression deterred John from any further enquiries. In silence they mounted the staircase.
Money might not save one from sudden and violent death, but it paid for the best when it came to the clean-up squad. Last time John had seen the great ballroom it had been a war zone: not the sort you saw on the news, all dust, rubble and drama, but the kind of which he had seen too many, where death had stolen on tiptoe into a family’s living room, and torn its heart away.
The scene came back, as if in a photograph. Almost no blood. What little there was served only to accent the central composition: four bodies sprawled across the sprung parquet floor, frozen as if in the climax of some interpretative dance routine.
Death comes to the Hamnetssons.
Today the ballroom was swept and polished as if for a function, every last grain of police chalk banished.
At the far end Sherlock stood in front of a table, talking to a man in his late forties, whose tight, sleeveless T-shirt showed off a muscular torso which would have done credit to someone twenty years younger. The intricate pattern of tattoos on his upper arms and his short, rakish beard gave him a piratical air.
Sherlock turned as John entered, and beckoned him over.
“John. May I introduce you to Ricky Montague? He’s an actor. Ricky, my colleague, John Watson.”
“Pleased to meet you. I like your blog.”
Ricky’s handshake would have been bone-crushing, had John not anticipated it. Close to, John identified his aftershave as the same Bond Street fragrance Mycroft affected, though in the latter’s case as a suggestion rather than a shout.
“Always glad to meet a reader.”
Ricky laughed; it rang hollow in the great empty space. “Oh, you can’t throw half a brick in the theatre without hitting a fan of your blog. When I was in Antony and Cleopatra, in Mold last year, our Enobarbus had plans to dramatise it and take it to the Fringe as a comic skit piece.”
John cast about for an excuse to change the subject. His eye fell on two basket-hilted steel swords on a low table nearby.
“Are those the —”
“Murder weapons?” Sherlock ran his forefinger over the tip of the nearer sword; a bright crimson line blossomed across the pad. He looked down in surprise, then raised his hand to his mouth and licked the blood away with the fastidious delicacy of a cat. “Oh. Sharper than I expected.”
“Feeling OK?” Sherlock’s concern sounded almost genuine. At least, to an inexperienced ear. Probably.
There was a thin sheen of sweat on Ricky’s forehead; his right hand had clenched into a fist. Sherlock raised a sceptical eyebrow and the actor’s nerve visibly crumbled.
“At least — well, you know. Bit of a heavy night last night. I’ll be fine. Anyway, you were saying? Are they the murder weapons?”
Sherlock looked down at the two swords. “These?”
“Yes, of course those, you dickhead,” John snapped.
Sherlock’s lips twitched. “Sorry to disappoint you. No, the real murder weapons are still bagged up in the evidence room at Scotland Yard. But these are the closest I could find. Borrowed them from someone I know at the Royal Armouries. I was hoping Ricky could help explain one or two of the technical problems I’d been wondering about.”
“Pleased to help, mate. But I can’t see what I can tell you.”
“But — weren’t you here?”
“Me? No!” The denial came out explosively. Out of the corner of his eye, John saw Lestrade twitch.
“I’m sorry.” Sherlock’s voice sounded the blandest of the bland. “But I found this in Claude’s study — look, here —”
He pulled out a glossy piece of paper from inside his inner jacket pocket and passed it to Ricky. The actor gulped, again.
“Oh, sorry, mate, I got a bit of the wrong end of the stick there. You mean, when we were here for the play?”
“The play? What play?” John spoke before he could stop himself. From Sherlock’s affronted expression, he’d derailed some planned strategy, but he didn’t care. He could see Sally flapping her hand at him, and knew they were both thinking the same thing.
The play’s the thing in which to catch the conscience of the King.
Ricky looked like a man reprieved. “Agatha Christie. We do one every year. Georg Hamnetsson’s father started the tradition.”
“He would,” John muttered, earning himself another filthy look from Sherlock and a covert “thumbs-up” from Sally. Another thought asserted itself. “It wasn’t The Mousetrap, by any chance?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, John! What does it matter what pile of implausible tosh they were hamming their way through?” Sherlock was practically quivering with annoyance.
“Oy! I didn’t come here to be insulted. You told me you needed technical advice about how the bodies came to be lying how they were. If that was it, you’ve come to the right place. I don’t want to boast, but I was fight captain for two seasons at Stratford. Not much I don’t know about sword-fights.”
“Not many swords in Agatha Christie,” Sherlock observed.
Ricky swung to face him, his face curiously blotchy. “What’re you getting at?”
Sherlock smiled. “Oh, just that your fingerprints were on the weapons-cabinet door. Can’t be explained by your having borrowed props for the play. I wondered why they were there.”
Ricky’s tongue flicked across his lips. “The day we were there, before the play, Claude Hamnetsson asked me to take a look at a couple of his new acquisitions. He knew I took a professional interest.”
“Three weeks ago?” Sherlock’s eloquently raised brows deserved an Oscar in themselves. “Not exactly a tribute to Hamnetssons’ cleaning staff.”
Ricky settled back onto his heels, like a fighter who had found his range and was prepared to slug things out for as long as it took.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard, mate, but they hadn’t been the easiest three weeks for the staff. They’d already had two deaths to deal with by the time — that — happened. Perhaps dusting wasn’t their top priority.”
“The deaths of Edwin Polonskya and his daughter? Not in the house, surely? I’ve seen the reports. She jumped off Richmond bridge and he was stabbed in a street robbery.”
“But he died in here,” Ricky said.
It was amazing, how much casual offence Sherlock could get into a single syllable. Ricky bristled, visibly; John shifted his balance, ready to break up whatever fight Sherlock seemed hell-bent on provoking.
“That’s what they told me.” Ricky folded his arms and lifted his chin.
“When you dropped in to collect his things, after the funeral?”
For a moment, John was not certain he had heard correctly. Then he saw Ricky’s face and knew he hadn’t.
“What’re you going on about? I never came here. The drinks and stuff afterwards was at a hotel, near the crem. And then I went straight on to King’s Cross. I had a late-night show in Edinburgh, same day.”
His tone failed to convince. Sherlock’s eloquent shrug underlined as much.
“The security footage says different.”
“But I wiped —” He came to an abrupt stop. The silence, as his glance flicked from Sherlock, to John, to the Yarders, was more damning than speech.
Lestrade stepped forward. He cleared his throat.
“Ricky Montague, I am arresting you on suspicion of the murders of Claude Hamnetsson, Laertes Polonskya and Georg Hamnetsson. You do not have to say anything, but —”
Ricky sidestepped and caught up one of the basket-hilted rapiers.
“Arrest me, then. But it’s over her dead body.”
The point of the rapier was suddenly at Sally’s throat.
Ricky half-glanced over his right shoulder to find Sherlock advancing, the second sword extended en garde,
“Fight like a man. Leave her alone. Fight me.”
Everything slowed to a crawl. John saw Ricky turn, sword in hand, to face the new threat. Sally ducked away from the sword’s point and reached for her handcuffs. Lestrade found his first and threw them like an Argentinian gaucho’s bolas, hitting squarely on the bridge of Ricky’s nose. Bright spurts of blood fountained everywhere. In a clatter of steel Sherlock closed with his unsighted opponent and disarmed him with one twisting stroke, too swift to see.
That concluded matters. Sally and Lestrade finished handcuffing Ricky and dragged him out to the waiting police car. All the fight had gone out of him; he sagged limply between them.
John strolled across to Sherlock, who was striking a Musketeer pose and looking pleased with himself.
“Ricky Montague. That was a turn up for the book. So did he kill all of them?”
Sherlock shook his head. “Only Laertes, Claude and young Hamnetsson. Gertrud really did die of natural causes — another anuerysm, ironically. Diagnosed last year. Turns out that’s the reason she and Claude rushed through the wedding. Inheritance tax. There’s always something. But it was Ricky Montague who poisoned the foils. With sea-wasp venom.”
“But what possible motive could he have?” It was not the first question John wanted to ask, or even the second (those being, in order, “You’re telling me the Player King offed Hamlet?” and “Who the hell taught you to fence?”) but it would do to be going on with.
“The play, John. Young Hamnetsson took Montague’s precious play and turned it into a train-wreck. The woman who played Molly Ralston filmed the whole thing on her tablet. It’s all over YouTube. Every actor who’s ever had a beef about a member of the audience must have shared it.”
“So, that’ll be Equity’s entire membership, then?” John wondered if Cesca had shown it to Sally.
Sherlock ignored him. “If you look at the footage, you can see Hamnetsson stumbling in half-way through the first act, coked to the gills. Judging by the way he’s going on, he must have just split up with his girl-friend. He’d been seeing Polonskya’s daughter, you know, the one who jumped off Richmond Bridge two days later. Bad break-up, obviously. What with slagging her off and making sarcastic remarks about Claude and Gertrud’s sex-life at the top of his voice and guessing the murderer aloud, twice, wrong both times, I’d not have been surprised if the whole company had queued up to stab him.”
“So that’s it? Montague murdered three people just because some trust fund kiddie ruined his big speech?”
“Hell hath no fury like a luvvie scorned.”
The pause dragged on for some seconds. Then Sherlock burst out laughing. “John, your face! No, of course Ricky Montague didn’t do it because of some play. Didn’t you smell his cologne?”
“His cologne? What’s that got to do with it?”
“Well, did it strike you as the sort of thing a man of that type would buy, left to himself? It’s not just the cost, though a 50 ml bottle won’t leave you much change from £250. It’s the whole image. Heritage. Tradition. Expensive refinement. Gravitas. Bottled elder statesman, in short.”
So that’s why Mycroft wears it. John bit back his automatic response. “A present? He stole it?”
“No. A souvenir. I smelt it first in Edwin Polonskya’s suite, in the wardrobe. But I couldn’t find the bottle. Odd. If the girl had cleared out his things I’d have expected to find them in her room. And Laertes just came in on the Eurostar for his father’s funeral, and then went straight back to Paris, leaving his sister to cope. Someone had wiped the house’s security footage — easy enough to do, with most of the staff at the funeral. So I asked Mycroft to pull strings with the ambassador next door. That got me this.”
He pulled out his laptop, fired it up and pointed John to a grainy, jerky image, timestamped in the top right-hand corner. “13.45 on the day of the funeral. That’s Ricky Montague coming into the Hamnetssons’ drive, empty handed. This is him leaving at 14.40. Look what he’s carrying now.”
The grainy image showed Ricky stepping into the street, a poorly-wrapped parcel clasped to his chest.
“Anything valuable, he left. But he couldn’t resist the little personal things. Like his lover’s cologne.”
Sherlock’s smile was shark-like. “But of course. Not long after Polonskya’s wife died, Claude and Georg’s father began the tradition of having the players round to give a private performance each year.”
“That bastard,” John muttered. “If anyone deserved poisoning —”
“Have you quite finished your irrelevant burbling? That’s when Polonskya met Montague. If it wasn’t love at first sight, at least it was friends with benefits. Claud, Georg and Gertrud all knew. The younger generation didn’t. Polonsyka was the old-fashioned sort. Pas devant les enfants.”
John gulped. “And then young Hamnetsson murdered Polonskya?”
Sherlock nodded. “Yes. Molly passed me the file. They finally got round to analysing those fibre fragments stuck to his suit. Flemish, seventeenth century. Consistent with the antique tapestries that used to hang in Gertrud Hamnetsson’s sitting room. Look, you can see them in the background of this Hello article. They’re currently away ‘for restoration’. Dead giveaway.”
“Ah. A family cover-up?” John could almost feel Ricky’s fury. Riches and position meant no Hamnetsson would ever stand trial for his lover’s murder. A man might be driven mad, thinking that.
Sherlock nodded. “Absolutely. According to police records, Edwin Polonskya was knifed in a mugging just down the road from Hamnetsson’s front door. On this road? Please. If none of the diplomatic residences picked it up on CCTV, then it didn’t happen.”
And Mycroft’s brother had, self-evidently, access to CCTV records that the ordinary police did not.
“Claude’s statement said Polonskya staggered into the house, but died before the ambulance arrived. Rubbish. With those wounds, he’d have been hardly able to walk a yard. Also, the body was moved at least twice after death. Traces of blood, Polonskya’s type, in Gertrud’s sitting room. Sitting room up two flights of stairs. Not the obvious place to carry a wounded man. Right-handed blow struck by someone of considerable strength. Can’t have been Gertrud; left-handed and very frail. Claude — as per the security system — in his private gym at the other end of the house. So, Hamnetsson. Only possible suspect. End of.”
“Because Hamnetsson mistook Polonskya for Claude and stabbed him in supposed revenge for his father?”
“John. You positively scintillate.” Something about the twist of Sherlock’s mouth caused John to doubt his sincerity here. “That seems the most likely explanation. But, given all the available witnesses are dead, we can never know for sure.”
“But,” John said, defensive on the part of the readers of his blog, who judging by comments, were highly allergic to loose ends, “even assuming all that, what put you on to Ricky Montague in the first place?”
Sherlock’s self-satisfaction was almost indecent. “Laertes Polyanska. He was the odd one out among the four corpses in the ballroom. Each of Claud, Gertrud and young Hamnetsson had a reason to kill at least one of the others, but none of them — so far as I could see — had any reason to kill Laertes. At first I thought it might have been a murder-suicide on Laertes’ part. Revenge for his father and sister. Then an analyst friend in the City told me about some odd movements in Elsinindustries stock. About 0.5% of the family holdings — if you translate it into Euros, it has a lot of noughts on the end — was transferred to an account in France ten days before the ballroom massacre. Claude bought Laertes off. At the top of the market, too.”
John nodded. “So not Laertes. But — “
“If the motive was revenge for the deaths of Edwin or Ophelia Polonskya, most likely the murderer would have attended the funeral. People do. When I looked at the remembrance book from Edwin’s funeral, Ricky Montague’s name stuck out. Not family, not staff, not one of the Hamnettsons. When I asked around, several of Hamnetssons’ staff could remember seeing him during the service, but no-one saw him afterwards. So I put on a silly voice and rang his agent.”
“How — enterprising.”
“I don’t suppose you’d have thought of it. Anyway, Ricky was performing in Edinburgh, like he told us. Late-night show: curtain-up at 23.00. The funeral came in the middle of the week’s run. To get down to the funeral and back in a day he’d have had to catch the 05.50 train down, and the 17.30 or — at an absolute pinch — the 18.00 back. An actor who decides to make a nine hour, peak rate round trip to the funeral of someone he’s barely supposed to know, and doesn’t even stay for the free food and booze — you’re telling me that isn’t suspicious?”
“Why didn’t he fly?”
“Why indeed? Except airlines check their passengers. Anyway, we’re done here. Come on, John.”
Even with the benefit of a full confession, the paperwork for three high-profile murders was no joke. John was unsurprised to hear nothing from Scotland Yard for the best part of a week. Emmerdale decided it had been a long time since any character had died of tetanus, with a predictable impact on John’s workload. As a result, Sally’s eventual invitation for after work drinks in the Two Chairmen just off Queen Anne’s Gate came as a welcome relief.
Sally had two pints already lined up when he arrived. Her whole body seemed to quiver with energy, like static electricity. “Freak still hasn’t cottoned on, has he?”
“Cottoned on to what? To Hamlet? No. But that doesn’t matter, surely, unless you’re saying the actor didn’t do it?”
“No. I’ve heard his confession. He did it, all right. Exactly how Freak said he did. Every single bit. Except, while he may have been the one to work out that Montague and Polonskya were lovers —”
“Not the sort of thing you imagine, is it? Polonius having a life of his own? Or anyone interested in avenging his death?”
This sidelight into literary analysis fell on deaf ears. Sally scowled into her pint.
“I’ve talked to Horatio again. You know that club he met young Hamnetsson through? Historical re-enactment society.”
John, who thought she deserved it, let out a low, impressed whistle.
“Good, isn’t it? But there’s better. Horatio only took up swordfighting when he got to university, but young Hamnetsson was a whiz. To the manner born or near as, anyway. Granddad collected antique swords. Georg and Claude couldn’t care less, but the kid was fascinated. So, as an birthday present — I think the kid can’t have been more than eight or so — Granddad hired an actor who specialised in arranging sword fights, to teach him how to show them off.”
It took a moment to sink in.
“Granddad Hamnetsson? He collected the murder weapons? And the actor he hired, that wouldn’t have been Ricky Montague, by any chance?”
“Yup.” Sally put another extra-strong mint in her mouth. “Not above giving the whirligigs of time a kick up the arse, the old man. In fact, he was so keen on planning for the big one, he even introduced Georg to Gertrud.”
“What? I thought you said he was terrified of the big one?”
“Terrified? Oh, of course he was. But haven’t you ever had to deal with someone who’s really superstitious? Ninety-nine of them avoid anything to do with their pet fears, but that last 100th person? They run head on at them, daring the Fates to do their worst. I reckon Granddad was that sort. The closer life got to the play, the keener Hamnetsson was to prov e it couldn’t scare him.
He was godfather to both the Polanyska kids. Sponsored Edwin Polanskya for a visa, when he was a refugee from the Communists. Gave him a job. Owed Granddad everything, Edwin Polanyska.”
“And the poison? Where did the Player King get sea-wasp venom?”
Sally screwed up her face in exasperation. “Simplest thing in the world. All actors have to have a sideline, to keep them fed while they wait for Spielberg to ring or someone to offer them a dog-food commercial. Something casual, they can drop in and out of. Cesca temps. And Ricky Montague was a security guard. He worked with lots of museums and galleries. Including the Natural History Museum. South Ken.”
“Oh! Just down the road —”
“— From Castle Hamnetsson. You’ve got it. They’ve had an exhibition on all summer: ‘Lethal Creatures of the Deep’. Did you know there’s this fish in the Amazon, that when men go swimming and pee in the water —”
“Don’t,” John said, automatically.
She grinned. “Funny, that’s exactly how the boss reacted when I told him, too. I took my cousin’s kids to the exhibition. They loved it, ghoulish little bastards. So, anyway, one of the star exhibits was a tank full of these things called ‘sea wasps’. Most lethal jellyfish in the world. Australian, obviously.”
“Obviously,” John agreed.
“Anyway, that was the gig he was on when Polonskya was stabbed. I had a look through the Yard’s green ink files. We had a whole slew of emails and calls about it — surprising how many nutters there are who know Hamlet and can put two and two together to make 76.6 recurring. Montague’s info just got buried amid the pile, more’s the pity, because some of the stuff he tried to tell us, about patterns of stab-wounds and sixteenth-century weaponry, turn out to have been right on the money. Of course, he knew young Hamnetsson, too.”
“Probable cause?” John enquired.
She grimaced. “You could say that. So, while we weren’t listening, Montague decided on self-help. Somehow he hoicked one of the sea-wasp things out using one of the long pole things they have for the windows and got it into a plastic rubbish sack. Then he let it dry out. Turns out the little poison pad things on the tentacles are almost as lethal when the creature’s dead. Brought the dried tentacles back down to the funeral, in an old altoids tin, of all things. While he knew all the family would be passing round the funeral baked meats, he slipped away to the house — he’d still got the keycodes Polonyska had given him — and left his booby trap on the sword blades, ready to detonate next time someone decided to take them out and play. And, because he’d trained him, he knew most likely young Hamnetsson would be that someone.”
“But that’s bonkers.”
Sally shrugged. “Says the man who lived with Freak for years. I know it is, but the guv’s been trying as hard as he can to see if Claude put him up to it, and he’s swearing blind that he didn’t, and with all the Hamnetssons being dead, I can’t see who he’d be protecting if he were lying, so there it is.”
She paused for breath, then added, “But with its being the Player King who actually did the murders — I wonder if Granddad’s down in Hell saying, ‘Foiled again’ or ‘Just you wait’?”
John snorted. “So long as it’s our next incarnations having to deal with it, and not us, I don’t give a stuff.”
The pause before Sally spoke went on just a tiny bit too long.
“What is it? What’re you not telling me?”
“Um. This is going to sound completely crazy —”
“Compared to the last two weeks?”
“Yes. Even compared to the last two weeks. Look, you know what I said before, about cycles getting out of whack because one set of stories had come into conflict with a stronger set? And that’s what got Granddad Hamnetsson’s knickers in a twist to begin with?”
“Yes, but what’s that got to do with — what’s his name? Ricky Montague. I’d never even heard of him before last week. And I looked him up on IMDB and his credits list….”
John tailed off, abruptly realising that the words “is even shorter than your sister’s” would be inappropriate in at least three completely separate ways.
Sally nodded. “No, I know. Except — “
Her next words came out in a rush. “You know that thing how actors have to have unique names, so that if there’s someone got in before you with the same name, you have to change yours? That’s why Cesca’s called that. She was Frankie at school. But police paperwork is legal name stuff. And when Montague told the guv his, he almost lost it. You can see why.”
“Why? What is it?” The question came out automatically; it was only in the aftermath that John realised that he did not want to know the answer.
Sally put a mint in her mouth, as if to sanitise what was to come.