Jul 30 2013 12:00pm
Tormented by a tragic past, Miss Lillian Holmes nonetheless found the strength to go on, to become the greatest female detective of her time. To make her uncle proud. Except he was not truly her uncle. Sherlock was a fictional character, and Lil was less a true detective than a sheltered twenty-six-year-old heiress with a taste for mystery and morphine. But then she saw him. Leaping from the second-story window of a neighbor, a beautiful stranger. With the recent murders plaguing Baltimore, here was a chance to reveal the truth. Except the Leaping Man was far more than he seemed. A wanton creature of darkness, an entry point to a realm of deception and evil, and to a Truth she had waited countless years to uncover, he would threaten far more than her life. He would take both her heart and soul. And she would rejoice in it.
Get a sneak peek of Ciar Cullen's Lillian Holmes and the Leaping Man (available July 30, 2013) with an exclusive excerpt of Chapter 1.
In which our heroine’s first case presents itself.
Lillian Holmes strapped on goggles and shoved her long black hair under her leather cap. She wanted to go fast on a day that always made her feel jittery.
It wasn’t logical that she should feel much of anything, she reminded herself, for facts were facts and knowledge was always good. Except that on this day seventeen years earlier, at age seven, perhaps she hadn’t been ready for facts. At least not ones so stark and final:
Mother had died in childbirth.
Father was never coming home, perished with the SS Gothenburg off Australia in 1875.
She’d stopped listening that day, the room blurring and buzzing as blood pounded in her ears and pain poured out in quiet tears. Of course she’d known already that she was an orphan, but questions burgeoned as she grew older, and evidently the adults in her life felt it time to tell her the truth. August 28, 1883. Lillian remembered the date because she’d stared at the newspaper thrown on the green brocade settee as her governess told her the story. The headline spoke of France, of looming war, and of the eruption of a volcano on an exotic island named Krakatau—all far away things, like Addie’s kind voice as it faded into the background.
In the following seventeen years, Lillian never asked her governess for details. The unasked questions still lay buried like ancient treasures beneath the walls she’d built around herself. Do I have grandparents or siblings, Addie? Why was Father on a ship so far away when his wife was with child? Why am I wealthy? Did you know my mother? Do I look like her?
On this, the sixteenth anniversary of the Truth of Lillian Holmes as she’d titled the day in her journal, Lillian slung her leather satchel over her shoulder. It held her most prized possessions: her Journal of Important Observations, two novels, one in French, one letter, and the Colt revolver she’d bought for herself on her twenty-first birthday. She was prepared for adventure.
In the lingering late August heat wave, her neighbors would have their windows flung wide and might hear the engine of her steam-powered velocipede. Well, the vehicle technically belonged to her butler, Thomas, but he let Lillian ride it now and then. Thomas hated that she rode at night, but he knew that she couldn’t afford to be seen at such an unseemly pastime. No, the neighbors would talk, the talk would spread, and Lillian would be back in the clutches of the men who watched her like a hawk: her solicitor and her physician. Suddenly angry at the thought of her lack of control over her own life, Lillian determined to ride far tonight. Her neighbors would not recognize her in any case: her boy’s trousers and loose shirt would hide her form.
It was the beginning of dead time, as she’d come to think of the hours between midnight and three, when insanity or some innate evil drove her fellow mortals to unthinkable acts, including the recent foul murder of Baltimore’s mayor only blocks away. But Lillian didn’t fear the night. She could outrun the shadows and outwit any enemy.
So dramatic, Lillian. As if you actually have an enemy.
Still, she thought it would be good fun to have a nemesis, like Uncle had the evil Professor Moriarity. While her closest friend—nay, her only friend—Bess, might think that forces of an otherworldly nature worked evil upon the good citizens of Baltimore, Lillian cared only about facts. “Give me data!” Uncle Sherlock’s mantra pulled her to reason whenever Bess tried to lure her to fanciful musings. And whenever the Melancholies came calling—and they usually did so late at night—she’d immerse herself in the fading memories of her single year in London with Uncle.
A nemesis would come in right handy to prove her brilliance. The closest she had was a loathsome greedy solicitor who seemed to delight in her troubles.
Troubles. No, she was overcoming her troubles, she’d assured Dr. Schneider, and would continue to improve. It was a passing thing, these sad spells, and a fast ride was good medicine.
“He is not my real uncle; he is not real at all,” Lillian said aloud to no one, a practiced phrase she’d sworn to repeat whenever her fantasy took hold. Dr. Schneider had taken great pains to explain, more than once, that if Lillian could not rid herself of this “most extraordinary delusion,” he would recommend further treatment. Lillian shuddered at the thought of what that treatment might entail—a stay at Spring Grove for lunacy, a drill through the skull?
“I was never in London. He is not my real uncle,” she repeated.
Her solicitor, Francis Pemberton, had made it quite clear that two things hung on her ability to be a normal lady of society: her fortune and her freedom. She cared much more about the latter, knowing that the odious man would like nothing more than to see her rot in an asylum. How he would claim her fortune for himself she wasn’t sure, but that he would attempt to rob her one day she was certain.
No, she vowed. He would not win. At least she could pretend to be a normal lady.
Bess would help. She must help. Bess had helped so often, offering excuses to acquaintances when Lillian’s Melancholies gripped her tightly, escorting Lillian to essential events for a lady to attend, although she hadn’t the least bit of interest in them. Bess was two years younger than Lillian, at 22, but she schooled her in all manner of topics Lillian cared not about: frocks and hats, gloves and dancing, fans and flirting.
Lillian walked the velocipede across the street. As she did, she gazed down toward the harbor at Federal Hill, which seemed to guard the good citizens of Baltimore from any outside evil, as it had done when the Country was born. With each step she rehearsed Uncle’s words—
Words penned by Mister Conan Doyle, she quickly corrected herself. No act goes without leaving a trace, no criminal is brilliant enough to evade scientific inquiry, and no task is too arduous for one who puts aside emotion for reason. Of course, Uncle Sherlock would not approve of how frivolously she had spent her day, taking a lesson on popular songs from Bess, but no one would approve of how she meant to spend the night. She would ride, and not even Bess’s imaginary phantoms would be able to keep up.
The path Lillian chose wound down from a deserted Light Street, past shops and ships, streetlamps, some electric and some fueled with oil. The lights diminished as she ventured away from the city center to distant Druid Hill Park where paths scarred the manicured landscape like rivulets of blackening blood leading into forbidden darkness. It mattered not who lurked there, she reminded herself as she leaned forward, a push of the pedal and a flick of a switch igniting the spark to let her fly; this was her secret world where darkness promised freedom, where solitude allowed her the luxury of not standing out as a “most unusual girl.” Pemberton would not see. No one would see.
Lillian wound past the Great Lake, and as was her custom she stopped to climb the steep retaining wall and take in the solitude and the moonlight’s still reflection on the shimmering water, turned as if by alchemy into mercury. Tonight, she lingered. Lillian pulled off her goggles and angled the letter she pulled from her pants pocket to catch the light on it. Worn from too much folding and unfolding, and in truth stained from a few tears, she reread the treasure.
Dear Miss Holmes,
Thank you for your kind letter regarding my Sherlock Holmes stories. I never imagined my tales would catch the interest of readers across the Atlantic in such quick measure.
I regret to say that while my character is loosely based on an acquaintance, the name Holmes is a choice made by me, the novelist, and carries no significance. I am afraid I am unable to help you locate your ancestors.
I believe by the tone of your inquiry that this information might bring you great sadness. In recent months I have begun a serious study of Spiritism, and while you may not understand the field that is considered quite fantastical by most, it has influenced my opinions on the nature of this mortal realm. It is my humble opinion that destiny is not predetermined by heritage, but by forces we cannot clearly imagine. One must follow an inner calling if one is fortunate enough to be called. If you desire to be like my Holmes and become the first female detective in America, there is little to stop you, is there not?
One note of warning. Please take great care in your investigations. There is true evil in this world, far more evil than I have penned in my tales—because it is not fictional. Do not put yourself in harm’s way.
Sherlock, Mycroft and Doctor Watson send their warm regards, as do I.
Arthur C. Doyle
Lillian folded the treasure with reverence and closed her eyes to bring forth a favored fantasy. Uncle Sherlock sat in his favorite chair, smoke curling from his pipe, attending to her every word while pretending absorption in a book on his lap. Dr. Watson bustled about their quarters looking for some misplaced item, muttering that the housekeeper moved it.
Uncle listened, truly listened, as if her words mattered. As if she mattered. Lillian knew now how silly she must have sounded as she expounded on her theory of a sensational London murder, but Uncle closed his book and stared at her intently. She fell mute, embarrassed, ready to be corrected. He raised one brow and took a long draw on his pipe. His fine features, so unlike his brother Mycroft’s but so like her own, seemed sharper in the dark light of the cozy parlor.
Just when she thought the subject was closed, he spoke. “Lillian, I believe you may one day prove to have the finest mind I’ve encountered among your sex. What do you say, Watson?”
“What’s that, Holmes? Oh, of course she’s brilliant. And quite lovely.”
“Yes, lovely. Her mother was lovely as well.” And Uncle was lost in thought again, but his words lingered. She was brilliant. Or would be.
Lillian pushed the letter back into her pocket and mounted her transport, resolving anew to solve a criminal mystery before the first leaves of autumn hit the earth. She imagined the triumphant letter she would send to Uncle Sherlock, and how Dr. Schneider and Mr. Pemberton would feel chagrined.
No, she corrected. She would write Mister Conan Doyle, and he would perhaps include her tale in one of his stories. In that way, she would be as a niece of Sherlock Holmes.
Her spirits lifted, she took a complete spin around the park, pulling her cap off and letting her long hair fly free and whip about her face. She leaned into the curve, excitement bubbling up as she kept her balance on the muddy gutters.
Faster still! Was that her voice? She’d heard it on the breeze, she was sure. A boy sitting on the curb jumped to his feet as she approached to avoid disaster, but he waved his cap in the air and hooted in appreciation, and perhaps jealousy, as she left him far behind.
She sped back down the gentle slope that drew her to the harbor, back to her home, past a few hansom cabs returning members of society from dreary dinners and concerts. Like the dreams she had as a child of flying along a beach, like sailing on a fast schooner, ducking this way and that with a change of the angle of her arms… Her speed made her thoughts slow and her heart calm.
The city rose to meet her, buildings looming above. She rode past the Mt. Vernon monument, glancing up at the immense marble statue, sorry to be again within the surrounding cave of stone buildings. Secrets still beckoned. Don’t go home, the statue of George Washington whispered over distant clip-clop of hooves and squealing metal trolley wheels that slowed on their rails. Lillian wound around cabs and carts, but the city was relentless, as if it intended to pull her down the length of the harbor, past the maze of slums and factories, right to the great shipping docks and into the bay.
“No!” she argued. “Not tonight.”
There is so much to see. So much to learn. We will wait for you, the city whispered for her alone.
“Hush! You are not to speak to me!”
The pain would end, deep in the harbor, dark and quiet…
A police whistle set her nerves sizzling and she rounded Federal Hill at a reckless speed, hoping the constable was on foot rather than horseback. She didn’t turn to see, but lay low and clutched the motorcycle handles for dear life. What would Thomas say if he had to come so far to collect her from a prison?
The streetlight nearest her house had never sent relief rushing through her before, the prospect of her bed never so welcoming. How long had she ridden? It had seemed like a moment rather than an hour.
She cut the engine and walked the vehicle down the dirt alley to her gardener’s shed. At the snap of a twig, she jumped and spun to face the towering figure of her butler. He rubbed at his chin and narrowed his eyes.
“G’evening, Miss. Or should I say good day to you, as it is past midnight?”
“Hello will do, Thomas. So, you heard me leave. I must oil the lock on the shed. You did not need to wait up for me.”
He scolded her with an arch of his brow. That brow had brought a flush of shame to Lillian’s cheeks many times through the years. Thomas Adencourt, her governess’s older brother, walked with a decided limp, a painful reminder of his time in Union blue at Andersonville prison. The miracle of keeping his leg when so many had lost a limb to a Confederate shot was also his curse. He’d often threaten to cut the painful flesh and bone away himself.
While he tried to hide it from her, she could see he was in agony this night. Lillian didn’t doubt he would douse that hurt with a good swig of whiskey before retiring. She wondered if he’d managed to douse the mental hurt of the war that had taken both his brothers.
“As you can see, I have returned your machine without a nick of the frame or mud upon the wheels.” She glanced down and wiped away some mud with her leather glove. “Perhaps a bit of mud. I shall remedy that.”
“I see you collected the mud on your face as well.” Thomas sighed and gave her a friendly nudge towards the house. “You’ll be the death of me. Nothing gets by Mrs. Adencourt. When she worries about you, she takes it out on me.”
“Addie chooses her battles wisely, Thomas. Don’t fret so. Now show me some of your latest contraptions. I’d like to see how you’re getting on with that small spyglass I fancy…”
“Time for sleep, Miss Holmes! Dr. Schneider said sleep is essential to your health. And the Lord knows it’s essential to this old body.”
“Dr. Schneider would have me sleep my life away.” And how nice that sounds right now.
“You must be careful, Lillian. Addie frets constantly about you. Take care, my dear. A little ride now and then…well, that can stay between us. Be temperate, girl. At least, be outwardly temperate. Did you take your pistol?”
Thomas nodded and let out a deep breath, and Lillian cursed herself. The butler looked quite exhausted. She’d taken advantage of the wide berth he’d allowed her all these years.
“Thomas,” she whispered to stop him in his tracks.
He turned. “Yes, Miss?”
“I thank you much for all you do for me. I mean, that you allow me to…to be me. That you trust me.” If I needed a father, I would want him to be you.
A fleeting smile disappeared so quickly Lillian thought she imagined it. Then Thomas nodded and mumbled something as he opened the rear door to the house.
When alone in her room, Lillian stepped out of her clothes, washed her face, and retrieved the bottle of Mrs. Winslow’s remedy from its hiding place. She pushed down Dr. Schneider’s severe scolding about her habit and took a deep swig from the bottle. She’d argued that mothers gave teething babies a dose of the liquid, so it could not be strong. He’d cursed in German and added, “You can quiet an infant into the grave, Lillian. You can quiet your own cries the same way.”
Next week, I will give it up next week. Only on this anniversary. To sleep.
Her nerves calmed, she fell asleep quickly—only to awaken in a sweat an hour later. She tossed and turned in the stifling heat and finally discarded her clinging nightclothes to a heap on the bed and approached the window for some relief.
It was not relief she found. Through the fine mist that diffused the lights on the empty street below Lillian peered. There beneath her, at first unaware of her detection, a man had dropped from a neighboring balcony two stories above. When he hit the ground with the grace of a feline, he turned and glanced up as if he’d felt her stare.
A chill ran through Lillian’s bones at that glance, at the sight of a man who should have broken limbs and bruises if he survived the fall at all. Still, he was most certainly a man, and a cheeky one at that. Lillian brought her arms across her chest at his intense gaze. Knowing she should shift, that she should hide her nudity from a stranger, she tried to inch back but still keep sight of him. Her feet would barely move.
In the darkness, before he slipped into the black shadows, he smiled and tipped his cap, chuckling as he disappeared.
Lillian assumed her neighbor had taken a lover, as gossipers reported such was the widow’s unseemly habit, and put the incident aside as a rather uninteresting example of human frailty. She took the time, however, to flatten a new page in her Journal of Observations, and to make an accurate notation of the event. She noted the man’s tall stature, his lean look, the angularity of his features, the deepness of his eyes and the paleness of his skin—or had that been a function of the streetlight and shadows? And yes, she added as an afterthought, his face was splendid. Perfect, in fact.
The image of the Leaping Man burned in her brain until she fell into a fitful nightmare of her departed mother reaching out to her and whispering silent endearments. Yes, the Melancholies always came on August 28th.
The hue and cry in the morning proved Lillian’s first hypothesis about the Leaping Man wrong, and she reprimanded herself for the error. This had nothing to do with the appetites of the widow Mrs. Gilvarg. Paul Stephenson, the youngest of a family of five that had moved into the house two doors down, was dead of an apparent suicide, all the blood having seeped from a series of gashes to his neck. He’d dropped the knife on the floor near his bed.
“Surely the detectives see the similarity to the murder of Mayor Blackstone!” she cried at breakfast. “This young man did not take his own life!”
Thomas shook his head, and without looking up from his cup of tea he grumbled, “Leave it be, Lillian.”
She must go to the authorities at once.
I saw him. He smiled at me. Her stomach churned, and blood turned to ice in her veins. A craving for a soothing bit of tonic made her hands shake.
“Addie, Thomas, please listen to me. I saw the murderer. He wore a dark fisherman’s cap. Tall, very tall, and broad shouldered. He jumped from a two-story balcony and landed like a cat, sure-footed and calm, however improbable that seems. I saw him.”
“Oh, Lil.” Addie looked up from her needlework and sighed. “You promised you would at least try. Shall I call the Doctor?”
“I would take an oath on Uncle’s…” You have no uncle. How could you be so stupid? Now they will never believe you.
“This is most upsetting to us all, Lil. Retire to your room and rest. I’ll be up with a fresh pot of tea, how will that be?”
Addie shared a quick look with her brother, and Lillian knew all was lost. If the two people who loved her most didn’t believe her, the authorities would surely not. They would send for Dr. Schneider that very day.
Well, then, it will be my case, my secret. Uncle would keep the clues to himself until he could fully solve them, and once all was clear, he’d report his dramatic findings to Scotland Yard. Lillian would do the same, and she looked forward to the spectacle she would create, the headlines and accolades.
Oh, what a letter she would write, she swore as she closed her door and reached for her bottle of Mrs. Winslow’s.
Copyright © 2013 by Ciar Cullen.
Ciar (KEE-er) Cullen hails from Baltimore, Maryland. She started her academic life as a theater major, but when she learned she couldn't act her way out of a paper bag she turned to archaeology, another love. She earned her degree at Indiana University, summered on digs in Greece and England, landed a gig in New Jersey, and eventually went into nonfiction publishing. Her third career is as a bureaucrat at a university. She is married to a photographer and has two cats. Eventually she hopes to retire to a small cabin, with the same husband and more cats.