“Remember, my friend that knowledge is stronger than memory, and we should not trust the weaker.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula
The house of the Rucastles was a grand mansion, surrounded by copper beeches. Molly had never been to such a place before and the wonder was clearly visible on her face. Sherlock almost found it endearing, but when walking her up the steps to the entrance, he told her, “Close your mouth. It doesn’t help to make you more attractive.” Molly closed her mouth instantly and bit her lip.
The man who opened the door was dressed in a tailcoat and looked like a butler. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. May I ask for your names?” His tone was friendly, but detached.
Sherlock stepped forward and answered, “Holmes, party of four.”
The butler looked at his clipboard, seemed to be pleased to find the right name, crossed it out, looked back up at them and gestured to his right. “Very well, thank you. May you leave your coat with Mister Barrymore, please.”
Another man in tailcoat – clearly Mister Barrymore – made a step towards them. The four got rid of their coats, and when they were ready Mister Barrymore gestured straight ahead and told them to go into the Green Room. Sherlock acted as if he knew his way around, thanked the man and turned around towards Molly. He spared Mary a quick glance and then took Molly’s arm so that she had no choice, but to link arms with him. Without acknowledging her surprise he started to lead them into the direction Mister Barrymore had pointed.
After a few steps, Sherlock mentioned casually, “Mary, I see you have chosen a violet dress. You know that in film violet stands for sexually frustrated women.”
Molly stiffened beside him and John was just about to rebuke his friend, but Mary beat her husband to it. Her tone was as casual as Sherlock’s had been, “No I did not know that. So that means your purple shirt practically screams, ‘I need to get laid!’”
Both John and Molly chuckled and the former once again thanked heavens that he had found a wife who knew how to deal with the git that was his best friend.
Sherlock sounded grim when he replied, “It’s purple, not violet.”
Mary shrugged. “If you say so. Glad we’re not in a film then, aren’t you?”
Sherlock did not comment any further on it, and if he had, Molly would have probably not heard him. While entering the Green Room, the pathologist had a hard time doing as Sherlock had told her and keep her mouth closed. She realized then and there that multitasking was not her strongest suit, for it was too much for her to keep from staring and acting nonchalant about Sherlock’s close proximity at the same time. T
he Green Room was more a hall than a room in Molly’s opinion. The wallpaper and furniture gave the room its name. On the right side of the room was a seating area and on the left a small stage, where a string quartet played some classic piece Molly didn’t know. The room was full of people dressed in elegant attire. Sherlock seemed to know exactly where he wanted to go, and so the other three just followed him. Not that Molly had any other choice – her arm being looped through his. He walked them over to a couch in the right corner of the room that seemed to be unoccupied.
Molly was not the only one who was impressed by the venue. From the corner of her eyes she could see Mary looking around the room as well. So the pathologist could not help, but turn her head and say to her friend, “I feel like I’m at Downton Abbey.“
Mary giggle. “Or in Upstairs and Downstairs.”’
Sherlock shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but this place looks exactly like all other social gatherings of this kind that are designed to bore you to death.”
John patted his shoulder from behind, “Ever the party animal our friend, Sherlock.”
Sherlock just ignored him, stopped in front of the couch and gestured Molly to sit down. I took Molly a second to register what Sherlock was doing. She was not used to him offering her a seat. She smiled shyly and took a seat. Mary did the same (without smiling at Sherlock, of course) and sat beside her.
“John and I will get some drinks,” Sherlock decided.
“Obviously we do,” muttered John under her breath. The women just smiled and as the men were about to turn around to head into the direction of the bar, Molly’s voice stopped them.
“What about our back-story?” she whispered quite loudly into Sherlock’s direction.
“Just try to talk to strangers as little as possible, stay close to me, refrain from talking about private matters, try to be as unspecific as possible, don’t... You know what? Leave the talking to me.”
“But I...” But that was as far as Molly came, because Sherlock had already left to organize some drinks. She sighed deeply – the nervousness clearly visible on her face. Mary laid a hand on her shoulder. “Just forget about it. We’ll enjoy the party and let the men do their work.” That made Molly smile. “You’re right.”
“Do you have a plan?” John whispered while they were waiting for their orders at the bar.
Sherlock looked outwardly bored, but John knew that he was deducing all the people in the room, trying to get as much useful information as possible.
“I always have a plan,” was his scathing reply.
“Except for those times when you don’t have one.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes dramatically. “When will you get over it? The plan was to outrun the man.”
“Outrun the man with the motorbike and the gun. It was a really clever plan...” During the Not-Moriarty case there had been some instances when the men had had to improvise a bit. It had been one of those moments, John hoped would remain a once in a lifetime experience.
“No, Sherlock, seriously. What’s the plan?”
As usual the detective was not happy to share with the class. “We will have a little chat with Miss Hunter, have a closer look at the host and the enigmatic Mister Toller and maybe do a tour through the house.”
“I doubt we’re talking about a guided tour.” The
waiter gave them their drinks.
Sherlock winked and John saw a dangerous twinkle in his eyes, “No, we’re talking about a private tour.”
With four gasses in their hands they made their way back towards the women.
“Sherlock, why were we on the list?”
“Miss Hunter made sure we’re invited.”
John only nodded and looked at Sherlock’s face. They were only a few feet away from the couch where the women sat and chatted, and the doctor realized that his friend’s gaze was glued to Molly’s left hand. She was playing absentmindedly with the engagement ring. It had become a nervous habit rather quickly. John remembered Mary doing the same.
A dreadful though crossed John’s mind and he had to make sure before the women could hear them, so he asked, “Sherlock, please tell me this is not Janine’s ring.“
Sherlock stopped short in his stride and looked scandalized. “Not even I am that insensitive.”
“Just checking,” John mumbled defensively.
They made the few last strides towards the women and handed them their drinks. Since John knew his wife well enough, he had not needed to ask her what she wanted and since Sherlock Holmes was Sherlock Holmes – although he was William Holmes at the moment – Molly was not surprised that he had brought her a glass of champagne, just what she had wanted. John sat next to Mary and Sherlock next to Molly. It was just enough space for four people on the sofa.
After the first sip, Molly felt the cold liquid run down her throat and calm her down a bit. Sure, she tried to enjoy a night out with Mary, but it was a bit much for her. Beside her, Sherlock was scanning the crowd and Molly was keen to make some small talk to help her keep her mind off the fact that almost the entire length of the left side of her body was touching Sherlock’s right side. She leant a bit forward to have a better look at John. “So I heard you started to write down the latest case?”
John turned towards her as well. “Yes, but something or better someone keeps me from finishing it.”
He shot a glance to the man next to him. Molly chuckled. She knew all too well how frustrating it could be if Sherlock was constantly getting between oneself and the paperwork. “I am looking forward reading it.”
“Me too,” Mary chimed in.
“You are not allowed to read it beforehand?” Molly was surprised.
“No. Mister Morstan is very strict about that. Same rules apply to everyone. No exceptions. Not even for his wife.” She smiled and winked.
“I like your stories, John. Really. They are better than most crime novels.” Molly shrugged before she continued thoughtfully, “Probably because they are true.”
Suddenly the main protagonist of John’s tales decided to join the conversation, “Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell. You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales.”
The grip on John’s wine glass became a bit tighter, and he did nothing to hide the anger in his voice, “You should thank me for the way I portray you on my blog. Because of it you have work and people admire you. If I wrote stuff like what you’ve just said now, no one would read it. I mean, no normal person talks like that.”
“I am not normal,” Sherlock stated, never taking his eyes off the other people in the room.
“I like John’s writing style,” Molly tried to support her friend, knowing exactly how it felt to be criticized by the consulting detective.
Of course it did not help much, for Sherlock only sighed and muttered, “What do the unobservant public, who could hardly tell a weaver by his tooth care about the finer shades of analysis and deduction?”
Mary tried to set an end to the conversation, “I think
we should change the subject.”
“You’re right,” Sherlock said, “we are not here to lecture your husband upon his literal shortcomings. We’re not here for fun after all.”
John was just about to speak his mind, when a tall, blonde woman in a green dress waved at them and made her way towards the sofa where they sat.
Their argument forgotten, Molly asked, “Who is this?”
“Violet Hunter, the governess that asked for our help,” John answered.
“She’s very pretty,” Molly remarked and there was a hint of disapproval in her voice.
“A woman men would die for,” the man next to her said.
John looked surprised. “Unusual language for you, Sherlock.”
The detective waved it off with a gesture of his hand. “A metaphor, nothing more.“
Violet Hunter had reached them, and all rose to meet her.
“Mister Holmes, Mister Watson, I am so glad you are here!” she exclaimed and shook the hands of the two gentlemen. She looked distressed, yet she stared Sherlock up and down in an approving manner that Molly did not approve of.
“These are Doctor Molly Hooper and Misses Mary Watson.” Sherlock introduced them to Miss Hunter as if he was oblivious of her admiration. Molly figured he probably was and decided to stump down her jealously. It was inappropriate and childish. After they all had shaken hands Sherlock added, “And since we’re undercover these are Mister and Misses Morstan and my name is William and Miss Hooper is my fiancée.”
Miss Hunter nodded dutifully and mumbled, “I see,” but seemed too distressed to really pay attention. She kept looking nervously over her shoulder.
“Why won’t you sit down, Miss Hunter, and tell us what is bothering you?” John suggested and gestured for her to take a seat.
She nodded and did so. John and his wife followed suit and so did Sherlock. Molly was left standing, because the sofa was not big enough for five people. But before she could even contemplate if it was socially accepted to sit on the arm rest, she felt two hands encircle her waist and she was pulled onto Sherlock’s lap. For a second Molly forgot how to breathe and went stiff.
Sherlock chose to ignore it and asked Miss Hunter in his typical interrogation-voice, “What happened to your hair, Miss Hunter?”
She blinked a few times, and then finally her eyes
became focused on the man next to her.
“I had to cut it. Mister Rucastle told me to. He expects obedience on the most extraordinary matters.“ Her tone left no doubt that she was afraid of her employer.
“It makes you look younger,” Sherlock said matter-of-fact. It was not a compliment, merely an observation. Still Miss Hunter blushed.
“And what about this Mister Toller? Where is he?“
Miss Hunter pointed a finger to her left where a few servants were gathered. “That’s him, over there. The tall one with the brown hair.“
Sherlock looked at where she was pointing to. “Could you wave him over, please. I’d like to talk to him for a moment.”
“Sure.“ Miss Hunter did as she was told and Mister Toller approached them, although he seemed reluctant about it.
“Can I help you with anything?” he asked once he was standing in front of them.
Sherlock hastened to clear up the misunderstanding, “No, we don’t require your service as an employee of this house. We are friends of Miss Hunter, and she told us how delighted she was to have a familiar face around in the new environment, and we were curious who this nice gentleman was.”
The detective sounded nothing like his usual condescending self, and stretched out his hand to shake Mister Toller’s. His face brightened a bit and he shook it hesitantly. “Pleased to meet you Mister…“
“Holmes. William Holmes. These are my friends John and Mary Morstan and his is my fiancée Molly Hooper.“
Said fiancée almost chocked on her drink when she felt Sherlock’s right hand sneak around her waist to pull her a bit closer. Of course she tried to keep her expression as neutral as possible, but was having a hard time.
Mister Toller shook hands with everyone and Sherlock resumed his interrogation, but with a friendly voice that sounded nothing like he normally did when questioning someone, “So, how long have you been here, Mister Toller? Any inside tips for our Miss Hunter?”
Mister Toller did not like it at all that the attention was directed at him. The corner of his mouth twitched nervously. “Nah, I have only been here for a month or two. Not much longer than Miss Hunter.”
Sherlock was about to ask another question, but Mister Toller tried to distract from himself, “Engaged?” he nodded towards Molly and Sherlock, “So when’s the big day then?”
He was directing his question at Molly, but she was too stunned to react, so Sherlock answered for her, “On the 16th of August.” He brought a hand up to stroke her arm. Molly held back a shiver that ran through her. “Yes,” she said in a low voice, “we... can’t wait.”
She smiled at Mister Toller and could see Sherlock doing the same.
Mister Toller returned the smile, but it was clearly forced. “Well, I’m afraid I’ll have to get back to work. Mister Rucastle doesn’t like us chatting with guests.” He gave Miss Hunter a pointed look, nodded at the others and then went away again.
Molly expected Sherlock to let go of her the instant Mister Toller was out of sight, but he did no such thing. His left hand remained around her waist while his right was draped casually on the arm rest. She tried her best to keep her hands wrapped around the glass on her lap. She did not know what else to do with them.
“He’s quite a nervous little fellow,” Mary commented after Mister Toller’s departure.
“His behaviour gets weirder and weirder,” Miss Hunter said, her gaze once more directed at the crowd, as if she was looking for someone and afraid to find them. “I witnessed the oddest thing last week: In the afternoon I went into the sitting room to get the book I had forgotten there in the morning and I assumed it would be empty, Mr Rucastle being at work and Mrs Rucastle normally remains in her rooms for most of the time, so you can imagine how surprised I was, when I found the sitting room being occupied not only with them, but also with Mister Toller. And he obviously was not there in his role as a butler. He did not even wear his uniform, but some expensive looking suit. He was sitting on a chair close to the central window, with its back turned towards it. Mrs Rucastle was sitting across on the sofa, doing some needlework and her husband was standing between them. It seemed like he had been walking up and down and talking to Mr Toller before I had entered the room. They all looked shocked when I came in, as if I had caught them doing something forbidden. Granted, it’s not customary to have a chat with the butler, but... No need to look so startled, don’t you think?”
The consulting detective looked at the young governess with a calculating eye. His friends could see that he was interested in the case. “I assume they tried to explain the peculiar situation you have walked into?” Sherlock asked her.
Miss Hunter nodded and replied, “Yes, Mister Holmes. Mr Rucastle said that he was just telling Mister Toller a funny story, and if I wanted, he would tell me some of his stories too. As you can imagine, I was a bit taken aback and felt that they wanted me to leave the room as soon as possible. So I mumbled that this would be nice and then left the room.”
The young woman took a deep breath, before she continued. “Two days later, Misses Rucastle told me to go into the sitting room. Her husband was waiting for me there and asked me to sit in the exact same spot where Mister Toller had set when I had walked in on them. And then he began to tell me some stories. Really funny stories.”
Her face light up a bit and she added wistfully, “I laughed so much that my belly hurt.”
“And then?” Sherlock prompted, getting a bit impatient with his client. He did his best to make an agreeable face, a muscular contraction that cost him a lot of effort.
The governess shook herself out of her memory and responded, “And after an hour or so he told me that he was finished and I should go back to his son.”
John leaned back into the sofa. “That is really weird.“
Miss Hunter looked pleadingly at Sherlock and grabbed his shoulder. Molly could feel him flinch under the touch. “Mister Holmes, what do you think this all means? Last night, I heard it again, the noises coming from the east wing. There is something going on, I know it. I…“ But she stopped talking and stood up straight again. The other four turned their heads to find out what had caused her reaction and saw the master and mistress of the house approaching them.
When Sherlock saw Mister Rucastle for the first time, he knew instantly that he did not like him. Granted, there were only a few people he actually liked, but Mister Rucastle would net even come close to the ones he tolerated.
The party on the couch got up to greet the hosts who were both tall. Misses Rucastle was thin and pale, whereas her husband was of sturdy build and the colour of his cheeks told Sherlock that he was suffering from high blood pressure and was likely to die from a heart attack.
Miss Hunter had become very quiet and when Mister and Misses Rucastle approached them he introduced them dutifully. “Ma’m, Sir, these are my friends: Mister and Misses Morstan and Mister Holmes and his fiancée Miss Hooper.”
They all shook hands and when it was Mister Rucastle’s turn to shake hands with Molly, he paused for a second. He looked her up and down and Sherlock decided then and there that he really did not like the man. Not one bit. He told himself that it was irritation that he felt and not possessiveness.
Molly felt dirty under Mister Rucastle’s gaze. His eyes were roaming over her, as if he was trying to undress her. She had the urge to take a step back and make herself as invisible as possible, but then she felt Sherlock’s hand around her waist, pulling her close. She did not know if he was doing it on purpose as part of the act or unintentionally. But she did not care. Whatever reason he had, she was glad, because it made her feel safe.
“I am happy to see Miss Hunter with some friends. I am afraid she must feel quite lonely at times, so far from London,” Mister Rucastle started a conversation.
“But she has friends here. She was so glad to find out that Mister Toller worked here as well. And I have heard you are really good to her,” Sherlock said stiffly, unaccustomed to being polite to someone he didn’t like.
The host looked sharply at Miss Hunter. “Oh, I didn’t know you have known each other before you came here.”
The governess cast her eyes down onto the floor, but
was saved from answering by Misses Rucastle. “But that’s lovely, Jephro, don’t
you think?” She nudged her husband’s arm.
“Sure, “ he replied absentmindedly.
His significant other turned her attention towards Sherlock and Molly and the petite pathologist had a dreadful feeling. “Do you already have a date for the wedding?”
Molly tried to think of the date Sherlock had said before, but she could not remember. Luckily her fake-fiancé did not suffer from amnesia and responded, “16th of August.”
Misses Rucastle smiled and Molly could not help to notice a certain sadness behind it. “How lovely. Young love is such a wonderful thing. And you make such a beautiful couple, if I may say so.”
The pathologist tried to look as happy as she thought was expected from her. Sherlock’s right hand left her waist and glided down to take her left one in his when he thanked the older woman politely.
“You’re welcome. Sorry, but what were your names again?” Misses Rucastle asked.
Her husband replied in an annoyed tone, “Mister Holmes and Miss Hooper.”
His wife’s eyes went heavenwards, as if trying to remember something. And after a few seconds she obviously did, “Ah, I think I remember reading your engagement announcement.”
Molly held back a chuckle because of the ridiculousness of the statement. It was interesting what the woman believed to remember something that had never existed in the first place.
All these pleasantries seemed to be too much for the master of the house, because he excused himself. “I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the evening and we’ll see you again at some point.”
He let his eyes roam over Molly once again, who unconsciously gripped Sherlock’s hand a bit tighter and then the host and hostess left to mingle with the other guests. Molly looked after the man. “He’s...,“ she was desperately trying to come up with a term to describe Jephro Rucastle without being rude, but failing miserably.
As opposed to the petite brunette, Mary didn’t care so much about niceties and supplied, “Sleazy? That’s how Red Riding Hood must have felt under the wolf’s gaze.”
Miss Hunter defended her employer, “I know he is a bit... of a womanizer and quite choleric. But he’s not always like that. I told you before, he tells the most amusing stories.”
“It doesn’t take a sophisticated or gifted person to tell stories. Don’t you agree, John?”
Sherlock looked at his blogger with a wicked grin who did not even grace his teasing with an answer.
“I think I should go back to work,” Miss Hunter decided. She faced Sherlock once again. “Please tell me, you will help me, Mister Holmes.“ Her pleading voice made Molly feel cold. She hoped Sherlock would not act like the git he so often was, but be nice to the poor young woman.
The consulting detective studied the woman with short hair for a long time. Instead of giving her an answer, he asked a question himself, “Where is this sitting room you had to sit in?”
The young woman’s features brightened. “That way, through the corridor and then the second door to the left.”
“Don’t worry, Miss Hunter, I’ll have it solved by tomorrow afternoon.”
“Thank you so much Mister Holmes!” She nodded at the three others and then disappeared into the crowd.
Molly released a breath she did not know she had been holding and felt Sherlock let go of her hand at the same time. She had not realized that he had still been holding it. Molly was brought back from her musing when she heard Mary clap. “Please and thank you and you’re welcome and... wow, Sherlock, I did not know that you could behave so well,” Mary teased him.
“I am absolutely capable of being tactful, I just don’t show it usually,” the dark haired man replied grumpily and then went into detective mode, “I will sneak into the sitting room and have a look around. John, Mary you will follow me in precisely five minutes.”
He shot Mary a look, “And remember, you have no baby here which you can use as an excuse for being late.”
“What about me?” Molly asked in a meek voice. She was afraid Sherlock would forget about her once the game had begun. It had happened before.
“You will seek Misses Rucastle and try to talk to her alone – without her husband. She knows something, but is afraid of her husband.”
Molly bleached a bit. “Why me?”
“She obviously liked you. You reminded her of herself when she was young and still hopeful.”
Molly was not sure if this was a compliment or an insult. With Sherlock is was mostly both.
“But what if I say something wrong? I mean, we have not agreed on any back-story.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Just do as I told you. Let her do the talking. You’re good with people. I should not ask it of you if I did not think you a quite exceptional woman.”
Molly blinked and then nodded. Now that had been a compliment, hadn’t it?
But Sherlock had not even waited for a reply, but was already on his way out of the room.
Molly swallowed the last bit of her champagne and plopped herself down onto the couch again.
“What the heck is going on? Sherlock behaving that way is… that’s…“
Mary sat down as well and chimed in, “It gives me the creeps.“ She shuddered dramatically.
John remained standing and drained his glass as well. “That’s exactly how he behaved around Janine.
This whole hand-holding and nice-talking. It’s disturbing, to say the least.”
Sherlock’s fake-fiancée leaned back against the backrest of the sofa and said in a low voice, “It’s so shockingly convincing.”
John put his glass on the nearby table. “The stage lost a fine actor.” The both women only nodded and for a few minutes all three of them were dwelling on thoughts.
John’s voice brought the women back to reality. “We’ll better get going before our storybook-fiancé gets impatient,” he said and winked at Molly.
The women rose to stand.
“You’re right,” Molly agreed, “and I will try to repeat Sherlock’s Oscar-worthy performance and get Misses Rucastle to trust me so that she’ll tell me all her family’s dark secrets.”
Mary put her glass away as well. “Well then, what’s the thing Sherlock always says?”
“Obviously? “ Molly suggested.
Mary waved a hand. “No, the other thing, that sounds like a sports metaphor.”John smiled wickedly at the two women, “The game is on.”