A Question of Holmes (Charlotte Holmes #4)

A Question of Holmes (Charlotte Holmes #4)

Brittany Cavallaro


For Chase, my partner in crime


THAT MAY, IN THE WEEKS BEFORE THE BUSINESS WITH DR. Larkin and the Dramatics Society, the messages in the floodlights and the stripped-down production of Hamlet and the orchids, the orchids everywhere—before Jamie Watson came to stay and my life, as it often did, grew infinitely stranger—my uncle Leander took to throwing parties again.

At first I wasn’t sure of the reason for it. May in Oxford is a milky, diluted affair, with little natural cause for celebration. Not to mention that my uncle was serving in loco parentis to me, a girl who had long passed the age when parenting was necessary; I must have been a burden to him. I was seventeen, after all, and I had ruined several lives, not the least of which was mine, and I had had my own bank account for ages. Surely that disqualified me from needing a father.

And still I found myself reveling in it: the hiss and splutter of the electric kettle first thing, and the double-knock on my bedroom door that meant eggs and turkey bacon on the stove; the issues of New Scientist in the post, a magazine my uncle didn’t read, but I did; how sometimes I’d return home from the library to find my shirts and socks spinning in the little washing machine in the kitchen when I hadn’t put them in myself.

How we had a childhood friend of Leander’s to dinner, and he walked in with a bottle of white wine and a carrier over his shoulder, and inside, making a small ruckus, was my cat Mouse. At my uncle’s request, she had been liberated from my father’s “care.” I was excused from dinner to take my cat to my room for immediate cuddling, and there, on the blue-and-white rug I had chosen because its pattern looked like fractals, as I buried my nose in Mouse’s soft white belly and she batted my face with her paws, I realized that I had been dismissed from the adults’ party like a child, and that, surprisingly, I didn’t mind in the least.

These were not weighty things, taken separately, but together they covered me like a blanket, and just as I began to grow used to my mail sorted out on the counter and Leander, on the sofa in suit and American collar, watching Murder, She Wrote while eating handfuls of caramel corn, our days shifted once again.

I was due to begin my summer courses in a few days’ time at the precollege program in St. Genesius College in Oxford University before enrolling there in the fall, and I suppose the first party that Leander threw was intended to prepare me. That is to say, he thought that inviting over a number of Oxford tutors to drink cocktails and eat miniature puff pastry in our kitchen would be comforting, and productive, and that I wouldn’t immediately blurt out that one of them was having an affair with their dog groomer or blow something up on the stove—that I would, in short, have some civilized fun.

When I wrote to tell Watson of my uncle’s plan, he responded What on earth is he thinking? You hate parties. Has Leander gone entirely off his tit and, if so, do you have an escape plan? Maybe through the sewers?

It was reassuring, remembering I wasn’t broken for not wanting to eat fun-sized sausages with strangers. I can tell him I’m just ducking out for the night, I decided, and that thought took me as far as the kitchen, where people had already gathered. I hadn’t even heard the front door opening and closing.

I was that far away from my former self, the girl who noticed everything.

And there, in the thick of all those tweedy people, was my uncle Leander, half-illuminated by the track lights, telling some improbable story about his time at the Sorbonne to two men in blazers and penny loafers. Standing in the doorway, I realized it’d been some time since I’d seen him with that look. That performing look, that is, something of a raised eyebrow and a half smile, something of an off-balance lean that meant my uncle had an adoring audience. I sighed, put a pile of sausages on a plate, and went to introduce myself to a woman—drama lecturer, divorced, two dogs—who was staring forlornly at the empty gin bottles on the counter. It seemed as though we might have something in common, though it had been some time since I’d indulged in my old vices.

The night passed slowly. I was quite happy to go to bed.

I willed myself to believe that that was the last of the parties, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary. (Obvious evidence. As in, a carrier bag full of cheeses on the counter, and my uncle, the Bach aficionado, humming a Justin Bieber song. Still, a girl could dream, etc.) Should I have been surprised when, that Friday evening, Leander interrupted my violin practice and asked if I perhaps wanted to do something with my hair, as we had company on the way?

I did nothing with my hair. I put away my sheet music (the Hoffman barcarolle, exquisite) and skulked out to the living room in leggings and my slippers.

“Charlotte,” Leander said, laughing, as he positioned a pair of speakers on the mantelpiece. “Really. You know, it’s good to be acquainted with one’s professors. Think of it as an opportunity to gather material, if you have to.”

“Blackmail?” I thought briefly of Mr. Wheatley, Watson’s high school writing teacher, who had bugged his dorm room to “gather material.” “Noted.”

“Chin up. That Dr. Whatsit woman you were speaking to the other night will be back. She was quite taken with you.”

A small part of my brain was always at war: Of course she adores me, I thought, simultaneously thinking, that poor dumb woman. My therapist had been working with me on this duality with limited success.

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