A Study in Charlotte

Page 78

And I did. I rolled right off the bed and onto the carpeted floor, bringing the bedside table down with me.

The crash was tremendous, and I lay in the middle of it, in the spilled pills and scattered tissues and the shards of my drinking glass, helpless.

I’d been in denial until that point, I think. But that was when it really hit me. That I was going to die. That they were going to put me in the ground, not years from now, not surrounded by books I’d written in the little flat on the Rue du Rivoli at age seventy-three, but today. In a matter of hours. I’d kissed Charlotte Holmes once, and I would die before I’d see a second time.

The door flung open with a bang.

“Watson,” Holmes said, going down to her knees beside me.

“Bring the boy in here.” The voice rang out like a sweet bell. “I’d like to see him.”

“Can you move?” Holmes asked, unnaturally loud. She put her hands under my arms. “If I get you to your feet, can you lean on me?”

“Yes,” I managed to say, though I had no idea if it was true.

She heaved me up to my knees. “Listen to me,” she said in my ear. Her black hair brushed against my cheek. “When I blink twice, you play your last card.”

“Okay,” I said, because I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about was seven more words than I could force out.

“Milo,” she called, “I could use a hand.”

Together, the two of them manhandled me out of the bedroom and into the sitting room that, when I’d last seen it, had been empty. Under Holmes’s direction, Milo’s mercenaries had reassembled it into what it had been, which was something like a preppy brothel. A pink shag rug. Lucite chairs around a Lucite table. A sofa that looked like it’d been stuffed with marshmallows, and a pair of men’s trousers hung over its arm. An iPod dock and speakers, a haphazard setup of slides and beakers and a microscope (those must’ve been Dr. Warner’s).

A gilt mirror spanned the whole length of one wall, gathering the entire room in its reflection—Charlotte Holmes, in her trim black clothes, sitting on a fuzzy ottoman that looked like it escaped from Fraggle Rock; Milo, so close to his sister that their knees were touching; and me, slumped like a beached whale on one of those clear plastic chairs. If the beached whale had lost fifteen pounds overnight, coated his face in Vaseline and blacked his eyes, and then crawled up onto a beach to end it all.

Looking at me, Bryony Downs curled her lip in disgust.

She’d come in no further than the front door. Her purple puffer coat was unzipped, but she still wore her pom-pomed hat and gloves. With her porcelain doll face, flushed from the cold, she could have been taking a breather from the slopes. Really, everything about her belonged in a catalog for Fair Isle sweaters, or an advertisement for a ski lodge in Aspen. Everything except the fanatical gleam in her eyes.

“Hi, Jamie,” she said brightly. “It’s good to see you.”

If I hadn’t been an hour from death, I would’ve walked right up to her and snapped her neck.

But I was. That was the point.

“Okay, where was I? Before this one’s attempt to prematurely kick the bucket?” She rested against her doorframe, hands in her pockets.

“You were gloating,” Milo offered.

“Yes,” Holmes said, leaning forward. “Do go on, it’s fascinating.” She had that cataloging look to her, with her fingertips pressed together and that line at the bridge of her nose. I noticed, then, that there was a briefcase at Holmes’s feet, a pair of plane tickets resting on it. Bryony’s terms, fulfilled.

Her eyes flicked to the two of them, and then back to me. “I don’t want to bore you,” she said, clearly thinking about her getaway.

“Tell me,” I coughed, in an attempt to stall her. “Dobson. How?”

“Poor thing,” she said. “I’d come over to check your vitals, but I think little Charlotte here might react poorly to my hands on you. A shame. You know, this orthomyxoviridae surrexit nigrum virus doesn’t have a precise countdown clock. It isn’t a bomb. Really, you could croak at any time. So I’ll honor your last wish.” She put a hand to her heart in apparent sincerity. “I’ll do that. Isn’t that how all those stories always end? The hero explaining everything to his hapless confidant? You are a Watson, after all, so let’s stick with tradition.”

Holmes wasn’t listening, it was clear. Her eyes were fixed on Bryony’s boots. Slowly, her hand stole over to her brother’s, and she took it. For comfort, or for another reason, I wasn’t sure. So I clamped my eyes on Bryony, giving her the captivated audience she obviously wanted.

“Lee Dobson. Nasty thing, wasn’t he? One of my first patients back in September, with a mean case of thrush. He had to come in for a follow-up, and I think he thought . . . well, you know. Attractive older woman, lusty young man. He was trying to impress me. Asking all these ‘oblique’ questions about narcotics, opiates. For a friend. They always say it’s for a friend. How does someone react to heroin? As opposed to morphine? To oxycodone? Did they go nonresponsive? At what dosage? How pliable were they? Were they still able to have sex?”

Holmes’s shoulders went stiff, her jaw set. Part of her was listening, after all. Beside her, Milo’s expression was set in a determined blank.

“Oh, I was happy to oblige him and answer his questions. I had no qualms about it. Because how many other students at this school could be depraved enough to do drugs of that caliber? I knew I wasn’t pointing him toward the innocent. Why, yes, I told him, your friend will be euphoric. So happy, so lazy, so unwilling to move. They should be careful, I said. Terrible things can happen to girls when they’re that high. He thanked me profusely. Nearly wrung my hand off. And I had the satisfaction of knowing that I was sending our little whore here exactly the man she’d been asking for.

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