Japan had been freezing, the wind that sliced through its famous
cherry trees scattering flakes of ice in place of spring blossoms.
We had set down there for nearly three weeks, after a peremptory
telegram from its emperor had reached us in Hong Kong; people kept
insisting that the countryside would be lovely in May.
The greatest benefit of those three weeks had been the cessation of
the dreams that had plagued me on the voyage from Bombay. I slept
well--warily at first, then with the slow relaxation of defences.
Whatever their cause, the dreams had gone.
But twelve hours after raising anchor in Tokyo, I was jerked from a
deep sleep by flying objects in my mind.
Three days out from the island nation, the rain stopped and a weak
sun broke intermittently through the grey. The cold meant that most
of the passengers, after venturing out for a brief turn on the
decks, settled in along the windows on the ship's exposed side like
so many somnolent cats. I, however, begged a travelling-rug from
the purser and found a deck-chair out of the wind. There, wrapped
to my chin with a hat tugged down over my close-cropped hair, I
Halfway through the afternoon, Holmes appeared with a cup of hot
coffee. Actually, it was little more than tepid and half the liquid
resided in the saucer; nonetheless, I sat up and disentangled one
arm to receive it, then freed the other arm so that I could pour
the saucer's contents back into the cup. Holmes perched on a nearby
chair, taking out his pipe and tobacco pouch.
"The Captain tells me that we are making good time," he
"I'm glad the storm blew itself out," I replied. "I might actually
be able to face the dinner table tonight." Something about the
angle of the wind the past days had made the perpetual pitch and
toss of the boat even more quease-inducing than usual.
"You haven't eaten anything in three days." Holmes disapproved of
my weak stomach.
"Rice," I objected. "And tea."
"Or slept," he added, snapping his wind-proof lighter into life and
holding it over the bowl of his pipe.
That accusation I did not answer. After a moment, as if to
acknowledge that his comment had not required a response, he went
"Had you thought any more about pausing in Hawaii?"
I stifled a yawn and put my empty cup onto the chair's wide arm,
nestling back into the warmth of the rug. "It's up to you, Holmes.
I'm happy to stop there if you like. How many days would it be
before the next ship?"
"Normally three, but it seems that the following ship has turned
back to Tokyo for repairs, which means we could be marooned there
for a week."
I opened one eye, unable to tell from his voice, still less his
smoke-girt expression, which way his desires leant. "A week is
quite a long diversion," I ventured.
"Particularly if Hawaii has embraced the austerities of
"A half-day would mean a long walk and sit at a table where I don't
have to aim a moving soup spoon at my mouth. Both would be quite
"Then another four days to San Francisco." The pointless,
unnecessary observation was unlike Holmes. Indeed, this entire
conversation was unlike him, I reflected, squinting at him against
the glare. He had his pipe between his teeth, and was concentrating
on rolling up the pouch, so I shut my eyes again.
"Terra firma," I said. "A week in California, tying up
business, and then we can turn for home. By train." I don't get
seasick on trains.
"A week will be sufficient, you believe?"
"To draw up the papers for selling the house and business? More
"And that is what you have decided to do."
This noncommittal, pseudo-Socratic dialogue was beginning to annoy.
"What are you getting at, Holmes?"
"What about them?" I snapped. I should never have told him about
them, although it would have been difficult not to, considering the
closeness of the quarters.
"I should say they indicate a certain degree of anxiety."
"Oh for heaven's sake, Holmes, you sound like Freud. The man had
sex on the brain. 'Rooms in dreams are generally women,' he
declares. 'A dream of going through a series of rooms indicates a
brothel, or a marriage'--I can't imagine what his own marriage
could have been like to equate the two so readily. And the
key--God, you can imagine the fraught symbolism of playing with a
key that lies warm in my pocket! 'Innocent dreams can embody
crudely erotic desires.' The faceless man he'd no doubt equate with
the male organ, and as for the objects that spurt wildly into the
air--well, I'm clearly a sick woman. What does it say about my
'erotic desires' that reading the man's book made me need a hot
bath? Or perhaps a cold shower-bath."
"You sound as if you've researched this rather thoroughly."
"Yes, well, I found a copy of his Interpretation of Dreams in the
ship's library," I admitted, then realised that I was also
admitting to a greater degree of preoccupation than I thought
sensible. To lead him away from the admission, I said, "I wouldn't
have thought that you of all people would fall for the Freud craze,
His face darkened as he came close to responding to my diversion,
then he caught himself, and counterattacked with a deceptively
mild, "A knowledge of psycho-logical jargon is hardly necessary
when confronted with such an unambiguous statement such as that
contained in those dreams of yours."
"What do you mean, unambiguous?" I protested furiously, and too
late realised that I had stepped into his own diversion with both
"San Francisco's earthquake, which sent things flying about, is
clearly the paradigm for the first dream. And the locked rooms may
represent your family's house, which has stood empty for ten years
while you pretended it wasn't there."
"A house is more often symbolic of the self," I told him, although
I did not know why I wanted to argue.
"True, although a house may also be simply a house."
I threw off the rug so as to face him unencumbered. "Holmes, you're
mad. I've only owned the place for three years, since I turned
twenty-one, and I've been rather too busy to travel halfway across
the world to take care of things. As for your earthquake fantasy, I
wasn't even here in 1906. And what about the faceless man dream,
"There is as yet insufficient data to identify him," he said, not
in the least troubled by my words.
I drew breath to argue with him, but in the event, I couldn't be
bothered. I rose with dignity, and said merely, "If you imagine we
shall have time to uncover the relevant data in San Francisco, you
are mistaken. We will be there only long enough for me to sign
papers, then catch the train for New York."
Tucking the rug under my arm, I left him to his pipe.
He did not bring it up again, and neither did I, although over the
following days I often felt his eyes upon me, and knew that at
night he too lay awake, waiting for me to speak. But I did not, and
he did not, and thus we traversed the Pacific. Between the dreams
themselves and lying awake in dread, I scarcely slept, and began to
feel as if I was walking in a wrap of cotton gauze.
Hawaii was a pleasant interlude, although the wind blew and the
wide beaches were nearly deserted. We walked for hours, and I even
managed to eat something, but that night I slept no better.
The following evening I wandered about the ship, up and down the
various decks (trying to ignore the Freudian overtones of entering
enclosed stairways) until I found myself at the furthest point of
the ship, after which there was only water. The wind had stopped
that morning, leaving the smoke from the stacks to trail straight
back along the various layers of deck, which created a series of
solitary if insalubrious places for meditation. I was on the last
of those decks, with only a railing between me and the
And there I meditated, about the dreams and what Holmes had
Clearly, I thought, the damage we had seen in Japan, with Tokyo
still recovering from the previous year's devastating earthquake,
had set the literalist idea of shaken objects into his mind. I was
not worried about the possibility he had suggested; no, despite my
words, it was the niggling fear that Freud might be right.
Since leaving England in January, we had marked the ten-year
anniversary of our meeting and the third year of marriage. I was
content in ways I had not thought possible, well matched mentally
and--despite the difference in our ages, despite the regular clash
of our personalities, and despite the leering innuendo of Sigmund
Freud--well suited physically, to a man who interested my
intellect, challenged my spirit, and roused my passions.
So, no: Psychology be damned--the dreams weren't about my
Yet there they were, keeping me exhausted and irritable and
searching out a piece of quiet if smoke-covered deck where I could
stand by myself and stare down at the endless sea.
The water stretched out as far as the eye could see in an expanse
of gentle grey-blue swells broken only by the occasional
white-capped wavelet and the line of the ship's passage, unrolling
die-straight behind us until it faded into the glare of sun on the
western horizon. Directly below where I stood, dominating my vision
if I leant my upper body over the rail, the churn of the great
screws dug an indentation in the surface, followed by a rise just
behind. Like the earth from a farmer's plough, I thought dreamily,
cutting a straight furrow across three thousand miles of sea. And
when the ship reached the end of its watery field, it would turn
and begin the next furrow, heading east; and after reaching that
far shore it would shift again, ploughing west. Back and forth, to
and fro, and all the while, beneath the surface the marine
equivalents of earthworms and moles would be going busily about
their work, oblivious of the other world above their heads. The
farmer, the ship, above; the insect, the fish, below. So peaceful.
Peacefully sleeping, while occasionally a seed would fall and take
root in the freshly split furrow . . .
"Russell!" Holmes exclaimed, and the sharp voice and his sudden
hand on my arm snatched me awake and sent my hat flying. I grabbed
at it, but too late; the scrap of felt sailed out behind the ship,
floating on the air for a long time until eventually it planted
itself into the brine furrow. I turned to my husband.
"Why did you have to startle me like that?" I complained. "That was
my last warm hat."
"Easier to purchase another hat than to fish you out of the sea,"
he said. "You were on the edge of going over."
"Don't be ridiculous, Holmes, I was just watching the patterns made
by the propellers. What did you want, anyway?"
"The first bell for dinner went a bit ago. When you didn't come to
dress I thought perhaps you hadn't heard it. And when I came down
the stairs, it appeared as though you were trying to throw yourself
His laconic words bore just the slightest edge of true concern, as
if a question lay behind them. I reached up to adjust my hair-pins,
only to find them gone--weeks after chopping off my thick,
waist-length hair (a necessary element of disguising myself as a
British officer) my hand was still startled to find the weight of
it missing from my head. Spreading my fingers instead to run them
through the brief crop, I glanced back at the straight path laid
out behind us, and felt a shudder play up my spine. Perhaps I
shouldn't lean over any more rails while I was as tired as this, I
told myself, and allowed Holmes to thread my hand through his arm
and lead me back towards our cabins.
I picked at my meal, making no more response to the conversations
around me than would a stone statue. Afterwards we listened to the
ship's string quartet render a competent selection of Beethoven,
and took a turn around the decks, Holmes chatting, me unresponsive.
Eventually we took ourselves to bed, for another night's broken
The next morning the mirror showed a woman with stains beneath her
eyes. Holmes had already risen, and I dressed slowly, drank several
cups of strong coffee, and took a book up onto the sun-drenched
deck. The pages, however, made no more sense than the conversations
of the night before, and eventually I merely sat, staring at the
almost imperceptible horizon of sky and sea.
After some time I became aware that Holmes had settled into the
adjoining chair. My gaze came reluctantly back from the distance
and settled onto the bit of brightness he held in his hand. It was,
I decided, the silken scarf he had purchased in a bazaar on the
first leg of our voyage out from England, a garish item perhaps
useful for one of his gipsy disguises. He held it in his hands as
if its bright dye bore a hidden message; it was his focussed
concentration that finally caught my attention.
"What is that, Holmes?"
"The length of silk we bought in Aden. I thought to use it as an
aide-memoire, to bring back the details of that curious
afternoon. The whole affair puzzles me still."
Recalling the events of Aden was something of a wrench, since so
much had taken place in the intervening months--weeks in India
tracking down a missing spy and jousting with a mad maharaja,
followed by the better part of a month in Japan with all the
complexity of events there, interspersed by the dream-plagued weeks
at sea. Granted, we had nearly been killed in the Aden bazaar by a
balcony falling on our heads, but near-death experiences were no
rarity in my life with Holmes. I had in the end dismissed it as a
curious series of events that might have had tragic consequences,
and fortunately had not. Clearly, Holmes was not of the same
"It had to have been an accident, Holmes," I objected. "The balcony
fell because the bolts were old, not because someone tried to pull
it down on our heads."
"So I tell myself."
"But yourself will not listen."
"A lifetime's habit of self-preservation leaves one disinclined to
accept the idea of coincidence."
"Holmes, one event does not a coincidence make."
"But two oddities catch at the mind."
"The fallen balcony, and the ship's passenger who enquired about
us, then disembarked. In Aden." He raised an eyebrow at me to
underscore the importance of that last.
"The ship's . . . Oh, yes, Thomas Goodheart's little story. A
Southerner, didn't he say?" Tommy Goodheart, American aristocrat
and occasional Bolshevik, had led us a merry chase across India
over the course of January and February. Deep in a tunnel beneath a
hill palace, with the maharaja's guards close on our heels, Tommy
happened to mention that a female passenger on board our ship, a
passenger who mysteriously disembarked in Aden, had been talking to
him about Sherlock Holmes. Later, in a spymaster's office one
sultry afternoon in Delhi, Holmes had pressed the young man for
further details, but there were few to be had.
"From Savannah, or so she'd claimed. It might be noted that the
accents of the American South are among the easiest to
"Holmes," I chided, "don't you find it difficult to mistrust that
the sun will rise in the east come morning?"
"Not in the least. I am more than willing to operate under the
hypothesis that past experience will continue to provide the
paradigm for Nature's functions. Although I do not believe that
witnessing the sun rising in the west would cause my heart to
"Glad to hear it."
"Watching my wife go over the rail of a ship, however, might have
done the job."
"I was only --- "
"You were three degrees from overbalancing." His hard voice brooked
no argument, and although that in itself would not normally have
prevented me from arguing, at the moment all I could think of was
my inadvertent shudder at the alluring smoothness of the ship's
When I did not answer, he sighed. "Russell, clearly something is
tormenting your mind. And while I firmly believe that all persons
should be allowed to wrestle with their own demons, it is
nonetheless possible that two minds working in tandem on the
problem might have more effect than one tired mind on its
"Yes, very well," I snapped. I set my feet onto the deck, then
spent some time studying my hands while the words arranged
themselves in my mind. "When I suggested that after Bombay we
should go to San Francisco, it seemed a logical idea. My business
in California is best served by my presence, and . . . Well, I
thought it a means of saying my farewells, which I was in no
condition to do when I left ten years ago. But I am finding that
the nearer we get, the more I wish we'd just turned for home. I . .
. I find I am dreading the entire thing."
"Of course you are," he said. "It is quite natural that you do not
wish to go to San Francisco."
"What do you mean?" I protested, stung. "It's taken me days to
admit to myself that I was wrong, yet you claim to have known all
"I do not say you are wrong, merely that you are torn. Russell, the
moment we turned for California you became irritable, insomniac,
restless, and without appetite. When we paused in Japan, your
troubles were suspended --- you slept, ate, and concentrated as you
normally do --- but when we resumed our easterly progress, they
began again. What else could it be? Some curious aversion to the
ship itself? I think that unlikely."
I could only stare at him, openmouthed, until his face twisted in a
moue of impatience. "Russell, we are sailing on a straight path for
the place that holds the most troubling memories of your childhood.
It is only natural that you feel concern about seeing the place
that burned to the ground when you were six --- yes, yes, you
weren't there, but even if you were not present you would have been
told about it, over and over. Furthermore, it is the place where,
at the age of fourteen, you experienced the horrendous crash that
killed your mother, your father, your brother, and nearly you. It
would be decidedly odd if you were not fearful. What concerns me is
that your degree of apprehension seems excessive. Those dreams,
whatever their message, clearly spring from powerful roots."
"But these dreams have nothing to do with the accident. They're
nothing like the Dream I used to have when I was a child --- the
one I told you about. There's no motorcar, no family. No fire or
explosion, no road or cliffs. Not the same at all."
He thrust the scrap of orange into one pocket, then drew his pipe
from another and started packing tobacco into its bowl. As he
rolled the top of the pouch shut, he remarked, "This faceless man
of the second dream. He seems to alarm but not threaten."
"That's a fair description, yes."
"He does not reach for you, or harm you in any way?"
"He just appears, says 'Don't be frightened, young lady,' and
He paused with the brass lighter halfway to the bowl, and two sharp
grey eyes locked on to me. "Young lady, or little
"Young --- No, you're right, it's little girl. How did
you know that?"
"That was the phrase you used the first time you told me."
"Well, it scarcely matters."
"I shouldn't assume that," replied my husband, in his customary
irritatingly enigmatic style, and concentrated on getting the
tobacco burning. When he had done so, he let out a fragrant cloud
and sat back, his legs stretched out before him. "What do you
suppose it means by his being faceless? Is it literal, or is
something obscuring his features --- a mask of some kind, perhaps,
or heavy makeup?"
I gazed out over the sea for a minute. "I just think of him as
faceless, but it could be a white mask, or bandages, or as you say,
heavy makeup. Like those dancers we saw in Japan, only without the
features accentuated. He's just . . . faceless." It was
frustrating, trying to grasp a thing so firmly lodged in the dim
recesses of the mind.
"And he appears in a white room."
"Tell me about the room."
"It's brightly lit, windowless, and crowded with an odd assortment
of furnishings." I had already decided that this room was a place
of importance to my subconscious mind, which had furnished it with
elements from all the sides of my life. An almost mythic place, as
it were, a sort of Platonic cave.
"But not the same as the locked rooms of the third dream."
"Oh, no, nothing like. Those are dim and solid, this is bright and,
I don't know, soft somehow." Womblike, I thought --- other than the
"Ah," he said, and bit down on his pipe-stem with an air I knew
well: The case was coming together in his mind.
For some reason, that gesture made me uneasy; I got to my feet to
walk over to the railing, looking down at the lower decks, refusing
to rise to his bait.
"It's a tent," he said after a minute.
"From my childhood? Not very likely, Holmes --- my mother wouldn't
have been caught dead tenting. We did have a summer house, south of
San Francisco, and although we left the servants behind when we
went there, it was a far cry from roughing it."
"Not a holiday. Following the earthquake and fire, the parks of
Francisco were covered with the canvas tents of refugees."
"I told you, I wasn't there during the earthquake."
"So where were you?"
"I don't remember --- I was six years old, for heaven's sake, and
we moved around. England, most likely. Or Boston. Not in San
"You were born in London, and lived in California fourteen years
later; were you not resident in between?"
"On and off. Not the whole time," I said, far more decisively than
I felt. Did anyone pay much attention to memories of childhood?
Personally, I rarely thought about them.
"Where did you live when you were six years old, Russell?" he asked
"Oh, Holmes, leave it, do."
God, was the man out to drive me mad? "Boston, I think."
"Do you recall the house?"
"Yes," I said triumphantly, and turned to face him, my chin high.
"A large brick mansion with a portico, a pianoforte in the parlour,
and a stained-glass window over the stairway landing that used to
cast its colours on the walls."
"Your house, or that of your grandparents?"
"Ours, of course." But the moment I said this, the stairway in
memory became populated with a number of small white dogs, their
fluffy bodies spattered magically with blue and red from the
window. My grandmother's dogs.
No: I must have seen that when Grandmother came to visit.
Bringing her dogs with her? Reluctantly, I prodded at the memory,
trying to locate a bedroom or nursery I could call my own; all I
came up with was an uncomfortable trundle bed in a room that smelt
Damnation. Why couldn't I remember such a simple thing?
My fingernails located a rough place on the wooden railing, and
began to worry at it. "Honestly, Holmes? I don't know."
"Russell, I propose that in all likelihood you were, in fact, in
San Francisco during the earthquake. That would explain the flying
objects in the first dream, don't you think? And the soft white
walls of the crowded room, a tent full of odds and ends rescued
from a damaged or burning house."
"Damn it, Holmes, I was not there! Why are you so insistent that I
"Why are you so insistent that you were not? Russell, you never
speak of your childhood, do you realise that?"
"Neither do you."
"Precisely. Happy childhoods nurture memories; uncomfortable events
cause the mind to wince away."
A splinter came abruptly up from the railing and drove itself into
my finger. With a stifled oath, I sucked at the offending digit and
shouted furiously around it, "I had a happy childhood!"
"Certainly you did," he retorted drily. "That is why you speak of
it so freely."
"Later events made the memories painful."
"Russell, where did you live in 1906?"
"I'm going to go find a plaster for this finger," I told him, and
went down the stairway at something close to a run.
I had a happy childhood.
I did not live in California during the quake.
And I did not intend to linger in San Francisco long enough
to dig over what sparse portions of my past lay there.
It is a characteristic difficulty of shipboard life that one cannot
escape an interrogator or a boor for long. It is particularly true
when one is sharing rooms with one's interrogator.
So it was that the next morning, Holmes knew as well as I did that
the dreams had not plagued me during the night. I did dream of the
locked rooms, but for the first time since we had left Japan, the
flying objects nightmare did not arrive to jerk me gasping from my
The other two dreams persisted. The faceless man had returned,
although he had stood clearly outlined in the doorway of a tent,
and had not spoken. Still, his presence had not been as troublesome
as before. Instead, that night and the following, the enigmatic
concealed rooms became the focus for my sleeping mind, dimmer yet
ever more sumptuously laid beneath the dust of disuse.
Had I been in the city as a child of six? Had I felt the
earth leap and split, watched half the city go up in flames in the
worst fire America had ever seen? The disappearance of the first
dream forced me to consider the possibility that Holmes was right,
for it seemed almost as if, by naming the demon, he had stolen its
Later in the afternoon of our last full day at sea, another image
came to me that confirmed Holmes' interpretation beyond a
The day was warm and bright and, passing under the ship's white
canvas sun awnings, I was suddenly visited by a vision of my
mother, wearing men's trousers, a ridiculous wide-brimmed straw hat
with an enormous orange silk flower, and a delicious, self-mocking
grin. She was turning from an open fire with a cast-iron skillet in
one hand, a large spoon in the other, the bright canvas of an Army
tent behind her; for a moment it was as if a door had been thrown
open, permitting me, along with that tantalising glimpse, all the
sensations the room-dream held: a thud of heavy sound beneath the
crisp noise of breaking glass, a sharp thrill of terror, the feel
of arms wrapping around me, and over it all an angry red haze. Then
the door slammed shut, and I stood motionless for a long time,
until a child ran past and broke my reverie.
It was, I knew without question, real. For that brief glimpse of
recovered memory, I could forgive Holmes any degree of meddling. I
could even admit to him that he was right: I had been in San
Francisco during the earthquake, a child of six.
Why, however, had I pushed away all memory of the event?
We came at last to my childhood home, the West's biggest, youngest
city, which spread over the end of a peninsula between ocean and
bay. Eighty years ago, a ship coming through the Golden Gate would
have seen nothing but a handful of Indian shacks clustered around a
crumbling mission. Then, in 1848, John Marshall picked up a
gleaming lump of yellow metal from a creek near Sutter's Mill, and
the world came pouring in.
I had relatives in that first wave, victims of gold fever who
worked claims, made fortunes, and lost them again. I had other
relatives who joined the second wave of those who supplied and
serviced the miners; their fortunes were more slowly made, and not
as quickly lost. But unlike the others who now reigned supreme in
the state of California, my grandfather had clung to his East Coast
roots: Although he had built a house in San Francisco, it had been
on Pacific Heights, keeping its distance from the showy Nob Hill
mansions of Hopkins and Stanford; and although he had kept his
holdings and remained a financial power on the West Coast, he had
also bowed to his wife's demands that they return to the civilised
world of Boston to raise their children, and thus loosed his hold
on Californian political authority.
Still, my restless iconoclast of a father had claimed San Francisco
as his home, declaring his independence by settling his
Jewish-English wife in the family house there, and taking control
of the family's California business interests. My father loved
California, that much I knew, and I remembered him speaking of San
Francisco as The City, a phrase that from my mother's lips meant
London. I remembered almost nothing about the place itself, but I
looked forward to making The City's acquaintance before I turned my
back on her for good.
Thus it was that on a morning in late April, seventy-five years
after the gold rush began, I stood on the deck and saw the Gate
that had welcomed my father's people, smooth hills bracketing the
entrance to the bay --- green now following the winter rains, but
golden in summer's long drought. Stern gun placements protruded
from the hills on either side, but as we entered the Golden Gate
and followed the curve of the land to our right, the white-walled
city that carpeted a dozen or more hills came into view, its myriad
piers and docks stretching long fingers out into the bay.
Our pilot took us in to one gleaming set of buildings not far from
the terminal where ferries bustled in and out. We eased slowly in,
coming to rest with a barely perceptible judder; ropes were cast
and tied; the crowds on board and on land pressed towards each
other impatiently, while behind them rough stevedores lounged among
the lorries and heavy wagons, smoking and making conversation. The
first officials started up the board walkway; as if their uniforms
made for a signal, the passengers turned and scurried for their
Holmes and I waited until the crowd had thinned, then went below to
gather our hand luggage and present ourselves for collection.
The only hitch was, no one appeared to be interested in our
presence. We sat in the emptying dining room where the purser had
told us we might wait, Holmes smoking cigarettes, both of us
watching out the windows as the disembarking passengers went from a
torrent to a stream to stragglers. I glanced at my wristwatch for
the twentieth time, and shook my head.
"It's been nearly an hour, Holmes. Shall we just make our own
Wordlessly, he crushed his cigarette out in the overflowing tray,
picked up his Gladstone bag, and paused, looking out of the
"This may be your gentleman," he noted. I followed his gaze and saw
a portly, tweed-clad, sandy-haired gentleman in his thirties
working his way against the flow of porters down the gangway. Sure
enough, he paused at the top to make frantic enquiries of the
purser, who directed him towards our door. A moment later he burst
into the room, red-faced and breathless, his hat clutched in his
left hand as his right was extended in our direction.
"Miss Russell? Oh, I am so terribly sorry at the delay --- the boy
I sent to watch for the ship's docking appears to have a girlfriend
in the vicinity, and he became distracted. Why didn't you have
someone 'phone me? Have your bags been taken off? Hello," he
inserted, his hand pumping mine, then moving to Holmes. "Good
afternoon, Mr. Holmes. So good to meet you. Henry Norbert, at your
service. Welcome to San Francisco. And to you, Miss Russell,
Come, let's get you off the ship and to your hotel." He clapped his
soft hat back onto his head, scooped up my bag, and urged us with
his free hand in the direction of the doors.
"Why an hotel?" I asked. "Surely we can stay at the house?"
Norbert stopped and removed the hat from his head again. "Oh. Oh,
no, no, I wouldn't think that's a good idea. No, you'd be much more
comfortable at a hotel. I've made reservations for you at the St
Francis. Right downtown, just around the corner from the
"Is there something wrong with the house?"
The hat, which had been rising in the direction of the sandy head,
descended again. "No, no, it's still standing strong, no trouble
there. But of course, it's not terribly habitable after all these
I opened my mouth to protest that he'd been told to get it ready
for us, then decided there was little point: Clearly, I should have
to see for myself, and decide if the house was in fact
uninhabitable, or simply uncomfortable after ten years of standing
empty. Probably hadn't had the dust-cloths cleared away. I closed
my mouth again, Mr Norbert's hat resumed its head, and we allowed
ourselves to be herded gently from the ship and into a gleaming
saloon car that idled at the kerb.
Eighteen years ago, I reflected as we drove --- almost exactly
eighteen years ago --- this city had been reduced literally to its
very foundations. There was no sign of that catastrophe now. The
busy docks gave way to a land of high buildings and black suits,
then to the commercial centre. We passed between shop windows
bright with spring frocks and alongside a square that had patches
of spring flowers around a high pillar with some sort of winged
statue at the top. Then the motor turned again, dodged the rumbling
box of a cable-car, and drifted to a halt before a dignified
entranceway. Liveried men and boys relieved us of our burdens, and
we followed Mr Norbert through the polished doors to the
The equally polished gentleman behind the desk greeted us by name,
with professional camaraderie, as if we were longtime guests
instead of newcomers known only through our local escort. Another,
even more dignified, man lingered in the background, casting a
gimlet eye on the desk man's efficiency. While Holmes signed the
register, I asked Mr. Norbert if his office had received any
messages for me.
"Hah!" he exclaimed, and dug into the breast pocket of his suit for
a thick packet of letters. "Good thing you asked, I'd have had to
come back across town with them when I got home."
I flipped through them --- three from Mrs. Hudson, Holmes' longtime
housekeeper although more of an aunt to me, several from various
friends that she had sent on for us, a post-card from Dr. Watson
showing Paris. Norbert noticed the disappointment on my face.
"Were you expecting something else?" he asked.
"I was, rather. It must have been delayed."
Back in Japan I had decided that the one person I wished to see
San Francisco was Dr Leah Ginzberg, the psychiatrist who had cared
for me after the accident, in whose offices I had laboriously begun
to piece together my life. I had written to tell her that I was
going to be passing through the city, and asked her to write care
of Mr. Norbert.
Perhaps the mail from Japan was unreliable.
"Well, I'll certainly have my secretary check again," he said.
"Perhaps it'll come in the afternoon delivery. Now, I'll have most
of your paperwork together in the morning; if you'd like to come to
the offices first thing, we could have a look."
"I could come now, if that's convenient."
"Oh," Norbert said, "it's not, I'm afraid. There were some problems
with the records of the water company shares, I had to send them
back for clarification. But they promised to have them brought to
me no later than nine in the morning. Shall we say
There did not seem to be much of a choice. I told him I'd see him
at half past nine the following morning, and he shook our hands and
Holmes had finished and was waiting for me, but before we could
follow the boy with the keys, the dignified man who had been
lingering in the background eased himself forward and held out his
hand. "Miss Russell? My name is Auberon. I'm the manager of the
Francis. I just wanted to add my own personal welcome. I knew your
father, not well, but enough to respect him deeply. I was sad to
hear of the tragedy, and I am glad to see you here at last. If
there's anything I can do, you need only ask."
"Why, thank you," I said in astonishment. Holmes had to touch my
arm to get me moving in the direction of the lifts.
In our rooms, while Holmes threw himself onto the sofa and began
ripping open letters, I stood and studied the neatly arranged bags
and realised that, between the hasty packing of our January
departure from England and a most haphazard assortment of additions
in the months since then, there was little in those bags that would
impress a set of lawyers and business managers as to the solidity
and competence of the heiress whose business they had maintained
all these years. To say nothing of the long miles that lay between
here and the final ship out of New York. I did have a couple of
gorgeous kimonos and an assortment of dazzling Indian costumes, but
my Western garments were suitable for English winters and two years
out of date, which even here might be noticed. I wasn't even
certain the trunk contained a pair of stockings that hadn't been
"Oh, what I could do with that Simla tailor of Nesbit's," I
muttered, interrupting my partner's sporadic recital of the news
"Sorry?" said Holmes, looking up from his page.
"I was just thinking how nice it would be if women could get by
with three suits and an evening wear. I'm going to have to go out
to the shops."
"Sorry," he said again, this time intoned with sympathy rather than
I gathered my gloves and straw hat, then checked my wrist-watch.
"I'll be back in a couple of hours, and we can have a cup of tea.
Anything I can get you?"
"Those handkerchiefs I got in Japan were quite nice, but the socks
are not really adequate. If you see any, I could use half a dozen
"Right you are."
Down at the concierge's desk, I asked about likely shops, receiving
in response more details than I needed. I thanked the gentleman,
"May I have a piece of paper and an envelope?" I asked. "I ought to
send a note."
I was led across the lobby to a shrine of the epistolary arts,
where pen, stationery, and desk lay waiting for my attentions. I
scribbled a brief message to Dr. Ginzberg, explaining that an
earlier letter appeared to have gone astray, but that I hoped very
much to see her in the brief time I would be in San Francisco. I
gave her both the hotel address and that of the law offices for her
response, signed it "affectionately yours," then wrote on the
envelope the address I still knew by heart and handed it to the
desk for posting.
The doorman welcomed me out into a perfectly lovely spring
afternoon. Far too nice to be spent wrangling with shopkeepers, but
there was no help for it --- no bespoke tailor could produce
something by nine-thirty tomorrow morning. Grimly, I turned to the
indicated set of display windows on the other side of the flowered
square and entered the emporium.
An hour later, I was the richer by three dignified outfits with
hats to match, two pairs of shoes, ten of silk stockings, and six
of men's woollen socks. I arranged to have everything delivered to
the St. Francis and left the shop, intending to continue down the
street to another, more exclusive place mentioned by the concierge
for dresses that did not come off a rack. But the sun was so
delicious on my face, the gritty pavement so blessedly motionless
underfoot, that I decided a brief walk through the flowered square
would be in order.
Union Square was full of other citizens enjoying the sunshine. The
benches were well used, the paths busy with strolling shoppers and
businessmen taking detours. Few children, I noted --- and then a
sound reached me, and my mind ceased to turn smoothly for a
A rhythmic clang, a rumble of heavy iron wheels, the slap and whir
of the underground cable: That most distinctive of San Francisco
entities, a cable-car, rumbled up Powell Street, its warning bell
ringing merrily as it neared Post.
The combined noises acted like the trigger phrase of a hypnotist: I
dropped into a sort of trance, staring at the bright, boxy vehicle
as it passed. It paused to take on a passenger, then grabbed its
ever-moving underground cable again to resume its implacable way
down the centre of the street towards the heights. Before it had
disappeared entirely, a passer-by brushed past me, waking me from
the dream world. I turned away from the tracks and began walking
fast, head down, crossing the flower-bedecked square and fleeing up
streets with whichever crowd carried me along.
I was dimly aware of changes: the standard odours of a downtown
shopping district --- petrol, perfume, perspiration --- gave way to
more exotic fragrances, chillies and sesame oil, roasting duck and
Then a splash of colour caught my eye, and I raised my head to look
around me. A row of bright paper lamps danced in the spring breeze,
strung between two equally colourful buildings. The streets were
oddly discordant, strongly remembered yet utterly foreign, as if
I'd known the idea of the place, but not the reality. I walked on,
but after a while the streets changed again. The air became
redolent of garlic, tomato sauce, and coffee. In a short time,
those smells faded beneath the air of a waterfront, and suddenly I
had run out of land.
I stood on the edge of a wide, curving roadway fronting a row of
piers that bustled with machines and men, loading and unloading
ships from a dozen countries. Wagons and lorries came and went, few
business suits appeared, and the air smelt only of sea and
Reassuringly like London, in fact.
After a while I began to walk along the waterfront road, turning
towards the western sun. It felt good on my face, as the unmoving
ground felt good beneath my feet, and the muscles of my legs took
pleasure in the fact that they could stride out without having to
turn and retrace their steps every couple of minutes. The
claustrophobic air of shipboard life slowly emptied from my lungs,
and I thought, maybe it actually was some "curious aversion to
the ship itself" that had inflicted the insomnia on me. That
and lack of exercise.
I stopped to watch some fishermen at work, all high boots and loud
voices, repairing holes in their nets while wearing sweaters more
hole than wool. The fresh, powerful smell of fish and crab rose up
all around me, to fade as I continued on. An Army post intruded
between me and the water for a time, then allowed me back, and with
the water before me, a dark round mountain rising from the northern
shore and the island of Alcatraz before me, I stretched out my arms
in the late sun, half inclined to shout my pleasure aloud, feeling
a smile on my face. I turned to survey the rising city --- and it
was only then I noticed the length of the shadows the buildings
"Damn," I said aloud instead: I'd told Holmes I'd be back for
I crossed the waterfront road to re-enter the city, and in a couple
of streets I spotted a sign announcing public telephones. At least
three languages mingled in the small room, an appropriate
accompaniment to the Indian, English, and Japanese coins I sorted
through in my purse. At last I found some money the girl would
accept and placed a call to the St. Francis. Holmes did not answer,
nor had he left a message for me, so I left one for him instead and
walked out of the telephone office nursing a small glow of
righteousness: Had I been at the hotel at the declared time, I told
myself, I'd only have been cooling my heels waiting for him to
return from heaven knows where.
I continued south, which I knew was the general direction of
downtown --- it is difficult to become seriously lost in a city
with water on three sides. And I was beginning to take note of my
surroundings again, raising my eyes from the pavement to look
around me. This was a more heavily residential area, the houses
both older and larger than they had been in the area I had fled
through, the residents less strikingly regional. As the ground
rose, steeply now in a delicious challenge to my leg muscles, the
houses began to retreat from the public gaze behind solid walls and
gated drives. Street noises diminished with the loss of restaurants
and shops, the trees grew taller and more thickly green, and the
paving stones underfoot were more even although the number of
pedestrians was markedly reduced.
The hilltop enclave might have had a moat around it and signs
saying Important Persons Only. From here, the bank manager's
driver could take his employer to the financial district and easily
return in time to run the man's wife to her luncheon date downtown.
There was no risk of roving gangs of boisterous children here, or
late-night revellers walking noisily past by way of a short-cut
Even the air smelt of money, I thought, crisp and clean.
I looked up smiling at the house opposite, an unassuming brick
edifice of two tall stories, and nearly fell on my face over my
suddenly unresponsive feet.
I saw: snippets of red-brick wall and once-white trim set well back
from the street, now nearly obscured by a wildly overgrown vine and
an equally undisciplined jungle of a garden; a grey stone garden
wall separating jungle from pavement, in want of repointing and
somehow shorter than it should be; one set of ornate iron gates
sagging across the drive and a smaller pedestrian entrance further
along the wall, both gates looped through with heavy chains and
solid padlocks; the chain on the walkway gate, which for lack of
other fastening had been welded directly onto the strike-plate ---
the very strike-plate that had reached out to gash open my little
brother's scalp when he had tripped while running through it.
There was no mistaking the shape of the house: My feet had led me
I don't know how long I stood there in the fading light, gawping at
the house. I do know that it was nearly dark when a hand on my
shoulder sent me leaping out of my skin in shock
I whirled and found myself face-to-face with a tall, thin,
grey-haired gentleman with sharp features and sharper grey eyes. I
expelled the breath from my lungs and let my defensive hand fall
back to my side
"Holmes, for goodness' sake, do give a person some warning."
"Russell, I've been standing behind you clearing my throat noisily
for several minutes now. You appeared distracted."
"You might say that," I said grimly
"Am I to assume this is your family's house?"
I turned back to look at what was gradually becoming little more
than a blocky outline against the sky. "I couldn't have told you
for the life of me where it was, but my feet knew. I looked up and
there it was."
"Do you wish to go in?"
"I don't have a key," I said absently, then caught myself. "Not
that the lack of a key would stop you. But frankly, I don't think
your lockpicks would do much good against the rust on those
"The wall, however, is easily scaled. Shall we?" So saying, he bent
and hooked his hands together to receive my foot. I eyed the top of
the stones, which indeed were scarcely five feet tall, although my
memory of them was high --- my childhood memory, I reminded myself.
The wall was not set with glass or wire, and certainly there would
be no watch dog in that jungly front garden
I set the toe of my shoe into Holmes' hands, braced my hands on his
shoulder and the wall, and scrambled over the top with stockings
more or less intact. He followed a moment later, brushing invisible
dust from his trousers
The walkway was buried under a knee-high thicket of weeds; five
feet from the gate, the path disappeared entirely behind the press
of branches from the shrubs on either side. Still, the drive was
open, and we sidled along the wall until we reached it, then picked
our way up the weed-buckled cobbles to the house
The street-lamps had come on, but so thick was the vegetation,
their light made it to the house's façade in fits and starts,
allowing us a glimpse of downspout here, a patch of peeling trim
there, the lining on a set of drapes through a grimy downstairs
We followed, initially at any rate, the path of least resistance,
and continued along the drive that ran down the side of the house.
The windows here were similarly closed and uninformative, the
once-trim roses that followed the wall between our house and the
neighbours (the…Ramseys?) a thicket that reached thorny claws
out to our clothing
At the back of the house, the drive continued to a carriage house
where my father had kept his motorcars. Holmes went on, standing on
his toes to peer through the high windows, then came away
"Nothing there," he said, but of course there was nothing inside;
my father's last motor had gone off a cliff and exploded in a
freshly filled tank of petrol
We stood looking at the impenetrable garden in back of the
"Do you want to push through that?" I asked him
"As there's no particular urgency, perhaps we ought to play
Livingstone-in-blackest-Africa rôle when we've had a chance to
don thorn-proof outer garments."
"And snake-proof boots," I added. As we turned back towards the
front, I shook my head in disgust. "The garden must have received
some rudimentary attention, but it doesn't appear as if anyone has
been inside the house for years. I thought there was an arrangement
to keep the place up."
"I'd have thought it desirable, from a property manager's point of
view. Undoubtedly your Mr Norbert will know why."
"He's got some explaining to do; no house should be allowed to get
into this condition. It's a wonder the neighbours haven't
"Perhaps they have," Holmes commented --- but not, as I first
thought, about the shocking condition of the paint. A motorcar had
pulled up in front of the gate, and now I heard two doors slam shut
as a pair of powerful torches probed the drive
"You there," shouted a voice whose tones would carry the same
authority the world around. "Come out here at once."
"The constabulary have arrived," Holmes said unnecessarily, and
together we moved to obey the command
Our dress, our demeanour, and our accents soon had the torch-light
diverted from our faces into a kinder illumination, and our claim
to be the house's concerned but keyless owners was not instantly
discounted. One of the policemen even came up with an orange crate
from somewhere, so I could climb with dignity back over the fence.
The last shred of suspicion fluttered away after we had been taken
to the hotel and been recognised by the doorman. We thanked the two
policemen for their concern over the property, and then I put to
them the question that Holmes had raised mere moments before they
"Before you go, may I ask? Which of the neighbours reported our
presence? I'd like to thank them for their concern, don't you
The two burly men looked at each other; the older one
"It's the old dame across the street. She's kinda taken the house
under her wing --- 'phones the station every so often to have us
chase kids out before they can get into mischief."
"I do understand. Sleepless old lady with nothing better to do.
She'll be disappointed we weren't stealing the doorknobs."
The two laughed and took their bulky blue selves away. Holmes
I made for the dining room, for our long-delayed meal. As we passed
through the ornate foyer, it occurred to me that it was no longer
necessary to search out a looking glass to straighten hair mussed
by the hours out-of-doors. A benefit of my new, if inadvertent,
hairstyle --- Holmes loathed it, but I was not altogether certain
that I did
To our surprise, we were offered --- quietly --- wine with our
dinner. It was local, but unexpectedly good, and although my
appetite had yet to return, Holmes consumed his meal with approval.
After our coffee, we went back outside for a turn under the lamps
of Union Square
"Holmes, I take it you followed me all this afternoon."
He was expecting the question, or rather, the question behind it,
because he answered without hesitation. "I am concerned about the
effect that coming to this place is having on you, yes."
My hand slipped away from his arm. "You were worried about
"Not worried, simply curious to see where you would go. I thought
it possible that, as one of your beloved psychological types might
say, your sub-conscious would direct your steps."
"Indeed." A few more paces, and my hand went back through his arm.
"Holmes, I honestly don't know what to make of it. I remember this
city, and yet I do not. Before I found the house, I'd have sworn I
didn't even know what part of the city it was in. How can that
"I believe," he said after a moment, "that the process of
discovering your ties to the place is one of the reasons we are
We finished our walk in silence, and went up to our rooms. The bed
was soft and had the novelty of standing on an unmoving floor, and
to my surprise and relief, the night passed in blessed
I was at Mr Norbert's offices at the appointed hour dressed in one
of my new frocks, my silk-wrapped legs taking note of the current
length of hemline. Between the Cuban heels and the curl of hair
that barely touched my ears, I resembled a person who cared about
Norbert welcomed me into an office that would have satisfied the
stuffiest of London solicitors, all dark wood and leather. It was
his office, for this man, despite being scarcely ten years older
than I, was now the senior partner in the august firm that had
served my father in life and after. The elder Norbert and his
contemporary partner had both succumbed in the influenza epidemic
of 1919, leaving the son of one and a twenty-year-old grandson of
the other in charge. Norbert had done his best to fill the
impressive surroundings, but I thought that even now he was
slightly intimidated, and would have been more comfortable among
lighter, more modern furnishings
Still, my London solicitors had never voiced a complaint about his
handling of my California affairs, and I knew them to be
The senior partner of that firm had been in love (secretly, he
thought) with my mother, and had transferred his loyalty
wholeheartedly to her daughter
I settled into my chair, accepted the compulsory cup of weak
American coffee, and made meaningless small talk for precisely
three and a half minutes before Norbert eased us into business
My California representatives had long been pleading that I apply
my attentions to the holdings I had inherited in the state; having
seen the house, I could only pray my other possessions were not as
derelict. However, it soon appeared that the need for my presence
was more for the sake of long-term decisions, re-investments and
liquidations that I alone could make. What most of them boiled down
to was, if I wasn't going to take an active rôle in the
running of this factory, that company, and the other investment, I
should sell my interests and move on
Which was just what I had in mind
We set up a number of appointments for the coming days so I could
meet with my managers and directors. Looking at the brief synopses
of figures Norbert laid before me, one after another, I had to
agree: Electrical companies and copper mines did not run themselves
for too long before they began to suffer from inattention, and
thousands of acres of land adjacent to the recently discovered oil
fields in southern California weren't going to join the boom
without some help
At the end of a long morning, Norbert pushed back in his chair with
a sigh and stood. "Time for another cup of coffee," he pronounced,
and went out of the door. I heard him speaking with his secretary
for a moment, heard too the flush of distant waters a minute later.
He returned with the secretary on his heels
He poured the watery brown liquid, offered cream, sugar, and
biscuits, then settled for a carefully measured five minutes of
closing conversation. I broke it after one
"Mr. Norbert, I have to say you've done wonders with the entire
estate. It couldn't have been easy, at this distance." I laid my
spoon into the bone-china saucer. "However, that makes it all the
more puzzling that the house has been allowed to go to ruin." I
told him the outline of our adventures the previous evening, and he
produced little noises of distress at our meeting with the police.
I ended by repeating my comment about the state of the house, which
observation he met with a sympathetic shake of the head
"Terrible, isn't it?" he agreed, looking not in the least
"Such a pity. But I hadn't much of a choice, really; the will was
very clear on that."
"The will," I repeated
"Yes, your father's will. Parents', I should say. Don't tell me you
haven't seen it?"
"When I was fourteen, I must have done. Not since then."
"Oh, my, no wonder you're a little confused. And here I was hoping
you might enlighten me on the matter. Hold on just a
sec." He reached forward to toggle a switch on his desk-telephone,
and said into the instrument, "Miss Rand, would you please bring me
a copy of the Russell will?"
Miss Rand duly appeared with the bound document, handing it to
Norbert, who passed it over to me. He sat back while I undid the
ties and settled in to read it
It proved to be one of the odder such that I had ever read. I went
through the document closely, wondering why I had not seen it
before --- I was certain that it had not been among the stack of
papers I had gone through when I had taken over my father's estate
at the age of twenty-one. My eyes lingered on the two signatures at
the bottom, my father's strong and unruly, my mother's neat as
copperplate, and then went back to an earlier page
"What does this mean, ‘to ensure that no one unaccompanied by
a member of the immediate family be granted access to the house for
a period of twenty years after the date of this signing'?"
"Just that. It's actually quite straightforward, as these things
go: If your father died, your mother inherited. If they both died,
as sadly happened, you and your brother would inherit the house,
however, no one else other than you, your spouses, and your
children would be allowed to set foot in it except in your presence
for twenty years after the --- what was the date of signing? ---
yes, the fifth of June, 1906. It goes on to say that the house is
exempt from the remainder of the disbursements until, as I said,
the fifth of June, 1926 --- a little over two years from now. Now
you're here, you and your husband are welcome to do what you like
to the house. Except permit others inside without your being
physically present, or to sell it before the given date."
"My father, who of course drew up this will, did not see fit to
tell me the reasoning behind its details before he died," he
replied, with the bemused attitude of one who had himself written
so many odd wills that he no longer questioned them. "However, the
requirement of the codicil is crystal clear, although it leaves to
the discretion of this legal firm the means of ensuring that the
house remain undisturbed. Within days of your father's unfortunate
demise, my father, as head of the firm, arranged for a single lady
relative of his to take the house across the street, Agatha Grimly
is her name --- she's my great step-cousin or something of the
sort. Miss Grimly was later joined by her unmarried nephew. She was
a schoolteacher most of her life, so she's got eyes in the back of
her head. The nephew is a little dim-witted, but quite clear as to
his job. They receive a bonus each time they run strangers off the
property, which happens two or three times a year --- the first
time was within a few days of her taking over, the most recent ---
apart from last night's, of course --- was a couple of months ago.
And they live under the threat of losing their comfortable position
were they to let an intruder slip past them. Frankly, it's a little
game we play --- I occasionally hire someone to try to break in, to
see if he can get by them. They probably assumed you and your
husband were such."
I supposed it was sometimes necessary that a solicitor not be too
curious about his client's purposes. Clearly, my father had
intended that no one get into that house but family. The why of
that intent did not enter into Norbert's realm, merely the how. I
gave a mental shrug and closed up the will
"You may keep that, if you like," he said. "I have two other
copies, one of those in a vault down the Peninsula. The lessons of
1906," he explained with a grimace. "We're still struggling with
the consequences of City Hall burning."
He then reached into his desk's central drawer and drew out a
lumpy, palm-sized brown-paper envelope, its flap glued down and
signed across by my father's distinctive hand. Its contents gave
off a slight metallic tick as he laid it onto the glossy wood of
"If you need assistance with cleaning ladies," he went on,
"gardening services, anything, I hope you'll call on me. We do have
a gardener come in once a year, to keep the front from becoming an
offence to the neighbours --- although as that is questionable
under the will, I go down and stand watch while they work, always,
to ensure that none of them approach the house itself. In the same
way, my father supervised the cleaners who came in the week after
the accident, when it became apparent that you . . . that the house
would have to be closed up. He was never absolutely certain,
because strictly speaking the codicil indicated that he should have
allowed the milk in the icebox to go bad and the moths to get into
the carpets, but he decided that protecting the client's assets
allowed for a degree of flexibility. He may even have consulted
with a judge on the matter, I don't remember. However, that is
neither here nor there. I'll 'phone Miss Grimly, and let her know
that you're coming --- wouldn't want you to be arrested
I stood up, tucking the folder under my left arm and putting out my
"Thank you, Mr. Norbert. Although as I indicated, I have no
intention of doing anything other than preparing the house for sale
as soon as possible."
"Whatever you choose, I am at your service," he answered, shaking
my hand. He retrieved the lumpy brown envelope and handed it to me
with a small laugh. "Don't forget this --- you'll be climbing over
the walls again."
"Certainly not," I agreed, and slipped the envelope into my
As we made our way to the door, I asked him, "Do you by any chance
know how far the fire reached, in 1906?"
"I remember it vividly --- I was seventeen then, and spent the
whole time digging through rubble and helping people rescue their
possessions from its path. The entire downtown burned. The only
things left standing were the U.S. Mint down on Mission Street, a
few houses on the peak of Russian Hill, and a handful more on
Telegraph --- everything else was gone, churches, saloons,
Chinatown, and as I said, City Hall with all its records. But if
you mean your house, the flames were stopped at Van Ness when the
Army dynamited the entire length of it. Three blocks down from
"I see. Thank you." I paused at the door, and reluctantly asked the
question that had been hovering over me the entire time in his
"Mr. Norbert, this may sound odd, but do you know if I was here
during the earthquake? Actually during it, I mean?"
"Sure you were. My father took me to check on your family the day
the fire died down. That would have been the Saturday. Took most of
the day to track you all down to the park where you were staying,
but I remember your mother, making us coffee on an open fire as if
she'd done it that way her whole life." His face took on a faraway
look, and he smiled slightly. "She was in trousers and a pair of
men's boots, but she wore the most extraordinary hat, with an
enormous orange flower pinned to one side. It was as if she was
thumbing her nose at the discomfort and fear all around her. She
was an impressive lady, completely undaunted."
The pale hat with the orange flower dominated my vision as I took
my leave of the lawyer and wandered towards the busy thoroughfare
of Market Street. Trolleys and traffic were thick there, and the
other streets met it at odd angles. Idly, my mind still taken up
with the vision of the hat, I watched an ex-soldier with one leg
negotiate his crutches through a flurry of female office workers in
Why would my father have written that codicil into his will?
When I put the question to Holmes some time later, he tossed the
will onto the room's desk and shook his head. "There is no knowing
at this point. But I agree that it is an oddity worth looking
Holmes had spent the morning getting the lay of the city, returning
to the hotel with a sheaf of maps and scraps of paper scribbled
with telephone numbers and addresses. He dug through the sheets now
until he had found the detailed map; a green pencil had traced the
streets to form an uneven outline around a large chunk of the
Peninsula's eastern half, including all of the downtown. When I saw
the straight line running more than a mile along Van Ness, I knew
instantly what the pencil mark meant
"This is the part that burned?"
"Wooden buildings, spilt cook-fires, broken water lines," he listed
succinctly. "The city burned for three days, and almost nothing was
left standing inside the line."
"Must have been absolute hell."
"You truly don't remember?"
"Oh, Lord, Holmes. I don't remember anything but my mother cooking
over a campfire. Surely a child of six years would recall an event
like the city burning?" I was beginning to feel as if someone had
just pointed out to me that I was missing a leg. "Even a person
with amnesia must be aware of some . . . gap."
"I don't know that I should term it amnesia, precisely --- that
condition is extremely rare outside of ladies' fiction, and
generally stems from a severe head injury. In your case I venture
that it is the mind choosing to draw a curtain across the memories
of your early childhood, for any number of reasons."
That I liked even less, the idea that my traitorous mind chose the
cowardly option of hiding from unpleasant memories. "Holmes," I
said abruptly, "last night you said that the process of discovery
may be the reason we came here. What did you mean by that?"
"My dear Russell, think about it. Had you merely wished to rid
yourself of your business entanglements in California, you could
have done so in London with a command to your solicitors and a
flourish of signatures. There would have been no need to traverse
half the globe for the purpose. Instead, for the last three years
you have delayed making decisions and refused to give direction
until things here had reached a state of near crisis. And when my
brother asked us to go to India, it seemed natural to you that we
continue around the world to come here, although in fact it is both
out of the way and considerably disruptive to our lives. What other
reason could there be but that some well-concealed urge was driving
you here, with purpose?"
A part of my mind acknowledged that he was right. The larger
portion held back, unwilling to believe in such transparent
There was something else as well: Holmes was eyeing me with that
awful air of expectancy he did so well, as if he had placed an
examination question and was waiting for me to follow my
preliminary response with the complete answer. He believed there
was more in the situation than I perceived; were I to ask what it
was, he would make me work for the answer
That was more than I could face at the moment. Instead, I stood up
"I want to go look at the house. Norbert gave me the keys. Would
you like to join me?"
"Shall we take lunch first?"
"I'm not really hungry. You go ahead, if you like, and join me
"No, I shall go with you," Holmes said. We assembled our
possessions, and at the door he paused to ask, "Do you have the
"Of course," I said. "They're in my . . . No, they're not. What
have I done with them? Oh, yes, here they are."
I had left the brown envelope on the foot of my bed, I saw, and
went back to pick it up. As I turned back to the door, I thought
about the walk before me and the condition of the house --- and, no
doubt, its facilities --- at the end of it. "I'll be with you in a
moment, Holmes," I said, and stepped into the marble-and-gilt room.
When I had finished, I dried my hands, patted my hair
(unnecessarily --- the bob minded neither wind nor neglect) and
strode to the door
"The keys?" Holmes reminded me
"They're --- Damn it, where have I put them now?" I spotted the
manila rectangle, half hidden between the mirror and a vase of
flowers, and picked it up curiously: The wretched thing eluded me
so persistently, it might have been possessed. With a spasm of
irritation, I ripped it open and tipped its contents into Holmes'
outstretched palm. His long fingers closed around the simple silver
ring with half a dozen keys that ranged from a delicate, inch-long
silver one to an iron object nearly the length of my hand. I tossed
the scraps of paper in the direction of the trash basket, and
marched out into the corridor
Twice on the way I took a wrong turn; both times I looked around to
find Holmes standing and watching me from up the street. The first
time he had a frown on his face, the second a look of concern; when
we finally reached the house itself he stopped before the wide
gate, studying the keys in his hand
"Russell, perhaps it would be best for me to enter first."
"Open the gate, Holmes."
He raised his eyes to my face for a moment, then slid the big iron
key inside the padlock's hole and twisted. The metal works had
clearly been maintained --- oiled, perhaps, on the gardener's
yearly visits --- and the key turned smoothly
I stepped onto the sunken cobblestones of the drive, my nerves
insisting that I was approaching the lair of some creature with
teeth and claws. I could feel eyes upon me, and not simply those of
the guardian neighbour across the street. Yet there was no movement
at any of the windows, no evidence of traffic apart from the
footprints and crushed vegetation Holmes and I had left the day
before. With Holmes at my back I walked towards the front door ---
and nearly leapt into his arms with a shriek when the branches
above us exploded with sudden motion: three panicked doves, fleeing
this invasion of their safe sanctuary
I forced a laugh past my constricted throat, and gestured for
Holmes to precede me to the door
The solid dark wood was dull with neglect, the varnish lifted in
narrow yellow sheets where the years of rain had blown past the
protective overhang of the portico. Thick moss grew between the
paving tiles; an entire fern grotto had established itself in the
cracks where stonework met door frame. I heard the sound of the
tumblers moving in the lock, a sound that seemed to shift my
innards within me. Holmes turned the knob without result, then
leant his shoulder against the time-swollen wood, taking a sudden
step across the threshold as the door gave way
The dark house lay open to us. I looked over Holmes' shoulder down
the hallway, seeing little but a cavern; steeling myself, I took a
step inside. As I did so, the corner of my eye registered an oddly
familiar rough place in the frame of the door, about shoulder
I stopped, one foot on either side of the threshold, and drew back
to examine it
A narrow indentation had been pressed into the surface, some four
inches in height and perhaps half an inch wide. Screw-holes near
the top and the bottom, and a gouge a third of the way down from
the top where someone had prised the object out of the varnish that
held it fast. A mezuzah, I thought, and suddenly she was
My mother --- long rustling skirt and the graceful brim of a hat
high above me --- pushing open the glossy front door with one hand
while her other came up to brush the intricate carved surface of
the bronze object. A blessing on the house, laid at the entrance,
mounted there by command and as recognition that a home is a place
apart. My Jewish mother, touching it lovingly every time she
entered. And not only my mother: My fingertips remembered the feel
of the carving, cool arabesques protecting the tightly curled text
of the blessing within
My hand reached out of its own volition and smoothed the wood,
indented, drilled, splintered, puzzling
"What have you found?" Holmes asked
"There used to be a mezuzah on this door. My mother's father gave
it to her, the year I was born. It was his first overture after the
offence of her marriage, her first indication that she might be
forgiven for marrying a Gentile. And as it turned out, his last,
since he died a few months later. It meant a great deal to her. And
"Perhaps Norbert senior took it down, for safekeeping?"
"I shouldn't think it would occur to a Gentile to remove it."
"And your mother herself wouldn't have taken it down?"
"Not unless she didn't plan to return. And they died on a weekend
trip to the Lodge --- our summer house down the Peninsula. We
intended to be back in a few days."
"A friend, then, who removed it, knowing what it meant to
"Perhaps." I fingered the wounded frame again, wondering. I knew
none of her friends. I had a vague idea that one or two women might
have visited me in hospital after the accident, but I had been
injured and orphaned, and in no condition to receive their comfort.
Their letters that reached me in England went into the fire
unanswered, and had eventually stopped
Oddly, although the missing object should by rights have increased
my apprehension, in fact the brief vision of my mother moving
through the door-way served to reassure me, as if her hand had
smoothed the back of my head in passing. When I turned again to the
house, it was no longer the lair of a dangerous beast, merely empty
rooms where once a family had lived
The interior looked like something out of Great
Expectations, an interrupted life overlaid with a decade of
dust. The gilt-framed looking glass in the entrance hall bore a
coat of grey-brown fuzz, the glass itself gone speckled and dim. I
stood in the door-way to the first room, my mother's morning room,
and saw that the furniture had been draped with cloths before the
house was locked up, all the windows and curtains tightly shut. The
air was heavy with the odors of dust and baked horse hair, unaired
cloth goods, and mildew, along with a faint trace of something
Holmes crossed to the nearest windows and stretched his hand to the
"Careful," I warned, and his tug softened into a slow pull, so that
the dust merely held in the air instead of exploding back into the
A drift of trembling black ashes in the fireplace was the sole
indication of the house's abrupt closure. Everything else lay tidy:
flower vases emptied, ash-trays cleaned, no stray coffee-cups, no
abandoned books. This had been my mother's favourite room, I
remembered, and unlike the formal back parlour had actually been
used for something other than the entertainment of guests. She had
arranged the delicate French desk (one of the Louis --- XIV? XV?)
so that it looked out of the window onto what had been a
wisteria-framed view of the bird-bath, and was now a solid green
curtain. She'd loved the view, loved the garden, even keeping
yearly journals of its progress --- yes, there they were, pretty
albums bound in silk that she'd pored over, writing the names of
shrubs planted and sketching their flowers, recording its successes
and failures in her precise script so unlike my own scrawl. I
turned away sharply out of the room; as Holmes followed me, he
gently shut the door, cutting off the watery sunlight and plunging
the hall-way back into gloom
The entire house was a stage set with dust-coloured shrouds. The
long dining-room table was little more than a floor-length cloth
punctuated by the regular bumps of its chairs, its long tarpaulined
surface set with three blackened candle-sticks. The music room was
home to a piano-shaped mound and a small forest of chairs; the
pantry, its door giving way reluctantly to a third key on the ring,
lay waiting, the house's silver, crystal, and china neatly arrayed
in their drawers and on their shelves
In the dim library, Holmes gave a grunt of disapproval at the smell
of must. This had been my father's study, where he had kept
accounts and written letters, typing with remarkable facility on
the enormous Underwood type-writer, its mechanism so heavy my
child's fingers could barely propel the keys to the ribbon. The
Underwood, like the desk and the two chairs in front of the
pristine fireplace, was draped; the carpets here had been rolled up
against the wall, and emanated a faint trace of moth-balls
The stillness in the house was proving oppressive. I cleared my
throat to remark, "How many acres of dust-covers do you suppose
Holmes merely shook his head at the disused and mouldering volumes,
and went on
As we worked through the rooms, various objects and shapes seemed
to reach out and touch my memory, each time restoring a small
portion of it to life: The looking-glass near the door, for
example, had been a wedding present that my mother hated and my
father loved, source of much affectionate discord. And the fitted
carpet in the back parlour --- something had happened to it, some
catastrophe I was responsible for: something spilt? An upturned
coffee tray, perhaps, and the horrified shrieks of visiting women
--- no, I had it now: Their horror was not, as my guilty young mind
had immediately thought, because of any damage to the carpet, but
at the hot coffee splashing across my young skin, miraculously not
scalding me. My eye was caught by a peculiar object on the top of a
high credenza: an exotic painted caricature of a cat, carved so
that its mouth gaped wide in a toothy O. But shouldn't there be a
flash of yellow, right where that stick in the middle . . . ? Ah,
yes: Father's joke. He'd found the cat in Chinatown and fixed a
perch across its open mouth, then arranged it on the precise spot
where my mother's canary, which was given the occasional freedom of
the room, liked to sit and sing. How Levi and I had giggled, every
time the bird opened its mouth in the cat's maw
As I worked my way through the rooms, there was no entirety of
recall, merely discrete items that sparked specific memories. I
felt as if some prince was working his way through the sleeping
events of my childhood, kissing each one back to life. Or tapping
them like a clown with a trick flower that flashed miraculously
into full bloom
Not that I'd ever much cared for clowns, nor had I been one for
fairy tales: The passivity of that sleeping princess had annoyed me
even when I was small
Only when we reached the very back of the ground floor and Holmes
pushed open a swinging door did I discover a place that felt
completely familiar, wall to wall: the kitchen. No cloth shrouds
here, just white tile, black stove, shelved pots, a row of spoons
and implements. The wooden table where I'd sat down with plate,
glass, and homework. The icebox (unchanged from my infancy) from
which I'd taken my milk, tugging at its heavy door. The pantry,
startlingly equipped with foodstuffs: biscuits and coffee in their
tins, flour in its bin, preserves in jars that had gone green
beneath their wax seals
Ghosts are most often glimpsed at the corners of one's vision,
heard at the far reaches of the audible, tasted in lingering scents
at the back of one's palate. So now the house began to people
itself at the furthest edges of my senses: A wide-bottomed cook,
her back to me, laid down the wooden spoon she was using to stir a
pot and bustled away through a door. It happened in one short
instant at the very corner of the mind's eye, and she was gone when
I turned my head, but she lived in my mind. Then at the base of the
door I noticed a trace of long-dried soil, and with that, through
the window in the upper half of the door, a much-abused, sweat-dark
hat the colour of earth seemed to pass: the gardener
His name had been . . . Michael? No, Micah. I'd loved him, I knew
that without question, although I remembered next to nothing about
him. He had rescued a bird for me one time; the neighbour's cat had
pounced and feathers flew and I --- small then, perhaps four,
sitting on the back steps (Were there back steps on the other side
of that windowed door? I crossed to the window: yes, two of them,
leading down to what had once been a neat gravel path-way) --- I
had screamed in full-throated protest at the sight, bringing Micah
around the corner with one hand clamping down his hat and the other
holding a rake, his stumpy legs so close to running that the very
sight of him silenced me. The cat shot away into the shrubbery;
Micah gathered the bird, gentled it, placed it in my sheltering
hands where it lay for a time, stunned but not injured. Its heart
thrummed nonstop, astounding the palms of my hands, until suddenly
it jerked into life and launched itself into the air, flitting into
the branches of the apple tree, then away
I looked down at those hands, two decades older. Curious, the means
by which memories were stored. The door-frame mezuzah, the bird,
both lay in the skin of my hands. Why was the mind said to have an
eye and not a hand, or a tongue? Perhaps touch, taste, odour, sound
were linked to the heart rather than the intellect. Certainly both
of these tactile memories I had retrieved carried with them
profound and specific emotional charges, the one of homecoming, the
other of competent authority, both of them immensely
I raised my eyes to the grubby window, and in that instant it was
as if the kitchen door flew open and the sun spilt into the room. I
knew, beyond a doubt, what I wished to do: I would clean the house,
restore it, remove the decay to which my neglect had condemned it;
and I would find the people who had been here, friends and workers,
and talk to them all, weaving myself back into the tapestry of
community. For too long, I had turned my back on my past. Holmes
was right: I had brought us here for a reason
Feeling as if I had cast off a heavy and constricting garment, I
spun on my heel to go in search of Holmes, to tell him what I had
decided, and nearly fell over him. He was stooped to look into a
small mirror placed awkwardly on the wall
"Holmes, I --- " I began, and then I took in his attitude, that
sharpening of attention that put one in mind of a dog on scent.
"What is it?"
"Does this not seem to you an odd location for a
"For a man your height, certainly. But even in America, few cooks
are over six feet tall."
"Yes, yes," he said, waving away my explanation. "I mean the
Once my attention was drawn to it, I could see what he meant. It
was a round glass set in an octagonal frame, somehow Chinese
looking, but a looking-glass used by servants to check their
appearance before entering the house would surely be located near
the swinging door, not above the long bench used for pots and
dishes on their way to the scullery. I took his place before it,
bending my knees to bring my eyes to a more normal level
"It's also too small to see one's entire face in it," I noted in
"Queer," he agreed, opening and shutting the cabinets to survey
"Could it be intended as a means of keeping one eye on the
door while working at the bench?" I speculated, but unless it
shifted over the years, its only view was the cook-stove, and there
no sign of a prop fallen from one side. While I was craning this
and that, taken up by the minor puzzle, Holmes continued on his
of the room
"Did your family have a resident pet?" he asked, back again near
the swinging door
He was squatting before a roughly glazed porcelain vase or bowl
that sat on the floor at the base of the wall. Six inches at its
widest and five inches high, it was primitive in craftsmanship but
oddly graceful --- and precariously placed, considering the traffic
there would have been in and out of the door
"I don't believe we did. We had a canary, but cats made my brother
sneeze, and my mother disliked dogs."
I could see why he asked, for when I picked it up to examine it,
beneath the dust the mineral deposit left by a pint or so of
evaporating water was unmistakable. Still, it was an odd utensil
for the purpose, its sides narrowing at the top to an opening that
would prove awkward for feline muzzles. Too, surely it would have
been better placed in the corner between the sink and the back
door, or even inside the scullery. I put it back where I had found
it and cast my eyes around the kitchen for anything else out of
place. All I could see was a long dead pot of some unidentifiable
herb withered on a windowsill --- no doubt an oversight on the part
of Norbert's cleaners, not a deliberate peculiarity
"Was your cook Chinese?" Holmes asked
"I shouldn't have thought so," I told him. As with most Western
cities, the Chinese community in San Francisco was closely hemmed
by judicial ordinance and societal expectations. They were allowed
to run laundries, make deliveries, and perform menial labour, but a
Chinese cook in a private home would have been unusual
"You don't remember," he said, not a question
"I am sorry, Holmes," I snapped. "I'm not being deliberately
uncooperative, you know."
But even as I said it, his question had woken a node of memory; the
ghost stirred again, that ample-bodied figure moving from stove to
scullery. A cook: But now that I thought about it, the woman had
been wearing loose trousers, and soft shoes. And a tunic, but
colourful, not a thing a menial worker would have worn for hard
"Mah," I breathed in wonder. "Her name was Mah. And Micah was her
"Who is Micah?"
"Our gardener. He rescued a bird from the neighbour's cat one time.
He wore a sweaty soft hat, and he used to bow when he gave my
mother a bouquet from the flowerbed. And . . . and he used to make
me laugh with the way he talked. He called me ‘missy.'"
"Did he wear a queue?" Holmes' voice was soft, as if not to disturb
"He . . ." I began to say no, he wore a hat, but again my hand knew
the truth of the matter: my small fingers wrapping curiously around
a smooth, glossy rope of plaited hair, hot from the sun. But the
sensation seemed very distant, as if overlaid by something else.
"Bless me, he did. His hair was once in a long plait all the length
of his back, but that was a very long time ago. Later I just
remember the Western hat, and that he dressed like anyone
"No doubt after the emperor was overthrown in 1911, your gardener
would have joined the rest of the world in cutting the queue and
taking on the laws and customs of his adoptive land. Before that,
his assuming Western dress would have been dangerous for his family
"That's why Chinatown seemed different," I exclaimed
"How is that?"
"The streets. I remember them as filled with people in strange
dress --- funny hats, the queues, foreign clothes. But yesterday
most of them were dressed like the rest of the city."
"And their children will now be going to public schools, and their
laws will be those of America."
"But how on earth did you know? That he was Chinese, I mean?"
"The mirror, the water, the pot-plant. There is a Chinese belief
that the psychic energies within a room can be shaped by the
judicious use of objects that embody the elements. Something to do
with the dragons under the earth. Symbolic, of course, but a belief
in patterns of electromagnetic energies across the face of the
earth is common --- one need only note the prehistoric hillside
carvings in Peru, the song-lines among the aboriginals of
Australia, and the ley-lines across England."
I braced myself for a set piece on one of Holmes' many and
invariably arcane interests, but that seemed to be the extent of
his lecture for the time being. With a last glance around, he went
out the swinging door, leaving it standing open. A moment later I
heard his feet climbing the stairs.
Excerpted from LOCKED ROOMS © Copyright 2005 by Laurie R.
King. Reprinted with permission by Bantam, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved.