The Sherlock Effect
Read an Excerpt
The Sherlock Effect
Raymond Kay Lyon
'My name is Byron Silk,' began the caller, speaking with a decided West Indian modulation.
'How can I be of service?' I replied urbanely.
'I'm Vicki Vine's personal assistant.'
'Vicki Vine? You don't mean the soul chanteuse?'
'That's right, the singer. She's in a lot of trouble.'
'I'm sorry to hear that,' I commiserated. 'Perhaps we could set up a consultation for her? I'm free most of this week.'
'She'll send the limo round to your place,' said the man peremptorily. 'Six thirty this evening.'
'Alright. But couldn't you give me something more to go on, Mr. Silk? I like to know roughly what I'm getting into.'
'It may be a matter of life and death,' he confided darkly.
'Indeed? Is she in some kind of physical danger?'
'Can't say anything more on the phone.'
'Very well. Tell her I'll be ready at half past six.'
The caller hung up, leaving me to consider whether he might in fact be some kind of crank. I decided it was unlikely.
Mo dropped in about an hour later, and was understandably thrilled at the prospect of having a pop star as a client.
'Let's think about your clothes,' he said, clucking round me like an old hen. 'How about top-hat, frock-coat, pearl-grey trousers?'
'If you insist.'
'Try to butter her up a bit,' he advised, pulling the items out of the costume-chest. 'Massage her ego. Tell her she's the best thing since Aretha Franklin. You can do that, can't you?'
'Perhaps,' I replied non-committally, 'if we decide to take the case on. It must depend on certain factors.'
Mo looked outraged. 'What do you mean? What factors?'
'I mean her problem must be susceptible to those very methods of deductive analysis which we have been at pains to advertise.'
'You're having me on!'
'I'm deadly serious. We must stick to our speciality – the bizarre, the recondite, the subtle. Otherwise the whole proj- ect is doomed from the outset. I'm sorry to be purist about this, Morris.'
'Look, Sherl,' said Mo, putting a hand on my shoulder matily, 'we can't afford to throw away a high-profile client like Vicki Vine. She could be the making of us. Just find out what kind of trouble she's in, then tell her we'll sort it out. If she needs protection we'll hire some muscle.'
I snorted my disgust. This was all beginning to sound too much like an episode of Minder.
'Unfortunately I'll have to leave in about half an hour,' he added, glancing at his watch.
'So you won't be here when she arrives?'
'Sorry. I've got this crucial meeting with my old business partner. We're winding up the company, and I have to make sure it's done properly. You'll have to handle this on your own, I'm afraid.'
* * *
As I sat alone in our Victorian theme parlour, surveying the desultory comings and goings of Crawford Street, I slowly began to come round to Mo's way of thinking.
'There's money in this case, Watson, if there is nothing else,' Holmes had once remarked, upon seeing a brougham and pair draw up outside. Even the great man, then, was not above occasional venality. In any case, Vicki Vine could well be said to be an 'illustrious client' in the modern context. She might even provide an entrée into the entertainment aristocracy.
I walked over to the full-length mirror and inspected my dated attire. Although everything fitted remarkably well I still felt like a second-rate provincial actor who was struggling to grow into a new role.
Over a hastily prepared tea, I scoured my Book of Hit Singles. It appeared that Vicki Vine's recording career was even more illustrious than I had realized. There had been five top-twenty singles; including the well-remembered Blood Is Thicker Than Water, which peaked at number 5 in 2012. I rang her record company, Cresta, and learned from a helpful publicist that Vine had made lucrative inroads into the European and U.S. markets. Her first album had gone silver in the States. She'd enjoyed sales in excess of ten million units throughout the world. But as to her exact earnings to date my informant was understandably coy, preferring to say that Vicki need never 'vocalise' again.
Having armed myself with this background knowledge I could do little else but sit, in costume, and make idle speculations as to the nature of the singer's predicament.
Eventually, two impatient hoots caused me to peer out through our genteel lace curtains. A maroon Jag XF with tinted windows had double-parked directly opposite. As no-one emerged from the vehicle I assumed that I was being summoned. I grabbed my topper, swallowed hard, and hurried out into the fierce July sun. My anachronistic appearance elicited amused and even worried stares from the public – but I strode manfully on towards the waiting limousine. The rear door opened. I slid in, and found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with one of Britain's most successful black artistes.
Not that one could have sworn it was her, at first. She wore impenetrable dark glasses, and her head was swathed in a red scarf. I mumbled an introduction and presented one of our newly-printed business cards.
'Baskerville's. That sounds good,' she said abstractedly, as we cruised off.
'Your assistant, Mr. Silk, implied that you might be in some danger. Perhaps if you could give me a clear account of–'
Before I could complete my well-rehearsed request Miss Vine threw a CD into my lap, entitled Class. It was one of her own. The photograph on the front certainly caught the eye; she was depicted naked, languishing on a chaise-longue, bedecked in pearls and a tiara, her modesty preserved only by strategically draped fur stoles. I recognized an ermine piece, a leopardskin, and what appeared to be Persian lamb. Her hair was blown away from her face by a wind-machine, Diana Ross-style, and the glossy lips curled into an enigmatic smile.
'Extremely decorative,' I said, somewhat abashed. 'The furs look splendid.'
'That picture has caused me a lot of hassle,' Vicki declared ruefully. 'By the way, are you any good at kidnaps?'
'Kidnaps? You mean carrying them out?'
'No, I mean investigating them.'
'Yes,' I bluffed. 'Actually, that's what I specialize in.'
We stopped at some traffic lights. I sensed that she was looking me over, which made me feel rather uncomfortable.
'Do you normally dress like this?' she asked at last.
'This? Oh, it goes with the job,' I replied, with a silly laugh.
She picked up my lustrous top-hat from the seat and began to finger it admiringly. I was afraid she was about to enquire how long I'd been in the detection business, so I quickly returned to the matter in hand.
'What, exactly, do you want me to do, Miss Vine?'
She sighed. 'It's Jake, my boyfriend. He's been kidnapped by animal rights people. They're real nutters – you know – extremists.'
'I see. When did this happen?'
'Three days ago. It's not the first time, either.'
'Same thing happened about a month ago. They sent me a ransom demand. I paid up, and we got Jake back safely.'
'What was the sum involved, if I may ask?'
'Two hundred thousand pounds.'
'That much?' I said, giving a low whistle. 'And you never informed the police?'
Vicki shook her head. 'I thought if I paid up without a fuss they wouldn't bother us again. But it hasn't worked out like that.'
I took out a notebook and pen from the pocket of my frock-coat. 'Do you mind if I jot down a few things?'
'If you want.'
'Your boyfriend's name, again, is?'
'Jake Humber. Like the river.'
'Or the car,' I added lightly. There was no reaction – perhaps she was too young to remember. 'What does he do for a living?'
'Music journalist. Freelance.'
'Why do you think he was targeted by the animal rights group?'
'He was my boyfriend, and I was their public enemy number one.'
'Just because you posed in furs?'
'That's right. There was a big campaign against me in the press when the CD came out – don't you remember? "Pop Star in Fur Scandal", "Vicki Vine Accused of Animal Cruelty", that sort of thing.'
'Yes, I do recollect something of the kind.'
'They kidnapped Jake because he was easy to get at. I had security people around me. But the stupid thing is those furs were fake – all of them.'
'Are you quite sure?' I asked, with a sceptical look.
Vicki removed her dark glasses for emphasis. 'Yes, I'm sure. I love animals. I don't think I've ever worn genuine fur. Not deliberately, anyway.'
'How do you explain the press stories, then?'
She shrugged. 'They got their facts wrong – as usual. And I got a sackful of hate mail. Even obscene phone calls. But nothing serious happened, until the first kidnap.'
'Have you kept that ransom letter?'
'I thought you'd want to see it,' she replied, producing a large manilla envelope from her hip pocket. It was addressed;
Ms. V. Vine, 38 Heath View Avenue, Hampstead, London N.W.6
URGENT AND CONFIDENTIAL
The postmark was Hastings. Inside was a single sheet of paper bearing the following chilling message;
We have Jake Humber. The price for his safe return is £200,000.
This Sunday ( June 12th), at precisely 12.00 midnight, put the cash into a briefcase and deposit in the dustbin outside No. 12, Dock End Lane, Brixton. Come alone, and leave the vicinity directly afterwards. We will let you know where to collect Jake once we have the money.
If you fail to pay, or involve the police, we will kill Jake immediately. His blood will be on your hands, just like those defenceless animals butchered to satisfy your vanity.
Please find enclosed fur, and photo. Remember our spies are everywhere!
Thanking you in anticipation of your generous contribution,
A.D.M. (Animal Defence Militia).
P.S. Why not keep the fur in that pretty little Japanese vase in your bedroom?
Paper-clipped to the letter was a photograph, showing a thin, pale, frightened young man, standing in a featureless room. He wore only underpants, and was handcuffed and blindfolded.
'What did they mean by "fur"?' I enquired.
'There was a lock of Jake's hair in the envelope. It's their little joke.'
'I see. Tell me more about that Sunday. You drove alone to Brixton?'
'Byron Silk came with me, but when we got near Dock End Lane I dropped him off. I put the money in the dustbin, like they told me. There was a note stuck on the lid, saying "Go to phone box in Beacon Road, Paignton, Devon for next instructions." '
'Quite a journey!' I exclaimed.
'Yes, but I had to go. Byron did most of the driving. When we got there we found another note, telling us to find a bus- shelter outside The Freemasons Arms, in Northampton.'
'How long did that take you?'
'We never actually went there. I phoned the pub instead, and asked them to help me. I said we were doing a T.V. game show. The landlord was very helpful. He went to the bus stop and read the message over the phone.'
'That was very resourceful!' I laughed.
'It was Byron's idea.'
'So, what was the next message?'
'We had to go to an empty cottage in Sussex, called the Bird's Nest. And that's where we found Jake. He was locked up in one of the bedrooms.'
'Could he describe the kidnappers?' I asked hopefully.
'He was blindfolded all the time. But there were definitely three of them; one bossy guy with a Scottish accent who did most of the talking, a girl, and another guy. They called the Scottish one "Mac". Not much of a clue, is it?'
'No,' I agreed. 'How did they treat him?'
'One meal a day. Crap food. And they never let him out of the bedroom. Not once.'
'Was he surprised when you turned up?'
'No. They'd told him the ransom had been paid, and someone would collect him soon.'
'One more thing,' I said, turning the page of my note- book. 'Did Jake describe how he was kidnapped?'
'He couldn't remember anything – he was on a bender at the time.'
'Yes. Jake has a problem, to put it politely,' admitted Vicki in a long-suffering tone. 'The first thing he remembers is waking up in a strange room with handcuffs on.'
'Good,' I said, drawing a line under my notes, 'that puts me in the picture regarding the first kidnap. Now, tell me all about the latest abduction.'
'Alright. But let's get some fresh air first,' she suggested, stretching her limbs.
Throughout the interview we had been cruising around central London quite aimlessly, and now Green Park had opened up on our left. Vine leant forward and tapped the chauffeur on the shoulder.
'Could you stop here, please,' she instructed. 'We won't be long – about half an hour. Grab a sandwich if you like.'
Our liveried driver grunted something inaudible and pulled up. Once we had alighted the Jag purred off down Piccadilly in search of a parking space.
'That's a hired car, you know,' Vicki remarked. 'I normally drive an Aston Martin.'
'Why the switch?'
'So they don't see me talking to you, of course! I've got to be careful.'
We found a bench shaded by plane trees and sat down, drinking in the sun-baked scenery for a while. Vicki removed her head-scarf and dark glasses; I noticed a hunted, fearful look in her eyes. Her face was drawn with fatigue, and to be honest she no more than approximated her glamorous public image.
'You've left your top-hat in the car,' she observed, with a note of disappointment.
'Yes, I didn't like to be too conspicuous, given the deli- cate circumstances.'
'By the way, are you really Sherlock, or is that a kind of stage name?'
I smiled. 'No, it's my official middle name.' 'Do you want me to call you that?'
I pondered for a while. 'How about Sherl? It's a nick- name my colleague uses.'
'Sherl,' she repeated to herself. 'Yes, that's cool. My real name is Sally Jones. Boring, isn't it? I prefer Vicki.'
I drew out my notebook again. 'Well, Vicki, if you're ready, we ought to move on to the second kidnap. You said it occurred only three days ago?'
'Yes. Jake was just beginning to get over the first one. It had shaken him up pretty badly. This time they grabbed him outside the restaurant where we were eating. I couldn't believe it!'
'Can you give me more details?' I requested.
'Well, it was a surprise meal that Jake had organised for me. His way of thanking me – for saving his life!'
'By paying the original ransom, you mean?'
'Yes. I didn't want him to feel grateful. But he insisted.' She looked at me intently. 'When someone you care about is in danger money doesn't mean anything, does it? I would have paid twice as much if it was necessary – I told him that.'
'Which restaurant did you go to?'
'Fosca's. It's a little Italian place on the King's Road. He booked us the best table, by the window. When we'd finished our dessert I wanted a cigarette, but we'd both run out. He said he'd pop out to the car and get another packet. After about twenty minutes I started to worry, because there was no sign of him.'
A shadow of distress passed over the singer's features. Obviously these moments of her story were painful to relate.
'I looked out of the window, and there he was. In the back seat of a strange car. It was going right past the res- taurant – slowly – that's why I noticed it. Jake was trying to say something to me through the car window. He was strug- gling, his hands were tied behind his back. I'll never forget that look on his face – not fear, exactly – more surprise. As if he was thinking; how can this be happening to me again?
It was terrible ... '
'Who was driving the car?'
'A man. I only got a glimpse. He had grey hair, I think. Ordinary face. He was grinning.'
'Would you recognise him again?'
'I'm not sure.'
'No-one else in the car?'
'Not that I could see.'
'What was the make?'
'Could've been an Audi, B.M.W., something like that. Dark colour.'
'I ran into the street to see, but it was too far away. Then I phoned Sandy O'Neill, my manager, from the restaurant. She told me to go straight over to her place – which I did. Sandy's brilliant in a crisis. She's a good mate, as well as a manager.'
'And have you received another ransom note yet?'
Vicki nodded. 'This morning. Left it in the Jag, I'm afraid.' She sighed. 'But it's not very interesting anyway.'
'Not interesting? How do you mean?'
'It's the same as before, except now they're asking for £500,000.'
'You mean they simply typed in a different figure?'
'That's it. Oh, and the deadline is next Sunday.'
'Audacious,' I muttered, 'extremely audacious.'
We sat in silence, both oppressed by the gravity of the situation.
'I think you should seriously consider going to the police this time,' I said at last. 'Of course, I'm willing to help in any way I can. But, frankly, they have more resources at their disposal.'
'How can I risk it?' she wailed despairingly. 'You've seen the threats – those bastards are everywhere. Anyway, you said you could handle kidnaps.'
'I'm only thinking of your best interests,' I replied reasonably.
She got up from the bench with a determined expres- sion. 'I'll just have to get Jake back on my own then. I never wanted to call you in the first place. It was all Sandy's idea.'
With that she stomped off across the park.
I hurried after her, picturing how Mo would react to my losing the commission. 'Hang on! I didn't say I wouldn't take your case. I just want you to consider all the options first.'