10 April 1914, El-Amarna, Egypt
Two brown-cloaked figures picked their way through the half- filled trenches and incomplete excavations of the ancient city. Without its centuries-old shroud of desert sand, Akhetaten lay shivering and exposed in the shameful moonlight, filtering down from the carved cliffs to the east. From the cliff face, hacked and hewn, the likenesses of the heretic pharaohs Akhenaten and Nefertiti stood sentinel over the valley where, three and a half thousand years before, they had built a city to worship Aten, the golden sun.
But tonight it was Iah, the silver moon, that ruled the shadowlands below, where the city of the dead was being reclaimed by the living. To the west of what the foreigners called “The Dig”, the Nile snaked through fields and farms, an artery of life to the villages dotted along the plain.
The cloaked, trespassing figures were a twin boy and girl of around seventeen who lived in one of the nearby villages: Et-Till Beni Amra. At least they used to. Now they were at boarding school in Cairo, far, far to the north, and only came home during the holidays. Their parents were the only people in the village able to afford to send their children away to school, an enormous expense and – so the villagers whispered as they tilled their crops – a wasteful one, particularly on the girl. But the twins’ illicit family business – secretly passed down from generation to generation – had been doing well in recent times, thanks to the Europeans swarming over the carcass of Akhenaten like pale flies. The children with whom the twins now shared dormitories in Cairo talked behind their backs and called them graverobbers. But their father preferred the title “antiquities dealer” and now, since he had been so well paid by the German professor, his children were able to write his profession in German, English, and French.
The girl had been reluctant to come on the moonlit adventure. It had been fun to dig around in the ruins when they were children, but now she understood the consequences of being found with reclaimed artefacts. She’d heard stories of locals being beaten and imprisoned for theft. The Egyptian Antiquities Service issued licenses to excavators on a seasonal basis. For the last seven years the license had gone to Professor Ludwig Borchardt and his team. No one else was allowed to dig there – no rival European archaeologists and most definitely not a pair of young Mohammedans. Never mind that the girl’s family had been digging and selling the fruit of their labour for a hundred years before Borchardt came. Her father had been hired by the German as a consultant and had sworn to stop his own black-market business in return for a substantial salary. But her brother refused to adhere to the agreement. “It’s our people’s heritage,” he had argued, “like the crops of the field and the fish of the Nile.”
So, on this weekend which the Christians called Easter, when her father was in Cairo with his German employer, her brother had coaxed her to join him in a little subsistence looting. “For old time’s sake,” he had grinned. Reluctantly, she agreed. After she helped her mother wash up and read her younger
siblings a bedtime story, she donned her cloak, preparing to join her brother for an evening walk.
The mother assessed her twin children. The boy looked as cock-sure as always. But the girl… there was something bothering her. “You don’t have to go,” the woman said to her daughter. “Not if you don’t want to.”
“I – well – I –”
Her brother interrupted before she could finish, putting his arm around her and ushering her to the door. “Don’t worry, mother, I’ll look after her. She’s just a bit out of practice, aren’t you?”
The girl couldn’t deny this. She nodded half-heartedly.
“Hmmm,” said their mother, wiping her hands dry on her apron. “If I didn’t know the Europeans were away I might be more worried.”
“Worried about what?” asked her son, as he too pulled on his cloak. “We are just going for an evening stroll. And if we happen to walk past the old city… well…” he grinned and kissed his mother on her forehead.
“Watch out for Mohammed and his dog,” said the mother. “He’s usually asleep on the job, and he owes your father half a dozen favours, but you never know…”
“We will,” said her son as he and his sister picked up their sacks – containing ropes and tools – and headed out into the night.
Half an hour later the twins were at their pre-selected destination: the remains of an ancient workshop that had belonged to a man called Thutmose, the personal sculptor of Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife, Nefertiti. Two years ago the German team, guided by the twins’ father, had unearthed the ruins of the sprawling facility and found a bust of the beautiful queen, with only one eye. The sculpture had now been sent to Berlin. But it wasn’t the only work of art retrieved. There were dozens of half-finished statues and bits of broken limbs in a series of storerooms and trash piles. And – so the twins knew – a secret underground chamber where the sculptor had kept his most precious work. Their father had declined, so far, to tell his new employers about the chamber. But rumour of its existence had been passed down in the family from generation to generation.
“I still don’t understand why Papa hasn’t told the Germans about it yet,” said the girl.
“Perhaps they haven’t paid him enough,” observed the boy. He struck a match and lit a small hurricane lantern he’d taken from his sack, then ranged the lamp in a wide arc over the trenches and roped-off squares of earth. “But it’s only a matter of time until someone finds it.”
“And you think you know where it is?” asked the girl.
The boy nodded. “And so do you. Do you remember that rhyme grandpa used to sing?”
The girl’s face lit up in the light of the lamp. She smiled, remembering fondly the old man with skin like dried parchment. “One palm, two palm, between the trees, there’s Old Tut’s treasure, so please don’t sneeze!” She giggled, just like she used to when she was a child.
The boy grinned. “The thing is, I don’t think it was just a rhyme.” He pointed to a small copse of palm trees about thirty paces west of the perimeter of the workshop dig. A pair of trees were set slightly apart from the rest. “What do you think?”
The girl’s almond-shaped eyes opened wide. “That’s a bit of a stretch.”
The boy shrugged and walked towards the trees. “Worth a dig, though, don’t you think? Won’t do any harm.”
The girl scanned the horizon, looking for any sign of the old
watchman and his dog. It was all clear. She sighed, shifted her sack from one shoulder to another, and followed her brother. “Can’t do any harm, I suppose…”
“Hey! Looks like someone’s already been here,” called the brother. The girl broke into a run and joined her sibling under the palms. He ranged his lantern over the area to reveal a hole in the ground, which had previously been hidden by rock and scree. The siblings both knew that this is how the entrance to Thutmose’s workshop had been found: under a pile of rubble. But around this entrance were footprints in the sand – human and animal. The girl got down on her knees and peered into the hole, gesturing for her brother to shed light on it. He did and the girl could make out a steep tunnel, wide enough for a medium- sized man to squeeze into, angled down into the darkness. “Do you think someone’s down there now?” she whispered.
“I doubt it,” said the boy. “If the Europeans had found it already, they would have blocked the area off and put guards on it until they came back from their Easter break.”
The girl nodded her assent and cocked her ear, trying to pick up any sounds that might be emanating from the underground chamber. “I agree about the Europeans. So that means it must be one of our people.”
“Yes, but I doubt they’re still there. Look, these footprints don’t look fresh. He poked at the faded tracks with his sandal, then grinned. “The Europeans wouldn’t be able to get a clear print from these,” he said, reminding his sister of the graverobber who had been caught and convicted on another dig by the famous archaeologist Howard Carter, who photographed footprints leading from the scene of the crime and matched them to a suspect.
“What do you want to do then?” asked the girl.
The boy put down his lantern on a nearby rock and shuffled his sack off his shoulder. “Go in, of course. Even if someone’s been here before us, there’ll still be lots to see. And good luck to them if they have! Better one of our people than a foreigner.”
The girl couldn’t disagree with that. So, with one more scan of the area above ground to prove they were most definitely alone, she helped her brother tie a rope securely to a palm tree and thread it down the hole. From experience, she knew that in all likelihood the entrance was not above a dead drop and was most likely a steep ramp. But also from experience – and family stories – she knew that the ramps could be treacherous. Great Uncle Kadiel had lost his footing at one of the tombs on the cliff face forty years ago and broke his back in the fall. So they tied a second rope and knotted it around her brother’s waist – as their father had taught them – and made him lean back to see if it held his weight. It did and before long he slithered through the hole and made his way down, using the first rope as a guide.
The girl waited in the company of the twin palms, standing sentinel beneath a canopy of stars.
“It’s too tight to stand,” a muffled voice called after a few moments. “But I can crawl. I’ll give three tugs when I reach the bottom. If there’s anything to see, I’ll give another three tugs; if there’s nothing here, I’ll only tug twice.”
“All right!” called the girl as loudly as she dared. They appeared to be alone, but old Mohammed and his dog were still unaccounted for…
It must only have been five or ten minutes, but it seemed like twice that before the rope between the tree and the hole jerked… three times. The girl let out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. There’s something there… he wants me to come down…
She looked around once more – still no sign of the watchman and his dog. She wasn’t surprised; he was a known slacker. The
heavens only knew how he managed to keep his job. Some said he knew secrets the Europeans wouldn’t want divulged – secrets about questionable practices on the dig that didn’t quite align with the terms of license granted by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities in Cairo.
She tugged the rope three times to indicate to her brother that she’d got the message, tied a rope around the tree, and securely fastened it around her waist before approaching the entrance to the underground chamber. On her haunches she pulled up the hood of her cloak and tucked the stray hair from her plait behind her ears. She’d only just washed her hair that morning and didn’t want it full of muck from the tunnel. Then she sat on her bottom and worked her way, feet first, into the hole. There was no need to go head first; her brother had traversed the route before her and wouldn’t have called her down if there was any obstacle in the way. And besides, she was more confident keeping her head up, rather than down, just in case she needed to pull herself back up the rope with no one above ground to help her.
She held her breath and shimmied into the hole, then down the tunnel, which had sufficient clearance that the ceiling only intermittently brushed the top of her head. She stopped a metre or two below the surface, braced her ankles against the sides, and felt around with her hands. Someone, a long time ago – Thutmose himself perhaps? – had lined the tunnel with timber and overlaid it with compacted clay. The clay lining had cracked and crumbled in places but remained largely intact. The girl mumbled a prayer of thanks for the ingenuity and industriousness of her ancestors.
“Are you coming down?” A call from below.
“Yes,” she answered and continued her downwards shimmy, pushing herself up onto her hands and propelling her bottom forward to her knees in a caterpillar motion. “How far?” “About 20 metres! Can you see my light?”
Yes, she could; there was a dim glow below her. Her brother
had lit the lamp he had taken down with him. “Yes!” she affirmed, then: “What can you see?”
“Piles of stuff!” Her brother’s voice bubbled with excitement. “It’s not a tomb –”
“Didn’t expect it to be.”
“No. But it looks like this was where old Tut stored his funerary artefacts. The ones that would be used for burial.”
“Of Nefertiti and Akhenaten?”
“Possibly. We’ll see when you get down. I haven’t gone too far in… Ah, there you are. You’re getting slow in your old age.” The boy held out his hand and helped his sister upright at the bottom of the ramped tunnel. She took it then gave him a playful punch on the shoulder.
“You’re fifteen minutes older than me!”
“And always fifteen minutes ahead of you too!”
She punched him again.
“Ow!” yelped the boy but didn’t retaliate. Here, surrounded
by vases, chests, sarcophagi and amphora – with who knew what kind of treasure inside – they put their sibling high jinks aside.
The girl took the lantern from him and traced a wide arc around the chamber. She let out a long whistle. “It looks like there are other chambers leading off from this one.”
The boy agreed. “At least one; there’s an entrance over there. I haven’t been through yet. Thought we could start here.”
The girl nodded her agreement, put down the lantern on top of a carved stele leaning against the wall, and started to investigate. The stele – possibly a grave marker – was inscribed with hieroglyphics. The twins were learning to read the ancient script in their Classical civilization classes at the academy. The
girl traced her finger over the shapes, mouthing the words as she went: “The sun and the moon, the day and the night, wed forever in celestial splendour. Akhenaten and Nefertiti shine on your people, divine ones, shine.” The girl gasped and raised her face to her brother. “It is them! This will fetch a fine price on the black market!”
The boy grinned. “Of course we can’t take too much… we’ll never get away with it… but I don’t see why we can’t take a couple of small pieces and then let Borchardt know when he gets back with father… we’ll have to leave the stele, too heavy… besides it identifies the find… but something smaller…”
He lifted the lid on one of the painted wooden chests. Inside, in a bed of straw, was a set of gold-plated amphora, perhaps intended to hold sacred oil. “Hang on,” he said, his fingers raking through the straw, “this is fresh… it’s fresh straw!” He reached for the next chest and it contained statuettes – possibly by Thutmose himself. But these too were neatly packaged in fresh straw.
“Why’s it fresh?” he asked.
The girl’s stomach clenched. “Oh no…” She too opened a chest and came face to face with a burial mask of gold leaf, blue enamel, and black jet that looked very similar to the bust of Nefertiti, discovered elsewhere on the dig two years earlier. But what struck the twins more than the exquisite beauty of the pharaoh queen was the nest of fresh straw and modern linen wadding in which it lay. “Someone’s been here before us,” the girl whispered.
“Yes,” agreed the boy, “and it looks like they’re packed and ready to go.”
“We need to report it,” said the girl. “This doesn’t look like a casual looter. It’s organized. It’s… pssst! Where are you going?” The boy was picking his way through the treasure-filled chests heading to the back of the chamber. “I’m just going to stick my head in here.”
The girl stood up and put her hands on her hips. “I don’t think we’ve got time. What if they come back?”
“Just a few minutes more,” said the boy and continued on his quest. As there was only one light the girl had a choice of staying there in the dark or following her brother. She sighed and, with a humph, joined her sibling. They had been right – there was another chamber, this too filled with chests, vases, statues, stele, and amphora. And in the middle was a stone sarcophagus. It was incomplete, with only the first layer of chiseling evident in what would eventually be an intricately carved design. The twins weren’t surprised. Thutmose had abandoned his workshop when the city itself had been evacuated after the death of Akhenaten. Much of the finds on the dig to date had been of unfinished or discarded pieces, though still of immense value to historians, antiquarians, and collectors of ancient art.
The boy took hold of the lid and heaved. It shifted slightly but didn’t budge. “Give me a hand, will you?”
The girl snorted. “You won’t find a mummy if that’s what you’re looking for.”
“I know!” said the brother. “But I’d like to see where one might lie. I’ve never seen inside one, have you?”
The girl admitted she hadn’t. There were a couple at the Cairo Museum, but she had never got around to visiting. When you lived a stone’s throw from an archaeological treasure trove, seeing the artefacts in the musty confines of a museum wasn’t quite so enticing. So she shrugged and leant her strength to her brother’s effort. With a few heaves and pulls the heavy stone lid began to pivot. When they’d moved it about 45 degrees they stopped and the boy picked up the lamp from the floor. He held it aloft and gasped. There, staring through the opening,
was the grimacing face of a dog, its teeth bared, its eyes wide and lifeless. The muzzle was matted with blood. The girl knew that if she reached out and touched it, it would still be sticky to the touch – it looked that recent. “It’s the watchman’s dog! Who would do this?”
The siblings stepped back from the sarcophagus and drew closer together. The girl slipped her arm around her brother’s waist. She was not a sentimental girl, but the thought of a poor animal being killed and hidden like this made her feel sick. Hidden… hidden… “And why would they hide it?”
“And where’s Mohammed?” The boy’s voice was hollow. He took a step towards the sarcophagus.
The girl knew immediately what he was going to do. “Don’t! Let’s call someone. The police at El-Hag Kandeel…”
But the boy was undeterred. He passed the lantern to his sister, then climbed up onto the edge of the stone coffin and positioned his backside on the rim. He pressed his heels against the edge of the lid and used the strength of his legs to push. The lid gave way and fell to the earth floor with a deathly thud. And there, as the siblings both feared, was the body of Mohammed the watchman under the corpse of his faithful dog.
The twins screamed, their voices merging as they had on the day they were born, and they ran from the chamber as fast as they could. The girl had the presence of mind to snatch up the lantern and was a step or two behind her brother as they fled towards the tunnel. But waiting for them, in the outer chamber, were two men, one an Egyptian police officer, the other a European.
“Mohammed! The watchman! His dog!” the boy cried in Arabic.
“Arrest them,” said the European in English.
“But we haven’t done anything!” cried the girl. Her protest was met with a blow to the head and the last thing she heard was her brother calling out her name.
London, Thursday 8 December 1921
“Miz Denby! What do you know about Queen Nefertiti?” Poppy looked up from her Remington typewriter – where she had been bashing out a theatre review – to see her editor stalking towards her with what looked like a press release in hand. Since returning from a trip to New York earlier in the year, the diminutive newspaperman had taken to walking around with a noxious Cuban cigar clenched between his teeth, adding to the already foul atmosphere of the fourth-floor newsroom. He clambered onto a spare chair near her desk, his short legs dangling a foot off the ground.
“Nefertiti,” he said again, pronouncing it “Nay-fur-toy-toy” in his New York accent.
“Hold on,” said Poppy, then swiped the carriage return twice, typed ENDS, and turned her attention to her editor.
“Who or what is ‘Nay-fur-toy-toy’?” she asked, reaching out her ink-stained hand to take the sheet of paper Rollo passed to her.
Rollo grinned at her attempt at a New York accent and then, in affected Queen’s English, articulated “Ne’er-for-tea- tea,” before slipping back into his usual drawl. “She was some Egyptian broad. A pharaoh queen. Married to a fella whose name I can’t pronounce.”
Poppy scanned the press release.
Dear Mr Rolandson, you are invited to report on the auction of the death mask of Queen Nefertiti at Winterton Hall, Henley-on-Thames, on Saturday 10th December. The auction will be part of a longer clay-pigeon shooting weekend – weather permitting – and will be attended by luminaries in the world of antiquities and archaeology, both local and international. Your readers might also be interested to know that on Friday evening, a séance will be held, led by Sir Arthur and Lady Conan Doyle, at which an attempt will be made to contact the spirit of Queen Nefertiti.
The release then went on to give a brief history of Nefertiti and to state that the mask had just recently come to light, the general consensus being that it had been stolen from a dig in Egypt in 1914, under what were described as “murderous circumstances”.
Poppy raised her eyebrows. “Murderous circumstances? What does that mean?”
“Damned if I know,” said Rollo, and stubbed out his cigar in the soil around Poppy’s precious potted begonia. She glared at him. “Sorry,” he offered, then picked out the stub and plopped it into an empty tea cup. “You really should get an ash tray, Miz Denby.”
Poppy bit back her you really should respect other people’s property and said instead, “So, are you going?”
“It’s short notice, but yes. And I think you should come too. Technically, it falls into the art and entertainment brief – particularly with Conan Doyle in attendance; you might be able to get an interview.”
“What’s this about a séance?”
Rollo rolled his eyes beneath his shaggy red brows. “Another one of his spiritualist stunts, I suppose.”
Poppy pursed her lips. “Quite. I wish he’d stick to his detective stories. They’re far more sensible.”
Rollo grinned. “But not half as newsworthy. Which is why this Maddox fella thinks we’ll be interested. And he’s right.”
“Well, I’m not interested in the least.”
“Hocus pocus not Christian enough for you?” asked Rollo with a grin.
Poppy swivelled in her chair and looked Rollo squarely in the eye. “There are two ways of looking at this. Either they’re a hoax and people are being duped, or they are actually talking to the dead – which, in my book, is a very dangerous thing to do. Dabbling with the spirits can lead down sinister paths.”
“Spirits that don’t exist.”
“You have no evidence of that.”
“Neither do you.”
They held each other’s gaze. Poppy and Rollo had been over
this ground before. She believed in God. He did not.
“Well, Miz Denby, hopefully you can admit that whether it’s a hoax or real, anything involving Conan Doyle is newsworthy.
And you would be professionally remiss to ignore it.”
Poppy lowered her eyes. He was right. She had a job to do. She cleared her throat and then scanned the press release again. It was signed by Sir James Maddox, Baron of Winterton. “Do we know anything about Maddox?” asked Poppy, indicating
that she was most firmly back “on the job”.
Rollo leaned back in his chair, his plump belly straining
between the parallel lines of his scarlet braces. “I’ve heard the name. Yazzie has mentioned him before. He was a friend of her father’s, I think. Some kind of maverick archaeologist collector type. A bit like that Carnarvon fella.”
“The one that’s looking for King Tut’s tomb?”
“That’s the one,” said Rollo and took the press release back
from Poppy. “I think I’ll ask Yazzie to come as well. She might be able to give us some insight into the Egyptian angle. And she might want to bid on the mask… She’s got quite the art collection, as you know.”
Poppy brushed a stray blonde curl behind her ear and avoided meeting Rollo’s eyes.
“Nothing. I just thought you and Miss Reece-Lansdale were no longer – er – well – no longer stepping out together.” She straightened a pile of notes on her desk.
Rollo cocked his head to one side. “I don’t know if we were ever ‘stepping out together’. But no, whatever you’ve heard, Yazzie and I are still friends. She’s a fine lady.”
What Poppy had heard was that the famous female barrister, the Anglo-Egyptian Miss Yasmin Reece-Lansdale, had been forthright enough to ask the editor of The Daily Globe to marry her. And he had turned her down. But it was none of her business. What was her business was a possible story involving Arthur Conan Doyle and a valuable Egyptian artefact that was somehow associated with a murder… A shiver ran down her spine. “Apologies Rollo. Yes, I’d love to come on the weekend with you and Yazzie – in a professional capacity, of course.” Annoyingly, she felt a slight blush creep up her neck.
Her editor laughed. “Goodo. And I’ll ask Danny Boy too,” he winked. “In his professional capacity, of course.” Rollo heaved himself off his chair and stood at Poppy’s side, his head barely reaching her shoulder. His eyes expertly scanned the typescript in her machine. “Is this the Ivor Novello / PG Wodehouse collaboration?”
“It is,” said Poppy. “At the Adelphi.”
Poppy whisked out the sheet and passed it to him. “Very
funny, as you’d expect. Jolly music too.”
“I might give it a go. If you’re finished with this why don’t
you go down to the morgue and pull some jazz files on the main players at the Egyptian weekend. And I’ll telegraph Maddox to expect a group of us from the Globe.” He paused, his eyebrows furrowed. “Bet we’re not the only press he’s asked.”
“Lionel Saunders from the Courier?” asked Poppy as she stood up and straightened her calf-length Chanel grey skirt – all the rage in office wear for the working lady – and shrugged into the matching jacket.
“You can bet your bottom dollar on it,” observed Rollo. He wagged a finger at Poppy. “We’d better make sure we get the scoop on him. Do as much research as you can, Miz Denby, and I’ll see if Yazzie knows anything about these ‘murderous circumstances’. Her brother Faizal is with the Egyptian Antiquities Service, did you know?”
Poppy didn’t. She didn’t even know Yasmin had a brother. The editor and reporter parted ways, promising to touch base later in the day.
Down in the morgue, Poppy hung her jacket and matching cloche hat next to a huge black great coat, which had previously seen action on the Western Front. The coat belonged to Ivan Molanov, the archivist of The Daily Globe. Ivan was a refugee from communist Russia who had met Rollo Rolandson in a military hospital in Belgium during the war. At Poppy’s request, Ivan had dug out the jazz files on Arthur and Jean Conan Doyle, James Maddox, the archaeologist Howard Carter, and his backer, George Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon. Poppy didn’t know whether Carter and Carnarvon were going to be at the shooting weekend, but as they were currently the most famous Egyptologists in the country, she thought their files might contain some useful background material. She also asked Ivan to look beyond the jazz files – which contained mainly celebrity gossip – to the subject clipping files.
“Do you have anything on Egypt in general? Or this Queen Nefertiti?”
“Nay-fah who?” asked Ivan.
Poppy wrote down the name on a piece of paper and gave it to him. Ivan held it in his huge paw-like hand and grunted. “Thees ees not a library, Mees Denby. Go to the British Museum. Beeg library there. Lots of Egyptian artefacts too. You ever see a mummy?”
Poppy admitted that she hadn’t. She was a frequent visitor to the British Library, but in the eighteen months she had lived in London she had never ventured into the bowels of the museum which shared the same premises. History did not interest her that much, and most of her time – work or leisure – was taken up attending art exhibitions, book launches or theatre and cinema shows. She was, after all, the arts and entertainment editor of the Globe, not a historian. However, this new story, which she had labelled “The Cairo Brief” in bold letters at the top of her notebook (she had initially called it “The Pharaoh Brief ” but wasn’t confident she could spell it), was about ancient art. She felt a little out of her depth.
“Yes, that’s a good suggestion, Ivan. I’ll head over to the museum when I’m finished here.”
Ivan left her to her research. First off she opened the file on Arthur and Jean Conan Doyle. Actually, it was two files in one, as the file of Jean Leckie, long-term mistress of the famous detective fiction writer, was slipped into her lover’s when they
finally married, the year after the death of Conan Doyle’s first wife. Sir Arthur, Lady Jean, and anyone close to them denied that they’d had a physical affair, but no one denied that they had been in love for at least a decade while the first Mrs Conan Doyle became increasingly infirm with tuberculosis. It was partly due to Jean, apparently, that Arthur became embroiled in spiritualism, which avid readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories struggled to understand. Conan Doyle had previously been a doctor and gifted his scientific mindset to the forensic genius of Holmes. However, as Poppy read on in the file, she realized that this was just a veneer. The real Conan Doyle was just as interested in the metaphysical as he was in the scientific, having become a freemason thirty years earlier. He had also written articles on psychic phenomena, which he claimed to have observed in his children’s nanny. When he married Jean in 1906 and she professed to have the gift of contacting the dead and communicating their messages to the living through automatic writing, Conan Doyle became increasingly active in the spiritualist movement. Poppy noted that his first published work on spiritualism was in 1916, the year after one of his nephews was killed in the war. Poppy swallowed hard. That’s the same year Christopher died…
Poppy’s brother Christopher had been a voracious reader of the Sherlock Holmes stories and had used his pocket money to buy The Strand magazine and kept it hidden under his mattress. Knowing their parents would disapprove of wasting good money on what they would have thought “bad literature”, he swore Poppy to secrecy. A few years later, when Christopher died, she felt she needed to continue keeping his secret. But when she went to his room to retrieve the stash, their mother was already there. She had pulled the mattress off the bed for beating and found the collection of story magazines. They now lay around her as she knelt on the floor, her shoulders heaving as she sobbed. One of the magazines was clutched to her breast as she wept out her anguish for her lost child. Poppy did not speak; she just turned around and left her mother to her private grief. Later, she returned to the room, but the magazines had all gone.
Poppy closed her eyes to suppress the tears that were beginning to well. Pull yourself together, old girl; there’s work to be done. Poppy turned a page in the file to find a clipping from The Strand dated December 1920. The article, written by Conan Doyle, was in defence of the girls from Yorkshire who claimed to have photographed fairies at the bottom of their garden. Poppy smiled as she looked at the whimsical photograph, considered a hoax by experts and academics, but widely believed by the general public. This article by the author of Sherlock Holmes had much to do with the popular acceptance of the fairy hoax, as the public seemed to struggle to differentiate the unimpeachable fictional detective – who could never be fooled – from his more fanciful creator.
The next page in the file held an article written by Rollo Rolandson, lampooning Conan Doyle for his defence of the photographs and quoting Daniel Rokeby, The Daily Globe’s resident photographer, who explained how the photographs had been staged and faked. Poppy remembered Rollo and Daniel working on the piece last December. Golly, had it been a year already?
Poppy trailed her finger along Daniel’s name. Last December Poppy had believed she and the handsome photographer might soon be married. But here they were, twelve months later, and there was still no ring on her finger. Their relationship ebbed and flowed like the tide, and for three whole months, when Poppy was in New York with Rollo, she thought it might be over forever. But on her return Daniel had been waiting for her…
Poppy pulled herself up again: stop daydreaming!
She read through her notes on Conan Doyle and decided
that she had enough to go on for now. She was fascinated to meet the man in the flesh – as well as his wife; although the idea of speaking to someone who spoke to the dead was a little troubling. Claims to speak to the dead, Poppy reminded herself. Surely, the whole thing was a hoax. Not to mention un- Christian! Nonetheless, she was intrigued to see what actually happened at a séance. Despite her qualms, Rollo was right: it would make for a fantastic article.
The next file was on Sir James Maddox, whom Poppy had never heard of before. There wasn’t much in the file, as Maddox appeared to spend much of his time abroad or on his country estate, Winterton, and did not come up to London much. There was, however, a photograph of Maddox and his wife, Lady Ursula, at the opening of an exhibit at the British Museum. He was a beefy, balding man, sporting a moustache and wearing one of those curious Ottoman hats – a fez, Poppy thought it might be called. His wife was more conventionally dressed, her unsmiling face giving nothing away. The notes added little to what Rollo had already told her. Maddox was a gentleman archaeologist and world traveller, with an extensive collection of Egyptian, Roman, and Greek antiquities. There was, however, one newspaper clipping that gave a hint of something slightly controversial. It was from the Times, dated August 1914, reporting that Sir James Maddox had been asked to step down from the board of the Egyptian Exploration Fund. A representative of the board had told the Times it was due to concerns that had been raised about Sir James’s “methods of procurement of certain antiquities”. The representative declined to give more specific details and Sir James was “not available for comment”. It was a short article, covering a mere three column inches. Poppy was very surprised the journalist hadn’t dug deeper. There was clearly a story there… but, perhaps the outbreak of the war that very same month had caused the story to be spiked – or it had been longer and the sub-editor had cut it for space. She checked the by-line on the article – Walter Jensford. She’d never heard of him but made a note of it.
Poppy closed the file and checked her watch – nearly one o’clock. Time for a spot of lunch then I’ll head over to the British Museum. She hadn’t had a chance to read the Carnarvon and Carter files. “Ivan,” she called out to the archivist. “Can I take these with me please?”
Ivan said she could and made a note in his meticulously kept record book as Poppy slipped her jacket over her white silk blouse. “You should wrap up warm, Mees Denby. I see it is starting to snow.” Poppy glanced out of the third-floor window, overlooking Fleet Street. Down below, horse-drawn vehicles jostled for space with motorcars, and pedestrians pulled up their collars against the cold. Ivan was right; it was starting to snow.