“The code to his childhood bedroom. He changes it. From Berlin.”
“Well, he’s the head of a mercenary company.” She reached for her phone. “Can’t have anyone finding Mr. Wiggles. Plush bunnies need the same protection as state secrets, you know.”
I laughed, and she smiled back at me, and for a moment I forgot we weren’t getting along.
“Holmes,” I said, the way I’d done so often in the past—out of reflex, as punctuation, with nothing I really planned to say after.
She let the moment hang longer than was usual. When she finally said “Watson,” it was with hesitation.
I thought of the questions I wanted to ask her. All the horrible things I could say instead. But all I said was, “Why are you reading to me about Czechoslovakia?”
Her smile tightened. “Because my father is having the Czech ambassador to dinner tonight along with the newest Louvre curator, and I thought we might as well be prepared, because I rather doubt you know anything about Eastern Europe without my guidance, and we want to prove to my mother that you’re not an idiot. Oh,” she said, as her phone pinged, “Milo’s changed the code to 666, just for us. Charming. Go on and fetch your suit, but be quick. We still need to discuss the Velvet Revolution of 1989.”
At that moment, I wanted to take up arms myself. Curators? Ambassadors? Her mother thinking I was stupid? I was, as usual, in over my head.
To be fair, my own father had insinuated that this would be a difficult trip, though I don’t think he’d predicted the particulars. When, a few days after the Bryony Downs affair wrapped up, I told him my plans—we’d spend the break at my place first, then hers—he’d begun by saying that my mother would hate the idea, which was ineffective as a warning because it was so obvious. My mother hated the Holmeses, and the Moriartys, and mysteries. I’m sure she hated tweed capes just on principle. But after what had happened this fall, the thing she hated most was Charlotte Holmes herself.
“Well,” my father had said, “if you insist on going to stay with them, I’m sure you’ll have a very . . . nice time. The house is lovely.” He’d paused, clearly searching for something else to say. “And Holmes’s parents are . . . ah. Well. You know, I heard they had six bathrooms in that house. Six!”
This was foreboding. “Leander will be there,” I’d said, a bit desperate for something to look forward to. Holmes’s uncle was my father’s former flatmate and longtime best friend.
“Yes! Leander. Very good. Leander will surely act as a buffer between you and . . . anything you need a buffer for. Excellent.” Then he’d trotted out something about my stepmother needing him in the kitchen and hung up, leaving me with a whole new host of doubts about Christmas.
As soon as Holmes had brought up the idea of us spending the break together, I’d begun imagining us somewhere like my mother’s apartment in London. Sweaters, and cocoa, maybe watching a Doctor Who special by the fire. Holmes in some bobbly knit hat, dismembering a chocolate orange. We were, in fact, already sprawled out on my living room couch when Holmes told me to stop avoiding the subject and just ask my mother if I could go down to Sussex. I’d been actively avoiding that conversation. “Be diplomatic,” Holmes had said, then paused. “By that I mean, plan out what you want to say, and then don’t say it.”
It was no use. Holmes and my father had predicted her reaction more or less exactly. When I told her our plans, she began shouting so loudly about Lucien Moriarty that the usually unflappable Holmes backed herself bodily into a corner.
“You almost died,” my mother concluded. “The Moriartys almost killed you. And you want to spend Christmas in their enemy’s stronghold?”
“Their stronghold? What do you think this is, Batman?” I started laughing. Across the room, Holmes buried her head in her hands. “Mum. I’ll be fine. I’m almost an adult, I can decide what to do with my holiday. You know, I told Dad not to tell you about that whole near-death thing. I said that you’d overreact, and I was right.”
There was a long pause, and then the shouting got somewhat louder.
When she capitulated—which she finally did, with extreme prejudice—it came with a price. Our last few days in London were miserable. My mother sniped at me for everything from the cleanliness of the living room to the way my English accent had returned, with a vengeance, on my return to London. It’s like that girl even took away your voice, she told me. Maybe I had pushed my mother a little too far to begin with; she certainly wasn’t happy I’d brought Holmes to visit in the first place. I think it would’ve been a relief to both of them had she stayed behind, but I had a point I wanted to make—I was tired of my mother’s disdain for someone she’d never met. Someone who was important to me. For my sake, my mother should be able to accept my best friend for the brilliant, thrilling girl she was.
That worked out about as well as you’d expect.
Holmes and I spent a lot of time out of the house.
I took her to my favorite bookstore, where I loaded her up with Ian Rankin novels and she bullied me into buying a book on European snails. I took her to the chip shop on the corner, where she distracted me by giving a detailed-and-probably-bullshit account of her brother’s sex life (drones, cameras, his rooftop pool) while she ate all my fried fish and left her own plate untouched. I took her for a walk along the Thames, where I showed her how to skip a stone and she nearly punctured a hole in a passing pontoon boat. We went to my favorite curry place. Twice. In one day. She’d gotten this look on her face when she took her first bite of their pakora, this blissful, lids-lowered look, and two hours later I decided I needed to see it again. It was so good to see her happy that it made up for the embarrassment I felt that night, when I found her instructing my sister, Shelby, on the best way to bleach out bloodstains, using the curry dribble on my shirt as a test case.