Naomi had imitated Joan Miró. Rolf, in the studio next door, had chosen Da Vinci. The next was Twombly, all painted squiggles and sparks, and then a black-and-white Ernst collage, where a girl in an old-fashioned gown held an iPhone to her ear (“Nathaniel really hated that one,” she said), and then an American Gothic, a really terrible imitation of Starry Night (actually, I thought, maybe Simon could go to this school), and finally, as I caught Marie-Helene not-so-subtly checking the time, we wound up in her friend Hanna’s studio. The girl with the paint-splattered backpack, the one who warned me about the men at the pool party.
“She’s from Munich,” Marie-Helene explained. “She really loves all the twentieth-century German painters. A lot of us don’t like taking art history—we’d rather make our own—but Hanna really works hard at it. She’s a great artist, and she’s really smart.”
Langenberg. I kept my face neutral. “As smart as you?” I asked.
“You tell me,” Marie-Helene said with a shrug, and began to pull the paintings back one at a time for me to see.
They were all surrealist landscapes. Every last one of them done in clashing neon colors, horrible to look at. No hushed scenes in sitting rooms. No dark colors. No people, even. And maybe my taste in art was just underdeveloped, or maybe I was just frustrated to again have hit a brick wall. But when we got to the last of them, I knew I was done.
It was a relief.
“Maybe I just drank too much last night,” I told her, taking off my hat to rub at my temples. “I think I just need a nap. Sorry to be so lame.”
“Not lame,” she said, and took the hat from me to prop on her own head. She grinned. “I actually had a lot of fun today.”
I had, too. Almost a normal kind of fun, when I used to go hang out at the pub on long afternoons, having the kinds of conversations where I didn’t feel like I needed an encyclopedia, a dictionary, and a scorekeeper. Where my friends liked me and I liked them, and that was the whole of it. When I could go home and bicker with my sister and read a book in bed and not worry that everything I cared about was retreating slowly out of my grip.
The kind of fun where nobody’s shooting at you, I thought, and when I took my hat back from Marie-Helene, I kissed her on the cheek. Before I could pull away, she snaked a finger through my belt loop. “I could see you when I come back,” she said quietly. “I think I might like that.”
“I’ll be in London,” I told her. “But if you ever come out that way—” Don’t call me, I wanted to say, because you’re lovely and deserve better than an imaginary posh asshole who doesn’t like you as much as he should.
“If I do.” She kissed me on the corner of my mouth, a slow kiss, an unexpected one. It wasn’t chaste, and it wasn’t romantic—it was a suggestion, an ellipsis. I closed my eyes against it.
“See you later, Simon,” she said, and I dragged my heels back to Greystone, not sure what I’d say to Holmes when I got there.
I WAS SO LOST IN MY HEAD THAT I DIDN’T NOTICE THE CAR trailing along behind me. At first I thought I was imagining it. But the sky was bleak and whispery with snow, the roads nearly empty, and the black car crept down the street like a moving tumor.
I slowed at a crosswalk. The car slowed, too. When I ducked through an alley and out onto a different road, the car was there moments later. Finally, I stopped at a corner, my hat in my hands, and I waited.
It pulled up to the curb. The back window rolled down.
“Mr. Watson,” the voice said. “Do you need a ride?”
The click of a gun cocking. It wasn’t a suggestion. I got in.
THE BLACK CAR DIDN’T TAKE ME TO A CELL, OR A WAREHOUSE, or a secluded field with a pre-dug grave. I wouldn’t have known to be afraid if it had, because I couldn’t see where we were going. When I climbed into the car, I was immediately grabbed and blindfolded, my hands tied with what felt like a zip tie. All I’d seen before I was bound was a man in a suit with a black bag over his head.
What the hell was going on?
“James,” the voice said, inflectionless. The slip of the bag-mask being pulled off. “Before we begin, I’d like you to know. This is not my voice. I’ve employed this man to speak to you on my behalf. He’s being fed his lines.”
I strained my ears, and I could hear the light tap of fingers on a screen across from me. There must be a seat facing mine. Someone else sitting there, writing his words on a tablet. I kicked my foot out and connected with someone’s knee.
A gasp of pain. A shuffle. The safety being switched off on a gun. Maybe he wasn’t typing on a tablet, after all. But I wasn’t given time to consider it—I was thrown against the door, and after a scuffle, they bound my legs.
“I have no intention of hurting you, idiot child,” the voice said. “Stop flailing about.”
There was a pause while everyone settled back down. The car took a slow turn to the right. If I were Holmes, I would’ve tracked our route by the number of turns we’d made and deduced where we were going. Three? Four? I wished I had a map of the city committed to memory, the way she did.
But I didn’t. I had to get over it. I focused instead on the car’s interior—how many people were in here with me? Two, I knew for certain. When the voice spoke again, I listened for the dead places in the car, where his voice hit resistance. Three, maybe?
“This is not your fight. This was never your fight. You’re putting Charlotte Holmes in danger.”