Lady Natasha "Tasha" Dorrington, an emancipated and brilliant detective in 1906 London, is drawn into a deadly mystery involving an ancient pagan curse and a diabolical scheme to plunge Europe into a devastating war.
An Admiralty courier is murdered, and plans for the Dreadnought—a new battleship that will upset the balance of naval power—are stolen. All evidence implicates Great Britain's international rival: Germany. Tasha is summoned to help solve the crime. She is thus observed by Deirdre, the priestess of a malevolent cult intent on exacting vengeance on Western Civilization for the long-ago decimation of her religious sect. Cleverly leveraging the greed of giant armaments firms in England and Germany, Deirdre plans to frame Germany in an attack on the Dreadnought. In her arrogance, Deirdre decides to simultaneously engage Tasha in a contest of wits.
The story moves from fog-bound London to a desolate island off the coast of Scotland. Deirdre manipulates Tasha's overconfidence, crafting a mystery to lure her into a labyrinth of false leads, lethal traps, and an unexpected romance. It is an epic struggle between two formidable women: one madly intent on enslavement and revenge, the other fighting for a free and rational humanity—as well as the precious life of her only daughter.
Brooks Wachtel is an Emmy Award Winning writer, successful in his television work, and also a practicing stage magician. He has produced a fantastical story of a brilliant emancipated female detective in 1906 London fighting against unnatural evil. Filled with illustrations, this is a book unlike anything you have ever read. – Kevin J. Anderson
"A terrific tale of sleuthing in post-Victorian England with Tasha Dorrington, a daring female detective who takes on a mysterious murder of a government official. The characters are fresh and come alive, and the prose evokes sights and sounds from elite clubs to remote islands. Brooks Arthur Wachtel has written many action adventure shows for TV and combines that with fascinating knowledge of the British Empire to craft a rousing story. A real page turner."– Amazon Review
My singular and remarkable story starts a year or two after Father vanished. Mother was just establishing herself with the Yard and only Commissioner Rushworth Ramsgate really trusted her. Mother's first case was clearing herself of my father's murder (in fact, he had simply run off, unable to cope with her). Ramsgate was an unusual man. Tall, thin, and, save for the amused twinkle in his eye, every inch an old-school patrician with his elegant attire and aristocratic bearing. He came from an ancient and well-respected family and, had he cared about such things, would never have incurred their wrath by entering something as pedestrian as the police force. He was only a few years from retirement and thanks to a combination of hard-work, respect, and, it must be admitted, family connections, he was one of the most senior under-commissioners of Scotland Yard. Ramsgate reported directly to Commissioner Sir Edward Henry.
He was intrigued with Mother as he held a deep respect and, at times, I believe, awe for her abilities. He was just the sort of personality to be the lone champion of a woman playing a man's game, when all around him were scowls of disapproval. I also suspect that he, a long-time widower of around sixty, had a severe crush on my mother, the remarkable Lady Natasha Dorrington.
While some of Mother's cases were complicated, often the simpler ones afforded her the chance to practise her more colourful abilities, much to Ramsgate's delight. One he particularly mentioned to me involved her love of costume and dance.
Persepolis was, despite its palatial name, a modest eatery in London's immigrant-heavy East End. The entire area was razed by the Blitz in World War Two and it's a pity, for the owner of Persepolis, an émigré Persian, had personally done his best to make his place something out of the Arabian Nights. Belly dancing was scandalous, and it was that, far more than the ethnic fare, which kept the place busy. People from every strata of society enjoyed the veiled dancers, but on that night, a keen-eyed observer would have spotted one table where two men, intense in conversation at the very back of the dark room, were ignoring them.
The smaller man, clean-shaven and neatly dressed in working clothes, glanced around to make certain no one was paying attention. Then he produced a small velvet case from his pocket. The second man, heavy-set, with a goatee, placed a jeweller's glass to his eye, stroked his beard and examined the merchandise from inside the case—a diamond necklace. He replaced the glass in his pocket. Then, scowling, he took a water glass and used it to smash the "diamond" into fragments. The smaller man babbled in speechless amazement. Before either of them could act, a shadow crossed the table. They both looked up to see Mother, dressed as a belly-dancer, holding a small Webley revolver in one hand, while in the other twirling the real diamond necklace.
Ramsgate, sitting at a nearby table, walked over with a burly detective from the Yard. As the thief and fence were led away, Mother asked Ramsgate if he had any questions.
"Many—but let's start with, would you finish your dance?"
And she did.
Later that night, as the criminals were incarcerated, the thin one—as the constable roughly shoved him in the cell—cursed at Mother, calling her a "trollop." I recall Ramsgate mentioning that she stood in the dimly lit passageway between cells while most of the other prisoners, with good reason, glared at her. One large brute growled, "I'll get you! There'll come a time! Mark my words! There'll come a time!" The other prisoners voiced hearty approval.
"Ah, the old song," she mused, "it's a ditty I hear so often of late." Mother was never known for false modesty. She waved a pert goodbye to the incarcerated assembly. As Ramsgate accompanied her out, she commented, "You may make the usual arrangements."
"Why won't you take credit, Tasha?" She allowed, in fact insisted upon, Ramsgate to use this familiar abbreviation of her first name. It was a decidedly unusual practice for that era.
"And have you stop bringing me all your little problems? I value the game, not the prize."
Mother walked a fine line between being useful to the Yard and not actively stealing their limelight. She was shrewd enough to know that the novelty of a woman detective would soon excite the press. The Fleet Street reporters only uncovered a few of her cases, but that was enough for them to christen Mother a lady Sherlock Holmes—soon shortened to "Lady Sherlock."
While Mother lived for the game, sometimes, when there was no intriguing criminal activity afoot, she found other—less positive—stimulations …
The Inn of Illusion was one of the worst kept secrets in London. When Ramsgate stepped out of the Hansom Cab before the brightly lit mansion, the cabman gave him a knowing grin, which Ramsgate ignored. He walked—over a small drawbridge and a shallow decorative moat—grimly toward the door. He was certain of what was inside, for Mother, brilliant as she was, did have her frailties. I've suspected that she had a touch of what would later be called manic-depression.
Inside, the plump and severely dressed madam broke away from a group of scantily clad lovelies. She walked directly to Ramsgate and cagily asked if this was an "official" visit. He shook his head "no" and instantly the lovelies giggled and crowded around him. The madam asked in relief, "Which one?"
With the air of a man making the ultimate sacrifice, he simply said, "None."
As the amazed girls walked away indignantly, the madam understood. "Eliza?"
"How long has she been here?"
The madam led the way up the grand staircase. "Five days. She hasn't stopped. She's in the Cunard room, though Victoria Station would be more appropriate to the way gentlemen come and go. Doesn't she ever tire?"
"Not that I've heard."
"Only heard. Pity. She's an odd one. She pays me and picks her own people. Never heard the like, but a quid's a quid no matter how it comes."
They approached a door with a ship's bell affixed to the wall near the doorframe. The madam hesitated, "She's with Captain Crocker."
"Seafaring man, eh?"
"It's all pretend—you know that."
They put their ears to the door and from inside they heard a deep voice yelling, "Stroke! Stroke! Stroke! By God Liza, you're bloody marvelous!" Then he started singing—off-key—"Blow, blow, blow the man down!"
Ramsgate reached for the bell, and with determined energy, clanged it several times. Inside, the man's voice yelled, "Blast! Sail clear, you scurvy bilge rat. Prepare to repel boarders!"
"This is Commissioner Rushworth Ramsgate, Scotland Yard!"
Ramsgate opened the door and stepped in. The room resembled a fanciful pirate ship. Plaster "cannons" pointed to the ceiling and the bed resembled a crow's-nest. "Captain Crocker"—a big man with a ruddy complexion, in his long underwear and sporting a captain's hat—gulped in genuine panic. Ramsgate offered him advice, "Abandon ship!"
"Every man for himself!" yelled Crocker as he grabbed his clothes, including a very land-lubbery top hat. He ran to the French window, threw it open, dashed to the balcony and leapt over the side. There was the sound of splashing water.
Ramsgate went to Tasha, who appeared a bit dissipated as she lay in bed, under the covers, but wearing a pirate hat and eye-patch. Save for her state of undress, Mother would have fit onstage at the Savoy's revival of The Pirates of Penzance. She smiled and placed a toy cutlass in her teeth. Ramsgate could only sigh; she was simply so charming. He gently removed the cutlass.
"Shall I take you home, Tasha?"
She quietly answered, "Yo ho ho."
These little escapades weren't Mother's only antidote to boredom.
The Penbrokes's elegant house, the crown jewel of the fashionable and exclusive Park Lane, radiated wealth.
Tasha, dressed in her tight, black cat-burglar outfit, silently opened the upper-floor bedroom window. There were few buildings that Mother couldn't scale. All she needed was the slimmest of handholds and, even under a new moon, she could scurry silently up the side of any domicile that was otherwise secure.
The two elderly Penbrokes were asleep in bed. Mr. Penbroke, his moustache hidden under a moustache-presser, clutched his teddy bear—an object, it was said, he'd be lost without.
Even if they'd been awake, Tasha, clad in black, would have blended into the shadows. She efficiently found the jewellry box and tossed a gigantic diamond into a little pouch. Just as she was about to make her escape back through the window, something caught her eye …
Lady Penbroke's tiara, glittering in the faint moonlight, rested on the night table. Tasha reached toward it, but went past the diadem, and snatched the teddy bear. She deftly slipped it from Mr. Penbroke's embrace. As she left, Tasha thoughtfully closed the window so the crisp night air would not give them colds.
I used to love looking out our front window to the busy thoroughfare. I still do. I reside in the same house on Brook Street today, just between Hanover Square and Grosvenor Square (and not far from a house where George Frideric Handel once lived), though so much else has changed (the American Embassy is now nearby).
I would often try to emulate Mother's methods and deduce the occupations and lives of passing people. It was a great exercise in observation and imagination. Of course, I had no way of verifying my deductions, but with the certainty of youth I was confident in my accuracy. That day, as I hugged my new Teddy Bear and practised my vigil at the window, I saw Ramsgate striding furiously toward the house. I always adored Ramsgate; though not really related, he was like a loving and favourite uncle—unless he was angered. And irate he certainly was at that moment.
I bit my lip as he stormed to the door. Behind me, her head in a book, was Nanny Roberts. I mostly remember her head being hidden by a book. How that woman loved to read.
"He looks upset," I said. "Mother must have stolen something again."
The house nearly shook as the doorknocker slammed against the door.
"Something expensive," I added.
There was another very loud crash.
"Very expensive," I concluded gloomily.
Nanny Roberts lowered her book, and we exchanged knowing glances. "The Crown Jewels again?" I asked. Nanny raised her eyebrows. The possibility could not be dismissed.
Wickett, our butler, opened the door, but before he could even wish Ramsgate a good morning, the Commissioner entered and informed him that this was an "official call."
"Oh, dear. She is in the gymnasium, sir. I shall announce you."
"That won't be necessary," said Ramsgate as he strode toward the gymnasium.
"Oh, dear." What else could Wickett say?
As Ramsgate walked past, I popped up from behind a vase and as brightly as I could, "Good morning, Uncle Ramsgate."
"Good morning, Laura." He nodded and turned determinedly to carry on with his mission.
"Are you going to try to arrest Mother again?"
"I'm going to do more than try!" He continued his march.
"Will you still take me to Madame Tussauds Saturday?"
He stopped, sighed, and dully nodded as I walked away. "Laura, I've come to arrest your mother."
"Oh, you never do. If you did, who would solve your cases for you?"
He pointed to Teddy, "Where did you get that?"
"Mother gave Mr. Teddy to me this morning, Commissioner Ramsgate. He's my best friend."
Ramsgate drummed his fingers on the stair railing for a few seconds as he thought that over, then sighed and continued purposefully to the gymnasium.
Ramsgate boldly opened the door and marched in. "Tasha, my dear. Here's the warrant!" He produced the document from his pocket and waved it in triumph. "And here's the darbies!" He whipped out the handcuffs—then noticed that he was talking to an empty room. It was the largest room in the house, and in a more conventional establishment the prodigious area with its high ceilings might have even sufficed as a small ballroom. Mother had little use for soirées—but a keen interest in sweat. She replaced the crystal chandeliers with ropes and trapeze. He wandered in looking for Tasha among the amazingly rugged equipment. Along with dancer's barre, parallel bars, and rope, there were large weights, fencing foils, and a high-wire. Ramsgate leaned against the safety net bewildered, when he heard:
"You should not have left your office before the morning post."
He followed the direction of the voice and there was Tasha, suspended above him, effortlessly hanging from the rings, supporting herself with the strength of her arms in the grueling iron-cross position. She had designed her own exercise attire and it not only allowed complete freedom of movement, but was exceedingly revealing, displaying her shapely and well-muscled arms and legs.
"I haven't been at the office all morning," he said, trying not to show how impressed he was with her strength and overwhelmed by her figure. "I've been at …"
"… the Penbroke Estate," interrupted Mother, "vainly looking for clues regarding the disappearance of the Watusi Diamond."
"You are the absolute limit! It's not the diamond. It's the Teddy Bear!"
As I perched myself back at the window, I spotted a rough looking bruiser on the sidewalk observing our house. He was big, clad as a workingman, and in desperate need of a razor. He was scowling. "I think we have another caller—he's going 'round to the side."
Nanny didn't bother glancing up from her book. "He means ill for your Mother, doesn't he?" she said placidly.
I sighed and leaned on the windowsill and nodded. She just kept reading, commenting, "The poor innocent … elbows off the windowsill, dear."
I made a face and removed my elbows.
Mother, still on the rings, practised her gymnastics while continuing with Ramsgate. "You can't arrest me."
"Why not? Come down here."
"No evidence," she said as she twirled on the rings. I believe the distraction of her gyrations was why she failed to spot the brawler at the French doors of the gym. He cracked his impressive knuckles and gave an evil grin.
Ramsgate was still trying to pin down Mother. "But the diamond! The Teddy Bear!"
"I will not discuss the Teddy Bear. As for the diamond, I don't have it."
Before Tasha could answer, the bruiser made his entrance by kicking open the doors and barging in. Ramsgate spun as the huge man strode in menacingly and pointed to Mother. "You Lady Tasha Dorrington?"
"I consider the question highly personal." And she continued on the rings.
The thug grabbed Ramsgate by the collar and made a fist. "Come down!" Ramsgate nodded in agreement. Tasha slid down a rope suspended from the ceiling into the net and then somersaulted herself to the ground with an aerialist's fluid grace. The thug let go of Ramsgate and stomped over to Tasha, who had started curling a large weight.
Pleased at anticipating this novel variation of her training, she announced, "Allow me to introduce Animal Rosencrantz, who could best be described as a 'for-hire' practitioner of physical persuasion."
"Charmed," said Ramsgate, dryly.
"Now employed by … let me see … Lord Carlfax."
Animal exhibited no surprise. Perhaps he simply wasn't bright enough to be surprised. "Right! 'e was none too chuffed about 'is wife discoverin' 'is addiction. Said to give you something." He grinned and loudly smashed his ham-hock-sized fist into his calloused palm.
Mother smiled and said, "Here," while tossing him the weight. He instinctively caught it and was thrown backward off his feet. Tasha continued to exercise and stretch while speaking to Ramsgate. "What were we discussing?"
Ramsgate couldn't keep his eyes off Mother. Seeing a figure like hers, taking exercise, was simply an opportunity almost unknown for a gentleman of 1906. "The Watusi Diamond." He replied at last. "You were about to tell me who has it."
As they talked, Animal regained his footing and attacked Tasha. She kept exercising and dodged every blow—all without breaking her conversation.
"Me? The morning post!"
At this point, Mother went on the attack, using the movements of her exercise to trip and hit Animal, while otherwise ignoring him. "It was mailed to you. Disguised handwriting." A kick sent Animal hurtling into a heavy punching bag as Mother added, "Suburban post office—impossible to trace. So you really haven't much of a case."
The brutish Animal picked himself up and, in a rage, once more continued his futile offensive. He kept swinging; she kept dodging. He was nearly in tears.
"Stop movin'! You're like a bloody jack-rabbit!" he screamed.
"Oh, all right. Go ahead. Hit me." She stood still. Animal gawped at her dubiously.
"You won't stop me?"
"I promise," Mother said encouragingly.
Animal positively beamed.
Ramsgate watched in apprehension. Tasha stood nonchalantly while Animal, using all his body-weight, threw a fearful blow to her stomach. Tasha didn't even wince. Ramsgate's mouth dropped open while Animal massaged his stinging hand. Tasha shook her head sadly at him.
"That was pathetic," she admitted as she turned her back on Animal and walked to Ramsgate. "The criminal element of this city is not what it used to be—but then perhaps it never was."
"How … how did you do that?"
Tasha answered Ramsgate, without so much as a glance at Animal—who barreled at her like a maddened bull. "Muscle control I developed when with the circus." She then back-kicked the charging Animal, sending him flying across the gym. She finished explaining, "The trapeze builds great strength, and belly dancing does wonders for the stomach."
Animal had fallen in a heap across the net. Ramsgate watched in growing amazement as Mother tossed the massive brute over her shoulder, carried him to the corner and dumped him on the floor. With little effort, she picked up a large weight—unlike a modern barbell, the weights at either end were permanently attached, sand-filled iron spheres—and placed it astride the unconscious man's chest. As his arms were pinned between the big iron balls and his body, there was no way he could extricate himself.
"I shall deal with this disappointingly incompetent opponent and his opium-addicted employer after my exercise."
Tasha started a challenging routine on the parallel bars, while musing, "When there are no criminals, no mysteries … well, I use the police as opponents. It's the best I can do."
Ramsgate wandered closer—not entirely unsympathetic. "Someday, you'll crack one crib too many, slip up, and I won't be able to help you."
She did a handstand on the bars, bringing her face-to-face, upside down, with Ramsgate. She gave him her most disarming smile.
Despite the grin, Ramsgate thought she seemed very, very bored. He sighed in resignation. "Cheer up, Tasha. It's a big city. Something gruesome will happen soon."
"One can always hope."