No Cage for a Crow
The Adventures of Morrigan Holmes
Sherlock Holmes has become legend, but his sister was lost to history.
In one hellish night, Morrigan Holmes ruined everything: her home, her family, her confidence, and her name. Fleeing scandal, loss, and grief, her only choice is to run, but London’s gaslit streets are not kind to young women alone.
Within hours, she discovers the horrors of homelessness and the terrible invisibility of the marginalised poor. A child is kidnapped before her eyes, and she barely escapes the same fate. Adrift and alone, Morrigan seeks help in strange quarters: a radical suffragist with a haunted past, a half-blind journalist, a sinister physician, and a gang of street boys led by the striking and enigmatic Magpie.
As the number of kidnappings grows, something dark begins to take shape in the London mists. Time is short, still Morrigan cannot escape the family she devastated. Could Sherlock be her salvation… or her destruction?
From Chapter 1:
With the benefit of hindsight, I am forced to admit that the howling heart of a winter storm might not have been the most well-considered moment to run away from home. Of course, adolescents have never been renowned for their unerring wisdom, and I was no exception. All I knew then, the one thought running continuously through my mind as I belted on my dressing gown, stuffed my feet into layers upon layers of stockings and then into my brother’s over-sized boots, and threw a heavy woollen coat over all of it, was that I had to get out. It was all my fault, I had ruined everything, and the only thing left was to run.
And so I ran.
I had no plan—as I have said, this was not an intelligent decision. It was an impulse born of powerful emotion, fierce, chaotic, unpleasant, as thoroughly divorced from the guidance of intuition as it was from that of reason.
Divorced from self.
There was a bizarre sensation of separation. I felt I was barely in control of the hands that fumbled at the window latch and scrabbled at the sash. Rain roared against the glass, rushing in immediately to drench my legs as the window slid open. It seemed impossible that no one would come, that no one would hear. But the din of the storm drowned me out perfectly. My fingers, curled around the slick sill, became numb as I stood stone-still, perched on the balls of my feet until the faint sound of the hall clock reached me. The stroke of two broke me from my paralysis. They were not asleep. I could still hear their voices, even if they could not hear my movement. They were not asleep, but they were not coming, either.
I swung one leg outside and ducked through, arms splayed out to brace myself against the walls.
From the hall there came a voice, male, one of my brothers, though over the noise of the storm, I could not have said which.
I did not reply, only leaned back inside to seize a book from the table and heaved it at the door with all my strength. It struck the wall with a thud and fell to the floor in a heap of soggy pages. An unforgiveable abuse of the written word, I realised with a pang. But the voice did not call again, and when I was sure that no siblings were about to intrude, I effected my escape.
At home, escape through a window should have been an easy matter. The ancient, ivied walls of Mycroft House afforded countless hand- and foot-holds, even in the cold and wet; I could have made my way from the first floor to the ground in under a minute, and the stables would have been shelter enough until the storm abated.
This place, though, had never been and never would be home. I had never hated it until that night, but I had always felt like a guest, there, even in the room that they called mine. This place was wet brick, without ivy, without anything to break the fall I recklessly chose to risk. It was only luck, or perhaps a miracle, that kept both my legs intact.
I leaned out the window as far as I could and stared down at the little court below, obscured by a haze of water and darkness.
A flicker of doubt made me pause, but then voices rose in anger from somewhere behind me, cementing my blind resolve. I turned myself around and slid out of the safety of my candlelit room, fingers gripping the sill, boots braced against the outer wall.
Leather skidded against brick, and I lost a couple of inches, body slamming against the wall. The breath whooshed out of me, and for a moment, I could only cling. It would not be a terribly long drop, if I were to let go. I had fallen as far before, at home, but at home, such a fall ended in the cuts and scratches offered by the evergreen shrubbery that encircled the house beneath the lowermost windows. The cobblestones here promised much worse.
I recovered, inch by inch, and lowered myself until my toes caught on the slight protrusion of the decorative line of white brick that divided the first storey from the ground. I lowered myself a little further still. There was no convenient ivy, but if I could get my boots to the top of the next window and my hands to the decorative white brick, then my boots to the window sill below and my hands to the top of the window frame, I could jump the rest of the way safely.
One toe found purchase, so I worked my numb fingers free of the window sill and dropped them down to seek the next handhold. One hand, one foot. Slow and steady.
‘Morrigan!’ Again, the voice from inside, barely heard over the thundering rain. I slid a little more and again was left clinging to the outer wall, my heart pounding in my ears. Again, I slowly recovered, inch by inch, regaining my hold and my safety. I felt like snapping at the owner of the voice, but what good would that have done? ‘Don’t distract me while I’m trying to run away’? He would not have heard me, anyway.
The other foot followed the first, and now I was stretched awkwardly at my full height, pressed hard up to the masonry, spanning the space between my window and the next, one arm extended straight above my head, the other drawn in tight against my side and grasping at the decorative brickwork. Addled though I was by strong emotion, I saw at once the danger of this position. While the majority of my weight rested on my toes, only the hand grasping the windowsill above prevented my toes from becoming a pivot. For the moment, in this in-between stage, the other hand served no purpose at all. Four fingertips only prevented me from tipping backward and tumbling headfirst to the street.
‘God,’ I thought, for the first but certainly not the last time that night. ‘This is idiotic.’
I could hardly turn back, though. Going down was a challenge, but going up would have been impossible. Would have been unthinkable. The tone of the voices from within told me clearly that I was no longer wanted in that place, and even if they could eventually find it in themselves to forgive me, nothing would ever be the same. The life I had known was over, no matter which way I decided to go; down, at least, gave me a chance at deciding for myself how things would be in the future.
One hand, one foot.
Lightning flashed just above me, followed less than a second later by a thunderclap that shook my bones.
I cried out in startlement.
And I fell.
I felt my fingers clench, and I lost whatever grip I had managed to secure. I began to slip. But I was not so numb in body or in mind that I could not anticipate the consequences of such a fall.
At first, I panicked and scrabbled uselessly at the bricks with both hands, clawing at the rough surface as though I could catch hold of the tiny irregularities and hold myself fast. That was no good, though, and I knew it. In a moment, I would overbalance, pushed further and further by my own efforts at holding on. It was much too cold, much too wet, and much too late for me to catch myself. My best, my only hope, was to make my inevitable fall a good one.
I arched my body forward, pushing away from the wall with both hands and feet so that I would fall straight, land on my back with room to roll, disperse the force of the impact so it would not shatter me.
As if time had slowed, the brick and mortar floated away from my fingertips, and though I thought I knew what I was doing, I was frozen by a moment of consuming panic. I had avoided the deadly somersault that would surely have killed me but the fall could still break me, all the same.
And what then? What if I were too badly hurt to cry for help? How long would it take before someone intruded upon my privacy and found me missing? How long before someone came to look?
A sharp, pale face appeared in the window above me, staring down with… Was it disgust? Doubt? The figure leaned out of the window into the rain, and a long, white hand reached for me, but I was already beyond its grasp.
The moment passed as quickly as it had come upon me. I tucked up my body and bent my knees and hips, spreading my arms for balance. I had fallen as far before, and I knew how to fall well.
The pavement greeted me without any regard for what I did or did not know.
Falling to the irregular cobbles was nothing at all like falling to the shrubbery beneath my window at home or like falling to soft grass beneath my favourite reading tree. No, London was out to kill me.
On any other surface, even overwrought and in the pouring rain, my landing would have been flawless. The cobbles thwarted me, and perhaps the startlement of the presence of that figure in the window. I landed squarely on my two feet, but my two feet did not land squarely on the ground, and the left flew out from under me, leaving the right to bear my full weight. My ankle rolled, despite the support of its boot, with a horrible sensation like a creaking hinge. I gasped and fell to one side, striking my hip and my elbow.
For a moment, I could only lie beneath the downpour.
All right, girl, analyse.
Finding myself not-dead was a relief, of course. I had not broken my neck or my back or my skull, which was honestly one of the best things that had happened to me all day. The ankle, however, was almost definitely sprained, and I did not look forward to finding out for certain when I tried to stand on it.
There were bruises, too, but bruises were nothing new to a girl who climbed trees.
No, the worst of it was the ankle, which, even as I lay, began to ache fiercely.
I rolled onto my back. The face in the window watched me, impassive as a sickle moon. Waiting. He did not disappear, racing down to the courtyard to see if I was all right. He did not begin shouting for our parents. Maybe he knew I had to go. Maybe he just didn’t care.
I should have gone back, of course, and I knew it. I should have called out for help until someone came, or hobbled to the door and knocked. I should have mustered the courage to explain what peculiar circumstances had led me to the pavement beneath an open window amidst the blasted storm, wet and hurt and—now—sobbing, as well. I should have admitted that I was an idiot girl who did not have the good sense not to jump from great heights or to keep my mouth shut or to mind my own blasted business. An idiot unworthy of her own name.
I knew it. I considered it. I shied away from the eminent sensibility of it. What sixteen-year-old girl has ever had the grace to admit stupidity? If I was to be a fool, then by God, I would be a fool, and to the hilt!
And besides, I reasoned, I had not actually killed myself, and that had to count for something. Had to mean something. If I had been doomed to fail, then I ought to have failed immediately and completely, but I was still alive, and, deliberately forsaking reason, I chose to take that simple coincidence as a sign from above. Surely, I was fated to go.
Strengthened by that absurd conviction I pushed myself upright, shivering at the cold that crept up my legs and trickled down my back. The ankle screamed in protest, and I nearly screamed as well, but a quick rearrangement of my posture shifted my weight to my good leg, and I was able to take a few strange, hopping steps, turning my back on the face I knew was watching me still. I lifted a hand in what was meant to be a cocky wave, ruined by the quiver of my shoulders.
The drumming of the rain echoed strangely in the grey little courtyard of that house I had so come to despise. Before me, the gate yawned wide, resembling nothing so much as a huge, gaping mouth, with the dead branches of wisteria that stretched down from its arch becoming the fangs. I had the impression of waiting, of languishing in the rumbling belly of a beast that was finally about to spit me out.
Beyond the monster’s teeth, the great, dismal city sprawled. If the house was a monster, then the city was its home, a jungle of brick and smoke and throbbing humanity.
I wiped the tears from my face, only to have them replaced at once with streaks of sooty rain.
Trembling now as much with terror as with cold, I stepped out into the wilderness.