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The Little Clan

Chapter One

Ava waited, watching the stopped clock. Just before the hour, every hour, a faulty mechanism caused both hands to pause a moment too long, delaying their loud rhythmic clicking. The intrusion of this sudden silence into the room, no matter how regularly it occurred, always grabbed her attention. She remained trapped, stuck in pointless suspense until released by high, tremulous, inevitably disappointing chimes, and then the ticking began again. The sphinx on the mantel who cradled the clock face between its breasts looked back at her, bored and imperious. Finally, the gold beast condescended to strike noon, and Ava returned to her writing.

She pushed down too hard on a rusty quill, and it sputtered and burped ink—Prussian blue. The noise of the clock receded back into the oblivion of her creative absorption; she was practicing her signature. Unable to find a satisfying way to connect the second letter of her name to all the flourishes she wanted for her first initial, she was coming around to the idea of a terse “A. Gallanter” which seemed to denote a masculine seriousness of purpose. She was writing a novel, or more accurately not writing, a grand panoramic, perhaps multiple-volume indictment of what she considered the callow ugliness of modern society. It hadn’t been going so well.

Her models and inspiration were close at hand—Balzac, Zola, Trollope, Proust, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, all her favorite great men of the nineteenth century, lined the shelves of the Lazarus Club library, dusty and bound in morocco leather—the intellectual patrimony of the grand but faltering social club where she worked as a librarian.

Once in a while a club member came to finish a brandy or nap in one of the leather chairs scattered around, but for the most part Ava’s duties were pretty nominal, and she was free to while away her days in the magnificent building that lined up so nicely with her aesthetic preferences and dream of authorial grandeur. Even if, for now, this ambition was spent covering pages in the overly elaborate twists and whorls of her signature.

But this club, where stained-glass doors and creaky hallways opened on to ballrooms and parlors where old ladies roosted, as glassy-eyed and immobile as the stuffed peregrine falcons perched above the front door, seemed to comfort and abet her lack of industry. Once the Lazarus Club had been bustling, an opulent and exclusive playground for the upper echelons of New York Society to gather, to dine, to dance, and, according to its oft-quoted mission, discuss arts, letters and philosophy. One hundred and fifty years later, it persisted on a quiet uptown street, barely solvent, a last refuge for its affluent and elderly members to hide from an increasingly diverse and democratic world, eating Waldorf salads and snoring through the occasional social mixer.

Ava loved it. It was as if someone had conjured an Edith Wharton novel all around her, a magnificent setting in which she could be the star, the main character in all of her novelistic daydreaming. Here, beneath the chandeliers, surrounded by the dim glow of sumptuous, slightly frayed interiors, she never saw anyone her own age, and was more than content to chat with the old ladies about fountain pens and light operettas and third rate Victorian detective stories, while managing to ignore their more egregiously antiquated opinions.

Ava took a quick sip from the bottle of cheap port in her top drawer and hiccupped, the goofy pop echoing loudly in the empty room. Drinking alone always made her maudlin, but today she had good reason to be sad. It was her twenty-fifth birthday, and this felt like a crisis. Having always thought of herself as an ingénue, the winsome, young Estella character in Great Expectations, she was now having to consider she might be curdling into Miss Havisham. At what age did being a virgin cease to be cute and start to become ridiculous? Twenty-five was too old, an invisible line had been crossed; she was past her prime, an expired commodity, and it made her feel a little desperate.

She had had that last chance two years ago, at the going-away party for her best and only friend, Stephanie. After college graduation, Stephanie had convinced Ava to move with her to New York, where “everything important was happening,” only to abruptly decide to leave town—and Ava—a year later. Ava had tried to convince her that the “International Model Agency” offering her representation and based in Kiev was surely a scam, but such was Stephanie’s fearless commitment to her path, the blazing, and often confusing trajectory that was going to lead her to an ill-defined stardom, that Ava hadn’t been able to talk her out of it. She had never been very good at arguing with Stephanie.

Among the packed-up boxes of their shared apartment, Stephanie had pushed Ava and a very drunk bartender of her acquaintance into the tiny, windowless closet that had been Ava’s bedroom. “Here, he loves books, you guys talk about literature.” Soon Stephanie wouldn’t be around to engineer these kinds of situations, and, worried that this might be her last chance, Ava had tried to enjoy his sweaty hands under her shirt while he mumbled something about The Catcher in the Rye. But thinking of Stephanie’s imminent departure, tears kept rolling down Ava’s face and falling into the crest of this stranger’s dark, greasy hair. Silent weeping would have probably even been fine, but no one can have sex with a girl who is crying the wet, snotty wail of true abandonment. And so that evening her virtue had remained intact. And had these past two lonely years.

The waxed hallway floor creaked, and Ava quickly hid her bottle as the honorable Lazarus Club president, Aloysius Wendell Wilder III, shuffled into the room. Pink-cheeked and boyish despite his seventy years, his hair fluttered around his head, a stark and unnatural shade of black that wandered on to his forehead and made him look like he had been carelessly dipped in ink. He lived in rooms at the back of the club and never seemed to leave the premises. Ava liked him because he had hired her without any qualifications. She had been standing on the sidewalk, gazing up at the awning and the cryptic insignia of its wrought-iron doors, amazed that such places could still exist—it seemed to have just sprung from the pages of books she loved so much. Lurking in the foyer and sensing a kindred spirit, Aloysius had swept her in through the doors like a hawk retrieving its young and hired her to manage their books for an absurdly low salary. But because his offer included a tiny rent-free apartment in the back of the club, exactly the safe haven she had been looking for since being tossed roommate-less into the storm of New York, she’d gratefully accepted. She’d moved in with her cat, Mycroft, determined to finally write her novel, and since then had hardly left the premises either, another source of kinship with the club president.

Aloysius fingered a small cherub on the mantelpiece, then slipped it into the pocket of his navy blazer. He liked to rearrange things. “You like dogs,” he said in a sudden, accusatory mid-Atlantic bray.

That morning in the hallway they been discussing Persian cats, but Ava nodded politely. “Yes.”

He pulled a brochure from the inner pocket of his navy blazer and handed it to her. “Westminster. The pooches are glorious this year. Miss Wharton’s pug once did his tinkles in the parlor fireplace. She was a member of this club, you know. A wonderful animal.”

“I love dogs.” He was her boss and her landlord, and having not formally signed a lease, she generally tried to be obliging. “And Edith Wharton too, I guess.” Ava did, fervently, but pretended to prefer Henry James. He seemed more respected, and she didn’t want people to think she wasn’t serious.

He fondled the figurine in his pocket. “I’ve come for a book.”

Surprised by the request—this was an hour usually spent trying not to wake the club members snoring off a lunchtime gin and tonic—she sat straighter with what she hoped was a professional alertness. “Yes?”

“I need The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.”

“That’s easy. You don’t have it.”

“Are you sure?”

She was. She would have known if one of her favorite books had been hiding among the transcendent randomness of the Lazarus collection: the nineteenth century manuals on brain surgery, the firsthand accounts of racially suspect explorations, lesser novels of lesser novelists. As a kid, her copy had become thick and crinkled, the pages coarse from having been dropped too many times in the bathtub, the only place she could be sure her mother wouldn’t wobble by, stiletto heels in a cloud of Cutty Sark, and scold her for being “odd and unsociable.” As Ava grew, the fancier annotated edition that had replaced it had become almost black from enthusiastic underlining. If it had been on these shelves, she would have known.

“I have to say I’m very disappointed.” He looked at Ava sternly. “Imagine guests coming from all over the world to discuss some very important irregularities in this work this afternoon, and we don’t even have a copy to put up on display. It does not look good. Not at all. I just don’t know what I am going to tell them.” He started to wander away, scratching the back of his head, and muttering.

“Wait,” said Ava. “Are you talking about the Baker Street Irregulars?”

“All very irregular. Couldn’t agree more. Actions will have to be taken.” With this not very clear clarification, he left.

Ava folded her wrists, lightly scarred with the marks of teenage sadness, over her desk, drumming her fingers, trying to stay calm. It had to be them; the Lazarus Club was always hosting odd groups and fellowships. The Baker Street Irregulars were the pinnacle of Sherlock Holmes fan clubs; she had always dreamed of joining. But by the time she fell in love with Holmes and Watson, too many years of bullying she had endured at school had left her terrified of any kind of group or social dynamic, her shyness calcified around her.

Ava couldn’t say when it originated—her conviction that life was full of unspoken rules that she was sure to be on the wrong side of. In their big suburban house on the outskirts of New Orleans, icy with air-conditioning year round, her mom, smelling sweetly of alcohol, had seemed vaguely disappointed in her for reasons Ava didn’t understand for as long as she could remember. Her sense of transgression only worsened after she was plucked from a cozy synagogue preschool and sent to the elegant and prestigious Academy of the Bleeding Heart of Jesus, where she struggled mightily to understand the many obscure rituals and ways of the gentiles. Her early youth was just a blur of anxious fretting.

But one day, a sympathetic school librarian had given her Little Women. All at once, Ava discovered the world of books, warm, inviting, forgiving, and she fell into it and in love with Jo March in particular, deciding that she too would grow up to be a writer. Her identification was so passionate that after reading the chapter where Jo sells her hair, Ava also cut all of hers off with a pair of blunt scissors from art class. This hadn’t gone well. Laughingly calling her a boy, her classmates had blocked her from the girls’ bathroom until finally, in terrible humiliation, pee ran down the long, white knee socks of her uniform. When her mother came to pick her up, she too had seemed inexplicably enraged at her daughter’s short messy hair—a disgrace to the family, she had said, lighting another cigarette, and making Ava ride home, damp and ashamed, on the crinkly plastic of an old Saks shopping bag.

When Ava returned to Little Women, desperate for solace and finding it in the loving idea of the March family, after that, old books were all Ava would read. As though her only hope for love and acceptance was somehow tied up in petticoats and horse-drawn carriages. Thereafter no matter how many times she was pushed into garbage cans or excluded at lunch, or teased or mocked, she was sure it was just a symptom of being born in the wrong time, and the thought consoled her, and pushed her further into the open arms of classic literature.

But if Jo March was the light of her childhood, Sherlock Holmes was the lodestar of her adolescence. What joy she found, watching him slice through people’s lies and deceptions—those motivations that held such fear and mystery to Ava—and see him triumph, his oddness and his introversion brandished proudly and unapologetically. His victories became Ava’s. He was smart and moody, vain yet self-defeating, overly sensitive, rather lazy, resplendently his own prickly, complicated self, and still, somehow, he was loved; he had a friend. And so there was hope for her. She often skimmed past the actual cases, hunting instead for those moments of intimacy between Holmes and Watson, burrowing into the warmth of their companionship, their little nation of two. Such was the whispered promise of the Sherlock Holmes books, and Ava read the stories over and over, late at night, turning pages with an urgent, clammy, confused yearning.

But the Baker Street Irregulars would understand all of this. And they were coming to her domain because, like Ava, they also loved the nineteenth century’s greatest detective, and this building was right out of his world. Persian rugs and rusty chandeliers and busts of forgotten notables, the Lazarus Club let dreams of empire linger, the twilight remnants of a dying tradition that for the shy, the strange and the bookish, was more real, more welcoming than the bright, jangling city passing just beyond the bay window. They were her people, and they were coming here.

The afternoon crept on with the gentle imperceptibility that time acquired inside the club, as Ava paced and fidgeted, re-twisting the complicated mess of heavy braids she always wore as if just the right arrangement of hair might crystallize her resolve. The port dipped lower and lower in the bottle, and a violet stain was spreading unnoticed across her lips. A summer draft stole through an open window, barely stirring the room. Eventually sounds of movement and conversation drifted up from the bar. The event must have started. She unhooked a stocking from her garter and pulled it up to smooth out all of the creases and sags. Real silk stockings always pooled around her ankles, but she clung to arbitrary rituals—no panty hose, no typewritten letters, no ballpoint pens, the candlestick beside her bed, a boar bristle hairbrush—that made her feel closer to the characters in the books that still dominated her emotional life and kept her company.

But again, this was the sort of thing the Baker Street Irregulars would sympathize with. The tremulous demarcation between fiction and reality was their raison d’être; their core tenet was that Sherlock Holmes really existed, and that Arthur Conan Doyle was the fictional construct. She would go down, she who was such a stickler for etiquette, despite not having an invitation; she belonged by right of common sympathy.

Down the long dark hallway that led from the library to the bar, portraits of former club presidents watched her sternly from behind walrus moustaches and glistening pince-nez. At the top of the stairs, an antique wicker pagoda of finches rattled and shook. She paused next to a gold nymph whose outstretched torch lit the foot of the banister. The foyer was still. It was only four in the afternoon, but heavy carpets and velvet drapes dampened the noises of life passing on the streets outside. Here, beneath a large painting of a seraglio—ladies sprawled in pillowy idleness—life was reassuringly immobile. No breeze ever stirred the crystals that hung from porcelain lamp shades or the enormous tasseled ropes that hung in the doorways. Someone laughed in the bar, and Ava felt the old ache of standing alone on thresholds where life seemed to be always taking place on the other side. But for once, she took courage and crossed the hall.

Under a dusty Tiffany skylight, the mirror of a carved oak bar caught the lights reflected inbottles in a twinkling line, and Rodney, the club bartender, arms crossed, was yawning. Tall and thin, with the pale, ascetic face of an Eastern Orthodox icon and the politics of the former Eastern Bloc, he greeted Ava happily. “A vision from the one place in this dump that doesn’t smell like old people. I swear you bring the scent of vanilla cake and jelly beans with you wherever you go.”

“I don’t think that’s me,” Ava said. “What’s going on?”

“Well, these guys are stealing the fruits of my labor through the historical accumulation of capital.” Rodney had been trying to raise Ava’s consciousness, unsuccessfully, for as long as she worked there, and she was never sure when he was joking with her or not. It made her nervous.

“I mean this afternoon.”

“Well, it’s a constant process,” he smiled. “But if you’re referring to these bozos, they are apparently a bunch of people that think Sherlock Holmes is a real person. Want one?” He held out a sugared orange slice wrapped in cellophane. Rodney was good at pilfering the candy bowls of various Lazarus employees’ desks, or as he liked to refer to it, redistributing the spoils.

She took it. “And maybe a glass of scotch? Neat.” Because she always dressed so nicely and lived on the premises, Aloysius allowed her to use the club facilities, a privilege not extended to the other employees. It was a strange in-between place to occupy in the establishment, but Ava liked it because it made her feel like a governess. Unfortunately, Aloysius was no Mr. Rochester.

She sucked her candy and tried to casually look around the room. There were only a few stragglers left, chatting in small groups. A slim older man approached the bar, and Ava nervously sipped her glass. He spoke to her with the friendly ease of conventioneers. “Whiskey is the thing to drink while we are in New York City, yes?” He had a Pepé Le Pew French accent. Ava picked a cocktail napkin from a stack nearby and wiped her nose though she didn’t need to, nodding just enough to be ambiguous, in case he wasn’t actually talking to her. “I see you have chosen the same. To America.” He raised his glass.

Rodney flicked at a spot of dust on the bar with the towel that hung from his waistband. “She’s drinking scotch,” he muttered.

Ava obligingly clinked glasses. He had a slightly formal way of speaking, although the way he was looking at her left her trying to remember whether she was wearing nice underwear. “I don’t believe I saw you at last year’s gathering.” His dark hair was sprinkled with silver, his eyes above heavy circles were cerulean, his tweed blazer fit ostentatiously well. “I’m sure I would have remembered.”

“You didn’t. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not actually a member of the BSI.” It seemed better to confess right away.

“I thought not. A member of the Lazarus Club then?”

He didn’t appear offended or about to turn her out of the party, and this gave Ava courage. “Yes, well, no. I work here. I run the library upstairs. Or at least I keep a bunch of old books company.”

“Lucky books.” It was only the slightest lift of the eyebrows.

“I heard that the Baker Street Irregulars were downstairs, and I got so excited.”

“Really?” The Frenchman looked genuinely surprised. “Well, what luck,” He turned to Rodney. “Another round for fate. For strangers who pass in the night.”

Rodney shook his head. “Maybe it’s a librarian thing.”

Ava downed her scotch. “I’ve read every story a million times. I have all the annotated works with the Sidney Paget illustrations, everything.” She felt hot as she spoke, a prickling heat that made her eyes water for no clear reason. To speak out loud about something so close to her heart was harder than she anticipated, and she tried to talk quickly so as to be able to stop sooner.

When the Frenchman extended his hand, she felt very relieved. “Allow me to introduce myself. Jules Delauncy, BSI, president of the French Society for Sherlock Holmes.”

“Ava.” The pause after her name seemed so empty of Holmesian credentials, she almost resolved to turn and run back to the library.

Jules Delauncy didn’t seem to notice and, resting his elbows on the bar, spoke to the dim skylight with a drawling satisfaction. “Delighted. You know, Holmes had relations particular to France.”

Ava glowed with the opportunity to prove herself. “His grandmother’s brother, the painter, Vernet.”

Despite the low illumination of the room, his eyes visibly lit up. “You must meet the others.”

“But I’m not even supposed to be here.”

He took her elbow. “As my guest, please, you’re obviously one of the enlightened. And I have certain privileges as the president of the oldest and most influential Sherlock Holmes society in all of France. Please.” He gently inclined her toward a group of men nearby, chatting with the satisfied air of long-tenured English professors. The circle rippled open at her approach with some surprised throat clearing and tie straightening. One gentleman’s gesture of welcome was so enthusiastic, Amstel Light bubbled up and spilled all over his wrist.

A few hours later, perched on top of her desk, Ava floated in a cloud of bliss. The treasurer of the Welsh Deerstalkers and the president elect of the Maiwand Jezails were perusing the shelves, delighted to have found a complete set of Hunting in Zambia, vls I–IX. The great-grandnephew once removed of Arthur Conan Doyle hovered behind them, tall and thin, peering at the titles with a nearsighted squint, while a member of the Cimbrian Friends of Baker Street snored quietly in a chair by the cold marble fireplace, a copy of How to Be Your Own Barrister splayed open on his chest. The Baker Street Irregulars had been delighted to accept her invitation for tea in the library and had made themselves at home. She felt as though their appreciation of the surroundings reflected back on her, and while she wished more of them were actually talking to her, she didn’t want to push herself forward.

A draft from the window ran across her neck. Against the late turning of a summer evening, the president of the Sherlock Holmes Society of France was sitting on the windowsill, letting the smoke from his calabash pipe float out into the streetlamp-spotted twilight. He gestured to her, and she sat next to him on the windowsill as if acknowledging a previous intimacy. There was something in the way he watched her, smiling, as she served tea to his colleagues, as though she was adiscovery that he was showing off. She liked the feeling and had started leaning plant-like toward his warming approval. Finally after all those years of failure with the opposite sex, here was a man who understood her. He removed his pipe and indicated the room with it. “You are very fortunate to be able to work in such a Holmes-looking place. It makes you glow. I can imagine you there, trembling behind your veil, asking for his help, maybe to find a missing lover?”

She paused. She never really imagined herself as a client like this, those inconsequential strangers just passing through the intimate world of Holmes and Watson, but her gratitude to have someone to talk to about these things made her overlook the slight. “I still need to hang up a Persian slipper,” she said finally. He chuckled and she flushed with pleasure.

He looked closely at her. “But don’t you have somewhere you need to be on a Friday night, a beautiful young woman like yourself? No?” He began refilling his pipe. “How could you be unspoken for? What knowledge of the canon you have.”

She waited, thinking this was perhaps the moment when he would invite her to join the BSI, but he didn’t. Maybe she was being presumptuous, and she coughed a little to cover her disappointment.

The noise roused the great-grandnephew once removed of Conan Doyle, and he wandered over. “Is our Frenchman bothering you, the dirty old reprobate?” He elbowed his colleague. “Not that I blame him.” He lifted her hand, and his moustache tickled her knuckles. “You are a breath of delight in the musty halls of our middle-aged lives, like Miss Morstan in The Sign of the Four.”

Ava dipped her shoulders in what would have been a curtsey were she not sitting on the window ledge. She wasn’t thrilled about the comparison with Watson’s wife either, so forgettable, he often forgot he was married in the later stories.

“I hate to tear you away, Delauncy, but we’ve got to go check on the preparations for tonight. There’s not a damn hotel in this town that stocks a good Madeira, and my tails aren’t going to press themselves.”

“Our annual banquet is tonight,” Jules explained, “and as mentioned, I have certain responsibilities.”

Ava was so close to asking for an invitation, but she assumed the desire must be written all over her face, and if these two gentlemen were ignoring it, they must have a good reason. “Please, don’t let me keep you,” she said, and to cover up a yearning that was raw and ugly and very familiar, she picked up an empty teacup and saucer.

Jules slid off of the ledge, tapping his pipe out of the window and slipping it into his jacket pocket. “Let me help you with those.” He picked up a teacup from the desk and followed her as she hurriedly thanked the other Irregulars, feeling ashamed of her temerity, and carried other cups into the hall.

She ducked into a small alcove that had been fitted out with a sink and a hot plate, but Jules Delauncy stopped her. “Surely you don’t expect me to find her, the one, my very own Irene Adler here in this perfect building and let her escape from me so soon?” The sudden warmth in his tone surprised Ava; she was certainly no glamorous, mysterious Irene Adler, the only woman Sherlock Holmes could be said to have loved, but it was nice that he was still talking to her.

Jules was handing her his teacup, but then somehow it appeared on her other side, and when she turned around, she landed right against the ardent lips of the president of the oldest and most prestigious Sherlock Holmes Society in France. Ava’s first instinct was revulsion at this strange man’s tongue in her mouth, then flattery that such a preeminent Holmesian desired her, then surprised fascination at the kiss itself. She had never kissed an older man before. A succession of literary Frenchmen flew through her mind—waxed moustaches and champagne and amatory dexterity—and she was, finally, for one glorious moment, every Victorian ingénue, helpless in the arms of a passionate seducer. He had a warm smell that she couldn’t identify but that was all the same expected—leather, vetiver, bay rum, expensive shirts, masculine, slightly formal. With a dizzying sensation like trying to focus the two sides of an old-fashioned stereoscope, the outline of all her romantic fantasies came into line with the very real man pressing against her, and when he asked her to meet him later for a drink, she agreed. It was not exactly what she had imagined, but it was better than going home and drinking cough syrup and pretending it was laudanum.

Later that night, reeling slightly from the three absinthe frappes Rodney had made for her and leaning heavily on the arm of Jules Delauncy’s dark tailcoat—she had never actually seen one in real life before and was thrilled to be allowed to press up against its severe elegance—she was crossing the marble foyer when Castor, the doorman, called to her.

“Came today, Miss. Mr. Savoy tried to take them for you, but I wouldn’t let him.” He pointed at a bunch of daisies in a purple vase.

Ava opened the card. “Happy Birthday!!! Do you know how hard you are to find? Do you even have a phone? I’m back. Call me. Stephanie.” There was a number on the bottom.

“I knew it.” Jules Delauncy looked at the flowers suspiciously, pulling the cuffs down from his sleeves, and flashing links that read 221b. “An adventuress.”

Cheered enormously that her friend was back and a bit pleased at the aspersion as well, Ava pulled him gently toward the elevator. Stephanie was going to love hearing about this.

Copyright © 2018 by Iris Martin Cohen

The Little Clan
by by Iris Martin Cohen

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Park Row
  • ISBN-10: 0778312828
  • ISBN-13: 9780778312826