Fourteen-year-old Sherlock Holmes knows that Amyus Crowe, his mysterious American tutor, has some dark secrets. But he didn't expect to find John Wilkes Booth, the notorious assassin, apparently alive and well in England--and Crowe somehow mixed up in it. When no one will tell you the truth, sometimes you have to risk all to discover it for yourself. And so begins an adventure that will take Sherlock across the Atlantic, to the center of a deadly web--where a friend is in peril and a defeated army threatens to rise again.
Andrew Lane's exciting second case for the teenage Sherlock leads the young detective to America, straight into the heart of a shocking conspiracy.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
April 24, 2012
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Excerpt from Rebel Fire by Andrew Lane
"Have you ever thought about ants?" Amyus Crowe asked.
Sherlock shook his head. "Apart from the fact that they get all over jam sandwiches at picnics, I can't say I've ever given them much thought."
The two of them were out in the Surrey countryside. The heat of the sun weighed on the back of Sherlock's neck like a brick. An almost overpowering aroma of flowers and freshly mown hay seemed to hang in the air around him.
A bee buzzed past his ear and he flinched. Ants he was relatively ambivalent about, but bees still spooked him.
Crowe laughed. "What is it about the British and jam sandwiches?" he asked through the laughter. "I swear there's a nursery aspect to British eating habits that no other country has. Steamed puddings, jam sandwiches--with the crusts cut off, of course--and vegetables boiled so long they're just flavoured mush. Food you don't need teeth to eat."
Sherlock felt a stab of annoyance. "So what's so terrific about American food?" he asked, shifting his position on the dry stone wall he was sitting on. Ahead of him the ground sloped down to a river in the distance.
"Steaks," Crowe said simply. He was leaning on the wall, which came up to his chest. His square chin was resting on his folded arms, and his broad-brimmed hat shielded his eyes from the sun. He was wearing his usual white linen suit. "Big steaks, flame-grilled. Properly grilled so there's crisp bits around the edge, not just waved over a candle like the French do. An' not smothered in some kind of cream brandy sauce, also like the French do. It don't take the brains of an archbishop to cook and serve a steak properly, so why can't anybody outside the United States do it right?" He sighed, his bubbling good nature suddenly evaporating to expose an unexpected flat sadness.
"You miss America?" Sherlock said simply.
"I've been away for longer than a man should. An' I know Virginia misses her home as well."
Sherlock's mind was filled with a vision of Crowe's daughter, Virginia, riding her horse Sandia with her copper red hair flowing out behind her like a flame.
"When will you go back?" he asked, hoping it wouldn't be soon. He had grown accustomed to both Crowe and Virginia. He liked having them in his life since he'd been sent to live with his aunt and uncle.
"When my work here is done." A huge smile creased his lined, weather-beaten face as his mood changed. "An' when I consider that I have discharged my responsibility to your brother by teachin' you everythin' I know. Now, let's talk about ants."
Sherlock sighed, resigning himself to another of Crowe's impromptu lessons. The big American could take anything from around him, whether it was in the countryside, the town, or someone's house, and use it as the springboard for a question, a problem, or a logical conundrum. It was beginning to annoy Sherlock.
Crowe straightened up and looked around behind him. "I thought I'd seen some of the little critters," he said, walking over to a small pile of dry earth that was heaped up like a miniature hill in a patch of grass. Sherlock wasn't fooled. Crowe had probably spotted them on the way up and filed them away as fodder for his next training session.
Sherlock jumped down from the wall and walked across to where Crowe was standing. "An anthill," he said with little enthusiasm. Small black forms wandered aimlessly around the mound of earth.
"Indeed. The external sign that there's a whole bunch of little tunnels underneath which the little critters have patiently excavated. Somewhere under there you'll find thousands of tiny white eggs, all laid by a queen ant who spends her life underground, never seeing daylight."
Crowe bent down and gestured for Sherlock to join him. "Look at how the ants are movin'," he said. "What strikes you about it?"
Sherlock watched them for a moment. No two ants were heading in the same direction, and each one seemed to change direction at a moment's notice, for no visible reason. "They're moving randomly," he said. "Or they're reacting to something we can't see."
"More likely the first explanation," Crowe said. "It's called 'the drunkard's walk,' an' it's actually a good way of coverin' ground quickly if you're lookin' for somethin'. Most people searchin' an area will just walk in straight lines, crisscrossin' it, or divide the area up into a grid an' search each square separately. Those techniques will usually guarantee success eventually, but the chances of findin' whatever it is quickly are increased by usin' this random way of coverin' the ground. It's called the drunkard's walk," he added, "'cause of the way a man walks when he's got a belly full of whisky--legs goin' in different directions to each other and head goin' in another direction entirely." He reached into his jacket pocket and removed something. "But back to the ants: once they find somethin' of interest, watch what they do."
He showed Sherlock the thing in his hand. It was a pottery jar with a waxed paper top held on with string. "Honey," he said before Sherlock could ask. "Bought it in the market." He pulled the string off and removed the waxed paper. "Sorry if this brings back bad memories."
"Don't worry," Sherlock said. He knelt beside Crowe. "Should I ask why you're wandering around with a jar of honey in your pocket?"
"A man never knows what might come in useful," Crowe said, smiling. "Or maybe I planned all this in advance. You choose."
Sherlock just smiled and shook his head.
"Honey is largely sugar, plus a whole load of other things," Crowe continued. "Ants love sugar. They take it back to the nest to feed the queen and the little grubs that hatch from the eggs."
Dipping his finger in the honey, which Sherlock noticed was runny in the heat of the morning sun, Crowe scooped up a huge shiny droplet and let it fall. It caught on a clump of grass and hung there for a few moments before strands of it sagged to the ground and lay in scrawled and glistening threads.
"Now let's see what the little critters do."
Sherlock watched as the ants continued in their random wanderings; some climbing up strands of grass and dangling upside down and others foraging amongst grains of dirt. After a while, one of them crossed a strand of honey. It stopped midway. For a moment Sherlock thought it was stuck, but it wandered along the strand, then wandered back, then dipped its head as though drinking.
"It's collecting as much as it can carry," Crowe said conversationally. "It'll head back for the nest now."
And indeed the ant did appear to retrace its steps, but rather than heading directly for the nest it continued to wander back and forth. It took a few minutes, and Sherlock almost lost it a couple of times as it crossed the path of other groups of ants, but eventually it reached the pile of dry earth and vanished into a hole in the side.
"So what now?" Sherlock asked.
"Look at the honey," Crowe said.
Ten, perhaps fifteen ants had discovered the honey by now, and they were all taking samples. Other ants kept joining the throng. As they joined, others broke away and headed vaguely in the direction of the nest.
"What do you notice?" Crowe asked.
Sherlock bent his head to look closer. "The ants appear to be taking a shorter and shorter time to get back to the nest," he said wonderingly.
After a few minutes there were two parallel lines of ants heading between the honey and the nest. The random wandering had been replaced with a purposeful direction.
"Good," Crowe said approvingly. "Now let's try a little experiment."
He reached into his pocket and took out a scrap of paper about the size of his palm. He laid it on the ground halfway between the nest and the honey. The ants crossed the paper back towards the nest as if they hadn't even noticed it.
"How are they communicating?" Sherlock asked. "How are the ants who have found the honey telling the ones in the nest where it is?"
"They're not," Crowe answered. "The fact that they are returnin' with honey is a signal that there's food out there, but they can't talk to each other, they can't read each other's minds, and they can't point with those little legs of theirs. There's something a lot cleverer goin' on. Let me show you."
Crowe reached down and deftly turned the scrap of paper ninety degrees. The ants already on the paper walked off the edge and then seemed lost, wandering aimlessly around, but Sherlock was fascinated to watch the ants who reached the paper walking across it until they reached halfway, then turning and heading at right angles to their previous path until they came to the edge and then walking off and starting to wander again.
"They're following a path," he breathed. "A path they can see but we can't. Somehow, the first few ants had laid that path down and the rest followed it, and when you turned the paper around they kept following the path, not knowing that it now leads somewhere else."
"That's right," Crowe said. "Best guess is that it's some kind of chemical. When the ant is carrying food, he leaves a trail of the chemical behind. Imagine it like a rag covered in something that smells strong, like aniseed, attached to one of their feet, and the other ants, like dogs, have a tendency to follow the aniseed trail. Because of the drunkard's-walk effect, the first ant will wander all over the place before he finds the nest. As more and more ants find the honey, some of them will take longer paths to the nest and some shorter ones. As more ants follow, the shorter paths get reinforced by the chemical because they work better and because the ants can get back quicker, and the longer paths, the wandering ones, fade away because they don't work as well. Eventually you end up with a nearly straight route. An' you can prove that by doin' what I did with the paper. The ants still follow the straight-line trail even though it now leads them away from the nest, not towards it, although eventually they'll correct themselves."
"Incredible," Sherlock said. "I never knew. It's not ... intelligence ... because it's instinctive and they're not communicating, but it looks like it's intelligent."
"Sometimes," Crowe pointed out, "a group is less intelligent than an individual. Look at people: one by one they can be clever, but put them into a mob an' a riot can start, 'specially if there's an incitin' incident. Other times a group exhibits cleverer behaviour than an individual, like here with the ants or with swarms of bees."
He straightened up, brushing dirt and grass from his linen trousers. "Instinct tells me," he said, "that it's nearly lunchtime. You reckon your aunt and uncle can make some space at the table for a wanderin' American?"
"I'm sure they can," Sherlock replied. "Although I'm not so sure about the housekeeper--Mrs. Eglantine."
"Leave her to me. I have bottomless reserves of charm which I can deploy at a moment's notice."
They wandered back across the fields and through coppices of trees, with Crowe pointing out clumps of edible mushrooms and other fungi to Sherlock as they went, reinforcing lessons that he'd taught the boy weeks before. By now, Sherlock was fairly sure that he could survive in the wild by eating what he could find without poisoning himself.