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Old 10-24-2022, 08:04 PM   #21 (permalink)
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Again, I could see Holmes really felt the loss of his pipe, and to be honest I could have done with one too, but the lady's health was at stake, and as she was now also our client, it would have been rude and indeed reckless of either of us to light up. Holmes leaned back and closed his eyes, again pressing the points of his fingers against each other.

“It was early on Sunday morning last, the 17th, that the maid rose and went to the sitting room to open the windows, this rather uncomfortable heatwave we have been suffering through making the rooms stuffy and close by midday. She testified that, to her surprise, the door was locked, and voices could be heard from within, raised as if in anger or at least animated discussion. This maid, one with the – ah! - amusing name of Chambers – knocked on the door, finding it hard to believe anyone could be up and about at this time – I believe this all occurred around six o'clock in the morning? Her knocks went unanswered, as the people in the room continued to shout. As she turned from the door to fetch one of the footmen and confer with him as to what should be done, she heard a terrible scream, and the sound of something heavy falling to the ground.”

Mrs. Fraser nodded. “You are right in every detail, Mr. Holmes, but for one: Chambers deposed that she tried the door at quarter to seven, having been slightly late in rising, troubled as she had been by a headache.”

Holmes smiled tightly. “Ah, so. Yes. Well, you will appreciate that when I am taken off a case” - here he shot our client another annoyed look - “I tend not to keep all the details fresh in my mind. I have many calls upon my time, and cannot spare room in my brain for unnecessary encumbrances. As you say then, a quarter to seven. The footman gave evidence that when he arrived at the door all was quiet, and he admitted entertaining the thought that Chambers had been allowing herself to run off on a flight of fancy. However when he tried the door he did indeed find it to be locked. He then reported to the butler, who, armed with a set of keys, tried to open the door but found that something prevented him.”

“The key was still in the door on the other side.” I had not spoken since we had settled Mrs. Fraser in our apartment, and my mouth felt dry as I added my small contribution to the discourse.

“Precisely!” Holmes pointed at me, his eyes like those of a hawk seeking its prey. “Which tells us that whoever had locked it had done so from inside. One of the people heard arguing, without a doubt.”

I leaned forward a little, frowning.

“Did Chambers say how many people she heard arguing?”

“Excellent question, Watson!” grinned Holmes. “And one which, I am afraid to say, our good friend Lestrade did not ask, taking as his answer to the unspoken query the evidence presented to his eyes, and not that which might have suggested itself to his brain, had he considered a while longer and more deeply.”

Mrs. Fraser shook her head.

“It was assumed to be two,” she said, a little confused. “There were only two people in the room when entry was effected.”

Holmes held up his finger in the air, as if presenting it as an exhibit of evidence at court.

“Yes,” he smiled tightly. “When entry was effected. But what about before? Could there not have been a third person present?”

The confusion grew on our client's face.

“Why do you ask this, Mr. Holmes? The police did not.”

“Indeed. And that is where they may very well have made their first, and in your sister's case, fatal mistake. I will now describe for you the scene of the crime, as it was when I was called in. The lady, your sister, lay on the armchair, fainted of course, a bloody knife in her right hand. The body of her husband was on the ground, covered in blood. In his hand was found a fragment of a note, with the top part torn away. It read, as anyone who has perused the newspapers in the last few weeks or has followed the case knows:

live without you. You are my heart and soul. I will not lose you.

The name at the bottom was Frances, though it was not signed, merely written."

Mrs. Fraser stifled a sob at the reminder of the most damning piece of evidence, other than the knife in her sister's hand, which seemed to have condemned her to her fate. Holmes coughed.The key to the room, having been forced out of the keyhole from without, had fallen to the floor; I believe the butler trod on it when he entered. A thick smell of smoke pervaded the air. The fire had not been lit, nor would one expect it to be, for it would be a cold-blooded person indeed who would need warming on a morning such as we have been having in this heatwave.”

“You found the presence of smoke odd, Mr. Holmes?” It was either a query or a challenge. I thought perhaps Mrs. Fraser was endeavouring to see if my friend's reputation was well earned. He smiled graciously at her, as if seeing a kindred spirit of sorts.

“Did you?”

“I did.”

“And why, pray?”

He watched her like the master watches the promising pupil. I doubted our visitor had any aspirations in the detective line, but Holmes seemed to see a mind sharp as his own in some respects.

“Because Peter did not smoke,” said the lady. Holmes nodded.

“You are quite certain of this?”

“Oh, quite. You see, Fran is my twin, and she suffers from the same affliction I have from birth struggled with.”

“You both have asthma?”

“Indeed.”

“I see.”

I, too, was beginning to see. What man of any conscience would smoke when it might damage his wife's heath?

“I do not say,” went on Mrs. Fraser carefully, “that he still loved her.”

“Yes.” Holmes nodded. “I gathered as much from my interview with her at the police station. But I also gather divorce was not in the air?”

Mrs. Fraser shook her head vehemently.

“Oh no. Peter had far too much to lose, socially and even financially, by inviting such scandal. No, they kept up appearances to the outside world, and it was only the close family circle who knew that there was nothing but cold, shared self-interest between them.”

“She no more wanted a divorce than he.”

“It would have been the ruin of her, Mr. Holmes, and then there would be the shame and expense of a battle for custody of their son.”

“Harold, I believe.”

“Yes. He is a good boy, devoted both to his father and his mother; only nine years old, and currently at boarding school. To have to ask the child to choose...”

“Quite so. And so the parents kept up the pretence, but there was no love there.”

“None at all. Oh, I don't mean they hated each other, Mr. Holmes. Far from that. But any love there had been had long turned to ice.”

Holmes shook his head. “None of which,” he observed, “helps your sister, giving as it does a motive for her to murder her husband.”

“One the police pounced upon,” sighed the lady.

“Yes.” Holmes commiserated with her. “I am afraid that the adage 'if it seems too good to be true is usually is' has little sway in the ranks of the police department, about as much as deduction and logical reasoning. The guardians of the law sadly take things often at face value, particularly if it secures them a conviction.” He tutted. “If only they would take the time to look that little bit further...”

Mrs. Fraser looked at him, her eyes shining now.

“So you have your doubts, Mr. Holmes?”

“My good friend here, Doctor Watson, could no doubt regale you with accounts of cases believed hopeless, in which men were to hang, which my doubts were instrumental in being overturned. I do not admit defeat easily, my dear Mrs. Fraser, and I certainly have in no way, to use an old metaphor from my boxing days, thrown in the towel yet. There are many singular features of this case which interest me and give me hope that we may yet prove that your sister is no killer. But surely,” he steepled his fingers and looked at her over their tops, in that manner which always reminded me rather disturbingly of the entomologist studying the insect, “you did not come here merely for a progress report? I think you should know, Mrs. Fraser, I am not a man to -”

She cut him off though, something I had seldom seen anyone do, and were she a man he might indeed have taken umbrage at such impertinence. Holmes did not make many allowances for the gentler sex, but here he was prepared to concede ground.

“Forgive me, Mr. Holmes, but you are of course correct. I came to you because I had to.”

“You had to?”

“I was... well, this is hard to explain, sir. I suppose you could say I was sent, guided even.”

Holmes groaned. “I do so earnestly hope, madam,” he warned her, “that we are not returning to the issue of this – this phantom you believe you saw vanish outside my door?”

“Well, yes and no.”

“Really, madam!” Holmes' ire was up now, his temper exhausted, and he snapped at her in the same way a policeman might a troublesome interviewee. His eyes were hard as flint, and there was a flush creeping up his pale cheeks, a sure indicator that here was a man not to be trifled with. Mrs. Fraser seemed confused. No, not confused, I thought, studying her as my friend had trained me to. Embarrassed?

“You will think me quite mad,” she whispered. A slight tone of accusation, bitterness tinged her voice. “I have no doubt you already hold that opinion of me, Mr. Holmes.”

“It is not,” he told her sharply, “for me to make that determination, madam, for I am not qualified to make such a diagnosis, though my friend Dr. Watson may have other ideas. I will confess I have rather had my fill of ghosts, spirits and phantoms this morning. However, we will reserve judgement on supernatural matters for the moment. Pray continue.”

“It was like this, Mr. Holmes.” Her voice had dropped to a whisper. “I was in bed, hardly sleeping. I have not managed to sleep much, with all that has been weighing on my mind, what with poor Fran due to be...” She stopped again. Holmes waited for her to proceed. “Well, I woke – that is, I came out of the light doze I had managed to drift into, and what do you think I saw standing before me in the darkness?”

“I cannot imagine,” drawled Holmes, looking over at me with a look that said he feared he very much could imagine.

“Now, before you go thinking I am prone to fancy, Mr. Holmes,” said Mrs. Fraser, with a touch of pride in her voice, “you should know that all of my acquaintances and family know me to be a most practical woman, someone who is not easily given to imagination or hysteria. There is no history of madness in our family, and while I am of course under a great deal of strain, I can promise and swear to the Lord Almighty that what I saw was real.”

“Do go on.” Holmes was idly looking down at his fingernails now. It seemed he was rapidly losing interest in our visitor.

“There was a figure standing over the bed. It gave me such a fright, I pulled the covers right up to my chin, shivering in fear. In that moment, it vanished, right in front of me.”

Holmes sighed, made to get up.

“Madam, I will do all I can to clear your sister of this heinous crime, but I really must protest at these... these ghost stories! Now if you would please excuse me, my time is very valuable.”

She did not rise.

“But I have not yet told you what was left behind, Mr. Holmes.” She visibly shivered as she said it. Holmes was reaching for his pipe, standing at the mantelpiece, his back turned to her.

She looked over at me.

“His name,” she said.

“Whose name?” I asked, as my friend seemed to have dissociated himself from the conversation.

“His,” she pointed at his back. “Sherlock Holmes.”
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Old 10-25-2022, 08:27 PM   #22 (permalink)
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Chapter II: From Heaven to Hell

I:

Holmes turned around like a whip cracking. His eyes were suddenly bright.

“My name?”

“Yours, sir.”

“Where?”

“On the wall.”

“Written?”

She considered, as if wondering how best to describe or explain it.

“I would not say written, sir,” she decided at last. “At least, not in any ink I have ever seen.”

Holmes frowned.

“I see. And did you show this writing to the police?”

“Oh no sir. It only happened last night, which was why I came straight around to you this morning.”

Holmes considered. I could see the look of annoyance fade from his face in an instant, replaced by an eagerness for the hunt. He was making for his room, searching for his coat.

“Can I take it the writing is still there, Mrs. Fraser?”

“Oh yes, sir,” she nodded. “There is nobody else in the house.”

“No servants?”

She dropped her eyes, as if embarrassed again.

“No sir. I am not a woman of means, and what money I had has mostly been expended on my sister's defence, even though she does not want one.”

“Very good!” Holmes was now talking from his dressing-room, and emerged a moment later attired for the street. He nodded to me. “Watson, fetch us a cab. I believe the the next train to Sheffield departs from Paddington in half an hour. We will return with Mrs. Fraser to her house and peruse this... unearthly writing. Mayhap it will provide us a clue.”


II:


The journey north into steel country took us two hours, during which time Holmes said little, and I, reluctant to leave Mrs. Fraser unattended, engaged her in light conversation, which turned mostly on the subject of her late husband. On arrival in Sheffield, a short hansom ride brought us to Mrs. Fraser's small house which, though small, was not poor, while it was still obvious that Mrs. Fraser had come down in the world, as she explained to us apologetically as she opened the door.

“I was unable to stay in my previous residence, the rent being so high and my finances so low, necessitating a move to a, well, less expensive residence.”

Holmes touched his hat. “You are to be commended, madam, for your dedication to your sister. I only wish she appreciated it.”

“I am sure she does,” insisted the lady, leading us inside, “in her own way. This way please, gentlemen. Mind the bannister, for it is in need of a nail and has a tendency to bend outwards.”

I fancied the thing was more in need of complete replacement, and felt it only my gentlemanly duty to offer to try to effect repairs. As Mrs. Fraser pointed me towards the cellar, where her late husband's tools were kept, Holmes, giving me a look I found hard to interpret, followed her up the rickety stairs.

It took but the work of minutes to strengthen the rail and ensure it did not move, and I rolled down my sleeves, returned the hammer and nails to the late Mr. Fraser's tool box, and joined Holmes in the bedroom.

My friend had his lens out, and was staring at the words on the wall, which even I could see on entering. The letters looked at first as if they had been done in charcoal, yet they glowed with some inner light which that material does not possess, unless set afire. The name was not actually complete, but hard to mistake the message:

GO
SE
SHERL
HOLME

I could not fathom why someone might only complete half of each word. If the author had been interrupted while writing the message one would have imagined something along the lines of

GO
SEE
SHERLOCK
HOL

or similar, but here were words cut off while others made after them had been started. Most singular indeed. But even more so was the composition of the letters, and the question of how they had been put there. Holmes confirmed they were neither chalk nor paint, not charcoal either, as had at first appeared to me, and no chemical he was familiar with. They were, his examination told him conclusively, not written in blood either.

“This message,” he announced, straightening up and pocketing his glass, “was somehow burned into the wall. I find it hard to ascert -”

His words were cut off by a high-pitched shriek, and he turned from me to Mrs. Fraser. For one moment I had the distinct impression he was about to take out his lens again and examine her, to determine the cause of her distress and fright, but instead he followed her pointing finger, and all but shouted himself. I personally took a step back, grabbing at the door frame to steady myself as my legs threatened to trip over each other.

Right in front of us, as we watched, and with no possible agency to explain it, words appeared on the wall!

With a sizzling, hissing sound, as if someone were using a tool to burn the letters into the brick, like the ranchers I had heard of in the United States of America, who used heated metal rods to imprint their sigil on the flesh of their livestock to mark them as their property, we all three watched In dread, mute fascination the new message as it seared itself both into the wall and into our brains. Holmes had whipped out his lens and was watching closely, though considering the method of writing the message, he did not touch the wall or get too close. There was a curious smell of roasting flesh, like when the boar turns on the spit. I felt queasy suddenly.

The words appeared, slowly and with a sort of halting, jerky motion

CIRC
CRO
BAT
CAN
AD
A
REVE

In the very act of writing what appeared to be a letter N the ghostly hand – for such I must call it – stopped, and the message appeared to be done. Or as much as was going to be written. As the writing had appeared on the wall, Holmes had first pawed the air frantically, as if trying to touch the author, be he invisible or in some other way disguised against our senses.

He turned to me, his face pale and ashen.

“Nothing,” he breathed, like a man who doubts what he says. “Nothing, I tell you, Watson. There was nothing there!”

For a moment he continued to stare at the half-formed message on the wall of Mrs. Fraser's house.

Then I yelled “Holmes!”

I had just realised that she had fainted, and rushed to her aid, as did he. As we attended to her, Holmes almost screamed at me, pointing up.

“Watson! The ceiling! The ceiling!”

Scrawled above us, in those spectral letters charred into the roof, larger than those on the wall by a factor of at least three, the words

ADONIS
SAVE
HER
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Old 10-25-2022, 08:29 PM   #23 (permalink)
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III:

Having settled Mrs. Fraser and left her in the care of a neighbour, we returned to Baker Street to ruminate on the events we had just witnessed. It took several glasses of brandy before either of us were able to speak, and when he did, Holmes' voice was missing the usual self-confidence and arrogance, the certainty and belief in his own talent that usually characterised it.

“I am not a man, as you know Watson, to place any faith in higher powers,” he told me, his eyes somewhat haunted. “Yet I must admit I have no logical explanation for what we have just seen. Had it been reported to me, I could have given you any number of possible causes; indeed, when I entered Mrs. Fraser's room and beheld the writing I was already turning over solutions in my mind. But having seen that writing appear before my very eyes, having ascertained that there was no physical agency present, having smelled the very stone burning as the letters appeared – I don't mind telling you, my friend, I am willing to entertain notions I would otherwise normally dismiss.”

I nodded, my own hand on the glass not quite as steady as I would have had it.

“At least we both saw it,” I noted. “I confess, had it only been yourself that had been a witness I might have been tempted to wonder if you had somehow imagined it, and I am sure you would likely have had similar thoughts about me, had the positions been reversed. But there is no getting away from it, Holmes.” I leaned forward, my voice betraying something of a tremble. “Something wrote those words, something we could not see, or feel, and it happened right before our very eyes.”

Holmes was on his third pipe, the room almost choked with thick dark smoke. I was finishing my second. Had Mrs. Hudson come in at that time, she would possibly have considered sending for the fire brigade.

“You assume the writing to be connected to the case?” It was not really a question, but Holmes nodded gravely.

“Having recovered somewhat from the initial shock, I have been considering the import of the words. I took notes of course.” He flipped open a note book, where the messages had been reproduced by him by much more earthly means on paper with pen and ink.

“First,” he said, in his methodical way, we have the initial message.

This is not a difficult message to understand. Although for some reason our – hmm – our ghostly writer has not completed some of the words, it clearly should read GO SEE SHERLOCK HOLMES. Perhaps this phantom hand was prevented writing my surname, or perhaps it considered the first name sufficient. There are not, I believe, many men named Sherlock in England, let alone London.”

Just the mention of the spectral message sent a cold shiver down my spine again, and I tipped back my brandy glass.

“So it was advice.”

“Or an order. Or a suggestion. At any rate, the message told Mrs. Fraser to come to me, so we can assume that whoever – or whatever – wrote it was acquainted with me, or at least, with my reputation.”

I forced a laugh. It sounded cold and hollow.

“Why, Holmes!” I expostulated. “Half of London is by now acquainted with your reputation. You are famous.”

He gave me a hard look.

“Hardly that, Watson, hardly that. However it is true that my name has been in the newspapers and the police reports, even if I have shied from taking credit for most of my cases. The knowledge that I am involved in any such is usually a good indication, both to the public and to the official police, that it will be cleared up. So in theory, anyone could have written that message.”

I shivered. “Not in the manner in which it was written,” I pointed out. He shook his head.

“No,” he agreed. “There is no agency I know of which could have created it, which is why, very much against my better judgement, Watson, I am forced to look beyond the material world and perhaps consider that the answer may lie elsewhere.”

“A ghost?”

“Let us say rather, some agency which we are as yet unable to understand.” He seemed naturally reluctant to admit to any supernatural involvement. We had of course had cases which had seemed, on the surface, to be rooted in matters other than earthly, but they had always proven to be explainable by this world's logic. So far, I could see no manner in which this could be put in the same category.

“Some agency,” I noted, “which is not only familiar with your work but also with Mrs. Fraser.”

He pointed at me. “That is very important indeed, Watson,” he agreed, approvingly. “Whatever this – agency – might be, it is in some way intimately connected with our client. So much we have established. Let us look, then, at the message which appeared while we watched.”

I felt a cold thrill of fear run through me again, as I am sure did Holmes, though he made sure not to let it show.

“We have more unfinished or incomplete words. Let me see: REVE. Well, we saw the N begin to be written, so we may with some confidence assert that word to be “revenge”. I doubt any other word fits?”

He looked over at me enquiringly. A thought had come to my mind and I snapped my fingers.

“Revenant!” I ejaculated. “Isn't that another word for a ghost?”

He frowned, made a note in his pad.

“Revenant. We will add that as a possibility, and giving the, ah, somewhat supernatural origin of the writing in question, a definite possibility. I ask you this though, Watson: if the agency was trying to tell us it was a ghost – or, if you will, a revenant – why write that? Would it not be obvious, to any other than I, who refuse to believe in the existence of such things, that what they were looking at was, as I think you called it, ghostly writing? Why force the point? No, on the whole, given the tenor of the message I feel we are on firmer ground with revenge. By the by, we shall leave that to one side. I have also committed a sin I castigate others for, which is to fail to begin at the beginning, going, rather like an impatient reader – or client – to the end without first examining the beginning. So.”

He traced back up along the line of letters and words; I could see his pen slide up the pad, where he tapped it meaningfully.

“We begin with this word: CIRC. This is obviously an incomplete word, but could be many things. Circle? Circumference? Circumlocution?”

“Circe?”

“Watson!” He thrust the pad down on his knee, tapped it irritably with the pen.

"I do apologise, my dear Holmes.” I had not realised I had spoken aloud.

“It is highly unlikely,” he said through gritted teeth, a grimace I felt – or hoped – was more for the problem than directed at me, “that a witch from Greek legend is likely to figure in this message.”

And though I knew it was a mistake, I could not help but point out the obvious.

“The word Adonis is used later.”

He sighed. “Indeed. I have my own ideas about that, but we will get to it in due course. If you would be so kind? Thank you. Now, let us assume the most obvious thing. Whatever this – oh damn it to blazes!” His irritated shout made me wonder what I had done now, but this time the fault did not seem to lie with me. “Let us just call it the ghost, for the sake of narrative, shall we? I despise allowing superstition and folklore into my reasoning, but I tire of calling it the agency. So, for now, and reserving the right to continue to disbelieve in such beings until their existence can be scientifically proven, or at least not disproven, our ghost is surely likely to have chosen the shortest words they can for their message.”

“And why is that, Holmes?”

He looked at me with that withering gaze, the one that said don't you see it?

“Was it not evident to you, Watson? Jumping the yawning chasm between the real world and that of the supernatural in order to allow the existence of the latter in the former, did it not seem to you that this ghostly hand which gave us the message did so with some difficulty?”

I had to confess I had not noticed that.

“Consider.” He leaned back, steepling his fingers again and closing his eyes. “Once more, reserving judgement as I do on the existence of spirits, were a man with a bad hand to write such a message – someone who had injured themselves, or who was perhaps close to death – would the words flow with ease and rapidity, or would they seem to appear in a somewhat sporadic, haphazard manner? The words we witnessed came slowly, and seemingly, to me at any rate, with a great amount of effort, as if it was painful, or at least hard to do. Loath as I am to speculate upon matters of which I have not the least experience, I might consider it similar to a man trapped behind a sheet, trying to push through to write with a sharp pen on the wall.”

He shrugged, clearly uncomfortable with the analogy but still believing it was the best one.

“If we were to again stretch the bounds of our own credulity and assume that this – this ghost had to struggle to reach through from, as the clairvoyants are so fond of calling it, the other side, then might not those efforts come in a sporadic manner? If, for whatever reason, this was so, would not then the, ah, ghost, wish to expend the minimum effort, this best being achieved by using the shortest words?”

I had to admit that what he said seemed as likely as anything I could come up with. Holmes went on.

“So then, we have a short word, let us say, six letters at most. Circle? Circa? Circus? Well, we shall come back to that. The next in line is CRO. I think we can safely assume this to be CROW, especially as it is followed by BAT. So, for some reason, a crow and a bat.”

“Could be,” I offered, “a cricket bat.”

Holmes pursed his lips, looked at the words.

“Possible,” he allowed. “However, coming directly after crow, I would rather imagine the word would refer to a bat of the flying kind. For now, this will be our working hypothesis. It may of course change, should we receive updated data. So. Can, add, a – these words seem complete, and if taken together do indeed form a phrase, can add a, though unfortunately we are not told what can add what to what. It seems improbable that the message is that a crow and a bat can add a something. Hmm. Could it be a clue? Can add a clue? I wonder... Watson! Hand me down my book of heraldry, would you?”

In sudden excitement, Holmes scoured the pages, turning each over and peering at them through his glass.

“Wyvern, dragon, lion, unicorn, fish – wait a moment!” He examined the page he had stopped at closely, then shook his head in disappointment. “Nay, there is a crow on the crest of the DeForge family, but no bat, nor anything resembling one. In fact, I don't believe there are any bats on any of the family crests in England. Bah!” He shut the book with a gesture of irritation, laid the lens aside.

“Perhaps we are approaching this from the wrong direction,” he suggested.

Something occurred to me. I pointed with the stem of my pipe at the ceiling.

“The other words, Holmes?”

He shrugged. “Save her is crystal clear,” he said, “given whose house we were in. Whatever this – ghost – is , it is aware of the connection between Mrs. Fraser and Mrs. Liebert, and must somehow know of the charge against her. There is no other reason it would have summoned us, using the sister as the means of getting us there. Save her. Save Mrs. Liebert. What connection, though, could a spirit have with... unless!” He clicked his fingers. Giving me a very serious look, he sat back.

“Watson, what I am going to say to you now flies in the face of everything I have believed for as long as I have lived, but it is perhaps time for me to take heed of my own advice. If we do not – cannot, in fact – discount the existence of a spirit which can communicate with the living as impossible – since we have seen evidence of this with our own eyes, and there is no other explanation – then the existence of such a being becomes only improbable.”

I nodded, pointing my finger at him.

“And you always say that whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth!”


“So the only logical – if one can apply logic to such a seemingly illogical idea – answer has to be that this is, somehow, the ghost of Mrs. Francesca Liebert's dead husband!”

“By Jove, Holmes!” I felt both an impulse to applaud his reasoning and a wish to wake up, as if this were all a horrible dream. “He's trying to help us!”

Holmes looked again at the writing.

“Save her...”

“But what of the other word, Holmes? Adonis?”

“Greek god of beauty.” There was a strange look on his face. “Perhaps our ghost had a poetic turn of mind?”

He sighed, and picked up his violin, regaling me for the rest of the evening with old Greek tunes, and would speak no more of the case.
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Old 10-25-2022, 08:31 PM   #24 (permalink)
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IV: Abandon All Hope

I arose the next morning to find Holmes gone. This was no surprise and nothing new. My friend was constantly vanishing, visiting this haunt or that, tracking down informants or running down theories. I set off for my practice, and was walking by the Church of St. Margaret's when to my utter astonishment who should I see coming out of the grounds but Holmes! I believed this was the first time I had seen him in a church, and the first since he had been forcibly and rather comically dragged there by the soon-to-be-husband of Irene Adler, to stand as witness to their wedding.

Not wishing to embarrass him into admitting that he had obviously had to reach out to a higher power for inspiration and help, I kept my distance, but even from where I stood I could see a frown of distaste and dismay written upon his hard, stern features. He drew something from his pocket, and I saw it was his notebook. He looked at it, wrote something down, replaced it.

Then, looking around in case he was observed, he hurried away. I hailed a cab and continued on to my practice, confident he had not seen me.



It was late in the evening when Holmes walked in the door. He looked drawn, weary, sick at heart. I moved towards him, but he waved me back with his usual irritated look, and collapsed into his chair. Gratefully, he lit his pipe for the first time that day, inhaling and then with exceeding pleasure blowing out the thick smoke rings. For a few moments, he just sat like that, watching the smoke drift slowly up to the ceiling, a haunted look in his eyes.

“Watson,” he said to me in his most serious voice, “I do believe that if there is a Hell, we have ourselves manufactured it, right here on Earth.”

I was unsure how to respond to this, so merely waited for him to continue, as it was evident he would. He sighed.

“In all the places I have spent my worst hours – waiting in the cold and rain to catch my quarry, lurking in an opium den in the hope of picking up information, even that time I felt the cold hand of death literally on my throat at the conclusion of the case of the Reigate Squire, as you so poetically named the adventure in Acton, nay, even the horror I felt when exposed to the effects of the devil's foot smoke in Cornwall, nowhere do I believe I have spent a more horrible time than I have passed today. I am not ashamed to admit to you that my very soul shrivelled within me at the sights to be seen within those high, forbidding walls.”

I poured out some brandy from the decanter and took it to him. He smiled, accepted the glass and, to my considerable surprise, drained it at a draught, his fingers so tight on the vessel that for a moment I feared it would burst in his hand.

“But where have you been, Holmes?” I could not fathom what could engender such despair in his bosom.

“The word for Hell,” he said slowly, “is Pentonville.”

Now I understood. He inhaled deeply again, puffing out the smoke almost as if in an attempt to purge his body of any of the air he would have inhaled while at the grim prison.

“You have been to see Mrs. Liebert.” It was the only answer. He nodded, looking away from me.

“I noted yesterday that our criminal justice system needs a serious overhaul,” he reminded me, “if not a complete root-and-branch change. I can think of no part of it which more sorely needs that change than our prison system, with special emphasis on that hell hole.”

There was a cold supper laid out on the table. He rose, unfolding his long legs like a stork, and made his way over to the table, where I joined him. I had of course eaten by now, but I was reluctant to leave him eating alone at the table. For one of the first times in his life, I felt Sherlock Holmes craved, aye, needed company, and I was certainly not about to deprive him of it.

“How did you find her?”

Between bites of cold meat and hot tea, he related to me the story, or at least as much as he could bear to tell me. Holmes had of course visited prisoners before, usually to question them, advise them or just to get an impression from them which would help him to come to a conclusion as to their guilt or innocence. But in the sixty cases which I have committed to print, and the hundreds more which I have not, he had rarely seen a woman in prison. There had of course been lady clients, even some accused of murder, but these had usually been exonerated quickly enough that a prison visit was not necessary. Besides, Pentonville had only recently been opened, and this was the first time he had been through its doors. I got the distinct feeling he would be in no hurry to repeat the experience.

“She bears up well.” I could see the lie in his eyes, but allowed him his small subterfuge. I am not a man easily shaken, as my readers may know, but the idea of a gentle woman spending time in a cold, dirty cell in that awful fortress was enough to make me feel quite ill. “She refuses to change her story, even though it is patently obvious to even the least imaginative man that she is trying to protect someone. If I can just discover who that is, we will be some way towards proving her innocence. However -” he brightened slightly; looking over the rim of his teacup at me, I could see the elated sparkle return to his eyes that always appeared when things were starting to fall into place, when the darkness was beginning to be shot through by even the faintest shafts of light.

“However?” I prompted, as he had stopped talking and seemed to be lost in thought. He shook himself, returning from whatever convoluted avenue of logic or deduction he had been proceeding down.

“She did clear up some points for me, despite herself, even if she would prefer, in her determination to assume the blame, that she had not helped me. I was able to confirm, for instance, that her husband did not smoke. She gave me this information, presumably as it seemed irrelevant, and perhaps she believed she might be, as they say of the railways, switching me to the wrong track. It is an important point, though. You will readily understand why?”

Of course it was obvious, but I knew Holmes liked to ensure I was following his logic, and was on, so far as I could be, or any man could, the same track as he, that we were, to use an old phrase, singing from a similar hymn sheet.

“We know she doesn't smoke,” I said, filling my own pipe. “Quite apart from it being most unladylike, she has the same asthma her sister suffers from. And if her husband does not partake, and the fire was not lit...”

“Exactly!” Holmes leaned back, a sandwich in one hand. “Then where did the smell of smoke which was marked on the butler entering the room come from? He desposed that it was thick and cloying, as if a man had just been smoking a pipe or cigar. I was able to detect its presence clearly an hour later when I was called in, though I doubt a man of less sensitivity to and experience with tobacco could. So who was smoking?”

“There were only two people in the room,” said I thoughtfully, and he watched me as a master watches a promising pupil, all but guiding me along, willing me to the conclusion. “Neither smoked. There was a smell of smoke. Therefore...” I clicked my fingers. “Holmes! There was a third person in the room!”

He grinned, nodded. “There must have been,” he agreed. “It is the only logical solution, and you know how I love my logic, Watson.”

Unwilling as I was to poke a hole in that logic and deflate his theory, I had to ask the obvious question.

“Then where did they go? There was no possible way they could escape. The room remained locked from the inside until Carter the butler forced it open, and he stationed Thompson at the door until the police arrived. Assuming the footman remained at his post, nobody could have slipped past him.”

“Indeed. I interviewed this footman, Thompson, and I found him to be a fine, upstanding fellow, a lad of the most unimpeachable character. I feel I can vouch for his having told the truth when he swore he did not move from his station, and that nobody came out of the room. Which leaves us with only two possibilities. Either the third person was still in the room, and somehow contrived to escape after the investigation, which seems to me next to impossible. There were constables everywhere, both at the door of the room, in the room and stationed outside. The day was by now well on its way to becoming the afternoon, and the servants were bustling around the house, for the work of a domestic does not stop because the master has met his end.”

He shook his head, dabbed at his lips and returned to his armchair, where he lit a second pipe. I moved to my own chair.

“No, Watson, I cannot discount it of course, but the balance of probability seems to indicate it unlikely. We are left, then, with the other option.”

“Which is?” I really could not see that there was another option.

“Which is,” he declared, “that the third actor in our tragic little play found another means of exiting the house.”

I tried not to scoff, but a snort did escape me. He looked up sharply.

“What means?”

“I have not yet,” he admitted, with a somewhat dark look in my direction, “worked that out. But consider, Watson. The door was guarded. The windows were locked, and showed no signs of having been opened, as Chambers had been coming in to do so when she found the door locked. Once the body was discovered, Lestrade ordered them left shut, no doubt thinking somewhat along the same lines as myself. The room, though large, has few if any hiding places, and I can't for the life of me think where someone might conceal themselves.”

I regretted it immediately, but it seemed so absurd to me that I spoke without thinking.

“Perhaps it was the West End Ghost!”

He gave me a severe look, one which made me squirm in my chair and take a sudden and deep interest in the price of corn in the Times.

“I think,” he said icily, “had you been witness to the deplorable conditions under which Mrs. Liebert is now forced to live, as she awaits her fate, you might not be quite so flippant, Doctor!”

There was cold rage in his face, and for a moment I actually thought he was going to rise and strike me. I felt ashamed at his words.

“You are of course correct, Holmes,” I said penitently. “It is no time for levity.”

“The other point Mrs. Liebert cleared up for me,” he went on, ignoring my apology, “is quite singular too. It turns out she is left-handed.”

“I see.”

“No, you do not.”

“No,” I admitted. “I do not. Please explain.”

“It's elementary,” he told me with that quiet tolerance he used when explaining things which he himself felt needed no clarification. “When Mrs. Liebert was discovered, she was in a faint. The knife which killed her husband was in her hand.”

“Yes?” I still failed to see the significance. Holmes, with that air of the showman he often used when revealing things, smiled thinly.

“Her right hand.”

“Good Heavens!”

The implication could not be clearer. He nodded.

“There are only three possible explanations, Watson. One is that Mrs. Liebert is what they call ambidextrous. You of course as a doctor are familiar with the term?”

“Certainly. One is either left or right handed, but a person who is ambidextrous is neither.”

“Precisely. They favour neither the right nor the left hand, and can use either as easily as the other. You or I, Doctor, both being right-handed, would find it a challenge indeed to write, or play billiards, or even open a door with our left hand. Our brains tell us that the right hand is the one to use, and it is an automatic response. It is of course easily proven.”

And so saying, he caught up an apple from the bowl next to him and tossed it to me. I caught it with my right hand.

“So! A right-handed person will always catch with the right hand, while one who favours the left would automatically raise the other hand. An ambidextrous person could use whichever he or she chose.”

“And you have confirmed Mrs. Liebert not to be such a person?”

“A very simple experiment assured me she favours her right hand. And so we have option two, which is that having stabbed her husband to death, Mrs. Liebert then sat or collapsed in the chair in which she was found, but before fainting changed hands, moving the knife from her left – the one she would have used had she, for purely the sake of argument, stabbed him – to her right.”

“That seems unlikely,” I admitted.

“It is more than unlikely,” Sherlock Holmes declared. “I say it is so far beyond the reach of logic and human nature that it is next to impossible. So now, Doctor, I ask you to recall once more that most favourite of my maxims, which is that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

“And the improbable,” I asked, “the truth here is?”

Holmes put down his pipe, steepled his fingers, looked up at the ceiling again.

“As we have established beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a third person in the room, and that surely this person can be assumed to be the killer of Mr. Liebert, does it not then follow that this unknown person would have tried to implicate his wife in the deed by placing the knife in her insensible hand?”

“By Jove, Holmes!” I ejaculated, standing up and advancing to offer him my hand. “You're right! You've done it again!”

Holmes looked at my hand with the same distaste he viewed any human contact, and shook his head.


“I have done nothing, my friend,” said he with a sigh, “other than put together an alternative version of the events. It fits the clues, but at the moment we have no way of proving that it does. We have no evidence, and no jury in the land would entertain such an appeal. No, Watson. We need to gather the threads until we can weave them into a tapestry that will show conclusively that Mrs. Liebert is innocent of her husband's murder, and to do that we will in all likelihood have to deliver the true murderer into the hands of the law. I fear nothing less will shake our friend Lestrade's conviction that he has his man, or in this case woman, and that the case is closed.”

A certain light seemed to enter his eyes, banishing for a moment the tiredness.

“Some of my other enquiries, Watson, have borne better fruit. Will you come with me to the Diogenes Club? I must see my brother.”
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Old 10-25-2022, 08:31 PM   #25 (permalink)
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V: Is There a Doctor in the House?

The effect the note Holmes showed to his brother had upon Mycroft surprised me, though it seemed to confirm some suspicion his younger brother had. Mycroft turned pale, looked around and mopped his forehead, shiny with sweat.

“That name must never be mentioned outside of the club, Sherlock!” he hissed, a slight tremble in his voice. “Its very existence is the most closely guarded secret in England.” He shot his brother a suspicious, questioning look. “How did you come to hear of it?”

“For some time now, Mycroft, I have known such a place exists, though I confess I was and am ignorant of its location. I quite understand the need for secrecy, but when I tell you that the life of a woman – who is almost certainly innocent of the crime of which she is accused – hangs in the balance, you will appreciate the importance of our being admitted to this most select establishment.

Mycroft shook his head, paced up and down, with the air of a man upon whose shoulders a great burden pressed.

“Even I could not get you in, Sherlock. It is strictly members only, and that membership is predicated upon certain, ah, criteria.” He looked up sharply. “Logically, there is only one possible case you could be working upon now, and that is of course the Liebert murder. But I fail to see how this can have any connection to... ah.” He snapped his fingers, nodded. “Of course. Lord Bailey.”

Holmes smiled thinly. Another hard stare from Mycroft.

“But how did you know...?

“I have my sources, as you know, brother,” Holmes reminded him.

Mycroft Holmes grunted.

“Well, I am fully aware you have your methods, Sherlock,” he agreed in a sort of annoyed tone, “but I had not dreamed they extended into such... private areas. All I can tell you is that not a single member of the cabinet, nor any of the government will admit to having even heard of the Adonis Club. It is no small threat when I say it would be the ruination of their career, and probably lead to a term of imprisonment.”

Sherlock Holmes nodded, pressing his fingers together.

“I understand. A matter of national security is it? Defence of the realm? Political hot potato?”

His brother studied him, and it seemed to me that Mycroft was trying to discern whether or not Sherlock Holmes was serious, or if he was mocking him. He shook his head, still undecided.

“Let us just say,” he placed one of his large fingers against his large nose, “that it is utterly vital the secret of this club remain so.”

Holmes leaned forward.

“Are you a member, Mycroft?”

Unaccountably, his brother suddenly shook with laughter, his face turning positively red. He wiped his eyes with a silk kerchief, shook his great head.

“Gracious, no, Sherlock! Not my style, old boy. Not my style at all. But I know people who are, and they, well...” He pointed meaningfully at the ceiling. The inference was clear. People far above Mycroft Holmes had reason to keep their membership of this shadowy club from general knowledge.

“If I can give you my oath,” said Holmes, “that the secret of the club, including its location, its very existence, will not be shared with anyone, least of all the police, and that I will involve none of its members in my investigation, can you tell us the address?”

His brother rose to go, heaving his great bulk out of the chair like a walrus flapping down to the edge of the sea.

“I am afraid I have said all I can say. Good day to you, Sherlock.”



I was somewhat mystified, as Holmes seemed to know exactly where the place was, why he had been at such pains to get his brother to tell him.

As we rode in the hansom he touched his nose.

“I merely wished to push Mycroft as far as I could, to see exactly how deep this secret is, and how much he knows about it. Clearly,” he remarked, “though not a member, as he says, he is well acquainted with this Adonis Club.”

Even now, I find it inopportune to reveal even the name of the street we found ourselves in, as, considering what we eventually found out about the mysterious club, the need for its very location has become even more vital. I should also, in fairness to my readers, explain that the name used here is not the name of the actual club, and has been chosen by me for reasons which will become clear once the story has been completed.

Suffice to say, then, that Holmes and I appeared at the address he had given the cabby and approached the door. Our plan was well in hand; Holmes correctly assumed that even his fame would preclude entry, and so he relied upon me. As he rang the bell a rather large man with an interesting collection of scars and tattoos appeared, the fact that his two brows met in the middle making his scowl even more threatening.

“Wot you want?” he snapped, eyeing the two of us.

Undeterred by his manner, Holmes made to push past him, but of course the brute barred the way, and it would have been easier to have pushed over a large oak tree. Holmes of course knew this, but his haste and impatience were part of our plan.

“Move, man!” he shouted in annoyance. “It's a matter of life or death!”

The face of the guardian of the entrance to the club screwed up in a mixture of consternation, suspicion and disbelief.

“Wot?”

“My good man,” said Holmes, indicating me, “this is Doctor Henry Bellingham, who was sent for personally to attend one of your, ah, members.”

Like a gorilla grappling with the concept of advanced mathematics, the attendant frowned as he tried to work this out. From over his shoulder came the low sound of music, laughter and the buzz of conversation.

“'Oo?” he demanded, unintentionally sounding more like the simian he resembled. Holmes rolled his eyes. Sidling up to the man, like a willow before one of the mighty California Redwoods, he attempted to put his arm around the brawny shoulders, but his reach was unequal to the task, so he settled for patting him on one shoulder.

“I am quite sure, my good fellow,” he said, “that you understand how important privacy is to your members. You would not expect me to name one of them, out here in the street?”

The gorilla seemed to think this was reasonable. His decision may have been assisted by a faint clinking and the glint of silver as Holmes pressed something into his paw. The big brute thought about it, thought about it some more, then came to a decision.

“Just yerself,” he said, pointing a meaty finger at me. “Yer stay outside.”

Holmes stepped back, ushering me in, and the gorilla led the way.

Now that I was in, the question was, how good an actor was I? I had never played the game so popular in America, the card game they call poker, but I was an excellent bridge player, so I knew a thing or two about misdirection. The gorilla led the way down the hall – his knuckles almost seemed to drag along the floor, though I fancy that may have been my overactive imagination and the sense of heightened anticipation I was in as I penetrated what Holmes believed to be the dragon's lair – and brought me to a desk, where sat an unsmiling, obsequious man with a bald head, impeccably dressed and with a nose lifted so high that, had he raised it any further his very neck must have been in danger of cracking.

“Doctor.”

The gorilla had evidently used all the brain power at his command to remember my profession. It was too much to expect he would remember my assumed name. For a moment I was in a panic as I could not recall it myself. What name had I given to the attendant? Then I realised it didn't matter, as he was hardly likely to contradict me or challenge me on it. Even so, I wanted to stick to the plan as closely as possible, and luck was with me, as the name suddenly came back to me.

“Bellingham,” I said curtly. “I was called, at this most ungodly hour.” I made a great show of being annoyed, while the bald man looked up a register.

“Name?”

“Bellingham. I just told you.”

“No.” The man rolled his eyes expressively. “The member's name.”

“Ah. Well, I was told to speak it to nobody.” I tapped the side of my nose. “Safety first, what?”

“Quite,” the desk clerk agreed drily. “However, it does present a problem, Doctor...?”

“Bellingham.”

“Doctor Bellingham. If I don't know who you are here to see, how can I direct you to their suite?”

“This is true.” I pretended to think it over. “Tell you what,” I said, seeming to have an idea that would break this impasse, “show me the register, and I will point out his name. Then my vow of secrecy to my patient will not have been broken, technically. Ah, unless you mention it to anyone.”

The bald man looked highly affronted.

“Discretion is our watchword here, Doctor!” he snapped. “I fear showing you the register would be quite impossible. Our members value their privacy.”

“Hmm.” I nodded. “Very well then. I shall just have to tell the Prime Minister that I was sadly unable to treat his -”

“The Prime Minister?” The words had an immediate effect on the bald man, as of course I knew they should, even if I knew the Prime Minister about as well as I knew Her Majesty. “Well, of course, that is quite a different matter. Let me see. Hmm. Yes. Well, in that case I see no reason you should not read the register. Wouldn't want one of Her Majesty's servants going without vital treatment, would we?”

And so saying, he turned the large book he had been looking in towards me, and I scanned down the page. Picking a name at random, I pointed. His eyes widened a touch.

“Him? A member of the government?” He seemed surprised. “We of course do not enquire into the affairs of our members, but I had been under the impression that he was a shipping clerk in -”

I cut him off, again tapping the side of my nose. His eyes widened further.

“Really?” Then his eyes narrowed, and his thin lips pursed as he seemed to consider it. “Yes. Yes it all makes sense now. Of course.” he looked at me with a slightly conspiratorial look, “Not that it's any business of mine, certainly. His secret,” he tapped his nose, imitating or answering my gesture, “is safe with me.”

He pointed up the stairs.

“Room 17, third on the left. Ah, if I may ask?” He touched me on the sleeve as I made to follow his directions. “What exactly is the nature of his illness?”

“Oh,” I told him as I walked towards the staircase, “you will of course understand that is highly sensitive information I am not at liberty to divulge.”

He smiled a watery smile.

“Of course. Quite right and proper, too. Forgive me for asking.”

I had mounted the stairs as he spoke, and soon left him far behind.


Holmes was waiting with a hansom outside as I left the building, the big attendant watching me warily as I departed. I thought it prudent to follow my friend's example and pressed some coins into his hand, which caused his huge face to all but split in a ragged smile. He waved one meaty paw at me.

“'Night, Doc!”

How easy it is to turn a potential enemy into an ally, or at least a non-enemy, by the simple expedient of, as the gypsies say, crossing the palm with silver.

“Have you been waiting long?” I asked Holmes as I climbed into the cab. He looked at his pocket watch, snapped it closed.

“Precisely four minutes.”

“But how did you know I would not be longer in there?”

He smiled his knowing smile.

“A simple calculation, Watson. I merely worked out how long it would take my good friend, with all the guile he has accumulated through our relationship, to gain access to the registry, then added the time to walk one corridor in a relatively hurried manner, return to the ground floor and slip out the door. I was -” he checked his watch again - “twenty-one seconds out, but then, you did have to disengage yourself from that bannister on the way down.”

I was used to my friend making clever observations, but there were times I really believed he was a wizard, or had been beside me, for how else could he know?

“Holmes, you astound me! How...?”

Before I had finished the rather predictable question he had delivered the answer, pointing at my sleeve.

“A small tear,” he observed, “not large enough to have been caused by being caught and trying to extricate yourself from a bad situation, but just the right size to result from your sleeve having been caught on a badly-hammered-in nail. The only place likely to have such poor workmanship would be the bannister, which would certainly have seen quite some wear and tear in its time. It could have been the door, of course, but any nail is likely to be much higher and there is no real way in which you could have snagged your sleeve on that. No, I feel confident that in your haste to depart, and without wishing to make it seem like you were hurrying, you did indeed catch your cuff on the errant nail and had to take a moment to release yourself with the minimum damage caused to your coat.”

I sat back, in awe, as ever, of my friend's mental capacities and deductive reasoning.

“Correct as always Holmes.”

He sniffed. “A mere trifle, barely worth discussing. But to more important things. How did your little spy mission go?”

I felt rather proud of myself, this being the first time I had operated without Holmes, though under his direction of course. The main mission had been, naturally, to get a look at the list of members, which I had. After that, it was merely a case of walking up the stairs to the room indicated by the clerk, passing it, standing for a little while at the corner and then returning, nodding to the bald man, who would assume that I had finished my ministrations and was leaving. A man like him was never likely to go and check I had seen the member I indicated, and had he tried to investigate, his lower status would have assured he received short shrift from the unknown man in Room 17.

“I could not write them all down,” I told Holmes, “but I have, as you know, a good memory and I can remember most if not all of them.”

“Excellent!” Holmes was pleased indeed, as he extracted a notebook and began recording the names, some of which caused a raised eyebrow and an intake of breath. One name would, I knew, certainly impress him, and I was proven correct when he let out a cry and tapped the notebook, closing it with that look of triumph he had when the case was beginning to come together.

The cab jolted along the dark streets, only the glow of a gas lamp illuminating the road as we cantered along. He looked out the window, lost in his own thoughts.

“I have not been idle myself, you know, Watson.” He turned and grinned at me. “We shall have to wait till the morning to see what fruit my labours have grown, but I begin to see some light at the end of this dark tunnel.” With a sudden explosion of exuberance, he laughed out loud and cried “On, driver! On! On to Baker Street!”
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Old 10-26-2022, 05:49 PM   #26 (permalink)
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Chapter III: Friends in Low Places

I: As One Door Closes...

I felt a little fatigued from my exertions of the previous night so I slept later than usual. Holmes, of course, was up with the lark – if indeed his head had ever hit the pillow – and looked to have been reading for some time when I finally rose. Books were piled around him in an untidy jumble on the table – Burke's Peerage was the one his nose was in as I joined him – and as he read he wrote in a notebook beside him, hardly even looking at what it was he wrote. He looked up as I entered.

“Good morning, Watson!” His face, though haggard from lack of sleep and red around the eyes, had the flush of excitement I always noted when he was well on the chase. “Some of those names you recounted to me...” He trailed off, tapping the book. “One would wonder why so many eminent men would be -”

His sentence was broken off as Mrs. Hudson opened the door, the very picture of disapproval and scandal.

“Mr. Holmes,” she said, in a very tight voice, “there is ... someone... to see you.”

Holmes looked up. “Gentleman or lady, Mrs. Hudson?” His eyes were twinkling with merry mischief, and I wondered what he was up to. Our landlady pulled a face.

“I'm sure I would stretch the meaning of the word entirely to call her a lady,” she remarked. “Not that it is my place to say, of course.”

“Of course, Mrs. Hudson!” Holmes returned to his book, wrote something down. “You are, as always, the very soul of gentility. Show her up, if you please.”

Mrs. Hudson disappeared with one more frown of deprecation, and a moment later returned with a specimen of the kind of female I imagine would have been more comfortable and at home in a dance hall.

The lady, for such I suppose I may call her, was about of the middle height, with bare arms which showed freckles halfway up the left, no gloves on her hands and a rather poor quality dress. The boots she wore, though shiny, looked to have seen better days, and her hair, a dusky red, was patched with more strands of grey than I would have expected in a woman of her age. Her makeup was heavy, lending further credence to the possibility, even probability that she was older than she looked, but was trying to conceal the fact.

It could not, however, disguise the puffiness around one eye, which was darkening and swollen, or the split lip, which, though it had obviously stopped now, looked to my professional eye to have been bleeding for some time. Two of her teeth were crooked, and it was quite obvious she had received a blow of some sort.

“Miss Penny,” Holmes drawled. “Good morning to you. I trust you have news for me?”

Only now did he look up, his eyes instantly losing their amused twinkle and hardening to sharp flint.

“My dear girl!” he exclaimed, scrambling to his feet. “Whatever happened? Watson!” He darted a look at me. “See to the lady, would you?”

“Of course, Holmes.” I had been about to offer my services, of course. I guided her to a chair, and she sat down gingerly, as if afraid her body coming in contact with our furniture would soil it. I suddenly felt very sorry for her. Somewhat in awe, she took in her surroundings.

“Cor!” she said in a very thick London accent, “Yer that Sherlock 'Olmes, ain't yer? And then you,” she turned to me, and I felt my cheeks flush slightly at the rather low cut of her dress, which left little to the imagination, “you must be Doctor Watson.”

I nodded, a sort of half-nod, half-bow. From my position it was hard to avert my eyes from her ample charms, but I did my best.

She giggled. It was, I must admit, intoxicating to hear, though I feared it could be a slight case of hysteria brought on by her wounds.

“If I'd knowed yer was the great Sherlock 'Olmes, sir,” she told my friend, her eyes cast down demurely, “I would 'ave done wot yer asked for free.”

“Nonsense!” smiled Holmes. “Good work deserves good pay, and I daresay the sovereign will come in handy.”

She blushed. “That it will, Mr. 'Olmes, that it will. I won't 'ave need to go out on the streets for many a month now, Just as well, too, for 'oo would look at me now, the state I'm in.”

Holmes had a reputation, unfairly earned, I believe, of being immune to the female, but while he would not be swayed by a pretty face or moved by tears, he was still a man, and seemed to feel a man's outrage, as did I, at the attack perpetrated on the luckless Miss Penny. More, perhaps, as it was becoming increasingly clear that he was in the main responsible for it.

“Beauty,” he told her, “is but skin deep, they say, Miss Penny. You have a good heart.”

She shrugged. “A good 'eart won't pull in the punters, Mr. 'Olmes,” she told him. “But the money you paid me to talk to those blokes comin' out o' that club will sure 'elp. You was lookin' for the skinny on it, wasn't yer sir?”

“Skinny?” I had never heard the word. Holmes glanced at me in amusement, as did the voluptuous Miss Penny.

“It is a word used on the street, Watson. You or I would say data.”

Miss Penny looked at Holmes as if he had used a word she had never heard. Then she asked “Mind if I smoke, sir?”

Holmes gave me another amused look, no doubt noting the expression of scandal on my face. A woman smoking, indeed!

“By all means.” Holmes reached across to her, proffering his cigar box. She grinned again, took one.

“Ooh! Don't mind if I does, Mr. 'Olmes, thank ye very kindly sir!” She accepted his match, leaned back a little as she inhaled. “Cor! It don't 'alf beat them cheap Woodbines!” she remarked. “Why, a girl could get used to this.” She winked at me, which left me in a terrible quandary, as I would never ignore any woman, no matter her class, yet in meeting her gaze I was presented with, as the Penny Dreadfuls describe it, quite the eyeful.

“Now, Miss Penny.” Holmes sat back in his chair. “While the the good doctor performs his ministrations, perhaps you would tell us exactly what happened. I do hope I was not instrumental in any way in your injuries?”

“Well now.” The woman exhaled, fixing her eyes on my friend through a cloud of thick smoke. “I 'ave 'eard it said wot yer always says, begin at the beginnin', sir, and so I shall. I must say, I never did 'ave such trouble, sir, I do assure yer.”

“Trouble?” asked Holmes, mildly.

“I do 'ave a certain, ah, reputation, yer unnerstand, sir,” she said, with a touch of pathetic pride. “They do says I can tempt any man I wants, from the 'ighest to the lowest.”

Holmes smiled. “I don't doubt it.”

“Never in all my born days 'ave I failed before.” She seemed quite put out, inhaling again and blowing out the smoke. “I suppose yer might say, it's a point of honour really.”

I had to fight down the thought, which was completely unworthy of me, that honour and this lady's obvious profession were indeed strange bedfellows.

“Six men I approached,” said she, shaking her head as if in wonder. “Not a one of 'em as was interested. Not a one!” She repeated the words, as if she had to reinforce them to ensure this was reality, as if such an event could not be credited. “I suppose,” she allowed, more to herself than to us, “it's always possible to come across the one bloke wot's married an' ain't interested in a bit on the side, or, I dunno, a priest maybe? But six? Six in a row? And all from the same crib? I does confess, sir, I am at a loss.”

Holmes looked over at me archly. “The threads, Watson, the threads.”

She looked suddenly embarrassed, mortified even.

“Oh! 'Ave I damaged yer expensive chair, Mr. 'Olmes? I do beg yer pardon.”

Holmes laughed. “No, no, nothing to worry about, Miss Penny!” he assured her. “Nothing at all. Do go on.”

“Well.” She tapped out the remains of her cigar. “As I say, a queer lot they was, to be sure! Not a one of them as would give me a light, the time o' day or so much as a second look. I mean, I really failed yer, sir, and I should return yer money, only, well...”

Holmes waved his hand dismissively.

“No, no, you keep the money, Miss Penny,” he abjured her. “You performed the task for which you were paid, and in the course of that task you were most shamefully attacked. As,” the slightest hint of impatience showed in his tone, “no doubt, you are about to enlighten us.”

A shiver seemed to pass through her ample frame, and her face turned ashen. “It were that Canadian bloke. Honest to the good God, I thought I was a goner.”

Homes seemed unperturbed. I knew him well enough, of course, to know that inside he was shaking with anger, but had no intention of showing it.

“Do proceed, please.”

“'Ands like leather, he 'ad.” She felt her face. “Really 'urt. For a moment there I thought 'e was wearin' 'eavy gloves, but then I seen the marks on 'is skin.”

“Marks?”

“Yeah, like I don't know, scratches or somethin'. An' a real 'eavy breather he was too. Kept findin' it 'ard to catch 'is breath. Don't mind tellin' yer, sent shivers down me spine.”

Holmes nodded, taking notes as she spoke.

“You are sure he was Canadian?”

“Oh yeah. Scary, 'e were.” Her eyes clouded over, and for a second the self-assured woman of the streets was banished, and looking out of those hazel eyes was a small, frightened girl. “Terrified, if I'm 'onest, sirs. Knocked me right down, 'e did, and then 'e stands over me, rantin' and ravin'. Thought me number was up, I tell no lie. Fact is, think it would have been, 'ad not a copper I know come along an' run 'im off. I still remembers the look in 'is eyes! Pure 'ate, it was. I tells ya, Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson, not the Ripper 'imself coulda 'ad such 'ate in 'is eyes. Looked at me like I was an insect, or summat. I'll remember that look to me dyin' day.”

She shivered, and Holmes poured her a brandy, which she knocked back in one gulp.
When she had calmed down, I asked her if the police had given chase. She shook her head.

“Nah. By the time Percy – that is, PC Butler – had checked I was all right 'e were long gone. 'e asked me t' come down to the station an' give a description, but I wanted nothin' more to do with the bloke. 'sides, I reckoned with them scars 'e was probably a sailor, an' would be gone by the mornin'.” She winked impishly at me. “A girl in my line o' business, Doctor, spends enough time in the nick without invitin' more.”

“Nick?” I looked at Holmes, who rolled his eyes.

“The police station, Watson! Goodness, how you need to update your local slang!”

Stung at little by my friend's, as I saw it, unnecessary rebuke, I turned my attention to the lady.

“How did you know,” I asked, finding my voice after several attempts and keeping my eyes firmly fixed on the top of the door, “that he was from Canada? Surely he could have been an American?”

She gave me the same sort of look Holmes did when I made a stupid error, or asked him something he considered I should already know.

“Nah, Doctor,” she said with conviction. “I knows Americans, and 'e weren't one. See, I 'ad a regular few years back, came over from Toronto, fur trapper. We 'ad, well, we 'ad I suppose wot yer might call a love affair, but 'e pushed his luck once too often at cards and, well...” Her eyes clouded for a moment, and I felt an instant of real pity for her. Had her man not been killed, perhaps he would have rescued her from this life. As it was, here she was. “Any o' the other girls woulda taken 'im for a frog, but I know 'ow them Canadians speaks, with their bilong.. boling.. belong... oh!” She snarled in irritation, and my moment of pity evaporated as I saw a woman who would, and probably had done what she needed to survive. For a moment only, I was transported into her world, and it was not an experience I relished.

“What do you call it? When someone 'as, you know, 'nother language they speaks?”

“Bilingual?” I offered. She snapped her fingers, pointed at me.

“That's it!” she declared. “Boilin' gull. Always slippin' from English to French, was Marcel. Drove me nuts it did. This bloke last night, 'e was the same. Got real hot under the collar, he did, and started spoutin' French at me. No idea wot he was sayin', but I recognised it as French.” She frowned. “Think of all the blokes 'e would have been the last to turn me down, wot with 'is face all cut up like it was.”

Holmes looked sharply at her.

“Cut up?”

“Yeah.” She seemed to be trying to remember. “Same as 'is ' ands, like 'e 'ad been in one o' them knife fights or sumthin'; face all scratched to 'ell, beggin' yer pardon sirs.”

“I see. Can you, I wonder, Miss Penny, remember exactly what this man said?” Holmes had extracted another sovereign, its appearance changing the girl's pensive look to one of naked greed as he held it before her.

“Well like I says, sir, 'tweren't nothin' I unnerstood. I only knowed it was frog talk bein' as 'ow my fancy man used it when we was together like. But even then, never did cotton on to wot any of it meant.”

“That's all right,” Holmes smiled. “If you can just repeat it, as you remember it, it may make some sense to me. I am somewhat fluent in the language of romance.”

“Ooh!” she blushed, then screwed up her brows in concentration. It was quite a thing to see. “Let's think. Hmm. Somethin' like... uh, jay oon artist a veck la stork – no, no wait. Weren't stork. Sork? Sork? That a word? Maybe in frog speak.”

Holmes nodded. I had some small smattering of the tongue myself, and began to apprehend the words.

“Go on,” he said encouragingly. “You're doing very well. Anything else?”

“Yeah. 'e said – lemme see if I can recall – too fam ay the ablee. Too ay dam in in fur.” She opened her eyes. “That's all I remember, Mr. Holmes.”

Holmes smiled again, dropped the coin in her hand. She grinned back.

“Oh yeah,” she said, fishing in her cleavage, to my intense discomfort. “Nearly slipped me mind. I lifted this from 'is pocket.” She handed something to Holmes, which he glanced at, smiled and put in his own pocket.

“You've been most helpful, Miss Penny. I wish you good day, and thank you.”

She dropped another curtsy, as I quickly averted my eyes.

“Charmed, I'm sure!” she breathed. “You're a toff, Mr. 'Olmes, and no mistake. If ever you're on my patch, you just come an' see me, ye hear? Ye won't pay a penny for it, I do vow!”
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Old 10-26-2022, 05:50 PM   #27 (permalink)
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II: Word Games

When she had left, I breathed an audible sigh of relief and sat down, like a man who has spent an entire night's watch holding his breath. Holmes didn't seem to notice, or if he did, refrained from remarking upon my discomfort. He was looking at the piece of paper his visitor had passed to him, his eyes shining.

“Watson, I do believe my nets, cast for so long and so far, are finally close to entrapping our prey,” he declared with a grim smile. “And I may say, it is a quarry which has eluded the finest criminal minds outside of England. But I will have him, Watson, that I will. Look at this.”

He presented his notebook, with the words he had written down as Miss Penny had relayed them back to him.

“Not difficult at all to translate, eh Watson?” He winked at me, and I nodded, lighting my pipe to calm my nerves.

“Surely, Holmes,” I agreed, unsure of what I was agreeing to. He came over with his notebook, pointed with the pen.

“Jay oon artist – well, that is obviously j'ai une artiste – I am an artist. Next we have a veck la sork – the charming Miss Penny,” he looked up at me with an amused look. “She was charming, was she not, Watson?”

“Most charming,” I agreed stiffly. I was sure Holmes was repressing laughter, but he made no more of it.

“She originally thought it was stork, but this does not sound like any French word I have ever heard. So then, sork it is. A veck is surely avec – with.” He pursed his lips, tapped the pen against the pad. “Sork, sork, sork. That is not so simple. And it may have been stork, though I feel it unlikely a man speaking French would suddenly lapse into English for one word.”

“Unless,” I offered, “he was unaware of the French translation of the word.”

“True.” Holmes shook his head, giving the lie to his reply. “But usually our foreign cousins have a habit of adding 'how-you-say', to indicate they do not know the word in their own language. So had he said avec la – how you say – stork – then yes, we might consider that. But on balance I think no. So if we assume sork as the word, and allow for the inflections various dialects would put on such a word, given that the man is a Canadian, perhaps the word becomes – by Jove, Watson! Sirc!”

“Sirk?”

“Circe,” he corrected me excitedly, writing the word down. “Circe with a c. It is the French word for circus.”

“Looks like that witch I suggested earlier,” I could not resist noting. He shook his head.

“They are spelled the same,” he allowed, “but the witch of Greek legend was called Circe, pronounced sir-say. This is circe, pronounced, well, as our charming agent heard it, sirk, though she heard sork. This is news indeed, Watson!”

I was afraid to admit I could not see how. He stood over me, pointing at the words.

“It begins to fit, Watson! It begins to fit!”


“Does it?” I asked, unconvinced. "What about these other words she spoke - too fam ay - ah, whatever it was?" I could not recall all the words. Holmes had of course written them all down, and he referred to them now with almost a cursory glance.

"Oh yes. That. Well, mere invective Watson, I assure you. He was accusing her, and all her sex, of being - ah - the devil, and pronouncing them damned. Not a man," he raised his eyes from the pad, "who enjoys the company of women, my friend." He flipped back through the notebook, pointing his pen at an older page in which he had written.

“You remember the words our – ah, ghostly friend wrote on Mrs. Fraser's wall? One of them was CIRC. Surely this can only be meant to read CIRCUS? And – oh Watson! I see it all now, or much of it anyway. Look!”

He turned the page, showing me the one on which he had written down the spectral words that had appeared before our eyes that morning. He pointed to the three small words.

CAN
AD
A

“I thought this was part of a sentence!” He slapped his forehead in frustration at his own error. “Can add a something. But it's not, Watson, it's not! It is in fact one word. Look!” He rewrote the word on another line, leaving no space between the letters. We were now looking at a single word, which made much more sense in the light of what we had just learned.

CANADA

“Add this to the CIRCUS, the fact that the man with the scratched face described himself as an artist and,” he rummaged for yesterday's newspaper, thrust it in front of me. “The story of the monkey who attacked an acrobat. Watson! Look again at the words. A CRO BAT. Once again I have been a fool. Not a crow and a bat. One word: acrobat! An acrobat, with a connection to Canada, working at a circus. It can only be our man! And here, look, his name – Francis Deschamps, one of a troupe of acrobats with the Farrington and Nilsson Circus! It all fits!”

He was pulling on his coat as he spoke.

“Are we going out, Holmes?”

He threw a scarf around his neck, headed for the door. “I shall call a cab, if you could perhaps slip your service revolver in your pocket, my friend.”

“But, but where are we going?”

“Why, Watson,” he winked, “how long has it been since you were at the circus?”
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Old 10-27-2022, 08:05 PM   #28 (permalink)
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Chapter IV: Into the Lion's Den

I: Master of the Big Top

As we followed on behind the circus strongman, I reflected that I had never seen such muscles before; he made the attendant at the club we had tried to breach the previous night seem small and weedy in comparison. His biceps bulged and rippled as he walked, his great torso fairly quivering with energy. I felt sure he could, had he a mind to, pick Holmes and I up in one hand and snap us like dry twigs. Indeed, I felt he could probably pick up Nelson's Column and snap it like a dry twig. It would not do, I noted, to get on the wrong side of this man.

“Here we are, gentlemen.” The giant stopped outside a brightly-coloured tent. “Just go right in.”

We had no choice, really: there is no way of announcing oneself outside a tent, other than perhaps a cough or a whistle. No door to rap, no bell to ring. Holmes led the way. A man stood up to greet him, his red coat and black shiny top hat marking him as the ringmaster.

“So, the famous Sherlock Holmes, is it? You don't say!” The man looked up, his eyes hooded, somewhat cold but with a fire behind them that spoke of the capacity for great violence. I suddenly wondered if the big strongman was stationed outside the tent, and my throat became a little dry. “Ah've been told trouble follows you, Mr. Holmes, like an injun after a buffalo. Ah won't have it at mah circus, ah warn you. We've darned enough prejudices to deal with here, without a guy like you bringing further trouble to our door.”

Holmes looked at him narrowly, and I was reminded to be on my guard. One thing that was certainly known about the circus was that they saw themselves as a family, and would support and even perhaps protect one another from the law. Holmes was not always welcome wherever he went, but the cold reception his arrival in the ringmaster's tent engendered was a harbinger of trouble to come.

Ignoring the man's aggressive tone, Holmes blinked and declared “I am aware, sir, that my reputation often precedes me, though I had not expected it extended across the Atlantic!” He pursed his lips. “I had not time to introduce myself, and your rather large butler outside surely does not know who I am.”

The man grinned, a somewhat vindictive, even cruel smile.

“Bruno? Why, he wouldn't know who the President was back home, other than some guy on the back of a coin. But we know all about you, Mr. Detective, and let me tell you, we look after our own here.”

Holmes turned to me with a sigh. “It seems I am not the only one whose reputation is well known, Watson. Doubtless you were, despite your best efforts, recognised at the Adonis Club.”

“Ah don't know about no Ay-don-ees Club,” growled the man in the red coat. “But yeah, ah sure was warned to be on the lookout for a varmint like you.”

Holmes smiled ingratiatingly. “Varmint, as you so colourfully put it, sir, or not, you have the advantage of me. I see from your garb that you serve the post of ringmaster of this circus. Am I to understand that you are also the owner of this establishment?”

“You can believe whatever the hell you like, mister.” He did not extend his hand. “Tobias Nilsson, of Fennington and Nilsson Circus. Ah won't say like you English do that ah'm at your service, sir, for ah am not. Ah have very little time for a sonofabitch like you or your country. We ain't forgotten King George, let me tell you.”

“And yet,” remarked Holmes drily, “you choose to visit our poor country.”

Nilsson wrote something down. Without raising his eyes he muttered “We choose to share with your little country a slice of jest about the best travellin' entertainment show the United States has to offer. But you needn't worry,” he added, looking up at last. “You'll not be troubled by us for long, Mr. Consulting Detective,” he promised. “We take ship for Calais tomorrow.” He pronounced it call-aze. Holmes refrained from correcting him.

“Are all your employees American then?”

Nilsson's brow darkened more, the suspicion in his eyes growing, a man on a defensive posture.

“What business is it of yours?” he demanded.

Holmes ignored the barb.

“It is a simple question, Mr. Nilsson. Surely it deserves a simple answer?”

As if afraid he was stepping into a trap, but could see no way out that might not further incriminate him, the ringmaster grunted “Not all.”

“You have, in fact,” pressed Holmes, “a native from across the border in your ranks, do you not?”

Nilsson's eyes flashed, as if Holmes had insulted him. “You'll find no stinking Mex-ee-cans here, Holmes!” he promised. Ignoring the slur, my friend corrected him.

“The other border, Mr. Nilsson. Canada?”

The man's eyes began to shift left and right, like one who expects attack.

“And what if'n ah do?” he demanded. “Ah employ who ah like, and let no man tell me ah can't!”

“I would not dream of it, Mr. Nilsson,” Holmes said airily. “But tell me, is your circus in the habit of employing known criminals?”

Nilsson stood up, the blood rushing to his face.

“Ah'll have none of this, Holmes!” he snarled. “You think because you're this all-fired famous detective that you can come in here with your accusations and your insinuations, botherin' mah people? No, sir! Not here! Ah tell ya, ah'll befriend a goddamn ****** before ah turn over one of mah folks to your stuffy English law courts!”

Holmes gave him a faintly amused look.

“I wonder,” he drawled, “if your partner holds the same loose attitude to the law as you do. What would Mr. Fennington say about this?”

Nilsson grinned. “Mr. Fennington has been in the ground for six years now, Mr. Holmes,” he answered. “The circus may still bear his name, but it's me that runs the show. Ah'm in charge here.”

“I see.” Holmes looked momentarily nonplussed, then he shook his head and took a step towards the flap. “You may disparage our 'stuffy English law courts', Mr. Nilsson," he remarked, "but while in this country you are subject to English law. I knew a man once - believed he too was above the law."

As Holmes spoke, an image came to my mind of the great African explorer Dr. Leon Sterndale, his blustering arrogance gone, his love dead at the hand of the man he has just slain, his life in my friend's hands.

"Yeah? So what?" Nilsson sneered. Holmes shrugged.

"He told me, at the last, that he had got into the habit of taking the law into his own hands. Had it not been for our, ah, coming to an understanding about his crime, sir, I can assure you the English judicial system would have - ah, what is that quaint phrase you Americans use? Had him for breakfast?"

"Ah still don't see what..." Nilsson was looking a little less certain. Holmes gave him a razor-thin smile, a smile I had seen all too often, quite aware what it portended.

"The point, my dear sir," Holmes enlightened the ringmaster, "is that you may not agree with our legal system, and I don't know what it is like out there where you come from, where there is what I am led to believe is termed, ah, frontier law? But here we have very clear laws, sir, and as you have just confirmed your partner is deceased, then I should say that by Her Majesty's laws, the responsibility for sheltering a murderer is yours, and yours alone.”

An abrupt change came over the owner, and he sat back down heavily.

“Murderer? You never said nothin' about no murder, Holmes.”

“Didn't I?” Holmes picked at his lapel. “Well, we shall just have to see what the police...”

But Nilsson had risen and grabbed at his sleeve before he could exit the tent.

“You'll forgive me for speaking so harshly, sir,” he said, his attitude entirely different now, “but we have a sayin' here: when a man joins the circus he unhitches his past an' leaves it in the dust. Many of our people have had run-ins with the law, an' we tend not to ask questions. But we ain't no shelter for killers, no sir!”

“Come now,” said Holmes, his tone also gentler, “you once helped defend the law, Mr. Nisson – Texas, unless I am much mistaken? Though I see you have since fallen foul of that very law, so no doubt you have your own secrets to protect. I have no intention of dredging up your past. All I want is the man you know as Deschamps.”

“See, you have to understand – wait jest one gold-darned minute!” sputtered the owner. “How in the sam hill do you know all that? ” He looked at Holmes suspiciously, and I saw his hand stray to his hip. “You ever been to the States, Mr. Holmes?”

He may have been used to settling disputes by the expedient of the gun, as I had been told was often the norm in America, but I doubted Mr. Nilsson was so rash as to have brought such a weapon into the country. No doubt the move was a reflex, born of his days as a law officer in the United States, if Holmes was correct.

“Although I have a great affinity for the New World,” Holmes told him, as unconcerned with the gesture as I was concerned – he had obviously already concluded that there was no gun to be drawn, “and some of my cases have involved America, I have never myself set foot upon its soil.”

“Then how in the name of Robert E. Lee...?”

“Oh, it is a simple matter of observation, sir. That medallion you wear around your neck, for example. It is a silver dollar, with a bullet hole in it. It is given to members of the Texas Rangers who reach a certain rank. The idea is, I believe, that the coin is given to the officer, who throws it into the air and then has to shoot the hole through it. The recovered coin is then put on a lanyard and worn as a badge of honour. You, however, wear yours reversed, which speaks of your discontent with the force. Your pride, however, in having been a Ranger keeps the medallion around your neck.”

Nilsson nodded, his eyes betraying a dawning new respect for Holmes. “We'll ah'll be hornswoggled!” he declared. “Right in every detail.”

“But surely, Holmes,” I interjected, “that does not prove Mr. Nilsson has fallen foul of the law? He may merely have left their service.”

Holmes gave the owner a level look. “To take up managing a circus across America, Watson?” He sniffed. “Hardly likely. Besides, you wear your collar fully buttoned up, sir, in the manner of an Englishman, whereas our American cousins are somewhat, ah, freer about the neck. Something to do with the heat, possibly.” Nilsson's hand unconsciously moved towards his collar. “No doubt you tell anyone who may ask how you can stand to be so attired in the midst of a heatwave that this heat is nothing compared to a Texas summer – or, indeed, I might venture to guess, winter?”

Nilsson's eyes had that dangerous look in them again. “You wouldn't survive for spit in a Texas spring, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.” It was almost, but not quite, a threat, but it certainly carried with it a modicum of disdain. Holmes shrugged.

“Quite possibly true,” he allowed. “The current weather has me struggling. But it is not the heat which keeps you buttoned up, is it, Mr. Nilsson? Your collar does not quite cover the marks, I'm afraid.”

“Marks?” I could see nothing, but Holmes had obviously hit a nerve with the American. Again he made the move for a gun that was not there.

“By thunder, Mr. Holmes, if we were back in the States ah'd shoot you down where you stand for such an accusation!” His eyes were fire, but Holmes did not seem in the least bothered.

“Ah, but we are not, Mr. Nilsson.” he pointed out. “We are in England, and were you to, as you so colourfully put it, shoot me down where I stand, I fancy our legal system would ensure the task that was begun in America would be completed here. Why you were hanged I have no idea, nor am I interested in why or how you escaped. It is of, as you quite rightly pointed out a moment ago, no business of mine.”

Nilsson seemed to relax. His eyes darted from Holmes to me, and then to the tent flap. He looked like a man considering making a run for it.

“What does concern me, Mr. Nilsson,” Holmes went on, “is the sheltering of a criminal – a murderer, sir! - within the bosom of your circus family here. I tell you now,” he raised a warning finger, “if any of your people attempt to detain me in my pursuit of this Deschamps, I will make it my business to ensure they answer for it in an English court.”

And so saying, he strode from the tent imperiously. I followed, leaving the American fuming behind.
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Old 10-27-2022, 08:06 PM   #29 (permalink)
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II: The Murderer is Revealed

Receiving no assistance from the owner of the circus, we had no choice but to check each of the tents which dotted the field. After several failures we came to one in which three men were sitting and having coffee. A quick glance at their faces told us these were clowns, currently off duty. None of them were the man we were looking for. Holmes tipped his hat.

“We are looking for a Mr. Deschamps, gentlemen. Would any of you know of his whereabouts?”

One of the men looked up, gave Holmes a surly glance. For a clown, he seemed quite gloomy.

“Medical tent,” he snapped, shortly, returning to his drink.

“Third one along on the right,” piped up another, somewhat more helpful. “Black and white squares. Dude's been there since he was attacked by that there monkey.”

“At least it's put paid to his midnight disappearances,” noted the third.

The remark was made in an offhand manner, but something about it drew Holmes' attention.

“Disappearances, sir?”

The third clown looked at the other two. One, the first who had spoken, looked away, while the second shrugged. It seemed clear to even such as I that they had no great regard for Deschamps, and if he had a secret, they were not bound to keep it.

“Just about every night,” the third clown told us. “We're meant to stay in the compound, see. Kinda rule of the circus. Mr. Nilsson, he don't want us moseyin' off and gettin' into mischief. But you don't tell Frank what to do, no siree bob!”

It seemed that something like a shiver passed through the man, and he wrapped his hands more tightly around his mug, as if craving the heat.

“Frank?” Holmes raised an eyebrow.

“Well, Francis.” The clown scowled at him. “ He hates to be called Frank. Kinda why we do it."

"Not to his face, though," muttered the first clown. The third one shrugged, though it seemed like a shudder,

"Not gold-darned likely," he agreed. "Guy gives me the creeps, y'know? Thinks he's better than all of us. Has this fancy to be called mon-soo-er, bloody Canuck.” Irritated though he was, I noticed keenly that the third clown looked around a little warily, no doubt to assure himself that Deschamps was nowhere in earshot. It seemed our acrobat friend cast a long shadow over this circus. He even had the owner covering for him, or too afraid to give him up. Holmes nodded, took out his notebook and wrote something down, underlining it. He tapped his pen against his teeth, nodded again.

“So Mr. Deschamps – Frank – left the compound?”

“Sure did. Made no secret of it neither. Mr. Nilsson was real mad about it, but he's scared of the guy. There's somethin' in Frank's eyes, y'know? Somethin' that tells you you ain't the fastest gun, so you best not draw. We all seen it, mister. It's kinda... hypnotic, see? When I was only knee high to a grasshopper my paw took me to see this Wild West Show – y'know, like that Buffalo Bill? Weren't him or nothin' but another guy. An' they had this injun, reckon you'd call him a medicine man, witch doctor, some horsepucky like that. Well, when I looked in this guy's eyes, I sorta felt like he was talkin' to me, like he could, I don't know, see into mah soul or some dang thing. Deschamps is the same. Has this, y'know, power to make folks do what he says. Scary. Take mah word for it, you don't want them eyes turned on you, friend. Reminds me,” he turned to the middle clown, who nodded in dumb agreement, “of a rattler, y'know? One false step and you're done, son.” He shivered again, took a drink of his coffee, stared into the mug.

“He's had Nilsson under his spell for years,” he muttered, again glancing around as if afraid he might be heard. ”It's him as runs this show round here. He's the boss man,” he muttered.

Holmes smiled one of those frosty smiles of his.

“Ah, well, M. Deschamps may just find that, to use one of your delightful American colloquialisms, there is a new sheriff in town. Good day, gentlemen.”

Holmes tipped his hat and exited the tent.

As we came out we were greeted by a rat-faced little bulldog of a man, who was walking hurriedly across the grass. Behind him were three police constables.

“Ah! Lestrade!” Holmes greeted the inspector. “I see you got my telegram. Good.” He looked at the three officers. “Good, stout men, not afraid of a little rough stuff?” Lestrade nodded. “Capital! I fear we may be somewhat impeded in our attempt to arrest this man.”

Lestrade swept his glance around the circus, taking in the tents, cages, stands and the various performers who moved to and fro.

“Anyone trying to impede the progress of the law,” he warned, in a voice meant to be heard by all, “will bring down upon him the full force of that law. Stand aside!”

We got some sullen looks as we made our way across the grass but nobody tried to stop us as we headed for the medical tent. On Holmes' advice, Lestrade stationed his men outside, while he himself accompanied us inside, where we found our man, sitting in a chair. He turned to look at us as we entered, his face showing the scars of the monkey attack, just as Miss Penny had described it.

C'est quoi?” he snapped, lapsing into his second tongue. “Fais attention! Je suis malade!” For emphasis, as if any were needed, he pointed to his face, where the tell-tale signs of what could only be the Herpes virus were already making their presence known.

“Yes,” remarked Holmes. “You are indeed a sick man, though I fear far sicker than anyone here realises.”

Beside me, Lestrade shrugged, and all I could do was watch. Holmes seldom if ever shared his findings with anyone, least of all me, before he was ready. As he had said earlier, all the threads had to be in place before he would or could reveal the finished tapestry.

The man's eyes narrowed, a cunning light entering them.

“Allez-vous!” he snapped, reaching for a heavy stick by his feet as he noticed Lestrade for the first time. “Quelle est votre affaire?

Holmes signalled to me. I pointed my service revolver at Deschamps, whose hand moved away from the stick.

“I shall tell you what business it is of mine, Monsieur,” Holmes answered. “But I will ask you to speak the Queen's English, which I know full well you are able to do. You are in England now, sir, not Canada. Pay us the courtesy of using our language, as you have used some of its people.”

Je ne sais...” began the man called Deschamps, then, shrugging, switched to English. “I don' know what you mean, sir. 'Oo are you, that you disturb the great Tumbling -” . Suddenly, he coughed hard, the fit shaking him like a leaf, his face turning red. Finding his breath, he gasped “Tumbling Deschamps, the world's most accomplished acrobat?” He looked at Holmes with a proud, arrogant tilt of the head.

“You've tumbled your last, monsieur,” the great detective returned. The Canadian sneered.

“And 'oo are you to say so, eh?” he demanded. “What give you the right to come here and accuse me of...” He stopped for a moment, frowning. “Of what do you accuse me, monsieur?”

“I think you can drop the pretence, M. Deschamps,” Holmes told him. “It really won't do. We have the letters, we have your note, we have your jacket, and – oh, another thing, m'sieu: did you know Mrs. Liebert was left-handed?”

The blood drained out of the face of the man as he digested this information. Holmes smiled coldly.

“That was your first real mistake, m'sieu, the one that put me on to you.”

“But.. mais comment?”

“Ah, I am in fact in error, do forgive me.” Holmes placed one finger to his thin lips. “Yes, your first mistake – your real mistake, sir, was in choosing to smoke that morning. This gave me my first real clue, and told me that there had been three people, not two, in that chamber.”

Deschamps smiled, as if he had been expecting something else, something more concrete, perhaps.

“Oh now, m'sieu,” he said in his broken English, “zat could 'ave been – 'ow you say – personne? Anybody? Many people smoke.”

“Yes,” agreed Holmes. “However you do not know me, M. Deschamps. My name is Sherlock Holmes, and I have written some small monographs on various technical subjects. On the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos? You have not read it? Ah. A pity, for had you done so, you might have been less inclined to have smoked that morning.”

Deschamps' eyes widened, then narrowed.

“You lie, eh!” he spat. “Nobody could identify tobacco smoke from its mere smell! C'est impossible!” Even I could translate that.

“Well, that is true to a point,” Holmes allowed. “My own expertise is in distinguishing the ashes, not the smells. But in conducting such a study, one does – rather like Mr. Jabez Wilson with the Encyclopedia Britannica, you recall, Watson? One does absorb some extra data, and I flatter myself that on entering the room in which Mr. Liebert was so brutally murdered that I instantly detected the aroma of a tobacco called, I believe, High Plains, sold only in Canada, principally in the Yukon area, and which you yourself are now smoking, sir.”

With a rather stupefied look, Deschamps took the cigarette from his mouth and stared at it. We could see the letters H, I and G winding around the barrel, with beneath them another line, of which we could only see P and L, but the inference was plain.

“I suppose once a smoker, always a smoker, eh?” Homes smiled a granite smile. “I suspect,” went on my friend, “that it was you behind the poisoning of Sir Robert?”

Deschamps shrugged. “It was important that Lord – 'ow you say? Bailey was the man to try Mme. Liebert.”

“Why?”

“Ah, m'sieu 'Olmes,” the acrobat sneered, a nasty twist to his lip made more grotesque by the way the scars and cuts stretched the skin of his face. “It would seem your reputation is no' so great as I was told! You did not know there was - 'ow you say - bad blood between Peter Liebert and Lord Bailey? That they both bid for the same tract of land in Berne, Switzerland, more than ten years ago?”

Holmes looked blank, and the acrobat sniffed imperiously.

“Mme. Liebert's father – she was not married to him then, was Mademoiselle Schechter – awarded the logging contract to Liebert, 'oo then fell in amour with his daughter. They were married the next spring. Lord Bailey nursed a dark hatred for the woman he believed had interceded with her father on behalf of Liebert. He – 'ow is it you say it – he jumped at the chance to replace Sir Robert when the trial judge... fell ill.”

“You had it all worked out, didn't you, Deschamps? I would be willing to wager that all the flower girls who have died in the last month were your handiwork, is this not so?”

Deschamps spat. “Women! I curse them all! Le monde is better off without them.”

“As it will be without you, M. Deschamps. Or should I say, M. Baudelaire?”

For a moment, several emotions chased across the Canadian's face. Shock, dismay, panic, outrage, fury and then it settled into a complacent and mocking smile.

“Bravo, monsieur 'Olmes!” he clapped his hands sarcastically. “You 'ave me. I congratulate you.” He stepped forward, holding out his wrists to Lestrade. As the inspector made to fasten the handcuffs on him, Deschamps suddenly grabbed him and expertly flipped him over his shoulder. Lestrade landed heavily with an oath, and the acrobat executed a perfect leap over me and sailed through the open flap, landing lightly on his feet. He had barely touched ground before he was off and running, leaving myself and Holmes staring after him, frozen for a second and, I must admit in my case at least, full of astonishment at the man's agility.

“After him!” shouted Holmes, dashing out of the tent. “That is Charles Emile Baudelaire, the Yukon Terror!”

Rushing outside, we saw to our dismay that the man deserved his name. One of the constables lay dead on the grass, his neck broken. The other was nursing a broken wrist, while the third was in pursuit of the rapidly-receding figure.
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Old 10-27-2022, 08:07 PM   #30 (permalink)
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III: The End of the Chase

Even with five men on his trail, I never realised how hard it could be to catch a man of such agility and nimbleness. As an acrobat, Deschamps – or, as I should call him, Baudelaire – leaped obstacles which we had to run around or climb over. Some of which, I should also point out, were pushed in our way as the killer made his escape. It seemed the clown had been right: everyone here was under Baudelaire's spell. Of course, there surely also came into play that distrust and dislike of the law that is innate in these people, but whatever their motivation, their efforts slowed us down and stymied us, threatening to rob us of our prey.

As I ran, two very large women approached me and, seemingly accidentally, blocked my way. As I moved past them, they moved with me, tittering in apparent confusion or embarrassment as we matched move for move, until finally my urgency outfought my natural instincts as a gentleman, and I pushed them aside. It occurred to me as I left them behind that there was something odd about these women other than their size, then I remembered the beards. A shot rang out, but I had no idea whence it had come, and continued running.

A good distance ahead of me, Sherlock Holmes had had his progress checked as a man led a huge grey elephant across his path, and my friend was forced to wait till the animal had passed. To the left I saw Lestrade trying to fight off the attentions of a brace of clowns, who were hitting him with water balloons and honking little horns, one throwing a bucket of water over the detective, to his intense annoyance. Off to the right, the constable with the broken wrist was staring up at a man on stilts like a midget who fears being crushed by a giant, and everywhere rang out the merry circus music, and people ran hither and yon.

In other circumstances the scene would have been a most amusing one, but all these delays and barriers and distractions had allowed our quarry to make it to the main circus tent, into which he disappeared. Having shaken off two very determined dwarfs, who were trying to hang on to my legs and bring me down, I joined Holmes inside the huge marquee. A moment later Lestrade puffed up beside us.

“I hate circuses!” he growled, gasping for breath. “One of those lunatics tried to set a monkey on me. Had to shoot the damned thing!”

Holmes was looking up, and we followed his gaze as we watched Baudelaire, the Yukon Terror, scale a ladder towards a tightrope stretched at least a hundred feet above, his movements as sure and as rapid as the very primate which Lestrade had had to put down. Holmes made for the rope, but I held him back.

“No, Holmes! He is a professional acrobat!” I warned him. “He can attain the tightrope faster than you ever could, then all he need do is cut the ladder and you would plunge to your death.”

My friend nodded.

“You see the logic of the situation, Watson,” he said, “and you prevent me from acting against my own better judgement. But by God, I'll not lose him – good God!”

His exclamation of horror was repeated by both of us, and indeed the two constables, who had now joined us, all five of us in time to see Baudelaire reach the tightrope, climb to the platform where a man, preparing to launch himself on the trapeze, stared at the newcomer in astonishment. There was a brief struggle, moments only, and the man pitched down towards the floor of the tent with a terrible cry. We rushed forward, as with a snarl of triumph, the Canadian launched himself into the air, using the trapeze to fly halfway across the space. He then let go, but as he fell he executed four perfect loops, and landed unhurt on the ground, like a cat. He was out the entrance and gone before we could gather our wits.

We stared at the dead man on the ground, one of Baudelaire's companions, a fellow performer, whom he had killed without a second thought, merely to gain the advantage on us. Holmes was the first to spring into action. We caught sight of the acrobat tumbling among some further tents, behind which a line of cages stretched.

“He's heading for the animal enclosure!” shouted Holmes, a look of horror on his face. “The fool!”


Indeed, as we caught up with the man and could see him more clearly, he was no longer tumbling and cartwheeling, but running, with a look on his face carved out of pure terror. I could not imagine how that fear could been engendered by the sight of Holmes, myself and the long arm of the English law. As we drew nearer it became evident that Baudelaire was mouthing something, and while we initially believed he was taunting us, it was a simple matter to see this was not the case. His demeanour had changed. From an arrogant, desperate, cold-hearted murderer on the run he had been transformed into a frightened man, a man so terrified that it seemed he didn't even know where he was. His mouth, open in a grimace of terror, seemed to frame the word “No!”

“What's wrong with the man?” called Lestrade. “I thought he was a cold-blooded killer! Can three policemen and your good selves have him screaming so?”

The wails came back to us on the wind as the Canadian vanished between the cages. He was babbling in his own language now.

Non! Mon chere! Tu est mort! Mort! Je t'ai tue! Tu est mort! Mere de Dieu!

Even I, with my poor smattering of French, recognised one word in this stream of invective.

Mort.

Dead.

As we followed him – we noticed that the circus folk were no longer impeding us; perhaps the death of the trapeze artist at the hands of their erstwhile colleague had shown them the error of their ways, or perhaps they saw the man who had dominated and intimidated them all for so long was finally unable to cow them – we saw him vanish between the cages.


“He's asking for trouble!” rumbled a clown with a very serious face beneath the happy makeup. “Nobody goes near the lions at feeding time.”

“Watson,” said Holmes to me as we entered the enclosure, Nilsson now having joined us and leading the way cautiously, “don't you get the distinct feeling that M. Baudelaire does not wish to go where his feet are taking him? That something is forcing him, driving him in that direction?”

I had to admit, the look of horror on the killer's face, and the cries in French he made seemed to back this theory up. It was as if he was running from someone – or something – not just us. Holmes gave me a grim smile I did not much care for.

Just then, two dwarfs and a slim woman in a spangly costume collided with the man on stilts, who fell over, causing much consternation. I rushed to his aid, and could determine at once that he had a shattered elbow. I stayed with him and did what I could for the man as the others raced on.

Suddenly, a piercing, soul-rending shriek tore the evening air. It was like the cry of a thousand damned souls, all screaming out at once.


By the time I had finished my ministrations, and joined the others, it was all over.

Baudelaire lay on his back, his arms, legs, back and head torn open, blood and intestines leaking out of his shattered, ripped body, which looked like someone had put it through one of those new machines they have in factories for stripping cotton. He was quite dead.

“What – what happened?” I gasped as I caught up.

One of Lestrade's constables was heaving up his dinner into the grass off to the side. The other two were pale as sheets. The inspector pointed at the cage.

“Damnedest thing I ever saw,” he told me, pointing at one of the cages. “The fellow had a chance to make a clean break, but instead came this way, shouting and screaming, as if the very devil were at his heels. He backed up against that cage, seemingly oblivious to its occupant. He was babbling something in French I think – Mr. Holmes will tell you; his grasp of the language is somewhat better than mine, which is limited to “oui” and “non” and “monsieur” - and was looking away from the cage. Once the hungry lion reached through the bars it was all up with him. We did our best, but nobody was willing to go too close to those slashing claws and teeth. Mr. Nilsson here ran for the trainer, but by the time he got here it was too late.”

I looked at the mangled corpse crumpled on the ground. So badly clawed, torn and chewed was it that had it been come upon after the fact, there would have been little to no chance of identification. The lion's paw had evidently punched in the back of Baudelaire's skull and come out through his face, and there was little enough of the head left to even qualify as one. Lestrade suddenly snapped at his subordinates.

“Get those people back! You too, Osbourne! You'll see worse in your career, my lad, let me tell you. Learn to deal with it, or you may find you're not cut out for the police. Now get to it!!”

Holmes shook his head sadly.

“A fitting end, perhaps, for the Yukon Terror,” he declared. Lestrade frowned at him.

“You really think this is him?” He seemed dubious. “Why, those crimes were committed nearly ten years ago, Mr. Holmes. What would a Canadian murderer be doing working in a circus in England?”

Holmes covered his mouth and nose, and turned away. I did the same. The stench was somewhat overpowering. A pall of death hung heavy over the circus, a dread contrast to the brightly-coloured tents and the now-doleful clowns and acrobats who wandered about in shock. Somewhere, a woman was screaming, while a tiger in the adjacent cage let it be known in no uncertain terms that the death of one human was no excuse to deprive it of its meal.

The four-wheeler which had taken four constables and one inspector to the circus made a slow, morose journey back as the remaining three carried their fallen comrade back to the station. They took with them word of the capture, and subsequent death by mauling, of the notorious Canadian killer.

“I shall of course explain all, Inspector,” Holmes promised. “But first I need a word with our friend, Mr. Nilsson.”



Holmes returned a few minutes later carrying a small box, and then hailed a cab. We found ourselves back in Baker Street, but there was no time to relax. Holmes merely looked in to take his pipe and mine, and a pound of tobacco, and then directed the cabby onward.

“Where are we going now, Holmes?” I asked, a little petulantly. It had been a long day, and I was tired, somewhat heartsick at the carnage I had witnessed, and nursing a very healthy appetite. Such things did not seem to concern Holmes.

“We return,” he announced, “to the scene of the crime!”
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