Lord Lambton wandered over to the window and stood there for a moment, no doubt gathering his thoughts. Then seating himself on a small pouffe, he swung one leg over the other and began his tale…
“It was a dark and stormy night,” he said gazing off into the far distance.
“You’ve said that already,” I muttered. “And anyway, this is not some theatrical entertainment. I suggest you confine yourself to the facts.”
Lambton swore under his breath, then began again:
“It was raining that night and the annual gathering of the Lambtons began with the arrival of my brother and his wife, followed by the grocer’s boy, Arnold. I had arranged for a local hostelry – the Slaughtered Lamb – to provide dinner, as our cook had come down with a bug, but unfortunately a tornado happened by and the place was razed to the ground. So I decided to do the cooking myself and sent telegrams to Mr Haddock the butcher and Mr Trout the grocer.”
“Sounds a bit fishy to me,” murmured Holmes.
Lambton ignored him and continued: “I should explain that my brother and I do not get on.” He coughed. “Did not get on. Therefore it was my intention to endure the company of my sibling and his whore of a wife only as long as was necessary to carry out my plan.”
“To kill them all?” suggested Holmes with a smirk.
“No, rather, to simply inform them of their respective duties regarding the legend of The Lambton Worm. Every year, as the legend goes, the beast erupts from the well in the village and worms its way to the Hall. Traditionally, this happens on a dark and stormy night. Then, a member of my family is supposed to offer themselves up to the creature as a sort of sacrifice. Naturally we’ve always ignored such claptrap, however, a few days earlier, I had received a letter from a firm of solicitors – Messrs Blood and Co – informing me that they were acting on behalf of the Creature.” He paused and looked at Holmes, but the Great Detective said nothing.
“It seems that a Society has been set up to protect the legend’s intellectual property rights, or some such nonsense, as it has, apparently, become something of a tourist attraction.”
“But you knew that already,” said Lecter, giving him a sly wink.
Lambton nodded. “In recent years our family has become something of a laughing stock among the local peasantry, not that one cares about such trivialities, but the legend was seen as nothing more than just that – a legend.”
“Sorry,” I said, but why is that a problem?”
“Ah…” said Lecter, his eyes glazing over. “Those of a simple disposition – the peasants and the like – look to the gentry to provide inspiration, set an example etcetera etcetera. They require something to covet and one cannot covet that which one does not see every day.”
I leaned towards Mary and whispered, “What’s he one about?”
“What I am talking about, Doctor,” said Lecter, is that simply because the creature cannot, in all seriousness, actually exist, someone…” He glanced at Lambton. “Someone may have taken it into their heads to create a monster of their own.”
“To attract tourists?” said Holmes.
“Indeed. And I suspect that while Lord Lambton wanted to honour the tradition to keep the locals happy, he was less enthusiastic about providing a sacrifice for the Worm to, shall we say, eat.” He let out a long sigh, then giving my dear wife a sidelong glance, licked his lips.
“So,” said Holmes, studying Lambton, “you thought to persuade one of your family to take on the mantle of performing in this charade and presumably hoped to satisfy the peasants with a kind of demonstration of the legend in action, as it were?”
“Precisely,” said Lambton.
“Except, “said Lecter,” that your chosen sacrifice – Arnold the grocer’s boy – was murdered?”
Lord Lambton nodded. “The poor lad went out into the garden as arranged and we tied him to a tree. Then the rest of us hurried back to the Hall and waited for the ‘creature’ to arrive. The rest of us watched from this very window.”
Holmes moved to the window and gazed out. “And what happened next?”
Lambton cleared his throat. “It was too dark to see clearly. My brother imagined he saw a shape approaching through the darkness, though I saw nothing myself. A moment later there was a scream, the like of which I would prefer never to hear again. It was a horrible, blood-curdling, screeching, wailing –”
“Yes yes,” said Mary. “I think we get the picture.”
“Then there was silence.” Lambton rubbed a hand over his craggy features. “We went outside, but of course the lad was dead – his neck bitten clean through, his torso torn and shredded as if by some gigantic claw.”
“Sorry,” I said. “But that doesn’t sound much like the murders of the other victims.” I indicated the torso on the floor.
Holmes nodded. “Quite right, Watson, in fact…” He gave me a sideways glance. “More like the work of some gigantic hound.”
“The Case of the Curse of the Hound of the Hall of the Baskervilles…” I muttered.
“Are you suggesting I’m making this up?” said Lambton.
“Not at all, old chap,” said Holmes congenially. “I’m merely pointing out that the modus operandi of this first murder differs considerably from that of the others.” He pointed the stem of his Meerschaum at Lambton. “As you said yourself – the other victims were dressed in their best clothes and posed as if they had dressed for dinner.”
Lambton sniffed. “That’s right.”
“And why,” continued Holmes, “do you think that might be?”
“I rather thought the task of solving the case was in your hands, Mr Holmes,” said Lambton with a smirk.
“Indeed, which is why I should like to continue our little tour and view the other bodies. Presumably they were all left in situ, as it were?”
“All except the boy,” said Lambton. “Obviously we couldn’t leave him outside.”
“So where is he now?”
“In the cellar.” Lambton set off for the door. “This way.”
As we followed the others, I grabbed Holmes by the arm. “Look here, Holmes, there’s something odd about all this.”
Holmes paused at the door and gave me his full attention. “Go on…”
“I thought all these murders had already been investigated by the police?”
“So they have,” said Holmes.
“Then why are the bodies still here? Shouldn’t they be in the morgue?”
A crease worked its way across his forehead and his piggy little eyes flitted around as if searching for an answer. A moment later, his eyes widened and he groaned. “Shit. I’ve been a fool, Watson. We’ve been had. Keep your wits about you, old friend. The game is afoot.”
As we hurried off down the stairs to the cellar, I became aware of a familiar loosening sensation in my bowels. Please God let me hang on to my dignity…