Reaching the door to the cellar, Holmes held out a hand, holding me back. “Something else, Watson,” he said, keeping his voice low. “I wonder if you noticed?”
“Noticed what,” said I.
“The grocer’s boy, of course.”
I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. “He’s not family, if that’s what you mean?”
Holmes slapped me on the arm. “Precisely, Watson, so why was he set up as a sacrifice?”
I shrugged. “Perhaps Lambton thought it didn’t matter.”
The Great Detective shook his head solemnly. “You are forgetting this is very much a family affair.”
“Oh, good heavens,” I said. “You mean…?”
“Yes Watson, I’ll wager the grocer’s boy was the illegitimate son of one of the Lambton brothers. And what’s more, the whole family must have known it.” With that, he began to descend the steps into the cellar, following the sound of voices.
As I hurried along behind him, I couldn’t help feeling there was another vital clue we were missing in this mystery. Something that had so far eluded even Sherlock Holmes.
At the foot of the stairs, we found ourselves in a small room lit by a paraffin lamp. Well-stocked wine cabinets filled half the space, along with several shelves of English cheeses. A half-empty knife rack stood next to these and I made a mental note to cut myself a slice of Double Gloucester on my way out. A door to our left led through into the next chamber. Picking up the lamp, Holmes pushed it open.
“Ah,” said Doctor Lecter. “Good of you to join us.” His smile was as enigmatic as ever, but there was nothing else in the room to grin about. A trestle table had been set up in the centre and on this lay the mangled body of the grocer’s boy, partially covered by a bed sheet. Mary and Lord Lambton stood to one side, staring at the body. Glancing around the room, I wondered why three new trestle tables had been stacked in the corner. However, any thoughts I might have had on the matter were interrupted when Holmes stepped towards the corpse.
Pulling the sheet away from the body, he leaned over, peering at the wounds, nodding and muttering away to himself. Then, straightening up, he addressed Lecter.
“I suppose you’ve worked this out already, Hannibal?”
Lecter offered a smug grin. “Once you dismiss the notion of an actual worm…” he said, casting a spiteful glance at Lambton, “it all falls into place.”
“Humph,” said Mary. “Well it doesn’t fall into place for me.”
Lecter raised an eyebrow. “Strange, I imagined you of all people would have put the pieces together.”
[At this point, my dear wife uttered an unfeminine phrase, which I shall not reproduce here]
“After all,” continued Lecter, “you witnessed my interrogation of the three guards on the train, did you not?”
Mary frowned. “Didn’t sound much like an interrogation to me, Doctor.”
“Of course it didn’t, but then, being locked in Doctor Watson’s trunk, you weren’t in a position to view the results of my technique.”
“Oh, God,” muttered Holmes, rolling his eyes. “He’s talking about psycho-optical pre-cognitive suggestion. An American idea I believe, and in reality about as useful as a wire-mesh pisspot.” He glanced at me. “I’m writing a short monogram on the subject. You might find it of interest, Johnny.”
“Actually Holmes,” I said, adopting a sermonising tone, “I was reading up on that very subject the other day. Apparently, they’re making great strides with similar techniques in the study of the criminally insane.”
“Really?” said Holmes, with only a smidgen of sarcasm.
“Really,” said I.
“Will you two shut up?” said Mary, looking a little vexed. “I want to hear about this. Please continue, Doctor.”
Lecter winked at her. “Certainly, my dear. The methodology utilises a connected series of statements designed to appear to be on one subject, while the subliminal messages, passed on as subtext, are on another. To the layman, my interrogation was of a teasing nature, but in fact the underlying questions related exclusively to the recent murders here at Lambton Hall.”
Holmes folded his arms and tapped his foot. “So?”
“So,” said Lecter, “by observing the eye movement of the three guards, I was able to interpret their apparently meaningless answers to my questions.” He turned to Lambton. “It seems all three have lived in the village for the entirety of their lives and thus are well-versed in local gossip, which naturally includes events…” he paused and glanced at Holmes, “…such as murder.”
Lord Lambton swallowed hard. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Nothing,” said Lecter. “Which, as it happens, is the sum total of local knowledge in this affair.”
“What?” cried Holmes. “Are you saying no-one else knows about these killings?”
“About the killings and indeed, about worms – Lambtonite, or otherwise.”
“What the deuce does this mean?” I demanded, glaring at our host.
Holmes held up a hand. “Calm yourself, Watson. Leave this to me. “Now look here, Lambton, what the deuce does this mean?”
The old man’s face drained of colour. His arm slowly rose, one solitary finger extended towards Doctor Lecter. “It was him.”
Even before I turned to look at Lecter’s face, I heard the ‘th-th-th…’ sucking noise coming from the fiend’s mouth, and I remember thinking ‘Oh, fuck…’
The Watson Letters – Volume 2: Not the 39 Steps
Second volume in this madcap adventure series.