Once more fully dressed, the three of us hurried up the stairs to the tower – Holmes out in front, with Mary and I close behind. Lord Lambton brought up the rear, though I harboured no illusions he’d be of the slightest use to us. Above, I could hear the clanging of the bell growing ever louder as we headed towards God knows what.
“What did Holmes mean about Bexhill-on-Sea?” gasped Mary as we struggled to keep up with the Great Detective.
“I’ll tell you later,” I muttered, hoping she would forget all about it. For the sake of my own sanity, I had endeavoured to push the details of the episode out of my own mind, though with little success. The official version of the story appeared under the headline ‘National Express Massacre’ in Detective Monthly, but Holmes insisted on divulging the sordid details to me one evening after a drinking bout at Filthy McSnardle’s Liquor Emporium.
“You’ve heard of the case, of course?” He’d said, lowering his voice. “Or at least, the official version?”
I avowed that I had, but clearly Holmes was acquainted with additional details. “Go on,” I said, eager to hear more.
My companion revealed that the story of the ‘busload of tourists,’ supposedly eaten by Doctor Lecter, had been deliberately manufactured by that scummy periodical The Daily Shite. Sherlock’s own investigations had uncovered another, more sinister tale, that showed Lecter in a quite different light.
“You see, Watson,” he said, “Lecter’s antics had come to the attention of an FBI agent – one Clarice Starling – who had been following him for several months. She had tailed him to a small village on the outskirts of Bexhill’s Old Town, where Lecter was holed up in the church. It seems another individual had also discovered the doctor’s whereabouts. Antonio De Bonio was a member of the Carabinieri and planned to blackmail Lecter over his involvement in a gold bullion heist.” He gave me a sidelong glance. “A robbery you and I know as ‘The Italian Job’.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Yes, but unfortunately for the Italian stallion, Lecter knew all about De Bonio’s plan and lured him to the bell tower of the church one night. Agent Starling appeared at the precise moment Lecter threw De Bonio off the parapet, allowing her to view the policeman’s demise in all its gory glory. Lecter had tied the poor chap by the ankles, slit open his gullet and pushed him over the edge. Quite literally…”
“Spilling his guts,” I added.
We were silent for a moment, then I asked, “But why the story of the busload of tourists?”
“Ah,” said Holmes, stuffing his Meerschaum with hard shag. “My brother Mycroft, who as you know represents the British Government, had the whole thing hushed up due to an unfortunate genealogical fact which came out in the initial investigation.”
“De Bonio was the rightful heir to the British throne.”
“But Holmes,” I gasped, “an Italian on the British throne is unthinkable. Why, that’s almost as bad as a bloody German married to the Old Queen.”
“Indeed, Watson. Lecter, it seems, had done us a right royal favour. So Mycroft and his pals put pressure on The Daily Shite to publish a story that would draw attention away from the regrettable incident in the church.” He struck a Swan Vesta and puffed away for a moment. “Doctor Chilton at the asylum used to say Lecter is, and always will be, a monster.” He sniffed. “I’d like to think I’ve proved him wrong on that count.”
I had mulled over this for some weeks afterwards, particularly Sherlock’s impression of having somehow got one over on the medical world. But now, as we hurtled up the stairs to the bell tower, it occurred to me that if Hannibal the Cannibal really was a reformed character, his recent behaviour was a bit of a slap in the face.
As we reached the top landing, I paused for a moment watching Holmes scale the final ladder into the bell tower. Dash it all, I said to myself, Lecter couldn’t possibly repeat his Bexhill performance, as he had only dead bodies at his disposal. So what on earth was he planning to do with them?
As Holmes poked his head through the hatch that led into the bell tower itself, a horrible thought flew into my head. “Holmes!” I cried. “Don’t –”
But the noose had already dropped around his neck and above him I saw Lecter’s grinning visage cackling furiously. He began to haul on the rope…