Holmes gave a stifled shriek, his hands flailing as he struggled against his tormentor. Summoning up a burst of energy, I leaped up the final few steps to grasp my companion’s legs, taking some of the strain off his neck.
As the great detective fell forward onto the landing, Lecter dropped the rope and picked up a second noose. Before I could even blink an eye, he’d popped it over my head and begun to tighten the knot. Scrambling up through the trapdoor, I slipped my fingers into the loop, in an effort to lessen my predicament, but the rope was already taut and I felt my face bulge in a particularly disagreeable way.
“Put him down, you fiend!” screamed Mary, clambering up into the room. But Lecter merely laughed at her.
“In another life, Mrs Watson, you and I might have become lovers.” His lip curled into a hideous pout, then he uttered his infamous call sign: “Th-th-th-th…” And with that, pushed her back down the steps. Turning to me, he whispered, “Dying tonight!”
The next thing I knew, Holmes and I were being hauled upright by our respective lariats, our legs kicking out like the proverbial hanged man, in a ghastly exhibition of collective anguish. As my last breath escaped my lips, I twisted round to see Holmes. His feet had left the ground and I could see his manly features caught in a horrifying death-like stare. Even so, in his final moments, my bosom friend managed to throw me one last sardonic smile.
In that moment, something flashed before my eyes – my life! The whole gamut of our adventures from the ridiculous to the bizarre, plunged through my brain. Every second of our lives was there in all its heroic magnificence, and instantly I knew I could not allow this monster to take away everything Holmes and I had achieved. From somewhere deep within the bowels of my very soul, I summoned up a final burst of energy and a second later, out it came – a wonderfully loud and effervescent fart.
By some amazing quirk of fate, Lecter had at that precise moment heaved on the ropes and in doing so, leaned back so far that his face was only inches from my back-trouser department, allowing my ejection of hot air to explode right in his face.
“Blurgh!” he yelled, letting go the ropes.
It was all I needed. Falling to the ground in a heap next to Holmes, I tugged the noose free of my neck, gulping in lungfuls of air. Stumbling across to my companion, I released him and in the same movement, swung my right leg across the floor, kicking Lecter’s feet from under him. In yet another quirk of fate, Lecter tripped, fell backwards and tumbled soundlessly over the open parapet.
After helping Holmes to his feet, I crossed to the balcony. Below us on the lawn in a mangled heap, lay Hannibal Lecter.
“Ah, how the mighty have fallen,” croaked Holmes. “Literally, in this case.”
A noise behind prompted me to look round. Mary was helping Lord Lambton up the ladder into the tower.
For a few moments, the four of us stood looking at each other, silently congratulating ourselves on our continued existence. Then Mary pointed to the other occupants of the tower: four corpses lay side by side in the corner of the room.
I gazed at the bodies, my eyes sliding over each one in turn. There was Reginald, (Lord Lambton’s brother), then that poor man’s wife, Pricilla. Next to her lay Arnold the grocer’s boy and finally…
“Wait a minute,” I muttered, staring at the last body. “Who the fuck’s that?”
Lambton himself had stepped forward, pointing a shaking finger. “That isn’t Lucy…”
“Of course it isn’t,” said Holmes, nonchalantly. Taking out his Meerschaum pipe, he slid it into the side of his mouth in that very British way of his. “Can’t be, can it? She’s still in the bedroom where we observed her only a few short hours ago.”
I stared at him, then looked back at the corpse. “So…”
Holmes sauntered across to the balcony and leaned over. He sniffed, nodded to himself and looked at Mary. “Mrs Watson?”
Mary glanced at me, then a crease began to form between her wonky eyes. “Oh, I think I know.” To Holmes, she said, “So you were right all along.” She gave a little laugh. “Of course you were right, you clever bastard.”
Holmes grinned and pulled out his Swan Vestas. “Elementary, my dear.”
“Well, excuse me if I appear to be missing something, here,” I said, slightly put out. “A bit of explanation wouldn’t go amiss, if you don’t mind.” I glared at Holmes, glared at Mary and glared at Lambton. Then I remembered Lambton was as much in the dark as I was.
Mary patted my arm. “Remember darling? Didn’t you tell me Sherlock thought it was the boy?”
I cleared my throat noisily. “Perhaps.”
“Then, this…” she said, pointing at the unidentified corpse, “must be…”
It was my turn to frown. “Veronica?”
Holmes groaned. “Don’t be an arse, Watty. Tell him, Mary.”
I gave my wife my best I’m-fucking-annoyed look.
“Why don’t you examine the body, dear?”
I humphed, but stepped towards the corpse and peered down. “Well, it appears to be the body of a woman…face down…about average height, hands nondescript. The clothes are rather bloody and would seem to be of the sort of attire a well-to-do woman might wear…”
“And?” prompted Mary.
“And…” I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. “D’you know, if I didn’t know better I’d say that if we turned her over, there’ll be a quite plain-looking face, thinning hair and startlingly blue eyes.” I blinked. “But it can’t be.” I turned my gaze back to the other three corpses. As Lord Lambton had told us, the other victims had been posed as if they had dressed for dinner. This fourth body, however, was not. For a long moment I could almost hear the cogs falling into place inside my head. “Ah.”
“Hurrah,” said Holmes. “I think he’s got it.”
At that moment, the fourth body began to move. At first, it was just a twitch in the fingers of the left hand, then the arm pushed upwards. Turning sideways, the corpse sat up and looked at us.
“Argh!” I shouted. “I mean – oh.”
Hannibal Lecter rubbed his head and looked down at himself. “Hmm, nice dress.”
It was a few minutes later, after Mary had brought up a tray of hot chocolate, that I was made aware of the details which still eluded me.
“You see, Watson, said Holmes, sitting on the balcony sipping his drink. “Doctor Lecter here didn’t believe my theory about young Veronica.”
“Until,” put in Lecter, “your good lady wife bonked me on the head. It must have knocked some sense into me. I sneaked away while you two were canoodling and found the boy up here putting on his Doctor Lecter mask. Apparently you can buy them in Woolworths for one and sixpence.” He glanced at Lambton. “I expect your son’s been impersonating me for some time?” Lambton nodded sadly.
I took a minute to digest this new information. “So Veronica disguised himself as you in order to kill the rest of us?”
“Not at first,” said Mary. “He used the legend of the Lambton Worm to kill the grocer’s boy – probably as an experiment, then decided to murder his relatives so he could inherit. But when we turned up he realised he’d have to kill us too.”
“And blaming Doctor Lecter would have been a perfect Plan B?” I said.
“Precisely,” said Holmes.
“Hang on,” I said, glaring at Lecter. “Only a little while ago you were trying to eat us.”
Lecter shook his head. “Not at all, Johnnie. I simply amused myself until you three worked out what was going on. Besides, the world is more interesting with you in it.” He gave me a salacious wink and I felt myself blush.
Holmes leaned over the parapet, taking care to hang onto the rail. “It seems poor Veronica won’t be inheriting anything.”
The rest of us joined him, looking down at the mangled corpse below.
“Out of interest, Lambton,” said Holmes, “what was your son’s real name?”
“That was his real name,” said the old man with a shake of the head. “We wanted a girl.”
Glancing at Mary, I saw her close her eyes for a moment. Reaching over, I took her hand and gave it a squeeze. From now on, I was going to be a better husband.