The mechanism forcing the floor of the library upwards, emitted a final metallic groan and juddered to a stop, leaving the four of us in a sudden and eerie silence.
‘That was too bloody near the bloody knuckle,’ said Lestrade, straightening his tie. ‘Thought my time ‘ad come, I did.’
‘Yes,’ said Holmes. ‘I admit an ascending floor was a long way down my list of possible scenarios.’
I pulled a face. ‘What? You mean it was something you’d considered?’
Holmes chuckled. ‘Bearing in mind what we’ve seen recently, Doctor, it’s not so surprising, is it?’
‘No, I suppose not.’
‘At least we know who screwed Miss Claymore’s chair to the floor,’ said Mary.
‘So we do,’ said Lestrade, setting off towards the conservatory where we’d left Mister Lombardi.
‘Wait a minute, Lestrade,’ called Holmes.
The inspector turned. ‘Yes?’
Holmes held up his hands in a gesture of disbelief. ‘You imagine he’s still there? Tied to his chair?’
Lestrade blinked. ‘Well, he might be.’
Holmes rolled his eyes and turned to me. ‘Tell him, Watson.’
I coughed. ‘If Lombardi screwed the chair to the floor, he could only have done it after we’d left him in there and gone back to the dining room to question General MacArthur and before we went into the library to question Miss Claymore. It’s unlikely he screwed the chair down and then went back to the conservatory, tied himself up again and is in there right now, sitting waiting for us.’
Lestrade waved a finger at me. ‘I still say he might be….’
‘He’s right,’ said Mary, stepping forward. ‘If Lombardi isn’t aware that we know about the chair, he could still be in there.’
Holmes pondered on this and gave a quick nod. ‘Mary’s right. Apologies, Lestrade – you’re not so stupid after all.’
‘Thanks,’ said Lestrade, grinning, then realising what Holmes had said, added, ‘Hang on, what d’yer mean, stupid?’ But we were already hurrying down the passage towards the conservatory.
Reaching the door, Holmes barrelled through into the oversized hothouse. Unlike the greenhouse in the garden, this was a masterpiece of modern engineering. A high-domed roof of shaped and ornate glass panels and supported by a low brick surround towered above us, the sunlight searing through the glass, its sudden glare causing us to shade our eyes.
Apart from a few tropical palms and tree ferns, the space was largely given over to an arrangement of wicker chairs, sofas and low rattan-style tables – it was a space for relaxation. Only one item of furniture did not fit in with the décor. A single dining room chair stood in the centre of the space, the ropes that had secured Lombardi to it lay strewn about the floor, having been cleanly sliced through.
‘Bugger,’ said Holmes.
‘We have to check Billy Blah,’ said Mary, tugging at my sleeve.
‘Right,’ said Holmes spinning round.
Hurrying back to the staircase, we followed him through into the drawing room. As expected, the chair we’d left next to the French windows that had previously supported Mister Blah’s bulk, stood empty. The ropes on the floor, like Lombardi’s, had been sliced through.
‘It’s Klopp,’ muttered Holmes. ‘She let them go in order to finish them off before we can get to them.’
‘Really?’ I said. ‘Why not cut their throats where they sat? Far easier.’
Holmes rubbed his chin. ‘Then perhaps she has a more important role for them to play,’ he said.
‘I don’t think so,’ said Mary in a low voice. ‘There’s something on the grass.’
We all turned to look. Sure enough, twenty yards or so across the lawn, lay what appeared to be a bundle of bloody clothing.
‘Watson,’ barked Holmes. ‘Check your weapon.’ So saying, he pulled out his revolver and a handful of shells, slotting them into their allotted places. ‘I’ve had enough of protecting the innocent,’ he muttered. ‘If anyone else thinks Sherlock Holmes is a softy, they’ll be disappointed.’
Reloading my own gun, I followed Holmes through the French windows. Adopting a pincer movement with Lestrade bringing up the rear, we fanned out, keeping our eyes wide open for signs of an ambush. But the lawn was deserted and the only item in sight was recognisable as the body of Billy Blah. The poor man was pegged out like a human tent, hands and feet skewered, his body spread-eagled in a macabre reproduction of Tony Marston’s grisly death. Across his chest, a deep red gash told me that no amount of bedside manner would be of use to him now.
‘He’s still alive,’ I said, crouching down. Leaning close, I felt his rasping breath against my cheek. For a moment, I could make out nothing, then with a final effort, he spat out his parting words.
Looking up at Holmes, I shook my head.
‘Back inside,’ he said, eyes darting here and there.
Leaving the body to the birds, I ran back to the house. ‘Only Lombardi now,’ I said.
‘And Klopp,’ muttered Lestrade.
‘Is it just me,’ said Mary, ‘or have we failed horribly in this investigation?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘you’re right, we have failed horribly.’
‘Not so,’ said Holmes, shaking his gaunt features. ‘We may have proved unsuccessful in saving the lives of almost every one of our companions, but we four are still here and as long as I’m alive, I intend to fight this thing to the bitter end.’
‘Excellent,’ said Mary with only a hint of sarcasm. ‘So happy we’re all on the same page.’
Holmes glared at her. ‘Well, what do you suggest, Mrs Watson?’
‘I suggest we find out what makes the floors go up and down.’
‘Yes,’ said Holmes, avoiding her gaze, ‘that’s exactly what I was about to say.’
‘Takes a bloody sick mind to do that to a bloke,’ muttered Lestrade, staring at the body on the lawn. ‘Ere, you don’t fink Hannibal Lecter’s involved in this, do yer?’
‘If I’m right,’ said Holmes, ‘he’s probably the only one who isn’t. Now, to the cellar.’