Diary of Doctor Watson
The three of us rushed outside in time to catch a glimpse of a hooded figure sliding around the far corner of the house, its long black cloak billowing out like a long black billowy thing.
“After him! Her! It!” yelled Holmes, breaking into a fast sprint.
Mary hitched up her skirts and we hurried along, catching up with Holmes at the corner. The hooded apparition disappeared behind bushes at the rear of the house.
“Quick,” said Holmes. “You two go that way, I’ll go this.”
Separating, we encircled the clump of bushes in a bid to out-manoeuvre our quarry, but on meeting at the other side, the apparition had vanished.
We stood there, gazing beyond the house across the desolate landscape that stretched out before us. “It’s vanished,” I said.
“Don’t be a fool, Watson,” muttered Holmes. “Whatever that thing is, it’s real, therefore cannot simply disappear.” He held a finger up to his mouth then pointed at the bushes, making hand signals to indicate we should charge into the thicket on his signal.
As one, we pushed into the dense foliage, flinging our arms out, pushing aside sharp branches. Within a few seconds it became obvious the exterior of the bushes concealed a small shed, as if the vegetation had been deliberately planted and cultivated in such a way as to hide the structure from view.
Stepping forwards, I grasped the rotted wooden handle and yanked it open.
Inside, a flight of stone steps descended into darkness, but the fleeing figure had left a set of tell-tale muddy imprints that proved Sherlock’s theory— ghosts do not leave footprints.
“Hang on,” said Mary, reaching under her skirts. I turned and watched as my wife began fiddling with herself.
“Mary, this is not the time for self-pleasuring,” I said, giving her a firm shake.
She glared at me. “Unlike you, dear husband, my mind is not continually filled with the desire for sexual satisfaction.”
Knowing this to be wholly untrue, I waited while she extracted a small lamp from her French knickers. Winding up the mechanism by means of a small handle, she brought the device into life, casting a yellowish glow into the darkness below us.
Tucking her skirt into her knickers, Mary started down the steps holding the light out to one side. Holmes and I followed, and we descended perhaps twenty feet into a small room, where an arched passageway led off into what I supposed to be some sort of cellar.
As we made our way along the narrow corridor, a familiar smell assailed my nostrils—the same putrid aroma Holmes had described in the Seventh Room, only now the stench had become overpowering.
Able to see only a few feet in front of us, I let out a small squeal when a door suddenly appeared out of the darkness.
“Keep your girlish screams to yourself, Watson,” said Holmes. “I trust your revolver is cocked and ready?”
Plunging a hand into my jacket pocket, I found only a snot-encrusted handkerchief and a packet of Swan Vestas. “Bugger. Must’ve left it in our bedroom.”
Holmes made a gnashing sound with his teeth. “Then let’s hope my meerschaum pipe is enough to ward off any villains.” With that, he grasped the aforementioned article like a dagger, turned the heavy iron clasp and walked through the door.
The space beyond opened out into a dimly lit cavern, its dark stone walls wet and slime-covered. Around the edges of the room lay a series of stone slabs much like those we’d seen in Usher’s mausoleum. Atop each one lay a shrouded figure, six in all. The stench of decaying flesh prompted me to cover my nose with my handkerchief.
“My God,” I muttered. “More bodies.”
With no sign of our hooded fugitive, Holmes approached the first of the bodies. Taking a firm grasp on the grubby sheet that covered the corpse, he flung it aside.
“Oh dear,” he said, gazing at the rotting face before him. “This is worse than I suspected.” Moving along to each of the stone slabs in turn, he tore back the shrouds to reveal the faces of all six bodies. With the exposure of each one, he let out further exclamations, his usually calm voice rising in pitch until, revealing the final body, he recovered himself and muttered, simply, “Shit.”
“What is it, Holmes,” I said, moving in beside him.
“Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub.”
“You know these men?” said Mary, leaning forwards to examine the face of the last corpse.
“Alas, yes,” said Holmes. “All former pupils at my prep school, St Bladderswick. Along with Usher and myself, these men, or boys, as we were then, formed a group known as the Bladderswick Literary Detection Squad. We thought ourselves rather clever and spent our free time poring over magazines such as McMurdo’s Weekly, Criminalist Monthly and of the course the Illustrated Police News.”
“But why would anyone kill them?” said Mary, poking one of the corpses with her finger.
“Not a bloody clue,” he said, with a mournful sigh. He took my arm and as he gazed into my eyes, I saw something approaching real terror etched across his thin face. “Be a good chap, Watson, put your medical expertise to use and tell me what you notice about these bodies.”
With my nostrils already full of the stench of death, I had no wish to examine anything, but determined not to let Holmes down, and keeping my hanky clasped over my nose, I gave each corpse a thorough inspection.
“Well?” said Holmes, when I’d finished.
“Without carrying out post-mortems, I can’t be certain about the cause of death, but its fairly obvious that each victim has been pierced several times through his vital organs. The weapon used could be a thin knife or possibly something similar to a meat skewer.”
“And what do these wounds suggest to you? What might the killer be trying to do?”
“Apart from kill them?” I shrugged and looked up into his beady little eyes. “Some kind of sacrifice.”
“Anything else?” he said, his eyes flicking between Mary and I.
“Well,” said Mary. “I hate to say it, but it suggests that you may be the next victim.”
Holmes bit his lip. “Yes. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the conclusion I’ve come to.”
“But who is the killer?” said I, staring at the row of corpses.
“It’s obvious,” said Mary. “It has to be Roderick Usher.”
Holmes relit his meerschaum. “Not necessarily. It could be the French cook.”
“But she’s dead,” I said.
“We don’t actually know that, Johnny,” put in Mary. “Without a body…”
“There’s another possibility,” said Holmes, puffing on his pipe. “It could be Madelaine.”
I rolled my eyes. “I hardly think so, Holmes. For one thing, she’s definitely dead and for another…”
“Yes?” said the Great Detective, giving me a sardonic smile.
“Well, I, ahm…” I stammered.
“Of course we know she’s dead, Watson, but how do we know she is Madelaine?”
“Because her brother told us so.”
“Precisely,” said Holmes. “And what if he lied?”
I thought about this for a moment. “If he lied, then we cannot believe anything he’s told us since the moment we arrived.”
“And we’ve only got his word the French cook existed,” said Mary. “Those paintings could’ve been done by anyone.”
“Or someone else who we’ve yet to meet,” muttered Holmes.
I gazed around the cellar. “You mean, whoever it is who’s going around in that cape?”
At this point, we were standing looking down at one of the bodies. A scraping noise behind us prompted a group reaction and all three of us whirled round.
“What the fu—” I started.
As if hinged like a door, the wall had opened up, revealing another passageway. Standing in the opening brandishing a foot-long skewer-like knife, was the hooded figure.
“Ah, Mr Holmes. Glad you could make it…”