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The Villain Revealed

From the Diary of Mary Watson (Mrs)

“I know that voice,” I said, stepping forwards. Grasping the hood, I yanked it off.

“Inspector Lestrade.” I held my lamp up to his face. “What are you doing here?”

The ferret-faced little man shrugged off his robe. “Responding to the telegram from Mr Holmes, of course.”

“Telegram?” said the big-nosed detective. “What telegram?”

Lestrade peered at each of us. “The one yer sent me.”

Holmes rolled his eyes.

“Oh. So you didn’t send a telegram?”

“No, but I suspect someone else required your presence here,” said Holmes, rubbing his chin.

“Hold on,” I said, picking up Lestrade’s discarded robe. “Why were you wearing this?”

Lestrade looked uncomfortable. “It said in the telegram—the one Holmes didn’t send—that I ought ter dress as a monk for the fancy dress party.”

“Ah.” Holmes strode around the room, muttering to himself. “Then you were given instructions about what to do upon arrival here, yes?”

Lestrade nodded.

Holmes continued. “Told to follow a certain route around the side of the house and into a certain bush and thence down into this room.”

“That’s right,” said the inspector. “Sorry if I’ve mucked fings up for yous.”

“Not all at all,” said Holmes. He asked to see the aforementioned message and when Lestrade produced it, whipped it out of the man’s hand and proceeded to examine it closely.

“A bit long for a telegram, eh?” said Johnny, peering over Sherlock’s shoulder. “Must’ve cost a few bob.”

“I rather think the cost would not be a major concern to its creator,” said Holmes, sniffing the paper.

Tossing the robe aside, I said, “Why on earth would anyone want Inspector Lestrade here? He doesn’t even know Roderick Usher.”

“Ah,” said Holmes. “I think I may be able to answer that. This whole masquerade has not been about Roderick Usher at all, but about us—Doctor and Mrs Watson, myself and, unfortunately, the inspector here.” He touched Lestrade’s shoulder. “Sorry old chap, but I believe you may have been lured here to your death.”

“Oh,” said Lestrade. “Bugger.”

I let out a long sigh. “If that’s true, Holmes, this can only be the work of one man.”

The detective shook his head. “No, Mary. This scheme does not bear Moriarty’s modus operandi. No, it is overly complex and utterly ridiculous.”

“Then who the hell is behind it?” said Johnny, stamping his foot.

“I suggest we get out of here and return to the library. If I’m right, our enemy will make themselves known to us shortly.”

We followed Holmes back up the steps, through the bush and back round to the house. The front door stood open as we’d left it and the library too, appeared unchanged.

Holmes held up a hand. “Have a care, my friends.” Stepping into the library, he pushed the door back, checked behind it then motioned for us to come in.

We stood there in a cluster, our eyes everywhere.

Holmes made a sign that we should stay silent, then pointed a slender finger at the bookcase on the far wall. He mouthed, Watch, and turned his own gaze towards the cluttered shelves.

Standing next to Johnny, I stared at the books but whatever had caught the detective’s eye, passed me by completely.

Suddenly, Sherlock’s arm shot out, indicating a section of shelving in the corner.

“I see it,” murmured Lestrade, taking out his revolver.

Holmes strode over to the fireplace, reached up and removed one of the ornamental sabres from where it hung over the mantle. Then, holding the weapon lightly, he leaped forwards and stabbed an area of leather-bound books.

A yelp of surprise came from the bookcase. “Ow, ow, ow!” And as we watched, the books themselves seemed to shift sideways. And then I saw it—the outline of a man, moving away from the shelves, and a moment later the ‘books’ dropped to the floor, revealing the criminal behind the disguise.

“Ah-ha,” said Holmes. “And the villain is revealed.”

“Who on earth is that?” I said, peering at the skinny little man.

Holmes gave me a sardonic smile. “I’m surprised you don’t remember him, Mary. Admittedly he’s cut off that give-away pigtail and shaved off the silly moustache, no doubt in order to take on the role of the French Cook, but you met him during our Ghost Train adventure.”

“My God,” I muttered, finally recognising the arch-criminal. “Then he didn’t meet his death when the ghost train plummeted into that ravine?”

“Apparently not,” said Holmes. “So we meet again, Doctor Fu Manchu—fiend, master criminal and the brains behind this ridiculous plot.”

Fu laughed. “Hah, and I almost had you Holmes. I even used your own invention—the bookcase disguise—against you.”

“Yes, but you forgot one important aspect of that particular camouflage, Fu. Instead of classic novels, you used the titles of books that no man in his right mind would ever read—regency romances.”

The villain rubbed his injured hand where the sabre had stabbed his finger. “They’re popular in my country,” he muttered.

“Tie him up,” barked Holmes, tearing down the bell-pull rope.

Within a few minutes Manchu was bound hand and foot. We sat him in an armchair and Lestrade kept watch while Johnny and I checked him for hidden weapons. The only thing we found was a pair of ladies’ knickers and a set of false breasts. Holmes took a moment to relight his meerschaum. Having done so, he settled himself on the sofa opposite the villain and puffed away.

“I suppose you’d like to know why?” said the evil doctor.

“Oh, I think I can guess,” said Holmes. He glanced at me. “But perhaps Mary can shed some light on the matter.”

“Me?” I said. “I haven’t got a clue.”

“On the contrary, Mary, you pointed me in the right direction when you stated that Roderick Usher must be the perpetrator.”

“Well, it seemed the obvious answer.”

“Precisely, and Doctor Manchu imagined that having identified the culprit I would then take deadly revenge on Roddy for the murder of my six chums. After which, Fu would murder Lestrade, Johnny, your good self and finally me, but not before revealing the truth. For only then could he guarantee that I would suffer the worst punishment imaginable for Londen’s greatest detective—the agony of being wrong.”

“You have to admit,” said Fu Manchu, “it was a good plan.”

“It would have been, yes. But for one simple mistake.”

“Mistake!” roared Fu. “I do not make mistakes.”

“Unfortunately, you do. You see, when you set up those six lookalike corpses to fool me into thinking you had murdered Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub, you forgot one vital thing. Pugh and Pugh were not brothers. They were brother and sister. Rebecca Pugh was, and is, a woman. Of course, I realised this straight away, but pretended not to notice in case we were under observation.”

“Hang on,” said Johnny. “What’s all this got to do with Roddy?”

“I think I know,” I said. “Roddy’s mental state only aided the villainous plan. Fu Manchu took advantage of Madelaine’s illness as well as her death.”

Johnny threw up his hands. “But she’s alive! We saw her!”

Holmes made a calming motion. “Watson, Watson, Watson. What we saw was Doctor Fu in disguise—a simple ruse to make us think she was either still alive or haunting poor Roddy.

“You mean she really is dead, then?”

Holmes nodded.

Johnny sat back down with a thump. “But who are those poor devils lying in the cellar?”

I looked at the evil doctor. He smiled an evil smile.

“As you pointed out earlier, “said Fu Manchu, “I did not die when that train fell into the ravine, but a great many of my employees did. I recovered the bodies of six of them and stored them in a freezer in a butcher’s shop in Huddersfield. I felt certain that one day they would be of use.”

“I see,” said Holmes. “And I suppose you also employed the services of a very expensive plasticine surgeon to make up their faces to look like my Bladderswick companions?”

“You think you are so clever, Mr Holmes,” muttered the arch-villain.

“Yes, actually I do.” He jumped up and tapped out his pipe on the mantlepiece. “Now, I think we’d better find Roddy and explain a few things.”

“Just wait a moment, old bean,” said Johnny getting to his feet. “There’ s a few things I still don’t understand…”

Holmes glanced at me. “As I’ve always said, Mary is the clever one…”

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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The Body Count Rises

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…”

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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The Search for a Clue


Dairy of Mary Watson (Mrs)

Having completed our search of the upstairs rooms, we trooped back downstairs.

“Thought you’d already looked into all these ones,” I said, peeping into the music room.

“Indeed,” said Holmes, “but I neglected to thoroughly examine one particular room where a definite odour assailed our nostrils.”

“You mean the seventh room?” I said.

“I do,” said he.

Johnny sniffed. “It did pong a bit, but I’d have described it as musty. Old-peopley.”

“And with a hint of decaying human flesh?” said Holmes.

“I think I’d have noticed the smell of a dead body. I am a doctor, you know.”

Holmes gave him a sardonic smile. “Of course, Watson, but unlike me, you have not adapted your olfactory abilities to the practice of smell assessment and identification.”

“I suppose having a big nose helps,” said Johnny, with a smirk.

We followed Holmes along the passage to the seventh room, where he held up his hand. Turning the handle, he pushed the door open. Inside it looked just as it had before—the deep red velvet of the walls, the lack of furniture and the wooden altar-like table in the middle.

“Unless the walls are false,” I said, “there’s nowhere to hide a stiff.”

Holmes stepped forwards and Johnny and I pushed in behind him. For a moment, we all stood there, gazing at the wooden structure that dominated the room.

“What was it you said about some death-mask thingy?”

Holmes gave me a piercing stare. “What I said, Mary, was that while at college, under the influence of opium, Usher became interested in an ancient ritual known as the Masque of the Red Death.”

“Ah yes. And this mask…” Johnny looked around the room. “Where would that be?”

“I said masque, not mask.”

Leaning towards my husband, I whispered in his ear.

He coughed. “Of course—different spelling.”

“As always,” muttered Holmes, “Mary is the clever one.”

The three of us set about examining the room, tapping walls, knocking on floorboards, checking underneath the table, but the entire room appeared solid. Holmes took out his magnifying glass and began to scrutinise the tabletop, working his way along its length, occasionally picking at the wood with a pair of tweezers.

Eventually, he straightened up, holding out the tweezers. Grasped between the metal tongs was a tiny sliver of paint.

“Is that paint?” said Johnny.

“Alas no,” said Holmes. “Dried blood. Which is suggestive, don’t you think?”

“It doesn’t suggest much without a body, old bean,” said Johnny.

We ruminated on this for a few minutes then went over every inch of the table again. Unfortunately, we found nothing else that might back up the theory of foul play.

When I suggested we ask our host, Holmes snorted. “If Roddy’s killed this woman, he’s hardly likely to admit it, is he?”

I patted his chest and in my best, ‘seductive’ voice, murmured, “But your immense powers of reason and discovery will be able to unearth the truth, won’t they?”

Holmes cleared his throat noisily. “Perhaps, Mary, perhaps. But questioning Roddy should be our last strategy in this affair. Evidence is what we require, Watsons. Evidence.”

And with that, he stalked off along the passage.

“D’you think he’s a bit stuck?” I said to my husband.

Johnny nodded. “I think so.”

Closing the door, we walked back to the main entrance and saw Holmes sitting on the stairs, stuffing a portion of Hard Shag into his Meerschaum.

“Sherlock,” I said, sitting next to him, as he struck a Swan Vesta. “This Masque of the Red Death thing. D’you actually know what it is?”

He drew in a mouthful of smoke and blew it out slowly, a long blue spiral curling up to the ceiling. “In one sense—yes. In another—no. Roddy’s explanation always tended towards vagueness and abstract descriptions.”

“Could it be some sort of ancient ceremony?”

He shrugged. “It could.” He looked at me. “You’re wondering if our friend might possess some kind of guide—an instruction book of some type.”

“I am.”

At that, we both turned to look at the door next to where we sat.

The library.

While Holmes and Johnny worked their way along the uppermost shelves of the enormous bookcases, I began at the bottom, pulling out anything with a weird title, old binding or with signs of having been well-thumbed. There were several tomes on witchcraft, vampirism, lycanthropy, and a wide variety of mythological creatures. There was also a selection of books on the topic of erotica, many with hand-coloured plates, depicting scenes of an orgiastic nature. Finding myself becoming rather aroused by these, I hastily put them aside, intending to secrete them away for bedtime reading.

“Think I’ve found something,” said Johnny, moving across to the sofa.

Holmes and I joined him, sitting on either side and peering at the book open on his knees. The binding appeared to be of fine leather with gold edging on the pages and several lithographic plates showing murderous encounters and hideous creatures.

“It’s by that American writer, Poe,” said Johnny, showing us the front of the book.

“Poe?” I said. “Isn’t he the one who died of drink?”

Holmes chuckled. “Actually, the whole ‘demon-drink’ scenario turned out to be a fabrication created by the man himself. I suspect he intended to entertain his many admirers, leaving them a puzzle to keep them guessing for years to come. As Johnny and I discovered during our trip to Baltimore some years ago, Poe is not dead, but living under the assumed name of Mildred Flange in a small town in Pennsylvania.” He shook his head. “However, that is neither here nor there. You were saying, Watson…”

“Thank you, Holmes. Look here…” He flicked back to the page he’d been looking at.

Leaning over, I gawked at the story’s title, but my eyes were drawn to the image on the opposite page. It portrayed a crowd of people gathered in a great hall, all wearing creepy Commedia dell’Arte-type masks and long flowing cloaks.

“What’s it about?” I said.

“Oh, tish tosh,” said Holmes, dismissively. “Read it years ago. A stupid prince tries to avoid a plague known as the Red Death. He gives a masquerade ball for his pals in seven rooms and they all have a raucous time until some bloke disguised as a victim of the Red Death comes in and everybody dies.”

“Sounds fascinating,” I said, trying not to sound sarcastic.

“The point is,” said Holmes, “it bears no resemblance to the situation we have here. There’s no plague, no masquerade, no mysterious stranger.”

“Unless you call the missing French cook a mysterious stranger,” I murmured, looking out of the window. As I gazed across the dreary landscape, the late afternoon sun seemed to sink into the horizon and a mass of dark clouds slid across the sky, creating the impression of twilight. I shivered involuntarily. “Boys,” I muttered, my eyes fixed on the strange figure gliding past the window. “There’s someone outside…”

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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The Cook, the Model and Her Brother

Diary of Doctor Watson

Arriving back at the house, we gathered in the hall and stood for a moment, listening.
Holmes raised a finger. “Hark. I hear the sound of distant spoons.”

He set off towards the kitchen, with Mary and I hurrying along behind.

Pushing through the door at the end of the hall, we passed along a dark passage and thence into the kitchen itself.

The room had a low beamed ceiling with long windows that looked out across the mere at the back of the house (a bleak, stagnant pool surrounded by dead grasses and withered shrubs). Turning my attention back to the room, I observed a tall, messily-dressed wench with unkempt black hair and a sizeable rear end. Standing with her back to us, the woman slopped some sort of greasy stew into bowls. At our entrance, she wheeled round.

“Ooh, Monsieurs and Madame,” she said in a tense, high-pitched voice. “Ze master vill not vant you in ze kitchen. You must away wiz immediate effect, please.”

Holmes took a step forward and grasped the woman’s hair. Giving it a sharp tug, he wrenched it from her head, revealing her to be none other than Roderick Usher.

“Ooh, Monsieur!” he gasped, in the same shrill voice. “How dare you.”

“Stop this, Roddy,” said Holmes. “Stop it now. I don’t know what’s got into you, but I shan’t stand for it, d’you hear?”

“But I’m a lady,” said Usher, in a cracked voice. “A French lady.”

Holmes glances at me and muttered, “Sharp slap to the chops, Watson?”

I nodded and stepped back as Holmes swung his right arm and gave Usher a resounding whack across his left cheek.

“Ow…that hurt.” Usher rubbed his offended face but appeared to have otherwise regained his former composure.

“Take off those clothes,” said Holmes. “We’ll have lunch and then I suggest you go and have a lie down. Watson here will examine you and provide something to calm your nerves.”

I tugged my companion’s sleeve. “I think Mr Usher requires something a little more substantial than a calming tonic, Holmes.”

The Great Detective turned and glared at me. “And I think,” he said through clenched teeth, “a spell in bed will do our host the power of good.”

From his tone I appreciated his suggestion was not up for consideration. “Very well, if that’s what you think.”

Mary rose to the occasion and took over the serving of the meal. Sitting around the kitchen table, we ate the sloppy broth with hunks of dry bread, followed by a pot of tea. Usher said little during the meal, while Holmes chortled away about this and that, presumably with the intention of lightening the sombre mood.

Afterwards, Mary and I took Usher upstairs and put him to bed. Mary sat on a chair at the side, while I checked his temperature and so forth.

“Roderick,” said Mary, stroking his arm, “who did the cooking when your sister was…was here?”

Our patient blinked several times. “Mrs Fournier. A French cook. She er…left…a few weeks ago. Since then, Madeleine and I have taken turns.” He shrugged. “Not terribly successfully, as you’ve seen.”

Mary nodded. “So you were simply trying to recreate the normality of family life as it was when the cook worked here and your sister was alive?”

Usher nodded sadly.

Mary looked at me with a questioning smile.

“Yes,” said I. “Your sister’s death has been a shock, perhaps more than you have realised. I think Sherlock’s suggestion that you stay in bed a while, is sound. Nonetheless, I shan’t give you anything medicinal at the moment—I don’t want you completely out of things, as it were, as that might simply postpone the grieving process.”

Closing the curtains, we sat for a few minutes until he began to doze, then left him in peace and retired to our own room.

“What d’you think happened to the cook?” said Mary, as we lay on our bed, side by side, Mary’s hand massaging my nether regions.

“Usher is a bit of a handful, isn’t he? I can imagine he might’ve proved a little intense for a French cook. She likely got sick of it all and left.”

“You don’t think he killed her, then?”

I stared at her. “Killed? What on earth makes you say that, my dear?”

“He’s wearing her clothes.”

Once again, my darling wife had pointed out a fact that had stared me in my dull-witted face and I’d totally missed it. “Oh. Shit.”

A knock at our door gave me a start. Jumping up, I modified my attire and opened the door.

“Watsons,” said Holmes, striding into the room. “We may have a dead French cook on our hands.”

“Yes,” I said. “Mary came to the same conclusion just now.”

Holmes glanced at my wife and grunted. “Ah. Jolly good.”

“Think we should look for her body?” said Mary, sitting up on the bed.

Holmes nodded, rubbing his chin. “Is Usher asleep?”

“As good as,” I said.

“Then, yes. I shouldn’t wish him to think we’d taken the liberty of poking around the house without his knowledge.”

“You were happy enough poking around downstairs this morning,” I said, adopting one of his own sardonic grins.

“Don’t be a smartarse, Watson, it doesn’t suit you.” He sniffed and went out, then turning at the door, said, “Come on, then.”

Starting with Madelaine’s room, we checked under the bed, in the wardrobe and anywhere else that might conceal a large French woman. Finding nothing, we walked back along the passage, past our own room, Sherlock’s and Usher’s. Three more doors lay on this floor. Pushing open the first, I peeked inside.

“Linen cupboard,” I said, pulling the door shut.

The next door led into a large room that turned out to be some sort of artist’s studio, with floor-to-ceiling windows on the rear wall. A couple of easel’s stood in the centre of the room, with long workbenches on one wall. Various piles of drawing paper had been neatly stacked here and there, with pots of brushes, pencils and other artists materials in glass jars.

“An artist’s studio, d’you think?” said Holmes, examining a pile of pen and ink drawings.

“Some of these are rather good,” said Mary, holding up a drawing of a nude woman. “Madelaine, if I’m not mistaken.”

Holmes and I moved closer to study the image, its detailed illustration of the female genitalia leaving nothing to the imagination.

“Seen enough?” said Mary, giving me a punch in the kidney.

“Yes, yes,” I muttered. “He’s a talented artist.”

Holmes let out a groan. “For fuck’s sake, John, you don’t imagine Roderick Usher drew this, do you?”

“Well, I thought…”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Usher hasn’t an artistic bone in his body. No, this is the work of someone else. Someone who thought very highly of the model.”

“Could’ve been a self-portrait,” suggested Mary.

Holmes shook his head. “No, this is the work of some else. Someone who had a real connection to Madelaine. Someone who loved her.”

“You mean the French cook?” said I.

“I do, Watson, I do.” He gazed around the room, noting the other sketches of Madeleine pinned to the walls, many showing her in all her feminine glory. “Come along, Watsons. There’s a dead woman in this house somewhere and I’d like to find her before she starts to smell.”

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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Dead or Alive


The Diary of Mary Watson (Mrs)

Collecting a couple of candles from a table in the entrance hall, Holmes stalked off with some urgency. Leaving my bags at the front door, I followed him and Johnny outside and along the path towards the mausoleum. Johnny filled me in on recent events, emphasising the general weirdness of the place.

“And you suspect this Madelaine person may not be dead?” I said, hurrying to keep up.

“Well, she was definitely bereft of life when I examined her last night,” said my husband. Then, leaning towards me so Holmes couldn’t hear, added, “Sherlock thinks she might be a zombie.”

“I heard that, Watson,” barked Holmes, whirling round. “As a matter of fact, I said I hoped she wasn’t a zombie.”

“I’m fairly sure he’s kidding,” muttered Johnny, as the Great Detective strode away. “He’s been reading a lot of gothic horror novels, lately.”

Glancing back, I stared up at the house and wondered if I’d made an error of judgement in coming here. Then again, if there were such creatures as zombies on the loose (whether real or imagined), I didn’t want to miss anything.

At the gable end of the house, I spied what must be the mausoleum ahead of us. Built as if to resemble an enormous skull, I felt grateful we weren’t approaching the place in the middle of the night. Holmes took out a box of Swan Vestas and lit the candles, then pushed through the doorway into a dark passage. I let Johnny go ahead of me and grasped his hand, keen to stay close.

Inside, we crept over the cold ground between the stone benches that lined the walls, displaying the skeletons of (presumably) long-dead members of the Usher clan. I took in the dismal surroundings. The entire place reeked of death (hardly surprising) and I wondered why the family hadn’t simply buried their dead in the ground like normal folk.

In front of us stood a more elaborate stone slab, on top of which lay a body that, thankfully, still retained its flesh. This must be Madelaine, I thought, peeking over Johnny’s shoulder.

Leaning across the body, Johnny did his doctory thing—checking for pulse, signs of breathing and so on. After a few moments, he straightened up.

“She’s dead. No doubt about it.”

Holmes had walked around to the end of the slab. “If that’s true, Watson, how d’you explain this?” Pointing to the soles of the deceased woman’s bare feet, he added, “Mud.”

Johnny and I moved around so we could see. Sure enough, the pale flesh bore traces of brown earth.

Holmes extracted a pocketknife and opened up one of its blades. Scraping it along the sole of one of Madeleine’s extremities, he examined the resulting deposit closely.

“D’you recall soil on her bedroom floor, Watson?” he said, holding out the blade for us to see.

“Of course not,” said Johnny. “The only way she could’ve got that is if someone smeared it onto her feet.”

“Or,” said Holmes, with a frown, “if Madeleine herself rose up from this slab and walked out into the garden.”

“Really, Holmes,” muttered Johnny, “now you’re grasping at straws.”

A movement behind us gave me a start, and I turned to see a shadow blocking the doorway.

“What is the meaning of this?” boomed a deep and echoey voice.

“Ah,” said Holmes, immediately slipping into his ‘bonhomie’ voice. “Just showing Mrs Watson around the place. Hope you don’t mind?”

The man’s eyes swivelled towards me, as if noticing my presence for the first time.

“Oh. Mrs Watson?” Stepping into the room, he extended a hand and taking my fingers in his, kissed them lightly. “My sincerest apologies, my dear. If I had known you were coming…” He smiled. “I’ve heard so much about you.”

I doubted this were true but thanked him anyway.

“So as I was saying,” said Holmes, “this is the mausoleum where the late Miss Usher has been laid to rest.” He gazed upon the corpse, pressed a hand to his heart and let out a muffled sob that I’m sure would have delighted his theatrical friends at the Soho Theatre Club.

“Well,” said Usher, seeming to accept this explanation, “we’d better get back to the house. Cook has prepared an early luncheon.”

And with that he turned and went out.

I was about to say what a jolly good idea this was, when Holmes grabbed Johnny by the arm.

“Cook? What cook?”

Johnny shrugged. “Someone made dinner last night…”

Holmes shook his head. “No, John. Our meal last evening was little more than the creation of a single man with no imagination—the sort of common fare one gets when one is living alone.”

“But he doesn’t live alone,” said Johnny.

Holmes grimaced. “He does now.”

“Well,” said I, “why don’t we go and meet this imaginary cook?”

“Good idea,” said the big-nosed detective “Though unless I happen to be the male relative of a chimpanzee, I suspect the cook and myself have already met.”

Watching Holmes walk off, I tugged Johnny’s sleeve. “What does he mean?”

“Buggered if I know,” he said. And with that, we set off back to the house.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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The Seventh Room


Diary of Doctor Watson

Following the events of last night, Holmes and I slept late. As Usher has no servants, we made our own breakfast, tucking into porridge, toast and strawberry preserve—the only options in a kitchen stocked mainly with dry goods and vegetables.

Half an hour later, and assuming our host to be still in his bed, we took the opportunity to explore the ground floor of the house. In the east wing, aside from the library, there were five other rooms, consisting of a dining room, a music room (filled with an array of strange and exotic instruments) and a sort of parlour that looked as if it hadn’t been opened for several years. On the west side of the house we found the morning room with a view of the mausoleum, and next to that, the study. This last proved the most interesting as it highlighted Roderick Usher’s poor grasp of household management. A wood-wormed desk bore the fruits of his labours, being untidily piled with personal papers and bills representing the last few years of the siblings’ expenditures. Musing on the source of their revenue, I questioned Holmes on the topic.

“Ah yes,” he said, gazing out of the window. “As I recall, the parents had business interests in China, which generated enough income to keep their offspring in relative luxury. Or what passes for luxury in this part of the world.” His eyes flicked around the room, taking in the dusty shelves, unwashed curtains and general atmosphere of grime that clung to the place as dirty underpants cling to the filthy torsos of the working class. “It would appear Roddy has let things slide somewhat.”

Moving back into the corridor, we found another door I hadn’t noticed before.

“Wonder what’s in here,” I said, moving to open it.

“Hold it, Watson,” said Holmes, grabbing my arm. Looking back along the corridor, he muttered something under his breath, then gazing at the door, said, “The seventh room.”

“Is that significant?” I said, staring into his piggy-like eyes.

“I hope not, Watson. I hope not.”

He nodded to me and I stepped forward, grasping the doorknob.

The room lay in near-darkness and as I opened the door, an odour of mouldering decay flooded over me, causing me to step back. Taking out my Swan Vestas, I struck a match and held it up. The first thing I noticed was a lack of windows and how the walls had been lined with a deep red velvety material. Not a stick of furniture decorated the chamber, save a single wooden slab-like table in the middle. Attached to the sides, top and foot of this were leather straps, bolted into place. A small red silk cushion lay at one end.

“Oh dear,” muttered Holmes, pushing past me.

“What on earth is it?” I said, stepping forward to examine the table. “Some sort of altar, d’you think?”

“I’m afraid, Watson, it is exactly that.” He rubbed his chin and gazed at the bizarre structure. “I’d hoped our beleaguered host might’ve given up such deviant practices, but…”

“What sort of deviant practices?”

“At college, while under the influence of opium, he became interested in an ancient ritual known as the Masque of the Red Death.”

“What on earth is that?”

Holmes turned towards me, his face ashen. “Sex and murder, Watson. Sex and murder.”

As we stood there just inside the doorway, something cold touched my hand.

“Arrgh!”

“Well,” said a familiar voice, “that’s a novel way to welcome your dear wife.”

“Mary,” I gasped, grasping her arms. “What the devil..?”

“No-one answered the door, so I let myself in. What’s going on? You boys look as if you’ve seen a ghost.” She laughed gaily, then seeing the grim look in Sherlock’s eyes, curtailed her amusement.

“Not a ghost, Mary,” said Holmes. “At least, not yet…”

Taking Mary aside, I hugged her, then said, “How on earth did you get here?”

“Your pal Lestrade suggested I come over.” She leaned in to whisper in my ear. “I think he’s worried you two might get into bother.”

“No, I meant, how did you get here? We had terrible trouble arranging a lift from the train station.”

“Oh, that bit was easy—I engaged the services of a surly old chap with a cart.”

“Did he have a wart on his nose and a droopy moustache?”

“He did—d’you know him?”

“Yes, though he refused to bring us to the door. We had to walk the last mile.”

“Ah. You should’ve offered to tickle his testicles. Worked a treat for me.”

“Really, darling, I do wish you wouldn’t—”

She laughed and I realised I’d been had.

“Poor Johnny—you’re so easy to wind up. No, I simply offered him one of those forged ten-pound notes you showed me last year.” She peered into the red room. “So, what’s going on in here?”

Holmes emerged from the room and stuck his hand out. “Best not, Mary. This may be a crime scene.”

“Really? How exciting.”

“Not exciting, my dear—dangerous.” He looked at me. “We must examine Madelaine’s body again and look for indications.”

“Indications of what, Holmes?”

“Of murder Watson.”

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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Into the Crypt


Diary of Doctor Watson

Finding Madelaine’s room empty, Holmes and I stood for a moment in the semi-darkness, pondering what to do.

“I do hope Roddy isn’t lying in bed with his sister’s body next to him,” said Holmes, rubbing his chin.

Considering this idea, I said, “He’ll be feeling a terrible sense of loss, and people can react unpredictably to the death of a loved one. But in my professional opinion, I’d have to say he’d be off his chump to sleep next to a corpse.”

Glancing back along the passage I thought it unlikely Roderick had walked past our bedrooms, as we could not have failed to hear his distinctive heavy tread. Recalling the distant creaking noises from earlier, I wondered if he’d carried her downstairs.

“Perhaps he carried her downstairs,” I said.

Holmes rubbed his chin again. “That would seem logical. Tell me, Watson, d’you recall our initial approach to the house?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Did you happen to notice a structure to the left of the main building?”

“A sort of bandstand, you mean?”

Holmes gave me a sardonic smile. “I hardly think Roderick Usher would erect a bandstand in his back garden. No, I suspect we shall find it is the family mausoleum. In which case…”

“Of course. He’s going to lay her to rest.”

“Precisely.”

Hurrying downstairs, I darted into the library, picked up my Gladstone bag and lit one of the candelabras, before joining Holmes and emerging through the great front door into the cool of the night. Blinking in the darkness, I scurried after Holmes as he raced along the gravel path in his velveteen slippers. As we reached the gable end of the main house, I perceived the ghostly structure of the mausoleum ahead of us. In the pale moonlight, it had the appearance of a gigantic skull, with vast granite pillars holding up the roof section like enormous rotting teeth. In the centre, stood a low doorway, bordered by evil-looking ghoulish faces.

“It’s awfully spooky, Holmes,” I muttered, holding the candelabra up to the door.

“Don’t be a girl, Watson,” he chided. “Stay close.”

Moving forwards, we pushed through the doorway into a narrow passage. Inside, the air smelled of damp and decay, with an underlying hint of rancid meat. In front of us another door stood half open and a dim light glowed beyond it.

Holmes charged through the door, pushing it wide, as we entered the main tomb.

Around the walls were several stone benches, each one bearing the decaying bones of some long-dead family member. Directly in front on us knelt the lone figure of Roderick Usher, head bent, his clasped hands resting on the dead breast of his sister.

Holmes coughed. “Now look here, Roddy…” he started.

Usher whirled round and strode towards us, a sight I’ll admit was a little comical, given that he was still on his knees. Mouth wide open and arms held out like a priest giving a sermon, he reminded me of a mad dwarf I’d once encountered in a circus. On that occasion, I’d had the good sense to kick the crazed small person in the head. This, clearly, was a different situation altogether, though the wild look in Usher’s eyes did little to assuage my concerns.

“She’s dead, Holmes!” he wailed. “She’s deeeaaaad…”

“Yes, I know, old bean,” said Holmes patting his friend on the head. “She’s gone to a better place.”

Usher stopped wailing and gazed up at him. “A better place? A better fucking place! Are you out of your mind!?”

Nudging my companion, I nodded to him to hold the candelabra. Then, dipping a hand into my bag, fished out a syringe and a suitably calming solution. I hoped it might grant our distressed host a little much-needed relief.

“Here we are,” I said, taking his arm and pushing up the sleeve. “This should help…”

Usher watched wide-eyed as I slid the needle into him but made no attempt to prevent my ministrations.

After a moment, he sank to the floor and began to weep. I took the opportunity to slip past him and examine the corpse. Checking her pulse, I studied her pale, rather beautiful, face. Her lips still retained a reddish glow, as if she might spring up at any moment and yell, ‘Fooled you’. But of course, she did no such thing. Lifting each of her eyelids in turn, I saw the pupils were fixed and dilated, which strongly suggested she had most definitely passed on. Nevertheless, there was a strange sheen to her skin, as if life did indeed linger in some strange, sheeny skin type way.

Standing, I caught my companion’s eye and gave a quick nod.

Hauling Usher to his feet, Holmes gently intimated we return to the house. Usher allowed us to lead him out of that ghoulish place and back through into the library where we sat with him for an hour or so until he fell into a fitful sleep. Covering him with a blanket, we finally left him to his slumbers and set off to our own rooms.

“Rum do,” muttered Holmes, as we trudged up the stairs.

“Well,” I said, “At least we can be fairly certain she’s definitely dead.”

Holmes grabbed my arm, pulling me to a stop. “What d’you mean, fairly certain?”

I sighed and explained about the strange quality of the dead woman’s skin.

“For a medical man, Watson, sometimes you can be awfully obtuse.”

“I’m only saying what I think.”

Holmes let out a long breath. “Well, all I can say is I hope the silly bitch doesn’t come back to life. The last thing we need is a bloody zombie on our hands.”

He marched off up the stairs, leaving me to wonder why I had the awful feeling he wasn’t joking.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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A Detective Inspector Calls


The Diary of Mary Watson (Mrs)
Batley Cottage, Skipton

Having now spent two nights in what I can only describe as the dullest residence I’ve ever had the misfortune to inhabit, my desire to escape grows by the hour. Though Aunt Bob complains bitterly about her aches and pains, her general health has clearly improved, and I now suspect she summoned me here simply to have someone to run around after her. Only this morning, she demanded I read aloud from a book on herbal remedies of the East Indies.

“It is quite unbearable, my dear Mary,” she muttered, as I began the third chapter of the aforementioned tedious tome, “that I should spend my dotage unaccompanied.”

“Well,” I said, “if you hadn’t thrown Uncle Jeremy out of the house, you wouldn’t be unaccompanied.”

She slapped a hand on the side of the chair. “He was rogering that tart from the butcher’s on an almost daily basis.”

“No, Aunt,” I repeated for the umpteenth time, “the lady from the butcher’s is even older than you and has a wooden leg and a hair lip. I doubt she’s capable of any kind of…intimate…activity. And I’m certain Uncle Jeremy wouldn’t be unfaithful.”

“He might have been…” She pursed her lips and adopted the pained expression I’ve come to look upon as her ‘normal’ face.

I leaned forwards and patted her knee. “Why don’t I pop along to the hotel where he’s staying and tell him you’d like him to come back?”

She sniffed derisively, but I could tell she was coming around to the idea.

At that point, the maid appeared—a dull-witted girl with a penchant for snivelling.

“Beg pardon, ma’am,” she said, “but a gen’leman’s at the door an’ wantin’ to see you.”

“Oh, I can’t be bothered with visitors,” moaned Aunt Bob.

“Oh, sorry, ma’am, I was meanin’ Missus Watson, ‘ere.”

“Me?” said I, perking up. “Who is it?”

The girl handed me a white card. One glance at it brought a smile to my lips. This might be the excuse I’d been looking for.

“Send him in, Florence.”

A moment later, a ferret-faced little man in a raincoat popped his head around the door.

“Mornin’ Mrs Watson,” he said tipping his hat.

“Inspector Lestrade,” I murmured shaking his hand. “How lovely to see you.”

The policeman reddened at this unexpected compliment and seated himself on a pouffe in the corner. He glanced at Aunt Bob.

“Ahm, this is my Aunt Roberta,” I said.

“A police inspector, eh?” said the old woman. “What trouble has that fool of a husband got you into now, dear?”

“For your information, Aunt, my husband is not a fool and he does not get me into trouble.” I grinned at Lestrade and added, “though we’ve had some rare adventures together.”

Aunt Bob prattled on for a few minutes more, then excused herself and stomped off upstairs.

Is there trouble?” I said, when she’d gone.

“Well, it’s ‘ard ter say, really,” he began. “It might be nuffin, but I thought I’d better check it out wiv you anyway.”

He sat there for a moment, turning his hat over and over in his hands, until eventually he seemed to come to a decision. “Fing is, I knew that ‘olmes and your ‘usband had gorn over ter that place near Carlisle.”

“Clovenhoof? Yes, that’s right. To see that Mr Usher and his poorly sister.”

“That’s the one. Well, it’s a few years back now, but when Mr ‘olmes told me this feller’s name, it sort of rang a bell, l but I didn’t recall why until this mornin’.”

“You’ve had dealings with Mr Usher before, then?”

“Not exactly, no.” He chewed his lip, then said, “It were all to do wiv a black cat that this bloke owned. I don’t remember all the details, but it ended up with ‘im tryin’ to kill the cat wiv an axe, but accidentally killin’ his wife instead.”

“Oh, I say. That sounds a bit grim. And you think this chap and Mr Usher might be the same person?”

Lestrade shook his head. “All I know is that this bloke wiv the cat and this Usher feller was in business together.”

I thought about this for a moment. “It’s entirely possible, then, that Usher knows nothing about this alleged murder.”

He sniffed and wiped a sleeve across his face. “Like I say, it’s probably nuffin ter worry about, and I woudn’t ‘ave bovvered you wiv it, if it weren’t for what ‘appened yesterday.”

“Which was?”

“I sent a telegram to your ‘usband and Mr ‘olmes, just to warn ‘em, like. But an hour later, I got a message back to say no messages of any kind can be delivered to the Usher ‘ouse.”

“How strange. Why not?”

“Seems that no-one in the area will go near the place. They say it’s ‘aunted and spooky fings ‘appen there.”

“What sort of spooky things?”

He shrugged. “Ghosts.”

“Can’t you go there yourself?”

“Well, I would, Mary, but my boss is sendin’ me to Blackpool to ‘elp out on the Bodies in the Baths mystery, so I can’t get away. Came up ‘ere on me day off in the ‘ope of persuadin’ you to go instead.”

“I see.” Sitting back, I couldn’t resist smiling to myself. Though Holmes would in all likelihood feel a bit put out at my turning up out of the blue, if there were a sinister side to this Usher fellow, I’d rather be with my husband.

“Have yer got the address?” said Lestrade.

“Yes, Johnny gave me it—I think he hoped I’d be able to find an excuse to join him at some point. Now, it seems I can.”

After Lestrade had gone, I went upstairs to give my aunt the good news. She wouldn’t be happy about me leaving, but I could already smell an adventure and I wasn’t going to miss it for the world.

Clovenhoof here I come.

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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Dead and Gone


Diary of Doctor Watson

Try as I might, Usher refused to allow me to examine his sister. With a face as pale as the moon, she lay there staring at the ceiling, unblinking green eyes wide and apparently lifeless. Holding onto the idea I’d seen her gliding up the stairs only moments earlier, I could not correlate that vision with the woman who now lay here before me.

“Perhaps I might…?” I murmured, holding out a small reflecting mirror I keep for such purposes.

Usher let out a mournful sigh but took the mirror and held it close to his sister’s lips.

Still entertaining a smidgen of doubt, I stepped forward, but could discern not the slightest mark upon the glass.

“My deepest sympathies,” I said, resting a hand on his shoulder.

He turned and looked up at me, his dark sunken eyes filled with tears. “Thank you, Doctor. Now, please leave me to grieve.”

Making my way back downstairs, I passed on the news to Holmes.

Rubbing his chin thoughtfully, he said, “And you’re sure she is actually dead?”

I frowned. “You think he’s lying?”

Holmes smiled. “Roderick’s an odd cove. While I shouldn’t wish to imply he may be mistaken in his testimony, I’d be surprised if the dismal atmosphere in this house has not affected his judgment.”

Standing, he crossed the room and peered up the stairs, then came back into the room and closed the door. “I suppose you must do your duty?”

“Confirm her death, you mean?”

He nodded.

“Legally, yes. Though as it seems pretty obvious she’s dead, I hardly think I can insist.”

“No, of course not.” He brightened and patted my arm. “Still, there are ways and means, Watson.”

I sensed from his sly grin, that some scheme was in his mind, but as he would say nothing more on the matter, I picked up two candlesticks, blew out the remaining lamps and followed him upstairs. Moonlight from the high windows cast ghostly shadows across the floor, and the flickering light from the candles did little to assuage the feeling of unease in my stomach.

Located along the corridor in the opposite direction to where Madelaine’s body lay, and a few doors along from my companion’s billet, the ornamentation of my own room duplicated the outdated style I’d observed throughout the house. A fourposter bed took up much of the space with a few items of well-worn, dilapidated furniture filling the darkened corners. The fire in the grate had died to little more than an orangey afterglow and I stood for a few minutes warming my hands.

Though fatigued, I did not feel ready to retire, so, placing the candle on the mantelshelf, I settled down to update my diary. The occasional groan of floorboards or the creak of a distant door opening somewhere within the house, bothered me a little, but I soon resolved to my task and began scribbling away happily. Having passed almost half an hour in this manner, a gentle tap came at my door, causing me to sit up sharply. Crossing the room, I gave the doorknob a quick yank.

“Holmes,” I muttered. “Made me jump.”

The Great Detective stood there in his favourite pink striped pyjamas, his Meerschaum pipe clamped firmly between his teeth. Curling a finger at me, he whispered, “Quickly, Watson. No time to lose.”

“Where’re we going?”

Holding up a finger to silence me, he crept along the corridor towards the room where the dead woman lay.

Standing outside the door, we listened. No sound came from within and the various groans and creaks I’d heard earlier seemed to have ceased.

Holmes turned the handle and pushed open the door.

As before, the room lay in semi-darkness, with a single candle burning on the bedside cabinet.

But the bed was empty. The lady Madelaine had gone.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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The Woman in White


Diary of Doctor Watson

I didn’t mention our sighting of the ‘woman in white’ to our host, as he seemed a little on edge. Instead, we spent a couple of hours discussing his pet subjects—the long and boring history of the Usher clan and, more especially, the unusual design of the house. When I say ‘discussing’, I mean Holmes and I listened while Roderick droned on about the place, as if it were some site of architectural significance.

“In addition,” he said, cradling a large glass of crème de menthe, “the House of Usher, as we like to call it, has one or two idiosyncrasies. In point of fact, I should alert you to the possibility of—shall we say—noises in the night.”

“Ah,” said Holmes, showing a spark of interest. “Ghosts, eh?”

Roderick pulled a face. “Wouldn’t say that, so much. Rather, something along the lines of structural disturbances. Nothing to concern yourselves about.”

He refused to be drawn further on the topic, so I decided to probe him in relation to one of the more obscure titles on his bookshelves.

“I see you have a copy of Vampirism in the Middle Ages, by Horst Wolverton.” Crossing to extract that precise volume, I flicked through its yellowed pages, noting several facsimile woodcuts featuring our old friend Count Dracula. It was odd to see his likeness portrayed in an image, the original of which had to be at least three hundred years old. “Not sure if you’re aware,” I said, “but Holmes and I actually met—”

“Wolverton himself,” burst in Holmes, giving me a stern look. “At a party given by the old queen.”

“The Duke of Clarence?” said Roderick.

“I meant Victoria, actually,” said Holmes. “Though the duke was also present.”

“Also known as Bendover Eddy,” I put in, smirking, “due to his alleged nocturnal activities.”

“Really, Watson, must you lower the tone?”

“Sorry, Holmes.”

At that point, our host excused himself, claiming a headache. “Feel free to plunder my wine stock,” he said, on his way out.

I glared at Holmes. “What was all that about? I was merely referring to—”

“Yes, yes, I know precisely what you were referring to,” said Holmes, “and I should be obliged if you would refrain from mentioning anything that might put ideas into Roddy’s head.” He rubbed a hand over his lean features. “Aside from his sister’s illness, there’s clearly some disturbing issue troubling him. I have no wish to muddle his head with additional fanciful ideas.”

“Hardly a fanciful idea, Holmes,” I said, feeling a little miffed. “After all, we did meet the count and—”

Holmes held up a hand. “Enough, Watson. Now, be a good fellow and pour me one more glass of that rather fruity little Chablis before bed.”

I did as he asked, then, settling back into my seat, recalled a subject I’d been meaning to question him about. “That business in Massachusetts…you never did tell me what the outcome was…”

Holmes grimaced. “Ah. The Lizzie Borden case.” He chewed his lower lip for a moment. “Very odd state of affairs with one thing and another. Acquitted, in the end, though only due to the stupidity of the local police.” He gazed into the fire and gave a small nod.

“So she did it, then?”

“Oh, no,” he said, “but it was she who ordered the killing.”

“What, you mean she got someone else to do it for her?”

“Yes.” He smiled to himself. “Never would’ve occurred to me if I hadn’t happened to hear the family maid, one Miss Sullivan, chatting outside the courthouse.”

“Something she said?”

“Not what she said, Watson, but the way she said it.” He contorted his mouth and muttered, “I haf been ze maid wiz ze family for only a short time, but I vould like to continue wiz my employment if zat iz at all pozzible.”

“Klopp! Then she’s alive?”

He shrugged. “I couldn’t be sure, and without the benefit of our old friend Lestrade and the necessary records to prove her identity, there was nothing I could do. However, I did take the precaution of alerting the relevant authorities to the woman’s immigration status. If she is Klopp, I’m certain we shall hear from her again.”

We sat in silence for a moment, then Holmes nodded towards the window. “Our friend has returned.”

Following his gaze, I saw the figure in white glide past the window in the opposite direction to earlier.

“Damn it all,” I muttered, “I’m going to find out who she is.” With that, I jumped up and went out into the hall, yanking open the front door. Though it could not have taken more than three of four seconds to reach the door, there was no sign of anyone near the house. “That’s damnably strange,” I said.

“Indeed,” said Holmes, behind me. “Mostly likely she’s a vampire and climbed the wall back to her bedroom.” Looking up at the windows, he chuckled. “I think perhaps we’ve imbibed a little too much vino, John.”

I took a few steps forwards and peered into the darkness. “Glad you think it’s funny, Holmes,” I said, “but if that was Usher’s sister, she may well be in need of medical attention.”

“Or a bite on the neck,” said Holmes, sardonically.

Following him back inside, I closed the door. Then, a footstep caused me to glance up at the staircase, where I caught sight of something white. Taking the stairs three at a time, I tore up to the first landing, in time to see a sliver of silvery-white material disappear along the corridor. Hurrying after the lady Madelaine, if it were indeed she, I pushed open the door at the end of the passage and found myself in a semi-darkened bedroom.

Directly in front of me, lying in an ancient four poster bed, her eyes closed, lay the woman I had seen only a few seconds before. On the floor beside her, Roderick Usher knelt, clasping her pale white hand, whispering words that sounded like a prayer.

I must have made some movement, for Roderick turned and saw me. I waved a hand and murmured an apology, but he merely stared at me.

In a low voice, replete with pain, he said, “Perhaps I should have taken your advice and allowed you to examine her, Doctor. Alas, it is too late now…”

“You mean…?”

“Yes. My sister is dead.”

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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