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Night in the Woods

Diary of Mary Watson (Mrs)

My eyes were still closed when I heard the sound. Blinking, I looked up at the cracked ceiling and realised two things— one, the night had not ended, and two, Johnny and I were not ensconced in our own comfy bed in our little house in Marlborough Hill, but in an ancient four-poster in a dreary tavern in an equally dreary village. As the reasons for our being in this strange place came back to me, I heard the sound again.

What could it be? I took a moment to assure myself it did not resemble the creaking of the bed, nor the soft tread of footsteps outside our room. Neither could it be it the horse-like neighing of Johnny’s snoring. Sitting up, I stared hard at the window, the slight parting in the musty curtains emitting a sliver of moonlight. Sliding out of bed, I crept over and peeked out. Our host had billeted us in a room at the rear of the inn, with a view that had little to be proud of. Across the inn yard, a dense wood stretched from the edge of the yard as far as I could see, except for a gap—a pathway, perhaps—that allowed the full moon to appear in the space as if to light the way.

Gazing at the astral orb, I spied the silhouette of an owl shooting across the sky and for a moment the beauty of nature overwhelmed me.

Then I heard the sound again—a strange whooshing that had an oddly metallic quality to it.

This time, I saw what might be its source—in between the trees to my right, a shadowy figure seemed to glide through the bare branches. But this figure could be no human one, for its feet (if indeed it possessed any) floated at least two yards off the ground.

Hurrying across to the bed, I gave Johnny a good shake.

“Wha…” he muttered, rubbing his eyes.

“Quickly, darling. There’s something outside.”

With a glance at my naked form, a familiar leer slid over his features. Delivering a hefty slap across his chops, I knocked any thoughts of shenanigans out of his head.

“Ow.”

“Come along, dear,” I said, dragging him towards the window. “Before it disappears.”

Naturally, by the time I’d got him to the window and pointed to the strange apparition, the damn thing had gone.

“Probably an owl,” muttered my bleary-eyed husband, scratching his testicles.

“No, I’ve just seen an owl. That thing looked more like a…”

“A what?”

“Well, I don’t know. Like something spooky.”

A sudden rap at the door, reminded me we were both stark naked. Grabbing a bedsheet, I wrapped myself up while Johnny pulled on his long johns.

“Ah, Watsons,” said Holmes, fastening his dressing gown. “Did you see it?”

He strode into the room and stood gazing out of the window.

“I did,” I said.

He turned and stared at me with those piggy little eyes. “Something spooky, eh?”

“I thought so.”

“Come along, then. Let’s get after it.”

As he hurried out of the room, I noticed he already had his boots on.

“You heard him, husband. Get dressed.”

A minute later the three of us slid out of the back door and into the darkened inn yard. The moon had vanished behind a cloud, leaving the whole place in utter darkness.

Hurrying to the edge of the woods, we veered to the right to where I recalled the path lay. Luckily, I’d remembered to pack my clockwork lamp and giving it a quick wind, I aimed the meagre beam into the trees ahead of us.

“There’s the path,” I said, stepping over a pile of timber that lay in the way, marking the boundary between the inn yard and the woods.

“Careful, Mrs Watson,” said Holmes, taking my arm. “We don’t know what’s out there.”

“Thank you, Sherlock, but I’m perfectly capable.” I removed myself from his grasp and forged ahead.

Taking our time, we stumbled over the track between the trees, but it wasn’t until the clouds moved away that the moon allowed us to see the path clearly.

“It came from over there,” I said, pointing to the right.

“Then over there, we must go,” said Holmes, forcing his way through the trees.

As soon as we’d moved off the track, the darkness enveloped us again, my lamp making little impression on the branches that seemed determined to block our path.

“Wait,” murmured Johnny. “There.” Holmes and I peered into the darkness and for a moment I could see nothing. Then, as the shape began to move again, I saw it plainly. The figure seemed to move towards us, rising upwards as it did so. Only then did I see its eyes—bright red staring eyes, glaring at us.

“Bloody Norah,” said Johnny, grabbing my hand.

“Hold firm, Watson. Whatever that thing is—”

But before he could go on, the ‘thing’ had risen high above the trees and scooted off in the direction of the barn.

“It’s heading for that old barn,” said Holmes.

“I was just thinking that,” I said.

“Me too,” put in Johnny.

But all three of us simply stood there, looking at each other.

After a moment, I said, “Should we follow it?”

Holmes nodded. “Of course. That is exactly what we should do.”

Still, none of us moved.

“Perhaps a jug of hot chocolate first, eh?” said Johnny.

“To warm us and revive our spirits,” said Holmes.

“Exactly.”

“Are you two sacred?” I said, unable to keep the annoyance out of my voice.

“Not at all, Mary,” said Holmes. “I simply meant that before setting out to chase that thing, we ought to take stock. And in doing so, ensure that every member of our party is properly revived and appraised of the situation before setting out again.” He cocked his head and raised an eyebrow.

“Ravensburg,” I murmured.

“The very same. I should not wish him to miss one single moment of our investigation, but mark me – If that man is at this moment tucked up at home asleep in his bed, I shall be very much surprised.”

“I do hope he’s going to get changed first,” I said, watching Holmes march round the corner of the inn.

“Course he is,” said Johnny. He paused, then when the big-nosed detective didn’t reappear, hurried after him. “Holmes? I say, Holmes?”

I rolled my eyes and went back to my room.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2021 in Detective Fiction

 

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Rooms at the Inn

Diary of Doctor Watson

We arrived at the village inn—The Grumpy Bugger—a few minutes later, where a fat and grisly-faced fellow stared at us from his position leaning over the end of the bar. He greeted us with a surly grunt.

“Arr.”

“Good evening,” said Holmes, dropping his bags at the door. “You have rooms for us, I believe?”

“Arr,” said the fat man. “That I have.” He cast an eye over each of us in turn, taking rather longer than necessary to complete his perusal of Mary’s chest. “Mr Hole?”

“Holmes, actually,” said Holmes, with only a smidgen of irritation.

“Arr.” Looking at me, the man nodded. “An Doctor Watnot, ay?”

“Watson.” I stared at him for a moment. “And I suppose you are Mr Fatman, the landlord?”

The man seemed to take the hint and with another grunt, he collected our bags and bade us follow him upstairs.

Our rooms turned out to be rather better than expected, with a carved mahogany four-poster double bed and a tatty but comfortable sofa. The lavatory, of course, was out the back, but we found a matching pair of chamber pots under the bed. Mary made some saucy comment about us ‘weeing together’ during the night, which set my nether regions a-jiggling at the thought of her naked hindquarters and led to us indulging in a little adult fun.

Five minutes later, a knock came at the door.

“Ravensburg’s downstairs,” said Holmes. Then, glancing at each of us, he cocked his head to one side. “At it already? Tch. Can’t take you two anywhere.” He rolled his eyes and walked off.

Mary giggled. “D’you think he heard us?”

“Probably listening at the door,” I muttered.

Mary smiled. “Really?”

“No.” I pointed to our discarded clothes, which we’d thrown aside in haste. “Elementary, my dear.”

She sniffed. “Well, if he wasn’t, I’ll bet he wanted to.”

“Darling, you really must try to bring your urges under control. You’ll be suggesting we have a three-in-a-bed romp, next.”

Mary opened her mouth to say something, but I held up a finger. “Don’t even think about it. Come along, Ravensburg will be waiting.”

We got dressed and trooped downstairs where we found Holmes and our visitor sitting in the lounge bar supping beer. I ordered drinks for Mary and myself then settled down at a table near the window. As I pulled up a chair next to Mary, I noticed an awkward silence had fallen over the room.

“Did we miss something?” I said.

Ravensburg coughed. “I was explaining to your colleague here why I lied about involving Shaggy and his pals.” He coughed again. “I thought that hunting for a lost book wouldn’t be enough to temp you away from Londen, so…” He shrugged.

“And I was saying,” said Holmes, “that it rather depends on the book.” He paused, then, “So. Where shall we start?”

“Hold on,” said Mary, leaning forwards. “What about the haunted barn where Shaggy and his friends supposedly disappeared?”

“Ah,” said Ravensburg. “Well, obviously the bit about them disappearing isn’t true, but it is true that the barn is sited on the very spot where my ancestor had her little cottage and is said to be haunted by her ghost. More interestingly, perhaps you noticed an ancient oak tree nearby?”

None of us had, so he continued.

“In those days people often buried important items near trees, since there’d be a clear marker of where to dig when they wished to recover them.”

“Sorry,” said I, “but why would anyone want to bury anything?”

“I can’t say for certain, of course, but I think it’s likely that when Sarah heard people making accusations of witchcraft against her, she realised the book of herbal remedies could be interpreted as a book of spells.”

“But haven’t you already searched that area for the book?” said Mary.

Ravensburg shrugged. “Yes, many times, but so far I’ve turned up nothing but a few animal bones and tree roots.”

Holmes sipped his beer, wiped his mouth with a spotted handkerchief and sighed. “As I’ve already said Benny, I really don’t think this is a job for Sherlock Holmes. I and my friends are not gardeners and I have no intention of spending any time digging up roots and berries.”

“Ahm,” I said. “I think the er…berries would be on a bush, Holmes, not in the ground.”

“Don’t split hairs, Watson, you know what I mean.”

“I think I should tell you, Mr Holmes,” said Ravensburg, “that a book similar to the one I seek was unearthed in Suffolk a few years ago. It fetched more than twenty thousand pounds at auction.”

Holmes sniffed. “As I said, we’d be delighted to help in any way we can.”

Ravensburg clapped his hands and went off to buy a round of celebratory drinks.

Leaning over the table, I tapped the big-nosed detective on the hand. “Since when has money been of any interest to you, Holmes? What about the thrill of the chase, the scent of the villain the—”

“Yes, yes, alright, Johnny.” Dropping his voice, he murmured, “I still think there’s something about this whole carry on that Benny Boy isn’t telling us, so in the meantime, it’s reasonable that we should give the impression of at least being interested.”

Mary made a huffing noise. “It seems to me that even an expensive book as this one might prove to be, is nothing more than a missing family heirloom. If you ask me, I say we get the next train home and find ourselves a nice grisly murder to solve.”

“Ah,” said Holmes, glancing across at Ravensburg, who was chatting to the landlord. “As it happens, this may be a murder case. Watson, d’you recall a certain Lord Lucan?”

“Old Donkeyface Lucan? Yes, of course,” said I. “Went missing under mysterious circumstances while taking part in a supposed séance with a group of pals.”

“Correct. And would it surprise you to know that our pal Benny was one of those pals?”

“My God. You believe he may have been involved in the disappearance?”

“If he’s not,” said Holmes, “I’m an uncle’s monkey.”

“Actually, it’s—”

“Shut up, John.”

And so, the very next day, armed with shovels and a pick axe, we set off to explore the area around the oak tree.

Or at least, we would have done, if something else hadn’t occurred first…

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2021 in Detective Fiction

 

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A Ghostly Beginning…


Diary of Mary Watson (Mrs)

That very afternoon, the three of us caught the train from Paddington and set off for Pokebottom-on-the-Moor, a village on the outskirts of Minchester. Holmes had received replies from his telegraphical communications, but for the moment, he kept the results to himself.

“We should arrive in time for tea,” said Johnny, gazing out of the window.

“Yes,” murmured Holmes, stuffing his pipe with a concoction of tobacco and heather. “Ravensburg offered to put us up at his place but I thought we might fare better at the village inn.”

“You mean we might pick up on the local gossip?” I said.

“Assuming there is local gossip,” said Johnny.

“Bound to be,” said Holmes, lighting his pipe. “Always is in those tight-knit, inbred, sheep-shagging communities.” He puffed away for a moment, then added, “though as Ravensburg isn’t actually from there, it may be that the locals have taken against him.”

“All the more reason for them to gossip, then,” I said.

“Quite.”

We fell into a convivial silence for the next couple of hours—Holmes immersed himself in a copy of Private Detective Weekly while Johnny and I brought our respective diaries up to date.

Shortly after four o’clock, we pulled into Minchester’s Londen Road station and from there boarded a branch line connection to Pokebottom-on-the-Moor. We were the train’s only passengers and on arrival at Pokebottom, it soon became obvious why—the deserted platform and dilapidated station house with its boarded-up windows, didn’t fill me with much hope for the village itself, but being ever the optimist, I decided to keep my opinions for later.

When the train had departed and we were left standing on the platform with only our bags and an eerie silence, I wondered if Holmes had arranged any transport.

In answer to my unasked question, the big-nosed detective hoisted his bag onto his shoulder. “Come along, Watsons. We can walk from here.”

Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “Walk? Are you serious, Holmes?”

“It’s only a mile to the village.” He set off towards the exit before pausing to look back at Johnny. “Besides, you could do with the exercise.”

“Cheeky bugger,” muttered Johnny. Picking up his own case, he glanced at me. “Suppose I shall have to carry your bag too?”

“Of course not,” I said. Then, running my tongue seductively along my lower lip, added, “But if you do, I might let you play hide-the-sausage later…” I walked off, gaily swinging my umbrella.

As it turned out, Sherlock’s suggestion wasn’t based on my husband’s need for exercise, but on the need for research. Following him onto a narrow country lane, I could see a junction up ahead of us and a wooden barn in the field directly opposite.

Holmes stopped at a suitable gap in the hedge and pointed to the building. “That, supposedly, is the barn in which Shaggy and his friends disappeared.”

“But you don’t believe that?” I said.

“No, Mary, I do not.”

Johnny caught up with us, panting from his excursions. “And I suppose there are several incredibly obvious reasons why not, are there?” He dropped the bags and folded his arms.

“Not at all, Watson. Simply a matter of checking the facts of Ravensburg’s story. Shortly before our departure, I received replies to the two telegrams I sent.”

“Oh, yes?” said Johnny.

“Yes,” said Holmes. “One was in response to my query about the authenticity of Ravenburg’s claim that a witch matching his description of her did actually exist. According to the historian Lord Crumble of Lancashire, a woman by the name of Sarah Ravensburg was burned at the stake in the village of Pokebottom-on-the-Moor in 1625.”

Oh,” said Johnny. “So he’s telling the truth, then?”

“Partly,” said Holmes. “The other telegram was from Daphne Blake. She assured me that she and Fred are currently staying at Mrs Mason’s Boarding House in New York along with the rest of the gang. It seems they have been engaged to perform a stage version of one of their famous adventures.”

“Bloody hell,” I said. “So Ravensburg lied about them disappearing in the barn?”

Holmes made a face. “He did, but Daphne confirmed that he had asked them to investigate the theft at the museum. “Apparently, she suggested he get in touch with Londen’s prominent consulting detective.” He gave me a smug smile and pushed his way through the hedge, striding towards the barn. Finding a gate further along the lane, Johnny and I followed.

The barn looked old and I guessed it hadn’t been used for some years. The farmhouse, situated a hundred yards away, appeared equally unused.

“How d’you know Ravensburg meant this particular barn?” I said, examining the rusted hinges on one of the broken-down doors.

“Simple,” said Holmes. “I looked on the map. Brierley’s Farm is the only one marked. Unfortunately, agriculture round here isn’t what it used to be—all the farm workers moved away to work in Minchester’s woollen mills about ten years ago. Whoever owned this farm, and the associated buildings, wouldn’t have been able to survive.”

“That’s terribly sad,” I said, gazing up at the cobwebs around the door.

“Sad, yes, but it also provides a suitably spooky location to lure us to in search of a witch.”

“Or a book.”

“Indeed.”

“What are you two on about?” said Johnny, leaning against the side of the barn. “I’m knackered. Can’t we just find the pub?”

“Certainly,” said Holmes. “According to the map, it should be just around the next bend. Or several bends.” Picking up his bag, he set off at a pace. “Come along, Watsons.”

The late afternoon sky had darkened considerably since our arrival at the station, and I began to feel a little nervous. Looking inside the barn again, I could see why Ravensburg had chosen this spot.

Johnny sighed. “Is it me, or is this whole thing going to turn out to be a pile of—”

“Shit!” I stepped backwards. “There’s something in there…”

Johnny pulled me aside. “Stay there, old thing, I’ll deal with this.” And with that, he marched into the barn brandishing his trusty revolver. “Come out, come out, whoever you are…”

As I watched him cross the dusty floor towards the rear of the building, I saw another movement. “There it is,” I yelped. “In the corner.”

Johnny glanced back at me. “In the corner? Where’s it’s really dark?”

I nodded.

Taking out a box of Swan Vestas, he lit a match and holding it up, walked into the shadows. “I’ve got a gun, mind.”

From nowhere, something black and furry leaped at his throat.

“Arrgh!”

The animal ran past me, clearly more scared of us than we were of it.

“Darn cat,” muttered Johnny, dusting himself down.

“Are you two quite finished?” said Holmes from the doorway.

I coughed. “Johnny’s checking out the local pussy.”

Holmes gave me a sly smile. “Sometimes, Mary, you do a remarkable impersonation of a really bad girl.” He turned and walked off, calling, “Come along—beer’s getting cold.”

As we pursued him across the field and onto the road, I glanced back at the barn. From one of the broken windows on the upper level, a white face stared at me. I blinked and looked again, but it had gone.

I told myself it couldn’t be the face of the witch. That was ridiculous. Apart from the fact she was long dead, I didn’t believe in spooky apparitions.

But that wouldn’t be the last time I saw that pale face with the black staring eyes.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2021 in Detective Fiction

 

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A Witchy Tale

Diary of Mary Watson (Mrs)

I must admit to feeling a little in awe of Ben Ravensburg. He’d lied about his employment at the museum, but knowing him to be an extraordinarily talented author, I saw no harm in giving him the benefit of the doubt. For some years, his books had scared me witless on many a long evening, waiting for Johnny to return from one of his night-time medical emergencies. Reading by lamplight in bed, I’d thrilled at the erotic delights of Ravensburg’s dashing heroes and the creepy apparitions they encountered. Sometimes I had to put down my book and give myself a little feminine pleasure to take my mind off the spooky goings-on.

Even so, listening to his tale, I wondered if his imagination had finally got the better of him.

Leaning forwards, Ravensburg stroked his goatee. “So, when I discovered my ancestor had been burned at the stake as a witch, I began to look into it.”

“And you say this woman—Sarah Ravensburg—was actually a wiccan?” said Holmes.

“That’s right. My research shows that many villagers recognised her as a healer. Some claimed she kept a sort of medical journal where she recorded her herbal remedies.”

Holmes opened his mouth, but I got my question in first. “And you think if you can find this book, it’ll clear her name?”

Ravensburg sat back in his chair. “It’s a long-shot, I know, but I believe it’s worth the effort.”

I looked at Johnny. He looked at Holmes. Holmes looked at the floor. Finally, the big-nosed detective raised his head.

“It’s a fascinating tale, Benny, but not the sort of thing that requires the attention of the world’s greatest detective. If this book exists, I’m sure any investigator with a reasonable level of deductive skill could locate it. Someone like Shaggy Rogers and that ridiculous hound of his would happily take on the case.”

“But that’s just it, Mr Holmes” said the Bearded One. “I’ve already enlisted the help of Shaggy and his friends.”

Holmes frowned. “And?”

“They’ve disappeared.”

“What, all of them?”

Ravensburg nodded. “Shaggy, Scooby, Velma, Daphne and Fred. They were exploring an old barn in the village one night and they vanished. Haven’t been seen since.”

This put a different complexion on the matter and after posing a few more questions, Holmes informed the famous author that he should catch the next train to Pokebottom-on-the-Moor, where we would join him later that day.

“Well,” said Holmes, when Ravensburg had gone. “What d’you think?”

Johnny shrugged. “Not entirely sure, Holmes. Seems odd he hasn’t called in the police.”

“Perhaps he’s worried what they might find.”

Holmes inclined his head towards me. “You think he may be hiding something?”

“Even Lestrade isn’t completely hopeless,” I said. “I think we’re being told only half the story…”

Johnny sighed. “If Ravensburg is hiding something, hadn’t we ought to know what it is before we get involved?”

Holmes ruminated on this for a moment, then his face brightened. “Watson—call the boy. I have two telegrams to send before we embark on this investigation.”

“Telegrams?” said Johnny. “Who to?”

“If I’m right, this has very little to do with a group of missing amateur detectives and a lot to do with an ancient book that has a great deal more value than Ravensburg is letting on.”

As it turned out, Holmes’ theory proved right. But not in the way he expected.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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Another Night at the Museum

Diary of Doctor Watson
Half an hour later, swathed in linen bandages and with the addition of some makeup from Mary’s handbag, Ravensburg carried us one at a time into the gallery, placing us in suitable positions against the walls between the existing mummies.

Ravensburg checked the room again and whispered that he would respond immediately to calls for assistance, should the thieves appear. We had agreed he would inform the caretaker that the three of us had left, after which he intended to do the same, before surreptitiously making his way to the rear of the museum and slipping in via the cellar entrance, which had already been prepared.

Having only a narrow slit for my eyes, and with the gas lamps turned down low, the gallery took on a shadowy and menacing atmosphere. Standing between two decrepit former Egyptians gave me the willies and the urge to sing a happy tune to boost my flagging morale, almost got the better of me.

With no idea how long we might have to stand there, or indeed if the thieves would bother to return, I began counting.

On reaching four thousand one hundred and thirty-seven, I heard a sharp crack, followed by a distinct creak. Unable to turn my head without disturbing the bandages, I cast my eyes towards the door. Two dark shapes slid into the room. I heard a soft gasp from Mary as the thieves crossed the floor to a glass case exactly opposite where I stood.

“This one, Bert,” said a low voice.

“Don’t call me that, you dick,” said the second man, as he jemmied the lock on the cabinet.

“Sorry.”

The lock gave way with a snap and fell to the floor. As the taller of the two villains opened the case, I heard the distinctive tones of a certain consulting detective.

“I should leave that alone, if I were you.”

Holmes stepped forwards, ripping the bandages from his manly features.

“Oh, shit,” said one of the thieves. “It’s a fuckin mummy!”

Tearing off my own disguise, I hurried forwards to join Holmes, who had now produced his revolver. Taking out my own trusty weapon, I took up a position guarding the door.

“Bleedin hell,” said the villain. “There’s two of ‘em.”

“Three, actually,” said Mary, stepping forwards.

The two men held up their hands. I couldn’t help noticing their faces resembled that of a well-known master criminal.

“Ah-ha,” said Ben Ravensburg, hurrying into the gallery. Holding up a lamp, he illuminated the villains’ ruddy complexions. “Who on earth…?”

Holmes stepped towards the taller man and reaching up, took a firm grip on his ear. Giving it a sharp tug, he pulled the man’s disguise free.

“Well, there’s something you don’t see very often,” he said, staring at the rubber mask. “Moriarty, if I’m not very much mistaken.”

“All the blokes are wearing them, these days,” said the man. “We’re great admirers of the Professor. Mwah, hah, hah.”

Approaching the smaller man, I removed his Moriarty mask, too. “Quite a good likeness, though,” I said.

Holmes turned to Ravensburg. “I suspect you might know these men, Doctor?”

“Indeed I do,” said the archivist, sneering. “Professors Solverson and Hoffart—here on loan from Oslo University Museum, supposedly researching Egyptian artefacts for the benefit of a new exhibition. But it seems the study of ancient treasures became too tempting to resist.”

“And we’d have got away with it too,” said the tall one, “if it hadn’t been for these pesky mummies.”

“But where were they hiding?” said I, peering round the gallery.

Holmes jerked his head at me and strode back out into the corridor. Pausing by the two wooden coffins, he waved a hand. “Open it, please John.”

With a little trepidation, I did as he asked, and pulled open the lid of the nearest sarcophagus. Inside, I found a paper bag containing sardine sandwiches and a jar of pickled herrings.

“That would explain the smell, then,” said Holmes, giving me a sardonic smile. “Part of the Norwegian diet?”

“Can I ‘ave that back?” said Solverson. “It’s me supper.”

Having handed the villains over to the local constabulary, we set off back to Baker Street. Back at 221B, Holmes, Mary and myself tucked into an early breakfast, courtesy of Mrs Hudson.

“There’s something I still don’t understand,” I said, helping myself to another toasted crumpet.

Holmes nodded. “There’s a surprise…”

I rubbed my chin, thoughtfully. “The whole thing appears to have been too…simple. Why didn’t Lestrade work out where they were hiding?”

Holmes laughed. “As always, Watson, you see but you do not observe.” He glanced at Mary. “Don’t you agree?”

Mary frowned. “There was definitely something funny about those two crooks.”

Holmes raised an eyebrow. “Such as…?”

Mary shrugged. “Their accents. For Norwegians, they sounded distinctly Cockney.”

“Due to the fact that neither have been any closer to Norway than West India Docks.”

“D’you mean to say they’re British?” said I, aghast.

“Former members of Moriarty’s gang, in fact. Bert Clacker and Nobby Nobbler. Lestrade would’ve recognised them straight way, which is why the police were not called in.”

“But Ravensburg said—”

“Ravensburg lied,” said Holmes. Reaching up to the mantelpiece for his meerschaum, he began to stuff it with rough shag. “I expect the rest of your questions will be answered shortly when our next case arrives.”

“What next case?”

Holmes smiled sardonically. He cocked his head. “Hark. Footsteps on the stair…”

A moment later, a knock came at the door.

Holmes waved a hand at me. “Watson, would you do the honours, please?”

Crossing the room, I pulled the door open.

Ben Ravensburg blinked. “Oh. Good morning.”

“Come in, sir, and take a pew,” said Holmes indicating an armchair.

The archivist settled himself, took a breath, and said, “I expect you’re wondering why I’m here.”

“Not at all,” said Holmes, winking at me. “Today is Saturday. You are not expected again at the museum until Monday. Between now and then, you had hoped to solve a mystery of your own.”

Ravensburg’s eyes widened. “How on earth..?”

Holmes smiled. “Before we trotted off to investigate your so-called Norwegian friends, I took the liberty of telegraphing an old acquaintance of mine. Lord Ballantyne. He’s a member of the board at the museum, you know.”

Ravensburg’s eyes flicked around the room. “Er, yes, that’s right.”

“It turns out you do not actually work for the museum. Rather, you are a volunteer, working on a research project of your own.”

“Well…”

“So,” said Holmes leaning towards our guest, “what I want to know is why you had us go through that ridiculous charade with Clacker and Nobbler?”

“Oh,” said the other. “You know about them.”

“Of course,” said Holmes. “After all I am the world’s greatest consulting detective.”

Ravensburg let out a long sigh. “Right. Well, it all started with this witch…”

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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Night at the Museum

Diary of Doctor Watson

Shortly after nine o’clock the following evening, Holmes, Mary and I caught a Hansom cab to Pall Mall. The entrance to the Londen Museum of Antiquities and Interesting Artefacts lay directly opposite the Reform Club on that thoroughfare. I’d visited the museum a few times in the past but, despite its name, had never found it especially interesting. Holmes paid the driver, strode up the stone steps to the high double doors and rapped on the wood with his walking cane (an affectation he’s taken to lately). After a moment, the door swung open and an old retainer peered out at us.

“We’re closed,” he muttered.

“I’m aware of that,” said my big-nosed companion. “My name is Sherlock Holmes. This is Doctor Watson and his good lady. We’re here to see Doctor Ravensburg.”

The man muttered something inaudible and pulled the door wide, waving a hand for us to enter.

We walked into a darkened hallway. Corridors lead off to the left and right and a wide staircase curved upwards in front of us. Glass cases on either side displayed the usual collections of moths, stuffed owls and various other creatures. Next to one of the cases stood what appeared to be a life-size effigy of the infamous freak-show exhibit, Two-headed Tony.

Mary touched my arm. “Come away from there, Johnny. It’s disgusting.”

“It’s just a model,” I said.

“Realistic,” said Holmes, peering at the likeness. “Of course, the real one had three heads.”

The old man grunted to get our attention. Resting a hand on the banister, he wheezed, “Can’t manage the stairs meself. Jus’ go up to the top floor, turn right and follow the light.”

We thanked him and made our way to the upper floor. The whole place had an eeriness to it that I’d never noticed during the hours of daylight. Now, with long shadows everywhere, the ancient masks and weapons adorning every inch of wall space made it feel as though we were creeping into a building fraught with danger.

“Bloody spooky place, eh?” quipped Holmes, stopping to admire an enormous carved phallus.

“Oh, my,” murmured Mary, her eyes wide. “That would bring tears to your eyes.”

I gave her an admonishing glare, but she merely sniggered and moved on.

Turning right, we saw light emanating from underneath a door a few yards ahead.

“Ah, this must be his office,” said Holmes, giving it a sharp rap with his cane.

The door opened and a tall man with a goatee-style beard and a thin smile greeted us. “Ah. Messrs Holmes and Watson. Come in, do.” He stepped back and bade us enter.

Lined with bookcases and artefact-packed shelves, the office smelled of old things, reminding me of Mrs Hudson’s living quarters. I was about to introduce myself when the bearded one brushed past me.

“And this gorgeous creature must be the infamous Mrs Watson,” he murmured, taking Mary’s hand and kissing it rather too enthusiastically.

Mary reddened, fluttering her eyelids. “Call me Mary,” she said, giggling girlishly.

Feeling somewhat affronted, I stepped between my wife and the Bearded One. “John Watson,” I said, shaking the man’s hand firmly. “And this is Mr Sherlock Holmes.”

Ravensburg nodded, muttering various greetings. “One moment, please.” Turning to his desk, he shuffled a pile of papers before picking them up and sliding them into a leather satchel.

“Research work, eh?” said Holmes.

Ravensburg sniffed. “Kind of. In fact, I’m investigating someone who once lived in the village where I now spend much of my time.”

“An ancient Egyptian?” I joked, hoping to inject a little humour into the man’s stolid expression.

“No,” he said, dark eyes glaring at me. “A witch, actually.”

“Ooh, that’s interesting,” said Mary, pushing out her chest.

Holmes coughed loudly. “Perhaps we could progress to the matter in hand, Doctor Ravensburg?”

“Of course,” said the other. “But call me Ben.”

“Ben Ravensburg?” said Mary, glancing at me.

“Yes,” said Beardy, a quizzical smile gliding over his face. “Not a fan of my books by any chance, are you, Mary?”

Mary gave me a, ‘Told you so’ look. “Actually, yes. I loved The Menacing Monk and The Hailsham Horror.”

“Oh,” he said waving a hand in what was clearly meant to be a self-deprecatory gesture. “That’s kind of you.”

Holmes coughed.

“My apologies, Mr Holmes,” said Ravensburg. “I can never resist a devotee of my work. Let us proceed to the gallery in question.”

He led the way down a series of corridors, until we came to the section housing the Egyptian gallery. An odd smell caught my nostrils as we approached the entrance—it was a familiar, yet unusual aroma that I couldn’t quite place. Glancing at Holmes, I saw that he had noticed it too.

At the entrance to the gallery, two life-size golden sarcophaguses stood ‘guarding’ the doorway. The coffins were intricately carved, their exteriors having been painted to resemble whichever poor souls must have originally occupied them. The black staring eyes gave me the creeps and I was glad to pass them by.

Ravensburg ushered us into the room, where a series of mummified bodies glowered down at us from the walls. Between each one, glass display cases exhibited ancient vases, urns and delicate stone carvings, along with decorative rings and other ornamental jewellery.

Ravensburg stopped beside one of the exhibits, its glass front shattered. “The contents of each of these cases is valued at many thousands of pounds. As you can imagine, the museum simply cannot afford to replace even a fraction of what has already been stolen.” He shook his head, mournfully. “They broke into this one last night. We don’t know how the thieves are getting in, or indeed, how they’re getting out, but we simply cannot afford another theft.”

Holmes took out his magnifying glass and inspected the broken case. Mary and I examined the rest of the room, looking for possible clues to the theft.

“There’s only the one door, is there?” I said.

Ravensburg nodded. “Always locked at night and only myself and the caretaker have keys.”

“Ah. And the caretaker is…”

“Completely innocent,” said the archivist. “Blind in one eye and incapable of ascending the stairs without help.”

Mary whispered something to Holmes. The Great Detective nodded and muttered to himself. Turning to me, he gave a sly wink. “Yes, it is a difficult case. In fact, I’m not at all certain that we can help, Doctor Ravensburg. Perhaps I could trouble you for some refreshment before we leave.”

Ravensburg looked puzzled. “Really? Oh, that is a shame. But yes, of course. We’ll go to my office.”

Back in the corridor, Holmes held a finger to his mouth, signalling that we should stay silent. He did not speak again until we were safely ensconced in Ravensburg’s office. “Apologies for the subterfuge—it was merely a precaution. Now, whoever is responsible for the thefts must have already been in the gallery, or at least, in the museum when it closed.”

Ravensburg laughed. “I don’t think so, Mr Holmes. One each occasion, I myself was the last person to leave the room. As you saw, there’s nowhere to hide.”

Looking around, it had appeared that this was indeed the case.

“And all the other internal doors are locked?” said Holmes.

“Of course. And are not opened again until I return in the morning.”

“I see,” said Holmes. He turned to Mary and raised an eyebrow.

Mary looked at Ravensburg. “Do you have any bandages?”

“We keep a stock to use as replacements when mummified pieces become too fragile,” said Doctor Ravensburg.

“Could I have a look?”

“Certainly, if you think it might be useful.”

Holmes nodded. “Of course. An excellent idea.”

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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The Archivist’s Letter

Diary of Doctor Watson

It has been a few months since our adventure at the home of Roderick Usher, and my visits to Baker Street have become somewhat irregular. Following the capture of the dreaded arch villain, Doctor Fu Manchu, Holmes and Lestrade busied themselves in matters of law, guaranteeing that the infamous crook would not be free to practice his evil doings for the next several decades.

The court case, quite naturally, provoked renewed interest in the Great Detective’s powers of deduction in the Londen press, resulting in numerous requests for his services. Many of these proved to be of the missing-husband variety, which Holmes cast aside with his usual disdain. However, given his depleted personal finances, I took pains to persuade him to at least consider one or two cases, if only to counteract Mrs Hudson’s incessant whinging in relation to the regular payment of rent. I’m glad to say he finally took my advice and swallowed his enormous pride. Solving a series of straightforward and—it has to be said—boring cases, without the necessity of leaving his rooms, the ensuing remuneration, though being anathema to his sense of logic, has nevertheless allowed him to maintain the spendthrift existence to which he has become accustomed.

This morning, having not heard from my erstwhile companion for several weeks, I determined to pop along to see him. However, while ruminating on this plan, a letter appeared on my breakfast table.

“When did this arrive, darling?” I said, peering at the envelope.

Mary poured herself another cup of Darjeeling. “Just now. A messenger brought it. If you paid more attention to your surroundings, you’d have seen him.” She gave me a playful wink and tapped a finger on the letter. “From Big Nose, is it?”

“I do wish you wouldn’t call him that, dear. He is, after all, the world’s greatest detective.”

“With the biggest nose.”

“In any case, while the handwriting does bear some resemblance to his characteristic scrawl, there’s a distinct smell about the envelope which suggests its author to be someone who enjoys a rather more intense existence.” Holding it up to my nose, I inhaled the slightly putrid odour. “Hmm. A whiff of garlic, plaster of Paris and…a hint of hair tonic.”

“Quite the detective, aren’t you, darling?” said Mary, with a tinge of sarcasm. “I suppose the writer will turn out to be of French origin, wearing a well-lubricated toupee while constructing models of the Eiffel tower.”

Ignoring her jibes, I slit open the missive and read the following letter:

Dear Doctor Watson

I trust you will forgive this unsolicited pressure on your valuable time, but as you will see, I believe Sherlock Holmes and your good self may be able to assist me.

In my role as Chief Archivist at the Londen Museum of Antiquities and Interesting Artefacts, I have of late become aware of the theft of several Egyptian relics from the museum. These relics have on each occasion, disappeared during the hours when the museum is closed and as our beloved police force have demonstrated themselves to be quite inept in securing the person or persons responsible, I should be most humbled if yourself and Mr Holmes might look into the matter with some urgency.

(I would of course have approached Mr Holmes in person, but knowing your role as his biographer allows some degree of, shall we say, persuasive abilities when it comes to demands on the great man’s time, I hoped that in the circumstances you might press upon him the importance of my request.)

Needless to say, the museum would be happy to reimburse any expenses, as well as a substantial fee for the recovery of the missing objects.

Yours sincerely
B Ravensburg (MA, ARA, DPhil)

Passing the letter to Mary, I said, “As I suspected—it’s from the Londen Museum.”

Mary scanned the missive. “His name sounds familiar. I wonder if it’s Ben Ravensburg, the famous gothic novelist.”

I rolled my eyes. “I think you mean alcoholic novelist, m’dear. The fellow’s well known for his drunkenness and debauchery.”

Mary’s eyes lit up. “Debauchery? How interesting.”

“Anyway, I continued, “What on earth would a novelist be doing working in a museum?”

“If you decide to see him, perhaps I might accompany you.”

I smiled at her. “Of course, my dear. If only to prove your theory wrong.”

An hour later, I climbed the stairs at 221B Baker Street and rapped on the door. It opened immediately.

“Ah, Watson,” said Holmes, shaking my hand vigorously. “I see you received my message.”

“Which message would that be, old bean?”

My friend’s smile vanished. “My telepathical communication, of course.”

“Ah. Sadly not.”

Knowing how boredom irritates Holmes, I should not have been surprised to learn that he had persisted in a preposterous series of experiments on the theory of mind transfer. Our previous discussions on the matter had only succeeded in frustrating me, so on this occasion I determined not to take the bait. Instead, I advanced to my usual seat by the fire and waited while Holmes stuffed a portion of Hard Shag into his meerschaum, lit it with a Swan Vesta and settled himself in the chair opposite.

“Nothing at all, then?” he said.

“Not a whisper.”

His mouth turned downwards. “Damn. Must be a fault with my transmutational analysis of the text.”

“What was the message?”

He shrugged. “Nothing of any import. I simply wished you to come at once on receiving my missive. But here you are anyway.”

Passing Mr Ravensburg’s letter across to him, I said, “Interesting proposition. Came this morning.”

Holmes held the envelope between slender fingers, examining it carefully. Holding it up to his nose, he sniffed. “I should hazard a guess that the writer works at the Londen Museum of Antiquities and Interesting Artefacts. Probably an archivist or curator in the Egyptian section.”

I couldn’t help let out a gasp. “How on earth—”

“Elementary, Watson. Before your arrival, my attention was drawn to a small article in The Times relating to the theft of certain relics. As our friend Lestrade and his comrades have once again proved themselves to be incompetent in tracking down the thieves, it could only be a matter of time before the museum’s board of directors called on the skills of the world’s greatest consulting detective.” He paused. “And his noble companion.”

“Excellent. I shall arrange a meeting.”

Holmes took out the letter and perused it. “Ravensburg.” He looked up. “Wouldn’t be Ben Ravensburg, the gothic novelist, by any chance?”

I suppressed a groan. “As it happens, Mary had the same ridiculous idea.”

Holmes stared at me. “Then she had better accompany us when we meet this fellow. Your wife’s ridiculous ideas have a habit of proving to be correct. Besides, we may require her diversionary skills if the situation turns out to be more complex than the theft of a few Egyptian ornaments.”

I should have felt grateful that Holmes now seemed to acknowledge my wife’s contributions to our adventures but having been outwitted by them both on several occasions, I found myself feeling a little miffed. I also managed to completely miss Sherlock’s inference that the investigation may not be all it appeared. As it turned out, the mystery we were about to embark on had nothing to do with missing artefacts and the events of the next seven days would place each one of us in the gravest danger.

 
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Posted by on October 30, 2020 in Detective Fiction

 

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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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