Chapter 1: Smiling (Holmes/Watson)
Based on: Smee by A. M. Burrage
Summary: Watson decides to play a hide-and-seek game at an English country house weekend party.
For: the October DW Holmes Minor prompt: smiling.
“I don’t suppose Mister Holmes will play?”
“No, not his thing at all, I am afraid,” I said apologetically.
The whole business wasn’t Holmes’s ‘thing’: being a guest at a weekend party at a stately home in the country. But for once, we hadn’t been called from London to investigate a strange happening or to provide Holmes with a much-needed rest.
It was a church that had piqued Holmes’s interest, a church in a very remote corner of the British Isles. Holmes had wanted to take a room at an inn, but, as they say, there wasn’t one to be had, room or inn, that is. But an old army friend of mine, a Colonel Jackson, had an estate nearby.
And so we found ourselves in Strigine Manor. For one night only, Holmes swore. He would visit the church early in the morning, and we’d be on our way back to civilization before luncheon.
So, no, Holmes wasn’t going to play parlour games, in particular, a kind of hide-and-seek called ‘Smee’ with the eleven other guests, most of them young people.
But I am always a good sport.
We were given our scraps of paper. Mine did not say ‘Smee.’ The lights were turned out, and I waited with the others. Then there was a bell, which indicated the hunt for Smee could begin.
I crept along.
I decided to break away from the pack of hunters, thinking, in fact, that I might make my way back to the adjoining rooms that Holmes and I shared on the east wing of the first floor, but in the spirit of the game, I changed my mind and made for the west wing of the same floor.
There were tall, deep windows at the end of a very dark passage, and I brushed past a pair of bony knees I thought I knew.
Had Holmes decided to play after all?
Well, if Holmes had decided to play, he would have certainly taken the central part on himself.
I slipped behind the curtain and joined the figure on the window seat. Two fingers stole into my palm, and I instinctively closed a warming grip ‘round them.
“My dear!” I ejaculated. Really, how long had he been sitting here waiting for my arrival? “Your hands are like ice!”
Well, I supposed it was part of the rules that once you found Smee, you were supposed to wait in silence until, one by one, the rest of the party found you.
So I waited.
Until finger brushed my free hand. They were also cold, but not as cold as the ones still in my grasp.
“Watson?” said a whispered voice from beyond the curtain.
Fear closed like a glove ‘round my throat.
If Holmes was out there, whose hand was I holding in here?
I turned my head slowly to the right, and saw, floating in the darkness, a crooked row of ghastly glowing teeth, smiling.
Chapter 2: Must be the Seasoning of the Witch (Mrs. Hudson & Bessie)
Title: Must be the Seasoning of the Witch
Characters: Mrs. Hudson (witch), Bessie the housemaid (apprentice witch)
For: the DW Holmes Minor prompt: smiling, my GYWO prompt: bones and jars, and the DW Spooktober prompt (Table 2/Day 8): practicing witchcraft.
Summary: Mrs. Hudson gives Bessie a very important lesson about their craft.
“Now, pay attention, Bessie,” said Mrs. Hudson with a smile, “a witch’s role is not just to further her own work, but she must also be ready to lend a hand in assisting other supernatural agents in theirs.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bessie. She gave an obedient nod, but her eyes wandered nervously to the stairs and the bells on the wall.
“Mister Holmes’s train has been delayed, and Doctor Watson is enjoying a good book. They shan’t disturb us.”
“I know we usually have our training sessions in the lumber room, and I confess I am much more comfortable sharing the wisdom of the ancients amongst our jars and bones. But, if you think about it, we have jars and bones here, too.”
Bessie considered the point thoughtfully, then nodded again.
“And this is one lesson that must be taught here,” continued Mrs. Hudson as she raised both hands, “in the kitchen. Now, let’s begin. Everything’s ready. First toast the bread on both sides.” She demonstrated. “Then toast the cheese on one side. Put it on the bread and brown the other side. Now, apply the mustard in an even fashion…”
“But Mrs. Hudson?”
“Yes, my dear, am I going too fast for you?”
“No, ma’am, but isn’t that Welsh rarebit?”
“What an apt thing you are! You’re going to go far in the coven, my dear Bessie, mark my words.”
“Thank you very much, ma’am, but forgive me for asking a stupid question…?”
“There are no stupid questions, my girl, except ‘What’s that burning?’ The answer is always ‘curtains.’”
“Yes, ma’am, but I was wondering what Welsh rarebit had to do with witchcraft?”
“On the surface, very little, but, curiously, human beings are extremely willing to blame any phenomena outside the norm on having eaten this dish prior to retiring for the night. It’s quite remarkable. They will happily blame any maneuvers by ghouls, ghosts, possessed furnishings, oh, the list is endless, on the consumption on a Welsh rarebit. You can invade their dreams, their homes, their gardens, their ancestors’ graves, even their very persons and terrorise them to no end, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, it was all that Welsh rarebit I had for supper.’ And so, in behooves you, my dear, to learn how to prepare this dish well and propagate its popularity among your employers. It will a great boon to you in the future and should you need to work with another agent, well, you can provide a very useful service.”
“Oh, I see!” said Bessie with a smile. “M’ gran used to make it with beer.”
“Now, that’s a very good point, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We will cover all the variations. Now, many prefer to add a bit of spice such as pepper to the final dish, and that is a perfect opportunity for you to add a pinch of whatever herb or preparation with further your own needs. So, let’s say, you want to silence a noisy violinist…”
Chapter 3: House of Wax. (Holmes/Watson)
Title: House of Wax
For: DW Holmes Minor monthly prompt: smiling & DW Spooktober prompt (table 2/day 16): haunted house
Summary: Watson has a bad dream.
I was bathed in darkness.
Why ‘bathed’? Why not ‘swimming’? I pondered absent-mindedly.
Regardless, I felt myself drifting, moving without conscious thought or action, as if carried by a heavy, unstoppable current, toward the light.
A long hall with figures standing on either side of a corridor.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw their faces.
The faces of kings and queen and emperors. The faces of poets and artists and composers.
Faces that were minted on coins and sculpted into monuments.
Still faces, resolute expressions, no softness save for the medium in which they were carved.
Once soft, now hard.
Cold, hard wax.
Footfall on a hard floor, mine, I realised, passing from one room into another.
Shadow washing over me.
Bathing, swimming, washing in darkness.
More figures, more faces.
Two rows, standing at attention.
But the faces!
Horrid, grotesque masks.
Peddlers in pain and misery on either side of me.
My soul recoiled even as my corporeal form advanced.
The room grew warmer, warmer, and I realised, suddenly, but by no overt cognition of my own, that it was an infernal, diabolical, punishing heat.
And the faces, those cold, hard, wax faces, were melting.
All but one.
I turned my head sharply and forced myself to look it full in the face.
In the face.
I focused my eyes. My heart leapt.
His eyes were keen, his stare impassive.
My soul recoiled once more. What was he doing here among the infamous and the black-hearted?
He smiled, the warm smile he reserved for quiet moments and genuine mirth.
That warm smile grew warmer and warmer until…
…drip, drip, drip.
Holmes’s features lost their angularity as drops formed rivulets and streams form rivers.
And his nose, his cheekbones, his chin, those grey eyes beneath arched brows, those lips still holding that smile…
Drip by drip, then all at once, sliding down in a torrent of sludge.
And then hell erupted!
I yelped. Holmes was beating my arm and the arm of the chair.
“Very careless of you, old man, to nod off so close to an open flame, you could have done yourself no end of mischief.”
I grunted, ignoring the curls of smoke.
“One needn’t be especially observant to see yours was a troubled kip. What were you dreaming of?”
“Remember our conversation of earlier?”
“We had many. Which one?”
“The one about Madame Tussaud’s considering opening a wing for well-known crime-fighters as well as notorious criminals?”
“You were all for it. I wasn’t convinced.”
“I’ve come ‘round to your way of thinking. I don’t think you should agree to it.”
“Don’t fancy a still life Holmes living directly across the street from the real life one?”
“I can’t bear to think of you melting.”
Holmes squeezed my shoulder. “That is the stuff of nightmares. Well, then my answer’s a definite no.”
I sighed and scraped the candle drippings off my sleeve.
Chapter 4: Haunted Thoughts. (Holmes/Watson)
Title: Haunted Thought
DW Watson's Woes Prompt: A Haunting Thought: Whether it's a memory, an idea, or just something that won't get out of a character's head, have something mental
haunt a character.
Summary: The name that haunted Holmes well into his later career wasn’t Norbury or even Reichenbach. It was Openshaw.
The name that haunted Holmes well into his later career wasn’t Norbury or even Reichenbach.
It was Openshaw.
That he should have come to me for help, and that I should send him away to his death—!
His words to Watson rang like the tolling of funeral bells long after the case was closed, long after the Lone Star had sunk, presumably with those directly responsible for Openshaw’s death.
Holmes understood intellectually that his was only an indirect role, an accidental one borne of ignorance or arrogance or simple lack of precognition.
Nevertheless, he carried the burden like a heavy weight on his chest, like a chronic cough that would not let him slumber or rest, like a ghost just over his shoulder, out of sight, but not out of mind. Or heart.
Holmes saw the lad in his dreams, his face a fresh two-and-twenty and his air of refinement and delicacy which he carried about him like a well-tailored cloak.
That he should have come to me for help, and that I should send him away to his death—!
He should have seen, he should have known, he should have warned the lad at very, very least.
He should’ve been with him.
With his singlestick and his pugilist fists, he should have fought alongside Openshaw. And saved the lad from his fate.
The weeks and months passed, and outwardly, Holmes put on a show for Watson’s sake as much as the rest of the world.
But Openshaw was there, in his dreams. He was reaching out, trying to grasp Holmes's hand, trying to reach him, but he always failed. And Holmes often woke in a cold, clammy sweat with his heart pounding and his stomach twisted in guilty knots.
Then there was Reichenbach. And his return. And he thought he’d put Openshaw behind him, consigned that error in judgment to an index of many in a career that showed every sign of being a lengthy one.
And then, of all things, his eye happened to catch a woman cutting an orange in half in the market.
Holmes had to stop and catch his breath. Watson put a hand on his shoulder and spoke his name with utmost concern.
Holmes waved him off and soldiered on.
But that night, the nightmare returned, leaving him a withered husk of a human in the morning.
Watson’s concern boiled to alarm.
Holmes said nothing. He thought of cocaine. He thought of opium. But he suspected, or rather he feared, that those substances would only amplify and make more grotesque his monster.
That was when he began to make his pilgrimages.
Careful to avoid Watson’s observation, he went to Waterloo Bridge, to the very landing-place where Openshaw must’ve tipped into the river. In the beginning, he went during the day, but there came a night in September, a dark, stormy night that so echoed the night that Openshaw had, unknowingly, abandoned the warm haven of 221B Baker Street for his watery grave that Holmes could not resist the call of his ghostly burden. Watson was, fortunately, paying home visits.
Holmes cared not a whit for the elements of wind and rain that whipped his body. His thoughts were one word and that word was Openshaw.
But then, as he slipped carefully down the Embankment, he heard footsteps.
And more than one set.
The hairs stood erect on the back of his neck when a guttural voice confirmed his own danger.
Holmes tightened the grip on his singlestick. Then he turned and fought.
Much later, as Holmes sat as still as could be managed when being bandaged and poultice and stitched back together, his eyes, without any movement of his head, met Watson’s.
“How much did you pay those blackguards to assault me tonight?”
Watson smiled and paused his ministrations.
“You’ve been hurting for a long time, Holmes. I wanted to help you lay the pain of Openshaw to rest once and for all. And conventional measures or advice seem utterly ridiculous. But if it changes anything, I did not pay them to lose. I merely paid them not to kill you. Please,” he said, tenderly brushing Holmes's hair from his face, “you were human. It was a tragedy. And so it goes.”
“And so it goes.”
And so it went, too.
The haunting, that is.
Holmes slept peacefully and woke in much lighter spirits despite the bruised ribs and contusions. And whenever the memory of Openshaw surfaced, as it did, on occasion, he would think of his battle with the ruffians near Waterloo Bridge and imagine he was defending that fresh-faced lad of two-and-twenty. And, no longer plagued by the memory of the client he had lost, he threw myself into life without reservation, or ghostly burden.
Chapter 5: thine own heart dry of blood (Holmes/Watson. Rating: Mature. Warning: necrophilia)
Title: thine own heart dry of blood
DW Watson's Woes Prompt: cadaver
Other tags: a skeleton (heh) of a casefic (no flesh at all!); villain lifted from Dorothy L. Sayers' Whose Body?; use of The Language of Flowers; angst, h/c, exorcising figurative, post-Reichenbach demons, shifting POV, inspired by Keats.
Summary: Holmes and Watson investigate a case of grave-robbing.
It was a ghastly night to be in a graveyard, but Holmes, naturally, would settle for nothing but examining the scene with his own eyes and without delay, and I felt obliged to accompany him despite the unsavoury elements.
The storm was raging. The lanterns had been relit twice. Nevertheless, Holmes, gave every sign of being oblivious to the cold, rain, and wind. He was studying the perimetre of the hole in the earth with all the enthusiasm of a sleuthhound seeking a scent.
I was, literally, his fixed point in the darkness, holding the umbrella that guarded the brightest of the torches.
Lestrade looked like a drowned rat hoping to be put out of its misery.
“Her name was Mrs. Dittany Brown,” he said, “wife of Harold Brown, a shopkeeper. One young child. She died of a sudden, acute bout of septicemia four days ago and was buried yesterday.”
“And stolen tonight,” said Holmes. “And the keeper?”
“Best information I have is that a gentleman visited a grave earlier tonight. He gave the groundskeeper a few coins and told him to go buy himself something to warm himself. On a night like tonight the poor thing needed no further urging.”
“And he’s still in his cups?” I suggested.
“Right you are,” said Lestrade. “We’ll know more when he’s sobered up. Nobody saw anything. No one about, truth told.”
“Hard work digging up a body,” observed Holmes. “But he must’ve had a barrow and then a carriage to take her away.” He headed off, following tracks that only he could see.
I remained, inching closer and closer to the mouth of the gaping hole.
The image imprinted in my mind, prying open a trove of dark thoughts I considered safely interred.
Mary’s death had proved the final impediment to fantastic notions overrunning common sense and decency and taking residence in my brain, and the most macabre of the collection was my obsession with recovering Holmes’s corpse. I spent days, and nights, planning a return journey to the dreaded cataract that had taken Holmes’s life. I’d decided that I would devote the rest of my days to single-handedly dredging every mile of tributary to recover his body. Then, or so was my scheme, I would bury him, digging the grave myself and laying him in his final resting place with a proper marker.
I had envisioned the whole scenario. I would place Holmes in the earth as one might tuck a sleepy child into bed. And then? And then I would join him. I would lie curled beside him, pull the dirt atop us like bedclothes, and rest.
These thoughts were still with me when Holmes and I returned to Baker Street, he having finally declared the clue-finding possibilities exhausted for the night.
“Do you think the culprit is the same person or persons who disturbed Lady Lilac Merridew’s grave two weeks ago?” I asked, bringing my thoughts back to the present.
“Yes. Lestrade thinks so, too, or he wouldn’t have contacted me.”
“A shopkeeeper’s wife is a step down from an earl’s daughter as corpses go.”
“And, thus, much easier to steal. The other theft was quite bold.”
“Very particular ones if so. Nevertheless, it’s an avenue that must be investigated. Tomorrow. We’re soaked to the bone and near frozen tonight. I don’t suppose we can resurrect our sleeping landlady for a cup of tea, do you? No, I didn’t think so.”
I was tucked in my own bed when the image of the open grave resurfaced. The fantasy came flooding back as ripe and raw as it had been during those desolate days, months, and years before Holmes’s return.
As I’d dwelled on it, the plot twisted and grew more depraved.
As before, I imagined that I wouldn’t just lie with Holmes as the dearest of friends and companions. I would have loved him according to all the definitions of the word, that is, taken him into my body and put my still-living body into his lifeless one. That was where my grief had led me in those dark days: to reclaim my loss in the most tangible means imaginable. What cared I for taboos? My wife was dead. My friend was dead. I took my solace where I could find it.
In my warm Baker Street bed, I grew hard at the memory of the fantasy. I took myself in hand and relieved the ache, thinking of the dead Sherlock Holmes and the grave I never excavated.
“Corpses are not cadavers, Mister Holmes,” said Sir Adrian Freke. “I’m certain you, and Doctor Watson, understand the distinction. The police have already questioned me about the disturbance of Lady Lilac Merridew’s grave. I swore to them that neither my students nor my colleagues were paying thieves, directly or indirectly, to provide them with dissecting specimens. Burke and Hare will haunt the study of medicine in England forever, it seems, but resurrection men are very much a thing of the past, for the simple fact that we’ve no need of them.”
My eyes went a small framed painting on the wall behind the distinguished physician’s head.
Sir Adrian noticed my stare and turned his head.
“I know that river,” I said. “I remember it from when I was a child, staying with my aunt.”
“Oh, yes? My home is there. When my dear Rose was living, I spent every free moment there.”
“You are also a widower,” I said somberly. “You have my condolences.”
“And you have mine. It is a sad state, isn’t it? But back to the matter that brought you here, I am as keen as anyone to have this grave-robbing mystery cleared up if for nothing else than to clear my profession of the horrible rumours that are beginning to circulate.”
“Did you know Lady Lilac personally, Sir Adrian?” asked Holmes.
“As a child, yes, our families were close friends, but I haven’t had any contact with her since my youth. Different circles, you know. I was not her attending physician, and I am as horrified as the next person at the violation. Scandalous!”
“And Mrs. Dittany Brown, last night’s victim?”
“She’s completely unknown to me. I read in the papers this morning she was a shopkeeper’s wife.”
“And you have no notion of who might be responsible for this?”
“None at all. It must be a madman. I dearly hope you or the police find him and bring him to justice.”
I steepled my fingers at my lips and closed my eyes. It was my signal to Watson and anyone who bothered to call that I did not wish to be disturbed.
I was thinking about the case.
But I was also thinking about the grave that Watson and I visited the previous night.
I should’ve been in a grave like that.
I’d been dead, hadn’t I?
Being only human, I’d often speculated in the three years I’d been away what might’ve happened if Moriarty had been the victor, if I hadn’t chosen the path I’d chosen, if, if, if…
I’d lived as the ghost of Sherlock Holmes for three long years, and in those three years, I’d not been able to push Watson from my thoughts. How I longed during that time to take my ephemeral form in earnest and return to London. Surely, ghost must be able to fly. Or project themselves through the ether.
Just to see him. Just to be near him.
I’d dreamed of haunting Watson.
And, if I were brutally honest, in my more desperate moments, I dreamed of possessing him, corporally. I knew to indulge in such thoughts was the way of madness, so I distracted myself with restless travel, continually pushing forward while looking over my shoulder for Moran and any more of Moriarty’s remaining supporters.
But I had to sleep sometime. And just before sleep came, my traitorous mind always scampered off into patches of thorny brambles. Slipping into Watson’s mind like a nightmare. Or, perhaps, dare I think it, a welcome dream?
Daft. The case!
And the traces of familiar-looking mud in Sir Adrian’s study that he’d taken great lengths to unsuccessfully hide.
“Watson, what did I tell you about a doctor going bad? The story that the young doctor tells was edifying, wasn’t it? He and the young lady were betrothed when he was a poor, struggling medical student and a pet pupil of Sir Adrian Freke. She broke it off and married Brown, but not before the rumours circulated of a certain warm regard that the mentor had shown her.”
“There may have been nothing on her part, Holmes.”
“Her part doesn’t concern me. She is the victim in all this, as well as a very comely woman if the photograph doesn’t flatter.”
“But that was years ago. She married another fellow. The jilted one graduated and became a doctor. Sir Adrian went on to get his eyeful somewhere else. Water under the bridge.”
“Perhaps. Let’s ask him.”
“Sir Adrian’s not here, sir. He left yesterday for his house in the country.”
“But we had an appointment,” Holmes lied.
“It was a family emergency, sir. The daughter of his cousin has taken grievously ill. She’s always been a weak thing, poor Daisy, has, and her mother sent word for Sir Adrian to come and see if there’s anything he could do.”
“That’s very troubling, indeed,” said Holmes. “So sorry to have trespassed on your time.”
“Are you certain, Holmes?” I asked as we settled into the train.
“Not entirely. But I think it highly probable.”
“But why, Holmes? Not for medical purposes. He’s got plenty of corpses at his disposal without having to dig up freshly-interred ones.”
“Cadavers, not corpses. He himself told us that.”
“There are more things in heaven and earth, my dear Watson, than are dreamt of…”
“Oh, you greatly underestimate my capacity to dream or philosophise, my dear man,” I said sharply.
Our eyes met.
It was but a single moment, but I felt seen, and seeing, at once.
I did not want to know what Holmes would say next, so I said,
“You know, it’s kind of like that song.”
“Oh, I think it was popular when I was young. My aunt used to sing it. I forget how it starts but ‘…a lilac for the kiss of first blush true, a dittany for the one who made you blue, a daisy for the innocent untouched, a bouquet made of blooms you love so much.’”
Holmes’ stared. Then he asked sharply, “Which aunt?”
“The one I lived with when..."
“Oh, Christ, Holmes!”
“Not now, Watson, and you may want to have your handkerchief at the ready as well as your revolver. The aroma will be strong.”
“But Holmes I remember how the song began. ‘A rose for joy in rain and dew…”
“Yes, I feared it was something like that. Silence! We may yet catch him unawares.”
We did, in fact, catch him unawares, but he did away with himself before the constabulary could arrive.
The following night, Holmes and I were back in Baker Street, watching the fire, drinking whiskey-and-sodas, each seemingly lost in his own thoughts.
“How does love become so warped?” I asked the flames. “Like most things, I suppose. Slowly, then all at once.”
“That wasn’t love. That was madness. Obsession. Hubris.”
“Do you think he was telling the truth, that he didn’t kill them, he just ‘picked them from the garden’ after they’d died?”
“I don’t know. If I were investigating, I’d start with Lady Lilac. He’d obviously grown tired of his late wife after some years. Perhaps after that murder, he got a taste for killing as well as less decomposed companionship, and so killed Mrs. Brown. He certainly had the medical knowledge to do infect someone with septicemia. But I suspect the cousin’s death was natural. At least, if he didn’t tamper with the treatments and tonics that he prescribed…” Holmes shrugged.
I shivered, then nodded. “If he did kill them, that’s one thing. If he didn’t, well…”
“Wrong. Very wrong,” I finished. “A violation of the worst degree.” I took a long swig of my drink. “But the sentiment, Holmes…”
It was then that I poured out my fantasy.
Holmes listened, and I was surprised to note that his expression didn’t change. Then he opened his mouth and, to my further surprise, poured out his fantasy.
When he’d finished, we stared at each other in silence, the exchange temporarily driving out all thoughts, at least in my mind, of the horror we’d witnessed some hours before.
“What happens now?” I asked.
Holmes shrugged. “Nothing. Or…”
Three days later, I returned to Baker Street in the evening to find Mrs. Hudson on the way to stay with her sister and Holmes painted in pale theatrical makeup and lying very still on the bearskin hearth rug with his hands folded over his chest holding a sprig of cypress.
This was my corpse.
I locked the door and drew the curtains.
I laid beside him and wept.
I wept three years’ worth of pain, and when I was done, I opened my trousers, freed my erection, and rut between his thighs. I licked his neck and whispered into his ear all that I had never had the courage to say before. Holmes’s breathing remained almost Imperceptible; the flickering of pulse at his throat was the only indication he was listening.
In the end, I cried out, his name on my lips, and, after catching my breath, got to my feet, leaving a wet patch on his trousers.
I went to bed.
I woke to a figure hovering over me.
I had to remind myself I wasn’t Dickens’ Scrooge, and that this wasn’t the Ghost of Christmas Future.
More like the ghost of Christmas Holmes!
He glowed, wan and emaciated, with powder-white hair which hung longer than I’d ever seen on him. He wore a kind of long, billowy nightshirt. He might have been the spectral remains of a Romantic poet who died of consumption.
I rolled onto my side, away from him, and he slipped beneath the bedclothes and pressed the length of his body to mine.
For a ghost, he was very warm and solid.
He kissed my neck and whispered in my ear. He declared, in minute and passionate detail, his love and his lust and his esteem for me. He spoke of the moments he missed me most when he was away and the moments he cherished since he’d returned.
And all the while, he was opening me, then mounting me, covering me with his body and burying himself deep inside me.
It had been quite a while since I’d performed the act, but I’d prepared myself, physically and mentally, for it.
“Inside you, inside you, haunting you,” he whispered, “just as you haunt me.”
I breathed in the fragrance of greasepaint and powder.
Holmes found his release and nuzzled the side of my neck.
“Well?” he asked.
I turned and looked at him.
He smiled. “I confess I feel not a little ridiculous, Watson.”
“So do I! Hand me a flannel, Holmes. Then wash your face and your hair and put on a decent nightdress and come here,” I ordered, like a querulous nanny.
He laughed. “I think my demon, at least this one, is exorcised.”
“I feel the same. It was a ghastly case, Holmes, one I dare not write up for the public.”
“No, no,” he agreed.
“Let’s put it, and Reichenbach, behind us and just live on.”
When Holmes returned, he recited,
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.
“Keats,” he said.
I hummed and took that living hand, so warm and capable, in mine and fell asleep.
Chapter 6: Rustling in the Leaves. (Sussex 'verse. Fluff.)
Title: Rustling in the Leaves
For: DW Watson's Woes Spooktacular prompt #5 [Unsettling Vocabulary: Use some of your favorite spooky, haunting, or otherwise scary words!] and DW Spooktober [Table 2/Day 27] Raking Leaves.
Notes: Retirement!lock, Sussex verse.
Summary: Something's rustling in the leaves.
The autumn of the year. The autumn of my years.
I have reached the point in life where I perform tasks for the sheer joy of being able to perform them and perform them unaided. And so at crack of dawn I wrap myself up, each morning requiring a layer more than the previous, and go out and rake the leaves from the stone walk which extends from the back door of the cottage to the bench where Holmes and I are wont to share a cup of tea and greet the day together.
One strong gust and my work will be undone. I know this, but I still do it.
I step out and greet the day as the air is shedding its night dampness, taking on a delicious dry crispness.
I tromp to the shed for the rake, savouring the crunch of leaves underfoot.
Scrape, scrape, scrape.
The rhythmic scratching of metal upon stone adds to the birdsong and the rustling of the wind.
The stiffness of my shoulder joints and back ebb, muscles warming as I move.
My thoughts drift.
My rake is like a swinging scythe.
Bringing in the sheaves.
Scrape, scrape, scrape.
I pause and spare a glance for the cottage behind me.
Holmes is still asleep. He’s had a good night, and I left the bed with the prayer of anyone who’s cared for an ill loved one: that his body allow nature’s great restorer to have her way with him for as long as she pleased.
Scrape, scrape, scrape.
I reach the bench but do not indulge in a sit. I’ve learned the hard way that I must keeping moving to keep moving.
I turn back and watch the leaves raining down in soft cascade. A squirrel dives in the wake of my efforts, making the leaves startle and shake.
Now what is that, I ask myself as I stand with my hand on the rake, surveying my realm.
Far too many leaves on the rose bed.
How in heavens did they all fall right there?
Mysterious ways, indeed, but they must be tackled. A thin blanket is all well and good, but the fastidious gardener won’t stand for a long snake-like heap of those proportions.
I stomp to the shed and exchange the rake for a smaller, more delicate version. Then I approach the bed, humming.
The leaves rustle.
“Shoo!” I say. Poking the pike with the rake.
My implement touches something rather hard that doesn’t move.
I move slowly, afraid of scaring whatever it is. I poke it again, and when it doesn’t move, I lean in, studying the shape.
Then I begin to carefully scrape away the leaves.
“Oh, dear God!” I mutter.
It’s a bone, a leg bone, a human leg bone.
I scrape some more, my grip on the wood handle becoming tight and damp.
The leaves rustle.
And then, of its own accord, rising from the desiccated foliage, is a skeleton!
“ARRGH!” I cry and drop the rake as the bony creature sits up and turns the cavernous sockets of its skull toward me.
And then I hear it.
I turn abruptly. “Holmes!”
He appears from behind a hedge, grinning, his eyes aflame with mischief. The hem of his nightdress is peeking from beneath a great overcoat. His hands are curled as if holding invisible reins.
“All Hallows’ Eve is right around the corner, my dear man. I couldn’t resist. Just a bit of wire and our old friend Skelly.”
I smile. He’s on the mend, indeed.
Chapter 7: Harvest Fest (Holmes/Watson. Poetry.)
Title: Harvest Fest
Poetic form: ballad
Warnings: Ambiguous ending, dialogue only
Summary: Holmes & Watson go to a rural harvest festival with sinister results.
“How crisp the autumn eventide!
How bright the bonfires glow!
What bliss the English countryside
when autumn breezes blow!
Your invitation did surprise.
This didn’t seem your place,
but my dear Holmes, look at your eyes,
your bright, expectant face!
Here’s apple cider freshly pressed.
There, pumpkins on the vine.
And roasted chestnuts, I confess,
a favourite of mine.”
“Do eat and drink your fill, my friend.
Indeed, it all disarms.
I find my city blood does bend
to these bucolic charms.
Let’s play a game of chance (or skill)
And win a corn husk doll.
Enjoy and sample every thrill
belying autumn’s pall.”
“But what’s that tent, Holmes, over there
that’s drawing all the guests?
Oh, pumpkin carving! Staple fare
of rural harvests fests.”
“This village’s known both far and wide
for carving expertise
in gourd. Dear Watson, watch it glide!
The sharp edge curls with ease.”
“The faces and the figures, Holmes!
They’ve monsters, horrors, giants, gnomes,
wolves and bats and fairies.”
“They seem to be quite apt in blade,
the whorl and arabesque,
preferring, based on what’s displayed,
depicting scenes grotesque.”
“Oh, let’s move on. A raffle, there!
A ticket for us each.
And there’s a maze of maize, do we dare?
Yes, Holmes, into the breech!
How quick the dark is settling ‘round!
Should we turn left or right?
These pumpkin lanterns on the ground,
don’t seem to throw much light.”
“Indeed, the stalks are thick as thieves.
It seems that we’re alone
among the corn, the forks and cleaves,
but those sounds aren’t our own.
And what are those things before us?
Four pumpkins pared so strange.
Like the canisters of Horus,
where mummies kept their change.”
“Oh, God, Holmes! The raffle tickets
declaring that we’ve won!
And hark! What’s that in the thicket!
And me without my gun!”
“The flash of steel, the eldritch snap,
I can’t conclude but thus:
this labyrinth is but a trap,
Watson, the harvest’s us!”
Chapter 8: Pumpkin Patched [Holmes/Watson. Gen.]
Title: Pumpkin Patched
For: for the DW September 2021 Watson Woes prompt & DW 2021 fallintofallfestival prompt: pumpkin patch
Warnings: Mention of a gruesome murder method.
Summary: Holmes finds a pumpkin with a secret.
It was a change, I’ll admit, to witness the great detective Sherlock Holmes doing something as prosaic as tromping through a pumpkin patch in search of the perfect specimen.
“Here, Watson,” he cried, pointing, “in this section, we both shall find what we seek.”
What I sought was a nice healthy gourd to bring back to Mrs. Hudson for turning into soup and pie and, a favourite of mine among the autumnal delicacies, toasted seeds.
There was something glorious about the change of season, and this one, with its waning light and its crisp nights and its harvest colours, was my favourite.
I'd been surprised at Holmes’ willingness to accompany me on this errand, but I supposed he was looking for a change of scenery, and by Jove, this pumpkin patch was about as far from the foul metropolis as one could imagine.
I left Holmes to his hunting, and I set about my own.
Very soon, I was rewarded.
“This is it, Holmes,” I said, hoisting my selection proudly.
“That one is very fine, Watson, but put it down for a moment, and come examine this one.”
I did as bid.
The first thing I noted about Holmes’ pumpkin was that it was oddly light for its size.
“It’s hollow, Holmes.”
He hummed. “Can you see the seam?”
I could, but only with the help of Holmes’ lens and his finger indicating the fissure.
On instinct, I shook the pumpkin.
“Holmes, there’s something in there. Do you know what it is?”
“I have my suspicions, but let’s open it up.”
Holmes produced a knife and carefully broke the seal while I held the pumpkin. He lifted the top of the stem. Then, he reached in and pulled something out.
“Holmes, a human skull! Remarkably clean. Jaw intact.”
Holmes turned the skull so that I might see its interior.
“There’s something dark in the middle of it.”
Holmes returned the top to its former place and studied the skull carefully.
“If I’m not mistaken, it’s lead.”
“Have you ever heard of the legend of the wife who murdered her odious husband by pouring metaled lead into his ear as he slept?”
I shivered and cried, “My God! What a macabre method!” Really, it made me rather ill, but I quickly got a hold of myself. “Holmes, how did you know where to look?”
“Miss Obediah told me.”
“The old grandmother at the house who was babbling in the corner?”
“Yes, I have my suspicions that we’ll find her changed when we return to the homestead to pay for our selections. Her behaviour struck me as a bit too theatrical to be genuine, and then the words themselves, they were reminiscent of a word game. Yes, I have some questions for Miss Obediah, and who knows, perhaps she’ll be in a mood to answer them.”
“Always with a puzzle,” I said good-naturedly. “Why should here be any different?”
“Go fetch your pumpkin, Watson. The game’s ah, well…”
Chapter 9: A Story with a Cemetery Plot. [Sussex 'verse. Gen]
Title: A Story with a Cemetery Plot
Universe: ACD - Sussex/Retirement
For: DW Watson's Woes 2021 October Spooktacular prompt #1: revenant.
Summary: Coming back late at night, Watson narrowly misses hitting a girl on the side of the road.
I tugged at my scarf, loosening it, before urging Barabbas, the stalwart mount at the end of my reins, to commence the long journey back to the cottage.
Apart from equine courier, my only companion was my Gladstone; the bag being rocked against my hip by the dogcart’s wheels as they turned over the uneven terrain.
The cold October night was refreshing after an evening at bedside in an overheated sickroom. The hour was evenly distanced between midnight and dawn. The Sussex countryside was bathed in darkness, but the diamond-dusted firmament was a wonder to behold, and I took a moment to let Barabbas set the course and drink in the starry spectacle overhead.
And maybe that’s why I didn’t see her.
“WHOA!” I cried and jerked the reins, too late and too hard.
A girl was standing in the road.
At least that’s what my mind registered in the flash just before Barabbas jumped sideways, a maneuver theretofore not known to him. Cart and beast parted ways, and the cart, and its occupants, medical man and medical bag, both worn with years, were deposited unceremoniously on the ground.
Disoriented and bashed, I rallied, getting to my feet and calling out, “My dear, my dear, are you hurt? I didn’t see you.”
I spared a parting thought for Barabbas as he fled, but the lion’s share of my attention was on the young lady, a slip of a thing, really, as she limped off into the brush at the side of the road.
“My dear, I’m a doctor! If you’re injured, I have things in my bag.”
I hurried after her, leaving behind both receptacle and its contents.
The celestial bodies were playing tricks or perhaps I’d hit my head harder than I realised, for it seemed the girl positively shimmered, like moonlight on water.
“I mean you no harm! I swear! I just want to ensure you’re unhurt.”
My pleas went unrecognised, unacknowledged, perhaps, unheard.
The growth became denser and more difficult to trespass. My pace slowed, but not hers.
The only thing which kept me on her trail was her loping gait. I have seen far too many people stumble away from serious accidents, not to have genuine reason to worry that her next step would be followed by collapse.
We emerged into a clearing, and I saw the light on water.
I looked for signs of habitation. There were none. Just vegetation, reaching up from the undulating earth like so many veiny claws, and water as smoothing and tempting as a looking glass.
I felt myself being drawn to it, to its surface. It was as if I wanted nothing more than to lean over the bank and—
Being distracted by nature was never supposed to have such serious repercussions!
Before I could even form a coherent thought, I was throwing off my coat and diving into the cold water.
It was only my sheer bravado, still robust even after decades of heavy use, that kept me strong enough to seize her and drag her to the bank.
I dropped her rather ungallantly on the ground and then collapsed beside her, panting and sputtering and mumbling incoherent assurances which were probably closer to madman’s ramblings.
I do remember saying,
“I want you to be well, my dear, and at peace, body and mind, and I want Holmes, someone, to find us!”
And then there was only cold, numbing, inky nothingness.
“WATSON! WATSON! He is here! Master Jacob! He is here! Oh, you foolish, foolish man, what have you gotten yourself into this time?”
“Holmes! The girl!”
I was frozen. I don’t know if I was actually speaking or moving my limbs or simply wishing to do so.
Then there was a warmth enveloping me and the most familiar of all voices chastising me.
“You silly man. You’ve given me a terrible fright tonight. Thank goodness the one at the other end of the reins had more sense. Barabbas trotted to the cottage, and when there wasn’t a doctor—or a cart—I raised the alarm. Jacob is here. If you still have all your fingers and toes after this, it’ll be a miracle.”
“The girl, Holmes!” I croaked after the traditional plug of brandy had been poured down my throat.
With effort and assistance, I sat up. Dawn was breaking, and there was a mound of about a hundred pounds of duckweed lying beside me.
I stared at Holmes. “That’s what I pulled out of the pond?!”
“Apparently. Come on. Jacob! Oh, good lad. Yes, I’ll need some help getting him to the cart.”
“I found his bag, Mister Holmes.”
“Good. We’ll need it.”
I recounted the whole tale before a listening audience and a roaring fire at the cottage.
Jacob’s expression was less incredulous than Holmes’s. He rubbed the back of his head and hummed noncommittally.
Holmes coughed. “Watson, I don’t doubt you saw something, but…”
“I know, I know,” I said wearily.
I was fussed over by Holmes for the better part of the day, that is, during the periods when I wasn’t dozing before the fire, but if I had known what was on the horizon, barreling down with the cottage front door as target, I would’ve relished the attention, and quiet, more.
I mean to say, bright and early the following morning, there appeared the formidable Mrs. Gilchrist.
To say Mrs. Gilchrist was a nurse and housekeeper and companion is to say that a typhoon is a bit of wind and rain and surf. She is, in fact, a force to reckoned with. She took care of me when I turned my ankle one Christmas, and I can say I’d barely recovered from the experience when she was on my doorstep again, barking orders with all the subtlety of a left hook.
“Doctor Watson, I’ve heard the news. You are coming with me. You, too, Mister Holmes, of course.”
There was nothing for it. We went.
After a long drive, we neared Embley-on-Wold, the crossroads of a village where my patient of the previous night resided.
We stopped at the church, or more precisely, the graveyard.
Mrs. Gilchrist led us to a stone marker.
“Some say poor Maldahyde Simple is buried here, and some say she is not buried at all. She was lovely. A very lovely young girl. She had a friend, a bosom friend. They were inseparable. Then the other girl’s family moved to London, and Maldahyde could not be consoled. They said it was an accident. The duckweed was known to be very thick. It had been reported to have strangled even the rare goose that made the mistake of sojourning in Miller’s Pond. They say she haunts that spot of the road on moonlight autumn nights, luring the curious to—and into—Miller’s pond. They say if you are brave enough to dive in after her, then your wish is granted.”
“I wished for Holmes to find me. And he did. But I also wished for her, for the girl, to be well and at peace, body and mind.”
Mrs. Gilchrist appeared surprised, a novel experience for her I surmised.
“That was kind of you. I wonder…”
She smiled absently, and I imagined, erroneously, of course, a faint wet sheen to her eyes.
“She was your friend, wasn’t she?” said Holmes gently.
“It was a very long time ago,” said Mrs. Gilchrist. Then her mask of ruthless efficiency appeared once more. “Time for tea.”
And so the next time I found myself near the church at Embley-on-Wold, I placed a posey of autumn crocus on the grave of Maldahyde Simple, and I think, if village gossip has any truth at all, the Miller’s pond revenant has not been seen since.
Chapter 10: Ghost Toll. [Gen]
Title: Ghost Toll
Notes: Includes names from Dorothy L. Sayers The Nine Tailors
Summary: Watson and Holmes return to a small village purported to have a haunted church bell.
“It is so good to see you again, Mister Holmes, Doctor Watson,” said Reverend Venables. “Isn’t it, Gotobed?”
“It certainly is,” said the sexton, but I noted that his smile did not reach his eyes.
“I am sorry it has been so long,” said Holmes. “This is the first time our work has brought us near the village of Fenchurch Saint Paul on Januarius Day. It has been, dear me, eight long years since the horrible affair of Thorley was cleared up, but when I heard that the day had been turned into a local celebration, well, I convinced my colleague here,” he clapped a hand on my shoulder, “that we must stop and see how you were getting on.”
Of course, in reality, the roles were reversed, and I was the one doing the convincing, and Holmes demurring the very idea of breaking our return journey in so remote a setting, but the good reverend needn’t know that.
“And I’m so glad you did,” said Reverend Venables. “Sometimes I fear it’s a bit macabre, celebrating the day in which a tragedy was discovered, but then again Saint Januarius predates our little drama, and so much good comes of it. People gather from far and wide, villagers sell their wares, and, would you believe it, I collect more for the church restoration fund than I ever do at Easter or Christmas!”
“They come to hear the ghost bell,” said Henry Gotobed stiffly.
The rector sighed. “True.” Then he turned to Holmes. “I suppose you’ve heard about our little phenomenon.”
“We shared our dog cart with one of your flock, and she told us all about it,” I said. “Does it really ring differently on this day as compared to other days?”
“It does,” conceded the rector. He raised both hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I have no explanation for it. We have had three sets of experts conduct evaluations of the bell itself, and no one can find a reason for the unusual peal on this day.”
“You are welcome, of course, to add your name to the list of our investigators.”
I watched the war of emotions on Holmes’s face.
“Very well,” he said at last. “But I warn you that I am staunchly of the opinion that the world is enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”
“You and I are of one mind, Mister Holmes,” said the rector cheerfully. Then he added, again with a certain resigned helplessness, “Nevertheless… “
Holmes and I attended the church fair, bought a token of esteem for our landlady, then had a hearty supper at the local public house. This last establishment was packed to bursting with ghost seekers like ourselves. Indeed, there were no rooms at the inn, and Holmes and I were obliged to take the rector up on his offer of accommodation at his own residence if we wanted to avoid sleeping in someone’s manger.
As Holmes and I finished our meal and enjoyed a frothy pint, we chatted about the first time we’d visited the village of Fenchurch Saint Paul.
The whole business had begun with Lestrade and his lost gibbet.
A gibbet, for the unfamiliar, was a wooden structure from which the body of an executed person was hung for public view after the execution. They were no longer used, but the instruments themselves were still around, in some cases, rusting and decaying in forgotten corners of the empire.
In his spare time, Inspector Lestrade ran an informal museum where he showcased objects involved in famous criminal cases. Among the museum’s inventory was the gibbet that was used to display the body of the Rye Cannibal, Ezra Wilderspin, after his execution. One fine November morning, Inspector Lestrade had arrived at 221B Baker Street announcing that the gibbet had been stolen from his collection.
Holmes tracked the gibbet to this village of Fenchurch Saint Paul when it was discovered to have been filled with the body of a singer and shoved inside the bell so that when the bell rang at midnight, it was said to make a horrible, gurgling peal.
The day of the toll happened to be the feast day of Saint Januarius.
Holmes had been instrumental in bringing the killer Samuel Thorley, an itinerant gardener found doing odd jobs in the area, to justice, and Lestrade had recovered a relic that now had two gruesome deaths attached to it.
If our dog cart companion were to be believed, every Januarius Day at midnight the bell of the churc of Fenchurch Saint Paul pealed as it had when the clapper had been swaddled with a corpse in its macabre scaffold. The bell was said to be haunted by the ghost of the poor murdered singer.
Some villagers believed that her spirit clung to the clapper, lamenting her violent end and protesting a life cut far too short.
I was surprised that Holmes did not want to visit the bell before midnight, but he seemed to be of the opinion that since that had been the strategy of the previous experts, it would not provide anything useful and that he should wait until after midnight to ascend and make his examination.
“After all, if it peals as normal, then we will have nothing to do,” he offered.
It did not peal as any normal church bell might. It gurgled horribly, and those of us gathered outside the church were much amazed for we had heard it earlier in the day pealing loud and clear.
After a few minutes, the murmuring crowd began to disperse, many heading for the makeshift stalls selling mulled wine and winter cakes and other local delicacies.
Holmes and I followed the rector and the sexton around the side of the church.
To be more precise, I attempted to follow them, but as I turned the corner, I felt a blow to the back of the head and my body being seized and hurled downwards.
All was blackness.
Then there was another horrible ghost toll.
And then a light.
It was impossible to tell just how much time elapsed between the events.
“Mister Gotobed.” Holmes’s voice was as menacing as I’d ever heard. “If any lasting harm has come to my companion, you will suffer more than the indignity of having your scheme exposed.”
“Please, Mister Holmes, I just wanted you distracted.”
The lantern’s glow became stronger, and I realised I was in a crypt. Believe me or believe me not, it was not the first time I have awakened in a crypt, so I was less alarmed than some might have been.
“You wanted me distracted so that I would not notice how you conceal the rope ladder you use to mount and descend from the belfry, the ladder which was hung cleverly along the lone blind spot of the edifice. I must also commend you on the ingenious contraption you use to fabricate the noise of the ghost bell. I think you’ll find my own attempt matched your own in every particular.”
Gotobed looked miserable.
“I’m all right, Holmes.”
“You’ll forgive me for delaying your rescue to prove a point.”
“As I always do. Our ghost toller?”
“Indeed, ‘tis he,” said Holmes. “But no one else but us knows the truth, and I am not inclined to say anything, even to the rector, as long as Mister Gotobed never again adds assault to his crimes.”
“I did it the first anniversary as a lark, but then the second year, well, it got attention, didn’t it? People coming to our little village, making things better for us, well, I just wanted it to keep going. The rector, he ain’t so young, and he ought to live his years as soft as he can. I just did it for Fenchurch.”
Despite the lump on the back of my head, I felt pity for the man.
We left the rector sleeping soundly in his bed the following morning. We left before dawn, departing on what amounted to the milk train.
The sexton was there to see us off.
“Thank you, Mister Holmes. I know you and the Doctor are men of your word.”
“Your secret is safe with us, Mister Gotobed, but I would advise caution.”
Just then, just as the first puffs of the arriving train could be viewed against the dark firmament, we heard it.
The ghost toll.
It was fainter, owing to the distance, but unmistakable.
I gripped Holmes’s arm, and he covered my gloved hand with his own and squeezed.
Harry Gotobed went white as a sheet. “What, what, what is that?” He stared in the direction of the church. “How can that be?”
“Maybe someone else has discovered you secret,” Holmes suggested.
“Or maybe, just maybe…”
I let my thought hang unspoken in the cold morning air.
“Regardless,” said Holmes, taking a deep breath and eyeing the train with no little approbation.
“Watson and I are returning to London. That bell, that bell tolls for thee.”