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Sherlock Holmes and the Cult of Cthulhu

Sherlock Holmes and the Cult of Cthulhu

To my family, friends, and beloved Eriquita…

Chapter 1

Holmes sighed blissfully as he slid the point of the syringe into his arm and depressed the plunger. The effects of the seven-percent cocaine solution hit him almost immediately, and I saw his pupils dilate as I peered at him from behind the day’s issue of The Times while smoking my pipe.

We were in our two-bedroom flat at 221B Baker Street. I sat in my green upholstered chair next to the fireplace, and Holmes was in his purple velvet armchair across from me. Our grizzly bear skin rug lay at our feet in front of the fireplace, in which we had made a small fire as it was a blustery fall day. We were both adorned in our usual attire: Holmes wore simple black dress pants with a white dress shirt and black leather gaiters. I wore my grey three-piece suit with a tan dress shirt, purple ascot tie, and brown dress boots.

Holmes hopped up from the armchair and scurried over to the small hutch on his side of the room, where he had set up his makeshift laboratory. Upon it were several immaculately clean and well-ordered scientific instruments, as well as jars filled with various chemicals, all of which Holmes had assured me were benign. London’s noontime gloominess loomed through the windows.

Holmes sat down and began to cleanse and disinfect the high-quality medical-grade glass and metal syringe for later reuse. I puffed on my pipe as my brow furrowed in disapproval.

“Tut, tut, my friend,” he said, sensing my disdain without looking. “The esteemed neurologist Sigmund Freud recommends cocaine as a treatment for many ailments. In fact, he recently published a paper showing that it can help with a host of medical problems, and in my case, I find it quite effective at treating chronic boredom.”

I asked, “Will it do anything to help with your morphine addiction as well, as Freud also suggests?”

Holmes found the tartness of my rejoinder a bit too sour and turned to glare at me before returning to his cleansing ritual. When he finished, he put the syringe back into its Morocco leather case and snapped it shut. Then, he placed the case into the top-right desk drawer.

Despite appearances, our relationship was not strained by substance abuse but instead by ennui. It had been weeks since a case had crossed our threshold that Holmes found worthy of his interests, and my physician’s practice was much slower than usual. We had both been lounging about our rooms without anything to do for what seemed like a thousand years.

Part of the problem was that my stories about Holmes’s exploits hadn’t attracted as much work as they normally did. You see, as a consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes is regularly exposed to intriguing mysteries and fantastic dramas, many of which I write about in the same manner as I write this story now. I then submit these romanticized narratives to be published in local journals and then read by the multitudes. It is as though I am advertising Holmes’s services without advertising at all.

The newspapers and magazines benefit from the readership our stories attract, so they gladly publish any new Sherlock Holmes material as soon as we produce it. This indirectly demonstrates Holmes’s expertise and also suggests to readers that they too could have their own mysteries solved by none other than the great consulting detective himself. As a result, we enjoy a steady stream of interesting and well-paying detective work. At least, we had been up until this point. Criminality in London now seemed to be in recession. Rather than celebrating his role in this development, however, Holmes was instead quite put off. Perhaps, this was because he thrived on solving unsolvable crimes, and the only problem now was that he had apparently solved them all. It was quite a predicament.

The unmistakable sound of a carriage door closing from the street directly below our rooms made Holmes perk up. A wild grin shot across his face as he rushed over to the dining table. There, he quickly laid out three tea settings, pouring a cup for me, himself, and an unidentified third person.

Someone rang the doorbell downstairs, and our landlady Mrs. Hudson answered. We heard a muffled exchange of pleasantries, then our mystery guest then began to climb the 17 steps up to our rooms on the second floor. At last, the floorboards outside our door creaked, and whoever it was let out an audible sigh, but before they could knock, Holmes said loudly, “Enter, Lestrade.”

Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard stepped into our apartment. He was a tall, thin man with dark eyes and long, narrow face similar to a rat’s. Like Holmes, he was clean-shaven because he rejected the contemporary men’s fashion of well-coiffed whiskers. I, on the other hand, maintained a very respectable mustache, which I always kept nicely trimmed.

Lestrade was wearing a simple tan suit and matching tie, with a brown herringbone frock coat and dark brown leather spats. He was also wearing a brown felt derby hat, which he removed when he entered our apartment. His face bore a look of exasperation and he sighed once more as he closed the door behind him.

“How did you…?” he began to ask.

“…know it was you?” Holmes finished his question. “Quite easily. It was obvious from the moment you shut the carriage door below our rooms. You see Lestrade, your arms are naturally longer and thinner than the average man’s. As a result, you unconsciously engage in a whipping motion when you slam a carriage door shut, which produces a singular whooshing noise as the door closes. This sound identifies you as easily as your name.

“In addition, you have a particular manner of perambulation by which you make one quick step and then one longer, slower step as a result of a minor limp you’ve developed over the past several years. You’re too stubborn to get a cane, and so you power through your day limping about without letting it interfere in your duties. And I must say old fellow, I find that quite admirable. The sound of your footsteps walking up our stairs in this manner was a dead giveaway as to your identity as well.”

Lestrade opened his mouth to speak but Holmes again interrupted him and said, “You have a case for us. That much is obvious by your presence, but this case is unusual. I can see that it not only has you flummoxed but disturbed as well. I know this by the recalcitrance of your demeanor and the defeated tone of your sighs. You do not wish to ask for my help, as you usually do not, but this time, you feel compelled beyond mere frustration. Something about this case makes you feel not only irritated but upset and, dare I say, scared. I say this because I see that your hands are shaking slightly. That, combined with your pallid complexion, shows that you have not been eating well, and the circles under your eyes indicate that you have been losing sleep. Something has disquieted your mind substantially, and I find this unusual for the generally stoic and proud man that you are.”

As he spoke, Holmes’ voice became louder and took on a tone of increasing eagerness. Truly, it had been a long time since he had a case that captured his interest. He was practically drooling at the prospect.

Lestrade shrugged and, seeing that a tea setting had been placed for him at the dining table, hung his coat upon the coat rack next to the door and then shuffled over to the table and sat down. He sipped his tea slowly as he looked at Holmes, then at me, and then back at Holmes and said, “You have been injecting cocaine again, Holmes. Have you not?”

Indeed, Holmes’s eyes were nearly the size of the dinner plates that sat on the table, and a vein in his neck was visibly throbbing. He ignored the question and said obsequiously, “My dear inspector, please do tell why you have graced us with your presence today.”

“There has been a murder in St. James Square, in Piccadilly,” Lestrade said bluntly.

“Ah yes, quite a fashionable neighborhood,” replied Holmes.

“Quite fashionable, indeed, and generally the last place we would expect foul play of any sort,” said Lestrade. “However, this morning, we were alerted to a suspected murder at one of the finer homes in the district. It seems the housekeeper had been preparing to do the laundry when she entered the master bedroom and discovered that her employer and the owner of the home, Mr. Robert Hill, lay dead on the floor in a pool of blood.”

A smile spread across Holmes’s face, and I could see exhilaration dancing in his eyes. He asked, “But this is no ordinary murder scene, is it Lestrade?”

Lestrade coughed and said, “No. In fact, the reason I am here and the reason we have not touched the crime scene at all before contacting you is because it is… just so unsettling.”

Holmes raised his eyebrows in mock surprise but managed to use a relatively respectful tone as he said, “Go on.”

“Well, the sheer amount of gore is what sets it apart, Holmes. It seems there is not a single stitch of furniture or carpeting nor a single flake of paint in the entire room that is not tinged with blood. It is like a slaughterhouse.”

Holmes closed his eyes, pressed his hands to his temples, and held this pose for several moments. He appeared to be deep in thought, and perhaps he was, but I knew something else was happening within his mind as well. He was delighted; thrilled to finally have another case worthy of his brilliant mind. I must confess I felt a twinge of excitement myself – the game was afoot.

At last, he opened his eyes, stood up, and moved rapidly towards the door, stopping only to grab his grey herringbone overcoat and cape off the coat rack. He then turned to us as he draped the coat across his shoulders and said, “Let’s go.”

Chapter 2

Our hansom conveyed us to St. James’s Square by way of Pall Mall Street in Piccadilly. Despite its namesake, the square was more than several blocks away from St. James’s Hall, a performance venue Holmes sometimes frequented to catch the occasional Wagner concerto.

As we clattered rapidly down the stone- and granite-paved streets, we were surrounded by other horse-drawn carriages of various shapes and sizes. The road was flanked by rows of buildings two, three, and four stories tall and painted in various shades of brown and grey. Businesses took up the buildings’ first floors, while apartments occupied the upper floors. Advertisements for various goods, such as cigars, clothing, and food, covered their facades.

Men and ladies paraded up and down the sidewalks on either side of us. The women all wore ruffled, corset-style jackets over lacy dresses and had floral bonnets upon their heads. Many of the men were wearing hats as well, such as bowlers, derbies, and top hats. Nearly all the men were bearded or mustachioed and wore overcoats over their three-piece suits.

In the crowd, there were small pockets of destitute and homeless persons wearing dirty, torn clothing. Many begged for alms and most were totally ignored by the passing crowds. This was London in the late nineteenth century: congested, loud, dirty, and tragic, yet with a civilized beauty all the same. The city was a living paradox.

We moved steadily for a time until there was a brief lull in traffic. During the delay, I noticed some workers on the sidewalk replacing an old gaslight with a new electric lamp system. This technology was supposedly a safer, brighter, and more efficient means of illumination, but I had my doubts. Despite the benefits, I, like many Londoners, felt that electricity was too dangerous and it would never gain widespread use.

We stopped in front of a large manse on the southeast side of the St. James’s Square Garden. The garden’s natural beauty was a relief from the sight of London’s seemingly unending urban sprawl. Leaves were strewn about its impeccably manicured lawn among the well-tended trees and bushes, and a statute of William III on horseback stood in the lawn’s center.

The manse itself was seven stories tall and nearly 30 meters wide. Dubbed the Norfolk House, it was made of red brick and grey stone, with rows of white-accented windows covering its façade. Its boxy architecture was of classic British design, and I recalled that it had once belonged to the Dukes of Norfolk before it had apparently been sold to the late Mr. Robert Hill for what I would assume was no small sum. It was attached to other buildings on either side to form part of the square’s inner boundary.

Several Scotland Yard police officers milled about outside the manse’s entrance as we approached. The officers were in full uniform, with long, dark blue double-breasted swallowtail coats that went down to their knees; high collars; and big, shiny brass buttons. They wore standard-issue black patent leather shoes and cone-shaped helmets with metal badges attached depicting the city’s coat-of-arms. Each officer also had a vicious-looking truncheon hooked to his belt.

As soon as we stopped, Holmes bolted from his seat and swiftly made his way to the home’s entrance, ignoring the officers who had stopped to stare at the famous consulting detective as he passed. I trailed behind but was given no notice whatsoever. We stepped inside, into the home’s entrance hall. The floor was covered in black-and-white checkered tiles, and the walls were painted a solid gold-brown color trimmed with white crown molding. An ornate grandfather clock stood on the side of the room, and a lamp of polished brass hung from the ceiling overheard. A marble staircase lined with elaborately carved and burnished acacia railings led up from the entrance hall to the home’s second floor.

A uniformed police officer stood waiting to meet us on the landing at the bottom of the stairs. He was a tall, spindly man with high cheekbones; cropped red hair; and a short, red beard. The officer seemed quite perturbed at the sight of Holmes, and as we approached, he crossed his arms defiantly and scowled. He was no more than 30 years of age, though the hard look on his face made him appear much older. It seemed that Holmes’s reputation preceded himself.

The officer began to introduce himself, saying, “Good day, I am Officer Thomas White…” but Holmes merely brushed past him and muttered an insincere “How do you do?” before vaulting up the stairs. Officer White’s back stiffened with a jolt, as if he had just been struck by lightning, and his face showed a look of surprise and offense.

I patted him on the shoulder as I passed and said, “Do not take it personally. That is just how he is.” However, the officer did not seem reassured.

Holmes reached the top of the stairs and turned left at the upper landing. He moved with the instincts of a bloodhound as though he knew exactly where to go despite never having been inside the building before. I followed him to the master bedroom, which was just a short way down the hall. The bedroom’s doorway was heavily decorated with elaborate molding carved in the shape of fleur-de-lis extending upwards and outwards toward the ceiling. When we arrived, we were both struck by the horror we saw before us in the room. It suffices to say that despite having seen action as an assistant surgeon during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, I have never witnessed a more revolting display of violence in my entire life.

Despite the gore, the room was otherwise grandiose in its décor. Plush upholstered chairs and sofas covered in purple and green velvet were spread throughout the room. Fine oriental rugs of deep reds, oranges, and yellows covered exquisite hardwood floors. The walls were painted pure white and trimmed with gold leaf molding and more fleur-de-lis patterns. Well-polished mirrors were affixed to the wall every 3 meters, creating the illusion that the room was much larger than it was, and each mirror was flanked by a pair of gold candelabras.

An impressionist portrait of a man who was presumably Mr. Hill hung over a fireplace near the bedroom door, and I was close enough to see that it was signed by the Irish artist John Lavery, who had clearly done the painting on commission. It must have cost a fortune. A double-king-sized four-post bed carved from rich mahogany with lush ivory-colored pillows and bedsheets sat against the wall on the far side of the room. I was willing to bet that the decorations and furniture in that room were worth more money altogether than I could ever make in ten lifetimes, even if my physician’s practice was thriving.

Mr. Hill’s body lay face-up in the center of the room. It was absolutely covered in blood that came from a gaping wound in his abdomen, from which his entrails had been removed and scattered about. He appeared to be a man in his late fifties with a long grey beard and mustache and thinning salt-and-pepper hair. He was wearing a purple silk nightdress, and a rictus of shock and agony was frozen upon his face.

Waves of nausea struck me, but Holmes was unfazed. Already, his powerful mind was taking inventory of everything in the room. I knew from experience that later, he would be able to recall every minute detail, from the quality of the fabric on the bed to the tiniest imperfections in the wall paint. Meanwhile, I was desperately trying not to vomit.

Officer White then approached us from behind. He began to say, “The maid…” but Holmes interrupted him with an annoyed “Shh.”

Officer White shook his head and blinked hard in annoyance but then continued undeterred, “The maid found him this morning. She said she did not hear anything during the night when the murder must have taken place due to the fact that her room is far on the other side of the house downstairs. We have already questioned her and searched her belongings and have no reason to suspect her of any involvement.”

“Of course not,” said Holmes. “What a foolish notion.”

Officer White became even more flustered and said in a chafed voice, “Nothing in the room has been disturbed since it was found this morning.”

Holmes said, “Thank you, Officer White. You may go” and waved his hand at him in a shooing motion.

Officer White stood there stiffly with a perplexed look upon his face as though he was not quite sure what he wished to do. He opened his mouth to say something else but appeared to think better of it. Then, he whirled around and marched away. Holmes removed his coat and handed it to me. He then stepped awkwardly toward the body by finding dry spots on the floor where blood had not been spilled.

He pulled out his magnifying glass to examine the numerous wounds that covered the body. Then, he said to me, “The wounds have a distinctive zig-zag pattern as though he was stabbed by a blade with a peculiar design. I have not seen anything like it before.”

He then silently inspected the rest of the crime scene. As he did so, he began to mutter to himself under his breath, apparently cataloguing his observations for storage in his “mind-attic,” as he liked to call it. You see, Holmes believed that every piece of knowledge one possesses takes up space in one’s mind, much like storing furniture takes up space in one’s attic. Because space is limited, one must be highly selective about the furniture one stores and the reasons for storing it in the first place.

As a result, he only paid attention to that which was both remarkable and relevant to whatever case he was working on at the time, and the rest of the world might as well not exist. Later, after our adventure was over, Holmes would intentionally forget all but the most general details about it, thus creating room in his mind for future cases.

Holmes’s methods were refined and mechanical, not unlike Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, also known as a computer, a new invention I had recently read about in a journal article. The article described it as being something like a clockwork brain that could think and solve problems while remaining devoid of emotional interference or distraction. “How ironic,” I thought to myself as I read the article. “Babbage may have patented the device, but Holmes’s brain already functions the same way.”

Officer White returned a few minutes later with Lestrade at his side. Lestrade said sarcastically, “I see we are already making new friends.” Holmes ignored him and continued to work in silence.

After several more minutes of inspection, Holmes finally looked up and said, “I take it, Inspector Lestrade, that you have already formed a theory regarding what that took place here?”

Lestrade looked at Officer White and then at Holmes and said, “Yes, we have, Holmes. We believe…”

Holmes interrupted him to say, “You believe that this is the work of a random drug addict, drunk, or otherwise mentally ill person who snuck inside with the intention to commit a robbery. You also believe this person must have surprised Mr. Hill in his bed and then, in a chemically or psychotically induced rampage, pulled out an oddly shaped knife and created this horrific scene we now see before us.”

Lestrade appeared nonplussed as he nodded and said, “Yes, that is one possibility.”

“Alternatively,” said Holmes, “You also think this could be the work of a murderer or perhaps even a burgeoning serial killer. Hence, your apprehension as to how to approach the case due to the potentially ghastly implications it may have.”

Lestrade nodded and said, “We considered that as well, yes.”

Holmes rolled his eyes and flatly said, “Both theories are wrong.” He continued, “What we have here, dear inspector, is ritualistic barbarity, as well-thought-out and preordained as it is terribly savage. This was the result of someone knowingly and intentionally entering Mr. Hill’s home with the sole intention of committing this butchery to serve a much larger purpose.”

Then, to make his point, Holmes moved wordlessly to the nightstand beside the bed and slid it aside. Behind it was a strange symbol resembling some kind of loathsome octopoid creature drawn in what was presumably more of the victim’s blood.

“This, gentlemen, is not the work of random drunk or psychotic murderer, nor is it the calling card of a serial thrill-killer. It is indicative of a cult, and this killing was a human sacrifice. I can guarantee that we shall see more killings like this one before we close the case,” Holmes said.

Both Lestrade and Officer White groaned audibly. As I stood looking at Holmes, I saw a familiar spark in his eye – he was thrilled.

Chapter 3

Early the next morning, Holmes and I emerged from our rooms and walked to the nearby Metropolitan Railway Station that had recently opened at the corner of Baker Street and Marleybone. The Met, as they called it, was part of a new system of underground passenger rail transport that was meant to increase the efficiency of pedestrian travel throughout the city.

Life in London teemed around us as we walked down Baker Street. The fall weather was mild, and the London fog was not too bad, so we were able to see quite clearly. Street urchins solicited us, trying to sell various goods and services such as cheap cigarettes and shoeshines as we went past them. None could have been over the age of twelve, and each was wearing dirty rags as clothing.

My heart went out to these poor wretches, and I wondered where their parents were and whether they even had parents at all. I flipped one child a shilling and hoped the others would not notice for fear of being swarmed with tiny outstretched palms that wished to be filled with coins as well. I reflected on how there is only so much good a single person can do in the world, no matter how great their faculties or intentions.

We approached the entrance to the underground station, a squat one-story building made of light grey stone blocks. The building housed a ticket booth, where we each purchased a ticket to Cambridge. The stairs to the underground train platform were nearby, and as we descended, I saw people bustling about in all directions, carrying luggage and other articles. A rail employee periodically reminded passengers to “mind the gap” as they entered and exited the rail cars, referring to the space between the train and the platform.

We did not have to wait long because our train quickly pulled up to where we stood on the platform and the doors opened to receive passengers. I felt a spike of anxiety as we began to embark. Frankly, I had significant misgivings about the safety and efficacy of this underground transportation system, but Holmes did not seem concerned about it at all.

When I expressed my unease, Holmes said, “Oh, my, but there is nothing to worry about, old chap. The Underground is designed with such logic and forethought that they will be using it for at least the next 200 years. In addition, it shall serve as the model for underground railway development all over the world.”

“Perhaps,” I said, but I was not so sure.

We took the Underground to King’s Cross Station, and from there, we took the aboveground rail to Cambridge on our way to visit the University of Cambridge Library. There, Holmes had said, we would request a special selection: an antediluvian tome that was currently on loan from Miskatonic University, in Arkham, Massachusetts, in the United States. It was called the Necronomicon.

“What a dreadful-sounding name,” I remarked.

“Indeed,” Holmes replied. “Bear in mind, Watson, that this is no ordinary old tome about fairytales and pixie dust. In it, one will find incantations and rituals devoted to unnamable, evil gods and the darkest examples of man’s imagination. It is all rubbish, of course. I happened to become aware of the volume’s existence during my days at university in Oxbridge while studying ancient religions for a monograph. During my research, I came across several mentions of it in various texts from disparate tribes, cults, and covens of antiquity.

“Each group described it as possessing the same characteristics: a binding made of leathery flesh, unmentionably blasphemous and demonic content, and imperviousness to attempts to burn or otherwise destroy it. These groups could not possibly have communicated with one another about the tome, and yet their accounts are virtually identical.”

“My word,” I said with astonishment.

“Oh, yes,” said Holmes, “Personally, I doubted its existence, so I was quite shocked to discover several years later that it is indeed real and is also the subject of no small amount of scholarly scrutiny. To top it all off, I read in a brief article tucked away in the back of The Times not two months ago that the tome would be on loan at the University of Cambridge Library at this time.

“Do you suppose the tome’s recent appearance in Cambridge has anything to do with the ritualistic murder of Mr. Hill?” I asked.

Holmes looked out the window and did not say anything for a several moments. Finally, he replied, “It is possible. Though how probable, I cannot yet say.”

I had briefly observed Holmes with my physician’s eye as he was thinking of his answer. I perceived that he no longer displayed any physiological signs of the influence of drugs. The thrill of the hunt was all the high he needed – he was on his game.

We spoke little more and arrived nearly two hours later at Cambridge Railway Station, which was merely a covered platform over the train tracks. We then summoned a hansom to take us straight to the University library. Holmes said nothing as our carriage bounced noisily along the quaint cobblestone roads of Cambridge. During the trip, I imagined what an ancient, evil deity might look like and shuddered. One form I envisioned resembled a massive cluster of blue-veined, blood-red flesh covered in revolting eyeballs all blinking asynchronously. Another looked like a colossal conglomeration of shining protoplasmic globes. Still another reminded me of a tall, vampiric Egyptian pharaoh covered in a tenebrous shawl.

It was now early afternoon, and though the sun shined brightly over bucolic fields on a rare cloud-free day in England, I felt a growing sense of unease and dread. What began as a slight discomfort became a heavier presence in my mind as we drew closer to the library, and I soon became queasy as well. My skin turned clammy, and small droplets of sweat began to drip down my forehead despite the mild weather. Holmes noticed that I was not looking well and asked, “All you alright, Watson?”

“Yes, I am fine,” I lied, “just feeling a bit taxed from the travel, you see. It is nothing to worry about,” Holmes looked at me for a moment but said nothing.

The hansom dropped us off in front of the library. Its main building was nearly 100 meters across, with a large archway above the entrance. It was three stories tall and made of brown and tan stone with tall windows every two meters across the façade. Directly above the archway was a massive tower that stretched into the sky, not unlike something from the historical fantasy novels I occasionally indulged in.

As we approached the entrance, a ringing in my ears began and became more intense as we went closer the building. This library visit, I feared, would not end well. However, I soldiered on. Holmes needed me.

The main doorway led into a grand hall, in which one could see oak bookshelves full of books in orderly rows running down the length of the building’s interior. The archway above the entrance extended all the way down the center of the building, not unlike the spine of a book, and a large window stood at the end of the great hall. Columns supported more archways covering rows of books, and crisscrossing lines forming large diamond designs played across the vaulted ceiling. Shafts of light spilled into the building from the exterior windows, providing illumination for the entire space. It was truly a fascinating sight, and I was awestruck as I thought about all the knowledge that must have accumulated in this building over the years.

In the center of the hall was a simple oak desk that was nearly ten meters long. Behind it sat a man who was presumably a librarian. He was in his forties, clean shaven, and slightly balding. He was wearing a dirty light-blue frock, which I took to be his work uniform. As we got closer, I saw that the man was in a deep slumber and snoring lightly with his eyes closed tight.

Holmes approached him at the desk and brusquely said, “Good day.” The man was startled awake, snorted loudly, and then looked confusedly up at Holmes. Holmes said “I am Sherlock Holmes and this is my associate, Dr. John Watson. We are here to examine the tome known as the Necronomicon, which we are aware that the library currently has on loan from Miskatonic University, in the United States.”

The librarian sat up as he rubbed his eyes. Then, with a yawn, he said “Dreadfully sorry, sir, but I am afraid it is not available for viewing by the public. It is here for scholarly research purposes only.”

“Now, now,” said Holmes, wagging his finger. “It is imperative that we examine it immediately. This is part of an ongoing investigation into a recent murder in London.”

The librarian looked at him incredulously and asked, “What in heaven could an ancient text such as the Necronomicon possibly have to do with a recent murder in London?”

“That is what we hope to discover,” Holmes said condescendingly. “Now, you will kindly show us to it, with haste.”

The librarian rolled his eyes and said huffily, “I am sorry sir, but as I said, that volume is not available for public display. Perhaps, you would prefer to view our copy of The Book of Eibon instead? My understanding is that it is just as old and just as strange as the Necronomicon if not more so. Maybe, it has the answers to your little murder mystery.”

“See here, my good man,” Holmes snapped. “It would be a shame if Mrs. Williams were to discover that her husband was having affairs with not one but two women, each of whom are blissfully unaware of one another as well. Yes, I imagine it would be quite a difficult situation for everyone involved if such a secret were to be let out.”

At this, the librarian’s face turned ashen white. He whispered nervously, “I do not know what you are talking about, sir.”

It was obvious how Holmes knew the librarian’s name and marital status because his nameplate sat plainly upon his desk and he was wearing a wedding ring. The rest of the information Holmes had acquired through his singular deductive sensibilities, which I knew he was now about to demonstrate.

“Oh, please, do not be coy,” said Holmes. “I detect the smells of three distinct perfumes derived from three different floral oils emanating from your filthy uniform. The strength of each scent is slightly weaker or greater than the others, implying differences in the times at which you acquired each one. There is not enough of any scent to indicate that it was directly applied to your person, meaning that the only other way they could have attached themselves to you is by direct physical contact with someone who was already wearing them.”

The librarian stared at Holmes in shocked silence but without objection.

Holmes continued, “Seeing as how nobody purposefully wears three different amounts of three different types of perfumes at once, this means you are seeing three separate women at different times throughout the day. The first and faintest scent must have come from when you hugged and kissed your wife goodbye this morning on your way to work. The other two slightly stronger scents must have come from conjugal visits you received whilst away from your desk on break. The fact that one of these errant scents is stronger than the other suggests that the timing of their respective applications must have been staggered as well. It seems you have been doing far more than just sleeping on the job.”

The librarian was wide awake now. His mouth hung open, and his eyes stared dumbly at Holmes, who merely peered down at him with his eyebrows raised. Suddenly invigorated, the librarian stood up quickly and said, “Please, forgive me, Mr. Holmes. It seems I have made a mistake. Please follow me to where the tome is located.”

He then led us to a nearby alcove with a small wooden door. There, he looked nervously at Holmes as he pulled out a set of iron keys and said, “You know, I could get into a lot of trouble.”

“Yes, you certainly could,” Holmes replied disinterestedly.

The librarian sighed heavily as he unlocked the door to what appeared to be a small reading room. The room was lined with oak bookshelves full of books, like the rest of the library, and was illuminated by a tall window that cast shadows everywhere. In the center of the room was a small wooden desk, upon which there was an unusually large tome leaning unopened against a wooden stand. The tome’s cover appeared to be made of decayed strips of flesh sewn haphazardly together into an indescribably grotesque leather binding. Eldritch runes were drawn in menacing black ink all over the cover, and its pages’ edges jutted out jaggedly, as if designed specifically to slice open the palms of anyone who tried to read it. I detected a noisome odor which emanated from the tome, and I was instantly overwhelmed by a sense of paralyzing malaise. I let out a low groan as I doubled over. As I did so, both Holmes and the librarian turned to see what was the matter.

“Watson,” Holmes said after looking at me for a moment. “Perhaps we should take our new friend’s advice and examine The Book of Eibon as well. You will show it to him, will you not?” he asked.

“Of course,” replied the librarian, a little too eagerly.

“Very well. Watson, I will meet you back at the entrance within two hours. That should give me enough time to examine the volume and absorb its contents for our purposes.” With that, Holmes swung the door shut. I felt my head start to pound as the ringing in my ears intensified, and my hands began to tremble.

“Well, shall we go on, then?” asked the librarian, to which I responded with a strained voice that we should indeed. He then began to walk into the stacks. I followed as best I could, though moving made me feel worse. I could not keep up, and after several moments, I had fallen far behind. He did not seem to notice that I was not close anymore, and when he was about 15 meters away, I tried to call out to him but could only manage a whisper. The librarian then turned a corner and I lost sight of him. When I arrived at the spot where he had been, he was gone.

I looked around, and it seemed I was now in an older section of the library. All the books were caked in what seemed like a century’s worth of dust. It was significantly darker here, with the only light shining hazily through the windows at the far end of the building. The shelves were draped with chain curtains, like something from the medieval period. Shadows danced everywhere, and once, I thought I saw one materialize into the shape of a black cat and then furtively hurry away. I heard a whispering from somewhere in the distance. The sound grew louder and louder, and I realized it was a group of voices, all repeating some sort of chant. The ululations became louder still and echoed all around me. It sounded like “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” I felt that I was being observed with intense hated by some unseen presence. Revulsion assaulted my senses, and my mind lurched. Every muscle in my body felt fatigued, and I collapsed in weakness and dread. I shut my eyes, put my hands to my ears, and screamed.

Just then, someone slapped me hard across the face, and everything returned to normal. The symptoms of my crack-up disappeared completely. Surprised, I looked up and saw I was laying not three meters away from the alcove door. Holmes hovered over me, and the librarian stood behind him with a concerned look on his face.

“Wha…?” I attempted to speak.

“Good heavens, Watson, you were curled up in a ball and babbling like a small child,” said Holmes.

“But, I thought…”

The librarian nodded and said, “You were making the most abnormal noises.”

“I thought I heard…”

“Watson,” Holmes interjected, “you seem out of sorts. Perhaps, you should go and sit in the lobby and wait for me to finish? You could work on one of those stories you insist on writing about my cases for the local journals.”

I blinked several times, paused, and said weakly, “Yes, I think that would be a good idea.”

“It is a capital idea,” replied Holmes. Then, he turned and walked briskly into the reading room and slammed the door behind him.

Chapter 4

Lestrade eyed us grimly from behind his scuffed desk in his office at the police station. Upon it were various articles, including a pair of handcuffs, a tobacco pipe, an ashtray that had accumulated a prodigious pile of ash, an oil lamp, and myriad documents and files. The office walls were painted a dull green color that matched the cheap green linoleum tile floor. An old coat rack stood next to the glass-paned office door. We sat across from Lestrade while Officer White stood off to the side. Holmes was discussing the findings of his research at the University of Cambridge Library.

He said, “As you see, Inspector Lestrade, these killings shall continue until the ritual is complete and the cult’s purpose is thus fulfilled. This cult itself is dedicated to an entity known as Cthulhu.” He sounded out the name as he repeated it slowly, “Kuh-thoo-loo.”

Holmes continued, “This entity is a deity of death and destruction who has been worshipped in secret by various groups all over the world for millennia. Based on my study of the Necronomicon, an ancient grimoire written by one of the deity’s followers, there exists a ritual by which one may summon Cthulhu by spilling blood through acts of vengeance in his name ‘when the stars align.’ The origins of the tome itself are shrouded in mystery. However, the general consensus among scholars of ancient history is that it was created to hasten the reawakening of Cthulhu from his slumber in the lost city of R’lyeh, at the bottom of the sea.”

Officer White looked disgusted and complained, “That is the daftest thing I have ever heard. ‘When the stars align?’ What in bloody hell does that mean?”

Holmes said, “I was curious about this myself, and so I did some research into historical astronomy. I discovered that nearly 1,000 years ago, Anglo-Saxon scholars who inhabited early medieval England described seeing a peculiar cluster of stars that was particularly bright and that had materialized out of nowhere. Unlike other constellations, this one would appear only late at night for a few hours before it would disappear. The next evening, it would reappear in the same spot at the same time as it had before. This pattern continued for nearly two months before the strange constellation mysteriously disappeared, never to return, or so they thought. Nearly 500 years later, accounts from astronomers in early modern Britain in the same geographical region also described a constellation that was identical to that described by their medieval ancestors. It is highly improbable that this could be a coincidence. Furthermore, last night, I used my telescope to examine the precise location where this constellation was said to have appeared in the historical records. Sure enough, I perceived it shining brightly right where the ancients said it would be. I drew a sketch of what I saw.”

Holmes took out a folded piece of paper from his inside coat pocket and laid it flat on the desk. The drawing appeared as a smattering of star-shaped points that Holmes might well have assembled randomly on the page. Officer White examined the drawing and said to Lestrade, “This is what the famed consulting detective calls evidence? Why, it is but a drawing that could have been done by a child.” Lestrade looked at him but said nothing.

Holmes said, “Once I sketched the constellation, I began researching it in various texts and manuscripts on astronomy. I discovered that accounts of its appearance go much further back than merely a thousand years. Indeed, it seems to have appeared and reappeared once every 500 years or so since prehistoric times.”

“So that is why he was up all night,” I thought to myself, remembering how I was awoken at three in the morning by the acrid smell of Holmes’s tobacco smoke.

Holmes continued, “I soon discovered that ancient peoples all over the world referred extensively to this constellation within their mythologies. What is even more curious, however, is that each culture, regardless of its position in time and geography, describes it as representing the same general concept.”

He then picked up a fountain pen laying on Lestrade’s desk and used it to draw lines around the stars to form a pattern. When he was finished, Lestrade and I looked at it and gasped in unison. The drawing now bore an uncanny resemblance to the hidden image drawn in blood at Mr. Hill’s murder scene.

We stood there dumbfounded until Officer White scoffed loudly. He then said angrily to Lestrade, “You cannot possibly be entertaining this charlatan’s spurious narrative. A history lesson, a book of ghost stories, and this freak’s childish imagination have nothing to do with the murder of Robert Hill or anything of relevance to our investigation.” He shook with rage as he spoke, and for a moment, I thought he might tear the drawing to shreds. Officer White then pointed at Holmes and said, “For all we know, this is Robert Hill’s killer right here. He could have snuck into the man’s house and gutted him just to use his blood to make bizarre finger paintings. Why should we not arrest him immediately?”

Holmes seemed quietly amused. Lestrade closed his eyes and held up his hand to signal for Officer White to stop talking. Lestrade then asked Holmes, “How did you know about the symbol’s presence in Mr. Hill’s bedroom?”

“After examining the crime scene, I noticed that a thin film of dust had accumulated on the floors. It seems that Mr. Hill’s housekeeper was not as tidy as she could have been. Regardless, a pattern in the dust revealed that the nightstand had been recently moved to the side and then back again. I glanced behind the nightstand during my inspection and saw the symbol, then waited to reveal it to you and Officer White until the opportune time to make my point that the killing was ritualistic in nature and not a common murder.

Lestrade thought for a moment, then said, “Well, despite this, your theory does seem a bit far-fetched, Holmes.”

Holmes said, “But?”

“But…” Lestrade said, “… there was another murder, similar to the last.”

“Of course there was,” Holmes said matter-of-factly.

Lestrade continued, “This one is a bit cleaner than the last, though no less dreadful. My officers have given the scene a once-over, and we have yet to discover this strange symbol you have just described. There does not appear to be anything else linking it to the previous killing except for the victim’s wounds which show the same distinctive pattern as those inflicted on Mr. Hill. However, Officer White is convinced that the killings are not even related at all.”

“That is right,” said Officer White. “It is entirely likely that these are just two random killings that happen to resemble one another in only the slightest way. I see no reason to pull this fraudulent detective into another one of our cases. He has created enough of a mess as it is with all this talk of cults and wizardry and black magic.”

Lestrade waited for Officer White to finish and then continued, “The victim’s name was George Bennett. His body was discovered by his wife, Alexandra. They were estranged, and she has been staying with friends for the past few days.

“Her story is that she returned home to collect some things yesterday morning and noticed that Mr. Bennett was not going about his regular routine. She then went into the bedroom, and there, she discovered his body. Right now, we do not consider her a suspect, though that could change depending on what we find. She is here at the police station of her own free will and is waiting to answer more of our questions. She has been cooperating fully so far. Clearly, she had motive and opportunity.”

With acid in his voice, Officer White said, “It seems easy to deduce that she is more likely the culprit than a monster that lives at the bottom of the sea.”

Holmes said, “I should like to speak with Mrs. Bennett before we visit the murder scene. I shall tell you right now, however, that she is certainly not the killer in either of our murders nor will she be the killer in any of the subsequent killings, and rest assured, gentlemen, there will be more.”

Officer White stared at Holmes in silence, and Lestrade said, “She is in the interview room just down the hall to the left. Let me know when you are finished, and we shall then go to the Bennett residence.”

Holmes and I went down the hallway towards the interview room Lestrade had indicated. The walls and floor were the same drab green color as in Lestrade’s office. Holmes approached the interview room’s glass-paned door, rapped twice upon it, and opened it. Then, we both stepped inside.

Sitting on a metal chair at a metal table in the center of the room was Mrs. Bennett, calmly smoking a cigarette and looking quite bored. She was a stately woman in her early 60s with curly grey hair. She was adorned in garish golden jewelry, including earrings, a necklace, a bracelet, and a multitude of rings with stones of every color of the rainbow on her fingers. She wore a plum-colored short-sleeved dress with delicate lace trim and a tie string in the front and had elegant brown leather pioneer-style boots as well. “Aye, who are you then?” she said as we entered.

Holmes sat at the table across from her, and I sat next to him. “Good Day, Mrs. Bennett. I am Sherlock Holmes, and this is my associate, Dr. John Watson,” he said.

“Oh my, I have heard of you before,” she said. “Both of you.”

“Yes, I am sure you have,” said Holmes. “We are here to ask you some questions about your husband.”

I added, “You have our condolences for your loss, Madame. This must be a difficult time for you.”

She shrugged and said, “Not really. Although I must say the circumstances of his departure do seem a bit harsh.”

“Inspector Lestrade informed us that you were estranged,” said Holmes.

“That is one way of putting it,” she said bitterly. “Another way is that he was putting it to my backstabbing, backbiting sister. May he rot in hell, and may she soon join him. Then, they will not have to worry about putting on any more pathetic charades to conceal their relationship, which they were doing a terrible job of anyway.”

“You are not sorry he is dead?” I asked

“No,” she answered calmly, and then took a long drag on her cigarette before casually blowing several smoke rings.

After a moment, she said, “I will say this about George: he was an arsehole, but he did not deserve to be killed the way he was. Did he deserve to be humiliated? Yes. Disgraced? Absolutely. But murdered? No, despite what a bastard he was. That is why I am happy to answer any and all of your questions. Mind you, I did not stick around for long once I saw…” Her voice trailed off. I detected a flicker of sadness in her expression, and her mouth trembled slightly.

Holmes stood up, saying “Thank you, Mrs. Bennett. If you should need anything from us, please let Inspector Lestrade know.”

She looked surprise and said, “You mean you are not going to question me further? I thought surely the police were going to probe much more deeply considering the circumstances. I chose to come here of my own volition because I believed it would expedite the process of my being cleared of wrongdoing.”

“Then, it seems your strategy has worked, Mrs. Bennett, as you clearly are not the killer. I will inform Inspector Lestrade of my belief in this regard, and that should satisfy him as well.”

Relief washed over Mrs. Bennett’s face and she asked, “And what of that other police officer, the nasty one?”

“Officer White?” Holmes asked. “Yes, he is rather nasty, but his interest shall also be quelled with my assertion of your innocence. You may return to your life without fear of police interference as we sort this matter out. As I said, should you need anything from us, please do reach out.”

Chapter 5

We rode with Lestrade and Officer White in a police carriage to George Bennett’s home in Leicester Square. The square was similar in layout to St. James’s Square, where the previous murder had occurred, with houses making up its perimeter. However, instead of a garden, its interior was composed only of short-cut grass, with a statue of George I on horseback in the center.

We pulled to a stop in front of a home on the square’s northern side. The Bennett residence was two stories tall and nearly 20 meters wide, with small rectangular windows placed every meter across the front, side, and back. It was painted bright white with vibrant blue trim. A single officer in uniform stood at its front door.

Lestrade and Officer White stomped wordlessly towards the home with us in tow. Gravely and without a word, the officer guarding the door stepped aside so we could enter. Once inside, we saw that in addition to being smaller, the Bennett home was also significantly older than the Hill residence. Ancient-looking wooden beams framed each room, and the walls were made of plaster, much of which was cracking along the edges. An old, musty smell that reminded me of my grandfather permeated the environment.

However, despite its size and age, the house was still quite opulent, with fine rugs, furniture, paintings, and other expensive decorations scattered throughout. Each room had finely stained hardwood floors. In addition, many of the plaster walls had frescoes painted upon them depicting various scenes including angels, saints, and royalty.

George Bennett’s body lay face-down in the middle of the floor in the center of the living room next to a purple upholstered sofa facing a huge stone fireplace. He had graying reddish hair and had been quite portly. He was wearing a brown suit with exquisite tailoring and brown lace-up boots. I saw bruises on both sides of his neck.

The room was clean and organized, without anything obviously out of place. A decanter filled with liquor and two half-filled drinking glasses sat on an end table next to the sofa. One was slightly fuller than the other; it seemed Mr. Bennett was enjoying a nightcap with someone before he met his untimely demise.

One major difference I noticed between this murder scene and the previous one was that there was virtually no blood, except for a puddle that had pooled under the late Mr. Bennett’s shirt. Though the level of violence seemed to be much less than with Mr. Hill’s killing, it was no less savage. It was as if the hot passions of the first murder scene had been extinguished in this one and the only thing that remained was the cold brutality of it all.

Lestrade said, “It appears he is missing a few trinkets: a watch, some rings, and his money clip, but everything else appears untouched. It is as if someone carefully went through his things, took what they fancied, and then placed everything else back as they found it.”

Holmes spent several minutes examining the room and then approached the body and rolled it over. When he did so, I saw that the bruises on the sides of the late Mr. Bennett’s neck went all the way around the front of it as well, and just underneath the bruise was a single stab wound with the now-familiar zig-zag pattern. It also appeared that his body had been dragged a couple meters after he was stabbed, because there was a long smudge of blood starting at the wound and going down the front of his shirt and pants. A corresponding streak of blood appeared across the floorboards, having been concealed underneath his body.

Holmes said, “This man was stabbed once in the throat, but he was dead before the wound was inflicted. In fact, he was poisoned with some kind of paralytic agent and then strangled. However, the cut bears the same zig-zag pattern as with the wounds inflicted on Mr. Hill. Bleeding the victim must therefore have some significance in the cult’s ritual, as we saw so dramatically with Mr. Hill’s death.”

“And just what makes you think the two killings are related at all?” demanded Officer White sternly. “For all you know, this is just another murder, the likes of which occur every day in the large and bustling city of London. Yes, it appears somewhat similar to Mr. Hill’s killing, but so do many other murders that I have personally worked, and solved mind you, in just the past year. This one included a robbery as well, but that underscores the greater likelihood that our suspect is merely some cocaine-addicted fiend looking for his next fix.”

At the mention of his preferred stimulant, Holmes looked at Officer White and then at Lestrade, who stared back at him blankly. Officer White smirked, “Yes, that is correct, I have heard all about your little habit. All of Scotland Yard knows what fuels your so-called insights. It is all merely drug-induced psychosis.”

He stalked a couple steps closer to Holmes and I could feel a confrontation coming. I had little worry for Holmes’s well-being, however, as he was a formidable boxer and could no doubt whip Officer White in any bare-knuckle brawl. Officer White continued, “The few times you have been right, it was nothing but lucky guesswork you achieved while standing on the shoulders of the real detectives surrounding you. Whoever heard of a consulting detective anyway?”

Holmes faced Officer White, who was now standing mere inches away from him. I readied myself for the blows to begin to rain down. Then, Holmes smiled lightly and said, “It is entirely possible that you are correct, Officer White.”

Officer White was taken aback. He had not been prepared for any kind of concession. Holmes continued, “It is possible, however improbable, that at least in this specific instance, I may have jumped to conclusions.” Officer White looked at him suspiciously.

“I suppose it is also possible that despite the numerous times I have provided substantial and, let us be honest, essential support to Scotland Yard to help it solve all sorts of crimes, I was making lucky guesses, mere tricks of observation not unlike those used by any con artist to separate rubes from their shillings.” Officer White frowned.

“I sense that you do not like me, Officer White,” Holmes continued. “Normally, I would not care at all, but seeing as how you continue to interrupt and distract me while I am simply trying to help you and your colleagues, I shall make you a deal.”

Officer White replied skeptically, “What kind of deal would that be?”

Holmes pointed at the body and said, “If I can prove to you, right now, that this murder is without a doubt related to that of Mr. Hill, you will kindly keep your personal opinions to yourself, as should any proper British gentleman and officer of the law. I will even dismiss all the rudeness you have already displayed as being merely symptomatic of bad training.” He glanced at Lestrade, who looked away with displeasure.

“And what if I am right, and you cannot prove a damned thing?” asked Officer White with a sneer.

“Then, my colleague Dr. Watson and I shall retire back to our rooms at Baker Street and let you and Lestrade wrap up this case on your own. However, you will need to remember that if you have further difficulties, as you most certainly will, then Scotland Yard will not have me to bail it out yet again. Not this time.”

Officer White hesitated, and I detected uncertainty in his demeanor. He then looked at Lestrade, who shrugged dejectedly. I could tell Lestrade was not at all happy about how events were transpiring, but felt he was helpless to intercede. “Deal,” said Officer White, holding out his hand to shake on it.

Holmes clasped Officer White’s hand and firmly shook it once, up and down. Then, with his hand still clutching Officer White’s, Holmes he stamped down hard on the floorboard that had been directly underneath the body before he rolled it over.

The floorboard popped up as though it was not nailed down like the others and landed a meter away. There, drawn on the underside of the floorboard in what appeared to be blood, was the same symbol seen in Mr. Hill’s room and Holmes’s sketch of the mysterious constellation. Officer White, dumbfounded and speechless, jerked his hand away and stared at the symbol. He turned quite red and quivered from equal parts shock, embarrassment, and rage. He then turned in a huff and stormed out of the room.

Once Office White was gone, Lestrade asked, “You say Mr. Bennett was poisoned and then strangled, and that the cut had nothing to do with his death. How do you know this?”

Holmes said, “I detected the smell of garlic in the decanter and in both the drinking glasses, indicating the presence of arsenic in the liquor. Mr. Bennett was enjoying a drink with someone, presumably the murderer, who slipped the poison into the decanter so as to ensure that Mr. Bennett would receive a dose no matter which glass he drank from. If you look closely, you shall see that the less-full glass has the impression of a bottom lip on the outer rim and an impression of an upper lip on the inner rim, indicating someone put their mouth to it and sipped from it liberally. However, the other glass has only the impression of a bottom lip on the outer rim, indicating that someone pressed the glass to their mouth but did not drink from it, suggesting they knew it was poisoned. This clearly indicates that Mr. Bennett knew and trusted his killer and probably had a friendly relationship with them as well, considering that he had them in his home for drinks and conversation right before he died.

“Furthermore, one can plainly see the ligature marks around his neck. His killer, having paralyzed him with the poison, then proceeded to use a piece of common rope to strangle him to death before finally stabbing him once he had passed. This is curious because the arsenic would have done the job just as well, though the process would have been slower and much more painful. This suggests that the killer wished to prevent Mr. Bennett from suffering unnecessarily. It is an odd departure from Mr. Hill’s killing, the manner of which seemed intended to maximize the suffering of the victim, rather than minimize it.”

I approached the floorboard for a closer look at the symbol and saw that it appeared to be very similar to the one at the previous murder scene. One noticeable difference, however, was that it seemed to have been drawn by the hand of a person with much finer motor skills than the individual who had produced the first drawing. The symbol’s lines were also more precise, and they looked like they were drawn using a writing instrument such as a quill pen, rather than a finger, as in the previous killing.

“Remarkable, Holmes,” I said. “How did you know it would be there?”

“Come now, Watson. Have I not I taught you anything? See if you can deduce it based on the evidence at hand. There’s more than enough to make it quite obvious, I should say.”

It always frustrated me whenever Holmes challenged me like this. However, I could see value in the way it forced me to alter my thought processes so as to focus on observation and deduction. I took a few minutes and looked around the room and at the body, much as he had. Lestrade looked on in silence.

“Clearly,” I said, “if the hypothesis is that the presence of the symbol near the body, along with a deliberate attempt to conceal it, are together indicative of cult activity, as we suspect, then we could conjecture that this would be a common thread between the murders. We may assume that the symbol must therefore be in the vicinity and must also be in a place where it could not easily be seen by the casual observer.”

“Obviously,” Holmes said, sounding bored. “Come now, Watson. You are stalling.”

I continued, “From examining the crime scene, I see that there is a layer of dust upon the floor similar to the one you described as being present in Mr. Hill’s room. However, none of the furniture appears to have been moved through it. In addition, this scene is much more organized than the last. Maybe, the murderer felt guilty, or…”

“Now, now,” Holmes interrupted, “you were doing well, but you are getting off track.”

“Yes, I do apologize,” I replied. “As I said, none of the furniture has been moved and there are no other hiding places where the symbol could have been concealed, so the only other place to hide the symbol was underneath the floor itself.”

Holmes nodded approvingly and said, “Excellent, Watson. Please continue your deduction.”

I frowned and thought for several moments. Finally, after some deliberation, I said, “I am sorry, Holmes, but I am afraid I can go no further. I understand why you believed the symbol was drawn beneath the floor, but I am simply at a loss as to how you knew would be on the underside of the floorboard beneath the body.”

Sighing with disappointment, Holmes said, “Very well, old chap. Here is a hint: take another walk around the body. Do you notice anything?”

I did as he instructed and walked in a small circle around Mr. Bennett’s corpse, but nothing sprang to my mind. “I am afraid not Holmes,” I said.

Holmes then asked, “Do you not notice how much more elastic the floor around the body is when compared to the rest of the room? Whereas the ground is solid everywhere else, the area near the body bounces back with every step.

“This could have only been caused by a floorboard having been removed and then replaced by a person unskilled in carpentry, thus making it easy to pop one off by stomping on it as I did. If you look closely at the errant floorboard itself, you will see scratches where it was pried away with a small crowbar that the killer must have had on their person. Once they poisoned, strangled, and then finally stabbed Mr. Bennett, they must have then removed the nearby floorboard to inscribe and conceal the cult’s symbol beneath the floor. They then replaced the floorboard haphazardly and dragged his body over it, if for no other reason than to make the symbol even more hidden. I must confess, however, that I was not sure whether the symbol would be drawn upon the underside of the floorboard itself or on the subfloor beneath. Now, we know for certain.”

Holmes continued, “Furthermore, both victims were members of London high society and were therefore almost certainly acquainted. Learning more about their social relationships should be the next avenue we explore. For this, we will need to consult my brother Mycroft. His fat fingers are immersed in everything in London that involves large piles of money and the even larger egos to which they belong. This means our next stop shall be the Diogenes Club, where he is no doubt lounging about, as always.” Upon hearing Holmes speak flippantly of those with big egos, I could not help but give him a sideways look with my eyebrow raised. Seeing this, he remarked, “Oh come now, Watson. You know what I mean.”

“Yes, Holmes, I certainly do.”

Chapter 6

It was late evening when we arrived at the Diogenes Club. It was located in Waterloo Place, and the outside of the building resembled a small Greek palace in the style of the Parthenon. It was constructed of white stone and tile, and its entrance was a Doric portico decorated with a frieze beneath a gold-painted statue of the goddess Athena.

Ostensibly, the organization was a gentlemen’s social club for less-than-sociable gentlemen. Its members consisted entirely of wealthy older men who preferred to spend their time quietly indulging in periodicals or literature while in the company of their fellows without actually speaking to them or engaging with them in any way. I must say, I did find it rather odd.

The club’s main room was filled with men in suits of various shades of brown, grey, and black. They sat in large, comfortable-looking leather chairs with round glass lamps on brass stands placed next to them. Everyone was reading a newspaper, book, or some other such periodical, though one man had fallen asleep in his chair. Portraits and landscapes covered the walls, and exotic plants placed in fine pottery were spread throughout the room. Nobody spoke a word, and there was complete silence.

Holmes’s brother Mycroft was one of the club’s founding members. His profession was unclear, though it clearly allowed him enough free time to loll about here all day. Holmes had once told me that his brother was some kind of auditor for the British government. However, I found myself doubting this more and more with every interaction I had with him, especially because his powers of deduction rivaled those of Holmes himself. There was no doubt he could have met or even exceeded Holmes’s accomplishments in crime detection, though Mycroft said he lacked the energy for fieldwork. This, however, made him invaluable for the rare occasions when Holmes needed a second opinion on a case. Thus, Mycroft had assumed the informal role of consultant to the consulting detective, though Holmes hated to admit it. It wounded Holmes’ pride to ask for his brother’s help, and Mycroft never missed an opportunity to give him a hard time when he did. I suppose sibling rivalry never truly dissipates, it merely takes on new forms.

We found Mycroft in his usual spot, reading the evening edition of The Times in an overstuffed green and ivory leather armchair. He lowered the newspaper and greeted us with a sardonic smile as we approached, then motioned with his head toward a door at the side of the room. Mycroft was a tall man and was also particularly rotund. As a physician, I would describe him as obese. If he were one of my patients, I would place him on a strict diet and exercise regimen immediately because although he was not so old that diabetes was a foregone conclusion, he was certainly getting close. He was slightly balding and clean-shaven, and though his grinning face was significantly rounder than that of his brother Sherlock, the resemblance between them was uncanny.

The doorway to which he was gesticulating communicated with the Stranger’s Room, the one place within the Diogenes Club where members were allowed to speak to one another. Without a word, Holmes and I made our way into the room, which was decorated much like the rest of the club. Mycroft entered behind us and waddled over to another, even more comfortable-looking chair, into which he plopped down with an audible thump. Beside the chair stood a small table upon which there sat a glass of what appeared to be brandy. Next to the glass was an ashtray that held a cigar, which Mycroft put into his mouth and lit with a lighter that he had taken from out of his pants pocket.

“You were expecting us,” said Holmes.

“Of course, dear brother,” Mycroft replied condescendingly as he puffed the cigar a few times, his smile now becoming patronizing.

“I see that the murder of Mr. George Bennett was already reported, then,” said Holmes.

“It was,” said Mycroft. “The journalism of The Times certainly is impeccable. Is it not?”

“Then, you know why we are here.”

“I knew it could not be because you wished to spend some quality time with your favorite sibling,” Mycroft said as he brought the glass to his mouth to take a sip, grinning at Holmes over the rim.

“The fact that you are my only sibling does not automatically make you my favorite,” replied Holmes with annoyance.

Mycroft frowned and furrowed his eyebrows. Then he cocked his head to the side, blinked his eyes rapidly, and shook his head in exaggerated offense. He puffed deeply on his cigar and, as he exhaled, said, “My, my, Sherlock, this case must really have given you the morbs. No need to be poked up about it.” Smoke flowed out from his mouth and nose as he spoke.

“Please, spare me the silly slang, Mycroft. Nobody would mistake you for being a colloquial sort of man anyway, and for your information, dear brother, as to having the morbs, I am not depressed, nor am I embarrassed, or poked up as you put it. I just need information about some of your acquaintances here at the Diogenes Club.

“Do forgive me, Sherlock. You know I am always available to help when you need it.”

Holmes winced and said, “Robert Hill and George Bennett were both killed within the past week. They must have been acquainted through London high society and therefore would certainly have passed through the Diogenes Club.”

“Oh, it is more than certain, dear brother. Why, Mr. Bennett was himself a member, and we truly regret his passing. Queen Victoria herself would be impressed by how much we mourn him.”

Holmes said with disgust, “Goodness, Mycroft, the man’s body is hardly cold, and you are already making jokes about his murder?

Mycroft narrowed his eyes in genuine resentment and said gravely, “Since when did you become so sympathetic, Sherlock? My understanding was that boredom and egocentricity were the primary motivators behind your crime-fighting escapades, not truth and justice. Regardless, I do not have to remind you that when death is common in one’s line of work, one learns to cope.” Mycroft took a swig of brandy and continued, “Everyone copes with it in different ways. I choose humor, and you choose drugs, but who is anyone to judge?”

I puzzled over Mycroft’s words as I considered the fact that the life of a government auditor could not possibly entail confronting death regularly. Clearly, there was much more to his actual profession than either he or Holmes let on. But that was a subject for another day.

Holmes gave his brother an unimpressed look, eyed the glass of liquor in his hand, and said, “Last I checked, alcohol was a drug.” He then turned to me and asked, “Do you concur, my dear doctor?”

“Gentlemen, please,” I said, exasperated. “There is a deranged killer out there, and you are exchanging petty insults like children or politicians. Let us instead focus on what matters, I implore you.”

Both men deflated slightly and then looked at each other. They must have silently agreed to some sort of truce because Mycroft said the first helpful thing since we arrived: “I knew George Bennett well and was also acquainted with Robert Hill. Both men were of strong character in my opinion, though they had their shortcomings as we all do. Also, by virtue of being successful businessmen, they each had enemies, too.”

Holmes eyed his brother warily and said, “Please continue.”

Mycroft went into a lengthy description of his relationships with George Bennett and Robert Hill. He also discussed each man’s social connections and concluded by giving us the names of each one’s respective enemies: Benjamin Parsons and Charles Clarke.”

“But I doubt either of them is a killer,” he added.

“You doubt it, or you know for certain that they are not?” asked Holmes.

“I doubt it,” Mycroft replied, “but who knows? Perhaps, following up with them will at least point you in the right direction.”

“Uncertainty is not becoming of you, dear brother,” said Holmes.

“And ignoring any potential conclusion while trying to solve a case is quite unlike you, dear brother,” replied Mycroft. Both men were smiling now.

Chapter 7

Holmes entered our flat in the mid-afternoon the next day as I sipped tea at the dining table while reading a magazine. He hung up his coat, poured himself some tea, then sat across from me and said, “Neither Benjamin Parsons nor Charles Clarke killed Robert Hill or George Bennett.”

“Oh, how do you know?” I asked

“I called upon each of them at their homes today, one right after the other. Both men felt reasonably comfortable discussing the deaths of their respective enemies with me, and this was the first indicator of their innocence. You see, my dear boy, I am able to perceive a certain whole-body twitch that criminals make when they are suddenly confronted about their crimes by a stranger. In such circumstances, they are so surprised and alarmed that their guilty minds cannot help but activate the fight-or-flight response involuntarily, thus resulting in the twitch. This movement would be impossible to perceive or interpret for the uninitiated, but to me, it is the same as an overt admission of guilt. As neither party demonstrated this behavior when I visited them unannounced and said I wanted to talk to them about their recently deceased enemies, I felt certain that neither could be considered a suspect from the get-go.

“Nevertheless,” he continued. “I proceeded to tell them I was investigating the deaths and was referred to them by Mycroft Holmes with whom they both confirmed their acquaintance. Each man then invited me into his home to answer my questions. I learned from my interviews that both rivalries arose out of business conflicts. However, neither man expressed malice towards their respective antagonists but rather a more general annoyance. Charles Clarke even teared up slightly upon discussing the death of George Bennett. He explained that they had been close friends once long ago and he had hoped they could return to that status once their business conflict was resolved.”

“That certainly adds a bit of poignancy to the situation,” I said, “but could Mr. Clarke merely be malingering? I have heard that it is difficult, but not impossible, to evoke strong emotions within one’s self to elicit a tearful display and thus take on an affected sincerity whenever one wishes.”

Holmes replied dismissively, “Yes, yes, that is but a mere parlor trick. However, as I said, I did not detect any of the telltale micro-expressions that damn even the cleverest liars from Mr. Clarke nor Mr. Parsons. Each man also had an alibi, being out of town on business when the killings of their respective enemies took place. I have already verified these alibis, and they are solid. Therefore, as a result of these inputs, we may conclude that neither man is our murderer.”

“Not to mention that your brother already told you as much,” I added.

Holmes replied with annoyance, “He said no such thing. He said he doubted that either was guilty but suggested that I follow up with them to see if I could glean any other useful information about the case.”

“Well, did you?” I asked.

“As a matter of fact, old friend, I did. It seems that each man knew of another person who had a grievance against their dead antagonist as well, the nature of which, in both cases, was altogether more personal. All the knowledge they possessed about these conflicts was third- or fourth-hand at best. Every detail arose from a rumor they overheard somewhere. Nevertheless, it was all quite suggestive.”

“But surely, Holmes, a guilty man would see strategic value in spinning stories that, if they are to be believed, suggest someone else may have committed the crime so as to conceal his own responsibility. Why, in Mr. Clark’s case particularly, I would think that any person who could squeeze out a tear on demand could also spontaneously conjure a tale that implies whatever they want you to believe, regardless of the truth.”

Holmes gave me a piqued look and said, “Yes, you are correct, Watson, but since we have already eliminated both of the men who we know had motive to commit these crimes as the possible killer or killers, any reason they would have for deception is logically moot. Neither has been accused of the murders, nor shall they be, so neither has any reason to wave a false flag in our faces. There is simply no point.”

“Well, then, what is our next step?” I asked.

“We shall endeavor to discern the facts from fiction, as always. Benjamin Parsons mentioned someone named William Gladstone, a man well-known for his fervent alcoholism, as someone who may have had a personal motive to cause Mr. Hill harm. Supposedly, Mr. Gladstone drunkenly challenged Mr. Hill to a fistfight at a recent soiree over 20 pounds sterling that he believed Mr. Hill owed him from a bet. The conflict ended abruptly when Mr. Hill left the party early rather than engage in fisticuffs.”

“To be killed in such a horrific manner over 20 pounds or quite frankly any sum would be a grave injustice, even if Mr. Hill truly was a backslider,” I said.

“I agree with you completely, Watson. In addition, Charles Clarke said he had heard that George Bennett once slapped socialite Ann Tennyson during a heated argument. Mrs. Tennyson is the widow of the late Randolph Tennyson, who was himself also a member of the Diogenes Club before he passed away of natural causes a few years ago. Apparently, the Bennetts recently hosted a private dinner party for several of their acquaintances including Mrs. Tennyson. However, during the night’s conversation and after the consumption of no small amount of alcohol, certain prejudices were unearthed that led to strong feelings and ultimately physical confrontation between Mrs. Tennyson and Mr. Bennett.

“That is awful,” I said. “If such as thing is true, then I should think Mr. Bennett a crude man, though certainly not deserving of death, especially one so horrendous. Of course, if it is not true, then I should instead think him the victim of a vicious slander.”

“I concur, Watson. I am acquainted with the Mrs. Tennyson, whom I met at a rather garish social event my brother once coerced me into attending. However, I detected no signs of vindictiveness or mean-spiritedness from her, though I admittedly was not looking for it either. The fact is that all we have now are rumors and hearsay. What we need are facts.”

“Why would Mycroft not have mentioned these things?” I asked. “I remember him discussing the victims’ social connections, but he said nothing of any rumors about them.”

“My dear fellow, he did suggest that we might learn more information that could guide us in our investigation by talking to those with whom the victims had public conflicts. In addition, regarding Mr. Bennett specifically, Mycroft knew that due to their personal friendship, he was biased and therefore could offer no objective reason why we should or should not pursue any complaints against him. It stands to reason that Mycroft knew we would alight upon this gossip and thus also rightly knew we would pursue it to determine if it was true and if it had any relevance to the murders.”

“Perhaps, you are correct,” I said.

Something occurred to me, and I asked Holmes, “Did you say that William Gladstone was one of Robert Hill’s enemies? Why, I recall reading in the afternoon edition of The Times that a man named Gladstone was involved in a fatal accident earlier this morning.”

I went over to the dining table where my stack of periodicals sat. I found today’s newspaper and flipped through it, looking for the article that stuck out in my mind. Finding it, I held up the paper and read aloud,

At nearly 3 a.m. today, Mr. William Gladstone of Park Lane was killed in a freakish accident at Grosvenor Square. He had been stopped in his carriage when it became engulfed in flame. Witnesses described his cries for help as he beat against the carriage door. Mr. Gladstone’s driver told police he tried to aid him but the door was locked and would not budge. Mr. Gladstone subsequently burned to death. Police found no source of combustion but speculated that the fire was likely the result of an improperly discarded cigar.”

Holmes looked up thoughtfully for a moment and then said, “Dame Ellen Meaden’s home is in Grosvenor Square. She is a wealthy widow with whom Gladstone would have been acquainted due to her social standing and who would have also known the murder victims, and Ann Tennyson as well.”

“It seems we should pay Mrs. Meaden a visit to see if she knows anything about any of these individuals,” I suggested.

“Indeed, we should, Watson,” said Holmes.

At that moment, we heard the door to the entrance of our building open and slam shut, and a herd of footsteps thundered up the stairs to our apartment. With nary a knock, several small boys flooded through our door and into our sitting room, bringing a cloud of dust and debris in with them.

Coughing and waving the dirt from my face, I demanded, “What is the meaning of this?”

When the dust settled, I saw that a group of six boys now stood before us. Each wore filthy, torn clothing that was streaked with stains and grease marks, and they were all of grammar school age. One boy who looked slightly older and who was significantly bigger than the rest stepped forward and said, “You asked for us, Mr. Holmes?”

“Indeed, I did, Master Wiggins,” Holmes replied. He then turned to me and said, “Watson, may I present to you the Baker Street Irregulars.”

Holmes then looked back at Wiggins and said, “I have got a job for you. I would like you and your boys to follow a gentleman named Thomas White, that’s Officer Thomas White. I suspect he may be up to no good, and I would like for you to tail him for the next week or so and report back to me on his comings and goings. Be sure to tell me as much as you can about where he has been and with whom he has been associating.”

“Will this be according to our usual arrangement?” asked Wiggins.

“Yes,” replied Holmes. “One shilling per day for your time, plus one pound extra if you are able to uncover any information that proves useful.”

“Very well, Mr. Holmes,” Wiggins said. He then raised his hand in salute, and as he did, the other boys saluted in unison as well. Then, just as they entered, they scrambled toward the door, bounced down the stairs, and flew back out into the street.

Holmes smiled and said, “They are the finest spies one could ask for. Nobody notices them, because they are street urchins, and thus, nobody minds what they say or do in front of them.”

“But Holmes, do you not think that there is something a bit unethical about using these poor lads’ circumstances to your advantage?” I asked. “Why, there is no doubt that each of them leads a hardscrabble life the likes of which we cannot even imagine.”

“See here, Watson,” Holmes replied in an offended tone. “I pay these boys a fair wage for their services, which they are happy to provide. One shilling per day, with the potential for far more based on their performance, is much better than what they could expect from typical jobs for boys their age, such as being a shoe shiner or a newsboy.

“I am merely paying them to assist me in my investigations. In return, the insights they provide can dramatically shorten the time it takes for me to solve cases and thus increase the efficiency of the administration of justice for the benefit of all society. It makes perfect moral and economic sense.”

“I see your point,” I said. “But why have them monitor Officer White? I know you do not care for the man and neither he for you, but what good can be gained by watching his every move? You do not think that he is somehow involved in the murders, do you?”

“Watson, I neither like nor dislike Officer White, and besides, you know I do not allow my personal feelings to influence how I investigate my cases. To do so would make all my deductions, no matter how logical, completely unreliable. That being said, something about Officer White’s manner comes across as disingenuous. It is as if he wishes not to find clues in the case. One could write it off as mere incompetence, the likes of which are quite common in Scotland Yard. However, I had the opportunity to review Officer White’s record, and it seems he is something of a rising star in the department. In just a short time, he has gone from being an entry-level officer to next-in-line to become a detective. The fact that Lestrade, a ranking detective in the Yard himself, has obviously decided to mentor him is further evidence that Officer White is seen not merely as an adequate police officer but as an exceptional one.”

“…so, the man is good at his job,” I said. “It is big of you to admit that, despite how unpleasant your interactions have been with him.”

“That is just it, Watson. He is not good at his job at all. At least, he has been doing terribly on this case. Even the lowest-skilled rascal at Scotland Yard could have made many if not all the deductions I have so far. It is as if he is purposefully trying not to find the killers. Lestrade is obviously letting Officer White manage the investigation for the Yard, perhaps to give him experience and also perhaps because Lestrade would rather not handle it himself anyway. It simply does not make sense that White should be so trusted and yet so incompetent at the same time.”

“Perhaps Lestrade could shed some light in the discrepancies between his rapid advancement and apparent lack of skill in deductive reasoning?” I asked.

Holmes replied, “I have already spoken about it with Lestrade, and he also suggested that my suspicion of Officer White stems from personal quarrels with the man, though I assured him nothing could be further from the truth. Regardless, Lestrade repeatedly affirmed his full confidence in him.”

“If Officer White is covering something up, would that mean Lestrade might be corrupt as well?” I asked. “Surely, he would be able to perceive that his protégé is not figuring things out as quickly as he should?”

“That could most certainly be the case, Watson. However, we need more data, hence the need to employ the Baker Street Irregulars, whose status, while tragic, also makes them useful.”

Chapter 8

We arrived at Dame Ellen Meaden’s home near Grosvenor Square in the early evening just before it began to get dark. On our way over, I remembered that Oscar Wilde had recently taken a home in the district, and I half-expected that we would see the Irish poet wandering about the square’s central garden. However, I saw no one around as we approached Mrs. Meaden’s home.

The home itself was two stories and painted a flat grey color. Overall, it was nondescript and a bit on the smallish side, despite its occupant’s high status and extensive fortune. The home could have been easily missed if one was not looking for it specifically. Holmes knew the location well as his knowledge of London’s streets and landmarks was encyclopedic in nature.

Once we had arrived and disembarked outside her house, we immediately saw a large scorch mark on the road. Holmes examined it with his magnifying glass for several moments and said, “This must be where Mr. Gladstone’s carriage was set aflame. The cause of the fire is impossible to determine precisely, Watson, but it certainly was not because of a misplaced cigar. If such were the case, the burn pattern would indicate that the fire followed a direct path from the point of ignition straight to the top of the carriage. This pattern, however, indicates that the entire carriage spontaneously combusted, as if a fire bomb went off in Mr. Gladstone’s lap.”

“It would also seem he perished in a location that was not merely close to Mrs. Meaden’s home but directly outside it,” I observed. “Perhaps, he was visiting her.”

“That is probable,” replied Holmes. “Let us inquire about him to Mrs. Meaden and see if she can give us any insights into what might have happened and what, if anything, he may have had to do with the murder of Robert Hill.”

I noticed something laying in the gutter nearby and went over to see what it was. There, I discovered a scorched carpenter’s hammer entirely covered in soot. I showed it to Holmes, and he took it with curiosity.

“It seems this was in the fire yet it escaped the police’s notice,” said Holmes. “There are small flecks of what appears to be blood in some of the crevices in the metal.”

“Blood?” I asked, surprised.

“Yes,” replied Holmes. “We need to bring this back to Baker Street for further analysis. In the meantime, let us check in on Mrs. Meaden and see what she has to say.” He then placed the hammer in a small satchel he carried under his coat.

I detected a coppery scent in the air, and asked, “Do you smell that, Holmes?”

“Yes, it smells of phosphorous, a highly flammable substance,” he replied.

Holmes and I approached Mrs. Meaden’s home. When we were within a few meters to the entrance, we could see that the door stood slightly ajar. Holmes glanced around the door frame and said, “There are fresh scuff marks where the door slammed and then bounced back without latching securely. Someone left in a hurry.”

He pushed the door open, and it creaked as it moved to reveal stygian darkness within the home. We stepped inside and stood there as our eyes adjusted. After a few moments, we could see that we stood in the entryway hall next to a flight of stairs. There was also a small sitting room off to the right-hand side of the hallway.

Holmes called out, “Mrs. Meaden?” but we were greeted by silence. I looked into the sitting room and saw an ornate purse sitting on a small table next to a tiny gold-and-silver-plated pistol.

“Look, Holmes,” I said, pointing at the table and the objects upon it. “I doubt she would have left home without taking those things.”

“Yes, I concur,” he replied.

Holmes turned to me and whispered, “Have you your gun?” In response, I pulled out my service revolver and nodded. We crept up the stairs, the steps creaking forebodingly under our feet as we made our way through the darkness to the landing. There, we could see the outline of a closed bedroom door. Holmes rapped on it lightly and said, “Mrs. Meaden? Are you there? We are with the police, and we have come to check up on you.”

Silence.

Inhaling slowly, Holmes turned the doorknob and opened the door to the pitch-black bedroom. Holmes took out a box of matches from his coat pocket and struck one against the doorjamb, and the room was then illuminated in gloomy, flickering light. I gasped at what I saw.

Mrs. Meaden’s body lay next to the bed, with her legs twisted in the blanket and her arms covering her head. She was wearing a pink nightgown. Her skull had been smashed in, but she still gripped a small knife in her left hand. She was a tiny old woman with frail and delicate features, but she had obviously tried to fight back against her attacker. I felt a surge of admiration for her, and I reckoned she must have been a force of nature in her prime. For her life to end in such a way was a travesty.

Holmes used the match to light the oil lamp on the stand next to the bed. When he did, we saw the cult’s now familiar symbol crudely drawn in blood right in the middle of the wall in plain sight. There had been no attempt to conceal it whatsoever. Fingermarks streaked across a pool of congealed blood next to Mrs. Meaden’s head.

Holmes said, “It appears she heard a bump in the night and attempted to arm herself right before she was set upon by the intruder. Her attacker landed a blow with a blunt object, and she fell from her bed to the floor. He struck her thrice more, killing her. He then dipped his index finger into the blood that streamed from her head to paint the symbol in the wall before departing. The whole act was done in less than 10 seconds.”

Holmes took the scorched hammer we found outside the home and placed it over the wound in Mrs. Meaden’s skull. We saw that the hammer head’s size and shape matched perfectly with that of the wound. He then took out his magnifying glass and picked up the oil lamp to examine the rest of the scene.  After several minutes, he said, “This murder scene is very different from what we have seen so far. The other killings, while equally unsettling, were clearly planned out and thought through well in advance. This one, on the other hand, was done hastily, as if on impulse.

“What do you think it means?” I asked.

Holmes replied, “It means Mr. William Gladstone is one of our killers but not the only one. We must now inform Lestrade at the police station as to our latest horrid discovery.”

Chapter 9

I hardly slept at all the following night. A feeling of malaise had crept over me once more, as it had in the library, and vivid nightmares haunted me every time I dozed off. In one, I found myself sitting at a bar with my deceased alcoholic brother. He had a pint glass before him, and when I looked, I saw that it was filled with fetid swill and bilge water. He raised it to his mouth, and I tried to slap it away but found myself restrained by my long-dead father who had snuck up behind me. I broke free from his grasp then watched in horror as their bodies began to metamorphose and their bones split through their flesh and clothes and their blood sprayed everywhere. Disgusting red and purple tentacles then shot forth from their insides and began to writhe about sickeningly.

I ran out of the bar and into a shadowy alleyway outside. There, I saw Holmes in his deerstalker cap along with his coat and cape standing with his back to me. All of a sudden, I heard a terrible roar and looked up and saw a gargantuan monster towering over London. It had a hideous octopus for a head and the body of a man covered in squamous green skin with loathsome bat wings and claws. The creature was so massive that it dwarfed the nearby Elizabeth Tower which housed Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster. The sight of it nearly drove me mad.

Holmes approached me as I stared at the infernal creature in shock. However, when I looked at him, I saw that he had no face. Instead, there was nothing but a smooth surface. I opened my mouth to scream, but seawater spewed out of my mouth instead. I then awoke with a start, drenched in cold sweat.

I spent the morning languishing in my bed as my illness intensified. I could hardly move, and my entire body ached as though I had taken a dreadful beating. At half-past two in the afternoon, I somehow found the strength to drag myself out of bed and make some tea. However, as I made my way towards the teakettle in the sitting room, exhaustion overtook me, and I slumped onto the sofa and lay there prostrate.

Just then, Holmes entered through the apartment door. Upon viewing my deathly pallor, he asked, “Are you alright, my friend?”

“Yes, I am fine,” I wheezed. “Just need a spot of tea, that’s all.”

“Well, let me help you, then,” he said. As he began to boil the water to make tea, he said, “An old friend of Mr. Gladstone went to visit his widow and pay his respects this morning.”

Puzzled, I turned my head weakly and rasped, “Whatever do you mean?”

“I visited Mr. Gladstone’s home in Cavendish today under the pretense of being an old friend of his who was there to give my condolences after I read of his passing in The Times. She seemed suspicious at first, but I managed to convince her of my sincerity, and she then invited me in for tea. While she was in the kitchen, I did a quick search of the home and discovered Mr. Gladstone’s journal, which I slipped into my pocket. Mrs. Gladstone returned shortly thereafter, and I asked her if Mr. Gladstone had said or done anything unusual before his untimely demise. She gave me a queer look but then said he had been acting a bit distant and added that he had been coming and going from the home at odd hours, which he had never done before. She attributed it to his drinking and said that he had always had a taste for gin but that it seemed to have gotten much worse as of late, just before he died. Then, she abruptly changed the subject. We chatted for ten more minutes about nothing of importance, and then, I wished her good day and took my leave.”

“What if she discovers that the journal is missing?” I asked.

“She probably will not, but if she does, it shall be of no consequence,” he replied. Holmes brought my tea over to me and then sat in his chair and began to read the journal while I continued rotting on the sofa. Occasionally, he would grunt thoughtfully and look out the window, but he was mostly silent as he read. After a few hours, he seemed to have reached the final pages. I was feeling a bit better, to the point that I was able to sit up without much discomfort.

At last, Holmes closed the journal and, after several moments of silence, looked at me and said, “The contents of Mr. Gladstone’s journal are a bit peculiar. It begins as a mundane description of the day-to-day life of a successful British merchant, though at times the handwriting is a bit sloppy as it seems he was often drunk while writing in it. There is much handwringing over contracts and a great deal of speculation on the supply and demand of various commodities in the marketplace. However, it takes a darker and more disturbing turn in the most recent entries.

Intrigued, I said, “Do continue.”

“It seems everything was relatively normal in Mr. Gladstone’s life until about three months ago, when he had a strange dream. The experience left such an impression on him that he described it in vivid detail within his diary. Here is what he wrote:

Last night, I had a terrifying dream. I dreamt I was deep underwater, yet I was somehow able to breathe. A sense of dread permeated my being. Moonlight pierced the depths and illuminated the alien ocean life that teemed around me. I saw bizarre frog-like creatures with huge gibbous eyes, weird spider-like crab things, and vile, shark-like creatures that would swim threateningly close to me then dart away. 

I felt myself pulled through the water towards stone structures in the distance on the ocean floor. At first, they appeared to be a collection of large rocks, but as I came closer, I saw that they were buildings. Fear paralyzed me, and yet I continued to be conveyed onward by an unknown force.

I crested a reef and saw that the buildings formed a strange underwater city. As I came closer, I saw that the shapes of the buildings consisted of some bizarre, non-Euclidean geometry that my mind could not fully comprehend. The cyclopean structures’ lines and planes oscillated and quivered as if they were alive. One building even resembled a cube that continually folded into itself, like a tesseract.

The water become ice cold, and I no longer felt myself moving through it. I looked down and saw that I was floating over a pit of darkness. I hovered there as my apprehension grew, and I heard what I can only describe as chanting. It started slowly and softly at first. Then, it began to increase in volume and intensity. It sounded like “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

“My word, Holmes,” I said. “I daresay I have heard this chanting before myself. Do you remember my episode at the library? Why, it was as if someone were shouting these strange chants directly into my ear.”

“You must be delirious, Watson,” Holmes replied, disinterestedly. “Your mind is inventing false memories.” Then, he continued to read out loud:

I felt myself being pulled down into the chasm beneath me. I tried desperately to claw through the water toward the surface but to no avail. I was rapidly drawn deeper and deeper until, at the bottom of the abyss, I was able to perceive a massive stone sarcophagus.

Then, its lid shifted and began to slide off the top. Massive bubbles flowed out from within and obscured my vision. As my fear peaked, I could just make out, through the cloud of foam, what appeared to be an obscene tentacle curling around the edge of the horrendous stone coffin. I screamed just as I awoke.

I found myself in my bed at the hour I usually awake, the sunlight streaming through the bedroom window. My wife had already awoken and gone about her business for the day. There was a briny scent in the air, and I was completely soaked with what I believed was sweat. However, when I licked my lips, I tasted not the light saltiness of perspiration but instead the acrid tang of saltwater. What happened to me?

Holmes flipped through the remaining pages and said, “It seems this dream was some sort of turning point for Mr. Gladstone, Watson. There are only a few more entries after this, and from here on, his handwriting becomes increasingly disorganized and erratic. I can just barely make out the last few lines that reference him receiving a telegram sealed in wax and marked with a symbol that resembled…”

He turned the page and became silent. I waited for him to give me some description, but instead, he merely held the open journal page up so I could see it. It was covered with a crude drawing which I recognized as the cult symbol from the murder scenes.

Holmes cleared his throat and said, “Clearly, whoever controls this cult is a highly skilled neuro-linguist who can compel thoughts, sensations, and emotions in unsuspecting minds at will, including dreams. This is no ordinary skill, Watson; it takes years of scientific research into how people communicate. This person is likely an expert on the transmission of social histories and how they shape cultural norms.”

“That seems like a bit of a leap, Holmes,” I replied weakly.

“Mark my words, Watson. When we reach the bottom of this mystery, we will discover a person so highly skilled in manipulation that they could talk you into eating your hat right off your own head if you were not careful.” He continued, “The last thing I can discern from Mr. Gladstone’s journal before it descends into scribbles and gibberish is the phrase ‘Horn of Plenty.’”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“I am not certain what it means in this context, Watson. However, there is a pub in Whitechapel called the Horn of Plenty, which he may be referring to. It is a den of debauchery in one of the most rundown slums of London. It is also a hub and waypoint in the criminal network of none other than Professor James Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime himself.

“As you may recall, Watson, Professor Moriarty is a criminal mastermind and my greatest nemesis of all. His genius is matched only by his ruthlessness, and he will do anything to further his goals, even if it means hurting innocent people. He was once the mathematics chair at a small university here in London, but he has since dedicated himself completely to his evil designs. To say that he is a sociopath of the highest order is an understatement. In fact, I daresay his vast criminal network is behind virtually all organized crime in London and beyond. He is easily one of the most dangerous people who ever lived.”

Holmes then stood up and went over to his bookshelf, where he stored his archives. He picked out a folder that was stuffed with newspaper clippings and then opened it on his desk. He sifted through the clippings until he found one with a recent picture of Moriarty and showed it to me.

Moriarty was a thin man of average height who appeared to be in his mid-forties, and he wore a long black coat over a black suit. He was balding and had sharp features, with a gaunt, grim expression on his face. However, what struck me about him was how normal and average he looked. The juxtaposition between his innocuous appearance and diabolical nature made me shake my head in disbelief. It is a cruel world indeed in which monsters such as he may walk among us unnoticed.

I replied, “My word, Holmes, do you think he is somehow involved in all of this?”

“Perhaps, but we will need to find out for sure.”

I spent the next several days seeking convalescence from my mysterious illness within our rooms at Baker Street. Meanwhile, Holmes busied himself with the deductive process, trying to discern a clear path forward. Our flat soon began to reek of tobacco, which he smoked excessively as he pondered even the most minute details of the case.

My fever broke during this time, and I found that I could fully rest throughout the night. It was a strange illness that had befallen me, and though I am a physician, I could not discern exactly what my malady was. It had presented with the symptoms of a flu, a cold, and allergies all at once. Previously, I had enjoyed robust health throughout my life, despite the injuries I sustained from a jezail bullet during my days as an army surgeon in Afghanistan.

Several days later, Wiggins and the rest of the Baker Street Irregulars reappeared in our rooms. It had been exactly a week since Holmes charged them with spying on Officer White. Wiggins reported that in addition to going to the police station and his home, Officer White had frequented a seedy bar in Whitechapel called The Horn of Plenty. Holmes and I exchanged knowing looks when Wiggins reported this fact. It seemed we had a solid lead to follow, thanks to our unofficial spy network.

“One more thing, Mr. Holmes,” Wiggins said. “One of my boys followed Officer White into the bar to keep as close an eye on him as possible. He said that when Officer White went inside, instead of ordering a drink, he went straight to a door in the back of the room and rapped on it in an odd way, like this.” Wiggins then proceeded to bang on our door with an odd staccato rhythm.

“A secret knock,” I observed.

“Aye,” Wiggins replied. “And when he did so, a large man opened the door and, seeing who it was, allowed Officer White to enter the room. My boy was about to see how he could get back there himself, but just at that moment, the bartender noticed him and kicked him out.”

Holmes smiled and said, “You and your band have outdone yourselves, Wiggins. Here is what I owe you.”

Holmes dug into his pocket, counted out a pound and seven shillings, and then placed the coins into Wiggins’s hand.

“This is for your excellent work,” he said and then dug out three more shillings and put them into Wiggins’s other hand, “and this is for your loyalty.”

Wiggins stared at the pile of currency in his hands as if it were so much treasure. He then divvied the shillings out to his boys and put the pound into his pocket. Then, they all stood up straight and saluted Holmes, and Holmes returned the gesture. Finally, Wiggins and the rest of the Baker Street Irregulars tumbled out the door and back into the streets.

Chapter 10

That evening, Holmes disguised himself as a dockworker, wearing a rough, gnarly brown jacket over a ragged vest with a dirty white long-sleeved shirt and brown breeches with grey pinstripes. He placed a tattered cap on his head and coated his face and hands with grease stains that made it seem as though he had not bathed in a fortnight. He also used makeup to simulate a long scar running from the left side of his face down to his neck. I jumped in fright when I first saw him like that, thinking that a stranger had broken into our rooms, but he quickly reassured me that it was he and not an intruder.

Once he completed his disguise, Holmes then made his way to the Horn of Plenty pub in the slums of Whitechapel. I shall now recount the events that took place there in my absence as he described them to me:

Upon arrival, he saw that it was such a small and rundown establishment that one would need to be in desperate need of a drink to even consider entering it. The Whitechapel district itself was already known as a rough place, and a few years earlier, a series of infamous murders committed by someone known only as Jack the Ripper had added to its foreboding reputation. Holmes knew he needed to be on his guard.

Once inside the bar, he ordered a shot of rye and a Charrington’s Ale in a cockney accent, and downed each in quick succession. He then turned around and leaned with his back against the counter to scan the room, ignoring propositions from several passing prostitutes. Ruffians filled the place, and a cacophony of voices talking, laughing, and occasionally shouting filled Holmes’s ears. As he surveyed the scene, a drunken man accidentally bumped into him. Instinctively, Holmes smashed his empty beer bottle against the countertop and held the jagged edge toward the interloper, ready to defend himself. However, the man merely staggered off, oblivious. No one else in the bar seemed to notice or care.

After a few minutes, Holmes saw a man approach the door to the back room and knock on it the same way Wiggins had described. The door opened, and the man quickly entered before the door slammed shut behind him. Holmes called the attention of the bartender and asked, “Oy, what’s going on in that room over there?”

The bartender gave him an impassive look and said, “That’s one of them questions better left unasked if you don’t already know the answer.”

“Alright then,” Holmes replied. He then ordered another Charrington’s.

Upon finishing the beer, Holmes knew he had consumed just enough alcohol to look, sound, and smell intoxicated for the next few hours without being completely deprived of his mental faculties. This would help him blend in with the unruly bar crowd even better. It also created a plausible excuse should he be caught wandering in a place where someone would not want him to be, which is exactly what he intended to do.

While the bartender was distracted making drinks, Holmes approached the door to the back room and pounded on it using the secret knock Wiggins had shown him. A large, ugly, burly man with bulging biceps, who was apparently a bouncer, opened the door a crack and looked at Holmes with menace in his eyes. “Yeah?” he asked, churlishly.

Holmes could hear the sounds of gambling in the din behind the door: dice rolling, cards shuffling, and men cheering and groaning simultaneously. He deduced that Moriarty was operating an illegal casino, in addition to all the other mischief that took place in this locale. Holmes said, “Dorner said this’d be the place to lose some money fast.”

Dorner was the name of a small-time crime boss in Moriarty’s network who had claimed Whitechapel as his territory. No doubt, there were several of his men in the back room already, and Holmes hoped the bouncer would assume he was one of them. The bouncer eyed him suspiciously and said, “What’s the password?”

“Two pounds,” said Holmes.

“Sorry, that was last week’s password,” the bouncer replied, smirking.

“Fine, four then,” said Holmes, “but ask for more, and I won’t have any to lose inside.”

The bouncer smiled broadly and said, “Then, I’d be doing you a favor,” and held out his hand through the space between the door and the doorjamb. Holmes placed the coins in his palm, and the bouncer opened the door all the way to let him pass.

Holmes saw that the back room was nearly twice the size of the front room and that gaming tables were set up everywhere. Most of them were for dice games, such as Hazard, Queek, and Chequers, where the players bet against the house. He also saw card tables for games of Whist, where gamblers bet against each other and the house charged a buy-in fee. This room had a bar as well, and it was nearly twice the size of that in the front room, with three bartenders instead of one. Clearly, the establishment wanted to keep its gamblers jolly well liquored up.

The patrons here looked especially dangerous, and many bore various marks, scars, and tattoos. Holmes did not doubt that each one was regularly engaged in some criminal enterprise and that any of them would want to kill him immediately if they knew who he was.

Holmes scanned the room, and as he did so, he noticed several gamblers eying him as well. Clearly, they were not used to seeing new faces here, and they definitely did not appreciate it either. Holmes knew he needed to show some criminal credentials quickly or else he would be in serious trouble. He reached into his pocket and retrieved a silk scarf that bore the colors of the vicious street gang known as the Peaky Blinders and tied it around his neck.

The Peaky Blinders were mostly inactive in London, but their reputation for ruthlessness and brutality was renowned throughout all of England. Holmes knew he was taking a risk by identifying himself as one of their number because any real members of the gang who were there would certainly take notice. They would then approach him to see who he was and where he fit into the gang’s hierarchy. If that happened, then Holmes knew he would need to beat a hasty retreat or suffer severe consequences.

Fortunately, Holmes perceived that all the patrons were either members of other street gangs or simply independent hoodlums. Those who had noticed him, upon seeing him tie the scarf around his neck, quickly went back to their games. None wanted to receive a cut from the Peaky Blinders’ signature weapon – a razorblade stitched on the inside of a cap. Holmes was now free to move about unbothered.

Holmes spotted an empty chair at a card table in the corner of the room. He went over and sat down unceremoniously, then bought into the game by placing a pound in front of the dealer. The dealer handed him back 15 shillings worth of gaming chips, thus keeping 5 shillings for the house.

One of the players at the table was a particularly haggard-looking man who eyed Holmes’s scarf disapprovingly and said, “You’re a long way from Liverpool, ratbag.” The man’s teeth were rotten, and his face was pock-marked with deep acne scars. His skin was splotchy, and he had huge dark bags under his eyes. He was wearing a filthy sailor suit that had probably not been washed in weeks.

Holmes growled back in his gruffest-sounding voice, “Better a ratbag than a pigeon-livered flapdoodle like you. Perhaps, I oughta find another table if I don’t wanna get hornswaggled by this foozler.”

The haggard man’s eyes widened in shock at the obscene tirade of insults Holmes had just hurled at him. He then glanced towards the bouncer at the front of the room, and Holmes could see that he was deciding whether he wanted to start a fight. He chose instead to pretend he was unbothered by a stranger’s disrespect and went back to his cards, muttering insults under his breath.

Holmes played a few hands while scanning the game room over his cards, and he noticed a hallway receding further back into the building that was guarded by another bouncer. This one was a mountain of a man whose bulk hung comically over the edges of the stool upon which he sat. His bald head, as well as his face and neck, were covered with so many heinous-looking scars that it seemed as though he collected them as a hobby.

The bouncer caught Holmes’s gaze and stared at him with a hard look that communicated pure loathing without saying a word. Holmes quickly averted his eyes and went back to his cards. He needed a way to get back into that hallway unnoticed.

After several more hands, he perceived that the haggard man was on a winning streak and was being quite boorish about it. He chuckled with glee and taunted the other players every time he won a hand, and Holmes could see their resentment for him grow as time passed. Clearly, he had no friends here and seemed to relish making enemies.

This gave Holmes an idea, and he waited until he was dealt an ace then smoothly pocketed it. Then, he stood up and, in his cockney accent, said, “Alrght, lads. I need only to get another beer from the bar and I’ll be back with you.”

One of the other players looked up at him and said, “Can’t you wait? We’ve still got more hands to play in this round.”

Holmes replied, “’Fraid not, for my tongue is burning, it is. I’ll return shortly.”

The haggard man made a nasty face at him and said, “Well, don’t expect us to hold your seat, foozler.”

Holmes went to the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender brought it to him and Holmes pretended to sip on it until his spot at the card table was taken by another gambler. Then, while the players at the table were distracted, he began to walk towards the bouncer guarding the hallway. As he did so, he passed behind where the haggard man was sitting and slid the ace card into the man’s back pocket.

The bouncer saw Holmes approaching and asked, “Just what do you think you’re doing?” Holmes leaned in and whispered to the bouncer that the he believed the haggard man at his previous table was cheating. The irony of the fact that he was accusing a criminal of cheating other criminals and that he himself was lying about it was not lost on Holmes. The bouncer looked at Holmes with a raised eyebrow and then gazed at the haggard man for several moments while Holmes did as well. The haggard man noticed them staring and shouted at them, “Oy what’s this? Swapping stories like some church bell hens?”

Holmes pointed his finger at him and yelled, “Swapping stories about your cheating!”

The accusation hung in the air and the room fell silent. The haggard man’s skin turned from pasty and pale to a deep, sickly red. Visibly shaking, he stood up and said, “I’ve killed scoundrels for less, gibface.” He appeared ready to commit murder, and Holmes did not doubt that was exactly what he had in mind.

Holmes replied, “Alright, if you’re not a hornswaggler, then empty your pockets, why don’t you?”

The man made a disgusted look and said, “I’ve nothing to prove to a meater like you.”

The bouncer got up from his stool and said nonchalantly, “Empty your pockets, please. If you’ve nothing to hide, then you’ve nothing to hide, and if this man’s giving you trouble for no reason, then I’ll make him pay.” The bouncer cracked his knuckles so loudly it sounded like a log splitting in half.

The haggard man smirked as he looked at the other players at his table, and said, “You vazey vagabonds would just love it if I was cheating, wouldn’t you? Can’t handle knowing you lost fair and square?”

One of them replied, “Show us your pockets,” and then several other voices from the crowd shouted one after the other, “Show us your pockets!”

“Fine!” the haggard man yelled with annoyance. His face was bright red now. His veins were throbbing, and his head seemed ready to explode. “If it will shut the lot of your up, that’s what I’ll do.” The haggard man must thrust his hands into his front pockets, turned them inside out to show they were empty, and said, “There, you happy now?”

He then started to sit down, but Holmes asked, “What’s in the back pockets?”

Another voice piped up and said, “Yeah, what’s in the back pockets?”

“Alright, alright!” the haggard man exclaimed. He quickly stood back up again and dug his hands into his back pockets to turn them inside out as well. As he did so, he did not notice the ace card as it fluttered out of his pocket and floated gently to the ground in full view of everyone in the room. Then, he said to Holmes with disgust, “Now, who’s the foozler?”

One of the players at his table answered by punching him in the mouth, and the others pounced on him as well. Holmes backed against the wall as both bouncers went to break up the fight. Everyone in the room was so distracted that he was able to slide unnoticed over to the hallway. He followed down it until it jutted to the right for about 4 meters and ended at a plain old wooden door. He tried to open it, but it was locked.

Without hesitation, Holmes took out his lock picking kit, which he had concealed in his coat: a small roll of dark navy cloth with several tools stitched into it. He unfurled it and rapidly selected the curtain pick and torsion wrench. He knew he had only a few moments before the fight was over and that the bouncer would likely double-check the hallway before returning to his post.

With a few deft movements, Holmes clicked the lock’s tumblers into place and turned the wrench to unlock the door. When he opened it, a blast of cool, musty air greeted him, and he saw ancient-looking stone stairs leading down into darkness below. He quickly stepped through the doorway and then closed and locked the door behind him.

Chapter 11

Holmes crouched in the darkness and held his breath, listening to the fight die down on the other side of the door. He heard a sickening crunching sound and the haggard man screamed. No doubt the larger of the two bouncers had just broken one of the man’s arms or legs. A few moments later, he heard the bouncer’s heavy footsteps coming down the hallway. Upon reaching the door, he rattled the doorknob to make sure it was still locked. Satisfied, he turned and walked back down the hallway. Holmes was safe, for now.

Striking a match to provide illumination, Holmes began to slowly make his way down the stairs through the darkness. Cobwebs covered stone walls all around him, and the only thing he could hear was the quiet echo of his footsteps. Once at the bottom of the stairs, he saw that he was now in small cellar with a dirt floor and exposed wooden beams that crisscrossed the ceiling. There were several old wooden barrels in the corner that had presumably once been used to store beer, and the stench of rotten yeast hung in the air.

He slowly walked around the dank cellar and observed six relatively fresh sets of footprints on the floor. He deduced that they were about a week old. He then discovered another wooden door in the back of the room. This one was locked as well, but it had a complicated locking system that could not be picked. He was at a dead end.

As he finished inspecting the cellar, Holmes began to feel a bit different, as if his senses were somehow altered. He heard a strange humming sound coming from an unknown source. He also felt slightly dizzy, and his visual perspective wobbled. However, he dismissed these symptoms as being merely the effects of the drinks from the bar, considering that he rarely drank alcohol and almost never got drunk.

Holmes reflected upon his options. He knew he would not be able to leave the way he came without encountering the bouncers upstairs, and he also wished to stay and see if the people who made the footprints would return. Thus, he selected a hiding spot behind one of the barrels and began an impromptu stakeout.

Several hours passed, and Holmes began to feel more and more uncomfortable. The echoes he heard periodically now sounded like distant ululations, but there was no way they could have come from within the tiny cellar. He noticed that the room seemed much brighter despite the only illumination coming from the crack of light under the door at the top of the stairs. Holmes knew that even after his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, the room still should not seem so effulgent. Something was wrong about the situation entirely.

The door opened at the top of the stairs and light spilled down into the cellar. Holmes crouched low behind the barrels as he heard four sets of footsteps walk down the stairs. One of the people in the group carried a lantern, which they hung from one of the exposed beams. Holmes heard a series of clicks coming from the elaborate lock on the wooden door, and it creaked open. He determined there were now five people standing in the middle of the cellar, and he listened carefully to hear what would happen next.

For several moments, no one said anything, and then, in unison, the group began to chant, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

They repeated this phrase over and over with growing volume and intensity until they were cut off by a raspy, muffled voice that said, “Enough! We have almost completed the ritual, provided there are no more complications. The time of Great Cthulhu is upon us.”

Holmes could tell that it was a man’s voice and noted that the muffled sound meant his mouth must be obstructed – he was wearing a mask.

The group replied in unison, saying “Dead Cthulhu lies dreaming.”

The man said, “When Cthulhu awakens from his deathly slumber, he shall raise us up and make us as gods among men.”

The group answered, “When the stars align, he shall begin his reign.”

“For untold eons, Great Cthulhu has slumbered in his tomb in the underwater city of R’lyeh, awaiting his triumphant return to the world of the living,” said the man. Holmes could see from the shadows dancing on the wall that he had raised his arms in grandiosity.

“We are his humble servants,” said the group. “We are his to use as he pleases.”

“We are close to awakening Great Cthu-” the man began to say, but he was interrupted when one of the people in the group said, “Wait. I feel we must stop this madness.”

Holmes recognized the voice of the person speaking as that of Ann Tennyson, the woman whom he had met once before through his brother at the Diogenes Club. She had an unusually high, trilling voice that was quite singular. Holmes would recognize it in any context.

She said, “William Gladstone’s death has me spooked. He died in such an appalling manner and under such odd circumstances. I feel as if we are playing with forces best left alone. I admit that I did not really believe in the ritual when we first began. Like all of you, I had the dream and received the telegram, but I honestly thought it was some sort of joke, like a prank. I thought this could also be a good way to add some excitement to my life and get back at someone who had wronged me. However, hearing about Mr. Gladstone’s frightful demise, combined with our updates on the police investigation from Mr. O’Br-, I mean, Officer White, who has already told us that none other than the great detective Sherlock Holmes himself is on our trail, suggests to me that it is only a matter of time before we are caught. We must stop while we can.”

“Quiet, woman,” hissed a different man’s voice. “You have already had your vengeance, and now, it is my turn.”

Another woman’s voice spoke up and said, “He is correct. I killed George Bennett for you as Mr. Gladstone killed Ellen Meaden for me. It is your turn to kill now. Remember: the blood is on all our hands.”

Tennyson replied, “I am grateful for Mr. Gladstone’s sacrifice, but-”

“But nothing!” the muffled voice interrupted. “Once the ritual is started, it cannot be stopped or else we shall all suffer a similar fate as Gladstone. Is this what you wish?”

The other man’s voice growled, “You must complete the ritual. I shall have my vengeance whether this Lord Cthulhu is real or not, with or without your help.”

The muffled voice said, “No. Ann Tennyson must kill Margaret Cox to avenge you, Mr. Wilberforce, or else we shall all suffer. It is as Great Cthulhu wishes. We cannot deny him now. The pact into which we entered requires that we complete the ritual during the current cycle, while the stars are right.”

Holmes recognized the name Wilberforce. He was a wealthy aristocrat and shipping magnate who was often written about in the business section of The Times. In addition to his reputation as a wildly successful business man who had raised himself up out of nothing, he was also known for his fiery temper. In particular, he had a tendency to hold unending grudges for even the smallest personal slights, real or perceived.

The muffled voice continued, “Gladstone burned because he botched the ritual. He failed to conceal Great Cthulhu’s sign near the body of Ellen Meaden, whom he murdered to avenge our associate Mary Dickens’s grievance against her. He also failed to use the sacred blade to cut the victim but merely bludgeoned her to death with a common hammer. He brought his fate upon himself with his incompetence. It is fortunate that I was disguised as a bystander nearby and was thus able to recover the blade from Gladstone’s person after he burned to death but before the police arrived, or we would all be subject to Cthulhu’s wrath as well.”

The other woman’s voice said, “Yes, and I truly am sorry that Mr. Gladstone suffered for my sake, but he knew the ritual called for us to conceal Cthulhu’s sign when we carried out vengeance killings for one another. He also knew we must use the sacred blade to spill his victim’s blood even if he did not use it to strike the killing blow. Either way, I am glad that Ellen Meaden is dead, and I just wish I could have been there to see it.”

The muffled voice said, “You must kill Margaret Cox, Mrs. Tennyson, and you must do it tonight. Here is the ritual dagger.”

Holmes was able to see through a narrow space between the barrels as the man held a blade out to Mrs. Tennyson. It was of a peculiar zig-zag shape, and the hilt was inscribed with a strange symbol. However, this symbol was different than that found at the murder scenes, and it resembled blood dripping from a wound. Holmes memorized what it looked like.

“Alright, I shall do as I must,” said Ann Tennyson with reluctance. Holmes heard her step forward to take the weapon.

“One moment, the blade must be cleansed,” said the muffled voice. Holmes heard a popping noise, and the room became hazy with smoke from an unknown source. A rotten smell filled the air, and Holmes did everything he could not to retch.

The muffled voice said, “There, now, take the dagger and be done with it. The rest of you, be gone now.”

The group murmured in unison, “Yes, master,” and then filed back up the stairs. Someone from the group took the lantern that had hung from the ceiling, and Holmes heard the sound of the downstairs door creak shut and lock. The upstairs door then shut and locked as well, leaving him alone in the dark once again.

As he sat there pondering his next move, Holmes noted that although there were five cultists present at the meeting including the leader, he heard only four of them speak. One person in the group had not said anything at all, and Holmes was not able to discern any details about them other than their presence.

Chapter 12

As Holmes and I sat in our rooms eating lunch, he regaled me with his adventure in the cult’s inner sanctum underneath the Horn of Plenty pub in Whitechapel the night before.

“The cult leader used hydrogen sulfide to produce the smell, ammonium chloride to produce the smoke, and potassium nitrate mixed with a pinch of sawdust to produce the flash as he supposedly cleansed the sacred blade, which I am now sure is the murder weapon in all the killings thus far. I detected traces of each of these chemicals in samples I collected from the dirt floor after the cult’s meeting had concluded. The leader of this little organization is not just a hypnotist and a charlatan, he is also a prodigious chemist. The ‘cleansing ritual’ for the murder weapon is just a magic act meant to inspire shock and awe within the minds of his followers.

“He has these people simply enthralled, Watson, and it appears they are each motivated by revenge. They have entered into a blood pact as described in the Necronomicon in which they must each kill one of each other’s enemies or face the wrath of Cthulhu. If they are successful, however, they believe that they will hasten Cthulhu’s reawakening and that he shall make them extremely powerful. Their leader is a mysterious masked individual who is clearly the one manipulating them to commit these murders. To what end, we cannot know for certain, but we know the identity of nearly all the members and what drives them to kill.

“However, I suspect that none of them took the supernatural aspect of their agreement very seriously until one of their own, Mr. William Gladstone, died in such a horrendous way so as to be burned alive. He had just murdered Ellen Meaden on behalf of one of the other cult members, Mary Dickens, who herself must be the killer of George Bennett with whom she was acquainted through the common social circles in which they belonged. However, as we saw, Mr. Gladstone left his crime scene in a hurry and either forgot or simply chose not to conceal the inscription of the cult symbol near the body, as required by the ritual. He also did not use the knife with the singular blade pattern as with the other murders, but instead used a crude hammer as his weapon of choice. The manner of his death is now common knowledge since it was reported in The Times, and the cultists believe he burned to death as a consequence of his mistakes.”

“Why, I imagine that now they must feel quite trapped,” I said.

“Yes,” Holmes replied. “Regardless of their original motivations, they are now compelled by their belief in a supernatural force that can give them great power or cause them great pain depending on how well they perform the ritual. Ann Tennyson, whom I discovered to be a member of this vengeance cult while I was spying, now regrets her involvement quite particularly. She is supposed to kill the next victim, Margaret Cox, when the strange constellation appears again tonight.”

I asked, “And who is the last person in the cult? You said there were five people in the cellar, though you have only named three who are yet still alive, in addition to the masked cult leader.”

“I cannot say,” Holmes replied. “This individual did not speak, nor did I glimpse his or her face. However, based on the substance of the group’s conversation and the process of elimination, it became obvious to me that this still-anonymous cultist is the one responsible for Mr. Hill’s brutal death. This means that he or she must be a psychopath of the most depraved variety. The only other piece of information is that Ann Tennyson mentioned Officer White and said that he has been supplying information to them on the sly. That, coupled with the fact that Officer White inadvertently led us to the cult’s meeting place, is enough to cause alarm and necessitate further inquiry into his motivations.”

“You say these are all members of British high society?” I asked. “How in the devil would they pass undetected through a cesspool such as The Horn of Plenty?”

Holmes replied, “They must have used disguises, as I did, though I cannot testify to exactly how they appeared because I did not get a good look at them.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “How did you manage to escape unnoticed?”

“I merely waited several more hours until I estimated that it was early morning, then I made my way back up the stairs. No one was in the establishment at that hour, not even the bouncers. I let myself out and quickly returned here.”

“Have you gotten any sleep?” I asked.

“None whatsoever, but no matter, the important thing is that we are closing in on our prey. We now know that the cult meets the night before each killing. The purpose of these meetings is ostensibly to discuss the ritual’s progress and for the leader to ritualistically cleanse the murder weapon before he hands it to the next person whose turn it is to commit a murder. However, the actual purpose of the meetings is for the cult leader to maintain the illusion of supernatural influence over his followers.”

“You do not believe that there is actually anything supernatural going on?” I asked.

Holmes looked at me as though I had just inquired as to whether Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens, and the Pope were all the same person.

After pausing for a moment, he replied with a flat “No.”

“But then how do you explain what happened to me at the Cambridge Library or the mysterious circumstances of William Gladstone’s death or the bizarre dream he had, followed by the even more surreal telegram he received? What about the mere existence of this weird constellation and its relation to the story of Cthulhu from the Necronomicon? Surely, there must be something metaphysical going on.”

Holmes looked at me with pity in his eyes and said, “My, my, Watson. You really must get more rest. You have clearly stressed yourself to the point of delirium. I thought you were man of science.”

His last statement irked me to no end, and I raised my voice perhaps a bit too much as I said, “I am a man of science, Holmes! Even you cannot tell me that there is a logical explanation for all these bizarre and unearthly circumstances.”

Holmes let out a long, exasperated sigh and closed his eyes tightly. He then bowed his head, rubbed his temples methodically, and said, “You disappoint me, old friend. Have I not taught you anything? That which is impossible cannot be an explanation for any phenomenon, full stop.”

I started to respond, but he spoke over me and said, “Supernatural trappings, such as pixie fairies, séances, and spiritualism, are simply not real, though it can be tempting to believe in them when circumstances seem beyond explanation. However, the truth behind any crime is always mundane and typically driven by man’s lower-order desires. Furthermore, selective ignorance and disdain for logic in general merely perpetuate the exact kind of intellectual laziness that allows crime to fester throughout London and all the world over!”

Holmes’s expression had grown wild and his tone overwrought and pedantic. I sensed that I had two options: either continue to argue with him and start a row or ask him to explain his conclusions about the case logically. I chose the latter.

“Alright then, Holmes,” I said. “Please explain.”

“With pleasure,” he replied sanguinely. He then took in a deep breath and said, “Beginning with your mental breakdown at the library, which you erroneously attribute to otherworldly influences. It was actually due to exhaustion coupled with your latent shell shock, with which you have struggled since you returned from Afghanistan. No doubt the horrors of the murder scenes reminded you of the similar horrors you saw as an army surgeon.

“The situation was aggravated by the physically and mentally debilitating effects of the aggressive virus with which you were recently infected. The fact that you could not diagnose it yourself is beside the point, as it clearly fell outside the limits of your medical knowledge. The sickness caused you additional stress, which only amplified the drain on your mental health. The fact that we have been discussing cults and paranormal activity in our current case led you to erroneously conclude that you might actually be subjected to the will of some ancient, evil deity.

“In short, your episode at the library was not the result of the interference on the part of Cthulhu or any otherworldly being described in the Necronomicon, but was instead the result of your deleterious physical and mental state and nothing else. If I had known that you were in such poor shape, I would have told you to stay home while I traveled to Cambridge alone.”

I paused, considering his words for a moment, and then asked, “And what of Mr. Gladstone’s conflagration?”

He replied, “Mr. Gladstone’s death was caused by a chemical reaction that resulted in his carriage igniting from the inside. It was orchestrated by the cult leader, who has already proven himself to be a prodigious chemist. As I said, he uses pyrotechnic displays to suggest to his followers that he represents and controls supernatural powers in order to maintain his influence over them through the fear of the unknown.

“The truth, however, is that he placed chemicals inside of Mr. Gladstone’s carriage in such a way that they would ignite as soon as he reentered it after having murdered Mrs. Meaden, thus creating an explosion while leaving no trace of any sort of explosive device. He also arranged it so that the carriage door would not open from the outside so as to prevent Mr. Gladstone from escaping. This can easily be explained by the fact that the cult leader disguised himself as the carriage driver and simply pretended to try to open the door when he in fact was holding it closed while Mr. Gladstone was engulfed in flames.

“That is all very rational, Holmes,” I said.

“As it should be,” he replied.

“But it does not explain all the circumstances in that aspect of the case. How did the cult leader know that Mr. Gladstone would botch the ritual?” I asked.

Holmes smiled and said, “That is an excellent question, my dear boy. I am glad to see your deductive faculties have not abandoned you completely. The answer is that he did not know, though Mr. Gladstone never had a chance either way, I am afraid. The cult leader planned the whole thing in advance.”

Holmes explained, “The cult leader knew he needed to prove to his followers that they were dealing with supernatural powers so as to assuage any doubts as to the authenticity of their ritual. This was to reinforce the notion that they had made a pact with Cthulhu and that the consequences of not following through with it would be severe. He knew that none of them believed in Cthulhu at first, not really. Thus, he concluded that one of them needed to die and die horribly. This would get their attention, show them that they were dealing with powers beyond their comprehension, and bring them under his yoke permanently.

“The leader no doubt selected Mr. Gladstone for this because of his propensity to drink. He knew Mr. Gladstone would need to get nice and lushy before doing anything, especially committing murder, thus making it far more likely that he would commit some error against the ritual, which he did. When word came back to the cult that Mr. Gladstone had made mistakes while killing his victim and subsequently burned to death under mysterious circumstances, there could be no doubt in the cultists’ minds that they were not simply playing a game.

“How would they have known about the details of Mrs. Meaden’s death, though?” I asked.

Holmes replied, “The cult leader knew it was only a short matter of time before Mrs. Meaden’s absence was noticed among her social circles and her murder was subsequently discovered. Then, the press would get involved after the police put out a press release about it. However, I immediately notified Lestrade after we found her body ourselves and asked him not to reveal the detail about the cult symbol being inscribed out in the open to the press. To this end, there was a recent article in The Times describing her death merely by saying she was killed with a hammer and nothing more. If she had been stabbed by the strange blade as well, that detail would have also been included in the news story. The fact that the cult members knew Mr. Gladstone had forgotten to conceal the symbol is further evidence that there is a mole in Scotland Yard who is feeding them information as the investigation progresses.

“However, I must point out that even if Mr. Gladstone had somehow managed to pull off the murder correctly despite being completely drunk when he committed it, the cult leader could still have claimed that Mr. Gladstone made some kind of mistake that led to his demise. The fact that he did indeed botch the ritual was merely a fortuitous event that reinforced the cult leader’s credibility. No matter what, Mr. Gladstone was going to die as soon as he finished killing Mrs. Meaden.”

I asked, “But, then, how does that account for the strange dreams Mr. Gladstone and all the other cultists apparently had, as well as the telegrams referencing those dreams that they received the following day which convinced them to join the cult in the first place?”

Holmes replied, “The dreams the cultists experienced were the result of neuro-linguistic programming instigated by our as-of-yet-unnamed cult leader. By using his Machiavellian powers of manipulation, he was able to get close enough to each cultist to place an unconscious suggestion in their minds that, when triggered by exposure to a powerful hallucinogen, would result in them having similar pre-programmed dreams. No doubt, he selected them for their susceptibility to such machinations. This means he must have stalked and groomed his prospective cultists for months if not years.

I looked at Holmes as if he had gone mad, and said, “Holmes, please do not take this the wrong way, but I fear the ergot from the cellar might have affected your brain a bit more than you may realize. What you just said makes no sense at all, and it begs me to stretch my imagination beyond the breaking point.”

Holmes chuckled to himself, and said, “Let me explain it another way, old boy. If I were to tell you not to think of a pink elephant, what is the first thing that would pop into your mind?”

“Why, I would think of a pink elephant, Holmes, as would anyone else to whom you gave the command. It is but a psychology trick.”

“Exactly, my boy, now imagine that for weeks, months, and years on end, every time we met I told you not to think of the pink elephant but also added a small detail that I told you not to think about as well. First, I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, then I tell you not to think of a pink elephant wearing a blue hat, then I add the detail of a purple coat, then a gold wristwatch, and more and more details over time. What would happen then?”

“I should say Holmes, that you could have me thinking about a very colorful and rather dapper-looking elephant whenever you wanted.”

“Exactly, Watson, and this is my point. Our cult leader was close enough to his subjects that he was able to use words alone to implant small suggestions in their minds that built into larger ones over time. These suggestions became so highly detailed and so deeply embedded that he could merely utter a phrase to make them think about whatever he wished without them even realizing what was going on. Finally, by exposing them to a hallucinogen to amplify the effects of his suggestions, he was able to force them into a dreamlike state so powerful that the experience would have left a profound impression on their psyches. In this case, the dream narrative he conjured was drawn straight from the Cthulhu myth in the Necronomicon.”

As Holmes spoke, I could tell he wholeheartedly believed every word he was saying. To me, it sounded like psychobabble, but he was the great consulting detective, not I. It seemed that I would need to take his word and suspend disbelief, despite my reservations.

He continued, “Seeing as how all our known cult members are involved in British high society, our culprit is likely a person with access to the upper social echelons, without necessarily being a part of them. I say this because between Mycroft and I, we have thoroughly identified everyone who is a member of the upper class who might be the leader of this cult and come up blank.

“Perhaps, then his is something like an academic,” I reckoned.

“Precisely,” replied Holmes. “He must be a part of the intellectual circles which regularly mix with the wealthy elite. As a result, he would no doubt be exposed to the gossipy rumors that regularly float around in the prestigious London locales they frequent. He could then use those rumors to guide himself to people whose emotionality made them easy to manipulate.”

I said, “This means the fact that our cultists and their victims are all part of the elite is merely circumstantial; they are involved simply because of the common social groups to which they belong.”

“Good show, Watson,” replied Holmes. “Now, you are getting it.”

Holmes continued, “The cult leader used his social position to look for those who were generally incapable of rational decision-making as a result of extreme temperaments, chronic intoxication, or both. These people then became his prey. He knew they only needed a slight bump to send them over the edge of sanity, and he would push them off with full force. Using this psychological profile as a template, he was able to single out several people to target. Richard Wilberforce, for example, has a reputation for being deathly vindictive. This made him an excellent subject for recruitment into a vengeance cult.

“Having selected his subjects and implanting the dream narrative into their minds, the cult leader waited until they would all be at a social event together where he would be in attendance as well. He then used this opportunity to expose them to the hallucinogen, perhaps by spiking their drinks or contaminating their food. This initial exposure would trigger the terrifying dream when they went to sleep that night, as Mr. Gladstone’s described in his journal.

“Each cultist received a telegram the following morning referencing the dream and summoning them to the first cult meeting which they then attended out of a mixture of fear and curiosity. He knew they would compare notes and would be awestruck by each having had the same dream and receiving the same telegram about it. Once he had them all there, the cult leader used stories from the Necronomicon as well as more doses of the hallucinogen to convince them that Cthulhu was real and would help them achieve their darkest desires.”

“While observing the cult’s meeting in the cellar, I overlooked the significance of the aroma of rotten yeast from the old discarded beer casks stored there. However, I have since deduced that the smell was actually ergot fungi that had grown inside the casks from the remnants of the grain-based brews they had once contained.

“Ergot, as you may recall from biology class, is a powerful hallucinogen that is thought to be responsible for the mass hysteria that led to the Salem witch trials in North America nearly 200 years ago. The cult leader held the meetings in this locale not merely because of its concealment and isolation but also because it gave him easy access to the ergot, which he used to maintain the illusionary reality to which he subjected his cult members.

“Furthermore,” Holmes continued, “The fact that the cult leader used a mask during the meeting not only had the effect of making him seem more menacing and enigmatic but also, more practically, of protecting him from the ergot spores that literally flooded the cellar. In addition, the fact that he entered from a separate room, rather than via the route the cult members took, means that he has a staging area nearby, which he uses to prepare himself for each cult meeting and remain unaffected by the hallucinogenic spores. This staging area must communicate with another way out of the building as he did not return to the cellar after the conclusion of the meeting I witnessed.”

“I see what you are saying about the ergot in the cellar, Holmes, but why were you not affected by it while you were there? You had no protection against its effects.”

Holmes cringed and I sensed that I had inadvertently distressed him with my question. He said, “I neglected to tell you, Watson, that for several hours after the adjournment of the meeting, I hallucinated quite severely. The symptoms first set upon me just as I hid behind the barrels, which I originally mistook as being the result of the alcoholic drinks I had consumed to shore up my disguise. However, things quickly intensified. I was in the cellar for so long that the spores must have infested my lungs, and wild hallucinations soon took hold of my senses. I must say it was a terrifying experience to feel trapped down there for such a long time while gibbering, demoniacal chants and spectral images invaded my mind. However, I managed to recognize what was happening and focus on the fact that I needed to stay there until I was certain I could escape unnoticed. It was a harrowing experience to be sure.”

I was shocked. I had no idea that Holmes had unwittingly subjected himself to such psychological torment. “Are you… alright?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” he immediately replied. “The effects lessened when I was finally able to get out and breathe fresh air. Then, I quickly made my way to the nearest druggist, who supplied me with enough barbiturates to counteract the hallucinogenic symptoms of the ergot almost immediately. I am fine now.” As he said this, his eye twitched involuntarily.

I said, “Very good. That leaves only the appearance of this mysterious constellation.”

“Yes. The easiest phenomenon to explain in this whole case. Simply put, Watson, the appearance of the constellation is merely a naturally recurring celestial event that has yet to be explained by modern science. Despite my admittedly limited knowledge of astronomy, I know enough to tell you that this constellation has periodically reappeared since the beginning of recorded history. The layout of its star-pattern conveniently lends itself to a certain shape more than others, which is why all the disparate civilizations over the years looked at it and saw basically the same thing. This is also why they worked it into their mythology in similar ways. The ultimate emergence of the Necronomicon merely codified the folklore surrounding the constellation, including Cthulhu and the myth that he will rise from the sea to dominate the world when certain conditions are met.”

He continued, “The fact that it has fascinated ancient cultures with each reappearance should hardly be surprising, nor should the fact that they would include it in their mythology. For instance, some scholars believe that many of the miracles mentioned in the Bible were not divine at all but were instead much more mundane extraterrestrial occurrences, such as meteor showers, supernovas, and other observable events that human beings simply could not comprehend at the time. Thus, they described them the best they could according to their own cultural beliefs and mythologies.

I replied, “That is quite a claim, Holmes. I happen to know many people who would disagree with you about that or, at least, disagree about the lack of divine meaning in those circumstances.”

“Fair enough, my friend,” he said. “The point is that regardless of your beliefs, there is a rational explanation for everything we have experienced thus far in this case. Have I answered all your questions to your satisfaction?”

I thought for a moment, and replied, “I should say so, Holmes.”

“Excellent,” he replied. “Then, let us move to the next steps. Watson, I need you to go to the police station and tell Lestrade I said that Margaret Cox is the next victim and that Ann Tennyson will try to kill her tonight. In the meantime, I shall search for conclusive proof of Officer White’s corruption. However, you must do everything you can to ensure that Officer White does not know we know that the murder is about to take place. You must also not let Lestrade know that we suspect Officer White of being involved in the cult. I will tell Lestrade myself once I have more evidence to show him. We shall then confront Officer White and interrogate him about the identity of the cult leader and the remaining unidentified cultist. Once we have captured Officer White and the cult leader, we can arrest the rest of cultists and send them all to the assizes.”

“Alright, Holmes. Let us make haste,” I said, pounding my fist into my hand.

Chapter 13

It was now a little past 4 p.m., and we had only a small amount of time to save Margaret Cox from a grim death at the hands of the Cthulhu vengeance cult. I took a hansom straight to Scotland Yard headquarters at Whitehall Place, and I arrived just in time to see Lestrade exiting the red, white, and brown-checkered four-story building. I then hopped out of the hansom expeditiously, ran up to him, and said with urgency in my voice, “Detective Lestrade, I need to speak with you.”

He looked at me with surprise and concern and said, “Yes, what is it, Dr. Watson?”

I grabbed him by the arm and led him over to a secluded area in an alley to the side of the building. Then, in a hushed whisper, I said, “Sherlock Holmes sent me to tell you that there will be another murder tonight. The victim is a woman named Margaret Cox, and she will be killed by a woman named Ann Tennyson.”

“What?” he whispered back, incredulously. “How do you know this?”

“There is no time to explain. You must send your men to both their homes immediately before it is too late.”

“But where is Holmes?” he asked with exasperation. “I cannot just send my men wherever I jolly well feel like it. I have superiors to whom I must report with a justification for all uses of police resources, and that certainly includes manpower.”

“But it is Sherlock Holmes’s word,” I argued. “When has he ever been wrong before?”

When I asked him this question, Lestrade looked away and became silent for a moment. It seemed he was reflecting on his history with Holmes and the often-required but rarely desired assistance that he provided. Lestrade’s facial expressions showed multiple conflicting emotions, including jealousy, admiration, anger, and awe. Finally, he shook his head and said, “I simply cannot spare any more men, Dr. Watson, and I cannot arrest Mrs. Tennyson based on Holmes’s word alone. However, I can send Officer White with you to look after Ms. Cox at her home if she will allow it. If she does, then you and Officer White can sleep there in shifts to protect her.”

My face fell, and I held my finger up and stammered, “But I… but I…”

Lestrade merely patted me on the shoulder and said, “Good luck.” Then, he turned around and walked back into the building to tell Officer White everything I had just said.

I thought about shouting after him and telling him not to involve Officer White, but then thought better of it. Holmes had given me explicit instructions not to let Lestrade on about our suspicions of him, and I doubted he would listen to me anyway. I was in a jam and there was no easy way out.

Chapter 14

Officer White and I sat in awkward silence as our hansom pulled away from Scotland Yard. His face was still a deep, dark red from the exertion with which he had protested against going with me to Ms. Cox’s home. “Why in blazes should I go to watch over some old spinster with this whoreson?” he had shouted. We were standing in Lestrade’s office with the door closed, but it was certain that everyone in the hall had just heard his outburst.

“Just because his freak-of-nature pseudo-detective associate made more specious and spurious speculations about some crazy cult that does not even exist? No, I refuse,” he said as he crossed his arms and stuck his nose up. I was even less enthusiastic myself about the prospect of spending the night alone with Office White and his cult’s next victim, but I had not expected that he would go so far as to commit insubordination to Lestrade.

“Now, see here, Officer White,” Lestrade said sternly. “I do not need to remind you that you are a duly sworn officer in Her Majesty’s service. I am ordering you to accompany Dr. Watson to Ms. Cox’s home to ensure her safety. If you are not up to this extremely simple task, then you shall hand me your badge and gun immediately.”

I interjected, “It really is not necessary for him to accompany me, Lestrade. I shall keep watch over Ms. Cox with the help of my military training and my revolver. You should not overextend your forces when Officer White’s time would clearly be better spent elsewhere.”

Both men ignored me.

“Am I being punished?” asked Officer White.

“No,” said Lestrade, “I am not disciplining you, nor am I indirectly criticizing any aspect of your service. You are one of the finest officers I have ever encountered, and there is no doubt in my mind that you shall go far in your law enforcement career. Furthermore, I know you and Mr. Holmes do not like each other. I do not like him either, but you must trust my judgment when I tell you that no matter how infuriating his behavior can be, his powers of deduction are unmatched.”

Officer White scoffed, but Lestrade continued, “And that is why you must accompany Dr. Watson to watch over Ms. Cox this evening, because Mr. Holmes is correct far too often for me to ignore his warnings. The man simply knows things that others do not, and this is true despite any personal reservations anyone might have about him. That is why you must go.”

Officer White’s shoulders slumped, and he capitulated. For a moment, I almost felt sorry for him. No matter what his true intentions were, whether he was a part of this bizarre cult or he was merely a decent man who found himself a victim of circumstance, his emotions were genuine. He paused for a few moments. Then, he straightened up, looked at me, and said in a neutral, professional tone, “Let us be off, Doctor.”

We arrived at Ms. Cox’s two-story wooden house on Gloucester Street just as it began to get dark. The building was old but it closely resembled the other genteel-looking homes in the neighborhood. Officer White and I had not said a word to each other for the entire ride. We disembarked from the hansom and made our way to her front door.

My anxiety crept up with his every footstep behind me. If Holmes was right about Officer White, then there was nothing to prevent him from helping Mrs. Tennyson kill Ms. Cox and me this evening. No doubt, he was concocting his alibi at this very moment. It was clear that I would need to keep an eye on him the entire night. Hopefully, Holmes would uncover the evidence he needed to put a stop to this madness as soon as possible.

I knocked on Ms. Cox’s door and hoped she was not home. Unfortunately, the lights came on in her entryway windows, and she answered the door. She looked at Officer White then at me and, with concern in her voice, asked, “Yes? How can I help you gentlemen?”

Officer White said, “Police business, madam. We do not mean to alarm you, but we have received word that you are to be targeted tonight for a crime. This information came from none other than Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself. I trust you have heard of him?”

She looked at Officer White with incredulity and said, “Of course, who has not heard of the great consulting detective?”

He said, “I am Officer White of Scotland Yard, and this is Mr. Holmes’s associate, Dr. John Watson. We are here on his orders to ask if we may stay the night at your home to keep watch and ensure your safety.”

“Where is Mr. Holmes?” she asked.

“I am afraid we cannot say, madam,” answered Officer White, “just that we are here at his behest. I must ask again if we may stay the night to protect you.”

“Well, I suppose it could not hurt. You may stay in the guest bedroom, though I have only one bed.”

“No problem, madam,” said Officer White. “We plan to sleep in shifts so that there is always someone awake here tonight. If anyone has malicious designs for you, they will have to go through us.” Officer White delivered his speech so emphatically and heroically that I was nearly convinced he was not the enemy after all. Clearly, he had already come up with a plan for what he would do to Ms. Cox and me when he got the chance. We were entering dangerous waters indeed.

“Alright, then,” said Ms. Cox, “come right in. Would either of you care for a spot of tea?”

“Coffee, if you have it,” I said.

A few hours later, Ms. Cox had gone to bed upstairs, and Officer White and I silently sat across from one another in the downstairs drawing room. The room was small and cramped, with wilting floral wallpaper, and was filled with various curios and other odds and ends. I took my revolver out and set it on the table next to my chair, both to reassure myself that I was not helpless and to show Officer White that I was not fooling around. I had already drunk several cups of coffee, and my hands shook with the rush of caffeine. I planned to stay up all night whether it was my turn to sleep or not.

Officer White eyed my gun and asked, “Is that an Adams or a Tranter?”

“It’s a Colt,” I replied glumly.

“Mine’s a Webley,” he said, pulling out his revolver and placing it on the table next to him, “specially made for the police force.”

I could perceive that his gun was loaded, and I was sure he could see that mine was too. Our stalemate remained for the rest of the evening, and we made no further conversation. We did not even discuss who would take the first watch. However, I must have nodded off because I closed my eyes while it was dark outside and, when I opened them, the sun shone through the drawing room window. Officer White was gone and so was his gun. I immediately panicked and grabbed for my gun, which thankfully, still lay where I had left it on the table beside me.

My thoughts turned to Ms. Cox and panic rose within me once more. I had fallen asleep while protecting my charge and given her predators ample opportunity to strike. My mind was sick with guilt, and I immediately called out “Ms. Cox!” and rushed up to her bedroom on the second floor. “Ms. Cox!” I shouted again as I burst into her room, but no one was there. Her bed appeared to be made neatly and nothing was amiss. I cautiously scanned the area, believing that at any moment, I would find her lifeless body lying in a pool of blood, as with the other murders. However, I saw that nothing was out of the ordinary.

Then, from downstairs, I heard Ms. Cox’s voice call out, “Dr. Watson? What is wrong? What are you on about?”

Cautiously, I made my way out of her bedroom and looked down to the bottom of the stairs. There stood Ms. Cox with a look of concern on her face. When I saw her, I asked, “Ms. Cox, are you alright? Are you not harmed?”

She looked up at me and said, “No, Dr. Watson, I am not hurt at all. I am quite fine, actually. Officer White and I were just about to have breakfast. Would you care to join us?”

Dumbfounded, I descended the stairs and followed Ms. Cox into the kitchen, where I saw Officer White sitting at the table. He was sipping tea and reading the morning edition of The Times. He looked up at me and cordially said, “Good morning, Dr. Watson.”

“I trust you boys slept well enough, last night?” asked Ms. Cox.

“Indeed, we did,” replied Officer White without looking at me.

We ate our breakfast in silence. Ms. Cox had prepared eggs and toast, and as I munched away, I felt quite perplexed. Officer White and his accomplices had every opportunity to victimize Ms. Cox and me as part of their sadistic ritual. Yet, here we all sat together as civilized as could be. Where was Holmes?

Just then, we heard a knock at the door. Ms. Cox went to see who it was, and I heard her exclaim, “Mr. Sherlock Holmes! Why, I would recognize you anywhere, but where is your deerstalker cap and your curved pipe? I thought you took them everywhere with you.”

Holmes said something to her that I could not discern, and then, she said, “Yes, Dr. Watson and Officer White are both here. Please, do come in. We were just finishing breakfast. Would you care for some?”

Holmes entered the home and said, “No, thank you, my lady. I am afraid that I am in a bit of a hurry.” Holmes walked briskly into the kitchen to see us sitting at the table, our empty breakfast plates in front of us. “Good morning, gentlemen,” he said.

“Good morning, Holmes,” I replied.

Officer White said nothing. His eyes were buried in the newspaper.

“I am glad you had a pleasant time here, but we must return to the police station at once,” he said.

Officer White continued looking at the paper and muttered something under his breath that sounded like “bollocks.” Then, he folded the paper neatly, politely thanked Ms. Cox for her hospitality, and walked out the door without giving Holmes or I so much as a glance.

I gave Holmes a quizzical look and he looked back at me blankly. I then said goodbye to Ms. Cox and made my way out the door with Holmes following close behind. Once outside, I saw a police carriage was waiting for us and that Officer White had already stepped inside. I entered the carriage and saw Lestrade sitting there as well.

Holmes sat in the carriage next to me and said, “There has been another murder.”

Shocked, I asked, “But who?”

Lestrade answered grimly, “Ann Tennyson.”

Chapter 15

As we rode along in the carriage, Lestrade said, “After our discussion, Dr. Watson, I gave the situation a bit more thought and decided to have one of my officers surveille Mrs. Tennyson’s home last night after all. He reported to me earlier today that nothing seemed amiss for most of the night, until he heard a scream from inside the house in the early hours of the morning. He then immediately attempted to kick down the door.

“However, he found it to be made of heavy oak and cast iron, so he then spent several minutes looking for another way inside. By the time he was able to break into the house through a side window, it was too late. Mrs. Tennyson lay dead in her bedroom. She appeared to have been interrupted while packing for a long trip. I sent for Mr. Holmes, and then, we came to get you and Officer White before heading to the crime scene.”

The way Lestrade spoke made me think that something was off. His tone had a hollowness that was desperate and unfamiliar. Holmes remained silent, and I could tell something else was going on that they were not telling me. Meanwhile, Officer White stared sullenly out the carriage window.

We arrived shortly thereafter at Mrs. Tennyson’s well-to-do brick house on Park Lane. Holmes and I made our way to the bedroom and confirmed that she had indeed been packing when she was killed. It seemed her attacker had caught her completely off-guard. Mrs. Tennyson had been stabbed once through the heart and died instantly. Her body lay on its side, the look of surprise still frozen on her face.

Holmes said, “By visual inspection, I can confirm that the stab wound has the same zig-zag pattern as with all the other murders.”

When Officer White was out of earshot, Holmes whispered to me, “The cult leader himself must have committed this murder as vengeance for Mrs. Tennyson’s betrayal since she was clearly planning to escape the city rather than follow through with her part of the ritual. Thus, the vengeance pact remains unbroken despite Margaret Cox’s survival.”

A pool of blood had congealed into a circle underneath her body, and Holmes deduced that a feather quill had been dipped into it. He then found the Cthulhu cult symbol drawn directly underneath her head and noted that while, technically, the symbol had been concealed, it was obvious that the murderer intended for it to be easily found.

“He is mocking us,” said Holmes.

“No,” Officer White said coldly, “he is mocking you.”

“Actually, Officer White,” said Lestrade with menace in his voice, “the joke is on you.”

Officer White turned to look at Lestrade and see what he meant, and Holmes immediately placed him in handcuffs.

Holmes said, “I do not think we need to maintain the charade any longer. We all know there never was any such person named Officer Thomas White. Do we not?”

The man we had been calling Officer White did not protest at all. In fact, he did not even seem surprised. Instead, he bore a look of indifference. Then, he began to speak. As he did so, his voice sounded completely different than it had before. It was now gruff, with a thick Irish accent. He asked, “Ow’d you know it was me?”

“Clancy O’Brien, did you think I had forgotten about you?” asked Holmes. “It has only been a few years since the last time we met. Back then, you were a low-ranking member of a band of hoodlums I captured in the midst of a criminal enterprise you had embarked upon on behalf of none other than Professor James Moriarty. I distinctly remember holding eye contact with you as the police led your merry band of fools to the police carriage.

“Aye,” sneered O’Brien, “and I remember seeing you that day as well. I knew you were the one who’d done us in, I just didn’t know how. It has bothered me for a long time, detective.”

Holmes said, “When I first met you as your Officer White persona at the scene of Mr. Hill’s murder, I recalled that I had seen your face once before. However, I had already forgotten the specifics of that case, which is why I did not totally recognize you. No matter, for here we are again and under very similar circumstances.”

With a rumbling growl, O’Brien replied, “Yes, here we are again.”

“And you have just demonstrated the first clue you gave as to your true identity,” said Holmes, “your previously inexplicable hatred for me. I could plainly detect your resentment from the moment I saw you at Mr. Hill’s house. As you looked at me, your lip was pulled back in a sneer, your arms were crossed in defiance, and your body was hunched over as if you were ready to fight at a moment’s notice.”

“Aye, and that I was, Mr. Holmes,” replied O’Brien.

“I know that I am not everybody’s cup of Earl Grey,” Holmes said. Lestrade coughed in agreement and Holmes stopped to glance at him before continuing, “but for someone to show me such obvious disdain when we had never met before is rare, no matter how well my reputation precedes me. It was clear to me that we had met before and that it had not been a pleasant experience for you. Unfortunately, I had already decided to forget about it, and that was my mistake.”

“You’re spot on there, Mr. Holmes,” replied O’Brien, “but surely one nasty look wasn’t enough to reveal my true identity. How’d you figure it out?”

“Well, Mr. O’Brien, I was sure that we had met before under dubious circumstances and was suspicious of your involvement with the cult based on your general incompetence regarding this case and some other reasons I will not get into. To collect more evidence, I disguised myself as a fellow Scotland Yard police officer to gain access to your office at the police station, and this allowed me to lift fingerprints off your things. I then spent the next several hours comparing the prints with those in my archive, and sure enough, I found a match. It then became clear that Clancy O’Brien and Officer Thomas White were one and the same person. I then approached Lestrade with this evidence and the rest, as they say, is history.”

“Fancy bit of detective work, busybody Holmes,” snarked O’Brien. “It’s too bad people like yourself can’t learn to mind your own business.”

“Not minding my own business is my business, Mr. O’Brien,” Holmes replied. “Lestrade, if you would be so kind?”

Lestrade replied with satisfaction in his voice, “My pleasure, Holmes,” and then roughly dragged O’Brien away.

Chapter 16

We arrived at the police department’s interrogation room and sat Clancy O’Brien down into the metal chair. Holmes and I sat across from him while Lestrade stood in the corner. O’Brien taunted Lestrade, saying, “Eh, I didn’t think you’d take it so personally, detective. You know this was just business, right?” Stone-faced, Lestrade ignored him.

Despite his antagonism, O’Brien was surprisingly forthcoming with information about the cult. He did not even demand leniency for his crimes in exchange for the information he provided. It was as if he was proud of what he had done and could not wait to tell someone about it. O’Brien bragged that he had been involved with the cult for nearly two years and that the only reason he joined Scotland Yard was so that the cult could monitor police actions from the inside when the murders began to occur. “I didn’t plan to be so great at fighting crime,” O’Brien said sarcastically, referencing his success as a police officer. “I just happened to have a knack for it. I guess when you commit crimes for a living, you know what to look for on the other end of it.”

Lestrade fumed and his lip quivered. The betrayal cut him deeply. Finally, Holmes asked O’Brien about the cult leader, and he became silent. Holmes repeated his question, but O’Brien stonewalled him. “I say, Mr. O’Brien, you were doing so well. If you tell us the identity of the leader of your organization, we will be sure they go easier on you at the assizes,” said Holmes.

Lestrade scoffed. O’Brien continued to say nothing as he stared into space. Then, he lowered his head and began to whisper, though we could not make out what he was saying. Holmes, Lestrade, and I looked on in confusion as O’Brien’s body started to convulse in his chair. His whispering became shouting as he began to repeat the chant, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!”

Then, his body stopped moving, and he slumped over, silent. We looked at each other, not knowing what to do. O’Brien then stood up, and his eyes rolled back into his head. He slid his fingers into his eye sockets and pulled both his eyes out in a swift snapping motion.

We looked on in shock and disgust as he began to move around the table towards us. Blood spurted from his empty eye sockets, and he held his disembodied eyes in front of him while chanting over and over again, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!”

Holmes bolted out of his chair and sent it flying. A shot rang out, and O’Brien’s skull exploded, spraying blood everywhere. His body fell to the floor, his brain oozing out from the open wound.

Lestrade coolly placed his gun back in its holster and said, with typical British understatement, “Well, that is that.”

Chapter 17

Holmes and I sat in silence as our hansom trundled along the asphalt streets back to our rooms at Baker Street, the sight of Clancy O’Brien’s bizarre death still fresh in our minds. “Why would anybody do that?” I wondered aloud. “What could possibly possess someone to pluck out their own eyes?” Holmes said nothing.

When we turned onto St. James Street, Holmes called out to the driver, “Stop here, please.” We then pulled to the side of the road and disembarked. Holmes started walking along the sidewalk at a brisk pace as I struggled to keep up.

“I say, Holmes. Where are we going?”

“To the post office, old chap, to check on a bit of correspondence,” he replied.

“Correspondence?” I asked, perplexed.

Holmes and I continued down the street until we reached the post office. Holmes went inside while I waited on the sidewalk. A few minutes later, he stepped out of the post office with a monumental grin on his face. Without a word, he handed me a telegram that he had just retrieved. I asked, “What is this Holmes?”

“Why, it is the answer, my dear boy!” he exclaimed. I read the telegram, and it said:

“Mr. Holmes, the dagger you described is associated with an obscure Abyssinian tribe known as the Yug Shuggoth, who dwelled in northeast Africa millennia ago. The symbol inscribed upon its hilt is representative of a deity they worshipped whom they referred to as Ythogtha. The dagger was previously kept here for study, but was believed to have been misplaced. Should you recover it, I ask that you return it to us to be stored in our archives.”

Turning the telegram over, I saw that it was sent to Holmes from a Professor Ferdinand C. Ashley at Miskatonic University. “What is the meaning of this, Holmes?” I asked

His face beamed as he replied, “My friend, it is the missing piece of the puzzle. Professor Ashley is one of my professional acquaintances and an expert on ancient history, specifically pertaining to religious artifacts and weaponry. I wrote to him after witnessing the cult meeting in the ergot-tainted cellar and sent him a sketch of the peculiar dagger I saw that we believe is our murder weapon. I asked for his help in providing any information about it that he could, and he has come through for us swimmingly.”

I implored Holmes, “Please do elaborate.”

“Of course, Watson. You see, the Yug Shuggoth tribe is mentioned in the Necronomicon, as is their patron deity, Ythogtha, who also happens to be the son of Cthulhu. The tome states that any ritual which combines the power of both deities will be exponentially more powerful and dangerous.”

“I see, Holmes,” I replied wearily, “but I think we have established that the cult is serious about its mission, what will all the gruesome murders and so on.”

“Indeed, Watson, but this information allows us to infer many other things that are more relevant and valuable in our endeavors. For instance, I happen to know that the only other person in London who had access to such an artifact is none other than Dr. George Gammell Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages at Brown University in the United States. He is a visiting scholar at the University of London, where he now serves as a guest lecturer. I have scanned a few of his monographs from time to time, though I have never found anything particularly useful.”

This piqued my interest, and I said, “My word, Holmes. This person fits the exact profile of the man we are searching for.”

“To the nines, Watson.”

“What is next?”

“We pay the good professor a visit, of course. I happen to know that he stays in a university property not far from campus. There are still three days before the constellation will next appear in the sky, meaning we have only that long until the final murder takes pace and the ritual is complete. Should this occur before we can apprehend the cult’s leader, then the probability of ever catching him plummets. We must act this very evening.”

“What shall we do?” I asked.

“Tonight, we will visit the professor’s residence disguised as fellow scholars of ancient history from nearby Imperial College London. The purpose shall be to tell him we wish to see if he can settle a debate between us about the development of hunter-gatherer societies in ancient Europe. However, our true purpose will be to uncover any evidence we can as to the professor’s association with the Cthulhu cult.”

“But what if he is not our man, Holmes? Though he is highly suspicious, other possibilities may still exist that we have not yet considered.”

“Other possibilities that you have not considered,” replied Holmes, correcting me matter-of-factly, “but you do make a good point, Watson. Either the abundance or dearth of evidence from the professor’s home shall determine our next steps in the case.”

Chapter 18

We arrived in front of the red brick apartments where Professor Angell resided on Remnant Street across from the University of London campus. We looked every bit the part of two aging gentlemen out for a stroll, with white-haired wigs, fake spectacles, and makeup that made our faces look tired and wrinkled. It was nearly seven o’clock in the evening, a time when we believed Professor Angell would almost certainly be home. However, the building was dark as we approached, and we saw no lights coming from any of the windows.

Nevertheless, we approached the door, and Holmes knocked loudly. After a few moments and no answer, Holmes knocked again. No lights turned on from the inside, and we heard no footsteps approach. The apartment appeared to be empty. “No problem, Watson. It is a good thing I always plan for contingencies such as this,” Holmes said as he pulled out his lock picking kit from his coat pocket.

At the sight of it, I whispered, “Oh no, please do not, Holmes.”

“Come now, Watson. What is a little breaking and entering when lives are at stake? Is that not the definition of utilitarianism? Just think, if we did not break into Professor Angell’s residence and then people died as a direct result of our negligence, that would make us culpable for their deaths as well, would you not agree?”

He did not wait for an answer to his philosophical quandary, however. Instead, he turned on his heel and began walking rapidly around the house towards the back yard. “Do be careful, Holmes,” I whispered as he strode away.

I continued to stand outside the door, not quite sure what to do with myself. I certainly did not want to be there if some unsuspecting neighbor happened to glance down from their window and saw two strange men creeping around the professor’s residence. Still, I did not want to abandon Holmes, either. Several minutes passed as I contemplated what sort of story I could come up with to explain our presence on the property, but my thoughts were interrupted by crashing sounds from behind the house. Alarmed, I went to pull out my revolver, but thought better of it in case Holmes had been waylaid by a police officer or zealous neighbor.

I rushed around behind the house, but saw nothing in the back yard when I arrived. I caught a glint of light reflecting off something sticking out from the building’s back door. I approached and saw that the object was the wrench from Holmes’s lock picking kit. It was still hanging inside the lock. However, Holmes was nowhere to be found.

Chapter 19

I slouched deeply into my chair at 221B Baker Street and downed the last bit of scotch from my glass. Lestrade sat in Holmes’s chair next to me, his brow furrowed in deep frustration. My feelings matched his own. It had been nearly two days since Holmes disappeared, and there was no trace of him. The Cthulhu constellation would appear in the night sky any minute now, and after tonight, we would probably never have a chance to capture the remaining cult members and bring them to justice. There was no protection we could offer to the cult’s remaining victim, because we had no idea who or where they were. All seemed lost.

I stood up and made my way over to the decanter to refill my glass. As I did so, I asked Lestrade if he would like me to top off his drink as well. He held his glass out wordlessly in acquiescence. As I poured him some more liquor, I asked, “What do you think about the whole business with the cult? Do you think there’s any truth behind it?”

Lestrade shrugged and said, “I suppose it is within the realm of possibility, as Holmes would say, though I doubt he ever believed in any of it.”

“No, he did not, er…, does not,” I replied, sighing. It seemed I had unconsciously given up on any hope of his survival already.

I said, “Holmes has always excelled at showing how that which is seemingly impossible can be anything but. He made a compelling case for me that this whole situation was as mundane as the room in which we sit. However, I still wonder whether there was actually something supernatural happening this time. All this business about dark rituals, ancient gods, and magic artifacts seems preposterous, and yet there is still so much we do not understand about the world. Even if texts such as the Necronomicon are not exactly true per se, might they at least contain some element of truth that is beyond our comprehension?”

“That possibility is beyond terrifying,” replied Lestrade. “Perhaps there is value in not knowing such things for sanity’s sake.” He sat there silently for a moment, and then said, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

I had never known Lestrade to be so philosophical, and I looked at him with a mildly surprised expression. He looked back at me and said, “That was a quote from a horror story I read, though I cannot recall the title or the author’s name. For some reason, it has always stuck with me in my mind.”

As I lifted my glass to take another drink, I momentarily glanced over at the sofa on the side of the room. When I did so, I noticed an unusual shape laying beneath it. Curious, I walked over to the sofa and bent down to see what the thing was. I picked it up and saw that it was the syringe Holmes used to inject his cocaine solution.

“How odd,” I said. “Holmes always meticulously cleans this instrument whenever he is done using it and puts it back in the same spot in his drawer every time.”

I held the syringe out for Lestrade to see, and said, “It is as if someone used it once and then discarded it, like it would never be used again.” Then, I added slowly, “It is doubtful that Holmes would ever do that.”

We looked at each other for a moment, and then I went over to the door to Holmes’s room. I tried to open it, but it was locked. I thought that this was strange because Holmes would normally never lock his door. I distinctly remember him telling me once, “Anyone who has a reason to break into my room will not be stopped by mere locks alone.”

“Why would he choose to lock his door now all of a sudden?” I asked myself. The answer, I knew, was that he would not. The feeling in the air became electric, and I hurried over to my bureau to grab my gun. Lestrade, sensing the sudden drama, stood up and pulled out his revolver. We went over to Holmes’s door, silently counted to three, and then kicked it at the same time with such tremendous force that it swung open and nearly broke off its hinges.

There lay Sherlock Holmes, bound to his bed and gagged with cloth. A man in a dark purple suit who had to be Richard Wilberforce stood by the headboard, holding the Dagger of Ythogtha over his head with both hands, ready to plunge it into Holmes’s heart. His black-bearded face bore an expression of rapture and fury.

Next to the window stood none other than Professor James Moriarty, Holmes’s arch-nemesis, wearing in the same black suit from the picture Holmes had showed me. It immediately became clear to me that he was the mystery member of the Cthulhu cult all along. His savage nature was displayed by the brutality with which he had dispatched Mr. Hill at the beginning of the case. Holmes was now to be his victim with the help of Wilberforce per the requirements of the cult’s ritual, and he was there to witness his enemy’s demise.

Lestrade and I fired our guns at Wilberforce point blank, striking him repeatedly. He fell over dead, the dagger clattering harmlessly to the floor. I then turned my gun to point it at Moriarty, but he had already climbed out the window. I rushed over just in time to see him jump down from the fire escape and run down the alley. I aimed my gun after him but could not get a clear shot. He had eluded us.

Lestrade untied Holmes, who immediately sat up and said, “Good show, jolly good show old boys! They had been coming and going from our rooms through the fire escape. I suppose it was the carelessly discarded syringe that clued in you in to their presence? Wilberforce dropped it behind the sofa after he finished using it to inject the last of my cocaine solution. He had found it when he went through our things after bringing me here, having captured me at Professor Angell’s university residence. Apparently, they knew I would eventually determine that Angell was the cult leader and waited for me at his home. They were onto us from the moment Watson and I arrived dressed as visiting professors.

“As you can tell, Wilberforce and Moriarty were holding me until the constellation appeared tonight so they could complete the ritual. Apparently, they believed this was the last place you would look, and they were almost right. You found me just before they could follow through with their plan.”

Then, he added, “It truly is a pity that Moriarty escaped. This was the best opportunity we have had to capture him in some time. I lament that if it had been either one of you in my position and I in yours, I would have captured both Moriarty and Wilberforce at the same time without letting either of them get away as you did.” For a moment, I considered tying Holmes back up again and leaving him there for another day. Lestrade probably would have helped.

The next morning, we returned to Professor Angell’s apartment with a full complement of Scotland Yard’s finest officers who stormed the home in search of the nefarious cult leader. Alas, he was nowhere to be found. The apartment itself seemed fairly ordinary, except that there was no décor and it was furnished with only the barest essentials. It appeared as though Professor Angell lived like a monk.

Nothing seemed amiss inside his home, except for in his study, where we found a curious wooden structure which could only be described as some sort of shrine. It was festooned with melted black candles and was coated in an iridescent green ichor that reeked of saltwater and looked like mucous. The viscous slime seemed to have oozed forth from an unknown source. It was so sticky that when I touched it, a strand of goo stuck to my finger and stretched for more than a meter as I withdrew my hand. Atop the shrine was an outline in the ichor that suggested a small statute had once sat there as its centerpiece. What this statue depicted, however, we could not know. Holmes remarked after going through Professor Angell’s things that many of his notes were missing.

Epilogue

Holmes and I sat in our rooms at 221B Baker Street. It had been nearly two months since the conclusion of the Cthulhu cult affair, and the strange constellation no longer appeared in the night sky. Mary Dickens’s whereabouts remained unknown, as did Moriarty’s and Professor Angell’s. The other cultists were all dead.

I scanned the headlines of the evening edition of The Times one night and noticed one that read, “Local Woman Killed in Freak Accident.” The article went on to describe how Mary Dickens, a pillar of London high society, was killed in a bizarre accident. She was occupying a room in a fleabag motel in Vauxhall when the building literally collapsed in on itself. Apparently, there was some sort of fatal flaw in its construction that had gone unnoticed which led it to spontaneously implode. Ms. Dickens was the building’s only occupant at the time and was thus the only casualty. When they found her body, it appeared that she had been alive and conscious for several hours before she died, hopelessly trapped in the rubble and in severe pain. A terrible way to go.

“I say, Holmes. It seems another member of the Cthulhu cult has met a horrible demise.”

“Indeed, Watson. I saw the article earlier today. I have been paying extra close attention for any news about Professor Angell as well.”

“And what of Moriarty?” I asked.

“According to the Necronomicon, Cthulhu’s curse for failing to complete his summoning ritual lasts a full year. I should say that if Moriarty stays alive that long without falling prey to any ‘accidents,’ then he will believe he is in the clear. Indeed, Moriarty is of a singular sort who may just be wily enough to escape the devil himself.”

I asked, “Does this mean that you believe the curse is real after all?”

“Of course not, Watson, do not be silly. However, Moriarty clearly believes in it, seeing as how he waited patiently for Wilberforce to kill me according to the tenets of the ritual while I was their prisoner. In that time, Moriarty could have easily killed me himself whenever he wanted, slowly and painfully too if he had wished, but he did not. Ergo, if he believes the curse is real, then, by Jove, it is real to him. This means that for the next year or so, Moriarty will perceive grave danger everywhere he goes. He will be no less tortured psychologically than the ill-fated narrator of Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’”

He continued, “Furthermore, even I am not so stubborn so as to assume that all knowledge is currently accessible to even the most brilliant minds in the world. There are many things about life and the universe that we still do not understand. Take this strange substance for instance, the fungoid ichor we discovered covering the shrine at Angell’s apartment. Why, I have never seen anything like it. I have reviewed all the literature and performed every test I can think of to break it down into its core elements, but it simply defies explanation. Strictly speaking, Watson, it should not exist.”

“Do you believe, then, that it is supernatural?” I asked.

Holmes scoffed, “Absolutely not.”

“Then, what does it mean?”

“It simply means that I have not yet discovered its true nature, nor has anyone else ever before. Once I unlock its secrets, I shall write a monograph about it and submit my findings to scientific journals for posterity. Thus, the pursuit of the truth continues, old friend. The pursuit of the truth continues.”