The hooves of the horses clomped on the wet cobblestone. The wheels of our carriage rumbled softly through puddles that accumulated from the chilly drizzle. Inside the car, all was silent; that was to be expected.
My colleague, the venerable Sherlock Holmes, had received news of a dreadful sort. An old friend of his had passed away that morning. He asked me along, we weren’t only paying our respects, there were some peculiarities that required Holmes’s keen skills.
My dear friend, renowned for his observant nature, told me little of the situation. I respectfully maintained silence to match his somber mood. Prior to that day I knew next to nothing about the departed. Holmes had mentioned him once or twice in conversation; the man was something of a big game hunter.
Our driver slowed upon our approach to the front gate.
“Stop here,” Holmes announced. We disembarked the coach and my friend led me through the gate and onto the property. The large mansion loomed over us, startlingly white against the cloud choked sky. A wall of grey stone fully encompassed the estate. Fruit bearing trees lined the drive. I found myself using the foliage as protection from the rain which had increased in its ferocity. Holmes, on the other hand, didn’t even seem to notice the down pour; his attention kept darting from tree to tree. He had even investigated what lay under a large bush. I had learned long ago not to question his ways. The machinations of his brain were working and only Holmes knew what they would turn out.
At the door we removed our hats in preparation of being received by the grieving widow. Holmes pulled a tasseled rope, its bell echoed throughout the home beyond the tall door. He remained as still as a statue during the interim we waited. I myself was anxiously pacing, I turned to admire the impressive frontage. The gloom of the day was a poetic setting for the occasion.
The massive door creaked open, drawing my attention. I turned and set my eyes upon a beautiful, young dark-skinned girl. Her timid eyes looked from Holmes to me and back, she kept half of herself hidden behind the door, her richly brown arm held the frame. “Hello, may I help you, sirs?”
I had expected Holmes to respond to the lovely girl’s question so I held my tongue; it was his old friend who had passed and all. He remained silent for the span of a few breaths, his brow furrowing as if the house girl’s inquiry perplexed him.
“Yes, you can,” said I, taking the reins. “I am Doctor Watson. This is my associate Sherlock Holmes; he’s an old friend of the late Winston Stills. Could you please fetch the lady of the house? I trust she is expecting us.”
“No,” Holmes corrected me. “I trust she is not expecting us, however, I am certain she will accept us nonetheless.”
I was befuddled, to say the least. The young lady allowed us entry into the grand foyer. She then disappeared among the marble pillars to announce us to the widow. Once alone with Holmes I said, “I say! Should the woman not know we were to arrive?”
“If so, she would have told the girl to expect us, or she would have received us herself,” he answered me in a hushed tone.
“Then, who the devil sent the messenger?” asked I.
“That, dear Watson, I do not know.”
It was an answer I never expect from the man, a rare instance where he and I were on an equal playing field. Ordinarily, Holmes displays an uncanny ability to know the unknowable, and explain the unexplainable. That day we two found ourselves in the dark. He did know one thing that I didn’t at that moment, and it plagued me, what about the death was suspicious? I was just about to ask him when footsteps approached.
“Sherlock?” the lady of the house appeared, forcing a smile. Her eyes were red, understandably, from crying. She closed the distance to embrace her husband’s friend, I allowed them their comfort.
“Claudette, I am so sorry,” Holmes lamented tenderly.
“How did you hear?” the woman asked. “The undertaker himself has just come and gone.”
“I received a messenger this morning. When did he pass?”
“Early this morning,” Claudette Stills answered, having to pause to dab her eyes, “In the kitchen.”
“Show me,” the man’s eyes gleamed with life at that point, he was on the scent.
We had crossed the foyer and passed a sitting room on our way to a kitchen so massive the place Holmes and I share could have fit inside. My first instinct regarding the magnitude was that it was too much for a man and his wife who have no children. I thought differently once I set my eyes on what Holmes crouched to inspect.
Upon the otherwise spotless floor was a thin layer of flour, within that dust was the outline of a man. Winston Stills was a large man indeed, not only in status, but in stature as well. Well over 6 feet in height, and I estimated him to weigh 25 stone, at least.
Holmes stood over the spot where his friend had left the world. I inspected the counter discovering only a platter of biscuits and a glass of milk that was half-way gone. I then ventured to the doors along the back wall.
“Who discovered him?” Holmes asked.
“I did,” the woman sadly reported, “I called for a doctor immediately.”
“Where is all the help?” asked I.
“I sent them away.”
“What were the doctor’s findings?” Holmes queried.
“Natural causes,” Claudette answered. “He’s been ill, his heart, I begged him to see a physician.”
I discovered a large pantry; the shelves were full to the rafters with jars of peaches and peach preserves. Across the room Claudette began to break down, collapsing into Holmes’s arms.
“Claudette, why don’t you go lie down?” he suggested. The woman complied, weakly heading out of the kitchen.
I waited for her to leave before confronting my associate, “Holmes, natural causes? There is nothing suspect here. Given the man’s age and size there’s nothing even surprising.”
“Winston Stills is gone,” Holmes said plainly.
“Yes, and it saddens me deeply that your friend has passed…”
“Watson. His body is missing.”
“But, the undertaker has come and gone?” said I, confused.
“Arrived he did, but he departed empty handed.”
“Who could have stolen him?” I asked, not knowing how one could have entered the lavish property and have absconded with such a large corpse, unseen.
“I don’t believe he was stolen,” Holmes said. He gestured for me to look at the silhouette on the floor.
“Holmes, dead men do not just get up and walk away!” said I.
“Ordinarily, I’d agree with you, Watson. Today, I’m not so quick to do so, for it looks like that is precisely what has occurred.”
My befuddlement must have been evident, he once again pointed to where his friend once laid. “Winston had truly left his mark on the world in life, as well as in passing. The flour was spilled posthumously; notice the perfect lines of his body. The doctor examined him, yet left no marks, suggesting the dusting occurred after he had made his summation.”
The observations astounded me. I had concluded that the mess was made by the deceased upon falling. Only one set of tracks were in the grain, leading out. “Could he be alive?”
“That, my friend, is yet to be determined, as is his location and who sent the messenger.”
“We should talk to the physician who examined him,” I suggested. “I also wish Claudette hadn’t sent away the help.”
“Not all are absent,” Holmes reminded me.
“Yes, that exotic house girl. I wonder where she is from.”
“Dahomey,” he answered my pondering simply. “Whenever Winston went out on a hunt in Africa, he would bring along a man by the name M’butu.”
My associate paused from his explanation and walked to the counter where he sniffed the glass of milk. He raised one of the biscuits and smiled, “He always hunted with M’butu, and he always ate these. Almond Sandies were his favorite. Claudette makes them. I suspect he came down for an early snack, the one sweet he allowed himself, his only weakness. This house employs many cooks, he traveled with a personal chef, but only Claudette’s Sandies would do. Looking at the shadow of the man I once knew, he actually seems to have lost some weight since last I saw him.”
Holmes took a bite of the confection made by the widow. He closed his eyes, savoring the taste. He returned the treat to the plate and dusted crumbs from his fingers before continuing, “As I was saying: One excursion to Africa, that I was not present for, there was an accident. M’butu died. Winston was racked with guilt, even more so once he discovered the man’s wife, Alla, was with child. He brought the woman back with him to London.”
“The girl is this M’butu’s daughter,” I ascertained.
“I suspect, yes,” the man said, “I’ve never met her before today. She would be unable to vacate the grounds since she would have nowhere else to go. Alla lives on the estate, in a cabin out back.”
“The young leaf services the house now as her mother had,” I drew the conclusion.
“Winston was too good a man to put Alla to work, considering. If she is the daughter, I imagine she works for the house by her own choosing.”
I had a notion I had been afraid to bring to my friend’s attention, “Holmes, could your man have staged this?”
“Winston was a jovial sort, but not a practical joker. He’d have no reason, or gain, in feigning his own death.”
“Of course, my apologies.”
“Never apologize, Watson. We can’t know the shape of an object until we’ve examined every angle,” Holmes stated. He then crossed his arms, laying a pondering finger along the side of his hawk-like nose. “In your medical opinion, could he be alive?”
“Without all of the facts it’s too difficult to judge. His heart rate could have become so faint that it escaped the doctor’s detection. His breathing could have been so shallow as to give him the appearance of motionlessness. However, any doctor worth his salt would have doubled his check.”
“Doctor Stark has only been out of school for two years,” Claudette said meekly, returning to the scene. I feared how much of our conversation she had overheard. “Could it be true? My Winston might be alive?”
Her eyes were raw from fresh tears. I had no answer for her. I certainly did not want to give the poor woman hope of a false nature. She had been through so much, having her optimism dashed would be devastating. Her eyes beseeched me to tell her that her husband was alive, wandering his large home in a delirious state.
“Sherlock?” she begged Holmes for an answer, “Could he be alive?”
“We do not know, Claudette,” he replied simply, his voice had lost its tenderness. I assumed he held similar reservations to my own. “Do you hear that, Watson?”
I then made it a point to strike very still, not wanting so much as a rustle of my clothing to deter me from detecting what Holmes was hearing. A scratching, the sound was so faint it would have escaped my notice had he not pointed it out.
“It’s coming from behind that door,” Holmes pointed towards the corner of the kitchen, to a dark wooden door, lost among the shadows.
“Winston?” Claudette’s voice raised, she took a few small steps forward, closer to the incessant scratching. Holmes caught her by her waist. He gave me a slight nod.
Tentatively, I took the cue. I stalked nearer, whispering to my companions, “What’s on the other side?”
“A wine cellar,” Claudette answered me with the sub-level’s use.
“And, catacombs,” Holmes added its previous usage.
“Winston Stills,” I addressed the anonymous noise, “I am Doctor Watson, an associate of your long-time friend Sherlock Holmes.”
I continued to creep towards the mystery, keeping my voice calm should it be a delirious Winston Stills, I drew my pistol should it not. Oh, how my heart raced as I reached for the cold brass knob. I turned the orb slowly at an arm’s length. Gentle pressure from the other side met me. I withdrew from the unknown, taking many steps back, allowing the presence to reveal itself.
A gentleman entered, clad in a neatly tailored black suit. The attire was marred by dust and cobwebs. He was far too thin to be Winston. Claudette gasped upon his emergence from the basement. I admit I too was taken aback by his vacant eyes and ghoulish pallor. He held no expression as he staggered towards me, leaving me no recourse but to retreat.
“Who is this, Claudette?” Holmes asked.
“Harold Marshall.” she replied quickly between hyperventilations.
I knew the name, having just seen it in the paper three weeks prior, in the obituaries, “Harold Marshall, the banker? He died, did he not?”
“Yes…” Claudette said, her voice trembling, “Almost a month ago, Winston and I attended his wake.”
I have only myself to blame for what came next. The man continued to come towards me and I hesitated, not knowing what I know now. I attempted a peaceful resolution, “Harold, stand where you are!”
My warning went unheeded; within steps of me he lunged. His cold hands found my collar, drawing me close to his mouth with the intent of biting my throat. His lips had been sewn shut, yet that did not deter him from his endeavor. His jaw wrenched and stretched, pulling his mouth tight enough that it ripped the stitches apart. Bloodless wounds lined his shriveled lips, bearing his teeth.
I was quick enough to wedge my arm between us, saving my throat, yet I was not clever enough to fire my weapon. He bit me upon my shoulder. Holmes interceded, forcing the surprisingly strong, allegedly deceased man to the ground.
Mister Marshall slid across the smooth floor towards the door he had entered from, where more figures began to emerge. All were as dusty as Harold and held similar slack expressions and seemingly drunken gaits. The kitchen became crowded with them, and the muffled moans that emanated from their sutured mouths. Our options of exiting were becoming barred, and I hadn’t enough ammunition to contend with them all.
“Are you all right, old man?” Holmes voiced his concern for me.
Frankly, I was too scared to feel much of anything else. “What’s our plan?”
“Pantry,” he said, guiding the stunned Claudette towards the door. We were all shocked by the people coming after use in their finest clothes, rending their mouths open against the threads that bound them shut.
Inside the confines of the pantry, among the numerous jars of peaches, I failed to see how well we’d fare boxed in a room with a door so thin and frail. At my inspection I noticed the door had no latch.
“What now?” I asked, I’ll admit, a might panicked.
“We climb,” Holmes instructed.
Above our heads I could see light entering from windows, a mirror was affixed to the ceiling to reflect the sun, what there was of it that day, down upon the wares.
Though the modest barrier offered me little relief, it was enough to allow the fear induced anesthesia to run its course. My shoulder stung horribly where the banker had clamped his jaws, the pain was accompanied by a trickle I knew to be my blood. “That bugger bit straight through my padding!”
“Physician, heal thy self later. We must make it to higher ground,” Holmes urged.
The three of us used the high shelves as a ladder, absently knocking aside the jars of fruit with our hands and feet. The presumed dead were at the door, slapping against it until it opened part of the way. Their lackadaisical demeanor had grown into insistence; they pushed each other aside for sooner entry. The clumsy forms fell into the room, those still on their feet walked upon the fallen. In no time they filled the floor below us.
Reaching hands were mere inches from our feet, we could go no higher. Holmes helped Claudette through the tight window, the two of us soon followed her outside. Clinging to an ivy strengthened trellis, we climbed even higher to a stone veranda. I leaned on the rail, breathless.
“I assume this to be Winston’s study,” Holmes remarked, referring to tall, curtain-veiled windows.
After we cautiously entered, the lady of the manor located a lantern for us to see. The study revealed itself to us in a flickering light; I may have more aptly named it a game room. Upon the walls hung trophies of Winston’s largest kills, artifacts of the indigenous cultures he had encountered were displayed as well; pottery adorned tables, shields hung on the walls with crisscrossing spears, over the fireplace were his own weapons. He had an assortment of rifles in a variety of sizes; I assume he chose from them depending on the size of his quarry.
My attention was drawn to a rather immense aquarium, inside large brightly colored carp swam contently, for the most part. One of the beautiful specimens floated at the top of the tank. Having not been fed that day, the survivors took turns darting at the deceased, pecking at their fallen brother.
Claudette let herself collapse into a large chair that had been upholstered with zebra hide. She looked exhausted, as was I. I just watched the fish lazily swim while awaiting word from Holmes as to what course we were to take next.
“Any thoughts, Watson?” my partner asked me, making my heart sink.
“If I were to declare my thoughts, based solely on the evidence thus far, I’d say we are trapped within a nightmare.”
“I’m afraid this is quite real.”
“I know, Holmes,” said I. “This is beyond any science I’ve ever studied.”
“The same is true by me,” Holmes stated, sadly. “But, we’ve heard of this before, haven’t we? Madmen attempting to bring back the dead.”
“True,” I agreed. “But, the nearest I can recall any of them getting was making a still monkey twitch. These are abominations, Holmes.”
I then watched Holmes pace the room, thinking, and not faring well. When a man such as this is lost, I always fear hope may share that fate. The great detective paused his aimless strolling, “Watson, if said abominations are truly dead, a post mortem could lend us insight on how they are able to roam as they do, could it not? More importantly, it could help us to stop them.”
“I suppose, assuming we can get one of them to lie still,” I replied, skeptical of the chances of what I had said. I took down the largest of Winston’s rifles to admire, an elephant gun. The weapon of large game was massive; I estimated it to be a 4 bore. In removing the heavy firearm, I had aggravated my wound. I had to put off my inspection of the rifle to dress myself, leaning it against the hearth so I could remove my overcoat.
The sound of shuffling feet came from beyond the door; all glances were exchanged in an instant. All of us shared the same fear, ‘have they found us?’ we had kept the parlor lights off and our voices low. From the other side came a single moan. It was high in pitch, to me it sounded female.
“Could it be the house girl?” asked I.
“Maya?” Claudette answered with the young lady’s name. “She is the only other person in the house.”
“That we are aware of,” Holmes added, pointedly.
“There is only one way to know for certain,” I declared to the others, drawing my pistol. I had hardly taken three steps to the door before my colleague stopped me.
“No, Watson,” he stepped between me and the threshold, holding his hand out for my revolver. “I will do the honors this time.”
His method differed from my own, Holmes grasped the knob and threw the door open wide, taking many steps back like a fencer on the defense.
It was, in fact, the house girl, Maya, what there was of her. The African youth entered the room slowly, her quaint dress saturated with blood. Her supple throat had been torn open, and her right arm had been stripped of its flesh, down to the bone. The exquisite brown eyes that had greeted Holmes and I had lost their luster, leaving only vacuous orbs that eerily seemed to look right through us.
Though clearly beyond help, the gentleman I had arrived with was compelled to at least try and arouse some sign of life, “Maya, if you can hear me, let it be known by stopping where you are.”
His announcement went unheeded; the girl shambled still deeper into the room, coming towards Holmes. The man took aim, planting a single round into her thigh meaning only to wound her.
The petite girl staggered, falling forward onto her chest. She continued her quest in a crawl until she reached an end table. Using the sturdy structure she regained her footing, once more stalking the detective.
He took aim and fired yet again, higher this time. Her body twisted at her waist as her left shoulder went backwards from the impact. Still she advanced.
“Holmes!” I declared, loudly. “Duck!”
The instant my friend was below my sights I allowed the elephant gun to erupt. The weapon is, as its name suggests, intended for pachyderms and other thick hided animals, on a six stone girl it was more than effective. Her waif body flew against the far wall, cracking the plaster.
I found myself rebounding off of the wall parallel hers, in a daze. My ears rang for a full minute before I heard Holmes’s words of concern, “Watson? Watson? Are you all right?”
“I believe so,” I gave my answer, frankly unsure to its validity.
My friend helped me to my feet. Once I had dusted myself off he asked, “An elephant gun? Really old man, don’t you think that a bit overkill?”
“Not when you consider that she was already dead, Holmes.”
The door had been shut during my momentary mental absence. The three of us silently witnessed the result of my actions; Maya’s head had been completely removed. Holmes then said, “I think she’ll lie still for that examination, Doctor.”
My partner and I transferred the poor girl from the floor on which she was slumped to an ivory coffee table. I couldn’t help but feel remorseful of my deed. I was then struck by a commonality I shared with the officially deceased girl, “My god, Holmes, she has been bitten! What if this is contagious and transferable by bite like rabies?”
My justifiable concern was evident. Holmes had to politely keep me on task, “If that is the case, it is too late for concern. Your masterful skills are needed, my friend.”
His honesty was blunt, blunt but true. If I was to fall that day, I was surely going to make a difference first. “Too right! Holmes, if I should die, I want you to know, it has been a pleasure.”
“Same here, Watson,” he reciprocated.
Claudette and Holmes held the lanterns close for my illumination as I began my autopsy. The Y-incision required for a text book post mortem isn’t exactly a gentle procedure, nobody sees the garish scars that will never heal so tidiness isn’t an issue. In this instance the act was downright brutal; without the proper instruments I had to perform the task with one of Winston’s machetes. The ‘Y’ was unnecessary since the patient hadn’t a head; I had to settle for a lower case ‘L’.
Once the girl’s sternum was parted I was greeted by a musty smell that emanated from a structure within her that should not have been there. The foreign invader was white and smooth; it attached itself to her stomach, severing the organ’s link to the intestines.
“Is it a tumor?” Holmes asked, peering intently over my shoulder. Claudette held her eyes shut while looking away from the operation.
“I believe it to be a fungus. Its tap root appears to travel up her spine. I can only assume it leads to the brain.”
“So, it controls the dead by directly reactivating the mind,” Holmes concluded my exact thoughts.
“Such phenomena occur in nature,” said I.
“Do tell?” Holmes implored. It was a rare occasion that I had the privilege of teaching him.
“There is a parasitic flatworm, Leucochloridium Paradoxum, that invades snails. Once the parasite matures, the snail’s personality changes as well.”
“The snail’s personality?” Claudette asked, still unable to look over at the girl I examined.
“The average garden snail is found just there, in the garden, they stay close to the ground, hidden from predators. Once the parasite is ready, it changes the snail’s behavior, it becomes suicidal for lack of a better term. The creature moves to higher ground, tall plants, bushes, tree limbs. It doesn’t hide from predators any longer; it seeks them out, waving its body, drawing their attention to it. A bird flies overhead, sees the morsel, swoops down and eats it.”
“Thus, ingesting the parasite, spreading it wherever it goes,” Holmes said.
“Precisely,” I affirmed. “See here? It cuts the stomach off from the small intestine, only to reconnect itself to the descending colon. The fungus acts as a bypass of the digestive system.”
“And, considering what the banker did to your shoulder downstairs, and the state of poor Maya, we know exactly what the fungus craves, us,” Holmes summed.
I then decided to explore the menace directly, slicing into it lengthwise along its trunk. My incision resulted in a thick gelatinous substance oozing out. The yellow fluid stuck to the tip of my machete where it dried within seconds of touching the air. Before my eyes the substance became a white chalky powder.
“Spore,” Holmes identified what I was thinking.
“Holmes, it was not dust upon our aggressors below, nor flour upon the floor!” For a brief moment I felt a reprieve from joining Maya’s fate until I noticed she had no spore upon her. I shared my observation with my companion.
He simply suggested, “Check her hands, Watson.”
Upon compliance I noticed the dusty contagion trapped in the creases of her palms. I concluded, “She must have made contact with it in the kitchen.”
“So it appears.”
I decided to perform an experiment. Slowly I crossed the room with the machete, careful not to create a draft that would disturb the nefarious chalk on the blade. With a pen borrowed from Winston’s ledger I sprinkled the powder onto the deceased fish in the aquarium.
Holmes and Claudette joined me at the tank, in attendance we watched as the creature swam once again. It attacked its brothers, who had done so to him only he proved to be more efficient. Instead of mere nips he removed mouth sized chunks. Scales floated in the water, reflecting our lights festively, contrasting the horror before us. The reanimated fish rendered the slowest of the carp to bones in less than a minute.
“It only affects the already deceased,” said I, relieved. “Maya must have had it on her before she expired. I think I’m in the clear!”
“Good to hear!” Holmes patted my good shoulder. He turned to Claudette, “Does the girl’s mother still live on the premises?”
“Yes,” the lady answered shortly, her demeanor suddenly cold. “The old woman never leaves her cabin.”
“Did Maya live with her, or here in the house?”
“Winston allowed her to divide her time so she could take care of her mother,” she answered, sounding resentful of the fact.
“I wish to view her chambers,” Holmes announced.
“Should we not wait here for help to arrive?” Claudette questioned. “Surely, someone must have heard the gunfire and called the constables.”
“Unfortunately, any help that comes to our aid will only be lambs to the slaughter should the ghouls below greet them.”
The woman submitted to my partner’s request. We had to enter the hall; I selected a less powerful rifle for the journey. Holmes retained my service pistol. Claudette guided us to Maya’s room down the dark halls.
The aggressors could be heard, undoubtedly responding to our ruckus. It sounded like they were on the stairs, making slow progress. The lady of the manor produced a skeleton key from her housedress. Holmes allowed her to unlock the portal, but stopped her from opening the door. Light was visible from under the jam, that light was broken in two places suggesting a pair of feet.
My friend and I positioned ourselves on either side on the door, my duty was to release the knob and push it open, my associate would contend with whatever might come out.
“Winston?” Claudette said shocked when her husband stood before us, eclipsing the doorframe with his massive build.
“Turn your head, dear,” I instructed the widow, deducing that the title still fit upon seeing no life in the man’s eyes.
As the walking dead man advanced, Holmes raised the revolver. “Rest in peace, my friend.”
As we figured, since the fungus attached itself to the brain as a means of control, a bullet to the organ was the only way to deactivate them; all other wounds would be inconsequential. The master of the house was now on his back in Maya’s room, he would walk no more.
Claudette knelt by her late husband, holding his cold hand. I followed Holmes around the sparse room, compelled to ask. “Why the devil do you wish to look here?”
“A theory, Watson,” he responded.
The girl’s dresser was filled with clothes, as to be expected. On the bare top was a single lamp and a necklace. Instead of a chain the handmade accessory had a thick black cord that held a trinket quite queer. The bauble was honey brown, porous and smooth. It was very light and felt like driftwood. Holmes smelled the artifact before placing it into his pocket.
Holmes walked to Maya’s bed. It was very narrow, but a girl her size wouldn’t require much. Under the pillow we found a photograph of Winston Stills. I would not allow myself to voice my conjecture with Claudette in the room, not even in a whisper. I could only assume Holmes shared my opinion, and the conclusion I drew about his old friend.
Many pairs of clumsy feet walked the halls. Just beyond the door the floorboards creaked, sending chills up my spine. Holmes held a hand up for us to be absolutely quiet. He alone crept to the door that was stained with blood, Maya’s we could safely say. He placed his ear against the oak to hear what he could of the other side. The crowd in the corridor continued their search, looking for us elsewhere.
My colleague came close to me so he could speak in a hush, “I wish to see Alla, the girl’s mother.”
I trust the man completely, but didn’t relish venturing those halls, not with the carnivorous corpses abound. I could only hope that if we made it outside of the home, we’d be safe.
We had to allow the dead to travel further down the hall, away from the stairs, before we moved. The three of us then made our quick and silent way to the first floor and outside. The fresh air felt glorious in the early dusk, crisp and smelling of the recent rainfall. I felt I could breathe easier since I was able to see the sky again.
Caution was taken at every corner as we rounded the house. We living souls traversed a stone patio using hedges and a small gazebo as cover, not wanting to chance letting the damned inside see us.
The cabin was found, tucked in the back corner of the property, shrouded by a small grove of peach trees. Our knocks arose no response, but the knob turned easily for us.
In the center of the one room dwelling, within the glow of candles about to drown in pools of wax, sat a cloaked figure that moaned and swayed slightly. I raised the rifle I carried, about to train my sights when Holmes stayed my hand. “Alla?” he asked the figure.
No answer was forthcoming under the black hood; the moaning being made didn’t so much as waver in its rhythm. My friend’s hand increased its resistance when I tried once more to raise the barrel. He told me, “I believe her to be in a meditative state. Claudette, remain by the door. Watson, follow me.”
My associate neared the figure; he took back the enveloping hood to reveal a dark-skinned woman. She made no movement to indicate she was aware of our presence. Holmes even waved his hand before her open eyes and provoked no reaction.
Shelves lined the hovel that held jars and cloth bags of various size. Each was labeled in a strange tongue I had never seen before then, or have since. Emaciated heads also populated these shelves, I recognized them as once being human, shrunken to the size of one of the many peaches grown on the property. Dust had accumulated in thick supply around the objects; a bare spot in the shape of a perfect circle told us that a jar was missing from the collection.
Holmes was at the woman’s bed where he discovered several dolls made of burlap in her bedside table. I left him there to inspect Alla. I had no prior experience with transcendental states and was curious.
She still swayed while moaning her chant; her body completely shrouded by her long cloak, save for her head and her hands. In her hands I spied a doll like those at her bed, only this one wore clothes of black and had a lock of yellow hair sewn onto its head. I reached for the idol.
The woman took in air, sharply, causing me to start and recoil a full foot away from her.
“Did I frighten you, doctor?” Alla asked me whimsically. Her words were thick with the accent of her native land.
“Do I know you?” I countered, trying to still my nerves.
“No,” she said with a smile while rising to her hidden feet. “But, I know you.”
The woman pushed past Holmes to retrieve a battered old trunk from below her bed.
“Alla, my name is Sherlock Holmes. We have met once before in…”
“I know you as well, detective,” the woman said while tossing what little clothes she had into her open case, along with several of the stored supplies from the shelves after careful selection. She seemed to take into account what she needed and what she could leave behind. The blonde doll was placed on top of everything. “M’butu used to speak of you after your safaris. He would tell me how odd you were; measuring the claw marks on animal hides, and comparing gunshot wounds of the kills. He laughed greatly once while he told me a tale of you actually placing your entire head into the mouth of a dead lion one time.”
Holmes didn’t show any embarrassment where most men would. Nothing the woman had said surprised me in the least, the man’s curious nature knows no bounds and only serves to deepen his already unfathomable pool of knowledge. The first time I had met him, he was beating corpses in a lab to better understand posthumous bruising.
“I was very mournful to hear of his passing,” Holmes said earnestly. “I’m sorry to have to tell you, your daughter is also gone.”
“I know,” the woman said without much sorrow. She removed her robe and placed it in her case while looking at my friend. “I told her we were to leave this day. She decided to stay with ‘him’.”
“You seem to know an awful lot,” said I.
“More than you think,” she said to me while removing several small objects from the pocket of the simple frock she wore. I noticed she also wore a necklace like the one from Maya’s room. The woman kneeled on the floor, casting the hard items out. They looked to be bone fragments that scattered randomly over the uneven boards. She nodded at what they told her before scooping them up again. “If you will excuse me.”
The woman just left the cabin, dragging her heavy case behind her, fearless of what was out there. She disappeared among the peach trees under the cloud choked setting sun.
“Holmes, perhaps we should take our leave as well,” I suggested.
“Not just yet, Watson. I believe we have one last player abound. We must return to the manor.”
I’m not afraid to admit that the thought of returning to that house of the dead troubled me. Holmes led us back to the mansion, where we entered through the patio doors, back to where the mystery began. In the kitchen we found our missing player, kneeling over the spot Winston Stills once laid. A yellow haired man was scooping the spilled spore into a jar.
“Alexander?” Claudette asked, bewildered.
“You know this man?” I asked her.
“He’s Alexander Graves, the…”
“Undertaker,” Holmes finished for her.
“How, the devil, did you know that?” I had to ask my astonishing friend.
“Who else would have access to so many bodies, especially those as fresh as our banker, Harold Marshall? He had come to this house today, as Claudette had said, only he never went far.”
The man ignored us, continuing his task of collecting the spore. He didn’t even seem to notice us at all. “He’s behind all of this?” asked I.
“No,” from a door behind us came the familiar thick accent of Alla, “I am.”
The woman took a few steps into the kitchen, holding a hand out to Mister Graves. “That is enough. Bring it to me, my sweet.”
The man stood immediately, ramrod straight. He turned to the witch with an eerie stiffness I couldn’t mimic even if I wanted to.
“Alex?” Claudette puzzled softly.
Around the man’s neck was another necklace of honey-colored wood. He began walking towards Alla, as if in a trance.
Claudette ran into his path, clasping his face with both of her hands. She pleaded with the man, “Alex, don’t go to her!”
The man just continued past the woman, he walked into her as if he didn’t see her. Claudette reacted with anger to be pushed aside. She snatched the bauble from his chest. “Is this how she’s doing it?”
“Very brave, Claudette,” Holmes remarked simply. “The necklace is not what holds him under her spell; it merely allows him to walk safely among the dead. It’s a desiccated fungus. It works as a disguise, making them think he’s one of them.”
Alex Graves was obediently at the witch’s side, the mobile dead could be heard beyond the kitchen, closing in on us.
“You are a clever one, Mister Holmes. My husband was right about you. That is why you are here.”
“You feared Holmes would arrive sooner or later upon hearing of his friend’s demise and figure out your involvement. You expected him to die here!” I challenged the woman.
“I still do.”
“Only now,” Holmes stated, “Your unwilling lover may not make it out of this house alive. The bones you casted didn’t show you that fact, did they?”
“No,” Alla reported sadly.
“Holmes, what is this all about?” asked I.
“Alla blames Winston for her husband’s death, even to this day.”
“M’butu was too experienced to walk into the line of fire!” the woman screamed.
“After all this time, the wound never healed,” Holmes continued. “He robed you of your husband, and then your daughter.”
“She loved the blubbery beast more than me, her own mother,” Alla cried. “She saw to me as if I was a dog.”
“Holmes, if Alla never leaves the estate how did she meet the undertaker?” I was compelled to ask before the ghouls entered to claim us. We could hear them all around; it wouldn’t be long before they were at the doors.
“Claudette can answer that for you, Watson,” Holmes said.
“It hurt when I discovered my Winston was being unfaithful to me. After he took ill, I realized I would need to fill the void his passing would leave. I met Alex at a party I attended. She must have seen him on the estate during one of our…”
“Now, he is mine,” the witch said with a smile. She then addressed the somnambulist with much urgency, “Alexander, we must go while there is still a chance!”
“I would say the chances of your romantic escape are slim,” Holmes said, knowingly. He pulled a small blonde object from his waistcoat. I knew it immediately as the witch’s doll; my partner must have palmed it at her cabin. The act escaped my detection as well.
“Alex! Get that or we can never be!”
The faithful puppet turned to Holmes. He slowly began to walk towards him. Holmes’s fingers found a crease in the idol’s fabric. They dug deep into the rough material, into the doll’s chest.
Alex Graves fell to his knees holding his chest, sharing the pain of his likeness. His anguished screams yielded a response from the corpses at the doors. The portals were not locked, simple latches kept them at bay, they wouldn’t hold long. The dead were moaning with a starved persistence that froze my blood.
My partner continued to dig into the puppet despite the pain it caused the man on the floor. He stopped only after removing a stone from the rendering, a pebble encrusted with blood we assumed to be Alex’s; the ingredient in the spell that called for his heart to beat only for her whenever Alla bid it.
“Bastard!” Alla spit. “I have been robbed of everything; my husband, my daughter, my lover, but not my final revenge.”
The woman then plucked her own protective amulet from around her neck, dropping it to the floor. She casually walked backwards to one of the doors holding the dead from the room. She opened it, her arms wide with acceptance as she allowed them to take her. The witch cackled, getting the last laugh, as we bore witness to the fate that was about to befall two of us since we had only a pair of charms to ward them off among us four.
“Where am I?” Mister Graves said rising to his feet as the dead shambled into the room, falling upon the now silent witch behind him.
“Graves, come here at once!” Holmes ordered the puzzled man.
The corpses mauled Alla until she was reduced to bones and rags. Her flesh was not enough to slake their hunger, they wanted more. Behind the other doors arose the scratching of more walking deceased, drawn to the noise, the screams, and the smell of blood. Every door, save one, was a death trap.
“Pantry, Holmes?” I suggested.
“I see no other way,” he agreed. He tied one of the necklaces around Claudette’s neck. The other was given to me. “No matter what, my friend, get Claudette to safety. I’m sorry for dragging you here, Watson.”
“It has certainly been an adventure, Holmes, don’t apologize. Like you said before: ‘We can’t know an object’s shape without examining every angle.’”
At that, while we moved towards the pantry, Holmes broke our ranks to dash to the counter, claiming one of the biscuits.
“Really, old man!” I chastised him. “A cookie at a time like this?”
“I may not have another chance, Watson,” he said in response, pocketing the treat.
We climbed the shelves of peaches once again. I thought to the powder upon Maya’s hands and became plagued by a question. Once beyond death’s reach I asked it of my companion, “Holmes, if it was Maya that used the spore on Winston out of love, why would she remove the one thing that kept her safe of him?”
“To steal one last embrace,” he answered. “I surmise the attention she received from him to be more than she had bargained for, forcing her to run away.”
Claudette and Alex were through the window. Holmes and I would follow in turn. The man stopped when his hand found a bottle of, what I assume to be another weakness of the late Mister Stills, peach brandy. My partner poured some of the contents upon the ravenous forms below. Fashioning a wick from a handkerchief, he created a means to stop the dead. Though we were safely away he still lit the fabric and sent the bottle down. The object smashed sending a cleansing fire outward, igniting the corpses.
The four of us ran once joined together on solid ground, rushing to the gate in the dark of night. We exited through the threshold we had entered this nightmare, locking the evil within.
Constables met us in the glow of street lights. A familiar voice questioned us, “Holmes? What’s going on in there?”
“Thank you for showing up, Detective Gregson. The situation is nearly resolved.”
“Sherlock,” Claudette said leaving her lover’s arms. She walked towards Holmes. “Please forgive me.”
“My dear,” Holmes said with tenderness, gently holding the woman’s shoulders. “I know Winston hurt you with his trespass, I cannot begin to excuse his actions, nor can I condone yours.”
My friend pushed her away, into Gregson’s hands. “Detective, take Claudette Stills into custody for the murder of her husband, Winston Stills.
“Holmes?” I asked as baffled as all those in attendance, but none more so than the lovers themselves. Alex Graves attempted to reach Claudette but was held back by one of the many constables.
“What evidence do you have of this, Holmes?” the flaxen-haired detective asked.
My partner drew the cookie from his pocket, “Here is my evidence, an Almond Sandie, made by Claudette’s own hands.”
“She poisoned him,” the officer deduced.
“Not directly, though homicide was their intention. The deadly ingredient wasn’t so much an addition as it was a substitution. Upon this property you will find many trees bearing peaches, within each peach is a pit, and within each pit is a kernel. The kernel, once removed from its shell, looks and tastes almost identical to an almond with one difference…”
“Cyanide,” Holmes let me conclude. “The kernel, like many seeds, is loaded with naturally occurring cyanide. Given the man’s zeal for the confection, it must have been accumulating for years.”
“I also want Doctor Stark found immediately,” Holmes demanded the constables. “He pronounced my friend dead of natural causes, yet has been out of school for two years. I’d wager he was also Winston’s physician during his declining health, yet he failed to see the signs of cyanide poisoning.”
“Medical school is expensive; it can leave one under insurmountable debt…” I added.
“Claudette stands to inherit everything, not to mention the sizable life insurance policy. I surmise the couple pledged to pay the doctor for his guided diagnosis.”
The police locked the pair of conspirators into the back of a wagon and sent them off to their new future. I joined Holmes in watching smoke start to rise from inside the high stone walls of the vast estate. I turned to him and said, “So, it wasn’t Alla who killed Winston after all.”
“No. However, I am certain she knew of his declining health from the bones she cast. She saw years ago that she would be robbed of her revenge on him.”
“Leaving only you, that witch had orchestrated quite an elaborate means of dispatching you, all on account of your intellect and friendship to Stills.”
“It runs deeper than just that, Watson. She adds me to the blame of her husband’s death. I often do myself.”
“But, you weren’t even there?”
“That is precisely the reason I can hold myself culpable as well. When I was on a hunt with Winston, I demanded a level head from all involved, complete sobriety.”
“Since you were not present, he and M’butu imbibed,” I realized sadly the accident was avoidable.
“My god!” The excitable Gregson declared. “The place is ablaze! Call the fire brigade!”
“Don’t wake the brigade,” Holmes belayed the order. “As a matter of public health, let it burn.”
“There is something in there you’d best not let out,” Holmes answered simply.
“Consider it consumption, of sorts,” I added wryly.
“Consumption is containable, is it not?” Gregson countered.
“I guess it would depend on how you are defining the word ‘consumption’.”
Holmes and I returned to the estate the next day. The fire had been left to consume everything within the walls. Thick stalks of charcoal took the place of the trees that had produced the implements of Claudette’s plan.
We risked our safety in entering the remnants of the house. Armed with proper medical equipment, I removed from each charred husk a honey brown lump. The fire had killed the fungus, reducing it to a porous and smooth material that felt like driftwood.
The witch’s bones were found in the kitchen, still clutching her jar of powder that had miraculously gone unscathed. We removed it from her singed digits.
“We will have to take custody of these objects,” Holmes stated. “We can’t risk attempting to destroy them, should we inadvertently spread the spore. And, we don’t want this falling into the wrong hands. An enemy of the crown could use this to amass an army of what we fought here last night, march them straight to the gates of Buckingham.”
Regrettably, this very memoir I write must join the spore and fungal remains in our locked trove, least it pique the interest of some ne’er do well as Holmes dreads. I shudder to think of a day when this is read, for it could mean my friend’s fear has come to fruition, a day when dead men walk once more.
Hey, guys! This is Permuted writer Daniel Cotton, author of the Life Among the Dead books. I hope you liked my story, if you did let me know. Connect with me through Facebook and check out my other works on my website.