Department Zed Case Histories, #1: “The Limehouse Shadow.”

M.J. Downing

22 November, 1890.

            Our actions of 1888 have been largely detailed in The Case of the UnDead Client, in addition to numerous other cases, which I chronicled as Holmes’s “Boswell.” However, Client, like many of my penned efforts, is just one of many that are to remain unpublished, for a variety of reasons which I shall not enumerate here.  This, perforce, includes all case files associated with my ongoing leadership of Department Zed, formed in that year to deal with the undead that remained in London after Moriarty’s failed efforts to market zombies as weapons. All such cases deal with rather challenging content, with material so outlandish, as to earn a reader’s eager disbelief. That they occurred at all is, perhaps, the chief reason that they should remain unpublished.

            However, my notes concerning “The Limehouse Shadow” help me trace many of the changing values and beliefs that such cases have occasioned in me.  Despite having to face the reality of someone I cared for reduced to the state of an undead monster, I was reticent, to say the least, to perceive other occult matters as having any basis is my reality. The undead men and women I had dispatched were, I rationalized, victims of debased science and voodoo practice, the former as evil as the latter, thus equating them in my mind. The unknown world of magical arts and the creatures that haunt its demesne, I dismissed with disdain, thinking them mere “bogy” stories with which to frighten children or explain in mythic terms naturally occurring calamities.  My eyes were slow to open. It took stark incidents such as “The Limehouse Shadow” to force my attention to the harm that the magical arts can cause in criminal hands.

*

            At the end of November, 1888, I was, again, a resident of Mrs. Hudson’s Baker Street flat with Holmes, who was convalescing from a knee injury that we both feared would force him into early retirement or permanently frame his detective efforts as primarily ‘consulting,’ since he could not leave his chair. Even after corrective surgery, the damage to the complex ligaments of his knee would take months, perhaps a year, to heal.  He would walk again, I concluded, but not well, I feared—wrongly, as it turned out. I have given an account of his costly healing in another work, which I’ve entitled The Werewolves of Edinburgh.

            After the matters of Undead Client came to their tragic end, the first Department Zed case started on 30 November, 1888. It was a Friday, and I’d been driven indoors by the cold rain and wind. Earlier that morning, I had overseen another transfusion for my estranged wife, Mary, and had planned on a walk along the Serpentine. The rain spelled an end to that, and I’d come back to the flat with little enthusiasm for company.  Holmes, injured leg propped on a stool, hewed away at his fiddle, while I took refuge in Mr. Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, seeking diversion along the Mississippi River, a glass of sherry at my elbow, and a good bowl of Bradley’s ‘ships flake’ alight in my favorite briar.

However, Holmes’s fiddling had taken on an experimental air with complex harmonies and discordant strains. I supposed it suited his mood, trapped inside with a glum flat mate and nothing to stimulate his mind. Patience was never a virtue with Holmes and in those grim days he became moody and irritated by mere words and gestures. And at that moment, his music had forced his irritability upon my ears. Perhaps it was my own peevishness which made me unwilling to hear the artistry in the demanding skirl of notes that mounted, tension upon tension, without the balm of a resolving phrase. When the front doorbell rang, though, his music fell silent with a suddenness that shocked me, left me hanging upon the need for a resolution which was not to come.

            “Holmes, could that be a client, do you think?” I asked, shaking off the odd musical frustration.  I knew that he was eager for a diversion, even though he could not leave the flat.  He looked at the door, holding his breath, as I rose to give entry.

            “Yes. Perhaps a desperate one, to venture out in this weather,” he said, masking his eagerness with an ear cocked toward the door. “Two men—No. A man and a boy,” he added, taking in the sound data.
            Holmes called out, “Welcome,” as the steps reached our door. I opened it and in stepped young Harvey Brewer, a tosher lad, instrumental in Holmes’s small army of street lads he called his “Baker Street Irregulars.”  Behind him, in a dripping mackintosh and bowler stood a stout man, whom Holmes and I had both learned to value in the investigation of the so-called “Ripper Murders” of that fateful year.

            “Welcome, Master Brewer,” Holmes cried from his chair. “And do come in, Sgt. Thicke.”

            Sergeant William Thicke, of the Metropolitan Police Force’s H Division, stood dripping on the mat, his amiable grin hidden by his drooping blonde mustache.  I noted the lines of worry on the man’s broad forehead. I shook his hand, bade him welcome, and took his coat and hat to hang by the door.

            “And what can we do for you gentlemen today?” Holmes asked.

            Young Harvey looking unsure of himself, said, “I hope you don’t mind, sirs, but I’ve brought, my friend, here, on, well, almost, official business,” Harvey explained. “Bill—er, William Wiggins, and I, sir, observed Sgt Thicke and his lads down in Limehouse, on a case, like, and near done in. I hope you don’t mind, sir, but when I heard him talking about this case, I told’im that you and Cap’n Ja—er Dr. Watson—could ‘elp. Isn’t that right, Sgt. Thicke?”

            “Indeed, lad, it is,” Thicke responded.  He took pains to ameliorate his west country accents, as I had my own Scots burr. His slow, careful speech made his supervisors think him slow. Holmes and I both knew that Thicke possessed an active, careful mind. We learned to revere him as the best of his kind and were thankful of his long association with H Division which covered the East End.  We knew, though, that his roots in the west, as well as his cautious demeanor would likely deny him promotion to Detective Inspector, which he deserved.

            “I hope that I can help you, Sergeant,” Holmes said. “Harvey, do run down and ask Mrs. Hudson if she could arrange some tea for us.” Holmes and I knew Thicke as a religious fellow who took no strong drink, so we could not offer him a brandy to help take off the chill. “And do get something for yourself, Harvey. You look positively bedraggled.”

            With the young fellow pounding down the steps to his reward and our comforting, I rose and offered Thicke my chair by the fire. He demurred, at first but relented on my insistence: “Do come warm yourself, sir,” I said. “I will retire to my room if need be.”

            “Many thanks, Dr. Watson, but do stay. The lads told me that you’d want to hear my report as well,” Thicke replied. With a nod, I pulled another chair over to join them.

            “I hope that whatever help you need can be gotten from me as I sit,” Holmes said. “As you see, Watson, here, acts as nursemaid and gaoler. I fear that I am trapped.”

            “Steady on, old fellow,” I replied in remonstration to my prickly friend, the least cooperative patient in the world—perhaps.

            “Ah, but ‘tis better to follow yon Doctor’s orders if your leg be ailin,’ sir. I hope you’ll be on your feet soon,” Thicke said, starting to rise from the chair. “I can see that I’ve come at a bad time, perhaps—”

“No. Do stay, Sergeant. Mr. Holmes need the diversion as much as I do. If he plays one more note on that damned fiddle of his, I might lose my composure,” I replied, glaring at Holmes.”

Thicke relented at my insistence and sank back in the chair, casting a concerned look at my patient.

“Well, I admit to need the ‘elp, gentlemen, and I have no superior officer I trust enough to hear what I have to say. Truth to tell, I’m at my wit’s end, though you’ll likely laugh me out o’ the room when I give you the facts as I ‘ave ‘em,” Thicke replied.

“Let us have those facts, sir, but I doubt either Dr. Watson or I will find humor in events that have clouded your shrewd eyes, my good man,” Holmes said in more reasonable terms. I noted that he didn’t apologize or even look at me.

Sgt.Thicke had earned the sobriquet of “Johnny Upright” for his stable, consistent, and intelligent police work, despite the prejudice of his well-heeled superiors.  Of all the investigators that the Metropolitan used on the “Ripper Case,” Thicke was the most level-headed and clear thinking, in my opinion.

 “It started out routine, like, gentlemen, for I’ve been keepin’ tabs on John Pizer, old ‘Leather Apron,’ as our Ripper investigation is ongoing,’” Thicke said, ‘though I note that you two seem to have given up that chase.”

“Removed from the field by a regrettable accident, as you see. Have you a current whereabouts for, Pizer, Sergeant?” Holmes asked, suppressing his eagerness. Thicke once arrested Pizer on suspicion of his involvement with the Ripper killings, though he learned quickly that Pizer lacked the ability to avoid capture as the so-called Ripper had. Pizer, we’d last seen in the company of Professor James Moriarty when the latter escaped our capture. Pizer was the key, we thought, to Moriarty’s location, though both had eluded my searches, as well as those of Mycroft Holmes’s agents here and on the continent.

Neither Holmes or I could divulge the true perpetrator of all the Whitechapel murders, for it would compromise the secrecy of the Logres Society that Holmes served and into which I was to be inducted.  Further, with no evidence of Pizer in England or the continent, Holmes and I thought him a casualty of Moriarty’s pattern of disposing of agents when they no longer served his needs.

“No, sir, not for a while now, which had me worried, sir. Now, Pizer’s no murderer but he’s not to be trusted at greater than arm’s length, if ya take my meaning,” Thicke replied. “But it isn’t Pizer I’ve come to discuss, though my lads and I went round “The Grapes” on account of a tip that he was seen there.  My trouble is more the matter of a, er, sighting, and somethin’ strange that ‘appened to two of my constables—and even me, I will confess, in Limehouse not a long chalk from the pub.”  Thicke stopped and shook his head, as though he thought better of telling us.

“Sergeant, Watson and I both trust your judgement and value your insights. Pray, sir, do not hold back,” Holmes said.

With a nod of his sandy head, Thicke plunged in to his report: “In short, sir, we saw an happarition, maybe, one that near drove us mad.”

“An apparition, you say?” Holmes asked.

“Yes sir—and I feel a right fool even tellin’ you about it, but were like a walkin’ sort of silhouette, sir, a shadow, you might say, but it moved all on its own, and there wasn’t a man about nor a light source to make such a thing.  A shadow walkin,’ it was, and when Hays and Buckle, my two young constables sought to interfere with it, why, they went mad as march hares and turned on each other. When I got close to it meself, sir, somethin’ came over me, and I commenced to use such language, profanities, like, that I am not accustomed to use.  I turned on me own lads, too.  It took a long minute ‘afore we all came to our senses. By that time, the shadow-thing was gone.”

Mrs. Hudson bustled in with the tea set and poured for us. I studied Holmes’s expression to learn his reaction as our tea was poured. His eyes were bright with excitement.  When our good landlady left, I saw that Thicke’s hands shook, perhaps caused by the silence he endured.

“Were there any warehouses, perhaps, or places of business around you?” Holmes asked, taking up the case again. “And what of your sense experiences? Did you see, hear, or smell anything unusual in the area where this shadow appeared?”

“Aye, that I did, sir. And there was one import company,” Thicke said, pulling out his pocket notebook to find its name. “’Southern Cross Imports,’ it was.  But you are right to ask about the smell, sir, for it were bad, like sulfur but rotten like.”  Holmes had tented his fingers before his face as he listened to the tale, deep in concentration.

“Do you mean as sulfur smells like rotten eggs? Or was there a smell distinct from the sulfur?” Holmes asked, sitting up suddenly.  His sudden question was typical of Holmes’s method.  He needed detail.  Thicke’s description, though, had triggered a fresh, painful memory in me, one I associated with the death of Anne Prescott.  I held my breath and went rigid in my seat, my hands shaking, then, the tea cup rattling in its saucer on my knee.

“It mighta been a burnin’ smell, sort of, sir, but to me, it smelled…well, like evil. I put me in mind of stories the old churchmen used to tell, of demons in ‘Ell, sir,” Thicke said, his voice low, confessional. His report made me hold my breath.

“Which came first,” Holmes asked, brushing aside ideas of eternal punishment, “seeing or smelling?”

Thicke’s frown of concentration had him closing his eyes and going back through his motions.  His hands moved, placing his men, I thought, and the shadow, in the scene as he remembered it. He’d been behind his men, I saw in his motions. He opened his eyes and said, “Seeing came first, for it was a clear night, not foggy, nor had this rain started. Then, I smelled it as I drew closer.”

“So, you saw the shadow before the change in your behavior. You say that its negative effects wore away quickly?” Holmes asked.

“That’s right, sir. Saw it clear as I’m seein’ you. It moved like a man would, had limbs and a head like a man, though it was more like a man-shaped hole, I reckon, darker than dark within a man’s shape.  And its effects lasted no more than a minute, I’d say. Those lads and me, why, we couldn’t believe what we were doin,  bangin’ away at each other in ‘atred.  But I’m on good terms with them lads, ‘ope to lead them into promotions, I do.  I’d never do ‘em ‘arm, sir.”

“No, of course not, Sergeant. It is completely out of character for you,” Holmes replied in a low murmur. He turned his attention to his cup of tea.  I sought to compose myself and inquire about the injuries any of them might have acquired.  Thicke told me that it was all just skinned knuckles and a bloody nose or two.  His nose wasn’t bloody, nor was it swollen.  He was a fair man to all, I knew, but quite strong.  I dare say he would have been the one to deal out most damage in a scuffle. However, I saw in his eyes and round, solemn face a penitent expression that assured me his capacity for violence rarely manifested.

“Perhaps, Sergeant, you would be so kind as to allow me—Dr. Watson and I, I mean—twenty- four hours or so to examine the matter,” Holmes stated.

“Why, certainly, sir. I’d be ‘appy to,” he said, finishing his cup of tea and rising. “I really shouldn’t’ve bothered you with this business, ‘specially since it’s unofficial in nature.”

“Nonsense, Sergeant. You case intrigues me. Watson and I will look into it,” Holmes replied, earning a short bow and a relieved smile from Thicke.  I walked with him to the door of our flat, leaving Holmes to search for his pipe in the pocket of his dressing gown and scrabble with his fingers on the table-top at his side, looking for matches.  Thicke took my preferred grip in his callused hand and bade me farewell, adding,

“Do you both take care in this business, Doctor. I’d not wish either of you to come to ‘arm in this. If I may be so bold, sir, remember to say your prayers and take precautions against evil, sir, if you visit that area.  My men and I will keep a watch around those parts but at a distance, if you take my meaning.”

“Indeed, Sergeant.  We are well and duly warned,” I said and watched him lumber down the stairs and head out into the rain.

“Watson?” Holmes called. “Two things: Professor Davy’s Pharmacology and the Persian slipper, if you please.  You’ll find the first on my lab table.”

Delivering these articles to Holmes, I watched him thumb through the well-worn volume, placing it on his lap as he packed his black clay with shag from the slipper.  Soon, he’d fogged our room with his acrid, dark-fired shag. Holmes was lost for a few minutes, and I was left, as per usual, with my own thoughts.  These went quickly back to the awful smell that accompanied Anne Prescott’s death. 

It had come after her actual demise, when the sword I’d used went through her neck and separated her from the zombie curse.  Something like a whisp of black smoke exited the wound that the borrowed sword, Mustard Seed, had made. At the time, my own reaction had been like Thicke’s. The smell was evil, I’d thought, a rotten smell, tinged with brimstone.  That smoky effluence had drifted toward the floor and dissipated quickly.  Its scent, though, remained as an irritant in my memory of beloved Anne’s last moments.

In the nights that followed her death, that scene and its concomitant sense experiences often woke me from sleep. Under the influence of the zombie curse, Anne was far faster, more lethal, than I was with an edged weapon. I clung to the believe that, somehow, whatever remained of dear Anne in that horrid form had stayed her own hand long enough for me to free her from that awful curse.  Truly, I’d freed her from something horrible, but that scene and that smell plagued my imagination

“Come now, Watson. It was your only course of action,” Holmes murmured.  I shot a glance at him through the acrid smoke, knowing that I’d revealed my innermost thoughts through a twitching of my eyebrows or some equally obscure gesture.  I sought to relax my face.

“Your hands are shaking. I merely deduce that the smell Thicke described took you back to the moment of Anne’s death.  I cared about Anne, too, and share the same sensory apparatus as you do. I was quite close when she died.  I smelled it, too.”

“Holmes, could that really have been the smell of some infernal entity that her death forced from her body?” I asked, forcing myself to not react to his insistence that I, somehow, should be free from that torment.

“That is not a question I can answer, nor can you,” he said in soft tones. “I know you persist in asking it, though, which led me to read your condition in your hands,” he said, pointing with his pipe stem to my two hands, which clutched the chair arms as though to tear them away.

“Ah, yes,” I said, lifting my hands and shaking the tension out of them.

“Training, Watson. I urge you to take advantage of Mr. Uyeshiba’s training as often as you can. You simply must free your mind from that incident. Training quiets the mind and releases pent-up energy. Please do that or learn to use pharmacology to lessen your burden.”

“Medicate myself into not remembering, you mean?” I asked, allowing my frustration to voice itself. “Hardly. I do not share your cavalier ideas about chemical intervention.”

“Well, you clearly need help of some kind,” Holmes murmured as he studied his book.

His attitude was too much for me. Holmes, the smartest man I knew, could also be the most callous. I rose and begun to pace about the room, my hands clutching convulsively at my side.  The man’s indifference to any emotional suffering, especially mine, staggered me.  Yet as I paced, I began to recall that Holmes was likely correct, even if insufferable. I had charge of my own ability to cope, and clearly, I needed something. My raw nerves at that moment testified to it.

“Perhaps you’re right about the training.” I murmured. “Where is that sword?” I asked, thinking of the Japanese gentleman’s harsh lessons and the calming effect they brought. Holmes, I supposed, knew that I had started to show improvement in my ability to handle a katana, to the sensei’s satisfaction, anyway.

He pointed a languid finger towards his chemical table. The night-black scabbard of Mustard Seed stood behind it in a shadowed corner.  I retrieved it and freed the blade from its scabbard, letting its weight sink into my hands. Uyeshiba’s training always began and ended with meditation. The corded grip was a good, familiar feeling. Just having Mustard Seed in my hand took me to a place of inner silence. The blade glittered in the light. I grew calmer as I remembered my lessons, for a weapon that deadly demands total focus. I only half heard Holmes next words.

“Perhaps, for your lasting relief, you wouldn’t require the seven percent solution of cocaine that I have used. Many alternatives are available through chemistry, and Thicke has led me to some interesting ideas about them and this walking shadow he and his men have seen,” Holmes said, his intense eyes upon the page open before him. I said nothing about his cocaine use as I began a sword kata, a series of determined moves and strikes designed to produce proper form and balance.

 “Bear in mind,” Holmes went on, “that the warehouse of which Thicke spoke is ‘Southern Cross Imports,’ which is perhaps an indication that it imports good from Australia or New Zealand. I believe Britain gets a fair amount of food stuffs and textiles from the Antipodes. 

“Bear in mind, too, that there are many naturally occurring hallucinogens in the nature. One potent example comes from acacia plants native to Australia. Its chemical name is ‘dimethyltryptamine,’ ‘DMT’ and, if its smoke is inhaled, can provoke quite startling visions that appear real, according to reports, that is.”

His words struck me with a sudden appreciation of Holmes’s intellect: “By Jove, Holmes, you don’t mean to say that you have solved the case already?” I asked, sheathing the sword and giving him my full attention.

“No, of course not.  I only ask you to bear those two facts in mind, if you can, without rushing to judgement,” he replied, as caustic as ever. “They may have little or nothing to do with this case.

“However, I take the facts of Thicke’s report and seek to understand the rational cause of the events that led him to us.  I am troubled by several points: the first is that all three men saw the shadow and, purportedly, smelled the stench.  Did the shadow cause their aberrant behavior, or was it the stench?  Perhaps the smell, if it was a chemical agent dispersed in the air, caused them to hallucinate a shadow and to fall upon one another with blows. Thicke’s very rational description, though, insists on his seeing the shadow first.  As he remembers it, the stench was associated with the shadow itself.”

“But the shadow they saw, was that not hallucinated?”

“I think not, Watson.  The olfactory sense stimulates memory.  Thicke saw after he smelled. So, it would seem to me that the shadow was the source of the smell.  Thereafter, I am left to mere conjecture, knowing of nothing in the natural world that has that capacity.  The altering of their behavior occurred after seeing the shadow and dissipated rapidly, when the shadow was gone.  The shadow seems more the cause, logically, than the effect of what occurred to them,” Holmes said. “I might believe that something caused the rapid change in their behavior. Thicke described an acrid smell, which might account for the scent of dimethyltryptamine, were it burned and released in a concentrated form in the air, which presents us with another mystery, for if that was the case, their altered states would likely have been prolonged.  They were not, so I can hardly construe that some Australian substance was used to cause it. 

“The last objection is rather obvious, of course,” Holmes added: “there is no reason to make three policemen think they see a shadow. No crime was committed as a result of their impairment, unless one of them seeks to prosecute another for assault, hardly likely in this case, don’t you think?”

“I see what you mean,” I said. “So, what must we do?”

“Go to the scene and seek evidence, of course.  If we can detect—”

“’We’ are bound nowhere, Holmes.  I might go, but you must take care of your leg at all costs,” I insisted.

“Yes,” he said with an irritable sigh, “I must remain here, but you and Guthrie are bound for Spitalfields this very night, are you not?”

“Indeed. Limeberry, one of the Irregulars, reported to Wiggins yesterday that an unaccountably violent altercation occurred in the vicinity of the Ten Bells. The assailant was wordless and seemed immune to pain, which suggests that one or more of Moriarty’s zombies remains in the area.  We are headed to that area in a matter of two hours.  We can easily detour to Limehouse and Southern Cross Imports.”
            “Very well, then,” Holmes said. “But Watson, heed me well. I will need you to take special note of the scene, in your report.  You are to be my eyes, ears, and nose, as it were.”

“I will do my best, Holmes, but I hardly possess your keen senses,” I replied in protest.

“Nonsense. You have eyes, nose, and ears in fine working order. You must use them, Watson.  Just open yourself to everything. Take it all in.  No detail is too insignificant to mention.”

“Very well,” I said, thinking that I was being set up to fail. “And, with your permission, Holmes, I will take this sword with me, in place of the other katana I have used.

  “Mustard Seed holds bad memories for you, does it not?”

“Indeed, but as you have insisted, I need to move beyond those.”

“Very well,” he replied with a sigh. “It is not mine to withhold, in any case. Just bear its sharpness in mind, will you?”

“Always,”I replied, forcing myself to not take issue with his dismissive attitude.

*

Magnus Guthrie and I traveled that night in a dark coach, driven by our young friends, Brewer and Wiggins, each muffled to the eyes, hooded and cloaked in oilskins against the incessant, cold rain. We had former Prime Minister Gladstone and Mycroft Holmes to thank for our means of conveyance. The work of Department Zed, they knew, would often have us out at night, in all weather. Our secrecy was paramount, and our superiors had equipped us with the means to get anywhere in London with ease, without the bother of hailing hansom cabs. The carriage itself was stocked with extra ammunition for the Webley-Scott revolvers we used, as well as a supply of tarpaulins for the removal of zombie remains.  This night, if we took down another of the undead who remained in the area, our lads would convey away the remains, which would leave us having to make our way home on our own. Even Sgt. Thicke could not know of our organization.

  Harvey Brewer, Guthrie, and I left the carriage on Puma Court near the Wilkes Street corner and made our way into the dark yards at the rear of the Ten Bells, where the fight had taken place. William Wiggins would circle the block of Fournier and Commercial Streets. Though full dark, the hour was early enough that Brewer would show us the nearest access to the sewers in the area.  For reasons which I did not know, zombies sought the safety of the darkest holes until the madness of their hunger drove them above ground, seeking prey, typically at night.  Brewer led us to an access point within that dark yard.

The only good thing about the rains which fell was that the tunnels were awash, and the stench was greatly reduced. Traveling on the crumbling brick ledges in the sewer, the water high on our wellington boots, it did not take us long to find our quarry, its remains, rather.

“Well, Cap’n, this was not a bit of bother, other than the rain,” Guthrie claimed, as I studied the corpse under his lantern light. The clothes he wore were of good make and nearly new. Other than injuries from his fight, the only wound I saw on him was a puckered bite mark on his neck. It put me in mind of Captain Suffield, who had succumbed to the zombie sickness from a love bite (See UnDead Client). I found no papers on him. He had no articles of value on him. Even his back collar button was missing.  His altercation had ended with blunt force trauma to the back of his head: the rear of his skull was ruin of splintered bone and lost tissue. I thought it likely that he had been dumped into the sewer after the altercation and the removal of his possessions.

“More than a bit of bother for this fellow,” I said, searching his pockets and clothing labels for some means of identifying him. “He was not a local, we can tell from his clothing, and that bite mark on his neck could have come from his illicit reasons for being in the East End.”

“Lothario, was he? Liked to visit the seamstresses for a bit of alteration, eh?” Magnus quipped.

“Yes, and I fear that we must leave him and have Harvey, here, report the corpse to the police,” I said, finding no humor in the moment. “In that manner, someone might be able to identify him, report his death to his family, perhaps.”

“I can get Johnny to do it, sir,” Harvey said. “Coppers know he works these tunnels as they widen out towards the river. He’ll report it in the morning, sir, first thing.” I nodded my acceptance of Brewer’s idea.

“Erm, sorry about the joke, sir,” Guthrie replied. “Just relieving tension.”

“Oh, think nothing of it, Guthrie,” I replied in haste. “I just can’t help thinking that this was a man who had become accustomed to getting his ‘tensions’ relieved with help from prostitutes. It ended quite badly for him. If he has a family, it will mean scandal for them, though they will need to know.” The man’s fourth finger on his left hand bore the indentation of a wedding ring, long worn.

“Sgt. Thicke would say that his sins caught up with him,” Brewer added.

“Perhaps. I am more saddened by the thought that his expectations, the ways he looked at women, was what caught up with him, Harvey, for there are many, even now, abroad this night, looking to do the same.

“In any case,” I said, rising and trying to put on a better mood, “you and I, Guthrie, do not need to walk to Limehouse tonight.”

*

Southern Cross Imports stood near the waterside of Limehouse basin, just a stretch of the legs .from the Grapes.  We left Wiggins and Brewer some distance on Narrows Street from the pub and sent them home.

“A pint of London’s Finest seems warranted, eh Cap’n?” Guthrie ventured.

“Perhaps, Guthrie, after we’ve had a look around,” I said. “It’s early enough that someone might still be about ‘Southern Cross Imports.’ We might learn a thing or two about the place.”

“So, this thing we’re after is some sort of ghost?” Guthrie asked.

“You believe in ghosts, do you Commander?”

“Believe in ‘em? No sir, but I was raised with’em, you might say. My aunt, Mum’s older sister could see ‘em. ‘Fore I joined the service, she told me that my old granddad was with me, ‘elpin’ me out, like. I’ve never seen ‘im, but I’ve ‘ad cause to think that somebody was lookin’ after me.”

“I envy the latitude of your beliefs, Magnus,” I returned as we passed the Grapes.  A constable stood near the door, rain cascading off his oilskin. He was one of Thicke’s lads, I supposed. We made no eye contact with him as we moved away into the misty darkness.

Moving on toward the waters of the basin, we caught sight of a man putting up shutters for the night beneath the sign ‘Southern Cross Imports.’  I hailed him, and he squinted at me in the dark.

“Are you the proprietor here, my good man?” I called to him. He was a rough looking fellow, near Guthrie’s height.  In the light from within his place of business, I thought I half recognized him as a fellow whom I’d seen in company with Albert Vollimer, a close aide to Moriarty in the ripper business of this year.

“Yes, sir,” he answered in cockney voice. “Just shuttin’ down now, sir. Can your business not wait for the mornin’?” I had to wonder if the business would be there in the morning, if he was part of Moriarty’s network.  If he recognized me or Guthrie, he would likely seek to brass out a brief meeting with us and then flee.

“I’m just curious about your wares, sir, and equally curious about the people who frequent your business,” I said, keeping well back in the street, the rim of my bowler hat low. Guthrie copied my motions and turned his face away.

“Wool and leather goods, for the most part,” the man claimed, edging back towards the door of the shop. “Can’t say why anyone would be interested in our customers,” he replied, half closing the door.

“I have a professional interest,” I said, “in products made from acacia bark.”

His eyes widened for a brief moment, but he schooled his visage and answered back, “Don’t think we do. Are you a fabricator, sir, or a copper?” he asked and said the last words through a wry smirk.

“We are not the police, Mr. um…”

“Getsel, sir. Henry Getsel. But since you obviously have no business to do here, I’ll bid you a good night.” He nearly had the door closed on us.

“We were interested in your more shadowy customers,” I said. Two men rushed us from the far side of the warehouse as Getsel shut the door hard. They were both armed with clubs and ran full tilt toward me.

“On my right, Commander,” I said as I stepped within one man’s outstretched arms, caught his coat in my hands, and turned my hips into him. His weight and the momentum of his charge, taken around and over my center, had him meeting the cobbles, face first.  Guthrie sidestepped his attacker and fetched him blow with his truncheon that sent him sprawling.

“That’s no way to court custom,” I said and started toward the door, earning a chuckle from Guthrie.  Getsel had not bolted it, so I cautioned Guthrie as we pushed our way into a now dark interior.

“He may be well away, if there is a rear entrance to this place,” I whispered, “or he may be lurking here yet, since he took time to douse the lights. Do go round the back and see if there is an exit. I will go no farther.”

Guthrie crept back out.  I held my ground and opened my senses, as Holmes bade me. At first, it was only the smell of those wares Getsel had mentioned, wool and leather, though those smells were old and moldy, I thought.  There wasn’t much trading going on at Southern Cross Imports, I thought.

The other stench rose, though in the dark, I could see nothing that made it.  Sulfur and corruption, as Thicke had said, the smell of evil.  I remembered that foulness quite well. No sound of movement came to my ears, though I noted a high-pitched sort of crackle, constant, likes flames burning without the pop of wood resins being consumed. That I was not alone came to me as an intuition, from some source within me that was beyond my reason. Call it fear, perhaps, or survival instinct.  Whatever it was, it made my feet move back toward the door where, at least, meager light from the street entered. The crackling sound drew near me.

  Somewhere beyond me in the dark of that warehouse, I heard a door rattle in its casing.  Guthrie shouted, “Internal lock,” and I was on my guard.  I drew Mustard Seed and held it before me. Getsel was in here with me. The crackling rose in intensity, becoming a persistent buzz, like an insect.  A darker shape passed swiftly across the faint light on the floor. Heart hammering, I backed away from the threat of that which could make me lose my mind, cause me to hallucinate.

Guthrie came pelting back through the door, and the shadow rushed at both of us.  I saw only the faintest shape of the thing. It was man-like though featureless, seeming without substance but possessing an evil presence. It hit us with physical force, enough make me drop my sword and send us both tumbling out the door.

Steeling my nerves, I tried to prepare myself for the altering of my mind. Nothing happened. I was stunned from the hard landing, as was Guthrie, who lay beside me on the cobbles in the rain. I rose to my elbows and looked around. I saw nothing, no shadow man, and the other two men were gone as well.  I fetched Mustard Seed from within, pausing long enough at the door to scan the interior for any sense of danger.  The smell had gone and left me unaffected, which was curious.

I closed the door to the place and went to help Guthrie, who struggled to rise.  Offering him a hand up, Guthrie look at me in shock.

“Who the bleedin’ ‘ell ‘r you? We havin’ a barney? Cor, what’d you hit me with, you posh wanker?” he said, turning wide staring eyes at me.

“I hit you? It wasn’t me, Magnus,” I said, “but…something…that shadow thing. It struck us both, and—”

“Oh, me mum is gonna kill me. Lookit. I’m wet through,” he cried. When I pulled him to his feet, he let out a surprised, “whoop!”

“Magnus,” I said, “look at me.” I feared he might have been concussed by his fall. Taking a match from my coat pocket, I lit it with my thumbnail.  His pupils both reacted to light. 

“Look at you? Blimey, mister, I’m lookin’ down at you, and me only ten years,” he cried.

“Don’t play silly-buggers, Commander Guthrie,” I ordered. “You are in the service of her Majesty, with the rank of Commander in the Royal British Marines, tasked to Department Zed under orders from the Admiralty. Come to your damned senses, man!”

He looked at me with wild eyes for a second before he began to see me.  Wiping the rain from his face and shaking his head, he nodded his head as the madness passed.

“Ye, yes, Yes sir, I mean, Cap’n,” he muttered. Guthrie placed a hand on my shoulder and leaned on me, dizzy. He reeled once or twice as though he would fall.  I steadied him, giving him a chance to orient himself. “What the ‘ell was that, Cap’n? One second, I was comin’ in yon door, and the next, somethin’ hit us.”

“I do not know, lad,” I said, relieved that he’d come back to his senses. “I’m just glad that you realize that you are not ten years old.”

“You know, though, I well and truly was, for a bit there, sir.  Why, I’ve run this road many a time when I was a lad, me an’ my mates, and I’d have sworn I was there again, out on a lark.  It was that real, sir,” he pleaded.

“I do not doubt you, Magnus,” I said, “but I think it is time we went back to The Grapes for a pot of something.”

With one last look at the warehouse, I turned my back on it and led him back to the pub. The constable was gone. I could see no need to look for him, either.  There, we each had a pint and took our ease in a quiet corner.  We said nothing about the incident for fear that we would be overheard in that public place.  At length, we started on our long trek back to a place where we might pick up a hansom cab and return home.  I thought the long walk would do me good, for I, too, must have taken a lesser blow from whatever that was that hit us.  I could not allow myself to call it the shadow man.  I must have hit my own head, for I could feel a small knot just inside my hat brim and a mild buzzing in my ears.

Discomforts fading, we made our way along, Guthrie treating me to a near constant stream of chatter about his boyhood on these streets. I listened as best I could, but I could not get my mind away from the encounter I’d had in that warehouse. Despite my better judgement, I was prepared to believe that I, like Sgt Thicke, had confronted some evil thing.  I had no idea where Getsel had gone, but his face would not leave my thoughts.  The more I thought about him the surer I was that he was an associate of Moriarty’s aide, Vollimer, who’d been killed the night we brought his local scheme to a close. Vollimer, I knew, had a past as a violent confidence trickster, and had become Moriarty’s aide in completing the zombie process.  That fact made me wonder about Getsel and his association with infernal arts.

It was all too much to believe. When Guthrie and I finally found a cab to take us back towards Baker Street, I decided to simply report everything I’d experienced to Holmes and hope that he could sort some sense out of the mess, hoping that I would not be treated to his disdain.  Clearly, though, we could give Sgt. Thicke enough of a report to have him keep an eye on the comings and goings of custom to “Southern Cross Imports.” 

As we rode along, I knew that my report to Holmes would meet his approval.  The crackling buzz I’d heard was clearly important, I thought, but I did not know its source. Holmes would likely expect me to have identified it, tear the warehouse apart, if I had to.  But how could I do that, given what had been done to Guthrie?  Holmes’s expectations were unfair, at best, callous and unforgiving.

That buzzing noise I’d heard took up residence in my memory, like the awful smell that had preceded it. I could not shake it.  Once I began to think about it, it would not leave my thoughts. Guthrie had fallen into his own quiet reverie, while I grew more agitated as we went, thinking about how I’d failed in my errand, as Holmes would see it. “The nerve of the man,” I said to myself. “Damn his expectations and his lack of caring! How dare he tell me how I should feel about loss, how I should deal with my own grief! How could he presume to claim the same loss I had known in killing Anne Prescott, whom I’d loved? There would be a reckoning!”

  By the time we reached Baker Street itself, I could barely contain my rage at the thought of Holmes’s insufferable attitude. I halted the cab and told Magnus to take it home, for I needed to walk, even in the cold rain.  The odd thought struck me hat the rain would cool my temper, but it did nothing of the sort.

“After all, why should Holmes be angry at my actions? I doubted that he would have fared any better,” I said to myself as I splashed along. “The nerve of the man, sending me out on a mission, knowing that I would be less able than he to detects the sort of details he needed, in the rain and the dark.”

“I’m sick of being manipulated,” I said aloud in a voice of anger. A man approaching me stopped, looked at me,  and bolted to the other side of the street, casting fearful looks in my direction.  I had no idea if I knew the man, but I stopped, pointed at him, and yelled, “And I’ll have no judgements placed upon me from fools who walk in the rain!”

With that, I trotted along to the door of 221 itself, let myself in and stormed up the stairs to the sitting room, frightening Mrs. Hudson in my storming entry.  When she saw my angry face, she bolted back into the kitchen and slammed the door. I had thoughts only of confronting Holmes for his boorish, abusive behavior.  The buzzing in my ears had risen to a high pitch when I threw open the door, pulled Mustard Seed from it scabbard. It rang in the air

“I will no longer tolerate your damnable attitude toward me! I’m as good as man as you any day!” I cried in a voice like thunder.

Holmes’s eyes widened, but not with anger at my challenge.

“Behind you!” he cried and hurled himself out of his chair, dragging his injured leg after him, upsetting his table and all the pipe detritus thereon.

Something in his voice reached me the instant that the awful stench came over me again. The buzzing rose to an intensity that I could scarcely bear. I turned, and the shadow man stood behind me, just within the doorway.  A man shaped hole in the fabric of reality itself, that awful thing reached out to engulf me, pull me into itself.  On instinct, I swung my sword wildly, and it halted. Remembering my training, I breathed in deep, down to my center, got my feet beneath me and struck at it from on high. And Mustard Seed cut—something. Its blade passed through a substance, while the buzzing and stench rose past my point of bearing it.  But the blade passed through, from the right shoulder of the man-shaped thing down through its shape, cutting it in two. I vanished.

All fell silent.  There was nothing in the room with us.  Only the acrid smell of Holmes’s shag tobacco remained. Beyond my breathing, I heard only the scrabble of Holmes trying to rise from the floor.

“My dear fellow,” I cried, horrified at the memory of my words. “Pray, let me help you.”

“Certainly,” he said, clinging to the arm of his chair, “and I fear that I must owe you an apology of some sort. My behavior is often inexcusable to my friends, friend, I should say.”

Lifting him, I settled him back into the chair.  His injured leg I eased onto the stool again, my mind a blur of the last few moments.

“What in the world was that, that, thing, that shadow?” I asked as I adjusted his bandage.

“I can assure you that I do not know,” he said, “nor do I think it is good for a man to know,” he replied in low tones. “I’m just mighty glad that you bore that sword.  I rather think that you should go on bearing it.”

Leaving him for a moment, I ran down the stairs to ask if Mrs, Hudson had more ice she could spare to place on Holmes’s knee.  As she retrieved it, staring at me, beyond me, too, she asked,

“What was that thing at your back? It floated along be’ind you like the spectre of death itself. I dursn’t even look at it.”

“I do not know, dear lady, but I pray that it has been destroyed—just do not ask me how,” I said, and ran back to my patient.

I poured Holmes a shot of single malt and one for myself. He listened to my report, eyes intent, asking questions now and then, which I was able to answer in detail. At the end of it, we both just stared at one another, lost for a clear sense of meaning. At last Holmes said, “Well, old chum, it nearly had you and you nearly had me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more frightening sight than you brandishing that sword.”

“Holmes, it was just me, though the influence of that thing—”

“That’s just it, Watson. I was more terrified of you than that shadow that came through the door at your back.  Angry, you are a terror to behold. I must try and amend the ways in which I speak to you.”

“Nonsense, old fellow.  I am your friend and take you however I find you. I just wonder what Thicke will say.”

*

The next afternoon, Sgt. Thicke appeared as promised. As he came in, though, I saw that his glance was drawn to Mustard Seed, which I’d placed on the mantle.

“I think, gentlemen,” he said, “that this Limehouse business has been settle beyond any doubt.”

“Beyond a shadow of doubt?” Holmes quipped.

“Ha, as you say, sir,” Thicke replied, though his smile contained no humor. “Can you tell me of your own investigation?” I gave the basic details of my time omitting the presence of my associates and the finding of the body in the sewer.  I left out, too, my irrational anger at Holmes. Concluding, I said, “As to that proprietor, Henry Getsel, I think he needs further looking after.  He set two ruffians upon me, which I managed to slip, before he, um, disappeared.”

“You had a quiet drink in the Grapes after?”

“Why, yes, I did. For in leaving Southern Imports, I met a man I’d known in the service.  I can try and find him if you’d like to have a word with him,” I offered.

Thicke said nothing to that, only shook his head and rose from his chair. He went to the mantle, his stout fingers gently tapping the scabbard. “Mind if I have a look at this, sir?” he asked.

“Feel free to, Sergeant,” I said. He drew the blade from its scabbard and inspected it.  When he put it away, he heaved a great sigh. Holmes and I exchanged a curious glance.

“Your silence, Sergeant Thicke, is pregnant with meaning,” Holmes commented. “We’ve given our report. Can you give us any indication of your thoughts on the matter?”

“My thoughts, sir? Well, they are about my trust in you gentleman, who say, freely, that there was no difficulty with Getsel, that he disappeared on you.”

“Yes, that is correct, Sergeant,” I answered truthfully. “I take it that you have looked for him already today, sir?”

“Oh, aye, I did. Found him, too,” Thicke said, looking into my eyes.

“Ah, good man,” I said, “for I suspect that he—”

“Found his corpse this very mornin.’ Mr. Henry Getsel of ‘Southern Cross Imports’ was found dead in his warehouse, cloven in two.”

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