I have omitted the end of the write-up, partly in case you play the scenario yourself (though there are spoilers aplenty anyway, of course) and also because in our campaign it was one of those adventures that have not a happy ending (in fact it was an absolute debacle; blood everywhere) but mainly because the standout features of the campaign were the closely observed social framework and nuanced character interaction - after that, sanity-rending Cthulhoid monsters are rather a let-down.
Our account is related by Harry Dakkar Singh.
- The Honourable Harry Dakkar Singh – an Anglo-Sikh, educated at Rugby School and New College, Oxford; he is an aesthete, art critic and writer
- Mr Benjamin Herzog – an American of Jewish heritage, a close friend of Mr Dakkar Singh from Oxford.
- Lord Tennyson Thurgood, an explorer
- Mr Ailean Gris, a Scotsman claiming insight into the spirit world
- Wilfred Edwards, a Scandinavian going under an assumed name; Mr Dakkar Singh’s valet
Over lunch at Wilton’s, Tennyson announced that his uncle’s old sergeant major was recently found strangled in his potting shed in Devon. Murder is everywhere, as old as one fish and two families to feed.
I think it would be rather a lark to investigate. I need to learn more of murder for my novel, and looking into the death of an NCO will not involve us in any indecorum.
Steady, the Buffs!
TUESDAY EVENING, EARLY SEPTEMBER: Lord Tennyson’s uncle, Alan Pace, told him about a former army colleague, Sgt Major Herbert Crouch, who had been murdered at his cottage in the Aycliffe district just outside Dover. Crouch had been in the East Kent Regiment and retired last year after serving in Afghanistan.
Another soldier of the Buffs, Orland Reynolds, died a few weeks ago, apparently jumping under the wheels of a train. In light of Crouch’s violent death, might he have been pushed?
THURSDAY MORNING: Unseasonably cold and misty. We took rooms in the Lord Warden Hotel in Dover. This, like the whole city, turned out to be a squalid shanty-like affair populated by halfwits from whom one can glean no useful information nor purchase edible fare. Idea for a novel: a port city where the inhabitants are the result of ancient interbreeding with octopus-like beings, the teuthidic attributes dormant in their blood yet sometimes reappearing owing to atavism, so that in the streets one sees shuffling figures, eyes inkily dark with the howling emptiness of the abyss, looking all but shapeless inside the swaddling folds of their sackcloth overcoats, at their sleeves and collar the telltale signs of blotchy grey-white skin, and fingers that seem as boneless as tentacles. Rather fanciful, and yet it would strike a chord with anyone who has had the misfortune to pass through east Kent.
Viewing Crouch’s body at the church, we noted that he had been strangled by a two-handed grip from a large and obviously powerful man. The windpipe was all but crushed. Crouch had been found inside his door with a look of fright on his face. Pressure on the carotid artery would have rendered him unconscious within 8-15 seconds, but that’s still good time for a veteran soldier to fight back. And in fighting for one’s life, no holds are barred; we might have expected to see broken fingers, burst capillaries, split knuckles, torn-out fingernails. But no. An undertaker’s manicure had sufficed to eliminate any signs of a struggle, if struggle there had been. Crouch, it seems, died in a paralysis of terror.
A neighbour had seen a stranger lurking in the street on the night of the murder. He described him as a figure of about my valet’s size (big) in a bowler hat and greatcoat. This person seems to have watched the cottage for some time. (To ensure that Crouch was alone?)
FRIDAY: At the funeral were Pace, Crouch’s sisters, and another army colleague called [Private] Toby Norton. He seemed a little nervous, in need of a dose of “Steady, the Buffs”, and much surprised not to see more Buffs present.
Motives for the murder(s) are unclear - indeed, opaque. Revenge? Another possibility is robbery, if Crouch had acquired some treasure in Afghanistan and a colleague knew of that. This theory also explains why the first victim, Orland Reynolds, was simply shoved in front of the 4:15 from Charing Cross - maybe he was questioned by the tall man, and after revealing Crouch’s whereabouts he was summarily disposed of. (The train wheels would obscure any signs of an interrogation.)
Crouch was presumably aware of Reynolds’ death. Did that quicken him to fear for his own life? If so, did he take any measures to leave information that would confess a past malfeasance or that would point to the killer? Where would he hide that? Not in the cottage where it could be found, obviously... Under a rose bush? Inside a rugby ball? See musings below.
The others held a séance in Crouch’s cottage while I went to the pub and then to Crouch’s neighbour mentioned above.
◦ Why didn’t more of Crouch’s old comrades come to the funeral? (Fear for own lives? Dislike of Crouch?) Even his commanding officer didn’t come.
◦ Alan Pace was in the Buffs (presumably) but he’s not feeling threatened.
◦ It should be easy to track the movements of a tall man in greatcoat and bowler on the night in question. Did he come by train? By carriage? An odd-looking stranger in a quiet semi-rural area... Others must have noticed him. The police with their superior manpower must have looked into that; we can hardly go door to door.
o We can however ask Pace and Toby if they knew a very tall soldier in the Buffs. Not many men come out of the mould that made a big beast like Edwards.
◦ Why is Toby nervous? And why, despite being nervous, did he come?
◦ Circuses in the area? Ie in case murderer was a circus strongman?
o (Long shot, but will work in the short story for Newnes’s magazine. The ‘big man in a long coat’ could even be two circus dwarves, or a trained circus orang-utan upon the shoulders of its trainer?)
◦ Something about an expedition into southern Persia by the Buffs in the early ‘80s. Maybe treasure found and shared between a small group?
◦ We need to look into any other colleagues of the dead men who have recently retired and who could be in danger.
◦ Also army records: is there a specific small-squad mission to which both Crouch and Reynolds were assigned. In Afghanistan or southern Persia, specifically in a context where there were no officers present? And did that squad include a very tall man?
◦ The rose bushes may warrant closer examination. (A possible hiding place for something? A message?)
One more point for us to ponder: Sgt Major Crouch was known for his rose-growing. Shiraz, where the Buffs were stationed, is famous for the Golestan, possibly the most influential work of Persian literature, by the 13th century writer Sa’adi. The title “golestan” translates as “The Rose Garden”. Possibly a mere coincidence. Or is it?
Constable Willis found the body. The questions I’ll want to ask him if I can:
1. Where and how was the body lying when he found it?
2. Was there anything he noticed about the scene? (I’m particularly interested to know if there was a key in Crouch’s hand and/or a weapon nearby. But any details useful.)
3. Does he know who was the last person to see Crouch, and when/where?
4. Had Crouch been behaving unusually of late?
5. Were there any reports of strangers in the area? Especially a very big man in a long coat.
6. Was there anything particular he noticed about the rest of the cottage - eg signs that the killer had spent some time inside?
Benjy, questioning Toby Norton discovered that Norton liked Sgt Maj Crouch, regarding him as one of the better sort of officers he’d worked for. Treated him with decency, even in the midst of the madness of war. Was disappointed Crouch’s CO, Colonel Hollingsworth, hadn’t turned up to the funeral, as the two had been close during their service. In fact, Hollingsworth had turned up less and less often to the Army and Navy Clubin the past year or so. It was Major Gower, one of the club regulars, who stumped up the money for Norton to attend Crouch’s funeral, as well as sending a large wreath of flowers, though unable to attend in person.
Benjy suggested he recalled there had been something that had happened out there, in Persia – at which Norton changed the subject. When Benjy asked if someone might have a grudge against the soldiers in the Buffs, Norton said he didn’t think that was likely, and in any case someone like himself was not important enough for anyone to take note of, was he?
Over the weekend some further clues have come to light in the matter of Sgt Major Crouch’s murder.
First, the coroner placed time of death around 11pm. Crouch had been seen at the local pub, turned in around 10.30 for bed. The landlord noticed it was a bit earlier than closing time; Crouch said he was going fishing in the morning.
His body was spotted outside his front door by a woman on the way to church the next morning, around 6 am. The peculiar detail is that his arms were both stuck up in the air. Rigor mortis might have set in by 2am - assuming the coroner’s estimate of time of death is correct - but what would have held his arms in that position all that time? Unless he was killed elsewhere (eg inside the house) and left in a position with his arms dangling for a few hours, until rigor set in?
However, that doesn’t explain why the body still had an expression of terror even at the funeral, when the rigor should have passed and all muscles relaxed. Unless some kind of embalming fluid was injected at the time of death? But now I think I’m starting to see ritual murders wherever I look. It could just be that rigor has lasted longer than usual because of the unseasonably cold weather.
Also, a closed carriage was seen heading off up the London Road in the early hours of that morning. I went out and took a look, and located a spot off the road where a large carriage was parked. Edwards found tracks - large, heavy footprints cutting across the fields from Crouch’s cottage to the spot where the carriage was. The interesting point is that the footprints show most of the weight on the toes, yet they are not spaced as if he was running. I theorized that he may have been carrying a heavy load, but Edwards (who is a competent beater and groundsman) doesn’t think it was that.
I have made a record of the gauge of the carriage wheels and the appearance of the footprints for forensic analysis when Benjy gets back.
RETURN TO LONDON
As I vaulted the railings in St James’sSquare, my first thought was I’ve got him trapped. My second thought – or he’s got me trapped. It was with a curious thrill that I realized the silver lining in my situation carried far more weight than the cloud. Ambivalence is invigorating.
I’ll come back to that. First I should recount how we returned to London and what we discovered on our way. Following on from my enquiries around Aycliffe and Dover, we decided to track the route taken by the closed carriage which we believed must have borne Sgt Major Crouch’s murderer. We hired our own coach, but as Benjy dislikes confined spaces, and riding on top of the coach is a damp and muddy business at this time of year, he chose to return by train with most of the luggage.
We set off up the London Road – Tennyson, Ailean and I – with Edwards and McHamed following in a dog-cart. With each mile, the pestilential stew of Dover gave way to the marginally preferable yet still existentially bleak hollows of mire in which the men of Kent breed and slog under the piling years. Upon such barren ground, it came as no surprise to find our enquiries bore no fruit.
Yet as the way rose onto the North Downs, and the air less laced with corrosive brine, our luck changed. At the fourth coaching inn we heard report of a carriage that had been found abandoned by the roadside the day after Crouch’s murder and sent back up to the company, Harris’s Carriages, from which it had been hired. Some negotiations ensued with a whippet of a stable boy and his esurient master, whom we found toasting a scraping of bread on the end of a twig in the manner of his Neolithic forebears.
Some money changed hands. The boy – whose impudent retorts and sharp young features might have made him endearing, were he scrubbed in carbolic soap and clothed in garments less obviously lice-infested – led us a few miles back down the road, where finally we spotted the place where the carriage was found.
Edwards noticed two sets of footprints leading off over a stile and along a path in the direction of Gravesend railway station. One set of prints was large and heavy, with the weight pressing on the toes. Our malefactors, it seems, had ridden their horses to a lathered stupor till about 7 in the morning, and then cut across to catch the first train into London.
We spoke to the station master at Gravesend, a cheery Boer thug named Greaves. ‘I spetted two kaffirs with a little big,’ he told us. Perhaps I won’t do the accent. Two dark-skinned men, not negroes he said but possibly Berbers or Arabs, had got onto the early train. Greaves particularly remembered them because they had aroused in him deep and atavistic suspicions. In his native South Africa he would have shot them, he confessed, but this being a civilized country he accepted that he’d have to make do with notifying the police. He did not in fact do that, nor even telephone to London Bridge adumbrating his concerns, though we were forced to admit that his instincts were – at least on this occasion – very probably correct. What stumped us was the description he gave: two men of ordinary size. We had thought that one of the two must be the tall, heavy-set person who was seen outside Crouch’s gate.
Now wait. I shall have to keep talking about this fellow, so let us give him a nom de guerre. Mr Choker will do. And on –
Ailean had rather a marvellous notion, to wit that Greaves himself might be Mr Choker, and having done away with the real station master had dressed himself in the uniform – which did for a fact look a trifle tight on his burly frame. The story of the two ‘kaffirs’ in that case could be a complete fabrication. The theory did not hold up under scrutiny, but I’m sure I could use it in a story.
Speaking of which, I sent off a short story to Newnes for his new “Strand” magazine that’s coming out in a couple of months. He sent back a telegram saying that he liked it and hoped I’d turn it into the opening chapters of a serialized novel. Hornung has sewn up the country house and gentleman thief genres, curse him, so I shall explore the modern Gothic vein for a while, though I think it will be more satisfying for the reader if I wrap up all of the supernatural mysteries with a plausible scientific explanation at the end. Unbridled fantasy, after all, is merely a scrip for the writer to redeem enigmas without limit.
Ah, and that reminds me that I have offended Ailean by assuming that his stage performance was an act. He appears quite serious about it, genuinely believing that the ouija board game is an instrument for contacting the dead. Well, I am open minded, and while I doubt if the dead have anything more to say about matters in the real world, it is not completely inconceivable that strong psychic impressions could leave some kind of trace, in the same way that suggestions can be planted in the mind by way of mesmerism.
At any rate, Ailean was so put out as to feel that I had taken a dislike to him. I tried to make amends when he pointed out the ghastly paste jewel worn by his servant McHamed. “A fine topaz,” I said, and he seemed a little mollified. On the other hand, it is hard to read a Scotsman. They are not like we English. For example, Ailean was quite unhappy when I gave him my personal card – too, too friendly a gesture if you are Scotch, it seems. The tapestry of the world is richer for all these different characters, though. It’s only Kent that could be expunged from reality and no one would mourn.
But I have kept you waiting at Gravesend station far too long. Hopping on the last train that evening, we got up to London Bridge by eight o’clock on the Tuesday evening following the funeral. The station master there gave us a cup of tea (not nice, but not Kentish either) but had no recollection of the two dark-skinned men as they must have arrived in the morning rush-hour.
After a full day in a jostling coach, we all wanted to get off to our homes and have a good bath. First, though, we left a note for Major Gower at his club. There we ran into Norton, who told us the major would be in tomorrow afternoon.
As we left, Tennyson nudged me. ‘Chap in that alley,’ he whispered.
The individual in question drew back into the shadows. There could be no doubt. It was Mr Choker!
I found myself running before I’d quite had time to think about it. Ailean was right behind me, Lord Tennyson bringing up the rear. The alley brought us out into St James’s Square. No sign of Choker in the darkness – there are few street lights in the square, you know – so I tossed a mental three-sided coin. Left, right, or – ? It was straight ahead over the railings of the garden.
And so back to those interesting sensations. Fear and excitement and pleasure dance together on the head of a pin. I had my swordstick, but no real plan as to how it would avail me against a man of Choker’s size and evident swiftness. And it didn’t matter a jot. Why? Because in the encounter with the witchdoctor’s mask at Blenheim, I’d frozen up. Stood in the doorway and simply been unable to move. It’s not a nice feeling to think one might be getting into the habit of the funk. Still less so if you’re of the once-royal line of a warrior race.
But now, here I was pent within an iron cage, out of reach of help from my friends, with the prospect of facing a giant of a man in single combat. And I relished it. The prospect of battle ran like a scent of blood in the lion’s nostrils.
Perhaps fortunately, given my reckless frame of mind, Choker had already reached the far side of the garden and was intent only on escape. I watched as with ease he launched his considerable bulk over the railings. In another instant he was swallowed by the night.
Had he stood his ground, the three of us together might have been hard pressed. But there will come another opportunity, and I welcome it. We are hunters. The lesson of my match with Norwood is that there are other ways to carry a fight than with head-on brute force. I have no power such as Ailean claims to see into the future and know the outcome of any encounter to come, but I’m gratified to have set eyes upon the man we may now think of as our prey.
No doubt he was observing the Army and Navy Club. Because of Norton? Or Gower? Both, perhaps. Gower could be in great danger, and we don’t know his home address – but we do now have enough to take the matter to the police. I only hope that for Gower’s sake we are in time.
Monday evening to Thursday morning
Leave aside grief for a loved one. Mourning in such a case is for our own loss. Nor do I ask you to consider now the death of one completely unknown. There the reaction may be relief – that it was not we who dressed that morning without knowing we had an appointment with death on the station platform or at the foot of a Chaucerian oak. Or it may be dread – knowing that death has not retired from the fray, is not sated by each conquest, but turns again his unblinking scrutiny upon the hurrying crowds to pick another and another, like chocolates from a window display in the Burlington Arcade. Among that throng you may quicken your pace but never outrun him.
Think rather of the death of near strangers. A gaze caught across the road – less than an instant of recognition flashes, and then perhaps a carriage runs onto the pavement or lightning smites, and that other life to which there was a momentary thread of connection is gone.
How different from ordinary grief it is upon hearing of the death of someone we have glimpsed across a room, or even spoken to and liked – or disliked, but at any rate were not indifferent to. Do you know that feeling? It is no intense pain, nor yet simple shock, but the wistful hollowness that comes when the sun sinks from sight at the end of a shortening day. A clod is washed away by the sea, and so the continent made less – but so much more so if it was a stretch of sand on which you briefly walked, or that your gaze had fallen with no matter how faint a fondness.
Of whose death do I speak? Patience, my friend; the moving finger has its own pace. First I must tell you of that Monday evening when Mr Choker had lately escaped us in St James’s Square. Obviously he had been observing the Army and Navy Club, there could be no doubt of that. With two members of the Royal East Kent Regiment already dead in mysterious circumstances, and two more in that very club, and all that coupled with the fruits of our investigations, we surely had enough information now to involve the police.
I sent Edwards to the Army and Navy to find out what he could from Norton. Ailean and Lord Tennyson went off to speak to the police at Bow Street, while I went to my own club to write down the details of the close encounter with Mr Choker while they were yet fresh and vivid.
Tennyson and Ailean returned dispirited, having spent over an hour at the police station dealing with a constable who presented himself as a fool. The man had at least copied down all they told him, but it seemed doubtful the police would take any action. Meanwhile I had discovered Major Gower in the handbook of telephone numbers: Marylebone 138, and his address, 21 Singer Street. This was shortly confirmed by Edwards when he returned from speaking to Norton.
Tuesday barely mustered a morning: a cold grey twilight filled with gusts of rain. After breakfast I sent a copy of Doyle’s latest story to Benjy, who is still unwell from eating the oysters in Dover. We convened at the club and set off for Marylebone. Gower’s butler came out onto the step to inform us officiously that his master was not at home. Verbosely he led us a merry mental chase of places that the Major might or might not visit later in the day. Irritation seized me. Was no one prepared to take seriously the very palpable risk of violent death? By the time the butler was wrestling the English language to ungainly defeat with the words, ‘May I tell ‘im what hit his regarding?’ I could bite my tongue no longer. ‘His impending murder!’ I cried. ‘He must contact us at once!’
The extraordinary fellow turned immediately to Lord Tennyson and began speaking of me as though I were not present, and in the most insulting terms. ‘‘E seems an hexcitable foreign gentleman,’ he said. Well! ‘You are foreign, you must take my insults,’ did he suppose? ‘You are an unmannerly servant, and you must take a thrashing,’ I might retort. Quite intolerable. For these situations the Marquess of Queensberry recommends the use of a horsewhip. Having no whip, I fell back on the Queensberry Rules themselves and went to box the villain’s ears. The cur ran inside and bolted the door.
Back at the club, we had report from McHamed that he was able to find out nothing at Harris’s Carriages, the company in Hackney from which the coach that carried Crouch’s murderers was hired. Tennyson decided to try in person and I sent Edwards with him while Ailean and I, having had enough of the lower classes’ purposeless obstinacy for one day, took ourselves to the Café Royal for lunch. Oysters, filet mignon, champagne, millefeuilles – I must say, you can count on a Scotchman to bring a robust appetite. I strolled around and saw Beardsley sketching away furiously in a corner, so I described Mr Choker to him and left him with those great round eyes popping and the thin spidery fingers scribbling. That drawing will appear in a magazine soon, no doubt, or on the walls of some louche salon.
Tennyson returned having got some really useful information from the people at Harris’s. Our first real lead was paying off! It seems the coach was hired by Dr Darvan Ghul, a dark-skinned gentleman – surely one of station-master Greaves’s ‘kaffirs’. It struck me as curious that gul in Persian means ‘rose’; roses had come up before, as Sgt Major Crouch’s hobby among other things. But a Persian would not be dark skinned. Perhaps an Arab? We could find out for ourselves at the Somerset Hotel. How obliging those clerks at Harris’s had been. That’s Tennyson’s silver tongue at work – or just his silver.
Ailean was by now putting away cognac on top of whisky. Perhaps I should have seen the danger signals, but I drink so moderately myself that I assumed he’d simply send himself off into an afternoon stupor. As we went out we passed Bosie, looking rather puffy I must say, with a sallow liverish complexion and half-open doltish lips that made him look like a befuddled guppy. He has quite gone to seed. Well, he must be over twenty by now. Funny, though, me having thought of Queensberry only a few hours earlier. Another odd little coincidence.
We got a note from Major Gower, in response to one we’d left for him at the Army and Navy, inviting us round for after-dinner drinks. Only a short stroll from the Reform, of course, but Tennyson’s leg was playing up in the damp weather and Ailean’s had gone a little rubbery, so we took a cab. On the way, Ailean mentioned he was holding an exhibition – do I mean a show? a performance? – at the Wigmore Hall next week. ‘Only a guinea,’ he said.
‘How many will be there?’ I said, thinking that I had better buy a ticket to make up for the greeting card misunderstanding when we first met – and in any case I could do with something like this for my novel. Perhaps a dramatic murder could be committed while the man on stage was stuffing ectoplasm back into a tired spirit or sawing a woman in half.
‘There could be five hundred or more. Five hundred guineas.’ Ailean seemed to lapse into pensive silence – or to nod off on cushioning clouds of Courvoisier fumes.
At the Army and Navy, Major Gower showed us every courtesy, but I immediately saw the situation from his point of view. Three very young men (‘Have you finished at university?’ he asked at one stage) had come to him, apparently in earnest but with a tale that he must have found quite impossible to swallow in one unbroken wodge.
He could quite easily have suspected us of insincerity, especially since one of us was very, very drunk, but instead he treated us with kindly indulgence. Was there some mission that might have brought Crouch and Reynolds together? Naturally he could not speak of confidential military matters to us. Did he recognize our description of a tall man in a bowler hat? It stirred no memory. Did he want a free ticket to a spiritualist demonstration? No, he put no store in such things. Could he tell us about Colonel Hollingsworth? He lives in seclusion now at Kandahar House in Hampstead with his wife, Ramona, and their child. No, it was not likely that he would receive us; he receives very few people these days.
Major Gower thanked us for our concern for his welfare, but he doubted he was in any danger. With some amusement he likened the scenario we had laid before him to the plot of one of Doyle’s hack detective stories. He bid us good night. I liked him. An hour after we left him he was dead.
Edwards sent in a note as we were putting on our coats. Mr Choker had put in a fresh appearance, and not even at the price of a guinea. He was lurking in the same alley where we’d seen him before. It seemed such a gift. Now we would apprehend him. As we went out, I whispered to Tennyson in Latin that I would go round the long way to cut him off while the others pretended to hail a cab and then doubled back. We would have him trapped in the alley.
Never have I moved with such stealth. What is it that was used to bind Fenris? The footfall of cats, the breath of salmon? I made less sound than that as I closed in on our prey. But it seemed he had Heimdall’s hearing. Already he was across the square. I lost sight of him, ran in pursuit, and shortly after heard a carriage pulling off down a nearby street. It was bearing death to Major Gower, had we but known. All I could think then was that Choker had eluded us a second time.
Our Scylla and Charybdis: on the one hand an almost supernaturally fast and alert malefactor, on the other the herds of indifferent officialdom. Seething with frustration, still in our evening clothes, we took a cab to the Strand and checked ourselves in to the Somerset Hotel under the flimsiest of pseudonyms – surely a subconscious challenge to fate to take note of our ineffective efforts.
I tried that trick the old court conjurer taught me in Lahore, throwing my voice so that it sounded as though the chambermaid were calling to the concierge. He turned away from the desk for a moment, giving us time to locate Dr Ghul in the guestbook. We took our keys and climbed to room 218.
‘I could climb down from the floor above on a knotted sheet,’ I suggested. I’ve done it before, but on a foul rainswept night like this I hardly relished the prospect.
‘If we could pick the lock, enter by stealth…’ mused Tennyson. I nodded. Give it a few hours till Ghul was asleep and I could do that.
But it was Dionysus, not Apollo, who guided our strategy. ‘We’ll pretend to be drunk, to have mistaken our room,’ we decided. At least that way we could get a brief look inside.
Ailean went ahead and began thrusting his key at the lock, swearing loudly to himself in a convincing simulation of drunkenness. The door was thrown open. A smallish man with dark skin barred Ailean’s way. Hardly had his expostulations begun before the rap of Ailean’s ferrule upon his brow sent him sprawling.
Ailean lurched into the room. Tennyson and I were just behind. From an adjoining room came another Arabic-looking man in a smoking jacket. This must be Ghul. ‘What is the meaning of breaking into my rooms? You have assaulted my servant. This is a case for the police.’ His accent not Arabic but public school educated.
The violence had taken me by surprise, but while Tennyson pulled Ailean away I scanned our surroundings for any clue – a long coat, a bowler hat, wet footprints across the carpet – that might indicate Mr Choker’s presence here. One hint would be enough; half a hint. Then might we bring the police and defang these villains before they could wreak further mischief.
But there was nothing. Not a sign of Choker anywhere. We were forced to retreat rapidly and ignominiously as Ghul stood behind us in the corridor and called to us to wait for the arrival of the police. That mocking snake. I will take pleasure to see him finally brought low and imprisoned to face the stern gaze of English justice. We left by way of the fire escape and returned despondently to our homes.
The next morning was given over to family affairs. I arranged with my uncle, Montague Montague, to join him for lunch at the Savoy on Thursday. He has been in America for many years so it will be interesting to finally meet him in person. I’m a little curious as to why he isn’t staying with his sister or brother, but of course they are out of London at the moment so it may not be convenient to open up the house. After that, as the rain had let up, I went for a ride on Rotten Row.
Meanwhile Tennyson paid a call on his uncle, Allen Pace, who runs a haberdasher’s. Mr Pace agreed to send a letter to Colonel Hollingsworth asking if he will grant us an interview, though after what Major Gower told us I have no great hopes for success there.
Lunch at the club. A note was sent in. An Inspector Craddock of Scotland Yard, expressing his desire to speak to us regarding the death of Major Gower. He was impaled on the railings outside his house sometime the previous night.
‘Thank goodness!’ cried Ailean, fearing that the note might have been about the previous night’s escapade at the Somerset Hotel. But I was struck dumb with melancholy at the thought that the decent, gracious fellow who had given our wild surmises so tolerant a hearing last night was, very soon after we left him, butchered in so barbarous a fashion. His death had been trailing him these last few days, and we failed to make the police or the victim himself aware of the danger until it was too late.
The unfinished slice of toast, the vacated armchair, the dog waiting with its lead at the back door. A life torn away leaves such a hole in the world that no thread will ever sew up. When the cutting of the fabric is done by indifferent fate, or God, or the universal spirit, then we feel sorrow, but in those cases we accept there is no court of appeal. ‘His time had come,’ we say. That which was to happen has come about. Such deaths are a natural part of life, and leave us with only the same faint pang of indefinable loss that is experienced on seeing the graffiti of long-dead hands on the windows of the Doge’s Palace, or the footprint of a Roman child in a clay tile.
But when a man’s life is cut down, not by the reaper of all, but by the mean and petty machinations of others, then the feeling that wells in our breast is no trickle but the roar of a great tide – a torrent of anger, a flood of righteous wrath, that all of the irreproducible marvels and memories and sensations that have accumulated through a life, and go to make that life unique and treasurable, should be strewn asunder like the threads of a spider’s web. Rage that pettifogging malice should triumph over the sanctity of life. The one who commits such an act is the hornet at the picnic, the worm in the book, the fox in the hen coop, despoiling the incomparable prize that is human existence not even from ignorance, but from mere brute insensibility. And as you would deal with the hornet, the worm, or the fox, so should you deal with the one who takes a life.
Now we will speak to Inspector Craddock and see if now, at least, this series of needless tragedies can finally be brought to an end.
A hectic few days so I must be as succinct as a Lacedaemonian in recounting what has happened. After lunch on Wednesday I went down to Scotland Yard to see Mr Craddock. He chose to hold the interview in a cell, which was useful for research purposes though in light of later developments I suspect he intended it to be intimidating.
I left feeling that the investigation was now safely in the hands of the authorities, but was soon to be disabused of that impression. Over tea with Tennyson and Ailean at the Burlington Fine Arts Club it transpired that Craddock had twisted our testimonies to trick information out of us that could be interpreted as self-incriminatory. We saw the pattern of his thinking: he had decided that Mr Choker was in reality my valet, Edwards, and that we had employed him to murder a number of ex-soldiers at the behest of Tennyson’s uncle. I thought back to my own conversation with Craddock:
Craddock: “Your valet – Mr Edwards, is that correct?”
“Edwards is what I call him, though I suspect it is a pseudonym.”
“Indeed? How would you describe him, sir?”
“Tall. Scandinavian or perhaps Austrian. Not especially well trained as a valet, but inexpensive.”
“Is he a strong fellow?”
“Yes, I would say so. Robust and strong.”
“Was he with you the whole morning of the Friday prior to your engagement at Blenheim?”
“He was at the house, certainly. Not in the very same room.”
“Very good, sir. And on the Monday evening following your return?”
“Edwards is not Mr Choker, Inspector. I have seen them both at the same time on two occasions.”
“Thank you for that assurance, sir.”
How absurd – and how deplorable a waste of the investigative gems we had laid at Craddock’s feet. Not to mention decidedly inconvenient; we now not only needed to prevent Colonel Hollingsworth’s murder, we had to clear our own names. Ailean cast a wild eye upon the painting by Ansdell, “The Stag at Bay”, that hangs upon the club wall. “That is our own fate!” he cried. “Let us away to Calais by the night ferry.”
Tennyson and I were less keen to flee. It would make us look guilty, and in any case I had a arrangement to meet my uncle the following morning. Not to mention that any trip to Calais would take us through the hated port of Dover. We distracted Ailean by drawing his attention to Whistler, who was sitting nearby and whose paintings we all admire. In calmer mood, Ailean mentioned that he had given the inspector a ticket to his demonstration at the Wigmore Hall next week. “He’ll be seated next to Major Gower,” he told us.
“Except that the major is not going to be there,” I pointed out.
“Oh,” said Ailean owlishly, “he’ll be there all right. I guarantee it.”
Next morning, I had tea at the Savoy with my uncle while Edwards went to the Somerset Hotel to see if Dr Ghul had flown the coop. Uncle Montague seems to have built up quite a business in America. He said some complimentary things about my Congratulatory First – a genuinely unexpected result, though he took my comment of having enjoyed “a lucky few days” as deliberate modesty. And then he provided me with a welcome monthly stipend and an invitation to visit him on the East Coast of America. He’s also going to give some thought to introducing me to the right sort of woman to marry. I feel sure he understands what I am looking for, someone of spirit and intelligence who can be a firm yet understanding friend. There are many such women in America, apparently. That girl that went around the world single-handed is fairly typical of them.
Edwards reported that Ghul has simply moved his room (to number 202). The audacity! Unless – I began to wonder. Could we have the wrong end of the stick? Might Ghul be, not the diabolical mastermind we took him for, but another investigator like ourselves? Were we, in short, guilty of the Craddock Fallacy? We needed to find out.
Tennyson having received a letter of introduction from Mr Pace, we rode out to Hampstead and rang the bell of Kandahar House. A butler with a stern widow’s peak informed us that the colonel was not receiving visitors. As we walked back down the drive, a little lad on a tricycle came around the side of the house. “Michael!” I called, that being the name of the colonel’s six-year-old son, and he turned to look but was immediately scooped up by a servant and ushered away. It was all rather sinister, giving the impression of a prison rather than a home.
Thursday afternoon, and we now felt the urgency of the case. If the colonel was soon to be murdered, as seemed entirely probable, Craddock would rub one brain cell against the other and conclude that we had visited Kandahar House simply to spy out a way for Choker/Edwards to gain entry.
We conceived two moderately desperate stratagems. Tennyson and I would invite Dr Ghul to dinner – but without Ailean, as he had after all struck the man’s servant, albeit in self-defense as far as I know. While we confronted Ghul, Ailean made preparations to scare Toby Norton into a full confession. We could see he was hiding something, but physical intimidation by Edwards could only loosen his tongue so far. The man being in the grip of a spiritual terror, we needed a fright of like nature to make him spill the beans.
We sent a note up to Dr Ghul and he replied that it would take him forty-five minutes to get ready for dinner. Rather quick, I thought, but at least it showed he had the instincts of a gentleman. We waited for him at Simpson’s and when he arrived he accepted a glass of claret and did not object to lobster. No Muslim, then. He said that he was an Arab, educated in Austria, and that he worked at the British Museum in the department of Oriental Studies. Why should there be anything strange about hiring a coach? He had lent it to his two cousins – the “swarthy kaffirs” of Stationmaster Greaves’s account. We had seen a giant figure lurking near the Army and Navy Club? Then surely we were lucky we hadn’t met with the same fate as Crouch. Were we not afraid for our own lives?
“Each time I have seen Mr Choker he has been running away from me,” I said. “This picture tells its own story.”
We went through the body of circumstantial evidence we had amassed. Ghul eyed us narrowly, thanked us for dinner, and left.
“Well, we have dined with the arch foe,” I said to Lord Tennyson. “I thought it rather dramatic and a device I could employ in my novel.”
“Yes indeed,” said Tennyson drily. “Though in the novel it might be better if the villain actually reveals something.”
It was indeed a dead end. We had thrown down the gauntlet, that was all, but at least in a more dignified manner than the rap of a ferrule on Ghul’s manservant’s forehead.
Over to Ailean’s house in Bloomsbury for the next phase of the plan. Edwards brought Norton direct from work, arriving about half past eleven. Ailean greeted Norton with an eggnog laced with opium. I believe Ailean had sipped some of it himself. The moment Norton succumbed, he was carried to a room draped all in black, with soft cushions and padded furniture. Ailean’s voice spoke to him out of the inky dark. “Confess what you saw.”
Norton’s reply was to regurgitate copiously over the rug. It rather spoiled the effect. Luckily Ailean had a second string to his bow. Enter Christine, a blowsy tart lathered in phosphorescent paint. She presented herself to Norton as the spirit of retribution, one part Christmas Carol to one part Mary Jane Kelly with an unhealthy dose of phossy jaw thrown in.
That did the trick. Eyes rolling, Norton started babbling about the Cube of Zoroaster. “The tower of fire,” he moaned. “We shouldn’t never ‘ave taken it. We ‘ad no business being there in the first place. The fire… it’s like eyes! The eyes in the fire!”
That was enough. We turned up the lights and sobered Norton with a jug of water, some of it in the face. Under a barrage of questions he revealed everything. It seems that a group of Buffs soldiers had fought “cultists” (Zoroastrians? The “fire wizards” of the Arabian Nights) to enter the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht in Persepolis, from which they took a box – “as big as you, sir,” he said, looking at me.
Now, I am taller than average, being half Sikh, but I am a good cricket bat short of Choker’s golem-like height. But wait, what am I saying..? The box must have been a sarcophagus of some kind. Why on Earth should it make me think of Mr Choker? I have been reading too many of Mr Poe’s feverish tales!
Norton confirmed that Reynolds, Crouch, Gower and Hollingsworth were all in the party that pillaged the Zoroastrian shrine. They were accompanied by an archaeologist called Geoffrey Jordan, who was often at loggerheads with the colonel. Norton said that he witnessed a blazing row between the two men in the Army and Navy Club after their return from Persia.
Tennyson knew all about this chap Jordan. He had been the Head of Oriental Studies at the British Museum – the very position that our dear foe Dr Ghul now holds. Talking of whom, Edwards came to say that Mr Choker was lurking in an alleyway nearby. We went out to confront him, but as usual he had made himself scarce.
So to take stock. This business in Persepolis all happened several years ago, so why have the killings started just in the last month? Our hypothesis is that Jordan conveyed the box to the British Museum on his return from Persia, but it only came to Dr Ghul’s attention quite recently. Is his motive mere revenge? Where religion is concerned, logic must twiddle its thumbs – and yet there are gaps in this jigsaw. Why has Toby Norton been left alive, considering that the pattern of murders seems to be tracing its way up the chain of command? Choker must have followed Norton to Ailean’s house – but why was he under observation at all, since there were no other Buffs on the death list at the Rag last night?
Most tellingly, who or what is Mr Choker? And how do we bring him in front of Inspector Craddock in order to clear our own names and that of Edwards?
Friday morning to Tuesday afternoon (26th to 30th September)
‘This marmalade is really quite extraordinarily good, Ailean.’
‘Aye, it’s the Oban malt that gives it its zest. But I have the devil of a job getting McHamad to go down to Fortnum’s for it. He considers it an unforgivable extravagance, y’see.’
‘Will you try some, detective?’
The plain clothes officer regarded us stonily. He had vouchsafed the name of Wilkins, but with a dyspeptic grimace as he said it, as if such personal information cost him dear. He had brought us Inspector Craddock’s invitation to call on him at New Scotland Yard. From the fact that he lingered Banquo-like in the room as we had breakfast, refusing Ailean’s offer of “a saucer of tea”, we began to realize that it was really no invitation, but more in the nature of a summons.
Poor Ailean looked much the worse for last night’s activities, including the small amount of opium I suspect he’d ingested. I had at least had time to go home, snatch a few hours’ sleep and a change of clothes, and return to Bloomsbury. Norton was being kept in Ailean’s cellar, where he was guarded by Edwards.
‘Perhaps you’d step out a moment, Wilkins. I wish to have a private word with Mr Gris.’
‘I am to accompany you at all times until your talk with the inspector, sir.’
In my own house I might have had some words about the scope of the law as it pertains to an Englishman’s castle, but perhaps the expectation is different in Scotland, as Ailean finished his toast without complaint and followed Wilkins to the carriage waiting outside. On the ride down to Westminster, Wilkins was at pains to point out that he could have come in a police carriage with uniformed officers. When we failed to return the effusive thanks he seemed to expect, the fellow lapsed again into tense-jawed silence.
I’m writing this on Tuesday, and the events to which I no refer happened last Friday morning, following the spiritualist performance in Ailean’s drawing room that elicited Norton’s confession. I realize only now that September 25th was the American Thanksgiving. I had tea with my uncle that morning and failed to offer him my best wishes or congratulations or whatever it is one’s supposed to say. So I sent him a box of cigars from Lewis’s that had a picture of a Red Indian on the box, a granite-featured, feather-festooned individual looking scarcely more inscrutable than Wilkins.
At Scotland Yard, I was taken to Craddock’s office to wait while he interviewed Ailean elsewhere in the building. Under the owlish eye of Wilkins, I purported to jot some story notes in a book while in fact observing the contents of the inspector’s office – and in particular a “pin board” on which he had placed cards sketching out his understanding of the Buffs case. I was pleased to see Dr Ghul’s name up there, along with another name, Mabhrat, whom I took to be his servant or lickspittle. At the bottom of the card, Craddock had written “cousins?” – interesting, as it told me that Ghul had been forced to give the police the same explanation he had offered me and Lord Tennyson Thurgood in regard to the “two swarthy men” seen at Gravesend station. The question mark restored a little of my faith in Craddock’s intelligence.
After a bit I was taken down to see Craddock in the same cell where we met before. Curious that he would use a cell rather than his own office. Is it intended to intimidate? There are parts of the world where policemen resort to such petty tactics, largely out of a strident insecurity, but I thought Craddock a cut above that. Is it a trace of guilt that makes him work down there? His hair shirt? Or – more interestingly – a defence against the call of darkness in the depths of the soul? Augustus slept upon a soldier’s camp bed, thereby avoiding the insane grandiosity of later Caesars. I tried to read the still waters of Craddock’s eyes. Somebody very like him – or rather, like my conception of him – will appear in my novel. Craddock, I am creating you.
‘In our last interview,’ said the real, uncreated Craddock, ‘you failed to mention your trip to the Somerset Hotel on Tuesday evening.’
‘You asked me what I did after leaving the Army and Navy Club. I said that I was with Lord Tennyson and Mr Gris until around midnight. That was true.’
‘But not the whole truth.’
‘I was not under caution, inspector, nor did I stand in a dock with my hand pressed on a holy book. Had you asked more, I would have told you more. But you did not.’
‘I find that one can gauge a man’s integrity, sir, by the extent to which he willingly cooperates with the authorities.’
The odious little man, thus to presume to lecture me! I took a sip of tea as I controlled my temper.
‘There are higher laws, Mr Craddock. Laws of honour and loyalty. As any account of that evening’s events might be taken to incriminate a gentleman, and one who was not present to defend his good name, I chose not to volunteer such an account. I cannot imagine the sort of person who would have willingly done so, but he would not be someone I would consider as a paragon of integrity.’
‘I may as well tell you that I have placed Mr Gris under arrest. He confessed that he assaulted Dr Ghul’s servant, a man called Mabhrat, with his cane.’
‘As to that I cannot say.’
‘You deny having witnessed the assault?’
‘The fellow may have manhandled Mr Gris. I was some way behind and could not see everything. A scuffle ensued and this Mabhrat fell to the floor. What you call assault may in fact have been self defence.’
‘It is a case of grievous bodily harm, sir.’
My respect for Craddock was plummeting faster than a barometer before the monsoon. Could he not see this was a ploy by Ghul to remove an opposing piece from the board? By arresting Ailean on such a trumped-up charge he was playing into the murderer’s hands.
‘A court of law must determine that, inspector. It is not for either you, as a policeman, or me, as a witness, to decide guilt or innocence. But I will point out that Lord Tennyson Thurgood and I had dinner with Dr Ghul last night, in the course of which we elaborated the incontrovertible facts that indict him as the architect of all this villainy. And then today he brings a charge against Mr Gris.’
‘Incidentally establishing an alibi for you all at the time of Major Gower’s death, sir.’
‘Ghul has not bloodied his own hands, inspector. He has Mr Choker for that. And by the way, at the risk of becoming tiresome, Choker was seen lurking near Mr Gris’s house last night.’
I went on to tell him all the information about the Persepolis expedition that we had gleaned from Norton, without mentioning the source.
‘Very good, sir. Thank you for coming in. Mr Gris is under a serious charge, but if you wish to wait to post bail for him, you are welcome to do so.’
On discovering that New Scotland Yard is not equipped with a lounge where I could take coffee, I returned to the Reform Club to wait for news. After an hour or two, Lord Tennyson joined me there, having also spoken to Craddock.
‘I played the squiffy aristocrat, which isn’t too far off the truth. Anyway, he didn’t get much out of me.’
‘This is encouraging,’ I said. ‘To establish his own alibi, Ghul has had to provide us with one. And he has had to bring out the fiction of his two cousins, which will not bear up to close scrutiny.’
‘In the meantime, Ailean is in a jail cell.’
‘I had Simpson’s send him some cutlets and a bottle of the widow. And his lawyer will be calling on him this afternoon to arrange bail.’
Tennyson looked dubious. ‘A fellow called Shem Schweitzer? I think Ailean will be in for the weekend.’
We sent an invitation to Geoffrey Jordan, with whom Tennyson had corresponded, inviting him to lunch at Claridge’s the following Tuesday, by which time Ailean would surely be out on bail. With Benjy still tied up on other business, we decided to refresh ourselves with a trip out to Wimbledon, where I ride with the Paper Lilies hunt, returning on Monday morning in time to attend Ailean’s appearance before the magistrate, Mr Cramp, who set bail at ten guineas – fully enough to travel in luxury on the steamer to New York, which might indeed be Ailean’s intention to judge by his fulminations as we repaired to the club for lunch. I cannot blame him. It seems that the meals from Simpson’s never reached him – stolen by the police, would you believe? It comes to a pretty pass if the greatest city in the world cannot muster a force of honest constables.
‘It’s more than that,’ said Ailean. ‘That Craddock – he’s mixed up in the Ripper business, I’m sure of it.’
‘I looked into it,’ said Tennyson, waving the matter aside. ‘He was attached to Mr Abberline’s investigation at the time.’
Ailean was not so easily convinced to give up his idée fixe. ‘That would hardly put him first at the scene. He stood over the freshly butchered bodies, man. The blood still steamed and flowed from them.’
‘Surely a constable would be the first officer at the scene,’ I said, not asking how Ailean claimed to know such details. ‘To hold an inspector’s rank now, Craddock could not have been a constable a mere two years ago.’
‘He’s in it up to his neck,’ insisted Ailean. ‘Anyway, I wash my hands of this whole Buffs business. It’s brought me nothing but woe. I now intend to focus my energies on tomorrow’s exhibition at the Wigmore Hall. The murderer will be there, mark my words. I shall reveal his identity to the world, and Craddock will be there to see it.’
‘What, you’re going to unmask Jack the Ripper?’
‘Not the Ripper, man! The murderer of these soldier boys.’
The dishes had hardly been cleared away for pudding. How quickly Ailean’s retirement from the investigation had been rescinded.
Ailean went off to prepare for his Wigmore Hall performance. ‘I’ve sent for McHamad to come here to the club,’ he told us. ‘I’m not going home until after the exhibition.’
‘Very wise,’ I said, ‘seeing as Norton is – ‘
‘Hush. I don’t want to know. I’ll be staying here at the club and calling on room service every few hours in order to ensure my alibi is ironclad for when Hollingsworth gets his comeuppance.’
‘Although… hopefully you will solve the case by metempsychosis tomorrow evening, and that will be that.’
‘Pah, you’re a cynic, Singh. An unbeliever.’
Well, I reflected as I left the club, I believe more in taking action than in suffering the slings, arrows and legal actions of a wily foe. While discussing the case with Tennyson over the weekend, I had alluded to tiger hunting by means of a tethered goat. Choker was the tiger, Norton the goat. And the hunter: myself.
I had a nap in the afternoon and kitted myself out in tweeds for a night on a Bloomsbury rooftop overlooking Ailean’s front door, a Martini-Henry beside me and a Webley in my pocket. A thick pea souper had gathered with the coming of night. From up there it looked like something you could walk on. The streetlamps were hazy blobs, the doors and windows mere shadows. I could see little, but I could hear a pin drop. Come tonight, Choker, I thought, and we can put an end to this.
Oh, you question the morality of waiting for a man as you would a wild beast? But I no longer think of Choker as a man. He is less than animal. If a tiger killed so insensately, we’d call it mad and put it down.
Hours in the cold, but the devil didn’t come. At three in the morning I gave up and went home to bed. When I rose, there was a note waiting for me from Tennyson: “Bitten by the dog. Cracked ribs.” Cryptic. I replied: “The cat did not come for the cream. Spare ribs?” (Thinking perhaps that he was planning the lunch menu.)
Around eleven thirty I called at Tennyson’s Mayfair house on the way to Claridge’s. His butler, Jenkins, answered the door. ‘I’m afraid his lordship is under the weather, Mr Dakkar Singh. He was attacked in the fog last night, just outside his front door.’
‘Good lord! Is he all right? We have lunch with Mr Jordan at Claridge’s in half an hour.’
‘His lordship is sleeping at the moment. I believe his physician would advise against an excursion to Claridge’s. In any event, Mr Jordan sent this note saying that he is unwell and will not be able to keep your luncheon appointment.’
‘Please tell Lord Tennyson that I shall call in later to see how he’s feeling.’
I sent a note to Edwards telling him to bring Norton to my solicitors, Holbrook and Vance, in Doughty Street, later in the afternoon.
I then wrote a longer letter to Cook at the Pall Mall Gazette, asking if he knew anything about the career of Mr Craddock of the Yard, and also setting out the pertinent facts of the Buffs case in meticulous detail. No speculation, merely the known facts about the carriage rented by Ghul being in Dover when Crouch was killed, the two dark-skinned men at Gravesend station, the appearance of Choker outside the Army and Navy Club, the deaths of Reynolds and Gower, and a postscript to the effect that I will be forwarding Cook a notarized statement about certain incidents in Persepolis that may have a bearing on the case.
After that I returned to Mayfair. Tennyson was sitting up in bed. His eyes were as big as saucers.
‘Laudanum?’ I asked.
‘Yes. Well, two broken ribs. Possibly a cracked pelvis. No pain, though.’
‘Modern medicine. Especially modern opiates. What happened, old boy?’
‘Set upon in the fog. Long fellow in a coat.’
‘Choker, yes. The very man. He tried to cosh me but I heard him coming.’
‘I told you to carry a gun.’
‘And so I did! Got off a couple of shots.’
‘And did you get him?’
‘Missed. And then – well, he’s a strong blighter, Harry. Right outside in the street, this was.’
‘Did you see his face?’
‘Dog mask, like he wore at Blenheim.’
‘Blenheim was a whole other case, Tennyson. Chap in a tribal mask. He fell out of a window and broke his neck.’
‘By heavens, you’re right. That wasn’t Choker. Well, he wears a dog mask, anyway. Or a jackal.’
‘Tried to cosh you, though. So he wanted you alive.’
‘Would have had me, too, except that a bobby showed up and chased him off. As it was, I was on the boot end of quite a kicking. No pain, just a bit uncomfortable. The doctor gave me – ‘
‘I know, laudanum. I suppose you won’t be at Ailean’s séance thing tonight, then?’
‘Oh no, might be a couple of days before I’m up and about. By the way there’s a worm on your face crawling towards your ear.’
‘I’ll get it later. Right now I’m going to research dog-faced deities and Zoroastrianism at the British Museum.’
‘It’s gone in your ear now. Oh dear.’
‘You get some sleep.’
And so to the Reading Room, where I found nothing at all to link the likes of Anubis to the Zoroastrian faith. Of course, Tennyson’s recollections of last night are being filtered through a gallon of pain-killing opiates, so the dog mask might be his imagination. Since I’m here, I shall have a quick look in the Middle Eastern gallery and then hie off to Doughty Street to get Norton’s affidavit about the Persepolis incident.
The good news: our foe is worried, resorting to desperate measures to keep us off his back, and yet achieving only fleeting delays. Or is he? Ailean now has sworn off the investigation, even though his alibi for the night of Gower’s murder does not prove he didn’t help us arrange it with Edwards as our agent of primary action. Tennyson is likely to be flat on his back for at least a week. If the purpose of war is, as Clausewitz said, to remove your enemy’s ability to deploy units in the field, then Ghul is winning.
But we still have one officer – myself – and one footsoldier – Edwards, who is closer to having Craddock drape a noose around his neck than any of us. Nothing like danger to focus the will, and a shot of rank injustice in the mix provides us with a heady brew to fuel our resolve now. Wits shall be sharper, heart the keener, courage the greater, as our might lessens.
Tuesday afternoon and evening
It must have been a pistol in Dr Jordan’s pocket, as the music hall line catchphrase goes, because he certainly wasn’t pleased to see us. I don’t think we’d have got past the front door if Tennyson hadn’t been in the coach waving his arms about like Robespierre on the way to la monte-à-regret.
But we last left Tennyson prostrate in bed, pole-axed by opiates? Yes indeed, observant reader. On my return from the British Museum only a couple of hours later, I found Jenkins wheeling him around the house. Ailean Gris was there, having abandoned preparations for his show at the Wigmore Hall to be by Tennyson’s side.
‘It was just a bad bruise,’ announced the invalid cheerfully. ‘The doc says I’m fit to be up and about. Let’s go and see why Jordan didn’t keep the luncheon appointment.’
And so we came to be ringing the bell of a house in Clarendon Road, Bayswater. Dr Jordan had the top two floors. ‘That shows he’s not a gennulmun,’ muttered Jenkins as he carried Lord Tennyson’s chair up the steps. What extraordinary rules servants have.
Jordan’s rooms were an obstacle course of books, relics, pamphlets, cabinets, curios and animal skulls. He had the curtains half drawn but there was no particular indication of a man in fear of his life, if you discounted the aforementioned revolver in his smoking jacket.
With only three members of the Buffs expedition still alive, and the shadow of suspicion and now physical danger over our own heads, I was in no mood to soft-soap the matter. ‘We have come about the threat to your life in consequence of items removed from the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht.’
He was having none of it. ‘Who are you? What business is it of yours? Our mission in Persepolis remains strictly confidential.’
So he was playing that card. While Tennyson explained our interest in the case, I looked around. No sign of a thumping great box like a Babylonian sarcophagus, at any rate. After some archaeological chit-chat, Jordan pulled out some old bits of cuneiform for Tennyson to look at.
‘What do you make of this tablet?’ said Tennyson, handing it to me. ‘Dr Jordan says he found it in front of the wooden box in the Cube of Zoroaster.’
‘Looks like a calendar of some sort. Are these moons? And these suns? So that’s four nights and three days.’
I handed it to Ailean Gris, who promptly dropped the thing as though it was red hot. Luckily Jordan had a thick shag pile carpet. He locked it back in a cabinet and put the key in his pocket.
‘How irritating,’ I said as we left. ‘No doubt he will be found dead and we’ll have another tedious conversation with Inspector “Crad-Oik”. Unless of course Jordan is in league with Dr Ghul against the others. Or perhaps in league with Norton. Or perhaps Norton is the mastermind and Ghul is the next victim. Oh, who knows.’
‘He’s very concerned about those fragments from the Ka’ba,’ observed Tennyson. ‘I’m quite sure he can’t keep all his cabinets locked like that.’
I shrugged. ‘We already knew that the killer is probably quite mad and motivated by obscure doctrine and rituals. It’s possible that Ghul is timing his murders to fit the calendar written on that tablet, assuming he has seen a copy, but unless we can decode it then I don’t think it gives us much new information. It does raise one disquieting thought, however.’
‘If Ghul can only take a life at the intervals that the tablet specifies, maybe he wasn’t trying to avoid killing you after all. I thought they wanted to question you, but possibly Choker’s orders were merely to bring you back alive for – ‘
‘For what, Harry?’
‘For human sacrifice at a later date.’
We rode in silence to the offices of Holbrook and Vance, where Edwards had brought Toby Norton to make a statement. That done, there was no reason not to release Norton. Watching him wavering on the doorstep, I was mindful of Jordan’s comment that Norton had always been a nervous and unreliable fellow.
‘You have been thrown back, Norton,’ I told him. ‘Off you go into the stream of life that is London.’
‘I was thinkin’, sir, ‘ow you said me job was squared away till the end of the week, like.’
‘Indeed it is. You could take a holiday.’
‘Perhaps not Dover,’ said Tennyson, reading my mind. He put Norton into a hansom and I am fairly sure I saw him slip a five-pound note into his hand. Norton can live in luxury on that for a week. At any rate he should soon be far beyond the reach of Ghul’s vengeance – if, indeed, he is one of the intended victims.
After a light meal Tennyson announced he was off to see Gris’s act at the Wigmore Hall. I had been trying to interest a pretty blond bellboy at the Savoy in going to a very sleazy part of town for a show and a drink, but as he had to work I decided I may as well tag along with Tennyson.
The hall was almost full when we arrived. The front rows were heaving with the furs, feathers and pearls of the beau monde. Doyle had inveigled his way among them and sat with his black notebook, pen poised prissily, somehow making the act of creative composition appear no different from writing out a dubious prescription for a knocked-up whore.
‘There’s Princess Helena,’ said Tennyson.
Her presence in the hall was an uncanny coincidence, as he had just been telling me that he wondered if the attack on Mr Stanley was related to our current investigation.
‘Careful, old boy, if you start thinking that all homicidal masked cultists are part of a global conspiracy, that way madness lies.’
‘Let’s see if we can have a word with her after the show. Oh, I think it’s about to start.’
After a preamble by McHamed, Ailean Gris walked onto the stage holding a phosphorescent globe. The lights dimmed, leaving only Ailean’s face and an empty chair in the front row illuminated. He began to question the empty seat as though it held the ghost of the late Major Gower, responses being provided by knocks for yes or no that resounded from the stage.
It was speedily established that the ghost agreed with Ailean that it was dead, had abandoned its scepticism and now believed in an afterlife, had been murdered, was not acquainted with a Dr Ghul of the British Museum, and that its murderer was in the hall at that moment. The last question was replied to spectacularly by Ailean falling as though in a swoon, delivering the single knock (betokening yes) with his head upon the wooden boards.
After that a dumpy woman hobbled on and spoke at length in a thick Russian accent about her spiritual experiences in Tibet and in particular about the book she had recently published as a result of decoding an unknown ancient language of that region while in a trance. She wanted only a dog mask to be counted among the barking loonies of London town.
When it was all over, I wheeled Tennyson’s chair over to Princess Helena. She greeted us cordially enough, going so far as to invite us to supper at Claridge’s.
‘Such a kind offer, your Imperial Highness, but we had arranged to meet Mr Gris.’
‘Pray bring him along. I do hope, incidentally, that he didn’t hurt his head when he fell.’
‘Oh,’ I assured her, ‘that will have been carefully staged. The trick is to slap the floor as one falls. It breaks the impact. I’m sure that’s the first thing these spiritualists learn, just like actors picking up fencing and pratfalls.’
In fact I was wrong. Ailean was nursing a bump on his head, having genuinely passed out.
‘I was planning to flee to Scotland, but I was out cold.’
‘Flee to Scotland, man? Why ever would you do that?’
‘Having revealed the murderer’s identity!’
‘Do you have concussion? Because you didn’t reveal his identity. You merely established that he or she was in the audience – along with over five hundred other people. However, my money is on the old Russian bird.’
‘Ah, you don’t believe, Singh. It’s all wasted on you.’
‘I believe that you believe, Ailean. Anyway, as the ghost’s testimony will probably not be admissible under English law, why don’t we focus on less spiritual matters – to wit, supper with Princess Helena.’
‘Supper? You mean dinner!’
‘The rest of us had dinner at six before the show. Our little collation at Claridge’s will be in the nature of a post-ball supper. You know, cold meats, wine, cheeses. Admittedly I don’t know what you’d call it in the imaginary language of old Tibet.’
‘And you’d be paying, Lord Tennyson?’ asked Ailean shrewdly. ‘Then lead on.’
No sooner were we in the carriage than it became clear Ailean intended to continue his stage act throughout the meal. As he spoke ebulliently about the spirit world, Tennyson leaned over. ‘We’ll hardly be able to get in a sensible word to the princess with him like this.’
‘The blow on the head has left him over-excitable. Let me put a bit of your, ah, special sauce in this hipflask.’
In the midst of his tirade, Ailean suddenly fell silent and fixed me with a keen stare. ‘What are you doing with that whisky, Singh?’
‘Sharpening it with laudanum, Ailean. Have a drop?’
‘Aye, I don’t mind.’
He took a good swig and soon fell a lot quieter. By the time we arrived at Claridge’s he was looking all around him with a sense of wonder, and when he saw the princess his jaw fell open. Skewered, he was, by Cupid’s arrow – unlike the bellboy, sadly.
We had a pleasant enough conversation with Princess Helena. She told us she’d been travelling around the country; we told her about the series of gruesome murders for which we ourselves are now the principal suspects.
‘That is why Lord Tennyson is in a wheelchair,’ I said. ‘He was set upon last night by the killer.’
The princess expressed concern, but Tennyson assured her he had taken no serious injury. ‘Although it is unsettling to hear a footstep behind one, and to turn to see the shadow of an assailant against the fog.’
‘You’ve led a pampered life, Thurgood,’ snorted Ailean Gris.
The laudanum was wearing off. Hastily I filled Ailean’s wineglass from the hipflask, but he ignored it. I could see the cocktail of alcohol, opiates and post-performance excitement brewing into a difficult situation.
‘Well,’ I said to the princess, ‘we must not presume on your gracious hospitality any further, your Imperial Highness.’
‘It’s up to the lady to say when the meal ends!’ yelled Ailean. ‘You know nothing, Singh.’
Oh, to be lectured on etiquette in the dining room of Claridge’s by a drunken Scotchman! Fortunately the princess knew how to forestall trouble. ‘I have enjoyed our conversation, gentlemen, but if you’ll excuse me it is getting rather late…’
As we bade her goodnight, the princess warned us to be careful. Unless it was my imagination, she seemed almost maternal in her concern over Ailean in particular.
‘The investigative side is a continual frustration, but I confess to rather enjoying the hunt,’ I said. ‘I’ve twice pursued Mr Choker, and I should dearly like to repay his rough treatment of Tennyson with a few punches of my own.’
‘If you run into him again,’ she said, ‘I think you’d be well advised to use a shotgun.’
Now this was curious. The princess had earlier affected to dislike blood sports, and had not approved when I told her of the beating I gave that braying fool Norwood (R.I.P.). Yet here she was talking of getting out shotguns on the streets of London. I could almost believe Tennyson’s theory – cultists, HMS, masks and rituals, and a Prussian princess coming to the Wigmore Hall specifically to give us a warning.
But no, this is nonsense. Ghul is murdering the people who stole a sacred artefact from a shrine that his people revere. It is a bloody business but it makes perfect sense. I do not need to add a catalogue of delusions to the already confusing facts of the matter.
Back at the Reform Club, we took stock. ‘It looks like a blank wall to me,’ I told Tennyson. ‘Nobody is willing to talk – either because they’re terrified or because they’re in it up to their necks. Is it going to come down to a toe to toe with Choker? I don’t see what it would solve, and even though he may be an unmitigated fiend, I couldn’t in all honesty turn a shotgun on a man. Not to mention that killing Choker would not get us off the “Crad-hook”.’
‘Ailean is thoroughly scared. He was ready to run off to Scotland tonight.’
‘Whatever that would achieve. I believe there has been an extradition treaty in force since 1707.’
‘We have yet to see how Dr Ghul’s lawyers will respond to the mention of his name in tonight’s act, specifically juxtaposed as it was with Major Gower’s death.’
‘Good point. Ailean might want to keep that carriage ready. Oh, is that a note for you?’
The footman handed it to Tennyson. He read it with a puzzled frown.
‘It just says “Ahriman”. Nothing else. That one word and the J of Doctor Jordan’s signature.’
‘The Zoroastrian Lucifer.’
‘Very helpful,’ I said drily. ‘With Jordan helping us I can see we’ll crack the case in no time.’
‘It’s nearly two o’clock. I’d better go and see him in the morning.’
‘Let’s hope his head hasn’t been twisted off before then. I wouldn’t put it past “Crad-Oik” to arrest a man in a wheelchair.’
‘If only we could get in to see Hollingsworth. With everyone else it’s a case of closed ranks and closed lips, but he seems to be taking the threat very seriously indeed. Maybe he’d talk.’
‘No use, old boy. We can’t even get past his butler.’
‘Creep in by night wearing dog masks and scare it out of him?’
‘No, Harry. I took a rubbing of the calendar tablet. Hollingsworth must have seen that before. So what if we were to turn up with a note including that rubbing?’
‘It’s a plan. I might even go so far as to call it a good ‘un. But it’s also our last hope. After Hollingsworth there are no more paths to follow.’
‘All the more reason to make this shot count. I’ll go and see Dr Jordan first thing, and I’ll meet you and Ailean in Hampstead at twelve noon.’
‘Actually, I just realized we do have one other lead if Hollingsworth doesn’t pay off. But you won’t like it.’
‘Choker tried to abduct you. That means you’re important to Dr Ghul – whether for sacrifice or interrogation we don’t know. But you’re the only target who wasn’t a member of the original Buffs expedition.’
‘So now I’m the goat? Marvellous.’
Wednesday: Déjà vu
Fool me once, shame on you – and so forth. How we could have been so obtuse as to overlook the risk of a second attempt of Tennyson’s life, especially after our discussion of the possibility of using him to lure Mr Choker out, I cannot explain by any rational means. The fog must have got into our brains.
But, as usual, I get ahead of myself. The day began with the welcome return of Benjy, who is at last recovering from the bad cold he picked up in Dover. He still has a nasty cough but is on the mend. Ailean, however, was decidedly under the weather on account of his brush with the spirits last night.
The paper had news of another death: Eliot Sangster, a medic with the Buffs whom we’d never previously heard of, was strangled in his Hammersmith home last night. Benjy and I went to investigate while Tennyson took tea with Dr Jordan.
A policeman barred our entry to Sangster’s house, but we could see that the door had been forced. The body had been taken by Scotland Yard, so presumably the police had lost no time in connecting it with the other murders. To fill in the missing details, Benjy quickly found a neighbour whose grocery bags he volunteered us to carry. She told us that Sangster was found by the postman. Somebody had broken into his house and throttled him. No prize for guessing who might have done that.
Rejoining Tennyson for lunch, we learned that Dr Jordan had been rattled by receiving a note under his door written in blood – the single word PILFERER. He was off to the south coast, despite the clear evidence that seaside towns are not beyond Choker’s long reach.
‘We must speak with Colonel Hollingsworth,’ I said. ‘He is the North Face of this mystery. Here is the letter I propose we hand to his butler.’
Colonel Algernon Hollingsworth, DSO, CB(Mil)
I pray you will forgive and indulge this intrusion by a stranger into your private affairs. The excuse I have to offer for approaching you in this way is that, having been asked by an officer of the Buffs to look into a series of tragedies involving old members of your former regiment, my friends and I have uncovered what appears to be a malicious conspiracy whose goal is the systematic murder of British veterans.
I imagine that the conspiracy in question may come as no surprise to you, and if so that you have taken steps to protect yourself and your family from any hostile purposes. I write to you now with an offer of help because I am sure you are aware that other lives are at stake in these circumstances – not only those of former comrades, both officers and men, but the catastrophic effect on the lives of their loved ones.
Lord Tennyson Thurgood and I were the last people to speak to Major Gower with the exception of his killer. Thurgood was subsequently attacked in the fog by the same killer, narrowly escaping death. If I mention that Thurgood is the nephew of the Buffs officer who asked us to investigate the incidents, I think you will see what I mean when I say that family members also risk becoming casualties. The malefactor behind the conspiracy may not be satisfied merely with the lives of those present on the expedition to the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht. That is why I hope you will meet Thurgood and me, and give consideration to our offer to be of service to you and the other surviving members of the expedition in bringing this sequence of incidents to a close, preferably without further loss of life.
Naturally any discussion between us will be treated in the utmost confidence. I attach a rubbing of a cuneiform tablet which we obtained from Dr Geoffrey Jordan with no other purpose than to establish our bona fides.
Harry Dakkar Singh
‘As a precaution, we should only give him half the rubbing,’ pointed out Benjy, reminding us once again of the steel-trap cunning innate to the Americans.
After making some enquiries about a new household of servants, I engaged my butler Gardener, invalided out of 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers in 1881, who comes highly recommended by the Reform Club and is the cousin of a man my Aunt Emily has employed for years. He will see to the interviews of other servants. Meanwhile, I joined Tennyson and Benjy on a trip up to Hampstead.
The letter did the trick and we were asked in to tea. The colonel proved to be a terse, no-nonsense sort, untroubled by the perspicacity of intellect that might occasion any glimmering of self-doubt. Evidently he was taking precautions against intruders. His windows had stout locks, and in the hall he had a stout brick of a bodyguard called Willis who had squeezed himself into a suit that looked as if it would rip the moment he flexed a muscle.
The colonel took a shine to Tennyson, on the grounds that they had both dodged bullets in Persia, and soon revealed all. He showed us a bizarre sarcophagus that he had obviously purloined from the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht. A wizened mummy lay within a barrel of quartz. The colonel was quite attached to it, calling it ‘this chap’ and alluding to it as a little memento of his army days. Apparently Jordan had strongly objected to him keeping it, and the colonel was further in outrage about an ‘impudent’ visit from Dr Ghul, who wanted him to donate it to the British Museum.
I made it clear that Ghul was not likely to take no for an answer, but the colonel felt secure with the array of kukri, sabres, vajra, halberds and shotguns on the walls of the study where he keeps the mummy. He struck up a conversation with Tennyson about firearms and it was like listening to two old soldiers who’ve hogged the fireside and the port decanter.
‘I’ll send you a list of other men from the regiment who might be in this blighter’s sights,’ said Hollingsworth. ‘There’s one chap up in Durham, I believe, and another out in India.’
‘We should keep the place under observation,’ I said as we left.
Tennyson demurred. ‘Quite honestly, I could do with good night’s rest.’
‘That’s fine,’ said Benjy. ‘Harry and I will take a watch each.’
I waited till one in the morning, thinking myself well concealed, though Benjy spotted me in the shadows at once. Then he kept an eye on the house till dawn while I went home to sleep.
And there’s the shame on us, because while we stood our uneventful vigil, almost exactly the same thing occurred as on Monday night. Tennyson’s carriage arrived at his door, but as his man was helping him down, a jackal-masked assailant darted out of the night and felled the chap with a blow to the neck. Tennyson stumbled, only to be seized from behind by a second attacker: a tall strong figure with (we learned later) leathery and possibly psoriatic skin. The coachman reacted with the quick instincts of all his kind, spurring the horses to make a quick getaway – without, it must be said, his master.
Tennyson fumbled for his gun, but already the darkness was closing around his vision. Didn’t he have a swordstick – ? Dropped in the gutter when he was grabbed. As he blacked out, the first attacker looped a noose around his neck and hauled him up to swing from a lamp-post.
We heard about it all at breakfast, luckily from Tennyson’s own lips. It turns out that Craddock is not quite the dunderhead we took him for. After Monday’s incident he’d put a reliable bobby on the beat. The fellow had come along in time to cut Tennyson down, if not to apprehend his attackers.
‘My dear fellow,’ said Benjy, ‘you’re quite in the wars this week.’
‘They took my copy of the rubbing,’ croaked Tennyson. ‘Right out of my pocket. And left this.’
It was a single word written in blood: TRESPASSER.
‘Whose blood are they using for this? Do they have an inkwell full of blood? It would dry up, wouldn’t it?’
‘Oh, Craddock told me that yesterday Ghul withdrew his assault charge against Ailean,’ said Tennyson.
‘Magnanimous,’ snorted Benjy, ‘seeing that he intended to murder you.’
‘If it was Ghul. Or was it Jordan? Or Norton? By the way, as I was dangling from the lamp-post, I got a look at them. The tall one – Choker, I suppose – has a strange lurching gait. Oh, and he’s bigger than Edwards.’
‘And you said he has a skin condition? Sometimes you see that in fair-skinned people who’ve lived a long time in the tropics.’
Tennyson’s butler came in with a telegram from Colonel Hollingsworth. ‘He wants me to go back there. A troubling development, he says.’
‘He’s become positively chummy,’ he said. ‘Do you want us to come along?’
‘Well… It’s just addressed to me. But yes, damn it. Decorum be hanged. If I’m to be assailed at left and right, I think I shall pick my companions. Do come.’
And so back to Kandahar House. After expressing appropriate concern at Tennyson’s latest run-in with the foe, the colonel showed us the note that had been delivered through his door in dead of night. The word BLASPHEMER – of course inscribed in blood. I had suspected that, still tired after the ‘flu, Benjy might have nodded off for a few minutes in the early hours.
‘Ghul is a madman,’ I said. ‘He believes that by keeping the mummy you are committing some form of sacrilege.’
Is it really Ghul who is behind all this? I’m still not sure, but I kept that to myself. We’re quite certain that Ghul was at or near the scene of Crouch’s murder; he didn’t deny hiring the carriage, only claimed that he’d lent it to his “cousins”. And clearly Ghul objects to Hollingsworth keeping the mummy – but then, so does Dr Jordan. Could Ghul and Jordan be in cahoots? But the objection to that is both are educated men, specializing in Oriental culture, so why would they choose an Anubis mask, a thing sacred to the old Egyptian religion, if they’re purporting that the motive for the attacks is some obscure sect of Zoroastrianism?
In many ways the evidence is that the murderers are only making a show of being cultists, and one could suspect that the real motivation is something rather simpler, such as lucre. But Ghul or Jordan would surely make their charade more believable – if it were they, and assuming that it is a sham. And why would either of them stoop to leaving notes written in blood? Even in a penny dreadful, that would seem melodramatic.
I could almost think that somebody is trying to frame Ghul, if it weren’t for the fact that he admitted to hiring the carriage that was parked near Crouch’s house…
I snapped out of my reverie and turned from contemplating the morning sun slanting on Hollingsworth’s lawn.
‘It’s all quite fantastic,’ spluttered the colonel. ‘Hang it, a man is entitled to a little reward for a lifetime’s service.’
I couldn’t quite see how having a dead body in a glass coffin in your study could be construed as a reward. Sleeping beauty it isn’t. The thing looks more like a monkey, and an ugly monkey at that.
‘We cannot judge Dr Ghul’s thinking by the standards of ordinary rationality,’ said Benjy. ‘Why, only hours before this attack on Lord Tennyson, he dropped his charges against Ailean Gris.’
That sobered the colonel up fast. After a moment’s dark rumination, he said, ‘A tiger is at his most dangerous when he lies still. That’s where this chap is now.’
Tennyson nodded. ‘Then we must set him a trap.’
It can only be contagious hysteria. A form of shared delusion. I have no other explanation for what happened to my associates in the space of one afternoon while I was absent ordering a crate.
‘Don’t let Ghul see the mummy!’
‘If he starts chanting I’m going to let him have both barrels.’
‘Look at the Colonel – he’s hypnotized him!’
‘Hand me the elephant gun!’
Perhaps we can trace it to elevenses this morning, on our return from the early call on Colonel Hollingsworth. Ailean insisted on recounting a dream he had last night, which perhaps in Scotland is not deemed the same kind of social offence as it is here. I was not a whit surprised that his dream involved us all being horribly murdered. The scene of this oneiric massacre? Kandahar House.
‘There might be something to it,’ Tennyson said to me as we went to the coffee jug. ‘He dreamt about the mummy and we’ve only just told him about that.’
I winced at Tennyson’s gullibility, before remembering that he has not had the benefit of a full education. ‘You must have noticed a certain… theatricality to Ailean’s pronouncements.’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘I have no doubt that he had a dream last night. But you know how it is, although I’m sure you would never be so boorish as to tell a chap your dreams. If one starts to recount it, the mind begins to fill in details as you go.’
‘So you think Ailean only imagines now that his dream included the mummy?’
‘Either that or we must throw out the advances of the last five hundred years and revert to pulling birds apart to forecast the weather.’
I had kept my voice low, but Ailean sensed what we were talking about. ‘You are a sceptic, Harry,’ he said. Oh, to think that such a statement could be cast in the form of a rebuke on the verge of the twentieth century.
But other more pressing matters engaged our attention. ‘If we’re to set a trap for Ghul, we must inform Mr Craddock at Scotland Yard.’
‘But we don’t know what the plan is yet,’ pointed out Tennyson reasonably.
‘True. We’ll have to work that out on the way back to Hampstead.’
Craddock for once entertained us in his office rather than the dingy cell where he is wont to conduct interviews. The distinction is slight, to be sure. He had covered his cork noteboard with a cloth, no doubt to conceal the utter lack of progress in his investigation.
‘Dr Ghul has an alibi for the murders,’ he told us again, sounding like one of Edison’s wax cylinders.
‘It doesn’t matter. As we keep telling you, Choker is the actual perpetrator of the crimes, but in any case our plan will smoke him out.’
‘What is your plan?’
‘That is merely a detail. Are you able to provide us with the cooperation of your department?’
‘What Harry means,’ put in Tennyson quickly, ‘is that we naturally wish to assist the police in catching this murderer, and we are therefore at your service.’
‘It could be very useful having fellows like you looking into odd cases,’ said Craddock vaguely. I suspected we’d get little help from him, and indeed it later transpired that he had assigned but a single extra bobby to the Hampstead beat.
On the way to Hampstead, we at last formulated the plan. ‘It must seem as though Hollingsworth is about to decamp taking the mummy with him. If that mummy really is what Ghul is after, hopefully he’ll have Choker strike on or before the move.’
‘It must seem as though it’s the colonel’s own plan,’ said Tennyson.
‘I leave that to you, old chap. He listens to you. I do hope that Ghul strikes on the train carrying the colonel and the sarcophagus to Portsmouth. That would be terribly dramatic and I could write it up for The Strand.’
‘In case he’s not so obliging, we should stay at Kandahar House over the weekend,’ said Ailean.
Tennyson stroked his chin. ‘The colonel might take some persuading about that.’
‘Are you forgetting my dream, man? The blood! The hideous entrails and particles of pulped brain matter?’
‘Let’s not mention…’ Tennyson winced. ‘Perhaps it’s too early to introduce the colonel to your special gifts, old boy. Leave it to me.’
With a little deft diplomacy, we managed to make the plan seem like Hollingsworth’s idea. He went so far as to add an embellishment – a telegram to Ghul informing him of his imminent departure.
‘That smells quite pungently of a ploy,’ I confided privately to Tennyson.
‘Absolutely. The man is a fool. I imagine Crouch kept the regiment running.’
‘In times like these, what would Crouch have done..?’ I turned to the colonel. ‘I shall go and place a notice in the Pall Mall Gazette, whose editor is a friend of mine, announcing your departure on Monday.’
‘Jolly good of you. Useful chap, isn’t he?’ he added to Tennyson.
‘I also need to order a crate that will seem to house the sarcophagus. Let me see, is there anything else..?’
‘No. Oh, I suppose if you’re going past the post office…’ He held out the note for the telegram.
It was in little pieces scattered to the winds over the Heath before I’d gone half a mile. The man at the coopers’ yard wanted a guinea for a crate built to the sarcophagus’s measurements.
‘I could travel to Antwerp for less.’
‘Mebbe as you could, sir, wherever Antwerp is, but they won’t make you a crate over the weekend there any cheaper.’
From there to the Pall Mall Gazette, where I brought Cook up to speed with events. ‘If anything should happen to me, see that the story is published and send the money to – ‘
‘To your family?’
‘No, to a fetching blond boy at the Savoy who I promised a weekend at the coast.’
‘Oh, I don’t really think Mr Choker is going to kill us all.’
‘I didn’t mean about your Buffs case.’
At the club, I got a note from Benjy. He had taken a room at the Somerset Hotel two doors down from our own diabolical mastermind. There’s the Yank initiative we’ve been missing! I hied my way over there.
‘They’ve been in there. Chanting.’ Benjy seemed a tad spooked.
‘Could just be a Moslem prayer.’
‘I don’t think they’re Moslems.’
‘I don’t either, but it needn’t necessarily be anything sinister. Or no more sinister than anything Ghul does, anyhow.’ I surveyed the outside wall. ‘That’s an easy climb and we’re only two storeys up. Why don’t I scoot along and take a look in the window?’
I was one of Oxford’s most accomplished stegologists, and honed my sneaking skills in the dormitories of Rugby as well as the game reserves of Africa. Yet I stumbled my way along two sills, barely avoiding a swift plummet to the alley below, and Ghul looked up the moment my face appeared at his window. He and his servant were packing.
I retreated with rather more finesse than I’d gone out. ‘They don’t know you’re here, Benjy. Keep watch and I’ll go and confront the man.’
Ghul’s manner was imperious. ‘I intend to repeat my offer to Colonel Hollingsworth. He didn’t hear me out last time. Tell him I shall call on him at 8:30 this evening.’
On the way back up to Hampstead, Benjy told me of a disturbing encounter with a hulking Irish engineer at Tennyson’s house. ‘The man was purportedly installing a telephone instrument.’
‘Not before time. I have been on at him for months about getting one.’
‘But listen, Harry. The man knew that I wasn’t Thurgood.’
‘Yes, well – no, you’re right, that is odd.’
‘And then I put through a call to the British Museum and this fellow took the instrument and spoke to them in Arabic or Farsi or some such.’
‘Why was there any need to speak Arabic?’
‘That’s not important. The thing is, he was strange in any number of ways.’
‘Not another of Ghul’s agents? What is their fixation with Lord Tennyson?’
‘I don’t think Ghul sent this one. I got the impression he was on our side.’
‘HMS has taken a shine to Tennyson. Perhaps he got wind of the attempts on his life and thought he’d send a man to keep an eye on him.’
‘The fellow did look more like a bodyguard than an engineer,’ conceded Benjy. ‘I’m not sure what pretext he’ll have for hanging around now that the instrument is installed, though. Also, why wouldn’t HMS simply say he was sending a bodyguard?’
‘To spare Tennyson’s pride?’ I shrugged. ‘Too many mysteries here, Benjy. I feel as though we might be looking at pieces from several jigsaws. And I hate jigsaws.’
As we arrived at the gate to Kandahar House, I spotted Craddock’s extra bobby on his rounds. ‘There could be trouble tonight.’
‘Right you are, sir.’ He touched his helmet. I might as well have been telling him the nights were drawing in.
Up at the house we found the hysteria beginning to grip. Both Tennyson and Ailean were armed. There was a loaded elephant gun on the table. ‘So he’s on his way,’ said Tennyson grimly.
Benjy checked his revolver. I began to feel like that chap in the story who realizes the inmates have taken over the asylum. ‘He’s coming to make an offer for the mummy,’ I said. ‘If it was a visit from Choker, I doubt if he’d have announced it.’
‘Are you forgetting Ailean’s dream, Harry?’ said Tennyson, sticking cartridges into a shotgun.
‘Ailean’s dream. Of course.’ I smiled to humour him.
Had they all been hypnotically affected? Perhaps some suggestion planted during Ailean’s act at the Wigmore Hall, and now activated by a specific cue? But Ailean himself could hardly be a party to that. I can judge character, and I know him to be sincere if misguided. Could Ghul have somehow hijacked the spiritualist performance for his own purposes? I looked around at the array of firearms and reflected that all they that take the gun shall perish by the gun. Ailean’s Grand-Guignol dream was threatening to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
By 8:30 a thick fog had drawn around the house. We heard the crunch of carriage wheels on the gravel. From everyone’s reaction you would think it was Rorke’s Drift and the Zulus had just turned up.
Hollingsworth met Ghul at the door. It was just he, no sign of Choker or the rodential Mabrat. ‘Will you hear me out this time, Colonel?’
‘I suppose it can do no harm,’ said the colonel, showing him through to the drawing room where a fire was blazing to keep out the evening chill.
‘He wants Hollingsworth’s son!’ warned Ailean, gripping the shotgun. ‘He said as much. “I’ll take your firstborn,” he said!’
‘I’ll pay you £150,’ Ghul told the colonel, ‘and in return you hand over the mummy to the British Museum.’
The colonel looked to be considering it. ‘He’s hypnotized him,’ hissed Tennyson.
‘Let me tell you the history of that mummy upstairs,’ said Ghul, and proceeded to regale us with some old legend that sounded a little bit like a version of the Osiris myth that had been dropped and put together again with glue. ‘…So it will be better in the safekeeping of the museum,’ he concluded.
‘Seems quite reasonable to me,’ I said. ‘Not that it’s any business of ours.’
‘Haven’t you found the thing a burden, Colonel?’ pressed Ghul.
‘It has been a strain… These last few weeks. It might be a relief to pass the thing on.’
‘Hypnotized,’ muttered Tennyson.
‘It’ll never get to the museum,’ said Benjy.
They seemed to me to have forgotten our role here. ‘Possession of the mummy is irrelevant,’ I said in a whisper. Then, raising my voice: ‘You still deny, Dr Ghul, that you were involved in the murders?’
‘Very regrettable incidents, indeed, Mr Dakkar Singh, but nothing to do with me.’
‘A coincidence, then, that you hired a carriage that was parked half a mile from Sergeant Major Crouch’s home on the night he was killed?’
‘My cousins will no doubt have an innocent explanation for that, when they can be found. Currently they are touring the British Isles and cannot speak up in their own defence.’
I drew the others aside. ‘It’s useless. Unless we can catch him in the act, how will we pin anything on him?’
‘We should just shoot him,’ was Ailean’s opinion.
‘I’m done with it,’ said the colonel suddenly. ‘Your museum can have it, Ghul. My family could do with some peace and quiet.’
‘I’ll send a carriage to collect it first thing Monday morning. For now, would you object if I took a look at the artefact? Just to verify that my £150 is paying for the genuine article?’
‘I don’t see why not.’
‘Colonel! Don’t let him manipulate you!’ Tennyson began remonstrating with the colonel, urging him to reconsider.
‘It’s his home, old boy, and his mummy, after all,’ I said into Tennyson’s ear.
‘You can’t see that he has hypnotized the colonel, Harry?’
‘I think that the series of murders, by reason of which the colonel has had to keep his family in a virtual fortress these last few weeks, has taken precisely the toll that Ghul intended. He is worn out, his spirit broken. But let’s not stand in the way of getting the damned mummy out of here. Then at least Hollingsworth’s family will be out of the firing line. We can bring Ghul to justice later.’
‘He must not be allowed near that mummy,’ said Ailean.
‘Harry, a terrible thing will happen if he goes upstairs,’ urged Tennyson.
This very month, Indian geologists are investigating whether the Earth’s continents are drifting islands of rock on a sea of magma. Michelson and Morley have demonstrated that the speed of light is an absolute constant. Galton has discovered that human fingerprints are not only unique but classifiable. Yet here we are, in the heart of supposedly the most civilized metropolis in the world, entertaining mumbo-jumbo that would have embarrassed Friar Bacon. It is not only an insult to science, it is an insult to the imagination.
I looked to Benjy. He and I, at least, are educated men. But even he now seemed on edge. I saw his hand go to the gun in his pocket.
‘I just want to look at the artefact,’ said Ghul. ‘Then I’ll go.’
The colonel led the way upstairs. Benjy and I followed. I saw Tennyson turn to Ailean. ‘Hand me the elephant gun.’
Ailean took the bodyguard, Willis, and hurried off to the back stairs.
As we entered the study, Dr Ghul seemed dismayed at the destruction wrought upon the sarcophagus’s original wooden outer casket, which the colonel had broken up and largely burnt. But that melted away as he gazed with a kind of triumph on the figure in its quartz coffin. His fingers rested lightly on the lid.
‘If he starts chanting I’m going to let him have both barrels,’ I heard Ailean’s voice say from the back of the landing. Though he could not have seen into the study from where he was standing, the sentiment seemed to rattle Benjy. He half drew the gun from his pocket.
‘You’re a man of strong will, Mr Herzog,’ said Dr Ghul.
Benjy trembled, his jaw clamped tight, and for a terrible moment I thought he was about to murder Dr Ghul in cold blood.
The moment passed. Benjy slipped the gun back in his pocket. ‘Thank you,’ he said.
And then Dr Ghul turned and left. As his carriage rolled into the fog, Ailean looked around in bewilderment. ‘Then the dream didn’t come true,’ he said.