Encounters of Sherlock Holmes, edited by George Mann, is an anthology of short fiction featuring Sherlock himself in a variety of genres from steampunk to straight-up horror (available February 19, 2013).
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“The Case of the Night Crawler”
From the notebooks of John H. Watson, M.D.
During the many years in which I served as both a friend and chronicler of Sherlock Holmes, there were but a rarefied handful of occasions upon which I witnessed that cold logician rendered speechless or flustered by the unexpected outcome of a case. Irene Adler evoked one such response, and the events that I have come to consider as “The Case of the Night Crawler” elicited yet another. It is due in part to the sensitivities of my friend that I have never published my notes regarding this most singular of adventures, but I record them here for the sake of posterity and completeness. I am, if nothing else, a thorough man, and it would not do to allow such a startling series of incidents to go entirely unrecorded.
So, here, in this worn leather journal, where perhaps my words will go forever unread, I shall set it down. I am old now, and I have little better to do with my time but to reflect upon the more adventurous days of my past.
The biggest irony of all, of course, is that Holmes himself had very little to do with the unravelling of the case. Indeed, he resoundingly turned his nose up at the opportunity to involve himself in such “coarse, ridiculous matters,” as I remember so well that he put it, plucking violently at his violin strings as if to underline the significance of his words. His dismissive attitude was, in this rare instance, a cause for his later embarrassment, as it would transpire that the matter in question was quite as far from ridiculous as one might ever imagine. Not that Holmes was ever one to learn from such mistakes.
The aforementioned events marked also my first encounter with that remarkable individual Sir Maurice Newbury and his most astonishing associate, Miss Veronica Hobbes. It was not, much to my regret, the beginning of a long-lasting friendship, but Newbury and I nevertheless identified a mutual respect, and there would follow a number of other occasions upon which we would throw our hats in the same ring—most notable among them that dreadful matter of the Kaiser’s unhinged spiritualist during the early days of the war.
Holmes, of course, had quite a different opinion of Newbury, but I suppose that was only to be expected; although without equal in his field, Holmes was not above a modicum of professional rivalry if he felt his reputation—or more truthfully, his pride—was at risk. His attitude toward Newbury would change over time, and I believe by the end, following the resolution of that matter in 1915 and the destruction of the spectrograph generator, he might even have granted Newbury the respect he deserved. War does that to a man, I’ve found. It teaches him to work alongside those he might otherwise have considered, if not enemies, perhaps the unlikeliest of allies.
It was during that bitterly cold autumn of 1902, early in the season, when the leaves were first beginning to turn and the days were growing noticeably shorter, that the seeds of the affair were sown. My friend and fellow medical practitioner, Peter Brownlow, had called on me unexpectedly at my club. It was late in the evening and I’d been enjoying a solitary brandy by the fire when the poor chap practically collapsed into the chair opposite me, his face ashen. He generally suffered from a pale complexion and maintained a rake-thin physique; a condition he claimed was a result of a stomach disorder but which I attributed more to vanity than any inability to digest his food. Nevertheless, he had a good heart and was a fine doctor, but on that blustery September afternoon he had about him the look of a man who’d seen a ghost.
“Whatever is the matter with you, dear chap?” I said, leaning forward in concern and passing him my brandy. “Here, drink this.”
Brownlow nodded, grabbed gratefully at the glass and choked it down in one long gulp. I could see his hand was trembling as he placed the glass on the side table beside his chair.
“Now, tell me what has perturbed you so.”
Brownlow took a deep breath. “I barely know how to give voice to it, John. I’m sure you’ll think me quite insane.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t worry about that,” I said, chuckling. “I’ve grown quite used to seeing the impossible rendered mundane, and to madmen proved sane. Speak what’s on your mind.”
Brownlow smiled, but there was no humour in it. “I have seen the most terrible thing, John. A creature… a beast…” He held his hand to his mouth for a moment, unsure how to go on.
I frowned. “A beast?”
“Yes. Yes, that’s the only word for it. A beast of the most diabolical appearance, as if it had dragged itself from the very depths of Hades itself.” He turned, staring into the grate at the glowing embers of the fire, but I could tell that he was seeing something else.
“Go on,” I prompted.
He closed his eyes, as if trying to blink away the afterimage of whatever it was he was attempting to describe. “It had a fat, bulbous body, about the size of a hackney cab, and it pulled itself along on eight thick, tentacle-like limbs that wriggled beneath it like those of an octopus. The sound of its passing was like the screeching of a thousand tormented souls. It was devilish, John. The most horrendous thing I have ever seen.”
“And where was this, man? Where did you see this beast?” I watched Brownlow shudder at the very thought of this terrible sight to which he claimed to have borne witness. My first thought was that he must have been drunk or otherwise inebriated, but Brownlow had never been much of a drinker, and he was clearly terrified. Whatever the truth of the matter—and I was sure it could not be that he had genuinely encountered such a bizarre specimen—Brownlow believed what he was saying.
“Cheyne Walk,” he said, “About an hour ago. The darn thing pulled itself out of the Thames right before me and slithered off down the street.”
Well, I admit at this point I was close to rolling my eyes in disbelief, but Brownlow had such a desperate air about him, and I was sure there must have been more to his story.
“I came directly here. It was the closest place to hand. I couldn’t think what else to do. And then I saw you sitting here and knew you’d know what to do.”
In truth, I had no real notion of what to do with such a remarkable tale. Surely the police would have only sniggered at Brownlow’s story and sent him on his way, putting it down to nothing but an hallucination or the fabrication of an unhinged mind. But Holmes aside, Brownlow was one of the most rational men I knew, and there was no reason he should lie.
“Well, first of all, I think you need another stiff drink for your nerves. I’ll fetch you another brandy.” He nodded enthusiastically at this. “Beyond that, I want you to set it out for me again, this time recalling as much of the detail as you can muster.” I’d seen Holmes extract information from enough of his potential clients to know that this was the best way to begin unpicking Brownlow’s story. Perhaps he might give something away, some little detail he had missed the first time around that might help to shed light on what had truly occurred. I admit, my interest had been piqued, and I felt pity for the chap, who had clearly had the wits scared out of him.
So it was that Brownlow downed another large brandy and set about relating his tale once again, this time in exquisite detail. I must admit the credibility of his words grew somewhat in the retelling, but there was nothing in it that could help me to discern what might truly have occurred. I had seen some things in my time, particularly since returning from Afghanistan and falling in with Holmes, but this tall tale seemed to test the bounds of even my well-trod credulity.
It was with a heavy heart that I sent Brownlow home to his bachelor’s apartment that night, unable to offer him any real comfort, other than a prescription for a mild sedative should he find it necessary in order to sleep. I promised the man I would consider his story, and that I would contact him directly should I happen upon any possible hint of an explanation. There was little else to be done, and so I made haste to my bed, my mind restless with concern.
The next morning I approached breakfast with a mind to refer Brownlow to a nerve specialist I’d worked with on occasion. Having slept on the matter I was now convinced that his ungodly vision could have only been the result of an hallucination, and decided that, if it hadn’t been brought about by drink or other mind-altering substances, it was most likely an expression of nervous exhaustion. Brownlow had always had a tendency to throw himself into his work, body and soul. Aside from his private, paying customers, I’d known him to spend hours in aid of the poor, administering free treatment to those wretches who lined the alleyways of the slums, or huddled in their masses beneath the bridges that crisscrossed the banks of the Thames. Perhaps he’d been overdoing it, and he simply needed some rest. Or perhaps he’d succumbed to a mild fever.
My theories were soon dispelled, however, as I set about hungrily tucking into my bacon and eggs. It is my habit to take the morning papers with my breakfast, and upon folding back the covers of The Times, I fixed upon a small report on the bottom of the second page. The headline read:
EYEWITNESSES REPORT SIGHTINGS OF STRANGE BEAST
My first thought was that Brownlow had gone to the papers with his story, but I quickly dismissed the notion. The previous night he’d been in no fit state to talk to anyone, and I’d seen him into the back of a cab myself.
I scanned the article quickly, and was surprised to see that there were, in fact, a number of reports that seemed not only to corroborate Brownlow’s story, but also to expand somewhat upon it. It appeared the previous evening had been the third in a row during which sightings of this bizarre creature had been reported. Furthermore, one of the reports stated that the woman in question—a Mrs Coulthard of Brixton—had seen the beast give chase to a group of young vagabonds who had been generally up to no good, throwing rocks at nearby boats and jeering at passers-by. Many of the reports claimed, just as Brownlow had, that the creature had dragged itself out of the Thames, and what’s more, that it had been seen returning to the water upon completion of its nightly sojourn.
I leaned back in my chair, sipping at my coffee and staring at the remnants of my breakfast in astonishment. So Brownlow had been telling the truth. He had seen something down by the river. And if the veracity of his story was no longer in question, then the beast was something truly diabolical. Could it have been some sort of throwback to the prehistoric past? Or some previously undocumented variety of gargantuan squid?
I resolved to visit Holmes directly. There was a mystery here, and people were potentially in grave danger. If only I could persuade him to apply his attention to the matter, there was hope that we could uncover precisely what was going on.
The drive to Baker Street passed in a blur. All the while, as the cab bounced and rattled over the cobbled roads, I couldn’t help imagining the scene that must have confronted Brownlow and those others, the sight of that hulking beast dragging itself out of the inky black water. It would surely have been terrifying to behold.
I resolved then and there that I would find a way to look upon this creature with my own eyes. Only then could I be utterly sure of its existence and the nature of any threat it represented.
Upon my arrival at Baker Street I found Holmes in one of his peculiar, erratic moods. He was pacing back and forth before the fireplace, somewhat manically, pulling at his violin strings as if trying to wring some meaning out of the random, screeching sounds the instrument was making. It was icy cold in there, yet the fireplace remained untended to, heaped with ash and charred logs. If Holmes felt the chill he did not show it.
He had his back to me. I coughed politely from the doorway, noting with dismay that my breath actually fogged in the air before my face.
“Yes, yes, Watson. Do come in and stop loitering in the hallway. And since you’re here, see about building up this fire, will you? It’s perishing in here.”
Shaking my head in dismay, but deciding it would do neither of us any good to take umbrage, I set about clearing the grate.
“I expect you’re here about those wild reports in the newspapers this morning,” he said, strolling over to the window and peering out at the busy street below. He gave a sharp twang on another violin string, and I winced at the sound.
“I won’t bother to ask how you managed to discern that, Holmes,” I said, sighing as a plume of soot settled on my shirt cuff and then smeared as I attempted to brush it away. “Can’t Mrs Hudson do this?” I said, grumpily.
“Mrs Hudson has gone out to the market,” he replied, turning back from the window to look at me.
“She was here a moment ago,” I said, triumphantly. “She opened the door and let me in.”
Holmes held up a single index finger to indicate the need for silence. I watched him for a moment, counting beneath my breath as I begged the gods to grant me patience. Downstairs, I heard the exterior door slam shut with a bang. “There!” he exclaimed with a beaming smile. “Off to the market.”
I sighed and continued piling logs onto the fire. “Well, of course you’re right.”
“About Mrs Hudson?”
“About the reason I’m here. This supposed beast. I had the unhappy task of comforting a friend last night who claimed to have seen it. The poor man was terrified.”
“Hmmm,” said Holmes, resuming his pacing.
I waited for his response until it was evident that I’d already had the entirety of it. “Well?”
“Can’t you see I’m in the middle of something, Watson?” he said, a little unkindly.
I glowered at him. “Really, Holmes! I thought you would be glad of the case. I mean, you’ve been holed up in here for weeks with nothing to occupy your mind. And poor Brownlow—”
“There’s nothing in it, Watson. Some idle hoaxer looking to sell his story. Nothing more. I have no interest in such coarse, ridiculous matters.” He plucked violently at three strings in succession. “Besides,” he continued, his tone softening, “I find myself in the midst of a rather sensitive affair. Mycroft has gone and lost his favourite spy, a government scientist by the name of Mr Xavier Gray. He’s quite frantic about the whole matter, and he’s prevailing on me to assist him in the search for the missing man.”
“Well, what are you doing here?” I asked. Sometimes I found it very difficult to fathom the motives of my dear friend.
“Thinking,” he replied, as if that explained everything. He reached for the bow that he’d balanced precariously on the arm of a chair and began chopping furiously at the violin, emitting a long, cacophonous screech. I rose from where I’d been crouching by the fire and dusted off my hands. Clearly, I was unlikely to gain anything further from Holmes. As I crossed the room, heading toward the door, the violin stopped abruptly behind me and I turned to see Holmes regarding me, a curious expression on his face. “Send your friend to see a man named Maurice Newbury, of 10 Cleveland Avenue, Chelsea. I understand he’s an ‘expert’ in matters such as these.” He spoke the man’s name with such disdain that he clearly thought him to be no such thing.
“Very well,” I said, curtly. “I hope you find your missing spy.” But Holmes had already started up again with his violin.
As I clambered into a hansom outside number 221b, frustrated by Holmes’ dismissive attitude, I made the sudden, snap decision to pay a visit to this Newbury character myself. I am not typically given to such rash acts, but I remained intent on discovering the truth about the infernal beast that had so terrified my friend. Brownlow, meek as he was, would never call on Newbury of his own account, no matter how I pressed him. I was sure that even now he would be reconciling himself to what had occurred, finding a way to accommodate the bizarre encounter into his own, conservative view of the world. He would rationalise it and carry on, returning to the distractions of his patients and his busy life. My interest, however, had been piqued and I was not prepared to allow the matter to rest without explanation.
I must admit that I was also keen to prove Holmes wrong. I realise now how ridiculous that sounds, how petty, but his attitude had galled me and I was anxious to prove to my friend that the matter was not beneath his attention. As things were to transpire, I would be more successful on that count than I could have possibly imagined.
The drive to Chelsea was brisk, and I passed it by staring out of the window, watching the streets flicker by in rapid, stuttering succession. Almost before I knew it we had arrived at Cleveland Avenue. I paid the driver and watched as the cab clattered away down the street, the horse’s breaths leaving steaming clouds in the frigid air.
Number 10 was an unassuming terraced house, fronted by a small rose garden that in turn was flanked by a black iron railing. A short path terminated in three large stone steps and a door painted in a bright, pillar-box red. I approached with some hesitation, feeling a little awkward now after my somewhat hasty retreat from Baker Street. What would I say to this Newbury fellow? I was there on behalf of a friend who claimed to have seen a monster? Perhaps Holmes had been right. Perhaps it was ridiculous. But there I was, on the doorstep, and I’d never been a man to shy away from a challenge. I rapped firmly with the doorknocker.
A few moments later I heard footsteps rapping on floorboards from within, and then the door swung open and a pale, handsome face peered out at me. The man was dressed in a smart black suit and had an expectant look on his face. “May I help you?” he said, in warm, velvet tones.
“Mr Maurice Newbury?” I replied. “I was told I might find him at this address?”
The man gave a disapproving frown. “Sir Maurice is not receiving visitors at present, I’m afraid.”
Holmes! He might have saved me that embarrassment if he’d wanted to. “Indeed,” I replied, as graciously as I could muster. “I wonder if I might leave a card. My name is John Watson and I’m here on a rather urgent matter. I would speak with him as soon as convenient. He comes very highly recommended.”
The man—whom I now realised was most likely Newbury’s valet—raised his eyebrows in what appeared to be genuine surprise. “Dr John Watson? The writer?”
I smiled at this unexpected recognition. “Quite so.”
The valet grinned. I had to admit, I was warming to the fellow. “Well, Dr Watson, I think you’d better come in. I’m sure Sir Maurice will be anxious to meet you when he discovers the nature of his caller.” He coughed nervously as he closed the door behind me and took my hat and coat. “If you’d like to follow me?”
He led me along the hallway until we reached a panelled door. I could hear voices from inside, two of them, belonging to a man and a woman and talking in the most animated of tones. The valet rapped loudly on the door and stepped inside. I waited in the hallway until I knew I would be welcome.
“You have a visitor, Sir.”
When it came the man’s reply was firm, but not unkind. “I thought I’d explained, Scarbright, that I wished to receive no callers today? I have an urgent matter I must attend to with Miss Hobbes.”
“Yes, Sir,” replied the valet, a little sheepishly. “Only, it’s Dr John Watson, Sir.”
“Dr Watson?” said Newbury, as if attempting to recall the significance of my name. “Ah, yes, the writer chap. You’re a follower of his work, aren’t you, Scarbright?”
“Indeed, Sir,” said the valet, and I couldn’t suppress a little smile as I heard the crack of embarrassment in his voice. “He claims to have a rather urgent matter to discuss with you, Sir.”
Newbury gave a sigh of resignation. “Very well, Scarbright. You’d better send him in.”
The valet stepped back and held the door open to allow me to pass. I offered him a brief smile of gratitude as I passed over the threshold into what I took to be the drawing room. In fact, it was much like the room in Baker Street from which I’d recently departed, only decorated with a more esoteric flair. Where Holmes might have had a stack of letters on the mantelpiece, speared by a knife, Newbury had the bleached skull of a cat. Listing stacks of leather-bound books formed irregular sentries around the edges of the room, and two high-backed Chesterfields had been placed before a raging fire. Both were occupied, the one on the left by the man I took to be Sir Maurice Newbury, and the other by a beautiful young woman who smiled warmly at me as I met her gaze.
Newbury was up and out of his seat before I’d crossed the threshold, welcoming me with a firm handshake and beckoning me to take a seat on the low-backed sofa that filled much of the centre of the room. He was a wiry looking fellow of about forty, and was dressed in an ill-fitting black suit that appeared to have been tailored for a slightly larger man. Either that, or he had recently lost weight. He was ruggedly handsome, with fierce, olive-green eyes and raven-black hair swept back from his forehead. He had dark rings around his eyes and a sallow complexion, and I saw in him immediately the hallmarks of an opium eater: perhaps not the most auspicious of beginnings for our acquaintance. Nevertheless, I’d made it that far and I was determined to see it out.
“You are very welcome, Dr Watson,” said Newbury, genially. “I, as you might have gathered, am Sir Maurice Newbury, and this is my associate Miss Veronica Hobbes.”
I took the young woman’s hand and kissed it briefly, before accepting Newbury’s offer of a seat. Miss Hobbes was stunningly beautiful, with dark brown hair tied up in a neat chignon. She was wearing dark grey culottes and a matching jacket—the picture of modern womanhood.
“Would you care for a drink, Doctor?” said Newbury, indicating the well-stocked sideboard with a wave of his hand. “A brandy, perhaps?”
I shook my head. “No, thank you. Most kind, but I’ll abstain.”
Newbury returned to his seat by the fire, angling his body towards me. “So, how may I be of assistance, Dr Watson? I presume it’s not related to one of your journalistic endeavours?”
“Indeed not,” I replied, gravely, “I’m here on behalf of an associate of mine, a man named Brownlow. It’s connected with that business about the supposed beast that’s been seen crawling out of the river. Last night Brownlow had an encounter with the thing, and it rather left him terrified out of his wits. It was… suggested to me that you might be able to help shed some light?”
The corner of Newbury’s mouth twitched with the stirrings of a wry smile. “And this was not a matter that Mr Holmes was able to assist you with?”
“Holmes is busy,” I said, a little defensively. “And besides, it was Holmes who recommended I call. He said you were considered rather an expert in matters such as these.”
“I’m sure he did,” said Newbury, knowingly.
“Tell us, Dr Watson—” Miss Hobbes interjected, offering Newbury a mildly disapproving look “—did Mr Brownlow give you any indication as to when and where this sighting occurred?” In truth, I couldn’t blame the man for enjoying the moment. It was fair to imagine that Holmes himself would have done precisely the same. In fact, knowing him as I did, I’m convinced he would have taken the time to truly relish the irony of the situation.
I smiled at Miss Hobbes in gratitude for the timeliness of her interruption. “Cheyne Walk,” I replied. “Close to eleven o’clock yesterday evening. Following the incident he came directly to my club, where he is also a member, and sought me out for my assistance.”
Newbury looked thoughtful. “And did he offer a description of the beast?”
I hesitated for a moment as I considered the sheer ludicrousness of what I was about to relate. I felt ridiculous now for coming here and adding weight and validity to this story. How could it be real? Had I simply overreacted to Holmes’ rebuttal?
Well, whatever the case, it was too late to back out. “Brownlow described it as having a large, bulbous body about the size of a hansom cab, and eight thick limbs like tentacles upon which it slithered in the manner of an octopus. Now, I’m a little unsure as to the veracity of my friend’s description, but given the accounts in the newspapers this morning… well, you understand, I had to come. The poor man thinks he’s going insane. He might yet be right.”
Newbury glanced at Miss Hobbes. “Oh, I assure you, Dr Watson, that your friend is quite sane. His report is the same in every respect as the others. This ‘beast’, whatever it is, is quite real.”
“Sir Maurice’s clerk, Mrs Coulthard, was another of the witnesses,” continued Miss Hobbes, smiling reassuringly. “You find us in the midst of a discussion over how best to approach the situation.”
“Have you any thought yet as to what it might be? Some sort of primordial beast, woken after years of hibernation? The result of an experiment? A previously undiscovered species brought back from the colonies?” I sighed. “The mind boggles…”
I realise now that these suggestions may appear somewhat ignorant to a reader aware of the facts, but at the time I could think of no other reasonable explanation for what this beast might have been. As Holmes was fond of saying, “Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” If that axiom was indeed correct—and Newbury, also, was right in his assertion that the beast was real—then I could see no other credible explanation.
“I think it would be wrong for us to jump to any conclusions at this stage, Doctor. At least before we’ve had chance to lay eyes upon the beast ourselves.” Newbury glanced at his companion before continuing. “Miss Hobbes and I had only just resolved to take a stroll along Cheyne Walk this very evening. I’m of a mind to catch a glimpse of this creature myself. You’d be more than welcome to accompany us, if you so wished?”
“Well, it certainly makes sense to pool our resources,” I said. “And I also tend to favour the evidence of my own eyes. I’d be delighted to join you, Sir Maurice.” I admit to feeling a certain sense of relief at this rather unexpected development. I couldn’t help but wonder what Holmes would make of it all.
“In that case, Doctor, I shall encourage you to make haste to your home and prepare for a cold evening by the river. Warm clothes, stout boots and a firearm would be advisable. We can meet here for an early dinner at, say, six o’clock, and then be on our way.” Newbury smiled, and stood to accompany me to the door.
“Thank you, Sir Maurice,” I said, taking him by the hand. “And good afternoon, Miss Hobbes.”
“Until this evening, Dr Watson,” she replied brightly.
It wasn’t until I’d already left the house on Cleveland Avenue that it occurred to me that baiting monsters by the river might have been a rather unsuitable pursuit for a lady. Nevertheless, as I was soon to discover, Miss Veronica Hobbes was most definitely a woman who knew how to look after herself.
Copyright © 2013 George Mann
Shivering with anticipation? Learn more at Lyndsay Faye’s Fresh Meat post on Encounters of Sherlock Holmes.
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George Mann is the author of The Affinity Bridge, The Osiris Ritual, and Ghosts of Manhattan, as well as numerous short stories, novellas, and an original Doctor Who audiobook. He has edited a number of anthologies including The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, The Solaris Book of New Fantasy, and a retrospective collection of Sexton Blake stories, Sexton Blake, Detective. He lives near Grantham, UK, with his wife, son and daughter.