Tuesday, August 9, 2016

THE MONSTER IN THE MARSH . . . Part 2!

(Here is the exciting conclusion of the Sherlock Holmes story I wrote a couple of weeks ago.  WARNING:  If you did not read last week's blog post, scroll down and read it FIRST to get the beginning of the story.  We pick up right after the discovery of little Emily's mangled body in Mickledon Marsh.)


       Mickledon village did not have a coroner, and the undertaker was a mousy little man who was so horrified at the sight of the child’s mangled body that he nearly fainted.  So it fell upon me to conduct a post-mortem, as Holmes and the local constable dragged the shallows by lamplight.  Within an hour they had located one of her legs and her head; at which point the distant bellows were growing nearer and Holmes decided that they had done all they could until daylight. 

          I finished my examination around one o’clock, and despite my experiences in Afghanistan and Egypt, sewing up mangled soldiers and seeing the bodies of the dead, I was emotionally drained.  Emily Jones’ poor little face was unharmed, and the expression of sheer terror that she died with was unnerving.  I did my best to smooth her little features, and after examining her thoroughly, I lovingly stitched her back together and covered her with a sheet.

          I walked across the street from the undertaker’s office to the tavern where we were staying.  The tap room was empty save for my friend, who sat before the fire, sipping a glass of brandy. There was a decanter and a second glass on the table. I joined him, and without a word, he poured me a glass and said nothing until I had drained it.

          “Grim work, Watson?” he said.

          My voice caught as I spoke.  “She was so little, Holmes,” I finally said.  “So fragile, and so callously destroyed.”

          His voice held an uncharacteristic sympathy.  “I did not know you would be called upon to perform this service, Watson,” he said.  “Drink another glass and go to bed.  You can relate your findings in the morning.  You have done enough for one day.”

          I drained another glass, slowly headed upstairs, and knew nothing until the sun’s rays hit my face six hours later.

          “Come, Watson, it’s after seven AM, and the game is afoot,” Holmes said.  “I let you rest as long as I could.  There is tea, and the scones are most excellent, worthy of Mrs. Hudson’s table.”

          I washed my face and shaved and donned clean clothes, then tucked my trusty old Webley into my pocket.  Then I joined Holmes, Lestrade, and Clinton in the common room.  A number of locals were there, and the chatter was all about the little girl’s death and the return of the “Monster.”

          “I have two men dragging the Marsh a bit further out,” Clinton said.  “I am hoping they can retrieve the rest of the body before the family lays her to rest.”

          “Watson, would you be so kind as to relate your findings for the Inspectors, and myself, after you have breakfasted?” Holmes asked.

          I took another sip of tea and finished off my second scone (they were indeed excellent), and then stood. 

          “Of course, but not in this crowded venue.  If you gentlemen would be so kind as to accompany me to the undertaker’s office?” I asked.

I led them out and across the street.  In front of the undertaker’s office stood Donovan Jones.  Clinging to his arm was a pale, black-haired woman of uncommon beauty and distraught expression, and beside them was a blond-haired young woman who was holding a chubby infant that I took to be the Jones’ son. As soon as he saw me, Mister Jones approached.

“Doctor Watson, can we see my daughter?” he pleaded.

“Sir, I understand the desire, but let me say this as delicately as I can: she died very violently.  I did the best I could to return her to her natural state, but she is not . . . complete.  I can let you look upon her face, but I will pull the sheet down no further.  Can you be content with that?” I asked with some force, for if he tried to reveal the rest of her in the presence of her mother, I could not fathom the damage the poor woman’s emotions might suffer.

“I just want to see her sweet face,” he said.  “I don’t want to see – I can’t stand to see the rest.”

“Then come with me,” I said.

I waited until the entire party was in the room, and then rolled the sheet down to little Emily’s chin.  Her mother burst into sobs, and her husband hugged her close for a moment.  Then Mrs. Jones pulled free and bent forward to kiss the tiny cold brow.

“My baby girl,” she sobbed.  “My sweet baby girl.”

“Come away,” her friend said.  “You’ve seen her, don’t linger and compound your grief.”

“You’re good to me, Evelyn,” she said, and leaning on the other woman, they left.  Donovan Jones lingered a moment, studying the outline of the form under the sheet.

“How much of her is – is gone, Doctor?” he finally said.

“We are still searching for her right arm and left leg,” I told him.

“What could do this?” he asked after a long pause.

“A fiendishly strong killer,” I told him, “or else a large and powerful animal.”

“Whatever it is, you and Mister Holmes find it – or him!  Please, sir, for my daughter’s sake,” he pleaded.

“We will do everything in our power,” I said.

After he left, Holmes, Lestrade, and Clinton came in.

“Well, Doctor Watson, tell us what you were able to determine,” Holmes said.

I made sure the door was closed behind them and lifted the sheet, unveiling the damage to the child’s body.  Inspector Clinton winced at the sight, and I could not blame him.

“The girl suffered two ghastly sets of wounds,” I said.  “Notice that her torso is unmarked, as well as her left arm.  Something seized her with enormous force, and her head and right arm appear to have been sheared off – I think that arm was stretched out above her, and whatever force came clamping down was sufficient to drive through the bone and sever it cleanly.  The fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae were simply forced apart, and the tissue of the neck that was not severed simply tore loose as her body was shaken about.  Both legs suffered very similar injuries – the bones snapped clean in half and the tissue either severed in the initial assault or simply torn loose.  It’s as if an enormous steel trap snapped shut on her, its jaws crossing her body at neck and just below the torso. Or -”  I hesitated.

“Go on, Watson,” Holmes said.  “I value your theories, as always.”

“Or that she was caught in a very large creature’s mouth, bitten down hard upon, and then shaken so ferociously that she flew apart like a rag doll being worried by a dog,” I said.

“That is the question, isn’t it, my friend?” Holmes asked rhetorically. “Are we dealing with a human killer, or with a beast stepped straight out of the pages of legend and into the modern age.  You know, Inspector, it is one of my axioms that, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.  A monster is, biologically speaking , an impossibility in this day and age.  Are we to believe some monstrous saurian from ancient days was somehow resurrected to prey on the residents of this district? Or are we dealing with a human killer of incredible strength and cleverness, determined to drive people away from the Marsh by resurrecting this old legend?”

“I favor the human explanation as well, Mister Holmes,” Lestrade said, “although how he managed all of this is beyond me.”

“I have some ideas on that count,” said Holmes, “but I will not speak of them until I have had the chance to do some more investigation near the Marsh, and discuss things with the locals.  In fact, Inspector Clinton, may I trouble you for a moment?”

“Of course, Mister Holmes,” the man said.  “And let me say, I am sorry I was sharp with you last night.  That little girl – she was always so friendly to me! I was, in my own way, as heartbroken as her family.”

“Think nothing of it, my good man,” Holmes said.  “Now, what I wanted to know was this – has anything out of the ordinary happened in Mickledon or its environs in the last month or so?”

“Well, there was a train derailment about a fortnight ago, but that was quite a ways north of here,” the detective said.  “That’s the most significant thing I remember.  Now, there was a rather curious, if trivial event, a few days after that.”

“Let me be the judge of what is trivial,” Holmes said. “Sometimes the details which seem insignificant may have a very large bearing on things.”

“Well, a few miles north of the marsh, one of the farmers was complaining that his haystacks were destroyed.  Torn apart, scattered, and most of the hay just plain gone.”

“Most odd!” I said.

“Odd indeed,” said Holmes.  “Perhaps there is some connection, perhaps not.  At any rate, Watson, I need to investigate the edges of the Marsh.  Will you accompany me?”

“Of course,” I said.  “But don’t you think it’s rather dangerous?”

“Very much so,” he said.  “That’s why you shall accompany me, along with Colonel Garland’s legendary weapon.  I hope that, by the end of the day, we will have brought this case to a successful conclusion, and a brutal killer will be on his way to the gallows.”

We stepped outside the undertaker’s office, and crossed the street to the inn, where I retrieved my Webley and the massive rifle my friend had brought.  I have always been a fair marksman, and hoped that, if I did have to use this massive weapon, that my aim would be true.

As we emerged from the inn, I heard a sharp voice haranguing Inspector Clinton.

“I’m not saying ye shouldn’t be trying to find the girls’ killer,” a wrinkled, stooped old man was telling him.  “But two wagonloads of peat destroyed – that’s me bread and butter, gone!”

“What has happened?” Holmes asked.

“I had two loads of peat that had been curing for several days, and I was ready to haul them to market today,” he said.  “But when I came outside, my wagons were smashed, the blocks of peat were all torn up and over half gone.”

Holmes’ brow furrowed sharply. 

“Blocks of peat?” he mused. “First hay, now this.  Curious indeed!  Well, sir, I cannot return what has been lost, but perhaps we can find out the responsible party.”

As the coach and four jogged us north of town, towards the Jones cottage and the Marsh, Holmes and I conferred quietly.

“I may have been wrong, Watson, but I cannot be sure.  I have been focusing my thoughts on a human killer, but now I begin to think that there may indeed be a vast beast loose in this Marsh.  In either case, what I propose to do is fraught with danger – primarily to myself , but also to you, old friend.  Are you still game?”

“I cannot believe that you would think I would send you to face grave danger alone, Holmes, after all these years!” I said.

“Good old Watson!” he replied.  “Just make sure your aim is true when the moment comes.”

Lestrade had been listening to this interchange with some interest.

“What is it you propose to do, Mister Holmes?” he finally asked.

“I think I may need you to accompany us, Lestrade, so I will explain,” he said.  “Whatever it is in the Marsh, that killed poor little Emily, seems determined to keep people away from the water.  So I am going to explore the water’s edge – primarily hoping to find evidence of where this creature, or person, is entering and exiting.  I want you and Watson to flank me, weapons at the ready, but further back from the water’s edge so as not to draw its notice.  If it takes the bait, I shall run for all I am worth, leading our quarry towards you – and you shall fill it with as much lead as is necessary to ensure its demise, assuming this is a creature we are dealing with.”

We arrived at the cottage to find it deserted – the Jones family was still in town.  We walked behind the house to see the Marsh stretching off to the north, a light haze rising off the water, undisturbed except for the occasional ripple of a fish striking the surface.

“I thought there was a boat dragging the marsh for the rest of the girls’ remains,” I told Lestrade.

“There should be,” he said.  “Their instructions were not to come in until they’d searched everything on this end.”

Then Holmes gave a sharp hiss and pointed.  There were multiple objects floating in the edge of the water, near where poor Emily Jones had met her sad fate.  We approached cautiously.

The small punt had been so thoroughly destroyed that it took me a moment to realize that was what we were seeing.  The planks were broken and shattered, very few of them remaining connected to each other.  The handle of an oar floated among the wreckage, as well as something else, sodden and wrapped in fabric.  Lestrade poked at it with one of the planks and it slowly rolled over in the water.  It was a human arm, ripped off below the shoulder, clothing and all.

“Good God!” Lestrade exclaimed.  “Do you think both men are gone, then, Mister Holmes?”

“I would be surprised if it were otherwise,” my friend said gravely.

Then that bellowing roar came echoing across the Marsh, not too close, but not too far either.  It seemed to come from the western shoreline, perhaps a mile or less to our North.

“Gentlemen, it is time to bring this case to a conclusion,” Holmes said. “Follow me!”

He drew his revolver, and Lestrade and I trailed him, moving on a parallel course, following the shoreline of Mickledon Marsh (which, after this wet winter, was almost a lake).  Holmes moved slowly, studying the surface of the water ahead of him for any disturbance, and then studying the clay and peat that made up the Marsh’s edge.  Occasionally he would pause, kneel, and study the ground with his magnifying glass.  Lestrade and I anxiously scanned the water on those occasions, realizing just how vulnerable my friend was.

The day had started off sunny, but now it was clouding over and a mist was rising off of the greenish-brown waters of the Marsh.  We only heard the bellow once more, closer this time, and terrifying in its volume and intensity.  But no ripple disturbed the surface, and nothing untoward happened.  Finally, as the clock was closing in on noon, Holmes came to an area where the bank of the lake had been trampled clear of all vegetation.  He studied the ground for a moment, and then looked out across the water.

“Well, Watson, I think I have found our friend’s regular point of egress,” he said.

What happened next was so quick that the entire sequence of events was over in the time it takes me to write this paragraph.  As Holmes stared out at the water, there was a roiling disturbance a few yards out from the shore, and a huge head rose into view, reddish eyes glaring at my friend, and a cavernous maw, studded with massive, eight inch fangs,  opened wide.

Holmes turned white as a sheet and began running towards us as fast as he could. 

“Monster, Watson!” he shrieked in the most panicked tone I have ever heard from him.  “The Monster is real!”

With nightmarish speed, the behemoth charged up out of the water, its bulk heaving onto the bank after my friend, its gaping mouth slamming shut less than a yard from his trailing foot.  It roared in frustration and continued its pursuit.  Even in his panic, Holmes remembered his plan, and led the beast in front of us.  Lestrade began firing one round after another into the speeding monster, but it would take more than a police revolver to bring this beast down.

I shouldered the elephant gun and chambered a round, taking careful aim as the creature passed before us.  My first shot struck just behind its shoulder, ripping through the heart and lungs.  I ejected the shell and chambered another round.  The beast was still pursuing Holmes, but more slowly.  I put another round into it, just in front of its hind leg, and the .60 round ripped through its viscera.  With another ghastly roar, the monster turned towards the source of its torment.  Lestrade had fired every round in his revolver and was frantically trying to reload.  The beast looked at me and charged again, but the elephant gun had taken its toll.  It moved more and more slowly as it approached, and perhaps twenty feet in front of me it stopped and opened its huge maw again, letting out that terrifying roar one last time.

My final round tore through the roof of its mouth and into its tiny brain, leaving a hole five inches across on top of the beast’s head where the bullet exited. The monster abruptly closed its mouth, gave a couple of loud gasps, blood drooling down its jowls, and then slowly toppled onto its side.

“By Jove, Doctor Watson, that was a neat bit of shooting!” Lestrade said.

“Indeed,” Holmes replied, slowly approaching the fallen monster.  “It appears you were right after all, Watson.  This does appear to be a hippopotamus.”

“But what is wrong with its feet?” Lestrade mused, looking at the beast’s massive paws.

I took the water bottle I had brought along, and a rag bandage from my emergency kit, and washed off one of the front feet.  It was like that of no hippo I had ever seen – almost triangular in shape, with deep spacing between the three claws.  But as I looked closer, I saw the masses of scar tissue in between the claws and down one side of the foot.  Examining the other limbs, I saw the same mutilation had been performed on each of them.

“This animal’s feet have been drastically altered to make them look reptilian,” I said.  “I can’t imagine why anyone would do such a thing, as it must have been incredibly painful for the creature to walk on these.”

“That would account for its extreme aggression,” Holmes said.

“That and the fact that the beast appears to be starving,” I said.  “Hippos feed on grass, and it takes vast quantities of it to keep them full.  That would explain the destroyed haystacks and overturned peat wagons.  The animal was trying to find some means of sustaining itself.”

“And it might explain why it took to eating people in the end,” Lestrade said.

“When I was in Egypt, the locals did say that in lean years, the hippopotami would resort to eating dogs, ibex, and even small children that got too close to the Nile,” I said.

Holmes’ normal color had returned, but there were still spots of color in each cheek that bespoke his earlier excitement.  It was the only time, in our long association, that I had ever seen him give way to fear.

By evening, the massive beast had been hauled away, and many photographic plates had been taken, and the local newspapers were having a field day with it.  Holmes, as usual, tried to give Lestrade most of the credit for solving the case, but for once, the Inspector would have none of it.  But it was not Holmes he lionized for tracking down the great beast, it was me and my marksmanship.

“Here was this vast monster bearing down on us,” he pontificated for the press, “and Watson, cool as a cucumber, letting off one round after another, until he dropped it in its tracks only a few yards in front of him!”

Rather than deal with the notoriety, I joined Holmes on the first train back to London, where we settled back into our digs at Baker Street.  Over the next few weeks, a final detail of the case was uncovered due to my friend’s inquiries.

The train that had overturned was a circus train, Howard and Hester’s Traveling Show of Shows, a small circus that had been making the rounds in Wales for a decade or so.  Their prime attraction, as it turned out, was the “Hipposaurus,” billed as half hippopotamus and half iguanodon, a “living throwback to the Mesozoic Era.”  The creature’s keeper and the circus owner had been killed in the derailment, and none of the other employees thought to report that their monstrous attraction had gone missing.

“Imagine, Watson,” Holmes said after reading the newspaper article on the accident.  “Injured, dazed, bewildered, its mangled feet causing it constant agony, the creature went searching for water, where it could relieve its pain by taking the bulk of its weight off of them.  The haystacks provided it sustenance for a day or two, but there was no ready source of food adequate to the needs of a beast that size.  It found the Marsh and made that its new home, but the bitter reeds of Wales could not slake its appetite.  As it grew hungrier, it grew more aggressive – and then poor little Emily took a walk by the water.”

“One thing, Holmes,” I said.  “I hesitate to mention it, but when you fled from the creature’s approach, I saw stark terror in your eyes – something I never thought to see there.  Why were you so horrified?”

Holmes chuckled.  “Oh, Watson,” he finally said.  “Some things cannot be explained rationally.  I don’t know why, but in the moment that I saw that beast open its mouth and begin to charge – well, Watson, I don’t know how to say this, but – I didn’t see a giant, half-starved hippopotamus.  I saw a dragon.”

“Remarkable!”  I said.

“Perhaps you might consider not presenting this case to the public?” he asked me softly.

“Not unless you consent for me to do so,” I replied.

Not long after that, another inquiry gave us cause us to visit Mycroft at the Diogenes Club.  After we had discussed the events that brought us there – a case whose international import was so grave and delicate that even now, in the year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Twenty, I cannot present its details to the public – Mycroft brought up the incident at Mickledon Marsh.

“I say, Sherlock,” he said, “When I read that the beast you and Watson finally cornered was, in fact, a hippopotamus, I was expecting to also read that you had soiled yourself!”

Only Holmes’ brother could ever have teased him in such a manner, but my friend’s response was genuine puzzlement.

“Leaving aside the crudity, why on earth would you think that, Mycroft?” he asked.

“By Jove, Sherlock, don’t tell me you don’t remember?” his brother asked incredulously, but seeing my friend’s blank expression, he shook his massive jowls in surprise.  “Well, you were rather small.  It was several years before Mama died when she took us to the zoo.  You could have been no more than three, I would think.  There was a huge bull hippopotamus there, and it was facing towards us when it opened its mouth in a huge bellow.  The beast meant no harm, but that mouth was big enough to have held the both of us with ease, Watson, and Sherlock began screaming like a banshee.  He became so hysterical that our mother had to take us home, in fact. For weeks thereafter, the mention of the word ‘hippo,’ or worse yet, a picture of one, was enough to make him cry.  I’ll admit, I did exploit the situation for my amusement – I had a book of African animals with many illustrations, and I chased him around the house with the hippo picture so often that Father spanked me and took the book away.”

Holmes gave his brother a sour look.  “You were a bit of a bully at times when we were young, Mycroft,” he said.

Mycroft shrugged his massive shoulders, as porcine as his brother’s were lean.  “It’s what big brothers do,” he said.

“Well,” I said, “I can tell you no such thing as you proposed happened.  Holmes led that beast directly under my gun, just as we had planned, as calm as if he were strolling through Hyde Park.”

When we left, my friend paused on the steps of the Diogenes Club and took my hand.

“Thank you for that, Watson,” he said.

“And here I thought the only thing you were afraid of was oysters,” I said, and we headed back to Baker Street.

 

 

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