ASSASSIN IN THE NIGHT
As the train continued north, Carnacki filled the time with more stories of his exploits. For all his arrogance he told a good tale and I confess I enjoyed listening to him. The thrill of his adventures only slightly marred once it occurred to me that, if all he was saying was true – something I could no no longer entirely dismiss – then our current experiences were far from isolated incidents. Carnacki had, as previously admitted, been involved in several cases where the supernatural had not been involved, rather the evil hands of man wishing to convince otherwise. Accepting that, there was still the matter of the disembodied tongue that wagged within the dining room of Brackridge Hall or the squealing of the Pig Lords that had so terrified those in residence at Mocata Grange.
The world in which both Silence and Carnacki operated was not the world in which I had hitherto lived. The safe, solid world I was used to seemed little more than a stepping stone to other existences and experiences. I tried to bear Holmes’ advice in mind, to listen, and be willing to believe, but to also accept that their tales may have grown in the telling, that perhaps the gelatinous spectre of Andover Crescent was the result of misunderstood evidence, events that could have had an explanation through science as well as the supernatural.
I was still deeply unsettled, however, and even when I began to feel tiredness sweeping over me I found I couldn’t close my eyes against the furniture of the carriage. In my mind’s eye I found it all too easy to imagine faces appearing in the darkness of the window, the light of the lamps dimming, hands moving beneath the upholstery of the seats. I had lost all faith in the comfort of my surroundings.
Accordingly, when we finally approached Inverness, I was exhausted and agitated. Desperate for sleep but unable to give in to it.
The train pulled up and we descended with our luggage. I placed both mine and Holmes’ bags on the platform and checked my watch. It was just shy of midnight. Our plan had been to find a hotel close to the station so that we might sleep and recommence our journey towards Foyers, where Boleskine House lay, in the morning. At this time of night we certainly didn’t fancy doing much more than securing a bed.
“I dare say there’s a railway hotel nearby,” said Silence. “What say I check with one of the porters?”
He walked over to a short, red-faced man who was wrestling with the hatboxes of the elderly lady I had been saddled with earlier. They talked for a few moments, and then Silence returned.
“There’s a place not five minutes walk away,” he announced, “and apparently what they lack in refined decoration they more than make up for with breakfast.”
“I’m sure I’ll have stayed in worse,” said Carnacki, picking up his bag and following Silence towards the exit. I went to pick up my own bags and suddenly realised that Holmes’ case had vanished. It had been no more than a foot from mine but now it was gone. I looked around, about to raise a cry of alarm when it occurred to me that the only person who could have stolen it with such skill and subtlety was probably its owner, and that maybe Holmes hadn’t left the train earlier at all.
“Infuriating man,” I muttered to myself, chasing to catch up with Silence and Carnacki.
At the entrance to the station we were directed up the street a short distance to the doors of Unsworth Lodge, bed and breakfast. Despite concerns of the late hour, the door was answered almost immediately by a small lady who had that mothball air of a woman caught in the hinterland of middle-age. Her hair was striped in black and white like that of a badger and her mouth was perpetually puckered as if she were in the process of devouring an everlasting pickled onion.
“Mr Holmes and company?” she asked, before we had even had a chance to speak.
“Actually,” I said, “Mr Holmes is not with us but I am Dr Watson and these are my colleagues, Dr Silence and Mr Thomas Carnacki. Were you expecting us then?” I was unaware that Holmes had called ahead and booked us rooms, but supposed it was far from impossible.
“I most certainly was,” the woman said, beckoning us in. “I can assure you I don’t wait up at this hour on the off chance of custom.” She looked at Carnacki. “Though you weren’t on the booking, young man,” she said to him before turning back to me. “Will Mr Holmes be arriving later?”
“Sadly not,” I replied, “our plans had to change at the last minute.”
She nodded as if this were all too common here at Unsworth Lodge. “Then I suppose he can have the spare room,” she said, nodding towards Carnacki, “after all, I’ve cleaned and aired it now, it would be a great irritation were it not to be used.”
“That would be excellent,” I said and we followed her up a narrow flight of steps towards a landing that contained several numbered rooms.
She opened the doors marked three, five and seven and ushered us to take our pick. “There’s no real difference,” she said, “except for the noise of the rats in five. It’s right beneath the loft you see and they’ve made themselves right at home up there.”
Silence, who had been entering the door of the said room as she spoke, gave a slight sigh before carrying on. “Good night gentlemen,” he said. “I trust I shall survive the night and see you in time for breakfast.”
He pulled the door closed behind him and I said my goodbyes to Carnacki before entering my own room, number three. It occurred to me just before shutting the door, that I should ask the landlady something. “Excuse me,” I said, calling her back from the stairs, “I know this might sound ridiculous but who was it that booked the rooms?”
She gave me a sharp look that said, yes, it certainly was a ridiculous thing to ask. “I would have thought you’d have known that yourselves,” she said. “It was Mr Crowley, of course.”
I was no more relaxed in my bedroom than I had been in the train carriage. How could Crowley have known? Had Holmes telegrammed ahead, or Silence even? Then Holmes’ advice returned to me and, rather than get carried away with the possibility of unnerving conclusions, I accepted that the only way that Crowley could have known is that one or the other had told him. It scarcely mattered which, though it would have been nice to have been told, naturally...
I dressed for bed. It can’t have been Silence, I thought, I had seen him ask the porter whether there was a hotel close by, he would hardly have done that if he had already known the answer... So it was Holmes then, I told myself, losing patience with my own inclination to question, and, as usual, he had chosen to keep it to himself as he never met a theatrical flourish he didn’t love.
I turned down the gas and shuffled towards the bed, distracted for a moment by the sight of the moonlit street beyond the window. I stood between the curtains and looked out at the row of terraced houses. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust, the moon was large and the clouds parted enough to let its light fall down on the quiet street. Looking on those rows of ordinary houses, I wondered what their, no doubt sleeping, residents might make of the night’s events. Were they like me, rigid enough in their beliefs that any upset left them reeling? Or were they more superstitious, more willing to believe anything of the world they lived in?
I was about to turn away when I noticed the silhouette of a figure at the top of the street. I couldn’t help but smile at that paper-thin shape in its top hat, swinging a cane as he walked away from me. I was certain I knew its owner and went to my bed feeling somewhat more secure for knowing that Holmes was still near by.
The good feeling didn’t last and I awoke several times in the night. The first occasion was upon being shaken free of a terrible dream, a nightmare where viscous liquid had covered my face and body, forcing its tendrils up my nostrils and into my mouth. I had been hanging, I remembered, as the cool air chilled the night sweats on my back, swinging in that ectoplasmic cat’s cradle in the dining carriage, utterly at the mercy of whatever force it was that had hovered above us.
Lying there in the dark I tried to shake the feeling that I was not alone in my room, dismissing the unfamiliar silhouettes of the furniture around me as source for panic. The sound of breathing I thought I could hear was no doubt my own, echoed back at me from against the high ceiling, the delay making it sound like the breathing of another. I held my breath, finally sighing into the silence that resulted. The house creaked around me, of course, all houses do. I reminded myself also of the rats that our landlady insisted were thriving in the loft space above us. No doubt they made that tapping noise that, for one terrified second, I imagined was the sound of a nail on my door.
Finally, such childish thoughts ceased and I returned to sleep, only to be woken again some time later. Something had disturbed me, though I could not tell what. What I could hear, extremely faintly, was the sound of a man crying. I lit a match and checked my watch, it was a quarter to three in the morning. What is it that so saddened a man that it brought tears at this hour? Lying back in the darkness, the sharp smell of the match settling around me, I thought about my poor Mary and had my answer.
I woke early, with the beginnings of dawn breaking through a gap in the curtains and landing on the bed. It was an unhealthy, grey light and the sight of it brought me no pleasure or anticipation for the day ahead. I put on my slippers and went in search of hot water.
The landlady was stood in the middle of her kitchen, staring into space as if utterly empty of character. I imagined her having stood that way all night, awaiting orders to bring her once more back to life. Her deep thoughts were interrupted by the sound of my feet on a creaking floorboard and she snapped to attention, giving me a somewhat unfriendly look and returning to her morning tasks.
“I wondered if I might have some hot water?” I asked, feeling, quite ridiculously, that such a thing was an imposition.
She nodded. “I’ll bring some up to you, sir,” she said. “Will you and your companions be wanting breakfast?”
“I imagine so,” I replied. Then, self-consciously feeling I had to justify why I was making such demands at the early hour. “We have a lot planned for the day so an early start is always good.”
“Been awake hours,” she said, “a woman’s work is never done.”
“No,” I responded, awkwardly. “I imagine not.”
We both stood there for a few moments of uncomfortable silence. Then finally I decided one of us had to take the initiative or I’d never get back to my room. “Shall I take the water back up with me?” I asked. “It’s no trouble.”
“I said I’d bring it up,” she replied, “and so I will.” She set about filling a large pan from the tap over the sink and, feeling I’d been dismissed, I returned to my room and sat on the bed to wait. I could hear sounds of movement from next door and concluded that Silence was also awake. I thought about knocking on his door but was distracted by the arrival of the hot water.
I washed cautiously over the basin and dried myself off quickly, it was far too cold to linger.
Finally, dressed and feeling I had thoroughly scrubbed away the day and night before, I left my room and went to check on the others. Silence was, indeed, awake though by the look of him only barely. Perhaps he was like Holmes in that he was not a morning person. I have my years in the army to thank for the fact that, once my eyes open, I am invariably as sharp as a tack. I arranged to meet Silence downstairs for breakfast in three-quarters of an hour.
There was no reply from Carnacki’s room so I went downstairs to check with the landlady that breakfast would be convenient for the time I had arranged and then left the building, meaning to get a little morning air and a sense of my surroundings.
I have spoken of my love of London and, certainly, that is undiminished. The crispness of the Scottish air was most refreshing, however, a sharp and fresh taste in my mouth as I strode forth from the guesthouse and along the road towards the station.
Inverness was in its stride already, the shop doors open and the delivery boys racing to and fro on their bicycles. In the distance I could see the signs of a street market filling out and I considered visiting it before settling for something a little more peaceful and heading away from the centre towards the river. The red brick of Inverness Castle gleamed in that early morning light and, as I walked along the banks of the Ness, getting my thoughts in order and imagining what may lie ahead, I began to feel as content as I can remember. I would face whatever the day might bring, and I would do so with conviction and strength, however shocking it might be. Whatever lay ahead my restless night had convinced me of one thing: I had already faced the worst thing in life a man can bear, the death of someone he loves. Whatever else may come along it certainly wouldn’t be as painful as that.
I picked up a newspaper on my return to the guesthouse, glancing through the main articles as I checked Carnacki’s room once again (still no sign of the man) and then took a seat in the dining room to wait for Silence. He arrived shortly after, looking fresher now that he had washed and dressed.
“I hope you at least slept well, Doctor?” he asked.
“Actually,” I replied, “I passed an abominable night, but hopefully the effects will soon pass with a decent breakfast inside me.”
The landlady brought us a bowl of porridge each, thick as glue and salty to taste. I can’t say I was enamoured of it and dearly hoped it would be a prelude to something better rather than a solitary course.
I told Silence about the night’s revelation that our rooms had not been booked by Holmes as I had initially suspected but rather by Crowley himself. This was clearly news to him also, so I was left with the previous night’s conclusion which I shared with Silence: Holmes must have wired Crowley in advance of our travelling and had matters arranged on our behalf. That would certainly explain why no provision had been made for Carnacki.
“Have you seen Carnacki this morning?” I asked Silence.
“No,” he said, “I assumed he would be joining us shortly.”
“Not unless he includes mind-reading in that not inconsiderable list of his abilities,” I said. “I haven’t been able to raise him.”
SIlence looked concerned. “Do you think he’s all right?”
“Having listened to him talk last night, I get the impression he’s damn near impregnable. I imagine he is simply sleeping in and I don’t intend to worry until after breakfast. That’s as long as there is more to come.”
Thankfully there was, bacon and eggs that wiped away the memory of the porridge after only a couple of mouthfuls.
It was as the landlady brought us a second pot of coffee that Carnacki appeared, looking as immaculate as ever.
“We started without you I’m afraid,” I said, pouring him a cup of coffee.
“I breakfasted earlier,” he announced, “the landlady was kind enough to give me the use of her kitchen for half an hour before the rest of the house awoke.”
“Oh,” I said, “up with the lark then?”
“I don’t enjoy sleep,” he replied, “it reminds me a little too much of death.”
“A cheery thought to start the day,” I commented.
“Here’s another: during the night someone tried to kill me.”
Both Silence and I were dumbfounded at this.
“I am extremely lucky,” Carnacki continued, “that I enjoy a hard bed and found the offering of our charming landlady to be inadequate in that regard.
“After having retired from your company, I sat down to write some notes on the day’s experiences,” he held up a small, leather-bound journal. “I keep copious notes as one day I intend to compile a series of volumes covering the entirety of my professional career.” He glanced in my direction. “For sure, if I don’t tackle the job myself someone else will, and I would hate being at the mercy of a sloppy biographer.
“I had just begun establishing the details of the attack – and my remarkable defence – in the dining carriage when I heard the sound of someone moving around in the corridor outside our rooms. Initially I assumed it was the landlady, perhaps checking that we had turned off the gas, or whatever concerns parsimonious hosts in this part of the country. However, on closer attendance I could tell it was the footstep of a man, the tread was too heavy to be that of our landlady and there was the distinct creak of new shoe leather.
“I dropped to my knees by the door and looked out through the keyhole but, unsurprisingly, it was too dark to catch a glimpse of our late-night wanderer. I decided it was likely unimportant, it may simply have been one of the other guests, disturbed by our arrival.”
“Are there any other guests?” I wondered, certainly none had as yet appeared for breakfast.
“Whoever it was,” Carnacki continued, “they left the house and made their way up the street, I saw them from my window, but couldn’t swear to any great detail, they were wearing a top hat and carrying a cane. That’s all I could say for sure.”
It occurred to me that I had seen the same figure and that Carnacki had likely mistaken Holmes for his mysterious intruder. Which, from Carnacki’s point of view, I suppose he was.
“Returning to my notes, I wrote for maybe another half an hour or so and then arranged a pair of blankets and the pillow on the floor. The bed was between myself and the door, a fact I would later be grateful for.
“I was woken at around three by the noise of footsteps once again outside my room. There was a scraping noise at the lock as whoever it was outside attempted to pick it. It was no difficult task, I had inspected the locks when retiring and considered them barely sufficient for the name. My would-be assassin certainly made a meal of it, however. They may be comfortable with the crime of murder but they had certainly never tried breaking and entering before. After a couple of minutes I nearly got up to let them in, better that than lie there listening to their ineptitude.
“Thankfully I was saved that embarrassment by their finally rolling back the tumblers and gaining access. The door opened slowly and quietly. As there was no light in the corridor outside I was unable to discern the shape of the intruder. My curtains were drawn tight and there was no moonlight to help in either my recognition of the stranger or their desire to assassinate me. I heard the man’s feet come a few steps into the room, then I heard him tap the edge of the bed with his foot. There was a dull noise, a hoarse cough, and the man retreated instantly, closing the door behind him. I gave it a few moments, just in case he had yet to leave, but I heard the sound of another door in the hall open and then close and I guessed that he had entered one of the other rooms. Obviously, the man was a resident like ourselves.
“I lit a candle and examined the bed. It was showered with feathers and there was a small hole top centre. The unknown assailant had fired a small calibre bullet at where he imagined my head to be, using a pillow folded around the muzzle of the gun as a method of silencing the shot. Further investigation revealed that he had dropped the pillow outside my door. I was tempted to knock on every door and have a confrontation there and then on the landing but, giving it some thought, I decided I would have no end of difficulty proving who the assailant was and little was to be gained from my alerting them immediately as to their failure. If nothing else it allowed me to conclude my sleep in peace.”
“But,” I said, “this is incredible, who would want you killed?”
“Ah,” Carnacki replied, “that’s where things get even more complicated. I’m rather afraid a man like me is no stranger to enemies. It could be something to do with this current case, but equally it could be an ancient grudge. There are a number of fellows who might wish to see me dead.”
Can’t think why, I thought to myself. Choosing to be more tactful aloud, I said: “We must be grateful they didn’t succeed.”
“Indeed,” agreed Silence.
The sound of the doorbell rang throughout the lower floor and I watched our landlady shuffle towards the front door in clear irritation. She was not cut out for this job, I decided. If people irritate you as much as they clearly did her, you are best avoiding them entirely.
“Yes?” she asked of whoever was at the door.
The reply, given in a voice much quieter than her angry bark, wasn’t heard. Though we were to know soon enough as she showed the man into the dining room.
“Your carriage is here, sirs,” she said. “Now mind I haven’t been paid for these rooms before you go dashing off.”
I asked her how much we owed her for her charming company and rooms and we settled our bills accordingly.
On the doorstep stood a thin, cheerful-looking fellow by the name of Charles. “Here to drive you to Boleskine,” he said. “Want a hand with your bags?”
“Just a couple of minutes to go and grab them,” I replied, as the others went to pack their things. “I’m afraid we weren’t informed that you would be coming.”
“Aye,” said Charles, “that sounds like the boss right enough, always got his head in the clouds that one.” It suddenly occurred to him that maybe he was speaking out of turn, a worried look passing over his face. “In a manner of speaking at least,” he said, “I mean no ill by it.”
I gave him a smile and patted him reassuringly on the arm. “Don’t worry,” I said, “speak as freely as you like, I don’t know the man from Adam.” I had been hoping, as I’d often seen Holmes do in similar circumstances, that this attempt to befriend the man would lead to a few more revelations about Crowley. I was to be disappointed. Charles seemed genuinely worried that he may have off ended his employer and was far too concerned to utter another word. Cursing what I took to be my own ham-fisted attempts at winning the fellow over I went to collect my own belongings.