BACK TO THE CAPITAL
At some considerable distress to my confused brain, we arose early the next morning so that we could get to Inverness in time for the first train to the capital. Having struggled to get to sleep in the first place, I found it a cumbersome business waking up. But then nothing makes you so groggy and irritable as to wake up to Holmes smoking his pipe at the foot of your bed.
“Do you mind?” I asked, wafting away great clouds of his foul smoke.
He smiled and left the room, popping his head back through the door a few moments later. “By the way,” he said, “don’t eat breakfast.”
“Why on earth not?” I asked, “I like breakfast!”
“Of course you do,” he replied. “It’s a meal and you relish those like no other I know. All the same, don’t eat or drink anything.” He pointed the tip of his pipe at me to emphasise his seriousness. “Nothing at all!” He popped the pipe back in his mouth. “Better not to mention it in front of the others,” he said finally. “I’ll explain later.”
He vanished and I sat up in bed, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and feeling distinctly wretched. What on earth is the point in a morning if there’s no bacon in it?
I descended a short while later to the most hateful smell of food wafting from the dining room.
“Come,” said Crowley, getting up from his chair, “if we have to travel at this ungodly hour let us at least do so on a full stomach.”
“Thank you but no,” I replied. “My stomach is somewhat restless first thing.”
“Some coffee then?”
“Better not, I’ll just make sure I’ve got everything packed and meet you by the door in, what? Half an hour?”
Crowley looked decidedly crestfallen and I felt bad at rejecting his hospitality, I knew how seriously he took his role as host. “If you’re quite sure,” he said, “we shall see you then.”
I was back downstairs early. It had been the matter of moments to collect my belongings and I decided it would be more pleasant to await the others outside than pacing up and down in the guest room.
Stood on the front step I drew in several large lungfuls of cool morning air. It might be a poor replacement for kedgeree or eggs but it did at least help me to wake up.
As there were so many of us, Charles the coachman had been forced to draft in the assistance of his brother, a surly figure who sat in silence in the driver’s seat of a second carriage.
One by one we piled our bags on the back of each vehicle and split up so that Holmes, myself and Crowley went in one carriage while Carnacki, Silence and Karswell availed themselves of the other.
The journey from Boleskine to Inverness was as lengthy as before and the snow-covered hills and glistening surface of the loch still cast a gloomy countenance around us. For all that, the journey seemed more charged and positive for we were now on the hunt, returning to London in force and with a plan – well, certainly an intent – to take the fight to the opposition.
Crowley was also a more chatty companion than the others had been a day ago. As we passed by he would point out sights of beauty, hills he had climbed, footpaths he had followed. His love for the area was clear, though from his conversation I couldn’t imagine him spending the rest of his years at Boleskine, he was clearly a man who would always love to travel. A man who relished the potential of regularly waking up to a brand-new horizon.
Holmes listened politely – or at least appeared to listen, I had no doubt his thoughts circled elsewhere – but didn’t really contribute. He and Crowley took a pipe together at one point and then, true to form, my colleague came to life. Murder, tobacco and violent music, these are the subjects upon which Holmes could always be relied upon to expand. Oh, and himself of course. That was probably his favourite subject of all.
By the time Inverness Castle came into view, I was aching and hungry and relieved to be able to climb out of the carriage and stretch my limbs.
The respite was short-lived because we had lost time on our journey and had to run in order to catch our train.
We all gathered in one compartment which would have been perfectly comfortable were it only our bodies it needed to accommodate. Given the size of some of the personalities amongst the group, however, it soon became a little oppressive and I started to wonder how on earth one might survive the hours to come. Carnacki and Crowley were arguing ethics, Holmes and Karswell clashed on several trifling points of genealogy, and Silence and I did our best to stay clear, sat by the corridor as we were.
“To think,” I said to him, “had you never visited Baker Street, there never would have been such a meeting of minds.”
“The world would have been a more peaceful place, certainly.” He gave a small smile and I realised quite how exhausted he looked. Ever since that first morning at Unsworth Guest House he had looked sorely in need of rest; this was a more active lifestyle than the one he was used to. I suggested as much.
“I suppose you’re right,” he admitted. “I have a little place on Reeves Mews, just along from Hyde Park. I am often so content there, within my library reading with the warm body of Smoke on my lap, that I rarely see the need for all this dashing around. I fear my travelling days are probably done, I have finally found the pleasure in simply staying still.”
I talked of my time in Afghanistan – ask any old soldier and he will admit that it never takes him long to bring up war, however much he may claim to not like talking about it – and how difficult I had found it to acclimatise to life in London. How embroiling myself in the early career of Holmes had proved a valuable way of keeping the adrenalin flowing, allowing me to take my place back in society but never quite leaving the battlefield behind. He asked about Mary and there I will admit to faltering.
Holmes and I have lived a great deal of our lives within the public eye, for which I can take the sole blame. After all, I didn’t have to publish my accounts of our time together. Still, there were times when I found the scrutiny difficult, none more so than when it came to Mary’s death. It has always been a subject I have skirted over. Indeed, many times I have attempted to avoid it altogether by suggesting that I am in fact still married – a sloppy tactic and one that does a disservice to my readers. A tale means little if you cannot trust the teller. The unreliable narrator... is that what I have let myself become? Perhaps. But I have always had the interests of either my readers (and their wish to be excited) or myself (and the need to keep one thing private) at heart.
I loved her you see, so very much. And it’s all very well to re-enact these many moments of high drama on the page, the chases and the gun fights, the clever deductions and the twisted machinations of those that sought to fool Holmes. These are things worthy of turning into words, of immortalising as story. But I will not do that to Mary. I will not turn those last moments of hers – of ours – into something constructed to excite or sadden; I will not turn her into fiction.
So forgive me. Mary died. That is that.
I changed the subject and Silence was too much a gentleman to press the matter.
After a few hours, talk led to lunch and a mass exodus was set in motion that would lead us to the dining carriage. At the last moment, however, Holmes took my arm.
“Ah,” he said, “if none of you gentlemen object I really could do with a few minutes alone with Watson to discuss matters involved with a previous case. Why don’t you eat and we’ll chat in your absence?”
“Don’t be silly,” said Crowley, “talk over lunch, we would love to hear of your business!”
“Client confidentiality,” Holmes said, apologetically, “as foolish as it may seem, given what awaits us in the capital, the affair of the duchesses and the poodle really cannot be discussed in an open dining carriage.”
He closed the door behind them, giving the men little choice but to progress towards the dining carriage without us.
“I say, Holmes!” I was losing patience with him by now. “What is all this about? The duchesses and the poodle indeed. You sound like a music hall routine.”
He began to sing. “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do...”
I cuffed him on the arm. “Let’s have none of that, things are miserable enough without my having to tolerate your singing. What’s going on? What is so private that it couldn’t be discussed in front of the others?”
“They have their battle to prepare for,” he said, “and we have ours. There can be no doubt that we will fight on different fronts.” He smiled. “Beyond the odd bit of sleight of hand I am no magician, but to do so I need to plan. Do you have paper?”
“Of course, my notebook is in my bag.”
“Excellent, then fetch it and let us construct a map of the Underground.”
“A map?” I sighed. “I really don’t think I know it well enough to do so.”
“You know it better than I. Together we shall try.”
And we did, though the last of it was finished by Silence and Carnacki who, having returned from their lunch, were only too happy to help.
“There,” I said, following the routes with my finger, “though why it is so important I don’t know.”
Looking up at Holmes I was infuriated to find he’d fallen asleep.
He really could be the most damnable man.
Given the length of our journey it was already late in the afternoon by the time we arrived at St Pancras and we immediately hailed two cabs to take us all to the building site on the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road.
Even in the late afternoon the traffic was thick. Cabs and carts trotted along in both directions over several lanes, the roar of the pedestrians, one hundred conversations rolled into one massive wall of sound. Could all of this, all of these people with their busy lives, really be in danger?
We looked at the large barricades that surrounded the excavation.
“Would it not be better to get some assistance?” I asked.
“I’m afraid even I would need more evidence to convince the great and good to come down here just yet,” Holmes replied.
“Evidence,” sighed Crowley, “while the soul of the world hangs in the balance.”
Holmes looked as though he was about to argue when a terrible explosion tore through the noise of the crowds. As one we turned to see a plume of smoke rising from further up the street.
“What the devil?” I strained to see what had happened, my instincts as a doctor driving me towards where I might be needed. A hand on my shoulder – that of Silence – stopped me.
“Wait,” he said. “Look...”
And as he spoke I became aware of the sound of a wind blowing its way towards us, that high-pitched scream of a storm forcing its way between buildings. A wind that sung.
Looking down Oxford Street, the smoke from the explosion bent towards us and then simply vanished, dissipated through the air. Carts blew upwards, spinning on the tornado’s back; people screamed, horses stampeded.
The wind moved in a casual, almost lethargic manner, swaying from one side of the street to the other. Sending shop signs spinning and awnings flapping skywards.
But before the wind, becoming more and more discernible as their numbers increased, a group of people began to advance towards us. A handful became a crowd, a crowd became a mob... More and more joined the throng. Some were clearly wounded, rivulets of blood trickling down slack-jawed faces, limbs askew, feet dragging. But nothing seemed to stop them, an ever-increasing wave of people staring, screaming, seemingly meaninglessly, at the air.
“Dear God,” said Carnacki, “I have heard of them, soldiers who claimed they were used as cannon fodder by the Wassoulou Empire, explorers who say they have seen them created through the power of Voudou... nzumbe!”
Carnacki looked at me and for the very first time I could tell he was afraid. “The walking dead!”