The Empty Holmes

The Empty Holmes

By Paul Thomas Miller

It was in the spring of the year 1894 that all London was interested, and the fashionable world dismayed, by the murder of the Honourable Ronald Adair under most unusual and inexplicable circumstances. It can be imagined that my close intimacy with Sherlock Holmes had interested me deeply in crime, and that after his disappearance I never failed to read with care the various problems which came before the public, and I even attempted more than once for my own private satisfaction to employ his methods in their solution, though with indifferent success. As I read the evidence at the inquest, which, I realized more clearly than I had ever done the loss which the community had sustained by the death of Sherlock Holmes. All day as I drove upon my round I turned over the case in my mind, and found no explanation which appeared to me to be adequate. Until, I could take no more and decided to visit the scene of the tragedy myself.

So it was that in the evening I strolled across the Park, and found myself about six o'clock at the Oxford Street end of Park Lane. A group of loafers upon the pavements, all staring up at a particular window, directed me to the house which I had come to see. A tall, thin man with coloured glasses, whom I strongly suspected of being a plain-clothes detective, was tucked in shadows of a building further down the street, watching the crowd intently. As if sensing my gaze, he turned toward me. Though I could not see his eyes through his glasses, I was positive that our eyes met. A chill ran up my spine. What caused this I could not say, except that it was accompanied by a sense of familiarity that was wholly unpleasant. Breaking the gaze as swiftly as I could, I returned my attention to the window above me.

On the evening of the crime Adair had returned from the club exactly at ten. His valet deposed that he heard him enter the front room on the second floor, generally used as his sitting-room. He had lit a fire there, and as it smoked he had opened the window. A scream at eleven alerted the valet that something was wrong. On entering the room he found Adair’s body lying upon the floor with the head neatly removed and nowhere in sight . The autopsy revealed not a drop of blood in his body. Subsequent investigations had failed to identify what had happened to the head.

Shuddering, and no more enlightened than before, I turned and headed for my lonely practice in Kensington. I had not been in my study five minutes when the maid entered to say that a person desired to see me. To my astonishment it was none other than the strange thin man I had seen in Park Lane. Still clad in his high collared coat, wide brimmed hat and tinted glasses, there was no telling who he was or what were his intentions, but I felt instinctively that it was nothing for the good.

“You're surprised to see me, sir,” said he, in a strange, croaking voice.

I acknowledged that I was.

“Well, I couldn’t help noticing you in Park Lane earlier. I recognised you at once as Dr. Watson, the erstwhile partner of Sherlock Holmes. You seemed, like me, to be investigating the case. When I chanced to see you go into this house I thought to myself, I'll just step in and see that gentleman, and perhaps we can share our findings.”

“May I ask how you knew who I was?”

“Well, sir, if it isn't too great a liberty, I am a neighbour of yours. You can see my house just opposite.”

He pointed out of my front window and I moved my head to look. When I turned again Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a grey mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips.

“Holmes!” I cried. “Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive? Is it possible that you succeeded in climbing out of that awful abyss?”

“My dear fellow, I cannot explain yet. I am close to solving the matter of Adair’s murder. I believe I will catch the murderer red-handed this evening but I shall have a long vigil before it is over. Will you come with me to-night?”

“When you like and where you like.”

“Well, then, about that chasm. I had no serious difficulty in getting out of it, for the very simple reason that I never was in it.”

“You never were in it?”

“No, Watson, I never was in it. But I shall explain more fully this evening. I shall call for you at half-past nine. Be ready for a difficult night, my friend.”

He put his tinted glasses back on as I showed him out. Still reeling in shock, I watched after him as he quickly disappeared into the descending fog.

It was indeed like old times when, at that hour, I found myself seated beside him in a hansom, my revolver in my pocket and the thrill of adventure in my heart. Holmes was cold and stern and silent. He absence from London for three years had intensified the steely hunger in his eyes and I recalled the sinister impression he had conveyed in his disguise in Park Lane.

I had imagined that we were bound for Baker Street, but Holmes stopped the cab at the corner of Grovesnor Square. I observed that as he stepped out he gave a most searching glance to right and left, and at every subsequent street corner he took the utmost pains to assure that he was not followed. Our route was certainly a singular one. Holmes's knowledge of the byways of London was extraordinary, and on this occasion he passed rapidly, and with an unnaturally light step, through a network of mews and stables the very existence of which I had never known. We emerged at last into a small road, lined with old, gloomy houses, which led us into Park Street, and so to Culross Street. Here he turned swiftly down a narrow passage, passed through a wooden gate into a deserted yard, and then opened with a key the back door of a house. We entered together and he closed it behind us.

The place was pitch-dark, but it was evident to me that it was an empty house. Our feet creaked and crackled over the bare planking, and my outstretched hand touched a wall from which the paper was hanging in ribbons. Holmes's cold, thin fingers closed round my wrist and led me forwards down a long hall, until I dimly saw the murky fanlight over the door. Here Holmes turned suddenly to the right, and we found ourselves in a large, square, empty room, heavily shadowed in the corners, but faintly lit in the centre from the lights of the street beyond. There was no lamp near and the window was thick with dust, so that we could only just discern each other's figures within. My companion put his hand upon my shoulder and his lips close to my ear.

“Do you know where we are?” he whispered.

“Surely that is Park Lane… that is Adair’s house opposite,” I answered, staring through the dim window.

“Yes,” hissed Holmes icily, “a criminal often returns to the scene of the crime. I am no exception.”

Turning back to him, and only just beginning to grasp what he had said, my eyes met his and the malevolence in his gaze froze me in place. I had only felt fear like it once before, when confronted by a desert viper in Maiwand. As the corners of Holmes’ mouth lifted and his lip curled back, I was confronted by fangs far more terrifying than those of any snake.

I was completely paralysed whereas, for the first time since we were reunited, I got the impression Holmes was finally relaxed. In hushed, precise tones, he began to explain what had happened to him at the Reichenbach Falls.

“I promised to tell you what happened at Reichenbach, Watson. And I will do you that courtesy before I kill you. After you had been fooled into returning to the Englischer Hof, I continued to the falls where I perceived the somewhat sinister figure of late Professor Moriarty standing upon the narrow pathway which led to safety. I read an inexorable bloodlust in his grey eyes. Until then I had thought him a mere napoleon of crime, but he was something far more primal than that. He transformed before me; his eyes turned crimson, his brow dropped and finally he opened his maw and I watched as two stiletto canines grew. I was pinned to the spot in terror – as you are now, Watson. In the blink of an eye he was upon me. I felt his fangs pierce my neck and he began to drain my very life force. Had he succeeded I would be more conventionally dead right now. But he did not. By sheer effort of will, I managed to break the trance he had placed me under. Consult the literature, Watson, you will find this no easy thing to do! Only those of a more intellectual bent have ever achieved it, so you may as well stop trying. Once I had control of my body again, I used my knowledge of Japanese systems of wrestling to slip through his grip, and, falling to my back, I kicked him away with both feet. With a horrible scream he staggered backwards toward the edge of the falls. He clawed the air with both his hands. But for all his efforts he could not get his balance, and over he went. With my face over the brink I saw him fall for a long way. Then he landed upon a jagged rock, jutting out from the cliff face, which pierced his entire torso as though it were nothing but damp paper. One final shriek emitted from the writhing creature before he burst into flames and an instant later was nothing more than ash on the breeze.

“At once, I was aware I was no longer myself. I was something more. By enduring the vampire’s bite without being killed, I had been made one of their kind. All of my previous conceptions on how to live my life seemed vulgar to me now. What did the justice of mortals matter to me now. It struck me what a really extraordinarily lucky chance Fate had placed in my way. I could be a god, ruling from the shadows. Society brought to order however I desired. With a new strength, I climbed the sheer face of the cliffs to await your return. Perched upon a small outcrop I watched you all form your inevitable conclusions and depart.

“Since then, I have been working my way around eastern Europe, learning as much about vampire history as I could. I have studied unmentionable texts. I have been tutored by unholy masters. I have, in short, honed my abilities to perfection. And now, I have returned home to England, which I intend to transform into a stronger Empire than mankind has ever seen before.

“But first, old friend, as a mark of the death of my old life, you die. When you came to sightsee at my most recent victim’s home I couldn’t believe my luck. Yes – he was my victim. You can always spot them, I remove the head afterwards, just beneath the bite wound. Otherwise, some occultist would put it together and come hunting me. I followed you home and found you, dense as ever, so easy to lure here. You’ll be the second headless corpse, in this street! Imagine what the papers will make of that!”

So saying, he gave his cane a click, and withdrew a long, sharp blade with which he began removing the collar buttons of my shirt, to expose my throat.

I am fortunate that Mary’s last gift to me was the silver crucifix I wear about my neck. Holmes’s revulsion at the sight of it broke the spell long enough for me to scramble away into the night. It must have been instinct which carried me across Hyde Park and down faceless streets into St. John’s Church where I cower and scratch these words into my notebook.

I hear him now, out there, though I can see nothing through the stained glass windows. He calls me. And I am afraid.