A VOICE IN THE DARK
Sherlock Holmes is dead … and I have killed him.
The smartly dressed young Scotsman stared blindly through raindrops beading down the hansom cab window. Submerged in reverie, he did not notice that the cab had stopped. He did not see the limestone residences, nor their marble steps guarded by iron railings. All he heard, all he saw, were the misty wraiths of the world’s greatest consulting detective and his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, as they plummeted into a cataract of roaring waters, grappling in a final death-struggle.
A hatch in the ceiling above his head opened, and the driver of the hansom cab rained down a patter of gravelly syllables: “We’re here, guv’nor.”
The words jolted Arthur Conan Doyle into awareness. The seething vapors of the Reichenbach Falls evaporated and a London street materialized before him. He blinked, at a momentary loss. Where was he? Why had he taken a cab? Then he looked down at his lap and the torn envelope curling in the grip of his rain-dampened gloves.
A courier had delivered the letter that morning to his South Norwood home in the suburbs of London. He drew the cream-colored paper from its envelope and shook it open. The handwriting was elegant and unmistakably feminine. For a moment, Conan Doyle’s soft brown eyes traced the loops and whorls of the penmanship.
Dear Dr. Doyle,
I crave an audience with the noted author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries on a concern of the utmost gravity. This is a matter of mortal peril, and I believe that only an intellect such as yours can prevent a tragedy. Please visit me at number 42 ______ Crescent on Tuesday morning. Arrive no earlier than ten a.m.
Please help. I am a lady in desperate straits.
In place of a signature, the letter was signed with an elegant flourish.
An anonymous address.
A nameless summoner.
But as he tilted the page to the light, a phoenix watermark floated up from the fine stationery. Despite himself, he felt the stirrings of a coalescing mystery that would have intrigued his Sherlock Holmes.
A figure brushed past the cab window—he caught a vague, rain-blurred impression of a man in a hat, walking head down, a hand to his chin. No, holding something to his mouth—a cigarette or a pipe.
It was the briefest of glimpses. A momentary flash. And then it was gone.
The cab driver yanked a lever; the cab door flung open and Conan Doyle stepped down from the hansom. As he rummaged his pockets for loose change, a wraith of tobacco smoke swirled in the damp London air. His head snapped up as he caught a whiff. He threw a quick glance to his side, but saw only rain-puddled pavements and the endless parade of city traffic: black two- and four-wheelers drawn by plodding horses, their breath pluming in the damp air, hooves clop-clopping on the wet cobblestones.
The smoker had vanished.
He shook the image from his head and handed up two shillings to the driver. As he turned and took a step toward the glistening marble steps, it occurred to him to ask the cabbie to wait.
But too late—the driver whistled, shook the reins, and the cab rattled away.
Conan Doyle paused to peer up at the elegant, six-storey Mayfair home. But when he raised his head, an icy March rain needled his eyes. He dropped his gaze and, in a fashion surprisingly nimble for a big man, skipped up the rain-slick steps, anxious not to dampen his best top hat and coat.
The entrance of number 42 ______ Crescent featured a magnificent eight-paneled oak door painted a deep Venetian red. A large brass knocker provided the door’s centerpiece—a phoenix rising from its nest of flames.
The exact double of the notepaper’s watermark.
His gloved fingers grasped the knocker, raised it, and brought it sharply down upon its anvil with the percussive report of a pistol shot. He was about to knock a second time when the door flung inward, snatching the brass phoenix from his grasp.
A red-turbaned footman—a Sikh gentleman—swept the door aside as if he’d been lurking behind it.
Wordlessly, the servant drew Conan Doyle inside with a low bow and a beckoning wave of his white-gloved hand. The entrance hall, though opulent, was a gloomy snare of shadows. His breath fogged the air—it was colder inside than out. The footman took his hat and coat without a word, hung them upon a naked coat stand, and led the way to a closed set of double doors.
“Please to wait inside, sahib,” he said in heavily accented English.
The servant bowed again and held the door open. Conan Doyle stepped inside—and recoiled. The room was some kind of windowless antechamber, sparsely furnished with low couches and bookshelves. But further detail was hard to make out, as the room was even darker than the entrance hall. The only illumination came from the stuttering light of a single gas jet turned low.
“Just one moment!” Conan Doyle began to protest. “Am I to be cast into the darkness?”
Despite his complaints, the door was softly but firmly shut in his face.
“Wait! What? What is the meaning?” he yelled, and snatched at the door handle, which refused to turn.
Outraged, he rattled the handle and banged a meaty fist on the door.
“See here you fool, you’ve locked me…” Conan Doyle fell silent as he tumbled to the truth: it was no accident.
In rising dudgeon, he strode across the room to the far door and seized the knob. But a firm yank revealed that it, too, was locked. The young doctor released a gasp of astonished umbrage and looked about. For several seconds he wrestled with the notion of seizing one of the end tables to use as a battering ram. But then the words of the letter ran through his head:
This is a matter of mortal peril, and I believe that only an intellect such as yours can prevent a tragedy.
Already half-convinced that he was being drawn into a web of charlatanism, Conan Doyle hitched up the legs of his trousers and dropped onto a cold leather couch, nostrils flaring as he gave a snort of indignation.
Minutes passed. Anger turned to curiosity as he idled, peering around the room. It became an interesting game, trying to fathom what was going on—the kind of game that Holmes—NO! That part of my writing life is over. Holmes is dead and I am finally free to write the serious books I wish to write.
In the room beyond, he heard a soft bump followed by the snick of a key turning in a lock. His eyes remained fixed upon the door, expecting it to open, but it remained closed.
“Doctor Doyle,” a high, musical voice trilled from the other side. “If you would be so kind as to join me.”
Conan Doyle sprang to his feet, dithered a moment, then strode to the door and flung it wide. To his surprise, the room beyond was even darker. The guttering gas jet behind him threw only a wan slab of light that sketchily illumined a hulking leather armchair. Everything else—the remainder of the room and its mysterious occupant—lay drowned in umbrous shadow.
My God! He thought. It’s a trap! I’m being kidnapped. Conan Doyle owned a pistol, but seldom carried it.
Now he very much wished his service revolver was tucked into his waistcoat.
Every instinct told him not to enter the room. Undoubtedly, a gang of ruffians crouched in the shadows, waiting to spring upon him. But then the memory of the kohl-eyed servant conjured more exotic visions: a Thuggee assassin with his knotted silken kerchief, anxious to slip it around a white man’s throat and snap his neck.
“Now see here!” Conan Doyle barked, hoping the steel in his voice would mask his rising fear. “I trust I have not been sent on a fool’s errand. I am a busy man and have many pressing affairs—”
“Please, Doctor Doyle, forgive the unorthodox greeting. If you would kindly take a seat, I can explain.”
Despite his fear, there was something about the voice, an earnestness that made him wish to linger, to find out more about its owner. He stiffened his posture and harrumphed noisily to show that he was not a man to be trifled with, then threw back his shoulders and strode into the room, his large hands balled into fists, ready to hurl a punch. When he stood before the armchair the voice spoke again: “Please, sir, be seated.”
In the gloom, the chair proved lower than estimated, the drop farther, and he thumped into the cushion with a spine-jarring jolt, expelling air with an “oof!” The door, which he had left ajar, groaned slowly shut under its own weight and latched with a clunk. Darkness blindfolded his eyes. Shadows bound him to the chair. Arthur Conan Doyle found himself a prisoner of obsidian night.
He gripped the arms of the leather chair, feeling suddenly off-balance.
“I beg you, sir,” the voice soothed. “Do not be alarmed. I—I owe you an explanation: the reason we must meet in darkness.”
The leather arms creaked as he slackened his death grip.
“You are obviously at great pains to conceal your identity,” Conan Doyle said, his mind racing ahead. The attempt at anonymity was pointless—it would be a simple matter to trace the owner of such a distinctive house.
“No,” the woman said. “The reason is that I suffer—” Her voice grew taut. “I suffer from an affliction.”
“An—an affliction?” Conan Doyle started at the loudness of his own voice. Hideous visions flashed before him. The woman must suffer from a disfiguring disease. “An affliction?” he repeated, affecting a neutral tone.
“Do not be concerned,” she hurried to reassure. “It is not contagious. It is, rather, a disease carried through the bloodlines of my family. For me, every ray of sunlight is a needle dipped in arsenic. Even the wan glow of a lamp is a cloud of slow poison oozing through my skin.”
For moments, Conan Doyle did not speak, his pulse quickening. As a doctor, he had heard talk of such an ailment: porphyria, a congenital disease. There was even a rumor that this malady touched the family of the royal personage.
Think, Arthur! he chided himself. Think as your Holmes would do.
By now the total darkness had become oppressive and a rising sense of vertigo told him that the chair and the floor beneath his feet were rotating slowly backward and to the left. The sensation was strengthened by the impression that the woman’s voice seemed to be moving around the room, first left and now right and then, most disturbingly, floating up to where he imagined the ceiling to be.
He blinked, and his vision swarmed with ghosts. As a medical man and student of the eyes, he knew the specters were a natural phenomenon—the light-recepting cells on the surface of the retina firing spontaneously like mirrors bleeding light in a darkened room. Deprived of sight, Conan Doyle opened his other senses to sieve every possible clue. First, the voice. Female. Definitely. He had seen convincing fakes on the stages of the less-reputable music halls. And while strolling in the most dangerous parts of London, seeking physical sights and sounds and sensations for his mysteries, he had been solicited by lissome creatures who dressed in daring women’s fashions but who possessed Adam’s apples and husky voices.
No, he was certain. The voice sprang from feminine lips. But there was something about it, an uncanny aspect. His mind summoned the word from the shadows around him—ethereal.
“I understand you wish to protect the good name of your family,” Conan Doyle said. “But might I at least know your first name?”
A momentary silence followed as the woman mulled his request. “Forgive me, but I wish to remain anonymous. However, should you find it in your power to assist me, I will reveal all.”
He cleared his throat. “I am a writer, madam, a mere scribbler of tales. I do not know what I could possibly—”
“It is a case of murder,” she said bluntly.
The words cradled on Conan Doyle’s tongue languished and died. “Murder?” he repeated.
“Murder. Violent. Sudden.” Her final words came out in a strangled voice. “And premeditated.”
Conan Doyle cleared this throat. He had somehow known this was coming and dreaded it. “I am afraid I cannot help you, madam. I am no policeman. Nor am I a detective. However, I do have many contacts at Scotland Yard—”
“I have already spoken to the police,” she interrupted, disdain icing her words. “As to the detectives at Scotland Yard, they were—I am afraid to say—unable to offer the least assistance.”
“But as I said, I am no policeman.”
“And yet you have created the world’s most renowned detective?”
There was a time Conan Doyle would have been flattered by the compliment, but now he felt only irritation. “A trifling fiction, madam. It is a common misconception held by my readers. Sherlock Holmes is a mere phantasm of my imagination. A bit of whimsy. All my adventures, I am afraid, have taken place at my writing desk. All in my mind.”
He did not bother to inform her that he had recently killed off the “world’s most renowned detective.” All of London would soon be buzzing with the news.
“And is the mind not the most dangerous battlefield of all?”
It was a penetrating observation and left him momentarily groping for a rejoinder.
“As I previously stated, madam, I am not with the police. If you believe a murder has taken place—”
“No, Mister Doyle,” the woman hastened to explain. “That is my problem. I need you to solve a murder … that has not yet taken place.”
Leather squeaked as he shifted in the armchair. He fought the giddy sensation that her voice had swooped above his head and that she now stood behind his chair, a hand hovering over one shoulder, ready to alight.
“I am sorry, I do not understand you.”
“I will be murdered in two weeks’ time.”
“Has someone threatened your life? How can you possibly know—?”
“I am a spiritualist medium of some renown. I have moments of clairvoyance. Visions of events that have yet to happen. For the last year I have had the same premonition. The details loom sharper with time. In two weeks I will be murdered during a séance—shot twice in the chest.”
The fiction writer in Conan Doyle immediately saw the logical flaw in such a story. “But if you can foresee the future, then surely you must see the face of your murderer?”
“Unfortunately, no. That is hidden from me. The room is lit only by candlelight and the faces of the sitters little more than smudges of light and shadow. There is, however, one face that is recognizable—the face of the sitter on the murderer’s left hand. Until six months ago, I had no name to put to that face. But then I saw a photograph in The Strand Magazine of an esteemed author. It was your photograph: Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle, the true genius behind Sherlock Holmes. You are the man I see in my visions.”
Moments passed before he found his voice. “Madam. Many people have dreams, visions—what you will. Most are silly, illogical, and only have a meaning we ascribe to them. Few truly foretell the future.”
His words marched out into the darkness and tumbled over a cliff into silence.
When the woman spoke again, there was a hitch in her voice. “I believe these dreams, Doctor Doyle. I believe I will be murdered. I also believe you are the only one who can prevent my death. Will you please help me?”
The voice seemed to be moving, gliding past his left shoulder. A faint breeze caressed his cheek. His nostrils pooled with the musk of perfume. He heard the swish of silken thighs brushing together, a sound that sprang prurient visions into his mind. He imagined a young woman, dressed in nothing more substantial than the diaphanous pantaloons of a harem girl. He found himself becoming aroused and wiped his sweaty palms on the arms of the chair, struggling to empty his mind of such thoughts.
He was a married man. A gentleman. A doctor.
“What do you say, Doctor Doyle?” He started as he felt warm breath lick the bowl of his ear. She must be standing next to him. Touchably close. “Will you help a young woman in distress?”
Something in her voice made him want to believe. Want to help. Want to save her.
But then he thought of his wife. Of the impropriety.
The year just passed had been the most turbulent in Conan Doyle’s thirty-four years. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, had finally died in a madhouse after a lifelong battle with melancholia and alcoholism. His beloved wife, Louise, had been diagnosed with galloping consumption and, despite the advances of modern medicine, her lungs were shredding to rags. He could not help this young woman for many of the same reasons he had killed off his most successful artistic creation, Sherlock Holmes, for Arthur Conan Doyle no longer believed in a world where a man—even a man with advanced powers such as a consulting detective or a medical doctor—could alter Fate.
“I—I am afraid I must decline,” he stuttered. “But as I said, I personally know many of Scotland Yard’s best—”
“Thank you for your time, Doctor Doyle,” the woman interrupted, her voice cracking with disappointment. “You have been most kind.”
“No, I beg you to reconsider. My offer is genuine. Inspector Harrison is a personal friend—”
“I will detain you no longer. Please forgive the imposition.”
He felt a stir in the air currents and heard a soft bump and the rasp of a key turning in a lock.
He was left to grope his way out in the darkness.
Copyright © 2014 by Vaughn Entwistle