Chris Roberson’s latest novels are Three Unbroken, Dawn of War II, End of the Century, and Book of Secrets, the first in his Nekropolis series. His short stories have appeared in several anthologies, such as The Many Faces of Van Helsing, FutureShocks, and Sideways in Crime, and in a variety of magazines, including Asimov’s and Interzone. He is a winner of the Sidewise Award for best works of alternate history, and his novel The Dragon’s Nine Sons was a finalist for this year’s award. In addition to being a writer, Roberson (along with his wife, Allison) is the publisher of indie press MonkeyBrain Books.
William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The past is always with us, the only guide we have for judging how we should act in the present and in the future. And yet our understanding of even our own pasts is gravely limited by our memory. Many people would likely be shocked to be confronted with just how unreliable their memory can be. Eyewitness testimony is often hopelessly confused, and many innocent people have gone to prison on the basis of false memories of childhood abuse. On the other hand there are people with staggeringly precise memories, who can recite pi to thousands of decimal places, or remember what they were doing on any day for the past several decades. Often such exceptional memory comes at the price of some other cognitive impairment. Sherlock Holmes, upon his return from the dead in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” remarks on various criminals of his acquaintance whose names begin with M. “Moriarty himself is enough to make any letter illustrious,” says Holmes, “and here is Morgan the poisoner, and Merridew of abominable memory.” What follows is the story of this Merridew—a tale you won’t soon forget.
MERRIDEW OF ABOMINABLE MEMORY
by Chris Roberson
The old man reclined on a chaise-longue, warmed by the rays of the rising sun which slanted through the windows on the eastern wall. In the garden below, he could see the other patients and convalescents already at work tending the greenery with varying degrees of attention. The gardens of the Holloway Sanatorium were the responsibility of the patients, at least those tasks which didn’t involve sharp implements, and the nurses and wardens saw to it that the grounds were immaculate. Not that the patients ever complained, of course. Tending a hedge or planting a row of flowers was serene and contemplative compared to the stresses which had lead most of the patients to take refuge here, dirty fingernails and suntanned necks notwithstanding.
No one had asked John Watson to help tend the garden, but then, he could hardly blame them. Entering the middle years of his eighth decade of life, his days of useful manual labor were far behind him, even if he wasn’t plagued by ancient injuries in leg and shoulder. But it was not infirmities of the body that had led John here to Virginia Water in Surry; rather, it was a certain infirmity of the mind.
John’s problem was memory, or memories to be precise. The dogged persistence of some, the fleeting loss of others. Increasingly in recent months and years, he had found it difficult to recall the present moment, having trouble remembering where he was, and what was going on around him. At the same time, though, recollections of events long past were so strong, so vivid, that they seemed to overwhelm him. Even at the best of times, when he felt in complete control of his faculties, he still found that the memories of a day forty years past were more vivid than his recollections of the week previous.
John had been content to look upon these bouts of forgetfulness as little more than occasional lapses, and no cause for concern. When visiting London that spring, though, he had managed to get so befuddled in a fugue that he’d wandered round to Baker Street, fully expecting his old friend to be in at the rooms they once shared. The present tenant, a detective himself as it happened, was charitable enough about the episode, but it was clear that Blake had little desire to be bothered again by a confused old greybearded pensioner.
After the episode in London, John had begun to suspect that there was no other explanation for it than that he was suffering from the onset of dementia, and that the lapses he suffered would become increasingly less occasional in the days to come. In the hopes of finding treatment, keeping the condition from worsening if improvement were out of the question, he checked himself into Holloway for evaluation.
Warmed by the morning sun, John found himself recalling the weeks spent in Peshawar after the Battle of Maiwand, near mindless in a haze of enteric fever, something about the commingling of warmth and mental confusion bringing those days to mind.
His reverie was interrupted by the arrival of an orderly, sent to fetch John for his morning appointment with the staff physician, the young Doctor Rhys.
As the orderly led him through the halls of Holloway, they passed other convalescents not equal to the task of tending the emerald gardens outside. There were some few hundred patients in the facility, all of them being treated for mental distress of one sort or another, whether brought on by domestic or business troubles, by worry or overwork. Not a few of them had addled their own senses with spirits, which brought to John’s mind his elder brother Henry, Jr., who had died of drink three decades past.
There were others, though, who had seen their senses addled through no fault of their own. Some of the patients were young men, not yet out of their third decade, who seemed never to have recovered from the things they did and saw in the trenches of the Great War. Their eyes had a haunted look, as they stared unseeing into the middle distance.
John well remembered being that young. If he closed his eyes, he could recall the sounds and smells of the Battle of Maiwand as though it had occurred yesterday. As he walked along beside the orderly, he reached up and tenderly probed his left shoulder, the sensation of the Jezail bullet striking suddenly prominent in his thoughts.
Finally, they reached Doctor Rhys’s study, and found the young man waiting there for them. Once John was safely ensconced in a well-upholstered chair, the orderly retreated, closing the door behind him.
“And now, Mr. Watson, how does the day find you, hmm?”
“Doctor,” John said, his voice sounding strained and ancient in his own ears. He cleared his throat, setting off a coughing jag.
“Yes?” Rhys replied, eyebrow raised.
Rhys nodded vigorously, wearing an apologetic expression. “Quite right, my apologies. How are you today, then, Dr. Watson?”
John essayed a shrug. “No better than yesterday, one supposes, and little worse.”
Rhys had a little notebook open on his knee, and jotted down a note. “The staff informs me that you have not availed yourself of many of our facilities, in the course of your stay.”
It was a statement, though John knew it for a question. “No,” he answered, shaking his head.
In the sanatorium, there was more than enough to occupy one’s day. Those seeking exercise could use the cricket pitch, badminton court, and swimming pool, while those of a less strenuous bent could retire to the snooker room and social club. In his days at Holloway, though, John had been content to do little but sit in an eastern-facing room in the mornings, in a western-facing room in the afternoons, sitting always in the sunlight. It was as though he were a flower seeking out as many of the sun’s rays as possible in the brief time remaining to him. The less charitably minded might even accuse him of seeking out the light through some fear of shadows, since by night the electric lights in his room were never extinguished, and when he slept it was in a red-lidded darkness, never black.
“Tell me, Dr. Watson,” Rhys continued, glancing up from his notes, “have you given any further thought to our discussion yesterday?”
John sighed. Rhys was an earnest young man, who had studied with Freud in Vienna, and who was fervent in his belief that science and medicine could cure all ills. When John first arrived in Holloway weeks before, he had taken this passion as encouraging, but as the days wore on and his condition failed to improve, his own aging enthusiasms had begun to wane.
Had Watson ever been so young, so convinced of the unassailable power of knowledge? He remembered working in the surgery at St. Bartholomew’s, scarcely past his twentieth birthday, his degree from the University of London still years in his future. The smell of the surgery filled his nostrils, and he squinted against the glare of gaslights reflecting off polished tiles, the sound of bone saws rasping in his ears.
John blinked, to find Rhys’s hand on his knee, a concerned look on his face.
“I’m sorry,” John managed. “My mind… drifted.”
Rhys nodded sympathetically. “Memory is a pernicious thing, Dr. Watson. But it is still a wonder and a blessing. After our meeting yesterday I consulted my library, and found some interesting notes on the subject. Are you familiar with Pliny’s Naturalis historia?”
John dipped his head in an abbreviated nod. “Though my Latin was hardly equal to the task in my days at Wellington.”
Rhys flipped back a few pages in his moleskin-bound notebook. “Pliny cites several historical cases of prodigious memory. He mentions the Persian king Cyrus, who could recall the name of each soldier in his army, and Mithridates Eupator, who administered his empire’s laws in twenty-two languages, and Metrodorus, who could faithfully repeat anything he had heard only once.”
John managed a wan smile. “It is a fascinating list, doctor, but I’m afraid that my problem involves the loss of memory, not its retention.”
Rhys raised a finger. “Ah, but I suspect that the two are simply different facets of the same facility. I would argue, Dr. Watson, that nothing is ever actually forgotten, in the conventional sense. It is either hidden away, or never remembered at all.”
“Now I am afraid you have lost me.”
“Freud teaches that repression is the act of expelling painful thoughts and memories from our conscious awareness by hiding them in the subconscious. If you were having difficulty recalling your distant past, I might consider repression a culprit. But your problem is of a different nature, in that your past memories are pristine and acute, but your present recollections are transient and thin.”
John chuckled, somewhat humorlessly. “I remember well enough that I described my own condition to you in virtually the same terms upon my arrival.”
Rhys raised his hands in a gesture of apology. “Forgive me, I tend to forget your own medical credentials, and have a bad habit of extemporizing. But tell me, doctor, what do you know of Freud’s theories concerning the reasons dreams are often forgotten on waking?”
John shook his head. “More than the man on the Clapham omnibus, I suppose, but considerably less than you, I hazard to guess.”
“Freud contends that we are wont soon to forget a large number of sensations and perceptions from dreams because they are too feeble, without any substantial emotional weight. The weak images of dreams are driven from our thoughts by the stronger images of our waking lives.”
“I remember my dreams no better or worse than the next man.”
“But it seems to me, based on our conversations here, that the images of your past are stronger and more vivid than those of your present circumstances. The celebrated cases in which you took part, the adventures you shared. How could the drab, gray days of your present existence compare?”
John rubbed at his lower lip with a dry, wrinkled fingertip, his expression thoughtful. “So you think it is not dementia which addles my thoughts, but that I forget my present because my past is so vivid in my mind?”
Rhys made a dismissive gesture. “Dementia is merely a name applied to maladies poorly understood. The categories of mental distress understood in the last century—mania, hysteria, melancholia, dementia—are merely overly convenient categories into which large numbers of unrelated conditions might be dumped. More a symptom than a cause.” He closed his notebook and leaned forward, regarding John closely. “I think, Dr. Watson, that you forget because you are too good at remembering.”
Rhys fell silent, waiting for a response.
John was thoughtful. He closed his eyes, his thoughts following a chain of association, memory leading to memory, from this drab and grey present to his more vivid, more adventure-filled past.
“Dr. Watson?” Rhys touched his knee. “Are you drifting again?”
John smiled somewhat sadly, and shook his head, eyes still closed. Opening them, he met Rhys’s gaze. “No, doctor. Merely remembering. Recalling one of those ‘celebrated cases’ you mention, though perhaps not as celebrated as many others. It involved a man who could not forget, and who once experienced a memory so vivid that no other things could be recalled ever after.”
We have spoken about my old friend Sherlock Holmes, John Watson began. It has been some years since I last saw him, and at this late date I have trouble remembering just when. I saw little of Holmes after he retired to Sussex, only the occasional weekend visit. But as hazy as those last visits are in my mind, if I close my eyes I can see as vividly as this morning’s sunlight those days when Victoria still sat upon the throne, and when Holmes and I still shared rooms at No. 221B Baker Street.
The case I’m speaking of came to us in the spring of 1889, some weeks before I met the woman who was to become the second Mrs. Watson, god rest her, when Holmes and I were once again living together in Baker Street. The papers each day were filled with stories regarding the Dockside Dismemberer. He is scarcely remembered today, overshadowed by other killers who live larger in the popular imagination, but at the time the Dismemberer was the name on everyone’s lips.
At first, it had been thought that the Ripper might again be prowling the streets. Holmes and I, of course, knew full well what had become of him. But like the Ripper before him, the Dismemberer seemed to become more vicious, more brutal, with each new killing. By the time Inspector Lestrade reluctantly engaged Holmes’s services in the pursuit of the Dismemberer, there had been three victims found, each more brutally savaged than the last. On the morning in which the man of prodigious memory came into our lives, the papers carried news of yet another, the Dismemberer’s fourth victim.
By that time, we had been on the case for nearly a fortnight, but were no nearer a resolution than we’d been at the beginning. The news of still another victim put Holmes in a foul mood, and I had cause to worry after his mood. Holmes was never melancholic except when he had no industry to occupy his thoughts, but to pursue such a gruesome killer for so many days without any measurable success had worn on my friend’s good spirits.
“Blast it!” Holmes was folded in his favorite chair, his knees tucked up to his chest, his arms wrapped tightly around his legs. “And I assume this latest is no more identifiable than the last?”
I consulted the news article again, and shook my head. “There is to be an inquest this morning, but as yet there is no indication that the authorities have any inkling who the victim might be. Only that he was male, like the others.”
Holmes glowered. “And doubtless savaged, as well, features ruined.” He shook his head, angrily. “The first bodies attributed to this so-called ‘Dismemberer’ had been killed and mutilated, with the apparent intention of hiding their identities. These more recent victims, though, appear to have been killed by someone who took a positive delight in the act itself.”
I nodded. We’d had opportunity to examine the previous three victims, or rather to examine what remained of them, and Holmes’s assessment was my own. Even the Ripper had only approached such degradations in his final, and most gruesome killing.
I turned the pages of the paper, searching out some bit of news which might raise my friend’s spirits, or distract him for the moment if nothing else. It was on the sixth page that I found what I was seeking.
“Ah, here is an interesting morsel, Holmes,” I said as casually as I was able. “It is an obituary notice of an Argentinean who, if the story is to be believed, was rather remarkable. Ireneo Funes, dead at the age of twenty-one, is said to have had a memory of such singular character that he could recall anything to which it was exposed. Witnesses are quoted as saying that Funes could recall each day of his life in such detail that the recollection itself took an entire day simply to process.”
Holmes still glowered, but there was a lightening to his eyes that suggested my gambit had met with some small success. “Have I ever told you about Merridew, Watson?” I allowed that he hadn’t. “He was a stage performer I once saw, while traveling in America as a younger man. A mentalist performing under the name ‘Merridew the Memorialist,’ he appeared to have total recall. I myself saw him read two pages at a time, one with each eye, and then a quarter of an hour later recite with perfect accuracy texts he had glimpsed for only a moment.”
Had I but known of Pliny’s list of prodigious memories, Doctor Rhys, I might have suggested this Merridew for inclusion in the rolls. As it was, Holmes and I mused about the vagaries of memory for a brief moment before our discussion was interrupted by the arrival of a guest.
Our housekeeper Mrs. Hudson ushered the man into our sitting room. Holmes recognized him at a glance, but it wasn’t until our visitor introduced himself as one Mr. Dupry that I knew him. A baronet and scion of a vast family fortune, Dupry was one of the wealthiest men in London, and in fact in the whole of the British Empire.
“Mr. Holmes,” Dupry said, dispensing with any pleasantries. “I want to engage your services to investigate a theft.”
Holmes leaned forward in his chair, his interest piqued. “What is it that’s been stolen, Mr. Dupry?”
“Nothing,” Dupry answered. “Not yet, at any rate. I’m looking to you to make sure that remains the case.”
Holmes uncrossed his legs, his hands on the armrests of his chair. “I’ll admit that you have me intrigued. Please continue.”
Dupry went on to relate how a number of his peers and business associates—Tomlinson, Elton, Coville, Parsons, and Underhill—had in recent months been the victims of bank fraud. Someone had gained access to privileged financial information and used it against their interests. The amounts stolen from Tomlinson and Elton had been so relatively small as to remain unnoticed for some time, while the funds taken from Coville and Parsons were more substantial, but poor Underhill had been rendered all but destitute. After seeing so many of his contemporaries fall victim to the machinations of parties unknown, Dupry felt certain it was only a matter of time before he himself became a target, and thus his interest in securing the services of Sherlock Holmes.
Suffice it to say, Holmes took the case.
I explained to Dupry that we were still engaged in the matter of the Dockside Dismemberer, and so would have to continue to address matters relating to that investigation while beginning to look into his own concerns. We had the inquest of the fourth victim to attend that morning, after which we would meet Dupry at his home to survey the grounds and make a preliminary assessment.
At the inquest we were met by Inspector Lestrade, who seemed even more foul-tempered than Holmes at the lack of progress so far accomplished. Of substantive findings relating to this fourth victim, there were scarcely any. The body had been recovered from the Thames near Temple Stairs, in a state of early decomposition. Aside from a tattoo on the victim’s upper arm, depicting an anchor ringed by a rope of intertwining vines, there were no distinguishing marks. It was the opinion of New Scotland Yard that the killer was not the so-called “Torso Murderer,” who had been depositing body parts around the greater London area for the better part of two years, given the markedly different nature of the wounds and the condition of the remains, and the suggestion in the popular press that it was Jack the Ripper walking abroad once more was not even merited with a response.
Following the inquest, Holmes and I accompanied Lestrade to the chamber in New Scotland Yard in which the remains had been laid. In all my years, both as a medical man and as a seeker after criminals, I have seldom seen so gruesome a sight. The condition of the wounds suggested that the victim had been alive for some time before expiring from them. The oldest of the wounds had begun partially to heal over, while the newest were ragged an unhealed. The police surgeon and I agreed that the killer may well have taken a period of days inflicting cuts, severing digits, and slicing off appendages, one by one, before finally delivering a killing blow.
Insult was added to injury by the innumerable tiny incisions all over the body, which could be nothing but the bites of fish who had attempted to make a meal of the remains as it drifted in the Thames.
I had seldom seen so gruesome a sight. Little did I realize then that it would pale in comparison to what came after.
With our business at New Scotland Yard completed, Holmes having made a careful study of the victim’s tattoo for future reference, the two of us traveled across town to Kensington, to the home of Dupry.
“Have you come about the position?” asked the servant who answered the door.
“What can you tell us about it?” Holmes said, carefully phrasing his response neither to confirm or deny.
The poor man seemed haggard. He explained that the under-butler had run off in the night, and that the house steward was now in the process of interviewing candidates. The servant at the door was normally occupied in the livery, and so was unaccustomed to dealing with visitors, a task which normally fell to the under-butler. When we revealed that we were not, in fact, applicants for the position, the servant apologized profusely, and ushered us into Dupry’s study.
“A damn nuisance,” Dupry blustered, when Holmes mentioned the missing under-butler. “He seemed a stout enough fellow, and here he’s disappeared without warning. If I can’t hire a trustworthy man for twenty pounds a year, where am I to find good help, I ask you?”
“I’m afraid I have no idea, Mr. Dupry,” Holmes answered as solicitously as he was able. “Now, with your permission, may we examine your home? In particular, can you show me where you keep materials of a, shall we say, sensitive nature?”
For the next three quarters of an hour, Dupry showed us around his home, paying particular attention to his study, and to the wall safe there. When it was opened, though, revealed to contain neatly bound stacks of pound notes, bullion, and other valuables, Dupry held up a single piece of paper as the most valuable item in his possession.
“This, gentleman,” he said, careful to keep the document’s face away from our view, “is the key to my fortune. You see, the vast majority of my liquid holdings are held in an account in Geneva.”
I was confused, but Holmes nodded in understanding. “You see, Watson,” he explained, “Swiss bankers are obliged by law to keep a numerical register of their clientele and their transactions, but are prohibited from divulging this information to anyone but the client concerned. You and I might need our balance books to access our account at Child & Co., but one would only need the appropriate register numbers to access a Swiss account, as not even the bank clerks themselves are made aware of the identities of the clients they serve.”
“Quite right,” Dupry said, appearing impressed. He returned the document to the wall safe, careful to keep the printed side from our line of sight, and then closed the door, spinning the combination to lock it. Even with his precaution, though, I managed to glimpse the paper’s front for the briefest second, though I couldn’t begin to call to mind the words and numbers I’d seen in that instant. “And if that information were to fall into the wrong hands, I would be ruined. I suspect that my colleagues who have seen their fortunes plundered allowed information regarding their own Swiss accounts to be learned, and that the thief took advantage of the anonymity of the Swiss system.” He turned and fixed Holmes with a stare. “I keep my information safely under lock and key, Mr. Holmes. I am hiring you to ensure that it remains there.”
After we had completed an initial investigation of Dupry’s home and its locks, bars, and other security features, Holmes suggested that we visit some of the men whom Dupry indicated had fallen victim to the thief before.
First on our agenda was Underhill. The younger son of a well-established family, Underhill lived in a large Cubitt-designed home in Pimlico. If the state of the residence when Holmes and I arrived was any indication, though, it was clear that Underhill would not be in residence for much longer. The man answered the door himself, dressed only in shirt sleeves, harried almost to the point of tears. After we explained who we were, and our connection to his associate Dupry, Underhill admitted us, and explained that he was now all but destitute. He had been forced to let the majority of his household staff go, having lost the funds with which to pay them. It had been difficult to keep them even before, though, having lost two men from the staff in as many months before his fortune was even lost.
From there, we visited the homes of Coville, Elton, and Parsons who, if they were not as badly off as Underhill, seemed hardly much better. All three, too, mentioned having lost members of their domestic staffs in recent months.
When we called at the home of Tomlinson, we found him not in, having left the city to visit the continent. We were instead welcomed by his house steward, a man named Phipps.
“What is it I can do for you, gentlemen?” Phipps asked, with more urgency than seemed necessary. Standing in close proximity, I detected a strangely familiar but confusing scent wafting from him, which it took me a moment to recognize as an exceptionally strong cleaning agent, such as those used to clean tiles in large houses. Given the size of the staff apparently on hand in the Tomlinson home, it seemed odd that the house steward, the head of the staff, would lower himself to cleaning kitchen tiles.
Holmes explained that we had been engaged by Dupry, and that in connection with that engagement were investigating the rash of bank fraud whose victims had included Phipps’s employer, Mr. Tomlinson.
For the briefest instant, I fancied that panic flitted across the steward’s face, but as quickly as it had come it had passed, and he treated us to a friendly, open smile. “I’m happy to help in any way I can, of course.” Still, I couldn’t help but notice the sunken quality of his cheeks, the sallow coloration of his skin. He was clean scrubbed, for all that he smelled like bleach and lye, but I could not escape the impression that he was less than entirely healthy.
“Tell me, Phipps, have any members of your staff gone unaccountably missing in the recent past?”
The house steward continued smiling, but shook his head. “No, sir,” he said, his voice even and level, “not a one.” He paused, and then chuckled. “I took a brief vacation myself, this past winter, to visit family abroad, but returned to my post just as expected, so can hardly be considered ‘missing.’”
As the day ended, we returned to Baker Street, to find Inspector Lestrade waiting for us.
“We’ve identified the tattoo,” Lestrade said, without preamble, “and the man.”
Holmes nodded. “So you have found a man who sailed the Atlantic Ocean as a deckhand onboard a ship of Her Majesty’s Navy, I take it?”
Lestrade’s eyes widened, and as I smiled he began to glare at Holmes. “Blast it, Holmes, how did you know that?”
“Simple observation, my dear fellow,” Holmes answered. “Now, who was our late seaman, and who was it identified him?”
Lestrade grumbled, but answered. “His name was Denham. Until a few weeks ago, he was employed as a footman in the Parsons household.”
Holmes and I exchanged a glance. “Parsons?”
Lestrade nodded. “I spoke to the house steward myself. Seems Denham just stopped showing up to work some weeks back. Stranger still, his replacement, an American chap, went missing a short time after.”
“Was this before or after Parsons discovered a portion of his fortune had been stolen?”
Lestrade raised an eyebrow. “Now how did you know about that?”
Holmes explained in cursory detail our other ongoing investigation, and in particular the fact that we had earlier questioned Parsons himself.
“Well, the steward did mention the theft, at that, and said that for a brief time he’d suspected the two missing men of playing a part. But Parsons had felt sure that there was no way that a retired sailor or an addled American could possibly have been responsible, and had instead blamed the whole mess on a conspiracy of the Swiss.”
That certainly was in line with what Parsons had told us earlier that day.
“Why addled?” Holmes asked. “Why did Parsons regard the American as addled?”
Lestrade lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “Something about him becoming easily distracted. The American had come highly recommended, but seemed a poor hand at his duties, always staring at a patch of sunlight on the wall, or counting the number of trefoils on a rug, or some such, and his conversation rambled all over the place.” Lestrade chuckled. “Of course, it seems to me the steward had little room to talk, given how long he banged on about the whole matter. Seemed hungry for conversation, I suppose.”
I failed to see the significance of any of this, save that several of the men on Dupry’s list had lost members of their domestic staffs before their fortunes were ransacked, and that one of the missing servants had apparently fallen victim to the Dockside Dismemberer. But Holmes appeared to divine a much subtler truth for it all.
“Come along, Watson,” Holmes said, slipping back into his great coat and making for the door. “You’d better come, too, inspector. Unless I’m mistaken, we have only a short time left to prevent another fortune being stolen, and perhaps even another murder from being committed.”
It was late afternoon, the sun still lingering in the western sky, when we reached Dupry’s house. The unfortunate stable-hand had evidently been sent back to his duties, as Dupry’s butler answered the door.
“Can I help you gentlemen?”
“Where is Mr. Dupry?” Holmes asked, abandoning all courtesies.
“Interviewing a prospective applicant for the under-butler position, sir.” The butler sniffed, haughtily. “I am confident that by this interview’s conclusion the position will be filled.”
“Why does everyone take me for a domestic?” Holmes fairly snarled. “Tell me quickly, man! This applicant? He comes to you well recommended, seemingly perfectly suited for the task and able to start immediately?”
The butler was a little taken aback. “W-why, yes,” he stammered. “We had the most glowing report of his services from the house steward at the Tomlinson estate…”
“Take me to Dupry right away,” Holmes interrupted, shouldering his way into the door. The butler, a portrait of confusion, merely bowed in response and hurried to do as he’d been bid. Lestrade and I followed close behind, neither of us any more aware of what Holmes was about than the other.
We came upon Dupry in his office, interviewing a man of middle years. The interviewee was speaking as we entered unceremoniously, and I detected a distinct accent to his speech, Canadian or possibly American.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Dupry blustered.
Before the butler could answer, the interviewee in the chair turned, and when his eyes lit on Holmes it was with visible recognition.
After only a moment’s pause, Holmes’s own face lit up, and he snapped his fingers in sudden realization. “Merridew!” he said.
I recalled the name of the mentalist Holmes had reported seeing in America, years before.
“The Hippodrome Theatre, Baltimore, January 5th, 1880,” the man said in a strangely sing-song voice. Then, the syllables running together like one elongated word, he recited, “What art thou that usurp’st this time of night, Together with that fair and warlike form, In which the majesty of buried Denmark, Did sometimes march? By heaven I charge thee speak!”
“It is some years since I trod the boards,” Holmes said, not unkindly. “You have gotten yourself mixed up in some messy business, I fear, Merridew.”
The American lowered his eyes, looking somewhat shamed. “Horatio, thou art e’en as just a man, As e’er my conversation cop’d withal.”
“What is this, Holmes?” Lestrade demanded, pushing forward. “What the devil is he talking about?”
“Memories, inspector,” Holmes explained. “This is a man who trucks in memories.”
“See here,” Dupry said, slamming his hand down upon his desk, “I demand an explanation.”
Holmes clasped his hands behind his back. “A moment, Mr. Dupry, and a full accounting will be presented.” He turned to the American in the chair. “You didn’t hatch this one yourself, Merridew. You haven’t the stomach for the darker work this scheme requires. So who was it?”
Merridew, surprisingly, did not even attempt to dissemble. He calmly and patiently explained that he had come to England some months before with an eye towards performing his mentalist act on the English stage, but that he had fallen in with another passenger on the ship, a man who gave his name only as Stuart. When Merridew had demonstrated his ability for total recall, Stuart had hit upon a scheme. It appeared that he had recently come into a considerable amount of money, having gotten hold of confidential financial information belonging to his employer. The sum Stuart had embezzled was scarcely large enough to be noticed by his wealthy employer, but was a small fortune to him. And now he was hungry for more. Stuart could not take much more from his employer without tipping his hand, though, and so he would need to gain similarly sensitive information from other wealthy men.
Stuart identified their targets by looking over his employer’s business transactions to locate those with the largest fortunes invested in the appropriate ways. Once the target was chosen, Stuart would select a member of their household staff, and eliminate them. With a position vacant, Stuart would equip Merridew with a flawless resume and sterling recommendations, put in perfect position to be hired as the missing man’s replacement. Then Merridew would simply wait for the chance to get even the barest glimpse of the target’s financial documents. Only an instant was needed, and then he would be able to recall all of the information in perfect detail.
“And this man Stuart,” Holmes said, “which doubtless was merely an alias? Where did you meet with him?”
Merridew gave an address in the East End, and said that he’d been instructed by Stuart to meet him there at the conclusion of each assignment.
Holmes turned to me and Lestrade and smiled. “Gentlemen? Anyone fancy a trip to the East End?”
We hired a growler in the street outside Dupry’s home, and the four of us rode east, Holmes and Merridew on one side of the carriage, Lestrade and I on the other. There was a strange, almost childlike quality to Merridew. He seemed lost in a world of his own, and would answer truthfully any question put directly to him, unless he had some prepared answer already provided. It appeared that was how this “Stuart” had been able to work Merridew’s skills to his advantage, training him to act and speak just enough like a household domestic that he could pass a few days in the wealthy households, just long enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of a piece of paper such as the one Dupry had shown us. And with eyes that could read an entire page of text in a single glance, it was a task of complete ease to recall only a string of digits and a few words. And with that information, this Stuart would have complete access to the target’s Swiss account.
As we rode west, away from the setting sun, Holmes played the alienist, asking Merridew questions about the man in pursuit of whom we rode. It was hard for me not to feel sorry for this idiot savant, who seemed little more than a dupe in this business. But as Merridew described the man with whom he worked, I was reminded that four men lay mutilated and dead at this Stuart’s hands, and that in a just world some of the blame for that carnage had to be laid at Merridew’s feet as well. His hands may not have been red with their blood, and he claimed never to have seen the men whom he was positioned to replace, alive or dead, but he was still implicated in their deaths.
Urged by Holmes’s questioning, Merridew explained that Stuart appeared to have grown unsettled in recent weeks. Stuart had arranged a set of signals by which he and Merridew could communicate, without ever coming face to face unless necessary. There was a north-facing window on the top floor of the building in which they met, visible from the street, at which hung two drapes, one red and one black. If the window was curtained in black, Merridew was to mount the stairs and enter, where he would find Stuart waiting for him. If the red curtain was instead drawn, Merridew was to stay away, and not to approach under any circumstances.
“Red curtain,” Merridew said as we stepped down from the growler to the street. “Stay away.”
“Come along, Merridew,” Holmes said, taking the American by the elbow and steering him towards the door. “The signal suggests that your Mr. Stuart is in, and he is a man that my friends and I would very much like to meet.”
When we reached the top of the stairs, in the deeply shadowed gloom of the ill-lit interior, I caught a strong smell of bleach and lye, overlying something stronger, ranker, more unsettling. Through the flimsy wooden door at the landing, I could hear faint moaning, somewhere between the cry of a child and the mewling of a drowning cat.
“Red curtain, stay away,” Merridew repeated, looking visibly shaken.
“You’ve been here before,” I said, feeling the irresistible urge to cheer him, if possible. “What is there to be afraid of?”
Merridew shook his head, and fixed me with a pathetic gaze. “When I came before, it had always been cleaned. Now, I think, it is still dirty.”
“Enough of this nonsense.” Lestrade pushed ahead of us, and pounded on the door. “Open up in the name of Her Majesty!” He pounded again, louder. “It’ll only go harder on you if you resist.”
The moaning on the door’s far side took on a different quality, and I could hear the sound of scuttling, feet pounding against wooden boards, as if somewhere were trying to flee. But the room occupied the entire floor of the narrow building, and the only out would be through the window.
“He’s trying to scarper,” Lestrade said.
“Not today, I think,” Holmes said. Stepping back, he carefully studied the door in the dim light. “There, I think.” He pointed to a spot midway up, near the jamb. Then, after taking a deep breath, he lashed out with his foot, kicking the door at the point he evidently felt the weakest. He’d been right, as it happened, for the thin door flew inwards, shattering into three pieces.
The stairway and landing had been darkened, a gloaming scarcely lighter than a moonless night, but in the room beyond candles burned in their dozens, in their hundreds. Their flickering light cast shadows that vied across the walls and floor, shifting archipelagoes of light and darkness. The room itself might once have been suitable for a human dwelling, but had been transformed into an abattoir. Bits of viscera hung like garlands from the rafters, and blood and offal painted the walls and floor. A pair of severed limbs had been transformed into grotesque marionettes, strung up on bits of intestine tied with ligaments, a kind of macabre Punch and Judy awaiting some inhuman audience.
It took an instant for me to recognize the figure that lay stretched on the floor as being that of a human being at all, so little was left of him, the rest having been spun out and excised to decorate the room. And a further instant to recognize as human the figure crouched by the now-open window, his arms and face covered with blood as red as the curtain he’d torn out of his way. In one hand, the man held a knife, in the other what appeared to be some severed piece of human anatomy. The blood-covered man regarded us with crazed eyes, lips curled in a snarl baring red-stained teeth, his cheeks sunken.
“Don’t do it, Phipps,” Holmes shouted, taking a single step forward, and only then did I recognize the steward of the Tomlinson household.
There must have been some confusion when Merridew and the man first met, and the American’s strange recall had fixed on a term he’d misunderstood. Phipps had simply never corrected him when Merridew assumed his name was Stuart, not his profession that of steward.
Phipps snarled like an animal. “Money is power, blood is power, both are mine.” He threw one leg over the window’s sash. “You cannot stop me, nothing can.”
I don’t know whether Phipps truly believed in that moment that he could not be hurt, or even that he might be able to fly. When he struck the cobblestones below a heartbeat later, though, he quickly learned that neither notion was true.
While Lestrade rushed to the window, already too late to do anything about Phipps, Holmes and I turned our attention to the man on the floor. He was alive, but only barely, and would doubtless perish before any help could arrive, or before he could be transported anywhere else.
“Dupry’s under-butler,” Holmes said, his hand over his nose and mouth to block the worst of the smell.
“Poor fellow.” I held a handkerchief over my own nose, but still the fetid stench of the place threatened to overwhelm me.
Lestrade stepped over from the window, his expression screwed up in distaste. “The man ‘removed’ so that Merridew could take his place, I take it.”
“The most recent of five,” Holmes corrected. “Most recent and final victim of the so-called Dismemberer.”
It was only then that I thought to see where Merridew had got to. I turned, and saw him standing there in the doorway, just as he had been when Holmes had kicked the door down. The American idiot savant had not moved, but had stood stock still with his eyes wide open and fixed on the scene before him, his mouth hanging slightly open, slack-jawed.
“Merridew?” I said, stepping towards him.
But it was clear that Merridew would not be answering, not then, not ever. He could not look away from the horrible carnage that his erstwhile partner in crime had wrought, and for which he in some sense at least had been responsible. Eyes that could recall entire books in a single glance, that could find untold levels of detail in the patterns of shadows’ falling or the curve of a cloud, took in every detail of the grisly scene. And having seen it, Merridew would never see anything, ever again. He would live, but his mind would be so occupied by that macabre sight in all its untold detail that his mind would refuse to allow any other sensations or impressions to enter. He would live forever in that moment, in the horrible realization of the horrors he had, however inadvertently, helped to accomplish.
I remember that day as if it were yesterday, and yet I know that I can not recall even a scintilla of the detail that Merridew retained. But even that tiniest amount, even that small iota of recollection, is enough to haunt me to the end of my days.
Doctor Rhys regarded John Watson, his eyes wide with sympathetic horror.
“I can’t help but think of all those young men,” John continued, waving towards the door and indicating the whole of Holloway Sanatorium beyond, “those tending the garden, or around the snooker table, or else just lounging in the corridors. So young, with so much life ahead of them, and yet their minds are fixed on the horrors of the trenches, their attentions forever fixed on the Great War.”
John leaned forward, meeting the doctor’s gaze.
“If it were up to me, doctor,” John went on, “you would spend less time studying how it is that we remember, and marveling over the prodigious memories of the past, and instead devote your attentions to discovering how it is that we forget.”
John closed his eyes, and eased back in his chair.
“Memory is no wonder, Dr. Rhys, nor is it a blessing.”
John pressed his lips together tightly, trying to forget that awful day, and the smells that lingered beneath the scent of bleach and lye.
“Memory is a curse.”