The Horror of the Many Faces by Tim Lebbon

Tim Lebbon’s latest novel is Bar None, a novel of “chilling suspense, apocalyptic beauty and fine ales.” Other recent work includes The Island, and forthcoming is an original 30 Days of Night novel, which is due out early next year, as is Tell My Sorrows to the Stones, a collaboration with Christopher Golden. Lebbon is a New York Times bestselling author, and the winner of the Stoker Award, and three British Fantasy Awards.

Our next tale is the first of three in this volume to come to us from Shadows Over Baker Street, a book of stories that blend the world of Sherlock Holmes with the Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was perhaps the most influential horror writer of the twentieth century. He was a scholar of weird fiction, having written a pioneering survey called Supernatural Horror in Literature, and his own groundbreaking fiction appeared mostly in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. For centuries horror stories had been bound up with notions of eternal damnation, and Lovecraft, a committed philosophical materialist, felt that such notions had become hokey and shopworn. Edwin Hubble’s startling discovery that our galaxy was just one of billions had inspired Lovecraft to write a new kind of horror story—tales set in a vast, incomprehensible universe, where human beings were tiny and insignificant, and in danger at any moment of being snuffed out by vast, uncaring forces. Holmes says, “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Lovecraft felt that the truth would drive us to insanity. Where these two worldviews collide, our next story begins.

 

THE HORROR OF THE MANY FACES
by Tim Lebbon

What I saw that night defied belief, but believe it I had to because I trusted my eyes. Seeing is believing is certainly not an axiom that my friend would have approved of, but I was a doctor, a scientist, and for me the eyes were the most honest organs in the body.

I never believed that they could lie.

What I laid eyes upon in the murky London twilight made me the saddest man. It stripped any faith I had in the order of things, the underlying goodness of life. How can something so wrong exist in an ordered world? How, if there is a benevolent purpose behind everything, can something so insane exist?

These are the questions I asked then and still ask now, though the matter is resolved in a far different way from that which I could ever have imagined at the time.

I was on my way home from the surgery. The sun was setting into the murk of the London skyline, and the city was undergoing its usual dubious transition from light to dark. As I turned a corner into a narrow cobbled street I saw my old friend, my mentor, slaughtering a man in the gutter. He hacked and slashed with a blade that caught the red twilight, and upon seeing me he seemed to calm and perform some meticulous mutilation upon the twitching corpse.

I staggered against the wall. “Holmes!” I gasped

He looked up, and in his honest eyes there was nothing. No light, no twinkle, not a hint of the staggering intelligence that lay behind them.

Nothing except for a black, cold emptiness.

Stunned into immobility, I could only watch as Holmes butchered the corpse. He was a man of endless talents, but still I was amazed at the dexterity with which he opened the body, extracted the heart and wrapped it in his handkerchief.

No, not butchery. Surgery. He worked with an easy medical knowledge that appeared to surpass my own.

Holmes looked up at me where I stood frozen stiff. He smiled, a wicked grin that looked so alien on his face. Then he stood and shrugged his shoulders, moving on the spot as if settling comfortably into a set of new clothes.

“Holmes,” I croaked again, but he turned and fled.

Holmes the thinker, the ponderer, the genius, ran faster than I had ever seen anyone run before. I could not even think to give chase, so shocked was I with what I had witnessed. In a matter of seconds my outlook on life had been irrevocably changed, brought to ground and savaged with a brutality I had never supposed possible. I felt as if I had been shot, hit by a train, mauled. I was winded and dizzy and ready to collapse at any moment.

But I pinched myself hard on the back of my hand, drawing blood and bringing myself around.

I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, but when I opened them again the corpse still lay there in the gutter. Nothing had changed. However much I desired to not see this, wished it would flee my memory, I was already realising that this would never happen. This scene was etched on my mind.

One of the worst feelings in life is betrayal, the realisation that everything one held true is false, or at least fatally flawed. That look in Holmes’s eyes… I would have given anything to be able to forget that.

His footsteps had vanished into the distance. The victim was surely dead, but being a doctor I had to examine him to make sure. He was a young man, handsome, slightly foreign-looking, obviously well-appointed in society because of the tasteful rings on his fingers, the tailored suit… holed now, ripped and ruptured with the vicious thrusts of Holmes’s blade. And dead, of course. His chest had been opened and his heart stolen away.

Perhaps he was a dreadful criminal, a murderer in his own right whom Holmes had been tracking, chasing, pursuing for days or weeks? I spent less time with Holmes now than I had in the past, and I was not involved in every case he took on. But… murder? Not Holmes. Whatever crime this dead man may have been guilty of, nothing could justify what my friend had done to him.

I suddenly had an intense feeling of guilt, kneeling over a corpse with fresh blood on my fingertips. If anyone rounded the corner at that moment I would have trouble explaining things, I was sure, not only because of the initial impression they would gain but also the shock I was in, the terror I felt at what I had witnessed.

The police should have been informed. I should have found a policeman or run to the nearest station, led them to the scene of the crime. I was probably destroying valuable evidence… but then I thought of Holmes, that crazy grin, and realised that I already knew the identity of the murderer.

Instead, something made me run. Loyalty to my old friend was a small part of it, but there was fear as well. I knew even then that things were not always as they seemed. Holmes had told me that countless times before, and I kept thinking impossible, impossible as I replayed the scene in my mind. But I trusted my eyes, I knew what I had seen. And in my mind’s eye Holmes was still grinning manically… at me.

With each impact of my feet upon the pavement, the fear grew.

Holmes was the most brilliant man I had ever known. And even in his obvious madness, I knew that he was too far beyond and above the ordinary to ever be outsmarted, outwitted or tracked down. If his spree is to continue, I prayed, please God don’t let him decide to visit an old friend.

I need not have worried about informing the police of the murder. They knew already.

The day following my terrible experience I begged sick, remaining at home in bed, close to tears on occasion as I tried to find room in my life for what I had seen. My thoughts were very selfish, I admit that, because I had effectively lost my very best friend to a horrendous madness. I could never have him back. My mind wandered much that day, going back to the times we had spent together and forward to the barren desert of existence which I faced without him. I liked my surgery, enjoyed my life… but there was a terrible blandness about things without the promise of Holmes being a part of it.

I mourned, conscious all the time of the shape of my army revolver beneath my pillow.

Mixed in with this was the conviction that I should tell the police of what I had seen. But then the evening papers came and somehow, impossibly, the terrible became even worse.

There had been a further six murders in the London streets the previous night, all very similar in execution and level of violence. In each case organs had been removed from the bodies, though not always the same ones. The heart from one, lungs from another, and a dead lady in Wimbledon had lost her brain to the fiend.

In four cases—including the murder I had witnessed—the stolen organs had been found somewhere in the surrounding areas. Sliced, laid out on the ground in very neat order, the sections sorted perfectly by size and thickness. Sometimes masticated gobs of the tissue were found as well, as if bitten off, chewed and spat out. Tasted. Tested.

And there were witnesses. Not to every murder, but to enough of them to make me believe that the murderer ¾ Holmes, I kept telling myself, Holmes ¾ wanted to be seen. Though here lay a further mystery: each witness saw someone different. One saw a tall, fat man, heavily furred with facial hair, dressed scruffy and grim. Another described a shorter man with decent clothes, a light cloak and a sword in each hand. The third witness talked of the murderous lady he had seen… the lady with great strength, for she had stood her victim against a wall and wrenched out the unfortunate’s guts.

A mystery, yes, but only for a moment. Only until my knowledge of Holmes’s penchant for disguise crept in, instantly clothing my memory of him from the previous night in grubby clothes, light cloak and then a lady’s dress.

“Oh dear God,” I muttered. “Dear God, Holmes, what is it my old friend? The cocaine? Did the stress finally break you? The strain of having a mind that cannot rest, working with such evil and criminal matters?”

The more I dwelled upon it the worse it all became. I could not doubt what I had seen, even though all logic, all good sense forbade it. I tried reason and deduction as Holmes would have, attempting to ignore the horrors of the case to pare it down to its bare bone, setting out the facts and trying to fill in the missing pieces. But memory was disruptive; I could not help visualising my friend hunkered down over the body, hacking at first and then moving instantly into a caring, careful slicing of the dead man’s chest. The blood. The strange smell in the air, like sweet honey (and a clue there, perhaps, though I could do nothing with it).

Holmes’s terrible, awful smile when he saw me.

Perhaps that was the worst. The fact that he seemed to be gloating.

I may well have remained that way for days, my feigned sickness becoming something real as my soul was torn to shreds by the truth. But on the evening of that first day following the crimes, I received a visit that spurred me to tell the truth.

Detective Inspector Jones, of Scotland Yard, came to my door looking for Holmes.

“It is a dreadful case,” he said to me, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” His face was pale with the memory of the corpses he must have been viewing that day. “Different witnesses saw different people, all across the south end of London. One man told me the murderer was his brother. And a woman, witness to another murder, was definitely withholding something personal to her. The murders themselves are so similar as to be almost identical in execution. The killing, then the extraction of an organ.”

“It sounds terrible,” I said lamely, because the truth was pressing to be spoken.

“It was,” Jones nodded. Then he looked at me intently. “The papers did not say that at least three of the victims were alive when the organs were removed, and that was the method of their death.”

“What times?” I asked.

“There was maybe an hour between the killings, from what we can work out. And yet different murderers in each case. And murderers who, I’m sure it will be revealed eventually, were all known to those bearing witness. Strange. Strange! Dr Watson, we’ve worked together before, you know of my determination. But this… this fills me with dread. I fear the sun setting tonight in case we have another slew of killings, maybe worse. How many nights of this will it take until London is in a panic? One more? Two? And I haven’t a clue as to what it’s all about. A sect, I suspect, made up of many members and needing these organs for some nefarious purpose of their own. But how to find them? I haven’t a clue. Not a clue! And I’m sure, I’m certain, that your friend Sherlock Holmes will be fascinated with such a case.”

Jones shook his head and slumped back in the armchair. He looked defeated already, I thought. I wondered what the truth would do to him. And yet I had to bear it myself, so I thought it only right to share. To tell. Holmes, my old friend… I thought fondly, and then I told Jones what I had seen.

He did not talk for several minutes. The shock on his face hid his thoughts. He stared into the fire as if seeking some alternate truth in there, but my words hung heavy, and my demeanour must have been proof enough to him that I did not lie.

“The different descriptions…” he said quietly, but I could sense that he had already worked that out.

“Disguises. Holmes is a master.”

“Should I hunt Holmes? Seek him through the London he knows so well?”

“I do not see how,” I said, because truly I thought ourselves totally out of control. Holmes would play whatever game he chose until its closure, and the resolution would be of his choosing. “He knows every street, every alley, shop to shop and door to door. In many cases he knows of who lives where, where they work and who they associate with. He can walk along a street and tell me stories of every house if he so chooses. He carries his card index in his brain, as well as boxed away at Baker Street. His mind… you know his mind, Mr Jones. It is endless.”

“And you’re sure, Dr Watson. Your illness has not blinded you, you haven’t had hallucinations—”

“I am merely sick to the soul with what I have witnessed,” I said. “I was fit and well yesterday evening.”

“Then I must search him out,” Jones said, but the desperation, the hopelessness in his voice told me that he had already given up. He stared into the fire some more and then stood, brushed himself down, a man of business again.

“I wish you luck,” I said.

“Can you help?” Jones asked. “You know him better than anyone. You’re his best friend. Have you any ideas, any reasoning as to why he would be doing these crimes, where he’ll strike next?”

“None,” I said. “It is madness, for sure.” I wanted Jones gone then, out of my house and into the night. Here was the man who would hunt my friend, stalk him in the dark, send his men out armed and ready to shoot to kill if needs must. And whatever I had seen Holmes doing… that memory, horrible… I could not entertain the idea of his death.

Jones left and I jumped to my feet. He was right. I knew Holmes better than anyone, and after many years accompanying him as he had solved the most baffling of cases, I would hope that some of his intuition had rubbed off on me.

It was almost dark, red twilight kissing my window like diluted blood, and if tonight was to be like last night then my old friend was already stalking his first victim.

I would go to Baker Street. Perhaps there I would find evidence of this madness, and maybe even something that could bring hope of a cure.

The streets were very different that night.

There were fewer strollers, for a start. Many people had heard of the previous night’s murders and chosen to stay at home. It was raining too, a fine mist that settled on one’s clothes and soaked them instantly. Street lamps provided oases of half-light in the dark and it was these I aimed for, darting as quickly as I could between them. Even then, passing beneath the lights and seeing my shadow change direction, I felt more vulnerable than ever. I could not see beyond the lamps’ meagre influence and it lit me up for anyone to see, any stranger lurking in the night, any friend with a knife.

I could have found my way to Baker Street in the dark. I walked quickly and surely, listening out for any hint of pursuit. I tried to see into the shadows but they retained their secrets well.

Everything felt changed. It was not only my new-found fear of the dark, but the perception that nothing, nothing is ever exactly as it seems. Holmes had always known that truth is in the detail, but could even he have ever guessed at the destructive parts in him, the corrupt stew of experience and knowledge and exhaustion that had led to this madness? It was a crueller London I walked through that night. Right and wrong had merged and blurred in my mind, for as sure as I was that what Holmes had done was wrong, it could never be right to hunt and kill him for it.

I had my revolver in my pocket, but I prayed with every step that I would not be forced to use it.

Shadows jumped from alleys and skirted around rooftops, but it was my imagination twisting the twilight. By the time I reached Baker Street it was fully dark, the moon a pale ghost behind London’s smog.

I stood outside for a while, staring up at Holmes’s window. There was no light there, of course, and no signs of habitation, but still I waited for a few minutes, safe in the refuge of memory. He would surely never attack here, not in the shadow of his long-time home. No, I feared that he had gone to ground, hidden himself away in some unknown, unknowable corner of London, or perhaps even taken his madness elsewhere in the country.

There was a sound behind me and I spun around, fumbling in my pocket for my revolver. It had been a shallow pop, as of someone opening their mouth in preparation to speak. I held my breath and aimed the revolver from my waist. There was nothing. The silence, the darkness felt loaded, brimming with secrets and something more terrible… something…

“Holmes,” I said. But he would not be there, he was not foolish, not so stupid to return here when he was wanted for some of the most terrible murders—

“My friend.”

I started, tried to gauge where the voice had come from. I tightened my grip on the pistol and swung it slowly left and right, ready to shoot should anything move. I was panicked, terrified beyond belief. My stomach knotted and cramped with the idea of a knife parting its skin and delving deeper.

“Is that you Holmes?”

More silence for a while, so that I began to think I was hearing things. It grew darker for a moment as if something had passed in front of the moon; I even glanced up, but there was nothing in the sky and the moon was its usual wan self.

“You feel it too!” the voice said.

“Holmes, please show yourself.”

“Go to my rooms. Mrs Hudson hasn’t heard of things yet, she will let you in and I will find my own way up there.”

He did not sound mad. He sounded different, true, but not mad.

“Holmes, you have to know—”

“I am aware of what you saw, Watson, and you would do well to keep your revolver drawn and aimed ahead of you. Go to my rooms, back into a corner, hold your gun. For your sanity, your peace of mind, it has to remain between us for a time.”

“I saw… Holmes, I saw…”

“My rooms.”

And then he was gone. I did not hear him leave, caught sight of nothing moving away in the dark, but I knew that my old friend had departed. I wished for a torch to track him, but Holmes would have evaded the light. And in that thought I found my continuing belief in Holmes’s abilities, his genius, his disregard for the normal levels of reasoning and measures of intelligence.

The madness he still had, but… I could not help but trust him.

From the distance, far, far away, I heard what may have been a scream. There were foxes in London, and thousands of wild dogs, and some said that wolves still roamed the forgotten byways of this sprawling city. But it had sounded like a human cry.

He could not possibly have run that far in such short a time.

Could he?

Mrs Hudson greeted me and was kind enough to ignore my preoccupation as I climbed the stairs to Holmes’s rooms.

There was another scream in the night before Holmes appeared.

I had opened the window and was standing there in the dark, looking out over London and listening to the sounds. The city was so much quieter during the night, which ironically made every sound that much louder. The barking of a dog swept across the neighbourhood, the crashing of a door echoed from walls and back again. The scream… this time it was human, I could have no doubt of that, and although even further away than the one I had heard earlier I could still make out its agony. It was followed seconds later by another cry, this one cut short. There was nothing else.

Go to my rooms, back into a corner, hold your gun, Holmes had said. I remained by the window. Here was escape, at least, if I needed it. I would probably break my neck in the fall, but at least I was giving myself a chance.

I’ve come to his rooms! I thought. Fly to a spider. Chicken to a fox’s den. But even though his voice had been very different from usual—more strained—I could not believe that the Holmes who had spoken to me minutes before was out there now, causing those screams.

I thought briefly of Detective Inspector Jones, and hoped that he was well.

“I am sure that he is still alive,” Holmes said from behind me. “He is too stupid to not be.”

I spun around and brought up the revolver. Holmes was standing just inside the door. He had entered the room and closed the door behind him without me hearing. He was breathing heavily, as if he had just been running, and I stepped aside to let in the moonlight, terrified that I would see the black stain of blood on his hands and sleeves.

“How do you know I was thinking of Jones?” I asked, astounded yet again by my friend’s reasoning.

“Mrs Hudson told me that he had been here looking for me. I knew then that you would be his next port of call in his search, and that you would inevitably have been forced by your high morals to relay what you have so obviously seen. You know he is out there now, hunting me down. And the scream… it sounded very much like a man, did it not?”

“Turn on the light, Holmes,” I said.

I think he shook his head in the dark. “No, it will attract attention. Not that they do not know where we are… they must… fear, fear smells so sweet… to bees…”

“Holmes. Turn on the light or I will shoot you.” And right then, standing in the room where my friend and I had spent years of our lives in pleasurable and business discourse, I was telling the truth. I was frightened enough to pull the trigger, because Holmes’s intellect would bypass my archaic revolver, however mad he sounded. He would beat me. If he chose to—if he had lured me here to be his next victim—he would kill me.

“Very well,” my friend said. “But prepare yourself Watson. It has been a somewhat eventful twenty-four hours.”

The lamp flicked alight.

I gasped. He looked like a man who should be dead.

“Do not lower that revolver!” he shouted suddenly. “Keep it on me now, Watson. After what you think you saw me doing, lower your guard and you are likely to shoot me at the slightest sound or movement. That’s right. Here. Aim it here.” He thumped his chest and I pointed the gun that way, weak and shocked though I was.

“Holmes… you look terrible!”

“I feel worse.” From Holmes that was a joke, but I could not even raise a smile. Indeed, I could barely draw a breath. Never had Holmes looked so unkempt, exhausted and bedraggled. His normally immaculate clothing was torn, muddied and wet, and his hair was sticking wildly away from his scalp. His hands were bloodied—I saw cuts there, so at least for the moment I could believe that it was his own blood—his cheek was badly scratched in several places and there was something about his eyes… wide and wild, they belied the calm his voice conveyed.

“You’re mad,” I said, unable to prevent the words from slipping out.

Holmes smiled, and it was far removed from that maniacal grin he had offered me as he crouched over the dying man.

“Do not jump to conclusions, Watson. Have you not learned anything in our years together?”

My hand holding the gun was starting to shake, but I kept it pointing at my friend across the room.

“I have to take you in, you know that? I will have to take you to the station. I cannot… I cannot…”

“Believe?”

I nodded. He was already playing his games, I knew. He would talk me around, offer explanations, convince me that the victims deserved to die or that he had been attacked… or that there was something far, far simpler eluding me. He would talk until he won me over, and then his attack would come.

“I cannot believe, but I must,” I said, a new-found determination in my voice.

“Because you saw it? Because you saw me killing someone you must believe that I did, in fact, kill?”

“Of course.”

Holmes shook his head. He frowned and for an instant he seemed distant, concentrating on something far removed from Baker Street. Then he glanced back at me, looked to the shelf above the fire and sighed.

“I will smoke my pipe, if you don’t mind Watson. It will put my mind at rest. And I will explain what I know. Afterwards, if you still wish to take me in, do so. But you will thereby be condemning countless more to their deaths.”

“Smoke,” I said, “and tell me.” He was playing his games, playing them every second

Holmes lit a pipe and sat in his armchair, legs drawn up so that the pipe almost rested on his knees. He looked at the far wall, not at me where I remained standing by the window. I lowered the revolver slightly, and this time Holmes did not object.

I could see no knives, no mess on his hands other than his own smeared blood. No mess on his chin from the masticated flesh of the folks he had killed.

But that proved nothing.

“Have you ever looked into a mirror and really concentrated on the person you see there? Try it, Watson, it is an interesting exercise. After an hour of looking you see someone else. You see, eventually, what a stranger sees, not the composite picture of facial components with which you are so familiar, but individual parts of the face—the big nose, the close-together-eyes. You see yourself as a person. Not as you.”

“So what are you trying to say?”

“I am saying that perception is not definite, nor is it faultless.” Holmes puffed at his pipe, then drew it slowly away from his mouth. His eyes went wide and his brow furrowed. He had had some thought, and habit made me silent for a minute or two.

He glanced back up at me then, but said nothing. He looked more troubled than ever.

“I saw you killing a man, Holmes,” I said. “You killed him and you laughed at me, and then you tore him open and stole his heart.”

“The heart, yes,” he said, looking away and disregarding me again. “The heart, the brain… parts, all part of the one… constituents of the same place…” He muttered on until his voice had all but vanished, though his lips still moved.

“Holmes!”

“It has gone quiet outside. They are coming.” He said it very quietly, looked up at me from sad, terrified eyes, and I felt a cool finger run down my spine. They’re coming. He did not mean Jones or the police, he did not mean anyone. No man scared Holmes as much as he was then.

“Who?” I asked. But he darted from his seat and ran at me, shoving me aside so that we stood on either side of the window.

“Listen to me, Watson. If you are my friend, if you have faith and loyalty and if you love me, you have to believe two things in the next few seconds if we are to survive: the first is that I am not a murderer; the second is that you must not trust your eyes, not for however long this may take. Instinct and faith, that is what you can believe in, because they cannot change that. It is too inbuilt, perhaps, too ingrained, I don’t know…”

He was mumbling again, drifting in and out of coherence. And I knew that he could have killed me. He had come at me so quickly, my surprise was so complete, that I had plain forgotten the gun in my hand.

And now, the denial.

Doubt sprouted in my mind and grew rapidly as I saw the look on Holmes’s face. I had seen it before, many times. It was the thrill of the chase, the excitement of discovery, the passion of experience, the knowledge that his reasoning had won out again. But underlying it all was a fear so profound that it sent me weak at the knees.

“Holmes, what are they?”

“You ask What, Watson, not Who. Already you’re half way to believing. Quiet! Look! There, in the street!”

I looked. Running along the road, heading straight for the front door of Holmes’s building, came Sherlock Holmes himself.

“I think they will come straight for me,” Holmes whispered. “I am a threat.”

“Holmes…” I could say little. The recent shocks had numbed me, and seemed now to be pulling me apart, hauling reality down a long, dark tunnel. I felt distanced from my surroundings even though, at that moment, I knew that I needed to be as alert and conscious of events as possible.

“Don’t trust your eyes!” he hissed at me.

That man, he had been running like Holmes, the same loping stride, the same flick of the hair with each impact of foot upon pavement. The same look of determination on his face.

“Faith, Watson,” Holmes said. “Faith in God if you must, but you must have faith in me, us, our friendship and history together. For there, I feel, will lie the answer.”

There came the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs.

“I will get them, it, the thing on the floor,” Holmes said, “and you shoot it in the head. Empty your revolver, one shot may not be enough. Do not baulk, my friend. This thing here, tonight, is far bigger than just the two of us. It is London we’re fighting for. Maybe more.”

I could not speak. I wished Jones were there with us, someone else to make decisions and take blame. Faith, I told myself, faith in Holmes.

I had seen him kill a man.

Don’t trust your eyes.

He was bloodied and dirtied from the chase, hiding from the crimes he had committed.

I am not a murderer.

And then the door burst open and Sherlock Holmes stood in the doorway lit by the lamp—tall, imposing, his clothes tattered and muddied, his face scratched, hands cut and bloodied—and I had no more time.

The room suddenly smelled of sweet honey, and turning my head slightly to look at the Holmes standing with me at the window, I caught sight of something from the corner of my eye. The Holmes in the doorway seemed to have some things buzzing about his head.

I looked straight at him and they were no more. Then he gave me the same smile I had seen as he murdered that man.

“Watson!” Holmes said, reaching across the window to grasp my arms. “Faith!”

And then the new visitor smashed the lamp with a kick, and leapt at us.

I backed away. The room was dark now, lit only by pale moonlight and the paler starlight filtering through London’s constant atmosphere. I heard a grunt, a growl, the smashing of furniture and something cracking as the two Holmes tumbled into the centre of the room. I quickly became confused as to which was which.

“Away!” I heard one of them shout. “Get away! Get away!” He sounded utterly terrified. “Oh God, oh sanity, why us!”

I aimed my revolver but the shapes rolled and twisted, hands at each other’s necks, eyes bulging as first one and then the other Holmes presented his face for me to shoot. I stepped forward nonetheless, still smelling that peculiar honey stench, and something stung my ankle, a tickling shape struggling inside my trousers. I slapped at it and felt the offender crushed against my leg.

Bees.

“Watson!” Holmes shouted. I pulled down the curtains to let in as much moonlight as I could. One Holmes had the other pinned to the floor, hands about his neck. “Watson, shoot it!” the uppermost Holmes commanded. His face was twisted with fear, the scratches on his cheek opened again and leaking blood. The Holmes on the floor thrashed and gurgled, choking, and as I looked down he caught my eye. Something there commanded me to watch, held my attention even as the Holmes on top exhorted me to shoot, shoot, shoot it in the face!

The vanquished Holmes calmed suddenly and brought up a hand holding a handkerchief. He wiped at the scratches on his face. They disappeared. The blood smudged a little, but with a second wipe it too had gone. The scratches were false, the blood fake.

The Holmes on top stared for a couple of seconds, and then looked back at me. A bee crawled out of his ear and up over his forehead. And then the scratches on his own cheek faded and disappeared before my eyes.

He shimmered. I saw something beneath the flesh-toned veneer, something crawling and writhing and separate, yet combined in a whole to present an image of solidness…

Bees left this whole and buzzed around the impostor’s head. Holmes was still struggling on the floor, trying to prise away hands that were surely not hands.

The image pulsed and flickered in my vision, and I remembered Holmes’s words: you cannot trust your eyes… instinct and faith, that is what you can believe in

I stepped forward, pressed the revolver against the uppermost Holmes’s head and pulled the trigger. Something splashed out across the floor and walls, but it was not blood.

Blood does not try to crawl away, take flight, buzz at the light.

My pulling the trigger—that act bridging doubt and faith—changed everything.

The thing that had been trying to kill Holmes shimmered in the moonlight. It was as if I was seeing two images being quickly flickered back and forth, so fast that my eyes almost merged them into one, surreal picture. Holmes… the thing… Holmes… the thing. And the thing, whatever it is, was monstrous.

“Again!” Holmes shouted. “Again, and again!”

I knelt so that my aim did not stray towards my friend and fired again at that horrible shape. Each impact twisted it, slowing down the alternating of images as if the bullets were blasting free truth itself. What I did not know then, but would realise later, was that the bullets were defining the truth. Each squeeze of the trigger dealt that thing another blow, not only physically but also in the nature of my beliefs. I knew it to be a false Holmes now, and that made it weak.

The sixth bullet hit only air.

It is difficult to describe what I saw in that room. I had only a few seconds to view its ambiguous self before it came apart, but even now I cannot find words to convey the very unreality of what I saw, heard and smelled. There was a honey tang on the air, but it was almost alien, like someone else’s memory. The noise that briefly filled the room could have been a voice. If so it was speaking in an alien tongue, and I had no wish to understand what it was saying. A noise like that could only be mad.

All I know is that a few seconds after firing the last bullet Holmes and I were alone. I was hurriedly reloading and Holmes was already up, righting the oil lamp and giving us light. I need not have panicked so, because we were truly alone.

Save for the bees. Dead or dying, there were maybe a hundred bees spotting the fine carpet, huddled on the windowsill or crawling behind chairs or objects on the mantelpiece to die. I had been stung only once, Holmes seemed to have escaped entirely, but the bees were expiring even as we watched.

“Dear God,” I gasped. I went to my knees on the floor, shaking, my shooting hand no longer able to bear the revolver’s weight.

“Do you feel faint, my friend?” Holmes asked.

“Faint, no,” I said. “I feel… belittled. Does that make sense, Holmes? I feel like a child who has been made aware of everything he will ever learn, all at once.”

“There are indeed more things in Heaven and Earth, Watson,” Holmes said. “And I believe we have just had a brush with one of them.” He too had to sit, nursing his bruised throat with one hand while the other wiped his face with the handkerchief, removing any remaining make-up. He then cleaned the blood from both hands and washed away the false cuts there as well. He seemed distracted as he cleansed, his eyes distant, and more than once I wondered just where they were looking, what they were truly seeing.

“Can you tell me, Holmes?” I asked. I looked about the room, still trying to imagine where that other being had gone but knowing, in my heart of hearts, that its nature was too obscure for my meagre understanding. “Holmes? Holmes?”

But he was gone, his mind away as was its wont, searching the byways of his imagination, his intellect steering him along routes I could barely imagine as he tried to fathom the truth in what we had seen. I stood and fetched his pipe, loaded it with tobacco, lit it and placed it in his hand. He held on it but did not take a draw.

He remained like that until Jones of Scotland Yard thundered through the door.

“And you have been with him for how long?” Jones asked again.

“Hours. Maybe three.”

“And the murderer? You shot him, yet where is he?”

“Yes, I shot him. It. I shot it.”

I had told Jones the outline of the story three times, and his disbelief seemed to be growing with each telling. Holmes’s silence was not helping his case.

Another five murders, Jones had told me. Three witnessed, and each of the witnesses identified a close friend or family member as the murderer.

I could only offer my own mutterings of disbelief. Even though I had an inkling now—however unreal, however unbelievable, Holmes’s insistence that the improbable must follow the impossible stuck with me—I could not voice the details. The truth was too crazy.

Luckily, Holmes told it for me. He stirred and stood suddenly, staring blankly at me for a time as if he had forgotten I was there.

“Mr Holmes,” Jones said. “Your friend Dr Watson here, after telling me that you were a murderer, is now protesting your innocence. His reasoning I find curious to say the least, so it would benefit me greatly if I could hear your take on the matter. There were gunshots here, and I have no body, and across London there are many more grieving folks this evening.”

“And many more there will be yet,” Holmes said quietly. “But not, I think, for a while.” He relit his pipe and closed his eyes as he puffed. I could see that he was gathering his wits to expound his theories, but even then there was a paleness about him, a frown that did not belong on his face. It spoke of incomplete ideas, truths still hidden from his brilliant mind.

It did not comfort me one bit.

“It was fortunate for London, and perhaps for mankind itself, that I bore witness to one of the first murders. I had taken an evening stroll after spending a day performing some minor biological experiments on dead rodents, when I heard something rustling in the bushes of a front garden. It sounded larger than a dog, and when I heard what can only have been a cry I felt it prudent to investigate.

“What I saw… was impossible. I knew that it could not be. I pushed aside a heavy branch and witnessed an old man being operated on. He was dead by the time my gaze fell upon him, that was for sure, because the murderer had opened his guts and was busy extracting kidneys and liver. And the murderer, in my eyes, was the woman Irene Adler.”

“No!” I gasped. “Holmes, what are you saying?”

“If you would let me continue, Doctor, all will become clear. Clearer, at least, because there are many facets to this mystery still most clouded in my mind. It will come, gentlemen, I am sure, but… I shall tell you. I shall talk it through, tell you, and the truth will mould itself tonight.

“And so: Adler, the woman herself, working on this old man in the garden of an up-market London house. Plainly, patently impossible and unreal. And being the logically minded person I am, and believing that proof defines truth rather than simply belief, I totally denied the truth of what I was seeing. I knew it could not be because Adler was a woman unfamiliar with, and incapable of, murder. And indeed she has not been in the country for quite some years now. My total disregard for what I was seeing meant that I was not viewing the truth, that something abnormal was occurring. And strange as it seemed at the time—but how clear it is now!—the woman had been heavily on my mind as I had been strolling down that street.”

“Well to hear you actually admit that, Holmes, means that it is a great part of this mystery.”

“Indeed,” Holmes said to me, somewhat shortly. “My readiness to believe that something, shall we say, out of this world was occurring enabled me to see it. I saw the truth behind the murderer, the scene of devastation. I saw… I saw…” He trailed off, staring from the window at the ghostly night. Both Jones and I remained silent, seeing the pain Holmes was going through as he tried to continue.

“Terrible,” he said at last. “Terrible.”

“And what I saw,” I said, trying to take up from where Holmes had left off, “was an impersonator, creating Holmes in his own image—”

“No,” Holmes said. “No, it created me in your image, Watson. What you saw was your version of me. This thing delved into your mind and cloaked itself in the strongest identity it found in there: namely, me. As it is with the other murders, Mr Jones, whose witnesses no doubt saw brothers and wives and sons slaughtering complete strangers with neither rhyme, nor reason.”

“But the murderer,” Jones said. “Who was it? Where is he? I need a corpse, Holmes. Watson tells me that he shot the murderer, and I need a corpse.”

“Don’t you have enough already?” Holmes asked quietly. I saw the stare he aimed at Jones. I had never been the subject of that look, never in our friendship, but I had seen it used more than a few times. Its intent was borne of a simmering anger. Its effect, withering.

Jones faltered. He went to say something else, stammered and then backed away towards the door. “Will you come to the Yard tomorrow?” he asked. “I need help. And…”

“I will come,” Holmes said. “For now, I imagine you have quite some work to do across London this evening. Five murders, you say? I guess at least that many yet to be discovered. And there must be something of a panic in the populace that needs calming.”

Jones left. I turned to Holmes. And what I saw shocked me almost as much as any event from the previous twenty-four hours.

My friend was crying.

“We can never know everything,” Holmes said, “but I fear that everything knows us.”

We were sitting on either side of the fire. Holmes was puffing on his fourth pipe since Jones had left. The tear tracks were still unashamedly glittering on his cheeks, and my own eyes were wet in sympathy.

“What did it want?” I asked. “What motive?”

“Motive? Something so unearthly, so alien to our way of thinking and understanding? Perhaps no motive is required. But I would suggest that examination was its prime concern. It was slaughtering and slicing and examining the victims just as casually as I have, these last few days, been poisoning and dissecting mice. The removed organs displayed that in their careful dismantling.”

“But why? What reason can a thing like that have to know our make up, our build?”

Holmes stared into the fire and the flames lit up his eyes. I was glad. I could still remember the utter vacancy of the eyes I had seen on his likeness as it hunkered over the bloody body.

“Invasion,” he muttered, and then he said it again. Or perhaps it was merely a sigh.

“Isn’t it a major fault of our condition that, the more we wish to forget something, the less likely it is that we can,” I said. Holmes smiled and nodded, and I felt a childish sense of pride from saying something of which he seemed to approve.

“Outside,” said Holmes, “beyond what we know or strive to know, there is a whole different place. Somewhere which, perhaps, our minds could never know. Like fitting a square block into a round hole, we were not built to understand.”

“Even you?”

“Even me, my friend.” He tapped his pipe out and refilled it. He looked ill. I had never seen Holmes so pale, so melancholy after a case, as if something vast had eluded him. And I think I realised what it was even then: understanding. Holmes had an idea of what had happened and it seemed to fit neatly around the event, but he did not understand. And that, more than anything, must have done much to depress him.

“You recall our time in Cornwall, our nightmare experience with the burning of the Devil’s Foot powder?”

I nodded. “How could I forget.”

“Not hallucinations,” he said quietly. “I believe we were offered a drug-induced glimpse beyond. Not hallucinations, Watson. Not hallucinations at all.”

We sat silently for a few minutes. As dawn started to dull the sharp edges of the darkness outside, Holmes suddenly stood and sent me away.

“I need to think on things,” he said urgently. “There’s much to consider. And I have to be more prepared for the next time. Have to be.”

I left the building tired, cold and feeling smaller and more insignificant than I had ever thought possible. I walked the streets for a long time that morning. I smelled fear on the air, and one time I heard a bee buzzing from flower to flower on some honeysuckle. At that I decided to return home.

My revolver, still fully loaded, was warm where my hand grasped it in my coat pocket.

I walked along Baker Street every day for the next two weeks. Holmes was always in his rooms, I could sense that, but he never came out, nor made any attempt to contact me. Once or twice I saw his light burning and his shadow drifting to and fro inside, slightly stooped, as if something weighed heavy on his shoulders.

The only time I saw my brilliant friend in that time, I wished I had not. He was standing at the window staring out into the twilight, and although I stopped and waved he did not notice me.

He seemed to be looking intently across the rooftops as if searching for some elusive truth. And standing there watching him I felt sure that his eyes, glittering dark and so, so sad, must have been seeing nothing of this world.

[End]