Story Excerpt

The Dragon's Mark

by Keith Hann
 

Dragons-Mark-Final
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt

There is a creature of Celtic legend whose wail, it is said, can shatter glass, turn one’s hair grey, and wake the very dead. I speak, of course, of our dear landlady, Mrs. Hudson. One lazy summer eve in Baker Street, as I lay near-dozing in my chair, the late night calm was shattered by just such a wail. I jolted awake, flinging my copy of the Evening Standard into the air and nearly tumbling out of my chair. My first sight was of my friend and companion, Sherlock Holmes, evidently roused from a similar repose.

That poor, put-upon Scotswoman had occasion to let loose many such wails over the years, for the work of Holmes is often singular in its scope, a parade of the picaresque, the grotesque, and the decidedly queer. Such effronteries are hardly conducive to the well-being of a staid, stolid Presbyterian. But as I gathered my wits, her keen filled the air once more. Indeed, I became aware that it had never truly ceased, that she paused only for breath before descending again into incoherent shrieks. Holmes and I moved as one, together dashing to the door.

I reached it first. Racing to the staircase, I saw Mrs. Hudson at the front entrance, the door open onto the street, and she struggling with some unknown attacker. I hurtled down those seventeen steps some three at a time, my thoughts only of getting to grips with the reprehensible creature who could assault a woman in her own home.

The moment I reached the bottom I flung myself at the assailant. Seizing the man, I hurled him with all my might into the wall. He flew into the umbrella stand with a heavy thump, sprawling senseless.

It was then that I noticed all the blood. Mrs. Hudson stood there, all atremble, covered in a blotchy crimson veneer. Mouth agape, she stared at our now-subdued intruder, saying nothing. I too froze, my mind at once ordering me to assist our dear landlady, to examine the intruder, to determine the origin of all this blood, to lower my fool fist, which I only then noticed was still raised to strike.

Into this chaos sprinted Holmes. He flew past, dressing gown trailing like a cape, moving with alacrity to our unwelcome guest.

“Watson, see to Mrs. Hudson! I shall handle our friend.”

The essential decisions made, my mind snapped out of its lassitude and my medical training took command. The amount of blood was considerable, though not yet life-threatening. My first order of business was to staunch the flow. I dashed a cloth off a nearby end table and began searching for the cut or cuts which had precipitated such an effusion. The patient appeared to be in shock.

I interposed myself between our landlady and the form on the floor. “Mrs. Hudson, focus upon me. Where are you hurt?” Her dress was torn, but I could see no injury as of yet. Behind me I heard the sound of tearing cloth.

“I do not believe Mrs. Hudson is the victim here, Watson.”

I turned. Holmes peered intently at the unconscious form of our intruder, using a torn shirt sleeve to sponge away the blood from the man’s face.

“The cut is from the gentleman’s scalp. Such wounds bleed out of all proportion to their severity, as well you know. Judging from the fine bits of gravel ground into his forehead, I suspect a rather forceful push or fall.”

I gently eased Mrs. Hudson over to a nearby chair and, over the coppery tang of blood and sharp, rank scent of fear, I at last noticed the stench. As the malodorous fetor assailed my nostrils, I wondered how I could ever have missed it. One’s senses behave oddly in a crisis, I suppose, the mind shuffling off the incidental to better focus on the threatening. Now that the immediate crisis had cleared, the miasma hanging in the air folded over me like a blanket.

Our visitor’s breathing was little more than a feeble, wet wheeze, and his skin bore a terrible pallor. None of this interested my friend, however. Instead he knelt, fascinated, holding the man’s exposed arm up to the light.

“What a fantastic wound. It’s difficult to tell, under all this suppuration and rot, but I do believe this is a bite mark. Watson, fetch a lamp, would you?”

“My God, man!” I bellowed. “Mrs. Hudson! Clear the kitchen table and bring up the lights. I need hot water and clean cloth, at the double!” She darted off, her shock of the moment vanished, and I could be thankful that there was no more capable woman when a task lay before her.

“Grab his feet,” I ordered Holmes. Together we hauled the poor soul to the table. With a bit of illumination and the most rudimentary of examinations, I could see that my patient’s prospects were poor. The problem was not the deep cut upon his forehead, but the terrible infliction centred upon his upper arm. Fiercely inflamed, it leaked all manner of corruption and filth, and had obviously been at work poisoning the man’s body for quite some time.

“Ach, me best linens,” muttered Mrs. Hudson, as she raced back into the room with a bundle of fine white cloth, her distress bringing out some of her native brogue.

“Never mind that now. I need that hot water. Holmes! My surgical kit upstairs!”

The patient did not appreciate our desperate ministrations. His body was at once wracked with a terrible shuddering, and his eyes flew open, focussed not on me, but on some terrible spectre beyond.

“The dragon!” he gasped.

His breath halted, and his body went slack. I had lost him.

A hand fell gently on my shoulder. Holmes gazed at me sympathetically.

“He has left your realm, Doctor. He now belongs to mine.” And so saying, he went upstairs to fetch his instruments.

Mrs. Hudson returned once more, with a bucket of steaming water. She looked to me, then to the body, then to myself again. Her purpose spent, she was all at once at sea.

“Hmph,” she said, as if the man’s effrontery was now not in his intrusion but in his passing. “Well, I’ve got water boiled. Let me fix you some tea, Doctor.”

I halfheartedly accepted. Holmes expressed a desire to examine our mysterious intruder more closely before summoning the constabulary, and so I aided him in moving the body into the basement. Leaving my friend to his work, I returned upstairs, whereupon I saw our landlady dealing with the traumatic events as best she knew how, busily attacking the bloodstains in the entrance with soap and mop. Holmes would be most displeased, but the damage was done. Already tired before the commencement of this affair, I stumbled to my room and fell at once into slumber.

 

I slept poorly, my dreams filled with a disparate jumble of fantastic beasts, faceless men, and the killing fields of Maiwand. As I finished my toilet, my thoughts drifted once again to the intruder’s dying words. What had he meant by “the dragon,” I wondered.

Holmes was already awake, or, more likely, had not bothered with sleep. I found him in the basement, surrounded by lamps and scattered volumes, examining something under his microscope. The charnel-house smell in those confined quarters was terrible, but Holmes seemed unaffected. I knew through bitter experience that eventually one came not to notice.

“Good morning, Watson,” he said, rising. “I regret that you slept so poorly, but I think what I have to reveal to you will compensate somewhat.”

“What have you learned, Holmes?”

“He led an interesting life, our guest. Between fifty and sixty years of age. The poorly reset nose and ample body scarring indicate plenty of rough and tumble, with injuries inflicted by blade and bullet both.”

“A veteran? The Sepoy Mutiny, then, or the Crimea,” I ventured.

“Reasonable suppositions, but I suspect an even more exotic locale. Observe the unusual tattoo here on the left arm.”

I took a closer look but the ink, faded by time, told me nothing.

“Though difficult to make out, it is a carp smoking a pipe,” said Holmes. “An opium pipe, to be precise. Furthermore, the inkwork is of a very particular style. I would wager that this man was once a sailor, specifically an old China hand.”

“The Opium Wars, perhaps. Have you determined that he was an addict?”

“He spent his final days on the street. That—and the blood poisoning—make a postmortem diagnosis difficult. However, all that is secondary compared to my last finding. I must confess that I am baffled. What do you make of this?” he asked, retrieving an item from his microscope.

Raising it to a light, I saw that it was a curved, viciously serrated tooth, about an inch in length.

“I don’t recognize it,” I admitted. “Was this embedded in the arm wound?”

“Correct. The gangrenous flesh made it impossible to take an accurate cast of the bite, but it is clear that a fearsome jaw was responsible, and not that of a dog or any of the common hunting cats. More than that I cannot say.”

“What of the man’s final remark?” I asked. “He used his very last breath to speak of a ‘dragon.’ Surely there’s some relation.”

“To the tooth, or the opium? The man had suffered at least one blow to the head. He was feverish, poisoned, possibly delusional. For all we know, you may have been the dragon he mentioned. Were he to have hummed a bar or two of ‘Scarborough Fair,’ would you propose that we race off to Yorkshire?”

“Of course not.”

“The fact of the matter is that our client’s utterance gives us nothing with which to work. I do not ignore it, but lacking further context, for the moment it and the tooth must join that unassembled mass of data from which one may hope to construct the solution to a case.”

“Our client?”

“Indeed, Watson. All things are possible but, feverish or no, I suspect that our sailor friend’s arrival upon our doorstep last night was no mere coincidence. I am working under the assumption that he sought my help.”

“And if you are wrong?”

“If so, no doubt the matter will still prove more diverting than cataloguing the latest volume of my indices.”

 

Holmes spent the next several days immersing himself ever deeper in the worlds of taxonomy and zoology, attempting to puzzle out the origin of that strange tooth. Beginning with his encyclopaedias and journals, when they turned up nothing he moved to the British Museum, and after further frustration his acquaintances amongst the Royal Society.

“Failure, Watson! Abject failure!” he exclaimed, after returning from yet another fruitless trip. He held up the offending tooth. “I have been offered a princely sum for this little thing. For the second time in my investigative career I have come into possession of the remnants of a creature unknown to science.”

“You could learn nothing?”

“Almost nothing. A herpetologist swore that it must belong to some sort of carnivorous lizard, likely an unknown species of monitor. New variants are being discovered regularly in Africa and the Orient.”

“I presume you have also been investigating the origins of the sailor.”

“And I’ve learned just as much,” he said scornfully. “Scotland Yard has uncovered nothing, and my trawling of the docks and nearby environs has also proved unsuccessful. A search of some of London’s more popular opium dens too was in vain. A cipher, slain by a cipher.” Holmes reached into his nearby Persian slipper, withdrawing a quantity of tobacco.

“I confess that no other course suggests itself to me. What now?” I asked.

“Would that I knew. This requires contemplation, dear Watson. I beg an hour of quiet, if you would.”

“But of course,” said I.

Holmes curled up in his chair with his eyes closed, puffing steadily away at his black clay pipe. The day being a pleasant one, I resolved upon a walk. To my surprise, I encountered Mrs. Hudson proceeding up the stairs, bearing the card of one Wesley Hadderton upon her salver.

“He’s not to be disturbed, I’m afraid,” I explained.

“The gentleman said it was with regards to one of Mr. Holmes’s cases.”

My friend’s powers of concentration were unrivalled, but all the same, I was careful not to disturb him at times such as these. However, no matter how much shag he might smoke, I could not see a path forward, and if the information was relevant to this case, then it would be foolhardy to dismiss it.

“Very well. Send him up, if you would.”

My return was ignored, but not the arrival of our guest, a quietly dressed, handsome-looking man of about forty, marked by a shock of dark curly hair set atop a look of affable vivacity. Holmes spoke no rebuke, but arched an eyebrow in my direction, and I felt a stab of anxiety. As I handed him Hadderton’s card, I hoped that I had not made the wrong choice.

“Mr. Hadderton,” said Holmes. “I am Sherlock Holmes, and this is my friend and colleague, Dr. Watson, whose discretion you may rely upon absolutely. Watson seems to believe that you have something of importance to convey.”

“Mr. Holmes, thank you for seeing me. An Inspector Lestrade suggested that I speak with you. You see, I believe someone has taken umbrage over my father’s business dealings.”

Holmes’s face fell, and I began to doubt the wisdom of interrupting him. “I would have thought Lestrade knew me better than that,” said he. “I find matters of stocks and offerings of little interest. I have much more compelling curiosities at hand.”

“My father has been dead for twenty years,” Hadderton replied simply.

Holmes sat up straight. “Forgive my dismissiveness, Mr. Hadderton. You have my full attention.”

“Thank you. I come from a mercantile family, Mr. Holmes. Our fortune was born in the Triangle Trade, but when Wilberforce won the day we moved into other goods. My father imported tea, mostly from China. Over the course of his life he amassed a great fortune, before retiring in comfort some twenty-five years ago and dying peacefully at home five years later.

“My father’s will ensured that his most faithful employees were well provided for. Some of them had saved his life, he used to tell me, for my father was not one to manage things from an office in the City, but liked to wade right into the thick of it, out in Bengal and Burmah and Canton. However, knowing that gifting his men a lump sum would only ensure that many of them would drink themselves into an early grave, he saw that they received a regular stipend instead—five pounds a month.

“All this would be history dead and gone, were it not for the events of a month ago. It was then that the man whom I had placed in charge of the disbursement of these payments came to see me. He wanted to know what I wished to do with the remainder of the fund.”

“The remainder?” I asked.

“I said the very same thing, Doctor. It would seem that the beneficiaries had all either died, or relocated out of reach.”

“How many men received payments from this fund?” asked Holmes.

“Some two dozen.”

“Did the payments to the remainder increase upon the death of any of its members?”

Hadderton smiled. “No, it was not a tontine of any sort, Mr. Holmes. I was quite surprised by all this. I had known a few of the payees, as they used to come in and collect their stipends in person. Occasionally I would be in at the same time, and we would exchange a brief word.

“One such was Jeremiah Blake. He was one of the men my father credited with saving his life, and he had disappeared. I felt that as I in some way owed my existence to the man, it couldn’t hurt to make a personal effort to locate him. I visited his last address, a rather seedy Bermondsey flat. I was not warmly received by the landlord, but after I gave him a few shillings he informed me that Blake had simply disappeared, leaving everything he owned behind.”

“Was a note left, or any other indication as to a planned departure?” asked Holmes.

“The cur had already sold off Blake’s possessions, but assured me that there was nothing of that sort. Over the next few months I looked into several others who had dropped off the stipend rolls, as Blake had, and most of them had vanished in the same fashion, without any notice to friends or family, and again abandoning all that they owned.”

“When was the first disappearance matching this pattern, as best you could ascertain?”

“About a year ago. Seven men in total have vanished. The more I thought on this, the less I liked it. These men were wanderers, travellers, used to setting sail with little notice. At the same time, it was really too fantastic to believe that so many had disappeared in so short a time, abandoning a sum that, if not princely, required no expenditure of effort. Yesterday I took my suspicions to Scotland Yard, and Inspector Lestrade told me the story of your nocturnal encounter with the mysterious sailor. The body was still on hand, and to my surprise it was none other than Jeremiah Blake.”

“Ah,” said Holmes, “a name to the face at last. I am most grateful, Mr. Hadderton. So, Mr. Blake vanishes without a trace, and then a month later reappears. He had given up his trade some time ago, so we know that he was not at sea—at least, not as a member of the crew.”

“How do you know that he no longer worked at sea?” asked Hadderton.

“His hands were soft, uncallused. Too, there was his rather anemic pallor. Even accounting for his illness, he was exceptionally pale. I wager he had not seen the sun in some time.”

“Which in itself is unusual, considering the spate of fair weather we’ve been having,” I remarked.

“All well and good,” said Hadderton, “but what is the meaning of it? I’d assumed that my father’s men were being murdered, which was straightforward enough, even if the matter of motive was anything but. And then Mr. Blake appears upon your doorstep, alive if only for the moment, and I am left without even that.”

“Numerous possibilities must be examined,” said Holmes. “Of external threats, we must consider kidnapping, though to what end is unclear, with no ransom demand having been received in all this time. Alternatively, it could very well be murder, but Blake eluded his assassin or assassins and was on the run. It may also be that there is no external threat, and that what you assume to be victims have in fact removed themselves of their own free will, in some sort of collusive effort.”

“Perhaps Blake betrayed his fellows, then,” said Hadderton eagerly. “That would fit with your last guess.”

Holmes grimaced. “Please, sir. I never guess.”

Hadderton’s confusion was clear. “But that’s what you were engaged in just now.”

“You are mistaken. I was hypothesising. Hypothesising is the economical enumeration of plausible possibilities. I merely listed those initial avenues of exploration upon which we might venture. I said nothing about what may lie down them.” Holmes again lit his pipe. “I shall begin work on your case at once. If you would be kind enough to record any other recollections you have of Mr. Blake and his former shipmates, I shall collect them at your earliest convenience. I would speak with your disbursement agent as well, and any others of your firm who had contact with the missing hands.”

“Certainly, Mr. Holmes. I will do all that I can to assist. Good day.”

I watched our client exit with some trepidation.

“It is a singular thing, Holmes. If this truly is related to the deeds of Hadderton’s father, why would anyone delay some twenty years or more to do, well, whatever it is that they’re doing?”

But Holmes did not hear me. He sat, eyes closed, puffing away at his pipe, sailing through the decades and to the farthest corners of the Empire within the fastness of his mind. . . .

 

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Copyright © 2018. The Dragon's Mark by Keith Hann

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