“No, the victim was almost certainly American – and so was the killer.”
Lestrade whistled in astonishment, and I felt my eyebrows rise. “How can you know that, Holmes? His clothes?”
“The victim’s clothes only tell me about the victim. But the bouquet left on the chest – those are American flowers.” He touched one dried, delicate blossom. “Asclepias tuberosa – also known as butterfly weed or chigger flower. It produces a cardenolide glycoside in sufficient quantities that the caterpillars that eat the plant become lethally poisonous.”
Holmes knew his poisons, but my Mary had known her flowers. What had she told me?
“Yes, here it is.” I traced the passage lightly with one finger, remembering Mary laughingly teaching me about the language of flowers. The book still smelled slightly of her perfume. “Butterfly weed. It means ‘Let me go.’”
“Now that’s interesting.” Holmes looked up from his armchair, where he sat surrounded by various botany tomes. A sample of each of the items from the bouquet rested in a jar by his side. “This part here looks to be aspen leaf. What does it mean?”
“Hm. And apple?”
“Preference, if it’s the blossom. If you found the fruit, that means temptation.”
“So. We have a bouquet of flowers that when put together, suggest ‘Let me go,’ ‘Lamentation,’ ‘Insincerity,’ ‘Baseness,’ ‘Betrayal,’ ‘Cruelty,’ ‘Dark thoughts,’ ‘Preference,’ and ‘Farewell.’ From a more practical perspective, four of these plants are highly poisonous, particularly to the heart. What does that suggest to you, Watson?”
“Someone hated this man, and wished him dead?”
Holmes snorted. “A wish that took a very corporeal form, both in this carefully collected and placed mix of dried and fresh flowers, and in the number of stab wounds in his chest. The latter suggests a crime of passion, but the former – forethought.”
A fortnight had passed since Lestrade had asked Holmes’ help in the case of the bouquet murder. In the subsequent time, three more bodies had been discovered, all with carefully chosen floral decorations. The last two posies had contained more fresh flowers than dried, which suggested to Holmes that the murderer was running out of prepared supplies – but London in springtime was full of itinerant flower-sellers, not to mention parks and flower gardens.
That wasn’t what was making my stomach churn, however. It was the single branch adorned with red silk flowers, delivered anonymously to our door.
Rosebay: danger, beware.
I should have realized that Holmes would attempt to leave me behind. He had been highly disturbed by the arrival of the floral message, which indicated that either the killer, or someone familiar with the killer, knew of us and our address.
“I really have some scruples, allowing you to accompany me tonight,” he grumbled, his voice nearly masked by the low chatter of the other men in the room.
I smiled, understanding his reminder of one of our earliest, and most dangerous, cases. “I might be of assistance,” I paraphrased. “And I would not let you come here alone.”
“Really, Watson. What harm do you imagine could come to me at a subscription dinner?” Holmes’ chiding words were belied by a faint smile creasing the corners of his eyes.
“You tell me,” I retorted. “I cannot imagine what connection there could be between a reputable eleemosynary institution for the betterment of indigent females and a flower-strewing killer. And yet here we are.”
All traces of mirth vanished. “Yes, here we are indeed, for no fewer than three of the victims had connections to this very organization. Not all so-called charity is benign – and neither is it always charitably received.”
Holmes’ pronouncement sent a shiver up my spine, and heightened my determination to remain alert. Yet despite my friend’s perspicacious observation, nothing occurred that I would call at all out of the ordinary. We were but two amongst perhaps twenty other visitors to the organization. There were nearly twice that many official members in attendance. Drinks were served, polite discourse was held, and we were all encouraged to consider further donations, even before we were led in to what proved to be a mediocre dinner.
In short, it was an utterly dull affair, at least until after the dessert course.
As we rose from our dinner chairs to move back towards the library, where we were to receive an after-dinner libation (along with, no doubt, further solicitations for funds), I noticed Holmes tense slightly. It would have been imperceptible even to me, had I not known him for so many years and been directly beside him. His attention seemed momentarily fixed on one of the servants waiting on the banqueters.
I was unsurprised when Holmes took advantage of the confusion to dart away, hastening down the grand staircase with its vermiculate bannister. No one noticed, and I dared not follow.
It was up to me to continue the charade alone. Fortunately my part was not much of a reach: that of a physician and widower, with no family to leave what funds I had managed to accrue over my career. Under other circumstances, I might have been genuinely interested in supporting the “good works” of the stated goals of the society.
Instead, I pretended interest in the history of the organization and stared at the portrait of a regal woman dressed in a ruff and farthingale gown. I tried to dismiss as imagination the cold expression in her painted eyes.
The crowd had thinned considerably. Most of the others, guests and members, had already taken their leave.
I was running out of plausible ways to procrastinate.
Every instinct that I had revolted against leaving without Holmes, but I knew I must. “Well, gentlemen, I thank you for your hospitality. I had not realized the hour, and I have early rounds on the morrow.”
I don’t think I imagined their relief as they showed me to the door.
I know I did not imagine mine when a tall, lean figure joined me the moment I left the building. “What kept you?”
If there is anything on Earth more aggravating than Holmes asking a rhetorical question with an amused, ironical smile curving his lips, I do not know what it is. I resisted the urge to give Holmes an unkind nudge with my walking stick. “You never told me you were leaving,” I retorted. “I thought you were still in the building.”
“Even if I was, dear Watson, your remaining on the premises could not further my investigations.”
Does any man appreciate hearing that his efforts are useless? I know I do not, despite many years of being repeatedly told exactly that.
“Doubtless not.” I swallowed the rest of the angry retort that trembled on my tongue. “What did you discover?” I asked instead.
I had not given voice to my feelings, but Holmes read them all the same. A brief expression of chagrin creased his brow, and he reached out to lightly grip my good shoulder. “My apologies, Watson. Such churlishness does not behoove me, and is certainly no fit reward for your kind concern.”
When Holmes’ syntax grows that convoluted, it is a sure sign that he is genuinely sorry. I forgave him immediately, with a smile and a nod.
Holmes was not entirely forthcoming about everything he had learned. Even so, what he did reveal to me was enough to make my blood run cold.
“Those poor girls,” I murmured. “Indentured servitude is too mild a term, Holmes. From what you describe, it’s nothing more than slavery.”
“Indeed.” Holmes’ voice was hard. “And like slavery, there seems to be little chance for escape. Such dire conditions often lead to drastic actions.”
“Yes. And unless I am greatly mistaken, Mr. Wober – who, to use an Americanism, wears the pants in the assignment committee – is likely our next victim.”
Holmes’ whimsy in using an American expression was one of his rare instances of humor, but even so, his words were not chosen by accident. There was an abundance of Americans in this case, not least in the roster of the society’s members. Dried flowers of types only found in America appeared in all of the posies found on the victims. Holmes consulted two in the States, a noted detective in the Chicago police, and a world-famous botanist.
An overabundance of potential victims – and a dearth of critical clues. Mr. Wober was not the fifth victim.
He was the sixth.
“I’ve done my best, Mr. Holmes, but word is bound to get out.” Inspector Lestrade sat on one end of our sofa, looking as haggard and harried as I’d ever seen him. I’d already rung Mrs. Hudson for some tea, but I splashed a goodly measure of brandy into a glass and handed it to him. He nodded his thanks.
“Damn the press!” Holmes snarled. “Nothing but a noisome pack of halfwits.”
“They’re not so dim as to miss a half-dozen flower-bedecked corpses inside of a fortnight,” Lestrade sighed. “The Superintendent wants the killer found.”
As if we did not!
As a man of the world, I should have known better. It is a sad truth that while most charities exist to succor the objects of their efforts, there are a few whose real purpose is to batten themselves.
Still, the depths to which this society sank shook even my battle-hardened soul. They went far beyond enriching their pockets at the expense of the indigent women they were supposed to help, and into depths of cruelty that I shudder to recall.
“Work is a Woman’s Glory and the Ladder to Gentility,” read their motto.
“Women Are Disposable” reflected their truth.
The young woman who finally gave Holmes the break he needed in the case was terrible to look at. Far too thin, bent and twisted by rickets, and wrapped in little more than stinking rags, she looked scant breaths from death. She had been a teaser at one of the river-side woolen mills, sold there by the supposed charity. She had lost most of the fingers on her left hand to that work, and been tossed out onto the street as useless, expected to die.
She survived. She saw. She remembered. And when the opportunity came, she spoke her secrets.
What causes one person to snap, while another person in similar or worse circumstances remains sane? It is a mystery not even Holmes could solve.
Our informant had suffered agonies, yet remained intact. Our murderess had, at least on the surface, fared much better. She had been assigned to a teaching post. She had become the chosen wife of one of the founding members of the institution. Yet madness was the only relief she could find from her tormentor, and from the institution that had empowered him.
Then again, perhaps her marriage was a worse hell than the vilest slum.
Knowing the name of the culprit and catching her proved two very different things. We had no proof, just the words of an informant no one but Holmes and myself would believe. Fortunately, the street-beggar was not our only helper. One of the servants (whom Holmes had recognized at the dinner) provided us entry into the institution, which concealed more than its Victorian façade suggested.
We descended the stairs and into the subterranean tunnels. The passageway could be more aptly termed a vomitorium, in both its ancient construction, its destination, and latterly, its smell. It reeked of vomit and blood.
“This is how she was able to come and go undetected?”
“And where she killed at least one of her victims.” Holmes placed a hand on my arm as we reached the other side of the crude amphitheater. “Careful, Watson. The passageway divides here.”
It proved a warren. Holmes sent me down one way, while he investigated another passage.
Unfortunately, there was more at work than we knew. Like an ancient periaktoi, we were so focused on one scene, we failed to notice the other sides to the triangle.
At least not until something heavy crashed down on my head.
Bright lights flashed across my vision, accompanied by blinding pain. Agony momentarily blotted out all other sensation, dragging me down towards unconsciousness. I fought against it with every ounce of will I had, and managed to retain some grip on my faculties. I managed to lift my aching head, my thoughts cumbersome with shock.
I had fallen to my hands and knees, I dimly realized. My lantern had fallen to one side, but its light still shone, reflected off of the walls, the floor, the shiny patent leather of a man's dress shoe.
Wait. A man's dress shoe - ?
The shoe moved, and I instinctively rolled away from it. From him, my dazed brain corrected. My vision was too blurred to provide detail, but it was definitely a man's form that loomed above me. A man in dark clothes.
A man who had just tried to hit me over the head. Again. I heard the dull clunk of something striking the earth just where my head had been.
"You should have stayed away, Doctor Watson," I heard a masculine voice growl.
"Watson!" A far different voice, well-known, anxiously calling.
Two sets of footsteps: one running towards, the other away.
"Easy, dear fellow." Holmes' hand pressed me back into my chair. "Don't try to rise just yet. You've had a rough time of it tonight."
From what little I remembered of our journey back to Baker Street, Holmes hadn't had an easy time of it, either. "I thought you said our killer was a woman. But my attacker was definitely a man."
"A man, yes, but wielding a penang-lawyer, not a knife. You're sure he said your name, not the alias you used at the charity?"
"And we were warned directly with rosebay." Holmes' forehead knotted. "I'm missing something."
"Could our informant have been mistaken?" I asked, trying to think despite my aching skull.
Holmes frowned as he continued to pack tobacco into his pipe. "It's always a possibility, of course." Then he shook his head once, decisively. "No, Watson! Too many other details all point in the same direction. We know the name of our killer, of that much I'm certain."
"Then who was my attacker, and why did he attack me? For that matter, why warn us with the rosebay?"
"The attack was a most unexpected turn," Holmes admitted. "And the rosebay… Why? It makes no sense!"
"None of this makes sense," I grumbled. "While killers are by definition illogical, I wish this one would make up his – or her – mind. Go on a killing spree, stop in the middle to warn us off the case, then try to brain me…"
Holmes froze in the middle of drawing on his pipe. His grey eyes went distant while a faraway expression softened his features.
"Watson, that's it!" He smacked his forehead. "So stupid - my wits must have turned to stone!"
"We aren't contending with one person, but with three! The killer, her husband – and our rosebay-bringer!"
"What now, Holmes?"
I could not like what Holmes told me of his next steps. It put too many at risk – himself foremost, but others too. But I knew that he had not told me all of his plans, and that trying to gainsay him was futile in any case. All I could do was offer my assistance, recover as quickly as I could, and be ready to follow him at a moment's notice.
That, and keep a telegram form half filled out in my pocket, ready to dispatch to Inspector Lestrade. Even Holmes admitted we might need official assistance.
How to explain it, in the end?
Love takes so many forms. Most of them wondrous and beautiful, but some… Some sicken the soul to see.
The mad, murderous love of a wife, faithfully acting out the 'morality' that had been beaten into her broken mind.
The twisted love of her abuser husband, who did his best to cover up her crimes in order to protect her, including attacking me – and used the same butcher's knife his wife had wielded to hold off Holmes and the officers who came to take her away.
In the end, he slit her throat.
I shall not soon forget that sight, the young, mad wife calmly tilting her head back, accepting her fate.
The blood. So much of it, spraying over everyone. She died within minutes.
He tried to kill himself, too, but he knew considerably less about slitting wrists. He lived long enough to hang.
And then there was Miss Verity, who by chance had once been a patient of mine. Torn between loyalty to her family and horror at her sister-in-law's actions, she risked the rosebay message, hoping Holmes would investigate and somehow stop the killings.
The result satisfied – saved – no one.