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The Case of the Curious Menagerie

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I had found myself at loose ends for the afternoon, and was in no mood to look over my writings (essays to be sent to the various Restorationist papers that Holmes and I had contacts in, the beginnings of a new play to sow seeds of discord among the people, other notes about our travels and deeds). Fortunately, my malaise did not have long to ferment, as one of the many street urchins who scratch a living delivering messages (and who view Holmes as a combination savior and drill sergeant) came to our rooms with a request for aid. It was unsigned, but clearly from a feminine hand, one rushed and fearful.

Later that afternoon, the young woman who had written appeared at our door. That she had found us at all spoke to not only her skill at seeking out less than legal avenues of help, but also of the severity of her problem. Once she was seated, I could see the desperation and fear that had driven her to seek us out wash over her face, making her voice tremble and hands quiver.

Her name, she said, was Helen Stoner. Her father had died many years previous, and a few years later her remarried mother followed him, innocent victims to a mysterious “plague” that swept through a corner of London—this being the convenient story when one of the Royals momentarily lost his head and caused an extensive body count. Helen and her twin sister Julia had been away on the Continent at school and had returned to find they were now under the guardianship of their stepfather, Dr. Roylott.

“It had all been so sudden,” she murmured faintly. “My sister and I had been away at school for much of the year, so we were not even present at the wedding. We had only spent such short amounts of time with our stepfather since he and Mother had been living for some time in India. Yet now he was the only family we had and we were lucky to have any place to go at all.”

The unlucky, it did not need to be said, all too often were left on the streets of London. The truly unlucky were never heard from again.

Miss Stoner explained that her stepfather forbade them from returning to school and instead moved them both to his draughty estate hidden from its neighbors by several crumbling rock walls and a copse of dying trees. Dr. Roylott was a loud and angry man, all too often turning away clients—he had a medical practice languishing due to his unpleasant manner and countenance—and distancing himself from peers and staff alike. Miss Stoner complained that what little staff he had did not stay long and what was more, he had several unsavory characters visiting at all hours. I thought it odd that the doctor was still able to maintain such a large property with so little income, but decided to keep it to myself. Miss Stoner seemed bent on finishing her story in her own way.

Through the various things Miss Stoner told us of her stepfather—and, more revealingly, what she did not speak of—I wondered if his anger had ever been directed towards her and her sister in a more sinister way. I wondered if the true purpose of her trip to us was to solicit some sort of violent revenge upon him. Though he was clearly human, (it was a sad fact that monsters wear the same disguises we see in the mirror) the stories of his controlling and vindictive behavior towards the girls had me leaning towards offering my knives to her myself.

But the path of the story veered away from her stepfather’s past behavior to Miss Stoner’s present problem.

“I had begged my stepfather to let me attend a friend’s Christmas party almost a year ago,” she said. “There I happened to make the acquaintance of a young man of pleasant manner and fine reputation. We began courting in secret to spare us my stepfather’s rage. This past month, he asked me to marry him.”

I made the appropriate noises of congratulations. But Miss Stoner’s face was drawn with grief. No joy at this news lay there.

“I had hoped that my fiancé and I could marry quickly and take Julia away with us from the horrible home my stepfather had made. But it is too late.”

Quickly, she described how just three days previous, Dr. Roylott had been very particular about placing his two stepdaughters in adjoining rooms in the west wing of the house. Their old rooms, he explained, had floorboards that needing replacing and were unfit for habitation.

“The doctor was very set in his decisions,” Miss Stoner said. It did not strike me strange that she did not call him Father. The man did not seem to conduct himself in a very fatherly manner at all. “When he gave an order it was easier to follow it than… suffer the consequences. And the quarters were adequate, though the heating was poor and we often complained to each other of the chill. Still, all was well; Julia and I had great plans to leave as soon as my fiancé could gather the funds for our wedding. Two days ago, my sister and I both took our leave from each other late in the evening. We had been staying up later than usual to discuss our plans for a new household, one far from our stepfather’s reach. It was…” she faltered. “A happy evening. I went to sleep easily, but woke in the dark a few hours later. I wasn’t sure what had awakened me. I thought at first that it was sounds outside my window. My stepfather has a great collection of animals from his travels, all sorts of oddities. I think part of his joy is that their ferocity means that Julia and I cannot ever sneak from our chambers at night.”

Miss Stoner gave a shudder and I felt a creep of unease at the idea. My colleague brought her back to the matter at hand.

“Your sister?” he asked.

“I heard her,” she said brokenly. “She made a noise unlike any other I have heard. A wailing scream that made my skin crawl. When I had finally forced her bedroom door open some time later—the door was locked fast and I had to leave to find a servant to break it open—she was dead. The doctor said it was a sudden apoplexy, an attack not unlike brain fever. But…”

“…you think otherwise?” Holmes said softly.

“I think my stepfather would not wish to see his two daughters, each worth a thousand pounds, leave his care and drain his pocketbook,” Miss Stoner said flatly. “Will you help? I wish to flee from here, but I cannot leave in good conscience, thinking that my stepfather murdered my sister. He should pay for her blood with his own.”

Unsurprisingly, my friend agreed readily to aid Miss Stoner. My original assessment was not completely false; it was a revenge mission we were set upon.

Holmes bade Miss Stoner return to her stepfather’s house, but to make preparations to stay at a friend’s that evening in secret.

“Is it possible for you to slip away? I know you have mentioned the dread creatures on the grounds,” he continued when she began to argue, “but if I could assure your safety, would you fly?” As Miss Stoner agreed and departed, he turned to me and spoke, “We must also make haste ourselves. I fear that the good doctor will have tracked our client here. I will lose my composure and our solution to this case if he happens upon us.”

I argued that wasn’t Dr. Roylott’s death our main objective? After the lengthy list of his crimes (and suspected guilt in Julia’s death) I was itching to lay my hands on the fiend. Holmes disagreed.

“While Dr. Roylott should suffer for his stepdaughter’s death, and I have no doubt of his guilt, I fear that there is a greater evil at work here,” he replied, and so with that we gathered our belongings and fled. In any case, we had remained overly long in our present lodging and it was past time to find a new one.

With Miss Stoner’s safety that night secured, we made our own plans to visit Dr. Roylott’s estate. I spent the hours until dark preparing my tools, checking that the edge of each blade was free from stain and bitterly sharp. I was surprised upon our departure when Holmes pressed a revolver into my palm.

“The game we hunt tonight requires stronger means, my friend,” he said. Then he would answer no more questions and simply made haste towards the edges of town where Dr. Roylott’s home stood.

I recalled Miss Stoner’s mention of her stepfather’s various creatures, and I wish I could tell you that they were simply a group of wild bests collected from his time abroad. But the eyes that tracked us through the dark shone with madness, and the growls and whimpers we abandoned in our wake left a residue of terror and otherworldliness on my skin. Some sick joining of Old One and animal, then, oh the horror. My blades flew freely enough, and they bled into the night.

When finally we reached the west wing of the house, we saw the dim shape of Miss Stoner waiting for us. She had crept out via an unlocked window and, with our assurances that the dreadful animals had been dispatched, she disappeared into the dark.

We entered the house through that same unlocked window. I gripped the revolver tightly in my hand, wondering what other strange animals we might meet. But the house was quiet as we made our way towards the rooms where Miss Stoner and her late sister had slept.

We found our way into Miss Stoner’s room, where (as we had requested) she had left a lamp burning as if she were up late reading. Upon Holmes’ signal, I doused the light, and we were left with the dim trickle of reddened moonlight through the curtains. I realized that I did not know what we waited for. Dr Roylott slipping inside, come to kill his second stepdaughter? But the door did not open, silence remained.

Just as I was turning to my colleague to ask him about our next course of action, there was a subdued sound that made my blood congeal and stutter in my veins. A slipping, no, a slithering. It put me in mind of those thrice-damned hills in Afghanistan where I had been nearly killed and I swallowed a rush of nausea. I raised the revolver, but before I could move further, Holmes clutched my shoulder and in fact closed his hand over my mouth. I couldn’t breathe, could barely see, and dared not move.

A precious clutch of seconds passed. The sound, that dreaded, terrifyingly familiar sound still continued, but seemed… fainter? Removed somehow?

Suddenly, there was a horrendous shriek of terror and pain, the sound of a soul being irrevocably torn into pieces. Holmes burst into action, throwing the door open and, as I numbly stumbled in his wake, threw open the door on the far side, into the room that had been Julia’s.

There we were greeted with a terrible sight, one that my hand shakes to put to paper. Dr. Roylott was standing close to the wall, a small candle guttering to wax at his feet. Above him, he had his hands raised towards what I saw was a heating grate in the wall. Coming from the grate was a monstrous twist of muscle and flesh, some kind of tentacled horror that grasped and sucked at the doctor’s face and neck, making the most awful sounds… it was too much, I flung myself back into the hall, feeling Holmes pluck the revolver from my hands as I fled.

Dimly, through the narrowing of my consciousness, I heard the sharp report of a gunshot, and Dr. Roylott’s madness-filled wailing ceased.

I nearly fainted, felt myself dropping to the floor but there was Holmes’ hand at my shoulder, arm pushing me upright, body dragging me down the hall.

“Hurry, Watson, we must set this all alight before any more loathsome deeds be done. The real culprit must burn.”

In the company of Sherlock Holmes, I have committed many acts of treason and murder. This was the first arson I had ever been party to. Holmes had prepared a violently combustive concoction of noxious chemicals and we stood in the safety of the stone wall, watching the wind whip the flames into an even higher conflagration.

When I could finally speak again, I managed, “How did you know?”

“That Dr Roylott was harboring an Old One in his estate? I was not completely certain. I had hoped it was something more innocuous like tainted food or even a poisonous reptile. But when we met with that foul menagerie, I was fairly certain that poor Miss Julia was simply an offering to an abomination. Clearly the ‘unsavory characters’ suffered a similar fate.”

We left the property that night and sent word in the morning to Miss Stoner that her sister was revenged. I hope she and her young man have a safe and happy life together, and that her sleep is not plagued by any memory of her sister’s last moments. I can only speak for my own experience with death, and I find its influence quick to enter the mind and slow to leave.

That is the end.

Though I will say that when I went once again to the Roylott estate, after even the rafters had burned to ashes, I dug in the remains to pull apart and dissect that foul monster that had nested in its walls. Returning home afterwards, I slept sweetly, without dreams.