The Singular Habits of Wasps
Written by Geoffrey A. Landis - Narrated by Simon Vance
I confronted Holmes with the papers and my suspicions. I had hoped, more than I hope for paradise, that he would dismiss my deductions with his soft, mocking laugh, and show me some utterly commonplace alternative explanation of the facts. My hopes were in vain. He listened to my words with his eyes nearly shut, his briar pipe clenched unlit between his teeth. Finally my words ground to a stop against his stony silence. "My God, Holmes, tell me I'm wrong! Tell me that you had nothing to do with those murders, I beg of you."
"I can say nothing, my friend."
"Then give me some reason, some shred of sanity."
He was silent. Finally he said, "Do you intend to go to the police with your suspicions?"
"Do you want me to?" I asked him.
"No." His eyes closed for a moment, and then he continued, "But it doesn't matter. They would not believe you in any case." His voice was weary, but calm. His manner did not seem that of a madman, but I know that madmen can be fiendishly clever in concealing their madness from those about them. "Are you aware of how many letters and telegrams have flooded Scotland Yard in these last few weeks? The Yard is a madhouse, Watson. Landladies and madmen, people claiming to have seen the Ripper, to know the Ripper, to be the Ripper. They receive a thousand letters a week, Watson. Your voice would be lost in the madness." He shook his head. "They have no idea, Watson. They cannot begin to comprehend. The Whitechapel horror, they call it. If the true horror of it were known, they would flee the city; they would scream and run in terror."
Despite everything, I should have gone to the police, or at least have confided my suspicions to someone else and asked for counsel. But I knew of no one in whom to confide such an awful suspicion, least of all my Mary, who trusted Holmes nearly as a god and would hear no ill of him. And, despite all, in my heart of hearts I still believed that I must have read the evidence awry, that Holmes could not truly be a culprit of such infamy.
The next day, Holmes made no reference to our conversation. It seemed so strange that I thought to wonder if it had actually occurred, or if I had dreamed the entire thing. I determined that, without giving any outward sign of it to Holmes, I should keep my eyes sharp on him like a hawk. The next time that I saw him making preparations to leave on a nocturnal sojourn, I would follow him, whether he wanted it or no.
Holmes made several trips to Whitechapel during the daytime, and gave no objection when I asked to accompany him. It was no place for decent humans to live. The streets were littered with the filth of horses, pigs, chickens and humans, and the air clamorous with the clatter of delivery wagons and trains, the carousal of children and drunkards, and the cackling of chickens and bawling of pigs which lived side-by-side with people in the basements and doss-houses. Above us, hanging from every window, ragged wash turned dingy grey as it dried in pestilence-ridden air.
During these trips he did little other than inspect the streets and look over the blank, white-washed brick walls of warehouses and blind alleys. On occasion he would stop for a brief chat over inconsequential matters with a charwoman or a policeman he might meet walking the narrow alleyways. Contrary to his nature, he made no attempt to visit the scenes of the crimes. To me this last fact was the most damning to my suspicions. Unless he were involved in some way, surely there would have been no possibility that anything could have kept him away.
But it was all of October and a week into November before he again left upon one of his evening peregrinations. But for an accident of chance, I would have missed it entirely. I had laid out several traps for him, so as to awaken me if he tried to leave in the night, and sat wakeful in the evenings until long after I had heard him retire. One night in early November, after retiring without incident, I was unexpectedly awakened in the middle of the night by some noise. The night was foggy, and through my window I could hear only the most muffled sounds of the street, as if, from a tremendous distance, the clopping of a lone set of hooves and the call of a man hailing a hansom. For some reason I was unable to get back to sleep, and so I put on my dressing-gown and descended to the sitting room to take a finger of whisky.
Holmes was gone. His door was ajar, but the bed was empty.
I was determined to know the truth, whatever it might be, and thus in one way or another to bring this adventure to an end. I dressed hurriedly, thrust my service revolver into a pocket of my overcoat, and ran out into the night. At that hour, well after midnight, I had only the most remote hope of finding a cab anywhere near our Baker Street diggings. Sometime during the day Holmes must have surreptitiously arranged for the cab to meet him that night. As I had made no such arrangements, he had quite the head start on me. It was the better part of an hour before I made my way past Aldgate pump and entered the East End slums.
I had suspected that in the wake of the killings the streets of Whitechapel would be deserted, the public houses closed and the citizens suspicious of any strangers. But even at this late hour the streets were far from deserted. It was a busy, populous area. Wandering aimlessly on the streets, I found many open pubs, most all crowded with unemployed workmen and idle women of dubious repute. Everywhere I walked I found that I was not more than a hundred yards from a citizen's patrol or a watchful, armed constable—several of whom watched me with an intent, suspicious gaze. Even the women on the streetcorners, wearing shawls and bonnets to ward against the wet November night, stood in groups of two and three.
Holmes I could find nowhere, and it occurred to me belatedly that if he were in one of his disguises, he could be any of the people about me—one of the unemployed mechanics gambling in the front room of the Boar and Bristle, the aged clergyman hustling down Commercial Street toward some unknown destination, the sailor chatting up the serving girls at the King's Arms. Any of these could be Holmes.
Any of these could be the Ripper.
All around me there were women, in the pubs, in the doorways, walking the streets; pathetic women dressed in cheap finery, with tired smiles and the flash of a stockinged ankle for any passers-by wearing trousers—"you lonely, love?"—or with saucy greetings and friendly abuse for the other women.
I realized that the size of Whitechapel that showed on the map was deceptive. In the fog and the darkness the streets were far more narrow, the shops smaller, and the whole larger and more cluttered than I recalled from the daytime. Even if there were a hundred constables patrolling the streets it would not be enough. The blind alleys, the sparse gas lights, and the drifting banks of fog made the streets a maze in which the Ripper might kill with impunity within a few yards of a hundred or more people.
Twice I thought I caught a glimpse of Holmes, but, when I ran after him, found that I had been deceived. Every drunkard sleeping in a doorway seemed to be a fresh corpse, every anonymous stain on the cobblestones looked like blood, every wandering alley-cat seemed the shadow of a lurking killer. Several times I contemplated giving up my hopeless errand and going home, managing to keep on only by promising myself that I would stay on for just one hour more.
In the dark hour before sunrise I found him.
I had come into a pub to warm myself for a while. The barman was surly and uncommunicative, evincing a clear suspicion of my motives that, while perhaps well enough justified by recent events, nevertheless made the atmosphere inside scarcely less chill than that of the night outside. The beer was cheap and thoroughly watered. At first a few of the women had come by to pass time with me, but I found them pathetic rather than alluring, and after a bit they left me in solitude.
After an hour or so of this, I went out into the night air to clear my head of the smoke and stink. A light rain had cleared most of the fog away. I walked at random down the streets and up alleyways, paying no attention to where I headed.
After walking for some time, I was disoriented, and stopped to get my bearings. I had no idea where I was. I turned a corner and looked down into an unmarked court, hoping to descry a street sign, but had no luck. In the darkness I saw something ahead of me; a pair of legs protruding from the arch of an entranceway. I walked forward, my blood chill. It was the body of a woman laid on the cobblestones, skirts awry, half concealed in a doorway. I had seen a dozen such in the last few hours, drunkards too poor to afford a bed, but in the instant of vision a dread presentiment came to me that this one was not merely drunk and asleep. The darkness beneath her body looked darker and more liquid than any mere shadow. I knelt down, and touched her wrist to take a pulse.
Her eyes flew open. It took a moment for her to focus on me. Suddenly she shrieked and stumbled to her feet. "Lord have mercy! The Ripper!" she said in a hoarse whisper. She tripped over her petticoats in a clumsy effort to stand and run at the same time, and fell to her knees.
"My pardons, Miss," I said. "Are you all right?" Without thinking, I reached down a hand to help her up.
"Murder!" she shrieked, scrambling away on all fours like an animal. "Oh! Murder!"
"Madam, please!" I backed away into the alley behind me. It was evident that nothing I could do would calm her. She continued to yell as she clattered away, darting frightened glances back at me over her shoulder. The courtyard I was in was dark and silent, but I was afraid that her cries would wake others. I stepped backwards into a doorway, and suddenly found the door behind me yield to the pressure. It had not been latched. Off balance, I half-fell backwards into the room.
The room was thick with the cloying, coppery odor of blood. The hand I had put down to steady myself came up slick with it. By the wan light of the fire in the grate across the room I could see the bed, and the dark, twisted shape on it, and I had no need to look more closely to know what it was.
The body of the woman on the bed had been so badly mutilated that it was hardly recognizable as human. Blood was everywhere. In a daze I reached out a hand to feel for a pulse.
Her hand was already cool.
Her skirt had been removed, her petticoats cut away, and her body neatly opened from pubes to sternum by some expert dissector.
I was too late. I gave a low moan. Somewhere before me I heard a low, steady dripping. I looked up, and stared into the pale face of Sherlock Holmes.
His eyes were weary, but empty of any trace of the horror that I felt. He was standing in the room behind the body, and as my eyes adjusted to the shadow I saw that he held a dissecting knife. His arms were red to the elbows, and gore dripped in a monotonous rhythm from the knife onto the stone floor. At his feet was a worn leather shopkeeper's satchel, half open.
"There is nothing you can do for her, Doctor," said Holmes, and the calm, even voice in which he said this pierced me with chill. It was not the Holmes I knew. I was not sure if he even recognized me. He bent down to snap the satchel shut before I had more than a brief glimpse of the bloody meat within it, then wiped the scalpel on the canvas apron he wore, put it carefully back into the small wooden case, and dropped it into an outside pocket of the bag.
He tugged at his left elbow, and only then did I realize that he wore full-length gloves. He was well prepared for this venture, I thought, my mind in a state of shock. He removed the gloves, tossed them into the fire grate, and pushed at them with a poker. They smoldered for a moment and then caught fire, with the heavy charnel stink of burning blood. Beneath his apron he wore work clothes such as any tradesman might wear.
"My God, Holmes!" I stuttered. "Did you kill her?"
He sighed deeply. "I don't know. Time is short. Please follow me, Watson."
At least he recognized me. That was a good sign. I followed him out of long habit, too numb to do anything else. He closed and locked the door behind him and put the key into his pocket. He led me through a small gate, down a cluttered alley, then quickly through two narrow passageways and into a courtyard behind the slaughterhouses. The key and the apron he discarded there. I saw he had a cab waiting, the horse tethered to an unlit lamppost. There was no cabman in sight. "Take me home, Watson," he said. "You should not have come. But, since you are nevertheless here, I confess myself glad of the chance to unburden myself of the awful things that I have seen and done. Take me home, and I shall conceal nothing from you."
I drove and Holmes sat in back, meditating or sleeping, I could not tell which. We passed three constables, but I did not stop. He bade me halt at a certain mews not far from Baker Street. "The cabman will be here in half an hour," he said, as he tended expertly to the horse. "He has been paid in advance, and we need not wait."
"I believe you must think me most utterly mad, Watson," said Holmes, after he had exchanged his rough clothes for a dressing-gown, meticulously cleansed himself of dirt and spattered blood, fetched the Persian slipper in which he kept his tobacco, and settled back in his chair. "You have not loosened your grip on that service revolver of yours for the last hour. Your fingers must be cramped by now, you have been clutching it so strongly—Ah," he said, as I opened my mouth to deny this, "no use in your protesting your innocence. Your hand has not strayed from the pocket of your robe for an instant, and the distinctive weight of your pistol is quite clearly evident in it. I may be mad, my dear Watson," he said with a smile, "but I am not blind."
This was the Holmes I knew, and I relaxed. I knew I had nothing to fear from him.
His hand hesitated over his rack of pipes, selected his clay-stemmed pipe, and filled it with shag. "Indeed, Watson, at times during these last months I would not have disputed it with you myself. It would have been a relief to know myself mad, and that all I have seen and conjectured to be merely the delusions of a maniac."
He teased a coal out of the grate and lit his pipe with it. "To begin, then, with the missing corpse." He puffed the pipe until its glow matched that of the fire behind him. "Or, perhaps better," he said, "I should begin with the London cannonade." He raised a finger at my imminent objection. "I have promised to tell all, Watson, and I shall. Pray let me go about it in my own way.
"My brother Mycroft," he continued, "made a most interesting comment when I discussed the matter of the cannonade with him. He mentioned that when a highly powered cannon is fired, an observer at the front lines ahead of the artillery and distant from the firing will hear a very distinct report at the instant the shell passes. This is the crack of displaced air. This report comes considerably in advance of the actual sound of the cannon firing. If our ears were but sensitive enough to hear it, he informed me, this report would be heard as two distinct waves, one of the air compressed by the shell, and another of the air rushing inward to fill the vacuum left behind it. An aeroship which traversed faster than the velocity of sound would produce a like crack, and, if it were large enough, the two waves would be heard as distinct reports.
"My brother discussed this only as an abstract but interesting fact, but I know him well enough to understand the meaning behind his words.
"Taking this as a provisional theory, then, and judging by the fact that observers noted the timing between the two reports was briefer in the north than in the south of London, we find that the hypothetical aeroship must have been slowing down as it traveled south."
"But Holmes," I said, my mind in total consternation, "an aeroship? And one which moves faster than an artillery shell? No nation on God's Earth could make such a thing, not to mention the impossibility of keeping it secret."
"Precisely," said Holmes. He took another puff from his pipe. "This brings us to the case of the missing corpse. I had been looking for a reason to investigate south of London, and the case presented by the two farm-hands was quite fortuitous in that respect.
"You know my method, Watson. It was unfortunate that the men in the original searching party had in many places quite trampled the tracks that I needed, but in the few places where they could be clearly distinguished, the tracks told a most puzzling story. Some animals had circled the hayrick, leaving tracks like nothing I had ever seen. I could make nothing of the footprints, save that one side was dragging slightly, as if one of the animals were limping. From the depth of the impressions they must have been the size of small dogs. What was most peculiar about the set of tracks was that the animals seemed to march in precision step. The strange thought occurred to me then, that the tracks of a single animal with eight or more legs might leave exactly such impressions. The steps led to the place where the dying man had lain, and circled about. Of outgoing tracks, there were only those of the men who had tended him and those of the searchers.
"I attempted to follow the tracks backward, but could follow back no more than a mile to where they emerged from a sheep meadow and were obliterated by the hoofprints of innumerable sheep. All that I could determine from this was that the animals had been severely panicked at some time in the last few days, running over and around each other and back and forth across the field.
"I turned my attention back to the impressions made by the dying man, and the tracks of the men away from the spot. I inspected the tracks of the unusual animal further. They were extremely strange, and in some ways rather insect-like. The animal's tracks overlaid two of the other tracks, which I knew to be those of the men who had summoned me. Over these tracks, however, were those of a third man.
"I quickly determined these tracks to be those of the dying man himself. After the other two men had left, he had risen up and walked away, apparently carrying the strange animal with him."
"My God, Holmes," I interjected. The revolver lay forgotten in my pocket. "You can't be serious. Are you suggesting some sort of voodoo?"
Holmes smiled. "No, Watson, I am afraid that it was something far more serious than mere superstition.
"The man had crawled on all fours for a few feet, then stood up and walked in a staggering, unbalanced stride. After a few unsteady moments, however, he found his feet and began to walk quickly and purposefully in a straight line. Soon he came to a hard-packed road, where his traces were obliterated by the traffic and I could track his movements no further. His aim, though was quite clearly toward London, and this I took to be his goal."