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Sherlock checked his watch again. Coming up to eleven o'clock, and all he was doing was walking in the countryside. He wasn't going to make it!
The gardener came to a stop by a gra.s.sy bank. On the other side of the bank the ground dropped away to a natural depression, roughly circular in shape, that was bereft of trees. Around the edges of the bank Sherlock could see dark holes a rabbit burrows, he presumed.
He had a sudden flash of memory a the rabbit's head in the burrow, back in Farnham. The thing that had started his journey off. It seemed so long ago now, but it had only been a few days.
'This is where I laid the traps,' Hendricks said. He wouldn't look at Sherlock, but instead gazed into the distance. 'Used a looped snare attached to a bent sapling. The rabbit puts its head through the snare and triggers it, and the sapling pulls the snare tight and lifts the little critter off the ground. I check the snares every couple of hours.'
Sherlock gazed at where the snare had been, but he wasn't sure what it could tell him. On a whim, he moved across to the bank where the rabbit burrows were. He bent down to check the nearest one. There was no sign of a rabbit, but he did notice some plant stalks that were lying just inside the mouth of the burrow. For a moment he a.s.sumed that they were the remnants of a meal that the rabbits had brought back to the burrow, but then he realized that couldn't be the explanation. He'd never seen rabbits move food from one place to another a they always ate wherever they could find gra.s.s growing. He bent and picked up one of the stalks. There were flowers at one end, like purple bells, and the other end had been cut. These plants had been deliberately put there, in the mouth of the burrow. But who would do that?
'Do you recognize this?' he asked, holding the stalk up where Hendricks would see it.
'Foxglove,' the gardener said, glancing at the stalk and frowning. 'Be careful of that, sir. "Dead Man's Bells" they call that. Just a nibble of one of them leaves can kill you. There's some as say that just breathing in near the plant can kill you, but I don't put much stock in that. Been walking these woods for years, I have, and never had a problem.' He frowned 'Not seen much foxglove neither. Quite rare round here.'
'Why would rabbits be eating poisonous plants?' Sherlock asked. 'Surely animals avoid poisonous plants.' He turned the stem in his hand. 'More to the point, why would someone put a poisonous plant where a rabbit can't help but find it?'
'They do say,' Hendricks said, 'that rabbits are immune to foxglove.' His face was contorted, as if he was thinking something through. 'Don't know if that's true or not, but if it is . . .'
'If it is true,' Sherlock said, his thoughts racing ahead of his voice, 'then the poison in the foxglove might build up in the rabbit's meat. That might poison anyone who ate the rabbit!'
He glanced up to meet Hendricks's gaze. The gardener was staring at him, the frown still darkening his face. The thought occurred to Sherlock that if it was Hendricks who had left the foxglove plants by the burrow, hoping that the rabbits would eat them and the poison would build up in their meat, and if he had then given the rabbit to Aggie Macfarlane, knowing she would prepare it for Sir Benedict to eat, then the gardener had committed a particularly devious murder. He might want to stop Sherlock telling anyone about it. He tensed his muscles, preparing to spring up and run if Hendricks made any move towards him.
But no a if Hendricks was a murderer, then why tell Sherlock what he needed to know to solve the crime?
'Someone deliberately left the foxglove here, for the rabbits to eat?' the man asked. 'So the chances were that if I caught a rabbit, its flesh would already be poisoned?'
Sherlock nodded. 'How long would it take for the poison to build up?'
'A week,' Hendricks said. 'Perhaps two. But . . . who would do something like this? Something this barbarous?'
Instead of answering, Sherlock glanced at the ground. The earth was hard a too hard to retain any impression of shoes or boots. He might know how the crime had been committed, but that information was useless without knowing who.
He wanted to check the time, but he stopped himself. Knowing how little time he had left wasn't going to make him think any faster.
His gaze was skittering around the area of the burrows, looking for something, anything that might be important, when he suddenly realized that there was something unusual on the ground. It was brown and dry, and looked a bit like a long, straight worm. He stared at it for a few moments, wondering why a dead worm would be laid out as straight as that, before he realized.
It wasn't a worm. It was the mark left where someone had spat a mouthful of tobacco and saliva.
He glanced at Hendricks. The gardener had followed Sherlock's gaze and was staring at the tobacco stain.
'Do you chew tobacco?' Sherlock murmured.
'Can't say I ever picked the habit up,' he replied. 'I don't chew tobacco and I don't smoke it. But I know who does.'
Sherlock remembered the butler, back at the house, and his mouthful of tobacco, and also the way he had claimed that the garden and the woods weren't his area of expertise. If that was true, why had he been out here, all this way from the house?
'You need to go to the police,' Sherlock said. 'Tell them what you found.'
'What you found,' the gardener said grudgingly. 'I should have seen all this, but I didn't.'
Sherlock shook his head. 'The police won't listen to me a I'm a kid, and I'm not local. There's more chance of them believing you. If you want Aggie Macfarlane to be released, you need to tell them everything.'
'Aye. I will.' A corner of his mouth turned up. 'I've always had a soft spot for Aggie. I'll do whatever I can to get her out. But what about you?'
Now Sherlock did look at his watch.
Ten past one. He had less than an hour to make it back and convince Macfarlane that he could clear Aggie's name.
'I have to run,' he said. 'I need to be somewhere else in a hurry.'
And he did run. He ran all the way back to the house, to where Dunlow and Brough were waiting for him. Before he even got to the carriage he was shouting, 'Quick! We need to get back!'
As he climbed into the carriage, which was already pulling away, Sherlock glanced back at the manor house. He thought he saw the butler staring at him from a downstairs window, but the carriage was jolting too much to be sure. As they drove away Sherlock couldn't help thinking about Mrs Eglantine. Were all staff who ran households potential murderers?
He kept his watch in his hand as the carriage rattled through the streets, lanes and alleys of Edinburgh. His heart was pumping, and he could feel a pressure in his ears and temples. He wanted to jump out of the carriage and run, but that wasn't logical. It wouldn't have done any good. The carriage was already going faster than he could.
He hated waiting. He hated relying on other people. He wanted to be doing something.
He glanced out of the window for the thousandth time. Walls, windows, street signs and street lamps flashed past, blurring into an amorphous ma.s.s. He was sure Edinburgh was a wonderful place, but at the moment he hated it.
He realized that they were getting close when he started to see warehouses rather than ordinary houses go past. As they slowed to a halt he jumped out and sprinted towards the particular warehouse he recognized from earlier. Macfarlane's base.
'Kid,' Dunlow shouted, 'wait for us!' Sherlock pelted full speed through the front door. Men standing guard tried to stop him, but he managed to evade their reaching hands. He left a wake of shouts and yells behind him as he ran onward through the dog-fighting room and through the room where the two men had been boxing.
'I've done it!' he cried as he sprinted into the room where Macfarlane held his court. He spotted Amyus Crowe, standing protectively next to Virginia, and Rufus Stone, and Matty. Their gazes intersected on him, amazed, as he skidded to a halt in front of Macfarlane's dais. 'I've done it!' he repeated. 'I know who killed Sir Benedict Ventham, and it wasn't your sister! It was the butler. I don't know why, but I know it was him.'
'That's good news,' Macfarlane said. There was something grim about his voice, and his previous good humour had evaporated. 'I owe you, laddie, as we agreed. The problem is, I'm not in a position to pay and you're not in a position to collect.'
Sherlock was about to ask what he meant, to point out that they had a deal, but he suddenly realized that most of the eyes in the room weren't looking at him or at Macfarlane, but were looking past him, towards the door. Already knowing what he was going to see, he turned round.
Ten men were standing along the wall, invisible to anyone looking into the room. Nine of them were pointing crossbows at Macfarlane and his men, and at Sherlock. The tenth man stood calmly a pace in front of the others. He was below average height, and had short hair brushed neatly across his forehead. His clothes were tailored to a perfect fit. He rested his hands on a black wooden cane, the point of which rested on the floor between his feet. The head of the cane was a golden skull. All of this Sherlock noticed in a flash, but it was the man's face and hands that fixed his attention. There wasn't a square inch of skin that didn't have a name tattooed on it. From where he stood Sherlock could see 'Alfred Whiting', 'Cpl Bill Cottingham', 'Winnie Thomas' and 'Paul Fallows'. They were all written in black, but prominently tattooed in red across his forehead was 'Virginia Crowe'.
'Bryce Scobell,' Sherlock said calmly.
'We meet again,' Scobell said in his curiously precise, curiously gentle voice. 'Apologies. I know that my appointment was later on this afternoon, but I just could not wait any longer. Mr Crowe and his beautiful daughter have been on my mind, and on my skin, for quite some time now.' He gazed at Sherlock. His eyes were so black that Sherlock couldn't tell the pupil from the iris. 'You caused me significant trouble yesterday. Two of my men were crippled by your actions.'
Sherlock looked along the line of Scobell's men, but couldn't see any casts or bandages.
'Oh, you won't see them now,' Scobell continued. He had a small smile on his face. 'Like horses, I have them put down when they are injured.'
'Then why do the rest stay working for you?' Sherlock asked. 'If I were them, I wouldn't take the risk.' As he was speaking he let his gaze run up and down Scobell's body, looking for something a anything a that might give him an edge if it came to a fight, or anything he could use to influence the man verbally, but there was nothing. There were no clues to anything on Scobell's person. He might just as well have been a walking, talking mannikin.
'They fear what will happen to them if they leave, of course,' Scobell replied, 'and I reward them well enough to compensate them for the risk. If there is one thing I have discovered about people it is this: n.o.body ever believes that they will die. Others around them, yes, but each person privately believes that they personally are invincible.'
Sherlock's attention was caught by the golden skull on the top of the cane. The dark hollows of the eye sockets seemed to be staring at him. He thought he could see something on the top of the skull, a slot of some kind, but before he could work out what it was Scobell had lifted the cane up so that the end was pointing directly at Sherlock's face. His finger moved slightly, pressing into the skull's left eye socket, and a slim blade sprang out of the end of the cane. The point hung in s.p.a.ce, half an inch from Sherlock's right eye.
He felt sweat bead on his forehead.
'There is,' Scobell said, still in that horribly gentle voice, 'no time for pleasantries and polite badinage, I fear. I am on a tight timetable, and there is something I have been promising myself for a few years now. Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold, but I have been waiting so long that my revenge has congealed on the plate.' He gazed at Crowe. 'You owe me. You owe me for the death of my wife and child.'
'Let the boys go, Scobell!' Amyus Crowe shouted from the dais. 'They've done nothing to offend you. It's me you want.'
'On the contrary,' Scobell replied, 'they cost me several of my best men. I will have my revenge on them later, but first I will see to your beautiful daughter a not so beautiful when I have finished with her, I promise you a and then I will deal with you.'
Gahan Macfarlane stepped forward. 'This is my place,' he growled, 'and you are a guest in it. I give the orders here.'
Scobell slowly let the end of the cane sink down to the floor. He pushed down on the golden skull, and the blade slid back into the cane.
Sherlock heard a click as it was caught by some kind of spring mechanism so that it was ready to jump out again when needed. His attention was still caught by the slot on the top of the skull. What was it for?
Scobell gazed calmly at Macfarlane. 'I hold all the cards,' he pointed out. 'You have done nothing to offend me a yet a but whether you live to see another day depends on your making sure that you continue that way.'
'You do not,' Macfarlane roared, 'give orders in my-'
Before he could finish the sentence, Scobell raised his free hand. One of the men behind him moved his crossbow slightly, and pulled the trigger. With a metallic tw.a.n.g the bow released, sending a bolt flying through the air. It hit Dunham in the centre of his chest. He stared at it for a moment in horror, then fell forward to his knees. He looked up at Macfarlane and tried to say something, but instead he slumped sideways to the flagstones.
'I give orders wherever and whenever I please,' Scobell said, his voice as calm as if he was buying a newspaper.
Sherlock glanced around, taking in everything that he could see, calculating whether or not he could use it to change the dynamic of the situation. Scobell's men had the advantage, and Sherlock couldn't see any way out. Another few minutes and he would lose both Virginia and Amyus Crowe. A few minutes more and he would be dead too, along with Matty and Rufus Stone. He had to do something.
His gaze moved over Gahan Macfarlane. The big Scotsman was staring at Sherlock. He glanced at the doorway to the previous room, then back at Sherlock again. Then he nodded.
What was he trying to say?
Sherlock remembered the pit in the centre of the room next door, and the creature that was penned inside. Was that what Macfarlane wanted him to think about? He didn't know what the creature was, but judging by the dog fight and the boxing match in the other rooms, and by the various animal heads that hung from the walls here, Macfarlane liked to see people and animals fighting. Whatever was in the pit was likely to be big and fearsome. Macfarlane probably set dogs against it, or possibly even people, wagering not on whether they would win but on how long it would take them to die.
It gave Sherlock an idea, but he had to get to it first.
'It's time,' Scobell said. 'The names on my forehead and on my forearm have been red for too long. It is time to have them covered in black ink.'
As Scobell stepped forward, Sherlock's eyes fixed again on the gold skull on his cane. The cane had a blade in the end, activated by one eye socket. But the skull had two eye sockets . . .
He reached out and jammed his forefinger in the skull's right eye socket.
A blade erupted out of the slot in the skull and through Scobell's hand. He screamed: a high-pitched, shocked noise that paralysed everyone in the room apart from Sherlock. He pushed past Scobell and towards the door to the previous room a the one with the beast trapped in the pit. Scobell's men regained their wits and tracked him with their crossbows as he ran, but he was already through the doorway when they fired. He heard the bolts whizzing behind, and screams as some of them found a mark. Scobell's men were shooting each other by accident.
There was chaos in the room he had left, cries and shouts and sounds of people running, but Sherlock was more concerned with what was ahead of him: the swimming-pool-like pit, and the waist-high wooden panels that lined the edge.
The creature in the pit roared. Sherlock heard the thudding of paws and the clicking of claws as whatever it was rushed towards his side of the pit.
He grabbed a panel and pulled it upward. It was loosely bolted to the floor and resisted for a moment, but in his desperation his strength was such that he tore it loose. He didn't have the luxury of failure. The panel was perhaps fifteen feet long and three feet wide, and so heavy that he had difficulty in manoeuvring it, but somehow he managed to turn it and throw it into the pit so that one end was left on the edge by his feet, right in the gap where the panel had been fastened.
He had made a ramp so that whatever was in there could get out.
It was the only thing he could think of that could even up the odds.
With a roar, a ma.s.sive shape surged out of the pit and loomed above him, s.h.a.ggy arms wide and claws spread like handfuls of knife blades. It was a bear a a brown bear a and it must have measured ten feet from its tail to the tip of its nose. Its eyes gleamed red with rage and madness. G.o.d alone knew where Macfarlane had got it. Probably he'd had it since it was a cub. The chances were that it had been penned up for years, taunted and abused and forced to fight, and now it was free.
It swiped at Sherlock with a ma.s.sive paw. Sherlock dropped to the floor and rolled beneath it, just as Scobell's remaining men burst through the doorway looking for him. The bear forgot about Sherlock. It saw the men, and it saw their crossbows. It remembered all the pain it had suffered.
And it attacked.
Sherlock rolled over the edge of the pit. As he was falling he could hear screams from Scobell's men and terrifying roars from the bear.
The impact with the floor of the pit drove the breath from his body in a whoosh. His vision filled with stars. It took him a moment to recover. He rolled over and stood up cautiously, looking around. The sides of the pit were about fifteen feet deep, and it was littered with bones. Some were old, but some were fresh and b.l.o.o.d.y. Sherlock could have sworn that some were human.
He climbed carefully back up the ramp. The bear had gone into Macfarlane's main room, but five or six of Scobell's men were lying on the ground just inside the doorway. It was hard to tell exactly how many there were, given the state they were in.
Cautiously Sherlock moved into the doorway.
Most of Macfarlane's men had run. Macfarlane himself was still there, on the dais by his throne, with Rufus Stone, Matty, Amyus Crowe and Virginia cl.u.s.tered around him. They were watching what was happening in the centre of the room with horror.
The remainder of Scobell's men had been pulled apart by the bear's claws. They had obviously tried to stop it: their crossbows had been fired, and there were bolts sticking out of the bear's fur, but that hadn't helped them at all. Having dealt with them, the bear was rearing over Bryce Scobell. It was nearly twice his height. There was no trace of fear on Scobell's face. There was no trace of pain either, despite the blood that was streaming from his right hand where the blade from the cane had sliced through it.
'Get out of my way,' he said with just a tinge of annoyance in his voice. 'I have business to attend to.'
The bear swiped at Bryce Scobell with a deadly paw. The sharp claws caught in his chest, picking him up like a rag doll. He flew across the room and hit the wall. As Sherlock watched, his body slid, broken and crumpled, to the ground. His expression was as calm, as uninterested, as it had always been, and now would always remain.
The bear scented the group of people on the dais. It dropped to all fours and stalked towards them. The growl that rumbled deep in its chest reverberated through the floor.
Sherlock moved up behind it. He knew he had to stop it, but he didn't know how. One of the crossbows dropped by Scobell's men lay by his feet. It hadn't been fired. He bent and scooped it up. Five or six bolts were already sticking out of the bear's body, but maybe Sherlock could hit a vulnerable spot. Did bears even have vulnerable spots?
Gahan Macfarlane took a step forward, but Amyus Crowe put a hand on his shoulder. Macfarlane looked at the American, frowning. Crowe moved past Macfarlane, stepping off the dais. He walked forward, towards the bear. Matty and Rufus Stone were frozen. The bear padded towards Crowe, growling. Sherlock could see Virginia raise a hand to her mouth. Her face was shocked, her eyes wide. She could see her father's death unfolding right in front of her.
Sherlock raised the crossbow, taking aim at the back of the bear's neck. Maybe he could sever its spinal column. He knew his chances were very slim, especially given how much his hands were shaking. But he had to do something.
The bear reared up on its back legs. It loomed above Crowe, front legs stretched wide and paws spread. It raised its snout and let out a deafening roar.
And then Amyus Crowe did the most amazing thing Sherlock had ever seen. He threw his arms wide and his head back, and he roared as well. His voice echoed through the room. With his ma.s.sive chest and his heavily muscled arms and legs he seemed suddenly larger than life. He was like a bear as well, but white instead of brown a a polar bear instead of a grizzly bear.
The bear dropped its head and gazed down at Crowe. It sniffed uncertainly.
'Ah have eaten bigger bears than you for mah breakfast,' Crowe said firmly. 'Go back from whence you came, mah friend. Live for another day.'
Unbelievably, the bear sank to all fours. Even so, its head was on a level with Crowe's. It sniffed at him for a long moment, then it turned round and shambled out of the room, back towards its pit. It pa.s.sed by Sherlock without even a glance, head held low.
'Now that,' Macfarlane said, breaking the silence, 'is something men would pay to see. Can I perhaps offer you a job, Mr Crowe? Fights twice weekly, payment to be agreed?'
Crowe glanced at Sherlock. He saw the crossbow, still held in Sherlock's hand, and nodded. 'Ah gave up bear-wrestlin' some years ago,' he said. 'Ah much prefer bein' a teacher. More of a challenge, ah find.'