Featured April 4, 2021 Horror Mystery Historical reprint Sherlock Holmes

The Adventure of the Ignoble Sportsmen

By Josh Reynolds
Mar 16, 2021 · 6,704 words · 25 minutes

Animal skull

Photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash.

From the editor:

The members of a secret society, protected by wealth and status, believe they can commit the most heinous of crimes with impunity. But when a mysterious assailant begins picking them off one by one, Sherlock Holmes will be on the case.

Don’t miss this Sherlock Holmes tale by Josh Reynolds, the author of over twenty novels, including the popular Warhammer series Fabius Bile, as well as dozens of short stories, novellas and audio scripts.


From the author: Sherlock Holmes investigates a case of murder; but is the culprit human...or something else?


It was not unusual for my friend, Sherlock Holmes, to turn away a prospective client. As the most preeminent of that new breed of consulting detective now so common in the more sensationalists newspapers, our lodgings at 221B Baker Street saw a steady stream of visitors. Their problems ranged from the mundane to the impossible, and Holmes often erred on the side of the latter.

For him, the mundane was as virulent a toxin as hemlock. The strange, the curious, the intriguing, these were his milk and meat. And the tale told to us by Sir Harold Gisburne was all three in one.

It was a tale of locked rooms, and impossible deaths, perpetrated most bloodily. A tale that would have seemed strange coming from anyone, but most especially a man of our guest’s bearing.  Sir Harold was a sportsman born, broad but with a stoop particular to shootists. He had the reddish complexion of a man more used to the outdoors, and a wide, craggy face. A member in good standing of several sporting clubs, he had, he claimed, been turned our way by a fellow member of the Anglo-Indian Club. He clenched his hands as he spoke, as if in want of something to throttle.

Suffice it to say, I did not take to him.

Despite my instinctive distaste, his story was of exceeding interest, coinciding as it did with a number of recent, and startling, deaths. The names of several of those unfortunates, I knew, could be found in Holmes’ assiduously compiled index of biographies. That alone might have been enough to perk my interest, and certainly Holmes’ own.

So it was that when our latest visitor had finished his tale, I was surprised to see Holmes turn away, with a gesture so dismissive as to be insulting. “I find nothing of interest in your problem, sir, and I see little reason to bend my faculties to the proposed task.”

“If it’s money you’re after,” our guest began, gruffly. Holmes stopped him with a withering look. I had been on the receiving end of that look, myself, and knew its potency. Holmes had cowed more than one blustering bully with that basilisk gaze. Our guest, however, was made of sterner stuff. He drew himself to a full, impressive height, flower pot red features growing darker still with barely restrained anger. Before he could speak, Holmes leaned forward, his hawk like features stern.

“I regret that you have come all this way for nothing, Sir Harold. Do pass along my apologies to your fellows. Watson – see our guest out.’

I put away my notebook and rose. Though I was curious as to this unexpected turn, I refrained from the obvious questions. Holmes rarely left me in the dark for long, and I had learned a few tricks in my time with him. My friend resembled nothing so much as a coiled spring. It was plain to me that something had its hooks in him, whatever his claims.

Sir Harold beat me to his possessions. He moved swiftly, impatiently. Here was a man used to getting his own way, and now, having been stymied, was eager to express his frustration through action. He snatched up hat and coat and spun, jabbing a finger at Holmes. “I was assured that this matter would be easy for such as you. I see now that those assurances were wrong. Obviously, our problem is beyond you, sir.”

“Every problem is absurdly easy to solve, when someone else does it for you. But I shall not play the part of your bloodhound, Sir Harold. There are detectives ten a penny in this city now. Seek one out. I shall even provide references, should you wish. No? Then good day, sir.” Holmes turned in his armchair, as if to contemplate the glow of the fireplace. Sir Harold glared at the back of his head for a moment, as if lining up a shot. But then, he turned on his heel and was out the door, slamming it behind him.

As the echoes of his abrupt departure faded, I said, “The rent is due, you know.”

Holmes snorted, but did not turn from his contemplation of the fire. “We are neither of us in danger of penury, Watson. Now, if you would be so kind as to look out the window and tell me what you see.”

I nudged aside the curtain, and glanced down at the wet street. The light of the lamps washed across rain-soaked cobbles, making the darkness ripple in strange ways. I saw Sir Harold signal a cab, and there, in the watery light, the sportsman looked less like a hunter, and more like a beast at bay. And I saw that I was not the only one watching, as he climbed into his cab. “Holmes, there’s a fellow down there, in the alley across from us. He’s – ”

“He is watching Sir Harold speed off,”  Holmes said. “A small man. Wiry. A thin face, normally clean shaven, but now displaying a significant growth of brush.” Holmes gestured about his jaw. “Do you recognise him?”

“Should I?”

Holmes’ lips twitched. “Possibly not. It was some time ago, and there were other considerations. Is he following the cab?”

“He’s caught one himself,” I said, watching until the shifty fellow and his trap had vanished into the gathering fog. “Look here, Holmes, who is this fellow? Obviously, you knew he’d be there.”

“Of course. He’s been there most of the day, in fact. You really must learn to be more observant, Watson. Sometimes I find myself surprised that you made it out of the Kandahar Province at all.” A quick flicker of a smile crossed his thin lips as he spoke, taking some of the sting out of his words.

I chuckled. “London isn’t Maiwand, Holmes.”

“No, it is altogether more dangerous.” Holmes vaulted from his chair, smiling insufferably. “Well Watson, that old hunter’s pride will serve us well,” he said. “I have set my bloodhounds on his trail. If he does as I suspect, we’ll learn of it shortly.” He rubbed his hands gleefully. “And then we’ll have them!”

“I confess I am still somewhat in the dark,” I said, more sharply than I had intended.

“I apologise, Watson,” Holmes said. “These past few days, I have been tending to my practice, even as you have been tending to yours.” I frowned. Trust Holmes to admonish a man for seeing to the needs of his patients.

“Does this have something to do with why you sent Sir Harold packing?”

“Quite. Did you notice the pin on Sir Harold’s neck tie?” Holmes was no longer smiling. His face looked positively cadaverous in the light of the fire, and I wondered at his grim expression. “A stag’s head, I believe.”

“Picked out in gold, on a shield of green,” I replied. I reclaimed my notebook from where I’d left it. “It seemed a bit odd to me, at the time. I made a note of it.”

“Of course you did,” Holmes said, smiling slightly. “Did you recognise it?”

“Why – no. I took it for a club pin, of some sort.”

“And so it is.” Holmes was not smiling, now. He sank back into his chair, fingers pressed together before his face. “A very select club.”

I frowned. “Speak plainly, please.”

“The Fellowship of Herne,” Holmes said. He looked at me expectantly.

“Sometimes a keeper here in Windsor Forest, doth all the winter-time, at still midnight, walk round bout an oak, with great ragg’d horns,” I recited. It was from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. A favourite of mine.

“Unfortunately, we are not dealing with an antlered spectre, in this instance,” Holmes said. “Indeed, I would prefer it to the abominable banality before us.” He began to fill the bowl of his pipe with meticulous fingers. “The Fellowship – of which I have it on good authority that Sir Harold is a member – is a sporting club of unusual focus, Watson.”

The way he said it brought me up short. “Meaning?”

“They hunt men.”

I stared at him in shock. “What? Surely not.”

“Even so, Watson.” Holmes’ face was set in a grim expression, and I could not bring myself to further question the truth of his words. There were horrors in the world, and in recent years, I had become intimately familiar with far too many of them. Too, I recalled certain stories I’d heard, in my time in India, and felt a thrill of revulsion.

“How long have you known?”

“Long enough. The Fellowship is made up of those men for whom British law is but a suggestion, at best. My brother, who possesses no small amount of influence himself, is unabashedly hesitant where the Fellowship is concerned.”

I was nothing short of astounded to hear this. Given what little I had been made privy to about his position, I could not conceive of Mycroft Holmes fearing anyone. That he had deigned to share those fears with his brother only emphasised the seriousness of the situation. I shook my head. “I cannot conceive of such a thing, Holmes. Surely there would be some outcry, despite their influence.”

“According to what I have learned, the Fellowship has, until recently, kept its hunts relatively bloodless. At least on English soil. Less a blood sport than a curious ritual, and one supposedly dating back several centuries. Such things are often brushed off under the guise of hoary tradition.” His tone told me all I needed to know about his opinions in that regard. “But, as times change, so too have appetites. Worse, their membership isn’t as anywhere near as parochial as it might once have been. The Fellowship counts Americans and Canadians among its number. Even a few Russians.”

“But what should such a disreputable fellowship want with you?”

“Simple, Watson. Someone is hunting our hunters.” Holmes sat back, legs crossed. “But we should start at the beginning.” He gestured, and I sat back in my chair, notebook at the ready.

“A year ago, Sir Harold and a few others went to Canada for a hunting trip. The Hudson’s Bay region, specifically. They met several other members of the Fellowship, from south of the border. They hired a local man, ostensibly to act as a sort of guide, and a camp cook – a half-breed named Punk. Harmless enough.” Holmes’ frown deepened, and I could tell he was truly angry. “I’d wager the poor devil wasn’t told what he was really being hired for. But he found out quickly enough. They shot him down like a dog, three days in. Sir Harold claimed he’d gone mad, out there in the deep woods, and no one questioned them.”

“But it was murder, surely.” Even as I said it, I felt a naïve fool, and recalled the number of well-off murderers Holmes and I had encountered. Money and prestige were often the best armour, and they had saved more than one deserving soul from the gallows. Especially when the victim was from the lowest rungs of society.

Holmes leaned forward through a cloud of smoke. “It was indeed. But not the one which interests us. Some weeks later, the first sportsman died. A Canadian, in Ontario. Then, a few days later, an American, in Chicago. A second American followed, in San Francisco. Three deaths, in as many weeks.”

“I think I can guess what linked them,” I said. “They were all members of a certain club, and had recently been on a hunting trip to the Hudson’s Bay region.”

Holmes tapped the side of his nose. “An adequately excellent observation, Watson. The murders were, to put it bluntly, sensational. Savage affairs. The wounds resembled those made by an animal, or various animals, depending.”

Gisburne’s accounts of the murders of his fellow clubmen had been similar. Mauled had been the word he used. As if by a big cat, or a wolf. Given his experience, I suspected Gisburne knew what he was talking about.

“But even that is not the strangest thing. The murder in San Francisco occurred in broad daylight, aboard a cable car. Witnesses reported that he had started screaming, as if he’d seen something that put the fear of God in him, and made as if to jump. It was assumed that he’d subsequently fallen off, and been pulled under the wheels.”

“And had he?” I asked, already suspecting I knew the answer. Holmes didn’t reply. I stopped writing and looked at him. He puffed on his pipe, seemingly relaxed. He glanced at me, and his mouth twitched. “Well?” I asked. “This is only half the story, surely.”

“Indeed, Watson. And here is where you and I enter the picture. The pattern has stretched across the Atlantic, to England. Two deaths so far, both brutal affairs, with seemingly no connection, save one. Responsibility fell in poor Gregson’s lap, you know. It was merest child’s play to wheedle a look at the scenes of the killings. Gregson was only too happy to comply.”

That was no surprise. Of all the Scotland Yarders, Inspector Gregson was always quickest to look the other way, when it might benefit him. He was a calculating one, more so than poor Lestrade, or young Hopkins. “And? What was the connection, besides the obvious?” I asked, somewhat impatiently.

“In both cases, the killer, or killers, left something behind.”  Holmes reached into his vest pocket and produced something with a flourish. It was small, and whitish, barely larger than a finger. I took it, and knew it at once for bone. “Its been carved, as you can see. And with great skill.”

“Scrimshaw?” I asked, as I held the carving up to the light. It was an awful thing, bestial and hunched. Stag-like antlers curled back around a sloped, skull, and curved claws dangled over crooked knees. The thing had been carved as if squatting, but its limbs were long and bent awkwardly.

I felt a chill as I examined it, and a sour taste bloomed at the back of my throat. I repressed a nauseated shudder as I ran a thumb over its carved form. It was so lifelike that I half feared it might bite me at any time. “Or a ritual totem of some kind, like that business last year, with the debtor, Hasselback?”

“The possibility is there. There are similarities to certain carvings made by the native Inuit of the Hudson Bay region.” Holmes stood, and began to pace, his hands clasped behind his back. “Regardless of the origins, a carving such as this was found at the scene of every murder. Including those in the Americas.”

“A calling card,” I said. “Or a warning, like the orange pips?”

Holmes leaned against the fireplace, studying the clock on the mantel. “I believe so, though I am still at a loss to explain the deaths themselves.” He gnawed pensively on the stem of his pipe. “Their cause is obvious, on the face of it. And yet, no perpetrator has been seen...”

“Which is surely impossible, Unless we’re dealing with some sort of invisible animal...” I laughed.

Holmes didn’t. “There was a strange case, out in the American Southwest a year or two ago. A man named Morgan was found dead, out among the chaparral. The local constabulary thought it was murder, at first, but...” He trailed off and shrugged. “The human eye is an imperfect instrument, Watson. Some things are beyond its perception. There’s supposedly a fellow in West Sussex who’s doing some interesting research into such matters, but for the moment we are forced to rely on it.” He tapped the side of his head.

“Perhaps I should take a look at the bodies. There might be some evidence only a thorough post mortem examination will reveal...” I stopped, as something occurred to me. “Wait – if you were already investigating, why then did you send Gisburne off so rudely?”

“Think, Watson. How does one hunt a tiger?”

“Bait,” I said, instantly.

“Exactly. A man – a probable murderer – like Gisburne wouldn’t have come to me, if he wasn’t desperate. That sort always thinks the answer lies in money, or the barrel of a gun. And for him to be so desperate, the situation must be grave indeed.” He gestured to the carving, which I found I was still holding.

“You think he’s received one of these?”

“Possibly. Or one of the others. But, by provoking him further, I hope to bring this matter to a swift conclusion, before any more lives are lost.”

“How?”

“Protective custody,” Holmes said. “Time is at a premium. In the hours it would take us to break the wall of silence about the Fellowship, and determine which of the remaining men is in immediate danger, the luckless victim would likely be dead. Worse, the survivors might scatter, making it all but impossible to catch the killer before they complete their grisly mission. So, when word reaches us that they have gathered, we’ll have them.”

I nodded. “That’s why you sent him away – you knew he would run to the others.”

He leaned against the window, and twitched the curtain aside. “I know he will. And if all goes according to plan, we will soon – ah. There.” He tapped the glass with a long finger. I joined him at the window, and saw a young boy waving from the street. I recognised one of the young rascals Holmes insisted on referring to as the Baker Street Irregulars.

Tossing on our hats and coats, we hurried onto the wet street, where the urchin enthusiastically received a guinea in return for a location. Holmes spoke with the lad for a moment longer before hailing a cab, and we soon found ourselves heading towards the East End.  “Where are we going, Holmes?” I asked, as the cab juddered and bounced along over wet cobbles and uneven pavement.

“Where all unsavoury sorts eventually wind up, Watson – Bluegate Fields. Porky Johnson has tracked our sportsmen to their campsite, as I knew he would.” I laughed in understanding. Shinwell Johnson was another of Holmes’ agentes in rebus – a former criminal who kept Holmes abreast of the ever-shifting tides of the underworld. Johnson was a friendly enough sort, for all that he’d broken more bones than I’d ever set.

Bluegate Fields was an odious slum that lay just north of Wapping. We had visited it more times than I cared to think of, most recently during an investigation into the disappearance of a young aristocrat named Gray. Conditions had not improved since then.

It was a dreadful sort of place, where extreme poverty was leavened by sudden violence. Song and supper rooms of varying quality were prevalent, and it was to one of these – The Joyful Cossack – that Johnson’s careful directions, delivered via urchin, guided us.

The man himself was nowhere in sight, as we took up position in a by-street across from the music hall. “He’ll be inside already. Porky is a firm soul, and he’ll do as he’s promised,” Holmes said, with all the assurance of a saint. “Gisburne won’t be able to slip out, not while Porky has an eye on him.” Having met Shinwell Johnson on several occasions, I knew that ‘firm’ was as apt a description as any.  Johnson was a lump of a man, made hard of body and mind by a callous world. But he was as loyal to Holmes, in his own way, as I was.

Nonetheless, as we stood at the mouth of the by-street, I hesitated. My service revolver was heavy in my pocket. The old Adams revolver had seen me through danger more than once, and I had come to regard it in much the same way I fancied a knight might regard his sword. Totem and tool both. I touched it idly, and realised then that I’d inadvertently brought that grotesque little carving with me. As my fingers found it, I felt once more that eerie chill, and suddenly, the evening fog felt suddenly stifling. I tugged at my scarf and said, “Holmes, perhaps we should –”

The click of a revolver being cocked silenced me. “Perhaps you should explain to me as to why you’re here, exactly.” The voice was rough; American, by the accent.

I made to ease my pistol out. Holmes was between the newcomer and myself, but he made no move to step aside. Instead, he tapped my wrist gently with his cane, preventing me from retrieving my weapon. “No need for that, Watson. Leave it where it is. And you, Mr. Leverton – do put that Colt away, before someone is injured.”

“How do you – Holmes? Is that you, then, Mr. Holmes? I’ll be damned!”

“One hopes not, Mr. Leverton. I have always counted you on the side of the angels, whatever else.” Holmes smiled thinly. “Well Watson, nothing to say to our old friend?”

I was momentarily at a loss, before dim embers of memory were stirred to new life. “Of course! Leverton, the American agent,” I said, extending my hand.

“The hero of the Long Island cave mystery himself,” Holmes said, with a laugh. It was a rare sort of fellow who could earn such enthusiastic approbation from Holmes. With his hatchet face and hard smile, Leverton did not seem far removed from the Shinwell Johnsons of the world. A skull thumper, rather than a ratiocinator. But from what Holmes had told me, Leverton was a dogged investigator in his own right.

“I was not aware that there were any caves on Long Island,” I said, as we shook hands warmly. “Then, perhaps that was the mystery?”

Leverton smiled, and clapped me on the arm. “Wrong Long Island, Doctor. The Bahamas, not New York.” His smile faded, and he shook his head. “That was a bad one.” He looked across the street at the music hall. “This one’s worse though.”

“But how did you come to be here? Surely this is no coincidence?” I took Holmes’ smile to mean I was right. I shook my head. “You expected him to be here.”

“Someone, certainly, yes. Not Leverton in particular, though. My powers do not extend to prognostication, impressive as they may be.” He smiled in a self-satisfied way, clearly pleased with himself. “Two weeks ago, an agent of Pinkerton’s American Agency was retained by a certain young widow in Chicago, to investigate the brutal murder of her late husband, not long after his return from a hunting trip...”

“Her husband was a member of the Fellowship,” I said.

Leverton’s eyes widened slightly, but he nodded. “That he was, and I can’t say as I’m surprised you know of it.” He shook his head. “I thought the Red Circle was bad enough, but the predilections of this crew is enough to turn a man’s stomach.” He smiled grimly. “Not that they ain’t paying for it now.”

“Quite,” Holmes said. “Justice, of sorts. A cruel justice, enacted on cruel men.”

For some reason, at his words, my fingers found the carving in my pocket, and a shudder ran through me. Cruel was a good way to describe such a thing. Then, if even half of what Holmes had told me was true, perhaps Gisburne and his fellows deserved worse. The carving seemed to squirm beneath my fingers and I jerked my hand from my pocket. Neither Holmes nor Leverton noticed, their attentions on the music hall.

They spoke quietly, and I tried to listen, but found myself distracted. The night was cold, and wet, and it seemed to weigh down on me. I kept catching something – movement – just out of the corner of my eye. Whenever I turned, whatever it was, was gone. But I could hear it, or something. A rattle, like flat sticks striking one another discordantly, or a broken carriage wheel, cracking against the street.

Shivering, I looked up, and saw something white and gleaming rise above the sloped roof of the squalid building to my left. More shapes followed, and for a moment, I was put in mind of the prongs of an antler. I closed my eyes and shook my head. When I opened them, whatever it was...was gone. As if it had never been.

I realised that my fingers had found the carving again, and it was warm to the touch. Almost unnaturally so. I pulled my hand out of my pocket, and forced myself to concentrate on what was being said. “There were eight men in that hunting party,” Leverton was saying. “Five of those men are dead now. One, in New Orleans, three weeks ago. I got there just as they were taking the body out.” He shook his head. “It looked as if someone had taken a machete to him. I came to England then, following a letter that fellow had sent to someone named Gisburne, just before he passed over the river.”

“And you tracked him here, like a veritable bloodhound. Most impressive, Mr. Leverton. I could not have done it better myself.”

“We never sleep, Mr. Holmes. And we never let a man escape justice.”

“Admirable sentiments. And have you come to any conclusions as to the nature of the killer we are tracking?”

“The cook – Punk – had kin among the Inuit around Hudson Bay, and they took his death poorly. But even they ain’t the sort to kill a man that way.” Leverton seemed distracted. Like a dog with a scent he cannot shake.

“Perhaps one of Gisburne’s accomplices,” I said. I glanced at Holmes. “We’ve seen it before – a man turning on his fellows, out of guilt.”

Holmes frowned. “Even more reason, then, to take them all into custody. Come. It is past time we put an end to this.” 

The Joyful Cossack was a riot of colour and noise. Somewhere an out of tune piano was being tortured by someone with more enthusiasm than talent, and on stage a bevy of woman danced cheerfully, if not skilfully to the applause of a raucous crowd. The air was thick with tobacco smoke and the mingled smells of stale beer and greasy food. The stage was set back from the floor, allowing for an arrangement of a dozen or more tables, most of which were occupied. Holmes quickly led us to one.

I saw Shinwell Johnson, lounging at the bar. The blocky man tipped his battered hat to Holmes as we passed, but gave no other sign of recognition. As we took our seats, I saw him duck towards the rear exits, as if in a great hurry. That was all for the best. Johnson’s effectiveness as an informant was reliant on there being no knowledge of his relationship with Holmes or the police. “Exeunt Porky,” Holmes murmured, his eyes on the stage.

I spotted Gisburne almost immediately. He was sitting at a nearby table with two other men, one of whom looked decidedly nervous. They leaned towards one another, speaking intently. “Holmes,” I hissed. “Look there. It’s Gisburne.”

“Yes, Watson. I see them. Why do you think I chose this table? It gives us the perfect vantage point from which to watch.” Holmes glanced at me. “Now stop staring – do you want to spook our quarry?”

“Well what are we going to do? Should we confront them?”

“Sounds good to me,” Leverton murmured. He edged back the line of his coat, and I saw the grip of a pistol jutting from a shoulder holster.

“That won’t be necessary,” Holmes said. “I sent word to Gregson, before we even climbed into our cab. The police should be here directly. All we must do is ensure that Sir Harold and his fellow sportsmen do not leave.”

There seemed to be no danger of that. Gisburne’s companions were deep in their cups. Obviously, they had been waiting for him for some time. And given the attentiveness of the staff, I could only conclude that they were regulars. Then, perhaps that wasn’t so surprising, given their other vices.

I studied them, wondering at what made such men kill. Not in self defense, or for the good of the Empire, but out of the sheer joy of the act. We had come across madmen before – individuals who struck with frenzied malice. But all of them had had some motivation beyond simple bloodlust. This was something else. A cold hunger. 

For a moment, I thought of what it must have been like for their victim. Pursued through a dark forest by men with guns. The moonlight glinting off of rifle barrels, the crunch of snow. Then, a spray of crimson on white. And for what? No reason other than some animal pleasure. At that instant, I almost wanted to see them dead. This killer, whoever they were, was simply balancing the scales. Hunting the hunters, as Holmes had said.

I stared at that table of evil men, watching as one of them, pale and sweating, downed drink after drink. Wracked by fear, I hoped he understood how his victim had felt. I doubted it. These were not the sort of men for whom such understanding came naturally.

I realised that Holmes was watching me. I tried to compose myself, but I knew he had seen my anger. “It is understandable,” he said, softly.

“What is?”

“Your anger, Watson. You are wondering why we do not simply leave them to their well-deserved fate. Save the country the cost of a hanging, as Mr. Leverton might say.”

Leverton chuckled bleakly, and I knew then that he shared my low opinion of our quarry. Holmes shook his head.

“I have asked myself that same question. And I have concluded that it is because they must be made to pay in full. Not for one death, but for all of the others they might have caused. They must be drawn into the light and exposed for all to see. Otherwise all of this may well be forgotten, and the names of their victims with them. So we will save them now, if we can, in order to crush them later, with the full weight of justice.”

“Not quite as satisfying,” Leverton said.

“No,” Holmes said. “But it is our duty.” He extricated his watch from his vest pocket and glanced at it. “The police should be here soon. I suggest we enjoy the performance until then.”

But I soon found that I could not keep my attentions on the performance, bawdy as it was. Instead, I found my eye drawn repeatedly to the edges of the floor, where the crowd was thickest. Someone, something was moving through the mass of humanity. I caught only glimpses of it – brief flashes of bone white, or black, empty eyes. I was put in mind of some great beast, moving carefully through the tall grass towards its prey.

I thought to warn the others, but found myself unable to speak – to move. I could only watch as whatever it was drew closer. As it moved, I could hear a persistent rattle or clatter, and I felt an unnatural chill creep along my extremities.

Holmes had not seen it, I was certain. If he had, he might have stopped me from what I did next. My hand dipped into my coat, and I clamped my fingers about the grip of my service revolver. As I drew it, my eyes never left the clattering white shape, as it moved through the crowd. It seemed to grow as it drew near, but I could not make out its face, or anything beyond the impressions of a starveling frame and what might have been antlers, rising high enough to set the gaudy chandeliers to swinging. A headdress, I thought, and I wondered why no one could hear the harsh jangle of its approach.

I glanced away, and saw that, despite my assumptions, someone else had indeed seen the thing, for one of Sir Harold’s fellows lurched to his feet with a great cry. As his chair slammed back against the floorboards, the white thing lunged. No, rather, it stretched across the intervening distance, reaching out with too long arms, and too long fingers, for the unfortunate fellow. And as it did so, I at last saw its face.

“Watson, what are you doing?” Holmes hissed, as I hauled my service revolver out from under the table, took aim – and fired.

The thing, for it was a thing and not a man, whipped around, fleshless jaws snapping. I could not tell whether my shot had done anything more than startle it. An arm, bone white and long, flailed towards me, and I threw myself backwards, nearly knocking Leverton from his seat. Something cold and sharp passed over me, and I tasted the harsh air of winter in the back of my throat.

As if from a great distance, I heard Sir Harold bellow something, and then the sharp crack of a revolver other than my own. A projectile tugged at the edge of my coat as I fought to stand. Holmes and Leverton both tried to wrestle me back to the floor, and I knew then that they couldn’t see it. For if they could have, they wouldn’t have tried to stop me.

The thing towered between our tables, half solid, half spirit. I saw now that it resembled the carving, but was more horrid in every way. It was an impossible thing, and I felt its hunger like a physical blow. Its head resembled the skull of a stag, and then that of a man, and then something else entirely. Before I could fire again, it had turned away, back to its original prey.

Through a haze of sweat and fear, I saw that Sir Harold, perhaps fearing an attack, had produced a pistol from somewhere, and was firing at our table. Perhaps he’d mistaken my shot for an assassination attempt. I was never to find out, for the white thing gave a great cry and leapt. Claws like scythes lashed out, and then the air was full of blood. Screams such as I had only ever heard at Maiwand echoed as I forced myself upright.

The thing – the spirit, the devil, whatever it was – had seized on its prey with a shocking savagery. It tore at the hapless sportsman, pressing his writhing form to the top of the table. His screams had driven Sir Harold and the others into a panic, and they discharged their weapons wildly. I ignored them as best I could, and tried to focus on the pallid abomination while it was distracted by its butchery.

I levelled my pistol, but it turned towards me as I did so, fleshless jaws agape and eyes as black as the pit, from pole to pole. I heard a shout, and saw, as if in a dream, Sir Harold extend his weapon towards me, eyes wide. I wondered, for an instant, whether he could see the thing. Then I felt his bullet as it creased my arm and knocked me for six.

I fell back with a shout, losing my footing. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Leverton, as the Pinkerton snapped off a shot. Then I saw nothing but the malign immensity bearing down on me. It plunged down towards me like smoke boiling through a flue, and my head throbbed with the sound of it. 

Its voice was soft, but enormous in volume, at once hoarse and sweet. Like a gale wind, or the crash of ocean waters against smooth rocks. As it roared, I felt the carving resonate within my coat. The thing loomed over me, antlers scraping the ceiling. It was a stag and a man and a giant, but there were feathers and claws and other things – a bone-white chimera, as vast as the world. My revolver clicked dry, and it reached for me, claws spread.

I felt Holmes’ hands at my coat. “The carving – where is it?” he shouted, as if from a great distance. I fumbled at my breast pocket, even as I tried to push him aside, out of reach of these terrible claws. He batted my hands aside and tore the carving free. As he did so, the looming monstrosity seemed to buckle and fade away, before my very eyes.

Holmes turned, and I saw his eyes widen slightly. Then, he flung the carving into the air, and shouted for Leverton. I heard the bark of a pistol, and a sound like ice cracking, and then the pressure on my chest faded, leaving only a dim ache. The clatter of white antlers and bone was gone from my ears, and I could breathe again.

I sat up, with Holmes’ help. As I did so, I caught sight of Sir Harold, laying nearby, his eyes wide and staring. A third eye, red and deep, occupied his brow. Leverton stood over the body, his revolver hanging from his hand. “Damn it,” he said.

“Your quick thinking saved both Watson and myself, Mr. Leverton,” Holmes said. “And I rather suspect you did him a mercy, in the long run.”

“You misunderstand me, Mr. Holmes. I was hoping to see him hang, is all.” Leverton holstered his weapon and turned away from the bodies. “Guess this’ll serve well enough.”

“Only time will tell, I fear,” Holmes said, as he helped me to stand.

I will not bore you with the details of what followed. Suffice it to say, once the constables had arrived, the matter became a mundane one. Gisburne was dead, thanks to Leverton’s skill with a pistol, as was one other man, the one I’d seen mauled by the thing. Even now, I cannot think of a fitting word. A spirit? A demon? Herne himself, come roaring up out of the dark to punish those who dared to use his name?

No description seemed to do it justice, and Holmes made no mention of it, when the police arrived. The survivor quickly found himself under arrest, for a variety of charges. He was almost pathetically glad to be in police custody. I did not blame him. Just as I did not blame him later, when he hung himself in his cell, using the sheets from his cot. Whether or not he had received one of those curious carvings while in custody, I cannot say. Perhaps it was simply the guilt. Holmes knows, but I have never asked him.

Leverton had taken his leave as quickly as he had come. I suspect now that he knew more about things than he’d shared, and I do not envy him that knowledge.

“Who sent the carvings, do you think?” I asked Holmes, after we had returned to Baker Street. The night was drawing to a close, and a pale light was stretching across the rooftops. I felt as if I could have slept for a week, but my curiosity prevented me from succumbing.

“I have my suspicions,” Holmes said, “But we shall never know for sure. Given what has happened, I find myself reluctant to muddy the waters further.” He glanced at me as he said it, and I heard the unspoken apology in his words.

“It was a hallucination, obviously, brought on by some toxin worked into the bone.”  I spoke flatly, more for his benefit than mine. The words felt hollow, even so. What I had seen had been real enough to leave marks in my coat and bruises on my flesh. What hallucination could do that? Even now I am sure that I saw something, though I cannot say what it was.

“As good an explanation as we are likely to get,” Holmes said. “There are cases where imagined trauma results in very real wounds. The stigmata, for instance.”

He trailed off then. Uncertain. He’d bent to retrieve his Stradivarius, and as he set bow to string, I asked, “Did you see it, Holmes? When you held the carving – did you see it?”

Holmes never answered my question.

And I doubt he ever will.

This story originally appeared in Gaslight Gothic (2018).


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Casefiles of the Royal Occultist: Hochmuller's Hound

Jazz Age Britain is rife with the unspeakable. From the shattered cities of the western front to the high occult parties of London, a monstrously altered hound stalks. Only the Royal Occultist can stand resolute against this implacable foe.

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Josh Reynolds

Josh Reynolds, author and semi-professional monster movie enthusiast.