& THE HOUSE OF BLOOD
Copyright © Tony Richards 2012.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents and places are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organisations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
He knew the man was real. But Lieutenant Vince Capaldi could scarcely believe it. That famous narrow face, framed against the background of a hotel window, with its hooked nose and its very watchful eyes.
“My God,” he breathed. “You can’t have aged a day since Victorian times.”
“So you really are immortal?”
“I found it out after the Reichenbach Falls, when I suddenly returned to life with no sensible explanation. A definite case in point, Lieutenant --“ and the great detective favoured him with a quirky half-smile -- “of the last remaining solution to a puzzle, however improbable, being the correct one. I never thought that I would turn out to be the most striking example of that adage.”
“And now,” he went on quickly, “what is this murder you have come to me about?”
Capaldi’s eyes widened. “I never said anything about any …”
“You have been wearing tight latex gloves recently,” Holmes pointed out. “I doubt that you would do that for a mugging. There is a smear of luminol on the edge of your left shoe, a substance for detecting blood. And the gravity of your expression speaks of no lesser a crime than murder most foul.”
“In fact,” he continued before the policeman could break in, “I would hazard you have come to me about a fourth in the series of killings that began last week. I’ve, naturally, been following them on the TV news and in the press. And let me hazard at something else. Something you have contrived to keep from the newshounds and the general public. All the victims so far have been completely drained of their vital essence.”
The colour disappeared from the lieutenant’s features, his mouth falling open.
“Luminol, my good fellow, is used to find mere trace elements of blood. And so why would you use it around a freshly murdered human corpse except to discern if there was any blood at all?”
When he saw that he had rendered the man speechless, Holmes allowed himself another little smile.
“You’re as bad as Lestrade,” he commented. “You mean well, but you do not really think.”
Then he encouraged his visitor to bring him up to date on the whole situation.
Stammering, Capaldi tried to get his thoughts together. He went over what had happened to the first victim. A certain Harriet Ellison, of Boise, Idaho, who was still fresh in his memory. She had won a massive jackpot from a slot machine ten days ago. Been photographed with her reward, and then become surrounded by well wishers and hangers-on with whom she had been partying. Halfway through the evening, she had headed off to the restrooms, only to mysteriously vanish. Her corpse, clad merely in its underwear, had been found in the desert on the edge of town next morning.
Lawrence Mark of Trenton, New Jersey had been the next one. And his case followed the same pattern. After a huge run of luck at the craps tables, he had disappeared, only for it to prove that he had suffered the same fate.
Daniel Besset of Oxford, Maryland, had been the third. He had recently won sixty thousand dollars, by means of his skill at Texas Hold’em.
This much, Sherlock Holmes already knew.
“And the last?” he prompted.
“Just this morning. Hasn’t even made the papers yet. Kyle Monoghan from Boston.”
“And he had won at?”
“Blackjack. According to the witnesses, it was a pretty amazing run of luck.”
“Do you have a picture of the fellow?” Holmes enquired calmly.
Capaldi was aware of the detective’s reputation, and had come prepared. He took a glossy photo from the inside pocket of his coat and handed it over. Watched with quiet awe as Holmes studied the thing. It had been taken at the crime scene, Monoghan sprawled out in the desert dirt.
One of Holmes’s narrow eyebrows lifted just a touch, but that was all.
“Let me make sure that I have got this straight. Nothing whatsoever connects the victims, not in terms of gender, age, hometown, occupation, or ethnicity. They were not even kidnapped from the same casino. The single thing that does connect them is that Lady Luck smiled on them beneficently shortly before they met their fate.”
“And were their winnings taken?”
The lieutenant nodded. “Every time.”
“Which would mark these cases as a simple string of murder-robberies. Except that …”
Each of the victims had been stripped practically naked. And been drained completely of their blood, by means of punctures at the throat and wrists. They’d already established that.
“My guys are calling them ‘The Vampire Killings,’” Capaldi let slip.
“There are no such creatures,” Holmes assured him. “Reports that have tried to pit me against Mr. Stoker’s Transylvanian Count are much exaggerated.”
Then he paused for a few moments, lost in thought.
“Very well, then. I shall take the case. But I’ll require a fee.”
“My chief has already okayed it.”
Holmes grunted approvingly before turning his attention from Capaldi to the scene beyond his window. The flashing lights, the dreamlike outlines of the different hotels, the churning throng on the sidewalks below.
“Just out of interest, Mr. Holmes,” he heard Capaldi venture, “what exactly do you think of Vegas?”
“Even by the standards of modern day America …” and the great detective lowered his tone, aware that honesty required being rude, “it is utterly preposterous.”
Holmes wove through the dense crowds on the Strip. The heat and noise seemed to lash at him like whips. He missed London. He missed his flat over Baker Street. And most of all, he missed Watson, although that final emotion was tinged, as ever, with a faint colouring of guilt. The poor old fellow had finally succumbed to a pulmonary canker. And had voluminous doses of secondary pipe-smoke been the cause of that?
Holmes was in disguise, realising his normal garb would draw too much attention to himself. He needed to blend in. And so he had on a gaudy Hawaiian shirt, canvas shoes, a beige baseball cap and a pair of chinos. It was the best compromise that he could manage. He would rather die a hundred deaths than resort to jeans or shorts.
He had come here for two reasons only. First, to see the place with his own eyes. And secondly, to visit Star Trek: the Experience. He had become a devotee of the original show and its movie spin-offs, since he felt a great affinity with the character called Mr. Spock.
And he’d intended to spend two or three days here at the very most. But then the murders had begun -- he had immediately suspected his assistance might be called upon. In fact, he had already been making some enquiries of his own.
Most of the people around him were tourists, here for the shows, the restaurants and bars, the dolphins and white tigers and only a little flutter on the side. They interested him not a jot. At the heart of this case lay gambling in the serious sense and the caprices of fortune; he was utterly certain of it. That commodity could be found in any place here, any time of day and night. This was a town where the game was constantly afoot.
He headed for the Paris, the setting of Kyle Monoghan’s triumph and the last place that he had been seen. There was one thing Holmes was convinced of. Whoever was behind this, there were more than one of them. Harriet Ellison could have been abducted by a single individual. And Daniel Besset had been elderly and slightly built. But Monoghan and Lawrence Mark were both robust and burly. No drugs had been found in the toxicology, so there were at least two murderers involved.
He went through the lobby and into the labyrinthine depths of the casino, his attention gliding watchfully from side to side. Nothing that he saw surprised him after more than a week in this place.
Most of the visitors in here were, as out on the sidewalk, merely tourists. They were gambling, but only with a sense of merriment. These were the kind of folk who set a fifty dollar limit, or smaller, for the entire evening. The kind who gambled at all merely because they could not do the same back home.
But scattered among them were other individuals whose presence Holmes found considerably more ominous. Older women wearing gloves, so that they’d not callous their fingers with their constant tugging at the one-armed bandits. Pale, intense men hunched as though in prayer over the blackjack tables. People standing near the roulette wheels with starved-looking gleams in their dull, tired eyes. There was nothing merry about these sorts. Gambling fever had them in its grip as tightly -- nay, savagely -- as any opiate. They had become slaves to the habit.
And poorly treated slaves as well. Mostly, they were cheaply dressed. There was evidence that they had pawned watches and rings in some cases -- all it needed was a swift glance at their lower finger joints and wrists. But it was their expressions that struck most at the great detective. Hope would flare up as the card was dealt, the wheel set spinning. But it would give way, almost invariably, to horrible disappointment, made all the more profound by the fact that it was a familiar sensation.
He headed for the bar area, glad to leave the poor wretches behind. It was not a busy hour of the day, and there was just one man working behind the counter.
“What’s your poison, buddy?”
Holmes ordered a pina colada, which he had acquired a taste for.
“That unfortunate fellow they found this morning. He was in here yesterday, wasn’t he?”
“You bet,” the barman frowned. “Had an incredible run at the tables.”
“Did he celebrate here afterwards?”
“Where else would he go?”
“And he attracted a big crowd?”
The barman grinned sardonically. “Pal, when you’re on a winning streak in Vegas, hell, you’ve always got a load of friends. The dames especially … that is, till your luck runs out.”
“Does anyone in particular linger in your memory?”
The man thought about it. “There was this chick dressed in black. Chinese or Japanese or something. She didn’t kind of pounce on the guy. She just moved in on him slowly, till finally she had her arm around him.”
Holmes felt his pulse quicken. In all the enquiries he had made so far, there had been mention of an Oriental woman.
“And did Monoghan leave with her?”
“Friend, I was too busy mixing drinks to even know.”
Holmes thanked him and then headed back towards the gaming area. He already had a plan. In fact, he’d come to see that what he needed to attract these villains was a winner. Someone on a lucky streak. That was the kind of person who they targeted.
There was nobody he could make out who answered that description at the moment. And so he would have to engineer it.
It would be childishly simple to join one of the high stakes blackjack games and start to win a fortune by the trick of counting cards. But establishments like this one were accustomed to such practices -- the security goons would descend on him before the killers could. And so Holmes turned to the roulette area instead.
The first three wheels that he looked at were functioning perfectly. But the fourth? There appeared to be some very slight wear to the bearings. Patterns -- too small for a lesser intellect to notice -- were being repeated in the places that the ball fell. Holmes stood back for fifteen minutes, taking mental notes. Until finally, he felt confident a goodly amount of lucre could be made here.
By which time, he had decided that he ought not be the actual beneficiary. When these murderous fiends arrived, it would be better to observe them from a slight remove at first. Once they’d shown their true intentions, he would apprehend them. He had his trusty revolver snuggled underneath his shirt.
In which case, who should be the lucky man? Holmes’s gaze was immediately drawn to a short, middle-aged gentleman at the far end of the table. They were similarly dressed, except the fellow wore no cap. But that was where the resemblance ended. This hapless soul was overweight, with thinning red hair, and his pores practically oozed frustration. He had been doing badly at the wheel the whole time the detective had been standing there. He was, in fact, down to his last few chips.
Holmes wandered over to his elbow.
“Things have to look up some time,” he murmured, apropos of nothing.
The fellow glanced around at him surprisedly.
“You really think so?”
“Yes, I do.”
“That accent? You a Limey?”
A fevered gleam had appeared in his eyes. And Holmes understood immediately what was happening.
People who were addicted to gambling all had one peculiar quirk. They took anything different in the environment about them, anything unexpected or new, as an omen that their luck was due to change. And this individual seemed to be in that exact state of mind. He perceived the presence of an Englishman beside him as some kind of talisman.
“Fred Bonner,” the man announced, grasping Holmes firmly by the hand.
“Pleased to meet you, George. You stand right there and tell me which number I ought to put these chips on.”
Holmes gazed at the wheel.
“You should try number 12.”
And when 12 came up, Fred crowed.
Over the course of the next half hour, he won repeatedly. Not with every single turn, naturally. There were too many variables for even Holmes to foresee every bounce and clatter of the little silver ball. But enough times that the pile of chips in front of the man grew impressively large. And, predictably, a crowd began to gather.
Holmes kept his head tucked slightly down and his eyes hooded, pretending to be absorbed in the game when he was actually not. Most of the folk around him appeared to be normal. A couple were streetwalkers, and one chap near the back was almost certainly a pickpocket. But the great detective had no time for such trivia on this occasion. When would the killers turn up?
An Oriental woman’s face appeared in the throng across from him. He had to struggle not to look straight at her.
She was slender, very beautiful. It was hard to be certain with those who heralded from the East, but she was probably in her early thirties. Her hair was tied back in a bun. Her irises were jet black.
The woman was clad in some kind of silken trouser suit. The blouse had a high, stiff collar. Holmes’s suspicions were immediately aroused. Why would anyone wear something so constricting in the kind of heat that reigned outside this gaming palace?
There’d be time to find the answer to that later. Urgency pressed at his heart. He had successfully dangled his bait. Now, it was time to let the villain try and take it.
“Whad’ya think?” Fred was asking him. “12 again?”
“I really think you ought to quit.”
“You serious? I’m on a roll!”
“And all rolls come to an end. Cash your winnings, Mr. Bonner.”
Holmes became afraid that he would not succeed in stopping this. The gleam in his new friend’s eyes sharpened, the fellow’s expression growing angry. He was in the grip of his addiction more firmly than he had ever been. Left to his own devices, he would stay at the wheel, frittering away every penny he had won.
But, years back, Holmes had spent a fortnight at a temple deep in the Laotian jungle, and had learnt some techniques from the monks there. He met Fred’s gaze and kept his voice low, employing a mild form of hypnosis.
“That’s me done. Drinks for everyone,” he whispered to the man.
“That’s me done! Drinks for everyone!” Fred bellowed, to the cheers and applause of the crowd.
Holmes allowed a distance of several yards to grow between himself and Fred as they headed for the bar. He was still an observer to this milieu, and would only become an active participant once that he was certain that he had his felons. Drinks were mixed and passed around. The great detective found himself engaged in conversation with a claims adjuster from Birmingham, Alabama, but kept most of his attention fixed on what was going on around him.
The barkeeper had been absolutely right. The Oriental woman did not close in immediately on her target. Rather, she hung about the edges of the man’s personal space, casting sideways glances in his direction. There seemed to be some large item of jewellery underneath her black blouse; Holmes could see the bulge it made. Why did she not have it on display, like all the other women present?
And one time, when she dipped her head, her collar shifted and Holmes thought he caught a glimpse of a scar. He had no idea what that signified.
It was too much of a coincidence that she had happened to be in the Paris at the same time Fred began his winning streak. Which told Holmes that his notion about multiple miscreants had been absolutely right. There had to be eyes everywhere, spies in most of the casinos, looking out for situations such as this. In which case, how large a criminal conspiracy was this? But the detective could make out nobody who might be a confederate.
The Oriental woman reached across and lightly touched Fred’s arm. Holmes excused himself politely, wandering away to a spot in the bar where he could continue to observe without himself being noticed.
The woman engaged Fred in conversation. Holmes could see immediately that she had the talents of a clever, subtle courtesan. She made a little joke, at which Fred smiled. And then, when he made one himself, she burst into uproarious laughter, pretending she needed to hold onto his forearm to support herself.
Her hand had moved to his shoulder a minute after that. And a while later, she was no longer addressing Fred’s face, but murmuring in his ear.
Holmes saw him nod.
The curious thing was, the man had been forgotten by the others, by this time. He had been the centre of attention when he had been winning. But the fickle interest of this crowd had already moved on to other subjects. He had become all but invisible. That was how the victims had been spirited away from such busy venues. The mental inexactness of the common herd, its ability to be distracted so easily, never ceased to amaze Holmes, or appal him.
Fred and the woman started ambling towards the exit. The detective followed, taking great care not to close the gap.
Which turned out to be one of the worst mistakes that he had ever made. Just as the couple reached the Strip, some coaches out front began disgorging their passengers. They were elderly to the last. And the sidewalk became immediately snarled up with arthritic doddering and Zimmer frames. Trying to get past without bowling over some frail octogenarian became an almost impossible challenge. Holmes watched desperately as the two figures dwindled away from him. And, as soon as he found a passage through, he ran in their direction.
He was just in time to see the couple reach a corner and a van pull up. The rear doors were flung open. And -- as though on some invisible cue -- a group of people, maybe eight of them, detached themselves from the passers-by and surrounded Bonner, shielding him from view.
He was bundled into the van. The others followed him inside. The doors slammed shut. The Oriental woman climbed in by the driver, shouting something. And the vehicle roared away.
Holmes, who had his revolver half-drawn, watched it disappear. The only thing he could do now was call Lieutenant Capaldi and instigate a search.
Except he had still not got used to the maintenance of cell phones, and the battery in his was flat.
“It’s my fault,” he was murmuring at dawn the next morning. “Poor, poor Fred.”
The desert sprawled around them, the temperature of its air already rising. Fred Bonner was lying in his boxers near the foot of a massive saguaro cactus, his skin so robbed of colour that it might be alabaster.
“No use blaming yourself,” said Vince Capaldi. “Wasn’t you that killed him.”
“Wasn’t it?” the great detective barked back angrily. “I should never have used an unwitting man as an instrument of such deception. No, I should have played the role myself!”
“In which case, you’d be lying here, and we’d be no closer to solving this. You say, apart from the Oriental woman, all the rest were normal-looking?”
That was not exactly what he’d said. Holmes recalled his brief glimpse of the people who’d abducted Bonner. There’d been nothing outstanding about them, certainly. But they all shared a quality that he had previously perceived in the casino.
They’d been cheaply dressed, their faces drawn. Their brows had been furrowed, their eyes squinting, like they were unaccustomed to the natural outdoor light. Some of them had been sporting pale bands of skin at their wrists where watches had once snuggled. They were, in short, the same kind of gambling addicts Holmes had mentally remarked on in the Paris.
Guilt gnawed at him on the ride back into town. Did Bonner have a family? He did not even know. But finally, a fresh sense of resolve gripped the detective. This terrible death would not be in vain. He would solve the case for Fred’s sake!
Capaldi dropped him off at his hotel. And Holmes, as soon as he was in his room, pulled on a new disguise. An old shirt, which he rumpled up before slipping into. A pair of grey nylon trousers and some old brown shoes. He took his wristwatch off and put it in a drawer. And mussed his hair up in the mirror before taking a wad of cash from the safe and going out.
At the Luxor, he converted the entire sum into chips. Then he went across to the blackjack tables and sat down. And deliberately proceeded to lose every single hand over the next two hours.
Were there eyes on him? He thought yes. Holmes could feel his neck prickling as the cards were dealt, but did not look around.
When practically all his chips were gone, he stood up with a defeated sigh, wandered over to the bar area and ordered a straight scotch.
He was careful to sit round-shouldered, and feigned a melancholy air. A shabby, grey-haired woman eased herself onto the barstool next to his.
“Down on your luck, huh?”
Her tones revealed her as a Brooklynite. Holmes affected not merely an American accent but a convincing Deep South drawl when he answered her.
“Ma savings are all gone. Ma daughter’s college fund. Cain’t even afford a ticket home. What in the Lord’s name am I gonna do?”
A look of understanding filled the woman’s red-rimmed eyes.
“Try this place.”
She handed him a card. Which read, The House of Good Fortune and gave an address, but nothing more.
Holmes frowned. “A-nother casino?”
“Nah, not a gaming house. A house of worship.”
He squinted at her. “How’s that gonna help?”
“If you join in …” and the woman’s lips pursed deviously, “it might just change your luck a little. Don’t take my word for it, son. Come and see for yourself. Directly after sundown, tonight.”
She was gone from the stool the next instant, with a nimbleness that belied her age.
Which left Holmes with hours to kill. Ought he call in the police? But if, as he had already decided, this city was laced with underground informants, then the sudden emergence of conventional law officers might give the game away. Forewarned, the perpetrators might escape. No, he had got this far by himself. So he would have to carry it the rest of the way.
Holmes trudged along the Strip for a while, the bizarre sights around him melting to a tepid blur, the urgent sounds reduced to a static-like hissing in his ears. This was precisely one of those occasions when a three percent solution of cocaine would give his mind the few hours of respite it needed. But the laws had changed. And his conscience would not let him break them while he was still taking the LVPD’s shilling.
He finally wound up back in his room, sprawled out on the bed, watching old reruns of Star Trek.
“It goes beyond the bounds of logic, Jim.”
That was so beautifully succinct it almost made a tear well up.
Sleep practically overtook him, and he emerged from it with a jerk. Through his hotel window, he could see the sky had darkened. The coloured lighting on the street below glowed with a lurid brilliance.
The entire town was being swallowed up in shadow. Holmes felt his heartbeat speeding up again. He was close to getting to the bottom of this whole affair -- of that, he was certain. The same frisson which had to overcome a hunter had him in its clutches.
But he reminded himself that adrenalin was also a drug, just as potent and confounding as the gambling addiction he had seen so often in this city. So he forced himself to slow down and think clearly. He was just one man, and headed into possible grave danger. How many congregants might be gathered at this ‘house of worship’? His gaze drifted towards his trusty revolver, which was on the nightstand.
Then it turned away, because he might need more than just five shots. In his time here in America, Holmes had purchased several brand-new items of equipment. So he vaulted off the bed to where his bags were stored.
The blazes with his trusty revolver. Where the devil were his trusty Glocks?
Holmes re-studied the small card that he’d been given on the way out. House of Good Fortune. The name described nothing, and was perfectly anonymous in its own way. In a city of this kind, it could be a small casino or a Chinese restaurant. It was in this manner that the people he was on the search for stayed below the radar.
By this time, he was quite convinced that he was dealing with a cult. He had encountered them before. They were more dangerous than any purely criminal organisation, since their members were fanatical and hell-bent on their goals.
A hot breeze skirled on the evening air around him. Holmes was dressed as he had been earlier, but had put on a light raincoat. Not that he expected rain, but the garment served to cover up the pair of sidearms, which both had extended clips.
The address he was headed to was several blocks behind the old part of the Strip. The clientele at these casinos were more hardy than their uptown counterparts. There were vagrants in evidence, even on the main drag. And the avenues further back had a dangerous reputation. But Holmes had known streets of this kind in Victorian London, and he pressed on, undeterred.
He came, finally, to the building in question. And his brow creased with mild shock. It was derelict, as he had already supposed. But he had not expected to find any place of worship in a closed-down porno theatre.
So far as he could make out, there was nobody guarding the exterior of the place. The front doorways were covered up with rusty corrugated iron. Holmes noticed immediately that one of the sheets was badly bent. He went over to it. Sure enough, it pulled back easily, sufficient to allow him through.
He went cautiously into the bowels of the theatre. The lobby was empty and perfectly dark, its air stagnant with the odour of decay. But from the double doors that led into the cinema, he could hear low chanting. There were chinks of coloured light.
Feigning the manner of a man lost and bewildered, he ventured through … to be confronted by a very deeply curious sight.
Up at the front of the auditorium, fires were blazing in large earthenware pots. The flames being cast out were not yellow. They were a startling crimson, giving the whole place a haematic aspect. The smoke from them rolled towards the ceiling, forming a miasma which let out a sickly stench.
There were perhaps a hundred congregants in here, far more than Holmes had expected. They were stood between the rows of rotting seats, and did not even notice him enter. All were of the same kind he had remarked on earlier, blighted, shabby souls enthralled by the failed promise of the gaming tables. Men and women, young and old. Holmes went gently down the aisle, and found a place beside the same grey-haired woman who’d invited him this afternoon.
She realised he’d arrived. Greeted him with a tight smile and a brief nod. And then returned her attention to the front of the theatre, and did not look away again.
None of these folk did. The Oriental woman had their complete attention.
She was standing at the centre of the open space out front, shaking a pair of large, crude rattles. Her face was tipped forwards and her eyes were closed. And she was yelling out some kind of chant, a fevered caterwauling in a language that Holmes did not recognise.
To one side of her was some kind of altar, hewn from a large block of stone. How it had been brought in here was anyone’s guess. On top of it was ranked a row of goblets of some dully-gleaming metal. It sickened one to think what those were used for.
The woman was dressed in the same manner he had seen her last time. Except that now, the collar of the blouse had been fully unbuttoned. Her neck and throat and the top portion of her breastbone were revealed.
Holmes squinted in the sickly light. Was it just a trick of shadow, or were those narrow scars on the side of her neck, cut in deliberate patterns?
Despite his parlous circumstances, Holmes allowed himself a knowing smile. He was beginning to comprehend this.
And then it faded away completely. From the darkened theatre wings, a gurney was wheeled out by four assistants.
The man strapped to it was perfectly healthy. All that he had suffered so far was the indignity of being stripped down to his underwear. His mouth was gagged. He was struggling mightily, but to no avail. And he might have been a taller, rather more muscular version of Fred Bonner.
This was without any shade of a doubt somebody else who had done well at some game of chance. It struck Holmes how badly all these congregants would like the opportunity to do the same.
But what was taking place here? How could capturing and killing such a man achieve …?
The woman’s chanting stopped.
She laid the rattles to one side, then stooped over her victim, grinning hideously. Save for the crackling of the flames, the room had fallen silent.
“Be still now. You have what we want,” Holmes thought he heard her mutter.
And she had to have some kind of mastery of hypnosis herself. Either that, or what she had said served to freeze the unfortunate man with incomprehension and terror. Because he became completely motionless, his widened eyeballs following her when she moved away.
She stepped over to the altar, picked up one of the goblets and something else that Holmes could not make out, then returned to her prey. Set the cup beside him on the gurney, and then turned her attention to the fellow’s wrist. He gave a muffled gasp of pain. Holmes finally realised what she had been carrying in her other hand. A thick, crude needle with a length of rubber tubing running from it.
She had pierced one of the man’s veins. The tube was dangled into the goblet. Blood began to fill it. It looked black in this strange light.
Holmes knew the time for action was almost at hand, but his limbs felt very stiff. His mind was whirring. He ought to have been expecting something like this after all the evidence he’d been presented with -- he knew that. But what this woman and her followers hoped to gain by actions of this nature was impossible to fathom.
Next moment, though, he got an awful demonstration of it. The woman suddenly pinched off the tube, stopping the flow of gore. She picked up the goblet with both hands, raised it into the air in some form of supplication.
And then -- to the detective’s horror -- put it to her lips. And drank.
Even worse was to follow. Because the cup was passed on to the assistants who’d wheeled the man out. They each took a sip. And then the goblet was handed over to the people standing in the rows of seats, who began to follow suit.
It was as repulsive a sight as Holmes had ever witnessed. Behaviour so degraded it was barely human. Were these the depths to which this miserable rabble had been reduced? Did they genuinely believe that if they drank the fluids of a victor at the tables they would become winners too?
It defied credulity. But equally, it made no sense.
They might try this one time, out of utter desperation. But it surely would make not the slightest difference to their fortunes. Except that the grey-haired woman beside him was obviously a regular here. So were many others -- it was beyond question. And what on earth made them keep coming back?
It was of no real importance, he decided. There was no accounting for the demented behaviour to which addicts stooped. The Oriental woman was preparing to drain her victim a second time. Holmes knew he had to put a stop to this.
He stepped back out into the aisle, drawing both his weapons. Aimed one at the crowd, and the other at the black-clad figure.
And then shouted, in his sternest voice, “You are not Oriental, are you, madam?”
All movement stopped. Every eye turned towards him. Only the flickering red light of the flames continued as it had before.
“Every description I’ve heard of you gives your origin as the Far East. But that is not the case. On closer inspection, you are a Native American. By the ritualistic scarring on your neck, a shaman. And by your very behaviour, not a benign sort, no. A practitioner of the dark arts!”
The woman’s face screwed up with fury. And she jabbed a pointed fingernail at him.
“Get him!” she screamed to the others. “Rip the unbeliever limb from limb!”
Some of those nearest him began to shuffle forward. But it was hardly a determined effort. These were people in the throes of a devouring mental sickness, after all. Two swift shots above their heads, and they drew back.
The detective allowed a smile to tug the edges of his lips, swinging his attention back towards the gurney.
“I would not rely on ravaged souls like these to fetch my morning paper, much less save my hide. If this is your best defence, madam, then Death Row awaits you.”
The witch woman, however, seemed uncowed.
“You think that you are very clever, yes? You think you have this all worked out?”
A touch of recognition sprang into her dark eyes, her head tipping slightly to one side.
“I know who you are. That so-smart Englishman, who relies on logic and who laughs at death.” Her own lips curled, more fiercely than his. “Well laugh at this! Where is your logic now?”
She pointed again, but this time above her. Suspecting some kind of trick, Holmes refused to raise his head at first. But then he realised the quality of light in the whole room was changing. And, from the direction of the ceiling, he could hear some kind of rumbling noise.
When his gaze lifted towards it, he was rendered utterly numb. His heart seemed to freeze up in his chest. His limbs became like marble. He could scarcely breathe. He had lived by deduction and science his whole life. And so … how could this be?
The heavy smoke had formed a loosely rolling ball over the altar. And as Holmes watched, it began to change shape. A massive face appeared within its contours. It had pointed ears. Its mouth had fangs. And its eyes -- each as large as a man’s fist -- had slitted pupils and were glowing a baleful shade of carmine. Its expression was a twisted one, of absolute malevolence.
At first, Holmes’s mind simply could not accept it. His thoughts darted around like some agitated hive of instincts. He was trying to explain this in a logical, sane fashion, and could not. This was not some trick of the light. Nor could he make out any hint of a special gadget or projector.
He had to accept it, finally. At least it explained why the congregants kept coming back.
“An evil spirit,” he concluded out loud, “called in these parts, so I believe, a Manitou. I should imagine it has wandered into Vegas from the bleak, surrounding desert, finding new believers here, and sustenance.”
He hated being forced to descend to this level of intellect, but had little choice. His eyesight was not lying to him. The true solution to this case was paranormal, not material. The creature had set up home in this abandoned building. The woman was either its servant or familiar. The congregants gathered here, there was a sacrifice, and human blood was drunk. And -- by means of their Master’s otherworldly influence -- these people would return to the casinos and finally win at the tables. Not an awful lot, Holmes supposed, or else they’d leave this city. Just enough to keep them solvent. Just enough to keep them hooked on this abominable practice.
Their needs were being partially fulfilled. And so were the monster’s. It had an audience of supplicants by now. And there were fear and pain and blood and dying, which had to be like meat and drink to the foul thing.
All of this the great detective realised in a flash. But there was no triumph accompanying the knowledge. Rather, it filled him with a terrible dread.
The witch woman was grinning at him openly.
“Those are pretty impressive guns you’ve got there. But they do not impress him. Go on, try! He laughs at bullets!”
He was being mocked -- Holmes knew it. But common sense told him that he at least ought to try. He pointed both Glocks at the creature, and let loose a fusillade of shots.
The rounds passed through, doing no damage. And the thing began to grow larger, swelling against the background of the mildewed ceiling.
“You’ve had your chance!” the woman was chuckling. “Now, it’s his turn to strike back!”
Holmes did not know what she meant at first. But then he saw that it was not merely the head expanding. A neck and shoulders appeared. And then muscular arms, ending in broad hands tipped with savage claws.
In another few seconds, this monstrous entity would reach down and shred him like a sheet of tissue paper. And it would not be a normal physical assault. Could he survive it?
Holmes wavered, uncertain what to do. He knew no spells. He had no knowledge of the magic arts. So how could he defeat this beast?
There was a humming noise as the air parted. The Manitou had lashed out. Holmes was forced to jump away, and just in time. If he’d still been standing on the spot, he would have been ripped in two.
The beast continued growing. At this rate, it would become so large there would be no escaping it.
Desperately, Holmes glanced back at the woman. She was braying with laughter, quite unable to control herself. The insistent pressure on her lungs had doubled her forward; she was clutching at her belly. Then he noticed something else.
At the Paris casino yesterday, he had believed there was some item of jewellery hidden underneath her blouse. Now it had fallen clear, and he could see it. It was a pendant, a large, tulip-shaped gemstone on a silver chain and setting.
The translucent stone was the exact same colour as the Manitou’s eyes, and had the same unearthly lustre. Were they somehow linked?
If he discharged a weapon at it, though, he’d kill the woman too. Even under such dire circumstances, he rebelled at the idea of shooting a member of the fairer sex.
The creature took another swipe at him. Again, he narrowly avoided it. Half a row of seating was disintegrated by the blow. Holmes stumbled back.
But then, he noticed a change came across the witch woman that altered his original frame of mind. The beast’s swelling shadow had spread across her. And in that vile penumbra, the true nature of her appearance was revealed.
All beauty fled, her face becoming leathery and wizened. Her eyes were sunken deep. Her open lips framed desolate gums, only a few rotted stumps of teeth remaining. Her body was hunched over, and her fingers horribly gnarled.
She had to be hundreds of years old, a filthy hag, and had only kept herself alive by means of her dark conjurations. Holmes felt his resolve return. There was no further time to waste. His arm straightened. He took his shot.
His aim was true. The woman was struck instantaneously dead, crashing to the floor.
And the pendant burst into a thousand gleaming carmine shards.
The effect was immediate. An obscene wailing, followed by a sucking noise, made Holmes look back up. The Manitou was shrinking, disappearing. Being siphoned away, almost certainly, into some other plane of existence in which only spirits dwelt.
As for the congregants, they took in what was happening and then -- true to their debased natures -- turned tale and fled, leaving the room by any exit they could find, in the same manner as a swarm of rats confronted in their nest.
It was over, thank God. Holmes used the sleeve of his raincoat to wipe perspiration from his brow. He remained where he was for half a minute, letting his breathing steady. And then he hurried down to help the kidnapped man.
A couple of hours later, Holmes and Capaldi found themselves sitting on the front stoop of the theatre. There was continuing activity around them, since the forensics boffins were still processing the scene. Two slim, attractive women, one auburn-haired, the other dark and slightly shorter, went past them into the building.
“We’ll get the others. They’ll be charged with being accessories,” the lieutenant assured him.
“I’m pleased to hear it.”
“Witch women?” Capaldi grunted. “Evil spirits? Man, that has to top even Moriarty.”
But Holmes just became stiff-lipped. “Believe me, Lieutenant. Nothing, however inhuman or vile, ever quite manages that.”
“But he’s long gone, ain’t he?” the policeman smiled.
And was freshly surprised when Holmes responded with a brisk shake of his narrow head.
“Proposition one: I am immortal. Proposition two: Moriarty is my constant and unflinching Nemesis, as I am his. It therefore stands to reason that if I am still alive, then so …”
He let the final pair of syllables die unspoken on the hot night air. The two men gazed across the rooftops at the purple sky, a depthless silence falling over them.
Which was finally broken when Capaldi asked, “Any idea where he might be?”
“Not a clue,” Holmes muttered.
More modern-day Sherlock Holmes stories and other works by Tony Richards can be found on Amazon Kindle.