Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Stricken Flag
By John Pirillo
The morning sun blazed across the horizon with fingers of fire that lit the dawn and stirred humanity from its dull slumber across the Victorian capital of London. Street vendors roused themselves from their simple beds, loaded their carts with apples, oranges, pears, walnuts and almonds, cashews from the India Isles and cinnamon from the Chinas. They folded dazzling, colorful silks woven in the Japans, as well as bright silver and bronze pots hand crafted in the Americas. Anything that could be made and made cheaply, or bought cheaply to be resold on the streets was game for them as they woke up and readied themselves for another busy day of striving to gain one more pound for their family to survive upon or themselves to drink down for that night.
The merchant ships stirred lightly against their restraining tethers, anchored to the wharves by sturdy rope and anchors, while sailors blinked blood shot eyes from sleeping off a drunk, or being up all night at the crow's nest.
The Queen's Royal Guard dressed to kill. Literally, marched through the dawn fog that was misting along the wharves as they made their way to a lone ship. It had slipped into its berth earlier the night before and had not stirred with life since.
Captain Mortimer Herald, a young man, with a future as bright as the morning sun, led his men to the ramp into the ship and was the first off to lead them up. He was never one to shirk responsibility or danger. He drew his sword, as did the others. None expected anything lethal, but better to be prepared.
They had been warned of the unusual stillness of the merchant ship by Wells and Jules, whose warehouse was several stretches down the wharf from it. They had returned from a flight to Paris where they had been tending to some friends they had there.
"Men, no harm unless attacked." Captain Mortimer insisted.
The men didn't have to answer. They knew how angry he was if thwarted in his instructions, and besides that, they took pride in such a strong and obviously brave young soul leading them into victory after victory. They were the most highly decorated platoon of her Majesty's royal guards.
The Captain climbed the ramp to the ship and stepped down on its main deck. Still quiet. He sniffed the air. A strange smell seemed to pervade it. He nodded to the men behind him and they all spread out, taking fore and aft of the ship, while several headed for the top deck.
He took two men into the hold, where he expected the Captain to be, since the Captain's cabin appeared to be empty with no bed slept in. Which was peculiar perhaps, but not unusual when a crew was anxious to get home and dared not rest if they had a certain deadline to make. Though in retrospect, remembering the expected merchant ships, there were none of this flag expected. Something about the flag stirred a memory, but he couldn't pinpoint it, which was unusual, as he wasn't one to forget. He filed it for later thought, and continued into the hold, his sword at the ready.
His right hand man shook his head. He looked to the other. "Shelly?"
Captain Mortimer nodded, uncertain nonetheless. Something smelled about the way the ship was so quiet...as if it had been abandoned. Or worse.
As they got deeper into the hold, Figgins began swinging his sword wildly, screaming. "Bloody Mary if you'll take me with you!"
Then Shell did the same. "Captain, we're surrounded."
Captain Mortimer looked wildly about him, fully expecting to see some activity, but there was none, until he stopped looking, then he saw them. He saw...
Watson put a handkerchief over his nose as he descended into the hold of the abandoned ship. He slowly removed it, sniffing the air, and then waved above him.
Sherlock descended, followed by Inspector Bloodstone. "What a disaster." He stated, eyeing the dead soldiers that lay on the floor, their bodies emaciated and torn by something sharp.
Watson kneeled next to one and Sherlock next to another.
"Cloves." Sherlock stated.
"Same." Watson agreed.
They both stood and looked at the Inspector. "These men were exposed to a deadly gas manufactured by the Germanies. It was used in the last war between them and the French." Sherlock explained.
"No, you don't." Sherlock explained calmly. "That gas was totally removed from the face of the planet. It does not occur naturally and none but the one man who invented knew its formula and Her Majesty, Queen Mary of Scots, had him behead."
"Nasty affair that." Watson said, remembering the public execution. "The executioner had to use his axe several times to finish him off. Poor man was in great pain before he died."
"As were these, dear Watson." Sherlock reminded him.
He looked at the Captain, whose face was filled with horror, his eyes forever frozen on something only he could see. "He had such promise. I knew his father."
"As did I." Inspector Bloodstone added. "Her Majesty was grooming to take over her forces in the current war against the Hollow Man."
"That will grieve her greatly." Watson said softly.
"Yes. Because she also loved this young man as a son. He was, after all, a nephew. However, distant."
Sherlock nodded. "Whatever gas was here now is gone."
"As it would be." Watson declared. "It only lasts twenty four hours."
"But it still doesn't explain the vanished crew." The Inspector pointed out.
"No. It doesn't." Sherlock replied, but one thing might.
He stooped and drew a finger across the wounds. "Notice that the slices are very light and though bloody, are not deep enough to have caused their deaths."
Watson kneeled beside him. "By Jove, Holmes, you have the straight of it. These men were plucked from this mortal coil by fear, not pain."
Sherlock eyed his friend. "Oh, they experienced pain all right. I imagine more than you or I could endure."
"Notice the extension of the young man's eyes."
"As if they were ready to flee their sockets."
"The color on the rim of the white."
Watson took out a magnifying glass. "Inspector, could you hold that lamp a bit closer."
The Inspector did so.
Watson inhaled sharply. "I believe the iris was actually detaching from the white itself." He looked at Holmes. "That's impossible."
"When the possible has failed..."
"We examine the impossible." The Inspector finished for them.
Sherlock stood up and swept up the stairs from the hold.
"That was strange." The Inspector said with distaste.
Watson laughed. "Oh, you don't know the half of it. Hurry, he's on to something."
They rushed up the hold stairs and came out onto the main deck. As they did, Sherlock was rushing to the jack mast where the flag hung limply in the bright afternoon sun. The Thames waters rippled noisily to the sides, swishing in and out, causing the ropes and pulleys of the sails to cling and clang as they banged against each other.
"Ah-ha!" Holmes cried out.
Watson and the Inspector caught up with him. The Inspector started to reach out and touch the flag that was near Holmes. Sherlock grabbed his wrist in a viselike grip and looked into his eyes. "If you value your life, you will not touch this flag. It is stricken."
The Inspector's face went white as a ghost.
"Smell the cloves."
"Dear God!" The Inspector uttered angrily. "The flag!"
"Yes." Sherlock affirmed. "Their very signal of safety and safe port was also their death. For if even one touched it, the poison would spread to the others and touching the flag released a mist like poison that swallowed the entire ship before all expired."
Watson shook his head. "The Hollow Man has struck yet again. And not one soul could strike a blow to save themselves."
Sherlock nodded. "Such is the nature of war, Watson. To those who lose, it is victory for the winner."
"But what happened to the original crew?" The Inspector demanded.
Sherlock clasped his hands behind his back and looked out to sea. "The Hollow Man always has a need to expand his crew of the living dead."
Watson and the Inspector both crossed themselves at the same time.
"The Dark War nears." Sherlock said with a scowl. "And has even begun in small ways, and none are as yet aware how deadly it has become."
"God have mercy on our souls." Watson muttered.
"And let us pray we keep them intact." Sherlock uttered, and then marched solemnly down the deck to the ramp to debark. He had much to ponder and think about.