Authors: Mark C. King
A Sigmund Shaw Mystery
Mark C. King
Also by Mark C. King:
Sigmund Shaw: A Steampunk Adventure
This book is a work of fiction. Although some of the people, places, and references are real, the events surrounding them in this story are fictitious.
Text copyright ©2016 by Mark King
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the author.
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Table of Contents
What a mysterious thing madness is. I have watched patients whose lips are forever sealed in a perpetual silence. They live, breathe, eat; the human form is there, but that something, which the body can live without, but which cannot exist without the body, was missing.
– Nelly Bly
Is there sorrow without sanity? As the figures moved along the dark, cobwebbed hallway – a woman strapped to a wheeled-chair and a man pushing it – the man absently wondered about the connection between emotion and reason. A splash and a rustle sounded from one of the shadows to their left and he raised his candle in time to see a rat scurry through a puddle. As bad as the upper floors were, the basement was much worse. Bedlam Asylum was old and rarely cared for over recent years, especially the unused lower level. Dirt, stains, and dripping water could be seen everywhere one looked. It smelled even worse.
The wheels squeaked as the chair rolled along the dilapidated tile floor, occasionally crunching through debris. The man continued his train of thought, fighting through the distracting aroma of mold and decay, wondering if the pitiful wails along with the hysterical laughter that sounded throughout the asylum were the true perception of their originators. Were the nerves that fired in their minds causing the vocal cords to cry out anything more than a random chemical process? Could these sounds of madness be no less meaningful than the flickering of his candle’s flame? The mind of man was remarkable and a source of mystery greater than any other. Perhaps the greatest of all.
Prudence, the woman, sat in the chair being pushed along the hallway, all but oblivious to what was happening around her. She was not asleep, but sedated to the point of a barely conscious dream. A breathy, mumbled version of
Mary Had a Little Lamb
was the only sound she made. If it wasn’t for the song and the cold foggy breath that escaped her lips like tiny wisps of smoke, it would be difficult to know she was even alive. The man would argue that although she was alive, she had never lived. Prudence had been in the asylum since a small child – abandoned on its doorstep by her parents. Her years in the asylum prolonged her existence, but she never laughed, never smiled, never interacted with anyone beyond the childish singing of that one song. That was not life – it was closer to inanimate breathing. The man regarded her as nothing more than an animal that needed to be fed and cared for. Perhaps less, for even an animal could show affection and loyalty. Prudence showed nothing. She lived in a fortress of madness, protected from all rational ideas.
Despite the cold and unpleasant surroundings, a small smile broke onto the man’s face as he thought of the gift he was about to give her. She had served no purpose in life, but her death would have meaning.
death, he reminded himself. The new version of the serum could be the cure they had been working towards, but progress had been slow, even stagnant as of late. He held little hope that he had created the final serum or that Prudence would survive the night.
The last room on the right, farthest from the stairwell, was their destination. Here he had built his lab, hidden from the world. It was here that he had spent many solitary hours through the asylum nights to refine his serum.
Stopping the wheeled-chair just shy of the doorway, he left it behind to enter the room. There were no windows here, as they were below ground, and the darkness seemed to eat the light of his candle. Walking across the small space to an old table that served as his lab work area, he lit an oil lamp with his candle to fight back the night. The soft glow illuminated the room, only slightly cleaner than the hallway or surrounding rooms, revealing its contents. Above the desk on the far wall, an old shelf was decorated with many glass containers, beakers, and chemical vials. Opposite the shelf, near the door, was a lone bed with a threadbare blanket over its thin mattress. An old wooden chair was the only other useful object amidst this converted laboratory. Satisfied with the conditions, he went back to Prudence and wheeled her into the room and positioned her near the bed. He undid the leather straps on her arms and legs that held her to the chair. There was no worry that she would have tried to run away, the straps merely kept her upright for the ride, especially the slow descent down the stairs. Once free of the straps, he used her modicum of consciousness to stand her up and move her to the bed. An unconscious body was so difficult to maneuver, it was much easier to leave a touch of strength to assist.
Now that she was on the bed, he started to strap her down again – this time to prevent movement that the body would try to make. He latched one thick, brown leather strap across her shins, another across her thighs, one over her stomach, and a fourth one across her shoulders. Finally, he took a smaller strap, about the size of a man’s belt, and used it to strap Prudence’s head in place to the bed. The strap was tight and cut into her skin. He watched her eyes as they flicked around briefly –
in response to the pain?
he wondered. Could her brain translate the most carnal feelings into the most basic of thoughts?
No. He was confident that she had no idea what was happening. The stimuli of movement, of changing locations, of even pain, seemed to fail to breach her true consciousness. Again, he thought about the uselessness of this person and how he would give her undeserved dignity.
With his subject firmly secured, the man walked over to his lab table and lifted a beaker of transparent golden liquid. He held it up to the lamp and swirled its contents to assure there was no separation of material. Happy with the clarity, he put it down and lifted a large metal syringe and dipped the needle into the golden liquid. He drew back the plunger, filling its belly. Making a brief notation as to the amount he was using, he then turned to Prudence.
Bending over her, he studied her neck and chose a location, the carotid artery. Placing the left hand on the top of her head, he used his right to bring the syringe closer.
He smiled and whispered, “It’s time, Prudence.”
It may be raining buckets, but at least it is freezing cold out
, Sigmund thought bitterly. He was sitting on his sister’s overstuffed couch, looking out the living room window at the unapologetic February downpour. The sound of the storm was like a low roar that only altered during the gusts of wind that seemed to attack the window.
A lone horse-drawn carriage rode by and he couldn’t help but feel badly for the exposed driver. Sigmund knew that no amount of clothing would be a sufficient barrier to the current London weather. After all, he was a carriage driver too, and had been in that miserable position more than a few times. The view made him appreciate the warm fire in the hearth and the comforting smoky aroma in the air all the more.
“Uncle!” his niece, Sarah, called out excitedly, interrupting his thoughts.
Sigmund turned his gaze from the carriage and looked down at his beloved thirteen year old niece. She was lying on the floor next to the fireplace with a book in front of her and her blonde hair spilling over her shoulders. She wore a blue dress that she was only allowed to wear in the house as it was a bit too worn to be seen in public – according to her mother. Asleep on Sarah’s back, absorbing the warmth from her and the lively fire, was Zachary, Sigmund’s monkey. The small brown and grey colored animal was a gift to Sigmund by a good friend.
“Sherlock Holmes is unbelievably arrogant! There are times that he is perfectly horrible to poor Watson. I love it!”
A smile broke onto Sigmund’s face. He adored everything about Sarah. She was so energetic, so smart. When she is old enough to marry, it was going to take a special suitor to match her wit. He wondered, however, how many suitors she might have in her condition. Since birth, she has been unable to use her legs. How she had not let this defeat her spirit, how she had soared above and thrived in every way was a source of constant amazement and inspiration to him. There was next to nothing that he would not do for her; and after the experiences of two years ago, he knew that he truly meant it. Even with the remarkable invention that Richard Sutton had created for her, a pair of mechanical legs that she could walk in, it was still a poor replacement for the freedom of health.
“You love it, do you?” Sigmund responded, “Tell me, then, you and me, which of us is Holmes and which of us is Watson?”
Sarah narrowed her eyes and scrunched up her heart-shaped face for a moment of thought and then said flatly, “The fact that you even have to ask that question proves that you are definitely Watson.” She followed the statement with a huge smile.
Sigmund laughed and responded, “Well, you seem to have the Holmesian arrogance down!”
“Elementary, my dear Uncle. Now you may continue with your remarkable gift of silence.”
“Sarah!” her mother exclaimed from the kitchen doorway, causing Sarah, Sigmund, and even Zachary to snap to attention. “That was quite rude.” Sigmund’s sister, Alexis, had evidently been listening in on their banter.
“Oh, Mother! It is just a quote from the book.”
Alexis had a stern look on her face, but the kindness of her eyes could never be overshadowed. “I don’t care where it came from, we do not insult our guests, even if it is your uncle.”
“Yes, Mother.” Sarah answered in a meek voice. Zachary was helping her case by looking very contrite.
A small smile formed on Alexis’s lips and she added, “If you are Sherlock Holmes, just remember something, he was bested by a woman. And… I am the woman that can best you, my dear Holmes… I mean, Sarah.”
There were several heartbeats of silence before a small giggle broke through. It emanated from Sarah, and was quickly followed by laugher from Alexis, and soon the three of them were laughing heartily. Zachary added a few squeals of his own.
The weather may be dark and cold, but this home was the brightest and warmest place in the world to Sigmund. Nearly all of his happiest memories occurred here. Over the past many years, happiness was something that seemed to elude the Shaw family as if they were inexorably destined for hardship. The early death of their father and not long after, their mother, the poor first marriage of Alexis coupled with the birth of a crippled child. This was followed by the abandonment of the wretched man who was her husband and his death a short time later. It seemed that nothing was easy for them. Even though Sigmund had been able to keep enough income coming in, his methods burned his conscience, for he had resorted to thieving on many occasions. Although he always took from those who had plenty, he knew that that was a poor excuse. Still, he did what he felt he had to do to take care of his sister and niece.
Jamison, Alexis second husband, changed everything. He was a good man and when he first met Alexis, he cared not that she was a widow or that she already had a young daughter. He saw past such things to the remarkable person that Alexis was. They fell in love and were soon married. Since that time, she had been happy, as happy as Sigmund had ever remembered her being. For this, and for the loving care Jamison showed to Sarah, Sigmund would be forever grateful to him.
Outside of the incredible Grimkraken affair, it had been many years since Sigmund had a reason to steal. Jamison provided well for Alexis and Sarah, and Sigmund made enough from cab driving to care for himself. Many would consider this a simple existence, but upon closer examination, would conclude that it was quite enviable. Happiness and love were better than any amount of riches.
“What is going on in there?” A voice called from down the hallway. It was Jamison. As he walked in the room and saw the happy group, he said, “It seems I have missed something quite humorous.” His brown eyes were wide in anticipation and somehow that seemed to make his ears stick out even farther than usual.
“Well, Father,” Sarah answered from her position on the floor, “we were discussing our roles in the Sherlock Holmes stories. I, of course, am Holmes. Uncle Sigmund is Watson. And Mother is Irene Adler, the woman who bested Holmes.”
Jamison put a hand to his chin and took a moment to consider these revelations and finally nodded his approval. He scratched at his sideburn, a bit of grey showing among his brown hair and asked, “Seems fitting, but what role do I play?”
Everyone looked at each other trying to think of a good role for Jamison. The problem was that the stories were not very flattering to most of its characters. Finally, Alexis answered, “Lestrade?”
The room erupted into laughter, even Jamison couldn’t hold back. Zachary hopped in a circle around Sarah thoroughly enjoying the merriment.
As the laughter started to subside, Jamison commented, “I think I would rather be Mrs. Hudson.” Which put them right back into hysterics.
As Sigmund wiped the happy tears from his eyes, he returned his gaze out the window. The falling rain always mesmerized him and put him in a state of comfort that was hard to explain, at least when he was not actually out in it. Although it was still day time, it seemed that the grey had deepened a few shades and through this growing gloom he saw a man in a black overcoat running in the rain along the street. “Poor devil.” Sigmund mumbled.
“What was that, Uncle?”
“Oh, I was just lamenting this poor fellow that is on foot in this weather. Hello! He is walking up our steps.” A moment later, the sound of the building’s door could be heard opening and closing. Zachary ran and jumped onto Sigmund’s shoulder in alarm. A cold fear started growing quickly in Sigmund’s chest – an unexpected visit by a dark stranger had once nearly cost him his life and that was an experience that he would rather not go through again. The next sounds were footsteps that ended abruptly outside their very door. His heart beat faster. A knock sounded that somehow managed to surprise them all.
“Wait!” cried Sarah as Jamison headed towards the door to answer it. “From what I have deduced, it is a man of average height, with something of importance to deliver. Oh, and he is very wet.”
“We shall see,” commented Jamison, “That is, if it is alright for me to greet this man now?”
Sarah smiled and Jamison walked to the door. Clearly, Sigmund was the only one on edge, but he couldn’t help it. “It’ll be alright, Zachary,” he said to try and soothe the monkey – and himself.
Just before turning the handle, Jamison looked back at Sarah and said, “I’m fairly certain that you will be correct about him being very wet. Besides this storm, of course, there is already some water seeping under the door.”
When Jamison opened it, he found a young man on the other side, average height, with his black overcoat dripping pools all around him. “Yes?” Jamison asked politely. Sigmund held his breath.
The young man cleared his throat and said, “Beggin’ your pardon, sir. I was told to deliver this telegram to Alexis Clarke.” With that, he fished deep into his breast pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper that somehow remained mostly dry.
“Peculiar,” Jamison said. “I am her husband, Jamison Clarke, and can take that for her.” He put out his hand and the young man hesitated only a moment before giving the paper to Jamison. Reaching into his pocket, Jamison pulled out two coins and handed them to the young man for his service – it was a little more than he normally would have given, but the weather made this a particularly difficult delivery.
“Thank you, sir.” responded the young man. “With your permission, I would like to take my leave. I cannot get home soon enough on a day like today.”
“By all means,” answered Jamison. They all watched as the visitor turned away and the door was shut.
Looking back out the window, Sigmund released his long held breath and watched as this young man entered the bitter downpour once again. The messenger started running up the road and with every step, Sigmund’s cold feeling dissipated a little.
“Who was that, dear?” asked Alexis from the kitchen.
“It was a messenger with a telegram to deliver,” Jamison answered.
“Really? On a day like today? What does it say?”
“I have not opened it yet, for you see, it is addressed to you.”
They could hear the sounds of footsteps in the kitchen and then Alexis appeared in the doorway with a surprised look on her face. “Did you say it was addressed to me?”
“Yes. The young man clearly said that this was for Alexis Clarke.” With that, Jamison walked over to her and handed her the note. She stared at it for a moment while Jamison held out his hand and lightly cleared his throat.
“You want a gratuity?” she said in mock anger. “How about I prepare you dinner?”
“That will be just fine.” He smiled. “So, don’t keep us in anticipation…”
They all watched as Alexis opened the telegram. Her eyes moved over the paper as she silently read it. When she was done, she looked at Sigmund and simply said, “This is odd. I do not really understand it.”
“Read it out loud, dear, so that we may share in the oddity.” Jamison encouraged.
Clearing her throat, Alexis said, “It reads:
Greetings Alexis Clarke,
I trust that you and your daughter Sarah are well. I would like to encourage you to remind your brother that favors owed should be repaid. In anticipation of this favor and of your continued good health, I bid you farewell.
Everyone turned and looked at Sigmund. The cold feeling returned with a vengeance, as if the once summer of his heart became instant winter. The stranger who delivered this note may not have been of any consequence, but the message was. Unbeknownst to his family, all of their lives had just been threatened.