Satan’s Little Helper

Satan’s Little Helper

By Robert Perret

“It’s the damndest thing,” Inspector Jones said.

Holmes and I had been roused from slumber by a patrolman and ushered here to the quaint little garden behind St. Solame’s Church. Of course, this being late December, the statues and benches were wreathed in snow rather than lilies. The grey of stone and the white of snow everywhere, save the garish red pentagram that had been painted on the sanctified patch of earth, beneath the unfortunate Mr. Tangier.

“His own blood, do you think?” Jones asked.

Gingerly Holmes lifted Tangier’s shoulder. “The strokes pass through, uninterrupted. I suspect we will find it is not a match, but rather the vital effluvia of some animal.”

“More to the point,” I added, “The man has no apparent wounds, and no signs of exsanguination. In the cold we are all a bit blue but I’d put my money on poison.”

“He poisons himself and lays down in a bloody pentagram?”

“Make sure you give the shrubbery a through going over,” Holmes said. “I shan’t be surprised if he painted the thing himself.”

“Some sort of protest, do you think?” I asked, looking up at the whitewashed steeple that seemed to jab at the firmament above.

“Vicar says he has never seen the bloke before,” Jones replied. “Turned white as a sheet, he did, and has retreated to his sanctum.”

“You have kept eyes upon him, I presume?” Holmes asked.

“We’ve got a man inside the church, but to protect it, like. We certainly haven’t begrudged a man of God his privacy.”

Holmes seemed to focus intently upon the body then, through I suspect he was restraining himself from employing more than a few choice words. I had managed to teach him some small diplomacy over the years.

Cocking his head as if he had caught a fresh scent, Holmes crawled forward and took Tangier’s far hand. It was closed tightly in rictor mortis, but Holmes manipulated the wrist and in a moment opened the hand as deftly as any lock. From it fell a coin. It had a patina of deep green, and might have been lost in the Spring. Here in the depth of winter it stood out starkly.

Holmes plucked it from the ground and regarded one side for a long moment, and then the other. Having committed it to memory he lightly tossed it to Jones.

“Keep a hold of that, Inspector.”

“Did he find it here? Some kind of buried treasure?”

“Search his post for an envelope with that impression,” Holmes said. “Though I imagine that little message was conveyed by hand. Still, it will be but a few minutes work to settle the question.”

“A message?” Jones wondered, now peering intently at the coin as he held it within inches of his face.

“There’s little else we can accomplish here,” Holmes said. “In the cold and dark. I shall retreat to my hearth and hope to have something for you upon the morrow, Inspector.”

I am sure Inspector Jones had hoped for a more immediate answer from Holmes, but despite how he is commonly perceived, my friend’s best thinking was deep and slow.

“Do you think there will be more?” I asked. “A repeated killer like the Ripper?”

“I believe that this was a very personal gesture on the part of Mr. Tangier and further that the act has been seen to its completion. I shall be taken by surprise should we discover a nefarious cabal or coven to be had.”

“A simple lunatic, then?”

Holmes just let the smoke billow from his pipe out into the frozen air.

Once back in Baker Street, Holmes charged me with stoking the fire while he rummaged about in the lumber room. He emerged with an armful of rolled maps and a tattered old leather bound book. When he opened it I saw it was in fact a hand-written illuminated manuscript.

“My clay pipe, if you would, my dear Watson?”

I retrieved the pipe from the mantle along with a packet of the Turkish shag he favored. I laid it at his elbow but he had already disappeared into a cartographical trance. I poured myself a brandy and took my place by the fire. I watched Holmes at work for a bit before picking up the Dickens that lay upon the end table. Sir Charles was a bit melodramatic but his tales returned me to my childhood, in a London before all the tatterall of modernity. I seem to have fallen asleep as the detective arrived in Cloisterham, for the next I knew I was awoken by the probing embrace of the winter’s cold. The fire had died down to but embers and the clock read three.

Holmes yet worked by the light of a single candle. He seemed to be inscribing one of the old maps with the help of some strange compass. My heavy eyelids would brook no more insubordination and so I stumbled to bed and slept until the scent of bread and eggs drew me once again to the waking world.

Holmes was tucking in with gusto, his appearance as fresh as if he had spent a week on holiday.

“Little do your patients know how their very lives hinge on a simple landlady and her skillet reviving their physician each morning,” Mrs. Hudson chided.

“You are hardly a simple landlady,” I said, tucking a napkin into my collar.

“And yet you paint me as a fretful old biddy,” she pouted.

“I stand ready to reveal the true Martha Hudson at any moment.”

“Don’t you dare. The world is not yet prepared.”

“Indeed not,” replied Holmes jovially. “But that day shall come. Mrs. Hudson has been so kind as to affirm my own thinking.”

“I must say I am quite pleased, Mr. Holmes. I know you prefer to keep yourself at a distance from the spiritual workings of the world. I did not suspect you had been such an apt student all of these years.”

“Nine times out of ten we find ourselves dealing with the mundane aspects of reality, and it is true that it is there that I plant my flag,” Holmes said. “Leave the rest to the likes of Carnacki and Low, I say. There is plenty of mortal crime to keep a man busy. Yet every once in a while the chance presents itself to wander those twilight byways of the extraordinary.”

There was a knocking at the door. I made a deep study of my plate. The knocking came again. Despite my better judgement I looked to Mrs. Hudson. From the cocking of her eyebrow it was clear she had no intention of budging. Holmes, of course, had never answered to a knock in his life. So it was that I welcomed Inspector Jones into Baker Street. As I took his coat I couldn’t help but note that it was all but frozen solid.

“Some brandy will set you right,” I said as we made our way up the stairs.

“The sun is hardly over the rooftops,” Jones replied.

“You’ve been staring down Jack Frost, Inspector, and I can see he has been nibbling at your fingers.”

Before he could offer any further argument I poured him a snifter, and one for myself as well to be sociable.

Jones held forth some kind of bladder. “It was as you said, Mr. Holmes. I don’t know if it be man’s blood or beast. All I can tell you is the rats like it fine.”

“I would speculate that it is goat’s blood,” Holmes said, “although there is no way to be sure unless we find a rather gruesome mutton in Mr. Tangier’s abode. Odds are he obtained it from a butcher’s shop. Cast your eye upon this.”

Holmes gestured to the map spread on the table.

“It’s Trafalgar Square,” Jones observed. “What of it?”

“This is Trafalgar Square as we know it today,” Holmes said. He whisked the map from the table with a flourish. Below it was an older map, one that had been inscribed by Holmes.

“A generation ago,” Holmes declared. The main streets were there but many of the buildings were absent, particular at the edges of the map.

“And again,” Holmes said, “and so on.”

Four more maps were removed, and we each one we peered further back in time. We were well into the Jacobian era now, and London was much changed.

“There is the spot that Mr. Tangier perished,” Holmes said.

“It was forest, then,” I said, looking at the iconography of the map.

“More, these ticks indicate stone markers. A henge or a fairy circle, it hardly matters. It was an ancestral site of worship, and it was still in use.”

“Of course it was,” Jones said. “The church yet stands.”

“That church would not yet be built for another sixty years. The copse, the stones, that was the holy space, so to speak. The site of a rather gruesome murder. A lynching in fact.”

“No surprise if I am to understand that this was the locus of some kind of devil worship,” Jones sniffed.

“Very good, Jones,” Holmes said. “I see you have embraced the spirit of the thing.” My friend now gave the ancient monograph pride of place upon the table. “History, as they say, is written by the victors. But that is not entirely true. The vanquished will also put nib to page when given the chance. And fortunes rise and fall for each of us in time. This, my dear inspector, is a secret history.”

“A secret history? What are you on about?”

“As you know, religion and governance have long been intertwined in England. The Anglican Church and Parliament merrily exchanging favors over the centuries, and so it is that a Bishop like Wilberforce can dictate what is taught in our schools as well as our pews. In this instance, if you were to glance upon your formative history primer you would find that the brave constabulary of a fledging London put a stop to the insidious machinations of Cicilee Grange, a notorious witch.”

“Too right,” Jones said, puffing up with pride.

“What you don’t see in that book is the story of the medical practitioner who carried the poor of London through the scarlet fever outbreak of 1605. Nor the story of the village that took in dozens of children left orphans by the Nine Years War, who had been left to the tender mercies of the the wilds by the magistrate. Nor the history of the trading company who literally paved the road from London to Bristol by giving fair prices to sailors who had been slaves. All this is written here, in this book, and a dozen more that concur. Some of the finest scholarly minds in Britain have done much to confirm the claims within. Do you know what these stories hold in common?”

“Cicilee Grange,” I ventured.

Holmes nodded. “King James had a story he wanted to tell about England, and Madame Grange was not part of it. He literally issued a new Bible to support his story, he exerted his every political influence to support that story, and he murdered Cicilee Grange, amongst others, to support that story.”

“If this is some kind of joke I certainly do not understand it, Mr. Holmes,” Jones said.

“As people have done since time immemorial, Cicilee Grange and her tribe gathered upon the winter solstice to celebrate the end of winter, which often meant famine in the olden time, and celebrate the coming of spring, and new life. Sol Invictus they called it, the unconquered sun, which of course has been conflated in modern mythology into an unconquered son. Yet the date of the celebration remains the same. We now call it Christmas.”

“At this risk of bolstering your low opinion of the Yard, I fail to see what this has to do with the death of Mr. Tangier,” Jones said.

“The coin that Mr. Tangier held was a sol. The face nominally depicts Emperor Constantine, a man with rays of enlightenment radiating from his head. The obverse depicts him as an almost skeletal figure, trudging forward with a torch. This coin was adopted by a certain group as a kind of shibboleth.”

“And Mr. Tangier was part of this group?” Jones asked.

“Mr. Tangier was on a pilgrimage, to honor Ceceilee Grange, and the others who were treated so cruelly despite bringing light to the world. He meant to leave a sol for her there as a token of devotion. For to Mr. Tangier, and Madame Grange, and to many others, the figure on that coin symbolizes not Constantine, but another bringer of light altogether.”

“Who is that, then?”

“Lucifer, of course, the avatar of reason over blind faith.”

“It does not seem very reasonable to me to kill oneself over a grievance long lost to time.”

Holmes leafed forward in the book. “While the great lynching that tool place upon that plain upon the winter solstice of 1612 certainly claimed Madame Grange and her most obvious supporters, there was of course a whole network of people whom she had touch. Whom, if we allow the same sort of poetry so often employed upon this topic, the light of Satan had touched. It would be impractical for the Church to track down each and every person who might hold some sympathies, and really they only need be concerned about any practicing Satanists. And so they sowed poisoned seeds.”

“They tainted the coins,” I said.

“Indeed, every sol that passed through a royal bank was treated with an extract of oleander. Harmless to the touch but deadly if ingested.”

“Mr. Tangier did not eat the coin,” Jones objected.

“No, but he likely kissed it as he performed the offering ceremony described in this book. Many forms of communion involved just such a transference of breath or a symbolic ingestion. The poison will be on his lips, mark my word.”

“So he was killed by some long deceased zealot?” Jones asked.

“The essence of the oleander would never have remained intact so long. Did you find an envelope?”

“Indeed,” Jones said, producing it from his pocket. It was addressed from a Calvary and Sons Antiques.

“Carefully now, Inspector. Your case rests upon the murder weapon you hold in your hand, and what hard questions you can put to Mr. Calvary, whom I suspect will have deep ties to the Anglican clergy.”

It was clear that Inspector Jones was deeply uncomfortable with this entire turn of events, and having to go tilt at the Church on Christmas Day was surely not an appealing proposition to a man of his disposition.

Still, the scent of a roast soon mollified my concerns. Whilst we had been speaking with the Inspector, Mrs. Hudson had laid out an impressive feast. The poor lady must have been up all night. It was rare that she dined with us but Christmas was an exception, when she joined us and we supped as a small but happy family.

“I say, Holmes, you were surprisingly well informed about the devilish doings of old London town,” I said as I replenished the plate before me.

“I do have a certain sympathy towards the figure of Lucifer,” Holmes said. “If there were any Biblical figure to which I might aspire it would be he. In this case, however, I deferred to an acquaintance with much more practical knowledge of these sorts of things.”

“You do know the strangest sorts,” I said. “Some haggard crone jibbering with crows and grinding poultices from garden scraps, I suspect.”

“Do have a sip of the elder wine, Doctor Watson,” Mrs. Hudson smiled. “I brewed it myself.”

For a moment I thought I saw Holmes and Hudson give each other a sly look, but after a few sips I couldn’t find the words to inquire further.