Clattering through the dark streets to our proposed abode was not a journey I’d wish to repeat – Holmes had nabbed a seat next to the driver, leaving Hannay and myself to make the most of the meagre space in the back of the cart. Perched on a sack of coal with the night air stinging my face undoubtedly brought a new freshness to my cheeks, but otherwise did nothing to endear me to my companion.
“Come along Watson,” Holmes barked as we pulled up outside a drab-looking residence. “A hearty meal and a warm fire awaits!” Grasping my arm as I half-fell onto the wet cobblestones, Holmes turned away from the driver and gave me a hard stare. “Be vigilant Watson,” he muttered. “I fear we may be undone.”
Turning back to the driver, he resumed the hearty bonhomie and clapped a hand on the man’s back. “This way is it, old bean?”
The house was not what I expected. Or rather, it was (in some manner at least) exactly what I’d expected: the building resembled a collection of rotten timbers and crumbling stone that appeared to have been dropped between two rather more substantial structures on either side. The words ‘ramshackle’, ‘demolition-job’ and ‘shithouse’ loomed large as we entered the murky dwelling.
A small, wiry woman of indeterminate age sprang upon us on entering. She glared up at me and screeched “No room at the Inn!”
As I stared into her bloodshot eyes, her cackling laughter sent more than a chill up my spine and I swear one of her bony hands found its way into the crevice between my buttocks (though I may have imagined it). However, I was rescued from the woman’s mad gaze and probing digits by the Driver, who, pulling her aside, whispered in her ear, after which the woman’s expression changed to one of quiet expectancy.
We were shown into the parlour – a room whose only advantage was a roaring fire. The three us pulled up chairs and warmed ourselves in front of the blaze while our harridan-like host scuttled off to fetch food.
As soon as she’d gone. I leaned across to Holmes. “What’s afoot, Sherl?”
His sharp eyes flicked between myself and Hannay. “You haven’t worked it out yet, Watson?”
The man was infuriating. “No, I haven’t.”
He chuckled and began playing with his Meerschaum.
“You know, Holmes,” I muttered with some pique, “You could just tell us.”
“Actually, that’s quite true Mr Holmes,” said Hannay, coming to my assistance. “You are being a bit of an arse.”
My companion grinned and shook his head. “No. I shall share my theories only if the perceived menace threatens to overcome us.”
Half an hour later, having consumed large quantities of mince-and-something pies, Holmes and Hannay had dozed off in their chairs. I decided to go upstairs to our rooms (intending to take advantage of choosing the least appealing one of the three for myself). At the foot of the stairs, a familiar hand caught the back of my trousers.
I whirled round to find myself staring into that face again, her brown teeth smiling up at me like a Cheshire cat whose face has died, been buried, and dug up again.
“Fancy a bit of the other?” She purred.
I stepped back to remove myself from her fetid breath. “Ahm, no, actually. I’m rather tired.” I feigned a yawn. “Really must get to bed.”
“That’s what I were thinkin’ too, my dear.” And she grasped my hand. “Let us ascend the thirty-nine steps to heaven.”
She started up the stairs dragging me behind her, but I pulled her back sharply. “What? The thirty-nine steps? What do you know about the thirty-nine steps?”
To be continued.