"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it." - Mark Twain
During my lengthy acquaintance with one Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I had learned to appreciate stillness for it happened so rarely that each span of it was cause for a deep exhale.
True stillness did not come with a total absence of cases, for those periods drew Holmes to his cursed drug, but rather they were brief, revivifying days in which one mystery had been solved thoroughly and another had yet to find us. It was a time for Holmes to catch up on missed sleep and nourishment and a chance for me to organize and recopy my notes on the case to be transcribed easily into a full story when the time came for one.
We were in one such state on a sunny May afternoon, Holmes at the table working on a late lunch and picking at the newspaper after waking at ten and I settled in an armchair with a mediocre novel, my usually troublesome leg in as much harmony as it could acquire due to the ideal weather. It was the second day of our repose, and as our last adventure had not been up to Holmes's calibre (by which he meant neither of us required medical attention after the fact), I did not expect it to last much longer. I did not know at the moment that it would only last a few more seconds, however.
Distracted by his ever-amusing agony columns, I had anticipated an order when there was a banging at our door.
"Get that, Watson!" called out the detective, not so much as sparing a glance over the paper. "Mrs. Hudson's out until two, remember."
I might have replied most unkindly if I had been in a poorer mood, but descending the seventeen stairs without cringing seventeen times could be a bit of a treat for me and so I marked my page with a thin strip of paper discard and rose, hurrying down the steps. When I opened the door, a youth with sandy hair thrust an envelope towards me.
"Delivery, sir," he chimed through his pants, quite out of breath but smiling. The lad must have made good time from wherever he came from. "For Mr. Holmes or Watson, he said either or both."
When I accepted the envelope and pressed a few coins into the grinning messenger's hand, I did not need to ask who the elusive "he" was. Even without the keen eyes of my companion I could easily identify the neat, level handwriting spelling out our names with sharply looped letters.
"Letter from your brother, Holmes," I announced, closing the door after the boy had skedaddled and beginning up the stairs with a hurry in my step. I could barely restrain a smile when I heard the hurried scraping of chair on floor; a case from Brother Mycroft was always guaranteed to be a good one.
Boney fingers snatched the message from my hand as soon as our paths crossed and he tore the top off in three swift growls of paper despite the high quality of the stationary. Remnants of the former envelope were rained upon the floor as he took to the sheet itself.
"Well...?" I questioned, not wishing to sound impatient but feeling very much so. Although I had hoped for a day or two more of rest, Holmes's infatuation with the unusual had infected me some time ago and was heightened when whetted.
The devilish grin that appeared on his angled face was enough in expression alone to tell me that this would be the end of our short repose. "Come, old chap, let's get ourselves afoot and down to Barnard Park. This day should be attractive enough to make up for its late start. Grab your coat but leave your revolver. I'll explain in the cab."
I did not know whether to smile or groan. At least my firearm would remain in its desk drawer; if we were to be in any danger, there would be inspectors nearby. As much contempt as Holmes may have for their intellect, a man quick on the draw and trigger can be quite valuable in the very situations we often seemed to end up in.
We managed to make it out the door in under five minutes, three of those were spent hunting about the flat for Holmes's best magnifying glass which turned up in the pocket of the jacket he had worn on our last case, the first place I suggested he look and the place he denied it was in three times over. Mrs. Hudson had arrived home early only to stand aside to allow us to bustle out, sniffing as Holmes offered a mere tip of his hat in explanation.
"Now," I asked once we were settled inside a fast hansom paid in advance, the only kind the Great Detective would travel in if given a choice. "Would you care to explain this or am I to be left in the dark about the matter?"
Holmes grinned, this time less of a mischievous smirk and more of a good-natured smile. He bent his lanky frame to comfort before beginning. "As you could tell by the handwriting, good on you for it, by the way, the note was from Mycroft, requesting our presence now if not sooner at Barnard Park. Now, tell me, what do you know of the place?"
I should have known better than to expect him to cut to the full chase all at once, and I called on my memory of our city, knowing the park better than some. "It's a largely abandoned park, Holmes, owned by the government but not up-kept by it. It's mostly the young boys playing cricket and football that keep the grass tame. It is often used as a rent-free venue for amateur sporting events, less than polished outdoor concerts... Things of that nature."
I knew it largely as a place for the boys to hone their skills with their bats; I had spent at least a handful of days writing on a park bench, enjoying the crack of ball on wood and young, innocent voices cussing like sailors at one another. Everyone had one way of erasing the years for an hour or so, after all.
"Correct, as you can be from time to time. Do you know what is being hosted there currently?"
"I cannot say I do, Holmes," I admitted. I had learned to ignore his jabs and knew from experience that protesting them would only draw further prods.
"I must say that I only do because I did much skulking about the drabber parts of town in days past and saw the posters. A carnival is there at the moment, Watson, to leave about this time tomorrow meaning they would be packing things in at this moment. They say their staff is authentically gypsy, but by the tone of the affair I doubt many actual Roma are involved in the management."
"So what has happened there?" My impatience was beginning to breed as we began to clatter a bit more, progressing from the well-maintained streets to the much-neglected roads and progressing into the transition from a prosperous, refined city into a dismal slum. Barnard Park was caught between the two; enough of a disgrace to attract gypsies, but too regal to keep them there.
"What do you know of the name Bradford Mason?"
This took me aback. Mason was competing in this year's election against Prime Minister Gladstone and by the headlines in the papers, it looked as if he were to give him a fine jog. Gladstone's entire reputation hinged on him being iron-fisted and stone-faced to the point that our own Queen had expressed dislike of him, and yet he managed to get things done in a neat, final way. Mason, on the other hand, had emerged the fresh-faced, amiable friend of the everyman. He was gaining popularity, and there were the start of murmurs about how our country would be if such a joker were to stand at the helm of our Parliament.
"I know as much about anyone who's read the papers, Holmes. What of him and this case?"
Instead of an answer, the detective opened the carriage door as the hansom rolled to a stop outside the park, already swarmed and patrolled by plainclothes inspectors and uniformed police, jumping out and gesturing me to follow.
I had little choice but to do so.
The place was both a literal and figurative circus. Women both Roma and white in the outlandish cloth of gypsies were being herded away barking and swearing by thinly-worn officers, many employees were being interviewed, and there were a number of shouts coming from the cloth tent that, by the quality of it in comparison to the others, belonged to whoever was in charge of the nomadic group.
I followed Holmes through the chaos to a black tent pitched near ominous, overhanging trees. I wondered why on earth someone would place it in such a spot until I saw the banner and the cardboard propped in front of it. The Half-Dead Girl! Come to the only funeral where the corpse will bow to her mourners! The poster showed a tiny creature from the waist up reclined in a coffin, funeral veils hiding its face. The morbid aura of the structure sent a small chill down my spine.
Heading towards the same tent from the opposite direction was a familiar face and an unfamiliar one. The first was the imposing person of Mycroft Holmes, massive in both height and width, ever immaculate and surveying the scene through watery yet uncharacteristically frantic eyes. The fact that he was there made the gravity of the situation apparent.
The later was a man I was unacquainted with; a slender man somewhat lacking in height and looking all the smaller scrambling after the supposed auditor with the air of one in a subservient position. He was in his very early thirties, his clothes were neat but inexpensive, his rowan hair was groomed but resisting it and his round glasses were threatening to fall off his face but were always pushed up at the last minute.
"Dr. Watson, you've yet to meet Mr. Trevor?" asked the huge man, not bothering with trivial social niceties. Without waiting for my confirmation, he gestured towards the man flitting after him with an armful of papers. "Dr. Watson, this is James Trevor, my secretary. Trevor, Dr. Watson. Now let's see what the damage is." Mycroft ducked inside the tent, his brother following at his heels.
Trevor and I were spared a moment to meet eyes, and in that moment he risked a deep inhale, which he released slowly.
"I believe that's the first breath I've taken since Pall Mall," he proclaimed, voice embroidered with weariness. "Well, no sense putting off the enviable, hmm?" He disappeared into the tent before I could ask of him what the inevitable was.
I entered, finding myself hidden from the sun save for small slits of windows once the flap closed and in a maze of dimly lit cloth drapery winding to the heart of the large tent. The floor was only dirt half-heartedly packed but now stirred up. I followed the harried secretary, noting how it darkened as the sun became further away. Finally I found myself in the midst of a funeral.
There was a child-sized coffin at the front with lilies that were obviously cheap cloth replicas in plaster urns. A memorial portrait was displayed in front of the casket showing a fairly pretty little girl. There were candelabras about that looked as if they had never been polished, but someone had brought in several gas lanterns to light the room more adequately.
There was a body, but it was not the child in the portrait. Bradford Mason, friend of the everyman, was face down in the dust with nine bullet holes that I could see in his body.
"Macabre, isn't it?" drawled Mycroft, flipping through a stack of papers handed to him by one of the three inspectors bustling about the innermost chamber. "Good God, what a mess... You were going to vote for him, Sherlock, were you not?"
"Believe it or not, I wished to see what would become of the country if he were in charge," my friend sighed. He was already on his hands and knees, prodding at the body, his grey eyes scrutinizing every square inch of the corpse. "What did this place look like before the inspectors trampled everything up, brother? This dirt would leave lovely footprints."
"As you've likely already deduced, there was either one man with two guns or at least two men that did the deed, but based on the arrangement of the wounds and the limited splatter, I would say there was two against him. Footprints confirm this; there were four sets of clearly distinctive prints, according to this report. Mason's were easy because his soles are more expensive and leave lighter prints, the owner of this tent is a large man and his feet match, an unidentified third was smaller than both of them, and the fourth belong to..." Mycroft paused, huge face furrowing as he looked up to the inspector who had bequeathed him with the papers. "Who exactly is 'Unnamed Child'?"
"I think that's been made my department," spoke up a burly man from the corner I had thought to be a plainclothes but now carried a black bag similar to my own. "I'm Dr. Henson, sirs. And that..." With a small sigh he indicated to a blanket draped about itself in the corner. "Is someone we have yet to identify."
Holmes, ever the curious creature, strode over and with the movements of a child peeking into a jar lifted a fold of cloth to peer inside. We all caught a glimpse of dark eyes that I would have called feral had they not held so much fear, a dirty face with a pair of bruises, and a worn stuffed rabbit clutched in stick-thin arms before the creature yanked the blanket back over her trembling form.
"She was struggling when we first found her so I sedated her," Henson explained, sticking his rough hands in his pockets with a bit of a guilty expression. "I was more concerned she'd hurt herself than anything else. She wasn't hurt in whatever happened here, but... Well, I read your stories, Dr. Watson, and I was in the regiment behind yours in Afghanistan. I haven't seen anything like this since I treated the local civilians there. A few people have told us that Jackyl, the man who ran this tent, has had her for a few years but they don't know where she came from. She's malnourished and bruised, I had to brace her wrist, and I felt a lot of old breaks... He'd been kicking this girl around for a while. It's hard to tell her age, but I'd place her around five. When she came to, she bolted for the corner with that toy rabbit of hers and she's been there since."
I felt my heart and stomach sink, and even the stony face of Mycroft Holmes softened slightly (his secretary, on the other hand, looked downright aghast). "Did she witness this...?" I questioned. It was a special kind of horror for a child so young to suffer such treatment and then have a front row seat to a bloody crime such as this.
"We found her tied up, others have told us..." The man who had been through the same war as I faulted slightly as he spoke, continuing after a sharp inhale and a go-to look. "That was where she usually slept, tied up in here. Jackyl shares a caravan with some others that's being inspected, apparently. She was tied when we got here, she must have seen it all."
"Then she can tell us the second gunmen!" Holmes exclaimed, practically biting at the bit to be let loose on the wrong-doers.
"I'm afraid it won't be so easily, gentlemen. The girl's a mute."
"Post-traumatic stress disorder?" Any army doctor was familiar with shell shock and how much of an affect it could have on anyone, let alone a child.
"A bit more permanent. There's old scar tissue around her upper chest and lower neck, and when she came to she was screaming without sound. Either Jackyl or whoever had her first had her larynx tampered with, likely to keep her quiet during their little act." He held up what looked to be a curved plate of glass. "This is the mask she wore during the show... See all the veins and muscles painted on the glass moulding? Like her face was decomposed. She had to wear this and play dead until he gave her commands. She was kept starved to look like a skeleton."
"And you say she's given no hint towards her name?" rumbled Mycroft, expressionless to the outside observer but I could detect a certain heaviness in his eyes.
"She's drawn that..." the doctor shrugged, gesturing to the pictogram scratched in the dirt in front of the inhabited blanket.
As far as I could make out, one shape was an apple but zigzagging lines sectioned off a piece. There was something wrapped around it with an oval head and points. I jumped when the deep voice of Mycroft Holmes announced "Eve."
"Excuse me?" I blinked, tearing my eyes from the crude drawing.
He waved a large hand over the figures. "You see the apple? She's drawn a bite taken out of it, and the animal around it is the serpent. The story of Adam and Eve, and I doubt very much her name is Adam."
His guess seemed to be correct, for at the sound of her name the blanket was slowly peeled away, the mussed face emerged with the hesitance of a much-beaten dog. She regarded us with wavering brown eyes, grip tight on the equally filthy rabbit clutched in her hands.
"Do you not even know how to spell your own name...?" questioned the elder Holmes as he gazed down on the forlorn little creature.
Her gaunt face setting into determination, she placed finger to the dirt, tracing out three letters. SIN.
If I had been a more emotional man with less experience in the purely awful, I might have felt like crying. "That is not your name," I spoke, keeping my voice as soft as I would with a spooked horse. "Why would you think that it was?"
She crept further from her fashioned nest, revealing the fact that she was dressed in torn and well-faded, ill-fitting clothing. Hesitating greatly, she pulled back the sleeve on the arm that was not bound. There in her arm in scars, someone had carved out SIN neatly in her skin.
I did not have much time to pity the girl before me, for an inspector burst into the tent and sent Eve scampering back into her hideaway. "Sirs! Some of our men just apprehended someone who was trying to get into this... structure. He had a gun and got off two shots; we were forced to kill him. He has documents on him meant for Mason and there are traces around where he emerged that suggest he's not alone."
"They're eliminating the only witness," murmured Holmes, glancing towards the trembling blanket. "We'd do well to get her to an alternative location. Mycroft, your rooms are only five minutes from here if we take the narrow way."
An expression of annoyance flicked across his brother's face, obviously irate at the very suggestion of a grubby urchin and her dirty plaything in his meticulously clean flat, but it soon faded when he nodded, knowing it would have to be done. "Dr. Watson, gather her, would you? No doubt Dr. Henson has other duties here. Trevor, fetch what you can from the inspectors and meet us in my rooms."
Being as gentle as I possibly could so as not to jostle her mending wrist and her tiny form, knowing she could give no indication when her pain worsened, I picked up the blanket my fellow doctor had wrapped around her. The brief moment she allowed her face to be visible, I saw tears in her eyes.
"It will be made right, little one." I was more adept at comforting children after they had received an immunization, not after something quite as dramatic as this, but I did my best and she was asleep before we reached Mycroft's door.