A Vision In Scarlet
Written for: k in the Yuletide 2004 Challenge
"Okay, you've got to stop doing that right now," Bruce said, quickly jerking away so that Johnny couldn't hide behind him anymore.
"All right, okay," Johnny said. He coughed, using his fist to block his face a little. "I just don't want anybody to see me here."
"Johnny, this is the University of Maine, not Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Dig the atmosphere. It's a respectable gig, man."
Bruce had a point. The exhibition was in the atrium of the newly built Robinson Library, a spacious glass and steel building at the center of the U. of Maine's Bangor campus. Around the perimeter of the room was a zig-zag of blond wood bookcases, and at the center was the exhibition space: a series of display tables laid out on a giant area rug that looked like an abstract painting. Carelessly jacketed men and tweed-skirted women drifted around the exhibits, examining the artifacts and murmuring about them in library-soft voices. Wine and cheese were available at a white-clothed table on the far side of the room.
Johnny self-consciously adjusted his tie.
"You look fine," Bruce assured him. "You fit in—so chill out."
"Yeah, right." Johnny glanced down nervously at the exhibition program in his hand: Paranormal Phenomena in the 19th Century: Mediums, Spiritualists, and Psychics. "I fit in all too well."
It wasn't until Bruce knocked his hand away that Johnny realized he was obsessively smoothing his tie. "C'mon," Bruce said, "let's take a spin, check out what's on offer. Maybe we learn something about your abilities. At the very least, we can talk to that professor you wanted to see, what's his name—"
Johnny glanced down at the program again. Curated by Dr. Charlie Jacobs, Newberry University. "Charlie Jacobs."
"Right." With a last, defiant look over his shoulder, Bruce crossed to the first of the exhibits: a series of photographs under glass. "Man, that's creepy. What the hell is that?"
Johnny came over to look at the blurry old photographs. They were all of a woman, the same woman, who seemed to be straining to give birth while four men held her down on a table. Except she wasn't giving birth—instead, she seemed to be vomiting some kind of white cloth.
"Ectoplasm," Johnny said, glancing from one photo to the next.
"Ectoplasm. It was kind of a thing back then: there were these women who claimed to be able to produce this ghostly white, uh—matter—from their, um. Orifices." He suddenly realized that was all he wanted to say about that. "I read about it in Dr. Jacobs' book."
Bruce frowned and peered into the case again. "She looks like she's chewing on a t-shirt."
"Yeah, well, that's probably what it was." Johnny drifted over to the next exhibit: a life-sized plaster cast of a head and shoulders. The cranium was divided into multicolored sections and carefully numbered. Johnny glanced at the label: Phrenology Bust, c.1850.
"Hey, look, there's your Dead Zone! Number 46," Bruce said, pointing. "Whoa, it's green."
"Yeah, shut up," Johnny said.
"How're you feelin', man?" Bruce asked the plaster head. "You get headaches and whatnot?"
"Yeah, shut up now," Johnny said, but he was grinning as he moved on to the next table. This display was dominated by a large sepia photograph of a guy with a bushy handlebar mustache. Sharing the table were a number of exhibits, each carefully labeled: a small watercolor painting, a collection of medical tools in a velvet-lined leather bag, a ouija board, a number of I.D. cards, an old manuscript carefully propped on a lectern. Weird collection of stuff, Johnny thought, until he happened to catch the name carefully written on the I.D. card: Arthur Conan Doyle.
Immediately, his eyes darted back to the yellowing pages.
"Wow, whoa, holy shit!" Johnny exclaimed, grabbing Bruce by the arm. "Get a load of this!" At the top of the manuscript was written, in a cramped and slanted hand: "A Study In Scarlet."
"Yo, what?" Bruce asked, but then he saw. "Hey, is that what I think it is?"
"I think so," Johnny said in a hushed voice. He bent to study it more closely.
"What's a Sherlock Holmes story doing at a—"
—The little girl is screaming, arms flailing. There are white ribbons in her dark hair, ribbons threaded into the sleeves of her nightgown. Screaming, shrieking, but not anymore, because the heavy velvet pillow is being pushed against her face. He is pushing it—harder—harder!—god, let it be quick!—smothering her with the plum-colored velvet—
"John. John?" Johnny became aware of Bruce's steadying grip on his arm. "You all right?
"Yeah." He squeezed his eyes shut; god, his head hurt.
"You have a vision?"
"Yeah." It was like the little girl's screams were stabbing into his brain; Jesus, someone had killed her. He'd killed her—or at least, that's what it had felt like.
Bruce doggedly continued to question him. "Was it 'A Study In Scarlet'?"
For a second he didn't know what Bruce was talking about, but then he understood: Bruce was asking him if he'd gotten his vision from the manuscript. He opened his eyes and saw Bruce's concerned face. "No, I didn't touch it. You shouldn't touch old manuscripts," he added, buried teacherly instincts surfacing. "Oil from your fingers, old paper, it's a—"
Bruce rolled his eyes. "Save the lecture, okay? I'm just trying to figure out what you touched."
Johnny looked over the table of strange objects. "I don't know," he admitted. "I must have brushed something when I looked at the Holmes story." He glanced at the other objects: medical kit, ouija board, I.D. cards. The card on top, he noticed, proclaimed Conan Doyle's membership in the British Society for Psychical Research.
"Yeah, well, that was just what I asked you when you spaced out on me. What's a Sherlock Holmes story doing in an exhibit on psychic phenomena?"
"That's an interesting question."
Johnny and Bruce turned to see a tall woman standing behind them. She was wearing a tight-fitting white wool sweater, her long dark hair carelessly pulled back by a pearl clip. "We think of Conan Doyle as a rationalist—a doctor, a man deeply invested in science, the deductive method, all that—but the division between science and the supernatural wasn't what you'd call fixed in the late nineteenth century. In fact, science and the supernatural were pretty much the same thing." She smiled at Johnny, then turned to Bruce and said: "That's how the scientific detective story could be invented by Edgar Allen Poe of all people."
"Not exactly the poster child for rational thinking," Johnny said, and tried on what he hoped was his sexiest smile.
He caught Bruce's glare from the corner of his eye, a sharp look that said, Hey, I asked the interesting question, white boy. Bruce took a half-step between him and the woman and said, "So Conan Doyle was interested in psychic stuff?"
"Not just interested," she replied with a wry smile. "More like obsessed. Spiritualism was one of his earliest interests, and at the time of his death, he was probably the world's leading proponent."
"He also believed in telepathy and thought transference, didn't he?" Johnny tried to pass the knowledge off casually, like it had just occurred to him. "And I'm pretty sure he was a member of the British Society for Psychic Research." Or something like that.
She raised her eyebrows, looking impressed. "Yes, he was. In the days before he was a famous writer, he was their medical consultant. Are you interested in psychic research yourself?"
"Uh, yeah," Johnny said with a little cough. "You could say that. Actually, I just read a really good book on the subject. Which reminds me," he added, gently taking her by the arm and turning her toward the room. Bruce growled at him softly but he ignored it. "Could you tell me which of these people is Dr. Charlie Jacobs?"
She smiled at him, then turned and extended her hand. "Charlie Jacobs." She must have seen the look on his face because she quickly added, "I was born Charlotte. I'm not much of a Charlotte."
"Academic books don't have photos on the jacket cover," Johnny explained sheepishly.
"No, they don't," Charlie Jacobs agreed. "Though that's a good thing: you really don't want to see most of these guys." She smiled as Johnny laughed, then said, taking him by surprise: "You're John Smith." There was no question in her voice.
"Yeah," Johnny said, wincing; suddenly he felt like a lab rat. "Should I ask how you know?"
She shrugged her shoulder, a pretty gesture. "It's my line of work. I have a research assistant keeping pretty close tabs on you." She was studying him openly now, her eyes curious—or maybe she'd been looking at him like that from the start and he'd been stupid enough to take it as sexual interest. "You're a pretty fascinating guy," she added, and smiled again. "I hoped you might come. I was going to look you up if you didn't."
"Oh." Johnny suddenly felt like they were out of things to say, which was stupid. He'd come here hoping to talk to this woman, so why did it bother him so much that she wanted to talk to him, too? Or maybe it was her lab assistant who wanted to talk to him. "Yeah. Okay."
She seemed to understand that something had gone wrong between them, and her brow creased. She opened her mouth to say something, then bit her lip and hesitated. Finally, she said: "Maybe we could have coffee later. Or I could take you out to dinner—you know, just to talk."
Yeah. Just to talk. Great. "Yeah, I'd—sure. Okay."
"Charlie?" A man in a corduroy jacket came up beside her and nudged her arm. "I've got someone who wants to meet you—"
"Yeah, all right. Be right with you," Charlie Jacobs said, then added worriedly to Johnny: "Don't leave, okay? Promise?"
"Promise," Johnny said.
She hurried off after the man and Johnny turned back to Bruce and groaned softly. "Hey, what've you got to moan about?" Bruce griped. "You totally poached, man."
"Don't worry, she's only interested in my visions, not my body." Johnny made a face. "Like so many, these days."
Bruce grinned and said, "Thanks, I do feel better. Meanwhile," he said, turning back to the Conan Doyle exhibit, "how much you want to bet it was this ouija board that—"
"No, don't!" Johnny said, grabbing Bruce's arm just as he touched—
—a flash of light, very very bright. Spinning around, up and down, dust motes everywhere, fading, falling into the dark. Flailing with his cane—and then suddenly he is steady, on his feet and standing in a library, but not the same library. This room is oak-paneled and high-ceilinged, with velvet drapes and thick red Persian carpets. He is standing next to a round table; five formally-dressed men are seated around it. All are wearing beards or mustaches. They are staring down at the ouija board—the same ouija board as in the University exhibition, but newer, brighter—which has been carefully placed in the center of the table.
Johnny looks up and sees two women hovering nervously at the far side of the dim room, clutching each other; they are both wearing full length dresses with ruffles at the hems and sleeves that go all the way down to their wrists. One woman's cuff is edged with a pale blue ribbon, the sight of which makes Johnny shudder. The little girl's ribbons were white.
Johnny's heart kicks into super-high-gear at the sound of the familiar voice. He turns and—impossibly, incredibly, Bruce is standing behind him, wearing a nubby brown suit that buttons almost to the knot of his—his tie? More hilariously, Bruce is wearing a brown felt bowler hat. The room and everything in it has the slightly blurred edge that marks this as a vision, and Bruce's presence here makes everything simultaneously more normal-feeling and more bizarre.
"Man, look at yourself," Johnny whispers to Bruce, and Bruce takes a moment away from gaping at the room around him to glance down at himself.
"Me?" Bruce glances up at Johnny again. "What about you?"
Johnny looks down and discovers that he, too, is wearing a suit, except his is topped by some kind of tweed cape. "Okay, this is weird," Johnny says. A moment later he realizes that his cane is still solidly in his hand, and that's reassuring anyway. Cane, check. Weird-ass cape, check—
"Are we in one of your visions?" Bruce whispers nervously. "Because, man, I hate that."
"I don't know," Johnny says. He looks around, tries to take it all in. "I mean, I think so. Gotta be. I—" and then the most amazing thing happens. One of the men sitting at the table turns and looks straight at them, then says, in a strained voice, "Sirs. Please..."
Johnny freezes, and he feels Bruce grabbing hold of his cape. Holy crap, this guy can see them! The other men at the table explode into eager speech, and clutch at each other with nervous hands. "Is anyone there?" "Doctor, do you see someone?" "Sir, are you having a vision?"
At the word, Johnny and Bruce exchange startled glances. And suddenly, Johnny is struck by the absurdity of the situation; the men at the table clutching at each other, Bruce clutching at him. This is all just nuts.
"I—" The man continues to stare. "Yes," and the room erupts in exclamations of wonder. One of the women looks like she is about to faint; she is practically being held up by the other. "Though I hardly know whether to name it fancy or hallucination. The boundary between the imagination and the Spirit World is terrifyingly thin."
"Brother," Bruce breathes into Johnny's ear, "you don't know the half of it."
One of the other men leans forward eagerly. "Arthur, please; do tell us what you see," and it's only then that it really sinks in. This here, this young man in the threadbare suit—this is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Or rather, he's going to be.
"I see two men," Conan Doyle says plainly. "Standing right there," and in his ear, Bruce is muttering, "Okay, that's enough, John, make it stop, make it stop." But Johnny can't make it stop.
The other men at the table blankly turn to look where Conan Doyle is looking—which is to say, right where he and Bruce are standing. One man, summoning his courage, raises a hand and waves it toward them. Johnny isn't surprised to see the hand pass right through him, but Bruce yelps and stumbles back like he's seen something shocking.
"All right, that's it!" Bruce yells, slicing at the air with his hand. "Stop the vision, I want to get off!"
But Johnny doesn't control his visions; he never has. If he and Bruce are here, then there's a reason for it, and they have to figure out what it is. Yelling about it won't help. "Bruce, I—"
But Conan Doyle is two steps ahead of him, out of his chair and appealing to Bruce with outstretched hands. "Please, sir; don't go. We are in desperate need of your assistance."
See? Johnny wants to say to Bruce. Even Conan Doyle's with the program. "What can we do to help?" Johnny asks.
"A child is missing," Conan Doyle says desperately, and this seems to push the pale woman past her limits. She crumples to the floor, apparently passing out. "Doctor, please!" the other woman calls, and Doyle rushes to her. He dispatches someone for smelling salts and someone else for water, and while his attention is divided, Johnny seizes the moment to have a quick word with Bruce.
"That vision I had before," Johnny says, dropping his voice to a whisper. "It was of a little girl. She was being smothered with a pillow."
"Oh man," Bruce breathes. "So not good...."
The woman has been carried to a sofa and, around her, the room is settling down. The young Conan Doyle rises and, watched closely by the other men, approaches Johnny and Bruce skittishly, like they might just vanish into thin air. If only.
"The child in question, sirs," Conan Doyle explains, "was given life by that poor woman over there, Mrs. Elmore by name. She is wife to the fine gentleman beside her, Colonel Oliver Elmore." A glance in that direction shows that Colonel Elmore is more than a few years older than his missus; in fact, he could be her grandfather. Creepy Victorians, Johnny thinks.
Nodding and smiling tightly, Bruce edges up next to Johnny, looking ridiculous in his suit. "Let's get this show on the road, okay? Touch something for the man."
Johnny frowns. "It doesn't work that way. Not normally, anyway. Normally, I don't get visions within—"
"Yeah, well, normally I am not standing next to you cooling my jets," Bruce retorts, and okay, yeah, he has a point. "Touch something for the man!"
Conan Doyle is looking from one to the other of them in some confusion. "Sirs, please, I don't understand."
"Believe me, we don't understand either," Johnny says, and blows out a breath. "All right—can you bring me something that belongs to the missing girl? Something small. Something I can touch."
He isn't surprised when they bring him a white hair ribbon. The room has gone silent; the men huddled with the women on the far side of the room, watching with amazed eyes and open mouths. Conan Doyle approaches them nervously, holding a silver tray with the ribbon on it. At the last moment, he seems to buckle, shoves the tray onto the table, and backs away. It's like he's afraid to touch them—and frankly, Johnny's relieved.
Johnny hesitates before the tray. "Let's see what you got, man," Bruce says encouragingly, and Johnny picks up the ribbon. He hears the shouts—"Good Lord!" "See how it rises!" "Get back! Get back!"—just before he—
—The little girl screams, as the plum-colored pillow comes down over her face. Her arms are flailing, but now her screams are eerily muffled. He is pushing down—harder!—harder!—god, let it be quick!—
—He looks down and sees his wide, flat wrists emerging out of ruffled sleeves. The world flips upside down again and he is walking through the night, through the trees, carrying the dead weight of the child in his arms. Dear Lord, she is so heavy. The grass under his feet looks black in the moonlight, and the trees ahead are twisted against the gray sky.—
—Another flip, and now he's himself again, standing in the woods in the darkness and watching the sobbing woman bury the child with a garden spade. She looks up for a moment, and the moonlight catches her teary, earth-streaked face. Johnny doesn't know her—except perhaps he does know her—
—The earth flips again and—
"John. John," and at the sound of Bruce's voice, Johnny lets the ribbon slip from his fingertips. He's sweating and a little bit dizzy; it's terrible slipping from one vision into another. Like boxes within boxes, and he's suddenly claustrophobic.
"She's already dead," Johnny says, and his voice comes out as a croak. Conan Doyle looks aghast at the news. "I know where she's buried. I think I can take you there."
The men, carrying torches and spades, light Johnny's way through the thick woodlands which cover the southernmost part of the estate. Johnny's in the lead, navigating mainly by instinct and partly from the hits he's getting as he brushes against various twigs and branches; Conan Doyle is right behind him. Bringing up the rear, Bruce is muttering about how this is the last damn time he takes Johnny to a supernatural anything. Even Stephen King movies are gonna be off-limits from this point on.
He knows the tree when he sees it, not only because it's at the exact same angle as it was in his vision but also because the earth has been terribly disturbed at the tree's base. Johnny stops and looks beseechingly at Conan Doyle, who nods in silent reply and turns to the other men.
"Here," he says. His spade digs into the earth with a sickening sound.
Johnny stands there, both hands balanced atop his cane, and watches grimly as the men get to work. Behind him, Bruce paces back and forth, hugging himself, coming in and out of Johnny's peripheral vision.
Conan Doyle suddenly jerks backwards and drops his spade. "Dearest Lord in Heaven," he whispers, like he hadn't really believed in any of it until now. He waves to stop the digging, then he and another man drop to their knees and scrabble at the loose earth with their fingertips. Johnny's fingers clutch tightly at his silver cane head. Beside him, Bruce has finally gone still, his jaw tight.
Johnny sees her foot first, a dainty, dirt-begrimed girl's foot, the ankle turned at an unnatural angle. Something in him deflates; he'd been hoping, somehow, to be wrong, even though he knows that his visions are never wrong. Still, it's strange that he should have been given no chance to change things—but everything about this particular vision has been strange.
One of the men gasps and turns away, covering his face with his hands. Johnny hears a sob and sees two of the other men gently restraining the Colonel. Conan Doyle carefully brushes the remaining dirt away from the girl's body—clad in what was once a white nightdress—before bending to inspect it, and then Bruce is brushing past him and bending down to look for himself.
Johnny feels oddly off-kilter; something's wrong here. He can feel it.
"Hey, John?" Bruce sounds confused. "Didn't you say...?"
"What?" Johnny asks. He is desperately trying to ignore the Colonel's escalating sobs of grief.
Bruce glances up at him. "You did say smothered, didn't you?"
Johnny's throat is so tight he can barely speak. "Yes. With a pillow."
Bruce looks down at the body again, shaking his head slowly. "This girl was not smothered, John."
"Smothered?" Conan Doyle repeats, sounding surprised. "Indeed not. Look at the ligature marks—"
"Yeah, I see them," Bruce says. "And here, where the larynx is crushed—this is strangulation, man. Textbook."
Johnny ignores their medical talk and leans over to look. The girl is deathly white in the light of the torches, and has what looks like a rash around her throat. Bruce and Conan Doyle are murmuring to each other about the signs of strangulation—congestion, cyanosis, petechiae—but as far as Johnny's concerned, they're missing the forest for the trees.
This isn't the same girl.
"Bruce." This girl is older than the one that he saw in his vision, seven or eight rather than four or five. Older, but with the same dark hair, the same white nightgown and ribbons.... "Bruce, this isn't—"
Two men hoist the openly-weeping Colonel to his feet, propping him between them. "My darling. My angel...."
—and Johnny flashes on the teary woman burying the child with her garden spade. So familiar, though he's sure he's never seen her before. Like this little girl, familiar but different.
And suddenly, Johnny understands everything, and he tries to grasp the Colonel's lapels—but his hands pass right through the old man.
"You have another daughter, don't you?" Johnny yells, but the Colonel doesn't answer; the Colonel can't see or hear him. He whirls on Conan Doyle instead: "For God's sake, hurry! We've got to get back to the house!"
They leave the Colonel and another man with the body and race back through the darkness toward the house. As it looms up in front of them, Johnny sees a single light burning in a top floor turret.
"Quick," Johnny pants, and it isn't fair; his leg is aching even in this goddamned dream. "The nursery!—" and once given this direction, Conan Doyle takes the lead, pushing open the door into the mudroom and racing up the servants' stairs. The other two men and Bruce are right behind him, and Johnny limps upward after them, climbing as fast as he can, grimacing all the while.
He's on the landing, only a half a flight behind, when the shouting starts. "My God, Lydia! Stop!" Conan Doyle cries out, and Johnny hears the first shrill shriek of the madwoman's voice. He puts on a burst of speed and makes it up the final half-flight, but is nearly knocked down the stairs by the little girl hurtling into him—the right girl, perhaps five years old, with white ribbons in her long, dark hair. She bangs into him so hard that the muscles of his already-trembling legs nearly give out, and he makes a desperate grab for the banister just as she barrels past him, flying down the steps and screaming for her mother.
Johnny's clinging to the railing and waiting for his heart to stop pounding when Conan Doyle runs out of the nursery. "Charlotte!" he calls, looking around wildly. "Damn and blast, where is the child?"
"Gone downstairs," Johnny manages, tilting his head toward the staircase. "She's all right, I think." He uses his cane to steady himself, then limps doggedly past Conan Doyle and through the door of the nursery. Bruce looks at him with horror in his eyes. Beyond him, two men are struggling to restrain a writhing, screaming woman—the woman from his vision, the woman with the familiar features.
The Colonel's features.
"Eldest daughter, right?" Johnny frames it as a question, but that's just a courtesy. He knows he's right. "By a first wife."
"Yes." Conan Doyle sounds shocked and exhausted; man, but does Johnny know that feeling. "The first Mrs. Elmore died some years ago. Influenza. This is her only daughter, Lydia."
The nursery is done in various shades of purple, from lavender to aubergine. A plum-colored pillow lays abandoned by Lydia Elmore's feet.
Johnny turns to look Conan Doyle in the eye. "She murdered her sister."
Conan Doyle has pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and is mopping his forehead. "Yes. And would have killed the other had we not got here in time. I am eternally in your debt, sir. As is Colonel Elmore, though I doubt he grasps that now."
Bruce scrubs at his face. "Yeah. God help this family. This is way beyond family counseling; this chick needs serious therapy."
"Therapy?" Conan Doyle turns to Bruce curiously. "Precisely what form of therapy do you recommend, Doctor?"
"I—" Bruce looks totally taken aback. "I'm not a— I'm a physical, uh— Look, never mind." He shakes his head as if to clear it. "Just, uh. You want to be keeping your eye out for a Doctor Sigmund Freud. Viennese guy. He's gonna be big, believe me."
"Doctor Sigmund Freud," Conan Doyle repeats solemnly, while in the background Lydia Elmore shrieks, "Charlotte! Where are you, Charlotte? Your sister is waiting for you!"
—The world explodes into a million jagged shards and Johnny is suddenly falling into the darkness, flailing with his cane for balance, whirling head over heels through a spiraling coil of white ribbon and—
Johnny pulled his hand off Bruce's arm just as his legs gave way beneath him. Bruce jerked away from the ouija board and turned to catch him, but he wasn't fast enough—and so Johnny Smith crashed to the floor in a sprawling heap in the middle of Robinson Library.
"Shh. Don't get up yet. Have a little water first."
Johnny sighed and took the glass from Charlie Jacobs' hand. "Thanks," he said and took a sip. He was painfully aware that the atrium was emptying around him as campus security politely directed everyone toward the exits. Now an ambulance would come, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Maybe if he were lucky, the EMT's would know him and say, Oh, it's just Johnny Smith falling down again. "Really, I'm okay. Bruce—tell her."
"Huh?" Bruce, sitting cross-legged on the floor, looked distracted.
Johnny put the glass down and glared at him. "Tell her I'm all right, will you?"
But Bruce just shook his head in a kind of awed wonderment. "Man, you are a lot of things, but 'all right' isn't one of them. Did that—did that really just happen?"
"Yeah." Johnny sighed and let his shoulders fall back against the carpet. He could see the afternoon sky through the atrium's glass ceiling. Neat. "It happened all right."
Charlie Jacobs' pretty face swam into his line of vision, blocking his view, faintly haloed by the sun. "What happened?" she asked, frowning. Her long hair swung down off her shoulder, and Johnny reached up to brush the soft ends with his fingertips. He was expecting a vision. There wasn't one.
"Was your grandmother named Charlotte?" Johnny asked her.
"No," she said, her frown deepening ever so slightly. "Charlotte was my great-grandmother. Why do you ask?"
"Maiden name Elmore?"
"Yes." Her eyes were widening with wonder. "How do you know that?"
Johnny ignored the question, as he so often did. There were only so many times you could say, "I'm a psychic, remember?" before it wasn't funny anymore. "Is that how you got interested in Conan Doyle?" he asked instead.
Charlie Jacobs sat back, like she was seeking a more stable position on the floor. Johnny propped himself up on his elbows and watched her, meanly feeling just the tiniest bit of glee. Her turn to be studied now.
"Yeah," Charlie said finally. "My great-great-grandparents were Spiritualists. In 1886, one of their daughters vanished, and they came to believe that she was haunting their house. They heard strange noises, chains being dragged across the floor, weird moans from the attic..." Johnny felt a sudden chill as he pictured Lydia Elmore moaning and rocking in the upstairs nursery, grieving for her mother, probably feeling displaced by her two new sisters. "So they invited some members of the British Society for Psychical Research up to the house, the young Arthur Conan Doyle among them." Charlie bit her lip. "They all claimed to have some sort of psychic experience that weekend."
"Oh, they had a psychic experience, all right," Bruce deadpanned. "No doubt about it."
"They found the body of a child murdered in the garden," Charlie said.
"Your great-great aunt," Johnny murmured.
"Yes." Charlie looked surprised. "Conan Doyle claimed to have been led to the right spot by spirits, but nobody who wasn't there ever believed him." She shrugged. "Of course, he had his revenge with Sherlock Holmes."
Johnny pushed himself up onto his palms. "What do you mean?"
"That's what started it all. Didn't you know?" She tilted her head toward the Conan Doyle exhibit. "A lot of the details have been changed, but it's clearly the same story. Conan Doyle often used autobiographical—Johnny, wait..."
But Johnny was already scrambling to his feet, and Bruce was right behind him. Steadying himself with his cane and being damned sure not to touch anything, he leaned down and looked at the manuscript.
At the top was written, in a cramped and slanted hand: "A Vision In Scarlet."
"Bruce," Johnny said, feeling like his windpipe was collapsing. "That wasn't—tell me that wasn't like that before."
"That wasn't like that before," Bruce repeated, sounding stunned. "It was—it is, it's 'A Study in Scarlet.'"
"How interesting," Charlie said. "That sounds almost scientific."
Johnny looked at her in horror. "It is scientific! Sherlock Holmes is the most famous practitioner of deductive reasoning in the world! And 'A Study In Scarlet' is..." He trailed off as his eyes focused on a particular place on the page: "Holmes?" I looked up from the poor child's distorted features. "You did say smothered, didn't you?"
"Certainly, Watson," Holmes said impatiently. "My visions are never wrong."
I looked down at the child's milk-white neck, which was hideously scarred by what could only be ligature marks, and shook my head. "This child was not smothered but strangled. The marks are quite distinctive."
"Strangled?" Holmes pushed past me to examine the poor dear girl, sounding rather strangled himself. As his sharp eyes took in the visible evidence, he seemed to become quite as pale as she. "Good God, I've been a fool," Holmes said, grabbing for his cane in a lightning-quick motion. "We must return to the house. Watson, hurry—and bring your pistol!" "Geez, and you were afraid you'd become part of the exhibit," Bruce said numbly, and Johnny sat down and covered his face with his hands until the ambulance arrived.
Author's Note: First of all, please don't kill me. This didn't really happen. It's a story. Send your hate mail someplace else!
Secondly, mostly everything in this story is true, though I've jerry-rigged the dates a bit. The young Conan Doyle was a Spiritualist and a member of the British Society for Psychical Research, though the real life story which inspires this tale took place in 1894 and not 1886, as I have it here. In that year, Conan Doyle and other members of the Society were asked to investigate the haunting of Colonel Elmore's country home in Dorset. To quote:
"At night Elmore, his wife and adult daughter could hear chains being dragged across a wooden floor and moaning that sounded like a soul in torment. The family dog refused to enter certain parts of the home and most of Elmore's staff had left. One night the investigators were disturbed by a "fearsome uproar" but no damage or cause for the noise could be discovered...Later the body of a child, approximately ten years old, was discovered buried in the garden. Conan Doyle became convinced that he really had witnessed psychic phenomena that was caused by the spirit of the dead child. As far as I know, the child's murderer was never found.
Lastly, thank you to all the usual suspects for beta, esp. Terri, Mia, & Shalott.