In book 3 of the Warlock Holmes series, there’s a character—Violet Hunter—who is an obvious link for tie-in stories by whoever wants to write one. So, when they asked me for a macabre, Halloween-worthy short story, she was an obvious choice. Thus…
The Girl at the Back of the Train
The train car gives a sudden lurch. The soldier staggers. The doctor curses. The cobbler wobbles. The eighteen dead men—still chained to the seats, frozen with their final screams of horror upon grey, mummified lips—jostle back and forth. One of them tips over. His head separates from his dehydrated neck and thumps down into the isle. But the next swaying of the train sends it rolling under a seat where nobody will trip over it, so that’s nice.
“Well,” says the engineer, placing both hands to his hips, “this is clearly going to take forever!”
He is not the sort of engineer who drives a train down a railway. He is the sort who builds that railway. Or, in this case, the sort who comes all the way down from France to register displeasure that somebody else is not building it, quite as fast as certain rich gentlemen would like. To say the Orient Express has suffered significant setbacks to its development would lie safely within the realm of understatement. Everybody knows it.
Everybody, except the Eastern Roumelian attaché. He lets forth an audible scoff. “These men? Ha! Disregard them. Remember, these are all filthy Bulgarians. Political prisoners. Malingerers and malcontents who would go to any lengths to see our enterprise fail.”
As he is placating a Frenchman, he speaks in French. This is good for the girl at the back of the train. A Londoner, she is comfortable with French. Less so with Turkish or Bulgarian. In the pockets of her great fur coat, she has books that tell her how to order lunch in either of those languages, or find out where the nearest bathroom happens to be, but these are of little use for the order of the day—ferreting out a supernatural murderer. She’s already decided these men are fools, so she is not watching them. The setting sun, streaming through the windows on the right has cast their four shadows on the wall to the left. She is watching those. She’s rubbing her right leg against the carpeted runner that lines the wall beside her seat. By God, it’s getting tired. She’s been rubbing it against any suitable surface she can find, for the last three days. There’s no damned electricity in this country. She’s making do with static. She sneaks a peek inside her coat at one of the dials on the waist of her electric blue dress. Her capacitors are at less than 15%. If it were twice as high, she’d despair it would never be enough. But what can she do? Three days of building static and this is all she has to show for it…
Judging by his eyebrows and the angry bristling he’s getting his moustache to perform, the Frenchman has not been successfully placated. “Any lengths?” he says. If his tone gets any more dubious, he’ll likely split his pants. “Yes, I would say they were fairly committed to their cause, if they were willing to commit mass suicide in so grotesque a fashion, just to delay construction of a railroad that would bring prosperity to their country. Is that your opinion, doctor? That these men did themselves in, to slow us down?”
The doctor gulps and looks over at the soldier. The soldier gives him a little nod to say that—yes of course—he will be shot if he undermines the authority of the Eastern Roumelian attaché. The doctor licks his lips and mutters, “Well… what other explanation is there? There are no marks upon them. No signs of violence. Perhaps it is the result of a poison? And… erh… as the noble attaché points out, they were Bulgarian.”
“Of course they were Bulgarian!” the Frenchman shouts. “Line up any ten men you find on the street and seven of them will be Bulgarian. Then, after we account for the Greeks, the Armenians, the Gypsies and the Jews, less than two of them will be Turks. I’d say if all these dirty Bulgarians ever stood up at the same time and decided they wanted this fake little country to be a part of Bulgaria, you Turks would have a hell of a fight on your hands, wouldn’t you?”
The soldier nods that this is true. But the Eastern Roumelian attaché raises one finger and protests, “Of course we are not Turks.”
The Frenchman rolls his eyes for the two hundredth time today and indicates the patch on the soldier’s shoulder, the proud crest of the Ottoman Empire.
“Well… He’s on loan,” says the attaché. “But let me assure you: the men with whom you bargain are fully loyal to the country of their birth.”
“Yes, I am certainly gathering that impression,” the French Engineer huffs. “You, for example must be nearly forty and—if I am not mistaken—Eastern Roumalia was created by the stroke of some crazy Englishman’s pen five years ago. At this rate, I do not think it shall endure another five.”
At the back of the train, the loan woman winces. Yes. Her countrymen do seem to have a certain way with maps, don’t they? Divide this, separate that, bargain, bargain, and in the end, how does it turn out?
Generally, not so very well.
The Eastern Roumelian attaché gives his iciest smile and plays his trump card. “Perhaps then, you should go back to Paris and convince the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits to change their slogan to: Luxury train accommodations from Paris to nearly Constantinople.”
“We get them to Constantinople now!” cries the Frenchman in that tone of wounded French pride his countrymen practice so well and so much.
“And you do your best not to advertise the fact that the last hundred miles are not in luxury sleeper cars, but on leaky ferry boats from Varna,” the attaché reminds him. “Let us all strive to remember: you need our help.”
“Who’s help?” The Frenchman thunders. “These men are all dead! There’s five more cars, just like this! This morning, we left Bucharest with over one hundred fit workers. Now, what have we got? One cobbler and your assurance that nothing at all is wrong!”
“Yes,” says the soldier, narrowing his eyes at the skinny young man who stands beside him, “one cobbler…”
“I hope you are not implying, sir, that I had anything to do with this!” says the cobbler. “I am only here as a gesture of good will, to make shoes for the workmen. Let me tell you, now that I see what I’ve gotten into, I have no desire to go. Let whatever workmen still survive at the camp have these fellows’ shoes and you can take me back home!”
The Frenchman harrumphs. “Unless we accept the honored attaché’s assertion that one hundred men, chained in separate train cars, orchestrated their own simultaneous slaughter, perhaps it is not unwise we ask of the single survivor to tell us what he saw, eh?”
“I told you: I saw nothing!” the cobbler insists. “All the lights went out and the screaming started. I was the only man who was not chained, so I hid under my seat. When the lights came back…” The cobbler gestures around him, at the desiccated corpses.
“I find it most suspicious,” says the soldier.
At the back of the car, the lone woman rolls her eyes. That’s what he finds suspicious? She watches the shadows and rubs the wall.
“Look, we were all on the train,” the cobbler protests. “Any of us might have done it.”
“But so far as we know,” says the Frenchman, “you were the only one back here. The rest of us were in the front with the engineer and crew.”
“What about her?” the cobbler demands, pointing at the lone woman. “She might have done it!”
“She did not do it. She is here to help,” says the Frenchman, in a tone that leaves no doubt as to exactly how helpful he has found her. “My employer has sought aid from many diverse avenues. It seems they asked the noted English Wizard, Mr. Warlock Holmes, to come down and do magical battle with whatever has been killing off all your workmen. The honored gentleman, it seems, could not be bothered. Instead he sent Miss Hunter, there. One tiny woman, unescorted, and he seemed confident she would solve all our problems.”
Violet bristles at this. It’s the third time he’s pointed out she has no companion. As if the most alarming thing about the current situation is that one lone woman should entrust herself to the company of so many swarthy foreign men. Her eyes flick to the engineer. “I am not unescorted.”
“So you keep saying.”
“Wit and Fortune are always with me, sir, and you may have occasion to be glad of it, before long.”
For just a second, it looks as if she is going to have a particularly saucy answer to that.
But then the lights go out. Even the sunlight vanishes.
The screaming starts. It does not last long. Three astonished exclamations of alarm. One strangled scream. The sudden stink of vinegar. The shattering of glass and the unexpected blast of fresh, cold air.
The lights come back on.
Now there are but three shadows on the wall.
“What has happened?” cries the doctor. “Where did the soldier go?”
Before anyone can reply, he finds the answer himself by tripping backwards over the dried corpse that lays across the aisle.
“Mon dieu!” says the engineer.
“What is going on?” says the attaché. For the first time he looks worried. He has the power to deny that anything is happening. But if he is wrong—as everybody knows he is—has he any power to stop what is happening?
“By God, he was right beside me!” wails the cobbler.
“His rifle! What happened to his rifle?” the doctor says.
Violet Hunter gives a grim nod. It’s the only piece of good news she’s had in the last two days. She looks at the broken window, just behind the Engineer. Well, well… Where could the rifle have gone? The situation seems to be moving towards a confrontation long before she is ready, but at least she has this: the creature is afraid of guns.
She looks down at her gauge. Still not quite 15%. Ah well. It will have to do. The first time she wore the electric dress, it was meant to be the instrument of her execution. Now, with a few choice modifications from the genius, Tesla, it shall perhaps be the instrument of her salvation. Funny, how this big wide world is coming together… She met him in Paris, where this rail company is headquartered. Yet he is an Armenian—he hails from very nearly the spot she’s in, now. And it is not an ideal spot, if she’s honest. Oh well, she thinks, let’s see if the native son can save me. She flips the capacitor switch on her periwinkle blue, electric blue dress from charge to discharge. She stands.
“I have been listening to your foolish opinions for three days,” she says, “and they keep getting worse and worse. I’m sure our friend the attaché will happily attribute all our present misfortunes to the character of the Bulgarians. The doctor is so clearly under his influence that he will concoct—in his mind—a poison that can suck the very life and moisture from its victim in only seconds, though he knows no such thing exists. All of you seem willing to believe that it is no strange thing for all the light—even sunlight—to wink out, as if we had just gone into a tunnel. You know there are no tunnels, here. You refuse to believe I have any expertise in such matters, for my area is the supernatural and you all believe such concerns to be pure fiction. Yet you also believe you are the last four living men in this train car. Is that correct?”
“Well… Yes,” says the attaché.
“I see,” says Violet Hunter. “Then perhaps you can tell me: if the supernatural possibility is pure poppycock, if there are four living men standing in the center of this car, why are there only three shadows on the wall?”
“Eh?” the men wonder. Their eyes look down to their feet, follow their shadows up onto the wall, and they realize they are indeed one shadow shy.
The doctor has one.
The engineer has one as well.
The attaché, too.
The cobbler gives an angry hiss.
And the lights go out.
Violet knew they would. How could he ignore a challenge like that? The moment is come. In her mind, she is certain the cobbler knows how to drink the life-force from a man, in only seconds. It is possible he may even know something about the construction and maintenance of shoes. But does he know anything about electricity? Time to find out. She flicks a switch at her waist and the room fills with a barely-audible tweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
And he’s on her. She didn’t know whether she’d feel arms or teeth, but the thing that touches her is neither. It’s wet. It stinks of vinegar. It starts to wrap itself around her, like an octopus’s tentacle. No, two or three tentacles, at least. There’s a pulpy mass of it, just in front of her and several cold, wet appendages around her. There is no life in them, no heat or hope. They want hers. They want to drink it out of her.
But she’s got something else for them. Violet thrusts both hands forward, onto the strange wet thing. There’s a flash and a crack.
The tentacles slide away.
The spell is disrupted.
The sunlight comes back.
In the middle of the car stand the four men.
Three and a half.
The cobbler is headless, his body sags in the arms of the doctor who—as the light returns—stares down into the gaping neck of his countryman and stammers, “He… He is hollow.”
And no wonder. Much closer to Violet, down at her end of the car, floats the cobbler’s disembodied head. There are several vertebrae visible, dangling from the bottom. Attached to these by flaps of membranous viscera are most of his internal organs. Violet is sure she can pick out the stomach, because there it is at the bottom of his throat. His lungs are easy to spot, as well, for they are the greyish-pink sacks that inflate and deflate in that familiar way. Oh! And that big reddish organ on his right must be the liver. Violet knows all about those. Her parents taught her. Those are the things that fail on you and leave your two children orphans if all you ever eat is whiskey. Below that hang numerous loops of intestines which, doubtless, were the probing tentacles she’d felt in the darkness.
But then, the dress had been due for a wash, anyway.
The head of the cobbler is bobbing about in midair with… quite literally… a shocked expression on its face. Violet has no idea what sort of thing she’s looking at. But she does know this: she hasn’t killed it. They’re standing there just feet apart, dumbly staring at each other, and in probably just a moment, one of them is going to attack.
She makes sure it’s her.
Her hands bolt down into the fur muff she wears at her waist. It has two purposes. It keeps her hands cozy in the cold mountainous air. It also houses her two escorts. From either side, she pulls forth a copper-coated Webley-Pryse revolver, custom made for her by a fellow she kissed once, and his disreputable room-mate. The barrel of the pistol in her right hand is emblazoned with the word Wit. On the left, Fortune.
Violet takes a few steps forward, yanking back the triggers with a businesslike rhythm. Left, right, left, right, until the hammers click against spent cartridges. Twelve deadly .455 rounds fly forth, smashing into her enemy.
Not only her enemy.
Three of the mummified corpses have grand new holes in them.
The French engineer slaps at the sleeve of his coat, desperately swiping away the dusty coating of cheek-and-moustache spray that have recently come to rest there. But that’s his fault. He shouldn’t have been standing so close to the other victims if he didn’t want mummy bits all over him.
The Eastern Roumelian attaché keeps shifting his gaze back and forth between Violet and the growing red stain on his trouser leg, displaying an increasing level of horror and recrimination with each subsequent transit.
“Well…” says Violet, with a defensive sniff, “I can’t be expected to be perfect at everything, can I?”
Yet the most disturbing outcome must be this: the creature is not down. She’s sure she hit it. She saw the liver shake, watched a few loops of intestine forced back by the impact of her rounds, saw one lung dent inward, like a balloon poked by a toddler’s finger. She even saw the Cobbler turn his head and grimace in fury as one bullet struck just below his eye. But to what effect? If anything, her barrage seems only to have stirred him from his stupor. There is no damage. By the smell of things, all his internal organs seem to have been pickled in vinegar, until they have reached some sort of preternatural, rubbery invulnerability.
Why did he get rid of the soldier’s rifle?
Why is he scared of guns?
She hit most of his vital organs, didn’t she?
“The heart!” Violet shouts. “Where is the heart?”
The question is met with quizzical looks from the engineer and attaché, and a horrified scream from the doctor who—gazing down into the depths of the cobbler’s torso, seems to have identified something which offends his sensibilities.
Yes. There is her target.
Of course, both of Violet’s guns are empty now. She hits first one thumb release, and then the other, and yanks the Webleys’ barrels down. Twelve brass cartridges rattle onto the floor.
Which is good. But do you know what would have been better? Maybe she should have put one of the guns away. Maybe she should not have reached into the fur coat’s copious pockets for spare bullets with the guns still in her hands. Maybe she should have concentrated on loading one pistol and not the other.
As it is, she’s fumbling with not only two handfuls of bullets, but two handfuls of gun. She’s only slid a few rounds home, when the creature’s intestines wrap around her arms and neck.
She reaches up to grab them with her left hand, letting Fortune dangle by its trigger guard from her index finger. She uses another of Tesla’s tricks. Human muscles, it seems, are stimulated by electrical activity from the brain. And, on any given effort, only a small percentage of the muscle fibers are used. Then again, it doesn’t take much current to make sure they all fire, when needed. The strength with which Violet Hunter flings the Cobbler’s head and organs to the far end of the train car astounds everyone. The engineer cries out when the tangled ball of organs flies past. The doctor gasps. The attaché faints. Though—in his defense—he’s lost a fairly consequential amount of blood.
Violet’s arm is screaming. Tesla’s innovation can greatly increase the strength of her muscles, it is true. But not the tendons. Not the bone. Sufficient force will, of course, separate one from the other. He’s given her more than ample power to tear herself apart, if she’s not carful. And if truth be told, she has not been careful. How much damage has she done to herself? And—almost as bad—she can tell she’s got no opportunity to do any more. Her capacitors are empty. She’s on her own.
No time to worry about it, now.
The cobbler’s head hits the far wall and immediately springs back towards Violet. They both know they’re in a race. At the center of the car lies his body—lies his still-beating heart—the reason this creature is afraid of mortal weapons.
His head regroups itself and charges her body. Her body charges his, tipping the barrel of each Webley back into place as she runs. She’s there a moment before him, tackling his mortal form from the arms of the doctor as she readies her guns. Her friend, Dr. Watson, cut the barrels down, as well as the handles, to suit Violet’s small frame. The weapons kept much of their power, but their precision suffered greatly. No matter. She won’t be missing, now. She presses the barrels of both pistols against her enemy’s chest.
Oh, but do you know what she should have done?
She probably should have paid attention to where she was putting those bullets. There are just so many chambers, you know. Did she… um… did she happen to place the rounds at the top of the cylinder? The part that would spin away from the barrel if the hammer were pulled back?
Horrible loops of intestine wrap around her neck now. It is not their force that strangles the breath from her, but their nature. They are cold. They are unlife. The living cannot endure their touch.
She’s got no eyesight, now—no sense of the living world. She is falling. Falling through the ashen void. She’s got no memory of her own self. No love. No sadness. No hope of future prospects.
But there is a part of her—somewhere between her failing mind and her finger muscles—that remembers the task at hand. Simple, repetitive movements which have become second nature are the last things to stop. Which is lucky for everybody aboard.
Or… Almost everybody.
Click, Bang! Bang! Bang!
The cobbler’s head gives a hiss of protest. The intestine tentacles relax and begin to fall away. Violet thrashes herself free, with the little strength that remains to her. She collapses forward onto the chest of her enemy, panting.
She stays there for some time, fighting to make her body breathe. After a few moments, she pushes herself to a sitting position.
“Well,” she says, in a trembling voice, “that’s done.”
She raises one forearm and daubs some vinegar, some blood, and a rather unladylike quantity of perspiration from her brow. She stumbles to her feet. She’s shaking. She might just topple over. But then, if she can stagger past five more cars of dead men, she’ll have made it to the dining carriage.
And that will be worth it.
She rather fancies a cup of tea.
As she totters past the slack-jawed engineer and doctor, she mutters, “Good day, gentlemen. Warlock Holmes sends his regards.”
Warlock Holmes - A Study in Brimstone
Publisher: Titan Books
Publication Date: May 17, 2016
Tagline: Sherlock Holmes is a genius … Warlock Holmes is something else …
Sherlock Holmes is an unparalleled genius. Warlock Holmes is an idiot. A font of arcane power, certainly. But he’s brilliantly dim.
Frankly, he couldn’t deduce his way out of a paper bag. The only thing he has really got going for him are the might of a thousand demons and his stalwart companion.
Thankfully, Dr. Watson is always there to aid him through the treacherous shoals of Victorian propriety… and save him from a gruesome death every now and again.
Warlock Holmes - The Hell-Hound of the Baskervilles
Publisher: Titan Books
Publication Date: May 16, 2017
Tagline: Sherlock Holmes is a genius … Warlock Holmes is something else …
The game’s afoot once more as Holmes and Watson face off against Moriarty’s gang, the Pinkertons, flesh-eating horses, a parliament of imps, boredom, Surrey, a disappointing butler demon, a succubus, a wicked lord, an overly-Canadian lord, a tricycle-fight to the death and the dreaded Pumpcrow. Oh, and a hell hound, one assumes.
Warlock Holmes - My Grave Ritual
Publisher: Titan Books
Publication Date: May 15, 2018
Tagline: Sherlock Holmes is a genius … Warlock Holmes is something else …
As they blunder towards doom, Warlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson find themselves inconvenienced by a variety of eldritch beings. Christmas brings a goose that doesn't let being cooked slow it down; they meet an electricity demon, discover why being a redhead is even tricker than one might imagine, and Holmes attempts an Irish accent. And, naturally, Moriarty is hanging around... in some form or other.
About the Author:
G.S. Denning furiously studied reading and math until he could play Dungeons and Dragons. His love of DandD expanded to a passion for all things in the sci-fi and fantasy realm, particularly when spliced with comedy - Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Monty Python, Red Dwarf, Black Adder, Whose Line is it Anyway, Dr. Who, and the holiest of holies: The Princess Bride.
He learned his story-telling skills on the improv stage as a member of Orlando Theatersports, Seattle Theatersports, Jet City Improv, and as a Disney Performer at Epcot. G.S. also worked for Nintendo and Wizards of the Coast.
Finally, after realizing that humanity had not used the pun Warlock Holmes yet, he sat down to begin his first novel series: a dark-comic retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic Sherlock Holmes stories. G.S. Lives in Las Vegas with The Best Wife and The Best Children.
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