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Of all the affairs that Sherlock Holmes investigated, none was stranger nor more frightening than that of The Giant Rat of Sumatra. Holmes referred to it in the case of The Sussex Vampire as “a story for which the world is not yet prepared”. Only recently did he give his reluctant consent to its publication, conceding that enough time had passed to ensure the families of the seamen involved could no longer be offended.
[private]On the first day of the first week in November, in the year 1899, the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows all day. The day following, a dense yellow fog settled upon London. It would continue a week. Holmes was chafing against inaction. “Nothing of interest in the papers, Watson?” he asked.
“Well, there is this minor mystery.” I took from my pocket something I had scissored from the Times and handed it to Holmes. He read the headnote and chuckled. “Great minds . . .” he said, retrieving from his pocket a clipping which he handed to me. It was the identical item.
“We are both interested in the fact that the ‘Matilda Briggs’ is overdue,” said I.
“Two weeks overdue. That’s the strange part,” replied Holmes.
And then occurred one of those coincidences that happen more in life than in literature. A ring at the door revealed Inspector Lestrade with yet a third identical clipping in his hand. He handed it to Holmes producing an actual laugh, and not merely a chuckle, which only such a coincidence could bring forth from the normally sober Holmes. We both waved our identical clippings at Lestrade.
“Well, well, we know what we are about,” exclaimed Lestrade. “I’ve got a four-wheeler waiting to take us to the wharf.”
“The wharf?” I inquired.
“Where the ship ‘Matilda Briggs’ is under quarantine.”
“Sickness?” queried Holmes, as we emerged from our snug residence into the London fog.
“I wish I knew for sure,” answered Lestrade.
We had hardly taken our places in the cab before the driver whipped up his horse and we plunged away at a furious pace through the fog-wreathed streets.
Holmes turned to Lestrade, “And the ‘Matilda Briggs’ has been under quarantine for two weeks. That’s why it is reported as ‘overdue’?”
“A week. The ship was berthed a week ago after it was found adrift off the English coast, a week overdue. We had to put aboard a crew to berth her.”
Holmes was on him at once. “What happened to the crew of the ‘Matilda Briggs’?”
“Disappeared,” Lestrade said softly. “Vanished without a trace.”
“Small wonder they could not report its arrival,” observed Holmes. “And what have you discovered in your week of investigation?”
“Not a great deal,” replied the detective, ill at ease. “The ship has been fog-bound for days and the investigation was not helped by a curious preference on the part of my men to be away from the scene and involved in other assignments.”
“Ah, and so you decided to bring Watson and myself into the case.”
“Yes, Holmes. This is a deucer.”
The rest of the way to the wharf passed in silence. I listened to the sound of the cab’s wheels and the rhythmic clip-clop of the horse’s hooves. Holmes was lost in thought. Lestrade fidgeted impatiently.
Once aboard the ship, Holmes was a different man from the limp and lounging figure who had prowled so restlessly round our fog-girt rooms only a short time before. He seemed entirely in his element. In contrast, I was still in a morose mood. For the fog-shrouded ship was empty, had been found empty, had stood empty. “Like standing on the deck of the ‘Flying Dutchman’, I grumbled.
“We have done your tale one better,” said Lestrade. “We’ve got one remaining crewman. Found him dead.”
Holmes was immediately alert “Where is he?”
“Oh, I had him removed from the ship on the first day. For health reasons. Dead of some disease, I presume. The same that killed the rest.”
“So you are convinced it was a disease that emptied the ship?”
“What else? The ‘Matilda Briggs’ sailed from Sumatra. A plague, like as not. Probably malaria.”
“Not likely an illness,” said Holmes. “With illness you find bodies. The ship was empty save for the one sailor. Where was he found?”
“In the crow’s nest. Some of the ships still carry them.”
“I certainly would have liked to see the body,” mused Holmes.
“You didn’t miss much. Only one unusual aspect. There were large, incisor-like markings on the body, as if he had been attacked by a bat. A large bat. Or a vampire.” This last was likely an attempt at levity on the part of the usually severe Lestrade. “In any event, a malaria-carrying creature, no doubt.”
“Maybe an incisored albatross,” I contributed my own bit of drollery.
Holmes ignored our comments, although I noticed his lips purse in disapproval of them, particularly of mine, I felt, since Holmes generally considered humour superfluous, especially during an investigation. “I regret exceedingly that I could not see those marks. I will have to do with your description, Lestrade. I would like to see the crow’s nest, however.”
Lestrade shook his head in disapproval. “Holmes, I recommend saving yourself the climb. There was nothing there of relevance.”
“I prefer to come to my own conclusion.”
Lestrade shrugged and gestured upward to where the crow’s nest was scarcely visible against the grey sky.
To my relief, Holmes requested that I not accompany him. He no doubt considered my old wound from the Afghan war. Holmes waved down from the crow’s nest. With his hawk-like features, he looked like a fierce bird of prey. Then he disappeared from view.
“What’s he doing?” asked Lestrade.
“He has bent down to examine the area with his magnifying glass for evidence,” I answered, privy to the great detective’s methodology.
Lestrade shook his head in dismissal of Holmes’ methodology.
“Find anything,” he asked sceptically, when Holmes descended.
“Yes. An inscription on the wall, surely by the deceased. Two letters, written in his blood, and written, I would say, in terror.”
“Terror?” exclaimed Lestrade.
“Yes, they were scrawled as if in terror or panic. Two letters: GI.”
“Ah, I recall now that the constable who climbed up there did say something about two red letters with those initials. He speculated that the man had been trying to write the word ‘gin’, that he wanted a drink.”
“Not enough to write it in blood,” replied Holmes, “even for an Englishman.”
I rather appreciated the ‘even for an Englishman’ quip, Holmes’ indulging in humour was so rare. I wasn’t sure it was humour.
Somewhere from the direction of the ship’s stern there came a sound, like some great creature scurrying. Holmes’ suddenly alert pose showed that he had heard it, also. Lestrade frowned. “We heard that sound, too, a couple of times. Rats, probably.”
“If so, no ordinary rats,” Holmes concluded.
Suddenly he stooped and picked up something from the deck. It appeared to be a long piece of bristle. Holmes peered at it for a moment.
“I can tell you what that is, Holmes,” ventured Lestrade. “A brush bristle. There are no sailors in the world that can top our British lads when it comes to sweeping the decks.”
Holmes examined the bristle under his glass. “No, this filament is not from a brush. Do you have the cargo manifest, Lestrade?”
Lestrade did. “Jute and sundries. No animals,” he pronounced, divining Holmes’ direction.
The strangest look formed on Holmes’ face. It was there only a moment. “What is it?” I asked him.
“Only something, some legend about Sumatra, involving a fearful – I cannot recall what creature.”
The lower jowl of Lestrade’s bulldog face tightened. “I should have brought along some constables, but I wanted to keep this thing as quiet as possible.”
I surmised Lestrade wanted to take credit for any success Holmes might achieve in solving the case without witnesses to dispute him. He knew Holmes was above caring about such ‘honours’. The resolution of the conundrum was sufficient reward.
“Watson and I are armed. So are you, I trust.”
The little detective smiled. “A long as I have my trousers, I have a hip-pocket, and as long as I have my hip-pocket, I have something in it.”
“Well, then, we should be able to handle it – whatever ‘it’ is. I want to check the captain’s cabin. Maybe the log will reveal something.”
The log revealed nothing. “I’m not surprised, Holmes,” Lestrade said. “An entry in a captain’s log about a fearful bat wouldn’t impress the captain’s shipping company.”
“Maybe he didn’t have time to make an entry. Whatever it was that killed the sailor would have been upon him before he could enter anything. Or maybe he was too frightened.”
“It’s a giant mystery, alright,” nodded Lestrade.
Holmes jerked his head up as if he had been galvanised by an electric shock.
“That’s it! The letters. The ‘GI’. The poor man was trying to write the word ‘giant’.”
Lestrade turned white. “If you are trying to frighten me, Holmes, you are doing a good job.”
And then there occurred something totally unexpected, something that in retrospect, all that had taken place on the ship so far should have prepared us for — and yet how could anything have prepared us for it? A grey-brown appendage suddenly shot through the open doorway.
The look on Holmes’ pale face was of greater horror than I had ever seen him express before. The faces of Lestrade and I surely bore a similar expression.
“A snake!” shouted Lestrade.
The snake in ‘The Speckled Band’ shot through my mind, but this creature was far larger than that snake had been. More electrifying yet was the huge eye that above it peered in at us through the doorway. My mind grasped immediately that a ‘devil-fish’, a giant squid, was attempting to tentacle its way into the cabin.
Holmes reacted first, drawing his pistol and shooting four shots. The eye and paw, for that was what the appendage revealed itself to be, a huge paw, withdrew at once from the doorway.
The three of us stood amazed. Then Holmes cautiously stepped through the doorway, pistol ready.
“Come on out,” he said in a voice promising safety.
Lestrade and I emerged cautiously.
Bloody splotches led to the side of the ship. A glimpse of a dark, shapeless blur was followed immediately by a huge sound of something vast entering the water. The upper fountain of a great splash could be seen momentarily. Holmes ran in its direction. We followed.
Waves buffeted the side of the ship and some splotches of blood on the sea’s surface indicated where the giant rat had plunged.
“That is what the legend told of,” exclaimed Holmes, remembering. “The giant Sumatran rat.”
Our Baker Street premises seemed protective indeed after the adventure which had befallen us.
“As I see it, then, Holmes, the last sailor ran to seek refuge in the crow’s nest after being bitten. He died from loss of blood or, after a time, disease. In his weakness, he left us only his partial explanation. The rest of the crew were so terrified that they leapt off the ship without lowering the life boats, poor souls.”
“Admirably summarised, Watson. The creature sneaked aboard in Sumatra, probably when the crew slept. The rat hid or was busy in the stores until after the ship sailed. Rat poison wouldn’t have deterred him.”
“I suppose not, Holmes.”
“The giant rats are confined to an inaccessible portion of the island where they live in caves. This creature must have been thrown out of the pack or suffered chemical imbalance similar to that which causes the lemmings to head for the sea. And the giant rat explains that filament which I picked up from the deck. It seemed to me similar to a rodent’s hair, but I dismissed the possibility because its huge size threw me off.”
“But Holmes, there is one thing I still do not understand. Why did the lone sailor climb up to the crow’s nest and not jump ship in panic like his shipmates.”
“It’s hard to say. Possessed of more courage, perhaps, or his need to leave a testament to what happened, as he tried to do. There is a certain type of individual, Watson, who is driven by a need to chronicle.” Here Holmes winked at me.
“What troubles me, Holmes, is that the eye of the creature seemed intelligent, as if there were a soul concealed in the animal.”
“Such discoveries are what make the field of criminal investigation so interesting,” replied Holmes laconically.[/private]
Larry Lefkowitz has had stories, poetry and humour widely published in the US, Israel and Britain. He is looking for a publisher for his novel about a literary critic’s assistant who is asked by the critic’s widow to complete an unfinished novel left by her husband.