It had been a lazy morning. It was already mid-morning and I had been reading the saga of a Viking named Eric Thorgrimursson for several hours, when Inspector Lestrade arrived at 221-b. Mrs. Hudson ushered him into the study.
The inspector removed his hat and overcoat, unwrapped his scarf, and handed them to our landlady. “Dr. Watson. Mr. Holmes. I apologize for the interruption–”
“Please, Inspector, join us for tea. Mrs. Hudson, if you will put a pot on.”
He rubbed his rough hands together. “I will join you for a cup, because there is a wicked chill still in the air this morning. Then afterwards, we must leave.”
“I require your help, Mr. Holmes.”
A grin broke my friend’s face. “As presumed upon your arrival. You are not in the habit of socializing. A visit here without cause would be abnormal indeed!”
“Hence, the tea. Just as one waits for tea to steep, one needs time to extract the details of a story so riveting, I am sure. Sit, sit.”
While the inspector settled in a chair, Holmes circled the mantle and gathered some tobacco from the Persian slipper where he stored it. With his back turned and fully displaying the velvet design of his robe, he scratched a match and lit the pipe. Once smoke began to rise, he returned to his seat facing Lestrade. However, he did not speak again until the tea had arrived, so I was forced to make small talk.
After Mrs. Hudson served us and left the room, Holmes asked quite abruptly, “So, tell me of the murder.”
Lestrade was familiar enough with his eccentric ways not to be taken aback. “Yes, dive right in. Well, I was called out to Ashbery Hall in the early morning hours, shortly after three, in fact. You might recognize the place already, but it is the home of–”
“Sir Alistair Bergmann,” Sherlock Holmes finished with a puff of smoke.
The name jostled my memory. Alistair Bergmann was a banker with whom we had done business in the past. One of those pompous, somewhat bombastic men, yet capable and driven. Two years previously, Bergmann had helped untangle the finances connected to another fascinating case which I had recorded as, “The Squirrel in the Oaks.”
“His wife insisted you knew him. In fact, the wife asked for you specifically, and, to be frank, I am a bit baffled.”
“Unsurprising,” Holmes offered.
Lestrade settled his cup carefully into his saucer. “Look, this is…. See, his wife is insisting she saw something that…well, frankly, if you could see her, you’d know she probably isn’t lying. She’s frantic. Her eyes completely wild. She has the shakes. A quaver in her voice and then sometimes she just screams out Absolutely distraught. Now, either she’s the greatest actor ever, or she is telling the truth about what she thought she saw. But, then that means she is either crazy or probably temporarily snapped due to the stress.”
“She may very possibly be, if you are implying in your fumbling way that Alistair Bergmann himself is dead.”
“Ah, yes! Sorry. You see the strangeness of this case has got me rattled. Let me start over. Yes, last night Alistair Bergman was murdered.”
“At his house, I presume?”
“Well, that is the amazing part. He was burned to death.”
“Yes. Damn near incinerated.”
I watched Sherlock Holmes eyes brighten and he sat up. “He was burned to death inside the home? Was there a house fire? Anyone else hurt?”
“No. The house is intact. Everyone else is fine. Bergmann was burned outside, in a gazebo on the back lawn.”
“I see. No chance of an accidental burning? It was very cold last night. If it is the gazebo I am thinking of, there is a fire pit built into it. He must have had it going last night to be outside.”
“Astounding! You have been there, then. Yes, you’re absolutely correct. There is a fireplace built right into the center of the damn thing. Nicest set up–or it was. But, not any more. The whole damn thing burned up. Only thing left is that chimney and some of the superstructure.”
“I see. However, you think it wasn’t an accident. He couldn’t have fallen asleep, say, and the seat cloths, or clothing, or wood accidentally caught fire by stray sparks?”
“Well, that was my original thought. However, the fire was weird. It burned the hell out of the place and even some of the grass around it. Alistair’s body is damn near unrecognizable, charred to the bone in spots. So, it was an intense blaze. Plus, there is the wife’s testimony. What she claims to have seen.”
“And what did she claim to see?”
Inspector Lestrade took a deep breath and then cleared his throat. He took a drink of his tea. His hand trembled. “Now, this is her words, not mine. I questioned and re-questioned her all morning. I haven’t gotten any sleep, but I know how to do my job. For hour after hour, though she was very rattled and crying, she’s stuck to it straight through without varying a word. She insists she saw a flying dragon burn her husband alive.”
- This story was published in Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Steampunk.