Behind the Wall
The strains of Louis Armstrong died in John's throat. His head swam and his stomach balked at the sights, the smells. The place reeked of both death and fear. He had seen both in many forms, but never anything like this. The room was an altar to them, a place to worship pain.
"The decorators have left the speakeasy theme well behind," said Lestrade dryly. "This looks more like some voodoo witch-doctor's office."
Sherlock was silent, taking everything in with keen eyes.
Hopkins poked cautiously at a heap on plant stand.
"Touch nothing!" Sherlock barked, but it was too late. The thing shifted and the woven cloth that had covered it fell away revealing a severed human head. Its eyes were open and staring, and its scalp and cheeks were carved with arcane symbols.
Hopkins threw a hand over his mouth and dashed for the outdoors. John hoped he made it but spared no further thought for the young inspector's discomfort.
Sherlock crouched down by the head and pulled his magnifying lens from a pocket. He began his examination. "The head was removed post-mortem. The carvings however were inflicted while the victim was still alive."
"Have any headless bodies been reported?" John asked Lestrade.
"I'd've called," the DI pointed out. "Or Molly would've."
Sherlock rose and addressed Lestrade. "I believe further investigation will find that the body, or parts of it at least, are in this room."
Hopkins, looking pale but steady once more, chose that moment to reappear. At Sherlock's pronouncement, however, he turned and hared back out again.
"All right. Do what you do as quickly as you can, Sherlock," said Lestrade. "I need to get my team in here to start photographing and collecting evidence, yeah?"
Sherlock offered only a raised eyebrow and a mildly irritated glance in reply. "John, come here. What do you observe?"
John shook his head. "Not this time, Sherlock. I'm done showing off for the day. This is...extreme. So you do the deducing. I'll do the encouraging flattery bit. And then we'll get the hell out of the Yard's way."
Sherlock looked disappointed but for a change capitulated to John's suggestion. While he examined the head, John went about his own search, making random sounds of appreciation of Sherlock's deductions at appropriate intervals. Within three minutes, Sherlock had pegged the carved symbols as a mix of Haitian Vodou, Brazilian Candomblé, and something else.
"What do you mean something else?" demanded Lestrade.
"I mean I cannot identify the remaining symbols. Yet."
Preoccupied, John leant them only half an ear. He tipped back the corner of a heavy rug that hung over a long table, revealing what lay beneath it. "Um, I've found the rest of him," he announced. "Or, well, much of the rest of him."
His words coincided with another untimely reappearance by Hopkins, who swallowed hard but this time managed to stay put in the doorway of the chamber of horrors.
"He's under this table, or altar, I suppose you'd call it. Someone's left a note, too. Maybe a warning? If it was for this poor fellow, it's old news. It's written in his flesh. Can't make it out in the dark under there, though."
Sherlock and Lestrade joined him and peered into the gloom. "Limbs, minus the hands and feet. Torso, minus the genitalia."
John saw Hopkins and Lestrade wince, although the latter did a better job at hiding it.
"Hopkins, fetch a torch. Brightest you can find," Lestrade ordered.
"Yes, sir," said Hopkins in clear relief, and ducked out in search of one.
"So less an office and more an abattoir."
Hopkins returned soon and together John and Sherlock took a closer look at the pieces of the corpse.
"Can't be 100% positive in the circumstances, but it's a safe bet these parts belong to the head Hopkins found," said John.
"Of course they do," Sherlock replied. "Look at the angle at which the neck was severed. It perfectly matches our friend out there. And the other cuts by the same blade." He rattled off the characteristics of the blade while Lestrade recorded every word on his mobile for later transcription.
"What does the message say?" asked the DI.
Sherlock answered him. "'You will die tonight.' As with the symbols on the man's head, it was carved--"
"Before he died," Lestrade finished for him. "Right. Unless you can tell me anything else..."
Sherlock stood up straight and John rose beside him. "You're looking for more than one killer. Possibly as many as seven are involved, but certainly three are directly responsible. At least one is female. The one who carved this message is left-handed. The one who carved the symbols is right-handed."
"And you reckon Haitian or Brazilian?"
"Why would you assume that?"
"You said the symbols--"
"Anyone can practice Vodou or Candomblé," said Sherlock disdainfully.
Lestrade got a dig of his own back. "And whatever the rest of it is."
Sherlock ignored the jab. "Come on, John. We're finished here." He strode past Lestrade and paused next to Hopkins. "I'll contact you when I have more." Then he swept out.
John followed, giving Lestrade the usual conciliatory shrug and nodding once to Hopkins. As he passed through the main part of the old speakeasy, he noticed that the first body had been removed while they were inside the secret room. As he followed Sherlock out into the street, he heard Lestrade calling for his team.
Sherlock waited for him, buttoning up his coat and adjusting the scarf about his neck. "Ready, John?"
"Are we going after the missing pieces of the body or the identity of the third set of symbols?" John asked quietly enough that even if any officers passed close they wouldn't overhear.
"I'm going after the body. You're going after the symbols."
John was almost relieved. He could get down with some internet research just then. Preferably with a beer handy. Or indeed something stronger. He thought there was a bottle of Glenmorangie left in the back of the cupboard. "Right. See you at home whenever you get there. Do not bring the bits back to Baker Street with you," he added firmly.
Sherlock looked hurt. "I haven't done that in over a year."
"Yeah. Let's see if you can make it another year, okay? See you at home," he said again. "And, Sherlock. Be careful."
"Of course," echoed John, unconvinced. There was nothing to do about it, however, so he simply squeezed Sherlock's hand and the two headed off in different directions.
John decided to take a quick detour on his way home. A stop at the off-license was in order, just in case he was wrong about that scotch.