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"I thought it was his ghost at first" [NOBL]

[Editor's note: This is the second in our series of Christmas posts. Mattias Bostrom, BSI ("The Swedish Pathological Society") was kind enough to submit this, and even though we typically don't publish stories, we thought this was too unique to pass up.]

Sherlock Holmes was dead. There was no doubt whatsoever about that. His body had disappeared after falling down the Reichenbach Falls, locked in the arms of Professor Moriarty, ending up deep down in a dreadful caldron of swirling water and seething foam. Any attempt at recovering his body had been absolutely hopeless.

The real murderer was, of course, Dr A. Conan Doyle, who had got tired of his fictitious character, wiped him out with his pen and ink and made sure that the master detective was no more.

Conan Doyle – oh! what a cold-hearted man he was, selfishly he had put an end to the joy of hundreds of thousands, and cowardly he had left his country only days before his decision was made public. And now, he walked the streets near the Kurhaus Hotel in Davos in Switzerland with something akin to a smirk on his face. A white frost had settled on his head, and on his eyebrows, and on his large waxed moustache.

At close quarters, however, he wasn’t smiling at all. His smile had frozen. His wife had fallen ill, and the dry and crispy Alpine air was a better alternative than the damp winter climate of London.

It was just a fortnight since the readers had opened the Strand Magazine, only to find that Sherlock Holmes was gone, never to return. The news spread like wildfire. Not even on the streets of Davos was Conan Doyle safe from comments upon his deed.

  ‘If I didn’t kill him, he would have killed me,’ Conan Doyle defended himself to an English acquaintance he happened to meet on the snow-covered street.
  ‘Bah!’ said the fellow Englishman. And, ‘Humbug!’ he added.

Conan Doyle tried to reply, but the man was gone. Instead the author entered the post office. The Swiss woman who sold him stamps looked suspiciously at him.

  ‘You brute,’ she muttered.
  ‘My good woman, I invented Holmes,’ said Conan Doyle. ‘What I then do with him is a decision for me – and not for the entire mankind – to make.’
  ‘Bah,’ she said to herself. And, ‘Humbug.’

Conan Doyle walked straight out, forgetting to post his letter to the Ma’am. Snow had started to fall. An elderly gentleman came towards him and barely had the man opened his mouth before Conan Doyle exploded and waved his right forefinger in the direction of the man.

  ‘Don’t you, too, go bah and humbugging me!’
  ‘I’m very sorry, sir,’ said the old man in a weak and hoarse voice, ‘I had no intention at all to do that. I just wanted to tell you that you happened to drop a letter when you walked down the steps from the post office. A merry Christmas!’

And Conan Doyle intended indeed to have a merry Christmas, although the dark clouds were gathering in his life. He went back to the hotel, to spend the rest of this Christmas Eve with Touie, his wife.

The evening passed, and the night came. The light snowfall turned into an intense storm, and no one dared go outside. Touie went to bed and was soon asleep. Conan Doyle himself was wide awake, listening to the creaking sounds around him, staring upwards in the dim light from the fading glow of the fire. Above him was a plaster ceiling, and when he looked really hard he thought he could make out some of the pattern. It took the form of a hawk-like profile. No! It couldn’t be. Not Sherlock Holmes. He closed his eyes, but he still saw the profile. He opened his eyes and the sight was gone.

A few minutes later he heard a sound from the hotel room door, as if someone was knocking very softly. It must be midnight, who could that be? He got up from bed and went over to the door. He opened it – no one was there. It must have been the storm that made it creak. Strange. Back to bed then. As he did so he caught a glimpse of something moving just outside the window, in the snowstorm. But the room was on the second floor! Oh, it was nothing but an image of himself, mirrored in the glass.

He lay down on the bed, but heard another tapping sound. Not from the door this time. He tried to locate it. It came from the window. He went back, and stood there watching the storm outside and saw nothing apart from his own mirrored silhouette. He stood there, silently staring at himself, when the head in front of him slowly turned to one side, and he saw its hawk-like profile. It was located on the outside; he could see how the snow fell through it.

He jerked backwards. Looked again. Now he could only see his own image in the glass. His mind was playing tricks on him.

  ‘My dear Doyle,’ someone said behind him, a voice both hollow and sharp. He had never heard that voice in real life, only in his own head, but he knew it all too well.

Conan Doyle turned around. No one was there. Or rather, that was his first impression, but then he noticed the shape of a man, a thin slice of fog, floating in the dusky room. But a fog with dead-cold eyes.

  ‘Who are you?’ said Conan Doyle.
  ‘I seem to be your lingering nightmare.’

Conan Doyle was a tall man, but this figure grew even taller.

  ‘What do you want with me?’ said Conan Doyle.
  ‘You are a clever man, Doyle, you can deduce it.’
  ‘I’m not that clever. If you are the one I believe you are, you are the clever one.’
  ‘Only because you made me like that. But you are wrong. I am not the clever one. I was. Don’t you remember? You killed me, Doyle.’

The author shook his head. ‘Impossible, because you’re fictitious. You never lived!’

  ‘And yet I’m dead, standing here in front of you as a ghost.’
  ‘I don’t believe in spirits.’
  ‘Then maybe, my dear Doyle, it’s time for you to start. Once you do, spirits will eventually be the only thing you believe in. We do exist, you know. My friend the late Professor Moriarty is quite upset with you as well.’
  ‘Your friend Professor Moriarty?’
  ‘He turned out to be rather a decent man after all – or, should I say, after death.’

Conan Doyle raised his arms in front of him, as if defending himself against the unbelievable. ‘Stop,’ he said. ‘Please, stop this nonsense. You are a figment of my imagination, we both know that. You have always been that, that’s what you are right now, and who you will be forever on. I don’t know what you are after, but whatever you say can’t hurt my mind.’

  ‘I know,’ said the Ghost and floated closer, his voice but a whisper. ‘But your heart.’

Conan Doyle looked puzzled.

  ‘Come, if convenient,’ said the Ghost.
  ‘If inconvenient?’ Conan Doyle wondered.
  ‘Come anyway.’

The Ghost put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped Conan Doyle by the arm. They made towards the window.

  ‘I am a mortal,’ Conan Doyle said, ‘and liable to fall.’
  ‘Trust me,’ said the Ghost. ‘I know a few things about falling. And I have no reason to kill you. Come Doyle, come! The game is afoot!’

As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and stood on a street in front of a three-storey house. The darkness, the storm, and the snow had all vanished. The sun was shining, it was a spring day.

  ‘Good Heavens!’ said Conan Doyle, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. ‘It’s Bush Villas. I used to live here! And not that long ago, actually. Although it feels like an eternity.’

A woman came out of the door.

  ‘Why, it’s Touie!’ Conan Doyle exclaimed. ‘Touie! Touie! She can’t hear me? Oh, we are not really here, I see. She looks so young. And healthy.’
  ‘She was young. You were too. You know what day this is?’
  ‘No. It seems like any day. Life back then was a long row of routine. Waiting for patients to knock on the door, writing short stories to afford the basic things. But we had each other, and we had a place to call our home.’
  ‘This is not just any day,’ said the Ghost. ‘For neither of us.’

The Ghost waved his hand, and they stood inside the house. The woman and her husband were having dinner. He looked at her and smiled.

  ‘You seem so happy today, Arthur,’ the wife said and returned the smile. ‘Any new stories?’
  ‘I just had the most excellent idea,’ said the husband. ‘You remember me talking about my old professor, Joe Bell, and his marvellous powers of observation and deduction?’
  ‘You will make a detective based on Bell.’
  ‘Exactly!’ said the husband. ‘How did you know that?’
  ‘It’s elementary, my dear Arthur. You have brought your notes to the dinner, you can’t take your eyes off them, and, you know, I do have the gift of reading upside-down.’
  ‘Oh, Touie, maybe I should write about a lady detective instead.’
  ‘I think your ideas are better,’ she said and nodded at his notes. ‘But those names – Sherrinford Holmes and Ormond Sacker – you can do better than that. You always go for so odd names – Octavius Gaster and such. Call that other fellow Watson or something plain for once.’

The Ghost started to raise his hand. Conan Doyle stopped him.

  ‘Can’t we stay here for a while, please,’ said the author. ‘I had forgotten about this moment. It’s dear to me.’
  ‘One more minute,’ the Ghost replied. ‘This is after all a very special moment – for me, too. It’s not often you get to see your own birth.’

They stood there in silence, while the man and the woman continued their dinner. Not a word was spoken at the table. Everything the married couple said was said through glances.

  ‘Now is the time,’ said the Ghost and waved his hand.

They were in a sitting-room.

  ‘Where are we?’ Conan Doyle wondered.
  ‘In half a million different places.’
  ‘I don’t understand,’ said Conan Doyle.
 ‘You will.’

There was a man, about forty years of age, sitting in an easy chair near the fireside. There were Christmas decorations on the mantelpiece. The man was reading a magazine.

  ‘When is this?’ said Conan Doyle.
  ‘A few nights ago.’
  ‘Who is he?’
  ‘But why are tears running down his face?’
  ‘Oh, Doyle, you are such a cold-hearted man,’ said the Ghost. ‘You understand nothing. The other day you wrote in your diary, “Killed Holmes”. You must be blind. Look what you have done!’

The man’s wife entered the vision.

  ‘He’s dead,’ said the man.
  ‘I know,’ the woman replied. ‘I know. I heard about it at the butcher’s this morning. I didn’t know how to tell you.’
  ‘We can cancel our subscription now,’ he said.

The man and the wife stood close to each other.

Conan Doyle searched for words.

  ‘I didn’t …’ he began. ‘Sherlock Holmes is …’ He looked at the Ghost. ‘You are my creation.’
  ‘And you have brought an entire country into national mourning. You see, you are not just the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories. You are also God in your created world, the unseen power behind everything. And what a maker does, that affects people – inside that created world, but also on the outside, among the mortals. There must not be such a thing as a selfish God, who makes decisions out of his own desires, that would entirely ruin the balance and make the pain of the created world explode out into the real world. I’m not a religious man, and you know that, of course, so the God I’m talking about is just a normal man, but a man with total power. And such a God must understand the power of his own decisions. But I forgive you, I think you simply didn't know.’

Conan Doyle stood silent. There was a look of sorrow in his face. As if something inside him had changed.

  ‘I can live with being a Ghost of myself, but can you?’ the Ghost said, and then he waved his hand. The room was gone.
They stood in front of an iron gate. Conan Doyle paused to look around before entering.

A churchyard. Trees were overshadowing them, yellow leaves were falling down.

The Ghost stood among the graves, and pointed down to one. Conan Doyle advanced towards it trembling.

  ‘Is it mine?’ Conan Doyle said. He didn't dare to look at the tombstone.
  ‘Is it of any importance?’ the Ghost replied. ‘We will all die. Just look at me.’

Conan Doyle turned to the dim figure and laughed. ‘Holmes, I'm starting to like you.’

  ‘As you once did.’
  ‘Well, actually I have nothing against you personally, believe it or not. It's all about me. I need to know who I am without you.’
  ‘Fair. Let's make a deal, Doyle. I give you ten years.’
  ‘To figure out who you really are,’ said the Ghost. ‘I think you need ten years for that.’
  ‘And then what?’
  ‘Then you will revive me,’ said the Ghost.
  ‘But what if I don’t want to do that? How can you know that I am going to bring you back from the dead?’
  ‘It was you who said it. That I am the clever one. And do you really doubt Sherlock Holmes?’
  ‘No, I suppose not.’
  ‘In the autumn of 1903, ten years from now,’ the Ghost said, ‘Sherlock Holmes will rise from the dead – never to die again. I have no problem with being dead for a decade, because after that I will turn eternal. Such will be the power of your future decision. The forces you unleash when you bring me back will give me an everlasting life of crime-solving. The world of fiction will be forever thankful.’

Conan Doyle was deep in thought when he happened to look at the tombstone. He smiled.

  ‘I thought it was my grave,’ he said. ‘Where exactly are we?’
  ‘In your mind, I think,’ the Ghost replied.

On the tombstone was the name of Sherlock Holmes, and the year of his death.

Conan Doyle made a decision. He was going to make a deal with Sherlock Holmes.

He looked at the tombstone again. The text had vanished.

  ‘But will it not be boring to be a Ghost for ten years?’ said Conan Doyle.
  ‘With all this new Spiritualism going on in your world, I will have enough work just exposing fake spirits in my own.’

They began to walk back to the iron gate, side by side.

  ‘It was a pleasure to meet you at last,’ said the author.
  ‘Merry Christmas, my dear Doyle,’ said his creation.

The Ghost waved his hand and it was all dark again. Conan Doyle lay in his bed at the Kurhaus Hotel. Outside the storm had disappeared and the night was calm.

I had a nightmare, the Englishman thought when he woke up. And such an elaborate one. Ever since childhood he had had similar dreams. His older brother Mycroft had them too. Complicated, detailed fantasies, with an intriguing beginning, an investigative middle, and a surprising end. Nothing like any dreams he and Mycroft had ever read about. None of the Holmes brothers were especially good story-tellers, they both relied too much on facts, so these dreams were not stories, they were pieces of information put together in a logical and definite way. They felt so real, but were full of fantastic things. He couldn’t understand how he could believe in them while sleeping. It was a relief to wake up to a real world where no ghosts need apply.

He knew of the author of historical novels, Arthur Conan Doyle, because Watson had mentioned meeting him at some club. But this! He had no idea how that man had entered into his mind. It was such a strange dream. Probably an effect of Watson’s writings, in which both of them had turned into fictitious characters, almost. Good old Watson, he missed him. Two and a half years had passed since that day at the Reichenbach Falls when he had had to leave Watson behind. When Professor Moriarty had plunged to his death, and he himself had fled to Tibet, without a word to anyone but Mycroft.

The sunbeams reached his bed. After the cold night it was already beginning to get warm in the room. The Sudan heat could be unbearable.

He put his feet on the floor. It was cool. There was a stack of books on a table next to the bed, brought there from the Khalifa’s private library. The Khalifa probably wanted him to feel as if he were at home, in England, because all of the books were popular English ones. The one by Dickens he had read the previous evening. For some reason he had never read it before, but when he realized that yesterday actually was Christmas Eve, it had felt appropriate.

Which of course meant that today was Christmas Day, not like any Christmas Day he had experienced before. He looked out through the window and saw the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile at distance.

  ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,’ he said to himself and turned his head to one side. A hawk-like shadow fell on the wall.