Mocha Memoirs Press and editor A.C. Thompson have done another anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories with a paranormal twist, Curious Incidents: More Improbable Adventures, and I have a story in it! The theme this time was any time or place EXCEPT Victorian London, and most of the stories have a definite science fiction double feature flair—steampunk, Weird Wild West, dystopian futures, pure stark screaming horror. But mine, “The Adventure of the Burning Man,” is a classic 1940s-style noir set in Los Angeles. And I guess the biggest twist on the usual canon (other than the Nazi fire demon) is that Dr. John Watson is black.
In this version, both Holmes and Watson are veterans of World War II, and Watson was one of the more than 19,000 men and women of color attached to the US Army’s Medical Department. Primary source information on the specifics of their service is thin on the ground—a stronger historian than me really should write a book on the subject because it’s fascinating, and there’s a definite gap to be filled. Racist segregation was rampant in the MD the same as everywhere else, particularly early in the USA’s involvement in the war, and most black medical personnel apparently worked as ambulance drivers and medics or in “sanitary companies,” regardless of their medical training. But there were some segregated hospital units with black doctors and nurses for black wounded soldiers. The picture above is from the National Archives: “Captain Ezekia Smith, 370th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division, receives treatment at the 317th Collecting Station, for shell fragments in face and shoulders suffered near Querceta, Italy.” February 10, 1945. Bull. 111-SC-236685 (african_americans_wwii_042.jpg). In my story, Dr. Watson started the war driving an ambulance in North Africa and ended it as a field surgeon in France. Now he’s running his own small medical practice on the first floor of a seedy L.A. office building also occupied by a certain English consulting detective.
For Watson, it started with the girl.
He had just locked up the clinic for the night and was waiting for the elevator. It finally opened with an oily wheeze, and the four employees of the second floor accounting firm came out, each one giving him their own version of the stink eye as they passed. “Evening,” he said, tipping his hat to the prune-faced receptionist. “Y’all have a good night.” Usually he took the stairs specifically to avoid these little scenes. But tonight it was raining, and his leg was paining him, and these California crackers would just have to cope.
He was just about to step inside when the girl ran in from the street—blonde, tall, soaking wet with her little blue frock plastered to her body like a second skin. With an inward sigh, Watson stepped back to let her board the elevator without him. “I’ll wait for the next one.”
“There’s only one, and it’s slower than Christmas,” she said, laughing. “Come on, don’t be ridiculous.” Miss Prune Face had stopped at the street door and turned all the way around to gape at them, and her mouth dropped open like a dead trout’s as he stepped inside. The blonde waved to her and stuck out her tongue just as the doors heaved closed.
“What floor, miss?” Watson asked, suppressing a smile.
“Three,” she said. “I work for Mr. Holmes.”
Watson had never stopped on the third floor, but he’d seen the name on the directory in the lobby. “So what does a consulting detective do?” he asked. “Spy on cheating husbands, that kind of thing?”
“Nothing like that,” she said. “At least not so far. To tell you the truth, all I’ve seen him do since he hired me a week ago is think a lot and teach me to make what he calls an almost passable cup of tea. He’s English.”
“Oh.” Even Watson, who wasn’t particularly inquisitive by nature, wondered what kind of tea brewing she meant to do at seven-thirty on a Friday night. But then, seeing the way her wet dress clung to her hips, he reckoned he could guess. “Here we are then,” he said as the elevator lunged to a stop. “Third floor.”
“Thanks—Dr. Watson, isn’t it?” she said.
“It is.” She was a pretty girl; he hoped this English Mr. Holmes deserved her. “Have a good night.”
“You too.” She took his dangling hand and shook it. “I’m Grace.” She stepped out and started down the hall. “Good night.” When the elevator closed, he was still watching her walk away.
The rain was still pounding when he stepped out on the roof. The pigeons stirred and cooed as always, sidling along their perches, jockeying for position. “Sorry, kids,” he said, filling their troughs with seed. “It’s too wet to fly.” The old man who had left him the birds as payment of his bill had spent hours on the roof, day and night, rain or shine, talking to his pets and letting them fly for hours. But Watson didn’t have that kind of time. He tried to release them to exercise for a little while every day, but he didn’t keep the careful count when they came back that Mr. Rosenbaum had, and over the past month, he’d lost a few. He wouldn’t have grieved much if they’d all flown away for good; keeping pigeons was not his idea of a good time, and the stairs were murder on his leg. But the old man had been his first patient when he’d come to Los Angeles. He’d never mentioned or seemed to notice the color of Watson’s skin, only that he was a doctor close by who made house calls. He had trusted him, respected him, befriended him, and he had died. So Watson took care of his birds.
A crack of thunder made the building shake under his feet, and the pigeons screeched and fluttered as lightning lit the sky. But he heard something else, too—a woman’s scream. “Help!” It was Grace; he was sure of it. “Somebody help!”
He sprinted down the stairs, leaping the last flight in a single clumsy bound, ignoring the pain in his leg. Her screams rose again, sharper, wordless with pain. His brain flashed on the revolver locked in his desk drawer on the ground floor then on the heavy cane he’d dropped on the roof, but he ran on.
The door to the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective Agency was standing ajar. As he reached for the knob, still running, it crashed open, knocking him backwards, his forehead cracking the glass. He only caught a glimpse of a male figure dressed in black, some kind of big, floppy coat and a hat pulled low on his brow, shading his face. But he smelled him, a pungent, acrid smell like burning leaves. The mystery man had disappeared into the stairwell before Watson got his bearings. He thought of going after him, but the girl was still inside.
But she wasn’t screaming any more. He found her on the floor behind the desk. She had been stabbed in the chest; there was blood everywhere. But she was alive.
He fell to his knees beside her. “John.” Her voice was weak but urgent. Her pretty face was deathly pale and slick with sweat. “Listen.” Her dress had been ripped open, and her chest was gushing blood in spurts in rhythm with her weakening heart, too much to actually see the wound. He tore off his jacket, wadded it up, and pressed it to the blood flow. She screamed, grabbing his arm, and he felt her sternum giving way.
“Holy God.” The bastard had cracked her open like a surgeon.
“Dying.” Her red nails dug into his wrist. “Tell Mr. Holmes…the fox.” Blood bubbled from her lips, and her eyes went blank.
“No!” He could hear footsteps coming closer, voices from below. At night, the empty building was like an echo chamber, but he thought someone was coming up the hall. “Somebody help me!” he shouted. “We need help!” But Grace was gone.
“Don’t move,” a man’s voice commanded. “Stay exactly as you are.” He heard the door creak, and looked back over his shoulder. “I said don’t move!” This man was white and dressed in brown, a strange, cloak-like tweed coat and a hat Watson’s grandfather would have called a deerstalker. Watson started to stand. “Please, be still one more moment.”