"By all the gods in the Pantheon..." James exhaled. He had emerged on the precipice of a mountain – one of many circling the nest of lower, fertile hills blanketed by thick isles of tea. Their green was almost lurid, quivering between shades in the frigid air. There was snow at James's feet, the light covering dusting the black edges of the tallest mountains. Beyond that was blue – endless, untainted sky.
"Is it everything you had hoped for?" Sherlock asked, stabbing his cane into the ground. He took off his gloves, hanging them on a tree to dry out. "The tradesmen of the East spun masterful fantasies about these plantations to kings and queens – paradises in the sky."
"It's colder than I'd imagined paradise," James turned to Holmes, determined not to give into his child-like glee.
"And so it is – but the tea likes it."
"I beg you, speak not of tea. I'd give just about anything for a pot right now."
Sherlock smirked wickedly. "Would you barter me for a cup, then?"
"Don't you go doubting it, Holmes. I'd wager your muddied hide for a sip."
It took them another day to traverse the icy paths into the hilltop plantation. The snow became mud, then dabbled briefly in stone where the winds swept the soil to the bedrock.
Yes, it was warmer but James found himself clutching his arms close, watching the world around him with a sharp air of suspicion. There was something he didn't like about it. Creatures cried out in sheer, piercing shrieks and then were silenced. Wind gusts kicked up from nowhere, tearing over the expedition before vanishing to stillness. The hours walking through the thick tea crop had been the most surreal, with the plants hissing with movement – alive as though the great mass of green was a single entity smothering the landscape.
Waist deep, James look up to the mountains. A pair of black shadows circled near one of the peaks. Eagles. The tips of their wings were angled against the wind, tails spread and heads tilted down, watching the world beneath.
The teas house itself emerged from the landscape as though it had grown from the forest. It was three full stories of rich, ancient wood fashioned into an opulent feast of self indulgent relics, souvenirs and beautiful detail. Everyone in their party except for the Frenchman diverted off into a larger but less impressive shed to deposit their goods and find work amongst the tea pickers.
"This way, the manager is waiting for you," said the Frenchman in a thick accent. He was mostly a collection of muscle and bone, stalking rather than walking through the huge double doors so heavy they were held open by two terrifying marble statues. The grisly stone gods snarled at guests, baring demonic teeth.
James had been expecting a plump, well dressed English lord to greet them but instead a dishevelled Indian man with rich dark skin and long black hair tied roughly in a ponytail waved them through into a small office.
There was a fire roaring in the corner but for all its effort, only the first few feet of the office felt any warmth. James kept his coat on, perching in one of the Gothic chairs, Sherlock in the other – his bony hands curled around the edges of the chair like a vampire on his throne. Sherlock was never one to be perturbed by a house.
"Lovely, nice nook in the world," Sherlock started, taking in every tiny detail. It was never clear whether he meant to speak these sentiments aloud – or indeed if he was aware that he had company.
"Mr Holmes, I presume?" the estate manager guessed.
Holmes went to make a nasty quip but James interrupted. "Yes and I'm Dr James Watson. We've come a long way to see you."
"Yes, yes – but – you should go back now." The manager was dwarfed by the desk he sat behind and its throne-like, red velvet chair. This office was oddly claustrophobic compared to the enormous house with no windows and only one door. The walls were all structural stone indeed, Sherlock had already determined that it was a 'safe' room, a place to make a last stand if the world fell around them. Smart and refreshingly practical.
"Go – go back?" James stammered, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. "We – ah, we just came a very long way to see you. Both my colleague and I have many skills to – "
"Five more," the manager whispered. "We found their remains in the field on Tuesday. Three men and two of the women were attacked and torn apart. It is no murderer, Dr Holmes, it is a curse and the world of man cannot fight dark spirits. Everyone is preparing to leave."
Sherlock was smiling, rather inappropriately if James was honest. A scheme was building in his head no – a suspicion.
"Curses are my favourite," he insisted. "I presume you still have a few weeks left of trade given the crop is mid-harvest. Mind if we stick around? Your workers may intend to leave but they have shown no sign of departing while the tea is in bud."
The manager was unsettled, running his hands nervously along the edge of the grand table, picking at its splinters. "There is a party going back to the village a week from now. You may stay until then."
"Excellent!" Sherlock stood, rubbing his hands together before pausing. "The owner, annoying Brit about 'so' high, have you seen him?"
"Dr Holmes," the manager replied solemnly, not liking the Dr's mockery of the dead. "He has not been seen for many months. He's dead."
"Missing – not dead. Dead is a corpse with a toe-tag. Come along, Watson, we have malevolent spirits to chase."
They were given rooms on the top floor, Eastern corner of the building over looking formidable mountain range. A fresh dusting of snow made them glisten pink and gold while the tea valley around them remained a stark, surreal green.
There were dozens of pickers milling through the rows, carefully selecting the tiny, fresh sprigs of Camellia, tossing them in cylindrical baskets stretching down their backs. It was slow work that could not be mechanised for all the wonder of the industrial era. Machines couldn't decide between the slender, young sprigs and rough vegetation. It required a mind – a human hand. It was something which Sherlock could appreciate.
"How many is that now – thirteen, fifteen if you count the rumour of two children missing from the village." James penned notes in his journal. He was meticulous to a fault. Holmes didn't need such rudimentary tools – the entire puzzle fit neatly into his brain. "Sherlock – what in heaven's name are you doing?"
Sherlock was leaning out the window, hanging onto the old wooden frame as he inspected the quality of the exterior walls and whether or not they were easily scaled. "Nothing, nothing..." he muttered, pulling himself back into the room.
"And close the window, it's bloody freezing."
He did. Sherlock started circling the room, picking out a route to wear into the Persian rug. He was like a bee trapped in dance patterns, humming around.
"Penny for your thoughts?" said James, inspecting a silver tray with a cluster of crystal decanters on it.
"If you had to bet your life on an answer right now – what would be your guess?"
James hated these games. Sherlock was an almighty, fat Amazonian leech feeding off the suspicions of others. He absorbed every thought, every paranoid suspicion and irrelevant fact and somehow drew out of this chaos an answer.
"The manager, obviously," he replied. "With the owner of the house gone, presumed murdered and a rather colourful story involving curses and demons, you could write the estate off as a failure, buy it cheap between one or two investors and then bring the production back up to speed. The infrastructure is already here. It's tidy and remarkably simple. I have seen it pulled several times in Africa."
Sherlock found James a riveting form of entertainment. "It is no surprise that the world is shaped by paranoia and stupidity."
"I take it you don't agree with my assessment?" James frowned. Tesla had nothing on Holmes when it came to impertinence. "Right – okay. I don't know why I bother indulging you in this one-way, idea sharing thing. You do understand sharing?"
"A system of mutual transmission of useful data – a perfectly sound concept in which I choose not to engage." Sherlock's tone was so flat it was impossible to tell if you were being openly mocked or politely informed of your error.
James decided to pour himself a glass or two of port and mull over the day from the comfort of the couch.
The next morning, they found the house empty.
"Where the devil did they all go?" James demanded, buttoning up his vest, rolling up his lace-edged sleeves.
It was nearly eight o-clock and the house should have been alive with activity yet the manor was devoid of everything except the heavy footsteps of James trudging his way toward the front door.
"Sherlock – what the bloody hell are you doing?"
"Breakfast..." he replied, deviating to the room opposite where breakfast had been laid out earlier but left untouched. Sherlock lathered jam and butter on cold toast.
"For – god's sake..." James reluctantly joined him at the table, folding his arms.
"What's the hurray?" Sherlock shrugged, pouring himself some tea. "In all probability we have another murder in a tea field. Our lovely hosts will contaminate the crime scene for a while longer. No point rushing about when there's cake and tea."
James narrowed his eyes. "You're betting the murderer will reveal himself in his attempt to conceal the crime..."
Eventually, James did manage to drag Holmes out of the door. It was nearly noon, a warm patch of sunlight shedding an unnatural brightness to the world.
"Over here," Sherlock led the way, swatting at the tea with his cane as they walked. There were voices up ahead – people arguing, a woman crying and the sound of ropes straining against rock.
This scene, at least, was no murder.
The dense field of tea ended abruptly where a landslide from the cliff above had gouged its way through, flattening the crop into foot-high stalks poking out from a carpet of leaves. It stretched on for many yards until it ended with the boulders, black and evil, laying amid the deluge.
Dozens of thick rope strained around the girth of these immense rocks. Everyone on the plantation was clutching at one of them, heaving against the weight. Slowly, they were dragging it off a crushed body. The wailing woman was the manager's wife, distraught at her husband's body smeared into pieces.
"It appears your theory has been crushed, Dr Watson," Sherlock reclined against the black cliff face.