Here are two new Sherlock Holmes fan fiction tales from IndianaPeach. Please to enjoy.
There are some grammar issues with the dialogue but I’m still learning about writing and the next installments should be cleaner, particularly in the area of comma usage and periods. In any event the stories are meant to be read aloud in any case. But yes. Please forgive any typographical missteps.
Thank you, IP
The Halls of Perfect Tile
Friday, November 28th—1870
It was evening in Charing Cross Hospital—a thick smog hung across the city spreading its respiratory evil up to the windows of my office where things were winding down after an interesting day of work. In my mind replayed two incidents making this day unique. Before sunrise we had a patient dead from an aneurysm, and pulling the sheets away from his still warm corpse I discovered one of my childhood schoolteachers from Brighton. In youth he was flaxen-haired with a kind smile. Now he lay a shell of that old vigor. Fibrous grey hair thinned at the temples; a jaundiced, wrinkled forehead, lines at the eye sockets, skinny arms zig zagging madly across his chest. Mr. Cornelius Walsh, in life. Our school had been a sandy building that met slate stone streets slick with water and silt.
According to the men who brought him to the hospital, Mr. Walsh was standing at the gates to the London Zoo where he collapsed. Their search of clothing yielded a small purse containing a half a crown, wooden dice, and a deck of playing cards. No identification. Yet his identity was clear enough to me. A dead man. I gainsaid this knowledge—my knowledge of his person—to staff, not wanting them (very much “them”) to have any purchase upon my past life. It would invariably come back to haunt me by virtue of gossip or envy or charity—a prudish sentimentality, perhaps, this diffidence, but utilitarian in my line of work. A medical personage.
It was startling to see Walsh’s face under the orange lights that morning, is what I mean. And by now—I checked my pocket watch—he would have been incinerated.
It was my fourth month as doctor at Charing Cross, things were grey; my reputation with the other M.D’s, my future, my habit of drinking; all was a nexus. This was England after all. Bitter, feisty at best, all at once. The buildings nearby had soot stained doorways that stooped beneath street level at their entrances; corridors of stone where the fences were tall, chipping away the paint. Patrons in and out making my days blurry and emotional, sick people, lorries, crime vicious and dark. Overcast afternoons. Yes. It was England.
The second incident on that November morning had me more nonplussed and less fateful, even as the late hours tolled across Britain from the great oval clock face: that afternoon, a gentleman with hemorrhoids fell down some stairs while I was drinking a bottle of scotch covertly at the foot of said stairs, attempting to catch my wind, and calm my spirit. I heard the door open and close, and then a heavy mass hit the stone above my person, a tumbling, and howling and slapping of skin against steps and he landed at my feet with a look of misery on his face like a worm caught in the rain. And it made me chuckle. I’m ashamed to admit it. My nurturing instincts took hold of my senses soon, and I helped him to his feet. When I had done so, he asked, “Why are you laughing, doctor?” I confessed that it was a new experience for me. Never before had seeing someone’s pain filled me with such irony. But perhaps that was London working through me with its cold acuity, or viciousness, or opportunism. Thoughtfully and cautiously had been my inventory of this behavior over the ensuing hours of work. And my breaths came in even measures.
My office is near the rear of the building with a green floor; there are windows that gaze down fifteen feet at a stone pathway leading to our service entrance where carriages and trolleys bring supplies—instruments, beddings, pharmaceuticals, etc. A table is pushed against the east wall upon which lay candles, books, mouse traps. Fresh clothes in the closet. Scotch, rye whiskey, absinthe, in a drawer—along with two or three small cigars, for when rounds are complete.
As evening drew its curtain upon us, I continued to reflect on Mr. Walsh’s lifeless corpse, and the benighted man at the bottom of the stairwell. And so I smoked one of the small cigars out the window into the November cold, making myself a glass of absinthe, titrating it but only going in for a single glass of the stern elixer.
The prospect of becoming no more than an automata when confronted by human suffering was discouraging to me as the embers of ash slowly burned warming my fingers. When I finished my drink, I walked out to the front of the hospital and along the sidewalks keeping my head above the scrum of workmen and busy traffic. My feet took me to The Thames, jostling its way through the dark along gated channels, under bridges, wakes from ships lapping against the granite. I walked on until I reached the enclaves of The Barnacle: the signage smelled of rotted river water, and so did the patrons, and by the time I sat down the moisturizing air had given me a weightless calm. I knocked the first two shots back—pleasant little shocks to the system.
Left the bar around midnight; the decision was made not to walk home just yet. My limbs were suffused by random and unchecked energy—the compressed spring of self-control bent back over the course of the week and now unraveled, releasing a universe of physical exuberance that made me feel in control. The moon was high. Brown docks leached woody smells up to my nose. But there were no women anywhere nearby. And these thoughts were strangely intermixed. The waterway I could see close by was placid, and close, as I strolled to the end of a pier with a cigarette borrowed from a man who stood at the entrance to The Barnacle. Before reaching the end, I turned towards the soothing choppy water, challenging myself to jump in—an extreme experience to wash away the tedium of the week. Certainly there would be no mortal danger, and so I took a few steps, held my breath in my chest, challenged the point, and leapt…
It was a toxic stew that shocked me. There was soppy feeling of drink, struggled against my consciousness, as if the liquor—cheap—suddenly was unsure of its hold upon me and my lungs. It was a cold admixture of unpleasantness that gripped my mind. But so too was registered that this was an interesting experience. Or at least there was a confidence in me that was soon lost. Although I tried to make some progress upwards with my legs, my lower torso seemed wound against the river floor, by an unforeseen current which tugged insistently at my legs, the force of which lurched violently stronger the more my sentience, my intelligence, cohered to the gravity of the situation. Fear. A twisting and merciless insistence that made my blood turn to ice. My imagination imbued this grasping from the floor of the river with a monstrous intelligence, and my senses began to dissolve. Then suddenly, I felt something hit me on the head precisely, and then a powerful force yanking on the back of my collar, and in a moment I crushed with water back onto the pier knocking my wind from my lungs and graping at starlight and frigid air.
I opened my eyes slowly, and beheld a silhouette—a profile outlined by the yellow moon, whose yawning craters we had no story for.
“What are you doing out here in the middle of The Thames, sir?!” a voice pronounced loudly, releasing his grip from my clothes, and standing up to give me room either to expire upon the London slats or rally for further exertions in this life to my appointed labor. “Good lord,” said I, just realizing that I might have been drowned without the man’s assistance.
“What is your business, sir?” he called down to me again loudly with concern.
“Doctor of medicine,” I choked out.
He removed his long coat, and put it around me, helping me along, and up on my legs, saying, “Back to The Barnacle at once! They have a serviceable fireplace there, sir. Before the elements take their toll, of course. Let us warm things up a bit. Yes?”
My mind was exhausted. And we walked quickly along the docks back to The Barnacle, and took a table, once inside, nearest to the fireplace so that I might dry off and compose myself.
“Well, you’re looking slightly better now that we have pulled you out of the river,” he said, while I was blinking back some of the oily water, and after he had placed a schnapps and beer before me.
“Thank you very much, sir” I said, regarding him for the first time with cognizance across the table in the smoky, sweaty tavern. He had a countenance of total seriousness. Beneath his hat, like an Oxford don. There was a deep strength to him that was obvious. I assessed this instinctively.
“What was your object in skipping into the drift tonight; I imagine it’s a cold affair this late in the season?” he asked.
“Ah,” said I sheepishly.
“Not pulling the dirt over your problems, I hope?”
“Not quite the point, no.”
He waited then, tapping his fingers on the table seriously.
“No?” he queried, “and yet, it appeared intentional. Your jump…I mean.”
“Well, I had been drinking a bit, and I just thought: why not give it a try? I didn’t think there would be any certain danger involved; it’s just The Thames, by Jove. Apparently I mistook the placid waters.”
There was a calm moment then between us.
“Yes there is a dark pull not too far beneath the surface. Doctor. That should be obvious by this point,” he whispered, “Also, it is cold, and you are hardly attired for swimming…” he trailed off looking at me with curiosity.
“Hmmm,” I said, drinking a schnapps.
“Well,” continued the stranger, “My name is Sherlock Holmes, and I am currently engaged by an investigation of some interest. As a doctor, perhaps you would find the details commensurate with your brooding on this chilly evening. I have just this afternoon been dispatched upon a case by the preeminent law enforcement authority in England. Scotland Yard, you know.”
He seemed to puff up a bit at this vocabulary, and I was overtaken by a reflex of egotistic rivalry—the robotic machine responses of the hospital, unfortunately. But I let it pass.
“I am a consulting detective. Perhaps the only one in the world, as I made up the title a few months ago while puzzling over some reagents. Scotland Yard is my current client; I would show you some credentials, sir, sadly there aren’t any to speak of; although there is this pin,” he raised his lapel revealing a circle of silver about the size of a five pence with the number fifty etched upon it: “This symbolizes my status as a deputized auxiliary of Scotland Yard; it is a transitory office, of course. A game detective named Lestrade gave it to me earlier this afternoon after I cleared up a case involving some stock brokers and justices who were clinging to the walls of Parliament; fiends, yes. It was a lark. But Mr. Lestrade wasn’t too thrilled with my craftsmanship, nor was he pleased to see a former Member of Parliament in league with the law breaking upper class. It was a bit confusing; one might have thought that the wheels of justice would turn as smoothly for the rich as for the poor; but as we both know the outside of the wheel turns more quickly than the inside.”
“Very good metaphor,” I remarked, drinking further schnapps and feeling the energy and optimism of my Friday evening returning to my flushed and warming cheeks.
“Yes?” asked the detective, continuing his story, “In any event the Yard gave me over to a kidnapping in the Chinese district of London. Someone must be about it, apparently. Over-dangerous and under-interesting most likely. They underestimate my abilities, perhaps. But we shall see. And so here I stand. That is my story, and now you have finished your beer and your schnapps. Would you like to accompany me upon my errand tonight?”
“I have served in Afghanistan,” said I.
“And yet I repeat the question, doctor.”
We turned a corner onto Ulster Road just as a light rain began to fall. There was a man standing in the street stock still with straight posture, his eyes were glued to the corner as if expecting us at that very moment. A small lantern burned at his feet. And his eyes turned upon us in an eerie greeting. He was middle-aged, bald and wore a long pea green coat with ivory buttons. Tall and thin. Above his keen eyes a pair of black bushy eyebrows sat. A warm looking fur collar ensnared his neck like a boa constrictor, and he carried a beautiful black cane with golden Chinese characters painted on the grain.
“Mr. Holmes,” he said in a baritone voice, “and guest?” he outstretched his hand to me, “My name is Xing Pow.” “Salutations, Doctor Watson of Charing Cross Hospital; I am a surgeon. I’ve only just returned from the Orient as a matter of fact.” “How did you find it?” “Yes, Afghanistan. Are you affiliated with Scotland Yard? I have never seen an Oriental in uniform; but that means little. The city is a large place, and never ceases to amaze us with new aspects of its unfolding nature as we pass through the epoch. Wouldn’t you agree?” I’m not sure why I suddenly decided to become an ambassador for London, nerves most likely. Pow gave me a quizzical expression at my loquacious outburst; I continued unsurely, “That is London, of course. An ancient, medieval city, and still growing like mad into the future. Even if it is sometimes difficult to remember the evolutions of history while we tread the drafty columns of the nineteenth century. The realms of Queen Victoria are a marvel when all is said and done are they not?” At this the Chinese gentleman turned away from me with a positively sarcastic exhalation of breath, “Mr. Holmes, it is good to see you on such an unforgiving and blustery English evening as this one,” he put out his hand, and Holmes shook it professionally then asked pointedly without making any remarks about my strange behavior, “Lestrade told me to meet you here exactly at midnight; and you are as prompt Xing, as always. This is an interesting situation; I have already apprised my new friend of the bare facts, but perhaps you have fresh data for us to add to our conception.” “It’s not that cold,” I mooted at the foreigner who had made the—pardon the expression—cosmopolitan comment about the London weather. “A bit of a bull, doctor?” “I’m sorry I haven’t been sober for the last five or six hours, Mr. Pow.” “Ah,” he said, nodding sagely and looking up at the foggy night, “be careful young man how you proceed through the strange and—to you—exotic environments of our section of London on this night. If it wasn’t for this infernal London fog you could see the stars tonight and I would explain that in November the dragon points towards the moon, and this has repercussions that you may not comprehend. I warn you not to show too much of the English skepticism or aggressiveness that you have demonstrated to me. There are ancient spirits within the confines of these few blocks, whether or not you believe in such truths is immaterial. Time itself will clothe legend in reality. And so I say again, caution young doctor.” Xing Pow chuckled then, and Mr. Holmes coughed and Xing talked, “Albert worked at a cabstand’s, and he lived in a cheap flat,” he handed Holmes a piece of folded white paper, “walking directions and cross streets here.” With that he picked up his lantern and began to walk away, but called over his shoulder, “I will tell my sister that you said hello, Mr. Holmes. I’m sure she will be pleased to hear that you are still alive and well.” And then he was gone around the corner.
We arrived at the cab stand around midnight; there was only one man on duty then looking quite lonely and cold sitting atop his cab holding the reins to a sickly looking black horse that every now and then made its soft, sad, cantering in place. Seashell noises with its shoes. The buildings here were closely packed together with cheap iron fitting the doors together. Holmes asked me to wait a few moments, and to guard his back, to make a thirty count and then to approach if I didn’t perceive anyone lurking predatorily in the shadows. The streets were quiet and deserted, however, and after counting I approached cautiously picking up the conversation he was having with the Oriental cabman in mid-sentence: the cabman: “…a rather normal lad although a tad weak; not at all prepared for London life. He was given a cab of his own to drive, and he did well at first but then his work began to suffer; he showed up late and looking ill-kempt and his rides flaked away. Bringing in less money for the company.”
“He was given a driver’s role so soon after beginning work? Is that abnormal?” “I suppose it is,” responded the man, still seated with his hands resting calmly on the reins, “because he was the son of someone back in China see, who had connections in the neighborhood. Not enough credit to keep him out of harm’s way, sir. You know the business.”
“And you know nothing more of his origins that might shed light upon his disappearance?” Now the driver was cagey, scouring the block with his eyes as if fearful of being overheard. He whispered low, “I heard he frequented Beijing Market. If you want details visit Mr. Xiao’s, his is the only twenty-four hour business here and he knows most things a man might want to know.”
“Ah,” said Holmes, putting out his gloved hand. I thought I detected a sovereign flash gold between their hands, but it was shadowy and late. The cabman whistled at his horse, releasing it into a smooth trot.
“Well, now we have an itinerary,” said Holmes.
“The apartment and then Mr. Xiao’s; that should be enough adventure for a humble doctor?”
“I’m game enough.”
“Good man,” said Holmes.
Wu’s apartment was three blocks from the river. There were exposed staircases leading up to the different doors. Awfully dingy looking and without any gas jets burning on the streets. A suspect mist clung to the street. There were clotheslines swinging gently; the desolate and chilly nature of the Chinese habitations; a crystallized tension.
We jogged up to the landlord’s apartment. A middle-aged but handsome woman in a green and black dress with polished wooden tablets for buttons opened the door and her apartment shed warmth upon the staircase. Her demeanor was hostile, however: “What do you want?” she spat.
Holmes, “Mr. Wu until recently let a flat with you Miss…”
“Yes, he was here, but now he’s gone!”
Her prickly attitude was fetching, but it might have been the fumes of absinthe burning off through my hormones that had me feeling robust.
“He is not here because he is missing. And you are aware of his abduction?”
“He owes me money; and he was an untrustworthy little man. I shouldn’t be surprised if I read in The Times tomorrow he is floating on his back in The Thames, or one of London’s mobs shipped him off to Mesopotamia to be a Sheik’s dog. And I don’t care either. Now who will rent the flat?”
“You don’t. . .”
“Are you a policeman? Are you a renter? What is your villainy? Out with it.”
“We are affiliated with Scotland Yard, madam.”
“Prove your position or begone.”
Holmes lifted his lapel and showed her the silver pin, and she slammed the door in his face with a whooshing.
“Hmm,” I remarked.
Mr. Holmes seemed peeved.
“Mr. Xiao’s?” I offered.
Holmes stood rooted.
“And then to bed. Most likely.”
“This way,” remarked my strange new acquaintance lighting a pipe then and waving out the match.
The moon was deep into the November firmament now. I could feel its beautifully clammy gravity resting in the film of moisture on my skin. It began to make inroads against the clouds, and to shine pale light onto our progress as we walked deeper in. The stalls leaking fluid, the storefronts with their repair scaffoldings haphazardly blocking out rooftops from view like prison walls, otherworldly scents, and an atmosphere of ancient transcendence.
We found Mr. Xiao’s shop at the end of a long street. It was very late, but the lights were on and the bell chimed when we went inside. The floors were lacquered wood, and the items were straightforward from a functional perspective. Mirrors, combs, music boxes of greater size than I had ever seen before, gold trim with window glass that one could open after winding to find a number of different little characters all of Oriental subjects—a man in black leading an ox over a grassy field, a cityscape, three fish: unlike English music boxes these did not spin after I turned them. There was a large selection of candles. And there was incense burning giving off an aroma of plum cider. We heard some noise in the back of the shop and walked back to find an elderly man making tea. “Hello Mr. Xiao? I am Sherlock Holmes of Scotland Yard and this is a doctor of medicine from Central London—are you the proprietor of this store operating into the late hours?” “I am the man who owns the store,” he said, “would you care for a cup of tea?” “I would,”—it did look very civilized. “You must forgive my colleague, he is unused to police investigation and may be quick with the camaraderie; I assure you he is a qualified professional. He took a tumble earlier this evening into the water after a drinking spell; and I have only just made his acquaintance.” “Well that is rather the long and short of it,” I muttered, sitting down in a chair that was possibly for sale but feeling flummoxed Holmes had brought up my ignoble actions to a total stranger.
“You are here about young Wu, I take it,” surmised the older man as he deftly poured out the hot liquid from a white porcelain teapot.
“That is correct,” remarked Holmes, “you are aware of our errand?”
“I am aware of most things that happen here.”
“So you are the man to see then about the missing boy,” said I with some sedition.
Mr. Holmes took my brusqueness in stride but through his pursed lips and grave expression I calculated that his insensitivity was not a ploy to enshrine some guilt within my breast but only to show a measure of respect to the older man by putting me on my heels. Better that we should not come off as two momentous
policeman without the proper respect for the proprietor. All of this I derived in seconds; my instincts were honing themselves back into battlefield mode, apparently.
“Yes, Mr. Wu’s disappearance. We have only been through a handful of interviews, but it seems he was a rather obscure young gentlemen. We have spoken to one of his co-workers and to his landlady, and they both gave the impression he had fallen into some kind of rocky lifestyle. Is there anything more that you can tell us”
Mr. Xiao walked a cup of tea over to me in my chair but did not look me in the face, only handed it to me—piping hot and subtle of aroma—then went back to his perch. He looked around the shop slowly, then pried, “You are men of Scotland Yard, and yet you wear no uniform.”
“That is true,” said Holmes, eschewing displaying the tiny pendant, perhaps then abashed in the presence of this senior authority of a foreign section of London.
“I have just received a shipment from China; this box here, beneath the table,” Mr. Xiao reached down and out of site then placed a wooden box, plywood and unpolished, on the display counter in front of him. “Dr. Watson, I believe a closer examination of the contents of this box would be educative to you in your office as a student of natural phenomenon.”
Holmes raised an eyebrow, and I detected a sense of his turf being encroached by an intelligence perhaps as pedagogical as I was finding his own to be; and yet, I stood up from my seated position, curious as to the contents of this mysterious box that the old Chinese man deemed worthy of my attentions.
In the Gobi it is placated
By the sounds of mud
A black orb
The Mongols feared to conquer the soil
“I say, if that’s a riddle it’s a bit obtuse for my logical mind. Make anything of this, Holmes?” I asked.
Holmes went into his pocket and took a sip of whiskey from his flask, then said, “It is a trapdoor spider. Native of North America, Africa, and China.”
My heart slowed in its beating.
“Indeed,” said Mr. Xiao, whisking away the lid from the box and displaying the polished and stuffed corpse of a large spider with a black body and white abdomen, “Are you familiar with the habits of the trapdoor spider, Dr. Watson?”
I had to confess that I was not. Afghanistan had many evil creatures to contend with, highest on the list the cave dwelling native savages. There was also the oppressive heat, vultures, wolves of such ferocity and nightmarish design that I shuddered to recollect my encounters with them. But the arachnids were thankfully left to other climates.”
“Put your hand here, Doctor Watson,” the man pointed at the center of the spider’s thorax, “just there.”
“Why?” I asked him.
“The trapdoor spider is a giant of the insect world. Thousands of times more powerful than its quarry. It rests placidly like a monster underneath the waves of the ocean. When its prey crawls over its lair, it reaches out with the speed of the cheetah and wraps the food down into the depths of the earth. You should experience the tactile nature of this animal. For respect as well as education. It may come in handy later.”
“Because you are a doctor of medicine, and he,” Xiao nodded towards the tall and aquiline Mr. Holmes, “is only a policeman.”
I approached the desk and ungloved my hand, leaning over and inspecting the ominous creature.
“It is opium, Doctor Watson.”
“Are you familiar with the drug?”
“It is a dangerous derivative of a mountain flower from China, discovered on a remote outcropping of rock by a doomed young woman. In the white and grey light of thinning air, in a patch of sunlight staring down through the dissipating clouds of the Himalayas. This is where she picked the first flower and brought it down into a small village where her lover was a man of stature who rode off to war. He left her for another woman of royal standing; only a peasant woman of homespun clothing and hair the color of sapphire stars she flung herself into a river when she discovered that she had been abandoned. But the flower she kept hidden in a box.”
“Sad story,” muttered Holmes.
But I was completely engaged by the man’s legend, “And this is how the drug came to be?”
“That is the story, at least. Whoever learned to engage the hypnotic qualities is not known. But the illusions of the flower are very real, and its undertow—one might say—is as uncompromising as the bite and patience of the unique creature that your hand now lingers above. Touch the spider. Free yourself of the fear and learn the myth of its consciousness…”
“Hmm,” I said, suddenly apprehensive.
But Holmes now seemed impatient that we should have the ordeal wrapped up, “Are you saying that Wu had succumbed to an opium addiction?”
But Mr. Xiao did not immediately answer Sherlock Holmes, only continued to look at me with curiosity.
I leaned away from the box then, “I don’t want to touch the spider. It scares me.” I might have been drunk but at least admitted it.
At this Xiao’s spell seemed broken, and he became quite ordinary and urbane, with a touch of English patriotism to boot, “Yes, Wu was one of the young men who became ensnared by the drug. There was not much I could do for him as I am only a shopkeeper in Queen Victoria’s realm, long may she reign. As to any aid that I could give to a man that wanted to throw in his lot with the gangs who run the opium dens and what have you I can assure you there is little I could do to assuage such an interest. There are several such establishments; for ten pounds I could tell you precisely what establishment he frequented.”
“I am short of cash at the moment,” remarked Holmes.
At this Xiao only sighed and replaced the box with the trapdoor spider underneath the counter once more then looked at his tea with annoyance because it was now no longer piping hot and he had spent his breath telling us about the spider so now it was like we were imposing.
“Let us retire then,” said Holmes.
“Yes I am quite tired.”
“Mr. Xiao, it was a pleasure to meet you. And thank you for showing us your little creature.”
The man bowed and we exited the shop, but upon reaching the door Xiao remarked, “Mr. Holmes,” he said making us pause, “Please be careful. There are other trapdoor spiders. Be aware that there may be one in particular who hears your maneuvers without your knowledge of his presence. Good night.”
By then it was well and truly late. It took us thirty minutes to make our way out of the inner sanctums of the Chinese District, and when we finally found a cabbie the driver was slumped asleep over his steed in the cold.
Saturday, November 29th—1870
Holmes appeared tall and dark across a rainy street the next afternoon as I was having a relaxing brunch—a steaming bowl of soup in front of me with crust of bread and butter. It was surprising to see him so determined looking as I was still recuperating from the previous night’s adventures. My constitution was fairly strong, but it was no match for this man’s; he appeared alert, curious. And I wondered if he hadn’t been downing coffee like a madman that morning or using some equally artificial means by which to stay inhumanely focused. He fairly stormed into the restaurant and sat down opposite me. “How in the world are you so up and at the world? I can’t think you’ve had a good night’s rest, and here you are with some fresh data?” He did not immediately answer but ordered grilled sardines, and a glass of champagne. It was almost December now, and the raindrops that fell lightly out the window of the restaurant would turn to freezing rain and perhaps snow at a moment’s notice. This at least was the forecast mooted by the newspaper that was folded in front of me. The mystery of Mr. Wu’s disappearance had not been clouding my thoughts that day, but the mystery deepened around me as Mr. Holmes only sat across the table in his beige raincoat sipping the champagne and waiting for his dish to arrive. “We should have little trouble tracking down the location of the parlor Wu was frequenting.” “No?” “Well, I paid some vagrants for information about the trade in Chinatown and they say there are only a handful of locations where someone of Wu’s station could afford to frequent. Two in particular, both situated in secret rooms in Chinese food markets. It should be interesting, and we may put to rest the mystery in some unforeseen way. That is always a hope: that a business should be wrapped up without having to track the thing all the way to the ocean floor if that makes sense.” “You mean we may get lucky.” “Precisely.” “The game is still afoot then?” I asked. “If you have an interest we can explore the evidence this afternoon.” “Perhaps a young Chinese woman will take a fancy to me.” Holmes laughed and refilled his glass of champagne.
It was an old storefront marketplace operating beneath a slate grey English day. The silicate and metals were particularly palatable here; when I looked up at the sky I fancied I could almost make out the specks swirling through the heavens, having belched forth from some chimney or open mine shaft—no it was an average day of England and nothing romantic about it.
The Chinese market we were looking over sold roots shaped like withered English mushrooms; like mushrooms the moisture retained gave off an odor. Perhaps the root was used for cooking, perhaps it possessed some homeopathic properties; Mr. Holmes seemed un-preoccupied by the merchandise, instead questioning the man who handled the pound notes and coins at the counter. I wandered around the shop, but it was very loud and busy and there was not much else to take away from the experience. Holmes eventually came away shaking his head and we left, making our way through alleys and side streets until we came to a dilapidated and abandoned produce market; we went inside where it was as quiet as a mouse; there was an old man resting his eyes with his feet up and his arms crossed in repose, but no one else was inside. We stepped as softly as cats passing the man, and moving amidst the overstuffed goods displays and between ever narrowing spaces until a flight of steps revealed themselves in the dim light. We went up the steps into a hallway painted with flaky white paint. Sunshine was coming through weakly, scattered by boarded up windows. Holmes knocked with his cane at a door in the wall. An abrasive and quick series of raps. A man opened it slowly and peered out, “Scotland Yard,” said Holmes smoothly. The man hissed with his eyes, but he opened up and slithered out, closing the door behind him without allowing us a glimpse of the interior of his domicile. “We must speak with some of your patrons, to question them about a missing person.”
“I will let you in. But you have to be quiet. These are my customers,” the man pleaded.
“We will not disturb the surface of calm, sir, I assure you.”
“OK,” he stammered and covered his mouth with his hand, but I couldn’t tell if it was shame, confusion, nausea or acceptance.
Now for the first time I felt the seduction of police work. We had entrée. We had credentials, of a sort. Power. We had a certain free reign over the underworld. How would Mr. Holmes—and I, apparently—exercise this authority? It was clear that the manager of this awful parlor was reluctant but had to give way, to accede to our investigation. And this was a narcotic in and of itself, perhaps. Where secret barriers had to melt away before us. We passed through into the distilled light of the first room, a single lightbulb threw pale shadows onto walls. There were beautiful women with the bit fixed between their teeth and smoke whirling about their faces. Sleek eyebrows. Hair pulled severely, but gorgeously, behind their heads. Dresses from a dream. Here were the women after all. And holding the toxic drug between their delicate fingers. It was a fleeting nightmare that confronted my personality and my ethics and made me waiver a bit. But Mr. Holmes took ahold of my shoulder and I swallowed my pride, or my reticence, or whatever it was that gave me pause and I felt the dirt of the grave in my spine resolving to keep silent, while I followed Holmes through this environment. The consulting detective got a curious expression in his eyes like a seagull who had nose of a fish hundreds of yards beneath him. Several men were milling about on cushions on the floor—dirty mattresses where they took their time with the pipes, all of them looking philosophical and erudite, as sophisticated as Cambridge philosophers contemplating the celestial orbits. We approached a man, Chinese, middle-aged and by the look of him a laborer with a beatific expression on his face and a certain lack of muscle about his limbs. Holmes peered into his eyes and the man peered back, although it was truly a shock to regard such a pathetic expression of suspicion and arrogance. We passed on to the next gentleman: fat, luxuriously attired, Holmes poked him with his cane but the man only belted out an insane laugh, and again we moved on. What were we looking for? I had little idea. There was a younger man in the corner of the room smoking. He had a mane of brown hair, and seemed somewhat recognizant of reality: a white man. We approached him and he became social, “Welcome to my little peace, gentlemen. The sun is awfully bright in this corner, but make yourselves comfortable. There will be a service in a few minutes. How may I have the pleasure of addressing you both? By title or by name?” Holmes sat down cross-legged and I took a spot on the dirty floor, trying not to wrinkle my nose at the sordid and faded smells of the cloth or to become too enraptured by the sight of women passing before my eyes like a river of emerald water, a veritable channel within my perception here present and then gone of a softer and brighter and deeper and more luscious experience than I would ever have access to. This is how they moved.
“Your friend seems smitten by the young ladies, and I cannot blame you sir, they are fond to look on. My name is Tully, Thomas Tully. You’ll have to excuse my retiring demeanor, but as you can see I’m quite lost in the dream, and the flower makes me a tad gregarious.”
“Hello,” said Holmes, and then did something strange, he motioned for one of the girls to bring over a pipe. She did so and offered him one and he took it cordially and brought it to his lips and then exhaled. But he did not extend it to me and for that I was not exactly grateful; I would have refused it anyway, because I am no follower. With dim eyes did I look upon him for a half moment while he accepted the drugged stick from the Chinese princess, but we avoided any unpleasant sarcasms from myself when he merely retained the opium smoking instrument in the crook of his arm and continued on in conversation with the young man, “Are you acquainted with the gossip about the neighborhood as it pertains to the disappearance of a young man by the name of Wu?”
“Oh yes, I know about that.”
I leaned forward now with curiosity and excitement, “Yes go on. . . attempting to help him along.
But the man only got quiet, leaning back against the cushions and blowing a wreath of smoke up at the ceiling slowly, and not saying anything. The entire room seemed to quiet down in fact and I could hear the pigeons with their stuffy cooing outside the thin walls.
“He was taken to The Halls of Perfect Tile, most likely.”
Holmes raised an eyebrow, “Are you having a laugh?” he questioned.
The man stopped smoking and said, “In a way.”
“What are The Halls of Perfect Tile?” I asked, intrigued beyond propriety’s limits, my overbearing medical personality making me a bore.
“What are they? Or rather who are they?”
“Underground. They take people underground. Demons of ancient China, supposedly. They snatch men and women alike; no one knows who will be next. And down underneath Chinatown they, apparently, feed on your soul in chambers made of white tiles.”
“This is a ghost story…” I said disappointed.
“Perhaps,” said the man. “Anyway many of the Chinese believe in a different kind of spiritual order than is pushed by our Anglican clergy, to leave subtlety at the curb. They have beliefs of their own, and there must be some reason or truth to them, much like our own Eucharist. Right right?” He looked both of us over with serene patience, his irises were dilated.
“How much of this have you been smoking, friend?” I asked him.
But at that moment one of the women came over with another pipe already lit for the man and she lifted the expended bowl from his hand and carried it away.
“It doesn’t look like we are going to get any useful information from Mr. Tully on the subject of young Wu’s disappearance. Are we sir?” Holmes looked disappointed and a bit angry with the young gentleman but the man only waved us off with equal sarcasm.
“It’s a bit rambunctious in here,” I commented as I stood up and quickly exited the parlor back out into the hall where Holmes was standing. “That was mildly interesting,” he noted, and then I remembered that he had smoked one of the bowls himself and it gave me pause for concern, “Are you going to be alright?” I asked him. “Yes,” he said, “but perhaps you might escort me back to my flat just in case; I have never dabbled in opium before so I am unsure of the effect upon me over the next hour or so. It’s probably harmless, but I do feel less myself and more digressing in my thoughts; there is a desire to feel the sunlight on my face and a lingering warm softness but with a kind of chaotic void at the periphery. I have heard of a similar sensory confusion before men freeze to death; a sense of feeling incredibly warm, as if they were before a fire at home, and an over-powering desire for sleep. These are good notes and should be taken down back at my apartment. So let’s head back. There is a large store of brandy in my bureau as a further incentive.”
“Very well, where exactly do you live?”
“The address is here as well as directions,” Holmes dug into his pocket and handed it to me.
“Planning ahead I see.”
“Yes,” he said.
On our way back through the byzantine market on the lower floor the man whom I surmised was effectively a lookout for the parlor upstairs stopped us with his eyes saying, “Wu was becoming an over-frequent visitor; that much you know, I believe.”
“We are gathering the facts,” said I while Holmes wavered next to me struggling against the effects of the drug. I sensed a kind of amusement in the man’s expression while he surveyed the agent of Scotland Yard.
“That is plain enough. But are you familiar with Wu’s family story?”
At this Sherlock Holmes perked up slightly and he nodded at the man who continued, “Wu’s father was rich, in China. But his fortunes declined as a result of some deeply complicated politics. Our way of thinking is unlike the British system, and the ancient royalty of the provinces holds sway over the fates of their subjects. His father was forced to move abroad to America to work in the mountains of Nevada blasting holes through rocks to make way for the large railroads companies. Dangerous work—he was unable to keep his son in the lifestyle of the soft and regal, and so he sent him here to London, because although lacking in money his family did have connections south of The Thames. Enough to establish him in a trade, if you can call driving a cab a trade. And this is how he came to lose his focus; London is an unforgiving city when one lacks funds to make a go of things.”
“I have seen many such stories played out at the hospital.”
The man shrugged and closed his eyes, going back to napping and declining to give us further information or attention.
I took Mr. Holmes by the arm then because he did look faint and led him out of the Chinese District back to his flat only a few blocks from a bend in The Thames where fishing boats were tied. The door was white, and there was a small staircase leading up through the center of the ceiling to a loft apartment spreading across the entire second floor. Downstairs I heard some doors slamming and a woman appeared bearing a tea tray that she set down, looking over Mr. Holmes with some concern as I too was studying him taking up residence on a small divan and placing his arm over his face. “A cold towel, madam, would do well at the moment as well as something to eat. He said there was brandy nearby as well and a small glass should put the thing right. I am a doctor, my name is John,” I held out my hand to the woman and she took it with a nod then went slowly back down the stairs, coming up shortly thereafter bearing the towel and some peasant bread with butter. Then she retired. The man’s story of The Halls of Perfect Tile was still on my mind and during our walk back to his flat and subsequent ride in the hansom I felt an uneasy presence, as though someone were watching our movements. Additionally there were a few men with dark eyes who seemed to be checking our progress all the way back to the man’s apartment. They were smartly dressed, but keener in their posture than any gentlemen whom I had ever seen. Indeed I detected an undercurrent of something unwholesome, and even sublime—an aesthetic that I was well acquainted with. The mindset of death. Not something that we go on about in the hospital, but there is a kind of lingering that attaches itself to one’s skin when dealing with matters of the hereafter. Altogether unpleasant, eerie, and tangible. It is a kind of atmospheric viscera and it never ceases to make my skin crawl. And these men projected that cold. Whether police or villain was uncertain to me. Were we being pursued? It could have been my imagination and the opium vapors that I had invariably inhaled just being within the confines of the unsavory establishment, but an anxiousness gripped me that I had not felt since I had been a soldier and had traveled through an ancient marketplace in Kabul where dark things scuttled between hovels and the shade between the buildings was as black as the sun was burning white. Fear clung to the man’s apartment. And although it made me uneasy to do it I readied myself to depart so as to embrace the routines of medical life once more, and to leave this strange investigator to his apparently quite volatile life. Peering out the window I imagined I saw three men lurking at a newsstand across the street—huge and aggressive and sunken into their coats and hats and leaving no trace of the finer aspects of life. A chill went through me, but no wind ruffled the curtains. Turning to see Mr. Holmes napping I excused myself and ran back to my own apartment, locking it and hoping to have left the shadowy figures and the strange mystery of Mr. Wu’s disappearance behind me.
Sunday, November 30th—1870
A tea house of all places is where we found ourselves at lunchtime November 30th. An uneventful day had been my bill of fare until Mr. Sherlock Holmes my newest acquaintance and a most peculiar character approached me while I sat in a park reading the Sunday edition of The Times of London decompressing from the events of the previous afternoon and attempting to set my mind at peace before another week of hospital life stalked the hours of my Sunday like an eager tiger. But the routine that was set needed my total attention, and until Holmes came upon me in the afternoon sitting at the bench and preparing mentally for the week to come there was no sense of drama to the day, only a preparative relaxation. But, in the middle of the Sports section was I when the shadow crossed the ink and paper and looking up there was Mr. Holmes standing tall and warm amidst the barren tree branches of fall, “Dr. Watson,” he greeted. And so an hour later we were on the doorstep of a most gorgeous tea house. On the main floor was a large dining hall with giant round tables grouped closely together. Several tables were occupied by men and women having tea and eating a prodigious number of dishes brought to them on various tiered carts wheeled by servants. But primarily the tables served as gaming tables for rowdy looking games of dominoes. Tiles were white and had a horizontal line across the middle and a small number, denominating each tile’s worth to the game in the upper left hand corner. People were laughing and carrying on in fine array of clothing. There seemed to be a social aspect to it; almost like a ritual, and Holmes and I both paid a certain amount of respect to the players by holding ourselves up, standing tall, with dignity. “Are we going to question people here? This might not be the appropriate milieu to make a show of force,” I hinted. “Yes, I gathered,” he said but I saw that his eyes were resting on a table at the other side of the room and my eyes followed his until I perceived Wu’s landlady whom we had met two nights earlier seated and looking pretty in a red flowery dress with her hair combed out. Her severe attitude seemed preserved by the cross narrowing of her eyebrows but she held the tiles before her gamely; Holmes lit a cigarette and we both took up a position in a corner of the room to watch the people. Xing Ping was holding court at one of the eating tables and his eyes gleamed when one of the carts filled with delights rolled past him. The place was noisy but I heard a soft clattering of tiles and looked over to the table where the landlady sat. An elderly man—quite feeble—was staring down at the floor where lay his playing tiles scattered white dollops against the hardwood floor. The landlady reacted quickly and softly reaching down before the man could make the effort and scooping his tiles back onto the table; she then went back to concentrating on her own dominoes as if nothing had disturbed her composure. But Holmes said, “Ah,” and he turned away from the hall and walked out without saying a word to me. I lingered for a moment taking in the beauty of the room before chasing him out, not wanting to be left alone in the mysterious tea house. Out into the London traffic we found ourselves. We went to a local tavern and drank some good sherry and chatted idly.
When night came we went back to the lonely apartment block where Wu had lived and knocked on the door. The woman opened it and Holmes immediately said, “What is your name?” Now she was less confident than in our previous encounter. She whispered, “Lin.” Well Miss Lin I believe that you should open the door and let us in, making this as easy as possible would be your best course of conduct after all is said and done.” “No you can’t come in here.” “Not even for the men of Scotland Yard will you yield?” She didn’t say anything so Holmes continued, “Not even for the men from The Halls of Perfect Tile?” At this she went pale and said, “That’s just a ghost story…” “Yes…” said Holmes, now turning down his lapel and showing her the silver pendant with the number “50” etched officiously on its surface. The door opened slowly and we were inside her flat. It was the ground floor and there was a doorway that Holmes looked at, saying, “Now open that door.” She opened it and Holmes pulled out a revolver and handed it to me saying, “Keep her seated there.” I took the pistol and waved Miss Lin to a chair next to a kitchen table while Holmes opened the door to a basement of some kind and went down the stairs. A few moments later he was back up with a tired looking young man with his hands bound behind his back. “I just wanted to protect him.” Wu looked with acid upon the woman, but he did not utter a word. “I saw the act of kindness at the gambling hall when the old man dropped his dominoes; and that is how I knew that you were the culprit. Wu was weak, he was sensitive, but he was being eaten alive by opium. The trap door spider was waiting for him and he was beginning to tread over its trap.” “Trapdoor spider?” “The opium. You knew that the only way to keep him away from it, to keep him alive perhaps, was to abscond with his person completely such was the power of the drug over his aristocratic nature.” “Yes,” she said. “However it is against the law to kidnap someone, and therefore you must follow us to Scotland Yard for your processing.” “Surely that is a bit harsh,” I remarked, “perhaps the young man shouldn’t want to press charges,” but Wu kept mum standing there. “Cut him loose doctor while I escort Lin to the jail.” “I cannot square the morality of this. Does justice have such strange finality?” “It is not our business to judge the law, only to administrate its prosecution, doctor. Now then,” he took the pistol away from me and led Miss Lin out the door.
Monday, December 1st—1870
The next day at the hospital I continued to turn over the arrest of the tragic woman from the day before and could still not square the thing in my mind. In fact, I was happy to be away from such moral relativity and back to the more iron clad business of medicine. At lunch, Mr. Holmes appeared and told me that he had put in a good word with the woman with his superiors and that Wu himself, after sleeping on it, had also been to Scotland Yard to express his own guilt in the matter and a desire that the woman should be treated leniently. “I think a week at the Yard and Miss Lin should be back to her old self and safely ensconced in the Chinese District once more. What will become of Wu is another question; perhaps next time she won’t make the effort to save him, and you will see him rolling along the halls of the hospital to the morgue.” “That would be a sad end for the poor boy, surely.” Holmes shrugged and said, “I am looking for a lodger by the way. Reasonable rent and Mrs. Hudson is a kind and effective servant and would come at no additional cost to you…” It sounded like he was pleading a bit so I just said, “Fine fine Mr. Holmes, we can lodge together if that is your wish.” I made a noise like a bored horse and said, “221 B Baker Street, I take it.” “Yes your things can be packed this evening and it should be a fun thing. We can smoke and have brandy and look out upon London. Perhaps you could aid me in a case or two.” “Let’s do it.”
There Was No One Looking
We were renting a loft apartment far from Baker Street. The current case of my new roommate, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, involved a fisherman swept out to sea during a large storm. Three others had been present on the vessel with no evidence available pointing to any single malefactor.
On that particular September evening, I found myself gazing from a window at a languid procession of steamboats gliding peaceably down the river to the ocean. Holmes rested on a dusty couch. And as I stood looking, my heart suddenly clenched at a loud noise that draped the flat in nervous energy. Peering down, I saw a young woman spinning back and forth on the sidewalk. She knocked again with her bunched fist at our door.
“Is that us?” asked Holmes evenly, clearly miffed at being disturbed.
I walked down the soft wooden steps to investigate, once more noting the highly pungent and soaking the carpet odor of seawater seemingly obscuring all other sensory input when one rented so close to the water.
Incredible poise: this was my initial impression of the fashionably dressed young woman at our doorstep—like opening the door on a blooming blue flower. Additionally that I was in the presence of great wealth—a female who stood tall and held my gaze.
“Greetings,” she stammered. The time I was spending with Holmes was beginning to give me a kind of contact high of intelligence, and I was beginning to discern things about character, demeanor and thoughts with only the slightest observation or data. She seemed on edge. And events would soon prove my hypothesis correct. It was a kind of prognosticating method not really in tune with my training; but probability was turning out to play a larger role in my daily life than might not have been the case were I not keeping company with the young investigatory talent who even now lay upstairs on the couch smoking cigarettes and nursing a hangover.
I stepped through the door and onto the street, “How may I help? My name is Doctor John Watson. Are you alright?”
“That dovetails with my information, sir. Is this the current residence of Mr. Sherlock Holmes? He is…renting?”
A slight hesitation from me, “Well—”
“Scotland Yard said he could be found at this address. Detective Lestrade claimed Mr. Holmes was the premiere consulting officer for ‘obtuse crimes’—his words. I’m not sure my problem could be described as that. But I am in need of counsel.”
“Obtuse crimes,”—I laughed at Lestrade’s insult, and opened the door for her, “He’s just there,” I said, throwing my thumb at the stairs and looking down.
The trams were going by; their metallic frames screamed as iron flaked up into the air; the smell of rust and ozone was in my nostrils as I turned back up the stairs and before the mildew of the cheap apartment reconquered my face.
Her dress made a rustling noise like an angry insect shooed away from a flower as she went up. And I followed, taking up my former position by the window, and watching her as she cocked her head and surveyed our unkempt living arrangements—the air redolent of spent matches and open bottles both spirituous and chemical. The clutter was astonishing, in fact. But fatigue overwhelmed my sense of propriety, and instead of cleaning up I went for the Times on the floor, laying in a heap of fibrous paper and cold ink.
The situation of Holmes and our guest passed from my attention for these reasons: there were responsibilities taking precedent in my waking hours that grasped me in all of their complicated immediacy: patient cases. And although my inner monologue may not have indicated it, the details of their ailments and problems were an arithmetic that subsumed my time. My ability to contextualize, at any and all pedestrian moments of the day (including the intrusion of a Spanish beauty), these calculations—perhaps only yielding the result much later in a flash of understanding as a man’s pulse began to weaken beneath my fingers—was an unconscious process taking place at all hours and even in sleep. Alcohol brought rest to these reflections where sleep brought only the high drama of surgery replayed. Reflex movements—raising an arm at a phantom process; and the nightmares bringing me back to wakefulness violently. Perhaps a doctor’s mind is not more important than the next man’s, but under the knife mayhap that languid reflection of leisure and solitude which clears the cobwebs of confusing reality in our present moment is, after all, a necessary evil. Because although I may have been tired, the relaxation amidst the ocean of complexity borne by my new roommate, and his quest for silly criminal absolution, as well as my own trade was a rarified therapy. I went for the sports section of the newspaper.
“Well, it is turning out to be a fair spring out there in the streets,” said Holmes from the couch. He grappled clumsily for his coveted Persian slipper lying haphazardly on the floor, spewing tendrils of shag. Like a vagrant he pinched some up—half from the slipper and half from the floor—then lit with a match. Mr. Holmes stumbled up bravely with the stem in his mouth and picked up a bottle of sherry next to his desk and poured two glasses—one, two—then handed one to me: “Yes indeed,” I sighed,
The woman broke into our toasting: “Yes. Well it is The British Museum, Mr. Holmes, if that is who you really are; I trust it is a congenial time for you to hear what I have come in haste to relay?”
“Can I offer you a sherry?” said the detective.
He went back to the couch, and sat down with his sherry and fluffed a pillow for a moment, beating it into a comfortable shape, then said, “Of course the British Museum is an institution we are familiar with. We would be absentee subjects indeed were we not fluent in some respect with Her Majesty’s prized archive.” He drank down the sherry about half, and lay back on the couch, lighting a cigarette and waiting for further instruction.
The woman took a soft breath that raised her dress a few inches towards her rosy neck and said, “In short, Mr. Holmes, The Museum has been robbed. A new acquisition not scheduled for display until this morning.”
Holmes perked up a bit, “What new acquisition? You mean the coins from the newspapers?”
“Yes sir. A recently discovered collection of Roman coinage found in Sussex and valued at millions of English pounds! After much study and restoration these many coins have ben prepared for public display.”
“What are the facts of the theft?” said Holmes.
My enthusiasm gripped me around the throat, “By Jove!” I exclaimed, and flipped through the already yellowing pages of yesterday’s Times. I had been through it once already, and remembered seeing an advertisement. At last before me was a half-page display: the very exhibit described by the young woman who held our attention on that September eve:
“This Friday Special Exhibit: ROMAN Treasure. Praetorian Lords of Mercian Wealth. Caesar’s PLUNDER at British Museum. Come And See Severus and his Vanquished Foes! — Friday, September 10th, 1871 FREE: WITH MUSEUM ADMISSION.”
News and the real world had crossed paths and blown out their limits; on either end was the scene before me in crystal detail. It was then that Mr. Holmes rose in my esteem. He was more than just the absurd hobbyist detective of private means, but instead a personage of greater significance than I yet comprehended. The very pages of The Times! The drama unfolded before my eyes! It was purely synesthetic. Power, or some kind of madness, coursed through me then—something connected to my fate.
“All was complete, and all was set. Oh dear,” moaned the woman making me start.
“Two nights ago the valuables were stolen. As yet, the incident has not been made public. My name is Monica Trills. I am currently a member of the board with the museum. My father fell ill two years ago, and a portion of his bequest included the seat, and the duties commensurate with it. I fear his trust was misplaced now.”
“Do not falter, my lady. We will come with you at once to the museum, as you wish” said Holmes reassuringly.
It was all rather too interesting for words, and I volunteered an agreeing word to our guest, “Yes,” I said, finishing the sherry, “let us to the British Museum then.”
“Tally ho,” said Holmes.
We disembarked from the carriage around suppertime all three of us. Palatial apartments grew up towards the sky in the tony neighborhood of Hyde’s Landing like ancient trees; gentlemen in new livery moved purposefully; ladies of extraordinary blossoming youth here and there. The moon was as cold as a coin.
The museum was closed, and inside it was deserted but for a dark face here and there—watchmen of the Museum. Marble statues stared down from their plinths. Tapestries spun from the ceiling—red and black diamonds against grey fields; the floor checkered tile, about nine centimeters of clean, polished slate that our hard soles scraped against.
We followed the Spaniard, quickly passing the bones of a prehistoric reptile in an alcove. We moved around corner after corner. I saw medieval knights in parallel formation with spears in hand—their helmets had pins and needles around the visors, and eye holes like litmus paper. Magnificent artifacts.
Finally, we arrived at the basement level where dark velvet ropes guided patrons to the center of the room. “The coins,” nodded Sherlock, indicating an empty case with gold metal inlay. My eyes took in the new exhibit—Roman standards with their eagle summits, weapons of war, iron tools in columns, a turquoise and black charcoal of the infamous aqueduct on the outskirts of Rome, and finally a large and imposing banner featuring the emperor Severus keeping watch over it all. The display case at center rose four feet from the ground with space enough for visitors to get a complete look at the pieces as they moved clockwise around the perimeter.
Monica stepped up to the glass, “Here Mr. Holmes,” she said, pointing to a gigantic iron box torn asunder as if the iron sheeting had been pried apart by a giant’s hand. The thick material was frayed like a half-eaten banana. Inside the ruined safe was a large and heavy looking lock. “May I have a look?” I asked Trills; she stepped away from the dais giving us the crime scene to ourselves, and I turned over the lock, and perceived the engraved serial number in the dimly lit room.
Holmes sauntered away while I puzzled over the lock and began casting about like a vulture around the greater area of the hall, bending his back down and squinting about the corners and at the various items. He removed a small eyeglass, and peered through it and using an index finger to taste something on the floor; he gripped the wooden Roman standard, stepping over a cordon to do so; and he sighed with concentration while he closed an eye and measured the exact proportions of the space in his mind’s eye. Monica looked both confused, and a little disgusted at his gestures. But he seemed unfazed by her disapprobation. Finally he came over and stood next to me at the exploded box where I had failed to make any progress in garnering an idea about the cause of it all.
Holmes said in a low register, “This is strange: iron cast box sealed to the floor by columns and by virtue of mass, iron fittings, and an iron forged keyhole here—” he placed two hands on the box, one on either side of the box. “A casing to protect the lock proper. Very efficient security—and yet these char marks are peculiar. The violence of the blast is obvious. Just look at the iron torn apart. But the volume of explosive, by comparison with the damage, is incongruous. See here not even the glass case next to where the explosion too place is shattered. My calculations do not scan.”
He then went to inspect the steel lock and his eyes narrowed, “Silence,” he said to the empty room, and going into his pockets. I heard him say sarcastically, “A single lock to safeguard Roman coins…” and out of his pocket was produced what looked like a navy blue notebook, but upon opening it revealed metal rods fitted into looped, canvas sleeves. It was indeed a lock picks toolkit.
Holmes brushed me away from the side of the case, and began tinkering dramatically with the lock. After five minutes of concentration it snapped back and detached like a sea turtle’s shell. Holmes turned to face Trills: “This is a Shropshire lock—rather new, but the solution has been worked out recently. Although that is not public knowledge. No it was some criminal, clever chap, loose lipped engineer, or other, who breathed the solution onto the black market for a stipend. In any event, the lock itself was a minor complication in the robbery. The only question seems to be how the iron box was destroyed so efficiently, and without bringing along any museum officials to notice.”
“You mean it was simply done?” she managed.
“Steady on, Holmes” I advised beginning to see the symptoms of a nervous collapse in Miss Trills—eyelids twitching involuntarily, hands gripping the air in front of her without purpose, eyes dashing about the chamber as if in search of a phantom.
With a bored look creeping into his eyes, Holmes took a long breath and said, “I’m afraid it could have been done by almost anyone. It would not take a master criminal to get around this lock, although it is large, and complicated looking, unwieldy even; as you have just seen it only took me minutes to solve. I do keep assiduously abreast of such issues, and have done so for many years, but there are a litany of similar-minded although less idealistic men who make it their business to deploy this knowledge for more nefarious purposes. We will take your case on a conditional basis; but you must understand that whoever picked this lock will be difficult to locate. Who exploded the box—yes—or more particularly how it was done—this is my true line of investigation. As yet the perpetrator’s strategy eludes me. But there is nothing more I can do for you this evening than explain the error of your logistical preparations in selecting the Shropshire with regard to the theft of your coins. Good evening, miss,” and with that Holmes turned around and began to walk away from the woman and towards the street, and I followed him.
On the carriage ride back, I peered out the window as we passed Trafalgar Square. The clouds above us were dark and blue like an Antarctic sea. The indigo feathers of pigeons looked like a Raja’s peacock in the orange pools of lamplight.
Holmes came into the apartment Saturday morning looking particularly odious, wrapped up against the fall rains like one of King Henry’s grey steeds.
“Where have you been?” I asked him.
“To our public house at the corner. They have the most delicious, milkiest breakfast stout I have tasted this year.”
“Fair,” I said, going back to reading the Times with my feet up on the ottoman.
“It served a purpose. I was able to question one of our suspects in the mystery of the drowned fisherman: he suggested the mortality of his friend was uncertain. But it is highly unlikely he made it to land,” yelled Holmes energetically as he began to unpack a parcel of groceries. “I hope you have an appetite; after the stout I am positively famished,” he pulled out jars of preserves and fresh bread and a new pouch of tobacco. He sparked his pipe and continued, “And even if he did manage to float to nearby cliffs they are impassable. Stevenson wrote of the maze of tide pools there. No, Mr. Forsythe would have had a tough time of it in the best of circumstances. The additional factor that he was lost during unsettled weather is another consideration. Perished no doubt,” said Holmes ripping off a piece of bread and ladling a small spoon of olive relish onto it.
“Who of the three exactly did you interview?”
“I am certain the man and captain of the vessel whom palavered with me over stout—a one Ronald Nesbit—is innocent; but he was able to furnish me with some precise facts of the case; facts of which I was already familiar, of course, but it was interesting to get his more anecdotal account of events when he had relaxed after a few glasses with me of course.”
“Well, it’s all new to me,” I interjected, “slow down. You may as well start from the beginning.”
“One month ago Nesbit’s ship sailed to a quadrant of sea well known for spectacular catch. Three men, and one woman were present—as you are well aware. There was Nesbit, Donald Forsythe, Abe Trollope, and Mrs. Anne Forsythe—wife of our missing man. Nesbit is a seasoned captain, whereas his hired hands were itinerants who came cheap. The boat is called ‘The Admiral Nelson’—of course,” Holmes snickered to himself. “It was a half day’s steam around the cliffs of Dover and up the western line of England. Upon arriving they set out the nets at one-thirty in the afternoon, hoping to bring them in at supper; then Nesbit planned arrival back in London at dawn the following morning.”
“And what makes you think the captain had nothing to do with it?”
“He seemed at peace with the issue and unafraid of my official errand. Truly an honest man. Such was my conjecture after spending only twenty or thirty minutes with him that he had nothing to do with the murder: and this is my simple method for getting to the bottom of some types of crimes, Watson—merely speaking with someone to discern whether or not they equivocate or dissemble, whether they speak around the facts, and to then narrow my inquiry towards their attempts at dishonesty. A concentrated conversation usually yields greater dividends than a search for bits and pieces of evidence leading to other bits and pieces. I could tell that he was innocent by the way he compartmentalized information through speaking. That said, a complete recitation of the facts of the expedition was still essential. They are facts that bring other pieces of the canvas to light. Does that make sense to you?”
I nodded, sensing a kindred intelligence—dispassionate and grasping towards new ideas. Perhaps we were becoming friends after all, “I believe that it does.”
“They were just beginning to collect their catch when a rainstorm cropped up, ‘like a host of windy pebbles hitting the deck’ is the way Nesbit described it. Quite a wordsmith after a few pints, like all Englishmen.”
“But still the man went into the water,” I challenged.
“Yes, he did. Mr. Forsythe was at the bow of the boat, attempting to hook a net when he disappeared. Nesbit was aft along with Trollope and Forsythe’s wife.”
“Yes,” I said, raising an eyebrow and opening a bottle of white wine while Holmes unwrapped a fresh packet of cigarettes and began to pace, “The captain had no further details about the incident. If it was an insurance swindle he had been wanting to take a stake in there was nothing for it as Forsythe had little to his name in the way of funds. He and his wife shared a small apartment living childless in their ruined dwelling. Her deceased parents were somewhat well to do and bought them their flat. But her parents were the victims of a graft scheme perpetrated by political interests. They were financially ruined and passed to the next life within a few months of each other. They left their only child the apartment as her inheritance.” Holmes took a long drag from his cigarette, “And so for the past five years the Forsythe’s have survived by taking odd jobs, and leading a frivolous and lazy lifestyle on the residuals of her family’s.”
“That does sound like the way of the world, doesn’t it?”
“Yes it does,” said Sherlock Holmes.
The rest of the evening we spent smoking, drinking copious amounts of expensive alcohol that Holmes seemed to make appear out of thin air such that even my own pocket book balked, and reading London’s many newspapers.
I was back to my rounds at the hospital the very next morning, waking before dawn and making the long trek through the bowels of London to the hospital. Among criminals and thieves and the sounds of howling patients, the smell of blood every now and then prodded its way up to my nostrils from strange doorways and through grates.
After the morning call was complete, I went to the second floor office intending to put my feet up for a few minutes between patients. The morning had been fraught with interesting study: an inquest on a mute drowned near Traitor’s Gate; a man succumbing to rabies whom we had to restrain in his fervor; a woman delivered her baby in full view on the main floor. My office was a place to rest my eyes for a few moments, and reflect on the new data and experiences. The window was open letting in a fresh afternoon chill. My eyes closed wearily.
A few minutes passed quietly in Charring Cross Hospital, then a sharp knock broke my reverie. I got up and opened the door and Monica Trills confronted me, alone in a fetching purple dress and heavy, meaningful intensity streaking around behind her brown eyes. “My goodness,” I said, “please come in. I’m sorry I was just napping.” She looked around my small office with a nod of approval—perhaps at its utilitarianism, “Your friend did not meet his obligations. He failed to locate the collection,” she sniffed, “and now I am as good as ruined. Mr. Holmes is a sociopath. It’s clear enough.” It was not my desire to disagree, but I offered my alternative view regardless: “He has some strange ideas about his craft, admittedly; but there is nothing wrong with his mind.” “The lawyers have been pecking at my entrails. The news reports have made the museum look very bad, and my own role has been amplified considerably. My position would not withstand a clean vote. Now my suspicions increase that my very life may be in danger.” “You’re life, madam?” Her eyes narrowed darkly, “Indeed sir. It was only through a rash escape attempt that I stand before you now. There were figures; somehow I gained a cab’s attention and lost them. But a more evil swarm I have never encountered on the streets of London.” “They pursued? Why not go to the police? Why come here? I am just a physician in the middle of my day.” “It was my hope that you might help me locate the coins where your friend has given up the hunt. You are his lieutenant; surely you must have some special skills in this area or else why would he bring you with him to the museum?” My mind was a spiral and I froze waiting to be saved by a cold September breeze through the window that would lift me out the window and set me down on the other side of town. But now she began to cry, and it made my head sag for a few moments before I rallied: “You should be perfectly safe here in the office. I will go look to see if any of the men whom you described are here or if you have evaded them effectively. What exactly did you see? Details.”
She was vague but clearly alarmed, “You will no doubt think me nervous, sir. It was a dark shape in a window at first; one in the alcove of a church. But my breath left my lungs. Then another striding past me in the street at great speed. They all three wore masks.”
“Masks?” I asked slowly.
She began to babble, “Theater or opera masks—they were white. Perhaps Italian party masks. But there was no expression. It didn’t seem to give notice to others in the throng, or perhaps they were acquainted with the characters—a local theatrical troupe perhaps? These agents crowded upon me so quickly however that I just…”
“It will be alright,” I said soothingly, “There are small cigars in the drawer here, and brandy. Let me make an inspection, and speak with the guards.” And with that I went out, closing the door softly behind me.
I went downstairs and outside where the wind was swirling around specks and trash. It wasn’t storming yet; but it was in the air. I slowly walked down the steps of the hospital peering around for mysterious, shadowy masked men. But all was quiet. When the wind blew, it gave me a macabre chill; my soldiering instincts could feel surveilling eyes, and I wished Holmes was there to calm my nerves and help me take a more rational attitude. But he was not, and I had to admit it made me suddenly nervous to be at the center of this case, recalling the synesthetic flush of reading in the paper of the Roman exhibit while Miss Trills detailed the theft before me. There was a certain new sense of guilt then. Guilt at what? At reveling in tabloid? But I was a part of the story, my conscious mind impleaded. Complex pseudo-intellectual equivocating clashed with the very real fear of the presence lurking around the London corners under the bleak September sky. Without any real office commensurate with the dealings—for lack of a better word—perhaps my voyeurism was, in point of fact, above my abilities or station. I was no policeman, no consulting detective, my role—as it were—was on the back end of such adventurism; when things went wrong or men were caught out in brutal fashion, this was typically when the foxes and hounds of the underworld made their way into the wards of my hospital and my work began. Now I was faced with the prospect of being at the center of the action at the hospital itself: a collapsing telescope was reality, was philosophy, was crime. I missed my Afghan sidearm at that moment.
There were still a few people coming in and out of CCH. I looked up and down the street blinking and looking for miniscule movements, anything oily and violent, before turning back and heading through the doors to the office.
When I got there, Mrs. Trills was reading one of my reference books pulled from the shelf. I went over to see what subject had caught her attention when an oil lantern came crashing through the window of the office, sending a streak of flame across my desk and making me jump sideways violently. A fantastic booming commotion emanated from the first floor shaking my teeth. “Fire!” I heard someone yell, and a general commotion of human panic went up angrily into the smoke; the enflamed oil lamp’s reserves licked hardly at the ceiling, blowing a white hot flash of heat across my face and catching papers and books aflame like water spilled across a glass surface.
I grabbed Mrs. Trills by her shoulders and lifted her into my arms plunging outside into the hallway. There were patients and orderlies running pell mell in the confusion. “Water!?” someone shouted.
“What’s happening, John?” blubbered a nurse who was suddenly in front of me, her face red and hair wispy with terror and sweat.
“I don’t know, Susan, but we must evacuate the hospital at once. I’m just to see this young lady to safety. Perhaps a carriage. There’s a fire in my office—”
On the stairway from story two to story one three men in golden masks appeared as if summoned by the devil himself. They were tall, sinister, wearing black. They moved with ferocity—the acrid smell of smoke increased the unreality of their presence. A strange, unstable top hat was fixed on one of their heads; a small predatory mouth like a rasping octopus, the third figure was tall and eager in his malicious grinning. They were strong natural killers who menaced the stairway with golden handled knives flashed out of their pockets and the folds of their cloaks. Steel springs arced deathly metal sparkles in the hospital stairwell blinding my civilized mind, and I reeled back to my days of red desert combat; the eagle a black dot against the sheet white sun. They moved together in a strange pattern like boxers controlling a volume of space with their precise movements so that there was nothing I could do but make a gambit. But they were too fast, and dashed me against the wall violently. Trills screamed. From the floor and through a gash that drained blood into my eyes, I could see them making off down the first floor steps with Miss Trills in their custody. I pushed myself off the floor and ran after them—stumbling at first, but then getting my feet under me with smoke filling my nostrils and plowed out into the September evening with my hands going cold immediately, my pulse everywhere, my exhalations painful.
It was then, for the first time, that I decided that London life was going to require a bit more ordnance than my wits and walking stick, and I made the decision to get a sidearm after extricating myself from this dangerous little jam—if I survived the following ten minutes anyway. My shoes hit the pavement outside with a scrape, and I heard a struggle, someone crying out from the street; I jolted forward up to a man with a stricken face—just some chap there in a brown suit. He pointed down an alleyway and I turned into it, and saw the three men who had Trills in their fierce grip making a clean getaway; yet their progress was hampered somewhat by the noble protestation of the young woman. I saw one of them club her across the face with the heel of his blade knocking her cold and tossing her ragged frame over his shoulder.
I went nimbly down the alleyway as fast as I could, speeding up quietly and taking a great leap with all my weight and putting my big shoe into the trailing figure’s back knocking him against the brick wall like an old tea kettle in my fury. His face battered up against the English brick sending Trills toppling down onto the ground in a heap of hem and cuff. Two were still on their feet, whirling about and hissing behind their masks like African lions seething with alarm and frustration. Cornered vipers. Death. They brought their knives up slowly, and pressed upon me from both sides like two sides of an expanding triangle closing in on the apex and I brought up my balled fists tightly to protect my throat and deliver a hammer blow to an unlucky party.
Just as the men were about to cut me to ribbons there was a strange whoop from above and a sweep of darkness passed before my eyes as heavy shapes crashed on top of the masked men from out of nowhere. Three others charged in at a sprint and with a yell; my antagonists whom were just about to receive a certain drubbing from myself screeched as they toppled over, cartwheeling onto their heads. They landed heavily and went silent receiving their just deserts at the hands of—who were these men? Who had saved us? Mrs. Trills still lay unconscious on her side in the dust.
Our saviors were unkempt to a man; they smelled uncivilized. Missing teeth. Gutter accents. They looked as though their pockets could have carried nothing at all, least of which papers of identification, watch chains, cigars. One vagrant turned to me with a chuckle, saying “Mister Sherlock Holmes is a friend” and bent down to ransack the pockets of the nefarious figures now lying bloodied and broken—their masks revealing handsome young gentlemen of smooth and blushing visage. “Thank you” I yelled, looking over at Monica, “I’m sure she will also be pleased to make your acquaintance, once she recovers.” “I will leave that to you, Dr. Watson.” “You know me?” I stammered still trembling from the anxiety and exhilaration of the violence. He put out a hand and said “Orville D’Agostino.” I shook it. Then he whistled to his compatriots and they left back up the alleyway, looking both ways, and disappearing into the London traffic.
There was a new fog rising when we walked back across the street to the hospital with Monica finally awake and breathing normally at my side. She refused to leave me that evening; and we wound up back at my apartment sharing two bottles of whiskey and falling asleep in bed together. But my eyes remained half open, and my senses alert to any creeping cleverness.
When I arrived at the wharf apartment the next morning there were policemen milling around outside, and a police van with an open door as if ready for transport to a city jail. I went upstairs where a large crowd of people was in our flat gathered around in a circle, many of whom were constables. And at the center of the action a young woman looking quite nervous and speaking in a low whisper to Sherlock Holmes sitting attentively on the couch with his hands clasped between his legs. I didn’t immediately say anything but only turned to a man standing at the top of the stairs and whispered, “What’s happening?” “Mrs. Forsythe is giving a full confession to the murder of her husband: Times of London,” he breathed. “Ah,” I said, and inched closer to the woman so that I might make out her words more clearly. There were tears around her eyes: “Yes the rain had cropped up out of a sunny sky and overtaken the boat as we were beginning to reel in the last third of the nets. It was a high and dark tower of clouds and the sun was still on my face when I saw the rain coming down in sideways tendrils against the bright day; it bore down from Northern England and out over the sea. We could see the cliffs of the coastline just barely, and there were many traps to bring in. My arm was still in pain underneath the bandages where he had burned me. And I just waited for the opportunity; I had been waiting for the opportunity. Eventually the air went grey around our boat and then it began to rain on us. He was at the front of the boat, and we were at the back so I placed my yellow rain slicker down while the other men were bringing in the catch and made a haphazard and reckless scramble along the side of the boat almost slipping into the sea myself on unsure footing. I knew the thing would need to be done at once and I grabbed an oar and bashed him across the head so that he fell down over the side of the boat into the swell. Then I ran back aft and took up my position. They hadn’t noticed my absence, and I wouldn’t have cared if they had done so. He was dead in the ocean. And it was as well as he deserved.”
They led her away making smirking expressions as the woman bowed her head, and we listened for the horses led away from the corner and off to no doubt a hangman’s noose.
With that unpleasantness done with, I was finally able to tell Holmes the story of Miss Trills and the thieves. “And they said that you were a friend, Holmes,” I said to him while Detective Lestrade stood by with a concerned expression on his face. “Ah my homeless network,” said Sherlock. “You’re what?” inquired Lestrade. Holmes went to his bureau and pulled out a stack of papers with London maps and some other notes. “I have engaged a small unit drawn from the homeless ranks of London to furnish me with information as a collective unit and from the ground level of our crime ridden ancient city.” Lestrade fumed, “You can’t just turn Pandemonium’s ejected flotsam into your own paramilitary faction, Holmes!” “It’s not illegal; and as you can see they have already been of use to me, perhaps saving Watson’s life and the life of our client.” Lestrade stormed out of the flat with Holmes chuckling at his tantrum. “That’s a bit mean,” I said. “Scotland Yard is a bureaucracy, my dear Doctor; they are lazy and inefficient, only serving their own organization. It is all internal logic, self-perpetuating stupidity, and feedback loops. The only thing that makes them angry is a flash of intelligence throwing sand in the gears of their machine. The more angry they get the more you know that you are onto something of interest.” “I suppose,” I said thoughtfully, “and pray tell how did you get the woman’s confession?” “Only by nailing down the truth through conversation. The same method of which I apprised you after meeting with the sea captain.” “It worked again?” “It always works if you listen to someone’s words. Evidence is fine. But the human mind can also be a fertile territory for evidence. But it takes something of Anglo Saxon improvisation; and this is a skill that is rare,” he raised an eyebrow at me I believe to see if I comprehended instead of reacting. “Perhaps” I said, going over and pouring myself a large glass of scotch, and lighting a cigarette.
Two hours later we were standing over the two beaten members of the golden handles, the third having been killed in the fracas by Holmes’ network of street folk. The two men still had the bloom of youth about them, but one was still unconscious with a battered face. The other had one eye open and missing teeth. He would never be what he once had been but there were strides being made in orthodontics, so it was possible he would mend back to his former glory sooner or later. But he was a criminal, and Holmes showed him no sympathy. His name was Gore Buckley and he was reticent to tell us anything that he knew about the coins, or Miss Trills. But there was yet another figure there, however, and a doctor told us that it was the young criminal’s father. He was tall and very well dressed and had a white mustache and white mutton chops. Holmes threatened the man with damage to his reputation at the clubs and the elder gentleman seized his battered son by the hair and demanded that he cooperate. The boy—an Oxford graduate student—told us he and his vicious friends were hired by a fellow student from Oxford to act as muscle during an incursion into the British Museum for the coins; they said he was in possession of a rare new kind of explosive that was highly powerful in small amounts. They said that they had been required to surround the housing of the lock with an iron box of their own and to fill it with water before setting the blasting cap. This was how they destroyed the iron. After that their employer had taken care of picking the lock. “Apparently you bribed the guards to not notice the activity?” “This is London,” said the young man, “enough said?” We both nodded and Buckley’s father breathed a bit easier. He furnished us with the name and address of the Oxford student, “Tell me what has become of the coins?” asked Holmes. “I do not know.”
The train to Oxford the next morning—from Victoria Station where the big, long, cars rolled in at every hour of the day: grain, passengers, dried fruit and coal. It was a sunny fall morning; the train rocked along smoothly. The air was crisp, and smelled of wet thatched grass the aroma of which I detected even as I sat comfortably inside. It was so verdant to look upon as we made our way slowly towards the outer edges of the greatest city on earth and I was always fascinated by the interconnected byways and thoroughfares so complex, picturesque, and organized. There was so much to know never to be grasped by my own mind in the single life given to me. The footpaths rolled along, up and down, out the window. And it was pleasant. Holmes was seated across from me looking out the window placidly. “Have you been to Oxford?” asked the detective quietly, almost a whisper. “No I haven’t,” I responded. “You should find this an edifying day trip then. And it may be well that you have purchased a new pistol; it is a rather unpredictable ecosystem—the environs of the university.” “Perhaps,” I said. “Yes the firearm is an apparent necessity I remarked, opening up the morning’s newspaper and scanning around for any further reports of the Museum robbery but turning the last page over and looking up at Holmes somewhat sheepishly. Disappointment at not being in the pages? Holmes raised an eyebrow and handed over his own copy—one that did not typically make it into my own circulation. I took it from him curiously and began to look through it until there was an article referring to his exploits with the fisherman’s wife. He gave out a little chuckle when I hit upon it and began reading it over out loud. It was a rather breathless account, but Holmes had stipulated the reporter keep his name out of the story; this had been a condition of the interview, apparently, because he was referred to only as “aide to camp of Scotland Yard.” The young man in question should not be difficult to track down, but if he is in possession of high explosives of novel invention, a valuable commodity on the black market and even the British government, we will have to tread very lightly. This is a different species of criminal that roams the halls of power. Let me take the lead, doctor and perhaps fall back on some of your own military background to get a handle on the gravity of our situation when we disembark. Keep sharp, I mean.” It was a strange little speech and I puffed up a bit, “I’ll be alright, Holmes.” He lit his pipe and stared out the window as the train bore east.
Oxford University. Red brick slick with rain, red ribbons and evil looking scarves like slithering things wrapped around necks against the cold. Medieval churches; grey skies. We went first to the science quad to investigate the chemistry departments various halls, corridors, and to see the students at their studies. I was interested to see the young people in various forms of dress, and thought back to Afghanistan for some reason. It had been kind of brotherly to be in the military. Lots of friends. Lots of serious situations. But of course, Oxford itself was unlike that field, to turn a phrase.
Holmes said, “I have a question,” and I turned to him with an uncomfortable sigh because it was kind of a cold and blustery morning and the breakfast on the train had been subpar, an offering of chocolate pastries, tea, and an old orange that had some little green bits at the edges of the rind, as if it were unripe. I had eaten the orange in front of Holmes and he had given me a disgusted and uncomfortable expression, but when I looked up at him with surprise he reassured me, “Not you, doctor. Not you at all. Just there,” he pointed out the window at a passing farm house with a roof that had a hole in the middle. “Rainwater?” I asked him. “Assuredly; and a most slipshod carpenter job if there ever was one who put that roof together. I hope no one was hurt when it collapsed onto the floor. But out here in the country, anything may be possible.” “Of course, of course,” I said. “Do you really? And where are you from exactly Doctor Watson? We have never discoursed upon your origins too closely.” “No we haven’t, Mr. Holmes. But there really isn’t too much to tell.” “You back away from the subject, Doctor Watson?” “Only insofar as the air is clear and the grass grey and green to look upon and I’d rather not dwell on my past. Would you care to carry on about your own family connections and history at present?” “No. I suppose I would not.”
We disembarked at Oxford and I looked up and down the length and breadth of the platform filled with students and locals. Students were in high dress, high spirits, and the locals seemed sharp about catering to their needs as they loaded their things onto and off of the bricks. “To the laboratory,” cried Holmes, and I hustled after him to a carriage and towards the large buildings that I could already see like an outcropping of wheat grown too tall, a little bit above the plane of the harvest. We drew closer and hopped off with the cab rocking on its hinges in our haste. The laboratory was a white stone building, clean and granulated were its surfaces as if to express the significance of the study that occupied the lives of the Englishman going to and fro with diligence and intense expressions of concentration that gave them a hawkish appearance. Men of science. “I have been here many times,” remarked Holmes, walking proudly among the set and I thought he threw his shoulders back a bit and strode with a more scientific purpose down the hallways. I was no stranger to his rhythm and looked upon the men also with a measured calm. I knew that seriousness too; it gave me headaches; it gave me an altitude on the mass of humanity; it insulated as well as inspired. It gave strength where there was only the solitude of living.
“Here,” said Holmes, and we went into the office of a professor of chemistry. A tall and serious looking gentleman who was seated with his back to the window bent in study. Holmes inquired about the situation of the man by the name of Tully Masterson whom the golden handle toting brigands had given us information about. “He does his work in my lab, yes. And he’s a rather neat and tidy student, and has a quiet manner. And I appreciate his discoveries. He also does not lack for charm, exactly, although we never seem to get him outside of his quarters for a gathering.” “I see,” said Holmes, “and his quarters?” “Actually it’s funny you mention it but we had seminar this morning and his absence was noted by me, and there will be repercussions. I don’t like to condone scientists who do not set their watches accurately.” “But you do admit his brilliance,” said I. The man became nervous and pursed his lips, “What’s all this about?” I would have blurted something out if Holmes had not interjected, “A case,” he flashed his silver pin that I had forgotten rested under his lapel and inclined his head “Scotland Yard, London.” The man leaned back in his chair and gave out a sigh of discomfort that was well familiar to me, the impositions of the strange and dogged and nettlesome realities of our imperfect world set before him and between the symphonic of his scientific endeavors. “I see,” he said and looked out the window at the light pattering of rain. Again I sympathized: another unlooked for disappointment in the long and sad train of life.
“It is, unfortunately, what it is,” remarked Holmes suddenly, standing a bit taller and more menacing. There was a darkness about him then and the professor quailed. “Yes I can give you the address of his lodgings,” he stammered. The professor set down a scrap of paper, and scribbled on it in a lazy script. And Holmes snatched it from his hands and said, “My apologies but the hour is late for Mr. Masterson, I fear.” The man only shrugged with an academic coldness and bent down once more to his work. I almost thought I detected a kind of disgust in the turn of his lips and it lit a flame of understanding in me that was like a soldier’s calm. I bowed crisply to the professor, and we were back out in the hall cracking along the cold floors and ushering students out of the way and back out into the dismal Oxford morning.
We found the flat and Holmes picked the lock and we were inside. It was a mess. But the man was nowhere to be seen. There was nothing there but old books with faded covers. Empty vials that Holmes sniffed at carefully, and notebooks filled with script. We found Masterson’s body dead behind a table upon which sat the product of his mind and his various trappings of school life. Holmes told me to stay with the body while he found a policeman. Then the body was taken away. We didn’t find anything else. It was a dead end. And Holmes was quiet and disturbed.
On the train ride back, I asked Holmes what more we could expect to find out about this man’s death, and the case. “It was rather the end of things, I should think. Where do we go from here? We found no coins; we found none of the strange new explosives alluded to by Mr. Buckley from nearly his deathbed. Something doesn’t fit in my mind. I fear Miss Trills will lose her position on the board.”
“Well…” I stammered.
“Please,” uttered Holmes grumpily as he stared out the window at a blinding rainstorm, “enlighten me, for once, about what steps we might take to secure the killer’s identity, the location of the coins, or any other useful pieces of information that would aid us in our search?”
“I can’t think of any,” said I honestly, turning my thoughts to the hospital once more and ignoring his strange outburst. Still I was perplexed at his handling of the case, but only got up after a few moments of uncomfortable silence to see if there was better fare on the return trip in the dining car.
“Indeed,” remarked Holmes, as I rose and we chugged back towards the London station.
*Sherlock Holmes returns October 1st in Bell Weather, the first serialized novel published at The Supernaughts to be released in four increments over the month of October.*