Back to Baker Street.
There was a mist hanging in the air across London blanketing the exposed skin of cabmen with a film of clammy moisture. The city clock rang in the distance tolling its methodical and rhythmic music. The hour was ten-thirty. I sat in a straight backed chair before a fire with an Afghan rug thrown across my legs to keep warm. There I sat with my eyes closing and the crackle of the tinder warming the little bones in my ears.
It had been a trying day at the new clinic. After medical school ended perhaps there was a sneaking hope that life would slow into a steadier routine, making the entrance of some young woman a more manageable affair. But this was not turning out to be the case, and although there were moments of excitement when beckoned upon some errand by the acutely intelligent detective whose personality and trade brought me some little income through its documentation and subsequent publication, in the final tally the demands of the daily practice were still the primary totems of my life.
He stood erect at the window with one hand held behind his back and the other drawing aside the white, flimsy curtains of the window. Sherlock Holmes faced the dark glass serenely contemplative as he gazed into the mist.
Inside 221 everything was as warm, creaking, and stodgy as a man could hope for.
My instincts blunted by fatigue, I was just nodding away the veil of consciousness like a compass needle oscillating a slow arc into the realms of rest when there came three sharp raps at the door.
Holmes went downstairs for a moment and soon re-entered the parlor with a large man following behind him who wore a thick fur coat. His stringy blonde hair fell long and piecemeal behind his neck. He looked like a fur trapper from the American frontier, and in his hands he held a cane. He sat down in the chair opposite my own while Holmes went to the mantle filling his pipe leisurely from the Persian slipper.
“What can I do for you tonight?” asked the detective.
“I’m not sure if you have heard any tidings from the coast up North, Mr. Holmes, of boats being lost at sea?”
“I read all of the newspapers with regularity and I have yet to come across any word of shipwrecks, Mister…”
“Thomas Stub is my name. Aye, Mr. Holmes, but it’s a troubling thing. What I’m about to tell you has been kept out of the newspapers for some reason that none of us fisherman can discern, although the mystery of this secrecy has only deepened the effect upon us.”
Holmes interest was piqued a bit at this language; I could make it out in the way his breath suddenly slowed down a bit, a complexity that suddenly made him feel calmer.
Mr. Stub continued, “Ships have been going down off the coast for several weeks. Sinking. At first it was a whaler that was lost several miles out to sea in a mild swell – a sturdy vessel I myself have worked. And then a naval reconnaissance cutter foundered upon the coastline in broad daylight just a fortnight ago killing all hands. Six men in a veteran fishing trolley also sank in full view of the docks two days ago. The circumstances of that incident have yet to be determined. All told seventy one men have drowned in the past few weeks. But nary a word of this in any newspapers that I could find across the country. The local constables have rebuffed my inquiries rather brutishly if you want the truth, Mr. Holmes. They have such a mass of corpses on their hands they decided to store them in the basement of an old house and there they lay, forty-two dead sailors scattered dead along the coast now lie covered in lime in a cold storeroom. Our merchant counting houses have become silent indeed upon the subject.”
Skepticism was my reflex at this vague tale. And by the quizzical look on Holmes’ face I could tell that he too found the intrepid looking whaler’s story farfetched. Not the details of the dead, but instead the notion that such a tragedy could be kept out of the feverishly scrupulous London press when it came to breaking news. Perhaps our guest had finally succumbed to an admixture of brain fluid and drink. Holmes shot a glance in my direction, perhaps ascertaining my own thoughts. It was difficult to be sure sometimes how much he knew or could anticipate of my own mind. As a doctor, I took it as a welcome release from the constant demands for intellectual initiative from my patients and nurses; others, however, like Inspector Lestrade for example, found Holmes a bit insufferable in his acuity.
“Well that is remarkable,” said Holmes, “and what would you have me do? Investigate? Do you have any conjecture about the causes of these disappearances? Any additional facts?”
“Well the people on the coast are a superstitious lot, sir. They all have become quite hysterical, concocting and re-telling stories to explain the deaths and perhaps to shrug off the phantasm of death that has gripped the town like an evil ghost astride the expanse of sky. But perhaps there is something in it, after all. Have you gentlemen heard of the kraken?”
My adventurous mind that had always been preoccupied by the penny adventures of youth suddenly vibrated singly and I said, “The kraken I’m familiar with, a sea beast of gigantic proportions alleged to slumber in the ocean’s deepest trenches and to rise from the depths to…”
“Thank you, Watson,” interrupted Holmes, with a rolling of the eye.
“Your man Watson is correct, sir. There are many who believe there is a creature moored on the ocean floor off our English coast waiting to take vessels down to the seabed. Obviously a ridiculous notion, but their fear is contagious you see? I believe I may have even caught a glimpse of it several nights ago; I know how that sounds. And I shan’t go into detail on the subject.”
Sherlock Holmes pulled back suddenly; I could feel a great center of gravity suddenly lifted from the room, and I knew that his interest in the subject was beginning to wane.
The whaler continued, “Some of the more whiskey prone sailors are particularly resilient on the idea of the supernatural as an alternative explanation, and there is much talk of ghost galleons at the ale house. Some say phantom whirlpools. It’s all getting a bit out of hand up there is what I mean. Even I am beginning to see strange shapes on the water, as I have said, and perhaps to doubt my own understanding. I pause more scientifically at a strange ripple of water in the night or shudder at a swell of green ocean water appearing abnormally large or moving at a strange rate of speed.”
“That will do,” said Holmes trenchantly, “We have a firm grasp of what brings you to Baker Street on this cool and relaxed evening.”
Outside Big Ben tolled midnight. It was long passed the hour of sleep.
“Well I just thought you might be interested to know, Mr. Holmes. Why the news isn’t reaching London is somewhat beyond my own experience. Do you have any ideas upon it?”
“Not at the moment, although I’m sure if I were to turn my attentions to your problem that I would make an effective offensive in the direction of some kind of solution to this mystery,” said Holmes, suddenly hunching his shoulders and wandering over to his chemistry set, “And if nothing else I believe your tale of pirate specters and ogres from the sea floor has set my friend’s imagination into a mode bordering on entertainment; you are recalling some of the ocean myths of your youth are you not Dr. Watson?”
“Perhaps,” I muttered, not wishing to show more interest or excitement for such childish fancies as those described in the mariner’s tale than I actually felt. .
“We will look into this matter, sir, rest assured,” said Holmes quietly; and with that he walked to the door and opened it for the gentlemen who, as he passed by, gave off a scent of salt spray, barnacles, and old sand.
“Thank you, Mr. Holmes,” said Thomas, and left.
Homes immediately went for his coat when we heard the door shut downstairs and I was startled, “Going to make a go of it tonight, old man?”
“Dear Watson,” he chastised, “This is the height of sensory tranquility for myself – solitary black sky, a mystery, our train North should be deserted, we will have free reign to let our reason tackle the problem without the pell mell of daily life to hamper our progress or to check the elevation of our deductive natures – crime is always dealt with sooner rather than later as an additional factor. Speed Watson. Will you be staying in Baker Street then and making an early start for the clinic or shall we head for the station?”
My thoughts of seeing a sea monster or ghost ship were illusions my mind could not shrug off, unfortunately, “Surely not,” I remarked, tossing the Afghan aside and hustling to my bedroom. I checked the chambers of my pistol before pocketing it then grabbed my hat.
Holmes was already on the stoop with a cigarette burning when I ducked out into the misty evening and shut the warm light of Baker Street safely behind the black polished door. The cold rainy street looked slick and precarious. “Charring Cross and to the coast,” said Holmes.
Charring Cross station stood tall and drafty that evening, the canvas sheets were buffered by a soft wind near the top of the station’s large, dusty windows. A street urchin made an entreaty at our heels but we set a swift pace such that had he not darted out of the way I’m sure Sherlock Holmes would have dashed him to the curb, not out of any agitation but his energy had the ferocity of an onrushing train when he was tracking; I had seen this kind of concentration before in the eyes of English soldiers when the sun began to set over Afghanistan, and the desert air began to cool. The nights on that desert tundra were pitch black; we heard things out there. And everyone’s brow began to darken when the sun reached a certain point on the horizon. One could sense the most minute temperature change, a presentment of another night of watchful vigilance and nightmare. Holmes was bent with the energy of total seriousness as we passed through the main concourse doorways of the station.
While Holmes procured our tickets, I waited out on the platform. A circus train passed with various dark shapes milling about; the white hairs of an elephant’s grey, wrinkled face stared at me through the wooden slats of the car. The smell was quite offensive, and I lit a small cigar and waited for our train to arrive. Holmes joined me on the empty platform. After a few minutes of tranquility he bumped my arm softly and gestured with his gaze far across the station at three men whom I hadn’t noticed before but who were staring back at us with something in their manner that struck me as sinister.
“Some of the Boscombe mob,” muttered Sherlock, “keeping an eye on Charring Cross tonight for some reason.”
“Why?” I asked, staring across at the three men in their dark, rumpled trousers and with ugly hats on their heads. Their eyes looked almost entirely white from this distance, but perhaps it was a trick of the light.
Holmes shrugged, “Waiting for someone perhaps. An unlucky man about to step off a train, or perhaps some other bit of mischief.”
I wanted to ask him whether we should notify a policeman but before I could make up my mind the sound of our own train and the single light came into view; “London is a dangerous place, I suppose,” remarked Holmes as the carriage came to a noisy and metallic stop; the porter poked his head out and we jumped through the doorway, finding our private smoking car near the front of the train.
On the way up to the coast while I stared out the cold window Holmes began, “You remember Watson when we discussed the idea of town versus country, and how the rule of law held less sway out in the rural sections of England?”
“I remember you saying that it made you nervous to be too far from London where justice was swifter and more precise.”
“That is what I was getting at. But I wonder if out on the ocean that unspooling of the cords of justice becomes even more pronounced and multiplied?”
“I have read about men going quite mad out of sight of land for too long.”
“I can think of no other form of isolation that would make deeper inroads upon the psyche as being out to sea for a prolonged period, completely independent of the levers of justice for months and even years on end.”
“Are you expressing a weakness?” I queried, with some surprise.
“Perhaps. Or perhaps I am trying to impress upon you the possibilities of danger outside our reckoning in association with this deceptively simple case. It seems at first blush that our night visitor was a candidate for Pandemonium, and yet you have not commented upon it so his veracity even you, a medical doctor, had little reason to question, or at least not enough doubt crept into your mind that you would vocalize your concern to me. And yet, I have read nothing in the papers about naval ships being lost. And we both know to a certainty that superstitious stories of krakens or nautical spirits are untrue. Therefore if our client was telling the truth we may be getting ourselves thrown into depths perhaps outside both of our experience. To keep something of that magnitude out of the paper is not something that I have come across before. Have you?”
“No. Perhaps a military secret?”
“Precisely,” said Holmes.
“Oh,” I said, “You mean we may be in real peril by sticking our nose into this business. That was not something I had expected when Mr. Stub recounted his lurid but diverting story to us.”
Holmes frowned. Outside, lightning was visible up in the clouds and rain began to fall in soft sheets on the hard surfaces of the train rocking confidently along.
The rest of the train ride we spent in solitude smoking and watching the flashes up in the towering clouds. Although I had been somewhat excited by the sensational aspects of our journey heretofore, Sherlock’s words ate into my calm the further we traveled North. The hair on my neck began to rise slightly the closer we got to our destination. Holmes pulled his coat around himself and stared at the seat in front of him with a troubled expression on his face.
When we arrived at the coast it was just as the seaman had told us. Everyone at the taverns had a theory about what caused the wrecks, most tales bordered on phantasmagoria, but Holmes heeded this little, merely raising an eyebrow here and there and making a face bordering on classism when an old marine began his tale with his birth and ended it with ghost pirates clashing swords while sharks circled a sinking ship out at sea.
We went down to the docks where white sails fluttered loudly. Holmes knocked a sleeping port master off his stool demanding the log books for the past several weeks. He perused them and saw that not three but in four vessels had gone missing.
“Why have you not gone to the police about this?”
“I would have, but government men have been rather stern about keeping this matter tightly controlled. State security, apparently. They were here just last week to see about burying the dead stored over in the old mansion.”
“Hmm,” said Holmes.
With that done there was nothing left for us to do on the coast so we headed out.
We finally pulled back into London the next morning. I was worn down and headed back to Baker Street to sleep, but was sure to check in at the clinic to explain my absence. When I got there it was already locked up for the day, dash it all.
The next morning when I got out of bed and wandered into the living room Holmes was sitting on the windowsill staring out pensively at the white morning light and the street below with the hooves clip clopping along the pavement. He seemed unusually thoughtful and perhaps a bit bewildered, and this was a mode I had never encountered in Holmes before. Unsure.
“Shall you accompany me to the Diogenes Club this morning, Watson? I’d like to see about a favor from Mycroft.”
“Lead the way,” I remarked.
The Diogenes is the last club on the right of a street filled with the various enclaves of the upper stratum. We made our way inside the heavy doors, past the plush couches and pretty girls lounging and mingling with various and somewhat shy men in coats and jackets who smoked and drank having their moment with the young women. As we proceeded up the stairs and down stuffy hallways it became quieter and more academic. Less of curly black hair and soft dresses and more of book leather and naps.
Mycroft’s personal lounge was at the end of a long hall with a window shining with afternoon English light and diamond shaped glass pieces set into the wall. Holmes entered softly the private chamber lined with books, a high ceiling.
Mycroft sat at a table with a paper in front of his face, but didn’t acknowledge our entrance. Holmes went to a bookshelf and lifted a tome off the shelf, something to do with a Romanian uprising in the Middle Ages.
“Yes?” asked Mycroft softly.
“Watson is here too.”
Mycroft turned a page of the newspaper but said nothing.
“I wonder if you have heard about a number of ships going down up North, none of which has made any of the papers, including a British naval vessel no less?”
“I hadn’t heard anything. Sounds like rubbish,” replied Mycroft stuffily.
“Perhaps a friend at the War Office?”
Mycroft leaned over and scribbled on a piece of paper and Holmes walked over and picked it up.
“Carte blanche access,” muttered Holmes to me.
“At the War Office?”
“Across the government. Let’s go.”
We left Mycroft at his table; Holmes closed the door softly.
When we reached the street Holmes said, “I’m afraid this signature is a single ticket into the halls of power, we will have to part for a short time. We will meet back in Baker Street for dinner.”
“Yes sir, I should see some patients.”
We separated into the crowd, and I looked at the gentlemen ducking into their private clubs and the women in their fine dresses and young boys darting among the crowd as I walked down the street.
That evening I was positioned at the table in Baker Street as Mrs. Hudson presented us with a lovely series of dishes that smelled positively wonderful and looked the part as well. I sighed with contentment. Holmes sat down but didn’t speak for a moment before ladling himself a small amount of vegetable broth and pouring himself a glass of wine. He then ripped a piece of bread in half and munched it thoughtfully.
“What happened? Did you find anything out?” I asked him.
“I did. But I am still coming to grips with it.” He continued, after taking a gulp of wine, “I went to the Foreign Office first and they directed me to the War Office who in turn directed me to the Naval College here in London. I have been there many times before but the personage and the office I was directed to were unknown to me, a senior civil servant with a high rank in the military affairs of the country. When I arrived at the college I noticed a light burning up in one of the highest offices that I could perceive, indeed it was a window that seemed isolated from the main floors. It was a room that had escaped my attention on previous visits, to some degree. It was there that I was directed by a clerk on the ground floor.
A long staircase of white steps led up to the doorway that was slightly ajar. It was here that I was supposedly to lay to rest the mystery of the dead men from the North.”
“And did you discover the root cause?”
“I walked up the stairway to the office, opened the door…it was a tiny square office. Seated behind a desk with his back to the window was Professor James Moriarty.”
“He is a man whom I have begun to suspect holds great power over the criminal underworld of London, although up to now I have only had my suspicions.”
“And he has some role at the Naval College?”
“That I can’t be sure of. When I saw him I started with confusion, the clerk had given me the name of some unknown bureaucrat. Moriarty stood up from behind the desk and for the first time I noticed just how much taller he was than myself. You know that I stand a shade over six feet, Watson, I am not usually the man at a disadvantage. But he cast a shadow over the room. Enormous proportions of the face.”
This made me uneasy, to hear Holmes speak of Professor Moriarty with something bordering on awe, but I waited for the story to continue.
“He then came around the desk and walked past me said, ‘Good evening, Mr. Holmes,’ and then went through the doorway and down the stairs. I was surprised to learn he knew who I was.”
I waited for a further conclusion, but Holmes just bent down over his soup and began to eat. We didn’t speak for the rest of dinner and Mrs. Hudson bustled out the trays and brought in the coffee while we allowed the food to settle and smoked our respective pipes.