The bomb that exploded on Baker Street apprised us, in no uncertain terms, that Professor Moriarty could get to us in ways not yet feasible to Holmes and myself. We were Moriarty’s quarry without knowing it; how else to explain the speed with which he operated against us. Holmes’ cheeky gesture on the train up the mountainside had angered the spider to such a degree Holmes thought it best we beat a hasty retreat from England forthwith.
Holmes packed and I followed suit even as fire engines were ringing along Baker Street that Christmas morning.
“We must leave, and there is no way getting around it, old man,” he said. “Professor Moriarty’s networks will be engineering new offensives at the hour. I believe he is quite disconcerted, and is liable to lash out in any way possible to see us buried in an open grave, my friend. I still have the diamond, rest assured. It may be his motive to retrieve it with our blood as the receipt. The journey across may be fraught with danger. I apologize, dear doctor, for bringing you into this. Unfortunately, my appreciation for your talents has led you astray. If you would be so kind as to make your preparations we will meet at the docks at ten.”
To say that I was in a sorry state of over-stimulation would be putting things simply. In short, my feet were clod dead and my mind was as limp as an octopus taking its dying breaths washed up on the shore. Even in my days as a resident, I had never experienced anything remotely like this, packing my bags as a corpse might have done so. Mechanical were my movements. My thoughts did not run to the practical, only to the volumetric. A lump of clothing here, my shaving kit there, as much as I could cram into my trunk, and I was out the door and stumbling up Baker Street like a stray cat pursued by hungry predators.
I woke up in the hold, perceiving the aroma of the Irish coast. A freshness. Holmes was sitting close by. We were situated below decks on a cargo ship, and there was little to be seen here with the creaking palsied-looking wood running up upon my eyes like a prison door. There was nothing in the world that I wanted apart from sleep. And I took this luxury, despite not being cognizant of the hour.
Away from the demands of the hospital on a small cot next to crates stacked from end to end, like a stowaway curling up into a ball in my clothes, was where I found sleep.
But for the first time in my life, the problem of my de facto enemies coursed through my mind as if my dreaming consciousness searched in vain for solutions to reality’s problems. Dreams that sharpened my own deductive nature—if Moriarty was hunting us, perhaps it would be better that we should separate when we reached land; perhaps we should only meet at certain times of day. What if Moriarty pursued us to the ends of the earth; how would we survive? What would we eat? How would we plan from one day to the next? Such dreams.
And yet, even as I dreamed my own reticence still asserted itself, the unsureness and lack of confidence that had been inculcated in me by being in contact with titanic minds playing an international game of chess but that had always nagged at my character. My dreaming thoughts turned pensive. Who was I to make a pass at strategy? Who was I to know the intricacies of the plans and movements that Holmes would have envisioned for us that we may evade the equally brilliant nets that our enemies would lay for us? It was beyond me, and I knew it even in sleep. I lay with a fevered mind under the covers, until finally I emerged from rest feeling punch drunk and worn away.
Holmes sat with his back against the hull smoking with his head staring at a point on the floor and his face pinched in concentration. It was to be a long sailing across the Atlantic. But I discovered in studying Holmes that our passage should be marked by silence and watchfulness. As did I follow the example of my compatriot. Our vigil for Moriarty’s influence continued across the wide ocean.
Arriving in Boston, Holmes was singularly enthusiastic as we approached the harbor; he charged along the decks wanting to be the first to disembark onto American soil; almost like a child was his wonder at our new surroundings, and yet it was still the fully formed and brutally efficient detective whom I had come to know over the past year in Baker Street. As the city enveloped us and grew like a tree towering and budding before our very eyes, the lights and sounds and ringing of bells, the fish smells, the men with ruddy shouts and rotting teeth. The tides flowing high against the wood slats, and salt, and churches, small, utilitarian steeples dotting the horizon. I should think he would have left me standing there gawking at him in his wild mania like Darwin with a butterfly net, if I hadn’t tapped him lightly on the shoulder and inquired about his plans for our stay.
Holmes said, “Yes, yes, of course. Let us do away with the niceties of finding our beds and so forth; follow me, John.”
There was a small inn named Eye of the Artisan in the North End that we finally arrived at. It was two stories. Brick, fresh looking and clean; the cement was cracking at the seams, dark and heavy, workaday materials crafted for the pleasure and comfort of the average traveler in the course of his transit amidst the New England metropolis. Freezing snow slashed at the road and in my face.
We together might have gone in, but Holmes’ enthusiasm braced up against the cold like sunlight on a frozen lake. A visual brightness. It was a fire that I could not feel on my own skin, but could only mark it. His nostrils heaved up oxygen and his round eyes darted along the quadrants of the city like an afiicianado confronted by new work from a favored artist.
“Are we to dine together?” I asked him hopefully, with some concern, looking up into the unwelcoming vertices of the Yankee hotel. But he didn’t immediately answer, only went into his pocket for his watch and said with clear disdain, “Do you think it would be civilized of me to leave you here to fend for yourself among the cannibal tribes of Lincoln’s republic? And you a veteran of Her Majesty’s foreign forces, a man of India and Africa? Surely, I would be fastening you a leash of total social paralysis were I to set you before the doorstep of this inn on a winter evening. Like Moses dropped in the Euphrates, such would be the condition of your disorientation if I asked you to fend for yourself, dear Doctor?” “Well, it’s kind of cold out,” said I, bewildered and even pricked a bit by Holmes’ aggressive disinterest. But he was an unfeeling man, at times, and no more than when he had fresh data between the canines of his acute nature.
He was my friend, but I could not really do anything verbally to throw myself between the train of his thoughts and the object of wherever they were leading him at present. There just wasn’t the brain power in me. And I knew it. We have a class system after all, and it was a learned passivity instead of recalcitrance at being put in my place.
Perhaps Professor Moriarty could have come up with some kind of ploy or fraud of logic to arrest him before the inn and make him come inside and help me get settled, because I didn’t want to take on the entire northern character of the American people alone; but Holmes just handed me his bag and asked that I make arrangements that we should have separate rooms. And then he went zooming up the street into the freezing cold night as if he couldn’t feel the climate latching onto his veins. Switzerland had been a chilly adventure, but this was cold of different atmosphere and history, more of bone, more depressive, something arctic and aimless like a Mongolian vision, or a starlit Afghan midnight. But it was as if nothing could compel him but his own destiny. Mr. Sherlock Holmes was a fire of reason in a world of dumb power. I considered this as I saw him make the block and turn the corner with the quickness of a blue sword.
A healing breath relaxed my eyes, however, and I was strangely pleased that he was gone when the door of the inn closed behind me and looked upon the quiet, dimly lit, and handsomely furnished antechamber of our lodging house. There were simple white fabrics, polished wood tables—I rested my hand upon one—and the window panes were of rougher surface, but also greater quality—and thickness—than our London manufacture. Sounds from the street were muffled to near silence, and at that moment I missed Baker Street and wondered whether Mrs. Hudson was bearing up well in our absence. And whether the building next door would be renovated so that we could carry on with some semblance of normalcy upon our return.
Here at the Artisan I was sure that if a newsboy did rear his head on the pavement with news of the latest political intrigue or international disaster I would not hear his cries as if he were sinking beneath the waves of a green ocean in a storm. In that quiet space the manic curiosity of Holmes was left out in the streets. And there was something to be said for that.
There were only a handful of people about the Artisan. Two men who were tall were drinking at a very cozy bar, and a smallish pale gentleman with delicate bones and a bent attitude at the shoulders, as if from long study—grotesquely muscled—was seated at a table with a candle next to his elbow and a piece of parchment in front of him that he scratched at, every now and then wiping away invisible granules of paper suggesting something of the perfectionist. I supposed this to be the owner. He looked up at me aggressively then and I balked, suddenly confused about whether or not I had entered at the right door, or if this was not an inn in point of fact. When I instinctively went for my billfold his eyes softened like the tallow burning next to him. He rose. “A pair of rooms unless you’re fully booked? I have just made the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean with a second man. Is it a reasonable accommodation?” “Very reasonable, indeed, sir,” he said, not really meeting my eyes yet his concentration did seem fixed upon me in an awkward kind of way. My first interaction with an American and there was nil of an exchange to my reckoning. “Food and ale you can purchase here at the bar,” he gestured over to where the men were standing quietly, looking lost but contended in the sea of wheat and foam. This much I could relate to. For the first time I noticed that there was a woman at needlework sitting in a chair at the back corner of the main floor with an apron on who looked up at me and nodded. The owner said, “Well the rooms are upstairs numbers 202 and 203; you shouldn’t have too much trouble then with your bags, I suppose. The key is on the table in the room. We have cards at nine-thirty, if that holds any interest for an Englishman. I’m not sure it does.” I turned but he seemed to have moved with the speed and agility of a cat, because he was already back at his table sitting down. He picked up his quill and began scratching away once more at the fine paper stock, utterly white and pretty and organized, just like the inn itself. “The game?” I asked him. “It’s American poker.” “I know how to play,” I responded, not feeling particularly interested at all. “It’s a draw game,” he said, scratching away and seeming uninterested. “Hmm,” said I, and went up to my room.
I tried to read but my eyes kept looking at the clock until nine-thirty rolled around, and I headed downstairs to see what the game was about. There were only four of us who sat down to the table. One of the other players was the innkeeper and he shuffled the cards and said “Five card stud is the game; do we all know how to play?” The other two men looked in my direction and I said, “Yes.” because I was acquainted with the simple but perplexing game; it was supposedly a favorite of the American West, and I had read a penny novel or two about cowboys whom had been gunned down across the table for playing illicitly at this particular variety of cards. I didn’t have too much money brought from England but had made the rash decision of bringing down half of the currency that I had changed over at the docks; still I kept the rest in pound notes in a sock curled up in the drawer in my room.
Over the next few hours the treasure flowed in my direction. I wouldn’t say that it flowed inexorably, but I was able to control my position at the table fairly well and remained patient. We all began to drink—perhaps too much—and the faces of the other players became more jovial; there was smiling now and I heard talk of Boston such that a usual tourist might not come across in his sojourn in the city. Talk of politics, talk of women, talk of all things nautical. I began to laugh along with the others. Slowly other players trickled in and the chips in front of me fluctuated but not with too much volatility. I built up my winnings over the course of the next few hours becoming more and more comfortable with the burning down of the candles. Eventually we had to push tables together to accommodate the game, and my own personality was lost in the familiar conviviality of men who knew each other well from work, family, and other connective interactions.
But then a man came in that no one seemed to recognize. He had a very strange complexion, not quite European and not quite Spanish, and the innkeeper seemed a bit confused by his presence but he unfolded a pad of money and a chair was pulled up. He peeled back some notes and inquired about a bottle of special wine and the innkeeper turned red and ran away to the bar bringing back a glass and an uncorked bottle for the man. He did not look in my direction but insinuated himself into the game with some skill. I noted it with caution, having seen similar ingratiating and lethal style employed in the gambling dens of London, and what’s more there was something about him that I could not quite pinpoint. Something silent. None of the other players at the table noticed it; but then none of them, it was my conjecture, had been trained in the arts of war or had seen horses clashing on the battlefield with the savages of the world. It was quite a raucous scene to be sure. And I lost myself in a reminiscence of a particular skirmish when the Afghan tribes had been encircled and stamped out by our cavalry in their primitive redoubts. Perhaps it was the drink that had me feeling enthusiastic about terrible things, but I was equally preoccupied by the notion of going out into Boston and finding a prostitute with my winnings.
When my eyes refocused the strange man was looking at me like a bird with an expression of confused interest that sent a chilly pine needle through me. I looked down at my cards, just dealt, and saw three aces. It was a loose hand right from the outset and a pile of money lay under the lamplight before it was my turn to bet. I sat in a middle position and called, hoping to take down the pot although I was sure that no one could withstand such a gorgeous set of cards as these and was ready to collect and retire to bed. Also, the notion of British gentility came into my head; surely it would be bad manners to wipe out my American hosts just when things were so civilized, charming, and the liquor was so beautifully forthcoming.
The strange man raised and turned his bird-like eyes upon me once more. But I did not quail, only pushed the remainder of my chips in. Instead of calling my bet, however, he said, “I’m going to go light.” I looked at him puzzled, never having heard this expression before in my experience of the game and became suspicious of this tactic instantly. Three aces. “What is that?” I asked him. “It means that I’m going to bet more than you have on the table. I’m going to go on credit and triple your bet. Although I do not have the chips in front of me.” “That is not something that I have any experience of. Never have I come across this concept.” “Well this is an American rule,” he hissed. I looked at the other players, but they all clammed up and would not contribute to this negotiation. “Nevertheless, I’m afraid I cannot entertain your notion, sir. Because I am not only unsure of this concept but skeptical of its veracity I must insist that you confine yourself to the money at hand.” “Are you saying that I’m making up the rule, or that you don’t have the funds to continue on in this game? Are you saying that you have anted up without the nickel to back up your silly demonstrations?”
Now I was growing frustrated, “To be kind, sir, I do not wish to turn this game of chance into an ugly row, although you will not find me lacking in experience when it comes to the harder aspects of life. Will you not desist and play a game not incongruous with common sense? Although these men remain quiet, I have not been a stranger to cards, nor poker the world over, and would be quite surprised if this ‘going light’ ploy was not some sharp’s game of confusion; you may call my bet to the letter or fold your hand. Apart from that you will have to seek out the nearest Swiss bank if you wish to argue interest rates, loans, or some other folly.” At this one of the men seated near me choked up his beer a bit and had to excuse himself and the stranger became reptilian and accommodating, “Very well, sir. I will let you hold onto your honor if you only would double the bet laid before us on the table.” I counted the money at hand and thought of the remainder of my funds upstairs and took a long pull from my cigarette and said, “I can approximate the bet but will need to retire upstairs to collect the funds.”
He pulled out another billfold and laid his money on the table and I went upstairs and brought down the remainder of my money and put it on the table. Perhaps I was drunk then, or disoriented, or homesick, or perhaps the man had fired my masculinity to such a degree that if I hadn’t called I would have been so distraught with the situation that I would have taken a chair to the side of his face. I turned my cards over and showed him my aces. The table was silent. He flipped his cards over and said, “Straight to the diamond,” and then he did something very curious. He winked at me as if he knew who I was, and I immediately knew that Moriarty was present at the Artisan and blanched with fear. But the man only stood up to a greater height than anyone expected casting a shadow across the other players and scooped my money into his pockets. He then gave me a courteous and royal tip of the cap, but behind his eyes I saw the deep sea leviathan reaching his malevolence across the world, the man’s eyes were faint echo of Moriarty’s hatred. I knew it to a certainty.
He left and I leaned back in my seat, crushed and wiped out. I sat there sweating for the next hour while the game continued, at first quietly but slowly picking up its joviality and continuing on as if nothing had happened. Disgusted, I went out for a cigarette, flicked it away with anger, then went to the bar and put my hands on an expensive looking bottle of scotch; the innkeeper materialized, “Bed then?” “Yes.” He looked at the scotch, “And you can pay for that now.” “I will pay for it in the morning when my roommate shows up.” “I’m afraid I can’t let you have that then, sir,” he sniffed; and I saw the dismal parchment and scratching quill that had subsumed his identity. “This bottle of scotch will be paid for along with the room and all else that your guest happens to partake of during his stay.” The man held his ground, “Or I could kill you with my bare hands,” I said, not really meaning it but in such a state of consternation and fear and disorientation that it just came out. He shrank away towards a corner like a shadow and the candles flickered; my blood rushed along the contours of my heart and my mane began to prickle with shame but I only walked up the stairs ignoring him, “I shall have to notify the authorities,” he offered, “Sleep kindly sir, your money on the barrel head come the morrow.”
I opened the window in my room and put my feet up and smoked and drank the whiskey and let the winter American air make my skin numb. Finally, I fell asleep in the room with cold moonlight on the bedspread.
I woke up the next morning, bright and early and went out into the cold sunshine feeling the unappealing Boston breeze on my face; I saw a rat frozen to death right in the middle of the street and I felt like going back inside. The specter of Moriarty was a film I couldn’t wash off, but I resolved not to mention last night’s unpleasantness to him although where my next shilling would come from I hadn’t the faintest idea. Boston was not turning out to be to my liking. And without funds my shoulders and hands were becoming heavy, my breath halting, my eyes thuggish.
Holmes appeared with a scraping of heels just as the tendrils of mutiny were beginning to smolder like an old coal suddenly springing back to life and he looked as bright as a new pound standing there under the American sky.
“What are you looking so chagrined about?”
“Nothing in particular; just wondering how long we are going to stay
here before shoving off back for England. I take it this will be a short stay? In fact I was rather thinking that the trip over was the real escape and that we would only be tarrying here for a moment before heading back. I’m sure that I have lost my job at Charing Cross by now although I suppose it wouldn’t be too difficult to set up shop myself if my old friends aren’t going to shun me now that half of Baker Street has gone up in flames on account of our adventurism.”
“I think that your thoughts run to money.”
I felt like a schoolboy then, because he was right. My petulance was the result of an empty pocket.
Holmes studied me in the street but his expression did not betray his thoughts; whether his eyes held disappointment or amusement was beyond my ability to discern. He went into his jacket pocket and then opened his palm in front of me where lay a pile of American currency that sat on his hand neatly. “As you may or may not have noticed in the course of things I am not particularly anchored by the whims of the pecuniary.” “That’s true,” I breathed, looking up from the pile of money and feeling sheepish, “So, you sold it?” “It?” The Swiss jewel?” “Ah…” said Holmes, and produced the stone and held it up towards the sun making it glow crimson in the bleak air. “No I did not.” “Then what of this money?” “It is my gift to you if that is how you will have it. Also an apology for your medical hiatus. If you need more then I will produce it. I realize that this trip will distress your career but I assure you, Watson, you will find our friendship a balanced ledger when all is said and done, at least in terms of your professional life.” His eyes then looked a bit merry, and he said, “There is an excellent street near the harbor where you can gain some nourishment and revive your spirits. They offer fruit flavored ales on the menu, in America it is apparently quite popular. I recommend the blueberry. There is fresh catch as well, splendid and buttery. Lobster is a delicacy.” Holmes paused; he had never expressed enthusiasm for food before. “Oh?” “Yes,” he said, with a dreamy look. “Quite a dish.” Holmes put the money in my hand and said, “Ten blocks south, four blocks west. Now I will see about the lodgings. I have not slept since we arrived, and I want to have a pipe.” “Thank you,” I said. He went inside the Artisan, and I was left standing in the street, where I remained, but not for more than a few moments.
I looked up an hour later from a table setting that had been thoroughly crowded with American cuisine. A third mug of the ravishing beer was sitting empty before me, held thoughtfully in my hands. The waiter came over and poured me coffee and I asked her whether it was a short walk to any sights of interest but she ignored my flirting. It was not truly a jolly restaurant, not like England where it would have been loud, rambunctious, and pungent. Instead there was a cleanliness to the place that was almost alarming against the facts. Boston seemed a humble, quiet, and sad little city. And bitterly cold.
When evening came on I was rather drunk, having spent the day smoking cigars and perusing Boston with a flask of whiskey topped up at the various bars littering every corner of the city. Finally it was time for dinner and I did as Holmes had suggested and ate two lobsters with a voracious appetite. It had been a wonderful sortie, through Boston Commons and up and down the many streets and across bridges. When I had finished, and paid, I was ready to head back to the Artisan for a nice rest. I was as stuffed and well sauced as the crustacean I had just eaten. When I stepped out of the restaurant, Holmes was standing before me next to a large, black carriage with a giant team of horses.
“Well then, I have already packed your bags and they are ready for the trip. I hope that you have had enough rest.” “Indeed?” “I’m afraid we will be heading upstate this evening. We will have to make several stops to change teams as this is a rather cold evening and should only become more frigid as we move away from the water.” “We are travelling?” “We are.” “Where?” “Perhaps it would be better to leave that information for the trip. I believe it should take several days riding to reach our destination.” “I’m not sure that I am ready for such an excursion.” “Oh, you would rather stay here then?”
Of course I was unprepared for another blind adventure with Sherlock Holmes seeing that we were now essentially on the run from a ruthless arch criminal, a man that held not just power over London but over our entire homeland, who had connections reaching high up into the government and military and who exercised powers beyond the scope of even Holmes’ rationality. I had still not told him of the poker fiasco nor of the man who expressed a familiarity with myself and perhaps the diamond that Holmes carried on his person. At least for the time being, I stayed mum, “You think that Moriarty may find us here, and we must keep moving? This is the object of our night riding?” “Not exactly,” said Holmes. “Into the carriage,” he opened the door and I began to feel the various bisques and sweet ales swirling around in my stomach while the thick concoction of whiskey and cigar smoke played a fiddle across the lining of my nose. “Tally ho,” I said, and stumbled and heaved my great weight up and through the doorway. Holmes: “There’s a good doctor.”
He shut the door behind me and we began our trek out of Boston. The thrill of a new place was submerged by gloomy portents in my mind. The stack of dollars, however, was still safely at my breast pocket and in spite of myself I sighed as if defeat at cards and in my career, surely at an impasse, did not hold much damnation after all that. Wherever we were going, it would be, at least, new.
Holmes threw blankets across both of our legs and took the flask from my hand, taking intermittent sips while I shut my eyes.
When the lights of Boston had passed away and the horses were on more unsure footing I began to feel a bit queasy. Perhaps it was the luxurious way that I had treated myself after acquiring the fold of dollars from Holmes; my mind was racing and my entrails were a gassy pulp of fish and fermented corn. Holmes told me that we would change out the horses in a few miles, but there was nothing for it and the carriage was stopped so that I could climb out and heave the rich dinner onto the freezing Massachusetts earth. Holmes stood at attention with concern. His breath came icily from his lips and he struck a match to a cigarette. Far off I could see the lights of Boston like lit lanterns floating above the hills. I caught my ragged breath, spitting out saliva and then wiping my mouth with a handkerchief. Where were we? Somewhere. “Feeling better?” asked Holmes. But I didn’t answer because there was nothing of sympathy in his voice. I knew this tone from him. Dispassionate, uninterested in the emotions of the human. Holmes was never a man who one would say of him—and Lestrade would agree—that he was over fond of charity in the Christian sense. But even his modest interest in the equivocating nature of humanity lapsed into something more akin to the cold stare of Moriarty when his attentions were fixed upon a problem that he deemed of significance. This was why he was such an able detective, I believe now. And he didn’t seem particularly interested in my suffering. So I didn’t answer him.
We stood quietly in the road with the horses. They looked Germanic, hairy white at the lips, stamping and powerful. But tired out, like Hessian mercenaries there was a cynicism too in my imagination about them. “Where are we going?” I finally asked Sherlock tiredly. My patients. . .” I wanted to cry. “To Salem, Massachusetts to investigate a murder. Today I inquired at the Boston precinct, a rather rowdy lot, about their business after presenting myself.” “I see. You have been busy; shocking.” “A dead girl found. Her body discovered under unusual circumstances.” “Is this not the Salem of the hysterical movement leading to executions of innocent women?’ “It is that. And they appear to have returned to some degree to that primal state of fear as a result of this corpse turning up—according to the Boston detectives whom I spoke to—tangled in the branches at the top of an exceedingly high tree. Apparently no one could get to her; they had to cut the tree down to provide her a proper burial. I offered that we would look into the matter. It’s not like we have any more pressing business on the continent. And it is my prophecy that we should return to England once we have wrapped up this situation to the best of our ability.” “Dropped from a great height?” “We will have to see what the people of Salem tell us when we arrive. As I told you, it should take us two days to get there. But first we must change out these horses” I choked out, “And then back to England?” “Yes.”
For the next two days we rode along chatting every now and again but Holmes composure seemed broken up a bit whenever I spoke. So I remained silent. He had brought along enough to keep me occupied. I read Washington Irving, drank and smoked and looked out the window at the dismal sights. Farm houses, barns, endless decaying tree branches in winter, until we made the last change of horses and entered Salem at night.
Holmes had a letter of introduction that he had not mentioned stowed away in his breast pocket and directed the horses to a cabin on the outskirts of the village. We did not pass through the main square on our way but arrived nearly at midnight. The cabin was old, and sturdily built but there was something shabby and rusticated about it too as if it had been passed down from family to family. Eerie silence as we pulled our bags, and Holmes went to the doorway knocking with his gloved hand.
A man named Eli who was a constable in Salem came to the door and introduced himself; he had a harried darkness about the eyes, a worker’s lumbering about the shoulders. A strong looking soul who read the letter with a grateful intake of breath when he comprehended its meaning. “Well they’ve sent you from Boston and that is enough to help me rest easier for the first time in the last week. Shall you need help with your baggage?” We declined him, and sent the carriage.
I was tired and Constable Eli showed me a place near the fire for to rest myself in a straight backed chair with a footstool. Holmes asked if he might have something to eat, and whether or not Eli subscribed to the local temperance tradition, to which Eli chuckled procuring a bottle from behind a small clock on his mantelpiece—a clear and strangely viscous, oily liquid. Holmes and Eli sat down at the kitchen table and began to whisper but not wanting to be in the way I settled myself upon the chair and lapsed into a frail dream state.
I dreamed of a ship without any people on it moored out in the middle of the ocean. It was like Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner only more desolate. A drifting solitary ship, alone in the sunlight of senility.
I was awakened by a ruckus outside of the cabin. “Watson!” yelled Holmes causing me to start awake into a shock. My medical training brought me back into the game at the moment though and I found my rhythms instantly, darting out of the cabin ready. Holmes was standing there. It was just after the first light of morning, grey. He was looking up at a tall tree about twenty feet from the doorway and I walked out to him slowly and said, “What is the matter?” But he only continued to stare up at the sky and I turned my head and perceived a dark shape up in the furthest reaches of the stitching of branches. Then my heart fell into a black lake with a heavy splash. It was a person’s body, arms falling away and face turned up to the heavens swaying with fragile momentum. “That’s not…” “It is a woman,” whispered Holmes, “and a warning to the both of us.” “A warning?” “Someone knows that we are here.” “Moriarty?” Holmes said “Shhh,” very quietly under his breath as Constable Eli, who had also been asleep came slowly out of his house still putting on his wool jacket and looking at us with concern. Holmes pointed at the tree and the man fell backwards onto his back. His mouth opened, but he didn’t say anything. We stared up at the body and I noticed the outlines of the modest dress the woman wore, like a pious churchwoman’s habit.”
Constable Eli left to fetch more policemen who scrummed around at the bottom of the tree not knowing how to extricate the woman from her airy grave. Eventually they were forced to take an axe to it and the woman fell down out of the sky along with the tree like a ragdoll crashing down amidst the splintering lumber.
Holmes and I went into town to examine the first body after Holmes had searched the ground around the tree and come away empty-handed, “No footprints, no threads, no tokens; nothing.” “A witch might have dropped her from her broom,” suggested one of the locals. “Aye that’s my assessment,” said another. Holmes just had sighed at the two men ruefully and forced me along away from the morbid scene and down the roadway that was to take us into town.
There had already been an inquest of the woman and her burial had supposedly been a freak show affair with the locals muttering under their breaths suspicious theories and people coming from many towns around to see her buried. Salem seemed to be quite enlivened by the notion that the witches of old were once more groping their way through the fields after the villagers had shut themselves up into their dwellings at night. Holmes demanded that the grave be dug up so that he could get a look at the corpse but was flatly refused on religious grounds causing the detective to fume.
But it was a feckless show of rage. Several enormous men surrounded him at the hospital and I felt we were in danger of being left for dead on some Massachusetts roadway if we failed to retreat from the idea of exhuming the body. Instead of making Holmes more interested in the case, however, this bit of superstition gave him reason to drink and become downright ornery, as a matter of fact. There was suddenly a sarcasm about him that I had never experienced before; his targets were the authorities and townspeople of Salem who refused to gain him access to the tools that he felt he needed to wrap up the case, “If they aren’t going to be of service, then I’m not sure that I can be of any help. Even Lestrade, as bitter and pigheaded as he usually is must give me the ground after a bit of complaining, good soul. But this business is perhaps useless,” he said, ordering a beer from the only tavern in town; and I must say that the barmaid gave him a skeptical once over when he ordered the beverage, as if they weren’t in the business of dispensing with spirituous liquids. And indeed the proprietor came over when Holmes asked for another and acquainted us with the notion that drink was only for men after a day in the fields or a turn volunteering to alleviate the poor’s suffering, and only between the hours of eight and ten, and never on Sundays or Tuesdays (for some reason). “Tuesdays?” muttered Holmes, bringing out a bottle of whiskey and setting it next to his beer and staring down the proprietor and barmaid both.
I left him at his cups and went out into the street, thinking that perhaps the greatest detective had met his match in the sober confines of Salem. But the image of the woman up in the branches was still stuck in the tresses of my own brain, so I strolled along to see if I could narrow the search while Holmes remained in his mood.
A young woman, pretty, about twenty, began to follow me along the street slowly creeping closer and closer until she brushed passed me making a show of being in a hurry. Being no foreigner to the London bridges and alleyways I knew her game, and I grasped her wrist firmly when she made a pass at my pocket holding her arm up and folding it behind her head until we became intimates, face to face, “How may I be of service, madam?”
She gasped and I continued, “Shall we peruse Salem until I can requisition law to put an end to your crimes?”
“Please,” she said.
“Answer a question or two and I shall allow you to pass on to other errands.”
“Ask your questions.”
“You won’t run?”
“I will answer.”
I let go of her arm and looked at her standing there with dark hair and a pointed noise, quite lovely. An Englishwoman in another life, perhaps.
“Do you know the woman who they found dead a week past?”
She gave a sardonic turn of the eyes, “Of course.”
“Who was she?”
“And her next of kin?
“She has a sister who teaches at the school not far from here.”
She pointed and gave me the footpath and I growled at her but not unpleasantly because even her modest dress could not hide her shapely frame nor the way that her bosoms crafted the faded fabric.
Leaving Holmes to his devices was turning out to be a gambit not without its positive points.
The schoolhouse was loud. Children had their slates in front of them as was the custom across the hemisphere. Laura Lennox’s sister, Cecilia, stood at the chalkboard with her hair pulled back into a severe bun and vicious little round spectacles on her face. The hair flew out from her carefully set style as if an electric current was even now being passed through it. She didn’t appear to be in the throes of any great grief; the children were quiet if not attentive to her lecture on rudimentary mathematics.
I lit a pipe outside and waited for the lecture to conclude but I had only just begun to enjoy the smoke when she poked her head out with a cross expression on her face. Her eyes narrowed and I nearly dropped the pipe such was my consternation at being rudely interrupted during my constitutional.
“What of you?” she protested.
“I am detective John Watson of Boston by way of London, England,” I answered, removing my hat, “You are the next of kin of Laura Lennox?”
“I am teaching at the moment, and have nothing to say on the issue of Laura’s death. Be assured of that,” she spat, looking upon my pipe with clear disdain as if my rank could not obliterate the fact that even now I was engaging in some kind of transcendent sinfulness.
“What can you tell me about her?” I demanded, standing my ground and suddenly feeling a bit of the frustration that Holmes had demonstrated at the hospital, “If no one in this humdrum village will help the services of the law then what will that precipitate when further dangers set themselves before you here in Salem?”
“Well now, you are quite the philosopher,” she said, taking one step out of the doorway but keeping here concentrated gaze upon the children at their desks still not uttering a word. “Laura was a beastly girl; impious and frivolous. She went with men, and was to be found up and down the countryside reveling in drunkenness and whatnot. She has passed on to her judgment; we can all hope for an equal treatment from heaven if the Lord sees fit.”
“Whom did she run with?” I answered, using the vernacular of the English rabble because I knew it would rankle the horrid woman.
“There is a place out in the country where men go; I’m sure I don’t have the scantiest details as to their behavior.”
Her face reddened now, “By the name of The Windy Musket; I warned her about that place. Now our intercourse has reached its conclusion, sir.” And with that she marched back across the threshold of the schoolhouse and slammed the door.
It was getting on towards evening, and Sherlock and I had not met up; but why not see about this piece of evidence on my own? Show my usefulness. Were I to solve this crime without Holmes then there would always be that knob to hang my hat upon in Baker Street in future. What could he say to that?
Everyone knew of this mysterious ale house, although most expressed fear at its mention. So it was without much trouble that I was able to walk the two miles beyond the borders of Salem towards the location, just as the sun set finding the Musket a matter-of-fact one story establishment set right at the edge of the empty roadway.
In character as not a detective, but a travelling salesman, and perhaps rogue, I began to drink without thinking of the consequences as the night deepened. My English accent was a novelty to the patrons at first, but there was a gristly energy in the room when men began to trickle in and heard me spinning out some nonsense like a con artist about his tricks, little realizing where he stood with the men of The Windy Musket. There was much drinking and shouting, but I couldn’t get a bead on the situation until a man came over and sat down, “Do you realize where you are friend, and what your business is here tonight? Do you know with whom you are drinking and spilling your guts on subjects?” This was not the Queen’s English, but I shifted the character away from the brazen and into that of the world weary Smoggie charlatan whose only hope in life was to validate those whose condemned nature had lifted them to a station above his own, “I have heard that Salem was a place of noble and ancient character, but now that this Laura Lennox woman has went dead the name of Salem has once more risen in the estimation of yarn-spinners down Boston. Do you really believe that she was cast up into the tree by some demon’s spell?”
The talking in the room stopped and the man said, “The Green Mountain Boys. This is our place of drinking.”
Now the sweat stood out on my brow. I couldn’t pretend it did not happen. These were the men of special talents whom George Washington had used in prosecuting his war against my countrymen; and even in Afghanistan there were tales told of the brutal acts that they had committed against our honorable men in the field, and of the stealthy lessons that they had acquired from the American Indian used to catch out British soldiers when they let their guard down at a forest hillside perimeter. No, they were known to me, although I never in my life expected to be confronted by such a scenario. Life has a way of doing that though; it is always the malady unlooked for and unwanted that suddenly erupts from the bowels or chest cavity of a soul in the ward. Preparation is useless at a time like that.
“Laura Lennox?” the man said with irony.
Now honor glazed across my vision like the Sword of Damocles rotating vertically before my eyes and the persona that I had developed through this drinking illusion fell away like gossamer.
I asserted a more natural sounding voice, “Yes, the woman found dead. Another dead this morning.”
Now The Windy Musket was dead silent and I could hear the sign squeaking on its hinges outside.
“Oh, a bit of the officer about you apparently my English friend?” said the man.
Then I heard the hammers clicking.
“Sport,” said someone from the corner, and the barkeeper, who had been cleaning a glass made a half grin like that of a corpse, showing both rows of teeth on one side and walking down to the end of the room and sitting down; he pulled a tobacco pouch out of his pocket and began rolling a cigarette while men at the bar got up slowly and quietly, soundlessly it seemed to me, and backed away.
“I am unarmed,” I muttered, and got up leaning across the bar splashing whiskey into a glass. I stood up and drank it slowly, “Her Majesty,” I said to my reflection in the mirror. Evil then wrapped itself around the bar like an African snake.
“How long?” said a young man with ragged hair and a gleam in his eyes.
“Ten minutes,” said the man who had until recently been pouring the drinks.
I didn’t make a grand show of it, but only took off at a run from the edge of the bar and out into the cold. I was overdressed but it was freezing. Two miles back to the city center and Holmes. I prayed that he would be capable in the few moments we might have to slough off the Green Mountain Boys; there were at least ten of them in the bar that I left at my heels. But overweight and out of training, and perhaps too much lubricated by whiskey, my progress was not nearly equal the mental energy being drained by fear and adrenaline at the thought of the ten minutes that would elapse before they would—I assumed—begin to hunt me along the roadway.
I heard them before I saw them, a ragged breath whispering through the branches. Then a footstep pattered softly. A man on my right I saw who had already overtaken me, a flanking shadow that forced me off the road when I was in sight of the lights of Salem. I angled off the path and tripped along almost falling.
There was a single house in view now with a chimney like a bent pipe and I made for it. I stood fast though suddenly finding myself at odds with a number of small, egg shaped things littering the ground in various states of decay and rot. It was a pumpkin patch indeed. There were frozen husks of the old fruits lying around, some of their stems still supernaturally green making my blood run cold. Perhaps there was witchcraft at work here after all, but I checked my hallucination and continued to run. I looked back and saw there were six men running in tandem. I fancied I saw their tongues lolling out like dogs, and their eyes looked red with passion. They seemed to float above the pumpkin patch, gliding towards me on invisible wings. I had never experienced such a lethal concentration of movement since the mountains and brown rocks and black nights of Asia. Then I was back on the road. I knew I wouldn’t make it; but there was a single tree with a low branch and instinct took over my reckoning and I swung myself with the terrified strength of death up the branch and into the tree, climbing, climbing, climbing. I heard the branches below me rustling but no other sound and when I looked down there was a shape slithering up the tree with the uncompromising assertiveness of a bayonet piercing flesh. A cracking blaze ripped through the Salem night then, and another and cordite filled my nostrils. The snake dropped out of the tree below me and hit the ground with the heavy disorganization of a block of pavement crumbling upon impact. Then a shout and another gunshot. Then I was alone in the tree.
I climbed down and saw three bodies lying at grotesque angles, and Sherlock Holmes standing among the frozen tundra with a pistol raised at the heavens.
“Watson, our time in Salem has drawn to a timely and natural conclusion.”
“Not too shabby,” said I, going up to him and inhaling the gun smoke like a baptism. Catharsis. Purity of the after action. A bit of comeuppance from the British soldiering community to cream of the Yankee militias.
We surveyed the dead Green Mountain Boys and shrugged, “Well it must have been in our favor that you brought your pistol along John,” said Holmes, “I found it in your trousers pocket. Don’t particularly like guns, but this place has brought out something of the devil in me. Too much constraints on my nature; perhaps that is the problem. Why are those pumpkin stems glowing back there?” Holmes gestured back and he was right. I wasn’t hallucinating it but there was still a soft light emanating from the pumpkin patch.”
I almost laughed at this bit of self-effacement but Holmes looked deadly in earnest, “Our bags are packed.” “We will leave this mystery to the annals of time then?” “What mystery?” asked Holmes, waving the smoking pistol at the hardening cadavers. “It is cold here. And there are your brutes; we are not men to reorganize the futility of life into a more stable pattern. Are we the men to bring order from chaos?” “No.” “Well met. Leave such herculean tasks to Professor Moriarty and his brethren. There is a good amount of horsemanship yet to come tonight. Let us not tarry among dead men and ill-used women; we have enough of that in Whitechapel, I daresay.” “It is a pathetic or glorious scene?” I asked him then, gesturing at the dead Americans as a child might inquire of his older brother or a son his father; despite my age and my experience of combat and the bloody terrors of England, and even in my role as a man of action when it came to medical science, sometimes even I needed to be reassured. But Holmes only ejected the empty shells from the pistol onto the ground, and methodically placed new rounds into the chambers then began to walk back towards Salem, with the winter wind calling like a sighing ghost through above our heads.
Arrival back in Boston. The port of Boston Harbor in the morning. Much like the final hurdles of our adventures in Switzerland, Holmes ran me ragged from way station to way station out of the country. There was no restiveness about him then as we walked down the docks to the ship and showed our papers, tickets, and faces to the men at the checkpoints. Onto the ship, at last, we made port out into the great open waters of the Atlantic. I looked over the side and at the receding coast of The United States, a sovereign in her own right, protected from the vagaries of the royal feuds of Europe and the impulsive levers of justice of Great Britain wielded by our gentry with a blind and rigid eye. Away from the deathly gates of our hospitals, and the overwhelming history that held us all in its statuesque embrace. America was its own land, but I didn’t think it suited my own patterns, nor Holmes’. I was ready once more to face London. The ship sailed on into a cloudy sea.
To be concluded…