Back to Baker Street.
December 23rd, 1873. A crimson horizon stared upon a wintry London the color of a druid’s robes. Black snow like a pond fly’s wings crisscrossed at angles through the air making oily ripples. It was a filthy December evening. Beggars froze to death outside the workhouses, pushed away forcibly from warm doorways down staircases into the street.
That winter, the hospital was a ward of disease of nefarious purpose. I was learning on my feet caution to every threat inside Charing Cross Hospital in my first year as an accredited physician. My heart pulsed nervously every time I rounded a corner on the main floor. The green and white institutional tableaux trampolined the noxious miasma along the corridors.
Londoners call hospitals “gateways of death,” and I was beginning to think that this was a good way of putting things. As a doctor in the groundbreaking field of surgery I saw human suffering up close, and in harrowing detail.
There was the per usual brutal rise in crime as the holidays approached; fear made English interactions like running on a frozen pond. As we walked down the darkened alleys and blew out condensed air with widened eyes. we saw things. Sometimes, we weren’t sure exactly what. A movement or a shadow at the periphery of our vision; snow and smoke and late evenings; a muffled sound. A sudden gurgling from an open sewer would make me linger.
It was a different species of crime than during sunnier months when the police trollies would toll and the sounds of screams and noise would make the air heavy. No it was only the newspapers that let us know that London had become a bloody affair in those dark hours of December. Wet newsprint in front of a warm fire while window glass froze cold and dry and sticky to the touch. Bulletins read of intriguing murders near Westminster discovered on snowy mornings. According to the Times, to wit: “If Traitor’s Gate was still open there would be a steady supply of bodies trembling up the Thames this December.”
Inside 221 there was a fire going. The clock was ticking reassuringly, and the carpet against my socks felt warm. Holmes was reading a new clipping and drinking vodka slowly, and not speaking. He had been studying the article off and on all day.
It was early evening. We were both silent, listening to wind scrape against the windows and the voices calling from the streets below coming more rarely as the evening hours approached. I went to the window, striking a match to a cigarette, and saw a man carrying a goose by its neck, supporting it gently in the crook of his arm.
“There goes the Christmas goose. Good man,” I remarked to Holmes, who replied emphatically, “Christmas comes but once a year!”
“Next week. Did you have any plans? I was thinking of taking some time off from my office for the occasion.”
“Plans?” said Holmes, “Mycroft and I will have Christmas Day together at the Diogenes Club, of course. Tradition. You’re welcome to come along if you like.”
We heard Mrs. Hudson slam the door downstairs and stomp her feet. She had been in that morning to hang stockings. Holmes had studied the quilted ornaments, and removed them from his sight as soon as she closed the door.
I saw a man in the apartment across the street putting on his coat in his flat, then picking up his cane and heading out the door and down the street.
“Mr. Danton,” said Holmes.
“You were just observing Mr. Danton leaving his apartment, making his way to the museum. He’s an interesting soul. Privately wealthy, but spends his days mussing about in the stacks for whatever reason.” “How do you know it is Mr. Danton whom I perceive making his way?” I asked. “Because he always leaves his flat at six thirty and that is what time it is. Do you see him bringing his cane along” “Hmm,” I said, ” “Yes?” asked Holmes peevishly. “Oh, nothing.” “Yes?” “Well, there is no way to verify your claims as I don’t know who Mr. Danton is.” Holmes rose and came over, looking out the window. He pointed, “Mr. Danton!” I chuckled, “Perhaps.” Holmes brought a cigarette to his lips and blew a cloud of smoke in my direction making me cough.
“Well then, Holmes,” I said, looking at him with medical skepticism, “How about a glass of vodka?” going over to the ice bucket where the bottle of spirit was .
“It’s cold outside, and vodka warms,” he said, smoking at the cold window now and looking up at the red sky.
I poured one out for myself, trying to shrug off the meaty stench of the hospital and drank it fast. Poured again, taking it over to the fire and sitting down, staring at the crackling hearth.
When I awoke the next morning, Holmes was gone. There was a note on the dining room table, “Switzerland. Merry Christmas, SH.”
I readied for work. But just as I was upping my rhythms to head out, Holmes appeared energetically at the door of the flat.
“Well, I suppose my enthusiasm got the better of me. Would you like to accompany me to Switzerland, Doctor Watson? I might need your help, although I should warn you this may be a dangerous case.”
“I was thinking of taking the week off. But let me just get my pistol.”
“Read this,” said Holmes, when we were on the continent steaming south.
He handed over the newspaper clipping I saw him cut out the day before. It told the story of a significant diamond of ruby hue, and with a circumference of almost ten centimeters being routed through a small Swiss village called Nomkopt that week, and how the banking community was in an uproar because no one would insure it, for whatever reason.
“That is remarkable,” I handed him back the clipping.
“Yes, no one can protect this stone. Or no one is willing to.”
“And it will be traveling through Switzerland over the next forty eight hours.”
“This is why I have left my practice? To follow you on a field trip junket involving a ridiculous fossil?”
“Have you ever participated in a fox hunt?”
“It is quite an exhilarating piece of sport. Men on horseback chasing the fox with dogs. And then the kill. One may sniff at the proposition but until one experiences it then it is hard to relate the majesty of the pursuit.”
“We’re going fox hunting, are we?”
“In some respects. A diamond of this value attracts various actors; many of whom operate at the upper echelons of the international criminal community. Perhaps we will make a game of them.”
I lit my pipe and grunted at this intelligence.
“I can assure you it will be worth your attention, doctor,” pleaded Holmes.
“Hmm,” I muttered.
“Yes you will see for yourself, I daresay.”
“What of diamonds?” I fumed, thinking upon a patient whom had little more than a week to live, and whom I would be sure to return to London to check on whether or not this case was resolved or not by week’s end. Anyway, Christmas coming up, so I supposed the even Holmes wouldn’t let us miss the London festivities; although he was a strange sort; it was an uneasy proposition in my own mind – the notion off mulled cider away from London on Christmas Day.
For the remainder of the journey, I smoked in silence and munched in the dining car, reminiscing about an evening I had spent with the head nurse of the hospital three nights previous after rounds. She had black hair and gave me a nice scratch behind the ear while we sat before the hearth at her house on the outskirts of London. I was deciding that Holmes, after all, may have been too much trouble at the end of the day. So too this silly hunt had me feeling equivocal while I ordered a second and third steak, and plowed through a bottle of wine. Potatoes and greens came by regularly and I was well served, so there was something to be cheerful about.
We arrived at the the train station and beheld the dismal Swiss countryside. Brown and watery and bleak. Peasants hovering around the trainyard throwing us mean Germanic stares, suspicious and curling were their faces set against this rural backdrop.
“Well this is an exhilarating change of pace from the London smog,” remarked Holmes, filling his lungs with the country air. “I was expecting something more along the lines of elegance.” “Now then, who is this fine man coming along?” said my enthusiastic roommate. There was a portly gentleman of gigantic girth ambling along the platform towards us wearing a gaudy medallion around his neck. He was holding a piece of paper and studying it, “Hello, Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Doctor John Watson of Baker Street, London, England? This is you?”
Holmes was taken aback, and stammered, “Yes, I am Sherlock Holmes. I wasn’t aware that I had sent word ahead?”
“Are we really as famous as all that?” I asked the man.
“You see, I had an envoy from central station delivering news of your arrival this morning, and so I thought why not make an introduction myself, since you are a quite well-known detective, or so I have been informed by officials whom outrank me. I have just had dinner, but would be honored if you would join me for supper at my house.”
“We have eaten on the train,” said Holmes.
“Even so, I must insist that you come along to my home. If you are to take advantage of the novelties and sights that our town offers it would be rather getting off on the wrong foot to deny the mayor the favor of your company for just one meal.”
Holmes rolled his eyes but he also looked concerned. It was not like him to be caught off guard.
“Unhand us, sir,” said Holmes, “We are about our business tonight in your fair polis, and have urgent thoughts to deploy and conjectures to investigate; we are hardly on holiday from London for a repast at your domicile, my dear sir. Although I’m sure the doctor would be at your service where eating is concerned. In any event let us pass. Appointments.”
The mayor’s eyes narrowed like a black eagle’s. “You may find your way impeded my lord, if I may refer to a title as yet unearned by the looks of things;” at this he gave Holmes a once over the likes of which would have shamed the hungriest and most servile candle salesman the East End could have conceived of.
“That’s a bit stuffy,” I remarked, to the politician.
He didn’t answer, but only seemed to grow more darkly in statute. He was a large man after all that, and his enormous girth could have been used for any number of aggressive tactics. I had seen what men of his caliber could do with their hands on the battlefield, and I did not underestimate him, even if Holmes was giving him short shrift.
“To the bank,” said Holmes, pressing through the crowded platform and leaving the mayor in a puff of steam with his gaze burning holes in our collars.
The Swiss bank was a squat one story affair in the middle of the town. We walked in and Holmes met the teller and asked for the manager who promptly presented himself efficiently with efficient language and efficient dress and a thinning head of black hair combed neatly to one side. Holmes went into his pocket and produced a thick piece of white wax paper that he unfolded under my curious nose, and I gazed upon precious gems. Small beautiful confetti like unfreezing snow that Holmes handled into the small crease by candlelight. “This way,” suggested the manager.
“My name is Sherlock Holmes.”
“Very good, sir,” said the man.
I breathed easier. At least this little adventure was opening up some new thoughts about the world at large that I had never had the time or inclination to cogitate upon in my years as a soldier and medical student. Diamonds and banks and managers and what have you.
At once we were in a small room at the back of the bank where three men sat at raised desks like one sees in counting houses inspecting a variety of artifacts. There were ledgers being scribbled in, and a man at a table looking scholarly and innocent. We approached him with the stones, and the manager left us.
“These I have come across in my travels, and am looking for a buyer,” remarked Sherlock, handing him the folded paper with his index and middle fingers with elegant disregard.
The man sifted them about and fiddled with his glasses nervously, “These are beautiful.”
“Would you happen to know about the ruby diamond traveling through Nomkopt this week?”
“I think everyone has heard of the transit.”
“And where might one go to learn about purchasing such an artifact?”
The man looked at Holmes with clear skepticism, “Obviously I would have little to do with such a shipment.”
“Indeed?” said Holmes, walking behind the man and exerting his considerable height and musculature over the man’s space.
“I’m looking to buy,” said Holmes, “the situation of the stone. I think I’ve made myself clear.”
The man sniffed, “And as I have assured you, there is little to be gleaned from me upon such points.”
Then Holmes grappled with the man’s neck using some manner of martial arts, such that he instantly went lame in his Holmes’ and said “Alright alright, dear god sir. There is a man at the Guggen House; the beer tavern there on Hauptstraße. I heard that he has some connection with the piece; although he is a terrible drunk and a selfish one when it comes to the blondes. You might ask him by god!”
With that Holmes let the man go, and he leaned forward and grabbed at his neck as if he had just broken the surface of the ocean after diving deep. The other two clerks stood up with alarm, but made no move. Holmes re-pocketed the diamonds, and we left the bank in a hurry before they could rally their character enough to make some show of force to hinder us.
“The ale house?’ I asked excitedly.
“The very same,” said Holmes.
We entered the bar; it was smoky, and dense with men in dark clothing. There were a few lanterns lit, but overall it was a dark affair. Low ceilings made me feel like I was on my back, and yet the men were mostly tall and large. It was a strange and claustrophobic reality as if they wanted to absorb the splinters of the woodwork upon their prodigious limbs while they drank, heavily.
There was a young woman with hefty breasts moving about confidently, going to various tables while laughter and gossip filled the air. Holmes scanned the area and strode confidently to a table at the back of the establishment where a man sat with a giant bottle of beer at his elbow, and a glass of what appeared to be schnapps at his lips. He was a fleshy German wearing light colored clothing, but he looked to be by far the strongest and largest looking specimen that I had ever laid eyes upon except for one cadaver of a wharf laborer whom I had participated in the inquest of at Holmes’ behest on a previous case.
Holmes took a chair across from him, “Franz,” he burped, and held out an enormous hand with his eyelids looking heavy. Holmes ignored his salutation, “I believe that we have an arrangement concerning a shipment bound for Nomkopt this evening.” “Professor Moriarty?” breathed the man, still looking down at his mug but there was a change in his voice. Suddenly he sounded entirely intelligent. “Do you know what happens to foolish men who utter my name aloud in public?” hissed Holmes. The man’s face turned white, and he scooped up the schnapps into his mouth stupidly. Moisture pooled at the surface of his lips. “The timetable is the only thing that concerns me, as you should be aware.” “Yes sir. The train arrives at the Tresblatt station at nine thirty this evening. The carrier is a Chinese by the name of Kwon. All you’ll need to do is make the exchange with her man in order to take control of the minutes.” “That is well,” said Holmes. “And you have the nine million pound of course?” Holmes looked around the bar, and said, “What is your name precisely?” so that I might make a note of it. But the man only stumbled up and backwards making perhaps a better show of his inebriation than the true nature of his drunkenness. He rumbled out of the ale house and into the street as if he had never imbibed more spirit in his life.
“Well then, Professor Moriarty rears his head once more from the depths.”
“Is this the same man responsible for the naval wrecks?”
Holmes lit his pipe and waved out a match, but did not answer. “We can make this train, but we will have to charter a carriage and be swift about it.”
“This is becoming quite a sortie,” I remarked.
Holmes remained serious, and we left the bar together and stepped out into the Swiss cold.
As soon as we hit the dirt road we were confronted by an extremely tall and menacing figure and six constables with torches raised in the dark.
“Mr. Holmes,” called the figure, “How do you do on this fair winter evening?”
It began to snow then in the street as if the professor had called down the elements at that moment, or so it seemed to me. I saw the man grin a predatory and toothy smile from underneath his hat, but the snow only increased the pregnancy of silence. The stand off punctuated by frozen watery vapor.
“Professor!” called Holmes, whose breath came as a steam, “What a coincidence to find you in such a small and shabby place as this on a dwindling evening. How may I be of service?”
Moriarty sighed and merely raised a finger at Holmes and myself making me blanch, “Arrest these men.”
Just as the constables had taken a few menacing steps towards us in the rain an entire scrum of drunken revelers ejected themselves out of the bar and into the street, with roughhouse noise they clattered down onto the wooden slats. Drunk out of their minds, their eyes flickering in the torchlight, their heaving smiles suddenly stopped as they gazed upon the scene. The constables then charged towards us and it was a free for all melee as the drunken men found purpose in their hazy collection of the facts of the moment. A general fight broke out in the snow. Joyous shouting and blows being landed, “Huzzah!” The constables became vicious with their boots and screams but there were more men spilling out of the tavern hearing the broil. A man walked out of the tavern and smashed a glass and went to work on a medium sized constable, landing blows right beneath the man’s sternum at the seam of his guts. The policeman blew out air like a punctured balloon.
In the madness, Holmes grabbed my arm and we took off up the street where we hailed the only cab going away from the tavern. Holmes yelled, “A diamond if you make the station before the hour,” and off we went clattering away, the horses feeling the purpose of the moment, forgetting their exhaustion and lashing along the frozen lanes.
We made the station and were on the train as the snow fell.
It made me impatient but the train was waylaid for several minutes. Perhaps the snow in the upper reaches of the alps would cause the driver to halt the train indefinitely; I saw a watchman with a face like a grouper checking his watch on the platform nervously while the cold air whipped his thinning hair.
The train was better furnished than your average English breed. The upholstery was clean and fine and the passengers calm, well-dressed, and professional. We made our way to the front of the train until we saw a beautiful Asian woman in a silk gown at a window seat. We sat down and waited for several minutes as the train gathered speed and altitude up into the mountain air.
“I’m not interested in the minutes; I want the stone,” muttered Holmes to me making my eyes widen while I looked out the windows upon swirling chasms of night ringing down from the mountainsides. This was a far cry from the hospital corridors where death confronted me in the form of disease or sickness. Now I felt the sting of death on the windows of the Swiss train car; a foreboding of violence and exhilaration; something atmospheric and appealing about death instead of the cold and material facts of the hospital, like a cold spring breeze passing through grass that you tread upon or the red and yellow Afghan sun on my shoulders at dusk. It was an altogether different kind of fear that raised the hair on the back of my neck. And it was additionally unique to the thrill of soldiery because everyone in the train car looked so civilized. Violence and death rearing its head high above the Swiss countryside in a snowstorm while men grappled over a precious piece of deposit, the product of magnificent pressures beneath the earth’s surface and the greed and blood of man’s usurping nature. The absurdity and style and sinister aspects clashed in an altogether novel way, and the side of my brain that needed the fresh oxygen of new data like a flame latched onto the scenario with the energy of a whale inhaling plankton. It was a life force indeed. Holmes’ ears suddenly seemed to flatten like a bloodhound’s, and I knew that he too was absorbed by the mystery; perhaps there was something of the teacher in him. But by example and not by pedagogy, at least in my case.
We waited and watched the woman in the silk dress while the minutes passed and the snow gathered around the car’s black windows.
Suddenly the car door opened next to where we were seated, and Professor Moriarty stepped through the doorway with the mayor in his wake, still wearing the ridiculous medallion. They both looked furious and red faced. Holmes ejaculated, “Hah!” and raced towards the Chinese woman while I pulled my pistol and shot out the lanterns in the car, sending people screaming in every direction. The mayor leapt for my midsection and we tumbled to the floor at the windows while the train went thundering up the rock face.
Holmes seemed to make quick work of pick pocketing the gem, because as soon as he had flashed away into the dark he was back slashing at Moriarty with a cane. It was too dark to see much, but I sloughed off my attacker and jumped behind Holmes, and we backed away towards the engine. The mayor and Moriarty gathered themselves, and stood upon their our opponents holding themselves up against the motion of the compartment and ready to row.
I didn’t have my pistol any more; the mayor leaped down on his haunches to sniff it out; like a reckless animal, he moved with such grotesque energy that I had never encountered before that even my medical brain recoiled. Moriarty chuckled and looked down at the dog with a sneer. The professor was an enormous man. And he crept towards us then like the most formidable and self-aware hunter that god himself had the bad sense to unleash upon the earth.
Holmes held up the stone in his hand and Moriarty stopped short, “What would you pay for this?”
At this seeming cynicism, Moriarty drew back from his fighting stance, and upwards he seemed to poise becoming regal and supernatural; his eyes glowed inky and black. Then he bowed slowly, and backed out of the train car.
The engine whistle echoed then in the dark car. The window had been shattered and the wind came furiously cold and loud. Holmes stepped forward confidently along the aisle, and struck the mayor a blow across the face with the cane, knocking the man’s teeth out as well as the man.
“That was quite a strap,” I said, leaning over on my knees, attempting to regain my breath. The zero temperatures burned my lungs. My fingers were numb.
“No it wasn’t,” whispered Holmes, regarding the door that Moriarty had just disappeared through with curiosity.
I too was somewhat nonplussed about why the Professor had retreated at Holmes’ words. But he was nowhere to be seen.
“We should reach the next station in twenty minutes,” said Holmes. “Let’s hope that Moriarty is unable to rally more troops until that time.”
At the next station we disembarked.
Out into the Swiss cold, we trudged through an incredibly small village and warmed our hands upon a hearth, but did not sleep. The next train to come along back down into Nomkopt we took it.
I was fearful of who would overtake us on the trip down through the crags. But nothing happened and my mind began to run to sleep and nothing so much as sleep.
Holmes was indefatigable however, and would not rest until we had made a straight shot back to London. I attempted to inject my nervous system with energy downing whiskey and smoking a pipe but it only gave my exhaustion a film of chemical decay. Holmes took me by the shoulder to the dining car and slapped my hand away from the sandwich tray but only allowed us coffee. “As much as you need,” he gritted through is teeth. “We are not beyond Moriarty’s reach. Please stay in the moment of the game, Doctor Watson.”
At Paris we waited on the platform where Holmes smoked and paced back and forth. “I do not understand,” he said, with perplexity in his voice, “but,” a drew me closer to him, “I did claim the prize,” the ruby lighted rock looked like pooled liquid in his black gloved palm. “And how will it go with this piece of treasure, Mister Holmes?” “We shall see,” he said.
I sagged into the next leg of our journey attempting to force off sleep in Northern France but losing the fight. A nightmare of a patient bleeding out on the table startled me awake with a breathless scream. Holmes cocked his head at me like a seagull, allowing me to fall back into a light nap. But he had me back on my feet and onto a boat as soon as we reached the coast. Again I slept. Again Holmes ushered me onto a train. He seemed totally unwearied by the conditioning of the case. We pulled into smokey London, seeing the Christmas wreathes and colorful tapestries as we pulled into Victoria Station.
The yuletide decorations and the suffering of London filled my perception until we finally reached Baker Street and I collapsed on the sidewalk while the hansom cab clip clopped off into the evening. Holmes dragged me into a tavern.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Ten minutes to Christmas! Let us have a toast,” said Holmes, holding up a mug of Christmas ale, “Christmas cheer.”
“And to you,” I wheezed, gulping down the entire spirit in one heavy-breathing and cathartic series of pulls. I thought about a blonde woman with big breasts, large thighs, and the Viking ship, feeling much better.
Holmes lit a cigarette, and rubbed his temples like he had a headache, “And to bed with you, I should say dear doctor.”
We walked out into the street and heard carolers singing. We were thirty yards from Baker Street when an explosion ripped through a building next to 221 sending shrapnel in every direction. I heard the explosion and felt the heat as a black wind, and the sound of the clattering wood landing upon wood as I fell to the cobbles in slow motion. There was dust and confusion, and fiery white and blue Christmas light. I brought up the monster of medicine that always lay dormant in me and managed to open my eyes. I saw Professor Moriarty down the street smoking a cigarette. The embers of the loose tobacco’s black hilt lit his eyes with menace.
To be continued…