I enjoy reading Sherlock Holmes stories. One day, frustrated to realize that I'd reached the end of Doyle's tales, I decided to try my hand at popping off one of my own. Once I started, I was hooked. This particular story concerns a black period, indeed, in the life of the world's first consulting detective. So, fill your pipe and sit back in your favorite chair. It's a cold winter's day in 1902 and Holmes and Watson are about to receive a very unexpected visitor.
The weather in November and December of 1902 had been unseasonably mild throughout the whole of England and snow had scarcely touched the ground by Christmas. All that changed within forty-eight hours, however, and London was brought to a virtual standstill by a tempest that descended upon it the Saturday following the Savior’s birthday. The capital was held steadfastly within the storm’s grasp that weekend and, when the business week began, instead of showing signs of abating, as might have been hoped, the blizzard grew in intensity. No one ventured out of doors unless it was absolutely essential.
Monday, the 29th, was bitterly cold; the sort of day that fades all memory of the previous summer into nothing more than a distant pipedream and makes the promise of a warm spring to come seem less likely than a child’s fairytale. The twin Furies of sleet and snow whipped angrily through the air only a few paces from where Sherlock Holmes and I sat, but we were comfortably isolated from the storm by the stout brick and mortar walls of our Baker Street flat. A spruce log blazed in the fireplace, the fire casting shadows about the room and sprinkling golden highlights across the half-played checkers game that occupied the table between us.
“I believe it’s your turn, Watson,” Holmes said.
The benevolent warmth of hearth and brandy had evidently produced a brief reverie in me, for when I straightened in my chair and observed the playing board, I found that I had no recollection of making my last move, nor for that matter how I had come to possess three red kings as opposed to Holmes’ solitary black monarch.
“You’re slipping, Holmes,” I remarked, after a moment’s contemplation. “Another move or two and I shall leave you no quarter.”
“What could possibly lead you to that conclusion?” Holmes asked.
By way of reply, I jumped two of his men with one of my kings.
“Oh, I see,” he said.
The slender fingers of his right hand flashed across the board. When he had finished, there were only black pieces standing on the playing field and his king had not been touched. Holmes had ruined me with a single checker.
He stood and stretched.
“Another game?” I offered.
“Thank you, Watson. I think not.” He replied. Something had drawn his attention to the bay window and the storm beyond its protective barrier. He moved to it and gazed intently at the street below. “It would take something extraordinarily urgent to bring us a visitor today. I suspect the time for entertainment is over.”
“A visitor? On a day like this?” I inquired, as I walked across the room and joined him at the window.
An elegantly appointed Brougham carriage stood before the entrance to our building. The driver dismounted and, bracing himself against the wind, opened the door. A tall woman, bundled against the cold and sheltered from the wet snow by a lace-trimmed umbrella which was much too delicate for the purpose, stepped out. A sudden gust turned the umbrella inside-out, prompting the caller to look up and, thereby, reveal her face to us.
“Lydia.” Holmes said. His voice betrayed the great surprise he felt at recognizing the woman.
“You know her? Who is she?”
“My sister.” Holmes replied.
“Sister? Why, I had no idea you had any living relatives other than your brother, Mycroft.” I was astonished at this bit of information.
“Ignorance of a subject has no bearing on the reality of its existence.” He said. Although his manner was outwardly composed, Holmes’ agitation was obvious to me. I had known him far too long to be oblivious to his moods.
He turned from the window, smoothed the front of his shirt, and sat in his smoking chair to await the knock that came to our door a moment later. Lydia Eddington Brown shared her brother’s height and she was quite handsome; a regal woman in the prime of life. When she unbuttoned her coat, I observed that, beneath her winter outer garments, her clothing was haphazardly assembled. Evidently; she had dressed under some duress, a fact that was certainly not lost on Holmes, although he made no acknowledgement of it.
“Well, Madame; what is it?” Holmes began, rising from his chair. His voice was exceedingly cold. Evidently, there was bad blood between them and, from the degree of tension that permeated the room, I gathered it was of some years standing. “What has plucked you from your comfort and cast you upon my humble doorstep?”
The woman’s eyes flashed. “Do you think I would have sought you out if I had anyone else to turn to? Our brother is of no use to me.”
“Sought me out? Sought me out? I assure you, dear sister, I’m the easiest man to find in the entire empire. Next to 10 Downing, 221B Baker Street is the most commonly known address in all of London and I’m its sole registered tenant. Had you …”
Suddenly, Mrs. Brown gave out a moan. Sobbing, she collapsed onto the sofa.
“It’s Lizzie.” She gasped.
Holmes’ anger evaporated.
“Elizabeth?” He asked, his face taking on a smoothness of compassion that was the direct antithesis of its former expression. Indeed, it was such an extraordinary transformation that I scarcely believed I was looking at the same man. “What has happened?” He continued.
“She’s disappeared,” was the only reply she could make before succumbing to her emotions.
“Can’t you do something, Watson?” Holmes asked.
I confess that my attention had been so thoroughly captured by the drama playing out before my eyes, that I’d forgotten myself for a moment. I retrieved my medical bag and prepared a mild sedative for her. In a few minutes, her distress was diminished to the point that she could continue.
“She was spirited away from us. Taken from her bedroom in the middle of the night. The detectives have no idea as to how it was done.” She retrieved a handkerchief from her handbag and wiped her wet eyes and cheeks. Casting a furtive glance at Holmes, she said “That’s why I have come to you.”
For a long moment, Holmes stood tall and silent, his hands clasped behind his back. Then he sat down in the overstuffed chair opposite his sister and, ever so gently, coaxed the details of the story from her. Briefly stated, twelve-year old Elizabeth Brown had last been observed, safely in her own bed and sound asleep, on Saturday night.
It was the long-standing habit of Sir Oliver and Lydia Brown to look in on each of their children before retiring to their own room for the night. The family’s six bedrooms, one housing each of the five children, together with the master suite, were clustered in a circle around a spacious common room on the second floor of their home. As Elizabeth’s room was adjacent to theirs, hers was the last door that the parents customarily closed before entering their own chamber. Sir Oliver had been out of town for some days on business and had not yet returned home, so Mrs. Brown conducted the inspection of the children’s rooms by herself prior to retiring punctually at 10:30 PM.
When the family awakened Sunday morning, Elizabeth’s absence was discovered and the police had been summoned. Inspector Walter Thackeray of Scotland Yard, a man of Holmes’ acquaintance and one generally acknowledged as being among the top of his profession, had been assigned to the case.
Sir Oliver was stranded in Dublin by the same ill weather that held London hostage. Ice-damaged telegraph lines had prevented word getting through to him on Sunday, and so it was that he had been notified only that morning of the circumstances that had taken place in his house. It had been at his insistence, conveyed by return wire, that Mrs. Brown had come to seek Holmes’ assistance.
It goes without saying that Holmes agreed to accompany Mrs. Brown back to Cumberland House, Sir Oliver Brown’s ancestral property; now her marriage home. Despite the difficulty in getting around the city, a half dozen carriages were parked on the wide side driveway and the house was alive with police investigators when we arrived.
The Brown children were consigned to the capable supervision of their nanny, a wonderfully gentle soul who could not have been better suited to the task; a widow by the name of Mrs. Lawrence. She was reading to them in the main parlor. They sat in a semi-circle around her, facing a massive fireplace, above the mantel of which hung a portrait of the family. It was by way of this painting that Elizabeth Brown became known to me. She was a beautiful child with a fair complexion and long, flowing red hair. I confess that It made me sick at heart to think that she had been the target of such a despicable crime.
Without delay, Holmes made his way up the spiral stairway to the second floor and Elizabeth’s bedroom. For the next few paragraphs, dear reader, I am obliged to deviate from my usual habit of documenting Holmes’ methods of investigation. It must be sufficient to note that, not only did Holmes deduce how his niece was stolen from her slumber without waking the household, but the manner in which the kidnapper committed the crime was so cunningly conceived that all but the most inept hoodlum could imitate it, given a modicum of preparation and rudimentary knowledge of the floor plan of his intended victim’s home. In truth, the concept is simple to the point of naivety and, once disclosed, seems perfectly obvious to any who learn of it.
Information such as this has no place within the pages of a responsible public journal and Holmes’ request that I omit it from this account was totally unnecessary. I should have stricken it on my own volition. Notwithstanding, Elizabeth’s parents were all the more distraught when they understood how the foul deed had been accomplished.
Holmes conferred with Inspector Thackeray for some minutes, with the upshot of their discussion being that nothing substantial could be done until there was a break in the weather. The constantly blowing snow had, by this time, obliterated any foot prints or carriage tracks that might have been left by the kidnapper. Even though it was less than two days old, the crime trail was, literally as well as figuratively speaking, quite cold. Thackeray invited Holmes to his office at the Yard to continue “brainstorming”, as he put it. Holmes, however, preferred keeping his own counsel, so we returned to Baker Street after conveying to Mrs. Brown our heartfelt wishes for a happy and speedy resolution of the situation.
For the next two days, Holmes paced the flat like a caged lion. His eagerness to find his niece was held on a tight leash by the storm that continued to press London. To the best of my recollection, he took no real nourishment during this period, but subsisted on a steady supply of tobacco, buttressed by the occasional cup of tea.
On Thursday, New Year’s morning, Heller, Sir Oliver Brown’s personal driver, appeared at our door.
“If you would be so kind, Mr. Holmes – and you, as well, Dr. Watson - Sir Oliver requests your presence. He instructed me to inform you that a letter has been received from the kidnapper and that I am at your disposal to drive you to the house, should it be convenient for you to accept his invitation.”
Sir Oliver had arrived on the Dublin train earlier that morning and, upon being conveyed home and being shown the ransom note, dispatched his driver to collect us. Holmes was quiet during the entire forty five minute carriage ride. To the casual observer, he would have appeared to be sleeping. I knew him well enough to realize that this was not the case. Confronted with a particularly bothersome problem, Holmes often concentrated with his eyes closed; the better to avoid external distractions that might disturb his thought processes. During those ruminations, he would, from time to time, rouse himself, seemingly wakening from his slumber. This was invariably a sign that he had reached a conclusion on some matter and was preparing to address a new issue. On this occasion, however, Holmes never opened his eyes until the carriage pulled to a stop in the side driveway of Cumberland House. Heller deposited us at the door and turned the carriage back into the street. His instructions had been to summon Holmes first and, when that had been accomplished, carry word to Scotland Yard.
The master and mistress of the house were sitting together in a small library off the mansion’s main hallway. Sir Oliver Brown was a strikingly handsome man, two inches superior to his wife, with broad shoulders and a military-trim waistline. I had seen his likeness in the newspapers on several occasions, of course, as has most of London’s literate population. He has made a name for himself as a champion of child workers, acquiring well-placed friends, as well as a not inconsiderable number of foes, in the process. In point of fact, his trip to Ireland was made to elicit the support of certain influential persons for legislation intended to improve the lot of young laborers.
He and Holmes shook hands and, following a brief introduction in which I made his acquaintance, Sir Oliver produced the ransom demand for Holmes’ inspection. The envelope in which the note had been delivered was postmarked with the morning’s cancellation on the date of Elizabeth’s kidnapping. By this, Holmes pronounced that the criminal must have been arrogantly confident of the success of his black deed to have posted the demand prior to carrying out the crime.
“But, that was six days ago.” Mrs. Brown said. “Why should it take six days to deliver a letter within the city?”
“It must have been the blizzard. I’m sure it caused havoc with the entire postal system.” Sir Oliver offered. “Whatever the cause, my concern is with the terms disclosed in the demand. How can we comply with a schedule that the elements rendered impossible?”
“Indeed,” agreed Holmes. “The note is quite specific. All we can do is anticipate that the villain has taken the weather into account and realizes that the demand was not met because of the snow storm. It’s only half past eleven. I propose that we comply with the time and place as set forth in the letter, presuming that the kidnapper will have adjusted his calendar accordingly. Can you have the ransom together this afternoon?”
“I shall write a note to our banker.’ Mrs. Brown said, not waiting for her husband to answer. By this remark, I supposed that the actual control of their estate rested within her hands, despite outward appearances that her husband was master.
“Oliver can hand carry it to him and we shall have the money within the hour.” She continued.
“Well, then, all that remains is for Watson and me to take up our stations. Please inform Inspector Thackeray of our intentions.” Holmes said.
“What do you mean to do?” Mrs. Brown asked.
“We shall be concealed near the appointed place. I saw a harnessed Hansom cab when we drove up. May we borrow it?”
“Certainly. Everything we have is at your disposal.” Sir Oliver said. “Surely, you won’t attempt to apprehend him without police assistance -”
Holmes was already putting on his hat and heading for the door. I had to hurry to keep up with him. Without breaking stride, he replied “I have no plan other than the broad goal of finding Elizabeth. The details shall be put into motion as they come to me.”
It struck me that his response had been uncharacteristic, to say the least. It was wholly unlike Holmes to operate by the seat of his pants and his admission to that state of affairs was singular, indeed.
“Do you have a theory, Holmes?” I asked, as we settled into the carriage.
“For the first time in my life, I wish that I did not, Watson. If what I suspect to be the case turns out to be true , I fear that there may be no hope at all for Elizabeth.”
“Oh, surely not.” I protested. “Why, from what you told her parents -“
“I said what needed to be said.” Holmes replied. “I surmise that Sir Oliver already anticipates that the motive for the crime may come to roost on his shoulders. There was no reason to discuss the matter in Lydia’s presence.”
“On Sir Oliver’s shoulders? How is he the source –“
“Clearly, money was not the motive –“
“But ₤20,000 in ransom is a fortune, Holmes; more than most people could hope to earn in two lifetimes.” I objected.
“True enough,” Holmes allowed. “but a sum which, nevertheless, is not much more than an inconvenience for Elizabeth’s family to pay; a fact which, certainly, would be known to the criminal. No, the pivotal factor must be either some personal grudge or a nefarious political scheme. My sister is a very private person, virtually unknown to the public at large, so it is much more likely that Sir Oliver, an individual widely known and of some political repute, is the true target.”
“Whom do you –“
“Suspect?” Holmes interjected, finishing my sentence for me. “Unfortunately, there is precious little to go on. Other than a basic deduction that the scoundrel is ruthless and endowed with a primitive cleverness, which he undoubtedly mistakes for intellect, I have no clear opinion as to his character. I admit to you, in all candor, Watson, that I feel hopelessly inadequate for the task at hand. Indeed, I have no faith that my theory is even close to the truth. My mind is occupied with such a sense of foreboding that there is scant room for anything else.”
With that, my friend settled back in the seat and closed his eyes. As the cab plodded down the street, the cold and dampness that swirled around us seemed to creep through my heavy coat and penetrate to the depths of my very soul. I began to share his despair. If Sherlock Holmes’ keen mind was inadequate to the task, then justification for hope was thin, indeed.
The ransom drop was to have taken place at 4:30 PM on Tuesday at the London Bridge Railway Station. Ordinarily, this would have been an extremely busy location on any day of the week, with travelers going to and fro from all directions; an ideal spot for someone to pick up a small package and disappear into the crowd. Activity was increasing in the area, after having been brought to a near standstill by the weather, but it was still far below the normal level. This fact, combined with the obvious difficulties presented by delivering the money a full two days after the appointed time, deepened the question as to whether the criminal would make an appearance.
Sir Oliver arrived at 4:23, depositing the banknotes, wrapped in rough brown paper tied up with cord, in the recess of a planter box, as per the kidnapper’s instructions. He quickly got back in his carriage and left the area. Although we could not see them, Holmes told me that he was confident that a force from Scotland Yard was assembled nearby, sharing the vigil with us.
4:30 came and went; the hands on my pocket watch advanced ever so slowly and the dirty gray daylight began to fade from the sky. Night was falling but, mercifully, the snow and wind had stopped and we were reasonably sheltered against the cold. By 5:45, the overcast sky had turned black as coal and the only illumination came from the glow of street lamps along the boulevard and the light which streamed through to the outside from the station’s large windows.
At half past eight, we crawled from our blind in the shrubbery across from the railway station.
“I don’t believe there is any reason to continue with this, Watson.” Holmes said. He moved into the light, waving his hands above his head as a signal to the police. Inspector Thackeray and his men left their hiding places and joined us near the main doorway to the station.
“I regret that I have subjected you to a cold, unprofitable evening.” Holmes told them.
“Perhaps he will come tomorrow, Mr. Holmes.” Thackeray suggested. “Would you mind returning the ransom to Sir Oliver for safekeeping? We can make another attempt tomorrow afternoon.”
“Of course, Inspector.” Holmes agreed. “The only common element we have is the appointed time of day, anyway. Perhaps tomorrow will see the turning of this matter.”
We retrieved the bundle of banknotes that Sir Oliver had deposited in the stone planter and set off for Cumberland House. The snow, which had been mercifully absent during our stakeout, began to fall in large, perfect flakes. Here and there, moonlight shown through the cloud cover. There was absolutely no wind and, although cold, the afternoon dampness had not returned and the temperature was brisk, rather than unpleasant. Under other circumstances, we might have appreciated the evening as picturesque; the sort of setting to find reproduction in a print by the popular American illustrators, Curriers & Ives, or beckon to courting youngsters who have access to a sleigh.
We returned the money to Sir Oliver and made arrangements to repeat the day’s activities the following afternoon. Again, our waiting came to nothing. We tried again on Saturday, to no avail. Around 7:30 that evening, Sir Oliver’s carriage appeared in the street in front of the train station He opened the door and, stepping out, beckoned us from our hiding places. With the utmost sincerity, he thanked everyone for their efforts and bade us to discontinue the vigil. For his part, he considered it a lost opportunity and said that he believed that we should wait to resume the investigation when fresh information was available.
On Sunday, Holmes and I accompanied the Brown family to church. Holmes was not commonly given to attending formal religious services, but he seemed glad of the invitation when it was extended. I believe that his presence that morning served to smooth over any vestiges of the alienation that had separated him from his sister. Their disagreement, the exact cause of which I never knew, although I gather that it stemmed from their late teenaged years, had been placed into perspective by mutual tragedy and it ceased to be relevant to their lives.
We shared supper with them at Cumberland House and returned to Baker Street sometime around midnight. For myself, I was exhausted by the week’s activities and retired to my bedroom almost immediately. Holmes, something of a night owl even under ordinary circumstances, said that he thought he would read for awhile. He pulled his smoking chair near the fireplace and was packing a pipe as I went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, he was asleep there, an opened Bible draped over one knee.
Later that morning, after announcing that he was restless sitting around the flat with nothing constructive to occupy the hours, Holmes suggested that we take our midday meal at a nearby Italian restaurant. I remember that he ate ravenously, like a man who had been marooned on a desolate island and was having his first civilized food, after months of subsisting on coconut milk and raw fish. His disposition was somewhat improved after lunch, so we attended to some neglected errands before returning home.
We had been away for a few hours and the afternoon post had arrived during our absence. As was her practice, the landlady, Mrs. Hudson, had placed items addressed to us in a small wicker basket kept on the entryway table. Holmes glanced at it as we walked in the door. I saw him blanche as his eyes settled on a note mixed in among the usual assortment of adverts and general correspondence.
“The kidnapper has sent me a letter.” He said, even before his nimble fingers had plucked the missive from the basket.
“You? Why?” I wondered, dumbfounded for an instant as to how he had reached that conclusion without opening the envelope. As he tore into it, I realized that the handwriting must have been the same as on the ransom demand sent to Elizabeth’s parents.
He read the note aloud.
“It would appear that your reputation is somewhat exaggerated, Mr. Holmes. As I perceive that your bloodhound’s nose has sadly failed you, I have decided to throw you this bone: Return to where you were and turn half way around. Regards, TF.”
“You were right, Holmes. The villain is arrogant; he even initialed the thing.”, I remarked.
Holmes shoved the note into his jacket pocket.
“The old Blackstone tannery. The building was a glance away for three nights running and I never even took notice.” He said, shaken by the realization that the old building was directly behind our hiding place at the London Bridge Station. “Get our hand torches, Watson. I’ll summon a cab and meet you outside.”
“I’ll bring my service revolver.” I said, as I hurried upstairs to gather the torches.
Blackstone tannery was a dilapidated three-story structure, abandoned for some fifteen or twenty years. It sat in a field adjacent to the railway property. Every now and again, some commercial concern or other had considered razing it and putting new construction on the site. Located, as it was, in such proximity to the station, one would have thought it would be a piece of prime real estate, but nothing had ever been done with it.
Holmes had rejected my suggestion that we notify Inspector Thackeray of the note and ask him to accompany us.
“It may be another wild goose chase.” he explained, although his tone told me that he felt otherwise.
When we arrived at the tannery, instead of dismissing the cab and driver, Holmes paid an additional sum to have the vehicle waiting for us after our search of the structure. There was an ancient sign nailed to the main door, warning trespassers away, as it was private property. Three or four rotted boards were fastened across the opening, as well. They crumbled to nothing when we pulled at them, as did the door when Holmes kicked it in.
We searched the first floor in a few minutes’ time. There was a set of four smallish rooms in the front part of the building; we presumed these to have been offices. The rest of the floor was divided into three large rooms. As that portion of the building was bare of any sort of machinery or furnishings, after ten minutes or so, we were reasonably certain that there was nothing to be found on the main floor. The second story was another matter entirely. It was a storehouse of junk of every imaginable kind, the unifying characteristic being that it was all worthless; otherwise it would have been removed years before. There was nothing to be found, however; and we made our way back to the stairway, whereby Holmes stopped dead in his tracks.
“There’s a layer of dust an inch think going up to the next level.” He said, shining his torch up the staircase.
“Filthy place.” I agreed.
“Well, there’s no use looking up there. No one’s gone up those steps in a very long time.” Holmes said. “Otherwise, there would be footprints in the grime.”
“I wonder if there is a basement?” I asked.
There was. An underground level ran under the entire structure. Sufficient light filtered down from windows placed at street level so that we did not need our torches. I kept them in my pocket and Holmes took the lead, armed, at my insistence, with my military revolver. After no more than five or six minutes, we encountered a good-sized fissure in one of the exterior walls. The broken stones surrounding the hole were stained black from an accumulation of smoke tar and filth. Holmes handed me the gun and, bending low, peered into the darkness.
“Hand me my torch, if you would, Watson.”
He shone the light through the opening. From my vantage point, I could see that it illuminated several feet into the tunnel before being lost in the gloomy depths. An instant later, Holmes crouched down and, holding the torch in front of his body like a shield against the blackness, crawled quickly inside.
“Holmes.” I cautioned. “Perhaps you should take my revolver. Heaven knows what lurks in there.”
By way of reply, he backed slightly out of the crevasse and thrust an upturned hand toward me. As I placed the firearm in his palm, he said “I shan’t need the revolver to protect me from what I expect to find, but there may be other things that require a bullet.”
With that, he was gone. In a moment, the yellow glow of his electric torch as well, was swallowed up by the darkness. I pulled the watch from my pocket and decided that, when ten minutes had passed without Holmes’ returning, I would follow him into the hole. Although he had my revolver, I still had my torch and I had no intention of allowing my friend to wander through God knows what and fall victim to some unseen danger while I had the power to prevent it.
There were scant seconds remaining until my self-imposed deadline, when I heard a muted, scraping sound moving toward me in the tunnel. Holmes presented himself, minus his overcoat and bathed in mud. He crawled on his knees, supporting his weight with his left hand, while he tugged at some as yet unrevealed burden with his right.
“Give me a hand with her, Watson.” He implored in a strangely muffled voice.
He twisted his head in my direction and I saw that his face was marked by an abstract pattern of damp tracks that glistened through the grime on his cheeks. What I mistakenly believed to be lines of perspiration were soon revealed to be tears. Holmes was crying. As I helped him pull the bundle through the ragged hole in the wall, I understood the reason for his distress.
The body of a child, a shock of luxuriant red hair poking through the fastened collar of his overcoat, was wrapped within the folds of the garment. Holmes reverently loosened the buttons, revealing to me a site that was at once horrible and piteous. The cold weather had helped preserve her body and, although rats had been at her flesh, there was no mistaking the fact that we beheld the remains of Elizabeth Brown. After nine arduous days, Holmes had at last found his niece.
Out of respect to my friend and his family, I shall report little of the period that immediately followed, other than to note, no doubt, needlessly, that all concerned were devastated by the death of that lovely child. I should be dishonest to my purpose, however, were I not to disclose that, following the funeral, Holmes sought solace in the numbing world of his seven percent solution. I looked after him as best I could, but I was forced to divide my time between the rooms at Baker Street and my surgery practice, until I could find a suitable physician to take over my schedule.
Each visit to Holmes’ bedside served to mimic the one before. He was a slave to the narcotic and I feared that he would spend the rest of his days in delirium. So it was that, on the 6th of February, when I quietly opened the door to the flat, I was astonished to find him freshly shaved, well dressed, and sipping earnestly at a cup of coffee while his eyes devoured the morning edition of The Times.
“Good morning, Watson.” He said, upon seeing me. “It seems that the world continued to spin while I was away. I have neglected my responsibilities for the past several days and now It is time to get back to work. There is a villain to be found and I am the one to do it.”
“Since you’re reading the paper, I suspect you’ve seen the stories about the others.” I said.
“I believe that this TF is taunting me.” Holmes told me, emphasizing the remark by pointing an index finger at a front page article. “I failed to apprehend him in the first round and now he has cast this as a deadly contest. Those children and their families are paying the price, but I am his target.”
During Holmes’ mental exile, there had been no fewer than three kidnappings of young girls. The details of the crimes were strikingly similar to that which had befallen Elizabeth Brown, with the singular exception being that none had been accompanied by a ransom demand. London was in a panic and trepidation extended out into the countryside, with parents everywhere maintaining constant watch over their children.
Of course, no one knew whether those reports represented the totality of the crimes or merely formed the tip of the iceberg. After all, there were innumerable urchins sleeping rough on the streets. Half a hundred of them could have come to foul end with scarcely anyone taking notice. Crimes having victims from prominent families, on the other hand, were recorded in tabloids far and wide and assigned investigators by Scotland Yard.*
A knock came to the door. We turned toward it to see Mrs. Hudson waving a small envelope.
“A letter was just delivered for you, Mr. Holmes.”
“Somewhat early for the post.” I remarked. By my watch, it was only 8:25. “They must have rearranged the delivery route.”
“Oh, it wasn’t the letter carrier, Dr. Watson.” Mrs. Hudson replied. “A private courier brought it only a moment ago.”
Holmes hurried to the window and pushed aside the drapes. His head scanned from right to left until he settled on his quarry. A moment later, he turned back to us.
“One of Moriarty’s minions.” He reported. “May I have the note, Mrs. Hudson?”
He read it and passed the paper to my hand. The handwriting was crisp and legible, flowing across the page in an elegant script that made one think of documents written in the previous century.
“It appears that we have acquired an unlikely ally.” Holmes declared.
“Extraordinary!” I exclaimed. “It seems a soul lurks somewhere in even the blackest of hearts.”
“As likely as not, his proposal stems from a desire to bring the police investigation to a rapid close, rather than to any altruistic motivation.” Holmes replied. “The intense scrutiny of the city’s criminal element in recent weeks has, undoubtedly, had a regulating impact on his activities. Nevertheless, his information could prove invaluable.”
According to the brief note that I held in my hands, Moriarty, once described by Holmes as having the most brilliantly diabolical mind in the annals of criminal history, was offering to help with the investigation to bring the child killer to justice. Mindful of the reach of Moriarty’s tentacles and the many ears and eyes under his control, the offer, if indeed it was genuine, was certainly not to be dismissed out of hand. Moriarty’s underlings could travel with ease through the kingdom’s criminal world, an uncharted, shadowy landscape largely inaccessible to Holmes or the police.
As promised in the letter, at precisely 2:45 the following day, three men, nattily attired and well-barbered, appeared at our flat. I opened the door and one of the callers, quite tall and spare, entered the room, moving quickly across the floor to take a position near the bay window. A second man, of late middle age, gaunt and somewhat stooped-shouldered, holding a top hat in his hands, followed a few steps in his companion’s wake. The third man made his watch at the threshold, holding the door open by leaning his broad back against it. For the next few moments, his hawkish eyes alternated their gaze between our main room and the hallway.
The man with the top hat bowed slightly to Holmes and me and, without a word, sat down on the sofa. And so it was that I made the acquaintance of Professor James Moriarty. His physical appearance bore no resemblance whatsoever to my expectations. I had imagined this Napoleon of Crime as a thick-skulled, heavy-haired demon; dark and swarthy with small black eyes and quick, cat-like movements. It was quite an experience to be confronted, instead, by a dignified, scholarly-appearing gentleman.
Here, clearly, was a man who had achieved his position in life by his wits and who handled the reins to his domain with such mastery that he had no need to raise his voice. Moriarty was as suited to his role of criminal genius as Holmes was to being his foil. Seeing the two of them in the same room, the thought crossed my mind that England was indeed fortunate that both of these intellects had not chosen to pursue lives of crime. Had some twist of Fate allied them, Holmes and Moriarty might have made a team so formidable that ten Scotland Yards could not have kept them at bay.
“The fellow you seek has gone to the continent.” Moriarty said, without preamble. “He is traveling with the Belgian entertainment troupe, Cirque Spectacular, where he is known as Gaston LeClare. His proper name is Thomas Fielding and he is an expert with side-arms and knives. The circus has a schedule of seven performances over three days’ time, beginning Tuesday next, in Dunkerque.”
With that, Moriarty arose from the sofa and, flanked by his bodyguards, vanished down the stairwell.
“TF.” said Holmes. “Well, it seems that I am obliged to depart for France. If you are at liberty to accompany me, Watson, your presence would be most welcome.”
In little more than an hour, we made ‘round to Scotland Yard. Holmes provided details of the intelligence received from Moriarty to Inspector Thackeray who, by way of undersea cable, communicated with his counterpart in the Dunkerque Departement de Police. As a foreign civilian, especially one with such a personal stake in the case, the French authorities ordinarily would not have permitted Holmes to take part in an investigation on their soil. Holmes was determined to track his niece’s killer, of course, and he would have worked at the periphery of the official inquiry, if necessary. Thackeray’s recommendation, combined with Holmes’ reputation, overrode these considerations, however, and an invitation for his participation was extended by return wire. Arrangements were made for a Chief Inspector, one by the name of Luc Chevalier, to meet us when we arrived in France. At 6:10 the next morning, we found ourselves back at London Bridge Station, boarding the Dover train, bound for the steam ferry, Lady Evelyn, and a trip across the Channel.
The voyage was unpleasant, as is often the case when one undertakes a cold weather crossing, and we were glad to see the French coast appear on the horizon. Chevalier met us at the dock. A short, dapper man, he was prone to absentminded twisting of the ends of his mustache when perturbed or nervous. We learned this when he disclosed that the Cirque Spectacular was not to be found in Dunkerque, as Moriarty had promised. The fault was none of Moriarty’s, however, for, once again, the elements had conspired to interfere with the plans of mortal men.
The managers of Cirque Spectacular, mindful of the disastrous affect that bleak weather would have on attendance, had declined to drive even a single tent stake into the wintry ground. Instead, they had spent a full seven days with watchful eyes on the darkened skies, setting all but their key employees at liberty during that time. Then, convinced that the weather would not improve soon enough to ensure sufficient revenue, they packed the entire troupe into a caravan and set out for the decidedly warmer climes of Marseilles.
Holmes was exasperated.
“Marseilles. Marseilles.” He repeated. “That’s at the opposite end of the country! When did they leave for the Riviera?”
“Five days ago, it seems.” Chevalier replied. “Sadly, we have had our own child murders to deal with and, until we received the communiqué from Inspector Thackeray, the whereabouts of a circus was of no consequence to us.”
“Child murders?” Holmes asked.
“Yes. Monstrous.” Chevalier said. “And, now, the location of that circus is of utmost interest to me. I cannot help but think that the crimes are the work of your English killer. Four little girls. Each of them stolen from the sanctity of her home and then, when the dog was finished with her, the body thrown, naked, into the street.”
The dates of the kidnappings and murders were well within the timeframe that Fielding, in the guise of Gaston LeClare, was presumed to have been in Dunkerque. Without dwelling on the details, it must be said that Holmes felt extreme regret for yielding to his emotions during the previous weeks. He believed that the crimes in England, as well as those committed in France, might have been prevented but for the period of his insensibility following Elizabeth Brown’s death.
Chevalier informed us that telegrams had been dispatched to precincts between Dunkerque and Marseilles, but the whereabouts of the circus caravan remained unknown. The most direct route between the cities could be plotted on a Michelin map, of course, but there were many secondary roads that might be taken. The villages which lay along the majority of those pathways were not served by modern communications, so reliable information was difficult to obtain.
Plans were made for the three of us, together with a small contingency of armed police, to meet at the train station the next morning. Holmes and I arrived earlier than the others, so we passed the time at the newsstand rack. I was hoping to find a copy of a medical journal to read on the train, but the vendor carried no trade publications of any kind. At the last moment, I made my choice, selecting a novel about a fictional French crime fighter, Docteur Mystiere, and we boarded the train. All of us were well aware that the Marseilles magistrate would, undoubtedly, have Fielding in custody by the time we arrived, but Holmes was compelled to complete the journey, and neither Chevalier nor I could deny him that satisfaction.
Marseilles is a beautiful place, full of color and activity and, under other circumstances, one which we should have enjoyed exploring. Its electric tram system is a tribute to modern engineering; considerably more advanced and comfortable than London’s public conveyances, and we boarded the trolley on several occasions to move around the city. Within an hour of our arrival, we contacted the local authorities, fully expecting that Fielding would have been apprehended and an inquisition into his activities already scheduled for hearing. Something had gone awry, however, and the cable sent by Chevalier had not reached the Marseilles police. The most likely explanation for the miscommunication, again, revolved around the weather, but, whatever the cause, Holmes found himself back in the thicket and immediately took to the chase.
As we traveled about the city, we observed a number of bills advertising upcoming performances of Cirque Spectacular. The first full exhibition was scheduled for Saturday morning, but promotional demonstrations of various kinds were to take place throughout the week. Within the space of a hundred yards, a juggler, a clown walking on stilts and a grandly outfitted elephant greeted us when we dismounted the tram at Rue Cannebière and undertook a short walk to the connecting trolley that would deliver us to the circus lot.
A crowd had gathered in the boulevard between Café Richard and the mercantile exchange on the opposite corner. As everyone’s head was turned upward, we naturally followed their lead and cast our glances skyward. A tight-wire walker was inching across a razor-thin cable stretched between the top stories of the buildings. He moved expertly, pausing from time to time to twirl the balancing pole above his head or to execute a jump on the wire. As might be expected, his movements were accompanied by suitable gasps and encouragements from the audience below.
We watched for a moment longer and then set out for the tram station. Circus folk were scattered throughout the streets, providing gratis abbreviations of their various acts, hoping to whet the interest of the citizens of Marseilles and draw them to the ticket sheds for the full performance. A circular wooden target, some seven feet in diameter, was erected at the end of the block and a short picket fence had been placed around the perimeter to separate the public from the performers within. A blond woman, garbed in a tight-fitting, brightly colored costume, was strapped to the target, her outstretched arms and legs strapped to the slowly spinning board. Three or four knives protruded from the wood near her limbs and, thirty feet away, a man was preparing to throw another. A sign attached to the fence proclaimed that we were watching The Great Gaston at work.
We drew near and, at long last, were able to assign a face to Gaston LeClare, the circus charlatan who was one and the same as the villain, Thomas Fielding. He was pale, with a long, drooping grey mustache that hung nearly to the top of his shirt collar. Like his assistant, he wore a tightly-fitting outfit, and the powerful muscles of his arms were revealed each time he flung a knife.
When the last blade was buried, quivering in the wood of the target, he turned slowly about, bowing deeply to his audience as they applauded. The instant Holmes’ eyes met his, the man knew he was made. He snatched a long scabbard from a table and vaulted over the fence, running for the nearest building while leaving his assistant still strapped to the spinning target, demanding to be set free. We were hot on his tail, following like excited hounds chasing a rabbit.
A metal ladder, the end of which was a foot or two above head level, ran up the wall. Fielding jumped to catch the extension. The ladder unfolded and he scrambled up, unsheathing a skinning knife from its leather scabbard when he reached the top. Holmes was close behind him and reached the roof of the building some seconds before Chevalier and I climbed over the edge. By the time we got to our feet, Holmes and Fielding were already engaged in a deadly fight at the far end of the building.
We could see Fielding swinging viciously at Holmes, the blade of his skinning knife calculated to slice through the center of Holmes’ face. Nimble as he was, Holmes had not been prepared for the swiftness of the criminal’s attack. He stepped back in time to avoid serious injury, but came away less than unscathed. A thin red line, exactly like one that would have been drawn by a fencing foil, quickly formed on Holmes’ right cheek.
“Touché!” He cried, rapidly shedding his jacket and wrapping the bulky fabric around his left forearm, which he then lifted as a barrier between his body and Fielding’s weapon. I drew my revolver and aimed for the center of the madman’s chest.
“No!” Holmes warned me off. “He’s mine.”
“You pompous fool!” Fielding taunted him, waving the knife menacingly close to Holmes’ head. “You think you’re my better? I’ve had little girls trouble me more than you.”
Lesser men would have been driven to rashness by the scoundrel’s words, but a determined calmness passed over Holmes’ countenance. Graceful as a ballet dancer, he twisted his body sideways while kicking his right boot at Fielding’s chin. Fielding was dazed by the force of the blow, and he staggered backward. Giving him no quarter to recover, Holmes followed with a savage kick to the man’s midsection and another which caught the murderer squarely in the neck. Fielding lurched uncontrollably toward the low brick border that edged the building’s flat roof. In an instant he disappeared over the side. He uttered a short, terrible cry which was immediately followed by a distinctly wet-sounding popping noise. A moment later, we heard his body slam into the street below.
Inspector Chevalier was first in position to see what had transpired.
“Great Lord!”, he exclaimed.
Holmes and I hurried to his side and peered over the brink. We were quite unprepared for the gruesome sight that awaited us. Fielding’s headless body lay sprawled out on the cobblestones below, blood flowing from its cleft neck onto the ground like spilt red wine from an overturned goblet. His head, half turned toward us, was a good twenty feet from the body, propped against the building across the street, wedged between the brick wall and a wooden barrel full of rubbish.
A large crowd, comprised of spectators and circus people alike, stood in a semi-circle around the dead man’s form. Someone pointed in our direction and all eyes followed his outstretched arm. Suddenly, everything was made clear. The pointing man wasn’t calling attention to us, but rather to a thin, taut wire that stretched between the building where we stood and the one beyond. It was the tight wire that had been used by the daredevil performer we had seen only a few minutes earlier. The source of our former entertainment had been transformed into the instrument of Fielding’s destruction, separating his head from his body as neatly as Madame Guillotine’s blade would have performed the task had the monster survived to stand trial. Justice, poetic and swift, had been served.
A week or two later, when we were returned to Baker Street and I was drawing my case notes together, I was mulling over some ideas inspired by the French novel I purchased at the Dunkerque train station.
“You know, Holmes,” I said. “I’ve been thinking that I might change my style in setting down your cases for posterity -”
“Is that what you’ve been doing?” Holmes replied, with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “I thought you were publishing my case studies in an effort to raise pocket change. I had no idea you had such lofty aims.”
“So, I am found out, am I?” I played into his hand, glad that he was returning to his old self and regaining his sense of humor. “I was just considering how different that French author’s writing style is from mine and –“
“Is that the book on the desk beside you?” Holmes asked. “Throw it to me.”
I tossed the novel to him and he spent a few moments thumbing through the pages.
“Well, it’s entertaining, I’ll give you that.” Holmes said, placing the book on the side table, as he plucked his favorite meerschaum from its rack. “Do what you will. I’m afraid you’re in a losing battle, in any event. You’re an excellent writer, but in my opinion, it’s not the skill of the author, but the subject matter that will make the difference. I predict the public will be reading the exploits of the dashing Docteur Mystiere and his ilk long after Sherlock Holmes has ceased to be of any interest.”