Thursday, February 17, 2011
The Case of The Curious Ukulele
"When you have eliminated the impossible, Watson..." said Holmes, reclining in his chair, "When you have eliminated the impossible..." he paused and looked distracted for a moment. "When you have...Hmmm..."
"Then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" I supplied for him. Sad as it is to relate the simple fact is that as the years advanced he was becoming forgetful.
"What? Don't be obtuse, Watson! All sorts of irrelevant facts remain, all perfectly possible but entirely unrelated to the matters in hand. Really, I do not know why I have put up with you for so long. You are not as young as you once were, you know". With this he took up his ukulele and started absently picking out notes.
It was with a sense of resignation that I sat back and resumed reading the paper. While I am certain that my friend held me in high regard he rarely allowed these feelings to surface. After a painfully long time attempting to tune the instrument Holmes put it down and sighed.
"It is no good Watson. It is just no good..."
"Well, it would help if you had all the strings. We could afford a new set"
"No. It was not the deficiencies of the chordophone to which I was referring. It is this new case - there are..."
"You have a new case?" I interrupted "But what about the restraining order? I understood you had agreed to be bound over to - " I saw the look in Holmes' eye and stopped.
"And I thought we had agreed not to mention that again. The subject pains me"
"It was an easy mistake to have made. When matters reach a head it is time to act, Watson, one cannot delay! One must seize the moment!"
"Indeed, Holmes" I placated, "Seizing the moment is fine. Seizing the moment is good. It was your seizing of the woman which precipitated all the unpleasantness".
Holmes shuddered. I wondered if he would ever again hear the phrase "The woman" without shuddering.
“It was an accident, Watson. A mistake anyone could have made – seen from behind she distinctly resembled Moriarty".
"So you say, Holmes, so you say. In point of fact you said so at the time. I wouldn't be surprised if that is why she insisted on pressing charges"
"Possibly, Watson. But one need only look at her to see she was -"
"Yes... No! A troublemaker, Watson. It was clear from the moment I set eyes upon her. And it was very unsporting of the prosecution to mention her wheelchair. But let us move on. I do not wish to discuss the subject further"
"Indeed. Consider it closed."
Holmes stood up and began pacing the room. “Women, Watson – it was easier when they had the common decency to dress differently. These days... I sometimes think we have lived too long, we are in these times but not of them”.
When these dark moods settled on Holmes it was usually best to ignore him. I mumbled agreement and feigned interest in the paper. Holmes wandered the room until, as I was afraid would happen, he went to stand in front of The Picture.
It was hung in an alcove, with a couple of curtains in front of it that were seldom opened. I heard these being moved and shuddered. Without looking up I knew that Holmes would be intently studying the image I could not even bear to look at. Not that I needed to, it was as clear in my mind as the day when it had been painted – in this very room. Holmes then had been at the height of his powers, and had reluctantly agreed to be painted “for posterity”. How ironic that remark seems now, nearly one hundred years later. After the pair of us had been committed to canvas – Holmes a somewhat enhanced dashing figure, his ever faithful Watson looking both ever faithful and constipated – Holmes had hung the picture and we had forgotten about it. And that, I suspect, would have been the end of the matter, with us now both gone to our reward and the picture gathering our dust had not Holmes challenged Aleister Crowley to prove he was not a charlatan.
“You are right, Watson... It does seem a preposterous way to settle a dispute” Holmes said, quietly.
“Holmes! How could you possibly know what I was thinking?”
“A simple matter. From the moment I started contemplating the painting I could tell you were thinking of the day we were cursed”
“But how, Holmes? Surely this requires nothing less than the telepathic arts!”
“Not at all. I could speak of subtle changes in muscle tension, unconscious movements, the eyes especially can tell a trained observer everything - “
“But damn it all, Holmes, your back was turned! You couldn't – ah... You saw everything reflected in the glass”
“Well, that is a valid theory, but in this case it was enough to hear you tearing at your paper and cursing Crowley under your breath”
“Ah. Yes, I see”. Gritting my teeth I stood and joined him in front of the accursed picture. Over the years my image had progressed from constipated to moribund, but was still recognisable. But disturbingly Holmes' image was distorted beyond recognition. It was barely human. I have often wondered why the two age differently, but remain none the wiser.
“I wish I had never lent him that damned book” said Holmes. “That's what gave him the idea. And if I had known in advance the perils of immortality I would have given some thought to who was included in the picture. I'm sure some room could have been found for Mrs Hudson – the modern world is not entirely without merit - “ he gestured towards a pile of empty pizza boxes, though perhaps he intended the laptop sitting on them “ - but you cannot find a domestic servant worthy of the name”
Obviously the pain of his last attempt was still fresh. When seen in hindsight the placing of an advertisement for a 'gentleman's gentleman of discretion' had been ill advised.
I returned to my seat. Behind me Holmes closed the curtains over The Picture and started pacing again. He stood for a while in front of the trophy wall – some would say it was in questionable taste but after the case known to the world as “The Hound of The Baskervilles”, and to Holmes as “That Damned Dog” he'd had the head of the beast responsible stuffed and mounted on the wall, and now used it as a hat-stand.
He'd had the head of the hound mounted as well, further down.
I decided it was time to lighten the mood. “You mentioned a new case...”
“Is it for the ukulele?”
There was a moment of silence. Holmes glanced towards the mantelpiece where his tobacco pouch was weighed down by his webley revolver. “I think, on the whole, it would be for the best if you were to go out for a few hours, Watson. I would like some time to myself”.
“Is -” I started.
“No! The game is not afoot!” Holmes shouted. “I said that one time! Once! And now it's 'Is the game afoot' every time anybody leaves the room!”
I stood to leave.
“No, Watson. Wait. I have had an idea. Something that -”
“Is it related to the case?”
A strange look passed across his face. “Yes, Watson, you might indeed say that it is related to the case, or rather to your mention of the case – wait here a moment. This will not take long”
Holmes left the room and returned a few minutes later holding a small glass tube, which he handed to me. I held it up to the light – it appeared to contain a few ounces of an oily yellow liquid.
“Now Watson – no! Don't shake that! Not yet, anyway. Now, what you have in your hand is the result of my latest research into the nitrating of glycerine. I think it will prove to be of inestimable importance. What I would like you to do, my dear Watson, is to take this and empty it into the Thames. Somewhere quiet. You should be alone and unobserved – do you think you can manage that?”
“Now – this is important – the contents will settle, so you must give it a good shake just before you release it”
“For how long Holmes?”
“Oh, as long as it takes, Watson. As long as it takes! All will be revealed in good time”
His humour visibly restored Holmes returned to his chair and picked up the Ukulele. I left the room to the twang and curse of the final string breaking.
Life rarely proceeds as we expect, and I was in a considerably perplexed mood when I returned to Baker street later that evening.
I was greeted by loud music and when I opened the door to our rooms a bank of sweet smelling smoke looking for all the world like the fogs of old rolled out into the hall. Holmes had clearly been at the incense again. But of him, there was no sign.
Now, I have often had cause to remark on the skills Holmes has with disguise, so when the door to his room opened and what was apparently a young and scantily clad girl emerged, I was not fooled as many others would no doubt have been.
“Holmes! If I did not see it with my own eyes I simply would not believe it!” The young woman blushed. “You have excelled yourself!”
“I think you should let her be the judge of that” said Holmes, somewhat coldly, as he followed her out. “I wasn't expecting to see you back... so soon”
"Holmes! I, ah..." Not knowing what to say I sat and attempted to find something of interest in the paper. Holmes showed the young woman, presumably a client, to the door where I heard them exchange a few words and, judging by the rustling of paper, a quantity of money. This was indeed welcome news - our finances recently had been tight.
"So, Watson, am I to take it from your expression that you met with some difficulty?" He said, as he closed the door and crossed the room to stand next to the fireplace.
"Indeed Holmes! You see everything!"
"I see you, Watson, which is more than enough for the moment. And I also observe that you are holding that paper upside down. Still, I doubt it alters the contents of the Daily Sport significantly". Saying this Holmes picked up his revolver and casually inspected the cylinder "As a matter of interest, what became of the... glycerine nitrate?"
"Well, Holmes, there is the thing..." - as I spoke I reached for my pipe. It was not in the usual pocket and as I patted the others an inexplicable change took place in Holmes. The colour drained from his face and he reeled back against the wall. "Stop!" he squeaked before diving behind his chair.
Such was the speed and unexpectedness of his movement I was slow to react, and remained seated. A moment passed.
"Ah. Watson. Yes... My mistake. You were searching for your pipe, were you not?"
"I, ah, thought I saw it behind the chair. But I was mistaken. Pray continue"
"Well, Holmes, I - are you going to remain there? I have found it"
"Yes, Watson, please continue. I can hear you perfectly well from here. The acoustics of this room make this position ideal, in fact."
"If you say so, Holmes. Well, in accordance with your instructions I set out to find a quiet place to release the liquid but I was unable to find anywhere where I was not being observed."
At this Holmes muttered a few words under his breath, but I was unable to catch them. Perhaps the acoustic properties of the room were uni-directional.
"In fact I began to realise I was being followed!"
"Yes. It was the same man in several different locations. I could tell because he had a wooden leg"
"A wooden leg. And a parrot - though the parrot was - "
"You were being followed by a pirate?" Holmes looked round the side of the chair. "I want you to be very clear about this, Watson. You claim you were followed by a man with a wooden leg and a parrot? Was alcohol involved?"
"And this parrot. Was that also wooden?"
"As a matter of fact, Holmes, it was inflatable - I have it here, see for yourself". I produced the parrot with a flourish and laid it on the table.
There was a sad wheezing noise as the last dregs of air escaped from it.
The effect on Holmes was profound. He rose from behind the chair, moved round and fell shakily back into it, without his gaze leaving the parrot at any point.
"Holmes? Have you met this parrot before?"
"Never mind the parrot, Watson! Tell me everything you noticed about the man!"
"Well, he was - good grief! Surely you don't think it was - Moriarty!"
"Moriarty? No... " Holmes said with a quiet conviction and intensity I didn't register at the time.
"Only, well, I don't know how to say this, Holmes, but we've all come to doubt that Moriarty exists" I said. This was a subject I'd been meaning to broach for some considerable number of years and now seemed like the right moment. "Lestrade - you do remember Lestrade? He noticed that if you rearranged the letters of the name 'James Moriarty' you could form the words 'My Major Satire', and well, as nobody but you has ever actually seen Moriarty..." My voice trailed off. Holmes had raised his revolver and was pointing it in my direction.
"Watson, this is a webley 45. The most powerful revolver in the room. It could blow your head clean off... I'm sorry. I've always wanted to do that. Now, Watson, as you value your life - tell me about the man!"
"Well, he had one leg. And the parrot, and he - "
"Watson! For once in your life I need you to focus!" Holmes leant forward in his chair and with a terrible intensity demanded "Was he foreign, Watson? Did he have an accent!"
"Foreign? Well, yes, he was Swedish"
"Swedish? Are you sure? Swedish?"
I nodded and Holmes relaxed. "Thank the gods, Watson, thank the gods. For a moment there I thought we were in trouble".
Holmes withdraw a handkerchief from an inside pocket and wiped his face. It was such an uncharacteristic show of emotion that it left me feeling as if I had witnessed the changing of an age, an event of cataclysmic importance.
We sat in silence for a few moments, taking stock. I noticed that the handkerchief was decorated with the initials JM and resolved to ask Sherlock about this at some point, but it was clear he was shaken and would not welcome any questions at the moment.
I reflected that it was some time since I'd thought about Lestrade, tragically killed in the prime of life by an explosion at Scotland Yard, one of many such in those dying years of gas lighting. How prescient of Holmes it had been to invest so heavily in the new electricity companies. But then with his remarkable powers of deduction who is to say he might not have anticipated the problems gas would have.
"I haven't thought about Lestrade for years, Holmes. Or the accident. Strange to think how many people we knew who were killed by gas explosions. A good thing electricity came along when it did, eh?"
"I'm sorry Watson, what did you say?"
"I was saying that it was a good thing electric lighting came along when it did. Do you remember the days when one couldn't light a lamp without fear of explosion?"
"Indeed, Watson. Which reminds me - what became of the glycerine?"
"Ah. Well, there is the curious thing, Holmes. It was stolen"
"Yes. By the pirate - I say - I suppose we could say it was an act of - "
"Let us not, Watson. Let us not. I presume it was during this exchange that you came to be in possession of the parrot?"
"Well, let us examine the bird"
Holmes lifted the parrot and extracted his trademark magnifying glass from a pocket, then began a meticulous inspection. As was my habit I watched the proceedings in silence - I didn't have the heart to point out that the lens had fallen out again and was presently to be found on the mantelpiece where I usually left it - Holmes was a little sensitive on the subject of his eyesight.
"Aha. As I suspected, Watson, this bird was made in China. And... What is this? The price sticker is still attached. And from this we can...we can..." There was a long pause, then Holmes replaced the parrot on the table.
"A thought occurs, Watson. You say he was Swedish... On what do you base this conclusion?"
"He said so, Holmes"
"He said so?" Holmes sat forward in his seat.
"Yes. He said, and I believe I can repeat it verbatim, 'I am just a salty Swedish sea-dog'"
Holmes sighed and passed his hand over his face.
"Strangely, though, now I come to think of it - he said it in a French accent"
"Well, in that at least I believe you. The price on the parrot, Watson, is in Francs"
"But what could this mean?"
Holmes stood abruptly and walked quickly over to the side of one of the windows, where he lifted the side of a curtain and stood looking out upon the street.
"What it means, Watson, is that your pirate was none other than the most dangerous man in Europe!"
"Moriarty!" I exclaimed.
"No, Watson! Not Moriarty. Moriarty has standards. Moriarty can be reasoned with..." Holmes took out his gold and diamond encrusted pocket humidor and extracted a cigar "He can even be bought off. With Moriarty, there is always a chance, however slim”
“But surely nobody could be worse than Moriarty, Holmes. You yourself called him the Napoleon of Crime!”
Holmes was silent for a moment. “Well, I may have had reason to exaggerate. But what we're facing here is less a man than a force of nature. He is certainly without equal. He can't be bargained with. He can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until... until..." Holmes paused. “Until what, Watson? Why would he be following you?”
“I have no idea. Unless – might he be interested in your glycer-majig?”
Holmes winced. “Glycerine... Unlikely... It has been a long time since I last had cause to use it. But I had forgotten about that – tell me exactly what happened again!”
“Well, there isn't much more to say, Holmes. Having finally found a quiet spot at the dock I was about to give the stuff a damned good shake - “
“Pity” muttered Holmes, still watching the road.
“- when there was all that business with the pirate. I think there must have been two of them – someone hit me from behind. The last thing I remember is him saying 'now is ze time!' and then I was knocked out”
I rubbed the back of my head, ruefully. “And when I woke up there was no sign of anyone and the glycerine was gone”
“Well, we will see, Watson. I wonder what he will make of it?”
“Oh - there was another strange thing, Holmes. As I made my way back along the dock there was a large hole in the ground. I'm sure it wasn't there earlier. That's where I found the parrot, as a matter of fact”
There was a choking noise from the direction of the window and it took me a moment to realise that it was Holmes, and he was... he was... laughing.
[To Be Continued]