The Case of the Too Obvious
It was June , in a year I am otherwise prevented from divulging, that my friend first encountered a villain whose pastime was burglarizing jewelry shops not by forcing his way in the usual entrance, but fashioning his own in the roof. This most unusual modus operandi baffled police and drew in Scotland Yard, and following in their wake Sherlock Holmes, who soon found himself confronting one of London's least-known yet most sensational criminals.
I recall as if it were yesterday that period of unseasonable weather. For days cascading thunder and lightning crashed in upon us, a horrific deluge growing fiercer and wetter by the hour as spring turned reluctantly to summer. Sunday evening the interminable storm reached its zenith and roared with unbridled fury down Baker Street, battering windows and screaming through a crack in the sill where I stood peering at flooded streets below. Gusting wind had already torn down signs along the avenue and turned over a stall at the corner. In such weather none strayed far from their door, and I wondered why anyone indeed would be out in the awful melee.
It was late when Mrs. Hudson brought biscuits and warm milk, her remedy for sleeplessness, and gently rebuked me my worries. She reminded me again the great detective was entirely impervious to weather, and with levity recalled the time he sequestered himself in a cold dank attic for the purpose of recovering a homing pigeon, and ending up with a fat lizard instead. Yet howsoever she tried she could do little to ease my anxieties. It had been two days since the mysterious disappearance of Sherlock Holmes.
That we both felt his absence was apparent, for apart from her reassurances I caught a hopeful look in Mrs. Hudson's expression when a gust beat energetically against the front door. I should have been at fault for not recognizing human empathy an effective medicine, and assuming my best bedside manner offered her comforting in turn, encouraging her off to bed around midnight. Still I paced as the gale shrieked in mounting crescendos.
Holmes' part in this melodrama had in fact begun a week earlier, for on the Monday he received invitation by messenger.
"It is from Gregson, asking me to join him for something he says I will quite appreciate. Well Watson, shall I take it? He has been overly-generous with his invitations of late. I think he has taken to using me for his personal detective service."
"You might," I replied. "His cases are usually sound. There was the widow's broken mirror and the grotesquerie of Wisteria Lodge."
"Very well. I've nothing else beyond this blackmail investigation and it may prove interesting," and so saying made his exit. It was not till after dinner I heard Mrs. Hudson open the door for Holmes. He strode into our apartments in a very queer mood, tossed his hat upon the bread rolls and a slip of paper into my lap.
"Well Watson, what say you? Can you guess where I have spent the day and what I have done?" I answered I could not.
"There is my ticket stub, on the back of it my notes," said he removing boots. On the blank side of the ticket was scrawled the number 11909, nothing more. When my look betrayed my ignorance his melancholy lifted.
"Forgive me, Watson, but your expectant look is always my reward. It reminds me there are still some who appreciate my little talents and look forward to hearing of them," smiling at last. "You are the eternal audience, Watson, ever delighted by my tedious little dramas. The Yard, apparently, has lost some faith in me." Dutifully I handed him back the ticket, which he pinned to the side of the desk, and waited for his pipe and story.
"Watson, there are still some novel criminals who show their hand now and then. Today I have had the very great pleasure of encountering one. On Market you may know a small jewelry shop, small but select. When it closed its doors on Friday its holdings were valued near 15,000. This morning they were zero."
"A robbery then?"
"Yes, but a unique one. They didn't just take the jewels, they took the safe as well."
"The safe! Why not simply the contents?"
"Well of course that is immediately obvious," said he. "They took the safe because they had not the means or talent to open it there. But the remarkable part is how they removed it. They took it out by way of the roof."
I sat stunned.
"Ah, that's the cunning part, Watson. Doors and windows have alarms and bolts, and even passers-by may notice when either is open after hours, but one never has concerns about the roof."
"Still Holmes, how preposterous!"
"Yes, quite, and yet it happened just so. And since this is the second robbery done in the same manner I had a wealth of his methods to study. You remember the Gladstone jewelers on Hackberry, where you bought your wedding ring?"
This unexpected reminder of my loss was a sudden pain to me, and Holmes showed a trace of remorse for having resurrected the memory. "Well, yes Watson, that place. That shop was robbed three weeks ago in the same fashion, and in a moment of carelessness the thief allowed himself to be seen on the rooftop after the shop had shut up for the night. His presence alarmed someone who naturally inquired to know his business, but the cunning rascal pointed wordlessly to his wagon and went back to his work. It was the very wagon used to spirit away the safe which allayed their suspicions."
"But what could throw suspicion off a man above a jewelry shop? I should have had the constables there straight away."
"Another stroke of his artistic brush Watson - his wagon was full of building supplies and bore the sign 'Michello's Roof Repair'. Inspector Gregson established it had been recently stolen from the Michello brothers not three blocks east. You see the cunning of this villain?"
"If I may be permitted to say, I see rather your admiration," replied I somewhat gruffly. Holmes was suitably rebuffed.
"Never fear Watson, I promise you he shall fall by my hand before another week has passed. Mark my words, by next Monday I shall have him. But though he chooses to profit by it on the wrong side of the law, you see he has studied in life's classroom and learned by it the same lamentable lesson I have."
"And that is?"
"The same unchanging textbook Watson, of public apathy and blindness. It is the reason so much crime succeeds under the public's very nose. If what they see fits neatly into their expectations they rarely question it, which is why even a poor disguise proves so often effective. Had the wagon the wrong markings or no markings of any kind the witness would surely have summoned police, but because the thief supplied a plausibly innocent explanation he carried it off." Holmes paused to watch a smoke ring rise to the ceiling.
"But how can a man cut through a roof, raise a safe, and cart it off without considerable commotion? Surely it was a great deal of noisy work to accomplish in a single night."
"It is a capital mistake to make assumptions," said Holmes in ever-improving spirits. "When I arrived, Gregson's men were all over the rooftop gathering clues in their usual inept but industrious fashion, and remains of several meals had been discovered showing the intruder spent at least two nights up there. While it is true every hour increased his chance of discovery, by working slowly throughout the weekend he reduced the telltale noise of his activities.
"To accomplish his task he began most probably Friday night, drilling numerous holes through the roof in a square pattern. The square was large enough to lift the safe through. I note his auger was a poor one which he left behind. Also he left an empty container of oil with which he must have frequently lubricated the drill, for I saw oily smears all around the roof." Holmes faintly chuckled. "One constable nearly slid off."
"The intruder drilled so many holes, and so close together, he nearly eliminated the need for noisy sawing altogether. His saw he took with him, but it must have been an unusual instrument. The holes were only an inch wide and it fit down inside them. To prevent the block of ceiling from dropping noisily to the floor below, he slipped wires around it like a sling as he went along, and eventually the block was pulled out onto the roof. All this he did in the one place where the roof was thinnest and had no obstacles to hinder him."
"Clever fellow," I agreed reluctantly, beginning to share my friend's admiration. "Supposing he visited the shop as a customer and studied the ceiling for some little time. Might someone have noticed and recalled his face?"
"Gregson believed that too," remarked Holmes, "but I doubt it. It was a decorative ceiling of the sort one finds in a fancy shop with select clientele. How could looking up from the floor reveal hidden beams beneath the plaster? No, he must have had other sources to guide him. In any event we shall know his secrets before we are through."
Sherlock Holmes paused to think and amuse himself with his pipe, blowing smoke rings together in a chain. After a few minutes more he renewed the narrative from a broader view.
"I must say, Watson, the planning was superb. Both buildings were one-storied with a high flat roof to work upon, and decorative roof edgings to help hide him from the general view. They were also in a row of shops with no residence nearby and little chance of a late night pedestrian. And of course both had an alley to park a wagon. It was all very workmanlike. He ascended by ladder then dragged up his tools and winch. I saw clearly where the heavier pieces scraped paint off the underside of shingles. Because he was in no great hurry he could place his equipment one night and begin drilling whenever ready."
It grew quiet again. Holmes' features were set in that stony mask which marked his silent reveries, the only outward sign his machine-like brain was forging links in a chain of events he had never witnessed, but would inevitably decipher. I waited once more and finally, "He did not think this up overnight, Watson. This is the result of long planning. And the tools! Where did he find that peculiar saw?"
"This ticket stub?" I interjected. "It is somehow part of your investigation?"
"My first stop was the Yard to see if any specially talented or daring felons had been recently paroled. When I came across Henry Mandicott and read his history, I felt I had a strong possibility he was my culprit."
"And the ticket stub?" I repeated.
"A run up to Surrey Prison, Mandicott's last abode, from which I have just returned. On the back is his prison number. While there I interviewed his cell-mate who managed to let slip some of the Mole's personal habits and background; most interestingly I learned of his past life as a builder and his hated nick-name. The nick-name comes from his close-set eyes and sensitivity to bright light, which keeps him always out of the sun. I also confirmed his physical description as a short twisted man, and presume he suffered from rickets in his youth. I might add while there I met some old acquaintances I had the privilege of boarding at Surrey for several years. I daresay if half of them had the chance, Watson, they would extend their stay to pay me back the courtesies I have done them."
And so the puzzle began to unravel wonderfully. "So you have uncovered the villain, now I suppose all you need do is pick him up?"
At this Holmes cried out in exasperation, "Not everything is so simple Watson! Knowing 'who' and 'what' does not tell me 'where'. Behind all this is a cunning elusive creature. He will be a hard thread to follow without help from Scotland Yard."
"Why should they not help you?" I asked in genuine surprise. But Holmes merely turned to consume the meal at the table, beginning with the ham on the platter and ending with the bread he discovered under his hat. I wished to learn more about this loss of faith but sensed his disappointment so did not pursue it.
Over the next two days Sherlock Holmes' routine mimicked what was normal for him but with a spiritless conviction. Telegrams came and were answered in lackluster fashion, papers read and hurled aside, and a schoolmaster and spinster came to ask his advice but met with little patience. Clearly Holmes was weighted down by something; I suspected it centered on Scotland Yard.
I have explained in these chronicles paralleling an extraordinary career that Sherlock Holmes was not a patient man when thwarted, and was in those times given to near intolerable fits of restlessness. Yet he held such power over those around him they endured much to be of even the slightest service to him. It was on just such a commission I accompanied his return to Market Street on the Thursday afternoon.
When we had boarded our carriage I inquired how I might be of service, to which he replied his mistake on Monday's visit was perhaps in not taking me along. He generously added I bring to his investigations a random element of mental stimulation, an inspirational wellspring upon which he might always rely. I was indeed flattered by this sentiment and said so.
He then offered a belated apology for his recent unpleasantness, one of the few in my memories of him; whereupon I replied I was impervious to his ill moods and cared only to serve him to the best of my abilities, as I have always done, as I would always do. In that peculiar moment I must have touched somewhere deep inside Sherlock Holmes. He turned towards me, lifted his hand as if to reach for my own, then withdraw it again; yet to one who knew his every gesture it was the most outward sign of his buried emotions. We said nothing more during the ride.
Our arrival at Market Street proved to be an intrusion upon workers making energetic repairs to the roof, yet my illustrious companion had only to identify himself to be immediately taken up for another look around. The manager, a rotund gentleman of no great agility, struggled up the ladder after Holmes like one unaccustomed to exertions of any kind, but most anxious to hear the opinions of the legendary detective. Moments later when I too had followed Holmes was already in an excited state, every trace of uncertainty and lethargy vanished in an instant. This was the great detective in his first element! Holmes circled the roof in great strides, hands thrust in pockets, brows knit, keen senses alert to things invisible to all others.
With a sudden smile he took me forcibly by the arm to the missing roof section and pointed to several workers in the lobby below. "That is how he knew Watson!"
"You see those building plans they are examining? That is how Mandicott knew where to make his cut. As a former builder he must have frequently examined such plans at the city office."
I watched as he again began pacing, distracting myself with the whirlpool of gritty material blowing about my ankles. The wind was becoming increasingly colder and I silently hoped his foray would be a brief one. I was not to be disappointed. Holmes scarcely glanced at the ominous clouds gathering above us then turned his gaze solidly to the street below, pointing out to me landmarks where the ingenious criminal had obtained those singular tools necessary to his crime.
"There to the east, Watson, he found everything conveniently nearby. There is the well being dug in an empty lot, from which he obtained a winch. Farther up in the same direction is the tool-maker who supplied the wire. Farther still the Michello Brothers' wagon ..." And there he paused. Holmes silently mouthed the word everything once more and a strange look clouded his features. I saw them tighten with intense concentration, then suddenly brushing past the proprietor he returned to the ladder.
"Come Watson, we are quite finished here."
I could not explain it but on the ride home Holmes' spirits were wonderfully renewed. He even tended to some errands while I kept the carriage waiting, stopping at a furniture repair shop and music shop, from which he emerged with a new bow for his violin. It was nearly four when we were finally on our way to Baker Street, and I saw more evidence of his improved disposition.
"Come Watson, admit you have allowed me to treat our recent guests shamefully! For example that poor spinster who lived in the east end. Perhaps I should apologize to her as well as you. My conduct has been most disreputable lately. What was her name again? Sand? Grand?"
"Strand I believe, yes Miss Winifred Strand. The lady was quite disappointed now that you recall her to mind, but I should hope she understands you were otherwise engaged. If you like we can inquire after her address and I should deem it an honor to write her an apology on your behalf."
"No need Watson. I shall attend to it personally! And that man with missing shoes ..."
"Books," I corrected, but Holmes' mind was already somewhere else and he smiled unconcernedly, so I let the matter drop.
As we approached Baker Street he spoke with the cabby about some forgotten errand and begged my leave, but not before inviting me to dine later. This was the surest sign Holmes expected every success in the next few hours. Stepping inside I read the papers to take my mind off hunger pangs, for I had missed breakfast and Holmes' invitation preyed relentlessly on my appetite. Rossini's was our favorite place of late and I looked forward to a fine meal, but it was not to be. By five o'clock I suspected rather than knew I might dine alone. By six I was ravenous. At seven I walked downstairs and succumbed to Mrs. Hudson's chicken and fresh bread.
Holmes finally did return well after ten, utterly discouraged and wholly unwilling to communicate what had occupied the last six hours of his day. He planted himself in his least favorite chair, threw off one boot, and sat there still wearing the other, head back and eyes closed. However I tried I could get no civil word out of him and finally retreated to my room, but not before noticing the cloak across his lap was covered with coarse hairs visible in the lamplight. Wherever he had been, he had been among animals.
My final recollections of that evening were wind rattling the glass and Holmes scraping the violin. I hardly knew which I found more trying, the worsening climate out of doors or in, and I scarcely looked forward to what the morrow might bring. It was perhaps a precognition.
All the next day Holmes was unapproachable. I made but one attempt to lighten the atmosphere in our rooms, suggesting Scotland Yard might yet be of some assistance, but Holmes' vitriolic response made me think better of mentioning it again. It was to prove a most infernal day. I was on the verge of losing my temper when Holmes bolted from the apartment on a new scent. Yet what seemed a relief at first turned to despair when Holmes failed to return that evening, or the next, or the next.
This, dear reader, brings us back to the night of that terrible storm. Holmes had seemingly vanished from the face of the earth days before, and my fear grew harder as my confidence weakened. For one brief moment my hopes were raised, when lightning startled my muddled brain back to full awareness and revealed a figure below which seemed to be approaching our door. I could not be certain, however, and when I leaned forward it disappeared into the rampant night. Then and there I decided, come morning, the whole of Scotland Yard must devote itself to my friend's safe and speedy return.
At some extreme hour in my vigil I must have drifted into a deep slumber, for I was startled awake to see the brilliant face of the sun and grim face of Inspector Gregson hovering above me. Rubbing my eyes I recognized at once nature's danger had finally passed but another kind was to take its place.
"Mrs. Hudson sent for me when the storm let up, Dr. Watson, and I came immediately. Now what is this business about Holmes being missing and no word? You should have made us aware more urgently," he began in brusque Scotland Yard manner. It was usually his custom to act so before lunch. Rising stiffly from the chair where I'd passed the night I reminded him how unpredictable were Holmes' habits.
"Still, Dr. Watson, you must know the place he holds in our esteem. If anything were to happen to him by way of ... well the entire force is at your disposal and I am only here to get the details you may provide."
Lumbering for the water basin to clear my head I responded in some anguish, "Holmes had something of another opinion, Inspector, with regards to Scotland Yard. But still I would welcome your help. I wish I could but offer useful details; I have been racking my brain for days."
"Come Doctor, there must be something to lead us to him. Anything at all!" Out came the official notebook, but there was nothing to put in it. For the hundredth time I pondered Holmes' cryptic last words to me, searching for any clue to what drove him out after sundown with terrible weather closing in.
I recalled for Inspector Gregson that Holmes had thrown the evening paper behind his chair in usual fashion, by that I refer to his lamentable housekeeping, and began stalking about like a caged animal. "Then quite suddenly, Inspector, he looked about the room and said to me, 'What a fool I've been Watson! A clever enough builder may fit anything inside a large enough box!' At the time I awaited whatever might follow, but without another word he grabbed his cloak and rushed out the door. That was Friday after dinner, around seven."
"And he said nothing more? That is strange indeed. Did he not take anything else with him? Nothing to suggest he planned to be gone for some time?"
"Nothing, I assure you."
"But he mentioned a box, did he? He did not remark what kind of box?"
I shook my head.
"Do you suspect which particular villain he was after, Dr. Watson?" There was a subtle directness in the question, and that the Inspector attached special significance to the particular criminal aroused vague misgivings in me.
Warily I replied, "Likely your jewel robber or that blackmail business. His only other prospects of late have been a school headmaster about some missing books and an elderly woman asking advice about some madman, both of which Holmes declined. Why, what do you suspect?" It was innocently asked yet surprised a guilty expression from him, raising my suspicions to their highest pitch!
Leaning forward in my chair with foreboding I was momentarily put off by Mrs. Hudson entering with tea. She was beseeching the Inspector, her voice trembling, "You will find him won't you? He is most always all right for himself but I pray no harm comes to him. And surely Scotland Yard needs him back as much as we."
She of course had no way of knowing what a sting her remark would be against the fragile Scotland Yard ego, yet Gregson rose to heights of tenderness I scarcely gave him credit for. Ignoring the professional slight he took her hand and reassured her, ending with the promise, "We will find him for you dear Mrs. Hudson, and bring him back safe as a lamb." It was a much relieved woman whom he sent back to her duties. Yet as he turned back to me after closing the door he gravely added, "I wish it were so easy with us, Dr. Watson. You and I know a missing person after even two days has almost always had some misfortune to tell of."
"What was it you suspected? You are holding something back. And what of this lack of faith in Holmes? Come now, out with it!" I accused.
Gregson paused to eye me sternly, then making up his mind opened up.
"Doctor, your Mr. Holmes has the utmost respect at the Yard these days, however it may appear. It wasn't always so but his theories are almost every time right on target, and you'd go far before finding a man who had the shadow of a doubt in him. Still there are those mistrustful of outsiders altogether. One of these is our new Chief Inspector, who decided to look into this business of the Yard consulting unofficial detectives."
"And he is not so sure of amateurs. We were ordered to give each a test ..."
"You were testing Holmes? You put him in some danger to test him?" I rose menacingly from my chair.
"Let me explain, Dr. Watson, for it was not so evil as all that. We took it up only to prove we had every confidence in our consultants. We were to ask each of them to find something useful in a case assigned by the force, and as we were certain Mr. Holmes would easily pass any obstacle in his path, and as we wished for his particular talents locating one particular villain, he was assigned the recent jewel robberies on the east side. I may tell you every Inspector asked for Holmes, but it was my robbery case he came to in the end." The guilty look returned.
Bitterly angered my friend had been used in this way I began to pace, "And did Holmes know this was merely a test?" I don't know what answer I expected but was unprepared for the grin on the Inspector's face.
"You ask did your detective know what we were up to? I thought this might be worth your opinion Doctor. See for yourself," and so saying Gregson plucked from his pocket a folded sheet of paper.
Chief Inspector Baggins, [it read]
Your experiment has been most entertaining and I thank you for
including me, but your men are after the wrong prey so I commend
to you the mole. It is a less conspicuous animal than the weasel and
infinitely harder to track to its burrow, yet if all goes well I shall
have the pleasure of introducing you to one. Also I commend to
you a Mr. Carney Schroeder of Plum Street, who will no doubt
be of inestimable service to you.
"Not a one of us revealed anything of this test or who was behind it, Dr. Watson, for fear of how the consulting specialists would react. It does seem rather insulting. Yet you see your Mr. Holmes immediately caught on, and may have felt our faith in him was slipping. Moreover he named the Chief Inspector as proof he knows all about it. This is our last communication from him."
He continued, "Of course we are used to his doing business on his own, and believed all would be going well. It was only when I received word from your Mrs. Hudson I knew otherwise, and I'm sorry Doctor if we put Mr. Holmes in any more of a perilous situation than is normal for him, but I assure you it was not entirely our doing and now we will set about to remedy it."
Gregson's sincerity was disarming, and in fairness I considered Holmes' bloodhound instinct once put upon a scent. When anger subsided I sighed my apology, "Of course Inspector. Forgive my taking liberties against our friendship. But what is behind this jewelry business, and how is Holmes involved?"
"Dr. Watson, there is somewhere in London a criminal agent we have taken to naming 'the weasel' because of his slippery ways. Lately a pair of large crimes have been ascribed to him, though we could not say for certain he was the culprit. Yet while we have been after our weasel, Holmes apparently ..."
"Is after the mole?" Inspector Gregson shrugged his shoulders as if to say they could hardly prevent him doing so. "And this Schroeder of Plum Street? How does he fit in?"
For the second time a curious smile passed Gregson's lips, with him commenting it was not important to the case. Instead he thought a moment and asked, "Doctor, one other thing just occurs to me. You say he was looking around when he made his strange remark?"
"About the box? So it appeared."
"Could he have been looking at something? Of course you know him best, but I have always had the impression these lightning bolts of intuition strike when something catches his eye." It had not occurred to me but in a flash I realized he may be right, must be right. Holmes had been searching for just such an intuitive spark for days, and peering across at the bookshelf or the desk or ...
"Gregson, he was thinking of something on this mantle. Aha!" I took from behind some rubbish a small and delicate box, forgotten there since Wednesday, and presented the trophy for his inspection.
"Oho, a box! Now we're getting somewhere," said he, taking it in hand and instinctively shaking. "Why it appears empty Doctor."
In some irritation I snatched up one of Holmes' magnifiers and reclaimed the trinket. "We must first see it through his eyes if we are to know what he saw. It is some little thing that Winifred woman brought for us to examine, because it came from the deranged man hanging about her neighborhood. Now that I recall she was distraught when Holmes turned her away, and Holmes felt badly over it. When he made a breakthrough on this jewel business he spoke of contacting her."
"A deranged man indeed? Mr. Holmes always did fancy peculiar prey, so may be off pursuing a third villain now. Either way it seems we must learn more about this little box. You know his thinking, Doctor. What can you get from it?" I turned my full attention to the tiny object then. It was indeed dainty, perhaps two inches on a side, with intricate outer carvings and delicate hinges. Though it had a curious musty smell hinting at its age, the general pristine condition established it was unused, and the seamless edges revealed it to be the work of a craftsman. These things coupled with a number etched along the bottom made us think it might have been purchased from some curiosity shop. There was also the interesting fact it had suggested to Holmes' mind a much larger box.
"Wherever he may be, Dr. Watson, on the trail of a jewel thief or a madman, it's clear we must follow both leads now to find him, and I know of no better place to start than Scotland Yard. Come! I have a cab!"
As it happened, at the time Inspector Gregson and I were examining the tiny box at Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes was becoming intimately acquainted with the larger one in a remote corner of the city. My notes remind me of a storage and work shed on the east rim of London, so situated that only one house stood beside it on a stretch of country road. This was where my friend ultimately caught up with the enigmatic "Mole".
That the place was discovered at all is remarkable, for the criminal's identity had for an entire month defied the penetrations of Scotland Yard. Except for the alert suspicions of Sherlock Holmes, Henry Mandicott was the last man who might be suspected of sensational crimes against the jewelry shops of London. The Mole, whose subsequent notoriety was to make that obscure nick-name infamous, was known to very few during that epochal period of crime. He was in the eyes of the official force an inconsequential figure in shabby cloak and cast-off boots, and as we later learned even Holmes relied upon a degree of luck to run the creature to its hidden burrow.
That burrow was a dark and dusty building filled with crates of every description, most of them empty but for vermin and rats. Concealed in two others were the safes from Hackberry and Market streets, the Market safe still unopened. The final crate had been fashioned into a makeshift hideaway. Now circling it like a vulture was an odious little man, twisted and limping, and nailed tightly inside the reclined figure of Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes would later remark, "How ironic Watson, about the time you were examining the box from the mantle I was inspecting its larger cousin from the inside. It nearly became my coffin." How the great detective came to be in that predicament, subject to the mercies of the abominable Mole, we only learned much later.
Knowing nothing of Holmes' predicament, Inspector Gregson and I traveled to Scotland Yard and did our best to retrace Holes' quick sure steps of the week before. We also determined to find the address of Miss Winifred Strand on the east end. One or the other would presumably lead us to my friend.
Upon arriving the Inspector immediately sent someone looking for the spinster's address, but the trail of the notorious Mole we took upon ourselves. Though Holmes' scent was cold we still might pick it up, Gregson felt, in the criminal archives room, remembering this was the usual place for Holmes' frequent visits.
It was my first time seeing the Yard's accumulated records, files with the particulars on every significant criminal agent in the country. The sheer bulk was staggering, shelves rising in library fashion from floor to ceiling, and I wondered how a single nation could produce so many wayward souls, or long survive under their combined destructive influence.
As we walked past endless shelves a stale odor of old paper filled the air, even as the shuffling of books and ledgers by an army of officials formed a constant background din. I fancy some recognized me from their acquaintance with my illustrious roommate, and so made way for us as we approached one end of the room where we found a cabinet desk entirely too large for its lone occupant.
Inspector Gregson inquired of the sharp young clerk which documents the great detective had inspected and was answered by means of a most thorough log book. A single glance was sufficient to tell us Holmes had indeed been studying the lists of paroles from every nearby prison, followed by half-a-dozen criminal files. The Inspector went directly to the last document on the list suggesting one would stop looking when they found what they wanted. That document was the arrest record of Henry W. Mandicott, east end builder, debtor, forger, and three-year inmate at Surrey. There was no mention of where the criminal now resided.
Inspector Gregson next took me to his private office, an oversize closet midway down a long corridor, crowded by desk and chair, file cabinets and a single overhead lamp. "You will forgive me, Doctor. There is little enough room for one let alone two, but some day I hope to be moved up." Indeed it was necessary to remove a stack of papers from a small cabinet to seat myself, and I at once understood the Inspector's close attachments to Sherlock Holmes as part of his strenuous efforts to rise within the official force. I could not begrudge a relationship which brought Holmes such varied opportunities to practice his unique talents, yet it often seemed more benefit to Scotland Yard than Baker Street.
Gregson squeezed himself behind a desk pressed uncomfortably close to the wall and plucked a folder from atop a thick pile. I quickly pushed against the others to keep them from sliding onto my lap. "Doctor Watson, for two days last week I could not decipher Mr. Holmes' reference to a mole in his little note to the Chief. However, supposing it to be a nick-name like ours for the weasel, and knowing there is usually something behind his queer hints, I continued inquiring till I chanced to discover a man to whom the nick-name applied."
He opened the folder and continued, "This is a folder on Henry Mandicott, similar to the one Mr. Holmes found in the archives, but more current. It was sent directly to me from Surrey Prison at my request. I have read it twice but am not materially further than when first I was handed this investigation, for my greatest difficulty has been where to put my hands on him for questioning."
"And so it was with Holmes," I remarked. "He has tried several times to run the creature to ground."
"Yes, well I may say I cannot think how it is even possible, Dr. Watson, for the Mole has quite disappeared. The only addresses we have on him are his old apartment, which is now occupied by another, and a small warehouse out on Strand Lane, which I have had examined. The warehouse is deserted save for some old crates and boxes, one of which I had hoped to be the large box Mr. Holmes alluded to." And so saying he tossed the folder down upon the pile, causing it to cascade down into my lap after all. It was but a minute to retrieve the scattered papers, but all the while something in his remarks stirred a remote memory within me.
We both sat several minutes in silence, the Inspector aching with inaction, and I trying to gather a useful thread on that most irksome memory.
"What was it you said about sending men to a warehouse Inspector?"
"Just that we have been out to Strand Lane with no ... "
"Inspector, that's it!" I cried. "The name of the spinster who visited us, who complained of a madman working in his storage shed at night, is Winifred Strand, and the street is in all probability named after her family!" The meaning was instantly clear. Our two paths converged into one, for the Mole and the madman were likely one and the same.
Inspector Gregson leapt from his chair so suddenly he stumbled against the desk and the folders again came crashing down. We ignored them. In eight minutes we found two idle officers in the hallway, a carriage in the street, and were on our way to London's east rim.
It was a painfully slow ride for all our haste, with every road tangled in traffic at that time of day, and Holmes' fate possibly in the balance. Our commandeered officers stood up in the carriage shouting to clear the way, yet it was nearly two o'clock when we reached our destination, a narrow tree-lined avenue far from the main thoroughfares. There in the distance loomed the ramshackle retreat of the east end builder Henry Mandicott.
When we passed by the only other structure in view I saw with fleeting surprise the spinster who had appeared in our rooms the week before. She stood out in the yard surrounded by cats of every color, and a look of amazement showed in her expression when our large carriage tore past, spitting clouds of pebbles on that quiet country lane. Our carriage slid to a stop now with the goal still some distance off, allowing us to approach on foot and hopefully catch the quarry off his guard. My revolver was at hand, as was that of the three men with me, and whatever might await we would surely have the enemy overmatched. Our only prayer was that we were not too late.
"Quietly now," warned Inspector Gregson, and for several minutes we four inched closer, stopping when the lead man heard movement within the weather-beaten building. Had we been observed? At a full ten yards the Inspector motioned his men to go round the other side, but just as they began to move a shot rang out!
My army instincts lay me flat upon the ground in an instant, the others following a half-second later. We were considering our next move when there was a second report and following it a yell in Holmes' familiar voice! Instantly Gregson and I were on our feet. As one we rushed the door, and with a crash it burst from rusted hinges to tumble us into the gloom.
It was several seconds to see in the dim light and make sense of the unimaginable scene before us. A tall figure sagged drunkenly over the shoulders of a short twisted one as they moved in a kind of slow bohemian dance. The taller appeared to cling desperately to the shorter, the shorter savagely pushing away. One final shot rang out knocking an officer's hat from his head. "Holmes!" I cried in sudden recognition and alarm.
The constables descended upon the pair and in seconds disarmed the stranger and separated them, and my weary friend collapsed into my arms. In exhaustion he looked out from sunken eyes, and I had to lean very near to hear him rasp the single word "water". We sat him upon the nearest crate while Gregson searched out a canteen and the officers struggled to subdue the repugnant writhing Mole. That my friend had faced some cruel deprivation was apparent in his hollow cheeks and trembling hands, and the Inspector looked as relieved as I to find him alive.
"How is he Doctor?"
I checked my friend's pulse and was startled to see him in handcuffs! They turned out to be his own intended for his quarry; fortunately his key was found nearby and wrists freed. Holmes then waved off any further medical attention and sighed his enormous relief.
"If ever I seem to use you cruelly, Watson, it is surely undeserved. You may have saved my life this day, for I badly misjudged either my strength or his and could not pry the weapon from his grasp. You have possibly noted he is a man of exceptional strength." At this prompting we turned to watch the officers still struggling to hold and gag the villain, who was so desperate he had tried biting them. When it was discovered neither had handcuffs with them Holmes valiantly struggled to his feet and dramatically concluded the matter: "Henry Mandicott, you are under arrest for the robberies of Market and Hackberry Streets and the high crime of attempted murder!" whereupon in a flash of bravado Sherlock Holmes ended forever the Mole's criminal career. He had made good on his promise of a week ago, with just hours to spare.
As the prisoner was being hauled outside Holmes made one final gesture. He tossed his own cloak across to the constables saying, "Be sure he does not leave without a cloak across his shoulders. We may get another chilly rain on his ride to prison. No no Mole, do not trouble yourself to thank me with that gag in your mouth, you will only injure yourself." My friend turned to face me with a mischievous grin, found his hat, and marched triumphantly into the afternoon sun.
As we crowded into the waiting carriage our prisoner suffered a terrible fit of sneezing, such that I felt he contracted an illness from the recent weather, and as his hands were shackled he could do nothing to cover his raging exhaltations. We were all uncomfortable at these constant discharges, all but Holmes, who seemed instead amused by them. I wondered then if my friend's internment had been so severe he was incapable of pitying the prisoner.
On the long ride to Scotland Yard Holmes, eyeing the man who had captured him but was now the captured, began to fill in all the missing pieces of this week-long mystery.
"I blame myself for letting the creature get the drop on me, sneaking down from the pile of crates like that. One minute I was delighted at uncovering his lair and the next unconscious from a blow to the head. I remained so till morning, and when I awoke found my hands shackled and myself inside one of the warehouse crates. He had fashioned the crate for sleeping of course, so he could rest in complete safety. A childishly simple ploy in retrospect, but what place in a warehouse could afford a more perfect place of concealment? He was probably inside it resting when the police looked through the windows and when I waited outside for him to come down the lane.
"When I woke inside my prison Mandicott heard me and practically squealed in his anger, 'I know your name from your notebook and your reputation from everyone in Surrey prison! How did you know Mr. Holmes?'
" 'Know what, pray tell?' I asked with indifference. The knot on the back of my head was throbbing and I needed to stall for time to think more clearly.
" 'Do not taunt me! How did you find me? Tell me who else knows where I am!'
"With as much disdain as I could muster I replied, 'Oh I don't think I am quite ready to reveal that to a mole creature.' "
Upon hearing his hated nick-name, our prisoner squirmed uncomfortably between the constables. He began to mutter into his gag but was silenced with a tug by one of the officers; silenced, that is, except for the rampant fits of sneezing.
Holmes continued, "You see, I knew from his cell-mate he despised that name and the taunt would hit him hard. I was playing a dangerous game in an attempt to get him to open the box and have a go at me. His caution won out, however, and he did not raise the lid to expedite my escape. I suspected then I was in for a long uncomfortable stay." The prisoner across from me looked almost gleeful at this last remark.
"Rather than face me he contented himself to kick at my crate. I could not see him but clearly heard his footsteps pacing the hard floor alongside, and it was evident he wore one shoe heavier than the other. You remember, Watson, I already suspected he suffered from rickets. Aha!" At this Holmes raised the feet of the prisoner and pointed out the specially constructed shoes to accommodate an uneven walk.
"My discovering his hiding place must have upset his plans terribly. I sensed there was some errand he must run but he did not trust leaving me unattended."
"Since you had discovered it, why would he not simply leave you there and never return?" one of the juniors naively inquired.
"There was never a chance of that. He had a safe hidden there which he had not yet managed to open, and where could he escape to, carting a heavy safe? He is also at heart a meek soul who would not let a man starve to death; that was another valuable piece of knowledge supplied by his cell-mate. I had additional proof of his gentle side in the little box he left for the spinster, as an apology for disturbing her late at night with his hammering. His whole life was evidently meek and cowering." Holmes' evident revulsion for the villain was coming to the fore. "Yet he did have somewhere to go and would have to leave me behind knowing I would try to escape. I was curious how he would handle it."
"A dangerous choice," said Gregson appreciatively.
"He managed it cleverly, however. For some time he busied himself in the back of the warehouse then returned and tapped small nails into my crate. Said he at last: 'I want you to know I am leaving you till to-morrow, but I beg you remain quietly in your box mister detective. I have arranged a pistol attached to your prison by cords to all sides. Should any side separate the cord will fire the pistol. You have observed I am not a violent man but I should have no compunction against you killing yourself and thus ending my difficulties. And now I am off.'
"I confess with his departure I fell into an uneasy time of it. I had with me some matches but no wish to set the box afire with me in it. He had lined it with straw for sleeping. And the howling wind outside made it impossible that I should be heard calling for help. After perhaps an hour of deliberation I resigned myself to sleep in order to conserve my strength till help arrived. You will be surprised but it was only then I recalled not telling anyone where I was going, Watson, and that was a most distressing revelation. I of course hoped you would follow my trail in some fashion, but it was after all a faint hope. What you show in dogged determination you somewhat lack in detective skills."
"I trust I am ever at your disposal within my limits, Holmes," I demurred, as we clattered down Braxton Road.
"And so you are my friend. Think nothing of it. We all have our own unique gifts to share and you have ever been generous with yours. But as I could not count upon your timely arrival my only hope was for Mandicott to open the crate and let me escape. I confess I was a brick for not knowing what to do for so long. Nothing I tried convinced him to open the lid even for a moment. Taunting did not. Threatening did not. It would require something more cunning."
It was plain to see the young officers riding with us were in awe of the great detective, and sat in rapt attention. But the pathetic Mole, his convulsive sneezing finally ended, cloak thrown off his shoulders and head down to shield his eyes from the sunlight, muttered unintelligibly against his gag. One officer yanked his sleeve again to shush him.
"He returned within 24 hours I think. That would make it Sunday morning. He napped at first, then as the wind picked up spent some hours hammering again at the safe. It was a Ridley and outmatched his tools, however, and he again left for some little while, presumably to find better ones.
"This last day in the box was hell and I was growing weaker. I quite made up my mind I must trick him into opening the crate soon or I would be weak as a lamb when he did, with no chance of overpowering him. But how? I asked for water. He refused. I pleaded hunger. He scoffed. I said I felt ill. He kicked the box again." We all of us looked at the prisoner now like some loathsome beast, and he in turn looked sheepishly along Britney Road wishing he were someplace else.
"There was apparently nothing outside the box he would allow in. Finally it struck me I might convince him there was something inside he desired to get out. He already had my notebook but I had loose pages from Scotland Yard folded in my waistpocket. With my pencil stub I blindly scribbled around the edge of the paper for a more telling effect, arranged one or two other things, and carefully folded them back. When I was ready I would let it slip I possessed them, he would open the box, and I would have my chance. I now held the key to my prison but no guarantees on my jailer."
"He would certainly be alert to trickery!" volunteered one of the officers.
"And you were handcuffed, were you not, while he was armed?" remarked the other.
"All true," replied Holmes, building his story's suspense for their benefit. "Also I was feeling the effects of my days without food or drink. Yet in utter darkness one sees even the slightest glimmer of hope, and I managed to fashion an effective weapon from the materials at hand."
"In that situation? Using what, a handful of straw? I should say it was impossible," scoffed Gregson. "Unless of course you refer to this deadly smell," he grinned. It was true Holmes' days in the box did nothing to improve his close proximity. A look about the carriage showed me the others felt the same.
"To one without imagination every difficulty may be insurmountable," retorted Holmes with untarnished dignity, "but no situation is impossible if you can but apply the inestimable cunning locked away in the human brain, and I am living proof. Nature had provided me a weapon and I was ready to make my escape." Holmes finished the canteen of water.
"When all was prepared I rambled about tracking him down through secret records at Scotland Yard, and mentioned I had taken notes of everything in his file. It was a lure I hoped he could not resist. He caught the hint and began to interrogate me through the wooden crate as to the whereabouts of these notes, and when I stopped answering he became convinced I was concealing them from him. He walked away then and I worried I had overplayed my hand - for it was a very weak hand and he might yet be too cautious to open the crate - but he soon returned and I knew I had won him over.
"He pried loose the top and began to dig in my pockets, but my plan depended on getting to my feet before he found the notes so I sat suddenly up and scared him back a little. He then drew his revolver and commanded me get up slowly and hand over the pages. All this was just as I wished. With a show of reluctance I handed them over, then leaned unsteadily against a crate to convince him he had nothing to fear from me.
Gregson was by now wholly absorbed in the tale, we all were, and Henry Mandicott moved as if to tumble free of the carriage. The junior officers rearranged themselves to better surround him then, and Holmes continued.
"For some time I watched him examine my scribbled notes, knowing the instant he realized they were nonsense he would force me back into the box. It seemed that might be the outcome after all, for he began to crumple the papers, but just as he did he fell into a paroxysm of sneezes. He's prone to them you see. It was my one chance to subdue him so I lunged. I found out too late I could not break his grip, and he managed to fire several shots before you so happily broke through his front door."
We sat for several minutes appreciating how dangerously close we came to losing Sherlock Holmes forever. When we arrived at Scotland Yard, Inspector Gregson was the first to speak climbing down from the crowded carriage, "Well I am grateful to have you back Mr. Holmes, as I have promised to deliver you safely to Mrs. Hudson. But it was indeed fortunate for us all he fell to sneezing at just the perfect moment for you to take advantage!"
"Luck had only a little to do with it. I planned it that way."
The comment brought a moment of querulous silence as we ascended the steps.
"Beg pardon, Mr. Holmes?"
"I mentioned a weapon, did I not? As it turns out I had a very effective one, though I did not at first recognize it. I was put into the box wet from rain and it was useless to me then." At this our audience of five settled in the foyer to hear the rest. Getting the prisoner to his cell would have to wait.
"To explain it I must first say my captor complained several times of the howling of his neighbor's cats, speaking distressingly of the entire feline species. He of course thought nothing at the time of me overhearing it, nor I of its significance, but in that final hour I remembered something else about this queer little man [nudging Henry Mandicott with his foot]. He left a little wooden box on the spinster's front porch as a token gift with a note attached. She showed it to me. In it he apologized for all his late night construction noises, undoubtedly to dissuade her from reporting his annoying habits to the police. The note also apologized for rudely leaving the box outside her door, but explained he had a severe allergy to her cats.
"As it happened my cloak was covered with cat hair, from visiting Miss Strand over her madman troubles. That was the weapon I used! Even in handcuffs I could collect dry tufts and spread them between my folded papers. His eyesight was poor and the warehouse dim so he would have to bring the papers close to examine them. I simply watched for the first sign of allergic reaction.
"Yes, gentlemen, it was more than a metaphor to say I was within a hair of losing my life."
When Henry Mandicott had been taken to his cell, and a multitude of Yard officers congratulated both Holmes and Inspector Gregson for solving the east end robberies, the Inspector took a moment to notify Chief Baggins of the triumph.
While we waited he delivered a glowing tribute to the courageous work of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, a man he said was perhaps the only man outside the force deserving of the epithet "detective". From our place in the hallway we overheard it all; and Holmes, exhausted though he was, basked in the sincere and generous praise. Inspector Gregson's final intimation, that any reward for recovering the Market Street jewels must naturally fall to us, elevated Holmes to a state of weary bliss.
It was near five o'clock when three of us arrived finally back at Baker Street. There Mrs. Hudson clutched at Sherlock Holmes as would his own mother, then hurried off to prepare a hasty meal for her near-starved tenant. And when he had cleaned up and quite recovered his strength, Holmes sat with his meal in his lap and we gathered in our sitting room, the Inspector beside the fire and I on the sofa. Mrs. Hudson stood indecisively at the door.
Noticing her Holmes called out, "Come, sit, Mrs. Hudson! You have ever been as much supporter as housekeeper, and you know I look to you always for your kind devotions. Without you I should waste away in a famish and never have a clean restful bed to sleep in. You have done more for the fight against villainy than most and your place is here with us."
It was a tidal outpouring of emotion for one such as Holmes, which we both recognized and at once supported. Gregson and I encouraged her by look and gesture to come hear the story with us, whereupon she wrung her hands in her never-absent apron, hesitated a moment to overstep her place, then rushed to the sofa and sat in perfect harmony among us.
"Now then, I suppose you should all like to hear of the remarkable London Mole?"
"I should be delighted if you would fill in the details of how you finally came to track him down," said I.
"As would I," chimed in the Inspector, "for I gave up days ago."
"Very well then. Watson, allow me to first say here is where your playing at detective and my profession of it differ. While you most energetically and admirably pursued your uncertain goal [I bowed my head at the intended compliment], you knew not where the trail might lead, but from the very first I knew the man I was after."
"And how did that come about Mr. Holmes? How did you know we were after the wrong man? I have been most curious," remarked the Inspector.
"By an intimate knowledge of the London rogue's gallery, Gregson. I commend to you a close study of the habits of the nearly 200 major frauds, assassins, and other nefarious elements who walk these city streets. It is of inestimable value to recognize one's prey. When I see a repainted Master I know it is a Choltrane forgery. When I see a child kidnapping done by an imposter nanny I recognize in it Madera and her Latin gang. But last Tuesday, when you showed me the handiwork of a thief who stole strong boxes with a saw and a winch, it was clearly no ordinary criminal yet was someone entirely unknown to me.
"The Weasel, George Palmador is his given name, would never have done it. He is of that class of criminal who waits for prey to come to him, picking at the edges of a lawful society where the weak or stupid present themselves as easy victims. He is ever the lazy rascal, taking what is handy not what is difficult. So if not him, I wondered, who then? Obviously if I did not know him, he had not been much in circulation. Someone from outside London then? I dismissed that. His clever use of the roofing sign was proof he knew the locals too well to be from anywhere else.
"Then it struck me a prisoner may have gotten loose. That would answer why a talented burglar had only now surfaced, not just once but twice in succession, so I turned my attentions to recent paroles or escapes. There is no substitute for energy, Gregson, if applied in the proper direction. When I came across the file on the Mole, a former builder by trade, it was a possibility, so I paid a visit to his last cell-mate. It was there I learned of Mandicott's talents and his strange mixture of desperation and meekness."
We waited as Holmes consumed another half a sandwich. Mrs. Hudson seemed quite pleased he was enjoying his food so much, but Inspector Gregson could restrain himself no longer. "Blast it all Holmes, how did you find him? I had a dozen men looking without success."
"It did present difficulties. But his tools eventually pointed the direction to go in."
"But of course. I had some clues from them upon my first visit to the crime, though I confess it was the saw that eventually gave it all away." He eyed the Inspector in a most peculiar manner before continuing. "I was delighted to notice, from the roof of the jewelry shop where your men were swarming like ants, a toolmaker just up the street. It occurred to me if Mandicott were such a practical fellow as to borrow the Michello's wagon he might just as easily borrow all his other tools from nearby, as well."
"You mean," asked the Inspector incredulous, "while my men were looking for clues there was a proprietor down the street who could describe this man?"
"Remarkable is it not?" Holmes smiled, "and yet when I pointed out that possibility to one of your men he asked that I step aside so the official force could finish its work. I had no choice but to interview the tool seller on my own."
The Inspector flushed uncomfortably.
"The wagon he obtained from just up the street, as you yourself discovered. He found the winch also close at hand."
Whereupon the Inspector asked in his ignorance, "Where would one find such a thing on a busy city street?" In answer my friend smiled more broadly than before. Gregson looked perplexed, then assumed a disparaging frown, lowered his head, and ground his fist into his other hand.
"Why, whatever is the matter Inspector?" inquired Mrs. Hudson, putting her hand compassionately upon his arm.
"Let it pass, Mrs. Hudson. He is all right. He just remembered there was a well digger who saw all those police about and came by to report some of his equipment had come up missing. That time Inspector Gregson himself chased the man off for getting in the way." Gregson looked a fallen man hoping for mercy.
"Don't despair Gregson! The well digger had little to offer because his winch was taken in his absence. The tool-maker was also of little use, except to recall the man asking to see his saws and heavy wire was a short twisted man in shabby clothing. I finally decided Scotland Yard's records might put a name to the criminal, for by that time I knew something of his general appearance, expertise with tools, and suspected he recently left prison. If I could not put a name to him with all that I would be a poor consulting detective indeed.
"To answer another question I am sure has perplexed you, while examining the files a clerk inquired if I had solved my case yet because he had a fiver riding on me. I of course inquired how he might win such a sum and he filled my head with the business of Chief Inspector Baggin's little test."
The bell rang at the front door and Mrs. Hudson begged we wait to finish the story, so I preoccupied myself while Holmes consumed another prodigious amount of food and Gregson scribbled a hasty note in his official book. Upon her return we eagerly resumed our positions.
"So the witnesses I overlooked were not clue enough, Mr. Holmes," remarked the Inspector with some relief, "then how did you find his burrow? Doctor Watson told me this old spinster gave you news of a local madman, but how did you come to know they were one and the same?"
"I frankly did not know, but from the moment I realized Mandicott had emerged from London's far east end to commit his crimes it seemed a possibility worth investigating."
Gregson and I immediately reacted to the suggestion. "Now if you did not know his address tell me how you deduce such a thing, Mr. Holmes!"
My friend again turned to me saying, "Watson, do you recall our visit to the roof of the Market Street jewelers? Did I not point out to you where Mandicott had obtained his winch, his wire, his wagon?"
"I remember it distinctly."
"When I was showing you where he had found his tools, from where had they all come?"
I considered a moment and replied from up the street, east of the shop.
"Very good Watson. East of the shop. You know I am fond of beginning an investigation by finding the path of least resistance, and in the case of Henry Mandicott that path lay directly east. Nothing else could explain his gathering his tools in that precise manner."
"You mean to say he picked out all these things as he walked up the street? That seems remarkable for even so clever a burglar, if I may say so, Mr. Holmes."
"He already had his plan, Gregson. He knew what he intended to do and only need gather the proper tools. These he collected as he walked the avenue, either at the spur of the moment or later with no one around."
"And what makes you so sure he walked all that way?" challenged Gregson again. "Though it came to nothing we spent a good deal of time looking for the cabby which brought him to Market."
Holmes sat back in his favorite chair now and stretched his legs. He was plainly enjoying the attention and took his time answering: "Only someone on foot could have found the winch he used. I examined the fence it was behind to learn how he had gotten to it, and the gaps in the fence were too narrow to see through from the street, especially in a moving carriage. He must have walked past that point. By eliminating the possibility of a cab I saved myself days of pointless inquiries."
At this I felt rather proud of my companion's faultless logic and showed it. Gregson nodded conceding the point. All the while Mrs. Hudson's admiration for the great detective shown brightly in her eyes.
"This much I was sure of - the Mole obtained none of his tools west of the jewelry shop, where just one block down he would have found a much better auger, so he traveled only east of it. And once I had picked up his trail I determined to follow it as far as I could. Surely he had been as far as the Michello Brothers' since he took their wagon, and as a small bridge abutted their property I felt he must have passed over it. There are no residences for some distance beyond that, so he came from still farther in that direction. You see how each piece that fell into place led me farther east?"
Holmes stood up and began to pace about the room.
"Still the trail might have ended at that rather tangled intersection of Market, Greenway, and Apothecary Lane. I could not say from which point on the compass he came to that spot until I found this ... " and so saying pulled from the desk drawer a long thin tool with a white handle.
"The saw!" I exclaimed.
"Precisely. I had never seen one before, but am told it is a professional saw used in the making of certain musical instruments. I found this in a music shop two blocks east of where Market ends, and the proprietor remembered an evil-smelling rickety little man recently bought one like it. By then I was positive my trail pointed like an arrow at the east end. When I recalled the spinster complained of a little madman in those parts stirring only after dark, I felt I had to look into it."
"Fate delivered me a strong card that day," Holmes continued after lighting his pipe. "The strongest possible since I was able to decipher its potential and play it at full value. I really think there must be some eternal balance wheel in the Heavens, Watson, where we are assured of equal shares of fortune good and bad. For every misfortune we suffer there is an equal accounting in our favor. My misfortune was being caught by the Mole and put in that dreadful box. My good fortune preceded my bad, in the form of that spinster who came here on the Wednesday."
"Winifred." I volunteered.
"Yes, Winifred and her twenty-seven cats. I thought it an impossible coincidence such a thread should fall into my hands and first dismissed it as irrelevant, but after reflection it was not so strange she should show up at my door. She had already sent for the police but they found nothing unusual around the warehouse and saw no signs of life within. Desperate to have the mystery looked into further but with no neighbors or family to turn to she was referred to me; after all there are not many investigators about with a reputation of working for free. You see, Watson, how marvelously balanced life is? Each new act leads to another till we have come full circle to the original players. My involvement was inevitable.
"Piecing together her complaints with Mandicott's suspected vicinity I could not pass up the chance to find out if both were related. It had, after all, an element of probability. Remember during her brief but irritating visit to our rooms she complained her mysterious neighbor first appeared a month before? That was about the time of Mandicott's release. And he was only active at night, another marked feature of the Mole. Add to that the endless hammering she complained of and you have a man who uses tools.
"After I left you at Baker Street on Thursday I went to see her, suffering an hour's visit and cloak full of cat hair to hear her story again. It was fortunate I went, although when she came to us I had little enough interest in her troubles."
"You remarked, if I recall, you had no time for solving the difficulties of her annoying neighbors."
"Yes that is undoubtedly what I said," Holmes answered with some chagrin. "When she finished her story and pointed out the warehouse, I said my good-bye and went to inspect it through the dirty windows, but saw nothing beyond the clutter of old crates. I had not come prepared to pick a lock so could not get through the front door, and the windows were nailed shut. Still I waited up the road for several chilly hours hoping the mysterious neighbor would come down the lane; he could only come from one direction because there were no houses farther on. When he failed to appear I returned home severely disappointed."
"I remember," said I. "You sat unmoving in the wicker chair all night."
"Yes. I was reconsidering all my facts as I lulled you to sleep with my violin." I turned my head at this.
"At one point I began to doubt the spinster had heard anyone at all. Such women are known to imagine all sorts of suspicious things about their neighbors. The thought made me lose some hope and I was quite an intolerable roommate on the Friday. Yet there was the little box and note she'd brought with her, and Mandicott was surely somewhere in her area. Then it struck me what I had seen but not observed in the dusty warehouse."
"And that was?" I asked.
"I observed nothing."
We looked expectantly.
"That was it. Like the police before me I saw nothing. Only after did I realize what it implied."
There still was no reaction.
Holmes drew a long breath, "The facts were so transparent they were opague. It was too obvious. Surely if I had been hammering away at some project every night, I would have something to show for my labors! It became instantly apparent something significant was hidden in that warehouse full of boxes. It turned out to be the stolen safes and our quarry, sleeping away his days inside a refurbished crate. That only occurred to me when I remembered the spinster's fashionable little box."
In a few minutes more Holmes concluded his remarkable explanation of the case and its myriad clues, some of them opaque, some fantastically too obvious; and as the hour was late and Holmes needed to rest our guest stood and extended his hand, "Mr. Holmes, may I say it is always a pleasure. It is good to have you back safe and sound," slapping Holmes on the shoulder. And we, in turn, bade the Inspector a very good night.
Mrs. Hudson showed him out, warmly thanking him for his heroic part in returning Holmes safely. For a passing moment upon the stairs I considered the chances between a professional old bachelor like Gregson and homebody like Mrs. Hudson, but soon dismissed it and turned towards my bedroom.
Holmes stopped me though, pointing his pipe my way, and let me know he had saved something just for my ears.
"All's well that ends well, eh Watson? But before you go off to your room I wondered what it was led you straight to me? It was expertly done, and I am surely grateful, but don't quite understand how you came to me so unerringly when my own investigations were so faulty. It isn't your usual ... er, fashion."
"Why, the spinster and her little box," I remarked, rather proud of my own display of deductive logic. I brought Holmes the trinket which he took from my hand.
"Yes, that is what set me on the proper path also," and so saying turned it over in his hand several times. Suddenly he caught his breath and bent over in a shower of laughter! When he recovered he placed the box on the table and went to the desk, digging about frantically in the pile of papers.
"Aha!" said he, finding his ticket stub pinned to the side and depositing it beside the little box. "You remember that ticket to Surrey, Watson?"
"Indeed I do."
Holmes turned over the little box. "And do you remember this little engraving?"
"I am frequently saying one's point of view is all-important. If I had been more observant, Winifred's little box would have told me instantly who had given her this box, where the Mole was hiding, and thus saved me three days packed like a sardine."
"Well surely it was made by Mandicott himself. A keepsake from the prison carpentry."
I awaited the proof.
"Every true craftsman signs his work. The Mole was no exception." Holmes held up the ticket stub to display Mandicott's prison number, then rotated the box till its etching was apparently upside-down. They matched exactly. Because of the way it edged the box all three of us had misread the engraving as "60611".
"Wait! There remains one other detail to explain," I recalled of a sudden. I took up again the matter of the curious note my friend had sent to Chief Inspector Baggins. "Holmes, see here. I understand about the Mole now, and the box, and even the spinster, but how does that fellow from Plum Street concern all this?"
"Ah yes, Mr. Carney Schroeder. He is a man I have had occasion to go to for professional disguises, though his chief enterprise is the making of wigs for balding men."
"But why should you refer the Chief Inspector to him? How does a wig maker fit into a criminal case?"
Holmes' silent chuckle was rare but I struck one now. His last words before he closed his door were, "What have I told you about making assumptions, Doctor? I never said he had anything to do with the case!"