A Special Brand of Courage
An investigation of any crime is very much a matter of gathering clues the best way one can. Fortunately the Great Detective has many inventive methods at his disposal; when he cannot be everywhere at once he simply enlists others. I myself have been his eyes and ears on occasion, but generally it is someone trained by him for specific work.
Regarding this ... it has been brought to my attention over the years I perhaps fail to give due credit to his proxies. I have been accused, even, of giving Holmes credit where others deserve it more! Rest assured this is attributable to the interests of those involved, not a slight on their contributions. Most informants demand anonymity. It is the nature of the beast. It is therefore Holmes who assumes every risk, and in his direction the stage light must naturally shine. Holmes has in consequence borne the brunt of retribution for interfering with criminal mischief. Also it is Holmes who is the puzzle master, Holmes who assembles the pieces into a fitting solution. No one else could properly be the subject of these chronicles.
This one time, however, I trust I may elaborate on a source which has always been an effective tool for him. It is that remarkable resource he has personally shaped into an army of Irregulars. These are in fact youths enlisted from all walks of life, all parts of the city, varying in ages from perhaps 7 to 15. Invisibly do they move throughout London, specialized informants unmatched by any other police agency. In finding what he requires they have many times proved stunningly effective, and it is fitting I give them rather more than the usual attention here.
Rallying the Troops
Holmes had returned sometime during the night. I found him stretched upon our sofa next morning with a stale, half-eaten bread roll nearby. At our door stood Mrs. Hudson signaling me, wondering whether she should set out breakfast or allow him his sleep.
"You know as well as I he prefers sleep to food," I responded in whispers.
"Yes, Dr. Watson, but I thought as he had visitors, some breakfast might be welcome."
"Oh, at least two dozen. They are outside this very minute."
Two dozen?! At this I hurried to the nearest window and was startled to see below a crowd of street urchins. Several were using magnifying lenses to examine whatever was within their reach, and one leading about a small sniffing dog on a tether. I opened the window to demand to know their business but need not have bothered. The racket I let in roused Holmes from his slumber and he joined me.
"I see reinforcements have arrived," said he eyeing his pocket watch, "and just on schedule." He crowded his troops into the parlor then, and addressed them as their commanding general. After some brief words of instruction and caution he quickly concluded the business: "You know what is expected. Thomas will divide you up and you are to report to him alone. Do not return here unless you have news of the boy, and then return instantly! And remember, do not show any sign of recognition. If you are sure of a clue fix the time and place exactly; write it down if you must when no one is watching. Then see it is reported promptly. Another boy's life may depend on you. Are there any questions left unanswered?"
No response from the crowd.
"Quimby?" asked Holmes, turning a practiced eye to one in particular.
Several of the boys turned as well. The object of their attentions flushed scarlet, looked at his feet, then up with a smile, shaking his head no. Holmes was satisfied, and with an enthusiastic wave of their lenses the urchins noisily dispersed. His invisible army was in the field.
Over the following days I learned much of Holmes' dealings with his young followers. My earliest encounter with them had been through Wiggins, an unsavory youth freed from the work house, but many of these were a more polished sort. Their dress, as well, was more seemly. Yet at bottom they were every bit as rambunctious on behalf of their mentor. A lad named Henry worked the bath houses, and would search the pockets of customers' clothing if someone of interest to Holmes was present. Another was a courier for select clients, but always willing to detour through Baker Street if Holmes had a yen to know what was in a message. These are but a few of the details I was to discover.
For several days after the Irregulars joined the search, Holmes strode to the window each morning upon waking, only to sit down to breakfast with a disappointed air. He would invariably report the Irregulars had seen nothing suspicious during the night but thankfully all had returned safely, though no messages whatsoever had been received and I saw no one in the street below! Finally I questioned how he came to know this, whereupon Holmes pointed out to me the lamp post across the street. A colored rag tied to it was a semaphore. When the boys found something it would be raised; the more important the find the higher the rag would go. If any boy failed to report in the rag would be lowered. The color had meaning as well.
That morning the rag moved everything changed. It rode up the post three feet, a significant find! After that boys began passing our doorstep at all hours, inconspicuously dropping little slips of paper into Mrs. Hudson's yellow flower basket. It was her appointed task to frequently check the basket and collect the slips, a thing she did with rabid enthusiasm; she felt it her own important contribution to the Great Detective's work. Holmes would study the slips and write his replies or questions on the back. These Mrs. Hudson would wedge beside the basket, where sharp-eyed passers-by could notice and retrieve them. The process was all very secretive and delighted his helpers enormously.
Even as news from the Irregulars trickled in, I began to see how remarkably they served him. Two dozen strangers in the search area were cataloged, several domestic arguments told of, even a pickpocket caught. After dark they avoided the murder district, at Holmes' explicit direction, but the rind around that melon was thoroughly thumped before the week was out.
Holmes assigned me to review these messages in his absence, in case a crucial piece should come his way, and one proved a veritable lightning bolt from the painfully shy Quimby. I re-read it several times to make certain of the content, yet dared hope it would prove a false lead. The note asked whether the boy they were after might be missing several fingers and an ear. Upon Holmes' return I showed it to him immediately. His ominous reply: "By now, quite possibly."
Against the Clock
Of course to a public who knew nothing of his purpose
it proved a terrific scandal when the Great Detective
announced abandoning the Ripper case.
The days passed with alarming speed. In that uncertain time it was never entirely clear which direction might yield the swiftest results, and each day the boy was not found added weight to the situation. Yet Holmes' waking hours were not wholly consumed by the search for young Master Torvald; in that matter he relied heavily on his operatives, sniffing about like so many junior hounds. The rest of his time he devoted to another crucial vigil.
Privately Holmes was engulfed in the pursuit of "leather apron", and in this regard he kept on our table stacks of papers which he constantly maintained. Soon it was overwhelming, that pile he seemed to be drowning in.
With permission I examined his papers from time to time, but soon gave it up. Each sheet contained a single suspect with notes, and some notes grew thicker and cramped upon the page till a suspect spilled over into multiple pages. For a minimalist like Holmes that was equivalent to an encyclopedia. Tied to each prospect was a news clipping or photograph, a background paper or sample of their handwriting he had somehow obtained.
Few prospects were ever crossed off. When the list grew into the hundreds I wondered how he could breathe beneath its smothering. Outside the search for the boy the Ripper had apparently become his life. And, I feared, the ruination of his health.
Of course to a public who knew nothing of his purpose it proved a terrific scandal when the Great Detective announced abandoning the Ripper case. His terse explanation of official interference was everywhere recognized as plausible, in fact incited more invective against the Commissioner, still London moaned its despair. And though public scorn cleared the way for a more intense private search, Holmes regretted the necessity of the deception. He had grown accustomed to the bright sun of adulation. He languished under their cloud of rejection.
On the street I myself witnessed an appalling and growing contempt for my friend. When passers-by jeered every fiber of my being was strained in not speaking out! Had it continued much longer I cannot vouch for my likely conduct. But Holmes found freedom to operate with impunity once the spotlight left him, touching upon every point of the compass in his quest for the notorious killer.
Through Holmes' dynamic efforts a torn envelope in the hand of Annie Chapman was traced back to its sender in one of the regiments. The soldier's relationship to her absolved him of any role in her murder, however. Ted Stanley, another suspect early on, was virtually cleared as well.
Holmes also spared precious time for Laura Sickings, a young girl who had found a blood trail at one scene. What the police missed there, and what Holmes uncovered through playing tea party with her, remains a matter of record. Other names - Mortimer, Ludwig, Goldstein, Long, Piser, Durrell - a parade of them were on Holmes' lips as he shared with me the progress of his days, but always to no definite end.
"Watson," said he at a point of frustration, "I've no doubt I will eventually come to my quarry through the process of elimination. In short order I will perhaps clear nearly everyone who ever set foot in the East End. The one I cannot clear will undoubtedly be the culprit." My innocent remark, of the villain seeming to be a phantom from a nightmare, provoked a marvelous speech from Holmes on possible escape routes from each scene. Yet however Holmes approached the study, it seemed a part-time criminal is a cagey fox indeed.
"Still it is not hopeless," he remarked with finality. "There is always attrition of the suspect list." And so saying refilled his pockets, and ventured back out into the night.
Over the next several days I saw less and less of Holmes. Always he was just leaving as I entered, or catching a nap before his next errand. I wondered that even a machine could keep going at this pace. Mrs. Hudson shared my concern, and was forever stuffing food into the detective.
His pace was frantic. I recall one afternoon when the rain let up we received a postmaster, two taxi drivers, and a furniture repairman, all interviewed in our sitting room. That very morning Holmes was out before sunrise, and after the interviews he left again toting a rummage bag and parlor lamp. Mrs. Hudson admonished him over the lamp, but was reassured it would be returned directly following his visit to the pawn broker.
As previously indicated, not all his exertions were of the physical sort. Many took the form of mental exercise. On our wall above the stack of suspects was nailed a calendar and maps, each receiving Holmes' minute attention. Several nights I found him there marking each with strange symbols and notes. On the occasions I caught him dozing at the table I would send him on to bed, and left Mrs. Hudson a note regarding breakfast. Together she and I shared the duty of watching over his health as he completely neglected it.
I remember it now more like raising a rebellious a child who refused both meals and a reasonable bedtime. At the pace Holmes was driving himself, how even his companions got through it all is a small mystery in itself.
Holmes' Parade of Suspects
November was almost upon us, and Holmes was showing the strain of his unrelenting labors. He actually fell down the stairs weak with exhaustion.He had chosen to ignore his declining health for some time, but exposure to the elements, his days and nights in the unsavory surroundings of Whitechapel, and the wearying pursuit of twin evils all conspired against him.
Relentlessly I chastised when he deprived himself of sufficient rest, and dear Mrs. Hudson did the same when he refused to sit for a hearty meal. But so long as the detective had within him an ounce of perseverance he answered only to the relentless press of time. Most days he was no sooner in the door than out it again. And as time passed he rapidly whittled down his map of Whitechapel in the hunt for Aleksis Klami and Uuno Kivi, while simultaneously broadening his search for the notorious Ripper. The Great Detective seemed to see himself as more steam engine than man and determined to stay his course, but if I have ever done a thing which brought me guilt, I did it then.
Even an iron constitution must at some point yield to the exigencies of nature, and I considered a few hours off the chase tolerable in this long pursuit. At my request Mrs. Hudson prepared for Holmes a small meal which I fetched myself. Over this I sprinkled a powder which guaranteed him his much needed rest, and laid it before him as he shuffled his stacks of suspects. Although in reading this he will no doubt discover my guilt I trust in his ultimate forgiveness.
For the next quarter-hour I watched Holmes pick at his meal, surrounded by paper villains. Finally his head began to nod, his movements slow, and his brow touched the table. I took the pipe from his mouth and propped a pillow beneath. Whatever its troubles, the world could wait.
At dinnertime Holmes awoke with a start amidst a smattering of note pages. Only a few hours had passed (I was still reading in the chair behind him), but he seemed much refreshed. Without looking around he mechanically resumed shuffling his stacks, and so absorbed was he that he failed to notice my presence. He began muttering to himself, then I caught him speaking aloud to his paper suspects as if they stood alive before him, "No not you, and definitely not you, but where were you on that wet night, eh? Can you tell me that? Come now, give me an alibi if you can!"
When Holmes finally detected me a blush crept up his cheek and he turned with faint smile. "Do you consider me mad, Watson? I begin to think myself so. These two episodes coming on top of each other; each so pervasive I cannot think of one without the other. Some days I run a clue over and over through my mind before realizing it belongs to the opposing case. I begin to dream of clues, to digest them with my meals, say them aloud to remember which belongs where.
"You see before me a rogue's gallery. Of more than a million souls living in the east end, I have narrowed the field to these few hundred. Every sheet of paper is a person who may have hidden within them a murderous core. Perhaps it is an obsessive nature, or madness, or some narcotic. Any number of things may topple a mind which is weak to begin with.
"No doubt you've heard all manner of theories, Watson. Some argue it is a high official and the government is covering up. Their pathetic attempts to capture the Ripper help fuel that nasty rumor. I myself worked on that possibility for many hours, and produced a stack of a half-dozen possibilities. Here they are, in fact," said he, waving some sheets in the air. "By my reckoning only this handful of high officials have the reputation for slumming on such a level.
"Also refuting that high official rumor is the fact our quarry knew Whitechapel intimately. He had many months, perhaps years, of familiarity with his hunting grounds. Knew not only the alleys but the sort of people who lived there, what behavior would rouse their suspicions or attract little notice. Recall how most of his killings took place out of doors, and his enormous risk of being caught in the act. Remember too, the suspects observed by witnesses walked about in perfect calm, as if they fit perfectly into their surroundings, confident in where they were going and in no particular hurry to escape.
"Add to that the timing of each crime versus its discovery. He murdered Elizabeth Stride outside a crowded meeting hall, sure that no one would emerge before he was through, positive he could finish the deed before Constable Smith returned from his rounds. And it would certainly invite personal disaster rending Catherine Eddowes in an open square with residents living all around, had he not known the place and its habits. An officer living there heard someone cry 'murder' but says it is so common an occurrence he gave it no thought.
"Watson, that an unaccustomed stranger could blunder about Whitechapel after dark with every pair of eyes watching for him, commit such terrible crimes in public places, and attract no more notice than a dustman is unthinkable. In fact three dustmen were among my suspects.
"I have looked at surgeons as well, knowing their curious fascination with the internals of the body. Several of them have a reputation for bloody crimes as you well know. One nearly took my hand off in Albury! It is a mystery to me what happens when a man learns to use a knife, Watson. All his instincts do battle till his good or bad side gains the upper hand and his course is finally decided. Medical schools must make every effort to weed out the undesirables!" I assured them they did.
"Also to be considered are former soldiers, stage actors, meat packers, the deranged, most every sort of fellow, all for their own reasons. I even have a few eccentric artists in my pile, from the way his victims' parts seemed arranged around the body. I can hardly make my list shrink. It seems to grow and grow."
"There is yet another theory," said I, volunteering my knowledge of the public journals. "A few yellow papers are calling for women as suspects."
He nodded in full understanding. "Of course their sex has disinclined most to consider them, but it is well within their powers to commit atrocities. I need not remind you of those I have myself dealt with. You are fully aware of them. Yet in the case of 'leather aprons' what do you suppose has prevented such suspicions, Watson? The monstrous unthinkability?"
"Most certainly, Holmes!"
At this he thumbed deliberately through his stack and pulled from it some ten or twelve sheets. "These are my female prospects."
A dozen women suspected of these ghastly crimes. It made my head spin!
We then slipped into a familiar tête-à-tête - our most trusted test of Holmes' reasoning powers - with him being the theorist and me the assigned doubter.
"You really believe women capable of this, Holmes?"
"One should never ignore a possibility without good reason, Watson. There are in fact a number of observations to support that idea."
"Allow me to answer your question with a few of my own, Watson. To your knowledge, has the Ripper shown any signs of great physical strength? Have his victims been thrown roughly about, as is generally the case in a murderous attack of a man upon a woman? Was the victim ever carried off where they could be disemboweled in private?"
I considered not, but protested the assassin may simply be frail by nature.
"Fair enough, Watson. Then how do you explain the style of the attacks? Your typical slasher victim dies of multiple cuts and agonies, the attacker beginning with some random cut and continuing till his rage is sated. The Ripper invariably inflicted one lethal wound before the savagery began. There was no prolonged pain inflicted on 'his' victims. At least two of the victims also appear to have been lowered to the ground gently and deliberately; they did not collapse in a heap. What man would strangle a woman and care one whit about her dropping lifeless to the stones? Likely none, though another woman might." But my friend was on tenuous ground and I knew it.
"Surely you're not basing the Ripper's sex on the gentleness of his butchery! Even lunatics may treat death with reverence, Holmes. You once described to me a man who built a shrine to those he murdered."
"Two for two. All right, Watson, let us consider other elements entirely. For one, there was no evidence of carnal activity at any of the scenes."
"Not every madman is deranged in the same manner," said I, easily countering. I was in fact determined London's most notorious murderer not be the same sex as my dear Mary. Holmes had no such reservations. He thought but a moment and renewed the attack.
"Explain away the observation of that girl Laura who found the blood in the Chapman killing. She remarked during our little 'tea party' she is an early riser, as her chores begin before sunup. That morning she was searching outside the window for the flowers she smelled in the breeze, greatly mystified as none grow anywhere nearby. What does it suggest to you when one smells flowers in the absence of any?"
When I refused to answer Holmes grinned smugly.
"You know the answer, Watson. Perfume or something like it, and the victim was not wearing any. Remember too that Annie Chapman was actually beaten by another woman shortly before the end, if her lover is to be believed. And have you read that business about the rings? The killer took from her one of her finger rings. The faces and sexual organs of victims were also slashed and disfigured. Do all these things not suggest insane fits of female jealousy?" He paused just long enough for the unsettling possibility to sink in, and I was forced to award the point.
"Consider too, Watson, all the killings took place on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night when prostitutes are out in abundance. What would prevent the killer being one of them? How easy it would be to choose a victim, approach them without raising an alarm, put them off their guard. That is an especially crucial point. In this climate of fear every man is suspect, but have the Ripper's victims fled on sight? Called for help at his approach? Quite the contrary. Witnesses tell of victims speaking calmly to someone before each attack."
Ha! Holmes had unexpectedly handed me new ammunition: "Pure nonsense! In such a trade they cannot very well run from every man who approaches. And how do we know the man to be a stranger? You say he was familiar with the area. He may have been with those same women before."
Holmes balked then. I had finally derailed him. "Hmmm, yes. The Ripper was at least someone they trusted, perhaps knew by reputation alone. A famous figure possibly."
My confidence grew. "And each was seen with a man shortly before the end, were they not? A man of average height, old or young, pale or dark, local or foreign, as you said, but a man nonetheless." He was forced into a general retreat.
"Well, there is that. Nevertheless you see why some consider a female stalker within the realm of possibility. There is no solid reason against it."
"Even so, Holmes, I would avoid such a drastic leap till every man in the city is first cleared. Rare indeed must be the woman who would so callously commit such crimes."
"Really, old friend?" said he incredulous. "For a man who has been out in the world you are surprisingly naive about women."
"All the same, Holmes, I stand by my original verdict. If there are such women in this world, I shall remain willingly ignorant of them."
"Then the world is lucky to have me," he ended. "For I do not rule out anyone in this case, except of course his victims."
We discussed finally a number of other prospects, including the possibility of a Scotland Yard detective! Inspector Milford had recently joined the force from a family in Kent, and had the family's evil reputation against him. There was also his curious zeal for the Ripper investigation. He seemed always to be close at hand when a scene was scoured for clues, and would naturally be able to cover his tracks from the official force. Rumors to the effect he was once a meat packer settled the affair: he had a reserved spot on Holmes' list.
I had seen this Milford once or twice, and found him to be the most peculiar of the lot. He carried in his oversize coat numerous pockets stuffed with cargo, from tip sheets to tools and maps to meals. He was in his way very much like my own companion but had an evil countenance. His manner was also suspiciously ingratiating, his attitude demeaning. That he was among Holmes' front runners did not in the least surprise me.
The man who terrified our city consumed every daily conversation, only the words varied from mouth to mouth. At Baker Street, as you may expect, discussion whirled around the topic in all its complexities, both familiar and unknown to the public at large. Why did the attacker focus only on women. And why only in the one profession? Why this one part of the city? Common wisdom will say it was the availability of victims which drew him, yet Holmes is loathe to rely on the patently obvious. Was a shiny black bag carried about by the villain, as once reported? Did this mark him as a medical man? Or was it, as Leon Goldstein testified, merely his new carry bag witnesses remembered seeing? These and many other deliberations occupied us, and we had the added benefit of Mrs. Hudson's endless guesses to spur our thinking.
At the same time we discussed Holmes' other pervasive case, his search for the missing child. It seemed almost natural the two might be related, as the odds of multiple butchers appearing on the scene at once seemed daunting. But why the kidnapping? Why flee with a young boy as burden? For disguise possibly. To steal food and supplies perhaps. But at any moment he might help identify his captors, and that would surely be the end of them.
It was at the conclusion of three hours of such talk we two decided on fresh air to clear the cobwebs in our brains. It was in the follow-up carriage ride I put the question, "do you suppose the boy is all right?"
For a time Holmes drummed his fingers without speaking, but at length responded. "We can only hope they continue to find him useful, Watson. The father said his boy is agile and clever, perfectly suited for stealing. If properly persuaded he might easily venture out in public to gather necessities without risking exposure for them. That is precisely why I have set the Irregulars watching for the boy more than his captors. I leave the butchers to me. They are as dangerous as any we have faced, and I would never forgive myself should one of our own be taken captive.
"Whatever the child's value to them it must be his salvation till we come across their path. Our only enemy is time. We must avoid missteps and detours at all costs." On a whim then he asked where I might proceed from there? I had my opinion, of course, but hesitated to say.
"Oh, come now Watson. You know even when you are wrong it helps me decide which way is right."
Very well, I decided, I would brave his acrimony. "I should say Scotland Yard is our next stop, Holmes. You admit they are tenacious accumulating facts."
It was a relief to find him agreeable: "And so they are, despite our recent differences." Holmes tugged at the driver's sleeve, "Scotland Yard!"
It was his clarion call. Holmes seemed reinvigorated in an instant, and every inch nearer those stony walls brought with it memories of more congenial times. Even I began to feel purposeful, and ventured something new along the way.
"Holmes, when these men first appeared ..."
"I know your thinking, Watson, and you may stop there. No, they are not likely one and the same. Although their crimes may be getting tangled with our own, they would not likely wield a blade with the care shown in the Ripper's victims. These men hack and saw. The Ripper extracted organs with particular care, one at a time, as though he knew exactly what he was after and how to get it. To do so in dim light, with every second risking discovery, is something unusual. A surgeon might accomplish it, or someone with great agility, but the Teurastaa are oblivious to precision work. In fact they much prefer messy.
"True butchers do not concern themselves with blood spatters, either. When Leather Apron strangled his victims, he laid them down to cut their throats on the side opposite to where he kneeled. Blood drenched the adjacent fence or wall, but never the killer. There are five other important variations as well, which I need not elaborate."
There I stopped him with a hand upon his wrist. He started at the infrequent touch. "I was intending to say, Holmes, when they first appeared it seemed clever to choose London. Any refugee might be overlooked in such a metropolis. But now I am inclined to say the opposite. Is not their reputation a magnet for the police? And the reputation of the Yard is known everywhere (Holmes made a rude gesture here), while the detective at Baker Street could hardly be unknown to them."
"I have given that some thought as well, Watson, but have insufficient facts. Also I have pondered why anyone might snatch that particular child from the interior and drag him across three countries? Any child would do to steal food if properly motivated, and they surely had means to persuade. A local boy would do them far greater good as guide and helper, unless they feared he may more easily escape and report them. One who speaks no English would be easier to trust if caught stealing food; he could tell the police nothing."
"But any boy might escape eventually, Holmes, and seek out the authorities!"
"I have no doubt, Watson. But here is a boy in a strange land. For all he knows the police would cart him right back to his captors. Besides, the boy is certainly under their spell by now. You remember there are men who can terrify a victim to do anything they are told. Even escaped slaves have been known to show continued loyalty, for fear of the consequences of a disloyal act. Who knows how they have worn down his free will? Quimby asked about missing fingers, you recall."
"And a missing ear," I reminded sadly.
"In any event the hounds are concentrating on that vicinity now. We are going to run them to ground eventually; I only hope in time." On that troubling note we rode on in silence, and our arrival at Scotland Yard did little to ease my concerns.
Holmes had not far exaggerated the coldness of recent relations. We were not permitted entry but told to wait for someone to come down. I distracted myself reading bulletins, Holmes with reading the parade of humanity which presently passed before us. Distinctly I recall his nudging an officer bringing in a prisoner, a rough looking man in winter clothes and scruffy boots, and casually remarking "look in his secret pocket." Holmes' remark incited a flurry of suspicion, and the man's cloak was removed and found to conceal a hidden flap with a fish knife. Though the arresting officer considered this feat of observation remarkable, the remarkable was commonplace for Holmes. My companion merely folded his hands behind his head and sat back with a yawn.
In the busy stream crossing our path I noted a number of old acquaintances, most hurrying by with a pained look and an effort not to notice us. It would be obvious to a blind man they had been bullied to exclude the Great Detective from the case. One, however, behaved better. A staunch ally in the war on villainy, he seemed at first startled by our presence in the waiting area, paused in front of Holmes to lock eyes, and inclined his head in a bow. This caught my friend off guard and he flushed slightly, then repaid the compliment with a similar gesture. It was reassuring to know that even in such a soulless age there remained at least one steadfast heart.
After a time I began to wonder why Holmes had so readily followed my suggestion. A bit later I discovered the reason. Holmes spotted the man he had been looking for, someone I had never met, who motioned us towards the street. Once outside that fellow led us to a corner out of immediate view of the entryway.
"It's a terrible business, this, Mr. Holmes. I shan't wonder you have stepped out of it."
"That is not why," Holmes responded with set jaw.
"Did not say it was, now, did I? Oh, I know. The politics of it. No one can speak a word without them coming down on himself with both feet. And the press has gotten hold and twisted everything we say even behind closed doors! We have been instructed to look for tall men, short men, foreign and bearded. Some look for women, though there's no change in that, for they are always looking for women," he smiled meekly. "A few suspect a prostitute's master is the one we are all after, driving out the competition! It is a bungled mess."
"Really?" chimed in Holmes. "Competition in the oldest art. I had considered that but discarded the notion."
"So you have been giving it more thought this week, have you?" asked the gentleman with surprising eagerness. Holmes smiled back a crafty little smile.
"Yes, well I think it is most shameful the way they have been treating you, my dear Mr. Holmes. And I for one am still with you. So are a dozen of the old hands. It is they who voted me your contact, for their friendship with you is too famous and familiar to everyone, and they are ordered to avoid you." This said he curiously patted his vest pocket. Holmes made a reciprocal motion, which made the gentleman effervesce with enthusiasm.
"Very good, Mr. Holmes. You are a man of your word. Always have been in my opinion! And a bargain is a bargain, is it not?" Again Holmes smiled nodding his agreement, or perhaps his willingness to bargain.
"You asked, sir, who the inspectors are looking at this week, and what Milford in particular has been up to. Nothing really. They are the rest of them after the same old leads, and he up to the same old business."
At this Holmes eyed him accusingly. The inspector grinned back before admitting, "that is nothing except this."
He plucked from his pocket now a number of folded sheets, which Holmes quickly scanned and placed in his own pocket. The stranger jerked his head at a sudden noise up the alley, and seeing no one went on with his talk. "When you volunteered to check on those we are overlooking, it was a real treat, Mr. Holmes, to have you help us out. Never mind what others say. So in the list I have included new names of interest if you have the time. We certainly can't spare any. And we would appreciate anything you can find."
He then awaited a response, looking idly at the cloud, up the alleyway, and finally back at Holmes before clearing his throat.
Holmes hesitated just long enough to make the man intensely uncomfortable, and said at last, "Well a bargain is a bargain." He took from his coat a thick envelope, flicking it teasingly with his finger. The man's eyes fastened upon it.
"It seems as if there is high rank involved. The Home Secretary has hushed up all he can. What do you make of that Bradley?"
"Well," he blubbered, "there has been some idle talk ..."
"About the way this is being manipulated. Yes, I know. Perhaps in here you will find what you are looking for. I make no promises," said Holmes, shaking the envelope and demonstrating its weight.
"I assure you, should you have something of interest for us, we would be most secretly grateful for it," said this Bradley on the verge of drooling. Then glancing once more along the alley, he inconspicuously allowed his hand to open.
"Very well. You will find in here a few observations worth your time. I warn you they have done me little good, but perhaps will blend nicely with information of your own. Also you will find three questions I wish to have answered."
At this the man paused, till Holmes reassured him, "nothing which will put you in danger from your superiors." The contact showed his relief and moved his hand closer. Holmes lowered the package into the mesh of gangly fingers then, which immediately closed tightly upon the prize.
When Holmes did an about-face the man suddenly caught and spun him back! Bradley shook hands vigorously then disappeared around the corner. The face I saw watching us from the upper window likewise vanished. Holmes turned to me with an amused air. "You see, old friend, I intended myself here all along."
He next ferried me back to Baker Street and went on his way, locked in the grip of his investigations. I spent my time on matters closer to home.
August 23, 2005