Friday, 31 August 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 2)

“I suppose there’s always a chance,” said Holmes softly, tracing patterns with his fingertips in the mist on the carriage window, “that this was some sort of sadomasochistic experiment, with a dash of exhibitionism for seasoning. We do find frequently that those two curious urges partner each other.”
“A dash?” I exclaimed. “Call me prosaic, Holmes, but I can’t think how even the most athletic entrepreneur of sadomasochism could manage to remove all this clothes, strap his upper arms to the handlebars and thighs to the rear wheel of a Brompton bicycle, then suspend himself upside down on this makeshift crucifix, one hundred and twenty feet above the River Tamar, by means of a chain fastened to the Calstock viaduct.”
For it was into Cornwall that our train was now heading, the Baker Street Irregulars having quickly established that Rusbridger had not, as we first suspected, been hung by his enemies from a London railway bridge.
“No, no, you’re right, of course,” sighed Holmes. “We must drop that theory into our cabinet of impossibilities....”
“So whatever remains, however, improbable, must be the truth,” I interjected.
“Quite, quite. As you say,” Holmes retorted irritably. “Ah, at last – some countryside.”
We’d left behind the industry and the squat grey housing of St Budeaux and Ernesettle, those grubby outer-garments of Plymouth, and our little train was pulling slowly over Tamerton Lake, towards the Bere Ferrers promontory and the confluence of the Tamar and the Tavy. It was a brooding, overcast afternoon, the journey from Paddington had been tedious, and now a squall swept towards us, furrowing the waters and shaking our carriage.
“The God of Rain rides into the autumn lake,” Holmes murmured. “and this same wind, who caressed the leaves to come, now coaxes them to fall.”
“Strictly speaking, it’s not a lake, it’s an estuary,” I said. “And without wishing to put a damper on your poesy, are the winds of spring and autumn really the same wind?”
“You should know, being a great bag of them,” snorted Holmes. “I was merely regurgitating Chinese wisdom, with which you are perhaps the first to quibble in more than a thousand years.”
“You mystify me, Holmes,” I said, more than a trifle hurt.
We spoke no further as the train rumbled through embankments of bramble and fern, alder and birch, from Bere Ferrers to Bere Alston, and thence, at last, across the great viaduct into the village of Calstock.
The years had not worked smoothly on Lestrade, who was waiting for us by the parapet as we walked back from the station. His limbs were shrunken and spindly, and he had the neck and visage of a tortoise, beneath a pork-pie hat, and above a greasy cravat with a mauve paisley pattern.
“This is your country attire, Lestrade?” Holmes inquired, an eyebrow raised.
“Cryptic coloration, Mr Holmes.”
“Ah, I see. Had no time to sort out my own rustic wardrobe; I came swiftly, just as soon as I got your Facebook message and observed the photograph on Rusbridger’s status page. Where is he now?”
“Recuperating at the cottage of the Reverend Felix Entwistle, the friend with whom he was staying the weekend.”
“What does he say?”
“Nothing, yet. Just sits shivering and shaking his head.”
“How is he?”
“As you’d expect. Shocked. Bruised. Traumatised. Humiliated. Honestly, Mr Holmes, I’m sent here with orders from St James’s to elbow aside the local constabulary and at all costs keep the scandal out of the newspapers, but it’s a devil of a story, and I don’t see how we can.”
“‘We’, Lestrade?” Holmes chuckled and gently pulled the calf glove from his right hand, finger by finger, then rubbed the tweed of the policeman’s overcoat between his forefinger and thumb. “Hmm,” he said. “Harris Tweed. Second-hand. Possibly a Northumbrian lay preacher? No, no – ” he moved his forefinger and laid it across Lestrade’s scrawny lips. “Never mind. Don’t ask. So, it’s not my powers of detection you solicit, old friend, but assistance in stifling the Press? What an irony. But I’m not sure I can help you there at all...”
“Perhaps not an actual suppression, Mr Holmes, but help, maybe, in laying a false trail?” Lestrade had drawn close to Holmes and was all but whispering in his ear. Holmes shrugged, moved smartly away, and paced beside the railway track. Still the rain came down, and came down hard, frustrating his attempts to light his pipe. He leaned over the parapet and whistled. “Not for the vertiginous,” he said softly. And then: “Halloa – is this one of your boys? Perhaps he has something for us?”
A plump young man in a wet and filthy uniform was scrambling along the viaduct, helmet askew. “Sir, sir,” he cried, “we found these in the mud.” And he proffered Lestrade a pair of round, horn-rimmed spectacles.
Lestrade glanced at them and handed them back to the constable. “Rusbridger’s glasses. I recognise them from his public appearances. Put them in an evidence bag, will you, Hodges? And smarten up, lad, smarten up.”
“Wait, let me see,” Holmes said. He took the spectacles, put them on, and squinted around. “They’re reading glasses, Lestrade. Why would our unfortunate friend be wearing reading glasses on his misadventure, eh?”
Lestrade looked baffled. Holmes frowned. “Take me to the exact point where poor Rusbridger was found dangling.”
Once there, some twenty or so yards onto the bridge, Holmes stared first at the ground, where the shingle was much disturbed, then sighed, fell on his knees, put his glove back on, and began rummaging among the stones.
“Ha!” he cried at last, and settled back on his heels, a piece of paper in his hand. He laughed and gave it to me. “Read it aloud for the inspector’s benefit, Watson. And for yours.”
I read, with incredulity: “‘You’ll always have your way, if he likes you in a negligee – keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved’. But that’s impossible, Holmes. Impossible.”
“No Watson, manifestly not. This quaint little ditty that appears to be haunting us, and that you condemned, I seem to recall, as ‘fascist’, is certainly not to be despatched into our infamous cabinet of impossibilities.” Holmes’ voice had brightened. The more the plot thickened, the more cheerful he became. “Now, Lestrade, tell me about Father Entwistle,” he continued. “Is he the parish incumbent? Clearly, his vicarage is our destination.”
“No – he has no living. Too young to be retired, so he must have means, though judging from the cottage, not much of them”
“Well, well. We shall soon find out for ourselves. Where have you booked us, Lestrade?”
“Danescombe Valley Hotel, down on the river. Bit old fashioned, but comfortable, if you don’t mind the chill. Food’s good, anyhow.”
“Excellent, let’s make our way there and have our tea. Take it you have no other surprises for us, Lestrade? No other detail, exotic or grotesque, you might have overlooked but now feel able to share?”
“Nothing at all,” grinned Lestrade, “bar the set of car keys that was taped between the cheeks of Mr Rusbridger’s posterior.”
“What?” I cried.
“Ah,” said Holmes, staring dreamily over the parapet and into the distance. “Now two corners of the jigsaw are complete, at least.”


Friday, 24 August 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 1)

The fog that had engulfed Baker Street all afternoon began to lift towards dusk; I was grateful, for it had been insidiously sulphurous, and heavy and still, and despite a jolly tune on the radio I was gripped with melancholy, and irritated by the tock, tick, tock of Holmes’ fingernails on the keys of his laptop.
“Doesn’t this weather depress you, too” I snapped, throwing the newspaper down on the hearthrug.
“You know me, Watson,” said Holmes . “Mere meteorology has no impact at all on my psyche. I might, though, be saddened if the flat burned down.” And with his toecap he nudged away a newspaper page that had fallen near coals in the grate which were spurting gassy jets of flame.
“Anyway,” Holmes continued, in an unsettlingly bright voice, “where’s it to be? Corfu, as usual? Or somewhere more adventurous? Wherever it is, do send me a postcard revealing whether Eros can still be induced to visit and excite the late middle-aged.”
“Good God, Holmes,” I cried. “You surpass yourself. You amaze even me... how on earth did you know what I was thinking?”
“Oh Watson, really. It was so simple.” He jumped up, turned off the radio, and seized his violin.
“This, I believe, was the tune being played on the wireless when your sorry train of thought began.” And he scraped a lively few notes.
“Indeed it was...”
“And these were the words of the chorus, were they not?” He began to sing in a hoarse and comical voice, tapping his boot on the fender: “‘keep young and beautiful, it’s your duty to be beautiful, keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved’? At which point you began inwardly to recriminate against the depredations of time. All very for the ruddy lyricist, your inner voice snarled, to rhyme out an injunction like that – but hard to observe his prescription when legions of wrinkles have long been on the march, eh?”
“Alas, you hit the mark” I admitted. “I suddenly felt all my years upon me and the song’s theory struck me as positively fascist.”
“Precisely; and then, as these unhappy reflections began to subside, the second chorus was upon you, to wit” – he cleared his throat and croaked again: “‘Be sure and get your man, wrap your body in a coat of tan, keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved’.”
I was about to interrupt, but he held up an imperious forefinger – “By the end of this quatrain the vision of you and your weary but beloved Mary on a cruise to somewhere romantic, where the warm Mediterranean sun could stroke and burnish her flesh – somewhere like, say, Corfu, with a sea-kissed strand, and then dinner by candlelight, and a glass or two of, perhaps, champagne, and then retirement hand in hand to... well, the vision was fully formed, but I draw a veil of decorum over the rest of its lineaments.”
“Extraordinary, Holmes,” I sighed.
“Commonplace, in men of your age.” But by this time his mind had leapt elsewhere, for he was staring out of the front window. “Ha!” he cried, and strode to our door.
“Mrs Hudson!”
Our admirable landlady, still in her outdoor coat and galoshes, struggled dutifully up two flights and into the room clutching her shopping bags.
“You purchased the organic broccoli from Sainsbury’s, I see, Mrs Hudson. Why, pray, was that?”
“Well, Mr Holmes, it seemed like the best bargain. And the healthiest...”
“I presume, by the way, that you did not take up your ophthalmologist’s offer of an eye-test at a reduced price, despite two years having elapsed since the last?”
“Why no, Mr Holmes, but however did you... ?”
“Know?” Holmes sighed, seized his pipe and stuffed it with tobacco. As he spoke on, he dipped a spill into the grate, and in a minute the room was filled with the familiar pungency of his shag. “I know of the ophthalmologist’s offer because I saw his card in the hallway. And I know of your negligence through the broccoli.”
“With respect, Mr Holmes, I had no difficulty seeing the broccoli,” Mrs Hudson protested.
‘Three trays of broccoli, Mrs Hudson, with a card on each. Tray one, loose broccoli; written large on a card, ‘£2’. True?”
“Yes, sir...”
“Tray two, portions of broccoli wrapped in cellophane, and written large on a card, ‘£1’. Am I right?”
“Why, yes.”
“And the third tray, the wrapped portions of organic broccoli, how was the card marked there, in large numerals?”
“£1.10,” said Mrs Hudson, “so I thought you wouldn’t mind paying the extra ten pence for the healthy benefit of it?”
“Ha,” Holmes exclaimed. “A healthy profit for Messrs Sainsbury, I fancy,”
“How so, Holmes?” I asked, inclined to defend poor Mrs Hudson, who was looking bedraggled and browbeaten. “It does seem rather the better deal. Still ninety pence cheaper than the loose stuff.”
“But Watson,” Holmes replied, as if addressing a six-year-old, “in letters and numbers so small that Mrs Hudson was unable to see them, on the loose broccoli card, beneath ‘£2’, it says ‘per kilo’. And on the wrapped broccoli, beneath ‘£1’, it says ‘£3.33 per kilo’. And our healthy chums sealed up as organic portions will turn out to be priced, if you examine the card more than casually, at £3.67 per kilo. Thank you, Mrs Hudson, you may go.”
Our poor landlady left the room, suppressing a cough and mumbling apologies. Holmes shook his head, clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth a couple of times and went back to his laptop.
“Great Scott, Holmes,” I said, “surely this is exactly the kind of swindle which your brother Mycroft, working as he does for the government...?
But my friend shushed me. Then after a brief pause he murmured abstractedly, “what are you talking about now?”
“Why, the broccoli, of course.”
“Broccoli? I haven’t got time for confabulations about green vegetables. Look at this.” He swivelled the laptop towards me. It was open at his Facebook page.
“Oh,” I observed. “Professor Moriarty has shared a photograph of a large and somewhat saturnine dog with a shiny face, I see...”
“Deuce take Moriarty, never mind him. There. Look there. At Rusbridger’s status.”
I looked. And though I’ve seen the devil warriors of Afghanistan advancing with loaded flintlocks in their fists and knives between their teeth, and naked Impi, brandishing sharpened spears, war-dancing with the blood-red rising sun of Africa behind them, what I saw, that Sunday afternoon, on that page in Facebook, truly froze my blood.
“What are you going to do, Holmes?” I asked, my throat dry.
“Going to do?” said Holmes curtly, knocking out his pipe on the chimney breast. “The game’s already afoot, Watson. I’ve commissioned our young friends in the Baker Street irregulars to begin the chase.” [TO BE CONTINUED]