It was a chill and shrouded October morning in 1894 when I called upon the subject of my biographies, the incomparable Sherlock Holmes. I rapped sharply on the door of his rooms at 221B Baker Street, but the only sounds in the house were of the indefatigable Mrs. Hudson below boiling eggs; receiving no reply, I allowed myself in to Holmes’s cozy sitting room.
It was there that I found Holmes supine on the velvet-lined sofa, eyes sealed, violin clutched to his breast, breathing relaxed and profound. Beside him on the floor lay a syringe and a vial containing a seven percent solution of cocaine, and a black rubber strop—the various accouterments of his only vice.
I turned on my heel and prepared to depart, not wishing to wake him, fearing, if I did, that I would be unable to stopper the schoolmarmish scolding I typically delivered in such situations. But, alas, my dexterity is not what it once was, and it was with great fanfare that I collided with an end table in my attempt to egress.
“Watson,” Holmes murmured, rousing from his torpor. He laboriously brought himself to a sitting position, and studied me from beneath leaden lids. “Wait, stay, my friend. I desire a distraction; if I don’t have a new case soon, I may begin doubling the percentage here.”
I settled into an armchair by the fire, and watched as Holmes oscillated between languor and lucidity, bringing his vast mental capacity to bear on the task of achieving sobriety.
Just as he had begun to master the miasma, a knock echoed throughout the home. As Holmes remained attenuated, I opened the door to reveal Inspectors Lestrade and Hopkins.
“Hello, Holmes,” said Lestrade, sauntering into the living area and eyeing the case with disapproval. “Stanley and I have something of a tough nut to crack, and thought perhaps we could seek your assistance.”
Holmes, to my relief, seemed to have regained his wits in my absence. “Sit, gentlemen. Please, I am yours.”
The constables occupied the armchairs, while I drew out my notebook, to better chronicle the event.
“Right,” began Lestrade. “Around quarter-past seven this very morning, the body of one Roderick Rowatt was found. He was dressed as if he were going to work—except he was missing one stocking, the left, though he still wore both shoes.”
“Curious,” said Holmes.
“Quite,” Hopkins confirmed. “Moreso than you imagine. For the stocking was not the only accessory our dear Mr. Rowatt lacked. His head had been completely severed from his torso, and was nowhere to be found.”
“And yet you discovered the body in an alley off Blackfriars Road,” said Holmes after a moment’s thought. “Is that correct?”
The Inspectors were struck dumb with such synchronicity that I had to bite back laughter.
“How the devil did you know?” demanded Hopkins.
“It is simplicity itself,” said Holmes dismissively. He pointed at Lestrade. “The soil on your shoes is a mixture of silt and sand, indicative of the southern bank of the Thames. And you,” he turned to Hopkins, “have a tiny feather affixed to your jacket, which comes from the Mute Swan, a breed that congregates exclusively in the Blackfriars neighborhood.
“Furthermore, you both have about you the faint, cloying scent of decay. Rowatt must have lain unfound for some time. As Blackfriars Road itself is a major thoroughfare, it stands to reason that the body must have been secreted away. That it was an alley, and not a side street or unused doorway, was mere conjecture based on the averages in London’s history of crime.”
The two men exchanged mystified glances. “Then I expect you’ll have this case wrapped up in no time,” Lestrade chuckled. “As I said before, however, the poor bloke was beheaded. And what was exceedingly weird was the manner in which this was done. The wounds look as if they were made by teeth. Human teeth.”
“Surely no man, even in the throes of some violent passion, could gnash his way through a spinal column,” said Hopkins. He phrased the statement as a declaration, but it sounded more like a question to my ears.
But Holmes only nodded sagely. “We will revisit the point,” he said. “Pray, continue.”
“Based on the neck wounds, we surmised that he must have been killed by an animal of some sort,” said Lestrade. “But then we found distinct lacerations on his chest, clearly made by a blade. When we cleared the blood away, it became apparent that someone—or something—had carved a list of words into the corpse.”
“Not into the corpse,” countered Holmes. “If the carvings bled, then the man must have been alive when the cuts were made.”
Lestrade looked surprised, and quickly transcribed the observation into his notebook. “Each word consisted of three capital letters, save only the last,” he said. “Show it to him, Hopkins.”
The other man handed Holmes a single sheet of foolscap. The detective gave the sheet the briefest of glances, before handing the list to me.
“I see. Well, then everything fits,” said Holmes.
Lestrade scowled. “Am I to understand that you already have some inkling as to the perpetrator of this monstrous deed?” he asked.
Holmes waved away the question. “Let us not get ahead of ourselves; I’m merely pointing out that there are a few things of interest here. But I believe there is more to your account, is there not?”
“Quite a bit more,” Hopkins averred.
Lestrade flipped to a blank page in his notebook and drew a small sketch. He extracted the page and extended it to Holmes. “When we moved the body, we found this symbol inscribed into the cobble beneath it.”
Holmes gave the sheet the most cursory of glances, before jerking his head in my direction. Lestrade turned in his chair and handed the note to me; I, in turn, copied the symbol into my ledger:
“The Greek symbol for Saturn,” Holmes said to me casually. “Found almost exclusively on ancient natal charts.”
“As you deduced, the man had been dead for some time when we arrived,” said Lestrade. “We sought a witness to the slaying—and found one, perhaps. She lives on the second floor of a house overlooking the alley, and was awoken this morning just past three, by a sound she recognized from her youth. Hortence Bridgemen is her name, and she spent many a summer in the wilds of Africa, in the company of her father, Patrick Henry Bridgemen, the renowned big-game hunter. She swears that the sound that interrupted her slumber was that of a rutting hippopotamus.”
“We, of course, dismissed her claims as nothing more than parasomnia,” Hopkins chimed in, “until we found hippopotamus scat, three blocks away on Blakely Road.”
“Having been woken, Miss Bridgemen looked out the window,” Lestrade continued, seeming to sweat. “What she saw in no way corresponds with the scene of the crime, as we found it. According to her account, a withered old woman was fending off the advances of seven cloaked figures, threatening her menacingly with cricket bats. Just as they surrounded the crone, one of the assailants turned and looked up at the window. Miss Bridgemen recalls a blinding light, a deep voice saying ‘barometer,’ and then darkness. She did not rouse from her unconsciousness until we knocked on her door, hours later.
“When she awoke the second time, she found, grasped in the fist of her hand, an egg. She cracked the egg in our presence; inside, we found 17 pence and a living diamondback moth.”
Holmes smiled at the mention of the moth. “Another piece fits into the puzzle, yes.”
“We interviewed the family of the deceased,” Lestrade continued. “Apparently the dead man kept his regular routine this morning, leaving his home at eight o’clock—a full three-quarters of an hour after his body was discovered.”
“Exactly,” said Holmes.
“Also, at 1:15 this morning—around the time we estimate Mr. Rowatt was slain—Paddington Cemetery, northwest of London, was pelted by cane toads, which fell from the sky for 13 straight minutes. We do not know if the two events are connected.”
“Connected?” scoffed Holmes. “Why, they are inextricably intertwined!”
“And, when the carriage arrived at the mortuary, Mr. Rowatt’s body was missing. In its stead we found seven stone of apricot preserves.”
It was at that moment that Inspector Hopkins lunged forward. “Barometer!” he cried, and collapsed onto the center of the living space.
“Dear God,” exclaimed Lestrade, leaping from his chair and kneeling by the body. An astute summary corroborated the conclusion of my quick physical inspection: “He’s dead.”
“I’m so sorry,” I commiserated.
Lestrade ruminated for a moment. “Honestly, his death was so sudden and arbitrary, I can’t help but feel like we are just being manipulated,” he observed. “As if this was little more than an attempt to ‘keep us on our toes,’ as it were.”
“It didn’t have a whole lot of emotional resonance,” I concurred.
Lestrade stood, nonchalantly dusted off his slacks, and turned to the detective. “Well, anyway, that brings us up to date. How say you, Holmes? What single, unifying hypothesis could possibly account for all these disparate facts and events?”
Holmes threw back his head and laughed. “Why inspector, it’s elementary, really. The solution is so obvious I’m amazed you haven’t tumbled to it already.”
Lestrade returned to the armchair, and looked upon Holmes expectantly. I held my pen poised over my notebook, ready to record yet another feat of intellectual pyrotechnics.
“You see, none of this is really happening. I am still in my cocaine stupor, and this entire conversation is little more than a flight of fancy.”
The clock on the mantle ticked off seconds, measuring the length of the awkward pause.
“You’re joking then,” said Lestrade.
“The old ‘it was all a dream,’ ending?” I asked. “Holmes, for real?”
“It doesn’t even work,” Lestrade pointed out. “The entire story up until now is told in first-person from Watson’s point of view. How can it be your dream?”
“Well that’s what it is,” said Holmes said defiantly.
“You just made that up,” I challenged.
“No, that was the idea all along,” Holmes said. “Seriously. I had the whole thing figured out from the start.”
“Man, I was way into it, too,” I said, rising and taking up my stick. “What a letdown. Total copout.”
“Pretty weak, dude,” said Lestrade.
Holmes shrugged and closed his eyes again, content to let us see our own way out the door. “It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “No one is going to read all the way to the end.”