It would not be too tall of a tale to say that in my journeys with my friend, Sherlock Holmes, I have come across some indivduals who might be better off had they been committed to the lunatic asylum, Bedlam, from the moment of their birth. Of course, on the other end of the criminal spectrum are those career criminals, such as Holmes’s nemesis, the inimitable Professor Moriarty, who has—on more than one occasion—been the utter bane of both our existences. (That is not to say, though, that there is not some odd respect and esteem between the two masterminds. The criminal no doubt esteems the detective for his mind and analytical prowess, just as Holmes, for all the times he has been placed in physical peril at the hands of Moriarty, has no doubt the same respect for the Professor’s plots.)
But there is one case that strikes my memory with a specific resonance this afternoon as I sit by my grounds-facing windows and gaze out upon the fog creeping across the fields that stretch to the woods. The case took place not too long after Holmes rejected yet another audience with the Queen—this time after he foiled a plot to assassinate prominent Captains within the Royal Navy. It was hatched by a few rather headstrong anarchists and Holmes, ever ready to solve a mystery and leap into action when called for, had dashed headlong into the anarchists’ den when it was clear that Scotland Yard was not yet on the scene with their armed division.
I received the summons via telegram—as Holmes was wont to do as of late—around half-nine in the morning, just as I was prepared to write an article detailing a new procedure to cure headaches that I’d witnessed while traveling around the Continent for a period of time in the previous month. It was to be one of my better pieces, I felt, and would surely make a splash, as the Americans say, in the community.
The door rang and my maid answered, and brought in the telegram. The note was customarily brief, saying only that something rather perplexing had occured in North London, and that I was to make haste to 221B Baker Street, losing no time and with great speed. I called for a taxi, donned my jacket, it having been a cold morning and there being no respite from rain, according to the forecast in the newspaper, arranged for a few matters to be taken care of in my absence that day, and exited my home to find the cab waiting outside. I told the driver my destination and stepped into the back and was on the way.
Minutes later, there being surprisingly little traffic along the way, the horse and the cab pulled up in front of the Baker Street home and I paid the cabsman. The sound of a faint, solo violin moved through the air. Holmes was in thought and, if I was correct, the music was Bach. He was not melancholy, nor was he in a manic state, but this did clearly mean that whatever had transpired to bring Holmes to summon me was something of great import.
I opened the door and walked into Holmes’s apartment. His study door was locked, and, thus, I knocked thrice. The music continued for a moment before Holmes opened the door and looked through the door. He had not slept the night before, so much was obvious from the pallid complexion of his face and the slight bags under his eyes. “Ah, Watson. Good to see that you received my telegram. I do wonder about the agency sometimes. There are few times that the fellow taking my instructions has seemed attentive. Please, enter.”
I walked into the study. It was in its typical state of disrepair. Newspapers were askew; books from the many shelves were laid open upon tables; Holmes’s violin case leaned up against the window facing Baker Street; a chemist set was constructed upon a table with some blue liquid bubbling in two beakers. “I see you’ve been reading the morning’s news,” Holmes said.
“Oh? How did you deduce that? Shall I try to guess?”
“Please do. It is often a source of much-needed amusement to me.”
I looked over my hands for stray marks of ink. That would not normally be enough to tell a person that one was reading the paper—as very few individuals make a point to look over one’s hand unless shaking the hand—but Holmes, as the reader may know, was uncanny in his observations. At any rate, there were no maks of ink on my hands—or my clothing for that matter. I glanced at Holmes, and he put a grin on his face that said he was amused by my search. I then ensured that I was not actually holding a copy of the newspaper—it having been a bit of a rush to get out of the door and into the cab, I considered that a real possibility.
Assured that there was nothing to directly give away my morning’s reading habits, I said, “Well, I am afraid that you have the advantage once again, Holmes. Tell me, what told you that I was reading the newspaper this morning?”
“You’ve been paying attention to their haphazard, fool’s guesses to the weather,” he said, gesturing at my jacket. “You’re wearing a jacket with enough bulk to imply that it is padded and protected to some extent against the rain. Having glanced at the news myself, I saw the forecast calling for light rain later this morning and, after having summarily dismissed it as little more than the guesswork that it surely is, filed it away as something that my dear Watson would no doubt act upon.”
“Once again, I’m not entirely certain that you are not insulting me.”
“Absurd,” Holmes said. “I am merely stating that you are a practical fellow with other things on his mind than memorizing the almanac.”
“Indeed,” I said to my friend. “One of which happens to be the rather urgent note I received this morning.”
Holmes nodded. He picked a pipe from the recesses of the clutter in the study and proceeded to pack it with tobacco. “It was urgent for a very good reason. Watson, in our time together, we have seen many things that would stun, shock, and, I feel I can say this without being accused of hyperbole, sicken many a men.” He lit the pipe.
“I would agree with you, except having been in the service, I’ve been confused rather than sickened by many of these sights.”
Taking a puff from the pipe, Holmes nodded. “Your steel nerve has time and time impressed me, Watson. However, we digress from the more pressing issue. I wonder: Did you read the news-paper beyond the ‘prediction’ of the weather?”
“Alas,” I said, “I did not. I was preparing a rather delicious breakfast and had intended to read through the news, but was distracted by familial matters until the point when I looked at the time and realized that I had a very limited period in which to complete an article for a journal.”
“Then, I understand, you did not see the drivel that passes for reporting on a series of robberies and assaults in Dagenham?”
I shook my head. “I did not, Holmes. I instead prefer to get my bad news from you.”
Holmes chuckled. “Well said, Watson. Suffice it to say, there have been a series of uncharacteristic crimes in that small parish, and Scotland Yard has asked me to look into it. Normally, I would not, as such crimes are frankly not worth my time. However, this being such a quiet and idyllic place, I must say that my curiousity has been piqued.”
I had only a cursory knowledge of Dagenham, despite it being so near to Blackheath, but what I did know was that it was the very image of a peaceful parish town. Though there were rumors of industry making its home in the area, the most mechanical means I could remember hearing about was farming equipment. Thus, like Holmes, I wondered what drew a criminal to the area. There may have been a mansion house, but the ease with which one could procure illicit materials in London proper surely far outweighed whatever goods were out in the country. I said as much to Holmes.
“Precisely,” Holmes said, his fingers tapping his pipe. “Precisely, Doctor. Why take all the time and effort to travel to Dagenham when you have the vast expanse of London in front of you?” He glanced up at the wall clock above the mantle. “We must be going if we are to meet the new detective in Dagenham.” He gathered his coat and made ready to leave.
“Is the good Inspector not joining us?”
“No. He feels that absconding to Dagenham would be putting his regular duties in the City at risk of being foiled by lesser minds.” Holmes chuckled at that. “To an extent, I agree with him. Of course, if there are lesser minds in Scotland Yard, then they are only lesser by the furthest stretch of imagination. But come, we must depart.”
We arrived at Dagenham some time later. The details of our journey were dull, and, aside from some specifics on the case, are not relevant at all. Most of the crime reports had it that the perpetrator was a man around sixteen to nineteen years of age with abnormally clear skin, hair arranged in a bizarre, “crest-like” fashion, and clothing that was almost, but not entirely unlike grey wool with odd symbols on it. I wondered, partly in jest, whether or not we were dealing with some sort of new cult.
Holmes snorted in derision. “Once again, Watson, if we were dealing with a cult, they would either be located in the middle of London where they could find more recruits or victims, or they would be in the countryside, where they could practice without interference from individuals like you and I. No, we are dealing with a very abnormal individual. The mode of dress does, I agree, suggest some sort of uniform. However, I see no reason to believe this is the work of any secret society.”
The crimes had been a series of robberies as individuals walked around parks and the outdoors around dusk. According to witnesses, the assailant would rush out of undergrowth and make demands in a queer accent, reminiscent of a Cockney’s, but malformed and twisted. Holmes, recounting this, did not pay much heed to the “poetic flourish” in the description, and was willing to grant that the assailant was a man who lived in the Eastern sections of London and had made his way out here.
“It is perhaps,” Holmes said as we rode in the carriage, “the case that a vagrant has crossed criminal elements in London and been driven out of wherever he resides. I would further suppose that his odd mode of dress is a means to an end, of sorts. Attempting to make the best out of means by way of a uniform color and fabric would certainly make life easier than possessing a full wardrobe, yes?”
I nodded. “Indeed.”
“The blasted question remains, though: Why come out to Dagenham? A vagabond would not have the means to easily come to a region where one cannot live as easily as one could in London.”
“Holmes,” I said. “I’m not entirely sure what you mean. Would you like me to remind you of the time we spent splitting a flat due to the rent? Would you like me to tell you how much I am paying currently?”
“Watson, you are not what one would call a man of extravagant tastes. However, compared with a man of no means at all, you are a fop.”
Shortly after arriving at Dagenham, we walked to the police station. It was a small cottage, nothing like the imposing building that one saw in London proper, but not too far of a stretch for an area of country gentry. The officers of the law in Dagenham had, until recently, been graced with a very easy post. They did not need to worry with crime organizations. In fact, by my reckoning, the very worst crime that Dagenham had to deal with had been an escaped goose that wrought merry havoc at a market three Wednesdays prior. With that in mind, it should not be entirely surprising that, when faced with true crime, the inspector in Dagenham tendered his resignation.
We met the new inspector, a young, fat, bright-red faced man with straw-coloured hair and mutton-chops, as well as small, circular spectacles, who went by the name of Donalds. I was surprised when meeting him that Holmes did not launch into an impromptu, and accurate, biography of the man based on his appearance. It was his wont in the past, after all. Holmes, though, did show a measure of distate for the man from the onset, which may have been a reason for the lack of usual pleasantries.
“Chuffed to see you,” Inspector Donalds said, pumping our hands with excessive enthusiasm when we entered the cottage. “We’re all in a pickle here, and, I say, it’s a rough time with this my first case.”
It seemed that Holmes’s nature was to get some measure of the best of him, though: “For a man from King’s College, I’d expect that you would have the intellectual capacity to handle this yourself. No, don’t bother gaping like a fish. You have a King’s College insignia on the ring that seems to have been welded onto that sausage you call your finger. Give me the details of these robberies, and my colleague and I will do our utmost to assist the Metropolitan Police.”
The Inspector blubbered for a moment, blinking in consternation, and then nodded and gave us the details.
It transpired that the newspapers were accurate about the crimes. Much as Holmes had told me, the crimes took place at dusk and were the result of one oddly-dressed man. The Inspector suggested that we lay a trap. Holmes, not to my surprise, said that he had intended to. He then turned to me and, again not to my surprise, told me that I was going to be the bait. “I am not declining,” I said, “but I would like to ask, ‘why?’”
“Simple, Doctor,” Holmes said. “You are the man among us who looks least threatening to the individual in question. We could not use the Inspector, or any of his officers, for the fact that they are known throughout the area. I could not be the bait, because I must remain in shadows to advise the Inspector on how to better himself as an officer of the law, as well as to ensure that you are not harmed by this individual.”
“I suppose, then, that my use of my service revolver is out of the question.”
Holmes raised an eyebrow. “Did you bring your service revolver?”
“Frivolous questions are never appreciated, Watson. You know that. Come, it is time that we set the trap.”
We walked to the park where the robberies had been concentrated. Holmes and Donalds went into the undergrowth and I sat down on a park bench that was near a newly-installed gas lamp. It was a pleasant evening, and, being of a reflective nature, I must confess that I spent much of the time on the bench thinking of things other than the case. Thus, it was a surprise when the man in the gray clothing appeared at my side and shouted at me.
What follows is the best approximation of the man’s speech I can deliver:
“Oi bruv you got some chips for us then?”
I looked up from my reverie and saw a man about six foot three with abnormally clear skin. He wore a grey, loose top that was wool. His trousers were a material I had never seen before, nor since. They were white with blue stripes down the sides of the legs. He kept his hand in a pocket in the front of his hooded shirt. He was the robber, that was for sure. I looked at his hair and tilted my head to one side. “Sir,” I said. “What sort of pomade are you using to have that effect?”
“Oi posh fuck, give us a quid then? Fuckin cold out here innit mate’s gotta get some fuckin beer to keep warm.”
I shook my head. “Terribly sorry, can you repeat that? It sounds as if you requested a cephalopod.”
The man took out what seemed like a spring-loaded knife and waved it in my face. “I ain’t fuckin wif you bruv.”
At that point, Douglas and Holmes rushed out of the undergrowth and knocked the man to the ground. The man then let loose with such a horrid string of obscenities that, were I to write them down, there would be severe reprecussions. Soon after—