Authors: Dan Andriacco
Tags: #Sherlock Holmes, #mystery, #crime, #british crime, #sherlock holmes novels, #sherlock holmes fiction
“A Most Valuable Institution”
When I woke up the next morning I soon wished I hadn't. Lack of adequate sleep always gives me a headache to start the day, but not as big as the one I got from looking at the front page of the
Erin Observer & News Ledger
In the hubbub the night before, I'd forgotten to check out the online version of Ben Silverstein's story on the paper's website, so I was coming at it cold. It was set apart in a box at the top right of the page with a three-column headline, thirty-six-point type, bold face:
A CASE FOR SHERLOCK HOLMES
Damn. Ralph would blow whatever gaskets he had left.
“This is looking like a case for Sherlock Holmes,” Ben's piece began, grabbing the obvious hook for the lead.
“A manuscript and two valuable books from the famed Woollcott Chalmers Collection of Holmes materials were stolen Friday from a temporary display on the St. Benignus College campus.
“College spokesman T. Jefferson Cody said the value of the collection...”
The Indiana Jones theme song blaring from my night-stand stopped me there. It was the ring tone on my iPhone. Morrie Kindle, the Associated Press stringer, was calling to confirm the details of the
story. I read through the rest of it in a hurry, told him it was correct, and promised to get back to him if there were anything new from Campus Security. I called Decker's office, but he wasn't in yet. I knew he would be eventually, Saturday or not.
This was just the beginning, I realized with a sense of doom as I left my apartment. Once Kindle's rewrite of the story hit the AP feed, calls would be coming in from all over the map. No time to worry about that, though. I had to go show the flag at the colloquium, plus be on hand to help a TV reporter shoot a few sound bites in the late morning.
My carriage house apartment next to Mac's house, seventeen steps above his garage, is only a ten-minute bicycle ride from campus. I picked up my Schwinn and pedaled off, all the while imagining Ralph's reaction to Ben's story. It didn't take much imagination.
A registration table was set up outside of Hearth Rooms A and B. Aneliese Pokorny, my diminutive administrative assistant, was taking money and handing out name tags. Popcorn is forty-nine years old, dyes her hair blond, and would cheerfully commit grand theft auto if Mac asked her to. She was volunteering her time this morning. I greeted her while the guy in front of me handed over a designer check carrying a silhouette of Sherlock Holmes.
“Do you feel as bad as you look?” she asked.
Popcorn gave me a nametag with my moniker already typed in. I pinned it on, poured myself a cup of decaf from the coffee-and-pastries spread next to her, then went to survey the scene.
Hearth Room C, the scene of last night's excitement, was sealed off by Decker's men with yellow plastic tape. Immediately to the left was the door to Room B, which functioned as the entrance to the back of the Hearth Room when A and B were opened up to form one hall as they were today. I went in that way, intending to stay at the back of the room for a good view of the crowd and an unobtrusive exit when necessary.
It was about ten minutes until show time and the place was filling up. Maybe fifty or sixty people were there so far out of seventy-eight registered in advance and a few walk-ins expected. I counted six deerstalker caps. Mac and the Chalmerses were in the middle of the room, fiddling with a laptop and projector setup. I also noticed Al Kane, author turned pitchman; Dr. Noah Queensbury, the bore with Basil Rathbone's nose; and a few others from Mac's party that I couldn't put a name to. One was a handsome, slightly plump woman with gray-blond hair who'd been in the kitchen the night before talking about Dr. Watson.
If Mac was right - and I didn't doubt it - whoever stole those books yesterday was probably in this room right now.
I sipped my decaf and found myself turned toward the back of the room. A series of tables running the length of the far wall were covered with Sherlockian bric-a-brac for sale from a handful of vendors. There was a ton of books, of course, but also a lot more - drinking glasses, book bags, Christmas ornaments, buttons (“HOLMES IS WHERE THE
IS,” “HOLMES SWEET HOLMES”), tie tacks, posters, CDs, DVDs, computer games, board games, and T-shirts. There were even a few deerstalker caps on the end of the table where a hairless man in a bow tie was accepting money from people buying these treasures. This was the “field bazaar,” according to the colloquium program. I was just thinking that somebody had misspelled “bizarre” when I heard an all-too-familiar rumble behind me.
“Rather impressive for our first colloquium, eh, Jefferson?”
I whirled around, nearly spilling my coffee, just in time to see my brother-in-law bite into a pastry with some sort of white filling that oozed out of both sides of his mouth.
“That wasn't really the word I had in mind,” I said.
I was spared elaboration by the arrival of Al Kane, who appeared behind Mac looking like a hung-over CPA. He must have made a few too many assaults on the liquid provisions at Mac's house last night. His mustache was crooked, the evident result of an unsteady hand with the razor, and his breath smelled like cigarettes.
“I hear somebody made a big score yesterday,” he rasped.
“You refer, of course, to the raid on the Chalmers Collection?” Mac said. We hadn't mentioned it last night upon sneaking back into his house because Mac didn't want to put a damper on what remained of the party.
Kane nodded. “Sure.”
“Is everybody talking about it already?” I asked, exasperated.
“Everyone,” Mac assured me happily.
“It's in the Erin newspaper this morning,” Dr. Queensbury said unnecessarily, joining us. “âThe press, Watson, is a most valuable institution, if only you know how to use it.' - âThe Adventure of the Six Napoleons.' It is rather exciting, don't you think? A real Sherlock Holmes mystery.”
Queensbury had “BSI” after his name on the colloquium program, the same as Mac, meaning that he was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars. That's a big deal for American Sherlockians, and maybe why he felt compelled to quote the Sacred Writings of the cult.
At least the “BS” part fits.
I looked around, straining my eyeballs for a familiar face. Surely the
would send somebody to follow up on Ben's story, probably Maggie Barton. The old gal covers the college most of the time, except for the occasional campus crime story that went to Ben Silverstein, and she'd written a couple of advance stories about the colloquium and the donation of the Chalmers Collection. But I didn't catch a glimpse of her.
“Certainly this is a prime opportunity for a display of Sherlockian deduction,” Mac said. “Or induction, to be accurate but uncanonical.”
Al Kane snorted. “Play Holmes, you mean? Solve the crime like an amateur sleuth in some book? Forget it, Mac. It's never happened and it never will. Put the whole lot of you against one professional police officer with a crime lab behind him and it's no contest.”
“He's right, you know,” I said for the benefit of Mac and Queensbury and a few others hanging at the periphery of the conversation. “Maybe Max Cutter or Red Maddox could use force to find out a few things the cops can't because the boys in blue are hemmed in by Miranda rules and the rights of criminals. But a modern-day Sherlock Holmes just wouldn't cut it.”
“Cynics,” Mac said.
“Okay, then,” Kane said, “just how would you use Sherlockian methods to solve this adventure of the rare book thefts?”
“Holmes would never be called in,” Queensbury asserted, not waiting for Mac to answer. “The case isn't unusual enough. No red-headed league, no apparent madman destroying statues of Napoleon, no mysterious speckled band-”
“That,” said Mac, “begs the issue. The real question is, what
the methods of Sherlock Holmes? Holmes always observed the trifles, of course, and deduced - or induced - from them. He also employed street urchins, special knowledge, instinct, logic, legwork, disguise, burglary, subterfuge, process of elimination, science, dogs, advertising, analogy to similar cases and - oh, yes - prodigious amounts of tobacco.”
He pulled out a cigar. “Personally, I intend to rely heavily upon the latter.”
“You intend?” With dismay I heard my own voice came out as an incredulous screech.
“Of course, Jefferson. It can hardly have escaped you that I intend to solve this case. I will, of course, use Damon Devlin's techniques as well as those of Sherlock Holmes.”
He snapped his fingers, creating a flame he used to light his cigar seemingly right off his fingertips. It was just the sort of stunt his damned magician-sleuth was always pulling in Mac's books. How long, I wondered, had he waited for just the right moment to do that?
“Are you serious?” Kane asked before I could lodge a protest that this was a non-smoking public building (not that he really intended to smoke - he was just showing off).
“Why should I be otherwise?” Mac asked. “If I can create fictional mysteries in such abundance, surely I can solve a real one. You well know that mysteries, whether physical or metaphysical, are my mÃ©tier, my forte, my meat and-”
“Yeah, yeah,” I agreed, shutting off the
monologue. “But I still say my Max Cutter could beat the pants off Sherlock Holmes.”
“We shall see,” Mac said, eyeing his Sherlock Holmes watch. “Not at the moment, however. The time has come to begin the colloquium.”
He moved like a cruise liner toward the front of the room while I seated myself on a couch near the rear, with Kane next to me. Kane pointed toward Chalmers, who was taking a chair in the front row, the radiant Renata at his side.
“If this were my book, he'd be my man,” Kane confided in a low voice.
“You mean the old insurance scam?” I said. “That wouldn't work - he's already signed over the whole collection to St. Benignus. You can't insure something you don't own anymore.”
“That's not what I had in mind, Cody. Look, Chalmers picked up a sweet tax deduction by donating all that stuff to your college. But suppose he realized afterward there were a few precious items he just couldn't live without. He could have stolen them back to gloat over in private. Best of all possible worlds for him - tax deduction and he still keeps the books. That's how Red Maddox would figure it, anyway.”
This wasn't a Red Maddox mystery story by a long shot.
But that didn't mean Red's creator wasn't on to something.
“We Have to Talk”
I stared at Chalmers for a while, musing over Kane's idea. Then my eyes slid over and I was looking at his wife. It was hard not to. She was dressed in a gray pinstriped double-breasted suit, pants included, and a white blouse. The outfit could have been stolen from Al Capone. I don't know whether it was out of style or so old it was new again, but she certainly filled it out nicely. Her black hair was gathered behind her head in a simple red ribbon.
“I see Renata's charms aren't lost on you,” came a feminine whisper in my ear.
I gave a guilty start and turned around to see my sister, Kate, sitting in a chair next to the couch I occupied. Just like her to sneak up on me like that.
“I was looking at her leather handbag,” I lied. “Look at how big that baby is. I've seen suitcases smaller.”
“R-i-g-h-t. That lady is strong medicine. Better watch yourself, T.J.”
“I'd rather watch her.”
Actually, I'm old enough to have figured out a long time ago that it's not a good idea to covet thy neighbor's wife - or anybody else's. I'd seen too many people lose too much that way. I was a free agent, not by choice, but Mrs. Chalmers wasn't. I didn't give Big Sister the satisfaction of verbalizing that to her, however.
“Tell me about her,” I said. “Who is she, besides Mrs. Woollcott Chalmers?”
“She's a very smart lady, and very talented - a classical violinist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. She also runs an arts center, which is where she met Woollcott. He was a board member and a widower.”
“Did he pursue her or did she pursue him?” Idle curiosity.
“Shhhh,” said Kate, the person who had initiated the whole conversation. Mac was at the lectern now, in his element. Except for his beard, he looked almost Churchillian: stout, a few inches below my height, dressed in a tweed suit and bow tie, master of all he surveyed. He winked at my sister, put on his glasses to read his notes, and bellowed:
“âCome, Watson, come! The game is afoot!' If those familiar words lift your spirits and gladden your hearts, ladies and gentlemen, you have come to the right place. Welcome to the first annual âInvestigating Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes' colloquium.”
“ACD/SH Colloquium underway
I tweeted from my iPhone.
I looked around as Mac talked on. A few people were already dressed for the Victorian costume contest to be held that evening - a man in a derby, for instance, and a woman wearing a white dress, a straw hat, and a VOTE FOR WOMEN banner across her ample bosom. Bob Nakamora, the camera-toting Japanese-American from Mac's party the night before, wore a sweatshirt with a drawing of Sherlock Holmes on the front. Just as he put the Nikon up to his face to take a picture, a flash went off to my right. Somebody was taking a picture of Bob taking a picture. I looked over and saw, to my surprise, Lynda Teal behind the camera.
She was dressed in a short tan skirt and a red blouse. Black and silver earrings matched the buckle on her black belt. Her hair, naturally curly and the color of dark honey, was chin length, a little longer than I was used to seeing it. Not that I noticed. I looked away and pulled my mind back to Mac's spiel.
“It's no surprise that Holmes was a commanding figure in his own age, the late Victorian,” he was lecturing. “The Great Detective was above all a man of logic and science at a time when science seemed to have all the answers, not just more questions. He battled speckled bands and hounds from hell with only the faithful Watson at his side - and yes, he nearly always won. Today, however, the world faces far more frightening monsters, man-made creations of our laboratories and bomb factories. How do we explain the continued popularity of Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street in these jaded and dangerous times?
“Could it be that Holmes is hero and father figure in a period that sorely needs both? Even though Holmes sometimes fails he is always a reassuring presence. When he is around we feel that everything is all right. And, of course, Holmes is always there when we need him, never farther away than a wire to summon him and a train to get him there. For these reasons and many more, we must agree with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung, who so famously said, âThough he might be more humble, there's no police like Holmes.'”
I groaned inwardly as the Sherlockians chuckled. So, I thought, Conan Doyle had to put up with a brother-in-law, too. I felt his pain.
Just then Lynda walked past, apparently not seeing me, and grabbed an empty seat about three rows away. I watched her strike up a conversation with the man next to her - early forties, light brown hair, tanned skin, professional smile and a Rolex watch. He looked like he'd gotten lost on his way to the cover of
. As they chatted, Lynda pulled out her notebook.
“Who's the guy Lynda's talking to?” I whispered to Kate.
“You mean the hunk?”
Muscles fairly rippled beneath his cashmere sweater.
“I don't think he's such a hunk,” I said. “Who the hell is he?”
“Hugh Matheson. The attorney.”
Further identification would have been superfluous. Hugh Matheson was one of the most famous litigators in the country. He hung his hat in Cincinnati, but he traveled everywhere. His shtick was a legal theory called “hedonic damages.” In English, that means he made his bread and butter - and probably a yacht or two - convincing juries to base damage awards on the “missed joy of life” rather than on some concrete fact such as lost wages. The joy of life turned out to be quite expensive for companies that had the ill fortune to face Matheson in a court room.
had recently estimated his personal worth at forty million dollars - even after hefty alimony payments to wives numbers one through three. There was no number four yet.
At least he was shorter than me.
“What's he doing here?” I asked Kate.
“He's a Sherlockian, of course, a member of the Anglo-Indian Club. And a collector. He and Woollcott don't get along at all.”
“Unfriendly rivals, eh?” I could readily imagine Chalmers, in pursuit of bookish rarities, following a scorched earth policy not designed to win friends and influence people.
In front of us, Lynda looked around the room as if to get a handle on how many people were there. Her eye caught mine and her mouth spread in a smile of recognition. She waved. My heart skipped a beat and the blood pounded in my ears as if I were a teenager. This was ridiculous.
Instead of waving back, I turned to my sister. “Then Matheson probably isn't too broken up about what happened to the Chalmers Collection last night.”
“I suppose not,” Kate said, “but you'd never get a collector to admit a thing like that.”
At the front of the room Mac yielded to an old video of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle talking about how he had come to create Sherlock Holmes. The gist of it was that he had intended Holmes to be different from the fictional sleuths of his day who solved their cases without showing how they had arrived at the solutions. Surprisingly, he spoke in a soft Scottish burr that reminded me of Sean Connery in
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The atmosphere in the Hearth Room was more casual and less reverent than I'd expected. Some Sherlockians talked quietly among themselves or fiddled with smartphones all through the video, perhaps having seen it before. Others looked through books and trinkets at the back of the room. In a wingback chair behind me a woman knitted. A guy sitting on the floor next to her crunched Ruffles potato chips. Hugh Matheson leaned over and said something to Lynda, who giggled. I swear the woman giggled.
The film ended, the lights went up, and Mac took the floor again to introduce Al Kane. I checked my watch: ten-thirty. The program was running right on schedule and I had fifteen minutes before I had to meet the reporter from Channel 4 Action News.
As he followed the massive McCabe to the lectern, peering at his audience through wire-rimmed glasses as if in apprehension, Kane looked less hard-boiled than ever. Only the obvious hangover put me in mind of his Red Maddox character.
“Of course, Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective story - and almost every significant convention of the craft still used and misused today,” he began. “It was Arthur Conan Doyle, however, who gave the form universal and timeless appeal.”
Kane described how Conan Doyle had improved on the formula developed in Poe's three detective stories plus “The Gold-Bug” by making the endings sharper and the narrator more of a character.
I found myself mentally wandering back to Kane's casual comment about Woollcott Chalmers himself as a suspect in yesterday's thefts.
How would my Max Cutter figure it? Chalmers was hardly spry enough to do the deed himself, but that was no reason to rule out a man with his money and his determination. He could pay to have it done. But the risk was all out of proportion to the reward. The stolen books and manuscript pages may have been worth who-knows-what, but they were only three items out of thousands he had given away in the Woollcott Chalmers Collection. Would Chalmers have let himself in for a grand theft rap just because he couldn't part with that particular trio of goodies? Maybe so, but the Max Cutter inside me couldn't buy it.
“Holmes is an urban creature, although he does sometimes don the deerstalker and venture into the countryside,” Kane continued from the podium. “He is a loner, often cutting even Watson out of the loop. He has no permanent lady except the faithful Mrs. Hudson. He often operates outside the law, committing burglary in four stories and several times letting the villain flee - or die. He bucks authority, even royalty, and he can't be bought. All are characteristics of the hard-boiled detective, from the earliest heroes of
magazine down to a fellow I know named Red Maddox.”
“So says Al Kane.”
I looked at my watch again. Damn, the TV crew was due in five minutes. “Cutting out,” I whispered to Kate. She nodded and I went out the door next to the woman who was knitting.
The corridor was empty, except for Popcorn reading a book as she sat alone at the registration table. She looked up and gave a little wave, then went back to reading
Love's Savage Desire
I don't know why I had entertained a fear the TV people would be early; it would be a minor miracle if they were no more than ten minutes late.
Al Kane's talk, amplified over the wall speakers, permeated the air outside the Hearth Room like the voice of God. But soon it was cut through by another voice there in the corridor, a husky one a bit like Lauren Bacall in
The Big Sleep
“Jeff!” she called.
I whirled around.
“We have to talk,” Lynda said.