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Authors: Raymond John

Who Done Houdini

BOOK: Who Done Houdini
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Also by Raymond John:

 

The Cellini Masterpiece
(2006)

Mix, Match, and Murder
(2010)

 

WHO DONE HOUDINI?

 

A New Adventure of Sherlock Holmes

 

By

Raymond John

 

 

North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc.

St. Cloud, Minnesota

 

Copyright © 2015 Raymond John

 

Front cover art: Chris Saloka

 

All rights reserved.

 

Print ISBN: 978-0-87839-807-2

eBook ISBN: 978-1-68201-014-3

 

First Edition: September 2015

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

Published by

North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc.

P.O. Box 451

St. Cloud, Minnesota 56302

northstarpress.com

 

Preface & Acknowledgement

Books, stories and rumors about
Harry Houdini's death have been rampant from the day he died on Halloween 1926. TV documentaries speculated that his death might actually have been a homicide, one concluding that Bess, Houdini's wife, was the most likely perpetrator. For this reason alone
Who Done Houdini
includes information already covered. Other material about Houdini's personal life and his fight against fraudulent Spiritualists come from the splendid biography by William Kalush and Larry Sloan,
The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superstar
.

Houdini's feud with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle regarding Spiritualism is an extensively covered area. The opportunity to have Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur together in the same story was irresistible. So was the opportunity of having Sherlock's main Baker Street Irregular, Timothy Wiggins, now a middle-aged reporter for the
Detroit Free Press
the narrator.

 

Chapter 1

S
pecial Delivery for you, Tim. From New York.”

Caught in the middle of a sentence, I jammed my typewriter keys at the interruption and cursed as I snatched the large manila envelope from Mike Grant's hands. “My name is Timothy, Junior,” I said with as much venom as I could muster. “You can call me Mr. Wiggins.”

He scowled and turned away, and I glowered after him. Damned whippersnapper! Pimply-faced copy boys should be more respectful of their elders.

When I looked at the envelope, my heart began to pound. I ­hadn't heard from “Doctor Trevor Claybrook” under any name for years, and, as far as I knew, he had never been to New York. I shoved my stricken typewriter out of the way. My article about the murder of an elderly recluse in Hamtramck would have to wait for another few minutes.

I attacked the large envelope in a frenzy with my scissors and shook the contents onto my desktop. To my amazement, all that fell out was a single sheet of paper with a red wax seal monogramed ACD and franked with a green British stamp.

A letter from Sir Arthur! I could hardly wait to see why “Dr. Claybrook” had sent it to me.

 

3 November 1926

My Dear Holmes—

As you undoubtedly have heard, Harry Houdini is dead. Though his death is publicly attributed to a ruptured appendix and peritonitis, it is also being investigated as a possible homicide. To my consternation and amazement, the police suspect me of complicity. Your assistance is urgently requested.

As Always,

Your devoted and admiring friend,
Conan Doyle

 

So, my dear friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes had sent me a puzzle. From the New York posting address, he was clearly already in America. But why had he simply sent me Sir Arthur's letter? Where were the other pieces?

How silly of me.
I fished the larger envelope out of the wastebasket and reached a hand inside it
. Aha! A note.

 

Wiggins,

On my way to Detroit. Arriving 8 November on the Michigan Central train at 9:43. Please meet me. Sorry about the short notice. H.

 

That was tomorrow morning! Even though he apologized, I could imagine how delighted he must be to make me twitch like a puppet on a string to arrange my schedule. He was my best friend, but I have always been aware of the air of competition that hung between us from the first day of my employment as a Baker Street Irregular. Almost like a jealousy, and I had never understood what caused it. I have never admired anyone nearly as much to this day. I know his feeling for me is mutual. Regardless, I was scheduled to attend a meeting with the mayor and the commissioner of police at the same time regarding a series of burglaries in the Woodbridge Neighborhood, and I couldn't reschedule.

I picked up my notes and headed for Charlie Hoffman's desk in the next room. I knew he was there because our rooms were full of tobacco smoke. Even when I opened my window, the haze from his chain-smoking always managed to reach me. Charlie wasn't a lead reporter, but had subbed for me off and on and knew the crime beat well. The son of Wisconsin farmers, he was nearly bald, fully barrel-shaped, and had jowls that nearly drooped to the desktop when he was at work. I found him hunting and pecking at his typewriter. He looked up, and his jowls hoisted into a grin.

Rising from his chair, he bowed. “Lord Wiggins. To what do I owe the honor?”

“My pigsty needs cleaning,” I said.

Charlie nodded. “Okay.”

It was a silly code we used to ask each other for help. “How soon can you get around to it?”

“Depends on what the pigs have been eating.”

“Just the usual,” I said, handing him my notes.

Charlie's eyes moved over my notes from the police investigation. “Shouldn't be any problem. Why can't you finish it yourself? Something come up?”

“Yes. An old friend from across the pond is coming to town and I have to send Violet to meet him.”

He frowned. “I don't get it. What's so terrible about that? Violet knows how to get to the station, doesn't she?”

I bent closer to him. “I can't explain here. When I get nervous, I don't think, I connive. Can you break away from shining the silverware for an hour or so? We need to make a tour of the wine cellar.”

Snatching up his hat from his desktop, he said, “As long as you're furnishing the wine, m'lord.”

 

Chapter 2

T
he heater in the Chevrolet hadn't even had time to warm up by the time we reached the Stone House. The oldest bar in Detroit, the Stone House was located on the near east side, on Ralston Street across from the fairgrounds. With Prohibition in full swing, it probably was the best place to get a drink in the city. Instead of poisonous homemade hooch, one could find genuine Canadian whiskey and pretty much any other kind of alcohol desired, compliments of the Purple Gang, who owned and operated the place. They had their headquarters in the basement. Everyone I knew from the
Free Press
referred to it as the wine cellar. I could actually get a decent Beaujolais there, if I wanted.

The door was locked.

I rapped. A panel at eye level slid open and a pair of eyes stared out at me. Then the door opened.

“What're you doing here at this time of a day?” an accented voice asked. “One of the boys get picked up?”

Slomo Weinberg knew me, and he knew I was the crime reporter for the
Free Press.
As such, our paths crossed constantly without problem. If one of the gang got arrested, we'd wave at each other as he got hauled away in the paddy wagon. Mo also knew I'd never tip him off about an up-coming raid, and I even assisted the police in arresting one of the gang members. We lived in separate worlds, and respected the fact. The biggest difference—my world didn't include dead bodies lying in the streets.

I flashed him a grin. “Not today. We just need a quiet, friendly place to talk.”

“So you just want to schmooze, eh? No problem. I'll go upstairs and kick one of the girls out of her room. It's a quiet day. No one'll get upset.”

“You don't have to do that. We can use a booth.”

He beat back my protest with his palm. “It'll be my pleasure, believe me.”

True to his word, he came down minutes later behind a filmily dressed young redhead. As she passed, her robe fell open, presenting us with an impressive view of cleavage. With a coquettish smile, she found a place in a booth.

Mo gestured to the stairway. “First room on the left. I'll kick you out if we get busy.”

“Thanks. What do you want to drink, Charlie?”

 

The room reeked
of perfume,
but the bed appeared unused. I seized a dainty chair that looked like it could collapse under my weight, leaving the bed for Charlie. I had enough troubles as it was, so I didn't want to reek of perfume when I went home to meet Violet. Charlie had no such worries. He was a bachelor.

We had barely settled in when Mo appeared with our bourbon waters. He saw me reaching for my wallet. “On the house,” Mo said, handing a glass to me. “My son's having his
bar mitzvah
tonight.”


Mazel tov
.”

Mo threw me an admiring look. “You're the only
goyem
who talks Yiddish when he sees me. I never said it before, but I'm truly touched.”

“A rabbi and his wife used to take care of me once in a while when I was growing up. Thanks for the drink.”


L'cha-yihm
,” Mo said. He took two steps toward the door, then turned to us. “Did you hear what that
mamser
Henry Ford said yesterday?”

News about another statement from “that bastard auto maker” was a constant topic at the Stone House. “No. What did he say this time?”

“That all Jews are Bolshevists. That we're trying to take over control of America and the rest of the world. According to him, we Zionists almost succeeded in taking over Germany, except there's some rising star who's going to save the country. Some schmuck named Adolf something. I've never even heard of him. According to Ford, we go around stirring up labor trouble, and when the government tries to stop us, we cause strikes. When people get mad enough at the government, we take over. He has proof. It seems one or two of the congressional representatives from New York are Jewish. Ford says they're just the first stones in the avalanche to come.”

“Mr. Ford will say just about anything,” I said with a sigh. “I don't think many people are listening. I'm not even sure the
Dearborn Independent
has more than a few hundred readers even though he sends copies to all his dealers. His paper really is just a joke.”

“It isn't a joke if you're Jewish. But if you want to hear a
witz,
I'll tell you one. As much as all the high-mucky-muck automakers hate us, we supply the liquor when they put on one of their parties. Ford never touches the stuff, of course.”

“Just goes to prove he's
meshugena,
right.”

“Yeah.” With a faint smile he bent toward us, and in a voice barely louder than a whisper said, “We sort of pay them back. Even though they know they could get fired for doing it, half of the workers in their plants come here to drink.”

All I could manage was a sad smile. Raising my glass, I said, “
Dank aich,
Mo.”

“Don't mention it. Let me know if you want more to drink.”

We watched him leave the room.

“What's up?” Charlie asked

“I really don't know where to begin. You kid me about having come from England, like I'm some kind of aristocrat. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“You mean you're not from England?” Charlie asked with a twinkle in his eye.

“I mean I'm anything but an aristocrat. I lived on the street in London until I was twelve.”

He looked shocked. “Impossible. You're pulling my leg.”

“What a repulsive thought. No, I'm telling the gospel truth. Believe me. I was telling Mo why I knew Yiddish. It was because the wife of a rabbi caught me when I was filching her milk off her doorstep one morning. I always hid in waiting until the milkman came, then snatched a bottle before the owner opened the door. Well, that morning Mrs. Bernstein wasn't feeling well. She opened the door just as the milkman arrived and caught me red-handed. I started to run away but she told me to come inside and she would give me something to eat. It was the first real breakfast I had eaten in more than two years. Mrs. Bernstein lost her only son in the Afghan Wars, and said I could visit anytime I wanted to.”

“How else did you feed yourself?”

“I always had a good supper. I knew every pub in a ten mile radius, what they were serving, and when they threw out their food. I was a genuine trapper. If anyone ever tried to cut in, I'd kick him in his whirlygigs and send him on his way.”

Charlie broke into loud laughter. “Whirlygigs? I've never heard them called that before. I thought you Brits called them royal jewels. What else did you do?”

“I eavesdropped, played hide and seek with the peelers and learned how to be a magician. I finally knew enough about sleight of hand I could steal a banana with one hand and a strawberry with the other with a greengrocer watching every move. I always wore a jacket with loose sleeves. Luckily for me, I couldn't fool everyone.”

“Lucky? What do you mean?”

“Not what. Who. You wouldn't believe me if I told you who I mean. I used to regularly do my shopping—if you want to call it that—at a greengrocer just a block off the Strand on Artillery Road. I was strolling away with an apple when suddenly I was hoisted off my feet by the nape of my jacket. I was sure a peeler had nabbed me and I was headed straight to the Vick. Whoever grabbed me turned me around and stared me in the face. The man's eyes bored all the way to the back of my head, and I really was starting to wish a bobbie had been the one to catch me.”

I paused long enough to finish my drink. We both raised our glasses in salute at the pounding on the wall between us and the next room and a woman's delighted screams.

“On with it,” Charlie said. “What happened then?”

“He told me we were going back to the greengrocer and pay for the pippin. I told him I didn't have any money, and he said he'd pay for it, and I could work it off. That scared the bejabbers out of me. I was sure I'd be sent somewhere to sort coal in a colliery like so many other boys of the time. Instead, I nearly fainted when he told me how much he would pay me. A shilling a day.”

“That doesn't sound like very much to me. How much was that in those days?”

“About a dollar.”

“A dollar! I don't make that much myself. What did you do?”

“Nothing more than what I had been doing for the past two years. The only difference was I wasn't allowed to steal.”

“So, in other words, he wanted you to be a spy.”

“Precisely, though I never thought of myself in that way. I was very well paid for my work. Besides the daily shillings, I earned regular bonuses for the quality of my information, and became so affluent I even had a bank account set up so I could make a weekly withdrawal. When I sailed for America, I had more than one hundred fifty pounds in my pocket. That would be more than a thousand dollars today.”

“That's a lot of money, but not enough to put you through college.”

“Once again, the generosity of my benefactor and his brother provided for me. They both spurned my offers of repayment when I finished.”

“Enough with the suspense. Who are you talking about?”

“You know him as Mr. Sherlock Holmes.”

Charlie snorted. “You brought me here to tell me that?” He got to his feet. “What do you take me for? Thanks for the drink and wasting my time.”

“I know how this must sound, but I'm being perfectly honest with you.”

“You're a graduate of the University of Michigan. They don't take street urchins.”

“Mr. Holmes had a close friend who was a headmater at Harrington. The headmaster made sure I got the best tutoring and I always did well on the exams. I'm sure my classmates wondered who Timothy Wiggins was when they never saw him in class. My grades were high enough that I was able to get into just about any college I wanted to attend. Mr. Holmes and his brother paid my tuition.”

I could tell from his tight smile he still didn't believe me. “If what you're telling me is true, you don't have a thing to worry about.”

“You're very wrong. Violet thinks I'm the son of a vicar in Bayswater. What's she going to think if she meets Holmes and finds out my real background?”

“I don't know, but I wouldn't be concerned about it.”

Charlie's words floored me. “Are you daft? How can you possibly say that? She thinks I'm an entirely different person.”

“Are you?” Charlie asked with a sly grin.

“Of course not.”

“Okay, how long have you been married?”

“Twenty wonderful years, and I want at least twenty more.”

“Has your wife been happy, too?”

“I certainly think so.”

“Then she'll think your childhood was romantic. What you are now is all that matters. This isn't England, for Pete's sake.”

“How would you know? You're a damned bachelor.”

He downed the last of his whiskey and got to his feet. “I just do. You're wasting my time. You've got nothing to worry about, so I'm going to give you your notebook back. Stop conniving and start thinking again. Write your own damn story.”

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