The Game's Afoot in America
It was late January of 1886 when the sitting room door closed behind our most affluent client yet, and I could hardly contain my joy.
"Three thousand pounds!" I exclaimed, reading the figure on the cheque over Sherlock Holmes' bony shoulder.
"I daresay it will cover my half of the rent for quite some time," he said with a dry chuckle.
"The Duke really should not have," I said, still attempting to fathom that figure.
"Perhaps not," Holmes replied with a shrug, "but I am not about to turn down such a sum from one who can afford it."
"No indeed," I replied.
Silence fell for a short time, each of us lost in our thoughts. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I was imagining all the ways I might spend a cheque as large as this one. For starters, I would travel somewhere warmer—or at least more interesting—than dreary old London in the chill of winter.
"Holmes," I said tentatively. I hoped I was not intruding on some important train of thought.
"Have you ever thought of travelling?"
Holmes stared quizzically.
"You know, like a holiday?"
My friend shrugged. "You know I enjoy nothing that does not stimulate the brain, Watson."
"What about for a case?" I asked, crossing to the breakfast table and picking up a letter with a return address of Paris.
"If the case is of sufficient interest," Holmes replied, casting a glance toward the letter in my hand and the rest of the unopened post on the table. We seated ourselves again, and I set to work finishing my toast, now cold. Holmes ate nothing as was often his way. I, as his friend and doctor, never liked this habit, but I could not compete with my friend's will of iron.
Holmes shoved a pile of four or five letters across the table. I eagerly obliged the request, despite the lack of verbal instructions, and began to read them. The one addressed from Paris, which had first captured my attention, was written entirely in French. Rather than embarrassing myself by demonstrating my ignorance of the tongue, I tossed the letter back to Holmes to peruse. He did not seem to notice; his focus was on the missive in his own hand, postmarked America. I glanced down at my stack and saw that the next letter in my pile also originated in America.
Noting this coincidence, and the postmark of January the thirteenth, I carefully tore the envelope and began to read.
Dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes,
My name is Ernest Anderson, and I am in dire need of your assistance. My closest friend, Deputy Hugh Hieman of the Sac County law enforcement, died last Friday (the eighth) under circumstances that can only point to murder. The Sheriff believes it was only an accident and refuses to bring any detective into the matter, not even the official ones out of Des Moines. I am at my wit's end!
Hugh was unmarried, living in the small town of Wall Lake with his mother and siblings. He travelled often to the county seat, Sac City, both for his work and to visit his beautiful fiancée, Lena Hallstrom. Hugh left for Sac City on the first train that morning, returned by train that evening, and was found dead yesterday, Saturday, morning. The sheriff insists he drank himself into a stupor and took a fall out of the bay window, but Hugh drinks wisely, and I don't know how a fall like that (it was only one story up) could kill someone so hardy and young.
I have a fair bit of money saved; I hope it is enough to cover your travel expenses as well as your fee. I truly appreciate your assistance, and owe my knowledge of you to my neighbor, Mrs. Pattison, who acquired a copy of A Study in Scarlet and was impressed with your talents.
I implore you, Mr. Holmes. This was no accident, and I want whoever is responsible brought to justice.
I looked up from the letter to see Sherlock Holmes watching me.
"I believe I have something," said Holmes.
"As have I," I returned. "What's yours?"
"A safe robbery and jewel theft under some unique circumstances. Yours?"
"Murder of a young law officer in a small American village."
Holmes leaned intently forward. "The name of this town?"
I glanced at the letter to be sure, and replied, "Wall Lake."
Holmes long arm flashed across the table and he snatched the letter from my hands.
"The name means something to you?" I asked.
"Not until two minutes ago," he replied. "Watson, both of these letters are from the same little Iowa town, postmarked on the same day."
"What a strange coincidence!" I exclaimed.
"Perhaps…" Holmes slowly rose and retrieved his pipe. He struck a match and lit it. "But it is quite possible it is no coincidence at all. I shall take the case."
A smile spread across his thin features as he brought the pipe to his lips. "Both of them," he replied, through the pipe between his teeth.
"Tell me more about this robbery." I moved from my seat at the breakfast table to my armchair by the blazing hearth.
Holmes tossed me the letter and began to pace.
I was first struck by the quality of the stationery; our two prospective clients may have written from the same locale, but they were of vastly different means.
Dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes,
I have a pressing need for your assistance. A substantial collection of my diamonds, pearls, and other jewelry has been stolen, the value of which is nearly eight thousand dollars. Among these is a diamond necklace dating back several generations, which alone is worth nine hundred dollars. I am willing to pay whatever necessary for travel and living expenses as well as a sizable reward. I am told you are the best detective there ever was.
I retired young from a successful acting and singing career to marry my childhood sweetheart of Wall Lake, James Blomberg. During my working years, I purchased and acquired most of this jewelry and it was kept in a secure safe in our bedroom. My brother Albert, still pursuing his acting career in Chicago, came to visit us on the 8th of this month, and that night, my jewelry was taken from the safe without a trace, save a red handkerchief on the windowsill. Sheriff Sweet took one look at the handkerchief and told us it "means trouble". The state is sending a detective, and the Sheriff believes they can solve it. But Sheriff Sweet is growing old, and good detectives are few and far between here.
Please, Mr. Holmes, I implore you to help me and prove that you really are the greatest detective upon the earth.
Mrs. Clara Blomberg
I could see why the case held Holmes' interest: not only was there the strange handkerchief and the words of the Sheriff to consider, there was both a compliment and a challenge, and as long as the case was of some interest to him, my friend's vanity and pride made it nearly impossible to resist the power of either.
"Well, Watson," said Holmes, when I looked up from the letter. "What do you make of it?"
"It's curious," I replied.
"Indeed," said he, and in four long strides he had crossed the room and was rummaging through his catalog of all notable criminals and celebrities from the past quarter century. He muttered something I could not quite hear, clenched his pipe between his teeth, and began to make rather a mess of the papers through which he was searching.
"Ah! Here it is!" exclaimed Holmes.
I breathed a sigh of relief; the quicker he found something, the less tidying required later.
"The notorious Jesse Cleveland Wright, known to many as 'Cleaver' Wright," said Holmes.
I shook my head. "The name is unfamiliar."
Holmes' jaw slackened as he stared at me with abject shock.
I laughed. "You must remember that you are the criminal expert, not I."
Holmes scoffed. "You shall have to keep amassing your knowledge. Let us begin with Mr. Wright, the most deranged murderer the American Midwest ever produced. He has been at his trade for nearly thirteen years though he has not yet walked this earth thirty."
I raised an eyebrow. "Terrifying, but I am afraid I fail to see the relevance."
"All in good time," said Holmes, puffing on his pipe. "Wright is allegedly responsible for eight known murders and dozens of thefts. His particular calling card, as of the last four years—" he shot me an intense glance, eyes bright with excitement "—is a red handkerchief."
"Ah!" I exclaimed.
"There is our connection." Holmes turned to the door. "Mrs. Hudson!" he shouted as the door opened to reveal our estimable landlady herself, clad in an apron and an exasperated expression.
"There is no need to shout," said she, bustling past Holmes to collect the breakfast things. "I am not yet so old as that."
"Watson and I will be leaving you for at least a month, perhaps as long as two," said Holmes.
"Where?" she asked, stacking dishes upon the tray. "Somewhere warm, I hope?"
"America," Holmes replied, "to a remote village in Iowa."
"Exciting!" Mrs. Hudson replied, "Though no warmer than here, this time of year."
"Quite so," Holmes replied, with a sideways glance at me. "But Watson has always wanted to be a swashbuckling cowboy."
If Holmes had been closer at hand, I would have elbowed him.
Mrs. Hudson made no attempt to hide her smirk. "Unfortunately for you two potential cowboys, my understanding is that Iowa is not far enough into the Wild West for that." With that, she swept from the room.
Now it was my turn to smirk.
"Remember, Watson, I am not the expert in romantic fiction!"
I grinned outright. "You shall have to keep amassing your knowledge, then."
Holmes growled something rude, then tossed a couple sheets of foolscap before me and dictated replies to both letters, and a telegram in case we arrived at the same time as those missives. Sealing them tightly, he informed me he was off to purchase tickets for the next ship bound for the United States.
Little did we then suspect the fantastic and horrific developments that would occur before our adventure's conclusion.