The Curious Case of the Prestidigitator's Python
One week later, I was back where I had started, standing on the pavement outside my rooms in Montague Street, looking up at the window behind which I should have been safely ensconced instead of buttoning my overcoat against the driving snow. It was a situation made infinitely worse by the knowledge that I had only myself to blame.
Following the events at the Hoxton Hippodrome and the death of Old George, I had had to reveal the truth of my real purpose in masquerading as a performer, which seemed to come as a surprise to no one, except the confused Mr Saltash, who had the situation explained to him by his new apprentice, the lad who cleaned boots backstage. The chorus girls giggled, Mr Huxtable declared that he had always thought there was something fishy about me, and Edwin the dog expressed his disappointment at the prospect of my imminent departure by copiously licking my face.
Mr Brownlow had been especially effusive in his gratitude. He had thanked me exceedingly for saving his theatre, and pressed a five pound note into my hand, winking meaningfully as he did so, which left me in some doubt as to whether I was being rewarded for my services or given an inducement to keep quiet about his extra-marital dalliances.
With the case concluded, I had no reason to stay, and yet I lingered that day in the wings for the afternoon performance. That it went ahead, as though elderly men falling to their deaths was nothing out of the ordinary, came as less of a shock to me than I thought. As Ethel Partridge had said, the show must go on.
And so I did get to hear her rendition of Where the Bee Sucks, and to this day can still remember her pert figure dancing around the stage in a black bombazine bodice adorned with an alarming amount of yellow feathers. For the last time before his fame spread across two continents, I witnessed Merrivale thrill the audience with his vocal range, confident now in the knowledge that he would not become another in a long list of accidents. Now I merely smiled when the chorus girls stampeded past and each took the liberty of smacking my behind. Strange how time and experience can mellow a man.
When I had had to leave, I found myself consumed by a great sense of loss. I had learnt much and would return to those lessons time and time again in the course of my career. More than that, I had discovered something about myself too, that I am as amenable to the approval of the crowd as any man and, although I would never put myself before such a multitude again, my most intimate friend would later note my susceptibility to flattery, which I have never been able to deny.
As failings go, there are worse vices, for instance, letting the feel of money in one's pocket go to one's head. There is something about obtaining one's first real wage that is liable to produce extravagance. Before I knew what I was doing, I was dining in London's most expensive restaurant and then heading off down the Tottenham Court Road, where I made the startling purchase of a genuine Stradivarius for the derisory sum of fifty-five shillings. Take away the expense of new strings, pay the back rent I owed, and I was down to three half-crowns and a handful of pennies.
I eked out a pitiful existence until the rent became due again, when I found the door barred against me once more. I was faced with the same dire prospect as before, namely of begging money from my brother. That would invariably mean an explanation of my activities of late, and I doubted I was likely to impress with my tales of life backstage. Out would come the old arguments, he would plead poverty and suggest that I got myself a proper job. Compared to that, sleeping rough for the night had much to recommend it.
What I needed was another client, one who would pay for the privilege of my services in advance rather than luring me into a maelstrom of murder and mayhem as Merrivale had done. Where I was to find such a person was another matter. I could not take on a client unless I had access to my rooms, except I was barred until I paid my rent, which I could only do if I had a client. I was caught in an impossible situation.
I would have said irretrievably so had I not caught sight of a small, wiry, ferret-faced man heading briskly towards me. I gave serious thought to turning in the opposite direction and pretending I had not seen him, but he was waving furiously and increased his pace to a trot when he saw he might fail to attract my attention. With a sigh of resignation, I remained where I was and presently Inspector Lestrade arrived panting at my side.
"By Jove!" said he. "This snow is a dashed nuisance and no mistake."
I grunted my agreement.
"I thought I recognised you, young man," said he. "What are you doing standing out here in a blizzard?" His keen gaze darted to the lodging house and he grinned in understanding. "Ah, I see. How many weeks do you owe this time?"
"Just the one," I said with irritation. "What was it you wanted, Inspector?"
He gave a self-important sniff. "Well, after that last business, it occurred to me, just in passing you understand, that between us, we didn't do half badly."
I felt like reminding him that his involvement had largely consisted of trying to find an excuse to have me arrested. It was a result of my deductions that he was able to claim full credit for solving the mystery of the deaths at the Hoxton Hippodrome, and I suspected gained considerable standing in his superiors' eyes. I said nothing, however; belittling the man when he was trying to be ingratiating would have been an unworthy victory.
"So, I thought, if you were open to the idea, and you being serious about this consulting detective career of yours, that, just from time to time, well, that I could consult you."
I understood why he was being unduly hesitant in his manner. Indeed, he seemed almost embarrassed to be asking. His colour was up, his chin was raised with what little pride he could muster and his feet shuffled uneasily on the icy cobbles. For a man as pompous as he appeared to be, to even suggest such a proposition must have been anathema to his soul.
"Well, young man, speak up," said he, blowing vigorously on his hands. "What do you say?"
"I agree," said I. "On one condition: you stop calling me 'young man'. I find it incredibly patronising."
"But you are. What are you, four-and-twenty, Mr Holmes?"
"Five-and-twenty," I corrected him. "I've just had a birthday."
"Oh, many happy returns," said he.
He fished in his pocket and pulled out two crumpled pound notes, which he held out to me.
"A belated birthday present," he explained. "To help with the rent."
"Inspector, I can't accept this," I protested.
As deeply touched as I was by his generous gesture, I could not contemplate taking the man's money. From the state of his shoes, he looked as though he needed every penny for himself.
"Of course you can," said he. "I don't think I ever got round to thanking you for saving my life. The police surgeon said that old fellow would have made a terrible mess of me if he'd landed on me. Would've squashed me flat, he reckoned."
"All the same…"
I tried to return the notes to him, but he held up his hand. "If you can't accept it as a gift, then take it as a retainer for your next case."
"My next case?" I echoed. "That is wishful thinking, I'm afraid. I am currently unemployed."
Lestrade grinned broadly. "I can't tell you how glad I am to hear you say that, Mr Holmes. You see, there's this business I'm having a bit of trouble with. A man been mauled to death by a leopard."
"At a zoo?"
"No, at a club in Piccadilly."
"Ah, that is a little out of the ordinary, Inspector."
"Oh, you haven't heard the half of it. This leopard, and here's the really funny thing, well, sir, it was a stuffed specimen."
I could not prevent the upward rise of my eyebrows. "Very well, you have my attention. What form would this 'help' take?"
"I'm sure the staff know something, but they're a tight bunch. I can't get a squeak out of them. Now if I could get you in there, on a temporary placement, perhaps you could ask around and report your findings back to me."
The prospect of waiting hand and foot on a number of over-indulged and pampered gentlemen was less appealing, but I could not deny that I was intrigued by the case. There was, however, one thing I needed to know before I committed myself to the task.
"This is, I take it, a gentleman's club?" I asked. "No large, over-friendly women with a penchant for young men on the premises?"
Lestrade frowned in puzzlement. "I don't think so."
"Good. Then I accept. And we'll consider this money a loan. Thank you, Inspector."
"As you wish, young ma– I mean, Mr Holmes."
"Hail us a hansom while I clear my debts and we can set out for Piccadilly without delay."
I bounded up the steps and hammered on the door. The landlady accepted my offering without comment and finally allowed me access. I stuffed a toothbrush and a change of clothes into a bag and was almost out the door when my eye lit upon the old clay pipe I had left on the mantelpiece.
Considering the nature of its last owner, I should have thrown it away. Yet I had not. It had been a gift; I kept it as a warning. It served as a reminder that the pursuit of justice and its dispensation were as diametrically opposed as the sun and the moon. It was but a short step from law to lawlessness.
I stowed the pipe in my pocket and headed out to join Lestrade. After all, how could I keep him waiting when the game was truly afoot?
I've really, really enjoyed writing this story – it's up there with my personal favourites. I would never have thought a couple of months ago that I could come up with a story that combined a half-naked, young Sherlock Holmes (okay, ladies, calm down now! That includes you, Mrs Webber) with death by crabs, spontaneous human combustion and the estimable Inspector Lestrade. I'm truly sorry it's over.
I hope you've all enjoyed it. My thanks to everyone for reading. Huge thanks to everyone who took the time to leave reviews, offer suggestions or PM me. I really do appreciate it.
Well, until next time, that's all, folks (unless you'd like to hear about the man mauled to death by a stuffed leopard at a gentleman's club in Piccadilly…?) You do? Well, onwards to 'The Mystery of the Tankerville Leopard'!
Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Lestrade are the creations are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Characters and incidents mentioned in this work are entirely fictitious. This work of fan fiction has not been created for profit nor authorised by any official body.