Author's Note: I hope that readers will find that they have to be neither a devout Sherlockian, nor a rabid pirate enthusiast to enjoy the story, but that if they are one or the other, or even better, both, like myself, they will have fun seeing the two fandoms combined. :D
A very special thanks to Damsel-in-stress for proof reading the story and altering my spelling, where needed, to the British version in order for me to give my Watson a tad more authenticity.
A Study in Rum
"And yet there should be no combination of events for which the wit of man cannot conceive an explanation."
Holmes to Watson in The Valley of Fear.
In all the long years of my intimate association with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, there have been many singular incidents which I have witnessed in our adventures together, yet even the countless hours that I have spent chronicling them will never manage to adequately provide the depth and scope of the variety, nor to afford them the service they are due. Still, as much as I have been able, I have endeavoured to provide an account of some of these matters in sufficient detail that future readers will be able to envision, in some small way at least, the fascinating escapades that I have been privileged to accompany him upon.
Although I have in the past stated the fact that Holmes was extraordinarily successful at finding explanation and conclusion for so many individuals who sought his help, I would daresay that the man himself would dispute me as to the proportion of cases that he considered a complete triumph. True enough, he would admit adequate closure for better than two and ninety percent of them, but how well I know him to be vexed by a myriad of tiny details that he was not able to always account for. Thus it is that his estimation of his own success, in comparison to mine, remains somewhat diminished.
Of all the cases so concluded in this incomplete fashion, none could be stranger and less prone to absolute rational explanation than the one that began late in summer while I was in residence at our Baker Street address.
It was a sultry August Wednesday, perhaps two weeks after Sherlock Holmes had most reluctantly been required to accompany me to the soiree thrown by Lady Agatha Broadnax, a woman of considerable social position and formidable strength of will. Holmes had, several weeks beforehand, been responsible for the return of Lord and Lady Broadnax's kidnapped daughter, and in celebration of her child's safe return, revels of a grand proportion were organized immediately. To my dear friend's great consternation and dare I even say dismay, Lady Broadnax had declared the festivities, quite publicly, to be thrown in Sherlock Holmes's honour, and without sufficient excuse at hand to be able to put forth his regrets, he had found himself obligated to don tie and tails and be subjected to the seemingly endless attentions of a generous number of Lady Broadnax's female confederates.
When at last the stroke of midnight had allowed him to make good his escape, I found myself rattling along merrily home in the four-wheeled cab courteously assigned to us by Lady Broadnax, across from my companion, who was slumped in a silent stupor, more completely spent than I had often seen him three days into frenetic pursuit of a difficult case with little sleep and less food.
The days since had done little to revive Holmes's energy, with the unusually warm temperatures sapping the strength of all of London, but even more damaging was the conspicuous lack of interesting criminal circumstance. Although the papers were full enough of reports of increasing assaults due to tempers shortened by the heat wave, one concerning a minor robbery of a local surgeon, Dr. Gray, and the disappearance of Mr. Michael Huggins for the third time in as many months, (Mr. Huggins had a reputation for periodically keeping company with women other than his wife) nothing whatsoever had appeared to pique Holmes's curiosity.
When I returned to Baker Street upon completion of my rounds for the day, I found my companion slumped silently near the cold fireplace, his long frame draped across the chair and quite nearly as inanimate as any item of furniture in the room. He spoke not a word of greeting, but merely glanced in my direction, eyes devoid of their normal lustre raking over my person once lazily before returning to stare at the book in his lap. Slowly he flipped one page after another.
As I had known, from the duration and intimate level of my association with him, his inactivity for the past weeks, coupled with his harrowing and exhausting experience at the hands of Lady Broadnax, as well as the lack of corruption and misdeeds offered up for scrutiny in the papers or even by Scotland Yard, had led to Holmes reaching for his seven percent solution in an attempt to provide some form of stimulation for that formidable brain of his. I needed not my medical degree, nor his keen powers of observation to know that to be the current state of affairs; his rolled up left sleeve and the presence of the familiar Morocco case on the table at his elbow painted the picture well enough.
Seeing that he was disinclined to move or speak, I hung up my hat up on the peg and proceeded to seat myself in the matching velvet-lined chair opposite his.
"Was the bisque up to standards today?" he asked without looking at me, after several moments' pause. Another page whisked quietly as he flipped it.
"Oh, yes, quite the usual outstanding...my dear Holmes!" I cried suddenly with a little laugh, wondering how it was that he had concluded what it was I had eaten for lunch. Immediately I dropped my gaze to my chest, thinking that I would find a telltale stain that I had not noticed on my way home. Upon finding none, I checked each cuff, still coming up empty handed.
Holmes lifted his hand from the book and pointed one long finger toward my feet but, as with my shirt and my sleeves, I found no trace of my midday repast, and my expression must have bespoken my puzzlement.
With his elbow remaining on the arm of the chair and his head still propped up by his hand, Holmes deigned to enlighten me.
"It has been exceedingly dry as of late, but I saw, as you passed me, that by the colour of the road dust that clings to your trouser cuffs that your duties have taken you in the vicinity of Regent Street today, and whenever they do, my dear Watson, you have the very predictable custom of dining at Café Royal. Unless your ordering habits differ when you are not in my company, I have yet to witness you ever request anything but the Bolognese or the bisque. Seeing that your white shirtfront remains completely so, and knowing that to your great consternation you end up displaying remains of the Bolognese upon it more occasions than not, I must infer that you therefore ordered the lobster bisque."
"I might not have dined at Café Royal at all; I might have stopped at the Trocadero," I replied, letting a small measure of defiance slip into my comment.
"True, but highly unlikely for a man of your considerable practicality and less considerable means, my good doctor," he replied with great confidence. "Besides, you are quite more than an hour beyond when you said you expected to return, and since you were whistling to yourself as you climbed the stair, it would be reasonable to assume no dire medical emergency has accounted for your tardiness, and that your delay is due to a pleasant and lengthy conversation you have lingered over with Nichols, the proprietor of Café Royal, as is your wont when he is on premises."
I sighed in resignation, knowing that Holmes knew he was correct in his inferences, and too anxious to hand over to him that which I had in my possession to argue the merits of other possibilities.
"Well," I said cheerily, as he sank back into his armchair torpor and resumed his page turning, "despite my less than considerable means, I have a brought gift for you, my dear Holmes."
"Pray tell me that you have purchased new ammunition for that excellent revolver of yours, Watson, and that you have found it within your heart to put it to humane use the next time that Lady Broadnax deems it necessary to demonstrate to me her undying gratitude."
I tried not to offer too extensive a roll of the eyes at my companion, for I understood well that he possessed an inherent aversion to spending great lengths of time exclusively in the company of the fairer sex, and that the pack of laced and bejewelled hyenas at the party, once they'd learned that they had the famous Mr. Sherlock Holmes within their collective grasp, had taxed him more thoroughly with their queries and their flirting than if he had been slogging through the mud of the Thames' banks all night looking for footprints.
"I do believe she expressed great enthusiasm when I told her we would both be delighted to attend her party on All Hallows Eve," I said. My feigned innocent air did not fool Holmes, and the dark look he shot me said that I should not even consider speaking of such things in jest.
"Here," I said, holding out my gift as a peace offering and watching his lacklustre gaze drift down to the evening newspaper in my hand. Perhaps three seconds passed before he raised an eyebrow at it, and then a tiny hint of life flickered in his eyes as he realized my offering did not consist merely of a section of paper and print, but that which was contained in the writing.
"Something has happened?" he asked, and my familiarity with the subtleties of his person informed me that by the way he said 'something' that he meant something that I had deemed to be of interest to him.
"Murder," I said, still holding the paper and waiting patiently for him to take it.
"Hmm." His response was decidedly less than enthusiastic, but he lifted his head from his hand to let it fall languidly back against the chair. "A shooting?"
"Yes, and quite a bad business at that," I persisted, hoping to engage him further.
"And what was the motive?" he asked, staring blankly at the ceiling.
"Apparently robbery," I said, frowning as Holmes appeared disinterested in the bait I was dangling. I had an intense dislike for those periods of time when my companion fell into his dark moods, and I suppose that it is my well-ingrained habits as a physician that led me to do my best to better the ills of my friend as well as those of my patients; in this case the cure for cocaine might be had with an elixir of mystery.
"Here, I shall read the post to you," I said, retracting the paper and turning to the page containing the police notices, proceeding to the one to which I had been referring.
'Owlsmoor, Berkshire: During the late evening of Tuesday, the twenty-first of August, [it said] at about eleven o'clock p.m., a gunshot was heard coming from the residence of Mr. Henry Matthews. Upon hearing the noise, the alarmed housekeeper, Mrs. Alice Clayton, found her employer lying upon the floor, covered in blood from an obviously fatal wound: a single gunshot to the face. Further details remain undisclosed at this time, but upon taking up the investigation, Inspector Lestrade, well-know agent of Scotland Yard, has commented that the motive for the attack appears to have been robbery. Nothing was found removed from the premises to the best of Mrs. Clayton's knowledge, and current speculation is that Mr. Matthews disturbed an intruder in the act of breaking and entering and was subsequently shot. The intruder then fled before acquiring anything of value. Mrs. Clayton comments that her employer of three years, formerly of Cornwall, had been concerned in recent days that an attempt might be made to steal a flask in his possession, long considered to be a valuable family heirloom. The item in question is currently in the hands of Scotland Yard, having not been obtained during the robbery attempt. It is expected that quick resolution of the case shall be achieved by such an experienced investigator as Inspector Lestrade, and that final details shall be forthcoming without delay.'
Holmes had closed his eyes as his head still lay back against the chair, and I allowed myself a little smile. To the untrained observer, it would seem as though he had been utterly bored by the time that I had finished reading the brief bulletin, but I knew better. Rather than exhibiting apathy, his familiar posture was one of those adopted when in he was in deep consideration of a matter. I kept silent for some time, waiting for the moment when he would speak.
"I must admit it curious," he said at last, raising his head and opening his eyes, "that a man with an item of such considerable worth in his possession, and one that he indeed fears to have an attempt made upon shortly, takes so few precautions as to be caught unawares and shot at close range in his own home. Certainly the...ah! If I am not mistaken by the sound of the bell, that will be Lestrade himself at the door."
When I raised an eyebrow he explained himself as he rose. "His particular ring is familiar, is it not? Three distinct peals of the bell nearly always, and now here is that light step and awkward left foot of his upon the stairs."
With that, Holmes gained his feet and went to the door. "Good evening, Lestrade," he said as he opened it quickly, revealing the inspector standing on the other side of the threshold with his hand poised to knock.
"Holmes," he said with a scowl of puzzlement and a nod of acknowledgment, as he dropped his hand and strode past and into the room. "Evening, Dr. Watson," he added affably upon seeing me.
"A pleasant evening to you, Inspector," I replied, watching as he took the seat that Holmes had just vacated, as directed by my companion.
Holmes himself fetched his pipe and lit it as Lestrade and I exchanged a few comments about the torpid August air that had closed in upon London, and then turned to the inspector expectantly. "What is it that I can do for you, Lestrade?" he asked, setting himself across from where we were seated and draping one leg over the other. He flung one arm casually across the back of the sofa.
"I have a favour to ask, Mr. Holmes," Lestrade began. "There is a question I need an answer to."
"About the Matthews robbery?"
"No, about the Broadnax business."
"It seems to me that matter is quite concluded."
"That it is, but there are a few particulars I would like to clear up before I make my final report," Lestrade replied.
"Ah, I see. You wish to know how it was that I knew that Roberts was lying about the Peregrine falcon."
"No, that was plain enough," Lestrade said in an odd soft voice. "What I really want to know is whether or not you're going to accept either of the marriage proposals you were offered at Lady Broadnax's party."
Lestrade's question was so unexpected, and Holmes's sudden look of shock and irritation so profound, that I found myself loosing an uncontrolled snigger that hastily turned to a bout of genuine choking when I tried to disguise it as a cough. Clearly gossip from the infamous party had made it as far as Scotland Yard, and Lestrade chuckled to himself merrily in a jovial if not slightly self-satisfied way. As Holmes re-marshalled his composure rather quickly, I had to run for a draught of water to settle my fit. I caught his next remark to the inspector as I started to return to my chair.
"I do not plan to accept either of them, nor do I plan to accept that which I have received earlier this summer from the Widow Usher," he said sternly, sending me into a renewed frenzy of hacking at the thought of the widow, a robust and stout woman ten years Holmes's senior who had been overly persistent some months before with her amorous pursuits of my dear friend, after he had gallantly restored her lost fortune to her. Without making it quite back to my chair, I did an about-face, earning myself a dark look from Holmes as I hurried past to fetch myself more water, coughing and spluttering away.
"Ah, well it's three more offers than I can say I've had, Holmes," Lestrade said pleasantly, finally abandoning his amusement at my compatriot's expense.
Seemingly placated to an extent, Holmes simply replied, "Whether that is a blessing or a curse is for each of us to decide for himself." He shot me a rather accusing glance as I managed to return to my armchair, puffing away steadily on the pipe he held between his teeth.
"So, Lestrade, this Matthews business," he put forth again.
"A bungled break-and-enter is all," Lestrade replied with a dismissive gesture. "Poor fellow surprised a burglar and got a bullet through the nose for his pains. The matter should be cleared up by week's end."
"Any notion as to the perpetrator yet?"
"None at all?"
"Well, there's been talk in Sandhurst of an outsider hanging about lately. Bit of a strange sort too it seems; surely he's as likely as any, and I expect to find him soon," Lestrade replied confidently.
"I see," replied Holmes. "The newspaper reports that nothing was taken."
"As far as we can tell. Mrs. Clayton has been very cooperative in the investigation, and she swears that all is as it should be."
"Including the heirloom flask."
"Including the heirloom flask," Lestrade confirmed with a nod before a slight frown creased his brow. "Odd piece though, if you ask me."
"Odd? In what way?" Holmes asked casually.
"Well, there doesn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary about it. It's rather plain actually, and I don't even think it's made of silver. Can't see why Matthews would worry so much about anyone taking it; it seems more a bit of old junk to me," Lestrade said with a shrug.
"Really? I should be curious to see it at some point."
"Why, you can see it now," Lestrade said, sitting forward in his chair. "I have it with me still." He reached into his jacket pocket and extracted the most unremarkable looking flask and held it out.
Holmes uncrossed his legs and sat forward on the edge of the sofa, taking the flask from the inspector and turning it over slowly in his hands as he examined it front to back. "Yes, it does appear to be quite old," he mused quietly, "and I concur, Lestrade, that upon first glance, of little intrinsic value. This is tin, and dented tin at that, wouldn't you say?"
Holmes then turned the flask on end, presumably to check for a craftsman's mark, and all three of us could hear the light glug a liquid of some sort sloshing its way to the top end.
"Why, it's full," I said, sitting forward in my own seat to have a better look at the curious item in Holmes's long fingers.
"What's in it?" Holmes asked of Lestrade, who shrugged and shook his head.
"Brandy, I suppose. I haven't bothered to open it yet."
"Hmm," Holmes mused, righting the tin flask and then gesturing at the inspector with it. "May I?"
Lestrade shrugged again. "Be my guest," he replied with a tone that said he obviously couldn't understand why my friend felt the need to open it.
Holmes then proceeded with all the pomp and grace of a veteran oenophilist to first remove the cap and pass it once or twice under that keen aquiline nose of his, seeking to detect any odour upon it.
"A trace of sulphur...most interesting," he said, setting the cap aside, and then likewise proceeding with the open mouth of the flask, as if it were a fine vintage wine. "Yes, obviously sulphur, and here is something more...copper, I think, or perhaps iron, but decidedly metallic in nature."
Holmes then turned at once to me.
"Watson, your glass please," he said, gesturing at the empty one at my elbow that I had fetched in order to quell my cough. I handed it over to him and watched as he carefully poured a very small measure of some clear liquid into the bottom of it and turned to hold it up to the dwindling sunlight still penetrating the two front windows. Slowly he swirled the contents around the glass, all his attention trained on it. When at last he faced us again, even Lestrade had sat forward in his chair.
"Well, there's nothing left for it," Holmes said, then giving a light shrug. He tipped the meagre contents of the glass passed his lips, swirled it around his mouth, and promptly spat it back in the glass. No cognoscenti ever did so with more aplomb, and Lestrade and I waited for Holmes to pronounce judgment upon the fluid as he closed his eyes in analytical reverie.
"No character of alcohol, no detectable trace of toxin, certainly an elevated mineral content, but most decidedly, gentlemen," Holmes concluded as he opened his eyes and looked at us, "nothing more than plain water."
"Water?" Lestrade queried.
"Water!" I ejaculated. "Why on earth, Holmes, would someone kill a man over an old tin of water?"
"If that is in fact what has happened," Holmes said, and I could see that the spark of interest that had earlier kindled in his eyes had now been fanned to a robust flame by his analysis, "then that, my dear Watson, is precisely the question we must answer."