I wrote this story on a whim a couple of years ago, meaning for it to possibly be the first story in a new series if its format and premise intrigued me enough. Also, I wanted to play around a little with writing mystery, since I'd never done it, and I figured a pastiche of a Holmes story would be good practice. I enjoyed writing it, but decided that mystery wasn't really a genre I was interested in writing a lot of, and scrapped the proposed series. For what it is as a short story, I think it works as a stand-alone piece, although by the end of the story, you'll see what I mean about how it was designed to be the first of several stories in a series.
This will be published in several chapters a few days apart while I clean up each chapter before releasing it. I doubt that I'll be writing any more Holmes stories, but hopefully this story is still enjoyable as it is: simply a very small contribution to the vast plethora of SH stories out there.
THE ADVENTURE OF THE SILVER COIN
It has been my great pleasure these last twenty years to record remarkable feats of logic and deduction by my good friend Sherlock Holmes. These adventures have not only provided me with a way to supplement my meager military pension, but on a purely intellectual level has also provided endless hours of mental stimulus which, I dare say, I would not have encountered in my life otherwise. This last point may be one to which most people would underrate in terms of importance, however in my reflective hours I do sometimes ponder what my existence would have consisted of without the excitement my friend seems to bring in his wake. At the very least, it would have been a dull and unimaginative life, though old age has brought a note of sentimentality to my being. Time has not erased our adventures from my mind, but out of prudence, and perhaps a concern for the safety of certain parties, I have not written all that even my most diligent reader would recognize as a part of the life Holmes and I lead. Now, many years later, I feel I can, with a clear conscience, tell the reader one case which will forever be etched in my mind as an important event in my life, and I feel I can say without exaggerating, an important event in Holmes' life.
It was late October of 1895 and with the sudden chill of oncoming winter, crime in the city had decreased, leaving Holmes languishing without a case for over two weeks. As always, this absence of mental stimulation left Holmes apathetic and morose, made all the worse by the weather which forbid sane men from entering out-of-doors without a very specific purpose. Though cold and methodical with regards to scientific reasoning, my friend did have a Bohemian flair which left him a helpless music fanatic, and when I discovered an advertisement for a concert of several Wagner's librettos being performed at St. James's Hall, I managed to persuade Holmes to leave the warmth and comfort of our rooms on Baker Street for a rare evening of entertainment. Holmes was not at all disposed to appearing in public, much less respectable society, but Wagner's strange, transcendental sounds always seemed to lure him from whatever state they found him in and lifted his spirits, however temporarily.
After turning down my offer to treat him to supper, we found ourselves back at our rooms earlier than I had anticipated. We dined on sandwiches which Mrs. Hudson had managed to throw together, as she too had assumed we'd stop to dine on our way home. I was to be found not far from the warm fire all evening, since the damp chill pervading our rooms was aggravating my old war wounds, and Holmes planted himself firmly in the armchair he had all but occupied continuously these last dull weeks, reading the evening edition he'd picked up on the way home.
At around seven-thirty, Mrs. Hudson knocked on our study door.
"Inspector Hopkins to see you gentlemen," she announced.
Holmes practically leapt from the chair as Hopkins appeared and was offered a seat, which he took after turning down Mrs. Hudson's offer of tea. "I shan't take too much of your time tonight, Mr. Holmes, as we are just wrapping up a case and I have a mind to go home and get some rest."
"Of course, Inspector. Tonight is not a night to be out in the cold if one can help it," Holmes replied.
"Indeed. I have a letter here that my department received tonight, and I wondered if you might be able to tell me whether it is authentic or not. The man who wrote to us claims to be a part of the Willard Gang which, if you remember, has of late been involved in arson."
"And you dispute its authenticity?"
"I've grown weary of chasing down leads that get us nowhere," Hopkins admitted as he pulled a folded, vanilla white letter from his coat pocket and handed it to Holmes. "Seems the public has taken a great interest in the Willard Gang and finds it amusing when the police follow every phony lead we get."
Holmes opened the letter almost greedily and scrutinized the letter for only a moment before handing it back to Hopkins almost as quickly as he'd taken it. "It's a fake," Holmes said with a weary sigh, slinking back down into his easy chair.
"How did you know so quickly, sir?"
"The author of that letter is left-handed, while none of the Willard Gang is. Knowledge of kinetic dexterity is an underrated tool in the detection of crimes, one which I've been thinking quite seriously of publishing a monogram on for the benefit of those in my profession. I'm astonished that you, who have seen the real letters from the Willard Gang, could not immediately detect its falseness," Holmes answered in an uncharacteristically snappish voice. The cold, and the lack of cases, had made his temper a short one for the time being.
"How can we be sure one of the gang isn't left-handed?"
"Because only one of them is literate, Hopkins, and he is right-handed."
Hopkins dutifully folded the letter and put it back in his coat pocket. "I apologize for troubling you then, Mr. Holmes." He rose to leave.
"What was your other case, Inspector?"
"The one I've just come from? All wrapped up. No need to worry about that."
"I take it that it was the Winchester murder?"
"Sit, Inspector, and enlighten us. Humor me, for I have had a trying two weeks and my brain positively aches for a mystery."
"You can hear every bit of it, sir, but it won't make much difference. We arrested the guilty man this afternoon."
"If you wouldn't mind putting off your warm bed for another half hour, perhaps you will regale us with the details?" Holmes looked up at him with a small smile. From lodging with Holmes for so many years, I knew instinctively he must have found the reports in the paper he'd just read to be inadequate, and that the evening might yet be salvaged.
Hopkins sat back down and shrugged slightly. "For all the help you've given me over the years, Mr. Holmes, I'd be glad to tell you all I know, but I fear it's a waste of your time."
"Very well. Bob Webster is a dealer in antique coins with a shop on Fleet Street and lives on the commission he gets from selling rare and valuable coins. Over the years, he's built a small reputation on his deep knowledge of currency and until recently has done moderately well for himself and his small family, whom he resides with above his shop. However, Webster has recently fallen on hard times, and from what I've been able to gather is dangerously near bankruptcy.
"Webster has - or had, I should say - a friend named Elliott Winchester, who was a banking manager at Croftstow Brothers Limited for twelve years. Winchester has been described as a very honorable man, cool-headed and steady of nerves. He never married, and lived a relatively uneventful, comfortable and quiet life. Over the past eight years, Webster and Winchester got to know each other rather well, as business often brought Webster to Croftstow when an exchange was needed. Winchester's servants tell me it wasn't unusual for Webster to spend long evenings with Winchester, and that their employer had one item that interested Webster deeply. Upon the death of his father, Winchester inherited a collection of rare Spanish coins minted in 1715, and these he kept displayed in his study. It was a large collection worth many thousands of pounds. Time and again Webster had told Winchester of the great value of his coins, and on at least two occasions made rather generous offers for them. However, Winchester refused to part with them, and I fear this was his undoing.
"As I've stated earlier, Webster has hit a bad spot, financially speaking, and has not yet told his wife of the trouble they are facing. Last night, by his own admission and which has been confirmed by the servants, Webster arrived unannounced at Winchester's house begging an interview. Webster told his friend he had found a buyer for the Spanish coins who would pay handsomely, and that the transaction would be beneficial to both of them; Webster would make enough on commission to absolve his debts and Winchester would make a handsome profit. Webster made an impassioned plea to his friend, but Winchester refused to budge. Winchester considered the collection a family heirloom which no price could part him with. Webster left the house disheartened around eleven last evening. Around one o'clock in the morning, Eliza Scott, the servant, was awakened from her slumber by the sound of voices coming from downstairs. She heard Webster's voice in the front room with Winchester, but since the two men were good friends, she thought nothing of it and went back to sleep. A half hour later, at one-thirty, she was again awoken, this time from the sound of Winchester's screams. By the time she ran to the study, Winchester was dead, beaten to death with a candlestick from the mantle and the collection of Spanish coins had disappeared.
"There was no sign of forced entry, which corroborates Eliza's statement that Winchester himself let Webster in. The police first questioned Webster, who swears that after he left the house at ten-thirty, he'd gone to a pub with a friend to drown his sorrows. We have not yet been able to locate Webster's friend, so unfortunately we've not been able to confirm that Webster was, in fact, at the pub. After a thorough search of Webster's belongings, one coin from Winchester's collection was found in the overcoat pocket belonging to Webster."
"Have you been able to locate the rest of the collection?"
"No, sir, we have not. We're operating under the assumption that the collection has already been sold a private buyer."
"Strange that a transaction such as the one you're speaking of would be conducted in the middle of the night," I commented. "Has Webster given the name of the potential buyer he spoke to Winchester of?"
"Yes, sir, a Mr. David Zimmerman, whom the police spoke to this morning. He was indeed interested in purchasing the Winchester collection but said he had not heard from Webster in days."
"Any sign of the money?"
"And I suppose it's too much to hope for that there are any records or receipts for the transaction?"
"There are none."
"So, Inspector, you're actually operating under the assumption that Webster sold the coins to a second interested party, and one to whom such a late night, off-the-books type of transaction wouldn't bother?" Holmes said, folding his hands in his lap.
"Yes, Mr. Holmes, that is correct."
"And what does Webster say?"
"He pleads his innocence, sir, as any criminal might."
"Of course! They're all innocent," Holmes responded with a smirk.
"There would be enough evidence so far to land him in court, but there is one more detail that is very much of interest to the police, and I believe makes this an open-and-shut case."
"And what is that?"
"Up until eight years ago when Webster married, he was a petty criminal mainly involved in burglaries. He spent a short time in prison for breaking and entering after the owner of the home he was burglaring slammed a window on his hand, effectively rendering him unable to escape before the police found him. However, when his wife agreed to marry him, she made him swear to give up crime for good, and it seems he did exactly this. But if there is anything to make a man turn back to a life of crime, it could conceivably be the prospect of losing one's livelihood and having to tell one's spouse that their finances were in shambles."
"Have you spoken to his wife?"
"Yes. She says Webster got home rather late from the pub, certainly after the time in which the crime was committed."
"So! A seasoned burglar in desperate need of money robs and murders a man he knows to have a rare coin collection of which the criminal is an expert. A servant who would know Webster's voice well swears it was he that she heard only moments before the murder was committed, and Webster's wife confirms he arrived home after the time of the murder."
"Exactly, Mr. Holmes, exactly," he muttered with grim satisfaction as he took a long sip of his tea.
"I do have one question: this man Webster, does he have a history of violent crimes?"
"No, sir, come to think of it. Not even assault."
"Strange. A man experienced in burglary would wait until everyone in the house was asleep before attempting theft. But it seems Webster knocked on the door, was admitted by Winchester, and broke into a heated argument with him, ending with Webster bludgeoning his friend to death. It would, of course, make more sense if Winchester had caught him in the act, taken him by surprise, and the murder the result of a botched robbery, but this seems not to be the case," Holmes muttered to himself as he stared into the fire.
"Out of curiosity, Inspector, what do you think happened to the coins, if indeed the money is nowhere to be found?" I asked.
"The man panicked at his actions and disposed of the coins in some way so as not to get caught," he explained simply. "The collection is probably at the bottom of the Thames as we speak."
"But then why the single coin in his overcoat pocket? Why would the man have something on him connecting him with the murder?" Holmes asked, his eyes hardening in concentration.
"Criminals do make mistakes, especially if they are out of practice. Perhaps he felt he could make a small profit with a single coin, at least enough to keep his creditors at bay for a short while longer," Hopkins answered. He studied Holmes for a moment before declaring, "You seem to think there is more to this than meets the eye."
"There are holes in your theory, Inspector, that are large enough for an unidentified murderer to escape through."
"I feel we've done quite well," he said indignantly. "And I feel certain we've got the right man in custody. However, if you'd like to investigate for yourself, I will make no move to stop you."
"Will you accompany us to the scene of the crime?"
"I'm afraid we've cleared it, sir."
"Nevertheless, we shall see what we can pluck from the remains," Holmes said with a small smile as he stood to leave.
A moment later and much against my resolve to spend the evening by the hearth, we were following Hopkins in a cab towards Winchester's house, and I couldn't help but notice a peculiar smile which tugged at my friend's face.
"Really, Holmes, surely this is a waste of time. Are you so very bored that you'll venture out on a cold night like this when it appears that the police have this case covered at every angle?" I asked him.
"No, Watson, on a night such as this I too prefer our warm lodgings, but I fear there are too many unexplained details in the inquiry's hasty conclusion. We may yet be able to help this man Webster, if he is indeed innocent of this dreadful crime. We shall see for ourselves, and draw our own conclusions."
I thought his choice of words interesting, for in all our years solving cases, I had yet to solve a case correctly before he did. However, his eyelids had drooped and Holmes was obviously in deep meditative thought, and thus I did not disturb him until we had arrived at the home of the late Elliott Winchester of Crofstow Bros. Ltd.
Hopkins showed us into the study where the coins had been kept and where Winchester had met his grisly end. A lone officer was on duty, but otherwise it was much as Hopkins had said; except for the blood splatter still evident on the rug in front of the fireplace, there were no other indicators that anything unusual had taken place.
"Have fingerprints been taken, Inspector?"
"None were found on the candlestick which was used in the murder, sir. But then Webster must have been wearing gloves in this freezing weather we've been having the past few days."
"I regret to have forgotten my own. This coin that was found in Webster's pocket, where is it now?"
Hopkins pulled a crumpled handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Holmes. Holmes dug the coin from the handkerchief and held the strangely-shaped silver piece in front of his eyes for a long moment.
"Do you mind if I take this, Hopkins?"
Hopkins shifted his weight. "Well, Mr. Holmes, we need it for the trial – "
"I can promise to have it back to you no later than tomorrow morning. I only want to ease my mind of one point."
"All right, Mr. Holmes, if you feel it's important."
"It may, perhaps, be of the utmost importance. Where is Eliza, the servant?"
"I'll get her."
Hopkins exited the room, leaving Holmes to stuff the handkerchief and coin into his pocket then scurry with quick step throughout the room, leaving nothing untouched with his gaze. I stood quietly in the corner near the officer until a small woman, perhaps forty years of age, with brunette hair and an ugly bruise above her left eye meekly entered the room with Hopkins behind her.
"This is Mr. Holmes, Eliza," Hopkins said softly, gesturing towards Holmes, who had turned his attention towards the girl. "He'd like to ask you a few questions about last night."
"I've told everything I know," she answered in a sharp tone I put down to a stressful, tragic day. She leveled her gaze at Holmes. "I'll tell you what I told the police. It was Mr. Webster, sir, if ever I lived and breathed. He needed the money and he knew exactly where Mr. Winchester kept his coins. It makes my stomach turn to know I ever let him into this house." Her face contorted into a small sob.
Holmes directed Eliza to sit and immediately began to pace. "Tell me everything that happened last night and leave nothing out, not even the smallest detail."
"I already told the police all I know, sir," she replied pointedly.
"There is five pounds in it for you if you tell me," Holmes said in a slightly more somber tone, looking directly into her eyes. I thought I saw the quick glean of greed flash in her eyes momentarily, but she lowered her gaze almost immediately.
Hopkins looked startled. "Mr. Holmes! I cannot allow you bribe the witness – "
"It's nothing, inspector, nothing," Holmes waved him away. His gaze turned back to Eliza. "Now, Ms. Scott, tell me."
Eliza hesitated for only a moment before beginning, "It was around nine o'clock, sir, when I let Mr. Webster in. He and Mr. Winchester sat in the study and at times I could hear raised voices through the closed doors. Mr. Webster left at around eleven in a rotten mood. Mr. Winchester dismissed me for the night shortly thereafter, and I went to sleep at around midnight. About an hour later, I awoke to the sound of raised voices coming from the study. It was Mr. Webster's voice, and I thought perhaps he had come back and that Mr. Winchester had let him in. I fell back asleep, but Mr. Winchester's screams woke me up about a half an hour later. I was frightened sir, and waited until all was quiet before I slipped into my robe and went to the study. Mr. Winchester was lying in front of the fireplace, his face dripping blood." She stopped here to let a small sob escape her before continuing, "He was dead, sir. That's when I went for the police."
"Could you decipher anything that was said during Mr. Webster's second visit?"
"No, sir, only that it was his voice and he was shouting."
"When you went into the study, was anything disarranged?"
"Only the candlestick, sir, which was on the floor next to Mr. Winchester."
Holmes stepped closer to the girl, scrutinizing her deeply. "Might I ask how you got that bruise on your forehead?"
Eliza touched the tender spot, looking confused. "A fall, sir."
"Yes. Yesterday morning I tripped in the garden and hit my head on one of the flagstones. I'm afraid I'm a bit clumsy at times."
"Thank you, Ms. Scott," Holmes said as he absent-mindedly flung a five pound note from his pocket into Eliza's lap. Before I could follow him, he was already storming towards the front door, shouting as he went, "Thank you, Inspector Hopkins! I shall be in touch!"
I nearly had to run to catch him at the kerb. "Holmes, what on earth? Why are you hurrying?"
"Because this is a more twisted web than even I first realized, Watson. Are you too tired to continue?"
"Not at all."
"Good. Let us go."
"Go where?" I asked as we both climbed in to a waiting cab.
"I think something sinister is going on here, Watson. It is too early to be sure, but that bruise on the girl's forehead...it is curious."
"You think Eliza did it?" I asked in astonishment.
"A small woman such as herself overpowering a man in the prime of his life armed with nothing more than a candlestick? I find it extremely difficult to believe."
"May I ask, then, why you gave her five pounds for her story?"
"All in good time, my dear fellow." Holmes yelled an address up to the driver and we were away in an instant, whisking through the cold streets of London as the last slivers of sunlight ushered forth twilight that bathed the city in darkness.
"Are we headed to Webster's shop?"
"No. The trail would be long cold by now, Watson, if ever there was one that ran through that shop."
"Then where are we going?"
Holmes pulled the handkerchief wrapped in the coin out of his pocket, studying it.
"We are going to find out if this web can be untangled."