Thursday, February 28, 2008

The peculiar case of the contraband cigar case

It was an unusually bright day late in February, and I was sitting at my ease in the rooms I shared with Mr Sherlock Holmes. Although I was, as I have said, in a state of perfect contentment with the world, my companion was unquestionably restless. The criminal world had, it seemed, been conspiring against him in the manner of their outrages against society - it scarcely appealed either to Holmes's intellect nor to his sense of decorum to trail after the routine bludgeonings and shootings that now infested the East End, while the ritualised killings among recent arrivals from the Empire that had at first alerted Holmes's sense of the bizarre had paled through sheer repetition into a litany of deaths that even the dullards at Scotland Yard could be relied upon to handle.
As a result, Holmes was irritable and bored. His mood (and mine if it comes to that) had not been improved by the ruling that, as he used our rooms at Baker Street as his primary place of work, and indeed retained an employee in the form of the estimable Mrs Hudson, the ounce and a half of shag that he was wont to smoke in contemplation of a particularly tricky case now had to be consumed in considerable discomfort, while standing among the mud and fogs of Baker Street.
As he sat in his armchair, however, a sudden smile lit up his thin features and with a laugh he tossed a small object across the room to me.
"There, Watson," he said, "tell me what you make of that."
'That' seemed to refer to a small cigar case, of tooled leather, with space for perhaps three cigars. I said as much to Holmes, adding that it did not seem to me that there was anything further to deduce from such unpromising material.
"Not a bit of it, my dear Watson," said Holmes, with a stern look. "Why even from a cursory examination you must at least be able to describe its provenance?"
I confessed that, beyond the observation that it appeared to be well-made and reasonably expensive I could make nothing of it.
"But surely you have noticed the unique nature of the stitching, which together with the distinctive smell of the leather itself indisputably place its manufacture within 20 miles of the Fertile Crescent? No? These features really cannot be mistaken - you should read my monograph on the manufacture and curing of leather in Mesopotamia and Persia since Babylonian times."
I made a mental note to avail myself of such an opportunity at some point and made to hand the case back, but Holmes stopped me.
"But really, that is only the beginning. It is evident, even at first glance, that the original owner of this case lost it at a time of great personal misfortune - that much is evident from the slight scorching at the back of the case, and of the slightest traces of rubble which can be seen in the stitching - and that its current owner is a man of more than average size or strength, with ill-fitting clothes and unruly hair, probably a journalist, or possibly a politician."
He passed out this information with an air of a man remarking on mere commonplaces of the weather.
"But Holmes," I cried, "I do not see how any such conclusion can be drawn!"
"My dear Watson, you know my methods, it is merely a matter of applying them. That the owner is large is evident from the recent fingermarks that have been imprinted on the leather, that he is untidy in his dress can be seen by the fact that this case has evidently been sitting in a pocket with twine, poorly-printed pamphlets - from which one can also deduce that he is either a writer for the yellow press or a benighted politician - and the various coins, keys and so on that have produced the scratches on the surface. That he has an untidy mop of fair hair is easily deduced from the strands that have attached themselves even to his cigar case. For a man to have shed hair onto his cigars suggests an extravagant style indeed."
As ever, when explained by Holmes, the most outlandish deductions seemed clear as day, even trivial. Noticing my change of expression Holmes laughed.
"It is true that I ought not to explain my methods, for once the daylight seeps in, the magic seeps out. But the ownership of this case is no trivial thing, for I have been informed by my friends at Scotland Yard that this case is the key to unmasking and defeating the most dangerous man in London."
"Moriarty?" I said almost in a whisper, for the deeds of that man had turned much of London to ruinous decline over the past year. His involvement in American land deals alone had transformed the City of London into a wreck; his hand was sensed in the sensational collapse of a major banking institution that had done much to destroy public confidence in the conventional financial sector.
"No," said Holmes, "one still more dangerous than he. His existence is known to many, but his true nature shielded from all. Yet for those cognoscenti that do exist, only his first name needs to be spoken for instant recognition and fear to be shown. He stands upon the brink of destroying the hallowed institutions of London Town, and the instructions for his final exposure have come, I may say, from the very top."
Twenty minutes later we were in a Hansom cab, bowling along the A40 towards Henley...
(continued on page 94)

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