Hmm … Still seems like a Sherlock Holmes story …
I continue to connect this story with events played out in several of Doyle’s pieces, and yet, something smells fishy … almost jellyfish sticky.
3. A Web of Deceit
My friend began to exhibit the usual symptoms of keen interest in strange circumstances. His gait became noticeably different, stalking more than leisurely strolling. His eyes were afire with life, taking in every detail of every nook and cranny. His fingers twitched in purposeful patterns as if he were calculating important figures in his head.
The attendant who had been helpful to us so far escorted us back to the rear-most car where the lead engineer had been taken. A railway official had Mitchell seated in a folding chair at the end of the car on the ties, thus hiding him from any curious passengers. The lead engineer was given a glass of water and though his color was returning, he was still very agitated.
“I tell ye I saw a man standin’ there plain as day and then he just disappeared,” the man explained, presumably repeating the same story he had been conveying to his inquisitors.
“What was this man wearing?” asked Holmes as we walked up to the scene.
The official turned to face us, seeming rather upset at the interruption of his investigation.
“This is official business, sir,” he barked. “You should return to your cabin at once. We’ll be underway shortly.”
Our helpful friend stepped forward at this point and said, “This is Mr. Sherlock Holmes, sir, and his assistant, Dr. Watson.”
Whispers broke out among the other attendants, porters, and railmen at the scene. The official obviously recognized the name. His jaw jutted forward and his bottom lip pursed outward in annoyance.
“A freelance meddler, nothing more,” he said gruffly. “You show me some paperwork of authority from Scotland Yard and I will gladly turn over the investigation to you. Otherwise, you had best turn back towards the passenger cabins and wait until we are underway or I shall have you escorted back.”
Holmes stood his ground and removed a parcel of paper from his pocket with the official seal of Scotland Yard imprinted upon it. I glanced and saw that it had been signed by Inspector Lestrade. Holmes handed the document to the official whose eyes widened.
The official perused the text and quietly handed Holmes the document back.
“If you would be so kind as to give us some privacy, gentleman,” Holmes said to the crowd, “this is official business.”
The assorted rail workers turned and left the scene, but the official hesitated a moment, his face turning a thousand shades of red, before he stomped off in defeat.
“Where did you get that?” I asked my friend after we were alone with the engineer and our good attendant.
Holmes smirked and said, “Oh I keep several on hand for emergencies – some from the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Agriculture, all clever forgeries. Lestrade’s signature is one of the easiest to mimic as it resembles the scrawling of a five-year-old.”
Even Mitchell chuckled at this, and I doubled over with laughter, “You old rogue. You would find yourself in a great deal of trouble if someone were to find out.”
“Indeed, Watson. That is why I only use them in the most desperate situations.” He then turned to our engineer and gave him a gentle smile before proceeding to question him about the events.
The engineer was happy to answer our questions, no matter what direction they took. Mitchell had been riding the rails since he was sixteen, and had a keen interest in locomotives all his life. He had never touched a drop of alcohol his entire life and had no vices to speak of. He was unmarried and traveled extensively as his position allowed.
Holmes returned to his initial line of questioning in regards to the clothes the vanishing man had been wearing.
“He had a long dirty coat,” Mitchell replied. “His pants were thick material, leather maybe, and his boots had heavy thick soles.”
“Aye, they had to have been as they were thickly treaded like mountaineering boots. And the feller wore goggles that he had set up on his forehead, holding down the brightest yellow hair you ever seen.”
“You mean blonde?” interrupted Holmes.
“Nay, when I say yellow I mean yellow as a canary. That’s all I can tell ye. I didn’t have long to look afore I had to pull the brakes.”
“Now, in regards to that precise moment and the moments following, were you the only man in position to be looking out the forward glass?” questioned Holmes.
“Aye, I was. The others had tasks to attend to that wouldn’t allow a view of the rails in front. No matter what they say, I’m the only that could have seen him.”
“So you engaged the brakes. Did you look away to do so?”
“I did not. I know my engine blinded. I set my hands on the lever and never once did my eyes leave that face. I thought for sure that he was a goner.”
“And the man vanished, you say. Did he make any gesture before you saw him disappear?” continued Holmes.
“Yeah, he did, in fact. He brought his hand up to his chest just before he went ‘poof'”
“Thank you, Mr. Mitchell. You’ve been most helpful,” concluded Holmes.
“So you believe me then?” the engineer asked, looking hopeful.
“I’m sorry,” replied Holmes. “Given the description of the circumstances in addition to your history, I’d have to say the apparition was a result of stress and overwork. You should really look into a holiday.”
Dejectedly Mitchell let his chin fall to his chest.
Holmes turned to the attendant still with us and asked if it was true that there was telegraph station only two miles to the west. The attendant verified it was true and Holmes instructed him to have our bags rerouted from York station to Leeds, giving him enough money cover the expense plus a generous tip.
“Up for some exercise, Watson?” Holmes asked as he grabbed my arm and turned me towards the direction of the telegraph station.
I nodded and began to walk with him away from the train. After a few minutes of walking we heard the train whistle sound and the engine roar to life as the train continued its journey without us.
“Surely the man’s testimony coupled with the evidence we found on the track was enough to prove his story,” I voiced after being able to stand the silence no longer.
“Very good, Watson. He was indeed telling the truth. Subtle facial and body language confirmed that at least he believed he was telling the truth, and our investigation of the scene corroborates.” he replied.
“But why the deception?”
Holmes’ face was serious and we walked several meters before he spoke.
“Watson, we are dealing with powers I’ve not come in contact with before. On many occasions, as you may well remember, the facts presented in our cases lean towards a supernatural or otherworldly cause, though in the end we always are able to bring light to the simple truth behind them. Recall the cases of the Speckled Band and the curse of Baskervilles, both odd circumstances leaning towards weird phenomena, but both simply and scientifically explained – both simply evil plots of desperate yet clever men.
“This time, however, I cannot account for the situation. The strange clothing, the boot print, the residue on the tracks, the timely telegram, the case of the cows, and the murder of Inspector Bridges are all somehow connected and at the moment I am at a loss as to what the connecting strands are in this web of deceit laid about us.”
“You mention only the Bridges incident,” I said, “Do you believe the telegram was entirely a fake and that a second official from Scotland Yard was not murdered?”
“We shall know soon enough. Assuming the messenger from the train was not an accomplice to the scheme, we should be receiving a telegram from Lestrade upon our arrival at the telegraph office either confirming or denying the murder.”
We continued our walk and soon discovered that the distance to the telegraph office was more likely three miles instead of two. At Holmes’ determined and unbroken pace, I was slightly winded by the time we walked up the steps and into the offices of the telegrapher.
“Yes, sir. We’ve just received a communication for a Mr. Tobias,” the telegrapher said to us after Holmes’ had given him the false name. “I’ve not typed it up yet, but here’s the text if you can read my handwriting.”
He handed the hand-written message to Holmes which read as follows:
“Tobias – Sorry haven’t written. Two dogs have died and now a pup as well. My condolences, as pup is Bradley. Your rooms have been redecorated. Come home soon. – Margaret”
I raised my eyebrows at the unusual message, but looking at Holmes’ face I saw a deep grief that I had not witnessed before. He seemed on the verge of tears and quickly exited the building without a word. I followed him in confusion, but waited for him to speak. He began to pace rapidly only stopping to bash his fist into a lamppost outside the telegraph office.
“Blast it all, Watson!” he exclaimed, pounding the lamppost in time with the syllables of his outburst.
“A coded message from Lestrade?” I asked.
“Yes, and a most disturbing one. This case has suddenly become very personal. Not since the Moriarty business have I felt so set upon,” he said, still pacing up and down the sidewalk. “What to do, what to do?”
“What did Lestrade have to say?”
“He says he did not send the first telegram, but confirms that a total of two policemen have been murdered. And not only that, Watson, the fiend has struck out at an innocent. He has murdered one of the Baker Street Irregulars, poor Bradley … but a child …” Holmes was obviously overcome with emotion at this point, and halted his ceaseless pacing.
I stood silent and waited for him to compose himself.
After a minute, he stood up straight, the stoic presentation of resolution across his face.
“We shall take a coach to Leeds and visit my chemist acquaintance there to ascertain the properties of the residue we have collected. There we will break company, Watson. I will continue on to the Dales in disguise and see what I may learn there of this treacherous series of events. You will return to London and immediately track down my brother Mycroft. The message also says that Baker Street has been raided. If this criminal is set on hitting at me directly, he may go for my closest acquaintances, so Mycroft and Lestrade may both be in danger, not to mention yourself, Watson. You must arm yourself at all times and be prepared for anything.”
I nodded my understanding, feeling a wave of dreadful foreboding wash over me. Again and again in the past had I moments of fear and trepidation when heading towards a climax of action while assisting Holmes, but this particular time I began to wonder if this would be the one adventure we would not survive.
Holmes went back in and sent a telegram to both farmers, Davison and Baker, to say that he was unavoidably detained and could not offer his assistance in the strange case.
We hired a hansom for the trip to Leeds and Holmes drove us at breakneck speed down the winding roads. He spoke in a near frantic voice as he drove and I had not seen him so flustered in all my years with him.
“Magicians can cleverly use smoke and mirrors to produce illusions. I’ve even known the necessity to use such methods myself on occasion, but the event on the rails is quite honestly beyond me. Our only lead is that vial you carry in your pocket.”
“What do you make of the engineer’s description of the vanishing man?” I asked.
“I can make nothing of it, Watson, and therefore I will leave it alone. We have been breaking one of my primary rules. We must follow the path of least resistance from now on, no matter how outlandish an ending it leads us towards. Our adversary obviously knew of my trip to Yorkshire before we left, which means he must have somehow gleaned the information from Mycroft. The murder of Bridges was an obvious attempt to get me to remain in London, whether for some sinister plan at that location or to keep me away from some crime about to occur in Yorkshire.
“Discovering I had left London, our adversary masterminded the interruption with the train and the delivery of the false telegram. Since we don’t know the particulars of the two most recent murders, we cannot assume they are related, but it is most likely the same murderer after the same end result of me returning to London.
I tried to listen as much as I could, but my attention was diverted time and again to the road as we shot over bridges and through curves recklessly, once even turning the cart up on one wheel.
“Once we get to Leeds, I will send another coded message to Lestrade to make preparations for our return. You and I will be returning on horseback under cover of night.”
“But Holmes,” I interjected, gripping the seat cushion in fear of flying out of the hansom. “You said you were going to the Dales.”
“I am going to the Dales, Watson,” he replied. “But I am also returning to London. I shall explain once we reach the laboratory in Leeds.”
The scenery shot by us in a blur. Considering our diversion away from the train, our enemies could not know our current whereabouts or our next destination. That did nothing to alleviate the feeling that even as we flew across the countryside we were being watched.