A VERY DELICATE MATTER - Short Story by James McCreet

Written by James McCreet

An unofficial Sherlock Holmes story

An unseasonable shower was lashing Baker Street as I rang impatiently at the bell of 221b that July morning. Was the housekeeper Mrs Hudson away? And, if so, could my eccentric friend not hear the repeated ringing? Had it been another house, I might have worried for the resident, but I knew from long experience that Sherlock Holmes was likely occupied with another of his “three-pipe” problems and entirely oblivious to the outer world.
            In this, I was quite wrong. Just as I was about to stroll away, an object hit the top of my hat and I looked up to see a key hanging from a piece of twine. It was my access to the house and I entered in a state of some wonder at the odd behaviour of my friend.
            On arriving at his rooms, I was astounded to see the floor and furniture quite littered with manuscripts and books as if a great wind had torn them from the bookshelves and scattered them about the place. The man himself seemed agitated and paced constantly among the gaping pages.
            ‘Holmes!’ I ejaculated. ‘You have been robbed!’
            He looked at me with incredulity upon his face. ‘Robbed, Watson? What criminal do you know who would go through my library with such care when my watch hangs by the mantel there and my pocket-book sits in plain sight by the pile of Rankin books? No – this mess you see is entirely of my own making. But I see you have been to the Post Office.’
            I was about to remove the letter from my inner breast pocket when it occurred to me that he could not possibly have seen its slender profile beneath my mackintosh and jacket.
            ‘And you needn’t have stopped at the tobacconists on my account,’ he continued. ‘My Turkish slipper is currently well stocked with an excellent shag recommended to me by my brother Mycroft.’
            I held no proprietary bag and the tobacco was in one of the voluminous pockets of my coat. I smiled and nodded an acknowledgement. ‘Very well – I suppose you will tell me how you have deduced these things.’
            Holmes sighed. ‘You know my methods. The weather today is wet and all manner of things will adhere to a man’s shoes in such conditions. I see you have a flake of pink confetti on the left heel and I know that there was a wedding at St Peter’s only yesterday. It might have been another church, of course, but the sparkling green glitter I see next to that confetto tells me that you must also have passed the Roxy nightclub which is virtually a neighbour St Peter’s.’
            ‘Very good, Holmes, but you have said nothing of the Post Office.’
            ‘It hardly seems necessary to mention it. The Post Office is just around the corner from those places and is undergoing a brief refurbishment. You should have paid more attention to the signs directing your attention to “Wet Paint” – you have a smear of Post-Office red on your left elbow. I will not mention the perforated fragment of a stamp book that I see nestled in the upturned hem of your right trouser leg. It is too obvious.’
            ‘I say Holmes!’ I twisted to see the stain on my best mackintosh.
            ‘As for the visit to the tobacconist. I see that you have made a recent close acquaintance with Hector.’
            ‘Hector?’
            ‘The slobbering St Bernard that Herr Bergdorf insists on keeping in his shop. When he lapped at your hand, you did what any man would so and wiped the spittle unthinkingly on your thigh so as not to offend the proprietor by taking out your handkerchief. I see it glistening there still and you have been absently wiping your hand ever since you arrived, worrying, with your physician’s punctiliousness, that you must wash the fingers before you next eat.’
            ‘I see that I can hide nothing from you, Holmes. But tell me: why on earth have you created such a clutter with your books?’
            
‘That is your fault, Watson. Much as I have enjoyed your little narrations of my cases, I never once believed that they would amount to anything. Now I cannot escape their covers in every bookshop window and I hear that a film is to be released. I admit I used to enjoy my local notoriety, but this level of celebrity is quite, quite disturbing. And then you accept an invitation to attend the Hallowed Gate Crime Festival with me as your special guest! I cannot do it. I have experiments to do here. I simply cannot do it and I will not!’
            ‘Becalm yourself, Holmes. You have still not explained away this mess.’
            ‘Well, I have been attempting to read all of our past cases in preparation! But there are just so many and . . . well, I cannot do it. I will not go. But I wish you luck and I congratulate you on the honour. Tell them I am just a figment. Tell them I am ill. Preserve me as merely a character you created.’
            I had never seen my friend like this. Irene Adler had intrigued him; Moriarty had impressed him, but the thought of appearing at an event was something unaccountably ominous to him.
            ‘Is it the Scottish writer you fear?’ I asked. ‘She is not nearly as fierce as people say.’
            ‘No, no – not her.’
            ‘I am sorry to say it, Holmes, but I think I have a compelling reason why you might want to accompany me to Hallowed Gate.’ I handed him the letter I had collected from the Post Office.

 

Dear Dr Watson

I know that you are a busy man and that you are very likely preparing for the festival, but I have been told your friend Sherlock Holmes might be the only person who can help me.

     I will be brief: the Crime Writers Club is due to present a Diamond Dagger this year and the hotel has been keeping it prior to the event. Last night, however, the dagger was stolen some time between a photo shoot and its return to the hotel safe. A chambermaid has been arrested but I feel sure she is innocent. The only clue is a smudged handprint (but no fingerprints) on a piece of glass.

     The theft has not yet been revealed. Alas, the event is in a matter of days and the police tell us an investigation into the dagger’s whereabouts might take weeks. Will Sherlock Holmes be accompanying you to Hallowed Gate?

     He is, I fear, our only hope.

 

Sincerely

Fanny Jessop (Duty Manager,The Leda Hotel)

 

Sherlock Holmes read the letter, held it up to the light, sniffed it, rubbed it between thumb and forefinger. When he spoke, it was with a distracted air.

            ‘Conqueror 100gsm ivory laid paper printed on an HP LaserJet 1000 at around 4.15 in the afternoon. Miss Jessop – she is not married – wears Miss Dior perfume, has shoulder-length blonde hair and wears peach-coloured nail varnish.’

            ‘Does this mean you will take the case?’ I said.

            ‘I have never been to Hallowed Gate,’ said Holmes with oracular evasiveness. ‘The guidebook says it has excellent café in the centre.’

            ‘So you have read a guidebook on the place already?’ I said. ‘I thought you had no intention of going!’

            ‘As a speaker or a renowned investigator, certainly not. But did you think I would miss your turn on stage? My bag is packed and my tickets are there on the mantel. I have a disguise, so you need not worry about my anonymity.’

            ‘But the books . . .  the mess . . .’

            ‘I am disappointed you fell so easily for my ploy. Had I not evoked in you a sense of my utmost fear, you might have guessed I would attend the festival as a simple member of the public and inadvertently revealed me to the press. Acting is such a subtle art is it not?’

Too exasperated to speak, I returned quickly home to pack some things.

 

Holmes writhed in apparent agony upon the bed, twisting and turning and groaning as if his final hour was imminent.

            ‘Is it poison?’ I enquired.

            ‘Is is nothing short of gluttony!’ He moaned. ‘I have only myself to blame.’

            Holmes had always been a man of restrained appetite, seeming to survive on little more than bacon sandwiches and the occasional pipe-bowl of tobacco. But at Bertha’s Tea Rooms in Hallowed Gate he had quite surpassed himself in the consumption of marzipan fancies, clotted-cream scones, curd tarts and all manner of Yorkshire delicacies, washing down this intemperate feast with a range of teas that he had sipped and measured as if each were a rare specimen of the botanic arts.

            ‘Well, you will have to collect yourself shortly because Miss Jessop is going to visit us in our room,’ I said. ‘She thought it best if we meet here rather than in a public space.’

            ‘Very sensible, too. I would like to solve this little case before the whole thing begins tomorrow.’

            There came a knock at the door.

            ‘It is Miss Jessop,’ said Holmes. ‘She is five feet and ten inches in her blue court shoes, but open the door carefully – she it holding a tray in one hand.’

            I stared at the windowless wooden door and decided not to enquire further. Rather, I opened to find Miss Jessop exactly asHolmes had described her: of that precise height, with shoulder-length blonde hair, wearing peach-coloured nail varnish and holding a tray with a pot of tea and three cups. I did not recognise the perfume, but heard Holmes inhaling it with an affirmative grunt.

            ‘Very good, Mr Holmes!’ laughed the lady. ‘I heard your deduction through the door.’

            ‘It was nothing,’ he said with a dismissive wave. ‘People tend to knock at shoulder height and yours sounded to be about the middle of the top right panel of the door. I estimated your height from that. Beneath the door, I saw that the shadow of one foot was straight on but the other was at an angle as if you were balancing a weight. A tray was the most obvious solution.’

            I pursed my lips at Holmes’ insouciant manner.

            ‘But did you guess the rest?’ asked Miss Jessop, giving a slight twirl in her form-fitting charcoal suit so that Holmes might judge the rest of her proportions.

            Did he colour slightly?

‘The hair, yes – I found one in the envelope you sent to Watson. There was also the tiniest amount of your nail polish on the staple affixing the compliments slip. If you must know, I deduced you were unmarried from the lack of any ring indentations in the paper where you signed. Your signature shows you are left handed.’

            ‘Bravo, Mr Holmes!’ she set down the tray and I poured the tea.

            ‘But to business,’ said Holmes. ‘I trust the handprint has been preserved?’

            ‘Indeed. You can examine it whenever you are ready.’

            ‘Very well. In the meantime, perhaps you will narrate exactly what happened between the photo shoot for the Diamond Dagger and its loss.’

            Miss Jessop sat in one of the armchairs and crossed her legs. ‘The dagger was on a plinth during the shoot, put there by Mr Higgins, the hotel Manager. It is he who is responsible for its protection. It was in plain view for the whole time, though the flashes from the cameras may have impaired our vision for some brief seconds. Once the session was over, the photographers left and the dagger was closed in its presentation box. For less than one minute, it was then left alone in the room as people were ushered out. Thereafter, Mr Higgins himself took the box to his safe and locked it away. Later, following his usual habit of double-checking everything, he returned to the safe to discover that the presentation box was actually empty. The dagger could only have been taken during that minute the box was left alone in the room – and the only person thought to have entered the room at that time was the chambermaid Evelina, who crossed on the way from a function room to the supply cupboard. The police examined the scene of the crime and found nothing but the hand print. They arrested her on suspicion shortly afterwards and have agreed to postpone any proceedings until the event is over Publicity, you see, is a very delicate matter.’

            ‘Was the dagger found in her possession or in her room?’ said Holmes.

            ‘No – not in any of the areas she works in.’

            ‘Does anyone else have access to the safe?’ said Holmes.

            ‘To the reception safe, yes – but this was the manager’s personal safe, to which only he has the combination.’

            ‘Can we assume he is beyond suspicion?’

            ‘The loss of the dagger would almost certainly lose this hotel the event next year, and the dagger itself has no actual diamonds on it. What would be his advantage? He has worked here for over twenty years and his family has owned the hotel for nearly two hundred.’

            ‘Could anyone else have entered the room during that fatal minute? I mean, is there access to other rooms from it?’

            ‘Only to the function room next door – which had been vacated and was being cleaned – and to the supply cupboard.’

            ‘And to the main reception area where everyone was departing.’

            ‘Yes, that also,’ said Miss Jessop. ‘But I saw nobody walk in.’

            ‘Where is the handprint?’ said Holmes. ‘You said it was on a piece of glass, but I am assuming not a window or a door because such things would be quite useless as evidence – too many hands touching them.’

            ‘Indeed. It was a plinth of solid glass upon which the presentation box rested. I can only assume the thief disturbed the plinth and moved it back to its original position to avoid suspicion that the box had been opened. Why else would he touch it?’

            ‘You may leave such assumptions to the professional investigator,’ said Holmes.

            Miss Jessop coloured. ‘And you need not think all people so stupid, Mr Holmes. I do not have to be a detective to know that you have recently eaten a marzipan frog at Bertha’s – in the last forty minutes I would say, during which time you have not taken a drink or further food.’

            I almost choked on my tea.

Holmes merely gaped in wordless wonder.

‘Your tongue is green,’ said Miss Jessop in explanation. ‘That is either food colouring or the foulest breath.  And I see you have made a number of purchases from their shop. The bags are there just inside the wardrobe.’

Holmes allowed himself a smile and a nod.  ‘Do we know if anyone else touched that glass plinth?’

‘It was scrupulously polished after first being positioned so that no smears would appear in the photographs. Everyone was careful not to touch it during the shoot and the mark was discovered only after the loss was discovered.’

‘I will need to see this plinth and the room where the photo-shoot took place,’ said Holmes. ‘I assume it has not been touched since. Also, I will see the chambermaid Evelina.’

‘We have her under house arrest in her quarters,’ said Miss Jessop. ‘She has not left the building – which is her home – since the crime was committed.’

‘Then let us begin.’

As we left the room, I am sure I saw Holmes look at his tongue in the mirror.

We went first to the empty room with its solitary plinth. Here, Holmes applied his magnifying glass to the curious half-hand print, which showed the greasy mark of a lower palm, a portion of wrist and the edge of the hand along to the little finger (whose tip had carefully not been placed against the surface). Next, he used his long nose to inhale this merest trace of human presence for any significant odour.  When he had paced about the room a while, crouching and bending to examine angles beyond our conception, he asked to be taken to see the maid Evelina.

‘Would you like us to get a translator,’ asked Miss Jessop. ‘Eva is Polish, and although she speaks English well, she isn’t fluent.’

‘No matter – my Polish is quite sufficient,’ said Holmes, in a casual manner that astounded me.

This interview took place in secret – just Holmes and the woman in the room together as I, Miss Jessop and a policeman stood outside the door. Whatever was said was said quietly and with the greatest brevity, for Holmes emerged some three minutes after entering with as curious smile playing upon his face.

‘This is an interesting case,’ he said. ‘I must retire to my room and smoke a pipe to think on it.’

‘But the dagger is due to be presented tomorrow,’ said Miss Jessop. ‘The event begins in earnest tomorrow!’

‘I believe I can assure you that the dagger will be returned at exactly the moment it is required tomorrow,’ said Holmes. ‘In the meantime, I will remain in my room. I have already set the wheels in motion that will lead to the solution of this case.’

And Holmes was true to his word. He slept well and I left him there smoking the next morning as I took part in the carnival of activity that is the Hallowed Gate Crime Festival. A number of incidents, however, suggested to me that the hand of Sherlock was to be found in more than one unusual occurrence during the day.

For example, at three writer events, the question session at the end was made notable by a curious personage asking questions that quite agitated the writers. In one, a tall, mannish woman objected to a forensic solution in a famous novel. In another, a bent but evidently tall old man showed a literary detective’s reasoning to have been utterly flawed throughout. In a third, a tall, bookish fellow with an abundant beard wondered whether the hero of the novel should have used strychnine instead of arsenic – a matter of chemical composition that had everyone lost by the end.

My own session, fortunately, passed off without any such disruption and I was encouraged by the thunder of applause at the end, particularly from a tall, bookish, mannish-looking lady on the front row.

And yet, there was still no sign of the Diamond Dagger. The maid Evelina had not left her room. The manager’s safe had not been opened and the press still had no inkling of the theft. That evening, the presentation would be made and the world would know of its loss.

One might understand my consternation, therefore, when I returned to the room later that afternoon to find Sherlock Holmes gone. A note on his bed said he had returned to London and that the dagger would be returned just in time as he had promised. This gave me no sense of confidence as I changed into my tuxedo for the presentation ceremony.

I can hardly describe the tension as we gathered in that room. None but I, Miss Jessop and the manager Mr Higgins knew that the box on the polished plinth was empty. We could only put faith – absolute faith – in Holmes’s promise that the dagger would be there when needed. In the general crush of humanity, I tried to reach either of these two people but could not. Had they already opened the box and checked? Had they used a replica to cover the loss? Would they simply apologise at the last minute?

I watched with my heart in my mouth as the presentation speech was read out. My mouth was dry and my veins throbbed with expectation. Most of all, I felt great anger towards Sherlock Holmes, who had disappeared just when we needed him most.

The box was taken up. It was given to the winner. The winner opened it. Her face shone with some emotion between wonder and shock. I felt my breathing pause. She showed the contents to the audience:

The Diamond Dagger was fully restored!

I allowed myself to breathe. I looked to Miss Jessop and Mr Higgins, whose smiles seemed to me smiles rather of relief than joy, as if their recent trials had quite fatigued them. But a tap on my shoulder distracted me from such cogitations.

‘A message for you, Mr Watson,’ said a uniformed gentleman.

I grabbed for the piece of folded paper, seeing immediately from the handwriting who it was from. And as I read, I felt the colour of humiliation rising to my face.

 

Watson

Just as I promised: the dagger is restored. Indeed, it was never actually stolen and you must know by now that you have been duped by the fragrant Miss Jessop, whose own artificial tongue should never be believed.

            It was her hand print on the glass plinth. She was careful to hide any identifying marks, but she could not disguise the distinctive smell of her hand cream on the print. The same smell was also on the folds of the letter she sent, and I was careful to verify it when (disguised as an old man) I courteously kissed her hand today. That was also an opportunity to measure it in my own and match its dimensions to the print.

            Perhaps you will ask about the maid Evelina. She was innocent, of course – unlike the bogus policeman who stood outside her door. House arrest indeed! The man’s radio was not turned on and his utility belt was not standard issue for North Yorkshire police. Fancy dress, perhaps! The police were never involved in this case. As much was evident from the total lack of fingerprint powder to be seen.

            But what of motive? It was the worst kind of all, my dear Watson. Publicity! While disguised as a tall, mannish woman, I learned from a member of the Crime Writers Club that a very special presentation was to be made tomorrow, but that nobody was sure of the recipient. The rumour was a certain illustrious detective. That’s when I realised the entire Diamond Dagger ruse was designed to ensure my presence here. They could not be sure I would attend, or even stay, so they fabricated a crime and used you – innocent and guileless you – to lure me. Miss Jessop is clearly no fool and has obviously read many a crime book. That much is evident from the way she tried to plant assumptions in my mind about the plinth and the sex of the thief. It would not be beyond her conception to dream up such a game.

Understanding this, I also knew that they would not pursue the ‘theft’ beyond the presentation itself because that would have damaged their precious publicity. At the last minute, they would have to reveal the dagger and hope I would stay in the hotel for one more night. No doubt they would have announced my presence the following morning, making it difficult for both of us if I decided to leave.

                        As it is, I have escaped the public’s gaze this time. I trust you will pass my warmest regards to Miss Jessop and see that you use this knowledge to ensure the maid Evelina receives the significant pay rise I promised her. If she does not, the ensuing publicity could prove quite, quite indelicate.

 

Your friend

 

Holmes.

 

James McCreet’s novels are: The Incendiary’s Trail, The Vice Society and The Thieves’ Labyrinth (all Pan Macmillan).

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James McCreet



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