Inspector Stanley Livingstone-Stanley and I sat silently, as we lurched along through the winter evening streets of London. We were sitting in a two-horse brougham opposite a Bolivian admiral who was on his way to the Annual Convention of Not Quite Correct Things, which is an event hosted by Colonel Clavicord, late of the Bengal Dancers, and is a veritable Mecca to those with a penchant for the recherche and the risque and the avant garde.
We had been vouchsafed a telegram from my friend Shylock Humes instructing us to alight from our carriage when it reached Bladder Lane. From there we were to take a waiting hansom to the Pox and Gusset Inn in Consumption Alley, there to await the arrival of Humes.
You would have thought that we would have had plenty to talk about, in these remarkable circumstances. If nothing else, the profusion of italics and silly things would have been an inexaustible source of conversation topics, for any normal person.
But, as I remarked to Inspector Livingstone-Stanley, he and I had breathed the same rare atmosphere as Shylock Humes for far too long to regard these as anything other than anything very much of a muchness, as far as muchnesses were concerned, notwithstanding the extraordinary profusion of italics in the preceding paragraphs.
"He and I", I remarked to Inspector Livingstone-Stanley, as we lurched along not quite as silently as heretofore, "he and I" (I did not actually repeat the phrase when I spoke, I only repeat it here in the telling for purposes of narrative clarity), "he and I" (I did not repeat it a second time either when I spoke; I only repeat it here for narrative clarity again), "he and I" (you know the drill by now), "he and I had breathed the same rare atmosphere as Shylock Humes for far too long to regard these phenomena as anything other than anything very much of a muchness, as far as muchnesses were concerned, when it came to phenomena, notwithstanding the extraordinary profusion of italics in the preceding paragraphs."
Livingstone-Stanley stared at me. Admiral Chumpitaz (for it was he) grinned like a mystic Inca statue.
"When you say 'he and I', Doctor Flotsam, who is 'he'?" asked the Inspector.
"I really mean to say 'you', Inspector", I explained. "When I say 'he and I', I mean 'you and I'".
"Then why on Earth did you not say so?" queried the policeman, in what, I had to admit, was a thoroughly justified query.
"Well, Inspector", I explained further, "that would have spoiled the parodic effect."
"Precisely, Inspector", I said. "You have hit upon the metahumorous truth, albeit inadvertently. In your customary dogged manner you have laid bare the nub."
"The laying bare of a nub, or a gist, is what we generally attempt to do, in the force", replied the Inspector. "It is one of the first things taught at the college at Knaresborough. Or was it Pickering? I haven't got that particular notebook on my person, doctor. Notebooks, the use of and the referring to, these were also one, or rather two, of the first things taught, though they were taught at the college at Totnes, I think, though I can't be certain without reference to that particular notebook, which is, like the first one, stored in my notebook vault at the Yard.
"And as for dogged", he continued, doggedly, "well, that was always my way, as you know. I first discovered my talent for being dogged when I was a young copper, stationed down the Isle of Dogs. I honed my style when I had that posting with the Bloodhound Division. I could hardly miss being dogged after all that."
He looked at me and winked, twice, in what I hoped most fervently was a conspiratorial manner. Of course, I couldn't be sure. But before I could worry further about being thrown together with a dogged policeman, our thighs touching as we lurched along in a two-horse brougham opposite a Bolivian Admiral named Chumpitaz, I realised, not without relief, that we had arrived at our destination.
"We seem to have arrived", said Livingstone-Stanley. I didn't dare look at him in case he winked at me. But his statement was not the reason why I knew we had arrived. I knew we had arrived because the brougham had stopped, and Admiral Chumpitaz was standing, holding the door open and beckoning us out.
I would have been a dull dog indeed, had I not deduced our arrival from these facts, a very dull dog, the presence of a dogged Inspector notwithstanding. He was notwithstanding just yet, of course, because we had not yet alighted from the brougham. But soon we did alight, and then he was withstanding: he was standing with me, to be precise. Not that he was particularly precise, but that is, as my friend Shylock Humes would have said, a mere red herring alongside the shoals of cod with which we were concerned. It was his genius to say such deep things. Then again, perhaps it was the cocaine. I am of course talking about Shylock Humes, not Inspector Stanley Livingstone-Stanley. The difference between the two was as vast as that between a dogged dogging bloodhound and the mysterious, silvery shoals of Atlantic cod swimming in the adamantine ocean of shifting truth.
Thus we had alighted, which was good. It would have been a weary sojourn indeed if we hadn't been able to smoke.
We said goodbye to Admiral Chumpitaz, and off he lurched, out of our lives forever, bound for the Annual Convention of Not Quite Correct Things.
We were left standing in Bladder Lane. Well, I was standing on the left; Livingstone Stanley was actually on the right, from where I was looking from. It may have been different if I had been standing somewhere else: the perspectives would all have been altered. I never could understand perspectives in the art classes at school. "All your work is flat as pancakes, Flotsam", said the Italian art teacher, Mr Chiaroscuro. He was most upset when I decided that I would therefore draw nothing but pancakes.
But I always thought Mr Chiaroscuro was a somewhat colourless man, who saw things in simple, black and white terms. It was said that he had a shady past, too.
But let me not burden the nimble narrative with all this talk of pancakes and Italian art teachers with shady pasts.
Bladder Lane was a vile alley, crossed by an even more vile alley named Vile Alley. At the far end, it intersected with a grim thoroughfare called Even Viler Alley. We were clearly in vile alley territory.
Bladder Lane contained a gin shop, a slop shop, a flop shop, a hop shop and a knocking shop. At every corner (and let me not begin to expound upon those corners: I had never seen so many corners; I can only surmise that they were there for all the skulking and skullduggery to take place in). Where was I? All these sub-clauses and explanatory asides really mess up the flow of the narrative. Ah yes, at every corner. At every corner, I say, there were gangs of urchins. They gleamed with an iridescent glistering in the murk of the gaslight.
It was remarkable how these urchins - for centuries the denizens of the oceans of the world - had, in these latter days, gained a foothold in our cities (I should, strictly speaking, have said tube foothold, but decided against it, for the sake of our narrative, whose headlong pell mell pace would thus be compromised by a discourse upon the physiology of Echinus Melo).
The presence of these mysterious creatures certainly aded to the dark, subterranian atmosphere of Bladder Lane.
We had not stood long, marvelling at all the sea urchins in all the corners of all the intersecting vile alleys, when we were approached by a ragged youth carrying several pointed staves of wood on his back.
"Evenin', gents", he said. "What brings gents such as yerselves ter sich a voil elly as this 'un?"
"Move along there, chummy", said Inspector Livingstone-Stanley. "Who do you think you are to approach us like that?"
"Why, I'm Peter Pickett", he said, grinning from one side of his pocked face to another. "I ham Peter Pickett th' pockmarked picket fencer an' pickpocket, hat yer services, gents!"
"A pockmarked pickpocket who does picket fences?" I asked, open-mouthed. I would have asked with my mouth shut, but I was no hand at the art of ventriloquism of which my friend Shylock Humes was such a master.
"Ho yes, sir", chirped the youth. "What with th' economic downturn, an' th' decline in all th' old vile alley trades, an' all these sea-urchins an' all, we is 'avin' ter what yer call, diversify these days, hin the vile alleys, we is.
"An' what wiv me name bein' Pickett an' all, it seemed a right good hoidea ter take up th' fencin'. There's many a property-owner what is afeared of all these urchins, an' wantin' a fence put up, ter keep 'em out.
"But if yer not hinterested in th' fencin', nor wants yer pockets picked in th' old traditional manner, why then I'll be horf then, gents!"
And then he was off, leaving us to wonder at the irrepressible chirpiness and resourceful resolve of these poor cockney folk.
But business soon obtruded, as business surely will. "What do we do now, doctor?" asked the Inspector. "We don't want to linger here any longer than we have to. All these diversifying cockneys are even more of a threat than the old types were. There's a gang of roughs over there selling Encyclopaedias, and bless me if there isn't a couple of cut-throats heading our way, each brandishing The Book of Mormon.
"So, what do we do next?"
"We await a hansom", I said, mindful of Humes' telegram.
"Really, Doctor Flotsam", said Livingstone-Stanley. "And I thought you were a ladies' man."
I was getting worried about Inspector Livingstone-Stanley.
Fortunately, our hansom cab arrived just then, before the Inspector was able to break into a wink, or we were assailed by busking Chinese launderers. Well, it was actually a four-wheeler that came, but we were not about to turn it away.
The carriage stopped nearby, which was fortunate (if it had stopped on top of us we should have been killed), and out jumped a hunchbacked, bow-legged old boatswain clad in disgusting seafaring garb, with an ancient pea-jacket buttoned up to his white beard, and huge gaiters about his legs. He came to us and leaned on an old oaken cudgel, wheezing and coughing most deplorably, his breath hanging in the freezing air like the smoke from a broken-down locomotive.
"Which one o' you is Shylock Humes?" he asked, looking at me.
"I'm not Shylock Humes", cried Inspector Livingstone-Stanley.
"I didn't think you were", croaked the old boatswain. "You looks nothin' like a detective."
"Now see here..." started the Inspector.
"Look, my man", I interrupted. "Mr Shylock Humes is not here, but we are acting for him, if you have anything you wish to impart of import before you depart.
The seaman shifted his weight from one leg to the other. No wonder he was hunchbacked, carrying that weight tied to his leg. "I dunno 'bout that, mister. I dunno abart himportin' no parts nor departmints. I was ter tell it ter Mr Shylock Humes hisself an' no other, I was. I 'ad that from hisself, just this mornin'."
I considered the situation. Perhaps the disreputable sailor with the workhouse cough could come with us. We could put up with the smell if it meant vital information. I regularly put up with worse smells from Humes' tobacco.
"Very well, man", I said. "You shall come with us, for we are travelling to meet Mr Humes. If you step back into the four-wheeler, we shall join you shortly."
"Huh!" grunted the strange, crooked mariner. "Dun't yer be callin' me 'shorty', neither, matey. I'm jest fresh back off a three-yearer in a nine-knot tramp, short-handed an' broken-yarded at that, an' I don't take kind ter none o' yer lip."
"I'm sorry, we..." I began, but he had already begun to clamber into the carriage. I turned to Livingstone-Stanley, who was fighting off a gaggle of match-girls trying to sell him Avon cosmetics.
I managed to pull him free. Clearly, these vile alleys were not to be underestimated. Already, the urban poor were trading in anachronistic skincare products. The ingress of the sea-urchin was changing the face of the vile alley forever.
"This way, Inspector", I cried. "Hurry, or we..."
I was interrupted by a voice from the four-wheeler. "Come along, Flotsam, I am desperate for a cigarette, and I have much to tell you", it cried, in a voice like the call of the Abyssinian Wolf across the terrible red mountains of the Ethiope.
It was Shylock Humes. We rushed into the carriage to find Humes sprawled across the seat with a smile on his face. "Gentlemen!" he shouted. "Well, well. I trust you have had a pleasant journey. Pray let me have a cigarette, Flotsam. It has been a trying afternoon. Our seafaring friends" - he indicated the heap of crumpled clothes on the floor, where we could espy the costumes of the Bolivian Admiral and the erstwhile bent-backed boatswain - "did not partake, you know!"
"So they were both you!" Livingstone-Stanley and I cried in unison (why we had joined that particular trade union, I shall never know). "That's why you disappeared!" (That last part was just me: it would have been too miraculous for us both to say that as well.)
Humes drew upon the cigarette I had given him (why oh why did he never draw on the lovely new artists' sketch pad I had bought him for his birthday?). "But of course, my dear Flotsam. I left my bedroom through the side door dressed as Admiral Chumpitaz and greeted you on the street."
"So you rode all this way with us in the brougham?" asked Livingstone-Stanley, trying out the anti-wrinkle cream he had just bought on his cheek. "But how did you manage...?"
"No, no, Inspector!" cried Humes, knocking on the roof of the four-wheeler to tell the driver to set off (we would have been stuck there forever otherwise). "I did not travel with you."
"Then it was another who travelled with us in the brougham", I said. "But how did you swap...?"
"Ah, my dear Flotsam", explained Humes. "I changed places with a friend of mine while you and the good Inspector were discussing my telegram. He travelled in your carriage in the guise of the Admiral, while I hailed a cab and became the disreputable boatswain.
"My friend has been gathering data at the home of Colonel Clavicord, and I have been at the East India Docks, gathering threads of my own."
He settled back in his seat and blew out a great smoke ring. "It is a tangled skein, gentlemen, but we now have all the threads in our hands, and we shall be but paltry weavers if we do not fashion ourselves a case to make England ring!"
"You have solved it!" I cried, though I was wondering how you could make a case out of thread, let alone how a woven case or bag could make a ringing noise.
"I had solved it before we left Candlestick Maker Street", said Humes. "The chief difficulty has been in gathering the evidence."
"Where are we going now?" I asked, agog. Well, I asked Humes actually, but I was agog, that much was true.
"There has been a change of plan, Flotsam", said Shylock Humes. "We are not going to the Pox and Gusset Inn in Consumption Alley. Our way ahead now lies to more salubrious quarters."
He gazed out of the window at a gang of ragged children selling a timeshare apartment in Portugal to an on-leave Colour Sergeant. "We are bound for the villa of Colonel Clavicord himself, late of the Bengal Dancers. If my friend has done his work as I expect, then things will be coming to a perfect boil. Timing is all, gentlemen, and we must just hit upon our destination at the correct moment.
"If we do, then all is well, and we shall have a goodly haul of fish in our net. If we mistime our arrival, then all is lost. But I pray that you do not speak to me until we arrive at the gates of the villa. I must concentrate. There are strategies still unravelled that I must needs unravel."
With that my friend Shylock Humes became as impassive as a statue of Dungo, the Mongolian God of Fertility.
We were now travelling through the suburbs of Norwood. Inspector Stanley Livingstone-Stanley and I looked into the windows, into the cosy family homes of the middle classes. There were many Christmas trees in those homes, bedecked with baubles.
I realised with a thrill that we were soon to learn what dark depths might lurk beneath the meretricious surface of the tinsel trappings of Yuletide.
We had plumbed dark depths many times before, but tinsel trappings were as an uncharted wilderness to us. That would be why Shylock Humes was now rapt in meditation, sunk within himself like an Arabian tree-snail.
I knew that an evil time lay in store for those against whom he had set himself.