Written by Erskin Quint
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Saturday, 4 February 2012

image for The Adventure Of The Missing Christmas Goose Pt VII; A Festive Shylock Humes Mystery "Yes, Flotsam", hissed Humes, like the deadly Bearded Adder of the Zambezi.

My friend Shylock Humes and myself were sitting in a London growler, in the inky-shadowed street outside the villa of Colonel Clavicord, late of the Bengal Dancers. This villa was, I hoped, to be the scene of the great denouement of our adventure, in which all the various skeins, threads and loose ends gathered so painstakingly by my friend, would at last be tied, tidied and secured in lots of lovely knots, stitches and embroidered fixtures.

This was always one of my favourite parts of a mystery - the end, when all is made clear; my favourite, that is, after the beginning, when the footfall upon the stair at Candlestick Maker Street betokens the arrival of another client; and the middle part, when we get up to all sorts of madcap shenanigans and the mystery deepens as the plot grows thicker than Mrs Dudson's mutton broth.

I have always had a particular fondness for the tying of threads, too. Indeed, embroidery was to be my principal pastime, after my retirement on the grounds of Severe Bewilderment from my career as a Secret Service Surgeon on half pay. But the price of needle and thread proved prohibitive to a former Secret Service Surgeon on half pay. It was a familiar tale: more in the brains than in the pocket.

I had built what I thought was a foolproof business plan. I even went so far as to budget for up to a doubling of the prices of needles, threads and pinchushions, but it was all in vain. The prices went up threefold. For a man on half pay, this was the final straw (the price of straw, too, had skyrocketed, as they say on the New York Stock Exchange and the Chinese Firework Exchange).

Thus, I was forced to seek work as a General Practitioner, and to share rooms with Mr Shylock Humes, and to take up the pastimes of fruit bottling and goat-whispering, and the rest is, or will become, history.

The voice of Shylock Humes interrupted my reverie. "Flotsam, man, what is the matter with you. Wake up! The final act is at hand!"

I shook my head. "Allow me to apologise, Humes", I apologised, before getting the permission I had just asked for (I could be as cunning as Humes when I wanted to be). "I was wool-gathering."

"This is no time for wool-gathering, Flotsam", said Humes, his voice like the reports from the guns of farmers shooting rooks in November on the Isle of Man. "The growlers are gathering in the street."

The growlers were indeed gathering. Three four-wheelers were moving past ours, to station themselves further up the street.

"What?" I shouted. I could not hear a word Humes had said. All the growling in the street was ruining our conversation.

Then I could see that Humes was speaking, and presumably repeating what he had just said, but I was unable to hear him because of the growlers gathering. Fortunately, because my friend was a master ventriloquist, I was able to discern his import:

"This is no time for wool-gathering, Flotsam", said Humes, his voice like the reports from the guns of farmers shooting rooks in November on the Isle of Man. "The growlers are gathering in the street."

(I have repeated the above paragraph by way of a literary experiment. You, my Reader, shall judge whether the experiment be worthwhile. I have recently been reading the works of Mr Henry James, who is no stranger to repeated repetition, and I thought I would provide another turn of the screw.)

But soon enough the growling ceased, to be replaced by a familiar voice.

"Now then, now then, here's a business! Here's a pretty business!" It was our old friend Inspector Arbuthnot Williams of Scotland Yard who appeared at the window of our four-wheeler. "A bad business, a bad business!"

"Good evening, Arbuthnot Williams", said Shylock Humes. "I trust that you have had an edifying vigil at Bombay Road?"

"Well, well, Mr Theorist", boomed the Inspector. "I should imagine you know just how edifying our so-called vigil has been. We waited and we waited, and nothing happened. So we went in, to find the jewel gone, and the bird flown. But, my, my, Mr Fancy Theorist, I think that is exactly what you expected us to discover, eh?"

Humes smiled. It was as inscrutable as the smile of a Glaswegian Rent-Collector. "Calm yourself, my dear Arbuthnot Williams. All is in hand. Do not doubt that your presence at Bombay Road was invaluable. Had you not been there, you would have been here, and your voice would have awoken the neighbourhood, alerting our quarry."

Before the policeman could respond to this ambiguous statement, another familiar face appeared at the window of our growler. "Good evening, again, Mr Humes, Doctor Flotsam", said Inspector Stanley Livingstone Stanley. "Well, Mr Humes, it's a cold night, and I think it's about time you told us exactly what is going on. This missing Christmas goose has turned into a proper wild goose. You've got half of Scotland Yard running about London like messenger boys without a message to deliver."

"Come, Flotsam!" cried Humes, his voice like Lord Kitchener directing his gardener, Ramsbotham, to fork the lawn. I was a great admirer of Lord Kitchener's lawn. I had seen photographs of it. A lawn was the one thing we lacked at Candlestick Maker Street. Well, we did lack other things - an elephant, a Chinese junk, a bust of King Caractacus - but none of those things seemed as germane as a lawn at that moment. "Come, Flotsam!" cried Shylock Humes. "The lawn. It is the lawn that holds the key!"

Astonished as I was at my friend's ability to discern my reference to Lord Kitchener's lawn, months before I was to write up this account of our adventure, I sprang out of my seat with a cry (the springs in those old London growlers were always coming through the upholstery), and we leapt out onto the street. To be exact, we leapt out onto the pavement. It would have been foolhardy to attempt the street, with all the horse-manure and drunken Government Ministers lying about; but the pavement was part of the street anyway, so we were on safe ground either way.

"Come gentlemen!" cried Humes. "Come where?" shouted Inspector Arbuthnot Williams, but Humes was gone, over the wall into the grounds of the villa of Colonel Clavicord, late of the Bengal Dancers.

We found him on the lawn, crouched by a statuette of Minnie Jones, the Bengal Dancer of The Year, 1876. He had a bronze key in his hand. "This is the key of which I spoke!" he said triumphantly. "I knew it would be here! It is the key to my case."

I frowned. "But why is this key so important to us?" I asked.

"It is not important to you, my dear Flotsam", said Humes. "It is the key to my lockable Gladstone Bag. I lost it here the other night when I was doing some pre-denouement reconnaisance work. It's such a relief. It must have dropped out of my pocket."

"What?" whispered Arbuthnot Williams. "Is this the best that you can do, Mr Theorist? The case will be lost to us if that is so."

Shylock Humes was not to be moved. "No, no, Inspector. The case - or bag - will never be lost. In future, I shall keep the key on my watch-chain. And, as a safeguard, I will have a copy made."

We were aghast. We had tried crouching akimbo, and athwart, and astride, but the lawn was slippery, and none of us was as young as we once were, so aghast was safest. There we were, crouching behind Humes, aghast. But Humes had further surprises in store.

"Fool! What a fool I have been Flotsam!" he ejaculated (there was no need to worry about the mess our here on the lawn). "It is all so simple!"

I had to confess that I was none the wiser. "I have to confess, Humes", I said. "I am none the wiser."

"Like the rest of us, Doctor Flotsam", sighed Inspector Livingstone Stanley.

"The statuette!" cried Humes. "The statuette over there!" He pointed to another statuette, which looked as if it might be an effigy of another winner of the Bengal Dancer of The Year trophy. "That statuette of Minnie Jones, Bengal Dancer of The Year, 1876."

I crouched, even more aghast than before. I wished I had kept up the yoga. "But", I said. "You mean..."

"Yes, Flotsam", hissed Humes, like the deadly Bearded Adder of the Zambezi. "You are correct. It is the same statuette as the one we are crouching behind."

"I didn't mean that, Humes", I confessed. "But I see what you mean. But how on earth did you discover that the statuette had been duplicated?"

Shylock Humes smiled the smug smile that always annoyed me. "It is simplicity itself, old fellow. You see, the statuettes look exactly alike and they have the same name and inscription."

"Well", I said. "Now you explain it, it all seems so simple."

"Ah, Flotsam", sighed Humes. "I fear that I may lose what little respect I may have gained, and that my poor little reputation shall suffer shipwreck, when I am so candid about my methods. 'Omne ignitum pro ignoramus ignoranti', after all, eh?"

I was saved the irksome task of thinking up a reply to all this nonsense, for Humes got up, and ran over to the other statuette, beckoning us across.

"Look here, gentlemen", he indicated, when we had joined him. He timed the demonstration well; a few moments sooner and we should still have been travelling. "This statuette has been moved since the night before last."

We looked around to where he was pointing (we would not have seen it if we had not looked, so I think we can congratulate ourselves upon a job well executed as far as that went). The lawn had obviously been disturbed. Little heaps of soil lay all around the statuette, which was indubitably a copy of the first one.

"I thought from over there that these must have been mole-heaps", said Inspector Stanley Livingstone Stanley."

"Yes", said Humes. "That is what they want people to think. From the street, or from the drive, or to any observer, they must appear to be mole-heaps. It is a cunning sleight, given London's current infestation by moles fleeing the impoverished soils of the West Country."

"Well here's a business!" boomed Arbuthnot Williams. "Someone has made a copy of the first statuette and put it up here. The question is, 'why?'"

"It is not quite that simple", corrected Humes. "You see, though you are correct in your identifications of the statuettes, you fail to discern the underlying meta-subterfuge that has been undertaken here."

The Welshman laughed his roaring laugh, or roared his laughing roar. Like with the statuettes, it was hard to distinguish what exactly had occurred. "Well, Mr Fancy Theorist, this is a fine theory all right. But it's hard facts that I am interested in, not theories. I see two statuettes, and I don't need all these theories to explain what is really a straightforward case of statuette-substitution."

Shylock Humes sighed. His sigh was as deep as the warm draught that shivers the drooping willow on a humid August evening when the thunderstorm gathers stealthily but inevitably above the Elizabethan Manor House. "Ah, Flotsam, perhaps it is my fault. Perhaps, when one has the powers that I possess, one is too inclined to seek a deeper explanation where a simpler one will suffice.

"And yet", he continued, his jaw firm as the prow of the Cutty Sark cleaving its way through the heaving Tropical main, "and yet, I feel justified in my investigations. When I add tonight's observations to those of my previous visit, there can be no doubt as to what has happened here.

"The original statuette has been removed, and a replica of the one over there has hurriedly been cast, as a replacement which would never be discovered by an ordinary eye. They had no time to make good the lawn or restore it to its original condition, so they made the best of it by disguising the diggings as mole-heaps.

"But here is where I depart from the Scotland Yarder who would be happy to let it lie at that. For now, if I look across at the statuette we have just left, I can make out marks in the lawn, which are only now visible in the combined light of the garden lamps and the streetlights."

We looked, and, sure enough, there were a series of scored marks in the lawn. "It looks like strips of the turf have been taken up, and replaced again, Humes", I said.

"Excellent, Flotsam", cried Humes. "You are scintillating tonight. From over there, those scores are not visible, because one's attention is drawn to the gleaming facade of the house and the mole-hills by this statuette. But that is not all.

"Those scores have been made purely to make me think that it is the statuette over there which is the replica. They want me to think that they have really replaced that one but made it appear as if it is this one that has been replaced.

"This one here is the replacement, all right, as you say, Inspector. They have added those scores over yonder merely as a blind."

Arbuthnot Williams snorted. "See, it's just as I say. The simple explanation is the right one. If you go off the straight road, there madness lies. I know what I'm talking about after all. Theories are all very well, Mr Theorist, but..."

"No", hissed Humes, like an Easter Coypu on its nest, "you are not listening. The very fact that they have erected this subtle meta-subterfuge is an infallible piece of evidence. Only a very particular type of criminal would do such a thing."

"This is remarkable, Humes", I said. "But however did you spot all this?"

"Because I looked for it", he replied. "Such a subtle scheme speaks of a subtle architect. It smacks of Msr Hercule Leitmotif and, above him, of the touch of Professor Morris Varty."

The two Scotland Yard men and myself all whistled at the same time. There was a poignant quality to the sound, suitable for the occasion. We might have been piping aboard an Admiral. Humes continued.

"Gentlemen, where are your men?"

"They are waiting outside the gates, Mr Humes", replied Livingstone Stanley.

"Then gather them", commanded Shylock Humes. We know that a statuette has been removed from this lawn. Our work out here is done.

"It is time to go inside the villa."

The policemen went to get their men. Humes turned to me. "And now, my dear Flotsam, you shall have your denouement."

"At last!" I sighed. "I am ready, Humes."

"Good man", Humes said. "I thought I knew my Flotsam. Have you your revolver secreted about you?"

"I have", I replied.

"I thought I recognised those stains", Humes observed. Before we go in, have you any questions?"

"Just one", I said.

"Yes?" said Humes.

"Well, Humes", I said. "Just now you turned to me."

"Yes, my friend, what of it?"

"Well, you were already facing me before you turned. That meant that you had to turn right around in a complete circle, to face me again. Surely it would have been more in keeping with the spirit of parsimony for you simply to have spoken to me, without performing what I thought was an utterly extravagant and ostentatious pirhouette?"

Shylock Humes smiled like a Mandarin Emperor with extremely long fingernails (he was the most ill-manicured consulting detective I had ever known). "But Flotsam, you know I never could resist a touch of the dramatic."

That was my friend Shylock Humes, I thought (well, I didn't think those exact words; I must have used the present tense at the time, but never mind that now; we have bigger fish to fry; fish are better fried, in my experience, than boiled or poached, though a poached fish can be fried, if you see what I mean).

That was Shylock Humes for you. A genius, but a terrible show-off, especially on the brink of a much longer-for denouement.

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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