My friend Shylock Humes stood before the fireplace in his smoking jacket. I shook my head. "Come away from the fire, Humes", I adjured. "I told you you would catch fire if you stood so close."
Before my friend could answer, the doorbell rang. To be more accurate, someone rang it. We did once try a self-ringing doorbell, which I had purchased from an ininerant self-ringing doorbell hawker, but we soon grew weary of it. From that time on, I was forever wary of itinerant self-ringing doorbell hawkers. It is only through hard experience that we learn and grow.
Shylock Humes frowned. "That is not the ring of our friend Inspector Stanley Livingstone-Stanley of Scotland Yard I fear, Flotsam", he said. "I would know his ring anywhere. That ring has the unmistakeable, urgent touch of the London Messenger Boy. I am afraid that the Inspector will not be able to join us tonight."
"Something must be amiss", I offered, but I was wrong. Something was a Mrs. Mrs Dudson, our housekeeper, to be exact. She came into the sitting room and handed the telegram to Humes; and Humes handed it on to me. "Please do the honours, Doctor", he said, sitting down and refilling his old clay pipe.
I read the telegram aloud. Humes always allowed me to read the telegrams aloud. To add to the drama, it was a very loud telegram.
"This is a very serious development, my dear Flotsam", Shylock Humes remarked.
"The opium den?" I queried.
"No, Doctor. The involvement of that windbag, Arbuthnot Williams. We must get across to Typhoid Lane post haste. He will be blundering about like a bull in a china shop. You recall, no doubt, his brilliant deductions in the Affair of the Counterfeit High Jumper?"
"He arrested a dwarf."
"Precisely." Shylock Humes drew on his clay pipe. Why did he not use the lovely Artist's Sketch Pad I had bought him for his birthday? "It was the conclusion of our friend Inspector Arbuthnot Williams that a dwarf had impersonated the kidnapped High Jump specialist Percy Trellis-Snetterton, a man who was some 6 feet 7 inches tall."
"How tall was the dwarf again, Humes?" I asked, trying to recall the details of the case.
"He was not tall at all", answered my friend, his voice like a rifle shot. "If he had been tall, he would hardly have been classifiable as a dwarf."
I sighed. I tried again. "Well then, Humes, how short was he?"
"He was particularly short with Inspector Arbuthnot Williams", recalled my friend. "But he was a perfect darling with me. After all, I did get him off the charge."
Humes smoked his pipe. I shook my head. He would be far better off smoking tobacco, but he was always trying to save money.
But I smiled as I reflected further. It could have been worse. If Humes had shook his pipe and I had smoked my head, we should have been in a far worse corner. What we were doing in a corner in the first place, well, that is a tale for another long winter evening, when the wind moans in the chimney breast and the shadows lengthen.
It was Mrs Dudson who interrupted this episode of numinous calm. "Begging your pardon, Mr Humes, Doctor Flotsam, but, did you say you was about to go 'post haste' to Typhoid Lane, then?"
"No thank you, Mrs Dudson", corrected Shylock Humes. "We shall travel by hansom as usual."
"Well, that's handy", offered our housekeeper. "If you're travelling by Hansom's, you could pick up the cod's head and shoulders they've been a-keeping for me. We could have it for tea tomorrow."
Shylock Humes blew out smoke like a dyspeptic steam engine. Or would "dyspeptic dragon" have been a better simile? I know, I'll leave both in, and allow you, my loyal reader, to choose. How avant garde, what?
"You misunderstand, my dear Mrs Dudson", he chided. "What I meant was that we shall be travelling in a hansom cab rather than by post haste. I do not anticipate that a visit to a fishmonger will form part of our itinerary."
"Oh, that's all very fine I'm sure, sir", Mrs Dudson smiled. "But even with the post haste, you had me worried for a minute. My sister Aggie once travelled post haste. It was dreadful. Terrible uncomfortable, those posts. No chairs you see, just posts to sit on. And mail bags everywhere. You could hardly get your portmanteaus in."
Shylock Humes looked at Mrs Dudson. Mrs Dudson looked at me. I looked at Humes. Humes looked back at me. I looked at Mrs Dudson, and she looked at Humes.
Shylock Humes looked at Mrs Dudson. Mrs Dudson looked at me. I averted my eyes. With an enormous effort, I managed to exert my will, and break out of this terrible Pinteresque interlude.
It had been a close run thing. We had almost become trapped forever in a time-warp, stuck for eternity in a meaningless piece of modernist non-dialogue by a playwright from the future.
I shuddered to think what might have become of us. Perhaps we might have ended up, the three of us sat in dustbins outside 221b Candlestick Maker Street, talking in nonsensical riddles. Not that anyone would have noticed the difference. We did pretty much that every day of the week. Those men of the future, Pinter, Beckett, Brian Rix - perhaps they weren't so novel after all. If only the critics of the future had been aware of what we in the past were now doing. The theatre might have had a completely different history from the one it was going to have.
My head aching, I called back to Humes as I made my way to the sitting room door. The clutter was so bad that you had to make your way every time by hacking your way across the room.
"Why did you shout 'back' to me, Flotsam?" asked my friend.
"I didn't", I replied. "I merely meant that I was calling over to you, while I was traversing the sitting room, old fellow."
"Ah, Flotsam", cried Humes. "Your writing is becoming turgid and uninspired again. That is why I was unable instantly to discern your meaning. And why did you call 'over' to me just now? Are we playing cricket? Is Mrs Dudson the umpire? Did you bowl yet another another maiden from the sideboard end?"
I sighed. It was hopeless. We desperately needed some action to inject life into the appalling stagnant swamp that our story had become. "I'll call a hansom, Humes", I announced. "Then we can be on our way to meet Arbuthnot Williams."
But I was stopped in my tracks by the doorbell. What it was doing in my tracks, I could not for the life of me say. So I said nothing.
"Why did you just say 'nothing', Flotsam?" asked my friend Shylock Humes, from deep within the impenetrable coils of tobacco smoke surrounding him. When I said "from deep within the impenetrable coils of tobacco smoke surrounding him", I suppose it was a little redundant to say that the smoke surrounded him. If it had not surrounded him, then he could hardly have spoken from within it. Further, when I called the smoke "impenetrable", that too is a trifle extravagant, given that Humes was inside it and thus had penetrated the smoke. Or had he? Perhaps he had been there from the start and the smoke cloud had merely arisen around him. Then it might well have become impenetrable, a posteriori, as it were. I knew what I was doing, after all. It was a massive relief.
And, I reflected yet further, as Mrs Dudson dashed past me on her way to answer the door, surely the genius of my friend Shylock Humes would be able to find a way to penetrate even the most impenetrable clouds of smoke. Yes, all was well.
My editorial reveries were cut short by the sounds of a booming voice and heavy footsteps on our stairs. In seconds, a bulky figure in a greatcoat and even greater bowler hat stood darkening our Turkey carpet. The carpet had been another of my purchasing mistakes. I had got it very cheap from a man in gaiters and a top hat who claimed to be a "Persian Prince what has nobbit jist got back off a trip to Turkey-land." I thought Humes - who always had a taste for the exotic - would like to have a genuine Turkey carpet in our sanctum.
Humes had been furious. It was not that he didn't like the idea of a genuine Turkey carpet. Oh no, he liked that all right. What he didn't like was the carpet I had bought, which was covered in pictures of turkeys and had "A Christmas Present From Llandudno" embroidered across the bottom edge.
Anyway, as I said, in seconds, Inspector Arbuthnot Williams stood on our Turkey carpet, making it darker. He stood, in seconds, waiting for us to finish our seconds. We were having rice pudding for seconds, and that was not to be rushed through. Mrs Dudson always made a most toothsome rice pudding, with a lovely brown skin on top.
When he saw that we had finished, the police officer began to speak.
"Well, here's a business!" he boomed. "Here's a pretty business!" He tossed across to Humes a brown cardboard box. "Now, Mr Shylock Humes the theorist, shall we see if you can fathom that little puzzle, eh?"
Humes opened the box and glanced inside. Snorting with contempt (at least he was not snorting cocaine this time), he handed the box to me. "What do you make of this, Doctor?" he asked.
It was a jigsaw puzzle. "I have no idea, Humes", I admitted. "I can make nothing of it."
Humes knocked out his pipe. He had kept up with the boxing, so it was nothing to him to knock out a pipe. A sheep, say, or a human man, now that would be different. Resting his chin upon his steepled fingers, he resembled an old gothic cathedral. He shook his head at me. It was a parlour trick that never ceased to make me nauseous.
"My dear Flotsam, you know my methods. Apply them."
"Well, I could smoke incessantly, take cocaine, and talk surreal gibberish all day, but I am an ex-Army surgeon who prefers to dwell on planet Earth, thank you very much", I thought.
What I said, not wishing to break the spell of yet another ludicrous Shylock Humes story, was: "very well, Humes, I shall try."
I examined the box. Humes invited Inspector Arbuthnot Williams to sit down.
"My dear Inspector!" he cried. "Have a glass of brandy and water and a cigar and be so kind as to explain why you have come to us. We were about to cross London in a hansom cab to meet you in the vile alley specified by Livingstone-Stanley's telegram."
Arbuthnot Williams fingered his bowler, drank his brandy and water and smoked his cigar. Such dexterity was remarkable, in such a large, coarse man.
"Ah, Mr Humes, you see, we're just a bit ahead of you in this one, see?" He beamed, showing a row of amber teeth beneath a bushy grey moustache. He reminded me of a walrus. 'Wilfred the Moustachioed Walrus', to be precise, who we had seen at Rottingdean Zoo during the Case of the Tiger Who Lost His Stripes in '89.
"We are compelled to be men of action, d'you see, eh, in the regular force. You might be able to sit up here all cosy like, and spend your days theorising, but we have to act, Mr Humes. To act, d'you see. It's all very well, all this theorising, but there comes a time when you have to act, like, it is, then, isn't it?"
Humes was like a mystical jackdaw. He crowed. "Ha! Well, then, Inspector, and what form have these remarkable actions taken, if you please?"
Arbuthnot Williams sat forward. He could not sit back. There was no back to his chair. Humes had used it for target practice at the weekend and it was shot to pieces. "Well, Mr Humes the theorist, we've only arrested the filthy Lascar who operates the opium den, and the Chinese cousins who own it, Wing, Wang, Ding, Dong and Dung."
"Good grief, Mr Arbuthnot Williams", sneered Humes. "Wing, Wang, Ding, Dong and Dung? For a moment I thought the clock was striking time for tea."
"It's easy enough to scoff, Mr Humes, I dare say, when you've the luxury of all those theories about you, but we have to..."
"Yes, yes, you have to act. I know that. But why have you arrested those people?"
"Ah, you see, you don't know everything, even with all your theories. Well, what do you think to this?" He sat up, puffing himself up like a great hot-air balloon. "It's a hanging matter now, d'you see? Murder, nothing less."
Shylock Humes was like the statue of Nelson, apart from not being made of stone, and not being up on a column. "Murder, eh? Of whom?"
"It's a retired Navy man, by the name of Rear Admiral Sir Jervis Filigree-Huxtable. Done in with his own ceremonial sword, he was."
"Well, robbery, pure and simple. He goes in, regular customer, there's an argument over the bill, someone takes advantage of the debacle to go through his things, he cuts up rough, the Lascar runs him through. Plain and simple and sordid. A deal of money missing. Scrimshaw taken, then discarded in the alley when they saw it was worthless no doubt. Plain and simple. Facts are like that. Facts, Mr Humes. Not much room for theories there."
"Well done, Inspector!" cried Shylock Humes. "Pray, take another glass of our Moroccan brandy. You seem to have as watertight a case as I have come across. But I do not quite follow your explanation of the scrimshaw."
Arbuthnot Williams' face collapsed into a frown like a rotten pumpkin. "Scrimshaw, sir? Scrimshaw? Why, it was among the Admiral's effects, taken by accident, thrown away. Don't say you have a theory about the scrimshaw, Mr Humes?"
Humes was as inscrutable as one of Mrs Dudson's mutton pies. "I have no theory about this case, Inspector. Like you, I am interested in the facts. Unlike you, I am interested in all the facts. Including this one, there have been no less than 11 murders in the East End within the last 18 months involving opium dens. In six of them, scrimshaw was implicated in one way or another. I commend that fact to you, Inspector. Make of it what you will."
"Well, Mr Humes with your grand theories and speculations, you are quite the philosopher. But when I have the murdered man, when I have the culprits under lock and key, and when I have the motive, then I - who have to act and to get results - have done quite enough without spending my nights working out fancy theories and philosophies, thank you very much."
Humes sighed. He was like the boa constrictor, before it leaps out upon the unsuspecting wandering minstrel in the forests of the Kashmiri hinterland. "Very well, Inspector, I gave you your chance, let that be an end to it." He turned his face to the wall, took up his cherrywood pipe, filled it, and began to smoke.
The Inspector looked at me. I looked at Humes. We might have been slipping into a dreadful lassitude of the theatre d'absurd variety again, if Humes had not already turned his face to the wall. Once again, I marvelled at the prescience of my companion.
"Well", bellowed Arbuthnot Williams, "well, Mr Theorist, what about the box I have brought you, then, eh? It was in that blasted opium den. The Lascar had it under the counter. What can you tell me about that?"
Humes spoke, seemingly to the wall. "Flotsam and I shall examine it for you, and we will report back to you."
The policeman laughed like a drain. Thankfully, it was a rainwater drain, and not a sewer, seeing as it was in our sanctum. "Oh, that's right, you'll need a bit of time to work out your theory about it I suppose! Meanwhile, we have to act, and I need to get to Scotland Yard and question Messrs Wing, Wang, Ding, Dong and Dung. A few ends to tie up and it's all done and dusted."
He got up and moved to the door. "Thank you, Inspector Arbuthnot Williams", said Shylock Humes. "You have been most informative. We shall be in touch with you very soon, no doubt."
The Welshman left by the staircase. It was the safest way. Humes was the only person who ever left by the window, and that was only when he had been taking cocaine. The Inspector left laughing. Fortunately, I managed to catch him before he had gone, and give him the laughing he had left behind. He was grateful. "Thank you, Doctor Flotsam", he said. "Well, we'll look forward to his new theories, eh, indeed we shall!" And he was gone, like a bluebottle out of a meat safe.
Shylock Humes turned to me as I sat by the fireside. "The fools, Flotsam, the damned fools! But at least it means more work for us, dear fellow!" He rubbed his hands. How he managed to rub both hands with the very hands he was rubbing was beyond me. Well, obviously, if it hadn't been beyond me, it would have been my hands, but let us not dwell upon these conundrums.
"So, my dear chap", cried Humes, still rubbing his hands. "To the box once more. What do you make of it, my friend. Deduce, Flotsam, deduce!"
I examined the box again. "Well, Humes, it is a brown box made of cardboard, with a label on the top that reads "The Most Difficult Jigsaw Puzzle In England". The pieces all appear to be the same shape and to be made of the same colourless card. How on Earth anyone could complete such a puzzle is quite beyond me. I can make nothing of it, Humes."
"No, no, my dear fellow", contradicted Shylock Humes. "If you could make nothing of it, then you would complete it!"
I shook my head. "I fail to see..."
"This is the notorious 'puzzle of nothingness', so rarely viewed outside the inner sanctums of organised Chinese crime. The jigsaw itself is a mere blind. If you did manage to complete it, it would depict a mere blankness."
"So it conceals something, does it?"
"You scintillate this evening, Flotsam!" cried my companion. "In a way, it does conceal. It conceals in order to reveal."
"Now you are talking in riddles, Humes", I protested. "What...?"
"Shylock Humes held out his hand. "Give me the box, Doctor. Within its confines, somewhere, there is a coded message. Our task is to discover the message, and then, not to theorise, as our esteemed Inspector Arbuthnot Williams would have it, but, like the noble Inspector himself, to act!
"Ha, Flotsam, the game is afoot. The murky world of opium dens and secret Chinese societies awaits. I knew there was some hidden thread that connected those murders, but until we chanced upon our spurious teak-legged scrimshaw hunter, I had no means of grasping at it. Now our friend from Scotland Yard has provided us with a vital clue. We shall be dull fellows indeed if our progress is not aided by these most fortunate encounters today!"
I handed Humes the box. It fell to the floor. He was still rubbing both his hands. But he stopped rubbing, and he began just such a minute examination of the object as must surely set us fully on our way.
"Yes", Humes repeated, "that murky world awaits, with all its hazards. And, gleaming mysteriously amid the opium haze, the pale scrimshaw beckons us. The cypher, Flotsam, the cypher, is all. We must fathom it. We have no choice."
I looked at my friend. What appeared to me to be a mere child's toy, was to him a veritable Pandora's Box. I wondered as I sat, finishing my cigar (did I not mention that I was smoking a cigar? Silly me). I wondered:
What forces would the cracked code release? What adventures lay in store? Would we finally get out of our sitting room?