My friend Shylock Humes, Inspector Stanley Livingstone-Stanley and I were jogging through the suburbs of Norwood in a London growler, bound, as we thought, for the villa of Colonel Clavicord, late of the Bengal Dancers, who was there hosting the Annual Convention of Not Quite Correct Things, for there it was, according to Humes, that we should, at last, attain the longed-for denouement of the Adventure Of The Missing Christmas Goose.
We travelled in silence for a while. Humes sat, sunk deep within himself like the tree-snails of the Arabian deserts who withdraw into their shells in order to survive the terrible blood-red dawns of Trucial Oman.
But presently he stirred, and then, putting away his wooden spoon, he sat bolt upright. The bolts were always protruding through the seats of these old London growlers, taking innocent passengers unawares from beneath.
"Inspector!" he cried. "We are approaching Norwood Police Station. I would recommend that you visit this establishment, and take on with you half a dozen of London's finest constables to number 345 Bombay Road. There you will meet your esteemed colleague Inspector Arbuthnot Williams and five constables, who are undertaking a special vigil on my behalf. If they have not apprehended our old friend Jonty Middlemass by the time you get there, then you are to relieve them in their vigil, and send Arbuthnot Williams on to join us outside the villa of Colonel Clavicord.
"Jonty Middlemass?" asked Livingstone-Stanley. "The small-time petty thief, con-man and player of the saw?"
"Quite so, Inspector."
"But what's he got to do with this business?"
"Why, Inspector", explained Shylock Humes. "He is the very fulcrum about which the windmill of this affair has woven its net. Or rather, I should say, Jephro Mooncalfe is. In fact, it would not be a lie to say that they both are."
"Jephro Mooncalfe?" I asked. "The actor?"
"Indeed, my dear Flotsam", said Humes. "The noted thespian himself. A man who, in his time, has been known to play many parts. For example, he has recently triumphed in the role of a somewhat amorous London clergyman, and this very night he is, I might say, about to steal the show in the part of a certain petty larcenist, confidence trickster and noted exponent of the musical saw."
"By George!" ejaculated Livingstone-Stanley (we didn't mind the mess; these seats were already filthy). "You mean...?"
Humes looked at him. "You mean what, Inspector?"
Livingstone-Stanley looked back. He hesitated. "Er, I, well, that is, oh, I don't know, damn it. I was hoping that you would interrupt me like you usually do and dazzle us with your theories."
"Yes, the stage was set for a theatrical interruption, Humes", I interrupted. "We..."
"Come now, Flotsam", interrupted Shylock Humes. "I must interrupt your interruption. This is no time for rhetorical interruptions exploring the very rhetoric of interruption, for we have arrived at Norwood Police Station and it is time for our friend the Inspector to leave us."
When Inspector Livingstone-Stanley had disembarked, Humes bade the driver continue. I turned to him. I thought it would make conversation easier than if I carried on with my back to him.
"Humes, I think I begin to glimpse what has been going on here", I began, tentatively. "But there are still a number of things about which I am as yet in the dark. I..."
"Patience, Flotsam", counselled Shylock Humes. "You know my methods. All will become clear at the appropriate hour. You know how I cannot resist a touch of the dramatic. Let us not spoil the effect by premature exposition."
"Very well, my friend", I said. "But what is it that the petty con-man and the actor have to do with 345 Bombay Road? And if they are so important, why then are we heading for the villa of Colonel Clavicord, late of the Bengal Dancers?"
"It is nothing less than the Red Emerald", stated Humes, his voice like a Red Indian. Fortunately, I could understand smoke signals, so we were able to communicate, though the draught from the ill-fitting door of the London growler was no help. This is what I think he said.
"Yes, Flotsam, Lady Mandible's Red Emerald, stolen from her suite of rooms at the Rottingdean Arms three weeks ago."
"Lady Mandible the Mutton Pie Heiress", I nodded.
"Exactly so", said Humes. "It is the biggest crime to hit Sussex since the Peacehaven Town Crier's tricorn hat was kidnapped. The Sussex Constabulary have been at their wit's end."
"Have you advised them?" I asked.
"Oh yes, my dear fellow", answered Humes, his voice as serene as the song of the bandicoot in the Australian bush. "I advised them to leave the Wit's End station and gather at Brighton. Then I advised them to give up and call me in. I wouldn't have missed this case for the world. We need the money, you know. All those storage jars you use for your fruit-bottling cost a pretty penny. I don't know why you can't use cheaper ones."
I looked at Humes in amazement. It was curious. A moment previously, he had been in a four-wheeler. But that was the will-o-the-wisp genius that was my friend Shylock Humes all over. He was all over the seat. He always made such a mess with all his papers and smoking accoutrements.
"But you have not explained why we are travelling to Colonel Clavicord's home", I said, "when, if I am on the right lines, Lady Mandible's red emerald is likely to turn up at 345 Bombay Road."
"Bravo, Flotsam!" cried Humes, very much like the Peacehaven Town Crier, when Humes gave him his hat back. He really did make such a dreadful performance of it, reading from his silly scroll and shouting 'oh yea, oh yea', over and over. The Crier I mean, not Humes. Humes was always loth to shout things like 'oh yea, oh yea', since his very bohemian soul rebelled at the very pantomime inauthenticity of it all.
"Bravo Flotsam!" cried Humes a second time. The first time, I was too busy comparing him to the Peacehaven Town Crier to listen properly. "How you scintillate this evening. I do indeed expect the red emerald to be discovered at 345 Bombay Road this night.
"But our ultimate quest, my dear Flotsam, is in search of a bigger fish even than the missing gemstone. It is in the hope of foiling the colossal schemes of none other than Hercule Leitmotif that we journey to the villa of Colonel Clavicord tonight."
I stared at Humes. "Hercule Leitmotif?" I mouthed. "What, the croquet champion, discoverer of the bottle-nosed wombat and companion of Tesco Van Morrison the Corsican explorer on his recent search for the lost vineyards of Iceland?"
Shylock Humes grinned like the inscrutable proboscis monkey surveying the blue canyon from its rocky perch. "Ah, quite so, my dear Flotsam. Hercule Leitmotif, alias Viscount Herge Nostrum; the erstwhile 'Roaring Baron' Flambert de Nuttkraekker; occasionally extant in the guise of Count Limberg de Cocke the 'triple-bearded dandy'; sometimes emerging as daffodil connoisseur Archduke Ninian Kwaak de Groote; and but rarely seen in the company of minor European royalty brandishing the Brittany Pipes in the role of Jonkheer Willem Kuntgobbler van Spittel the 'Noble Bagpiper.'"
"Is he really all those?" I asked, incredulous. I asked Humes as well. I thought it would be a good idea. He would be more likely to know the answer.
"All those at the very least", said Shylock Humes. "It is my belief that the identity of Hercule Leitmotif is so fractured and divided among these multitudinous aliases that it can no longer be ascertained with any certainty whether he has the aliases or they have, as it were, he."
"But where exactly does Leitmotif come into it?" I asked. Well, somebody had to, and since Livingstone-Stanley was no longer with us, well, it was up to me.
"Flotsam", said Humes, his voice like the dry wind that caresses the adobe huts of the Mexican desert. "Leitmotif does not exactly 'come into' this case, or indeed any other. He is like the puppeteer, who controls from above, and whose hands are never sullied by actual contact with the grime of the streets."
"You mean...?" I asked, desperately hoping for a dramatic interruption, since I hadn't a clue what was going on.
Shylock Humes was happy to oblige me. "I believe", he interrupted, "that Hercule Leitmotif is what we might term a European partner of our old friend Professor Morris Varty.
"Like giant malignant spiders they sit, these artists of rarified villainy, at the very centres of their vast and complex and all-encompassing webs, able to sense every vibration, able to control every movement of their minions. They are the architects of many a crime. Their agents are apprehended but they are never suspected. No link is ever established."
"But tonight..." I started.
"Tonight, my friend, our goal is to establish just such a link. If we succeed, we shall land such a fish as has never walked the green and pleasant bypaths of England before.
"What is more, we shall be one step nearer to the esteemed Professor himself. Already I feel his fell presence like a foul miasma."
"And if we fail?" I asked.
"If we fail, my dear Flotsam", cried Shylock Humes, like the lapwing in winter, "if we fail, my dear doctor, then Professor Morris Varty will be playing the trombone in celebration.
"And if there is one thing that I cannot endure, it is the vainglorious approach to the trombone. The trombone should be played with gravitas. I could not bear to have such a thing on my conscience. It offends the muse."
It was typical of my friend Shylock Humes that he should be concerned with aesthetic questions, even at the very crisis of a case. He was the very artist at work, and the world of crime was his canvas.
And thus we drew up in the inky shadowed road outside the gates of the villa of Colonel Clavicord, late of the Bengal Dancers, host of the Annual Convention of Not Quite Correct Things, with the hideous image of Professor Morris Varty playing a vainglorious trombone polluting our minds.
We simply could not allow such a thing to happen.