I would venture to say that fans of fan fiction are a ferociously fickle faction of feral freaks. They tend to be too forgiving of continuity flaws, and to quick to give credit to blatant and predictable repetition. I respect the fan fictioneer that writes a story from a secondary character’s point of view, or fills in a gap between established canon – I cringe at the Fourth Doctor molesting Sarah Jane with his scarf. Taking someone’s created universe and weaving your own creativity with its threads requires a certain amount of respect to the source material. I believe if you know the original Sherlock – not the Americanized version, or the Downey Jr. brutish portrayal, or the Cumberbatchy brilliance – then you can see that I have a lot of respect for the original source material, in addition to a familiarity with the setting. It may not be entirely accurate, but at least it sounds like Doyle.
Again, it is too bad this is not a Sherlock Holmes story.
2. The Vanishing Man
I returned, shortly after a quick meal and a wash, packed and ready to go. The journey to York would take several hours and I had packed the necessary comforts for a long trip. It had been decades since I had ventured into Yorkshire, and I looked forward to taking in some of the greatest countryside views England has to offer.
As to the details of the case Holmes was so keen on advising, he kept silent – only once raising a finger in the middle of the question as it was exiting my mouth. We took a silent ride by hansom over to King’s Cross and were able to make entry directly to our train. It would be a long journey to York where we would then take a hackney coach into the rural areas. The locomotive jerked forward and we began our journey with Holmes staring out at the people still on the platform, taking in every detail of every person. After a good distance of travel had passed, which I had spent perusing the Times and reading a yellow-backed novel, Holmes supplied me with the details of the investigation we were about to begin.
“Farmers of the Dales are proud folk as you know,” he began. “Their livelihood fully depends, season to season, on the health of their stock. You will not find it as romanticized as the American way of ranching and farming – some families manage only a few assorted livestock, a milking cow, a few goats, perhaps a handful of pigs or sheep. There are, however, a few big-minded men that specialize in certain animals and it is a group of those men which this case revolves around.”
He paused to drag in a few deep inhalations from his pipe before continuing.
“Cows, Watson,” he remarked.
“Hmm?” I replied.
“What do you know about cows?” he expanded, still staring out his window.
“Very little, other than the obvious,” I admitted. “My family had pigs, and even then our farm was separate from our family home and was run by cousins of my mother. I can only remember one or two times that I was ever there.”
“Would you think that you have the observational capacity to be able to tell two cows apart if they were shown to you, taken into a closed barn, and then brought back out again?”
“I should think so,” I replied. “I am sure I could determine one or two details for each cow that would keep them separate in my mind.”
“Even if their markings had been manipulated? I would bring your focus back to our case of the missing horse some time ago, when even the horse’s owner could not tell the white diamond on his prized racehorse had been painted over to conceal its identity.”
“I do remember that,” I said. “Is this new case one of disguised identity as well?”
“Perhaps,” Holmes said, pulling breath through his pipe. “Here are the facts I have gleaned from the case so far.
“A Mr. Thomas Baker, a farmer and long time resident of these parts, lives in one quadrant of a rather expansive set of land. Situated as such, he shares boundaries with two other farmers and sits diagonal to another farm. All four farms are owned primarily by cattle farmers, with the exception of Baker, who is also a horse enthusiast.
“Mr. Baker sent word to me by telegram of the case, having procured my details through my brother Mycroft, who often will spend brief holidays in the area when he is not being completely lazy and anti-social. The telegram arrived yesterday and stated the following:
“Mr. Sherlock Holmes – On advice from your brother, one Mycroft Holmes, I have been made aware of your special skills in cases of mystery. I hope you will find the good graces to lend your skill towards one such case involving some of my stock. Yesterday morning, I took notice of two young heifers within my herd that were not mine, after which I set to counting the lot and found I was none short. Again this morning, the same has happened. I am not missing any stock by head, but two more cows I’ve noticed that aren’t mine. I would appreciate any help you can offer. I am willing to put you up if you should come, and will repay you what I can for your services. – Sincerely yours, Thomas Baker.”
“An odd set of circumstances, I should say,” I remarked. “Are any of the other farmers missing cattle?”
“Excellent question, Watson,” he exclaimed. “I have further information which may shed more light on your direction of inquiry. Shortly after receiving that telegram I received another from a Mr. Paul Davison of similar content. Though where it seems Mr. Baker is a man of some education, Mr. Davison seems more likely a simple farmer. Here is the text of the telegram:
“Dear Mr. Holmes – Acquaintance of mine gave me your name. Come quick. Foulness afoot. Will heavy your coffers. – Paul Davison”
“Not a very detailed explanation, is it?” I said.
“Not as such. However, I did manage to track down Mycroft and gain the additional information I have already spoken of, namely the layout of the farms and the general specializations of the farmers. Additionally, I can provide you with two other details that may change whatever theory you have begun to formulate about the case.
“Firstly, four stone walls mark the boundaries of the farms, and though each farm holds many internal walls sectioning the farms into smaller enclosed pastures with gates, nowhere along the shared walls are there gates allowing access between farms. All four farms are bordered at their outer extremities by dirt roads which form the quadrangle boundary of the four farms which are also walled with stone.
“Secondly, I have procured in advance the names and dispositions of the other two farmers. One, a Mr. James Prentice, is the oldest and holds the largest herd. It is his ancestors which originally held the entirety of land before his grandfather divided and sold three parts of it. The last piece of the puzzle is a Mr. O’Grady, an emigrant from Ireland. He is the newest to take claim here and holds the smallest herd. And listen to this Watson,” he said with a smirk. “Mr. O’Grady was run out of his former farm after his herd infected three others with a deadly disease causing their owners to lose their entire livelihood. It is believed by his former neighbors that the infection was not an accident, and in fact was only discovered after one farmer noted one of Mr. O’Grady’s herd mixed in with his own. That singular cow was the catalyst in the outbreak of infection.”
“Smacks of similar circumstances,” I surmised.
“Exactly, Watson,” Holmes replied. “We shall visit Mr. O’Grady first.”
Just as Holmes spoke those words we were thrown violently in our seats as the brakes were engaged. For several seconds we were jostled in our cabin and it took a moment or two to sort out our luggage in its now chaotic state. From the surrounding area and my recollection of stations and towns we had passed so far, I could tell we were just outside of Mansfield, having just recently passed Nottingham. There was a good seventy miles left to our journey, but it seemed with the amount of activity beginning to erupt all around the train that we might be delayed.
A porter tapped at our door before entering and inquiring as to our state.
“We are quite uninjured,” said Holmes. “I wonder if you could tell us why the engineer applied the brakes.”
The porter, who looked sharper than most of the lower class citizens who worked on the trains at that time, was of Indian descent. At Holmes specific question, he smirked and answered, “How did you know it was the engineer and not a passenger who stopped the train?”
“Elementary,” said Holmes, quite pleased with himself. “An alarm would have sounded a few seconds before the brakes were applied. In this case, the sudden application of the brakes could only mean that the engineer was forced to do so without notice and was unable to engage the warning alarm.”
“I’ve heard only that something was on the track and we were forced to stop to avoid hitting it. I don’t know whether we hit it or not,” replied the porter.
“A half of a sovereign for you if you can provide me with specific details,” Holmes offered.
The porter smiled and nodded before leaving us to ourselves.
“Should we not exit the train to offer our assistance?” I queried.
Holmes smiled and shook his head. “Let us determine the facts of the situation before we exert ourselves from the cabin. It may be something as simple as a fallen tree. Patience is warranted for the moment.”
Several rail attendants from the rearward cars walked by our window towards the engine, followed by a handful of curious passengers. After a few moments, a rough-looking man with a square-cut jaw was escorted back to the rear by two rail officials. His face was pale and he was stammering to his escorts and making wild gestures.
“Interesting,” remarked Holmes. “That was the lead engineer. It appears we may wish to investigate our sudden termination of movement a bit closer.”
Just then, the porter returned.
“There’s nothing there,” he told us, his face a picture of confusion. “The engine man swears he saw a man on the track and he hit the brakes, but then says the man vanished into thin air.”
“Most interesting,” Holmes said, a twinkle in his eye appearing that I knew all too well. He pressed a sovereign into the porter’s hand and rose to leave. “It appears we may be delayed, Watson. Let us have a conversation with this train’s masters to discern the facts.”
We exited the train amidst a gathering crowd of passengers who apparently had also seen the engineer being escorted to the rear. Holmes quickly singled out an attendant who then led us to the front engine.
The attendant, who was a tall man in his late thirties, knew Holmes by reputation and was extremely helpful to us.
“It’s a queer thing,” he told us, “The engineer is named Mitchell, and he’s worked trains for twenty years. I’ve never known him to panic like he did. The firemen say he screamed with fright before he threw the lever, but none of them had seen anything in the train’s path.”
We had reached the front of the train, and as was imparted to us, there was nothing there.
“Did you inspect the underside of the train for a body, or perhaps some debris that the man may have mistaken for a person?” asked Holmes, carefully noting as many details about the train’s position as he could.
“We did, sir,” replied the attendant. “Nothing was found.”
Holmes began to walk along the side of the train, backwards from the engine, paying close attention to the ground and the ties between the rails. Just past the fuel car, he suddenly dropped to his knees and bent down to the rails, removing a magnifying glass from his coat.
“Halloa! What have we here?” he piped.
The attendant and I joined him, but kept our distance so as not to interfere with his investigation.
“See this soft earth between the ties here, Watson?” he remarked as he ran his eyes over the area. “What do you notice?”
I bent over and tried to determine what detail he was referring to. There was a strange pattern in the dirt, vaguely in the shape of a footprint, but the pattern was one I had never seen on any type of shoe or boot before.
“A shoe print, it seems,” I said to him.
“And an unusual one at that,” he replied. “Rubber soled if I’m not mistaken, and with a tread pattern quite unlike anything you would find in England … or any other locale I would imagine. Most curious.”
The attendant and I looked at each other, both as confounded as the other as to the meaning of this discovery.
As Holmes continued his search of the area he said to us, “It is entirely probable, given your description of the faculties and history of the engineer who claimed to have seen a person on the tracks, and coupled with this evidence of a print only freshly made, that there indeed was someone on the tracks.”
“It is possible that while moving to engage the brakes, the engineer failed to see the person move from the path of the train,” I theorized aloud. “And perhaps the other engineers were too busy to have witnessed anything before the brakes were engaged.”
“Excellent, Watson,” he said, still bent over the rails. “You really do please me with your deductions. However, there are no tracks leading away from this point.”
I hung my head a bit dejectedly, but was at least pleased by his compliment to some small degree.
“What’s this?” Holmes suddenly exclaimed. “Watson, fetch one of your empty vials!”
I quickly hurried back to our cabin and retrieved a vial from my traveling medical kit. By the time I returned to Holmes, a gathering of people had formed in a semi-circle around him. Without a word he took the vial from me and using a penknife he scooped a small amount of powdery residue from one of the ties.
“You are sure there is no body to be found caught beneath the cars or off to the sides?” he asked one of the attendants who was crouched next to him.
“We found nothing, Mr. Holmes. No blood, no cloth, no footwear – nothing,” the attendant replied.
Holmes stood then and returned his eyeglass to a pocket. Turning round to face me, he pressed the vial into the palm of my hand with force, saying somewhat harshly in a whisper, “Watson, do not, for fear of death, lose this vial. It is of the utmost importance that as soon as we are able we find a laboratory to determine the exact components of this residue.”
His tone surprised me and I quickly slipped the vial carefully into an inside pocket.
The sound of hoofs broke the sudden intense silence following his command. From around the engine came a messenger riding horseback shouting, “Urgent telegram for Sherlock Holmes!”
“This is most unusual,” said Holmes, his brow furrowing in puzzlement. He raised his hand to the messenger who reined in his mount and leaped to the ground.
“Mr. Sherlock Holmes?” the messenger queried.
“That is correct,” Holmes replied.
“Telegram from Scotland Yard,” the messenger said, handing the envelope to my friend. “From an Inspector Lestrade.”
Holmes opened the envelope and ran his eyes over its contents in silence. He paused a moment and looked to the messenger and then to his horse.
“How far is the nearest telegraph station?” he asked the man.
“Only two miles west, sir,” came the reply.
Holmes nodded and procured a pencil with which he jotted down a few words. Folding the telegram, he handed it back to the messenger and flipped him a coin.
“Send that in reply,” he commanded. With a nod the messenger mounted his horse and galloped away.
Silence reigned for a moment as Holmes’ eyes grew distant with thought.
“What did the telegram say, Holmes?” I asked.
“There has been another murder. Scotland Yard is requesting our assistance.”
“Indeed. And the manner of murder is quite similar to the ghastly business of the former. But it is most disturbing, this business,” he said, putting a finger to his lips in thought.
“I should say so,” I said, “It looks as if it may be the work of a serial killer. Should we turn back?”
Holmes shook his head. “It’s not the murder that disturbs me, Watson. It is the manner in which we have received this communication. Lestrade did not know our whereabouts, and Mycroft would not have told him.”
“He has someone following us then?” I deduced.
“No, Watson. This communication did not come from Lestrade. In the many years we have worked with him we have received many telegrams coming directly by his instruction. He always signs Lestrade, or Inspector Lestrade, but never Inspector G. Lestrade.”
“What can it mean?” I asked, completely lost.
“It means that someone does not wish us to reach Yorkshire.”