It’s not that I didn’t want to complete this story in Doyle’s style – I was enjoying the challenge. The truth is that an idea came to me that I could not let go of. It nagged at the back of my mind until, slowly, it began to corrupt the beautiful little fan fiction I had created.
Some will say that this is where the story goes wrong. For me, this is where I began to do what I do best. I am not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and while this remains fan fiction of an entirely different variety, this is my palette from here on in.
This is NOT a Sherlock Holmes story.
Holmes’ contact in Leeds was a gentleman named Kenneth Buchanan, a chemist who operated a small collection of laboratories attached to the university there. Holmes had been corresponding with Buchanan for several years in regard to his own independent experiments in chemistry, and apparently the two held a great deal of respect for each other. Most often, when Holmes was unable to manufacture the results he desired in an experiment, Buchanan would be able to direct him towards a solution. It is for this expertise in the field of chemistry that Holmes had chosen him to assist us in this most unusual case.
One would think, by observation of the gracious amounts of geniality displayed by the two masters, that they had been long friends. The truth was that neither had met each other in person. Buchanan was exceedingly pleased by our sudden visit and set right to inquiring as to the case his specialization would benefit.
The chemist was middle-aged, of short stature and dark in complexion. From above his lips sprouted an immense black moustache that was rivaled only by the hair on top of his head in its chaos. He wore spectacles perched on the knob of his nose and it was through these that he peered at the contents of the vial I produced for him.
“Interesting coloration,” he said. “I presume that this is most likely the byproduct of some reaction, and judging by uneven coarseness of the granules I’d have to say it’s likely a mixture of substances we’re looking at.”
“Precisely my feelings,” commented Holmes. “Being lacking in the proper instruments in the field, I held off judgment towards any specifics.”
“Well, we have all that you shall need here,” Buchanan responded while gesturing to his lab and its collection of retorts, crucibles, alembics, and Bunsen burners.
“Though I would enjoy the opportunity to see you gather your results in person, Dr. Buchanan, I regret that Dr. Watson and I have some other business to attend to. We shall rejoin with you in an hour at the most,” explained Holmes.
“Understood, my friend. I shall have something for you upon your return,” replied the chemist and set off immediately to work.
We departed the laboratory with Holmes appearing in good spirits despite the serious and personal nature of the case we were now entangled in.
“I have the greatest confidence that Buchanan will be able to provide a most important clue to the events on the rail, and perhaps to the entirety of our current problem.”
“He did seem rather keen on the idea of providing assistance to us,” I mused.
“Indeed. Buchanan is one of the best in his field, and boasts an attention to detail that I find refreshing. It is rare to find an individual with such an eye for hidden meanings in chemical residues. Our interests in this regard are in the best of hands.”
We passed quickly through the campus of the university, it having been only just incorporated following a number of years as a prominent school of medicine. Holmes had returned to his quickened pace and stalked through the streets with purpose. We departed from the sleek architecture of the blocks surrounding the campus university and soon found ourselves in the shadows of a neighborhood of lesser repute. The sun was finding rips in the clouds which allowed a fair amount of rays to beam down on us throughout the campus, but the district we had just entered seemed to repel sunlight unnaturally.
After several turns down dark twisting alleys, Holmes stopped in front of a low building with no windows. Being wedged between two larger buildings that appeared to be warehouses and having no street entrance, the place would have been easy to miss. This was probably due to its dark purpose – a haven for addicts – which I deduced from the acrid odor surrounding it.
“An opium den?” I whispered in surprise.
He elbowed me in the ribs with force and gave me a glare that immediately shut off any further attempt to question him or the purpose of our visit to such a low place. Just then, seeming to melt away from the wall of the place, a man appeared. I was shocked by his sudden appearance as just a moment before I would have sworn there was nothing in front of the building other than a pile of refuse.
The man was an Oriental – I thought most likely Chinese considering the number of them involved with these vile drug pits throughout England. My first thoughts were confirmed as he barked out a line of Mandarin at us. I noticed, to my surprise and sudden fear, that he was holding a cruel dagger just under the patchwork coat he wore. I surreptitiously slid my hand into my pocket where I kept a small knife of my own, cursing myself for having left my revolver on the train.
Holmes then responded in similar style to the man, and made a subtle gesture with his fingers at his waist. The Chinaman nodded and returned to his post, appearing once again as a pile of garbage. I had no time to ponder over the events that had just occurred as Holmes was then pulling me into a hell I had only entered once or twice before in similar dens back home.
The ceilings were uncomfortably low and most of the decorations were a dark tar-stained red. It was difficult to tell where the stains ended and the shadows began. Smoke hung like thin curtains drifting down from the hanging lamps sparsely scattered through the place. Holmes led me down a long corridor. I tried, but I could not keep my eyes from peering into the depths of the rooms to either side of us as we passed. All manner of men could be found here – fallen nobles, lost students, wastes of men, vaporous apparitions of humankind. Some stooped over low flames, some danced about chanting with eyes as luminous as the moon. One man stood naked in front of a broken mirror and wept.
I began to feel nauseous from the fumes, but Holmes pulled me forwards down an adjoining hallway. Finally we entered a room, but my relief turned to serious shock at what I witnessed there. The room was bare of furniture save for a ratty, old-fashioned chair with a high back. A small pit of coals lent the only light in the room, and there, lounging lazily in the chair with his feet propped up on a pile of dusty books was Sherlock Holmes!
Hearing us enter the room, he lifted his head from his semi-slumber and said in a voice I had heard a hundred times before,” Holmes! What brings thee to this hebetudinous warren of langorous lassitude?”
“Lord Almighty!” I exclaimed and, whether a result of shock or simply the heavy inhalation of fumes, promptly fainted.
I recovered after a few moments and a few pulls from a flask of brandy the other Holmes had on hand. I nearly fainted again seeing two of them standing over me, but soon I could see the difference in the hairlines and intricate details of the facial structures. The other man was nearly an identical twin.
I was still speechless and the real Holmes quietly smirked to himself waiting for my assessment of this development. The other man handed me a cigarette which I gladly accepted and inhaled deeply, hoping the touch of tobacco smoke would refresh my lungs after the assault from the opium fumes.
“Dear me, Watson, take it easy on that,” remarked Holmes a bit too late. I had just inhaled a large amount of marijuana smoke. I began to cough in spasms and the two men hauled me to my feet and forced another two swallows of brandy down my throat.
“May I introduce Mr. Tristan Brady,” said Holmes, gesturing to the man next to him. “Tristan, this is my associate Dr. Watson.”
“The ambit of such a momentous and fortuitous intersection of luminaries exceeds the limits of my skills in delineation,” spoke the man.
“You will have to forgive Tristan’s eloquent manner of speech,” chimed Holmes. “The only book he has ever read was Roget’s Thesaurus.”
“The only book I ever finished, you mean, old boy.”
“It is certainly a …” I hesitated a moment before continuing, “pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“A pleasure shared, I’m sure,” he replied, simply beaming. “The ever loyal Watson. At last we meet. Holmes speaks very highly of you. So much in fact that I sometimes wonder if you’ve both gone a bit Greek in all the time you have spent in each others’ company.”
At this he squeezed the plumpness of my stomach in jest.
“How dare you!” I exclaimed, extremely upset by his manner.
“Now, now, gentleman,” chided Holmes. “We have serious matters to attend to. Will you join us, Tristan? We are returning to Buchanan’s laboratory for the results of examination of evidence. We shall fill you in on the way.”
“By all means, lead the way, dear Holmes,” said Tristan.
As we exited the room Tristan winked and pursed his lips at me and it was all I could do to keep from giving the clown a bunch of fives.
“Watson’s moustache dost bristle like the hackles of dog when he’s fit to snap, eh?” he whispered to Holmes as we made our way back through the opium den. If I had not started to feel the shallow effects of the marijuana, I may have tackled him.
The walk was more leisurely as we made our way back to the campus. Holmes explained our adventures thus far and in turn relayed to me the relationship between the two strikingly similar gentlemen. Tristan had actually been an adversary of my friend in a case of theft some years back. Holmes had won out in the end, but not after he himself was nearly accused of the crimes by Scotland Yard. Tristan, discovering the famous Sherlock Holmes was on his trail, used his natural similarity to the man to his advantage and had proceeded to perpetrate several petty crimes in the guise of the famous detective. Once Holmes had sorted out the case, Scotland Yard dropped its case against my friend, but not before Holmes interceded on behalf of Tristan, succeeding in having his sentence commuted to community service as a tool against crime. Holmes paid him little, but apparently kept him in good supply of his drug of choice. When I questioned why I had never met the man before, Holmes explained how his look alike fit into to his methods.
“It is elementary. You have never met him, Watson, because I wish him only to be seen where I am not. Since you are often by my side on these cases, it is logical that you would never see the man,” he explained.
I accepted this explanation, but I did not accept the conduct of this jester we had picked up. His attitude towards me was as if I were a sideshow act to be ridiculed and chuckled at. If not for my friend Holmes’ need for the man, I would have promptly dispatched the poor fellow in the manner any former soldier would dispatch a pestering hoodlum such as he.
Suddenly it dawned on me what the course of action would be after we left Buchanan.
“Holmes!” I said, stopping on the sidewalk outside the laboratory. “I absolutely refuse to have this man accompany me back to London.”
“Me thinks the Watson dost protest too much,” came the retort from Tristan, and it was the last straw.
I lunged at the man with my fist cocked back, ready to deliver a punch that would lay out an ordinary man. I found out quickly that Holmes’ profile was not the only trait they shared. In a move so quick that I was unaware it had passed until I was on the ground, Tristan used my momentum against me, cast me over his shoulder and flat onto my back. I lay there dazed for a moment, attempting to reconstruct where my attack had gone wrong.
“Do get up, Watson, we have no time to dawdle.”
I had no idea which of them said it, but both stood over me with the same sly smirk on their faces.
When we returned to receive Buchanan’s verdict we found the laboratory in a state of violent disarray, even on fire in some areas. Buchanan himself was considerably singed and covered with soot.
“Rubidium!” the chemist exclaimed, his face a radiant presentation of triumph.
“Are you sure?” replied Holmes.
“Normally found in extracts of zinnwaldite and other ores, but rarely ever in this state!” Buchanan cheered. “I have never actually had it available to study here in the lab. It was only recently discovered, you know. The thirty-seventh element. It is felt that in a decade or so we may use it for any number of highly advanced medical and scientific experiments. Its properties are quite remarkable.”
“Remind me to apologize to you later, Watson,” Holmes said absently in my direction.
Tristan chuckled at this and I began to fume once again.
“Yes, yes, it’s a wonder the both of you were not blown to pieces on the way here – holding such a volatile substance in a glass vial without a protective oil to encase it. This can ignite merely with exposure to moisture,” Buchanan explained.
I was not amused.
“But the remaining question is how does this fit in with the series of events so far?” mused Holmes.
He began to pace, sidestepping the debris in his path.
“Now that we know it is Rubidium, I think we can rule out that it is the byproduct of a reaction. More likely this is excess from it being the catalyst in the reaction,” stated Buchanan.
“Could that mean that the man blew himself up?” I queried.
“That would not fit with Mitchell’s description of the event. I have full confidence that what he saw actually happened. The man simply vanished. Besides it would take a blast of excessive magnitude to completely vaporize a man, and such a blast would most likely have derailed the train.”
“This reminds me of the stories a friend of mine has written,” said Tristan. He had seated himself upon a writing desk and was twirling a test tube between his fingers. “Wells is his name. Future fiction they are calling it. More science than fiction, I say. His ideas aren’t too far from possibility.”
“Yes, I’m acquainted with him,” said Holmes. “However, I am not yet prepared to accept that there is anything but a simple solution to all of this.”
“Well, I am sorry I cannot help you further,” the chemist apologized. “Thank you though for the opportunity. I have saved a sample for further study. It will keep me busy for weeks.”
Holmes stopped pacing and moved to shake Buchanan’s hand in thanks.
“I cannot thank you enough for …” A reflection of light danced over Holmes face, and he suddenly turned his head towards the window. In a flash he was lunging at the chemist.
There was the sound of shattering glass and a second after Holmes hit the chemist with his full body, Buchanan’s head erupted in a fountain of blood.
Tristan and I both dropped to the ground below the level of the windows. Holmes was cursing himself as he examined the chemist’s wound.
There was silence for several moments before Tristan pushed himself to his feet and removed a revolver from a hidden holster under his coat. He peered out the window cautiously, using an unwindowed area of the wall for cover.
“There’s an open window across the courtyard. I don’t see anyone there,” he reported.
“No doubt he has done what he came to do,” spouted Holmes in fury.
I rushed over to Holmes and the chemist to see if there was anything I could do for the man, but Buchanan was already dead.
“Soft bullet,” Holmes explained, turning the skull side to side to show the small entry wound and the gaping bowl of an exit wound. “Maximum damage. Tristan, head over to that open window across the way and see what you can find. If you have the chance, send someone for the local authorities. Be careful, and try not to touch anything.”
Tristan nodded and left the laboratory, gun in hand.
“We have lost another good man to this damned scheme,” Holmes lamented. “I cannot help but blame myself. How in God’s name have I erred so much that death has seen fit to follow me in such a manner.”
Holmes sat up and sighed, running his hands over his long face, now pale and gaunt from overexertion. He chanced to turn his head slightly and in doing so he noticed something embedded in the high wooden examination table.
“What’s this then?”
He moved quickly to get a better look at it, then turned to face the shattered window. The object that had caught his attention was the bullet and its final resting place in the table, just below the thin granite top.
“The shooter could certainly have cleared the sill to hit the table at that angle,” I noticed.
“Indeed, Watson, but what does that say about the shooter’s aim?”
Holmes’ brow was furrowed as he stood. For several repetitions he walked back and forth from the window to the table, holding his hand at different angles to measure trajectory.
“Watson, stand here,” he said, pointing to approximately the point where Buchanan had been standing when Holmes had attempted to save him.
“Why would the assassin not aim at the point Buchanan’s head was while he was standing where you are? It’s readily apparent that I was not his target, and that in itself brings up a further line of questions. Why would our adversary not wish to kill me, thus taking me out of the equation? Either the man was a terrible shot and by some amazing coincidence happened to hit the mark as Buchanan fell …”
“Or the shooter knew that you were going to try and save him, and he aimed exactly where the chemist’s head was going to be at the exact moment he fired.”
The last voice was from Tristan who had returned with both the police and an ashen countenance.
“You need to come see this, Holmes.”
Holmes silently nodded and we both followed Tristan over to the building with the open window. The building was an annex of the library that acted as a holding area for books not officially entered in the library’s records. Literally thousands of books lined bookcase after bookcase. At the open window there was an apparatus which only slightly resembled a rifle. Its long barrel was thin but the butt end of the gun was heavy and square. A counter-balance hung from under the barrel to keep it from falling backwards on its stand. Holmes took great care to examine every detail of the scene.
“You two, please stand away from here, I don’t want this area disturbed.”
Tristan and I acquiesced and took up positions ten feet further away.
“This stand was preset so that the shooter only had to pull the trigger. The legs are kept steady by a strong adhesive on the stand’s feet. But why would the suspect leave such a telling scene? The adhesive, the weapons construction – it can all be traced in the end.”
Holmes peered down the barrel of the weapon which bore a remarkable telescopic sight.
“Just as I thought,” remarked Holmes. “He was aiming exactly where the bullet hit.”
Holmes then proceeded to examine the weapon itself. After a thorough examination, he depressed two buttons on its top, at which point a soft hissing sound began. The sound continued to grow in volume for several seconds before Holmes reached up and pulled the trigger. There was an audible and visible release of steam from the bottom of the butt of the weapon and a slight pop.
“A steam-powered rifle,” concluded Holmes. “There are pellets of a volatile substance in the rear section of the gun that are released into a water reservoir with water from another compartment by pressing these two buttons. After a sufficient build-up of pressure, the trigger releases the steam with enough velocity to propel the bullet at speeds high enough to kill a man.”
Tristan and I looked at each other, both only glimpsing the significance of the discovery in our minds.
“Two singular points are now clear, gentleman, and both point to one explanation,” Holmes stated while standing up straight. His face was grave but I detected the same twinkle in his eyes that accompanied a sudden break in the case.
“You were not too far off when you mentioned Wells, Tristan. I put it to you both that, firstly, this adversary knows my every move before it happens, and secondly we are dealing with forces beyond our capacity to imagine. I bring to your attention also the small amount of familiar residue approximately where the shooter would have been standing to fire the weapon. Rubidium again.”
I was dumbfounded at his statement. Always the rational man, Holmes never gave a moment’s thought to the fantastic, the magical, the impossible.
“Our adversary, gentlemen, is not from this world.”