Much has been said about my friend Sherlock Holmes, more than a little of it by me, and I have always tried to honestly capture and relate the workings of his unmatched mind and the tides of his emotions. I believe I have shown him victorious and, on very rare occasions, baffled. Only once have I ever seen him display pity towards a foe.
The case began witha series of outrages, which would have drawn the attention of Special Branch had they not been perpetrated against an assortment of Hooligan gangs that, on the streets of London, were as common as cobblestones. Holmes had taken an immediate interest in the theatricality of the assaults, since each one was marked by the presence of a calling card.
“Or rather, Watson,” Holmes announced “a playing card. Of sorts.”
Holmes had half a dozen of them displayed on the wall of his Baker Street residence. Each was slightly different in design.
“From different packs, Watson, and some of them are most unusual.”
My friend had subjected the first two cards to every test he could devise, and he was fascinated with the results.
“Materials quite different from the ones used to make the subsequent cards. The first two show evidence of materials and manufacturing processes quite alien to these shores, Watson, in considerable advance over the methods used in this country.
“The others are all from packs that could be purchased within a mile of the locations where they were left. Lestrade is pursuing shopkeepers from those locations with his usual tenacity, but he won’t find a common buyer.”
“How could you know that, Holmes?” My common question, one that never failed to elicit a smile and an answer.
“These acts of brutality have been characterised by the Police as the acts fo a madman. They are anything but. The violence involved is unusual, Watson, to the point where I fear that even your time in the Army would not prepare you for the sight, but it is calculated. This man wants attention, from the authorities and from the criminal world at the same time.”
“To what end, Holmes?”
Sherlock Holmes lit his pipe and thought for several minutes.
“There can be only one answer. We are witnessing the birth of a new power in the criminal strata of London. Our man was committed the first two outrages. All of the injuries inflicted are consistent, the patterns of the fight show one man taking on several and winning. We see the same thing in the next one. The one after that, several people take on several people and make crude attempts at mimicking the style of the one man. The same is true for the next two, and with the most recent, the style changes again.”
“In the last, a group of men formed a circle around the victims and watched as the victims beat each other.”
Holmes was right, as always. This seemed to indicate a level of barbarity that I had not previously witnessed.
“The pattern is not hard to follow. First he shows his savagery and declares himself a match for any single man in London, then he gains the admiration of those that survive their meeting with him. As his influence grows, he is able to put the blade into the hands of other men and, finally, he has the strength to compel men to kill each other for fear of their fate at his hands. This man is a murderer, and perhaps something worse, but he is no thug.”
“Then he must be stopped!”
“The Police, nor any private client, have not engaged me to do so. Although I have an excellent idea of where to find him.”
And so my friend remained aloof from the madness of this “Joker”, as he clearly styled himself, and it was not until the Joker began leaving letters to the general population, posted in the manner of playbills, at the scene of his crimes, that Holmes once again took an interest.
I was called to the scene by telegram, which was the typically terse “come at once” and an address. I was surprised to see that the address was in Limehouse.
Holmes met me outside a bonded warehouse. Like the rest of the area the building seemed dilapidated and battered, a disguise to conceal the presence of valuable merchandise inside.
“Our man is a chemist” said Holmes. He had been studying marks made on the floor just inside the door. My attention was drawn to the words daubed on the wall. Just two letters, repeated over and over.
“Stylised laughter” said Holmes “He may have chosen to mock the wrong victim. This warehouse is under the protection of The Lord of Strange Deaths and, according to the owner, he has made off with a number of valuable items.”
“He’s seeking funds, then”
“No, Watson. The owner is lying. Based on some residue I found, and a distinctive pattern of discolouration I observed inside, he’s stolen chemical reagents. I believe he’s making explosives.”
As any sensible reader might imagine, the news did not sit well with Inspector Lestrade. The Inspector cornered Holmes on Baker Street to express his annoyance.
“The last thing we need is a war on the streets of London,” snapped Lestrade. Holmes, who had been about to unlock his front door tensed and relaxed.
“A war you already have, Inspector. How else would you describe the casualties? No, Scotland Yard might be better employed in finding out where this Joker intends to use his explosives once he has made them and if he survives The Lord of Strange Deaths.”
“If? Holmes, I’m about as well acquainted with Limehouse as anybody in the Yard and I’m not rightly sure of who you mean. Is there some criminal genius living in Limehouse?”
Holmes leaned against the railings, lost in thought. Lestrade waited, poised for fresh information, and I scraped my boots clean, impatient to be off the street.
“Living in Limehouse? I find it unlikely he lives there, but he has interests there and protects them. In the meantime, ask yourself this. What has this Joker done so far and what might his point be? What message is he trying to send and how might he go about underlining that message? For the moment, Inspector, I must bid you good day. I have another case to attend to.”
With that, Holmes abandoned Lestrade to Baker Street by pushing past me and bounding up the stairs. I exchanged goodbyes with Lestrade, and was barely turning back to the door when Holmes’s voice boomed down the stairs at me, summoning me to go and listen to him think.
We were on another case at the time, which I have recorded and may yet present to the world (assuming Holmes is willing), and had just returned from Hertfordshire having spent the greater part of the preceding three days observing some very strange goings on in the village of Datchworth. Holmes had some very particular thoughts on the matter at hand and was making, by his own account, excellent progress when we were again interrupted by the Police.
Two serious faced officers entered 221b Baker Street, flanking James Monro -then head of the Criminal Investigation Department. Monro, his face partly concealed by a scarf and hat, offered Holmes his hand but my friend was not inclined to take it. He faced the window looking out onto Baker Street as Monro asked him to join the efforts of Scotland Yard in tracking down and apprehending the Joker. Holmes remained silent for several minutes and finally, with turning around, sighed.
“Assistant Commissioner, I fail to see how I can be of more help than Special Branch. You have access to the same information as I, yet you are telling me that not one man in Scotland Yard can hazard a guess at where the Joker will strike next? Is it not obvious?”
Monro bridled at this.
“Mister Holmes,” he snapped “your previous service to the Police is, of course, remembered and it is your great skill that we need now. London is a storehouse of tempting targets for a man as agreeable to violent conduct as the Joker. We cannot guard them all, nor do we have the resources to investigate every possible lead. Any assistance you can give us in deploying our resources will be gratefully received.”
The controlled fury in his voice was a thing of some concern to me. Whether Holmes knew it or not, James Monro was likely the single most powerful Policeman in England.
“Very well!” said Holmes, snapping back at Monro like a whip “I shall tell you what I know, or have guessed. Firstly, you will confirm for me that the body of Joseph Cohen, an American financier with ties to the Fenian movement, is currently gracing a slab in a Cheapside mortuary?”
“That is the case” he said. “He was found…”
“Early this morning” said Holmes “at his rented rooms. He appears to have asphyxiated, does he not? Of particular note is the grin the corpse was found wearing.” Holmes waved away Monro’s next question “I am in the business of knowing when strange things happen in this city, Assistant Commissioner, and you must agree that Cohen’s death was most strange. Of course, he was poisoned.
“You have also recently lost your surveillance on at least one known Fenian. Is this not the case?”
“Yes…” said Monro, and Holmes nodded curtly. Monro seemed aghast that someone outside of his Special Branch might know so much, but then he hadn’t had all that much exposure to Sherlock Holmes.
“I do not, in fact, know this. But I suspected as much as now you have confirmed it. The two events are connected. I believe we will find that the Fenians have made a terrible mistake. One that you may, or may not, have helped them make by seeding this idea in the first place, the better to gather in a greater number of malcontented Irish.
“I believe the Joker will attempt to enact this country’s most famous failed act of terror. Plans are afoot to celebrate Her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee with a service at Westminster Abbey. The Joker obviously plans to blow her up.”
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I must admit, it wasn’t obvious to me but once Holmes began to draw the pieces together I could almost see how he had come to the conclusion.
“What I say now will never leave this room,” said Holmes “because it implies a great deal about how the government operates with regard to the eternally vexed question of Ireland, a subject I prefer not to involve myself in. In simple terms, Special Branch set a trap which was supposed to incriminate as many Fenian sympathisers as possible. Your ideas man, however long he has been a part of the movement, was assisted to plan this audacious crime and make it seem all too possible that it could succeed. A symbol of English rule like Westminster Abbey, the presence of Her Majesty and almost all the Cabinet – how could they resist? Of course your man reported back to you their every move, but recently something went wrong. Your organiser has disappeared, the money man who was to provide funds and a channel to bring American dynamite into the country vanishes and the Fenians are forced to turn to a man who, it appears, can furnish their every need.
“A man they do not fully understand. Instead of assisting them, they find him entirely ruthless and utterly without conscience. By the time they realise that they will not survive the day of the explosion, it’s far too late.
“The Joker sees this as his opportunity to seed complete chaos, not only in England but across the Empire. While this country is in turmoil, I have no doubt that rebellious factions in every colony will seize the opportunity to light similar fires in every nation where the Union Flag flies.
“Imagine it, Assistant Commissioner. A world in flames, with one man responsible.”
Silence descended on 221b Baker Street.
“He’s got to be stopped…” I heard myself say.
“Easily,” he said “Give me Lestrade and a twenty officers and we can have him wrapped up prettily for you. Of course, if we fail then in years to come children will sing rhymes about the 20th of June instead of the 5th of November.”
Holmes and I stood in Parliament Square, watching plain clothes policemen move amongst the crowd.
“He’ll be watching” said Holmes.
“We’ll collar him” said Lestrade, confident.
“We’ll have to, ” said Holmes “because he’s not one to leave things to chance. If he can, he’ll set off the explosion himself. But for the moment, he won’t stint himself. He’ll want the best seat in the house for this event. Watson, where would you go for entertainment on a day like today?”
“The Royal Aquarium” I said, without hesitating. Holmes grinned fiercely at me.
“Indeed,” he said “the Royal Aquarium. Shall we make our way there?”
The Royal Aquarium is often known as “the Tank” or simply “the Aq” and stands opposite the Abbey and within sight of Parliament. The impressive Portland stone faced frontage has a number of balconies or areas where a man might stand, hidden from sight, while yet afforded a clear view of everything going on in the area. In one such alcove I fancied I caught a flash of purple.
“That’s him” said Holmes, pointing out the vantage point with his cane, and then he was off at a sprint with Lestrade hard on his heels.
For all his lassitudes when boredom overtakes him, Holmes is a Greyhound of a man when speed is called for and even Lestrade’s rodent speed could barely keep up with him. I, many degrees slower, did my best not to lose sight of the pair but I caught them at the door. Lestrade had, from somewhere, conjured a brace of uniformed constables and together we sought out entry to the Joker’s perch.
I have remarked before about the remarkable gaps in my friend’s knowledge, where he has simply felt no need to retain a piece of information that other people would find it inconceivable a man so intelligent would not know it. More frequently remarkable is his tendency to know things that the ordinary man in the street would never dream of having memorised. In this case, the interior layout of the Royal Aquarium was as well known to him as the interior of 221b Baker Street and I later discovered he has a number of public buildings memorised in this manner. Holmes led us up narrow and hidden staircases and into one of the towers standing either side of the great curved glass roof. It was there, with the police spilling into the space behind us, that we first beheld the madman.
“Aw, you brought friends” he said, sounding both disappointed and put out at the same time.
He was clad in a purple frock coat, with elegant pale purple gloves on his hands and a purple top hat with green band about it sitting on his head at a rakish angle. At first I thought his face unnaturally pale, his eyes ringed with black as if he had never had a night’s sleep in his life. Of course, this was theatrical makeup but the effect was unnerving to say the least. These details paled beside his smile, and the scars that flanked it, and the red makeup that he had used to highlight this gruesome injury.
Holmes and I have seen such scars before. Years before we had occasion to rely on the service of “Laughing” Jack Belknap who has been similarly marked because he had given the Police information on a series of housebreakings later attributed to the Chelsea Headhunters.
In one hand he was holding a cylinder of metal topped with a small box. He noticed my attention and swept off his hat, bowing. His theatricality cost him dearly, because Holmes took the opportunity to knock the box from his hand by bringing his cane down on the Joker’s wrist, at which point the Police officers tackled the Joker to the floor and, had Lestrade not been there to see that the prisoner was not mistreated, I’m sure they would have taken the opportunity to injure him further. After Lestrade had broken up the scuffle, the Joker shot Holmes a look of pure venom, which my friend did not notice.
The Joker spoke only once more that day. As he was being dragged away he caught Holmes’s eye and gave him a sour grin.
“You’re no fun” he said.
Once Lestrade and the Police were off the roof, Holmes showed me the object the Joker had been holding.
“I believe he intended to detonate his bomb with this,” said Holmes “although quite how, I cannot say. As you see, the device is not connected to anything. I had hoped that the Joker might prove to be an interesting opponent, but it seems he is as mundane in his methods as he is outlandish in his appearance. He may also be insane.”
He paused for a moment and looked out over London.
“I would venture that, when interrogated, he makes a number of fanciful claims that he is largely unable to substantiate. It would be reassured if you were to look in on him and make recommendations to the Yard. There is another Doctor I might consult with…a scientific fellow who has friends on Paternoster Street. He strikes me as being a Doctor who might fathom the possible purpose of this device. Outside that, I see no need to involve myself further.”
Holmes was as good as his word. A day or so later he handed me the “detonator” and disassembled it before me. It was just an empty casing.
“A fantasist” said Holmes, and that was the last he spoke of the case.
But it was not the end of my involvement.
I saw the Joker on two occasions following this. The first, at the behest fo Sherlock Holmes, was to make my recommendations to the Yard. I found the villain chained to a desk in a small interview room.
“I don’t need a doctor” he said.
“I’m simply here to ensure that you’re fairly treated” I said. He seemed unconvinced.
“He sent the sidekick” he said “it’s humiliating, that’s what it is. Oh, well, never mind. They’ll put me in some hellhole of a prison to rot away my days.”
“They’ll hang you” I said. “Members of your gang have agreed to provide evidence to the Crown in order for leniency, and according to Insepctor Lestrade they have enough to make certain you’ll get the rope.”
“You don’t hang people” he said, shrugging it off.
“Perhaps not at the Tyburn, these days, but we certainly do in Newgate Prison.”
There was something in his eyes, then, which made me think he’d finally started to listen. It wasn’t fear. It was the same look I have seen in the eyes of some soldiers who, faced with horror or certain death, become something akin to horror themselves. It is the look of a man prepared to do anything to prolong life. The Joker had it then.
“We’ll see” he said, and though I questioned him for some minutes he did not speak further.
The second time I saw him was much later. Months later, I think. I had occasion to consult a colleague who, at the time, was working in the Bethlehem Hospital. Holmes and I were dealing with a type of brain injury I had never seen before, but I knew Dr. William Hope as one of the best men for brain injuries in Britain. We consulted, then talked at length as doctors often do. Finally he said
“We’ve an old patient of yours in here, John. Would you like to see him?” I agreed immediately, wondering how one of my patients might have been so unlucky to end up in Bedlam, and was taken to a cell. At first I didn’t see him. He was slumped in a corner, apparently oblivious to the world. He had been stripped of his makeup, of course, and his hair was mid brown and had apparently been cut by a butcher using a cleaver.
“We had to shave his head before the surgery, of course” said William.
“What surgery?” I asked.
The patient, as William Hope referred to him, had been sent to Newgate to await trial and made at least two attempts to escape. One was thwarted by prison staff. The other ended when he was found in an alley some hundred yards from the prison, comatose.
“We never did understand what happened to him, but the patient insisted he had been drugged by some fearsome six foot tall Chinaman dressed as a golden mandarin. Or somesuch nonsense.
“It was then that he made his confession. According to the notes that we were given, he insisted he was from the future and ordinarily resident in a place called Gotham. We understand that to be a pseudonym for New York City, but he seems to feel it is somewhere else. He populated this Gotham with a veritable feast of strange characters, none of which – of course – had travelled with him. He claimed that men could fly, unsupported by any device, and that there were people from other worlds living among the population.
“When he was not believed, he attempted to start a riot but very few of the other prisoners would support him and it was quickly supressed. Then there was an incident with another prisoner, and the patient thereafter became uncontrollable. That’s when he was brought here.
“We tried hydrotherapy among other methods and nothing really worked. He would go through periods of quiet and co-operation only to snap or take the most appalling action against staff or fellow patients alike. In the end, we opted for a surgical method of calming his excesses.”
I watched the slumped figure for some time. He did not move, or speak, and although pallid barely resembled the man we had briefly crossed swords with before. When I mentioned this to Holmes, he seemed a little moved.
“One day, Watson, surgery may advance and may be of use in honestly calming tormented minds. At the moment, such surgeries are little more than barbarity.”
“And the Joker?” I asked because I wanted to know whether my friend felt that the violent madman who had intended to kill the Queen and throw the Empire into turmoil deserved such an ending.
For a moment, Holmes appeared suddenly melancholy.
“Whether he really was from the future, or simply America, or even some fantastical lost plateau, it didn’t prepare him for us, Watson. Not for London.”