When I reached 221B Baker Street, I was highly agitated. Holmes had sent me a message through the street urchin Stathis the Wily Greek, and he had intercepted me on the way to dinner.
“‘Scuse me, sir, message from Mr. ‘Olmes,” he’d said, in that impertinent way of urchins everywhere, one hand thrusting the message and the other grasping for a few pence.
I had unfolded the paper immediately, and quickly scanned the note written in his long, spidery hand: “Watson, come quick. I’m in a spot of bother and need your immediate assistance.” Holmes never requested my presence unless it was a matter of quite some urgency.
As I went up the stairs at Baker Street, two at a time, I wondered what could be so pressing. It was only two weeks ago that he’d solved the Case of the Wheelsucking Wanker, a matter of international intrigue and diplomatic delicacy that, had matters turned out otherwise, might have implicated the very highest levels of Her Majesty’s government.
Almost as recently, he’d found the culprit in the Matter of the Wheelchopping Wanker, just before the criminal had taken down an entire peloton’s worth of the very finest men and women in the South Bay. And of course, Scotland Yard was still covering itself in glory after Holmes had uncovered the chain of events that led to the Dropping of the Sag-bellied Wanker, a matter about which Lestrade would be marveling for the rest of his days.
Liquor in front, poker in rear
I burst into Holmes’s flat and was taken aback to see him lethargically staring at the ceiling, a monogram of some sort open on his lap, amidst the telltale signs that he was deep in throes of his beloved opium.
“Dash it all, Holmes!” I said. “You can’t have had me cross London like a madman just to watch you smoke that devilish drug! What is it, man?”
In that languid and sexy way he had just before taking off his clothes and exposing himself to the neighborhood toughs, Holmes slowly turned his head. “Good of you to come, Watson. Pray have a seat. I’ll be with you presently.”
Fidgeting at the ridiculous prospect of watching him in his drug addled state, but secretly pleased that he’d needed my services, I settled down in my habitual chair, unfolded the paper I’d brought with me, and settled into reading the latest front page news. Soon enough, I surmised, Holmes would finish dreaming about prison showers and turn his attention to me. My patience was soon rewarded, as he came out of the drug’s fog with an alacrity that can only be described as astonishing.
“My dear Watson,” he beamed. “Why on earth did you give the cabbie such an absurdly generous tip after he argued with you so about the fare? Surely his joke about the carpenter wasn’t as humorous as all that?”
If amazement had a price on it, mine would have been ten thousand sovereigns. “What on earth, Holmes!” I exclaimed. “Surely you watched me from the window as I alit from the cab! But how would you know about the argument and the jest? They happened before I ever arrived!”
“It’s quite elementary, actually, my dear Watson. You’re a careful fellow who pays particular attention to his boots. Yet your boots are covered in mud, which has only partially dried. You’ve obviously been standing in mud, quite uncharacteristic of you, particularly when riding a cab, and particularly when interrupted by my urchin on the way to dinner at the club–a place you’d hardly appear at looking like you’d taken a tramp through a public latrine.”
“It’s true I abhor a filthy boot.”
“Of course you do, my good fellow. And that’s why you stand on the curb and positively never step in a puddle when mounting a carriage. I’ve seen you protect the shine on your boots this way a thousand times. Yet you did so today, as the mud is not yet dry.”
“That’s plain enough, I suppose.”
“Plain if you observe, my dear Watson. So the question becomes, why did Watson stand in the mud prior to mounting the carriage when it’s plainly not his custom? Obviously, just as he prepared to mount, or shortly thereafter, the cabbie said something to him that made him reconsider. So he stepped back down, missed the curb, and landed in the mud. Quite simple, really.”
“Dash it all, Holmes, it may be just as you say, but it hardly explains how you knew I’d argued with the cabman about the fare, though he was in fact a blackguard and a thief!”
“Aren’t they all, Watson? But what else would have caused you to dismount? Perhaps he could have offended you, but you’re a thick-skinned fellow and well accustomed to dealing with cabbies. More to the point, you’re tight with a pound, Watson, and it’s likely the chap changed his fare once you took a seat.”
“That’s exactly what happened, Holmes! It all sounds so simple to hear you explain it.”
“It sounds simple, Watson, because it is. One only has to look at what’s in front of his nose, rule out the impossible, and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
I was now enjoying his little game. “But you’ve still not explained how you knew about the large gratuity or the jest. You must have watched me from the window, Holmes. That’s too easy.”
“Not at all, Watson. I’ve not moved from this chair for the last three hours. You dashed into the room and your right pocket was unbuttoned.”
“So it is!” I said with surprise.
“A man such as yourself never keeps small change in a capacious pocket like that. For such things he uses a change purse. No, in his right pocket, aside from the sheepskin condoms he uses to protect himself from the microbes in the prostitutes he frequents, a proper English gentleman would keep only a pound note or two.”
“I do, indeed,” I chortled, seeing the way the game would end.
“Why remove a pound note unless you were pleased with the fellow and intended to give him something extra for his troubles?”
“I did indeed!”
“And what could have pleased you about a filthy, boorish, argumentative hackney driver other than a jest? Surely he wasn’t giving you advice on the finer points of brain surgery.”
“Right again, Holmes!”
“Well, then, the rest is mere child’s play. The newspaper that you brought with you has a bold headline about Sir Timothy Carpenter, the banker who now stands accused of fraud. The cabbie, in an attempt to jolly you up after your spat over the fare, made some silly jest about Sir Timothy. Unlike the cabbie, however, I know how greatly you detest Sir Carpenter, and how pleased you are to see him brought to justice. You laughed roundly at the joke, let bygones be bygones, and left the man with a tidy little sum.”
“By Jove, Holmes, when you explain it like that it seems like only a fool wouldn’t have seen it. But I confess that your powers, without the explanation, are astounding.”
“You’re too kind, Watson, but they’re nothing of the sort. I’ve not brought you here to banter about cabbies, however, as you must know.”
“I assumed not.”
“To the contrary, I stand on the verge of the most devilishly confounding mystery I’ve ever encountered. It’s a small thing in its own way, as it concerns a wanker who most agree is a generally disgraceful chap when it comes to cycle racing, somewhat prone to hitting his head on the paving stones, that sort of thing. But the chief difficulty of the thing is that he’s vanished without a trace. And Watson…”
“What is it, Holmes?”
“No ever vanishes without a trace.”
He stood up, threw on his trench coat, pressed his hat against his head, took one last draw from his pipe, and bade me follow. “Do you have your service revolver, Watson?”
“I never travel without it, Holmes.”
“Then let us see what we can find.”