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The Melted Man

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 Based on Arthur Conan Doyle's story, The Crooked Man, adapted fro the post 9/11 era.  Please comment, as I love hearing your views.


  

 

       ‘Dr Watson?  Dr John Watson?’

            ‘Speaking.’  John swapped the phone to his other ear as he pushed the piles of paper around the kitchen table top, trying to find a spare sheet and a pen.

            ‘My name is Edmund Paston, I’m a solicitor representing a Mrs Julia Cornforth.  She asked me to ring you in the hope of your help in a serious criminal case.’

            ‘Julia Cornforth?’  John frowned, rifling through his memory for a clue.  In the living room, Sherlock raised an eyebrow, but failed to open his eyes or move from his familiar ‘thinking’ pose, stretched out on the sofa.

            Then the penny dropped.

            ‘God, Julia Weston, Captain Julia Weston?’

            ‘Yes, I believe Weston was her maiden name.’

            ‘Amazed she even remembers me-‘

            ‘She seems to have an extremely animated memory of you, Dr Watson.’

            ‘Oh, right.  Er, so, what’s the problem?’

            ‘Mrs Cornforth is unfortunately implicated in her husband’s death.  She believes you might be able to help her defence.’

            ‘Right.’  John gave it some thought.  ‘OK, just give me some details.’

            Twenty minutes later, John hung up and examined the sheet of paper that he had scribbled notes on.  He got up and sidled into the living room.  Sherlock had not moved a muscle.

            ‘I presume this is the moment when you ask me for another favour?’ Sherlock sounded utterly bored.  He opened one eye and looked down his nose at his flatmate.

            ‘That’s pretty much the size of it, yes.’

            He huffed and sat up.  ‘How long are you going to milk this for, John?’

            ‘I was thinking indefinitely,’ John grinned.  ‘Faking your own death leaves you with a lot to make up to me.’

            Sherlock groaned and rubbed his eyes.  ‘Alright, what is it?’

            ‘A cross between a locked room mystery and what looks like a straight up domestic homicide but isn’t.’

            ‘Not much more than a four at best, then, even if I were to squint very hard, which I won’t.  In my experience, if it looks like a straight up domestic homicide, it usually is.’

            John gave him the sheet of paper.  ‘Come on, you’ve nothing better to do, and we can get out of the house and help a friend at the same time.’

            ‘I thought you said she hardly knew you?’

            ‘Long story.  I was at Sandhurst with her, then went off to the RAMC.  She was drafted to the infantry.  Next time I saw her was in Iraq.  We did a tour there together.’

            ‘Literally?’  Sherlock frowned over the paper, and then gave John an old-fashioned look.

            ‘No, but it wasn’t for want of trying on my part, believe me!’  John pulled on his jacket and then handed Sherlock his Belstaff.  ‘She’s bloody gorgeous, but she only went for the prettiest men in the regiment.  I didn’t have a chance.’

            He was rather gratified at Sherlock’s sceptical expression. 

            ‘Even the ‘Three Continents’ reputation didn’t work on her?’

            ‘My charms were apparently wasted.  She was seeing a bloke called Colman at the time, very handsome, could have done modelling.  Cornforth was the Major in charge of the battle group – he was badgering her, but she wasn’t keen.  Something must have happened because apparently she’s married to him now.’

            ‘Or was,’ Sherlock pointed out as they left the flat.  ‘Where are we going?’

            ‘Aldershot.  Didn’t you read the notes?’

            Sherlock rolled his eyes.  ‘You’re a doctor.  I may be a genius, but even I can’t read your handwriting!’

 

 

            It was a bright summer’s day and Sherlock was sweltering in his overcoat by the time their train pulled in at Aldershot, but he was adamant he wouldn’t take it off.  The platform was brightly decorated with hanging baskets full of geraniums and lobelia, a patriotic display of red, white and blue typical of a garrison town.

            ‘Happy memories?’ Sherlock asked John, as they stepped down from the train.

            ‘Just memories,’ John shrugged.

            Paston was waiting for them, a bright-faced and eager man in his mid-thirties with a shock of curly hair.  John introduced Sherlock, and the solicitor’s eyes widened appreciably.

            ‘Well, that would explain why Julia was so vociferous,’ he said, pumping Sherlock’s hand. 

Sherlock affected a false smile and said:  ‘Shall we get on, then?’

 

 

Paston drove them out of town in his second-hand Volvo estate.  Sherlock sat on the back seat, huffing.  By the time they reached the army base, John was ready to deck him.

‘You could at least try to pretend this isn’t beneath you,’ he hissed at the detective as they got out of the car.

The base commander was assigned a pleasant house set behind the main married quarters area, and this was where the Cornforths lived.  It was a large sixties built house, set in the centre of a square of lawn with no flower borders, which had the effect of making it looked unloved and uninhabited.  The drive was blocked by forensics services vans, and notably, by Military Police cars as well as the local Hampshire force vehicles.

‘Red caps,’ John snapped to Sherlock.  ‘Mind your Ps and Qs, they don’t have such a long fuse as the Met.’

Sherlock contrived to look pleasant as an almost comically tall MP officer came striding down the path from the house’s open front door, his red beret shining brightly in the sun.  He shook hands with Paston.

‘You must be Captain Watson,’ he said, turning to John and ripping off a smart salute.

John responded in kind, then shook the man’s hand.  ‘Long retired, I’m afraid.’

‘Your reputation precedes you, though, sir,’ the copper said.  ‘I’m Jeffries, the SIO on this case.’  He turned to Sherlock.  ‘You must be Mr Holmes.’

To John’s amazement, Sherlock shook his hand warmly.  ‘Perhaps we could see the crime scene?’

‘I want you to know that  I can’t believe that Julia is responsible for this, but the whole thing is just damned weird.  We can’t make head nor tail of it, and neither can the Hampshire lads.’

‘What is Mrs Cornforth’s story?’

‘Well, that’s half the problem,’ Paston said.  ‘She’s in hospital in a state of mental and physical collapse at the moment.  No one can get any sense out of her at all about this.’

‘But she managed to ask for us?’ Sherlock said, eyebrow raised.

‘It was the only thing she said that actually made any sense at all,’ Paston admitted

‘We’re having to piece everything together from the physical evidence and a couple of bystanders,’ Jeffries added.

They went into the house through the front door.  There was a long hall with doors leading off it.

‘Tell me what you do know,’ Sherlock said, examining the carpet.

‘The Colonel had just come in from the base office.  There was a cocktail party planned for later in the evening.  Mrs Cornforth had not arrived, but Mrs Radclive and Mrs Winterton were in the kitchen preparing the buffet.’

‘Mrs Radclive and Mrs Winterton being?’ Sherlock inquired.

‘Friends of Mrs Cornforth.  Army wives.’  Jefferies turned to John.  ‘You know the sort.  All sticking together.’

‘Socialising on the base is part of the commander’s wife’s role,’ John explained to Sherlock.  ‘She’s expected to make all the other wives comfortable and create a friendly atmosphere, get everyone involved.’

Sherlock could not hide his distaste.

‘Sherlock, these are people who move locations every two years.  They don’t have time to put down roots, so the army provides the only family and social support they have.  Its part of the package.’

‘Yes, John, I appreciate that.  Now, can we get on?’

‘Mrs Cornforth arrived about twenty minutes after her husband,’ Jeffries continued.  ‘Mrs Radclive says she was in quite a state.  She and the Colonel went into the living room and closed the door.  There were raised voices, and then a scream.  The two ladies went in and found the colonel dead on the floor, and Mrs Cornforth insensible on the sofa.

‘In here?’  Sherlock pointed through the first door in the corridor, and Jeffries nodded.

He and John hovered on the threshold and watched as Sherlock cased the room, examining everything.  He paid particular attention to the french windows at the far end, and to the chinz curtains on them. 

‘I need a step ladder.’

‘What for?’ John asked whilst the forensics lads went to fetch one.

‘Top of the pelmet,’ Sherlock growled, as if it was obvious.

The stepladder was retrieved and set up, and Sherlock climbed up to examine the wooden shelf from which the pelmet of glazed chinz hung.  He took out his magnifying glass and went over both the top surface and the cuffs of pelmet and curtains themselves in deep detail. 

Then he stalked back to the centre of the room.

‘The body was here?’ he asked, pointing to the area just in front of the fire.

‘Yes.’  Jeffries made a gesture with his arm to indicate the positioning.

‘And Mrs Cornforth?’

‘Here, on the sofa.’

‘Lying how?’

Jeffries suggested her diagonal position across the cushions with a wave of his hand.  Sherlock frowned and then went back to the patio door.

‘Has this been fingerprinted?’ he asked, pointing at the handle.

‘Yes, but the lads couldn’t get anything off it.’

‘Hmmm.  When was it closed?’  Sherlock opened it, and John thought it curious that it had not been locked.

‘It was closed when we got here,’ Jeffries said.  ‘The ladies never said anything about it being open.’

Sherlock crouched down on the threshold, examining the step down onto the lawn.  Then he sprang up and jumped out, avoiding the area exactly in front of the door, and stalking along, bent over, his eyes scanning the grass.

‘Is he always this theatrical?’ Jeffries whispered to John out of the corner of his mouth.  Sherlock called out before he could answer.

‘You never thought to look out here?’

‘The door was closed.’

‘Of course.’ Sherlock stood up and beckoned.  They stepped out, carefully avoiding the area he had.  When they reached him, he wafted his arm, indicating a silvered track in the grass.

‘The lawn is a little longer here than at the front – whoever was responsible for cutting it presumably does front and back on separate days, and had not come back to complete the back yet.  You see here?  Footprints.  Someone was outside, someone who was looking in through open French windows during the argument between Colonel and Mrs Cornforth.  A man with an awkward gait, a pronounced limp, in fact.’

Sherlock’s eyes scanned the perimeter of the garden, which was formed by a low, sparse line of shrubs.  ‘What’s out there?’

‘Nothing.  Well, just a bit of heath, and then the perimeter fence, but he could not have come in that way – it’s been electrified since 9/11 and there are regular patrols.’

‘Nevertheless, see where the tracks come from and return to?  That is the way he came and left – in something of a hurry, by the looks of it.  Who is allowed onto the base?  Not the general public, I presume?’

‘Only those with clearance, plus cleaners and civilian staff, of course.  And the Old Soldiers Lunch Club, they meet at the Officers Mess every Thursday.’

‘Quite a wide range of potential suspects then,’ Sherlock remarked, and John cringed a little at his implied criticism of base security.

‘You can’t keep a place as big as this locked down, Mr Holmes, even if it is a major supply depot.  We just couldn’t run otherwise.’

‘Of course.’  Sherlock brushed dust off his fingers.  ‘Right, I should like to see the body now.’

 

 

As they went out to get back into Paston’s car, Jeffries and the solicitor went ahead.  John fell in beside Sherlock.

‘Not a locked room mystery, then?’ he said.

‘More of a damsel in distress,’ Sherlock replied with a small smile.

‘So you know who did it?’

‘I haven’t got a name yet.’

‘Care to elaborate?’

‘Not really.’

 


 

Tomorrow, the investigation continues….