Before I start, a little preamble, just so’s you know, okay? I’ve been Sherlock Holmes’s friend, flatmate and colleague for five years. It doesn’t throw me anymore when people make assumptions about us, though it used to. I don’t bother to correct them these days. It’s too much work, anyway, and they never listen. People think what they want to think. Sherlock says they can think what they like. We know the truth. And we do. It’s far more complicated than anyone would believe. That’s how life tends to be, in my experience.
Anyway, it is an apparently simple case. A sixteen year old boy has gone missing from his home in a village near Arundel in West Sussex. The police have drawn a blank. The parents, devoted Christians, are unwilling to accept the constabulary’s verdict that the boy has simply run away. They call us in.
I still have no idea why Sherlock accepted the case. Even I can see that it is way below his incredible talents. And the kid probably has run away, after all. That’s what sixteen year old boys do. Whatever the reason, we pitch up on the narrow platform at Arundel’s pretty, geranium-swagged station at about half past four on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in August, the pair of us sweltering in the heat and bad tempered from the journey. We take a taxi, not into the castle town, but along the narrow little valley road opposite the station to the village that was home to the missing child. I have booked us into the local country house hotel. There was no room at the pub. A village wedding seems to require people to stay all week, the receptionist tells us; that, combined with the polo at Cowdray Park nearby, means they are completely booked solid. And of course, she makes the usual assumption. This time the consequences are not something we can ignore.
‘A double room?’
‘I’m sorry, sir, it’s all we have available.’
‘There’s obviously been a mix-up. Perhaps someone in a twin would be willing to swap-‘
‘I don’t think so, sir,’ she says, as if to suggest such a thing is tantamount to an invitation to the Dark Arts.
‘Never mind, John,’ Sherlock huffs. ‘It’s irrelevant. We must get on.’
Since there is no alternative, we lug our bags up the stairs. The room is bright and airy, with a huge sash window that looks out over the garden and down the valley, where a tractor is labouring up the side of the hill like a flea on a dog’s back, bailing the last of the year’s straw.
Sherlock flops onto the bed and bounces around. ‘Mmm, reasonable.’
‘I’ll sleep in the floor then,’ I say, looking out at the Down. I love its rounded shape. It makes me feel strangely calm.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ he says. ‘You’ll ruin your back. I’ll sleep in the chair.’
‘Now who’s being ridiculous? You won’t get any sleep and you’ll be insufferable.’
There is no point in having this argument. We both need our sleep. We’re not young men anymore. I may be the older party, but even Sherlock is beginning to notice the creaks of anno domini catching up with him these days.
He gets up, thrashing his long limbs to gain purchase off the soft mattress.
‘Come on, let’s go and speak to the parents,’ he says.