The case I will now relate to you is perhaps one of the unusual encountered in all of our adventures. I have no doubt that many of you will dismiss it as confounded logic or nonsense, but nevertheless, everything I now write is nothing more or less than the truth.
It began on a peculiarly warm afternoon in September, when an agitated gentleman came knocking at the door.
Sherlock glanced up from the concoction he was brewing over a pale blue flame. “Ah. About time.”
“You were expecting someone?” I asked, for until that moment, he had scarcely said a word all morning, caught up in his latest experiment. I had been engrossed in my own business, a fascinating novel recently published.
Sherlock laughed. “Not at all,” said he, reducing his flame to licks of yellow and red, and removing the heavy gloves he had taken to wearing while handling his smoking beakers. “Though you will notice that autumn is coming hard upon us.”
It was true that in the summer months, we had considerably fewer callers. Sherlock insisted that the warmer weather had a soporific influence on both those who would commit crime and those who would report them. Inevitably, he had said, as the seasons turn, we will have Mrs Hudson dashing up and down the stairs far more often than was good for her.
“Yet,” I observed, “the weather is unseasonably warm, which suggests your hypothesis is not entirely accurate, wouldn’t you say?”
Sherlock chuckled delightedly. “Ah, you learn too quickly. Perhaps the fellow was agitated yesterday, when the air was brisk, and could only travel today.”
“Fellow?” said I, for while the bell had rung, Mrs Hudson and our guest had not yet arrived.
He held a hand up to his ear, and a finger to his lips. On the stair I could hear footfalls. Not excessively heavy, but a firm tread. Quick too. Over it, there was the hum of voices. One was our Mrs Hudson, the other far lower and certainly not that of a lady.
“Ah,” said I.
“Your estimates, Watson?”
I closed over my book. “A young man. Physically fit. In some state of distress, judging by the way he is rushing Mrs Hudson on the stairs. Impatient, certainly.”
Sherlock nodded with approval. “We shall make a detective of you yet, my dear Watson.” HE turned expectantly to face the door as Mrs Hudson opened it and ushered our new guest in.
The man in question was indeed young and looked in the prime of good health, save for a pallor in his cheek and a redness about his eyes. Thin, dark-eyed, and dark-haired, he was not unhandsome. He was dressed respectably, if simply, and was turning his hat around by the rim between his hands.
“Mr Holmes, Doctor Watson,” said Mrs Hudson. “This is Mr Avery.”
Sherlock stepped forward at once, his eyes searching the young man for clues that I had not yet observed. “What brings you all the way from Soho?”
Had I not been familiar with Holmes’s peculiar ways, I might have marvelled as the startled Mr Avery did.
“How did you–” Avery began, astonished.
“The shade of mud on your boots,” answered Sherlock. “A quite particular tone, only found in the streets around Leicester square.” A negligent wave of his hand indicated to some flecks on the man’s shirt. “It also seems you indulged in a halfpenny ice and most barrows of that nature are found there too.”
Avery nodded. “Yes, yes, I did.” He turned his hat again. “I– well, you see, I was hoping to see a gentleman friend of mine. He has a shop in Soho and I have not seen him for quite some time.”
“And you did not find him, I would wager,” observed Sherlock. “The marks on your shirt are barely dry and you are flushed with exertion. You have come here with some haste, which suggests some great mishap has befallen him.”
“I know you will tell me I ought to go to the police,” Avery began.
To my surprise, Holmes raised an elegant hand to silence him. “I suspect I know why you have not.”
Avery’s eyes widened in alarm, his throat working as he seemed to struggle to swallow. “I beg your pardon, sir?”
There was an odd expression on my friend’s face. “You need not worry, Mr Avery. You are among friends here.” He beckoned, motioning for the man to sit, leaving me none the wiser as to what he meant. “Come, your friend. What gives you cause to fear for him?”
Mr Avery’s eyes flitted between my face and Sherlock’s. The poor fellow was quite tense with anxiety, so I rose and fetched him a measure of sherry in a glass. For once, Sherlock did not harry the man and once he had drunk and the tightness in his shoulders had eased, Avery gave a great sigh.
“You have, I suppose, heard of recent incidents in Cleveland Street?”
I knew without looking that my friend’s expression showed naught but passing attentiveness. “The scandal,” I confirmed. “Yes. It was all over the papers.”
Avery turned held the glass tightly between his white-knuckled hands. When he next spoke, I understood what had gone unsaid between Sherlock and the young man.
“A number of my… friends have… become unavailable,” he said with great care. “This, I knew to expect, but not Mr Fell. He was not the sort of person who gave a fig for a scandal. He would not go into hiding, not from his friends.” His pale tongue touched his lower lip. “I fear something may have happened to him and given the mood in the city at present…” His voice trailed off into a dull whisper.
It was no small wonder he spoke with such trepidation, when one had heard the poisonous whispers about Sutherland and the Prince. Had he any such affiliation with places like Cleveland Street – or the other brothels that had been uncovered and shamed – he would risk shackles and Newgate. No small wonder that he had not gone to the police himself.
Sherlock was peculiarly silent and I glanced at him. His expression was not contorted in cogitation, but there was a gleam in his eyes I knew all too well. Too oft it accompanied some great ejaculation of a wondrous discovery or the solution to a mystery.
“Your friend has a shop in Soho, you say?” he said at last.
Avery nodded. “A bookshop. I intended to visit him, but the shutters were closed. I have never seen it so in the past ten years.”
Sherlock sprang to his feet with a cry of delight. “Oh, have no fear, Mr Avery. We shall investigate the loss of your friend.”
“We shall?” I sat quite nonplussed at his excitement.
“We shall indeed,” he ejaculated, eyes aglow. “Will you accompany us, Mr. Avery? To ensure we attend the correct shop?”
Avery was very agreeable, his anxiousness giving way to relief. He even went so far as hailing a cab to carry all of us back to Soho, such was his haste in the matter. The afternoon heat was unbearable, the cab a tight squeeze for three grown men, but mercifully, the journey was a short one.
I saw the shop at once when I emerged into the balmy afternoon air. It stood upon a crossroads to the north of Shaftesbury Avenue, a small and elegant shop with beautifully painted signs above and beside the door. As Mr. Avery had indicated, the windows were shuttered and a small sign hung inside the pane of the door, advising that the shop was closed.
“You have knocked, I assume?” Sherlock said, standing by my side.
“Of course,” Avery said, confounded. “I would not have come if I had received an answer.”
My friend smiled oddly. “Would you mind trying again, to be certain?”
Avery seemed as puzzled as I felt myself. He walked across the street at once and I moved to follow, but Sherlock extended his arm, preventing me from moving.
“What’s the matter?” said I, frowning up at him.
“A moment, Watson,” he murmured, watching Avery intently. “I have visited this shop before.”
Avery reached the door and rapped sharply on the glass, impatience writ on his face. “Mr. Fell?” he called. “Are you about?”
When there was no reply, he turned with expectation to Sherlock, who gave him a warm smile. “Thank you, Mr. Avery. We shall tend to matters from here.” He unfurled his fingers in an elegant gesture. “We shall meet you in the Dog and Duck forthwith.”
Mr. Avery looked even more befuddled, but he nodded in agreement and hurried off.
“What are you about, Holmes?” I demanded. “Why have him knock again?”
Sherlock gave me an odd smile. “Would you be a dear fellow and knock on the door for me?”
“Me? But Avery has just shown well enough that Mr. Fell is not there!”
“There is a puzzle about this shop, Watson, and your assistance will be instrumental in solving it.” He waved towards the shop. “You only need walk up and knock once. Nothing more.”
I could not help but feel he was playing some manner of jape on me, but I agreed and started across the road, but next I knew I was late for dinner with Mary and set about and turned for home, then Sherlock had me by the shoulders, shaking me vigorously as if to wake me from a sleep.
“What in God’s name–” I stared at him. “Sherlock?”
“Do you recall where we are?” he asked with eager urgency.
I looked about, disorientated, then recognised the streets. “This is Soho, isn’t it?”
He bore down on me, searching my face. “Yes, Soho. Do you recall why we are here? Think, Watson. You must focus or it will slip away.”
I could not help but feel flustered with him so close and I looked frantically about for some clue as to what he was talking about. But I knew, I was certain, I was late for dinner with Mary. “I’m sorry, my dear chap. I have no idea, but I must go. Mary will be expecting me.”
“Ah!” Sherlock beamed. “It affects you too!”
I stared at him in alarm. “What the deuce are you on about?”
Despite the fact he knew I ought to be going in the other direction, he turned me about and marched me twenty paces back down a street towards a crossroads. Ahead of us, there was a shop, the windows shuttered and the door closed. I stared at it, then looked to the name, and all at once, I recalled his last instruction to me.
“I was going to knock upon the door,” I said, though the nagging feeling that I ought to seek out Mary was tugging at the back of my mind. “That was what I was going to do.”
“And yet, within three steps of the door, you turned as smartly as a soldier on parade and marched off down the street,” Sherlock said with much excitement. “And I’d wager you were – and remain – sure you have somewhere else that you are meant to be?”
“How did you know that?”
Sherlock looked across at the shop, a gleam in his eye. “Because I have encountered the same matter more times than you can imagine.” He kept a hand upon my shoulder. “Plant your feet and keep your eyes on the shop, Watson. It makes it easier to recall your purpose.”
I followed his instructions, though I could feel some part of my mind urging me to turn and walk away. “What on earth is it?”
“I have no idea.” He sounded quite giddy at the prospect. “I visited the shop once, when I was much younger. A quite fascinating place. The collection of books is extraordinary and more varied than any collection I’ve seen anywhere else in London.”
“And it had no influence on you then?”
“Not then, no,” my friend confirmed. “I believe I spoke to Mr. Avery’s friend, though I cannot for the life of me recall what he looks like nor anything about him or what we might have spoken about.”
I turned to him, startled. Sherlock’s memory and attention to detail was impeccable, after all. “You cannot–”
Abruptly, my brisk walk home was interrupted and I found myself pressed back against a wall, Sherlock’s hands tight on my arm. “The shop, Watson! Keep your eyes on the shop!”
It took a moment to recall what he was about, my memory sliding over the place as smoothly as water from a duck’s wing. I stared and forced my attention to stay on it. “You remember the place,” I said, shaken. “How can you recall, if it affects me so?”
“I took notes when I was there, my dear fellow.” Sherlock eased his grip on my arms. “I also carried out some experiments to assess the proximity and so forth. You must go within five paces of the shop for its influence to directly affect you and it will continue to influence you until you are at least half a dozen streets from here, but I have noticed that – like Mr. Avery – it does not affect everyone.”
I nodded, straightening up from the wall and eyeing the shop warily. “Why you and I, then? Who else does it affect?”
“I believe,” said my friend, “that it only plays havoc with particular unwanted visitors.”
“Oh!” I declared, offended to be dismissed for a slight I had not committed. “Why would I be unwelcome, when I had not even heard of the place until today?”
Sherlock chuckled. “Unfortunately, I believe that may be my doing.”
I would that I could have given him a look of exasperation. “You imagine a shop is capable of recognising an unwanted visitor’s associate?”
“Did you or did you not try and flee to some unnamed appointment not two minutes past?” There was wry amusement in his voice. “And I don’t imagine that it has anything to do with the shop. I believe a man who can wipe himself from my memory may be something altogether more interesting.”
“Mr. Avery’s friend,” said I. “That’s why you agreed to find him?”
“And if it reassures Mr. Avery of his friend’s well-being, wouldn’t you consider it a job well done, Watson?”
Though discomfited by the very idea of someone – or some manner of creature – that could play merry hell with one’s mind, I had to admit I was rather curious. Whoever this Mr. Fell was, I could not imagine him being some terrible brute, for Mr. Avery seemed a gentle soul and not the kind of man to fall in with a cruel man.
“How are we to go about it?” I demanded. “If neither you nor I can approach the building, and I imagine that anyone you prompt to do so will succumb to the influence? Do you think there is someone hereabout who might be able to speak on your behalf?”
“I thought,” said my friend good-naturedly, “that I might try a more direct approach.”
“But you–” I began, then bit back on a profanity when I saw his arm move in an overarm bowl that would make anyone at Lord’s proud. Whatever he had been hold flew from his fingers, hurtling through the air, and crashed through one of the window panes in the front door of the shop. “Good God, Holmes!”
He caught my arm, bodily hauling me away from the shop amid shouts of shock and indignation from other people in the street. “Come along, Watson.”
“You–” I sputtered in outrage. “You cannot go about hurling rocks through windows!”
“I threw no such thing,” Sherlock said, bundling me back into the cab as if he had not caused great damage to private property. “It was a paperweight.” He watched my face for a moment as the cab rattled away down the street. “Any immediate urges to dash off anywhere?”
I blinked in befuddlement, but to my surprise, the nagging need to hurry home to Mary had evaporated. “Good Lord… you don’t think breaking the window broke the influence?”
He shook his head with a delighted little smile. “Oh, no,” he said. “I merely think I caught the attention of the person responsible and distracting you is no longer of great concern to him.”
“I hardly consider that reassuring,” said I, alarmed. “What do you mean you have caught the attention of the person responsible? Surely if they have some kind of abilities to muddle the senses, they are the last person you want to offend!”
“Mr. Avery was very worried about his friend,” Sherlock said mildly. “I only wish to let Mr. Fell know that he is causing great distress to his friends.”
It was such a lot of poppycock, but one could not undo what had been done.
“What kind of person do you imagine he is? If he can– that is to say–” I fumbled over the words, trying to grasp quite what had muddled me so much in Soho. “Damn it, Holmes, there must be some logical explanation. Mind-control is quite simply impossible.”
My friend gave me a thoughtful look. “And yet you freely admit you had the urge to rush off for no good reason?”
I had no answer to that, but the further we got from the shop, the more distant the memory felt, as if I might have been mistaken all along. “I– perhaps I did,” I frowned at him. “If you believe it is possible, then how? Surely you don’t imagine it’s some manner of… magical art?”
He rubbed his hands together gleefully. “I have no idea, but isn’t it intriguing, my dear?” He glanced out of the cab. “Ah. Here we are.”
I supposed it was safer to return to Baker Street, but as soon as we crossed the threshold, Mrs Hudson came dashing down the stairs, quite flustered.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re back, Mr. Holmes.” She waved a hand up the stairs. “You have a visitor. A gentleman. He arrived only a little while ago.”
“A little while,” Holmes echoed musingly. “Can you be more precise, Mrs. Hudson?”
Her mouth opened and shut several times, puzzlement rife on her face. “Perhaps a quarter of an hour. Not much more.”
Almost precisely when a perfectly bowled paperweight shattered a window in Soho.
“Sherlock,” I cautioned, feeling a tremor of foreboding, “surely you don’t think...”
He threw a devil-may-care look at me and immediately strode for the staircase, hat still in hand. He loped up, his long limbs taking the stairs two at a time. I cast Mrs. Hudson’s an uncertain smile and followed as hurriedly as I could.
Whomever the gentleman was, it was enough to startle Sherlock so much that he stopped in the doorway so abruptly that I ploughed into the back of him. Both of us all but fell into the room, Sherlock catching my arm to steady me.
The gentleman was standing in the middle of the floor, his hands folded mildly before him. He was a most peculiar-looking fellow, his clothing some years out of fashion and made of very pale fabric, which ought to have been a dreadful inconvenience in the streets of the city. And yet, there was not a spot of dirt anywhere on his trousers. He did, however, have a very kind face, with soft curls of pale hair that gave him a curiously cherubic appearance.
I glanced urgently to Sherlock, whose eyes were roving the man, no doubt taking in details I had not even yet perceived. He seemed even more shocked than he had on entering the room.
“Mr. Fell?” said I, stepping forward and offering my hand.
The man looked at me and at once, I could understand Sherlock’s reaction. It felt as if his gaze was cutting right through me, sharp as a blade, then – utterly unexpectedly – he smiled and it lit his face as brightly as the sun in June.
“Ah,” he said. “You must be John Watson.” He took my hand, squeezed it briefly, then released it. “I do apologise for the inconvenience.”
I glanced back at Sherlock, then at our guest again. “You are Mr. Fell?”
His eyes moved back to Sherlock, and the sensation of a blade returned, his gaze cool and hard. “I am indeed.” He unfolded one hand and reached into his pocket, withdrawing a glass orb that I recognised as from Sherlock’s desk–
“My God,” I whispered, my heart quailing.
“I believe,” Mr. Fell said, opening his fingers around it, “that this is yours.”
The paperweight lay accusingly in his palm, which was impossible. He had arrived at Baker Street precisely when the window had broken. How the devil had he been able to get from Soho to Baker Street – with the paperweight no less – in the blink of an eye? It was impossible, yet Sherlock’s reaction suggested that it was nothing more nor less than reality.
“Holmes,” I breathed.
Sherlock blinked as one coming out of a daze. “You ought to call Mrs. Hudson, Watson,” he said slowly, though I could still see guarded alarm in his face. “It would only be polite to give our guest some tea.” His lips twitched in the faintest of smiles. “I assume your… type of people take tea?”
“I’d rather not,” Mr. Fell said, his eyes never straying from Sherlock’s face. “You have my attention, my dear. I have not come here for you to waste my time.”
Sherlock’s smile seemed more of a grimace. “Ah. Your friend was rather concerned about you, Mr. Fell. He seemed to think something might have happened to you.”
The man’s face brightened. “My friend?”
“Mr. Avery,” I offered. The brightness in Fell’s expression snuffed out like a candle.
“Oh.” His smile seemed a trifle forced. “Yes. Philip. I thought it might have been someone else.” He returned his attention to Sherlock. “But I hardly think that is why you have courted my attention so… rudely, is it?” He held out the paperweight, an accusation in his palm. “Nor why you have poked and prodded at my shop so incessantly for so many years.”
Sherlock’s eyes widened and at once, his curiosity leapt to the fore. “You knew of my inquiries?”
Fell gave him a frosty look. “It is my shop. I hear everything about it.”
Holmes’s face went a shade paler. “Everything?”
Fell’s eyes were a peculiar colour, shades of grey and green, but I would swear on the Bible, they flashed fire when he looked at Sherlock. “Everything.” He took a step closer to my friend, offering the paperweight back on the tips of his fingers. “You have questions.”
Sherlock took the paperweight back, staring at it as if he could not quite believe it. The weight of it in his palm must have convinced him, for when he looked at Fell again, his expression seemed much the same as it had been that morning. “You have been keeping me from your shop.”
“What!” I declared, indignant on Sherlock’s behalf, forgetting for a moment that the man before me had seemingly harnessed power over the mind and the laws of physics. “What cause have you? He has done nothing to warrant such treatment.”
“Oh, but he has,” Mr. Fell murmured, his mouth curling sharply at both sides. “I suppose I should have let him remember, but he made such a nuisance of himself that I thought it best to be rid of him indefinitely.” He sighed. “Clearly, that did not work as well as I intended.”
“Let me remember.” Despite his clear alarm, there was a note of triumph in Sherlock’s voice. “So that’s the reason I remember nothing about the shop, save for the list of books I have!”
Fell’s eyebrows rose. “Ah. So that’s how you remembered, is it?” He folded his hands in front of him again. “Then I’m afraid I must tell you are not – and never shall be – welcome in my shop. Your behaviour today has ensured that.” He shook his head sadly. “I did try to keep it from you gently, as a kindness, but I see that will never be enough.”
I looked between them in astonishment. “What the devil has he done to be so dismissed?” I demanded.
Mr. Fell’s placid expression showed the faintest shiver of irritation. “I imagine, Doctor, you know well enough what a troublesome fellow your companion can make himself in his quest for knowledge.” He stepped closer to Sherlock, his eyes shimmering like silver coins. “Some questions are best left unasked.”
To my astonishment, Sherlock had the good grace to lower his head at the reproof. “Forgive a man his mortal curiosity, whatever I may have asked,” he said with a cordial bow at the waist. “It was not meant with ill-intent.”
Fell’s expression softened. “I know that, my dear,” he said with a gentleness that belied his earlier tone. “But a man must acknowledge one’s limits.” He stepped back then, offering both of us a warmer smile that drove away the peculiar knot of dread that had settled in my belly. “I ought to find Philip. He must have been dreadfully alarmed to come to you for aid.”
Without any further do, Mr. Fell strode out of the room and though I strained to hear, I did not hear his footsteps on the stairs, nor the door close behind him.
Sherlock stood was one in a dream, turning over the paperweight in his palm.
“What on earth was that about?” I demanded, shaken. “What manner of man was that?”
My friend looked at me, a peculiar expression on his face. “I don’t believe he was a man at all,” he said. He carried the paperweight back to the desk, laying it down on the surface, and opened one of the drawers, from which he drew a thin brown file. He touched the cover with a strange reverence. “I have had this list from his shop for more than twenty years.” Like a conjuror revealing his trick, he opened the file with a flourish, displaying a perfectly blank page of age-curled paper.
I stared in astonishment. “How– did he–” I shook my head, my heart fluttering in anxious disbelief. “How is that possible?”
Sherlock closed the file and slipped it back into the drawer, then set the paperweight in on top of it, running his fingertips across the glass before closing the drawer and turning the key. “One might call it,” he murmured, “divine intervention.”
That was the last occasion that Sherlock Holmes attempted to visit the strange bookshop in Soho and while I am still unsure of all that came to pass between Mr. Fell and my friend, I must confess it is a great relief to know that we shall not face the wrath of a man such as Mr. Fell again, whatever manner of man he may be.