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A Catalyst for Deduction

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It was a tall tales night at Callahan's Bar and we were favored with the presence in our midst of Henry Seigerson and Walt Johnson who were more commonly known to the regulars at Callahan’s as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. While they had relocated to south Florida, where Sherlock kept bees and Watson kept Sherlock, they occasionally came up to the Big Apple to help Joe Quigley or Noah Gonzalez when they needed an assist. When they were in town they always made it a point to come by and spend an evening at least once during their stay.

As sometimes happened this tall tales night started off with one theme but it quickly degenerated into another. The original theme was Animals but after the first two stories it was clear that the theme had devolved into Cats. Long-Drink McGonnigle came up with the first real contender of the evening with a purported African folk tale about how to determine if a predator is sleeping. Apparently if a Lion is laying he’s lying. Doc Webster related a story, in iambic pentameter, about William Shakespeare and Schrödinger’s Cat and therein lies a tail. Then there was a rather convoluted story about an attempt to prove the buttered cat hypothesis. If cats always land on their feet and toast always lands butter side down then what would happen if you affixed buttered toast to the back of a cat, butter side up of course, then dropped the cat? The end of the story gave everyone paws.

The resulting silence was broken by the still rich baritone of Sherlock Holmes. “That reminds me John,” he said “of the time we ended up in Somerset at the behest of my brother.”

“Wasn’t that in 1898”

“Yes, during the summer. London was stagnant and I recall that you convinced me to take the case purely to get out of the city.”

John gathered his thoughts then started in. “Originally the death of Lord Hayford had been determined to be simply due to his 72 years of age and somewhat declining health but something about the circumstances had raised alarm bells with Mycroft and he had requested that we take a look. As Sherlock noted the heat in London was oppressive that year and any excuse to relocate to the countryside for a few days was most welcome. We ended up lodging in the village of Westhay near to the Hayford family seat. Our temporary lodgings were with a cousin of one of the best friends of our housekeeper Mrs. Hudson. Mrs. Creasy was a gem of a woman who’s only fault seemed to be her propensity to feed and adopt the local stray cat population.

“After a short investigation Sherlock determined that Lord Hayford had been murdered with a substitution of one of his medications for a rather strong heart stimulant. Several days of taking the stimulant had caused a fatal heart attack. An inquiry to the local doctor revealed that the only person in the immediate vicinity of the village with a heart condition requiring such medication had been a Mr. Reedson who had succumbed to said condition a mere two days before. When we visited Mr. Reedson’s abode we found not the heart stimulant but instead the medication that had been compounded for Lord Hayford. That left us with a mystery, who had switched the medications.”

John paused to take a sip of his beer then continued, “We relocated back to the Hayford mannor and Sherlock commenced looking for evidence. In the meantime I questioned the members of the household regarding visitors and discovered that Mr. Reedson’s daughter was one of the kitchen staff. He apparently visited with her occasionally at the manor or met her in the village when his health permitted. In fact, his last visit to the manor before his death had been a mere week before Lord Hayford had passed away. On that occasion he’d exchanged a few amicable words with Lord Hayford in the hall before spending the rest of the afternoon with his daughter.

“Sherlock’s search had not turned up anything substantive so the next day found us investigating Mr. Reedson’s cottage. That was where we found, in a secret compartment of his desk, a series of love letters. The letters documented a love affair between Mr. Reedson and a lady that went by the appellation KN. The letters started in 1843 and continued until the spring of 1845 when they abruptly ceased. They showed a relatively high degree of literacy and education. A few of them were explicit in nature leading us to conclude that the couple had indeed consummated their relationship sometime in late 1844. There was even a receipt from a jeweler so we concluded that Mr. Reedson’s intentions, at least, had been honorable. The latter letters were interesting in that KN complained about the unwanted affections of another suitor. The last letter was a mere note, clearly written in haste and with great emotion, indicating that KN was going to leave the area because her unwanted suitor was pressuring her and she couldn’t bear to keep the secret any longer. While the suitor was not named there was enough specificity for Sherlock to determine that the third party was none other than the late Lord Hayford. Mr. Reedson therefore had both motive and opportunity to have swapped the medications himself but we were left with the troublesome question of why he had waited some 53 years to murder his rival.”

“I’ve noted before that sentiment has been the underlying cause of many of the crimes we investigated,” Mr. Holmes muttered half to himself, “however the logic of it has always escaped me.”

Watson shot him a fond glance and replied “and that’s why sentiment is my area of expertise not yours.”

Sherlock half smiled back at him and there was a pause as the two men clearly communicated something rather profound without another word between them. It was a measure of the storytelling prowess of John Watson that we all took this rather intimate aside in stride and simply waited politely for the narrative to continue.

“We spent the rest of that day and most of the next looking at all the local records we could get our hands on for the years 1842 through 1845 in an attempt to discover the identity of the mysterious KN. There were a variety of young women who had left the area for one reason or another in 1845 but none of them seemed to fit the literate and impassioned nature reflected in the letters.

“Now I must digress a moment,” Watson continued, “since I am quite sure that the patrons of this fine establishment are not at all familiar with the geography of Somerset.”

We all indicated agreement with that statement.

“Well what you need to know is that a good portion of the area we were in is covered by marshy land known as the Somerset Levels. The village of Westhay is, in fact, quite famous for the harvesting of peat moss.

“Mrs. Creasy’s lodgings backed up against a portion of the marsh and upon returning in the afternoon we were greeted by the most awful commotion coming from the rear of the house. Of course we rushed around the side garden to determine the cause of our temporary landlady’s distress only to find her bewailing the fact that one of her cats had become stuck in the mire and was in imminent danger of submerging completely. It took the strategic use of a few boards and the neighbor’s ladder but the cat was successfully rescued.”

“What was interesting to me,” said Sherlock, “was the anomalous behavior of the cat. Cats are notorious for their avoidance of water so I remember wondering why this one ended up stuck in the bog to the point of being in danger of drowning. I took it upon myself to investigate and quickly determined that the cat had been attracted to what appeared to be a piece of carrion and the ground had given way beneath it.”

John continued, “The carrion in question turned out to be a hand which was attached to the naked body of a young man which had been disposed of in the bog.”

“Given the acidic nature of a peat bog, the temperature and lack of oxygen the body would have been rather well preserved I imagine,” Doc Webster commented.

“Extremely so,” Watson replied. “So well so that not only was it clear that the young man had died of a broken neck but also that our landlady recognized his features. Of course she immediately had hysterics. I left Sherlock to summon the local police and took Mrs. Creasey into the house. Once she had calmed sufficiently she informed me that the dead man was her older cousin, affectionately called Ken, who had left one day in early 1845 and not been heard from since. He had left a note saying he was going to make his fortune in Australia but the family had not been able to discover what ship he’d taken or if he had indeed arrived. I managed to get the young man’s full name from her, George Kennith Bratton as well as a bit of his early history the most interesting bit of which was that he was the boon companion of Mr. Reedson in the shenanigans that young men tended to get involved in as well as having been friends with Lord Hayford before he succeeded to the title. After a bit of tea I convinced her to let me put her to bed to ameliorate the effects of the shock. I will also admit to drugging her tea with a strong sedative.”

John paused again and this time Sherlock took up the narrative. “As soon as John told me the young man’s name the entire case became blatantly obvious. One of Lord Hayford’s prized possessions was a pocket watch which rarely left his person even though he reported did not use it often to determine the time. I had examined the watch in an attempt to determine when the medication had been switched as the side effects would have made it extremely difficult to properly wind it. In the process I discovered To GKB with my enduring love inscribed on the inside cover. The receipt from the jeweler we had found in Mr. Reedson’s letters was close to the amount such a watch would have cost in 1844. There had also been some anomalies in the last letter which I had previously passed off as the emotional response of a young woman in distress but what could have been just as easily the slip of the hand caused by an inexpert forger. That coupled with the fact that he was called Ken, phonetically KN, lead me to believe that George Bratton was the lover of Mr. Reedson and had been killed by Lord Hayford. Mr. Reedson had not been aware of this fact until the conversation in the hall when he saw the watch.”

John spoke again, “Over the next few days we quietly confirmed Sherlock’s deductions. We didn’t relate our findings to the authorities as the perpetrators were dead and there was no point in sullying their reputations. Lord Hayford’s death was officially listed as an accidental poisoning when he mistook his medication for the heart medication that Mr. Reedson had dropped during his visit. Mr. Reedson’s death was simply due to his heart condition and Mr. Bratton’s remained unsolved. Mycroft was informed of the true facts and that was the end of it.”

“You know John,” Sherlock interjected, “I’ve often told you that your insights are invaluable to me and this entire case was a clear illustration of that fact. I never would have put it all together if you hadn’t gotten that sinking feline!”

There was dead silence for a moment before we collectively gave Sherlock’s final remark the acclaim it deserved; a swift and sudden exodus of all the patrons to the parking lot.