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To Londen on a Coal Barge

09 Apr

Diary of Doctor J. Watson

We reached the river at Richmond Hill within twenty minutes and with the aid of my revolver, engaged the services of a coal barge and its truculent captain.

‘Good thing he doesn’t know this is loaded with blanks,’ I muttered to Holmes as we clambered aboard.

‘Yes. Like you, Watson, most individuals see but they do not observe.’ He paused. ‘Of course, he wouldn’t be able to see into the barrel and identify the actual bullets.’

Holmes busied himself reading a copy of The Times he’d borrowed from the harbourmaster. We settled down for the voyage into the city and I finally had the chance to ask Mary about her encounter with Maudie Ratched.

‘Blackwood said you’d injured two of his associates.’

Mary nodded. ‘Ratched made the mistake of trying to interfere with me, so I broke her wrist with a move I learned at my Kung Fu for Ladies class. That’s when her friend intervened.’

‘Friend?’

‘Yes.’ Mary gave me a sly smile. ‘She had disguised herself as a man, with a bushy moustache and a ridiculous wig, but her distinctive voice allowed me to identify her as an old adversary of ours.’

‘Really?’ said Holmes, putting down the newspaper to listen in to our conversation. ‘Who?’

‘See if you can guess. Up until the point when I smacked her in the mouth, she hadn’t spoken, but then she said something that gave her away— I vill haf wewenge on you, Mary Vatson.’

‘Wewenge?’ said Holmes, his face draining of colour. ‘Oh, God. Professor Helga Klopp. So, I did see her in Massachusetts during the Lizzie Borden affair.’

‘It seems so,’ said Mary.

Holmes rubbed his chin thoughtfully. I did the same, but it didn’t help. Then I realised something. ‘Why were Klopp and Ratched not with Blackwood just now?’

‘I think I know,’ said Mary. ‘Klopp said she would see me later and that I’d be sorry. I assumed she’d be there in the workshop.’

‘But she actually meant she’d see you somewhere else entirely,’ muttered Holmes. ‘In which case she must have known Moran’s real identity.’

‘Then why did Blackwood go through that whole palaver of pretending to kill us?’ I said.

Holmes grimaced. ‘Don’t forget, in the guise of Moran, he had to be dramatic and vengeful—that’s what Moran was known for. Blackwood, on the other hand, enjoys tormenting his victims, dragging out their agony. Look what he did to his own father.’

I recalled the crime scene all too readily. Being Sir Thomas Rotheram’s illegitimate son had always riled Blackwood. Using his knowledge of chemistry, the villainous lord drowned Sir Thomas in his own bath, baffling the police for days until Holmes revealed the source of the paralysing substance discharged into the bathwater. I shuddered to think what torments the man might have in store for us at the Diogenes Club.

‘How long til we reach the city?’ yelled Holmes to the barge captain.

The surly fellow sniffed and nodded up-river. ‘Ten minutes. Oi can drop yous at Lambeth Bridge.’

‘Westminster Bridge, if you don’t mind,’ said Holmes.

‘Suppose you’ll blow me brains out if Oi does mind, eh?’

‘Quite probably.’ Holmes turned to me. ‘I’d happily pay the fellow if we had any cash.’ He returned to scanning his copy of The Times and we fell into a companionable silence until Holmes broke it with a sudden yelp.

‘My God!’ He folded the paper over and pointed to a tiny column at the foot of the page.


Diogenes Club, Carlton House Terrace

Government representative Mr Mycroft Holmes will be entertaining the Russian and American Ambassadors this evening as part of a plan to bring the two sides together in a bid to secure world peace. It is rumoured that Mr Holmes will also be joined by his younger brother, the private detective Mr Sherlock Holmes…

‘Blackwood intends to provoke a war,’ I said, aghast.

‘At the very least,’ muttered Holmes. ‘And if I’m not much mistaken, he plans to murder Mycroft and the four of us in the process. Replacing us with his puppet stooges, he’ll be able to put out whatever story he likes—probably blaming the British Government for allowing criminals to run riot across Londen.’

‘I’ve never been to the Diogenes Club before,’ said Mary.

‘And you won’t be going this time,’ said Holmes. ‘Women are forbidden to enter, even when attempting to avert a world war.’

Mary made a growling noise. ‘If you lot think I’m missing out on this, you can think again.’

Lestrade examined his feet. Holmes and I twiddled our thumbs.

‘I’m serious,’ Mary went on. ‘If I have to dress up as a…as a…’ She looked around for inspiration. ‘As a bloody barge captain, I’m going to be there.’

And so the truculent captain suffered yet further indignities as Mary demanded he remove his clothes and put on her dress instead. Emerging from the tiny cabin a few minutes later, Mary barely looked human in a pair of black trousers, a grease-stained shirt, and a heavy black coat. With her hair bundled up into a woollen hat and black grease smeared across her face to give the appearance of an unshaven chin, she definitely resembled a man, though I could not say with any certainty that even the most defective doorman would deign to allow her entry to the most exclusive gentleman’s retreat in the city.

‘D’you think they’ll let me in?’ she said, in a deep voice.

Holmes and I nodded. ‘Absolutely.’

The captain clambered out of his cabin a few minutes later, Mary’s dress hitched up around his knees. ‘Oi ain’t ‘appy about this, mind,’ he muttered. He continued to moan and gripe until we reached Westminster Bridge.

It had started to get dark by the time we climbed up the steps to the quayside. Pulling my collar up against the cool breeze, it occurred to me that this might well be the last case Holmes and I, and indeed Mary and Lestrade, would work on together. At that moment I determined that if we survived whatever ordeal we were about to embark on, I would return to my medical practice and relinquish my crime-solving activities for ever.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2022 in Detective Fiction

 

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