Cambridge, England Thursday, 8 May 1873, 10 a.m.
Most of Downing College, with the exception of the East Lodge, was built of an oolitic limestone known as Ketton stone. On bright days it would glimmer in shades of yellow, from pale daffodil to butterscotch. Students and faculty alike would remark upon its beauty, taking especial pride in its sparkle, as if it were an earthly corner of the New Jerusalem.
Sherlock Holmes assumed that he was alone in finding it insufferable.
A cigarette dangled from his lips, its smoke forcing his eyes into a squint as he walked. His long fingers grazed the newspaper columns that he had carefully cut out, rolled into a bundle, bound with twine, and stuck into his jacket pocket. He’d reached for that little bundle a half-dozen times since leaving his rooms, for lately he had been feeling all nerves, and knowing it was there, close at hand, helped him to concentrate upon his case.
And what a case it was. Eight murders across Great Britain. Though geographically disparate, and though none of the victims had anything in common, they had surely been felled by the same killer, who had commenced his killing the first day of April and had continued with macabre but admirable regularity since then, at the rate of approximately one every four to six days, with one notable week’s hiatus.
The victims thus far included, in order of demise: a young widow; a small-town banker; two boys, aged seven and fourteen, killed separately; a chaplain of middle years; a retired barrister of eighty-four; the proprietor of a horse stable; and a ten-year-old girl. None had enemies to speak of. None had died with any mark of violence upon them. All, in fact, would have been decreed to have succumbed to ‘natural causes’—a catch-all phrase used by law and medicine when no clear reason made itself apparent—were it not for one thing.
At each murder site, a note had been left in the proximity of the body, almost always at the moment of death, though twice it had appeared upon the spot several days after the fact, as if to ensure that credit would be given where credit was due.
The message was always the same, four little words:
The Fire Four Eleven!
In terms of clues, those four little words were all but useless, in that they contained too many possibilities, which was to say none at all. Not to mention that newspapers carried a mere illustration of the note in question, so that one could discern neither paper stock, nor the finer details of the original handwriting. Nevertheless, Sherlock had gleaned a few facts, ones that he now mulled over as he walked along.
The artist’s rendering revealed that the killer’s handwriting had a looped ligature. Clearly, he had been steeped in classic copperplate, the proper penmanship of the proper English schoolboy, each letter meticulously formed, tops and bottoms obsessively uniform. But he had taken it one step further: even the spacing between the words was uniform, none exceeding the width of the letter ‘m.’
It was a ‘right fair hand,’ composed by a person who was proud of his skill. Sherlock further posited that the man had had no academic training to speak of, beyond the first few years of school. Someone so punctilious would never have abandoned his penmanship altogether. But, had he been allowed to continue his studies, neither would he have held onto it as a capstone of scholastic achievement.
If Sherlock could but have a look at the originals, if he could calibrate fluidity, combined with pressure exerted upon each letter, he could begin to gauge the author’s level of anxiety, his sense of righteous judgment, perhaps a specific reading of his age and nationality. But even without the originals, it was absurd to assume that a man so punctilious would choose his victims at random, as the newspaper accounts were conjecturing.
That the author was male was indisputable, for there were absolutely no deviations: the copperplate was roundhand from start to finish. Women by and large had a finer touch; their handwriting tended to be more individualistic and less static than a man’s, either due to a lack of proper schooling, or as a nod to socially approved ‘rebellion’; or simply the feminine inclination to be more choleric and melancholic than a man.
To say nothing of the fact that women did not ordinarily commit multiple murders, though nearly every country in Europe had been caught flatfooted by those who did: Hélène Jegado of France and Gesche Gottfried of Germany had both favored arsenic; Darya Saltykova of Russia had tortured and killed some hundred forty serfs, mostly women and children; and Englishwoman Mary Ann Cotton had poisoned as many as twenty-one people, including three of her four husbands and eleven of her thirteen children. Though all these women were competent and remorseless killers, they were also anomalies. It was men who seemed to fancy murder in multiples.
Sherlock’s conclusions at this juncture were few and hard-won. The killer was unique in that thus far he had struck only in the daylight hours, rather than under the more typical cloak of darkness. He was a right-handed Englishman with a primary school education and a great deal of free time, which one would need in order to travel and to visit multiple locations more than once. He also had an uncanny ability to justify what he had done.
This last, Sherlock deduced from the repetition of the message: as if each time, the killer were raising a flag of victory, emphasized by the exclamation point at the end. And, given that the penmanship was neither labored nor shaky, Sherlock assumed the killer to be between thirty and fifty-five years of age.
In other words, nothing to hang one’s hat upon. A male right-handed disciple of the roundhand script of between thirty and fifty-five might not be as common as dirt, but he was surely as common as clerks, of which England had a passel. And although few clerks had the economic wherewithal to travel so bountifully, this particular man had a well-honed gift for plotting and waiting, possibly fueled by a heightened sense of self-righteous revenge. He may’ve scrimped and saved for years to execute his plan: such a thing could not be discounted.
But against whom had he plotted so assiduously? For no seven-year-old had ever destroyed a man’s life or livelihood!
What Sherlock would not give to travel hither and yon, to examine the original notes, to spy out whatever useful tidbit the law had ignored or, worse yet, mangled, to follow the various and sundry trails like a hound on the scent.
But that was nigh on impossible. He had a month left of his degree, and no resources to speak of. Might he ask Mycroft for an advance? Money seemed to attach to his brother like leeches to tender skin. But how in the world would he justify it?
He could not.
Simply put, the Fire Four Eleven Murders, as the papers had been quick to label them, were giving him sleepless nights and even a bit of indigestion—and there was little he could do about it.
Sherlock strode across the college green, past his former friends, identical twins Eli and Asa Quince. They were sparring with short staffs upon the lawn, their sand-colored hair wet with the effort, their shoe-button eyes void of anything but each other. Exertion notwithstanding, their skin remained the color of bleached flour, as if nothing could coax blood through those staid Norman veins.
Their movements, as always, were fluid and assured, but something had altered. Eli was no longer a hair’s breadth quicker than his brother. In execution, as in everything else, they were now evenly matched.
Nothing quite so dull as a rivalry between equal opponents, thought Sherlock.
He said not a word as he passed but hunched forward, as if fighting a particularly vexing headwind. Every day of the previous term, he had beaten both boys handily at the short staff. And though he had filled many happy afternoons (and a journal and a half) gauging reaction times between Asa, whom he had labeled ‘the Addict’ and Eli, whom he’d dubbed ‘the Teetotaler,’ his long experiment had at last come to naught, for Asa had finally forsaken his substantial morphine addiction in favor of mens sana in corpore sano. Once this ‘healthy mind in a healthy body’ had been permitted to take root, all had been lost. Sherlock found he had nothing more to learn from either of them.
The twins, for their part, had likely sensed his disillusionment with their association, for they did not pursue him—the convenient consequence of befriending people with no discernible personality.
Sherlock continued on towards The Eagle, a watering hole that he favored. For his perennially gray England seemed to him to be growing more colorful with each passing year; pubs lining their floors with tiles and their walls with looking-glasses, so that the discord of human noise was free to ricochet unabated from table to table. Everywhere was the disconcerting image of oneself staring back from out some enameled mirror.
Conversely, at The Eagle he would find both quiet and blessed darkness, along with the disinterest of habitual drinkers towards a lanky nineteen-year-old mucking about with newspaper columns.
Sherlock turned down Trumpington Street past the Fitzwilliam Museum. As he waited on the corner for the traffic to pass by, a weathered mendicant sidled up to him, her face obscured by rags, her filthy hand outstretched. Sherlock dug into his pocket and pressed a coin into her hand, heedless of denomination and more to be done with her than from any sense of charity.
“Yer see, don’ ye?” the crone announced through broken teeth, her eye winking conspiratorially. “Yer sees wut uvvers cannot!”
She did not wait for reply but hobbled on, clutching the coin in her spider-like fist.If he wished to succeed at his endeavors, he would have to guard against the sway of emotion, and to do so mercilessly, rather than simply assume that he was immune.
Sherlock was perturbed. Though not given to pondering the prognostications of some old beggar, it left him wanting. He did see what others could not. He cast off the butt of his cigarette and felt about for his shag and papers. Pity that he could not yet bring himself to return to smoking a briar pipe—much more convenient. But it reminded him of failure, and of the worst kind. If he wished to succeed at his endeavors, he would have to guard against the sway of emotion, and to do so mercilessly, rather than simply assume that he was immune. As he rolled the tobacco between thumb and forefingers, he thought of his current predicament. He was very nearly done with the term. He could take books on his journeys, could he not? He would need little in the way of funds: a minimal amount for victuals, a pittance for train fare, naught but spare coins for shag. Even Mycroft could not begrudge him such a paltry sum, whatever it was! For a moment, he felt the burgeoning excitement of possibility. Then he remembered that his brother was not in London at the moment, that he had gone somewhere, for something or other.
Bother, where was it again?
Ah yes, Vienna. But why? For the life of him, Sherlock could recall no further detail of the journey, save one.
He would be residing at the Hotel Imperial. That name had stood out solely because it had sounded like rich fare for his parsimonious brother. Mycroft despised paying dearly for anything he could not thoroughly enjoy: “Hotels should deduct for the time one sleeps!” he would proclaim less than half in jest.
Sherlock knew perfectly well that the superior lodgings held, for his brother, an ulterior motive. But any stratagem of Mycroft’s doubtless had to do with the political or the economic field, or some other deadly dull pursuit. He was not in the least curious.
Still, the name of the hotel came in handy, for he could send a telegram to communicate but one message: “send money.”
He licked his well-packed rolling paper, lit his cigarette, and glanced about. Cambridge was not London, with telegraphs in every post office. But he did recall telegraph boys with their dispatch boxes exiting a building not so far from The Eagle.
He would plead his case to Mycroft on the chance, however slight, that he would see the merit in the thing.
After all, what did he have to lose? For all the darkened pubs in the world could not provide him the one thing he needed to solve this particular crime:
He turned to go, only to be confronted with the old mumblecrust again. He could see from her milky eyes and dim-witted smile that she remembered him not at all but thought him a brand-new mark.
“Yer see, don’ ye?” she began before he cut her off.
“Yes, yes, I see what others cannot,” he told her. “By the sheer luck of the draw, it so happens that you are correct. And I aim to get started this very moment. What do you think of that?” he added, pressing another coin into her ancient hand before hastening off.
“Áhd mór!” she called out behind him. “May good luck rise to ye, laddy!”
From Mycroft and Sherlock: The Empty Birdcage, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse. Used with the permission of the publisher, Titan. Copyright © 2019 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse.