Given Mrs Hudson’s breakfasts would send any man into the world with a tap of his brim in thanks and the bounce of Spring Heeled Jack, it was unusual for me to be sitting by an inn’s window at a quarter-past eight, savouring two pork chops and a small glass of porter.
Outside in the morning light, urchins scuttled around the market barrows set up on each side of the street. Slipping on fallen cabbage leaves, snatching stray apples and tormenting geese held in crates, the children also tugged at the frayed coat of a tall, gaunt tramp as he stood momentarily startled.
With one chop reduced to the bone, I still had time to move to the second before Sherlock Holmes arrived. Why he chose such a scruffy drinking hole in Limehouse Causeway was a mystery, as was so much about the man. The cracked leather suitcase he had asked me to fetch from his rooms lay at my feet.
A shadow fell across my plate. The tramp stood on the pavement blocking out the sun, his eyes on the grilled meat. Then he was gone.
Two mouthfuls later I smelt him before I saw him. His clothes gave off the scent of damp stairwells and dry gin. Annoyed, the landlord left his post behind the bar. I waved a hand. “Another glass, please.”
Glancing up at Holmes, I shook my head. “If nothing else, you smell the part.”
“I am blessed, Watson, that London’s criminal elements do not have your seasoned eye.” He dropped into the chair opposite. “What gave me away?”
“You did not strike the children who pestered you. A clipped ear would the very least a man-of-the-road would have handed out.”
“Dispense with medicine, doctor, if you will excuse the pun. I will make a consulting detective of you yet.”
Throwing back his porter, he ordered another. “My friend will pay.”
The pipe he lit had a split in the bowl, the tobacco as pungent as his coat. Before he spoke, the refilled glass went the way of the first. He had not slept for twenty four hours, he said. Somewhere down these rat-scuttled streets a killer lurked and Holmes was on the hunt. In the space of three weeks, the killer had sent a half dozen opium den customers to their pauper’s graves earlier than Nature, God and the usual seller of poppy tears would have expected. As a man who knew the pleasures of a seven per cent solution of cocaine, Holmes was not prissy about the dissolute habits of others. So, although the police had little or no interest in the deaths of six wretched men, Holmes saw the greater evil. Success in Limehouse meant the killer’s shadow would fall across more and more of London.
For a week, Holmes had left Baker Street at midnight. In disguise, he had made his way to Limehouse; there he kept watch as patrons slouched towards the dens of Ah Tack and his nearby rival Ah Sing. From the limited information grudgingly provided by Inspector Lestrade, the first two deaths occurred at Tack’s opium den, the subsequent four at Sing’s. Lestrade had dismissed the deaths as a squabble between Chinese gangs. “Let them get on with it,” the Inspector had advised Holmes.
Were it that simple. Holmes had been hooked. There had been something about the woman in the scarlet cheongsam who acted as the guardian of Sing’s door. The sight of her in the figure-hugging dress silhouetted against the hallway’s candlelight reminded him of another beauty, Irene Adler. Too much so.
On the third night, Holmes left the shadows. It was not Miss Adler. For a moment, Holmes had felt a dull ache.
The young Chinese woman had barely glanced at him when he brushed passed her into the den. Stopping in the hallway, he had turned quickly. She had been staring at him, perhaps for seconds. Bobbing his head, he had ventured further into the house before paying for a pea-sized ball of opium paste and going about the complex ritual that led to the first puff. At dawn, he had found himself on a hard, narrow bed in an empty house.
On subsequent nights he had made time to speak to the woman in red. She was Jiao, Sing’s daughter, under orders to watch for strangers. He had pointed out that he was one. “You do not have the eyes of a killer,” Jiao had replied.
“Not a premeditated one,” he had said.
On Holmes’ final visit – last night - there had been two strangers. Declining the opium paste and instead choosing to smoke a low grade tea mixed with a hint of the drug, Holmes had taken a corner bed to study them.
Their bearing had been upright, their bony faces marked with peeling skin while their shoulders held a slight shake. After paying for their paste from a hand-tooled leather purse and choosing their beds, the men had sniggered about the den needing more rags for the bedding. As the taller of the two slipped onto his bed, he revealed a junk and anchor tattoo on his forearm.
By morning, Holmes was not alone. An addict lay dead on a neighbouring bed with Jiao bent over the body.
Pulling a sheet across the man’s face, Jiao had sneered at Holmes. “You?”
“Would I spend the night with my victim? Foolish even by a vagrant’s standards.” Stepping forward, he had lifted up the sheet and sniffed the dead man’s lips. “The scent of garlic. Either his last supper or arsenic. I would hazard the latter. During the night, did you notice anything …” he had stopped himself saying the word “strange” – “strange” in an opium den? – instead he chose “different?”.
“Those two gweilo made jokes about yellow skin, but they too had it.”
Now, sitting across the barroom table, Holmes leant forward: “In the candlelight, it was the one detail which escaped me. Your opinion?”
With a grim smile, Holmes took the suitcase from under the table and headed towards the privy. Minutes later, he came rushing back into the bar, his tramp’s clothes discarded and with his Ulster’s cape billowing. "Come, Watson, come!" he cried.
“I know,” I said, pushing away the breakfast plate. “The game is afoot and we are storming a den of vice.”
“True,” said Holmes, his hand held high to stop a hansom cab. “But not where you think. I was wrong.”
We raced through the crowded streets heading for, if I had heard Holmes correctly, Pall Mall. My mind reeled. Holmes had admitted he was wrong.
“I have been a fool, Watson,” he said. “I should not have succumbed to opium last night, no matter how small the dose. I realised this morning that I misheard the strangers. They did not say the den needed more rags for the beds. They said the beds needed to be more like The Rag.”
“The Rag?” I repeated the nickname of the Army and Navy Club.
“Hopefully you have kept up your membership.”
I had. Although I am not a clubbable man, my attachment to the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot was an experience I found difficult to forget. Perhaps that is why I paid my club dues: to occasionally be with others who had suffered too.
“Doctor Watson,” said the doorman. “How good to see you again.”
Although it was my club, Holmes took the lead. First he entered the morning room with its mirrors and arched windows. Glancing around, he shook his head at me, turned and bounded up the wide stone staircase that led to the library. There he was met by the glares of several elderly members who, irritated by his sudden appearance, snapped their newspapers open.
“Not here either, Watson.”
On the third storey, Holmes headed into the billiard and card rooms. Only one billiard table was being used. Two men stood chalking their cue tips while their companion bent low over the green baize. His arm came back.
Holmes smiled. “Right angle to the cue stick.”
The cue tip sent the ball skittering away from its target.
“Rotten luck,” said Holmes.
“Who the hell are you?” shouted the man. “Obviously not a club member in that gamekeeper’s garb.”
Discarding their chalk, the other men took one pace towards Holmes.
He stood his ground. “You have been busy since leaving HMS Tamar.” Immediately, he had their attention. “In just three weeks you have taken seven lives. All for what? To dominate the opium trade in London? You could easily have struck a lucrative deal with both Ah Tack and Ah Sing. As you’ve seen, your crude attempts to trigger a gang war have failed. Now the gallows awaits.”
Ever since Holmes’ invitation to Limehouse, I had been expecting confrontation. In my coat pocket, my fingers rested on the grip of my service revolver. “So these are the men you saw last night?”
“The two lowly chalkers, not the billiards champion. You will notice that all three have military bearing, their peeling skin courtesy of a Far Eastern sun, the shaking shoulders and yellow skin resulting from bouts of malaria and jaundice …” He paused. “I would suspect the disease was contracted in Anhui Province upriver from Shanghai. That would have warranted a posting back to Hong Kong and a short convalescence aboard HMS Tamar in Victoria Harbour before returning to London. And where else than The Rag would three officers newly returned from the China Station rest up? The Devil finds work for idle hands, eh, Watson? These gentlemen were certainly not going to waste the expertise they had picked up in the Orient. Last night I noticed they paid for their opium with money from a wallet etched with Hindi script. The Second Opium War may have been finished over 30 years ago but shipping Indian opium into China is still lucrative, particularly if you stow it in a British naval ship. Free transportation, Watson. It conveniently reduces costs. Add to that the rather obvious junk and anchor tattoo on the man over there. Unimaginative at the time but helpful today.”
The billiard player moved closer to his companions. “And we are?”
“Your ranks? I would put you as a First Lieutenant, too insecure to be a Commander. These two – possibly Sub-Lieutenants. Your names? Those I will leave to Inspector Lestrade to whom I sent a runner before we left the East End.”
“The police do not care about seven dead addicts,” said the billiard player, raising his cue.
“However they do care about a commotion at The Rag.”
“What comm …” He did not finish the question. Holmes was upon him, clasping a billiard ball. The crack of ball on skull could be heard across the floor.
I levelled my revolver at the other two men, shaking my head as a warning. They lowered their cues.
Holmes pushed himself away from the player’s limp body. “A fine morning’s work, Watson. If only a guest could pay for a drink in this club, I would offer you champagne.”
Within the hour, we walked out into the sunshine.
Holmes tapped my elbow. Across Pall Mall, a hansom cab had drawn up, its passenger gazing towards us. A black jacket coat almost covered her scarlet cheongsam.
Holmes gave a slight bow of his head. Jiao returned the gesture then tapped twice to signal the driver to move off.
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the other woman.
# # #
With apologies to Arthur Conan Doyle.